Sunday, October 26, 2014

This Post is a Birthday Gift for my Mother

          Many of you have been wondering what happened to my blog posts. Some of you also might be wondering what has happened to me.  For ten days, I was in Gorkha district visiting Ellen, Emily, and Lisa—and the internet there stinks. As in it took 30 minutes to load the Facebook toolbar. Brutal.
          Anyway, since I was away for so long, I will have to split the Gorkha story into three parts, because each day was filled with so much…life. Going in chronological order, I will start with my stay at Ellen’s house.

Day 1 – Kathmandu to Gorkha
            I got on a bus at 8:30, and three buses and nine and a half hours later, I arrived in Gorkha Bazaar with a very sore bottom. Since I was sick for my last visit to Gorkha, I had no idea where to meet Ellen, but thank goodness that she is infinitely patient. An hour’s walk separated us from her village, and as dusk fell, some local drunkards began to follow us. I was very grateful my mother gave me a pocketknife for my birthday—not that I would ever hope to use it, but it does provide a sense of security. Ellen’s bahini (little sister) and friend found us though, and we made the rest of the trip unmolested.
            Ellen’s home is a lovely three-story affair with a store on the top floor (at street level), and a goat pen on the ground floor. Unfortunately, the staircase has no railings, and her host mom laughed as I scootched down the dusty steps on my bottom. No shame.
            We had a delicious dinner with the best fried egg I have ever tasted and the second-worst cup of milk I have ever choked down (it was buffalo milk, by the way), and I ate with my hand. I say “hand” because my left hand was firmly planted beneath my posterior so as to not offend Ellen’s host mother. After cooing at a pair of half-day-old baby goats, we went to bed.
Day 2 – Ellen’s House
            Breakfast was just as tasty as dinner, with the addition of a second friend egg and a spoon (or chumcha). To reach Ellen’s school, you have to cross the street and…that’s it. She lives so close to her school that she eats tiffin (lunch) there every day.
            Her school is a lower secondary school, I believe, which means it goes up to eighth grade. Some of her classes are extremely small: one had only 6 students! The discipline seemed to be very good, though, and Ellen is obviously very beloved by her students. She does an attendance chart where for every day a child attends school, they get a star. After ten stars, they get to choose a prize: a pencil, an eraser, or a sweet. I will be stealing that idea. She let me teach her classes “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” which they seemed to enjoy. Some of her older students made us flower garlands to wear. For tiffin we ate bananas from her family’s trees, and contemplated life, the Himalayan vista, and a hella big spider.
            After school, Ellen took me on a walk to see the temple where she danced on Teej. Along the way, some local school girls joined us. They bought us gum, and afterwards we all played on a ping (a swing), before walking home to the sight of the setting sun reflecting off the mountains. Her sisters showed me the tap where they collect water. While we were there, we were mobbed by a group of Ellen’s students, and they did the Hokey-Pokey until the sun  set.
            After dinner, Ellen and I hurt our necks by staring at the Milky Way too long, and failing to find the darn Big Dipper. We sat outside the shop with her aamaa and talked for two hours. In Nepali. At the beginning of the conversation, I spoke no Nepali. At the end, well, at least I could do more than tell someone my name.
Day 3 – Ellen’s to Emily’s
            I actually don’t remember too much of this day. You see, I got clocked in the back of the head with a rocket-shot football (soccer ball) right as I stepped into a classroom. My timing was impeccable. A good part of the rest of the day was spent worrying about having a concussion, but looking back, I was fine, just a bit whiplashed. However, I was still completely clueless that Ellen took my water bottle from my backpack halfway through our walk to the Bazaar because she was concerned my bag was too heavy. I started panicking when I realized it was gone, and she looked at me, rather confused, and said: “Don’t you remember me taking it from you?” Nope.
            But I do remember we got to play with baby goats before we left her house.
Anyway, the story will continue in my next post, which will detail my time at Emily’s home, where we all convened to celebrate her 23rd birthday.
I have many more pictures, but they will have to wait until I get to KTM. For now, this is the best one I can give you. It captures a good deal of Nepali life. Yes, those are the mountains in the background. 

And speaking of birthdays, you might have guessed from the title of this post that today, October 26th, is my mother’s birthday. The internet cooperated just enough to let me Skype her for a few minutes, and to introduce her to my aamaa and bai. I missed her big birthday bash last year, so I’m doing pretty poorly when it comes to her birthday. I know a blog post is a poor excuse for a gift, but it’s a great way to get you all to think about my mom for a few minutes, and to hopefully send her prayers and/or good wishes. She’s an amazing woman, and an even better mom, and I can only hope that I have inherited her joy, compassion, and adventurous spirit. It takes a special kind of mother to encourage her daughter to follow her dreams and travel to the other side of the planet. Happy birthday, Mamacita! I know you’ll read this. I love you bunches.

