Dashain – the festival of goats, kites and swings

If there is a time of year which defines Nepal as a country, it is the 15 day festival of Dashain. Like Easter, it is literally a ‘moveable feast;’ the dates varying according to the phase of the moon. Dashain falls some time between the end of September and beginning of November.

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 Dashain – half price medical check-up

All festivals in Nepal have religious significance and Dashain is certainly no exception. With aspects relating to various Hindu legends particularly concerning the goddess Durga. Each day devotees offer different forms of worship. Some days are more auspicious than others and we have now reached the most important – days 7-10. Yesterday there were processions to various temples and today is the day for animal sacrifice, during which many goats will meet their fate.

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A goat going to butchers slab

Dashain is the main time for being with family. The buses have been particularly busy with people rushing to their home village in time for the celebrations. Others come back to Nepal travelling from distant parts of the globe. Many Nepalis are employed as migrant workers because jobs in Nepal are in short supply. Recent harrowing stories from the Middle East have highlighted how they can be made to work under terrible conditions. (See: http://www.theguardian.com/football/2013/oct/04/world-cup-2022-fifa-sepp-blatter-qatar-worker-deaths)

Phillipa had never seen the landlord’s wife smile so much as when she told her that her ‘maailo chora,’ (second son) and his family are coming from England for Dashain. It is only coincidental that Phillipa’s parents also came from the UK along with our ‘maailo chora,’ James and his girlfriend Katie; although we would have taken any excuse to see them all!

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Having a welcome coke on a hot cycle ride with James

There are some parallels around Dashain for us with the preparation for Christmas, especially the crowded streets in the bazaar. However, here everything is ‘spring cleaned’ and gets a fresh coat of paint – including the walls and flower pots in our garden.

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Garden at Dashain – painted wall and flower pots

Tailors are also busy, as Dashain is the time for new clothes – for the poor, these will be the only new clothes they get each year. For the middle class, however, it is also the time for new furniture and curtains. Special offers for Dashain are advertised in many shop windows. Rather more frustratingly it is also a time for ‘hoicking’ up prices of fruit and veg. We are not sure if that is supply and demand or opportunistic profiteering.

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Dashain Furniture Sale

Most noticeably, however, it is time for fun. Children can be seen flying kites – the only time of year when they do so. This is apparently to remind the gods to stop sending rain after the monsoon. Yes, we have all had enough rain. I guess if you live above the clouds it is easy to forget the effect of persistent rain for those on the ground.

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A boy prepares to fly his kite

Communities construct large swings, which have huge arcs of motion. In Nepali they are called ‘ping’ which I find a little disconcerting, imagining this as the noise made when the ropes exceed their tensile limit or the sound your shoulder makes as it dislocates after you hit the ground.

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Children play on a “ping”

Schools are closed for a month and many offices shut for two weeks over the holiday which frustratingly means Dan’s medical registration has been further delayed. But it is good to see everyone having fun, except of course for the goats, although even some of them get a ride on a motorbike!

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Goat transportation

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Our Water Cycle

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Water is plentiful at this time of year. We have regular downpours, some lasting a few minutes others for several hours. The rain often comes as a relief, with the temperature dropping by a few degrees. Not that is gets tremendously hot here, not by UK standards(!) but it is extremely muggy with very high humidity and feels a lot hotter.

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Despite the huge amount of water falling from the sky each day, our water supply presented us with a logistical challenge, which, at last, we think we have sorted. When I negotiated the contract with the landlord, his main concern was how much water we were going to use. Although we do have a ‘mains’ water supply, in this area it is not very reliable. In fact it probably does not account for much of the water that we get through our pipes. Our “clean” water is delivered by a water-tanker about once a month.

Tanker deliveries are expensive therefore we need to conserve as much water as we can. So, in addition to this water, we have two other sources: the well in the garden and barrels that we use to collect water that falls from our roof during monsoon downpours.

