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Hello,

It has been quite some time since I’ve updated this blog!  Since I last posted in September, I’ve graduated college and been accepted, with my girlfriend Elyse, to the teaching assistantship program in France.  Organized by the French Ministry of Education, this program brings native English speakers into French classrooms to help in English language instructions.  We are very excited for the experience, as it will help me to hone my French skills and experience French culture firsthand.

We have started a shared blog to share our experiences with you.  We don’t leave until mid-September, but we’ve already begun to blog about our expectations/background information on the place we’ll be living.  Some posts will be written collaboratively, but we will also write many individually.  Just like on this blog, I intend to share lots of photos and videos along the way.

Here is the link to the new blog: http://www.elyseandgarthinfrance.wordpress.com.

If you go there, you’ll find under the first post instructions for how to subscribe via email, so that you can get updates whenever we write a new post.  I hope to see you subscribe to the France blog so we can keep in touch and share experiences.

-Garth

I have been home from Nepal for two weeks, and have finally gotten moved into college and caught up with everything.

I have also gotten around to uploading my photos and videos from the trip to the internet, and so I can finally begin posting them here.

I’ll start with my first impressions of the city.  It did not fully sink in that I was going to Kathmandu until I saw this sign at the flight gate of the Delhi airport:

The first glimpses from the jet of the Kathmandu Valley were richly verdant:

And as the jet descended, I just had to record it:

The taxi ride from the airport entailed an overload of the senses:

That is all I have time for now, but there is definitely more on the way.

Getting to Kathmandu was quite an adventure.  We ended up having an unexpected 14-hour layover in New Delhi, and because of some visa issues, we were not allowed to leave the airport.  Fortunately, the airport is very nice and very new:

After sleeping in Delhi, we caught a noon flight to Kathmandu, which takes only an hour and a half.  I have been fascinated with Kathmandu since the very second I arrived, as it is intensely different from any place I’ve ever been before.  First of all, it’s beautiful: huge green hills surround the entire city, enclosing Kathmandu Valley.  Giant clouds roll over the hills constantly.  The city definitely has the feel of an underdeveloped place: there are no stop signs or traffic lights, many of the roads are unpaved, auto-rickshaws whir down the streets, and there are temporary power outages.  Still, the city feels incredibly safe.  Despite all of the warnings from the State Department about Nepal, it seems to be a very warm and welcoming place.  It’s certainly intense and hectic, but so far markedly safe.  That’s not to say I’m naive; of course there are dangers.  But so long as one doesn’t go looking for them, the city feels very safe (this is something that many others who have traveled to Nepal have noticed as well).

Unfortunately, my internet here is not quite strong enough to upload pictures and videos very quickly.  So I’ll try to describe the city in words.  Just outside my hotel stands the highest Hindu temple in all of Nepal.  Surrounded by statues of Ganesh, Vishnu, and Shiva, it has soaring pagoda roofs and cuts a formidable image against the rainy skies. Walking around the city, ones senses are bombarded by the very bright clothing worn by women (saris and pashminas, mainly), the constant smell of incense burning as offerings to the Hindi gods, and the many varieties of street music resonating out from the wood-carved houses and bouncing off the many temples and  brick streets.  Everywhere I go, people press the hands together and raise them to head level, and say namaste (literally, “I salute the godly in you,” or more colloquially, hello).  At every temple, offerings of rice lay next to burning incense.  When Hindus make an offering, they ring a bell.  So in the mornings, a constant tintinnabulation permeates every inch of the city.

Walking around at night, women weave clothing in wooden carts by candlelight and cook vegetables on coal fires.  There are flowers all over the place, as well as masks and statues of Shiva, Krishna, Galuda and Ram.  The food is exquisite, and consists of lentils, meats, and copious spices.  Every morning I ascend to the restaurant on the roof of my hotel and drink a small pot of the most delicious chai tea of my life (here called masala tea, which means “spice”), as well as freshly-made mango juice.

