Becoming American Again, Five Months After Leaving Nepal

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time" -T.S. Eliot

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This quotation has never felt so true. I am back in the US. Five months ago today I was softly weeping as my plane departed Nepal's verdant land. A year ago today I was preparing to summit Thorung La Pass, at 17,769 feet, by dawn from Thorung High Camp, where I spent a short night sleeping at 16,010 feet. I was the kind of body tired that is also, paradoxically, invigorating. When I think back it feels fresh and recent, but also far away, as if in a dream or some other life; a parallel world (but doesn’t travel always feel like another life?) that I want to be able to move into mentally with more ease than I can on most days.

 

I’m back in Seattle and, on most days my elevation gains are around 100s, not 1000s, of feet. I am deep in the folds of my academic life and the rhythms of campus. I am finishing my dissertation (which allows me to regularly revisit Nepal and my memories and my data in a way that is comforting), I am on the academic job market, and I have a job on campus where I help students navigate college and bureaucracy and sometimes, their lives. It all makes me feel a different kind of exhausted at the end of every day, the kind that doesn’t quite invigorate you, but instead leaves you needing quiet weekends and other outlets like sewing or hiking or a cooking project to remain in balance. And while that is the American reality and it’s comfortable because its familiar, it feels discordant with this other life I lived, so readily and joyously, not that long ago. But this feeling of increasing distance from Nepal is scary too, because I don’t know when I will get back there again. It is both a relief (because I never found a good answer) and a little sad that I no longer have to face the “how was Nepal?! Tell me about it!” questions when I first see someone. It’s old news now. I get questions about the job market now. And when I am going to finish my dissertation (Answers: it’s fine but strange to go on the market and by June 2018).

The part of me that felt so much a part of life in Nepal is shrinking into a stand-alone column within me, rather than all of me. But it wasn’t that way when I got back here. When I first returned, it was the opposite. I was all Nepal and I had to work to access the “normal” American parts of myself to get along as before. I felt like I stood out and it was obvious to the strangers I’d see or interact with that I felt so out of place. These past 5 months since my return have been spent slowly learning to become American again. I never had to consciously learn to be American before, since I am a citizen by birth and this was the only socialization I had, since my parents were also born citizens.

This relearning is as good an illustration of social construction as I can imagine. What seems “natural” and “normal” here are really just a series of learned behaviors, perspectives, attitudes, and reactions that one can lose and may have to relearn. I knew this was coming, of course. And I felt worried about how I was going to preserve what I loved about my life in Nepal with an American life. That there is an adjustment has not been a surprise, I knew it was coming. Fulbright had a whole thing about it for us. But what was a surprise was the specific things that were adjustments. I knew that places of commerce, like supermarkets, would be triggering since there is so much here and so little in Nepal.  But things I never expected caught me off guard. What I adapted to quickly and what took relearning were not necessarily the parts of life I expected.

Here is a non-comprehensive list of 14 things that took time to adjust to or surprised me as issues at all:

First days back: driving, cleanliness and dirtiness

1.     In the car coming back from the airport I felt overwhelmed by how fast we were going (at 55 mph) as we merged onto the highway. It felt too fast. In Nepal you can’t get up to those speeds because of the road quality, volume of cars, and number of obstacles (in the form of pedestrians, bikes, animals, or other cars).

2.     I nearly waded out into traffic to jaywalk my way through a series of oncoming cars, Nepali style, one too many times. Seattle drivers simply would not be able to handle this (they’re not known for being the gutsiest of drivers and tend to panic and do the wrong thing when something confusing is happening). When I was driving I felt the impulse to do the same, just sort of Boston-nudge my way into traffic to take a left.

My wonderful Dolpo sisters making a feast for us, partly in celebration of my birthday

3.     On my first day home, I was overwhelmed by how clean and empty the sidewalks were. The day I arrived I was walking with two friends down The Ave, which is the main drag of restaurants and shops adjacent to the University of Washington’s campus in Seattle. As you can imagine, it’s not a particularly clean area. The sidewalks are stained with litter, gum, spilled food, vomit, urine, and sometimes worse. I said, in a dreamlike state typical of a jetlagged person who hasn’t slept in 36 hours and went immediately from the airport to a departmental function to recoup an award, “Wow, the sidewalks are so… clean. And empty.” My friends stared at with a faint look of concern and confusion as we stepped onto a crowded and dirty sidewalk.

4.     When I showered, I was overwhelmed by the volume of (delightfully) hot water coming at me. I kept turning the water off during my shower because of anxiety about wasting water. I think it took about a month to return to my usual American-water-hog self. As a habitual daily shower-er who uses my morning shower to get my day started, I have returned to that habit, which I did not keep in Nepal. This is one of my more shameful returns to American culture that I wish I had maintained better (and yes, it’s not too late).

5.     Whenever my hands were wet and I was handling food (such as chopping vegetables) I would panic for a moment about getting sick before remembering it was ok to eat wet food (and raw food). That lasted only about a week or more but still sometimes if I eat with wet hands I feel faintly like I’m doing something wrong.

He sells these baskets for $3 and they take him 6 hours to make

6.     It took a while to get past sticker shock at everything. But most poignantly was a fancy camping stove and counter on display at REI, where I waited to get a repair on my bag that broke in transit. As I stood in the crowded line looking at this chrome and wood stove on a table with multiple sides and all the bells and whistles, I was thinking, “That is for camping. Who needs that camping? How often would they use it? It probably is $800 and people would use it once a year. It’s nicer than any kitchen I ever saw anywhere in Nepal.” And that last realization slowly reduced my jetlagged self to tears as I felt overwhelmed by capitalism and inequality and feeling out of place in a culture I supposedly belong to (and in a store I usually love visiting). In an act of masochistic curiosity I looked at the price, thinking my estimation of $800 was an exaggeration and curious how out of touch I was with pricing. It was $1750. I have been thinking about American excess differently ever since. I hope that I never get normalized fully into thinking this is an appropriate use of $1750.

Longer term changes in interactions, habits, and perspectives

7.     I was surprised how much I would speak or respond in Nepali to people, mostly little phrases. Now they’re much less fresh on my tongue and they don’t just bubble out. Unless I want to say “See you tomorrow” as I am departing a social gathering, in which case my first instinct is always to say “Bholi Bhetaula” before saying it in English.

8.     Soon after arrival back to the US I had the opportunity to go to Sweden and I kept calling Swedes “Nepalis,” as I realized “Nepali” became the word in my head for “natives of the place that I am living/visiting.” So I would say things like, “All the Nepalis here have really awesome jackets, I wonder where they get them.” But I was talking about Swedes in Sweden. I also thanked a Dutch server in Nepali, which was likely very confusing for them.

9.     In general, the reliance on modern conveniences has taken me a while to start to fully return to. I am using the apps on my phone (like the one that tells me when the bus is coming) less than before, I have become more analog.

10.  It took a long time for me to feel ok in shorts, tight pants, or a tank top without feeling I was being offensive or immodest. I kept feeling strange for passing or accepting receipts, money, or coffee with my left hand (a rude gesture in Nepal).

11.  I felt deeply aware and uncomfortable with how many white people were everywhere. I kept thinking “there are so many Westerners here” as I looked around my very white city. I felt a sort of outsiderness that I, as a white woman, have never felt so sharply among other white people in my own country before. This feeling slowly faded, but I hold on to a small feeling of “otherness” as I try and navigate my way forward, still.

12.   Seattle has been changing really fast and being away for a year and returning, it was striking to see the number of buildings knocked down and replaced with condos. There is a homelessness crisis and it’s been shocking to see how many more people are unhoused on the streets than before. I am quite certain that the Nepalis who describe America as a dream country of opportunity to me would not believe how many people go without here. Without their basic, human needs met along side apartments filled with tech workers who get paid so handsomely that they price long-time residents out of their own homes every single day. The gentrification and displacement was palpable and alienating. Seattle has not fully felt like my home city anymore. It’s been a long process of remembering and reacquainting.

They were laughing because, after asking if I could take their photo, they said "but we're not in our nice clothes!"

13.  My focus on the clock and timeliness and feeling rushed to be places on time has shifted. While I still value being on time, I tend to lose myself in time and not have a good sense of how much of the day has passed. I enjoyed this about Nepali life while I was there and I am happy I’ve been able to adapt and hold onto this in the US in a way that feels compatible and genuine. I think I’ve been able to keep a distance from my self-consciousness. Not get fully wrapped up in the optics of how I look to others and how they see me. It’s easier to just be sometimes. Nepalis spend a lot less time worried about what other people are thinking about them than Americans do.

14.  Relatedly, I think at least part of this is tied up in sexual harassment. I felt much safer in Nepal than I do here. I did not feel carved up and looked at as individual aspects of my body. I was certainly looked at a lot, but for more nationality, not the way my clothes fit my body. The first instance of harassment I experienced was in June, stepping off a train in Amsterdam from the airport. Three men were sitting on a bench just staring in a threatening way and making what I can only surmise were lewd comments in Dutch. It was unnerving and reminded me of how I walk around the Western world with a sort of internal armor against sexual harassment that I slowly let go of when I was in Nepal. My feelings of distrust of others around me have only increased in the wake of the election of Trump. I caught myself walking home at 9pm from my dance class with my keys spread between my fingers. I never did such things before, but the US has changed and I have changed and I don’t occupy the same sense of ease I had before, even at the edges of my own neighborhood.

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I have been told it takes about six months to really adjust, to find a way to feel normal again after this sort of life changing reorientation to yourself and the worlds you live in. I am five months out and realize I am mostly back to my usual self. My American habits are back in swing; the things that aren’t quite there yet might be the things that don’t go back to the way they were. I feel more settled than before, it took about four months to see that. And starting the school year again really helped create the routine and structure I needed to feel more socially embedded back in the US. But still, there is a part of me that I think remains in Nepal and maybe it always will. The trial of being back is figuring out how to keep my little column of Nepali life alive and from becoming an empty space, or worse, an American space.

 

 

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A Visual Representation of my Fulbright Year

I left Nepal nearly a month ago already and am still wrapping my head around it and getting organized. It's been a hurried month of finishing up, packing, long travel back to Seattle, rolling right into busy end-of-the-year graduation season at University of Washington, before setting off on another trip, a dissertation writing retreat to start to process all this data before being back in earnest. At the moment, in lieu of attempts at digesting the experience of 'reverse' culture shock and reintegration, I'll just include a long video I made and my final month in Nepal video instead.

 

Reflections on Leaving, with One Month Left

 Taxi window view in KTM

Taxi window view in KTM

I’ve started a lot of posts in my head and even on my computer in the past few weeks. But they all sort of seem boring or unimportant. I think I’ve started to switch into the mode of thinking where I am beginning to say goodbye to Nepal. Writing about it seems to mismatch the way I am perceiving and reflecting upon it. But at the same time, I’m noticing a lot of things again like when I arrived and they were new and everything caught my attention. Except now I’m savoring those things again, after my brain had normalized them. I’m making them remarkable and interesting and noteworthy again.

I think about what I will miss in Nepal, or why Nepal feels so special. The word ‘vibrancy’ is what always comes back to me; there is a tremendous vibrancy in everyday life. The streets are teeming with energy and life and people all going about their days. The patterns of life are so varied that in one eyeful you can see so many different kinds of actions. It’s a busy world out there. People wear bright colors, they yell to each other across open spaces, they laugh, there is music, there are smells, there are loud noises. At home, life happens in more private and contained and patterned and predictable ways. Which has its own comforts, but it’s good to remember that there are a lot of ways of living.

 Hills in Kaski District, near a homestay

Hills in Kaski District, near a homestay

So how do you say goodbye to that? I’m not really sure, but I suppose my tactic right now is holding it in my mind and turning it over and letting is melt deep into my brain so it stays there. And thinking about all I have seen and done, remembering large and small moments from the last nine months. What moves me the most is thinking about the tremendous people that I’ve met. People who have changed the way I think about Nepal, and myself, and humans because of their kindness and their help and their warmth.

 Traditional practice and modern habits in Hilly region

Traditional practice and modern habits in Hilly region

Another secondary effect of mentally preparing to leave is that I’ve started to begin to let go of some of the anchor points I have here and remember what my life at home is like. The result is being a bit ‘cut loose’ here. The connections I rely on here will become digitized friendships. What a weird shift to anticipate. One that I think about a lot is my friendship with my ‘Little Buddy,’ as I call him. He’s 6 and he recently moved from the mountainous and remote (and difficult to access without an expensive special permit if you’re foreign) region of Dolpo. If you’ve read Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, he’s from village that is a gateway into the sparsely populated Upper Dolpo that is characterized by tall mountains, deep valleys, high passes, and miles of wild earth. It borders Tibet and matches Tibetan cultures closely. Dolpo is an amazingly beautiful, remote, and spiritual place. It’s striking, protected, and impoverished. Traditional ways of life (already incredibly challenging to uphold in the best of times) are confronted by modernization and the people are being squeezed between these two forces. Many people leave to seek more opportunity elsewhere, even if their hearts remain in their homeland. Even if their goals are to return and create viability in the region.

 Not Dolpo, but Upper Manang, which is also a high Himalaya region

Not Dolpo, but Upper Manang, which is also a high Himalaya region

The schools in Dolpo are of poor quality, so my Little Buddy’s parents have sent him to live with his two aunts (his father’s younger sisters in their 20’s), in Kathmandu. His aunties are my friends that I sometimes stay with when I am in the city. They are my Dolpo Sisters and they have hearts of gold and have been some of the people responsible for giving me a place and a life in Nepal that feels warm and good. They are lights in this world. They are both in university (bachelors and masters) in Kathmandu and both left Dolpo for school at ages 5 and 17 respectively. This was possible because of sponsorship from an American adventurer who met them while in the region and was so impressed with them. When the younger one left, she moved to the city to live in a hostel with other kids from the mountain regions and had to conform to a modern life she never knew. Shoes, underwear, rules, buses. Dolpo only got electricity in the last 25 or so years. Their home is a two-day walk to an airport, then a flight and an overnight to a place on the Indian border called Nepalgunj and then another flight to Kathmandu. The other way to get there is to walk all the way to Kathmandu. Their great grandfather did this 40 years ago and it took him 2 months, he came for a religious pilgrimage. Recently, he returned again for religious reasons, but not on foot. He hadn’t been to Kathmandu in those 40 years. Oh how different it must seem.

Now these amazing Dolpo sisters have acted as surrogate parents for their nephew, my Little Buddy. They house him, clothe him, feed him, teach him, and love him. They do this while they have their own studies to think about. School has just started so now so he’s no longer at home all day, but despite being a very self-sufficient 6-year old, he still needs care. Before school started his older sister, who is 8, was also around for a few weeks. The oldest sister is 10 and her boarding school for kids from mountain regions is too far away to commute, so she stays there. I have never met her. One Saturday morning the kids had been tasked with learning to do their own laundry and bathing. So they were out back, washing their clothes by hand and hanging them to dry on the fence. Then they bathed themselves, standing naked in the yard talking about the best ways to make sure the soap came off you and laughing and giving instructions. The older sister plopping herself happily in the bucket with her arms and legs draped over the side, having a sunny rest before drying off.

 The exciting wares of the Book Tuk for Little Buddy and his older sister

The exciting wares of the Book Tuk for Little Buddy and his older sister

Childhood is different here, kids work, kids take care of themselves, kids help out. Children are capable of far more than we give them credit for. And I believe that kids derive confidence and pride in being trusted to do those things. Kids here also have many hours of free play. They seem healthy and balanced emotionally, there are so many fewer melt-downs here than at home. I so rarely hear tantrums, not even sugar seems to make kids as whacky as it does at home. Such temperamental stability extends into adolescence. As far as I can tell, teenagers aren’t gawky and self-conscious and inward. They are confident and happy and deeply included in social life in public and in their families. I think this matters, a lot. In the US youths are so segregated from the rest of the world that they inhabit social worlds of their own with little overlap with adults. I think American children are too protected from the world at times. Obviously the world has a lot of ugliness and we don’t want kids to know about it, to experience it. But too much of that and they enter it unprepared to understand or behave in it. They don’t know how to do things for themselves, they don’t feel trusted. It makes them anxious and unhappy.

But the flip side is that some Nepali kids don’t get much of a childhood at all. They spend childhoods working or even in marriages. Child brides, though illegal, still happen. In my sample of 48 women from Chitwan, 21 were married before the age of 18 and 15 of those 21 were 16 and under when they were married (with a mean age of 14.6 years old). The youngest was 12 and I know other people who were married at 12, sometimes to 14 year olds, sometimes to men in their 30s. This is declining but not eradicated. Migration is possibly affecting it, since marriage is sometimes a solution for girls who cannot be schooled (due to cost) and so it’s the best viable alternative. But the remittances that migrants send goes towards daily life, towards school fees. For both boys and girls. Education for kids dictates much in how people make decisions.

