7 November 2015

The Festival of lights

The Indians know it as Deepavali or Diwali.

Here in Nepal it is the Tihar.

It is a happy time.

It is a party time.

With all the lights – it is also a very bright time.

I am back in Nepal and all is good in my world.

Not so much for the Nepalese.

A blockade of all petrol that arrives by land from India has crippled the country for the past month. I saw a queue of motorbikes and cars waiting for their weekly ten litres ration that had more than 6000 vehicles.

My friend Babu says he waits three days for his ration and he has also bought petrol on the black market. Fuel prices fluctuate wildly in Nepal but about one hundred and eighty rupees a litre is about the norm. The black market rate in Kathmandu is six hundred rupees.

The gangsters are really cashing in.

Driving is Babu’s sole business.

He is suffering badly.

So too are the post-earthquake re-construction projects which commenced with earnest last month when the monsoons subsided but most have now all ground to a halt because of the fuel crisis.

Tens of thousands of Nepali still live in tents in their villages and throughout the Kathmandu valley.

More than one hundred Nepalese villages were completely destroyed in the two earthquakes and only a handful has commenced rebuilding.

Hundreds of schools and health centres and public buildings need to be constructed.

With winter fast approaching the situation is becoming direr.

The situation in Nepal is often dire. As is always the case, it is the disadvantaged that suffer the most.

The young and the elderly.

The resilience of the Nepali people is astounding.

It really is.

As far as I can ascertain, the reason for the fuel blockade by the Indians is political.

They don’t like the new constitution.

Nearly everything in Nepal comes from India and much of what little is produced here goes to India.

Particularly the electricity that is generated by the large hydro dams in the Himalaya.

Very little – if any of that seems to stay in Nepal.

Black outs and load shedding are the norm.

The price of kerosene and cooking gas has also trebled in the last month and many people have reverted to cooking using wood fuel.

It is much cheaper.

Cylinders of gas that would normally cost 1500 rupee now cost 6500.

Few households can afford it.

Regardless - next week in the mountain villages and across the Kathmandu Valley clay lamps the Nepali call diyas will be lit in households and businesses. These lamps will often burn gee. These are known locally and appropriately as butter lamps and the smell permeates in Kathmandu and all throughout Nepal.

The smell of gee lamps always reminds me of the Tihar festival in Nepal.

It is nice.

Brass diyas burn in all the Temples.

In those that are still standing after the earthquakes.

In Patan – where I am right now - beautiful Rangoli are now appearing in courtyards and in building foyers. These are gorgeous and intricate patterns made from coloured rice and flower petals as homage to the Hindu gods and Goddesses.

On the weekend families will start their own Rangoli on the floors of their living rooms of their homes.

It is a welcoming invitation to the Hindu deity.

It is a come-on-in.

There are five days in the Tihar festival.

The first is called Kaag Tihar or Kwah Puja and it is the worship of both crows and ravens. The craws of these birds symbolize sadness and grief in Hinduism so devotees make offerings to keep such emotions away from their homes.

Offerings of sweets are placed on the roofs of houses.

The second day is called Kukur Tihar or Khicha Puja – and sometimes Narka Chaturdashi - and it is the day of the dog. In Nepali Hinduism dogs are the messengers of the God of Death, Lord Yamaraj. On this day the pooches of Nepal are given great treats and are treated with much reverence.

The night noises of Kathmandu for me are the barking of the street dogs and the crawing of the crows.

When I arrive back as I lay in bed waiting for sleep to take me I always know I am here by these sounds.

Like the pre-dawn morning chants of monks they are comforting to me.

They bring me peace.

The morning of the third day of the Tihar festival is called Gai Tihar – and it is worship of the cow time.

Cows are symbols of prosperity and wealth and the Nepali Hindus make garlands of marigolds that the locals call Sayapatri – and they glam up all of the cows.

The evening of the third day of the festival the Goddess of Wealth – whose name is Laxmi, is thanked for her gift of prosperity and this is where all the lights are lit up in thanks and the partying starts.

There is much singing and dancing.

On the fourth day of Tihar, there are a couple of varieties of pujas depending on the people's specific cultural background. It is mostly observed as Goru Tihar or Goru Puja – which is the worship of the oxen. However people who follow Vaishnavism Hinduism perform something called Govardhan Puja, which is the worship of the holy Goverdhan Mountain.

Cow dung is taken as representative of the mountain and it is bowed to and worshiped.

I shit you not.

On this day the majority of the Newar community perform something called Mha Puja – which is basically a worship of one’s self.

Think self contemplation.

This day is also seen as the beginning of the new Nepal Sambat calendar year.

In the Nepal calendar it is currently the year 2072.

There is a reason why and I have written about it before.

Look it up if you want.

I am not Wikipedia.

The fifth and last day of Tihar is called Bhai Tika or Kija Puja and it commences with sisters applying tika to the foreheads of their brothers.

This is to ensure a long life and to thank them for the protection that they provide.

Being a big brother is serious stuff in Nepal.

Hindus believe that Yamraj, the God of Death, visited his sister, the Goddess Yamuna, on this day and she applied the tika on his forehead and she garlanded him and fed him special dishes.

Together, they ate sweets, talked and enjoyed themselves to their hearts' content.

Upon departing, Yamraj gave Yamuna a special gift as a token of his affection and, in return, Yamuna gave him a lovely gift that she had made with her own hands.

That day Yamraj announced that anyone who receives tilak from his sister would never die on that day.

So - sisters make a special garland for their brothers from a flower that takes months to wilt, symbolizing the sister's prayer for her brother's long life.

Brothers sit on the floor while their sisters perform their puja.

The puja follows a traditional ritual in which sisters circle their brothers, dripping oil on the floor from a copper pitcher and applying oil to their brother's hair. They then apply a seven-colour tika on the brother's foreheads. Next, brothers give tikas to their sisters in the same fashion along with an exchange of gifts.

This ritual is practiced regardless of whether the brother is younger or older than the sister.

Those without a sister or brother join relatives or friends for tika.

This festival strengthens the close relationship between brothers and sisters. In addition to these, the Newar people make colourful Ashtamangala mandalas and recite chants in accordance with ancient Tantric rituals. Along with the seven-coloured tika, sisters provide brothers with sweets and a special Makhamali garland, as well as a sacred cotton thread that is similar to Janai thread. It is worn on the wrist and is meant to protect their bodies.

The Tihar festival is very much a family affair.

Many of the Hindu festivals involve a reunion with families and they are wonderfully colorful and particularly nice.

Family stuff normally is.

The five nights of the light festival of the Tihar in Nepal and Deepavali across India are as spectacular as they are beautiful.

I can’t think of any other place I would rather be.

27 October 2015


I am now insured for injury or death if caused in part or completely by acts of terrorism or unlawful actions.

In the USA.

I was unsure if such cover was on my travel insurance and so I rang and checked after I watched news reports this evening another young white American male who took a gun to school and tried to kill all of his classmates

He succeeded in killing ten and maiming many others.

These mass shootings – that occur mostly in schools – occur every thirteen days here in the US.

They have been happening for decades.

It is frightening.

It is madness.

It is however insurable.

When I rang up the US Agent of insurance company that I bought my travel insurance from he told me that being in the US meant that I was now more than seven hundred and eighty times likely to be shot than where I bought my Singapore policy.

I told him that I wasn’t that surprised.

The Insurance Agent’s name was Hank.

When I asked Hank if I was covered for death or injury caused by acts or terrorism he asked me if I was affiliated with or the subject of any organisation or any sect that promoted acts of violence or hatred.

I told Hank only the Human Race.

He snorted in gruff acceptance.

After some clicking and clacking on his keyboard Hank told me that I might not be covered if it turned out any injuries or death I sustained was as a result of me being a specific target of a terrorist action.

“Like a jihad Hank?”


“Against me specifically?


I don’t think that I am the target of any extremists but I can’t say for sure.

“What about being maimed or killed collaterally? 

“Covered” Hank informed me.

“A million for medical expenses and two million for death” he added.

I thought these seemed sufficient amounts.

“Will you be visiting any schools whilst you are here?” Hank asked me.

I told him that I was not.

Hank told me that the campus of an American high school was statistically the most likely place to be shot dead or maimed.

Fancy that.

A male American between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five would likely undertake the shooting and they will be armed with multiple automatic or semi automatic weapons and many surplus rounds of ammunition.

They are generally armed to the hilt and have a thought-out and sometimes drawn out plan of homicide.

The shootings would most likely occur in the late morning or early afternoon.

Even teenage terrorists are late risers.

American citizens own an estimated 270 million guns and a little over 3 million new guns are manufactured and sold each year. One third of the population is armed. In the first half of this year alone nearly 7000 Americans were shot dead.

Hank told me that he thought I would also be covered if I were maimed or killed as collateral damage if I happened to be walking past a school and another such shooting were to go be going on.

I told Hank that I would completely avoid knowingly going near any educational institutions here in America.

They are dangerous places.

I asked Hank if my insurance also extended to cover me in the event of an earthquake or a Tsunami.

When he asked me my whereabouts in the US and I replied that I was in Los Angeles he made some more tut tutting noise.

“A force majeure. Not covered,” Hank replied.

“Seismically a very dangerous place to be” he added.

“Smack on the San Andreas Fault and overdue for a big one” I agreed

I negotiated additional cover for earthquakes and Tsunamis – including search, rescue and repatriation cover.

It wasn’t cheap.

I was in Kathmandu in Nepal when the second earthquake struck there earlier this year and I thought for sure that I was then going to die.

I saw buildings crumble and fall and I saw many people perish in only a minute and a half of violent waves of shaking.

Never before have I tasted such fear and fallibility.

It was truly terrifying.

I told this to Hank whilst he was taking my credit card details for payment of my extra coverage – which now included Identity Theft. It is a major problem here in the US and television shows are punctuated by advertisements telling Americans that one case of Identity theft occurs every three seconds. There are also major television advertising campaigns promoting the long-term use of anti anxiety medication.

For whole families.

It is quite depressing.

When I asked Hank if there was any other insurance cover he thought might be necessary for my rather long stay in the US we went through the limits and exceptions to the policy I had bought.

Hank told me that I was statistically more likely to be shot, run over or drowned than any other loss event and he told me to be careful where I went.

He repeated his earlier advice that I should avoid schools.

I asked Hank if he thought I would be safer if I bought a firearm whilst I was over here and he said that is it probably wasn’t such a bad idea.

He told me that he had a couple.

I asked Hank that if I bought a gun here would the Insurance Company give me an “I’m packing” discount on my excess and he told me that he thought that they wouldn’t but he said it was a good idea.

He in fact said it was a “mighty fine idea”

I have fired a gun once before and the friends with whom I am staying have a couple of firearms here.

I have seen them.

One of them is a Gloch pistol and another is an enormous Magnum - and my friends are licensed to own and fire them.

They wont let me shoot them though.

I have asked.


When we were having dinner outside the other night on a balmy Vegas summer evening a drone buzzed in out of nowhere and sat hovering in my friends garden - less than ten meters from where we were eating.

We were all a bit surprised.

It wasn’t particularly big and it made a quite soft buzzing noise as it sat there.

Observing us.

I asked if anyone could see whether or not anyone could tell if it was weaponised and no one could say for certain.

I called for the Gloch and the Magnum – and there was a bit of a rushed consultation amongst the Americans. I thought it would be an almost immediate and automatic response here.

Blow it away.

One of them grabbed the hose and sprayed the drone – which quickly made it zip up and scoot away.

So we assume it was at the very least camera-carrying.

The US army use the same ones to shoot people and to blow things up.

After the excitement of the desert drone incident my American friends told me that there are quite a lot of drones buzzing their way around the Nevada and Californian skies.

Anyone can go and buy and build a kit and quite a few obviously do.

Although the water drenching solution to drive the drone away was effective, the engineers and lawyers amongst the group quickly suggested that having an automatic drone intrusion system would be the way to go.

They suggested that installing a drone defense system where your own drones would detect and respond to any drone intrusion on your property and then blow them away.

Seek and destroy.

It is the American way.