PHOTOS: Dasain Happenings in Kathmandu

This week rang in Dasain, the biggest and most widely celebrated festival in Nepal.  When I was living here three years ago I left right before Dasain started, so I am now seeing things with completely new eyes.  Most Nepalis have an extended holiday from school and work for Dasain.  For example, I have a ten day holiday from work and my neighbor’s children have a two week holiday from school (which has resulted in a constant stream of banter and fighting between the two kids next door).  My Nepali friends had told me that everything shuts down for Dasain and that Kathmandu completely clears out because a large percentage of the people who live in Kathmandu are not actually from here, but are from villages outside the Valley.  Dasain, like American Christmas and Thanksgiving, is a time to get together with family, feast, pray and give offerings to a huge number of gods who I cannot keep straight.  Because Dasain is a time for everyone to be with family, many people leave Kathmandu to return to their home villages.  This has resulted in a startlingly quiet Kathmandu which I am enjoying immensely.  For example, I went for a long walk around the city yesterday and could actually walk straight the entire time without having to dodge anyone or anything.  It was glorious.

Kathmandu is not quite a “ghost town” right now, but compared to its normal, bustling self, the city is totally different.  As I mentioned, sidewalks are clear, streets are clear and stores are closed.  The shops that remain open are mostly run by Indians or are butcher shops.  The butcher shops are busier than normal because Dasain is a time for feasting on meat, lots and lots of meat.  When I do see people walking on the streets, they are often leading goats around on string or ropes, as we in the U.S. might lead our dogs around by a leash.  The only difference is these goats are doomed for slaughter and will likely be transformed into a delicious, spiced dish later in the day.

Butcher shops are open and brimming with meat, often with ten live goats tied out front for later slaughter.  Besides a time for feasting on meat, Dasain is also the main time in Nepal for animal sacrifice.  There are literally tens of thousands of animals sacrificed on any given day of Dasain.  I was hoping to infiltrate a buffalo sacrifice yesterday, but it is difficult for foreigners to get into these sacred rituals.  I did manage to see a duck sacrifice at one temple, though.  At the Hindu temples there are goat, buffalo, chicken and goat sacrifies to the gods.  There is even one temple in the Terai region in the southern town of Janakpur that completes 20,000 buffalo sacrifices throughout the festival.  The grounds of Janakpur are reportedly sticky with blood after Dasain is finished.  After the animal is sacrificed (this is done by slitting the throat) the family that bought the animal cleans it, butchers it and then feasts on it, leaving very little of the animal to waste. Although many Nepalese families continue to do animal sacrifices every year during Dasain, there are a number that prefer to “sacrifice” pumpkins or coconuts to the gods, instead of slitting the throat of a goat or buffalo.

Yesterday I celebrated Dasain with the family of a friend and got a great taste of what the celebration is really about.  Before I met up with Ravi and Ratika (my hosts for the day) I went on a photography mission around Kathmandu to try to capture the happenings and differences that Dasain has brought to the city. Here’s what I got:

Above: As I mentioned in a previous post, Kathmandu has become speckled with these stages featuring slightly scary statues of the multi-handed goddess Durga, a demon and a lion. Here is one particularly large stage and scene close to my house. The women are giving offerings and money to the gods.

Above: A man tends to another one of the Durga statue scenes near the bridge that connects Kathmandu and Lalitpur.

Above: A close-up of the demon who is trying to slay goddess Durga. Take note of the realistic nipple and armpit hair. Frightening.

Above: This picture is unremarkable except for one thing: there are almost NO cars of motorbikes on it. I have been completely in awe at how quickly Kathmandu cleared out for Dasain. Compared to its normal self, it almost feels like a ghost town. This particular road is usually clogged with all sorts of vehicles.


Above: Sundhara, which is normally one of the busiest bus parks in the city, has transformed into a fowl purchase and slaughter center. Here, a couple on a motorbike picks out a few live ducks to take home.

Above: A man walks around Sundhara trying to sell ducks to customers on motorbikes during Dasain.

Above: Where tuk-tuks usually line the streets, there are now metal and wicker baskets stuffed with chickens for the taking.

Above: A few Dasain customers inspect a live duck at Sundhara bus park on Saturday.

Above: Normally where there are hordes of tuk-tuks and mini-buses, there are now lines of chicken cages. The handy location makes it easy for motorbikers to stop quickly to pick up their fowl.

Above: A cage of doomed chickens. But, they will surely makes some tasty Dasain morsels soon enough.

Above: The Sundhara bus park has turned into a makeshift slaughter house for Dasain. You can stop here, pick out your chicken or duck and also have it slaughtered on location (on the side of the road).

Above: At one of the makeshift slaughter houses on the side of the road, a woman dips a recently killed chicken into a tin of boiling water.

Above: A man then dips the dead, boiled and plucked bird into another vat of hot water.

Above: Where once tuk-tuks packed Sundhara to the gills, there are now tiny makeshift slaughter stations where Dasain customers can have their chickens and geese killed.

Above: Hindu devotees wait in line to enter one of the many Kathmandu temples on the first Saturday of Dasain.

Above: For Dasain people leave offerings of food, rice grains and tikka powder outside their front doors.

Above: Another offering outside someone’s front doorstep for Dasain.

Above: Saturday was the day of Dasain that Nepalis did pujas and gave offerings to their machinery, including their cars and motorbikes. The private cars, taxis, motorcycles, bicycles and rickshaws around town were laden with garlands of marigolds, auspicious scraps of cloth and sprinkled with tikka powder. Here, a woman and her husband give offerings to their motorbike. (Notice the marigold garlands around the handlebars).

Above: A taxi with a garland of marigolds around its license plate. If pujas are done to the vehicles on this particular day, it is said that the vehicle will serve the owner well for another year (and no accidents to boot).

Above: An offering plate that will be given to a vehicle.

Story Behind the Story: Ethos Magazine Guest Post

Ethos Magazine recently published my second guest blog for them since I graduated from the University of Oregon. The article titled “The Responsible Traveler: Understanding Beauty and Ugliness” explores what it means to understand the good, the bad and the ugly while touring a foreign country. I wrote about how before I came to Nepal I pored over magazine articles and the Lonely Planet guidebook pictures and formulated a kind of image of Nepal that was completely idealistic and overly majestic. How could I not? The Lonely Planet showed pictures of the Himalayas and small rural villages, Buddhist monks and Hindu city shrines. I came to Kathmandu expecting all these things. I found them, but I also found another side of the picture: glue-huffing children, trash everywhere and extreme poverty.  (Please read the full story to find out more.)

