31 January 2013

A Saturday Stroll with the Himalayan Hash House Harriers

A A stroll through the terraces with the Himalayan Hash House Harriers.

A few weeks ago I did the most expat-y thing one can do - I joined the Himalayan Hash House Harriers. The "Hash" is a weekly social event/running club that promotes a mix of expats and locals running (or hiking), drinking and engaging in general buffoonery - and it was a damn good time!

There are hundreds of Hash clubs around the world, but it all started back in 1938 in Kuala Lumpur, where, according to Wikipedia, the goals were established as such:
  • To promote physical fitness among our members
  • To get rid of weekend hangovers
  • To acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it in beer
  • To persuade the older members that they are not as old as they feel
I was lucky enough to not only find a fantastic flat upon moving here to Kathmandu, but I just happened to move in below Jo and Jimi, a Scottish/Dutch couple described to me as "the king and queen of the local expat social scene." Jimi is the weekly emcee of the Hash, and he made sure that I was invited had a ride to get to its obscure starting point in the Valley.

Every week the location changes, and two people arrive in advance to set out a challenging course. They use a series of markers on the trail, complete with false detours and special pitstops at which you have to do a silly task or take a drink. They then lead the run, and they are called the "Hares" - they are tasked with making sure they do not lose their runners.

I carpooled with some Finns, a Spaniard (I don't know why, but that demonym always looks racist to me) and a lovely American gal and we made fast friends along the way. Since I was the only one with a little pack I was put in charge of the car keys and wallets, and we joked that I had "made myself valuable."

Now, I want to tell you that I joined the runners.... but that would be a dirty lie. After six weeks of sitting on my rear end and staring at my navel, I am in NO SHAPE to go on a 10k run (says the lady who is going on a four day trek tomorrow - eep) and so I opted to do the walk instead. It was still challenging, and this way I got to gab as I got my exercise. And you know I love to kiki, hunTy! (Sorry. Way too much RPDR lately.) Before the run we were advised on some of the Hash terminology. "On On" means "this way" or "way to go,"  and a "down down" is a way of teasing or 'punishing' someone for non-Hasherly behaviour.
If I circumambulate in the opposite direction at this fertility temple, will it work as birth control?

The walk was stunning - we trekked up the side of a daunting hill to a Hindu fertility temple and then back down through a village and past some weird and wonderful old art deco buildings. The walkers totaled about fifteen people, and I was talking in a small group with four others. All of the sudden, very close to the end of the 2.5 hour walk, the five of us who had been chatting noticed that we were alone. Eerily alone. The regularly placed trail markers that let us know we were on the right track had disappeared, and we could see hide nor hair of our Hare (groan).

Gorgeous abandoned art deco building, whatchoo doing out here? 
Remember, Nepal has no addresses, and the village meandered through the hills in a haphazard way. We had no idea which direction we were supposed to head toward and we couldn't really ask any of the locals to direct us to "the field that we started from" so we wandered aimlessly for about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, back at the finishing line, my absence was alarming to quite a few people. Sure, Jo and Jimi were worried, as they had brought me along and probably felt somewhat responsible for the green Canadian gal, but I was much more important to the folks who had entrusted me with their keys and wallets. A search party was sent out to look for me (at this point they thought I was out there alone!) and when we finally found the big Hash group they were well into their beer and snacks. Sure, I was teased for getting lost - but teased even more was my Hare, who had set a record for losing five people out of a group of fifteen.

Amanda, an American lawyer, forced to don the Hash hat and drink a huge chalice of beer.

The real Hash fun starts after the exercise is over. We all gathered in a circle and sang a series of drinking songs. Local village kids and adults alike gathered around us to gawk at the weird bideshis carrying on like fools as people were called out and made to drink and sing for being newbies, having missed many Hashes, for leaving the country and for pretty much any other excuse you can think of. It's no wonder they describe themselves as "a drinking club with a running problem."

These are sports drinks, right Lance?

