Talking about religion is challenging in any context, and especially so in Nepal. I don’t pretend to know much of anything about Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other religion, nor am I an expert in religious studies or comparisons. However, I believe religion is an important component of understanding how a society functions, and I can share some of my observations:
According to my travel guide (and my Intro to Buddhism professor), about 15% of people in Nepal identify Buddhist. Even though Buddha was born in Nepal, much of the country reverted back to Hinduism long ago. Many of the Buddhists here are Tibetan refugees who practice Tibetan Buddhism, as well as a few holdouts of traditional Theravada Buddhism (both different from the type of Buddhism that’s usually practiced in Southeast Asia and China).
However, the vast majority of people are Hindu, and most temples in Kathmandu are dedicated to Hindu gods. My host family has a small shrine where my host mom lights an incense stick in the morning, and many women and children can be seen at temples around the city ringing bells and making offerings of tika, flowers, incense, and fresh fruit. On the other hand, my host dad is Christian and they have a small crucifix, rosary, and prayer book on a shelf in the kitchen. When I asked about this, my host parents said they believe everyone is worshipping the same God, but in different ways. Because of that, they believe in respecting all religions.
Nepal is home to 100+ religions from China, India, Tibet, Europe, and more. Nepal is a true melting pot, and for all its recent political strife and violent conflicts, the country seems to be religiously at peace with itself. We shall see how my perspective changes as the year goes on.
Last Sunday, my former Luce Scholar friend Justin and I hiked the Jamacho peak trail in Nagajun National Park. By “hiked” I mean we climbed slippery, mossy stairs, through a misty monsoon-season jungle, for 2.5 hours. Either switchbacks are not a thing in Nepal, or Jamacho peak is considered unworthy of switchbacks compared to the actual Himalayas. In any case, it was a lot of stairs.
About 3/4ths of the way up, we unwittingly stepped into leech territory. All of a sudden little brown worm-like things about 3 cm long were rearing up from the dead leaves and attaching themselves to our boots. When we pulled the leeches off, they tried to stick to our fingers instead—we spent a good 15 minutes at the top of the hill “de-leeching” our boots. Leeches also happen to be very good a burrowing into boot fabric in search of skin, so some of them were impossible to get by hand until I got back to the apartment and could murder them with salt (I now know that salt is a must-have when hiking during the monsoon). Thanks the waterproof lining on my boots, I only had one bite when I got back to the apartment. Luckily we didn’t encounter any tree leeches—apparently, sometimes leeches drop out of trees and bushes onto your hair and arms. That would have been much worse.
This might sound gross and unpleasant, but of course I loved every second of it : ) Also, it was GREAT to get out of the city and into nature. We didn’t see any wildlife other than leeches, a giant cicada, and a really big millipede, but being among the trees was worth the trip.
I successfully took a microbus to Hanuman Dhoka, a World Heritage Site in the ancient heart of Kathmandu. Hanuman Dhoka is part of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, or King’s square. The site is part museum, part old palace, and part ancient temple.
Built in the 17th century, the palace was the residence of the king until the 1900s. The palace got its name from the statue of Hanuman, the monkey god that stands guard outside the entrance. Inside, all but two of the ten palace courtyards are closed off to the public due to earthquake damage. Magnificent support beams covered in Newari wood carvings were stacked in piles on the floor (the Newars are an ethnic group known for intricate carvings on doors and beams.
Outside the palace, I entered a complex filled with ten or twelve temples dedicated to different Hindu gods. My favorite was the stone image of Kal Bhairav, or the god Shiva in his destructive form. The magnificent, brightly colored state was adorned with marigold wreaths and people were walking up to touch the statue with tika or other offerings. I was excited to see a small group of musicians from the Anapurna region playing violin like instruments!
As a lone white girl, Nepali men kept asking to “show me around” the temple sites. Against my better judgement, I adopted the “say yes” attitude and allowed one guy to show me a Buddhist stupa. Then I somehow landed in a shop selling hand-painted Buddhist mandalas—obviously, the guy was working with the shop to bring in customers. That felt creepy. But the mandalas were relatively inexpensive, so I practiced my bargaining skills and bought one for 45% the original asking price (probably still far above what I should have paid).
I really liked the mandala, but I got this icky feeling I had been cheated. I should never have let myself get tricked into the shop in the first place. I don’t think I was conned because the thing is hand-painted, but I was definitely targeted. Even though consumer-targeted advertising goes on all the time, it was uncomfortable in such an obvious and vulnerable situation.
All weirdness aside, I was never in danger—there were plenty of people around and groups of foreigners all over the place. I wasn’t being that stupid…just naive. And now my first souvenir has a story and lesson attached to it.
The only way waking up for a 7 am language class could be fun is with Kiran and Ram Devi! My new language teachers are a dynamic husband and wife duo, and after four hours with them every day, I’ve already made progress.
As far as languages go, Nepali is fairly simple-- unlike English, there are only a few exceptions to conjugation rules. However, Nepali has 36 consonants and 12 vowels! English letters are woefully inadequate for articulating the 36 consonants. For instance, there are four Nepali letters that are related to the English “t” sound: ta, tha, Ta, and Tha. They all sound like slight variations of “toe”. Ta and Tha sort of sound like saying “Doe” with a full mouth. I spend hours in the restaurant with my host parents trying to figure out the difference!
