Saturday, April 30, 2011

Home Again

Claudine has returned from her trip to the Terai region and I have returned from Pokhara. Although we've been busy traveling and generally neglecting our social media exploits, we have plenty to share and look forward to doing so next week.

Enjoy your weekend!

Friday, April 29, 2011

1000 Words: Nirvana

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Salad Days

One of the last things I did in the US before moving to Nepal was buy some lettuce seeds. Obviously.

Before I departed, Claudine let me know that our landlord was interested in growing some produce in the backyard garden, and, when it comes to lettuce at least, packaged seeds are evidently easier to come by in the States. Not knowing exactly what would grow well in Kathmandu's climate and wanting to be sure I brought something accommodating to my new landlord's tastes, I picked up no fewer than 13 types of lettuce seeds (Bibb, Romaine, Iceberg, Spicy Italian Mix, Sunshine Mix, Butter Head, Crispy Wonder, You Name It). Please debate whether this behavior was more driven by my upbringing in a Cub Scout household by an Eagle Scout father ("Be Prepared!") or my plan-for-every-contingency, cover-every-single-base-and-especially-your-own-ass lawyer mentality.

I have little to no experience growing my own food, but like every good yuppy of a certain age, I enjoy supporting local agriculture, especially when the support comes down to the eating part. Fresh produce from an urban farm is like catnip to our kind, so what could be better than plucking food out of your own backyard in the middle of the city? (answer: serving it to your other yuppy friends with a crisp, undiscovered but "really quite good" Pinot Gris, letting them know in a casual way that tonight's salad has a farm-to-table distance of less than 10 yards and was cultivated with the help of underprivileged neighborhood youth you've taken under your tutelage).

After delivering the seeds to my landlord, I didn't give the lettuce much thought. But now it's impossible to ignore, sprouting in spring glory and starring on my dinner plate.

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(a creative, green-friendly garden divider made from spent wine bottles, or, as I call it, a firewater wall)


I can't help but feel a little proud of the lettuce I did nothing to cultivate beyond buying some supermarket seeds.

Maybe I have a green thumb after all.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bandh of Brothers

It's been a good week for anyone sick of the crippling traffic in Kathmandu. First, a fuel shortage thinned the roads. Then traffic ceased entirely today. And I do mean entirely. I walked out onto what is normally a vehicle-choked thoroughfare today to find this:

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Today is the first bandh, or strike, Claudine and I have experienced since moving here. During Nepal's ongoing political squabble as it approaches the deadline for drafting a new constitution (31 days!), one bargaining chip used by political parties is to enforce a strike in the capital city and surrounding areas. During a bandh, stores must be closed and traffic is ordered off the roads. I remember reading about these bandhs last May as the previous constitutional deadline approached. But constitution writing is tough work -- Nepal gave itself an additional year. With the deadline looming once again, I expect to see more of these bandhs in Kathmandu.

Surely there are costs to these bandhs, especially for the average citizen reliant on day-to-day income. On my first bandh day, though, I can't help but notice the upsides. The roads are gloriously clear of the usual traffic, and it was a great day to go on a run. Children around the city don't seem to mind either. With a day off school and the streets clear for playing cricket, it's like an American snow day without all the snow. Today's strike is set to last for one day only. I suspect all the bandh fun wears off after a certain number of days (although as a kid I certainly never thought that was possible for snow days).

The city is on strike, yet I wouldn't say that life here has come to a standstill. The streets are filled with socializing, strolling, and playing of cricket. Some street vendors are bold enough to hawk their wares, and on the side streets most small businesses are open. I'm not sure how people in Chicago would react to discover that a political party had completely shut down the city for a day, but here people seem to take it in stride. When you've been waiting years for a new constitution, I suppose you have plenty of practice in patience.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Walk to Kopan Monastery

"While at Kopan Monastery Please Refrain From Killing, Stealing, Lying, Sexual Conduct, Intoxicants Including Tobacco. Thank You."

This sign, which greets you upon arrival to Kopan Monastery, is what I most remember about my last visit there in 2008. Claudine and I decided to return again this Saturday, making it the destination of one of our long walks. Considering the rules, I knew to expect a visit to a safe, truthful, chaste, and sober place, but I wasn't expecting such a peaceful retreat. After many weeks roaming the often-chaotic streets of this city, Kopan Monastery provided a much-needed refuge from the honking vehicle horn that is Kathmandu.

Perched on a hill northeast of the city, Kopan is literally above the fray.

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(Kopan Monastery, the yellow complex on the hill in the distance)

As the sun set over the Valley, we arrived at the monastery. We walked the grounds as the sound of chanting monks wafted in the air, coupling with incense in the breeze.

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At the very top of the hill, there is an open space with sweeping views. From there you can see the Valley and its surrounding hills (and mountains on a clear day), as well as monks meditating, bearded hippies knitting (yes, seriously), and a freaky yoga savant downward dogging like it's nobody's business.