On the streets, there are motorcycles everywhere.  Traffic drives on the left side, like in the United Kingdom, but there are really no street markings, so it’s more or less a free for all.  Many people drive three-wheeled cars, with two wheels in the back and one in the front.  There are no turn signals; rather, people simply beep their horns whenever they intend to turn.

Yesterday, we traveled into Kathmandu to visit the Shangri-La Home for Children, a Belgian-based NGO which houses 70 children.  The NGO sends them all to private school, and teaches them trade skills of their choice.  We took a tour of the home, interviewed its director and social workers, interviewed some of the older children who live there, and then played with the children.  Once particular child who was about two years old, grabbed my hand, raised his hands above his head and said namaste.  So I picked him up and he took me around the house showing me where he plays, pictures of his friends, etc.  Then he wanted to show me how he can write the English alphabet.

At Shangri-La Home for Kids, Kathmandu

Here is a group shot of us with the children and the director of the program:

After visiting Shangri-La, we saw a Buddhist stupa, surrounded by prayer wheels, adorned in prayer flags, and with hundreds of Buddhist monks making offerings all around it:

I have to stop there for now, though I have so much more to say.  We are about to go visit a “monkey temple” – a Hindu temple which is for some reason flocked to by monkeys.  I will take pictures.

TRAVEL IS AN ONGOING PROCESS, which gradually reveals the beauty and diversity of human experience on this fascinating planet of ours.  While I was in Turkey, I was fortunate enough to be contacted by my professor and friend, Dr. Rachana Sachdev, who asked me if I’d like to take part in a research trip to Nepal this summer.  Unable to resist the opportunity, I agreed.  Dr. Sachdev and four students (including me) were fortunate to receive a full grant to conduct research on the conditions of the street children of Nepal.  The process of applying for the grant was rather involved, but it paid off, and in one week I will once again leave the United States to venture to Kathmandu, where I will spend three weeks with the professor and three other students visiting non-governmental organizations throughout Nepal.

The grant comes from an organization which funds projects in Asian studies, ASIANetwork.  We were lucky to receive very generous funding, so that each participant has virtually no personal costs whatsoever.  Each student, as well as Dr. Sachdev, will focus on a different aspect of the street children in Nepal.  I will be focusing on the influences of foreign aid appropriation to Nepal since the Cold War, with a particular emphasis on new media (especially the internet), while incorporating elements of Edward Said’s theories of Orientalism in my approach.  Here is an abstract from our research proposal giving a more general description of the project:

“Street Children in Nepal-Changing Lives, Changing Stories
Christina Harrington, ’12, “Literacy among Street Children in Nepal”
Stephen Hyde, ’12, “Kinship Patterns and Homeless Children in Nepal”
Blake Mosser, ’10, “Voc. Training and Employment Programs for Street Children in Nepal”
Garth Libhart, ’10, “Politics, Compassion and Computers: Influences on U.S. Aid to Nepal since the Cold War”

Four students will spend a month in Nepal undertaking individual research projects facilitated by key NGOs in Nepal that are working with street children. Half their time will be spent in the Kathmandu-Bhatkapur area and neighboring villages, and the other half will be spent travelling to Pokhara, Jomsom, Muktinath, and Biratnagar to perform additional research. One student will study vocational training and employment programs for street children; another, literacy among the street children; a third, kinship patterns and homelessness; and a fourth, the repercussions of British colonialism and humanitarian aid on Kathmandu society and politics. As a group they seek to objectively assess what the most effective organizational blueprint for working with street children is for Nepal, and submit their findings in a report to the NGOs and then draw from it and their research to produce a paper for publication in an academic journal.”

A great deal of our time will be spent in NGO’s.  We will interview both NGO workers as well as street children.  Nepal, one of the most impoverished countries on earth, has a particularly devastating amount of child poverty, and our aim is to assess the situation while providing viable solutions for the future.  I’m certain that the experience will be eye-opening, and I also expect that parts of it will be rather shocking and difficult.

