Thursday, April 28, 2011

April 14 -24: Nepal to home

April 14 

Baisakh 1 in the Bikram Sambat calendar. I hesitate to say Nepal new year because there is also Nepal Samvat and that new year is in November. I think Nepal Samvat is restricted to the KTM Valley – maybe it’s Newari, the ethnic people of the valley. Then there is the Tibetan new year which is in February (the lunar Chinese new year perhaps?)

April 15-16Kavre District Thulo Parsel

Up at 5 a.m., meet Bahadur and family at 6 a.m., to catch the 7 a.m. bus to their village.

[As we left the hotel there was evidence of an ‘incident’. Some large terracotta pots on the landings were overturned and cracked. In the lobby a large stainless steel floor ashtray (remember those?) was overturned. In the passageway from the lobby to the front door there was a scene of multiple decapitation! The passageway is decorated with four-foot dolls in traditional Tibetan dress. Two or three were knocked over with their heads lolling beside them. A mystery!]

The bus ride was hellish mostly because of the screeching Indian music. The women singers sounded like Alvin the Chipmunk with his balls caught in a mangle. Add Mantovani violins and bombastic John Williams arrangements – mind-numbing even with ear plugs.

After we left the paved road Ian got on top of the bus! A young man took his seat and struck up a conversation with me. How did he think that was possible?! Ian enjoyed the top of the bus and took lots of pix. The drop-offs were shear, long and unprotected. Because the road is so narrow the front of the bus actually goes over the drop-off while the front wheels stay on the road.

Six and a half hours later we arrived. A big change from 1989 when it took a 2 or 3 hour bus ride and two days trekking.

A big change at the farm is that they have a bio-gas plant. They use buffalo and ox dung to create gas for cooking. They still burn wood and corn cobs too but much less than before. A Dutch NGO put lots of them in the village. Two buffalo and two oxen create enough gas to cook for 4 or 5 people for a day.

Another change is that the village is wired for electricity. They only have it about 6 hours a day (load shedding) and only have 8 light bulbs (no espresso machines) but it’s progress.

We watched 3 or 4 women harvest a wheat field beside Bahadur’s house. They used small hand scythes. They cut and bound the sheaves and lay them down where they cut them. Eventually they made piles of sheaves about 5x3x3 feet that they bound together then lifted onto their backs and carried away. The field was about the size of baseball diamond. They worked from morning ‘til night and part of the next day.

Ian walked with Phursang when she took the goats out to graze. He didn’t know what he was in for! They came back about three hours later. Ian was exhausted and he wasn’t carrying a huge basket of fodder on his back like Phursang.

Later in the day Phursang was helping her friend. They were carrying big bags of sand on their backs. All the portering is done with the load suspended from a band around the forehead. It gives me whiplash just watching.

The village, fields and terraces were mostly brown. Planting will start after the rain starts.

A second benefit from the bio-gas plant is that the dung is still available as fertilizer after the gas is extracted. The mechanism ‘vomits’ (that was Marsang’s word) the used dung into a holding ‘pond’. It’s shoveled out, dried out and then carried to their fields. Ian and I marveled at the fact that ‘poor little Nepal’ is using such sensible practices while at home we use one valuable resource – water – to get rid of another valuable resource – shit. The Fraser Valley could produce masses of energy with all the cattle, horses, chickens they have.

We saw a man ploughing his field (two oxen and a wooden hand plough). I asked Bahadur why he was doing it so early. He had put his dung on the field too early and had to plough it in before the wind blew it away.
Bahadur killed one of his roosters for dinner. It was tasty and surprisingly tender. I didn’t witness the slaughter but was surprised to see it with his head still on.

I learned that nanny goats have litters. There were lots of kids around but only three nannies. I asked if they bought some kids. Marsang had to explain the facts of goat life to me.

Mom, Bahadur’s mother, took our facial features one by one – nose, chin, eye, the other eye, cheek, the other cheek in her fingers and then kissed her fingers. Then one breast, the other breast, then my crotch. She showed some discretion in not going for Ian’s crotch!

Ian and I were having a lie-down. Mom came into the room and motioned for me to kiss Ian. I did. Mom laughed and cackled and ran out of the room. I felt like a porn star.

Bahadur took us to the village temple. Someone unlocked the door for us and before too long a monk showed up – kind of a rough, countryside monk – no fancy manicure like the guys in Cambodia. There was an icon of Bairab. I’ve forgotten what his role is but I’m curious to find out.

April 17: Boudha

We hired an SUV for the return voyage – 3 hours in blessed peace and quiet. When we got back to Boudha there was some festival underway around the stupa. Apparently a 3 day Tamang affair that goes from Boudha to Swayambu to who knows where.

Ian and I went out – just to walk 100 meters to a coffee bar. We got caught in a bottleneck of humanity. I felt panic rising. I thought about people being trampled to death and understood viscerally how that’s possible. Just as the panic was rising the bottleneck eased and we were spilled into an open space a few steps from our destination.

The festivities went on until 10 p.m. It was more carnival-like than spiritual – dancing, screeching music from enormous but ineffective sound systems, popcorn, food stalls, flute sellers. But there was also a lot of rice being strewn about and burned, incense and chanting. We learned that it’s mostly a Tamang women’s thing and it is about honouring dead relatives and ancestors.

April 18: Women's Foundation

Ian and I emerged from our hotel on Monday morning feeling safe – that the revelers had moved on to another holy site. But … there was another event underway! Purnima, the monthly full moon hoopla. More chanting, burning and drumming.

Ian and I went to Arunima Secondary to meet Kesab Joshi. He was proud and happy to show us nothing – classroom after classroom with nothing in them except some old wooden desks. He’s looking for help to attract English speaking volunteers.

Then on to the Women’s Foundation just to say hello. Suzanne mentioned something about a video and – BAM – we were right into it. We worked from 1 to 6 p.m. shooting the Production Center, the office, Mother’s Home. The more I see the more I realize that the need is bottomless. And that’s only in social services – education, housing, health.

All the children at Mother’s Home have been sexually abused and have been rescued, apprehended from their abusers. One girl was gambled away by her father to a man who married her to his leper son! The WF mobilized the government to intervene and annul the marriage. 

April 20, 21, 22: Ayurveda Health Home

The cast: 
  • Vladimir, Russian PR tycoon with a New Age twist. Bald, shiny head, intense blue eyes and a very smooth, deceiving complexion. He had some laser treatment to decrease the prominence of some scarring on his fright jaw and now he looks about 25 though he is 40.
  • Sylvia and her 13 yo daughter Milena. Sylvia is an Ayurveda junkie and comes every year from Austria for an overhaul.
  • Gerry. Rich American Maharishi devotee with bad skin and a proselytizing bent. I heard her discussing (read lecturing) various people about TM and the Maharishi and the Vedas and diet and basti (enemas). She even cornered Ian and somehow connected concern about some modern day plague like pollution to the myth of Ravenna and what the Maharishi said.
  • Mary, Gerry’s companion and caregiver. Also a Maharishi devotee but toned down and doing her own thing while Gerry does the full meal Ayurvedic deal.
Gerry and Mary – 6 weeks and counting.
Vladimir – 28 days.
Sylvia and Milena 14 days.
Us – 3 days!

They are very into Ayurveda, enemas and all. Ian and I just want to relax and get the smog out of our lungs.

April 23:  Child Haven

In the p.m. we went up to Child Haven. We saw lots of kids and didi’s. It was humbling to realize that everyone didn’t remember my name and hadn’t been thinking of me non-stop since 2008! But we got a warm welcome regardless. I was very happy to be there. Ian said I was radiant!

We spoke with Ruth, a volunteer from Sydney, BC. I liked her attitude.

