Tuesday, December 30, 2014

(Not) Home for the Holidays

This was the first Christmas that I ever spent away from my family, and boy, was it awesome.

Now, before you get the idea that I am some cruel and unusually ungrateful child, let me clarify: being away from my family for the holidays was heartbreaking. But, rather than allowing myself to be crippled by heartbreak, I was blessed to have a lovely vacation with a group of amazing young women. 


Not too much of note happened this day. I had school, where one of my coworkers gave me a lovely teal poncho as a Christmas gift—which I promised to wear on Christmas day. After classes ended for the day, I hopped on a bus bound for KTM. Then I hopped on another bus bound for my favorite cafĂ©. This ended up being a double-edged sword. Yes, it was the nicest public conveyance I have experienced in Nepal. However, it had a silly rule: the back door is for entering, the front is for exiting. No exceptions. Of course I was at the back of the bus, and the aisle was filled—FILLED—with people. As I am blessed with the gift of height, at least when compared to Nepalis, I was able to hoist my twenty-pound backpack over everyone’s heads and escape. 

I did fall down the stairs. But at least I made it off the bus. 

(As a comparison for my immediate family, picture the Mohonk lemon squeeze, except horizontal and made of people rather than rock.)


After spending the night at the Fulbright-Clinton girls’ apartment (such luxury: Wi-Fi! Hot water! A space heater!), I departed with one of them, Rebekah, for the fanciest damn bus I’ve seen here. It’s amazing: at 6:30 in the morning, Kathmandu is wide awake, and nobody is carrying coffee cups.

The bus ride was very nice: lunch was included in our ticket price, and there were no chickens in the overhead compartments. It took about 7 hours to reach Pokhara, but pleasant conversation made the time fly by. Ellen arranged for a very nice hotel, and it was there that we met her, Emily, and Lisa. We didn’t accomplish much on our first day, but we did have a nice Christmas Eve dinner at a place with tasty pizza and pasta selections. My serving of pesto gnocchi was a bit small for my large appetite, but the pizzas were a bit large for the other girls, so it evened out.


Christmas Day! And what a Christmas it was. The first matter of business was a 10-minute, 400 rupee max Secret Santa, and then on to breakfast at Mike’s Restaurant, a derivative of the very famous Mike’s Breakfast in KTM. We taped a paper Christmas tree to a real tree as we sat by the lakeside. Ellen got me a felted penguin pen snuggy, for when my hands are too cold to write properly, and the other gifts were equally as unique and fun (Lisa’s new giraffe hat being a highlight for everyone). Lisa distributed candy, I distributed friendship bracelets, and that was the extent of gift-giving. 

Breakfast was followed by a hiking adventure. Pokhara is home to the World Peace Pagoda, a famous hilltop site that can be viewed from all of the lakeside properties. However, we discovered that while the pagoda is highly visible, the route to it was anything but obvious. Due to Emily and Lisa’s Nepali speaking skills, an old lady gathering firewood led us halfway up the hill. Her path of choice was a narrow footpath that skirted several dry waterfalls, and probably would have been better for say, goats, or elves, but we made it. 

We then had an amusing incident (for everyone except Lisa) where, in attempting to embrace a tree for a photo-op, Lisa accidentally patted a spiny caterpillar. I was thrilled, because it meant the tweezers on my Swiss Army Knife came in handy. Lisa was fine, thank goodness – no venom or anaphylaxis or sudden desires to eat leaves. We also met a woman from Spain who asked to walk with us. 

The Peace Pagoda was a really lovely, some might say peaceful, spot, and it was worth the trek. I brought Indiana Mouse along and got a few nice pictures with him. 

Christmas dinner was at a restaurant called Moondance. Our new friend from Spain, Berta, joined us—it was fun to chat in Spanish, and Rebekah, who spent two years in Spain, made Berta feel very welcome in our group. Emily and I splurged on the Christmas dinner special: roast chicken. We got pumpkin soup, roasted veggies (including a whole roasted garlic bulb), the aforementioned bird, stuffing (which I stopped eating after Emily casually mentioned it had liver in it), apple crisp a la mode, and Nepali milk chiya. All in all, the day was a really enjoyable blend of American and Nepali experiences. 


