Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Diesel-Fueled Time Machine on Winter Setting

My  medieval self(ie)
Ok, it's not really a selfie.
I started to memorialize my everyday
Medieval Ellis Island Baba Yaga
Goes to Market look,
but The Teenager stopped me,
because apparently moms
are already lame enough
without being selfie-takers .
For historians, a stint in a place like Nepal should be mandatory. Like basic training in the Army. Literature scholars could use it too. And filmmakers. I can arrange it, for a small fee.

We live here with a foot dipped into Medieval Normal. Not Medieval Exotic (which is the tourist experience), but Medieval Normal. That struck me in a visceral way last evening, as I flipped a shawl over my head against the night's chill and headed down the lane with the other triangular shapes of shawl-encased women, all strolling to the street market where vendors sat at their carts in the dark and children hovered nearby at a fire. I bought, naturally, some turnips. (What else would I buy, dressed in a shawl?)

In our Medieval Normal, water for washing has to be hauled at times from the well, and clothes don't dry if there is no sun.

This morning I woke to the sound of a gayin, a minstrel going house-to-house and singing outside the gate for spare change or his daily bread. (Well, a bowl of rice poured into his sack.) It was normal so I went back to sleep.

Hawkers come down the street chanting their wares, knives to grind, knives to grind. 

The Teenager wears a wool cap inside; my husband has a nightcap. We take sartorial tips from Clement Moore. Mama in her kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled down for a long winter's nap  ... 

You don't bundle up to go outside; you bundle up because it's winter. You don't step out of the cold into toasty homes, because they're not. We have no central heating. No matter how privileged you are, you will huddle all winter in shawls and blankets, by sources of heat that come with flames. There'd be a democratic justice in that if the poor didn't end up relying less on heat (since fuel costs money) and more on getting really, really tough. Which they do. Do not mess with a poor person from the "developing world." They will out-tough anyone who hasn't come through a time machine. Although if anyone from the past ever does step through a time machine, take my word for it: Definitely do not mess with them.

OK, Jon Snow, you are hot, but not THAT hot.
Put on a hat. Like your mama says. (Oh. Sorry.)
In our Medieval Normal, we keep candles because we need them, and sometimes have to read by their light. OK, we also watch videos by them, because the not-very-medieval inverter that stores backup power will howl (literally) and plunge us into historically accurate darkness if we suck it dry with a big outrageous modern demand like Lights Plus Video Player. But it does add a dimension to Game of Thrones if you watch by candelight under a blanket. The Wall looks really cold. It is ridiculous that Jon Snow never wears a hat.

Of course, Nepal isn't the past. The Teenager ate a Snicker's bar last night while working on a PowerPoint. We can order pizza, although there are no street names or addresses, so we have to give verbal directions from "the big tree" or draw a map with an X, which is also what you do when you open a bank account or enroll in school or order furniture or, well, anything that involves an "address." Somewhere in the dusty files of Nepali banks and schools and shops must be vast stacks of what seem to be pirate maps. The  customer's address? Yes, we have it right here, X marks the spot. A few paces from ... is that a sketch of a tree or a utility pole? Well, go to the street and you'll figure it out. Which street? Oh, it says right here: "the street by the blue gate, near the school." Blue gate, school, tree. Or utility pole. You'll find it. And anyway, here's the mobile number. It's the modern world, after all. 

A heater! A heater! My kingdom for a heater!
Notice her clothes. "Gaudy," you say? "Warm," I say.
We do have internet, much of the time, and the flames that warm us come from gas cylinders that roll around in cabinet heaters whose turn-on sound of click click causes the instant appearance of the dog. (Everyone seeks comfort, even if they have fur. Unless they're Jon Snow.)

So it's a dip of a foot, not full immersion. Our Medieval Normal comes with gas, google, and HBO on DVDs with Chinese subtitles. But there are moments. And they happen each day. To live partly outside the 21st century Comfort Bubble may sound hard, but it's also an amazing  privilege. How many people have daily moments that touch the past, and live where an ordinary walk to market is a connection across the centuries?

Hmmm. I hope there's electricity right now, and water in the tank, and gas in the cylinder that heats the contraption that heats the water for the shower, because I hate to haul and heat water on the stove to bathe. What did I say again about this being a privilege?

I get it about Elizabeth I and her once-a-month baths. I really do. But Game of Thrones, with the hot-spring water under the castle floors at Winterfell? They were totally cheating.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Real Value of Tang: or, the Sweeper Wears Prada.

