Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Like Whoa: Nepal Visa Woes, Part 1

Despite our recent cheery blog posts and the genuinely cheery moments they reflect, there has been a large cloud hanging over us this summer (and I am not talking about the standard daily monsoon rains).

It all began when I received a job teaching at a local college. It seemed like a great opportunity for a number of reasons, but one large benefit would be that it could provide a work visa for me as well as a dependent visa for Claudine. Nepal allows you stay in the country under a tourist visa for a total of five months in any given calendar year. Beyond that, if you wish to stay in the country you must do so through another kind of visa. For those not married to a Nepali, research visas and students visas are usually the way to go (and we plan to write in depth about how to procure those in posts next week). Work visas for foreigners are somewhat rare here in Nepal, largely because the rules for granting one create a very high and difficult barrier for employers and employees. For this reason, many thousands of foreigners working in Nepal (most commonly with aid organizations) are doing so under student visas or research visas.

As an aside, I understand that visa laws and bureaucracies are maddening and awful in most countries, including the United States. Our experiences in dealing with visas here have been painful, but in sharing them it is not my intention to unfairly single out Nepal as a model of dysfunctional government administration (though, this caveat is not intended as an endorsement of Nepal's bureaucracy, either -- quite the opposite).

My visa hunt began in earnest at the end of May. For almost two months I would devote countless hours to trips to different educational institutions and government ministries. It was a summer of letters, signatures, seals, meetings, and mistakes. Oh so many mistakes. "This hand-delivered letter was supposed to be sent directly by the college." "We received the letter from the college, but it was supposed to be written by a different department." "This letter has the appropriate author but lacks the appropriate content." Tear out hair. Fix problem. Discover new problem. Repeat.

I swam upstream in the Nepali bureaucracy for weeks. The hardest part was not having the appropriate information and not having a trustworthy, thorough source. I trusted my college to know what they were doing, but in the end discovered they were clueless (though they did not make that entirely clear to me during the process). I talked to numerous bureaucrats and asked questions. I received misinformation, sometimes I believe inadvertently, sometimes I believe purposely just to get me out of their hair. I went to the Department of Immigration to find the door locked during normal operating hours. A man outside unaffiliated with the Department informed me it had moved but was unable to point on a map where it was now located. There was no sign on the door, no contact number -- just a desperate hunt in the heat for a relocated government office and a functioning ATM (you see, I had run out of cash that day because, due to an impending citywide strike, most cash machines were out of cash...but that's a story for another day).

On the bright side, I can now give one hell of a tour of Nepal's government buildings.

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The Ministry of Education, where incomplete information masquerades as help.

Sign outside the Ministry of Education. This should have been my first clue that navigating the bureaucracy might not be as easy as I had planned.

Department of Industry, if I never see you again I will die happy.

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The (relocated!) Department of Immigration where I had my heart broken repeatedly. A small piece of my crushed soul still resides here. I refuse to return to collect it.

Singha Durbar and the Home Ministry. How is it possible that you inspire emotions exactly opposite of the love, comfort, and safety that home is supposed to inspire?

Weeks of work later, I had properly advanced my application from my college to Kathmandu University to the Ministry of Education to the Home Ministry. Time was ticking down, as my tourist visa was due to expire in just ten days. There was still time, though, to pass the application from the Home Ministry back to the Ministry of Education and on to the Ministry of Immigration all before I would be forced to leave the country.

What could possibly go wrong?

See Part 2 for the answer.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Kathmandu Crossroads: Visitors We Have Known

I like the expatriate community in Kathmandu. I often describe it as having the perfect size, comparing it to a well-sized college: it is just small enough to allow for a quick grasp on the dynamics and the discovery of a niche. I feel as though I am frequently bumping into people I know or discovering new interconnections between friends I previously thought had no relation other than through me (surprise, I am not the center of the universe). Yet, it is large enough (and has such high turnover) that I am always meeting new people, and it seems impossible that I could ever reach the point where I literally know everyone. To this ideal size, add some smart, caring, crazy, inspirational, and creative people and you have the Kathmandu expatriate community. Like a college, it has its cliques and dysfunctions, but generally I am happy with it.

That's not to say that I don't appreciate it when outsiders come through town (hint to potential visitors).

Yes, Kathmandu is on the other side of the world from our previous home base, but so far it has proven to be quite an international crossroads. Here is a snapshot of some of our visitors to Kathmandu, friends new and old.

