Thursday, March 31, 2011

Directing Traffic in Kathmandu

Yesterday's post may have helped you to figure out how to purchase a car in Kathmandu, but god help you if you decide to drive it on the streets here. In a city with rolling blackouts that can leave citizens without power for up to 14 hours a day, streetlights aren't the best solution for directing the snarled, throbbing traffic mob. Yet, some intersections are so choked as to need some semblance of order in the chaos. This is where traffic directors come in.

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It's amazing what power and respect some white gloves and a whistle can bestow. With the wave of an arm or even a narrowing of the eyes, these men and women of Kathmandu tame the masses. At their whim, your commute can be halved or doubled depending on whether they deign to allow your lane passage or opt to leave you idling in agony (especially acute when caught on the Bagmati Bridge).

Traffic directors come in all varieties, though. Some will kindly usher you across a busy intersection if you look clueless enough to pose a risk to yourself and others. We've heard there are even rogue directors, lay men and women who, fed up with the madness at a given intersection, will take it upon themselves to guide their fellow citizens, free of charge.

I like that as a metaphor for life in this city. For a multitude of reasons ranging from understandable to absurd, we Kathmandu residents experience frequent disruptions to certain "necessities" of life (water, electricity, traffic direction). When presented with one of these wrinkles, you sometimes learn that what once seemed essential is less necessary than you originally thought. Other times, you have to improvise solutions on the spot. So go ahead and figure it out for yourself -- there won't always be someone else out there directing traffic for you.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Imported From Detroit

Born in Flint, Michigan (like General Motors) and growing up in the Flint area about 60 miles north of Detroit, I consider the domestic auto industry part of my heritage. It is, in fact, auto jobs that drew my grandparents to Michigan as immigrants newly arrived from Europe in the wake of World War II. Good, bad, and ugly, the auto industry has shaped my hometown and the lives and livelihoods of many of the people there. It has in its own way shaped a part of my history as well. So it may seem odd to some, but I pay keen attention to the cars on the road just about everywhere I go. I'm not even a serious "car guy" noting horsepower or rare makes and models; I'm just curious about what major company brands people are driving and why. They appear to be big on Beamers in San Francisco. Other than government vehicles, Washington, DC doesn't seem to love the Big Three. I once crossed the border into Michigan and drove for over an hour on the highway before seeing anything non-domestic. Ford trucks are ubiquitous in Iowa.

So what are they driving in Kathmandu? In a word: motorcycles. When it comes to cars, though, I see mostly Asian names, Tata and Suzuki being most common. Given the average income of Nepal's citizens, cars seem impossibly expensive, especially ones imported from the United States. Imagine my surprise, then, coming across this Ford dealership along one of Kathmandu's main drags.

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I couldn't resist stopping in to check out the merchandise. I have seen a decent handful of GM's Chevrolets on the roads, but literally no Fords. I got to see them close up in the immaculate, bright, Western-seeming showroom here (but didn't feel comfortable snapping pictures, especially since I posed as a hotshot potential buyer). The tour wasn't lengthy since there were only three models for sale. Here is a shot I ripped from the internet of the Ford Fiesta for sale in "Paprika Red":

For 2.65 million Nepali rupees (about $37,000 US), she can be all yours. That price, of course, is for foreign nationals who must pay a tax somewhere in excess of 100% of the base price for cars in Nepal [actually, it's 240%--thanks, Kim]. With sticker shock like that, I won't be purchasing this Fiesta or any car in Nepal any time soon. The saleswoman didn't know this fact and offered me the keys for a test drive. I literally laughed out loud at the suggestion. First of all, I have never driven a stick shift (and all cars here are stick). Second, this is the view of traffic outside the showroom's windows:

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I passed on the test drive. Given that I see so few Fords on the roads here and so few brand new cars in general, I was surprised to hear that this Ford dealership (the only one in Kathmandu and I believe the country) sells 40 to 50 vehicles per month. With sales like these, however, I don't think Nepal will be the emerging market that reshapes the auto industry's bottom line. Still, it's interesting to see that even here in the Himalayas you can purchase and drive a slice of America, imported from Detroit.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Photo Giveaway

Over the last couple of weeks, we have received many inquiries from readers about our photographs. We already created a FAQ page to address questions about the camera and lenses that we use, among other things. Now we are taking the opportunity to show some appreciation to all of our readers by offering our first giveaway: photos from The Kathmanduo.

