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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