Thulo Manche

Hello…

I’m so sorry for disappearing. I know when I get attached to a blog I feel frustrated when the writer is unexpectedly absent for long stretches of time, so I hope I haven’t lost too many readers.

Friends have been prompting me to beginning blogging again. RH said, “You know—it’s a relationship oriented blog—what if people think you and P split and that’s why you stopped writing!”

Never fear. Things are well, it has just been busy.

One of the major reasons for my disappearance is that I spent most of the spring and half the summer working feverishly on my Master’s degree thesis (the one I should have finished a year or two ago but procrastinated on like it was my job), and by the time I was finished writing and defending it I just felt a little burnt out. Not only have I not written for the blog, I basically stopped writing entirely, and it’s time for that to change.

I really missed writing, and like exercise, it’s way too easy to fall out of the practice of it and then just stop entirely. Blogging primes the mind and the fingers for other types of writing, so it’s time to get back in the groove.

So what does “Thulo Manche” mean? I promised S-di that my first blog post back was going to mention this…

The summer raced by—the first half full of sweaty evenings and weekends working in an un-air-conditioned office with P; he working on his phd dissertation and I on my thesis. We rarely saw anyone unless they were dropping by the office to say hello. Then P’s grandfather passed away, and a week later I was in a car accident that sadly totaled our car. These two events are enough to shake up anyone, but with the looming thesis deadline I had to keep working.

Then P went away to Alaska for a workshop, and I went to my school for a week-long Capstone seminar to finish my thesis defense. Cue more long days–of academic presentations and intense focus. A day after finishing my Masters I flew to Alaska to meet P, but in true C and P fashion, our “vacation” was spent driving across the state, seeing beautiful glacier topped mountains, the ocean, and vast stretches of wilderness. It was an amazing experience, but not necessarily a restful one, as with daylight stretching until late in the night and early in the morning, we spent much of our time up and about, experiencing the countryside.

Upon returning, work geared up. This year we have the largest number of international students ever—over 1000 at our small university, with only two administrators working on immigration and cultural programming for the students—the beginning of the school year, with international orientation and student registration, kept me moving at a fast pace. In addition I started two new campus-wide cultural-focused programs which took additional time.

As August closed we invited friends over for my birthday, and S-di said, “You are such a Thulo Manche these days! It’s so hard to see you!”

“What?” I asked… I understood the Nepali words “thulo” meaning “big” and “manche” meaning “person.” I was certain she was trying to call me fat. “I’m not a thulo manche!” I protested.

“Yes you are!” she teased, “If I want to see you I have to call your ‘secretary’… too busy all the time. Such a thulo manche!

“S-di, don’t call me fat, I could lose a few pounds, but please!”

“No, no—thulo manche—you are a ‘big person’ now… so important, running here and there, busy all the time. Now your friends need to schedule an appointment to say hello!”

So I’m officially declaring that I am not a thulo manche… I’ve just taken a little break, but now I’m back, and I look forward to hearing from you all again too!

Yeah! :)

Precarious Flight to Shangri-La

The magazine in Australia that I mentioned before published another one of my stories. I again hope they don’t mind if I share. It’s very exciting to see one of my pieces in print, and it makes me really proud. Below you can find the full text with a graphic of what it looked like in the magazine. I’ve added a few hyper links to the pictures and videos mentioned in the story.

The Dornier 228 turboprop sat eighteen passengers. It was just wide enough for a person to stand in the aisle, both arms outstretched, fingertips touching the sides of the plane. I settled into the dark blue fabric of my seat, as the stewardess picked her way over hiking boots and backpack straps, distributing hard candies that would help our eardrums adjust to the altitude during takeoff.

The stewardess’s uniform mimicked a traditional Sherpani chupa—a full length red jumper tied in the back over a white silk shirt, framing her neck like the collar of a kimono. A colorfully woven rectangular apron pinned to the front of her dress completed the look. As I took my foil-wrapped candy, I wondered if it was an Agni Air policy for stewardess uniforms to include the apron, or if it truly signified that the attendant was married, as it would in Sherpa culture.

