Planes Trains and Automobiles

Well, the train part will just be the shuttle at DIA, but close enough, I say.

I’m packed and ready to head out the door. Sipping on my last cup of inferno-like Napali milk tea and not quite sure how I feel about leaving.

Over the past several days we have had other volunteers back in the house and I am amazed at what a huge difference it makes to be around people who are dealing with the same situation and cultural differences.

Yesterday was a banner day – in the morning the four of us headed out for Pasupatinath, one of the Hindu temples in the area. I’ve been there before, but only at night and I was excited to see it during the day. They guys, Scott, Oliver and Dan (Dan had been in the city for less than 24 hours), trooped along with me excited to have a tour guide through some of Kathmandu. We hung out at the temple, had a coke and wandered the bazaar around the temple for an hour or so before hiking back to the main road for more shopping and lunch. They even put up with my dictator-like declaration that lunch would be held at my favorite restaurant in town where the waiters speak no english and every visit is an adventure…especially because two of the three had never eaten Indian food before 😉

After lunch we loaded into a cab and headed to the Kathmandu Durbar square. The cabbie had no idea where he was going and dropped us off several kilometers from our goal. We walked and shopped and took pictures for another hour or so before finally arriving. The square was beautiful and as we were sitting in a rooftop cafe, I got a phone call from my friends from Chitwan, asking us to a final dinner with them and some other folks they had met on the road.

We finished up at Durbar square, headed home and people took naps and recovered for a couple of hours before we headed out once more to met up with the other gang. At dinner we had: the four Mountain Fund volunteers, Eric (US) and Virginia (Argentina), Caro (Argentina) and Stef (Netherlands), Sophia (France), Vishnu (Napali), the adorable three-year old I almost stole for Malissa (French and Nepali), adorable kids mom (France), dad (Nepali) and their chatty cathy friend (obnoxiously French). It was hilarious to listen to the mix of languages be thrown across the table back and forth. People yelling in their native tongue if they wanted the attention of their other countrymen. The food took two hours to arrive, but everyone had a wonderful time sharing food and experiences and recommendations for travel and leisure and excitement.

We got back to the house not long before curfew and I finished packing up to leave. As a final souvenir, I also got a beast of a cold and am currently doped up on some kind of Nepali cold concoction to try to get me through the flight (please excuse me if this post seems a bit like it was authored by a street side drunk – that’s kind of what I’m feeling like)

I’m signing off now – likely the next time you’ll hear from me, I’ll be stateside and trying to figure out what this crazy month means in the larger scheme of things.

Hope all is well and I’ll actually be talking to some of you very soon!


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Showdown at the OK Corral

Morning friends and neighbors 🙂

The countdown till my departure from Nepal has begun and I realized I hadn’t shared anything with you for far too long.  Last weekend I was in Pokhara with two friends I had made the previous weekend while visiting elephants. These delightful people were a blast to hang out with and did NOT talk me into renting a scooter which I then did NOT drive all over kingdom come – Nepal in the rain and did NOT run into a mountainside as a result of forgetting how to stop accelerating. The end result of all of this non-activity was definitely not a large grapefruit-sized bruise on my leg (brief aside: because of the lovely reddish brown skin tone of most Nepali, they don’t actually get picturesque blue-purple bruises like yours albino-ly does and the girls here at the house are most alarmed at the bizarre colors my leg has turned. I have taken to wearing pants.)

I thought we’d spend today (or at least the next 5-6 minutes) learning about what makes Nepal the quirky strange and lovely place it is today. Game? I thought so. I could see it in your eyes. No, it wasn’t an eyelash or a piece of dust, it was desire to know more about the weird side of Nepal. Dude. I’m not gonna TELL or anything, it’s ok, all the coolest folks are up for it. No, really, they are. I promise. OK? Excellent – here we go:

– Nepal smells funky. Like really really funky. No, not like a dump or anything universally vile, just funky. Now, this opinion may be influenced by the recent strike of garbage men and the influx of effluvium into the street, but all in all, Nepal smells like vegetarian F.U.N.K.

– This smell takes over any other small that may be presented in potential opposition. BO holds no candle to Nepali funk smell and all of your clothes and you will eventually take on the funk and own it.

– Pepsi generally costs half of the price of Coke. In rupee, in status, you name it. Pepsi = .5 Coke.

– Fancier even than Coke is anything than comes from the Middle East. If it’s in Arabic then add NR 40.

– All of Nepal has Bieber Fever.

– And Rhianna Fever and Mariah Carey Fever and Celine Dion Fever.

– Even the mens who wear t-shirts of their favorite icons. Including my most recent boss. Hotness.

– The mens also wear loooooong nails – longer than all but the married women are allowed to wear. They file them and shape them and love them and paint them and compare their length on the bus.

– The mens also are extraordinarily (and simultaneously) affectionate and homophobic. Straight men wander the street with finders intertwined, heads on each others shoulders, oggling the asses of passing females. Affection includes cheek kisses, thigh and ass grabs, lingering caresses and all manner of gestures seemingly designed to weird out the clean cut Midwesterners the US keeps sending this way.

– Women do not show this kind of public affection.

– Beds are plywood sheets with a shallow cotton pad on top. Expect routine midnight wakeups with numbleg.

– Additions of cotton padding do not affect the incidence of numbleg. Compacted cotton = sucky sleeping material.

– Nepali will tell you they typically only eat twice a day, at ten and eight, unlike the gluttonous Westerners that eat three times every freaking day of the week. Fatties.

– Despite this assertion, most Nepali eat three times a day, calling the meal of PB&J or a dozen momo’s a “snack” or “the rest of breakfast”.

