Sunbathing the Nepali Way

My family in the US has been skyping us from sunny Florida, and it’s making me miss warm weather. As I mentioned in this post about my toes, the cold is really getting to me, so I’ve been trying to get a little bit of the sun my family is soaking up this week by sunbathing on our roof.

In Nepal, there are multiple ways to balance the hot and cold in your body. One way is to eat certain foods at different times of the year or on certain occasions. Oranges are a cold food, so they shouldn’t be eaten when you have a cold or cough because they supposedly make it worse, as I mentioned in this post. I ignore this a lot of the time, though, because they have so much Vitamin C, something I was always told to eat when sick.

Sugar is a warm food. A few weekends ago, Nepalis who are part of the Newar ethnic group in Kathmandu celebrated Yomari Purnima. This is a holiday celebrated on the day of the full moon in December, and those who practice it make little dumplings called Yomari, which are often stuffed with a sweet paste made of molasses and sesame. (Ironically I’ve only ever eaten these in the US, at a family friend’s house, but never in Nepal). Anyway, the Yomaris are supposed to be a hot food, good for winter because they’re sweet. Honey is also considered to be a hot food, and some people won’t eat it in the summer because they’re afraid it will make them too warm.

I also just learned the other day that after women give birth, their bodies are thought to be cold. So a special food called gutpak is made for them to eat. This food supposedly warms up their bodies. It has sugar and spices in it and is both sweet and bitter (I think because of the methi, fenugreek, that’s in it).

My host family sitting on a sukul

The way to get rid of the cold in Kathmandu is to eat food that is thought to produce warmth like Yomari and to of course dress warmly, but you can also sunbathe. Because women’s bodies are considered to be cold after giving birth, they are often encouraged to sunbathe with their babies.

Traditionally, Nepalis might have taken sunbaths on woven mats called sukul (and many still do). To the right is a picture of one of my host families sitting on a sukul.

But we don’t have one at our house, so we’ve been using a styrofoam mat that we found in a closet.

Over the weekend, we brought a few oranges, a computer, and some books up to the roof to just hang out and relax…

Our Sunbathing Spot

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City Living

Today Tri had the day off for Christmas, so we decided to go into the city. Tri’s uncle has a medicine shop near New Road, and we had to pick up some medicine, so we went to meet him. Tri and I parked the car in Tundikhel, which is a big open space in the center of Kathmandu that has both a place to park cars and a market.

Tundikhel

We crossed the foot bridge and were getting ready to turn onto a side street when Tri realized that the car keys weren’t in his pocket. We started to frantically search through both of our pockets and my purse, hoping that it was still somewhere on us, but we didn’t find it, so we rushed back to the car. Thankfully it was dangling from the ignition. Unfortunately we had dutifully locked all the doors before leaving the car! So there was no way to get to the key.

We called Tri’s brother to ask if he could bring the spare over. He agreed to but could only make it to Tundikhel in about two and half hours, so we had some time to kill. We decided we would go shopping on New Road and then head over to our uncle’s shop.

After a while, we reached the shop and picked up our medicine, but we still had lots of time before Tri’s brother was going to arrive, so Uncle invited us over to have tea at his house, which is right near Durbar Square.

As I’ve mentioned before, Tri and I live a ways out of the city, near farm fields and mooing cows. I guess you might find a few mooing cows near Durbar Square but definitely no farm fields! We live in a recently built concrete house, but our uncle lives in a very traditional Newar style house. It’s a lot of fun visiting him because I get to experience how the majority of Kathmandu dwellers might have lived in times past. Traditionally the Newars built their houses close together, often near fountains and around courtyards.

Here’s the view from our uncle’s window…

View from Our Uncle’s Window

The area in the middle is a small temple. A few months ago, I wrote a post about this type of public space, often used for worship. They’re very social places, where people gather and talk.

Neighbor

The great thing about living in a courtyard is the community that comes with it. People were hanging out in the center of the courtyard and on the porches in their houses, like this boy…

Having such close neighbors makes communication quite easy. If he wants to get someone’s attention, all he has to do is yell across the courtyard.

But living in a courtyard has its drawbacks including lack of personal space. Look at the house right across from our uncle’s…

It must be only 6 or 7 feet wide!

Another feature of traditional Newar style houses and buildings are intricate windows, and right before crossing the street to get to our uncle’s house we saw this one…

Uncle thought that it had been carved from one piece of wood.

