April 2011

Posted by Ellen

The guy behind the desk with the papers in his hands and the moneybags scattered all about–today is his day, April 15. He's the taxman, and he owns us.

Sometime between 1620 and 1640, the Flemish artist Pieter Breughel the Elder painted this scene, "Paying the Tax." The original painting was lost long ago, but we know it through some forty copies painted by the artist's son, Pieter Breughel the Younger.

Nothing subtle here. The villagers are struggling to settle up with eggs and produce and promises; the clerks are slovenly and unsympathetic, and the head taxman is all decked out in royal purple. Got the picture?

Posted by Ellen

At 26,040 feet (8091 meters), the summit of Annapurna, tenth highest mountain in the world, is more than half a mile lower than the peak of Everest. Even so, Annapurna is the most dangerous mountain in the world to climb; only 153 climbers have ever made it to the top, and 58 have died trying.

Annapurna is a huge massif with five major peaks. Here, at left above the village of Ghandruk and its green fields of millet, is Annapurna South, elevation 23,684 feet (7219 meters). The spur to its right, known as Himchati, just under 23,000 feet high, was first climbed in the 1960s, by a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Nepal.

The name Annapurna is Sanskrit; a literal translation is "full of food," or "well-rounded." It is associated traditionally with the feminine form and with goddesses of the kitchen and the harvest, and more generally with Lakshmi, Hindu goddess of wealth.

The rightmost mountain in the picture above is Machhapuchhare–Fishtail–sacred to the god Shiva and off-limits to climbers. It has never been summitted.

The village Ghandruk is a day's walk uphill from the nearest road, including a climb up a staircase containing–if the trail sign is to be believed–more than 8,000 stone steps. My sister struggled diligently to keep count but could neither confirm nor disprove the official number. I was much too winded to try anything as complicated as counting; all I could do was huff and puff and sweat and whine.

Ghandruk is a village of Ghurkas, the renowned warriors. Military service has entitled some of the Ghurkas to emigrate to Britain or to work in such far-flung places as Singapore, and it is said that the village's main source of income is remittances from abroad. One man told us his son was working as a policeman in Singapore; he also told us that in Ghandruk his son went by the name "Big Sexy."

A day's walk uphill from Ghandruk is a village called Tadapani, where Annapurna seemed much bigger and closer (below). The solar water heater on the roof of our inn was working fine, but there were way too many of us hoping for hot showers. We saw solar heaters and panels all over Nepal, even in places where poles and wires brought in power from the grid.

Also, everywhere we went, even in Kathmandu with its three million inhabitants, the practice of "load sharing" shut down the electricity every few hours. We were told that outages were according to schedule and that a schedule for the coming week could be read in the newspaper, but we never saw a schedule and were always caught by surprise.

Posted by Ellen

This time of year, in this part of the world, the greening up is happening fast, and the procession of blooms is even faster.

First came the quince, and then before the quince petals could hit the ground, the forsythia was everywhere, schooling us in the meaning of yellow. Meanwhile, up in the sky, the first trees to let loose were Japanese magnolias, with blooms as soft and big as a baby's head and so ridiculously showy that the other trees don't even try to match them. Down on the ground, crocuses went over to daffodils, and in pots and boxes there were suddenly big happy pansies and delicate little violas.

But those were the warm-up acts. Here in the mid-Atlantic states, the star of springtime is the Japanese cherry tree, with branches that arc so heavy with blooms that it's an excuse to declare a festival. Two weeks ago in Washington and last week here in Philadelphia, official festivals drew tens of thousands of cherry-blossom admirers into the parks.

But that was then. Already, the cherry blossoms on my street have mostly drifted on down to the pavement. In the spotlight now are plum trees and redbuds and an old-fashioned kind of ornamental pear tree; its clouds of flowers look just like apple blossoms but smell like . . . like . . . old fish?

And soon enough, or almost soon enough, we'll move on to dogwoods and azaleas and tulips and then my personal favorites, the lilacs. Then it gets hot, and that's it for spring.

My brother-in-law Sandy Fuchs took this picture during a recent walk through the Kenwood neighborhood of Bethesda; I remember riding a school bus through Kenwood on my way to junior high school, tunneling through the flowers.

Posted by Ellen

In approximately 1920, Washington, D.C., police officer Otto G. Hauschild, at right, came up with the idea of using toy cars to re-enact motor vehicle accidents in traffic court. Here, he and fellow officer George H. Scriven are preparing a case.

Hauschild eventually went to law school and became an authority on the investigation of traffic accidents.

Posted by Ellen

A billboard in a Nepali village along a popular trekking route hints at the animal life to be found in that part of the Himalayas. We saw pheasants and lemurs just as illustrated, but no leopards or sloth bears.

Missing from the billboard but definitely present in the underbrush: mongooses.

Posted by Ellen

Fifteenth-century pilgrims to the Middle East, upon returning to Europe in 1486, published an account of their journey. "These animals were faithfully painted just as we saw them in the Holy Land," they reported. "Giraffe. Crocodile. Indian goat. Unicorn. Camel. Salamander. The name of this one is not known."

Posted by Ellen

An apartment courtyard in central Kathmandu. The tent at lower right may be for a wedding.

Posted by Ellen

Norman turned sixty this week, and we celebrated with veggie burgers and cake. I forgot to take pictures, so we'll have to make do with this shot of the children of Sunshine Day Care celebrating the sixtieth birthday of Sparky the Fire Dog.

Posted by Ellen

From my sister's collection of Kathmandu signs and posters:The political poster reflects Nepal's very recent revolution, in which the king was overthrown for a parliamentary democracy. The leading party in parliament is the Maoists, but they didn't quite win a majority of seats; to govern, the Maoists had to form a coalition with the Marxist-Leninists. From what we heard, parliament wasn't doing much of anything and had repeatedly failed to write a constitution.

Nepal's official communism does not seem to stop Nepalis from operating clearly capitalistic businesses, and the country is currently experiencing a heated real estate boom.


Posted by Ellen

Last summer, when floodwaters swamped one-fifth of all the land in Pakistan, spiders were among the creatures struggling to escape the rising waters. Spiders moved up into the trees, while the water on the ground stayed high for so long that the new eight-legged tree-dwellers had plenty of time to spin web upon web among the branches.

Today, many of the trees of Pakistan are tangled up in spiderwebs. And it has been reported that many of the mosquitoes of Pakistan have been snagged in the webs, resulting in a much smaller than anticipated post-flood mosquito problem.