– They also consume an ungodly amount of Daal Bhat whenever offered. To my knowledge no one, NO ONE (even 20 year old college athletes),  can consume the amount of food eaten by a typical Nepali 12 year old at a single sitting. It is remarkable. We serve Thanksgiving dinner off of the average Nepali  dinner plate and they go back for seconds.

– Tea is served all the time all the time all the time. It is served at approximately 15 degrees above boiling. I have not met the person that can explain this phenomenon. They can make tea hot enough to scald powdered milk. Tea stays this hot for 10-15 minutes after pouring.

– No matter how poor or emaciated, all Nepali can work a cell phone and cruise the internet.

– Nepal enjoys 100% perfect cell phone coverage across the entire freaking nation. I still cannot drive the length of Colorado (let’s not even talk about NM) without a dropped call. Please explain.

– The difference in the literacy rate among women from urban to rural districts exceeds -30%.

– The rate of domestic violence is similarly inflated by rural environments.

– Suicide is the number one killer of women 18-49 across Nepal, accounting for over 16% of deaths in this age bracket.

– Suicide is typically achieved by poisoning, hanging, burning or stabbing.

– Suicide is the number one cause of death for women of childbearing ages.

– SUICIDE, people.

– Next is childbirth, followed by homicide (typically by the husband or family members).

– Despite this fact, Nepal is actually making amazing progress in health and wellness.

– In the past 8 years they have cut maternal mortality by 50%. They enjoy a 98% immunization rate nationwide (even in the poorest districts, thanks in large part to an incredibly effective education program from a few years back) and almost 0% infection rate for childhood diseases like measles or mumps. In contrast, there are counties in MN that only have a 78% immunization rate for children.

– In the same time frame, the US has managed to increase maternal mortality by almost 10%. Go USA!

– In both urban and rural Nepal, child rearing is seen as a shared responsibility, with fathers actively taking part in daily interactions, discipline and the general up-bringing of kids, male and female alike.

– Children, even the smallest babies wear kohl eyeliner. Supposedly it is to ward off infection and blindness. Personally, I feel it’s to amp up the creep factor. I mean really, you’re looking at a cute child and suddenly the kid turns around looking like something out of The Grudge with real-life freaky anime eyes? CREEPY. Erk.

– Nepali folk, both male and female, find it socially acceptable to exercise the rudest of gestures on a regular basis. Nose-picking abounds, loogey hocking (sp?) is EVERYWHERE and encouraged in small children and public peeing is fine for both men and women in discrete alleyways.

– Nepali mosquitoes put Minnesota mosquitoes to shame. Children die of blood loss from the dastardly beasts (ok, this may not be verifiable fact, but it can’t be far off)

– I will be sad to leave Nepal but grateful for the experience and the amazing people I have met and looking forward to my next visit.

– You should all find some way to visit this incredible and welcoming city. 2011 is the Year of Tourism, come’mon – you know you want to!

I hope you have enjoyed this brief tour through many of the things that I find flat out weird about Nepal. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.

Meanwhile, there have been some recent additions to the volunteer house and now I have friends to show the ropes to. It seems strange that I could possibly have enough knowledge to show anyone the ropes to this place, but I guess that speaks to their desperation. I have a final sightseeing day planned for tomorrow along with a hopeful day of seeing new friends and hanging out with people for one last time before heading home.  I’m hoping for one more posting before I leave for India and lands beyond, and I promise I’ll try to make things more amusing, or at least entertaining so as not to lose you all by line three.

Thanks for sticking with me, I’ll see you all soon and I have waaaay too many pictures to show to anyone with the slightest desire (or frankly anyone with an insufficiently strong aversion).

Much love to you all!


ps: In explanation of the title of this post, I spent the entire posting killing bugs against the wall with my left hand. Sophiya, sitting just to my right, said that I looked like a cowboy picking off bandits with my six-shooter (ok, maybe she just said I looked like a cowboy, but still, the rest was there in intention if not in word, right? Right??)


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Jonestown, Kathmandu

Alternative titles for this post:

– “Worshiping the porcelain god…no, really”

– “If the rhino charges, throw your clothes and hide behind a tree.”

-“All the Dutch are arrogant. every. last. one.”

**This post is very long. Horribly, self-indulgently and blissfully long. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

That’s right folks, I did it, I drank the kool-aid. No, I didn’t join some wandering Nepali band of fringe monks or even a traveling band of hippies. I drank the literal kool-aid. I suppose I was feeling cocky, after all, I’ve been here for almost three weeks with no significant gastrointestinal distress, so I must be immune to the stuff that gets everyone else, right? So I drank the kool-aid, or whatever brand of packaged drink mix had been concocted using only marginally filtered water and I did it with full knowledge (or so I thought) of the potential ramifications. Oh. holy. moses. Montezuma’s wrath and revenge don’t hold a candle to whatever Hindi god I managed to piss off with my arrogant mixed beverage consumption. I spent all day Tuesday feeling not so hot, all night Tuesday night in anguish and all day Wednesday trying to just make it stop. Thankfully my wise and beneficent doctor forced a prescription of just-in-case mega-antibiotics on me before I left and those four little pills are the only reason I am able to sit here communicating with you right now – aren’t you just thrilled?

Which brings me to my next topic (you just *know* this is going to be good, eh? How could something less than spectacular follow a lead in about traveller’s trots? I mean really, now.) and the second of my potential post titles. I have come to the conclusion that I loathe squat toilets. Passionately and unashamedly hate them.

“But Kristin”, I hear you all saying, “squat toilets are used by a majority of the world, it’s very judgmental and condescending and neo-colonial and all that jazz for you to hate on the squat toilet.”

“Yes,” I respond, “it is all of that. Your point exactly?”

