Office Life Begins

Today marks my 8th official day working in the survey office! When I’m asked, “How’s it been working in the office?” even though my canned answer is, “I kind of hate it,” I don’t hate it. Usually.

In a country with no addresses, this is how you tell the bank where you live.

In a country with no addresses, this is how you tell the bank where you live.

Now that my full-time language learning period is over (for the time being), my responsibilities have shifted. I am no longer focused on producing a competent Nepali speaker (phew), I’m now focused on producing research! My first task has been to procure a research visa, which means that my colleague Jessica and I have been reading every source we can find about the Dee* language group in Nepal, diligently writing a proposal, and doing other exciting things like opening a Nepali bank account.

It has been a nice change to shift the focus away from myself and towards the Dee people that I will potentially be surveying. I’m really enjoying learning about the language situation in Nepal as well as learning about how survey works here. Spending time in the office with my colleagues is always fun as well; surveyors are notorious for being the “fun” ones in the group! Totally unexpected, I know.

First day in the office. Taking a photo Nepali style - no smiling.

First day in the office. Taking a photo Nepali style – no smiling.

SIL recently published an article about survey work here in Nepal. SIL, Tribhuvan University, and the government of Nepal are working together to survey all of the 120+ languages here. A daunting task!
http://www.sil.org/story/surveying-languages-nepal
(This is a great, short overview of our work here.)

So although I don’t enjoy sitting in an office or staring at a computer screen all day, I have been appreciating the chance to engage with my colleagues and start some “real” work! The sun shines in through our windows, we laugh, we make espresso (when the power is on), and we look forward to the few weeks each year when our office looks like this:

My colleague interviewing someone about their language.

My colleague interviewing someone about their language.

*Dee is a pseudonym

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Protected: Some Observations On Economics By An Inexpert Outsider

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Protected: Meet My Host Family

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Fun Nepali Verbs (They Make the Laughter Come)

Lately I’ve been deep in language learning. I only have a few weeks left of “protected” language learning, after which I’ll start my “real” job of research. But let’s be honest here people: in reality language learning never ends. And I’m glad it doesn’t – despite all it’s frustrations, understanding how people think and communicate those thoughts is fascinating and fun.

Here is one such example: Nepali has a special way of expressing causative verbs that delights me.

((Don’t worry you non-linguists out there: this isn’t a highly technical linguistic blog post))

*a laymen’s definition*
Causative verb: a verb that makes something happen, an action that causes something

Here’s an example: the word “teach” expresses the idea that one person causes someone else to learn something.
In Nepali, to learn is /siknu/, and to teach is /sikaaunu/. Notice the difference? We just add “aau” in the middle there.

Now here’s the fun part: the verb /aau(nu)/ means to come. So /sikaaunu/ literally means “to make the learning come.” How fun is that??

Every time I learn a new causative verb, I am delighted. Here are a few more examples:

/uThaaunu/ to make awakeness come (to wake someone up)
/sunaaunu/ to make hearing come (to tell)
/samjhaaunu/ to make memory come (to remind)
/khuwaaunu/ to make eating come (to feed)
/heraaunu/ to make seeing come (to show)
/haraaunu/ to make losing come (to defeat)
/ghumaaunu/ to make travel come (to give a tour)
/dukkhaaunu/ to make pain come (to hurt someone)
/bhujhaaunu/ to make understanding come (to explain)

Language is always evolving, an this seems like a really awesome way to add new words to Nepali. Any ideas of words we could make?

(bonus)
This one is hilarious:
/chaTaaunu/ to cause to lick
When was the last time you did that???

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Gas Shortages

In Nepal, we are used to being without electricity, without Internet, and without many other things, but recently we have also been without gas. (Cooking gas. Get your mind out of the gutter.)

So, unless you have good connections at the gas store, you might be without hot water, without cooked food, and without coffee (gasp!).

People line up to get their stoves going again…

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It’s a funny feeling, being helpless to feed yourself. I’ll soon go from watching people line up for this resource to lining up for it myself. Everyone knows when more gas will come, and everyone shows up for that day!

I love the following cartoon, very much funny because it’s SO TRUE. We’d all love a tank of gas over flowers any day.

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Culture Shock

Have you ever heard of culture shock? It’s a very normal part of the cultural acclimation process. Most people are over the moon when they first arrive to a new place, but after 3-6 months the shine begins to wear off, and what is often termed “culture shock” sets in.

