November 30, 2006

Gross Anatomy Amidst Rice Fields

The world sometimes feels like a small place. What are the chances I would know someone who knew someone who lives in Dhulikhel, Nepal? And that I would get a thourough tour of the almost completed Basic Sciences building of the Kathmandu University medical campus?

My friend Aimee, who taught for 6 weeks at Kathmandu University as part of a joint Harvard Med School program, put me in touch with a friend of hers, DG and his wife Laxmi. We are always interested in meeting locals or expats in the places we travel to. It gives an entire extra dimension to visit – observing first hand small customs (instead of just reading about it), and being served a home cooked meal is always fun and enlightening.

Our dubious travel karma continued as we took a cab to the city bus station. DG told me that it was 30 rupees to take the bus, easily recognizable because there would be a guy standing in the door of the bus shouting “Dhulikel Dhulikel Dhulikel” over and over as fast as an auctioneer. When the taxi driver heard where we wanted to go, he was sad, shaking his head, and kindly let us know that there was Maoist strike, and that buses were not traveling to Dhulikhel that day. But he, as a taxi, would be allowed to pass, and he would take us for a mere 9000 rupees. We refused to heed him, and said we would check at the bus station anyway. We were dropped off at a bus station, and asked for Dhulikhel, and all we got were people shaking their heads at us, understanding we wanted to go to Dhulikhel, but not speaking English. We looked at each other and thought for a moment that the taxi driver was actually right, when we decided to ask a random guy on the street who looked like he might speak English.

In fact, he directed us around the corner, to the Intercity bus terminal, and not the long distance terminal! The cab driver deliberately tried to trick us by dumping us at the wrong bus station, which of course would not have buses to Dhulikhel. Gotta be on our toes…

DG met us on the side of the road, and took us to his home on the campus and to meet his wife. Kathmandu University (KU) was located among lush rolling green hills covered with terraced rice paddies. His home, temporary housing provided by KU for staff, consisted of a one room hut with a tin roof, covering no more than 300 square feet, with a patch of land for gardening. It was cozy, and homey, and we were warmly welcomed. Laxmi had a meal waiting for us as we settled in, and were served a delicious Nepali meal of several preparations of potatoes, dal bhat (lentils, much more soup like than I had imagined) and rice. I am always thrilled when I get to taste home cooked meals, and see what kind of semblance there is to what is served in the restaurants!

We were treated to the story of how DG and his wife met. In short, acting on his sister’s pre-screening of the girl and her family, he choose Laxmi within THREE HOURS of meeting her, and they were married by the end of the weekend. That takes the cake for shortest dating AND engagement time yet. :)

DG was very gracious, and took pains to set up a thourough tour of KU despite his clearly busy schedule. KU is a small private university, only 10 years old, but we could see from the bustle of activity and construction it had big plans for expansion. I was also shown their new Basic research building, with all the seriousness of hosting a visiting NIH delegation on their part. I am sure they did not know exactly what to make of me -they knew that I was a molecular biologist somehow associated with Harvard Medical School, though I was clearly there on non-official capacity, dressed in a polo shirt, jeans and Tevas. We were shown the gross anatomy lab, and they even offered to show me the cadavers they had in the giant freezers…uh, no thanks. Lots of jars of pickled and preserved human organs dotted the room.

We were spared the city buses and put on the staff and student buses headed back to Kathmandu. Riding in a school bus with 50 rowdy college students in Nepal was another one of those unexpected experiences. Loud music blared over the bus speakers, scenes of country life whizzed by outside the window, and we had our first smooth transportation experience in Nepal.

We had a great time – so many thanks to DG and Aimee :)

November 27, 2006

Manifest Density

Kathmandu is one of the densest and most crowded places I’ve ever been. Throngs of people, snarls of traffic, riots of color and sound assault and overwhelm the senses. Though it looks and sounds like chaos manifested, it all seems to flow smoothly.

Kathmandu traffic is insane. In many parts of the city there are no sidewalks, traffic signs, lights, lanes, double yellow lines or any of the other markings we take for granted. I like to think of myself as a pretty good observer of my surroundings, but it took me over 15 minutes to realize which side of the road Nepalis drive on (the left). The road is shared not only by cars and buses, but bikes, motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, taxis, people, and street peddlers. Everyone creates their own lane, and the speedy maneuverable motorcycles stream wherever there is an open space, weaving back and forth between sides. Rickshaws plow head first into throngs of people, and magically a path clears. Bells, whistles, and car horns constantly screech the presence of their drivers to the rest of the world. Jonathan stood by the roadside one day and found he could only count to three before another honk or noxious noise pierced the air.

Taking a right turn across traffic in our rickshaw actually made me put my hands up to cover my eyes – I literally couldn’t watch, because I was sure we were going to die.

