Earthquake Update

18 10 2010

As I wrote my last post in the early morning hours, I thought I felt an earthquake. Turns out, it was an earthquake. Guess it wasn’t my imagination after all. The quake measured 4.9 on the Richter scale – not huge but enough to make things shake a little. For more info, read here.

Vijaya Dashami (Happy Dashain)

17 10 2010


Tika puja accoutrements, including the jamara barley sprouts

Tika puja accoutrements, including the jamara barley sprouts


Today is the 10th day and culmination of the Dashain festival, or what I like to call “Nepalese Christmas”. The holiday is also referred to as Durga Puja because people worship the Goddess Durga in her many avatars or manifestations. Dashain is the most auspicious time of the year in Nepal and it’s a much bigger holiday for Nepali Hindus than it is for Indian Hindus for whom Diwali/Dipawali is even bigger. For Nepalis, the last night of tika is most important, whereas in other Hindu cultures other auspicious days within the holiday may be more important. For example, the 9th night of Durga Puja, when animals are sacrificed, is most important for Hindu Bengalis because Durga is an important Goddess to them. One of Durga’s manifestations is the Goddess Kali, and she is quite bloodthirsty. Animal rights activists do not like Dashain because on the 9th day thousands of male animals are sacrificed to appease Kali/Durga, and then eaten that night or the next day during the final celebrations. Hindus only kill and eat male animals because females replenish life through birth. The parade of animals into Kathmandu markets began last week and it’s been a painful week of walking streets lined with cute goats ready for slaughter. Not all the animals are killed in religious  sacrifices. After all, people need to eat, too (especially during big family holidays). For animals that are being religiously sacrificed, a priest conducts the sacrifice at a temple. For those who just want to eat the animal, the eldest male relative, another respected male family member, or whoever is least turned off by killing animals would slit the animal’s neck.

The type of animal you sacrifice in temple depends on which gods are most important to you and your family as well as what you can afford. Non-religious slaughters depend on what you like to eat, as well as what you can afford. Durga/Kali likes water buffaloes, but she’s bloodthirsty so she’ll take what she can get. Other gods might require other animals such as ducks, roosters, pigeons, goats and others. And the gods don’t need the whole sacrificed animal or whatever food you offer them. You get to take the “leftovers” home as prasad because your offerings retain the blessings of the gods. Getting back to animals, the going rate for live roosters from Kathmandu’s Durbar Square was 1500 rupees, or about $21. I have no idea how much buffaloes cost, but you can probably take a guess based on the rooster price. By the way, buffalo meat is called “buff” here and when you order a burger in a restaurant, you’re probably getting buff meat since cows are sacred to Nepal’s Hindus. I don’t eat red meat so I stay away from buff and goat meat. However, when I’m traveling and living abroad (or even when I’m at someone’s house for dinner back in the U.S. and don’t want to appear rude) I eat more adventurously. So yes, I’ve tried both buff and goat.

During Dashain, many return to their ancestral homes or wherever their families live for tika (blessing of powdered pigment and rice on forehead), feasts, and gambling to honor Laxmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth. This week, Kathmandu is actually quiet and pollution-free since at least one-third of the population returned to their villages for the final celebrations. My husband arrived in Kathmandu from Iowa last week and he’s been busy conducting the daily puja (worship) of planting and watering the barley seeds that grew, by today, into the sacred sprouts of jamara given by elders to younger family members as a token of Durga’s blessing during the family tika ceremony. There are several important days during Dashain when certain pujas must be performed at astrologically auspicious times determined by Hindu priests.