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Well I’m right on schedule! Happily, I didn’t experience a huge “high” when I arrived, and accordingly this low point isn’t too bad. I definitely don’t feel “shocked” or “in shock,” but after 5 months, suddenly everything in my life that was getting easier feels really HARD.

Why does this happen? Well, moving to a new place is exhausting mentally, physically, and emotionally. When you first arrive, you have to learn how to do everything all over again. Even the littlest things that you never had to think about before become a challenge, like how to lock the bathroom door or who to make eye contact with as you walk down the street. Of course bigger things are harder too, like talking to people and shopping and getting around the city and showering and drinking water and … well, you get the picture.

At first, you are tired all the time from having to make so many decisions every day, but you are also excited! You’re in a new, interesting place, with different, interesting people, gorgeous views, and amazing food. And after a while, things start to get easier. Your language skills improve. You know which bus to take and where to get off. You know who your friends are and which restaurants serve clean water.

But after another while, the newness loses its excitement. You hit a slump in language learning. And all of the little things that take extra energy begin to pile up. This is when culture shock happens.

Everyone’s experience of culture shock is different. For some, they find that they are suddenly annoyed with everything, from honking cars to friendly shopkeepers. Others simply hide from the world, sleeping and watching movies from home.

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What am I doing? Well, reading a lot of Perry Mason novels, for one thing. Their world just seems like the opposite of Nepal, and I love the quick banter and the fact that they’re set in 1930s Los Angeles! Nostalgia seems like a pretty important piece of culture shock, so I’m indulging.

Mostly though, I just feel TIRED. I don’t clean my room, I don’t plan my language lessons well, I avoid things like taxis and shopping, which require bargaining. The world doesn’t feel annoying or unjust or unreasonable, just overwhelming.

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Now, I hope you don’t feel terribly sorry for me or think that my world is ending. It’s not, and I know it. I know that this is a phase that will end. I’m looking forward to moving in to a new flat with my friend in a few weeks, as I’ll finally stop living out of a suitcase. I’m also looking forward to April, when I’ll finish full-time language learning and start my “real” job, which will give my life more structure.

But until then I’ll squeak by, floating through this phase that I would move to call “culture exhaustion,” and soon I’ll begin to thrive in this new world of mine.

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A Long Way From My Harley Days

Recently I purchased a motorcycle.

But before that, I been borrowing a friend’s scooter for a month. And it was glorious and ridiculous all at once.

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The scooter was very old. I often was unable to start it in the cold, to my great chagrin. A few times I got my daily workout by attempting to kickstart it 20+ times, all while late for something. It also had reverse shifting, which meant that sometimes when I meant to shift up into 4th I would jerkily end up in 2nd gear. Ugh. This also caused me to run into a school bus. In slow motion.
Also, with this scooter, lights + power = not a thing. So the bigger the hill I went up, the dimmer my lights got. Another excitement was caused by the low clearance, which meant going about 1mph over speed bumps. And finally, the broken gas gauge which caused me to run out of gas and have quite the adventure finding a gas station…

But there were wonderful things too! I loved having the power to give rides, the freedom to leave when I want, and the ability to carry loads. I also highly appreciated the freedom from arriving somewhere a sweaty mess, and I felt safer on my way home at night.

One aspect of having a vehicle that is both good and bad is that traveling becomes less communal, and there is less of a dependence on others. While the community aspect is important (good language learning time!), my American sensibilities find independence less emotionally taxing.

So despite all of this little scooter’s problems, you know what? I had never been so grateful for a vehicle. One day, as I was giving my friend a ride, I apologized for the… not so smooth time I was giving her. But you know what she said? “This is luxury for me!” And it’s true. When I wake up and know that I don’t have to walk for ages, or take a confusing and crowded bus, or haggle with a taxi driver, or sweat through my warm clothing layers as I pedal up a huge hill, I feel joyful. There’s nothing like being deprived of something to make you appreciate it.

And now I’m extremely happy to have a bike of my own. It’s also no Harley, but it feels amazing to ride it, like I have a little piece of my American self back. Although I’m not making any claims as to whether or not I still embarrass myself on it sometimes…

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(Don’t worry, mom, I always wear a helmet!)

