An open letter to Global Research
When I read an article this week which opened “If you think about Nepal today, you may be contemplating a yoga course in a hilltop nunnery” I took note. Because if you are contemplating a yoga course in a hilltop nunnery (or monastery), then it’s very possible that you’re thinking to do it with Mahalaya. This article is speaking to my peeps, I thought. What does it have to say?
Having read what it has to say, I’d like to say something back.
Among the excellent points it makes – and there are many – there are some less skillful observations. I haven’t met the author. I wish I had: she has done extraordinary work in Nepal, has achieved formidably, and has been involved in the country for a long time – not nearly as long as yoga has, but she can’t be blamed for not being 5,000 years old. So I understand her sniffiness about upstarts like me and our Himalayan sunset meditations.
Still, I would have liked her to ask me about the assumptions she has about yoga tourism in Nepal. I would have told her this:
As you say, tourism may only be 5% of the country’s economy (4.3% actually, because if we’re going to debate let’s do it accurately). But for the suppliers we use, tourism is 100% of their income. Having survived the earthquake itself, and then thrown into a five-month trade embargo, these talented, hard-working Nepalis watched their businesses and jobs disappear.
In 2014 that 4.3% was worth $785m directly. Indirectly – which includes the wider impact on the economy – tourism was worth $1.6bn. Regardless of its relative value, this income is a major livelihood for a huge number of people, and that matters.
There are no easy solutions to the difficulties that Nepal faces. There weren’t even any ideas for solutions in your article, and I get that: sometimes all I can do is tear my hair out too. But alongside awareness-raising, it’s also good to do something.
My tiny contribution is to try to run an ethical business that brings to Nepal some of the intelligent, considerate, responsible people that Mahalaya attracts, to learn about the incredible spiritual traditions of this country. India, Thailand and Bali are the region’s leaders in wellness tourism, which was worth $439 billion in 2013. Nepal attracts so little of this, yet has SO much to offer. It is a major part of Yoga’s history and yet the challenges of working here means it is barely benefiting from the global interest in the very traditions it fostered. I want to change that, but I can’t do that if people are made to feel guilty about coming.
“Both modest and luxury hotels have abundant water” the article goes on, “and provide backup generators. They ensure visitors have 24-hour showers and flushing toilets on demand, power for their gadgets, and unlimited restaurant delights.”
I know, so hedonistic – so extravagantly unnecessary for attracting tourists.
But do you know how? Jobs, local suppliers, and incredible hard work from everyone to overcome the very infrastructure restraints that the article highlights. The people we work with – all of whom (including me) live with loadshedding and shortages as our daily reality – should be extremely proud of what they’re able to achieve in this resource-poor environment. Menawhile, those NGOs rather scathingly treated in the article are lobbying and figuring out solutions alongside local communities and businesses to get the management of resources better governed.
Of course, there is unacceptable wastage among tourists who are complacent about the resource scarcity of Nepal. These are not our tourists. Our hilltop monastery runs its guesthouse as a social enterprise: all of its profits go to fund a quality education for 200 novice monks – young boys from poor parts of Nepal. Its hot water is solar powered. Its team are local. It buys locally. It is more comfortable than expected for a monastery guesthouse, but that enables it to charge a higher profit margin and thus raise far more for the monastery’s work.
I think this is genius and deserves shouting about, not shouting down.
For us, it means the venue is much more expensive than we could get from a venue not offering hot water, clean sheets or safe food, or moreover somewhere that’s not a social enterprise. That makes us a little uncompetitive. But that’s ok. Like most yoga people, I want to believe in the choices we make.
Yet we brief all our participants about the resource scarcity. And they respect it, because yoga holds us to account to live as ethically as we can in community. As tourists go, this is a fantastic bunch to welcome in.
In fact, not just as tourists go: as people go, since “isolation from reality” is far from a visitor-only privilege, and implying this suggests the article is itself disconnected from reality. Nepal is not simply a hopeless case of “poverty and despair” full of shoeless youngsters. It has a vibrant, innovative, entrepreneurial and growing middle class who are helping to boost the economy – and who live a very different lifestyle than the country’s poor, in far greater numbers than the tourists.
I know that yoga was an aside in the larger point the article is making, and I do thank you for adding to the conversation about the criminal mismanagement of utilities in Nepal. Perhaps I took it a little too much to heart. But you see: this IS my heart. I have put all my heart into it, and I get heart out of it – very little money, but sheer love and passion. It’s that passion that motivates me to write.
