Monday, October 25, 2004

seventh night of the trek

Today I write by the light of my headlamp, with the sound of the Nepalis playing guitar around the wood fire in the Kitchen, here at Tatopani. At 9:00PM, it's already past time for the trekkers to go to bed. Up until a few minutes ago, we were in the dining room talking with the other guests, but then one of the employees came in and was clearly closing up. Not until today, our seventh day, have we met the Maoists - more on that later.

Two days ago, we made it to ABC. At 4130 meters, it was our goal and our accomplishment. From 900 meters to 4130, with plenty of 500 meter down-the-valley-up-the-valley's in between. The night before getting to ABC, we stayed at Deurali, where I last wrote. At 3230 meters, we ascended 900 meters in the last day, exceeding the Lonely Planet's maximum per-day rate of 500 meters over 3000. The road from Deurali to ABC was surprisingly gradual. The whole day was above tree-line, but not a difficult grade. We made it to ABC around 2:00PM, with clouds surrounding us. Not until after lunch and right before dinner - spending time with Erica from Canada and the four Germans - did we see where we were. When the sun went down, the clouds cleared and we saw it all - 360 degrees of incredible mountains. Annapurna 1 at over 8000 meters, Macchupuchare, Annapurna South, and on. When we arrived, climbing up the 40 last steps that precede ABC, I said "I can't believe I ate the whole thing", and we went out to the ridge where the moraine lay below, covered in the small stones the glaciers had eroded, at the tombstone of a Russian mountaineer who died in 1997 on Annapurna. That view over the moraine was breathtaking itself - so expansive, it was completely humbling.

That evening, sleep was hard to get, and what happened around the dinner table is a little hazy. I learned cribbage, that I remember. At about 9:00PM, a Nepali guide asked us to go to bed. He said that with a full guest house, the porters and guides would sleep in the dining room, and they were about to go to bed. But it being the most important day of Dasain, when us foreigners left, the Nepalis celebrated into the night before finally going to sleep. Earlier, Shiva bought a small 250mL bottle of rum and asked us to celebrate with him. We obliged, and we had that good nepali rum made from local sugar cane with hot water. We gave Shiva a gift of our four snickers bars for the holiday - it was all we had to give. I think he may have saved them for his kids.

In the morning, we got up at 5:30 to see the sunrise over all the mountains. It was -10C before dawn but we put on all the clothes we had and went out to see it. Like the night before, when they were lit only by the almost-full moon, the mountains were amazing and cloudless, dwarfing us. We took breakfast and spoke to a Japanese man whose group was going on to 5700m, where they would make their own camps, over the moraine and up onto the mountain. Our ascent was done though, and it was well worth it. We said goodbye to Erica and the Germans who left at 8:00AM, and we ourselves went down at 9:00AM. Before that, around 7:30, I took a picture of the four Germans together in front of the "Annapurna Base Camp, 4130m" sign, mustering my entire knowledge of German, I counted "ein, svine, dri" - Ewan and I took photos of each other with his hand-held GPS, reading 4130m shortly after.

That day, yesterday, we descended 6000 ft., almost 2000m, to Bamboo. They said that "down is down, and that's easier than up", but going down is not a walk in the park. By the end of that long day, we arrived in Bamboo after 2 hours of rain - me finding that the pain in my left foot was a blister underneath my middle left toenail. I didn't know you could get a blister under a toe nail, but I'd never walked down 6000 feet in a day before, accelerating and abruptly halting the toes each step inside the boots.

That night in Bamboo, we were exhausted, but met at the guest house's dining room table a British and Canadian girl, as well as a couple from Amsterdam. Little had I expected to meet the most intrepid couple I'd ever known that night. This Dutch couple, maybe 50 years old, told us about how their trek had gone, and we asked more about what they do. She teaches Dutch to refugees, and he translates English literature into Dutch. They take concurrent sabbaticals every 5 years. This year, they've traveled to Nepal and will go on to Southeast Asia, for a total of 6 months. Their last sabbatical, they crossed the Atlantic in their 32 foot sailboat, just the 2 of them. They told us about the 28 days between the Canaries and the Caribbean, and how in the middle of the Atlantic, the choice presents itself between Rio, the Caribbean islands, or the eastern seaboard of America, each 5 degrees or so apart in heading. It's a world of choices in the middle of the ocean, each an adventure.

