Friday, July 20, 2012

On corruption, frustration, life in general

In this post, I mainly just want to vent about how agitating this week has been. Some of the frustrations have revealed important and interesting cultural lessons, but mostly, they just made me want to rip my hair out and/or hop on a plane back to the comforts of America.

It started on Wednesday. I had a detailed plan of what my morning would entail: I’d take the kids to school, then go to an American-style café (the name – Belly Busters – gives it away) that has Wi-Fi and good coffee (a rarity in this country) and finally I’d go to my internship. But like I said before, plans have a way of going awry in Nepal, and instead of going to The Post I ended up at the post office.

David, the orphanage owner, told me that morning that the packages from my mother arrived. The only problem was that the boxes weren’t addressed to his name – only his address – so I had to come with him to prove it was legitimate.

I was not thrilled about the sound of that, but I grudgingly agreed to go. Surely something as simple as picking up two packages couldn’t take more than 15 minutes, right?

I should have known better. Silly me. Nothing is that easy here. Apparently the postal service, like everything else in Nepal, is completely corrupt.

I was there for an hour. We were directed from one postal official to the next, back and forth. Bribes were paid. Taxes were paid. My passport was photo copied, and I had to sign a handful of forms. The postal workers rifled through the packages to see if there was anything of value they could keep, according to David. They must have been disappointed by the plastic dolls and puzzles. The workers looked at me like I was some common criminal, rather than a naïve foreign girl who just wanted her damn packages.  

It’s so mind-blowing that in order to get anything done in this country, you have to pay bribes, even for simple tasks. Any Nepali who has a bit of pocket change can get out of minor violations by bribing the police. Nepalis know it’s corrupt, but they accept it as a way of life.

Other annoyances: Hardly any running water. I haven’t showered since Sunday. No Wi-Fi for days at a time. My mother messaged me on Facebook asking if I was still alive. So did my boyfriend. When Facebook is the only way to communicate with everyone you know, it becomes really frustrating when the internet doesn’t work.

My internship is also starting to feel a bit routine, at least this week. I wish the government would reach a consensus already because I’m growing tired of reading about “how to break the deadlock.” I’m sure it’s an interesting topic to Nepalis, but to an outsider who is learning about politics a little late in the game, it can be quite daunting. Basically, the government couldn’t agree on a new constitution, so the Constituent Assembly (parliament) dissolved in May. So to make a long story short, there is now a caretaker government, people are calling for the Prime Minister to step down, the ex-king is regaining popularity, the Maoist party recently split in two, ethnic minority parties are being formed, everyone is talking about federalism and it’s a gigantic mess. If you think Americans are disillusioned by the government, you ain’t seen nothing till you’ve read up on Nepali politics.

All of these frustrations were just minor issues, though. The rock bottom of this week was getting felt up by some creep sitting next to me on the bus. I got out of work an hour later than usual, and it was getting dark by the time I caught the bus. Mistake #1. There were no seats in the front, so I sat in the back. Mistake #2. So now I can add being sexually assaulted to my list of first-time experiences in Nepal. I don’t know how women travel around the world alone, because there are so many things I have to be careful about. I still think Nepal is a pretty safe country, but it was foolish of me to think that all the men here are harmless. Lesson learned.

This week hasn’t been all bad, though. Mariya did my mehandi (henna tattoo) because it’s a tradition for women to get them throughout the month. It has religious roots, but now it’s done more out of fashion than anything else. I also got a new puli (nose ring) that I’m pretty excited about, but it was an unpleasant experience. The first nose ring I tried was too big, but the jewelry salesman insisted on “helping” me. And in doing so, he shoved the ring through my nose, essentially gauging the hole bigger and making it bleed. Ouch. Beauty is pain, so they say.

You can tell it's not professionally done, but I still like it.

I also made deviled eggs and applesauce for everyone on Wednesday, because those foods totally go together. Luckily I had Andrew and Karuna helping me because, as it turns out, it takes a really long time to peel and chop 25 apples. I couldn’t tell by the kids’ reactions if they liked the eggs, but then one of them said mitho, which means delicious, and everyone had second and third helpings. The applesauce had way too much cinnamon, but Nepalis are used to spicy foods, so they appeared to like it, as well.

