Friday, January 14, 2011

A Trip to Nepal

Nepal countryside
       I got off the plane and my Nepali friend Uttam, with whom I study physics at Berkeley,  handed me the kind of mask that would save you if trapped inside your house while being fumigated. I laughed and put it in my pocket, but found my hand grasping for it quickly as we exited the airport. Tons of cars spewing black exhaust maneuver the small traffic-jammed roads in Kathmandu, kicking up dust into a cloud that makes breathing even more difficult. In addition, the city is covered with trash as they do not have working trash management, adding scents that give color to the bouquet. The only sort of management that exists relies on business owners sweeping the trash off their porches in the morning into the street and lighting it on fire, to the warmth of the homeless who huddle around breathing in the burning plastic.
        Accompanied by his brother and their cousin, we walked a few blocks from the airport until we came to Uttam's old classmate's house. We had tea and discussed (well it was mostly in Nepali but I did my best to follow along) that she recently got an arranged marriage, eating tangerines and another fruit I had never tried before. The mother then "forced" us to have rice and curry, and I quickly learned that it is best to eat as quickly as possible to demonstrate how much you like the food. In Nepal they don't have a beer and cigarette over a relaxed hour lunch as they do in Italy. They shovel it down with taato paani (hot water) as the cook watches and attempts to keep adding to your plate, "boh boh!" (that's plenty thanks!) After we left, heading for the monkey temple just a few more blocks away, Uttam expressed that he felt a little sad because she had been a semi girlfriend and still carried a crush on her.
     I thought that "monkey temple" meant that there would be monkey sculptures or something, but no, it meant monkeys. A temple is a monkey's alternate utopia: walls, roofs, rod iron, sculptures, multi-tiered ornate buildings, all maneuvered by a monkey in swings, leaps and bounds. Two Nepalis were leaning on a wall chatting when along came a monkey and ran across their backs. They kind of looked at each other, shrugged and kept on chatting. As we headed towards the heart of the temple along the river that cuts through the middle, Uttam pointed out the regularly spaced cylindrical stone slabs and explained that often people are cremated on them. Coming around a bend, two of the slabs were being put to use and a third was being primed. Under the guidance of priest, the slab and surrounding stone steps are washed with (extremely dirty/trashy) river water. The body is on one of the steps, and the sons of the deceased remove the body's garments and throw them in the river, leaving the body in a white slip. The stone is stacked with firewood to form a platform for the body, then the sons carry the body around the wood thrice, then lay it on the platform. Bright marigolds are laid by friends and family, and an awning is raised with four poles. Oil is spread on the mouth and face, which is then lit on fire by the eldest brother. The rest of the wood is then lit, and later the bladder must be popped with a pole to ensure it doesn't splatter everywhere.
Slightly culturally shocked, we left for another relative's house. The next few days are kind of a blur, since we had tea and ate at literally about 20 different relatives' houses. They all feed the same thing. Puffed rice and flattened rice for breakfast, then pressure-cooked rice, pickle, cauliflower and potato curry, spinach leaves, and yogurt for both lunch and dinner. Usually you mix it altogether, eating it with your right bare hand (the left you wipe with). Actually, I only ate my first meal with my hand, after which "chamchaa dinuhos?" ("may I please have a spoon?"). They prefer using their hands because its easiest to mash everything together, but ole Western me felt best sticking to the silver, which most families had. We had tea no less than five times a day, milk chai tea, black tea, or lemon-ginger tea, all served with a lot of sugar.

Wooden carvings on Hindu temple
       We went to Patan, Bhaktaputar, and the Kathmandu Dharbar square, home to beautiful hindu temples with intricate wooden carvings, as well as going to see the largest Shiva statue in the world, the same height as the statue of liberty. We also went to a few strictly Buddhist temples; however, for most temples there are both Hindu and Buddhist influences.

       Probably my favorite day was New Years Day. Waking up bright and early, the relatives wished us a happy Western New Year since they have a different calendar and New Year (April something) in Nepal. Having lost track of the days I had a moment of surprise that we hadn't celebrated the night before, shrugged, and headed off to start the day. We went with a large group of Uttam's young cousins and friends for a picnic and hike. We trekked up and over two mountains which yielded to a beautiful fertile valley and small village below. After tea we loped through the fields with farmers tilling the cloddy dirt, and at the prodding of some of Uttam's cousins I would go up to the farmers, who have probably seen about 3 white people in their lives, and ask (in Nepali), "do you know where my mother in law's house is? I think its nearby and I'm looking for my wife. Wiiffee ooo wiiffeee" - laughs all around. After crossing the valley we climbed up another mountain where there perched a rarely visited temple that offered a stunning view of the Nepal countryside. It was the view that matched my romanticized preconceptions of Nepal that I had brewed before the trip (picture at top). Coming down and passing through more fields, I was surprised to spot some small marijuana plants. The culture is so conservative I was stunned - "how else could you pull up potatoes all day every day?" one of the cousins suggested.

Soccer field with Himalayas in background
      Another leg of the journey was to Pokhara, home to gorgeous lakes with a Himalaya backdrop. But to get there required a van ride...yeah it one of those rides. The kind of ride where they pass out plastic bags in case you need to vomit during the 10 hour ride. The kind that goes along the cliff on small windy roads where the driver races to pass another car blindly, where the road is so bumpy in the straight parts that when the driver has the pedal to the metal it seems the whole van spends more time in the air than touching the ground. Anyways, other passengers' bags went to use. But Pokhara was great, we rode horses to the "bat cave" which again I thought would mean that it was shaped like a bat, or that bats used to live there, but no - 10,000 bats live there perched on the ceiling (see picture below).

Above, Krishna navigating Phewa
Lake. Below, bat cave
       I had a mild cold for the first week in Nepal which was just a runny nose and a bit of a cough, but that night I got sick and threw up three times with diarrhea, maybe from bad food or water, or maybe from cold as Uttam and the others seemed to think from experience. It lasted a few days but passed. Anyways the next day we rented a row boat and went out on the lake under the towering snow capped mountains then took another van back to Kathmandu.

       The whole trip made me think a lot about culture, class, gender, society, structure, development, all those things that professors preach about in social science courses. Religion is tightly interwoven in culture/everyone's life in a way that is hard for me to understand. In Berkeley I asked Uttam if he's religious and he said no, but during the trip he conceded that while in Nepal he's Hindu simply because it's impossible to separate religion from daily life living there. Since they don't really have any parks, only temples, you're hard pressed is you refuse to participate in anything Hindu. All of the festivals and national celebrations are based on Hinduism, many people pray in the morning, many are vegetarian because of Hindu beliefs, the tika and another mark that signifies marriage status are both ubiquitous, etc. In other words, you'd feel out of place and uncomfortable if you refused Hinduism in Nepal, whereas in the US you feel equally comfortable being Hindu, or atheist, or anything else...I guess right now for Muslims in the US that's not entirely true, but hopefully soon that will change.

Village woman with dog and two cows with tikas
In terms of gender, there is such a divide that simply does not exist in the US. A "girlfriend" means that maybe you went out to eat one time and now text each other every now and again and might go get tea again sometime soon (but don't let the parents know!), even at age 25. They think "maybe I'll get a love marriage" although their estimated 85% arranged marriage statistic hints the opposite. What does it say about love empirically, the fact that their culture has found that love can follow commitment instead of commitment following love? I think it's important to look at the context, because historically Nepal is a place of small remote villages, so going to the bustling local bar (especially since alcohol is frowned upon) to meet people is not an option. Additionally, families have been living in the same areas for maybe thousands of years leading to a high density and interconnectedness of family that is rarely found in the US, the product being a pressure to maintain the family reputation and to appease family desires, contrary to the culture of independence in the US. In the US kids grow up to "make their own choices", and if they're bad choices it's their own fault. In Nepal if you make bad choices then it's seen as a failure of the family. Nepalis ask each other the mountains their heritage is from when they meet, whereas in the US it's more complicated, "well I have European descent and  grew up in New York and then my family moved to Florida, but after my parents split up I've been living in..." And what about homosexuality? Their culture nearly denies that homosexuality even exists which curiously enough leads to the acceptance of men being very touchy; even holding hands in the street is normal. The question that early high-schoolers in the US have on their minds, "have you ever had sex?" is one that 25-year-old unmarried Nepali men still have on their minds, and ask. I was also surprised to hear talk about sleeping with prostitutes, which apparently is a normal outlet to consider. 
Hay is for horses cows
In terms of development, the buildings are all going to collapse when the next earthquake hits, which they say will be soon. All of the buildings are made with crumbly bricks and concrete, set to dry with rickety bent sticks - even the 30 story towers; I don't know how they get anything true, in fact, I don't think anything is. The facades look good in many instances, but its just veneer. For food the prices were much less, but the merchandise that doesn't come from China is equivalent in price to the US, which is deceiving. Here it is, a marketplace on a dusty trash-filled street with hole-in-the-wall shops that are just covering up their crumbling walls with jackets, and the value and throughput is equivalent to a US mall selling the same things, I would guess. Similarly, many of the neighborhoods have very nice houses, even for US standards, but the electricity is shut off for 16 hours a day since the main source of electricity is hydropower which comes from snow runoff during the summer (less water in the rivers during winter surprisingly), you have to boil your water, and your front street is a filthy dirt path. It's just hard for me to make sense of these contrasts. Something that struck me profoundly, though, is that people are very respectful and thoughtful, and don't steal. I felt like I could leave my wallet with bills hanging out in the bustling square and no one would take it, not even the beggars.

       However, one of the things that I did find uncomfortable is a notion of cultural superiority that manifests itself in racism. As one quite well-educated Nepali put it, "we think that Indians are straight out of the jungle." He wasn't alone in these sentiments, and that specific language he used immediately made me think of the language that white supremacists used for blacks.  It's interesting because Nepali and Indian cultures are extremely similar in their food, dress, religion, language, etc...discussing it with my mom, she said it reminded her of Turkish-Greek hatred which my friend Kosta captures through his account that one time his brother made the "mistake" of asking for Turkish Delight in a Greek restaurant, "It's GREEK delight!" Apparently the Nepali-Indian resentment stems from the fact that India has political control over Nepal, as well as the fact that a large part of Nepal land was conquered by India. Coming from an outsider's point of view it is easy for me to say that it would be better if they didn't have such strong negative feelings for Indians (and other cultures), but obviously it's a complicated situation that has a long historic foundation.
       The trip gave me a lot to think about, and I'm still processing a lot of it, but I'm glad to be back - I already ate two hamburgers, which you can't do in Nepal since the cow is their sacred national animal and it's illegal to kill them.


Which reminds me - we were talking about how you could probably find a pair of imported Italian leather shoes in the US for thousands of dollars. Uttam's concerned cousin turns and asks, "Djilke (my Nepali name, it means dazzling/sparkly) which you rather have, thousands dollar cow shoe or travelling to 10 countries?"

Typical Nepali dwelling;
Note red mud "raato maato chiplo baato" on homes, and saag patch.