Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year

A radical maoist labor union has physically attacked the nepali news media, and shut sown the largest daily newspaper's printing press. Power cuts are set to reach an all time historic high this winter. But in the spirit of Peace, Love, and Truth I wish you all happy new years with a truck-painting of the Hindu Guru Sai Baba, who preaches all of those virtues.

I will be traveling for the next few weeks so the blog will be inactive (even more than usual) until the end of January.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Nepalese Army Shoes

For those of you work wear enthusiasts.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Royals Around Town

It's been seven years since Nepal's royal family was massacred by its crown prince. Dipendra, who was an alcoholic and a gun enthusiast, walked into a family dinner at the royal palace one Friday, mowed down ten of his relatives with an M16, including his mother and father, then killed himself. At the end of it he'd committed fratricide, matricide patricide, sorocide, regicide, avunculicide, and suicide. The most disturbing part of all was that when he was finished he put down the gun and ordered a cide of fries. OK, OK, no he didn't.

After the massacre Nepal got a new king, Gyanendra. The Maoist insurgency escalated, and eventually a democracy movement took hold. Just this past year the monarchy was abolished and the country had it's first ever real nation-wide elections. So a lot's changed since the royal massacre.

And yet, walking around the city images of the royal family members involved in the event are still everywhere to be found. Stilted family photographs of Dipendra and his two parents hang in hotel lobbies, homes, shops, and restaurants. The above painting of King Birendra was done on the back wall of a sign making shop.

These images, when you come upon them, have an unnerving and spooky quality, as though this gruesome and traumatic event never took place. They're not accompanied by an explanatory note saying "In Memory of King Birendra," or a gauzy effect indicating he's in heaven now. Just a faded image of a royal from a time before the prince murdered the family.

Yesterday I wandered into Nepal's Olympic Museum ( a one room shrine to the country's history in international sports) and found, on display, some of the family's event credentials, including Dipendra's. Who apparently was an avid Karate practitioner.

Friday, November 28, 2008

How Vegetarianism Affects Crime

There are two daily English Language newspapers in Nepal, the Himalayan Times and the Kathmandu Post, and both can be frustrating in their lack of context. It's common to read a 750 word story about the progress of a criminal court case, in which the crime and the people involved is never described. Or a story about a politician's bitter accusations against a rival party, without any response from the accused, or any reporting on whether the accusations are true.

But this week there came a story in the Himalayan Times about Kathmandu's quarterly crime statistics, and it had a really great sidebar on who the criminals are. Have a look.

(context on the context: the breakdown between vegetarian and non-vegetarian is a coded way of identifying high caste Brahmins, who are traditionally vegetarian.)

First Hundred Days

This week our neighborhood supermarket, the reliable and humble Ram Store (which stores its yogurt at room temperature on the floor) began stripping its shelves of liquor, wine, and beer. The move was in response to new Maoist regulations which dictate that alcohol be sold only between 10 AM and 10 PM, under license, to I.D.'d individuals over the age of 18. All that was left at the Ram Store were a few boxed wines and a stray bottle of "White Magic" (a picture of whose label I really need to post). All in all, a less stringent alcohol policy than India, Pakistan, or New Hampshire, but still a decisive move in the direction of prudence.

This week also marked the end of the Maoist government's first hundred days in office. The Prime Minister, "Prachanda," who lead the Maoist insurgency from the jungles and the hills, has taken the party through a remarkably smooth transition from guerrilla movement to ruling political party within the space of a couple years. But now that they're ruling, the Maoists haven't been terribly productive or clear in their intentions. Among the Big Jobs they're assigned are writing a constitution and integrating their own rag tag army with the Nepali Army. So far they haven't really begun either one, and have instead been locked in semantic arguments within their own party over whether to establish Nepal as a "People's Republic" or a "Democratic Republic."

In the meantime, the YCL or "Youth Communist League," which is the thuggish youth wing of the party, has called regularly for bandhs and caused all sorts of other trouble including, most recently murdering two youths associated with a rival communist party. Militant unions associated with the Maoists also forced the closure *entire resort town* because the hotels wouldn't collectively pay its workers more than the minimum wage. These kinds of groups are extremely disruptive to the daily working life of Kathmandu, but it's tough to say how much the Maoist party controls them.