We will give three readers one photo of their choosing.

Do you like portraits?

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Prayer flags?

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Or furry primates?

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We will select the winners using these three methods:

1. In the Comment section below, tell us which photograph you like the most of all the photographs posted so far on this blog and why. Include the title of the original blog post (as well as a link, if possible) and the number of the photograph if there are more than one in that post. We will choose the reader with the most compelling response.

2. Become a fan of The Kathmanduo on our Facebook page. It's easy. Just click the "like" button. We will then randomly select one of our Facebook fans using a random number generator.

3. Follow us on Twitter. As above, we will randomly select one of our Twitter followers to receive a photo of his or her choosing.

You have one week to enter this giveaway: the deadline is end-of-day Tuesday, April 5. We encourage you to go for all three options! Comment, become a Facebook fan, and follow us on Twitter (if you are not already).

If you win, you will receive a photo print in the mail of any of the photos already published on this blog. You can even select the size, up to 11x14 inches.

Good luck!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Recipe: Sesame Pumpkin Stir-Fry

When Brian and I were last in Nepal in 2008, we were treated to a delicious homemade Nepali meal upon our arrival in Kathmandu, and I have wanted to create one dish in particular ever since. It seemed simple enough -- diced potatoes and cucumbers served cold -- but the dish included some mystery ingredient that gave it a delicious boost, and it was not in the usual Nepali spice family of coriander, cumin, turmeric, garlic, and ginger. The flavor was so subtle, though, that I couldn't figure it out on my own.

The secret? Sesame seeds.

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In this recipe, sesame seeds had been toasted and then ground into a fine powder. I decided to try this secret ingredient with a different vegetable, the yellow pumpkin that is native to Nepal. We love squash in any shape or form (I have been known to eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all on the same day), so we figured we could not go wrong with the Nepali cousin of our standard favorites like kabocha, buttercup, butternut, and of course orange pumpkin.

The combination of slightly sweet pumpkin and slightly smoky sesame was a winner. And the recipe is so simple -- just five ingredients.

Sesame Pumpkin Stir-Fry


1 3-pound pumpkin or squash (if you don't have Nepali pumpkin on hand, kabocha and butternut would be excellent substitutes)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup sesame seeds

1. Peel squash, remove seeds, and cut into one-inch cubes. Your squash should yield about eight cups.

2. Prepare sesame seed powder by toasting the seeds in a skillet over medium-high heat, about 2-3 minutes or until the seeds begin to brown and become fragrant. Allow the seeds to cool and then transfer to a spice grinder, pulsing until the seeds turn into a fine powder. Set aside.

3. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add pumpkin, salt, and pepper. Cook covered for approximately 15 minutes, stirring every few minutes to ensure that squash does not stick to the bottom of the pan. When squash is soft, remove from heat.

4. Using a potato ricer, mash the squash directly in the pan until it has a uniformly, er, mushy texture.

5. Stir in most of the sesame seed powder, reserving about one tablespoon to sprinkle on top of the finished product.

6. Serve and enjoy! This recipe yields 4-6 portions, depending on how much you and your guests love squash.

Behold, the Nepali yellow pumpkin.

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As with any hard squash, I recommend a good, sharp chef's knife or cleaver to hack into it. I had always wanted one of these cleavers -- my dream came true in this kitchen.

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Scoop out the seeds (reserving for roasting or toasting, if you desire).

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Peel the squash and cut it up into one-inch cubes, adding up to about eight cups.