And that’s where my Little Buddy and his sisters come in. He and his sisters, all at age 5 or 6, have left their natal village, a place of powerful emotional, spiritual, and familial significance to live with extended family for the sake of their educations. Education is everything. Their father is my age, he is a salt trader over the passes to Tibet, by yak and mule. It’s an ancient trade, but a dying one. It happens once a year for a period of weeks. Then the only other work is odd jobs and subsistence farming. Even if my Little Buddy joins him on some trips, as his father and grandfather had before him for generations of the same kind of life, he will not likely do this for his work. His father is the last salt trader in their family. My Little Buddy’s life is on a different path. It’s hard to know the Nepal he will grow up into, how much development will happen. But he will have different opportunities and he knows it. He studies really hard and seems to like his work. Watching YouTube videos of Nursery Rhymes and multiplication table (with inexplicably anachronistic graphics, like Spider Man singing “Bah Bah Black Sheep”).

For all the change in his life, for having said goodbye to his parents for many months, Little Buddy and his sisters are very well adjusted (no doubt a reflection on the impressive parenting skills of my Dolpo sisters as well as their upbringings and some of the strength that is deeply ingrained in Himalayan cultures). He is spirited and happy and caring and thoughtful. He is strong and helpful. When I moved in he carefully looked through everything I had on the desk, curiously examining my things for hours. Mining the trash bin for treasures to make into toys.  As he looked through my books and papers and various bric-a-brac, he then put them back in neater piles, with the edges lined up and flashed me a shy but excited smile. He lined up six bullet shaped ear plugs that had been in a little heap onto their ends in a neat line, like soldiers. This was how we met and bonded, before I knew he knew more English than he let on. More recently, I read to him from the books at the US Embassy Book Tuk (a converted Tuk Tuk that goes around to public places and schools). Then he took the book (Dr. Seuss) and read to me as his older sister begin to look on, correcting him at times. Both of them beaming at my shock and praise.

When I think about saying goodbye to Nepal and its beautiful vibrant places I feel sad, a bit of longing for my return. When I think of saying goodbye to the amazing people I’ve met, especially the kids, who will grow and change so much before I may ever see them again, I feel a kind of sadness that I don’t know what to do with. For all the ways technology is making the world change at rates we can’t fathom (and that aren’t always good), I’m grateful I will be able to remain connected to the people and places that are half a world away, even if they take days and days to travel to. And whenever I come back to Nepal next, I know where I’m going. To Dolpo, to see my family there.

Until that time, here's my last two months in video form, to make up for the lack of posting. Which was also related to travel and lack of reliable wifi, in my defense

A Video ReCap of 7 months in Nepal

I have fallen woefully behind on posting the videos made of one second-long clips each day. I have been keeping up with this project, however, just not posting it (I make a very so-so millennial). All but one of these are months late, but here's a video-clip journey through my time in Nepal so far. Yesterday I celebrated my 7th month here. By this time 3 months from now, I'll be back in Seattle experiencing some serious culture shock (but enjoying some seriously clean air-- which is a though impossible to escape when in KTM, one of the world's most polluted cities).

I in Nepal, Me in the US

This post follows up from my post about liminality. Clearly I’m thinking a lot about my place in my surroundings. Bear with me; this post serves both as a response to the common question I get from back home “How are you? Are you lonely?” while drawing in some sociology theory.

So last time I talked about being liminal, being between. Being in a place where people don’t really know me the way I know me (or that my family and friends do). That is both a result of and a contributor to my being on the outside. Liminality is mutually reinforcing in this way. I’m not sure if that is a new theoretical insight on the concept or not, but it’s not the focus of my post today. I want to talk a little about the consequences of being liminal or more outside than in.

I’ve been here at the research center since September 1st, but I’ve never actually been here for more than three weeks straight. It’s always been broken up by home stays, emergency medical trips to Kathmandu, trekking, my parents’ visit, and/or my friends’ visit over the holidays. And while, in general, the months fly by in Nepal (I’m already past six months!) a month here goes slowly. Each day is pretty much exactly like the day before and they’re largely solitary. I have collegial relationships with the others who work at the research center but I find myself being a bit shyer around them than my colleagues in Seattle would recognize in me. Partly, this is structural.

Having happy hour at sunset with my parents is not a feature of my daily life here. This was a big step from "liminal" to "tourist" which was a somewhat welcome change

Besides language barriers, I am a visiting graduate student who is employing professionals here to help as research assistants. I straddle the line of student and principle investigator. And Nepali hospitality means that the research center treats me a bit more like a student than an adult. It’s taken a lot of conversation and two heavily supervised evenings for me to prove that I can cook well and I enjoy it and that, when the cook needs to take a day off, I can feed myself. They are protective of me in a way that feelings caring and makes me feel safe and valued. But sometimes I don’t feel like a 30 year old independent researcher that I am. For example, at night I leave the dinner table and return to my room and I do not leave until the morning. I am locked into the research center (not that there is anywhere to go), I joke that it’s my princess tower.

The isolation of being here explains, somewhat, why a month straight here feels like a feat. I am getting very well acquainted with my brain and thoughts. Although I am meeting others. The office had its annual anniversary celebration on the 31st and I got to know more coworkers than I had (and realized I probably should have been less shy). And I’ve been walking at the same time every day and have started to build more relationships with those around me in the village. One very spunky older woman in particular likes to call me over and she has the most wonderful guttural laugh, tinged with a smoker’s rasp. I think this is, in part, because once I chatted with someone word got out that I could speak a little Nepali and was friendly and more people talk to me. Word seems to travel fast around here. The children around here generally have asked my name, but now they seem to have heard me respond enough to understand it (Ande is a hard name for them, much like I usually can’t catch what they say when they tell me their names, always first and last). Now children say “Hello, Ande!” when I pass them on walks.

A person without social context is like seeing only one level of a terraced field. Social context metaphors are surprisingly easy to come up with...

But these kinds of interactions are about the limit when I am Chitwan for face-to-face interactions. Who I am, what I do when I am not immediately in someone’s presence, and anything meaningful about my life is a mystery to those around me. I am a node without a social network, a free floater. People are embedded in social contexts and that’s how we understand them. In Nepal, I am superficially imposed on top of the social fabric, I am not part of it. I don’t comprise it and it doesn’t comprise me. Without my social context, I feel a little bit like I cease to be my “self.”

And I mean that in the symbolic interactionist sense, not a melodramatic sense. George Herbert Mead calls the self a “social process,” meaning our “self” is the result of a set of actions based in social life. He differentiates between the “I” and the “me”. The “I” means my individual impulses, my actions that satisfy my immediate needs. What Plato would call the appetites and the will. The “I” takes the ‘self’ as the subject, but the “me” takes the ‘self’ as the object. It is the ‘self’ receiving from the “generalized other”, meaning my understanding of myself is based on knowing how others see me.

All this amounts to an individual person understanding themselves in terms of their social surroundings. Self-hood is a sociological process colored by the constant dialogue between the “I” (the knower) and the “me” (the known). The self is achieved by a process of who I feel like I am based on what I do, and who I know I am seen to be by others. Self-consciousness is only achieved when I participate in different aspects of society and can recognize how I am seen in different contexts. This idea connects to my last post, where I encourage people to go some place and be liminal, be outside. They should do so to understand this world better and to understand themselves better, in the sociological sense. And probably the psychological sense too.

Chitwan National Park buffer zone in the foggy morning. Also could be a metaphor about layers, homophily, and social context, but I'll abstain from that one

In Nepal, the change in context means a change in the “generalized other” the comprises my “me.” I am perceived here in shallow terms, I am hard pressed to be seen as much beyond foreigner, even by people I’ve spent a good deal of time with, this is what is most salient about me to them. And I am welcomed as foreign, even celebrated because of it, which is a wonderful feel but the result is a flatter “me.” In the US I have more depth because can pick up on all sorts of signifiers in my general presentation that have meaning there, but not here, such that people have a good sense of which groups I belong to. I know how people see me and I have incorporated it into my self and how I let the “I” behave and how I present myself.

It’s worth noting this process of flattening happens with many newcomers (immigrants, refugees, and people who move from one part of the US to another). They lose their social context and instead are perceived in narrow terms that shape their social options, but also their sense of themselves. And sometimes Americans wonder why there is ethnic affinity, why people of the same or similar groups hang out together. One reason, aside from structural factors that may funnel them into similar neighborhoods or occupations, is that it allows people to cultivate a social self that is deeper and more closely aligns with how they might see themselves, or how they are used to seeing themselves. Moving to another place upends your “self” and it can take a long time to recreate or rebuild that.

All this answers the “how are you? Are you lonely?” question in a few ways. For one, the above paragraphs show that I’m in a pretty existential space right now, which I think can only come from a sort of profound shift in surroundings. And yes maybe loneliness, or at least social separation or isolation. I am achieving a different kind of self-consciousness. And in the process of that, I am disentangling the “I” and the “me.” The dialogue between the two has shifted because the social worlds I am embedded in back home are ones that I can only communicate with digitally. I have an eye and an ear to the ground at home in so much as someone lends me theirs and recounts life at home for me. And I have I foot over there since these digital relationships with my friends and family give me temporary social context.

A sneaky candid of Kelly, James, and Kyle in Ghandruk admiring the sun rise in front of Machhepuchhre (Fishtail) and taking a break from providing some supportive social context

But my time in Nepal is skewed balance between “I” and “me” towards the “I” – I am my will, my appetites, my impulses. My actions have very little bearing on others, and others actions have very little bearing on me (in the sociological and literal sense of the word “me”). I simply am. So it is lonely, in a way, but it’s finite and so it doesn’t bother me. I spend a significant amount of time in dialogue with myself, which still engages me intellectually and emotionally. I did feel restless with the loneliness and the apartness from my world in Seattle more at the beginning, by my wise friend Shri suggested thinking of loneliness as an actor and inviting it in to sit with me and join me for tea. And I’ve carried it with me since and I don’t really notice it.

This seemingly healthy (and surprising to me) adaptation to this isolation has been an interesting sociological journey, and one that I have weathered well because I know that it is finite. In less than two weeks I head back to Kathmandu where I will have more social fabric to be part of. More people around me, more anonymity among my neighbors. After those two weeks, I have 5 weeks of travel, visits, and then vacation with my sisters. Even the knowledge of these helps ground me. Similarly, the visits I had in November and December were affirming in a very deep way. To be in the cradle of my parents and then close friends from high school made me feel a sort of belonging I had missed and enjoyed every moment of. The “me” clicked into place and my soul felt full and warm. That’s not to say that it feels cold or empty otherwise. But rather, like any good thing you have going, you don’t know what it was until it’s gone. And sometimes it takes it coming back to note the change. This experiment has been enlightening, personally. And it lends some evidence to Mead’s claims about the self as a social process. (Of course a case study of one person without a control group or variant conditions is a social experiment that would stand up to peer review in the social sciences.)

The warm, puffy embrace of social embeddedness

Liminal in Nepal

When I told people I would keep a blog from Nepal, I joked more than once that I would probably post a lot for a few months, then go silent for six and have a post at the end saying ‘I can’t believe my Fulbright is done already and I’m about to leave.’ While I haven’t gone dark for 6 months (yet), but being in the thick of my work here does lend itself to some radio silence. Obviously. But travel blogs like this have a reputation for following this pattern, enough so that I could joke about it. It’s because how you see and experience a place shifts, there is less to say. For me, the freshness of Nepal and the wonder with which I see it has shifted. Topics for blog entries don’t just come screaming into my head anymore. Which is a good thing, it means I am learning more about this place, so it does not feel so new.

When I first arrived, the adjustments were sensory and it was exhausting. I just listened to the Home of the Brave podcast coverage of Nepal post-Earthquake and Scott Carrier and his daughter Jess Carrier noted some of the same things about Nepal that I did on arrival. I can chart my growth from that beginning against their observations, I remember noticing what they notice. But now I hardly see those things as noteworthy anymore. I was mentally corrected a range of mistakes (most notably mistaking packets of chewing tobacco/betel leaf that are everywhere in stalls for condoms, which are much harder to come by and would not be sold in such a public way). Despite this and some mispronunciations, I recommend listening, especially since it captures the sounds of Nepal so well. I listened while walking and realized that my brain is so tuned into those sounds that I kept checking around me for the motorbike, for the dogs, for the women talking, that were all coming through their microphones and not my immediate surroundings.

Some of the best parts of Kathmandu's sensory offerings pictured below

This shift away from constant awareness is partly why I haven’t been keeping up with this blog (also I’ve been busy doing the research I came here to do). I don’t need to write as a way to process and share because my life here is now my regular life, not some new and different thing. In short, it is normalized. And normal can be harder to write about, or at least if you’re trying to write thematically, which is style I have come to write in. Another way of thinking about ‘normal’ is that I’m not quite on the outside anymore. So I forget, just a little, what is interesting about Nepal to outsiders. And while I am not really an outsider anymore, it’s a stretch to say I’m an insider. I am not. I am liminal.

I was talking about this with a friend, a sociologist, and she described my experience as liminal before I told her I was in the midst of writing this post. She explained it “where your identities aren’t measured and understood by the relationships around you.” I felt it perfectly summed out how I’m an inside-outsider. I have relationships and connections here in Nepal, but they are with people who understand very little about my ‘real’ life back home. They do not really know what’s important to me, how I define myself, what matters in my life. Arguably, I don’t really know that about their lives either.

This chasm of truly knowing what someone is about ‘on their turf’ was made incredibly obvious to me over this weekend of the inauguration, of the Womxn’s March, of the shooting on my campus at a protest. Deeply personal issues to me are essentially invisible or at least meaningless to others around me here. The few times I tried to communicate my experience was incredibly awkward. On November 9th my senior colleague here congratulated me on my presidential election as a genuine well-meaning way of saying ‘hey I know you had an election and that’s great you have a new president.’ He did this not really knowing my political identity, not knowing my fears or my grief. I started crying and stammered something about it being a bad thing for the most vulnerable people in the US. A few other times I’ve tried to share parts of myself it has fallen flat and so I don’t, I project that homewards in my communications with family and friends. Or towards the other Fulbrighters, who occupy similar liminality too.

Annapurna South in the rising sun

Being liminal means I occupy this strange space where I am not an insider but I understand, a little, how the inside works and I can see it working. I believe this is the best way to do qualitative research, things are familiar enough to be able to know what to look for, but different enough where I see things happening and ask questions about that a full insider might not see as remarkable or interesting. When I notice things enough times to see trends, I ask someone about them. Just the other day I saw a naked toddler in his yard, about to be bathed at the family’s water pump. He had a loose thread around his hips, sort of like a low belt. I have seen this on other kids during interviews, usually if the child soils itself (diapers aren’t really a thing) and the parent strips the child of its fleece pants and gets a new pair from the line. I asked my research coordinator at the research center about this. She said that, until people die, they should never be truly naked. So everyone has some small cloth on their body at all times. She could not explain to me why they shouldn’t be naked, what nakedness means except that it is reserved for death. In this instance, I am enough of an insider that I know, see, and accept that children seem to wear strings. But enough of an outsider that I want to know more and I have to ask “why children? What does it mean?” Instead of assuming it’s about childhood, or maybe a marker of caste (much like the thread Brahmin men wear around their trunks), I get a more accurate answer, one that draws me towards the inside just a little more. I realize that it is not just children who wear this, but rather children are the only people I ever see naked (or almost-naked, as it were). Although, I do see more adults almost-naked here than at home because people in the country often bathe at their water pumps in mid-day (when it’s warmest). They are often visible from the road, men in underwear, shorts, or a sarong at the waist and women in sarongs tied at the chest, all lathering up in plain sight.

Chitwan produces the most mustard oil of anywhere in Nepal. Here's a typical Chitwan scene, taken from a motorbike after an interview, of the mustard fields with Manaslu Himal, the 8th tallest peak in the world, in the background

Despite all the things I’ve done that make me understand a bit more about life on the inside, from bathing at a pump to living with families to eating my daal bhaat with my hands; everything about me screams “foreigner” and “outsider” to Nepalis. I am an outsider and everyone knows it and they show it by staring or talking to me. More or less wherever I go. As I write I just came in from a 35-minute walk and every single person except one that I passed greeted me and asked me where I was going. A 12-year old boy on a bike said “Do you need a lift?” and a teenage girl leaned from the window of a school bus asking my name and wished me a good day. It’s a constant reminder that I am an outsider, I’m not like them, even if I feel like I know just a little bit more about their lives than most people they see who look like me. This makes me a funny sort of outsider, one that knows a lot more about Nepal than most foreigners who come through here.

In the village the stares and enthusiastic questions and yells from children are usually charming and make me smile. But there are times where it feels like I am being accosted, like they expect me to be something and I don’t know what it is. Since there are not that many people in this rural area and I am here for a while, I try to always be gracious and friendly. It can be a performance on the days I just want to walk in silence, lost in thought or listening to my podcast. On my most recent pass by, I saw the oldest of three kids that are my most aggressive greeters see me coming and literally tremble and jump with excitement. It’s strange to be so important to someone’s day and it can feel like a lot of pressure. My foreign-ness is the single reason I am their local celebrity and sometimes I feel less like a human and more like a game.