If I’m not doing the best job of explaining the holiday, I apologize. Dashain’s origins come from different accounts in the Ramayana Hindu holy text. It’s very complicated and you’ll hear a different version from nearly each person you ask. I’ll quote an explanation from Mary Anderson’s 1988 edition of “The Festivals of Nepal”:


Dashain goat

Goat being taken home for Dashain sacrifice and/or meal


The festivities of these two weeks glorify the ultimate and inevitable triumph of Virtue over the forces of Evil, commemorating a great victory of the gods over the wicked demons and devils who harassed mankind in ancient times. The Ramayana story is retold of the righteous King Rama, deified in Hindu mythology as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, or again as God himself, who after epic struggles slaughtered Ravana, the fiendish king of the demon hordes from Lanka, a legendary country believed by many to have been Ceylon [modern day Sri Lanka]. Some say Lord Rama was successful in his battle with the demon only when he evoked Shakti, or Supreme Energy vested in Goddess Durga, the Divine Mother of the Universe. Others have it that Rama’s saintly wife Sita, having been kidnapped by the demon Ravana, assumed the form of the Terrible Destructress, Goddess Kali – otherwise known as Durga – and destroyed this thousand-headed King of the Demons.

Greatly celebrated during Dashain, again glorifying the triumph of Good over Evil, is Goddess Durga’s slaying of the terrible demon Mahisasura, who roamed the earth, terrorizing the population in the guise of a ferocious water buffalo. Other accounts reveal how Lord Rama, having sworn to kill the evil Mahisasura of the Underworld, enlisted the Divine Energy of Goddess Taleju – still another of Durga’s many forms – promising to take her to his Indian capital of Ayodhya and erect there a temple in her honor…No matter how the story is told, victory is celebrated during Dashain fortnight with great rejoicing, and Goddess Durga is adored throughout the land as the Divine Mother Goddess who liberated the suffering people from the miseries of Evil.

After reading this excerpt, you can understand why an easy explanation is impossible! And lest you think the holiday season is over, there’s another 5-day holiday in early November: the Diwali/Dipawali festival that I referred to earlier, or Tihar as it’s called in Nepali.

In late-breaking news as I finish this post, I could swear I just felt a small earthquake. It’s 2:00am here. Hopefully there will be something in the news about it tomorrow. If not, it’s my imagination and I’ve had too much cold medicine.



Dashain tika

I decided to have a little fun while giving my nephew tika. The tika paste really belongs on the forehead. Note the jamara sprouts behind his ears.


Critical Language Scholarships

11 10 2010

This post is specifically for MMU students but also applies to any American higher ed students out there who happen to read my blog.

If you’re interested in studying abroad next summer, applying for a Fulbright grant after college or in graduate school, or have career plans that might put you in contact with international communities (this could be in USA or abroad), you might want to consider the Critical Language Scholarship Program. The scholarships fully fund study of a critical language for 7-10 weeks in the country itself (in most, but not all cases). The languages the U.S. State Department considers critical are: Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, Persian (spoken in Iran), Azerbaijani, Bangla/Bengali (spoken in Bangladesh), Hindi, Punjabi, (Hindi & Punjabi both spoken in India), Indonesian, Korean, Turkish and Urdu (spoken in Pakistan).

The program is open to students in any major, and students in any major would benefit. In this global society, knowledge of more than one language will keep you competitive in your career as well as make you a more patient and understanding person. Plus, after reading about all my adventures and the adventures of fellow Fulbright students on the Blogroll links at right, don’t YOU want to travel to another country, too? I’ve met several people who’ve done this critical language training and it really opened doors for them. Seriously.

Reasons most students give me for not studying abroad:

  1. I don’t have the money.
    Guess what? This scholarship fully funds your language studies, and provides housing and a stipend to cover food and living expenses.
  2. I’m a little worried (or my family is worried) about traveling somewhere by myself.
    Before your departure to the host country, you attend a pre-departure orientation in Washington D.C. (the scholarship covers your travel expenses for this trip, too) where you become acquainted with other students traveling to the same country and other world regions. I had to attend a similar pre-departure orientation in D.C. for my Fulbright and it was totally awesome and relieved about 80% of my anxiety. Plus, if you want, you can arrange travel plans with your new acquaintances so you’re not actually traveling to the host country all alone.
  3. I need to work all summer to cover my college/living expenses.
    Just as you’re sacrificing part of your life now by attending college to make bigger bucks later and have a more comfortable life, you could sacrifice part of your summer for a bigger payoff later. Remember that we’re living in a global society so just about any career puts you in touch with other cultures. And with the economic downturn, the ability to live and work in another country gives you additional job-hunting options. Check out these two articles from ABC News for more info:
    Have Resume, Will Travel
    How to Find Work Outside the U.S.

