Monday, June 30, 2008

The world's only Hindu monarchy - abolished.
The Monarch - out of the palace and out of office.
The Palace - soon to open as a national museum.
The Monarch's money - ?????
UNMIN and Carter Center - on their way out of the country, their mission accomplished (?)
Ongoing violence - Minimal
Prime Minister Koirala - resigned
The major political parties: Nepali Congress (good old power party democrats), Maoists (former insurgents), United Marxist-Leninists(middle of the road) - at least at the table together working through the issues.

Major issues on the table:
THE BIG ONE: What to do with the Maoist army? Merge with the Nepali army or military policy? Continue as a separate "security" force?
The roles of the office of prime minister and newly created postions of President and V.P.
Which policies, laws, etc. require a 2/3 majority (this favors the NC, UML) and which ones require a simple majority (favors the Maoists.)
Resolution of land disputes (land taken during the insurgency.)
Accounting of the "disappeared" people - this number is somewhere between 796 (Govt. figures) to around 1800 (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.)

"It's Always Something." This is my favorite new phrase that I hear uttered almost everyday from one of my Nepali friends. Could be about a strike, a protest, a fuel hike, or party walkout during the new government talks, or a big monsoon rain. This time it's about the Madhesi party's walkout and demand that they be declared an "autonomous state." ("If the Tibetans can do it in China, why can't we?") The Madhesi ethnic group is one that was totally marginalized under the Monarchy. No voice. No input. Funny thing is that they are one of the most populous groups and they control the Terai - the delta-like region between Kathmandu and India. They are not aligned with the old parties (NC and UML) or the Maoists. Negotiations are underway but if they don't go well we are prepared to live under another strike. The Madhesis threaten to block the transport of petrol and all other goods from India. Basically, if this happens, those of us in Kathmandu are without transportation and power...again.

Stay tuned!

One of the overarching themes of my time here in Kathmandu is the juxtaposition of grass roots flavor in this urban (population 600,000+), nation's capital, INGO office (right down the street from the Prime Minister's residence) environment. Nepal is also a country that is home to UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

[OK, Jehan Raheem...NOW I get it! DUH!]

Everyday we are faced with these seemingly contradictory and paradoxical images and experiences:

  • Riding in a taxi through these crowded and noisy urban streets next to a human-powered bicycle rickshaw then stopping for several minutes while a group of cows crosses the street.
  • Sitting in an internet cafe, across from a temple in Durbar Square (a UNESCO site)in order to email a work document in to school or the office...when the two-hour rolling power blackout descends.
  • Upper middle class Nepali women draped in their colorful silk saris and gold jewelry walking through the garbage piles on their way to a day of shopping.
  • External work deadlines to meet on a day when the Internet is down all day.
  • Smartly dressed businessmen walking to their jobs in banking or retail because they can't obtain petrol or can't find a taxi willing to cross the strike line.
  • Walking by an office building beside a man carrying a refrigerator or 5 computers on his back balanced by his forehead strap.
  • Travelling to the office of a major INGO (Poverty Alleviation Fund/World Bank) down a muddy alleyway with goats grazing on the side.
  • Schools closed and business meetings cancelled because of transportation strikes or political protests...or lack of texting printing!
Last week was really challenging with the total transportation strike held everyday but one. For fun I sat down and counted the lost hours or hours I spent getting things done above and beyond what I would've spent on these things in my simple professional life in Little Rock. Here are my findings:

I spent 9 hours walking to and from work.
I spent 6 hours without power during hours I had planned to work on my documents for READ.
I spent 5 extra hours dealing with technology issues: locating internet access; printing problems; booting up email, etc....including waiting on other staff members who are dealing with their very own technology issues.

My Nepali friends remind me of how much better it is now than during the time of the Maoist-led conflict. During that time, the blackouts lasted for several hours a day; transportation strikes lasted for weeks at a time and petrol shortages were a daily crisis. Layered upon that was the very real fear of violence, kidnappings, extortions, and daily protests.

Maintaining patience and perspective are important skills here!