We woke up at 5:30, but for a good reason. In fact, we were up and out so early, we had to break out of our hotel on our quest to find a taxi. Why did we need a taxi? Why, to see the sun rise and illuminate the Himalaya, of course! There is a very famous spot in the hills overlooking Pokhara called Sarangkot which has an unmatchable view of the Annapurnas and Machhapuchchhre (so many h's in there), some of the most famous Himalayan peaks. After watching the rising sun gild the mountains in rose gold, we did what any self-respecting Americans would do when confronted with a jaw-dropping panorama: take jumping photos! 

The rest of the day was filled with shopping, errands, and boating. Emily and I also got massages, which I am still trying to decide whether it was a relaxing or highly awkward experience. Probably a mix of both. Ellen and I finally found a real Japanese restaurant (this has been a goal of ours for several months), and dinner was a shared meal of Indian vegetarian curries and garlic nan. 

Rebekah and I had to go to bed early so as to be ready for our early bus departure in the morning, so we said goodbye to the other girls that evening. We certainly wished that we could have stayed a few more days, both to enjoy such pleasant company and to explore more of the beauty of Pokhara. I, for one, would have loved to go parahawking: that is, paragliding with a hawk. 

They say that there’s no place like home for the holidays, and that home is where the heart is. Well, my heart is in my rib cage, and my rib cage is in Nepal, but to end this really convoluted simile/metaphor mashup, trust me when I say that this was a truly wonderful Christmas. 

Pesto gnocchi. A traditional Nepali meal.
Pizza. Also traditional Nepali food.
What is "Xmax"? Actually, don't answer that.
Pig? Boar? Delicious?
The sailboat that would be Lisa's.
Showing off Christmas finery.
Not pictured: extra crispy bacon.

How could you not want to go paragliding with a view like that?
Typical Christmas greenery.
Oh, heck no.
Actual Christmas greenery (and red-ery?).
Read the top line.
The World Peace Pagoda.

Rocking the new poncho.

Indiana Mouse feels right at home.

Literally the first recycling bin I have seen in the whole country.

Christmas dinner.
Alanna's favorite food group.
I can't believe I ate the whole thing...

Our breakfast companion.
A video showing nothing but the sun rising over the Himalaya.
View from a canoe.

Lisa and Rebekah cruisin' along.
The bird we dubbed "Blueberry Muffin."

You know you're in trouble when you break out the paddle...
My new Nalgene bottle. Matches my color scheme.
Where is Maxico?

Well, if you insist.
Apple butter pie. Mmmm.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Playing Hostess

This past week was the Fulbright ETA Enrichment Seminar, from December 10th to the 14th. Every year, it alternates between Sri Lanka and Nepal. Since the Nepal ETAs never made it to Sri Lanka last year (not for lack of trying), we were happy to host it.


Elsie came over to my house early on Wednesday morning so that we could finish working on our presentation about Lalitpur. We had to hurry, because there was no power, and my battery only holds about forty-five minutes worth of charge, but the presentation ended up looking very nice and professional. After that, we made our way into Patan, where we shopped for sweaters and books, and ate a fancy lunch at a fancy hotel. 

And speaking of fancy hotels, boy, was the hotel for the conference swanky. Called Hotel Manaslu (after the mountain), it sported beautiful Newari wood carving, a mini bird menagerie, and a pool. ETAs from India, Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan appeared over the course of the evening as they got in from various flights. 

When you struggle to fall asleep because your hotel bed is softer than a table. #onlyinNepal


This was the first “official” day of the conference. After Western breakfast (bacon!) and a HOT SHOWER, we headed to a welcome session, followed by a workshop led by none other than Christine Stone, our English-teaching-teacher from the August orientation. 

After lunch, groups presented on their different placements. Elsie and I went second, which was good, because I’ve become nervous about public speaking that isn’t in front of primary school students. It went well. People laughed with us. The crowd was full of good audience members and good presenters. The ETAs from Calcutta (which they spell with a “K” in a way that Microsoft Word won’t accept) had a very fun film instead of a traditional powerpoint, and the teachers from Sri Lanka, who have only been there for three weeks, had a hilarious skit about taxi drivers that involved at least one man in a manly sarong.  

Dinner was preceded by a traditional Nepali dance program, and the Nepal girls were the MCs. This was followed by a glass of wine and cheese balls (heaven for a girl in a cheese-free, alcohol-free household), and a very tasty Indian dinner. However, the toxically-green ice cream was disappointing—it definitely tasted more like children’s cough syrup than pistachio nut. 