The two pilots completed their pre-flight checklist, and asked the stewardess to sit in the last remaining seat, next to fifty kilo sacks of rice and other commercial goods wedged around cargo netting that held passenger luggage at the back of the plane. The propellers whirred to life, and the tiny aircraft taxied down the Tribhuvan Airport runway.

It was June of 2009 and I was traveling to the Solukhumbu region of Nepal with my husband P, and our school friend RH. Intent on hiking the most famous of Himalayan treks, our journey started with the thirty minute plane ride from Kathmandu to Lukla; a tiny airport-village perched on the side of a high mountain cliff, acting as the gateway to Shangri-La.

Lukla was both a beautiful destination, and a treacherous one. It consistently appears on lists of the “most dangerous airports in the world” as it is positioned amid slender, snaking, high altitude valleys, and is carved from a ledge 2,850 meters above sea level. On approach the runway, which is less than 460 meters long and 20 meters wide, looks more like a narrow parking lot than a place to land a plane.

To accommodate the short length of the airstrip, the ground is pitched at a twelve degree angle to decrease landing speed, and pilots conduct maneuvers such as “backwards thrust on propellers” to further decelerate the aircraft. One travel guide noted, “If this worries you, one comforting thought is that only the most experienced pilots in Nepal are flying to Lukla.”

Our Agni flight departed the Kathmandu Valley and sped toward the wall of jagged snow-peaked teeth on the horizon. Fifteen minutes later we were gliding through a constricting green gorge shaped by the raging glacial river below. Mountain ridges were close enough to count individual treetops from the windows of the plane. The pilots were navigating by sight; in such a claustrophobic environment GPS units are not as trustworthy as a steady pair of eyes, and flights can only occur in good weather. Limited visibility meant grounded planes, or potential crashes.

This route certainly has its share. Before our arrival, four flights had ended in disaster during the previous five years, including a 2008 Yeti Airline crash that killed eighteen. A German family captured the accident on video as they stood on the hill above the airport, camera trained on the edge of the runway. The plane’s engine hummed deeply on approach, but the valley was cloaked in a dense wall of cloud. The family waited for the Twin Otter to burst dramatically from the puffy whiteness and complete its journey safely to the tarmac. Burst it did—as a fireball—just below the edge of the runway. The German father muttered a shocked “Scheisse!” before dropping the camera. Chunks of white metal, rubber wheels, and other wreckage could be seen from both the ground and air for months.

I tried to forget these images as the runway came into view. I reassured myself that it was Yeti Airlines that crashed, but I was flying Agni. I reasoned that the pilots had a vested interest in landing safely. I chided myself on seeking foolish adventures and putting myself at needless risk. I promised myself that I wouldn’t fly this route again.

The approach was quick—from sky to earth with little change in altitude. The plane bounced hard on touchdown, and I gripped the back of RH’s seat, bracing for the aircraft to bank and flip, another gory headline for the news. Instead the wheels rolled to a hard stop before the pilot maneuvered the plane to the stone-built airport terminal.

A deep sigh escaped my chest; I hadn’t realized I’d held my breath through the final moments of the flight.

*

RH, P and I spent the next few days hiking in the beautiful mountain landscape, and at the end of our trek, we found ourselves inevitably back in Lukla. Unless willing to hike another five grueling days to the closest wheeled-transport, a flight from the tiny airport was the only way back to Kathmandu. The choice was clear; we boarded the same Agni flight—anxiety quickly forgotten in lieu of a successful adventure.

*

Fourteen months later, in August of 2010, a news article caught my eye. The title mentioned a “tourist plane crash” in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The flight departed from Tribhuvan Airport, intending to fly to Lukla, but turned back midway due to inclement weather. My heart sank when I saw the company—the Agni flight crashed before reaching Tribhuvan. All on board were killed including one Briton, one Japanese, four Americans, five Nepali and three Nepali crew.

I searched Nepali news websites, eager for information. Unlike American news, which censors more graphic photography, I came across a series of grisly photos taken by the Nepali army and released to The Himalayan Times.

The plane smashed into a rice paddy fifty miles outside of Kathmandu, and the muddy, water-filled crater was strewn with scraps of clothing and metal. A crowd gathered in the rain, hiding under umbrellas, watching the salvage work.

