Friday, September 25, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Kathmandu and Dhading (Nepal)

A popular street food is panipuri. They are fried dough balls that have been hollowed out, filled with a potato or chickpea mixture, topped with an onion relish, and doused with sauces made with spicy green chilies and tamarind. Having enjoyed the crispy snack in its native India and in a North Carolina restaurant, I was eager to try them in Nepal. Out of concern for my health under the dubious sanitation practices of street vendors, the Winrock country director hospitably invited me to his home, where his wife prepared them carefully. The panipuris - and the rest of the luncheon - were delicious, and later in my trip, I found out I wasn't the only fan. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was on a BBC program introducing panipuris to England!

Saturday, not Sunday, is the day of rest for people in Nepal. My first weekend I was able to visit a Buddhist temple complex. Nepalis are very proud that Buddha was born in Nepal, and although the majority of the population today is Hindu, the influence and intermingling of both religions is such that many temples are shared places of worship. The large white stupa of Swayambhunath with Buddha's eyes painted on the golden spire did sustain some earthquake damage, as evidenced by the filled in cracks of the dome and some fenced off areas. However, the views out over the Kathmandu Valley are lovely, and Swayambhunath's nickname as "Monkey Temple" is well-deserved as these frisky mites clamber and play all over. One of the most sacred sites for Tibetan Buddhists, worshippers spin wooden prayer wheels clockwise as block-printed prayer flags flutter in blue, white, red, green, and yellow above.

After the day out, we headed to the first location on the revised itinerary. Far from the political disturbances in the western Terai, Dhading is only about a couple of hours away so we just drove from the capital each morning. There were many semis hauling goods on the only road out of Kathmandu in that direction. Not unlike the jeepneys of the Philippines, the front of the trucks were elaborately decorated in bright colors... probably all the better to see you as driving in Nepal is one continuous game of Chicken, with vehicles trying to pass each other on the single-lane mountain roads and blind corners. Along for the ride was a plant protection officer from the Pesticide Registrar's office, who ended up being my translator for most of the training days, and board members from my official host PEAN (Pesticide Entrepreneurs' Association Nepal). We visited an agro-vet shop in Dhading, which looked similar to the dozens we'd visited in Kathmandu, except for the fact that an entire room was devoted to the veterinary medicine side of the agro-vet business.

Training in Dhading took place in an empty room at a local hotel/restaurant. Nepalis like to hold to the forms so each meeting starts with greetings and introductions all around, followed by speeches from various esteemed attendees. While this may go on for some time, it is nice that key people are giving their implicit stamp of approval or sharing their expectations for the training. Then the Julie show can go on, with frequent pauses for translation. Based on our earlier meetings with stakeholders, I had prepared a series of presentations on such topics as the various tools of an integrated pest management (IPM) approach, toxicity and pesticide effects on the human health, product stewardship and the environment, etc. The group of agro-vets in Dhading was smaller, but this allowed for greater involvement during discussions and physical activities. Aside from the formal training, there would be many questions for me to field on the fly, or if possible, spend overnight preparing for new topics. For instance, the agro-vets in Dhading were particularly interested in rhizome rot of ginger. As a recent survey showed agro-vets in Nepal were the key influencer of farmers' management decisions over 60% of the time, it is important that the agro-vets are giving recommendations with solid science and understanding. The sessions in Dhading wrapped up with agro-vets receiving training certificates and more speeches by involved parties. On our way out of town, we stopped to check in with some of the local PEAN members to gauge how they felt the training went and next steps they felt the PEAN board could pursue.

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Monday, September 14, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Kathmandu, Part II (Nepal)

The drastic changes in altitude from the valley floors to soaring mountains create microclimates to support a staggering diversity of crops in Nepal. Everything from subtropical lychees to cool-season Brassicas like cabbage and cauliflower are grown on subsistence farms. A colleague told me about one variety of apple grown in the high country because it only produces fruit if the blossoms have been under a blanket of snow for a whole week! Nepalis have a strong preference for fresh produce, which I saw especially on one drive back. Stopping at a roadside stand in the mountains, everyone was excited to buy a giant bag of Asian pears for themselves... then about a half hour later, we stopped again to buy even more because these ones looked bigger. Curious to see what else is in season, I always look forward to visiting fruit and veg markets. It was business, though, that actually brought me to one in Kathmandu.

Kalamati is a wholesale market in Kathmandu. Pyramids of pomegranates, heaps of jackfruit, enormous bundles of long beans, cucumbers thicker than your arms, and baskets of small, fiery chilies were on sale. Fixed price ranges for each crop are posted but fluctuate throughout the day, and the minimum is something like 10 kilos. We were invited to visit the government's on-site laboratory. Last year they started regular testing of samples from different vendors for pesticide residues using a kit developed by the Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute and a bench-top spectrophotometer. Depending on the results, the government officers can allow the crop to be sold as safe for consumption, hold it in quarantine, or give the order for the lot to be dumped. Currently, they are only testing for organophosphate and carbamate residues but are looking to expand the program into other insecticides as well as fungicides. While I've some experience with residue testing, we were able to propose bringing in a technical expert with specific background in higher throughput and rapid analysis. As often is the case, one Farmer-to-Farmer assignment begats another!

I had a couple of hours without any meetings so I walked to Durbar Square in Kathmandu. One of the most popular sights to see in the capital, it sustained significant damage from the earthquake and aftershocks earlier this year. As the site of royal palaces of Malla and Shah kings for nearly 1000 years, it is still worth a visit, but I'd be cautious about entering some of the structures. One of the buildings, Kumari Chowk, is home to a living Hindu goddess, Raj Kumari (or rather, a girl chosen as the human incarnation of Durga). The temples are still active, as evidenced by the smears of red powder tikas on the statues and offerings of flowers and fruit placed by worshippers. A pretty fearsome sight is the wall depicting Black (Kala) Bhairav, a manifestation of the god Shiva wielding a sword and wearing human heads around his mid-section. Under such a frightening gaze, you bet I asked the military guard standing opposite for permission before taking a picture!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Friday, September 11, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Kathmandu (Nepal)

Unbeknownst to me, in the roughly 2 days I was en route from the States to Kathmandu, events were happening on the ground that would impact the rest of my time in Nepal. The Parliamentary government has been drafting a new constitution for the last 7 years, and the most recent subject of debate was redrawing of the district lines, similar to state or province borders. From what I could glean, the latest proposals of what is essentially gerrymandering drew criticism, particularly from underrepresented minority groups. As a result, protests and “bandhs” (i.e. strikes) were organized, and some of the demonstrations in the western Terai region turned into violent clashes, damaging property, injuring people, and killing 9. The towns from the news headlines sounded familiar because they were on my proposed schedule to visit. Oh.

With safety and security ever top of mind, the Winrock International team and the local USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) mission were always monitoring the situation and continued to throughout my assignment. Because of their actions and clear communications, I felt completely confident that I was in good hands and never once felt concerned for my safety during my trip... and neither did Rich back home. The local staff did have to scramble a bit, as they hadn't had to deal with something quite like this before... which is saying something, considering that during the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal in April this year, they had 3 people in country on assignments (all were completely safe). Also, mine was the first of a series of different Farmer-to-Farmer projects supposed to be based in the western Terai so it was a bit of a test case.

The first few days stuck pretty close to my original schedule, as the plan was to meet with all of the project stakeholders in the capital Kathmandu. For the yogis out there, I learned “Namaste” or “Namaskar” with prayer hands at the heart is the appropriate greeting and goodbye... For the business folk, the exchange of business cards is alive and well in Nepal, but a bit of a tricky juggle at the same time as you're both namaste-ing... and for the Brits, every meeting involves a round or more of tea, usually with milk, and sometimes as masala chai. Cultural matters aside, the local USAID mission is working on the Knowledge-based Integrated Sustainable Agriculture Nutrient (KISAN) Project, and as the local partner, we discussed what issues they saw as most important, their expectations of what I could contribute, and suggestions they had for altering my schedule with the situation in the western Terai. This pretty much was the agenda for all of the stakeholder meetings. I had received a fairly detailed Scope of Work previously, but it is always good to confirm and revise once you get in country.

My host for the project is the Pesticide Entrepreneurs' Association Nepal, or PEAN. They requested technical assistance to increase the capabilities of agro-vets. These are generally small business-owners whose shops sell pesticides, micronutrients and fertilizers, seeds, and veterinary medicines. We visited with dozens of agro-vets so I could get a good idea of what the shops are like and meet the members. PEAN was also very keen to hear about practices, standards, and regulations in the U.S., European Union, and internationally.  

We also met with several people from the Department of Agriculture. There are some issues that PEAN would like the government to consider changing its policies for, and the discussions could get quite heated. Sometimes it felt like a scene from Twelve Angry Men. Not being familiar with Nepali and its cadences, it struck me how sometimes a language can just sound harsher to your foreign ears (*cough* German *cough*). While there was genuine passion about some subjects, I also realized, for instance, that one of the gentlemen who frequently raised his voice is probably hard of hearing, and another time, my interpreter explained all the hullabaloo was for a tangent they went off on. Mostly, the visits to the government offices were by way of introduction and explaining what we were planning to do. Sometimes this meant we even picked up a few more who wanted to sit in on the training!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program, IV (Nepal)

It's not every day you turn on the television and see a completely new sport. Picture stocky, beefcake men holding hands… in a dodgeball court… playing what looks like Tag… if only one guy was running and everybody else was “It.” Further inquiry informs me that in addition to the one man trying to touch the line for base, he has to do it with the added challenge of not taking more than one breath. The referees can tell this because he has to hum continuously. This explains why full-contact tackling seems to be an effective strategy for making your opponent gasp for air. The sport is kabaddi, and though the match I was watching was between 2 professional Indian teams - Telugu Titans vs. Bengaluru Bulls – it is traditional sport of Nepal. And that's where I am. Not to watch kabbadi, but to take on another USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Program assignment.

This is my fourth go-round, though my first in Nepal. The USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Program brings technical expertise for specific projects to improve the agribusiness value chain in developing countries. Administered by different organizations in different regions, this is my first time working with them in Asia and with Winrock International. I'll be writing more about my project in Nepal, but you can read about my previous assignments here:

I, Mozambique
II, Nicaragua
III, Senegal

For more about the program in general and Winrock International:
USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Program
Winrock International


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

San Francisco, CA (United States)

San Francisco's Chinatown is the oldest in North America and the largest Chinese community outside Asia. Even without the tiled roofs, watching the ladies doing tai-chi exercises and old men hunched over strange board games in the park makes you feel like you've stepped into another country. Lunch in the business district was tasty with a spicy conch salad, thin-sliced pickled beef, and perfectly steamed baby bok choi. After multiple shots of teas with names like Red Robe and Iron Goddess at a free tasting, we caved to an expensive purchase of a Lapsang Souchong - surprisingly delicate on the smoke - from what must have been the most jaded, yet knowledgeable, barista ever.
Me: “Which one's your favorite?”
Mr. Bore-ista: “This one here. It's not as astringent as the variety usually is.”
Long silence.
Me: “Er, can we try it?”
Long silence.
Mr. Bore-ista sighs.
Long silence.
Mr. Bore-ista: “I guess.”

Not content with your average Alcatraz trip, we opted to see the bay under sail. Eagerly boarding the 135-year-old scow schooner Alma, we learned the commands and helped raise the sails. This was not an easy task even with a dozen people hauling. There's something quite fantastic hearing some old salt roar, “Avast!” on the sea, and I learned “Heave!” and “Ho!” is a thoroughly valid call-and-response onboard. Rich even got to steer the big wheel for a while using that ancient combination of feeling the wind, keeping an eye to the sails, lining her up with coastal landmarks… and an app on a tablet tucked away on a shelf. Besides circumnavigating the prison from The Rock and other films, we also got to watch out for harbor porpoises playing in the bay. The rest of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park is well-worth a visit, too, as there are other restored ships to see. Like the Balclutha, which hauled cargo like timber to Australia, coal, and Alaskan salmon before her retirement, and on the day we visited, was being painstakingly re-caulked in traditional fashion: a guy on his hands and knees pouring hot tar from a metal pitcher. Sea lions were also resting on the docks with far fewer spectators than the famous ones that took over pier 39.

Further down is tourist central – Fisherman's Wharf. We lingered long enough to fill our bellies with 2 local favorites: sandwich rolls packed with dungeness crab and shrimp and clam chowder in Boudin's sourdough bread bowls. But the real winner for Rich was the Musée Mécanique, a penny arcade filled with antique games. It's clear they were originally intended as adult amusements since a variety of machines showed a gruesome fascination with reproducing different methods of executions with puppetry. The mechanic fortune tellers spit out mixed forecasts of my future, and my luck definitely took a turn for the worse as I lost to Rich at wind-up races for horses, cars, and even firemen going up ladders. Still, a handful of quarters is pretty cheap entertainment by California standards.

Other great deals were nights at the museum. The DeYoung Museum was completely free with an experimental band playing in the hall. The tower afforded lovely views of the San Francisco skyline, and Rich and I got our hands dirty learning to make felt for an interactive project by the artist-in-residence. The California Academy of Sciences Nightlife was a reduced priced ticket for adults only to explore the wonders of the Philippine coral reef exhibit – hey, we just saw those guys! -, wander up the spiral walkway in the glass-encased tropical rainforest, or take in a show at the Planetarium. With the bartenders – or are they all mixologists in San Francisco? - serving up cocktail specials and a rooftop garden, it's the coolest night spot in town. As a nod to the Outside Lands Festival dominating the rest of Golden Gate Park, there were concerts in the back garden and even a DJ inside playing Damon Albarn's funky beats!

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North America

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Yosemite National Park, CA, Part II (United States)

The brochure on Yosemite they hand you at the entrance gives horrifying yet darkly humorous warnings about bears (“Keep food within arm's reach, in a food locker, a bear-resistant canister, or hard-sided hotel room.”) and mountain lions (“Pick up children so they look larger. Attacks are rare, but if you are attacked, fight back.”) But after a good night's sleep in one of the last remaining rooms in nearby Groveland, we discovered the real danger to us was forest fires. If we hadn't seen the line of fire trucks just outside of town, driven past scorched trees and through billowing smoke, a road-side Smokey Bear was holding up a sign with the hazard level marked “High” each day of our visit there.

Though the popular trails can be teeming, Rich was happy to find that taking a side trail, or indeed, any in the high country quickly thinned crowds to a mere handful. The hike to Sentinel Dome was one such and afforded 360-degree views including some of the park's biggest stars: El Capitán, Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Clouds Rest. Man, this place is awesome! ...and I mean that in the truest sense of the word, or as Eddie Izzard puts it, “1000 hot dogs awesome.” Eavesdropping on a big family, the rock climbers in the bunch were regaling their audience with stories of how long it took to find a free climb route up The Nose of El Capitán – 14 years! Evidently, climbers tackling the 3000-ft granite monolith sleep in bivouac sacks anchored to the rock face and wake every couple of hours in the night to put balm on their fingers in an attempt to regrow the skin. Yikes!

Taft Point is an overlook that requires a measure of courage itself. What may look like narrow cracks in the wide expanse of granite are actually deep fissures you can actually see drop down to the valley floor 3500 ft below. You can walk right up to the edge – although crawling is a much, much safer option - to look over the side, at least until the vertigo gets the better of you. A family of Spaniards – I suppose we were visiting in August – were giving their mother panic attacks with their antics. ¡Hostia!

It is, arguably though, a better view than at Glacier Point, which is where all of the coach buses and RVs seem to empty out. Good spot for people-watching. I saw a Japanese tourist taking dozens of photos with a giant lens, which I know a friend once paid $1000 just to rent, then whip out his iPhone for a selfie. Seriously?! We did get to speak to a retired ranger/fire crew boss about the forest fires, and he also shared his ax to grind about another agency – the U.S. Forest Service, which allows logging and mining on the land it manages.

The Mariposa Grove was closed for restoration so we stopped into the Tuolumne Grove to see the giant sequoias. Related to the coastal redwoods we saw in Muir Woods, these titans are even more impressive. Sequoiadendron giganteum, growing up to 85 m (~279 ft) in height and 8 m (~26 ft) in diameter, is the largest living thing in the world. There was one in the grove with an old picture of someone driving a coach and horses through the gap in the bottom! You can crawl through a tunnel created by the hollowed trunk of another felled giant sequoia. Rich took the opportunity to do a Bran Stark impression engulfed in its gnarled roots.

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North America

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Central Valley and Yosemite National Park, CA (United States)

Hearing about the California drought in the news all the time, and people buying up land just for the water rights like a nightmare out of Dune, it was fascinating driving through the agricultural behemoth that is the Central Valley. Farmers here grow over 200 different crops, providing a third of all produce grown in the U.S. We drove past livestock grazing determinedly in yellowed pastures and reservoirs with depths of exposed rock showing shockingly low water from historic levels. The only breaks in the parched earth were patches of directed irrigation to each fruit tree or crop row... and some bastards' houses with suspiciously green lawns. In a landscape that hearkens back to the Dust Bowl, how is that even allowed?!

On a positive note though, we were headed to Yosemite! One of the first National Parks and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, people have been lobbying to protect it one way or another since the mid-1800s. Covering roughly 750,000 acres (~300,000 hectares), this huge tract of wilderness in the Sierra Nevada Mountains attracts nearly 4 million tourists each year. Inside there is a free shuttle bus system to the different trail heads and visitor centers, a brilliant idea to cut down the traffic in the park and chaos of finding parking. Following the ranger's suggestion – and what looked like everybody else's plans - we stretched our legs on the hike from Happy Isles to Vernal Fall and onward to Nevada Fall via the Mist Trail. Why they are officially called “Fall” and not “Falls,” I have no idea. The trail follows the Merced River, and even with the drought, the steep drops of the falls are impressive. A good workout, too, as it's about 600 steps in the granite. Random people passing us made references to the Denver Broncos, and it took us a while to solve the mystery. Rich's Durham Bulls cap looked remarkably similar to a Broncos one: Both are animals with steam coming out their nostrils jumping through a big orange D on a blue background. Weird!

After working up a sweat, the open stretches of Emerald Pool and Silver Apron Beach at the midpoint start to look mighty fine for a swim if slipping to your death weren't a real hazard. The scenery flattens out a bit at the top of Vernal Fall in pretty much the idealized version of mountain stream in the woods - an idyllic spot for a picnic and dip for tired feet.  Heading back down via the easier John Muir Trail gave us nice views back toward Mount Broderick and Liberty Cap. Much to our chagrin, the whole loop – only 5.4 miles (~8.7 km) - took us over 6 hours... but, hey, the gain in elevation was 2000 ft (~610 m)!  

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North America