Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Fictions Which Bind Us

There are, in our lives, far too many things which seem to me arbitrary and slightly absurd that we have all seemed to agree upon to be true. We have created in our minds this vast game of make believe, and it all seems true because we all play along. In fact to make the statement that many of these things are but figments of our imagination will bring howls of descent from the greater portion of the population, but on close observation it is quite clear that they exist in no true form. Two of the biggest fictions are the existence of countries and governments (the subject of this post) followed closely by our financial systems (possibly the topic of a future post).

It should be clear, on any reasonable inspection that countries don't exist in anything more than a loose reference to a geographical area and the people who occupy it. The lines that divide it from other countries are arbitrary mythology. For instance there is nothing more Chinese about one side of Mt. Everest or Nepali about the other. There is nothing American about one side of the Rio Grande, and Mexican about the other. These lines exist only in our minds, and they can be enforced because people with guns are convinced they're real. Increasingly I'm starting to think that this is an outdated bunch of garbage that humanity would do better without. For what purpose does these lines serve, aside from dividing us? One answer may be the appropriation of resources through our governments with a sense of shared values.

If our history has shown us anything it is that our concepts of government have brought forth more suffering and disaster than any fiction with which we cling to. There are many definitions of government one could use, but the one I like is as follows;

Government: (Noun) A fictional entity used to describe a group of people who have been granted, by consent of the population, a monopoly on the use of force in a specific geographic area.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Who's the Guy with the Fro?

When you first come to Nepal there are a lot of things that at first seem a little strange. Cows in the road, skin whitening creams and the liberal application of reverse swastikas to gates, buildings and even pins on mens lapels all stand out as something you just wouldn't see back home. Another thing that started to stand out that I saw all over the place was pictures of some guy with a big fro in an orange robe. I had no idea who this guy was, turns out it was the very popular Indian guru Sri Satya Sai Baba.

Guru Satya Sai Baba

Turns out Sai Baba was quite popular in Nepal. The house owners of our first apartment had a big picture of him as you went up the stairs, and they gave Kim a video that showed "proved" he was divine. What? Yeah, see this guy with the fro is supposedly a living God, an Avatar, the reincarnation of a former Sai Baba. As proof he coughs up golden lingams (normally phallic symbols, but in this case eggs) and produces ash from nothing among countless other "miracles". If you're a God apparently these are the kind of things you like to do, but to be honest I wasn't all that convinced. When confronted with preforming his miraculous abilities under the watch of scientists to confirm his divine power he stated that; "Science must confine its inquiry only to things belonging to the human senses, while spiritualism transcends the senses. If you want to understand the nature of spiritual power you can do so only through the path of spirituality and not science." I couldn't disagree more. Sai Baba appears to me to be no different than the televangelists back home who prey on the week minds and desperate hopes of others in order to elevate themselves in some fantasy world they've created in theirs and their followers minds.

While it would be easy to write a post ripping into the man that was Sai Baba, it's not really called for. People can observe his life and make up their own minds. Sai Baba passed away yesterday, and I'm sure for many people this was a day of great mourning. For the people who had allegedly experienced sexual abuse at his hands, or for the families of four boys that were murdered in his compound, perhaps it's a day of closure. Regardless it often seems that things we designate as sacred walk hand in hand with the profane, as if the elevation of that beyond question is to cover for the depravity that it usually conceals. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Gas Shortages Hit Kathmandu

Government involvement in certain markets always comes with consequences, no matter how well intentioned the desired effect. Currently in Nepal petrol prices are subsidized through a quasi government agency known as Nepal Oil Company. The problem with this of course is that Nepal doesn't produce any oil, so this is not just reducing the consumption price of one of its own natural resources, it is in fact reducing the cost of a commodity that has to be shipped in through India. This of course means that Nepal Oil Company not only operates at a loss, but with the rising cost of oil (or the diving value of paper money) it has to go begging to the government for a substantial sum of money to continue providing fuel at the reduced rates of around 100 Rs/Litre.

Over the last few days this has been a problem, and fuel seems to be in short supply. Heading down to the market at Moksh on Sunday my ride was dependent on whether any petrol would indeed be available. Apparently some could be had through the black market for the sum of 150 Rs/Litre, for those in the US that is roughly $7.60/Gallon. With no local production, no sea port access, and no pipelines from India (which isn't a major producer either) it's easy to see why prices here would be high without the subsidies. Nepal's lack of access to oil is compounded by the fact that its neighbor, India, has a monopoly at providing it allowing them to set the price as they wish. Further, with the energy crisis of no electricity for up to 14 hours out of every day the need for many businesses to run generators to provide power for everything from manufacturing to refrigeration creates an even larger demand. Many argue that higher fuel prices will compound what's left of Nepal's already struggling industry.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Articles, Restaurants, and Happy New Year 2068

So the other day I was in the paper. The Kantipur Saturday edition is having a weekly article that gives an expats view of Nepal. Dinesh Wagle, who maintains a good blog over at Wagle Street Journal, interviewed me a few days before the article and translated it to me over the phone before it went to print. Since I can't read Nepali to save my life, I still have no clue how the article reads, and the only two words I can discern are and Still I haven't received any hate mail, so it can't be too bad and I have had a couple people stop by the blog and give me a call as a result of the article.

