Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Parade in Pokhara Nepal

After I blogged here yesterday I went over to a local cafe for an early supper. Despite it not being an official holiday here, street traffic and foot traffic had exploded, at least quintupling in 24 hours. Which, naturally, was why Pokhara's department of public works decided that the afternoon of Dec 25th was the perfect time to send out a road crew to Lakeside's main street.

Their goal, beyond wreaking traffic havok, was indiscernable. A crew of road workers dug new holes in the street by hand (you almost never see power tools are ever used here for manual labor) by banging the ground with the ends of metal poles. Then a follow-up crew came directly behind them filling in the new holes with gravel mixed with thin black tar-water by the shoveload on the spot (literally.) The finished road was neither worse nor better in any way than it had been to start with ... just a bit blacker in spots.

In the midst of this activity came the most astonishing sight -- first one, and then an entire fleet of small motorcycles bearing Nepali drivers and a passenger dressed as Santa Clause! Including red outfit and plastic face mask with white skin and beard. They neglected padding though, so all the Santas were Nepali-slender.

Next came a slowly jolting along parade of SUVs, buses, and flatbeds bearing various Christian dignitaries and locals, including a priest, dozens of singing school children, and what lookd to be a manger display only instead of the virgin Mary there was a pretty girl in a shiny blue satin dress who looked very much like Miss Nepal. Everyone was waving like the British Queen, with cupped palm.

The only problem was, there was no one conspicously Christian to wave to. No one besides me sitting alone, the first Western customer of the evening at the outdoor cafe. I raised my hand (in the American waving manner) and did my duty as best I could. Was very much surprised to find tears springing to my eyes.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas from Nepal: Shipping, shopping & money tips

Christian holidays are not celebrated in Nepal, except by hotels and restaurants who throw special meals and parties which both the tourists and middle-class Nepali love. (Nepalis are like Serbs, any excuse for a good time gathering.)

Pokhara has been gussying itself up (erecting sidewalk booths, stringing dozens of banners across the street, and painting all the curbs a spiffy black and white pattern) for the big Gregorian year end celebration -- a street festival Dec 27-30. It's not the Nepali year end, but again, any excuse for a party and perhaps making a little more money off the tourists.... My husband who grew up in a socialist/communist country is far more dismayed and saddened by the Nepali's habit of viewing all outsiders as little more than walking cash dispensers. I grew up capitalist so the commercialism doesn't bother me as much.

A national English language paper held a poll last month asking which calendar Nepal should use, Gregorian (Western) or a choice of two different Asian ones. Only 9% of more than 6,000 votes were for Gregorian.

I mailed off calendars showing both Nepali and Western dates to a few friends this week. The cost was inexpressibly huge because you can't use the local post office if you'd like your packages to actually arrive at the other end. The safer option, UPS, charges $54.00 per half kilo and you can only buy shipping in half kilo increments. So you end up sending bundles to one person, with a note begging them to break the package into bits and re-mail it to the others whose gifts rode along.

Due to my massive calendar extravagance, I ran out of cash on hand and so visited my first Nepali ATM. The display screen is comfortingly like home -- in English. (Cell phone displays are also all in English which means natives who have 99% of local mobile accounts must learn English to use their phones and text-messages, very inconvenient.) A friendly gun-toting security guard sits next to the booth more for companionship and window dressing than any real threat. The most delightful bit is when you get your receipt and see your bank balance in Nepal Rupees. At 63 rupees per dollar that means your lowly US bank account is swollen like the mighty Mississippi. I saved my receipt because who knows if I'll ever again get such a large number from an ATM in my life. Hundreds of thousands. Perhaps I should frame it....

Unfortunately the ATM dispenses in 1,000 Rupee notes. Flashing a 1,000 Rupee note about town is almost like using $100 bills in a US 7-11. It's rude and hardly anyone wants to break them. Plus there's the added confusion that the NRS500 and NRS 1000 banknote look extraordinarily alike. More alike than any other currency, most of which is different colors and sizes. On two occasions now I've handed over what I was pretty sure were NRS1000 notes and gotten back small change as though I'd given NRS500. I think once it was a mistake and once not.

Anyway, here are my top shopping and money tips for Nepal:

#1. ALWAYS ask for price before you say you'll buy something. Prices are almost never marked (except in restaurant menus). So say "How much is it? I'll buy it." Instead of "I'll buy it, how much is it?"

