Wednesday, June 15, 2016

ATM Tips and Tricks for Travelers

Isn’t life in the 21st century wonderful? If you are as old as I am you might remember how difficult it was to travel if you were expecting money to come to you after you left home. We had to go to the bank to buy travelers’ checks. Everything about it was cumbersome. Then in the 1980’s came this wonderful thing called the ATM card. Lovely! Now my money follows me around the planet and it is great to be able to travel. 

Whether you are traveling through Asia, Africa or even a bit closer to home, these tips will help you to keep your money safe. 

How does international banking work in developing countries like Nepal? Actually, it works pretty well considering all that can go wrong. 

1.     Use only ‘Tourist Friendly’ ATM machines. This is the machine that has a slot whereby you can dip your card without letting go of it (see picture). In Nepal, there are both scheduled and random power outages. If you let go of your card and there is a power outage before you complete your transaction you will need to spend the next day at the bank or tourist police department getting your card back. There are fewer of these ‘tourist friendly’ ATMs than there used to be. My solution; Check the time and don’t use the ATM near the top of the hour if you are in a country with power outages.
2.     Always make sure there is a guard outside. Although they may not speak English, they will help you if you need them. I also like to use the same one regularly so I can recognize the guard. Random guys in uniforms are not always legitimate guards. Fortunately, Nepal is not a dangerous country.
3.     Don't try getting money on the weekends. There are often problems with the international cable lines and if it’s 2:00 am on a Sunday morning in the West there isn’t much that can be done until business hours wherever the bank’s headquarters is. This can affect banks in Europe, also, since many international banks have headquarters in the US. It seems the problem may be due to the Atlantic cable lines.
4.     Don't try getting money on National holidays in the country you are in or American holidays. It is not uncommon during major festivals in developing nations to see many ATM machines out of money.
5.     Do not wait until you are out of money to go to the ATM. Many tourists expect to just stop by the ATM on their way to go trekking or to an excursion outside the metro area. There are few ATMs in the rural areas in developing countries.  It is not uncommon to see 24 hour ATMs closed down tight. When one machine runs out of money or is closed there seems to be a domino effect on the others in the area and you can spend all morning looking for a ‘tourist friendly’ ATM.
6.     Don't go late at night. Particularly if you have different color skin or are wearing Western attire, you will be noticed by everyone. Why put the spotlight on yourself?
7.     Don’t go to stand-alone machines. Make sure the actual bank is nearby. Otherwise, it is difficult to know if it’s a legitimate machine. Inspect the ATM machine for legitimacy.
8.     Cover the keypad with your left hand while you enter your PIN. There can be a camera that records which keys you enter. Then the criminals copy your card and clean you out!
9.     Be very careful if you go to ATM lounges. People are very curious about how the international banking works. Do not go at extremely busy times. I only take one pull at a time from the ATM lounges. Otherwise, I would walk out with everyone knowing I have $300-$400. That’s a lot of money in many countries.
10.                       Get at least one special debit card for traveling from an international bank, such as Chase or Standard Chartered Bank. Depending on the account you set up, they can remove international charges from your statement. By using online banking you will be able to transfer some money when you need it, but if the account becomes compromised your main account will remain safe.
11.                      Just because your debit cards works in a nation's capital city like Kathmandu doesn’t mean it will work in Pokhara, or another major city outside of the metro area. It’s best to check to see if a bank that works with your card has a branch in the area before you go.
12.                       Don’t take too much money with you. You should budget $20 per day (in Nepal) if you are a budget traveler. If you go trekking or on a safari with a company you won’t need any money, but you should carry a little bit anyway, just in case they don’t want to pay for a second cup of tea with dinner.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Bhairab Jatra, a Month of Celebration

 Co-authored by Bikash Suwal

Some of the most fun you can have in Nepal for free are the festivals. You do not need to believe any way whatsoever, nor do you need to pay. Sometimes even the temple fees are not collected. The atmosphere is often like a parade but can have a serious feel. Please be respectful during these time and remember that even though we are spectators, the local people are worshiping their gods. They are having fun with their spirituality, so please do not insult them by smoking at the temples or pretending to be Hindu just to get a peak at an idol. 

Chickens getting sacraficed for the community meal.