While I live here in Kathmandu, I think I would like to do the Hash a couple times a month. It's a great opportunity to get out of the smog of the city and a good way to meet people from all walks of life and backgrounds. Just remember - always make yourself valuable if you don't want to get lost.

Some of the walkers - maybe one day I will grow up to be a runner. (yeah. That's not a thing, Dear. Good luck!)

29 January 2013

Confusing Photo of the Week #9 (Kathmandu Edition)

Photo taken in Paika, a small area between Kopan and Boudha.

It's been a few years since I've posted a "Confusing Photo of the Week" entry and to be quite honest, I was happy to let the series die an unceremonious death without ever mentioning it again.

But then I saw this.

I don't even know what the weirdest part of this tableau is - is it the strange dancing child who appears to have a pantyliner attached to his forehead? Is it the grinning horrorshow pig face? The gleeful font and well-worn illustration (with its own sinister grin)?

Nope, it's the Orange Fanta. Ew.

If any Nepali speakers out there want to tell me what this says, please let me know. Unless it's "YOU'RE NEXT, WHITE LADY." In that case, just don't tell me.

***UPDATE: This was a comment from Sherry Wasandi at The World is Square:

"It says: Sagun Meat Shop. "Sagun" being the name of the shop, commonly pronounced "Shug-un". Interestingly, the word itself refers to a gift(cash or kind) given to the host at traditional Hindu ceremonies, throughout northern India. Curious choice, indeed.

And then there's a list of the produce you can buy there, at the bottom. So far, you're not on it. Good news, I'd say."

Ha! I certainly agree.

24 January 2013

A Canadian Living in Kathmandu: A List

Here is a list I have composed of some random things I've learned about living in Kathmandu.

Now listen: I love this city, and I know that I have absolutely no right to complain about any Western conveniences that I might miss. As my new friend Claire Naylor puts it, "#firstworldthirdworldproblems applies to pretty much all conversations that we bideshis (white people) have about our lives in Nepal over our caramel lattes at Soma, organic cheese and bread at the 1905 farmer's market and Tamarind happy hours!" 

She is so, so right, and it is important to remember my immense privilege at all times. But... (and it's a big but) I can't deny that many things are different, many things are.... interesting and some things are damn challenging. As a serial observationalist (lookit me making up words!) I can't help but document them. This is likely to be part one of a series, so here it goes.

Things that I have learned as a Canadian living in Kathmandu:

  • There are no actual addresses on houses. For instance, my “address” is: Lazimpath. Schoolhouse Galli, the small lane on the left just past Sherpa restaurant, red gate on the left. 3rd floor. This means that I can't get mail delivered (which is ok, because by all accounts any packages will have been rifled through and stolen from), and I haven’t tried to order from Pizza Hut yet.
  • Vancouver party:
    “Oh. Hey. I know we’ve met 10 times, but let’s act vague and disinterested in each other.”
    “Yeah. That works for me. I guess.”
    Kathmandu party:
    “HI! HI HI HI! I just met you, but we seem to be within a decade of each others ages and both speak English! Want to hang out all the time?”
    “FUCK YES I DO.”
  • Expats who speak fluent Nepali and Nepalis who speak fluent English are regarded as demi gods who can help us mere ignorant mortals in countless ways.  LIKE HAVING THE GAS BOTTLES REFILLED (which power the heater and the hot water). Seriously. Can someone help me with this next week?
  • Everyone works for an INGO (International Non-Governmental Organization) or has started an INGO or has an idea to start an INGO. Seriously. I have like 3 ideas. And most of them won't actually improve anyone’s lives, cuz, like, that’s how things (don’t) work here.
  • If a group of expats are together for long enough, we will start talking about “The Earthquake.” At this point we usually drink more because that shit is terrifying.

  • Due to the fact that women need to be covered up, when I watch TV I get shocked when I see cleavage, thighs, knees, shoulders, collarbones or shins. I think to myself “good god, that woman needs to cover herse…. Oh wait a second. She’s not in Nepal.” Carry on.

