The Highs and Lows of Himalayan Valley Life

We fast approach Month 3 and what can I say? It’s been an adventure. We have our routines, but this place is still daily on the surprises.

Let’s start with the house. This place is ridiculous.

Corinthian columns. Why not?

Corinthian columns. Why not?

When we first arrived to Patan (the kinder, gentler side of Kathmandu), we had a short window of time to find a house and leave the hotel/resort. Not just according to my contract, but also according to the chihuahua and hound. They grew tired of the humble twin bed and en suite bath even sooner than we did.

Mr. Lal was our first agent. A stout man. Always wears his traditional Nepali folded cap and wool blazer, no matter the humidity. He showed us a some decent places, but we’d soon learn they were already rented.

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Artist’s rendition

Santosh was next. Wild eyed and rapid-fire responding to every question with a firm “Okay! okay!” He showed us everything from a ramshackle with earthquake damage to a mansion on the hill. No middle ground though. Nothing we actually needed.

What we needed was a house with a bedroom, plus another space that could be used as an office/guest room. I needed kitchen space. The dogs needed a lawn. The agents were eager to show up places, but nothing in that Goldilocks “just right” zone. Nothing even close. Time was running short, and with the post-disaster housing shortage, we realized we may already be out of options.

That’s when the Mystery Man appeared. He took us to Doggie Heaven. It was the only property he showed. It was far larger than we needed, with a whopping three stories, four bedrooms, and a larger garden than we had back home. Additionally, the rent agreement included salary for a full-time gardener/guard.

Also, zombie-proof walls.

Also, zombie-proof walls.

Last year, we never thought we’d have to pay someone for lawn maintenance. Now, between our “home house” and “here house,” we’re paying two gardeners. The freaking Carnegies we are!

Pinkies up

We connected with Raja Ram, the owner of Doggie Heaven and had a nice chat. We agreed to reconvene once a rent agreement was written. Three days later, he was speaking in abstractions about maybe not wanting to rent the place, maybe moving his sons in, and on and on. Essentially, this was code for “let’s renegotiate the rent.” There was much drinking of tea, wagging of heads, and speaking in loquacious formalities. We finally got ink on paper and began our move from the hotel.

Breeze blew back Boo’s ears as she cast her snout into the wind, riding next to me in the bed of a panel truck, swerving through traffic with the typical local fatalistic attitude, surrounded by our suitcases and recently arrived air freight. Surely, I thought, she senses that freedom is just down the road. We rolled through the massive iron gate, down the drive, and the dogs leapt from the truck to immediately mark every tree and bush in sight.

That's a lot of marking to do!

That’s a lot of marking to do!

That was some time ago, but it feels as if we’re still moving in. We bought some very affordable wicker furniture, and Raja Ram is “storing” his sofas here. We’re free to use them, he says, until the day comes that he decides to move us out.

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Another day in Doggie Heaven

The dogs are certainly at home now. However, while Floyd follows Fiona everywhere she goes, Boo refuses to go up to the roof. And for good reason. While we were house hunting, I noticed some people kept pets on the roof. Made sense. Rooftop terraces are very common here. Plenty of fresh air, shade, room to run around. What’s not to love?

Boo is definitely not in love with roofs. We tried to keep her up there… once. She literally ripped apart the screen, the wire mesh, and the door frame itself. Ever since then, she refuses to ascend past the second floor.

Nope nope nope nope nope...

Nope nope nope nope nope…

Too bad. The view is terrific. Afternoon sundowners. Garden terraces adjacent to slums. Few satellite dishes, many solar water heaters. High rise offices and residencies hastily abandoned in the seismic wake of April and May. Sometimes we see evidence of squatters through the dusty, unkempt panes of glass. Pigeons and kites (both the avian and handmade varieties) harmoniously share airspace, until the evening opens the stage to hawk-sized fruit bats. A haze of dust and mist and burning rubbish against the deep green hills that roll into purple mountains that eventually, with enough time and patience and willpower, roll into the permanently snow-capped Himalayas. 

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It’s okay, I guess.

The smog would typically be worse, but there’s a fuel shortage on. Buses line the ring road, waiting for fuel, rooftop racks packed with after-work commuters. Taxis in another line, another part of town, abandoned of their drivers. Not until tomorrow will their pumps open for business. Or so the attendants claim. Anybody’s guess when the army of scooters, mopeds, and motorcycles will remobilize. Paramilitary police stand idly, to ensure everyone behaves nicely. 

Meanwhile, my commute as of recent weeks has been relatively free of belching diesel exhaust, maverick motorists, and crowded lanes. Selfish as it sounds, there’s never been a better time or place to be a cyclist. For now, I own the roads.  

Ah, local recreation. We’ve done a few rides into the surrounding rice fields, and the scenery is always magnificent.

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Exhibit A

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Exhibit B

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Exhibit C

Sometimes we go with a group; more often it’s just us. As always, we get lost. As always, that’s half the fun.

I’m thankful we invested in mountain bikes and not road bikes. The day-to-day work commute is brutal enough: roads pockmarked with potholes or suddenly absent any paving at all, that makes for adventuresome cycling. Get out into the countryside though, and that’s cowboy country. Asphalt gives way to brick, brick gives way to dirt, dirt gives way to goat trails. Even the skinniest path may be shared by motorbikes, cycles, cows, shepherds, farmers, laborers hauling a half-ton of bricks in a thatch basket strapped around their forehead… it’s anyone’s guess what will be around the next bend.

Fiona just left for a run with Boo. We’re trying to figure out how to hike the dogs through the countryside, but 1. they don’t ride bikes and 2. with the fuel shortages, taxi drivers aren’t enthusiastic to take folks into the surrounding hills, much less with two dogs. There are a few walking and running routes from our gate, however. For example, the Mürderhörn: a gentle slope down across the chaotic ring road, over a bridge, then more or less straight up at a nosebleed pace for a couple more miles. Dogs love that one.

Then there are the back alleys. More than a month passed before we learned of the brick-paved labyrinth that weaves through the residential sections of Patan. It’s a bit like human-scale Pac-Man.

Oops. That lane is a dead-end.

Uh oh! Pack of murder-eyed street dogs around that blind corner!

Oh snap! Produce cart! Oranges!

Low hanging fruit from the pomelo tree! One hundred points.

Agh! More dogs! Lose a turn.

Wait, why does it feel like I just came out the same side of the alley that I first went into?

Super bonus! Landed at Suraj Shop!

Ian welcomes me to the Shop with a cold cheap beer.

Ian welcomes me to the Shop with a cheap cold beer.

A word about Suraj and his shop. There are a couple of folks with whom I TGIF on the regular. One evening, the hours ran long, and when I’d normally be headed home, my friend Ian suggested I join him for the cheapest, coldest beer in town. I pictured a locals-only bar, full of working class Nepalis drinking half-liters of Strong and smoking ragged clove cigarettes. Something that Bruce Springsteen would sing about, if New Jersey were closer to the Himalayas.

Suraj Shop is way quainter, and more inviting. Suraj is the shop owner by inheritance, and a longtime friend of Ian by proximal association: during Ian’s earliest months in country, Suraj’s was the closest shop for beer and other sundries.

By “shop,” don’t imagine a grocery store or even a 7-11. It’s basically a corner bodega with little room for much more than a glass counter, small fridge, and shelves packed with inventory. It looks small, but Suraj Shop stocks everything from toiletries to instant noodles to newspapers to soft drinks to… you guessed it, cheap cold beer.

So we sit on the benches, right there in front of the Suraj Shop. We drink cheap cold beer in the open air and watch the night’s pedestrian traffic. Sometimes it’s an extended Friday night, sometimes it’s a dog walk break on a Tuesday evening. Hawkers sell fruits, vegetables, and paper cones full of spicy puffed rice. Kids run around, oblivious of bedtime. Policemen walk by, festooned in their riot gear and camouflage, brandishing birch canes or shotguns, smiling and laughing and holding hands (it’s not gay, it’s Nepal). The patrons of Suraj Shop share stories of love, travel, and trouble. And the cheap cold beer keeps on coming.

While nights are never dull, daytime is prime time for people-watching. Interesting coincidence that our preferred watering hole is a short jaunt uphill from the literal watering hole used by the local residents for laundry and bathing. Saturdays, everyone sees to their domestic details. Whole families carrying clothes up and down, usually packed like a Jenga set on the back of a motorbike, though lately, they’re more likely on foot or on the back of a pedal-powered lorry.

Most every Saturday, Suraj Shop is the rendezvous spot from where we’ll leave for a day of eating grilled animal parts and drinking chyang (homemade rice beer). Sometimes we grill right there on the stoop. The dogs are always welcome. And man, do they love barbecue day! There comes a point when they truly cannot eat one more piece of tendon or gristle.

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Suraj. He’s the guy on the right.

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Marinated chicken, wood-fired grill.

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Good times at the Shop.

The local chow here is rustic yet amazing. Most people who’ve traveled through Nepal know dal bhat, essentially rice and lentils. It’s basic, it’s filling, and people will tell you it’s all locals eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

I’m here to tell you those people either haven’t visited Nepal since the 1990’s, or they weren’t paying attention.

An easy way to categorize and compare area cuisines is by ethnicity, because foods can’t join the ACLU.

A typical Thakali plate features a central heap of steamed rice, surrounded by little dishes full of stewed meats and vegetables, starchy tubers, sweet and savory gravies, and slap-my-face spicy, sour pickles. A formidable meal!

Photo credit: ECS Nepal

Generations of exiled Tibetans have revised local palates with a lengthy menu of earthy, hearty, and sometimes bizarre foods. Tibetan tea for example, made with yak milk and who knows what else, is reportedly ideal for cold nights and high altitudes, but if your mouth isn’t expecting a warm yet salty yet almost chowdery sensation, that may be the last time you take on Tibetan tea.

Tibetan thukpa though, is phenomenal. Pleasantly warming, cheap as chips, and totally filling on any occasion, this hearty chicken soup hits the spot no matter the season.

Now, Nawari food? That’s my jam. Nothing says “back to fundamentals” like butchering a whole damn animal and finding a way to cook every square inch of it.

For example, what happens to this adorable goat?

Sorry, what?

When our Saturday supper club goes out to the villages, it’s always for Nawari. Pictured here, you’ll see a typical dining experience.

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Let’s see what’s left on this table (actually, a mat on the floor). There’s dried, spiced, aged buffalo. There’s blanched buffalo tongue, served with local spices. In the foreground is a fermented lentil cake stuffed with ground buffalo, topped with a goose egg, and smothered in buffalo gravy.

Those two empty bowls used to be full of livers, gizzards, and an assortment of other parts that get collectively marinated and slow cooked. To eat, one scoops up roasted, flattened grains of rice then dips that into a dish of whatever is nearby.

Most importantly, wash everything down with frequent gulps of chyang, that rice beer I mentioned. Every brewer in every village makes it a little different, and the batch must be consumed within 24 hours — no hops or other preservatives to keep it any longer.

Cloudy white and slightly sour, to drink chyang is like drinking a dream. It’s the Little White Fairy. With each sip, my mind wanders further. I notice the pigeons. I notice the sound of wind passing peacefully through the valley dell. I notice there’s still a few pieces of kidney. I notice they colors of the sun and forget about the kidney. It’s like my old friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said…

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Milk of paradise. Pretty sure we’re talking about chyang, Sam.

At the time of writing, Dashain (dee-shy) is on. Suraj tried to explain it to me one day. Every day, for many, many days, there are tributes one is expected to make in honor of various Hindu deities. I still don’t completely understand how it all works. Today for example, devotees will bring home stalks of sugarcane and fistfuls of ginger, to be placed upon the family shrine alongside silt from the Bagmati River.

I’m left wondering, what happens to the ginger? Doesn’t it wilt? Or get moldy? Does it attract flies? At what point do you remove it? Do you have to burn it or something, or just toss it in the bin?

Suraj just stares at me like I’m an idiot.

What I do know is Dashain is remarkably similar to Thanksgiving, except instead of eating your weight in food over the course of one day, you eat and don’t stop eating for about 10 days. And like Thanksgiving, a medley of wine, beer, and local spirits is mixed in, so the equivalent of a turkey nap is part of the formula.

Suraj has promised to get me out to his sister’s house for one of the feasts, but I think he’s a little concerned I’ll ask too many damn questions.

For example, what happens to this adorable goat?

For example, what happens to this adorable goat?

Then we’ve got the chariot phallus.

The chariot phallus, four stories high and of incalculable girth, tours but once every 12 years. Senselessly bold, virile young men scale this gargantuan knob as it sways to and fro at angles that defy physics and engineering. All the while, the cucumber-shaped leviathan rolls on chariot wheels, powered by white-clad worshippers who tug away at massively thick shipping lines, the sort one may have found on Melville’s Pequot. See what I did there?

Can't... take... any... more... double entendres!

Can’t… take… any… more… double entendres!

Like any ceremonial protrusion, the popular belief is that by touching the tip of the elongated mushroom, you ensure prosperity and fertility in the year ahead. For that reason, the eminent eminence traditionally pops up in springtime. Unfortunately, the April quake, err… blocked it. Anticlimactic, I know.

Now, in the fall, it is the phallus chariot that does all the blocking. Like some sort of hentai nightmare, the cucumber-shaped leviathan rampages through the city, surrounded by throbbing crowds, confused commuters, and pushcart vendors with their balloons and cotton candy.

I had no prior context for this event, back in late September.

It was a long afternoon at work. Fiona, imparting the advice of our housekeeper, suggested I commute by back roads for the rest of the day and evening. “Some event” was slowing traffic. Headstrong as always, I reckoned my bicycle could easily get me through any rush hour. So down the road I went.

The first thing I noticed was the linemen, scaling power poles and clipping cables with wanton abandon. With their flip-flops and lack of any safety gear, I surmised they were not employees of the utility company. How odd.

Next, as predicted, traffic thickened to a crawl, then a parking lot. The spaces between cars filled with motorbikes, the spaces between motorbikes filled with people like me, struggling to push through a bicycle.

Hmm. Maybe I should start looking for one of my back alleys.

A regiment of gurkha soldiers paraded towards me, playing flutes.

Seriously, what is going on today? 

The flautists’ function, I’d soon learn, is not to make merry. The woodwinds are a signal to either thrust yourself into the approaching morass of religious ecstasy, or get the hell out of the way.

And that is when I saw it. Coming into view, just the tip at first, around a gentle turn in the road. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first.

If you’re a Cold War nerd like me, you know how this works. You see the flash, then the mushroom cloud. Duck? Cover? Forget it. Because the shockwave hits in 3… 2…

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Cue the ocean of people. See gurkhas in black and white regalia on the right.

At the risk of using a trite metaphor, I found myself instantaneously drowning in a sea of people, no rudder, no sail, no emergency flare.

My mind flashed back to the race riots that used to happen at my high school football games. That horrific feeling of no way out, no escape, no control.

Also, this scene from “Akira”

The good news, the unruly mob was super friendly. I pieced together that this was a religious festival and not a political demonstration. A few people noticed I was clearly in the wrong place, wrong time, and gently escorted me out of the current, smiling all the while. From there, I was able to observe from a safe distance. 

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Honey? Going to be late. Yeah, I know. Chariot phallus.

I finally maneuvered to a back alley and made my way home. Fiona had been smugly watching the spectacle from the roof. For dinner, I was served a heaping plateful of “told you so.”

In summary then, the greater Kathmandu area has opened up a world of outdoor adventure, exotic food, and colorful festivals. I’d leave it at that, but there’s one final face of Nepal that must be acknowledged: The Vivid, Raw Humanity.

It’s the taxi driver next to an idle cab, staring up at the sky as if in silent prayer, because petrol prices have driven up his fares, and no one can afford his fares because everything else is more expensive. He takes out a dust rag and starts dusting, because what else is there to do?

It’s the street dogs. Oh, the street dogs. Sometimes roaming in packs, more often running solo, scavenging through street side piles of rubbish (oh, the rubbish). Covered in mange, sores, scabs. Tails between legs, a limping leg here, a protruding bone there. There are some local and international groups that try to help with spaying and veterinary needs, but this is a culture where dogs are for outside. The mentality: Let Darwin sort them out.

It’s the desperate eyes of the pushcart produce vendors, who will never sell all those apples. Of the old barefooted man fixing people’s shoes on the sidewalk. Of the child with Downs Syndrome who’s only been taught how to ask strangers for money.

It’s the single mother and three tots huddled in a doorway, distended bellies all around, filthy, surrounded by rubble.

The long rows of tarpaulin tents along the sewage-filled Bagmati River.

No secret they had an earthquake. But things weren’t so hot before the quake either. Walking around, you’ll see a collapsed building, bricks spilling into the street, steel and wires poking out in every direction, and the first thought that comes to mind: was that from before April, or after?

I’m not trying to go Sally Struthers on you here. I just need everyone to know the dimensions that make up a very complicated Nepal.

Brief history lesson: Nepal has fought for centuries to maintain its nationhood. They fought China, they fought Britain, they fought India, and they fought themselves. Through it all, they remained autonomous. But it cost them.

Nepal places in the bottom 20 for poorest nations on earth. This is due to a series of questionable governmental decisions (acceptance of foreign aid packages with unscrupulous payback conditions) and plain bad luck (landslides, famines, earthquakes).

Not to mention the political strife! In 1996, Maoist separatists launched a 10 year civil war. In 2001, the crown prince gunned down his entire family, then himself. Shortly after, his uncle, technically the heir, decided that in order to best defeat the Maoists he should dissolve the ministries and establish a totalitarian monarchy. And to top it off, the country’s main supply route is periodically blockaded because of India. Or Nepali separatists. Or China. Depends on which year, and who you’re asking.

YET.

Where some countries would give up (looking at you, Somalia), Nepal jumps back into the ring. Again and again and again.

This month, Nepal drafted the world’s youngest constitution, within only a few short years of abolishing the monarchy and establishing a republic. They’re the first country in South Asia to legalize gay marriage. And right now, just outside my window, dance music resonates from neighboring homes. Nepalis may not have financial security or stably built houses or a five-year plan but it’s Dashain and it’s time to celebrate. 

I’ve sort of fallen in love with Nepali people. The other day my bike chain fell off and a dude dropped what he was doing and came to help. Not unusual. Things like that happen all the time. Other parts of Asia, people tend to exist in bubbles.

Wow, that guy just smashed into a car! He looks hurt! Glad it wasn’t me! 

I’ve worked with some truly selfless individuals and groups as of late, and I feel pretty crap for not being more like them. Sudip Lingthep is one guy who comes to mind.

We met through the “Ride for Light,” an event he organized a few weeks back. Proceeds went directly to the purchase of solar panels for villagers in remote Dhading, which was leveled by the quake.

Delivering power to the people.

Delivering power to the people.

That disaster served as a wake-up call for Sudip. Though his own home was damaged, he realized he still had so much more than others. He sold his motorbike (imagine for a moment, selling your car), and that was the nest egg for his charity work.

He and his friend Bishall have organized and directly participated in a number of supply runs to badly impacted villages. What separates them from large charities like WFP and Red Cross (not to speak ill of any charitable work) is their ability to work on a micro scale. Where the larger charities get their supply trucks stuck at the bottom of a muddy hill, Sudip, Bishall, and their volunteers are getting up that hill on bikes or in boots, whatever it takes.

If you’re interested in contributing to his efforts, drop me a line and I can facilitate.

There are other people working to make Nepal a better place as well.

Our dear friend Doreen Johnstone we knew in Borneo. She’s what you might call an Old Nepal Hand, having worked in the countryside for years, mostly in education. At 74 years young, she is a good will powerhouse. Her charity, Book Reach, works something like this:

  1. Schools in Nepal, especially rural schools, need English language books desperately. Like in so many other countries, English is the money language. Fluency in English is a path out of poverty.
  2. Schools around the world, especially private and international schools, have English language books. More than they need. Every year, school librarians purge the stacks of books that are outdated, unpopular, whatever the reason may be.
  3. Doreen reaches out to those schools with the surplus books. They’re happy to donate — frees up storage space! She organizes the logistics of shipping, receiving, customs out, customs in, and so on. If she’s lucky, she can get a major air carrier to foot the bill, but that doesn’t always happen.
  4. Doreen flies into Kathmandu twice a year, where the Ministry of Education offices receive the books. She gets the books out to area schools.
  5. Doreen visits the area schools periodically to see how teachers are using them. She coaches teachers on how to use them better.

In essence, Doreen does the job of an entire NGO. She relies on donations for her airfare into country, as well as other associated costs. What donations don’t cover, she pays for out-of-pocket. Which is easy, because she’s the heiress to a family fortune. Ha! Just kidding. She’s a substitute teacher. She also sells Nepali shawls.

This box? 200 kilos. No big deal.

This box? 200 kilos. No big deal.

I’ll say that again. Doreen, a substitute teacher, at age 74, runs Book Reach entirely on her own, aided only by shawl shipments and the kindness of strangers. She’s pulling kids out of poverty. She loves what she does.

The strangest of strangers...

The strangest of strangers…

Sound like someone you’d like to help? It’s easy. She has a PayPal set up.

Finally on the list, I have to plug my own school’s fundraising efforts. TBS has been long involved in projects involving some of Nepal’s neediest schools. When I say “involved,” I mean that in the most direct sense of the word. Everyone — students, teachers, even the head of school — travel out to the sites, some which are very remote, to do good work.

Two of the schools serve Nepali students with disabilities, and the quake added a new dimension to the support those schools require. The third project, in the aforementioned village of Dhading, is a major focus this year due to the unfathomable scale of damage done in that area. TBS is rebuilding three schools there.

As with the other two charities, all contributions to the TBS Community Service fund (donate here) go directly to the charitable work. No one pockets any money, there are no CEO or coordinator salaries being paid here. Definitely no “awareness campaigns” or champagne fundraisers either. The PR for these charities comes exclusively by word of mouth, and costs as much as it cost me to publish this blog today (so, nothing).

I wish all the news to report from Nepal was good news, but some things really suck for local people right now. Please do consider a charitable gift as we move into the holiday season. Even small amounts will go a very long way. In turn, Fiona and I will keep finding ways to stay directly involved with helping out when and where we can. I’d like to think that together, we can make this funny little corner of the world a better place for everyone.

One thought on “The Highs and Lows of Himalayan Valley Life

  1. Pingback: End of an era: Final days in Kathmandu | Deep South Refugee

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