Then this morning, we left Bamboo at 8:00 for a long day of walking. We made it to Chomrong by 12:00 for lunch, right before which there was a walk down 500 meters to a river, only to have to ascend 500 meters immediately after. At 200m up on the ascending side, we took a break, only for me to sit down and hear my shorts rip. Great. A small tear I already had, maybe an inch, went the full vertical length of the shorts there. A little disheartened at that point, with the foreboding 300m left and not much energy left, we saw a 70-year-old local lady, about 4'8", passing us. Shiva had just the right solution. He walked to a nearby house and bought a cucumber from the woman who was outside there, and cut it into five for us. She also brought out a plate of bamboo pickled with mustard and soy beans. The cucumber was enormous - at least 4" in diameter and a foot long. We each had a piece - Shiva, Ewan, Nini, and I, and the 5th piece went to the group of 3 young children the woman had. It was delicious, and Shiva cut his part into 3 when two porters, carrying enormous hockey-sized bags for a French group, stopped.

Once in Chomrong, we sat down, exhausted, for lunch and it immediately began to rain. Good timing we thought, and enjoyed lunch, complete with a 250mL bottle of coke - the first we'd had since leaving for the trek. But it turned out to continue raining, and as we set out for the 2.5 hours to our goal, Tatopani, we had our raincoats in hand and had learned from some other trekkers at the restaurant that Maoists were collecting tolls, just 10 minutes further on the route we were taking. They described the head of this Maoists group as having thick round glasses, and wearing a black East-Asian style suit.

Knowing that the Maoists likely awaited us, we set out. Shortly after, I was walking with Ewan past a set of houses and shops. He remarked that the men ahead of us may be the Maoists, and I said "I don't thing so". They were dressed like any Nepali civilian and stood alongside the road. When we approached, they told us to stop in English and handed the two of us pamphlets. We would have passed, as no one was really blocking the road, but I looked left and saw the man who matched the guys' description, sitting behind a building. We stopped and knew these men were the Maoists. The pamphlet was on the evils of the monarchy and their financier, the United States. The men did not show any weapons, and seemed calm, like they'd done this for a long time - plenty of interactions without confrontation.

Nini and Shiva soon came up behind us. We, as a group, told Shiva in Pokharah before departing that we would pay the 1200 rupee fee (~USD17) that the Maoists usually asked. We read the pamphlet and the man with the glasses asked Nini to sit down and fill out the receipt they would give us - from a carbon-copy booklet of blank receipts. Shiva spoke to them in Nepali and everything was going fine. We stood there and spoke very little ourselves. Nini, with her British accent, did all of the speaking in English. I did not want to say I was American, even though other Americans I'd met along the way reported the Maoists did not associate them with the, in their eyes, imperialistic US government. Everything was fine, and we were charged 100 rupees per day per person, for a total of 900 per person - all noted on the receipt. We got the money out and handed it to Shiva, who handed it on to the man with glasses. But more people were coming by as we were paying, and these people started making trouble.

Two people without a guide, who I thought looked American, went by. The men reached out with their pamphlets but the couple pretended not to see. The Maoists shouted for them to stop and sit down, but they continued walking on. One Maoist reached out and grabbed the man of the couple and told him to stop, but the American shook him off and continued down the path. The Maoist threw a rock near him, as if to get his attention. The American continued on and didn't pay. This made the Maoists annoyed - an annoyance that would only be heightened to anger with the next people to come by: the French.

It was the same group of French people who we'd seen earlier and whose porters we had cucumber with. Wearing the kind of short shorts guidebooks tell you not to wear trekking in Nepal, the first two went by, with the same fake obliviousness of the Americans. One of the men in short shorts grabbed the hand of the Maoist who reached at his backpack to stop him. They continued past. But there were still at least six more in their group yet to pass.

The next two French people came by with the same attitude a minute later, but the French people's guide was with these next two. Whatever the Maoists said to the guide, he responded. He dropped the French people's large backpack he was carrying, left it with the Maoists, and went running after his clients to bring them back. The Maoists were angry at that point. Shiva later recounted that what the Maoists were saying amongst themselves involved a lot of swearing and talk about what they were going to do to the people who'd passed - they were talking about whether to throw a grenade. It turns out Shiva said he saw grenades on the one guy's belt. One of the French guys returned angry, grabbed the bag his guide had left, and marched away. Nini speaks French and told us the man was saying he didn't care what his guide wanted them to pay - he wasn't paying and he'd continue on with the extra bag without his guide. That guy couldn't have carried that bag and his own for 10 miles. These French guys will go home in a week, but their guide will continue to travel these same routes for years to make his living, and the Maoists will blame him for his clients not paying. Shiva told us the Maoists may hurt him, or want him to pay the money. The average annual income in Nepal is USD150.