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Well in the Garden

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 The quality of this water is not great, even by Kathmandu standards. It is fine for flushing and the well water is OK for washing clothes but not rinsing. We therefore use tap water for drinking (filtering it first through our Swiss made “Katadyn” filters), showering, washing dishes and filling the rinse cycle of our washing machine.

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Our barrels have become very handy indeed. We have large ones outside to collect water and smaller ones inside to store it for the washing machine and the flush. The washing machine barrel has two sources, water from the rinse-cycle which we store for the next wash, topped up with water from the well. The loo barrel gets any old water.

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                                          Collecting water from rainwater barrel

It took us a little while to work all this out but now we have cracked it, it works a treat. Humping water into the house makes us appreciate how much we use. We have to be thankful, though, that despite our rather complicated water logistics, we don’t have to leave our water container by the local tap, waiting for the water to flow and then carry it half a mile home.

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Containers “queuing” – waiting for water to arrive at the communal tap

A very moving experience

Early July in Nepal is the time when rice planting is completed, following the start of the monsoon which arrived on time this year, in mid-June. For us, however, July has principally meant one thing – moving and settling in to our new house. Term finished at KISC on 26th June, after which packing could begin in earnest. It is incredible how much stuff you can collect in under six months. Yes, amazingly it is just short of six months since we arrived in Nepal for the start of our second adventure in this amazing country.

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We were very pleased to find an apartment a few minutes walk from KISC in Sheep Lane, as it is affectionately known by expats living in this part of town. Sheep Lane gets its name from the sheep, which graze the scraggly grass verges along the narrow road. Sheep are an unusual sight in Nepal; much more common are their biblically sinister cousins – goats.

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Our ground floor flat is in a small compound fronted by a traditional Nepali “bhari” (vegetable garden). Even in the city, Nepali people like to grow “makai” (maize) as well as other vegetables on their small plots of land. So we now look out on a forest of green maize plants. Twenty-five years ago, before the great concretization of Kathmandu, you would see makai growing everywhere in the city at this time of year. Alas, many of the bharis have long since given way to new buildings.

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During our first stint in Nepal, working for a large, well-organized mission, our accommodation was more or less provided and furnished for us. Nowadays it is more of a ‘do it yourself’ job. We were fortunate enough to find an apartment which was occupied by departing expats and negotiate a lease with the landlord, Mr Chetri, an ex-Gurkha soldier. Everything was pretty straightforward and after the place was spruced up with a lick of paint, we were ready to move in. We sourced some furniture from a family who were leaving Nepal and organized a truck to move it.

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Moving in the monsoon can be a little tricky as it can rain for days on end and a removal “truck” is an open jeep with a tarpaulin stretched over the top; so the weather can make things interesting.

On the day of the move, we awoke to a downpour. The truck was due at 9am. As God sends his rain on the just and unjust and the saying, ‘not adding an inch to one’s height by worrying’, probably works as well when applied to controlling the weather, we settled on a few prayers for an improvement. The rain stopped at 9:10 as we pulled up outside the house which erstwhile housed the furniture. Moving the stuff involved several journeys and took a couple of hours, but the rain held off long enough for it to be completed in the dry.

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The next few days were spent cleaning, sorting, removing doors to get furniture into the right room and stocking up on things needed for everyday life: curtains, cutlery, bins, brushes, a gas regulator for the shower and an electrical mosquito repelling gadget, to name but a few. We also installed an inverter circuit which is a system for converting battery power into alternating current and distributing it to some lights and sockets around the house to provide us with some electricity during the long power cuts.

Finally, on Friday, we said goodbye to Georgie the fluffy white dog and moved our personal things from our ‘house sit’ courtesy of Hari-the-Rickshaw-Driver.

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We are very thankful to God for providing us with such a lovely place to call home and for so many answers to prayer. We are looking forward to getting stuck back into work, now that we are installed and ready for action…..but first we are taking a short holiday next week.