I wasn’t happy that we locked the key in the car, but I didn’t mind our trip into the heart of the city.

5 Weeks of Break…

Today marks the first day of 5 whole weeks off!

The school year in Nepal is not set up the same way it is in the US. There’s no long summer vacation but a few shorter vacations placed throughout the year. These five weeks are the longest vacation I’m going to get. One of the reasons they have the vacation during the winter is because of the cold. There’s no heating at our school, so it’s quite chilly in the mornings. And nobody wants to see those little kids shivering anymore than they have to!

So I’m going to try and post most frequently during my time off. I’m also really looking forward to having time to just sit down to read and write. I’ve been compiling a list of books that I want to read, and now I’ll have real chunks of time to finish them.

I’ll also be studying for the GRE. I’m planning on applying to graduate school next year, so taking this test is a must. I scheduled my test for January 25, the last week of break. If you have any tips about what to study, how to study, etc, let me know!

Meeting Samrat Upadhyay and Looking Beyond Grades

Kathmandu is a small place. Even though there are millions of people living here, it sometimes seems like I’m living in a village and everybody knows everybody else somehow or another. The great thing about this is that I often get to see and meet a lot of influential Nepalis. I’ve also found that a lot of influential Nepalis don’t seem to mind meeting others, talking with them, and sharing about the things they do.

The school that I work at often invites over speakers from different disciplines to talk to students, and today they invited over the award-winning author Samrat Upadhyay, who wrote the book Arresting God in Kathmandu. I didn’t think I would get to have a chance to see him speak, but his lecture fell during my lunch period, so I rushed right over after my class ended.

Mr. Upadhyay was born and raised in Nepal but now lives in the US and teaches creative writing at Indiana University. His book is a collection of stories written in English about people living in Kathmandu. I’ve heard Nepalis describe it as both “good” and “weird,” and I’ve always had an interest in reading it but never got around to it. It’s definitely on my list of books to read over my winter break, which started today.

I wasn’t able to stay for all of his talk, but I really enjoyed the 45 minutes that I did sit in on. He discussed the ways that living in Kathmandu and then in the US changed and shaped him and how he started to perceive his mother culture in a new and different way after moving to the US. I’ve been thinking about issues related to migration and immigration and how they shape our understanding of who we are. Marrying a foreigner and becoming one myself make thinking about these things almost inevitable.

He also discussed his life before becoming a writer and his years attending school in Kathmandu. Before giving the talk today, he said that he told his mother to look for some of his old work and report cards, and he brought one along with him to the talk. I’m not sure what year the report card was from, but he read us some of his grades. His highest score was in something called Moral Science, and his lowest, ironically, in English, getting 55 out of 100.

It’s always important to remember that success in school does not necessarily equal success after school or in life in general. I’m lucky enough to have parents who demanded that I try my best but reminded me of this truth. Now that I’m a teacher, even though I’m always trying to get my students to do better and try for higher scores, I must also remind them that there are things beyond grades and school, that good grades do not guarantee or reflect success or creativity or lots of other important things.

Shutting Down Kathmandu

On Saturday, while Tri and I were at home, we heard news that there was a bandha in Kathmandu. Bandha literally means “closed.” The streets had been shut down so that no cars, motorcycles, buses, or vehicles of any kind could drive on them. Thankfully the bandha didn’t affect us much because we had planned to stay at home most of the day anyway.

But it did affect our neighbors’ family. Their daughter lives in another part of the city with her husband and daughter, and they decided that despite the bandha, they were going to come over and visit. They took their car out and drove down the streets. When they reached one of the major junctions on the way to their parents’ house, people started coming at their car, hitting it with rocks. The woman’s husband is some kind of reporter, so he had a press pass. Once he showed it, they stopped hitting the car and let them go by. Their daughter was telling me that there were even police there, but they didn’t lift a finger to stop the attack.

Bandhas are not enforced by the government as a whole but are usually started by a group of people or a political party that wants to take a stand on something. Last week, there was a bandha in the district in which I work because someone had been tied up and murdered in a jewelry shop. I’m not sure who organized that bandha, but it was held to protest the murder of this innocent man. And in that example, you can see where calling for a bandha doesn’t really solve any problems. Obviously people were angered and frustrated by this murder, but making everyone suffer by shutting down schools, offices, and shops isn’t going to help.

On Saturday my family explained to me exactly why they had shut down the city. Apparently a politician in Chitwan (a city in Southern Nepal) affiliated with the Nepali Congress political party was thrown in jail on charges of murder. Some people involved with the Unified Marxist-Leninist Party beat him up while he was in jail. The politician was in critical condition and although he was brought to a hospital, he died shortly after being transferred. The Nepali Congress party called the bandha on Saturday as a way of protesting his death.

Only Monday, they called another one, and this one did affect me and Tri because we had to stay home from work. The leaders in the Nepal Congress say that they want the charges against that politician to be dropped, and they want the man to be declared a martyr.

The protesters calling for the bandha on Monday were really serious about it. One guy from Tri’s office tried to come into work by car early in the morning, around 6am. Protesters smashed his car and beat him up. He had to get three stitches.

Bandhas seem to come in waves. For a few months, they’ll happen pretty frequently and then stop for a while. Before I came to Nepal in July, I heard that people were starting to disobey the bandhas because they were so sick of them, and I hope the people of Kathmandu who don’t want to put up with this kind of thing can continue to feel empowered to fight against them.

Understanding Grief

Yesterday morning, I woke up and went downstairs to have breakfast while Tri stayed in our room to check his email. When I got back upstairs, he called me over to the computer and showed me an email from my mom saying that my grandmother died early Friday morning.

My maternal grandmother had been sick for about 3 years. She was diagnosed with cancer back when I was a Sophomore in college, and she’s been battling it ever since. At certain points, she seemed like she had really gotten rid of it, but there have been many times when we thought she would die.

Before Tri and I left for Nepal last summer, we stayed with the rest of my family at a beach house in North Carolina, something we’ve done every year for a long time. Before we moved to Nepal, I knew that my grandmother was likely to die this year, so I tried my hardest to say my goodbyes and spend time with her during that week.

Despite having tried to prepare myself for her death, I was shocked and saddened into tears when I read that email from my mom yesterday.

This is the third death this year of someone close to us. The first, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, was Tri’s mom’s death. She passed away suddenly last April. The second death was also sudden, the death of a friend of Tri’s from his school days (I’ll call him A).

Last spring, right after Tri and I got the horrible call that his mom was in the hospital, Tri booked his flight to Nepal. He left that evening. His mom had been put on a ventilator, to keep her heart beating so that Tri could see her one last time. Once she was officially dead, he, his dad, and his brother went into the 13 day mourning period required for Nepali Hindus.

For the first few days, I had no way to contact him because he wasn’t allowed to use his computer, but then I was able to talk with him on gchat during parts of the day. About a week and a half after his mom died, while we were on gchat, Tri told me that the remains of A’s body had been found in India along the side of a cliff. This friend had gone to visit another of their friends in India, and at one point, he went hiking on his own. When he didn’t return, his family called the police. A’s family went down to India to help look for A, hoping that he had just gone off with another friend and had failed to contact them. After looking for about 10 days, they found the remains. Apparently A had been hiking and, as far as they could tell, just slipped and fell.

These three different deaths were each been different and hearbreaking in their own way. Tri’s mom’s death was sudden. It made me sick to my stomach, completely knocked the wind out of me. Although she had been sick for many years, we never expected her to die so suddenly and so soon. She was only 47.

A’s death was quite different. It was sudden, like Mamu’s, but more tragic in a way. When Tri told me about his friend’s death, I burst into tears. Some of the tears, I’m sure, were renewed grief for Mamu and some of them for A and for the way that he died. He was so young, only 25 and perfectly healthy. A’s death helped me put Mamu’s death into perspective. Although she was young too, she lived a full life, had an incredibly loving husband, and raised two sons to adulthood. A had barely made it to adulthood.

Now, as I start mourning for my grandmother, although I am sad, I don’t feel as bad as I might. Partly because I knew her death was coming, but also because Mamu and A’s death have put my grandmother’s death into perspective. It’s still really painful. I can’t go home and mourn with my family, and I can’t support my mom, aunts and grandfather as they mourn the loss of their mother and wife. But I know that my grandmother lived a long, full life and had a large supportive family that really loved and still loves her.

Living in Nepal has also given me some perspective on death. People die here all the time and very suddenly. Just last night I heard of a bus that crashed in far Western Nepal, killing at least 16 people. At least once a month, I hear about someone being hit and killed by a motorcycle, car, or bus. We hear about incidents like that all the time, plane crashes, bus accidents. People here also die of dysentery and other, often treatable diseases, that don’t kill in the West. Of course people die in the US too, but I think their deaths are often less sudden or maybe less tragic; there seem to be fewer death caused by accident and fewer early deaths from disease. Being around all this death in Nepal hasn’t helped me to understand the phenomenon any better but has helped me to accept death as a fact of life.

