Christmas and New Year

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January 6th 2010
Published: January 6th 2010
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The important thing happening with my work right now is the music teacher workshop described in previous posts, but for this post I’ll take an interlude to describe my Christmas and New Year’s experiences in this Hindu/Buddhist country whose calendar is different from ours in the West.

“It’s been over a week since your last post!” --Yes, but these posts can only be as reliable as the electricity and internet connections that support their creation.

The day before Christmas was a very busy, very cold day for me. I taught the workshop that morning (day 2), then, realizing its necessity, set out to buy myself a nice warm blanket. I already had a blanket, but the weather was quickly approaching ‘two blankets necessary’ temperatures at night. There are a few types of blankets for sale around here, and none of them are very cheap. It’s possible to buy fleece blankets from China and Korea, and it’s also possible to buy locally made comforters that are produced by people whacking large piles of cotton/wool/insulation mix with big bamboo sticks outside in the middle of the street, dust flying everywhere, and then spreading the well-whacked mixture onto a large piece of red printed fabric (still outside in the middle of the street), and finally sewing another piece of fabric, by hand, on top of that, still outside in the middle of the street. I’ve stood on many streets (and some bridges) watching this happen, sometimes joined by a fellow audience of cows, chickens, monkeys, and dogs, for whom the street is their natural habitat. I bought a fleece blanket from Korea. The buying process took me some time, as I had to find a place, find a blanket, negotiate the price (a whopping 2,000 rupees), and then figure out how to get it home on my bike. By the time I finished it was getting on toward evening, and very nearly Christmas Eve proper.

I had some grand plans for Christmas Eve. I had been invited to three different parties—one with fellow Fulbrighters, one with another group of expat friends, and one with the British Council people—and I also was invited to play a special Christmas Eve gig at the restaurant where I usually play on Friday nights. I decided to do the restaurant gig first, then call the various parties to see which one would be the best to go to afterward. So much for plans. The gig turned out to be the same gig that we always play, the only difference being that it was Thursday instead of Friday. We didn’t play a single Christmas tune, and my attempts to quote Christmas tunes in my jazz/Eastern fusion solos were completely lost on the audience and on my fellow musicians. In addition, the audience wasn’t very big, so the gig wasn’t special even in comparison with other similar gigs. I left early and proceeded to make my phone calls. It was about 9:30 at night, and every one of the parties was ending. Frustrated, I remembered somebody at my usual bar saying that there might be a special show there that night, so in a celebration desperation I decided to give it a shot. The place was absolutely packed! There was a live rock band playing, and waiters were wearing Santa Claus hats as they served the customers with more Christmas cheer. It was such a big deal that they were charging admission for the show (not me, though—I’m on the VIP list). My usual friends were there—the movie actors and my bad-words-in-Nepali-language teachers—along with a full house of well-dressed Nepali young people. I talked, hung out, listened to the band, made friends, learned new words, and generally had a great time for a while. When the band ended the house blasted Bollywood dance remix music, so dancing really became my only option. Often in dance situations in Nepal it ends up that only the guys dance, and if there are girls at all they stand around and watch. Not at this bar. There were girls, guys, and one who didn’t look like he was sure one way or the other, all moving and shaking to the heavy, pulsing, reggaeton-like Bollywood beat. I had an excellent time dancing Christmas Eve away, but in the back of my mind there was still an emptiness that was meant to be filled with Christmas songs. I asked one of the bar owners about putting on a Christmas tune, but he responded with a kind of condescending smile, took me aside, and said, “This is Nepal. We don’t care about Christmas the way you care about Christmas in the States. It’s great fun, and it’s a great excuse for a party, especially in a bar, and that’s it. These guys want to party, not listen to Christmas music.” I asked him, in that case, why the waiters were wearing Santa Claus hats, but by the time my question came out he had moved on to a different conversation. I ended up leaving at around 3:30 am after hours of fantastic dancing, but in the end the only Christmas tunes I heard that night came from my own instrument in the context of an improvisation during a jazz/world instrumental fusion set.