Among the most concrete changes the Maoists have brought are matters of simple law and order along the lines of the liquor regulations. The new government has also limited nightclubs to an 11 PM closing time, vastly expanded the presence of traffic police, and forced the suspension of the "Miss Nepal" beauty pageant (Trump should really consider buying the brand and relocating it to Vegas). I think many Nepalis have waited to see what kind of rulers the Maoists will be: radical, or pragmatic. And at least for now, it seems like they're continuing to wait for an answer.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Truck Art

Standing out amidst the smog and dust of the Kathmandu streets, there is one especially vibrant source of refreshment: the custom truck art. Some of it is functional- "Horn Please, OK," some of it spiritual "Oh God, Save Me!." My favorite is a big-rig painted kiwi green with a nike logo and the declaration New Nepal.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Neighborhood Tailor

My new neighborhood tailor, working beneath a giant tree. He charges 50 cents to patch and blind hem a pair of pants.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Tihar: Festival of Lights (and cows, bulls, and dogs)

This past week was Tihar, the Nepali festival of lights (it corresponds to Diwali in India and, for purposes of alternate side parking suspension, New York City). The third day of the festival is Gai Puja, which is dedicated to worshiping cows. As you see here, they get a garland of marigolds along with a splash of red powder on their foreheads for the occasion.

Incidentally, this guy is a ward of the state: he's with NASA, whose research fields are nearby our home.

Dept. of Motor Vehicles

Records from the department of motor vehicles, where if you're registering a motorbike you're going to want to pay a fixer an extra 5 dollars to cut down your waiting time from eight hours to three.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Why, In a Road Accident, Sometimes It's Better To Kill Someone Than Injure Them

In Nepal, there are traffic jams, and then there are Jams. A traffic jam is when there are too many cars on too narrow a road. Maybe there's been an accident, which doesn't help things. But a Jam is something else altogether. It results from a small number of people exacting a kind of vigilante justice by shutting down all traffic over the course of hours, or even days, until their demands, usually remunerative, are fulfilled. It's like a Bandh, but it's not political.

We experienced a Jam in the village of Mugling a few hours outside Kathmandu. Our bus stopped nearby this bridge at the junction of two main highways. Traffic, as you can see, is backed up for miles. We didn't move for four hours, not even an inch.

Here's why: the day before, a bus had hit an old drunken man and injured him. But instead of stopping, the driver threw the bus in reverse and hit the man again, killing him. This was explained to us by one of our fellow passengers who said that it's cheaper for a driver to kill someone than to injure him. "If you injure him, you pay for his medical care for life. If you kill him, you pay only a fixed 15,000 rupee fine." (That's about $200). And so, she said, it's quite common for bus drivers, if they hit someone, to run over the victim until they're dead.

I, like you, was skeptical of this story, which sounded like an urban legend so completely heinous that it couldn't possibly be true. And yet *every single* nepali I've talked to since, 10 or 15 of them, confirmed that it's common. The economics of it do make sense, after all.

It turns out the fine isn't fixed, though. The Jam resulted when the man's family rejected the bus union's initial offer, and blocked traffic while attempting to negotiate a better settlement. The negotiations take place right there on the highway, in the company of an angry mob of villagers, beside the stopped cars in the heat of the afternoon sun. After four hours, the family settled on a price and traffic started moving again. As for the bus, it's windows were smashed and the rest of it torched.

Incidentally, when this happened we were on our way back from a two week hike around the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas, which was spectacular. If pristine mountain scenery is your thing, you can see more pictures here.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Haircut Customs

I've always been interested in the rituals that accompany a haircut in different parts of the world. In Turkey for instance, a barber will trim your ear, nose, and upper cheek hair by singeing them with a burning stick of wood. So I was curious to see what kind of extras come along with a Kathmandu haircut.

The haircut itself is pretty standard. It's what comes after that distinguishes the experience: a full upper body massage and stretching treatment performed by the barber.

It begins with a mild back, arm and shoulder rub, and then becomes something like a combination of physical therapy, chiroprachty, and shiatsu dance. Arms forced behind my back in a chicken wing, knuckles cracked, palms rubbed, digits yanked one by one, forehead slapped, head punched with a closed fist, back cracked, full nelson neck stretch. And finally, as a slapstick finale, the barber put his hands together in prayer formation and slapped my hear 360 degrees around, making that hollow dip-can packing sound.

