Category Archives: Personal Stories

100th Post

This is my 100th post, a milestone I wanted to acknowledge. Wow, it’s hard to believe that I’ve had 100 things to talk about already (although perhaps P would be less surprised). I’m not going to lie… there always seems to be something more to say ;)

I started posting in late August of 2009 because I was looking for an outlet, a place to share stories, connect with others, and to find a new way to feel like part of a community. I know I am not the only American (Westerner) out there partnered with a Nepali (or other South Asian), but it is easy to sometimes feel like I’m the only one going through things. It has been really refreshing and fun to meet others along the way who are in similar situations.

Moving forward, I’m excited to hear more from readers (and maybe have a few guest posts about your own situations too—hint, hint) and getting suggestions for more topics or stories that you might want to hear. In the meantime I’ll continue churning out material as it comes, and I’m glad to have you along for the ride.

So thanks again for being there to listen, I really appreciate knowing that others out there enjoy Musings from an American-Nepali Household.

Stranded in Lukla

(Continuation of “Scary” Tiny Mountain Airport)

When we told some of P’s relatives (who had traveled to the Solukhumbu region before) that we were planning to go up to Lukla in mid June they thought we were asking for trouble. With the monsoon coming we were likely to be trekking in clouds and rain the whole time, and what was the fun in that? June is right at the tail-end of the trekking high season. Most people who plan to climb Everest do so in May when the weather is most likely to be clear at the summit, and so the climbers start their trek from Jiri or Lukla several weeks before that time.

I half expected to see the trail a bit trashed, since I’d heard stories of the route being literally bumper to bumper with people in the high season, but it was peaceful, quiet and clean. We met up with a few people along the way, particularly a few news crews covering a Sherpa/climate change festival in Khumjung, and eventually we ran into these characters again when we all got stuck in Lukla.

Our trek (which I’ll talk about later) was great, and we were really lucky with the weather, but on the last day or two as we were returning to Lukla it was cloudy and misty with a bit of rain. As we spent our last day walking towards the airport-town we were hopeful (and spinning every Buddhist prayer wheel along the way for good luck) that we would be getting out of there the next morning as planned. Little did we know that there hadn’t been any flights from Lukla in days.

P spins a prayer wheel in hopes of getting good luck for no delays on our flight out

We reached our guest house, which had a large room full of tables that served as both a dining room and a lounge. It had big curtained windows that looked out over the airport. We arrived off the trek route, a little tired, a little grimy and in need of a shower, but excited about our accomplished journey and ready to return to KTM. P and I had a wedding to attend in a few days, and our friend had to catch an international flight.

C in the guest house lounge, taken when we first arrived in Lukla before the trek

There was already a small group of foreigners sitting in the corner of the large room when we came in for dinner. At first I thought that they were friends, but later I learned that they all reached the guest house at different times during the past few days, and bonded over being stranded together. The girls were wrapped in blankets they dragged up from their rooms, swapping paperback novels they had brought along or purchased from the small book stall down the road. The group had commandeered the tiny guest house television set, and had been watching pirated DVD movies they purchased from someone in town. As P, our friend, our guide and I enthusiastically talked about our return trip to KTM the following morning one of the stranded girls audibly snort-chuckled from across the room, as if to say, “You just got here… what makes you think you are leaving?!”

And then it started to pour. I peeked behind the curtains and saw the fog was thick as gray soup. A bit disheartening.

We were still hopeful though. You have to at least try, right? So we ate dinner, and spent the evening playing rounds of cards with our guide. We woke up early in anticipation of the flight, but when I pushed back the bedroom curtain the fog was even worse than the night before, as if our guest house was floating in a milky sea of whiteness. Our guide came to the door and said that it would be impossible to fly in this weather, so we might as well get some extra sleep and meet him upstairs in an hour or two for breakfast.

Apparently how the flights work is  that even if your flight is delayed, as long as you are flying out on the same day you were scheduled to fly, you still have priority to get out that day, but after your flight day has passed there is no guarantee, and you have to be on the ball with pressuring the airlines and jockeying for space and tickets at the airport. I was still trying to be hopeful that we would get out that day, but it rained so heavily, in my heart I knew it wouldn’t happen.

One of the major issues with flying to Lukla is that the narrow valley and challenging landing situation (one aviation site commented on the airport’s short 450m runway with 12% incline, and the ridges and landscape one has to clear to make it on the runway in addition to the special maneuvers a pilot has to do to land the plane—backwards thrust on propellers, etc., making it particularly tricky. The site concluded by saying, “If this is worrying you, one comforting thought is that only the most experienced pilots in Nepal are flying to Lukla.”) so pilots can only fly when visibility is clear enough to make a smooth landing since everything is done by sight rather than with sensors and GPS. Some attempts have been made in the past for flights to land in foggy weather and the outcome has not always been good. In 2008 a Yeti Airlines flight crashed just short of the runway, killing 12 Germans, 2 Australians and 2 Nepali tourists and the memory of this crash is still very fresh in the minds of Lukla dwellers. When tourists start getting antsy and harass the airport officials they are gently reminded that after the Yeti crash, pilots have been more careful and strict about flight conditions specifically for their and for their passengers safety.

However one hears all sorts of crazy stories when you get stuck. As more people started to gather at the guest house, and at places around town, stories circulated from guide books and guides about times in the past when flights had been cancelled for many days at a time. One guide talked about a time the flights were cancelled for 15 days and since food and other goods (including extra cash for the bank) were also in short supply (which can happen when the planes can’t come to restock) the local bank ran out of money for withdrawals and stranded tourists lined the village road attempting to sell their trekking gear and cameras for cash to pay their unexpected extra food and lodging expenses. Another lodger shared a story from her guidebook about an airport official who was chased by a frustrated tourist with an ice ax for canceling flights. I even heard that in the high season the backlog of trekkers can get so bad that all the beds in town are taken, and people have to resort to sleeping on benches and the floor. Another website (called “Stranded! Lukla“) summed it up nicely:

The Lonely Planet guide says that flight cancellations are common and that the writers have personally witnessed some bizarre things at the Lukla airport, such as people going completely hysterical, pulling knives on airline staff, getting into fistfights, trying to bribe everyone, etc. I can really see how people might go crazy in this situation. Imagine that you’ve been trekking in the mountains for weeks, all your clothes are filthy, you are desperate for fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods and comforts you’ve been deprived of for weeks, and you are running out of cash and stuck in a town with no ATM. Maybe this is why there are so many policemen and soldiers at the airport: to prevent desperate stranded passengers from stampeding the planes when they finally do arrive.

The thing is, being in Lukla really reminds you of how isolated you are. If you are stranded, the only alternative you have besides waiting for a flight is a 5+ day arduous hike up and down some steep valleys to get to Jiri where you can either catch a flight (if the weather is good) or a bus to KTM (which is another full long day on the road). Not to mention, in the past the Jiri-Lukla trail was a common place for Maoist guerillas to ask for steep “donations” from tourists (if you didn’t pay they turned you around and forced you to go back—this isn’t the case anymore, but it was a few years ago, and my dated Lonely Planet guide had a lengthy section on this). It winds up being a tough decision whether to stay or to go… because at any moment the sky might magically clear and the flights can come from KTM (it only takes ½ an hour) and then you are back in the capital again. You either wait seemingly indefinitely for that magic window, or you take your chances on the 5+ day hike and know you can make it out of there.

As we sat in the guest house lounge (ultimately we were there for three days) this was a common topic of conversation. Everyday more people arrived at the guest house and the group hanging out in the large lounge grew, and everyday people were missing international flights (even our friend had to reschedule). We were already missing the first wedding event for our friends, and I fretted about missing the rest of the wedding. If we walked to Jiri for sure we would miss their wedding, all we could do was wait. That was the worse part. The uncertainty. You could easily be there only a few more hours, or a whole other week.

