Friday, December 14, 2012

I Want You To Hit Me As Hard As You Can

I've mentioned before that my favorite movie is Fight Club, mostly because the theme of struggling with how to change your life was something that really resonated with me. While I am not currently building an army of space monkeys to bring down the world's financial institutions, I did take up boxing- which really isn't the same as bare knuckle basement fighting, but whatever. Now boxing is about the last sport I expected to take up, it had never occurred to me as something I might be interested in. My past athletic endeavors have mostly revolved around running- and essentially the more running involved in the sport, the better I was at it. Boxing didn't come up as a sport with much running, and the idea of getting pounded on by some dude didn't really appeal to me.

So the other day a friend of mine that supplies my bacon at the restaurant mentions that he's starting back up in a boxing class, that is three days a week at a gym that is roughly a five minute walk from my restaurant- and with all the burgers now in my diet thanks to my consistent consumption of food at my restaurant- doing something athletic seems like a good idea.

Friday, November 16, 2012

It's Not the Same After a Few Years

When I first started writing this blog and had arrived in Kathmandu with wide eyes, most of what I took photos of and talked about weren't all that different than what you see in most tourist blogs. But things change after a few years. Aside from a complete lack of time to devote to writing here, I also just don't have as much to say about being here in Kathmandu any more. At some point it becomes home, and all those things that strike my countrymen as extremely peculiar here just seem normal to me.

Still everyone once in a while you go about doing things that make for at least a good photo or two. So here are a few from the last few weeks.

Roman Senator or Nepali Cross Dresser?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Siren Song of Democracy

With the election having just taken place back in the US, this is maybe a bad time for a political post, but I'm going to venture into these waters anyway. To be honest I didn't have a horse in the race that just concluded, and while I know a lot of people who might read this are either elated that their candidate won and America was saved from a a rich guy who wanted to destroy America or distressed that some foreign born socialist continues to occupy the White House and plot America's fall into a second rate backwater country. I think both groups will find that nothing significant changes. The political class will continue to cut deals that benefit them and their associates at the expense of both groups of voters (or those like me who simply abstained for not wanting to support bad behavior), we will continue to meddle in the affairs of countries that are none of our concern and we will by and large over pay bureaucrats at every level while the working and middle class in the private sector continue to see their pays stagnate or dwindle. In a short period of time, those who are elated today will be finding excuses for why Obama does more to support big banks, continues to drop bombs on brown people on at least three continents, and continues to expand things like the Patriot act while the middle class withers and the working class settles for a lower standard of living. Conversely those who are saying they will flee the country to escape it's imminent demise will see that things do not abruptly change, and that the slow march of increased debt, reduced liberty, and greater central government reliance won't look all that different than what happened under the candidates that they have voted for in the past.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Slipping into the Past

I try to spend most of my time exactly where I am. This may sound strange, but many of us spend so much time focused on the past or the future that we forget where we are. Still every once in a while I'll slip and find myself picturing the future, or looking back at the earlier days of my life. Sometimes when I look back it's hard to see the connection, how the person I was ended up as the person that I am. How I went from a kid who liked to run and read to a guy running a restaurant on the other side of the planet is a long road that twists and turns through a life I've been happy to have lived but seems disconnected into segments that are barely tethered together.

Some days events conspire against us and we can't help but spend some time apart from where we are. Today it was a combination of dreams about people I haven't seen in 20 years, a skype call from my friends back home, and thinking back over what I wanted to see as a tourist in Nepal in anticipation of my father's visit this coming winter. Although I've never used the internet to really reminisce, it's all out there now. Long forgotten photos, blogs, profiles of people you haven't seen in years, images of neighborhoods you haven't run through in decades. Friends that were once close that you'd almost forgotten, girls you had loved and then went your separate ways, beaches you had found paradise on, cities that had invoked wonder, words you had written that seem written by the hand of another. It's all out there.

Often times though it's not about the images, or the words, or the places. It's simply about the feelings they invoked. Sometimes those people, places, or word, you can't even picture or remember them but you can remember how they made you feel. The proud smile of your parents. Turning a corner and seeing the Duomo  in Florence. Reading The Selfish Gene and the epiphany of actually understanding evolutionary theory.  Going up to Namchee Bazaar and knowing that you would return another time. That first girl you slept with your arm around. The moment that you realized there was no good reason to believe in a God. Proposing to my wife and having her not believe I was serious. Some invoked wonder, others joy, and some sadness or laughter. No matter how each one is remembered I find that they all result in the same feeling in the present  a kind of melancholy.

