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.