One older woman decided to try her luck. After she had been waiting for about 6 days she decided to pack up her stuff and walk with her guide down the mountain. “I’m in Nepal to experience the country, not watch American pirated DVDs” she told the group she had been sitting with, “no offense, but if I hear you made it out of here today or tomorrow, I’m going to be mad, because I’ve officially decided I can’t wait anymore and I’m walking out!”

What to do in Lukla when you are stuck? You can try some "local rakshi" (alcohol) recommended by your guide. This is called tongba, made from fermented millet and hot water, sipped through a metal straw that is crushed at the end so you don't suck up the millet but only the juices. P tries some with our guide (center) and porter (right)

Our third morning the weather looked the most hopeful. It was still cloudy, but not as thick, and it looked like the clouds might lift. We quickly ate our breakfast and ran off to the airport (which is practically the middle of the town, so it is pretty much the center of activity). Others had already started gathering. Our guide grabbed our tickets, we went through the quick security check, and sat in the small waiting area. Eventually a siren was blown and we saw a bunch of people from town start streaming towards the airport. Our guide explained that when flights had been stalled for several days the airport blows a horn to let the town people know a flight left Kathmandu. It meant that in ½ hour a flight would arrive.

People in the waiting area were so happy they were literally jumping up and down. We had our heads stuck out the window cheering for the clouds to lift… but then, they started to thicken… and descend. I checked my watch… at just about the ½ hour mark, an airport official on the runway started waving his arms around in a circular motion. Our guide shook his head, “they are turning the planes around… the clouds are too thick.” Again… the message spread through the airport (and town) like wildfire—and people started freaking out. A woman next to me started sobbing, some people banged things around, a bunch of us walked out on to the runway to look down at the clouds as they grew thicker and denser and eventually swallowed up the valley and the end of the tarmac. After sometime our guide recommended we go back to the guest house, but suggested leaving our bags at the airport “just in case.”

Photo 1: The view in the morning. It was still cloudy, but better then it had been in days. Picture 2: But then the clouds got much much worse. P and C (looking a bit haggard) stand on the runway (which you can't even see the end of!) making "L" for Lukla, we should have made "S" for Stranded

The mood at the guest house was absolutely dismal. Then it started raining the hardest that we had yet heard. There was no point looking out the windows, and the curtains were drawn shut to keep out the clouds, rain, and stave off depression. Our guide ran back to the airport to bring our bags since word got out that the weather was so bad they decided to close the airport. I ordered and ate my fried chowchow noodles for lunch. Another hour went by… more card games, finished another movie. Then the mother of a stranded Indian family on holiday looked out the window when she noticed the rain had stopped. The sky was surprisingly clear, as if the heavy heavy rain lightened the clouds and they had risen above our altitude.

Like MAGIC the clouds lifted and they brought in a few flights. We got out while we could.

We grabbed our bags and ran back to the airport that was slowly reopening. Another siren, more commotion and then… the sound of a twin otter engine! A flight landed! It actually landed! It was beautiful, people cheered, dried their tears, and hopped more flights would come. We had tickets for the second flight of the day, so we watched anxiously as the first flight unloaded passengers and supplies for the town, then watched as the first haggard looking group of stranded hikers climbed on board and took off. A few minutes later another humming engine could be heard, and our flight landed! We ran out to the tarmac ready to jump on the plane, almost too impatient to wait for the arriving people to get off the plane first.

As I climbed aboard and settled into my seat I could see the girl who snort-laughed at us when we talked about leaving on the first day. She was still sitting on a step outside the airport door. Hopefully another flight came that day, the weather was so unpredictable it was hard to tell.

I was so excited to fly back to KTM and not to miss our friends’ wedding that I wasn’t even nervous about the take off, even when our guide said, “If the pilot misses it is just village, then rock, then water” (meaning our plane will careen down the cliff edge and smash into the valley and river below). Minutes later we were airborne. Flying again through the majestic valleys and out of the clouds. The guide pointed out the path to Jiri. It looked steep and challenging, and I thought about the woman slowly making her way along the trail because she couldn’t wait anymore. Then we saw our first actual road, and more villages, in no time we were flying over KTM and landing at the airport.

It is funny when you go from one very different place to another. When you land in the airplane it is almost like the place you were at before was a dream, because the issues that were all consuming—the weather, being stuck, not getting back to the city– melt away. Quickly you find yourself again absorbed back into the crowded, dusty, bustling city.

Lukla is definitely an experience… if you ever get a chance to travel up there…

“Scary” Tiny Mountain Airport

If you google search for lists of some of the most dangerous or scary airports in the world, one airport in particular consistently pops up on the list… Lukla airport in the Solukhumbu (Everest) region of Nepal– and I’ve had the good fortune to have flown in and out of this airport…  unscathed.

Last summer P and I went on a visit to Nepal for a month, and we were able to kill a few birds with one stone: we visited P’s family, I finally got the chance to experience Kathmandu with P, we were able to attend our good friends’ wedding, and we were able to trek in the mountains as part of P’s preliminary phd research on glaciers and climate change. This included the aforementioned flights.

Most people who hike in the Everest region either take a bus or fly to Jiri (which is lower down the mountains and closer to Kathmandu, and is literally the “end of the road” or the last place you can find motorized vehicles in that part of the region) or you can fly to Lukla which is farther along the Everest trek route.

Lukla is only about a thirty minute flight from Kathmandu, but feels like worlds away from the bustling, dusty, crowded city. One catches a flight to the mountains at the domestic terminal of Tribhuvan International airport, and climbs aboard a 18 seater Dornier 228 turboprop aircraft.  The flight takes off from the valley and flies straight towards the mountains, offering beautiful views of snow-capped Himalayan peaks, lush green valleys and gushing glacial rivers.

Photo 1: Domestic terminal of the airport, Photo 2: Our Agni Air flight prepares to leave KTM

The airport is carved out of a mountain ledge 9,380ft (2860 m) above sea level. Essentially the plane flies straight through the narrow valley before the airport approach, and doesn’t really decrease its altitude… you fly fly fly and then bam, out of the clouds and onto green earth once again. As you watch the ledge approach you can’t help but feel a bit nervous, the runway is short and slopped uphill, there isn’t much room for error, plus the plane is so tiny and feels so vulnerable. When we landed, our plane touched down with a hard thud, and I was waiting for it to bounce off the tarmac and flip on its side, but of course, I’m a bit dramatic.

Photo 1: Our flight departs after dropping us in Lukla, Photo 2: A view down the runway and into the valley approach, no room for error

We alighted from the plane, immediately feeling the cool dust-free mountain air, a relief from the pre-monsoon heat of the valley. I had fretted ahead of time about altitude sickness because I wasn’t sure how my body would react (I had a bout of nausea problems on a trip into the mountains in India once). I half expected to feel dizzy getting off the airplane, and keel over on the runway, but I surprised myself by feeling fine and ready to take off down the mountain path.

The town itself is pretty small. There are a few shops for buying gear, books, souvenirs, an internet café with satellite connection (which was very slow, very expensive and quite unreliable… but as a friend put it, when you are in the “physically most inspiring place in the world” who needs the internet?), a few guest houses, a hospital, and a few places to eat including an “Irish Pub,” a German bakery, and a Starbucks knock-off.