For my Ethos, I also must provide pictures to accompany my articles. I wanted to provide a picture of the “ugliness” that I am taking about in my article, i.e., extreme poverty or the glue-addicted children. As I wrote about on a recent blog, I am opposed to taking pictures of people living in extremely poor conditions or in fragile situations, like beggars, because usually I find that sort of thing to be patronizing and inappropriate. So, I suggested to my Ethos editors that we use a Creative Commons picture of a beggar on the streets of Kathmandu instead. They replied that it would be better if I took my own pictures. I rationalized that taking photos of the homeless children would be okay for journalistic purposes because I was trying to bring awareness to the problem, so I equipped myself with my Canon and hit the streets. I think I was originally resisting taking my own photos of the homeless kids because I was intimidated. As I walked from my home in Sanepa to Thamel, where most of the homeless kids congregate, I tossed around the idea in my head. I wondered why I was intimidated by these kids, because after all, they were just that: kids. But the homeless, glue-huffing boys always exude a sort of hard outer shell, that is often aggressive. Their sickly condition is also so startling to me that I shy away, avoiding their eyes and their pleas for money or food.

I arrived in Thamel, took a deep breath and surveyed the scene. I quickly approached a homeless 11-year-old named Suraj who was stumbling around high on fumes. Although he was one of the homeless gang, he was perhaps the least sickly looking one of the bunch, therefore, the most approachable. He still looked like an innocent kid, while many of the others who are slightly older have a disturbingly hard look in their face and in their eyes. I struck up a conversation with Suraj and asked if I could hang out with him for a while and snap some photos. I told him that in return, I would buy him a meal. Suraj and I roamed around together for a while and he introduced me to a few of his friends, also homeless boys who were permanently attached to their glue bags. I didn’t want to prolong the whole event, so I took some photos of them and did a few short interviews. After I decided I had sufficient material to accompany my article, Suraj led me to a local supermarket so I could buy him some biscuits, as he requested. His friend came along too, a 13-year-old who looked especially gaunt and unhealthy, and I told him I’d treat him to some food also. At first the boys asked for biscuits and I told them to pick out which ones they’d like from the supermarket. I was surprised that when I allowed them to pick out what they wanted for themselves, instead of picking out biscuits, they headed straight for the bags of milk powder. The only thing they asked for were large tins of powdered milk, which I purchased for them. I’m not sure if they knew that powdered milk has at least some nutrients, or if it makes them more full for longer than biscuits, but they obviously had some reason for picking out the stuff.

I waved goodbye to them and they very politely said thank you and requested that I come again whenever I wanted to. The two sauntered off down the street, cradling their powdered milk in one hand, huffing glue from bags in the other hand. I watched them go and felt a heaviness in the pit of my stomach. After three years of traveling and living in Asia, I feel that I’ve gained a certain hardness or immunity to things I see, but no matter how many times I see these sickly, young homeless boys, I feel an indelible wave of sadness.

Although I was dreading this assignment when Ethos asked me to take my own photos, it ended up being just what I needed to prompt me out of my comfort zone. Photography is still an art that I’m learning, but I think good photographers are adept at being out of their comfort zone all the time. With a camera, you are inherently crossing a personal line and stepping into someone’s life and often into someone’s problems.
Above: Suraj, the 11-year-old boy I followed for the afternoon, huffing on the streets.

Above: Suraj and his 13-year-old friend beg outside a supermarket in Thamel. They say their main complain is hunger and safety concerns when sleeping on the street at night. Because of their young age, they are often targets for robbery or violence by the older, stronger homeless people or gang members on the Kathmandu streets.

BLOG: Week 11 Updates

The monsoon rains stopped just as abruptly as they would begin several weeks ago and since then, the weather has become rather agreeable and pleasant. It seemed as though Kathmandu was in a perpetual state of sog and then all of the sudden, it was over.

Doomed for Dasain.

At the moment there is much excitement in the air as Dasain, one of the largest festivals in Nepal, is right around the corner. Dasain is like an extended, two week Christmas for Nepalis. It is a time for getting together with family, praying, giving offerings and gifts to the gods and to relatives. It also, of course, means two weeks of intense feasting. (There has been much news reportage lately about the exponential increase in meat demand. Nepali people drastically increase their meat intake during Dasain, so the butcher shops have been especially inundated lately with extra goats.) Dasain, like Christmas, is a holiday that the locals look forward to all year and meticulously prepare for with the same type of fervor that would inspire us in the U.S. to start buying Christmas presents in July. Over the past few weeks, the market centers, like Asan Bazaar, have become increasingly packed with people buying new clothes, shoes, house decorations and everything in between. Walking through the bazaars during this Dasain madness is quite a task. I feel like I’ve become stuck inside some surreal, writhing mass of humanity who are quickly snapping up gawdy Chinese stilettos crusted with plastic rhinestones and t-shirts covered with non-sensical English phrases (“Adults only party!”).

When I was in Nepal three years ago I left right before Dasain, which falls in mid-October, so I am now seeing festivals and bits of the culture that are totally new to me. During my walks in Kathmandu lately, I’ve noticed a plethora of these massive stages, dripping with colored lights and velvet drapes, on top of which are installed statues and figurines of Hindu gods acting out certain scenes, which are often quite frightening. For example, across from my favorite vegetable vendor is a stage featuring a scene which looks as though a man is about to capture and murder some multi-handed goddess. They are perpetually stuck there, in all their tacky splendor. From behind the stages blasts stereotypical, twangy Hindi music and placed prominently in the center of the stage, in front of the statues are cash collection boxes. I asked my Nepali friends about these stages and they told me the sole point is “to make money.” I often stop and admire the frighteningly statues of gods leaping with spears and tigers stuck in mid-roar. Many of the statues of human figures even come equipped with life-like arm pit and nipple hair attached.

Looking forward to lots of these kinds of meals on Dasain. Photo by: .:RMT:.

Dasain officially starts in three days and I’m looking forward to seeing the city during the festival. Since Dasain is a time to be with family and a good portion of Kathmandu residents are actually not from Kathmandu, but from villages outside the Valley, many people leave the city for their home villages. I’ve been told that this results in a very quiet and peaceful Kathmandu for two weeks. A bit of quiet during my Dasain vacation from work will be a nice respite from the city’s normal chaos. Many of the shops and restaurants will also be closed and one friend even described Kathmandu during Dasain as “a ghost town.” I’m under the impression that to really understand the festivities of Dasain, one must attach oneself to a family because that’s where all the action happens during the festival: in the home. I’ve been invited by three families to celebrate Dasain on separate days, so I look forward to the feasts, the family and the fun. I’ll spend a few of the holidays with my neighbor, Gita, and her relatives. When I mentioned that I might leave Kathmandu for Dasain break to see the tea plantations of Ilam in the east, she said I absolutely could not because then I wouldn’t get to spend time with her family, several of whom are flying in from the U.K. and Australia for the occasion. She jokingly (I think) said that if I dared leave and not celebrate with her family she would punish me with a beating. I laughed but did a double-take at her to make sure it was in jest. I will also be spending one day with my colleague Sachin and his family, and then another day with a Nepali freelance writer friend, Ravi, whom I often edit stories for.

Besides the general Dasain madness that has taken over Kathmandu, the third floor of my apartment building (the floor on which I live) has lately been taken over by sickness and other afflictions. I began the whole hospital madness a few weeks ago when I came down with a horrible case of food poisoning. The incident came exactly two days after I was bragging to a friend that I’ve never had food poisoning while abroad. I lethargically laid in my room, as close as possible to the bathroom, for two days, not eating or drinking anything. Finally, I told my neighbor Gita that I had to go to the hospital for treatment. She insisted that she come too and after many attempts at convincing her I would be fine alone, I finally relented and she came along with me. I think my trip to the hospital was more of a fun social outing for her than it was for me. After waiting an hour for her, she emerged from her side of the hall wearing her one Western-ish outfit: a cotton kurta shirt and jeans, an outfit that I had only seen her wear once before, as she normally wears traditional saris. She also had done herself up in full makeup and I smelled the strong odor of perfume, which had the tendency to make my stomach knot up even more when I caught a whiff. We were quite the sight, I think: me, looking pale and sickly, and her, exuberant about the opportunity to leave the house and take me somewhere, no matter what the circumstances. She was practically prancing down the street to the tuk-tuk stop as I sluggishly dragged myself behind her. Gita smiled and laughed the whole excruciating tuk-tuk ride to the hospital, joking with me while I made pitiful attempts to smile as I held my stomach.

“To the hospital!” she said with a laugh as she hung out the back of the tuk-tuk, while I huddled in between two old men wearing topis. She was excited as I might be to see a play or go out to a fancy dinner.

At the hospital, I think she was rather disappointed at my lack of serious treatment. After we left she linked her arms with mine and we walked (well, she pranced, I dragged) home in the warm Kathmandu evening. Although her presence was not needed and was a bit bubbly, I was happy to have her accompany me. I got a different glimpse of her on this hospital trip, one where she was completely untethered from her domestic duties to her children and husband. Her role as a wife and mother is one that she fills almost 24/7, so although a hospital trip was no fun for me, I can see why she enjoyed it: it was a chance for her to fill another role. For an evening, she was a woman out on the town with a friend, laughing, joking and chatting (and getting prescriptions for Ciprofloaxin antibiotics and rehydration salts). We chatted as we walked home, arm in arm, and I thanked her for all her help.

“I your guardian,” she said with a laugh. I also saw that she relished the chance at channeling her motherly instincts beyond her two children, to me as well.

After I fell ill, both Gita’s children also became sick with some kind of fever. Both are better now, but Gita’s husband had to carry their son, who they never call by name, only “Babu” (little boy), to the hospital. Then Gita fell ill for several days, stuck inside her house with the fever. I took over some of her cleaning duties in the mean time, spending a good portion of last Saturday morning cleaning our shared bathroom. By the end of the several hour cleaning spree, I began to resent how many tiles we have in our bathroom, but also began to appreciate Gita more for how much she actually cleans.

The next to be afflicted with a hospital visit was Gita’s husband. I came home last night to find that he had fallen from a ladder while trying to fix something (she said “electrical wires”…?) and had broken his left hand and received 8 stitches on his face.  Now that we’ve all fallen sick, I can only hope that this spell will soon be over for good.

In other news, I’ve developed tendonitis in my foot and have been ordered to stop running for 6 weeks. This news has motivated me to buy a bicycle, which could be the best or worst idea I’ve yet had in Kathmandu. I bought my new bicycle this afternoon for less than $100 and have relished the new freedoms I’ve found through my wheels. My next investment will surely be a face mask and a helmet.

Dal Bhat: Fuel of the Nepali People

Compared to many other Asian countries like Singapore, Thailand and India, Nepal doesn’t stand much of a chance to claim the most diverse cuisine in the region. For example, when attempting to pin down a “national dish” for Singapore, there are many possibilities. It could be chicken rice, or maybe it’s chili crab. Some might claim it’s rojak, and others may say it’s mee goreng. The debate could go on forever, but when aiming to isolate the “national dish” of Nepal, it’s easy. Without question the national dish of Nepal, the meal that is eaten hundreds of thousands of times per day all over the country is dal bhat.

I often wonder about the lack of major variety in Nepali cuisine and have concluded that since Nepal is such a poor country, the first priority for most (especially those outside the Kathmandu Valley in more rural areas) is to get enough food to eat, rather than to develop the flavors of the food to create a breadth of culinary options. This is not to say that dal bhat is not delicious. It is tasty, simple and substantial, which is what the majority of the population is looking for: enough food to fill up to fuel a day’s work, which is often tough manual labor. Dal bhat is to Nepali people what gasoline is to vehicles.

Dal bhat consists of various sized portions of different food groups. The meal centers around white rice (the “bhat”), which is often served in mountainous proportions. The second cornerstone part of the meal is the “dal” which is like a lentil soup, often served in a bowl and then poured on the rice to add flavor and moisture. Dal comes in several varieties, including yellow dal and black dal, both of which are often cooked in a pressure cooker with spices, garlic and sometimes ginger.

In addition to the dal and the bhat the meal, which is usually served on an enormous aluminum plate with small dividers to keep each portion separate, also comes with small heaps of vegetables (tarkari), sometimes meat (chicken, mutton or buffalo) and a dab of achar (pickle) for spice.