I'm not sure why the past induces such a sense of melancholy. I have very few regrets, while I enjoyed most of it I don't look back at it as my glory days or want to return to them- but still maybe it is just the impossibility to enjoy something in the exact same way as that moment in history. The inability to do things even slightly differently. To be a little kinder to people, to have not let them drift so far away, to have not taken things so for granted, to have been just a little more thankful. Then again all the things that we have done has made us who we are, harsh lessons and all. Some people drift apart, not out of malice or even neglect but simply because you are no longer the people that had found common ground. You remember that the girl you went your separate ways with jumped on your car when you tried to drive off after a fight.

It's always easier to look back with accumulated wisdom and say maybe you would do things differently, but it was precisely those events that gave you wisdom in the first place, and the gift of such events are that you can apply these lessons to your current life. You can remember that you are prone to taking things for granted and try and be more thankful, you can recognize that over time people change and often drift apart, so enjoy those moments when you are in harmony. Be kinder because you've never regretted being kind to anyone for its own sake, and never date Italian woman because they tend to jump on cars and throw things. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Man of Many Hats

I tend to like big wide brim hats, as many of my photos on here have shown, but when it comes to life, it's far to short to wear the hat of a single skill or profession. Recently when I jokingly posted on Facebook about my new acting role, some made a list of all the things I do or have done. When I got to thinking about it, I have actually taken on far more roles than the average 35 year old, and though my skills in a few of these fields is certainly a bit shallow, I've also worked hard and become rather adept at others. I may not be the most interesting man in the world, as one friend quipped, but I have worked hard at a number of skills that I currently combine and use to make for an enjoyable life.

What many of these roles seem to have in common is the act of creation. As someone who was always a very down to earth, athletic and no-nonsense kind of guy it took me most of my life to realize that at heart what I really loved was the art of creation. Be it creating food, or philosophical systems, graphic design, business plans, games, cocktails or exercise regimen what I love is making things and figuring out a better way to do things. The list below of the hats I wear on occasion, while quite varied has a recurring theme of creating something.

Restaurateur:  Somehow I ended up running and owning a restaurant. Not just any restaurant, but arguably one of the nicest in Kathmandu. My role here is one of part manager, part entertainer, part businessman, and part salesman. Talking about or selling the idea of the of the restaurant is something that comes easy to me because I really love it and believe we've put something special together. The other parts are what will make it financially viable and fun for other people to be here, which is the point of creating it in the first place. It also means having a vision for not only creating the place that we have, but having one for where it can go, and how to steer its future. 

Chef: I love food. I've always loved food. My mother tells me when I was a small child I use to ask for blue cheese dressing, and when I turned 5 my Grandmother bought a very large lobster for me. What I love about working with food is how many dimensions you have to work with; there's texture, smell, appearance and taste. Now cooking without financial restrictions can be challenging, but working within the bounds of what is financially viable, works within the menu and your kitchen and then also can be molded into something that can appeal to all those senses is something that is very challenging, and when done well I find very rewarding. Not everyone will love what you make, but I get enough people thanking me for creating the things that I do on a regular basis that I'm happy with what we've put together here. It's a job I really love.

Bartender- I know the trend is to say mixologist....but I'm not a fan of the term. I like making good drinks, ones that a variety of people will enjoy, and I like experimenting with flavors. One of my goals when opening this restaurant was to create a bar where people would order and drink cocktails. Nepal being a beer and whiskey drinking country, many people were skeptical if there was a market for it here, but the cocktails that we have created here have been outselling all else. Who knew Ecuadorian cocoa infused tequila, mixed with vanilla infused bourbon, cinnamon tincture and bit of simple syrup would be so good? Not me until I tried it, but damn those New World Chais are my favorites. 

The Sandwich & Burger Page I Designed For the Grill House

Friday, August 24, 2012

Lights, Camera, Action!

One of the great things about Nepal is all of the interesting opportunities that just seem to drop out of the sky due to the fact that I’m from some far off land. My most recent adventure was in Nepal’s film making industry, taking on the part of an American psychiatrist who has to diagnose a troubled young Nepali girl. How does this happen, you might ask?

