Since NBC’s Olympic coverage decisions are questionable, I know you’ve all been twiddling your thumbs and watching Facebook for my next update. Well, here ya go (that phrase confuses my Nepali teacher...):
Life abroad is a series of highs and lows. For example: Last Monday (a week and a half ago) I signed a lease on a wonderful 2-bedroom apartment with a private kitchen and bathroom all my own. The apartment search was a success! I was on cloud nine! But my euphoria was not to last. Later that night, my laptop died. Totally black. No lights. Nothing. Nada. Even when plugged in. Consulted the internet. Combed through the first 15 top hits on Google. Still nothing.
Luckily my Asia Foundation friends had a solution: take it to the laptop fix-it guys! After a harrowing ride on the back of a motorcycle with a semi-random Asia Foundation person (see previous post re: riding vehicles with strangers), I dropped my laptop off at possibly the most disheartening repair shop in the entire city. There were pieces of broken laptops everywhere. Sparks flew from the outlet when they plugged my computer in. They had never seen an Asus before. I left with tears in my eyes…
But lo and behold, the next day they called and said, all fixed! And it was. Soon I was reunited with my trusty laptop and the newly serviced motherboard. They also magically fixed the speakers! Not even NUIT or Staples could fix those! Good job, scary little repair shop!
And good thing I had all my movies back, because that night, disaster struck again. I came down with a classic Kathmandu-monsoon-season-water-borne illness. Fever, aches, cold-sweat, and tummy troubles had me down for the count for 24 hours (thank goodness for Ibuprofen). Then I felt well enough to visit an outdoor market with my Nepali host dad. And then I accepted fruit off the street without thinking about it. And then the tummy troubles continued (and are continuing…).
Finally I moved into my new apartment. Yay! So fun! I arranged furniture! I put posters on the wall! I cooked myself dinner! I don’t have to share a bathroom! But this morning, I discovered a strange patch of red, non-itchy bites on my right upper thigh. Right where my leg hits the bed if I lay on my side. I dismissed them as a wayward mosquito. But on further examination, the truth became clear: I have bed bugs.
That was 2 hours ago. Now it is 11 pm on Wednesday night. Highs and lows…
Kathmandu traffic is a melee of 2, 3, and 4-wheeled vehicles (and cows) that honk (and moo) at each other while belching out black smoke. How do I navigate this? By riding random or questionably road-worthy vehicles with people I don’t know.
Example 1: I got on the back of a motorcycle with an unknown 27 year old man and careened around the city for two hours looking at apartments. The man was a random real estate agent who I met the day before. I was not wearing a helmet. I have never ridden a motorcycle. I literally brushed neighboring cars with my elbows. I was breathing in black exhaust the entire time. I did not die, which I consider a success.
Example 2: I rode halfway across Kathmandu in an off-duty Nepali ambulance. Have no fear, I was not sick or injured—the ambulance just happened to be the fastest way to get across town. How did I snag an off duty ambulance? Lucky for me, my friend Dr. Pukar Shrestha is a leading kidney transplant surgeon in Nepal. After dinner with the lovely Shrestha family, we called up the organ transplant hospital, ordered an ambulance, and away I went. So much simpler than a taxi.
Example 3: Tempo busses are three-wheeled, eight-seater rusty sardine cans that run on natural gas. They’re driven by bad-ass Nepali women who bump and honk their way through Kathmandu traffic like it’s a Sunday stroll in the park. Like sardine cans, Tempos have zero suspension and are not built for 5’10” American women with long torsos (I hit my head with every bump). Unlike sardine cans, Tempo drivers do not pack the passengers in—drivers refuse to stop if all the seats are filled. This makes them the safest option for women, who generally don’t want random men sitting in their laps on the bus (this happened to me).
I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the more exciting parts of my adventure to Palpa. Keep in mind that traveling in Nepal during the monsoon is generally unadvisable. Also remember that July is the height of the monsoon. Given these two facts, I of course decided to take a bus 200 miles west from Kathmandu to Pokhara, and then Pokhara to Palpa, waaaay out in the middle of nowhere, during the last week of July.
Monsoon is a bad time to travel for several reasons. First of all, everything outside the bus is wet, and inevitably rain leaks in the window and everything inside the bus gets wet too (including you). Second, heavy rains cause landslides that can wash out roads (which, by the way, are basically dangling over cliff edges already). This can be very serious: more than ten people died in landslides across the country on the day I bused from Pokhara to Palpa, luckily none on the road I traveled on. Third, landslides back up traffic for hours. Did I run into a landslide during my travels? Of course I did.
It rained for 22 hours the night/day I left Pokhara to go to Palpa. The ride should have been 4-5 hours long. The road was a muddy mess and thankfully the driver took it slow…that is, until we stopped entirely.
We were at the end of a long line of buses, and we sat there for two and a half hours. What were we waiting for? No idea. But I do know that it was extremely awkward to pee when the only slightly secluded spot was basically over the cliff at the edge of the road. Finally, the driver told us to grab our stuff, and we walked across the landslide. Or rather, waded—the road had basically turned into a waterfall and we had to stomp up and over the mud pile. On the other side, we switched buses—genius! We traded! Unfortunately, this bus was smaller than the first bus by about three seats, so several unlucky passengers had to stand in the aisle. Our new driver was less cautious than the first one, so we made good time…but I was terrified we would either fly off the cliff or run over a motorbike coming the opposite direction.
All in all, I made it to Palpa in one piece. But it took eight hours. The joys of traveling in the monsoon.