This post is about the real cost of life in Nepal, so let me start with something exotic: this turkey. It's the Dom Perignon of turkeys. It's caviar and truffles with wings, and its plastic red popup gizmo is the Lamborghini of all popup gizmos. I know this must be true, because this 12 pounds of imported bird ...

 ... was purchased for 8000 rupees. That's $80.

It really cost a lot more. A whole lot more. I'll explain how in a moment.

For the record, I did not buy it. Although I happily helped to cook and eat it.

Turkeys are gourmet imports here, available from Thanksgiving through Christmas at "departmental stores," big grocery stores that can be seen as "Western style" as long as you perceive Western style as involving aisles of food-like substances in bright chemical-laden packages. These stores are a gold mine for nostalgia lovers. Take the latest craze, Tang, packets of which are given free with purchases and day-glo glasses of which are served as "juice" in homes and elite schools. Florence Henderson loved it in 1970, and she was Mrs. Brady, so Tang is all the Vitamin C you need, right? Also all the sugar, aspertame, sodium carboxmethylcellulose, tartrazine and Sunset Yellow Artificial Color. There's no actual juice, but it was served to astronauts and you can't have everything on the moon. We're in Nepal, close to Mount Everest, which is often said to be much like the moon. So there you go. It makes sense now.

Sometimes there's no juice on the shelves,
just "juice beverage" and Tang.

To go with the Tang, you can try this Modern Convvenience Food,
which in Nepal ...
... is eaten rather than sung

Here are more offerings to fill the kitchens of Nepal with diabetic shock whoops I mean  glee. These are found in our local Big Western Departmental Store, wherein you can find entire aisles dedicated to the use of "Choco" as a prefix.

99.4 percent pure Glucose. And such a happy,
healthy family. Well, happy anyway.  

This store is called Salesway, like Safeway but harder to pronounce. Try saying it fast: Salesway, Salesway, Salesway. Bet you can't. This Tang-packed tongue-twister of a shopping destination serves mainly the upper class, although people like to use the interesting euphemism "middle class," which to me implies "people in the middle" and so ought to have something to do with the average person, but instead seems to have acquired a new definition and now means "People Who Can Be a New Market for Tang." If you lived here, you would go to Salesway and be glad of it, just like me. Wow! Corn syrup-laden peanut butter! Just like in a 1950s bomb shelter! I think I will buy that to enjoy with my Tang and spam. Do they have it in Choco flavor?

Thanks to the wonders of google, I know that at the Salesway's pronounceable alter ego, Safeway, you could get a turkey for 59 cents a pound, so our 12-pound turkey would have cost $7. But we live a more elegant life here on the moon, because our 12-pound turkeys fly in from Australia, apparently in First Class, or possibly comes on a rocket ship with the Tang, so we get to savor it for $80 like the gourmets we are.

But what, actually, does $80 mean in Real Nepali terms? Because, see, if you're a Westerner here you may have more or less multiples of that $80 in your budget, and you might not choose to spend it on turkey, but you've got it. Somewhere. How can we, who might think Ohmigod it's $80, unbelievable, horrible, here's the $80 and ouch that hurt but put it on my credit card and yum yum, conceptualize that amount?

Well, I've got a cheat sheet. So we now interrupt this edition of The Brady Bunch Get a Sugar Rush for a ...

Nepali Home Economics Lesson

What is that 8,000 rupees in percent-of-salary terms? What would it feel like? 

Here's one benchmark. Eight thousand rupees ($80) is the monthly wage, give or take a bit, for drivers, cleaners, clerks, and teachers at small private schools -- people in jobs that elsewhere might earn an annual salary somewhere around $24,000. Yeah, it's described as minimum wage here, but lots of people earn less, so let's be real and call it low-wage or starting jobs.

Here are a few other salaries:

Teacher in a government school: 14,000 to 31,000 a month ($140 to $310).

Police officers: there's a range, but constables earn 14,830 ($148) and a senior superintendent earns about 30,000 ($300)

Doctor: 20,000 starting salary in Kathmandu, or 30,000 for specialists ($200 to $300).

First-Class Government Officer: 30,000 a month ($300). The job level is roughly equivalent, if you speak Washingtonese, to a GS-13 who brings home $90,000 or a pre-tax $7,500 a month. Other government jobs are here, along with a bit of commentary about how they, uh, enhance their incomes.