Nepali is funny in that there are some English words with no Nepali counterpart—so people just use the English word. “Second” and “minute” are two examples of words that everyone just says in English. And, pretty much everyone speaks a bit of English, so communicating is very easy.
Although my pronunciation is miserable, I love writing Nepali script. It reminds me of organic chemistry, because all the little shapes come together in a certain order to form words and sentences and meaning. I can already sound out signs and read license plate numbers, which is extremely helpful while taking the bus!
This is my name in Nepali: ञेसी
Toilet paper is optional in Nepal. My homestay family uses a bucket of water and the left hand. I try not to think about how hygienic this may or may not be. I finally broke down and bought TP for our bathroom, which confused my host mom (why would you need that? she asked).
The bathroom situation was giving me a bit of culture shock, so today I decided to check out the US Embassy Library. The US Embassy is like a slice of the United States in Nepal, right? Perfect cure for homesickness. I imagined a big library with floor to ceiling windows filled Americans speaking in Midwestern accents and perhaps a Starbucks.
Not even close. The biggest similarity between the US Embassy and the actual US seems to be the level of security it takes to get in the compound. I went through three levels of security and had to turn over my laptop and phone. Inside the compound, I was the only European-looking person in sight. A gangly white girl in a Northwestern t-shirt and leggings, wandering around the US Embassy carrying nothing but a passport, must have been a strange sight. In the library, everyone turned their heads to watch me walk in the door. I only stayed a few minutes before using the (extremely clean, with TP) bathroom and leaving.
It isn’t like I am uncomfortable being stared at— being 5’10”, white, and blondish in Nepal, I expected some of that. But inside the embassy, on American turf, simply being American in a sea of non-Americans felt like a weird sort of privilege. The fact that I had an American passport, and most of the people in the library did not, made it seem like I “belonged” there more than them. My passport set me in a different class, and I didn’t like it.
Obviously my passport always sets me in a different class—I am an American citizen, and I enjoy the privileges that come along with that everywhere I go. But people in Nepal have been friendly and welcoming without treating me too differently because my citizenship other than the fact that I'm a clueless foreigner (at least, as far as I can tell). I was relieved to leave the embassy and walk past friendly women in saris. Maybe brandishing my passport around the embassy did cure my culture shock, because it made me want to go back to being in Nepal, not a slice of America.
Today was a stark reminder that I am very, very far from home. I began my language training this afternoon. I am supposed to do four hours of language class a day, five days a week, for the next two months. My first lesson was scheduled with Urmila at 12 pm in Thamel, all the way across town.
To get to Thamel I had to take a microbus, which is a 12 person van that goes pretty much everywhere. Boys hang out the windows and bang on the side to get the driver to stop, then open the door and stuff people in. And they really pack them in—the bus I boarded had at least 18 people!
The language institute was in a back alley at the heart of Thamel (the tourist district), in a stinking, dirty little office with unpainted walls, a stained paintcloth over the table, and empty bottles of alcohol on the stairs. But I had met Urmila before and she was nice and smiled a lot, and we were productive for the first two hours.
When I came back up after a break, the room was filled with a putrid smoke that made my head reel and my nose run. It was either perfume, smoke, or incense, but whatever it was, it gave me a splitting headache by the end of the class. I left the classroom thoroughly confused and desperate for fresh air.
Unfortunately, at 4 pm fresh air is not available in Thamel, and neither are microbuses. Every bus was packed with 20 or more people and I could not get on. So I walked 45 minutes back to Baluwatar, dreading my next day of language class.
When I tried new Nepali phrases on my host family, they were very confused. It turns out Urmila had been teaching me an uncommon high class/caste form of Nepali—nothing useful for everyday life! Most of what I learned was wasted. I will NOT be returning to Urmila -- I will need to try another option.
[sorry for the outdated post—wifi and correctly shaped outlets are hard to find]
Last night Em and I accidentally got invited to a Nepali wedding. The toilet was broken, and when we went down to ask the landlord to fix it, he invited us to his daughter’s wedding, which was occurring downstairs. We ate an entire second dinner and were seated at a place of honor right near the bride and groom, which was embarrassing mostly because I ate a pepper so spicy I couldn’t open my mouth to talk to them (not that I speak much Nepali, or that they spoke much English, although their English was far better than my Nepali).
Tea is a big deal in Nepal. We drink tea with almost every meal, and it is impolite to refuse another cup of tea. Nepali-style tea is really tasty: it’s similar to chai (or maybe it is chai, not sure), with milk and sugar, and tastes like a Starbucks chai tea latte but better. Unfortunately, I am lactose intolerant. To be polite I have been accepting tea “Nepali style”, which is tea made with milk. I am suffering the consequences. The first phrase I need to learn is “black tea, no milk”.
Em and I move in with Anu and Sanjay, our new host parents, on Saturday. They own a restaurant in a nicer part of the city and live in a small apartment down the street, in which we share a room. Anu cooks us delicious Nepali food for dinner in the restaurant every night, and Sanjay plays guitar and sings. Hopefully they help us learn Nepal
Meet Jessie Moravek
I am a 2018 Fulbright Scholar at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. Studying for an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation. Click here to learn more about me!