Even more than the squat toilet, I hate the lack of toilet paper. And yes, I know this is more horrible of me – the most wasteful and needless waste of trees and paper and yet I’m holding on to it like a child with a teddy bear. It’s ok, you can all feel free to stop reading at any point, declare I am dead to you and de-friend me on Facebook.  I have no real reason to hate these things, I just prefer my western habits a lot more. I’ve been spoiled, because the volunteer house has a western style toilet and after dealing with my abdominal armageddon, I cannot imagine coping if I had needed to squat throughout the ordeal. I know people do it and I know many people, given the option will actually choose a squat toilet. I am just not among them.

The toilet paper stance I will defend with a bit more vehemence. While it is undeniably horrible and wasteful of the earth’s resources, we have yet to come up with a more efficient and readily available solution. I was a lot more ashamed of my pro-charmin stance until last week when I happened to mention to one of the doctors at the hospital that there seemed to be an awful lot of people admitted to the hospital for or with severe urinary tract infections – both men and women. In the US and other, more developed countries (also countries that use TP, but I digress) it is highly unusual for men to develop UTI’s. They tend to occur much more frequently in women due to a biological and structural quirk of anatomy.  Here though, there was almost a 50/50 split and the frequency of hospitalization was through the roof. The explanation? Using water to wash after toilet business instead of TP. The water here is so bad that using it to clean yourself after using can actually do vastly more harm than good and lands hundreds, if not thousands, of people a year in the hospital.

I find myself getting really conflicted about what interventions, what assistance should be offered by more developed nations to a country like Nepal. There are so many natural resources here and no infrastructure with which to utilize them to benefit the country and the people. As a result, they continue to be exploited by nations with a functioning infrastructure, nations like India and China. Well intentioned assistance in the form of medical care, social and legal analysis comes from a variety of nations, but it does little to create an environment that will allow Nepal to design its own future. I hear over and over again from the people I talk to that they are incredibly proud of their nation and do not want it to turn into a version of Europe or (the horror) the US. Nepal is not suffering the incredible brain drain that other 3rd world countries are – where the best and brightest are lured away to western nations by the promise of salaries larger than their parents could earn in a lifetime. People get training and go back home here – back to small villages and towns to try to help bring their country into the light. How do we, as outsiders, find a way to help that respects the integrity of this rich and diverse nation. The one screaming piece of the puzzle, for me at least, is water. With clean water, the disease burden would be lightened considerable, allowing the medical infrastructure to breathe and begin focusing more on chronic and debilitating disease. Withe clean water, fewer children would die and fewer of the elderly would be incapacitated with the seasonal waterborne diseases. With clean water, even the poorest slums could attain a level of health that would allow individuals to think about a life that was never previously available.  Clean clothes and a functional self get you a long way in many many parts of the world. Perhaps it’s just the public health person in me talking, but I really feel the best way to help would be by assisting in what Nepal is already trying to do – building a functional sanitation system that provides clean water and separate sewers for the nation as a whole.

(sigh) It’s OK, you can come back – I’m done. Soapbox over, I promise. I’m just figuring things out as I go along here, that’s all. Feel free to disagree or roll your eyes or just close the browser window (though the next bit is pretty fun). Onwards!

Last weekend I went to Chitwan, a town on the edge of the Chitwan National Forest. This is a nationally protected area that also serves as a santuary for wild rhinos, tigers, bears and elephants. After the big Maoist uprising in 1992(?), patrols to stop poaching stopped functioning and raiders from India, China and Nepal killed hundreds of animals for valuable pelts and body parts to trade with China. The current government has cracked down on poaching and there is a big push to draw tourist attention to the area to increase support and decrease continued poaching. As a result, populations have started to increase again, but have still not returned to their previous levels.

You get to Chitwan, you guessed it, by bus. This time I sprung for a fancy tourist bus, complete with a seat of my own, a bathroom stop and a promise that there would be no more passengers than there were seats (and no produce). True to their word, the bus was relatively luxurious and the trip wasn’t bad at all. I spent the last half of it chatting with my seat mate, a 24 year old named Keshav Chandra Bagale, who was finishing his master’s in agriculture and looking forward to moving back to his village, finding a wife and starting a farm. In fact, the adorable, delusional guy even told me that cutting rice paddies into the sides of the Himalayan foothills was “fun” (the quotes are mine because I can’t imagine that phrase uttered without them). He also was involved in getting a branch of his university open nearer his village so it would be easier for people to continue their educations.

I made the mistake while talking to him to refer to Nepal as a poorer country. He told me that while they do not have a lot of money, they are rich in other areas – areas the US is very poor in. I think his exact words were “the US has money and industry but there is no family, no soul. I will choose Nepal because my family is more important than money”. He was sad for the U.S. because people moved away from their parents and didn’t feel a close friendship with their families. Once more I got hit with the uncomfortable feeling of a nation we see as “less developed” looking down on us with pity and sadness.

Anyway, the plan when I got to Chitwan was to stay at the resort everyone else at the volunteer house had stayed at. They had a really good package that involved two nights and three days plus all activities, meals and the bus ride home for US $50. Done and done. Except they weren’t at the bus stop to pick me up when they were supposed to be. (Insert long, dragged out and ridiculous hour here where Kristin ends up wandering the streets of rural Nepal with a Pied Piper -like trail of dogs behind her) Eventually I got to where I was supposed to be and all was well.

Th first day, all of the newcomers went to the Elephant Breeding Center. Sounds like a lovely marvel of modern species preservation and reintroduction, no? No. It’s actually a center where they breed elephants to carry people on jungle tours. They are all chained up – for their own good it turns out. Some crazed Chinese tourist fed the elephants crackers in the wrapper and killed two of them. The chains are so short though, that the mother elephants can’t even feed both of their babies at the same time, they have to shuffle from one crying infant elephant to the other. Depressing as hell.

