Nepal's Banksy was here!

Nepal's Banksy was here!
Strong message, Simple words

Friday, 31 October 2014

Tales of the supernatural and an old breakfast favourite fits the budget.

After nearly four months of living in Nepal , local eating times are still a bit of a mystery. The day starts early and one of the first sounds to pierce the morning stillness is the hiss of pressure cookers from 4am onwards. It is still dark and the cock soon starts its morning chorus followed by the not so tuneful man clearing his throat across the street. Night times have been quiet compared with the constant racket of the city, but recently we have been woken by a horrific howling/screeching noise which sounds like nothing we’ve heard before. Definitely not a bird noise, not even the biggest Little Owl could produce such a din, or the mating call of a fox which can be pretty frightening. No, this is a few more notches up the decibel scale, in fact Frankenstein or Dracula come to mind. Whatever is causing the sound the town dogs respond with a barrage of howls making me realise it’s not all been part of some nightmare.

First signs of the rice harvest getting underway

Back to the more mundane topic of meal times, and local eating habits. This is a farming community and even the local junior school headmaster has his milking buffalo, which he likes to gather grass for early in the morning. Schools and many offices don’t open until 10.00 allowing employees to do their basic stock tasks before work and again at the close of the day since work will finish by 5.00 pm. A cup of sweet milky tea will start the day with biscuits.  Then comes the chores, often followed by a long walk or bus ride to work. Depending upon the logistics of the day daal baat will be eaten before 10am., and one of the common greetings here is ‘khaanaa khaane’, ‘have you eaten.  This diet of rice and lentils literally drives Nepal along. A young man of 17 I talked to whilst visiting a local farm proudly said his family of 5 ate a kilo of dried rice each day. At the time he was carrying a 30kg sack of rice 2kms back from the mill and claimed to have carried up to 60kgs. The up side is that this family only needs to grow 365kgs of rice per year, and can sell any surplus.

A couple of colleagues at a small dairy get stuck into daal baat

Not for the faint hearted! These men finished breakfast with a
mixture of fresh lime, salt and a chopped, whole green chili.

So to for the volunteer.  He or she may have to take a longish bus ride and then walk for  between one and three hours to work at a rural school or visit a farming community. Breakfast is an important meal but cooking rice, daal, curries and pickles needs practice if it’s to be done under an hour. Our answer to this starch demand is ‘Porridge’,  flavoured with local honey.  Oats are not available in Besisahar, other than in expensive plastic containers. Simple rolled oats with much of the bran still attached are available in the city at £1 per kilo. We bring these home and store in our useful blue rodent proof containers we brought from the UK. Water and oats are boiled and continually stirred, left for a few minutes, off the heat, to complete their cooking and dished up. No salt needed just a large teaspoon of local honey. The Milijuli Agricultural Cooperative where 100 women beekeepers produce the tastiest set honey we’ve found, have asked for advanced apiary courses to be facilitated, so that’s a happy coincidence. 
Oats, water and a spoon carved by one of my sons back in the UK,
and porridge is underway.

Most pans are aluminium, as is the kettle.

On with the honey. This time we were using another local non-set
brand. Wild honey, collected high up on rock faces is available but
its rich flavours take some getting used to.

For those with a long walk to work, a sel roti and more honey are the
next course. Like a doughnut this roti is a fried batter ring. Must be done
in very hot oil.

Mustang apples and black tea to finish. Yes that thermometer is reading nearly
25c at 6.30am!

Fruit is always available in the bazar and is seasonal.  At the moment apples from Mustang, our neighbouring district, small green Nepali oranges with lots of pips but a great flavour, and the ever present bananas fill our fruit bowl. Apples are priced the same as UK and so are popular but expensive, whereas the oranges are about 35p per kilo. Bananas,  strangely are sold by the dozen and cost about 50p. Our in-country allowance is 21000nrs which is based up local costs of living, and equates to £130 per month, each. We it find to be adequate. One of our personal challenges of living the volunteers life, is surviving and even flourishing on a far lower income.  Gone is most of the meat, beer and chocolate. And down has come or weight!!

Over the coming weeks as well as our tales of work and everyday life we will also blog about our other culinary experiences and include some recipes. Rick Stein look out!!!

A friendly face along the path. The scarf  has many uses. Folded
and worn to shade the head is one.

More signs of harvest. Winter woollies are worn at 26c.

That scarf being used again.

For those who know him my brother Nick seems to have
found his way out here, complete with Glastonbury headgear, locally
known as a 'topi'. Needless to say I have one!

