Namaste Nepal, The Remix

Incredible mountains, Buddhist pilgrimage sites, wild animals, crazy roads, Maoist strikes.  I am taking home some amazing memories.  But more than anything it was the people who made this trip special.  From home visits to the ISER guesthouse to the smiles of the average person on the street, I am so grateful for all the generosity that was shown to me.  And especially to Lisa for taking me on this wild adventure!

And so we’re off.   Back to the US where new adventures await.

Holy Mountain, Batman!

“Find the thing that looks like Batman’s head, then a big lump, a perfect triangle, and the thing that looks like two breasts.”  Having gotten up at 4:30 Saturday morning, we could be accused of being sleep-deprived, but actually we were just looking for Everest.

We drove up to Nagarkot in time to watch the sunrise over the Himalayas.  The roads were empty and filled with thick fog.  More of a clam chowder than a pea soup.  As we bounced along roads that rival the ones from Kathmandu to Chitwan, I will tell you that I had my doubts.  It takes something pretty amazing to come to between me and my sleep.

But as the Himalayas turned from grey to purples and pinks, I turned to Lisa and told here that it was all worth it.  The photos can’t capture the experience.  It was practically spiritual, apart from the guy next to me who spent the whole sunrise whispering “Everest.  Everest.”  I certainly hope he found it!

p.s. Should you be wondering, Everest is the smaller-looking mountain (due to our perspective) between the big lump and the perfect triangle.

You say you want a revolution

“We will not set your car on fire if you have a tourist in it.”  That was the message our driver relayed to us while we were waiting to leave for Kathmandu.  The Maoists had closed down the bridge to four-wheel traffic and he was stuck on the wrong side.  Lisa and I had been waiting at the ISER guesthouse wondering where our car was when we got word of the Maoist protest.

But like all good revolutions, a counterinsurgency plan was hatched.  We would pile our luggage in Krishna’s car and he would drive us into Narayanghat.  From there, we would walk across the bridge and meet Ramesh, our driver on the other side.  He would then drive back over the bridge to collect our luggage …and we would hope that the car wouldn’t be torched in the process.

Walking over the bridge, I was so excited.  Protests!  Car fires!  Imagine the photo opportunities.  I thought of the amazing photos I would make and the great stories I would have to tell.  A well-known photojournalist once told me that I would make a very good photojournalist if I ever wanted to pursue that path (I however, very much like the salary to which I have become accustomed!).  I thought of how this must be the sort of excitement that he felt going into South Africa to document the end of apartheid or when he was photographing the tanks in Tianamen Square and how I could totally see giving up DC for a life of wandering the globe making photos (except with a well-paid salary—see? sort of a sticking point.)

Do you see the protest there in the photo?  No?  That’s because it consisted of four guys sitting on a bench in the middle of the road.  Now, I wouldn’t have wanted to test it, but I also didn’t see any fire starting materials there.  And in any case, I’m told that they let you get out of the car before sending it up in flames.  My World Press Photo awards hopes were dashed.

Ramesh immediately came to greet us with a big smile and we piled into the car with “Tourist” signs prominently displayed.  After a brief nod from a protesting Maoist, we drove a few feet onto the bridge and waited for Krishna to catch up and join us in the car.  Krishna had to walk the symbolic 30 yards to the car, as he is not a tourist.

All in all, somewhat less danger than you average bicycle trip on a Nepalese road.  But as you can see below, regardless of the actual danger, we were still a bit giddy as we headed back onto the road to Kathmandu.


With dessert, she’ll want tea….and my dear that’s fine with me.

The bike was simultaneously too big and too small for me.  With handlebars the size of a tricycle, wheels that barely let my feet touch the ground, and somewhat dodgy brakes, it was not clear to me that I would arrive at our destination unscathed.  Not to mention the  that one must play a game of dodge the rock when cycling on many Nepali roads.  In any case, our destination yesterday afternoon was the parents’ home of Lisa’s friend and despite the odds, we arrived with all limbs intact.

A good bit of our time has been spent visiting in people’s homes and it has been a real privilege.  Typically, a regular home visit involves a cup of Nepali tea, called chia.  Chia is a tea served with water buffalo milk and some ginger mixed in.  (Ginger!  This is going to be my new thing for tea when I get back to the US.)  It’s different than chai and I dare say, even tastier.  But being Nepal, it doesn’t stop at chia.  Often there are snacks.  If I’m lucky, it’s just a plate of cookies, which is manageable.  But more often than not, it’s a whole spread—nuts, dried fruit, cookies, other snack mixes.  And if they’re going all out, it’s a full on “pre-dinner” dinner of fried paneer, peanut salad (also something I must bring back with me), chicken salad, etc.  We’ve been given gifts (scarves!  which have been most convenient given the chilly weather), had snacks on a rooftop while watching the sun set over the Himalayas, and even met a precious little boy who kissed my camera when he saw his photo.  So in short, you’d be hardpressed to find better hosts than those in Nepal!

