Well, here we go again!

This month marks the beginning of a new chapter in my life and an exciting new adventure, indeed. Just a few weeks ago, I left my beloved Philadelphia to move to Kathmandu, Nepal for a year and a half… IMG_1528    IMG_1193

“Why?” you may be asking yourself. “Why leave Philadelphia for Kathmandu?” Well… there are a number of answers to that question, actually, but the shortest answer is this:      Drew Haxby, my brilliant and lovely partner in crime of four years (and counting), is here conducting research for his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. We had been in a long distance relationship between Ann Arbor and Philadelphia for about three years already, and well… enough is enough. Skyping across the globe for a year and a half? No, thanks. I’ll pass.

And so, after months of planning, packing, stressing, wrapping-up, goodbye-ing (and yes, panicking), here I am! With this new adventure, of course, comes the return of the blog. (I toyed with the idea of changing its title to “In the Time of Love and Dysentery,” but decided better of it. It’s funny, yes, but it also makes me cringe).

Some of the more dedicated followers among you might remember that I never actually finished writing about my first big adventure abroad on this blog. From July 2012 to July 2013, I took a sabbatical from my position as a preschool teacher in Philadelphia in order to ‘residency hop’ around the globe (i.e. living and making art ‘in-residence’ at various arts organizations). I spent two months in Nepal, a total of 6 months in France (in two separate trips), one month in Santa Fe, and two months in… yes… good ol’ Ann Arbor, Michigan. Unfortunately, I’ve only managed to cover the first five months of that wonderful year on the blog. Living your life is quite different than living your life AND blogging about it at the same time, I learned.

A more sane / less obsessive person would just let all that go and move on with new posts from Kathmandu. And there certainly will be new posts from Kathmandu – don’t worry. BUT those of you who know me well know that I am not entirely sane and I am just a teeeeensy bit obsessive. It’s nearly impossible for me to leave a task unfinished, and I’d hate to leave so many great pictures to rot in the depths of my computer files. SO, my solution is this: I will post new material from Kathmandu AND catch up the sabbatical portion of my blog at the same time. (Ambitious, I know, but possible! Right? RIGHT?!)

You, the reader, can follow posts in chronological order or by region by selecting a category on the home page. Want to catch up with my sabbatical travels? Choose “Sabbatical 2012-2013.” Want to read about new adventures in Kathmandu? Choose “Nepal 2015-2016.” Want to see all the posts from Nepal, old and new? Choose “Nepal” under the “By Region” section. You get the idea. Good. Glad we’ve got that settled.

And now, FINALLY, the first report from sunny Kathmandu:

Where to begin? Well… the beginning, I suppose.

My 24 hour journey from the States started with a TWELVE HOUR flight from NYC to Abu Dhabi (Twelve hours?! How did I get through it, you ask? Lots of movies and lots of coloring in a mandala coloring book that my Mom gave me. That’s right. A grown woman coloring on an airplane, what of it?) After having flown through the Abu Dhabi airport twice already (and having looked at my pictures of it on the blog so many times), it felt familiar and oddly comforting to be there. My heart warmed at the site of the brilliantly colored mosaic ceiling of the terminal… IMG_1106And then, of course, there’s the prayer room next to the bathroom, where I think many women go to nap just as much as they go to pray. I can’t say for sure, as I’ve never ventured inside, but the horizontal (sleepy) postures I observed while walking past the open door were a telling sign… IMG_1111A few hours layover in Abu Dhabi, a 3+ hour flight, and FINALLY I arrived in Kathmandu. I was stinky and exhausted, but otherwise happy to have made it. A quick trip through immigration and a short panic about a potentially (but ultimately not) lost bag, and we were out of the airport and into a taxi. Here we are, happy (and tired) on our first morning in Kathmandu…

IMG_1116       IMG_1118 Our first days in town were spent staying with Drew’s family friends in an outlying neighborhood in the far north of the city…

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You might remember this family from my last trip to Kathmandu. Drew has known them for 13 years and lived with them during his first year in Nepal – charming Sunil Tamang and his lovely parents Dorche and Karma. And you might also remember that Dorche guided our trek the last time we were here. Here’s a picture from 2012…

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They took very good care of us, feeding us delicious homemade meals several times a day (oh dal bhat, how I missed you!) Of course, it is Nepali custom to heap a guest’s plate very high with food – too high in this foreigner’s opinion – and this became a real challenge for me after a few days’ eating. It’s just… SO… MUCH… rice! Luckily the ties between Drew and this family run strong and deep, so they didn’t seem too offended when I couldn’t finish my food and gave the left-overs to Drew. Normally, this is something you should NEVER do in Nepal. As a guest in someone’s home, you must clean your plate and you should never eat off another person’s plate, as once their lips have touched it, it is considered juto (“polluted”). Sunil laughed off my faux pas, telling me that I “don’t yet have a Nepali stomach.” Ha! He certainly speaks the truth.