The most haunting picture in the series was of two Nepali army troops wearing green fatigues, wiping their hands on a white cloth after loading light blue plastic bags of human remains into the back of a truck. There were five plastic bags in the picture, each no larger than a backpack. The garbage bags were translucent enough that one could tell the contents were fleshy, like the soldiers were carrying blue shopping bags of ground turkey meat.

That meant the bodies had exploded on impact; there was nothing left but small pieces of each individual, mixed up in that mud pit and fished out by men treading barefoot through the water, looking for chunks of human. I had nightmares of small blue garbage bags filled with body parts, waiting on the curb outside my apartment, ready to be taken by early morning garbage men.

It took time to connect the tail numbers. A follow-up article mentioned 9N-AHE. I searched through my album for the trek, and scrutinized each photo from Tribhuvan and Lukla: A photo of the white Dornier 228, with Agni’s black, yellow and red stripes along the side. Another with Rory and I sitting in our seats, toothy-smiles for Prajjwal the photographer, excited to fly to the tiny airport in the clouds. A third—Rory and I pose outside of the plane upon landing in Lukla, as porters carry luggage from the aircraft. A fourth, our plane taxis down the short runway, new passengers aboard, the tail number visible yet small. I zoom in on the picture; one click, then two, then three. I make out the characters: 9N-AHE.

I re-read the articles—severe weather, spatial disorientation and loss of flight instruments, mechanical and pilot error, outdated crew checklists. The flight was doomed from the start. A flight I had travelled on. That picture of Rory and me in the dark blue fabric seats, smiling. Those seats are gone. Someone sitting in the same chair became chunks of flesh in a blue plastic bag in the back of a Nepali army truck. It made me physically ill.

I thought of the beautiful stewardess wearing the red chupa, passing out foil-wrapped candies. I wondered again if her uniform apron meant that she was married. Did she leave behind a husband, perhaps a young child?

A year ago today I was getting married, Nepali style…

This year went by so quickly. It’s hard to really believe it’s already been one year.

I’ve been playing that game where I think… last year at this time I was…

Last year at this time I was… driving to Boston to pick up P’s brother and getting a flat tire with his parents in the backseat…

Last year at this time I was… sneaking out of the house to get my feet secretly hennaed during a torrential downpour, and I was certain it would rain through our entire wedding…

Last year at this time I was… at our rehearsal dinner, with our close friends and family…

(As I type this) Last year at this time… I was helping S-di, M-dai and P set up chairs in the Hindu temple, then going to the hair dresser with R and AS to have my hair pinned up, then going to S-di’s house to be folded and pinned nicely into my wedding sari along with the other sari wearing ladies.

By 3:30 we were both at the temple, and a little after 4pm the ceremony began.

It was exciting, and fun, and crazy. I had an amazing experience with all our friends and family, and I was so happy to be marrying my best friend and life partner.

A year crept up on us fast. But I look forward to many many more. You truly are the best match for me.

Here is one of my favorite pictures from this time last year… post-wedding #1:

Rest in Peace Hajur Bua

It’s been five days since we received the unexpected news—a series of calls from Kathmandu that ended with the death of P’s grandfather.

It has taken me a few days to think about what I wanted to say. It was quite a surprise, even though he was 88 years old, as he was very strong and active.

Hajur Bua was a very important person in P’s family, but I think he was of particular importance to P, who was the first born grandchild. Hajur Bua lived with P since childhood, teaching him how to play many sports, including his favorite—heck, it’s his passion—soccer. He used to walk little P to school every day and then pick him up and walk him home.

He was the “keeper of the house,” the person who was always opening the front gate or looking out the window to see who was coming and going when he heard its clank. Upon arriving at P’s family’s house in Kathmandu he was the first face you’d see, peeking out the gate or waving from the front window or roof, cup of tea in hand. He was always there to welcome us home or bid us farewell.

I first met Hajur Bua when I visited P’s family in 2005. Even then, I had heard many stories about him, and I was happy to have the chance to meet him, as I wasn’t sure when I would be able to come back or if I would meet him again. Luckily I had two more opportunities: He was there again in 2009, telling us stories about his time as a park ranger in Chitwan, acting out sitting on an elephant’s back during a tour. He liked to bring pictures out to share, or his school leaving certificate of which he was very proud.

