Bridging U.S. and Nepalese Operations: Ongoing Adventures

By: Laura Schmitz

Namaste and Happy Belated Tihar!

Last week, I was able to experience Saree shopping and festival in Nepal.  Both were awesome! On Monday, I started out my second work week. I was able to do some more training and quizzing with our new hires in the morning and then we took the whole crew out to lunch. It was fun to get everyone out of the office together! After lunch, Sunny took me Saree shopping. She’s a pro. We went in and out of stores and she negotiated and filled me in on the types of fabric I was looking at and all that went into a Saree. It’s actually a pretty complicated garment. You pull out the hanger and there’s a long bolt of fabric, usually very intricate, with beading, sequins, etc. Some come with additional fabric for the blouse, and some don’t. In addition, you need a petticoat for it to attach to so you don’t unravel as you’re walking around, as well as stiffer fabric along the bottom so it stays in place. I was completely lost and could have never done it without her. I found a beautiful blue Saree with red and gold beading and fabulous multicolored hem. First problem: it came with red fabric for the blouse, but just enough for a size 0 person with no, you know, upper body augmentation. After some… tsk, tsk… and back and forth, out came the measuring tape. Sunny is under strict orders to keep those measurements between us! It was a slightly humiliating experience since I had no clue what they were saying, and I was about three times taller and wider than the woman doing the measuring, (I thought she was going to have to get out a stool) all the while with a grim look on her face and a tsk, tsk after each measure! At any rate, Sunny kept on negotiating and filling me in on the cost and what they needed to do to make this thing work for me.  At the end of it, all of the people in the shop were very nice and assured me that it would be ready by the 24th. I wanted to wear it to Rupi and Susan’s wedding the following week, so this was good news!  It’s actually the first garment in my life that will be fully tailored; even my wedding dress was off the rack with just a few nips and tucks. I still have no idea how to put it on correctly, but at least I’ll have it.

After shopping, it was back to the office to check in on everyone’s projects and to see if I could help. I settled down to work on materials and courses for the certification program that we’ll be rolling out at the beginning of the year for both our internal staff and our customers. I’m very excited about this project and continued to work on it throughout the week while everyone was with their families for the festival; that is when I had internet and power. Not many people know that most Nepalese in Kathmandu go without power for up to 16 hours per day and only have water for 1-2 hours per day.  Fortunately, in the hotel this isn’t usually the case but due to the festival, power was at its breaking point, so we had outages for 2-3 hours at a time. My internet card is through one of the largest providers in Nepal, but it too was unreliable during the festival, which I’m guessing was because so many people were trying to use the network.

Tihar is actually a five-day festival with each day set aside for a different purpose. However, everyone is off from work to celebrate the three days, and that started on Tuesday. On Monday, leaving work, traffic was even worse than usual; everyone was doing their last minute shopping for their feasts, decorations and lights.  We sat at a standstill for 20 minutes while one guy on a motorbike parked and went about shopping on the curb, returning to his bike to tie up a bag and then leaving for the next thing. It was maddening! The third day of Tihar is called Deepawali and includes a blessing of the dog and, in the evening, an extraordinary festival of lights. Everywhere, you could see dogs with Tikas on their heads and necklaces of marigolds. Apparently, they get very special treatment as well. It was cute.  Despite a full festival schedule of their own, Samar and Sunny took me out to see some sights on Tuesday morning. We started out at Boudha, another extraordinary Buddhist stupa and a really cool neighborhood. The stupa is surrounded by a little town that is reminiscent of a European street and blissfully there are no cars, motorbikes or anything else making noise in there.  We walked around and stepped into a monastery that was gorgeous with an incredible statue of Buddha. Buddhist art, monasteries and temples are extremely colorful and cheerful. We also walked through and spun a gigantic prayer wheel. The stupa itself is beautiful and monks and other faithful people can be seen prostrating on wooden planks to the all seeing eyes. There are beautiful flower beds, with colored water surrounding it all, and of course the colorful prayer flags strung all the way up to the top of the stupa and surrounding it all. There were also a great number of pigeons, much to Arza’s delight. We watched and fed them while they flew in and out and bathed in the children’s pools that they’ve set out for them.  By this time, I had become her new BFF so the rest of the day she held my hand and wanted to sit on my lap or have me hold  her, it was fun and reminded me of home with my friend’s kids and nephew who are around her age.

