Tag Archives: Kathmandu

Get Old in Nepal and Become a God: Celebrating Janku

Patan Durbar Square was teeming with tourists as the mid-afternoon, autumn sun beat down on us all from above. There were people from everywhere: Spaniards with their signature (and rather eccentric) hair style of a shaved head with several long dreadlocks hanging down their backs, stodgy Germans muttering something underneath their breath about the old Nepali men staring at them and Americans, easily recognizable by their shorts, tennis shoes and starch-white tube socks pulled half-way up their shins. Everyone, Americans, Spanish, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, seemed to have a multi-thousand dollar DSLR camera hanging around their necks and everyone seemed to be snapping the same pictures: Krishna Mandir temple, the ancient bell, the skyline full of fluttering pigeons and the old Nepali “milk man,” who actually just wanders around Patan Durbar Square with two empty tin cans attached to a wooden pole, looking very “authentic” and asking tourists if they would like to take a photo of him in exchange for some rupees.

I sat on a nearby bench, curiously watching the human comedy of tourists and locals unfolding in front of me, trying to guess if the woman over there with the ridiculously revealing tank-top was Italian or Spanish, and if the guy to my left, mousey and gaunt, was from Russia or Britain. Suddenly, a racket of horns, trumpets and drums jostled me out of my languid tourist-watching session. Patan Durbar Square is never quiet, but the din was rather unusual even for this central square.

I immediately got up and went to investigate. I peered down the long “sidewalk” area that goes from one side of Patan Durbar Square to the other, passing most of the major temples on the way. In the distance I saw a mass of people, dressed to the nines, the women in sparkling saris and the men in freshly pressed shirts and slacks, carrying some sort of colorful palanquin. As the procession, complete with a full band, approached, I noticed that inside the palanquin was an old, gray-haired woman. She wore a colorful crown with turquoise peacock feathers tucked into it and a gold and red tailored sari. On her forehead was a large red tika, with smaller orange and black tikas above and below the main red one. As a number of men carried her through Patan Durbar Square, the woman lounged back on cushy pillows and peered out through sparkling garlands that adorned her seat.

“What in the world?” I wondered to myself as I snapped photos of the whole scene.

I noticed a middle-aged British couple five feet to my left who seemed to be listening to a Nepali tour guide explain what was going on. Like the good budget traveler that I am, I nonchalantly inched closer to the British couple to “accidentally” listen in on the information they were gleaning from their guide. My eavesdropping strategy worked and I learned that the procession was to celebrate this woman’s “janku,” which is a sort of special birthday ceremony that can happens five times and begins at the age of 77. This woman, it turned out, was celebrating her first janku with her family, for she had just turned 77 years, 7 months, 7 days, 7 hours, 7 minutes and 7 seconds old. Supposedly, said the Brits’ guide, this was the exact time when the procession began, which would wind all over Patan. When the 77 janku, or birthday, begins, the whole family gathers around their wise old relative, treats them to a grand procession, decks them out in fancy clothes and worships them like a god. Basically if you reach 77 and are part of Nepal’s Newari community, you’ve now reached god status.

“Wow!” I thought. “Getting old here is awesome!” I decided I wouldn’t mind spending my 77th birthday in Nepal, if, that is, I can make it that far.

I later came home to read more about the janku celebrations. The janku festivities are a unique part of Newari culture in Nepal (Newaris are considered the indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu region). This special ceremony can happen five times total in a life span, given you don’t live past 106. It happens for 77 years, months, days, etc…, 88 years, 99 years, and also for specific times during the 83rd and 105th year corresponding to a certain number of full moons that the person has seen in his or her life.

Here are some photos from the 77th year janku procession:
Above: The procession approaches from a distance.  At this point I could only tell that the group was carrying some sort of colorful palanquin.
Above: The army of family members parades through Patan Durbar Square with their 77-year-old grandmother.
Above: The men headed the procession.
Above: After the men came a group of women all wearing matching red and gold saris.  I’m not sure what the significance of this is, but I guessed that maybe these women were in the immediate family of the 77-year-old granny.
Above: After the red and gold saried women came another group of women wearing sparkling, solid colored saris.
Above: The women carrying up the rear of the procession.
Above: The woman of the day, carried on a colorful palanquin by her family members.

