Friday, June 13, 2008

The familiar taste of lychee

Lychee season in Kathmandu is short—"They only last three weeks!" a Canadian friend had told me in between barked haggling with a vendor late on a Friday night—and now, after perhaps 15 days, only the dregs are left. Here you find lychees not so much at the supermarket but in the hands of the dark-skinned fruit pedallers, long branches with dusky green pinnate leaves at one end, a fist in the middle, and at the bottom, now, rough-skinned fruit, either refrigerated brown or bright, tropical, underripe green; or, most commonly, both. By reputation the lychees come either from the Indian state of Bihar or from Bangladesh, but since like many goods in Nepal lychees pass through a minimum of two wholesalers, and because 62 of Nepal's 75 districts claim1 production, figuring their provenance is an uncertain proposition at best.

Biologically lychees are drupes, meaning that they have an exocarp, a skin; a mesocarp, a flesh under the exocarp; and a hard endocarp around the seeds. That is, they are similar to mangos, apricots, cherries, coffee (a fruit in which we discard the exocarp and mesocarp and consume the endocarp), peaches, nectarines, and pistachios. Among Nepali lychees, the rind—which should be a gaudy-lipstick red—is the exocarp, the fruit the mesocarp, and the nut-brown pit the endocarp. When the seeds germinate, they look vaguely reminiscent of an acorn on a small yellow string, though lacking the acorn's ceremonial bunting at top.

I was first introduced to the taste of lychee through friends of mine in high school, who would occasionally bring out small plastic cups of lychee jelly, the fruit surrounding a tiny asymmetrical chunk of coconut and a few drop of separated lychee juice at the top, now banned as a choking hazard2—this wasn't so long ago at all—but then, as now, a treat. Later I dated a woman from a Taiwanese family, and gorged myself: the fruit, even as a candy in an uncomfortable superfluity of packaging, was delicious.

Nevertheless, the familiar taste of lychee was never all that familiar: While I have eaten many lychee jellies since, and lychee ice cream, lychee custard, flan-like, lychee smoothies and lassis, and dried lychee rolled up in egg roll wrappers, to my remembrance I had never eaten fresh lychee before coming to Nepal. (And if I don't recall, and no one else does, did it happen? But I digress.) Consequently I have no base of experience to refer to savoring of each individual lychee to; the subtleties that separate the best from the very good—subtleties learned from a long chain of memories and their intersection with, their partial creation of, expectation.

So when I say, as I say now, that the best lychees here have the faint, familiar taste of citrus, just as the best wheels of pecorino sardo and parmigiano reggiano do, you'll understand that by “best” I mean “my favorite.” That neither the gelatinous, grape-like texture nor the first taste, the fore-taste, that rises high from the front of the tongue to the soft palette, change much between fresh lychee squeezed out of its skin and preserved lychee squeezed out hemispherical plastic containers with “this product is unbelievably delicious” written on them. As long as the lychee are juicy, as long as you are in danger of losing the best, most refreshing drops of their juice when you tear the unexpectedly brittle rind with a close-cut fingernail, they are wonderful.

But you may think or—stronger—may know that the lychees I am currently enamored with, the ones that shortly will again disappear, are inadequate, sub-par. Not just in a de gustibus not est disputandum way either, but in a way that even I may agree with.

When I lived in Rome, for instance, I had a rollicking dinner in a little trattoria near Hadrian's Mausoleum3 that was recommended, as I recall, in the City Secrets: Rome guidebook. With the meal, we had a bottle, perhaps two, of cheap Orvieto, the semi-famous white wine from the nearby town of the same name. It's this wine, and the cheer, that I remembered best afterwards; and I went to the GS supermarket a few days later and found the same bottle, delightedly. But rather than brightly acidic and balanced, and slightly carbonated, the wine was flat and boring, mouth-drying to the point of nearly being puckering. Nor was it corked, for the cork was made of plastic which, at that time and in that country, was a very telling sign.