Each festival, jatra, has a reason for being, a theme, a story and often even a legend. Bhairab Jatra is no exception and is one of the lesser known festivals that have unique activities for tourists to enjoy. One of the major advantages of this festival is that you can join the celebration throughout the month of April/May of any year. The Nepali calendar is based upon the lunar activities, so it often begins about 2 weeks prior to its western counterpart month. You can check the Nepali calendar for the month of Baisakh for the exact dates. The first day of Bhairab Jatra is called “Paach Arre Jatra.”

The theme of Bhairab Jatra is in unifying the community, as this jatra celebrates the lower castes, which include people of lower castes such as butcher, tailor, chariot puller and the music caste. The theme of this jatra is to show appreciation for the lower castes that do so much for society, as well as to honor Bhairab and the other gods. 

If the thought of sacrafices bothers you just remember this is a time when everyone get to eat a good meal-even with meat!

Throughout the month of Baisakh, the Idol of Bhairab is carried by chariot from one village to the next, so the various communities can celebrate the festival and honor Bhairab, probably the oldest god still being worshiped. According to the historical record, the Newar people brought Bhairab with them when they migrated to the Kathmandu Valley so many millennia ago. Even so, Bhairab is honored as the angry, strong incarnation of Shiva. But rather than causing anger or discord, Bhairab takes the anger and transmutes it. When I hung my first Bhairab mask on the wall the entire energy in my apartment softened.

The chariot is carried by people of the lower castes, which is an honor and anyone can touch and worship the idol by first touching its feet and then touching their forehead and then chest. There is also the colored powder and other items to ‘tika’ one’s forehead. Of course, there is lots of music and enjoyment throughout the festivities as the chariot is carried to the various villages with festivities going on until late into the night.

Cities and villages that celebrate the Bhairab Jatra are Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Thimi and Kavre with the last celebration in Changunarayan where the idol is housed throughout the year. The reason for this festival has to do with Bhairab’s strength with the need to not become fooled by demonic gods. 
They paraded throughout Changunarayan for a week or more with the music and dancing randomly throughout the day and night.
This chariot is quite heavy and is carried while the young men dance with it still on their back-Seriously, they dance while carrying it.

Note about co-author, Bikash Suwal:  Bikash has a Master's degree in Public Administration and works full time with us at the Star View Guest House in Changunarayan. He is Newar and is a practicing Hindu.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Vinod K's Travel Blog: Anjaneri Fort (Birth Place Of Lord Hanuman)

Hanuman has been one of my favorite players in Hinduism, so I had to read this blog post. I live near the place where Hanuman picked up the entire mountain just to make sure the right plant was there for the god. If you like travel blogs with lots of good pics you'll enjoy this one: 
Vinod K's Travel Blog: Anjaneri Fort (Birth Place Of Lord Hanuman)

Friday, April 22, 2016

"In Retrospect, Would You Move Again to Nepal?

These homes had to come down after the earthquakes, but we'll rebuild.

Recently I read a post on Expat ( that asked the following questions. It caused me to think, so here are my thoughts on this question.

"If you had to look back on your expat experience in Nepal, would you heartily say "let’s do it again"? From the preparation stage to your actual everyday life in your new country, what did you enjoy the most? Would you do certain things differently? Could you tell us why?

How would you describe the benefits of your expatriation in Nepal so far?"

I didn't know where I would end up. I thought it would have been Madagascar, but just as I was getting out of college after my husband died Madagascar had a coup (yes, I'm a late bloomer). I still thought it would at least be in Africa, but my money only took me as far as India. I thought Nepal would be a nice side trip for me and I'd return to India, but when I took one look at the Himalayas from the tourist bus window I cried as my heart embraced the magnificent majesty.

That was over 5 years ago. I've seen many personal assistants and several landlords come and go, as well as several petrol outages and disasters. Even after the first earthquake I didn't even think of taking the American embassy's flight back home. So, I'd have to unequivocally say I'd easily do it again.

