November 13, 2007 - Reflections on spending a week in Kathmandu.

It is the  enthusiasm and friendliness of the people here in Kathmandu which which I have been enjoying.   It is the eagerness that Nepali's talk and share and joke and tease that makes the conversations delightful.  The lady selling medicinal herbs on the curbside is eager to tell me how this plant is for cancer, that one for stomach troubles, the other for sexual power ... etc.  If I were an ethnopharmacologist, or an ethnomusicologist, or a geologist, or a ...... I'd be in heaven. 
    I met Ms. Nanda Kulu selling musical instruments in her shop in the tourist district.  After chatting and showing an interest in her and Nepal beyond getting a good deal on a flute, she presented me with her brochure for her charitable foundation: Mitrata ( which she runs with support of Dr. Christine Schutz in the US.  Her story is that she became an orphan at about 11 and had a very hard life. She never went to school. She was married to an older Newar man who brought her to Kathmandu.  He made musical instruments and had a store.  She turns out to be extraordinarily capable.  She helped him build his business and then went overseas, Europe and the US looking for sponsors for a home for underprivileged children, such as she has was.  She has accomplished building such a home.  I visited it.  Pictures on the web.  They are now serving 31 girls and 14 boys.  By Nepali standards it's a middle class environment.  Every child has their own bed. Every child is fed and goes to school.  One girl is albino and was rejected by her family.  Here in Kathmandu she is mistaken for a western child.  Mrs. Kulu never went to school, but reads well enough to manage the bureaucracy of Nepal and the US (????), handles her own email, manages boards of directors  and hires and manages half a dozen staff, mostly extended family.   If you want to send a donation she will do more good with it that if you donate to an organization that has layers of administration.
     Every taxicab driver is a character.  The fellow I drove home with the other night had worked two years in Iraq driving trucks.  He said he came home after his petrol truck was bombed and he barely made it out.  He has set up his extended family in his home.  He has 2 wives.  I asked how that works.  He said the key is "communication".  Nepali's are good at that.  They talk, talk, talk ....until things are worked out.  He has 2 daughters by his first wife and a son by his second. They all live together and he says there is much "maya".  So far, he says.  He says he doesn't know what will happen in the future.  He bought his taxi with proceeds from his Iraq work and when he's not driving it he has a couple other fellows driving it.  I expect he will have several taxi's soon.  He says his American boss in Iraq, a contractor, sends him emails regularly offering him higher wages - $900 a month rather than $700.   I think he'd go back to Iraq but he has parents in their 80s and young children.  He said that he likes the Americans he worked with but the government rules and paperwork drove him nuts. He prefers living in Nepal because there aren't all the forms and rules.  We agreed that Kathmandu is being ruined by all the cars and pollution and life in the village is better.  Just no jobs there, besides farming.  He's voting for the Maoists.  He doesn't like their use of violence, but he likes that they are making change happen. One of the few Nepalis I've spoken with who are politically engaged.
    Yesterday I attended a presentation by a Bangladeshi scientist who has developed a better filter for taking arsenic out of well water.  Arsenic in the water is a serious problem in Nepal also.  I am astounded to learn that most people in Bangladesh and Nepal have biologically safe drinking water because most have wells over 100 feet deep.  But Arsenic is a serious problem.   US standards require less than 1 (some unit); acceptable by WHO standards is less than 10; many Nepali wells have levels over 100 and some in Bangladesh have levels of 4000.  There are serious health problems.  Millions of people are at affected.  The health organizations teach nutrition which can ameliorate the effects and there are many filter programs.  It turns out that rusty nails in sand take the arsenic out.  But the rusty nails fail and the filters have problems.  The Bangladesh scientist, in collaboration with MIT, has developed an "iron matrix" that lasts more than 5 years and extracts arsenic and many other contaminants.  Getting these filters out to the villages, educating them on the use, and getting them used appropriately is in the beginning stages.  Some 30,000 filters are in use, some for 5 years.  This is a small percentage of the need.  Learn more at Turns out this is a major development concern with much involvement by scientists around the world.  MIT has been much involved. A google search on "Arsenic, Nepal, NGO" will tell more.  What strikes me as hopeful is that health problems are being solved, here in the developing world.
    There are schools everywhere. I mean everywhere.  Like we have Starbucks, Kathmandu has schools. This culture has it figured out that education is the path to a more affluent life.  And there is wealth. New buildings are much more common than old. Many are mansions. Many are unique.  In the old days every house was red and white.  Now, every color you can imagine. The  beggars and the poverty,  the people who are not making it, are not commonly in evidence,except in the tourist areas where conspicuous poverty is a livelihood.  Virtually everyone on the street has work, is buying presents for the holidays for family. Cell phones and motorcycles and consumer items which require disposable income are everywhere. 
      Tucked in amongst the new buildings are the old temples: 500 and 1000 years old.  Intricate and haunting.  The Newars of the Kathmandu Valley were the artisans who built much of LLasa in Tibet.  Long history of craft and art. Come soon. Now these historic buildings are just part of the street scene, with people lounging amongst archeological treasures.  In a few years, I expect, they'll all be behind fences and glass.
   Especially this time of year it is the infectious high spirits, celebrations, fireworks, games, music, and religious rituals that everyone here are enthusiastically engaged that are in evidence.  In most conversations, when I mention that I'd been here nearly 40 years ago and how different it was, everyone says I was lucky - those were the good old days before the noise and pollution.  Ah, we romanticize ... some time in the past, in the future, in a wonderful, magical place like America (if you are Nepali) or Nepal (if you are American) ... when life is, was, will be perfect.   I am so aware of Walt Whitman's insight:  "And will never be any more perfection than there is now."


PS - I've attached a few pictures below.  Most are of people amongst the temples of Patan. The last one, of a man sitting on the ground selling fish; the sign STD/ISD means he has a cell phone people for rent; the crowd behind is gambling; the Toyota van is brand new; everyone is oblivious to the litter.  This picture seems to me to capture many typical aspects of Kathmandu culture.