Wednesday, November 24, 2010

“They just want to make sure you’re pretty (and wealthy) enough!”

Needed materials to apply for a tourist visa
  • A passport size photo of yourself
  • A filled out application
  • Money
Needed materials to apply for a cell phone:
  • A passport size photo of yourself
  • Photocopy of passport and current visa
  • Both thumbprints
  • The names of your father and grandfather
  • Your permanent and residential addresses
  • Your occupation
  • Money
Needed materials to extend your tourist visa
  • A passport sized photo of yourself
  • A filled out extension application form
  • Attached documents proving the date that you will leave Nepal or the reason for your extension
  • Money
  • Extra money for the “immediate pick-up fee.”
Needed materials to apply for university admission and consequent student visa
  • Two passport sized photos of yourself
  • A Nepali bank statement proving that you do indeed have money
  • Two original admission applications
  • A no-objection letter from the US Embassy
  • A letter of admission to the university
  • Money
Needed materials to apply for a Nepali bank account
  • A passport sized photo of yourself
  • Copies of your employee ID card and a letter from your boss, stating that you do indeed work for this organization or company
  • A copy of your passport and current visa
  • Your occupation
  • Your current and permanent addresses
  • The source of your money, to make sure its obtained by legal means
  • Your father and grandfather’s name
  • A declared beneficiary—in case you die, they know to whom to give your money
  • A map with the location of your current residence marked
  • A promise to bring a photocopy of your renewed visa when this one runs out, and if you move, a new map marking your new residence
  • Money, of course
At least no one asked me for my SSN!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pumpkin Spice Bread


* 3 cups sugar
* 1 cup vegetable oil
* 4 eggs, lightly beaten
* 1 (16 ounce) can solid pack pumpkin
* 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 teaspoon baking soda
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
* 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
* 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
* 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
* 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
* 1/2 cup water

Aprox prep time: 15 minutes
Aprox cooking time: 1 hour

  1. Buy half a pumpkin from your neighborhood vegetable stand. Buy flour and baking soda from Manandhar’s. Wait, do you have baking soda? Yes, ma’am, we do. Comes back with unlabeled bag of white powder costing 25 rupees. Just buy it and trust the guy that its baking soda.
  2. Cut pumpkin in half, and bake for one hour in a 175 degrees C oven. Make a cup of tea and watch “Sarkar Raj” while waiting for pumpkin. Pumpkin ends up taking 1 hour and 45 minutes to cook, requiring an extra cup of tea and more viewing of “Sarkar Raj.” After pumpkin cools and “Sarkar Raj” is finished, scrape pumpkin pulp into plastic Tupperware, mash with potato masher and put in fridge.
  3. Next day, decide that 1 cup of oil is a lot; will substitute applesauce instead as one online user suggested. Wait, I don’t have applesauce. Buy four apples, four eggs and one package of Coconut Crunchie biscuits from the corner store on the way home from work. Peel and boil apples, mash with potato masher. Add about 2 tablespoons of freshly grated ginger to the softened apples.
  4. Ok, I have electricity between 2PM and 8PM today. That should be plenty of time to make the bread.
  5. Wait, I don’t have nutmeg, cloves or allspice. Go to another corner store and come back with only ground cloves—80 rupees for 100 grams. Ginger, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom seeds will have to suffice.
  6. Preheat oven to 175 degrees C.
  7. Combine only 2 cups of sugar, eggs and applesauce. Add pumpkin and mix well. Add double the amount of all spices. Add flour, double amount of baking soda, one teaspoon of baking powder (this will need all the help to rise it can get). Put into butter greased loaf pans. Wait, we have two loaf pans… go to upstairs flat to search for missing loaf pan. Return to lower kitchen triumphant. Pour batter into loaf pans and put into oven to bake.
  8. Wait, oh dang, I forgot the water…oh well.
  9. Wash up all dishes: wash, dip in boiling water, allow to air dry.
  10. Bread is baked! Enjoy with fresh cup of milk tea =)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

I've unintentionally started on an Amitabh Bachchan string...

One of the things I’ve tried to take time to do is get to know the popular culture in Nepal better. I’ve started purchasing the daily newspaper (which nicely covers what is going on in India and Southeast Asia as well), reading English translations of Nepali prose and poetry as well as original English writings by Nepali writers (the good, and most popular ones, have all studied, worked, or spend significant time abroad). I thought I’d write a bit about the films this time around.

