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

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Photographing Spirits During Nepal's Dusk & Nighttime

When I saw this photo, I immediately cleaned my camera lens. But the photos I took before and after this one of different moments in the same early evening in Nepal were sharp and clear. I showed my husband. "Nepali spirits are very active," he said.

OK, well I'm so not a Slav. This mystical stuff is a little too Shirley McClaine for me.

But then it happened again. One of my photos from New Year's Eve shows a one of those large clouded soap-bubble things hovering just over my step-daughter's shoulder. A shot of a garden at dusk revealed a single big bubble drifting near an exceptionally well-trimmed bamboo bush.
Note, again, none of the other photos I took that night had the same bubble and my lens was not dirty.

Soon, spirit shooting became commonplace for us. It wasn't just my camera, they showed up on other people's shots too. I began to notice patterns. Generally it was dusk or nighttime. Often it was a photo taken without looking through the viewfinder (something you're more likely to do with so much digital "film" to waste). And usually it was when someone was very happy or some other positive strong emotion was around. Never did a spirit appear anywhere near my husband in the pictures, but several showed up near me.

On one of our last nights in Kathmandu, my step-daughter snapped a shot of a neighborhood temple as we strolled past on our way to dinner. She immediately checked out the results on her camera's viewer. "Wow, lots and lots of spirits around here!" she said. "Yeah, yeah. Of course there are. It's a temple," I replied. "Can we hurry it up? I'm really hungry."

Aack! Never Buy International Air Tickets in Nepal

The horrible truth that absolutely no Nepali travel agent will tell you: International air travelers who buy their tickets in Nepal are only allowed to check one single bag of luggage which must weigh 20 kilos or less. You will be charged up to $25 by the airline when you check in for each additional kilo. If you wish to pay that charge on a credit card, allow at least one extra hour of check-in time prior to departure (in other words, 3 full hours from the moment you arrive at the airport) so the airline employee can locate the credit card processing slip, figure out instructions, laboriously handwrite on the slip and receipts, take a break, come back after you ask another employee to hunt him down, etc., etc.

If you buy your ticket for the exact same seat on the exact same flight to Europe from a travel agent in Europe, you are allowed to check two bags of up to 20 kilos each. If you buy a ticket for the same flight only your final destination is the USA and you use a US travel agent, then your baggage allowance is even larger, plus your extra kilos surcharge is super-dinky.

Because I bought my ticket in Nepal, I was charged more than $800 for extra baggage. OK, actually I whined and plead and made a stink and got off with "only" a $500 charge. Thank the nice gate man honey. Yep.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Kathmandu & The Garden of Dreams

Nepalis love formal gardens. Give them a small courtyard and they will turn it into a tiny, Italianate paradise, with repeating shapes, clipped hedges, and rows of identical potted plants. This pic is the front yard of Trek-o-tel in Pokhara where I sipped tea on many afternoons, but could be nearly anywhere...Two weeks ago, we finally left Pokhara to travel to Zadar Croatia for the winter and stopped en route in Kathmandu. Despite the romantic-sounding name, Kathmandu is overwhelmingly smelly, polluted, dirty, poor... many people wear face masks outside because you just don't want your naked nose to smell that air. After a long morning in shopping for last-minute gifts and souvenirs in the Thamel District where it feels like the game of Cheat the Stupid Rich Tourist is Nepal's national pursuit (fake goods, insane overpricing, and people tugging at you and calling at you from every direction) my husband suggested we visit Kathmandu's Garden of Dreams.

Turns out in the 1920s a young man won an astonishing sum when gambling one night with top government officials. Thrilled, he immediately dedicated the entire sum to the creation of a his "Garden of Dreams" which is now known as one of the top 10 most beautiful in all of Asia. It fell into disrepair for decades, but in the 90s, the Austrian government mounted a rescue operation costing millions of Euros.

