Saturday, June 29, 2013

Romeo and Juliet meets Macbeth - a very Shakespearean royal history of Nepal

As it turns out, some of the recent Nepalese royal history has a bit of a Shakespearean feel to it, and the literature lover in me couldn’t resist relaying this tale to you, as it was told to me by our new landlord Deepak over our celebratory dinner/drinks after moving in (Editorial Warning: very real potential of personal bias here in the telling of the story, though I have checked the facts).

In 1950 a child was declared King of Nepal – 3-year-old Gyanendra. Upon his birth he was sent to live with his grandmother after a royal astrologer told his father, the crown-prince, that looking upon his second son would bring him bad luck. For this reason, amid a political plot that saw his father, grandfather and most other royals fleeing the country for India, Gyanendra was the sole remaining male member of the royal family in Nepal. His reign as King of Nepal ended a mere two months later, when his grandfather returned to the country and re-assumed the throne. Now, this is where the theories come into play. There are some who claim that Gyanendra was very ambitious and wanted the throne back – meet our Macbeth. Many years later, in June of 2001, when King Birendra (Gyanendra’s older brother) was monarch of Nepal, his young son, crown-prince Dipendra, became upset with his family for refusing to allow him to marry his choice of bride, a woman from a clan with which his family had a historic animosity – enter Romeo. On June 1st Prince Dipendra, in an alleged state of intoxication, stormed into a royal feast and murdered nine of his family members, including his mother, father, brother and sister, before turning the gun on himself – effectively eliminating every heir to the throne from his father’s line. Gyanendra happened to be away in a nearby city at the time of the massacre; however, his son and daughter came out of the event unscathed, and while his wife was seriously wounded, she too survived. Three days later, King Gyanendra was back on the throne.

However, there are also questions with respect to Dipendra’s true role in the massacre. For instance, his self-inflicted gunshot wound was apparently inflicted from behind. One guard has claimed that Prince Dipendra was, in fact, killed before the massacre even began, and a piece of historical fiction that recounts the events of June 1st from the perspective of the Queen’s personal maid claims that two men masked as the prince were the true perpetrators of the massacre. 

These are officially listed as conspiracy theories, and quite possibly can be attributed to the popularity of King Birendra and Prince Dipendra, and the widespread dislike of Gyanendra, and his son Paras, amongst Nepali people at the time. However, if for nothing else than an interesting example in my mom’s English class next time she teaches one of the great tragedies, I wanted to share this tale.

**Note: King Gyanendra’s effective reign ended for a second time in June 2006 when, amid the final days of a ten year long civil war, Parliament officially scrapped all the major powers of the monarchy and reduced him to a figurehead. Two years later the interim constitution of Nepal officially transformed the state into a republic, and the role of King was no more.

Like any new democracy, Nepal’s republic is still finding its feet. Today the political government has been suspended and a caretaker government of public servants, with the mandate of bringing the country to elections, is at the helm. The most senior public servants are currently occupy the most senior political roles – the Chief Justice is the Prime Minister of Nepal. The election date has now been set for November 19th of this year; however, tens of Nepalese parties oppose this date, claiming that only three parties were consulted in setting the election timeline. Many people believe the November election will be postponed, and we are sure to see increasing civil disobedience and more frequent bandhs (city-wide protests called by political parties that restrict vehicles from driving and shops from opening by threatening retribution, meant to cripple the city) in the coming months. It is definitely an interesting time to be living in Nepal.

Getting Settled

Taryn and I landed at Kathmandu Tribhuvan Airport a little after 8:00am on June 13th. As we exited the plane onto the runway and waited to board the bus that would take us to the terminal we took in the incredible mountain landscape. I couldn’t help but be totally overwhelmed by a mixture of excitement and nerves as the reality of the situation finally sunk in.  To be perfectly honest I had been avoiding thinking too much about it, and at that moment I wasn’t able to any more. Okay, we’re here, I thought to myself. Six months. I wonder how this is going to go. I looked over at Taryn to gauge how she was feeling about it.
            “It’s like we’re in a totally different country,” she exclaimed. I instantly burst out laughing.
            “Actually, that’s exactly what it’s like.”
            “You know what I mean!” I did. And after the 35-40 hour long journey we just took, I could completely forgive her difficulty in expressing herself. It broke the gravity of the situation in my mind though, and then I was just having fun again. I realized that we would be just fine.