Engineer: 33,000 a month ($330) according to this site. 

This medical student was buying a kurta salwar for a friend's
wedding. The cost was 4,700 rupees -- $47 for an American,
but a fifth of the monthly salary ($250) she'll be able to earn
as an entry-level doctor in Nepal. Imagine if you had to pay
a fifth of a doctor's typical  starting salary for a party dress.
Prices are high because of the cost of material, labor,
transport costs and customs duties.
Of course it does go higher. People on this helpful site self-report salaries as high as 117,000 for a financial manager, and Nepal does have far better-paid people than that as well. Lots of them. They own cars and big houses and some are so rich they could buy turkeys for the whole neighborhood. But they're not in the "middle class" unless you love euphemisms.

On the whole, the easiest way to grasp what money means is to think of percent-of-salary terms. On that scale (which can be a math project if you're a middle-school student who somehow stumbled onto this blog!), 1000 rupees becomes $250 on the percent-of-salary or "feels-like" scale. Looked at that way, the cost of that turkey is equivalent to about $2,000. It's the whole monthly pay of a low-paid employee, or just over a third for a GS-13. That's a heck of a bird.

Pringles feel like $50 for one cylinder
Of course, Nepalis don't buy turkeys, which is an exotic gourmet import and priced to match. But people need clothing. For a budget middle-class sari or salwar kameez, a woman has to spend at least 1000 but probably closer to 1500 rupees. For a nice occasion, she needs at least 4,000. If she opts for jeans, they start at 800 Rs., and the shirt doesn't come for free.

So it's hard to get away with under $15-20 per outfit. Think $500 on the "feels like" scale. How many teachers or nurses or lawyers in the US, or even Junior League socialites, spend $500 on an outfit to wash the dishes in and $1000 for something to wear to a neighborhood party or a second cousin's wedding? But here, there's no other choice.

If you wanted some of the "luxury" processed imported foods that are increasingly found here, you might get some Tang (feels like $30 for one small packet), a one-person bag of Lay's of the type found in vending machines (feels like $10), a small roll of Oreos (feels like $20) or some instant coffee like Nescafe (feels like $30 for a micro-jar to $100 for a large jar). If you can't afford that -- and most people would consider a bag of Lay's or a roll of Oreo's a "splurge" purchase -- you'd certainly still need vegetables for dinner.

My neighborhood street stalls for veggies, where people can buy ...
this much veggies for a "feel-like" cost of about $50.
It's cheap if you say "$2.50," which is the cost for an American.
It doesn't feel cheap if you're in Nepal's real middle class.

The other day I saw an ad posted for a full-time job in an organization that supposedly provides "economic empowerment." The salary offer? 5,000 to 7,000 for someone with a Bachelor's in Business Administration. That's under the minimum wage and technically illegal, but not uncommon. I'm imagining the letter home of the newly minted college grad who gets this job.

Dear Mom and Dad, How was the harvest? I have a new job doing economic empowerment! Please send money. And rice. And lentils. By the way, have you considered raising turkeys?

This woman's total outfit, including budget-level sari, sandals, blouse 
and now-faded shawl, probably cost 2000 Rs ($20).  
That's roughly equivalent, in "feels like" terms, to wearing $500 worth of clothes.
She does not look like a socialite.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Puppies! And the Father Is ...

About a month ago I wrote about the dog upstairs, a Fancy Full-Breed German Shepherd whose owners mated her with another Fancy Full-Breed Shepherd in the fond expectation of Fancy Shepherd Pups, except she was found in the morning in her locked cage with a street-cruising mutt who had somehow wiggled under the bars like a flea-ridden Houdini. They were both wagging their tails.

Two days ago Bhunti had puppies.

About half the dogs in Nepal seem to be named Bhunti, which basically means Cute Little Fatty. This Bhunti is skinny and gigantic. She's a frenetic tumbleweed of hair and bigness, unlike the Bhunti behind the gate a few doors down, who I've only seen as a snapping snout that seems attached to a Dachsund-crocodile mix. The dogs who are not Bhunti are mostly Blackie, Brownie, Whitey, or in the case of one dog on our lane, Chocolate-y. My husband's parents have a dog called Blackie. (They also have a grandson called Blackie. Kale. At least he isn't Chocolate-y, although that would have the benefit of distinguishing him from all the other village kids called Blackie.)

