Monday, February 28, 2011

Planned Communities in the Kathmandu Valley

Yesterday I went to a village in Lalitpur district called Sainbu Bhaishepati. Located about 30 minutes by bus from Jawalakhel, this is a typical small town in the Kathmandu Valley.

It has a main street, lined with small storefronts:

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It is surrounded by fields, where people harvest wheat, mustard greens, and other vegetables:

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Homes are in multi-family structures like this typical one, which is unfinished but well lived-in:

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You can imagine my surprise, then, when I saw this, a very different vision of multi-family living, just off the main road:

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Planned housing developments appear to be cropping up all over the Kathmandu Valley, with names like Park View Horizon, Central Park, Grande Towers, Imperial Court, and, simply, Sterling.

After living and working in China, I well know that striving countries have long been importing gated communities from the U.S. (and, for the record, Beijing is definitely beating out Kathmandu on the name factor; Champagne Villas remains my favorite to date). I was, though, surprised to see so many planned developments in Nepal, which is the poorest country in South Asia and which ranks 148 out of 162 countries in terms of GDP per capita.

The few communities that I have glimpsed close-up appear to be only partially occupied or stalled in development. That, combined with the faux Spanish or Tuscan architecture, has made me do a double take: am I really in Nepal or am I in southern California, Arizona, Nevada -- or China?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hiking Nagarjun

Today I went hiking in Nagarjun National Park, which is located northeast of Kathmandu. I teamed up with Douglass and Max again, from my first hiking trip to the peak of Champa Devi. This time two others joined us, Shelley from England and Julie from Quebec.

From Patan, the trip to the Nagarjun entrance took only about 30 minutes; Max rode with Shelley on his motorcycle, while Douglass, Julie, and I shared a taxi. At the entrance gate we had to buy tickets to access the park (250 rupees, or about $3.50) and read helpful banners meant to inform (22 mammals are found in the park, including barking deer and jungle cats) and intimidate (do not bring poisons into the park, among other things).

Jamacho is the summit, and it is situated at about 7,000 feet. The distance to the summit is 5 kilometers, so the hike is very similar to Champa Devi in terms of both distance and elevation gain. Doug warned us, though, that the path was basically one steep, uphill climb.

Fortunately, just as in Champa Devi, the trail was supplemented with a stone staircase for much of the way. Though still steep and pretty much relentless, the staircase is a bit easier than an earthen path.

Maybe it was because I had some caffeine this morning, but I felt AWESOME during this hike. If it was the caffeine, then I really need to bring it back into my life on a more regular basis. But before I give coffee all the credit, I think a few other factors made this hike easier than Champa Devi. For one, this time I was not coming straight out of the flat prairie of Illinois but instead have had time to acclimatize to the higher altitude. Two, we hiked under a pleasant tree cover until we reached the summit, so the strong sun was not hovering over us. Three, we were a bigger group, with three uncertain stomachs and one hangover among the five of us, so I think the pace was not as breakneck as before.

Here is a view of the summit from a clearing about two-thirds of the way to the top:

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We reached the summit at Jamacho within two hours. Unfortunately, there were no mountain views of the Langtang Range because the skies were hazy. But there was a small Buddhist temple at the top:

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Butter lamps, lit as a prayer offering, marked the entrance:

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And a tangle of prayer flags towered over the top:

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We headed down to a lookout spot to eat our packed lunch:

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Which gave us expansive, if cloudy, views of the entire Kathmandu Valley:

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We left just as the clouds started rolling in:

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And made it back to Patan just as the rain began.

We are all reconvening at Shelley's house this evening to celebrate Max's birthday with a well-earned barbecue.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Kiva Fellows Blog Post #3

Please tune in to the Kiva Fellows blog to read my latest post about the lack of finance in remote mountain areas and the potential for technology to change that.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Secret Baker

Soon after settling into Patan and meeting people living in the Jawalakhel, Jhamsikhel, and Sanepa neighborhoods, I began hearing about "The Secret Baker." It is a secret not so much because those in the know want to keep others away (though there may be some territorial protectiveness, too) but because the bakery is unmarked and difficult to find -- unless you know the secret.