Serendipity Experimental Printmaking Workshop

8 10 2010

Check out the blog that Lasanaa started to document our recent Serendipity Experimental Printmaking Workshop. The workshop ended yesterday (just in time for the big Dashain holiday) and was a GREAT success. I truly enjoyed it and I think the students did, too. In fact, I know they did because it showed in their excitement level and the work they produced. Tomorrow we’ll be documenting their artwork in order to produce a small catalog and selecting exhibition-quality prints. One set of prints will be displayed in Kathmandu’s Srijana Art Gallery after the Tihar holiday in November, one set will stay with Lasanaa for future fundraising purposes and I’ll take one set home to Iowa to share in some capacity with Cedar Rapidians and the MMU community. Images of student artwork coming soon! Enjoy!

For the Love of Printmaking

3 10 2010
Sirjana/Srijana Art College

The sign says it all.

Today was the third day in our week-long experimental printmaking workshop at Sirjana/Srijana Art College (transliteration from Devanagari script sometimes differs but I’ll use their “Sirjana” spelling from here on out). The workshop was organized by Lasanaa Alternative Art Space and includes current and former students from Nepal’s 3 art colleges: Tribhuvan University’s Lalit Kala campuses (grad and undergrad), Kathmandu University and Sirjana Art College. There’s a little sibling rivalry amongst all these schools, so bringing students together is an attempt to minimize it for future collaboration and happiness. Naturally during our afternoon mealtime, the students break into their respective cliques, but at least they’re working very well together in the studio.

As I think I mentioned before, only 2 of the 3 schools have printmaking programs focused on traditional etching processes, so we’re throwing experimental techniques at students as a way of leveling the playing field and broadening creative thinking. The energy on the first day was amazing! Much more energy, I’m sorry to say, than I’ve seen from past American printmaking classes (Future MMU printmaking students, take note!) I demonstrated some monotype techniques and asked the students to be crazy and inventive, and they were! Within 1 hour, nearly everyone made at least 2 prints. All this with too many people in too small a space. On top of that, the power went out (a common occurrence in Nepal) and only returned in the last hour of our workshop, so everyone was working in dimly-lit conditions.

Nepal art student

Printmaking workshop student with her monotype plate.

At the beginning of the second day, we had a group show-and-tell. Everyone said a few words about their imagery and I encouraged them to ask other students how they’d made their images in case a technique was unfamiliar. This was great because they learned from each other about new processes to try. In Nepal, there is still a very strong educational system where teachers are believed to hold all knowledge, which is then passed to the student – usually in the form of lectures that enforce memorization instead of critical thinking. It’s easy to understand the continuation of this tradition in a country where the word “guru” has real meaning (guru being the Sanskrit term for teacher or religious leader). So, another objective of the workshop is to force adoption of new learning methods, which painfully came to a head in today’s class.

For last night’s homework, students were supposed to think of a concept or idea but not what visual form that concept would take. Some of my readers, those who believe that art should merely depict beauty, will begin to feel sorry for my Nepali students. Many of these students have only created art to please and never questioned who they were pleasing and why. To answer these questions, and others, for the first time in your life is really hard. It’s a process that involves thinking about your influences, beliefs and choices. We talked about their concepts for 2 hours straight, asking them follow-up questions leading to (hopefully) deeper revelations about their art. Nearly everyone left today’s class feeling confused, but I think that’s a good sign because it means they’re questioning everything. We’ll see what they come up with tomorrow!


