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)
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.