The Watson

Kathmandu, Nepal

August 30, 2017

 

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“Write, write, write, everything down. You think that you will be able to remember all of the details later, but you’ll forget and wish you had written it all somewhere. Write down everything you see, hear, observe.” – Brian Kelly, editor of The Bainbridge Review, in conversation

 

“I think as a person and as a journalist it’s incredibly important to travel, be exposed to different things and people. There’s something very beautiful about just hearing a person’s story. It’s an honor and a privilege.” –Joshua Prager, writer and journalist, over Skype

 

 “I am writing all this down in blue ink, so as to remember that all words, not just some, are written in water.” –Maggie Nelson, Bluets

 

“As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on. Does it eventually mask a larger truth? I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry… Repression ‘through proper channels’ sometimes engenders resistance ‘through proper channels.’” –Arundahti Roy, Listening to Grasshoppers: Fieldnotes on Democracy

 

“We hear a lot, but we do not feel. I want to go feel.” –Geeta Manandhar, my Nepali tutor, in conversation

 

Journalism is history in a hurry.” –Kunda Dixit, editor of Nepali Times, in lecture to Pitzer College study abroad program

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From Merriam-Webster

Verb | lis . ten

: to pay attention to sound

: to hear something with thoughtful attention: give consideration

: to be alert to catch an expected sound

The List, before August 1

  1. Spend some weeks of no particular number contained to an island.
  2. Become familiar with the Big Dipper and find the time to wonder about constellations from other eyes.
  3. Stay up late talking with friends until you can’t any longer; focus on their faces so you can envision them later. You imagine yourself hollow and conjure the feeling of shared spaces at your lowest moments.
  4. Run and soak in the chance to listen to music but also force yourself to move without headphones. Breath, light, birds, road.
  5. Lie in bed and scribble, read, Google, stir, plan. Open up another list; leave it unfinished.
  6. Send a lot of emails, and save more drafts of emails than you send.
  7. Keep about 23-27 tabs open on your computer at all times. Don’t close anything for fear you’ll never find your way back to it again.
  8. Become familiar with saying how you hope you will feel, how you will feel, what the next twelve months will be. You read the newspaper headlines, look at photos, and wonder about what you will feel like when the headlines are dangling at eye level: The Himalayan Times. Nepali Times. República. Mail & Guardian. TeleSUR. El País. Indian Express. The Hindu. 
  9. Find yourself a place to stay, through a friend who did the same iteration of a year; hope that your reach outs from a while ago will amount to something.
  10. Run in circles around your bag and get really, really sweaty as you realize you’re leaving at 3:50 a.m. The reminders and voices go in one ear and out the other.
  11. You realize that of the things you are bad at, the collecting and bringing of things nears the top of the list.
  12. Your sister and your dog are sleeping across from each other, she on the pillow, knees curled, he on the blanket below. You wonder about what you have forgotten. You decide to go to bed, spin with limp limbs within instead. And yes, you remember while driving in the car to the airport the magazines and newspapers you meant to bring for the plane, sitting stacked on a table. They suddenly seem precious, even though it really doesn’t matter at all- alas, no room for print in the bag. 32.4, maybe 33 lbs. The space was there.
  13. “You’re going where?” The attendant at the gate asks, and she’s just arrived to start her morning shift. She asks you to spell out Kathmandu. You watch her wrap the luggage tag, the bar code with KTM, around the suitcase handle. She smiles at you, feels your sudden worry, this release of the bag onto winding conveyor belts. “This will meet you on the other side.”
  14. You board the plane. And then, you’re gone.

 

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A couple months before this year started, a family friend asked me during a long afternoon conversation about what I hoped to do, really do, this year; what would this be the year of? What is the Watson really all about?

This is a question I’m still thinking about, and trying to wrap my head around, everyday. Twelve months. Four countries (originally), now five (or maybe more… To be determined). A rough plan with no strings attached. The ability to get up and go as the news and your project moves you. How do you do it, when are there are so many possibilities, when there is both so little and so much time? Thinking about it still sends my heart and head into a tailspin, and want to simultaneously micromanage every moment and live by the seat of my pants.

At that point in the summer, mid June, I was knee deep in figuring out and also definitely procrastinating on the small details that come along with a year of solo human travel. To think about this, in part, I turned to people in my life—by reading the work of favorite writers; speaking in person and over Skype with mentors Joshua Prager and Brian Kelly (quotes above), among professors and many others, who have offered up countless contacts and thoughtful advice; my family, the ultimate go-to’s always; and my friends who brought up endlessly helpful questions, listened to my plans like the loving humans they are, and are also much better at packing than I am… This project is a reflection of those connections, and is so far developing thanks completely to these people.

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But back to Jeff (my family friend’s) point. His was a refreshing question, and an important one. In a year of exploring local journalism around the world, what do I really want to do, now that this year, somehow, is actually happening? While on my own and building connections to storytellers and within different places, how best to approach the questions of who is heard, and who’s experience is captured, in print, radio, and online platforms?

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By listening, I realized. I hope that this is the year of listening. It’s an act universally performed and a constant, ideally reciprocal act in daily interactions; a ritual of human communication, and of media production and consumption. We learn most deeply about stories by hearing them from different angles. So often, though, humans easily fade into the walls of echo chambers and receiving end of narratives told by those with power. Not just in certain places that are established to hog the limelight of newsworthiness, but everywhere. Their ability to listen to, and in some cases, absorb or be open to truths that challenge their opinions becomes impaired.

Now, in the beginning part of living out this project, I am trying to think of this year as one centered around listening to people, and exploring media that tells stories truthfully and on local levels. While this project is of course focused on being outside the U.S., I think and look very often to the current polarization of TV news and front pages; the rising, vague threat of press censorship and very present self censorship of certain channels; and about how people perceive news of the U.S. from the outside (more about this another time). Everything looks different when your viewing screen for news is closer to the subject.

My project is officially focused on community-based journalism, but it is also about trying to absorb the voices and perspectives of every conversation. As I’ve learned in my first three weeks attempting this in real time, this can take different forms and is in no way predictable. The open ended-ness, the freedom, and scope of this year hits me often when I am moving around within Nepal because already I feel that I could spend a year—or much longer—here trying to learn about how journalism unfolds in a young democracy, in geographically and climatically varied regions, and its attention to lingual and ethnic diversity. Nepal is a microcosm of these intertwined historical and environmental factors, nestled between its giant neighbors, China and India—as Nepali Times editor Kunda Dixit said in a lecture I tagged along to with Pitzer College study abroad students (an incredibly helpful day, both for learning history and how to eat dalbat, rice and lentils, Nepali style), 123 ethnic groups and 99 languages are present here. Nepal’s positioning has shaped its geopolitics since the beginning, from the earliest days of trade flowing widely from India to Nepal through Tibet, to the 104 year reign of the Rana absolute monarchy until 1951, to a wide range of transitions of power in different hands since 1990.

Following widespread calls for democratic rights round the world in 1989-1990, Nepal gained a new constitution that granted fundamental rights and lifted the ban on political parties, and, officially in 1992, legalized independent media. This would lead to the establishment of many non-government sanctioned publications in the years to come, particularly of community radio stations (today there are over 400 FM stations across the country). From 1996 to 2006, a Maoist insurgency with horrific violence waging from both the government and rebel forces across the country, killed over 17,000 and intensely repressed media’s attempts to report upon it. That year, 2006, Nepal hit a point of having 11 governments in 11 years.

The country then became a constitutional democracy in 2008, but since 14 May of this year Nepal has been holding the first elections of local officials across the country since 1997, an especially extended gap because they were not held during the insurgency. The final round will take place in the southeastern Province 2 on 18 September (Nepali Times wrote a great, comprehensive piece about the 1997 and 2017 elections). As such, this is a fascinating moment to learn about Nepal’s contemporary history, see how journalists seek to cover these issues, and the politics of local versus national coverage of life in Nepal.

There is also the very recent and near disaster of the floods, which have devastated over 80 percent of the land in the Tarai (plain) region of Nepal, killed 120 people, and displaced and destroyed thousands of families and homes. The floods happen every year, to different extents, due to the monsoon season, but some argue that it is for this reason that government incentive is limited to fund better disaster communication systems, beyond responding with relief in the aftermath. The mass destruction also is reflective of many things: changing climate, disruptive embankments and water-leveling installations, varying levels of emergency preparedness and communication, and disparities in aid relief. A couple of reporters I’ve talked to have gone to the Tarai in the immediate aftermath to look at how text message alerts, monitored by local groups, were successful in actually preventing many deaths in certain areas (Arun Karki, for Reuters); and in Chitwan, Sahina Shrestha, for Nepali Times,  spent three days reporting on the efforts of freshly elected local officials (female representatives in particular) in distributing and allocating aid. 

I am learning about these things through conversations and more formal interviews with people, by spending time in different newsrooms, reading through Nepali Times archives and current issues (I’m a quasi-intern there and help out with editing/SMS tags/anything else that’s needed, and in return get the chance to work and learn alongside great reporters– three women, one man, which is an unusual demographic in Nepali newsrooms– with the office as a base of sorts) and other books, and also through sitting in on community radio production.

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This week, I’ve been watching the airing of programs at Radio Sagarmatha, which is the oldest community radio station in South Asia and the first to receive a hard-sought license in Nepal in 1997. I sit with the technician and we chat; since my Nepali is on the most elementary side of elementary, it is a very different absorption experience, shadowing in a radio where I can watch the processes and know what the topics and general gist of each program are but not fully hear them.

Still, I’ve been able to see reporters choosing which and highlighting newspaper articles from Nepali print newspapers to read on air, and watch people edit radio segments accentuated with long green sound bytes and the flow from one program to another. Radio is not very popular in Kathmandu proper but is still a major source of information for people in more remote areas of Nepal. For that reason, Sagarmatha is thinking about how to maintain their vision for the radio—“Nepali radio, Nepali awaj,” which means Nepali radio, Nepali voices—while also adapting to an audience that could be tapped more into on social media channels.

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Today, I sat in on the first afternoon of a two and a half day work shop for post earthquake reconstruction radio reporting, hosted by Radio Sagarmatha. About fourteen radio journalists, one each from earthquake affected areas of Nepal, are in attendance to discuss how to most effectively report upon rebuilding and earthquake resilience efforts in their respective communities. The project, then, is both collaborative and individual, but in one room, people from different places yet tied to the same devastation are discussing how best to approach telling those stories. A big question and disparity in journalistic focus that seems to keep coming up with the people I’ve talked to here is how to balance data with human voices; the numbers with narratives and human experiences.

Each moment, and each journalistic story, requires a separate kind of listening.

I didn’t know what this would mean when I was emailing and talking to people in Nepal from afar; I Skyped with my Nepali tutor, Geeta, a few weeks before coming to Kathmandu, but we could not properly see each other in the blurred video chat images. On August 7, when we first met, we did not recognize each other in the outdoor café we had planned to meet at. About twenty minutes early to our first class, I walked right by her and sat down; we made eye contact and smiled at each other but did not register it was the other person in the slightest. It was only when we heard snippets of the each other’s neighboring voices that we realized our mistake.

We laughed and laughed about this, because we probably sat across from each other for about fifteen solid minutes before realizing this- and so began our shared adventure in teaching/learning Nepali, not in script but by sound. Because I am only here for three months, Geeta suggested we focus just on conversational Nepali for the purposes of my project: basic communication and potentially interviewing in some cases.

“Don’t try to translate everything word by word,” Geeta told me again that first day, as we laughed at my first Nepali attempts (three weeks later, this still happens a lot). In my head, I was trying to remember and place every word in its right place. Pretty quickly, my brain tangled in on itself. “Don’t worry so much about the mistakes you might make. Make mistakes and you will learn more.”

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This advice keeps popping back into my head, reflected in the experience of adjusting to a new place, and perhaps Kathmandu in particular. Transitioning and by default translating one culture from and into another can be helpful at times; but in many cases, allowing yourself to fall in and see the place as it stands on its own is essential. I’ve tried to live out the first part of my year by being open to new experiences, fully engaging in conversations, and generally saying yes to moving around and meeting with folks as much as possible. The people I have met here have helped immensely in encouraging this kind of living.

I’m staying in a guesthouse in Patan, which is the old part of the city in one of the three ancient districts in the Kathmandu Valley—Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur. Patan itself is across the river from Kathmandu, but it does not take long to get into the bustling center of things; walking it takes about fifteen or twenty minutes, and by motorbike, about five. I came in thinking I might try to find a homestay, but very quickly loved the place itself, the quiet road and houseless patch of green outside my bedroom window, and the people who live there. Three other guys—respectively from Nepal, Denmark, and Germany—and me are long-term guests, and other people have come and gone. They’re a great bunch to live with and we’ve had many lovely nights cooking, talking and relaxing outside, and laughing at my attempts to cook (which might have possibly evolved! My goal is to be able to make one dish from each country I visit… At this point, not yet 1/5 of the way there… But stay tuned).

A lot of my time here has been spent doing different project related things, which but there’s been a lot of really fun stuff, too. Some good times: visiting Swayambhu (the “monkey temple”), Patan and Kathmandu Durbar Squares, a birthday party and night of Nepali/American guitar sing-a-longs, visiting Boudha stupa, figuring out the buses in Kathmandu (wrote about this for the Nepali Times), eating lots of momos (Nepali dumplings), visiting the village of Khokana after shadowing a photojournalist on assignment revisiting a story he reported two years ago, and running in an 11 km trail race through a village and the surrounding hillsides outside the city.

It’s been really nice to start the year rooted in one place, getting to know routes home and the dynamics of journalism without rushing. In news, the mode can sometimes be a bit of wavering readiness to send fingers tap-tap-tapping into deadlines. Here, that’s no different. Publication day can be hectic, sometimes very hectic, in a healthy, inspiring sense; but one thing that is different about this year, that I’m incredibly thankful for, is time to pause and think about the many strings that media is held by. As journalists, there is an expectation to constantly be looking for stories. That tendency is still present; maybe I will end up writing formally at times, as I did for Nepali Times, though that’s not something I expected as much going in. I want to be conscious of when and how I write for foreign (or any) publications, and hope that this year is more focused on shadowing and observation than my own participation in another place’s storytelling. There is so much to learn in taking time to watch the process unfold, again and again, in different contexts, and writing instead to record out of fascination. And when there is a break, being present to listen.

 

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