This is a common sort of story among oenophiles, who see tend to see it as a reminder that context matters, and this is very true. But so too experience. That we had never had Orvieto before, and indeed had drank too little wine, however sensitive or not our palettes, to render an opinion that later would not seem either embarrassing or fitfully naïve to us is not the result of context but the result of the confluence of context and experience.

Experience, too, does not just solely the literal experience of one body over time, but also the absorbed and understood cultural context that judgments of taste exist in. It is this context that I feel my life lacks, that it misses, here in Nepal. I cannot ask about the subtle gradations of the taste of lychee because I lack the language skills to understand the answer, even should I research the vocabulary. Further, I am not sure that a Nepali gustatory literacy exists: Gourmandism is a outgrowth of affluence, after all, and Nepal is not an affluent country. Even those parts that are affluent, too, tend to take more to Western ideas and ideals than to those indigenous to Nepal.

Does this matter? I am not sure, but like a tickle of evaporation from the nape of the neck I can feel the lack.

1The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has a mildly interesting report on lychee cultivation in Nepal, but like all reports here any factoid should be taken with a large dose of skepticism. For instance, the government announced a 2007 (or perhaps 2064--the past Nepali year) per capita income of $450, about 10% higher than the year before, even though no census has been conducted since (I believe) the 1980s and (I'm certain) no one has any idea how many Nepalis there actually are, even within a margin of error of 30%.

2 Still available—and recommended!—at the 99 Ranch chain of Taiwanese supermarkets-cum-office-malls—a chain that pretty much everyone I know calls “Ranch 99” because of unclear signage in Albany, California.

3 More commonly known as Castel Sant'Angelo, the Mausoleum is a towering structure just on the west side of the Tiber river. It also has a major road directly in front of it, so pictures of it tend to show not just red-brown brick but Smart Cars and Vespas, as well as smoking Italians, African-Italian immigrants, and tourists looking at faux-designer handbags.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A few hours of water in Kathmandu

Though the Monsoon is upon us here in Kathmandu, or nearly so, water is still scarce. The last two days have brought hard, heavy bullets of rain, droplets so big that they only sting when the rain begins to let up, and yet opening the taps in the morning sets free only a series of gasps and sighs as air rushes in where by rights water should flow out. When I ask Sampana, the younger son of the family upstairs, when our water will come back on, he says, “It's supposed to be today. So maybe today.”

The water officially comes twice a week, for a few hours at a time. When it does, it goes on for the entire neighborhood at once, and while I'm uncertain of the reach of the area that gets water with us, the water pressure in the pipes is so low that extraction of more than 10 or so liters in a few hours requires a jackhammering electric pump to suck and suckle enough water for the basic needs of the building.

The pump has two plastic hoses attached to it: one goes as deep into the single pipe as we can shove it, once the valve at the end has been opened; the other curves and loops to a large metal tank in the yard, a rectangular brushed-metal box reinforced with gussets and rivets. When the water goes off—and it never stays on long enough to fill the box, which must be around 1000 liters—the pump is disengaged from the pipe, the pipe's valve closed, and another tube run up to the roof, to a cylindrical tank made of black PVC and stamped “1000 LTRS.” in big, white, Roman letters. The pump is moved, and when the electricity is on fully—in addition to load-shedding, at times the voltage or amperage tapers, or it gushes and wanes—it pumps the water from this ground level tank to the roof tank, which supplies the drinking, cooking, and washing water for the house1.

The yard behind my kitchen door is a tangle of hoses, wires, and pumps: In addition to the three hoses for the blue drinking water pump, there are separate hoses to each apartment and into a concrete-shielded well for the groundwater pump, which we use to fill 15-liter buckets that we flush the toilets with—the house, in true bikas2 style, having Western toilets. This water is murky and, as it sits, separates into continents of oily residue, mostly clear water, and a sludge of particulates at the bottom. By reputation, this water isn't even worth filtering—the oil scum with clog irreparably any filter you send the water through.

The consequences of severely limited water stretch very, very wide. Indeed, it's my feeling that lack of moderately clean water more entrenches poverty and the cycle of poverty than lack of electricity.