28 09 2010

Sorry it’s been a while since I posted anything. My internet was down the last week and I’m suddenly working on all these new projects and feeling as though I have very little time left in Nepal since the upcoming Dashain and Tihar holidays will knock out a fair amount of October and some of November. Teaching has also picked up a bit, though it’s still as unpredictable as ever. The awesomely fantastic(!) Indra Jatra holiday officially ended yesterday but there was still a holiday hangover in the air today. I spent as much time as possible in the thick of it and will post video footage just as soon as I have some editing time (not likely in the next week, but I’ll try). You’ll just have to be patient! Your wait time will mimic what we all experienced awaiting the royal Kumari’s appearance. However, there’s no way I can duplicate the mosh pit effect when she finally appeared.

One of this week’s projects was delivering a talk on what I’m doing here in Nepal. But finding out a few days beforehand that you’ll be giving a hour-long talk is, shall we say, very Nepal. Ke garne. I think it went okay but while Nepalis are incredibly friendly, they aren’t overly demonstrative in other ways, so it’s difficult for me to tell what effect the “From Iowa to Nepal (and Vice Versa)” topic had on my audience. And besides that, the monkey walking around on the roof of the building outside the window during my talk (that only I could see since it was behind the audience) was a little distracting. But hey, at least it was an interesting distraction. Stay tuned, Cedar Rapids audiences, for the forthcoming “From Nepal to Iowa (and Vice Versa)” presentation, sans monkeys. More on monkeys later…

Tuk-tuk goose? No, tuk-tuk rooster.

21 09 2010
Kathmandu Bus Map

Bus Map for two of Kathmandu Valley's cities: Kathmandu proper and Patan

I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered the transportation system here – not even close – but let’s just say I’m becoming more confident with it.  The first few weeks I was walking A LOT everyday. I love walking but now that I’ve settled in and life is busier, I can’t always spend 30 minutes walking to nearby destinations. The monsoon rains are lessening, but that 30 minutes meant my legs were covered in mud by the time I arrived anywhere. And it’s not like I can just throw my clothes into the washing machine when I get home. Taxis are fine too and it’s possible, even with “foreigner charges” to get from one end of town to the other for about 200 rupees ($2.75) but do that a few times everyday and it adds up quick. So, I started investigating public transportation, which is actually one of the best ways to get to know a culture. Plus, riding public transportation helps reinforce my knowledge of Devanagari script numerals.

I found a bus route map on another Nepal travel blog and decided to tackle the challenge. I’d been warned that women are sometimes sexually harassed on buses and that it was better to sit up front and/or near other women, so my first ventures were on smaller tuk-tuks instead of the bigger buses. Besides, the name ‘tuk-tuk’ is so fun to say, who wouldn’t want to ride one? They run on cooking gas and don’t travel very fast, so I figured in the worst case scenario I could always jump out the open back door and catch a taxi. Most shorter distance routes, whether tuk-tuk, tempo or bus, cost about 10 rupees (15 cents), which sure beats taxi fare.

Kathmandu tuk tuk

Kathmandu tuk-tuk

Next I tried the tempos. These are the equivalent of 12-15-passenger American vans, though they fit WAY more people in here. I rode a tempo during rush hour last week and counted at least 26 people. And it felt like 26 people, too. The advantage of the tempos and  buses is they’re faster and less bumpy than the tuk-tuks. Sometimes, they’re a little too fast and that can be a problem, too!

I’ve been riding public transportation as much as possible the last two weeks but still walking a fair amount because it’s rare for buses to arrive at your exact location. Tuk-tuks, tempos and buses stop running at night, so I reserve taxis for my evening excursions, when I’m in a hurry or when I need to be somewhere complicated requiring multiple bus transfers (though I’m getting the hang of transfers, too).

Even though it’s a large capital city, there just isn’t a late night scene here. Partly because Nepal is semi-feudal, it’s early to bed and early to rise. My neighborhood quiets by 11:00pm and the rooster (yes, there are chickens outside my apartment) starts crowing at 5:00am. People rise to bathe at neighborhood water taps at 4:30am or to worship, so there is a soft chanting of mantras every morning, sounds of people at their morning toilet, and the trusty rooster out back.

Kathmandu Bus

Friendly Kathmandu bus