Category Archives: Kathmandu

On Making New Friends

There’s something so warm and wonderful about meeting new people while traveling. About making new friends. This tie that binds you to another person, another spirit. Just the little fact: that I am far from home, and so are you. There are the little things, like being able to share travel tips, take advice on where to go next, what to do, what beers to buy where.

And then there are the bigger things: where will we end up? Will we ever even meet again? And if we do, indeed, meet again, will it be the same? Would we be sitting here, together, if we had met anywhere but this dusty, foreign land?

At the table there are so many people. Three tables have been pushed together, and yet they still overflow. Beers and meals and pots of tea fight each other for space. iPads are taken out to look at what someone looked like before he was dared to grow his travel beard.

Everyone always looks so much more different in pictures where they are home, clean, and in clothes not caked in dust and travel and signs of wear.

A Dane teaching a Brazilian kid how to speak a new language, people laughing at little jokes in big corners, and a conversation shouted at the waiter who is always here when we are always here and knows us all by name by now. And games. Games of cards, on screens, word play riddles that stump the whole table for hours on end.

We have Tore and Mikkel from Denmark, Sean and Loch from America and Moksha (Jaja) from the Philippines. Joey from New Zealand, Hannah the Aussie, Maria is from Denmark, too, and Mireia is from Spain. Ivan from Brazil, Julian from Belgium, Jasmin from Germany, Happy from Nepal, and me.

Maria and I spent the afternoon today in the Garden of Dreams, reading in the sun
Maria and I spent the afternoon today in the Garden of Dreams, reading in the sun

It becomes so easy when you find others in the same space that you have become so content with simply being in. An old city becomes new again, old experiences become real again. It becomes about something more than simply you and the city. About more than just you trying to navigate, to tease the knots out of this little wound up, tied up city. More than the sleepless nights when you start to wonder where you are, why you are here, and what are you really getting out of it. Because then you wake up in the morning and you remember the faces and the streets and the pieces of the world that you are picking up all along the way as you stumble through the cities, the countries, the new voices and languages and sounds.

And then, like the rules of this thing dictate and require, they leave. They dissipate, off to new countries, new cities, new cafes to sit in with pots of tea and beers and games and languages spread from one end of the table to the other.

And you can ask yourself when you will ever meet again. And you can say that you miss it, but to say that is not being true to the essence of the thing. That these friends, these others that we meet wandering the trails too, are that. Those that we meet. And only that. They are those that we share something with, but just for a short time. Because that is what makes them special. That is what makes it all unique.

And if fate brings us together again, then that is what fate has planned. And then that city, that country, that corner tucked back in the middle of everything will light up, too, with our meeting.

But in the meantime we take these new friends, these new people and faces, and we appreciate them for what they are. A spot in the middle of the oh-so-foreign city. A new face. A newly familiar face. A companion for sleepless nights and empty mornings, busy afternoons and scary evenings where we do not know really where the future brings us.

And until then, we say simply hello and we say simply goodbye.

The Garden of Dreams, in the middle of Kathmandu
The Garden of Dreams, in the middle of Kathmandu

On Seeing the Good

Yesterday I was riding the micro home from Zumba at night. Zumba takes place in a little room by an even smaller gym with twenty people lined up to attempt to follow along with the Nepali instructor as she shouts instructions and dances around the room.

I was riding a half empty micro that was inching along in the six pm traffic hoping for more people to fill up its seats before it crossed the river from Lalitpur back into Kathmandu, when a Nepali family, a mother, a father, and their little girl got on the bus. This is not something that is odd, families riding the bus, but normally the buses, or micros, are too crowded for me to really see them. Normally I am more focused on not falling on someone, or the odd way in which my back is bending to accommodate the short space and my (relatively) taller frame. This time, though, the bus was nearly empty, we were going against the grain of traffic up north towards Ratna Park, the palace, and my home.

A man and his flag, Kathmandu Durbar Square
A man and his flag, Kathmandu Durbar Square

What struck me about this image, was that I realized that this was my first time really watching and seeing a happy Nepali family. I spend so much of my day writing proposals about women whose husbands are not there, or who have suffered from abuse. Women who cannot take care of their children, or need help to, or cannot take their children back to their home with their families. And about children who are better off staying at our shelter because their home is not able to care for them, or who have been sold, or who have had to resort to working in the industry because there was no one else looking out for them, no one else making sure that they are okay.