Above: This woman made it to 77 and now she’s basically a god! Awesome.
Above: The birthday girl, celebrating her first “janku” at 77 years old.  If she’s lucky, she’ll be able to celebrate 4 more of these (if she can life to 106).
Above: The procession passes by me in Patan.

Above: Patan Durbar Square after the procession passed through.

PHOTOS: Tika and Jamara With the Tamrakars

Dasain, the biggest festival in Nepal, is now coming to a close after several weeks of festivities, feasting, animal sacrifices, family gatherings and pujas. After the past 10 days, witnessing the happenings of Dasain, I feel like I have truly gained a more thorough understanding of Nepalese culture and the Hindu religion. Before Dasain began, I was pondering leaving Kathmandu for my 10-day vacation from work, but now I am quite glad that I stuck around the city, for I was able to get a more complete picture of the festival and how it is celebrated.  To leave Nepal without understanding Dasain would be like leaving the U.S. without every knowing Thanksgiving.

Like much to do with Nepal’s culture and religion, there are (at least it seems to me) innumerable rituals and prayers that must be done in specific ways, dedicated to certain gods. I often ask my Nepali friends why things are done the way they are and they usually give me long, detailed explanations for even the most minute bits of religious rituals (for example, why something is red, why another thing is yellow, why one god holds a spear, why another god has ten hands, why you wear a red thread here and a white thread there, etc…). From what I gather, in its most simplest form, Dasain is meant to celebrate the victory of the gods over the demons. In particular, Nepalis worship Durga, a goddess with ten hands, during Dasain and offer her all sorts of gifts and hundreds of thousands of animals in the form of animal sacrifices.

Each day of Dasain, which lasts about 15 days, has a special significance and certain rituals or pujas are done on that day. This past Sunday I was invited by my co-worker, Sachin the magazine marketing exec, to celebrate Tika and Jamara with his family who live in a traditional Newari-style house near Patan Durbar Square. I, of course, jumped at the opportunity to celebrate Dasain with a family, because celebrating with a family is the only way to truly get a good glimpse of the festivities. There are ways to observe Dasain outside the home, but most of the action takes place behind closed doors, between family members.

The Tika and Jamara ceremony is reserved for the ninth day of Dasain.  After celebrating the puja with the Tamrakars, the “kids” of the family (anyone under age 25) roamed the winding lanes of Patan, taking in the sights and checking out the animal sacrifices in Patan’s Durbar Square.  While were we walking, almost every single person we passed also had their own tika and jamara from their family ceremony.  For the entire day, almost every person in Kathmandu had a giant tika glob on their forehead and light green barley sprigs tucked behind their ear or woven into their hair.  The contrast of the red and green against the carmel Nepali skin tones made the buzzing streets even more ablaze with color than normal.

The tika (red dot) is given by the elder members of the family.  The tika paste is made of rice grains, vermillion powder and curd or yogurt.  The mixture of the three items makes for a thick red paste that, surprisingly, stays attached to the forehead for most of the day.  To get a tika from the family elders is like accepting blessings and wishes for good fortune and health for the coming year.  The green sprigs, the jamara, are young barley grasses.  On the first day of Dasain, barley seeds are planted in the family’s special puja or prayer room and are grown in sands taken from one of Nepal’s holy rivers for nine days.  After nine days the young jamara sprigs are harvested and are said to then hold the blessings of the ten-handed Goddess Durga.  They are now ready to be given to the family members along with bright red tikas.

Another co-worker recently wrote about Tika and Jamra festival for the magazine we work for.  She wrote that celebrating Dasain without jamara would be like celebrating Christmas without a Christmas tree.  I thought this was an apt description of the plant’s significance.