The Journey of Machindranath

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Machindranath Chariot in Patan Durbar Square

There are many festivals in Nepal. Recently Nepalis have celebrated one of the most important; Bhoto Jatra – literally the ‘vest festival’. It is an annual public holiday and people turn out in droves, dressed in their best clothes. Women wear expensive saris or very smart kurta suruwal (punjabi suits), children are well scrubbed up, sporting new jeans, tee shirts and trainers, or party dresses. Even the men make an effort to look smart. Bhoto Jatra is the climax of the ‘Machindranath journey’, a month long celebration which happens every year before the monsoon. Like us, you probably have not come across Machindranath before. He is a Hindu god of harvest.

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14 metre high Machindranath chariot

According to legend, a pupil of Machindranath, visited Patan, one of the city states in the Kathmandu valley. He was affronted that the people did not offer him alms, so he imprisoned the rain serpents, causing a drought as punishment. The people, dismayed by the failure of the monsoon, which would lead to a poor rice harvest and possible famine, earnestly prayed to Machindranath. He heard their prayers and came down to visit the city. On hearing that his master had arrived, the pupil released the rain serpents. The rain started, the drought was over and disaster was averted.

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Nepal traditionally relies on the monsoon to flood rice paddies

For hundreds of years the Hindu and Buddhist people of Patan and the surrounding area have prayed to Machindranath for rain as they look forward to the coming monsoon. They construct a huge chariot, over 14 metres high, which acts as a portable shrine. The statue of Machindranath is brought from his winter residence in the village of Bungamati a few miles south of Patan and is placed in the chariot, which is then pulled by hundreds of people through the streets of Patan, stopping at predetermined auspicious places for people to come and offer ‘puja’ – worship.

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Machindranath’s seat in the chariot

Folk come from far and wide to pray to the god. The whole month has the feeling of part religious festival, part carnival and part road works – as long traffic queues build up. Worshipers offer up food, which they have prepared, to the god and light candles on the road around the chariot. Hawkers sell toys, food and sweets to the festival-goers.

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Worshipers lighting candles on the road

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Candifloss and family photos  by the chariot

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Traffic jams – tempos, taxis, cars and motorbikes make their way past as best as they can

On the final and most important day, Bhoto Jatra, many people congregate, where the chariot has finally come to rest at Jawalakhel in front of the Kathmandu city zoo. A golden vest is shown to the crowd from the four sides of the chariot by the head of state (until 2008, the King of Nepal and since then, the President of the Republic).

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The president holds up Bhoto Jatra on the final day of the Machindranath’s journey through Patan Streets

The vest holds another intriguing story. According to legend, the serpent god honoured a certain farmer in the Kathmandu valley by giving him a golden vest. Whilst working in his fields in the heat of the day, the farmer took the vest off to cool down and mislaid it. Later, whilst attending the Machindranath festival, the farmer saw his vest being worn by someone in the crowd. An argument ensued and to settle it, it was decided that the vest would be kept until the true owner, the serpent god, claimed it. Hence, since that time, on this special day for the Hindus of Patan and the Kathmandu valley, the vest is displayed for all to see….waiting to be claimed.

A Tour of Patan Bazaar

We thought we would take you for a walk around Patan to observe the many sights we come across most days.

First we come across our local one man operated rickshaw dustcart. It does not take wheelie-bins, but small plastic bags of rubbish that we hang from the gate (so that the dogs in the road don’t get them) in the evening. There is no clattering to alert you to the fact that you have forgotten to put the bin out the night before, but a whistle that the dustman blows to tell you that he is around – normally at around 7am.

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It’s great value too. We get daily collections apart from Saturday, and all for around £2:50 a month.

A man on a bicycle with a rack does our recycling. No photo alas and no pun intended. Reminiscent of the old rag and bone man, you know he is about as he cries “Cargage! Bottal!” (Cardboard! Bottles!).

A little further up the road, we come to our local pharmacy. You can make an appointment to see the doctor there too if you wish, but if you want to exclude the middle man and treat yourself, you can just ask for what you want and they sell it to you. It’s fun finding out what they have and have not got (yes, I am a doctor needing a life).

