Saturday, February 27, 2010

Holi War, Nepal

I feel like we're in the middle of a war zone. Dressed in our "war uniforms" of raincoats we must constantly look up, right, left, and behind ourselves as we navigate our way through Thamel, Kathmandu in search of food. We begin each journey by peering out from behind the building walls to the street in front of us to see if our "enemies" are there. And then we must walk as fast as possible to the next alley way to hide if we can't make it to our final destination in time. No, the Maoists have not gone crazy constructing roadblocks again. And no, India and China have not decided to battle it out for Nepal - no, no, it's just Holi. Holi is a day - or weekend really - when boys of any age (far beyond an age when it would be considered cute) fill plastic bags ("balloons") with water, paint, and god knows what else and then proceed to throw these balloons at any passerbys - especially girls. Unfortunately for our sake Kathmandu is a city built on tiny streets and alleyways with rooftops and balconies hovering over you. There is no where to hide. You are guaranteed to get hit from every direction with the greeting of "Happy Holi."

As Kelly mentioned in the last blog, electricity here is comical. Nepal is entirely dependent on hydroelectricity and since it is the dry season, the river beds are low so electricity is more or less nonexistent. But somehow the Nepali boys have found more than enough water to fill these balloons with (to mix the paint in) -- not only wasting water but also adding to the ever-present trash that covers the streets, definitely putting Kathmandu ahead in the running for world's most polluted city. I'm still trying to figure out how this HOLI-day began and what exactly they're celebrating. For now I'm safe in the guesthouse's generator-run internet cafe. But as soon as we get hungry again, we'll have to face our brightly-covered friends in the 'zone. Wish us luck.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

hello from the himalayas

I apologize that is has been sooo long since my last post! The main reason is that Nepal only has electricity about 5 hours a day- which happen to be during the hours we are normally sleeping. We thought losing power 5 times a day in Bangladesh was bad. We were wrong.
We arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal on Feb. 15 and the moment we arrived at our hotel- 4pm- the power went out- meaning our room was dark and freezing cold. We requested extra blankets, were too cold to shower, and got in bed at 7:30pm- not to emerge from our respective cocoons of warmth until almost 10am. The night before we bought a Nepali cell phone and were able to call home for the first time!
On Feb. 16 Zach arrived and although we planned to go visit expat prisoners in the Kathmandu jail we ended up hanging out in Thamel, the backpacker district where we were staying, and eating and book shopping. We also planned out the rest of our time in Nepal- which was to include a few day trips and a 4-day Himalaya trek- which some of us have come to regret....
On the 17th- the fourth day of the Tibetan new year- we went to Boudha to circumambulate (walk in circles) around the stupa- where a ceremony was taking place. We returned to Thamel in time to catch our taxi to Nagarkot- 1.5 hours out of Kathmandu and a great place to get a view of the Himalayas. We stayed at a place called Hotel at the End of the Universe- and it felt like it. It was perched on the edge of a cliff, far away from any other hotel or restaurant, so instead of venturing out we played cards for about 3 hours waiting for the sun to set. Unfortunately it was a bit foggy/hazy for a great sunset- and it got cold really fast- so we huddled at the hotel restaurant, ordered a pot of hot chocolate, and went to sleep- hoping for a brilliant sunrise.
The morning view did not disappoint! And little did we know that this would be only one of the many amazing views we could see over the next week.
On the 19th we headed out of the capital to the city of Pokhara, an eventful 7-hour bus ride away (we had some steering issues at one point). Upon arrival we rented sleeping bags and jackets in preparation for the next morning's departure up to the mountains. Our enthusiastic guide, Zeban, was to accompany us for the duration of the trip. After a 1.5 hour windy ride up to Nayapul we were dropped off, not to see civilization again for 4 days. After about 15 minutes of walking- when we stopped for lunch- Mason and I looked at each other and seriously thought about reconsidering. At this point- she really wishes she had!
The first day took about 4.5 hours- we stopped at a tea house in Tikkedunga for the night- and were then told by Zeban that the next morning we would have to climb over 3200 stairs- consecutively. We didn't think much of it until the steps began the next morning- a seemingly endless hell. Hours later we made it to the "top"- we still had many hours ahead of us before quitting time- and I though Mason was going to behead me for suggesting that a Nepal trek might be fun.
Finally we made it to the town of Ghorepani-2570 meters-where we sat by the fire in the common room and ate some apple pie.
The plan for the next morning: rise at 5am and head up to Poon Hill at 3200m to see the sunrise over the mountains. Well, it all went according to plan until we were 4 minutes into the walk- at about 5:34am- and Mason and Zach decided to go back to bed- leaving me to scale the mountain alone! (Well, with Zeban and my headlamp). I thought the climb was well worth it! The view was awesome. The only drawback being that after returning from Poon Hill we still had a solid 8 hour day ahead of of us. Mid way through the day- as soon as we started descending the mountain via steep stone steps- Mason's knee/leg injury flared up and Zach's knee also gave out- so I was left with 2 pained people for a good 5 hours of trekking. Needless to say it was a bit unpleasant.
I was really enjoying myself until I woke up in the middle of that night stiff and sore, utterly dreading the final day's 5-hour descent. It was a painful day for all of us- but definitely more for them than me- and again- I though Mason would like to kill me in my sleep.
But finally we made it- after a small rain storm dashed any remaining ounce of morale- and we have lived to tell the tale.
This is a very mild version of the story- more details to come- and i'm sure Mason would love to fill everyone in on her hatred of nature and mountains.
Today none of us can walk properly so we basically sat around eating all day.
Heading back to Kathmandu tomorrow.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The World's Second Worst City