I will have some internet access in Nepal, and I intent to blog while doing my research.  I will place all of my posts on this blog, so check your inbox for frequent updates once I leave.

As a final note: We are looking to make donations to all of the NGO’s we visit, since we will be taking time away from their work to conduct our research, and since many of them struggle for funding to begin with.  Unfortunately, none of our grant money is allowed to be used for this purpose.  If you’d be interested in making a contribution of any amount to non-governmental organizations that help some of the most destitute and suffering children on earth, please send me a private email at libhart@susqu.edu.

I have been home from Turkey for over one month, and I just realized today that I failed to ever write a final post on Turkey for this blog.  Please forgive the delay; I suppose I’ve been so caught up in readjusting to life in the U.S. that I forgot to keep up with this.  Though perhaps this is not such a bad thing, as it  has allowed me lots of time to reflect privately, before laying out some thoughts here.  Of course, I would be naive to think that one month after the trip I have the authority to make definitive and concrete conclusions on my experience in Turkey.  The process of travel is an ongoing one, and I will continue to learn from my life in Istanbul.  But in what follows I will try to give some of my impressions and ideas about my experiences abroad and at home.

1) Turkey, and especially Istanbul, is safe. This came as no surprise to me, as I had read countless articles and travel journals on Turkey before I ventured there.  I had talked to numerous people who have been there, and all told me that Istanbul was a vibrant, welcoming, and very safe city.  During my four months living and studying in Istanbul, I never once felt unsafe or threatened in any way.  This includes when I would travel around the city alone, and even when walking alone through the antiquated cobblestone streets of Beyoğlu late at night, and when I traveled to the city of Van, in the far eastern region of Turkey and thirty kilometers from the Iranian border.  Now, I understand that as a male, I do have some advantage in this respect, in the sense that safety often becomes more of an issue for women, as the world seems full of pestering men who harass and annoy incessantly.  But even in that regard, most of the women in my program had no problems, and could usually deflate an untoward flatterer by shouting the Turkish word ayıp, which means “shame.”  This word operates like verbal mace, and would dispel the harasser immediately.  I am interested in this issue of safety because I think it is a fascinating example of how our perceptions about the world are often in great contrast to reality.  Many, many people in the United States warned me about going to Turkey before I left.  Comments such as “don’t trust anyone,” “always watch your back,” “I can’t believe you’re going to a country that is near the Middle East,” and “I admire you for going there, because I would never have the courage to do that” were very common.  And, I admit, I too had some reservations about going to a country which many in my own communities know little or nothing about.  But I am happy to report that all of these fears were entirely unfounded, and that my experiences in Turkey were free of danger.

In that light, I think many of us in the United States have unfounded fears about many countries overseas.  We seem to be raised – inculcated, even – with the notion that the U.S. is the only safe and free country on earth, and that the rest of the world wallows in misery, destitution, and sorrow.  I remember in my early elementary school years having the sense that the U.S. was the only really good place on earth.  It probably has something to do with the “shining-city-on-a-hill” attitude with which early childhood education tends to present U.S. history.  Now, I do not mean to demean the United States in that regard, but merely to speculate as to how these attitudes develop.  Outside of education, our popular culture also seems to be intensely xenophobic.  Take for example the very popular 2008 film Taken, in which Liam Neeson has to rescue his daughter from the sex-trafficking cartel of Albania, which she falls into immediately upon entering Paris.  In that film (and others), all foreigners are presented as strange, mean, conniving, and dangerous people, and this has a marked influence on how many people think about the world.  Those sorts of films imbue the viewer with an almost unconquerable certainty that the world is not safe and present a tragically warped image of our world.  This certainty is grounded not at all upon experience and fact but upon a baseless emotion.  It is not to say that one should not be prudent when traveling overseas; the world certainly does have real dangers, and one best be aware of them.  But generally, it is my impression that the world is far safer in reality than it is in the imagination of a typical United States citizen.

2) The so-termed “Muslim World” is not a uniform body of people.  As someone who grew up in the United States during the era of the horrific tragedy of 9/11, I have been exposed to an enormous amount of judgment toward the Middle East.  Now, some of this judgment is entirely appropriate: of course the U.S. should condemn religious extremists who target innocents, as well as the countries who support and harbor them.  But beyond that, I think that the West has created an unfortunate characterization of the so-called “Muslim World.”  In my opinion, the politics of fear and absolutism (reference the infamous “Axis of Evil” approach) perpetuated by the Bush administration of the early 2000′s forged a great mis-characterization of Muslim people.  What happened in the process of that characterization was a simplification of an entire religious and cultural identity, to the end that many in the U.S. began equating the world “Muslim” with the word “evil.”  Moreover, this process reinforced the traditional and inaccurate alignment of the West with progress and modernization and the Middle East with antiquity, backwardness, and anti-progress (the process of which demonstrates a staggering ignorance of the Middle East’s contributions to philosophy, science, and literature, many of which were foundational in the development of now-indispensable Western ideas).   In those happenings, the extensive diversity of Muslim peoples was chiseled down to a single, uniform Other, whose only definition was that it was dangerous, foreign, and scary.  This is the reason that so many people had such negative perceptions about Turkey.  Even if some of the people I talked to had never been to Turkey, had never studied it, couldn’t name it’s capital or political structure, had never met a Turk, or had never realized that Turkey is traditionally a very strong ally of the U.S. as well as a founding member of NATO, many of them would oddly have such assured opinions on the country, and the sneaking suspicion that it isn’t safe and that it must hate America.  The motivation behind these attitudes, I contend, is this whitewashing of the Muslim identity by many of us in the West.  The only thing that many people know about Turkey is that it is a Muslim country, or that it is near the Middle East.  In the minds of many, Turkey must therefore be full of evil terrorists.   In that mentality, the Muslims in Istanbul are simplistically equated with the Muslims in Tehran, Bahrain, Philadelphia, Damascus, Paris, Dubai, etc.; the “Muslim” is reduced to one singular identity, even though a huge breadth of difference permeates the Muslim people.   This, in turn, only heightens the amount of racism, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and fear that dwells among us, and as someone who witnessed firsthand the incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic people of Istanbul, I can assure you that it is unfortunate, misguided, and unnecessary.

3) The Turkish people love the United States (generally).  This one is obviously a generalization, but I will tell you that nearly every single Turkish person I met had only good things to say about the U.S.  As an American I was welcomed especially warmly, and Turks everywhere constantly tried to impress me with their knowledge of American popular culture.

4) Turkish is a rich and important language. Before going to Istanbul, I knew only one word in Turkish (merhaba, hello).  After studying the language for four months, I am now intensely aware of its importance in the world and its literary capabilities.  Nearly 200 million people in the world speak Turkish or a Turkish-derived language.  Additionally, Turkish is in my opinion a fascinating and extraordinarily rich language, with an important literary tradition that is packed with imagination and beauty.

5) Turkey is formal.  The Turks have an interesting dedication to formality, and this manifests in their clothing, hairstyles, bureaucracies, and even in the way they speak their language.  Suits and ties are everywhere, and even more casual clothing tends to be quite formal.  Jeans are very common, but shorts are rarely seen.  Turks speak their language with a very vibrant presence, as if to announce their dedication to whomever they are speaking.  Of course, this too is a generalization, and does not apply to everyone.  In the broadest terms, though, Turkey is very concerned with presentation and formality.

6) To speak English is to possess an overwhelming privilege. Simply put, that I could travel to a country as different and faraway as Turkey and, because of the presence of English, still have virtually no problems or struggles finding my way around or buying things, illuminates the advantage that English-speakers have in the global world of the twenty-first century.  It was humbling and eye-opening to meet locals who were thrilled to be speaking to a native English speaker, and who were eager to practice their English on me.  If someone from Turkey came to the U.S., I doubt that people would offer a comparable treatment.  “That’s unfair,” you say, “because English is far more ubiquitous globally than Turkish!”  True, but what about more predominant languages, like Spanish (current total speakers: 500 million) or Mandarin Chinese (current total speakers: 1.3 billion)?  Surely few in the U.S. would welcome speakers of those more predominant languages either.  I say this not to be supercilious, but merely to observe the unfortunate obstinacy with which many in the U.S. view language.  How many times have we heard comments like “learn English or leave!,” “speak English or go home!,” etc.?  These comments simply no longer hold water in our increasingly connected world.  Furthermore, they ignore the struggle of the billions across the world who are learning English (usually for economic advancement), and reveal a lack of awareness of the privilege I mentioned earlier.  Finally, they turn a blind eye to the legacy of multiculturalism and diversity that is the United States.

That is all I will say for now.  Travel abroad has certainly broadened my perspectives, and I think in a positive way.  It was and is a constant cracking of nutshells, a shaking up of assumptions, a relinquishing of fear, and a powerful excitement at the potentiality of an interconnected world.

LAST WEEK, I returned to Paris from Istanbul to visit my girlfriend Elyse, who is studying literature at the Sorbonne for the current academic year.  It was an incredible, relaxed trip, and I will try to summarize it in this post.

The flight north was pleasant and easy, and I was granted a great relief upon collecting my checked luggage and discovering that the bottle of Rakı I had packed as a gift for Elyse’s host parents  had not shattered in flight.

Paris in the spring is exceptionally lush and beautiful, and it seems as if every component of the city (the gardens, the wine, the food, etc.) bends toward the pleasing of the senses:

Exquisite

In the Courtyard of Elyse's Host Family

In the Courtyard of Elyse's Host Family

We saw many of the indispensable sights of Paris which I had not seen during my first visit to France in April.  Notre Dame was especially formidable in the spring sunlight:

Detail of Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Elyse and I focused especially on art and music during this trip.  On Sunday, we went to a new staging of Les Miserables at the le Théâtre du Châtelet, in which the director and producers have attempted to return the piece to its original historical context, and to place more emphasis on Hugo’s intention by including vivid stage projections of Hugo’s own paintings.  It was my first time seeing the musical, and after seeing it, I do intend to read the novel.

We also visited the Louvre, which was too overwhelmingly amazing to encapsulate in words.  Here are a few pictures though:

Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa is much smaller than I had anticipated, and not as breathtaking as I had imagined.  But it was still impressive to see as a cathartic symbol of Western art.

As we are both great fans of the work, Elyse and I had to pose in front of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People:

Yes, it's also the artwork of a Coldplay album

Napoleon being smug and aloof, as if to say "yes, I perform world conquest routinely"

Courtyard of Louvre in Background

We also visited the Musée d’Orsay, which contains many of the most famous works of French impressionism.  Unfortunately, the museum permits no photography inside.  But of particular interest were selections by Monet, Renoir, and a room of Orientalist art, which included French portrayals of Turkey and the Middle East.  Also, we saw a special exhibition in the museum called Crime and Punishment, which displayed a formerly-used guillotine, as well as depictions of the most famous crimes of humanity.  A bit depressing, perhaps, but fascinating nonetheless.

After visiting the Louvre, we went to a teahouse called Mariage Frères, where I had what was by far the best tea I have ever tasted in life:

The teahouse serves over 3000 varieties of tea, and sends an assistant to your table to help you decide which to drink.

Copious Amounts of Tea on the Wall

Outside, the courtyard of the Louvre leads into the Jardin des Tuileries, one of Paris’s most famous gardens:

Here is an aerial shot of the garden:

In the Paris Metro, there are always musical groups playing during the day.  Here are two particularly good ones we stumbled upon.  The group in the first video, as far as we could tell, was singing either Hungarian or Czech folk music, and the group in the second video is Chilean:

Paris is an incredible, dynamic, elegant, opulent, multicultural, complex, and fascinating place, and I hope to return again someday.

la Fontaine Saint-Michel

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