Thursday, April 26, 2012

Introduction: Namaste

This journal was written for personal use, but I would like to share it with friends and family (and whoever else may be interested). As a result of being scratched down in the wee hours of the morning, it is not polished or necessarily properly written. I apologize for any roughness of style or improper grammer, etc. I have made some minor edits or added details when necessary, but otherwise, this is my journal as it appears in hard copy. Whenever you see "Note:" I am adding something in at a later time.

Bicycle cart.
You will also find here photos and short videos taken with my little Canon Powershot (it is useless indoors, so apologies for the poor indoor pics). These photos are completely unedited and are not cropped. I also had a little dictaphone with me so that I could record sound clips without video (they are the red boxes). I hope you enjoy this multi-media experience! Please contact me at or leave comments here if you wish - I would love to hear about other Nepal experiences.
The offices.


I live in a small Canadian town in the Rocky Mountains and I recently found my wildest dreams coming true when I spent a week teaching knitting in Kathmandu, Nepal. I design knitted hats for a locally run company, Ambler Hats. Their Himalayan line of hats are all hand knit in Nepal through a company called Everest Fashions who manufacture wholesale hats, as well as tons of other knit, crochet and felted items for many customers around the world. They employ local women in surrounding villages to work from home, making extra money for their families while still being able to care for their households and children. The company is over 90% females. 

The house.
Everest Fashion is a family run business, owned by a grinning gentleman, Maheswor, located right in Kathmandu, in an area called Sadhu Batu. Although many members of the actual family work there, they also treat all of their workers as close family. While I was visiting, I stayed in their gorgeous guest room, ate huge delicious meals with the family, played with their children (the house always seemed full of raucous kids) and was treated to some local sights like markets, temples and festivals. They are the most hospitable, generous people in the world. I was treated like a Nepali goddess. Truly while you are in Nepal, "Guest is God" (a local saying).

Their "factory" and offices are made up of about three buildings and is next door to their house, creating a large type of homestead-complex that has lovely courtyards and vegetation (a very nice escape from the pollution and bustle of the city proper). I hesitate to call it a factory because that calls images of sweat shop-type spaces to mind. This place is spacious, open and well-lit - a wonderful space to work in. The workers seem so happy and joyful all the time, eager to exchange greetings (namaste), and smiling must be their favourite thing to do besides knitting. 

Read on for the whole story!


Day One: Delhi

Friday, March 30th.

Lesson of the day: NEVER FLY TO DELHI...EVER.

Mudras in the Delhi airport.
Note: As a prologue to this entry, it should be noted that I have very bad luck when flying. I have never had a bag lost, however, out of my last five destinations (pre-Nepal), four of the flights have been canceled (one was "only" delayed six hours, not canceled). I am so used to being told that I have to spend the night in the airport, that I am no longer surprised by the news. I always arrive at the airport stocked with books, knitting projects and food, just in case. I pack my toiletries in my carry-on and also a change of clothes. I even bring along a light bedspread, which I have learned is a travel necessity. I also warned my travel partner and employer, Jackie, before leaving for Nepal that disaster would likely strike in some form. I don't think she believed me. Okay, maybe "disaster" is too melodramatic a word to use when talking about planes...

First class plane ticket to Nepal. This will likely never happen to me again in this lifetime. And I have paid for it in my way. I have been more or less awake for two full days. I am now sitting on the floor of the airport in Delhi, but in the last 48 hours, I have gone from Calgary  to Amsterdam and then on to Delhi where the ticket agent informed me flatly, "You are not on this flight". We had an eight hour layover in Delhi on our way to Kathmandu and had sensibly planned to pay for a nice, cushy hotel bunk for the night so we would be refreshed for our first (and only free) day in Nepal. Best laid plans, eh?

I had spent the previous nine hours flying from Amsterdam seated next to an enthusiastic German lady who spent most of our flight guffawing and crying out in her guttural tongue and even going so far as to roughly shake her seat (and mine) and everyone's all around her during bursts of obnoxious behaviour. As no sleep was to be had (without heavy drugs), I think I would have preferred to be seated next to a screaming infant. After such a long time in such a cramped seat, all I could think about was stretching out my stiff legs in a bed in Delhi and resting my head on a pillow. Just for a little while. 

Flying into Delhi has a very different view than our orderly Canadian cities offer at night. This city is a squall of orange lights with no apparent organization. An ancient city. Being in India and unable to explore anything save the Westernized airport is the ultimate tease for me. I long to explore India. 

Live music in the Delhi airport.

We arrived at 11:00 pm local time and spent the next six hours trying to figure out why my booking had been canceled. Six hours of useless phone calls to the travel agent back home, receiving many irritating, non-committal head waggles to direct questions in India, and listening to no less than seven ticket agents jabbering to each other and their cell phones and being constantly told, "Just wait. 10, 15 minutes. You go wait." Our travel agent insisted that the booking was normal on her end, not canceled, and that there was also extra room on the flight. Very peculiar.

In the end we managed to buy the only available seat to Nepal in the next two days (or so we were told) on a different airline, Air India. We were told that otherwise, I would have to wait in Delhi for the next 24-48 hours until a seat opened up. I should also mention that the room we had to wait in was void of any accessible food or water save a few questionable vending machines. Many people were sleeping on the floor, leading me to believe that we weren't the only ones being screwed by the Delhi airport. 

Naturally, once you obtain that elusive boarding pass, you are scoured from head to toe by grumpy custom agents in official uniforms. They were very suspicious of my knitting needles. Luckily, all they found was a sock project on steel double pointed needles. They didn't dig down to the dozen pairs of circulars or my entire roll of crochet hooks and double points. After exchanging stern glances with each other and some dramatic eyebrow raising, they let me through with all my belongings. Women must go in a separate line and duck into a curtained booth to be searched and then you enter the real airport. This section is part mall-for-yuppies (Versace and high priced liquor and cigars) and part haven (having just emerged from the airport room of hell). It was startling to see the security casually sporting huge machine guns here. 

After we finally got my booking sorted out, we realized there was no point in sleeping now and that we were really hungry. It was just after 4 am, so we actually got McDonalds (the first in years for me). Then we toured a gorgeous Indian shop where they had live sitar music. There was a large pool where you could wade and refresh yourself (we didn't, even though we probably could have used it at that point!). Then it was almost 5 am and our flights were at 7:30, so we went to our respective gates.

So, Jackie and I are on separate flights, which miraculously depart within five minutes of each other. And that is how I ended up with a first class ticket to Nepal. I have never been so relieved to get a boarding pass in my hot hands. Usually my flights are just canceled. A much more simple problem.
All things considered, it could have been much worse.

Day Two: Thamel

Saturday, March 31.


The house.

My bedroom.
I am currently sitting in bed writing this with my headlamp because there is no power and I'm trying to hurry because in the last three days I've slept about eight hours - half of which were awful hours on the plane. But what a day! The first thing I noticed when we landed was the amazing smell. Earthy, spicy and a little bit hot and smokey.

"Show me your hockey faces!"
Jackie, teaching the boys to play hockey.
We were picked up at the airport and Maheswor's (from now on referred to affectionately as "M") youngest son, Soogum (almost four years old), was having a tantrum. But he still wanted to sit on my lap in the front seat and beat his small fists on my palms. M also drives a Toyota Corolla - same as us! Driving around the city is utter chaos. There are no lanes, signs or signals. Incessant honking, cars, motorbikes and pedestrians all vie for a spot on the road. That's not including stray dogs, chickens and cows who wander all over the city freely. Even with all that madness, seatbelts don't seem to be a all. Mine didn't even work, but that didn't stop me from habitually trying to click it together every time I got in the car. It's not against the law not to wear it and it seems acceptable to pile in as many people as possible into one vehicle.

Shanta on Kathmandu roads:

Guard dog, Jack.
Marble staircase.
Their home is very grand. It is gated with a lovely, stone courtyard, large columns out front and an incredible marble staircase that curls up three storeys. My bedroom is spacious and four large windows ensures plenty of light. To use my bathroom, I have to go outside onto the third floor balcony and then into a separate room. The washroom is typically Western, although there is no shower curtain across the tub - the water just goes wherever. Jackie is staying at the offices next door in a huge room that looks like the nicest hotel room you've ever seen. Her washroom is also modern, although there is no tub. There is just a shower head in the wall and you freely let the water spray all over the spacious bathroom.

The guesthouse.
Outside the house, in the courtyard, an elderly woman was working to build a guesthouse. The brick building rose out of pure dirt and rubble (which makes up most of the city). Jackie and I watched in horror as the frail woman carried baskets of bricks up an equally frail ladder made of bamboo, supporting the basket on her back with a strap around her forehead. Yep. We're not in Canada anymore, Toto.  

Bamboo ladder.
View from the offices.
After a light lunch of fruit, bread and juice, we headed to Thamel, a tourist district with lots of small shops. First, we picked up two of Jackie's friends who are about to leave on a trek and just happen to be in town at the same time. They laughed that they never seem to get together at home and here they were meeting in Nepal of all places! Saturday is the holy day in Nepal (instead of Sunday, like at home), so a lot of businesses were closed, but there were plenty open to satisfy us. Many of the people who run small shops here work all day, every day.

A typical Thamel side street.
I cannot describe Thamel. The stimulation is overwhelming. I shopped all afternoon, getting bargains and gifts for friends: prayer flags and strings of sandalwood prayer beads, singing bowls, postcards, a marble chess set and a topi (traditional Nepalese hat for older gentlemen) for Kevin, and a few trinkets for myself like a gorgeous embroidered tea cozy and soft fleece jacket (a very smart purchase as it turns out). I was told ahead of time that you are expected to bargain with the shopkeeps and that there are no advertised or set prices. If you don't haggle, they think they can take complete advantage of you and will triple their prices. It is also insulting to them if you don't bargain. We learned to offer half the price they named and went from there. Bargaining goes way out of my comfort zone, but I did my best and learned (to no surprise) that I am really terrible at it.

A backroom in Thamel.
Fabrics in Thamel.
We ate a small dinner in a cafe-like restaurant called the Yak Restaurant. Feeling grimy from exploring the district, I went to the washroom in the back to wash my hands and was grateful I didn't need to do was one of the infamous squat toilets I had heard so much about. A hole in the ground with a grimy looking plastic seat and some other foreign apparatuses nearby. Don't misjudge - I am not a princess when it comes to bodily functions...I will go anywhere and everywhere when I need to, preferably in nature somewhere. But there was no way in cold hell that I was squatting my naked butt over that hole. I used the also questionable bar soap at the dirty sink and tried to push away thoughts of disease and infection. I slunk back to the booth, tired and not even very hungry (we had already had three meals that day anyway, but felt we should eat at the proper, local time to get on schedule).

The Yak Restaurant.
Before our food even arrived, the power went out. There is an intentional mass outage over the whole city at least once a day to conserve energy, this being a poor country. This wouldn't be so bad, except you never really know when it's going to occur - could be 6 in the evening or it could be 2 in the morning. Many businesses use back-up generators. We shared our meals: korma, soup, tea and momos. Delicious!

All in all, a lovely day.

Need a ride?
  The taxi ride back from Thamel:

Day Three: Factory Tours

Sunday April 1. 7 am.


I need to record the fact that I woke up naturally with the chirping birds at 5 am or my Mom will never believe me. She doesn't need to know I fell asleep at 8 pm. I was even awake before the rooster, who crowed and crowed at 5:30 am. (Note: I later learned that the roosters don't just act as an alarm clock - they crow all day for no reason at all.) While falling asleep last night, I could hear the stray dogs barking and howling outside. There are tons of feral dogs here, wandering the streets, sleeping on stoops and snuffling in the gutters. There is also lots of litter. It is strewn and rotting everywhere: on the streets, flowing down embankments, burning on the side of the road (there are not really sidewalks, exactly), or being picked through at night by people scavenging.

10 pm

Today was so full I hardy know where to begin. The solar panels weren't working, so there was no hot water to bathe. When I need to, I will have to go next door to Jackie's room and use hers. We had a nice breakfast with the women in the family. I'm not sure exactly how many people live here. The two grandparents, two brothers and their wives, plus about six-seven kids ages 3-14 (I think). Plus lots of erroneous people, cousins and sisters and please don't ask if I remember their names. I have a hard enough time with English names.

The Showroom.
Felt birdie.
After the meal, we toured the factory with Bindi who is a kind of manager / quality control and oversees production. She is beautiful, short with gleaming, long black hair and is very quick to smile and laugh. Her English is excellent, but she thinks it's terrible. My favourite Bindi quotes: "This is no good, I think"; "Kelly looks like doll"; "When we get Ambler order [new samples] in mail everyone is so happy!" The factory is a four storey building with marble floors, large windows and lots of space. We started in the showroom. It's a huge room with mostly felted goods of all kinds, but also some knitted scarves and sweaters. The amount of creativity contained in that space blew my mind. We saw all kinds of Christmas decorations, stuffed animals, shoes and slippers and even rubber soled boots, bird houses, gingerbread houses, gnome treehouses, bags and purses, felted hats; things that were beaded and embroidered. 

Checking out felted bags.
Felted boots.
Venturing further up into the building we began to learn about the production side of the business. Women sit on the floors or at conference tables and work on their projects. They all seemed very curious about us and act reserved, even grumpy, but are quick to return a smile. I watched women create pom poms in seconds, wind tangled yarn into balls from their ancient looking wire swifts, and haul huge bags of fibre around as if it was no effort at all. There are sacks of goods everywhere: huge bags of finished felting projects, scraps from felting and raw wool. I've never seen so much fibre in my life! There is stuff everywhere!  

Working on production.
Working on production.

The felting processes were fascinating. They felt small balls and sew them into rugs, purses...almost anything. We saw the die cut machine in operation where they cut felt shapes to sew onto hats and bags. They machine knit large pieces of fabric, felt them, hang them from the balconies to dry and then cut what they need. To make the balls, they roll them under a flat stone with soap and water. For the larger items, they roll them by hand and knead them on large tables, using a roll of plastic for the center. The water and lather of suds drains off the table into a bucket. 

Felting small balls.
Felting by hand.

Drying felted fabric from the balconies.

There are rooms full of unspun batts of wool dyed all colours and some fabrics, too. These are stored on large bamboo shelves. Those four rooms adjoin the receiving room where trucks can back up to the doors and unload the enormous bags of fibre. This room gives way to a few rooms at the back that are bursting with wool. Shelves and bags of wool of all kinds, fibres and weights. A veritable utopia for someone like me.

The Storeroom.
There is also a sewing room. Their machines use the old, wide foot pedals. There was a man in there using a tabletop cutter to slice trough a stack of felt about 3" thick. When they get wool in rolls, they spread it out to dry outside on the rooftops or wherever they find space. For the felted projects, they lay them out on the balconies to dry. The sight of hundreds of felted Santas is a sight to behold.

Drying fibre.
Drying fibre and felted balls.
Drying Santas.
Everyone here greets and says goodbye with "namaste", a small smile, close your eyes and drop your chin. You do this all day long and I think it's lovely. If my hands are full, I simply nod and smile, namaste. Everyone here seems to have a cell phone (something I don't own and don't miss). 

Yarn winder/swift.
Nepali notebooks.
Everywhere you go you are offered tea (which I don't mind in the least). We took a break and went back to the house for lunch. There was a German lady there who imports felted goods from Nepal. We had dal bhat (rice and lentil soup) with curried veggies. There are always plates of fruit (orange slices, apple slices, papaya and grapes) and lots of flavourful sauces to eat with the rice. I hope they teach me to cook properly...

A typical meal (dal bhat).
Kathmandu apartments.
After lunch we toured the dye factory. The drive there was incredible. I simply can't describe what the street and different districts were like. Some areas were more Western and I even saw some skinny jeans and bare shoulders. The people here are very affectionate with each other and it's not unusual to see two grown men walking down the street holding hands or with their arms around each others shoulders in a friendly way. Of course, what they say about cows hanging around the streets is true. I even saw three bulls lining up to eat from a trash bin. 

Dogs are everywhere, eating trash and lolling in the heat, stretched out on the pavement or in the dirt, although some have collars and must belong to someone. Always you see dogs curled up peacefully on steps or on the shop floors and I want to adopt them all. Two dogs "guard" the Everest house and factory although they don't seem to have a mean bone between them. Both are German Shepherds, Jack and Jill. 

Rabin and his guard dogs, Jill and Jack.

Passing through the streets, there seem to be a lot of people sitting around, drinking or holding children. Many people have a sparkle in their eye and joy on their faces that you just don't see very often in Canada. There are many people roasting corn over small fires, squatting in the street. Many people wear face masks to protect against pollution. I also saw two men squatting over what looked like checkers with stones.

There is constant honking when you are in traffic, but it's not angry honking like in our country. It's more to say, "I'm coming up behind you!" There are motorbikes everywhere, tuk tuks (three wheel buses that are always full to the hilt with people), and large colourful trucks from India that are painted to perfection and say See You on the back.

Tuk tuk (bus).
The dye factory.
Maheswor and corn husks.
The dye factory is gated and guarded. They use corn husks to power a huge furnace. Approaching the building you are greeted by a golden mountain of husks behind a matching mountain of gray ash. Inside is very dark. They have tall vats with hoses for the hot water to go in. Someone stands on the vat while someone else passes up a bucket full of dye (powdered chemicals dissolved in water) and pour the it into the top without spilling a drop. It takes several hours for the dye to set. Then they dry it (mostly) in a large drum, like a salad spinner. There was a huge room full of undyed wool and large bundles of finished product.

Dye vats.
Rinsing skeins.
Stoking the furnace.
Behind the building was a treatment plant area where they filter the dye water run-off and there are enormous concrete pools of smelly dye water. Behind the wall of this area is more treatment and they said they have to plant a bamboo-like grass all around to help absorb the run-off so no chemicals enter the environment.

Behind the yarn factory.
When we were done the tour, of course, we had some tea. They serve it here always with milk and sugar. We had some laughs with two of the owners and learned a lot about their culture. The women do all the housework and take care of the children. Most people have had arranged marriages, but the trend with the new generation is to choose your own spouse (but not always). There is also more divorce now. There is still a caste system in place, but it's not as rigid as it once was. 

Carding raw wool.
Carded wool.
After that tour, we drove (on the bumpiest road I've ever been on) to the yarn factory, which was right in the city. On the way, we saw a monkey randomly climbing a building like Spiderman - hilarious! It was very dark and smelly in there (we were advised to hold hankerchiefs to our faces). We saw raw wool being tossed into a small room where a machine carded it and then another machine pulled up this fine gauzy wool and scrunched it into batts. This was spun by another machine into strands and wound onto spools. They wound wool from the spools onto a long wheel-like apparatus that winds by a hand crank (to make skeins). There was raw wool everywhere!

Maheswor taking a turn at the crank.
Weighing and packing skeins.
 I must sign-off - too exhausted to continue tonight and we have an early day tomorrow!