Multiple people had raved about The Secret Baker's whole wheat loaves, tarts, cookies, and fresh marinara sauce, and I figured that he or she (gender still a mystery!) must be excellent if a business could flourish on word of mouth alone. I wanted to hunt down the bakery, but first I needed directions.

Fortunately, a new friend emailed me very detailed directions using the Nepali landmark method. I took photos to document my route in case others want to seek out The Secret Baker too.

1. Take the "restaurant row" road down to Cinnamon Grill Lounge (note: not "Grill AND Lounge." Just "Grill Lounge"). Check.

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2. Take right at Cinnamon and continue straight until you reach the intersection with the statue. Check.

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3. Continue straight, passing Jazzabell Cafe (Jazzabell Cafe, you screwed me up once before, but I would not let you defeat me again). Check.

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4. Just past Jazzabell, see a small parking lot to your left (generous definition of parking lot here). Check.

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5. If you pass the British School, you have gone too far. Nope, did not pass it.

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6. Just past the parking lot, take a left down a dirt alley. Got it.

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7. A small, squat dog will bark at you. I saw the small, squat dog, but it did not bark. Assumed I was still on course.

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8. Note an ugly new housing development straight ahead. Ugly new housing development, check:

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9. Go through a gate to the left of the housing development. Getting warmer!

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10. Enter first floor of the home. Okay; hoped I was not trespassing here:

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11. You are now in the home of The Secret Baker. Success!

Inside I met Bharat, The Secret Baker himself. We chatted for a bit while he gave me a tour of his daily offerings, which included this spread of cinnamon rolls, cookies, focaccia, croisannt, and calzones:

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And stacks upon stacks of bread loaves:

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Bharat wakes up every day between 2AM and 3AM to do his baking in a wood-fired oven:

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Although Bharat used to supply several restaurants around town, his business is mainly a retail one now. He supplements the sales from his home by selling baked goods at the twice weekly farmers' market at the Summit Hotel in nearby Sanepa.

I bought a jar of his fresh marinara sauce, which I promptly ate (I would like to say that I did not eat it straight out of the jar but instead warmed it and incorporated it in a proper meal, but I would be lying).

I will definitely be going back to see Bharat, and now you can find him too.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Beekeeping Shop

Yesterday I salvaged some buckwheat mash with the help of local honey. The buckwheat mash may not leave you drooling, but this honey should. I bought it at The Beekeeping Shop, a store tucked back in our neighborhood near the party palaces. The Shop sells several varieties of honey with flavors from different plants and fruits, including chiuri (Indian buttertree?), mustard, litchi, and, natch, buckwheat.

A couple days ago I bought a jar of their mustard green honey with walnuts.

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Half of the jar is filled with whole walnuts, which seem especially decadent because they are relatively expensive in Nepal. The Beekeeping Shop does not skimp:

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The Beekeeping Shop, though, does more than just produce delicious honey and beeswax products. The Shop works with small farmers across the country to train them in environmentally sustainable beekeeping practices, improving livelihoods and maintaining traditions while spinning small batches of liquid gold:

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Thakkhola Thakali Cuisine

Yesterday I had lunch at a restaurant known for its superior dal bhat, the Nepali "national meal" of lentil soup, rice, and curried vegetables. The restaurant, Thakkhola Thakali Cuisine, is located in Jawalakhel, and, true to the recommendations, its menu focuses on set meals such as dal bhat.

The menu also offered a variation on the standard dal bhat meal called phapar ko dhido, which replaces rice with a "buckwheat mash." Intrigued, I asked the waiter about it. "Try it!," he said.

I happen to like buckwheat a lot, so I ordered up a "veg" phapar ko dhido, which would come with dal, spinach, mustard greens, curried vegetables, raw carrot and cucumber slices, and achar, the spicy pickle that is a standard condiment here. Several minutes later, this platter arrived:

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Quite a pile of buckwheat mash. The waiter had told me that it tastes like mashed potatoes. I think raw dough is a more appropriate description, but to each his own.

I dug in as best I could, ripping off a small piece of the mash and dipping it in the dal. Clearly, this bland blob is meant to be a vehicle for dal, vegetables, and meat, just like rice or roti. I appreciated the earthy, whole grain nature of the mash, but I just did not love the texture of raw dough.