After our wedding in July 2011 we were able to go back for Dashain. Although very strong, he was too old to make the long journey to America, but was able to participate wholeheartedly in the wedding party that was organized during our trip. He dressed up in a daura suruwal and coat in his favorite color which he called “gabardine” (which I think refers more to a type of fabric, but that’s what he called khaki-brown). He enjoyed sitting near us at the party, talking to people and introducing us to others. While we visited in 2011 he started calling me “Buhari”—bride—the same name he calls P’s mother. “Buhari, have you eaten?” “Buhari, have you seen this program?”

We were able to take our first married Dashain tikka from him. It would be my first and last.

I remembered seeing him many times sitting on the floor, cross-legged, like a man sixty years his junior. I couldn’t imagine my father being nimble enough to do that, let alone my grandparents. It was a testament to his health and fitness.

And then there was Rai Uncle, a former neighbor, who still liked to come over and spend time with the family. Hajur Bua and Rai Uncle had a love/hate relationship. Like two grumpy old men, they sometimes had feuds—“He took my umbrella!” “You cheated at cards!”—but they were companions as well, sharing in card games and conversations.

Hajur Bua also had a love of plants, a hobby I share. Back in Kalingpong, his home area, his family had a nursery with many interesting plants, and as an older man Hajur Bua tended to dozens of potted plants surrounding the P family home, several of which came from the nursery in Kalingpong. Many of the plants were unusual, much like the ones I enjoy collecting. In 2011 I complimented a giant green stemmed succulent plant, some type of Euphorbia, growing in a sunny spot behind the house. Before I knew it he plucked out a section of the plant, wrapped the roots in mud and wrapped the entire thing in damp newspaper and insisted I bring it home. I decided to try, and was able to sneak it in. The plant now grows on my window sill, and reminds me of him every time I see it.

Our Irish friend RH was visiting Nepal at the time of Hajur Bua’s death. He was staying with P’s family for a few days, before making a quick trip to Southern Nepal. He was due back to P’s home the day that Hajur Bua died. RH took the final living picture of Hajur Bua—as he looked through the front window, saying goodbye to him before RH left for Chitwan.

In an email exchange between P and RH, P wrote:

I almost feel as if you were meant to be there that week – to see Hajur Buba one last time. Since you met him, it almost feels as if you were there on our behalf. We also got the last photos of Hajur Buba that you took, looking from the window. It is hard to think that he is not going to be there to look out of that window next time we arrive home in Kathmandu and the next time the metal gate makes a clanking noise.

The whole news has been a shock and a surprise to all of us. He was old and had minor other pains and aches but we all felt that he was this strong person who would live to be 100 or more. At the same time, he passed away the way he wanted, without being bedridden, within a matter of hours. I am also glad that you were able to hear Hajur Buba’s stories once again while you were there.

I want to dedicate this posting to Hajur Bua. He always made me feel welcome and part of the family. We are all very sad at your passing, but we feel honored to have known you.

Rupees Dipped in Gold

When P and I went to the Bratabhanda in Wisconsin in April we met some of his extended relatives who were living in Germany. They brought several boxes of fancy German chocolates as souvenirs and distributed a box to each family’s household.

The chocolates were good, but very rich, not something you would snack on randomly after work, so we put the box on a shelf to save for another time.

Over the weekend a friend came to town to pack up her remaining things so she could prepare to leave the US for good; she spent her last few days with us. She is Peruvian, but has been living in Manaus, a city of 2 million people in the Amazon jungle of Brazil, for the past year. She had recently returned to attend her phd graduation ceremony, and was now packing the books and research that she had left behind the last time she departed. She’s very talkative, and I spent most evenings chatting with her about life in Peru and Brazil.

One night P brought the box of German chocolates out for dessert, and we indulged while continuing our conversation. As our friend and I talked, P unwrapped his chocolate and looked at the rectangle of fancy yellow foil that had once covered it. He smoothed it out, and gathered our other wrappings from the table. He flattened each and started to count them, like he was shuffling through a short-stack of $20 bills.

