Monthly Archives: October 2003

Burning candles, Tihar

I remember where I was last Tihar, a year ago. A year ago? A year ago I’d gone to Kathmandu to hang out at the Spice deraa, my old co-owned flat in Kathmandu, with some of the folks there.

Pardon me while I wax nostalgic, but a year ago I was living in a different house in Birganj and I had another flat in Kathmandu. Now I’m squatting with an Australian working with a Birganj NGO and Peace Corps kicked us out of our places in Kathmandu.

I’ve since become a fixture at the Hotel Ambassador and Kate’s kitchen.

Tihar candles on my balcony at the flat in Raniganj.

Tihar candles on my balcony at the flat in Raniganj.

This year I was staying in Birganj. All the other PCVs had left during the holiday, just as I had done a year ago, and I was half looking forward to settling back into a rut in Birganj after not having been here continually for very long.

Since returning from the US I’d only manage to spend around 10 days, maybe two weeks, continually in town before leaving. Since getting back from the States I’d been to Kathmandu (of course), Pokhara, Hile, Ilam, Karkarbhitta, and Rajbiraj. And then back to Kathmandu.

I had been feeling somewhat lost of late. Like not sure where I was going with work or whether or not I was actually welcome in Nepal. Just before Tihar the Maoists had sent a notice to the newspapers and government that it was making steps to change its policies.

No longer would they be targeting infrastructure or low-level personnel of the army and police. Instead, they’d be targeting US imperialists. Or those associated and funded by US imperialists. Or who knows what this means.

Even during training when we could hear the crackle of gunfire in the distance as we ate daal bhaat we knew that we were safe. Really.

And even when the police (or was it the Maoists?) came and kidnapped a trainee’s host-brother, tied him to the back of motorcycle and drove off into the Chitwan jungle, we felt safe.

Even when the Maoists (apparently, it might have as easily of been the police) came and burned down a trainee’s neighbor’s house by cover of darkness, we felt safe. But this is different. This could be personal.

Mira knits at her tea stand in Murli Gardens, Birganj.

Mira knits at her tea stand in Murli Gardens, Birganj.

Sadly, the only way to gauge to what extent of danger there is we must wait and see. It’s a gamble. It’s (pardon the metaphor) like playing Russian roulette. In Birganj I’ll be fine. I’ve got bigger considerations, like my new landlord.

He’s a weaselly man that I don’t trust farther than I can throw him. One morning the family came knocking on my door to ask if I’d left my phone off the hook. While I don’t usually use it at all, the miserly bastard decided to disconnect my phone and then lie to me to my face about it.

He said he had three phone lines in his house and mine was ‘disturbed.’ It was such an out-and-out lie that I couldn’t even call him on it. It wouldn’t have mattered.

And the same morning I’d received a phone call on the disturbed phone line (in his house), did I get a visit from my old landlord, an equally niggardly man.

He’d been sitting in my living room telling my friend how I owed him money for a phone bill I’d forgotten to pay before I left.

While true enough, it was a minor amount of money and our understanding that such outstanding bills would be considered paid in full as I’d given him my old bed and another previous PCV‘s bed, both worth far more than the phone bill.

I’d also agreed to leave him my gas cylinder as well as a fan, a bookshelf, a couple chairs, et cetera. And here he was, sitting in my living room, moaning about money and complaining about my tea.

For some reason, I wasn’t feeling terribly welcome in Birganj—or even Nepal.

When Tihar began, though, things took a turn for the better. My bastard of a landlord’s younger brother asked me over to his place for dinner. My first landlord, perhaps the only honest man in this town, also asked me over. And so did Mira, my local tea stand operator.

I decided to go to Mira’s and then finish off the evening at my neighbor’s (the nice one, the younger brother) in a hope create some ties with the better half of the family. In the manner of Tihar we’d lit some candles and decorated the front door with a malla.

At Mira’s we ate and talked, but we couldn’t stay long because we had to run back to my place. We had some puri sabji and ate some sweets, looked at photos, and were the first people that Mira’s younger sister, Asha, and friends played their dialo for.

