People Watching from the Juice Shop

Kathmandu Valley is home to three cities: Kathmandu, Bhaktipur, and Patan. Although I always tell people I live in Kathmandu, I actually live outside of the city on the way to Bhaktapur, and I work in Patan.

Since I came to Nepal, it’s been quite a struggle for me to learn the geography of the Valley and get to a point where I can aptly identify the winding, jumbled streets in the urban areas. It’s difficult not only because these areas are seemingly haphazardly organized but also because they have names that, being in Nepali, are hard for me to remember. I don’t go to Bhaktapur often (I actually haven’t been there since studying abroad because tickets are expensive for foreigners), but I’m in Kathmandu and Patan all the time and am finally starting to get a sense of where things are and how to get around.

One place I’m getting to know very well is Lalitpur, a district right next to Kathmandu. Places like Kupondole, Jhamsikel, and Patan are all part of this district. My brother-in-law works in Kupondole, so from the start of our time in Nepal, Tri and I have been frequenting these areas. My new job is located in Patan, so now I spend even more time in this area, particularly along the main chowk, “road,” in Kupondole.

One benefit to hanging around Lalitpur is getting to visit the fantastic restaurants clustered there. Jhamsikel is inhabited by lots of expats, drawn in by the INGO’s and NGO’s stationed there. So some great places to eat (I assume aimed at foreigners) have cropped up in that area, places like The Roadhouse Cafe and Vesper Cafe (they make some of the best pizza in the Valley).

Although there are plenty of sit down restaurants showing up in Lalitpur, there are also lots of small, right-off-the-street type of places, with maybe just a small bench or a seat or two. When I talk about right-off-the-street, I don’t mean the street vendors who sell things like roasted nuts, soda, momo (Nepali dumplings), or paani puri (deep fried roti shells filled with potato stuffing and topped with sauce). Although I would avoid the street vendors–I know many a foreigner and Nepali who ate from them and got sick–these right-off-the-street joints can be clean and have great food.

A few weeks ago, Tri’s brother introduced me to a little juice shop on the main road in Kupondole, called Dhawalagiri Juice and Fruit Shop.

The Juice Shop

Because I’ve have some bad run-ins with dhiarrea this fall, I was a bit weary of their drinks, but the owner assured me it’s just juice, no added water. Tri’s brother suggested I try the mausam juice. A mausam is like a tangerine but green and slightly more sour. I took my first sip and loved it! Once I had slurped down about half of it, I added some bire nun, a type of mountain salt that has a slightly sulfurous taste. The mix of sugar, salt, and sulfur was at first a little strange to my Western-trained tongue but was ultimately very refreshing.

People Watching

Aside from the juice, the best part about this store is getting to people watch. In the space of a minute, all sorts of things can happen on the streets. The range of emotions and states of mind is mesmerizing. As I was enjoying my juice, the policemen were talking and laughing, keeping themselves company in the cold; a man raced by hurredly on his cell phone, and an old woman and her grandson ambled by happily, presumably on their way home. All sorts of other commotion was going on as well. Buses tooted their tuneful horns and cars streamed by, a few street dogs walked briskly down the sidewalk like they had some important business to attend to, and a group of tourists with cameras hung around their necks looked about confusedly.

When I stop to think, just quiet my head for a moment and enjoy what’s going on around me, it’s then that I realize how far I am from where I grew up. Usually life whizzes by, or rather, maybe I’m whizzing by the rest of life. I think part of it is the atmosphere in Nepal, part of it is being in a city, and part of it is the age that I’m at. But when I stop for just a moment and really soak in what’s going on, not only am I amazed by all of the stories unfolding around me but I am also shocked and bewildered in a grateful kind of way when I remember where I am.

Cravings?

Over the past few years, as I’ve become more and more acquainted with Nepali food, I’ve developed a growing love for spicy and sour things, in particular achaar.

Achaar is roughly translated as “pickle,” “relish” or “chutney,” the British English word adopted from Hindi to describe a similar type of dish eaten in India. But none of those words capture the variety of ingredients that can go into making this delectable Nepali side dish.

Achaar is usually eaten along with the Nepali staple, daalbhaat (lentils, rice, and vegetables). It often consists of tomatoes, radishes, or hot peppers, which can be eaten raw, cooked or fermented. It can even be made of meat.

All achaar that I’ve ever eaten is very strongly flavored with spices, oils, and herbs, including but not limited to khorsaniko dhulo (powdered hot pepper), timur (there’s no English equivalent but it’s similar to sechuan pepper), toriko tel (mustard oil, a highly flavored oil), sometimes toriko geda (mustard seeds), dhaniya (coriander), and the list goes on…

While I know a few people who are simply good at cooking all Nepali food, I more commonly meet those who can cook a certain type of dish really well. For instance, Tri’s brother loves to cook meat dishes and is constantly trying to perfect his style. I have met others who make delicious daal and others who cook a few vegetable dishes really well. But me, I want to perfect my achaar-making skills.

Mortar and pestle. Perfect for making tomato achaar

I’ve been working at it and can now make a pretty mean golbhedhako achaar (tomato achaar). There are a few ways to make this side-dish. One involves cooking the tomatoes and one does not. I’ve eaten cooked tomato achaar, but it’s just not as good as the raw kind, so that’s the kind I’ve been making. Buwa taught me how.

You need a bowl or container and something heavy to mash with. We have a big mortar and pestle that’s perfect for the job, featured in the picture above.

To start, cut up a bunch of tomatoes. The finer you cut them, the easier it will be to mash them. I’ve only found small tomatoes in Nepal, so I have to use quite a few, but if you get big ones, then 3 or even 2 would probably be enough to make achaar for 3-4 people. Put the chopped tomatoes into your bowl or container.

Dried Hot Pepper

Tomato achaar has two special flavors. One comes from timur, a spice I mentioned above. The other is a burnt flavor that’s produced by crisping up the outside of something going into the achaar. Many people burn the skins of the tomatoes they are putting into the mix, but Buwa taught me to take a dried hot pepper, like the one in the picture, and singe it in the flames on the stove until black. It’s easier then trying to blacken the skin on the tomatoes, and I think it tastes just as good. Once the pepper is singed, add it into your container.

Then add some salt (a little bit to start but add more later if needed), and make sure you add the timur (If you really like its flavor like I do, add about a spoonful). Also mix in a couple of chopped cloves of raw garlic and a little bit of raw ginger as well. Then mash and mash until the mixture turns into a liquidy mush.

Another type of achaar that I’ve been eating lately is the fermented kind. Tri’s mom was the one who knew how to make fermented achaar, so because she’s not around, there hasn’t been any fermented achaar made in this household in a while. But people often bring us small bottles of fermented achaar when they visit, so we have it around.

Lapsi Achaar

Recently, I’ve been enjoying some lapsiko achaar, which, as the name suggests, is made from lapsi, a small, very sour green fruit. I don’t know exactly how to make this, but it involves spice and lots of sugar, to counteract the lapsi‘s sour nature. You end up with a sweet and sour, tangy and spicy dish that goes great with any kind of daal and vegetables. You can see from the picture that it’s quite gooey.

I’ve also been snacking on spicy and sour kankroko achaar (cucumber achaar).

Cucumber Achaar

Unfortunately, all of this achaar eating is getting me into trouble…

The other night, as I was enjoying another meal with mulako achaar and lapsiko achaar, I said to Tri, “All I’ve been wanting to eat these days are spicy and sour things.”

Tri’s dad looked up suddenly from his food, scanning both our faces and asked, “Bachha paauna laageko, ho?” roughly translated as “Are you pregnant?”

Hoina! Hoina!” “No! No!” I said in surprise. I’m definitely NOT pregnant, but apparently Nepalis say that pregnant women crave spicy and sour things. The next day both Tri and his brother told me separately that right after I said that I’ve been wanting to eat spicy and sour food, they knew what Buwa was going to ask me. haha. I should have known better.

Eit: I forgot to mention two essential ingredients you need to put in the tomato achaar: garlic and ginger! I added them in above.

Meeting an American Friend at Kopan Monastery

Tri and I visited one of my mom’s friends from back home, an American Buddhist nun who comes to stay at Kopan Monastery every once in a while. I wasn’t sure if we were going to get a chance to visit her because we’re all so busy and life has been traveling at quite a hectic pace, but my mom insisted that we see her, and I’m so glad we did. I treasure opportunities to talk and spend time with Americans because they come so infrequently, and she grew up in the town right next to mine, so meeting her was especially meaningful.

Right now she’s leading a meditation course for foreigners who have come to stay in Nepal for 10 days. If you know Kathmandu, Kapan Monastery is above Chahabil in the hills, surprisingly close to Budhanilkantha (I think within walking distance).

It was nice to hear about her experiences with Buddhism and how she became interested in it. About 25 years ago, she was working in politics but took a 6 month leave to travel. At one point, she ended up in Nepal to go trekking but hurt her leg and was stuck in Kathmandu. She saw an advertisement for a meditation class at Kopan, decided to try it out, and loved it. Eventually she quit her job to become a nun.

The shelf on which they keep relics from the monk

She showed us around Kopan and introduced us to some of the other monks and nuns.

A few months ago, one of the senior monks (with whom she felt very close) passed away, and his body was cremated. Apparently, in this sect of Buddhism (they practice Mahayana) holy people are supposed to have things grow from the ashes of their cremated bodies. The monks at Kopan have been and still are collecting little relics from this monk’s ashes.

She showed us what they have gathered, including the monk’s teeth, tongue, and heart as well as a rock with some kind of green mineral growing on its surface….

Sorry for the glare. Those little green dots in the top right-hand corner of the rock are the green mineral

They even found a small conch shell among the ashes…

A small conch shell found in the monk's ashes

When I was in fifth grade, my parents took me to Italy, and we ended up visiting quite a few churches. My brothers and I loved looking at the relics from the saints’ bodies. There was something grotesque but magical about being in the presence of those body parts from holy men and women, and I felt the same way today.

A playful picture of the Rinpoche with our friend on the left.

We also got to see Tibetan Buddhism’s  take on reincarnation in action. A monk named Geshe Lama Konchog used to reside and practice at Kopan but died  in 2001. Soon after, one of his disciples started searching for his reincarnation. Our friend explained the process they went through to find him. They had to consult some kind of astrologers who told the disciple that the child would be living in a certain area, have a father with a name starting with a certain leter, etc. The disciples soon found someone who fit all of these characteristics. After testing his knowledge to see if he remembered things from his past life, they decided that he was indeed the reincarnated lama. As a final step, prior to confirming him as the Rinpoche (reincarnated lama), they took the boy before the Dalai Lama. Then they brought him to Kopan. There was a movie made about the process of finding this little boy called “Unmistaken Child.”

We met him today. He lives on the monastery grounds with an aunt and cousin, and his immediate family comes to visit every once in a while. He was a very happy child but a little lonely. Our friend goes to play with him when she can because he doesn’t have much access to kids his own age.

She told us that when people come to meet him, they often act reserved around him because he’s a holy figure.

I’m not going to say that I don’t believe in reincarnation or that this kid isn’t holy, but he is just a kid. And he should be treated like a kid, allowed to laugh, cry and just act silly sometimes.

Visitors comes from all over, and one had brought him a really fun book called Look Now with facts about a whole range of subjects, including natural disasters, population growth, and birth and death rates around the world. After arriving, we started going through it together.

I thought we would be at Kopan for just a short visit, but we ended up staying at the monastery for over two and half hours.

I was in another world the whole time. The grounds are exquisite, with trimmed lawns and a pristinely painted stupa, a far cry from the polluted streets of the Valley. And the monks are mostly Tibetan, so their culture is very different from the dominant one in Kathmandu, what I interact with and experience on a daily basis. I liked being up in the seclusion of the monastery for a bit, but it felt very removed from what’s going on in the rest of the Valley. When we drove our car back down the hill, I couldn’t help but enjoy the traffic, noise, and jostle in the streets. It’s good to get out of that once in a while, but I guess the Buddhist nun life just isn’t for me.

Anyway, thank you so much to our amazing friend for taking time out of her day to show us around! 🙂

Adjusting to Life in a “Developing” Nation

That word “developing,” when used in the context of countries, has always sounded a bit off to me. All nations and countries are changing and evolving, so it’s silly to call some “developed” and others “developing.” It also implies that the “developing” nations need to aspire to become “developed.” Maybe it would be better for them to take a completely different trajectory than those “developed” nations did. But there are big differences between Nepal and the US, and that word “developing” is sometimes useful in describing and identifying those differences.

It’s been almost four months since we moved to Nepal. Although some things have gotten easier, others never will.

I grew up in a quiet suburb on the East Coast with good public schools and friendly neighbors. As a kid, in certain ways, I was pretty aware that not everyone lived exactly like us because my parents tried hard to expand my horizons. We went to the city often, and they took us on trips around the country and to Europe. However, my entire education, from what my parents taught me, to what I learned in school, to how I was taught was very Western-centric.