Not a rat. It's thought to be two weeks premature, after
45 instead of 60 days gestation. 
If dog names are strikingly unoriginal, people's nicknames come straight out of the Little Rascals. In our family's village, there's a Fatty and a lot of Blackies and a hot-tempered guy called Chili Pepper and a real-life Froggy with a habit of flicking out his tongue when he talks. There's also a Dirty, Jute, or more accurately Contaminated-y but that doesn't flow as well in English. He was the first boy after seven girls and his parents called him that on the theory that witches or bad spirits wouldn't want to take a boy who's Contaminated. People do what they can for their kids.

There's a lot about Nepal that is Little Rascals with a Bollywood soundtrack, or Huck Finn with saris and a stinkier river. And in that kind of world, if you want a dog, you don't spend months researching The Right Breed for My Family, or go through a formal adoption process with paperwork and interviews to find if you're The Right Family for the Dog. You get a dog when a puppy follows you home, can I keep her, please, I'll feed her leftovers like everyone does and it's not like I'll have to clean up the poo because she'll just poo on the streets with the other dogs. Or maybe it's born in a shed behind the house, Oh look, puppies, let's name the black one Blackie! 

We didn't even know Bhunti was pregnant. Maybe she didn't either. She's a bit ditzy -- she's young, still a teenager as it were, plus she is a breed dog and around here it's not exactly careful breeding so if she had a family tree it would probably look like the old song "I Am My Own Grandpa" -- but the other day she popped out three puppies, who turned out to be premature. One was stillborn. Another, I'm sorry to say, was apparently mistaken for a mouse by Bhunti, who swallowed it. Still wriggling. Her owners saw it. "Bad dog! Do not eat your babies!"

This was a problem, because what do you do with a premature puppy whose teen mom thinks it's edible? It was taken away from its unhelpful mother to warm by a gas heater, and a paper muzzle was bought from a veterinarian's shop around the corner, and my teenager and the boy upstairs wrestled Bhunti into submission while an effort was made to milk her, which she did not appreciate, and then efforts were made to attach the hungry puppy to her teat, which she also did not appreciate, and after much fussing and a few drops of desultory milk everyone rested but Bhunti, who produced four more puppies after midnight. Three of whom died, but none of whom were eaten. So she's catching on.

Whoops. I didn't mean it.
The two survivors are doing as well as preemies can under the Darwinian circumstances. Bhunti is now nursing them agreeably, except that she won't eat her meals (the regular ones) so her milk isn't coming -- feeling a bit queasy in the stomach, perhaps? -- and she is very attentive and concerned whenever people come near her pups, maybe because she knows what can happen to them.

It's impossible to solve the mystery of their father yet. Bhunti's family optimistically maintains that he must be the Fancy German Shepherd with whom she was mated in the apparent hope of magnifying her desirable genes for silky ditziness. I hope for their sake they're right, but I also hope for the sake of genetics and doggie toughness that it's the macho wall-leaping street dog with lock-breaking skills.

So the mystery continues. Except that I predict they'll both be named Blackie.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Eight Million Person March

No smoking,and no weapons in the polling booth. In case you weren't sure.
We just had an election here, and so I am forced to take a brief detour into that dark and muddled realm called Nepali Politics. I said when I started this blog that I would not, not, NOT pontificate about politics. I will leave that to the other 99.9 percent of people here, because they are all so very good at it. Politics is the Nepali national pastime. It’s what football is to Americans. Or rather, it's what football would be to Americans if they were fated to have no team but the Cleveland Browns. The whole country follows politics, talks about it, speculates about it, hopes and dreams and cheers … and loses. Because nothing ever works. 

Of course, it's always possible that this time around, the people elected for this version of the 601-person team assembled to write the Constitution will actually write a Constitution. Heck, it's only been five years of not-writing so far. Eventually the folks in the Constituent Assembly (when it meets) will get tired of back-stabbing, tripping each other up, and holding their breath until they turn blue. Right? After all,  Western donors have prepared them so well with junkets (whoops, I mean training trips) to Washington DC to see politics in action.

Wait. Let me think about that.

But here's the thing. Even though the enthusiasm level is in the doghouse ...

and even though NO TRAFFIC was allowed on election day ANYWHERE IN THE COUNTRY, meaning no cars or buses or motorbikes from 5 a.m. until midnight by order of the government, so that any of Nepal's 12 million registered voters who felt like casting a ballot had to walk to the polls like this ...

