Ride Rickshaw!
August 18, 2015, 5:55 pm
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No matter how many times I make it to Kathmandu, I’m always taken aback by the pollution.  It’s the array of pollution that can be overwhelming, something coming at you from all sides. Out on the streets I feel like I’m always dodging piles of shrapnel or holding my breath through clouds of diesel. Then I fall into those romanticized visions that my old school Kathmandu friends paint of the Kathmandu Valley as just a series of rice paddies and fields dotted with temples and villages. It wasn’t that long ago. Urbanization has been a huge trend in Nepal and Kathmandu is, of course, its epicenter. And just in the past decade it feels like personal car ownership has become so much more attainable. So that means that narrow walking paths are now shared with endless lines of cars and motorcycles. The city is daunting to navigate and the air is gaining new layers of junk.


In terms of pollution one could argue that political instability has had its minor upsides in Kathmandu, particularly with the tradition of holding a bandha or strike. We had 2 consecutive days of bandha last week in which all businesses had to close and all cars had to stay off the roads. The call for this particular strike is a longer story related to the signing of Nepal’s constitution and issues of ethnic representation, but suffice to say that this was just one strike among many.  Strikes are common and create a whole new Kathmandu for a few days. During this bandha I borrowed a friend’s beautiful, old granny bike and rode miles around the city, kind of experiencing the old Kathmandu I have built up in my mind. After a good monsoon downpour (during which I huddled with my bike in the doorway of a shut shop), the air felt layers cleaner and lighter and the blue sky burst into focus.

Fighting car traffic in Kathmandu gets me thinking about bicycle rickshaws. It feels like there were so many more rickshaws during earlier visits in the 90’s. They have their pros and cons but as an urban livelihood I really like them. I have to say that I don’t love having a guy pulling me around like I’m a maharaja, it’s definitely awkward, but as a livelihood it’s pretty great when you think about it. But I feel like I see them idle far more than I see them in motion, so it’s only a viable livelihood as long as there are willing patrons to be had.




So since I’m all about making things this journey, I decided to make the rickshaw drivers of Kathmandu a little present. I recently commissioned a small stack bumper stickers that may get people thinking a little bit when they have a choice between a taxi and a rickshaw. There are so many frigging taxis around and the rickshaws can’t compete, especially since there are so many roads now that are too busy for rickshaws. But when there is a choice, I hope people will choose rickshaw. The adventure of making these stickers is a whole other story; the guy below is the maker and it was a painstaking event with little to no shared language over the course of two days. But he loved the project and even offered a discount when he figured out the mission behind it. Anyway, I handed these out in a few areas in Kathmandu, joking around with rickshaw guys along the way. I hope next visit will allow me enough time to make a Nepali version. Keep a look out for these next time you’re in Kathmandu…





A Day in Bhaktapur
August 14, 2015, 6:20 am
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Right after the April earthquake the international media talked a lot about the damage to Bhaktapur, the ancient Newar city here in the Kathmandu Valley. It’s a place where so much significant artistry in wood and clay is preserved, and remains a living city. Its famous Peacock Window (above) has become an icon of Nepal and Newari architecture.

I wandered around Bhaktapur last week with a young Newar friend. At first I was relieved to see much of the city still intact and feel the usual hum of activity; I found myself concentrating on the monuments that somehow did not fall. But as we head deeper into the city, we came upon those fallen building that had not yet been cleared away. My friend said that he now loses his way in some of the back streets of this place he knows so well. Landmarks are gone, pathways are covered by the rubble of devastated structures. He mentioned that the German government has promised funding for reconstruction and preservation; the task will be huge.


There are places where you can see the community coming together to remove the pieces of their broken buildings and mend sacred sites.


We came upon a Hindu baby naming ceremony as we made rounds to the surviving temples. This little honey below was given the name Rosan.


Exploring side streets and alleyways, there are so many woodcarvers and potters at work. We spent some time with a potter and stepped through the process of making a Newari piggy bank.

From processing the clay:


To shaping it on a manual wheel: (This guy had an incredible range of movement and talent in his craft! I have a feeling he’s been doing this for a long time. Needless to say, I was not very successful when he gave me a try).


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Then putting the final, fired product out in the sun:


We finished the day with several helpings of Bhaktapur yogurt in the traditional clay vessels. (I will agree with claims that they are the best yogurt makers in the valley!)


