nepal.

Nepal: One of the “Thinnest” Places on Earth

Have you ever heard of a “thin” place? No, not a place without McDonald’s or obesity. (On the contrary, there can be thin places in the US, where both of those things boom.) Instead, a thin place is described as a place of energy, a place where whatever divides the real world we live in and an eternal world beyond our reach is extremely thin, so thin that the two worlds nearly blend. Some people believe thin places are connected to God, but no one can deny that some places in nature – “thin places” – invoke an ethereal sensation, God-filled or not. I’m pretty certain the entirety of Nepal is a thin place.

The spiritual intensity of India can be ethereal, where strangers equate their guests to gods and you can wait hours pressed body-to-body in a sweaty temple just to be blessed by holy men. Waves lapping and then smashing the shores along the Blight of Benin is peaceful, terrifying, and an ethereal reminder of who’s in charge. Standing at a Buddhist temple on Mount Saleve, France, overlooking Geneva, Switzerland under a banner of prayer flags, cold air rushing up the mountain face – that was also ethereal. High altitudes and misty scenery is ethereal. Now, imagine combining all of those: altitude, scenery, the forces of nature. That’s like standing high in the Nepalese Himalayas. Up in these mountaintops, formed by clashing continents and which also host the great Mount Everest, one is greeted by a simpler life that is elevated both physically and spiritually. Picture solemn, dedicated, generous monks seeking retreat. (And don’t picture the ones setting themselves on fire in streets – that’s just to the north, in Tibet. Those are the monks that need to go to a thin place, or Nepal.)

There’s surely a reason why so many Hindus gather in these places, and it’s doubtful that Hindi Ghandi’s admiration of thin places is coincidence. But not all of Nepal is standing on a mountain top amongst trees full of prayer flags, crossing bridges in orange tunics, or eating dal bhat while cross-legged on the floor. Nepal is in fact divided by three regions which run east-to-west: mountains, hills, and the swampy terai. These regions are dissected by the river system, flowing north-to-south, making Nepal truly feel like an intersection of the forces of nature.

Of course, not all of the intersections in Nepal are the most pleasant. Since 1990, Nepal has managed to push through 500 years of governmental transformation in only a couple of decades. Yes, in 1990 Nepal was still a monarchy. This transformed into a Communist lead (well, it does border China) and is now finally a Republic. Yet, no matter how backwards Nepal might have been a few years ago, it is the first Asian country to not only abolish the death penalty but to also rule in favor of same-sex marriage. In Nepal, you can even declare yourself as a third gender – neither man nor woman. Wowzers! Basically, Nepal just wants people to be Yay! happy. And to not set themselves on fire.

The only thing about Nepal that does not lead to a happy, easy life seems to be the complete lack of efficient transportation. Sure, Nepal has 47 airports – but only 11 have paved runways. Most of the population has a 2 hour walk to the nearest all-season road, so don’t even begin to complain about 480 traffic. Basically, everything that geographically assists Nepal in being a thin place makes its transportation feel like a nightmare. And when it’s the rainy season, you can forget it. Fortunately, though, there’s no sense in having a car to get around Nepal. Just get yourself a bovine, load all of your belongings (three blankets, a wok, some tunics) on its back, and you’ll be riding in style, high up on those…15 hand shoulders. (Okay, it’s not 37 Nittos but it’s still cruisin’ for Nepal.) But, seriously, Nepal is one cool, thin place. And you should definitely try to land yourself there some day, in a tunic, on a cow, and while not setting yourself on fire.

Cleveland and Its Unentitled Midwest Pride

rustbelt
Google Image: See?  Pittsburgh got its act together, but Cleveland is right there with Detroit…at the bottom.  (Oh, and it’s “Erie”, by the way.)

I’ve lived in Cleveland for several years now during my time at Case Western Reserve University.  Originally from the countryside of the Pittsburgh Seam in southern Pennsylvania, I’m quite familiar with my East Coast/Appalachia wanna-be-the-deep-south-but-we-aren’t origins.  However, I can’t help but see signs about Cleveland and its belonging to the “Midwest” or hear people rave about their “Midwest lives”.  I actually had to google “midwest” before I was convinced that Cleveland is geographically considered in fact “midwest”.  I’d even lived in Dalton, Ohio for a couple years as a child and not one ever considered northeastern Ohio to be midwestern in any sense.  Yet this “Midwest Pride” is clearly endorsed…but I refute that it’s a manifest claim.

When I think “midwest”, I think plains, cornfields, and a truly “country” feeling.  Cincinnati and Indianapolis are the closest to me geographically and they fly to the top of the list.  Even Chicago has a much more “midwest” feel to me, despite it being such an enormous city.  But, after all of the summer I’ve spent in Chicago for hockey and southern Illinois for the Grand American Trapshoot, I find it hard to justify claiming Cleveland as “midwest”.  For that matter, I rule out Detroit as well.  Both cities, in my opinion, are crumbling remains of industrial towns that have been left to rot and which continue to collapse inward to survive and restart.  To me, these are strictly Rust Belt cities.  I’m not from the Rust Belt, but I know Pittsburgh is and it’s revitalized and beautiful.  Lafayette, Indiana is on this list as well in terms of revitalized Rust Belt cities.  Coming from a rural coal region, I cannot place Cleveland any closer to the “midwest” than by associating it to Pittsburgh and Detroit as part of the Rust Belt.  Furthermore, I separate it from the cities like Pittsburgh and Minneapolis by realizing it is in fact in the Great Lakes region.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time in western New York for hockey, cycling tours around the Finger Lakes, and visiting a boyfriend I dated during the last five or so years. Cleveland absolutely fits into this category: the Great Lakes region.  They have the lakefront, the (in my opinion disgusting, sorry!) accent, and the lack of farms that would give it a genuine “midwest” feel.  When I was shocked by all of the “midwest” paraphernalia that I was reading and decided to throw together this short piece, I was relieved to find a number of resources that agree with my ramblings and opinions.