Nepal is one of the hardest places in the world to try to run a business at the best of times, and then it became a disaster zone. And then the borders closed for five months. So be a little kinder to folks like us. Trust me, there are far, far easier options. Behind the scenes of those Himalayan sunset meditations, to make them so appealing and worthwhile, is an unbelievable amount of hard work, personal loss, a lot of trial and error, and resilient grateful optimistic love.
And I took it to heart because very few organisations run yoga retreats in the hills of Nepal, because it is just so damn difficult, and so unwittingly your article is speaking about me and my students. My name is Annie Seymour. I run Mahalaya Nepal. It isn’t easy, but it is the best thing I have done with my life. You should just see what we do.
Socca is what you get when you mix and bake chickpea flour, water, garlic, olive oil and a little salt – a super-tasty, simple, gluten-free crispy pancake, that you can break up into crackers sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper as a snack on its own or with dips. Or, like us, you can use it as a pizza base for a light, healthy and delicious meal.
We love chickpea (garbanzo / gram) flour as an alternative to wheat because chickpeas lower cravings for snacks and processed foods, are packed with fibre, have a high concentration of antioxidants and can help lower cholesterol.
• 1 cup (120 grams) chickpea flour
• 1 cup water
• ¼ cup olive or coconut oil
• 1 to 2 garlic cloves, pressed or minced
• ¼ teaspoon sea salt
For the toppings, you can experiment with your favourite flavours – see below.
In a bowl, whisk together the chickpea flour, water, 2 tablespoons of the oil, the garlic and salt. Let the mixture rest at room temperature for 1 hour.
After the hour, pour in 1 tsp of the oil and swirl the pan around so the oil is evenly distributed. Pour in the chickpea batter and return to the heat.
Cook for 5 to 8 minutes, until the socca is set and the edges are browning and pulling away from the sides of the pan. Flip over then cook again.
Turn oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
Spread the remaining 1 tablespoon oil on top of the socca (it will soak right in).
Top the socca with homemade tomato sauce and any toppings you fancy — roast veggies, cheese, olives, basil, rocket….
Return the pan to the oven and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the socca is crisp.
Let the pizza cool for 2 to 3 minutes before slicing into 4 pieces and serving.
Festive Snowballs recipe
Every year when I go home for the holidays, my mum and dad in rural Lincolnshire cheerfully make their morning cup of tea around me as I practice, and sweetly wrap Quorn bacon around a Quorn sausage for my Christmas lunch to show support for hippie yoga ways. Trying to include them in my practice has so far only met hoots of laughter – but this year I brought back my recipe book from our Nourish and Flourish retreat, packed with nutritious wholesome treats in disguise (thanks Nic!!), and finally have something they want to share in.
These Snowballs have been the highlight, and happily are the easiest one to do as well: SO simple, no-cook, ridiculously tasty, and gorgeous to look at. No need to mention to your family that they’re also gluten free, full of protein to power them through the festivities, dietary fibre to power the digestion of the less gut-friendly snacks, antioxidants to help counter some of the indulgence of the festive season, and deceptively filling which helps to reduce snacking on those far less nourishing treats.
Makes 10-15 snowballs*
*You can alternatively try smaller Malteser-size snowballs – as they’re surprisingly filling.
- 2 cups Medjool dates (they’re the squishier, stickier, tastier kind of dates). If this is too expensive, substitute up to a cup with juicy raisins instead
- 1 cup cashews / pecans / almonds / cashews / walnuts – pick any one, or a mix of your favourites.
- 2-3 tbsp raw cacao powder
- 2 tbsp maple syrup (optional, and can be replaced with good honey instead)
- A little pile of desiccated coconut for decoration (or finely chopped nuts)
Simply blend the nuts in a food processor (or with a hand blender, in batches) until they form a crumbly mixture like flour.
Add the dates and blend again.
Add the cacao and maple syrup and mix it all in thoroughly.
Take a blob of the dough and roll between your palms into a ball – maximum size about two-thirds of a golf ball. Roll the ball around in some desiccated coconut (or finely-chopped nuts if you prefer).
Either refrigerate for three to four hours, or freeze for one hour to allow them to set.
Where to buy specialist ingredients in Kathmandu?
When we ran our Nourish & Flourish retreat, I had one rule for our chef Nic: the participants must be able to replicate the demonstrated dishes here in Kathmandu.
Not easy, when we don’t have ovens. Or electricity for large parts of the day. Or when the queue for cooking gas is nine days long. Or when the border is embargoed, minimising import of ingredients. Or where the local meal of dal bhat is Champion (fairly sensibly too, from a nutrition perspective) and diverse tastes are still pretty niche so there is low demand for specialist ingredients. Or when the quality of the ingredients can be so dubious that even the milk packaging tells you to boil before consumption to reduce the nasties that the manufacturing leaves in. Oof…
But we did it! And when we did, the participants asked us where they could get all these goodies. So here it is. Where else do you know? What else are you looking for? Tell us and we’ll keep this list growing!