Monday, June 23, 2008

On Saturday I walked with Carly (on her way to work) as far as Swayambu, the "Monkey Temple". It's one of Nepal's most sacred sites perched high on a hill in western Kathmandu. - second only to the great Boudhanath Stupa to the East (the one we did not get to visit because of the "bandh" or transportation strike.) It is also a residence for exiled monks from Tibet.

Each morning before dawn, hundreds of pilgrims ascend the 365 steps from eastern side that lead up the hill, passing the two lions guarding the entrance, and begin a series of clockwise circumambulations of the stupa - spinning the prayer wheels as they go. There are a number of white stupas on the way up and a very large one on top with Buddha's eyes watching over the Kathmandu Valley. The view of the valley would be nice except for the smog - alas!

As with most holy sites in Nepal, Swayambu is revered and shared by Buddhists and Hindus alike. It dates back to 640 CE as confirmed by an engraved stone found at the site. Mythology holds that the entire valley was once filled with an enormous lake, out of which grew a lotus. The valley came to be known as Swayambu, meaning "Self-Created." Bodhisatva Manjushri had a vision of the lotus at Swayambhu and traveled there to worship it. Seeing that the valley can be good settlement and to make the site more accessible to human pilgrims, Manjushri cut a gorge at that drained the water drained out of the lake, leaving the valley in which Kathmandu now lies. The lotus was transformed into a hill and the flower become the Swayambhunath stupa. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it!

Carly's new friend, Shiv, invited us to World Festival 2008 at Restaurant 1905. Shiv is in his 20's but was educated in the U.S. and the U.K. The fest was outside under a tent in a pretty cool garden atmosphere - so I have discovered now four zones of peace and quiet in the midst of hectic, noisy, smoggy Kathmandu.

In the photo is the band, Kumbuta, an instrumental Nepali folk band. There were a total of 9 people on the stage so there was lot going on - musically. Their percussion was awesome and I thought the guitar player was soulfully into his music. The festival was sponsored by World Arts Forum, an organization focused on stimulating and supporting the Arts in Nepal.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


In America we have all lived through (in the big cities) or have heard of a sanitation worker, fireman, or other sort of strike. We have them but they are not common. In Nepal, there is some sort of strike nearly everyday. It is usually a transportation strike,and the buses, microbuses, and safa tempos do not run. Sometimes the strikes happen because of petrol prices; sometimes because of a non-transportation-related political protest; sometimes because a bus or taxi driver have been robbed, or even worse, stabbed. I take a taxi to work and have luckily found a very polite Buddhist driver that I meet each morning. Some mornings we are on our merry way then encounter a strike-related road block. It might just be the traffic police directing us another way or maybe buses parked horizontally across the road, blocking it. It might be students or young men protesting on the street corners and interfering with traffic flow at the intersections. Remember that most people go to work and other places here in Nepal via public transportation. BIG problem. I'm glad I am living here so I can begin to understand some of the reasons why, experientially, things evolve so slowly. Getting work done, running errands and accomplishing the chores of everyday life take a LOT of effort, planning and energy here in Nepal. It is tough.

There are other strikes as well. This week we have lived through a strike that prevented the garbage from being picked up for a week. This photo shows the normal amount of trash we have in our alleyway. (That is a shrine in the background. They are on every corner of Kathmandu.) In a normal week here in Kathmandu, everyone throws their trash out in the street (like American 40 years ago) and it gets swept into a pile to be picked up weekly. This week our little trash pile was three time as high and smelled pretty ripe. On the main streets the trash piles were so large that they were obstructing the curb-side lanes of traffic.
We have strikes in the Terai region, to the South, where the some of the residents block the delivery of petrol from India to Kathmandu. This also brings transportation to a near standstill.
No matter where they occur in the West or in developing countries, strikes are a form of (usually) non-violent social protest that occur when the government is not working well or is not listening to a marginalized or disempowered group of its citzenry. When you think of strikes in those terms, it is easy to see why there are so many strikes in Nepal.

