Friday, October 01, 2004

first notes from Nepal

It's Friday evening, and I've been in Nepal since Wendesday afternoon. I'm not sure how long I was travelling, but it was around 26 hours between taking off at SFO at 1:30AM pacific time, and touching down in Kathmandu at 3 in the afternoon local time. Stops were in Hong Kong and Bangkok. A note about the time here in Kathmandu is that it's 13 hours and 45 minutes ahead of pacific time. All of Nepal is on this time that's 5 hours and 45 minutes behind GMT, distinguishing it from India which is GMT-5:30. That's how the Lonely Planet book explained the 15 minutes.

I arrived on a bandh day, which is a ban on all road travel except for Tourist buses. This applied to all of Kathmandu and was called by the Maoist parties. They gave two week's notice that Tuesday and Wednesday would be bandh days, and everything was peaceful. My bosses tell me these are not uncommon. Stores closed, cars stayed at home, biking was extremely easy, and the bus I rode in had a big banner on its front that identified it as part of the tourism industry. Before I came, the State Department issued a travel warning for Nepal - actually, there has been a travel warning for quite some time, but it was renewed with additional commentary just a week before I arrived. The peace corp and the families of diplomats were moved out of the country eight days before I arrived - all due to purported Maoist threats. Now that I'm here, I do not feel in danger at all, and the state department looks to be taking very conservative stances both on the Maoist parties as a threat rather than as a political opposition movement, and on their threat to American citizens. There are areas outside of Kathmandu that are sites of political unrest, but inside Kathmandu and through many parts of the country, the climate is favorable for visitors.

Today and yesterday, I read about the Kumari, and she even made an appearance at a festival this evening in Kathmandu. The Kumari is a girl who is a living deity, who leaves her family around the age of four, when she is selected to have the 32 necessary traits to be the next living Kumari. From then on, until she's a teenager, she lives with attendants and receives worshipers. She exists for the protection of the king, and only goes out six times per year to festivals. Both Kathmandu and Patan have Kumaris - apparently Patan's practice of having a Kumari is much more relaxed than Kathmandu's. Her forehead's painted bright with ocher and she has a large third eye painted on - I'm sure I'll know her when I see her. The current one is the first Kumari who's been allowed to go to school.

I've been meeting and settling into the way Ecosystems is setup, starting with the office building. The same three-story building is both office and home to my bosses - the entire second floor is the office. Besides my bosses, there are a number of other people who live and/or work at the house. Vishnu is the dede (which means older sister - dedes do cooking and cleaning and washing) who lives here. Koche is the cook who makes lunch and dinner every day, as well as doing the shopping. Tapa is the gardener and responsible for upkeep, and there are two permanent Ecosystems employees who have offices on the second floor - Nandu and Anisha. I don't think I expected there to be servants in the house, but Koche and Vishnu keep things running really well. Koche's been with the Sowerwines since they arrived in Nepal thirteen years ago, and Vishnu's been with them since her sister, who used to be their dede, got married and moved out.

Looking into trekking, it's true that one could show up in Kathmandu without any gear whatsoever and get completely outfitted in the area of town called Thamel. I went down there today with one of my bosses, Haydi, and she bought some walking poles from a man who said he really liked using poles like that when he climbled Lohtse and when he was going up to camp two on Mount Everest. Whoa. He rents sleeping bags for about forty cents per day.

On Monday I go over to the company's test site and machine shop, where I'll meet the fabricators. Looking forward to that. I know at this point that the work I'll be doing will involve both running numbers and being out on the test site and machine shop, solving hands-on design problems as they appear.

I'm planning a trek to the Langtang area during Dasain. There are about five major trekking areas in Nepal - the most famous of which is the Everest area. Dasain will be a two-week holiday starting mid-October where Nepalis travel to see family and otherwise take vacations. It's a tough time to get work done, and my bosses have planned a trek of their own during the time, so that leaves us with a good ~12 day window to go trekking. I haven't talked yet with my co-intern or his girlfriend about it yet, but they indicated by email that they're looking forward to some trekking. Trekking is the same thing as hiking, I'm told - as opposed to mountaineering, which requires ropes and skill. My bosses will be spending Dasain going to the Mustang area, trekking with seven visitors from the US, including an engineer from Ideo. That's where my one boss, Haydi, used to work - it's also the design company that is closely tied with the Design Division of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford, particularly the PD lofts and machine shop. Shop TA Patty Compton did an internship there over the summer, and the company was founded by one of the professors in the Stanford Design Division. So, there's a continuing tie-in with the Bay Area ME design world here in Lalitpur - in both experience and personal relationships.


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