When you realize you would totally knock someone out for a mozzarella stick. #onlyinNepal


Friday was “adventure day.” We left the hotel at some ungodly hour (like 7 am or something), and took a trio of vans to Nagarkot. It’s a place just over the top of the hills that rim the north of Kathmandu Valley, and boy, is it something. From the hotel we stopped at we had unobstructed views of a good stretch of the Himalaya and, because the day was clear, we could just see the tippity-top of Sagarmatha (that’s Mt. Everest). The only clouds were the ones that filled the valleys below us. 

Before lunch, about half a dozen Fulbrighters gave presentations on teaching tips and the like. Lisa opened with one about teaching large class sizes; Emily closed with one about “multiple-intelligence theory” (it sounds really intimidating, but it’s just the theory that all children learn in a different way, through different stimuli). At lunch, the Nepal ETAs ate with Brooke, the program officer for South and Central Asia. She might be one of the coolest people ever. 

The afternoon was filled by a hike to a beautiful Hindu shrine. Robin-ji promised that the hike would be a gentle, downhill hour-and-a-half walk. Apparently “downhill” is now a synonym for “uphill”—but I’ve found, in Nepal, always substitute “difficult” for “gentle” and multiply all estimated walking times by 2. Other than the unexpected calf workout, the hike was a nice opportunity to bond with other ETAs, and to avoid poking their eyes out with my sun-brella. 

The bus-ride back was, despite good conversation, probably my third worst in the last five months. Normally bus rides in Nepal are not very nauseating: while there’s a lot of weaving and swaying, there’s not a lot of starting and stopping—but this time we hit a traffic jam, which is made exponentially worse by the lack of lanes. (The second worst bus ride involved inappropriate grabbing and very appropriate slapping, and the first was when I had to stand on one foot the whole time, supported only by a crush of people, because there was no room to put my other foot down.)

When you get more excited by a litter of chubby puppies than by a thousand year-old temple. #onlyinNepal


The event of most note on Saturday was a trip to Pashupatinath, the most sacred Hindu temple in Nepal. Since there were two other options for tours, only seven ETAs ended up at the temple. Five of us were from Nepal, one had a broken ankle, and only one was a guy. The guy, being Hindu, was allowed to visit the main body of the complex, while we had to entertain ourselves on the other side of the river. “Entertainment” would be a horrendously wrong word for what we observed. One of Pashupatinath’s functions is as a final destination of sorts—the river is lined by funeral ghats, the platforms on which Hindu families burn their beloved dead. 

We watched the funeral proceedings of an old woman. Her family members circled the body to say farewell, and then some of the men carried it to the river to splash water on the feet. After that, the body of disrobed of all regular garments, wrapped in a white sheet, and covered with marigolds. Then the corpse was carried to a wooden pyre, where family members anointed the old woman’s head with oil, kissed her feet (as feet are considered the most filthy part of the body, that’s a big deal), and then set the whole thing alight. 

It was very surreal, very sad, and something I am glad we witnessed. I don’t have any photographs, because taking pictures of the ghats is considered highly disrespectful—but since that doesn’t stop some people, you can find images online. 

That night was our farewell ceremony. We had a scarf-giving ceremony, which is a tradition of respect in Nepal. After dinner, Emily decided she wanted to go to karaoke. With her and Brooke in the lead, we traipsed around Kathmandu after the sun had set. We never did find karaoke, but at one spot, Emily got up to sing with the band, which I thought was much more fun. After that, she convinced one of them to lend her a guitar, and we all sang Coldplay. 

Always an adventure.

A note on the photos: there does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to the order these photos appeared in, and I am too impatient with the internet to rearrange them. I'll add captions eventually. For now, just imagine my snarky voice in your heads.

The view from Nagarkot.

Detail of the carvings at the Hindu shrine.

Perfect timing.
Some sort of griffin-guardian statue.
Lisa's presentation.
You can't take a bad picture here.
Our hotel room.
Such an appropriate piece of children's literature...
My main question is: why is he wearing Dorothy's ruby slippers?
Can't beat this lunchtime view.
Falafel with "chickpea sauce."

Quite a fancy pool.