Monday, March 23, 2015

11,000 Feet and Counting

I really, really wish I had some pictures for your entertainment, but I don't. You'll have to wait until I get back to Kathmandu in 9 or so days. For those of you who are wondering, I am on my way to Everest Base Camp with my Providence College buddy, Jeff. We are currently sitting in a cafe in Namche Bazaar, located at about 3440 meters, which is almost 11,000 feet. Our highest destination is at 5550 meters, so we still have quite a ways to go.

I am disinclined to write too many details because I hate writing on my tablet. It's like asking for typos. Here are some highlights though:

March 19 - I arrive safely back in Kathmandu from Pokhara. Jeff shows up safely at our hotel around 11:30 pm.

March 20 - After breakfast, we take a city tour, followed by a thrilling trip to the airport to retrieve Jeff's lost bag. We kind of wander in upstream, and no one seems to care. Great security.

March 21 - An early flight on a 14-seat prop plane brings us to Lukla (the gate to Everest). We trek for almost 3 hours. Jeff spends the rest of the day teaching me to play poker.

March 22 - Within a 7 hour trekking day, we ascend 600 meters in about 3 hours. One word: brutal. Jeff eventually admits to having been violently ill with food poisoning the night before. He's a trooper. The trail includes several suspension bridges, including one a little over 100 meters (330 feet) above the rushing rapids below. Eventually, we catch our first view of Everest.

Namche is the most welcome sight in the world.

March 23 - After 12 hours of sleep, Jeff is much better. We take a short acclimatization hike to the Sherpa Museum overlooking Namche, and spend the balance of the day resting.
So yeah. Our guide is excellent, our porter is excellent. This may be the most beautiful place in the world, at least to my sense of what constitutes natural beauty.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Your Weekend Update

I apologize for the lack of activity recently. I have many stories and many pictures, but little time for posting any of them. I left my host family one week ago, and haven't had a moment to relax since. There has been much packing and unpacking and repacking and such - especially when I brought three cardboard boxes to a shipping company that combined them into a 65 pound super-package that arrived in America about two days after they shipped it.

I miss my kids and host family and village, and I have stories about my final week there, but I've been too busy preparing for my trek and spending time with the other girls to be sad. Today I arrived back in Katmandu from an extra short trip to Pokhara (where we spent Christmas) and transported all of my stuff to a hotel in Thamel to await my friend Jeff. I'm happy to report that he's arrived safely, minus a bag. I'm so happy that my ex-flight attendant mother trained me to always pack a super efficient/emergency ready carry-on.

Tomorrow I'll be storing my laptop at the Fulbright office, so unless I have time to post some pictures in the morning, you'll be getting text-only blog posts for the next two weeks - provided I have access to any Wi-Fi on my Everest expedition!

Also, only one person bothered to guess what I read for my 50th book of Nepal. Congratulations to my dad, Timothy, for correctly guessing J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit! The book's subtitle is "There and Back Again," and I promise I will be back again soon.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Meet the Students

Have you wondered who my students are? What they sound like? How freaking adorable they are? Well, this is a post for you!

Class 1

Class 2

Class 3

Alanna and the Very Rangi-Changi (Colorful) Day

Last Thursday was Holi, the Hindu festival of color. In India, people take to the streets wearing white, carrying bags of rainbow-hued powders that they throw at everyone they encounter. In Nepal, the color is applied more like tika: people come up to you, wish you a happy Holi, and smear their hands across your forehead, cheeks, nose, and chin. 

No, in Nepal, it’s not a good idea to wear white on Holi. Because in Nepal, Holi is an excuse for a country-wide water balloon fight.  

My host family elected to barricade themselves in the house, because of fears of everything that could go wrong with the holiday: allergic reactions to the powder, balloons filled with cow urine or worse, acid attacks. They didn’t want me to go out, but I insisted. Dressed in ratty clothes, I made my way to Elsie’s village, which is about a two or three mile walk east-ish of my village. When I got there, I was mostly color-free, due to the old “see crowds of young people coming and dodge into a group of old women” technique. 

Elsie had a full schedule of Holi house visits with many of her students. As we walked, we got squirted with tiny water pistols and bombarded with makeshift balloons, and her students’ mothers decorated our faces with red powder. However, the real fun was yet to come.

Our big destination for “playing Holi” was an ashram (in this sense, an orphanage) where many of her students live. We got there and were greeted with big smiles by children and adults alike. They patiently waited for us to put down our bags and cameras before the carnage began. 