Taryn and me in the back of the UN car leaving the airport
The UN vehicle that met us, bright and early that Thursday morning, at the Kathmandu airport delivered us to the Black Pepper Guest House, where four of the six JPCs in Nepal had reserved rooms. While a little pricier than many other accommodation options (at $15/night) it had a great location, at only a 10-minute walk away from the UN compound, and that was a big priority for us. After checking-in, the temptation to just crash was great; however, Taryn and I promised we were going to keep each other awake despite our chronic lack of sleep over the past two days, in order to push through the jet lag and get adjusted to the 9 hour and 45 minute (that’s right) time difference as soon as possible. I have to say,  I think we did quite well on this front, and were trucking along with life in Nepal time almost immediately.

With four days until we were set to start work, Taryn and I managed to pack enough into our waking hours to ward off the threat of napping, including: searching for apartments across the city; eating dinner in the dark due to load shedding (scheduled brownouts that roll across the city to conserve power) at the guest house with fellow JPCs; walking into the city centre with Tanya (another JPC) and her husband Micah to see Kathmandu Durbar Square and peruse the stores of Thamel (tourist district); and even meeting some of our soon-to-be UNDP colleagues for drinks at a swanky hotel with Sean (another JPC who had arrived much earlier and commenced work already).

Early in our apartment hunt Deepak, the owner of the Black Pepper insisted on showing us the apartment he has for rent in his building down the street. We went along to be polite, as Sean had already scouted out this option for us and we agreed that, at $1500/month, it was much more expensive than we were willing to pay for accommodation in Kathmandu.

Have you ever seen the TLC show Say Yes To The Dress? If you have then you know, all too well, that moment when the bride-to-be puts on that dream gown that’s out of her budget “just to try on” and inevitably falls in love with it. Well that’s basically what happened to Taryn and I when we saw this apartment – it was our own Say Yes To The Apartment. Damn it. We spent the rest of the morning with Sean looking at a number of other options with various real estate brokers, but none of which were as nice, as comfortable or as close to work. Then the justifications started…
“You know, I feel like it will be easier for us to adjust to living here if we’re going home to a really comfortable place at the end of the day!”
“I mean, it’s probably not necessary, but it’s nice to know there’s a 24 hour guard…”
“At least all of the rooms are pretty comparable, so it’s not like one of us would have the master and someone else a shoe box!”
“Everything is included as well, you know, not like some other places where we would have to pay extra for gas, internet, the generator…”
“This one would be turn key, we have to factor in the expense of staying in the guest house until one of the other less expensive places would be available, after all!”
“It might be a little more expensive, but everything else here is so cheap. It might be worth it to splurge a little.”

Living room
My room
All met by a chorus of agreements from the others. It was clear that we all had our hearts set on it, but didn’t want to come right out and say so directly. We nonetheless remained in agreement that $1500 was simply way too much. It seemed as good a time as any to test out those bargaining skills we kept being told we would need. After some careful math and budgeting we decided that the absolute highest we could afford to pay was $1100 monthly. We put on our best poker faces, talked about how much more cost effective some of the other places we saw were and tried not to betray how much we wanted to live in the apartment while negotiating the price with Deepak.  
View from my bedroom window

After going back and forth a couple of times we were able to settle on $1100/month – the only thing he wasn’t able to include for that price was the daily cleaning service, which would be an extra $30/month if we wanted it, we assumed we could survive without daily cleaning. Upon agreeing Deepak said the magic words: “You can even move in this evening if you want, we just need an hour or two to do some cleaning.” We happily skipped up to our respective rooms to pack, and within a couple of hours were loading our bags into the Black Pepper’s little red van and moving into our new home. The day before work started, it was perfect to feel like we had somewhere to hang our hats and weren’t going to be living out of suitcases in cramped, shared guest house rooms anymore. Also, it doesn’t hurt that our new place is swanky.

