Can’t Escape the Stick Shift

When I was a senior in high school, I had a pretty jarring car accident. I was driving two friends home from school one day. While I was crossing a busy street, another car came zooming over a hill and hit my car. My car spun out and hit the curb. No one was seriously hurt, although I did bang my head pretty hard and have to go to the emergency room. Although everyone was okay, the car was totaled, and I developed a horrible fear of driving.

I should have started driving again shortly after the accident so that I could regain my confidence and squelch the fear of driving that I was developing. But I didn’t. Except for maybe once or twice, I don’t think I really drove for a year and half after that, and I haven’t really ever gotten used to driving in the five years since my accident. I guess I didn’t really need to. I was in college, didn’t have a car, and didn’t need one. When Tri got a car after graduating, he pushed me to drive, but I was still hesitant.

Our Santro. It had its problems, but I do appreciate all it did for us 🙂

After we got to Kathmandu, we needed to buy a car to get to work in the mornings, so we got a Santro, a small Indian car. We talked about me learning to drive it, but no one ever pushed me to, and I wasn’t really interested.

It was easy and socially acceptable for Tri to be the sole driver. Many women in Nepal ride scooters and some ride motorbikes too, but it’s still unusual to see a woman driving a car. I really wish it weren’t so, and I think that if I had stayed in Nepal longer, or if we were planning to settle there more permanently, I would definitely have wanted to learn to drive. It’s important in emergencies and just convenient. However, it was very easy for me to slip into the passenger seat while Tri took the wheel. And because our car was a manual, and I don’t know how to drive a manual, I had even more of an excuse not to drive. BUT now that we’re back in the US, both Tri and I want me to start driving again.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need a car. As you can see, I’m not too fond of them. But we’re realistic and know that life will be a lot harder without one. Unfortunately we couldn’t bring our car with us to the US…or maybe it wasn’t such an unfortunate thing. It didn’t even have airbags, and the only reason it got such good gas mileage was because, as Tri likes to say, “it was a metal box on wheels.” So with no Santro by our side, we bought a new car last week. Although it’s a better car in better condition than the one we bought in Nepal, it was still cheaper than the Santro (Nepali taxes make car super expensive over there).

I really like it so far. The only catch is…it’s a manual! which is one of the reasons why it was such a good deal. I’ve always had this idea in my head that I should learn to drive a manual, so I guess this is my big chance. No escaping the stick shift for me.

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The Valentine’s Day Break In

Before I explain, let me tell you how our typical day works. We leave the house at 7:45am so that I can get to school by 8:15. After Tri drops me off, he heads over to his office. In the afternoon, after school is out, I take the school bus over to Tri’s work. Most of the teachers just ride the bus home, but since we live outside of Ring Road, the school bus doesn’t travel that far; that’s why I go to Tri’s place. I sit there working on my computer until around 6pm, and then Tri and I go home together in our car.

But there were a few kinks in our routine today. At 6pm, when we were ready to leave, Tri started rooting around in his backpack for the keys. Unfortunately, they’re weren’t showing up. So he said, “Um, Zo? I think I may have left the keys in the car.”

damn! “Okay, I’ll go to the car and see if they’re in there and report back,” I replied.

I walked over to the parking lot, peered in through the window and sure enough, there they were, dangling just out of reach. I walked back over to where Tri was, and we started to  plan. We have a spare set of keys that saved us on this day and were hoping that someone would be able to bring them to us. But after calling Buwa, we found out he was in a meeting and wouldn’t be able to drive them over. Tri’s brother was busy as well.

Buwa suggested that we take a taxi home, and I figured that’s what we’d do, but Tri had other ideas. He went to look for the drivers who work at his office to see if they new anything about opening a locked car. After discussing the problem with them for a minute, one of them pulled out a long metal ruler, and we walked back to the car.

I was getting kind of excited at that point, thinking it would be just like in the movies, where someone slides the ruler down a small slit on the side of the window, pokes around for a few seconds, and the lock pops open. But it wasn’t that easy…

First the driver and Tri had to remove a line of rubber along the base of the window to access the slot to the side of the window. That took about half an hour. And then they took turns jabbing the ruler up and down, hoping to catch something on the side of the door that would unlock it. But dusk was steadily turning into dark, and nothing was progressing. At one point, another guy brought out a long metal rod, the end of which he had bent into a hook. That seemed promising for a bit, but I was getting too fed up with the whole thing to wait it out. I needed a break, so I went inside Tri’s office building to use the bathroom. I told him to call me with good news.

As I was walking back out, I heard my phone ring and picked up the call optimistically. “We did it.” Tri said. Wohoo!

So we ended up breaking into our own car on Valentine’s Day. Not the most romantic evening but kind of interesting.

Anyway, Happy Valentine’s Day everybody! May we always love and appreciate the ones close to us who can solve life’s irritating problems 🙂

Having a Rough Time

Everything seems to be going wrong or breaking. The electricity is off for 10 hours a day, which doesn’t seem too bad except that I’m stuck at home at lot of time now that I’m on break, and it always seems to go off right when I need it.