Everything became kind of a blur after that. I remember getting pulled into the muddy lake of the vegetable garden by a horde of laughing kids, but I went water-blind after that when someone dumped a brass water jug over my head. There were cups and bottles, too, and water balloons (some of which didn’t break, if the bruises on my arms can be believed), and of course, that old classic—the hose. 

After two minutes, I was more soaking wet than I had been since Lisa and I jumped into the river in Gorkha (in October). And if Elsie was any way of judging, my face was bright red, with streaks of black and silver. We got our revenge, though, grabbing stainless steel tea cups and diving into the fray. 

Eventually, the water ran out, and the kids and adults formed a song and dance circle. Even though the sun was bright, a balmy breeze ensured that everyone was freezing in their sopping cotton clothes. Despite clapping along, my hands were numb for a good 45 minutes after we stopped playing. 

I followed Elsie on a few more house visits. They were up the side of a hill, which helped us warm up very quickly. We finished up our day with a snack of fried egg, chiurra (beaten rice), and dal mat (a kind of snack food made from spiced fried lentils and other salty crunchy things) that her aamaa prepared for us. We tried to wash our faces, but the thing about Holi colors is that they’re made to be pretty water-proof. My hairline stayed red for a few days. But all in all, we had a blast, and the kids did too. As did the adults: an innocent-looking granny threw a bucket of water on me as I walked back to my village. 

But I made it home with only one ruined outfit, a few bruises, no urine-soaked clothing, no acid burns, and most importantly, no allergic reactions.  

A few colorful Nepalis.
A cold and colorful Nepali.
Cold and colorful Americans disguised as Nepalis.
Dance party time!