Poster for the film PaDHmini that I acted in

I was at the farmer’s market a few weeks back and a guy who use to come there quite often approached me and asked if I had any interest in being in a movie. Now this isn’t all that uncommon in Kathmandu, often foreigners are needed to fill in as extras or small parts for roles where there are white folk visible. With a shrug and a bit of a chuckle I said sure, and the guy asked if I’d like to sit somewhere and discuss. At this point he starts explaining that they need someone to play an American psychiatrist, when he discovers I’m American this is all the better. He’s explaining the roll, and it sounds fine, I’ll be in a few scenes with two separate shooting days. As the role begins to sound more and more complex I kind of stop him and ask;
“I’m only going to have a line or two, and mostly be a prop right?”
“Oh no. You will be on screen for about 20 minutes or so and have 15 minutes of dialogue. You have to interrogate the main characters and discover the psychological problem that the main actress is suffering from”

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Monsoon Trekking: Solukhumbu

I've done more monsoon trekking than the average bear, and I always write about how it aint that bad. Still every time I'm about to do a trip in the monsoon I always buy into the hype a bit and assume it might be a miserable time. Even when I read my entry about The Big Monsoon Lie or what a great trip I had up in the Gosainkund lakes I still assume maybe I just got lucky. Well I just got back from another great trip, with fabulous views, decent warm weather and hardly another tourist on the trail- this time visiting the land of Everest up in Solukhumbu.

Water falls this time of year are awesome 

In the last post I said I was going to try the backside of Annapurna, but as it turns out there are no flights into Humde until September unless you charter a flight. This was a trip with a very small time window due to the schedule of a friend that was visiting and only had roughly five to seven days. The toughest part about monsoon trekking in Nepal really is just getting to the trail heads, as the roads are a mess and the clouds can ground planes for days. We booked flights into Lukla and got out the day we were supposed to, no problem. Just to point out that this is not always the case, the week previous flights had been grounded for five days straight.

Clear views from Namche Bazaar 

The weather was fine the whole time we were up there. On our initial day we got some light rain during the day, but nothing heavy until just as we reached Namche. This pattern, and this being the pattern I've observed every trip, held up the whole time we were up there. Mornings are generally clear and offer the best viewing of the mountains (5:30ish when the sun is first coming up seems to be best), by afternoon some clouds rise up from the valley and obscure the views, and in the evenings you get some heavy rains. Generally if you can be indoors by three or four in the afternoon you don't get too wet. 

Looking down the valley toward Amadablam & Everest

Speaking with the lodge owner of the Khumbu lodge in Namche (highly recommended, place and service is great) it appears that this monsoon is even slower than normal. It's really too bad too, because of my four trips to the region it was easily the most pleasant temperature wise, and the views were as good as my September trip and my first March trip. It was also clear that the rain and clouds were less of a factor the further up the valley you went. Due to time constraints we only went as far as Tengboche monastery this time, but it was clear that the worst of the rain fell south of Namche at the sub 4,000 meter (12K feet) elevations.

Clouds move over peaks east of Namche

As I know this blog often gets searched out for advice on people wanting to (or being forced to) trek during the monsoon period, all I can say is that every time I go I have a good time. Solukhumbu was no different, and as the pictures show we were certainly not denied the beautiful views of the region. Obviously experiences will vary, but the longer I live here and talk to other people traveling and go on trips myself in the monsoon, the more convinced I become that it's not a bad time of year to go up into the mountains.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Cooking for Kings & Getting Back to the Mountains

So posts here have been few and far between, not because of a lack of interesting things happening or things to discuss, but just due to a sheer lack of time. Last week we had a huge 4th of July event that catered to some 200 people (I had expected maybe 50), we had a great Friday night following with a friend of ours, who is a DJ, setting up a good dance party, and then we hosted the former king of Nepal for his birthday on Sunday. By the time Monday rolled around all I could do was lay in bed and sleep- as for the week prior I had averaged about 4 hours of sleep and consumed more alcohol than I’m used to. When every night is a party your life is the opposite of everyone else’s, all you crave is a night where you can get home and go to bed at 10pm and not have any alcohol in your system. With the amount of work I had to do to prepare and get ready for Sunday’s event I had shunned any drinking for at least a couple of days and I’ve learned to start walking around with a bit of cranberry juice with ice in a rocks glass and claim it’s cranberry and vodka so people don’t try to buy me too many drinks. This isn’t a problem I ever thought I’d have.

Grill House owners and staff with the former King of Nepal

While the other events were fun (although the 4th was complete chaos) the royal birthday was a once in a lifetime experience that while very stressful, was something I’ll always look back at as a really great experience. I mean who moves to a foreign country and ends up hosting and cooking for royalty? Me apparently. I also think it may have been a first in Nepal, as normally they are hosted at the 5 star hotels in the city, and not at local restaurants, no matter how nice they might be. So this was not only something completely new to me, but was also something outside of what they normally do.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Missing Trekker in Langtang & a Warning About Trekking There

UPDATE- No sooner did I post this than I found news that the young girls body has been found. My heart goes out to her family. I really hope that someone begins taking these tragic events up in the Langtang region very seriously.