    From Battigayo, a loadshedding app. This is when I have no power on Tuesdays.
  • I am strangely used to loadshedding, the scheduled rolling blackouts that are a result of the mismanagement of Nepal’s hydro resources, a country with the second largest water supply in the world. (THE FUCK, GUYS.) I light candles, make sure everything is charged and get out of the house during the 18 hours a day with no electricity. When I was in Bangkok recently I was always in a panic that the electricity was about to cut off, but then I would realize that I was in a real, functioning country with a real, functioning government.
  • There is technically no government or constitution right now. That’s right. Nothing works, and nothing can be fixed because there ain’t no government. *jazz hands*
  • I have a gas heater for my shower, so technically I can take a hot shower even during loadshedding, but if the water (which is stored on the roof) needs to be pumped, well, that takes electricity. I have been caught with shampoo in my hair twice when the water ran out. I’m not talking about hot water running out – I mean, there is no water at all. I had to use bottled water to rinse my hair.

  • The grocery stores are filled with off-brand Western products like mayo, peanut butter and ketchup, all manufactured by weird Indian companies with names like “American Garden.” I am pretty sure that no American had any input into the canned hotdogs I saw. CANNED. In some kind of preserving juice. *shudder*
  • Everyone’s furniture is made out of wicker. It’s like Three’s Company up in here.
  • Nepalis can mimic Western food extremely well – perfect pizzas, pulled pork, ribs, lasagna, cakes and coffees – this is the best Western food I have ever had in Asia. Hands down.
  • Star World, one of the only English channels I have on my satellite TV, plays: How I Met Your Mother, Grey’s Anatomy, Homeland, Melissa and Joey, Two and a Half Men and Rescue Me. On a loop. Literally. All day. AND I WATCH THEM ALL. *sobs in shame*

    That is all I have for now, but I am sure that I will have many more entries to add to this list as the days turn into weeks and months. If you have anything to add, leave a comment!


08 January 2013

Dinner on the Beach in Tangalle: Sha Sha Seafood

Oh, you went to a revolving restaurant? That's cute.
Sometimes all you need to be happy in life is a perfect post-apocalyptic beach setting, a candle, cold beer and a cooler full of the day's catch.

We ventured from Tangalla to Marakolliya beach to find Sha Sha Seafood, a small beach shack perched high up on stilts, famous in Southern Sri Lanka for fantastic fresh shellfish. After a long walk along the sand under eerie, pre-storm skies we finally reached the hut (whose name means "Little Sister" in Sinhalese).

A stilted, candlelit hut on an idyllic beach

The sun set behind bruised clouds as we skulled a cold Lion beer and selected our meal from the menu - a platter of the fresh catch of the day. Our options were still-wriggling prawns, lobsters, squid or an entire fish. Mum hopefully asked, "any crab?" and our waiter/owner/awesomeguy went into the candlelit kitchen to inquire. We were in luck - there was a single live crab just walkin' around and waiting for us. We ordered him, as well as prawns, some grilled calamari, 3 lobsters and a plate each of Sha Sha's famous potatoes.

Garcon, may I see a menu?

The food arrived, piping hot and slathered with gingery garlic butter. Each bite was delicious, and though I am normally a crab gal (really, Dear? Are you?) the lobster was sublime, my favourite part of the meal. The rain pounded heavily on the roof of the hut as I demonstrated my mad skills crustacean disemboweling skills (with my bare hands and teeth). I rescued many a crab leg and lobster antenna destined for the trash plate and amazed the table with the additional meat I was able to suck out of the shells. Like a true foodie - or, like, a dirty little raccoon.

The bill ended up being less than a third of the cost of Ministry of Crab (and for 4 of us rather than 3!) and the food was impeccably fresh, expertly prepared and - oh, let's ditch the fancy words - fuckin' great. The rain may have come down hard and the beach been deserted, but my tum was full of Lion beer, crabby goodness and a massive lobster tail - everything was right with the world. My inevitable deathrow meal (I figure it will be espionage or a sexy crime spree) is finally settled - I'll be ordering from Sha Sha.