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The other day I asked for Paracetamol. This was duly produced on cards of 10 tablets. I indicated that I would take three, thinking it worth stocking up. The pharmacist went to fetch his scissors, to cut three tablets off the card. He was pleased to hear me tell him that I wanted thirty. I was flush with money that day – the 30 tablets cost me 30 rupees – about 23p. Good to know that you can buy one and a half doses for 3 rupees though. I will have to try buying woodscrews next.

OK, we need some fruit and vegetables, but which of the fruit-sellers do we go to? Also we need to consider whether the fruit absorb the lead and carbon monoxide from all the traffic rushing by. They certainly do collect the dust.

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Perhaps we will give them a miss – it’s very difficult to disappoint these guys, they look so expectant, but then we couldn’t buy from them all. You can’t buy three grapes at a time, and besides it would be tiring haggling with so many street vendors in succession.

Perhaps we should go the guy with the barrow – but unfortunately they are digging a trench right in front of it, so access is a little difficult.

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OK, let’s try a shop. What about this one? Well the veg aren’t gathering dust from the road, but on the other hand it does not seem to have too much on offer.

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We could go to the SMART Department Store. No, I’m not tempted, even though they claim to have Budweiser available; at what price though?

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It is amazing how the old and new in Kathmandu are all jumbled up. Our usual fruit and veg seller’s shop is in a traditional house, surrounded on three sides by brick and concrete. This is a micro-representation of how Kathmandu has been overrun by rather soul-less structures. It’s strange how it reminds me a little of the centre of Coventry. Perhaps the architects came to Nepal when they had finished there. As for our fruit and veg, we can’t get it here; it’s closed today.

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Let’s go to the central bazaar in Patan, perhaps we will have more luck there.

Ah yes, the road is lined with vegetable sellers – and there is little traffic here, so no real worry about lead poisoning.

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The lady here, selling saag from her dhoko, has probably carried it in from her field, most likely on the edge of town. Most of the vegetable plots in the city have been sold off for the new Coventry-style concrete structures.

Whilst we are here we could do with getting a pressure cooker. Plenty of those around, but which one to get? As well as Kathmandu being taken over by concrete, there is also an epidemic of choice. You can easily get a headache.

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Pressure cookers are good for cooking rice and cutting down on the amount of gas we use. This time last year there was a shortage of gas, but fortunately we have plenty at the moment.

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OK, so on we go. Do we want chicken for supper tonight? It is fresh and it costs next to nothing for them to pluck it for you.

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What a tiring day with so much walking. Time to go home in an electric, three wheeler microbus….

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No, they don’t deliver the milk too. You’ve guessed it….Milk is delivered by another man on a bike.

We hope you enjoyed the tour.

Dogs, Cocks and Strikes

I was vaguely aware of a crash at the front of the house but thought nothing of it. We get lots of bangs and crashes around the place. Looking out of the window a little later I saw a plank of wood – about 18 inches long – and a broken brick. One minute later there was another crash and a second plank was lying in the garden alongside the first. Someone was hurling things at us!

Off I went to investigate and as I approached the front gate I could see under it a couple of pairs socked, flipflopped feet – which clearly belong to children – standing on the road outside. One pair of feet belonged to a girl of around 12 years old and the other to her friend (or was it her sister?) around 2 years younger. They were startled and jumped back as I opened the gate. Mustering all the courage she could the older girl uttered a single word…“cock”! I racked my brain for a Nepali word that sounded like “cock”, but nothing emerged from the primaeval porridge. The girls wondered up the road and I followed, not really sure what they wanted or if indeed they were the plank hurlers. Perhaps they were acting on behalf of the real plank hurlers who would now appear with baseball bats (the mind plays strange games in odd situations like this).