Today is our last day here at ISER.  Tomorrow, we head back to Kathmandu for a few days of fun…but with heavy hearts, as I will certainly be sorry to leave this place!

You can lead a buffalo to water…..

Four hundred+ photos of water, 18 participants, 3 days of training…and one more day of focus groups. Today, we will finish with the data collection for photo research project. It’s been a bit of whirlwind week of research activities, but I think we pulled it off!

Last week, we spent two days training 14 additional participants. I had trained some ISER staff the previous week and they took over the trainings last week (with just a little help from Lisa and me). Then the participants spent the long holiday weekend making photographs of water. This week, we collected the photos and Lisa conducted small focus groups to talk about a few of the photos from each participant.

The participants worked really hard and made some wonderful photos of water. They really took the composition lessons in and thought about water in creative ways. And more importantly, I think that Lisa (and I!) learned some new things about the use of water in the Chitwan Valley. Some definite themes emerged and I’ll leave those to Lisa to discuss since she’s the real researcher in this endeavor. But I will say, these folks love their water buffaloes. I think every participant had a photo of a water buffalo eating a water and grain mixture. There’s got to be a fun paper in there somewhere, right?!

This photo research was the real purpose of this trip, and it looks like we pulled it off! I will admit, I had plenty of doubts about whether it would all come together! We’ll wrap up a few loose ends here and then it’s on to Kathmandu for a few days before we begin our journey back to the US.

Hope everyone had a Happy New Year!

Nah, that was a dolphin.*

Rhinos in Chitwan by ebreidy
Rhinos in Chitwan, a photo by ebreidy on Flickr.

“There is an aggressive mother tigress with six cubs. We will go look for her.” Our guide had gotten word of a tiger and her cubs that was hanging out by a lake at dusk and that was our destination. Admittedly, I was excited. This was our best shot of seeing a tiger in the wild, something that I have wanted to do for a very long time. However, as we were sitting there on the lake, it was not lost on me that the only thing between me and a possibly angry tiger was a guy with a stick. The same guy who was also carrying the keys to our transportation out of the jungle. So it was with some trepidation that I scanned the lake edge, waiting for the tiger to appear.

We had been staying at the Jungle Villa Resort just outside of Chitwan. The government has closed all the resorts inside the park. No one can get the straight story on why, but pretty much everyone is skeptical that it was for the cited “environmental reasons.”

However, our resort was lovely. Our days were spent doing elephant rides, jeep rides, and jungle walks. We spotted rhinos, wild boar, monkeys, and lots of deer. The food was excellent, apart from one very unfortunate version of chocolate pudding and some scary mashed potatoes. And it just may have been the warmest shower I’ve had since I arrived in Nepal.

In the end, the most we saw were tiger paw prints (see below—those were the cubs’ prints). And our guide took a boat ride across the river to look at the deer that the tiger had recently killed. I had what I think was the good sense to stay behind. But it was just the restful three days we needed before diving in to finish up the photography research project this week.

*So, this is a bit of an inside joke….sorry about that!

The Nepali Diet Plan

A bright, happy call of “Good Morning!” is the sound that starts every day here, along with a hot cup of tea delivered to my room by Bamdev. You don’t get service like this at the Four Seasons! And the Four Seasons could stand to learn a thing or two from Bamdev and Rishi.  Everyone here in Nepal has been so lovely and kind to us, but Bamdev and Rishi deserve a special acknowledgement. They are the caretakers of the guesthouse and keep us engulfed in food, and ensuring that we have warm, fuzzy beds to crash in after dinner.

When Lisa asked me to come to Nepal over the holidays, I thought it would be great since I’d avoid all the holiday food traps and maybe even lose those 10 lbs. I mean, how much Nepali food can one eat, right?!

Well, not if you have Bamdev and Rishi serving you. The food is amazing. Better than any Indian food I’ve had in the US or the UK. There has not been a meal where I haven’t fallen completely in love with at least one of the dishes. Bamdev’s yellow dal is more addicting than crack. They even trot out an American dish now and then, including banana pancakes, a Nepali version of tacos (best salsa ever!) and pizza. There is of course a pizza cutter that plays the Michigan fight song to go along with our slices.  And clearly, I had never heard about Nepali “snacks”–a 6-course “pre-dinner” of deliciousness.

