The Return Home

November 8, 2008

I left Nepal at 10 pm Tuesday August 12th and arrived in Syracuse, NY, my hometown, the evening of the 13th  (Kathmandu is 9 hours and 45 minutes ahead of EST). I met an eleven-year old girl named Pensang Sherpa in the Kathmandu airport who changed her seats to sit next to me on the flights to Hong Kong and JFK. It was her first time leaving the country; she was traveling to New York City to live with her older sister. Her parents work in Colorado and she hasn’t seen them since she was a small child. She was leaving behind her other sister and grandmother who raised her in Kathmandu. I think we were both glad to have each other for company and as a nexus. I could speak to her in Nepali and she could ask me what New York was like. Pensang was both scared and excited. She was most excited to go to Disney Land. I was humbled by the little girls bravery and I tried my best to qualm her fears. I told her how frightened I was the first time I traveled to Nepal; I had never been so far from my home before and I didn’t know what to expect. I continued to tell her that my time in Nepal turned out to be one of the most wonderful experiences in my life and I now consider it my home away from home. I assured her that her new home in New York would produce the similar experiences and feelings.

I flew from Kathmandu to Hong Kong to JFK to Syracuse with the total in-flight time approximately 22 hours.  I slept only thirteen hours my first night in my own bed and refused to let jetlag get the best of me— I’ve slept for eight hours every night since.

My whole family was surprised by my lack of culture shock. When I first returned home in December many things caught me off guard. This time I’ve been able to better appreciate and accept the differences of the two countries. However, the following are things I’ve noticed since returning to the United States.

1. We have extremely organized traffic. The fact we have traffic signs, lights and dividers that dictate when and where we stop, go, slow down, etc. truly amaze me. Nepal traffic, specifically Kathmandu Valley traffic, is a disaster yet everyone goes at such a slow speed that accidents appear to be very rare. I was riding in a taxi with my friend and his mom visiting from the United States and she became extremely anxious over our taxi drivers daring tactics of finding space for movement in the oncoming lane and the number of times the game of “chicken” was too close for comfort. I told her that I realized early on that the best thing to do is to resort to faith.

2. In suburbia America, we rarely walk to our appointments or to the store. Now I try to walk. I enjoy the late summer weather by walking to my dentist appointment, the drugstore and out to dinner.

3. I have terrible table manners. In Nepal, all food is finger food. The traditional way of eating daal bhat (the staple Nepali dish of lentil soup and rice, normally eaten twice daily) is with the right hand. It is a compliment to the cook when you lick your fingers and make a smacking sound upon completion.  At first, I found this moderately disgusting. After awhile, I found myself doing the same thing. I constantly have to remind myself that this sort of practice is not kosher in the US.

4. Upstate New York has beautiful sunsets.

5. We are extremely lucky to have safe drinking water right out of the faucet. And ice cubes. I love ice cubes.

6. We really like our desserts. In Nepal, sweets are uncommon. Biscuits (either a cookie or a cracker) are eaten during afternoon khajaa (snack) and milk tea with sugar is common for breakfast but other sweets are rarely consumed on a regular basis.

The New President

August 5, 2008

On Thursday, July 23rd, the first President and Vice President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal took their official oath. I gathered on the streets with others as the presidential precession drove by, getting the chance to wave at the President himself. President Dr. Ram Baran Yadav and Vice President Parmananda Jhaare both of the Nepali Congress (the oldest political party in Nepal) and are from the terai (the lowlands, which border India).

The oath taking ceremony occurred on a Wednesday. By Monday morning, there were very few ILO staff at the office. This is because students blocked the roads and main bridges and chowks(intersections) protesting against the Vice President for taking oath in Hindi (opposed to Nepali) during the oathtaking ceremony. Nepal, a country situated between two of the largest powers in the world, China and India, have the big brother, little brother complex. Many felt, how can we distinguish ourselves as our own country and our own identity if the Vice President doesn’t even swear his oath in our mother tongue? Although I must note, Nepali is not the mother tongue of many in Nepal.