Christmas Day started as a very lazy, relaxed, sleeping-in day for me. Of course I was tired from dancing the night before, but I was also keen to enjoy the magnified warmth of my bed as a result of my new blanket. I finally dragged myself out because Christmas Day is just a normal work day in Nepal, and I had to go to a Nepali language lesson. I treated myself to brunch at a nearby pizza place (a good thing about it being a regular work day is that everything is open), and proceeded to have a normal, nothing special, Nepali language lesson. My teacher and I read a short story about a dirt clod and a leaf bowl teaming up to help each other out against rain and wind, only to both be destroyed in the end by a big thunderstorm. After the lesson I went back to my apartment and listened to Christmas music on my computer by myself, shortly followed by a walk around the neighborhood. The big plan for Christmas day was to be a feast at the Fulbright director’s house, and I generally eased through the day with the music, the walk, and a little bit of reading in anticipation of the feast to come. It arrived in style—the director lives in an enormous house with heaters and supplemental generator power (to avoid the worsening scheduled city-wide blackouts), she had gone out and bought candy, cheese, drinks, and fancy crackers for starters, and she had a local expat-oriented restaurant cater a turkey, mashed potato, stuffing, and cranberry sauce dinner with pumpkin and minced-meat pies for dessert. Many many people showed up; most of the active Fulbrighters, the whole office staff, and a group of assorted Nepali friends all enjoyed dinner, company, and warmth at this feast. I was overwhelmed by the food suddenly available for me to eat—all of this traditional American food, and all at once. It was delicious, but my only reasonable course of action was to take full advantage and stuff myself past capacity during this short time of availability. Afterward I was sick with so much food, but I don’t regret it one bit. I only wish it was possible to get food like that often in little quantities rather than rarely in sickeningly gluttonous quantities. Dinner finished, I lounged around for a little while talking with friends, then left the house with a group bound for season 1 of ‘Northern Exposure’ on DVD at my apartment. We didn’t have Christmas movies, but we figured that Alaska (the setting of the series) is close enough to the North Pole to make the series an adequate Christmas substitute. No Christmas trees, no gifts, no carols, no pageants, no candy canes, and no sugar cookies, but still I had a very fun, satisfying Christmas experience.

New Year’s is quite a different story. My plan was to go to Pokhara (a somewhat touristy Himalayan lakeside city, and the starting place for many popular treks) with the fusion band I usually play with, play at a kickin’ New Year’s party at the Pokhara Grand 5 star hotel, sleep at the hotel and enjoy its heated air and hot running water, and enjoy the city on my downtime. Because I was with the band this would all be free of charge for me. The trip started out fine at 6 in the morning on December 30; it’s a 7-hour bus ride to Pokhara from Kathmandu, and I got to do it on a somewhat comfortable Greyhound-like big bus. My roommate came on the same bus; he and a bunch of other Fulbrighters would be in Pokhara for the New Year as well.

The big shock, and the news that would ultimately shape the attitude for the rest of the trip, was that the Pokhara Grand hotel overbooked and wouldn’t let us stay there. We were hired to play at their party, we would be making them money and attracting them customers, but we ourselves were not allowed to stay. You can imagine how we all felt. We expected, and deserved, a relaxing weekend with all of the luxuries of a nice hotel. Through mismanagement we were forced to rough it at a nearby hotel with no heated air (and little insulation), and no hot water. If I wasn’t scheduled to work for the benefit of the nice hotel, and if I was taking a personal vacation, I would happily stay at a basic hotel, and I would have a great time, but the fact remained that the hotel would benefit from my work, and they weren’t allowing me the experience of their services. The obvious course of action would be to cancel the gig, and I talked with the lead musician about this. He said that the hotel was only the host of the event, and that it was the event management company that didn’t do their jobs (book us and confirm us hotel rooms). Unfortunately, he was tied up personally with the guys in the event company, and to cancel would have bad and far-reaching ramifications for him. So in the end we all had to swallow the insult, put up with the injustice, and go on with the show as planned. I was upset, but I wasn’t as upset as the lead musician’s middle-school aged son, or his cousin’s girlfriend, both of whom came with the same expectations as I did, and both of whom were very nasty to him about the unwelcome surprise. To the lead musician’s credit, he did a masterful job of trying to keep everybody upbeat and preventing complete mutiny, all in the face of the same injustice as the rest of us. When the realization that alternate hotels would be a reality sunk in, we decided to take a walk around Lakeside—the touristy part of town. The walk was a disaster; people were in bad moods, complaining, tired, cold, etc. After some quick snacks at a roadside restaurant we went as a group to the nice hotel, ate dinner, and sullenly walked down the street to sleep at our basic hotels (the city was so full for New Year’s that we couldn’t all stay in the same basic hotel).