But here I was, watching this father and mother interacting with their little five-year-old girl, all happy, smiling, chatting.

It is so easy to get caught up in the things that I am working with here, and forget that there are things outside of what I immediately see. The women that I see here at Raksha are strong, are some of the strongest women I know, but they also represent a section of the country that is not strong. They are the women who have gotten out of bad situations, or they are helping women who are stuck in situations of abuse, neglect, and exploitation. They represent things that need to be fixed, in the entertainment industry, and also in the country to help them be real citizens and not blown off, or denied their education, or abused.

But while that may make up a certain percentage of the population here, and in so many other countries too, that does not mean that that is all there is. It does not mean that all that I see is all that is there.

I have to take myself out of where I am at times to remember that. I have to step back and remember that there is more than what I am currently looking at.

Prayer flags arching from temple to temple
Prayer flags arching from temple to temple

It reminds me, actually (and bear with me for a moment) of studying the impressionists and post-impressionists, and the ways in which they painted. They painted with this idea that what we are seeing might not be exactly what is there. And they painted, also, in ways that reflected what we actually see in our brains. They took the colors and the images that are in front of us and broke them down. They took the straight images that other artists were observing, and they resolved to find the meaning behind the light and behind the colors.

Now, I know this is a bit off topic of the women who Raksha is helping, and the women who I see on the bus every day. But it does seem to reach into this idea of stepping back to try and see things as they really are.

To try and see this country as more than just the things that I see and write about at work every day. To try and make sense of what is here, and what I will do with this knowledge when I go home. The country is more than what I see in my immediate vision day to day, and it is these little things that remind me of this. There are children that need to be cared for because their families are not there, or cannot afford to. But there are also children who are smiling and laughing on buses with their loving mothers and fathers. There are women who have been exploited and abused, but there are also women who are in amazing situations with amazing family, education, and opportunities.

It is hard, at times, to see the great things through the sad, but it is also such an amazing feeling when I am reminded of the beautiful things that make up a country that can override the bad.

The city from above, Swayambhuneth Temple, Kathmandu
The city from above, Swayambhuneth Temple, Kathmandu

Bombs and Bandhs: Election Time in Nepal

On Tuesday, the entire city shut down as Nepal held its first elections in five years, and voted for a new Constituent Assembly (CA) for the country. For those you of (read: majority) who aren’t up to speed on Nepali politics and history, here is a little crash course:

Nepal, for years, was ruled by a monarchy.

From 1996-2006 there was a civil war, also called the Maoist conflict, because it was headed up by the Maoist party looking to overthrow and replace the monarchy.

In 2006 the war ended, in 2007 Nepal was declared a federal republic, and in 2008 they held their first elections, electing a Constituent Assembly, the majority of seats of which were won by the Communist Party of Nepal (aka CPN aka Maoists).

The newly formed CA was charged with writing a constitution. They failed to meet their deadline.

They got an extended deadline. They failed to meet this one, too.

In 2012 they had STILL failed to meet their deadline and to write a constitution, so it was announced that they would have elections that November.

They did not.

They finally set the ACTUAL date for November 19, 2013.

In the months leading up to the election, the Maoists did everything they could to try and get the elections canceled. They held bandhs, or strikes, where everything was closed and no cars or vehicles could drive on the roads for fear of being vandalized. Starting November 10th, they threatened to hold a 10-day long bandh that would shut down the city and keep the elections from happening. This lasted only a day or two, with people deciding that they did not want to just go with it, and going out on the roads and opening their businesses anyways.

This did not stop everything, though.

Bombs were found in the city. Fake bombs real bombs. Some went off, injuring people, which is perhaps one of the things that has been most reported in the (two that I can find) articles published. The point, again, being to scare people into not holding the elections.

This, again, did not work! It was, however, a bit scary.

Tuesday their first elections were held in five years. Public spaces (such as the basketball court where the vegetable market is held by my house) were roped off on Monday to create polling locations.

Ping pong played on a sunny day off from school.
Ping pong played on a sunny day off from school.

