Friday, July 4, 2014

"What's life really like here in Nepal?" you ask.





People seldom know the question to ask, but there seems to be a communication gap when they mean to ask me “What are the differences between my life in the US and the day to day life I have now?” Unless you’ve gone abroad you have no idea what life is like here. The movies seldom portray third world countries, or the expats who live in them. So, movies either portray the wealthy class at the top of every poor country, or the local market-not much of anything else. 

My flat I had in Bhaktapur was the nicest place I had ever lived in, with a few exceptions within the structure. It was huge and well laid out, a rare thing to find in Nepal. The differences in the structure were that the kitchen didn’t have built in cabinets or an oven. The stove was only 3 burners with an LP gas tank like you may have used for your gas bar-b-q grill, which I had to provide for myself. Then there was an Indian/squat toilet. When I took the third bedroom there was another bathroom so I asked for a western toilet to be installed. After all the months without a western style toilet I found I preferred the squat toilet. I found that my knee and hip joints were a lot looser. One other major difference with the apartment was the fact that there wasn’t a closet in the entire apartment. Additionally, the windows were framed in wood and a bit drafty in the winter. There was no double paned glass, nor was there insulation between the floors-or anywhere else. Other than the window frames and doors, you probably couldn't find enough wood in the building to use as kindling to start a fire.

Once outside the flat I would venture out and always had a nice time. I had a few merchants I would stop to visit on my way up the hill to Bhaktapur Old City. There were always holes in the brick or rock paved streets that looked more like little alley ways or foot paths than actual streets. I’d often have to step aside for a water truck, taxi or even motorcycle. Yes, the streets are so narrow you need to step aside for even motor scooters! However, you will see many more people walking than driving unless you go to the main roads. 

So, here I would have to walk all the way down the hill with two big bags of stuff on the way home.  I’ve literally seen holes a person could hide in; I’ve yet to see a construction cone or construction sign except on the major highways. Buying things is always an adventure. You cannot just go to the grocery store with a list: dishwashing detergent, papaya, zucchini, eggs. I would have to stop at 4 places for this short list. Grocery stores are more like cookie stores, with a full two rows dedicated to cookies, candy and crackers with a row or two on each side for dry goods. That is the grocery store situation in Nepal. In Kathmandu you can go to the big department stores that will have just about everything, but the prices are 25% higher on a lot of items. However, you can get avocados from India, Oxy Clean stain cleaner for clothes, nice kitchenware and such. There are also several shopping malls in Kathmandu. They even have 3D cinemas. 

Generally, I start out with a list and go to Kathmandu on the back of a motorcycle or scooter. First it’s to the ATM machine. There used to be several ATM’s that didn’t have 400 NRs. charge for each international transaction. That list has dwindled down to only a few that either doesn’t charge a fee or allows a person to take 40,000 on one pull so there is only one charge to withdrawal around $400. Those bank names are in my eBook, Nepal: A Tourist’s Manual, and have many branches throughout the country.

Next, we go to New Road for anything related to electronics. I like to buy the American TV shows put on DVDs for 30-50 NRs. Sometimes I have to pay more for a better quality, but they are all pirated, as far as I know. Then, for spices, nuts, candles, incense, sheets, I like to go to Asan area. There are thousands of venders there, some with shops and some without. Other things, like plumbing supplies, much be purchased in other areas.

The government is working on the roads with a new zeal now. The improvements since I’ve been here have been quite nice. When I first got here people were dying almost daily trying to cross the highway between Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, but last year they finished several of the pedestrian bridges and have widened the major road (Ring Rd.) that circles Kathmandu. When I saw them working with such care to put the white stripes on the road I had to laugh because no one stays in their lane and I have actually counted up to five motorcycles abreast on a two lane highway, as they went around a bus. But there is seldom anything like road rage and mistakes get a head bob or a nod, so long as no one is hurt. 

 New Road is not a road. It’s a neighborhood like Thamel. Since there are no road signs or actual addresses the city is divided into tiny districts. If you can find the district you will be close enough to ask someone or call to have the person you need to see come to receive you. Be sure you are near a big building or a good marker or he will never find you. 

There are a few excellent, non-tourist restaurants in the New Road area I’d like to mention. Yes, you can go to a myriad of restaurants attached to guest houses, but you will soon become tired of the same menu. 

First, Ramashwar Vegetarian Restaurant. This is right on the main street, just a couple blocks from the “New Road Gate.” You can get a variety of Indian dishes. They have a great variety of chat and dosa items, along with the normal items and an excellent pastry section. They are quick, usually bring the food at the same time and are priced at about 300 NRs. per person. It’s clean, quick and excellent.

If you continue down that street you will see a big statue in the middle of the road and Kathmandu’s Darbur Square further down if you were to continue walking. But if you turn left at the statue and go to the end of that street you will come to tiny restaurant, also Indian style. But it’s quick and unique and low budget. It is also very clean.

Then if you were to continue to the end of the street and turn right you will come to another excellent restaurant, Himalayan Burger. This is an excellent restaurant, too, more traditional Nepali, but somewhat upscale, clean and reasonably priced. 


Sunday, June 22, 2014

How to Get a Package Mailed to You in Nepal




I needed something I just couldn’t find in Nepal, and therefore had to order something on the internet and had it mailed. It shouldn’t have been an ordeal to write home about.

Each year or so I need to have credit/debit cards sent to me and it usually costs at least $120 and this last time my brother put BA for Bagmati district in Nepal and it went to Basnia; it finally arrived. Another time I had it go to a friend in Kathmandu to his business, then I had it go to my other friend’s business in Changunarayan. These were the best plans, but I had to pay for FedX international rates for letters.