Last week I adventured to Palpa (by way of Pokhara) to visit my friend Rachel, a Peace Corps Volunteer. This was a great opportunity to “practice my Nepali” (i.e. get out of the big dirty city, relax, and think about my current life position). My seven day journey took me from the bustle of Kathmandu’s Kanti Path bus stop, to the lakeside tourist resort city of Pokhara, to the idyllic village of Pokhara Thowk 200 miles west of Kathmandu. I returned safe, centered, and ready to face the rest of the year in this crazy, confusing, wonderful country.
Eighty five percent of Nepalis live in rural farming communities similar to the village of Pokhara-Thowk, where I stayed with Rachel and her Nepali family. They grow corn, rice, potatoes, and tomatoes, and raise water buffalo, goats, and chickens. Other than tomatoes, which they sometimes sell commercially, most of the food feeds the family. The family is lucky enough to live in a concrete/brick house, with running water in the sink and a gas stove for when it rains. Most of the time, though, mother and sister cook over a wood fire on a beautiful terrace with a view of the mountains.
When I arrived, I was a bit unsettled and still shaking off the Kathmandu dust. At first glance, the rooms seemed dark, dirty, and sort of sad. But I discovered that when a room fills with people cooking, laughing, and chatting, darkness melts away. And most of the time everyone is outside anyway, eating on the terrace, sitting on the front stoop, or working on the crops. New things happen every day: a landslide in front of the house, the jackfruit ripens, the water buffalo has a calf, and an American from Kathmandu stops by for a few days. Life is simple, work is hard, and with a view of the Himalayas in the background, nothing could ever be boring.
I love this village life. I love the fresh air and views, the green plants, the flowers and trees and insects to learn about, and the new foods to try. I love rising with the sun, drinking tea in the morning, eating dhal-bhaat at 10 am and again at 7, and sleeping when it gets dark. I love walking around, waving at neighbors and getting covered in red mud. The village women give me a Nepali name: Juna. It means moon. I tell people “Mero Nepali nam Juna ho”—my Nepali name is Juna.
Nature is healing for me. Graduating college was terrifying, saying goodbye was heartbreaking, and moving to Kathmandu left me shell-shocked and scared of my own shadow. Despite my pretty pictures and glib comments, my first month in Nepal was really, really rough. But when I walked to the bus stop to head back to Pokhara, I realized something had shifted while I was in Palpa. Fresh air and green space reminded me that everything will be fine. I’m here for a reason. Life is good, and life goes on.
It was hard to come back to Kathmandu. It bothers me that I live here, in this giant city, when the vast majority of Nepalis have a completely different life out in the villages. How will I ever get to know Nepal, if I live in a city that’s as foreign to most Nepali people New York or Chicago? I can only hope my short stints of time outside of Kathmandu will give me at least a glimpse of the variety of lifestyles that define Nepal.
And at the same time, perhaps knowing Kathmandu is valuable, too. Nepal is changing fast and people are moving to the city more than ever before. Some people say that other parts of Nepal need to become more like Kathmandu, to decentralize government and resources. Understanding this crazy city might help me understand what Nepal could become in the future. Where does village life fit into those changes? Does it fit into those changes? Do people want those changes?
I still don’t like the city, or the air pollution, or all the people. But after spending time in the villages, and thinking about how village and city fit together in Nepal, I think I will be fine. I am proud to say I achieved a state of zen on the microbus yesterday, and did not panic when I realized it was going to wrong direction. Just like in the villages, life will go on.
Many of you may be wondering what I wear in Nepal. Have I started wearing traditional saris and kurtas? Or do I hang out in those baggy, brightly colored hippie harem pants? Or short shorts and tank tops to beat the monsoon heat?
None of the above, my friends (really, did you think I could pull off harem pants?). Generally I tromp around in my trusty Tevas, hiking pants or jeans, and a t-shirt. I usually stand out, mostly because I look dorky (some things don’t change). But such is not the case with many foreign women, especially in the tourist town of Pokhara. After seeing countless women making wardrobe choice that I’ve intentionally avoided, I’m ready for a fashion rant:
Ladies, let’s get one thing straight. You may look super cute in your short shorts and tank tops, and I’ll bet you’re getting a great tan from that high-altitude sun. But do you realize that most Nepali women, especially outside Kathmandu, would NEVER be caught in skimpy clothing like that? In the US that would be like going to the grocery store in a string bikini (outside of Florida). You are violating cultural norms and making people uncomfortable. In a touristy town like Pokhara, people put up with you because you’re part of the industry that brings in money. But please, notice that most stores do NOT sell skimpy clothing, not even shorts. Show some respect for local customs.
I also strongly dislike extra-baggy harem pants. It is true that many Nepali women wear loose fitting pants, but I have NEVER seen a Nepali person wearing pants with the crotch hanging below their knees. In my opinion, these pants are exactly like calling the Nepali language “Nepalese”— that’s not a real word, people here don’t say that, it’s something westerners made up. Like baggy harem pants. Seriously, are you trying to be “authentic” by wearing those baggy pants? Or do you want to look like a 70s hippie straight off Freak Street? Either way, if the crotch of your pants is literally dragging in the mud, you need re-evaluate your wardrobe choices. You might look like a cool, pot-smoking hippie to your friends back in Europe or the States, but.
I am aware that I am being both judgmental and hypocritical, because 1) the pants are probably really comfortable, as are shorts and a tank top; and 2) I don’t dress like a Nepali person, either. But at least my pants and t-shirts aren’t violating cultural norms, and I’m not trying to “look cool” for my friends back home.
By far the most impressive, fashionable, and culturally appropriate dressing style I've seen on a foreigner is from Rachel, my Peace Corps friend in Palpa. She wears beautiful handmade kurtas with leggings, which cover her shoulders and butt, are comfortable, and look beautiful. See, it is possible to look good and be appropriate. I’m getting a kurta made at my earliest convenience!
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!