A few weeks ago, I tried to start reading a book called The Year of Magical Thinking, written by Joan Didion, a woman whose husband died suddenly while her daughter was sick in the hospital. Her daughter then died a year later. The book was way too sad for me to continue, so I put it down after a few pages. But one thing I got out of the part I did read was that grief comes in waves.

And this really rang true to me. As I’ve been grieving for Tri’s mom these past 8 months, I’ll have a span of days where I won’t think about her death at all. Everything will seem normal and okay, but then I’ll miss her suddenly, all at once. These times of intense grief come when I see her picture or cook Nepali chiya (tea), something she taught me how to do, or when I see Tri’s dad looking teary-eyed and know that he’s thinking about her. But these waves of grief have lessened in frequency and intensity with time.

I’m still waiting for a greater understanding of death grief to come. People say that when faced with diffficult situations, you’re supposed to gain wisdom and understanding, but somehow I just feel like a deer caught in the headlights, still in shock and unbelieving of what’s happened.

The Case of the Aching Toes

It all started the weekend before last. I went to get some socks out of our sock drawer but jerked the drawer out a little too quickly. Before I could pull my foot out of the way, the drawer nicked my right foot’s ring toe. The moment of contact was incredibly painful, but I chalked it up to my foot being cold (which usually seems to make things more painful).

I thought that everything would be fine soon enough, but then I went to the gym for a bit later that day, after running on the treadmill for a while, the toe started to really hurt. By the next morning, it was red and swollen. I thought that the swelling would go away, but it has stayed about the same size and same hue of dull red for the last week or so.

The same day that I hit my toe, the toes on that foot started to ache. I figured that the pain was just radiating out of that hurt toe into the other ones. But then the toes on my left foot started hurting as well. They were fine as long as I didn’t move them, but when I curled them, they would start to ache all at once. They also felt kind of puffy and swollen and were itching like crazy.

My ring toe has refused to get better, and I started to assume that it was either sprained or broken, but since I didn’t think that there was such as a toe caste, so for the last week, I’ve been ignoring it.

With my other toes, I started to figured that my shoes were causing problems. For my job, I’m up and about a lot during the day (I’m a teacher–posts to come on teaching in Nepal and the educational system here), so I thought that walking around a lot could be aggravating my toes, especially if I was wearing poorly designed shoes. I switched from my flats to very comfortable sneakers. However, by the end of the day today, my toes were hurting more than ever.

Right when I got home today, I called my mom. She’s never had any medical training, but she knows a lot about health, disease, and the body. When I told her about my toe troubles, the first thing she thought of was Gout. People with Gout don’t process uric acid properly, and it builds up in their joints, which causes pain and inflammation. I started looking up the disease, which apparently frequently manifests in the toes, but I was still skeptical. I’m kind of young to be having symptoms of Gout, and I don’t drink much alcohol or eat much red meat, two types of food that increase your risk of having Gout

Then my mom remembered another condition having to do with swollen, painful digits, called Chilblains. I’ve been experiencing inflammation, itching, and a little bit of redness, three out of the four main symptoms wikipedia lists.

Then I read that Chilblains “can be manifestations of serious medical conditions…[like] connective tissue disease.” My first reaction was “whaaaa!?!?!”

But then I thought about it more. Even if this is what I have (and who really knows), it’s so unlikely that I have a connective tissue disease! Even if I do, there’s nothing I can do about it right now, so I’m just going to ignore that last part.

I’m very lazy about wearing socks and slippers in the house. When I told my brother-in-law that my feet were aching, possibly from the cold. He was like “Duhhhh. I saw you walking around on the freezing marble floors with bare feet yesterday. Of course you’re going to get problems like that.” He’s right. I should have known better.

Tonight, Tri starting enforcing a strict rule of socks-at-all-times, and after wearing a double layer tonight, my toes already feel less achy. So I’m hoping that this is the problem and that I can fix it by being a little more thoughtful about my footwear. I also bandaged up and taped together my ring toe and the one next to it, so hopefully that will heal quickly too.

Has this happened to anyone before? Has anyone ever heard of this happening in Nepal? Is there a Nepali name for it?