Who did I see? Nirmala, still very quiet.
Kalpana, leaning toward fashion design of all things! She and Priyanka mimicked Ruth and me and were howling with laughter.
Shreejana, wearing stylish glasses now. She made a point of giving us a serious, heartfelt goodbye at the gate.
Damodar walked out with us. He’s starting grade 10 and doesn’t seem very optimistic about his future.
Raju – Ian told him he’d be a good model – so good-looking. I think he actually blushed.
Tiluk – tall, confident, handsome, despite his scars. I told Ruth what a creative artist he is.
Lalit - wouldn’t come close.
Iswora – adolescent stand-offishness
Meera, Neeru, Padam and Dolma and many more I didn’t know.
That ol’ bottomless need.

April 24: Last half day in KTM

6 a.m. to Durbar Square – got to get some tourist activity in.
Puja, puja, puja. Incense, marigolds, bell ringing, vermillion tikkas.
In Boudha it’s Buddha, in Kathmandu it’s Kali and Krishna – but it’s all devout, ordinary and integral.

Thunder and lightening storm when we arrived in BKK. A dark and stormy night, the sky lit up pink with sheets of lightning.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

April 7 Bangkok to Kathmandu

One night in Bangkok we went to a very busy farang area near Khaosan Road – a guidebook recommendation. Bars, massage parlours, souvenirs, restaurants chock-a-block. We had huge grilled prawns.

As we were walking down the street on our way to find a tuk-tuk to take us home we heard a blues guitar riff. A bar with small tables on the sidewalk, a man on guitar and a woman singing. Janis, Stevie Rae, Honky Tonk Woman, Born Under a Bad Sign and more. Every now and then the woman’s Thai accent came through …”…drinking from Flyday night to Sunday morning”. She wore black jeans, high tops, a big t-shirt, very un-Thai-like.

The man was unidentifiable – he could have been Afro-American, Latino, Samoan or all three or something else entirely. Long, fuzzy, ugly hair, huge head, big nose, scarred face and a smoking fag hanging from his bottom lip, smoke curling into his eyes.

We sipped Jameson’s and loved every note. Then a wild tuk-tuk ride home. The driver was probably on yaa baa (Thai crystal meth). We learned a lot about Thai ‘culture’ from John Burdett!


On Sat a.m. I walked up the road to Aru Bari. Pleasant surprise - the road from Boudha is paved with flagstones - very nice. There's only one samll piece of unpaved road.

I met Sabina and Sujan on the toad (FORGIVE THE ERRORS - MOST OF THE LETTERS HAVE RUBBED OFF THE KEYS) oops! Sujan is 11 yo now, seems tiny to me and is missing some front teeth but he still has a radiant smile that melts my cold cold heart.

Child Haven was almost empty. The didis were off on a one-day visit to a shrine and many of the children have gome to their families - school break.

I saw a few of the children - the 'bad boys' - 15-16 yo's and some of the others Kabita with the dimples. I reminded her of when she palyed 'sanu hati' in the "Just Like I Am' play. Her face lit up! Kalpana, still guarded and fearful. Ramita, Anju, Sunita, Bimala, Ritika.

Benita walked me to Krishna's (it seems everyone has moved to berrer digs). When they opened the door it was as if Lord Krishna himself was appearing to them. A very very warm welcome.
Krishna is a star - first in his class for the last two years and winner of a national poetry competition. I'm relieved to be able to tell Doug that he is 'backing a winner'. I try to focus on Kabita - she's fourth in her class!

Arjun and I met Sajan and his mother to encourage him to' pull up his socks'. He's leaning toward the bad side. I'm in a dilemma about supporting him.

One day walking back to Boudha I saw a dog - one of many. This poor fellow was inching his way across the pavement on his belly (broken back?). His hind legs were dragging straight out behind him. He was well-nourished and didn't seem to be in pain. He was stoic, persevering. My heart was breaking. Of course being where I am (stupas and monks as far as the eye can see) I couldn't help but think of karma. I'll never forget the image of him crawling across the road.

Many of the same beggars are still here - the chubby legless man in the w/c, the contracted wry neck man who moves in a squat, the blind leper wrapped in rags.

Marsang and I went to VFS together. The visa process seems straightforward. The woman at VFS was very helpful and encouraging.

Kathmandu is without electricity about 12-16 hours per day. Imagine Vancouver in the same state. There is always the steady rumble of generators in the background. Energy is energy. Generators take fuel too. I wonder if the minister of energy has a sideline in selling generators! He was attacked the other day with a kukuri (big blade) - injuries to head and hand. No wonder. I'm sure people trying to go about their day-to-day lives would like to be able to rely on electricity. I'm certainly put out - I tried to order an espresso the other day but there was no electricity for the machine!

I've bought a lot of stuff to sell at home. I hope everyone is in a mood to buy!

I'm staying at a Tibetan hotel in a Tibetan neighbourhood. Sitting on the bed with the door open, prayer flags fluttering from every rooftop. All those prayers going to the gods and still too many Nepalis are impoverished and the Tibetans are homeless.

Ian is coming to Nepal tomorrow - the blog will improve with his photos!!

Friday, April 8, 2011

March 30 Luang Prabang, Laos

March 30 to April 5: Luang Prabang, Laos  

Luang Prabang, city of markets. There’s the morning market, the night market, the Phousy market, the Hmong market and more. The morning market takes place in quiet, residential streets near our guesthouse. It’s mostly for food and mostly for locals.

One of the more interesting food products was a creature residing inside a hard brown sphere the size of a baseball. We passed a woman holding a brown ball in the palm of her hand and hitting it very precisely with a heavy blade. She hit it a few times, cracking the ball in half and there nestled inside was a live, ugly, translucent, grayish-yellow, scaly, articulated bug. It was the size of a small apricot. It was only after watching the ‘extraction’ that I noticed she had a large bowl full of them for sale.

I asked our guesthouse woman about them and she said, “They lib in buffalo seet.” Buffalo shit!! And people eat them! She had one of the hard brown balls in one of her plant pots. She was keeping it until it was ‘ready’ to show her four year old. Apparently, the bug makes the hard ball out of sand. She doesn’t eat them but I guess she thinks it’s an important life lesson for a four year old. I didn’t ask about the readiness of the ball.  I thought of dung beetles, scarabs. These creatures didn’t look like any scarab amulets I’ve ever seen.

The night market is set up on the main street that runs in front of the national museum. It runs for about three blocks and forms a tunnel of free-standing red awnings that tourists are funneled through. There are hundreds of vendors and from what I saw very few buyers. The vendors set up every day from about 4:30 to 9:30. They take great pains to lay out their wares very precisely and neatly. They sit there patiently, chatting with each other, eating noodles, child-minding, waiting for a sale.

Lao used to be called the land of a million elephants and though there are fewer than a thousand now they are a big tourist draw. Entrepreneurial Ian made a deal with an outfit – a video for 2 days at the Elephant Village. The Elephant Village is a for-profit tourist business but they have a humanitarian role in rescuing elephants from the logging industry where they are worked, often, to death.

The ‘girls’ at Elephant Village are living the good life now. They do tourist rides in the morning and then they get walked into the jungle and get tied to trees with very long chains where they are free to eat the 250kg each of veggies they need. Eleven elephants x 250 kg. every day – that’s a lot of salad.

Riding an elephant requires flexible hips and knees so I limited my time atop and admired them from the ground. I was most captivated by the shape of their skulls. I guess too many cartoon elephant images made me think they have a domed, spherical head and a rounded back.

Wrong on both counts. The top of an Asian elephants head has two bumps and moving down toward the trunk there are deep depressions where we have temples.  There’s a thick hard ridge running along the back. The howdah seat is built so that it doesn’t rest on the centre ridge.