As President Clinton has explained: 'The difference between Americans and the people of the developing countries is not based on intelligence, resourcefulness, energy, enthusiasm, or even money. The difference is that in America we can consistently depend on our infrastructure: garbage pickup; transportation; mail delivery; electricity; clean tap water; flushable toilets; police and fire protection; offices and stores being open as advertised; delivery of food and other items to the stores; open schools (schools were closed for three weeks earlier in June because textbook printing was behind); and on and on.
I think I am beginning to get it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

This weekend the Kathmandu Three enjoyed a weekend together in the countryside in the villages of Bhaktapur, Duwakot and Nagarkot. These three are all still in Kathmandu Valley but definitely away from the noise and pollution of the city. Molly was already in Duwakot as that is where she lives and teaches school. She lives with a family there and the son is the principal of the school. Carly and I took the public bus to Bhaktapur - another hair raising experience. The taxi drivers were striking and when there is a strike you never know what to expect. We did have to get off our first bus and walk a few minutes to get on another one. Luckily, a Nepali student who spoke a little English helped us transfer to the correct 2nd bus. The two of us first enjoyed Bhaktapur which is a well-preserved old city with no noise or pollution. We had tea and yogurt in their Durbar Square, and checked out all of the old temples. The people of Bhaktapur are known for their woodworking and pottery and I have enclosed a photo from Pottery Square.

Then, after obtaining "directions" Carly and I began our reported-to-be 30 minute walk to Duwakot. Well, we turn the wrong path at some point and ended up walking down a double-track wagon road through the rice paddies. Beautiful. A girl that we had passed earlier came to the rescue and walked with us the rest of the way. The Nepali people are amazing! We made it to the village as a monsoon rain began so we were lucky. We stayed with Molly's family which is mother, 2 sons, daughter-in law and grandson. It is a grand 4-story house with concrete floors. We ate the traditional Dal Bhat meal and watched the father and sons who are masters at the eating-with-fingers part.

Our prayers were answered when the rain ended by sun up and we were able to journey on to Nagarkot, elevation 7200 feet. From there, when it is not the monsoon season, you can grab a view of Everest and the Himalayas. However the monsoon resumed the evening we arrived and we were not that lucky. Molly, Carly and I beat the blues by drinking beer and playing Rummy all evening in the hotel restaurant. We also had a strange conversation a Tibetan Buddhist monk who lives here and was tour guide for a group who didn't seem that happy with their tour guide. The next morning we did enjoy some amazing views and went for a hike guided by Dipendra, a young local we met that morning. He took us through down to a rim trail that meandered by homes and schools. He did this for us just because he enjoyed meeting people and wanted to practive his English. He was just the most gracious young man.
Wait, did I tell you that the Nepali people are amazing?
Today, Molly left for her work in India. :-((((

Garden of Dreams

Nepal has beautiful scenes of valleys, snow-capped mountains, lush green forests, holy temples, elegant huts, and wonderful smiles of Nepali people. Nepal also has scenes of pollution - Dust and smoke in the winds, paper and plastic littering everywhere, over flown garbage containers, and spittle makes up the most of the city experience in Nepal.
But don't despair. The Kathmandu Three have discovered a little bit of heaven in the middle of the noisy, busy city. It's called the Garden of Dreams and was refurbished in 2007. Molly and I have ducked in a couple of times for some green space, peace and quiet. It has a number of babbling water features that can soothe our frazzled nerves. Enjoy the photos!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