You guessed it....Dhaka, Bangladesh.
My Dad passed this article along to me, I don't know about living here, but for foreigners Bangladesh is a rough place. At the moment I'm sitting in our hotel lobby, which is in the aristocratic neighborhood of Dhaka, and I feel like my lungs are being squeezed. Every breath is full of exhaust, dust particles and mosquito spray. I cannot get the dirt out from under my fingernails and I have about 72 mosquito bites- malaria is imminent. Bangladesh is eating away at my immune system.
We've been in Bangladesh for one week and on about the second day we decided to move up our flight by about 4 days. We leave on Monday.

But enough complaining... We came here to partake in a Grameen Bank training program- and for the last four days we've been 200km north of Dhaka in the rural villages outside the city of Rajshahi, near in the Indian border. The journey there took 5.5 hours by bus, and despite the incessant honking, the terrifying recklessness of the driver, and potential bladder infections from lack of a bathroom, we made it one piece.
We stayed in one of Grameen's 2,000+ branches, in a village called Parila. The visit was set to be 3 nights, and when we were shown our dormitory we weren't sure we'd make it that long. The large concrete room had two "beds" which consisted of a thin blanket laid over iron slats. After we found our mosquito nets we hung them haphazardly, creating little forts for ourselves which seemed like the safest place to spend the remainder of the trip.
The situation only got more hilarious when they showed us the "bathroom"- a pit latrine on a pedestal. And a sink with a dribble of water. Truthfully the bathroom was not horrible- and we both consider ourselves pretty pro pit-toilet users now. But no shower...for four days...
Thank goodness for baby wipes.

