Tikas and More Tikas

FullSizeRender 808One and done?

Not when it comes to getting tikas during Dashain, Nepal’s biggest holiday.

I received five from various friends and family members during the past few days, and was honored each time.

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Tikas are a mixture of red powder, rice and yogurt, with a little sugar sometimes blended in. The person who bestows a tika is usually an older relative, to whom you are showing respect.

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Here’s how it works: You sit at a table with your hands raised in front of you. The tika-giver uses his or her thumb and finger to apply a dab to your forehead, then places jamara — yellowish rice plant shoots — behind your ear or on your hair. While doing this, they chant blessings for your happiness and future.

FullSizeRender 832Next, they give you a piece of fruit and an envelope containing a bit of lucky money. Three of the envelopes I received were adorned with swastikas, which are a traditional Hindu symbol of prosperity. People gave them to me with love and generosity, so I let pass what the symbolism might mean for a Westerner, especially one whose mother fled from Nazi Germany.

After you receive the tika, you bow towards the person and thank them for their blessing. You’re supposed to wear the tika for at least the rest of the day, if not longer. Later, you can wash it off easily in the sink.

FullSizeRender 823This year I gave someone a Dashain tika for the first time, as you can see here. That’s Mamata, whose mother Usha, gave me a tika just a moment earlier. I watched Usha didi’s technique carefully but, even so, was relieved that I didn’t screw up and commit some religious faux pas.

During the first five days of the Dashain season, people travel from house to house, receiving tikas from grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and others. Each visit is accompanied by delicious snacks before the tika and an even more delicious meal afterwards. This year, tika season ended with the full moon on Sunday. Next year’s season is now less than a year away. I’m already getting my thumb and finger ready.

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Nepal’s Death-Defying Taxi

Americans who complain about potholes in their roads should take a ride on one of the taxis that serve Samulbung, a village in eastern Nepal.

FullSizeRender 561These four-wheelers climb and swerve along unpaved roads made of potholes. They bounce over cobblestones along the better stretches, then struggle across longer stretches where the pockmarked dirt often becomes mud.

FullSizeRender 556During the monsoon season, the mud resembles a swamp. Even when rain is intermittent, as it was when we visited a few days ago, water collects into pools. Drivers have to place one tire on either side of a pool and avoid slipping into the middle, or else charge through and try to reach the other side before losing traction.

FullSizeRender 611Sometimes the driver doesn’t make it. That’s what happened when our driver, Arpan, was a split-second late in down-shifting over a depression in the road. Since his four-wheel-drive was temporarily broken, he swerved into a ditch, as shown in the photo, then nearly burned off his left rear tire trying to regain contact. We all had to get out as he and his assistant gathered stones and gravel to provide traction. Eventually we got back on the road.

FullSizeRender 555Tires puncture regularly, which also happened to us. Once again, we disembarked as Arpan and his assistant made a quick roadside repair, as you can see here.

Such repairs provide a break from a journey that routinely steers to the edge of precarious roads lacking side barriers. If the vehicle went over the edge, it might fall hundreds of feet before crashing amid the world’s biggest mountains. Keep in mind there is no Life Flight helicopter service here. For that matter, there are hardly any doctors.

FullSizeRender 544Just to make the experience more interesting, the vehicles are piled high with luggage, grain and goods, all of which raise the center of gravity and reduce stability. Fortunately, the vehicles are usually crammed with passengers, who provide a counterweight

Many of the drivers are young men, who remain cheerful despite working long hours and earning little money. They stop regularly to pick up passengers and goods, and also to run errands — such as delivering a cell phone or money — for people along the route.

FullSizeRender 553Champa and I took two trips and found them simultaneously terrifying and hilarious. As happens so often in Nepal, we soon got used to the situation and begin joking with the other passengers at each new unexpected turn. We embraced the “No Tension” sticker on the driver’s door.

FullSizeRender 547Our fare for four passengers to travel three hours to Fikkal, the local town, was $11, luggage included. If you find that price unbelievable, well, you’re right: It’s not what you’d expect. We paid nearly double the usual fare to ensure we had only one person in the front passenger seat (me) and only three in the second row. Champa and Bindu, shown here, shared the second row with Bindu’s husband, our nephew Shankar. Business class rocks.

Prayers at the Stream

These faces of devotion are gathered along a stream to wash away curses, evil spirits and bad luck, to be replaced by prosperity, health and good luck.