When our friend and I looked over to see what he was doing he said, “When we were kids we used to save fancy candy wrappers like this and pretend they were money. We would pretend to buy things from each other, or pretend we had a lot of money in our pockets.”

He shuffled through the wrappers again. They were golden yellow, made from heavy foil and cellophane. I could imagine five year old P prizing such a fancy find, pretending they were rupees dipped in gold.

I liked the vision of a young P, using his imagination, and making up games with the other kids in his neighborhood. I can almost imagine standing on the roof of his present-day house in Kathmandu, watching them play with their pretend money in the backyard, chasing each other around.

It was an image I thought I’d share.

American by Birth, Nepali by Marriage

I’m kind of outing myself a little, but I recently wrote a story for a new Nepali magazine. I wanted to share it (I hope the magazine folks don’t mind) as I really liked how it came together. I was asked to talk about my views as a non-Nepali married to a Nepali, and I see the article as a nice introduction to how I see my world today.

——-

“Can you see Mount Everest from your house?” I asked my friend, a native of Kathmandu. We were sharing French fries in the campus cafeteria, and I was making conversation. I remembered the glossy photos of past Everest expeditions in the National Geographic I received each month, like a prize, from my grandfather after he had finished reading. Every article on Everest started with the expedition team departing from Kathmandu; a yellow star on the map followed by dotted lines that connected the city to the top of the world. I assumed the giant mountain towered on the outskirts of the capital, like an ancient skyscraper of rock and ice.

My friend narrowed his eyes, searching my face for signs of sarcasm. Finding none he smirked, and responded, “Oh yeah, and some times during gym class we hiked to the summit to have a glass of tea.”

I had only been at the university for a few weeks, so I was almost naïve enough to believe him. I knew very little about his country aside from the magazine pictures, an unfortunate side effect of 1990s American public education. High school curricula simply weren’t very “global,” at least when it came to non-Western countries.

A year later I would meet my future husband, not more than a few hundred feet from the cafeteria where I first began to learn about Nepal. He was bean-pole skinny, with medium-length black hair, and glasses that tinted in bright sunlight. He was quiet, and sweet, and would occasionally leave a sticky note on my dormitory door that inquired, “के छ?”

It has now been almost nine years, and not only have I been to Nepal, I have seen Mount Everest with my own eyes—while panting for breath on the steep upward climb to Namche Bazar. From Kathmandu it took a small plane and two days of hiking to catch a misty glimpse of the mountain, and would take several more days of hiking if I wanted to touch its feet.

I have journeyed far in other ways too. I am now part of a Nepali family and my identity includes words like buhari and bhauju. I celebrate American Thanksgiving and Dashain, Christmas and Tihar. Our home is often filled with laughter and conversations with friends in both English and Nepali.

I have fallen in love with a man, but also a country.

My journey has not been without bumps. I cringe each time my father-in-law greets me at the airport by pinching my arm and exclaiming joyfully about how “fat” I have become. Ironically my mother-in-law compares the amount of rice I eat to that of a five-year-old child, but I have to surrender; I will never be able to keep up in the daal-bhat department.

My biggest hurdle has been language—that same hungry five-year-old would clearly beat me in a Nepali oratory contest—but I lumber on, still feeding my mind a few new words every day.

In many ways I have become a hybrid. I am American by birth and Nepali by marriage.  As the years unfold, our cultures are better interwoven, pulling two worlds together with a tighter thread.

Royal Massacre, 11 Years Later…

I wanted to highlight an old post today.

P mentioned to me that I should write something about the Royal Massacre since 11 years ago today it took place. I wrote about this a while ago, so please excuse the recycling, but I think it’s an important enough topic to rehash.

Hope you are all well. I promise even though I have been quiet, I’ve been doing a lot of writing…

So now we are up to the point where Birendra, grandson of Tribhuvan (who re-took the throne), is now king. He began his reign in 1972 after his father Mahendra’s death.

King Birendra

Birendra was the first Nepali monarch to receive a formal education, studying abroad in India, the UK, Japan and even at Harvard University (from 1967-1968). Upon his return he married Aishwarya Rana (yes from that Rana family) in 1970 and had three children: Prince Dipendra (1971), Princess Shruti (1976)  and Prince Nirajan (1977).