A young Belgian girl named Debbie Maveau has gone missing in the Langtang area. She is 23 years old and was last recorded at the check post in Dhunche on May 30th. She was supposed to fly back home early this month and has missed her flight. If you were recently trekking in the area and saw her or have any information about her please contact the Belgian Consulate at 014432867. I don’t think I need to mention how important time is in a case like this, so please help as soon as possible if you know anything at all. Below is a poster I snapped a picture of in Thamel the other night.

I also want to take the time to offer advice against any travel to the Langtang area for the time being. I say this as someone that has traveled to Langtang on three separate occasions and has greatly enjoyed the hospitality of the local population and the beauty of the region. I also say this as someone who almost exactly two years ago, when Aubrey Sacco went missing, defended travel there as still relatively safe and an isolated incident that seemed out of character of the region. Over the last two years though people continue to still search for Aubrey with very little local support, just last season another American girl was assaulted on the trail, and rumor has it that a Korean girl was also assaulted, though no reports were filed that I’m aware of. Other stories keep coming to me from a varied number of sources that other things are being swept under the rug or the whole truth is not being told. Included in this was a body found in the Helumbu region during the search for Aubrey that was not adequately explained or even told to the public.  Now another young foreign girl is missing.

Although no one, or very few that aren’t talking, know exactly what’s going on Langtang, there is a very clear pattern emerging over the last two years that shows that it is not a safe travel destination, especially for young foreign woman. I still believe that Nepal is a relatively safe travel destination, that most of its trekking trails are some of the best in the world, and highly recommend coming here, but I think it’s clear that there is a problem in Langtang that needs to be dealt with before more young girls go missing. The trail in Langtang is not a difficult one, it is almost impossible to lose, and there are few places that offer a real hazard of falling or getting yourself into trouble in a place where a passerby would not soon find and help you out. This adds to the speculation that whatever is happening is probably at the hands of people with ill intent.

As Nepal, and even other embassies and consulates, are not in a hurry to make much of this information very public, I think it’s important that we get the information out there to reduce the chances of this happening again. People need to be informed of what is going on, and pressure should be brought to bear to ensure that the authorities in the area realize that there will be economic consequences if these kind of cases continue to not get enough attention and whoever is responsible for the problem continues to go free. My heart continues to go out to the family of Aubrey, and now to this girl’s family too. We can hope that both of these girls turn up and are found safe and sound, but until then please think before traveling there until something is done as I would rather this list doesn’t get any longer.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I Love Burgers

It's been no secret that one of my goals in opening the restaurant here was to introduce real burgers to Kathmandu. In a previous post If You Were a Burger in Kathmandu Where would You Hide? I talked about the enormous challenge of doing good burgers in this country, but I am very proud to say that I think we have created definitely the best in the city, and most likely some of the best in all of Asia. Our burgers are already so popular that they overshadow the rest of our extensive menu to a point where I am considering a slight reevaluation of our layout, making the burgers more prominent and  possibly expand the options a bit further.
Our Chipotle Burger- One of the most popular on our menu.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Serious Karma

California is the worst thing that ever happened to Buddhism. Not the place really, but that New Age garbage that seems to have been tagged on to every concept, to the point where the actual meaning of the words and the ideas behind them are unrecognizable from the actual meaning. This may be more true of our basic understanding of the concept of karma than any other that has entered into popular understanding. It may be somewhat unfair to blame just western hippies and media though, as the influx of Hindu and Animist traditions that shaped Buddhism into a religious practice in the east is just as full of nonsense as the crystal healers of the West. The popular understanding of Karma is that as you do good things, good things happen to you, and the converse of bad things is also true. So for instance if you help enough elderly woman cross the road you are saving up some kind of mystical "good" points that might be cashed in at some point to win the lottery. This isn't really even close to right.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Living the Dream

Often times when people ask "what are you doing today" there is a somewhat common sarcastic answer "living the dream". I think I might be able to answer sans sarcasm. I currently own a restaurant in one of the most interesting places in the world, cook food that I love, serve it to people that love it in turn, have an outdoor terrace with possibly one of the best views on the planet, and continually get to meet some really intriguing people that seem inclined to buy me shots of Patron or a New World Chai (my favorite of my creations- Cocoa infused tequila, bourbon, cinnamon tincture). Now I'm not a big drinker, but few people get to hang out and drink with great people and call it work, fewer get make money from it. 

What I see on my way to work is a little different

Sunday, April 15, 2012

16 Hour Days in Murphystan

Murphy's Law: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."

When people first come to Nepal from the West they note a lot of things that mark the differences between the two regions of the world. Really though there is one large difference, and that is that there are no systems or institutions that work in Nepal, where as much of the rest of the world from Singapore to London, well have working systems that make society run. To put it simply, nothing works in Nepal, including the labor force about half the time in my experience. People might take this as a derogatory statement on first reading, and that's up to the reader, but part of this is also what makes Nepal so charming, it's the fact that people are focused on family and personal relationships before careers or becoming professionals at their trade (in the commonly understood sense of what a professional is outside Nepal.) 