Kathmandu street on Election Day
... and even though there were rumors of bombs, threats of bombs, and sometimes real bombs from a hardcore Maoist splinter group and a coalition of 33 allies who didn't join the election because, among other things, they said it was irresponsibly expensive (a point they decided to make by exploding some bombs)   ...

Temple doubled as polling place near my home
Nepal's voter turnout was 70 percent.

That's right. Compared to the US's measly 57.5 percent in 2012.

In Kathmandu, where people tend to actually live where they're registered, the turnout was 75 percent.

That's in contrast to the rural areas where a lot of people are officially registered but really live in Kathmandu or work in Malaysia or the Persian Gulf, and there are no absentee ballots, so if people want to vote they have to return to their home villages like players in some kind of mass Christmas pageant, and then the decree went forth that all the world may vote, but only from the house of thy parents, except Nepalis take buses instead of donkeys. If you want to vote at a place not your parents, you have to prove you really moved by getting a Migration Certificate to show you have a Permanent Residence that isn't mom and dad's, even 20 years later. And no, a driver's license or a lease won't "prove" it. The teashop owner below has lived in Kathmandu for 22 years, but could only vote by going back to Biratnagar, a 14-hour bus ride. And of course if you live where you're registered but it's mountainous and remote, the walk to the poll might be as long as five hours. Although that beats several days on multiple buses, followed by walking.

"Ease of voting is a factor in rates of voter turnout," the ever-helpful Wikipedia informs us. Which suggests that if Nepali voters didn't have to take arduous rides on buses that might have bombs tossed at them, or weren't busy building World Cup stadiums in Qatar and sometimes dying in the heat to earn money for a better life back in Nepal, the voter turnout would be what? Ninety percent?

But people voted in spite of potential "voter turnout dampening factors" that included at least one explosion (with two people injured) in Kathmandu the night before the election, and another one that went off outside a Kathmandu polling place during the voting and injured three people, including the eight-year-old boy who picked up the bomb thinking it was a toy. Here are some writeups from BBCAl Jazeera and Agence France Press which give confirmed details. We've seen  reports of other bombs and IEDs in the Nepali language press, and if you hang out for a while in any shop, everyone has a friend who saw a bomb or heard a bomb and is absolutely certain about it. Some of it might even be true.

And yet ... 70 percent. And not all of them are really votes cast using the name and voter I.D. of someone working in Qatar who has no idea he just voted. Pretty impressive, Nepal. Now if that Constitution can just get written ...

Here are a few shots from election day while I was bicycling around the 'hood on the beautifully clear-except-for-soccer-ball roads:

Above: Posters for a mainstream Maoist candidate.
Yes, we differentiate here between mainstream Maoists and splinter Maoists.
Below: U.N. observer takes picture of other U.N. observer.

Above: Collecting votes, under the eye of armed police;
Below: I counted no less than six ball games along one stretch of main road.
If you were a bicyclist, dodging those balls was almost as perilous as traffic.
(OK, not really. But there were some near misses.)

There's no John King and his Magic Board in Nepal, and no projections coming up at the top of the hour, so there's also no sitting around the TV waiting for the results to be announced. Counting starts today, by hand, of the votes cast by the roughly 8.4 million people who walked through shuttered streets, braved the pre-election strikes to take buses to their villages beforehand, trekked for hours over the mountains, and hobbled by cane to the polls to cast their votes ... in spite of being utterly disgusted and discouraged by Nepal's dysfunctional democracy.

One of these years, I hope they win.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Bunned in Kathmandu

Ever heard the expression, "What if they gave a war and nobody came?"

That's how the Kathmandu version of the current Huge Mega-Spectacular Multi-Episode 10-Day Bandh is turning out.

Before I get into the latest bandh, which is the Star Wars: Phantom Menace of bandhs (another episode? it'll be a SMASH! the BEST OF ALL! oh ... uhhhh ...), here's a word of explanation for those who have stumbled onto this blog from a place that is not Nepal. A bandh is what snow days would be in Washington DC if political parties could order the snow to fall. It's a general strike wherein one group tries to prove how many people agree with whatever statement they're making, so the city (or country) shuts down, in theory because everyone supports the statement, but in reality because (a)  it's a day off work and (b) you might get your shop windows broken or your motorbike or taxi or car torched, which makes a day off work sound like an extra good idea.

Unless, of course, you're a rickshaw wallah or a porter, in which case your work load increases. Sometimes literally.