And last but not least, the British girls left!!  They actually got a little more tolerable over the past couple weeks, and we had a nice conversation about Indian weddings because they both come from Indian families. But still, I’m not sad to see them go, and I definitely don’t mind having the room to myself again.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Part II of travel series

This is just another pseudo blog post where I tell you to read the second part of my travel series here.

Dhanyabad! (Thank you)

P.S. For some reason, all my em dashes (—) aren't showing up in the online version. Since I'm pretty obsessive-compulsive about grammar/punctuation, I just wanted to let everyone know that it is just a glitch, and I actually know how to write a proper sentence, in case you had any doubts.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

One-night stand in Nagarkot

Don’t let the title get you too excited. It’s not what it sounds like, I swear. On Saturday I spent the night in Nagarkot, Nepal, which Lonely Planet advises is best experienced as a “one-night stand.” It’s an appropriate description.

There isn’t anything to do in Nagarkot. It’s a small, high-altitude village with a tourism industry that exists solely because of the view of the Himalayas. Although it was quite a journey to get there, my one-night stand did not leave me disappointed.

First, we had to take a bus to the neighboring town of Bhaktapur, which is an old, medieval-looking village that I plan on exploring at some point during my stay. Then, we had to take another bus to get to Nagarkot (pronounced Naw-gur-coh; if you don’t say it that way, the locals don’t understand). Even before we reached the bus stop, we had decided that we wanted to ride on the roof, to get the full Nepali experience. And we were in luck, because every seat was filled when we arrived. We all scrambled up the ladder onto the roof and started snapping photos while the locals gave us funny looks. Apparently the roof seats are the worst possible scenario for locals, so we probably looked pretty weird for being excited about it. 

I can’t say that it was a comfortable ride, because we had to sit on metal rungs the whole way. One guy gave me a piece of cardboard box to sit on, which was generous, but it didn’t do much cushioning. Despite this, the scenery was beautiful, and it was more refreshing than sitting inside the stuffy bus. Actually, riding on the roof was really awesome. 

Some houses and rice fields along the way. 

That is, until we got stuck in traffic at the scene of a motorcycle accident, where two people were lying on the ground, bleeding all over the place, with 50 people crowded around just staring at them. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I actually thought they were dead until I saw their feet moving slightly. Accidents like that freak me out, so it really put a damper on the remaining 15 minutes of the ride. As we kept climbing higher and higher up the hill, I kept thinking,  “Well, shit, I guess this is pretty dangerous.”

I had no idea what was going on when I took this photo. 

But alas, we reached our destination unscathed. I should also mention that we hadn’t made any hotel reservations, so we decided to wander around until we found one that was cheap and, well, cheap was actually the only qualification we needed. We booked the first one we found (Someone in our group said their friend stayed at this particular hotel and received complimentary weed, but that didn’t happen. It would have been pretty hilarious if it did, though).

After booking our cheap hotel, we set out for an expensive hotel that has a lookout tower to see the Himalayas. I wasn’t expecting to see anything because it’s not a good season for mountain gazing, and when we arrived everything was totally engulfed in a sheet of white haze. By some miracle, though, we got lucky again. As soon as we got to the lookout tower, the clouds started to part, and we were given the most beautiful, breathtaking view of the Himalaya peaks. It was so much better than the view we had in Pokhara. No picture can do that sight justice, but I’ll post some anyway. We had our own little photo shoot, as well.

"Act like a cloud!"
I don't think any of us really captured the essence of clouds.

I look like I'm jumping over the railing, but I swear this wasn't a suicide attempt.

After that, we got some dinner and called it an early night. The beds were so comfortable – especially compared to the wooden plank covered by a cushion that I’ve been sleeping on for five weeks – so I slept like a log. The next morning, we packed our backpacks and set out for the hike back to Bhaktapur.

Well, it wasn’t exactly a hike. Most of the way, we followed the main road down the winding slope. Part of the way, we rode in the back of someone’s pickup truck while thumping club music was blaring from the speakers. Then one of the locals pointed out a shortcut, a path that cuts through some small villages and rice fields. It ended up saving us a lot of time, and it was a much more scenic route. Everyone we passed offered us an enthusiastic “Namaste!” and it must have been pretty strange seeing five white people hiking through their backyards. 

Of course, everyone had a rain jacket, and I only had this ridiculous red poncho. Work it.

The wild marijuana in its natural habitat - on the side of the road.

Andrew climbing a tree

Riding in the party truck 

After a few hours, we reached the bottom of the hill. But we still had many more miles to go until we reached Bhaktapur, where we needed to catch a bus back to Kathmandu. So we hitchhiked. I didn't think it would work a second time, but the first truck we waved to stopped, and the driver said, "We're going to Bhaktapur. You can get in, no problem." Obviously this would never be acceptable in America, but it was a perfectly fine thing to do in Nepal. Our luck got even better when we reached Bhaktapur and the driver said, "We're going to Kathmandu."

"That's where we're going!!" we yelled.

So we rode in this truck all the way back to Kathmandu. Everyone we passed looked at us and laughed because, once again, five white people in the back of a pickup track isn't something you see every day. It was a lot of fun, but this week I think I'll stick to my normal transportation of riding the bus, inside the bus.

Next weekend I'm going to Chitwan to ride elephants, so check back here in a week for 5 billion photos! 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

When life hands you small pizzas, make Quick noodles instead

Nepal has a habit of taking your plans and bending them, or stomping on them, or smashing them to bits. It usually happens in a quite comical way, so you can’t stay mad for too long. In fact it happens so frequently that Andrew, the European volunteers and I have developed a reaction to this event: “Enjoy your Nepal!” It’s a tourist slogan here, but we use it in an ironic way that conveys, “This is just so typical. Let’s roll with it.”

And so it was with dinner this evening. The two new British girls at the orphanage (more on them later) decided to order pizza from a restaurant, oddly enough, named KFC. It’s not an American KFC, in case you were wondering. It’s not a real anything, actually. The girls ordered seven “large” pizzas and asked if there would be enough to feed 13 children and six adults. They said yes. Well either they are liars or they thought we had infantile appetites  because what we received were puny, pathetic excuses for pizza. These pizzas were about half the size of a personal pan-sized pizza you would get in America.

So naturally, we all started frantically wondering aloud, “How are we going to feed 13 hungry children??” Meanwhile, Karuna – a 12-year-old girl – was yelling at the pizza guys over the phone. One of the British girls said, “Tell them we’re all going to die of starvation now,” and I’m pretty sure Karuna did translate that to Nepali. But alas, KFC was closing its doors for the night, and there was nothing they could do to help us.

With all of the restaurants closed, Andrew and I ran to the store next door and asked if they had anything quick to cook. “Quick? Yes,” said the Nepali salesclerk, handing us a packet of Ramen noodles, with the appropriate brand name, “Quick.” So we bought five packets of Quick, five bags of chips and some Kit Kats and ran back to orphanage to tend to the hungry kids. And just for the record, these kids can eat a ton. They only have two meals a day, so when dinner is served, it’s always a heaping plate of dal bhat.

We cooked up our measly servings of Quick noodles, while I documented the experience because it was one of those moments where I couldn’t stop laughing because it was just so Nepali. The grandfather of the house (who speaks no English) and I just laughed and laughed and laughed.

Empty plates, hungry bellies

Anyway, I guess I haven’t been updating much lately. I have the same routine Monday through Friday, but there are still some new additions to my life – namely the two 17-year-old British girls who I’ll be sharing my room with for almost three weeks. And they can’t leave soon enough.

I try not to judge people too quickly. I really do try to see the good in everyone. But these girls really have no redeeming qualities. They quite clearly come from privileged backgrounds, and they make no effort to hide it. It was amusing seeing the looks of sheer horror on their faces when I gave them the rundown on what to expect in the orphanage: no showerhead, no hot water, sometimes no running water at all, sometimes no power or wifi, sometimes no flushable toilet (but still it’s better than the Turkish toilet in Andrew’s room), and the list goes on and on. I assured them that it gets better, that you can adjust to anything, that it's worth it in the end, but the damage was already done.

They immediately started talking about changing their flights from three weeks to two. They have since checked into a hotel just to shower. And they refuse to drink my jug of water (even though I’ve been surviving off of it for five weeks) or even pee in the toilet because there is a chance it won’t flush. Today Andrew took them to the monastery where he teaches English to monks, and the girls complained about the 40-minute walk, saying they have “never walked so far in their lives.”

Oy vey. The one girl even had the nerve to declare, “There’s nothing to do in Nepal” after being here two hours. I wanted to chuck my Lonely Planet tourism book at her head, but I’m trying to be nice. They have no interest in seeing the sights here; only the mention of shopping gets them interested. I can’t even…understand. How can you be in this amazing, fascinating, culturally rich country and not care to see anything at all? I digress. I’ll never understand.

Aside from this slight annoyance, life here is still wonderful. My internship is both challenging and fulfilling. I was asked to write the editorial the other day, but I wasn’t quite ready for that task (that’s a huge deal, you know?). I think they expect a lot from me because the last international intern was from Harvard. Talk about big shoes to fill. But they assure me I’m doing a good job, so I hope they’re right.

Sometimes I forget I’m working in an entirely different culture, because it’s an English language newspaper, and many of the editors are Western-educated. There are some little reminders, though. One day, my supervisor was laying out the Op-Ed pages and he suddenly said, “Wait, this won’t work. All these writers are Brahmins and men! We need a woman and someone from a different caste on this page.” Apparently you can tell from the last name what caste someone is a part of. The newspaper is more progressive than most, but women’s voices are still extremely underrepresented, not to mention the lower castes (which I’m still learning about).

I’m hoping to get published soon, and when I asked for story ideas, one of the editors told me I could investigate witch-hunt accusations made against local women. Apparently it’s still a prevalent practice, even in the capital. Two men recently blinded their sister after they accused her of witchcraft because one of men couldn’t conceive a child with his wife. It would be an interesting topic to look into, but it might be too challenging because of the language barrier, unless I’m able to get a Nepali to come with me during interviews. We’ll see.

One other totally unrelated thing I wanted to talk about is how friendly Nepalis can be sometimes. It's not phony, outward shows of affability like we tend to do in America. Nepalis don't smile at strangers or say "thank you" for every little thing, but their hospitality is more genuine, it seems. Sometimes when I take the bus to or from work, someone will try out their English with me. It makes me feel less like a foreigner (which is a hard feeling to escape from when you're the only white person for miles), and it makes the 45-minute bus ride go a bit faster. Yesterday, a retired school teacher helped me count all the way to 40 in Nepali, even though I can only remember 1-10. Today, a Nepali boy asked permission to pay me a compliment. I said sure, and he said, "Your eyes are so beautiful. In fact, you are so beautiful. When I look into your eyes I feel like I'm diving into two oceans." I couldn't help but laugh. It was a sweet compliment, and totally harmless. If the guys here go crazy for blue eyes, I'm relieved I don't have blonde hair.

I'll probably be updating this weekend because I have some fun things planned, and it will be five weeks - the halfway mark! - of my trip.

Shuva ratri (goodnight),


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Weekend in Pokhara

This past weekend was a whirlwind of adventure and excitement, but also of relaxation and beauty. My long weekend started on Friday when I began my journey to Pokhara with the other two volunteers from the orphanage, Andrew and Yifei. Pokhara is the second largest city in Nepal, and it’s famous for Phewa Tal, a stunning lake amidst the Himalayas.

The cramped and stiflingly hot five-hour bus ride wasn’t pleasant, nor was the cockroach-infested hostel we stayed in. It was kind of funny, though, sharing a room with two dudes who were just as terrified as I was, hurling obscenities and shoes left and right. We managed to kill a couple, but eventually decided to call it quits and pretend they weren’t there. But for $4 a night, including a hot shower and eggs and toast for breakfast, it was worth sharing the room with a few creepy crawlies.

Once I overcame my phobia, the rest of the weekend was incredible. We met up with a couple other volunteers from our program on Saturday morning and headed over to the Bat Cave. The Bat Cave is exactly what it sounds like: a slab of rocks and series of tunnels with, of course, some slumbering bats dangling from the cave roof. The cave itself wasn’t anything spectacular, but the conclusion of our self-guided tour was quite an experience.

We decided to brave the darkness on our own rather than pay for a tour guide, and we did pretty well finding our way until we reached what appeared to be a dead end. It was strange because there was a handrail, but it led to a rocky wall with no way to go but up. As we soon learned, up was the way out. A tour guide came along 10 minutes later with a couple Nepali guys, and he pointed out our escape route.

Have you ever seen how kids climb up door frames by placing a foot on one side of the wall, one on the other, then inch their way up? Well, it was kind of like that. After climbing to the top you reach an extremely narrow hole, where you have to contort your body – while your legs are still straddling two sides of the wall – hoist yourself up and wriggle through that godforsaken hole into the light. I was the first one to go through, and everyone laughed at my plight, which included a lot of holy shits and Jesus Christs (sorry Jesus, I know you didn’t have anything to do with that cave). Like I said before, in Nepal there is no such thing as a “safety hazard” or “liability.”

Up the wall...

...and through the hole...

...Andrew goes.

After that ordeal, we opted for a relaxing day of boating on the lake. It was beautiful. Peaceful. Serene. The pictures will sum up the rest.

That evening, at sunset, we took a taxi to Sarangkot, a lookout point where the Annapurna Himalayas can (sometimes) be seen. It’s usually too cloudy to see the mountains during the monsoon season in summer, but luckily, we caught a glimpse of Fishtail peak poking out behind the clouds. It was almost a religious experience seeing something that enormous towering over the city. A sight like that really puts life in perspective.  

The thing that looks like a really pointy cloud is Fishtail peak.

The next day, we set out for Peace Pagoda, a Buddhist monument built by the Japanese in the Middle of Nowhere, Pokhara, Nepal. There are 100 peace pagodas in the world, all built to spread the message of harmony and, well, peace. But there was nothing peaceful about the one-hour, all uphill hike to get there. I huffed and puffed my way up those thousands of rocky steps, feeling like the Little Engine That Could, and sighed a breath of relief when the Pagoda was finally within sight.

Just like the Bat Cave, the Pagoda wasn’t anything exceptional, but I made a conscious effort to shut off the tourist part of my brain – that snap-a-shot-and-go mentality – and instead searched for some meaning in that giant white structure. After about an hour of peaceful contemplation at the Pagoda, it worked; I had achieved enlightenment, or at least I managed to figure out why the Peace Pagoda is more than just a place to say you visited. I’ll be writing the next part of my travel series about just this – symbols like the Peace Pagoda – so I will post the finished result when it’s published. 

After that hike, we all took much-needed showers and then sought our next set of thrills at the piercing shop. I’ve never been crazy about tattoos and piercings, but seeing all the Nepali women with their beautiful gold nose rings made me want to get one, too. In Nepal, it is almost expected of women to undergo this mark of beauty and rite of passage (it is a symbol of marriage, but younger girls get their noses pierced, too). So I thought, why not? It’s culturally significant, and it’s just a tiny stud anyhow.

Post-piercing photo

The piercing wasn’t bad at all, but it was a little more painful than my last piercing (I stupidly pierced my belly button when I was 16, and now I have a hole there forever), because it was done with a needle rather than a piercing gun. It took a few seconds longer than a gun, but it was still over and done with quickly. I’m happy with the way it looks, and it’s nice to know that I’ve adopted part of the culture. Andrew also got a second hole in his ear, where he put a small gold hoop, which is common amongst Nepali men. Yifei watched in horror as both of us got poked with needles and wondered aloud why we Americans enjoy such things.
Last but not least, Andrew and I decided to conclude our trip with a paragliding excursion. I’m one of those strange people who really love heights (I’ve gone parasailing and skydiving), so I was pretty excited. On the way there, the owner of the paragliding company – who later turned out to be my pilot – said, “Driving is more scary than paragliding.” In retrospect, he was right. To get to our takeoff point, we had to drive up a winding, rocky cliff with lots of bumps and ruts, and no guardrails. If our van had tipped and tumbled down a cliff on our way to jump off a cliff – all while the speakers blasted outdated American pop songs like Fergalicious – it would have been an embarrassingly ironic way to die. So, I’m quite glad that didn’t happen.

The only scary part of paragliding was the anticipation of jumping. At the pilot’s command, you are told to begin walking down the hill, then run, then jump off that cliff and pray to Mother Nature that the winds will carry you. They did, or else I wouldn’t be updating my blog right now. It was a beautiful experience, and my pilot was a lot of fun. He unhooked my camera from the harness and started snapping shots of us, all while maneuvering the parachute. Talk about successful multi-tasking. I got a bird’s eye view of farmers in the rice fields and a monkey leaping from one treetop to another.

Now that my trip to Pokhara is over, I’m back to the old grind of interning and working in the orphanage, but I don't mind. My next adventure is just around the corner.