About this time two things happened: 1. It started to rain (no surprise, it’s monsoon) and 2. There was a cry of “Rhino!”. Now, I should explain, I had decided, in a brief leave from my senses, that I should wear a skirt on this adventure, along with a pair of sandals. I had also decided the previous day that I wouldn’t need the Columbia raincoat that I had purchased for this adventure and only brought a cheap umbrella. Cut to me slogging through knee high grass and puddles, slipping in mud and soaked from the waist down with a bright blue umbrella in my hand (even I was embarrassed to be with me). Just outside the center were three full grown rhinos, just coming by to say hello. I grabbed my camera, zoomed in for a shot and my batteries died. F…rigggin….GAHHHHH!! Luckily the lovely and wonderful people I was with offered to send me their photos and once the rhinos started coming too close for comfort (enter potential title three), our guide told us what to do when they charged and we all made a unanimous decision to leave. On the way back to the boat (yup, this exciting destination was only accessible by a boat made from a hollowed out cottonwood tree – yippee!), yours idiotically slipped in the mud, fell in the river and sliced open her hand and foot. At this point, I can’t stop laughing and the two French, one Argentinan and one Dutch tourist that I’m with think I’m a bit nuts. On the open jeep ride back to the resort, the guide is telling me what a horrible string of bad luck I’ve been having and I turn to agree and get slapped in the head with a tree branch. Movies stop short of this level of ridiculous, yeesh.

That was the end of the bad luck though. I got back to the resort, got cleaned up (realized what a savior great people can be when you’re in a strange country traveling by yourself), and was taken on my first motorcycle ride to buy new batteries for my camera.

The next day we went on a canoe ride up the river, followed by an uneventful jungle walk and lunch. The afternoon elephant rides were fantastic and we saw 7 wild rhino, including a baby rhino not much bigger than a dog. It was interesting to see how calm the rhino were with the elephants around – I’m sur that’s why they use elephants for the tours. The rhino’s didn’t much notice us, they just saw the elephants and went about their business.

Oh, elephant rides. I really wish it were as romantic as it sounds. On the top of an elephant they strap a small frame – maybe 3-3 1/2 ft to a side, perhaps 10 inches high with posts at the four corners. Four tourists get aboard this contraption, one on each corner, straddling the post. I was the first in my group (the others were couples and so I, as the singleton, got volunteered for thngs like this) and so was put with a previous group to make an even 4. My other three travelers were business men from Kathmandu who happened to work for a non-profit children’s eye hospital. As we got going on out adventure, it turned out that one of the business men was also deathly afraid of water – puddles, ponds, streams, you name it, even when the elephant was the one doing the wading and not him. Every time we crossed a stream he would squeal like a five year old girl and grab the arms and legs of those around him, yelling “danger danger!”. Once we got off the elephant, it turned out that he was also afraid of elephants and would not come close to the creature to save his soul. There exists a hilarous picture of me trying to convince him to touch the elephant and him trying to put on brave face in front of the American woman and failing miserably. Unfortunately, as this picture is taken fom a crazed and cracked out angle which makes me appear to be the same size as the elephant, it will never be seen by any of you.

After dinner that night the two couples (Auriane and Fox, Carolina and Stef) and I were sitting wround having a beer and watching the sunset when some very drunk local stumbled into the grounds and started talking to us. When he found out that Stef (who is really a great guy – spectacular beard and great sense of humor) was Dutch, he spent the next several minutes listing off the shortcomings of all dutch people. Considering that I was American and one of the other women we were with was Geman, I found it odd that he chose to go off on the Dutch, but whatever He ended with: “It comes down to, all of the Dutch, all of them are arrogant. Arrogant bastards, the Dutch. Humph.”

Needless to say, it was a hilarious way to end a great weekend. We all got on our busses the next day with emails exchainged and promises to meet up the next week if our paths crossed. The trip back was uneventful save for the spectacular views I wish I could share with all of you. Even when I can get my pictures up, nothing will do justice to the beauty of the road from Chitwan to Kathmandu during monsoon with the mist laying in the valleys and waterfallscuting through the jungle at every turning.

Tomorrow I’m off to Pokhara – a laid back and relaxing lakeside town where I’m meeting up with Carolina and Stef once more. We have become fast friends in the few days we’ve known each other and I’m looking forward to seeing them again. Pokhara is on the border of the actual Humalayas and I’m hoping for a glimpse of the Annapurnas. Hiking is in my immediate future and I was sure to pack raincoat, good shoes and bandages just in case 🙂 I’ll be boarding my last major bus ride in Nepal in less than 12 hours.

If you’ve lasted this long – congratulations!

See you on the flip side!

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I know you are all shocked and amazed at my premature return to filling your inboxes with random babbles (also thrilled and ecstatic and definitely not racing to get to the delete button before having to read a sentence more).

I last left you on the eve of my mountain adventure – I was heading up to Kalikastan to visit the Kalika Community Hospital for a week. Word was, there was a public health doctor up there who I would be able to work with around the hospital. So, 5:30 Monday morning I was up and out the door to catch the bus for a six hour ride to Kalika – I had been told it would be bumpy, but no worries, I’m a trooper.

(this is what your 11th grade English teacher would have called foreshadowing)

The lovely Namuna offered to take me to the bus station so I wouldn’t get lost or ripped off my the bus ticket guys. We got there, she purchased a ticket for me and after a very long time came back towhere I was sitting and announced that the bus wouldn’t be leaving for two hours. No worries – still a trooper. I bid Namuna adieu, went into a street stand and ordered tea and beans while befriending two Swiss trekkers named Andrea and Laurie and their guide.