A woman at 1905 remarked to me that they should rename Nepal Murphystan, because this truly is a place where nothing ever works and the best laid plans almost always are met with something unexpected going horribly wrong. It's the land of Murphy's Law. The challenge in Nepal is not trying to avoid something going wrong, there really is no avoiding it, the trick is having the resourcefulness and contingencies in place to deal with the almost absurd things that you just can't imagine that always seem to happen. Sometimes it's freak weather coming out of nowhere at importunate moments, it's staff notifying you that they can't work because their father wants them to be at a puja, it's toilets being installed in horrible places because of some feng-shui system that says toilets can't face east or west (you can only poo facing north or south apparently!), or maybe it's deliveries not arriving because there is a bandh, or no power due to a sudden change in the load shedding schedule, or no elevator because the generator is out of diesel (and obviously there's no electricity anyway!). 

Currently I'm trying to get the restaurant up and running, getting systems in place that work, even in a country where nothing else does. It means teaching staff the difference between 25 + sauces that we make that they are all unfamiliar with. I knew this might be tough when I asked for ketchup and got a bunch of blank stares from my staff. I've since put three letter codes on everything, it seems to help. Ranch is now called RNC, gorgonzola dip is GOR, and so on. Due to the way food is prepared here, that things are bought fresh and there is no electricity half the time, much of my staff isn't familiar with using refrigeration all that much. Sometimes I find my cocoa powder in the fridge, but my tomatoes were left out. It's going to take some work, as many of the things we grow up with as common knowledge working in a western style kitchen is just not so common over here.

Also not so common is good food, which I thought would be all upside for us, but it has some drawbacks. See if the population you're serving has only ever eaten shitty versions of what you are making, they might think that what you are making "isn't quite right." Imagine if the only burger and fries you ever had was MCdonalds which is shit (in my opinion), and then you go to a real gastro-pub and have a real burger on fresh baked bread served with real cheese and fries made from real potatoes. The person who has only had MCd's might think the roll is too hard, the burger is too juicy, the flavor of the cheese is too strong, the fries are undercooked, etc. And who am I to say what is good or bad, it's simply a matter of taste but I've come to the conclusion that from my perspective the Nepali  crowd likes their food overcooked, their bread soft and cheap, they like an excessive amount of salt, don't really enjoy subtle flavors, like their sweets extremely sweet, have no stomach for anything sour, and have very small appetites for any dish that doesn't have rice. On that last point, I have halved most portions from what I would do in the US, and everyone is still convinced that the portions are huge. Adjusting some things to fit these tastes might be a bit of work, while at the same time not compromising the authenticity of the food we're making. That said there has also been some pleasant surprises, Nepali's apparently love real Nachos, and the Buffalo wings and Buffalo sauce in general seems to be a big hit. They are also far more willing to try real cocktails than most of my partners thought they might.

On the flip side the feedback from western clientele has been almost universally fantastic . All those things we miss, like fresh baked rolls that don't disintegrate while you eat, a variety of cheeses, beef that isn't over seasoned and overcooked, and all those other flavors and styles of cooking we crave from back home. Despite our ground floor looking like a construction site (well being a construction site), no signage, and little advertising, people are still seeking us out and even after a few attempts coming back to find us. It's really encouraging. 

Days start off making bread and battling with Chinese made ovens whose ignition systems work half the time (and I can't get serviced because no technicians in Nepal apparently want to work and get paid), whose temperature gauges are about 50 degrees C off, and go 16 hours until you guide people down off your tables after they've been dancing on "stage" after one too many jager bombs. Long days in Murphystan aren't without their challenges but real frustration only results from a lack of imagination in what could possibly go wrong, and that is the fault of the one who doesn't give Nepal it's due in that more things can go wrong here than anywhere else. After confiding in me her own long list of current problems she is fighting that was both long and absurd I just smiled at the owner of another restaurant in the Boudha area and we both laughed. It's what we both signed up for and we knew it. In leaving she just saluted and said "Never Surrender!" Never indeed.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Water, Elevators, Opening Night, & Finally Some Photos

So we're kind of up and running! We don't have a full menu yet, but after a very long week of really pushing to get things operational we are mostly there. Our biggest stumbling blocks had been the lack of water and no working elevator (a problem when you are on the 9th floor and the lower floors are still under construction). We were promised both by Tuesday ( we were also promised both by I wasn't holding my breath), but Tuesday came and went with no water or working elevator. On Wednesday we were assured that things would work on Thursday, and despite our skepticism we were told not t worry it was a sure thing. Then there was a problem with the pump, and no water was had on Thursday, but we were told that when the power came on at midnight (load shedding still affects our work greatly) they would be able to pump water. 