3 months rent -- 315,000 Rupees
Once we got all our stuff into the apartment Deepak invited us across the street to the Black Pepper Pub at 7:00pm for some drinks to celebrate.  A couple of drinks ended up being a seemingly endless flow of beer and food to our table while Deepak regaled us with interesting stories and tidbits of Nepal culture and history.  

He also insisted that we call him at any time, for anything. “If you maybe go out at night some time and you need ride back, just call me! We have this van and we can go pick you up so you all come back safe and together. Really. Call me for anything!” He also invited us to his niece’s wedding later that summer, exclaiming that he thought it would be nice for us to experience the Nepalese wedding with the party and the ceremony. Who could say no to that? These are all just examples of the incredible warmth and hospitality that most Nepalese people have met us with since our arrival, but more on that later. 

Oh yeah, and we ended up keeping the cleaner…I know, I’m never going to be able to go back to Canada. 

View of Kathmandu and Himalayas from our rooftop patio

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Voyage to Nepal

The trip to Nepal is a bit of a long haul…to say the least. For me it started at about noon on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. That’s when I loaded my suitcases into the back of my mom’s Toyota Matrix and commenced the two and a half hour drive from Huntsville, Ontario to the Toronto airport, arriving right on time to get checked in and meet my Aunt Janet for a cold beer and a snack before crossing the ominous threshold of AIRPORT SECURITY. About an hour before the 6:20pm take-off I ended up at the gate and met fellow JPC (one of the total six of us JPCs starting at UNDP Nepal this month), Taryn Russell there. The last name is just one of the many things we share in common, including a Welsh first name, an April birthday and vegetarianism – but I’m sure there will be much more on Team Russel(l) later.

Our Jet Airways flight took off right on time, and landed in Brussels ahead of schedule at just after 7:00am Belgian time. It was somewhere around 1:00am by our time, so we deemed it appropriate to spend our 2.5 hour stopover running to the nearest pub and filling ourselves with a little Belgian beer (all the better to help us sleep on the next leg, of course). And sleep we did, almost the entire way from Brussels to Delhi. I woke up six hours into the eight hour flight, just in time to see Afghanistan and Pakistan as we flew over them, which I’m glad I didn't miss. All in all: everything went smoothly…until we got to Delhi.

The last leg of our voyage – the 1.5 hour flight to Kathmandu – would have to wait the next 8.5 hours to begin. So that was a bit of a bummer, but we were prepared for it. What we were not prepared for was to be pointed in the wrong direction by nearly every single (very unfriendly) person who worked in the Delhi airport. We were told to leave the area we clearly had to go through (international connections) at least three times, sent on a wild goose chase, denied access when we finally came back to the right area because we used the wrong lift, then sent back when the “right lift” wouldn’t work, only to be turned away again. When we finally got through security we arrived in what I can only describe as an airport mega mall that was duty free and numerous other designer and name brand shops. At this point we had been travelling for approximately 24 hours and made the quick calculation that spending the cash on lounge passes was a worthy investment.

Unlimited food, drink, internet access, comfortable chairs and an air conditioned napping room (in the city that was 36 degree when we landed in the middle of the night) soon proved us right. Although the charge for the lounge use was $25 US for two hours, the manager offered it to us for 8 for only $5 more…as long as we paid in cash…and I’m sure the company saw every penny of that….mmhhmmm. We were very comfortable and treated extremely well in the lounge. In fact, perhaps it was a little too well. We were checked in on by the lounge manager every 30 minutes, and the conversations usually went something like this:

Him – Oh you are having a drink, very good. You have everything you need? You are enjoying?
Me – Yes, thank you. Everything is great.
Him – You should have, I think, just a small glass of vodka, with some ice, a little bit of orange juice. You will be very relax!
Now, I’m not usually one to turn down vodka, but it was all just a bit much.
Me- Oh no, that’s okay. Thank you.
Him – Okay? Yes. I make for you!
Me – No, no! No thank you. No vodka for me.