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Bandh, Bandh Everywhere

IMG_0988Over the past few weeks the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu was slowed by strikes, in Nepal known as “bandh”s (closed). I knew you could close a door, and you could close a window, but it’s really something else to see a city closed! Typically hectic roads are empty, shops have their big roll-down doors shut, the world outside is less noisy, and the air is less polluted, making for beautiful views.

view from ring road

There are mixed feelings in the city about these “bandh”s. It’s clear that children enjoy the holiday from school, and they can been seen out in the roads playing soccer or badminton. I was also fascinated to see a normally home-focused, hard-working populace out leisurely walking the empty streets with their loved ones. For expats, who usually work despite the closures, “bandh” feels like a half-holiday in which cycling to work doesn’t feel life threatening.

A normally extremely busy roundabout

This roundabout is normally full of vehicles ranging from buses to trucks to motorbikes.

But for many people in the city, “bandh” means no work, and thus no money, and perhaps no food. Since busses and taxis are banned from the roads, their drivers don’t make their daily salary. Most shops are closed, and those that remain open keep their door surreptitiously half-open, charging exorbitant fees to the few customers who didn’t plan ahead. And worst of all, for people living near strategic political sectors, “bandh” can mean demonstrations, fires, and even riots.

Nepali police in riot gear

Nepali police in riot gear. Photo credit: BBC

So what is the purpose of these “bandh”s, and who enforces them? Good question. It’s my impression that many Nepalis can’t even answer that clearly, but I’ll do my best.

Nepal has a long and interesting history, but we’ll skip that and start at about 8 years ago. In early 2007, the king was overthrown and a new government installed with a temporary constitution. This constitution was supposed to be replaced quickly, but time and time again the deadline has been missed. Last week, on January 22, yet another deadline passed.

In the week leading up to the new constitution’s deadline, many political parties wanted a chance to exercise power and proclaim their political position, by way of “bandh.” Whichever party calls the “bandh” enforces it: they have people in the streets ready to stop vehicles and punish them for breaking “bandh”, they may walk around to check that shops are closed, etc. My impression is that in the past, because these groups were powerful and violent, people learned to obey, and now most everyday people accept “bandh”s without question or resistance.

Unfortunately, these “bandh”s did not lead up to the constitution that many were hoping for. Democracy is not as easy a thing as we are often made to believe, especially in a country that has a communal, hierarchical culture such as Nepal has. This week I learned that of those in the government everyone wants to be heard, and no one wants to lose any power that they already have. Compromises are hard!

A fight broke out in the parliament a few days before the deadline. Photo credit: BBC

A fight broke out in the parliament a few days before the deadline. Photo credit: BBC

God tells us to pray for our leaders, and this is a time to do just that. My hope is that the country of Nepal, which I have grown to love so much, will be fairly and justly governed so that its people and natural beauty might flourish.

Photo credit: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-30894714

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Housesitting: A Break from Life

I recently finished a short housesitting stint (1.5 weeks), and it was GLORIOUS!

It was like a miniature vacation! My friends’ house is quite nice. It has many things that people take for granted in the States, but here in Kathmandu are quite exciting! They have a yard with grass (gasp!), don’t share the building with anyone else (what?!?), and have a huge oven (magical). While the family was sitting on a beach in Thailand, I was living a luxurious life right here in Kathmandu.

Such a sunny, cozy home.

Such a sunny, cozy home.

Sometimes you don't realize you miss something until you experience it again. I miss dogs.

Sometimes you don’t realize you miss something until you experience it again. I miss dogs.

When I first arrived, I was a bit shocked by their home. Compared with my host family’s house (which is quite nice actually), I felt like I was in a mansion. Did I just step through a wormhole into America? The fridge is fully stocked! There are two adorable, clean, healthy dogs! There is a coffee maker, a bread machine, and an Xbox! THERE IS A WHOLE LASAGNA JUST FOR ME.

Possibly my favourite food?

Possibly my favourite food?

Fruit jam, ranch dressing, tortillas, the works.

Fruit jam, ranch dressing, tortillas, the works.

Many days I came home from language class and just spent the time sitting in the living room, drinking copious amounts of tea, and at night taking full advantage of the heater. I watched movies, read books, and danced up and down the stairs. For the first time in a long time, I had a space that was completely mine!

This experience made me realize just how much living with a host family has stretched my introvert side. I spend many hours during the day with my language teacher, coworkers, and friends. Then I come home and spend several hours with my host family. They’re lovely people, and although I’m getting better at relaxing in a roomful of people, I still crave being completely A-L-O-N-E.

