Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Monday, June 15, 2009
Perhaps development means getting everything wrong, but in a new way.
Yesterday Nick and I visited Pashupatinath temple, the largest Hindu temple in Kathmandu. Anil, a Nepali friend of Nick’s, and his friend Sharwan guided us. The place was crawling with monkeys, Sadhus (Hindu holy men) and mourning families. The river that runs through the temple grounds, the Holy Bagmati, has served as a final resting place for millennia. We watched as a family carried the cadaver of their relative to the riverbank, washed his feet in the sanctified and polluted water, peeled back the brightly colored cloth that wrapped him and shaved his head. They adorned the corpse with orange flowers and placed it on a pyre. We did not see them burn the body, but it took no skill of imagination to envision. There were no less than four pyre ablaze from the moment we stepped onto the temple grounds.
This was a place Nepalis came to die, and tourists came to take pictures.
Near the grand temple there is a rare and curious sight. Our friends described it as a consequence of modernization, Western values and behaviors seeping into Nepalese culture: a retirement home. Not the type of sterile asylum where we store our fermenting elders in the States, this place had the feel of something ancient and yet, fully remade. The building itself must have been very old, recently refurbished for its modern function. We walked the grounds during a ceremony in which older women were pasting red globs of some floral substance on the foreheads of men. A ceremony and a party, with dancing and chanting and food, this is the way in Nepal. There seemed to be nothing extraordinary about it, especially for the participants. But I was captivated.
“These people have been abandoned by their families. In America you think taking care of your parents is a burden, but here it is a tradition, a responsibility.” - Anil
“It is common for us to live with our parents until we are much older and we take care of our parents when they are old.” - Sharwan
“This is the effect of modernization. Your culture has created places like these.” -Anil
I’ve been having several conversations lately regarding the nature of development in Nepal. Nanda R. Shrestha, those book I’m reading (In the Name of Development, 1997), takes a pretty hard stance. He thinks, or at least thought in 1997, that international development agencies should be counted high on the list of things to blame for the problems currently faced by this country. I think that’s pushing it, but I see his point. International aid has fostered dependence and whatever lip service may be given to words such as “sustainability” there’s a long way to go before many institutions and programs will become self-sustaining. Meanwhile, the impact of globalization is spreading Western values and marginalizing those unprepared or unwilling to adapt to new economic realities.
But 12 years have past since Shrestha wrote. The 10-year-long Maoist insurgency had just begun when his book went to print. Today there’s a global drought in the donor pool for international aid. Even the head of Oxfam recently stated that the organization is struggling to cobble together finances for vital projects. Likewise, Piush, my supervisor at CEDPA, tells me that the number of INGOs in Nepal is heading for a steep drop. In the early 1990s there were something in the neighborhood of 50 INGOs in Nepal, presently there are over 300. And Piush predicts that the bubble is about to burst. Money is one thing, but donors are now also more concerned with results than they had been in years passed. They are demanding that progress, sustainability, empowerment and a hundred other catchphrases grow some teeth.
There’s also some consensus among those I’ve spoken with that the shape of international development has changed a good bit in recent years––USAID and the World Bank seem to be learning and adapting. The Obama administration is giving people in the field hope that their work may actually represent, with some degree of sincerity, the new face of US foreign policy. But the new face of the Peace Corp has been around the block more than once. President Obama recently announced the nomination Aaron Williams, a career International Development specialist from RTI and USAID, to head the Peace Corp. Williams is certainly qualified, but Obama’s commitment to changing US international development policy is yet unproven.
On the motorcycle ride back home, Sharwan gave me some of his take on development:
––Whenever society changes there are winners and losers. You can try to fight it, but you’re only hurting yourself in the end, and it’s not as though everything about “development” (here meaning modernization) is bad.
“If it weren’t for development, we’d still be living in caves.”
––We cannot stop globalization, we cannot stop the inequality it spreads, we cannot prevent traditions from changing, but we can work to manage and minimize these negative consequences.
[This entry has been revised to include information on Aaron Williams]
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
The other night we went to a little hole-in-the-wall Newari restaurant where I had Bhara (spelling phonetic) for the first time. Bhara is a traditional Newari dish, essentially an egg fried over a pancake. I should say too that this little restaurant is not what we’d expect of a lower-end joint in the states. Most of the restaurants in Patan that cater to locals are very simple: one small room (maybe 10x6’), a couple small tables with benches, a little desk. This one was no exception. In the heart of tarkari bazar (the market near our house) you could easily walk past it not even recognizing that it was a restaurant and thereby completely overlooking the unique cultural experience that awaits you inside. By which, of course, I mean bacterial dysentery.
