On the Road to Tibet

Every weekend Tri’s office goes for a hike somewhere in the hills around Kathmandu Valley or occasionally somewhere a few hours away. Sometimes we get the chance to go, and yesterday was one of those days. We went with about 10 other people from his office to a place called bahra bise, which means “twelve times twenty.” It’s apparently 240 km from somewhere, although we weren’t sure where. Bahra bise is along the road that leads from Kathmandu to the Tibet border. It took us about 4 hours to get there from Kathmandu, and apparently it would take another hour or so to reach Tibet. I’d love to go there someday. We were told that if we drove further along the road we were on, towards the mountains above, we’d make it to the border.

The bus came to pick us up at around 8am yesterday morning, and we reached bahra bise at almost noon. Then we started walking from the little town in the valley up a steep set of stone steps. However, before we got to the long path of stairs that we were about to embark on, a few kids started throwing water balloons at us from their roof. It seems the Holi festivities have begun.

The first part of the hike was quite shady, but soon the trees gave away to farmland, and we could see all around the valley. The hills were spotted with houses, some clustered together to make small villages, some spread out, each house on its own. As we walked along, we met villagers hanging out or heading somewhere, and shortly after starting, we met a woman with a feverish baby. She had gone to a hospital a few hours away in the base of the valley and was returning to her village in the hills. At the beginning of our hike, we were walking and talking with her, but I soon realized there was no way we were going to keep up. Even with a baby on her back and several bags to carry, she quickly outpaced us.

The views were incredible as we got higher, but the smells are what I loved the most. Rural areas and farms in Nepal (and I assume other places) have such particular and wonderful odors that are so completely different from the city. There’s wood smoke and a rich grassy smell, the smell of damp leaves and animals. I feel sort of weird to admit this, but my favorite smell comes from cow dung. It’s got this intense, earthy aroma that doesn’t remind me of poop, just of something organic. As we were passing one of the houses early on, I even picked up the sweet scent of local rakshi (alcohol).

Here are a few pictures we took on our way up the hill…

A view of the valley from above

A boy carrying branches

A woman in her home

A man making a straw mat

Tri and I have been on a few hikes around and outside of Kathmandu since we got to Nepal last summer including our two trips to Namo Buddha, our hike in Pokhara, and a trip to Ichangu Narayan. Although this hike wasn’t the longest, it was definitely the most difficult, mostly because of the trail’s steepness. It was almost straight up until we eventually found a flat road that curved around the hill. We took that for a while but soon found another steep trail to follow and went up that way. After about 3 or 4 hours of almost constant up up up, I couldn’t go any further and called it quits. Some of the guys had stopped before us and were resting in a little grassy area out of sight, and some of the seasoned hikers kept going onto the next hill top.

Tri and I decided to rest on a little ledge for a while. We couldn’t hear any voices, just the rustling of leaves. The sun was beginning to lower in the sky but was still shining brilliantly on the valley below us. My legs were aching but I felt more relaxed than I have in a long time, and with the wind blowing gently in my hair, I nearly fell asleep. Here I am on the ledge…

After enjoying those few minutes, we walked just a little bit further around a bend in the hill and sat there for a bit. Then one of the guys who had gone to a further hill met up with us on his way back. We walked downhill a ways, met up with more of the guys and finally started down towards the valley base. It took us another two hours to get down to the town where we relaxed and had dinner. On the ride back, we got stuck behind a stopped truck for a few minutes but other than that, there were no complications. I completely conked out on the way home, and we got back to the house around 10pm.

Tailoring Troubles

I’m not one of those people who particularly likes to shop. It can definitely be fun with friends or family, but in that case, I enjoy the company rather than the shopping. I don’t like shopping for clothing, in particular, because I find it immensely frustrating. Finding clothing that fits right, is comfortable, and is well-priced is always a challenge.

In theory, tailoring should fix some of the difficulties of shopping. You can completely bypass the melt down that comes with lugging 15 different pairs of pants into the dressing room only to discover that none of them fit. I love the idea of having my clothing made just for me. In an ideal situation, the clothing looks good and is comfortable. There are no parts that are too loose or too tight; nothing is too long or too short. But in reality, I’ve found that my tailored clothing hasn’t lived up to its reputation.

