Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Homestaying in Boudha

I'm now fully moved in with my home stay family and starting to settle in. Still jet lagged and waking up really early (like 4 am) but that's slowly getting better. Kathmandu is a city that operates on a different time frame than New York. Due to power outages in the evening and just a general lack of public lighting, it tends to be very dark at night and most carry a flashlight around if they know they'll be out late. The effect is that people tend to go to sleep earlier (and also wake earlier). 11 pm is quite late to be up by Kathmandu standards, at least on a weekday. This all means that I'm actually pretty close to adjusting fully to Kathmandu time. Once I'm waking up around 6 am, I'll pretty much be there.

For most of my time in Kathmandu, I'm staying with the La family. The Las are Tibetan expats, who fled to Nepal when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959. The La family consists of Tsering La, her husband Wang La, her son Ngawang, her daughter Diki, Wang's father who everyone calls Popola (a respectful form of "grandpa"), and their two dogs - Rocky and Kushi. Popola and Wang are very well respected Thangka painters and run a workshop that provides Thangka paintings for many of the surrounding monasteries and shrines. At 80, Popola is mostly retired, but in remarkable health for that age. He is a very religious man and spends much of his day praying and circumambulating the nearby Boudhanath stupa (more on that in a sec...). Though Popola speaks only Tibetan, the rest of the family is trilingual in Nepali, Tibetan, and English.

Tsering keeps house and does most of the cooking (though Wang helps out with the cooking often). She will also be teaching me how to cook Tibetan food and maybe a little Nepali food as well. A glimpse into the future: look for a post on how to make Momos - Tibetan steamed dumplings - soon. She's also a total facebook addict.

The kids, Ngawang and Diki, are both in school. Ngawang is 17 and goes to a nearby day school. The grade system is different than in the States, and Ngawang's grade is called "A-Level." This is really like a kind of vocational college where almost every class is an elective. Ngawang studies mostly accounting, economics and math. He showed me his econ textbook and it's pretty advanced - written by some Cambridge Profs, it's probably in use in a number of "Intro to Econ" classes at some American colleges. In his free time he hangs out with his friends and plays Counter-Strike. Diki is 13 (14? I can't recall) and boards at a school in Kathmandu, so I haven't met her yet. However, she sketches quite a bit (usually in a manga style) and her pictures are all over the house (and her school notebooks).

As for the dogs, Rocky is a white terrier. He's been pretty subdued lately, because he got in a fight with some stray dogs. There are some pretty nasty bite marks on his back that are slowly getting better. (Edit - What I thought were bite marks, may actually just be general manginess...) Kushi, on the other hand, is energetic, small, and a real coward. Her favorite activity is to stand on the roof and bark ferociously at other neighborhood dogs. Doing this sort of thing from three stories above the street is advisable since most of the neighborhood dogs are bigger and meaner than her.

Rocky. Recovering...
Kushi being brave.
The La's house is a 3 story building (with a rooftop terrace) about 5 minutes from the Boudhanath stupa. The first floor is filled by the Thangka workshop, the second houses a kitchen, dining room, living room, bathroom and 3 bedrooms. The third floor has three bedrooms, a storage room, and a bath all of which open onto a outdoor terrace. I have one of the upstairs bedrooms, while Meg, an exchange student from BC who is studying Buddhist philosophy at one of the nearby monasteries, occupies one of the other third floor bedrooms.

The La's house
My room. The Naruto poster was already up when I arrived...
The terrace outside my room. The spiral staircase goes to the roof.
By Nepali standards, the Las are quite well off, largely thanks to their skill as Thangka painters and their good standing in the local Tibetan community. They (and I, by extension) are fortunate to enjoy a number of amenities that most Nepalis don't have in their homes, notably a computer, internet access and a wifi router. Of course, there are things that many (not all) Americans consider necessities that the Las don't have. The house does not have an oven, nor a dishwasher, laundry machine, much in the way of hot running water, nor drinkable tap water. But these are things that are readily accounted for by substituting particular practices. Water is boiled on the stove top to disinfect it and to warm it up, clothes are washed in a plastic tub by hand, etc.

As I've already mentioned, the Las live near the Boudhanath Stupa in an area known as Boudha (pronounced boe-da). Boudha sits on the outskirts of Kathmandu and is largely composed of Tibetan expats. Though 90% of the people in Nepal are Hindus, the remaining 10% are predominently Buddhists and especially Tibetan Buddhists living in Boudha. The center of the area is the Boudhanath Stupa, a holy site for Tibetan Buddhists that is at least 1300 years old and used to be a key stop on the trading route to Lhasa. The presence of the Stupa made Boudha a logical congregating point for Tibetan refugees coming to Nepal in the wake of the Chinese invasion.

The Boudhanath Stupa

The stupa is made mostly of limestone, and as a result, recent monsoon rains have stained parts of it green. After the monsoon ends, it will be whitewashed again. The alcoves along the outer wall of the stupa contain prayer wheels which devotees spin as they walk around the stupa. It is considered taboo to walk counter-clockwise around the stupa.

A large prayer wheel in Boudha
The Tibetan community here is closely knit and well organized and the area reflects that fact. Roads are nicely paved. The schools in the area are pretty good. There are some well cared for green spaces, courtyards, and a public water fountain.

A small public courtyard near the stupa
The public water fountain in Boudha
One of the streets near the stupa
For some in the States, community has become a sort of dirty word that denotes a lack of privacy, neighbors who don't mind their own business, and the tyranny of the majority over the individual. Holding that sort of cynical view is a luxury only made possible by a relatively well functioning state. Here, the municipal and central governments are corrupt, inept, and disinterested. As a result, it falls to individual communities to improve the quality of living. There are plenty of areas in Kathmandu where that doesn't happen and it's really a sad state of affairs.

But Boudha is an exception. The streets are paved because the community as a whole contributed the money to pave them. One final anecdote: the municipal garbage workers were on strike all last week. As a result, there are piles of trash and sewage in the streets throughout Kathmandu. It's been a field day for the stray dogs and cows who pick through the trash for scraps to eat. But Boudha is relatively clean. I think this is because the local community organized to collect the trash into piles and burn it. I haven't travelled around too much yet, but Boudha is the only place I've been so far that doesn't have a serious trash problem...
One of many trash piles that have been accumulating in the streets.


  1. It sounds like a wonderful, warm, welcoming glad you're in good hands! And those dumplings also sound pretty terrific. Nudge nudge.

    So many amazing and different things you're seeing...thanks for recording it all so beautifully. Can't wait to see what comes next.



  2. Spectacular. Audrey has very much enjoyed the pictures and seems both awestruck by and compelled to every element of your encounters (as do I). Keep posting, your observations are both vivid and informed.


  3. Good landing, Nick. Sounds like a perfect home base for you.

  4. Northern Virginia GangSeptember 1, 2010 at 9:04 PM

    Charlie, Martha, and Mary say HI! We are so glad that you have such a nice place to stay and your Blog has been so much fun to read! We are looking forward to hearing more about what you will be doing there and will stay tuned.

  5. How interesting. Your room looks very comfortable. Wifi is a treat. You'll get used to the cold wash downs. When winter arrivesn they will make MV water feel like a steambath. Enjoy.

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