The types of people who greet me, or I greet on walks or treks. (1) My middle school soccer friends that I play with on Saturdays sometimes, (2) the three neighbor kids that always yell to me, (3) a typical scene (taken from motorbike returning from an interview) of the kinds of people who greet me, and (4) a woman beating millet as a way of threshing

I think this kind of attention has grown tiresome, at times, because I have been here for just shy of six months. I feel like I know more than sometimes people seem to expect of me. I don’t like being seen as a tourist when I am one, so I really don’t like it when I am not one. I usually try and indicate a deeper knowledge of Nepal by using Nepali. Nepalis are generally incredibly flattered and happy when people try and use any Nepali language at all. So many tourists never learn a word beyond “Namaste” (and sometimes they don’t even learn that). All this high and mighty ‘I’m not a tourist’ attitude falls apart when I actually am a tourist. When my friends visited that’s exactly what we were. It can be hard because I see things happen that I know Nepalis might find strange or offensive, such as passing or accepting food or money with the left hand. In seeing these small cases, I realize that my mental frame has shifted and I see the left hand differently now. I use it differently too, I use it less. I saw a photo of Trump at the inauguration, his left hand was on the bible (the same one that Lincoln was sworn into office with) and his right hand in the air, as he is meant to. But I had a knee jerk reaction of how he was defiling this sacred and historical object with his left hand, how what he was doing was offensive until I realized that’s how all presidents have taken oaths. Although I am sure any hand of his on that historical book would leave me feeling that it was defiled in some way, but perhaps the reaction would not have been so immediate.

But I’m just moonlighting at liminality. I’m a temporary outsider in Nepal, a place where knowing just a little of the language wins me applause and respect. For immigrants to the US, liminality lasts for years. Decades. Lifetimes. Here, my language mistakes, such as accidentally asking if the meat is dog (kukur), instead of chicken (kukura) are met with forgiveness, humor. Americans are much less patient and forgiving with the process of learning to be American, of making mistakes at being an insider. Those who feel liminal in the US are treated as outsiders, their liminality is their invisibility. My liminality in Nepal makes me more visible.

A woman working in the mid-Hills, below Annapurna South and Hinchuli in Kaski District

The boundaries around who can be an insider and an outsider are always being negotiated, but, at this fraught moment in America’s social history, it is a much more politically charged and visible debate. There are more displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants than ever before in human history. And there is a huge counter-swing against these waves of outsiders needing an in. Many people do not want to let them in, even though they are likely not-too-distant descendants of groups that were, at one time, outsiders too. The process of acceptance and the criteria upon which people are accepted is complex, it varies based on what groups are coming, what skills and status characteristics they possess, where they try and move to, how they arrived. Sometimes they are let in, other times they are not. And this varies over time within a single group too. For example, Arabs were once seen as white, they were accepted as insiders or capable of becoming insiders. This has shifted from acceptance to fear because Arab-ness is linked with Islam, a religion that is violently feared and deeply misunderstood by many.

If things can change so easily, then can’t they be changed towards a more inclusive boundary? I would hope and think so, though, like the groups that comprise the playing field, the rules of inclusion are always changing. As someone who deeply values experiential and interactional learning, I firmly believe that this debate over boundaries would have fewer teeth and less violence if more people, more insiders in the US, had the opportunity to go somewhere and be an outsider, an ‘other’ for long enough to understand what it’s like. Long enough to break the comforts of little islands of ‘insider-ness’ in outside land (meaning, a vacation at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico where the only Mexicans you interact with are paid to be nice to you and make you feel good does not count). No, you must be an outsider long enough to be the true minority in a situation, long enough to be totally lost and truly need someone’s help and guidance. Long enough to feel grateful when people are forgiving, and human, and welcoming towards you. Long enough to know that, even if they stare, the next thing they will do is smile if you do. And then greet you, and ask you about yourself, and sometimes offer tea. And not because they want to sell you something, but because they want to know about you. Because they see you. They see that you are outside and that want you to feel a little more welcomed inside. 

The morning sun touches Dhaulagiri, the 7th tallest mountain in the world, from Poon Hill

Hand-cutting

It’s a strange time to be an American abroad. And having few people to talk about the election with face to face definitely slowed down my own emotional processing of grief and fear. As my head was spinning with these ideas, I went on my second homestay. I wasn’t feeling emotionally equipped for the demands of a homestay, where you need to be “on” all the time. But off I went.

The new homestay

Nepal has a primarily subsistence agriculture economy and right now it’s the rice harvest. People grow what they needs for the year and live off the land and the small earnings from selling locally in a market. The trouble with this is that there is little insurance when disaster and instability strikes. Nepal didn’t have a constitution until September 2015 since their 10-year civil war between the Maoists and government. Then there was the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that caused a lot of death and destruction. Just the other morning I woke up, gently shaking in my bed, to what was the 475th aftershock from the quake. Most Nepalis see how vulnerable a subsistence farming lifestyle is and use male labor migration to build in some insulation. Often migrants return to farming, or they may open a small business if they’re more middle class and using migration to be upwardly mobile. I am here to study the impacts of out-migration on regular life, especially with regard to gender and household dynamics. So the homestay I went to a farming family with multiple sons abroad, earning the insurance to help insulate their family from instability.

The view from the front porch of a moon working its way into a super moon. The tall stack of dried grass are rice shoots (without rice) that the neighbor's water buffalo feed on

In my second homestay I lived with a Tharu family that had all four of their sons away. Tharus are indigenous to the Terai and lived here long before it was deforested and the government sponsored internal migrants from Hill regions. In this family of four sons and two daughters, two sons were in Nepal in the Army and two were abroad (Saudi Arabia and Malaysia). As is typical in Nepal, they were a joint household, meaning the sons and their wives and kids live with his parents. But when the sons are gone it means it is the grandparents, their unmarried daughter, and the daughters-in-law all sharing space. I was with this family during the rice harvest, so it was a very busy time for them. It seemed they had no intention of putting me to work (which would have meant sitting alone in the house all day). After asking to work, into the fields I went. I am a fit person and a strong person, but I am not someone who has ever found gardening very appealing (unlike my mom, who spends what seems like 70% of her waking hours in the summer outside gardening and weeding). I generally like hard work and being productive and I was struck by how hard this labor was and repetitive it was.

My back was not used to that strain and after working from 7 to 1 fairly non-stop, I had to stop because I could feel my old rowing injuries in my lower back starting to protest a spastic mutiny. I decided I would be less useful having a back spasm than just tagging out early. This disappointed me, even if it was the right move, because I wanted to earn their respect and am pretty sure I did not. Still, I was invited to dinner with everyone who had worked that day at another family’s house. While we worked the matriarch of that family brought out daal bhaat (lentils and rice) for us in large containers that she carried on her head and kept hot with a large banana leaf. This was great, except that it was served on plates very wet with water that was not safe for me to drink. My choices were to gamble with the water, use my DEET soaked and not-very-absorbent shirt to try and mop up the water, or not eat when it wasn’t clear if/when we would eat again. So down the hatch it went. Along with some antibiotics a few days later because this was a gamble with water that I lost. It took about 10 people (and some children that put in a full day at adult pace) over 10 hours to cut a field about the size of an NFL field. That night everyone shared a meal and home-distilled raksi (the local liquor, sort of like a rum meets sake). I think some of the kids who helped were drinking a little too. Generally women don’t drink, or at least publicly, so I was surprised when my host sisters excitedly asked if I drank whiskey and told me about the evenings planned activities.

When rice is newly planted (in the summer) it is a beautiful electric green. As it gets taller and greener and nears the harvest it begins to turn golden brown. An American used to imagery of people running their fingers through wheat fields might easily mistake it for wheat. Incidentally, millet looks similar to rice. The little rice grains in husks hanging like heavy dew drops on the end of the shoots. Each plant has 5-10 shoots in a cluster, and the shoot clusters were 4-6 inches apart (densely packed in, in other words). When cut by hand you just quickly cut the shoots with a sickle in the right hand and grabbing the shoots with the left and sort of munching your way through a swath about 4-8 feet wide, gathering the every growing bundle of shoots in your left hand until you can’t hold anymore. Then you lay the cut shoots behind you to dry in long lines. My host sisters moved fast. I kept up, but was definitely slower, choosing to be precise with my sickle after nicking the top of my foot (now a small scar) and having some close calls. But, the work is repetitive and I am a thinker by nature, so I kept getting lost in my thoughts. Aside from the danger of the sharp, serrated tool in my hand, I also almost grabbed a MASSIVE brightly backed spider. So I started looking for bugs, which slowed me down. There was so much life in these paddies and we just cut it all down, taking away the shelter of all the bugs, the snakes, and the frogs as they desperately jumped deeper into the shoots as we moved forward.  During the monsoons, the rice paddy is flooded with water so there were also empty snail shells around. Little fish live in the paddies too, and people fish for and eat them.

The next day, mercifully, was more upright as we bundled the rice from another paddy that had been drying in the sun and used already-threshed rice grass to twist ropes to tie them up into small bundles. The small bundles were gathered into a massive pile for the thresher. People who don’t have access to a thresher have them piled in their front yards and beat the rice over slatted tables, so the rice falls below. It looks like hard work. The automatic thresher was faster and the rice was collected into huge, heavy bags, many of which once held concrete or other grains. These bags easily weighed 100 pounds (one was marked 100 kg but I don’t know what it once held and if that is a more or less dense substance than husked rice). Before we threshed I saw women 15 years older than me carrying these bags on their heads the long walk from field to home. These were bags I could barely hoist up over my head to my host sisters on their grain storage bin with two others helping. But after the thresher and the hoisting and emptying of the bags into the grain bin, my family had their year’s supply of rice was processed and stored.

Below are photos of different stages of the process. Including one of me holding a scrap of a Red Sox towel. They were bringing out extra scarves and rags so I could wrap my head to protect from the heat. I caught a glimpse of the logo and excitedly wanted the Red Sox towel. I asked for a photo, and I'm not quite sure if the girl who took it took it at an angle on purpose for artistic reasons or by accident, but I assure you the horizon was level that day. And look closely for the type (and size) of sider I almost grabbed, open palm, a few times.

Now it wouldn’t be a story of Ande doing anything new and only slightly dangerous if there wasn’t also some gruesome injury. Alas, I will not disappoint my fans, as I did sustain injury (not counting the incredibly sore back and slightly pulled hamstring that hurt sharply for two full weeks). On my last morning of cutting in a smaller, out-of-the-way field, I finally cut myself. I was almost done with a messy patch (some wind and knocked the shoots every which way, so it was messy to disentangle and slow to get your hands around the shoots going every direction). I was distracted by thoughts of the tensions and social dynamics between the sisters-in-law. It was not exactly one big happy family and it was becoming increasingly clear that I was a pawn in their power struggle with each other.  On top of the election and the stress of that, I wasn’t feeling emotionally able to handle the way I was very subtly being manipulated and treated by one of the sisters-in-law who was using my presence and her knowledge of more English than them to create scenarios of revenge and control at my expense. In my distraction of thinking through this and how I could protect myself, I didn’t quite get my left ring finger around my last shoot-cluster when cutting swiftly with the sickle. I reacted quickly enough to save my fingertip, but I could see a deep cut and a lot of dirt in there. It needed to be cleaned and disinfected. I walked 10 minutes back to the house and washed it with their water (which was likely being contaminated with heavy metals from the pump, based on the strong metallic odor and rust stain on the concrete below the pump). I had decided against a first aid kit in my limited space for packing and their bathroom was a simple (and not especially clean) outhouse that would make it impossible to avoid infection. I knew that there was no point in staying if I wasn’t in the field and I wasn’t feeling especially eager to stay in a tense household so I decided to leave a day early. Again, I felt wimpy, especially since my host sister had the exact same injury from a few days before and was still out there. Although hers looked decidedly infected and like she was definitely going to lose a corner of her finger, something I was hoping to try and prevent. Once I got back to the internet I also realized I was not up to date on my tetanus booster and that between the rusty sickle and the massive amount of manure-laden soil in my wound, I needed some medical treatment too. I am pleased to report that after 2.5 weeks of vigilant self-care on my finger and some in-home medical care I gave myself (thanks to being a former Wilderness First Responder I managed to not faint for the worst of it), the wound has closed and the nerves are sorting themselves back out (it was a bit strangely off-center for a week or so).

My host sister using the sickled, pinned under her foot by handle with blade upright, to cut onions by hand. She cooks for the whole family over the fire with a 14 month old on her back or nearby. These long logs are pushed closer and closer into the fire as they burn. The toddler tried to grab one once and his auntie whacked him for it. Such cooking fires are linked to many negative health outcomes for people and are not good for the earth's atmosphere. It's very dark in the mud hut where they cook and store grains. The large family sleeps in one of two neighboring concrete houses that flank the mud hut on either side.

Apparently such injuries are common and a lot of the people at the research center were surprised (and not always pleased) that I was put to work. But it did shift my thinking. It’s not like I didn’t know the work was hard. I see people out in the fields all the time and I know its hard. But I appreciated it differently. As I was on the hour-long motorbike ride back to the research center, my finger wrapped in a bandana and being held upright, I could see a single woman alone and estimate that she had 6-7 hours of work ahead of her. Then I looked at the adjacent sections and realized the enormity of the task ahead. . I was trying to do the mental math of how many millions of grains of rice we collected. Of how many are in Chitwan, Nepal, the world. Of how getting a years supply of food in one, intense period of labor is so counter to the American model of food acquisition and storage. And as I worked, I was struck but how this kind of back-breaking agriculture labor is the history and present of so many people on the planet. Very few Americans descended directly from hunter-gatherers. I thought about how my ancestors also did this kind of grueling work, but how farming is so mechanized in the US.

Not even two weeks after this homestay ended my parents and I were staying in a hotel only a few kilometers away for our vacation to the Chitwan National Park. Our Tourist van passed the same fields I worked in. I could see my host dad out in his water buffalo drawn cart and thinking about how strange it is to be stepping into people’s lives and learning just a bit about them, and then to step back and see how invisible this hard labor is to outsiders. Agricultural labor blends into the landscape in Chitwan, it looks like it belongs there. And it does. But this “zoomed out” view can obscure the difficulty of the work. The livelihoods that hang in the balance of a good harvest are unseen, even when they’re out there, in plain site, laboring day after day.

Sun setting over a rice field, just before the harvest

Circumambulating the Annapurna Massif

Ande’s Mountains

I’m not sure if my parents intended to seal my fate as a lover of mountains when they named me Ande, deciding to use the spelling from the Andes Mountains in South America. The Andes are second in height only to the Himalayas, where I have just returned from the Annapurna Circuit Trek. My love of mountains is pretty non-specific. Sure, I love to be in them as a hiker, backpacker, skier, or even a car-driving visitor. But I also find a deep calm in just seeing them on the horizon. I feel held in, bounded, safe, free and full of possibility. And really, any kind of mountain will do. The rounded, old hills of New England, blanketed in trees fill me with that same rush of excitement and profound peace as the towering peaks of the Annapurna Massif in Nepal and every sized mountain in between.

One thing that I love about mountains is the physical challenge. I find it ironic that I am spending my career in a highly cerebral environment, because I actually think I am better suited for physical challenges. While I’m a fairly clumsy person (I bump into things a lot and generally have bruises on my legs and arms from I’m-not-sure-what), I can calibrate my body’s response to physical challenges well. I know how to move it, how to take firm steps, how to scramble over rocks, when to trust myself and when not to, what speed I can hold steady for how long. My intuition with physical challenges is strongest with endurance. I am all slow-twitch muscles, I often say I have one gear. Sprinting or quick change of directions is a weak point for me, athletically. But I can hold one pace steady for as long as I have been tasked with. I would say this consistency was one of my greatest talents in collegiate rowing. I would do our signature workout, 4x8 minutes at 5K pace at the exact same pace, down to a tenth of a second, every time. Minimal variance in each stroke. This connects to my love of backpacking over peak-bagging. My glory is in the exhaustion at the end of the day, of slowly getting to the end goal. Measuring accomplishment in days, not hours. I always prefer training to races. For me, the challenges presented by the daily task of pushing yourself is so much more rewarding than the “pay off” of completion of one event that was less than all of it added up. Perhaps it is this aspect of loving the long slog that suits me for academia.

All this is to say that being in the Himalayas for the two-to-three week Annapurna Circuit trek with Lily and Ryan was a profound experience for me physically and mentally. One I am still trying to fully make sense of and find words for. The Annapurna Circuit Trek is a very popular route, though the hotel owners we talked to all expressed worry about how tourism has been down since the 2015 Earthquake. The trek usually starts in Besishahar, the district capital of Lamjung District. We took a several-hour jeep ride from there to just past Syange to start. The road that we followed is one that runs all the way to Manang and we walked on for parts. This area is considered “the Hills” and they are lush and green (and would be called mountains in the US). I was struck by how deep the walls of the canyon are, and how far and remote some houses are. There are multiple suspension footbridges that cross to houses or villages. You know the type from the movies, where there are rickety and wooden and missing steps and they bounce too much when people walk on them. Well these do bounce when walked on, but they weren’t especially scary, just windy. Our route followed the road and the river that carved its way between the Hills, carrying cold, silty snowmelt.