There is nothing more relaxing in the world.

Until you get charged double the standard price for the ordeal because you're a tourist.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Technology Will Set You Free

Car exhaust is immensely more tolerable when you can enjoy the thrill of jockeying in and out of traffic.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bandh II: Animal Sacrifice

Another day, Another Bandh. I drove into the city earlier this week to get a motorcycle helmet, but couldn't get much past the Bagmati bridge because of a city-wide protest over animal sacrifice. In a sort of anti-PETA demonstration, Hindu protesters went ballistic over the new government's decision to cut off funding for animal sacrifice. To be clear: they were agitating *for* government money to buy animals for ritual sacrifice.

It started after the new federal budget, which incidentally is delivered C-SPAN like in an hours long live televised speech by the finance minister, declared the government would no longer purchase buffaloes, goats, chickens, ducks, and other animals, to be killed during hindu festivals. (during last year's Dashain Festival, religious sites in the city sacrificed 250 goats and 190 buffaloes, costing about $25,000 in taxpayer funds).

So protesters- mostly Newar people who were the original residents of the Kathmandu valley and make up the majority of the population now- closed down streets around the city, burnt tires, and lobbed tear gas at police. This is about more than money, though. It's about some Nepalis' fears that religion and traditional culture is under attack by the new secular maoist government.

So far, when it comes to culture, that government has been pretty active: forcing cancellation of the 2008 Miss Nepal Beauty Pageant and shuttering Kathmandu danceclubs after 11 PM. Next up? Banning liquor sales in neighborhood markets. The response to each has been similar: traffic shutdowns, or threats of city shutdowns. In a place where until very recently people haven't had much opportunity to exercise their political will at the ballot box, a robust culture of protest has flourished.

As for animal sacrifice, in the face of the protests the finance minister finally relented, claimed he had never stopped sacrifice funding in the first place, and reinstated the money in full.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Obligatory Photo of Temple Monkey

At Pashupati on the East side of the city, where the Bagmati river runs through a complex of Hindu temples. Cross-posted at

The rest of Pashupati, including funeral pyres by the river, left:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Cosmic Air

This week I was searching for a rock bottom price for a Mumbai flight, knowing that once I arrived things could get pricey. So I visited Cosmic Air, Nepal’s low cost airline.

Cosmic air was once a promising private business in Nepal. It began in the nineties following de-regulation and benefited from a healthy number of tourist visits. Part of its advantage was that it was a budget airline and gave travelers more options in and out of Kathmandu which, for a city of a few million people, has relatively limited air service. At first cosmic flourished, becoming Nepal’s first private carrier to run jet service on domestic routes. They were to be the Jet Blue of Nepal, if you will. Then came the maoist insurgency, and tourist visits plummeted.

Now they look more like Pan Am. Cosmic has two airplanes, and both of them are currently grounded for maintenance. This week, their sales office in the Durbar Marg neighborhood of Kathmandu was dim and empty. The screens of computer terminals were blank and quiet. It had the feeling of an abandoned corner of a customs warehouse. Six employees still show up for work each day, waiting for the planes to be fixed so they can once again sell $100 fares to Delhi, or Varanasi, in India. It’s been this way for a month, and according to the sales person who revealed herself from behind a wooden cubicle, they’re not expecting the planes to be fixed until November.

Until then, they’re another stalled operation in downtown Kathmandu, with no electricity on this occasion even to make tea.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Bandh!: "They Break Our Rules, We Break Their Windows."

(Bandh at school. Like a snow day, except with flying bricks and burning tires)
School's canceled, shops are closed, and there's no traffic on the roads. It's a bandh!

The bandh is a tried and true Nepali political tactic where an aggrieved group forces a citywide strike by blocking the streets, throwing bricks, and burning tires in the road. Taxi drivers called a bandh this year when fuel prices spiked, and teachers did it over restrictions on their freedom to protest. Today's bandh was in response to an incident of alleged police brutality.

On Wednesday evening a member of the Nepali Congress Party was riding his motorbike in the city when he was either 1) flagged down by traffic police and then, after he refused to stop, was beaten to death by them or 2) died from injuries after he drove accidentally into an electrical pole. Witnesses say the former, police say the latter.