In fact, Drew has taught me a few useful phrases for just these situations: Pugyo (“Full” or “I have reached the limit”) and the slightly more complex, Thorai bhat rakhi dinus. Masanga bideshi bit cha (“Please put a small amount of rice. I have a foreigner’s stomach”). I have committed these phrases to memory and have already used them several times. The jury is still out on whether or not they actually help, though. Mostly, people just seem to laugh and continue piling on the rice. Oh, well. I try.

(And a note on my Nepali for those of you who actually speak Nepali: I’m sure I’m making -and will continue to make- several spelling and grammar errors. I’m trying my best, so please, be kind and forgive me!)

After our few days at Sunil’s house and a few stumbling blocks, we found ourselves a place to live for the next two months. And much to my surprise, we’re back in our old neighborhood of Jhamsikhel! Drew had been telling me for months that living in Jhamsikhel was absolutely NOT a possibility, despite all my playful (but persistent) pleading.  However, in an odd twist of fate, it turns out that the art school where I’ll be attending classes in order to get a student visa has recently moved to the Patan/Lalitpur side of town.  This is quite a haul from where we originally planned to live in the north of the city, so we had to be flexible and change up our plans. In the taxi to Sunil’s house on our first day here, we passed a random sign that read, “Be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods.” This is possibly the most wonderful and useful bit of ‘street philosophy’ that I’ve encountered in Nepal, and it certainly helped me get through the difficult days of figuring out our living situation. It became a mantra of sorts, and I know it will come in handy MANY times more while we are here.

So now we live just a few minutes walk from our old place, on a quiet dead-end street, on the second floor of a family home – the family who owns one of our old neighborhood haunts, as a matter of fact (Cafe Soma)…

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Our street, the house, and our (ridiculously large) apartment…

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Our foyer -ahem- complete with couches! Because, you know… you need a couch in the hallway. You might get tired and need to sit down.

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Our spacious kitchen with a 3-burner gas stove AND a toaster oven! Woohoo!

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The sunny living room – the warmest room inside the house right now…

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Our bedroom…

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And yes, a SECOND bedroom – the perfect place for Drew to explode all his stuff where I don’t have to see it and be bothered by it. Hooray! If only we could afford to live this way in the States…

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Our bathroom with solar-heated hot(ish) water – now we’re talkin’!

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And our private balcony and view – without a doubt, my favorite part of the apartment and where I spend most of my time at home (during the daytime, anyway). It gets great sun and is definitely the best place to warm up after a chilly winter’s eve…

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The neighborhood kids are constantly playing in the street, and I enjoy hearing them from the balcony. Although, I haven’t figured out why the never seem to be in school…

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It’s amazing how apartment-hunting has changed for us here in Nepal. We’re less concerned with getting a place with hardwood floors and nice natural light, and more interested in whether or not there is hot water and if there’s an inverter to keep the lights on during the extensive daily power outages (more on that later). These things are all about perspective, aren’t they?

Returning to Jhamsikhel has been an interesting experience. In some ways, it feels like coming home – a familiar and relatively quiet, clean, and calm oasis in the midst of Kathmandu’s chaos. And for this, I am truly grateful – it certainly helps mitigate the pretty intense culture shock I’ve been experiencing since my arrival. In other ways, though, it feels a bit more sterile and impersonal than it did before, as it has become quite developed and… well… gentrified (if that’s the correct word) over the past 2.5 years. This is a bideshi’s (foreigner’s) haven, full of cafes, restaurants, young families, NGO workers, and wealthy middle-class Nepalis. It was like this when we were here last time, of course, but recent infrastructure developments make it all even more apparent, and in some ways, have caused the area to lose a bit of its Nepali charm – at least for me.

For example, many of the roads have been re-paved and widened to make room for sidewalks. SIDEWALKS! On streets this size in Kathmandu (small neighborhood streets rather than the large multi-lane roads), this is practically unheard of. And many of these sidewalks have metal railings to boot – for safety? To prevent pedestrians from walking in the street? (Which is a huge part of the Nepali culture, by the way – it’s just what one does, mostly because there generally aren’t sidewalks anywhere! But even here in Jhamsikhel with the fancy new sidewalks, I see many Nepalis opting for the street for no apparent reason other than it’s what they are used to doing)…

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And there are crosswalks now too! At Jhamsikhel Chowk (intersection) – which is arguably still lacking stop signs/lights and is ever chaotic – but still… crosswalks? It just feels odd…

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Believe it or not, these two pictures are of the same house. On the left, circa now… on the right, circa 2012:

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See what I mean about that lost charm?

Our veggie shop has expanded to twice its original size, many new restaurants have sprung up throughout the neighborhood, a fairly large grocery store has opened up on the corner down the road from us, and the small independent tailor’s shop where I once had my kurtha fixed (in 2012) is now a Certified Apple Reseller. Well, THAT probably says it all, doesn’t it? And then of course, there’s the bougie local/organic “Farmer’s Mart” that sells grains and produce at exorbitant prices I imagine few Nepalis can (or are willing) to pay…

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(Although, I must say – I’m happy to have a place to recycle our plastic bottles).

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You might be thinking, “But Brenna, this is progress! This is a good thing!” And to some extent, I agree. I like sidewalks and crosswalks. I like the convenience of a grocery store nearby, clean(ish) streets, and other amenities. I am a horribly spoiled Western bideshi, after all. However, as far as I can see, this progress is only taking place in certain areas – namely where wealthy Nepalis and foreigners live and work. And there’s the rub. Who are these improvements for? At what cost are they being implemented? (And to whom?)  Who benefits and is there a cultural price to be paid? Meaning, are these areas losing their quintessentially Nepali characteristics (whatever that means) and becoming more Westernized? I don’t know. I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I suppose this is the same debate that’s happening all over the world – even in the States where poor inner-city neighborhoods are gentrified more and more each year, displacing the original residents. It’s complicated and messy, and I certainly have no license to come here as an outsider and make sweeping judgements about how things should or should not be. The whole situation just gets me thinking, that’s all.

Hmmmm. This is probably a good time to make my disclaimer, as I did on the blog a few years ago: Everything written here is from my personal perspective. I in no way posit that my perceptions definitively describe “how things are,” or encompass some kind of cold, hard truth. These blog posts are merely a record of my experiences and observations, as I see them through my own cultural / spiritual / personal lens. Okay? Okay.

With that said, there are certainly many things here in Kathmandu that feel very much the same to me. Many things that, upon seeing them, I remember with a chuckle and a smile. Like the water bottles, for example. They still have some of the best brand names for bottled water ever…

IMG_1189 IMG_1217The quirky domestic decor remains the same, and still makes me giggle. Like the Spiderman rug in the hotel our first night in town, or the strange photo/sticker that is pasted to one of the mirrors in our apartment…

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And then there’s the signage… oh, the signage! It’s just too good!

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I find that human tailors are generally the best kind of tailors…

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“Liquor World: Indulge in Luxury” – aaawwww yeah!

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And “Jeans Zoo” – possibly my most favorite sign OF ALL TIME. That is, indeed, an enormous pair of jeans hanging to announce the store’s location. Brilliant.

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There will be more photos like these in the months to come, I’m sure.

And then there’s the bamboo scaffolding, which I still adore…

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And the momo’s, of course… oh, those precious precious momo’s…

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(For those of you who don’t know, momo’s are Tibetan dumplings that are usually stuffed with meat, like buff (water buffalo) or chicken. But never fear, vegetarians – you can get veggie momos too!)

And of course, there are the holidays. Oh, so many holidays – how could I forget?! Nepal is an incredibly diverse country, full of many different ethnic groups who practice several religious traditions, so of course, this makes for lots of holidays. Within our first week in Kathmandu, we celebrated the holiday of Magh Sankranti – the first day of the Nepalese month of Magh. The preceding Nepalese month of Poush is considered unlucky, to the point where most religious ceremonies, weddings, and even moves between residences are avoided, so the switch over to Magh is reason for celebration, indeed! We were staying with Sunil and his family at the time, and although they don’t celebrate the holiday to the extent other Nepalis do (or as I’ve read), they still enjoy a traditional soup made with several types of beans and grains, as well as a bit of cold cooked taro root…

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And while speaking of things that remain the same for me here in Kathmandu, I have to mention the walls, gates, doors, and windows – I’m still obsessed and my camera continues to find its way to them (more of these photos to come in future!)…

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And remember this little guy from last time?

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Well, that wall has since been torn down, BUT I’ve managed to find him elsewhere, thank goodness. He makes me smile. I mean, really, is he the cutest thing ever or what?!

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Kathmandu remains the colorful city it was 2.5 years ago – from the women’s saris, to the flowers, to the sunny blue skies, to the brightly painted houses and trucks, color is EVERYWHERE here…

IMG_0137       IMG_0241 IMG_0229       IMG_0029 IMG_1145       IMG_0298 IMG_1155Of course, there are also the things that I see or experience which I remember not with a smile, but rather a sigh and sense of resignation. The classic Nepali expression “Nepal este ho” (“Nepal is like that”) escapes my lips, and I wish things could be different. For example, there’s the horrible air pollution (notably a Kathmandu-specific problem, but still)…

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The insane traffic remains the same, which has cars, motorcycles, buses, trucks, bicycles and pedestrians all jamming themselves into tiny streets, vying for space to move through tight curves and narrow passages.  There are few streets with actual lanes (and it seems these are mere suggestions rather than hard and fast boundaries, anyway) and almost entirely no stop lights or signs at intersections. In this densely populated city with many, MANY people on the road trying to get from Point A to Point B, it can be a harrowing and stressful journey traversing these chaotic streets, no matter what form of transportation you choose…

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The stray dog situation remains a problem, and even though I kind of like having these cute little buddies around in some way, the whole situation mostly just makes me sad…

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And of course, there’s the electricity problem that, as I’ve learned, is even worse in the winter. “Load shedding” is a term I heard last time I was here, but it has taken on new meaning now, as the scheduled daily power outages are far worse in the dry, winter season. We’re talking 12 hours a day with no electricity! (Check out the outage schedule for our ‘zone’ below). And we are lucky – our apartment has an inverter to keep the lights on and our computers/phones charged during these outages. The majority of people living in Kathmandu don’t have this luxury and are left quite literally in the dark…

IMG_1115       IMG_0172 IMG_0164And even when our inverter is running, not everything is working, like our refrigerator or toaster oven, for example. So, you know… we adapt.

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A discussion of what remains the same here in Kathmandu would not be complete if I didn’t mention the bandhs (“strikes”). You may remember something about this from my last time in Nepal (read more here), and the situation seems to remain the same.  Businesses close for most of the day (or like to appear closed, anyway), classes are canceled, and just about all transportation is halted. Here’s the Ring Road – arguably Kathmandu’s busiest and most trafficked street – during the bandh on January 13th. The street is never this clear during the day! At least, unless there’s a bandh, of course…

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In fact, the bandh situation seems worse now than it was the last time I was here. We’ve been in Kathmandu for 12 days and have already been through two bandhs, with a few more being threatened and then canceled. They are especially prominent now because the second Constitutional Assembly – charged with writing the country’s new constitution after the end of the civil war nine years ago – is failing to accomplish their goal. Again. (Their deadline was today, in fact). I’ll have to leave it there for now, though, as Nepali politics are incredibly complicated and I am only just beginning to barely understand the situation. Let if suffice to say that people are angry and fed up (I mean, no constitution for NINE years!?), and there will likely be many more bandhs in our future as the situation develops.       Nepal este ho.

And with that, I’ll end this post. I hate to do so on a somewhat negative note, but I think it’s best to stop here. This has somehow become the longest post EVER – I apologize!  If you are still reading, I applaud you – and I thank you too!

Quickly, though, before I go – what do you think of the small picture format? Hopefully you’ve realized by now that you can click on them to get a larger, more detailed look. I assume the smaller photos make load times better, so that’s a plus, but would you rather see the pictures in a larger format without having to click on them? Even if that makes loading the website a little slower? Please leave me a comment and let me know your thoughts – I’m trying to utilize this new blogging platform for the best viewing/reading experience possible. Thanks!

Anywho… more dispatches from Kathmandu coming soon!

11 thoughts on “Well, here we go again!

  1. Love! I like the small pictures. Easy to upload and easy to click if you want it bigger! So excited for you! Hope you see my rooster soon! Love you!

  2. Oops. Didn’t realize that would go public. Regardless, perhaps it will inspire others to sign up and enjoy your journey!

  3. Brenna, I read every word with total engagement! As close to being there as it gets!! I am sending your blog and address on to Danielle ( at Pligrim’s Landing). She is heading off Ona new adventure to S. India where she will be doing some travel to sacred sites and yoga at the Vedanta Shivarando Ashram (sp?)😁 in 3 weeks for 3 Weeks. Can’t wait for next time. stay awake and well. lol Anne

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Anne! Make sure you click on the “follow” link on the bottom right-hand corner so you can be notified of new posts. :- ) Exciting for Danielle – wow! When will you organize a trip of Pilgrim’s Landing folks to Nepal? :- )

  4. Brenna, I’m enjoying the armchair travel to Nepal via your blog. Wish I could come visit for real. Perhaps one day–before it becomes too westernized. I’d love for Elliot to learn “in vivo” about other cultures.

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