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.