Our inverter was also broken for a few weeks, so once my computer was out of charge and there was no electricity, then that was it. No more computer for quite a while. Thankfully the inverter is back from the repair shop and seems to be running smoothly. But now our internet has decided to stop working most of the time. We’ve been using this one company for the past several months, but they just haven’t been able to get our internet up to speed or to work at all. They say that the fog, which often visits us in the morning, is the reason for our bad connection. But we don’t want to pay for unreliable internet, so we’re thinking of getting rid of that service. We also have a portable modem from one of the big cell phone companies that sticks right into the USB port, but it’s also been unreliable lately (thankfully it’s working today). I don’t know what to do. If it’s the weather that’s causing our problems, then switching companies isn’t going to help.

Beyond little electricity and unreliable internet, there are also shortages of fuel. This week, all of the sudden, everything got much worse. The lines at the petrol pumps probably reach up to 30 or 40 cars/motorbikes at a time. Maybe more. The fuel dial on our car is getting dangerously close to empty, so we’re going to have to figure out something. Tri went over to the petrol pump this morning; however, they turned him away because they didn’t have any left. I heard that the reason for the fuel shortage is that the Indian suppliers have stopped shipping petrol into Nepal because the Nepal Oil Corporation isn’t paying its debts. I don’t know what we’re going to do when our fuel runs out (which will be by the end of the day). I think that Buwa knows somebody who own a petrol pump, so maybe we can contact him and see if he has extra gas that he’s willing to sell us.

The other thing is that I need to go to the doctor but can’t make it over there. Yesterday I had scheduled an appointment for 10am. This morning Tri and I walked downstairs and were ready to head out the door, but Tri’s brother informed us that there was a bhanda. I don’t know the exact details, but I heard that some of the Maoists who had not been given benefits had organized the bandha. We called the office where my appointment was to take place, and they confirmed that they were closed for the day, so we rescheduled for tomorrow. Luckily for the commuters, the bandha seemed to dissolve by midmorning. Cars, taxis, and motorbikes were back on the road. However, now I have no way to get to the doctor. I’m supposed to head over there tomorrow, but we won’t have any fuel left! And we live too far from the office to make it by bus. Maybe the taxis will have fuel and be running? But then they’re so expensive. I’m not sure what to do.

And on top of everything else, I’m freezing!! I miss my heated house. All of you Nepalis out there are probably like, “Yeah, yeah, get over it. We deal with this every year.” But it’s been difficult for me to adjust. I’m praying that this is just a bad period and hoping that everything will get easier soon…

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.

The Boundaries of Collectivism

Wikipedia defines collectivism as, “any philosophic, political, economic, mystical or social outlook that emphasizes the interdependence of every human in some collective group and the priority of group goals…over individual goals.”

That definition describes a lot of what I see and experience in Nepal. Nepalis I know recognize the importance of interdependence and gravitate towards and actively work to support each other.

Much of that collectivist attitude and interdependence is seen in the family structure. Family needs are often put above individual needs. People are consistently expected to do things that will benefit their family. Few young people live away from their parents, and there is not much of a tradition of “striking out on your own.”

There are also certain built-in cultural expectations that increase the interdependence of Nepalis on one another. In the US, when friends go out to eat, they often each pay for themselves. In Nepal, the expectation is that one person will pay for the whole group. The person who invited everyone to go out might pay or sometimes friends take turns. This increases the interdependence of people on each other and tends to increase social interaction. If you paid for me last time when we went out to eat pizza, I’m more likely to suggest we go out to again so that I can repay that favor.

People here also tend not to separate themselves out from the group. When eating out with friends, no one will order a particular dish for themselves unless they have some kind of restriction (like an allergy or are vegetarian). Instead, multiple dishes are ordered, and the same food is eaten by everyone. People also always share food that they have bought or brought from somewhere else. While traveling or hiking, if someone pulls out a snack, it’s very rude not to offer some of it to everyone. In the US, although people share food with each other, it’s acceptable to bring food for yourself and only yourself.

Another Nepali custom that promotes interdependence and reciprocal relationships is gift giving. As I mentioned in this post about achaar, people often bring little gifts (especially for those younger than they are) when visiting others.

This collectivism and interdependence is present in almost every social encounter I have. At work, when I go out, when I meet new people, I sense this tendency to stick with the group, do things for the whole.

But just how far does this collectivism extend?

Residents of Kathmandu often don’t often take care of public spaces or think carefully about what’s good for others when it comes to the streets and roads. People litter all the time, just chuck their trash right out of the car window. When I studied abroad, I was suprised to see all of the fences carefully built around houses and property. People here keep their own little space nice and neat, but throw their trash right over the fence into public areas and even onto others’ property. Drivers are also often not thoughtful about other drivers and pedestrians on the road. It’s not uncommon to see cars or buses stopped squarely the middle of the streets, mindless of other commuters. It particularly irritates me to see the buses letting passengers off in a busy spot, clogging up the road when there is a convenient place to pull off just 20 feet away. In Kathmandu, it seems that there’s little attention paid to doing things for the “greater good.”

