2013 June
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It’s a shame!

I always thought I can get by with my Hindi in Nepal.  Nepal, though a small country, is culturally rich and Nepali is very different from Hindi. I can understand few words here and there when people speak Nepali. People do respond to me when the interaction is limited to buying things or asking for directions. People involved with commerce know Hindi more than other people. My interaction is with farmers and septic tank cleaners. They don’t seem to give a damn about Hindi as my interaction is about my research related to water and sanitation. Knowing local language not only helps me with my research, it helps me connect better with local people! I am sure any human being will appreciate the effort one puts into learning a local language! Also, Nepal is a country I will keep visiting my entire life! The country and its people are simply wonderful!

I was listening to David Sedaris’ book “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls” where the author talks about his travel experiences and mentions Pimsleur, Michel Thomas, and Lonely Planet phrasebook. He makes an excellent point – these days we don’t even give a second thought to the fact that English is not an universal language. We expect people to speak English everywhere, which I would like to call it as linguistic oppression! When people of the new country do put in an effort to communicate in a language which we know, we rarely complement them by saying “Your English / Hindi is good”!

It is time for me to start a new venture – Learn Nepali! Yes, after my fugacious affairs with German, French, and Spanish, it is time for me to pick up a bit of Nepali. Nepali script is same as Hindi and Sanskrit i.e. Devnagari. There are many common words shared between Hindi and Nepali. I am hoping that Nepali will not be as difficult to pick up!

Nepal Course book and Kathmandu Map

Learn Nepal and roam around Kathmandu!

I went to Saraswati book Center (north of Pulchowk, west of Krishna Galli) and picked up the above book “Nepali in context, a topical approach to learning Nepali”. Nepal has very good maps. Since it is a country whose economy is very much aided by tourists, the options for maps is numerous! I just decided to start with a pocket map of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Though there were several options, I decided to go with this “Sadhu smoking Ganja” version! There are many Nepali radio channels to help me hone my language further! The adventure is about to begin! Stay tuned!

This photo is edited!

“This photo is edited!”, “Did you make any changes to the original?”, “The photo should be termed fake since you used Photoshop!”, “I appreciate truth more than illusion”! Yes, my friends sound like philosophers, activists, and art connoisseurs! I want to use this blog post to answer their questions. The answer may not satisfy the people who raise those questions, but this post is an effort to make people aware of my perception of the genre of photography I am into.

I am not a journalist, a reporter, or a documentary photographer though I admire all of them. My interest in photography is, to a large extent, limited to capturing the beauty of the interactions between humans and their surrounding environment. Ideally, I want to be a photographer who captures the dialectic nature of human-environment relationship – the way humans alter their surroundings and how those surroundings respond back to that change. But for now, all I am doing is, having fun with light! I am very new to photography and I am figuring out what type of images drive me! I will not be a great photographer, but my effort put into learning photography will help me appreciate what goes into creating good pictures! (if you want to know the answer, it is money!)

Photography is an art. Just as an artist chooses the type of paper, color, brush, texture, perspective, and the subject, photographers also make decisions on the type of lens, focal length, aperture, shutter speed, composition, light, and subjects. To print a photograph in colour or black and white is also a conscious choice! Photographers have to manipulate different elements of photography, blend the science and art of photography to evoke the emotions they felt when they witnessed the scene! Yes, photographers are selective. They want to show the world what moves them. Since a photograph is usually viewed in the absence of the photographers, it is very essential for the photographers to guide the viewers to the message in the photograph. Many a times, the message may not carry the same intensity that the photographer felt! When the valley is viewed from the mountain top, the sheer energy it takes to climb the mountain adds to the experience. The exhaustion is not easy to factor into the gorgeousness of the photograph!

Part of the novelty comes from introducing a different light, increasing the vibrancy of colours, changing the point of view! Instagram is a success because it introduces elements that make us nostalgic! The deliberate distortion of the reality, if we may call it so, is part of the real deal! Ansel Adams introduced new printing techniques to create better photographs which have not been termed fake or misrepresentation of reality! Light whacking, light leaks, lens flares and tilt shifting are hardware based, with software alternatives, light manipulation setups to create novel photographs. Wide angle lenses, telephoto lenses, macro lenses, fish-eye and almost every lens other than a 50mm prime lens should be discouraged if photography is all about depicting reality! Even then, a camera will not be able to capture the reality, the objective truth we are seeking – the pursuit is so esoteric that a camera, a photograph or the photographer will not be able to complete it!

Almost all of my photographs are post-processed using Lightroom, Photoshop, or Photmatix (only for HDRs), sometimes a combination of these tools. I will continue to use these post-processing tools as they will help me correct the limitations of cameras and also apply my creative thinking, however primitive it could be! Photography, according to me, is quasi-discursive! Just as we choose a set of facts to construct a story that appeals to different people, photographers use a set of tools to construct a reality (yes, we all construct realities that suit us, realities that help us defend our behaviours and personalities!) seen through their lens and mind. Even documentary photographers cannot be objective. What they frame and don’t frame is very subjective, and for many, this choice of framing can be obfuscation of truth!

