Hello friends! Did you miss us? Awww thanks… we miss you too! It’s been a while since we posted on the blog, so you are probably wondering what we’ve been up to.
In fact, we’ve been up to a lot! For nearly two months we’ve been living in Kathmandu, Nepal. Chiara started her volunteer position with Build Change in March, and they were nice enough to set us up with an apartment in the city. Tarick has been keeping himself busy with sightseeing and trekking. On the weekends, we’ve been taking trips to more far-off places throughout Nepal.
Kathmandu is starting to feel like home. The people of Nepal are so warm and welcoming that it’s easy to get comfortable here. Tarick visits Chiara for lunch every day at her office. We’ve done a good job of exploring our local neighborhood and discovering our favorite restaurants, bakeries, and coffee shops. We occasionally socialize with Chiara’s co-workers, and have met many cool and interesting people here. Time has really flown by, and it’s hard to believe it has been nearly two months already. We have really enjoyed our time here and we aren’t ready to leave! It’s easy to see why so many expats find themselves sticking around Nepal for as long as possible.
However, we still have a few more adventures in Nepal to look forward to. After Chiara wraps up her volunteer position at the end of April, we will spend two weeks trekking the Annapurna Circuit, before moving on to India in mid-May.
In the meantime, here is an update of what we’ve been up to the past six weeks.
Volunteering with Build Change
While in Nepal, Chiara has been volunteering full-time with Build Change, a non-profit organization that promotes earthquake-resistant design and construction. She has worked with them a few times in the past, so was able to settle in quickly. (In graduate school, Chiara interned in their Haiti office and while working in the Bay Area she volunteered remotely for their Nepal office with a small group of engineers.)
The office in Nepal is big with around 100 employees, split between the home office in Patan (Kathmandu) and field offices throughout Nepal. They have programs for construction of new housing and retrofitting of existing housing.
In March, Chiara wrote a guideline document for shoring (temporary support of buildings during construction, demolition, and in post-disaster conditions). This month, she’s working on engineering guidelines for the retrofit design employed throughout Nepal.
Chiara plans to write a more involved post about Build Change, so we’ll leave it at that for now!
Living in Kathmandu
We are living in the Kathmandu suburb of Lalitpur, known historically as Patan. Our apartment is right down the street from the main Build Change office. Patan is a much more chilled-out and calm place than central Kathmandu. Lots of people are working and living here, and quite a few embassies are located in Patan. Overall, it is a very “walkable” and “livable” neighborhood, with a nice preserved old-town and numerous religious sites.
Lunch at Chiara’s office is a highlight of every day. They make the Nepali staple of Dal Bhat (lentils and rice) along with a rotating selection of sides throughout the week. They provide lunch for the employees (and at least one of their spouses) at a very reasonable cost, and it is nice to have a tasty, filling, and reliable meal each day.
We joined a board game group that meets on Thursday nights, and have met some fun Nepali people and expats. They call themselves “The Settlers of Patan” which is an absolutely perfect name for a board game group based in Patan.
There are many good Nepali and Western restaurants in our neighborhood. Surprisingly, the pizza in our area is quite good.
Our guesthouse comes equipped with a kitchen and dining room. We make breakfast every morning but we mostly eat out for dinner. Tarick has cooked dinner a few times and has tried his hand at a few Nepali dishes, mostly various types of potatoes…
For the most part, we’ve been real teetotalers in Nepal. Alcohol is quite pricey here relative to other Asian countries. However, we did find a liquor store that does cheap wine by-the-glass on Friday nights.
Celebrating our Anniversary
Hard to believe it has been more than one year since our wedding on March 10, 2018. Even though this trip around the world has been the best honeymoon anyone could hope for, we still decided to get out of town for a nice weekend by ourselves to celebrate our anniversary.
On Friday, we took a taxi to the small town of Nagarkot on the rim of the Kathmandu Valley, which is known for its nice views of the Himalayas. The plan was to stay there for one night, and then hike to another small town called Dhulikhel a short distance away.
The road to Nagarkot was in rough shape and the town itself didn’t quite meet our expectations. Sadly, the weather was too hazy to see the Himalayas, and the town of Nagarkot is not much more than one road with a string of hotels along it, positioned for optimal views of the mountains. However, we did enjoy the vibe at our hotel called, “The Hotel at the End of the Universe”. After dinner on the first night, we watched a slideshow of our wedding album, and got to relive all those amazing memories.
The following morning we hiked from Nagarkot to Dhulikhel, a journey of roughly 6 hours (15 kilometers). The trail goes through rural villages and terraced landscapes before terminating at the slightly larger town of Dhulikhel. Surprisingly, we encountered very few other hikers along the way.
The town of Dhulikhel was much nicer than Nagarkot. It is a real town with shops, restaurants, and a bus stop. We were also charmed by our hotel, “Gaia Holiday Home”, even though it was on the pricey side for Nepal, but we thought it was okay to splurge on our anniversary. This time we got great views of the Himalayas from our room, which was appropriately called the “Everest Room”.
The following evening we took a bus back to Kathmandu. It was a very relaxing weekend, and nice to experience some nature outside the “big city”.
The Hindu festival of Holi is popular around the world. The festival involves getting together with a bunch of people and showering each other with colored powder. We even celebrated together back in our Davis days.
However, Holi is one of the biggest and most exciting holidays (Holi-days, get it?) in Nepal, and being here for the mayhem was another experience entirely.