We’re off to a jungle lodge for a few days to give these guys a break. But no matter how many tigers and leopards we spot, we’ll be happy to come home to the ISER guesthouse.

A Nepali Noel

Careful cookie decorating!, a photo by ebreidy on Flickr.

’twas the night before Chrismas
and all through the house
Were nightmares that cookies
just wouldn’t turn out!

When what to my wondering eyes did appear
But Bamdev, our chef, to allieve all our fears.

He spoke not a word, but when straight to the matter.
Some water, some kneading, and he saved our batter!

The cookies were frosted and garnished with care.
And good cheer spread ’round for all those who were there.

And we heard all exclaim as they drove out of sight,
“Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

…and suddenly, I understood why my mother freaked out around Christmas. On December 23rd, Lisa, Bamdev and I made the batter for the cookies. We had invited staff from ISER and their families for a Christmas party, and the cookies were to be the center of it. After chilling the dough, we looked at it on Christmas eve and I had visions of bricks made with cookie dough which kept me up much of the night. Never to fear though, we were able to rescue it a little water and arm grease. Phew!

The party was great and everyone had a fun time decorating cookies and posing in our “photo booth.” The kids definitely got into it, especially when they figured out that they could take decorated cookies home to eat later! In end, everyone got some decorated cookies to take home….even the night guard!

At the end of the night, we returned to the guesthouse to find that the outside had been decorated with Christmas lights. We even had a “christmas tree” in the entry way. Possibly one of the nicest examples of the Christmas spirit that I’ve ever had given to me. Definitely a Christmas to remember!

Buddha was here.

Buddha's hand by ebreidy
Buddha’s hand, a photo by ebreidy on Flickr.

A year and a half ago, I took my Bodhisattva vows with the Dalai Lama. It marked a moment for me of recognizing the commitment I had to my Buddhist practice. For me, it meant a deeper meditation practice, a stronger effort to live by the precepts and the paramitas. But I never imagined that it would also mean an opportunity to make a pilgrimage to one of the traditional sites.

On Saturday morning, after being fed a large “brunch” by Bamdev (who was afraid we might not find food on the road—how sweet!), we headed to Lumbini. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is one of the four pilgrimage sites that Buddha designated for his followers: his birthplace, the place of his Enlightenment, the place of his first Dharma teaching, and the place of his death.

We started at the Maya Devi Temple, which is the site of the Buddha’s birth. We began by getting in line to enter the temple itself (there are no photos allowed inside the temple). The line creeps around a squared off section inside until you are looking down a at the spot Ashoka determined to be the exact spot of the Buddha’s birth. Outside the temple, it is an explosion of Nepali prayer flags! The flags concentrate on a bodhi tree where there is a small offering of candles and marigolds set up. To the side of the temple is the Ashoka pillar and there is also another place set up for an offering of candles and prayer. Of the hundreds of pilgrims there, I think I saw about 6 Westerners, not including Lisa and me.

Next, our driver took us to a few of the other temples on the site. Each of the countries with a Buddhist tradition has built a temple, including….Germany. According to our driver, the German temple is the best and it was impressive. The German temple is exactly as you would imagine a German version of a Buddhist temple would be. There are beautiful illustrations in every crevice of the temple, but each is done quite perfectly and is perfectly spaced from each other. It is Buddhist in all its German orderliness and precision.

Since it was getting late, we only visited a few temples, but our last stop of the day was the Sri Lankan temple. As we were walking out, we were greeted by the young monks in residence there. They were probably 8 to 12 years old. We had great fun making some photos, which was a perfect way to end my Lumbini experience!

….and I feel fine.

Young monk on the stairway, a photo by ebreidy on Flickr.

My hands gripped the back of the motorcycle as it lurched from side to side, cautious to avoid the potholes and large stones in the dirt road. A handful of ISER staff, Lisa and I were headed to a nearby settlement to make photographs together.

Earlier in the day, I spent a few hours teaching them basic concepts of composition in photography and technical details of how to work their cameras. During lunch time, I knew I might have inspired a spark when I looked out my window to see the ISER staff scattered around the grounds, busy making photos. It made me very happy….and hopeful! But now it was time to put those skills to the test.

I needn’t have worried. When we returned to ISER to review the practice photos, it was clear that they had absorbed the lessons (with much help from Indra’s translation!!). They worked very hard and made some wonderful photographs that I hope they are proud of. There are indeed some budding photographers in ISER! I know the purpose of all of this is to help Lisa with her research project, but I hope that one of the unintended consequences is to inspire a love of photography in some of the participants.

Not quite the end of our project today, nor the end of the world. But perhaps a new beginning for everyone!

Tomorow, on to Lumbini!!