Part of the inspiration and substance to my understanding and belief in post-processing of photo comes from David DuChemin’s book – “Vision and Voice”. I love the introduction where the author says:

We’ve grown up being fed the lie that the camera never lies. So if “the camera never lies,” is our starting point for objectivity that any manipulation of the negative can only introduce corruption into the process? But that’s the problem, isn’t it? The camera tells any lie we ask of it. Or any truth, for that matter. It’s a tool, no more objective, really, than a microphone. Wielded by Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s a tool of truth and justice; wielded by a corrupt politician, it’s a tool of spin and propaganda. A tool. No more. No less.

The deeper my forays into digital photography, the more I am sure that there are three images that make a final photograph: the one you envision, the one you shoot, and the one you develop.

The complete introduction can be read on Amazon’s website. Click on “Look Inside” icon and scroll down to “Introduction”

Here is a photo my friend took:


And here is my post-processed version of the photo:


Fixing Things

I wonder how many among us nowadays really have the patience to find a place, if at all it exists, to fix a broken zipper in your jacket, to get the backpack restitched, find a new sole for your worn out shoe? When the microwave oven stopped working in my previous house in US, the landlord asked us to chuck it and said that he would buy us a new microwave for the house. Yes, buying a new one is cheaper in USA than getting it repaired. But when industrialization with automation and outsourcing makes it cheaper to import a goods from China cheaper than getting the goods repaired in the same town and helping your neighbour make a living! I am also living in an era where the commodities that I buy don’t carry the real environmental cost – I just pay for the processing cost and the profit. So when I chuck it, I create the need to dispose the stuff and also the need to mine for raw materials needed to make the new stuff. This action has only one consequence:  I help corporates accumulate profit while passing on all the environmental costs to poor people in poor countries.

Fortunately, I currently live in Nepal, a country where people still fix things instead of chucking and buying new ones. Stitches on my backpack had come off – a $30 High Sierra backpack. I went to Mangal Bazaar near Patan Durbar. I kept missing this shop. People had directed me to look for this shop which has a board clearly indicating that it is a bag repair shop. The shop also fixes leather jackets. I enjoyed walking in that narrow alley, getting distracted by beautiful doors and windows. After walking back and forth, I finally found the shop.
The shop was not to the main road, but slightly inside. That’s why I kept missing it. It was a cavern with wooden frame entrance painted in brown. Bags and suitcases were hung outside to give people an idea of what all things are repaired in that shop. A board in Nepali announced that it is a leather jacket spray repairing center. I walked into the shop to find a lady who was getting her purse and black jeans fixed. She haggled down the price from 40NPR to 30NPR giving this look of “are you crazy or what?” in her tone during haggling. The front table had zippers, runners and all sorts of bag related teeny tiny things strewn all over. I gave my bag to the tailor explaining the problem. He in turn handed it over to a guy who appeared to have hairs dyed with henna. In 10 minutes my bag was fixed and that too for $0.3! The tailor earned a living, I saved money, and together we worked conserved a tiny bit of environment for our own good!


Why should roads be wide and linear?

If you travel by foot on the streets of any of the old cities of India, say Varanasi or Old Delhi, you might feel claustrophobic because of the narrow roads, with houses standing tall on either side as if they are people watching your every movement. If you look a little further along the road, you might see those houses closing in on you. You might feel flabbergasted and to some extent frustrated by the twists, turns, and abrupt endings of the roads. Roads in these places are not named or  paved, sidewalks, if they exist, end into surprise potholes,  neighbourhoods are not clearly marked, and there is no logic behind the house numbers.

Postal addresses usually consist of the name of the addresses, care of (C/O) some prominent person in the household (who has lived there for such a long time that the postal worker or neighbours can easily recognize the name), house number, name of the house (yes, houses in India usually have names), cross and main (if it exists), a landmark close to the house (mostly in the same lane), a temple, mosque, church or other landmark in the neighbourhood, name of the neighbour hood, Stage / Phase or Block number, name of the city, state, and a PIN. Some addresses may need two envelopes to write them fully 🙂 In few cases, number of words in the “from” and “to” addresses written on the envelope might exceed the words the in letter the envelope is carrying!

Asian cities have survived because of the long-standing co-operation among its people. The human interactions built these cities and now these cities are in turn facilitating those interactions further. The lifestyle is built upon the personal connections between people – the grocer, the milk man, the vegetable vendor, the rickshawwallah, the neighbours… I remember the days when we shared newspapers and magazines, we used our neighbours fridge to make ice-creams, watched Ramayan and other mega tele-serials with everyone on our street on one and the only colour television in the street, learnt to ride a bicycle and motorcycle from our uncles, borrowed bicycles from not so well acquainted people!