On our way out we had one last marvel at Bhaktpur’s Golden Gate, which still stands!


Exploring Kathmandu Supply Chains
August 3, 2015, 5:12 am
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Nepal 2015 093-2Kathmandu remains a handicraft paradise. You can find something beautiful, go straight to its maker and see them at work. Exploring the supply chain of my little textile enterprise has been an incredible experience so far. It’s a hybrid between a research expedition and a treasure hunt and I’m completely fascinated. Lucky for me, I have partners here that indulge my need to see every step along the path from raw fiber to finished good. I’ve gone from dye house to felt factory most recently. Nepalis aren’t afraid of color and both were a feast of every hue imaginable. I’ve been in heaven.

The dye house was a pretty impressive operation. They process thousands of kilos of New Zealand wool (Nepal doesn’t have the population of sheep needed to meet market demands) with their own set of carders, then dye the roving any color you can dream up in their lab that consists of a stove top burner and elaborate mess of mad scientist beakers.


With their color prowess, they create beauties like this new line of our yarn!


This lovely lady below had a mountain of red yarn to package for a customer. I tried hard to tempt her to jump into it with me like a pile of leaves (but she was busy).


The dye house staff entertained my interest in seeing everything from the dye vats to the rice husk-fueled furnace, to the water treatment process. People have a lovely way of taking their time with you here, and serving you cup after cup of milk tea (aka chai) in between.

And on to the makers of felt! My partner felt workshop is a tiny but bustling enterprise. It provides flexible opportunities for women who need full or part-time work, and many students who are funding themselves through college. Their skill and patience with their art form is a pleasure to watch.

Felt yarn making in action!

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And then there is also mini felt ball crafting that seems to be all the rage these days…

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Tomorrow I’m off to a Bhaktapur-based spinning and weaving house. Then later this week I’m back to a women’s empowerment crafts group to meet a master embroiderer to work on labels, then a paper maker for tags. No shortage of stunning talent here!

Temples, Monkeys, Earthquakes & Hope
August 2, 2015, 8:17 am
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IMG_20150731_074402123_HDRI woke up at sunrise my first day in the city and hiked up to Swayambhunath, also known as the monkey temple. Monkeys do indeed abound at Swayambhu and they get all up in your business. When they’re not leaping across the sky above your head, they’re busy doing funny things like chilling on a rock eating a Kitkat or staging a showdown with street dogs over stolen groceries. Anyway, back to my original subject: Swayambhu. I’d say that morning is pretty magical at most pilgrimage sites and Swayambhu always delivers in that respect. Up there you’re above all traffic and noise, just you and a whole bunch of people who hiked up to fulfill their ritual duties and pray. It could be any year, but most likely one that feels like several hundred years ago.

My trip up to the stupa coincided with the day of the full moon, a holy day, so everyone was busy in their devotion. Offerings being made to the tiny temples and icons surrounding the stupa were accompanied by the beautiful music of 50 or so Newari Buddhists singing and playing instruments. I sat with them for about an hour and listened. I then befriended an old Tibetan monk who walked me through the earthquake damage of the site as we did the pilgrimage circuit. The stupa’s spire is intact but one of it’s two major side temples collapsed, the other one is propped up by scaffolding like a huge crutch.


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This was the first place I really took in the earthquake damage, this place I’ve been coming to for almost 20 years now, and started to hear people’s stories. My new monk friend had bricks rain down on him, injuring his hip and legs. Looking down at the city, he pointed out other places that had fallen.


The damage is certainly bad here in the city itself, but I’m surprised by the beating many of the sketchiest of buildings were able to withstand. A friend here mentioned that an international committee of seismologists visited a few years ago and forecasted that quakes of this magnitude would demolish 60-70% of all buildings and take out 40% of the population. Thanks to all that is good in this world, they were wrong.

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As you walk around the city, life goes on as it has to but it seems to me that Nepali people do it with an admirable amount of tenacity and joy. A member of my hotel staff was showing me post-earthquake pictures of his village on his phone. It was leveled. But as he looked at these disturbing images he said to me, “Nepal is still alive, Madame.”  Later that day I saw a shirt for sale in the market with an image of Dharahara, the city’s historical watchtower that fell killing close to 200 people. The shirt read: “We will rise again.”

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