Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Krishnamurti: The devil's in the truth

One of the many lovely things about India is the very affordable price of books, which in their local editions run one quarter to half the price of international editions. Browsing a book store is a lovely day spent, even if you have to put back 90% of the books you pulled.

I was relaxing on the balcony of the Schindia Guest House with my new copy of a one volume compilation of Krishnamurti essays and interviews, when I ran across this gem, which I found ironically appropriate for someone just back from 10 days of meditation and full of energy about his experience.

You may remember the story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, "What did that man pick up?" "He picked up a piece of Truth," said the devil. "That is a very bad business for you, then," said his friend. "Oh, not at all," the devil replied, "I am going to let him organize it."

02 August 1929
Dissolving The Order of the Star in the East

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Review: Sita Guest House, Varanasi, India

The Sita Guest House seems a bit overpriced for its river-side rooms, but otherwise a clean and not uncomfortable lodge conveniently located near the central Dasaswamedh Ghat. I stayed in two rooms over a period of 10 nights in early to mid-December 2008, one with a riverside balcony, the other with a view but no balcony. Both rooms were priced at 600rps.

CONSTRUCTION The manager of the Sita, Mr Gokul, asked that I write a review to to be posted at IndiaMike's. I was planning to do that anyway, so am happy to indulge his wish, though maybe not his complete intention. He seems most concerned to let potential customers know that major construction work has finished and that there is no longer any mess or noise. I can verify that there are no unsightly piles of construction material laying about, unless you look on the roof, which is quite an unsightly mess. During my stay some minor work continued and loud banging could be heard throughout the building on a couple of days.

ROOMS I checked-in to a third floor room (second floor for the English) with perhaps one of the smallest balconies in Varanasi, large enough for one chair or two people standing. There was in fact a view of the Ganges, though a rather narrow one. More worrisome than the view was a faint ammonia-like odor that I could never localize and which led me to move to a fourth floor room with no balcony but a much better view. Both rooms came with attached baths. Hot water was available on demand, so long as you didn't demand too much (or no one had turned off the heater to reduce electricity consumption, which happened to me once). Both my rooms had clean floors and sheets, though the furniture was a little dusty. Neither room had a writing desk, just a low table on which to place a bag.

INFESTATIONS The Sita seems to do a reasonable job controlling mice, of which I saw only one. Insects could be better controlled by erecting screens on windows. If you are allergic to mosquitoes, you might like to consider another guest house as it is near impossible to keep them out of your room. There are a large number of monkeys in the neighborhood who are quite quarrelsome and noisy in the mornings, bounding across the restaurant, the balconies, and roof. No one was injured or had anything stolen while I was there, but the guys working in the restaurant can tell you stories.

RESTAURANT I ordered chowmein on the night of arrival and received a plate of greasy noodles. The only thing I ordered after that were hot drinks and toast, which were prepared reasonably well. On one morning I was served by a man with an unappetizing mouth full of betel-nut spittle.

CUSTOMER SERVICE Overall, not bad. Most of the staff greeted me each day with a hearty "Good morning, sir!" No surly grumps or grouches, but you're likely to get a put-out look if you ask for anything out of the ordinary. It took a little bit of persistence on my part, but in the end the manager was kind enough to assist me with a letter of reference for obtaining a SIM card for my mobile phone (which Vodaphone later said they were unable to use to verfiy my residence, resulting in my phone being blocked from making out-going calls). After the letter had been delivered, the manager asked if I might be able to help him by writing a review at IndiaMike's to let potential customers know that construction work had finished.

[A few weeks later when I returned to Varanasi I learned that a fellow traveler I had met on my previous visit had moved into the Sita. She was receiving her room at no charge in return for helping the manager organize and promote his New Year party, and for writing a positive review to IndiaMike's. She had no trouble admitting to this to me.]

The level of local knowledge was exceedingly low. The man at the front desk couldn't tell me where the Pilgrim Book Store is located and had no interest in helping me locate it. The same was true when I inquired about the location of the Kabir Temple. The restaurant and front desk seemed unwilling to run tabs and so you were always having to open your wallet to hand over money for water, or laundry, or internet, or a phone call, quite bothersome for someone staying more than a couple of days.

SERVICES The lobby has a television but instead of being tuned to something guests might find useful, such as the BCC or CNN, it is instead tuned at all hours to movies and television dramas stuporously attended to by a clutch of staff. The lobby also has two computers offering internet access at the horribly inflated rate of 80rps per hour. The rate in the streets just behind the guesthouse is 20rps per hour. Phone service is also available, presumably at similarly inflated rates. The hotel takes two English language newspapers available for customers to read at no charge. A hand-lettered sign just outside the restaurant offers "authentic" Ayurvedic Massage in your room, but one look at the old guy with the betel-nut stained teeth claiming to be the masseur and its hard to imagine him having studied anything Ayurvedic.

Overall, my stay wasn't unpleasant, but neither was it remarkable. If I were to return to Varanasi, I would try another guest house. You may find that it suits your needs, especially the fully-equipped suites with full-balconies offering panoramic views of the river.

ADDENDUM 08 January 2009: My review was for some reason removed from IndiaMike's, so in the forums I added a message to a thread about the Sita Guest House with a link to the review here. Today I received the following email message from IndiaMike's:


Reason: Travel Agent
You have been repeatedly promoting the Sita Guest house on the site. Your account is closed.


I don't think anyone at IndiaMike's even bothered to read my review.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Music, mail, and malls

The weekend's been rather quiet, at least in so far as I've kept my scheduled activities to a manageable few. Saturday evening I attended a small concert of classical music and dance, performed by artists the promoter described as middle rank but who nonetheless gave top-rank performances.

On Sunday morning I went down to the river and watched the people, which on this weekly holiday included many families out for a ritual bathe in the Ganges. Later in the morning I visited the Kabir Temple and was shown around by a PhD student in Sanskrit at Benares Hindu University and a member of the ashram since the age of eight.

This lovely 9th grader (her father looking over her shoulder) politely asked if she could talk with me and practice her English.

Today was mostly business, but what an adventure. The rickshaw driver dropped me at the wrong post office, but that turned out to be not such a huge problem as the one I needed to visit was only a 15 minute walk away. I hadn't packaged anything as I was waiting until I got to the PO to find out what the regulations are. No pre-packing inspection was required, but I found that like in some other countries no packaging services or products were available, except the one I'll describe below, and no stationery shops nearby.

So first thing I had to do was hunt up a box at one of the street-side stalls around the PO, little shops selling mostly clothing, but also a few packaged-food dealers. One of them spotted me and asked if I was looking for a box. He must have seen scavenging foreigners before. He went through a bunch of boxes to find something suitable, for which he asked 50rps, about $1.00. I have him 10.

Then I had to find was some old newspaper for stuffing, which sounds pretty easy, but I had to ask at about half a dozen places. In the meantime, a tea wholesaler offered me complimentary tea. Finally, I found a small general goods shop and was able to buy some packing tape.

I took all this with me to the packaging shop, which was at the time full. I sat outside in the dusty street with all the traffic under a warm sun and got everything snugly and firmly packed. By then the shop had opened up and I could get out of the sun while my box was wrapped in cotton cloth and sewn shut. I asked why this was done.

The man said, This is the way of India.

I understand that. But the question is, Why is this the way of India?

You'll have to ask at the post office, he said.

I never got around to asking that question because as usual in India there are lots of people around, its very noisy, and its an effort just to keep focused on the immediate matter. Fortunately, there was an assistant working the counter, a helper, a fixer, a non-postal employee who spoke English and for a bit of baksheesh took me behind the counter away from the crowds, instructed me in how to fill out the appropriate forms, and took me direct to the man to whom I paid for my shipping. He was a short-statured, bald, betel nut chewing angel from heaven.

I also had to seal and stamp 20 greeting cards and altogether spent two hours at the post office. By then I was feeling a headache coming on. I suppose I thought I could escape to a climate controlled environment, which turned out to be another false expectation, so I hopped a tuk-tuk to the IP Mall, the city's American-style shopping center, complete with a cinema complex and a McDonald's.

Curious about the latter in cow-worshiping India, I walked in to have a look at the menu and found much to my delight the featured item a veggie burger. I plunked down 109rps, about $2.30, for a meal including fries and a cola, an experience not worth repeating. The burger was essentially what we call in Japan a korokke, known elsewhere as a croquette, with the standard lettuce, tomato, cheese and mayo.

Kareena, Kareena, everywhere

I walked around the mall and found a watch shop with a 30-50% sale on. Having nothing but a crappy $20.00 Chinese chrono I bought while on pilgrimage in Shikoku, I thought I'd splurge for a model with a double display (analog and digital, one for local, one for my sweety in Japan) and so bought a crappy $30.00 Indian watch from the Tata group.

Hanging out with my new specs

The mall turned out to be anything but soothing. The climate was in fact controlled, but like most every where else in town the noise was uncomfortable, in this case a stereo with the bass turned up to maximum thumping up and down all three levels.

If there is nothing else in the day to celebrate, there's always the food.


Friday, December 12, 2008

India overload

I don't think I had a virus. At least not a cold virus. No runny nose, no cough, no sneezing, no sore throat. But I did have a small fever and an achy body and spent all day yesterday in bed. The fever broke overnight, I had a good night's sleep, and today I feel tired but much better. I think I just overloaded on India.

I've spent some time in my room becoming familiar with this view of Ganges. It's amazing what you can see - people bathing and doing laundry in the river; tourists out for boat rides; commuters crossing back and forth; a pack of monkeys playing in the temple; flocks of bright green canaries; kids flying kites; devotees practising religious services. Just an incredible slice of life.

Before I was taken temporarily feverish, I was quite enjoying my daily meals at the city restaurants, none of which serve meat or alcohol within the old city and river area. Today I haven't had much but curd and fruit, but am looking forward already to tomorrow's meal.

Soda, syrup, and fresh lime.

A variety of flavors for only $1.50.


Oh, those cards!

I went looking for some greeting cards.

I knew just where to look because I had bought some here last year. So I went to the same shop, which has a small display counter at street level, the main store upstairs. In their street-front glass counter were some interesting looking New Year greeting cards. The old man at the counter said they weren't yet available and would be delivered next week, but they had some other cards upstairs. I went and looked but they were of the tacky Santa Claus and Champagne-bottle variety, so I left empty-handed.

On the off chance that the old guy was mistaken, or more likely just trying to get rid of me, I went back there the next day. The guy at the steet-level display counter takes me upstairs to the main shop and points to the rack I looked at yesterday, a rack I knew didn't have the cards that were displayed downstairs. I explained this and he yelled at the manager, who was sitting behind his desk watching his employees work. I then had to explain to the manager.

Which cards?

The ones I saw downstairs.

Over there, he says, pointing to the rack I've already looked at.

No, theses are not the cards I want.

What do you want?

The cards on display downstairs.


In your glass display case. Downstairs.

He then says something to one of his employees in Hindi and they ignore me. After a couple of minutes and I haven't disappeared, we start again.

So, do you have any new year greeting cards?

Which ones?

The ones I saw on display downstairs.


How many times are you going to ask me the same question, I asked, raising my voice a bit.

He motions to one of his employees to take me downstairs and - guess what? The cards I wanted were right there behind the counter, just behind the display case! All that hassle for something that was right there all along.

What a country. What a people.

Incredible India.


Nepal to India - worlds apart

I left Nepal on the Sunday 07:30 tourist bus for the border town of Sunauli, a 9 hour ride over narrow, rough roads that except for the views in the Kathmandu valley was spectacularly unremarkable.

Bus to Sunauli

A couple of weeks ago when my planning my escape to India, I ran across the Lonely Planet's glowing review of The Glasgow Hotel, which is accoring to the young man working the front desk owned by a Scotsman and was in most respects a decent hotel. However. I happened to be unfortunate to arrive on the night of a wedding party, deafening affairs in this part of the world. It ended reasonably early but then moved out into the streets. Being a small town, it was finished before too long and I actually had a pretty good night's sleep.

I got up around 06:00 and called the front desk to let them know I was leaving and to have my bill ready. No one answered the phone. When I got downstairs I found the two boys working the desk asleep on a bed in a side room. I knocked on their door, but they didn't move. The front door was locked, but I walked down a corridor and found a window without any glass and stepped out of the building. I was several hundred meters down the street before I heard someone say "sir" and when I turned around it was one of the sleeping boys. We went back to the hotel and I paid my bill and went to the border.

Getting checked out of Nepal and into India wasn't a problem but was an experience indicative of the attitudes of the two nationalities. In Nepal the immigration officers were civil. They said "good morning" and while they weren't smiling neither were they cold or rude. On the Indian side there were two guys at the immigration desk, one working, the other drinking tea and reading the newspaper. Neither of them had a word to say and when they finished with my passport they threw it to me across the desk.

Finding the place to catch the bus to Varanasi wasn't hard to do, but this being India a little scam was involved.

India bus stop, complete with stereotypical crippled beggar

There were two young Indian guys corralling foreigners wanting the bus to Varanasi. We were all sitting in front of a little tea shop chatting away the minutes and waiting for the bus, during which time we paid these guys 500 rupees ($10.00) for our tickets. At the appointed time one of them came and got us and walked us to our bus and once we got settled in and the bus started moving the two ticket sellers got on and began asking for additional baggage fees. No one had been told about this previously and we were all quite surprised - and pissed off. There was a lot of shouting. One guy said he wasn't going to pay and he was told that he and his bags would be thrown off the bus and there would be no refund of his bus ticket. So, what to do? Fight with these guys, or pay an extra $5.00? Everyone decided to just pay the money and go on with the journey. Except me. I refused to pay and because I had a small bag - compared with a couple of gargantuan bags that could have held a family-size refrigerator - they let me slide. Small bags are no charge, they said.

Bus to Varanasi

What was so incredibly silly about the whole thing is that they could have just asked for the money up front at the time they sold the ticket. Why wait and try to strong-arm the tourists, generate anger, and invite possible confrontation?

Welcome to India.


Friday, December 5, 2008

Book review: Tsering Art School 2009 Thangka Calendar

Tsering Art School of the Shechen Monestary in Kathmandu publishes an annual calendar of thangka. Typically each month features a reproduction of a thangka by one of its students, printed on heavy gloss and featuring all the most important Tibetan holidays.

This year the calendar is doing something a little different. It features only one painting and 11 detail photographs of a large canvas by the Tsering Art School Principal Konchog Lhadrepa. The thangka depicts Zangdokpalri, the Copper Coloured Mountain of Guru Rinpoche and narrates the magical journey of the great Terton Chokgyur Lingpa to that pure land. One of our students is currently working on a copy of this very painting.

I had a chance to see the calendar this week and it is quite a lovely product, especially for those interested in thangka. This year for some reason, however, Tibetan dates have not been included, as you can see in the photos.

For those of you just tuning in, Tsering is the school where I study. You can order a copy directly from the school. Copies are also available from the Namse Bangdzo Bookstore in the USA.


Audio Postcard: The Blind Ladies Sing

Nearly everyday a pair of blind ladies can be found encamped on a corner around the Boudha stupa playing and singing for money. One provides accompaniment on a hand-drum and sometimes the locals add their own sounds, like the strawberry seller in this recording.

Recorded 13:00, 23 November 2008.

Click here to download the MP3 to your computer.


Lecture Review: Happiness; Matthieu Ricard, 2007

A few days after finishing Happiness I ran into author Matthieu Ricard. The art school at which I study is in the same building as his office at Shechen Monastery, so it's not all that unusual to pass him in the hall or on the stairs. I said that I wanted to thank him for his recording of his most recent book, Happiness. He smiled and shrugged and replied in a self-effacing manner that I must have been bored listening to it.

On the contrary, I found it quite engaging. Marketed as an audio book, the 2-CD, 160 minute recording sounds more relaxed and informal than a reading, as if Ricard were speaking to you over a pot of tea. Highlighted by stories of his travels across the world with the Dalai Lama, whom he serves as his official French interpreter, as well as numerous insights from his study of science and Buddhist literature, Ricard has a simple message, that happiness is not what you own, not your job, not your spouse or family, not your one month summer vacation, nor your collection of rare antiques. Happiness is a state of mind.

We know this is true, he points out, because of the miserable people in the world who by modern standards should be incredibly happy. They have immense wealth, exciting jobs, freedom to come and go as they please, the power to attract desirable spouses. And yet they are unhappy. Conversely, we know people living under very adverse circumstances able to maintain a sense of well-being and equanimity. It is therefore not external conditions that produce happiness, Ricard concludes, but our inner translation of the external experience. In other words, our way of viewing the world makes us happy, or not.

The good news for those that are unhappy, and even those who aren't, is that we're not stuck with the way we view our world. Ricard presents a few simple examples of Buddhist techniques for managing anger, jealousy, and desire, techniques that in no way require one to become a Buddhist or believe in Buddhist precepts. When we get angry, for example, we practice to disassociate from the experience, to see anger as not belonging to the self, not as an expression of self, but as a process happening to the self. In this way we cut off anger from its fuel and render it harmless. (Later on, you might practice by remembering that there is in fact no self, only thoughts, feelings, awareness, will, and form.)

In working with the mind we gradually begin the process of transforming ourselves, of uncovering our potential for true happiness, which Ricard defines as ...

...a way of being that can suffuse all emotional states and help us preserve our balance, our sense of meaning, our desire to live, and give us the resources to deal with the ups and downs of life. It is a way of life less vulnerable to outer circumstances because of its depth and ability to withstand surface conditions.

In realizing this state of happiness, we make the world a better place. And that's not only because we reduce the number of miserable people negatively influencing others. It's primarily because the characteristics of genuine happiness, of genuine well-being, are compassion, empathy, and benevolence. Selfish happiness, the excessive concern for oneself, is not only a magnet for dissatisfaction and suffering, it is, Ricard says, entirely contradictory.

This 2-cd set would make a wonderful gift for nearly anyone, especially those going through a rather rough spell in life. It might help to remind them that feelings are just feelings, something we can look at dispassionately and learn to manage, rather than letting them manage us.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

New load shedding hours

The Nepal government announced its new load shedding schedule yesterday. Load shedding, for those of you who might not be able to guess, is a euphemism for power outage, the idea being that the power company, by turning off the juice, sheds the load on the system.

Beginning today, Nepal will be experiencing 7 hours a day, 6 days a week, without electricity. For those that might be interested, I live in Group 1.

Click on the photo for a larger view, or download the PDF file from the Himalayan Times.

And pass me a candle, will you?


Movie Review: Tibetan Medicine: Compassionate Healing

While the production aesthetics in this introduction to Tibetan medicine are not terribly high, the scriptwriter and producer have made an informative film worth the attention of anyone interested in Tibetan culture or traditional medicine. Included are extensive interview segments with the Dalai Lama and his former personal physician, Dr Tenzin Choedrak.

Men-Tse-Khan, The Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute, is located in the capital of the exile Tibetan government in Dharamsala, India and is both the producer and subject of the film. First established in 1961, the Institute is under the direct sponsorship of the Dalai Lama and carries out its charge of preserving and promoting traditional Tibetan healing arts through the operation of over 40 branch hospitals, a physicians training college, and a pharmaceuticals factory.

Tibetan Medicine: Compassionate Healing begins with basic concepts of Tibetan cosmology and science, in which illness is conceived as a physical manifestation of the Buddhist states of psychological affliction – desire, anger and ignorance – presenting physically as an imbalance of the humors, an excess or deficiency of wind, bile, or phlegm.

In working with the ill, healers employ three diagnostic tools - observation, palpitation, and interrogation. Perhaps the most unique of these is reading the pulse, through which a sensitive doctor can feel small differences in the strength, depth, and regularity of the blood and diagnose disorders in the organs. Doctors also carefully examine urine samples, which they test by stirring, whipping, shaking, pouring, smelling and sometimes even tasting.

Treatment is through the prescription of changes in behavior, the application of hot poultices, moxibustion, acupuncture, massage and other forms of physical manipulation, as well as the consumption of herbal medicines.

The ideal physician is not just a mechanic, but someone who through the application of the healing arts as well as Buddhist philosophy helps his patients achieve physical and psychic balance. As one of the doctors featured in the film notes, a physician is presented with the unique opportunity of achieving Buddhahood through the daily practice of skillful compassion for the suffering patient.

The film continues with an overview of the activities of the Men-Tse-Khan, including it's Medical College, Astrological Center, and its pharmaceutical business. Remarking on the syncretic nature of Tibetan healing arts, first codified in the 8th century CE based on the medical arts as practiced in China, India, and Persia, the Dalai Lama concludes that as a system with a history of incorporating new concepts and methods, Tibetan medicine is ideally suited to for the needs of the present world.

I have so far been unable to locate any information about this film on the web. My copy does not contain a copyright date or production credits. Any references would be greatly appreciated. Despite the claim on the DVD cover, this does not appear to be Franz Reichle's film, The Knowledge of Healing.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Sunday in Shivapuri

Sunday was a lovely day outdoors, my first in some weeks, and a welcome change after nearly 10 days nursing a cold (which is mostly gone now, at last). My classmate Tsering put together a small party including me and two monastic classmates for a trip out to Sundarijal. There we visited the monastery where Tsering stayed when she first came to Nepal from India. We paid our respects to the 90-year old Rinpoche and were then joined by his care-taker, who acted as our guide on a walk through the low hills of Shivapuri National Park.


Audio Postcard: Boudha Prayer Wheel

Captured in the room housing the two large prayer wheels at the temple inside the Boudha stupa wall. The high-pitched voices are not the result of manipulation of the recording but belong to two midgets who work in the room selling butter lamps.

Recorded mid-morning 22 November 2008.

Click here to download the MP3 to your computer.


New application procedures for Indian visa in Nepal

If you've ever had to suffer through the hassle of applying for an Indian visa in Nepal, it might seem hard to believe the process has been improved. Having said that, its probably even harder to imagine it getting worse. The only way the Indians could have gone was up.

The bad news is that India hasn't yet caught up with the rest of the world and begun offering visas on arrival. They also continue to issue visas that are good from the day of issue, and not from the date of entry, which requires many people to have to wait for the last moment to make application. If you're fortunate enough to live in a culture in which efficiency is valued, then you may be able to mail your application, passport and fee to the embassy in your country and have it returned to you by post. If you're unfortunate enough to have to apply for one in Nepal, you'll have to set aside two days for queuing, plus an extra helping of patience.

In previous years applicants had to show up very early in the morning to get a number from the guards at the embassy gate. The earlier you got there, the lower your number, the better chance of getting served early (or at all). During the height of the tourist season, applicants would show up as early as 05:00 to secure a low number. Those more clever and willing to part with a little cash showed up the day before and bought a low number from one of the guards. The gate would open to admit applicants by number at around 08:30. Once on the embassy grounds, travelers then queued in front of the visa application window, which opened an hour later at 09:30, after which the jostling would begin, with people trying to cut in line and move their application ahead of the herd. The line would literally not move for 30 minutes at a time. It seems most applications were processed in the half hour run-up to the noon repast, when the embassy staff would rush to get everything done so that they could get off to lunch. For most applicants, this meant standing in line for 3.5 hours, from 8:30 until just before noon, plus spending 1.5 to 2 hours hanging around outside the gate.

This year the embassy has done away with the numbers at the gate, which means you have to arrive early and queue outside. Once the gates open, you file in by groups of 10 and after passing through security (past which you could easily smuggle weapons) there is now a computer with a touch-sensitive screen, with four buttons: tourist visa, transit visa, and two others related to other types of visas. When you press the tourist visa button, a new screen appears with two buttons: first visit (telex application), and second visit (visa application). Pressing the appropriate button returns a small slip of paper with a number.

When you get to the visa application counter you'll find that the embassy has installed digital sign-boards above the windows. When your number appears here, you can then approach the window and file your application. This makes the process a lot less stressful, as there is no scrum at the counter, you don't have to push past others to get to the window, and you don't have to worry about people jumping queue (so long as the staff is taking applications in order, which appeared to be the case this week). The embassy has also installed chairs in the area in front of the counter, so there is also no longer any need to choose between standing or sitting on the floor for up to three hours.

The hugely frustrating thing that hasn't yet been properly sorted out, though, is that you have to go through this process twice. The first day you apply only for a telex to be sent to the Indian embassy in your home country to inquire if you have been banned from travel in India. For this you must pay 300NPRs (approximately US$4.00). You are then asked to come back 4-5 days later, after the embassy in Nepal has received a reply to the telex inquiry, at which time you may then apply for a visa. Once submitted, you then return after 16:30 the same day to collect your passport.

A word of caution to those making their third or forth application for a tourist visa from Nepal. I met two people (one a Spaniard, the other of undetermined nationality) during my time on queue who had on a third application from Nepal had been denied 6-month visas. They were given 3-months and requested (probably more likely impolitely warned) to apply for future visas from their home countries. Another applicant, an Englishman who was not denied a visa, was called into an office and questioned about why he was making repeated tourist visa applications from Nepal. I also met a gentlemanly soldier from Afghanistan, a 21-year old who had been serving with the New Zealand peace-keeping forces and who was on his third visit to the embassy, having been twice refused a tourist visa without explanation. He was this day applying for a 15-day transit visa, which was again refused without explanation, despite having been promised one by the head of the visa section when his second tourist visa application had been refused.

It appears the embassy staff may be screening applicants more carefully, but by not informing the public of new policies and procedures it also appears to be acting capriciously. If there is any chance at all to do so, it may be better to apply in your home country and avoid unexpected outcomes in Nepal.


Movie Review: Metse (The Life), 2007

Metse (The Life) is not likely to win any awards, except perhaps in an amateur film contest. It tells the story of a Tibetan refugee family growing up in south India, a simple film about simple life and the everyday problems of work and raising families.

For a film produced by and featuring Tibetans, it is surprisingly free of Tibetan issues and concerns. Grandmother mentions after moving to the big city how strange it is not to have any stupas in the neighborhood around which to make the daily kora, or circumabulation. The son and his future wife come together because they are the only two Tibetans at their college. When the children play hide-and-seek with their toy guns, they play Chinese and Tibetans. Otherwise there is little in the film about about being Tibetan or refugees. There is no politics, no religion, no mention of the Dalai Lama, no depiction of discrimination or the legal hassles of being a refugee. Metse could be about almost any family in the developing world.

By international standards, the film's production values are low. A microphone pokes into the corner of a frame, edits jump, a younger version of the father appears late in the film, the same theme is played repeatedly between scenes, music is performed on an anemic synthesizer, ambient sound is noticeably absent in a few scenes, the actors are stiff, the director replaces the epilogue with a text summary, and the script is sprinkled with cliches about the sacrifice of parents for children and the value of family.

Despite its faults, though, Metse manages, perhaps through naive earnestness, to maintain a bit of charm. I almost gave up about a third of the way through, but by the halfway mark found myself wanting to find out what happens to the characters. Nothing really does, which adds a touch, I suppose, of verisimilitude to a rather run-of-the-mill family drama.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

"For greed all nature is too little."

Three violent deaths in two stores marks the opening of the American Christmas shopping season. Read the details here.

So much death this week related to the divine.

The title quote is from Seneca.


Friday, November 28, 2008

New specs

This week I picked up my new glasses.

Lens grinding being a technology that is about 400 years old, I assumed glasses could be made effectively and a bit cheaper here in Nepal. Last time I was at the clinic for a stomach infection I asked about glasses and was referred to what I was told is Nepal's top optometrist, who gave me a complete eye exam for US$20.00. The good news was that my current glasses were still good; that is, my eyes hadn't gotten worse. My glasses had, though, after three years of daily use, so I decided to order a pair of progressive lenses for everyday use and my first pair of reading glasses.

The progressive lenses were ordered from Singapore and I am after three days still getting used to them. The idea with these lenses, if you haven't heard of them, is to allow the user to see clearly at far, middle and close distances by building a lens that gets progressively stronger from top to bottom. In use, this means that you have to get used to looking out of the top, middle, or bottom part of the lens for objects at progressively closer distances to your eye.

The first day using them gave me a headache. The last two days have been fine and I find it is easier to get used to using them while stationary than while moving. Walking is particularly challenging, particularly when you want to look at the area around your feet; the bottom part of the lens is for reading and doesn't provide clear focus on the curb, which requires a little extra bending at the neck.

Haven't yet much used the reading glasses but look forward to the opportunity to put them to use. I should get a chance to do that next Sunday, when I take a 7-hour bus ride to the Nepal/India border.

Oh, and the cost. Both pair, including frames, was 10,750NRS, or US$137.00.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Music: Kutumba (Nepali folk)

There are across Nepal hundreds of unsung folk musicians living and playing in towns and villages. Perhaps the most high-profile group is a 7-member outfit known as Kutumba, who describe themselves thus:

Kutumba is a folk instrumental ensemble, group of seven professionals from Kathmandu. Having come together for the preservation of their culture and art, Kutumba wishes to spread love and joy of Nepali folk music throughout the world. Self motivated and self driven, Kutumba is a group with their own unique sound and vision.The seven members have different roots and backgrounds in music. Kutumba is the harmony of traditional roots, culture and new sounds.
Their music may not be so easy to find outside Nepal, though there are a couple of online sources. For those of you interested in sampling their sound, here's one track you can download from their latest release, which is already a couple of years old. The group is still active and will be playing a free concert next Saturday as part of the celebrations of the anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.


Kutumba official website.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Movie Review: We're No Monks; Pema Dhondup, dir; 2004

We're No Monks is a 128 minute feature film about the making of a Tibetan terrorist. The debut project from a Tibetan writer/director staring a mostly amateur Tibetan cast, it is at best a watchable movie. The main character is well drawn and acted and generates some interest and empathy, but the remainder of the cast is rather one-dimensional, the film is overlong and drags in the middle, and except for the last 20 minutes there is very little sense of drama or suspense, just four lads, exile Tibetan slackers trying to find their way in the world of the Tibetan exile capital of Dharamsala, India.

Writer/director Pema Dhondup produced a multi-layered script featuring a writer/actor rehearsing a play about an act of terrorism against a Chinese diplomat, a mute who lives through his video camera and whose footage is intercut with the main story, and a final mission in New Dehli with a clever misdirect. It's too bad he left in all the silly stuff in the middle, with the kids getting drunk and stoned, chasing after white girls, and being harassed by the Indian cop who seems to never sleep and to be on any street corner where the boys show up.

Party delek (and don't forget to invite the white girls)

Tell me when I'm nice. I don't like me when I'm angry.

Give Dhondup credit for the effort that went into making a film about the modern life of secular NRCs, Non Resident Chinese, in the Himalayan Indian hill town of Dharamsala. It's easy these days to make money off the Dalai Lama or Tibetan Buddhism, maybe not so easy to tell the story of how a young man could be turned into a suicide bomber for Tibetan independence.

For a tauter film with similar themes, see Paradise Now.