Soon, though, we left in a hurry to get back to my place. As we were ascending the stairway the Indian family living below me quickly came out to ask if I’d take some photos for them of their children.

I complied and soon I was burning nearly an entire roll of film of kids touching this idol, that idol, in this room, in that room. The film wasn’t a problem, but I was late.

The family asked if I’d go to the roof with them and set off some firecrackers, also a Tihar tradition. I was beaten and said, Sure.

On the roof the father began lighting off some sparklers and what not.

Fireworks on the roof of the apartment with the downstairs neighbors.

Fireworks on the roof of the apartment with the downstairs neighbors.

Soon, though, he had a sparkler in each hand and was lighting roman candles that he’d propped up on the side of the house. I felt like I was in Baghdad. I ducked under a fountain sprayer sparks across the roof and bid my farewell, promising prints in the future.

When I finally got to my neighbor’s house the food was on the table and they were waiting for me. I was more than daunted when I saw the family was expecting me to eat an small mountain of daal bhaat. They were smiling and asking me to sit, eat.

So I did. I guess I should say I tried since there was no way I could eat all of the food without vomiting and even thought I might do that halfway through the plate.

Finally I apologized and said I couldn’t eat any more. We chatted for a while, but soon it was the family’s bedtime and I thanked them again and left.

As I walked around the balcony back to my place I noticed that the candles I’d put out had gone out. Even though it was still a bit windy I went ahead and lit the candles again. The bad man’s daughter came by and said I should position my candles closer together.

I told her I had about thirty left in my room and would do so the next night, the second night of Tihar. In my room I sat on my bed and listened to my stomach complain about the food to me. After a moment I decided to turn off the light and sleep off my stomach cramps.

A moment later I heard the stingy man’s wife and daughter talking outside of my window.

The candles have all gone out, the mother said.

The American inside, the girl replied, He says he has many more.

I hope I do. I hope I can make these days last longer.

Characters, part 1

Oh, the places you go and the people you met. I’ve been in Nepal now for 15 months and met more than a couple interesting people. I decided that I’d write about some of the more interesting people I’ve met in installments. This is the first.

Here are three individuals I met while in Jhapa back in March 2003. All live in Birtamod, where my friend Drew is posted, and all are strange. While Birganj has enough lunatics to fill several entries, these are some special people.

Sunjay the Islamic extremist

Take the appearence of the scuzziest rickshaw driver from across Nepal, give him a thick English accent as spoken by someone who learned English in India, circa 1950, and add a lazy eye to the mix. I met Sunjay in Birtamod, Jhapa

He’s an odd man, what many Nepalese would call a tragedy manche, because of his rather unpleasant and/or unlucky life story.

One of Drew’s friends in Birtamod runs an optical shop, selling mostly sunglasses but also producing fine facsimiles of eye glasses. On any given day in Birtamod you can find Sunjay at the optical shop, waiting for a most likely mythical ophthalmologist to show up and fix his eye.

I asked Sunjay how long he’d been waiting. About seven years, he answered, without smiling.

The optical shop is run by Nissam et al. Nissam is an Islamic extremist, trapped to a life of infidelity in Nepal, or so he says, Other Muslims do not think I am true Muslim, he grimaced, as if defeated, because I do not live in Muslim country.

A sign at a restaurant pretty much simplifies the Are you Nepal? question.

A sign at a restaurant pretty much simplifies the question.

He told me this several times during our first meeting and I began to detect it was the source of a great inferiority complex within the world-wide Muslim community.

This inferiority complex, I also believe, is what gave birth to his Islamic extremism. A while ago when Drew stopped by to say hi, Nissam asked Drew to come in and sit down.

We have something to ask you, he asked Drew. He went on to ask Drew to help him go to the US. Drew, remembering past conversations about the US with Nissam (not good) asked, Why do you want to go the US?

Unlike most Nepalis seeking exodus to the US, Nissam had a formulated reason, I want to kill George W. Bush. Yes. OK?

I didn’t understand how strange the dynamic at the Nissam & Co. Optical was until Sunjay asked Drew and I over to his house. On the second floor of a building either being built or crumbling (hard to tell), Sunjay lives in a single room with his mother and two sons.