Our Irish friend poses with our porter in front of the "Irish Pub" sign (yes he's very tall, but bhai was also very short), the fake "Starbucks" sign is in the background

We didn’t spend too much time in Lukla at the beginning of our journey, so I’ll skip to the end. Most people get stuck in this town on their return to Kathmandu. Due to the perilous perch of the airport’s location, the narrow valley leading up to the airport (and the updrafts and cloud cover that accompany most narrow valleys), the unpredictability of the weather, and the small not-so-gadgety aircraft that fly this route, it is not uncommon for flights to be cancelled and people to be stranded for days at a time.

Another view: A plane prepares to depart, off the mountain and into the misted valley

(more tomorrow…)

Saying GoodBye To KTM

(Continuation of Mandirs in Nepal)

So after all the sightseeing, rice eating, clothes buying, and temple visits the four days passed really quickly and it was time to go. My flight was scheduled to leave in the evening from KTM, and I had a quick flight to Delhi where I was going to have to spend the night sitting on the floor of the airport waiting lounge, and then I had an early morning flight from Delhi back to the US.

Before going out for our last morning of sightseeing (to Pashupatinath and to P’s old high school), P’s whole family helped me pack. It was both awkward and kind—awkward because it felt like an encroachment on my personal space… other people going through my bags and stuffing the pockets… good thing I hid my underwear ahead of time in anticipating of this type of helpfulness; but also it was sweet… they wanted to help me, and they seemed sad to see our short time together end.

During the process, I emptied my bag of gifts. Prior to leaving for India, I wanted to bring gifts for his family, but our program was set up in such a way that we had to schlep our bags around all semester as we moved to various locations throughout North India, thus I didn’t want to bring a lot from the US or I’d be carrying it everywhere. I settled on a nice jar of local maple syrup (when you come from this part of the country… it’s a natural gift idea, even if foreigners don’t always know what to do with it), and decided that while I was in India I’d look around for gifts. I wound up buying a sari for both Mamu and J Phupu (although at the time I had no idea how to buy a sari, or what was considered a good quality sari… so my selections probably weren’t great), a pair of camel leather shoes for his dad (although the pair I attempted to wear weren’t a big hit), a woolen vest for his grandfather (which I think was a big hit) and a set of Rajasthani styled puppets for his little cousin (which was a semi hit). Since his mother is very religious, I brought some red and yellow powder used for tikka blessings from a special temple in Rajasthan and some water from the Ganges. Again, I’m not sure how these gifts went over… but I hoped that it was the thought that counted.

After the family finished packing my bag we went out and around town (dressed in my new outfit: jeans, black sweater, purple scarf). On our way home afterwards P’s dad jumped out of the taxi and said he would meet us at home, which I found curious.

As the time approached for me to leave for the airport, I noticed that the family had gathered some material down in the living room… bananas, a silver platter with red tikka powder, P’s dad came back with a small plastic bag which I later found was filled with a beautiful flower garland…

I can't find the pictures from my original trip, but here are some "goodbye" pictures from this past June... P's grandfather gives us garlands, P's dad gives us tikka, and P's aunt gives us tikka and banana. The final picture is P's dad, P, me and P's mom.

One thing I really like about Nepali culture are rituals surrounding departure. When someone leaves it is a bit of a production, and it makes you feel special (at least that’s how I felt). When someone leaves the whole family gives you tikka as a blessing… and bananas and flowers, and a flower garland. Other families, particularly Buddhist, give white or ivory colored prayer shawls called katas. When you go to the airport in KTM you can see all your fellow passengers (at least the Nepalis, not necessarily the tourists) wearing thick tikkas and flowers, or kata, hugging relatives and saying good bye.

Example of a Kata... the Dalai Lama giving one to a visitor

After being tikkaed and garlanded, I was tucked into a taxi while Mamu and J Phupu started to tear up, and P’s dad and little cousin brought me back to the airport. Due to the civil unrest in Nepal, family and friends of travelers are not allowed into the airport, but this seems like a relatively easy rule to get around. If you know someone who works at the airport, then you could call in a favor and get some passes… which P’s dad did, and they sat with me until it was time for me to go through security and head out to my plane.

Tip- if you want to bring your flower garland home… even though it isn’t totally kosher to do so, I know P has done this before… take it off and put it in your checked luggage, because otherwise the security people take it before you enter the inner waiting lounge. I imagine the security clerks have lots of nice flowers that they get to bring home everyday, and I was sad when they took mine away.

I didn’t want to wash my tikka off, even when my flight touched down back in Delhi. Every time I caught a glimpse of my reflection it reminded me of my time in Nepal, and it made me happy. I wore the tikka all the way to London before I eventually had to wash it off (from both a necessity to properly wash my face, and probably a little bit from the stares I was getting).

I entered the Delhi airport and had to go through security. Since Nepal is considered more of a domestic rather than an international flight, I couldn’t wait in the international terminal, until my flight time was closer early the next morning and I could properly check-in. Prior to leaving for KTM I had checked around the airport and found an overnight waiting lounge across the street from the departure area where people in my situation could have a reasonably comfortable place to sit. I also had found a storage facility for extra bags, which I left in India instead of taking to Nepal. Upon my return, I walked down the block to the airport storage facility, where I stumbled upon a few meandering cows… “yep, I’m back in India” I thought.

Little did I know that Delhi in December can be prone to thick, soupy, dense-as-the-dickins fog. Luckily my flight from Nepal had made it in the evening before, but my morning flight didn’t look good. We were grounded for an additional 17 hours due to an impossible, impenetrable fog (I swear… you could swim in it if you wanted it was so thick!), but eventually the plane made it out, so that P could pick me up at the airport in New York the night before Christmas Eve.

Thus concludes the tale of my first trip to Nepal.

Guilt Over Jeans and Money

(A continuation of Bucket-Bathing, Clothes and Riots)

We didn’t find any more evidence of the earlier riot after passing the bricks. I was a bit startled and disquieted by the thought of violence (or at least chaotic disruption) in the street and P’s dad’s nonchalant-ness about it, but now after several years of watching Nepali news and another visit to the city, I realized that citizens in the valley unfortunately have to make due with the civil unrest or they would never get anything done. It’s a sad truth but strikes and protests are so commonplace that there is a website called NepalBandh.com (Bandh being the Nepali word for “closed”) which keeps track of how many days a year there is a strike somewhere in the country. In January 2010, 26 out of 31 days there were strikes, often several strikes going on during the same day. When I was in Kathmandu this past June there were several strikes the shut down large areas of the city, and one day P and I had to run in the monsoon rain to get around a strike that left us stranded on the far side of the city.

Anyway, that day we visited the impressive ancient Swayambhunath stupa (otherwise known as the “Monkey Temple” due to all the monkeys that run around the temple/stupa complex) up on one of the hills on the edge of the city as well as Hanuman Dhoka and the Dharahara tower. We took lots of pictures posing near the iconic images of Nepal… prayer flags with Buddha-eyed stupa backdrops, prayer wheels and stone carved images of Hindu gods.

It was really fun and interesting, but I couldn’t help but feel guilty. P’s family refused to let me go to a bank to take out money, and insisted that they would pay for everything, including the enterance fees to various tourist sites around the city. Although the gesture was very sweet, there are two vastly different admission prices. I found this in India as well… there was the local price (for instance, visiting the Taj Mahal costs Indian nationals 20 rupees) and a foreigner price (the same ticket cost me 750 rupees). I support the different prices, why should the price be driven up for locals because of foreign tourism? But (for instance) when we visited Dharahara it would have only cost a few rupees for P’s family to climb up the internal spiral staircase to see the city from the top, but when I was thrown into the package, the admission fee was a hundred times the price. I didn’t want to make P’s dad feel bad for the income disparity, or make him feel like a bad host, so I said that I was happy to see these things from the outside instead of going in. Kakabua must have picked up on what I was thinking because he eventually told me that it was okay, P’s dad wanted me to see these things, I shouldn’t worry and we eventually did go up.

