Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Little Things

I'm starting to notice how Kathmandu has changed in the two years I've been away. At first it seemed much the same. Just like two years ago, it took me a couple of days to get used to the distinctive smell of burning trash, incense, sewage, and spices that blankets the city, the lack of paved roads and sidewalks and the chaotic traffic. There are still no skyscrapers or office buildings, but I visited a modern mall that was built a couple of months ago. There are more people and a lot of new buildings. Most unsettling is the highly anticipated recent opening of a combined Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut in the heart of Kathmandu. There is still no McDonald's or Starbucks, but it may only be a matter of time.

However, the most notable change for me is that nobody rides on the top of the buses anymore. Apparently while I was away it was made illegal and the police started cracking down on the practice. I can understand it as a safety concern, but it was a pretty significant part of my first introduction to Nepali life back in 2008. And I felt that there was something unique about sharing the top of a bus with a dozen or so Nepali students, tourists, and elegant Nepali women with fashionable kurta surwals who had somehow managed to climb up the side of the bus in high heels.

I'm about a week and a half into the training. The first week was spent at the Fulbright apartment in Lazimpat - we walked down from Lazimpat past the Narayanhiti former Royal Palace to Gyaneshwor every morning to the USEF building complex.


The first few days at the Fulbright building consisted mainly of "survival Nepali" language training. They didn't know what to do with me, because I was the only one who was conversational in Nepali, which was frustrating for me and the people in my classes. Eventually the two teachers split it up so that one teacher taught me and another taught the other five students. It seems like a useful teaching lesson except that the solution - individualized attention - is something that will probably not be feasible for me next month when I might be teaching a class of 30 or 40 students. Anyway, after that it was great for me because I now just have interesting conversations in Nepali three times a day, and I'm learning vocabulary to help me talk to people about interesting things like "mother language politics" (मातृभाषा राजनीति), "children's mental development" (बालबालिकाको मानसिक बिकास), and "Bhutanese refugees" (भटानी शरणार्भीहरु). I'm compiling a mini-dictionary.

During the week we also had a security briefing from the US Embassy and a health lecture from the CIWEC International Clinic. It took us about fifteen minutes to go through the security at the US Embassy and then we needed an escort through the compound. They gave us US Mission badges and we were part of a bewildering security briefing that was mostly for new Embassy employees. The briefing touched on domestic terrorism and IEDs, how to use the "panic buttons" in our houses (we don't have any), counter-surveillance and what to do if we come across classified US documents or are approached by foreign spies. Most of it seemed a little bit more relevant to the people that live behind those gigantic, imposing walls than it is to us. Visiting the CIWEC Clinic was a bizarre sort of deja vu experience for me, because the last time I was there I was a patient and I was in such a nauseous daze that I didn't really know what was going on around me. This time I was in a much clearer and healthier state of mind (one of the other ETAs had to be tested for dengue fever, but he's doing a lot better now).

We also began our teacher training with NELTA, the Nepal English Teacher's Association. We were given lectures on Nepali educational history, the state curricula and how to use government textbooks, and preparing lesson plans. This week we visited a public school and attended some English classes.

On Saturday we moved in with our "practice" Nepali families, with whom we'll stay for a couple weeks. I'm still averse to living with a family for nine months when I am placed (this here will be my fourth Nepali family), but I guess the villages will not have apartments. Anyway, this house is not quite the same as the mud-brick and dirt floor houses I remember:


This is bigger than the Moodhouse.

Puja room.

The family is incredibly nice and friendly. The mother and father have lived in Germany for a few years, and the father has also worked in the UK and Japan. They have two sons and a daughter, and they have all been helping me with my Nepali and re-teaching me the devastatingly difficult art of washing my own laundry in a bucket. My new Nepali name is Laxman (my previous names were Amar, Baalaa, and Taggu). I like Laxman because it is close enough to my actual name that I don't have to memorize it.

Well, that's it for now; congratulations on making it all the way to the bottom! I also want to thank everybody who has written me with feedback and encouragement. I appreciate the support, and I love to get comments so I know who's reading and what people find interesting.


  1. I can't believe they outlawed sitting on top of buses! That was definitely a rite of passage - finally riding on top of a Nepali bus. Has the traffic gotten any more organized? It felt like it got more orderly even in just the six months that I was there last year - but maybe I'd just gotten used to taxis swerving around other cars and speeding trucks...

  2. I think the traffic never gets any more organized, you just get acclimated to it. Anyway, another new thing for me is that everyone wears a helmet if they're driving a motorcycle. But nobody on the back ever does.

  3. I'm for the bus change. I would expect there are less traffic casualties now.

  4. I dunno, I think there are much better ways that they could go about reducing traffic accidents. Since I've been here three of my friends have been hospitalized by motorcycle collisions. There are no sidewalks even in some of the most built-up parts of the city. Nobody ever ever wears a helmet if they are riding on the back of motorcycle, and there must be at least 10 times as many motorcycles on the road as any other kind of vehicle.

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  6. Ah. Are there traffic lights and well-followed rules of the road?

  7. Not really that I can see. I mean, people drive on the right side of the road, but there is no division between oncoming traffic, and people will weave onto the other side to get around cars. I haven't ever seen traffic lights but in the busiest intersections they have traffic controllers. The rules are just different, and a difficult for a foreigner to penetrate.

  8. I mean left. The left side of the road.