I'm the article in the top left.

Some of the calls, and e-mails I received were about the fact that I'd like to do an American style restaurant. Apparently there are more than a few people looking for this, but the trouble with partnering is the compromises. I'm not really interested in Nepali food, as I'm not very good at making it, and there are a hundred places in this city already doing it. I'm also not interested really in a place that specifically targets tourists, as that demographic is very seasonal and largely are looking to experience "local" food, although 90% of them returning from a trek are very much craving food reminiscent of home. I've also mentioned it at the market a few times and have a few people showing me places in the Lazimpat and Baluwatar areas. Not sure where all of this is going, but it could be interesting.

Somewhat  unrelated, we celebrated four different holidays in a single week this last week. Nepal celebrates more holidays tan you can shake a stick at, but the big one for this week was Nepali New Year, celebrating the year 2068. So happy new year to everyone in Nepal, even if it's a little late. We had Losar earlier, which is celebrated by the Tibetan, and related peoples in February, and we'll have another new year celebration in the fall some time, followed finally by the western calendar which celebrates it in January. That's four times celebrating the new year, each year! The holiday schedule winds down a bit for the upcoming months until we hit August and everything picks right back up. By the time Fall rolls around we celebrate more holidays than days without holidays it seems. such is the pace of life here though, and may it be a good 2068.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Looking Back at America From a Distance

After being away from my country of birth for some time you start to get a different perspective on it. While things are not all sunshine and lollipops in Nepal (as many of my posts have detailed) there is a certain amount of insanity that seems to emanate from the United  States. Not so much from our population at large which is made up of some of the more honest and hard working people on the planet (and I'm proud to count myself amongst them)  but from our government which can't seem to help grandstanding stupidity. Now it's no secret that I've always been a bit of a anti-authoritarian, my senior high school yearbook quote is from Rage Against the Machine crapping on the school system, but the recent rhetoric coming out of America is mind numbingly dumb.

The Budget Debate is Absurd

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sacco Family Still Needs Everyones Help

We're coming up on one year since a young American woman, Aubrey Sacco, went missing in the Langtang region during what was supposed to be a short trek. The family is still chasing down leads and needs as much help as they can get. Regular updates still appear on the Facebook page that was dedicated to finding her as well as a page that is devoted to her at Recently her mother, Connie, asked people to forward the following request for information;

If anyone knows Danielle Fouche, a French citizen in her early 60s, please contact us immediately. Danielle trekked the Langtang trail in Nepal at the same time as Aubrey, April, 2010. She may have met Aubrey along the trail ~~ our investigators have b...een trying to find Danielle since June. The French government has not cooperated with our requests to locate and interview her. Danielle may be from an Island in the Lesser Antilles that is considered part of France. If you know this woman please contact us immediately with current contact information. Email or call: 970 356-8000

If you have any information about this or know of anything else concerning Aubrey's disappearance please contact her family.  

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Purple Thread of Epictetus- One Year On

Just over a year ago I decided I was going to try and write a book. The topic would be the application of some ancient philosophy, that in my mind was grounded in solid logic, to modern life and knowledge. At the books center would really be a new version of Greco-Roman Stoicism in concept but taken without its unfounded pronouncements about the heavens or the logos. In doing some research for the book I started to see a striking similarity between the aspects of Stoicism I wanted to carry forward and the core philosophy of Buddhism. Both philosophies, in my mind, suffer from undue cultural and religious trappings, so what I wanted to put together was something that drew from the strongest elements of both, where they were correct in their overlap and produce a modern guide to living. This is something I have almost felt a need to do my entire life, and if I accomplish nothing else aside from laying this all out I'll die a happy man.

The purpose of this post though is not so much to go on about this book, but to talk about what I've learned in writing it over the last year. The first of which is that writing is actually hard work. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy it quite a bit, but getting yourself to really take it seriously,to focus on every word, to sit down and pound out at least a few pages every day despite what else is going on around you is tough.There have been times when I have been really good about sitting down every day and really concentrating on my work and there have also been months where I didn't keep a single word that I put to electronic paper. For the first few months I set aside a 4 hour span in the morning that was only for writing and it worked well, and after only three or so months I had pounded out a first draft, and I was ready to declare that this whole writing thing wasn't all that hard.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sticking Our Noses Where We Shouldn't

As an expat living in a foreign country it's always difficult to discuss politics and culture, because in the end it isn't your culture and it isn't your government, and nobody likes criticism from some outsider. That's true anywhere. While I certainly have my opinions and am happy to share my thoughts on certain topics, I have always advocated that Nepali politics should be decided by Nepali people, though this is rarely actually the case. Nepal has the unfortunate geographical location of being sandwiched between two of Asia's growing super powers, India and China and there is an undue amount of influence in their policies exerted by both these countries. It should also come as no surprise that European and American powers are also much more involved in shaping Nepali decision making than they should be.