FullSizeRender 616Their maanghope ceremony, all but unknown in the West, took place Saturday morning along a stream in Samalbung, a small village in eastern Nepal. Families gathered to pray, light candles, beat drums and toss flower petals and grain into the water.

FullSizeRender 675Jai Kumar, with the large white hat, led the ceremony. He is the local sikhsamba, or religious leader, for a growing number of Kirati people in this part of Nepal who have begun turning away from Hinduism and returning to animist traditions. They also have rejected animal sacrifices.  Instead, they follow the teachings of Falgunanda, whose temple in Kathmandu I described in a previous post.

FullSizeRender 690Jai Kumar, a second cousin of ours, expects no payment for leading the ceremony, which calls on everyone to pray not only for themselves and their families, but for the entire community. He lives next door to the home of Champa’s older sister, Sumitra, who died earlier this year. A day earlier, he led another ceremony at the house to coincide with our arrival.

Champa and I came here from Ilam along a breathtakingly bumpy road to pay our respects at the graves of Sumitra and her husband, Naina, and to visit with our nieces, nephews and extended family.

FullSizeRender 625They and their neighbors are the people you see in the photos, gathering as they do every year during the harvest season for the maanghope ceremony. Another annual ceremony, ubhawli, occurs during planting season.

Few Westerners have ever observed the ceremony, which lasted about an hour. I felt honored, as a member of the family, to be invited to participate. The sights were even more colorful and dramatic than you see here. The drums, cymbals and chanting voices blended with the flowing water and chirping birds to compose a symphony of serenity that still lingers.

The Animal Market

FullSizeRender 739Being a goat in Nepal during the Dashain holiday season is like being a turkey in America just before Thanksgiving: Your odds of surviving aren’t great.

So it was for these goats being sold in Ilam’s market this past Thursday. Farmers brought them there by the hundreds from throughout the surrounding area. Shoppers came to buy a goat or two for their family feasts, and wholesalers bought truckloads to sell in Jhapa, about three hours to the south.

FullSizeRender 752Dashain (pronounced: dah-sy) is Nepal’s biggest holiday, taking place during a week each October. (This year, Nepal’s government extended the holiday by a few days to ease scarce petrol supplies.) Schools and offices close and people travel across the country to their family homes. Almost every day during the festival, they perform designated forms of puja, or worship.

Ilam’s animal market takes place every Thursday, part of a larger market centered in the main bazaar. As Dashain approaches, business booms, as we saw for ourselves from the window of Champa’s house, just up the road. For hours on end, goats bleated their way past our gate.

Families typically hire a butcher to slaughter the goat and prepare it for consumption. Likewise for pigs and buffalo, if they eat these. They usually slaughter chickens themselves.

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For a Western visitor, all of this can be grim to watch. However, if you’re someone who eats meat, it’s also more honest than going to a local supermarket and tossing a package of steak or chicken wings into your cart without giving any thought to its origin. Here in Nepal, there’s no avoiding the question. In Ilam and many other towns across the country, the answer can be found in the weekly animal market.

Cheese ‘Factories’


Rural. Artisanal. Pristine.

Two of those of those three words apply to the cheese factories we visited Wednesday.

Located in Bakhor, a tiny village north of Ilam, they are part of a growing industry in Nepal. Western styles of cheese are still new here but they’ve begun catching on with restaurants and consumers in Kathmandu.


In Bakhor, which is 10 miles away from Ilam but more than an hour’s drive along a winding road, several businesses have responded by opening “cheese factories” — actually small facilities like the one you see here with the green sign.


The factories we saw were — how shall I phrase this? — less obsessed with cleanliness than in, say, Wisconsin or Switzerland. image

Each produces a single variety of cheese. There’s no Camembert, Fontina or mozzarella, just “cheese.” Artisans in other parts of Nepal do produce fine cheeses, some made from yak milk, but not here.


Still, we were impressed by what we saw: wheels of cheese and strings of churpi, a traditional local cheese so hard that two Nepali entrepreneurs in the United States now market it as dog treats, as featured on “Shark Tank.”


I bought a string of churpi from Kusum Rai, the girl you see here, and plan to bring it home for our dog, Bailey, and perhaps for some other lucky dogs.


You can see strings of churpi drying above Champa’s head.

Let me close with a personal message to my brother-in-law Joel, a cheese enthusiast who is joining us in Nepal along with several other members of our family later this month. Joel, we’re sorry you couldn’t join us today for the tour. On the other hand, since we know you love cheese so much, perhaps it’s just as well.

