Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
These photos were taken around 2pm, what should be near the warmest point of the day (and the air temperature is a bit above freezing). Please note that this is not snow - it hasn't snowed since I came back, and these frosty areas are in openings of forest that theoretically would see sunlight. Beyond grass fields, the frost also hits gravel roads and asphalt surfaces in a thick manner, appearing innocent enough but making walking paths extremely slick.
Friday, November 6, 2009
As the prospect of packing my belongings and leaving my two month home of Kathmandu approaches I am a little stuck on a concept brought up by last week’s conference on tradition and preservation in the Trans-Himalayan area. Many of the lecturers at this conference noted some fears of globalization and the way that contemporary life is forcing people to hold multiple identities – constantly pulled between the traditional and the modern. While I share neither a personal attachment to any “traditional” lifestyle nor the presented fears of loss of culture, I am lately very much aware the multiple identities which I hold.
Hidden back in my suitcase are several items which I have not looked at or thought about in the last 60 days – a down winter vest, some makeup, a student id from NTNU. There is a cell phone with a Norwegian phone number that I never managed to remember even though it belongs to me. Finally, there is a keychain holding the most solid and complicated key I’ve ever owned – one that ironically belongs to the most secure and safe place I have ever lived. The comparison of this key to my Norwegian small town student apartment to the flimsy piece of aluminum used for my hotel room is comical. These keys further remind me of sets I have held through other identities – especially those that used to be part of an internal “keys, wallet, phone” mantra that I would not leave my New York or Boston apartments without repeating in check. Such items become symbols of the habits which form our lives and how we identify with the world.
It is interesting to me the items one believes they cannot leave home without depending on a specific position in life/the globe, or to any one particular identity. I have not owned, or even used, a phone since September and I haven’t particularly missed it. In Norway I used my phone for social commitments and to check the time, in New York the phone was a storage device for any pertinent contact information – personal or business, and often held note reminders for those days when I would be without internet for several hours at a time. These objects and our relationships with them change with our circumstances and environment. In my case, “keys, wallet, phone” became “wallet” or “wallet, camera” by the time I got to Nepal, since life in a hotel allows the keys to be checked at the door. The breaks from some amount of materiality and the barriers to technology here have overall been refreshing. I am reminded of Thoreau writing in Walden how he feels bad to see the poor carrying all their belongings on their back, not because they are poor and have so little, but because they have to labor to carry so much which ties them down.
So here I have fallen into an identity between volunteer worker and transient long term tourist. My class has come here from diverse cultural backgrounds stretching from Norway and France to China and Japan, but in Nepal have become a fairly cohesive international societal unit. I will return to Norway with the full identity of a student, saying goodbye to some good friends and many familiar faces - realizing that some relationships will carry on in different capacities and others will disappear or change completely, along with the habits of the day to day. Being one to typically fight nostalgia and embrace change, I look forward to the new opportunities that later identities may afford me. For me, the possession of multiple identities is a key element, both in the personal development of the individual and in our collective ability to relate to each other, adapting into variously scaled and termed social groups. It may be that multiple identities is the clearest form of underlying social infrastructure in the global environment.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
One of the most obvious, and often most shocking differences that a Westerner can observe regularly in the developing world is the large scale reliance on manual human labor. Having lived in Kathmandu for nearly two months, I have mostly gotten used to seeing single men carrying refrigerators and other similarly sized/weighted loads down the street on their backs using a strap around the forehead while taxis and rickshaws carrying tourists weave between and around them. When the road outside of my hotel was repaved, there were no large machine vehicles in sight – rather a simple metal cart driven by a small tractor engine, holding a mound of pitch inched its way down the street while two men with shovels quickly scooped and smoothed the asphalt over the surface.
It strikes me again and again that the world is an unfair place. To various extents depending where you go and who you ask, it is clear that Nepal is still a caste based society - issues of discrimination between people based on profession (which is traditionally tied to the family name) still occur. I hear rumors that different low castes in Nepal have been recently acquiring more power and better, more stable working conditions since the Maoist movement has formally entered the politically arena here. From the sounds of it, the Deola sweepers are now finding opportunity in municipal janitorial positions which hold pension benefits and job stability, much to the chagrin of the farmers who are traditionally a much higher caste and find their livelihoods to be full of hard, thankless work by comparison. Traditionally, laborers and those who dealt with refuse/waste found themselves at the bottom of the caste system and labeled Untouchables – capable of contaminating the food/lives of the upper castes despite the necessary roles they filled in the context of up-keeping the city.
Perhaps inspired somewhat by the political environment here, I have began reading through a small survey of Marx and Marx-inspired revolutionary communist (and communist criticism) literature. One can quickly see the ways that the ideas/ideals can be romanticized and become popular in a context such as Nepal – where life is hard and poorly appreciated workers are plenty. The sickle and hammer symbol is by far the most popular form of graffiti to be found through the countryside.
Due to the topography of the country, many rural parts of Nepal (and 80% of the national population is rural) truly rely on human labor for their basic needs. I went on a 7 day trek in the Annapurna Sanctuary where Gurung villages largely support themselves by farming and trekking tourism. The tricky part to this is that when your village lies four (long) walking days and 3200 meters above the end of closest vehicular road few crops can be grown and all supplies from rice to cooking and heating fuel must be carried on the back of a porter.
The experience of this, and being here in general, has given me some serious questions about sustainability and social equality. On one hand, it can be argued that human labor is completely sustainable – we have no particulate pollutants in our emissions, we are theoretically a renewable resource, and the limitations of human strength perhaps help to deter over consumption. The counter to this would need to involve some digging through numbers concerning the amount of calories that a porter needs to consume to complete his work, and trace this back to the increased load on farmers to support such laborers (moreso if said laborers are not vegetarian).
Further, judging human labor as sustainable begs the question of what increased health problems and loads on medical facilities and insurance programs. While trekking, I was greatly concerned with the strong fumes coming from fuel tanks carried on the backs of porters while passing on the trail – not only are these men carrying heavy loads quickly on steep terrain, but they are also subjected to fairly toxic fumes for hours at a time. (Ironically, the fuel is necessary primarily because of strict limits against cutting and burning wood which have been imposed on the villages by the National Conservation Trust.) What social capital is lost in a village where most of the men spend their days (and many nights) away from their homes and families for work and then are presumably susceptible to disease and early death?
Many of these questions and problems extend into the developed world as well, but manifest themselves in different (often more clearly less sustainable) professions. Such risky professions are the epitome of social inequality. Unfortunately, I realize that even the ideals of Communism do not cure these problems. There can be plenty of discussion regarding workers’ rights and ‘equality’ between the proletariat and bourgeois, but how does one handle the fact that the world’s society has ‘developed’ in such a way that some citizens somewhere have to perform work which is inherently unsafe, unhealthy and thereby, unequal?
Monday, October 12, 2009
At times, the efforts seem to be striving towards overcompensation – to the point that the placement and containers for plant specimens can become haphazard and seemingly circumstantial. Bath tubs, oil drums and discarded containers of many materials become planters. The goal of achieving vegetation takes priority over the aesthetics of the means through which it is accomplished. Nevertheless, these informal, private green projects serve an important function – providing some of the only options for (near) peaceful retreat from the noise, traffic, and dust of the city below.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Friday, September 18, 2009
Visiting many temples and monasteries here I have been struck by what I perceive to be a paradox. At many of the temples, great care has gone into decoration and maintenance of offering places, however sometimes the buildings are run down, and they are often vacant. What was more disappointing for a westerner seeking to experience Buddhism and Hinduism was that the overall sense of peace and escape from the city atmosphere that I had expected I have not found. Late today we stumbled into a very large temple/stoopa built within a very small courtyard and people were actively making offerings. The structure was grand and beautiful, and there was the chanting of monks echoing down the entrance alleyway. I entered the space expecting a peaceful and humbling setting and took great care to observe the Nepali people around me so as to not interrupt any ongoing rituals. It came as a disappointment to see other Nepali people passing through the courtyard completely ignoring the women praying, and the only ritual that people seemed to be following was approaching a caretaker or priest of sorts to pay money in order to light candles. Some women were making prayer but they did not seem to mind the intrusion of our class or other secular pedestrians. I felt uncomfortable occupying space so close to those taking part in their religion that I moved to the next corner of the courtyard, where I found two Nepali women speaking on their cell phones (perhaps 10 feet from those at prayer). I had to keep moving as I found more pedestrians attempting to push their way through the courtyard on bike in transit and finally came to the back of the temple, which had open space and some beginning of a sense of peace. There was soothing drum music coming from a door which I found to be a shop selling Buddah, Ganesh and other deity figures. It was all so strange to me – things that I would have interpreted as sacred seemed to be turned into businesses of convenience and the one time I would think a culture would seek solitude and quiet was occurring in a minor pedestrian thoroughfare.
A conversation I overheard this morning has keep coming to mind. Two American expatriots were in the coffee shop that I found for breakfast and speaking of their past 2 to 5 years living in Nepal. While they had some lovely things to say about the place and people, they also had a lot of criticism. One that was repeated in many ways was a concern and distaste for the fact that (most) Nepali people seem to be only concerned for themselves. Even police here would rather not be bothered with the good of the people as long as they can maintain their personal jobs and provide for their families. These two Americans had worked for various NGOs and I can imagine their informed frustration was thought through more than my very short experience here allows me, but I have the inklings of a different perspective for this. Thinking of the many NGOs and volunteers I’ve encountered from the US and Europe I wonder if the phenomena of people caring for others is not a luxury of the wealthy. If I try to put myself into the life of a Nepali person, knowing everyday unsurity and insecurities of basic needs such as water, electricity, and home tenureship, I cannot imagine having room in my mind (or time in my life) to worry about the others around me. It is not an easy life here, and people have to work for their health and their survival. In the west, we have come to take these things for granted – I can leave my home in the US and know that whenever I choose to come back it will be standing, no one else will have taken it over, and that I have some form of legal right to the place – defendable in any court. I can drink water from most any source practically for free without worrying that I or any member of my family will lose their health from doing so. For the most part I have job security, or security of some kind of support in the event that I lose my job, I may even have money in the bank for such a downfall. These things are not existant in Nepal in the same manner, the Nepali people cannot take such basic needs (rights we may think of them in the west) for granted. They have to concern themselves with just getting by in life every day, solving their own issues, when and how do they find the luxury of time to look at those problems of others and attempt big problem solutions?
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Finally finding a comfortable internet connection, I have a bit of backlog to post. Will reorganize from this point forward though.
Day 1 – Friday, 11 September
Arrival to airport after 26 hours of flights and layovers – that in Delhi being the worst. There were leaks coming through acoustic ceiling tiles, soggy tiles falling in the corridor, bamboo planters that seemed to be for decoration placed strategically midhallway under the largest of the leaks to mitigate. Guards (Military? Airport security?) were walking around with exposed handguns and militaristic uniforms. We waited in one glassed in room for 4 hours to receive boarding passes, crossing our fingers that the airline (which had been on strike the day before) would take care of transferring our luggage as none of the 13 of us students and professor had an entry visa to the country of India.
All went well in the end, the hotel hired taxi from the Kathmandu airport provided quite the welcoming experience. Our luggage was strapped to the roof of an SUV. They drive on the left side of the street here and traffic rules are lax at best – largest vehicle governs all. The smell of dust and diesel stung my throat and nose through the ride. In the street (as there is no street sidewalk definition), I saw children sorting trash, old men cooking over open fires, mangy dogs nursing pups, the thinnest cows in my life, some goats loosely corralled and free monkeys. Many buildings appeared vacant or under construction at first glance, but then you can make out a family’s laundry hanging on a line in the top floor, clearly only accessible by a stairway that one would think should be closed (with a railing at least?) but the walls have either not been built or have fallen down at some point. The recurring thought in my head during this ride was “this is real, I have seen this in photographs, but this isn’t a photograph, this isn’t a documentary, this is real and I am here.”
Three days in, I have become accustomed to the shock factor, but still sometimes I find myself shocked at what I am seeing and mentally recording. This place is overwhelming yet wonderful – filthy yet beautiful, loud but personal, and completely foreign but more real to life than any I have experienced.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
The country of Nepal is about 4,000 miles away from my current home in Norway - just slightly greater than the distance from New York to Norway which I have already traversed. The country is nestled between India and China (Tibet actually), just at the base of and including much of the Himalayan Mountains. Interestingly, the time zones add just another 3 hours and 45 minutes to the time difference.