I recently commented to a friend that for life to be so simple here there sure are a lot of steps to do some of the simplest of things. For example, you might find it easiest to begin your shower experience by cleaning the bathroom bucket and fill it up until the water runs hot. Yes, taking a simple shower requires plenty of thought and a few more steps. You will also need to think about when to charge your batteries so as to keep the load off the invertor. All these steps and concerns help me to appreciate the little things.
What I like most is being able to actually make a difference in the lives of my neighbors. With the help of some lovely volunteers we've built several shelters (for over 50 families), I bring electricity into a neighbor's home for the first time ever for them. I love to sit up on my rooftop and see clouds floating gently by a bit lower than I sit. It's like I'm in a castle in the sky, so beautiful. I can see the Himalayas and hear various bird calls and even watch the eagles soar past.
It's incredibly inexpensive  for most things and I rent an entire 14 room building for the same price as the tiny plot of land I had my 30 year old mobile home parked on. But of all the things, financial, social or environmental what I enjoy the most is the kindness and respect I am given here. I've been treated better than I ever have been before, almost exclusively.
The only thing I think I'd have done differently would be to come sooner instead of using up all my savings before I got here. Looking back I'm sure it was just fear that caused me to meander, but I really didn't even have Nepal on my bucket list, so I have to say that it all worked out perfectly.

The benefits of my expatriation are so many. I have a lovely family around me who treat me so nicely. No one can take the place of family, but my Nepali family is a real close second. Actually, I am grateful to my own children because having such independent offspring has been the biggest gift allowing me to travel.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Infrastructure in Nepal-1 year later

We always hear about police in developing countries and how bad they are for corruption and such. Being an expat here in Nepal I had been curious about the police and have been pleased with most encounters that I’ve had with the police here in Nepal.

After the first earthquake last year I went to the police department with a guest so she could see about getting evacuated. The police department in Changunarayan is located on a hill at the front of the village. There had been about 5 small buildings there, but they had all fallen quite badly the day before. 

While we were there another earthquake began! The officer who was talking with us started telling me to sit down. I couldn’t, the earth was moving so violently beneath me. The shaking seemed to go on for quite some time, even though it was actually less than a minute. 

From this vantage point, I could see plumes of smoke where more homes were falling, and where more people must have been losing even more. It would rain soon, which would mean more loss, more trauma. 

That was almost a year ago. Last week a police officer came to the guest house and requested a donation to help rebuild. I was surprised when Kamal and I went up to the police department to see how we could help. 

These pictures are as the police department looks now. The small office buildings have no concrete foundations, nor do they have concrete and re-bar construction; they will not be safe for the next earthquake. 
Note there are no concrete pillars or even a concrete foundation.

As I watched the chain of events happening around me for these past 11 months I continue to be amazed by several trends: few complaints about the day to day hardships, the slowness of help for the people and the sadness of the landscape that surrounds me. 

I do not want our brave police officers being among the first casualties when the next earthquake comes. We lost 9 during the first hours after the first earthquake as a building came down on them. This was the earthquake story that touched my heart the most deeply.
This is the kitchen and dining area
Our police chief told me they only need $10,000 to fix it to the way they plan it to be. Such a small amount to protect so many people. There are 15 officers who work there and sleep there. They will need to be our first responders when the next disaster comes.
Please help us to keep our first responders safe. If you’ve been to Nepal and got help from our police department or our Tourist Police Department I know you understand the kindness they show tourists. I thank you in advance for your support. We will have the crowdfunder for them soon. In the meantime, please use Our Donation Link
Police officers often do 24 hours at a time. Here's where they sleep.
This gazebo is the only thing that was there from before the earthquakes.
This aluminum shelter is also used for sleeping quarters

Sunday, March 20, 2016

How to Find a Toilet in Kathmandu

People often remark on the lack of infrastructure in Nepal and I agree. Sometimes even finding a clean toilet can be a problem. I’ve learned a few tricks during my 5 years in Nepal this is one of them.

First, you can ask to use the toilet anywhere and no one ever seems to mind, however you will find toilets locked in many businesses. Someone will be happy to provide you with a key.

You will come upon some toilets that are monitored by a woman who sits there and expects 5-20 rupees per use. Sometimes these toilets are a bit cleaner, but not always.

The cleanest toilets are at banks. I was quite surprised to find a condom dispenser of free condoms in the ladies toilet in the Standard Chartered Bank in New Banaswhor, but it’s the same with most toilets at banks. This is usually convenient, but keep in mind that banks close early on Friday and there are many holidays. 

The city of Kathmandu has recently started provided mobile toilets in enclosed trucks in the busy, Ratna Park, City Center and along the highway. I recently decided to stop in to check one of these portable facilities. It was quite nice and clean and even had soap. 