I don’t know if it was just us, but we found the level of service to be…perhaps slightly too intense for our tastes. The icing on the cake was when I peered into the napping room, to see if there was room for me to have a quick sleep. My buddy the lounge manager came up behind me and wanted to open the doors to show me inside. I tried to explain that I only wanted to check if there was room.
         “Yes yes, there is. You should go. You should get rest.” I decided he was likely right, so I went back to our seats and told Taryn I was going to try to take a quick nap. Upon entering the room I found two of the four couches already occupied by sleepy travelers, but grabbed a nice looking spot near the back of the room with a couple of pillows and shut my eyes. I drifted in and out of sleep for a while, and was aware of the two others leaving at some point, presumably to catch their planes. The next time my eyes drifted open I was startled into full consciousness at the sight of a figure bending over me.
         “Oh hello! It is you. I was not sure it was you I did not see you out there anymore.” One guess who that was. Who else did he think it would be? More importantly: why does it matter? “Yes yes, you sleep now. You know you should just have a small glass of vodka with a little ice. It would make you very relax. You sleep.” At this he mimes passing out, which at that time instantly became the last thing I wanted to do.
         “No no, it’s okay. I’m okay.”
         “Okay. I go make for you?”
         “NO. No vodka! Thank you.”
         “Okay,” he nods his head. Then turns his attention to the next thing he can do to serve me. “Here, you see you just cover like this,” he starts grabbing pillows from the surrounding couches and covering me with them. “Then you be very warm and very relax.”

You know what doesn't make me “very relax”? A man I don’t know trying to tuck me in with pillows in a dark room and get me drunk on vodka. After that, it’s safe to say that I was wide awake until we boarded our final flight to Kathmandu. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Mission

Growing up I was never a doll girl. I didn’t spend hours dressing and re-dressing, brushing hair and hosting tea parties; instead, I was all about the teddy bears. When I was young (okay, a teenager) I used to collect bears. I worked at a toy store in high school and the job fed my existing love of plush toys to an out of control level. They absolutely overwhelmed and littered my bedroom, until I inevitably left home for university at 18.

In the near decade since I moved away from home, my mother has been bugging me about what I am going to do with the occupying force the near two hundred bears have become in her basement. I haven’t been able to decide. I didn’t want to sell them, or just bring them to a second hand store. They had been important to me, and while I knew that there was no way I could keep them, either at my mom’s house, or in my apartment in Ottawa, I didn’t want to give them up without good cause. I wanted them to go to people who would love them even more than I would. I wanted them to go to people who needed them. Finally, Mom and I made a deal.

It was Easter weekend 2013 and I was at home, completing an application for an internship with the United Nations Association in Canada to be a Junior Professional Consultant (or JPC) with the United Nations Development Progamme (UNDP) in Nepal. Mom started hauling the bags and boxes of my bears up from the basement and instructed me to take photos of them, because they had to go.

“Bronwyn, how about: if you get this position, you take 10 of your bears with you and give them to kids there that don’t have anything else. Then, the next developing country you go to you take 10 more, and by the end of your career in development your bears will be spread out all across the world?” It was an idea I’m not sure anyone could argue with. And even if they could, I certainly didn’t want to, I loved it. It was the perfect solution to my teddy bear dilemma. I know how excited I used to be as a child to get a toy. The idea of being able to bring that much happiness to that many children around the world was more than I could have ever hoped my bears could be worth.

So the conditional plan was set, and then, as luck would have it, I did get the JPC position in Nepal, and the plan was put into action. In the week before I left the country for the six month posting I gathered all my bears from the basement and selected the lucky ones for this first phase of my Operation Teddy Bear, stuffed them into a vacuum seal bag, sucked the air out and jammed them into the bottom of my suitcase. Children on Nepal, here we come!

Meet “Team Nepal”