I'm sorry I keep eating you and your friends, Mr. Crabbly. But I gonna keep doing it.

06 January 2013

A Train Ride Between Ella and Kandy


 The view from the train.
 The Sri Lanka of my imagination is a lush, tropical tear drop draped in tea plantations, rain forests and colourful temples. While traveling along the Southern Coast I saw beautiful beaches and majestic forts, but it was only once I boarded the train from the hill station Ella to the cultural capital of Kandy that I could appreciate the most stunning scenery the country has to offer.

When I was a wee babe of 18 I spent my first trip through Europe practically living on trains. I had a three-month unlimited Eurail pass and sleeping on trains was cheaper than a hostel bed, so while the train whizzed from Nice to Milan, Paris to San Sebastian or Berlin to Brussels I curled up like a little prawn in my seat. And while my 31 year old body does not fit so neatly and…. flexibly into a berth, I still have a soft spot for rail travel. 

The timetable at Ella train station
I think that train journeys are the most romantic way to see a country. The rail lines that crisscross South Asia hearken to a time when jute fans twirled lazily above tables laden with gin and tonics, a time when adventure travelers could traverse Asia overland from Turkey to Afghanistan and finally to the Southern tip of the great Indian subcontinent.

Trains often take a more scenic route through mountains, plains and coasts than roads do, and so for panoramic beauty alone a train journey is the more lovely option. But it’s the cities I love most. When you arrive into a city on a bus or in a car, you see its pretty face, the one it wants you to see. When you arrive by train you see the strange backstage areas that no one on the streets is allowed to access – the hobo shelters, the arcane graffiti and the weird industrial backside of an urban space. It’s a special bond, like catching a beautiful woman dressing and noticing a huge scar she keeps hidden. Beauty through imperfection – a bus can’t even begin to compare.

And so with my propensity to wax poetic about train travel, I knew that I had to manage my expectations of our journey to avoid disappointment lest the trip be less beautiful than promised by guidebooks and fellow travelers. I needn’t have worried. 

 Gorgeous scenery in the hills between Ella and Kandy

 During our seven hour trip through the mountains of Sri Lanka I witnessed some of the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen. The train passed idyllic villages, picturesque farms and towering temples as we climbed and dipped up around hills, wound our way through tunnels and valleys and sliced through countless acres of pristine tea estates. Standing in the open door of the train car I couldn’t help but smile like a giddy child as I waved to sarong-clad men and enthusiastic school children. 

 Dude. It was totally super munchee.
 Goofy little gal
  On board the train we were treated to Sri Lankan hospitality – we had ignored our best traveler instincts and declined to bring food aboard the train, believing there to be a dining car, or at least locals selling drinks and short eats that we could dash to buy from the station platforms. This was not the case. We were doomed to eat babybels and chocolate from our stash until an adorable family across the aisle noticed our predicament and offered us crackers, samosas and fresh sweet rolls. Their rambunctious tomboy daughter kept us entertained for hours, and they even passed my mum their number and told us to call if we had any problems while in their country. We could have used their help last week…

We pulled into Kandy two hours late – not too shabby for a country that measures how late the trains are running with the unit “day,” (as in “only half a day late”) and were picked up by the gracious Sarath, owner of the Freedom Lodge. It had been a long day, but a rewarding one. I stepped off of the train with an understanding of the culture and beauty of the central hills of the country, an understanding that only rail travel can provide.

Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited. Its beaches are legendary, its food delicious and its people hospitable – but it was a train ride through the mountains that was the highlight of my trip. Just remember to pack a lunch!

Violet Dear is giddy with train-inspired joy

02 January 2013

How I Got Right Here (and to London) - 2012 in Review


                                          They said "get thee to a nunnery" and I was like, "yeah, that's probably for the best."

2012 was not an easy year.