(Now some of you may be thinking, “Shack, an introvert???” But yes, I’m actually about 50/50 extrovert/introvert. Typically, extroverts are energized by being with people, and introverts gather energy by being alone. I need both, but sometimes this dual nature causes me to go to one extreme or the other. I’m tempted to either stay at home reading books forever, or to hang out with people constantly, both of which energize me at first but exhaust me over time.)

Pizza - classic comfort food.

Pizza – classic comfort food.

It's hard to describe the amount of joy I get from trampolines.

It’s hard to describe the amount of joy I get from trampolines.

So after many months of living with a host family, and a week of trekking with friends 24/7, I spent a week recharging. I played with doggies, I made cookies, I sat outside in the sun. My life was predictable, and I was the master of my own schedule. I chatted with the “didi” (housekeeper), I made pizza with a friend, I jumped on the trampoline. Simple things, but joyful, soulful, and healing, and exactly what I needed right now.

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First Trek in Nepal: Langtang!

I almost didn’t go. I was asked last-minute by my friends Sarah & Stephen to go trekking… I didn’t really know where we were going or how much it would cost. I didn’t know if it would be hard or easy. I knew it would be really different from other hiking experiences I’d had. I had just taken a week off for Christmas, and wasn’t sure if I should take a second…

But I decided to go.

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WORTH IT.

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The first day we took a bus for several hours up to our starting point. I slept most of the way… for some reason sitting on buses is one of the most exhausting things you can do in this country.

Always love these cheesy banners.

Always love these cheesy banners.

Skyline is right!

Skyline is right!

We had fantastic weather! After arriving at the trailhead, we hiked for about 2 hours before arriving at our first guesthouse, which had a natural “hot spring” (it was a warm spring). We took full advantage!

These suspension bridges are quite common. However, in the past most rivers were crossed by means of a suspended rope, much like a ridiculously dangerous zip line!

These suspension bridges are quite common. However, in the past most rivers were crossed by means of a suspended rope, much like a ridiculously dangerous zip line!

"See that valley? That's where we're going!"

“See that valley? That’s where we’re going!”

Stephen enjoying the warm springs

Stephen enjoying the warm springs

Standard barefoot in the Himalayas photo.

Standard barefoot in the Himalayas photo.

The guesthouse was cozy! We enjoyed our dinner around a warm stove before heading to bed (yes, in actual beds!).

Stephen read to us from Mark Twain's "Roughing It" each night. His performances created great hilarity!

Stephen read to us from Mark Twain’s “Roughing It” each night. His performances created great hilarity!

I've had worse breakfast views.

I’ve had worse breakfast views.

I had a friend... cats always seem to know and flock to those who are most indifferent to them.

I had a friend… cats always seem to know and flock to those who are most indifferent to them.

Our first full day of hiking was gorgeous! We followed the river east along a valley, and went though beautiful forests. Steep forests. Very steep forests. Boy was I glad my pack wasn’t heavier!

IMG_0405 IMG_0409_2 IMG_0410_2This was a trip of celebrations: Stephen’s birthday was one night, and New Years Eve the next! For Stephen’s birthday we celebrated with Tim Tam slams (it’s an Australian thing…) and craft beer that he brought all the way from Australia!

Tim Tam slams! Drinking your hot drink... through a cookie...

Tim Tam slams! Drinking your hot drink… through a cookie…

MOMO MANIA

MOMO MANIA

After our first cheers, we took our beers and stood outside, looking at the stars. What a joyful, peaceful, moment.

After our first cheers, we took our beers and stood outside, looking at the stars. What a joyful, peaceful, moment.

We took the next day a bit slower, as we were now at a pretty high elevation (around 3,000 metres, or 10,000 feet). Stephen made sure we were properly fed and hydrated… I swear I’ve never drank so much water in my life!!

Donkeys and horses passed us quite frequently, carrying goods up the valley.

Donkeys and horses passed us quite frequently, carrying goods up the valley.

Our shadow cast on a huge valley we crossed.

Our shadow cast down on a huge valley we crossed.

We barely saw any other trekkers on the road. This time of year is fantastic.

We barely saw any other trekkers on the road. This time of year is fantastic.

We arrived at a small town around midday, and just took some time to relax, take photos, and enjoy the scenery.

Yet another suspension bridge.

Yet another suspension bridge.