In the US, there are plenty of public spaces that are dirty, and it’s certainly not like everyone is always keeping the “greater good” in mind. I remember my parents telling me that my grandmother (who was a smoker) used to dump the ashes from her cigarettes out of the window of her car onto the road. They said that a few decades ago, people used to throw trash out of their windows without a thought. But I think that there have been successful governmental campaigns to promote the preservation of public areas, and certain traffic regulations and their successful enforcement keep the roads a bit safer than the ones in Kathmandu.

Although there are people here who are really trying to raise public awareness about the upkeep of urban areas, people like Anil Chitrakar, I don’t think there have been any large, successful campaigns that have really changed the way Nepalis treat their public spaces.

I think an important way to promote people to do things for the “greater good” is to make sure they feel ownership for the place they’re living in. While I was talking with Tri about this topic, he mentioned an interesting fact about Kathmandu that helped me understand what I’ve been experiencing. Many people who live in Kathmandu moved here from outside of the Valley, so they may not feel like this is truly their home or “their place.” A lot of people here have a gaun, “village,” outside of Kathmandu that they visit during holidays; maybe they have some land or family there. Sometimes their grandparents, parents, or they, themselves, moved into the Valley from those areas looking for better opportunities. Others settled here during or after the 10-year conflict to escape the sometimes more dangerous rural areas. Could the fact that Kathmandu is a valley of migrants be affecting the way that residents here treat their public areas and each other?

There is such a culture of collectivism in Nepal. If this could be harnessed somehow and extended beyond the boundaries of family and friends, I think there could be some real change. Pollution would decrease and politeness and consideration for others on the roads and streets would go up. Now somebody has to figure out how to get that in motion. Any ideas?

Another Post about Cars…

Strangely enough, this is my third post about cars. I’ve never been very interested vehicles, so it’s funny that I keep writing about them…maybe my unconscious mind is trying to tell me something. At least my little brother (a true lover of cars) will be happy 🙂

On Saturday we went to the NADA Auto Show. According to the Kathmandu Post, it’s the one and only car show in the country. See their article here.

They didn’t have any really fancy cars like you might find at an American car show, but it was nice to see some of the vehicles up close. The motorcycles were definitely the best part. Here I am next to my favorite one…

We also sat inside a Nano, an Indian-made car that costs a little over 2,100 dollars without Nepali tax. I really like small cars, but I haven’t heard great things about the Nano. Apparently they tend to catch on fire, and the car we tried out was pretty cheaply made. We all thought it felt a little like a tempo, a small Nepali taxi (sort of similar to an Indian tuktuk). I guess we won’t be getting a Nano anytime soon.

On the way home, we ate taas at TaasGhar (meaning ‘taas house’), a restaurant in New Baneshwor. Taas is a Nepali meat dish that originated in Chitwan, an area in Southern Nepal. Here is the cook frying up the mutton…

And here’s what they brought to our table…

                                                          From left to right is mulako achaar (pickled radish), taas, and some fresh kaakro (cucumber) and gajar (carot). On the bottom is murai (puffed rice) with jhura (fried spices) that include turmeric, cumin, ginger, garlic, onion and others.

Each piece of meat had a crunchy outer skin and a chewy inside. To eat this dish, you grab some puffed rice, spices, and piece of meat and pop it in your mouth. It was pretty good, but I think I like momo (Nepali dumplings) better.

Nepal’s New Prime Minister Owns a Mustang

Last week the Constituent Assembly appointed a new Prime Minister, Baburam Bhattarai. There has been a lot of talk among friends and workmates about what great things he’s going to do. On Sunday, Tri’s brother was excitedly telling me how he turned around the country’s finances as finance minister and scored the top marks in the nation on the SLC in the year that he took it (the nation-wide high school exit exam). While I don’t think doing well on a standardized test predicts much about one’s success at constitution building, I do think this guy has potential. He seems modest and humble, or at least he’s good at projecting that image. Most politicians buy expensive cars with government money, but Bhattarai bought a Nepali-made SUV for about 16 lakh (about 23,000 US dollars), a fraction of the cost of the typical car a Nepali prime minister might buy. The car is called a Mustang, named after a region of Nepal (You can find a picture of it by searching for “Hulas Mustang” on google). One of Tri’s friends was telling him that when he read that Bhattarai was ordering a Mustang, he got really excited, thinking that he had ordered the muscle car by the same name. No, Bhattarai didn’t order a muscle car…but people are still really happy about his choice.

Bhattarai received his degree from the Delhi School of Planning and Architecture, and I’m hoping that once the constitution passes (if it does), he might get involved in urban development and city planning in Kathmandu. Nobody knows if the next constitution deadline will be met, but we’re all feeling optimistic about it. I think that people are generally more hopeful than they were when I lived here two years ago. While I was riding the bus back from Dhampush, I learned the lyrics of phulko aakaamaa, a famous Nepali song sung by the celebrity Buddhist nun, Ani Choying. We got to talking about her, and one of my bus-mates told me that she recently saw peace for Nepal in a dream. Here’s to hoping…