Ironically, the Nepali films I’ve asked for at the local DVD and video game store have all been out of stock, so I’ve been purchasing—for a mere 30 rupees each—Hindi films. Nepal and India are very different countries, no doubt, but much of the Indian culture, economy and political structure have direct bearing on these respective spheres in Nepal. So far, the films I’ve watched have all featured the film actor Amitabh Bachchan, as well as his Bachchan clan (son Abhishek and daughter-in-law Aishwaraya Rai Bachchan).

Aladin (2009, Eros International): Aladin Chatterjee is just your (extra)ordinary, bumbling, geeky college student who has been bullied from childhood by Kasim and his gang—who in fact, continue to childishly tease him about his name, primarily by making him rub lamps (conveniently purchased at the “Ancient Thing Store,” run by the local Chinese dude). But after Jasmine (an American exchange student, who is of Hispanic heritage—they had to get someone who could dance and look a little indigenous in a sari) gives him a lamp that is in fact, magic, his life changes. Enter Genius (Amitabh Bachchan), who is just months away from retirement as a genie and would like nothing more than to grant Aladin three wishes QUICKLY so he can move out of the lamp (and NOT have his contract extended by another million years!). Things are of course not this easy. Ex-genie “Ringmaster” is looking for the lamp to recover his powers, and Genius in fact knows “dark secrets” of Aladin’s past that are key to stopping Ringmaster from reclaiming his powers. Be it winning Jasmine’s heart, foiling the evil Ringmaster’s plans, or escaping from Kasim one more time, all involve a good amount of elaborate choreography and cheesy singing, which had all of us viewers in stitches. As one of my hostel mates put it, “you just don’t know what’s going to happen next! I love it!”

Aladin has been hailed as one of the best Hindi films to use special effects. That’s what originally intrigued me when I saw part of it on TV at a friend’s house. From Genius’ hand going through Aladin’s head, to flying carpets, transforming guitars, floating objects, and an electrocution scene (which just serves to embarrass Aladin, not kill him), the effects really add to the believability of the extraordinary happenings in Aladin’s life. The other things I found interesting were all the spoofs or commentary on Hollywood films. One of the early scenes involving an escape from Kasim includes some Bourne and 007 antics of climbing through windows, jumping over gates, escaping up clotheslines, avoiding flying shoes and barrels, all while navigating through a crowded bazaar. A student party crashed by Ringmaster has a shot that prominently shows a two students costumed as Spiderman and Superman respectively, colliding into each other in their desperate attempt to exit the building. The fact that it’s an American student that Aladin falls for is also intriguing.

Overall, the twisting story line, song and dance, and interesting turns on American exocticism make this a classic and entertaining Hindi film.

Sarkar (2005) and Sarkar Raj (2008): I’ve not seen any of the Godfather films, but reading the summaries online made me think of these classics. The director’s note at the beginning of Sarkar was in fact a dedication to the Godfather films. Completely opposite of the comic film Aladin, Amitabh portrays a very serious gangster mastermind, known as Sarkar, who is feared as well as respected. The storyline makes use of local, national as well as family politics, and draws on conversations about modernism and development that are so prevalent in this part of the world.

Hindi films have a reputation for being violent, and while certainly the story line of these works made violence inevitable, I feel that they were relatively less bloody than if they had been made in Hollywood. What made it so bad was the suspense involved—Hindi films build suspense through an unsubtle music score and long, artful shots that leave you anticipating an action for a long time. When the suspense breaks is completely unpredictable.

The other thing that caught me (and I appreciated) was the evident tenderness between couples, but without the innuendo or scenes involving full consummation. In addition, the director had the sense to kill off the hero’s wife BEFORE he showed any romantic interest whatsoever in the primary heroine. The religiousity woven into these films was also artfully done to augment both Amitabh and Abisheck’s characters as well as to explain some of the motivations and actions behind murders and intrigues. The soundtracks to each had a chant to “Govinda,” that was played when either of the Bachchans had completed some significant work or were in a public mob scene. After referencing Google and Wikipedia (very scholastic of me, I know), I found out that “Govinda” is a name used to refer to Krishna, especially when referring to him a source of power and as a protector. Sarkar’s whole persona is built around the ideas of power and protector. In convincing Vishnu to murder his father, Sarkar, a swami (religious teacher) counsels him that he will not be destroying Sarkar, just killing Sarkar’s body—his body is in fact just a case or shell for his soul, which will be reincarnated elsewhere. Later, when this swami attempts to talk Shankar (Abhisheck's character) out of killing him using religious reasoning, Shankar cuts him off by telling him "I'm an aetheist," thus justifying his power to be an arbiter of truth.