In the end I gave up and went back inside. A few minutes later they were still milling around, so I bravely sent Phillipa out to investigate. She got the same “cock” treatment, but being much brighter than me, realized the they had been playing badminton and had lost their shuttle-cock in our garden. We searched but could no locate it. Finally Phillipa invited them in to look. They found it in around 5 seconds flat and left hot-foot. They did not like our soppy mutt, Georgie, at all. It’s kind of comforting to know that people are scared of her. Maybe she does fulfill a guard-dog role after all.

Today was our first strike. In Nepal when there is a strike, or bund (closure), everything stops. No buses or taxis, shop are closed and there are almost no cars or motorbikes on the road. It is not always possible to know exactly what the issue is, but the advice is to lie low. Tomorrow, I believe, it will all be back to normal.

Time for bed. We can sleep soundly, safe in the knowledge that we are protected by our white, fluffy, mostly vegetarian doggie, who eats cat food when there are no left overs.

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Kathmandu, Crates and Customs

So we’re here. We landed just over 72 hours ago, although it feels as if it could have been months. We had been so busy getting ready to leave over such a long time, that when at last we arrived in Kathmandu it all seemed like a continuum of all that had gone before. This was particularly so for Phillipa who was straight into KISC at 8am on Monday morning – our first day. Over these last few weeks drawing breath has been quite a luxury.

 

Yesterday was quite an experience. Nara, a driver from KISC and I went to the airport to collect our crates which had arrived on Sunday evening, only a couple of hours after us. Since Nepal is a landlocked country it is impossible to transport “stuff” by sea. The cost of airfreight is the downside, but the upside is that the stuff arrives very quickly.

 

At the airport freight depot, having cleared a range of security checks, we entered a large hangar, which resembled Smithfield Market, Louisiana State Penitentiary and the flat-pack collection area at IKEA rolled into one. I caught sight of our blue crates (full of stuff) stacked in the distance. They were behind a floor to ceiling wire fence in the “Airport Restricted Area” as the sign in English, as well as Nepali, told us. At least it looked as if they were there. Nara warned me, it could take some time to get them.

 

I lost count of the number of counters at which I had to present my paperwork; the number of dockets, ledgers and photocopies of my passport I needed to sign and the number of times I had to shell out a few hundred Rupees for “storage charge,” “handling fee,” “stamping this bit of paper with blue ink charge.” I did not have to give my thumb prints……..we had to do that the day before to be issued with mobile phone SIM cards.

 

Anyway, back to the blue crates full of stuff. The process for retrieving them was like a dance. The paperwork did a spin between me, and a variety of partners (dressed as officials), before leaving my hands altogether. At this point it passed down a row of desks each with two seated clerks who ticked boxes, wrote in ledgers or applied another stamp. At last the paperwork arrived at the final desk at the entrance to the “Airport Restricted Area”, where the signal was given for the crates to be released from their iron cage.

 

As the blue monsters inched towards us on a hand pulled fork-lift, I was asked to come into the “Airport Restricted Area”.  A rather sheepish looking official motioned towards our crates, which I now saw had been opened – at least some of them; bits of stuff was poking out under their lids. It was a little difficult to understand what he was saying, but the gist was “Honest guv, they were like that when they got here.”

 

The next stage was officially looking to see what was in the crates. Nara had been rather anxious about this bit of the process, as they have been known to charge duty on almost anything (e.g. plastic models of the Eiffel Tower), with apparently limited rhyme or reason. Fortunately, our customs official thought our stuff was too worthless to worry about. “Ke ho”? (i.e. what’s this?)………He was completely bemused by boxes of Cluedo, Monopoly and our favorite – Absolute Balderdash. Nara helpfully explained that these were children’s games. At which the customs officer gave me (a weird, aging, 50 something foreign bloke) a disapproving look and disappeared.

 

We had been told that Nara was the best guy to help you get your stuff through customs and I agree. He is a legend.

 

Oh yes……fortunately the earlier “unofficial” inspection found the contents also uninteresting, weird or both. All our “stuff” had got through. Anyone fancy a game of Internet Monopoly?

 

Photo of the view from our balcony.

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