After Boudha, we went to the most important Hindu temple in Nepal and one of the most revered for Hindus everywhere, called the Pashupatinath. The whole temple is dedicated to Shiva and there are shrines to Shiva everywhere. We walked along the outer grounds, as non-Hindus aren’t allowed into the temple itself. Again there are monkeys and another fun sight, the Sadhus, or holy men who have given up all material goods and wander around looking for enlightenment and preach. At the temple, they try to make money posing for photos with tourists and they cajole you to do that every time you pass by.  This is also where cremations happen. Out on the banks of the holy river, Bagmati, there are ghats were the dying are laid out on the river, some of the water from the holy river are put in their mouth and when they pass, they are burned on the wooden pyre right next to it.  There were several fires burning and one family was preparing a ghat for a family member while we were there. It’s a pretty sobering site. Unfortunately, the Bagmati is fairly polluted, but I did see a monk bathing a bit down from the ghat, as it’s still the Nepalese equivalent of the Ganges in India, very sacred. I also saw a wall reminiscent of Mayan architecture here. It’s fascinating to me how there are common threads between ancient places like these that were so far away from each other. 

We then headed back toward Lazimpat and stopped in at Hotel Shangri-La for some lunch. It’s definitely the definition of Shangri-La there, a beautiful garden area with a pool, and to Arza’s delight, some fish in the pond! I appreciated Samar and Sunny’s insight on these important places and felt like I got more out of it than I would have had I gone alone. I was so thankful for their taking the time to spend with me on a festival day. They dropped me off after lunch to meet with their families and begin their celebration.

I hung out at Manaslu for the afternoon watching them prepare for the evening. In addition to everyone hanging lights outside, this night calls for a special offering to the goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.  Every home and business puts out an intricate design of marigolds, flowers, rice and butter candles with a path leading inside to essentially invite her in to give her blessing of wealth. I headed out to Thamel that evening for some dinner and to see all of this festival stuff in action. I certainly went to the right place. As soon as the taxi turned in, I could hear the singing and bands. All of the lights were amazing; it was Christmas on steroids! Part of the festival fun was the groups of children, and in some cases men, who were walking around with instruments and stopping at doorways to sing and receive money and sweets (that’s the Halloween part). I headed to a rooftop restaurant to watch all of the festivities while I ate dinner. Now, as I’ve mentioned, Thamel is quite the crazy place; there are wires upon wires strung up and tangled in impossible balls essentially just pinned to the sides of buildings.  This makes for a precarious situation on normal days. Now, add EVERY building with long strings of lights hanging a foot apart as far as the eye can see, and something is bound to break. Sure enough, as I was waiting for my food, I heard a loud BANG! and saw sparks flying everywhere. And then the whole place went dark. I mean, the WHOLE place, all 12 blocks of Thamel. The extra surge and pressure on the delicate balance had caused a main breaker to burst. Of course, I was on a roof top and the only way down was a dark stairwell. There is no light from anything except little butter candles and headlights. I was wondering how this was going to work. But in true Nepalese fashion, about four minutes later, everyone had their generators up and running and most of the place was back in business, full lights and all.  A friendly, good looking man from Iceland came up and sat at my table to chat while I had my coffee. He was interesting and correctly guessed that I was from Minnesota based on my accent, but if I do say so myself, I think he was hitting on me! He wanted to “show” me around Thamel. I obviously declined while pointing to my wedding ring, but I’ll admit, I thought to myself “Girl, you’ve still got it”.  Now, he might have had every intention of just robbing me and leaving me in an alley somewhere, but I’ll stick with the fantasy.

After dinner I set out to walk around a bit and take in the festive atmosphere on the street. I watched some kids singing and playing their instruments, and shelled out some rupees for the entertainment.  Then I came upon a couple of men creating this gorgeous mural on the ground out of colored ochre and rice. It was amazing how quickly they were able to create such an intricate and beautiful mural of what I’m guessing was Lakshmi. Every shop had their offerings set up and I sidestepped to avoid crushing them while also trying to avoid being run over by a motorbike, rickshaw or taxi. I felt like I was dancing.  Everyone started shutting things down earlier than usual, so I headed back to Manaslu where I spent the next couple of days in the garden, reading, working and roaming around the little neighborhood for souvenir shopping, dinner or just to chill out with some tea or coffee. Some of the cafes had groups of guys playing cards and gambling, which is also part of the festival fun. The last day of Tihar is for brothers and sisters to bless each other and give each other gifts. Many shops were closed or shut down early to participate in the event and throughout the day, as I walked around, I saw men with their Tikas or blessings on their foreheads, some more intricate than others. It’s a very heartwarming ritual. 

Everyone at Avionté returned back to work on Friday, although the whole town still seemed a little sleepy; things didn’t really get going again to normal until Sunday. After a great day working with the team, I was able to meet with Sanjeev at one my favorite places in the neighborhood around the hotel, Hemingways. I tried out Gorkha, a Nepali beer, and it was pretty good (not so great the next morning after a few) but good all the same. We hung out for a while having momos and beer while I learned more about Nepali culture, families and the caste system. Apparently it’s a favorite activity to come up with mneumonics for popular name brands as well. Marlboro stands for “Men Always Remember Ladies Because Of Romance Only”, and I thought that was pretty funny. It was so nice of Sanjeev to spend his Friday night with an old lady like me, and I had a great time.

On Sunday, Sandeep, Suleja and Kershon picked me up to head out of town on a new adventure. We stopped and got Samar, Sunny and Arza to check out some of the villages in the hills. I was surprised to see Sandeep driving. I think it’s pretty impressive that he can switch between the States and Kathmandu craziness, complete with driving on the opposite side of the road. I still try to get in the driver’s seat sometimes here. I don’t think I could ever get used to driving on the wrong side of the road or car much less switch between the two throughout the year. The drive out of Kathmandu is very interesting. There is so much to see, and it’s hard to know where to look. Every square inch is occupied by a rice paddy, farm, herds of cows or goats and there are ducks and chickens everywhere. The housing is incredibly colorful, everyone seems to be at least three stories but up to seven or eight levels and the architecture is so interesting, intricate and unique. Sunday is also apparently laundry day, as every house had laundry drying on the balconies, hung between trees and in some cases over the bridge railings. Our first stop was in the town of Panauti, a really quaint village with a number of temples, some dating back to the 13th century. There are two rivers that meet here and while we were there some sons were involved in a memorial ritual with a Hindu priest in front of one of the temples.

We also took a stroll around the museum they have there. It’s full of artifacts dating back to the 14th century. In fact, we all touched a temple rock from the 1300s. It was pretty cool. The temples were very intricate and beautiful and the houses have these impossibly tiny doors that I peeked into when they were open. The hallways and stairwells were just as tiny, I kept trying to picture myself living there, I’d have permanent bumps and bruises all over my head and forehead, I’m sure!

After touring around and taking some pictures, we hopped back in the car on the way to our next destination, Dhulikhel. Now you may have seen TV shows showing the precarious mountain roads in Nepal, and it’s all true. Even though we were on a relatively good road, and I’m sure in the scope of the Himalayas, people would laugh at my white-knuckled grip on the door as we went around the twists and turns. It was a wild ride! Sandeep even passed the slower, laden down buses full with people (they were packed inside, full on top and people were hanging on the sides with goods and wares from town). I mean, there’s barely enough room for one lane as it is and guardrails are non-existent. If his friends, wife and son weren’t also in the car, I might have thought he had it out for me! J As we kept winding our way up, we came upon this humongous Bronze statue that looked golden in the sun of Shiva. It was a really awesome sight. Samar joked that it was Kathmandu’s answer to the Christ statue overlooking Rio, but I think it might have even been bigger.

We arrived at a beautiful mountain resort nestled in the hills to have some lunch. We climbed the stairwell and found quite a wonderful place. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and you could see the Himalayan mountains, and all the while we were surrounded by thousands of marigolds, flowers, trees and multiple terraces to walk through and get the best views. It felt so good to be out in the fresh air, away from the city, and even the kids seemed to just relax and take it all in. We had a leisurely lunch and figured out exactly which mountains we were looking at; each one of the peaks has a name. It was a really enjoyable day.

On the way home, I had the opportunity to meet Suleja’s parents and was invited to have some tea.  They are a wonderful couple and showed me all around their gorgeous home. Her mom is also a gardener, so the garden was beautiful. It’s fun to see how people really live when you’re in a foreign country. I really appreciated their having me. I’m also grateful to Samar, Sunny, Sandeep and Suleja, who took time out of their busy schedules to show me around and gave me the opportunity to see more of Nepal.

Despite all of the great experiences I’ve had, homesickness has to rear its ugly head every once in a while. This is the longest I’ve been away from my husband in 19 years. Thank goodness for Skype; I’m not sure either of us could do it otherwise. Then there’s the spoiled American in me like when there was no hot water at the hotel for five days, I thought I might lose my mind. Add in the persistent loss of power and internet when you’re trying to get stuff done, and the nerves really start to kick in. After a particularly long day yesterday, trying to connect without success for most of it, I went to grab a cab home. It was the height of rush hour traffic, which means that a fifteen minute ride will be at least one hour if you’re lucky. Of course, every taxi that drove by was full, as I was waiting on one of the busier streets in town. So I walked four blocks to try to get better luck. I finally found a taxi about an hour later but then had to haggle back and forth for ten minutes before he’d agree to take me back for less than $13 (a typical ride should cost around $2-4). Anywhoo, I was mad about the principal of the whole thing since I was still going to pay about $8 after the final deal just to finally get home, praying the hot water was fixed. Then we’re putt-putting along and the guy’s car stalls.  Right in the middle of another busy street! Neither one of us could even get out of the car for 15 minutes as there were motorbikes, buses and other cars right next to our doors in dead stopped traffic. So then he finally gets out and tries to get some help to push/jump start the thing! By this time it had been almost two hours since I started my journey home. I tried to get out to flag down another cab, but he and the guy helping him push yelled at me so I just sat there fuming. Finally he got it jump started and we were on our way. I arrived three hours after leaving work. Oh how I miss hopping into my Escape, cranking up the tunes and driving 10 minutes on a perfectly paved highway with lanes and everything!

One thing I promised myself coming here was that I would not have any beef with respect for the culture, even though most restaurants offer it.  After that ride, I was tempted to have a big ‘ole steak to soothe myself, but I held off. I think it unimaginable that the restaurant staff would have to make and serve me something that is so sacred to them. I have found that I get all stressed out about some of these simple things, like when the power was out at the office for 10 minutes, I was raving around like a lunatic and everyone else was like, it’s only 10 minutes, what’s your problem? I forget how fortunate we are in the United States to have all that we do and take for granted.  At the same time, I am envious of the Nepalese who don’t take anything for granted, particularly their families and culture. Family always tops their list and even without power, hot water, paved roads or other comforts, they do seem happier than most. I suppose that if we could get a little bit of that type of prioritizing back in the U.S., 10 minutes without power or internet might be less of an issue for people like me too. 

I miss my family and friends terribly and will see you all soon. Happy Thanksgiving! It definitely means a little bit more to me this year!

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