The small side of tarkari, or curried vegetables, adds extra flavor and spice to the meal. Usually the tarkari vegetables include cauliflower and potatoes, often with bits of carrots. Especially for an elaborate meal, the dal bhat will be served with a small mound of dark green saag, which is sauteed spinach. On one of the small sections of the metal plate is a helping of achar, or pickle, which is used as a condiment to add spice and flavor to the rest of the meal. Achar comes in all different varieties, but I find the most common achar is made with tomatoes, lapsi (a unique, sour Nepali fruit) and chillies. The achar ingredients are ground into a paste with a mortar and pestle.

Whenever I sit down to a dal bhat meal, the restaurant proprietor or home owner will usually give me a spoon to eat the meal, but Nepalis traditionally eat dal bhat with their right hand. I’ve tried using my hand to eat dal bhat as well, and it usually turns out disastrous as I have not mastered the fine art of mixing each of the parts of the meal into one mound, scooping it up and shoveling it into my mouth with my fingers. When I try, the rice usually ends up all over the place and other diners laugh at my inability to properly do a “finger scoop.” Watching Nepalis eat dal bhat with their hand (always the right hand, as the left is used for the toilet) is truly an amazing site. A hungry Nepali person can put down a massive plate of dal bhat in minutes, mixing eat bite with the perfect ratio of rice, dal, tarkari and achar. Additionally, the owner of the restaurant or tea stall selling dal bhat will often make rounds to each table with an enormous bowl full of rice to refill customers’ plates. A dal bhat meal really is an all-you-can-eat feast that acts as the fuel for the Nepali people.

Above: A traditional dal bhat meal.  Clockwise, starting from the green vegetable: 1) saag – sauteed spinach with garlic and ginger, 2) wild boar cooked with tomato, 3) tarkari – curried cauliflower, potato and carrot, 4) fried fish, 5) curried chicken, 6) achar.  There is black dal in the small bowl accompanying the plate.

Above: Another traditional dal bhat meal.  Take note of the MASSIVE portion of rice.  Second helpings are always available, too.  Photo by: gregw66

Above: More dal bhat, this time with a slice of raw onion for flavor.  Photo by: magical-world

Above: A close-up of tarkari, curried vegetables that always go along with the rice and dal.  Photo by: LilyinNepal

PHOTOS: A Walk Through Seoul’s Noryangjin Fish Market

After riding for an hour through Seoul’s labyrinthian subway system, my travel partner Jane and I finally emerged from the web of underground, air-conditioned tunnels into the pressing South Korean summer heat. Our mission was to find Seoul’s Noryangjin fish market. Wandering through the markets, especially markets that supply meat and vegetables to the local populace, is one of my favorite activities in Asian cities, towns and villages, so I knew that a visit to Noryangjin was definitely something I had to check off my list of to dos in Seoul. From the subway stop, finding the market was easy. Jane and I meandered through some side alleys that were scattered with vegetable peddlers selling chillis, bean sprouts and fresh tofu. As we got closer to the fish market, we began to see stalls stocked with buckets of writhing eels for sale.

For being a massive fish market, Noryangjin smells remarkably unfishy. The market is housed inside a large warehouse-like building with high ceilings and large open sides that allows for adequate ventilation. The complex was also kept remarkably clean. Vendors wearing rubber rain boots sat in plastic chairs in front of their fish tanks and aquariums. Noryangjin was generally divided into sections: in one area there were the live fish, in another sting rays and in yet another there was raw fish bits mixed with red spicy sauce in large vats. Around each turn vendors called out to us, offering fresh fish and sashimi of all varieties. Jane and I decided to take up a few of the vendors on their offer and we tasted the freshest sashimi possible: killed, deboned and sliced right in front of our eyes. The first vendor we went to retrieved a small fish from the aquarium, knocked it out, sliced and gutted it, flayed it for sashimi and served it to us with a side of daikon radish and red spicy sauce for dipping. Of course, it tasted as fresh as can be: it was light, slightly chewy and perfectly satisfying. After our first fish sashimi we decided to go for a fresh squid sashimi to add some texture variation to our sea food taste testing adventures.

We finished up our squid, waved goodbye to the vendors and continued on, winding up and down the lanes, admiring shell fish, massive sting rays, pyramids of larger fish and live crabs. Tucked near the back of the market was a section where already chopped sashimi mixed with the ubiquitous red Korean spicy sauce was for sale in large tubs. With toothpicks we tasted tiny morsels of different spiced fish varieties.

Here is a collection of photos from our walk through Noryangjin:

Above: A bucket brimming with dried shrimp.
Above: The entrance to Noryangjin Fish Market.  The vendors sit in front of their aquariums, plying visitors with offers of fresh-out-of-the-water sashimi.
Above: A woman wraps up a piece of tentacle for a customer.
Above: Fresh octopus laid out on display.
Above: We bought some fresh sashimi from the vendor.  He plucked the fish from the water, killed it and sliced it right in front of our eyes.
Above: A vendors shows a customer the small octopi for sale at her station.
Above: I get ready to dig into our fresh sashimi.
Above: After the delicious first try of fish sashimi, we decided to try some chewy, fresh squid too.
Above: Fish choices at the market.

Above: Sting rays on display.
Above: A woman organizes her piles of fish at the market.


Above: A bucket full of tiny shrimp.