In President Yadav’s first televised address to Nepal since assuming office, he emphasized the notion and need for a Nepali identity; “we are preparing a new constitution to draw the fortune lines of the country and the people ourselves, and we have big challenges ahead of us. It is the need of the hour for all political forces in the Constituent Assembly and for the people to move ahead collectively to overcome the challenges.”

“Time now will be very crucial for us to change the face of Nepal and the Nepali people through the establishment of peace, social justice, inclusive democracy and rule of law,” the president said. “In this period, our priority will be to construct and reconstruct physical infrastructure and achieve a lasting peace while preparing righteous and strong foundations for state restructuring and multi-party democracy.”

“First and foremost, we are all Nepalis whether we live in the Terai-Madhes, mountains or hills, and irrespective of what language we speak, what dress we wear and what religion we follow. We will survive only if Nepali survives… the nation will process only if democracy survives.”

CHANGE.

July 23, 2008

I recently went to a concert to see the traditional Nepali folk instrumental ensemble “Kutumba,” among others, perform. The ensemble is enormously talented and I really enjoyed their performance.

The concert, marketed under the title Change., was a fundraiser to provide school scholarships to two children associated in the armed conflict and to provide another conflict-affected child with the financial aid to enroll in a short-term life skill program.

I found the motivation for the concert very interesting.  As I stated before, Nepal is going through widespread change. “Nayaa” Nepal speaks of the ongoing government change, social change and to some degree, cultural change in the country. The concert, organized by college aged students, an one example of change at the grass-root level.

Centralization and decentralization are words frequently used in discussions. How is Nepal to become a unified nation while still accepting differences; differences that have been capitalized during the Maoist Insurgency? The hope of “Nayaa” Nepal most directly relates to those who previously did not have a “voice” and now want to be heard. Women, Dalit (the “untouchables” of the Hindu Caste system), Janajati(indigenous groups) and other minorities are all demanding policies that are in their favor. Groups in the terai (the lowlands) are demanding an autonomous state,  making themselves heard  through tactics such as bandhas and small bombs.

The unification of Nepal faces many obstacles. Rigid class structures have historically hindered upward mobilization. According to the 2001 census, there are approximately 94 languages and dialects spoken in Nepal. There is a similar number of different ethnicities. Furthermore, geography (aka the Himalayas) make many areas difficult to reach. 

The government of Nepal, the UN, INGOs and NGOs see NOW as the opportunity to finally reach the people. The International Labour Organization is contributing to change through their “Decent Work Country Programme for Nepal,” which can now be found on the ILO Nepal website. The programme corresponds with the Three Year Interim Plan for Nepal, endorsed by the Interim Government of Nepal and identifies productive and decent employment growth for people as a pressing issue and a high priority for national socio-economic policy. The DWCP’s intended outcomes are “improved policy coherence supporting increased productive employment opportunities for men and women” and “improved labour market governance for creating enabling environment for jobs.” These two outcomes are the objectives of every one of the ILO’s projects. My focus is on social assistance programmes as a means of securing social protection and employment to those who need it most. The suspense continues because I will discuss more about my work later on!

Folk Beliefs

July 7, 2008

Nothing too exciting has happened the past few days. Just when I started bragging about my resistance to the germs and pollution in Nepal, I fell sick with a stomach virus that kept me in bed for most of the weekend. Instead of writing about some of my own experiences, I decided I would share a few Nepali “folk beliefs” I’ve learned.

1. Monday is a bad day to buy clothes as well as to put on new clothes.

2. The housewife’s first duty in the morning is to sweep the house from the ground floor up. Sweeping from the top floor down is only done on the day a death has occurred in the house. Next, she cleans her water pots and pitchers and fetches water in them. She uses ash, not soap, to clean brass-ware because soap is considered impure.