Beautiful Desolation

 Nightly ritual of calculating mileage and elevation gain on my map using a piece of floss to follow trail contours

Nightly ritual of calculating mileage and elevation gain on my map using a piece of floss to follow trail contours

We tended to gain about 500 m (1,600 feet or so) vertical each day (until the end, when it was more like 800 and 900 m (2,500 to 3,000 feet or so) vertical. Most days we covered 10-14 KM in a little bit over 6 hours including the hour lunch stop at a tea house where a meal was only prepared once the order was made. Afternoons were spent stretching, writing, reading, napping, interviewing (for research), or playing cards. When we left Chame to Pisang, it was clear we had transitioned from the Hill region to the Mountain region. It was drier; the white peaked Himalayas were visible. Annapurna II was the first magnificent peak we saw, it stands at 26,040 feet. As we went on Annapurna IV and then Annapurna III came close, we skirted the backside of the massif, in the rain shadow, admiring their beauty, sneaking up on the slumbering giants. Then we came to Gangapurna, Khangasar, and Tilicho Peak before crossing over Thorong La Pass down into Mustang. We were close enough to see the stunning detail in the rocky faces and snowy folds. It was close enough to see the tufts and plumes of snow that looked like smoke during the two avalanches I happened to see happen while staring longingly at the peaks.

Prayer wheels in Chame, leaving Hills for Mountains

I remembered how hard it is for me to view nature without anthropomorphizing it, a challenge Edward Abbey discusses in Desert Solitaire. I view the mountains as constant and steady. Wise, even. The magnificence of these mountains is hard to describe. They remind you of your place in this world, of the importance of feeling small sometimes. Of viewing the timeline of this planet on a scale that makes human lifetimes a mere blip, something so infinitesimal it is impossible to imagine that a single human life can have any impact at all. And yet they do, all the time. It’s all quite humbling to remember that we are big and small, the scales of our impacts as individuals and a collective varying by context and surroundings.

The experience of trekking provides a tremendous amount of time for self-reflection. At times we all talked, the trail or road wide enough to be side by side with Ryan, Lily, or our guide Tila and assistant Rupa. But mostly, for the three of us, all celebrating our 3-month anniversary in Nepal on this trek, it was a time to think and to have the space to roam, physically and mentally. To make sense of ourselves, of Nepal, of this tremendous and repeating gift of being here for 10 months on the government’s dime to serve as cultural ambassadors while accomplishing our research, furthering our careers. To find challenges that are unlike ones we face at home and to gain perspective on just about everything. As if the incomplete thoughts that sit lurking in a busy mind need only time, space, fresh air, and beauty to come rattling out of their corners ready to be taken on and seen in new light.

It’s hard to explain the beautiful desolation of the Himalayas. It is remote; it takes days to get to some of the small villages we visited. As we went higher, past Manang, we were in places people don’t actually live. Rather families go up there to run hotels for the tourist season and return to lower heights for the off-season. It looks like how I imagine the high Himalayas to look. How I think Tibet looks. It is dry, and dusty. The air is thin, the sunshine strong and regular. The wind can be fierce, relentless. It feels spiritual, desolate without being isolated. There was this feeling that reminded me of the Wild West. Something about the emptiness, the constant wind (palpable through the flapping prayer flags), and the silence that lead to the feeling like nothing was going to happen and also, curiously, something was about to happen. Each day we walked further into this feeling, more remote. More desolate. More haunting.

Staggering New Heights

I think Tilicho Lake is the most remote place I have been, and for three days, it was the highest I had been too. At 16,138 feet, it is the highest lake in the world and a 2-day walk detour from the circuit. To get to Tilicho Base camp you deviate from the main trail at Shri Kharka and follow the contours of a sloping mountainside across the loose rocks of landslide areas, through an almost lunar-scape to the very cold and crowded base camp, which is at about 13,000 feet. It’s windy, raw, cold. There aren’t enough beds, many people sleep in the dining room (last to bed, first to wake). We got the last room, but it was a double. Ryan and Lily and I slept snug as bugs under a rug in our sleeping bags sharing two cots pushed together. It was lights out by 7, up at 5 for an early go at Tilicho up a long and steady uphill to the lake. Ryan and Lily were both unwell and, for the first time in my life, I felt great when others didn’t (I am always the one who is sick). But I still sort of thought I wasn’t going to make it. I have a history of struggling with the altitude, starting at 13,500 or so and only getting worse. When I was 12 I went to 15,000 feet in Bolivia, but it really didn’t go well. Nor did 14,400 when I had been living at 10,200. But this time I was armed with Acetazolamide and its a game changer. Not to say I didn’t feel the altitude, I definitely was short of breath, but I was able to recover and carry on.

Tilicho, aside from being beautiful, helped my body prepare for Thorong La Pass, which I would do 3 days later. It’s at 17,769 feet and is the highest pass (arguably) in the world. We attempted the pass from Thorong High Camp at 16,010 feet, arriving in in the early afternoon and did a short walk up a nearby hill for more elevation and then I sat in the sun and read until it disappeared and instantly grew cold and unwelcoming. We had a 3 am wake up for a 4 am departure, with the plan of making the pass in 3 hours at 7 am, before the winds got too strong. Then it’s a 5-mile downhill to Muktinath through barren nothingness, which would be beautiful if it wasn’t the most crushingly exhausting 4.5 hours of my life. In those 5-miles down we dropped over a mile of vertical. When we arrived at Mukitnath, at 12,200 feet, the air felt thick and I gulped it into my lungs like it was water.

The actual ascent to the pass was taken at a pace I would call a steady stagger. One foot before the other. Tila would say bistaari, meaning “go slow.” But if I went any slower, I would cease to be moving forward. I would be standing still and occasionally taking a step forward. The first hour and a half out of High Camp was disorienting and beautiful. It was silent, still, dark. The stars visible, the edges of the mountains perceptible, barely, but holding us in. Orienting us in the dark night. I couldn’t really see the trail well, even with my headlamp, so I just followed the guide. At some parts one misstep would be a disastrous tumble down steep rock slopes into who-knows what. Nothing good. As it began to lighten and we were at around 17,000 feet I felt constantly out of breath, barely able to catch it when I stopped. I was zombie walking forward. I recognized myself slipping into what I call “survival mode thinking.” I’ve had enough compromising situations in asthma attacks and moderate hypothermia to know this in myself so I would try and do some elevation math and conversions from meters to feet in my head to check in on how I was doing. I could still do them, but I could feel my brain getting fixated on the singular things it thinks would improve how I feel. I got really focused on my breathing and worrying about if my dry cough worsened and become HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema—fluid in the lungs), which is not a condition that has many survivors and can only be remedied by going lower as fast as possible (and for me, going down meant going up first). Just as I was really freaking myself out the trail steadied out, the last 30 minutes is over more rolling terrain, with fewer ups. It was hard to feel much of anything, a sliver of relief and a bit less worry, once on top. We stayed at the top only 15 minutes, taking a few pictures, hanging some prayer flags, and then starting the downhill. The first 45 minutes felt great, more and more air! Then that high wore off and it was that same zombie walking exhaustion. All in all, the day was 7.5 hours of near constant movement where I experienced unprecedented exhaustion. And I was a Division I college athlete in what is often considered the hardest team sport (rowing).

 The best trekking buddies

The best trekking buddies

We called our trek to a close in Muktinath. In 2008/9 they built a road connecting this area, which has made it a dreadful place to walk. It’s very windy, incredibly dusty, and on a road where buses constantly fly through at high speeds, belching black exhaust. Not the peace of the mountains at all. Unlike the trekkers we met, all on vacation, we were there working and all were ready to get back to the city and begin our work and carry on with our research. We separated before High Camp due to altitude sickness, and wanted to reunite soon. Although it took a full two days to travel back to Pokhara because of the way buses are run, it felt disorientingly fast. The environment grew greener, warmer, more populace. There were more people around, it felt unnerving. We came out of the bubble of the mountains too fast, not ready or prepared for bustling life again.

Public and Private (but somehow I talk about animal slaughter and meat)

I keep noticing how public and private spaces are very different in Nepal compared to the US. We were warned about this at the Fulbright Pre-Departure Orientation in DC last June. We were told to lock a closed door if we didn’t want someone to come in (if we were changing, etc.) because a closed door did not send the same message of privacy preferred as it does in the US. I have found this to be true. We were also told that people will ask questions that seem more forward than would be considered polite in the US. Such as how much money we make (answer: “Enough to eat and stay”), my age, if I’m married and have kids, and how old my parents are. My mom is five years older than my dad and this generates a lot of surprise and commentary because that is unheard of here. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about different cultural norms of privacy and discretion. Where and how ideas of privacy and openness come from. Could aspects of daily life that lend themselves toward more open-ness? And I think so. It is interesting to think about how the organization of space and the level of infrastructure in commerce and the ability to reliably store or refrigerate goods like meat could trickle down and shift ideas and cultural practices around privacy. Cultural Materialism is a perspective in cultural anthropology that suggests that the material realities of infrastructure, such as economic, demographic, and technological factors, drive the structures and superstructures of culture. In this case, structures are the political and social systems of operation and superstructures are the symbolic or ideological systems. I’m definitely not making a full study of this, but I can say the demographics and economics of Nepal do affect the structures and social systems (like local commerce), which itself does affect some of the symbolic and ideological beliefs and interactional styles.

The neighborhood set up of houses and shops are set up in a way that fosters a very different kind of social system around purchasing and consumption. Most shopping occurs at small, family-run stores (versus large corporate-owned franchises, as in the US). These are small and open and you can see everything from the counter, so you tell the shopkeeper what you want. As you walk by you can immediately tell what kind of shop it is. All the action is in the front. As a customer, your purchases and needs are more known to the community. They are said out loud, they are part of a more elaborate exchange than in an American style grocery store, where you select your own goods and bring them to the front and the person ringing you up is not your neighbor.

In the US, we have more separation from our neighbors. Or at least our business and our neighborhoods rarely dovetail as much as they do here (or in most other places in the world). In the US in the post-WWII boom, as people moved out of the cities and into the newly forming suburbs, the construction of these new houses reoriented shared space away from the front of the house and the street and towards the backyard. This shifted the neighborhood social dynamics considerably. In Nepal houses are generally oriented with the front area or front porch as the central outdoor gathering area. It’s very easy to see what people are up to and to have them know what you’re up to. It’s one reason, when in a homestay in the city, I did not return much later than dark (so as not to generate gossip). Also, life really slows down around dark here. Nepalis go to bed fairly early (it’s all quiet by 9 or 10) and get up very early (5 am). I imagine people who visit her from Spain have a very hard time with this schedule.

 Freshly painted temple in Kathmandu Durbar Square

Freshly painted temple in Kathmandu Durbar Square

In the rural areas in Chitwan near my research center and where I did my homestay the houses are generally quite small and the socialization happens outdoors, not inside. But living also happens outside too. Some houses have running water, but many have taps outside. This means that bathing, brushing teeth, washing up, cleaning clothing, washing dishes, and fetching water are all activities that occur in a somewhat public eye. I saw many a naked child getting a bath publicly. Women wear a sarong-like wrap and men might just be in underwear or shorts as they wash up, also quite visibly. Early in the morning, going to look for rhinos, we saw people standing out front, right by the dirt road brushing their teeth, getting their days started with some tea, chatting idly with neighbors, watching their kids play in the street. All this means that the mystery of other people’s isn’t so mysterious. You can witness things that, in the US, are both unseen and considered somewhat intimate in their privacy. And if you think seeing someone brush their teeth isn’t intimate, ask yourself if you would want to brush your teeth with your boss or some other respected authority figure able to see you doing so. Probably not. These actions feel private for Americans because they are done in private and we have the privilege to control who gets to sees us do these things. The older we get, the fewer people are privy to observing such a regular ritual.  

Goats waiting for slaughter in Kathmandu

And I notice this public and private divide especially a now that it is the height of the festival times. It is Dashain the biggest holiday here. A nearly two-week holiday where different days have different rituals and actions associated with them. The last few days involve ritual animal sacrifice and also the consumption of a lot of meat in celebration. I knew this beforehand (mercifully, I had been warned to expect to see some slaughters). But even if I hadn’t been warned I could have deduced as much. There were suddenly a lot of goats around. Starting with the research center where, on my last morning before coming to Kathmandu to prepare for our trek, I woke up to a goat bleating. I wondered if it wondered onto the research center’s grounds But then I saw it was tied up. I asked the cook if the goat was for meat or milk (knowing very well it was probably meat). I was happy to be leaving before that event took place. I noticed it first in Chitwan, a goat was being loaded into the little back-of-the-bus in a small storage area for bags. I’ve seen more and more goats riding on motorbikes in the arms of a passenger. But I mostly seen them tied up outside. Fortunately, I never directly witnessed a slaughter, but I did come upon the immediate aftermath a few times. The sidewalk was green with feces and red with blood. And there was goat hair (fur?) all around. I held my breath as I stepped into the street to keep my shoes clean and averted my tender, sensitive vegetarian eyes.

The average American meat eater prefers not to think about, let alone witness, the slaughter of the animal that became their meat. It’s never so public, on purpose. Obviously this is partly because of public health concerns (both the meat and the street can easily cross-contaminate each other).. I was crestfallen to realize that the first goat slaughter I saw was right on a corner where I once slipped off of the slimy (from decomposing garbage) curb and my hand landed in a mushy pile of something on the sidewalk. I think it was a combo of garbage and meat by-product. And I keep wondering how it was that I got so sick. There’s a reason people, especially foreigners, get sick here. The excrement and blood of the goat gets washed into the street along with garbage and anything else. There isn’t really a drainage system, so eventually its gets to the rivers and I’m sure into water that people end up having to use. Nepalis have a lot more immunity to this, but Americans are used to a very sanitized environment, so we’re highly susceptible to everything.  

A street cow got a tikka blessing from someone on the last day of Dashain

Now as a vegetarian my “preachy” phase didn’t last long. I generally support people’s rights to choose what they eat, but I think being aware of the environmental and ethical consequences of those choices does matter. And that belief extends beyond meat to many foods. I say this because the upcoming discussion of the meat industry in the US is not meant to be preachy so much as comparative (and perhaps informative). I believe that the meat industry in the US is very private on purpose. First of all, it happens not on the sidewalk, but behind walls to maintain an allegedly sanitary facility. But I can also imagine many Americans having a knee-jerk response to the type of slaughters I almost witnessed and conclude that the Nepali meat industry is cruel because the animals sit outside and are probably aware of their fate. They see it happen before it’s their turn. They don’t have a lot of room to move on their final day. But what isn’t visible is that these goats were also raised out of the city, on grass and pasture with small herds. They have been free to roam. They are killed individually, not a slaughter line, where they are one of hundreds to be “processed” that day. In both Nepal and the US the prior life of meat before it’s last day isn’t visible. But the animals in Nepal, on the whole, have a much better life than those in the US. The meat industry works hard to make sure American consumers don’t see this process, because many would take umbrage with it. Animals aren’t treated as sentient and living beings, they are more like products on a production line. There is so much wasted meat and excess slaughter. Here animals are only killed if they’re going to be consumed, and not the anticipation of consumption. I was talking with a Nepali friend about Dashain and he was grateful that I wasn’t judging Nepalis as cruel for slaughtering animals. He had talked to Westerners who expressed moral outrage at this very fact. I pointed out that, as a vegetarian, I was a bit more informed and conscious of the meat industry in the US than many meat-eaters in the US.

 Festivities and marigold necklaces in Kathmandu Durbar Square for Dashain

Festivities and marigold necklaces in Kathmandu Durbar Square for Dashain

Dashain is much more than just a meat-oriented holiday. It’s been fun to witness the city change and get quiet as people return to their family homes outside the city. Fewer people are driving, many stores are closed, people decorate their cars, their daily offerings to the Gods are more elaborate and ornate. Much of the holiday is dressing up in finery and walking to visit family nearby. I would walk by families carrying offerings. Dashain has been compared to Christmas because of how major it and because gift giving and getting nice, new things (such as painting houses, exchanging old money for crisp newly printed money, and new clothes) is part it. I was thinking about how in the US its sort of dead on the streets at Christmas. People are all indoors and out of sight with family. And there was definitely some of that, but other parts felt more like Halloween, where people are all walking the streets together in groups, dressed up (but dressed fancy, and not in costume). There has been a festive mood and decorations in the streets. It can be lonely to be in another place for the holidays (I’ll report back on how Christmas goes. My parents are visiting for Thanksgiving, luckily). But it can be invigorating to visit a place for a holiday that you don’t usually celebrate. It’s amazing how much a festive mood can spread. And it might have something to do with finally getting the right, higher strength antibiotics to take care of the 3-weeks of abdominal pain hell I was in. I tested positive for two-types of E.Coli that maybe were causing this. I’m so glad to be feeling like myself again and feeling hungry for the first time in weeks.