Porter carries sofa on a bandh day. Note the high number of rickshaws,
and also the not-very-intimidated motorbike. Of course porters work like this on other days, too,
but sticking a sofa on a taxi or truck generally isn't an option during bandhs.

The current Bandh has been called by the Dash Maoists, who ...


... are a splinter group that broke off from the main Maoists and now call themselves the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, which is confusing because the party they broke with is the United Communist Party of Nepal and still another party is the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist)You'd see red just trying to sort it out. And that's before you get into the dozens of little parties. 

At any rate, their name has a dash, so they're called the Dash Maoists (Dash Maobadi) to set them apart from the Cash Maoists (Cash Maobadi), who include the main leaders from the insurgency who went into the government and presumably pocketed a lot of loot. You can read all about it in this article from the New York Times, wherein the wife of the leader of the Cash Maoists cheerfully admits to their reputation as shakedown artists. Incidentally, they're said to be called "Cashists" and "Dashists" by the Times, which rhymes nicely and is less unwieldy in journalesebut if you google it, you'll find the term "Cash Maoists" gets all the hits and "Cashist" and "Dashist" are just found in a few measly pages, which point back to the New York Times. Good article. But when the New York Times checks my blog, I want an explanation. With sources. Ahem.

Anyway, yesterday was Episode Three of the Ten-Day Mega-Bandh Directed by George Lucas. My day started with drum banging and music from a long line of Cash Maoists outside as they wound through the area politicking, since they actually are participating in the election that the Dash Maoists and their coalition of 33 supporting parties are boycotting for various reasons (some of them rather sensible, actually, but I won't get into it).

This turned out not to be the only noise during the bandh. The other noises were the beeping and honking of traffic.

Motorbikes. Taxis. Even public transport like micros and buses.

When I got to the chowk in our 'hood, it was being circled by scores of motorbikes going round and round and waving flags of Nepali Congress, one of the few major parties that does not have "Communist" in its name, zooooooom zooooooom take THAT you Dash Maoists, we're out here on our motorbikes, weeeeee!, and after that came lots of cars with Congress flags waving from the windows, nyanyanyanyanya.

Meanwhile, business owners drove their cars around the city to bravely show defiance in an anti-bandh rally, which had the unfortunate effect of clogging the traffic that wasn't supposed to be there. It seems that, as Republica reports in the wonderfully headlined article Life Normal in Capital, 10 Arrested, "the transport strike was foiled after laborers of the lower class and communities themselves started the services."

There's a radical notion. Rebel! Revolt! Power to the People! LET'S GO TO WORK!

Of course, there was another factor involved. The government had promised compensation for anyone whose vehicle was destroyed in the bandh, and somehow there were a surprising number of cruddy taxis and even buses (the cruddiest ones) on the road. Burn mine! Hey, burn mine! It's REALLY valuable!

So my husband, who like many people (including the "laborers of the lower class and communities") had decided to just go about his business as usual, and also to do it by car (heck, we wouldn't mind a brand-new car either), got stuck in a traffic jam caused by a protest against the lack of traffic.

Nevertheless, my son's school has closed down for a week. Maybe it's secretly a teacher's strike. The Teenager is not as happy as you'd think, given that it means Homework By Internet and also School on Sundays for a Month afterwards. Turns out school in Nepal isn't that different from homeschool after all. 

The Alleged 10-Day Strike will continue through the election next week, which will also cause its own shut-downs. All of which is well-timed to follow a month of festival-related shut-downs. 

So what's really happening out there? And how do we know? Well, we can check the news online, which I have helpfully screen-captured for posterity:

Nepal strike passes off peacefully

Times of India - ‎12 hours ago‎
KATHMANDU: A strike called to oppose the November 19 elections in Nepal went off peacefully even as traffic stayed off the roads and businesses were shuttered across the country.

Nepal opposition-called strike turns violent - ‎Nov 11, 2013‎
Dozens of Maoist activists were arrested as a general strike brought Nepal to a virtual standstill amid sporadic violence aimed at disrupting next week's elections.

OK, I give up.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Deushi Bhailo Sing-Along Cheat Sheet

Right now the nights are filled with song, because it's Tihar, the festival of the goddess of wealth, and people are out there working to get some of it. Remember that line in "Here We Come A-Wassailing" about "give us some figgy pudding, we won't go until we get some"? Well, Tihar singers won't go until they get their money. And it has to be the amount they want. It's as if trick-or-treaters stood outside making ghost and princess and Elmo noises until you gave them the whole bag of candy.