I like the way my friend Ayan Ghosh puts it:

I think the reason I love old cities is they have more crosswords. Each crossroad asks questions, makes you stop, take a decision and stick by it. In every lane we discover new things and think what did I miss on the other lanes? I must come back. I must give more time. This is why I have never enjoyed planned cities. They are too linear, too defined. You just walk from one end to the other and you have seen it all. But life is more like an old city than a highway.

In 2008 I travelled around  India for 12,000 miles on a motorcycle without a GPS, just a road atlas. I had to stop at major intersections, talk to people, watch out for diversions. It made me develop a deeper temporal and spatial awareness. In US I travelled with my parents for 9,000 miles without asking for any directions, without speaking to a single human. I never had to bother about the surrounding. Technology disconnected me from my surroundings. Of course, nobody forced me to use the GPS, but sadly there will not be any human soul around to give me directions if I get lost! Today’s technology can easily isolate people if we don’t know how to wield it properly and fall head over heels in the name of individuality. We like the pictures and status updates of our friends instead of having a chat with our family members who are right next to us. The age is of video games and not of the games that teach us to interact with real humans and build sportmanship!

Roads don’t have to be wide if all can walk to our workplace, to our schools, and to the market. Roads don’t have to be linear,if the towns are small enough! Roads don’t have to connect every place on earth if we don’t develop the greed to over consume – everything needs to be big – airports, roads, hospitals, schools, and office spaces, when we lose track of life and indulge in a lifestyle that focuses on money and exotic and extravagant consumption! We have fallen for the definition of development which epitomized – concrete roads. Concrete or asphalt roads don’t have character – one doesn’t see the colour of the earth beneath, smell the soil when it rains, feel how slushy the road gets when it absorbs water, experience the crumbly nature of the road when it dries up! Paved roads, when badly designed, which they usually are, reduce water percolation and thereby deplete groundwater reserves. Wide roads are for a society where a huge SUV is occupied by just one person, linear roads are for people who are not interested in talking to other people in the society, door numbers is for a society where people don’t want to spare time for each other! Wide roads are for people who are in a hurry to reach the workplaces where they don’t want to be, to do the work they don’t like to buy the stuff they don’t need!

Small is beautiful!

A Walk in Kathmandu

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Motorcycles in Nepal

Automotive industry is not well developed in Nepal. Almost all vehicles are imported. Insurance and hefty road tax add up to the import cost and make owning a vehicle in Nepal very expensive. I am planning on buying a motorcycle in Nepal and here is a small report on my finding.

  • You get almost all the motorcycles that you can buy in India
  • Royal Enfield bikes are in huge demand
  • Motorcycles in Nepal are 2.5 times as expensive as they are in India.
  • You can ride your motorcycle from India to Nepal but have to pay tax to the government daily
  • If you want to buy a motorcycle in Nepal, you need a no objection certificate from your embassy in Nepal
  • You can use Indian licence to ride a motorcycle in Nepal (a motorcycle rental company gave me this information)
  • Because of the bad roads, motorcycles in Nepal need frequent repairing

I am planning on buying a used motorcycle. I tried asking my landlord and my colleagues to see if anyone they knew is selling a motorcycle. When that did not workout well, I tried Hamrobazaar (meaning our market), the craigslist of Nepal. I am not sure how reliable the sellers are, but the site is very popular among Nepali people (and hence reliable?). The site has a good listing of used motorcycles. Also, one can find many dealers of reconditioned motorcycles in Kathmandu. This is not a common sight in India. These dealers usually provide you two weeks of warranty. If anything is wrong with the motorcycle, they will fix it for you. They will also get the paperwork of insurance, transfer of registration (a blue book in you name), and bank loan done for you. Of course, buying from a dealer is more expensive. But you will save a lot of time and hassle as you can check out many motorcycles at once. I am planning on getting either a Bajaj Pulsar 150cc or TVS Apache 160cc.

The value of the motorcycles in Kathmandu is a function of following parameters:

  • Lot number (usually corresponds to a particular year). I believe the current lot number provided by the department of transport is 52.
  • Number of kilometers on the bike – many people get the meter changed – so this is not a reliable parameter anymore
  • Accidents – whether the vehicle was involved in any accidents
  • Overhauling or reboring of the engine – a good mechanic should be able to help you with identifying this.

When you get the motorcycle, check for the following things :

  • Cosmetic damages
  • Brake pad / shoe wear
  • Tire treading
  • Battery – keep the brake light or headlight on for ten minutes and try starting the engine.

It is hard to judge the quality of the engine but the quality of the clutch play, acceleration, and brakes can be judged by riding the vehicle for 10-15 minutes. I came across this page which you may find very useful – http://matadornetwork.com/trips/how-to-travel-nepal-by-motorcycle/

Happy riding! God speed!