Standing by reception looking toward the kitchen

Friday, March 9, 2012

Crossing the Finish Line

The title might be a bit off, as in many ways it's more akin to just getting out of the starting blocks, but the long marathon to open a restaurant in Nepal seems to be nearing completion. Yes it took far longer than I expected, but that said, I'm really happy with the results, and I'd rather have it take longer and come out as we envisioned (better actually) than have things rushed and have compromised considerably. Now we aren't exactly done yet, but we bring full time staff on for training starting Monday, that elevator which has been being put together since November is in test runs, our interiors will essentially be completed this weekend, kitchen equipment is all up and running, final arrangements are being made with sponsors, and everything from China is unpacked. Oh and we have kick ass menu that was printed at full size the other day for the first time.

I forgot how big the type of menu we are doing is compared to what you normally get in Nepal. We are doing ours on A2 paper folded in half, essentially the same as any menu you would get at say something like Fridays, Applebees, and the like. Here though you never see menu's that size, normally it's just sheets of A4 (8.5 x 11). Not only is the menu physically large, but it's contents are almost equally large, and I'll be spending some time over the next week to start teaching staff what it is that they are selling. Most people here are barely familiar with mozzarella, so it will take some training to create a staff that can explain the differences between Gorgonzola and Gruyere. It also means teaching them about our 25 some odd sauces and condiments, which wines go with what foods, and about our rather extensive bar menu.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Wholly Agnostic

A friend of mine recently wrote a post on his blog that touched on the terminology of belief, and he briefly touched upon the terms of atheism and agnosticism (you can read his post HERE), and it got me thinking about how I generally label my thinking, which has over the last few years become entirely dominated by a growing commitment to a very deep sense of agnosticism. (I touched on this briefly in my year in review post HERE). This isn't a rebuttal to my friend's post as I generally agree with him, but more a closer look at what a deep commitment to agnosticism really looks like, and why the term is I think generally misunderstood.

When you say your agnostic most people only think this applies to some ideas about religion, and worse they often take it to indicate that you are kind of on the sideline and haven't looked close enough to have made up your mind one way or the other. In short most people look at agnostics as something akin to undecided voters the day before the some big election....the assumption is that they don't have a great grasp on the arguments that are being presented or are slightly lazy people that just haven't been paying any attention to something that is potentially quite important. This I think though is an unfortunate misconception, and while it may be applicable to a few people out there, I would make the case that anyone that has taken the time to at least come to a point that they are not just accepting what ever cultural stories were put before them has done more thinking on the topic than maybe the average person.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cultural Divide: Why Whitey Doesn't Understand South Asia

I have about 15 posts I want to write swimming around in my head, but just haven't had the time to write them. The restaurant is still not open, but each day we are moving a bit closer. Something I touched on very briefly in a previous post was how the cultural divide between Westerners and people here in Nepal is both not as wide as they first think, but at the same time very vast in areas that we at first do not really comprehend. Mostly this is due to some very fundamental assumptions made by westerners that just don't get Asia.

Back in one of my first posts I listed a couple of things I thought would take a long time to get use to (link HERE), and one of them was skin whitening creams and their kind of creepy commercials. These are found in most of Asia, be it India, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand, China, etc. For us the idea that beauty is dependent on skin color is a bit too close to racism for comfort, and thus we in the west have a hard time often relating to it. But it goes a lot deeper than that. This isn't just a status thing here, many Asians look at dark skinned people the same way we in the west view obese people, just fundamentally unattractive not something that is a slight preference. Most Asians are convinced that westerners have just absolutely terrible taste in woman, mostly because we don't get too distracted by skin tone, for us it's often much more about body shape and facial features. I had a successful friend of mine who was starting to see a guy who was from southern India and somewhat dark, and all her local friends were almost aghast- "he's kind of dark isn't he?". As if surely she could find a more attractive guy with fairer skin, didn't matter that the guy was rather athletic and tall- things most western woman are more interested in. I think they find this equally unsettling as we are so white ourselves.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lights Out: Nepal's Horrible Energy Policy

Last April I wrote about how Nepal's energy policy was creating an unsustainable cycle of gas shortages and crippling availability to energy (article can be read HERE). Predictably we are now in another part of the shortage cycle, and the timing couldn't be worse for the people of Nepal. With temperatures dropping to near freezing at night, we are currently left with load shedding of up to 14 hours a day (and it will soon be increasing to 16 then 18), petrol is scarce and largely available only through non-official channels, and at the same time there is now a shortage of cooking gas. Watching people huddle around burning fires on the side of the road reminds one of scenes from Beyond Thunder Dome or some other post-apocalyptic story, not what one expects to see in the modern world.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mr Smith in Kathmandu Two Years On