3. Sunday is a good day for the worship of the sun.

4. He who eats burnt rice will become foolish.

5. Do not drink water during or immediately after a meal or you will become fat. You must wait at least 20-30 minutes after eating before you can drink.

6. Fruits and flowers may be stolen, but whoever steals a pumpkin will grow a goitre.

7. Before an animal is slaughtered, it is sprinkled with water until it shakes its body. The animal is then supposed to have given its consent to be killed. It is not necessary to do this when killing a buffalo.

A Breath of Fresh Air

July 4, 2008

This past weekend, my friend Bishnu and I traveled to the village of Mhanegau in the Nuwakot District to visit our Tamang pariwaar [Tamang is a Buddhist indigenous group in Nepal and pariwaar means family]. Bishnu and I were roommates while I was studying here in the fall. We spent the last week of September 2007 living in Mhanegau with our family, and then our Tamang Aama [mother] visited us in Kathmandu in December 2007. Needless to say, both of us were thrilled to leave the traffic and the pollution to spend a few days visiting in a quiet, green mountainside village that is over an hours walk from a road.

Bishnu is the fifth of seven children; she has five sisters and one brother, who is the youngest sibling. We both have big families. I have three sisters and one brother, who is also the youngest. Bishnu is a masters student of anthropology. Her thesis focuses on female trekking guides, their struggles and how they are changing the identity and opportunity for women in Nepal. Bishnu knows this topic well; she was a porter (a person who carries the bags for trekkers in the Himalayas) for two years before becoming a trekking guide for four years at The Three Sisters, Nepal’s first all-female trekking guide company. Bishnu is an inspiration to every female. Luckily, with the support of her mother, Bishnu chooses academics over a life of living in isolation as a domestic housewife. One of her fears is that after school she will not find a decent and productive (yes, those are ILO terms) job and she will have to go back to her village and wed. She tells me, “the countryside is very nice for those who are rich. But for those who are poor, life, it is very difficult.”

Before my internship at the ILO, I was unaware of the wealth in this country and characterized such organizations. The juxtaposition between UN wealth and the sustenance of the Tamang village struck me. I understand there is a disparity between the rich and the poor within every country, but this contrast is particular because the UN staff and those who work in INGOs/NGOS become wealthy in positions and institutions that exist to assist the poor.

This time in the village is very busy. Corn is growing everywhere you look, the rice seeds are being planted, baby chicks and baby goats scamper at your feet and  our family’s buffalo will give birth in a months time.

For Bishnu and I, we were able to relax. People here rarely touch or hug as a sign of affection or to greet one another after a long time apart. Instead, they welcome their visitors with food and resist any exertion of energy on the visitors behalf. Thus, we spent most of Saturday eating and drinking Nepali chiyaa [black tea with buffalo milk] at various homes in the village. 

In the face of our leisure, we were aware of the difficult work each family was doing every day. The village is mostly women; able husbands and sons are likely to work in Malasyia, Iraq, Qatar or another Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian country and send back remittances. For our aama, her husband died over ten years ago leaving her, their now 17 yr. old daughter, and their 13 yr. old and 12 yr. old sons to sustain their livelihood. They live completely on the food they produce farming and the animals that they raise and sell. It is a difficult life but I don’t pity them. They are rich in laughter, culture, religion and community. Bishnu and I were embraced with a love and warmth I’ve only ever felt with my actual kin. Despite our language barrier (they do not speak English and I am only just learning Nepali, which isn’t even their mother-tongue), I do feel as though they’ve become my family. I think about years in the future when I will visit them and we can laugh and joke [in Nepali] about the time when we could just barely communicate, when we had to rely on Bishnu’s translations and big, wide smiles to show our happiness and appreciation for each others company.

Seeing Strikes in Action

June 26, 2008

I need to make a correction for my previous post. I realized when reading it over, I called “pet” a field. A field is actually “khet”. “Pet” is the word for stomach.