 

 Part of Dashain is putting up these bamboo swings, called Linge Ping, everywhere. People young and old swing on them. This one is outside a temple in Jhamsikhel in Lalitpur near Patan

Part of Dashain is putting up these bamboo swings, called Linge Ping, everywhere. People young and old swing on them. This one is outside a temple in Jhamsikhel in Lalitpur near Patan

Rhinos, and Tigers, and Worms, oh my!

It seems like it really was not a month ago that I posted my videos of my last month in the US and my first month here. And now I have another video of my last days in KTM and my arrival in Chitwan.

So what is life like in Chitwan? My life here is decidedly quiet, I stay at the research center and my days and daily schedule are fairly rote and stay in a close proximity to the research center. If I were to leave, I could walk 1 kilometer to the nearest village center just to check things out, or to buy a recharge card for my cellphone’s data plan. And I do that sometimes, always attracting a lot of attention from locals, especially children. There is a bus to the closest city (Narayangarh) about 5 miles away. 

A week after arriving I did an 8-day homestay in a small village at the edge of the district and quite close to the Indian border. I lived with a wonderful family that ran a small store and, mostly, I just did what they did each day. I think my photos might convey village life better than my words. Twice my Baai (younger brother) took me around to see things on a borrowed motorbike or scooter. We visited the river that borders Chitwan National Park a few times, and twice in the evenings their close family friend, who I called Daai (older brother) and who is a guard at the park, took me to see the endangered one-horned rhino, which pretty much only lives in this area.

(1) making masala, (2) sunset from walk, (3) lunch view from the shop (4) my morning walk partner (5) the before-school-starts tutoring group I visited to help practice English (6) Hard at work in preparation for their exams (age range 4-13) (7) Annapurna II over a house in the village (8) tractor pulling soda to a store in a bigger town nearby

Rhinos! First off, rhino heads are massive and their body armor looks almost cartoonish arranged. They look exactly how you think they will and yet are still amazing. My first sighting was a last minute affair. I was enjoying an evening tea when Daai swung by on his motorbike and said “Rhinos, six. Let’s go” and I just jumped on the bike and went as is. I was lucky to have my phone on me. We went up to the closed hotel’s grounds at the village edge. Children were yelling "American!" but we were on a mission and paid them no mind. We went through a hole in the fence, across the empty grounds, down a steep hill and over a chain link fence with razor wire on it. Then over another concrete and barbed wire fence. Both were about chest height, but the hill grade made it easier to get over. I was a bit unsure of how we were going to get back up as easily. I appreciate that Daai just assumed I could do all this (and climb skinny trees later), which I could. I spent a lot of my youth climbing around trees and large rocks in the woods, but imagine many people without such a well-spent youth might find this difficult.

Over the fences were tall and thick grasses, about 50 yards from us to the river, he took off his bright shirt (rhinos prefer earth tones) and I kept thinking: “Look down for snakes. No, look up for snakes. And to the side for tigers and rhinos. Isn’t this malaria mosquito prime time?” After 100 yards or so walking along the river Daai spotted the rhinos. He climbed a skinny tree with few branches rather handily then instructed me to do the same. This seemed unnecessary given my decent view on the ground. But I like some adventure so up I went. It was amazing! The rhinos made snorting noises and have a very peaceful way about them. We moved to a closer, smaller tree and my main foothold was a tiny broken branch nub that eventually gave way. When it did, I slipped out of the tree (well, I hung by my arms, 10 feet off the ground until I stopped swinging, then used my legs to wrap around the trunk and regained my footing). I scraped and bruised my leg but, more importantly, spooked the Mama rhino with the baby (which I never actually saw). 

Daai said, “Dangerous. Let's go.” And he starts walking pretty fast and keeps looking over his shoulder. They were about 80 feet away, across a pretty swift river. But they can charge at 35 mph, have temperaments when annoyed, and a giant dagger on their noses. So we hustled out of the thick undergrowth, back over the concrete and barbed wired fence, then the razor wire chain link fence then took a breather. These fences are meant to keep rhinos out of the village, which has happened apparently. They do not keep people away from the river area, where people come to see rhinos, to fish, and to gather grasses for animal feed. A few months ago a woman doing just that and was charged and gored to death. I hadn’t quite realized that seeing rhino was a dangerous pursuit, but our hasty escape and the fact that the first question everyone asked me was “Were you scared?” tipped me off. News of the rhino sighting spread across the village and every time I met someone they were happy and impressed that I got to see three rhinos (and wasn’t scared). To maintain my image as fearless, I did not disclose my fear of being eaten by a tiger (which is unlikely, but would be a very awful death).

We saw more rhinos again, two mornings later. We came upon where Daai knew it had been sleeping when he came to get me. You could still smell where the rhino had been (and the giant area of flat grass gave it away). It smelled how you think a rhino bed would smell. It didn’t take long to spot a crocodile in the water and then the same rhino snoozing across the river. I had spotted the contours of its back but didn’t see a head and just thought “that dirt mound is very rhino shaped.” But then it raised its head, looked at us a while, then lumbered away into the high river grasses.

(1) Rhino from first tree (2) this is how I felt to be in a tree looking at a family of rhinos (3) sleeping rhino on second sighting (4) Daai and the sleeping rhino

Life in the village, when not hurrying through grassland to see endangered creatures, is quiet and each day is quite similar to the one before it. My host family doesn’t own much land, but I did participate in some farm labor, mostly to get a sense of what it was like. My host mom was amused when I kept asking to work. People here work really hard. I had noticed teams of women cutting what looked like a tall weed all over the village (pictured below, after harvest). When they neared our property my host mom marched me out and proudly fielded questions about me while I worked (General order of questions: Where is she from? Does she have brothers? Sisters? Are her parents alive? Is she married? Why not? Why is she here?) Meanwhile, I harvested “teel” with a sickle. They said it was for chutney and I could hear some sort of seed making noise in there, but only days later remembered that I knew “teel” were sesame seeds. I never knew what their plant looked like but they are stacked about 10 deep in these little pods (which each hold about 40-50) and they come out in the most orderly little rows. And I already thought I loved everything there was to love about sesame. What a perfect food.

In the village those who farm for a living have much more work to do than those who don’t. Those not working in fields have more free time, a lot of which is spent visiting people around. Much of the village felt like an extended kin network and everyone is introduced as brother or sister or uncle or auntie. Some of this is non-familial and some is familial because some men in the elder generation had multiple wives, so there are a lot of branches of any given family all tracing to the same grandfather or great grandfather. Still, despite these kin ties, the village’s “neighborhoods” (organized in boxes around fields), are very much segregated by caste and economic status.

The homestay was mostly great, but was challenging in two ways. Americans are used to having more privacy and alone time than Nepalis, so I felt pretty tapped out at the end of every day (and still had to write notes!). Also I wasn’t able to control my food safety as well. A lot of things came to me in wet glasses. Or I was given water at people’s homes and told it was boiled, but couldn’t be sure since the word for boiled water and the word for hot water are the same. I was fed a lot of raw, unpeeled or wet veggies, though mostly abstained as best I could. So I wasn’t really surprised when, a few days after my return, I started to feel really fatigued, my joints and muscles ached, and my belly hurt, a lot. I have Leaky Gut syndrome, so abdominal pain is something I’m quite used to. But this was worse, and more persistent. I also felt even hotter than usual, particularly with a heat coming off my upper abdomen. The director at the research center arranged for me to go to the hospital right as I was thinking I would ask him how to see a doctor. I went early in the morning on the morning of my first focus group, which was a tight and difficult turn around to make from patient to researcher.

At the clinic you pay when you arrive ($5) and they write your name on a packet (Hi, I'm Androya, nice to meet you). My name was incorrect, but it didn't much matter since this was the only record and there is no system to be entered into. Whole families seem to go to one person’s appointment together and the research center cook came in with me. The appointment was short and the doc prescribed a bunch of meds and some lab tests, which was fast and easy, if not a bit unhygienic by American standards. I paid for my meds (less than $5) and my visit (less than $10) in cash and we left in a hurry for the focus group. During the focus group I struggled to find a comfortable position on the floor and to be as focused on the interview as I would have hoped. I was totally exhausted afterwards and came back to my bed and immediately collapsed into a two-hour nap followed by lying in bed the rest of the day and doing very little.

 Notations on my meds to indicate twice daily (three on left) or once daily (on right). Likely due to low rates of literacy in the population that was in school before about 1983 when educational policy changed

Notations on my meds to indicate twice daily (three on left) or once daily (on right). Likely due to low rates of literacy in the population that was in school before about 1983 when educational policy changed

At dinner I started my meds, which I had Googled and learned are anti-biotics and an anti-spasmodic and I woke up feeling more energetic already the next day. We returned to the clinic for results and the doctor said that I have dysentery and kept assuring me I didn’t have cholera, which wasn’t on my radar and was unclear why it was on his. All I could think was these are two diseases I regularly died from in my hardcore Oregon Trail playing days of 1994-5. If you Google bacterial dysentery, I'm not that sick and have a mild case-- but this does maybe explain why I've been so hot. I feel like I have had this thing for a while, maybe even before my homestay. The antibiotics are doing the trick, wiping out the bad bacteria along with my very carefully cultivated microbiome since my Leaky Gut diagnosis in October 2014. Luckily, I have some very high octane, shelf-stable probiotics with me.

So my dissertation dysentery to marks my second month anniversary in Nepal. My diss dys. Which I am remiss (get it?) to say is not a joke I came up with. 

**Health Update from Sept. 29th** I originally saw the doctor in Bharatpur to see if I had worms, but he diagnosed me with dysentery. Things got worse, not better, and I ended up flying to Kathmandu last minute to go to the British clinic and get more information. I was prescribed meds for worms and, although the mass death of the worms in my body caused me to feel quite ill, I believe I am on the mend. They also found that I was jaundiced and my liver function wasn't good, so I have to come back to see if it has changed after 7-10 days. Both are potential side effects of the worms. It is unclear to me if I really ever had dysentery or not.

(1) Sunrise over the Rapti River (2) Busy hour at the family's store (3) Water buffalo crossing in front of Annapurna Massif (4) Interrupted selfie of my goodbye tikka and the homemade marigold necklace by my host mom as my host grandma looks on

Research Center Life

A short post on the differences between my office life in Seattle and Nepal because I haven't fully processed or figured out what I want to say about my homestay yet, so I'll talk about my office-stay.

Footwear, or lack thereof

 The office door and shoe collection

The office door and shoe collection

Nepal is a shoes-off when indoors country, like much (all?) of Asia.  Given all the unsavory things to be stepped on in the streets because of free roaming animals and lack of regular garbage pick up (and how muddy it is in monsoon season, and dusty it is when not monsoon-ing), this makes sense. This holds for the office and means we’re all barefoot, our shoes out front. I really enjoy being barefoot at work but did have a weird adjustment on my first day. As I walked into the conference room to meet the team I’ll be working with at the Research Center I was filled with that showed-up-to-school-naked-in-a-dream feeling as I crossed the threshold and realized I was barefoot. I had this panic that I had left my desk without putting my shoes back on (which sometimes happens at work in Seattle). Then I looked down and saw everyone was barefoot too, phew. 

I've gone whole days without really wearing shoes. They did leave me some sandals to wear as house shoes in the guest house, but they hilariously too small. They are probably women's size 6 and I'm a 10.5. I feel like Cinderella's evil step sister when I wear them.

Temperature

While my office does have a fan, I am hot all the time. Apparently computer work generates some heat? In Seattle, I’m generally cold in my office, occasionally just right. Wearing pants in this heat is tough too, but surely that won’t bother me as much once I adjust to the heat. Everyone says it will happen, but so far, no dice. I’m not holding out hope, I'm just waiting for the seasons to change. I am promised this will happen, though the 10-day forecast is grim. Inexplicably, many of my Nepali coworkers wear even heavier layers than I do, jeans and long sleeves! And while we're all roasting here, in the mountains nearby, it's already getting quite cold.

Tea and Snack breaks

Most days, a man comes by at 2 or so with tea for everyone from a tray. It’s lovely. But contributes to the “hot at work” problem. Sometimes I am brought a plate of food or soda too as an afternoon snack.

Holidays and the Women’s Holiday

I’ve mentioned in my festival season post about Teej, the women’s holiday. But that means there are two days where women have holidays from work that men don’t necessarily have. I’ve was the only female office worker those days in the office (because the guesthouse is next to the office and was going to be working either way, I figured I should walk the 30 paces from the guest house to the office). The cook (female) and woman who do the grounds-keeping still work because of the demands of their jobs as daily. Just like in the US, not everyone gets a holiday at holiday times. This felt especially poignant as the women’s holiday was also Labor Day in the US.

We also just had Constitution Day on the 19th, which is the first time this has been a holiday, since the constitution is new. And still hotly debated-- there was a major fuel crisis due to a petrol blockage facilitated by the Madheshis, a minority group in the Eastern Terai of Indian descent. The Madhesh and Terai indigenous groups, such at the Tharu, protest it because they are underrepresented in the constitution.

Gender Neutral Bathrooms

I think. I’m not always clear where I should go, but there is just one bathroom that I have found in the office, but a separate toilet building that I admittedly haven't used. But, to avoid confusion, I usually walk the 50 feet to the guesthouse and use the one in my room.

 The guest house (straight ahead) and the office, to the right. The commute's a real killer.

The guest house (straight ahead) and the office, to the right. The commute's a real killer.

Office Hours

Office hours are 10-4 or 5 here, and Sunday is a workday. The 10 am start is brilliant. Although it is already popular, informally, at the UW Sociology Department.

Parking Area

Most people come by motorbike, so the parking for the 20 or so motorbikes fits neatly under a covered area at the edge of the property. You could only fit about 5 cars in this same space these 20 bikes take up.

 Sunsets start and end quickly, thanks to our relative proximity to the equator (compared to Seattle). But it's a glorious 15 minutes when it happens (if it's not monsoon-ing)

Sunsets start and end quickly, thanks to our relative proximity to the equator (compared to Seattle). But it's a glorious 15 minutes when it happens (if it's not monsoon-ing)

It’s Festival Season!

Google will tell you Namaste translates to Hello. And that’s how its used, but it actually means “I bow to the God in you”. I’m an Athiest with a Jewish background (Athiest Cultural Jew is how I identify, generally). So talking about bowing to Gods in people isn’t usually my cup of chiya. But I do quite appreciate the way religion is folded into every day life here. Nepal is majority Hindu (~80%), and Hinduism is an orthoprax religion, which means that it is about what you do (prax), more than what you believe (dox) for directing the religion (as in the Abrahamic orthodox religions). There are bells and shrines in neighborhoods and ringing them is a way of respecting the neighborhood’s gods. As a polytheistic religion, Hinduism has multiple gods and they can be in multiple forms and can be in everything. So if you do something, like step on a book (which contains knowledge and symbolizes a god) you say “bisnu bisnu” which means, “I see the god in you” as your apology. You also say this if you step over someone, which I mentioned already is not something you do here. You don’t even ascend the stairs if someone is coming down so they’re not passing above you. 

The remaining 20% of people in Nepal are mostly Buddhist (there is a small minority of Muslims and Christians, too). Buddha was born in Nepal, as the back of many Taxis will tell you (seen below). Buddhism and Hinduism are syncretic in Nepal, meaning the boundary between the two is blurry and they’re entwined. Below are some images of some Buddhist aspects of like in KTM, taken at Swayambhu Temple (also known at the Monkey Temple because of all the monkeys, seen sitting on the dome)

 Me and Ryan with our tikkas

Me and Ryan with our tikkas

Holiday season started with the last day of rice planting and traditionally you eat kwati a 5, 7, or 9 bean soup (odd number is important, as a lover of odds, I think this is great). The soup is warming and is meant to prevent the cold you may get from being in the wet rice paddy. I had a cold at the time (and another now), so the 9-bean soup and chipati our language teacher fed us felt especially nourishing and warming. On the way to our teacher Geeta’s house we stopped at a shrine where the priests sat outside and wrapped a yellow and red string around our wrists while reciting mantras for luck and health. This will be cut off at Tihar, which is around Halloween. The next day was another holiday, Gayajatri, a holiday that has a lot of parades where children dressed in costume, often with these thin ink mustaches drawn. If your family has had a death in the last year, the kids dress as cows to bless their dead family members. For men in the Brahmin (Priesthood) caste, this is when they change out the thread that indicates their twice-born status. 

After that was Dar, the women’s holiday where women wear fine things, feast on foods, and dance in preparation for the Teej fast, which is about to begin. I attended my Kathmandu host family’s Dar with Ryan and Lily and we were outfitted in beautiful saris and gifted flower hair clips, bangles, and tikka bindis. Yesterday I attended a Dar in my nearby village from Chitwan district and enjoyed seeing a community, not family, celebration. I sensed a monsoon building and left early, getting back to the research center guest house just in time for some light stretching in the rain to cool down. In Kathmandu the monsoons are slowing down, getting less regular and more predictably occurring in the afternoons. In Chitwan, the lower plains, they seem more fierce, regular, and still delightful. Except when I was stunned awake from seriously loud thunder last night. I like them otherwise, and that thunder is so often a feature of them.

Now I am down in Chitwan at the research center where I’ll be stationed for 6 months (with a few side trips). I will spend some of my time staying in the guest house (which feels like a private hotel where I am the only guest) and doing interviews and then also doing homestays for participant-observation in communities around here. I feel like I am in another world from Kathmandu, and in some ways I am. Kathmandu is dustier and surrounded by Hills. Chitwan is on the Terai, which are the flat plans along the Indian border. It is tropical and the majority of Nepal’s population lives here, in this very Hindu area. It runs counter to most people’s ideas about what Nepal is like. Before leaving I could tell a lot of people assumed I’d be in the mountains (and why wouldn’t they assume that?). And more than one person thought Nepal and Tibet were the same place, saying things like “Cool! I’ve always wanted to go to Tibet!” To which I usually responded with “Me too, I hope that I can travel there, but I heard the Chinese visas are hard to navigate” to gently inform them that Tibet and Nepal are not the same (though they do neighbor and many Tibetan refugees live in Nepal). That Nepal's dominant cultures are more like India that Tibet is probably quite surprising to most people who haven't been here or don't make a habit of reading about South Asia.

And Chitwan feels like I imagine India is and it shares a border with India's state of Bihar. It is about 146 KM south and a little west from Kathmandu, a mere 83 miles on the road. The drive took 10.5 hours. It usually takes 5-6. In an earlier post I said this was considered a good road. I got clarification that it is not considered a good road, which I now understand. Not all of it is paved and where it isn’t paved, it’s deeply rutted and pot-holed. Sometimes the pavement is deeply rutted or pot-holed too. Like the last bit of mountain road to a trailhead that is particularly hairy, it’s slow going and hard to have two lanes of cars on. The road follows the contours of the “Hills” (the official name for the region), which would be mountains in any other country but Nepal is home to 8 of the world’s 10 tallest mountains, so their perspective is (understandably) on a different scale.

All this is to say, we topped out at about 40 MPH on the road, if that. But it’s one of the most direct roads to the Terai and India from KTM, so it was a train of trucks on both sides. The trucks are wonderfully decorated with colors and paintings and elaborate scenes and slogans. Each on made its own by its driver. Some of them seem to shore up ideas of masculinity, while having pictures that are decidedly unmasculine in a US context. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of lotus flowers, dolphins, and proclamations of ‘Road King’ or ‘Mongolian Boys’ painted on the sides in hand painted and sometimes dainty fonts. The trucks go slowly and belch out black exhaust. The road is basically just wide enough for trucks to pass each other going opposite directions. Which is fine when the road is pave, but sometimes it’s not and a vehicle has to use all of the road to negotiate around a pothole, which has a chain effect creating miles of back ups that are so stagnant everyone turns off their truck or bus and gets out.

We had been making good progress when we hit a back-up like this at a section that is under construction (though I am unclear on how that construction makes it slower, as the road seemed wider at those parts), that left us sitting for thirty minutes on the side of the road as the sun dipped away and darkness set in. In this moment I realized I was the only woman around until one got out from another Jeep about ¼ mile down the road. I didn’t feel unsafe, or even noticed, but distinctly aware I was the only woman, the only outsider, on this remote road in a narrow ledge on the mountain side, a ways above a raging river, cradled by another steep mountain on the other side. It was at this time that I understood the driver to be telling me that headlights didn’t work and a silent panic set it because not continuing to drive, once it started moving, wasn’t an option. They did work. It was either a mean joke or else something about them wasn’t working and I misunderstood, which seems likely since my driver was very nice. He didn’t really speak any English (something I did not know when instructing him by phone to my apartment, which resulted in me speed walking 15 minutes to find him). Much of our 10.5 hours was in silence, though we talked a little bit until my Nepali ran dry and his English did too.

So what does one do for 10.5 hours in a car where your average speed is about 7-8 MPH and you don’t share a language with the driver? Well, I realized that my internal monologue roughly followed its own form of the 7 stages of grief, except at the end I was accepting something much more minor than loss.

1.     Excitement

Wohoo I’m leaving the city! Out of the pollution and into the nature! Time to start the fieldwork! Ok gotta set a good standard for this trip, 6 hours is a long time with a stranger. It’s awfully quiet in here, I should tell him I like Nepali music, if he has any. I won’t listen my audiobook, headphones seem rude if I’m in the front seat too. And did he say he drove all the way here without taking a break and left at 4am, is that safe? Why did it take so long?

2.     Wonderment

Wow, goodbye city, hello mountains! Look at those amazing hills and terraces and steep grades. And the beautiful scene just tumbling out before us. Are the hills opening into a valley of flatness already? Nope! More mountains! Hurray! Why are we stopped and what’s the backup I see for miles ahead on the mountain road? Oh that’s an accident? Eek. Well this is probably why this 80-mile road takes 6 hours. We’ll still get there by 6:30pm, which is when it gets dark. I’ll have to take Mom and Dad on this road when they visit!

3.     Optimism

Huh, we’re only this far on the map? And it’s been 4 hours? Let me ask the driver. Yep, ok, so it’s not even halfway. Ok, so maybe an 8pm arrival. I can still unpack with that, no worries. That’s probably when I’ll be getting hungry anyway. I had a big lunch. Yeah, this is ok. This can’t be like this the whole time. It’s probably about to clear up just beyond our field of vision. But yeah I probably shouldn’t bring Mom and Dad here.

4.     Disbelief

Wow, that is a serious back-up. And he says it’s 3 hours from here? But it's getting dark. Man, I really have to go to the bathroom and there is nowhere to go on this thin ledge and there are men everywhere. Oh ok, we’re moving. It would really stink to get there at 9:30, that can't be right.

5.     Frustration

This song again? Please not this song again. It’s like we’re not moving. It’s been dark for two hours and we have barely moved forward. I could walk faster than this. Oh, is that a monsoon starting? Why yes it is. A few hours ago, the “Good Luck” painted on trucks felt like a sweet message of well wishes to other drivers. Now it’s mocking me. I’m definitely not bringing Mom and Dad on this road.

6.     Acceptance

I’ll just get there when I do. And that’s when I’ll eat and hopefully that’s why I don’t feel great. And I get to sleep in a comfy bed tonight, that’s all the matters. One way or another, we will arrive. 

7.     Exhaustion/Peace

We emerged from the mountains to the plains! It’s now 11 pm, we left at 1:30. There is food! I feel better. Hello sweet, wonderful bed. Hello and goodnight, peaceful crickets and gently falling rain.

 My first Chitwan sunset from my balcony at the Guest House

My first Chitwan sunset from my balcony at the Guest House

The good news about the arduous journey is that now I understand how road travel goes here and know what I’m getting into for my upcoming trips. But mostly, I don’t have to leave here much over the next few months.

A Lengthy Discussion on Development in Nepal and the US (with video rewards at the end)

I’ve had a lot of blog ideas float around in my head this past week and have started a few short entries, but couldn’t seem to find a way to cobble together my observations and ideas neatly. Though tempted to just have a “random thoughts” post, I think it’s a good exercise to consider why I couldn’t assemble my ideas and to then try to find something that does string them together. After a month here exactly today, what I see and notice in Nepal is changing and so reporting on life here feels emptier of broader themes that deserve another look. 

 A sticker seen in the bathroom of a Western-style coffee shop in touristy Thamel

A sticker seen in the bathroom of a Western-style coffee shop in touristy Thamel

When I landed in Nepal, I described it as a “Developing Country” in an email to my family and close friends. Developing is the world du jour that is used to describe countries that are poor. Developing is applied to countries that were once called “Third World”, an outdated designation born out of the Cold War (with the Western “Free” world as the First World and the Soviet Union as the Second World, caught between poverty and freedom). In Sociology’s World Systems Theory (which is taught in Intro classes, but not so much used in research these days) there are Core and Periphery Countries, another way of categorizing countries by their levels of development and modes of participation in the global economy. Right now it is Developed and Developing countries. Or, the Global South (yet, the Global North isn’t as much part of the vernacular, being the implied referent group). All of these various designations are way that wealthy, industrialized and post-industrial countries talk about places that are poor and don’t have the stability, wealth, or means to create and sustain wealth in the manner that wealthy countries do.  

Nepal

Nepal ranks 145th on the Human Development Index (HDI) and 103rd in the Gender Empowerment Index (GEI). The standards it has set for itself is to graduate to a “Developing Country” by 2022 from the “Least Developed Country” designation it currently carries. Currently, up to 30% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are remittances (wage earnings) sent from mostly male labor migrants abroad. Side note: my research and why I am here is to talk to the families that remain behind to see how this impacts Gender Empowerment. In many ways, Nepal’s economic strategy for their working population is to send individuals abroad, while going abroad requires some financial resources at the outset, it is often a choice of individuals without better economic options. The work done abroad (and the process of getting there) can be incredibly dangerous and the workers are vulnerable to deception and coercion. Obviously this isn’t the economic strategy of choice for countries that have the option to cultivate a strong domestic labor force. Still, Nepal hopes to be middle income by 2030, though its progress has been slowed by a 10-year internal conflict with the Maoists, the 2015 Earthquake, and the Madheshi political movement and fuel blockade. Future obstacles to its development are that it is the 4th most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. 

So what does it mean to be "least developed”? What is the day to day lived experience of being in a least developed country for different Nepalis and for a foreigner like me? What does development mean when you’re aspiring to be "developing"?

I’ve been very charmed by Nepal and the Nepalis I’ve met in the Kathmandu Valley, and still am. That’s been the valence of my previous posts; I haven’t really touched on the structural issues or the economic situation of Nepal. These emerge in interesting ways and affect daily life. I have talked about the noise and stimulation of Nepal, how there is always a lot happening. And I’d say that I hear more jarring sounds than pleasant ones. I smell more bad smells than good. I see an equal amount of upsetting and wonderful things. So much of it is a grey zone where I see different things and interpret them depending on how I am feeling that day. One thing I noticed right away (aside from traffic) is garbage disposal. There aren’t waste receptacles around and, while household trash is picked up and there is a dump, there is also a lot a lot of waste around on the sidewalks. Garbage along with animal and sometimes human waste (and sometimes dead animals) are never more than a stone’s throw away.

 Stray cows (which happens because its illegal to kill a cow and they're expensive to keep once they stop producing milk, so they're turned free) eating rotting fruit outside a fruit distribution area for the fruit sellers

Stray cows (which happens because its illegal to kill a cow and they're expensive to keep once they stop producing milk, so they're turned free) eating rotting fruit outside a fruit distribution area for the fruit sellers

The most depressing place I have ever been in recent memory is on the bridge between the neighborhoods of Kuleshwor and Tekku. It is a garbage dump that I sometimes walk by and it is teeming with mountains of putrid, decomposing refuse that form walls that slide into the Bagmati river, which runs an unnatural saturated grey brown. The men who move the garbage don’t wear masks or gloves. Dogs rove the piles. It so clearly summarizes the gross inequality, human and environmental, that defines cities like Kathmandu and our world. And today, when I passed it and took a picture, a man was selling ice cream to a mother and her toddler. A sobering reminder that, as I held back gagging from the smell and held my nose through my facemask, others are so accustomed to living in this area that a cool creamy treat sounds appealing. For my dad, going to the dump is a highlight of his weekend. It’s organized, most the refuse is recycled, it doesn’t smell much (thanks to many people composting and having the land/space to do so). It’s the opposite of this.

But what is like to live here for locals? Obviously one month in, this is still something I am trying to understand still and can’t really speak to. Lily, Ryan (fellow Fulbrighters) and I joke that we’re still children. In how we speak, in the kinds of gaffs and mistakes we make in our homestays, in the questions we ask, and in our understandings of the way the world here works. When I’m not a Nepali child, I’m an adult social scientist that thinks quantifying what life is like in a complex and multi-faceted social system is challenging. 

Getting from here to there can be challenge. When I leave for my main field site down on the Terai (the plains) at the end of the month it will take at least 6 hours in a car. It is only about 70 miles away on a highway that is considered a good road. On a good highway in the US, 70 miles is just over an hour’s trip. I can walk to my language class in the time I can get there on a bus, thanks to traffic. And there isn’t an easy transit system. There are some state-owned bus routes, but mostly the micro buses (or “micros”) run the middle routes. Micros are privately owned and the are organized in a union. It costs 15 rupees (about 14 cents) to ride. An individual can purchase a mini bus that looks like this and that have 16 seats plus a bench back to back with the driver’s bench that should seat 3, but usually 4. These usually have 22-24 people on them, plus the driver and conductor who leans out the window announcing the route and taking money. Yesterday, I rode with 30, a record for me. More of my body was out of the micro than in and my backpack was somewhat precariously balanced on the ledge by my knees. 

Mom and Judy, don’t read this next paragraph.

 A selfie in my freshly-washed trusty VogMask and dust-protecting sunglasses

A selfie in my freshly-washed trusty VogMask and dust-protecting sunglasses

The Embassy doesn’t really want us using these. Understandably, there was a terrible crash on a bus recently and lots of people died because the bus was so overloaded that it stalled out on a hill and rolled off the road. The people who were sitting on the roof (to give an idea on overloading) survived because they jumped off. The bus had 35 seats and over 90 passengers. When private enterprise fills in where the government can’t or doesn’t, it can work, but the consumer gets highly varied experiences and adherences to safety. Operators want to fill their cars and don’t face recourse for being unsafe. There doesn’t seem to be insurance so much as high fines for accidents, injuries, and death. Aside from increased risk, all this creates a phenomenal amount of pollution, which the mountains that ring the Kathmandu Valley hold in like walls of palpable smog and dust. Most people wear masks. I brought one here as a precaution because I have asthma, but sort of thought I wouldn’t use it. It’s a pale peach color and it got so stained brown with grime in two weeks I had to wash it. The health and human costs of development add up (and I haven’t even mentioned employment, food security, land ownership, or education).

United States

So what does development mean when this is your reality? What can and should Nepal aspire to? Is it the American Suburban Dream of comfort? Having a washer and a dryer and a dishwasher? Sure, those things could be nice. I admit that I dreamt I discovered that my house had a secret washer and drier so my clothes could get really clean and shrunk back to the size they should be, and not the size they have become from my forceful wringing after hand washes. 

Development isn’t an avenue to nice things, it’s about access to social opportunity and security that is far more basic and necessary. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we’re a few rungs lower than self-actualization. If you have a disability your options here are to have your family care for you (which I’ve witnessed in an adult with profound intellectual disability and what I assumed was his sister on a micro) or you’re on the streets begging (which I’ve seen more of). When that is a reality, having a washer and a dryer, or a dish washer, or a blender are luxuries, not necessities or even basic needs. Just before my departure, I was talking to someone I didn’t know at a cookout about going to Nepal. They asked about my living conditions and I said that in my homestays in the rural areas it was likely the homes wouldn’t have running water or plumbing. Generally, this is an effective way of communicating what the level of development is and people are usually surprised. The response to this was this person telling me about a college student they knew (a friend of their family) who helped build a school in Ecuador and reporting, “Those people don’t have anything, I mean, not even a blender!” I really didn’t know what to say or how to respond to this tone-deaf comment. It so completely missed the point and while this person cared about inequality and was moved by it, they were intellectually unable to conceive of want beyond not having a blender. The idea of not having water or a sanitary toilet was so unimaginable as a reality that it didn’t compute, and so their only way of making sense of inequality was through a blender. Clearly, they have a lot of privileges.  But I realized that this thinking was emblematic of a thought process I know is common. ‘If they could only have what we have, then things would be better for them’ (which is short logical leap to ‘They don’t live like us, so they’re not like us,’ which is a scary thought). Stuff does not create progress, nor is stuff equally allocated across a deserving and in-need population.

I think there is a swath of Americans that latently believe that if those in the developing world could just get a few of the things that we have, they might be able to find and create more comfort and security for themselves. It’s in line with the ‘up by your bootstraps’ narrative that overlooks structural and systemic constraint. This thinking also conflates consumerism with progress, products of development with the process of development. It’s a capitalist way of thinking about non-capitalist economies. Importing goods will not solve the structural problems that have led to these inequalities. But it’s not like there isn’t stuff in Nepal, or that the capitalist desire for shiny new products isn’t as appealing here as it is in the US. It’s just that many Nepalis don’t have means to those ends.

I ventured to a Nepali super store nearby out of curiosity and also in search of avocados (which grow here, but aren’t really part of the cuisine and seem to have a weirdly short season for eating). I was hoping to use them for the burrito meal I was making for my Nepali host sisters because they agreed to let me try and cook for them once. They cook the most delicious meals for all of us every day and it can be hard to be taken care of in this way all the time without giving back, although reciprocation for hospitality doesn’t seem to be part of the cultural vernacular as much as in the US. My burritos in Nepal are very ‘from scratch’. I made the tortillas myself (great use of extra momo dough, by the way). I made pico de gallo and cleaned all the veggies that would be eaten raw in boiled water to avoid harm*. I sautéed fajita veggies in roughly similar spices as home and even found a bean a lot like a pinto bean. Actually, it was probably just pinto beans with another name. They were delicious, not unlike burritos from home, sans guacamole. But I digress.

The super store I hoped had avocados is completely in the model of American-style superstores like Wal-Mart and Target. And in many ways, it’s a lot like that. Especially considering its Nepal where most other stores are very small stalls where you tell the shopkeeper what you want and they hand it to you. But it was different in that I walked there (like everyone else), which isn’t how you get to superstores in car-culture America. As I entered the long driveway there was a huge billboard advertising a 5% discount if you used a Visa. I found this interesting since credit cards aren’t really much of a thing here and I’m not sure how many people have them, but they fit the (American-inspired) vision of the middle class dream this store caters to. Another difference was the sizable collection of pirated DVDs on sale for 135 rupees ($1.25). These are illegal here, yet this giant chain super store sells them right alongside their legitimate merchandise that are harbingers of upward mobility such as washing machines, cribs, sporty clothing, yoga mats, and fancy silicone dishware. A mix of aspiration and reality.

As I walked back, I wondered who comprises the Nepali middle and upper class while watching people collect buckets of rainwater from the monsoon that had just come through. Most houses on my 15-minute walk back had buckets set up under the roof. The water shortage problems are real here and, as Kathmandu grows and climate change marches forth, they will become more pronounced. Many of my neighbors draw from wells or use rainwater for washing, flushing, and cleaning (and likely for drinking and cooking after boiling). People are water conscious here, and, in general, seem to drink much less water than I do. Nepalis don’t drink with meals and they share from a bottle and tip it back into their mouths without contact. This is a graceful practice that, for me, always results in a spill down my whole front (which should surprise exactly no one who knows me). Shared water bottles is the standard practice even in restaurants that don’t cater to foreigners, where you get a water jug, but no cups. And given that people hand wash dishes in small family-run restaurants, this makes sense and saves even more water.

My host sister asked if we had water problems in the US. At first I said no (thinking she meant more about access to clean water), then realized that no one from Flint, Detroit, California, or the arid Southwest would give that answer. I replied that we do have water problems and severe droughts, but that many people with enough money to access water without fear of running out do not participate in the collective efforts to conserve. She was surprised we don’t expertly manage our water. It comes as a surprise to non-Americans sometimes that everyone in the US isn’t wealthy, or that there is inequality in the US, or that there are also major social and infrastructural and development issues.  That’s not the US they are exposed to in media and cultural exports. And even on the ground in the US, it’s quite easy to not-see these issues. From my smog-veiled point of view in Kathmandu, I can see some of our cultural issues of over consumption, waste, and being too busy and hurried much more clearly than when I am among them. Understanding takes a lot of observing, thinking, and conversing. And changing your location and vantage points. Things are complex and so progress is slow and development is a moving target. It is not a uniform concept that fits each place the same. I don’t know how or what Nepal needs to do to reach their goals of graduating to a developing country by 2020. It’s not really my area of expertise. But I know that it’s complex and that a day in the life of Kathmandu is one that shows all the wonderful parts of Nepal and Nepalis, while also revealing some really grim aspects of being a least developed country.

That was a long post. As a reward, and a celebration of my being here for a full month today, here are two videos to contrast my last month in the US with my first month in Kathmandu using an app that takes a one-second video every day.

*Turns out, instead of fearing raw veggies, I should have been more worried about the chili oil on my thumbs that wouldn’t go away with multiple washings that accidentally spread all over my face when I sneezed and blew my nose (thanks to my perma-cold, that I am blaming on pollution). When I touched my face (because of the burning), it got even worse. I rubbed my face with lemon, then baking soda paste, then alcohol before spending 10 minutes face-planted in a wet washcloth before finally feeling the burning abate. My thumbs continued to burn for another full day. Lesson: always wear gloves when handling chilies that are higher octane than the mild jalapenos you usually use.

My last month in the US:

Looking back on my first month in Kathmandu after being here for one month exactly:

Navigating the City and the Bureaucracy

Team Fulbright has left our wonderful, Fulbright-provided flat for our homestays. It was quite the odyssey around Patan and Lalitpur as our van negotiated many winding lanes to get to and from each of our houses. When they picked us up and, like a good omen, a gentle rain began, bidding us adieu. Also in the spacious back of the van were three large blue water containers. I was thinking “Couldn’t they have taken these out before loading us in? We all have a lot of stuff.” Turns out, these are our earthquake kits.

In addition my very large duffle full of medicine, gear, and gifts, and my pretty large bag full of clothes and my two heavy carry-on type bags full of books and my electronics I now travel with a barrel full of survival gear. It’s not to be used unless there is a true emergency, but contains bedding, medical supplies, water purification tablets, a solar panel, rope, a saw, a shovel, and itself is a 15 gallon or so water container. As if I didn’t already feel like Americans seem fussy about travel and safety. It’s a bit embarrassing to show up to someone’s house with a safety bucket (and have their family members who visit ask about it). I feel a bit like an overprotected child who comes to a sleepover with too many things, as if I don’t trust my hosts. My access to expensive, life saving technologies all in one place highlights some of the inequalities that are so plain here. If every house had such supplies, the earthquake of 2015 would probably have claimed fewer lives than it did, though it’s destruction of property would have remained the same. That being said, I also feel incredibly grateful feeling protected, watched over, and cared about by Fulbright Nepal. And, let’s be honest, I’m a little earthquake anxious and this is an awesome heavy, cold plastic rounded safety blanket. Needless to say, my travel just got a lot more cumbersome.

 

 Loading up the Fulbright van to head off to homestays

Loading up the Fulbright van to head off to homestays

As our van spent about 2.5 hours winding through the city and ‘threading the needle’ of narrow alleys with oncoming motorbikes and pedestrians everywhere, I was struck by pretty much everything I see could make a picture that people back home might find profoundly interesting. Like seriously, everything. Everything in Nepal is a picture that I am rarely taking. I am still able to see the novelty of this, thanks you to, dear American readers. I apologize for not bringing you these images. They happen to so fast and I am conscious of not always having my camera out, taking photos of people without their permission (I do still do this, but I try not to always do it). 

 Making momos with the family members of my host sisters is an all-day affair. Note, my Earthquake Bucket is in the back right

Making momos with the family members of my host sisters is an all-day affair. Note, my Earthquake Bucket is in the back right

I feel very charmed by Nepal. It is a busy place and a lot is happening in every eyeful, much of it very different than how things go at home and always interesting to see. I’ve gotten used to it, but enjoy seeing it through the imaginary eyes of my people back home. It’s something of the reverse of the foundational concept in Sociology of ‘the social self’. This concept discusses how even our own self is a social process (and not individual), where we begin to see ourselves and know our ‘self’ as we know others see us. So, if we know others react to us a certain way, say with fear or regular praise, we begin to see ourselves as scary or intimidating or we see ourselves as worthy of praise and admiration and come to expect it. I find myself sometimes looking at Nepal as I know my American friends and family may see it. I have become accustomed or at least unsurprised by some things that I realize may look positively like the most perfect image ever, worthy of Nat Geo itself, because it captures another culture, another way of life so neatly in its frame. But everything is like this.

 Hanging out at Patan Museum

Hanging out at Patan Museum

First off, a lot of life happens somewhat publicly here. There are people around everywhere and shops are very open and easy to see inside. In one eye-gulp of life it’s pretty easy to at least get a quick sense of things here. Of course the nuances here are both deep and wide, as the 35 minute conversation with our language teacher indicates. She enumerated what different people do after death depending on who died and it was complex. For example, if your mother dies, you don’t have milk for a year because she gave you milk. If your father dies, it’s yogurt (the logic for this is less clear to me). If your daughter dies the mourning ritual is shorter if she's married than if she is unmarried because she ‘belongs to’ another household and she’s not really your daughter in the same way, she’s the other family’s daughter. Because I am researching what happens behind closed doors, I must learn all I can about culture and rituals, but I still will never be able to make any commentary on it besides surface level. Part one of that is seeing differences in more bureaucratic processes, examples below.

Cell Phone Registration

Though I was in a travel and jet-lag and momo*-induced haze—I was sentient enough to recognize that getting a Nepali SIM card is different than the US. Full disclosure, I never have gotten a SIM card in the US but I have done it in Turkey and Italy (though both times had a lot of help, as I did here). First off, we stopped at what is best described as a kiosk (except it’s a store front) that specializes in electronics and phones. They had all these handy tools for opening my phone and cutting the SIM card down to size for the little iPhone tray. Both seemed after-market or homemade. If this makes you think it was unofficial, you would be wrong. I had to fill out a long paper form, which included the following information:

  • A passport photo of me
  • My paternal grandparents’ names (even though they’ve been dead since 1991 and 2000)
  • My passport number
  • My address in the US and here in Nepal
  • My thumbprints (I was very confused when they held out an ink pad and went in, whole hand, to the amusement of everyone)

I also had the option of: Male, Female, or Other since Nepal officially recognizes a Third Gender for gender non-conforming people (which is awesome) though I am trying to get more information on this and to find out who uses it and why and how this was passed into law 

Bank Account Opening

This process was similarly complicated. I should note that Nepal isn’t quite digital yet so Visas, cell phone applications, bank accounts, and probably many other bureaucratic processes involve paper applications. Somewhere (many somewheres) contain stacks and stacks of documentation. This is why I [am supposed to] always travel with a photocopy of my passport and my visa, so that if something happens, I can prove my belongingness without a wild goose hunt for the documentation. When I went to pick up my check book, there were stacks and stacks of papers and check books organized alphabetically. So it goes without saying that the branch you open at becomes your bank branch, no matter what.

My bank account did not require my thumbprints but I needed grandparent’s names here too. Plus, because addresses aren’t really a consistent thing, there was a big blank square on the application where I drew a map to my mailing address (Fulbright). I then had to describe major landmarks to describe how to get where I am. Telling a friend how to get to my old apartment was described as “taking a turn at the Fun Kids International School sign and stopping at the pile of bricks”.  I actually think this level of detail is great. It reminds me of the clever ways they are getting reliable postal service in Mongolia.

The process of getting to my homestay (and all of ours, in fact) involved calling my host sister and having her talking to Bijayaji, the wonderful Fulbright employee who drives us when we need to be driven places. She stood in the road and led us down the winding lanes to my new apartment. Her instructions to me only included the main street and a school it’s near. I used my Google Maps and tried to direct us, but Bijayaji wanted to talk to her, and not have me assure him we still had a ways to go. It felts like a clear moment of my methods being both useful and not that useful and not especially welcome. Or at least not a good fit with how things are done. Although following on the map is very useful for me because I have a terrible sense of direction in space versus if I have studied a map ahead of time. In theory vs. practice on directions, I am theory all the way. On street level, I have terrible instincts coupled with the confidence that I know where to go. So far I’ve always managed to travel with people who can compensate for my complete idiocy and I usually let them lead the way (which makes things really bad when I am alone).

 The sugar cane (foreground) and rice paddy (background) outside my window. Central Kathmandu is a bit of a mix of rural and urban all in one.

The sugar cane (foreground) and rice paddy (background) outside my window. Central Kathmandu is a bit of a mix of rural and urban all in one.

I am now happily settled with my host sisters, who are so great. I also met their cousins, their cousins’ kids, and friends when we made momos, which was an all-afternoon affair. I’ve gone to bed here feeling full and welcomed into their home and a bit mind boggled at the kind of hospitality I know to be normal here. I am hoping they prove to be patient and helpful Nepali language partners and suspect they will be (if I could just stop using English so much). I’ll be here through the month before heading down to Chitwan District for more homestays and my research in earnest. Until then, I must wait for my bank card (made in India, takes weeks to get) to arrive and I will continue language training. And hopefully meet up with the UW Study Abroad group that is here for Early Fall Start (a month program between Summer and Autumn quarters).

 

*Momos are Nepali dumplings and they are the most wonderful food ever. Imagine the spicy flavor profile of a samosa but inside a steamed wrapper, like in a Chinese dumpling. Enter the momo. Nepal is bordered by India and Tibet, so it makes sense as a hybrid food. Now the momo is eaten with achaar, a tomato based spicy sauce that could gain the kind of popularity in the US that is reserved for aioli and artisanal mustards. It is salty, spicy, and has a bit of umami thanks to the inclusion of ground sesame seeds or peanuts (a joyous discovery in the momo party).  Seriously, the sauce good with everything and it’s only a matter of time before the foodies who dictate trends and tastes figure this out. You heard it here first, people.

New Eyes. And Also, a Lengthy Discussion of Traffic in Kathmandu

 “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people see you differently too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

 

While I’m not returning until late May 2017, I am thinking about how it doesn’t take returning to your places and your people to see them with new eyes. Right now I am in this funny between point of having the shiny new eyes looking at the US and the starry eyed wonderment of a recently arrived traveler (and one who no longer has the flu).

 The eye motif (Eyes of Buddha) can be seen everywhere, even behind a temple (mandir) in Bhaktapur's old city. I wondered if these were salvaged from Earthquake-wreckage and is being stored there until they know what to do with them

The eye motif (Eyes of Buddha) can be seen everywhere, even behind a temple (mandir) in Bhaktapur's old city. I wondered if these were salvaged from Earthquake-wreckage and is being stored there until they know what to do with them

I’m talking a lot about eyes. and there is a lot to see in Nepal. But really, so much of Nepal is about the sounds. As someone easily overwhelmed by sound, I notice all the noises and the exciting and interesting things they have come to represent.

At night, it’s so silent. Life really does shut down at night and, having had some sleepless periods in the night thanks to jetlag and my flu, I could revel in the quiet nights, which alternate between silence, peeping frogs, gentle falling monsoons rains, and the cascades of dog barking that sometimes set off by just a single person making noise. The dogs seem to sleep all day and bark all night.

But it’s not always so calming. One of my fellow Fulbrighter’s is an artist named Ryan, she’s awesome. On our first real night (not counting arrival nights with pre-sunset bedtimes) she was writing in her journal and asked me for a single word to describe Nepal. Stimulating. Stimulating in every sensory way; sound, sight, touch, smell, and even taste. If nighttime is quiet, it’s because the city has been churning so busily, starting early in the morning, that it has exhausted itself completely by dark. The regular sounds are honking car horns, puja (prayer rituals) bells ringing, puja prayers being sung, people making noise, roosters crowing, and music or TV from open windows in nearby apartments and homes.

To an American, particularly one who has never seen driving outside of North America or northern Europe, the beeping would be confusing. While I’ve seen adventurous driving all over the world, including my home city of Boston, Kathmandu certainly has driving worth marveling at. It’s a feat of great awareness, maneuvering skills, and regularly communication via horns.  

Let me set the scene: the roads are pretty narrow, the sidewalks are also narrow and sometimes uneven. And sometimes they don’t exist. There are always lots of people out, so there is always the job of negotiating around people and having them negotiate around you when something in a shop window makes your feet stop moving and captures your attention completely. Sometimes people sit on the edges and sell fruit or offer services like shoe cleaning and repair. There is a social stigma about stepping over people in Nepal, so they are given a wide berth, further narrowing the space to walk. I often try to stay on the left to mimic traffic patterns here (opposite of the US), but this adherence to walking patterns isn’t as ingrained as it is in, say, Japan. Where I very rudely and confusedly set a pick for whole family in the train station as I wandered around finding my way. Anyway, all this is to say that sidewalk pedestrian traffic spilling onto the road to negotiate sidewalk congestion is normal. (As is the occasional motorbike or even car using the sidewalk to negotiate around car congestion on the road.)

 Monsoon clouds building over Bhaktapur

Monsoon clouds building over Bhaktapur

There are cross walks, but people really cross wherever and everyone goes on their way trying to avoid hitting or getting hit. So you just sort of wade out into traffic when it’s a bit lighter then pause at the approximate line (which can be fuzzy and sometimes quite flexible, if at rush hour) between the two directions of traffic waiting to get across the next lane. You stick your traffic-facing hand out, like it will help you (actually, it seems to). Also, there is safety in numbers. Most of our crossings have been ok. We suspect the Nepalis feel sorry for these poor helpless looking white women and give us more room than they would a Nepali, who they can trust to handle the situation coolly, with less running, arm waving, and general panic.

On the roads, there are marked lanes, but these are really more of a suggestion. Traffic is sort of a guided free for all that, remarkably, works. There are a lot of near misses, or rather, tight squeezes. There are so many cars and motorbikes (and bikes and rickshaws and tuk tuks and minibuses) for the road widths. The intersections are frequent, and until a recent taxi ride, it seemed like back road short cuts aren’t an option and there are only a few ways to go most places. Technically the intersections are roundabouts, I think, which makes for back ups. At rush hour a police office controls it, like a human traffic light with more authority and high exposure to vehicle emissions. The merge is a lot like when you’re leaving an event at a theater, or a sporting event and there is no space and its packed so you just merge in and people make space and it works. The only difference is people are in small, metal vehicles carrying speed and not wearing seat belts or helmets consistently. 

Now this works for two reasons: 1) it is expected and so people are always aware of the road in a way I am envious of. No clueless cell phone drivers yakking away and nearly killing everyone and 2) the wonderful communicative power of horns. Honking isn’t “Hey Jerkwheel*! MOVE IT!” (like it definitely is in Boston), it’s “Namaste, I’m coming around you on a narrow side street even though a truck is approaching and a woman and child are crossing and you’re in the middle of the lane and there is a motorbike on my tail. Please be advised. Oh thank you for making room**.”

Unlike in Boston, the impetus for this type of driving isn’t aggression or competitiveness; it’s really just a result of the structural constraints on traffic and the norms established around it. When I learned to drive, my dad taught me the safest way to drive is to be predictable. (Incidentally, he also taught me to not to be a “sleaze ball lowlife early apex-er” into turns and that “squealing tires are happy tires”, which are the sorts of lessons you get when a former racecar driver teaches you to drive. Thanks, Dad!). The seemingly unpredictable choices of Nepali drivers to American eyes are actually quite predictable and therefore not as unsafe as it would be if you tried the same maneuvers one day in Seattle. Seattle drivers are already timid and panic at the first sign of anything amiss. If you drove Nepali-style, they would probably drive right into you. If you were able to magically replace 50% of all the people on the roads in Kathmandu with average Americans, there would be thousands more accidents than there are here. We simply couldn’t adapt fast enough with the unclear rules or the loss of social norms (anomie).  

 Sometimes it might be a cow in the road that you need to negotiate around. But usually not.

Sometimes it might be a cow in the road that you need to negotiate around. But usually not.

I think about this with load shedding too. These are the twice daily power losses used to managed the load on the grid. Apparently, because the dams are flush with water from the monsoons, the load is light, even though it’s 6-10 hours out per day. They’re annoying at best and rather frustrating at worse—but knowing when it’s coming, thanks to the BattiGayo app, helps. When you’re out and about and in different zones, the power can just go out. Many businesses have generators, but in the interim of the power loss and the generator, there can be darkness, but no one misses a beat. Life and the conversation or presentation or whatever was happening carries on (except the rock music at the show, that stopped). People know power will come back. Or it won’t. But whatever, people carry on doing what they were doing. In the US, when the lights go off, everyone freezes and sits up straighter, like a prairie dog or high alert. There may even be a scream or audible inhale. A nervous “what’s going on?” or at best, silence as people wait it out, privately worrying about an attack or shooting or natural disaster that they are woefully ill-prepared for. 

 Our neighborhood monkey crossing one of the masses of power lines

Our neighborhood monkey crossing one of the masses of power lines

I haven’t taken many pictures of daily life here because it’s this weird mix of everything seemingly like a beautiful picture and also everything seeming not that photo worthy. I am already getting used to what I see (still enjoying and noticing it) but having to remind myself that people at home might like to hear about this. So here is a random list of experiences or insights that might be interesting to those who haven’t been here:

  • There is a monkey that lives in our neighborhood that I notice every few days (pictured above)
  • There are the same neighborhood people we see everyday at their stalls and stores, they are always smiling and friendly, in a every so slightly shy or humble way
  • I hear the elderly neighbor singing prayers regularly throughout the day and it is so joyful in the most simple and wonderful way
  • Foreigners ringing prayer bells at local shrines is a way of saying “I respect your gods” and is respectful, which is sort of the opposite of home, where you want to abstain fro religious practices that aren’t your beliefs unless invited
  • There isn’t much breeze here, which I miss, especially on hot days. But it makes monsoons less destructive because the rain just comes straight down and doesn’t blow into open windows as much.
  • On August 1st there started to be way more sun and way few low cloud cover days, slowly crawling our way out of monsoons season, which should wrap up by the end of the month
  • I saw a cow sitting on the side of the road (same area) a few days in a row (pictured above)
  • If you walk into an empty (and possibly closed) liquor store/cafe mistaking it for the Irish Pub next door and ask if you can watch the Olympics because your former teammate is competing (Go, Schmett go!) because this one athletic degree of separation is the closest you will ever be to the Olympics; chances are the slightly confused Nepali workers will do everything they can to make sure you can watch. They might ask some questions about Rowing, but they'll let you sit and write a blog post in their Air Con while they host you for the hours before it comes on. That's the kind of Nepali nice I am talking about.

*Jerkwheel is something my Mom once said about typical Masshole driver that cut her off when I was about 10 and even then I appreciated it as a hilarious adjective

** Except they don’t say thank you. Nepalis are very helpful and so doing a thing that is expected of you does not require thanks. Americans over thank everyone. I think we’re fundamentally not that helpful and so helping behavior is incentivized through the reward of individual recognition. The word for “thank you” in Nepal is dhanyabad and it is traditionally reserved for a very big thank you, though Westerners have shifted the norm for smaller actions.

 Fellow Fulbrighter Lily's computer. I particularly love the "Not Different Than You, Different  Like  You" (emphasis added by me)

Fellow Fulbrighter Lily's computer. I particularly love the "Not Different Than You, Different Like You" (emphasis added by me)

KathmanFlu

I managed to make it my whole 30 years without ever getting the flu (right, Mom?). I get my shots every year because I have asthma and they pester me about it incessantly from August to December if I don’t. Well, I guess I won’t need one for this coming year because Influenza A is my welcoming gift (possibly acquired on my plane). I have inside knowledge from a public health guru (which means teacher in Nepali, by the way) that this time of year is bad for the flu and those making equatorial, international travel. Welcome to Nepal. Here’s your flu. You came for research, mountain views, and the excitement of a new cultural context? How about high fever, body aches, and headache first? Oh, and the chest-searing cough is on us. And, because it’s during your orientation, we’ll remind you constantly of all the dangers and diseases so you’re extra filled with the anxiety about how your symptoms align with every scary disease the travel clinic tried to scare you about. So I played a mental game called “Rationally versus Anxiety” for a day or two and was starting to realize that, either way, I did need to go to the doc, even if just to rule out the few scary things that seemed most likely. And maybe for some more meds, despite me bringing more than a gallon Ziploc bag full of OTC and Prescription meds. 

Luckily, we were having our orientation to the British-run/funded CIWEC (pronounced C-Wick) clinic in Kathmandu my third day of being sick, definitely my worst day. Team Fulbright arrived at CIWEC for a one-hour presentation on A Thousand Ways to Die in Nepal* (a recurring theme in Fulbright, Embassy, and CIWEC briefings…). In the midst of learning about death or harm by: altitude, snake bite, bug bites, trekking, and diarrhea (which can come from just about everything), I was wondering which disease I had. Surely it was Meningitis (my neck hurt a lot) or perhaps TB (explains the cough). After our meeting I filled in some paperwork (mostly about where I’ve travelled and not my symptoms) and I was seen pretty quickly since the clinic is underutilized because it costs too much for the average Nepali. When they called me in I stood too fast (I always get so surprised when the docs call my name and spring up, weird habit that should be easy to break but isn’t) and got dizzy and staggered a little. This turned out to be a pretty effective way of winning the doctor’s attention on my case. 

In the exam room he listened to my lungs and looked into my ears, nose, and throat. All were normal. Then the nurse took my blood pressure. She asked “Is it always so low?” which, any social scientist worth their mettle will tell you is a terrible way to get accurate information. And I almost fell for it and confirmed, since I do have relatively low blood pressure (114/65 usually). But then, partly out of curiosity (which is how I know my BP in the first place), I asked her what it was: 90 over 60. That’s low. And explains why my heart races a lot when I am doing simple things. The doctor then jammed a swab into the back of my nose to swab for Influenza. This triggered an automatic reflex of coughing my germs into his face directly. Sorry, doc (but you started it). Distracted by the disease coming at him, he didn’t get the swab. We needed to try again on the next nostril. Oh joy. Just as unpleasant, at least this time he got a successful sample. I was left spluttering, nose running, and eyes a bit watery. Just then the nurse took my temp and exclaimed with a bit of surprise and worry, “You have high fever! 39.2!” This meant nothing to me and I was in no mood to do my usual “multiply by 2, take away a tenth, add 32.” I asked and was told that is 102.5, which explained the burning up and then shivering all day. And the general clamminess that exceeded the requisite sweating for the humidity. By the way, if you can avoid high fever in a very humid and quite warm place where you are expected to dress modestly and stay in long pants and no exposed shoulders and A/C is not really used much, I recommend it.

After the nose probe and disturbing news on BP and Temp, they left. Which was good because I found myself a bit weepy and embarrassed to be crying over a high fever in front of them. But really, if being sick is bad, and being sick away from home is really bad. Then being sick alone in a new foreign country where you’ve been told your symptoms could be any number of terrible disease is definitely bad enough to warrant a few tears of worry (and, perhaps, one or two for self pity as well). Hearing that my fever was higher than I suspected (100ish) and higher than my obviously useless thermometer (97.5) reported forced me to consider the reality of getting a disease in Nepal, something I had been avoiding thinking about. I tried futilely to stop the tears but couldn’t do that or remain calm and regain control until I acknowledged my fears that these things might actually happen and I would just have to deal if they did. That helped me feel ready for the return of my medical team about 7 minutes later. Doc said “You have Influenza A, here is your medicine” and that was that. I have never ever been so happy to have the flu.

In case you want to know more about Nepal (and not that time I cried about being sick in Nepal) I have plenty of other things I plan on writing into a blog post. And those will actually have pictures (I think we can all agree that photos of me with a fever are not Grade A blog material). This post has gotten long, so more soon, because I am feeling quite well again and there is nothing more invigorating than a whole Nepal out there to be seen through the healthy eyes of someone with energy and a renewed sense of self and place.

 

*The title was actually “Staying Healthy in Nepal”, not A Thousand Ways to Die in Nepal

First Weekend in KTM

I don’t live in the tourist epicenter of Kathmandu, which is called Thamel, but I live near it. I’ve been hearing a lot about it, so the curiosity to see this touristy, cultural epicenter of hip Kathmandu seemed like the perfect post-conference Friday evening plan. Its full of hostels, western-inspired restaurants, and trekking shops. After decompressing from the conference at Mitini*, the greatest coffee shop ever, which is very close to our flat could easily be in Seattle or really anywhere in the world, we headed out. Three of the four of the current Fulrbight research students ventured out to Thamel, to visit the old haunts of Lily, who had been here previously to do preliminary fieldwork on her project.

 Blurry sunset picture taken while walking to Thamel

Blurry sunset picture taken while walking to Thamel

The monsoon grey skies finally cleared to be the clearest we’ve seen, and as we walked there we saw a beautiful sunset between the buildings. As dusk quickly fell (being close to the equator means that sunsets are not the prolonged shows you get in Seattle during the summer), many very large and chirping bats flew overhead. It was pretty awesome. We ate dinner at Western Tandoori, which was not a place I would have noticed if I was walking by. It was narrow and hot in there and you had to shimmy between the register-area and the tandoor (tall clay oven for making naan) to enter. For 270 rupees (about $2.50) we got three orders of naan, a plate of rice, a veggie curry, and a bean curry. All delicious. We also got a pitcher of water that was likely unsafe to drink and sat untouched. Hot and full we wandered on through the narrow, crowded streets towards Purple Haze, a “rock bar” with live music, few foreigners, and cold beer.

 The tandoor and future naan in dough-form at Western Tandoori in Thamel

The tandoor and future naan in dough-form at Western Tandoori in Thamel

The band covered Pearl Jam, Pink Floyd, and Queen and the singer sounded exactly like Eddie Vedder. Then remarkably, he sounded exactly like Roger Waters. By the time they covered Queen I wasn’t surprised to hear that he was a dead ringer for Freddie Mercury too. Most interesting was that while the mostly male crowd of hip, young Nepalis seemed to enjoy and know all the words and music to the western songs, it was the Nepali songs they chanted for and sang every word to. It is always a bummer confronting the extent to which western (and mostly American) cultural exportations permeate seemingly every nook and cranny of global pop culture. Experiencing such enthusiastic high regard for Nepali cultural products was a heartening sign of resistance, or at least the simultaneity of a strong Nepali music scene in light of the driving force of American music.

The switch from Western to Nepali songs happened after a mid-song several-minute-long power outage, where people used cellphone flashlights to light up the room and were whistling and chanting for songs. Power outages are a daily reality, called load-shedding. The grid can’t handle the demands and so different groups lose power at two different several-hour intervals during the day. There is usually a small lag from power loss to generator take-over in public settings like this bar, or the hotel at the conference. We’re still figuring out what zone our flat is on, and so it’s always a mystery when we’ll have power and when to expect it back. We have a schedule and are narrowing in on our zone like a puzzle.

Other things that were interesting about this club were how it was mostly men who were generally dancing together in pairs or groups. Men here are much more affectionate with each other (while cross-gender touching is not something done in public and only just barely in this club environment). There were several pairs of men dancing with each other in a way that would look like they were courting each other in the US. I’ve also witnessed several pairs of men walking through the city holding hands or arm in arm. Something I’ve also seen in the Middle East. 

The worst thing about this club was how smoky it was. My smoke-laden clothing prompted me to spend my first Saturday in Kathmandu doing laundry.

I had noticed the unsurprising absence of a laundry machine and then realized the wooden cutting board thingy with ridges I saw in the kitchen was a washboard (and not a special board for cutting noodles or something like that, as I originally wondered). I still have plenty of clean clothes left but decided more frequent, smaller loads might be better. Especially given the humidity and the likelihood that it will take days for my clothes to dry, if they ever do.

Hand washing clothing was a first for me and deepened my appreciation of the social obligations of women without access to automated laundry machines. Laundry is still a gendered task that takes up much time in the US and major part of women’s ‘second shift’ of labor. Yet it all seems remarkably easy compared to the laundry burden in the Nepal. As someone who studies women’s household tasks and the time poverty that women experience because of the extent of their daily household burdens, I was eager to see what this task entailed and how long it took (bearing in mind I am a novice and have only my own clothing, not my whole family’s, to do). In addition to women doing their families laundry, many take in others’ laundry for about $0.50/kilo.

Here is a step by step guide to attempting to hand wash your own small load of laundry in under an hour and a half:

1.     Hang laundry line that you brought with you on the narrow balcony on window bars filigreed concrete of stairwell

a.     Forget how to tie trucker’s hitch and accidentally make slip knot

b.     When the weight of one shirt brings the line to the ground, tie tighter and with real knot and make note to look up trucker’s hitch

2.     Fill tub with water from shower, add too much Tide so there are bubbles everywhere

3.     Put your darks in and immediately regret this, realizing that you’ll need to repeat step 3 and be wasteful of water and soap to do lights because of the dye on darks leeching out

4.     Drag tub to narrow balcony and let clothing soak in soapy water while getting a pillow from kitchen to kneel on

5.     Clumsily scrub clothing against washboard for what seems like long enough to make them clean but not long enough to totally wear out the weave

6.     Notice how soapy your clothes are and feel utter despair that you will ever get them rinsed completely

a.     Decide to fill second rinse bucket, thinking this will save water

7.     One by one take scrubbed items and put in rinse bucket and rinse them for a while by swishing them around. Watch the rinse bucket grow sudsier and murkier with each item.

8.     Wring out and realize they are really soapy still. Repeat Steps 7 and 8 several times.

9.     Give up and bring to sink, wasting more water and still creating suds

10.  Wring out as best you can (which is still pathetic) and hang. Watch water drip off and soak balcony

a.     Pray there isn’t so much soap that you’ll be itchy when your clothes finally dry

11.  Hang undergarments indoors (wherever you can find space) to maintain modesty and respect among neighbors (because you notice everyone’s underwear is missing from their clothes’ lines)

12.  Repeat with lights and fresh water. Feel smug about using less soap only to realize you’ve still used too much soap

13.  Feel accomplished in your job and rest on the couch, only to hear a heavy monsoon rain start and notice how some items are getting a little splashed from roof run off (video below for visual)

 

*A side note on Mitini, they serve excellent food and coffee and all profits benefit training of locals and women in Barista jobs (which is a growing market in Kathmandu) and other job training. I have been here every day this week and don’t plan on stopping this trend as long as I am in Kathmandu. They also seem to be affiliated somehow with Mitini Nepal, a Lesbian Organization, though I'm not sure in what capacity

Testing, testing

This is my first official blog post on my website about my Fulbright year doing fieldwork in Nepal for my dissertation. Right now I am a few weeks out and so this post is not very exciting. I promise that the next posts will be more interesting and probably longer, so be sure to check back in. But so far life is consumed with prep for leaving, which is by definition, boring. Picture watching a list grow and shrink and grow and shrink as new things arise after others are taken care of (really not unlike, say, watching grass grow). Today was making this website and buying a few more lightweight, breathable clothing items. Tomorrow, buying (another) external hard drive and thumb drives. July 23rd? Well that's my departure date. And July 25th is my arrival date. That's when things will get interesting.