Celebrating Tika and Jamara with the Tamrakars was an excellent experience that allowed me to further understand what Dasain is all about.  It was nice to be around such a warm and welcoming family and to take part in their festivities.  Here are some photos of the Tika and Jamara ceremony:

Above: The Tamrakar elders sat against the wall with their tika paste (red powder, rice grains and yogurt mixed together) and gave each member of the family tika on the middle of their forehead.  The tika is a symbol that the elders give their blessings to the family for the coming year.
Above: Sachin, my co-worker who invited me to his family’s Tika and Jamara puja, gets a tika from his father.
Above: The necessities to complete a successful Tika and Jamara puja.  Each elder of the Tamrakar family had a tray of rice grains, pastes, powders, red threads and jamara (barley) sprigs.
Above: Sachin’s cousin with a tika on her forehead.  Most of the women were decked out from head to toe in red, from red saris to red necklaces, to celebrate this special day of Dasain.
Above: Sachin’s father and mother.  Notice the jamara tucked behind Sachin’s father’s ear.  The men usually tucked the barley sprigs behind their ears and the women laced them in their hair bands.
Above: Me getting in on the action, receiving a tika from one of Sachin’s aunts.  The whole family got quite a kick out of me being there.  Luckily, I wore a red shirt for the occasion, which allowed me to blend in a bit more easily.
Above: After I got my tika, Sachin’s aunt handed me several jamara sprigs and a strand of red thread.  She then did a small prayer for me so I would have good fortune and good luck for the coming year.
Above: A few of Sachin’s cousins with their lovely red tikas.
Above: This little guy was the youngest member of the family.  He was quite perplexed at my presence, probably thinking I looked rather alien-ish compared to all the other sari-clad women of the family.
Above: Tikas are given by all elder family members, so by the end of the day, those with large families end up having MASSIVE red tikas on their forehead.  Here, I get another tika from Granny Tamrakar, the most senior member of the family.
Above: After Granny Tamrakar gave me a tika, I was gifted a 5 rupee note by Sachin’s aunt.  Notice the jamara sprigs they put in my hair band.
Above: Sachin’s family lives in an awesome traditional Newari-style, five story house near Patan Durbar Square.  Dasain is a time when the entire extended family gets together, many people coming from far-off villages.  Here you can get a feeling of how cramped the house was with family members.
Above: Sachin’s cousin gives the youngest member of the family a tika.
Above: After the Tika and Jamara ceremony, all the “kids” of the family jumped on motorbikes and headed to a temple near Godavari, about a 45 minute ride out of the Kathmandu city center.  Here I am with Sachin’s cousin, Shreeya, and his younger brother.
Above: Sachin’s cousin gives Shreeya, age 16, a tika.  Shreeya says she aspires to be come an international flight attendant, but her mother is pushing for her to become a doctor.  She says if air-hostessing doesn’t work out, she’ll try out the world of modeling.
Above: Tikas all around for the youngsters of the family.  Each family member gets a tika from their elders, so this means the children got tikas from almost everyone present.
Above: After we all got tikas, we had traditional Newari snacks which we ate out of dried leaf bowls (very eco-friendly!).  The snacks included beaten rice (churra), bananas and beans.  Above, the Tamrakar men enjoy their breakfast.  Sachin, my co-worker, is the one in the white collared shirt and his younger brother is the one in the sports jersey.

Above: After the Tika and Jamara ceremony we walked all around Patan and watched a “mini-drama” at one of the temples where an old man pretends to be a demon and other old men chase him around, eventually relegating him inside an old house. It was quite entertaining, but everyone muttered that it was too short.

My New Bike: The Bumpy Road to Freedom

Two weeks ago I sat in a surprisingly clean clinic near Durbar Marg (where all Kathmandu’s beautiful and rich people go to see and be seen), listening to a surprisingly young Nepali doctor give me his prognosis

“Tendonitis,” he said resolutely, as he scanned my chart. “No running for six weeks.”

“Six weeks? Are you sure about that?” I asked.

“Six weeks,” he confirmed with a nod.

I limped away from the International Clinic crestfallen with a 5-day supply of anti-inflammatories and a blunted sense of rage that I had so over-run my foot since arriving in Nepal that now I was sentenced to a month and a half of inactivity.

Spurred by my foot injury I decided to buy a bike. Purchasing a bicycle was something I’d been mulling over for about a month (On one hand: Wheels! On the other hand: Kathmandu traffic…). A group of young German volunteers who are working with a friend’s NGO recently arrived in the city and quickly bought bikes for themselves. I’d been envying their cycles for some time, so while walking home the other day, instead of turning right to go home, I turned left to Patan Dhoka (Patan Gate), where I had heard was a good bicycle shop.