(OK, I promise I’ll return to the story, but I just have to mention that these two ladies were elementary school teachers who had decided they had had enough of it all and had put everything into storage and went to see the world for a year – no plans, no bookings, just hop on a plane and travel till the money ran out. Their first stop was Nepal where everything fell into place to go trekking, so that’s what they did. They were awesome.)

So the bus arrives and my assigned seat is in the back of the bus on the bench – typically seats six. By the time we left the station/street, I had 12 cases of beer and a suitcase at my left shoulder, one knee in the aisle, one knee behind the seat (Nepali buses are not made for the leggy amongst us) a didi asleep on my right shoulder and a family of five crammed in next to her. In front of me I had two backpacking packs with two people sitting on top of them. The road was fine for the first five km and then I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Ever seen this thing? Yeah, picture a cross between the Bolivia one and the Russia one. No guardrails, half washed out from the monsoon and bumpy doesn’t begin to describe it. The driver was determined to make a ton of cash so he kept piling people in the bus – at one point we had 97 people in a bus made for 28. It was 90+ degrees and 90% humidity in the flats. Because the bus was so overloaded, it broke down three times, making the 6 hour ride 8.5 instead. Every bump drove the frame of my pack into my leg and my left knee into the back of the bus seat. I can officially say that I have never been more uncomfortable in my life. It was so hot that the older folks and the kids were getting heat stroke and the people on top were throwing up over the sides of the bus…into the open windows. Which combined with the aroma of of the 150 lbs of onions that had been loaded into the asile while I was looking elsewhere and made me very glad that I hadn’t eaten much breakfast.

Good times, I tell you. Lessons learned: Do not ride a public bus over long distances in Nepal. Do not ride a public bus over long distances in Nepal during the monsoon season, as the roads will be 40% gone. If you must do these things, leave your claustrophobia at home along with your motion sickness. Do not eat. Do not drink. Take lots of painkillers and maybe hallucinogenics to get you through.

Got to the town, was ejected from the bus along with my baggage by my equally disgruntled fellow riders. Put on the pack, hiked to the hospital only to find that the doctor I had just spent all day coming to see had left for Kathmandu that morning.

In fact, both of the staff doctors had gone, leaving a staff of two medical assistants, one lab tech, three nursing students, a medical tech and a house mom type lady. Collectively, I think they spoke as much English as I did Nepali. They promptly put me to bed to recover from my fiasco until dinner (some amazing daal bhat from the house mom lady who taught me the names of all the ingredients in Nepali).

Next morning I decided to make the best of it, but it turns out that this little hospital situated in the center of the district only has about a dozen patients a day. The day I was there, there were a grand total of 6 patients and absolutely nothing for me to do. The doctors weren’t supposed to be back for a week and I had work to do at the hospital here, so I spent the remainder of Tuesday gearing up for another bus ride back.

The morning before I headed back, the Executive Secretary stopped by and he spoke some english. The entire staff and I sat around chatting about the US for an hour or so. They absolutely refused to believe that there were people without health care in America – or poor people for that matter. They thought I would have found the Kathmandu beggars exceptionally shocking and I said there were a lot more of them in Nepal but we have homeless people and beggars in the US too. They thought I was pulling one over on them, and I could not convince them otherwise. It was strange, amazing and a little uncomfortable to listen to people in a country with an annual per capita income of $300, who sometimes go hungry and never know what could be coming next, be horrified at what people have to go without in the US.

Anyway, the bus trip back was about 80% as brutal as the one there, but I got back in one piece. I’m covered in bruises and scrapes, but have been back at the hospital since Thursday, finishing up my project before I head off to the next one. Turns out that everyone in my house (at least all of the volunteers) are leaving this weekend which means I’m flying solo from here on out.

I’m traveling to Chitwan this weekend – yet another bus, but this time I’m springing for the cushy tourist bus with actual seats and nobody on the roof. I’m aslo staying at the same resort the other volunteers have stayed at – filled with tourists and hot water and the weekend comes complete with jungle walks and elephant rides. Next week will be interesting – not sure how I’m going to do ALL by myself, kicking around this three story house. I might end up pestering you people with even more emails 🙂 I might switch things up and put this stuff onto a blog, so you all can just go read at your leisure instead of being forced to deal with inbox inundation. I guess it will depend on exactly how much time I have on my hands.

Alright, lovies. I’m off to enjoy my last night with friends and will check in later – sorry for the whiney pants nature of this goofy letter. I’ve had two full days to get over it too – imagine what my poor roommates had to deal with when I returned!

Ta-ta for now!

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Bhaktapur, buses and bandhs – hooray!

***I would like to apologize in advance for the extensive use of caps in this post – it’s been an all caps kind of week – I particularly apologize to Ms. Rea, who may be especially offended***

Hi loves – miss me?

Sorry I’ve been MIA for a few days – the internet went out and hasn’t resurfaced in a few days. This episode, in fact, has been brought to you thanks to our many sponsors: Word ’97, a borrowed laptop, procrastinated packing, a rainstorm to supply the power and Remy’s magic Mac that somehow manages to always have some kind of connection going.

Where did we leave off?

Hospital: work is good – I’ve been chugging through medical entries and charting diseases and respiratory infections. Not really the kind of work I pictured myself doing, but it’s needed and helpful. It’s really interesting to see the massive increase in respiratory illness in the dry seasons and increase in gastric problems and dysentery in the wet seasons. Ages and overall inpatient numbers also fluctuate with the seasons and I think in the end it’s going to be fascinating to look at the trends in disease and see what kind of improvements we can make in their care delivery as a result.