My Cohort

Two of the people I spend the most work time with are Sharad Babu Shrestha, Country Director of READ Nepal (left), and Indra Bhujel, Program Officer. This week I have been working with Indra on a proposal to Rotary International for training and deploying Auxilary Nurse Midwives in 3 of the rural districts in Nepal. Indra knows very little about maternity health and I know very little about rural Nepal so we are a very good team ;-)!
Also, Indra gets my sense of humor so that helps me alot. Last night the three of us attended a Rotary Club meeting and "high tea" at a swanky hotel. There also was Shanti, a woman entrepreneur who has befriended me. She started, with Oxfam and UNICEF funds, a women's fair trade and handicraft cooperative called Sana Hastekala. ( They sell to 10,000 villages worldwide. Shanti's business is the production of this beautiful fibered Nepali paper. She has opened a number of factories in Nepal, helping the rural communites to improve the economy and quality of life for it's citizens. Check it out! Namaste!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Well here's my little domain, my room on the third floor of the Himalaya Guest House on Freak Street in the Basantapur neighborhood of Kathmandu. Our house is down an alleyway off the street. The Nepali name for our street is Jhocchen but was renamed in the '60's when all of the American and European hippies visited Kathmandu. Locals tell me that hashish really was openly smoked back in the day. The hippies used to sit on the steps on the temples in Durbar Square (right around the corner) and smoke all day. The neighborhood has lost much of that vibe to Thamel.

I know Krishna who does runs the cleaners and also a pretty sweet handicraft cooperative. He supports 50 women in his home village by selling their work. We also know the guys who staff the Internet cafe - and also happen to run Ganesh restaurant where we eat our momos and drink beer.
My room is about 10ft. x 10ft. It's sort of like church camp but without the bunk beds. I also my own bathroom and shower. The shower and toilet are combined so the toilet seat is always wet.
There is no A/C but a large overhead fan. I sleep with the windows open which brings a nice breeze. There are very few mosquitoes here so having the windows open even without screens is not a problem. Yes, all of you people working in India can be jealous. The downside is that the dogs bark all night and the neighborhood wakes up at 5am. Also, the trash piled in the street is burned which brings an indescribable aroma to the rooms! Sometimes, though, the smell of incense wafts in as people go about their worship.

Today, it is final. The King, the Monarch, moved out of the royal palace. He addressed his former kingdom tonight via television for almost two hours. Important closure for the people...the address, that is.

From the Himalayan Times:

Nepal's ousted king Gyanendra today said that he decided to leave the Narayanhity Royal Palace honouring the people’s verdict. He also accepted the Constituent Assembly’s decision to implement the federal democratic republic in the country.Addressing mediapersons at Narayanhity Royal palace before leaving for Nagarjun, Gyanendra also said that he handed over his crown and sceptre to the Nepal government.

The new Republic of Nepal is still in the very formative stages but there has been progress made. The leaders of the various parties are actually collaborating and working out the responsibilities of the President and Vice-President, two new posts, and the remaining powers for the Prime Minister. All agree that the three posts should not be held by members of the same party as that would be against the people's mandate. It's been a peaceful transition far.

Moni Mulepati

Carly and I (and Molly when she's in town) are staying with the Mulepati family at the Himalaya’s Guest House in the Basantapur neighborhood of Kathmandu. They are a pretty cool family. Mom and Dad (Mohan) are very sweet and their children are awesome. They are from the Kathmandu Valley Newari ethnic group. Moni and Monish currently live in the house with us. There is another sister who is currently in Australia. Monish is our official host, tour guide and all-around support system. Moni is now married to Pem Dorjee Sherpa and they have the cutest one-year old daughter. Pem and Moni are both climbers and met while members of a group who were training to crest Mt. Everest. They achieved their goal in 2005. Not only that, they were married at the summit. Also of interest was the stir each created by marrying outside their ethnic group – a pretty big deal in Nepal. Moni and Pem have turned their passion for climbing into a mission to bring development to Pem’s home village. They bring groups from the U.S. to Nepal to trek and then ask them to help the village. This September a group of dentists is coming to the Himalayas for a trekking expedition followed by the hosting of a dental camp in Pem’s village.

Here’s a 2005 BBC story on Pem and Moni:
Wedding on top of Mount Everest
A Nepalese couple have exchanged wedding vows on top of Mount Everest, the first people ever to marry there. They briefly took off their oxygen masks and put on plastic garlands, while the groom symbolicallyapplied red powder on the bride's forehead. Moni Mule Pati and Pem Dorjee Sherpa were part of the Rotary Centennial Everest Expedition earlier this week. They had kept the plan secret as there was no guarantee they would reach the top of the world's highest peak.

The couple stayed on the peak for a mere 10 minutes which gave enough time for the ceremony and for friends to take photos. Other climbers were "very surprised, they are really shocked" Ms Mulepati told the BBC's Newshour programme.
They plan to hold a more formal ceremony soon.

Interracial marriage
Mr Dorjee said other couples had wanted to do the same in the past, but none had managed because they could not get up on top of the peak together. Fearing the same possibility, they had kept their own plan secret. The surprised families have welcomed the marriage, which is also unusual because it cuts across Nepal's deep-rooted caste and ethnic divisions. "If some people are loving each other they have to get married," Pem Dorjee told the BBC. "That's why we want to give all Nepali people [the message] that people are people so there's no problem about caste."
One Nepalese paper joked that this was a marriage which, if not made in heaven, was solemnised closest to it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

(This one's for you Kari Mogensen!)
Here in Nepal, we are challenged by our lack of modern technology and I am convicted everyday about how dependent on it we really are. Here's a sampling of our woes:
*Rolling blackouts. These are scheduled power outtages designed to save? ration? electricity. The power is out each day for about two hours. They are supposed to follow a posted schedule but they don't. You may be right in the middle of something then ***POOF***! It's frequently in the evening which means it's dark inside. I usually have enough battery power on my laptop to work for a while. Of course, this means the fans are off and our rooms get hot.
*No A/C. Can I just tell you how 'bourgeious' spoiled I am and love my A/C? It's the worst at my office in the afternoon. I just get too hot to think. Of course, I was prepared for this one but, still... It's been a bit cooler since the monsoons have begun.
*The Monsoon Season. Our favorite internet cafe requires that you step down into it off the street. This means that during a rainstorm it floods and closes!
*Windows '98. Most of the computers in the internet cafes are Windows 98 or worse with very little memory. Also, the cafe owners don't clean out their temporary internet files. I just do it for them. This, of course, means that uploading photos is almost out of the question. I have circumvented that by creating Picasa web albums and just pasting the link to those in the blog.
Also, my email takes 30-40 minutes to load up at work. In the afternoon when lots of people in the area are on their PCs the available bandwidth sucks!
*No computer at work. This means I have to carry my laptop everyday. I must tell you that I am the ONLY person I have ever seen on the street of Kathmandu with a laptop which makes me feel VERY conspicuous.
*No jump drive outlets. In order to be able to get work done and then upload it we save it to our jump drives. However, there is only one computer in any of our cafes that have a jump drive outlet.
*No Skype. I love the idea of Skype and was so very proud of my little Janet Jackson-style headset. However, none of the internet cafes in our neighborhood have Skype. The PC at work is so slow that a Skype connection would be pretty worthless. 'Can you hear me now?'

All of this would be fine if we were just tourists and not trying to get work done and communicate that work to the U.S. I will now go on the record and say that I am impressed with the amount of development work that does go on successfully in Nepal. I take my hat off to the people of Nepal, the NGOs and community development organizations.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

During my recent field trip to visit four rural community libraries, we managed to sneak in an early morning visit to Royal Chitwan National Park. Officially created in 1973, area has been protected since the 19th century as a hunting preserve for Nepali and foreign aristocrats. In 1983 Chitwas was added to the UNESCO World Heritage site list. At the time of the 2000 census the wildlife numbers looked pretty good: 544 rhinos, 80 tigers, 50 species of deer and other mammals and lots of birds. Sadly, those numbers were reduced during the recent 10 years on conflict and the local economy of the Tharu villagers has been hurt by the falling tourist visitor numbers. The Sauraha area, which is the area where I spent the night, was hard hit by monsoon floods in 2002. The Rapti river flows through the Park and there are also numerous lakes.
Chitwan is one of the last refuges for the Gaida, or one-horned rhino. Only about 2000 survive worldwide. The Indian elephant is the largest animal on the subcontinent and the Park has a successful breeding program. With three of my traveling companions I rode on the back of one yesterday. You board from a platform and sit on a small web deck that has a railing around it.
The first part of the ride was through the jungle where we saw the rhinos and deer. We heard a tiger but our elephant flared her nostrils and balked and would not go anywhere near the sound. Our guide thought the sound indicated that the tiger had made a fresh kill and was content.