I passed through Patan Dhoka and made a bee line for the first bike shop I could find: K.B.’s Cycle Traders. It was a small shop, the outsides covered in a layer of dust like everything else in Kathmandu, but the insides bursting full of new bicycles, both small and large.

“I need I bike,” I told the slick man who bounded up to help me.

“Ok, what kind you like? We have everything. Everything best quality,” he said.

We quickly picked one out, an ‘Everest’ brand mountain bike, and he wheeled the shining cycle next door so the tank-top clad attendants could screw in pedals and attach a bell.

“Best quality,” he assured me as I hand over 6,000 of my hard-earned rupees.

“Where from? China or India?” I asked.

“China,” he replied. “Best quality.”

The bike looked pretty good to me. It smelled of new tires and freedom.

I spend the next three hours swerving through back alleys in Patan, sailing down any patch of smooth pavement I can find, bumping over pot holes and avoiding treacherous open sewers. After two weeks of no running, pumping my legs, breaking a sweat and feeling the air on my face is exhilarating.

After I exhaust most of the streets and alleys in Patan, I cycle over to Basanta’s tea shop, which, however cliché it may sound, I can only liken to the Cheers bar of Kathmandu, but instead of beer, we drink cup after cup of milk tea. As expected the whole crew is there. I proudly drive up and drag my bike inside.

“I got a bike!” I proclaim. It is supposed to be my “Ta-Da!” moment and I’m unable to wipe the silly grin off my face. My friends courteously admire my bike for 10 seconds and then go back to their tea cups and Surya cigarettes.

Basanta, the tea shop owner who seems to constantly be in a marijuana haze and has one very long pinky finger nail painted blue, asks my friends in Nepalese how much I paid for it.

“About 6,000,” I tell them. (Around $83 USD).

He tells them he got almost the same one as me for 4,500 rupees. I sigh, but don’t really care. Nepalis are perpetually telling me how much less they paid for X, Y and Z. I know that paying more is just an occupational hazard of having white skin.

The next day, I spend the morning riding all around the city. I ride from my house in Sanepa all the way across town to the Northfield Cafe in Thamel just because they have good drip coffee and just because I can.

Several hours later, in the mid-afternoon sun I head back to my side of town to meet everyone at Basanta’s. Twenty minutes into my ride I’m in the middle of Durbar Marg, flying down the pavement, dodging motorcycles and taxis, dogs and potholes, savoring my freedom and then I hear a sound. With one swift exhalation, a puff and a wheeze, my Chinese-made freedom evaporates into the dusty Kathmandu air. I have one very flat front tire. Almost as quickly as my Chinese bike had given me liberation from my own two feet, it was gone. China giveth and China taketh away.

“Best quality my ass,” I mumble as I drag my shiny, less-than-12-hour-old mountain bike to the side of the road.

As I heave this hulk of a bicycle, this two-wheeled menace that brought me so much joy in the past half-day, I stew about the bike shop, the bike salesman, my own hurt pride and Chinese products in general. Although I pass by dozens of bike repair shops, I’m determined to walk all the way across town in the sticky 2 p.m. heat to revisit K.B.’s, where I bought the cycle, and make a scene about the bike’s poor quality. I refuse to pay even one rupee to get the tire fixed, as I just paid 6,000 yesterday.

The minutes tick by and sweat starts to bead on my brow as I walk alongside the congested highway with my bike. Walking from Durbar Marg to Patan Dhoka is a lot farther than I thought. Buses brimming full of passengers chug by me, spewing black smog in my face. I weave through traffic and the city’s cacophony of horns, my energy draining by the minute.

As I walk further the deflated tire and tube slowly become unattached to the front rim, which means it’s becoming increasingly difficult to even push the bike. Over particularly rough and broken pieces of sidewalk I resort to carrying the frame on my shoulder. Despite its heft, I chuckle to myself that they actually dare call this piece-of-crap a “mountain bike.” The thing would surely disintegrate within minutes if I actually took it on a Himalayan trail.

I’m now almost completely drenched in sweat, pushing, dragging, heaving, towing my Everest cycle, which is still perfectly shiny and new, minus the front tire. There’s hardly a speck of dirt or mud anywhere to be seen on the frame.