The Smells of Kathmandu

There is little else that has the intense power to incite such simultaneous delight and revulsion in the nasal cavity than a walk through the streets of Kathmandu. On my daily walks through the alleys and lanes of the city, I often think that for a reader who has never been here to fully comprehend the sensory experiences of Kathmandu, a scratch-and-sniff is necessary to accompany an article or a photograph. The smells, which can be both tantalizing and horrendous, that bombard the nose are so plentiful and ever-changing that a short one-hour city walk could be considered the equivalent to taking the nose on a wild up and down theme park roller coaster.
A full day’s walk around Kathmandu could probably lead to a whole book’s worth of descriptions. Instead of describing all the varied aromas from a day, I shall use my walk this morning as a small case study on the phenomenal range of nose stimuli that can be experienced within an hour’s time. This morning I walked from my house in Sanepa to the tourist district of Thamel, a walk through the heart of the city that takes almost exactly one hour.
I leave my house at 9:30 just as Gita, my neighbor, was beginning the laborious daily task of washing the dishes her children’s clothes. She crouches at the water spigot that we share, scrubbing at the kids’ school uniforms with a bar of cheap, green soap that smells of ayurvedic shops and Chinatown. I wave goodbye and she gives me her customary goodbye greeting: “Enjoy today!”
Strolling down the narrow lanes, dodging taxis and private cars that whiz uncomfortably close to me, I pass the small neighborhood butcher shop. A goat was tied to a stake with a rope, chewing blades of grass and looking as though he were overcome with melancholy. His former compatriot lay severed in three pieces on the butcher’s table, hooves jutting into the air. The butcher shop smells permanently of flesh, a kind of earthy smell that is neither pleasing nor appalling. It is the bloody aroma of death that so many butcher shops in the city smell like. I walk by, smiling and waving at the butcher, while feeling sorry for the sad looking goat that will soon meet the same demise as his disconnected friend.
Just around the bend from the butcher is my favorite shop on the street to pass by: the spice grinder. A middle-aged man dressed in ratty t-shirts is perpetually sitting on a stool in front of an ancient-looking spice grinder, pouring in burlap sacks of cumin, turmeric, coriander and mustard seed. On turmeric days, his shirt, hands and face are tinted orange from the clouds of ground spice that escape that metal tubes. Today, he is grinding cumin. When I pass by the spice grinder, I often want to stop and fill my nostrils and lungs with the spice molecules that billow out from the man’s powdery burlap sacks.
I continue on, trying to inhale every last molecule of the spice grinder’s shop because I know the horrors that will meet my nose soon enough. On my way out of Sanepa (my neighborhood), I am blasted with the gritty exhaust of school buses that surely don’t meet the emissions standards anywhere, despite displaying a sticker on their windows that say they do. According to friends in the know, it’s easy for vehicles in Kathmandu to pass the required emissions tests: a few hundred rupees of baksheesh (bribe) will do the trick.
Now, it is on to Pulchowk, the main road that connects the city of Patan, or Lalitpur, with Kathmandu. On the main streets, the smells change almost every ten feet. I walk by a man selling sliced fruit covered with a red netting, which seems to be mostly ceremonious, as flies are feasting on the sweet fruit anyway. He is chopping orange guava, which smells like an over-ripe tropical vacation.
Down the street, in front of a construction site, idle men crouch on the curb and smoke cheap Nepali cigarettes while the sari-clad women continue to mix cement and move bricks from one spot to another. I try not to breathe in the spirals of cigarette smoke, as I consider how emblematic this construction site is of what I’ve seen in much of Nepal: inert men, often smoking and drinking, and busy women, earning money that probably funds their husband’s habits.

I continue on and pass by a street-side tea stall, which is centered around a metal pot that brims with boiling milk, black tea leaves and copious amounts of sugar. The steam from the tea smells rich and creamy like the beverage that will fill the small glass cups of the shop’s patrons.

Ten minutes on Pulchowk and I’m at the bridge that connects Lalitpur to Kathmandu and crosses over the Nepal’s sacred river, the Bagmati. The sacred river, which is meant to wash away sins if bathed in, doubles as a sewer, an easy place to dispose of trash, a car wash, a toilet and a place to do laundry. The areas that line the Bagmati are crowded with squatter’s residences, or slums. The massive rural-urban migration in the past decade has meant an explosion in squatters living by the river who have inadequate access to clean water or medicine. I recently read that a resident in the squatter communities in Kathmandu dies every ten to fifteen days, most likely a woman or a child.
The stink of the Bagmati is oppressive. But when crossing the bridge that spans the river, it is hard for me not to stop in the middle and look out at the mess. It is like a horrible car crash: it’s hard not to look when passing by. Today, a man walks through the middle of the river with a large sack slung across his back. He picks up bits of plastic and empty bottles that were floating down the river. The rotten smell of the river left my mind for a moment as I considered the situation he must be in to actually take it upon himself to forage for plastic in this river. To a visitor, it would be a surprise to learn that the Bagmati is a holy river, for the banks and small islands that dot it are piled high with decomposing trash heaps. Off to one side of the river, bloated and greyish, is a carcass of something. I ask two teenage boys if it is a pig.
“It’s a cow,” they inform me.

Cows walk across the Bagmati.


On the other side of the river, near a squatter’s colony, a man crouches with his feet submerged in the water, shitting in the flowing, brown waters.
I cross to the other side of the bridge and continue on to my destination.
Where the bridge connects to the main streets in Kathmandu are a number of women who bring woks and kerosene to the pavement and set up snack vending stations right on the sidewalk. I walk by and inhale the fumes of greasy, fried snacks, a welcome change from the putrid Bagmati. The plumes drifting off the bubbling oil smell tantalizingly unhealthy.
I walk past the street-side barbers who sit on worn stools next to mounds of snipped black hair on the sidewalk. Punctuating the exhaust fumes are the cloying smells of Indian sweet shops, which vend small, but deceptively rich treats with names like barfi and gulab jamun. Many of the shops, whose glass windows protect pyramids of snacks, are run by sullen-looking Bengalis with dark brown skin. The smell of baking sweets and hot ghee (clarified butter) are so enticing that every time I pass one, I feel a magnetic pull to enter and gorge on the sugary desserts.