I remember arriving in Nepal for the first time. I walked out of Tribhuvan International Airport, and my mind stopped. On the way to my study abroad program house, I remember dumbly staring out the window at the masses of people and cars. In the days that followed, after accepting that I really had made it to Nepal, my fellow study abroad students and I began to explore our new environment. The first time I walked along the streets in the city, I reveled in the smells of exhaust and frying sweets, of sewage and sweat. I loved it and hated it at the same time. It was so intense and new and different. Those first few months in Nepal, I was in shock, pretty much all the time. Not only was I in a new environment, but I was also surrounded by a foreign tongue that felt impossible to decode.

This time things are quite different. I’m not a student but a resident, I guess an immigrant, although that word can mean many different things. When I lived here before, if life got difficult, I always told myself that I would be going back to the US at the end of the semester. But now, although we have a general idea of when we will be heading back west, it’s very much up in the air. I’m also here for much longer this time around. When things get uncomfortable or hard, I can’t just put off dealing with them. I have to confront the problems head on, learn to accept certain things, and sometimes change myself in order to survive.

One of the most difficult things to adapt to is the lack of basic infrastructure. The streets are constantly in need of repair, the public transportation often unsafe, and the electricity irregular. My father-in-law and brother-in-law moved right before Tri and I arrived in Nepal. Although their old house had a solar panel on the roof that would power the lights during load shedding, our new house doesn’t have one yet. So we’re pretty much stuck with trying to read by flashlight or if the flashlights are lost or not working, by candle.

I mentioned in my post about Butwal that we had to make a trip to the emergency room while staying there. Tri got a bad stomachache on our way down south, so we went to the hospital. When we walked in, I immediately noticed the crumbling, dirty walls and cobweb-filled corners. Patients were lying on the floors in the crowded waiting room. Inside the main treatment area, even though hospital beds lined the walls, Tri has no where to lie down. Family members of the sick also had little room to wait. One family of four had gathered on their relative’s hospital bed to eat dinner. Although the doctors and nurses were obviously overwhelmed with the load of patients, we were lucky to be seen quickly. After describing his symptoms, Tri was immediately diagnosed with food poisoning, given a shot of pain killer, and sent home.

We didn’t have to spend too much time there, and Tri’s condition was not that bad. But what if something much worse had happened and we needed better care? Even in Kathmandu, some of the health care is very limited, and I dread the day when one of us comes down with something much more serious.

In Nepal, more time has to be spent doing basic things. With few washing machines and no driers, all clothing has to be hand-washed and hung to dry. This is a problem sometimes in the summer because of the frequent Monsoon rains and in the cloudy, cold winter days, your clothes may take a couple of days to dry. Pre-made meals are also not an option, and eating out is expensive. With two full meals to cook every day, time spent in the kitchen can really add up. We are very lucky to have someone who helps with cooking, cleaning, and washing clothing. Without him, life would be much more difficult, but I still end up spending more time doing these things than I would have in the US.

Even washing my hair takes more effort and time. The area in which we live has very hard water, and when we first moved here, my hair was falling out in droves. Now I use bottled water (the kind that comes in those big plastic jugs found in offices) to wash my hair. It takes much longer than a quick scrub and rinse in the shower would and can only be done a few times a week. Without heating in our house, it gets pretty cold in the morning and night. The prospect of washing my hair with that cold water is just not appealing, so I try to  wash it during the warmer hours in midday. Of course, I’m at work during the day, so I only get to wash my hair a couple of times a week. I’m complaining about it, but I am really lucky to have what I have. Most people here live much tougher lives than I do. Some don’t have running water at all and must bathe in the rivers. I don’t know how they manage during the winter.

Because there aren’t many government regulations concerning food production, we have to be very careful about what we eat. On the TV recently, the news-readers have been reporting on restaurants and companies selling inedible food products. Police recently shut down a famous sweet shop and a water-bottling plant. Tri also just told me about a dairy in India caught for adding poisonous chemicals to their milk. Although nothing has been reported like that in Nepal, I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens in the dairies here too. Even some local, independent farmers are known to add unsafe chemicals to their vegetables to boost their size and increase profits.

I just reread what I wrote, and it really makes me sound like a complainer. I admit it. I am sometimes exhausted by living in Nepal, and I needed to vent. I’m also dealing with cultural and linguistic barriers, and my struggle with those may be clouding other aspects of my experience.

However, I can say that although I sometimes feel exhausted by life here, I’m also succeeding at adjusting. My Nepali is getting better, and I have a much better understanding of Nepali culture than I used to.