An evening shot of Lamjung Himal, and Annapurna 2 with
ripening rice in the foreground.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Dashain, Pings and Problems

Its natural, beautiful, rugged and its also a huge problem. That's the Nepali landscape. People travel thousands of miles to trek in it and provide a valuable source of national revenue. Yet the inaccessibility presents a huge challenge to everyday life, and to development. " Why is that a problem?" I hear you ask. If you cannot easily get to villages leave them alone and they will stay in a time warp. But they don't and they can't. An isolated house may not have running water, may be a two hour tough walk from the nearest secondary school but it could have a television dish and all the male members of the family working overseas.

A village isolated on the hillside

If it has to move, then carry it, Jude meets a porter.

Equine transport still an essential.

We are in the festival season of Dashain. Its now that families return to their home villages to celebrate and renew relationships. The paths and tracks are full of family groups and individuals making that return journey. Bright colourful clothing and the traditional forehead adornment of rice and tika, worn by returnees, seem more akin to a trip next door rather than the reality which may be a 3 hour gruelling slog to a village 900m up in the foothills. Together with the tika, new shoots of maize seedlings are worn in the hair, or behind the ears, giving the whole occaision a fresh earthy feel. As we wonder through our neighbouring villages its not long before we are swept up in the festivities and given the full treatment.

A group adorned in tika return to their home village

Forehead tika and maize seedlings are shown off

The yellow tika is worn to remember relatives who
have passed away.

Judith gets the full Dashain treatment

Another Dashain tradition is for villages to build huge swings, or 'pings' as they are called. Long, readily available, bamboo poles form the main structure and all, young and old are happy to give it a go.

A ping of different design

Pings in action!

Beneath this happy festive veneer lie problems the roots of which are in rural inaccessibility and poor youth job opportunities.

In the two family groups shown above there are four men working in the middle east. Their work is in the hotel trade and transport and they have not been able to visit home for two years. The social consequences of such a scenario, coupled with the high financial costs of migration, amongst many other issues make the real benefits of migration hard to quantify. But the costs are easy to see.

The burden shouldered by the women, and old folk who remain, is huge. The food production system of using terraces and irrigation is driven by a massive human effort. Once the cereals are harvested they must be carried for further processing or sale. Since terraces are easily damaged by wandering animals and land ownership fragmented, livestock farmers gather forages daily to feed their tethered stock.

I don't think that anyone imagines that these isolated rural communities should have a growing population. So there will always be some movement to the cities. The need is to retain a core of young people who can maintain the population numbers and continue this way of life. The huge question is How?

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Late rice harvest and putting ticks in boxes.

The monsoon was late and dry when we arrived in July. The last of the muddy paddy’s had been transplanted with young rice seedlings and now in mid-October the new crop is eagerly awaited. Across Nepal and in our district Lamjung, subsistence farmers want to fill their rice stores and plant the next crop of potatoes, cabbage, cauliflowers, beans or wheat. The rice berries seem to be filling and yet those late planted crops have still not come into ear.

Berries fill and the rice harvest in near.

 Small holders we have talked to are keen to stress they grow all their own requirements of rice, which is unsurprising since terraces are everywhere from the valley bottoms to high on precipitous slopes at 2700m. It is only here that rice gives way to millet as the favoured crop followed by potatoes which will be planted in late October or November – hinting that we must be in for mild winters as these tubers are not frost hardy. But this late harvest will affect crops next spring.

Two young women carry bags of rice.

Old and young women and men can be seen carrying bags of rice to and fro suggesting they must be buying or selling as stocks run out. On our evening walk we find those deductions are far from correct as we stumble across a block built shed with the sound of electric motors and chatter coming from the open door.

Not just a job but also a social gathering

Rice dehusking

Final process, polishing rice

A dusty mill worker

Rice, when thrashed from the straw, cannot be eaten until the husk has been removed to reveal what we know as ‘brown rice’. This type of rice is not eaten in Nepal, or most of Asia, until it has undergone the polishing process which quite successfully removes any hint of protein that the rice has to offer. So in this shed we witnessed the usual social gathering of women who had carried the rice to be milled. Unprotected ‘v’ belts zipped round, dust filled the air and settled on clothes but there was a moment for the women to rest and watch before carrying the heavy bags back to their homes.

The pressure cooker features in our kitchen, along with a 'silantaa'
a stone used to crush ginger, garlic and spices.

From early morning to late evening the sound of pressure cookers can be heard in every household as equal measures of rice and water are cooked for the daal bhaat. Once the cooker has given one hiss of steam and been taken off the heat for a few minutes it is done. Rice is the starch staple here but potatoes do feature as a popular veg. curry. Maize, millet, wheat and rice are also ground and the flour used for Nepali roti’s and momo’s a sort of little stuffed pudding that resembles a tiny pasty that is steamed.

Maize is ground to flour
A small isolated shed at 2700m.