We didn't stay to find out what happened with the French people - whether their guide left them to save his name or what. But I don't think the French people realized what they were putting in jeopardy. They had patches all over their backpacks bragging about all the places they'd been, but that day they were putting their guide and themselves in harm's way because of their obstinance.

Friday, October 22, 2004

fourth night of the trek

Tonight I write from Deurali - at 3220m, we're 900 meters from our goal, Annapurna Base Camp. We're spending the night here on the advise of our guide and many other trekkers to acclimate to the altitude. We just had dinner around the guest house's one large table with a propane heater under it. Ever hear about people going to bed with a gas burner running in a closed room? They wake up dead after the burner eats up all the oxygen in the room. We open a window every hour or so. Shiva admits it's not the best idea, but damned if it isn't cold up here. We got in at 2:30PM, and about an hour after, the clouds came in and everything got cold - and I don't mean the clouds came in above us - the clouds came in at eye level. The whole valley just clouded up.

Since we've eaten, I went outside and looked off the guest house's deck - the moon's getting near full and it lit up the hills above us and the clouds that are now just misting around the hills' tops. I thought that with us at 10,000 feet, the tops of those hills are above 13,000 ft. That's enough to get on a map in America as a mountain. But this is the Himalayas.

The young son of the hostel owner was just watching me write, and I gave him what I wrote yesterday - he's reading it now. The kids watch us Westerners write and like to look at magazines if any are brought - they study English in school and only like to watch the English speakers write - the Germans across the table from us don't get the attention.

And just now, Shiva gave Ewan and I some more millet wine. We ordered it with dinner, but soon after, Shiva told us the guest house's owner is sick and asked if we had anything for diarrhea and vomiting - so, we went to THE BAG. We're not talking about immodium and tylenol - we're talking about diamox and noraflexin and cyproflexin. When we were going through the bag reading what we had, the guides all laughed when we said diamox. They all know that name, and agreed that whatever the guy has isn't altitude sickness - diamox is the infamous medication for altitude sickness that has serious side effects. Apparently, the medication alone can end your day.

Besides Ewan, Nini, and I, the other people here tonight are the four Germans and a Canadian girl named Erica who is in medical school at UBC. She singled out the cyproflexin and a pack of rehydration salts for the symptoms, and she wrote how to use them in English and Shiva transcribed it into Nepali. All on green engineering paper I brought along. The hosts were very appreciative and let those of us already having millet wine for the Dasain celebration have more wine, with dry rice fried in ge for an addition to the wine, as well as spiced goat meat for a side. Accepting refills on wine at 10,000 feet with a 5-hour trek up another 900 meters tomorrow sounds like a bad idea, but the host insists.

The guests are all clearing out and the guides will sleep in here tonight, so I should go, but there are a few more things from today I should recount. There was the beautiful waterfall and the smoothed rocks we laid out on in the sun - must have been 30 ft. by 100 ft. of rolling rocks, up and down before the waterfall dropped 100 feet down to a whirling pool where another stream came in. The water was low because we're out of the monsoon. We laid on the rocks and watched the pool below. It was beautiful, with the bamboo forest surrounding us. The other point I wanted to recount was the girl we met at lunch. She'd gone delirious with altitude sickness at base camp the night before and was carried down on a porter's back to where we are now, at 2:00AM by head lamp. Amazing.

Well, the rice wine's almost gone now and so is the last other guest. The guides and porters are playing guitar and singing and smoking now, so it's time to go.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

the third night of the trek

Tonight we are at Bamboo, a guest house one or two days' walk from Annapurna Base Camp - ABC as everyone calls it here. We've finished our third day of walking.