Because many Nepalis are illiterate, the ballot was made up of symbols printed onto the paper. Each of the 120+ parties vying for the votes chose a symbol to represent them. Everything from a tree to a sun to bowling pins to hands pressed together. This way everyone would be able to vote, literate or not.

The government declared a four-day long public holiday, starting Sunday, so that people could go back to their villages to vote.

There was a threat of strict bandhs on buses, which would prevent people from leaving and going home to vote, but that did not happen, people got home, people voted.

I stayed inside all day on Tuesday, though, because there was still the threat of being caught up in a rally, or run into a bomb, real or fake.

And on Wednesday? All was well, people returned, slowly, to the city, kids returned to school. All was well. They had voted, and in time the results will come out.

Military doing drills in a practice field in the middle of the city.
Military doing drills in a practice field in the middle of the city.

So far it looks like the Nepali Congress party (symbol: tree) will win, which, at least according to the Nepali’s I have asked, is a good thing.

So why is it so hard for them to come to a decision on a constitution? Well, to start with, the country is incredibly diverse. Within the one country they have trouble just starting to consider how to divide it up into states.

Nepal is made up of 26.5 million people, with a literacy rate of 63% for men, yet only 35% for women. 81% are Hindu, 9% are Buddhist, 10% other. It has more than 100 different ethnic groups, an even greater number of languages (125 and 127 respectively, as reported by the New York Times), and three different ecosystems, ranging in altitude from only 60 feet above sea level to 29,029 feet above sea level (hello, Mt. Everest).

View of the snowcaps from the big city
View of the snowcaps from the big city

And this is just part of it.

There are many problems: poverty, diversity and the lack of opportunity for women in the country being just a few of them. Many people have migrated to Kathmandu as a result of the war, and to look for jobs, but many times these jobs are not available. Or they do not have the education or skills sets to get them. Of the nearly 7,000,000 people living in the Kathmandu valley, at least half go home each year to their villages, they are not from here.

There is a great risk of natural disaster, too. Nepal is susceptible to frequent earthquakes, but Kathmandu is in no way built to withstand a major one. There are so many people and so many buildings so close together that it is really quite a frightening thought of what would happen, or will happen, when they get a big one. They are supposed to get a major one once within every 100 years, and the last one was at least 80 years go. So there is that.

It is hard, still, to figure out what to think about the election, or what is going to happen. It is so hard to get a good news source that will say anything of substance that I think the trick is really just to wait and see what happens.

Hopefully this new government will provide stability and a good constitution. Hopefully it will address some of the major issues that face Nepal. Hopefully it will do its job. And until then, we wait. We celebrate the fact that the elections happened at all, and we wait to see what change they bring for the future of a little Himalayan country with so much to offer.

On Meditation

The place is quiet when you walk in. Tucked in a back corner down an alley out of the fuss and noise of Thamel, the Brahma Kumari center is the last place you land when you get lost. The inside is calm and peaceful, and a welcome change from the rush and the traffic of the city. The brothers and sisters are all in white: white kurtis, pants and tops, scarves and cardigans, now that it is getting colder out. And no jewelry adorns their ears or noses or wrists. It is simple, all very simple, which is a stark change from the brightly colored clothes and golden jewelry of the rest of the city.

I decided to come here after my roommate, Lauren, started going to their free morning meditation class. It lasts a week, and is a one-on-one class teaching about what the Brahma Kumaris believe, and on how to meditate. It seemed interesting, and I figured, while in Nepal might as well learn to meditate!

So here I am, a week into the meditation class. Thea (thee-ah), my teacher, greets me in the morning with a quiet “Om Shanti, sister”, and I reply the same. She leads me into a room off of the main courtyard, which serves as a museum of the teachings. Around the side are window displays filled with visual representations of the cycle of the world, groups of Brahma Kumaris mediating, the repetition of a soul through many bodies, and others. She points with a soft finger at the pictures in the meditation textbook, explaining to me the ways in which the soul is our true self, not the body, and the 5000 year cycle of the world. And I sit and nod.

It is interesting, learning about a different theory of life. It is not quite a religion: they embrace all religions, and make a point of explaining why all the religions came to be, and the ways in which all of the major religions explain God as a point of light, which the Brahma Kumari’s believe. They teach meditation as something which gets you in touch with yourself and with your soul. They do it with the eyes open, so that we gain happiness and good will through our eyes, and so that we can learn to focus on our souls throughout the day.