The view from our guest house's dining room! Sarah and Stephen took a nap near the stove, while I spent the afternoon reading.

The view from our guest house’s dining room!

The town from above!

The town from above!

Sarah and Stephen took a nap near the stove, while I spent the afternoon reading.

A few friends of the guest house owner's.

A few friends of the guest house owner’s.

Drinking chiya (tea) is a survival mechanism.

Drinking chiya (tea) is a survival mechanism.

That night, we were too tired to stay up late, so we woke up just before midnight to celebrate the dawning of the New Year. Although hilarity ensued (were the fits of giggling brought on by altitude? tiredness? girliness? the world may never know), we also recognized what an EPIC beginning to a new year it was.

Stephen also lugged sparkling wine up the mountain. What a champ!

Stephen also lugged sparkling wine up the mountain. What a champ!

That morning, New Years Day, we summited our highest point on the trek: Kyanjin Ri (at 15,679 ft / 4,779 m). Phew! It was slow going, but we made it, and boy was it worth it.

IMG_0688_2 IMG_0692_2 IMG_0693From the peak we were able to look West into the valley from whence we came, SouthEast towards higher mountains, and North towards Langtang peak and the glaciers that lie in its valley. All of us were blown away by the sheer size of it all, as well as the peacefulness of the mountaintop. Later we met another hiking group, who was kind enough to share their tea with us to warm our hands and bellies. One man gave us each a Polaroid of our group. What a fun memory!

On our way down the mountain, it began to snow. We left the little town behind and tramped through the snow, to the great pleasure of Sarah, who is from Sydney and has rarely seen snow fall. Stephen and I enjoyed it as well; there’s nothing quite like hiking in falling snow, watching the world become a wonderland around you.

Winter wonderland

Winter wonderland

Yum!

Yum!

Our final day began in snow and ended in rain. Although we got wet, there were warm stoves and hot drinks to keep us going when we needed it. Boy were we glad to reach our final destination: we retraced nearly all of our uphill steps from the first three days in our final day of downhill travel!

Due to the rain and snow, the waterfalls were very active.

Due to the rain and snow, the waterfalls were very active.

The Misty Mountains... oh wait those are in Middle Earth

The Misty Mountains… oh wait those are in Middle Earth

Our final evening was full of laughter, talk, rich food, and this guy:

Old Nepali dudes: keeping it real since 1935.

Old Nepali dudes: keeping it real since 1935.

The bus ride home was a bit hairy… the roads are narrow and slippery. But the worst part was that our driver sped down the mountain, several times causing the passengers to fly out of their seats and some (including us) to hit our heads on the ceiling. My two saving graces were: the ridiculously sexual and violent and just plan hilariously bad Nepali movie, and the amazing views.

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One thing that struck me many times on this trek was the prominence of religious symbols. Most people we interacted with wore several necklaces with charms to ward off evil spirits. There were long lines of ancient prayer stones in the middle of the path we walked. Every town had a small temple, and every summit had prayer flags. There was even prayer wheels powered by a few of the streams we passed!

Religion and spirituality is inextricable from daily life in Nepal, much the opposite of our attitude in the US, which often relegates God to Sundays and/or personal, unexpressed opinion. Spiritual concerns cannot be forgotten in this country, no matter where one is! One can take feel oppressed, or one can take it as a reminder that we are spiritual beings just as much as we are physical beings.

Temples, temples everywhere.

Temples, temples everywhere.

Prayer flags send prayers to the gods as the wind moves them.

Prayer flags send prayers to the gods as the wind moves them.

Hydroprayer!

Hydroprayer!

Before this trek, I wasn’t sure how I felt about staying in guesthouses (as opposed to camping in tents). It felt… I don’t know… strange somehow. Like cheating a little bit: I’m not a serious trekker unless I carry all my food and a stove and a tent, right? I’ve got to be a typical Westerner and do everything independently. I don’t need anyone else!

IMG_0443_2But you know what? I ended up loving it. It was truly wonderful to engage with the people who live in this fantastic valleys, those who have been born and raised in the shadow of the mountains’ majesty and power. I was able to converse in Nepali (a little) and together we laughed with our kind and happy hosts.

Exploring mountains in wilderness areas is wonderful: wild and exciting. Here in Nepal it is very different. On this trek I felt like I was experiencing someone’s home, like these mountains belong to the people who welcomed us there.

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