Sunday marks the two year anniversary of my arrival in Nepal, and what a two years it has been! If you had told me then that in two years I would be opening a restaurant, selling salsa at farmer's markets, had written a book and forging ahead with some other plans I would most likely have thought you crazy. But even stranger really has been getting to know Kathmandu, and to a lesser extent Nepal as a whole. It's one thing to visit another place, but it is another thing entirely to live in another society so different from where you come. On one level your initial reaction to the more outward differences, such as what seem like crazy driving habits, a very alien religious systems and styles of dress that are very different from where you come from are all overcome by the similarities of a common humanity. This is the "no matter where you go, people are people". But this isn't the whole story. Because although this is definitely true, there is a second level you begin to see the longer you stay somewhere, and that is that, it may be the same but cultural differences and the weight of historical outlooks forge differences in people that are much more subtle than the outward appearances but differentiate us much more.

One of these things that I never really appreciated before is that Nepal is, for the most part, a much more socially tiered society than the casual observer from the west first understands. I mean people in the west hear about the caste system, and we in a vague way understand that it's a hierarchical system, but we don't usually understand the real nature of it. For us I think we instinctively relate it to our most common understandings of hierarchy, so we relate to it in an abstract way with the most common form of hierarchical system that we are familiar with, something like a work setting, where high caste people must be born into something like the bosses position, and low caste folks fill the roles of low end workers. This though is not really the case, and the ways it affects the social currents and the ways that people interact with each other is very complex and although it is a somewhat fading system, it has left a very big impression on the mindset of how people relate to each other. This isn't a judgement statement about this being a good or bad thing, but more just an observation that it is very much something that differentiates the psychologies of natives and foreigners. There are many of these subtle differences that you begin to pick up on over time, and it is increasingly clear that there are some subtle differences that add up to some very different outlooks on living.

Another thing I've noticed is just how small the world seems to have gotten, mostly due to the internet. While you never really forget that you're in Nepal, there are times when I've been in my apartment, and maybe I spent Tuesday morning watching a Monday Night Football game (Monday morning I'll be watching the Pats take on the Ravens) and maybe I'm talking to friends or relatives back home over Skype and then I'll go eat breakfast with cranberry pancakes and maple syrup...and finally I step outside and see woman dressed in saris, and taxis honking as they turn the bend and remember "oh yeah...I'm in Nepal". With information technology what it is and global shipping infrastructure allowing almost anything from back home to be available, back home never really feels all that far away to me, despite literally being on the other side of the planet. 

My two years here have been two very different entities. Both years are marred by months of chasing expensive paperwork, lawyers and bureaucrats for the ever elusive visas, but year one saw mostly a lot of getting to know Nepal and Kathmandu, and  plenty of exploring the different trekking circuits up in Annapurna, Langtang, and the Everest region interrupted now and again by a good amount of writing and trying to find my place here. Year two on the other hand has been almost entirely committed to forging that place, bringing the restaurant from a crazy loosely formed concept to the near reality that it is today. In fact it will be almost exactly a year after Donnie and I first started dreaming this thing up while craving burgers, chicken parm sandwiches, and buffalo wings on a trip up to Everest base camp that this place will open up to the public. In between has been many twists and turns that have kept life interesting, and although this all seems to be taking forever to get put together,when I sit and think how much we've done to go from a vague concept to actual reality that far and away surpasses any initial expectations, I can't help but be impressed, and think that possibly my expectations of things happening even faster were perhaps quite ambitious, even if this wasn't Nepal and things went as slow as they do.

Lastly, some thoughts on this blog, which I have maintained since even before I left to come here. Obviously my number of posts have dropped off significantly since i began committing myself full time to opening the restaurant. I don't see this changing in the near future. When we initially open I can't wait to post pictures of the space (Interiors are going in this week!) and I'm, sure some posts on the menu and such will get posted as well, slightly bumping my post count in Feb and March. But my most popular threads here are mostly about trekking, and I don't see myself getting back in the mountains any time before next Dashain at the earliest due to my obligation to get this thing off the ground and fully functional. I will maintain this blog, and hopefully sometime after the initial crazyness of running this restaurant has passed I'll get to some things that are of maybe greater general interest to readers. Until then, meandering posts of random thoughts such as this one will most likely be the norm. But such is life in Nepal.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I Miss America

Every time I talk to Kim on Skype she asks me if it's cold here. It is- well it's in the 50s and there's no central heating. She asks me if I have electricity at the moment. Half the time I don't. she follows this up with a bit of a have water? Yeah I usually have water. "Well it's sunny and warm in Florida, I have all the electricity I need and the even fast internet" she reminds me. Har har. But despite all this I don't really want to go back. I mean I miss my family, I'd rather that Kim was here, but I also really miss America.