During the whole Pokhara trip I was part of two groups: the band, and the Fulbrighters. On that first night (the 30th) while I was with the group of musicians and family amongst our general frustration, the Fulbright group got together at a Lakeside restaurant and had a great dinner, talked and joked for a long time, and enjoyed the 11th annual Pokhara street festival that was going on at the same time. The main street in Lakeside was closed off to vehicle traffic, restaurants set up eating areas in the streets, vendors sold toys and candy and handicrafts, carnival games were set up for people to test their aim and their blindfolded jar-smashing skills, and assorted dancing troupes performed spontaneous shows along the strip. The Fulbrighters had a great time that night, and I was jealous. The next day I figured out that the only way for me to save the trip for myself would be to spend as much time with the Fulbrighters as possible. When I was with them, it was a vacation. When I was with the band, it was a disappointing business trip. This in mind, I set out on my own after breakfast to find those guys. I did, and we had a nice walk along the lake, ate lunch at a restaurant called ‘Bamboostan’, and scheduled a paragliding trip for New Year’s Day—sure to be a morale lifter and an excellent start to 2010! At 3:30 or so I wandered back to the Pokhara Grand for sound-check and other concert preparations. Still fuming about the hotel situation, I decided that I would try to stick it to the event company and insist that my friends get into the party for free (ticket price was 2,000 rupees). The time came, and I ushered my friends through the door, but the company stopped us and insisted that they buy tickets. I took them aside and explained the situation, forcefully, cluing them in on the rampant abuses against the band, and let them discuss amongst themselves in rapid-fire Nepali what to do about me. They got the lead musician in on their side at first, and for a while it looked like I would have to suffer another defeat if I wanted to continue my own friendship with the band. I brought him around to my side, though, and in the end we worked out a considerable discount for my friends. This made me feel quite a bit better, even though it was only a comparatively small amount of money. I finally got a chance to make the conflict explicit in front of the abusive company, and demand that they make a resulting concession.

Everything was great once the party started. Our very long sound-check resulted in a system that sounded great, no feedback, and I had my own microphone. The party was sold out, so we had a huge audience to play for, and the audience was being served food and drinks, so they became more and more festive as the night went on. We did our normal set, and didn’t play any better or worse than usual (though we might have played quite a bit better if we had been better-rested in the host hotel). We especially got a great response at the finale of our first set—a long instrumental fusion tune with great solos and an excellent back-and-forth between me and the guitar. Our group consisted of a tabla player, a djembe player, a guitar player (the lead guy), a bamboo flute player, and me on clarinet. We didn’t really rehearse (we played our usual set), so it was never clear who was to take the solos during the singing songs—me or the flute player—so there was kind of a tension, or a musical smack-down ‘king of the mountain’ between us for the rights to that precious solo time. His weapon was to start the solo before the right time, thereby being well into a groove before the time I would feel comfortable butting in. My weapon was a louder instrument with the power to drown him out. He won the first set, but I turned the tables at the first set finale and kept my momentum going through the second set. I thought the tension was great—I’m sure it added to the performance musically, and it was a fun kind of battle-of-the-wills. Our second set ended at 10:00, and for the last two hours before midnight a DJ took over. Again I found myself dancing to pulsing Bollywood remix music on the night before the holiday! I loved it, and I’ll always remember my New Year’s party in Pokhara, Nepal. When the New Year came there was no sign that Auld Lang Syne would have anything to do with the celebration, so I decided to take the mantle of responsibility for making it happen. I got my instrument back out, interrupted the MC, and played it solo. It didn’t really catch on outside of the small group of Americans, so I only played one chorus, but it had to be done, and I’m glad I did it.

Nepal being the politically roiled country that it is, it came as no surprise that New Year’s Day would be a general country-wide strike, called and enforced by the Maoist party. As mentioned above, I had paragliding plans that day, and I wasn’t going to let something as piddly as a strike get in the way of my celebration. The other Fulbrighters with me were of the same opinion, so the day before when we were negotiating with the paragliding agency we told them that we would be willing to hike up to the launch site in the case that the strike would halt transportation. They agreed, saying that they would be open and would arrange our trip regardless of the political situation. That’s what they said, but when we went to the office the next day it was closed. We called every number we knew for them, and finally succeeded in getting a representative to open up for us. Apparently they decided the day before not to work after all, but they didn’t call to tell us that. Under our pressure they then made some calls to try to find pilots (something they were supposed to have done the day before), and at long last arranged a trip for us. This took a long time, and instead of being up in the air at 11:30 like we had planned, we didn’t even start our 2-hour hike to the launch site until 1 pm. The hike was fantastic—we climbed up a sub-tropical Himalayan foothill ridge with views of the mountains above us and of the lake below. The trail was dense with various tropical-looking large-leafed trees and bushes, enormous ants fighting on tree trunks, and huge spiders hanging out in their globe-webs waiting for unfortunate souls to fall into their traps. We climbed higher and higher, and the view became ever-more magnificent. Also, we had a long time to get to know our pilots on the hike up. There were four of us, so we had four pilots, and I talked at length with mine, a Russian guy who used to be an officer in the Soviet Army and now owns a light aviation firm in south Russia. He was great, and we had plenty to talk about. He travels every winter now to paraglide in warmer climates, he had been in Nepal for 3 weeks thus far, and he is planning on spending another 2 months here. A friend of his from Russia was another one of our pilots, and my roommate got to know him really well. My roommate lived in Russia for a while, and he speaks quite a bit of the Russian language. We had such a good time with the pilots that we took them out to dinner after we landed. When we finally reached the launch site on the top of the ridge the weather started to turn against us. All of a sudden the sun was hidden behind clouds, and the mountains were disappearing in hazy skies. A half hour earlier, my pilot said, and we would soar above the ridge toward the mountains; like this, he said, and we will have a short ride. At the launch site I was greeted by a cadre of Nepali Armed Police Force officers in full uniform. I feared the worst, momentarily, this being during a strike and all, but I was put at ease when the General cheerily asked if he could watch the proceedings. He was researching the whole thing for his son, finding out how it works so that he could send his kid up in the future. We had a great conversation—he said he went to Airborne and Ranger school in the US at Ft. Benning, and I told him he might have met my brother there. Before I launched I got a great picture with him and his family.

Finally—launch! The directions were to run as fast as you can off the cliff and toward the lake, so I did. And then I flew. We circled around the ridge for a while looking for thermals, but since it was so late in the day and the sun was going in and out of the clouds it was very difficult. The pilot was great, and he did what he could, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was my first time flying without a motor—I could look straight down on the earth, straight up into the sky, and around me in every direction. We spun around on the ridge, flew over the lake, and flew over the city. I could look straight ahead at the Japanese World Peace Pagoda on the lake’s far ridge. I could see the valley river that feeds into the lake, and wave at all the people enjoying the street festival in Lakeside Pokhara. I didn’t feel weightless—on the contrary, I felt like I was sitting quite solidly in a chair; the chair just happened to be suspended in the air by a large piece of fabric. The wind blew in my face, but I hardly noticed it. My pilot let me borrow a stick to put my camera on to be able to take pictures of myself in the air, and I’ve included some of these in the post.

The weather never did cooperate to my pilot’s satisfaction, so we were forced to land after only 15-20 minutes of air time. It was the same situation for all of us Fulbrighters—the sun just went down too fast for us. We held the organizing agency responsible; if they did their jobs we would have had great weather and long flights at 11:30. As it was we didn’t launch until 4 hours later. Upon arriving back at the office to settle up we did some hard negotiating, and settled on a discounted price that we felt was suitable for the amount of time we spent in the air. This company was much more reasonable than the New Year’s Eve party management company, and they even apologized to us sincerely after the transaction was completed. This done, we went out for a sweet snack and a toast. Dinner with the pilots was at a very good Chinese restaurant they discovered from living there, and we exchanged stories from the US and Russia, talked about music, dress, food, Nepal, etc. At the end of the meal we exchanged email and phone numbers, and when they arrive in Kathmandu in a few months we’ll go out again. One good thing that came from the strike was that we got to spend so much time with the pilots. Many clients ride jeeps up the hill, jump, and spend an hour at most with the guys. We were with them all day. After dinner we bade goodbye to the Russians and walked around Lakeside for a little while. We had in mind to find a place to dance, but it didn’t work out. Instead we stayed on the street and enjoyed the last gasps of the festival.


10th January 2010

mailing address?
Robert, Do you have a mailing address in Nepal? If so, email it to me. I've got something to send you. - Chase

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