Thursday, May 19, 2011

Interrupting Dolpa for Folk's Visit...

Before I continue writing about my adventures in Dolpa, I wanted to share a few highlights of my time with my parents. After 8 months of being so far from home, it was FANTASTIC having a bit of home come to me, and to be able to show them some of what I've experienced in Nepal. I'll let the pictures tell the stories, and then post some observations about Nepal from my mom. Guest blogger day :)

Dad, mom, me and Swetha at Pashupatinath, a large, very holy (Hindu) temple in Kathmandu.

Mom and Dad listening to our guide at Pashupatinath. There was so much to learn!

Pokhara: We finally saw some mountains!

While in Pokhara, we met up with my friend Rai ji from the Gandaki Association of the Deaf. We went to dinner, saw cultural dances, and then got roped into participating at the end! According to Rai ji, mom's a fantastic dancer, but he doesn't think it's genetic...

Fewa lake at Sunset. Gorgeous.

We decided to head to Chitwan and see the elephants. Didn't know we'd be getting THIS close!

And then the elephant bent its knee...

And this happened. Can you tell who's who? Yeah, me neither. SO much fun though!

The elusive one-horned rhino! We finally got to see one on our jungle ride.

The "official" elephant ride.

Dad with Anu (my research assistant) and a few of my Banepa family members.

Swayambhu: the monkey temple. The big round thing in the back is a Buddhist Stupa, the small black statues are depictions of the Buddha.

Vocabulary Lesson From Mom:

Nepali understanding of concepts you thought you knew


…”I’m coming around the curve”…”I’m passing you –on the right, left, gutter, at the edge of the mountain”…”You passed me and we made it!” ”You fool; I’m here!”… I’m turning right or left… & to pedestrians, animals, bikers, rickshaws…“I’m inches behind you so you better jump out of the way!!!”…


Something only the very lucky, wealthy ,blessed can use without thought…in third world countries, something which can bring life, suffering or death due to poor sanitation; cool, blessed relief after time in dry, dusty, filthy conditions. Many rural villages have only one fountain in the village square where everyone gets their water, washes, brushes their teeth, etc. These are some of the more fortunate ones…others have to walk a significant distance for their water, using a common well or spring in the mountains between villages.


A good and noble endeavor which may carry the power to remove dark, vacant stares from the eyes of God’s children; a myth-Something anyone who seeks it can have. A newly learned word: DOKO. Close your eyes and imagine a tiny man of late middle age, perhaps the size of Ghandi, dark-skinned, seemingly made of iron, with a wide strap across his forehead, attached at the neck to a six-foot high bookcase, approximately four to five feet across. Bethany has witnessed a similar sight of a man with two nearly full-size refrigerators making his way down the dirt road.


Huge smiles, a slight bow, and “Namaste*” from virtually everyone with whom you make eye contact. We are, however, learning not to make eye contact with every shopkeeper, as this has a tendency to lead to “Ah, Madams, Sir! Come…See beautiful pashminas…only 500 rupees…”. Joy is evident everywhere: Gleefully dashing down a long, poorly lit hall, these words heard from the mouth of a dirty 7-8 year old boy… passing us by & hollering “AWESOME”, “AWESOME”!

*Nah-Mah-Staaaay: May the gods within me greet the gods within you (or as the tour guides say: Hello)

Dump Truck

Otherwise known as “Blinged-out Semi”. All over the roads in the entire country, nearly running buses off the roads, and sometimes the mountain cliffs. The trucks are covered with pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses (to increase business karma), painted in psychedelic colors, and the inside of the window is decked out in woven lace and bobbleheads. The back usually gives a cheery (or not so cheery) farewell, typically discussing road safety and love. Some examples: “Horn Please”, “See You!”, “Drive Careful”, “Good Love”, “Love Happy”, and – the painter may have been nursing a broken heart – “Love Hurts”.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Miles To Go Before I Sleep...Well, Kilometers Anyway...