As I struggle, spindly Nepali and Indian men whiz by me on their ancient, rusty, one-speed bikes that work like a charm. Me, wearing my turquoise Dri-Fit Nike T-shirt with a crisp white swoosh embroidered on the front. Them, zooming by one by one wearing cotton collared shirts, threadbare around the elbows, and worn cotton pants, thin as rice paper. They look at me and my shiny new, broken-down bike smugly.

An hour-and-a-half later I finally arrive at K.B.’s, hair wet with sweat, face black with smog and front tire almost completely off the rim. I’ve had 90 minutes to think of all sorts of things I could say to the bike salesman, defaming his business, accusing him of selling faulty products, demanding that he give me two new tires, commanding a full refund.

The salesman bounds out, looking me up and down, a little surprised that I’m back so soon. I glare at him as I wipe my forehead with the back of my hand and shake off the sweat.

“Flat tire,” I say as I point an accusatory finger at the sad-looking front rim.

“Oh! Puncture!” he says, as if I didn’t already know that it was a puncture. He darts around with a kind of bubbly vigor and feigned innocence that makes the past 90 minutes of built up annoyance slowly evaporate with the absurdity of it all.

“Yes. Puncture,” I say.

“Oh! Haha! So funny,” he says as he paces back and forth on his feet. He quickly grabs my bicycle and drags it next door for the same attendants to fix my tire. “So funny,” he says and looks back at me with a wink and a smile. “Just ten minutes, new tire! Best quality!” he says.

I collapse on a stone ledge across from K.B.’s and wait for my tire to be fixed. A sinewy middle-aged man with a pock-marked face swiftly replaces the tube and the tire and tightens a few loose screws while he’s at it.

Just five minutes later, the bike salesman hands me back my Everest. All the scenes I envisioned on my long trek to the shop, the demands and the defamations are long gone. I flash him a smile as he again assures me: “Best quality Chinese!”

“Thanks!” I say and hop on my bike, threading and maneuvering through the cramped lanes of Patan, leaving K.B.’s behind and once again savoring the tinny sound of my bike’s bell and the grind of the gears shifting.

The wind quickly dries the sweat on my face and I pedal to Basanta’s, tire pumped full and pride restored. Freedom at last.

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.

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.

BLOG: Week 8 Updates

Whoa! I’ve already been here for 8 weeks? Time certainly does fly when you’re having fun.

Mostly good updates from my eighth week here in Nepal’s capital. I’ve been quite bogged down (in a good way) with work.  Kathmandu, and Nepal in general, is a writer’s paradise because there are SO many interesting things and SO many interesting people doing those interesting things.  So far I’ve written about/am writing about foreign diplomats, artists, wood-workers, writers, chefs, tea experts, yoga gurus, hotel managers, athletes and more.  My job as a magazine writer allows me the opportunity to meet, interview and write about all kinds of fascinating people, which is what I thrive off doing.

The monsoon is slowly abating here in Nepal, which is a blessing and a curse.  I’m not a huge fan of the rains (I know, I know, I am from Portland, Oregon… But still!) so it’s nice to have some moments of hot sun shining through the rain clouds.  The bad part about the slowing rains is that it means the power supply will also soon decrease.  The power in Nepal is directly correlated with the rains (as far as I know) because it is made through hydroelectric plants.  Without lots of water to power the hydro plants, there will be a decreased supply of electricity.  Last year the power was out a maximum of 16 hours per day in the dry season and I’ve heard rumors that this year will be worse, with up to 20 hours of power cuts per day.  So, there will be no rain but no power.  Luckily for people living in Kathmandu (and who can afford it), many of the restaurants and cafes have generators.  This means I’ll probably be living at the local coffee shop when the power is out for 20 hours per day, caffeinating and charging my electronics.

All was good on the running front until a few days ago when I started getting bad pains in what I think are the tendons on the top of my right foot.  I have a tendency to push myself too fast, too hard and too much.  I predict that my foot injury (please don’t be a stress fracture, please don’t be a stress fracture) is a result of too much running with not enough rest.  I’ve been hobbling about for the past three days, begrudging my swollen foot, hoping that the pain will magically disappear.  The timing not so great (is the timing ever great for an injury?) as the Kathmandu Marathon, of which I was planning to do the half, is coming up on October 2nd.  I’m hoping that with a little rest and rehabilitation, I’ll be ok for the race.  I attended this Saturday’s Hash run but, sadly, went with the walking group.  Walking the Hash was nice and relaxing, but I missed the heart-pounding intensity of the running group.