The best part of the elephant ride was after we left the jungle and slowly made out way back to the through the village to our lodge. From atop our friend we could see the people and animals slowly come to life and start their day. I saw more goats and water buffalo that morning than most of you are going to see in your lifetime. Seriously.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

I'm back from visiting four READ Nepal libraries in Bardabas, Juwuani, and two other places I cannot spell. More on the libraries later but just know that meeting the people in these little villages was a heart-opening experience.

In the past 4 days I have ridden on 8 different buses and endured the everyday Nepali people trying to get around their country. In contrast with the United States, people of all classes ride the bus everywhere. I have: rolled through VW Beetle sized potholes, stopped every 5 miles to drop off/pick up bags of vegetables; passed both Maoist and Army encampments; had an old woman sit in my lap; felt a teenager's head on my shoulder as she fell asleep; been stared at incessantly (the only paleface); plugged my ears against 2o minute long Nepali love songs; listened to a shouting match between the passenger and the doorman; learned the intricate signaling system enacted between doorman and driver (two pounds on the door when it's time to take off and a whistling song when it's safe to pass.), been faced with the "hootchie cootchie' pictures plastered on their visors of the bus drivers, and a few other things I will not mention at this time in honor of the weak of stomach and faint of heart.

I have also ridden on the back of a motorbike with my suitcase when we couldn't get a cab to take us to the next bus stop, and atop an Indian elephant. Yes, the crew did make it to Chitwan National Park where we saw the one-horned rhino and some sort or large deer.

Did I mention that the Kathmandu bus 'station' is but one large mud pit? A few tin shacks serve as the ticket windows. And yes, this is a VERY large Asian city with a mud pit bus station.

Just a note to say I am home safe and sound. Really, the trip was crazy and enlightening. More to come!

Hope everyone is well, I miss you all!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Tomorrow I travel with Praditha, the training manager for READ, to the Terai area of Nepal. Translated in Arkansan, I'm headed to the Delta. It's the part of Nepal closest to India. The climate promises to be hot and humid and full of mosquitoes. The staff at READ were giving me all sorts of cautions. I tried to reminded them that I am from Arkansas and grew up on the Gulf Coast where the mosquitoes are so large and plentiful that they team up to haul off the garbage. Only difference is that my mosquitoes back home don't carry malaria around with them. It's OK though. Nepal does not have a high incidence of malaria and the monsoon season isn't here yet. Also, I have 30 strength DEET and will be purchasing a mosquito net. We are staying in "lodges." Who knows what that will be like? We will be gone for 4 days visiting READ libraries. Out in the field - Awesomeness! A report from the field will follow.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Yesterday Molly, Carly and I went to the movies with Moni and Monish Mulepati - part of our guest house family. The JaiNepal cinema is near the Royal Palace. We saw the English version of the latest Indiana Jones film. Our bags were searched at the doors. The theatre had stadium seating but no rocking chairs. People were taken to their seats by ushers with flashlights (remember those?) After watching a gazillion Bollywood trailers, a certificate of authencity flashed up on the screen. Bootlegging movies is big business here in South Asia so it seems there is some governmental regulation requiring the theatres to show this proof. We drank bottled lemonade and yes, had popcorn. There was even an old school intermission. At the end they cut off the credits after about 30 seconds and turned the lights on.

After the movie we found our way to Michael's Restaurant, a peaceful courtyard cafe with lots of trees. Did I mention that there are no trees in Kathmandu? Michael Frame was from the U.S. and started this restaurant after he fell in love with Nepal during his Peace Corps stint here. When we arrived Carly inquired about him and we were told that he passed away in the U.S. last week at the age of 68. In fact, they had just held a memorial service for him that very morning in Kathmandu. The three of us were humbled at the timing of our visit.

Rest in Peace Michael Frame. You done good.