This photo brings tears to my eyes

Not the physical location so much as the ideal, the idea of what America is supposed to be. Because when you really boil it down a country exists only in the minds of people that we all agree that it exists and that it binds us with certain rules. The rules of my country were some of the better conceived in man's history, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, while not flawless documents set out to do something different from those before it- not dictate to the people what rights the government had over them, but it enshrined protection of the people from the hands of the government. If the founders who wrote those documents could see what we are putting up with and allowing now they would be deeply ashamed of us.

Sure, before I was born much damage had already been done to remove us from the true ideals of a free society. At no time have we been pure, be it the acceptance of slavery, the institution of Jim crow laws, Connecticut Blue laws (some of which are almost humorously still on the books), the removal of States representation in DC by making the Senate popularly elected, the suspension of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War, the confiscation of private gold holdings under FDR, the violent crackdown of peaceful assembly in the 60s, and the rise of the public-private partnership of the military industrial complex following World War II were all tings that have at one time or another put a bit of a black mark (or continue to do so) on my country.

Since September 11th 2001, my country has become almost unrecognizable. We have become so deeply paranoid and filled with fear that we have given away all those things which actually made America what it was. Fast forward ten years from that date and we now have to be groped and photographed with X ray machines just to board a plane, and it looks like the TSA will be adding buses, trains, and large public events to that list. Recently three American citizens, including a 16 year old, were assassinated on foreign soil by executive decree. While one of them was most certainly a bad man, we are supposed to be a nation of rules, and not one driven by the whims of men. We knew Al Capone was a bad man, but we couldn't just off him without nailing him by the law. We are supposed to be able to have our day in court, our right to defend ourselves before our peers, the right to challenge the legality of the laws that have condemned us. Just last week in the passing of the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) language was included that allows the indefinite detention of American Citizens on American Soil without charges and allows the transfer of those people to prisons over seas such as Gitmo. The idea of military detention of citizens on American soil is to me abhorrent, but the idea that it can be done without charges and thus not allow the accused to fight the legality of their detention is so un-American as to leave my country almost unrecognizable from its founding intentions.

While it's cliche to say "the terrorists won", what other conclusion can there be? We gave up some of our most fundamental rights, we chased boogeymen all over the globe at the cost of thousands of soldiers lives and trillions (with a T) of dollars, spilled the blood of thousands of innocent people, and propagated more wars out of our growing insecurity. Sure we got some of the bad guys, and some of them certainly were more than legitimate targets, but the way we went about it was misserable. And why are we still even in places like Afghanistan? What the hell is our end game there? We keep trying to build up democracy and infrastructure in these far off lands that don't want it, while our Republic's physical and philosophical structure decay back home. We are spending billions of dollars overseas while Americans at home struggle without jobs.

More damning than 9/11 to me though was the handling of the 2008 financial crisis. No other event by my country in my lifetime left me so disillusioned and angry. It became very clear that our elected officials did not represent us, but were there at the behest of large banking interests that appear to have had not just the billions of dollars that were given out in TARP (something that I think was very wrong) but the Fed appears to have given out some 16 Trillion to both domestic and foreign banks.To give you an idea of how much money this is, it was enough to have paid off the consumer debt of every single American (credit cards, mortgages, student loans, etc.) and still give them $8,000 each just for fun. Not that I believe that's what they should have done, but it would have been better than what they did which was to essentially make our money worth less. Something seems wrong that average Americans are paying 8% on federal student loans while banks are given money at 0% interest.

At what point does the system become so broken and corrupt that our social contract is broken? Our forefathers raised up arms against Great Britain for far less transgressions than the current lot of would be kings in DC now put us under. I don't mean this in hyperbole either. Our tax rates are higher than theirs were under Britain, we have a dismally low opinion of those who "represent us" in DC mostly because we don't believe they do, our civil liberties are constantly being "redefined" and there are now pushes to limit our voices over the internet under the guise of an anti-piracy bill. I'm not some gung ho whack job calling for armed revolt, but if people want things to change there needs to be at least a realization that they didn't have the right to make these rules, and just because they write them down on paper doesn't bind us. They were never properly given the authority to take away what they took- but as long as we all play along they do have that power. I guess if the guys with the guns say it's law though now, it must be law. But that is not America.

Have you seen my country? I don't recognize it any more.
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