If you are a budget traveler you will find most guest houses do not provide toilet paper. If you buy this kind of paper you can save the last half and easily tuck it into your pocket or purse. In 5 years I've only seen 3-4 toilets with toilet paper on the roll. Yes, you can buy one roll at a time.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Holi Festival-Tips for Having a Great Time in Nepal

What an incredible festival! It's a combination of paintball, and tag. It's a lot like a water balloon fight, but everyone is playing-even people who don't know it. As far as my research tells, March 22 is the best day to celebrate Holi, but be sure to check to see what else is going on on other days.

A few years ago I my Holi companion saw a couple of older tourists just walking along minding their own business. As she took off to pitch a water balloon at them I laughed so hard I couldn't tell her not to do it. They just had no clue what was happening or why. So, be advised that if you go outside you will play Holi. So, just be ready and get your old sour puss in check. This is the day to let your inner child out to play.

I want to add a couple of new tips this year. We are pre-monsoon and it's pretty dry in the Kathmandu Valley. That means some of the water that's tossed from rooftops, buckets, water balloons and squirt guns will be contaminated. I'd suggest getting some saline solution from any pharmacy just in case you get something in your eyes. There are only two kinds of water in Nepal, rain run-off and trucked-in river water. Both are untreated.

In the check list mentioned in my former blog post this isn't mentioned, but be sure to open any packages you leave in your room. Anything in an unopened package is extra tempting for guest house personnel and local Nepali who may wander into your room, if it isn't locked.

Everyone is so friendly in Nepal and on Holi you'll find it even more so. You may be invited to have a 'milkshake,' 'bhanja,' made from marijuana, or the little balls called 'golee.' It's best not to partake because this is very strong and some people even loose their hearing for a day or so. Sometimes you cannot use the word 'just' in front of marijuana. The police turn a blind eye for marijuana on this day, but on the day before they will be on the lookout. Tourists are unlikely to be harassed, but they never tell me when policy changes, so be careful regarding this. Another reason to avoid this is the impending stomach issues that will likely come along with the experience.

Be sure to read this more complete check list from a few years ago:
 The Frugal Travels way to celebrate Holi

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Babies Are Still Being Born in Nepal in These Harsh Times

Written by Sajana Bhadel, Chairperson of Kay Garnay for Nepal

Many people were left homeless and alone after the devastating earthquake April 2015. When I look out from the window of the bus we can see many temporary camps with tarps and aluminum shelters along the side of road. This week we went to a camp in Bhouda to distribute some clothes for new born babies. Imagine being born in Nepal during this time, or being suddenly a single mother due to entire families being swept away. 

What shocked me the most is that I came to meet a 16 year old girl who just gave birth to a baby 14 days prior and they are having to live in this harsh lifestyle struggling with the cold every day. She is thinking of going back her own village in Sindupalchowk, but the continuous trembling has weakened the hills and left the villages either cracked, fallen or beneath tons of earth from the landslides. We are providing what few resources we have to share and joining with other NGOs to help and try to make a difference.

Sajana brought this young mother money to go back to her village.

Our volunteers from NZ brought a couple of huge bags of baby clothes lovingly knitted by women in a knitting club and even some lovely, quilted blankets. The mothers were so appreciative and I enjoyed handing them out to the mothers, one hat, a knitted shirt and booties each.
I know this isn’t enough.

Our NGO, Kay Garnay for Nepal, is mostly funded with Ama’s little bit of money or donations from our volunteers. These baby clothes came from Kerensa Clark's friends, NZ and were hand carried by Steve and Wendy Trevella, also from NZ. Steve and Wendy brought Andy and Fynn and they all worked full days to get more shelters built-25 more! We are so happy to have been a part of building over 50 high quality shelters in the area already. 
An INGO donated 7 sewing machines but left without giving training.

Changunarayan is on the Valley Rim trekking route. Lots of bikers come through, too.

Here Steve and Wendy are giving Ama $1,000 for 2 more shelters.

It seems the big picture is not even being looked at for Nepal's future. What these women really need is a job and warm place to live. We have plans for a women’s initiative, but no money to buy the carpet looms, wool yarn, etc. We will be putting a crowd funding project up very shortly for this project.  We plan to get the women trained and putting them to work in our knitting/carpet initiative. We hope to work with some of the existing carpet manufacturing factories to help fund our administration costs-rent and my salary, etc. 

Hope you follow along with us as we help during this time of rebuilding Nepal. We plan to be a big part of it.

Sajana and Steve distributing the clothing they brought from NZ