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We stumbled upon one monk sitting for his portrait. Clearly it was a big deal, judging by the reaction of his fellow monks. I remember picture day at school being pretty awesome, too. The results? Not always so awesome.

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I respect the simple backdrop. My mom always opted for the "traditional blue" for my school photos, even if the flashy lazer background was de rigueur. The monks seem wise enough to avoid tampering with simplicity. Who knew my mom was so zen?

When evening puja concluded, monks filed out of the prayer hall.

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My early birthday wish is that it becomes socially acceptable for laymen to wear those robes in public. Would it be sacrilegious to secure a set for home use?

The longer we lingered at the monastery, the more relaxed we became. It seemed like the kind of place one could contemplate and discover the true meaning of life. Maybe that's because it's actually inscribed on the wall here:

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I'm in no position to confirm or deny the words of His Holiness, but I like what he has to say. Obeying (most of) the rules of Kopan Monastery inside and outside its confines can't be a bad start.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Doors of Patan

When I was a child, my parents and I occasionally went to a little Irish pub in Annapolis for a weekend lunch. I remember two things about this restaurant. One, the green salad, which I ordered every single time because I loved the big rings of raw, red onion piled on top of the iceberg lettuce. And two, a poster on a wall depicting a photo collage of Irish doors.

I'm sure you have seen it. There are at least a few variations.


It was this last poster -- the most classic one, I will argue -- that hung on the restaurant wall, and I pored over it every time we went to the pub. I loved it. I don't know why, except that I was a strange child who also loved raw, red onions.

In retrospect, maybe my love for this poster was a sign that the travel bug, or at least the desire to see new places, hit me early. For the record, my travel at this point had been wholly limited to trips to historic homes from Virginia to Massachusetts, and that would not change for many years. In fact, I still have never been to Ireland.

When walking around the historic parts of Patan last week, I found myself drawn to the brightly colored doorways lining the streets. Without even realizing it at first, I began to recreate my own photo collage of doors. Here are my favorites.

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Maybe a new poster in the making?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Fuel Shortage in Kathmandu

Kathmandu is currently enduring a fuel shortage. I started noticing long lines at fuel pumps around the city last week and wondered the cause. I assumed there might have been some physical disruption to the supply, a broken pipeline, a union strike. It turns out there was a physical disruption of sorts, but not exactly what I expected. Nepal gets all its fuel from India, which cut off supply when Nepal failed to pay its bill. Whoops. The state-owned Nepal Oil Corporation is unable to pay its bills because, while oil prices have been rising worldwide, the government has not raised fuel prices in Nepal to allow the corporation to profit from sales. Government policies result in a subsidy for all fuel consumed in the Valley, but also small hiccups like the occasional fuel shortage.

Life goes on, with or without easy access to fuel. Gas generators -- life-blood in a city without grid electricity for 14 hours each day -- are harder to feed, but businesses carry on. Cars and motorcycles are harder to fill and taxis are asking exorbitant rates. Minibuses (read: public transport) are correspondingly more crowded. For those in real need, there is fuel available, but getting access is a chore. Earlier this week I captured this scene of the petrol pump on Pulchowk, near where we live.

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From one direction, the cars and taxis lined up, snaking their way toward the pump slowly but surely. But not too surely: many cars sat empty as their drivers abandoned them to socialize and pass time during the wait. One taxi driver told us that he waited for eight hours in line the other day.

From the other direction, motocycles and scooters queued.

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They converged on the pump after waiting their turn.

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A conspicuous Nepal Oil Corporation tanker made an appearance but didn't get very far in lightening the mood.

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If there is one thing that has lightened, it is traffic in the city. You see fewer vehicles on the road, and of those vehicles that you do see, some are simply sidelined as they wait for fuel. I wouldn't say that the streets are clear or calm, but it's an improvement. So, the fuel shortage, with its inconveniences and frustrations, has left at least one camp in Kathmandu happy. Just ask this traffic director why she's smiling under that mask.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Return to Nagarjun

Last Sunday, we had planned to do a hike/walk to some monasteries in the hills surrounding the city, but we scrapped the plan when I woke up feeling less than 100%. Later in the day, though, after I was feeling better and a bit restless, we decided to tackle a hike up Nagarjun to Jamacho, its peak. Claudine was no stranger to this route, having already conquered this summit before I arrived to Kathmandu.

My GPS watch helped mark some of our stats for this hike. We began at an elevation of around 5,500 feet and gained a bit over 3,000 feet in elevation to reach the summit at 8,576 feet. A sign along the trail indicated that the uphill ascent is 5 kilometers, but my watch showed that it took about 4.4 kilometers (2.7 miles) to the top. I won't complain about the overestimation; it was a nice surprise to arrive earlier than expected. Certainly better than the opposing alternative.