At some point in late 2011 I woke up and realized how badly I had fucked up my personal life, and I reacted with a horror akin to a David Lynch heroine in a surrealist nightmare. I had spent years making selfish choices in a cloud of self-grasping ignorance, and one of the most devastating periods of my life was when I truly realized that the choices I had made were in no one’s best interests, including my own.

I could barely live with myself. I tried all of the old remedies to make myself feel better, and nothing worked. I had a new dharma-inspired window of self-awareness that made it impossible for me to bury my head in the sand with quick fixes. I plunged into a brutal depression that lasted four long months of anxiety, rumination and deep, dark sadness. I think the only thing that kept me afloat were the 24 credits I was taking at school – I was forced to stay responsible and not spend all of my time drinking wine and crying, no matter how much I wanted to.

Time passed, as it does, and made things a lot easier. I started a pretty strict regime of yoga, meditation and dharma practice and began eating healthily and drinking less booze and a lot of kombucha. By April I graduated with First Class Honours and was feeling much better – and thank god for that, because I soon had a major bombshell explode: I was denied entry to grad school at McGill University.

I had been so confident that my perfect gpa and spectacular references would get me into the Masters of Communication program at ‘Canada’s Harvard’ that I didn’t actually apply to any other schools. When I was informed that the admissions board didn’t think my proposed research topic (dealing with the ethical issues around UNESCO World Heritage Sites) was suitable for the department I was absolutely crushed. I felt rejected and disappointed in myself. All of the sudden I had an empty calendar ahead of me - 12 months of panic-inducing blank pages.

Good thing I like filling pages.

Within a few days I was feeling better. My mum said, “Vi, I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but this has happened for a reason - you didn’t get accepted because it wasn’t right for you. I promise the right path will reveal itself.” I didn’t know if I really bought her new age garbage, but I did decide that another year of vagabonding was in order.  I wanted to start my journey in Nepal with the November Course at Kopan Monastery and then I would backpack through Africa and the Middle East.

My favourite prof was not jazzed on the idea of me lacing up my nomad shoes - again. “You need to get experience in your field, not only for your CV but also for your grad school applications. Backpacking is not going to help with your goals, Dear.” I knew she was right, but I also knew that I still had unfinished business with my wanderlust. I was at an impasse.

And then I went to Chapters. Normally I abhor big box bookstores, but I was downtown and needed to buy some gifts. On my way to the checkout I noticed that there was a table of discounted books – 2 for 25 dollars. I snapped up a copy of Little Princes, a book about an organization in Kathmandu that works to reunite trafficked children with their families. “Salient to my interests,” I thought. I had no idea how salient until I sobbed my way through Conor Grennan’s account of starting Next Generation Nepal. I went home and drafted a very unorthodox cover letter (it mentioned that I like to make salads and other random Violet Dear facts) and sold NGN on the fact that they needed to let do pro-bono professional work for them. Turns out I had some free time in 2013. About 10 months of the stuff…

Within 4 hours I had sent the email, and two days later I heard back from a very interested Martin Punaks. Over the next few months it was solidified – I was offered a spot on the NGN team. I was (am!) humbled, grateful and excited to start working for this amazing NGO.

My plans to explore Africa were scrapped and instead I started making arrangements to live in a Kathmandu, a city that I once described as magicaland mystical and… filthy. But first, before I could even leave Vancouver, before I could attend the November Kopan course – I had something even more important to attend to. Grad school applications. Oh yeah. Those.

My last few months in Vancouver were a hectic whirlwind of packing, dating (don’t ask. Murphy’s Law.) and tourguiding my little heart out, attempting to save up a nest egg off of which to live as I worked in Nepal. My research on different grad school programs was completed in fits and starts, great energetic bursts during which I would read journal articles by professors with whom I was interested in working, compare course names, peruse syllabi and search tuition costs.