On the morning of Holi, we walked from our apartment to the Patan Durbar Square, with a posse of Chiara’s co-workers and their friends. All of us were decked out in white t-shirts and thrift store clothes. Walking the streets on Holi is dangerous business! Children are hiding behind every corner with squirt guns and water balloons hoping to douse an unsuspecting tourist. Watch out above you as well, because people are standing on the rooftops of four-story buildings dumping buckets of water on the people below.
When we arrived at the main square, it was jam-packed with people. The crowd was mostly young Nepalis, and there was dancing, a DJ, and live music. Of course, we joined in the fun.
Our group was particularly popular with the Nepali people. Most people, though not all, would ask politely if they could splash us with a bit of color. However, once they got our permission, they would enthusiastically smear handfuls of color powder from our ears, to our cheeks, to our necks. By the end of an hour, we were completely covered in a rainbow of colors from head to toe.
We escaped the busy streets briefly for a quick lunch at a rooftop bar. Then we carried on to a garden party at a restaurant near our place. Everyone we met was in a festive mood, and it was a fun and exciting day. Even though weeks later, we were still cleaning colored powder out of ears with Q-tips!
In March, the weather was unseasonably cold and snowy in the Himalayas, and as a result many popular trekking routes were closed or severely limited. I (Tarick) had planned on a longer trekking trip in March, so I was going stir-crazy due to the trail closures. In order to find inner-peace, I decided to do a three day Buddhist meditation retreat in Pokhara.
Nepal borders Tibet, and Buddhism is the second major religion here after Hinduism. The influence of Buddhism is apparent in many aspects of Nepali culture, so much so, that the distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal is not always clear. For instance, those prayer flags you see everywhere are a Buddhist tradition. Also, did you know that the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in Nepal?
I arrived in Pokhara a few days early to explore the city, which is popular among westerners and Nepalis alike, as a cleaner, more scenic, and less crowded alternative to Kathmandu. The tourist part of town is located along the shore of Lake Phewa. From the town, you get great views of the Annapurna range, and the iconic “Fish Tail” Mountain. Every morning, you can witness a colorful stream of para-gliders descending from a nearby hilltop and coming to land in grassy meadow by the lake. The day before the retreat, I took a boat across the lake and climbed the steps to the famous World Peace Pagoda.
The retreat was held at the Ganden Yiga Chozin Buddhist Meditation Center in Pokhara. There were 8 other people attending the retreat besides myself. The daily itinerary included: three vegetarian meals a day, two Hatha Yoga sessions (one in the morning and one in the evening), two guided meditation sessions, two teaching lessons from Buddhist monks on the tenants of Tibetan Buddhism, and an hour of group discussion.
It was very interesting to learn more about Buddhist beliefs, which contain a lot of practical applications for how to improve your own life and the lives of those around you. Buddhism teaches you to reduce suffering and increase happiness in all “sentient beings” through compassion, detachment from desire, and separating your mind from your ego. Even if one only partially succeeds in following the tenets of Buddhism, which are difficult enough as it is, it can still improve your outlook on life in a positive way. Besides, increasing happiness, reducing suffering, who can’t get on board with that?
Chitwan National Park
Chiara’s mother, Halina, decided to surprise us with a visit to Nepal in late-March. After getting her settled in, we took a weekend trip together to Chitwan National Park, located in the Terai region in the south of Nepal, a place famous for rhinos, tigers, and bears, oh my!
The Terai is a very different landscape from the rest of Nepal. The terrain is flat, with dense jungles surrounded by grassland. Chitwan National Park is a wildlife preserve set in the Terai, and many people flock there to see elephants, rhinos, sloth bears, wild boar, spotted deer, crocodiles, birds, and the elusive Bengal tiger. And yes, we saw everything on that list except for the sloth bear and the tiger!
We did very little planning for our trip to Chitwan, so we were glad when our hotel offered us an all-inclusive package to explore the park that included: a sunset wildlife hike, a canoe trip down the river, a jungle walk, and a jeep tour of the park.
During our various tours, we witnessed an impressive array of wildlife. Although, it was difficult to get good photos with a cell phone camera. Most impressive perhaps, was a rare wild elephant sighting, that even got our guide excited. The park also contains a breeding center for domesticated elephants and crocodiles.
Worth noting, is that the park was immaculately clean and natural looking. They even count how many plastic water bottles you are bringing into the park, and make sure you have the same number when you come out. The military also diligently patrols the park, due to the ever-present threat of ivory poachers to the rhinos and elephants.
Nepali New Year in Bhaktapur
As you probably gathered from reading about Holi, Nepali festivals are insane! Nepali New Year was no exception. Chiara was able to celebrate Bisket Jatra in Bhaktapur, a famous city of the Kathmandu Valley.
Bhaktapur is known for its ancient architecture, crafts, and CELEBRATIONS! It holds the largest celebration of Bisket Jatra, a new year celebration on the Nepali calendar. (Here they use both the Gregorian calendar (2019) and the Nepali calendar (2076)).
One most exciting parts of the festival are watching a beautiful and rickety chariot be tugged around town on ropes and the raising/lowering of two very tall poles. A large crowd gathers to watch the lowering of the taller pole, which two teams on different sides tug with all their might to bring over to their side. No one but Chiara seemed to be overly concerned about being under the pole when it landed.
More to Come!
Stay tuned for more blog posts about Nepal. Tarick just returned from trekking in Langtang Valley and we are off to Annapurna next week.