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.
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
Greetings from Kathmandu! After a whirlwind week in New York City, we left at 11 am Monday morning to fly 16 hours to Guangzhou, China, where we laid over for 4.5 hours. Then we flew 5 more hours to Kathmandu. We arrived at our guest house around midnight Nepal time, and met a car at 9am the next morning for our first day of in-country orientation!
The week of orientation in NYC was jam-packed with social events, fancy food, panels on Asian politics, more food, briefings about visas and travel information, last minute packing, and still more food. My fellow scholars are absolutely brilliant, and I am lucky to be part of this group of world changers who are just starting their adventures in places all around Asia.
Although New York was great, I am glad to finally be in Nepal. Emily Dickey (my fellow Nepal scholar) and I are the first two Luce scholars to ever be placed in Nepal, which means we are “guinea pigs” for the Nepal program (although I prefer “trailblazers”). Because of this, we had extremely limited knowledge of what would happen when we got here, and despite everyone’s best efforts at preparation in New York, I still felt woefully underprepared as I boarded the plane.
After over 24 hours of travel, it was a relief to finally arrive in Kathmandu. I had been warned that the airport was a confusing mess, but it actually wasn’t that bad—it was so small that everything were very easy to find, and the signs were mostly in English. The girl who sat next to us on the plane helped us get through customs and find the baggage claim. All our bags came through unscathed, and my viola caused no problems as a carry-on (to my immense relief).
Just as we had been told, there was a man waiting outside the airport holding a sign with our names on it. Somebody muscled his way over to carry our bags, and demanded $10 in American cash as a tip. We gave him $4, which is a ridiculous amount but at least made him go away. The drive from the airport to the guest house was harrowing—in Kathmandu, they drive on the left side of the street, and there seem to be NO traffic laws. I think we almost died twice, and almost killed somebody on a bike at least three times. Our guest house is incredibly nice (paid for the first four nights by The Asia Foundation, to allow us to get our footing)—real toilets and wifi, my two biggest fears.
Our day started at 9 am, when a car from The Asia Foundation picked us up from the guest house. Our primary point of contact at TAF (actually more like babysitter) is Ashray Pande. Ashray gave us a rundown of the current political situation in Nepal (complicated), basic programs run by the TAF (community based mediation and stakeholder management, among other things), and helped us sort out the details of living in Nepal.
To our great appreciation, the TAF office had already purchased Nepali SIM cards for our cell phones. Tomorrow they are also helping us set up a Nepal bank account, taking us to the CIWEC clinic to get our rabies vaccinations, and touring several housing options with us. Thank goodness they are willing to hold our hands us during these first few days! Little helpful things like that are an incredible stress relief.
For my outdoor friends: no, I have not seen Mount Everest yet. In fact, I haven’t seen a single mountain. It was dark when we flew in last night, and the monsoon-season clouds and air pollution obscure pretty much everything here in the city. But there are many other things to see, since Kathmandu itself is an overload of vibrant colors and shapes. Unlike the United States, where buildings often look similar, structures in Kathmandu are unique and crowded close together. Buildings are all different colors, and many are surrounded by trees, bushes, and flowers. It is hot and humid at the moment, but the monsoon rain is not bad so far—just drizzles here and there, and barely enough for a raincoat.
I suspect daily life will become more difficult once we move out of the guesthouse and are no longer under the close supervision of the TAF office. But for now, I am so grateful that the move to Nepal has been this smooth.
Hello from NYC! After a whirlwind of finals week, senior week, three days of graduation ceremonies, and a Moravek family grad/birthday party, I'm finally on the first leg of my journey to Nepal! I have a suitcase, a 50L backpack, a school bag, and my viola (yes, I’m taking my viola to Nepal…more on that another day).
I'll be here in New York for the next six days for the Luce scholar orientation. This is where I learn all the details I've been guessing at for the past few months- where I'm living, how I will learn to speak Nepali, what I'll be doing at work, and advice on how to adjust to the culture. I will also have a chance to bond with the 17 other Luce Scholars, who are from all over the United States and are going to many different places in Asia. Our week will include panels with experts on SE Asia, meals at extremely nice restaurants, and a bowling outing (gotta work on my form…). On Monday, June 27th, I will board a plane to Guangzhou, China, and then to Kathmandu, Nepal.
In many ways, it’s a relief to finally be here—that means I can stop worrying about packing and start being excited about the adventure to come. Packing for a yearlong trip to a four-season developing nation is a challenge to say the least. One minute I think I have too much stuff, the next I feel like I have nothing at all. The most important pieces of luggage are my trusty hiking boots, my spare glasses, and my water filter. Oh, and diarrhea medicine...anyway, I managed to get everything from Chicago to NYC without too much trouble, so hopefully I’ll be fine.
Beginning the adventure is also terrifying and sad. First of all, I have no idea what will happen when I get there. That is very scary for a Type A, list oriented, “stick to the plan” person like me. Second, it is weird to think I won’t see my parents or friends for a long time. Hopefully the wonders of modern technology keep us in touch.
Several thank yous are necessary (in no particular order): Thanks to my amazing mother, who did NOT cry at the airport when she dropped me off (even though I did). Thank you to dad, who wore a cowboy hat to Northwestern’s graduation. Thanks to Amazon Prime for supporting my last minute packing habits. Thanks to Josie for taking me shopping on Saturday. Thanks to Kolton, Leena, and Sammi for making our time at NU happy. Thanks to Shannon for flying 1000 miles just to say goodbye. Thanks to Dr. Blair for believing in my ability to succeed even though I broke everything in his lab. Thanks to the NU Fellowship Office team for teaching me to write. Of course, I cannot name every person that needs thanking, nor can I list all the things I should thank you for. So to everyone else, for all the other things, thank you.
Enough with the sappy stuff. I got to New York and ended up on the hotel shuttle with a cool shuttle driver who was rocking out to Beyonce. Unfortunately, he turned out to be not so cool, because he dropped me off at the wrong hotel (Roger Smith Hotel, instead of Roger Williams Hotel). I had to get a cab to get to the right spot. Once I made it to the hotel, we met for a cocktail hour, and then had a 4-course dinner at the Yale Club (there were FOUR forks at my place. Four!). Then we had an introduction about the history of Vietnam. Vietnam is this year’s focus country, so it is the focus of most of our group activities this week, and we will spend three weeks there to wrap up in July 2017.
So far so good!
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!