Monday, October 19, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Final Thoughts on Nepal

A former manager of mine had been to Nepal as a Fulbright Scholar, and he maintained his enthusiasm for the country from grad school through to his recent visit for a different Farmer-to-Farmer assignment. Despite some the initial difficulties, I am happy to report I share his good opinion of Nepal. I will definitely have to come back some day to see more of the country. 

Here are some odds and ends from my visit:
- Diversity: Even when boarding the plane in Dubai, I was struck by the ethnic diversity of Nepalis, just from the sample of overseas workers headed home. In a lineup of agro-vets, individuals could have easily been mistaken for Mexican, Arab, Indian, Greek, Chinese, or Native American. The day I showed up at the office sporting my only salwar kameez (the long shirt, pants, and scarf combo I purchased in India but is also common dress in Nepal), my Winrock colleague told me he nearly mistook me for a Nepali woman. The turnabout was also true. I couldn't stop staring at the Pesticide Registrar when we met because he was a dead ringer for my Filipino uncle. We even joked about it later, as through a translator, he told me he also thought I looked like his relatives! 

- Food: No matter the ethnicity, the staple for Nepalis is dal bhat or dal bhat tarkari. The lentil soup (dal) and steamed rice (bhat) is eaten 2 or 3 times a day. The upgrade includes a vegetable or meat curry (tarkari). The dal bhat tarkari I had with agro-vets was an excellent value for about 150-200 rupees ($1.50-2.00), and that would even come with seconds or thirds if you wanted! ... and instead of bread rolls or chips and salsa, they leave a bowl of popcorn for you to snack on. The fanciest dal bhat tarkari come with multiple curries and spicy pickles in little stainless steel dishes, similar to an Indian thali. When I've been on assignments, the limitations to local cuisine can be monotonous after so many days. Not so in Nepal, where even the dal changes daily or different cooks have different takes on the same lentils or beans. I credit Indian cuisine with teaching me to enjoy vegetables, and its less spicy - though still spiced! - cousin in Nepal was no exception. The veg curries came in varieties of cabbage, carrot, pumpkin, beet, okra, cauliflower, different greens, and even the dreaded bitter melon. Sorry, Mom, I still don't like ampalaya in any form. 

- Logistics: While my Winrock colleagues stuck to US/EU business hours, the government officers in Nepal have shorter days (~ 10 am to - 4:30 pm) but work 6 days a week with only Saturday off. Nepal also has their own calendar, a lunar one in which I believe the current year is 2072? When trying to set up meetings, what really threw me for a loop were Nepali numbers. Zero still looks like an "O," but the script for their 1 and 5 look more like how we write "9" and "4," respectively. Confusing! ...and of course, Nepalis drive on the left-side of the road like the Brits.

- Himalayas: One colleague liked to say that Nepal is not rich in much but mountains. Before this Farmer-to-Farmer assignment, my main interest in coming to Nepal would have been to go trekking in the mountains. As this would take more time than I had, one alternative was to take the Himalaya mountain flight. Catering to tourists, the plane leaves early in the morning and flies for 1 hour over to the mountains. Visibility is always an issue, and even the day, I went the flight was delayed a half hour as they waited for better conditions. Each of the approximately 20 passengers has their own window seat, and the flight attendants come down the aisle to point out Everest and the other tallest mountains in the world. It was something to see, especially since I had no other alternative and none of my commercial flights would have passed by them. However, the price tag is pretty steep at $200/seat and probably would have been better justified if I was a good photographer or had a better camera. We did each get to step inside the cockpit in midflight to see the Himalayas from the pilots' view - something I definitely thought, especially in a post-9/11 world, would never be possible!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Thursday, October 15, 2015

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

Tacking on a few days for some sightseeing at the end of my assignment, I visited the Boudhanath temple complex in the Kathmandu valley. A UNESCO World Heritage site, entry into the Great Boudha Stupa was closed due to earthquake damage, but the outer buildings are well worth a visit regardless. One of them houses a prayer wheel the size of a car with a big metal rail installed for worshippers to spin it as they circumambulate clockwise. The Guru Lhakhang Monastery was richly decorated with elaborate murals even in the stairwells, colorful hanging textiles, and giant gold statues. A Buddhist monk wrapped a white scarf around my neck and prayed for me in a ritual that involved chanting and throwing rice grains onto the pages of his book?!

Pokhara, only about a half hour by plane from Kathmandu, is a lakeside town framed by mountains. It is a popular stop either before or after trekking the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas. Sadly, I didn't have the time or money - or the legs - to do such a thing at the moment. But the hotel arranged a taxi to take me to see one of the sights: the view of the mountain Machhapuchchhre, sacred to the god Shiva and off limits to climbers. It’s best to capture at dawn so I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m., only to find no one else awake besides the security guard. Apparently, I had misunderstood the man at reception and was an hour earlier than I needed to be! They roused the driver, and we drove out in the dark and up the mountainsides. I had expected a hike, but evidently, the driver intended to take me all the way to the viewpoint. It was comically pitch black when we arrived, so after taking in the town lights, we adjourned to a neighboring shack. The proprietor of this makeshift café was just waking up, and yawning in her house dress, she put the kettle on to make us tea. My driver and another who appeared out of nowhere made some lighthearted conversation, probably about the silly foreigner who woke him up in the middle of the night. In the growing light, the site revealed a view of Pokhara’s lake in the distance and the Seti Gandaki ("White River") winding through the valley. With the haze of dawn, I wasn’t sure exactly which of the mountains was the sacred one so I took pictures indiscriminately, along with the rest of the group that had gathered. As with any mountain chain, the cloud cover is unpredictable in the Himalayas. I just had noticed that some of the clouds seemed to have more of a distinct edge to them, when the sun shone through, and we all realized this was actually Machhapuchchhre, rising at least twice as high as the mountains we’d been photographing madly. This makes sense as I later learned there is about a 6500 m change in altitude within this 30 km. Unfortunately, this was the one glimpse we had before the clouds shifted again and we gave up with the full morning upon us. Along the steep road down, we passed small groups of young men running up. They were training in the military. Some of them looked pretty miserable with heavy packs on a strap slung around their forehead, which seems to be the preferred load-bearing style in Nepal. It made me a little relieved I didn’t do the hike.

Pokhara is the second most visited city by tourists in Nepal. The differences were jarring. Every business was either a hotel, restaurant, spa, souvenir shop, or hiking store. I didn't mind so much as it gave me a chance to purchase some fine textiles to bring home. Cashmere, anyone? Seriously, one shopkeeper going through all the grades and mixtures made my head spin. I studiously avoided anything more than window-shopping in the trekking stores as who knew if I could get those flood gates shut in time. As it was, I bought enough to make me nervous about the bag weight coming home. Despite it being off-season, I saw more foreigners than I’d seen in my previous 3 weeks in the country, even chatting to a couple of backpackers in an attempt to share the huge portion I ordered.  Pokhara was virtually untouched by the earthquake, but Nepalis were very concerned – and rightly so – that the international media coverage had scared away all the tourists. The upcoming high season would be the real test: Was the drop in visitors temporary? Or would the blow to this significant part of Nepal’s economy be permanent? Despite my comments about the earthquake damage I’ve seen, it was by far not as widespread as the media let on. It’s a gorgeous country, and I would urge people to still consider going… maybe now might even be the best time!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Lalitpur (Nepal)

Lalitpur, or Patan, is the city adjacent to Kathmandu and actually was the base for the beginning and end of my assignment. Though it has its own square, not much seems to distinguish it from Kathmandu proper, other than you crossing the Bagmati River. My neighborhood was pretty much NGO central (non-governmental organization) with charities, embassies, and the United Nations offices a few blocks away. The number of expats meant a luxury of diverse dining options walking distance from the hotel – Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and even a British pub with a quiz night!

Lalitpur was also the site of our last training stop, in the local DADO. One activity that always hooks people in is a fun game I designed to review pesticide storage problems. The agro-vets are divided into teams, a picture is flashed up, and the first team to identify the problem or problems wins the point. The competition really heats up, and by the end, people are on their feet, shouting out answers or accusing each other of cheating. The game in Lalitpur had an added dimension, as I had taken the problem pictures in Kathmandu shops. Some of the owners of the shops were in the audience, and if not, plenty of other agro-vets could recognize whose shops they were. While I discouraged outright finger-pointing, the activity really got the agro-vets engaged and able to look critically at their neighbors’ and their own practices.

In Lalitpur, I also got to finally try one of the snack boxes the agro-vets were receiving during the afternoon break. The contents included a samosa (an empanda-like pyramid stuffed with spicy vegetable and potato), fried bits like lightly sweet and savory croutons, a banana of a peculiar variety that stays green even when ripe, and a mango juice box. I had seen the agro-vets in Chitwan eating what looked like a boiled egg in a plastic baggie, and they seemed to really enjoy the liquid it was floating in, too. Different strokes for different folks, I figured. When my Lalitpur box arrived with the same, I discovered it wasn't an egg at all! Instead, it's a ball of fresh, mild cheese soaking in sugary syrup, very similar to the Indian dessert I like called ras malai. No wonder they were slurping up the juice! When I told my Winrock colleagues about my mistake, they cried with laughter... evidently the prospect of savoring boiled egg liquid was a ridiculous idea for them, too.

The final days of the assignment were spent debriefing my host, the PEAN board (Pesticide Entrepreneurs’ Association Nepal).  All told, 185 agro-vets received training in the 5 locations. My recommendations to the board members involved actions they could take as an organization to support agro-vets in continuing education and regulatory policies. To express their appreciation for my assistance, the PEAN board members wanted to present me with a “token of love” before I left Nepal. I wasn’t sure what to expect – perhaps a shawl or scarf, which seemed to be a common gift. The PEAN president and secretary arrived at my hotel the night before I left bearing a sizeable red velvet case with gold clasps. If this was the movies, the case would be opened to reveal magnificent jewelry that the heroine would get to wear and feel like a princess for a night. In my case (see that pun!), a personalized plaque was inlaid in the most elaborately carved, dark wood frame. Even the Winrock country director was surprised and impressed, whispering concerns about how to pack it carefully in my baggage. It was certainly a generous gift, and I’ll be happy to display it in the office… although the other décor may look quite shabby by comparison.

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Hetauda, Gai Jatra, and Kavre (Nepal)

In a country that includes the Himalayas, it probably shouldn't have been a surprise that "plains" could be a subjective word. On our drives through the Terai plains, there were definitely hilly sections - I don't think farming on a plain should require terracing, do you? - and portions that would've given the Appalachians a run for their money. Driving from Chitwan to Makwanpur district, I finally saw land that to my Midwestern upbringing resembled flat lands. In this part of the Terai, the indigenous people are Tharu, and as my Tharu colleague from Winrock informed me, they are a different people with their own language, culture, and traditions. He was particularly pleased that recent research may support their belief that Buddha himself was probably Tharu.

This part of the Terai was dotted with peculiarly ornate houses. Three to four-stories with complex tile patterns on the facade are paired with ostentatious columns - everything from classical Greek to ones sculpted to look like tree trunks - and colorful balconies in some other style altogether. The combination made for a dizzying effect.

Shortly after arriving in Hetauda in the Makwanpur district, the local PEAN representative picked us up and took us out for a late bite to eat. Though it was getting quite dark, we could just make out the rubble of whole buildings that had been damaged by the earthquake and aftershocks. The pesticide registrar officer traveling with us related how he (and other government officials) had been pulled into disaster assessment and relief in the months following, and Makwanpur was more severely affected than other places we'd been.

Early the next morning before training commenced, we got to see a bit of Gai Jatra. This festival is when Nepali Hindus remember family members who have died within the past year. Children dress in costume and hold pictures of the departed. They receive small gifts of food - looking not unlike trick-or-treaters - but the items are meant as tribute to the dead. Gai Jatra actually means "cow festival," and a cow (or many) is part of the procession since Hindus believe the animal is holy and will help the decease's journey to heaven. The cow in Hetauda was more of a constructed float on a cart, and my heart went out to an elderly man grimly taking part, holding what was, presumably, a poster of his deceased wife.

Training in Hetauda was at the local DADO, and the PEAN representative warned us attendance would be high as they had originally requested to have 2 sets of training within Makwanpur district. While many of the agro-vets in Chitwan had been fairly young, there was a greater variety of ages in Hetauda. A few of the older gentlemen, dressed in the traditional daura-suruwal (trousers with a longish top under jacket) and Dhaka topi (folded hat in pinkish patterns), were quite open in sharing their experiences implementing and recommending an integrated pest management (IPM) approach. One even shared his successes concocting, using, and selling various extracts as pesticides and fertilizers. I was a little intimidated that a journalist writing for a Kathmandu paper was covering the training, but focusing on technical issues the agro-vets were interested in helped me forget my nerves. In Hetauda, I fielded questions on topics such as viral disease management in tomatoes, club root of Brassicas, and how temperature affects pesticide formulation efficacy and shelf-life.  

The training tour would continue on in a district on the other side of Kathmandu so we had to make a 4 hour journey through the mountains to get back to the capital. For the most part, the road was not in terrible shape, though windy and steep and likely treacherous if raining. We stretched our legs at a fruit stand and enjoyed some dried corn cobs that had been roasted over the fire as a sooty snack.

By the time we got to Kavre, the training ran like a well-oiled machine. Even the blackouts that occurred most of the first day and parts of the second didn't really slow us down. In the middle of the video illustrating proper use of excess pesticides and container disposal, I improvised triple rinsing with a little mime act using my water bottle and an empty 5-gallon drinking jug as the stand-ins for a pesticide bottle and backpack sprayer, respectively. Sitting in a darkened room without fans was a bit of a challenge for the drowsy. It became imperative to get all the agro-vets participating in the exercise to understand exactly how resistance develops in the field. The activity, taken from the playbook of field days we hosted at American Cyanamid in the late 90s, involves nearly as much bobbing up and down as a Catholic mass.

Since Kavre was an easy day trip from the capital, other department of agriculture officers, PEAN board members, and members of the Seed Entrepreneurs' Association Nepal (SEAN) also sat in on the training. The government officials handed out posters and manuals on pesticides registered in Nepal, toxicity classifications, and pre-harvest intervals (the time you need to wait after application before harvesting). During the break, the soon-to-retire pesticide registrar of Nepal got on stage - yes, there was actually a stage - and shared his experiences in agriculture over the long years of his career. Not a bad showing for the final stretch - his or our training plans!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Bharatpur, Janaeu Purnima at Devghat, and Chitwan National Park (Nepal)

The next stop on the training tour was Bharatpur in Chitwan district. Arriving quite late in the evening, we were met by the local PEAN representative, an enthusiastic young man with private school English. A bandh (strike) had been called for in Chitwan, and we were concerned about how it would affect the training. This would mean no motorized traffic, as some of the demonstrations had resulted in vandalism. In the end, my Winrock colleague called it a "mini-bandh," as motorcycles still seemed to be on the road, and many people were out and about. Since the bandh meant closed shops anyway, it may have actually bumped up our attendance numbers. Nearly double the agro-vets expected came! Winrock staff told me I broke a record as I was the first Farmer-to-Farmer consultant to run out of the thick stack of business cards printed for me and needed a second printing.

The training took place in the local district agricultural development office, or DADO. The agro-vets in Chitwan were very receptive, getting into passionate discussions about the support and enforcement they needed from the government, what policies and practices they would like to implement or change, and how they could improve their businesses and services to farmers. One of the videos I like to show is of a farmer going about his normal mixing, applying, and cleaning a backpack sprayer. However, instead of pesticides, his spray solution contains a mixture that glows under blacklight, so afterwards, you can see all of the places that were contaminated on his body, his family, and the environment. Many of the agro-vets were very interested in showing it to their farmer customers. They eagerly copied down websites where they could read pesticide label information, view examples of how to best store and arrange inventory, and buy different kinds of personal protective equipment (PPE). Quite a successful workshop, we even had to get the Winrock office in Kathmandu to air-mail us extra training certificates!

The day we were scheduled to leave Chitwan was a holy day. Hindus wear a sacred red thread around their wrist as a token of familial love and prayers for protection, and Janaeu Purnima is the day they receive new threads. In the morning, we went to Devghat, a religious site at the junction of two rivers, the Seti Gandaki and Krishna Gandaki. Priests blessed and tied on new red threads on my colleagues, and then they performed ablutions in the sacred waters. The crowd also watched with interest as a group donned life-jackets and boarded a raft to be ferried across the swift-flowing junction. The current carried them in a wide arc before the rafters regained control, and everyone onshore breathed a collective sigh of relief. Our crossing via the suspension bridge - rain-slicked and the river visible in the wide gaps between the boards - seemed far safer by comparison. Later, my Winrock colleague kindly invited us to his house to meet his family and have a "snack," which I quickly discovered in Nepal are usually the size of a full meal. This snack included a rice pudding, an excellent fresh cucumber and potato reminiscent of German potato salad, and kwati, a stew made of several beans that is the traditional dish of Janaeu Purnima. With options for second helpings, of course.

Chitwan is most famous for the national park. A favorite hunting ground by the upper classes of Nepal in the past, this UNESCO world heritage site is home to Bengal tigers, leopards, and honey badgers. We didn't have a lot of time to spare before moving on to our next training location, and I could not take part in one of the popular elephant safaris, after having volunteered in a rehabilitation center for elephants who'd been abused in such trekking work (you can read about our wonderful experience at Elephant Nature Park here). However, we did negotiate a 45-minute walk around with a guide for what amounted to $5 for 3 people. In that short amount of time, we hit pay dirt: a one-horned rhinoceros! The rhinos are Chitwan National Park's most famous residents and not always even seen by tourists who've been on several days of safaris. This big guy was calmly chewing on some vegetation and wandered into the little river for a bit of drink and swim. There was a fairly steep bank between us and the hulking beast, but I still asked the guide what we should do if the rhino charged. The response,"Oh, just run over to that tree there and try to climb up it, but if you can't climb, just stand by it," did not inspire great confidence!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On