Whatever Lord-of-Misrule edginess used to exist in caroling and wassailing and trick-or-treating has long been scrubbed in the West into good clean well-regulated fun, but here in Nepal the spirit survives with raucous and extortionary enthusiasm in the tradition of Deushi Bhailo, a house-to-house songfest by mobs of makeshift minstrels armed with drums, dance moves and loud voices.

Many groups also come armed with electric guitars and amplifiers and Bollywood-meets-Michael Jackson dance moves, which they perform to pop music blasting from sound systems. You can tell these groups because they're really big, and they're often raising money for A Cause, such as their picnic later on. But I'm glad to report that traditional a capella Bhailo is still going strong, and that so far this year, we've mostly been feted by Bhailo-ites who are singing, drumming and strumming their own guitars with out-of-tune zeal. It's neighborhood music, by ordinary people, and sometimes we can hear two or three groups at once and it's great. (I exempt from praise the wedding band that showed up at nearly midnight and went bleeting and blooping around the neighborhood. That wasn't Bhailo. That was torture.)

I'll write a bit about Tihar and what it's really about in another post, and how we celebrate it in the village, which we sadly are not doing this year thanks to a kid's camping trip (fun) and a last-minute car breakdown (not fun). But for the moment, here's something on Deushi Bhailo, complete with a cheat sheet for anyone in Nepal and who is getting assaulted in Sensurround by people singing what sounds like EH BABA WAWA DO-SHEE-RAY! Next time they come, you can sing along. Or if you're hiding inside so they can't see you, you can whisper along.

Oil lamps on our balcony during Tihar, Festival of Lights. They're
supposed to welcome Laxmi, goddess of abundance. They also draw
Bhailo singers like helicopter-sized moths to the flame.
In Deushi Bhailo, neither the repertoire nor the lyrics are set in stone (although you'd probably appreciate a handy stone if you're getting Bhailo'd by a group with a sound system and bad pop music. Actually I deal with this, in the village, by telling them that if they want money, they're going to have to make the music themselves, because if the music can be canned I'll bring out my music, and I'll dance to my music, and then I'll charge them to watch me dance to my music. Because, well, what's the difference? Thus I single-handedly champion the live music folk tradition and entertain them by being a crazy foreigner. Two good deeds at once.)

But at some point, if it's an a capella Bhailo, the singers generally launch into a mish-mash of disconnected traditional verses that praise and bless the homeowners, tell them how much trouble the singers had getting to the house, and can be stretched out as long as possible until the homeowners emerge from hiding and deliver the hush money.

Some of it can also be made up on the spot, like a folk rap. And there are regional variants; in our family's area (the midwest terai and adjacent hills), the refrain of "Bhailo" is sung by men and "Deushire" by women, while in Kathmandu, it seems to be the reverse. Since both genders do Bhailo but men tend to do it in greater and rowdier numbers, this means that what we hear all night, if we're in the village, is BHAI-EE-LO! while in Kathmandu we're hearing DEU-SHI-RE!

It's done as a call-and-response, with the main singer delivering the lines and the whole group answering with the refrain (which is largely meaningless or has lost its meaning as far as most people seem to be concerned.) Here's a transcription of the basic Deushire, complete with a Nepali version of we are not daily beggars who go from door to door. In practice, the verses are mix-and-match and can change on the spot, and are limited only by the Bhailo players' imaginations and how much time they have before the homeowners hand over the loot.


deushire bhana (deushire!)       देउशिरे   भन            देउशिरे !
ramrari bhana (deushire!)         राम्ररी  भन              देउशिरे !
yo ghara ka (deushire!)            यो  घरका                देउशिरे !
gharadhani (deushire!)             घरधनी                   देउशिरे !

Deushire, say Deushire! Say it well!
To the owner of the house, deushire!

dubo jhain (deushire!)              दूबो  झैँ                    देउशिरे !
gajai jaon (deushire!)               गजाइ  जाउन             देउशिरे !
santana le (deushire!)              सन्तानले                 देउशिरे !
danda kanda (deushire!)          डाँडा  काँडा                देउशिरे !
dhakuna hai (deushire!)           ढा कु न्   है               देउशिरे !