Tonight I went to a book reception at the home of Pulitzer Prize winner Kai Bird, who recently released his fifth book called Crossing Mandelbaum Gate (New York Times review here).  I accompanied my friend and writing mentor, Don Messerschmidt, to the event and had quite a good time meeting everyone in attendance.  There were teachers, diplomats, INGO workers, bookstore owners, photo-journalists, USAID workers and number of people who had spent a large portion of their lives traveling and living abroad.  Meeting everyone and listening to their stories was quite inspirational for me, as I am currently considering just what I want to do with my life (development work? journalism? living abroad? grad school?).  I left the event feeling motivated and excited for both the coming year in Nepal and whatever lays ahead after that.

Before the Kai Bird event, Don and I had lunch and an interview with a spectacular Swiss woman with a fierce independent spirit named Ann-Marie.  Ann-Marie came to Nepal in 1962 and stayed continuously until 1990 before returning to Switzerland.  She still returns to the country every year to visit.  This lady was a fountain of amazing stories.  My hand was aching to keep up with her as I jotted down everything in my notebook and I recorded our whole 3 hour conversation on my iPhone.  Ann-Marie came to Nepal after a stint in the Congo because she was craving more adventure before settling back down in Switzerland.  She’s worked with the Swiss government, managed hotels, trekked with Nepali princesses, met famous mountain climbers and diplomats and investigated the origins of Swiss cheese making in Nepal.  I left the meeting with Ann-Marie thoroughly inspired to have equally splendid adventures as she has had.  If I can be like Ann-Marie, who was probably around 90 years old, with that many stories and that much wisdom, then I’ll consider my life a success.

This and That from This Week:

Above: This week I revisited the Trungram Monastery located in Sankhu, Nepal, where I used to teach English to the monks three years ago. It was great to see how all the boys have grown up and improved their English skills.  The above photo is Nima, who was one of the youngest monks when I arrived in 2007.

Above: This week I stood in a cave that my monk friends tell me was hollowed out of a rock in the 12th century by the famous Tibetan yogi and poet Milarepa.  Supposedly Milarepa sat mediating in this very cave for 6 months.

The Hypocritical Vegetarian on Butcher Shops in Kathmandu

In Kathmandu I have, sadly, become a semi-vegetarian and it’s because I’m a hypocrite. By “semi-vegetarian” I mean that when I’m out at a restaurant I’ll gladly order a meat dish, or when I’m at someone else’s home for dinner, I’ll happily rip through some juicy animal flesh. I really do love meat. But when I’m eating at home and cooking for myself, which is most of the time, meat is not on the menu.

The reason that I don’t cook meat at my own home is because the Kathmandu butcher shops are… intimidating. There are butcher shops everywhere. There is one down the street from my house and a few more within ten minutes walking. I literally pass dozens of butcher shops on my morning runs. But, no matter how many times I pass a Kathmandu butcher shop, I still cannot help but stare when I walk by.

The butcher shops are generally quite small, probably no more than 10 feet across, open air stalls. In front of the stall is a table that displays the shop’s product, which is most often chicken, pig, goat or buffalo (never cow, for cows are sacred animals here in Nepal). If the animal is large, like a pig or a goat, the sections are laid out in large chunks on the front table: the head on one side, the abdomen and front legs in the middle and the hind quarters on the other side. If it is a goat, the legs of the animal bend unnaturally, every which way. If it is a pig, the shop keepers often rub the whitish-pink skin with a spice that dyes the whole animal a shade of neon orange. Chickens are laid out in rows, sans head and feet, and are blow torched to singe off the tiny down feathers. The store proprietor often stands behind the meat-heavy table with a wand, made of a stick and a plastic bag, that he or she waves around the meat in a half-hearted effort to keep the flies at bay.