The Nepal Student Union, which is allied with the Nepali Congress party, responded with a bandh. They announced it Thursday night and carried out on Friday.

So what did this week's bandh look like? Walking around Patan, it meant lighter than usual traffic, and some shuttered shops. When I needed a ride home, only a few buses were running. Finally, I caught a ride with a tempo, one of those sputtering threewheelers that charge a fare of 15 cents.

Then all of a sudden the bandh got a lot more volatile. A group of teenagers swarmed the threewheeler I was riding in, yelled at the driver, banged on its sides, and eventually, as I was turning to disembark, one of them hucked a red brick through the glass window, shattering it all over my seat. This ride was really worth the third nickel.

The riders in the threewheeler started walking home. All down the street, shop keepers pulled down their metal gates, and motorbikes scattered.

The brick thrower, it turns out, was the secretary of the Nepal
Student Union at Patan University. He said he was friends with the party member who had died this week and he was sad and angry at the police and the Home Minister over the incident. So why was he attacking the threewheeler? "They break our rules, we break their windows. Rule is rule." And with that, he was off to swarm a man riding a motorcycle, who was let go after a curt lecture.

"Rule is Rule."

Monday, September 8, 2008

Doing Business in New Road

XLR microphone cables aren’t easy to come by in Kathmandu. But if you ask around enough places in New Road, the commercial neighborhood of winding alleyways and cubby-hole malls, you might eventually be directed to the fifth floor of a shopping center where Shiv Electronics Concern sells TV and computer parts. They also assemble XLR cables to custom lengths.

Shiv Electronics Concern is a little window into the shabby conditions for doing business in Kathmandu these days. When I visited it was manned by Santa Shakya and her brother Krishna, who's working on one of my cables. The shop was started by their grandfather 27 years ago. Business is down, according to Santa, because of political problems, “bad protocols,” and general mismanagement in the country. On top of that, the market’s been flooded with cheap parts from China, which are sold indiscriminately on the street, Santa said. The Concern mostly sells Taiwanese and Japanese parts, which are more expensive.

While Krishna was wiring the cables, the lights went out a few times, causing him to mismatch a pair of wires, which he fixed when the lights came back on. But this was in the same week that The Nepal Electricity Authority announced that power outages, or “load-shedding” in the local parlance, will reach up to 35 hours a week. The daily newspapers published a handy chart of outage times, according to your neighborhood.

As for cheap Chinese merchandise, you don’t have to go far in New Road to find it in abundance. Just around the corner from The Concern is a storefront selling counterfeit Shure SM-58 microphones. To locate the SM-58, a stout vocal mic used by rock and roll bands everywhere, look for a large straw basket of ginger root and an old man cutting his toe nails. Turn a corner and you’ll find a whole line of Shure mics up on a shelf to your left. Here an SM-58 only costs 900 Rupees, which is just a hair under 13 US dollars. In New York it sells for over a hundred bucks.

These microphones are counterfeit of course, and the salesman wasn’t at all shy about advertising that. “These Chinese export quality SM-58’s sound just as good as the world class ones. But the real ones cost 10,000 Rupees, and you can’t get them in Kathmandu anyway.” He went on to explain that there are in fact three levels of counterfeit SM-58’s: one costing 900 rupees, one 1500, and one 2500. You can’t tell the difference by looking at it straight ahead. But if you look into the bottom of the mic you can distinguish the low, medium, and high quality fakes. See if you can tell which one’s 2500 rupees. Hint: look for the gold plated pins.

Traditional Dress

Today is Diversity Day at E's school, which here in a country with a historically very rigid caste system, chooses to actively disregard caste. But one day a year, the school celebrates it. Kids and teachers dressed according to their caste, ethnic, or regional identity (I can't begin to understand what the relationship between those three vectors is). Here's an example of a traditional Newari outfit, for instance.

More on flickr.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Kathmandu Traffic

If you want to get a sense of how chaotic the city of Kathmandu is, go for a drive. The roads, which are shared by taxis, bikes, motorbikes, pedestrians, street dogs, chickens, vegetable carts and the occasional water buffalo, often appear lawless. The other day, for instance, I was in a taxi travelling down a narrow alleyway when the driver cut off a pair of eight year old school girls. As a nepali newspaper editor said recently, an analysis of nepali traffic can tell you a lot about the politics here: it's anarchic and selfish.

