Sign Language: A Sign of Corruption


When we first arrived in Nepal, we noticed this sign.  Its in front of quite an impressive new building, close to our neighbourhood.  It caught my eye as the concept of a Commission for the Investigation of the Abuse of Authority, seemed quite startling.  Its no secret, however, that this country has a record of corruption and the existence of this type of commission is a good thing.  I would stare at the sign every time we drove past it, wishing I knew more about what the commission does and how it effective it is.   It was intriguing to me, but I never felt able to blog about it as the corruption subject is huge and I don’t feel qualified to comment.

However, the State Department recently posted it 2013 Human Rights Report for Nepal on, and I learnt a little about what goes on there.  Here’s an excerpt from the report:

Corruption: After five years without commissioners, the interim government named a chief commissioner and one associate commissioner to head the NEPAL 18 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013 United States Department of State • Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Commission for the Investigation of the Abuse of Authority (CIAA), which is mandated to investigate official acts of corruption. Under new leadership, the CIAA took high-profile actions against the Nepal Energy Authority, the Department of Immigration, and the Department of Foreign Employment. In August and September, the CIAA arrested 18 officials from the Department of Immigration, 15 from the Department of Foreign Employment, and nine from the Tribhuvan International Airport Labor Desk for sending 77 Nepali migrants to Qatar with fraudulent or improper documentation – a human trafficking-related offense. The most senior official arrested was the director general of the Department of Foreign Employment. All the officials were in detention pending trial. There were numerous reports of corrupt actions by government officials, political parties, and party-affiliated organizations. The UCPN(M) and CPN-M, in particular, reportedly demanded money from schools, businesses, workers, private citizens, and NGOs. There were less frequent reports that student and labor groups associated with other political parties also demanded contributions from schools and businesses. Corruption and impunity remained general problems within the Nepal Police.

From the State Dept NEPAL 2013 HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT

Sign Language: Cultural Context


I first saw this gate on the first day or two after we arrived in Kathmandu. I did a double take. It was extremely strange to see the Nazi Swastika and the Star of David side by side. Just bizarre really. But moments later I remembered reading that swastikas are all over Asia, but the meaning was very different. However, I had no idea that the hexagram (or six pointed star) was anything other than Jewish….but here they were on the same gate.

The Hindu (or Buddhist) swastika is a symbol of luck.  It bestows auspiciousness on people or things that it embellishes, and that explains why you see it so often on residential gates or painted over shops.  Its so ironic that the Nazis hijacked the symbol so that Western eyes see it as a mark of evil, and yet its original meaning is so different. Slowly, I have become less startled when I see it around.

The Buddhist Shanmukha, or six-pointed triangle, has a similar spiritual meaning as the swastika, so it makes sense that you might see them side by side.

In Buddhism, I understand that some old versions of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”, contain a hexagram with a Swastika inside. If I see one of those, I’ll let you know.

The post is being revisited for as I cannot think of a better example in all my travels.

Sign Language: Back of the Bus

nepalese bus

Please, please can we overtake this bus? If I have to look at the misspelling of adidas for one more minute, I’ll freak out!

As much as I liked being on the road for a week, I disliked being stuck behind one of these things. For the majority of the time on the Nepalese highways you have just overtaken one or there’s one in front that you’re looking to overtake. Its competitive and different degrees of dangerous depending on the road and who you’re sharing it with!  However, quite often it was surprisingly cooperative and there was a spirit of teamwork as drivers honked and signaled back and forth.  I say “surprising” because of the contrasting attitude of sheer belligerence and adamant non-cooperation that is the status quo on Kathmandu roads.

nepalese truck

See you! The most popular tailgate message on Nepali trucks.

Basically, the horn is everything on the highways.  It signals “I am here”…”I plan to overtake”  …or “I am overtaking”.  I don’t think I can recall it being used in retribution or as “fuck you get out of my way” as it does in Kathmandu.  It was interesting to learn that the trucks use their right-turn indicators to signal to the driver behind that he can overtake.  As mad as this sounds, it actually works quite well, as long as everyone understands the rules.  Nepalese highway drivers know that a truck signalling to turn right is not actually planning to turn right off the edge of the cliff, but is giving the ok to overtake.  (I suppose it puts the turn indicators to work in a world where there really isn’t anywhere to turn right or left …just a straight road to your next destination.)

There were times when everyone seemed to be cooperating and paying attention, and then some arsehole (there is no other word) would show up with a blatant disregard for anything going on around him, speeding and overtaking without looking or signalling, creating numerous near misses with oncoming traffic, and causing waves of winded drivers in his wake.  Those I fear more than steep drops or windy roads.  And on the way back home, heading for the final uphill climb before the descent into Kathmandu valley, there were a fair few.  Question is, do we do this next time, or the marathon wait at the notorious domestic airport. It will be one or the other because I loved what I saw and tolerating either of those evils is the only way to get back.  See you!


The hip and cool roadster. No time for love, baby!

nepalese truck

I never did figure this one out. Wait for side signal, maybe?

Sign Language: Bandipur…Signs of Something Different


Its a little contradictory: a sign that encourages garbage to be put in garbage cans with a pile of garbage right in front of it. But its a very good start, if a little imperfect.  And one that seems to mainly have taken hold in Bandipur, which makes the town pretty exceptional just for that reason.

Its an attractive village with pretty views and the potential for tourism with so many trekking opportunities in the surrounding foothills.  Its not the only village like this I’ve visited in the short time I’ve lived in Nepal, but one thing really soon out for me…no garbage.  As the sign clearly indicates, they have a community mindset on the subject and it makes a huge difference.  I’ve seen other potentially, equally attractive towns that are trashed with garbage piled at street corners, and blowing down the street… plastic bags scattered everywhere.  Its hard for me to walk past shopkeepers on garbage-strewn streets and try to comprehend why they don’t take responsibility for the small space outside their shop.  If every shopkeeper swept up their own space, every morning their communal space would be a great deal more attractive.

In Bandipur they seem to have the message:  visitors like to admire the village sans garbage, and the streets are swept and clean. Its an excellent role model for other villages and a joy to look around. Well done!


A rare sight…the Nepali public garbage bin. I spotted several in Bandipur


More signs of outside investment…


A wider view of the restoration going on…


The main (only) street in Bandipur…swept and traffic free

Sign Language: Signed Off!


Standing at the airport, waiting for the kids to arrive on Sunday, I noticed all the billboards. Its not the first time I’ve seen them here, but they aren’t that common. Which is a good thing in a way, because who wants big ugly billboards everywhere? Not me.

But looking at the big black and white Pizza Hut ad, I realised that its not really black and white, just really, really faded.  And then I flashed on the empty billboard signs I saw in Athens last summer and how indicative they were of Greece’s financial woes.  The billboards here were similar in that they showed me the lack on investment – particularly international investment from companies just like Pizza Hut.  Way back when Pizza Hut came and the billboard went up.  And, yes, Pizza Hut is still here.  But as far as I know, there’s just one outlet.  Big conglomerates like that don’t just come to open one store. So what happened?  Political instability.  Years of instability leads to lack of international investment.  I hope things change for Nepal with the elections behind them and the promise of a more stable future.  Nepal doesn’t need more bad pizza or bill boards, but it could use a lot more investment in its future.  I hope it comes soon.

Sign Language: Nepali Elections


For the last month or two, Kathmandu has been strewn from one end to the other with election posters from the ranks of its 100+ parties running for election on November 19. Usually, I steer away from political topics on this blog, but its hard to ignore politics these days. The posters are particularly poignant for me. As someone who can remember the Eastern bloc, the days of Soviet Communism, and Mao as leader in China, its a very weird “blast from the past” to see the hammer and sickle plastered around the city. Yet in Kathmandu, the Maoists are a force to be reckoned with here. A 33-party alliance of Maoists have tried to hold the city to ransom for the last 10 days with a transportation strike to disrupt the elections, and it has been a nuisance at best for those of trying to get things done. The strike was only partially effective for the first day, after which it was downgraded to a night-time transportation strike so no-one could safely drive around at night. This morning, the day before the election, ironically the streets were quieter than during the strike because most citizens have left to return to their home place to vote.

Effective or not, the strikes have created some real violence in places, and it is probably not over yet. Tomorrow is the actual election day and, again, the streets will eerily be bus, car, bicycle and motorbike free. Except this time it is a government-mandated transportation ban designed to avoid illegal busing of voters in a fledgling democracy. Tomorrow we are walking to work.

The upside is the city is silent, the skies are clearing and the Kathmandu’s beautiful mountains are visible again in the distance.


This is my favourite poster based on the design. (I can’t read Nepali – yet.) Driving past I swore it was Mao himself because of the pose. Someone needs to explain to me the significance of the traditional drum.

Tomorrow is going to be a big day for Nepal.

Sign Language: Don’t Toot Your Own Horn (Pleeeeease!)


Why is this sign in English? Its Nepali drivers that have the horn habit.  A foreigner on a bike is a rare thing. Perhaps they have dozens of other signs in Nepali and I just can’t read them yet, but it was kind of a mystery….and clearly wasn’t working!

Buried in a motorcycle parking lot, I risked bodily injury taking this photo. The lot was a chaotic sea of parked bikes and aggressive cyclists trying to park or leave…and the horns were blasting. People blast their exceptionally loud horns here at the slightest provocation or for no apparent reason at all – take your pick.

Sometimes when I’m walking down a narrow sidewalk and a semi-stationary bike starts to hit on his horn in some insane random way — its everything I can do not to go over, confiscate his keys, and clip him around the ear. It deafening and annoying.  It can make you jump out of your skin if you don’t see it coming.  And when I am crossing the street at a pedestrian crossing with adequate warning, and they speed up and blast me as though I stepped out in front on them…well that just makes me mad.

Horns here go full on all the time…reaching a crisis level during the rush hour.  They blast so often as to be totally meaningless.  And then at night something strange happens….they stop.   The power goes out and the city goes to sleep and all you can hear is barking dogs.

Sign Language: No Comment


Usually the Sign Language feature on my blog is about public signage and the comments it make about the culture, economy, or character of a place. Heading on the highway towards Athens airport dozens and dozens of billboards appear, but they are all advertisement-free, except for the occasional scribble of graffiti. It was interesting how saying nothing could comment so much on the current state of affairs in Greece. I hope things improve soon.

Sign Language: NYC

A couple of random New York pieces from my travels:


From TGI Fridays Menu. Take a look at that calorie count! It makes me a big fan of the NY State law on listing calories on menus.  Entrees went from about 900 calories to over 2000.   Talk about TGI Fry Days.  Think again about what you order. Wow!

New York Graffiti

Not so much graffiti on the Upper West Side but I did snag this cool one on the Highline thanks to Carla

Sign Language: You Know You’re Back in America When….

…you see signs like this.


Really, I can have ice cold wine in 7 minutes?  Welcome back to the land of innovation and new ideas.  You’ve gotta give that to the States.  And I was just getting to a state of reluctant acceptance that the red wine is always chilled in Manila.

I know.  I probably the only person you know that hasn’t seen one of these things.  But, then that’s the point.  I’ve been away.