Finally, a travel note: We leave Ilam tomorrow for Samalbung, a much smaller town located on Nepal’s eastern border with India. I’m not sure about the wifi situation there. As with everything in Nepal, we’ll see what happens.

Family Reunions

We have been embraced by Champa’s family since the moment we arrived in Ilam, her home town in Nepal. imageIn fact, the welcome began even sooner, at the airport south of here, where Champa’s brother, Raju, was waiting to greet us with ceremonial katas, or prayer shawls. That’s him in the blue shirt along with Khagendra, Champa’s cousin and neighbor, who took the same flight. We then traveled by jeep from the airport to Ilam.

imageLet me introduce you to some of the family. Here’s Champa eating lunch with Raju and his wife, Sanjaya, who has been cooking great meals and generally spoiling us without pause. image(My former colleagues in Duke’s Office of News and Communications may recognize the blue ONC “Rapid Response” water bottle, which has joined us on the trip.) You can see in the next photo some of the many delicacies that have awaited us in Sanjaya’s kitchen.

Just down the street are several other relatives. imageChampa is sitting here between Bal Kumari (in the purple) and Chandra Kumari (on the right), two of her cousins. Chandra Kumari was a student in one of my English classes when I taught in the Peace Corps here. To the left is Bindu, who traveled with us here along with her husband, Shankar. We stayed with the two of them in Kathmandu.

IMG_3481While in Kathmandu, we also met Manis, one of the two sons of Raju and Sanjaya, who visited us with his wife Ranju and their daughter, Romisha, all shown here.

On Monday evening, we ate a fabulous dinner with one of Champa’s cousins, Sharda Shrestha, and her husband Madhav. Here’s the two of them along with their son, Pukar, and his wife and daughter.image

It’s been great fun to watch Champa walk down a path or through the marketplace, and see people suddenly recognize her. They call out with delight to welcome her home and ask how she’s doing. Needless to say, they also look at me with interest. (You can almost see them thinking: So that must be her American husband.) When I join the conversation in Nepali, they inevitably break into big smiles.

We’ll stay in Ilam until Friday, when we’ll travel to Samalbung, a village located on Nepal’s eastern border with India. We’ll meet up there with Shankar, Bindu and other members of the family, spending a few days before returning to Kathmandu.

Let the reunions continue!

Big Changes in Ilam

imageSInce Friday, we have been in Ilam, Champa’s home town in eastern Nepal. It’s where I was initially posted as a Peace Corps Volunteer, at the school where Champa was among the other teachers.

imageIf you think Durham and some other American cities have changed a lot in the past few years, you should see what’s happened here. Ilam has grown from a sleepy district center into a bustling town with hotels, restaurants, cell phone stores, computer centers, bakeries, travel agencies and schools. There are two newspapers, a radio station and countless satellite television dishes offering everything from local soap operas to American movies.

Located just across the border from India’s Darjeeling, Ilam is Nepal’s tea-growing center. Its tea gardens have expanded greatly yet remain as picturesque as ever. You can now take a pleasant stroll through the main gardens to a new observation tower where for 100 rupees — just under one U.S. dollar — you get a great view of the surrounding area. Next door is a coffee shop offering hot beverages, spicy snacks and free wifi.

imageWhen I first moved to Ilam in 1977, I lived in two rooms on the first floor of the house shown here. A new family now owns the house but was very welcoming and let me peek inside.

My school headmaster moved me after a few months to the building shown here, where my room was on the second floor, behind the current sign. FullSizeRender 456It was miserable. Below me, another tenant cooked every night on an indoor wood stove. Smoke rose through the floorboards, filling my room and exacerbating the asthma I’d developed during training. I was unable to get the situation resolved and, before long, got pneumonia and was medically evacuated to the United States. I was able to return to Nepal only by agreeing to move to a new post near Kathmandu. Just seeing the building again brought back all of those bad memories.

imageThey were far outweighed, though, by Ilam’s many attractions. It’s a place that deserves far more attention from foreign visitors, who could spend a couple of pleasant days in a beautiful location and stay in modern hotels at bargain prices. The market days, on Thursdays and Sundays, are especially photogenic, but there are also great local hikes, temples and places to visit. image

imageYou can fly in less than an hour from Kathmandu to Bhadrapur, south of here, and then drive to Ilam in less than four hours in a modern vehicle on a good road, for less than it probably costs you to take a taxi from your local airport to your house.

Put it on your list, folks: Ilam, Nepal. As Champa notes in her shamelessly loyal new T-shirt, it’s a town you can quickly learn to love.