That evening we traveled back by taxi and had another large, rice filled dinner (which I had to eat with my spoon). At the end I rinsed my mouth out with water (I learn quickly), and then the family snuggled into the sitting room to watch the evening line up of Nepali/Hindi serials while tucked into blankets and shawls against the chilly winter air.

The next morning I awoke to P’s dad sitting on the computer again at 6:30, and another round of milky chai, biscuits and the sound of Mamu praying with the tinkling bell. I got ready—trying my luck with another long colorful skirt, only to be reminded about pants before traveling outside. P later mentioned that they probably found my cotton skirts odd since it was winter, but this weather (in the sunny daytime) felt warm compared to the snowy cold winters I was used to back home. I probably would have run around in flip flops if given the opportunity.

After my second round of breakfast P’s dad announced that he, Mamu, J Phupu and I would go around the town that day. The first stop was a shop near Patan where Mamu’s brother worked. Before we left the house Mamu brought me a black wooly sweater and said I could wear it around the city, and then J Phupu gave me a long purple scarf to wrap around me. The three of us climbed into a taxi and arrived at a western styled clothing shop on the other side of the city. Inside were piles of jeans and other western wear. I was introduced to P’s uncle and encouraged to look around the shop to see if there was anything I wanted. I insisted that I was fine, but P’s parents insisted they wanted to “gift” me some pants, and asked P’s uncle to find a few pairs that he thought would fit me. Thus began one of the most self-confidence depreciating shopping experiences of my life.

I don’t think I’m that large, I’m pretty average. About five foot six, medium build. However I tower over P’s mom, who only comes up to my shoulder, and I’m still a head taller than P’s aunt. Even  P and I are the same height and similar in builds. Certainly there are Nepali women who are my height, but I think they are considered “tall” not average like I would consider myself, and often their whole stature is smaller (hips, butt, shoulders, etc). What I’m trying to get at is… I was too big for the store.

P’s uncle sized me up, and started pulling out pairs and pairs of jeans for me to try on in the dressing room. Every pair was either too short, too narrow, too skinny. I couldn’t pull it up over my American-sized butt, I couldn’t zipper or button them, I couldn’t get them off. Nothing seemed to be working. After spending an uncomfortable amount of time in the women’s section, out of desperation (I think), he started pulling out jeans from the men’s section and I started feeling like a freak of nature.

Finally I think he found the only pair of jeans that fit me in the entire store… a pair of bell bottom-type pants. As soon as I realized I could pull them up, pin them, and that they covered me properly I said that I was done. P’s dad asked if I liked them… hell… sure, whatever would put an end to this. I was going to give them to P’s uncle to put in a bag but J Phupu told me “No, you can wear now. Take off what you have on and put in this bag.” Ahh, I finally got it, they didn’t want me walking around the city anymore in the gray yoga pants, so they were slowly re-dressing me, clothing article by clothing article.

The next stop was the shoe store. Again I tried on various pairs of shoes until we found a pair of faux black leather dress shoes. My camel leather clogs went into the same bag as the yoga pants. Throughout the rest of the day, in between sightseeing, we went around to a few other shops to find a western styled top, but everything was too tight and short on my arms and waist. Eventually I begged, “I’m really okay, I don’t think we will find anything that fits. I think I’m just too big for Nepal.”

I wore the sweater, the scarf, the pants and the shoes until I left wearing them on the airplane.

Bucket-Bathing, Clothes and Riots

(continuation of My First Night In Nepal)

The next morning I woke up to P’s dad sitting on the far side of the bedroom using the only computer in the house. P bought it for the family when he was home two years previous. It was 6:30am. He smiled and said good morning and asked how I slept.

A few minutes later J Phupu (who lived on the first floor of the house) sent P’s little cousin upstairs to give me a mug of milky chai and a plate of biscuits. I assumed this was my breakfast so I happily ate everything, while listening to a bell tinkle somewhere upstairs. It was the sound of P’s mom sitting at the family temple, worshiping the gods for the day.

P’s dad said I was welcome to take a quick bath, and afterwards we could sit up on the roof (where the family spends most of the day in the sunshine). I grabbed the clothes I was planning to wear, an ankle length cotton skirt with woolen stockings, a black cotton long-sleeved shirt and a woolen sweater and I scooted to the bathroom. After a semester in India, I felt like a pro at “bucket-bathing” and I quickly filled the bucket with warm tap water and dropped mug-fulls over my head. A few years ago P’s family installed a solar water heater on the roof so they could get warm water through the faucet, but before that P’s mother had to heat water on the stove for warm winter baths.

I cleaned up, dressed, and joined P’s dad on the roof. Mamu had finished worshiping and had a round of more milky chai ready. P’s aunt had departed for work at the university, but everyone else was sitting in white plastic chairs on the flat cement roof. Even though it was winter, and quite cold in the evening, the sunshine felt almost fall like, and I was comfortable in my sweater.

I didn’t really know what was on the agenda for my visit other then meeting the family and perhaps sightseeing around the city a little bit. Apparently P’s dad had made a plan. I was going to be with the family for 4 days. One had already past, so he had scheduled several tourist attractions for the next three, but first there was a little snag.

“We have to wait until afternoon to go to the city. Is that okay?” he said. I didn’t really think much of it. I figured he had other plans for the morning.

“The university students are rioting, so it isn’t safe to go out.” He continued nonchalantly, in between sips of tea.

I almost choked on the gulp I just swallowed, “Rioting?”

“Yes, the day you came someone from the army was found drunk in the city, and he shot a few people. The students are protesting this. It is better to wait until after lunch to go out in the city. No problem.” No problem? If something like that happened in the US it would be on the headline of every newspaper in the country. Then I remembered stories that P had told me of sitting on the roof growing up and watching the horizon for rising smoke to see where protesters were burning tires in the city. You avoided that part of town, but it didn’t stop them from going on with their lives.

Mamu called me inside and gave me more breakfast items—boiled eggs, slices of yak cheese, more biscuits, more tea. I was already full, but slowly ate the rest. This started a routine of getting two rounds of breakfast and other snacks throughout the day. J Phupu would send me food before she left for work and when she came home, P’s mom would give me more after her morning puja, and later in the evening, as if they were both competing to feed me.

I played with P’s little cousin for a while, and talked with P’s dad and grandfather some more. Right before lunch a family friend came over, a neighborhood chum of P’s cousin studying in the US. I was told that she was hoping to travel to the US for college and that she had her visa interview coming up soon. The family wanted me to practice speaking English with her and give her tips on how to have a good visa interview (which at the time, I had no idea, eye contact?). She spent the next three days traveling around with us.

Next… Lunch time, so soon, and still full from my double breakfast. More food. Rice, daal, different vegetable curries. Spoon (sigh, I eat slow! I’m sorry!) I was starting to feel round and stuffed.

After lunch P’s dad said to me, “You can go change now into your outside clothes.” I didn’t really know what he meant. I got dressed in the morning, I was ready. “No, your outside clothes.Something nice, pants or a pair of jeans.” Uh oh.

Like I said in K-k-k-k-k-k-k-Kathmandu, I put a lot of thought into the clothes I brought. Stuff that wasn’t too South Asian, but also stuff I thought looked dressier—long colorful skirts, a shorter kurta top or two, a sweater. The only pair of pants I brought with me were grey yoga pants. I originally brought them to India to wear as pajamas, but found they looked nice under kurta tops (which are generally longer than shirts, and cover your bum) since the bottoms of the pants were loose, and they fit comfortably around my waist with elastic (as opposed to the salwaar suit pants that were quite large around the waist and had a big necessary draw string). The yoga pants were never meant to be worn on their own, because I knew the type of fabric and their tightness around my backend wasn’t really culturally appropriate.