But another way to look at traffic here is that it depends on generosity and an understanding of some very subtle self-enforced rules. The fundamental approach to driving requires quick reaction, distance perception to the millimitre, and lots of horn honking. If you're a motorcycle or a car, you honk your horn on average three times per block. But unlike back home, honking isn't used as a form of aggression, it's more a courtesy. Like the way waitstaff in a fancy restaurant would lightly touch your elbow and say "pardon me." In fact pedestrians here get angry if a driver doesn't honk, because it's seen as wreckless. Luckily, not honking is rare.

One thing you almost never see in the street is frustration. Somehow gridlock is understood to be part of the game of transportation.

It’s hard to believe, but we've been told congestion is at significantly reduced levels right now because of fuel shortages. Fuel comes from India, and due to unpaid debts its flow is very irregular (waiting times at the gas station can last up to 24 or 36 hours on bad days).

Here's a video of the drive to Patan Durbar Square.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Tare Mom Society

Coming from New York, it’s hard to describe just how noisy, crowded, smoggy, and chaotic it is here in Kathmandu. Traffic is constant, and somehow manages to be deadlocked and nail-biting at the same time. Plenty of business is conducted on the street too: on our way to the internet cafĂ© my wife and I passed an 11 year old whole roasting a chicken streetside, using a blowtorch.

I’ve come here for a year with my wife who’s teaching at a Nepali school. We moved from the comfortable pastures of Fort Greene, Brooklyn which looks ever more appropriately named by the day. So where does one find peace in a city like Kathmandu? The Golden Temple Buddhist monastery in Patan at 5 AM is a good place to start. There’s a group of Newari Buddhist men there called the Tare Mom Society who gather to play devotional music. In August they play every morning starting at 5 AM. For three hours. Now it's down to four times a month.

The temple dates to the 11th century, a time when Patan, one of three kingdoms in the Kathmandu valley, was a sprawling university city- a place of sanctity, learning, and arts. You know how people say Brooklyn has the most churches per square mile anywhere in the world? Well Patan has the most temples. The Golden Temple is one of the most ornate of them. It’s crowded with bronze sculptures, prayer wheels, oil lamps, and at least one live turtle to remind us that even the lowly can be courageous.

The singers at the Golden Temple are 20 men who gather each morning to play bhajans, devotional songs that at least in this group guide one about how to live a good and moral life. One’s about the five basic tenets of Buddhism, (don’t kill another man, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat on your wife, and don’t drink alcohol), another entirely about the evils of drinking. They can get political too: one song was written 70 years ago when Nepal was ruled by the Ranas, a family who was hostile to education for the masses because they feared it would provoke entitlement and instability. This song pleads for women to be allowed education. Not sure whether that one worked.

The other day I recorded the Tare Mom Society. They’re an amateur group. Many of the men singing have regular day jobs- as craftsmen, tailors, businessmen, government administrators, and carpenters. Their music isn’t polished, but it’s a pretty calming way to start the day. Here’s a song about Tree of Knowledge, who’s urging all the workers to come sit under his branches in order to gain knowledge as the Buddha has. It’s ten minutes long, which is about average for these guys:

Tree of Knowledge.mp3 - Tare Mom Society

I don’t want to give the impression that Kathmandu is some ancient kingdom where everyone rises with the sun and sings songs about knowledge sung from the perspective of a tree. For one thing, the King has been abolished and Nepal is now a democratic republic. For two, Classic Rock is big here. I guess it’s on account of the western bohemians who traveled here in the 1960’s and 70’s when Kathmandu was the terminal destination of The Hippie Trail. But it’s not necessarily the kind of bland, recycled-playlist stuff you get on American Classic Rock stations. These guys dig into the rarities. The other night on Hits FM 92.1, Kathmandu’s pop music FM station, a show called Choice of the Voice was serving up some choice tracks from the less appreciated corners of Deep Purple’s back catalog, Listen:


Kathmandu: highlighting Deep Purple’s incorporation of jazz into a rock context. Where else are the people so generous?