Friday, January 30, 2015

The Five Senses of Nepal - Sound

It is a difficult task to convey the “feel” of Nepal, even with the help of anecdotes and photographs. Barring acquiring the skill of apparition or a very expensive plane ticket, most of you, my readers, will not get to experience this amazing country with me. Allow me then to paint a picture of Nepal with words. For context, every day my senses are slammed with stimulants, and it can feel like getting walloped by a truck. Do not skip through busy city streets or rice paddies to gain first-hand knowledge of what I describe, but do allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the words.

Sound – This might be the least interesting thing I perceive, which is surprising given my musical background. It is, however, the second-most grating (the first being smell, which you will understand when I get there), due to its constant, buzzing presence. Most of the noises are the same we hear in the US: dogs barking, children playing, crows making crow sounds, motor vehicles whizzing past. Others are familiar, but unique to Nepal. The language is different, and the voices that speak it are often loud and strident. Nepalis seem angry even in polite conversation. Everywhere you go, though, people call out “Namaste” or “Namaskar” (a slightly more polite version of the former).

And the music! There is always a blend of Nepali and Hindi music playing from unseen speakers, ringing over the terraces. In South Asia, there is a very different opinion of what constitutes a beautiful voice. While in the Western world, we are impressed by the resonant vibrato of opera singers, over here, they favor singers with high nasal tones. Some of the music is super catchy, and I find myself humming it while walking or riding the bus. Some of it makes me want to stuff cotton in my ears. And sometimes, when you least expect it, a bus driver will start playing Pink Floyd.

The noises last into the night, especially those made by canines. Barking is tolerable, if a bit annoying when you’re trying to sleep. Worse is high-pitched screeching, like brakes squealing, when packs of dogs fight each other.  But when 11 o’clock rolls around, the world goes completely silent. The kind of silence that I’ve never experienced at home in New York, where I could always hear trains going up and down the Hudson, or cars speeding along 84. It’s so very peaceful.

Until the roosters start crowing at 5 am, and the world starts over again. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Alanna and Ellen's Excellent Adventure - Part 2

Can you see the mugger crocodile? It can see you. (Actually the source of the word mugger, as in, the guys who take your purse and runs.)
Those dark patches are wild honeybee hives.
An elephant treat - rice and molasses wrapped in elephant grass.

So photogenic!
Someone looks contemplative.
People returning from safaris.
Tharu cultural dance and drummers.
Dawn on the river.
I couldn't help but think of Jurassic Park.
I think Tigger's around here somewhere.
Tiger's territorial scratches.
Mama and baby. Note mama's lovely straw hat.
This picture would be creepy if Ellen was not so adorably cheerful.
Our guide points out damage done by a wild elephant.
Wild bull elephant (to the left) is too close to comfort - one of our guides waits with his bamboo stick.
And you thought your house had termites...
Driving through the stream.
Afternoon tea.
Our second rhino of the day.
Our intrepid jeep and driver.
A fellow party of adventurers.
Our elephant, getting its howdah readjusted (so we wouldn't tumble off).
The sun rises on a camouflaged family of wild boar.
Easily as big as a dinner plate.
I apologize - I still have to tell the tale of my elephant safari, but I'm waiting for the pictures of me actually on the elephant.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Alanna and Ellen's Excellent Adventure - Part 1

This is one of those stories that fully demonstrates the need for adaptability while living in Nepal. As I mentioned a few posts ago, Ellen, Emily, and I had a trip planned to visit Chitwan National Park. Things did not go as planned. First, a series of bandhs made us change the dates of our trip, and then prevented me from getting into KTM to stay with friends the night before my bus left. Then, poor Emily got sick and had to bow out.

And so there I was, bus-ticketless, and on the wrong side of KTM valley, when our tale begins…

Day 1 – Best Shown in the Form of a Time Table

4:35First alarm goes off. Decide to curl up in warm bed until the next one.
4:39Host dad knocks on door to rouse me. Sleep is for the weak, anyway.
5:06 – Just before leaving the house, my aamaa insists on tying a scarf around my head, so   that I, dressed only in shades of blue, look like the Virgin Mary wearing a knitted poncho and tie-dyed skirt.
5:20 – Hop onto a microbus headed into Patan.
6:25 – Arrive at Thamel tourist bus park. Ask most buses if they have tickets, but all are supposedly full.
6:30 – Very serious, frowny young man shows me a full bus roster, then tells me to get on his bus (and presumably pray that somebody is too hungover to claim their seat).
6:55 – Rising sun is bright enough to illuminate my breath. Wrap poncho more tightly about my frame.
7:15 – After 45 minutes of a stress headache and stomach cramps, dude asks me to pay for my ticket. More instantaneous relief than extra strength Tylenol.
7:21 – Bus gets on its way. Nepali couple across from me start playing Linkin Park’s “Numb” (coincidentally the only Linkin Park song I know) without headphones.

The timeline goes a little fuzzy here, because my Dramamine knocked me out for the rest of the bus ride. At some point, the Nepali couple switched over to Miley Cyrus. I also recall some American girl complaining about only getting two hot showers a week. Oh, cry me a river.

2:00ish – Arrive in Sauraha bus park, where I am overjoyed to see Ellen’s smiling face. Jeep brings us to the hotel.
2:15 – Hotel manager helps us to plan our itinerary in the lovely sunny garden.
2:30 – Lunch, including pasta and French fries. Would have been perfect, if not for the cat that showed up with a dead mouse. It plopped down next to our table, and proceeded to eat the entire rodent in an excruciating bone-crunching manner. I felt especially bad for Ellen, who’s afraid of mice.
3:00 – Went for a walk with a hotel guide. He wore a sweatshirt bearing the words “Welcome to the Jungle” with a picture of a T-Rex. Did nothing to help my suspicions that we were actually in Jurassic Park. We headed to the government elephant stables, where Ellen got to give an elephant a treat. As gentle as tame elephants are, our guide warned us how wild elephants were easily the most dangerous animals in the park. After that, we headed to the riverbank, where we waited for the sunset. While waiting, we saw several elephants, two rhinos, and one bear.
6:00 – Three interpretations of potato for dinner. Maybe we shouldn't have said we were vegetarians.
7:00 – Dance show at the Tharu Cultural Center. The Tharu are the ethnic group native to this part of the Terai (the southern plains of Nepal). They are remarkable for having a natural immunity to malaria. The dance show included a fire dancer and a man dressed in a peacock costume.

Day 2 - Best Told Straight

We awoke at 6:00, ate a huge breakfast, and were out on the riverbank by seven. Everything was enshrouded in mist. We could not see across the water to the jungle on the other side. Beautiful, but eerie. We got into a long canoe and set off downstream. The other canoes around us kept disappearing and reappearing. Eventually, the rising sun began to burn away the fog, and we were able to see many species of birds, and one sunbathing gharial crocodile.

Eventually, our canoe made landfall, and Ellen and I departed, accompanied by two guides: one close to our age, and the other a giddy older man with a purple scarf wound around his head. Both carried heavy bamboo staves. As we walked, the latter told us how he hoped we wouldn't encounter anything dangerous, because he was unable to climb trees or run fast. Why? Because a mama bear broke his leg a few months ago.

Luckily, we didn't see anything dangerous on our walk. We did see many tracks: rhino, elephant, deer…and tiger. We also found fresh tiger scratches on a tree (for marking territory), but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you ask), that was the closest we got to the king of the Nepali jungle.

Eventually, we came upon the Elephant Breeding Center, home to many pregnant elephants and many elephant babies. Did you know that it takes an elephant 22 months to carry a pregnancy to term? AND their babies weight several hundred pounds at birth. Apparently, full-grown Asian elephants (which are smaller than their African counterparts) can weigh over 5 tons. That’s a whole lot.

Our purple-scarfed guide must have eagle somewhere in his family tree, because he grabbed Ellen and I and gestured excitedly towards the jungle. “See it? The grey, by the tree?” Okay, mister, there’s like fifty trees in that…holy crap! (my inner monologue)

The “grey” was a bull elephant—a wild bull elephant. The most dangerous animal in all of Chitwan. This guy was apparently the father of one of the elephant calves we had seen, and he had quite an attachment to the mother. I can’t even convey to you how quiet and stealthy he was, because I doubt you’d believe a 10-foot tall, 10k pound animal can be stealthy, but he was. He reminded me of my chubby poodle Luna (bear with me) slowly stalking her sister at the food bowl. You’d stop looking for two seconds, and he’d be several meters closer.

Eventually he got too close for comfort, and the elephant keepers started throwing rocks at him. Now, all tame elephants have their tusks trimmed, but this guy had the full lethally sharp pair. If he had gotten mad (you know, at the rocks bouncing from between his eyes), he would have unleashed hell upon the breeding center. Since I’m typing this, you know that didn't happen. He went away.

After lunch (no cats around this time!), we went on a jeep safari that we had decided to add to our package. We crossed the river in a canoe and got into the open back of a jeep with eight other tourists and a guide. Ellen and I quickly won over the guide: Ellen because she speaks Nepali, and me because I kept singing a catchy Hindi song under my breath.

Our guide was great. He a wealth of information, with the eyes of a particularly sharp-sighted raptor, and he shared some harrowing tales of his 11 years on the job, which he started when he was only 19 (my brother’s age). He said he’d had 16 tiger spottings (stripings?) in those years, and only two of those encounters were dangerous! He’d also been chased by rhinos, elephants, and almost fatally mauled by a bear when his group abandoned him.

He helped us spot monkeys, monitor lizards, peacocks and other large colorful birds, deer, boars, and two species of crocodiles. We saw one peacock, tail fully open, dancing the peacock mating dance that we had seen imitated by a human dancer the night before.

We also stopped by the gharial crocodile breeding center. Gharials are a kind of crocodile with a long, thin snout. They’re pescatarians. The park is also home to the much more dangerous marsh mugger crocodiles. It’s hard to be too intimidated in a crocodile center when you’re there with Australians, though. They kept on saying things like: “Ah, these guys got nothing on our crocs back home.”

The jeep safari was just as cool as you could hope. We drove over creaking bridges and through streams. There was a sense of real urgency as we sped to get out of the jungle before sunset. And when we drove past the towering impregnable groves of elephant grass, I couldn't help but actually be afraid of what might be hiding within the shadowy stalks. Remember Jurassic Park: The Lost World? Stay out of the tall grass.

But I've saved the best for last! As we meandered out of the crocodile farm, our guide ran towards us, beckoning for us to hurry into the jeep. “Rhino!” he was saying. Once the jeep was loaded, we were off, tearing down the jungle road. But it was worth our urgency. We pulled up behind another jeep that had stopped right in front of a rhino calmly eating dinner on the side of the road.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Oh, I've seen rhinos at the zoo. They’re not a big deal. Well, you've probably never seen a Rhinoceros unicornis from ten feet away with no fence in between. They are huge, prehistoric-looking creatures, and it’s hard not to be intimidated by their grey, armored bulk, even while peacefully grazing. There’s a big movement to protect Chitwan’s rhino population from poachers, who kill the animals and sell their horns to Chinese apothecaries (who believe it positively affects *ahem* male vitality). The park is filled with army posts to dissuade poachers, and Sauraha, the village at the jungle’s outskirts, has many signs stating that a rhino’s horn is not medicine.

Stay tuned for part 2, which will detail our elephant safari—with pictures!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Alanna's Inferno


No, not you, my dear readers. But that is the message that greeted me from the front of a truck as I waited in traffic on my way to Kathmandu this afternoon. I thought to myself, what an odd-sounding and ominous message that is. 

Now, as you’ve probably picked up from my photos, Nepal is rife with fascinating variations on English words and phrases. Just today, even, I saw a sign that said “Medicine for fishes,” and a sweatshirt that proudly bore an American flag and the words “New York City, Massachusetts.” Even common images get mixed up. A boy passed me today with a shirt showing a Guy Fawkes face fused with King Tut’s burial mask. And don’t get me started about the Playboy bunny. It’s everywhere, from notebooks to second graders’ earrings. 