Royal Family: King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, Princess Shruti, Prince Dipendra and Prince Nirajan

He ascended to the throne as an absolute monarch, inheriting a country with banned political parties, and ruling through the panchayat system. In 1990 a series of strikes and pro-democracy riots broke out across Nepal, and due to this Birendra eventually agreed to become a constitutional monarch. He appointed a Constitution Recommendation Commission, and November 9, 1990 the new constitution was approved by the Prime Minister.

However quarrels continued leading to the Nepali Civil War between the Maoists and government forces between 1996 and 2006 (a post all of its own).

Which leads me to the massacre.

I’m not sure if we will ever really know what happened the night of June 1, 2001. Much like the American conspiracy theories of who assassinated President Kennedy, different theories about the Royal Massacre abound. The fact of the matter is—the Nepali Royal Massacre was the largest slaughter of a royal family since the shooting of the Romanov family during the Russian Revolution.

The more widely known story: Prince Dipendra was a bit of a troubled youth. Prone to drinking with a keen interest in all things military and a short temper. Not long before the massacre, Dipendra had been arguing with his parents over the choice of his bride. Dipendra wanted to marry his girlfriend Devyani Rana (also a member of the Rana family). Dipendra’s mother was against this match (due to the historical animosity between the king’s family and the Ranas… although Queen Ashiwara was also a Rana, so I’m sure I’m missing part of the story…) Tempers flared.

Dipendra and Devyani

On the night of June 1st much of the royal family gathered for an evening together including uncles, aunts and cousins. Missing from the party was Prince Gyanendra, younger brother to the king and potential heir (if Birendra and his two sons could no longer perform the duties as king).

Following an evening of heavy drinking, and still angry at his family, Dipendra was upset when he was scolded by his father for “misbehaving” at the gathering and told to leave the party. An hour later Dipendra showed up dressed in military fatigues with an MP5K and M16 and started shooting up the room, killing his father, sister, uncle, aunts, and a few other family members while wounding several others. His mother and brother escaped the room but confronted the prince in the garden, where he killed both of them, shooting the queen multiple times in the face (it was so badly damaged that her face was covered with a mask for the cremation ceremony). Before any guards arrived Dipendra turned the gun on himself.

Prince Dipendra survived his suicide attempt for three days, and was proclaimed king while in a coma. He died on June 4, 2001. While Dipendra lie in his coma his uncle Gyanendra (remember, the one conveniently missing from the party?) maintained the deaths were an “accident” but once Dipendra had died full blame was placed on him.

The country went through a period of national mourning—many people including P’s dad—shaved their heads as a symbol of death in their family, since the king was the “father” of the nation and revered as a god. The country was already embroiled in a civil war, and now they were without a symbolic figurehead.

Some people in Nepal suspected that Gyanendra was responsible for the massacre, and that Dipendra was blamed so that Gyanendra could take the throne. He was third in line to the throne (after Birendra, Dipendra and Prince Nirajan) and had been conveniently out of town during the party. It’s true that his son and wife were at the party and were wounded, but both survived (his son with only minor injuries). Feeding these rumors is the allegation that Dipendra was mortally wounded by a gunshot to the left side of his head, while he was right-handed, casting doubt on whether the injury was self-inflicted.

Gayanendra wearing the Nepali royal crown

Two survivors have publicly confirmed that Dipendra was the shooter, but many Nepali people still consider it a mystery.

Gyanendra assumed the throne and was king until 2008 when he was forced to abdicate due to social pressure and rioting.

Now people have their theories—but I was at the former Royal Palace in the summer of 2009 and went on a tour with the daughter of one of P’s family’s neighbors whose father used to work at the Palace as a food taste tester (I know, one of those strange connections). The suspicious thing is—when Gyanendra took over as king he dismantled the house in the garden where the massacre took place—brick by brick. All that is left is an outline of the house on the ground. A few bullet holes still mar parts of the garden wall but everything else is gone. It makes me wonder what he was hiding.

If you are interested in more information, the BBC had a documentary on the massacre, which you can watch on Youtube in five parts: