Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Please check out my new blog!

I've started a new blog regarding my experiences with the deaf community here in Nepal.

The URL is:

Please check it out!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

More on Langtang to come soon...

For those of you wondering about Melissa and I's experiences in the Langtang Himalaya, I plan to catch up on this soon, and to include photos. We spent two and a half weeks in the mountains, visiting Tamang villages and meeting deaf people near 24,000 foot Langtang Lirung. We were within ten miles of the Tibetan border at one point, and with newfound Dutch and Nepali friends, I got as high as I've ever been in my life-- above 16,500 feet at the summit of Tserko Ri, deep in the heart of the Langtang Valley. There I tied a white prayer scarf for my father and had an awe-inspiring view of the Langtang Himal all around me. Afterwards, we visited the holy alpine lake of Gosainkund and crossed a 14,500 foot pass on our return to Kathmandu. It was a wonderful trip, and while I'm focusing on working with the deaf kids at the Naxal School for now, I'm looking forward to when my research will take me back into the mountains in a few months.

First day teaching at Naxal Deaf School

Today I stepped into a classroom at the Naxal School for the first time. I was still jubilant from the Obama victory, and a little jittery from a few cups of tea. I've agreed to teach two afternoon art classes, to grades 2, 3, and 5. I'm still a novice at Nepali Sign Language, but the teachers are there to help me out, and the students are very enthusiastic and excited to have a deaf American teacher.

In Nepal, and elsewhere in Asia as well, it's typical to learn by rote, so my biggest goal will be encouraging creative thinking. This is harder than it sounds. In my first class, I asked the students to draw their favorite things from nature, and nearly everyone drew fishes and flowers, because they'd learned how to copy what the teacher drew on the board.

My first real challenge, though, is remembering names-- I have about 25 new sign names crammed into my head. I'll be teaching this class six days a week until the winter holiday in January.

Yes We Can!

I spent the morning with several hundred other Americans at Phora Durbar, Kathmandu's American compound, watching the results of the elections come in. The crowd was very pro-Obama-- I think American expats tend to vote heavily blue. At around 10 am, much earlier than anyone expected, Obama was elected president, and a cheer went up into the room. Hopefully, a Fulbright celebration will be in order tonight!

I feel a new pride in being American that I haven't felt in a long time. Watching Obama's victory speech, it was clear that the speech wasn't just for America, but for the world. And it's quite clear that the whole world is cheering right now.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Preparing for Langtang

In our backyard, the radishes and mustard greens are almost ready for the harvest. The autumnal light filters through our bedroom window in the mornings, and the Dasein holiday is almost over. The streets were quiet for the last week or so, and the thousands of goats trotting happily around the city a few weeks ago are no longer around. While we missed the ritual sacrifice of 108 goats in Basantapur Square, there were signs of the sacrifice all around us-- a goat pinned down on the street as its throat was cut, the blood spilling into a bowl, or the goat heads staring at us in horror from butcher shops.

We're leaving for the Langtang region tomorrow, an area of the Himalaya directly north of Kathmandu on the border with Tibet, and we'll be spending the next two or three weeks in the mountains-- first in traditional Tamang towns with a Tamang guide, and then hiking up to the holy alpine lake Gosainkund if the weather allows. I'll be gathering background for stories in the Tamang villages, as well as meeting with deaf people, and Gosainkund will provide further background and setting. We're catching a bus at 6:30 in the morning. Normally it goes direct to Dhunche, at the edge of Langtang National Park, but because of the monsoon the road has been closed by a landslide. So we'll take the bus to the landslide and then cross over to a waiting bus, which will take us into the heart of the valley.

Friday, September 26, 2008

On the Rim of the Valley

For the past four or five days, we've been staying in Dhulikhel, a peaceful Newari town on the edge of the Kathmandu valley. I came up here to visit the deaf school in Banepa, but there's also been the opportunity to take a great day hike, work on our Nepali language skills, and meet some wonderful people.

The deaf school in Banepa is on the edge of town, facing a sea of rice paddies and forested hills. The school has about forty students, ranging from age 6 to 22, and when we arrived, a half dozen of the older schoolgirls were making candles for the upcoming Dasain holiday. These candles will be sold in town and then be used for the school's upkeep. The teachers and principal (five in all) were enthusiastic and dedicated, particularly impressive since they decided to split the two salaries that funding allowed between the five of them. The students cooked lunch on two decrepit oil burners-- Ananda (whose sign name means 'yawn' because he's always sleepy) appeared to nearly set himself on fire. A good portion of the afternoon was spent rolling flour into puris and frying them, and lunch was a modest but delicious chickpea and potato stew with chai and puris. It takes many of the students two hours to get to school each day, and for that reason, the school wants to build a hostel for the students and get a bus.

The students were also excited to show us some traditional Tamang and Newari dances that they'd learned as part of the school curriculum. The principal played the music on a small tape recorder and made gestures to indicate the students' cues, and the kids did a great job.

It's really incredible the level of education that deaf students are beginning to get here. There's still a real issue about this translating into jobs and opportunities, and deaf children in smaller villages, particularly in the mountains, often don't get an education. While we were sitting with the students, a sixty-year old man stood in the doorway, watching us. The students all knew him, and teasingly tolerated his presence, but he's a living example of a lost generation of Nepali deaf people. He knows very little sign, lives in absolute poverty, and made his wages by working on farms and carrying loads. Now he's looking from the outside in as a new generation of deaf children are becoming fluent in sign language, learning math and reading, and forming tight-knit circles. He lives near the school, and I hope to visit him some time.


Our guesthouse is on the edge of Dhulikhel, overlooking a dense forest and surrounded by gorgeous flowers. The food is grown on cultivated plots by the guesthouse, and there are mandarin and persimmon trees brushing against the walls. We eat daal baat for dinner, with sides of potato curry and fresh squash greens. A family of goats lives just below us, and when we climb to the roof, we occasionally get tantalizing glimpses of the Himalaya, which are still covered with towering monsoon clouds. Yesterday we hiked up to Namobuddha, an important pilgrimage spot for Tibetans. It's a humble white-washed stupa streaming with prayer flags, a peaceful place where the Buddha (according to legend) took pity on a starving tigress and fed himself to her. All morning we climbed through mist, jungle and pine forest before the clouds cleared and we had sweeping views of the valley and brief views of the Himalaya. After Namobuddha, we descended steeply downward and passed through several small Newari villages on our way to Panauti. Our time here has been a welcome respite from the chaos and crowds of Kathmandu.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Indra Jatra and the Kumari

I've heard there are more festivals in Nepal than days of the year, and this past Sunday, we went to Durbar Sqaure to see the Kumari, the living goddess of Kathmandu, wheeled around Basantapur. Thousands of people were crowded on the steps of Maju Deval and the surrounding temples, many of the women dressed in red like the Kumari. We spent several hours in a standing room only crowd, watching a procession of cars pull up to the Royal Palace, some with embassy flags, others with Nepali politicians. There was an army contingent facing the palace and saluting the top brass as they arrived, giving the event more of a political than a religious feel. The legend of Kumari originated with 18th-century Malla kings, and perhaps it was more political even then. Men wearing fearsome red and blue masks danced into the square, a strange contrast with the embassy cars. Finally, three huge chariots were pulled into the square, the last and largest reserved for the Kumari, a pre-pubescent girl who will lose her status and be replaced by another living goddess once she has her first period.

Indra Jatra marks the end of the monsoon season, and pays homage both to those who have died in the past year and to the coming harvest. The simultaneously horrifying and comical face of Seto Bhairab is unveiled in Basantapur Square for the three days of the festival, and remains covered for the rest of the year. His monstrous head is grimacing and blue, his red mouth full of fangs. We offered him a banana, and the Nepali attendant put the banana in Bhairab's mouth. I wanted to laugh-- that was the moment when he somehow became benevolent and humorous.

“I think he really wanted a banana,” Melissa said. It's true. He seemed happy somehow.

In Kathmandu

We've been in Kathmandu for a week now, and we're just beginning to get settled in at our place in Handigaon, which is near the Krishna Mandir, a small temple with a huge tree rooted above it. There are no specific addresses in Kathmandu, and even at the bank, we were required to draw a map of where we lived as part of our paperwork. There's an outdoor market every evening just around the corner from where we live, blankets and tarps set out with pomegranates, guavas, eggplant, tomatoes and greens.

Kathmandu is much more chaotic and crowded than I remember, but seven years ago I spent most my time in Asan Tole, Durbar Square, the older parts of town, as well as Thamel, the tourist district. Taxis, trucks, motorcycles and pedestrians all share the narrow roads, passing within a few inches of each other and kicking up clouds of dust. Our lungs are tight, our noses burn at the pollution, and the lushly forested hills all around the city seem an endless distance away.

I thought it would take a month or so to acclimate and ease into my project, but things have been moving quickly, giving me a strong feeling that I'm meant to be doing this. My first full day here, I stumbled into a courtyard and saw two young girls in blue school uniforms signing to each other. They joined a crowd of deaf students, and I follwed them into the courtyard of the Naxal School for the Deaf, one of my Fulbright affiliations. I saw an older western man and two Nepalis walking together, and I introduced myself. The westerner was a member of the first class of Fulbrights to go from Germany to the U.S. in 1965, and he has been doing volunteer work in Nepal for many years.

Within a few days, I'd met many of the Naxal students, visited the hostel where they lived, and went to a meeting for the Kathmandu Association for the Deaf, where more than fifty people were gathered in a small, dimly lit room, eager to meet me. Melissa and I went to a deaf performance in Kirtipur, a small town just outside Kathmandu, which still has the feel of an old Newari village. I was dragged onstage in front of a standing-room only crowd in a community center, introduced myself as best as I could, and met Raghav Bir Joshi of the CPN-United Party, the only deaf member of the Constitution Assembly and one of the few deaf politicians in the world. Melissa and I were taken backstage to join in a simple and delicious meal served in woven reed baskets. I already feel so accepted and comfortable in the deaf community here.

I'm picking up Nepali Sign Language quickly, much faster than the spoken language, and already I've seen so many stories. Most of the deaf I've talked to lost their hearing at a young age due to sickness. Some have not seen their hearing families in many years. One 17-year old student was a soldier in the Maoist army before he escaped and went to the deaf school in Kathmandu. He's going back to his home village in the border of Tibet for Dasain. He hasn't been back in four years, and he needs to get his papers in order so he can compete in Kathmandu's deaf karate association.

There are deaf people everywhere here-- we only need to follow the signs-- a Tibetan with long hair in Thamel who works outside a gem shop, a family enjoying the Indra Jatra festival in Basantapur Square, students in uniforms walking along the narrow footpath by the Naxal School. A simple introduction and soon we have new friends. The Nepali people have been warm, accepting, and inviting, the deaf community particularly so.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

T minus 12 hours

It's almost time to go. This entry will hopefully mark a more or less regular return to this blog, under the auspices of my Fulbright experience in Nepal. These last few hours in the states have seemed a bit surreal, as I enjoyed one of the first crisp nights of fall in Boulder, a purple sunset descending over the Flatirons.

Denver to St. Paul to Tokyo to Bangkok to Kathmandu, 35 hours in all, 10,000 frequent flier miles one way. I set aside the temptation for a layover in Tokyo, much as I was enticed by the idea of spending a few nights in one of those plastic capsules. Same with Bangkok, where the monsoons are coming in.

It's been seven years since I've last been in Nepal, and I wonder what I'll remember and recognize, and what will seem different after these years of political upheaval. I can't help but imagine that our apartment in the Naxal area will be a few cinderblock rooms-- I'm keeping expectations low for now.

A few hours ago, at the bookstore on Pearl Street, the title that drew me in was Alan Weisman's latest work of non-fiction, which posits what the natural world will look like after humans die out. It's beautifully written but a bit dramatic, so I decided on a Buddhist magazine for my airport reading instead, settling on a lighter version of human transience.