May its offspring sprawl like dubo grass,
Covering every hill

[note: dubo grass has an extensive and sprawling root system, hence the reference]

yo ghara ka (deushire!)           यो  घरका               देउशिरे !
gharadhani (deushire!)            घरधनी                  देउशिरे !
bansa jhai (deushire!)             बाँस  झैँ                  देउशिरे !
nuhi jaun (deushire!)              नुही  जाउन              देउशिरे !

May the owners of this house 
Live to be ancient, 
Stooped like bamboo

raato maato (deushire!)        रातो  माटो                देउशिरे !
chiplo baato (deushire!)       चिप्लो  बाटो              देउशिरे !
lardai pardai (deushire!)       लड्दै  पड्दै                देउशिरे !
aeka hami (deushire!)         आएका  हामी             देउशिरे !

Red mud, slippery road 
Slipping and falling, we have come

tessai hami (deushire!)        तेसै  हामी                  देउशिरे !
magna aeka  (deushire!)      माग्न  आएका             देउशिरे !
hoinaun hai  (deushire!)       होइनौ  है                    देउशिरे !
Balirajale  (deushire!)          बलिराजाले                  देउशिरे !
pathaera   (deushire!)          पठाएर                       देउशिरे !
aeka haun (deushire!)         आएका  हौँ                  देउशिरे !

We haven't come just to beg,
We came because Baliraja sent us 

[Baliraja is a character said to have been so insanely generous and proud of his wealth that Vishnu eventually had to concoct a clever plan to kick him out of heaven and down to the underworld, where he visits him every month of Karthik. Which is now. So FYI, Vishnu is currently on holiday. If Baliraja sent the Bhailo players ... well, that's "good" like a white elephant is good. The homeowner had better ante up.]

yo ghar katro (deushire!)                 यो घर कत्रो              देउशिरे !
Singha Durbar jatro (deushire!)        सिंहदरबार  जत्रो        देउशिरे !
agan katro (deushire!)                     आँगन  कत्रो             देउशिरे !
Tundikhel jatro (deushire!)               टुंडिखेल  जत्रो            देउशिरे !

How big is this house?
As big as Singha Durbar!
How big is its courtyard?
As big as Tundikhel!

[This version may be specific to Kathmandu, with the local references to Singha Durbar, a vast old palace and seat of government, and the Tundihkel parade ground at the center of town, a kind of flat, scruffy Central Park. In our family's village the house would be simply "as big as a palace" and the courtyard as big as some local landmark.]

jhilimili kati (deushire!)           झिलिमिली  कति                देउशिरे !
keko jhilimili (deushire!)         केको झिलिमिली                 देउशिरे !
bhatti ko jhilimili (deushire!)    बत्तीको  झिलिमिली            देउशिरे !
phul ko jhilimili (deushire!)      फूलको  झिलिमिली              देउशिरे !

So very glittery!
What makes it glittery?
It's glittery with lights,
It's glittery with flowers

[It's also glittery, of course, because Tihar is The Festival of Lights, and houses are covered with lights and doors garlanded with flowers.]

And then there are some great ones, like this one we heard last night:

syau ko rukh ma (deushire!)        स्याउको  रूखमा                  देउशिरे !
amba ni phaldaina (deushire!)      अम्बा  नि  फल्दैन               देउशिरे !
saya ko note le (deushire!)          सयको  नोटले                     देउशिरे !
hami lai chaldaina (deushire!)      हामीलाई  चल्दैन                  देउशिरे !

You can't get guavas from an apple tree, 
And a hundred-rupee note won't work for us!

With a note of thanks to my long-suffering husband who helped me wade through the lyrics and did his best to make sure the Nepali spelling is correct. 

For anyone who has never had the joy of getting Bhailo'd (and maybe some who have), I've been looking for video of real, ordinary, door-to-door Deushi Bhailo to show what I'm talking about.

Update: I was just sent this YouTube video, which isn't exactly traditional, but it's great stuff from Jazzmandu 2013. Enjoy the Nepali reggae Deushire from about 3' 35", and on into a blazing hot Cuban version. Taste the sel roti global special! Very musically jhilimili.

Global Groovin' with a Fusion Deushi Bhailo at Jazzmandu:

Update No. 2: Late last night, three guys and a drum came by the house in a straggling effort to wring the last rupee out of the holidays, and I recorded this (audio only. Well, it was late. It DID look that dark.). It's a traditional Deushire with the lyrics above, more or less. Sadly I stopped recording just before our neighbor started yelling at them.  

Traditional-Style Kathmandu Deushire by 3 Guys and a Drum: