Thursday, February 26, 2015

Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather

(I wrote this several days ago. Today, the weather consisted of a storm that lasted the entirety of the school day. Always fun, to be sure, but you try teaching in a classroom where the shutters are both the only way to muffle thunder and the only source of light).

Today, on my walk to school, I was inspired to write a blog post about the plants, animals, and truly lovely weather of Nepal. Those of you who are arachnophobic, who hate puppies, or who have a tendency to be envious of people experiencing better weather than you, stop reading now.


If you live in America’s northeast right now, I pity you. I truly do. Reports of temperatures hovering around -5 degrees Fahrenheit and snowdrifts five to eight feet high make me realize that I don’t miss snow as much as I thought I did. I mean, I do get to see it almost every day…from a distance of roughly 100 kilometers. Maybe when I finally get up into the mountains, I’ll understand your pain. For now, it’s 18 degrees Celsius and sunny—that’s about 70 Fahrenheit, my American compatriots. As I type, I am wearing a cotton Nepali shirt and cotton, not wool, socks with my Chacos.

To be fair, my Nepali coworkers seem to find it cold: almost all of them are wearing at least three layers, which tells you a bit about how hot Nepal gets during monsoon time. Speaking of monsoon, we had a glorious thunderstorm last week. It was the first time it’d rained in several months.


My posts have included many pictures of animals, but I haven’t spent too much time talking about them, with the exception of my trip to Chitwan (still waiting on that elephant-back picture). The three unique climates of Nepal lend themselves to a verifiable rainbow of wildlife. In the mountain region, you can find mountain goats, red pandas, and the rare snow leopard. In the jungle region, you can find elephants, rhinos, bears, deer, crocodiles, wild boar, tigers, and more.

In the hill region, where I live, you can find lots and lots of dogs. The streets are littered with strays. I actually consider these mutts pretty lucky, because Nepali shopkeepers and butchers make sure they are fed, and there is even a special day set aside for the worship of dogs—they get covered in flowers and tika. Cats are much more rare, and the only kittens I’ve seen have been dead. Puppies are also rare, so spotting a puppy is often the highlight of my day (as is, you know, rescuing one from being run over). There are roaming gangs of dogs that fight over territory, though, and puppies often get caught in the crossfire. There are few things more disturbing to hear in the middle of the night than an unlucky dog being torn apart by other dogs.

The hill region is also home to plenty of farm animals: buffalo, goats, chickens, goats, ducks, goats, and sacred milking cows that get to sleep wherever they damn well please. For some reason, one section of my path to school is littered with poultry. Now I think of it, I’ve probably eaten some of them.

Other animals include big honkin’ rats and mongoose…s…geese? The jungled hills apparently hide leopards. There are many creepy-crawlies as well. As a snake enthusiast, I was thrilled to one day encounter a small black snake the size of an earthworm. As a respecter of spiders, I have had many interesting encounters in my bathroom, garden, and bed. The biggest I have seen had a legspan the diameter of my palm. And I thank God every day that I have not yet encountered a six-inch long khajuro (you can look it up the English meaning, if you dare, but I don’t recommend it), although I encountered one of their brethren a little shorter than my thumb.

Soooooo many legs. Ugh. However, I’m not alone in my phobic loathing of khajuro: in northern Nepal, communities with Tibetan-based languages call this foul creature “that which shall not be named.” It’s the Voldemort of the arthropod world.


This is what inspired my blog post today. Now, Nepal has many beautiful plants, full of exotic flowers and fruits. Depending on the season, you can find banana, guava, mango, pomegranate, oranges, and more. The country is also famous for its rhododendron forests that begin blooming around this time of the year, and for its fields of sunset-colored marigolds. There are bamboo groves. There are varieties of cacti, the needles of which are also used for piercing noses and earlobes. The tiered farmland around my village alternates between rice, wheat, mustard, and peas.

But this morning, I was more interested in what was growing among the wheat, and along the side of the dirt path I follow to school. You see, within the last two or three weeks, a certain weed has been sprouting up that I can bet 98.6% of you have never seen growing in the United States. It is a very famous plant, although it took me a moment to realize that I was seeing the real-life version of that famous leafy hand that adorns so many bags, shirts, and hats in Kathmandu’s hippie-filled Thamel. When my host brother picked a sprig and tried to hand it to me, I swatted his hand away with a “put that down before you get arrested.” I actually don’t know Nepal’s laws for such things, but why take chances?

You can tell from my stubborn determination not to write the name how unwilling I am to take chances. Although, I will say this: watching goats eat it is hilarious.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Five Senses of Nepal - Smell

Smell…oh man, smell is a physical entity in Nepal, I can assure you. Unfortunately, there are many more foul odors around than pleasant scents. I would rather list them than describe them, so here we go:

Truck exhaust, diesel fumes, rotting fruit at the end of the day, cigarettes, five varieties of excrement, butcher-shop offal, body odor, dirty diapers, garbage fires, halitosis, and unseen decomposing animals. 

But away from those, the air is fresh and crisp, which soaks into laundry as it dries in the sun. The tiered crops growing along my path to school recall autumn, but the flowers recall spring. Sometimes my nose is overwhelmed by a chromatic collection of spices and incense that remind me of the New York Renaissance Faire, or frying foods that call to mind the Dutchess County Fair. If I close my eyes and inhale, I am in the Animal Kingdom’s fake Nepal rather than the real place. 

I am overjoyed that I cannot smell myself.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Lucky Post 42 - #OnlyinNepal, the Sequel

Seeing how popular this particular style of blog post was last time I wrote one for you guys, here's part two. Hopefully I'll have one more to add before heading back to the US. There are certainly enough hilarious moments to merit it.

When you have to pay the professional-ghost-scarer who blasted a horn outside your window at 3am. #OnlyinNepal

When leaving a bottle of soda on your windowsill is more effective than refrigeration. #OnlyinNepal

When you’re not at all surprised to learn your host country has more mobile phones than toilets. #OnlyinNepal

When you have more Hindi and Nepali songs stuck in your head than English. #OnlyinNepal

When simply walking down the sidewalk is enough to hail a taxi. #OnlyinNepal

When you dream of sledding down Mt. Everest on a nanglo (a kind of flat, round, woven rice sorting platter thing). #OnlyinNepal

When you pick coffee shops based on which one has a generator. #OnlyinNepal

 When 18 hours of power cuts in a day ensure that you’ll never complain about losing power during a thunderstorm again. #OnlyinNepal

When shoving through people for a seat on the bus—or cutting a line—is not frowned upon. #OnlyinNepal

When failing to acquire a seat on the bus results in perpetually bruised knees and thighs. #OnlyinNepal

When seat-belts and motorbike helmets are a fading dream. #OnlyinNepal

When it takes both hands and feet to count days between showers. #OnlyinNepal

When everyone has two speeds of speech: fast and lightspeed. #OnlyinNepal

When visiting someone’s house is an expectation rather than an invitation. #OnlyinNepal

When you can’t function without, yet often loathe, rice and sugary tea. #OnlyinNepal

When you have a conversation like this:

Alanna: You have 300 karod gods? How many is a karod?

Prasun: Ten million.

Alanna: So you have 3 billion gods? Wow. I only have one, and his name’s God, which is easy to remember. Bet you can’t name all yours.

Prasun: Yes I can! There’s Shiva, and Vishnu, and—

Alanna: I’m going to class.


Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Five Senses of Nepal - Touch

I've been sick for the last few days, which is part of the reason you haven't seen any new posts from me.

First, an addendum to the last "sense" post: sounds at school.
-Every morning, the Nepali national anthem, half shouted, half sung.
-In every class, the deafening aural tidal wave of "Miss miss miss miss MISS."

And now, the sense of touch.

My perception of this sense has a lot to do with the weather. When it was monsoon time, the air was always hot and sticky with humidity, like Disney World in August. Even now, in the middle of winter, the sun has a physical presence--more so than the cold. In fact, I barely feel the cold, although most of the other teachers, bundled in layers and layers of wool scarves, think I'm crazy.

I always feel dirty, even after I bathe (which normally happens when my skin looks like it's been coated in graphite). In the US, I sometimes would shower twice a day, but here, the water is always cold--unless a very sunny day grants a liter or two of lukewarm H2O. Sometimes, while washing my hair, the water is so cold it gives me a headache. And don't get me started about the paranoia that accompanies an itchy scalp...

Yes, it's hard to feel comfortable, especially when beds and chairs don't believe in cushioning. My tailbone is in constant agony. And the ground... Sometimes I think it repels my feet like angry magnets, because I have a hard time believing the dirt really can be so uneven.

Most of my clothes are made from cotton and wool, which are miserable prisons when you sweat. I've had to remove my bangles because they felt like manacles. Unfortunately, my sometimes noose-like scarf is a social necessity.

But then, there are the handshakes and high-fives and fist bumps with my students. Being dragged down to receive a kiss on the cheek, or at least on the palm. The burn in my legs after doing "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" for the fifth time in a row. These are good feelings.

Well, that's all for now. Sorry it's not more cheerful. Trust me, smell will be sooooooooo much better.

Writing Workshop, Part 2

Dearest devoted readers: I apologize. This is less a post for you than it is a convenient way of hosting photographs to share with Kathalaya. You will receive a real post shortly.
(also, the pictures are in reverse order by accident)

Friday, February 6, 2015

Of Dogs and Dinosaurs (Writing Workshop, Part 1)

Today I skipped school. 

Don't worry, though: I got permission from the principal first, since it was for a good cause. I think awhile back I mentioned some things about publishing and creative writing workshops? Well, because everything in Nepal seems to get mixed around, those workshops got pushed back until this weekend. 

Kathalaya (House of Stories) Publishing House recruited me to teach two workshops at Nepal's 2nd annual book fair. Seeing as my BA is in Creative Writing, and a desire to teach it was part of my Fulbright proposal, I jumped at the opportunity. The only thing that was a little funny was that the first (today's workshop) focused not on story writing, but on illustrating.

I am not an artist.

Kathalaya actually brought in a real honest-to-God professional illustrator, and I think I dazzled him with my command of stick figure anatomy. There were about 25 students present at the workshop from various private schools around Kathmandu valley. They all had excellent English skills, which meant that I didn't need a translator, and they were all enthusiastic, which meant I didn't cry. Well, I did once, after a particularly violent coughing fit, but you can't help things like that.

You see, this whole week I've been recovering from a sinus infection (or as I like to call it, "pollution throat") which has stolen my voice away from me. It made teaching difficult, but at least for the workshop, I had a microphone.

For roughly two minutes.

It broke. I didn't do it. I had to make do with water and honey-ginger candy. The tent was not the most conducive environment for unassisted vocalizing--very muffled--but it all worked out. We had four fun activities. For the first, I described a character, and they drew her, to simulate the life of an illustrator. For the second, they paired up. Every kid wrote a description of a person, place, thing, or animal, and passed it to their partner, who drew it. The most popular images were dragons, dinosaurs, and cakes. I paired up with the honest-to-God can see the results below.

Next, the students had five minutes to create short wordless comic strips. After a lunch break that lasted too long, they came back for their final project: writing and illustrating a book. This was the trickiest bit to pull off due to time constraints, the number of kids, and the fact I had to pick three winners from the group of them. There were some amazingly entertaining stories, and some familiar ones ("A Magic Tree House," for example, set in Pennsylvania). Many stories involved dogs in some capacity, and man, did they get dark. Especially when you consider that almost all of the students were between sixth and eighth grade. The worst (or best?) ones were the ones where the dog died at the end. Or the shocker "A Broken Marriage," where the bride has a heart attack after watching her new husband get torn apart by wolves.

The Nepali Stephen King has arrived. 

First prize went to a story about a caterpillar who really wanted to fly. Its author is destined to be a comic artist or illustrator one day. Second place went to a very philosophical story about a tree, and third belonged to a story about a girl rescuing her friend from kidnappers. 

After it was all over, I headed straight for the coffee shop, which is where I am right now. I have another workshop tomorrow, but the theme is on building a story rather than illustrating one. 

One interpretation of "Stella" the example character.
Ladies and gentlemen, our future first prize winner.
The general surveys her troops.

My challenge to the honest-to-God illustrator.

My answer to the honest-to-God illustrator's challenge.

His answer to mine. He did that in literally three minutes.
On the left, the only class 3 student in the group.
Nepal pride.
You know you're Italian when you talk with your hands more than your mouth.
Ain't that fancy looking.
Command center, with Prabina, who made everything run smoothly.
The first time I've ever been on the giving end of one of these pictures.
I don't know if you'll be able to find me in this picture; there are too many people.