#2. Nepali native price and tourist price are two different things. Even for plane tickets and buses, etc. It's nothing to get upset about, we subsidize them a bit, that's all.

#3. The actual price merchants are willing to settle for for things like pashminas and oranges are all about the same. However the starting price they'll try right out of the gate can vary astonishingly. One orange vendor will try his luck with NRS150 per kilo of oranges, while another starts at NRS50. The actual "real" tourist price is NRS40 and I think natives pay something like half that.

#4. Everyone expects you to haggle. In fact if you don't they are palpably disappointed and also seem to feel they must rectify the situation because you are not paying a fair price. Ever since my husband paid one orange seller triple the going rate (he was in a hurry and didn't want to haggle), the man has tossed a free orange at him whenever we walk by. Another time when buying a pashmina for my Mother, I forgot to haggle. So the shopkeeper obligingly haggled with himself on my behalf. "It's 800 Rupees," he said, "OK, I'll take it," said I. "Well you are the first customer of the day do I'll give you 200 Rupees discount," said he. "Thank you," said I. "Well you are such a nice lady I give you another 100 Rupees off," said he.

#5. Restaurant bills are slightly shaky things. I ate the exact same meal three nights in a row at the same restaurant, and one time it was RS505, another time RS515 and a third RS535. After having watched Nepali waiters struggle over invoices for two months now, I've come to the conclusion that while they can learn a variety of foreign languages at the drop of a hat, the language of math will always remain an unknown and somewhat frightening land to them. So, check your bill if you're anal. I'm not and just pay whatever is there along with a 10% or so tip which is fine for here.

#6. Take more money than you think you will need for your trip. Although everything is very cheap (hotel $5-10 night, dinner for two $10-20, etc), somehow you wind up spending far more than you expected. I think because it's all so cheap, you relax and begin to not worry about spending money, it's only a little bit, a little bit, a little bit you think. But those little bits add up quite astonishingly.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

I'm the Most Boring Person in Nepal

Yesterday, as I waited for my supper in a local cafe it was rather forcefully born in upon me that I am absolutely The Most Boring Person in Nepal. Everyone around me was running missions for the UN, or just back from hiking in Tibet, or just biked in from France via Pakistan, or teaches English in Cambodia, or has a rather funny little story to about trying to find a place to eat in Albania last month.

And then they turn to me. And I say, "Oh, I'm working." "Aid work? Diplomacy?" "Well, no. I'm writing a book." "A novel?!" "Well, no, it's a business book." The conversation goes blank for a moment. Then, they try again, "Where have you been trekking, been to Jomsom yet?" "Well, no, you see I have to write this book." "All the time?" "That would be my job. I'm not on vacation." Conversation over. Finito.

Everyone else here is on an ADVENTURE. I am doing the same thing I do at home. Except with a view of snow-capped peaks and banana trees. Which I'm quite enjoying actually.

It's just odd when I get notes from frineds and family back home, in whose eyes I am quite clearly an ADVENTURER. My self image gets whiplash.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Sounds of Another Fine Morning in Nepal

If I were the sort of glibly technical person who keeps digital recorders about the place because they might come in handy, I would have attached an audio file to this blog. In it you would hear the sounds I hear every morning waking up in Nepal.

No, that sound would not be a rooster crowing. Or rather it would be, but that would be unremarkable because in Nepal roosters do not crow for the dawn specifically. They crow for the midnight hour, the 1am, the 2am, the 3am etc. After a while you pay no more attention.

The sound instead would be a cross between a young lamb's bleat and the shrill cry of a hungry goat. Yet, it issues from a human. He is one of the many door-to-door vendors who come into Lakeside Pokhara each day to ply their wares. First around 6:30am come the covered-tray women, who will lift the cover whenever they pass a Western tourist on the sidewalk to reveal German-style baked breakfast buns.