The wife ran off around ten years ago and Sunjay has been a destitute tragedy manche ever since. Sunjay kicked open the door and Drew and I got a full glimpse of his mother sitting on the bed, mostly naked.

Sunjay immediately launched into a diatribe about Muslims, or rather, Those fukcing Mohammedans, man (it’s the 1950’s Indian English), after telling us about his Christian faith and showing us a dusty photograph of not quite completely decomposed saint from Goa, India.

His mother was getting dressed in the corner or the room during all of this.

You can’t trust Mohammedans, man, Sunjay told us, Once they move in, the place goes to hell, man with a special emphasis on the last word as if he knew what he was talking about, but mostly amused at what he was telling us.

Drew and I looked at one another. Sunjay, Drew said, You spend all your day with Nissam and, um, he’s a Mohammedan.

Good God man, Sunjay yelled, That’s what I’m talking about, man. Mohammedans!

A bit later, Drew said that Nissam and Sunjay had gotten into a fight. Out of the kindness of his heart, Nissam had been asking Sunjay over to eat with his wife and son.

Sunjay always accepted and was usually intoxicated, most likely as a coping mechanism to deal with the harsh reality that the mystical ophthalmologist was never, ever going to come and fix his eye.

(No one is really sure where Sunjay got this notion that his eye could be fixed or that some specialist was coming to Birtamod, Jhapa, to do the operation in a small bazaar pasal for free.)

So Nissam had taken Sunjay aside, shoeless and smelling of third-rate cheap liquor, and asked him if he was going to come to his house, eat his food, and sit with his wife and child, he’d sure appreciate it if he could try and do it sober.

God damn Mohammedans! Sunjay screamed, I’m going to Cally, man, (‘Cally’ meaning Calcutta) and he left.

And off Sunjay went. Drew was sad when he told me about Sunjay’s departure, but a month later when I talked to Drew he told me that Sunjay had returned, had his operation in Cally, and his eye was still grotesquely gazing in the wrong direction.

Oddly Drew found Sunjay sitting in Nissam’s optical shop and, as far as Sunjay was concerned, having no need for the fantastical ophthalmologist. Sunjay is notorious around Birtamod—not popular.

I have no doubt that Sunjay is still sitting at Nissam & Co. Optical with his best (and only) friend. A Mohammedan.

A child named Time Pass

Another interesting resident of Birtamod, Jhapa, is Time Pass, a most unusual 10-year-old boy. I first met Time Pass while walking through Birtamod with Drew on our way to his place.

As we passed a shack, a motorcycle repair shop, a couple young grease monkeys from inside yelled out at us, Hey! Time pass! Time pass!

I politely responded that I didn’t have time for ‘time pass’ and had to be on my way. Drew’s ears perked up and he said, No, Time Pass is a kid you have to meet, and we headed inside.

Posing in Birtamod, Time Pass. What else to say?

Posing in Birtamod, Time Pass. What else to say?

When the young men, apparently the guardians of Time Pass, went inside to look for him they reappeared empty handed. No Time Pass today, I guess, and we left. Just a few hundred meters from the shop this small, rather chubby kid comes running around a corner at full speed.

His pants were pulled up to his armpits and a candy bar was hanging out of his mouth, chocolate slathered around his face. Hey, hey. How ya’ doin’ there? he asked me, invoking the voice of a 50-year-old used car salesman.

Drew had told me what made this kid exceptional was that there was merely the body of a child, but a soul of washed up small-time crook. Besides his name, Time Pass had the strangest body language and behavior I’ve ever seen exhibited by a child. I grabbed my wallet.

Before I could actually say anything to Time Pass, though, and old, also chubby woman in a sari came stumbling around the corner from where Time Pass had come rushing from. She was clearly in a hurry, clearly mad, clearly trying to kill Time Pass.

Above her head in one hand she held a jagged rock, about the size of a softball, and her eyes were burning to see Time Pass’ blood spilt.

Time Pass noticed this as well, Hey ya. Well, don’t you know. Gotta be goin’, and off he went about the time the old woman sent the rock sailing through the air narrowly missing Time Pass, executing a move reminiscent of OJ Simpson’s football footwork.