I realized that as much as I love the theory of Communication Studies, my interests are now more allied with Anthropology. I wanted to marry my love of architecture, travel and heritage, and lo and behold – the United Kingdom actually has many grad programs dedicated to just those things! I knew that I wanted to obtain a Masters Degree in Cultural Heritage Studies, and that I wanted my longterm career to involve working with governments of developing nations to manage their built heritage in a way that does not maintain or create the oppression of vulnerable minority groups. As I researched schools, one choice came up again and again as a perfect fit - none other than the University College of London.

Now, I learned a lot from my experience with McGill – it’s foolish to only apply to one school. Do not do that - rejection stings, yo. But I also didn’t have the one valuable asset that I needed – time. Applications take forever, and my departure date coincided almost perfectly with the opening of UCLs application portal, so I knew that I would be applying in the literal last hours before entering a month of silence. I carefully pre-planned all of my references, my essays and my personal statement and waited for November 1st to approach. I also chose a back up school – the University of York. I submitted my packages online and headed to Nepal.

Schools in the UK do things a lot differently. In North America there is a deadline for grad school applications, a date by which all applications must be submitted. At that point a panel compiles all of the candidates and goes through each one by one, deciding all of the admissions at one time. In the UK, nuh uh. New students are all decided on a first come first serve basis, and I knew that I would receive a yay or nay answer within 10 business days. So, let’s do some math (or maths – I am heading to England, afterall):

November 1st – I applied
November 11th – I checked into Kopan for a month of meditation 
November 15th ish – answer sitting in inbox
December 11th – Sprung loose from the monastery; allowed to check email


By December 5th I couldn’t bear it any longer. I was positively brimming with nervous anticipation for news that I knew was so close, yet so far away. I snuck out to an internet café and there was indeed an email announcing that I was accepted to the University of York. I was pretty elated, but still no answer from UCL. I trudged back up the hill to Kopan and let everyone know. I got a lot of high fives, and it was nice to be a confirmed for something, but I was still hoping for London.

Two days later we took a massive group trip to circumambulate Boudhanath Stupa and many people decided to stay behind to grab lunch and a coveted espresso before returning to Kopan Hill. After a gut busting lunch of momos I guiltily snuck away to a small internet café. I was about to announce the trip a bust when amongst all of the spam and junk I noticed a message with “Congratulations” in the subject line. I clicked on the email and began to cry. It was from UCL, advising me that I had been offered a spot in the Masters program for 2013/14. Did I want to accept?

Yes. I did.

It’s been a month, and the news still hasn’t sunk in. I am a future alumnus of a school that was ranked fourth in the world this year (nbd, nbd) and that feels awfully weird for the white trash spawn of a teenaged mother from Surrey. I have a morbid fear that everyone will be all Eton-y and fancy and I will be way out of place with my tattoos, course little trucker’s mouth and my love of John Waters. BUT. That doesn’t really matter when I think about how excited I am to live in LONDON, a city that I love. One of the most exciting, interesting and fun cities I have ever visited. A city that looms large in my imagination as a place I’ve always felt I belonged. And if I am worried about my white trash roots, honey, this is a country that has spawned Little Britain, The Sex Pistols, Vivienne Westwood, The Arbour and Geordie Shore. In this company I’m all class.

2012 started off unbelievably terribly, and when McGill turned me down I thought that it was only getting worse. But, it turns out that my mum was right – THANK GOD I WASN’T ACCEPTED. It was not the right thing for me. Right now I would be sitting in Montreal working on a degree that doesn’t really fit what I want to do for a career. I would not have gone to Kopan and met hundreds of amazing people and learned more about dharma – and myself. I wouldn’t be the Ethical Tourism Advisor for NGN, a position that will enable me to help countless vulnerable children and learn about my field, and I wouldn’t currently be in Sri Freakin’ Lanka. Most importantly – I would not be moving to London in October to attend my dream school.

So, 2012, you taught me a lot of lessons. You kicked me around a bit, but you were filled with a bounty of surprises and wonder by year’s end.

And 2013? I like you already.

Lots and lots of love. Go follow your fucking dreams, bitchez.

2013 is off to a good start.