Almond flour – blitz a bag of almonds in a decent blender. Voilà: almond flour! That’s literally all it is.
Apple Cider Vinegar – for good, genuine, no-additive stuff: the Farmers’ Mart in Jamsikhel on the chowk near Soma Café. It’s not always there, but leave your name and number to let them know you’re looking.
Avocadoes – when in season, widely available. When out of season, you may be able to find them at farmers markets, the Farmers’ Mart or the greengrocers at the back of the Pulchowk Saleways. Too hard to eat? Put in a brown paper bag or wrap in newspaper – this is essential. Then leave in the sun. Depending on the fruit, this needs to be for about five days, so plan ahead…
Chickpea flour – widely available, but it turned out that many folks (including us, until we had to figure it out…) don’t know that it is most commonly called Besan flour. Look out also for the names Gram flour, or occasionally channa flour. Great gluten-free power-flour, pale yellow in colour.
Coconut milk – For the fresh stuff, with no additives, that tastes amazing? A fabulous lady called Raissa makes this, along with almond milk, and if she can will deliver it to a place near you. Let me know if you’d like her number. She sells at La Sherpa farmers’ market.
Coconut oil – the Sri Aurobindo Ashram makes this and sells it at farmers’ markets in the city. We found it at La Sherpa farmers’ market.
Dates – bags of Saudi dates used to be widely available. With the current border embargo though, these are at the back of the queue of essential imports. We tried to rehydrate the dried ones but they looked like a cocktail sausage and tasted like something bad had happened. But then we found a surprise stash of the good ones at the greengrocer at the back of Saleways in Pulchowk. Hurrah!!
Flax seeds (linseed) – look for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram stall at farmers’ markets (we found them at La Sherpa farmers’ market). Also often available at the Farmers’ Mart in Jhamsikhel, on the chowk near Soma Café.
Kale – Not always available, but if you’re determined to find it then your chances will go up at the farmers’ markets (La Sherpa certainly had it last time we were there) and the Farmers’ Mart in Jhamsikhel.
Maple syrup substitute – I know our Canadian friends will deny that anything is a substitute, but for those of us with standards low enough to accept an alternative, then use the Chiuri honey: those cute glass pots with the red top. Use this instead of the scary “Maple Syrup Flavour” sauce from the supermarkets. The honey can be found at the farmers’ markets, but I also see it in the Farmers’ Mart and Wisdom Books, both in Jhamsikhel.
Miso – behind the Saleways in Maharajganj opposite the US Embassy is a Japanese mini-mart that sells all kinds of Japanese goodies, including Miso. Also the grocery store by the ATMs on Restaurant Road in Jhamsikhel: a goldmine for this and all sorts of imported goodies.
Pumpkin seeds – I’ve only ever found them at the Farmers’ Mart in Jhamsikhel.
Quinoa – local quinoa (the only kind you can ethically eat): the Farmers’ Mart in Jhamsikhel. It’s not always there, but leave your name and number to let them know you’re looking.
Rice paper – for summer rolls: Bhatbhateni (in the Patan store, they’re in the cake-baking section. Obviously).
Spirulina – cultivated by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, who have stalls at the farmers’ markets (we found them at La Sherpa).
Sweet potato – out of season it’s really hard to find, but we found some beauties at the small greengrocers attached to Saleways (carpark side) on Pulchowk. This store is also where we found dates, celery (broaden your ideas of what celery is though…), rocket, chard.
Sushi ingredients – behind the Saleways in Maharajganj opposite the US Embassy is a Japanese mini-mart that sells all kinds of Japanese goodies.
Tahini – available at OR2K in Thamel. Also at La Sherpa farmers’ market. Or make your own: blitz a cup or so of sesame seeds in a food processor (it’s nice to toast them first, but not essential), add a glug of oil once they’re crumbly, blitz again, bit more oil if needed – repeat until you have tahini.
Unsweetened cocoa powder – Saleways in Maharajganj opposite the US Embassy. We found it on an end-aisle near the back of the store, in a range of different richness of cocoa.
And here’s the list in PDF in to print out to keep with your recipe books: Where to buy specialist ingredients in Kathmandu
Things we’re still looking for
Do you know anyone selling:
- Psyllium husks
- Chia seeds
- Sunflower seeds. I found them once in Bhatbhateni but they tasted dusty and slightly sinister. Have you found any good ones?