It is calm, being here. It is apart from the rest of the hectic city, and it makes a point to be a source of peace. Thea tells me about how the Brahma Kumaris take a few minutes at the beginning of every hour to “de-clutter”. How they spend a few minutes in silence to reconnect with themselves, to find their centers once again. How after they have done this they can get back to their work,to their jobs and their lives.

It is an interesting idea, taking the time out to recognize that so many things clog our brains at once that, at times, we need a rest from it. We need to give our minds a break and clear it out a bit, make room for new thoughts, feelings, ideas. But if I actually follow through on putting that into my life will be determined. For now I simply command my mind to focus on the words and the pictures, the ideas behind the meditation, and I learn.

And so, at the end of the class, we sit, and meditate. Thea talks to me, her voice softly rising and falling with a story about how strong we all are, how able we all are. She talks about how the work we do should make us happy, and how we can clear our minds to make room for our real soul to be focused and uncluttered in our work and in our day. She talks about finding this peace and holding on to it. And then she ends, chanting a quiet “Om shanti. Om shanti, sister”.

The Brahma Kumari Center
The Brahma Kumari Center

On Two Months Traveling

Today is two things: the day after Tihar, the end of the holiday season, and my two-month anniversary with Kathmandu.

Cheers to two months, Ktm.
Cheers to two months, Ktm.

Two months. A long time, but at the same time it feels like no time has passed. It is that weird paradox where I feel like I left home a lifetime ago, and yet the time here has gone so quickly.

It took me probably the first month of living here to really get myself adjusted. Jet lag alone counted for two of those weeks: even after I had gotten my sleeping on a mildly correct schedule, it was still the little stresses of every day life that kept enhanced my jet lag. I also lost my appetite for the first week or two, also, which made the adjustment a bit scarier. Not only did I not know where I was, but I was having a hard time just feeding myself.

It takes so long to get used to waking up on a hard bed in a new country with dogs barking outside. To get used to the streets not being paved, the electricity going out every day, and hot water only when my upstairs neighbors’ hot water overflows. Little things like not being able to get the same foods as I am used to: for the first month at least there was still the scare of bird flu, and buying eggs was taboo at best. I lived off of instant noodles for weeks at a time. Or momos bought for takeaway and handed to me in little blue plastic bags instead of plastic containers like in the “real” world.

The little alley that I lived on.
The little alley that I lived on.

And learning how to navigate a new city where things weren’t even in a familiar alphabet. And doing so alone, too, made just that much harder. I had the girls at my NGO to help me, but it was still hard to figure out how I could manage and get around on my own, without someone guiding me. And even though I have used different cities’ public transportation countless times in the past, this was still something so completely new and different.

The houses here can be so squished together that it can feel claustrophobic at times.
The houses here can be so squished together that it can feel claustrophobic at times.

I finally am confident about taking buses and micros: they are a lot less scary than they look, but it took the first time or two for me to realize this. And to realize that there is a lot more to the city than where I live and where I work. There are towns and areas beyond where I had ever ventured. And there are still pieces of the city that I have yet to go to, but know that I will get to.

Boudhanath, or Boudha, is a huge, beautiful and peaceful stupa just a 40 minute walk away.
Boudhanath, or Boudha, is a huge, beautiful and peaceful stupa just a 40 minute walk away.

It is my two-month anniversary of my first night in Kathmandu. That night that I got off the plane into the balmy Asian air, and got help from a friendly cab driver to help me find my ride. That night that I spent so long just putting my things away, try ing to make my flat feel home-y.

And then that same night I laid in bed for hours, wide awake, listening to dogs bark and voices shouting outside. Voices speaking a foreign language. Shouting in foreign tones. And all I knew was that I had been dropped at the end of a dark alley, many dark streets from any semblance of a paved road. And it was terrifying. And I (I will admit it now) cursed myself a bit for deciding to come here, started counting down days in my head till it was time to go home.

And the first day was dizzying. I had barely slept the night before; I had been on planes or in airports for the three days previous. And I had no idea of what was going on, where I was, who these people were, or what I was supposed to do next. It felt like I had been dropped into a big black hole. It was scary, I was confused and consoled myself by making plans for when I would leave Kathmandu, and counting down the days until that would happen.