“Um, I don’t really have pants.” I said.

“Sure you do, it’s okay, go get ready. I’ll meet you downstairs.” He said.

So I went to my room and put on the pants. For good measure I took out a shawl and wrapped it around me in such a way that it draped over my back and covered my behind. I was a bit mortified, because I knew this could make a bad impression. I don’t even wear tight pants in the US, but now I was a bit cornered from lack of options. Not to mention the only pair of shoes I had were a touristy-looking pair of camel leather open clog shoes I bought in Jaipur since I only brought sandals from the US. I figured that now that it was winter and colder, I had to switch to sturdier shoes, although in India I wouldn’t have cared too much… socks and sandals, whatever, it kept my feet warm. But P’s dad was wearing polished black leather dress shoes. Oh dear.

See, everyone in the house had very distinctive “inside clothes” and “outside clothes.” P’s dad wore flannel shirts, and hand-me-down cargo pants from P at home, his mom and aunt wore long kurta tops that looked like house dresses or older salwaar suits, etc. But when they went out, it was like a transformation, P’s dad and grandfather dressed up in suit, tie, and overcoat, and his aunt put on a nice “office” sari. In comparison I looked like a weather-beaten tourist just dragged off the overnight bus.

P’s dad didn’t say much when I came down, but I could feel my clothes weren’t what he expected. But it was all I had with me.

Kakabua, P’s dad, P’s little cousin, the family friend and I loaded into a taxi and headed out across town. As we drove, we passed one street littered with many broken bits of brick and rock. P’s dad turned around from the front seat to explain, “These are the bricks from this morning during the riot. The students take them and-“ he mimed throwing a brick, “Throw them at the police.”

My First Night In Nepal

(A continuation of K-k-k-k-k-k-Kathmandu)

My senses were buzzing when I stepped out of the airport, looking for P’s dad. He spotted me before I could spot him. P’s eleven year old cousin handed me a small bouquet of flowers and said “Welcome C-didi!” while P’s dad grabbed my bag and patted me on the back, a big goofy smile on his face. P’s dad always looks so serious, perhaps a bit intimidating, in pictures because no one in the family ever smiles for photographs (even when prompted!), but when you meet him in person that’s when you know how gentle and friendly he is.

The only thing I could manager to utter for the first twenty minutes I was on the ground was “I can’t believe I’m actually here. I can’t believe I’m in Kathmandu.” I said it on the way to the taxi P’s dad had arranged. I said it while we drove through the crowded city streets from the airport. I repeated it when P’s dad asked how I was doing. Everything was a bit of a blur until we reached P’s house.

The car turned off the road onto a narrow single lane dirt and rock path, and squeezed between a few buildings. Then it turned a corner and to the right was a large lot being used to grow vegetables by neighbors, and to the left was a wall with a metal gate, the house peeking out from behind. The gate was open and P’s mother, aunt and grandfather were standing in the road waiting to greet me. Gulp, it was now or never.

Before arriving in KTM I struggled with how this initial greeting would go. Should I crouch to touch their feet? Will they find this weird? Or respectful? Who should I greet first? Does it matter? Did they expect me to be more American or more Nepali? I was hoping my time in India would solve this, and I peppered my homestay mother in Jaipur with questions about what the proper etiquette should be, but every family is different so it was hard to know. P had said not to worry, but he also wasn’t there to lead by example.

Luckily when the car stopped everything happened so quickly I didn’t have a chance to think too much. As I stepped out of the car Kakabua (P’s grandfather) had a huge grin. He kept mumbling “Welcome! Welcome!” and wanted to grab my bag and bring it into the house for me. J Phupu (P’s aunt) stared, occasionally she’d laugh, but mostly she stared, sizing me up. P’s mom said, “Come” and led me inside, while his little cousin grabbed my hand to walk with me.

The family led me through the entrance, told me to leave my shoes and gave me slippers. I followed them up the stairs to a room that P and his brother shared as kids. “You stay in P’s room, okay?” Mamu said. I left my bag and was brought to the next room where everyone sat staring at me. When I am comfortable with people I am rarely at a loss for words, but when I’m the outsider, it’s tough to know what to say. I’m sure I looked pretty awkward waiting for them to ask me questions, not sure how to make “small talk.”

Mamu ran upstairs to grab drinks and cookies for everyone (Mamu likes to make sure everyone is stuffed beyond capacity). I reiterated that I couldn’t believe that I was actually in Kathmandu (I must have sounded like an idiot, repeating myself), and that I had heard a lot about the city and was excited to see it. I also mentioned that I was happy to meet everyone in the family, because P had told me so much about them, particularly Kakabua, to which Kakabua started to talk about his love for P, scurrying to his room to pull out old mementos and bring them to show me in the sitting room.

P’s dad felt comfortable speaking English, although like P he is more on the quieter side, and P’s young cousin was learning the language in school, and could be quite colloquial with me once she got over her initial shyness. P’s grandfather speaks enough English to tell interesting stories (with lots of miming action) although I think he has more trouble understanding others, and communication isn’t always two-ways. P’s aunt, a Nepali language and literature professor at a local university, could also speak, although not as comfortably, and P’s mom was the least comfortable. We struggled to communicate, and her sentences were very short (generally two or three words). She often mixed up pronouns (referring to P as “she”) to comical effect.

I could see J Phupu staring at me from the corner of my eye and after sometime I turned to look at her straight on. She smiled and said in the slow, careful, deliberate way she speaks English, “I can’t… believe… P… fell in love!” as if it were truly amazing.

A little while later P’s mom brought in a small old notebook, and J Phupu explained that P had made it as a seven or eight year old. It was one of those elementary school assignments where kids are asked to write a few sentences about themselves and draw a picture to match. P’s mom and aunt quickly flipped through the pages and landed on one that said, “Someday I will marry a person my family will pick.” I just smiled, nodded and said, “Interesting,” pretending not to notice the irony.

P’s dad insisted I call my mother at home, as well as P, his brother and his cousin (P’s younger cousin’s older sister). My mother cautioned me to “be safe” while P said, “I can’t believe you are sitting in my home right now! I can imagine exactly where you are!” P’s brother and cousin talked about stuff they wanted me to bring back to the US from Nepal, and then the phone was passed around for each family member to have a few minutes to say hi.

By then it was dinner time. P’s mom ushered me upstairs and I sat at the table in the kitchen. She put a big spoon on the table in front of me and P’s dad smiled. He had eaten with P and I in the US at the apartment where a group of us were living the summer before, and he knew I had the “special” South Asian skill of eating with my hand. “She doesn’t need a spoon!” he said triumphantly, “She knows what to do.”

I’ve talked about eating with P’s family before. The sheer amount of rice is a bit daunting. I’m also a slow eater (always have been, always will be), plus as the center of attention for the meal, I was even more self-conscious. Again my stomach was doing flip flops, and I had to eat at extra slow speed just to keep the food down and settled. It was delicious, I was just nervous, and tired, and still worried about making a bad impression.

Declaring that I could eat without a spoon made everyone even more intent to watch me, making me even more nervous, making me eat even slower. By the time the rest of the family had finished dinner (including P’s young cousin), I had barely eaten anything, prompting questions like “Do you like the food? Are you feeling okay?” and finally to my own embarressment, “Do you need the spoon back?”

Alas, demoted.

When I got up from the table I washed my hands, but didn’t rinse my mouth out with water (would they expect me to do this ritual? Or would they be worried about me consuming water? I decided to skip it). P’s mom noticed and probably made a mental note to talk to me about it later (I was advised the next day that rinsing my mouth out with water after every meal was very important so as not to pollute the gods).