But back to the original point: GO TO THE HELL. Well. I was already headed to Kathmandu, but I wouldn’t call that “the hell.” It’s a hectic and exhausting place, but it doesn’t seem to contain many obvious features of eternal damnation. I rather like it. Within KTM, I was headed to the heavenly Fulbright office to pick up a package and a letter.

So where was this hell? 

A little bit of context: I was planning to visit KTM on Tuesday, but due to news of a planned bandh, or strike, which can shut down anything from neighborhoods to the whole country, my aamaa advised me to run my errands in the city today. In fact, while I was in one of the various buses I took today, I did notice a gathering of people dressed all in red (not an uncommon color in Nepal) carrying sickle-and-hammer banners. But that was not hell, either, even though I don’t like my plans getting messed up.

No, the hell was the government post office. I had to pick up a package that my parents sent me for Christmas that had never been reported to my office. I had my tracking number. I had a passport copy. I thought I was all set.


Picture a trip to the DMV in America. Generally a miserable and confusing place, yes? Now, spread it out to fill several buildings. Strip the paint from the walls and the lights from the ceiling and the linoleum from the floor. Change the signs into an alphabet you don’t know all that well. And for good measure, spread an even coating of grime over everything. That’s Nepal’s central government post office.

Despite my preparation, I had an almost immediate hang-up: my name on my passport did not match the name on my package. My passport lists me as “Alanna Elizabeth Smith.” On the package, my mother wrote “Alanna Smith.” Obviously not the same person. And then there was the matter of the missing intimation letter. I have no idea what the heck an intimation letter is, but I didn’t have it, and neither did Fulbright—and I didn’t have a PO box key so we could check to make sure that the letter really wasn’t there.

Thank God for Robin-ji. I called him and handed the phone to one of the four post office employees that had surrounded me. My Nepali skill level is not high enough for me to explain what a “middle name” is. Whatever he said convinced them that I was not a con artist trying to abscond with a package of Christmas candy. And then the really fun part started!

I know that my dad and siblings will get this reference, but I don’t know about anyone else. In the movie Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy¸ there’s a scene where the main characters have to run around a galactic government office trying to get the right forms to keep their friend from being executed. That’s how I felt, except I was more worried about getting my package before the office closed than being fed to the ravenous bugblatter beast of Traal (or whatever it’s called). I ran back and forth between four separate rooms, paid three different people (bribes? taxes?), and finally, finally walked out into the sunshine with two packages and one hell of a headache.

Go to the hell? I guess I can check that one off my bucket list.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Jado Chuti (Cold Break)

I probably butchered the spelling up there, but oh well. It's difficult to change a phonetic alphabet into the Roman alphabet. Take the name of my village, for instance. The second syllable can be spelled with "u" or "oo," and no one seems to know if the middle is "b," "bh," or "v." It's different all over the bazaar. 

Cold break refers to my three-week long winter vacation that stretches from this past Thursday to the end of January. So far, activities have consisted of sleeping, eating, reading, writing, and hanging out with my host family. Very difficult stuff. I want to take advantage of my "relaxation days" however, because there's lots of excitement to come. 

Take next week, for example. On Monday, my aamaa and I hope to go to Bhaktapur, once one of the three kingdoms of Kathmandu Valley. It is very famous for its architecture and curd. Yes, you read that right. Curd. I believe they call it "king curd" due to its superiority over the other available choices. 

Tuesday is a day of meticulously planned errands and, I hope, a trip to the movie theater to see a Bollywood film. I've promised to treat my host brother, who will finish his nine-day exam period on Monday. He has been studying non-stop, and I think he deserves a nice break.

Wednesday, Thursday, and, those are the really exciting days. Way back in July, Ellen and I decided that we wanted to visit Chitwan National Park sometime in January. Well, the month is here, and next week we, along with Emily, will be embarking on a jungle adventure. There will be a sunset canoe ride, bird-watching, and a highly-anticipated elephant safari. Apparently sitting atop an elephant is one of the best and safest ways to try and spot the park's wildlife. I mean, seriously: when looking for rhinos, sloth bears, and tigers, would you rather be on foot, or on the back of a mammal bigger than your car? 