First, and perhaps most obvious, lack of water effects a “deficiency” of hygiene, in the sense that personal and social hygienic practices are greatly disrupted. With no water, I wash less often, and when there's been no water for four or five days my home handwashing becomes restricted to the soapy water in a small blue bucket where I've scrubbed my hands many times before. I wash dishes less often, usually only after I've cooked a big dinner, rather than after I've used them, and this means there are more crumbs lying about and sticky residues on tables and counters for ants, salamanders, flies, and cockroaches to eat—all carriers of disease, and populations that wouldn't be sustained with enough water to wash dishes, to wipe of a table, to mop the floor. Sickness begets poverty, though as a temporary resident and a Westerner I am spared the worst of this.

The soft effects of the (semi-)permanent water shortage are legion as well. I go out to eat more often, because my pots and pans are dirty and I have no water to clean them, because I want to use a proper toilet that flushes and wash my hands, because I've run out of water to even cook with. This in turn gives more economic power to the businesses that already buy their way out of shortages—in effect, it perpetuates inequality, since it's the business owners in Nepal who are typically already rich, especially those who run Western- or “bikas” Nepali-oriented places.

Not everyone stands content with the municipal supply, or lack thereof, however. Through Kathmandu and especially in the outlying towns where the trickles of streams down the mountainsides supply more water than the residents use for their terraced subsistence gardens, you find a mechanical army of tankers that truck water from where it is to where it isn't. Add to this the pickups full of 20 liter plastic jugs of UV-irradiated and ozonated water—the same type of jug you use for the office water cooler in the developed world—and one can literally buy a way out of shortages. This means that the effects of shortages fall hardest on those who are unable to buy their way out. the water shortage commodifies a basic human requirement for life, and further lodges Nepal's already enormous social stratification.

And the costs continue to radiated outward and multiply each others effects. There's a maxim in road engineering—the science of how to pave which road—that says that one overloaded truck axle is equal to 20,000 cars. The roads of Kathmandu, already in terrible condition, are filled with overfull trucks, and so the roads require repaving more often than usual, and parts break and wear out in much shorter lifespans for bicycles, rickshaw, motorcycles and cars. The tankers, carrying water better delivered in pipes already laid, spew black smoke into the air, often so forcefully that a cartoonish black cloud follows behind them. The air pollution here can get so bad that expats have tend to get the “Kathmandu hack” and regular respiratory infections, and one presumes that lifelong Kathmandu residents would be in worse condition.

Even in relatively wealthy neighborhoods, as mine is, evinces bad feelings and poor decisions brought by shortages. This morning one neighbor on my street had put buckets underneath the sporadic waterfall of ornamental-plant runoff from another's roof, which became the incitement for a rehash of prior grievances. When I came back from Langtang, I ran into my landlords just as I was returning and though the water was on when I returned, as I washed my hands in the kitchen sink and the water falling off them, the water beating on the basin, slowed, to a stream, to a trickle, to a dribble, to a few drops, and then to nothing. This was perhaps the third time something similar had happened, and I became suspicious that my landlords were cutting water to our apartment downstairs, to save it for their own.

I took a walk to clear my head, and right about the spot I took my picture of the banyan tree atop the temple at Hadigaon chowk, from a pried open manhole cover in the road, a plastic hose led to a pump, bouncing itself off the asphalt and noisily hammering away, the dirty water moving via another hose to a second-story apartment. Presumably the water was going to be filtered and used for washing or the toilet; someone was so desperate for water that they were pumping the sewer.

1 I don't drink it, but it is meant to be safe to drink, and the family upstairs certainly do. I waver on whether to cook with it unfiltered (I have more often than not), but I certainly wash with it.

2 Bikas is the Nepali word for “developed,” the opposite of abikas (“backward”), and in dominant Nepali culture is the summation of a successful life.

The idea of Development is at the fore of Nepali consciousness (as much as any foreigner can make such a generalization). When I was last at Pashupati, I was sitting on a bench and suddenly surrounded by a group of four Nepali young men from Bhaktapur—who proceeded to interrogate me about how far, in years, Nepal's Development is behind that of the US.