Friday, September 18, 2009

Spirituality and Compassion, luxuries?

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

Kathmandu Intro

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

To Kathmandu

After a whirlwind couple of days of last minute vaccinations, laundry, packing and the beginning of goodbyes with my new friends in Norway - it is finally sinking in that I am really going to Nepal. My flight(s to be precise - the 4 leg flight-plan is roughly mapped above: Trondheim, Oslo, Munich, Delhi, Kathmandu) leaves on Thursday, and while there is plenty left to do I thought it a good time to give a little bit of an overview prior to being tossed into the life scale reality of Kathmandu.

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.

I will be staying in the capital - Kathmandu. A small but dense city, holding over 1 million people in an area of about 20 square miles according to Wikipedia (by comparison, New York holds over 8 million people in about 470 square miles which is about 1 in 58).

There have been a lot of questions about what my expectations are for Kathmandu and what I will be doing there. I don't have many answers - my personal intent is to remain as open as possible and involve myself primarily with taking everything in. My only expectation is that I will realize and embrace this as a very new experience and way of life for the next two months. My course program will guide the field work, so hopefully we will be able to gain some perspective on the urban problems in Kathmandu and manage to initiate something in the way of promoting communities to find means towards positive change.

On a lighter note, I'll share a bit of the pertinent advice I've received from my professor and local Nepalese students which I have been repeating as a small mantra in my head..

1- Don't pack too much, you'll "be heavier" coming back.
2- Don't drink the water.
3- Don't get knocked down a mountain by a donkey.

I'll do my best to keep aware of these three items, and will be blogging whenever free time, internet access, and electricity supply allows.

Also, my class will be contributing to a blog so feel free to keep an eye out for postings here as well:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Oslo is Contained

As brief as my visit first visit there, my first impression of Oslo is that it is a city contained. A fellow Fulbrighter is studying the preservation of open space particularly in the Oslo area, so I look forward to both more information and additional visits to the city later in the year.

The 27 minute Airtog express train carries passengers from the airport terminal to the center of Oslo. Perhaps 1/4 of the ride is a tunnel, but the majority of the rest looks something like this..

Re-approaching Trondheim

In the official countdown before I leave Norway for Nepal, I've had the opportunity in the past two days to document another perspective on the country, and the Trondheim area in particular. In a whirlwind two day trip for the Fulbright Orientation in Oslo, clear skies allowed me some aerial shots to hopefully better provide the bigger picture here. This country is beautiful - the topography is awesome in the most natural and surreal senses, and the sky and its many changes amaze me on a daily basis.