Indian Sweets


Five minutes down the street, I pass a small temple, tucked between a greasy auto-repair shop and a veterinary medicine shop. An old woman, who looks about two centuries old, sits in front of the shop with her hand outstretched, begging for money. From the bronze hulk of the temple comes a sweet and smoky fog of incense, sticks of which are lit constantly for the gods.
Now I am at the point where I must cross a main street that flows with a never-ending pulse of traffic. I make use of my usual strategy when crossing major streets in Asia: latch on to a local and follow them across. Once safely to the other side, I pass by a momo shop: the ubiquitous Tibetan dumplings stuffed with chicken, vegetables or buffalo that can be found all over Kathmandu. A young restaurant attendant lifts the lid off an aluminum momo steamer and a cloud of spicy, meaty vapors reaches my nose. He plucks out ten and places them on a dented aluminum plate to accompany a tin of red achar (pickle). The doughy momos smell better than the most expensive perfume ever could, especially because the stench of the river still lingers in my nose.
I pass street vendors who are making popcorn. They make me remember the comforts of the Western movie theater. Then I walk by Ratna Park, the main bus central in the middle of the city, where someone has recently installed a “Mobile Toilet.” The Mobile Toilet is housed in the shell of a large truck and smells like the innards of a campground outhouse. Nepali women who walk by demurely raise a fold of their sari to cover their nose. I have no nose covering, so just try to hold my breath as long as possible.
There is a stretch of sidewalk that spans the distance between Ratna Park and Asan Bazaar that I cringe even thinking about. Even in the mid-morning, this particular piece of my walk is bathed in sun. I usually enjoy walking in the sun, but the rays produce an especially heinous effect here. For some reason, this piece of sidewalk is speckled with mounds of feces, probably mostly from stray dogs. During the night, this piece of sidewalk must also get a thorough bath of urine from dogs and humans. The warmth of the sun bakes the mounds of shit and heats the urine, which releases a distinctive and shockingly foul smell. Even the Bagmati smells like flowers compared to this stretch of sidewalk. I walk as quickly as I can, being careful to avoid the smears of feces on the ground. The suffocating smell of hot urine is so difficult to endure that I consider wearing a gas mask next time I pass by. This piece of sidewalk makes me feel like retching, even passing out. I hold my breath as long as I can, but when I start to feel dizzy, I am forced to take a deep breath. The acidic, acrid stench burns my lungs.
Thankfully, I reach the end of the rancid stretch of sidewalk and my nose is soon appeased by a another fried-snack shop. A man stands in front, pouring viscous dough into hot oil, which produces a delicious, warm fragrance that reminds me of fresh baked cookies. I stop for a minute and watch as the sweet maker curls the watery dough in a circular motion, which will eventually produce the saccharine-sweet jalebi snacks.
I pass the street that leads to Asan Bazaar and hop over some stagnant mud puddles. The next ten minutes are aromatically uneventful, just some repeat smells: fried snacks, Indian sweet shops, steaming momos and the occasional whiff of sewage. Finally, I arrive in the backpacker district of Thamel. Almost immediately upon my arrival to the neighborhood, I start hearing the sounds of chanting monks that blast of the speakers of music shops. They are the same CDs on repeat that have been playing for at least three years, since I was last in Kathmandu.
Immediately the smell of incense floods the streets. There is sandalwood, and nag champa drifting from the storefronts of shops selling fake North Face gear, bootleg movies and used books.
“Taxi, Madame?”
“You want trekking, rafting?”
“Tiger balm?”
All the usual suspects crowd the street corners, trying to sell their services or products.
Finally, I get to my destination, the Northfield Cafe. I order a black coffee and a waiter wearing a collared shirt promptly brings it to me, setting it next to my open computer.

And then, as if to cleanse my nose of the delights and horrors it has smelled in the past hour, comes the welcome aroma of freshly brewed coffee. In just an hour I’ve marveled at the smells of fresh ground spices, frying snacks, incense, momos and milk tea. On the flip side, I’ve wanted to douse my nostrils in the sterilizer after passing the Bagmati, baking urine, feces and sewage. After the last sixty minutes, the warm, comforting aroma of plain black coffee could not be more welcome.

BLOG: Things I Miss About Home

I find living abroad to be immensely pleasurable. I love being an outsider in a culture that is very foreign to me, as being in this position gives me innumerable opportunities to discover and see new things. Living in a foreign place also allows me endless material for observing and writing. There are, of course, some things I miss about home, which is Portland, Oregon, but could more generally just be the United States. There are the obvious things, like friends, family and home cooked meals, but there are also some other things I’ve been thinking about lately that I do not get in Kathmandu.

Here are a list of things I miss about home:

1) Being able to walk in a straight line

Must dodge sacred cows.

I miss being able to walk in a straight line, on a straight path, without having to constantly be on the lookout for obstacles to dodge. Whenever I walk in Kathmandu, I feel like I am in some sort of bizarre, real-life video game where I must dodge things ever 10 seconds including dogs, people, food carts, motorcycles, taxis, rickshaws, feces and 6-foot deep sewer holes in the sidewalk. While it can be entertaining and stimulating sometimes, I often long for the peaceful, straight and uninterrupted paths and walkways of home.

2) Walking on a flat surface
This one is sort of an extension of number one. I miss walking on flat surfaces, like flat sidewalks and roads. In Kathmandu, the sidewalks are in such poor conditions that I often feel that I am “urban trekking,” constantly going up and down uneven pieces of sidewalk, hopping over piles of bricks, spanning lakes of stagnant water and traversing heaps of sand. I miss the flat, wide sidewalks of Portland where there is more than enough room for people to walk.

3) Being anonymous
I know I said in the beginning that I like being an outsider and that’s true. But, there is something to be said for being anonymous in a crowd. In Portland, or most places in the U.S., I can just disappear in the crowd. If I’m walking in Portland’s busy Saturday Market or through a street fair, no one gives me a second look. I’m just another person. Here in Kathmandu, people stare at me EVERYWHERE I go. I often travel unaccompanied and I know many Nepalis may think this is strange, especially in the countryside, but I get stared at intensely even in the city. I miss the ability to be anonymous and disappear into a crowd.

4) Not being stared at
This is an extension of number three. Never being anonymous means always standing out in the crowd. It may be because I have light hair and it may be because I am young-looking and travel alone most of the time. Whatever it is, people, especially men, stare at me all the time. It is a rather disconcerting and uncomfortable sort of stare, a kind of stare that feels like it pierces your skin. The staring by men is a part of this culture that makes me feel extremely uncomfortable and annoyed sometimes. When I am walking, I often try not to notice it, but other times it is simply impossible to ignore. I’ve developed a rather bad habit of very conspicuously staring back at people whose eyes are fixed on me, even to the point where I turn my head so as not to break eye contact as I walk by. I sometimes wonder if this habit will someday have reprecussions, but I sort of want to make intense starers feel the same way they are making me feel. I know I may be an oddity here, but I miss never being stared at in Portland.

5) Being safe alone at night

I know I am not safe everywhere in Portland alone at night, but in most places I feel fine walking by myself. In Kathmandu, I absolutely do not feel comfortable EVER when alone at night. My level of discomfort at night has increased since three years ago. I don’t know if this stems from what is probably my increased level of rationality from when I was 20 years old, or if it is from the constant warnings I get from locals. Everyone says: “No matter what you do, do NOT walk alone at night in Kathmandu.” I’m not the type of person who gets easily scared about travel warnings, but this is one that I will follow. Kathmandu has received a deluge of people migrating from rural parts of the country and perhaps because of this, now has had increased crime rates and problems with drug addicts. Rather than take my chances, I prefer to be home when the sun goes down. So, I miss being able to walk around at night with no problems or fears like I can in Portland.

6) Clean air

Clean Air... Yum


Portland has crisp, fresh and clean air. Kathmandu does not. I miss the clean air of Portland and not blowing my nose to find it black from pollution, dust and smog.

Taking Pictures of People: How to Get the Perfect Shot

Let’s say you’re strolling through a crowded market nestled deep in the heart of Old Kathmandu. The buildings are crammed and crumbling, giving the area a weathered, medieval look. There are vegetable vendors lining the streets. They’re sitting on ragged tarps covered with a landscape of vegetables stacked in pyramids. There are red tomatoes, yellow lemons, some green bumpy vegetable that you don’t know the name of, dark purple eggplant and heaps of green chillies. Out of the corner of your eye, leaning against an ancient-looking door frame is an equally as ancient-looking woman. The lines and wrinkles on her face probably hold more stories than an entire library. From her ears drip traditional gold jewelery. In her hand she holds a beedi cigarette, which she takes long pulls of every minute. The woman is perfectly framed within the rectangular door setting. “This looks like a National Geographic shot!” you think. You grab for your camera, but hesitate for a second. “Should I take a picture? Would it be rude? Should I ask? The shot would be so amazing, though!” And in that few seconds of apprehension, the woman and the possibility of a photo have vanished.

Some version of this scenario has happened to me many times. I’ll see someone that I really want to take a photo of and then in the minutes of mulling it over, the person will move or disappear. I usually carry my camera everywhere and have taken thousands of photos on my travels through Asia over the last three years. Looking back through my photo library, out of thousands, I can probably pick 100 really, really good ones. Out of those 100, probably 80% are of people. I’m a strong believer that people make the best photo subjects. Obviously Mt. Everest is one of the most majestic spots on earth, but are you really going to capture its essence and beauty in a photograph. Probably not. Forests and lakes are spectacular sites to visit, but, honestly, landscape photos can get boring quickly. After some time, a lake is just a lake. A mountain range will always look dwarfed and less amazing than it did in person.

But people never get boring. It is the people who live in a place that bring the whole scene to life. When I travel I like to see what the people are doing. I want to see how they live their lives, what they do everyday, how they spend their mornings, what they eat, where they work, who their children are, what they wear and what they do for fun. Ultimately, I want to see how other people’s lives around the world differ from my own in the United States. After we strip away the religion, the food choices, the morals and ethics, the language and the education, we’re all the same: just people. I think that is why people photos are so interesting: because when we see someone else’s eyes and face, we can inherintily relate to them, no matter if they are the nomads of Tibet, the city slickers of Seoul, the coffee-shop owners of Singapore or the cowgirls of the American West. Take a look at some of the most successful travel photographers like Steve McCurry. Almost every single one of his famous photos is of a person. Perhaps his most famous photo, the one of the Afghan girl staring out of frame with hauntingly green eyes, is noteworthy for many reasons, but mainly, we can relate to her through her eyes.

Although pictures of people are probably the most interesting and beautiful mementos from travel, they are also the most difficult to take. I often think about what it would be like if I were on the other side of the camera, the subject of the photos rather than the photographer. I would absolutely NOT appreciate having my picture snapped as I went about my daily life, eating breakfast and going to work. So, how can you get good photos of people without being intrusive, rude or imposing? It is a fine art that I am learning slowly but surely. Practice makes it slighly easier, but I still have an awkward feeling whenever I am trying to get a close-up photo of a person’s face. Here are some thing’s I’ve learned in my practice and study of photography that will help when trying to get good photos of people:

1)Ask

This can be difficult, especially when there is a language barrier, but it is the most surefire way that you won’t upset your proposed photo subject. If you don’t know how to ask, or the person doesn’t understand your question, just point at your camera and point at them? They’ll probably understand that you want to take a picture and respond accordingly.

2) Offer Money, When Appropriate

I think if you are going to take a picture of someone, it is sometimes fair that you pay a bit of money to them. I usually never pay anyone in the city, but if I am trekking or in the countryside and see someone I want to photograph, I’ll take their picture and then give them whatever small change I have in my bag. Sometimes the person will straight away ask for money, but if not, it’s a nice gesture.

3) Learn How to Say “Can I Take Your Picture” in the Local Language

I asked my Nepali photographer friend how to say: “Can I take your picture?” in Nepalese. Learning this phrase in the local language can be helpful.  When you whip out the phrase in the local language, your potential photo subject may be more willing to agree if they feel that you have made an effort to learn a bit of their culture and language.

4) Read Body Language – if they look awkward, put the camera away

If you take your camera out and your proposed photo subject shrugs away, or starts looking awkward, just put the camera back and don’t take photos. Taking pictures of people, if they don’t agree to it, can be very rude and insensitive.

5) Be Sensitive and Don’t Encroach

There are certain situations that, no matter how photogenic they may be, you probably shouldn’t take a picture of. For example, a woman breastfeeding a child or an intimate moment between two people. I also think it is also necessary to be exceedingly sensitive when taking pictures of poor people or beggars.  I say do NOT take pictures of poor, destitute people just for fun (unless you are going to give them money).  If you are a photojournalist or another sort of professional photographer and you are taking these pictures for some assignment or larger purpose, then it can be alright.


Above: Aashish, one of the young monks at Trungram Monastery in Nepal.

Above: A group of Cambodian kids in the village outside of Battambang.


Above: Thuli Tamang, a 72-year-old woman carries grass to her village.

Above: The busy scenes at the vegetable market in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Above: The monks at Trungram Monastery in Sankhu, Nepal.

Above: Nepali school girls walking to morning classes in Pokhara.

Above: A farmer outside of Pokhara takes a tea break.

Above: Two farmer girls rest at their home outside Pokhara, Nepal.

Above: Two inquisitive girls from a small village in Nepal.

Above: Sadhus, the Hindu holy men, hang out and smoke ganja at Pashupatinath Temple in Nepal.


Above: A vegetable peddler on the streets of Kathmandu.

Above: Farmers harvest rice in Phimai in Northeastern Thailand.

Above: Two Akha women on the trail deep in the jungles of Northern Laos.

Above: A toothy child smiles beneath a big red tikka.

Above: A beggar asks for rupees as the Swayambhunath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.

PHOTOS: Seoul by Night

Long after the sun sets in Seoul, the city pulses frenetically. From the hulls of small restaurants comes the raucous sounds of friends and colleagues enjoying a round or two or three of soju, the country’s favorite distilled alcohol. Plumes of smoke waft onto the street from fiery Korean barbeques, covered with slabs of sizzling pork and beef. The petite women of Seoul, dressed to impress, parade up and down the streets, perfectly made-up and wearing impossibly high stilletos. Street vendors serve trays of spicy toppoki and bowls of steaming oysters. Seoul by night is an energetic, frenzied, eurphoric, non-stop spectacle.

Korea’s capital, like nowhere else I’ve ever seen, truly is the city that never sleeps. The nightlife thrives late into the night and into the early (and not so early) hours of the morning. (Yes, I had one night/morning in Seoul that lasted until 11 a.m.). A big part of understanding Seoul is to partake in the nightlife, but be warned: when enjoying Seoul by night it is necessary to pace oneself because young Koreans can easily stay up drinking, eating and enjoying themselves until the sun rises.

Above: Crowds flow through the neon-lit streets.
Above: The sun has just set in Seoul, which means the night is very, very young.
Above: Couples and friends stroll through the streets, many looking for a delectable restaurant to stop at.
Above: A couple decides what they want for dinner.  Many restaurants have displays of plastic food in front so potential customers can easily chose what they want.
Above: A plastic food display in Seoul.
Above: A couple sits at a street food vendor’s stall who is serving steamed shell fish.  The man pours fresh glasses of soju, the Korean distilled alcohol.
Above: Traffic flows smoothly as people return from work.
Above: A woman decides what she wants for dinner from a street vendor.
Above: One of the best things about Seoul by night are the neon lights.
Above: Bright lights, big city.
Above: The night is young and the revelry is just getting started.

Discovering Ethnic Diversity in Singapore

Singapore may not offer the same sense of rugged adventure and unknown exploration as other countries in the region, but a visit to the thriving metropolis can be equally as satisfying a trip to Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. One of the most fascinating aspects of Singapore society to observe is the multicultural, multifaceted diversity of the country. For a quick and easy peek at the diaspora living in Singapore, simply hop on the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) train at any stop. Grab a seat, sit back and spend an hour just people watching. You’ll see Singapore residents from all over Asia, and the world, who add to the spectacular diversity of the country.

The majority, around 74%, of the estimated 4,839,400 residents of Singapore are ethnic Chinese. 13.5% are ethnic Malays, 9% are from India 3% are from elsewhere. Although the majority of people living in Singapore are from China, Chinese is not the one official language. In fact, there are four official languages in Singapore including English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Instead of singling out one language as the national language, the always diplomatic Singapore chose all four so as to include each of the three majority groups. English was kept as an official language after Singapore gained independence from the British in 1965 and Lee Kuan Yew decided it would be beneficial both economically and politically to continue using English for business and administration.

A walk through one of Singapore’s ubiquitous hawker center’s (street food markets) reveals the multilayered, multilingual aspect of the country’s diversity. In one stall a vendor might be mixing vats of black Hokkien Chinese coffee and speaking in a Chinese dialect. Across the food complex, in the halal section of the hawker center where Muslim men wearing taqiyah hats are making dough for roti, the melodic rhythm of Arabic or Malay can be heard. Down the lane in a stall selling fiery curries, the owner might hail from Kerala, India, and would be speaking in Tamil.

On a visit to Singapore you’re not going to find deep jungles or crumbling ruins, but you’ll find an incredible diversity of people, languages, foods and cultures. Observing the diaspora is a thrill in itself and visiting the many ethnic enclaves of the city is a great pleasure. Spend some time walking through hawker centers, cultural neighborhoods (like Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street), listen to the languages and you’ll understand an important and unique side of Singapore.

Singapore Tips and Ideas:
Here are some tips and ideas on things to do in Singapore to understand their multicultural society. Through a mix of street walks, gastronomic exploration, museums and ethnic neighborhood tours, you’ll leave Singapore with a more thorough understanding of the culture and the diversity.

*Visit Little India
Little India is perhaps my favorite area in Singapore. The Tekka wet market there is fantastic (although when I was there last summer it was closed for reconstruction). Spend some time walking through the lanes, the market and the main streets. Try a few Indian sweets and wash it down with a glass of milk tea.


Above: Men in Little India, Singapore. Photo by: William Cho

*Visit Chinatown
In certain parts, Singapore’s Chinatown is very touristy and can get a bit overwhelmed with people snapping photos of everything. Go a bit off the main drag and explore some of the Chinese medicine shops that are full of interesting herbs.

Above: A street scene in Chinatown, Singapore. Photo by: Khalzuri

*Ride the MRT
As I mentioned, riding the MRT around town is a great way to get a sneak-peek at the diversity of Singapore’s population.

Above: The Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (MRT).  Photo by: Charles Haynes

*Asian Civilizations Museum
This excellent museum is located in Boat Quay, across from the grandiose Fullerton Hotel. This museum doesn’t specifically focus on Singapore, but it is bursting with information on the whole region. It’s a good place to go to enrich your understanding of Singaporean culture, and Asian culture in general.

Above: Asian Civilizations Museum by night. Photo by: Keng Susumpow

*Eat at the Hawker Centers
This one’s obvious. How could you go to Singapore and not eat at the hawker centers? I say it’s a good idea to eat at least one meal a day (if not all three) at hawker centers to get a true flavor and understanding of the regional cuisines. Singapore’s food scene is influenced by all the countries in the area, so it will be a bit like you’re exploring all of Asia through your meals.

Above: Chicken rice from a Singapore hawker center. Photo by: Charles Haynes

*Look at the Signs
The street signs directly reflect the diversity of language in the country. Take a look at them and you’ll see that many are written in all four of the official languages. You’ll also notice that signs and warnings on the public transportation buses and MRT are written in four languages as well.

Above: A sign in Singapore written in English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay.