Friday, March 25, 2016

Today is our last day in Kathmandu.


We started the day by interviewing Leela Mani Poudel who had been the Minister of Cultural Affairs in Kathmandu for many years. He was instrumental in starting the Saturday morning river cleanups, which have become a weekly event. These river cleanups have been very successful and have included over 150,000 residents working on 11 different sites on the river. They regularly collect several tons of garbage that are then deposited in a landfill. Tomorrow will be the 150th Saturday and many celebratory events are planned. He also provided important information about upcoming plans for building sewage treatment plants and putting in sewage lines. Apparently the pipes are planned to be in place in five years.

After his interview, we went back to Barbar Mahal Revisited to meet with William Holton from the US Embassy. Although our meeting was short, it was extremely productive.  He offered many opportunities for partnering together in the next few months.
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After our discussion, Jason and I had lunch and then at 2 o’clock we went to talk to Sangeeta’s 89 year-old father. He shared stories of growing up on the banks of the Bagmati and playing in its water throughout his childhood. He mentioned that one of the saddest moments in his life was when his father passed away, and he could not bathe in the badly polluted waters of the sacred river as is Hindu custom. It was clear that this had bothered him for several decades.
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After the interview we headed back to the hotel to pack and shower. The family who owns the Shakya House gave us some going away presents and hugs!

We are now at the airport. It is 7:35 pm, as we await our 8: 55pm flight. I can start to feel myself shutting down after our two busy weeks. It was very productive, and there are many unexpected opportunities available for our project.

The blog will continue with periodic updates.

Thank you for following along in our adventure!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

It’s 9:30 pm and the dogs that have been sleeping all day are now having a full-blown concert. When I mentioned this to the residents here, they mention that they have gotten used to it over the years. I have found that earplugs are a necessity in the evenings in the city.
It was going to be a busy day, but it turned out to be pretty chopped up with not as much getting done as we had planned. We have been pretty fortunate up to today with getting a lot accomplished every day.
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We started our day strong with Erina Tamraker’s and Asha Dangol’s studio visit. We had met Erina at a painting event on the banks of the Bagmati last week, and she was nice enough to invite us to come to her studio to look at her work. This husband and wife team, who work independently most of the time, worked in a studio complex that housed seven artists who have been sharing a studio complex for 20 years.

IMG_2940 ashha eartquake 100 Each small studio was filled with stacks of paintings that they’ve been accumulating over the years. Each artist’s work was very different from the others, but we saw many paintings dealing with the Bagmati River and other issues relating to Kathmandu and Nepal.

IMG_2921 erina bagmati 100We looked at several paintings before heading out to our next meeting back at Barbar Mahal Revisited. We met with Sangeeta Thapa and discussed the show a bit more. I took some drawings of the gallery space where my exhibition and video screening is going to be presented next fall.

IMG_2933 kathmandu pollution 100We had two hours to kill before our 4 o’clock appointment, so we ran to Kathmandu Durbar Square, where we got a tour of the many temples including the Kama Sutra Temple. It was sad to see so many temples damaged by the earthquake including the “The Hip
pie Temple”, where 80 people died during the earthquake when a blood donation drive was occurring.

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We walked briskly back to the gallery for another meeting but found out that it had been postponed until the next day.

We decided to go back to the hotel, put away our camera equipment, take a shower, pack and go the Fire and Ice Restaurant where we met Sangeeta again to discuss exhibition opening dates, exhibition plans, a bit about her life, her family and Nepali culture and politics.

Tomorrow we fly out but first we have three meetings.
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We have been very busy and sometimes we get so overwhelmed with everything around us and with our schedule that we forget where we are. I periodically catch myself and say, “Oh yeah, I am half way around the world in Kathmandu….that’s pretty cool”… and then I get sucked up again.

It’ll hit me when I home thinking back on these two weeks. Next November I hope to take it a bit easier.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

IMG_2893 jasonWe had another busy day, which started with our usual walk to the studio at the Kathmandu Contemporary but this morning we met with the director of the Patan Museum. He showed us a print from the collection depicting the river as it flowed by the holiest Hindu temple located in Kathmandu. We photographed the work created in 1800s for use in our publication. He also showed us parts of an earthquake-damaged sculptural tower that was going to be restored later in the summer by a team from the US. Since there was no electricity again in the city and the museum was dark, he provided a tour of the impressive sacred courtyards on the grounds. He explained the roles of the many Hindu deities represented in the sculptures and carvings. It is a complicated topic and one that will take a good deal more studying to fully understand.

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I had some time before our next appointment, so I spent an hour drawing part of Durbar Square outside the Museum.

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At 2 pm, we interviewed Dr. Bandana Pradhan who is a public health expert on the effects of the Bagmati River on its residents. Her interview was very informative, and we discussed her toxicity mapping of the river.

At 3pm, as a favor to the musical duo we had recorded earlier in the week, we were scheduled to record more songs, so they could produce a CD of their work. Unfortunately, they cancelled due to a family emergency.

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Our next interview arrived early, and we were able to document Sujan Chitrakar, the director of the School of Art and Design at Kathmandu University. His interview was short but very compassionate. Afterwards, we discussed how we could work together with the students to design and publish a brochure and poster that would be used to disseminate public health information about the Bagmati. He was very interested in the project and will be sharing it with his seniors next week. We also talked about working with his fine arts students to create work about the Bagmati to include in the exhibition in November and the touring exhibition back in the States.

We ended the day, having dinner with Dr. Bibhuti Jha, an aquatic biologist from KU, who agreed to provide us images of the snow trout found in the protected area at the headwaters of the Bagmati. The dinner was very enjoyable as was his company. We tried a few more new dishes. Specifically, a potato roll which was a spiraled out potato, layered in spices and fried.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

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As I write this, it’s 9:30pm and I can hear drums, horns and singing in the streets mixed with dogs barking and a plane taking off in the far distance.

Today is a Hindu holiday, Happy Holi. The festival celebrates the victory of good over the devil, the arrival of spring, the arrival of the upcoming rains, the celebration of old and new friendships and embracing joy. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?!

Since most residents do not work today, everything was closed and no one was interested in meeting with us. We accepted an invitation from our young hotel owner, Saajan, and his brother, Swodesh, to go celebrate the festival with them.

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The morning started by Saajan’s and Swodesh’s mother coming to my room and joyfully putting colored pigment on my face. A couple hours later, we were walking to a location where most of the holiday celebrators were congregating. Along the way we had more pigments applied to our faces by happy strangers and periodically got soaked by water balloons being tossed by young snipers in apartment buildings.

We could hear the music of the venue from blocks away. When we arrived, there were hundreds of residents dancing to the music coming from huge speakers. The crowd was outside what looked like a hotel and inside the hotel was a large pool filled with gray water. The color was probably a result of the polluted tap water and a mixture of pigments being washed off the people in the pool. I have never seen so many happy people celebrating without the influence of alcohol. That’s not to say that a few might have been under the influence, but there was no one staggering around, out-of-control or acting in an angry manner. There was just clear-minded joy and celebration. This was a part of Kathmandu that I had not seen. Amongst the hardship and losses from the earthquake, the people remain in touch with their ability to embrace the good and joy in their lives, in their family, in their friends and in their culture.

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We left our guests at the celebration and started the long walk home to get cleaned up to meet Dr. David Gillette at Kilroy’s in Thamel. I’m not sure if I have mentioned that David grew up in Fredonia where Jason and I live now. We spent our dinner enjoying each other’s company and discussing how our lives brought us to academia and our love for teaching and research.

Monday, March 21, 2016


This morning was spent at the Kathmandu Contemporary Art Center as I was being interviewed by Abhaya Joshi from OnlineKhabar and Smriti Basnet from the Nepali Times. Abhaya had some very good questions and I am looking forward to reading his interpretation of our project. Amriti has come to the lecture earlier in the week and was asking some more questions as she laid the groundwork for her article in the fall. In November, we will be returning to present the project in Siddhartha Gallery and participate in some outreach activities. Any free time Jason and I had between interviews was spent scheduling additional interviews and research for the last few days. I was also able to create a quick drawing in the museum courtyard.

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Yesterday was the worst day of The Kathmandu Cough that was caused by the pollution but today was much better. I drank a lot of hot water, lemon juice and honey. It’s a remedy that seems to be on every menu in the area. My wife, Janeil, makes a similar version with a shot of rum which nicely complements the concoction.

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The afternoon was spent on documenting two interviews for the documentary and book. The first was Dr. Deep Narayan Shah who is a water quality specialist on the Bagmati River. He is a professor at Kathmandu University and is one of the directors of the Bagmati River Expedition 2015. The Expedition recently completed a comprehensive report on the Bagmati which is the scientific core of our project. The second interview was with Dr. Ram Devi Tachamo Shah. Her specialty is the climate change effects on the Himalayas and their effects on the Bagmati and the Kathmandu Valley. She is also a professor at KU and worked on the Expedition.

mrs shah

Both professionals gave up teaching positions in Europe to return to Nepal  to create positive change in their homeland. They made a difficult decision that has created professional and personal fulfillment while endangering the quality of their own health and that of their child.

After the interviews, we all went out to dinner to further discuss the best ways to disseminate the Expedition’s data through our project so that we could reach the underserved populations who live along the river.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

At breakfast this morning, we read in the paper that Kathmandu is the third most polluted city in the world. My brother-in-law heard the news and mentioned that I do pick the strangest places to vacation.

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After breakfast, we went to the museum, which was preparing for a visit by Prince Harry . There was a swat team inside the Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Center (KCAC) and the square was empty of all pedestrians. We had no problems, however, getting the new musicians who were going to record into the museum. We had commissioned two traditional musicians  to write and perform a song about the Bagmati River to include in the project’s documentary. When they heard the playback on the recorder, they smiled and excitedly shared the headphones. They had never heard their voices recorded. They asked if they could play another song, and we have scheduled to record their entire group on Wednesday. We will be giving them digital files. Jason will  design the CD cover, and they will have something that they can use to archive and promote their traditional music in the area.

After the recording session, we went across Kathmandu to Guheswori to photograph the middle school and high school art students depicting their dreams for the Bagmati River. We hope to document a cross-section of artists as they reflect Nepali culture and their depiction of the environment.

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After meeting the judges and photographing the work, we headed back to the KCAC to meet with Sangeeta Thapa, the director of the Siddhartha Art Gallery where we will be presenting the project in November. We discussed the exhibition and then headed back across the city to her gallery. We looked at the three floors and started creating a preliminary plan for the exhibition. We also discussed how to ship the works back to the United States after the exhibition came down, and discussed which works by local artists to include in the show. The Burchfield Penny Art Center is interested in touring the exhibition. After our meeting Jason and I walked around the Baber Mahal Revisited before we went back close to Patan and stopped at a grocery store to pick up some cough drops and honey to alleviate my cough, which I have a had since I arrived.

We ended the evening at Thai Ghar, which has become one of our favorite local restaurants.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Erina Tamraka
Erina Tamrakar with her painting: Swastani Bratta Katha

Today was a very productive day. Our morning started on the banks of the Guheswori temple where a group of professional artists were painting their dreams of the Bagmati River. The event was hosted by the High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of the Bagmati Civilization (HPCIDBC) and Nepal Arts Council. We found out that this was the same location where they had done the stream clean earlier in the morning, and the banks were spotless. These weekly cleanups have provided new respect for the river and a sense of hope to the communities. Downstream communities have also noticed a decrease in trash since the Saturday morning activities have started. Unfortunately, the toxicity of the water in the river remains a dire concern. Next week will mark the 150th week anniversary of this initiative.

We spoke to the event organizers about our project, and they were very excited to have us document the finished paintings and the artists later in the day. We decided to use the opening in the schedule to go to Chovar and document the last water test site as the river flows out of the city and valley. A half hour later, we arrived at the location where the river had sliced through a thin narrow slit in the mountain creating a spectacular view.


Unfortunately, we could smell the river as soon as we stepped out of the car, and the water was black with sewage and pollution. This was the worst condition we have seen to date. Nepal seems to be a country of extremes. It is rich in culture, beautiful landscapes and generous people but has a high poverty level and severe pollution in the cities. A metaphor for this was evident near the temple where a film crew was filming a music video of a beautiful woman wearing a silk dress perched on a large rock. Below the rock the ground was covered with layers of garbage, but she was filmed from the waist up, so this was not evident.


P1030551 chovar drawing 100

After finishing my documentation, we drove back through the crowded streets of Kathmandu to Guheswori where we photographed 16 artists and their paintings. I was really fortunate that this came together the way it did because I had wanted to find artists whose work dealt with the river and here we had a lot them together in one location with their work!

Tomorrow we will go back and shoot the Bagmati River artwork from the public school art competition. Everything is coming together and next week we have scheduled meetings with health professionals, members of the press, artists, and more water quality specialists.


Friday, March 18, 2016

Look what showed up in the newspaper at our breakfast table this morning!

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Today was a full day of documentation. I woke up at 4:30 am after going to bed at 11pm. Almost close to enough sleep, but it worked out because I was able to get ready for the upcoming day, write the blog entry and edit the motorcycle video. Because it took so long to download, we finished the blog that evening. I know it sounds confusing, but Jason and I are trying to keep several balls in the air at the same time. After breakfast, we headed upstream to two water test sites. We have selected four sites on the river to concentrate our efforts on for the project. One is at the headwaters, one is just outside of the city before the river enters the city, one is downtown at a UNESCO Heritage Site, and the other is at a location as the river leaves the city. After today, we will only have one more site to document with photographs, video and a quick drawing. More artwork will be created later.  The last site we hope to document tomorrow as we work through our long “to do” list.

When we arrived at the first site at Guheswori, we found the banks filled with vegetable gardens and residents walking the stream and collecting water for their gardens. I mentioned in a previous blog entry, the water is extremely polluted, and, due to frequent flooding, the soil along the banks is in a similar state. It is sad to see such committed efforts being so counterproductive.

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The second site was at Guheswori, a holy Hindu site where funeral pyres often occur. The residents had made a makeshift barrier to slow the flow of water during flood season but this obstruction also collected garbage and remnants from the funeral rites. Monkeys and cows walked the banks as children filled their sandwich bags with polluted river water to use as water balloons.

 P1030545 guheswori 100We took a short walk over the hill to the holiest Hindu temple in Nepal and a UNESCO Heritage Site, Pashupati. This location is by far the most complicated and difficult site to describe. The hillside is filled with over a hundred religious temples, sculptures and bells. The main activities seem to be centered at one location along the river, which is nestled in a valley of tall temples. As we walked down the wide stone stairway, we saw a funeral pyre in process and two others going through the initial part of the ritual. Male members of the families were carrying the bodies wrapped in bright orange cloth down to the water to dip the feet of the deceased in the river. The air was filled with smoke and the smell of burning incense and grasses and the sounds of prayers, family members crying and loud trumpets announcing the next body coming to the river. The short bridge that linked the two banks was filled with Nepalese residents coming to fulfill their pilgrimage to the temple and tourists from around the world like us. All stood in silence mesmerized by what was occurring in front of them.

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We ended our research by going to what some feel is the holiest Buddhist temple in Nepal, Swayambhunath. As one would expect, the feel of this experience was very different. All sites in Kathmandu had experienced some earthquake damage but this site had its most prominent sculptures intact. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Today we started our day at the Kathmandu Center for Contemporary Art where Jason and I got our museum ID pass to get us into the Patan Dunbar Square daily for no charge. We also tried to figure out the complexities of getting SIMM cards for our phones to arrange our upcoming interviews with the press. After a long complicated process, mine never worked and Jason’s was functional only after several hours.

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Before we went to our 2:30pm meeting at Kwalakhel Chowk to meet with Dr. Shah, Jeff Davis and  Shristi Vaidya  (water quality and groundwater specialists). I tried to do a marker rending of the square. Not sure if my experiment worked, but I plan to return to do more drawings this week.


A funny thing happened at our 2:30 meeting, Dr. Shah decided that we should go to a quieter location and asked Jeff if he could drive us to the next meeting place. He seemed to have a strange look on his face. I figured that he must have a small car, or it was full of stuff, but that was not the reason. See the video below .

The meeting was very educational and we spent three hours discussing the complexities of pollution in the city and the Kathmandu Valley. The more we talk to professionals about the project, the more we value what we are doing while also realizing the severity of the situation.

 After the meeting, we walked back across town to the Patan Museum to meet Dr. Gillette and his father-in-law and brother-in-law who had taken a 26-hour bus ride to apply for VISAs to visit the States. We ended up walking back to where we had just come from to have a wonderful meal at the Roadhouse Cafe where I had a spicy Tandori pizza. Overall, the food has been great!  We have been walking quite a bit since we arrived. We are averaging 10 miles everyday.

 The main issues for us are the regular power outages (today: 8am-4pm and 7-12pm) and poor internet service, which has been a significant obstacle to overcome when creating the videos and blogs.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Today we drove out of Patan, the center of fine art and Buddhist and Hindu culture and crossed the river into Kathmandu, as we ventured up to the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park. In the park, we hoped to document the headwaters of the Bagmati River and the site where the Bagmati River Expedition 2015 collected its water samples. We’ll be using the data from these samples in our project.

Driving through Kathmandu, one experiences the controlled noisy chaos of crowded streets filled with cars, motorcycles, bicycles, carts, buses, Mad Max-looking constructed vehicles and pedestrians trying to find their way through the congestion. Many of the pedestrians wear masks over their mouths to protect themselves from the toxic dust being displaced. There are no traffic signals, but everything keeps moving slowly through the use of horns and everyone taking turns as they precariously move inches past each other. The sidewalks are filled with people walking underneath cobwebs of the thousands of electrical lines that hang overhead.

As we moved out of town, we started to see the Bagmati River more clearly and the poverty that is evident throughout most of the Kathmandu Valley and Nepal. These are the neighborhoods most affected by last April’s earthquake and by the lack of services throughout the country.

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As we got closer to the headwaters, we saw mothers washing clothing while others were bathing in the polluted waters of the river. Gardens lined with rows of vegetables and plants border the banks of the Bagmati, as the residents continue to use toxic water to irrigate the already polluted soil. I wonder if this is out of desperation or lack of awareness or perhaps a bit of both. It is clear that these residents are in dire need of assistance and that they struggle everyday; however, in conversations with them, they are filled with realistic optimism and a commitment to do “good”. They are friendly and full of joy. The children always seem be have their arms around each other and are full of love and childish exuberance. It is a bittersweet scene.

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Before we got to the national park, we parked our car at the base of the mountain and then walked steeply uphill for an hour past the cliff side businesses that precariously line the rock path to the park entrance. The pollution started to thin out as we approached the national park and soon the Bagmati appeared clear as it flowed down the rock formations into deep clear pools. We hiked upstream a ways until we found the GPS location where the water sample was collected. Jason Dilworth and Dr. David Gillette explored the stream as I shot footage, took photographs and created a quick line drawing of the site.

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As I sat very still working on my drawings, goats arrived and began eating the grass next to my hip. I moved to get my iPhone to shoot a quick video, but the goats moved away just as others started down from the hilltop.

We continue to get lost every evening in Patan, because the electricity goes off every night around 6:30pm. We walk through the narrow crowded, pitch-dark, unlabeled streets trying to avoid the motorcycles, as they whiz inches from us while we try to find recommended restaurants. We are rarely successful and seem to end up back at the same cafe near our hotel minutes before the restaurants close down.

It continues to be an adventure every hour of everyday!