The people I’m working with are still incredible – any one of them could have productive and lucrative careers in academics in the US and yet they choose to stay here. On Thursday, as I’m sitting in my weird little “office”, surrounded by eight foot high stacks of medical records, on a stool made for a small assed dwarf (no really, it’s has a very small circumference and is low to the ground, seriously uncomfortable if you are say, a tall blonde woman with birthin’ hips, but perfect if you are the small delicate woman who takes care of us in the Admin wing and thought she was doing me an enormous favor), armed with a pen that works sometimes but not always and copy paper stapled together into a book, the finance guy came in and asked how I was going to give them the data. I hadn’t really thought about this, so I said, “well, how would you like the data?” I was expecting on paper, as graphs, in tables, whatever, but he said “I was hoping for Excel, Access or SPSS – do you have SPSS with you in Nepal?” Um, no, crazy man. I did not bring a high level statistical software package with me to Kathmandu, but thanks for asking. Crazy.

Ultimately, I got through more than 2500 of the 6000 entries I need to get through. I left on Friday and told them I would be in the mountains at the Kalika hospital this next week but would come by the week after that to get things finished up. They looked at me like I was announcing my candidacy for Nepali Prime Minister and asked why I wouldn’t be coming in on Sunday. Turns out the work week in Nepal is Sunday through Friday- six days instead of our lazy ass American 5 days. Gawd, I’m such a slacker.

Went back to my now favorite Indian restaurant to order Palak Paneer and if I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life, it might be that. The spinach was so insanely fresh the entire dish was color crayon green with fresh farmers cheese and hot naan – heaven! Plus they were super excited to be able to give me my “tea without sugar” aka tea with mango juice. The waiters speak NO English, so communicating tea without sugar has been an ongoing battle with us, but they are adorable and make great food, so I somehow manage to cope with my fresh mango juice and tea 😉

Friday night I headed out with a couple of the other volunteers here and we went to RO2K which is basically an expat bar in Thamel, a touristy shopping district not far from the house. We met up with another one of their friends who is doing research on the sex industry in Kathmandu (Hint: it’s booming and involves lots of underage girls kidnapped from the mountains and set to work for pimps in the tourist area. How bouts instead of interviewing these girls about how miserable and dehumanizing their lives are, you try to help them? There are tons of groups in town that are giving legal aid to the girls and teaching them English so they can learn a viable and non-destructive trade – you could go help them, ya know. Just sayin’…). The place was actually really nice – low tables and cushions with basic food and drink. Had a vile local whisky and coke, a mistake I will never ever make again, though I do think that the swill managed to kill everything in its path and it may have saved me from the worst of the travelers digestive concerns (ahem, sorry) that I had to deal with a day later.

Saturday, pepto in hand, I boarded a bus SOLO for the trip to Darbur Square in Bhaktapur, Nepal. I was feeling very proud of myself because for the first time I was able to decipher the fast talking bus dude and got on the right bus without having to ask (woohoo! Take that, Nepalese fast talkers! Boo-ya.). The bus ride was a royal pain in the ass. It was full, of course, and I had a seat made for someone approximately 5’2”. I still have bruises on my knee from the two hours with my knees crammed against a metal seat frame and a crick in my neck because an auntie who was too tired to keep her head up and used my shoulder for a pillow and I didn’t want to disturb her.

Got off at Darbur square and tromped my way solo into the village. Paid NR 750 to get in to the historic district (SEVEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY FREEEEEEAKING RUPEE – GAH.). It was worth every penny though – Darbur square is what people come to Nepal for. It’s breathtaking. I managed to piss off an old potter who couldn’t count and two old ladies who wouldn’t share (I can give you all more detail when I can get pictures up – the illustrated version of the story is way better). After a few hours, I went back to grab a bus to Kathmandu. Got on the right (crowded) bus, had a lovely conversation with three orphans who live at the monastery and then a four year old and her mom before getting KICKED OFF THE BUS just outside the Kathmandu city limits. KICKED. OFF. THE. BUS. After bus dude had collected enough fare for the entire journey. I took a deep breath, put my big-girl pants on (Hi Lish!) and went to get the next bus. Got on, it quickly filled up (New record – 34 people in a minibus!), I ended up sitting half on the lap of some kind of holy man who kept smiling and blessing me on my sunburnt forehead. As soon as I could see out of the window, after an exceptionally long time on the bus, I realized we were wandering into the foothills north of the city and I had no idea where in the hell I was. I quickly got back off the bus and started tromping back towards civilization. I was feeling adventurous at this point and figured that I was as lost as I could get and I certainly couldn’t get more confused so, let’s go feet, and off we went. After a few congratulatory pats on the back for my amazing sense of direction, I was back on the main ring road and heading home. Half an hour later it started pouring and I realized I had been walking in the wrong direction. As I was dodging a cow, trying to get to a place to cross the road, a tourbus of Chinese tourists STOPPED THE BUS TO TAKE A PICTURE OF ME. Dozens of tourists pointing their cameras at the stupid giant tourist and the cow wrestling for a foothold on the soggy shoulder of a dirt road in Kathmandu in the idle of monsoon. I should get effing royalties on that.

Anyway, I got home, had a hot (!) shower and was told by the gang that we were going to the new Pizza Hut in town. You laugh. I can hear you, it’s ok, you can admit it. The Hut is in the Rodeo Drive of Kathmandu, next to the United Colors of Benetton (I know! They still exist!) and involves reservations, table cloths, china and silverware – HA! It’s like the Hut on steroids. I had a Kaleei (?) Paneer pizza which was masala sauce, mozzarella, onion, green pepper, hot red thai peppers and paneer with coriander and red paprika – heaven.

Got home by piling 8 people in a 4 seater Suzuki because we’re cheap like that, and slept like the dead.

I’m going to finish this up quickly because it’s late and I have to pack, you all stopped reading ten paragraphs ago and I don’t want to alarm any one. This morning there was a teeny teeny tiny bandh/strike and most of the city shut down for the day. There was no violence that we saw and yes, we went out to the city in the middle of the bandh. We were safe, I promise! We walked all over kingdom come and ended up going to the Women’s Foundation production center – another group sponsored by the group I’m here with. They essentially act as a halfway house for abused women and children – they currently have over 30 women and 80 children that are staying with them. They all get medical care, food, shelter and education as well as training in high end weaving. They export their wares all over Europe and the states, but you can get them for much less here in town. The women were so sweet and we hung out for a while before spending way too much time and money on items for home and walking back out. Taxis were running again by the time we left and we sang a Nepali folk song for a discount on fare (we’re shameless). Home again, had Dal Bhat for dinner (finally!) and I don’ care what they say, it was fantastic. It had these weird soy bean puffy things in it – does anyone know what those are?? They are brown, kind of funky textured puffs of soy bean that are my new favorite thing.

Tomorrow (or rather in 8 hours), I’ll be off to Kalika – a small village six hours outside of town in the foothills of the Himalayas. I won’t be back for a week, so this will have to suffice until I return.

Love to all and thanks for listening to my rambles!

Danyabhat (thank you )

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More than you ever wanted to know about my daily happenings, you sick, sick voyeurs

Oh Nepal.

Anytime anything goes wrong or slow or just plain silly, it can be explained away with an exasperated “oh, Nepal” and an eyeroll.

4 inches of water in the street?
Oh, Nepal.

Cucumber and mayonnaise sandwiches for dinner?
Oh, Nepal.

Electricity that only works during the last half of a rainstorm?
Oh, Nepal.

It’s funny, but no one ever uses that phrase for the delightful and strange happenings that are just as frequent as the negative things and could also only happen in Nepal. For example, yesterday I headed off to the hospital with Sam, one of the other volunteers, so I could be shown the ropes and
figure out what I was going to do before the next phase of this excursion. I’m volunteering in a community hospital, but what I (a public health and law type) would actually be doing there has always been sort of glossed over. Once we got on the bus and to the hospital (we’ll talk about that damn bus in a minute), I realized that I had no business whatsoever attempting to assist on medical procedures and I would be bored stiff just watching for days on end. To be frank, I was a little bit bored by the end of the tour. So I then decided to ask the supervisor, Dr. Gupta, if he would mind
letting me take a look at the medical records for the hospital so I could do some kind of statistical work up on them (demographic served, chronic conditions, prevalence, etc.). Dear lord, you would have thought I’d offered to buy the
man a puppy. I was quickly grabbed (Dr. Gupta is not a small dude) and shuttled off to the president of the hospital who also jumped on board and sent me packing to talk to the hospital administrator.

Keep in mind this is a non-profit community hospital that serves anyone who comes to them, regardless of ability to pay. They are in the black (theoretically), but it’s not like they are rolling in it or have an excess of facilities or supplies. The hospital administrator has to manage all the daily workings of the hospital (as well as Dr. Gupta’s ego – trust me, no small task!) and make sure that they are adhering to international standards of informed consent, medical quality, government regulations and access to all, etc. The woman is brilliant – she has had more than eight years of post-high school education (UNHEARD of for a woman around here) and was overjoyed to hear what I wanted to spend some time doing. For the first 20 minutes of our discussion she just kept asking “who are you??” “where did you come from??” and smiling from ear to
ear. She told me to come back the next day at 10 to meet the administrative staff and get started.

(Had some killer curry for lunch, though I once more ran into to the Nepali obsession with all things sweet – this country has a sweet tooth like I’ve never seen – tea is served with as much sugar as they can get to dissolve. I have gotten more weird looks for asking for unsweetened tea than I have from my hair – the waiter thought I was crazy and there was almost a scene :-). Sam had a pizza – like most of the other volunteers here, he sticks to food from home. To each his own I guess. Poor guy got grossed out by the fact that my chicken curry still had bones in the chicken. I guess I’ve got pretty strong feelings about animals as food. The way I see it, if you can’t deal with
the fact that your food used to be alive and kicking, skin, bones and all, than you should probably stick with beans, but I’m a judgmental pain in the ass that way)

I went home, did some shopping at the Bhat Batteni (I’ve been spelling it wrong, and it’s pronounced “bop-atini”, no I don’t know why, stop asking.) and decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds – roads do not run to the cardinal directions around here -they run to the cardinal whim of whoever wanted to get from point x to point y bad enough to build a road/path/speedway/etc. Lost is the rule rather than the exception. I did finally manage to get off of the main ring road, a miserable loud congested and polluted street with random chickens, cows, toothless old men and an assortment of things that smell bad (including a large portion of the toothless old men). I had a good wander, didn’t get too lost, and generally amused the crap out of a dozen small children who were daring each other to say hello to me. One of the girls finally did and when I smiled back and said hello, namaste, they freaked out and ran off giggling as all 10 year old girls should.

Then I looked up. Which is a bad idea if you’re out for a wander in Nepal and didn’t really bother to bring an umbrella because you were going to buy one at the Bhat and then refused because over your dead body were you going to pay NR385 (about $4.50) for a freaking umbrella. When I looked up I realized I was about to get soaked – which I did, and I have some lovely blisters from finishing my tromp in soggy sandals as a souvenir. Oh Nepal.

