Friday, July 25, 2008

A Witness to History

Kanti Path, one of Kathmandu’s busiest, noisiest and smoggiest streets, was eerily quiet on my walk home day before yesterday. In fact there were no vehicles or bikes at all ...just the sidewalks crammed with several hundred people watching the empty road. Just as I was approaching a fellow Nepali to issue an inquiry I received my answer, visually: the motorcade carrying Nepal’s newly elected President and VP was speeding by, flanked and followed by numerous military police vehicles. They were on the way to the Palace for the swearing in ceremonies.

Emerging from the “most extreme period” (to quote my friend Prof. Saubhagya Shah) in her 235+ year history, Nepal, throught the vote of the Constituent Assembly, elected her FIRST-EVER President and VP.

Those elected were a surprise to many Nepalis and much of the world. Since the Maoist Party won the popular vote and the most seats in the Constituent Assembly, their leader “Prachanda” had been lobbying and jockeying for the top post.

However, the Maoists were left temporarily out in the cold as the final behind-closed-doors negotiations between the varous parties unfolded. The original plan had been to share power by letting the Maoists lead the government under the prime ministership, but set aside the presidency for the Nepali Congress (NC) and the chairmanship of the assembly for the UML (moderate Marxist-Leninists). However, the Maoists insisted on being both head of state and head of government, while the NC insisted on Girija Koirala as its president. An alliance between the Maoists and the UML broke down when promises made became promises broken. Throw in the Madhesi party (MJF - remember - they're the populus Terai-based party that wanted to become their own automous state) eager to align with whomever they could share power, and you have the result.

The Winners?
The run-off voting for President saw 590 ballots being cast, with Dr. Ram Baran Yadav (Nepali Congress Party) getting 308 votes and the Maoist candidate Ram Raja Prasad Singh scoring 280 according to an unofficial tally. His election was a result of an Nepali Congress (NC)- United Marxist Leninist (UML) –Madhesi Front (MJF) alliance which spelled an end to the ill-fated Maoist-UML bond, and widened the gap between the parties. Dr. Yadav is a physician and former health minister of Madhesi ethnicity who is seen as a moderate. He had previously remained a loyalist, refusing to defect to join the Madhesi movement saying it would fragment the country. So, he is Madhesi but not a member of the MJF. Some would call him “old guard” and with the Nepali Congress soundly defeated in the April election most see his win this week as a surprise. He has two children educated and living in the U.S. and one in the U.K. The VP is named Pradesh Jha. Interestingly, though HIS oath delivered in Nepali, he recited it in Hindu, causing some sort of minor international incident. Some members of the Madhesi party and some living in the Terai are closely aligned with political influence from India so this is interpreted by some to be anti-nationalist.

Despite the MJF's opposition to Dr. Yadav, the election of Madhesis as president and vice-president, analysts say, will go some way in redressing the grievances of the Terai -based people that they have traditionally been under-represented in the political power structure in Kathmandu.

So where does all of this leave the Maoists? – crafters of the ten year violent insurgency and winners of April’s popular election?
CPN-Maoist chairman Prachanda said his party would sit on the opposition benches, as their presidential candidate lost the historic run-off. Addressing a press conference of party secretariat organized in Singha Durbar, Prachanda termed the alliance between NC, CPN-UML and Madhesi Janadhikar Forum ‘unholy, revengeful and apolitical’ and warned of a political confrontation in the days ahead. The Maoists, being the leading party in the Constituent Assembly, are responsible for leading the government and the crafting of the constitution.
Interesting, interesting, and definitely worth watching.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Weekend before last, our friend and trekking guide, Sudip, took Carly and I, by bus, to Dhulikhel on the rim of the Kathmandu Valley, then hiking the rest of the way up to the Namobuddha Monastery. The stupa itself is ancient but the monastery is only about five years old. It's an peaceful place up on a hillside overlooking the valley and terrace farms. We discovered that the place is very sacred because the Buddha was here first, then eaten by a tigress who needed to feed her cubs before being reborn at Lumbini, his official birthplace. Who knew?