This is my second day spent in bed or the bathroom and trust me it’s a good sign that I have the strength to type. As a matter of fact I’m feeling much better today. I slept for about 12 hours and I had the most surreal and dreams, the joys of fever, but I won’t go into that. There’s a lot I haven’t had the chance to write about and I’m going to take this opportunity to do so.
Nick and I live in an apartment building in Patan, which is southern Kathmandu. You should know that Nepal used to be (prior to 1743) a constellation of mini states. The Kathmandu valley was three kingdoms: Kathmandu, Bhadgaun (Bhaktapur), and Patan (Lalitpur). Prithivi Narayan Shah consolidated the nation and set the capital in Kathmandu, thus beginning the centuries long autocratic rule of the monarch that ended only last year (I think that’s right at least, my heads no totally in the game today).
Patan is also chief residence of the Newari, the largest ethnic group in the ktm valley. My first word, as you might remember, was actually a Newari word (gata!). Our landlords are Newari and most of the people I’ve been meeting here are as well. On the day of my arrival, the Bhand (general strike) was being carried out by the Maoists with the support of the Newari. The specifics of what they were agitating for are still somewhat unclear to me, but all of the educated Nepalis I’ve spoken to about it found the goals somewhat laughable. On the one hand, this group of Newar were requesting independence as a state (or the Nepali equivalent to a state), while the Maoists were protesting a law that they themselves had passed before walking out of parliament in protest. So that’s why the taxis and busses were shut down and why I had to pay 700 rupees for a rickshaw (which I’ve been told since was actually a pretty good deal, for Bhand). We read about one taxi that was set on fire for operating and a messenger bike that had its tires flattened. Since the Bhand on my first day there’s been at least one other and the Maoists are calling for general strikes through the 14th of June.
Living in Patan affords me several opportunities. Most of them extending from the personality and popularity of Nick. Nick’s grasp of Nepali is highly impressive. Everyone we meet for the first time complements him on it. He’s a charming fellow to begin with, but a white man speaking Nepali to people in Kathmandu, I mean, people offer him their daughters on a daily basis. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but it has happened!
I’ve started taking lessons in Nepali and am confident that I will be at least able to get around with some degree of comfort by the end of my time here. The best thing about living where I do is the family, our “landlords”, give me ample opportunity to practice and learn the language. I’ve landed a pretty sweet deal here. I’ll try to post more pictures, check my facebook if you don’t see many here.
Oh and we went to an awesome party (see pic of some cute kids).
I had my first day of work at CEDPA on Thursday. Nothing much to report really. My supervisor is very nice, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do with me. I get the impression that I’ve arrived here somewhat early and now they’re scrambling to find things for me to do. It occurs to me that in the original terms of reference this internship was scheduled to stat in July. I sort of wish someone would just say, “hey, we don’t really need you around at the moment, so if you want to find another way to entertain yourself, feel free.” But I think they’re used to interns who don’t have any connection to Nepal and are totally lost apart from the organization. I have lots of friends here and I’m making new ones everyday. Not to brag. Ha, who am I kidding, I’m simply basking in Nick’s reflected popularity.
So I went to work on Thursday and then did not go to work on Friday. I “worked at home”. And I did get some work done, but really I spent the day hanging out with Nick and our dear friends Dawa and Kashish. It took the better part of a week, but the three of us finally got together. I’ll post a picture or two.
Thursday, June 4, 2009
June 2, 2009
Note to self: Next time I want a visa for Nepal I’m going to bring my own passport size photo.
Being ripped off is par for the course when traveling (period). This is even more true in the case of a developing country. When locals see a white man they assume that he is rich and that he will spend his money lavishly. But “rip-offs” or “out-of-towner’s taxes” (I prefer the later) aren’t just an ad hoc project. Case in point: Since I didn’t have my own tiny photo for the visa I had to take a picture at the airport. Since I didn’t have any rupees, having just stepped off the plane, I had to exchange money at a desk specifically set up for the convenience. The scheme was clear. If you are not aware of the appropriate protocol you will be fined for your ignorance.
I don’t want you to think that I’m disparaging this activity, I’m not. It is very annoying, of course, but it is also a fairly ethical form taxation. This is not true in all cases, certainly I do not look forward to shake-downs by Maoists rebels, but an individual or institution squeezing a little extra cash out of a foreigner, punishing him for his ignorance, is fine by me. My ignorance is really laziness. If I had taken the time to be informed, I would have known I needed a picture taken. Likewise, if I knew at least some of the language, was better informed about the culture, had studied up on ways to get bargains or at least the prices of common products and services, all of which I could have done prior to leaving, I’d save money. Of course there will always be some things you can only learn on the ground and I can’t change the fact that I’m white. But when we travel in this type of comfortable ignorance, we travel with wealth and privilege as our shield. Part of me wants to thank people who rip me off for teaching me of my own hubris.