This morning I got up to tackle my very first solo navigation of the Nepali bus “system”. Really, even the quotation marks don’t begin to convey the gaping void between what you all think of as public transportation and the realities of a minibus. Kathmandu has a large Ring Road that circles the city, and several major streets or chowks that, along with neighborhood names, give you a way to navigate the city. There are no street signs, lights, stop signs, lanes, lane markers, curbs or anything else but a more or less continuous stretch of asphalt that wanders around the city. You hail a bus much like you would hail a taxi, but you get a limited list of destination

options. As the bus (ahem, broken down 1980’s japanese minivan with the interior ripped out to make more room, ahem) approaches, a young guy dangles out of the open side door and rattles off neighborhoods faster than you can blink. Then you act like a dumb american and say “Chabahil?” if the kid nods, then you get on, if he looks past you then you wait for the next bus. If he nods, then he’ll move aside and point you to a seat – a seat could be on someone’s lap, or the floor or bent over at the waist with your ass hanging out the side window. My current record for people in a minibus is 24 – remember the old dodge caravans? yeah, that. Put 24 people in there. Yes, you can. You can too. Just try harder. Cram people in every nook and cranny and lap. You see those three people that got their feet and heads tucked in the side door, and are holding on for dear life, but the door won’t close? Just let them be, they’re good. Now put a ten year old on the back of one of them and you have the 24 people riding in my minivan as it bobbed and weaved through Thunderdome, Kathmandu style.

Frighteningly, it’s safer than walking.

When you leave you just hand the door guy NR 10. As long as you don’t even try to haggle he won’t ask for more – its like the secret code. If you know what the fare is supposed to be without asking, then that’s what you pay. If you have to ask, then it’s NR 15-20.

Once I got to work things were wonderful. The administration staff is so grateful to have me there working on those records, they are constantly coming in to see how I’m doing and if I need anything. This morning Mrs. Karki, the hospital administrator said “I had no idea you were coming, I didn’t know there was anyone like you coming. You must have been sent from God.” Not a bad way to start the day 🙂 I think I
can do a lot for them – they have no idea where their patients are coming from or really who they are serving and what they are being treated for. I’m already finding trends in seasonal diseases that should allow them to be able to staff more efficiently depending on the date and patient load. All in all, it’s a pretty good gig.

I’m trying to arrange a trip to Pohkara this weekend for some hiking and sightseeing (and hot water) and then next week I’ll be heading up to the mountain clinic for a few days so you all will have a break from my rambling 🙂

Thanks for all the thoughts and well wishes! If there’s anything I’m not rambling about that you would like to know, just give me a heads up and I’ll see what I can do.

Hugs all around!

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Working girl in Nepal (get yer heads out of the gutter you louts!)

Today is the first work day – I still haven’t gotten a hold of my contact for the group I’m supposed to be working with here in Kathmandu, so I’ll be going with a couple of the other volunteers to their jobs. i’m spending the morning working at an orphanage here in town and then going to the hospital in the afternoon. I’m going to be calling the woman who is at the rural hospital in the mountains later today to see when she could use me. I hear she’s a public health practitioner and so I could actually be helpful to her. I think I might tentatively plan on next week for my mountain week – that will definitely be internet free, so I’ll let you know if I will be disappearing for a week or so.

Yesterday was our official sight seeing day – we took a bus up to the Swayambhunath temple (also known as the monkey temple) and got some great pictures – our guide was attacked by a monkey and he stole her ice cream cone. Yes, I have a picture of the cheeky monkey eating the ice cream cone up a tree – little bastard. Lunch was momos – little steamed dumplings filled with veggies and covered in curry – insanely tasty – I burned my fingers trying to eat them (my silly co-volunteer had a cheese sandwich). Snack that day was makia (sp?) it’s the kind of tough, starchy corn we feed to animals, thrown in the middle of a fire and cooked until black and chewy. You eat it by prying off the kernals and using them to scoop up some spices from a little packet and then throwing (no really, you are supposed to THROW the thing) into your mouth. It was also my first experience with a Nepali bus – I actually felt loads safer in a bus than in a taxi, awesome because the buses cost 10-15 rupee and the taxis are 150-200 r. At the end of the temple experience my guide started laughing at my second bottle of water and shyly told me that it’s a Nepali belief that white people are white because all the water they drink has washed them out.

After the temple I chilled out for a bit and was going to go explore the local shopping district, but a couple of the other volunteers (Hi Deanna and Georgia!) offered to take us up to Pashupatinath temple (my second world heritage site of the day) to wander around for a bit. They also knew a back way in that would save us the NR (nepali rupee) 500 entrance charge. To put that in perspective, my very filling lunch of momos and curry ran me a whopping NR 85 and a bottle of overpriced water was NR 20 – NR 500 is a LOT of money! We went in  the local entrance at the back over a ton of brutal stairs and wandered around until dark. On the way back we came across a Glory to Shiva celebration that was attended by several thousand locals. We stayed and watched for awhile and ran into  a young student of the temple who taught us all about the ceremony and the layout of the temple area. The best parts of running into a temple student are that he speaks lama language (I guess it’s ifferent than anything else around and you only get to learn it if you are a student at a temple) as well as excellent english and he doesn’t need tips – hurray! Turns out that they creamate everyone on a Monday during a celebration of the glory of shiva – shiva is the destroyer and re-creator and is in charge of reincarnation and creating after he has destroyed. Thus, he gets celebrated when people are sent to their next lives. Where you get cremated on the river is determined by your rank in life – royalty gets up river, the rich get mid-river and regular folk get down river. It was also a special celebration because it’s women’s month when the women get to fast every monday for the health of their husbands. Unmarried women fast in hopes of a future husband – the monks make crass jokes about this. Who knew monks made crass jokes? Learn something new every day I suppose

Unfortualtely we came home to a rather sad meal – the family who runs this house tries to make the food situation as American as possible, and kind of fails miserably. I would vastly perfer Nepali lentils and curried veg to the weird attempt at spaghetti we had last night – pasta, boiled cabbage and peppers with an oily mushroom soup on top. Ah well, the sisters that feed us are sweet and adorable and try to do everything in their power to make us all happy.

Just been informed that we are going to skip the orphanage today in favor of a longer day at the hospital.

I will fill you all in later.

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