While the destination was amazing, the journey was a laughter-packed adventure as well. We climbed up to a Hindu shrine that is now part of an Army camp and witnessed a woman possessed by spirits doing a Reiki healing on herself. We stood alongside the soldiers and watched. During a rain shower we took shelter at a local shop/bus stop and met a local village woman who played matchmaker. She felt very strongly that both Carly and I should have husbands and tried to interest us in the village men as they passed by. Next we encountered - well, actually, Sudip and I were spooked by - this strange 'Holy Man' who came out of his cabin while we were looking at his fish pond. He said he had many PhD degrees from the UK and his area of study was the human mind. Sudip is of the opinion that the guy is likely from India and perhaps did train in the UK but has taken in too many exogenous chemicals since them. After a brief conversation we moved on before he could exert some mind control over the three of us. I mean, you can never be too careful when encountering a guru in the woods, right?The most "thrilling" part of the weekend, however, was riding on TOP of the bus back to Dhulikhel. Because of a persistent monsoon we had to change our return plans and hike back down to the road to catch a bus. After watching overloaded buses go by (you know...100 Nepalis for 40 seats) we realized that the only way we were getting home was to ride on top of the public bus. So up the ladder we went to sit with about 30 other Nepalis. Remember that everyone in Nepal, except for the very priveleged, use the public bus system and riding on top is not a novelty for them. With this rite of passage, I conclude that I am now officially and evermore part Nepali. And I'm pretty proud of it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Worth Waiting For

I've been waiting to the entire trip to shoot this photo. I think it was worth the wait.

What do you think?

Carly, Molly and I have been especially impressed by the laid-back nature of the dogs of Kathmandu. Here are a couple hanging out on the steps of one of the shrines at Pashiputinath Temple.

There numbers are large since there is not a culture of animal population control here nor the personal income to afford it. When you are a professional with a Master's degree (or two) and you cannot afford to go to a movie, eat at a restaurant or buy petrol, you cannot afford to spay or neuter an animal. There is one group working to raise money for sterilization but by the looks of things they have a long way to go before they even make a dent. They are literally on every doorstep, street corner, curb, stairway and in the entryways into the small shops. Most of the dogs seem to have a home with one of the store or stall owners and certainly a few are officially owned and wear collars. To see someone out walking a dog on a leash is a true rarity. The dogs are in pretty good shape since the ones without official homes feast on the garbage piles described in a previous post.

Previously the three of of us thought that their laid back nature was an adaptation to the constant traffic, noise and chaos that is the rhythm of Kathmandu. We still think that is true. In Thamel, the motorbikes, bikes and taxis come within inches of their paws but they never move or blink an eye. They never bark or threaten us. It's like they are on puppy Prozac. IF the dogs get out of line, some people thrown small rocks at them - which I am not in favor of.
However, Carly has most aptly described their game. She says the reason these dogs sleep all day is that they are 'gangstas' that party (bark, fight and run around in gangs) all night. Her theory is that this laid back daytime demeanor is really a hangover from their nightime escapades. I think her theory carries some weight.

Oh yeah, what about the cats? WHAT cats? In this survival of the fittest kingdom there are very few cats. The only ones I have seen are behind a gated, stonewalled garden enclosure or up on a rooftop.

I miss Maggie!

Thursday, July 17, 2008


After encountering more than 100 cows during my foot travels around this city and observing the Nepali people's accomodation to this animal in their midst, I decided to investigate this whole "sacred cow" legend. As it turns out, the cow is not sacred but TABOO in this mostly Hindu country. These photos were taken during my walk home through the Baluwatar neighborhood where I work. The Prime Minister and Speaker's residences are nearby and many of the international embassies are located here. Pretty swanky place by Kathmandu standards. Yet, here they are everyday - the cows. On the streets, they have top priority. All taxis, school buses, motorbikes, bicycles, safa tempos, private vehicles and pedestrians must and do yield to them. Of course, there is usually alot of honking and yelling involved. But not hitting or swatting allowed. Ever.

By and large, the Nepali people do not eat beef but will eat water buffalo or "buff," as it is called in restaurants. I've eaten a buff momo. Not too bad. Also, the wearing of cow leather goods, belts, purses, and shoes, is avoided and they are banned from the temples and festivals.

The cow is literally untouchable - taboo - Aghanya--that which may not be slaughtered. This taboo arises from the beef-eating Vedic age, and animals were constantly being slaughtered. The reaction against flesh foods set in with the advent of Jainism and Buddhism. The pastoral tribes that inhabited India could not afford to sacrifice their cow wealth for meat. The norms of the time dictated that you sacrifice your best animal, usually the stud bull, for the feast when a distinguished visitor came by. As these worthies multiplied in numbers, the quality of the herds began to decline. You could not escape this obligation, as substitution of another animal would be regarded as a deadly insult. To save animals thus marked out, as well as in deference to the new trends, the inviolability of the cow came into being.

On a political note: The sacred cow also made news recently with the deposing of the monarch. The government faces a challenge - what to do with his 60 sacred cows. They voted out King Gyanendra in May but removing the beasts could prove trickier. 'Maybe the ministry of agriculture should use them for research,' offered one official.

Monday, July 14, 2008

This one's for you, Keith Nitta!
"There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed,
Some forever, not for better,
Some have gone and some remain..."
As I enter my last month in Nepal, I find myself full of a jumble of mixed feelings about my departure. Yes, I will be VERY happy to see Katie and Maggie and all of our wonderful friends. Yet, I can hardly bear the thought of leaving behind the people of Nepal who have become like family to me here. When I am with them my happiness is now tinged with a sad awareness that out time together is growing short.

Bittersweet. Wistful. With an ache.
The first Kathmandu friends were the Mulepati family - our Himalya Guesthouse hosts. In an earlier blogpost I shared the story of Moni and her husband, Pem Sherpa and their Everest summit. Below is Moni's brother Monish crashed on the couch after a late night of Internet surfing. (Monish, please don't kill me for posting this photo!) Pem and Moni's daughter stars in the photos with each of her grandparents: Mohan and Shanti. Staying with them has been a wonderful experience and each day when I return home I truly feel that I am are being greeted by family.

In the photo with Carly is Radicha, a young girl who is living with the family and helping out with chores and babysitting. She has the cutest smile yet the best sad, pouting face ever. All in one girl.
All these places had their moments, With lovers and friends I still can recall...
Some are dead and some are living, In my life I've loved them all.

My Basantapur neighborhood friend is Chandra who owns Chad's Flag House. In the photo with him are his two drop-dead gorgeous daughters. The one on the right works in a fair trade handicraft store that supports a local orphanage and the other is a student. Chandra is native to the Durbar Square area dating back to at least his great grandparents so he knows all the local history and lore. He has dragged me around to so many hidden temples that I cannot keep them straight. But he's on my good list because he takes me to the "safe to drink" freshly made on-the-spot juice place. Best mango juice EVER! Chandra is usually sitting out in front of his shop each morning and evening either reading the paper or visiting with friends so I get to see him a lot. He always asks me: "Any good news?" Translation: "What's up?" or "How was your day?" Nice guy.
This is my favorite taxi driver, Mr. Lama. He takes me to work most of the time and I am sad when he is not out on Freak Street waiting for me. During the transport strike I didn't get to see him for over a week and that was really bad. We only know each other's names, the fare price we have mutually agreed on and a few phrases. He is the most centered human being driving in the Kathmandu craziness. Duh, he's Buddhist - he's Lama.

This is Arjun who works in a jewelry store owned by his cousins. He likes to talk about the healing power of the stones and the chakras and Reiki healing. He is hysterical once he gets wound up and excited talking about all of this. He used to teach yoga? He is charming and I swear he is Italian/Nepali but he says he is not. Anyway, we are doing jewelry business together. The gemstone prices here are unbelievable. You can design your own setting and get it back in a couple of days.
Last but certainly not least is my young soulmate buddy, Sudip Lama. He is the sweetest young guy with a great sense of humor and a world-class smile. Sudip and I ran into each other three times by accident on the streets of Thamel and therefore decided that our friendship was destiny. Sudip works for a trekking company and since its the off season he is free to be our tour guide. He is working on his tourist visa to come to the States and has a job waiting for him in New Mexico. Hard for Nepali people to get visas these days though so we shall see. Anyhow, I'm determined that Sudip will not fall forever through Nepal's bureaucratic cracks - he is too special. I am working on a business idea with him that would support the fair trade handicraft business here in Nepal. Sort of DeltaMade in South Asia! Sudip would be my Nepal connection.
I hope he gets to come to the U.S. one day so you can all meet him. Funny, to meet a young man in a foreign country with whom you share belly laughs.

But of all these friends and lovers,
There is no one compared with you,
And these mem'ries lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new.
Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before,
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

According to Dr. Shah of Conflict, Peace and Development Studies at the University and Dr. Netra Timsina of the NGO Federation of Nepal, there are 34,000+ NGOs working in Nepal. We met with Dr. Timsina earlier this week and he said there is no one body or governmental office that has oversight authority. Only 4,000 of these groups have joined his organization.

NGO Federation of Nepal has offices in all of the districts. They provide training for their members and are focusing on developming the elements of a civil society. Many of their workshops focus on how to participate in the newly formed government. The topics include: Rule of Law; Inclusivity; Participation; Accountability; Transparency; Gender Justice; and Separation of Power.

They have also published a book entitled: Whose Goals? Civil Society Perspectives on the MDGs (United Nations' Millenium Development Goals). I have read the Executive Summary and it notes how challenging it is to make progress towards the MDGs in the Nepali context of civil unrest and poor governance.

In the Kathmandu Valley this week the buses and other forms of transportation are running and the garbage is being collected. We still rolling electricity blackouts but that is an ongoing phenomenon. However, something new is happening that hits very close to home for me: The doctors are on strike at all of the hospitals in the valley.

This would be like all of the Little Rock/Central Arkansas hospitals, clinics and nursing homes shutting down. I can't imagine the chaos. However, unlike Arkansas, many patients in the rural villages do not have access to TV, radio or newspapers, and have travelled a day or more (Forty percent of Nepalis live more than two hours on foot from a motorable road) to Kathmandu for an appointment only to be turned away - they had no way of knowing about the strike.

Here's the story from the Nepali Times:
Kathmandu - Hospitals across Nepal shut down Thursday after doctors expanded their strike to cover the entire nation to protest against assaults and threats against them. The Nepal Medical Association, a doctors' umbrella organization, said hundreds of hospitals as well as thousands of private clinics and nursing homes had heeded its calls to shut down, leaving only emergency services open.

"We decided to extend the strike as the government failed to take our demands for increased security of doctors and hospitals seriously," the Nepal Medical Association said. "The strike will continue until our demands are met and those responsible for assault on doctors and vandalism of hospitals are brought to justice," the association said.

The doctors initially called for a strike in the The doctors initially called for a strike in the Nepalese capital on Wednesday and met with Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to express their grievances. The strike affected hundreds of thousands of people seeking medical treatment in both government and private hospitals. Many people unaware of the strike were turned away from the hospitals.

The strike followed an incident earlier this week where the family of a patient who died after kidney surgery vandalized the hospital where he was being treated and attacked doctors.
The doctors said there was a growing tendency by people to vent their anger on doctors and hospitals if family members died during treatment.

They rejected accusations of negligence.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Turning The Corner

This past week I feel like I turned some very significant corner and have fallen deeply in love (as everyone who has been here predicted) with this place - despite the constant frustrations.

Friendships are deepening and new ones are emerging. I am beginning to have an actual social life here. Carly is finally over her flu bug and tonight we are grabbing some Thai food. The guys at both of our cyber cafes recognize us and some know us by name. I have been meeting people for tea and have people I speak with everyday on my walk through Thamel on my way home from work. There are a handful of people here that I email regularly.

I have also learned to pace myself on Nepali time so that all of the issues I previously reported on don't take such a toll on me. At work, we have all settled into some sort of groove together and even have some shared insider jokes.

I'm not in such a hurry to go home now and will definitely be back.
Who wants to come with me?

P.S. Carly and I went to the American Club yesterday for the 4th celebration on the 5th. This Club is like a swanky country club in American but with lots of armed guards. They have a pool, tennis courts and workout room. The people who work for the Embassy (both American and Nepali) are members here and we don't think other Nepalis can be we felt a little weird about that. It's nice but if I wanted to hang out with Americans all the time I would've stayed home.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Welcome to NGO World!

Nepal has 18,000 active NGOs (non-governmental organizations for the uninitiated) working in the country.

Nepal is the square mileage size of Arkansas.

After you do the head math you are bound to ask me if I got my zeroes right, but yes, Nepal has 18,000 NGOs. I guess no one has delivered the "Pitfalls of Humanitarianism" lecture here.

Needless to say, NGO World here is just about the largest employer. As anywhere, NGOs mean brain drain away from government and other industries. Here the abundance of NGOs steers students toward degrees in the social sciences instead of business. And of course, the NGOs are doing the work of the government, letting them stay off the hook.

Don't get me wrong. I surely believe that NGOs and development work are important - but there are pitfalls.

So far, I have had the opportunity to meet with the staff at Poverty Alleviation Fund (World Bank) and Heifer Nepal. Tomorrow I meet with the Director of the Nepal Federation of NGOs. This weekend I have having dinner with Dr. Saubhagya Shah, Program Coordinator of Conflict, Peace & Development Studies at Tribuhuvan University and Asst. Professor in the Dept. of Sociology/Anthropology. He is also a guest writer for the Nepali Times and has some strong opinions about NGOs and the development of Nepal. Should make for lively dinner conversation.

Saturday, Carlyji and I are going to the American Club to celebrate America's Independence!

Happy 4th Everyone!