PS: All of you who aren’t my mother should totally peer pressure her into visiting me in Nepal. Just saying.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

And Now, a Word from Our Sponsors

A month-long vacation is a long, long, long time, especially if you’re living in a country with limited access to internet, friends, family, and movies. Luckily, I am nothing if not resourceful. Thanks to a second-generation Kindle borrowed from my mother and the wonder of books available either in the public domain or from Grinnell Library’s eBook collection, I have had adequate reading material. Also, since my bedroom doubles as our television room, there have been a few nights where I have watched not one, not two, but three English-language movies in a row—with a few Hindi films thrown in during the commercial breaks. Here are a few highlights of my entertainment regiment:

          -Himalaya (Michael Palin) – Yes, that is Michael Palin of Monty Python fame. Little did I know, but he is apparently quite the world traveler, and he has made many TV documentaries based on his trips. This book is his account of making the documentary for a trip from one end of the Himalaya to the other. He avoids many of the “touristy” things in order to observe how real people go about their everyday lives in what can be harsh and isolated locales. I love when a book can make me laugh so hard I cry, and this was definitely one of those—his running account of the latrines he visits is priceless. Unfortunately, some of the information is a bit outdated. When he visited Nepal, it still had a king, which is not the case anymore. Despite that, this is an excellent read for folks back home who want to know a little more about this region.
          -Tarzan of the Apes (Edgar Rice Burroughs) – Seeing as Tarzan is one of my favorite Disney movies, I thought I would give this series a try at the recommendation of my friend Ealish. There are actually 25 books in the series, and so far, I have gotten through eight of them. They are pulpy, fun, a tad repetitive, and unfortunately, sometimes rather racist (a sign of the times they were written, I think). Good light reading, with some truly suspenseful bits.
Fun fact: Clayton, the name of the villain in the Disney film, is actually Tarzan’s English last name in the original books.
           -Unnatural Creatures (edited by Neil Gaiman) – I don’t normally go for short story collections, because I find many writers like to write unnecessarily depressing short stories. Neil Gaiman is a man I trust, though, for finding stories that start in dark and scary places and end in light. I was not disappointed. He put together a huge variety of stories, written by different authors over the last hundred or so years, all dealing with the theme of “unnatural creatures.” Many of the stories went far beyond what you might expect from the genre. One of the most fun stories was written by Neil Gaiman himself as a birthday gift for his daughter, but all of the stories in the collection are excellent.
           -The Fault in Our Stars (John Green) – I won’t say too much on this one. Many of you know I refused to read it for a long time. And then, I had a dream that I should read it. So I did. And I cried. Profusely. I hope all y’all are happy. 

          -Seven Years in Tibet – I am too lazy to look up when this movie came out and who directed it, but I can say it starred Brad Pitt and David Thewlis (aka, Professor Lupin). We (the Fulbrighters) watched it on one of our last nights in our apartment before moving to our homestays. If I say that while I was watching, I forgot that Brad Pitt was Brad Pitt, that should tell you how good of a movie it was. It tells the true story of a self-absorbed German mountaineer who, through a series of unfortunate events at the beginning of WWII, finds himself advisor to the young Dalai Lama. Beautiful cinematography, great acting, and a good history lesson for those interested in this part of the world.
          -Predators – This is a very different kind of movie from the one above, and part of me wonders if the only reason I found it completely awesome was because I watched it at 12:30 at night. Or because it starred Adrien Brody, who I find rather handsome. Anyway, it’s kind of a sequel to the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Predator, and it’s loads of fun. A bunch of trained killers wake up on an alien game preserve, and they find they are being hunted. Simple, effective premise. But please don’t show it to your children. If I said it were only a little violent, I would be lying.
          -Chennai vs. China – This is a South Indian film about…well, I still have no idea. It focuses on this circus performer who falls in love with a female scientist, realizes he’s the reincarnation or something of some Buddhist/martial artist/healer dude, and races to save India from an ancient plague unleashed by an evil Chinese organization. There’s humor, there’s action, there’s martial arts sequences…and of course, there are at least four or five song and dance numbers. Very entertaining.

          -Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – I have not actually completed this game yet, because it’s pretty hard. It came out in the early nineties, I believe, and I purchased it as part of a Lucasarts video game pack on Steam (an online game store). I can only download very small game files in Nepal, so this was perfect. Anyway, it deviates a little from the plot of the film it’s based on, but that’s okay. It’s filled with hilarious hidden jokes and Easter eggs, tough puzzles, and even tougher Nazis. Despite its age, it holds its own against some more modern games I’ve played when it comes to entertainment value.
          -VVVV – My friend Patrick gave me this game about three or four years ago. He said it was one of his favorite games. Me being me, I didn’t start playing it until I got to Nepal. But boy, is it fun. It has very simple 8-bit, 2D graphics, although it is a newer game. You control a spaceship captain whose crew members mysteriously vanish. You can move left and right, AND you can reverse gravity: with these controls, you have to find your way through some pretty tricky puzzles. “VVVV” refers to the spikes you land on if you do something wrong, and also to the fact that all of the characters have names beginning with the letter “V”.

Bonus: Dishonorable Mentions
Sometimes you watch a movie and, as the credits roll, think to yourself: “That really stunk. Wow. How did that get made?” These weren’t quite that bad, but they disappointed me for various reasons.
          -Oz the Great and Powerful – Oh James Franco, what has happened to you? I used to be a big Franco fan, but recently, it feels like he puts very little effort into his films. This was one of those films that really depended on the charisma of its lead, and unfortunately, for most of it James Franco had a charisma score of 0 (or maybe 1, because he’s still handsome). His performance was inconsistent: too overblown in some places, too understated in others. And too bad, because it had the potential to be a very fun movie. 
          -Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters – I can’t even write about this one. It makes me too sad. They took Rick Riordan’s excellent book and turned it into something just kind of…blergh. While there were some genuinely funny moments and great nods to Greek mythology (plus an excellently cast Nathan Fillion as Hermes), it just felt kind of half-baked. They never earned the grand, CGI-tastic ending that they tried to create. I’m not a big fan of the reboot craze, but this is one of those series that I wouldn’t mind if they rebooted ASAP.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

This Post Is Much Longer Than I Intended It To Be

I have decided to write a short accounting of Caitlin’s final weekend in Kathmandu, or at least, an accounting of the times when nobody was napping.

As I mentioned in my birthday post, all three of the girls visited KTM from Gorkha, although unfortunately Emily could only stay for one full day. Nevertheless, we tried to make the most of our time together. This, of course, meant a lot of eating, shopping, and running around the city.

Food – I’ll start with this before I get to the gross stuff. Oh yes. Wait ‘til you see what’s coming. Don’t try and anticipate it. Enjoy the food talk. Anyway. We split up our time between eating at our apartment and eating out. We (and by we, I mainly mean Lisa and Ellen [and Elsie, when she’s there]) have become proficient chefs when it comes to cooking with the fresh ingredients available from produce stalls. Our first night, Lisa and Ellen whipped up some delicious concoction using cabbage, olive oil, garlic, and strange soy sauce. It was like pasta, but crunchy and low-calorie. The second night was mine to shine. The girls had acquired what they called an avocado. Now, picture an avocado. Size of your fist, right? Now magnify that by five or six. That was our avocado. It was a monster. But I made guacamole out of it, all the same, and we ate it on toasted cheesy bread. 

That is a monstrous amount of guacamole, but we courageously powered through it.
We also made several trips to restaurants. One was called Mahaaja, which we had been informed was a Japanese restaurant in Thamel (the tourist district). It wasn’t really a Japanese restaurant, but they had chicken Caesar wraps (yum!) and sushi! Now, eating sushi in a landlocked country is a bit of a gamble, but I figured since it was river-prawn tempura, I would be okay. Plus it was only 300 rupees. Can’t beat that deal. We also went to our favorite restaurant, Tushita, for our final group dinner with Caitlin. Lisa and I split momos and macaroni and cheese. We all ate too much. 

Pictured: pure awesomeness.

Can you get this kind of $3 sushi deal in America without ending up with food poisoning? Nope, I don't think so.

Charming old hippie-days decor. (KTM was a big hippie destination in the sixties)

On the left, macs&cheese. On the right, momos&sinusclearingsauce.