After that, I'll be helping out at a camp, and at the very end of my break, I will be running two creative writing workshops at the Kathmandu Book Fair for Kathalaya Publishing House, which will hopefully go smoothly. Anyway, expect actual stories next time you see a post here, not just a summary of my life. 

And coming soon: #OnlyinNepal - The Sequel

The best sunsets always come after the storm.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

All My Children

Now, some of you may be thinking: “Alanna, I love reading your blogs, but what happened to your kids?” Never fear, never fear: an update on my kiddies is here. 

It has been quite unfortunate, but in the last month, I have spent ten days with my students. TEN. This is due to the Fulbright conference, exams, holidays, and Nepal being Nepal. You can imagine this throws a bucketful of wrenches into lesson planning. I’ve also gotten four new students in class 1 in the last month and a half.

However, despite these holdups, things have been going well. The discipline/reward system of the star charts is so successful that I can barely keep up with the demand for shiny new pencils. (I sharpen these before I hand them out so that we don’t waste time in class—the other day I had to prepare three full boxes). Class 2, the one that had been most challenging, is transforming before my eyes. They have gone from impossible to control to, well, manageable. 

I mentioned exams. These were the second-term exams, which I was given the opportunity the write for my classes, rather than letting the students take the abysmal government-provided rags. Class 1 did the best, with the lowest grade being 85%, and six full marks! Class 2 also did well, with all students passing. Class 3 struggled, though. While only three students failed, the passing grade is 40%, and some students barely made that. However, they did better than they did on their midterm, and there were four students who scored above 90%. 

My students also got to experience some Christmas festivities. We sang “Jingle Bells” (and we have yet to stop). Class 1 and class 2 did crafts: torn paper snowmen and cardboard ornaments. In class 3, I attempted to tell the fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” which I realized too late is even complicated for native English-speakers. All three classes also got to see a slide show of American Christmas—snow, lights, Disney in December, and skating beneath Rockefeller Plaza’s tree. There may have been some sweets distributed, too…

After returning from Pokhara, I decided to try a new plan in the classroom. A few weeks ago, I purchased a beautifully illustrated book of nursery rhymes, which can be put to use in so many ways. Singing, dancing, reading, and penmanship practice every day, but due to a continuous flow of new rhymes, they never get bored. 

And I’ve saved the best for last. At least, I think it’s the best. 

As some of you know, I have a Google Nexus tablet that I love very much. It has saved my toochus on many occasions. But now I have finally gotten my money’s worth out of it. How’s that? Well, Disney has a new app called “Disney Movies Anywhere.” It allows you to build a digital collection of Disney movies—you can purchase them, or use digital copy codes that come with some DVDs. I have a few films in my collection.

And one of them is Frozen

Remember how I mentioned “The Snow Queen” earlier? Well, Frozen is sort of based on it. Sort of. They both involve snow and a queen and are set in Scandinavia, but that’s where the similarities end. But, I figured, why not let the kids watch the movie? If I spend 25 minutes of the period teaching, what’s wrong with ten minutes of Disney?

And now the cries for “flim, flim!” won’t stop. It’s wonderful. We’re not even halfway through the movie yet in any of the three classes. Remember, for most of my students, this is their first Disney film, ever, even though they know who Mickey Mouse is. When the Disney logo/castle appeared, and I told them it was Mickey’s house, they were ecstatic. 

Now, if only I could find a picture of myself with Mickey. That would make their week. 

The model.
Rukhsar, my second newest student, hard at work.
Binod, as usual, is the first one done.
Bidan, smiling as always.
Kamal, demonstrating the frown-to-smile transformation that my grandpa taught me, and I taught them.
Binita, one of my brightest students.
Bijita, who has very good colour sense.
Binita Rai: primary trouble maker, but look at that face!
Tikakumari: such a little sweetheart.
Bijaya, who suffers from what I believe may be cerebral palsy. Nevertheless, she has the best penmanship in the class.