Around 9am, the fruit and veg cart sellers who cater to local housewives appear, some with carts on big wooden wheels, others with oversized baskets balanced on bycicles. Then around noon you start to see the lunch food guys, usually with a glass-sided cooking box/display case with dahl, pokoras, and fried potato-filled dumplings. When it starts getting dark at 5:30pm, the corn-on-the-cob guys come out, each with a little smoky fire balanced on a platform they too wheel through town. The smoke does the selling so these are the quietest vendors. The cotton candy man follows hot on their heels. He can save his voice too because he ties a row of tiny metal bells to the strings from which the cotton candy dangles. As he walks along, the bells announce him.

I have not figured out what the Lamb-Goat-Call man at dawn is actually selling though. I've never been able to catch a glimpse of him. I hear his calls at 7:15 every morning, run to the window to see if I can catch him going by... but no good. He always sounds as though he's right next to the building, but is quite invisible.

My husband says he reminds him of the gypsies who used to roam the streets of Zadar Croatia where he was a child in the 1960s. They would stroll through town calling, "I fix umbrellas and sharpen knives!" over and over again. I find this recollection slightly improbable because Zadar has something like 300 sunny days a year with little call for umbrellas. But my husband swears by it.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Cool Nepalis Eat Chinese

The first time I ate at one of Pokhara's three Chinese restaurants, a young, obviously hipper-than-hell Nepali couple plopped themselves at the very next table. It was a big surprise for me, I'd eaten at all the other types of places here and never seen hair nor hide of a local patron. I'd assumed they just didn't eat out.

Well if you are a Nepali with money, or are being courted by a local UN or other aid worker as a local contact, you do eat out. You love to eat out. However, it will always be at a Chinese restaurant - anything else would be completely uncool.

If you are a 20-something Nepali man, another way to demonstrate your coolness is to put your mobile phone on the table in front of you and use it as a kind of boom box throughout the meal. Don't worry if the restaurant already has a sound system with music playing on it. No one will mind if you jack up your mobile sound even more loudly so all can enjoy Nepali hip hop with you.

If you are a female Korean tourist, you may wish instead to show everyone how modern you are by smoking with enormous flair and drama throughout the entire meal. That's right, a bite of egg drop soup, a drag on the cig, another bite of soup, another drag on the cig, and so on.

If you are a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in Nepal, and you want to show your Western guests how well you understand their culture, the minute they enter, yank whatever is playing on the sound system and replace it with a George Michaels Holiday Favorites CD. When the CD is over (sadly it is only about 15 minutes long), push that replay button over and over again to continue their enjoyment. Abruptly cease when they leave the restaurant.

If you are a Serbian man, accompanying your wife to the Chinese place for the fourth time in a week because she cannot live without their rice noodle soup, sigh and order the potatoes. True, they do not look or taste like any potatoes you have ever had before, but for a Serb a winter stomach without a potato in it is an empty place indeed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Sweet Smell of Dope

Like much of Serbia, Nepal had a healthy hemp industry in the past. (In fact last year the government tried to outlaw the plastic bags all merchants give you for your purchases in favor of hemp bags. The law passed, but without teeth so no one obeyed it.) This means even if marijuana is officially not legal, it's fairly easy to find the plants growing "wild".

I haven't smoked dope since it was de rigour in high school in the 1970s, and in all that time since never smelled a whiff of it while walking about US cities and towns. So the sweet smell of many Sombor streets on lazy Saturday afternoons in August and September were rather startling for me at first.

Cut to my current home office in Pokhara, a town where for many natives it seems every day is Saturday. There I am typing away diligently on my computer when, oh oh oh, there it is. A big cloud of 1970s floating in on the afternoon breeze.

If you like to eat your dinner at Pokhara's Bamboostan Tea Time Cafe, as I do, you may have noticed a metal placard nailed into the trunk of a huge tree directly across the way. "2005: Year of Drug Free Pokhara" it proclaims. I guess it depends on what you call drugs. Here the granny next door is puffing away at her weed pipe, but anything else would be out of the question. Happily, I've never seen a used needle anywhere here - unlike most European cities.

So the smell may be a little distracting from work sometimes, but you can't get uptight about these things. It's Pokhara. Relax, man!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Christmas Shopping in Pokhara Nepal: Land of a Thousand Pashmina

I thought I was so clever. Things you can buy in Pokhara for the folks back home are plentiful, yet limited in scope. To wit:

#1. Faux "North Face" hiking gear which has an apparent life expectancy in actual field use of about 90 days.