Whenever I walk by a butcher shop, I’m always struck by how, well, animal the meat is. The legs and hooves are still intact, the heads are sitting there, staring at me with open eyes, the hair and bristles are still visible on the skin. The “animalness” of the meat at the Kathmandu butcher shops puts me off because of how whole the meat pieces are. When I think about this, it is, of course, horribly hypocritical of me, because when I’m back in the supermarkets of the US, I make a beeline to the meat department and without any consideration pick out a plastic-wrapped package of chicken chunks or pork loins. In the US, the meat section of the store is so sanitized, so clean and sparkly, that it’s easy to forget that the little package of perfectly white, perfectly uniform, perfectly bone-free meat pieces actually came from an animal.

I think if most carnivorous people in the US saw the butcher shops in Kathmandu, they would likely feel the same way. There is blood, guts, hair and eyes. There are bones, tendons, organs and fat strips. Plastic wrapped, pre-sliced, pre-weighed meat packages do not exist here.

As a Westerner, it is easy to look upon the butcher shops here and think: “How dirty! What a bloody mess they are!” But, I think the fact that I am so put off by seeing large pieces of animal, with the heads intact, or that seeing a butcher slash away at a hanging goat carcass makes my stomach knot a bit is actually a reflection of the disconnect we Americans have with our meat. The distaste I feel at the open air butcher shops here is a negative reflection on my culture, not theirs.

Last summer I worked on two WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) farms in Thailand.  One farm in northern Thailand near Chiang Dao that I stayed at had a big business raising pigs. They had around 70 large pigs and would slaughter a few each week to sell at the market and eat themselves. I stood on, squeamishly, and watched the farmers slaughter a pig with a large, blunt machete. (Read the whole story here: “From Sty to Stew: Understanding Hyper-Local Food Systems”)

With gritted teeth, I observed as the farmers sliced open the pig’s belly, took out the organs and swiftly severed the head. I couldn’t help but think: “Gross!”

Shortly after the pig slaughter I was replaying the event in my head. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “I’m an avid carnivore back at home. How can I think that an animal slaughter is ‘gross’?”

Seeing an animal slaughtered for food was completely new to me, but this made no sense because I’ve eaten animal meat my whole life. The farmers in Chiang Dao, Thailand, were actually shocked that I had never seen an animal killed before. For them, eating meat meant killing the animal themselves. For me, eating pig or goat or chicken in the US means going to the nice and neat meat aisle. I found that the farmers, who raise and slaughter, and then eat the pig themselves, had a much higher degree of respect for the animal and a much greater understanding of the food they ate. They ate almost every bit of the pig, including the blood and the organs: nothing went to waste. In the US, I’ve never seen an animal slaughter because this “dirty” work is done far, far away from my home, in a meat factory, probably in another state. I don’t know who kills the animals I eat, how the animals are killed or where my meat even came from in the first place. Is it imported from Mexico? Was it raised on a cow farm in Alabama? Was it raised on corn or grass? Was it injected with hormones and steroids? Who knows? This system makes no sense and when I consider it, is actually far more off-putting than seeing a locally grown, grass-fed animal slaughtered by the butcher, who also lives down the street from me.

So, as I walk by the butcher shops here in Kathmandu, and see the dead, glassy eyes of a recently slaughtered orange pig staring at me, I can’t help but stare back. The realness and the wholeness of the animals makes it difficult for me to order meat at the butcher shop to cook for myself, but I think this is not a negative reflection on Kathmandu butcher shops, it is a negative reflection on me and the food culture in my home country. It’s difficult for me to visit the butcher shops here because I am a product of a broken and disconnected food system in which people have no idea where their food comes from. As long as the food comes in a tidy little package, with no eyes, bones, tendons, or fat, I guess no one really cares.


Above: Recently slaughtered pigs in a row.
Above: The butcher slices and dices recently slaughtered pigs.  When I look at this my first instinct is to think: “Gross!” In fact, it’s not gross at all, I’m just used to a food system that raises, slaughters and packages animals behind closed doors.
Above: A recently slaughtered pig.  This pig was most likely raised locally, within the Kathmandu Valley.

Above: The butcher cuts up a pig into different pieces on one of the open air tables.

Above: An orange and bristly pig head at a butcher shop near Thamel, Kathmandu. Photo by: Rick McCharles

Above: Kathmandu residents line up to purchase meat at one of the local butcher shops. Photo by: John Pavelka