So when I ordered this special cream, since it was a package, I thought I’d skip putting a person’s name on the order and just have it go to the business. After a few weeks it hadn’t arrived. I looked up the order and saw that it had actually arrived in Nepal. I sent Bikram to get it when he was already in Kathmandu. 

Although Bikram had the printout from the internet, the man refused to give it to him. He needed Bikram’s citizenship papers. Kamal, the owner of the school, took me the next day to pick it up. He actually brought the stamp from the school and his citizenship card. I knew better than to show my face for fear of more charges.

It actually took two hours and four more trips into the post office for Kamal while I waited at the street. It got so ridicules by the end when the man finally asked Kamal what company he had ordered the items from. It was like an interrogation. The name was on the invoice in his hands, but the man was sure anyone should know the company one had ordered products from.  Kamal called me to ask me. I told him to look on the invoice, but the man wanted information about the store and products. It was a medical cream. Did he really need to know where I was intending on putting it?

It went like this: first Kamal needed to write a letter certifying that he had the right to collect packages for the school and needed to have his citizenship card copied. We bought one piece of copy paper from a nearby stationary store for a rupee; I wrote the letter. Fortunately, the monsoon has started and there was electricity running to make a copy of his card. Otherwise, it would have been a problem to find someone with a generator or inverter to be able to make a copy.  He had even brought his official stamp for the Thangka painting school and we stamped the letter in a couple places. Done. He went back in and I was sure it would be fine. 30 minutes later here he came out again with no package. What happened? The stamp wasn’t dark enough. He left the stamp with me so he had to bring it back in to show the post master. 

Lessons learned: 

1.     Do not put the country code with the phone number. If you do it will be too long for the space allotted and they won’t be able to contact you when it arrives.

2.     Always put a name on it, preferably a Nepali whom you trust. Actually, your guest house will be fine, but put the owner or manager’s name. 

3.     Understand there is a difference between a letter and a package. Letters are delivered to businesses, packages are not. There is no mail delivery to homes in Nepal.

4.     Be prepared to pay a tariff for the item, no matter how little it cost. My medical cream that cost $65, plus $44 for shipping USPS, required 650 NRs. for the tariff.  

I think I learned a frugal trick to get my debit cards to me next time. I will have my brother pick up a couple warm jackets at a garage sale in the US. He can put the debit card at the bottom of the box, attached with tape in the underside of the box flap. He can send the box for $44 if there are just a couple of children’s jackets with a note that he hopes ‘all three jackets will be useful to the orphans.’ I would suggest putting the cards in a jacket pocket, but someone might take the jacket. If it goes well, this should save about $75 over the FedX/UPS rates.

One other trick you might try is to have the company come to you, but addressed to the UPS Office, Naxal, Bhupimarg, Kathmandu, Nepal, (opposite the police headquarters). Be sure to include your own Nepali phone number.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A little bit about Nepali Castes




The oldest stone tap of Changunarayan village and still in use.

Written by Sharmila Maharjan 
The ancient temple of Changu Narayan is located on a high hilltop that is also known as Changu or Dolagiri. The temple is surrounded by forest with champak trees and a small village, known as Changunarayan Village. The temple is located in Changu Narayan, VDC of Bhaktapur District, Nepal. This hill is about 8 miles east of Kathmandu and a few miles north of Bhaktapur. This temple is considered the oldest Hindu temple in Nepal still in use.

The two big stone elephants in the southern part of Changunarayan Temple.

The village is surrounded by different castes/groups of people. First of all, many westerners do not understand what we mean by castes. You could think of castes as tribes or extended family rather than some sort of cultural/societal levels. Many westerners think it’s all about the Hindu caste system, but it is actually quite complex with this being only one part of it. For Americans, you can think of it like the way New York City functions. You have the five burrows with each of these made up primarily of a particular heritage. People are so proud of their heritage they want to keep that identity pure by marrying within their community. Of course it’s more rigid and there are many more social norms to consider.


This is the picture of typical Tamang village in Changunarayan.
There are different small villages of different groups of people surrounding Changu. The temple area is surrounded by the Newar with their own culture and tradition. The village in the southern part is the Tamang village, where the majority are Tamang and Lama. Most of them are Hindu but they have a different culture than the other castes. The other northern village and eastern village is the combined group of Brahmin, Chhetry.  Magar, and other castes’ people live in yet another village.
Making thangka at Sunapati Thangka School on the way to Changunarayan Temple.

This UNESCO site is well worth seeing and well worth staying in awhile. If you are artistically inclined you can enjoy a thangka painting class or a wood carving class. They also have guides who can take you on a cultural trek for around $5. Even though it’s still in the Kathmandu Valley, it's like stepping back in time and the people are really genuinely friendly.

Changunarayan is also well above the pollution line of Kathmandu and there is usually a nice, gentle breeze blowing. It's the middle of June at noon and the temperature is 25.6 with 55% humidity. I'm sure that's much different than Kathmandu, just 20 Km. away.
Roof top small room with beautiful Thangkas.

Contact: Star View Guest House & Retreat Center
Changunarayan-1, Bhaktapur
015141181 or 9849930812

From the temple: Come out via the west gate, look for the star and sign on the rooftop as you come down the steps. Follow the road to the edge of the hill. You will see the guest house on the right at the end of the road.
Mention KTM group for the free guided trek.

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