Recent cables released by wiki-leaks shows that the United States has actively sought to destabilize the peace process and keep the Maoists out of power, working in conjunction with the interests of the Indian Government. While the original article I read on this can be read here, the fact that it comes from a pro-left wing website immediately makes you aware of a bias, and their treatment of the Maoist position is fanciful. In all fairness to the U.S. ambassador his instincts were for all intents and purposes correct, and the idea pushed in this article that the Maoists have been peacefully pushing for a revolutionary "people's" constitution is a load of rubbish. Anyone with any common sense can see that the Maoists have used the last few years to shift their war into politics and out of the jungle, their intent is still largely the same and if it's up to them they would rather not share power. The "peace process" here, as it is in most places, is just another way to fight a war.

The problem with the action the Americans are taking, regardless of the fact that they are most likely correct, is that people don't appreciate you screwing with their governments and denying them their own freedom of choice, no matter how terrible those choices might be. Allowing the Maoists to gain a hold over the entire country would be catastrophic in my opinion for Nepal, but I'm not Nepali, and whether they come to power or not is not, and should not be my choice or the choice of my country. It might be my duty to point out to my Nepali friends why many of their policies would be terrible for Nepal, why their history shows that they would most likely censor speech and press, why their economic policies and energy policies would further run Nepal into the ground and make it even further dependent on imported energy sources, and I could point out how communist run countries all over Asia have suffered horribly for their choices to support such governments, but what I should not do is decide this for them, nor should my government be urging the use of force to silence other's ideas. If the Nepali people choose the Maoists, that's up to them, not us.

It's safe to say that if we were to see the diplomatic cables of India, China, the UK, and some European countries we would see much of the same behind the scenes manipulation. Everyone has their nose in everyone else's business. This isn't to excuse the American actions but just to make it clear that this is indeed the way the game is played. The unintended consequences though for our own country is resentment from the people whom we are trying to help. Because when people see that kind of "help" no matter how well intentioned it just isn't appreciated and gives us a bad name and tarnishes our reputation and any integrity that we hold to the ideals and principles that our country was founded on.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Game Theory in Nepal- Avoiding the Sucker's Bet

When you travel as a tourist or read guide books to any place you travel to the local population is often portrayed in way that people want to believe they are, and not as they truly are. You watch faux cultural dances, observe "traditional"attire that nobody has worn in at least a generation and in much of Asia the western population is presented something akin to a concept of the "noble savage"....though to make it palatable to modern sensitivities the word savage is never used. Still there is often a romanticization of the cultures we observe, an unwillingness to call a spade a spade and often a self conscious form of collective guilt that does not allow us to come out and make statements about another culture due in part to the West's colonial past. I'm going to say something anyway.

Anyone who has spent any time in south Asia knows that business practices here are abysmal. Scamming, bribing, cheating, fraud, etc. are every day occurrences and almost an expected part of any business transaction here. Credit card infiltration is not low in this part of the world because people are unwilling to spend money, it's because no one pays their bills on time, not even the government of Nepal, and there is very little accountability. I always shop at the few fixed price stores when I can because it avoids the hassle of absurdly high prices I get quoted when someone sees the color of my skin, while many merchants are happy to rip off anyone regardless of skin color, they know white people not only have infinite money (clearly) but we also take the suckers bet- we take people at their word.

While many people I've spoken with in Nepal will go on about things being the way they are because it's a poor country and there has been an insurgency these excuses are just that. Nepal's largest obstacle is the populations state of always expecting the person they are interacting with to be a cheat, and thus for everyone to always be looking for the quick buck and not prolonged relationships which net mutual benefits over time. I don't know a single foreigner that has started a business here that didn't at some point get cheated by their Nepali partner (us aside) and ended up dumping them after losing at least a few thousand dollars. Our first lawyer screwed us and then tried to charge super inflated rates, and we dumped him. My point is not that we got cheated and you should feel bad for us, but that the Nepali people in these incidents cheated themselves in the long term.

Sure these people might have made a quick buck by taking the short pay out, but what if they had been fair all along? If our lawyer had been an honest man and charged reasonable rates I'd still be using him, and not only that I'd recommend him to other expats who ask me for visa advice, instead I'm writing this article about him. The businesses that many expats here run are successful and make decent money for Nepal, and instead of being off somewhere scamming someone else (or possibly getting scammed themselves) they could be part of a decent  honest business that makes good money. Aside from robbing someone else in the short term and being a blight on the better part of humanity, they also robbed themselves of future returns and contacts, something that is often much more valuable.

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