Besides being riddled with potholes and dirt patches, the roads became even more like obstacle courses due to the random piles of trash strewn in the streets. The trash is just swept into heaps, and then sits there. We couldn’t discern any sort of trash collection the 6 days we were there.

And yet, it all worked together somehow. People flowed and went about their daily business, shopkeepers hawked their wares, women sold fruit and vegetables while men prayed and placed offerings on thousand year old religious shrines on the side of the road. The city had a festive spirit as people prepared for the upcoming 5 day holiday of Tihar, and shops were decorated with garlands of flowers and holiday sweets were sold.

Amazingly, we got used to it in just a few short days. It seemed natural to pick our way along the narrow streets, and to move my arm up out of the way to avoid being hit a car’s rearview mirror zooming by. We stepped blithely around the trash, and learned to hold our ground against oncoming honking motorcycles.

And viva Thamel, the tourist ghetto, where we savored the first Diet Coke, Pizza and baked goods since leaving Beijing…:)

November 25, 2006

Warmth and friendliness

Despite the stressful trip into Kathmandu, there were some highlights during the day that would never have happened if we had a simple, straightforward, easy taxi ride into the city.

I spent a lot of time sitting by the side of the road guarding luggage, as Jonathan went off to find the next ride towards Kathmandu. Despite being anxious about the situation, it felt luxurious to be sitting in the grass, warm and feeling the sun on my face. It was a welcome change after the cold and skin cracking dryness of high altitude. I gazed at the mango and banana trees dotting the valley and marvelled at the precise terracing of the rice fields, while chickens pecked and goats chewed on grass besides me.

Groups of women walked by in beautiful flowing saris, kids in school uniforms, and men in traditional round cloth hats frequented the small roadside shops across the road. I discovered that Nepali men commonly walk holding each others’ hands – as natural for them as it would be stange in the US.

I found that the Nepali are curious but polite people. Passerbys would stare at me, but once I caught them looking they would quickly look away. I would call out “Namaste!”, and instantly a slightly sheepish smile would break out, and “Namaste” would be warmly returned. I imagine they don’t see foreign women stuck alone on the side of the road with a pile of 8 bags in front of them very often. (Or maybe they do, given the number of transportation strikes!)

A teenage boy who was selling bolts of cloth saw me, and started to pester me for money and candy, etc. He was harmless, but a little annoying when he wouldn’t go away. A circle of old women sitting on their balcony, with whom I had made friends with earlier by waving and shouting “Namaste!”, started in concert to lecture him from above. Ah, the village elders. Some things don’t need any translation – the effect on the boy was immediate. He rolled his eyes (but when only faced towards me), and slunk away.

Our first meal in Nepal was delicious – doubly so since we hadn’t eaten for 8 hours since leaving the Chinese border in the morning. We sat at a roadside restaurant and ordered the Nepali Set Meal to share, which came with curry vegetables, rice, a green stewed vegetable, lentil soup (dal) and some sort of salad, each in its own little copper dish. Jonathan and I shared food as our usual custom, eating off of one plate, sampling this and that. We devoured the meal, since we weren’t sure whether at any point we’d have to be ready to get on the next mode of transportation to Kathmandu.

We had a few minutes to kill after the meal, and flipped through the Lonely Planet Nepal, reading the highlighted “Dos and Don’ts” concerning Nepali etiquette. Number 1, the Number 1 item listed went something like ” Do not share food or utensils. This is considered to ritually contaminate the food”. We looked at each other and thought back to our unintended complete and utter trampling on this cultural norm.

Oops. Hope the restaurant guys are used to crazy foreigners…

November 19, 2006

Kodari to Kathmandu

We were expecting a fleet of taxis to greet us as we finished crossing the border into Nepal. Touts would be shouting “You go to Kathmandu?”, as they competed to get tourists as they exited the visa office. As our trusty Lonely Planet states, we should pay about 1500 rupees ($20) for a four hour ride to Kathmandu, the capital.

What we found were no taxis, a snaking line of 20 Landrovers holding irate French tourists, and complete confusion.

Dozens of enormous trucks were parked diagonally across the only road leading to the city. No one really understood what was going on, and there was some speculation that it was Maoist tactic. The Maoists are a political group that use guerilla tactics to try gain power in the Nepali government. While they generally leave tourists alone, except for charging “fees” when encountered on treks and on the road, they have resorted to kidnappings, general strikes and bombings to get what they want. Later on, we found out that it was actually a trucker’s strike, to put pressure on the government to control the Maoists, who had beat up a truck driver the day before who had refused to pay extortion.