Montreal is Très Real

(Article from my satire column.)

My first time studying abroad was in fact to take a break from engineering and study French in Montreal. I thought it sounded like an excellent idea, going to Canada in March to learn my French. Little did I realize how waterproof my boots weren’t after walking hours in knee-high snow or how much the French in Montreal isn’t really French. It’s “Quebecois”. If you’ve spent your whole life learning Parisian French, studying in Quebec is about the equivalent of a Londoner living in the backwoods coal towns of West Virginia. It has a rather “what the hell language was that?” effect. Living in the old section of town, Vieux Montreal, was definitely the perk of the trip. Seeing how real the mountain was also justified calling the city “Mont Real”. But I still couldn’t get over this “Quebecois” thing.

During my time in Montreal, I spent a couple hours of every day volunteering in places like women’s shelters and soup kitchens. These places provided me with the opportunity of speaking French with the locals. Sadly, most of those conversations were curt and included phrases such as, “No, you can only have three pieces of cheese” or “You have a yellow ticket, not a green one, so you can only take one bottle of water”. My friends and I made every effort to become a part of the youth around us by socializing at our hostel and at local bars, but most of the kids staying with us were Anglophones and the noise in the bars prevented us from hearing each other let alone anyone speaking French. I stuck to guzzling down my Labatt Bleus (instead of Labatt Blues) and pretending like I knew what was going on around me. I ended up socializing the most on my daily walks through the town. Most days included pushing five cars out of a snow pile before having walked a single block. I became quite skilled at getting large vehicles out of deep, snowy trenches. One day, as I dragged my soaking feet through more and more snowfall, my friend and I joined several citizens of Montreal in pushing an enormous pickup truck out of an icy ditch. Exhausted, she and I stopped to get some local food. This is the moment when I made a mistake that I will always remember – and regret – for probably eternity.

We were taught in school that several things in Quebecois are different words than in French. While the French use American words like “un hot-dog”, the Canadians choose to make up their own word that sounds like “sausage” instead. The cuisine is also faux-French. For example, the classic dish in Eastern Canada is called “poutine” and consists of French fries covered in gravy and cheese curds. I had this word committed to memory – “Poo-teen, poo-teen, poo-teen” – until one fateful day when my teacher thought it was a good idea to advise us not to pronounce the word like “poo-tan”. It had never occurred to me before to say it that way. Alas, the incorrect pronunciation was forever instilled in my brain. When my friend and I walked into the food shop that cold, cold day, I fell into the age-old trap and asked, “Avez-vous… “poo-tan”? The man laughed at me and said that, No, he doesn’t have any whores, or poutine for that matter.

Oh, Montreal, the embarrassment is real. I took my cravings elsewhere and forever remembered my experience with Montreal and the poutine…

France-Enamored Americans: Love or Lust?

I have finally arrived in France after a long time traveling across Asia and Eastern/Central Europe. The last bits of my trip brought me through Venice and some other extremely touristy cities in Europe. As I sat back in some cafes, I observed the behavior of many tourists. The ones who stand out the most are always the photogenic Asians, the loud Brits, and ignorant Americans.

This isn’t my first time in France, but I am again dumbfounded by the cults of young women who flood the south of France, Paris, and fashion capitols across Europe, dying to “experience the culture” and indulge…but in what? In clothes, food, and boys. I’m not saying that my student group in IES is full of people like this; in fact, I’ve been quite impressed by the mix of people genuinely exploring the area for diligent work and culture experience. No, I’m referring to past experiences and current observations outside of my group.

Did you know there are H&M stores all across Europe? That many European youth in fact strive to be American-dressed, American-fed, and American-serenaded? Yes, while young women and other adults across America are dying to “experience France”, the youth over here are having quite the opposite desire. But what is the draw to France? Why do so many young women I know at home take French lessons, study journalism and fashion, read silly magazines, and eat at fancy restaurants so they can show off how to pronounce the names of foreign foods? It’s NOT a LOVE of FRANCE. They don’t care about the culture, about the politics, about the dirty facts about poverty and immigration and daily life in the not-so-fancy corners of the country. Not at all.

These are today’s youth who LUST over the IDEA of France, the images you see in those glossy magazines, the zombie-like models totting clothes that look absolutely ridiculous but that we are TOLD looks “fashionable” (ha!), the wine and the cheese… They want to lay in the sun and bask in what THEY view to be life in France. They turn their noses up at the most pungent of the cheeses and instead settle for things within their comfort zones. They avoid foie gras or pieds de cochons, or anything mildly ambitious that goes outside of their comfort zone.

These people, my friends, are the future generations and the people who spoil the image of American tourists for the rest of us. This ignorance plagues me and the vanity makes me nauseous as I sit at a cafe and juxtapose life here to my days passed at Luna Cafe at school. I dress to fit in, to respect, to not stand out. I don’t dress to make a scene, to become the new “It Girl”, or whatever it is these silly girls lust over these days. I have had quite enough of friends who come here for the boys, for shopping, for not speaking the language, and for picking through McDonald’s and other American treats. For shouting and being obnoxious and getting attention. For staring at themselves in the mirrors and taking photos of themselves to plaster online so everyone can tell them how adorable and “French” they are.

Please, indulge in the Love of France and not the Lust.