Going through customs is often like navigating a maze. Marching through the narrow warm orange corridors of the Kathmandu airport, I was aware of the way the space had been intentionally separated. I squinted through a long window. It obscured my view of the room beyond it with the reflected white of daylight, but I could see that the room was full of people. Nepalis mostly, my guess. It was such a contrast to the relatively tiny group that disembarked from our boeing 777. We were outside, coming in, and they were the others.
I was getting nervous. Stupid me for not better planning my arrival. I didn’t even have Kashish’s phone number. What if he’s not there when I step out of the baggage claim? What if there’s no internet? How will I know if he’s coming? How will I remind him of my arrival? What about a hotel? I so did not want to pay for a hotel, but what if that was my only option? Nick is a crazy person, remember Cuba? What possessed me to to rely on this guy and our two Nepalese friends from college?
I escaped the maze of customs only to be lost again. I had read about how stepping out of the airport in KTM is an experience of sensory overload for most first time travelers. That is not what happened to me. In fact, the place was clearly subdued, relatively quiet, almost calm: the Bandh. Still, I was immediately surrounded by three men reaching for my bags, offering to take me to “my” hotel, offering to find me a taxi, offering to help me make a local phone call.
––You need taxi? ––Which hotel you are going to?
––No hotel. I don’t need a taxi, thank you. My friend is picking me up.
––Where you from? California?
––Wow, that’s a good guess, yes I’m from California, but I live in Washington, DC.
––You volunteer here?
––That’s right again actually, wow.
––With NGO yes? Which NGO?
––The center for development and population activities, CEDPA.
––Oh, CEDPA, yes. Ok, you stand over here, you are safe. You are safe. If you need to make a phone call, we can do that too. Welcome to Nepal.
And so I stood in a tourists’ corral along with 50 or so other people, looking lost, bewildered and wondering where my ride was going to come from.
The first word I learned in Nepal was “gata”. It is a Newari word that means “enough.” As in, “I can’t eat any more” or “I’m drunk already.” Gata, gata, gata! –– enough, enough, enough! The second word that I learned in Nepal was “pugyo,” which is a Nepali word. It also means “enough.” Such is the hospitality of the people of Nepal. The guest is God, and any guest here will undoubtedly have to learn these words and learn them quickly. Otherwise one would die of an exploded stomach.
I paced the tourists’ corral; poked my head around red cement pillars; scouted busses, the few there were; scanned the faces of the crowd for Kashish and Dawa. Nothing. Had it been so long that I wouldn’t recognize them? No. They were not there. They did not come. I dragged my bags out of the corral and stood on the other side of the rope separating the human cattle from their rustlers. I turned to walk away and a twenty-something white man passed me. I paused. He walked to the edge of the corral, his eyes darting from face to face.
––Looking for someone? I asked
And, Nick, the dear friend I hadn’t seen in years, greeted me with a hug.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
June 1 / May 31 -- depending where you are.
Today I discovered that airport food in Thailand is about the same as airport food anywhere. It’s weird, rubbery and over priced. The beer is nice though. Singha. Unfortunately I can already feel its effects on my exhausted mind and a comfortable place to sleep is going to be hard to come by here.
The flights were nicer than I expected and I got a little bit of rest, but not nearly enough. Now, after a 2 hour stop in Taipei, I’m on the big layover in Bangkok (9 hours total).
The Bangkok airport is quite nice. High ceilings, modern architecture -- cement, exposed ducts, beveled sheet-metal offset by faux mahogany. I don’t check in for my next flight for another––hmm, need to change the time on this computer––five and a half hours. So I’m trying to decide how to occupy my time. Normally I’d just drink, but I’m not too sure about the exchange rate here or extra charges for using my debit card, so I want to take it easy. Plus, I want to have some kind of head on my shoulders when I land in Nepal.
So far everything’s gone smoothly. But the real test will come upon landing in Kathmandu. There’s supposed to be a Bandhs or general strike today. This is apparently enough cause for concern that Dale, the director of the CEDPA office in KTM, notified me in advance via email, with a tone of urgent concern. Kashish (the friend who is supposed to be picking me up at the airport) said it “shouldn’t be a problem” but I lack his confidence. I also lack his phone number or any way of reaching him should we have trouble finding each other at the airport.
The next thing I need to do is find an internet connection. (man, this food is gross). Once I get connected I can send Kashish an email with my plan. It goes like this: There are shuttles that will take travelers to popular hotels when a Bandh is in progress. If I can’t find Kashish I’ll hop on one of these busses, get a hotel room and wait it out. Should be a piece of cake. If it gets later in the day, I should be able to contact Nick on his cell. He’s getting back into ktm the same day I am, but in the evening. Alright. got the plan, time to execute.