Spotted, on my way to work this morning.

It is amazing how much time can pass in two months. And how much those two months can change things. I am SO much happier than I was that first night. I am no longer scared. I am no longer frightened of something so new and so different.

It is a lot easier to admit you are scared after you have finished with being scared. It is a lot easier for me to admit that I had a rough time now that I enjoy where I am so much. It was hard for me to admit that I was worried that I had made the wrong move, but is easier to say that now that I know that I really didn’t.

It is amazing how much more at home I feel now. And how much I really do love what I am doing, traveling and living somewhere new, gaining new skills and experiences. It is so incredible to be living in a different city, a city so opposite of anywhere else I have ever lived. And it is so incredible to really feel at home here, in this foreign city. I know my way around. I have my favorite cafes. I love the apartment I am now living in, and the freedom it affords me through living far from work. This distance means that I get to spend a half hour each morning walking to work through a new city and am able to call it my city.

From above my NGO you can start to see the hills that surround the Kathmandu Valley.

So today is the day after Tihar, and the city feels like it is still getting over the sugar rush of a holiday season. Everything is slow: the cars and the motorbikes, the item pushers on the streets. The shop owners are too busy cleaning to make sure you are seriously eyeing an item they can sell you, and the festival lights are slowly coming down off of the shop fronts.

And work? Work is quiet, empty. The kids aren’t at school, and the bosses are at home, and I am sitting in a wonderful Mediterranean restaurant at a low down table with cushions lining the wall for seats, writing and drinking chai.

Today is slow, but the city will speed up as the week goes on, and as the weeks get further and further away from the holiday. Kathmandu will resume its normal rhythm, the trekkers coming in and out, the shops pushing for business, haggling prices to one that’s acceptable to everyone involved, and the buses and micros will be bursting with people hanging off the sides, out the windows, going here or there, to or from work or family or their home. And I will continue to walk to and from work on the dusty street, passing cows and goats and chickens on my way. And it is wonderful and perfect: because it is home.

Tihar, Tika, and Traffic Jams (Part II)

For the second half of Sunday, I met up with Lauren, and two others, and we walked down through Asan, one of the big market areas, to Durbar Square, where there are the multi-tiered temples.

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The view of one of Asan’s roads from a back area
Buying lights and decorations for Tihar!
Buying lights and decorations for Tihar!

The whole area of Asan was lit up with lights strung across the top of the little streets that web out to make up the marketplace, and the buildings had lights hanging off of them!

The alley and chowk strung with lights
The alley and chowk strung with lights
The entire area, from above.
The entire area, from above.

It was beautiful to see the temples at night, even when they weren’t lit up.

One of the temples in Durbar Square
One of the temples in Durbar Square

We spent the evening walking through the streets, and after dinner even ran into a treat stand set up in one of the alleys!

The entire city becomes a bit more magical with the lights on.
The entire city becomes a bit more magical with the lights on.
A fruit and vegetable stand does some late-night business
A fruit and vegetable stand does some late-night business

All of the sweets looked good, so the guy just gave us a tray, we put one of each on it, they weighed it out (I won’t mention how much it weighed), and the entire grocery bag of treats only cost 150 rupees! It was a great sugar-high end to a beautiful evening of wandering around and seeing the city at night.

Empty shops as the streets start to empty.
Empty shops and empty streets.

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Tihar, Tika, and Traffic Jams (Part I)

There are no road names here. No road names, no numbers, nothing to be able to tell where you are at any given moment besides landmarks. So how do we (Lauren and I) tell people how to get to our flat? How do we describe where we are to meet up with someone? We use landmarks.

I live by the vegetable market (takari bajaar), turn left, then right at the “Compact English School” sign.

Or, “I’ll meet you at the main chowk (intersection) at the top of Durbar Marg”.

Or, “get off the micro at Namaste supermarket. Cross the pedestrian bridge and walk 3-5 minutes”.

So, today is the third day of Tihar, the second big holiday during this holiday season. This one is the festival of lights, so the entire city is covered in Christmas lights, and feels a bit like a city at home during Christmas time. It also finally started to get cold today, so it officially feels like winter is coming!

Backing up to Friday, Lauren and I hosted a housewarming party for our apartment!