While not my favorite films, they comment visually and thematically on issues of change, right and wrong, and justice, and how these are realized--or could be realized-- in South Asian culture.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Weekend in Gothatar

I was able to spend the weekend with a family who lives in Gothatar, a village just outside the bounds of Kathmandu. My family has known them for about 15 years now. The son, Ashok, was one of my dad’s patients. He has an inherited genetic disorder called Wilson disease, where his body cannot process copper. Without treatment, it builds up within his body, eventually causing vital organs like the liver, or systems like the nervous system, to shut down. My dad was one of the doctors who were able to diagnose Ashok’s condition and prescribe treatment. As a result, Ashok is on medicine and a semi-restricted diet for the rest of his life to combat the copper build-up in his body. He’s done really well, has finished secondary school and is currently studying to be an accountant. Through this situation, my family developed a close relationship with his family. Most of the time, my family would travel out to their place, but we had them over to our house several times as well. They were often there to see my family off to the States at the airport (since their place is so close to it), and they kindly met me at there when I arrived in the country last year.

I had the opportunity to visit them for four days over this past weekend. They have always urged my family to come out during Dashain or Tihar—the two largest Hindu festivals of the year—and stay for a few days at their house. This was difficult for us to do. My dad was often on call during this season, to allow Nepali doctors and staff time off to spend with their families, and my family of four staying at their place would have made for some cramped quarters. Since I was just one person, and I unexpectedly had an extra day off for the Tihar holiday, I asked if it would be possible to visit for a few days. They were excited to have me.

While I’d been out several times, this trip held some new experiences for me. I was introduced to the family’s daily routine—Kanchi, the wife, waking up at 5AM to milk the cow and take the product into Kathmandu to be sold, having tea and plain biscuits (cookies) for breakfast and the main meal of rice and lentils at 10AM, then 8PM—as well as things pertaining to the festival being celebrated. For example, I came downstairs at 7AM my first day to find the goat purchased the day before butchered, cleaned and being divided up amongst extended family members on the front porch. Talk about having a productive morning!

Tihar includes about four days of festivities. Several animals are honored—crows, dogs, and cows—as messengers of death, guardians to heaven, and the vehicle of Laxmi, goddess of wealth, respectively. The holiday culminates with bhai tikka—when sisters will worship, or rather honor and protect, their brothers against misfortune in the coming year. Laxmi Puja is perhaps the most anticipated night of Tihar. Families will mud paths from the street to their door, often decorated with footprints, oil lamps, vermillion powder and flower petals, for this goddess of wealth to follow to bless their house with material wealth in the coming year. They also make ciel, a sweet, fried donut made of rice flour, whose fragrance the goddess is supposed to like, to entice her to enter. In this age of electricity, there are electric lights placed alongside the oil lamps. Children also go caroling from house to house, and set off firecrackers in the streets. The whole event looks and sounds very festive. One American friend commented recently, “it’s a strange combination of Christmas and the Fourth of July!” which I find to be an apt description.

I spent time helping Ashok put together marigold and purple flower garlands to be used for ghai tikka and bhai tikka, and lighting and feeding the oil lamps scattered along the windowsills at night. Kanchi spent one afternoon doing nothing but making ciel over a small wood stove in the kitchen. These she took to her brothers on the day of bhai tikka, but also distributed to the children who came caroling in the evening, making them dance for her first. We had everyone from a troop of four girls, bedecked in red and gold outfits who sang and danced a set routine, to groups of pre-adolescent and adolescent boys serenading us boisterously until they were given money, ciel, or some kind of reward before moving to the next house. The most popular song sung was a choral-response one. While the words differed from group to group, one of the standard stanzas seemed to be the following:

Hey, red mud (dyosu- re!)
Hey, slippery road (dyosu-re!)
Slipping and sliding (dyosu-re!)
We have come (dyosu-re!)
Hey, you’re my brother (dyosu-re!)

