Saturday, November 1, 2008

End of Tihar ... Tibetan Refugee Camp

This will be my last post for awhile. Tomorrow we head for the bus depot, then begin our 23-hour bus ride to far west Nepal. (Kat is the blue star, follow the blue line west for our first ride. Once we arrive in Dita, we will spend the night, then take a micro bus 4-5 hours due north deep into Bahjang. From there, it will be a two-hour walk to our first stop. We're not sure how many stops we will make after that, as we head back towards Kat. After that, the walking will begin! The second stop will be a two-days' walk from where the bus drops us off. We do not have planned locations for sleeping; the plan is to ask for floor space along the way. Let the adventure begin!!

So ... the other night was the last night of Tihar. Anna and I walked with two other girls down to the bazar to see the lights at evening. The square was buzzing with activity. We meandered through the ancient Hindu ruins (circa 800 a.d.) and found our way to a buddhist enclave where worshippers were lighting candles, ringing bells and generally wandering around. Sheep and goats were mingling with the people, some still sporting touches of color from earlier in the festival where they get to wear color too.

After a few hours of wandering, we headed back to the flat. By this time, early evening, the bazar was busier than ever. We passed women lighting the candles for Lakshmi and the market stands mobbed by people planning their holiday meal. With the setting sun, the streets took on an exotic feel, emphasizing to me how far from home I really am!

The next day (yesterday), I was reading through the Lonely Planet when I read a description of a great carpet factory right in Anna's neighborhood (Patan). The exciting thing was it was operated by refugees in a Tibetan camp right there. Anna told me a friend (Christine) whom I had met the other night worked with some of the people there. So later that morning, when Christine stopped in at the office, I asked if she could take me there some time. A few minutes later, we were on our way.

Of the tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees living in Nepal, only a tiny percentage (maybe a few thousand) have actual papers. Camps such as this one in Patan are largely self-sufficient after training its population in the craft of carpet weaving. Skilled workmanship and a unique method of knot-tying make these a valuable commodity to locals and tourists alike.

The multi-story building houses a offices on the uppermost floor, a large showroom on the floor below, and the factory itself on the ground floor. A large work area with windows all around is filled with looms of all sizes. All of the workers are women. Some are working alone on chair pads and small area rugs. Others are working in teams of two and three on large floor rugs. A few women are standing on chairs to thread the looms for the large carpets. Several are seated on stacks of cushions deftly working the shuttle back and forth, snipping the ends, tying the knots ... softly gossiping or singing to themselves.

In another building, the Nepali wool is being carded and spun into piles of soft threads to be dyed and coiled into the skeins used for the carpets. Again, all the workers are women, seated around the large, airy room. Occasionally the quiet hum of spinning wheels is shattered when a large speaker near the doorway roars to life in a series of announcements for the workers. Honestly, the one poor woman working right beneath it all day must be deaf!

Next, Christine took me across the street into the main compound of the camp. The buddhist temple was just inside the gate.

A few small shops lined the short road leading into the housing area. Perhaps the most sobering (and really not accessible) building was for the elderly, where 4-5 people share a small room without furniture, only mats for sleeping and sitting. It is hard to imagine how they feel, estranged from their homeland and a way of life they may never get to experience again.

Just beyond the apartments was the child care center. These kids were, at the risk of sounding cliché, adorable! The women seemed somewhat harried, though a few actually dozed in the corners despite the chaos all around them.

One small room had about 8 children nursery-school age. An older lady sat knitting while the kids played. Teacher's day off? Christine tells me that many times the kids are discouraged from making any noise, yet not given anything constructive to do. Outside the classroom, in the open area, older children would wander in and out, pausing to play and help with the younger kids.

So, tomorrow I'm off with Anna and Vania to the far west. I'm sure I'll have alot to post when I get back. But for the time-being, I hope I have posted enough photos to last for the next two and half weeks!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Festival, Bazar, + Kurtas

Okay ... I've been here a couple of days, time for catch up! Internet access has been a bit frustrating. For some reason, my computer will not hook via Anna's cable, only her modem. [yes, read: slow]. Not to mention you pay for the phone call with the modem hook-up. Something I found out about after a three-hour session answering emails and chatting with home. Hm. I wonder what that bill will look like!

My first night here I spent alone in Anna's flat. In the morning, I awoke to a cacophony of sound. Pigeons flapping against the windows (hence the 40ft. of pigeon spikes I carried with me), what I thought to be a bull (but was told later it's the tiger in the zoo next door), and a rooster in the distance.

Light comes up slowly in the morning. Those are pretty high mountains the sun needs to traverse to reach this valley city. Barely 9am, and the intermittent fireworks start, sounding like gun shots, scattering pigeons, celebrating the 5-day festival of Tihar. By night fall, the sporadic, sharp bangs continue, with barely a hint of color to suggest their location. Ironically, we learned last night that the new government had outlawed them just a few days prior to the festival. And yet, as Anna observed, there seem to be more this year than ever in the past.

Anna's neighborhood is in Patan, a quiet suburb (sort of) of Kat. Homes and small shops mingle nondescriptly along the narrow streets.