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Toast your sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium-high heat for about 2-3 minutes. The sesame seeds should turn golden brown. Allow seeds to cool before transferring them to a spice grinder.

If you live in Nepal, if it is load-shedding season, and if your kitchen does not have an electrical outlet connected to the inverter, you may need to bring your spice grinder up to your bedroom, where a power strip is connected to the back-up power system. Just saying.

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Grind the seeds into a fine powder.

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Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Then add the chopped pumpkin, salt, and pepper.

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Cook the pumpkin covered for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently to keep the pumpkin from sticking to the bottom of the pan. When the pumpkin has softened, remove the pan from heat.

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Using a potato ricer,

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Mash the pumpkin into a uniform consistency.

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Stir in most of the sesame seed powder and serve, sprinkling a bit of the powder on top.

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This recipe yields about 4-6 servings.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bridge Phone

Speaking of exchanging phone numbers and phone calls that have the potential to threaten my marriage, after three weeks in Kathmandu it became time to get my own phone here. I arrived to Nepal with my favorite new toy, the iPhone, excited to hear that it works well with cell networks and wifi here and that it might be a particularly useful tool for international travel (the excuse I used to justify the purchase). The same American ingenuity that birthed this wonderful device, however, also made sure it is "locked" and unavailable for use outside of the AT&T network, at least until someone more tech savvy than I gets his or her hands on the phone to "jailbreak" or unlock it.

Unfortunately, I have been informed repeatedly that no hacker has yet figured out how to unlock an iPhone 4 (version 4.2.1) from the US for use in Nepal. Techie friends, is this true? If so, I wonder just what the hackers of the world are so busy with that they can't crack this code. Finally I need a hacker to do something useful for me, and I feel totally let down. If you have any information on this unlocking business, please leave hints in the comments (and if you are a hacker, kindly avoid stealing my identity).

Not having a phone here at first was a bit disconcerting, nay, terrifying. After being tethered (nay, chained) to my Blackberry for over two years, it was a bit disconcerting at first living without constant access to email, GPS maps, and instantaneous weather reports that negated the need to ever actually go outdoors. But soon I came to realize that this no-phone business was all a bit liberating. For a reformed corporate drone, having no mobile device was sheer, unadulterated freedom. It felt downright illicit to be out of contact like that. This wasn't "I'm on vacation so please refrain from calling" good, this was "My phone was destroyed on vacation so you can't reach me and by the way I'm never returning so have a great life" good. Or, more accurately, "I don't own a phone, you and the rest of humanity cannot reach me" good. On the other hand, with no phone I couldn't give out my number to new contacts in Nepal, I had no lifeline in case of emergency, and (most important) my wife couldn't reach me on demand, so it came time to purchase a "bridge phone" to last me until the promised iPhone jailbreak.

This process was a bit more complicated than you might imagine. Correction: This process was a bit more complicated than you might imagine if you're not from Nepal. As I navigated the journey of procuring a new phone, people here announced things to me with such nonchalance that they clearly saw nothing out of the ordinary with what was coming out of their mouths. "The phone can be purchased here, but you can only get the necessary SIM card from a separate cell company office." "You can purchase that SIM card, but you must provide your passport, a photocopy of said passport and Nepali visa, a passport-sized photo of yourself, your employer, your parent or spouse's name, your grandfather's name (first, middle, last), and your thumb prints (left, right)." "You can wipe your ink-stained thumbs on the questionable-looking rag we provide for all our customers." "Now that you have your SIM card, your phone will only function if you purchase minutes which we do not sell here but you can find at most street-side convenience stalls."

But after all of that, I am now the proud new owner of a cell phone.

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Proud is the right word. How else could you possibly feel rocking a phone with the classic no-color screen that appears to have about 16 megapixels. With my ringtone set to Y2K electronic blippery, I am all set to impress my friends when they learn that this baby receives calls and texts. And it keeps time. That's about it.

So if you make it to Nepal, you can now reach me on my new cell phone. Just don't be surprised when I answer you from 1999.