We ate dinner quite late, so afterward the family sat together in the sitting room to watch tv before bed. It was December, and although not as cold as New England, there is no central heating, so we sat wrapped in blankets and shawls, sitting close together, with a small electric heater nearby.

After watching a few shows with the family (a mix of local Nepali serials and Hindi language programs from India, neither of which I could understand, although P’s younger cousin volunteered to give me the synopsis during the breaks) they asked if I was tired, and at that point I was absolutely exhausted. As I climbed into bed I was greeted again by the whole family. They made sure I had a wool hat to keep my head warm in the night, extra blankets, and P’s aunt and dad tucked me in. I probably reminded them of how much they missed their own kids who were in the US, and with their tenderness towards me, they could pretend, by extension, that they were tucking in their own.

I think as soon as they turned out the light I was dead asleep.

K-k-k-k-k-k-Kathmandu

My senior year of university I decided to spend my fall semester studying in north India. My parents were furious. I had already spent two semesters abroad- my freshman year in France and Senegal, and my junior year in Kenya and Tanzania. Since high school I had babbled on about wanting to study in Africa, so my parents had time to prepare for that, and in my freshman year—France probably sounded “safe” and “normal,” (not to mention they probably hoped I’d get the travel bug out of my system before the inevitable Kenya trip) so they could rally behind that—but India?

“You’re using that college like an expensive travel agency!”

“How will you get a job some day if you never study in a real classroom?”

“I bet if she were dating someone from Vietnam or Brazil, she’d want to travel there next!”

Finally my dad acquiesced, “We both know she was never going to join the ‘glee club’ and participate in normal college life, if it isn’t costing us extra, then let her do what she wants, because she will probably just do it anyway.” (huh? Glee club? Normal college life?)

“Fine. But you have to be home for Christmas. No matter what. Period.”

I should mention that the year before I conveniently didn’t tell my parents I was missing Christmas to stay in East Africa for research… until I already had a university grant and couldn’t come home. They weren’t happy, and probably figured I planned to do the same thing again.

The truth was, that was my plan. I had time in my plan of study to do something else, and I was ready for my next adventure. The fact that P was South Asian helped me to decide where to go next. If I could have figured out a way to quickly add a study abroad option in Nepal to my schedule I probably would have, but my university had an India program, and it was easier to make that jump.

My plan was to spend a semester in India, learn the basics of the language, culture, religion, etc, then meet P in Kathmandu for a month after the program. I was hoping to take Nepali language classes, meet his family, get to see his home city with him, and then come back for my final semester. The rigid stipulation that I had to be home by Christmas squashed that, and P ultimately decided not to travel home during the break if I was only going to be there for 4 days. But how could I travel so close and not stop in for a visit? A flight from Delhi to KTM is only about an hour. Who knew if I’d ever be that close to Nepal again? I was determine to go… with or without P (although definitely with his blessing!)

I had a great time in India. I learned an incredible amount in a short period of time, and as the days wound closer to the end of the program, the more nervous I became. Reality dawned on me, I had already made the plan and I couldn’t back out… I was going to meet P’s family. Alone. By myself. I was petrified.

It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I’d met P’s dad for a few days when he graduated from university the year before. His dad was nice and friendly (I can talk about this another time), but traveling to his home, alone, in another country, felt a lot more official, and scary. I was going to meet his aunt, his mom (who I think was still a bit worried about the whole “American” girl thing), his cousin and his grandfather, and P wasn’t going to be around to facilitate the meeting process.

Most of the students spent the last few days of our program in Delhi finishing final projects, finding shops to buy last minute souvenirs for friends and family, some even had their hands decorated in henna. Meanwhile I was spending time at the Nepali embassy getting my visa, and purchasing my plane ticket to Kathmandu. I had that old Bob Seger song stuck in my head for days… “K-k-k-k-k-k-Kathmandu/I think it’s really where I’m goin’ to/Hey, if I ever get out of here/I’m goin’ to Kathmandu.” It was totally cliché, but true, and it was wedged in my head until I landed at the KTM airport.

Then came the time when all the other students left. I accompanied them to the airport to see them fly home to the United States, and I was left waiting for my own flight. I was excited but trembling. I was so worried (I spend too much time worrying) of making a bad impression. A friend and I spent days looking through my collection of clothes trying to find nice looking outfits (I was only taking a small bag, and leaving the rest of my luggage in a storage area at the Delhi airport.)

Nearly all the clothes I had were Indian salwar kameez, kurta tops and long Indian design printed cotton skirts. I felt comfortable wearing these things in India, especially since I wasn’t trying to impress anyone, and Western travelers in places such as India or Africa tend to dress a bit odd anyway. Either all “ethnic,” or all khaki jacket safari-type clothes with lots of pockets, or kind of hippy-styled. I blended in to this crowd for the most part, but I was worried if I wore things that were too South Asian P’s family would find me strange, but I didn’t really have any proper American clothes either. I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that while in America P’s dad wore a suit and tie every day, even if he was just going out to the grocery store. I didn’t have anything fancy. I felt woefully unprepared in every way.

The flight from Delhi to Kathmandu was beautiful. Not too long after leaving Delhi one can gaze out the window of the plane and watch as you fly straight at a high wall of Himalayan mountains. I remember sitting next to a western business man going to Nepal for a holiday. He was chatting away, but my hands were shaking with nerves and my stomach was doing flip flops. When the plane breached the valley wall it flew within view of some small houses on the mountain ridge, my first glimpse at real Nepali life. I was glued to the window for the final approach, shaky hands and all. When the plane finally landed at the tiny airport in Kathmandu I was a bit in shock. It was hard to believe I was actually there, in a place I had heard so much about, knew so many people from, people I was half way around the world from at that very moment.

The national airport is so small that you have to disembark the plane from a stair case that is wheeled up to the plane door from across the tarmac, then you walk along the pavement to the back entrance of the airport. This leads to a narrow walkway with windows on both sides, although the windows are a bit reflective so you can barely see the passengers waiting on the other side getting ready to disembark on the plane you just flew in on. I couldn’t help but try to catch my reflection in the glass and fuss with my hair and outfit the entire walk to the immigration counter. I wanted to look presentable, confident, somehow dignified. I was still shaking when I handed over my passport to the immigration clerk (who gently teased me about my nose piercing and asked if I was Nepali, an obvious joke from my pinky-whiteness), and walked downstairs to pick my bag  from the baggage claim.

Then I followed the crowd toward the doorway that led to the arrival area of the airport. Just outside the main door was the waiting area for friends and family. From a distance I could see all the people waiting, a sea of unfamiliar faces, and I knew P’s dad was waiting somewhere out there in the crowd.

Sometimes It’s the Little Things

Two traditions on New Years Eve… Watching the ball drop in Times Square in New York City and having a glass of champagne to bring in the new year.

So last night P and I went out with a big group of people to a casino for New Years. Before we left I wanted to buy a bottle of champagne in case we weren’t able to find any later in the evening, but with the chaos of organizing transportation for everyone… it didn’t happen. I wasn’t necessarily gung-ho with the casino idea at first, but once we got there we had a lot of fun– checking stuff out, doing a wee bit of gambling, dinner, watching the ball drop on giant screens in a big buzzing crowd.

Shortly after midnight I was trying to find a glass of champagne to complete the evening but had to leave the casino abruptly when I had to drive someone home (an hour drive away). I told P he could stay, he looked like he was enjoying himself, and there was no need for both of us to leave and cut the evening short. He protested that it was New Years and we should stick together, but I insisted– “stay, I’ll be up when you get home.”

I was pretty mad at the person I was driving back and the series of events that led to leaving the casino abruptly, and fumed the entire way home.