A hint at the sheds contents, the mini mill race.
In the shed a water powered mill stone. The stone
is about 2 feet diameter.
Undaunted by a lack of rolling pins I was interested in re-living my student days by making a few roti’s to vary the diet and compliment Jude’s delicious daal. A small steel bowl found in all Nepali kitchens with wheat flour and some cold water was soon home to my freshly kneaded dough which I formed into a long sausage and divided into five golf ball sized lumps. Using an old beer bottle I rolled out each ball, rotating the disc between each roll but being careful not to turn it over. My dry frying pan was really hot as I carefully placed the roti into it and the tell-tail signs of small lifting bubbles happened almost immediately. I flipped the roti once and then to finish it off carefully lifted it out of the pan and placed it on the naked flamed where it blew up like a newly inflated tyre. My roti was cooked and tasted wonderful when dipped in the daal and eaten with the right hand only!
Beer bottle doubles up as a rolling pin.

Roti's are finished on the naked flame.
 Another tick in the box of my personal aims. It’s not all about saving the world and if my old mate Bob is looking down on me now he would chuckle with pride that I have not forgotten all he taught me. The next personal challenge is learning to juggle and for all those interested I’m at the two ball stage and about to take on the mighty test of 3 balls. Wish me luck!



Friday, 10 October 2014

Settling in to our Besishahar home

We arrived in Besishahar, Lamjung on September 10th after a 7 hour drive from Kathmandu. We were to stay in a hotel, best in town, possibly 1 or 2 stars, so no complaints. Except that we are not keen on hotels! We soon discovered the very simple and friendly New Gurung Fast Food café, just a few doors down. Our local!  On the second visit we mentioned that we were looking for somewhere to stay. Well that was enough for things to start rolling. The owner’s 9 year old nephew pricked up his ears, spoke to his uncle and asked us to come with him while the noodles were cooking. We followed him down a back lane towards an extraordinary house, black and white make-believe bricks with orange surrounds and Buddhist flags flying high above on the 4th floor.

We went up to the 2nd and Roshaln let  us in. For Nepal this was palatial, 4 rooms including a big kitchen with a toilet (European) and shower rooms on the stairway landing. Not our colour, a deep dusky pink, rather tired looking but we wanted to know more.

 We climbed the stairs to the 4th floor where there is a Buddhist Gumba (temple)! Back to the noodles and Nimanta arrived, Roshan’s 12 year old sister. Her English is great and her manner delightful. She told us more. The house is owned by the local Buddhist priest, the Dare (bearded) Lama (a well-known local character with a catchy nickname to suit), with family on the 3rd floor and other families on the 1st and basement. We arranged a meeting with Mrs Dare Lama for the following day and asked Raj, my project manager, and Nimanta to join us and help with details.

Everyone was keen, especially Simon, and we all felt that this family would be good and honest landlords. They agreed to repaint and clean and it would be ready in 2 days, we could help if we wanted! Sadly we had a long walk ahead to a school on the hill, a 2 day excursion, which gave us a let out! On our return it was nearly ready, the electrician was busy, the curtains had been washed, walls painted (sadly the same colour) and even the Dare Lama and a young monk were busy mending the curtain rails. On Wednesday Raj came again and papers where signed. We had our new home.
We had inherited a few bits from my predecessor which we moved local style. We borrowed a flatbed tricycle which we had fun trying to cycle. Sadly it was soon push only, after I had a quick ride on the back, as the chain kept falling off. This was loaded up and we proceeded to push it through the town. This created enormous interest but no offers of help even while we slogged up the hill, beads of sweat in evidence!
By Friday we were ready for a house warming party and invited all of my colleagues who accepted readily. We have already discovered that they love any excuse to meet socially and especially if there is food involved. Simon had ordered bits from our friendly café on the corner, no home cooking this time, which was all devoured in record time.

What is the flat like? Most of the floors are marble or cement, good in this hot climate, they dry in an instant. The kitchen has a marble work surface around 2 sides and a sink with cold running water (most of the time). We inherited a 2 ring gas camp stove, a plastic picnic table and chairs and even a small fridge from a previous volunteer. Luxuries that we weren’t expecting and anyone who lived in Nepal 30 years ago won’t believe our luck. Within a day we had bought 2 x 3 foot beds, the thought of a 4’ bed in this hot weather seemed impossibly cosy! We soon gathered a work table, 2 bookcases and a few other small bits.
Simon has been busy with DIY and has made a hanging shelf unit (inspired by our friend Caroline) and I have baked bread and flapjacks using an amazing “Miracle Oven” . This is known by the volunteer community and is what the name suggests. Pop on top of the gas ring and hey presto, an oven!

We also have a spare room in our new home so we can welcome visitors. This really is a beautiful place surrounded by wooded hills and glimpses of peaks of the Annapurna range. We hope to see some of you soon!

I would like to dedicate this posting to my sister-in-law, Mary Jane Ansell, who during her last week asked me for details of our house and daily life in Nepal which I sent her as a daily diary. She died on September 27th.