Here is one more term for you- “bandh.”This term is the one most dictating my life. Literally, it means “to close.” Under current circumstances, it refers to the nationwide public transportation strike that is leaving people (including myself!!) stranded with no means of transportation. On Sunday I walked around the city for four and a half hours, determined to reap the benefits of my weekend despite my limited options.

From Saturday to Tuesday, student union groups and transportation groups led the bandhs with opposing requests. Students demanded a 50% discount on all transportation fares but settled on a discount of 45% by Monday. The transportation unions demanded an increase in fares of 35% instead of the 25% that was given in response to the hike in petroleum prices. I cannot help but think about collective bargaining and Hicks theory of strikes as all of this is occurring; that strikes are the result of faulty negotiation. In this case, there is no negotiation!

Wednesday we were given a break and activity in the Kathmandu Valley resumed to normal. However, today is another strike. This one was called by the Nepal Communist Part- United, Tamsaling Nepal National Dal, NCN- United Marxist and Nepal-Sukumbasi Party-Democratic in protest of the government’s recent decisions including the price hike of petroleum products and for allowing the former King Gyanendra to reside in the Nargarjun Place (the royal estate).

I cannot imagine trying to work or attend school in this environment. Last week I attended a three-day conference jointly organized by the National Task Force on Labour Market Reform/MOLTM and the ILO called the “Consultation Workshop on Draft Labour Act For Nepal.” During this conference many of the ILO tri-partite constituents, particularly the employer organizations, expressed their frustration over the volatile working environment within the country. The number of bandhs have increased dramatically from the Fall of 2007, when I lived in Nepal for four and a half months.

It is incredible how closely the dictations of my day-to-day life and my internship’s focus go hand in hand. I am experiencing the extent to which bandhs are inhibiting the growth of industries, foreign direct investment and in turn, employment generation. This is a major concern for Nepal because employment generation is the top priority on the governments agenda.

In order to explain this a little better, I’ll give you a brief political history of Nepal. Nepal was the last official Hindu state in the world, which officially came to an end on 28 May 2008 when the Constituent Assembly declared Nepal a Federal Democratic Republic and officially ended the 240 year old monarchy.

All of this occurred after a decade long insurgency launched in 1996 by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)- CPN (M), a royal massacre in 2001, mass demonstrations across the country that brought an end to the King’s direct rule in April 2006 and finally an election for the Constituent Assembly on 10 April 2008 after being postponed twice.

To put things lightly, Nepal is going through tremendous social and political change. It is a very exciting to be here during this time transitional time. This is “Nayaa [New] Nepal.” Anything can happen.

 

 

 

Namaste

June 20, 2008

Namaste mero saathiharu! (“Hello my friends,” although namaste directly translates to “I bow to the God within you”)

Maaph garnus (“I’m sorry” in the Nepali language). I have been in Nepal for a month now and I am just starting to blog on my adventures. This delay is what we call “Nepali time,” referring to the fact that almost nothing happens on time.

But better late than never! The purpose of this blog is to share some of my experiences, whether that be my internship, Nepali politics, culture, people or even weather. My thoughts may be a little scattered but this is because I am experiencing something new almost every hour of the day. A Nepali journalist once told me that in Nepal, “whatever is true, the exact opposite is equally as true.” With this mindset, I explore the layers of Nepal as if I know nothing and have everything to learn.

Random Nepali Fact #1

It is currently the monsoon season and it will continue to be the monsoon season for the rest of my stay. Usually it continues to mid- September. Nepal’s meteorologists noted that the rain came early this year and swept across the country in record timing. Monsoon seasons means it is now time to plant the rice in the pets (fields). As I walk around the Kathmandu Valley I see many people busy at work in their fields, with the water level halfway up their calves. A Nepali friend told me that rice planting is a lot of fun. I’m hoping I’ll be able to give it a try.


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