When I got home, I starting watching a movie while I waited for P to get back. He didn’t have a set of keys with him, so I had to open the door when he arrived. He was catching a ride with a few other people in the group. It was nearly four when he got home, and I was still very mad at the person I had to leave the party for earlier that evening. P called me on my cell phone and said he was downstairs, so I put on slippers to go open the door.

On the other side was P, standing in the snow with his arm extended holding a plastic grocery bag, “I’m sorry… I went to four places looking for champagne to bring you, but nothing was open. So instead I brought you a bottle of [my favorite flavor of soda]. Happy New Year.”

That little gesture helped to melt away a lot of my anger. P is not a very verbal guy– he doesn’t say, “I love you” very much with words. But he really shows that he cares with his actions which are very genuine and kind hearted. Sometimes it’s the little things that really make the difference… like looking for something to cheer me up at four o’clock in the morning on New Years.

So Happy New Years P… I love you too… lets hope for a great 2010! :)

African Hare Krishna

What to write today? Perhaps a fun story? Here’s an “oldie” but a “goodie…”

First, a preface:

1) My dad had a good friend in high school who was very smart, had high ambitions, and never really thought about life not going his way. After graduating from college he applied for medical school, and for whatever reason, wasn’t accepted.

The friend was devastated. As a result he went on a cross-country road trip that ultimately led to him getting involved with some sort of “religious cult” out in California. He used to send all sorts of weird brainwashed-sounding letters back to my dad, and my dad’s friend’s family was really worried. Eventually they hired a private investigator to go out and bring the friend home—eventually kidnapping him from the supposed cult. However, when the family brought him back to New York, some of the cult members actually kidnapped him back, and it was a bit messy for a while. Eventually though, the friend got away and went on to lead a perfectly normal life (although he never did make it to medical school).

Anyway, I’d heard this story growing up and for some reason—maybe because I was interested in things my dad found unusual and didn’t understand—he always worried that I might end up like his friend if I wasn’t careful. Remember this, it’s important.

2) Prior to this story I’d known P about a year and a half. I hadn’t yet visited India or Nepal, and knew very little about Hinduism.

Okay, now fast-forward a few years to when I was in college. As I’ve alluded to before, my academic major allowed me to study abroad in France, Kenya and India. While I was in Kenya, P was able to finagle a research grant to join me in East Africa over the winter break to conduct comparative research on the environmental impacts of urbanization on rivers. The year before he had received a research grant to travel home to study the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, and he planned to compare this to the Nairobi River in Kenya as a thesis project.

Our university was quite small (everyone knew everyone else’s business), and apparently the faculty panel that reviewed the research requests had a discussion on whether or not it was ethical to fund P’s research since he was asking for money to travel to where his girlfriend was studying abroad. A close professor friend on the panel, who is probably more of a romantic than her feminist heart would admit, championed in our defense, “The research proposal is very strong in its own right… and who are we to stand in the way of true love?”

Kisumu is on the shore of Lake Victoria in western Kenya

Kisumu is on the shore of Lake Victoria in western Kenya

I was elated. I couldn’t wait until P arrived. For years it had been my dream to live and work in Africa, and after spending several months there, I was dying to share this new world with him. Over the Christmas holiday, when I knew Kenya was effectively shut down (at least for anything research or administratively oriented), I planned a whole trip for P and I “up-country” to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria.

I had a few friends who had conducted their internship in the city, and they gave me a list of recommended things to see and do, including visiting an orphanage where one of them had worked. I found a small guest house near the orphanage, off the beaten path of the city, down a red dirt road along the water.

We arrived by overnight bus (riding through the Rift Valley on the local bus was brutal, the road was completely pockmarked and rutted from the rainy season) and took a local taxi to our guest house. After settling in we decided to check out the neighborhood and find the orphanage. On our walk we ran into some local Kenyan kids with long vertical Vishnu markings on their foreheads and shortly thereafter a passenger van drove by with Hare Krishna information written on the side paneling.

“We had a Hare Krishna temple near my high school,” P said when the van passed, “they had a van like that too, and we all used to say that they used the van to kidnap you.” P said this very deadpan, as if he was very serious. I only learned later he was joking.

According to a Hare Krishna website the Kisumu orphanage, "houses children who are abandoned on the streets of Kenya. Here they are given food, shelter and education, and helped to end their glue-sniffing and drug-taking street days."

According to a Hare Krishna website the Kisumu Hare Krishna program, "houses children who are abandoned on the streets of Kenya. Here they are given food, shelter and education, and helped to end their glue-sniffing and drug-taking street days."

I knew close to nothing about the Hare Krishna movement, in fact, the only thing that I had heard was that some people believe it is a type of cult. I know people make arguments that are both pro-Hare Krishna and anti-Hare Krishna, so I won’t take an official stance, but at the time the cult association was the only exposure to the organization I had known. This knowledge, coupled with P’s sarcastic comment, and the old story of my dad’s friend, had me a bit on edge about the Hare Krishnas.

As the week wore on, P and I had a great time. We spent Christmas eve and day volunteering at the orphanage, we went out on an early morning canoe ride in the lake and saw hippos up-close. We met with a friend’s brother in a tiny local (tasty) hole-in-the-wall fish place, and had dinner at his house with his whole family. It was fun.

P on a boda boda

P on a boda boda

Then the time came to return to Nairobi. We met some of the orphanage kids on the road to say good bye before trying to hitch a ride on a boda boda (bicycle taxi) back to town to catch the bus. The kids were trying to help us haggle but the boda boda drivers wouldn’t budge even though the kids and I knew we were being “grossly overcharged.” We were haggling over about 50 cents, but it was the principal of the thing, and eventually we decided to try our luck and started walking towards town. We were really early for the bus anyway, since we planned to find something to eat before heading out on the long journey back to Nairobi.

As we walked, the notorious Hare Krishna van (which we had passed on numerous occasions during the week) started rumbling down the dirt road. The kids started jumping and waving and one kid yelled, “You are lucky! The van will take you to the city for free!”

The van responded to the kids’ arm flailing and slowly pulled to the side of the road a few feet in front of us. There were two men and a woman sitting in the front, and they rolled down the passenger window, “need a lift?”

P, knowing my habit (challenge?) of traveling cheaply, figured this fit the mold… free trip to town, you can’t get more cheap than that… so he opened the van door and climbed in with a big grin on his face. My stomach sank; didn’t these people belong to a cult? What if something happens to us? Yet by this time everyone was looking at me, so I caved and stepped into the van.

Idi Amin famously threw out all people of South Asian and European descent from Uganda during his murderous and ethnocentric regime

Idi Amin (depicted in the movie "The Last King of Scotland") famously threw out all people of South Asian and European descent from Uganda during his murderous and ethnocentric regime

The driver of the van was Colombian and the two passengers were a married couple, the man was from Bolivia and the woman was a Ugandan of Indian descent whose family was thrown out of the country during the Idi Amin era. The couple explained that they had come to visit East Africa so the woman could “retrace her roots” and show her husband her home country. They were also using the trip as an opportunity to connected with Hare Krishna communities in the area.

The Hare Krishna crew seemed very interested in P, particularly after he mentioned he was from Kathmandu. The Colombian driver said he had worked at the Hare Krishna posting near P’s old high school, and the two bonded over shared geographical knowledge. As the van neared the bus depot the driver asked, “you must be hungry, have you eaten yet today?”

I was just about to say that we were fine when P spoke up, “no, actually we haven’t eaten yet. We were planning to find something while waiting for the bus.”

“We can’t have you travel hungry! Please, join us for breakfast!” the driver said.

“Yeah! Sure!” P said, the big grin popping back on his face. I’m sure he thought, more free stuff… alright!