The group at our favorite table of our favorite restaurant.
Shopping – Caitlin was on a mission to buy gifts for all of her friends and family back home, and we were more than happy to accompany her. Our mission took us from Bhat Bateni (a super-market which I’m not sure I spelled right but I can’t be bothered to check), the dangerous tourist-ensnaring streets of Thamel, and the relaxing, familiar fair trade stores of Lazimpat. I lost track of what the other girls bought, but they bought some cool stuff. I remember joining Ellen on a very important trip to find a plastic soap box. I found lots of things I didn’t need but bought anyway: a Michael Palin travel book (more on him in a later post), a leather-bound collection of G.K. Chesterton essays (because I need to be a good PC alumna), Twizzlers, Mickey Mouse ink & stamps, a new journal, and a rather pretty fair trade ring. I also found Dassain gifts for my host family, including a matching pair of tea mugs for my aamaa to replace the set that my poor bai broke. 

Shopping is not without its dangers. When waiting to cross a street in Thamel, we ran across one of the sketchy young men who had accosted us on our second day in KTM. He remembered us. We remembered him. And Caitlin, who is normally the most polite young lady, told him: “Yep, we remember you. Leave us alone. We’re not interested. Go away.” I also royally p*ssed off (sorry, no better term) a jewelry store owner by telling him that silver wasn’t worth enough to justify the cost of his wares. Then I got my butt out of there. 

Running around Kathmandu – And by running around, I mean we took taxis everywhere. Just because, you know, Caitlin was sick and all. It was a worthy sacrifice, really, not having to powerwalk everywhere. 

Other nice things – On Sunday night, Caitlin stayed over at the apartment with us, ostensibly for a movie night. She slept through the entire thing, but it was still nice that she was there. We watched Morning Glory, which Lisa sold to me as being similar to The Devil Wears Prada, which sounded fine. And then I saw the DVD case, and told her: “Lisa, the best way to get me to watch a movie is to tell me Harrison Ford is in it.” Because he was, and he was great. The next morning, Lisa and Ellen had to leave early for Gorkha. First, though, we divided up Caitlin’s school supplies and candy among ourselves. I couldn’t help mentally comparing it to the Roman soldiers dividing Jesus’ stuff at the foot of the Cross, but that’s a horribly morbid metaphor. Anyway, I walked away with peanut butter, which was really all I needed. Later in the morning, Caitlin and I went to Himalayan Java (the Starbucks of Nepal), followed by a trip back to the apartment for Caitlin to nap and for me to burn popcorn beyond recognition. Good thing Nepali homes don’t seem to have smoke alarms… After she woke up, we had an early dinner at Saigon Pho, where I ordered two entrees because my first one wasn’t enough food for me. 
Necessary preparations for waiting out Caitlin's nap. I was supposed to wake her up after an hour. But good friends let good friends nap unless they have class or their wedding or something.
Then, we said goodbye, and got into separate taxis. It was very sad. And the next night, my bai and I watched her plane take off from our roof, and we pointed a flashlight beam into the sky to bid her farewell.

The Gross Stuff (with a picture!)– Prepare your stomachs if you don’t like bugs. Because here are some bug stories. First, lice. I swear I don’t have lice—my aamaa checked for me. But one member of our friends did, and oh boy, was that an adventure. We decided that we really must be descended from apes, because for some reason, picking lice and nits out of someone’s hair is oddly satisfying (as is drowning them [the lice] in a bowl of water, and then counting how many there are). I really hope I don’t acquire lice, but seeing as most of my students have them, that will require being very careful. Second, cockroaches. Those of you who know me well know that roaches are my second least favorite bug. Lucky me. Standing outside a stationary store one afternoon, I felt a tickle on my ankle. A few minutes later, a tickle on my butt. I swatted at my skirt, and what fell out? A huge cockroach. EWWW. And if that was not enough, later, in our apartment bathroom, an equally large roach came running out of the drain, which sent me yelling for Lisa. She rescued me from the roach, just as I once saved her from Ruhmal, the giant moth. 
Here's your proof. I was gonna put a coin next to it for scale, but I didn't want to put my fingers near it.
Bonus gross story: While walking along the treacherous streets, we discussed what kind of bug we would rather hold or eat than be hit by a motorcycle. I declared that I would rather be hit by a motor vehicle than have to eat or hold a cojuro (the Nepali word for the hundred-legged creeper). Everything else, though, was fair game. Even arachnophobic Lisa said she would eat a spider if it were already dead rather than tango with a motorbike. She’s braver than me, that’s for certain.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Never Should You Ever: A Cultural Guide to Nepal

It has occurred to me that I have never actually written a post detailing the various cultural differences between Nepal and the USA. I have told many of you in person (and by many, I mean my parents and former roommates), but it might be interesting to the rest of you as well. A few weeks ago, I gave a talk on this topic to the class 10 students at my school, so I will try to follow the structure that I used then.

Note: My host family is unique in that many of these rules don’t apply to our household. Anything does apply to my household or my life, I will mark with an asterisk (*).

-Food should never be touched or eaten with the left hand, which is used for, as my Lonely Travel guide puts it, “personal ablutions.”
-Food may become “jhuto,” or impure, if you touch it with your hands or utensils, or if handled by someone of a lower caste.
-Many people eat with their hands. As in they eat slippery, curried rice with their hands. It’s very impressive to watch. They’re like vacuum cleaners (the people, I mean, not their hands).
-Beef is a big no-no.* It may even be banned in Nepal, but I’ve seen it on the menus in some tourist restaurants. Depending on caste, families might also ban alcohol* and pork.

-There’s no polite way to put this: everyone smells. Especially during the hot, humid monsoon season. Deodorant/antiperspirants are much harder to find than you would think—hence the reason I brought male athlete’s deodorant with me.*
-Bathing is not an everyday habit. Since most houses do not have showers, bathing takes place at the public tap. To accomplish this modestly, women wear these cloths that wrap around their bodies, and go about their washing very carefully.
-Western-style toilets, or commodes, are only found in Kathmandu and in hotels that cater to Western tourists. Most houses have squat toilets, which may range from rather nice* to just a few boards balanced over a smelly hole in the ground. As mentioned above, your left hand is used to wipe your bottom with water from a bucket, because, guess what? There’s no toilet paper.  
-People do a lot of hacking, spitting, nose-picking, burping, and other mildly offensive bodily functions in public. It’s like the soundtrack of village life sometimes.

-This falls in between hygiene and health, but bear with me. Also, a warning to men: if you don’t like this topic, don’t complain to me. Menstruation. Everyone’s favorite word. I won’t dwell on this long, but the short story is that people get a little funny when a woman starts menstruating. Depending on the strictness of the household, she may not be allowed to go in the kitchen, to be near or touch men (or anything that men touch), or to enter various homes and temples. Pretty intense.
-You can buy anything you want at a pharmacy—without a prescription. You go up, tell them what kind of medication you need, and they charge you by the pill.*
-Old wives’ tales: the true medicine of Nepal. If I hear one more time that going to bed with wet hair will give me a cold, I might shave my head.* Similarly, showing at night is frowned upon. Other pearls of wisdom include: bananas and almonds are bad for colds, hot black tea should be consumed before bed to scare away colds*, cold water is not healthy*, buttery/oily green leafy vegetable curry soup will help if you have diarrhea* (sorry for that), leeches are good for purifying your blood*, bread causes stomach aches*, and electric fans can give you colds*.
-I’ll give my premed/doctor friends a moment to bang their heads against a wall.
-Nobody seems to know what sunburn is, but luckily, people often carry umbrellas to block out the heat of the sun, so I don’t look like an idiot when I do so.*

-Dating is pretty taboo. When I told class 9 that my mother was a little disappointed that I didn’t have my first boyfriend until I was 17, they were shocked.
-Many marriages are still arranged marriages rather than love marriages. My host parents had an arranged marriage (although they love each other very much). When I talk about “if I get married” or “who might I marry”, it genuinely confuses my aamaa.
-PDA is a very big no-no (that’s public displays of affection).
-However, men will often walk around holding hands. There is no romantic connotation to it; it’s just a thing that male friends do.
-Family dynamics can be pretty stressful, from what I’ve been told. Often, after marriage, the daughter-in-law will move in with her husband’s family, where in some village homes, she’s treated no better than a servant. Younger people are expected to serve those members of older generations.

-People stick out their tongues a lot. They also bob their heads from side to side rather than nodding, which is confusing, because it looks like they’re shaking their head “no.” *
-In many temples, leather items and shoes are forbidden.*
-The bottom of the foot is considered the filthiest part of the body (other than the left hand), while the top of the head is the most sacred. Therefore, you never step over people or point your feet at them, nor should you pat students on the top of the head.*
-In public, both women and men are expected to wear clothing that covers their shoulders and ankles (and everything in between, with saris being the exception). Women also wear scarves hanging in a “u” shape over their chest for modesty.* To see someone (normally only in tourist areas) walking around in short-shorts or a tank top is pretty jolting. (It’s like, do they even know what country they’re in?)

This list ended up being quite a bit longer than I expected, but so it goes. I hope that it was enlightening!