She has a mini-bike we ride ... truly ideal transportation here. Yesterday, we did a quick bike tour through one of the busy market areas, also taking in part of Kat's ring road. Perched on the back of a bike with someone else driving has got to be one of the best ways to shoot. Especially since the market is so crowded, I think we were only moving .5 miles per hour! Anyway, she's a great driver, and I have no qualms riding and shooting at the same time with her. (Hmm. A Vespa for Christmas?)

Since I've been here, the Tiwar festival has been in progress. It's known as the festival of lights... even, ironically, in a city where the power shuts off intermittently throughout the evening. It's more of a home celebration. Walking the streets, you can see people preparing small colorful altars outside their doors with candles to light the way of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Often, there is a painted path stenciled with footprints to guide her into the dwelling. Tonight, I'm hoping to get some shots in the city-proper where strings of lights are hung on the buildings.

This morning, we woke up early and headed down to a river bordered by a temple complex on one side. Often, there are cremations going on here, but because of the holiday, the place was pretty quiet.

We headed back through Mangal Bazar to find ready-made kurta's for me for the trek.

Have I mentioned how nice the people here are? I have yet to have anyone ask me for money, and people are extremely helpful. Today, when a shop with ready-made kurtas was closed for the holiday, the owner was found and he opened up just for Anna and I. Not only that, he dropped the prices before we asked him to. Then, he offered to make some tailoring adjustments at no additional charge -- all ready for pick up the next day.

The trek is looming before us. We still do not have the final plans, but it sounds as though we will be leaving Saturday or Sunday, will take the East-West road to far west Nepal, then trek due north to a village. From there, we will make our back toward Kathmandu, stopping along other villages along the way. Along with some spectacular views, adventures ahead may include treacherous mountain roads, (though I was assured the group hasn't lost anyone yet), leeches, roadside water spigot showers, and knocking on doors asking for a place to sleep. (Hmm. Melissa, please book me for a spa day when I get back!).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Made the flight from NYC without incident. Well, the totally unexpected upgrade from Abu Dhabi to Kathmandu was somewhat of an incident, but definitely not in the negative sense... Etihad Airways rocks!

I've already met some interesting people. On the shuttle from Brooke's flat in nyc, I met the driver ... Juan from Paraguay. I think the first Paraguaian (?) I've met. Then, we picked up an Austrailian couple. The woman is a best-selling cookbook author there, and had been in NYC to find a publisher for an American version of her book. She had been overweight since she was a little girl. Then, 16 years ago, she saw a photo of her 230-lb self in a bathing suit and knew she had to lose weight. She gave up dieting and focused on modifying her cooking instead. It worked very well, and her friends asked for those modified recipes and ... and, voilà. Looking at her, one would never guess she ever weighed that much! Her name is Annette Sym, and her website is I fully expect to see her show on the Food Network.

I met another interesting couple boarding the flight from nyc. They were heading to Kathmandu to visit their daughter, a field director for Médecins du Monde, a French group which starts and maintains clinics in remote, underserved areas. I'm hoping to catch up with her and offer photo services during the limited free time I'll have.

The Himalayan mountains sharply rise above the clouds.

First view of Katmandu...

Arriving in Kat was pretty perfunctory. Visa was purchased, luggage collected, then out into the sea of relatives, drivers, and tour group guides jostling signs, jockeying for the most visible positions. There were a lot of signs for assorted Everest groups. [Really, that has to be one of the most crowded peaks on the planet].

Unfortunately, the "Alabaster" sign attached to the Korean girl wasn't to be found. Unlike Cairo, the taxi drivers here seem polite and non-molesting. A couple of drivers waiting for an Everest group offered to call my ride for me, but considering I didn't know her name, nor have a number ... well, I realized I seemed quite under-informed.

Had I not eventually found Joanne, my back-up plan was to go to the guy holding the 'Hyatt' sign ... chill until Anna returned the next day, then reach her on skype. As it was, once the crowds thinned out, the small Korean girl with the coveted 'Alabaster' placard appeared, looking more anxious than I felt. All was well with the world. (Okay. All was well after we trudged up the 80 steps to Anna's flat with 150lbs of baggage.) The large rooftop terrace just outside the door has made every one of those steps worthwhile.

Kathmandu lies in the midst of the mountains.

Anna's flat is in a building much like this one next door.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Any minute I should be boarding the Etihad flight for Kathmandu, via Abu Dhabi. Once again, I find myself on an adventure I never expected. Wished for, but really. Nepal?

I'm heading over to visit my friend Anna who's been living there a few years, now. After a few days in Kat, we'll be heading out to explore the western part of the country (and the more remote). No climbing frigid mountain peaks for us! I'm anticipating leisurely public transportation journeys on so-so roads stopping at villages along the way. Hopefully there will actually be some trekking. If only the occasional half-mile walk from the roadside to the village.

I will actually be arriving while Anna is away on business. At the airport, I'm to meet a Korean girl holding a sign reading "Alabaster'. [How very James Bond]. I've been dutifully warned there will be no power when I get to her flat, but I will find candles on the table.

Internet connections may be spotty, but I'll post when I can... and of course with plenty of photos.

Stay tuned!