On Sunday morning (October 17), Ewan, Nini, and I left Kathmandu on a bus bound for Pokarah - another major city in Nepal. We knew we had until Nov. 2nd before our bosses returned from their trek to Mustang. Mustang is the restricted area of Nepal just opened to tourists about 10 years ago, which has a USD700 charge to visit and has complicated rules. The gov't regulates how you must camp, and you must take an official "liason" officer with you at all times. They are in a group of nine trekkers, all American, with 20 employees - porters, guides, cooks, and the liason officer. The rules state you must carry all your own water. It's routine for a porter to carry 40kg on his back, with the weight supported on his forehead. Some porters carry 50 or 60 or 70 kg, all the while on the same pace or faster than trekkers. Porters have been known to carry 100 kg trekkers with injuries like broken legs - that's 220 pounds. These porters are tough. But this army-of-porters style of trekking that our bosses are doing in Mustang is not at all close to what we're doing.

We're doing tea-house trekking. Each day, there's a village with guest houses that serve lunch. Each night, these same sorts of places provide places to sleep and have dinner. At higher altitudes, where there aren't any more real villages, there are clumps of guest houses every few hours on the trail. Some of the places have solar-powered hot showers. Others have cold buckets of water. Each night, we're served daal bhat (lentils, rice, and spiced vegetables). In the morning, there's something like French toast, tea, Tibetan bread, and eggs available. It's certainly not camping, but it's the way things are done in the Annapurna area. The room costs about $1.50 each night, and there's no heat so you need a sleeping bag. Each day comes to about USD8, plus your share for the guide - an expensive day by living-in-Nepal standards, but an hour of work over the this last summer pays for a whole day. It was 2000 rupees for the permit to enter the area (~USD30) that says I'm Canadian, plus we've all set-aside 1200 rupees for the Maoists. They charge a tax for entering the area if they stop you on the trail. We're told by other trekkers that they give you a receipt, so that when you're stopped further on you can show you paid and don't have to pay again. I thought that was wild - it's really a political group collecting "park fees" for the area they control, not men-with-guns robbing travellers. They also give you a pamphlet in English explaining how the monarchy and their financial backers, the US, are the oppressive devil who take and give the people nothing. The maoists particularly dislike the US because it supplies the monarchy's military with guns, training, and helicopters explicitly for fighting the maoists.

Monday, we spent in Pokarah at the Sacred Valley Inn. It was recommended by our bosses, who are a great resource on travel in Nepal since they've been here for 13 years and traveled extensively. We arranged a guide, got sleeping bags (30 cents/day) and got those last minute essentials like sun lotion and soap. We debated for a while about getting a guide. When I got to Nepal, the idea of retaining employees, whether a cook or a cleaner or porter or guide, seemed out of consideration. But, reading up more on how trekking goes in Nepal, hiring a guide seemed like the way to go. The paths are pretty well beaten - they're used by locals as the only way to get to these remote villages, so tourists are not the only traffic, by far. The trails see school children running 1 hour to school, porters carrying goods for the locals, and more. But anyway, about the guide - it's not strictly necessary to have one. There are people who travel alone with big back packs like they're hiking in Yosemite. But, the locals don't like it much when Westerners do this. If you come to their land, their villages, and you employ one of their own - as a guide who you put your trust in - it's seem favorably. Besides that social dynamic, a guide tells you what the things you see mean, acts as an intermediary in interacting with locals like you couldn't otherwise, and more. We got a guide, and we've been very happy we have. In addition, a guide will carry ~15 kg - ours carries 2 sleeping bags and two fleeces that don't fit well in our bags.

Our guide is Shiva - he's great and his English is good. It's been an especially good time to have a guide, as right now is the 2-week Nepali festival Dasain, when celebrations are happening and otherwise uncommon things are going on. Shiva explains what it's all about to us. Families slaughter goats, they bend bamboo trees into rope swings - all sorts of stuff just for Dasain.

So, I sit here in the Bamboo guest house. At 8250 ft, we're having millet wine (rakshi) and dried spiced goat meat. Shiva's offered us the meat, which is a complementary special from the guest house for Dasain. The guest house has a common dining room, with one large table that has blankets skirting all four sides. There's a stove under the table and to warm up, just put your legs under the table. Between the 16 people around the table, the conversations are in Nepali, French, Japanese, and the Queen's English. The two Japanese girls who live in Nepal and speak Nepali are getting a lot of attention from the guides and porters. Most tourists here are from France, the UK, and Japan - since the Maoists presence, most Americans have stayed home. A couple hours ago, when we first sat down, I used 3 of the 10 Japanese words I remember to turn to the Japanese girl next to me and ask her if she was Japanese in Japanese. She looked back startled - after hearing us speaking English and being white - and put her index finger on her nose and said "me?". She's been friendly since. Nini speaks French, and she tells me that the French people at the other end of the table are having a conversation about how the most important thing is to take care of your feet.