Friday, March 25, 2011

867-5309 (Kushal)

Yesterday I was in a meeting and had silenced my phone. I do not get many phone calls here, so you can imagine my surprise when I turned on my phone again and saw seven - SEVEN - missed calls from an unknown local cell phone number. All calls were placed within a nine minute span.

The caller did not leave a message, as I do not have voicemail on my phone (incidentally, most people in Nepal do not use voicemail, and this little detail might be among the top ten best things about living here). I called the unknown number but did not reach anyone, so I finally sent a text message, politely but urgently asking, more or less, "Who are you and why did you call me seven times?"

The mystery remained unsolved until this morning, when I woke up to this reply: "I call you Kushal Kunwar."

Of course. Had not I suspected (okay -- hoped) that my new friend might call me first?

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About two minutes after I received the text message, my phone rang. It was Kushal. He just wanted to say hello before heading to school. We talked for only about a minute and a half, again using a combination of Nepali and English, before he signed off, promising that he would call me later.

That is, if I don't call him first.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rollin' on a River

Many cities hug the banks of rivers that have shaped their geography and fortunes since their founding. London has its Thames. Paris, the Seine. Kathmandu has the mighty Bagmati River. Behold:

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Something about this river does not scream "sunset boat cruise for tourists."

And yet, this river is considered holy by Hindus, said to have originated from the laughter of Lord Shiva. Pashupatinath Temple, one of the world's largest Hindu temples to Shiva, sits on the banks of the river just east of downtown Kathmandu. It is here where many Hindus are cremated on ghats at the river's edge. Bathing in the river is for some a part of the mourning rites.

The Bagmati's holy stature clearly does not save it from decidedly unholy acts of desecration. Pollution, including untreated sewage, plagues the river. Just one whiff makes that clear. When stuck on a bridge while crossing the river (and when crossing between central Kathmandu and Patan on a hot day, you will get caught in traffic on that bridge with a light breeze wafting eau de Bagmati) my only advice is to cease breathing for as long as possible. How people have managed to survive living on its banks is beyond me. Sadly, something tells me forces other than desire for waterfront property are dictating the terms of that arrangement. And yet, no matter the pollution in the waters coursing through the Valley, life goes on:

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Whether as a final resting place, waste disposal mechanism, or backyard, the Bagmati is undeniably intertwined with the lives of people throughout the Kathmandu Valley. Surely the issues that led to this river's sorry state are complex, and I don't claim to be an expert on them or how to best go about rectifying them. But seeing this river as it exists today in contrast to how it must have first appeared when pouring as laughter from a deity, I can't help but feel compelled to reflect on the destructive impact we can have on nature and just how, well, unfunny that can get.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Running Down a Dream

With one look at Kathmandu's congested and chaotic streets, it's easy to see why this is not considered a great city for running. Perhaps all of Nepal's runners are out on trails at the rim of the Valley (and good for them) or perhaps they are cloistered inside on treadmills. Either way, they are not out on the typical city streets taking a jog. Today, we decided to change that.

We didn't find many runners out on the streets with us. On the other hand, the snickers and comments the locals made as we passed by were not in short supply. Nor were the hills. On my last run in Chicago (the largest city in America's "Prairie State"), I had an elevation gain of 27 feet and topped out at an altitude of 598 feet, according to my nifty GPS watch. On today's run, our elevation gain was 311 feet and our altitude maxed out at 4,393 feet. By the end of our run, we were happy to take the "low road" when the opportunity presented itself.

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Overall, we enjoyed the bit of hill work, but we realized not everyone in Nepal is a big fan of it. We hesitate to record here what this guy must have been muttering as he pushed his mobile shop up to higher ground in the heat.

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Elevation is not the only difference to take into account when transferring your running habit from Midwest to mountaintop. Beware uneven surfaces and pathway obstacles ranging from stray animals to their waste products. If you're not careful, you may end up like this guy, who tripped and fell head-over-heels in a blaze of glory.