Quick on his feet, Jonathan quickly grasped the situation – that if we didn’t get out of there fast, and ahead of all the other tourists, we could be at the border town for days. We picked up a Nepali named Krishna, who spoke some English, and who promised to help us get to Kathmandu by whatever means possible for a mere 4000 rupees. We walked around to the other side of the roadblock, and Jonathan and Krishna went off to find minivan drivers or any transport that showed up to try to get a ride while I guarded the luggage.

Our first ride was only 8 km down the road before we came to another roadblock. We dutifully got off the minivan, crammed with 20 Nepalis, and walked around the roadblock. Again, Jonathan set off with Krishna to haggle another ride.

In total, we found that the roadblocks were placed every 20-30km or so. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Jonathan was a complete hero, negotiating hard, finding any sort of transportation, trying to get us safely to Kathmandu as fast as possible. We didn’t know whether the situation would get more dangerous, whether there would even be any more transportation after each roadblock, or there would be government retaliation. All we did know is we didn’t want to be stranded in a rural mountain town in Nepal if and when it happened.

We wathced one roadblock go up literally 5 minutes afer we arrived. We saw the truck park across the road diagonally, and people rushing out to furiously trying to talk to the truck driver. Store owners began closing down the metal gates to their storefronts with an air of resignation. Bus loads of people walked wearily into town as buses reached the block and were turned back to where they came from.

I saw an old man giving a piggy back ride to an even older woman slumped across his back, with her bandaged bare feet dangling. As annoying and inconvenient the strike was for us, it really brought home that it could be a matter of life and death for others.

It was unsettling to drive in the dark on twisty downhill hairpin roads. On our longest leg of the journey, Jonathan sat in the back of the open air truck with 12 Nepali men, while I got the comfortable seat inside the cab. We passed a place just waiting to form a road block around 7pm, with 20 trucks lined up on one side of the road. We were waved through, hearing that they wouldn’t start blocking until tomorrow morning.

It was terrifying not to know who to trust – we passed a sketchy Maoist checkpoint, consisting of a bunch of scrawny yet overly macho teenagers wearing red bandanas, where the driver paid something and we were allowed to go on our way. The next stop had “Police” on it, some negotiation ensued, but then we were passed through after inspection. We were both on constant high alert, worried they would detect us tourists.

Just as we got comfortable, we were all booted off half an hour outside the city, and packed ourselves onto a crammed public city bus. The sun had long set, and we were in complete and utter darkness. The bus lights weren’t working, and random strangers whipped out their cell phones to provide minimal light as we got ourselves to the back of the bus and tried to guard our luggage.

After that, the bus dropped us off on the outskirts of Kathamndu, and we hailed a taxi for the final leg to the Kathmandu Guest House. It was almost alticlimactic, but a great relief to finally be there.

In all, we took 6 separate rides, consisting of a jeep, a minivan, public bus #1, open air truck, public bus #2 and taxi to get the 100 km or so to Kathamandu. Nine hours and 7000 rupees later, we were lucky to have made it – the “official” strike was actually scheduled for tomorrow…

Suddenly Saris

The steep descent into the Kathmandu valley from the Tibetan border is one of the most dramatic changes in landscape, people and culture I’ve ever seen.

As we meandered from the heights of Everest in its rocky and barren browness, and down through the cloud layer, I could feel life taking hold again. Leafy green plants apperared, accented by tiny brightly colored wildflowers. Water became abundant, with gushing waterfalls and raging rivers, and the company of trees made me want to cheer. How lonely and desolate the land was on the high mountain plains!

And yet, with nature and life at its lushest, we then descended into the unfortunate byproducts of “civilization”. We came to rest at Zhongmu, the last Chinese town on the border with Nepal. It is literally a one road town – the terrain is so steep that the roadway is the only street in town. Buildings rise straight up from the street, and the road is only wide enough for one and a half vehicles.

This makes traffic a snarl for miles leading to the border town, with goats, herds of sheep, yaks, shepards, motorcycles, taxis, Landrovers and tourist buses and dozens of Chinese trucks carrying cargo clogging the road. There was so much exhaust, and the cacaphony of horns! We stood in the light rain trying hard to not get run over, and wondering what the heck happened in the last few hours.

Then, immediately after crossing into Nepal, it was if we had stepped into yet another world. The weather went from cool and clammy to hot and steamy. Gone were the stiff Chinese officials and Tibetans in their subdued clothing. Suddenly brightly colored and patterened saris (traditional Indian garment) were everywhere, and the people looked more Indian than Chinese. Restaurants hawked dal bhat, curries and Nepali set meals. Bananas and mangoes were on sale, and layers upon layers of terraced fields of wheat hugged the sloping mountain sides.

The change was so dramatic, and so rapid that I (almost) wanted to go back and drive it again.