Sunday, July 27, 2014

The one you've all been waiting for... (photo post #1)

Since consistent WiFi is so difficult to come by in Nepal, it is difficult for me to upload photos to the net. This means that I will probably have to have posts dedicated to text, and posts dedicated to photos, but few that mix the two. But enough of that: enjoy!

Sleeping well in New Delhi

The miniscule grandeur of the Himalaya

Our first view of Kathmandu Valley
Are we bandits? Are we tourists? Or do we just live in KTM?
This looks safe.
Kurta shopping is overwhelming
Lunch! (dhaal bhaat with a few tasty sides)
I later cracked this coconut open with my bare hands. And the floor. But mostly my hands.
Nothing sketchy about this henna parlor.

And for our bonus photo: since when is Philadelphia cream cheese a dessert?

And so it begins...

(originally written on Thursday, July 24)

I have not written for the last few days because our schedules have been so full with ETA training and orientation. We have been all over the city, from a bank to open accounts to the US Embassy, but for the most part, our time has been spent in the resource room of the Fulbright building. Our days are busy: orientation fills the 9 to 5 slot, but we also tack on at least an hour per trip between office and apartment.

We have some amazing teachers. Christine Stone is a sprightly, passionate woman of about 85 who bikes to the Fulbright office for our lessons on teaching English in Nepali schools. Prava Khadka is our elegant and patient Nepali language and culture instructor. Both of them will be accompanying us on our trip to Gorkha next week, which is very exciting. 

Some of this week’s interesting experiences:

-          - At one point, we had to make a small detour around a cow lying in the middle of the sidewalk.   (When I told my mom about this, she asked: “What’s a cow doing in the middle of Kathmandu?” to which I answered: “Sleeping.”

-          - While enjoying a relaxing dinner of Vietnamese food on the balcony of a restaurant near our apartment, we watched a monkey cross the street via the power lines. 

-          - Our orientation at the Embassy was sensitive, not classified, but I think I’ll keep it to myself all the same.

Fish Out of Water

(Originally written on Sunday, July 20)

Even after two and a half days, it needs to be said: I need a break from Kathmandu. I am not a city girl—I want to see mountains again (mountains, Gandalf!), and breathe air that isn’t filtered through a cotton facemask. Luckily, we only need to wait one week for such an expedition, when we visit Gorkha to observe the school placements and meet the host families there.

This weekend has contained both wonderful and not-so-wonderful experiences, all cushioned by the exotic and yet strangely familiar nuances of KTM. 

Saturday was our first full day in the city. It started early—anywhere between 3 and 6 am, depending on the ETA and how badly jetlag hit her. First priority was breakfast. As we wandered through our new neighborhood, eventually settling on the Hotel Shangri-La’s breakfast buffet, I observed a goat’s head sitting on a vendor’s scale, the rest of its body on the table next to it (in pieces).

Breakfast was lovely, with Western essentials sitting alongside new favorites like watermelon juice and “yak cheese” (although, as we learned, there are no female yaks, so the existence of their cheese was a great mystery to dear Caitlin). Lunch at Tushita Restaurant was also fantastic, with three of us ordering pasta better than what can be found in many American-Italian establishments.

The main drive of the day, however, was shopping. It took us the better part of an hour-and-a-half to reach Bhatbhateni, a shopping center of sorts, where we located many apartment essentials. Upon crossing the street (a feat in itself), we wandered into a shop specializing in kurta suruwaals, which will be our primary teaching outfit. The owner was quick with a friendly smile and offer of tea, and we soon found ourselves barefoot on a cushioned platform in front of a wall of hundreds of jewel-like fabrics. The assistants were very honest about flattering colors, and eventually all of us selected bundles of material and were measured for our custom-made outfits. We hope that they will be ready in time for the Fulbright-ETA welcome party that will be held next Friday evening.

Today, Sunday, took us out of our comfort zone. After a breakfast that was equal parts confusing for us and the restaurant workers, we headed off to Thamel—aka, the tourist district, where our experiences were a bit polarized.

Thamel is what most people picture when they think of Kathmandu: narrow streets and alleys crowded with insistent incense and mask vendors, knock-off hiking supply shops, and more trekking agencies than you could visit in a year. Some tiny stores stand out as treasure troves: a paper goods store, for example, benefitting disabled women, and a papier-mâché shop filled with brightly and exquisitely painted elephants and bangles.

Lisa wanted to get henna tattoos (a type of temporary body art done with a paste made from eucalyptus and lemon), which turned into one of our strangest experiences so far. An older woman led us away from her shop front, down an alley, and up a dark staircase strung with cobwebs to a storeroom crowded with dusty incense boxes. She shoved those aside to make room for us on the floor, and eventually her daughter joined us to help. In the end, it was a bit awkward when some of the girls, who had requested Nepali words, discovered that our artist spoke Hindi.