The hosts, out at a bar after our party.
The hosts, out at a bar after our party.

I made veg momos and Nutella momos for everyone, and we made mulled cider and invited all the (tenish) people who we know to come toast to our apartment. It was mostly americans, but also a few Nepalis who Lauren knows from her work.

Momos! Both veg and Nutella.
Momos! Both veg and Nutella.

Yesterday was the second day of Tihar, Kukur Tihar, which celebrates the dogs, who are supposed to be the messenger of the God of death. People put garlands and tika onto the dogs to acknowledge them and celebrate them. Seeing all of the street dogs prancing around with tika on their forheads was pretty cute, I’ve got to say! Some of them still have their tika on today, too.

Today was a busy day, though. It is one of the major days of Tihar, the one that celebrates Laxmi (the goddess of wealth), and Gai (cows), who also are a sign of prosperity and wealth.

Cows chilling in the street.
Cows chilling in the street.

We started the morning early, going to a meditation center (Brahma Kumari), where they were celebrating this third day through speakers, and dances and songs. We stayed for an hour or two, watching the various songs and dances.

Two young girls performing a dance in front of an alter with girls dressed up as gods (I believe).
Two young girls performing a dance in front of an alter with girls dressed up as gods (I believe).

At the end, they gave us tika and sweet cookies that are eaten on celebratory days—they were incredibly welcoming of us, which was incredibly sweet! They seemed quite happy to have foreigners there celebrating with them, and attending their ceremony.

So, that was the morning, pretty easy and calm. It gets more hectic once I decide to head down South, to Pulchowk, in Lalitpur. (For those who aren’t familiar, Kathmandu Valley is actually made up of three districts: Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Baktapur. When people say they live in Kathmandu, this many times will refer to the valley as a whole.)

Now, there are a few ways to get around this city. You can walk, like I do when I go to work, and hope that there are sidewalks most of the way. In this case it is a good idea to bring a scarf and glasses because the dust gets pretty bad, especially during rush hour in the morning and evening.

The next option is a taxi, which is good especially for the evening once the buses stop running, and if you are too lazy to negotiate the buses. This only costs around 200-300 Rupees ($2-3), so it is not too expensive of a splurge once in a while, but can add up if you decide to take them too much.

The last option is to take a bus. All of the buses go to and leave from one main area, called Ratna Park. It used to be an actual park that people could go to, but now the park is run down, and the term refers to the entire area around it.

The buses can be real buses, old with paint peeling, but bigger, but most of them, at least the ones I would take, are micros. They are little vans with sliding doors that can fit maybe ten people comfortably, many many more uncomfortably during rush hour!

There are young boys that stand in the door of the bus or the micro and shout incredibly quickly their destinations. Every once in a while I can make out the words, but usually it just sounds like they are shouting a random string of sounds.

The micros have numbers and writing on them, but this is all in Nepali, so your best bet is to go up to the bus-boy and ask if he goes where you’re headed, and he will usually nod or shake his head to let you know if it is the right one. A lot of them are pretty nice, and will also tell you when you get to where you are going. Gotta love being in a place where people take pity on foreigners.

The last option for getting around is to hitch a ride on a motorbike. Usually I walk too and from work, but my supervisor lives just ten minutes past me, and so sometimes he will give me a ride, since it is right on his way. That is pretty nice, because it saves me a walk, and gets me home before dark! It is quite something to get used to, though. The roads are usually pretty rough, and it involves quite a lot of weaving quickly through traffic or intersections while hanging on to the back of the bike. I’ve gotten pretty good at riding on the back of a bike, though, which is quite the handy skill to have!

So, this afternoon I took a micro down to Lalitpur.

I got off at Namaste Supermarket, and crossed the pedestrian brige nearby and walked 3-5 minutes and met up with Peter and Maneeshika (who I went hiking with), and Maneeshika’s Nepali friend, Dhana.

We went to go see a concert of the Joint Family International. They are this Nepali reggae band, and played right after the farmers market had left the location. It was yuppie. So yuppie. 90% expats, drinking farmers market wine and relaxing in the sun. It was pretty funny, but also a great thing to do with a beautiful holiday afternoon!

The scene at Joint Family International
The scene at Joint Family International

After that I took a micro back north to Kathmandu, and will go to see the lights later tonight! More on that in Part II.