-- Early in our Kathmandu tenure, a friend of a friend contacted us to meet and discuss Claudine's work with Kiva. Bob Harris is a "super lender" for Kiva, and his lending team, Friends of Bob Harris, has loaned to date almost $1 million to entrepreneurs worldwide. He recently traveled around the globe meeting with borrowers he personally funded, converting a name and photo on a computer screen into a personal connection. Bob is so much more than a Kiva lender, though. A former stand-up comedian, luxury hotel reviewer, and Jeopardy champion (the friend who connected us is a former College Jeopardy Tournament champ herself -- hi, Pam!), Bob is like a Renaissance man with a teddy bear personality and heart of gold. We cannot wait to read his upcoming book about his Kiva travels, The 1st International Bank of Bob.

-- Bob connected us to a member of his lending team who traveled to Nepal this summer in order to deliver donated laptops to students at the Blinknow Foundation's rural Kopila Valley children's home and school. We have heard so many great things about this school and its founder, Maggie Doyne, since they were featured in Nick Kristof's New York Times article about Do-It-Yourself foreign aid. We met with this lender and his teenage son as they passed through Kathmandu and marveled at their experience in Nepal that went so far beyond the typical tourist's.

-- Readers visiting Kathmandu have reached out to us and we are glad they did. After sharing some life perspective and words of wisdom, one such reader and his son led us to a woman from the States who founded a charity to help a community in rural Nepal. After trekking and connecting to this country and its people, this woman -- "just a stay-at-home-mom," in her words -- saw a chance to do good and seized it by starting and running her own organization.

-- One of Claudine's high school classmates recently blew through town on a 36-hour weekend trip from his summer internship in Dubai. We helped him get a flavor of South Asia before returning to business school in Barcelona. Jet set, indeed.

-- A recent meal brought us in touch with a fellow former firm lawyer. After quitting her job in Los Angeles, she subleased her apartment and headed to Asia. Before arriving here to work with an anti-human trafficking organization, she taught yoga in Cambodia. What's next? Anyone's guess, but we are certain that getting there will involve some adventure along the way. (And thanks to her former coworker who introduced her to our blog!)

-- The brother of a close college friend was recently in Kathmandu as part of his work with the US Army. While in Nepal, he and his colleagues worked to increase the capacity of Nepali military officials, especially those responsible for disaster management. No small contribution to an earthquake-prone country.

-- We have met a number of people as they visited Nepal as part of development work, either through Kiva or other large projects funded by international governmental organizations. Meeting them and hearing about their work has been an education in development work around the world and the projects here in Nepal, large and small.

-- Could you be next?

When I moved to Nepal, I did not expect to be entertaining so many visitors, but as you can see it has been a joy to be exposed to such an interesting and inspiring mix of people. Each time we encounter a new visitor to Nepal we are reminded that we live in a small, beautiful world.

Spice Shopping in Kathmandu

The other day I went to Bhat-Bhateni in order to replenish our cinnamon jar. As we have written about previously, organization of stock is not one of this supermarket's strong suits, and the spice aisle is certainly no different.

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Sure, from a distance the bags of spices appear fairly well organized, but if you look more closely you will see otherwise. Can't find your spice of choice on the shelves? Well, good luck finding it in these cardboard boxes.

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I figured that cinnamon -- hardly an exotic spice -- would not be difficult to find. But after a few minutes of searching the shelves and pawing through the boxes of miscellaneous spices, I gave up. At least I had not missed the obvious because when I asked a shopkeeper to help me, she had to take a moment to orient herself in the spice aisle. Eventually she followed her nose to a small stash of spices hiding in a corner on a bottom shelf.

But what she handed me was not cinnamon -- at least not by name. It was dalchini.

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I took her word for it and bought two bags to bring home. It definitely looked like cinnamon.

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But the smell -- the smell was something slightly different. And a little off-putting. It was like a cross between cinnamon and chicken seasoning. The taste matched the smell, and, in case you were wondering, did not make for a great addition to my morning oatmeal.

After doing a quick search on Wikipedia, I confirmed that dalchini is indeed the Hindi word for cinnamon. Cinnamon or not, this stuff was not quite right. Maybe it was a bad batch.

One more trip to Bhat-Bhateni later, I had some organic cinnamon in hand. Now this was the cinnamon I know and love!

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Lesson learned.

Friday, August 26, 2011

My Favorite Things Today

It has been a long and rather draining week here for The Kathmanduo, so in honor of Friday, I thought I would share a few random things that are making me very happy at the moment. In no particular order, these are:

1. My new tea mug.

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Friends, family, and former co-workers probably know this already, but it bears stating here -- I love my coffee and tea very hot. Back in the days when I had a microwave, I would heat up my coffee at least three times before draining the cup. Don't get me wrong; on a hot summer day I also love iced coffee and iced tea. But a lukewarm beverage that is meant to be hot? Yuck. I find few things more detestable.

Now that we are sans microwave in Nepal, my new tea mug solves this problem for me with a clever lid.

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I know that an insulated travel mug would work just as well -- maybe even better -- but those seem so workaday to me, while this pretty blue and white number makes my morning or afternoon tea feel more special. Oh, and while we're at it, I'm also loving peppermint tea.

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This pose has always been one of my favorites because it usually comes at a point in a yoga practice when I am completely spent from rigorous vinyasas and challenging standing poses, and tree pose, by comparison, feels deliciously restful. I have come to appreciate it even more, as it amazes me that in this pose I can feel even more balanced while standing on one leg than I often do standing on both. There is probably some larger life lesson that I could draw out here -- like, sometimes you have to force yourself off kilter to find true balance in life (in fact, that one sounds pretty good) -- but I think that I will just leave it at this simple statement: I'm diggin' tree pose. Give it a try and see for yourself.

3. Philip Urso's "Sweaty Vinyasa" podcast.

Sometimes I feel unsatisfied by yoga classes that are 60 minutes or shorter. Sometimes I feel that classes over 60 minutes are just too long. Of course, it depends on the day. But Philip Urso's 60-minute "Sweaty Vinyasa" podcast (recorded on April 23, 2011, in case you want to download it for yourself free on iTunes) hits it just right. The challenging class is fast-paced and packs in a lot, so it flies by without leaving you feeling unfulfilled. It makes for a great way to start my day -- followed by my peppermint tea in my new mug, of course.

4. iPhone Scrabble.

I don't have my own iPhone (yet), but that does not mean I cannot have fun with Brian's. Lately we have been playing one head-to-head Scrabble game after another, and I love it. Particularly when I win.

5. Chickpea "cookie dough" balls.

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Remember my Peanut Butter Banana Hummus? Well, I recently discovered a variation that is even better. Take that basic recipe and make the following adjustments: add one more cup of chickpeas and 2 teaspoons vanilla to the food processor. Combine all ingredients until smooth. Then fold in a handful of chocolate chips or chocolate chunks. Roll into balls -- and yes, the "dough" will be sticky and a little messy to handle -- and refrigerate, uncovered. In the fridge the dough balls stiffen on the outside but remain soft inside. They are delicious. And they make me very happy indeed.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tips for Eating Street Food and Tikkiya Chaat

Street food.

Did you shudder when you read that? Was it with titillation or horror?

Street food is a divisive subject. Some swear by it as the most delicious way to truly experience local culture as the locals do -- to miss the street food is to miss the point entirely. Others avoid it like the plague, probably because a bad street food experience once had them sick enough to think they had actually contracted the plague, if not something worse.

I fall somewhere in the middle. I enjoy street food on occasion but am pretty wary. Not many meals are worth spending a day writhing in agony, especially if you are on vacation and have precious few days to spare. Here in Kathmandu, I find that I am not actually a big enough fan to return to certain delicacies after having tried them for the novelty. Many of these foods are deep fried, and if it's not fresh from the fryer, then it is not worth the risk of food-borne illness (or the money or calories -- anyone who has ever tried a room-temp french fry knows what I am talking about).

I abide by certain guidelines or rules when eating street food. These will not guarantee your safety, but keeping these things in mind may help increase your chances of avoiding Delhi Belly.
1) Avoid fresh fruits or vegetables or their byproducts (juices, smoothies, etc.). Trust me on this one.
2) Choose a popular cart frequented by locals over the cart no one seems to be patronizing.
3) Note that female chefs are somewhat more likely to be sanitary and trustworthy (note, also, that this stereotype is totally unproven).
4) Eat freshly-cooked, hot foods, preferably ones you have seen prepared with your own eyes.
5) Follow your gut (instincts, not cravings).

Fortunately, at my nearby Bhat-Bhateni Super Market there is a set of food stalls clustered outside the entrance, and this provides a safe zone for my street food fixes. Because these stalls are semi-permanent and heavily trafficked, I trust the food and so far have had nothing but good experiences.

There is a wide range of foods one can indulge in here, but my favorite at the moment is tikkiya chaat. As I understand it, "chaat" refers to a variety of savory South Asian street food snacks. "Tikkiya" refers to the pan-fried potato ("aloo") croquette that serves as the anchor of the dish.

So don't be shy -- step right up to the stall and place your order.

On the large grill the potato cakes sear alongside the deep-fried samosas keeping warm.

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Nearby, pakoras and other treats bubble and fry.

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The chef begins by flattening your tikki and scraping it into a plastic bowl.

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Next, he smothers the croquettes with a bean-thick soup.

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A squirt of lemon.

And now, the toppings.

The onions and a crumble of deep-fried crunchies add texture. A final drizzle of sweet sauce (per your preference) brings a unique savory-sweet balance which I love and others might find disgusting. To be honest, it is the salty-sweet combo that keeps me coming back. On my latest chaat trip they claimed to be out of the sweet sauce...until I threw a fit and they borrowed some from a neighboring stall.

My iPhone photo of the finished product does not do this dish justice, especially thanks to the unflattering flash. You will just have to trust me on this: yum.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Recipe: Stewed Okra and Tomatoes with White Beans

I promised yesterday that I would provide a quick, improvised recipe based on a lot of different ingredients, most of which came from our weekly CSA haul.

Let me set the scene. I knew that I wanted to use the okra, but I didn't have as much okra as usual, so I decided that I would throw in long green beans, a few asparagus spears, and a couple of the mysterious bulbous vegetables (now positively identified as kohlrabi -- thank you, readers!). Keep in mind that at this point I still did not know what I was going to make, but I was on my way to building a recipe. I also wanted to use up the rosemary, which was already past its prime. Then I surveyed the rest of my pantry and fridge contents, pulling out tomatoes, onions, garlic, and a bottle of tomato sauce. Finally, I had a few cups of cooked white beans that needed to be used up. That seemed like a good start.

Now onto the recipe.

Stewed Okra and Tomatoes with White Beans

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes

First things first: for those of you okra haters out there, please hear me out. This vegetable gets a bad rap, but it can be good. Wait -- I'm going to venture as far to say that it can be great. The trick is in the preparation. To avoid that infamous okra slime -- a surefire way to keep okra as a detestable vegetable -- the key is making sure your okra is completely dry. I try to remember to wash okra the night before I intend to cook it, just to make sure it has plenty of time to air dry. Similarly, use a dry knife on a dry cutting board when chopping okra. These little tips go a long way in preventing okra goo.

And if you're still on the fence about okra, this recipe might be a good introduction to okra because the other ingredients and flavors -- tomatoes, garlic, rosemary -- make up the dominant taste profile.


1 tablespoon olive oil
3 heads garlic, chopped
2 sprigs rosemary, chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
1/4 pound okra, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 pound green beans, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon salt
5 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 cup tomato sauce
3 cups (or 2 14-ounce cans) cooked cannellini beans or chickpeas


1. Heat large skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil, garlic, rosemary, and onions. Cook until onions become translucent, about 5 minutes.
2. Add okra, green beans, and salt and stir well. Cook until okra and beans begin to brown and soften, about 10 minutes.
3. Add tomatoes. Cook until the vegetable mixture starts to thicken, about 5 minutes.
4. Add tomato sauce. Set heat to medium-low. Continue to cook until tomato sauce is warm, about 2 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, warm beans in a separate pan.
6. Divide beans among plates and ladle vegetable mixture over beans.
7. Serve dish on its own or alongside brown rice.

Dry okra, dry!

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Have you ever seen green beans this long?

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Eat your greens.

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A generous ladle of tomato sauce is the final touch.

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Dig in!

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Alternatively, you could stir the white beans directly into the stewed vegetables, but I thought the layering method makes for a slightly fancy presentation of an otherwise incredibly simple recipe.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How to Cook with your Farmer's Market Bounty

This is not a recipe post but rather an explanation of how I cook with a big bag of vegetables, some unknown, from our weekly CSA.

Tip #1: Take Stock (potentially includes detective work for mysterious vegetables)

First of all, I take an inventory.

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I am well-versed in my vegetables, but sometimes I cannot identify them all, especially here in Nepal. Exhibit A:

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Readers, what is this thing? I call it a round winter melon because it has a similar texture to the long, pale green winter melons I see in the grocery store, but really, I have no idea.

I think the surprise factor is one of the best things about joining a CSA (in addition to supporting local, organic farming, of course). Too often I find myself cooking the same things over and over again. While I think it is great to have a reliable list of favorite recipes that I can make blindfolded and with one hand tied behind my back, particularly on those days when I work late or just want something that I know will be good, sometimes I bore myself (and probably my husband too) with the same old same old. A weekly CSA, therefore, forces me out of my standard repertoire and my comfort zone, and this is a good thing. Even if I cannot identify a certain vegetable, I use it in some dish -- maybe not in the way it should be used, sure, but who cares? Right now that round winter melon frequently masquerades as zucchini in my ratatouille, and it is working just fine.

Tip #2: Get Creative

This brings me to my next point: improvise with your CSA ingredients! Have a little trust in yourself and your ability to throw something together. When you are working with fresh vegetables, it is hard to go wrong, especially if you keep it simple with a little bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Maybe some garlic too. Or maybe some lemon. But oh, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Tip #3: When in Doubt, Search the Internets

If improvising like this intimidates you, then turn to the great world wide web for inspiration. Google your vegetable or herb of choice and see what delicious and very different recipes come up. Try Whole Foods' recipe page, which allows you to search by ingredient, course, and dietary considerations. I also love food blogs and vegan ones in particular because they highlight vegetables, often in incredibly inventive ways.

Tip #4: Cook in Bulk

My last tip addresses how I deal with a large volume of veggies because some people -- myself included -- worry about spoilage when you're dealing with, say, five pounds of kale per week (I WISH! No kale yet, but I'm hoping for some in the cooler months).

We pick up our CSA batch every Wednesday evening, and when we get home I immediately take a quick inventory and pull out anything that might be best used as soon as possible, such as salad greens. Even if I have dinner more or less set for that night, we can always do with some extra vegetables, especially those that require little to no cooking. After taking a mental note of everything else in our haul, I put the whole bag in the crisper drawer in our fridge. And, to be honest, it might sit there, relatively untouched, for a couple days. I have found that our CSA bags, which these days typically include green beans, edamame, okra, hardy greens, and herbs like rosemary and basil, stay fresh for several days.

Then, when I am feeling inspired to cook, I usually deal with about half of the ingredients at once -- say, okra and tomatoes one day, and green beans and edamame another. Herbs get used as needed. Therefore, I wash the vegetables in large batches as well (and in Nepal, washing involves a 30-minute soak in iodine and water).

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The dishes that I make are simple and vegan, and they last for a few days in the fridge as leftovers, so I never worry about cooking too much at one time. Some days I even deal with the whole lot of veggies at once. Yes, it looks like a tornado hit the kitchen afterward, but sometimes you just get in the groove, ya know?

Tomorrow I will be showing you how I manage to wrangle a bunch of different ingredients into one somewhat cohesive dish, so stay tuned!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Blue Note Cafe in Lazimpat

Caffeine is my drug of choice. Other than the occasional adult beverage and Advil dose, I suppose it is my only drug. That makes it all the more significant in my life. I am certain that my proclivity for coffee was imprinted in my genetic code at birth, as I come from a family of habitual coffee drinkers. And I do mean habitual. We are not talking fancy latte drinks, either -- just straight Folgers by the gallon. I am surprised we have not cut out the middle man and just started eating the grounds with a spoon. At my parents' house the coffee maker is constantly running. When they would land in Chicago for a visit they would bring their own bulk coffee grounds knowing that they would do some major damage to our humble supply (and heaven forbid we run out). They also had a tendency to bring a supply of food and sporting equipment on these visits, just in case Chicago didn't have canned beans or a spontaneous game of ice hockey broke out on Lake Michigan. But back to coffee. I once asked my grandfather how many cups of coffee he drinks during an average day. Ten. [Update: I emailed beloved Gramps to confirm my accuracy on this point (yes, emailed -- the man also Skypes) and received this response: "I just got caught up with my mail. I read your blog about my coffee and you're close on how many cups I drink a day, I scarf down about 15 cups a day average."]

Given this history, it is a wonder that I held out for so long. It was not until grad school that I came around to coffee, thanks to my wife's coffee habit and my discovery of the iced variety (still almost the only kind I will drink). Here in Kathmandu, excellent coffee and coffee shops are common, so fear not, caffeine lovers. Decaf drinker? Welcome to Hades.

Decaf coffee is almost unheard of here. The only decaf you can find in a grocery store is the overpriced instant variety. You can order decaf grounds from Top of the World Coffee (and they will even deliver to your home), but the luxury comes with a (steep) price. Very few shops serve decaf. One is Patan's Lazy Gringo restaurant, which serves Top of the World Coffee. The other we have found is Blue Note cafe in Lazimpat.

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It comes in handy to know the decaf coffee spots in Kathmandu if you happen to have someone in your household (like your wife) who has shunned caffeine (true) or if you have a Mormon friend coming to visit (not yet!). Or, maybe you are going caffeine free for a crazy yoga experiment (been there, done that). Whatever the reason, decaf may be in order. Blue Note delivers.

Blue Note serves organic coffee from Nepal and Lavazza espresso. The prices are in line with high-end coffee shops in Kathmandu, though you will pay 50 rupees (about 70 cents) more for decaf.

The heart of the coffee shop is off the main drag in Lazimpat. There is a small seating area where you can watch the world go by.

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Or, sit in the building's interior courtyard.

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The lush greenery adds an almost tropical feel. Last time we were there, it started raining, and I swear it felt like we were in a Rainforest Cafe. In a good way.

In the back of the courtyard, there is a larger seating area.

Talk about enlightening.

We find ourselves drawn to Blue Note about once a week, and I do not think it is entirely due to Claudine's decaf ways. Whether seeking decaf coffee or the hard stuff, Blue Note is an excellent option in Kathmandu.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sightseeing Guide for the Kathmandu Valley

Recently we have found ourselves fielding questions about sites to see and things to do in the Kathmandu Valley, so we figured that it was probably time to write up a little guide.

Even if you are coming to Nepal mainly for a trek -- and with the dry season just around the corner, this may be true for some of our readers out there -- chances are, you will spend at least one full day in Kathmandu. We certainly hope you will, because Kathmandu should not be missed in a hurry to start the Annapurna Circuit trek or Everest Base Camp trek. Because we recognize that visitors may have very different time frames for their stint in Kathmandu, we have laid out our sightseeing guide accordingly.

But before we get started, a little clarification is in order. The Kathmandu Valley is made up of three cities (formerly city-states): Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. Kathmandu and Patan are separated only by the Bagmati River and have more or less blended into one large city over the years, while Bhaktapur remains a more preserved relic and is separate from the urban sprawl of Kathmandu and Patan.

If you have one day in Kathmandu...
1. Start your day with a trip to Swayambunath (also known as the Monkey Temple).

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Perched on a hill on the western edge of the city, Swayambunath is one of Kathmandu's most famous stupas -- perhaps just as much for its monkeys as for its historical and religious significance. For those soon departing for a big trek, the long, steep staircase winding up the eastern side of the stupa makes for a great little training session; for those not so excited by a Stairmaster in the great outdoors, you can access the stupa from a bus park at the western side. From the top you will be rewarded with a 360-degree view of the Kathmandu Valley.

If you are staying in Thamel, you can easily walk to Swayambunath in about 30 minutes. Whether walking or taxiing to Swayambunath, you will probably need about 1.5-2 hours for the round-trip.

2. Travel south to Patan Durbar Square.

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Each of the three former city-states has its own Durbar Square, where the kings were crowned and from where they ruled. If your time is tight, we suggest prioritizing Patan Durbar Square over Kathmandu Durbar Square because Patan's is much larger and has a finer collection of temples and art. You can take yourself on a walking tour, but we recommend hiring a guide upon arrival; the 200 or so rupees (about $3) will be well worth it. After concluding a tour of all of the temples, consider stopping in the Patan Museum, which has an excellent collection of religious art. Whether or not you tour the museum, we suggest the Museum Cafe for lunch. The cafe is located in a lovely, peaceful courtyard.

From central Kathmandu, it takes about 20-30 minutes to reach Patan Durbar Square by taxi. Allow about three hours for a round-trip.

3. Head back to Kathmandu to tour the outskirts of Pashupatinath, the most important Hindu temple in Nepal. Non-Hindus cannot enter the main temple, but the surrounding complex of shrines and statues will give you a good sense of this deeply religious place. Cremations take place on a daily basis along ghats (steps) lining the river, so be respectful with your camera here.

If you are traveling directly from Patan to Pashupatinath, a taxi ride will take approximately 20-30 minutes (from other points in Kathmandu, the trip will be roughly similar). Allow 45-60 minutes for touring the temple complex.

4. Make your way to Boudhanath (or Boudha for short), the largest stupa in Nepal.

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We like to save a trip to Boudha for the late afternoon or early evening, when the crowds come out to circumambulate the stupa. Follow the monks, nuns, and lay worshippers as they walk around the stupa in a clockwise direction, spinning prayer wheels, thumbing rosaries, and chanting mantras. It is a place for religious devotion, to be sure, but it is also a friendly and social atmosphere at this time of day. Consider having an organic snack at Saturday Cafe or trying some Tibetan dishes (hint: there is more to Tibetan cuisine than momos!) at Tibet Kitchen, located on the north side of the stupa.

If you are coming from Pashupatinath, you can walk to Boudha along a pleasant stretch of road through small villages and farmland. The walk will take about 20 minutes.

5. If you saved room for dinner and want to splurge on an elegant and traditional Nepali feast, make reservations at Krishnarpan Restaurant in Dwarika's Hotel. The restaurant is located in a stunning setting amid Dwarika's collection of traditional Newari buildings. You can choose the number of courses, from six to 22!

If you have two days in Kathmandu...
1. Head to Bhaktapur, which has a well-preserved city center and old-world charm to match its many temples.

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The city is nestled in a rural setting, and with few cars or motorbikes allowed inside the old quarters, the area is wonderfully free of crazy traffic and blaring horns. Take your time winding through Bhaktapur's series of historic squares and make sure to check out the stores selling pottery, Bhaktapur's notable handicraft. For lunch, we suggest climbing to one of the several restaurants perched high to take in the views of the squares and, on a clear day, the Himalayas. Brian would also insist that you try the King Curd, which is famed to be the best yogurt in the world.

The trip to Bhaktapur is about 45-60 minutes from Kathmandu, so a one-way taxi fare may be as much as 700 rupees (about $10). At just 25 rupees, buses from the Kathmandu Bagh Bazar bus stop are far cheaper. A middle option might be finding a spot on bus tour through your guest house or hotel. Allow at least two to three hours for a tour of Bhaktapur.

2. If you are traveling to Nepal during the dry season, you might luck out with Himalayan views at the top of Nagarkot, a small peak on the edge of the Valley just past Bhaktapur. There is not much else to do on Nagarkot besides Himalayan gazing and short walks around the rural village setting, so you might be disappointed with a trip here during the cloudy months from May to September. If you choose to stay overnight, make sure to rise early for possible sunrise views of the Himalayas.

To get to Nagarkot from Bhaktapur, you can hike for about one hour, take a local bus, or opt for a short taxi ride.

If you have three days in Kathmandu...
Consider a short hike for a half day or full day. We have climbed the four highest peaks surrounding the Kathmandu Valley -- Shivapuri, Nagarjun, Champa Devi, and Phulchowki -- and would recommend them all for a dose of fresh air. In the clear months you may also luck out with some fantastic Himalayan views. With the exception of Phulchowki, which is about 26 kilometers round-trip, these hikes are not especially long, but they are challenging.

Or, combine a relatively short and easy hike with a visit to a monastery by making a trip to Kopan (for non-hikers, you can also reach Kopan by vehicle).

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Kopan is perched on a hillside above Boudha, and the setting is beautiful and peaceful. You will see both Nepali monks and Western dharma students ambling around the campus.

If you have more than three days in Kathmandu...
Send us an email, and we will be happy to suggest some additional sites that are off the beaten path.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Monsoon Season in Kathmandu

Because I have always lived in places with the standard four seasons, Nepal, with its more temperate climate and less variable temperatures, sometimes throws me for a loop. When summer settled into the U.S. with all of those record-breaking temperatures a couple months ago, I read the news reports and had the occasional thought, "Wait -- it's summer now?"

Don't get me wrong. At the time it was pretty warm in Kathmandu too. But ever since the winter chill left the valley in February, we had been enjoying warm and even rather hot days in the months since. By May and June, just as things started to heat up in the northern half of the U.S., cooler temperatures were already a far distant memory here.

Whereas the seasons in the northern U.S. are clearly demarcated by very different temperatures, here there is far less variation. In the colder months -- December, January, and February, temperatures dip down to the high 30s F at night and often reach a glorious 70 F during the day. During the hotter months -- May, June, July, and August -- temperatures are in the mid 60s F at night and hover in the mid 80s F during the day. And the other months fall somewhere in between.

Precipitation, then, becomes a more accurate way to categorize seasons in Nepal. There is the dry season, which is roughly from October through April, and then there is the wet season, from May through September.

A lot of people wonder what it is like to be in Nepal during the monsoon season, and we think that it is pretty pleasant. We can count on one hand the few times when it rained for the majority of the day. Usually, the rain comes in a sudden and short burst, often in the middle or late afternoon. The dark rain clouds roll out as quickly as they come in, leaving blue skies, cumulous white clouds, and sunshine after the rain.

You can often see rain in one part of the city and clear sky in another, as in this picture below. I snapped it from our rooftop today just after a brief rain, and you can see the contrast of the clearing sky on the right with the rain cloud on the left. Ten minutes later, as I write this piece, that rain cloud is now completely gone.

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Although we are looking forward to slightly cooler temperatures, we think that we will miss the rain once we transition to the dry season. One thing is definitely sure, though: we will surely miss autumn in the U.S. But maybe it will help that we won't have the normal cues to remind us of what we are missing (or are we the only ones who love those ads for school supply shopping?).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Nepali "Lunch"?

Last week I attended a meeting that began at 7:00. In the morning. I recognize that such an hour for a meeting is not de facto crazy, but for someone looking to escape the 9-to-5 grind, this is not exactly what I had in mind.

Nor was the "lunch" they served. I say "lunch" because the meeting agenda had it scheduled to begin at 9:30 in the morning. That the meeting ended sooner than anticipated and the meal began at 9 did not help the case for calling this lunch. Even using the term brunch at that hour is a stretch in my book. Call it what you want on your agenda, Nepal, but any meal consumed before 10 in the morning has to be breakfast.

But then this landed in front of me.

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On the right hand side of the plate are fried chapati bread and two jalebis. Jalebis are like bright orange South Asian funnel cakes. Deep-fried curlicue dough is soaked in syrup for a super-sweet treat. What it was doing on my plate at 9 in the morning was beyond me, but the fact that I might get away with characterizing it and the chapati as breakfast breads helped me to wrap my head (and mouth) around them without much hesitation.

On the left is a bag of cauliflower curry. Seeing curry in a bag is not new to me in Kathmandu. If you order a take away or "home pack" meal from a restaurant here, you will likely discover your liquid dish neatly tied up in a plastic baggie. Seeing cauliflower curry as a main course before noon is, however, something new.

Judging by the Nepalis around the table unquestioningly digging in, this unexpected meal was no catering or menu mix up. And judging by the relish with which they were attacking their curry bags, I could tell that they were just as hungry as I was and that this meal could not have been half bad.

Cauliflower curry, you just might be the world's next Corn Flakes.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Recipe: Chocolate Macaroon Truffles

One of the most common search terms on our blog is "sweet rice balls." Who knew that we would write a blog about moving to Kathmandu and end up with a Google footprint for this creation?

Anyway, today I offer you another recipe in this genre, minus the rice. And several other things. In fact, this recipe for raw chocolate macaroon truffles is entirely different from the sweet rice balls, with the exception that the two desserts share the same shape.

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This recipe was first inspired by some overripe bananas taking up precious counter space.

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When bananas begin to brown, I usually peel them, cut them up, and toss them in a ziplock bag in the freezer for smoothies and banana soft serve. Today, though, I decided to do something different because we already had a stockpile of frozen banans. I started thinking about using the overripe bananas in a dessert -- love a good banana muffin -- but we are somewhat limited when it comes to baking because we don't have an oven.

So, moving on. My mind wandered to raw desserts. I have always wanted to try making a raw macaroon, and I already had an unopened bag of shredded, dried coconut in the pantry. I wondered if I could use the overripe (and thus very sweet) bananas in place of maple syrup, honey, or other sweetener in the macaroons. The answer? Yes! But a caveat: bananas in Nepal trend on the very sweet side, so you may want to add a bit of maple syrup, agave nectar, or honey if you are making this recipe with standard bananas.

I based my recipe on this one, but I made some ingredient adjustments and also made a smaller batch, given that this was one big experiment. The recipe itself could not be simpler, and it's a particularly great dessert for hot summers when you do not want to turn on the oven (that is, if you have one. I no longer make such assumptions).

Chocolate Macaroon Truffles (raw, vegan, gluten-free)


1 cup shredded dried coconut
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup mashed overripe banana
3 tablespoons coconut oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt

1. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl with your hands, forming a large ball of dough.
2. Divide dough into roughly 20 small balls.
3. Freeze, refrigerate, or just eat immediately. All versions are delicious.

Start with 1/2 cup of mashed banana and add additional sweetener at the end if necessary.

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The more cocoa you use, the richer the taste.

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Don't be alarmed that here in Nepal I find coconut oil in the hair products section at the grocery store.

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Though frequently used as a hair oil in South Asia, it is also 100% edible. Promise. (And yes, I know that this stuff is most likely not the same as the cold-pressed extra-virgin coconut oil that I used to buy from Whole Foods, but we don't have Whole Foods here. Did I mention that we don't even have an oven? So I make do with what I've got).

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I was pleasantly surprised to find vanilla extract (er, okay, flavoring) at the grocery store.

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After tossing all the ingredients in a ball and mixing them by hand, the dough comes together.

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One GIANT macaroon.

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Kidding. Here are the bite-sized versions.

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We're pretty pleased over here with the results and are already plotting the next version (peanut butter, maybe?).