The driver turned the van around and started driving out of the city. That’s when my panic level began to rise. I looked at P concerned, but he seemed oblivious, no doubt already thinking about food.

On the outskirts of the city the van approached a gated compound. A security guard let the van through, and we parked in the driveway of a large secluded mansion. I heard the front gate slam shut and my heart started racing. This is it! I thought, My dad was right… I’m never going to get out of this… I’m going to be brainwashed by a cult, and lost in Africa forever! I’ll never see my family again!

The Colombian driver rang the bell and a Kenyan maid opened the door, dressed in a sari. Although no more unusual than a white American in a sari, I’d never seen an African in a sari before, and it added to the mystic of the compound, and my mounting dread. They are all dressing alike… it must be a cult! The house was decorated with lots of South Asian iconography including large statues and carvings of gods and goddesses. Everything seemed very exotic and different, particularly from the largely Christian Kenyan culture I had been living in for the past several months. In my terrified mind it all added up, this had to be a cult.

The driver encouraged us to sit in a parlor area, and the maid was sent to get us some drinks. I frantically looked around the room assessing my surroundings and trying to make sense of it, looking for an escape route, trying to figure out what would be used to brainwash me.

A few minutes later, the maid brought in a tray of glasses filled with a thick looking green liquid. When I was handed a glass I quickly took a whiff, trying to detect if it was safe to drink. I was told it was some sort of wheat germ smoothie. Was this going to drug me? I watched as the others were served and the driver took a large gulp. P had a sip and he looked fine. I decided to just hold it and pretend to drink.

The driver and couple asked us many questions. What were we doing in Kenya? How long were we staying? What brought us to Kisumu? They continued to take an interest in P, especially when he talked about his research. I started making excuses about time, and catching the bus, but they courteously brushed aside my concerns.

Blowing the conch shell...

Blowing the conch shell...

Suddenly a conch shell horn sounded in another room and the the couple quickly stood up and walked towards the sound while the driver paused to invite us to worship with them.

Aha! This is how they will do it! They’ll brainwash us while “worshiping.” Now I’m done for! I wanted to grab P and run, but he didn’t seem concerned at all.

Life sized Radha and Krishna statues

An example of life sized Krishna and Radha statues

Dumbly, I followed and we turned a corner into a large room made up like a temple with two life-sized Krishna and Radha statues. The entire wall was meticulously decorated in fabric and flowers, and the statues sat on large wall-length altars. The gods were elaborately dressed in shiny clothes and garlanded with fresh flowers. I’d never in my life (up  to that point) seen anything like it. Already scared out of my mind, I thought for sure that this legitimized my fear.

Had I been to India before  this story took place, or visited a temple with P–even an American Hindu temple–or if I knew more about Hinduism at the time, I’m sure I would not have found the room so threatening. Yet all I could think of was my dad’s cult prediction.

The driver explained that Hare Krishnas worshiped through music and handed each of us a small musical instrument. I received a pair of wood blocks and P was given finger cymbals.

At this point I was shooting death glares at P, who seemed totally unaffected by the situation. The music started and he bobbed his head back and forth to the music, ting-tinging the little cymbals to the beat, happy as a clam.

How can he be so oblivious?? My mind screamed, trying to telepathically send him messages, P we need to get out of here NOW and save ourselves!!!

Example of a man doing aarti for puja with the platter of incense and candle

Example of a man doing aarti for puja with the platter of incense and candle, a perfectly normal aspect of Hindu worship

Then the caretaker of the house, an Indian woman dressed in a starched cotton sari, entered the room with a shiny metallic platter carrying incense, a candle and other items for the aarti. During the music and chanting, she stood in front of the statues with the platter, rotating it in circles in front of the gods.

I was feeling queasy with fear and internally freaking out. I wasn’t sure what was going to brainwash me, but I was absolutely… absolutely… sure that it was going to happen. Would it be the music? The exotic smelling incense? The rhythmic chanting? Would I ever see the light of day again???

The music seemingly continued on forever. I kept making exaggerated gestures to check my watch to show how impatient I was to catch the bus while also trying to catch P’s attention, and hum something in my head to counteract the alleged brainwashing. Its hard to think of another time that I had ever been so scared.

Yet finally the music stopped, and miraculously I still had control over my own mind. I can’t help but admit that I was both very surprised, and extremely relieved. The driver asked if we enjoyed the worship and I began reiterating the fact that we had tickets for the bus and had to get going.

The Ugandan woman asked, “are the buses really on time here?” to which the driver answered, “never…” but I insisted, “the one time you count on their tardiness is the one time the bus is ready to go at the correct time… we really really need to get there.”

“But we can’t let you leave without breakfast!!” the driver insisted.

“No, trust me, we are fine. We really need to go. I’m not even hungry… P, are you hungry?” I said, hoping he would get the hint.

“Actually, I am still kind of hungry.” P said.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME??!!

The Indian caretaker led us to her dining room, which had been laid out with a full Gujarati meal for breakfast. The driver insisted we sit. I sat down and started shoveling food into my mouth at a tremendous speed, insisting over and over, in-between bites and gulps for air, that we had to go, we had to make the bus, we were already late. I was hoping the more I insisted, and the faster I ate, the quicker we could get out of there.

Meanwhile, P was savoring the food. He looked utterly satisfied, “I haven’t eaten some of this stuff in years! Delicious!” he kept repeating, taking a second helping, and cleaning his plate.

“Please, we have to go!” I continued to beg.

“You can’t go without snacks for your journey” the Indian caretaker said, and asked the maid to go in the kitchen and pack some food.

“No really, its fine.” I pleaded.

“Its no trouble” the woman insisted.

Finally, FINALLY, the maid entered with our packed food, and the Colombian driver stood up to take us out the door. P thanked everyone and happily followed the driver, while I grumbled a quick thanks and scurried after them.

It’s hard to describe the relief I felt to walk through the front door, and feel the warm African sun on my face. To breathe in the earthy air of the garden, and to hear the birds chirping in the trees. When I went in that house, I never expected to exit, not like this.

We climbed into the van, and the driver turned the key. We started back towards the city while he continued to chat with P, “when you get back to Nairobi you should check out our temple there, it’s quite impressive!”

The van made it to the bus depot moments before our bus was ready to depart the station, and  P and I were the last two to scramble on-board. P waved goodbye, and we took our seats at the front. I watched the Colombian drive away, and when he was out of sight I turned to P and wacked him repeatedly on the shoulder…

“What… were… you… THINKING??!!??” I exploded, “You could have gotten us KILLED!!”

“What??” he looked at me completely bewildered, “what the heck are you talking about??”

Me: “Aren’t they a cult?”

P: “I don’t think so.”

Me: “Seriously?? What about all that, ‘oh there goes the kidnapping van’ stuff?”

P: “That was just a joke. Why are you freaking out?”

Me: “Because I have been scared out of my mind for the last hour and a half!” and I explained my dad’s cult story.

P looked at me for a moment and couldn’t help but let out a sympathetic laugh, “ohhhh… you must have been so scared in there… I had no idea!” Born and raised a Hindu, everything in the house seemed quite normal, or at least not scary. Then he opened up the snack bag, and pulled out the crunchy fried munchies they gave us, “alright! I haven’t had these since the last time I was home!”

So, the moral of the story is: my first interaction with a form of Hinduism thoroughly freaked me out. However, I’ve learned so much since then, and I think I would have handled the situation a lot better if it had happened today. Looking back, everyone was actually very nice, and I now find the story amusing and the situation comical since I know it has a happy ending.

Meanwhile… try to communicate with your partner better than just shooting him “death glares” from across the room… because maybe they can help explain the situation if they actually know what you are thinking.

And lastly, never listen to cult stories from your dad as a kid. It will scar you for life.