Trekking to Dunai - the good, bad and ugly.

Day 1 of Trekking

After the jeep dropped us off, we stayed in Rukum district, in a nice guesthouse with real beds, and an outhouse (read on, and you'll see why the outhouse was a luxury!). The morning we left, the owner of the guesthouse presented Swetha and me with beautiful walking sticks that since proved invaluable. The trek began when we crossed one of the many suspension bridges into Jagarkot district - we walked the line between Rukum and Jagarkot districts to get to Dolpa - and proceeded up a hill. Disclaimer - most of the "hills" I talk about are actually mountains (small or large), as "mountains" are generally 6000+ meters and should be called "mountains on steroids". Let me tell you, the first hill we climbed felt like a mountain but was probably actually an anthill in comparison. From then on, the trek followed the river and went from village to village. In Nepal, it would be considered "flat" though we did have to scramble over a few cliffs. This, oddly enough (given my previous fear of heights), was actually my favorite part of the day. Probably because it felt more like rock climbing then trekking.

I have discovered I'm not really a trekker. In fact, I may not even like it that much. ESPECIALLY the second day. But, ke garne. We stopped (thank goodness!), after about 6 hours of trekking at another village with a guesthouse. This guesthouse had beds (no mattresses), and no toilet. We were slowly getting acclimated to a simpler way of living. After crashing for a few hours upon arrival and having to squeeze out of a locked door, Swetha and I played cards. Normally this wouldn't be notable, but we had a good crowd of more than 10 kids and even a few adults gathered around to watch, cheering when one of us won.

View from the top of the "anthill".

We made it! Posing after our initial climb, not realizing that this was the smallest hill we'd be climbing.

Our audience at the first village. This picture is a bit misleading - the children begged me to take their pictures when they realized I had a camera, gleefully arranged themselves, and then adopted the traditional stoic look when time came to take the picture.

The "supermodel" of the group, posing with her little brother on her back.

Day 2 of Trekking

We headed out about 8, after having a DELICIOUS breakfast of corn roti (roti, a flat bread, is normally made of rice) and pumpkin curry with our tea. We left full and happy. Then we hit another "hill". Arjun and Swetha maintained their happiness. I discovered a newfound hatred from trekking. You know the story of the tortoise and the hare? Arjun was the hare (well, Energizer bunny really), Swetha was the tortoise, and I was the tortoise's annoying little sister who couldn't quite keep up. The rest of the trail was relatively flat, but took place on LONG stretches of medium-sized rocks that moved with every step and were very pointy. My feet hurt like crazy (blisters anyone?), joints ached and ankles rolled. After five hours of this, I played the wimp card and announced that I was DONE. We stopped at the next guesthouse. This one had no beds or toilets. At this point, I can't even fathom what life must be like in the States.

Water....must have water....

Dante forgot this method of torture. The cursed medium-sized rocks.

While the trekking wasn't my thing, the amazingly gorgeous rapids spoke to the "river-rat" part of my soul. What I wouldn't give to raft THAT.

Day 3 of Trekking

Day 3 dawned with me determined to make up for my Day 2 wimpyness, so we left about 7am after a cup of tea. There is nothing like a cup of tea on a chilly Nepali morning. The day went much, MUCH better. Despite blistered feet and sore muscles, my body seemed resigned to the fact that life now consisted of a while lot of walking on treacherous terrain. Also helping, was that the trail that day wound next to the river and consisted of mostly cliff-scrambling. Lots of short, steep climbs over big rocks, followed by a short steep climb down, and some flat terrain high above the river. That I could do. Long, switchback-type trails that (seemingly) lasted forever, and flat trails filled to the brim with medium-sized rocks, I could not.

In my determination to not wimp out, I made the mistake of turning down a breakfast break for fear that I'd lose momentum. Happy to be making forward progress, Swetha and Arjun agreed, but were both ready to throttle me for that decision by 11 or so, when we FINALLY stopped for food. I don't blame them - by that point, when the world finally stopped spinning, everyone around me was looking like potential food. When we arrived at a village (we'd finally made it to Dolpa!) they had finished their rice for the day, so we ate ramen-like noodles (with Nepali spices) with eggs. Noodles never tasted so good. After lunch was more of the same, until we found a good village where we could stay. All in all, trekking was beginning to seem doable - maybe not likeable yet - but definitely doable.

The trails we took were the beginnings of roads being built in Dolpa by the villagers and local organizations. Here, a couple of guys were working on the new roads with a jackhammer.

Speaking of the trails...a nice view of the kind of trail we walked for the majority of the trek.

Exhausted, but trudging on. This was one of the scarier cliff trails with a width of about 2 feet.

Day 4 of Trekking

We left our little Dolpian village - where we had beds! but no mattresses or toilets yet - at 7am after having tea. Day 4 began similarly to Day 3 with cliff scrambles, and alternated between those and trails resembling rock slides. Fortunately though, the rock-slide trails weren't as prevalent as they had been on Day 2. We stopped about 8am for breakfast of chapati (flat bread) and potatoes at a family's house on the trail. Swetha and I watched in fascination as the aama (mother) used a clever contraption - see picture below - to make a fried dish called Jari. We're definitely going to figure out how to do that when we get back. We continued on until about 11:30am when we came to a bustling village for lunch. After learning there would be a celebration at the local monastery the next morning, we decided to call it a day and settle in. And boy did we settle in! Beds, mattresses, clean blankets AND an outhouse! Still no way to really wash anything but faces though. Dreadlocks, rattails and skin that looks tan (but isn't) was the look of the day.

The really awesome funnel-cake-making contraption. Necessity really is the mother of invention!

View from the trail

One of the many suspension bridges we crossed on our journey.

Day 5 of Trekking (& Night 4)

It ended up being a really good thing we stopped for the night as I had my worse attack of water-caused illness yet. Apparently all the little buggers that had been hanging out in my belly decided mid-trek was the best time to make their presence felt. I spent the night running back and forth to the Nepali-style outhouse to bed while in the throes of a dehydration-induced fever. Needless to say, I bowed out of the morning walk to the temple for puja, and instead rested while Swetha and Arjun attended. Apparently it was nice, but the real celebration happened after we had to leave to get to Dunai, Dolpa.

We left the guesthouse about 10am. As terrible as it is being riddled with parasites (or amoebas) in Nepal, I was extremely fortunate. Dunai was only a 3 hour walk away (to medicine!) and I had Swetha and Arjun who were such a blessing and bound & determined to get me there alive. "In spite of myself", according to Swe. So, with me decked out in a bedsheet sari (there were no fabric stores in the village), we made our painfully-slow way to Dunai. Well, painfully fast for me, but even standing took some effort. We arrived in Dunai 5 hours later after going from green surroundings to scenery that looked a bit like the end of the world - LOTS of rocks, dust, tall brown "hills" and snowcapped mountains. We even saw yaks!

Thanks to a very helpful Nepali policeman, we were taken to a health clinic upon arrival - I was fading quickly - where I could get medicine. After describing my symptoms in front of at least 10 community members who gasped in sympathetic horror once or twice after the pharmacist translated (for their benefit), I got my meds. Hardcore, parasite-killing stuff that would kill everything good in my stomach as well, and potentially wreck my intestines for the next year. But completely worth it.

New fashion trend: Himalayan Port-a-Potty

My favorite Dolpa picture. The pony trains are everywhere, jingling their way up the mountains.

The beginning of the end of the world?

We made it! I cannot describe my happiness at seeing this sign, and my dismay when I realized I had to remain standing long enough to continue through town.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Where the Sidewalk (& Road!) Ends....

Part 2 of Many

Day 1 - The Never-Ending Local Bus Ride
To head to Dolpa, we left Kathmandu at 10:30am on a local bus which, (at the bus park at least!) had only enough people to fill the seats. Unfortunately, this didn't last. Later, the aisle filled up too! The bus had one driver - who drove non-stop the whole way - and 2 conductors. Why we needed two guys to arrange the seating and take the money and only one to drive is beyond me. Ke garne*. About the drive: I was actually really happy with my seat when we got on the bus. Little did I know, but soon discovered, that I had, hands-down, the worst seat possible . By hour 12, I'd decided that if you put a criminal on a Nepali local bus for 21 hours (15 of which were on dirt roads, and barely able to be called roads, really), he would confess by hour 10. Even if he were innocent! If he were really stubborn, maybe he'd make it to hour 15.
*Ke garne - "What to do?"

About the ride - close your eyes and picture the worst dirt road you've ever been on, the nastiest bus ever, and then multiply the people by 10. Picture driving up and down huge mountains (Nepali hills) with Hindi music blaring. There you have it. Well, almost. You're also in a prime seat to be a human railing and everyone who walks by grabs a leg, arm, hand or a fistful of hair. Oh, and around hour 8, the conductor trips 1/2 way down the aisle and lands soundly on your head. Fun times...and I haven't even gotten to the 4 hour public jeep ride and days-long walk. We're flying back.

We arrived at our stop the next morning and had an hour's walk to the next village to meet the jeep. The stroll was great and allowed us to stretch our legs. We got to the next village with about four hours to spare before the jeep left so we hung out, ate dal bhat, and taught our guide, Arjun, how to play Egyptian War. We may have created a monster.

On the walk from where the bus dropped us off, and where we would catch the jeep. In the Rukum District.

Arjun and Swetha playing cards. Egyptian War got pretty enthusiastic over the course of our trip, but was a great source of entertainment.

Day 2 - The Jeep Ride

We piled into a Bolero, which is the equivalent to a "local bus" in areas with VERY rudimentary roads, and took off. At the beginning there were 3 people in the front seat, 5 in the backseat, and about 10 in the back. The driver was a young guy from the village and the conductor was his younger brother who hung off the side of the jeep (and consequently, off cliffs) for the entire ride. His job was to move the large rocks in the road that blocked the jeep.

We ambled along over treacherous terrain, making stops for the driver to grab a bite to eat and check with folks, the conductor to move rocks, and more people to get on. At the highest count, the population of the jeep was more than 25. As the "road" became worse, we often had to evacuate the jeep when it had to go through construction areas and pull off stunts that defied gravity. We also annoyed a number of goatherders. As the jeep went past, the goats were scared and scrambled down cliffs to get away, leaving the poor goatherder to go chasing. At long last, we reached the village in the Rukum district where we would stay the night. I thought I'd been jeeping before, but it's a whole 'nother story when it's survival rather than leisure!

The Jeep. At this point, we'd all gotten out and the jeep was preparing to go over an area not meant for jeeps to go!

Walking through some particularly treacherous terrain.

Taking in the looked like something out of a Salvador Dali painting!

The jeep defying gravity while Swe and I watched (from the road) and prayed that it wouldn't topple over. That would have been a LONG walk...

At Long Last, DOLPA

Part 1 of Many....

It's been forever since I updated, and I'll warn you that there may be more than you want to read coming in quick succession since my folks made it (!!!) and mom's on a personal mission to make me update my blog. More about my time with my parents as soon as the Dolpa anthology's complete.

A glimpse into Dolpa...

Quick overall facts about the Dolpa trip:

Bus - 22 hours going, 22 hours coming back (3 buses total)...
Public Jeep - 4 REALLY rough hours
Walking - 9 days? They all blend together in a haze of pain and mountains...
Flight - 1 Hour in a puddle-jumper going through mountains, hills, rain and fog

Porter Guesthouses - Beds? Sometimes. Mattresses? Sometimes. Bathrooms? Only Outhouses....Sometimes. Showers? Hahahaha. Food? Delicious.

Awesome teacher for the deaf in Dunai and only 2 students. 4 nearby villages visited and no deaf kids found (this is after hearing many people talk about how many deaf people there were in Dolpa). Where are the deaf kids??? Outreach desperately needed...

What we looked like at the beginning of the non-stop 22 hour bus ride "there". Enjoy the pretty picture because we went downhill fairly quickly. Don't believe me? See subsequent Dolpa posts!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Destination Dolpa (Dolpo?)

Journey: 20 hour local bus ride
3 Days' Trek to Dunai
2 Day's Trek to Jhankot

After a few false starts, we're off to Dolpa on a research trip! See y'all in 15 days or so! :)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

When Everything Becomes Normal...

I've had a difficult time figuring out what to blog recently as since I've been stuck in Kathmandu working on writing projects. Why? The beginning of March is exam time, and mid March-mid April marks the end of the school year break, with schools resuming around April 20th. I had grand plans to go on a number of lengthy field visits, but when the schools are closed...

This leads to a quandary regarding blogging because everything's become so normal to me in the valley, that I'm not sure what to blog! Usually I look for things that are uniquely Nepal, or that catch my fancy, but when you've been here so long - it begins to feel like home, which means that things are no longer making me run to my computer to write about how there are cows on the streets, or how I'm pretty awesome at bargaining down taxis to a fare price. Or even how I saw a two men on a motorcycle, and the one on the back was holding a full length mirror in which I could see his face all the way down the road (while that was hilarious, I see funny motorbike scenes on a regular basis now, so it doesn't jump out at me like it would have before). But I felt like a blog post was needed, so I began to really think about the last several weeks and decided some things are worth sharing! Below is an amalgamation of things that stick out in my mind.

Swetha and I found a nice rock climbing wall in Kathmandu! We've been having a blast trying to tackle the routes and made friends with the guy who works there. He may even be happy to see us when we show up now! The wall's outdoor, which is difficult when it rains, but it's a great wall, standing at 51 feet, and has several walls made to trip up beginners - one is pretty easy until 15 feet in the middle where there are maybe 3 good holds (don't know who designed it, but they're hard to like when you get stuck there)!

Speaking of making friends, the wide-open friendliness of Nepal never ceases to amaze me. Some examples: There's a wonderful place where my friends and I sometimes go to get massages - they understand though we're foreign we're not making all that much money so we get Nepali prices - and last time we were there, the manager invited Swetha and I to a local restaurant. He wanted to share with us, and introduce (me), to thongba, a warm millet drink that is common amongst Tibetans (see more about it below). Not only that, but it turned out that Rosan (the manager) was from a small village Swetha needs to go for research, so he was a great resource. Another day, we went into a local fabric shop near our apartment and walked out with a discount at the local Pizza Hut (the store owner's daughter works there) and Swetha's promise to bring the owner's son his graduation gift (he's finishing school in Baltimore) when she returns there this summer.

About thongba. It's basically a small barrel filled with fermented millet and a straw. The server then pours hot water in the barrel which mixes with the millet and somehow makes a hot, alcoholic beverage. It's no wonder it's such a popular drink with people from Tibet - from what I hear, it's really cold up there! The small local restaurant where we went was packed to the rafters with people - forget about getting your own table, you grab a chair where you can find it! In the craziness, a guy from Slovenia joined our table, and we all ended up having a great conversation! Some pictures of thongba below:

Work this month (other than presenting in Goa) has pretty much consisted of working on organizing data, editing a proposal for the Syangja school funding, working on developing professional development materials, and verifying schools we won't get the chance to see in person.

April should be a breath of fresh air (literally!) as Swetha and I head to Dolpa - a very rural district bordering Tibet - for a combined research trip on migration patterns (Swetha), and a village with a huge deaf population (me). We still haven't managed to pinpoint the deaf village, but we're working on it! Hopefully when we're in Dolpa someone will have heard of it. Lots of trekking and no technology ahead in the next few weeks! And...almost as soon as I get back, my folks are coming! I am SO excited for my first visitors - especially mom and dad.

More posts coming after the trip to Dolpa - I can promise lots of pictures, it's supposed to be gorgeous!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Holi Cow!

Happy Holi! Want to know how we ended up looking like that? Read on...

Snapshots of yesterday: water balloons flying from all directions, buckets of water being dumped on friends and random passersby, colored powder everywhere, sprinting down cobblestone alleys, eating copious amounts of delicious food, an entire extended family dancing to Hindi & Western music, raksi flowing generously...

Do you have a picture in your mind? Okay. That's Holi!

Prior to the Holi festivities, but after being Tika-ed by Aama

Holi is a spring festival celebrated in Nepal, a few other places, and is often called the Festival of Colors. While there are several stories that explain Holi, it is predominantly Hindu, and generally celebrates the coming of spring during the last full moon of the Hindu month Phalguna (late February/early March). While the holiday is based in legends about Krishna, the common perception of the festival is that it's an opportunity to welcome spring, indulge in merrymaking and color-throwing, and just let loose a bit.

Charlotte and Sudeep rocking the X-box. Sudeep even did it with one arm! (The other was healing from a recent shoulder operation)

Swetha and I had the opportunity to spend Holi with my Banepa host family. We took the bus to Banepa in the morning and fortunately managed to dodge early-merrymakers by walking under umbrellas every time we were in the open. I was thrilled to see them again because it's been way too long, and they welcomed us with open arms and buckets of water! When we arrived, we were decked out in the Holi tika by Aama (mother), which consists of red dye placed on the forehead, cheeks and nose. Tikaji, Aama, Swetha and I then walked to the new house - going the roundabout way so to avoid getting wet before lunch. Charlotte (a past Fulbright English Teaching Assistant who lived with the family last year), Sudip (one of my older host brothers), and his wife Sony were at the new house when we arrived. We watched some TV, ate delicious daal bhat and then played X-box (using a webcam that showed our movements on screen) before it was time to head to one of the Ma ma's (maternal uncles) house for the celebration.

The Color War is ON!

Stage 1 - Attack! (Don't worry, it wasn't nearly as violent as it looks!)

Stage 2 - Laugh over the ridiculousness of it after the dye's gone

Stage 3 - Pose for pictures

Our walk across town was adventurous to say the least, but we came prepared with the few things we brought covered in plastic bags! I was plastered by water about 20 feet outside the door from 3 directions, and then continued to get hit by buckets, balloons and water guns filled with both clear and colored water. I was nearly soaked when we reached the house, but was in for quite a bit more from the cousins! I'm not entirely sure how Sudeep, Sony, Aama and Tikaji managed to stay dry... Once at the Ma ma's house Charlotte and I headed up to the battleground on the roof while Swetha took one look and decided to be more intelligent and head downstairs where it was dry! Less than an hour later we were ALL soaked to the skin. Once downstairs, Holi became "eat, drink, and be merry!" with lots of food, drink, posing, chatting and dancing. Well, with the exception of a color war with Swetha... Later, with music blasting, everyone got in on the dancing - uncles, aunts, cousins, and even hajur aama (grandmother)!

Food, Family, Friends, and Raksi! What more do you need?

Oh right. Dancing!

More dancing...

And posing....well, kind of... :)

And...MORE dancing!

We hated to leave, but when the time came, even that was an adventure! Amardeep, Swetha and I walked back to retrieve our things from the other house, and being glaringly white, even under all the color, I was set upon by numerous kids who decided to pelt me with water balloons. As I'd FINALLY gotten dry, that didn't please me, so I took off sprinting through various cobblestone alleys at a speed that would've impressed my college track coaches! Fortunately, after a few hundred meters, chasing me lost its appeal and I was able to stay warm and dry for at least a little bit of Holi!

Aama and Hajur Aama...They were smart and stayed out of the color wars

Beware folks, I'm bringing Holi home to where ever I end up next year!:)

Parting Shot

A few members of my FABULOUS Banepa Family!