Unlike our quiet summit at Phulchowki and our deserted Shivapuri lookout, the small Buddhist temple at the top of Nagarjun was abuzz with activity. Dozens of Tibetans were there, lunching,

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worshiping,

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enjoying the view from a lookout deck,

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and generally hanging about.

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There were of course the ubiquitous prayer flags at the top, some for purchase and others for snacking, evidently.

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A kettle warmed, preparing oil for the hundreds of butter lamps flickering in the cool breeze.

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Most of the Tibetans we saw seemed to have taken buses to the summit, but I wasn't jealous. As I get the hang of this hiking thing (wobbly quadriceps and all), I'm coming to appreciate that the best part of the outing often isn't the summit (although the views, sense of accomplishment, and -- let's be honest -- lunch break are nice). The more mountains I set out to climb, the more I learn that sometimes it's the journey, not the destination.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thank You Dairy Much

Advice about what to eat and what to avoid in this country is easy to come by. Consistent, reliable advice is more elusive. I think it's due to the fact that just about everyone here has at some point been scarred by a food poisoning incident. It is often from this trauma that we survivors cull lessons on food safety and then share them with others through a PTSD-tainted haze of recollection. This is a recipe for a conflicting variety of local wives' tales and urban legends, and the hard part is balancing the foolishly cavalier advice ("eat everything and drink the water in order to build up immunity!" -- scientifically false) with the overly cautious warnings ("street food could kill you!" -- investigation ongoing).

Enter yogurt. Before Claudine turned away from dairy due to lactose intolerance, she turned me on to Greek yogurt, and Fage-brand yogurt quickly became a daily staple in my diet. Greek yogurt is basically strained yogurt, a thick, high-protein cousin to your typical Dannon or Yoplait cup. I wanted to continue my yogurt habit in Nepal, but I heard conflicting reports on dairy here. Questionable pasteurization and refrigeration here made yogurt a risky gamble, warned some, but I had read that yogurt is usually safe in any country because "the milk is boiled before fermentation and the final product is slightly acidic and thus less favorable for survival of noxious bacteria." What is a culinary adventurer to do? Once our friend Heather, a battle-hardened Kathmandu veteran, gave me the thumbs up, I dove in.

I picked up a tub of plain, non-sugared yogurt at the local grocery store. I went with the Nepal Dairy brand because it looked the most "polished" (which isn't saying much given that the lids are very loosely secured and the containers are covered with a patina of gritty dairy slime).

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I avoided the clay pots of yogurt the store offered because I wasn't sure how this whole yogurt experiment would shake out, and, given my uncertainty, a product in a printed container seemed less risky than an uncovered clay pot of unknown provenance.

Low and behold, the yogurt in the container looked like...yogurt.

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I doctored it up a bit and, hesitantly, took my first bite.

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Yep, definitely yogurt. I braced myself for either a triumphant food discovery or my first bout of food poisoning since arriving to Nepal. Only time would tell.

24 symptom-less hours later, I declared victory. I deemed yogurt here to be safe but a bit too watery for my strained-yogurt tastes. Experiment number two was to strain the yogurt more to my liking. I had higher confidence in this endeavor because Claudine had undertaken a similar project years before when, after discovering labneh cheese during an excellent Israeli brunch in Brooklyn, she decided to reproduce the cheese in our Chicago refrigerator. Labneh is basically super-strained yogurt that has the consistency of soft cream cheese and it is, in my opinion, delicious. Our local grocery store didn't have cheese cloth for straining, so a porous dishtowel would do. Life in Kathmandu: improvise, improvise, improvise.

I strained in two stages. It only took about an hour for the yogurt to strain to the consistency of Greek yogurt. At this point I removed a large serving for myself and enjoyed it with a light topping of beaten rice (a bit like puffed rice) for some texture and a touch of local honey for sweetness. Its flavor was fresher and stronger than the mass-produced Fage-brand yogurt I am used to, but I liked it. Claudine? Not so much (I made her try a taste).

I let the remainder strain overnight to make some labneh cheese. I awoke in the morning to delicious success.

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Greek yogurt will once again be a staple in our home and I am pleased to add labneh (great with a bit of extra virgin olive oil) to the menu. For those of you in Kathmandu uninterested in producing your own Greek yogurt, our friend Brian sells it at the farmer's markets on the weekends (but get there early, it -- like his other tasty products -- goes fast). There you can also get a variety of excellent local cheeses, although if you want labneh you'll have to come try it at my place or just follow the story above to make your own (instructions functional in all countries).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Scenes from New Year's Day

Last Thursday marked the Nepali New Year. Although we are still figuring out the Nepali calendar, we knew that we wanted to acknowledge 2068 and observe how others in our neighborhood were celebrating. As we traced a long walking route around Patan, we took some snapshots to mark the day. Happy new year from The Kathmanduo!

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