#2. Cheap Indian cotton clothing (including the stripy pants so awful even Lonely Planet advises against buying them) coughed up like a hairball from styles of the late 1960s and early 70s. Notably I've never seen an actual Indian citizen or a Nepali wearing anything like them.

#3. CDs and DVDs -- illegally burned copies of whatever aid workers and trekkers left behind in various hotel rooms over the years. Fairly literate and upmarket, few blockbusters but many obscure independent films. A steal at RS200-400, but breaking copyright is after all stealing, so one would not want to encourage it.

#4. Tibetan "antiques" birthed fresh daily from various refugee camps nearby. Rather cheerful, if dark colored, but not simple to ship as presents unless one has a supply of boxes and tape, which I somehow neglected to pack for this trip.

#5. Pashminas, Pashminas, Pashminas.

I use this as an all encompassing term for everything sold here that's pashmina-shaped, as much is not actually truly 100% from pashmina hair. One shopkeeper demonstrated a test today: light a Bic (or match) carefully on the tip of a bit of fringe. If it catches fire easily, it's definitely fake. If it doesn't, you know there's some new wool content, although not what type or quality.

Anyhow, because every other store sells pashminas, most of which claim to be made locally, and they're remarkably easy to pop into UPS envelopes and mail off home (one is warned against placing too much trust in the Nepal postal service - if it works, prepare to be happily delighted, if it doesn't, well that's what you expected, so no harm done), so I decided pashminas for all and sundry would be it this year.

Easy yes, but not a perfect solution, because how do you judge what color and pattern a giftee would prefer and what she'd abhor?

So I got clever. I emailed a questionnaire to everyone. All they had to do was hit "reply", check boxes to indicate preferences (ie. stripes, paisley, solid, embroidered flowers) , and type their favorite color. At the last minute I added one final question "Colors I never wear are: [ enter here]" and it's a darn good thing I did too because that was the doozy.

Save for my sister Rachel (thou shalt be blessed among women), nearly every single other person typed something like "Pink, yellow, bright colors" into the colors-I-hate box.

I set out shopping with some concern, for in a land of 1,000 pashminas there are very, very few that are not bright colors. The fact that 70% of my loved ones had specified "Brown" as their color choice made things even harder.

When you enter a pashmina shop and ask to see "all the brown you've got please" they look at you as though you're a bit sad. (The fact that I happened to be clothed nearly from head to toe in brown myself - which I didn't realize until later - didn't help.) Here, even the poorest, elderly women hobbling along on canes wear a wealth of colors layered against the fall air - reds, pinks, golds, you name it. How empty and dour our Western world must be, I could see their eyes thinking.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

See I Told You Maoists Gave Receipts!

Freshly back from his Annapurna Base Camp trek, my husband brought me this as a gift.

Nature's Colonic

You know that character in 'The Devil Wears Prada' who says, "I'm just one stomach flu away from my ideal weight.'? Well, I hit my ideal weight yesterday.

My husband, on the other hand, who constantly eats street food, drinks water from the tap and wild streams, and in short does everything risky the guide books say you should never do when visiting Nepal, is hale, hearty, and bouncing with vigor.

I'd find the situation completely unfair and disheartening ... if I didn't look so good in my jeans.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

In Nepal Girls Work While Boys Play

This is a fairly unusual photograph of children playing outside in Nepal -- because two of them are girls.

When you first get here, the whole children-in-public thing is wonderful. It's a pleasure to be surrounded by playing, laughing children everywhere. Makes you realize quite vividly how few American children play outside in their neighborhoods anymore. (They are in back, or in classes, or camps, or watching a TV or PC screen.)

Then you start to notice something odd -- those playing-in-public children, they are ALL Boys. Maybe girls play inside, but I doubt that seeing as how typical Nepalese homes have such dark interiors that most of the family spends all their daylit time outside.

Of course there are girls around. You see them getting on and off the school bus with ribbons in their hair precisely matching the color of their uniforms. (The school may not have any unbroken windows or heat, but by god those ribbons match!) You also can see them responsibly sheparding younger children on their way to somewhere - which is no doubt how my husband happened upon these girls with their brother. And you can frequently see them helping their mothers with laundry and chores outside the house, especially hauling up jugs of water from the lake.

Nepalese girls, even fairly small ones, are too busy to play. They are working.