It's been an amazing three days. We've seen the incredible hills and valleys and mountains - each village perched on the edge of hills. There have been 500 vertical meter walks down valley edges to river crossings, and corresponding 500 meter walks up the other side, just to get back to where you can look straight across to where you used to be. We've met other travellers - British, Alaskan, a Singaporean cop, and Israelis. Most of the travellers have been in their 20's. We played with children on swings supported by four bent-over bamboo stalks. We've had lunches on decks overhanging huge valleys. We've dodged bats to get to our hostel rooms at night, and woken up to cloudless mornings with incredible views of Machupuchhare, Annapurna South, and Annapurna I - from 6900 to over 8000m.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

leaving for high altitude

In the morning, Ewan, Nini and I leave for a 10-day trek in the Annapurna region of Nepal. I'll be offline until we return. It should be quite an adventure, starting with a 7-hour bus ride that only goes 70 km - so that alone should be an adventure. We'll be hiking up to over 4200 meters - pretty high for a guy who lives at sea level, but not half as high as things can get in Nepal.

The goal is to end up at Annapurna base camp, which is situated in the middle of 10+ mountains over 6000 meters - exciting.

Tonight we were invited for dinner at our manager's place - Nandu. He and his wife had us for dinner and it was really nice. He grew up in Burma and she in India, but they're both Nepali - the food was great, and they told us we can consider their place a second home. They have a beautiful house outside the border of the ring road that surrounds Kathmandu, and we could see the mountains very clearly from their roof. We talked about business and other things. About the business, we talked about how the tarbato has vibration problems, and we need to do some serious work before it's a viable product. It struck me how this will be the first time that I'm designing something people's lives rely upon. The second order equations we put together to analyze the vibrations will need to done right - seriously right. It's quite a bit of responsibility, but I think Ewan and I are up to it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

first sighting of the mountains

Today I saw the mountains for the first time. We could always see the hills that surround the Kathmandu Valley, and that's what I've been seeing for the last two weeks. But today, after a lot of rain yesterday put down the haze of pollution, and the skies cleared, I saw the Himalayas beyond the hills. You can't take it all in, even all the way back here in Kathmandu - they reach so wide, that you find yourself just panning left and right, trying to see them all. They were amazing - will post pictures of them soon.

an entire day at KC's

Today Ewan and I spent the whole day at KC's, getting a tandem-driven tarbato cart finished up. The interns from last year spec'ed the thing, and KC built as much as he could after they left. However, ambiguities remained in their drawings, and KC's guys were at a stand-still over it all. Nandu came with us in the morning, helping with translating and letting us know the history of how the project got to where it is. Then Ewan and I got to work.

This is the first day where I felt like I really made a contribution to EcoSystems' work that couldn't have been done without me. We were really engineers today, working to get the big-picture of the project tied together - directing the work of the guys in the shop. Many hands make light work, and these guys were turning, milling, hardfacing, heating and bending faster than you'd believe when we'd ask them to change something. We knew where the tandem was supposed to get to, and they were really happy to do what we asked. After lunch, Nandu left, and it turned out KC speaks more English than he let on to. Communication went really well - sometimes it was drawings, but mostly it was gesturing with the mechanisms - the kind of gesticulations mechanical people are always making anyway. KC's guys are great at fabricating with the equipment they have, but most of the guys - save for KC and one of the machinists - hadn't thought about what the machine's meant to do and how to get there. They want to fulfill the drawings as given to them, or fulfill requests made of them. It was important for Ewan and I to be there, and everyone was really happy with where the tandem was by the end of the day. It was a great day at work, and the dahl bat at dinner was good.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

the neighborhood

A lot has happened since my last posting - I've been in Nepal for just twelve days, and already I feel pretty accustom to place. On Wednesday, my co-worker Ewan arrived, as well as his girlfriend, Nini. They're both British, and are a little older than me. Ewan's an electrical engineer, and Nini's a commercial pilot. All three of us are in the flat now, and have enjoyed a couple nights of dahl bat tarakari - the rice, lentils, and vegetable curry combo that's the staple diet of Nepalis. Here and there we've mixed in a little mango chutney, and spiced things up with a beer or a bottle of wine. I'm told rice and lentils makes for a full protein together - makes for a good diet basis.