Because I barely made a dent in the dough, the waiter offered to pack it up for me so I could take it home. Not wanting to offend anyone in the restaurant, I enthusiastically accepted. When I returned home, I put the dough in the fridge in case I had a change of heart.

But even better than a change of heart, I got an idea later that night as I prepared dinner: what if I used the dough to make buckwheat pancakes?

I started by cutting off a thin slice of the dough, which had by then settled into a nice loaf shape:

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Then I used a rolling pin to thin out the slice and try to make a round shape of it. No go. The stuff was sticky and not as pliable as I had expected. Flour dusted on the roller and the board might have helped things, but I did not have any on hand. Instead, I used my fingers to flatten and shape a small pancake as best as I could. Here was the result:

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Then I heated a pan over medium heat and lightly oiled the bottom with olive oil. I cooked my two little pancakes for about three minutes on each side, until lightly browned.

I served these pancakes with my homemade medley of yellow dal, cauliflower, curried eggplant, carrot slices, and achar:

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Verdict: the texture of the mash was definitely more palatable in pancake form, but it was still lacking taste.

Not quite ready to give up on it yet, I decided to transform the pancakes into a sweet treat, spooning on top a drizzle of local honey with walnuts:

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This, my friends, was excellent -- probably more due to the delicious honey than the buckwheat, but still, there was finally redemption.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Wedding Procession

There was a different sort of traffic jam in my neighborhood yesterday, as a wedding procession filled the width of the street. My landlord had warned me that the narrow road is regularly clogged with wedding processions during the most popular wedding month, October, because there are two event spaces in our neighborhood. These "party palaces" are popular spots for wedding receptions.

Although it is not the prime wedding month, a late Sunday morning in February was, apparently, a fine time for a wedding. This video will give you a small slice of the dancing, music, and festive clothing typical of a Nepali wedding. Note the beautiful red saris, which are not your everyday sari. Embellished with all manner of exquisite details, these are known as "party saris" -- only fitting for a party at a party palace.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

It All Comes Full Circle: The Cycle of Friends (and Plastic) in Kathmandu

Although the Kathmandu Valley has an estimated population of more than 1.5 million people, sometimes it feels like a small town, and the expat scene in particular tends to shrink very fast.

Yesterday was one of those days. My morning started with breakfast at home with my housemates, including Tia's good friend John the seismologist. Then my roommate, Brooke, and I departed for the 1905 Farmers' Market. We took a pleasantly uncrowded (i.e. every seat was taken but there was no one standing) microbus up to Ratna Park in the center of Kathmandu and walked the rest of the way to 1905.

As soon as I descended into the market, I spied a spread of beautiful handmade bowls constructed of recycled plastic. The man selling them makes the bowls in his village, along with other members of his family. There were shiny silver versions and multicolored varieties, and I made an uncharacteristic impulse purchase and snapped up this one:

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I think it makes a gorgeous new fruit bowl, and I love the story behind it too. Products made of recycled materials are de rigeuer these days in Nepal; they are not just decorative but useful too, as in this handmade loofah produced by one of BPW's borrowers and sold at the Microcredit Fair two weeks ago:

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After spending some time surveying and sampling the rest of the goods at the market, my roommate and her friend and I sat down at a table to soak in the sun. Among other things, our conversation turned from earthquake preparedness to farming to food to arts. Her friend, a writer, talked about a great hidden gym bookstore owned by his friend in Patan and pointed out a Bollywood star as she walked by.

A couple hours later we eventually parted after eating at a local Newari joint in Thamel. I did some errands and then met up with Doug, a development consultant who arrived in Nepal last week and who is a friend of one of my old co-workers. We went to this amazing place on the eastern Edge of Thamel called the Garden of Dreams, which deserves its own post and photo montage sometime later. For now, just know that it is a stunning complex of gardens and pavilions inspired by Edwardian estates in England. It was recently restored over a six-year period and now has a full restaurant and bar. I felt like I was living a Graham Greene novel.

Soon after we sat down for a coffee on the terrace, we quickly established one additional mutual connection -- he had worked in India with a classmate of mine from grad school. A few minutes later my new friend noticed a friend of his at the table behind us. Raunak joined us, and it did not take long for us to realize that we too had mutual friends. The same friends, in fact, whom I was planning to see that night for dinner.

Two hours later at dinner with those friends I was talking about my interesting conversations with Tia's seismologist friend. "Oh, you mean John from CalTech?," they asked.

Of course. Should have known my day, just like that recycled plastic, would come full circle.

I am heading out shortly to meet up with Doug to check out the little hidden gem bookstore in Patan. Turns out he knows the owner too.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

New Comment Feature

Dear readers,

We just installed a new feature on The Kathmanduo that makes commenting more interactive. Now, when you click on "Comments" at the bottom of each post, the comments will be displayed right under the text. You can "like" comments and reply to comments and hold conversations and exchanges through comments. So please, talk to us and talk to each other! We like hearing from you, especially when we are far away.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Weighing In on Small Entrepreneurs in Nepal

Today I was walking on Kantipath, a main road in Kathmandu, when I discovered this curious scene:

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The man in the pink cap is sitting in front of a bathroom scale, which he charges customers five rupees to use.

You may wonder if this is a legitimate small business or just augmented panhandling, but I can confirm that this enterprising gentleman is filling a market niche: two people paid to use his scale during the three minutes that I stood there watching.

How about we play with this scenario using a little math? Let us assume that I witnessed a particularly busy period, and this business person actually brings in customers at half that rate, or 20 customers per hour. At five rupees per customer, that tallies up to 100 rupees per hour. During a typical Nepal work day from 10am to 5pm, this guy could earn 700 rupees per day. As I have learned during my Kiva field work, small entrepreneurs here work seven days a week, so this particular business man likely does as well; still, let us shave off 10 days per year for festivals, illness, and other events. Working 355 days per year, this man could earn almost 250,000 rupees annually. Converted to USD at today's exchange rate, this amount equates to approximately $3,450. For simplicity's sake, let us assume that he paid for his scale in full at the time of purchase, so he is not incurring financing fees. If we subtract $30 for a standard bathroom scale, a capital cost that probably needs to be replaced every year, his annual profit is about $3,420.

A 2009 Asian Development Bank Nepal Fact Sheet reports the per capita income at $447 per annum. Therefore, this man, along with his easily portable bathroom scale, earns more than seven and a half times the average Nepali's income. Not bad! Next time I will think twice before questioning something seemingly funny on the street.

Except, of course, if I see a working elephant on the roads again. Still waiting for an explanation about those economics.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Chasing Mountain Views

All that rain yesterday did a glorious thing. It cleared the skies of the clouds, dust, and smog that have been obstructing this view for me until today:

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I took this photo late in the afternoon on Pulchowk Road, right near my office. I think I audibly gasped when I looked up and saw the mountains in such gorgeous clarity.

Here is a photo of the same view, taken exactly one week prior. That day I was excited to catch even this little glimpse of the Himalayas:

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See them? I swear they are there. But you probably would not believe me were I not able to provide proof from the first photo.

In case you could not tell, I have somewhat of an obsession with the Himalayas. I don't know why -- it's not as if I am a climber or anything, though I do like a good hike. My mother tells me that I come by it rightly, as my maternal grandmother, whom I never knew, also loved the Himalayas, even though she never traveled to this part of the world.

I first saw the foothills of these amazing mountains in 2001, when I traveled from Delhi to Manali, India, with my good friend. That 18-hour bus trip on hairpin curves was well worth the rewarding views in the end, even if our guide did get us lost in the woods and started praying with his rosary.

My second encounter was two years later, during my first trip to Nepal. I did not glimpse the Himalayas from Nepal, though, as it was monsoon season and the skies remained cloudy all summer. I did, however, get amazing views during a two-week excursion to Tibet. During my overland journey from Kathmandu to Lhasa and back again, I saw gorgeous glacial scenes and, most exciting, Everest up close from the north base camp in Tibet.

Finally, Brian and I lucked out on our last morning in Pokhara, Nepal, during our honeymoon. We had woken up a second morning in a row to watch the sun rise over the Annapurnas; while the first morning we saw only clouds, we decided to give it another shot before leaving town. Slowly, slowly, over the course of about half an hour, the Annapurna range revealed itself to us in all of its glory. I blame that view for distracting me as I carried up a cup of tea and tripped over the flagstone path; tea, wallet, and dignity went flying, and I still have a scar on my shin to commemorate that fall.

So, what's next on our list of Himalayan vistas? Well, the list is long. I want a proper viewing of the Annapurna Range; I want to see Everest from the Nepal side; and one day I really want to travel the Karakoram Highway, which is the highest paved road in the world and links China and Pakistan.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

MIT CoLab Radio Photo Series

The Kathmanduo's first photo appeared today in the MIT CoLab Radio's photo series. Please check out Snapshots from Nepal.

Rain, Rain Go Away

Last night I woke up to the sounds of loud thunder and pouring rain. While the thunderstorm has passed, the rain has continued throughout the day.

I went outside to my usually sunny terrace and snapped a photo of the rain falling on the marble table:

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For some reason, rain captured in black and white makes me think of Paris, even though I have never been there. From what I hear, Kathmandu is definitely not like Paris, but that is neither here nor there.

Rain during this time of year is a bit odd, as we are still squarely in the dry season here in Nepal. But, as confirmed by a seismologist visiting Tia (yes, that's right; I was discussing seismology at the breakfast table), climate change is producing wacky weather patterns everywhere. Survivors of the great Blizzard of 2011, you know what I am talking about.

Thankfully, I am dealing with no blizzards here -- just some passing rain and clouds. The only foreseeable problem is my solar-heated shower. It might be a bucket bath day.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Bakery Cafe

Late this afternoon I emerged from my sick bay for the first time since Saturday afternoon for a long-ago scheduled meeting at The Bakery Cafe. The move was a bit ambitious on my part -- I still do not feel great, and the traffic, air pollution, and, well, natural sunlight left me feeling generally disoriented.

Thankfully, I was able to take refuge at our meeting spot, The Bakery Cafe in the Pulchowk area of Patan. I had passed by this location once before during my misguided trip by the UN House when I was searching for my yoga class. I suppose credit is owed where credit is due. I once was lost, but, thanks to that ill-fated trip, now I had found: The Bakery Cafe in Pulchowk.

The Bakery Cafe is a chain of restaurants located throughout Kathmandu and Patan. It serves the standard but wide-ranging fare that you encounter in most Western restaurants here (read: anything but dal bhat). Though famous for its momos, or Tibetan-style dumplings, The Bakery Cafe also puts out Italian (pastas and pizzas), American (burgers), South Indian (dosas and idli), and American Chinese (chowmein). I stuck with bottled water this time.

The Bakery Cafe is not so notable for its food, though, as its service, as it employs mostly deaf people. Here, there is a welcome respite from the communication breakdowns that often happen when trying to converse in a mix of broken English and broken Nepali. Instead, we can happily and quite effectively go straight to the hand gesture, pointing, and smile system. Obviously, it is not ideal -- I should aim to pick up some Nepalese Sign Language if I continue to frequent Bakery Cafes -- but it works. And, unlike at some other spots around town, I never leave feeling frustrated.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Flower for Valentine's Day

From my October 2010 trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden:

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Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!

Local Health Care in Nepal

Yesterday I had my second brush with the local health care system in Nepal.

The first encounter, just after I arrived in Nepal, was hardly worth mentioning -- a visit at the CIWEC Clinic for my third and final Rabies vaccination and medicine for a lingering chest infection. With a roster of international doctors, CIWEC mainly provides care to travelers and permanent expats in Nepal, so its prices are higher than those of local hospitals but still far from the prices I am used to seeing on health insurance reports from the U.S. At $55 for a consultation, I find CIWEC amazingly affordable.

CIWEC, though, is located at the other side of town in Lazimpat, an embassy area in the north of Kathmandu, so it is not an ideal choice for emergency medicine when you are located in Patan. For Patan residents, the main choices are Norvic Hospital, which is located just across the Bagmati Bridge, and Patan Hospital. Then there is also Alka Hospital, which is located about a five minute drive from my home.