I was in the awkward position of being known to the entire network of extended family who live around them, but having a fuzzy memory concerning how these people were related to Ashok and his family. Most of them just appear as part of the sea of faces from childhood escapades of chasing goats and dogs along village roads, or weddings my family attended. This made for some interesting situations. For example, on the morning of bhai tikka, Ashok took the milk to Kathmandu, and Kanchi had left to go see her brothers in a neighboring town. Krishna, the father, was nowhere to be seen, so I was left (happily) reading a book on the front porch, waiting for their return. A young woman, obviously married from her outfit, came up to the house looking for Ashok. “He’s taken the milk to town,” I told her.
“Oh, you must be the doctor’s daughter!” she exclaimed. “Would you like tea?”
“Umm…ok,” I replied.
She waltzed into the kitchen, warmed up the tea left over from the early morning, and poured two glasses. We chatted briefly about how she was now married, had two young children and was living not too far from Gothatar, what I was doing in Nepal and for how long, when I would be married, how my family in the States was doing, whether or not they were planning to come back to Nepal, and if so, when. She mentioned that I was to come with Ashok to her house when he received his tikka later. It was only when we arrived at her place later that I was able to place her—she was his cousin, the daughter of his father’s eldest brother, whose family lived next door. Her sister, who I also recognized, is now married and has children as well. They had come back to give tikka to their own brother as well as Ashok—who received tikka from no less than three of his female cousins; he was busy all morning going from house to house to get their blessings.

Being away for so long made the changes that have come to Gothatar over the past ten years stark for me. For example, in between the traditional two-story wood and adobe houses rise homes made of cement that are three or more stories high. Families who have lived in the village for years build some of them but people recently moved to the area inhabit others. A bus now comes directly to the town’s main crossroads from Kathmandu; before, my family would take a bus to the airport or an adjoining area and walk into the village through rice fields. Of course, people have changed too. I had conversations with Ashok and his neighbor, Raju (visiting from medical school), concerning everything from the Nepal medical school curriculum to how the country has changed over the course of the Maoist conflict, to a somewhat charged conversation about the best way to handle stress, depression and hardship in life.

Between the new and the old, my time there seemed spun together by webs of memories. It was most interesting to hear what people remembered of my family, most of them surrounding food—Raju’s father remembered the tea and roti my mom served him when he visited our house, my dad had always been free with his compliments about food, etc. The funniest comment however was Kanchi’s concerning my brother. In Nepal, it’s traditional to eat with your right hand (the left is considered unclean to eat with), and there’s a specific technique used to scoop and shovel the food into your mouth. Kanchi reminisced: “When you’re brother came,” she said, “he ate with BOTH hands, like this!” she demonstrated by alternating putting her palms to her mouth, smiling broadly. “He’s probably learned how to eat correctly now, hasn’t he?”

What my rent covers…

  • A fridge that wasn’t keeping things cold now freezes anything that is placed in it…no matter if the dial is turned on or off…
  • The electric bill paid on time.
  • A hot shower.
  • A washing machine.
  • Internet access.
  • Extra protein, in the form of beetles and ants, in my noodles.
  • Mice exploring my garbage and empty luggage, and leaving small presents occasionally.
  • No space heaters in the winter. Buy a hot water bottle—the kind your granny used—and learn to enjoy flannel pjs and wool socks.
  • An efficient, humorous and kind “kaam garne didi,” or house help.
  • A leaky hot water pipe, broken toilet seat, and finicky gas element stove.
  • A battery back-up unit, providing electric light and internet access for up to five hours during black outs.
  • Seven friendly and social housemates, heralding from four different countries.
  • Disappearing and reappearing pots and pans…
  • A consistent water supply.
  • Chocolate brownies, banana bread, chocolate chip cookies, cinnamon rolls, and cornflake cake baked by my hostel mates.
  • A chowkidor that keeps the flower garden, says “namaste” to me through the kitchen window, grows beans and tomatoes in the backyard, and always wears a freshly-pressed, multi-colored topi.
  • Big male monkeys that lope through my yard and climb over my roof. No, they have not escaped from the neighboring zoo.
  • Awesome Himalayan views from my roof.
  • Hostel mates that are experts at conversation.
  • Neighborhood boys who consistently kick their half-deflated soccer ball over the wall, and come searching through the flowerbed to find it.