A number of people have emailed and asked how things are, given the Maoist presence, and I must say, I feel fine and safe. Things wind up when the sun goes down though. The other day I went for a walk after dinner around the neighborhood, and in the 10 minute walk, I passed at least 15 camouflaged men with guns. And I don't mean guns on their hips, I mean big assault weapons. There is no one out on the streets after about 8:00PM. Everyone is at home, with the streets dark (no street lights) and quite. All the stores close at 8 also. While everything closing very early and everyone going home is common to all of Kathmandu, the armed men are not. It turns out we live very near a military compound where important generals live. Because of that, soldiers are stationed at 1/4 block intervals all throughout the neighborhood, all night long. The guys are friendly - they say hello in Nepali. The word is "namaste", which my boss tells me is more like "my soul welcomes your soul" than "hello", but I don't understand how three syllables can mean all that without a fair bit of interpretation. A notable addition to the 15 men with guns is one man who is armed with a wooden baton - that's the guard for the North Korean embassy, which is a half-block away from our apartment. I think there are North Korean diplomats who live just across the street from us. I went to the corner store on Sunday to buy a bar of soap and there was a Korean family there, getting some groceries. They smiled at the big tall guy as he got past in the aisle. Nice folks.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Nepali machine shops

On Thursday and Friday, Nandu took Ewan, Nini, and I to the two local machine shops that do the fabricating, both prototyping and production, for EcoSystems. One place, although a full fabricator, just does the galvanizing for us. They're reputed to be the best galvanizers in Nepal, which is a big deal since galvanizing allows the use of inexpensive mild steel while assuring protection from corrosion. That place is in Thimi (pronounced Timmy), outside of Kathmandu to the east. It was a bumpy cab ride past fields of bricks for sale and water buffalo to get there. I'd never seen a chemical-finishing operation before, but like expected, they had acid baths, rinsing tanks, and a 2m X 1.5m X 10m tank of 450-degree centigrade zinc for dipping. There were piles of zinc ingots sitting next to it and a small Hindu shrine next to the power switches.

The primary shop though, the one that does our metalworking, is on the very Northern edge of Kathmandu and is run by a guy named KC. KC is known as the best prototype fabricator in Kathmandu, but his location is on the exact opposite side of the city as the test site, which makes for a real bump in the design/manufacture/test/redesign/tweak/test cycle. They have two lathes, a horizontal mill (the kind of machine that uses mill cutters, not end-mills, but mills - ask Shop TA Scott Kohn for more info on that), and a lot of stick welding equipment. KC has ten guys there, and we'll be spending more and more time there, getting our equipment made.

If there's one thing that I took away from seeing the shops, it's that the degree of safety that I've seen in America is incredible compared to here. All the arc welders have frayed and cracked cables, no one has boots, nothing has safety guards - including the grinding wheels, and safety glasses are rare. Kids, wear your safety glasses, and appreciate what OSHA is doing for you.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Bikes and Welding in Nepal

Two stories about welding, two stories about bikes, three stories in all:

Yesterday I went to the Naku test site for Ecosystem's projects. I went with Nandu, the company's Nepali manager. We checked out both the test wire bridge (Tarpul) and the two test wire roads (Tarbatos). Pretty exciting to be up there in the pedaling chair for the tarbato - I'll post a picture of it as soon as I get the photo section of the website working. Afterwards, since our cook Koche was out sick, Nandu took me out to lunch - we had Indian food. I'm getting better at using my right hand to eat - I'm left handed so the fine-motor control in the right is historically lacking. Nandu took me to a bike shop on the way to Nakhu. I'm still riding a bike left by a former intern that's made for someone who's 5'4" - which wouldn't be a big deal riding around Stanford campus. However, the situation here is a bit more demanding - not to mention the seat is... not comfortable. That seat is turning what would otherwise be good days into, averaged out, bad days. So, we're at the bike shop: Nandu and I showed up to look at some Indian single-speed bikes. I almost fell off the thing when, on the first five feet of riding it, my legs hit the handlebars mid-thigh and my foot hit the front wheel turning. I became the topic of conversation not only for all the employees at the bike shop, but for some people on the street passing by - they were really into me being 100 kilos. I don't know why a guy selling bikes off the rack wanted to know how much I weight, but he did. I think I may be the heaviest person those guys had ever met. I'm still on the hunt for a bike - let me know if you're in the market to sell a big bike in the Kathmandu area. Word on the street is that adventurers who bike from Lassa in Tibet (15,000 feet) up to the border (18,000 feet) and down into Kathmandu (4,500 feet) sometimes sell their bikes before continuing on their adventures. Hopefully some of them are tall. Can you imagine biking uphill at 18,000 feet on a dirt road?