We stayed until we could no longer see the old woman chasing Time Pass into the jumbled streets of Birtamod. I never met Time Pass again, but Drew gave me an update a while back. While Drew was out of town, Time Pass had come by looking for Drew, looking for money.

Between two volunteers, Time Pass.

Between two volunteers, Time Pass.

The only person at home was Drew’s Aamaa, the old woman of the house, a moderately insane woman as well, who often tells people calling for Drew that he’s dead, and spends most of her time watching Animal Planet dubbed in Hindi while smoking marijuana.

She’s a kind, old Limbu woman who’s just become slightly eccentric in her retirement. She wouldn’t harm a fly.

Time Pass, apparently, does not qualify as a fly. All that Drew could discern from his Aamaa‘s rambling, drug-influenced recollection of the incident was that Time Pass had squatted in the house refusing to leave until Drew returned or his was given a bribe to leave.

The Aamaa finally had it with Time Pass, who was undoubtedly being a buzz-kill during her zany animal bloopers program, and chased him out of the house with a khukuri (those scary banana-shaped Nepali knifes) drawn and waving about.

Time Pass lived to tell the tale, but I must say, Time Pass walks a fine line.

After meeting Time Pass, I asked Sunjay about him.

You can’t trust that boy, man, he said rather somberly, Good God, man. He’s notorious! I think he’ll be the damn mayor one day, man.

And if Sunjay doesn’t trust someone . . .

Vacation Thailand

Bangkok, Phuket, Phi Phi Island, and Krabi: September 28–October 10, 2003

What to say about a low-key vacation in a tropical paradise?

I went to Thailand this past Dashain, which was good. I’d spent three nights in Bangkok before this trip and yet hadn’t been there during daylight hours.

I remember when I was flying back from the States this past summer and I shared a taxi, quite accidentally, with three Nepalis on their own exodus from Nepal to the United States. That was about the most interesting thing that had happened to me in Thailand thus far.

Actually, on my way south to the beaches I manage to find a Nepali, in Phuket, running a restaraunt called Khanasutra, a play on Kamasutra and khaana.

While I didn’t experience any culture shock when I returned to the States, I had no idea what to expect in Thailand and was again and again shocked by what I saw.

Small boats waiting near the beach in Krabi.

Small boats waiting near the beach in Krabi.

Many parts of Bangkok, especially the Silom Square area (like the MBK building) has a very suburby feel. Lots of McDonalds, KFCs, Dunkin’ Donuts, et cetera.

So I sat in the kitchen with my new Nepali pal chatting about all sorts of things, like Thai women, why Nepali men like fat women, why American men like Thai women so much, the Thai girl also working in the kitchen (unable to speak and/or understand Nepali), et cetera, et cetera.

It seems that Thailand is best known for one thing: Thai women.

Frankly, I was shocked in Bangkok for find hordes of overweight, old, bearded men being escorted by, oh, a sixteen Thai girls—everywhere: at breakfast, on the street, in the buses, at the Royal Palace, and on and on.

Even when we made our way down to the beaches, I found more of these men (nicknamed ‘Melvins’), except they were not as old and working in packs.

Yikes.

Most of the beach time was spent at Ao Nang in the south near Krabi. I had thought that I’d fare well in Thailand, i.e., no vomiting, but the first leg of the boat trip from Phuket to Phi Phi Island (then on to Ao Nang) saw me in bad shape.

The worst thing about throwing up on the boat was the toilet. Not that it wasn’t clean, but perhaps because of the odd plumbing that goes into boats, the standing water in the toilet tended to splash a little bit, making keeping my vomit in the toilet and not on my face a bit difficult.

Enough said.

I encountered no other misfortunes except the following: near death by fireworks in the streets of Phuket during a street festival; almost crashing my motorcycle on the way over some unpleasantly steep hills between Phuket and nearby Patang beach—and almost dying a sailors death near Rai Lei beach while snorkeling around some coral when a 9 foot jellyfish trying to devour me.

Nothing really worth mentioning.