After that, there was an uncomfortable experience with some sketchy and pushy thanka artists, which cemented an unflattering opinion of Thamel in my mind. I want to like the district, but I hate tourist trapping, and being treated more like an ATM than a person. We do stick out like fish out of water, unfortunately, and since Nepal is landlocked, I doubt that will change (I apologize for the bad joke [not really]). I also can’t help feeling like parts of Thamel are a bit like a sleazy façade aggressively hiding the real Nepal.

Thankfully, our dinner experience turned my mood right around. Emily attended college with a girl from Kathmandu named Nikita, who invited us over for dinner. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that not only did Nikita live right next to the Hotel Shangri-La, but that her family owns it as well. The food was delicious—even the bucket of Nepalese KFC that her cousin showed up with—but as 8:30 came and went, we ETAs began to get drowsy, and Nikita sent us home with promises of near-future meetings.

A few more observations of KTM traffic:
I have not seen a single traffic light or stop sign in this entire city. They will soon fade from my memory, I fear, which will be unfortunate when I return to the US. Also, crosswalks seem to be about as effective as painting the word “VEGETARIAN” on the dorsal fin of a shark.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Kathmandu, or, Where have all the seatbelts gone?

(originally written Friday, July 18)

The last few days have been an insane whirl of activity. Shortly after I finished my last blog post, the other three ETAs arrived at our gate in the Delhi airport, where we proceeded to sleep on the ground, wrapped around our bags, suffering through the last of the 12-hour layover together.

A kind AirIndia agent assigned our seats on the left side of the plane, assuring us of a proper view of the Himalayan Mountains. Despite heavy cloud cover, we spotted a few snowy islands just below cruising altitude. I cannot wait until monsoon season is over, because then the mountains will be visible from the ground. Descent granted us the coveted first view of Nepal. I was struck by how textured and tiered and hilly and green it was.

We arrived in the tiny Kathmandu airport a little after 9 am Nepali time, and by the time we reached the Fulbright commission at 10:30, my travel time reached a grand total of 32 hours—a solid ten hours less than the girls who traveled all the way from Seattle. Luckily, we did not stay long at the commission, as we were asleep on our feet. After purchasing tiny basic phones and SIM cards, we stopped at a restaurant with a senior Fulbright researcher and his wife to snag our first taste of daal bhaat, the primary meal of Nepal. There are variations, but it always consists of rice (bhaat) and lentil stew (daal), often accompanied by pickled vegetables.

The commission provided us with an apartment in the Lazimpat neighborhood of Kathmandu. It is the perfect size for six girls, and it even has a Western-style toilet AND sometimes, hot water. Tomorrow we plan on exploring and hopefully purchasing some essentials, like towels and facemasks.

A word (or few) on Kathmandu traffic:
I might have to say that in most ways, the driving situation in Nepal is worse than it was in Naples, where seven lanes of interwoven traffic seem to be quite common. Kathmandu roads have between one and four lanes, marked with clearly visible white lines. However, Nepali drivers always take the more convenient route, even if that means driving on the other side of the median. The trick is to pretend that you are on a ride in Disney World and that nothing could possibly go wrong—although, at least amusement park rides have seatbelts.

A Long-Expected Journey

Originally written July 17, 2014

In less than 12 hours, I will be in Kathmandu! I don’t think it has quite hit me yet, even though I am sitting in the New Delhi airport where all prices are in rupees and the chips come in flavors like “magical masala.” 

Ellen and Caitlin, two of the other ETAs, are here as well. We departed the United States roughly 19 hours ago—yet it feels as if time has stopped moving, like we are in a bubble. In a way, we are time travelers, moving into tomorrow well before our friends and families back home reach it.


The journey began at 4:30 in the afternoon of Wednesday, July 16, as my mother and I left our house on the way to Newark International. It halted temporarily at, of all places, a Sam’s Club, where I ran inside to pick up photo prints destined to become an album of American life for my host family. Subjects included family, friends, the Hudson Valley, and of course, my precious poodles. 

Traffic made the ride stressful, but even worse was the airport official who insisted that my lack of an Indian visa would result in my being sent home with a $5000 fine. He was wrong, thankfully, and I boarded the plane successfully after an emotional goodbye from my mom.

The flight passed quickly in bursts of fitful half-sleep. I lost awareness over Greenland and awoke over the snow-capped peaks of eastern Afghanistan. There were many awesome movies that I wanted to watch on my little personal screen, but in the entire 13-hour flight, I only managed to watch Muppets Most Wanted

Some interesting experiences:

-landing in the middle of a thunderstorm

-an intimidating airport security guard with some sort of automatic rifle

-a luxury sari store

-from the lips of a bathroom attendant, my first “Namaste!”