  The carnage.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

49 Down, 1 to Go: A Literary Journey

          I love to read. This might come as a surprise to…none of you. Within my first week of being in Nepal, I formed a mental challenge for myself: to read 50 books within the eight-month span of my grant. Well, my grant ends in a little less than two weeks, and I have read 49 books. 
          “Why are you writing this now instead of waiting until you’ve finished?” you might be wondering. My answer? No idea. I just felt like writing a blog post. Within a few moments, you will be reading (maybe, unless it bores you) a list of all 49 books I have read, in the order that I read them. Each entry will have title and author, of course, along with an “entertainment rating”—nothing to do with literary merit—and a little blurb about how the book made me feel. A special shout-out to my dearest mother, who lent me her Kindle for the journey (I have been forced to revise my strong opinions on eBook readers, but that’s a discussion for another time).
          Without further ado, let us begin!
1.      Epic, Conor Kostick – This is the only book on this list that I had read previously; A-
2.      Himalaya, Michael Palin – I had not known that my favorite Monty Python member was a famed travel-documenter, and I felt rather cheated. Also, this book made me laugh like an idiot; A+
3.      The Palace Job, Patrick Weekes – I think this one only cost me a dollar or two on Amazon, but it was a solid read; A
4.      Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson – The first of many “classic adventure novels” on this list. I love the Muppets movie, but had not read the book before; B+
5.      Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne – Another classic that I had somehow overlooked; B+
6.      Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen – I learned to love Pride & Prejudice at Providence, so I was excited to try more Austen (and disappointed to learn she only wrote six complete novels); B+
7.      Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs – The inspiration of my third favorite Disney movie (although in the book, he’s raised by apes, not gorillas); A-
8.      The Return of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs – Better than the first, in my opinion; A+
9.      The Beasts of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs – Probably the weakest of all the Tarzan books I read (Tarzan leads an army of apes and one leopard on a revenge mission); B-
10.  Son of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs – Tarzan’s son is a boring version of his dad; B-
11.  Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs – As you can imagine, Tarzan was a unique child; B
12.  The Fault in Our Stars, John Green – I had a dream I should read this book, so I did, and I cried; A-
13.  Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, Edgar Rice Burroughs – I think this is the one where Tarzan lost his memory? B
14.  Tarzan the Untamed, Edgar Rice Burroughs – Can’t really remember this one, because after a point they all blend together; B
15.  Tarzan the Terrible, Edgar Rice Burroughs – I know this one was good because it has a little star next to it in my journal, but I don’t remember why. There might have been dinosaurs; A
16.  Skin Game, Jim Butcher – The 15th (?) book in one of my favorite series. They’re about a private detective in Chicago who’s also a wizard. This one had a heist plot, which was lots of fun; A+
17.  Unnatural Creatures, edited by Neil Gaiman – A collection of short stories, all dealing with “unnatural creatures.” Some of the stories were quite touching; A+
18.  King Solomon’s Mines, Henry Rider Haggard – Yet another adventure classic! B+
19.  Joyland, Stephen King – Low on gore but high on nostalgia and a solid eerie mystery, this joins a short list of King’s books that have brought tears to my eyes (for things other than terror); A+
20.  The Ocean at the end of the Lane, Neil Gaiman – I’ve never read a bad book by Neil Gaiman, and this continues that trend. In unrelated news, many of my friends have met this guy in the time I’ve been away, and I’m rather jealous; A
21.  She, Henry Rider Haggard – A novel about moral relativism in the guise of an adventure novel; B
22.  A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin – Finally jumped on the bandwagon, and was immediately hooked. Too bad I knew the ending; A+
23.  A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin – A+
24.  A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin – A+
25.  A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin – I actually can’t remember anything that happened in this one; B+
26.  A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin – A few shockers, but still not as engaging as the first three; A-
27.  The Famous Five: Secret of the Caves, Enid Blyton – One of my host brother’s books. Reminded me a bit of “The Boxcar Children.” I read it in 45 minutes; B+
28.  Full Circle, Michael Palin – Once again, I enjoyed Palin’s writing, and I learned a lot about the world, but I only felt like I got snippets. The part about camel-wrangling was great, though; A-
29.  Saga, Conor Kostick – The sequel to #1 on this list; B
30.  Edda, Conor Kostick – The very weak trequel to #1 and #29 on this list; C+
31.  The Black Echo, Michael Connelly Entertainment Weekly, which I read religiously, has recently started a “Binge!” section. One week they focused on Michael Connelly’s works, and I’m glad they did. He’s a crime/mystery writer who doesn’t resort to clich├ęd plots, characters, or writing style; A
32.  Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey – I know this is one of the most famous Sci-Fi/Fantasy series ever, but this first book just didn’t capture me. I didn’t feel like we got enough time to know the characters, which left them frankly unlikeable. There are many other books, though, which I’ll check out in the US; B-
33.  The Mythical Creatures Bible, Brenda Rosen – B+
34.  NPCs, Drew Hayes – Only 99 cents on Amazon, and a very fun take on the D&D (that’s Dungeons & Dragons for you normal folks) culture; B+
35.  Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, Dr. Seuss – Yes, it’s a children’s book, but it packs a punch; A+
36.  Spook, Mary Roach – I wanted to like this non-fiction book on the afterlife, but the writer’s snobbish view of India in the first chapter (and her obnoxious attempts at sarcastic humor in the rest of the book) turned me off; C
37.  The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan – Another of the world’s most famous fantasy novels to make an appearance. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it’s rigid adherence to the “hero’s trail” made it predictable; A
38.  Tiger for Breakfast, Michel Peissel – Looked a bit dry from the outside, but the inside told one of the most fascinating life stories I’d ever heard: Boris Lisanevitch, the guy who basically made tourism a thing in Nepal; A+
39.  The Great Hunt, Robert Jordan – Didn’t excite me as much as the first; A-
40.  Shiver, Maggie Stiefvater – I got this for free from my tablet, and I felt obligated to finish it, painfully boring and plotless and character-developmentless as it was; D
41.  Revival, Stephen King – You’ve got winners and losers, Mr. King, and this felt like one of the latter. It started out promising, but the ending was just…off. And deeply unsettling. At least IT (a book about a clown that eats children) had a happy ending; C+
42.  The Martian, Andy Weir – Another Entertainment Weekly recommendation. It’s basically Robinson Crusoe set on Mars, but more technical; A-
43.  Mansfield Park, Jane Austen – I’m sorry, Ms. Austen, I just can’t get behind first cousins getting married (200 year-old spoiler alert); B
44.  “The Crystal Crypt,” Philip K. Dick – Okay, okay, so this was actually like a novelette, but I’m counting it; B+
45.  Persuasion, Jane Austen – B+
46.  Emma, Jane Austen – I liked parts of this one more than P&P; A
47.  The Concrete Blonde, Michael Connelly – I’ve never read a courtroom drama before, but if they’re anything like this, I’m missing out. The second Harry Bosch book I’ve read, which makes me anxious to see the AmazonTV (or whatever it’s called) adaptation of this character; A+
48.  The Land that Time Forgot, Edgar Rice Burroughs – Apparently this is a trilogy, so I need to find and read the next two; B
49.  The Ascent of Rum Doodle, W.E. Bowman – I refuse to ruin anything about this gem of a book, but I will tell you it’s about mountain climbing, it's hilarious, and it's quite British; A+

And those are the 49! I know what #50 will be, but I won’t tell you until I finish it. If anyone has any guesses, feel free to share them with me. If you guess right, you’ll get a shout-out on the blog! Also, if you actually read the whole list, congratulations! I successfully wasted your time.

Special thanks to: my mom, for her Kindle; Amazon, for having so many free public domain books for the Kindle; Grinnell Library, for granting me access to an online eBook library.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Five Senses of Nepal - Taste

Note: Every time I pen a new one of these “sense posts,” I realize hours or days later that I forgot some interesting tidbit. However, I have to remember that these posts are only meant to be brief snapshots. There’s no way to convey to you, my readers, the full Nepal experience—even though I try.

Taste. This is where pretty much nothing is familiar. Even global brands and products—Kit-kats, Fanta, Oreos—taste completely different. Everything sweet uses sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. No one makes sliced bread properly outside of high-end restaurants—it’s always dry and crumbly, like the nasty gluten-free tapioca bread I tried once. Putting peanut butter on it is a nightmare, because I get more crumbs on the knife than PB on the bread. 

Even the fruit and vegetables are different: fresher, sweeter, and crisper, bursting with flavor. I actually like them now. Those of you who have known me a long time, remember the days of me picking anything green and red out of my food? Gone. Eating vegetables only with ketchup? Gone. Although I still despise scallions and green onions, due to bad timing with a bout of food poisoning. And I don’t like gundruk, a kind of collection of stewed dried spinach stalks. It’s like eating soup made of flower stems. And I also won’t eat anything bitter, like the (in)famous bitter gourd. I believe its Nepali name is kerala.

The point is, everything “grown” that we eat comes from either our garden or the market, not from a freezer or a truck of organic Californian produce that’s been on the road for a week. It’s nice to feel healthy. 

The spices, though. That’s where most of the distinct foreign flavor comes in. Every day, my host dad grinds up whatever spices he’s going to use with a well-worn mortar and pestle made from smooth black stone. No powdered stuff in jars for us! I can’t say I love all of the spices, but I do love getting the opportunity to try flavors that I never knew existed.

Even in Kathmandu, “familiar” foods don’t taste like you’d expect. Take pasta, for example. Everyone makes mini-Himalayas out of my spaghetti using yak cheese, which is a poor substitute for pecorino romano. And nobody can make tomato sauce or ketchup taste quite right. The only things that my taste buds recognize are the imports, and are they expensive: stale Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, 350 rupee bags of Twizzlers… The “national” chocolate of Nepal is Cadbury, which luckily, I’ve had before during my various trips to Europe. But boy, do I find myself missing Hershey’s sometimes.

Some Choice Foods

Suntala – This means "orange" in Nepali, but they are actually clementines the size of oranges. They are sweet and juicy and refreshing, but the seeds are a nuisance.

Mo:Mos – I’ve mentioned these before, but for a refresher, these are little dumplings stuffed with veggies, buffalo meat, or chicken, and they can be served steamed, fried, or in a spicy soup.

Chow Chow – That’s “Ramen” to you Americans. Often called the national snack food of Nepal, it’s commonly eaten crushed and dry straight out of the bag. 

Chaat Paati - A street food made from puffed rice, crushed chow chow, spicy dried chickpeas, raw onions, spiced potatoes, vinegar, and a spicy sauce. A great way to get heartburn.

Channa – Nepali for chickpeas. I loved chickpeas in the US, and I love them even more here. My favorite variety is channa masala, which is Indian in origin. However, it’s impolite to call them by their English name here, because “chick” sounds a lot like a Nepali curse word.

Mahchai – Stovetop popcorn! Delicious, unless it’s cooked with ghee – some sort of rancid-tasting butter derivative.

Dud – Nepali for milk. Milk shows up mostly in the form of chiya seto (milk tea) and milk-based candies. I’m not a big fan of the latter, because other than a nice texture, the sweets taste to me like someone mixed spoiled milk with loads of sugar.