Just re-opened in the spring of 2007, the Garden of Dreams is an astonishing oasis of calm beauty, behind tall walls in downtown Kathmandu. (You pay a few rupees to enter.) It's been featured in the US's Landscape Architecture Magazine, and various upscale Western travel mags. I had no idea it existed, however, so the shock was an incredible delight for me. Here are a few of our pics...This is only a small fraction of the beauty and features packed into the fairly small space -- perhaps two city blocks large. We walked and walked around, and then wound up lazing on a sunny hillside overlooking the best features. Beside us, a group of two young, ineffably elegant Italian families played charades with their children on the lawn. They must be diplomats I imagined, far too dressy for trekkers. Then when I got up and ambled over to view some rather nice water plantings, a native Nepali zipped into my place on the lawn by my husband's side and began gently interrogating him about his opinions of Kosovo and the Moaists of Nepal. "I've just been questioned by a government spy" my husband told me when we got up to leave a few minutes later. I agreed.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Power in Nepal

The government just announced our routine power cuts of 11 hours per household per week will go up to 15 hours per week because rivers are low of water. I'm well used to the cuts now, and schedule my day around them... getting up early to start work, then taking a break when the lights go around 7pm for a couple of hours. It's rather romantic to run about my room lighting candles. But, probably less so for people who live here full time.

The TV stations must have a hard time selling ads with routine cuts during primetime. However the petrol industry is happy because rich people and businesses run on diesel generators when the power grip goes down.

The whole rivers running dryer thing though makes me wonder. Nepal is the water-source for much of India. Water is to Nepal like Oil is to Russia. Or it would be if Russia were puny, poor, and stuck between two megapowers. In the 22nd century water is going to equal power.

In the meantime my husband called me from trekking in the hills outside Jomsom last night after three days failure to get through. The problem? Cell phone reception is nonexistent where he is, and the only landline is powered by solar energy, which for reasons best understood to Nepali engineers only functions at reasonable power around 2:30pm in the afternoons.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Local Hero: My Husband's Team Wins Pokhara Tug of War

I didn't really think they could do it. You see, the team pictured above was the one to beat in the final match. Don't they look official and athletic? Turns out they were the cream of the local police.

Our team, who you could call the Pokhara Irregulars, did not have spiffy uniforms or even matching outfits. But they had two killer advantages. The first being the portly team captain pictured here stoking up on Buff Mos-Mos (Buffalo Meat Stuffed Dumplings) during a quick break immediately before the final contest. He has led his team to victory for 5 years running.Their second advantage was my husband as anchor man. At least a half foot taller and 10+ years older than all other competitors, he still has his carpenter's muscles despite a year now of retirement. As a former Yugoslavian Karate Champion, he also has an inbred fighting spirit. (Although by the way the other players looked startled and confused when he chanted things like "We will win! We will beat you!" it seems the Nepali fighting spirit is a bit more courtly than our Western style.)

The day started quietly enough. We were sunbathing on our hotel balcony when up paraded a recruitment delegation including the hotel manager and our friend Babu. My husband initially naysayed joining the team they sponsored because he was scheduled to go for a paraglide an hour before the event. "Is OK! We send car there for you! We pick you up for Tug of War!" the men insisted.

This was quite remarkable because no one uses cars for anything here lightly. Cars are reserved for professional taxi drivers and very rich emmigres. Plus, gas prices are rising so no one drives an inch more than they have to; and, most streets were barricaded for the big street festival. Awed by this display of passion - sending a car! - my husband assented.

Of course he was late, but this is Nepal so everyone else involved in the grand annual tug of war championship was late too, so everything was perfect. Cheered on by more than 200 spectators, including a live Nepali band featuring traditional horns and drums, a total of six teams duked it out. After winning two heats, it was time for the final round. I was very nervous they might not win, but apparently the team captain was so confident he told my husband as an aside to "act a little weak, put on a show for crowd." Otherwise it would have been over in a heartbeat.

When they won, the two teams did that Western sports lining up and shaking each other's hands thing. Then the dignitaries - the police chief, the highest ranking local army officer, and the head of the merchant's association - did the Nepali thing and rubbed dry red dye onto all the winners' and losers' faces. Losers just got it on both their cheeks; winners got a big glop on their foreheads as well. That took the place of an actual trophy, you get to walk around all night aftewards parading your winning color.

Then, as everyone else was joining in a victory street dance, a TV crew standing by asked to interview my husband. I thought it was a bit unfair him being singled out like that when really his team captain had probably more to do with the win. But I guess a big, shaggy, grey-haired Serbian guy with red paint all over his face is more memorable media moment. We'll get to see on Friday when his interview is broadcast on Nepali TV.

In the meantime, sometimes when we walk down the street complete strangers call out to him "Tug of War! Tug of War!" and he nods his head graciously.