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Hey, at least now the snickers are justified.

Now that we've (barely) survived our first run in Kathmandu, we are emboldened to keep trying. We hear there is a group of Hash House Harriers that combines beer and running on Saturdays in the hills surrounding the city. These men and women are either crazy, genius, or both. If we're lucky enough to survive the run, we will report back with a verdict.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

New Friends

I don't recall that playing with children was part of the Kiva Fellow's job description, but today it was part of mine during a field visit.

After the real work of the day was complete, I started talking to a group of kids who had gathered around me. The children had a vacation day of sorts because schools are in the midst of final exams, and they did not have any tests scheduled today.

Do these kids look old enough to be taking final exams?

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I thought not, but in Nepal comprehensive testing begins as early as first grade. And if their English is any indication, these particular kids are excellent students. They talked to me in English, while I tried to respond in Nepali, using my two lessons' worth of vocabulary and phrases.

Although this game had a quick and finite end (they could have kept going with their English, but I soon hit my limit in Nepali), they were happy to play another game: hamming for the camera.

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The kohl lining her eyes is intended to protect the smallest children from evil spirits.

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When they tired of seeing their own portraits on my camera display, they zeroed in on the littlest child in the bunch.

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At the end of the day, we traded phone numbers. My new friend below took down my name, mobile number, address, and birthday, and he shared with me his parents' contact information and his "personal" phone number. And yes, he's all of nine.

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I am already looking forward to talking with these new friends again when I next visit their village -- that is if they don't call me first.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Recipe: Sweet Rice Balls

Lest you start to think that all we eat are mushy legume dishes with South Asian flavors (exhibits A and B), we want to set the record straight that we do eat other foods. Like rice. Admittedly, rice is also mushy and often serves as a vehicle for South Asian flavors, but with the recipes that follow, we turn rice into a vehicle for sweet desserts.

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This lightbulb moment came to us when we found ourselves staring at a mountainous amount of leftover brown rice after an unsupervised experiment with a pressure cooker. Sure, we could have used the rice in dal bhat for the next ten meals, but we have not yet graduated to the Nepali tradition of eating dal for breakfast. Instead, we thought, why not turn the rice into something sweet?

Of course, we are not the first to come up with this idea. You can have your pick of sweet rice dishes from around the world, such as your grandmother's rice pudding, Indian kheer, Thai mango sticky rice, and Chinese tangyuan.

Our take on dessert rice uses locally grown, short-grain brown rice, which has a higher starch content and stickier quality than the long-grain variety. Interestingly, people in Nepal tend to turn their noses up at brown rice; they consider it "peasant" rice and prefer basmati and other long-grain white rices. Oh well -- more for us.

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The foundation of the recipe is simply cooked short-grain rice (the stickier, the better) and sweetener. We used pure maple syrup to keep the recipe vegan, but you could easily substitute honey.

Unlike many desserts, there is no precise science to this recipe. Simply take a small glob of rice and add a drizzle of maple syrup.

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Then roll the mixture in your hands to create a (relatively) uniform ball.

The process is a little messy.

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This is what you're aiming for with your base rice and maple syrup ball.

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Then, go treasure hunting in your pantry and add whatever ingredients strike your fancy.

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We have six suggestions below.

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Rice Pudding: add raisins to the rice ball, roll in unsweetened shredded coconut, and top with more raisins.

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Sesame Brittle: roll the ball in sesame seeds.

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Cinnamon and Sugar: roll the rice ball in cinnamon (a sprinkle of raw sugar would be a nice touch on top).

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Almond Joy: add chopped almonds to the rice ball and roll it in shredded coconut and cacao nibs (note: sadly, you cannot find cacao nibs in Nepal).

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Peanut Butter Cup: add peanut butter to rice ball and roll in cacao nibs.

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PB & J: add unsweetened, natural peanut butter and a dollop of jam to the rice ball; top with two tiny dots of the same.

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Any other ideas? Please share them in the Comments section below!