Today I came home from work kind of tired and worn out. It’s 6:30pm, and Tri won’t be home for at least another two hours, but when I got into the house, I thought about just how happy I am. In college, I struggled with depression during sophomore year. I’ve been thinking about that time and what it was like. My life has its ups and downs now, but I can’t see myself ever being depressed in Nepal. There are moments in every day where I smile and laugh, look out the window at the Himalayas and appreciate how lucky I am, and it makes living here worth it.

The Girl with the Beautiful Eyes

The fog-surrounded monastery

Some of Tri’s co-workers take hiking trips every Sunday, and today we went with them to Namo Buddha.

The first time we visited I was blown away by the beautiful monastery there. It was just as pristine this time around, but the fog just wouldn’t lift, so we didn’t get much of a view. I won’t go into the details of Namo Buddha because I did that in my first post, but there were three interesting things from today that I wanted to mention.

Tri holding an orange grown on Buwa's land

The first is that we visited Tri’s dad’s land near Namo Buddha. In my last post, I mentioned that Buwa’s parents immigrated to Kathmandu from that area. They originally lived in a small village called Sankhu, located in a valley below the hill that Namo Buddha sits on. This morning, the bus dropped us off right in Sankhu, so Buwa took us to his parent’s (and now his) land. The oranges growing there weren’t completely ripe, but we opened them up anyway.

I’m starting to get a cold, in particular a sore throat. Nepalis say not to eat sour things during the winter, especially when your throat hurts, but I haven’t eaten an orange in months! So I gobbled it down.

The second interesting thing that happened today is that I learned something about the photo at the top of this blog. I took that photo the first time we went to Namo Buddha. Nepali, the most widely-spoken language in Nepal, is written using Devanagari, the script also used to write Hindi. Newari (or Newa Bhasha), spoken by the Newars (the indigenous people of Kathmandu Valley), is written using the Ranjana script, which is what you see in that photo up top.

Ranjana is displayed on the walls of many a Buddhist temple, and I’ve always wondered why because the monks who live in the monasteries in Nepal are not usually Newar. Even temples in Tibet have Newari script written on their walls. Thulabaa (Tri’s uncle) also went with us today, and he explained why. Apparently someone named Arnico, an architect from Kathmandu, went on a trip to Tibet and then China in the 13th Century. He brought the Ranjana script with him, introducing it to Buddhists he met during his travels. So even though the Buddhist monks who inhabit the Monasteries in Nepal and Tibet are more often of Tibetan or Sherpa descent, they decorate their religious spaces with the Ranjana script. Arnico is also the guy who supposedly introduced the Pagoda style to China.

I'm not sure if you can really see the color of her eyes, but here we are near Namo Buddha

The last thing today worthy of mention is the girl we met with absolutely beautiful eyes. I like brown eyes (Tri’s eye color), and I like blue eyes too (my eye color), but I really love hazel-colored eyes. This little girl had hazely/grayish eyes with a green ring around the outside. Tri’s dad said that our kids would look just like her…I can only hope!

The Politicians Are at Work but No Cause for Celebration Yet

On Tuesday, leaders from the major political parties signed an agreement that’s going to (hopefully) move the peace process forward.

After the conflict in Nepal (called “the People’s War”) ended in 2006, almost 20,000 people claimed to have been part of the Maoist army. Since the Maoists agreed to a cease fire five years ago, they have lobbied for these fighters to be integrated into the Nepali military. However, other parties and the military itself have generally opposed this proposition because they are worried that one political party will have too much sway in the military.

This disagreement has prevented the much-needed constitution building from happening, but this week, Prachanda (Chairman of the Maoist Party), Baburam Bhattarai (Prime Minister of Nepal), and other major party leaders have signed an agreement that will hopefully clear up these disputes.

In the 7-point agreement, they have decided that 6,500 of the approximately 19,000 fighters will become part of a special force that performs non-combat duties like patrolling forests and carrying out rescue operations. The other fighters will be let go and given a maximum of 900,000 Rupees as compensation. I’m very glad this agreement was reached, but I have to say, 900,000 (about 11,500 US$) is a lot of money in Nepal. I wish that this government money could be going to other causes like improving infrastructure, education, and healthcare. However, I’m really glad the politicians were able to settle this issue.

Because this has been a sticking point for so long, when we found out a deal had been reached, I kind of expected everyone to be rejoicing in the streets. I thought there would be cheers heard from around Kathmandu, fireworks, or at least a bottle or two of champaign opened. But the next day, people were going about their business as usual. There’s a lot more work to be done, and the deal has yet to be implemented, so I guess they’re saving the celebrations for later…

What do you think about this agreement? Will it really move the peace process forward?