When forced out of our forts we made the rounds through the villages. Immediately a group would gather behind us and continue growing...and growing...and make us increasingly uncomfortable. Bangladeshi people do not see foreigners very often... if ever.
Those that we were able to spend time with were incredibly sweet- offering us food and drink and hospitality beyond what they could probably afford.
The Grameen Bank has around 8 million borrowers currently, something like 97% of them female. Grameen found out early on that the female borrowers have a much higher repayment rate than the males, and tend to use their loans to better their families, rather than for personal gain. In reality most women are in joint ventures with their husbands- they own plots of land and sell vegetables, work with iron, sell cow's milk or fish, etc.- but the loans are made only to the women, and all paperwork is in their name. The women are incredibly proud of the advancements they've made with the help of Grameen: saving enough to build a new house, owning a small plot of land, consistently putting food on the table. The women were very eager to show us around and show off their goats, cows, and TVs.
We were able to spent time with other people benefitting from Grameen including students taking education or scholarship loans. One university student in particular was a beautiful, smart girl who's dream is to study in America. (Of course this is very common). She asked us if it was possible and we told her that US Under Secretary Judith McHale was just in Bangladesh and spoke about increasing the number of Bangladeshi students in the US from 2,500 to 20,000. (Of course this is not likely to happen anytime soon.)

It's extremely hard to imagine living the life of a Bangladeshi.
We couldn't resist the urge to take 20-minute long showers yesterday upon our return to the hotel, and subsequently went out for Italian food for dinner.
The culture shock is certainly extreme, and we keep reminding ourselves that the culture shock would be just as bad, if not worse, for someone from here to walk off a plane in America.

We've have a few hilarious stories to hopefully I'll get around to those later today.

For those of you wondering- Mason has tried a few times to blog. Earlier this week she wrote a whole post on sex tourism in Thailand but then the electricity at the hotel went out (that tends to happen a few times a day.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Back to the city

After our toast and smoothie breakfast this morning we'll be leaving Kanchanaburi and spending the night in Bangkok before flying to Bangladesh tomorrow a.m.! We finally have our accomodations set up for our first few night in Dhaka and we have a great translator who already has been amazingly helpful. We are glad things have fallen into place and we will begin our Grameen training on Sunday.

Yesterday we had a pretty relaxed day in Kanchanburi. We rented bikes and rode to the famous WWII site, the Bridge of River Kwai. After that we rode to the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum to learn about the history of the bridge and the railway, built by Allied POWs held by the Japanese.

For the rest of the day we hung out by our guesthouse pool- delightful!

Wish us luck in Dhaka!!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Yesterday we took the train out of Bangkok to the riverside town of Kanchanaburi. The third class train, ventilated only by open windows and electric fans attached to the ceiling, was by far out most sweat-inducing outing yet. It was also an-all day event because we arrived at the station a full three hours ahead of time, only to hurry up and wait for the three-hour ride. Upon arrival in Kanchanaburi we found that all the guest houses that were recommended to us (and the only ones with pools) were booked, so we pouted about that for awhile before deciding upon Ploy guesthouse. Luckily this morning our first choice guest house, Pong Phen, said they have availabilty so we'll be poolside there tomorrow! Today we took a local bus an hour north to Erawan National Park- home to a beautiful seven-tier waterfall. Unfortunately I severely offended a monk on the bus ride there by sitting within an arm's length of him. We weren't sure why he was so grumpy the whole ride and why he kept shooing me away- until Mason rememberd- 5 minutes AFTER we got off the bus- the no females within arm's lenth rule.
Finally we made it to the water and were comleted refreshed after jumping in. We only jumped to get away from the fish that descend upon and nibble on your feet if you stand in shallow water. That creeped the heck out of us so we decided to tread water out in the middle. After a few more hours of taking in the pretty waterfalls we headed back to town on the bus (no monks to offend this time luckily). Now we're looking forward to dinner and a movie at our guest house. Last night we ate dinner there and they were showing what we think was the season finale of Prison Break- captivating.
We are also really looking forward to dinner because it has become the only real meal we eat each day. For the last three days we've had breakfast at our guest house which consitis of fruit and 2 slices of toast. It is a great meal but usually not enough to last all day- however- we have had to make it last (with only a Luna bar as a supplment) due to a. running around greater bangkok trying to get our Cambodia and Lao visas (which we did successfully on Monday), b. being stuck on the train (yesterday), and c. being stuck at the waterfalls (today).