So why the review of hospitals, you ask? Well, it all started on Saturday evening, when I started to feel symptoms of either flu or food poisoning. In Nepal, you can usually count on it being the latter, but I had not had any strange foods that day, so I did not think much of it. (And oh, that hot buffalo's milk from Saturday's field visit? I knew better than to actually drink it. I have learned to accept such things graciously and, when necessary, dispose of them discreetly). Anyway, I went to bed early Saturday night and slept fitfully and feverishly.

I finally emerged from my bedroom about 12 hours later and went downstairs to get water. I felt a bit lightheaded, so I took a seat in a kitchen chair. Tia and my housemate were both in the kitchen, and my housemate asked me how I was doing and said that I did not look very well. The next thing I remember is waking up on the marble floor, where I had fallen, head first, from my chair, when I fainted. Apparently I was out for about half a minute. There was some momentary panic as Tia hopped on the phone to reach a doctor and Geeta sat behind me, holding me up. Dehydrated, sweaty, and a little sheepish, I gulped down water and juice and then allowed my kind housemates and stand-in caregivers to help me walk back up to my room. The doctor on the line had prescribed rest, fluids, and rehydration salts.

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Mixed with water, the salts taste pretty awful, especially when you are already battling nausea. (Mom: I don't know if your Merck colleagues in NJ have any power over Merck's production in India, but if you could make these a little tastier, that would be great. Thanks). I spent the rest of the day sleeping off and on but not improving significantly. At about 5 PM Tia decided I should see a doctor, so she drove me to the previously mentioned Alka Hospital.

The good: I was able to see an emergency room doctor immediately, and within five minutes I was resting on a hospital bed with an IV pumping rehydrating fluid into my veins. The doctors and nurses spoke great English, and they were very attentive and kind. My diagnosis was acute gastroenteritis, from either contaminated food or water. The total price, for the ER consultation, IV, lab work, and three prescriptions, was about $30.

The different (note: not saying bad): The hospital is organized around an open-air courtyard, and the Emergency Room was just that -- a single room which opened up to the outdoor courtyard. To get lab work, I had to walk outside and across the courtyard to the lab. Also, the staff seemed very resistant to keeping curtains down around the beds; as soon as Tia would let down a curtain to give me a bit of privacy, a nurse would immediately tie it up again. At least the open curtains kept me entertained with people watching during the IV administration.

Now, almost 24 hours later, I am feeling much better, thanks to rest, fluids, rehydration salts, $0.50 DVDs, the amazing care of my housemates, and a bit of perspective. Last night one of my fellow Kiva Fellows was also in the hospital, but across the world in Armenia, after a very serious car accident that left two people dead. Thankfully, my friend escaped with a dislocated hand, now in a cast, and some seriously shaken nerves. Her messages to us in the early morning shook us all. My thoughts and Kiva love go out to Armenia.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Practical Lessons from Field Work

Over the course of the last two weeks, I have learned a few practical lessons about doing field work for my Kiva fellowship.

1. Prepare for a bumpy ride, whether on the back of a motorcycle, inside a microbus, or in a taxi. The roads inside the city limits can be treacherous enough, but this morning we were fully off-roading in our chariot of the day:

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2. Don't count on a taxi being more roomy and comfortable than a microbus; there were four of us in the back seat.

3. Wear slip-on shoes. The borrower meetings are either conducted inside someone's home or outside on handwoven straw mats:

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In both places shoes are not welcome. I can quickly step out of my TOMS, but they may not hold up for much longer on the dusty and rocky roads:

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4. Do not count on a bathroom break or a lunch break. At best, you may be served some hot buffalo's milk:

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Or you may buy some delicious organic vegetables for a later meal, as I did today when I saw this cauliflower (note the nifty scale):

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5. Similarly, cart your own water. Water looks lovely in these traditional vessels, but it is not for drinking:

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6. Children are adorable. No lesson here. Just noting. Again.

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7. Cows are friendly:

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But tigers are not. Schedule your field visits late enough in the morning to ensure that any predators have already left the scene. I am not making this up: when we arrived at the village this morning, the women told us that a tiger had been spotted just a few hours before!