At the bike shop, I was looking at the welding on a number of the Indian bikes - and I tell you what, this one bike was the worst welding I have ever seen on something for sale. It looked like it was done with MIG by hand - one pass all the way around. Too much wire and too little heat, like you warmed up an entire hotglue stick (the small kind) and wrapped it around the joint. And where the beginning and end met up? Forget about it - there was a hole you could put an unwound paperclip through - clean through to the inside of the tube. Amazing, but less than $30 for the whole bike.

Speaking of welding - on the day I arrived, we drove by a metalworking storefront where a guy was stick welding without a helmet. And I don't mean turn-your-head-and-tack welding. I mean he was arc welding a non-structural gate together, looking at his work, not closing his eyes. He was blinding himself. No gloves, no boots, no leathers, no helmet.

Monday, October 04, 2004

The expatriot community of Kathmandu

Since my last entry, I have been introduced to the expatriot community of Kathmandu. Not just Americans - but people from all over Europe, such as Germany and Denmark, as well as English-speaking countries like Australia and New Zealand. I knew before coming that there were 22,000 NGO's registered in Nepal - about 2,000 of which are active. In addition to that, there are many foreign-government organizations aimed at providing aid to the Nepali people. A population from these groups has decided to stay and make Nepal their home - some marrying Nepalis and some founding their own organizations. Among these foreigners, there exists a very - tight knit isn't the right word - interconnected group. My bosses, as foreigners formerly associated aid organizations and now founders of an appropriate-technology company, are part of this group.

Saturday night, we went to an art opening where there were a lot of expatriots. A Nepali artist's paintings were on display - really emotional work that was about the political unrest's effect on the people. Sunday night, it was a going-away party at Ghojan Griha for a member of the expatriot community who'd been here for over twenty years.

I didn't expect there to be such a community of people like my bosses - I thought they would be out in Nepal, very much on their own, maybe knowing a few people at the embassy. That's not at all the case, there are a lot of foreigners, and both events included these expatriots and important Nepalis that are part of economic and civil change-for-the-better.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Introduced to the flat I'll be staying in

Today I biked with my one of my bosses, Haydi, to the flat I'll be at for the next eight months with Ewan and Nini. Biking will be my daily means of transport, and that was one terrifying bike ride. About a mile from the office, the commute goes right down Patan's major road. There are no stop signs, there are no traffic lights, and you need to get to the other side of the road. You're not just contending with cars, but also busses, three-wheeled group taxis called Tuk-tuks, a lot of motorcycles, and other bicyclists. There is no bike lane, you ride in traffic - and not on the shoulder - in traffic. That's not as odd as it may sound, the traffic is not extremely fast - but there's a lot of bobbing and weaving. And there's always that "personal space" you consider implicit when driving in America. You give people at least three feet of room. When I was in Russia, I saw the ~1' personal space applied in traffic. That seemed fine since it was car-on-car. Here, it's about four inches - and that's the car-to-bicycle allowable clearance. You know what - that clearance may shrink as a bus makes a weave twenty feet ahead. Very exciting.

But about the flat, I was shocked how large it is. When I lived with a friend in Russia briefly, we shared a one-room (meaning a kitchen, a bath, and that one room) apartment in a Khruschev-era apartment building. It was stark, it was small, and we liked it. That, as I understood it, was very standard living in Moscow - above par in fact. There are many Muscovite families living in dormitory-style buildings. That was what I had in mind before going to see the flat here. When I got there, it was a whole different story. There are three bedrooms, a living room, two bathrooms, and a kitchen. It has a porch and a landlord who speaks English. Three days a week our flat's dede, Mailee, comes. She cleans, does laundry, boils water for drinking, buys groceries, and cooks basic meals - i.e. lentils, rice, and curry - the Nepali staple. I'm not at all used to having a servant like that, and have only been around a place that has servants for the few days I've been at my bosses'. We'll see how the flat goes.


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.