Fabric at a Nepali clothing shop

When I was here for study abroad, I was living outside of the city in an area that had a small town center. There were a few shops that sold fabric and tailored clothing. One of my friends had developed a relationship with one of the shops in the town center and suggested that I go there. I wanted to buy a kurta suruwal (a shirt and pants, the Nepali equivalent of the salweer kameez), so I picked out some fabric, got measured, and had the shop owner sew it for me. I thought I was getting a great deal. The whole thing, with fabric and tailoring, cost 500 rupees, about 7 dollars at the time. I got the kurta suruwal and started wearing it around sometimes. One time I wore it to meet Tri’s parents. When his mom saw me, she looked at me funny.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. She walked over to me and started yanking the bottom of the shirt, trying to straighten it out. But to no avail.

“The whole shirt is crooked,” she replied.

And it was, but I hadn’t noticed until she pointed it out. Later, when I wanted to get another kurta suruwal sewn, I tried going to other little shop in the town center. Unfortunately, they made the armpits too small, and when I took the shirt back to have it resewn, they must not have understood me because they ended up making the waist area larger. The whole thing looked ridiculous on me, and I threw it out.

A woman wearing a kurta suruwal

When I was here before, I was living in rural areas and was washing my clothing by hand, so I wanted to wear comfortable and easy-to-wash kurta suruwals. But now that I’m in the city most of the time, I wear western clothing. However, I’ve tried to get some kurtas, Nepali shirts, made. I’ve had several shirts sewn at a place in the city, a supposedly fancier place than the shops I frequented before, but, again, I’ve had bad experiences. Both of the shirts were way to small in the shoulders. I had to take them back to the tailor to have them resewn. Even then, though, they didn’t do a great job. The fabric on one of those shirts bunches up in the middle and the other one is unwearable because the shoulders are still too small.

What is it? Am I a really weird shape or something? I think I’m a bit taller than the average Nepal woman, but with tailoring, size shouldn’t matter!

Last week I decided to try again. A few months ago, someone gave me the fabric for a kurta suruwal as a present, and I decided to get it sewn at a tailor that my friend recommended. We’ll see what happens…

Have any other women who have had things tailored experienced something similar? I love the idea of tailoring, but I’m feeling pretty negative about it right now. Is there a particular way I should be going about it? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Say It Like It Is

Anthropologists and Sociologists make a distinction between cultures that use an indirect style of communication and ones that use a direct style of communication. I like the way that this website explains the difference, so I’m going to quote them:

Direct communication is when the meaning of the message is communicated mainly via words.

Indirect communication is when meaning is not only in the words, but mainly in the surrounding context of a conversation. In other words, somebody who is indirect will leave it up to the listener to fill in the blanks and make out the meaning by correctly reading the contextual clues (e.g. non-verbal communication, status and/or age of people involved in the conversation, attire, etc.).

Before I spent time in Nepali, I thought of it as being a very indirect place. And from what I’ve heard about Asia as a whole, most cultures here supposedly employ indirect communication styles.

To an extent, it is true that things in Nepal are said in an indirect way. For instance, it’s rude to say no to something outright unless you have a very good reason. I have a good example of this. The organization that our friend works for was organizing a community cleanup the other day, and she and the other members went door-to-door around the neighborhood asking people if they would like to help. She was lamenting to us at lunch yesterday that although everyone would agree to help out when she met them face-to-face, she knew they weren’t going to come for the clean up, and very few of them did.

When I first visited Nepal in 2009, I thought almost everything would be expressed in an indirect way, in a style similar to the one mentioned in the example above. However, people can be surprisingly open and direct about certain things.

Weight is one of them. It’s pretty rude in the US to talk to people about their weight, except with close friends or family. Even then, it can be a touchy subject. But here, it’s completely the opposite. Everyone is always talking about how someone has lost or gained a few pounds. People talk about it with each other and say it directly to the person whose weight is being discussed. It can be strange or even offensive to people who aren’t used to discussing something that may seem so personal, but weight is not considered to be such a personal thing in Nepal. Discussing someone’s weight is also a way to show that you care about them. You might be concerned that they’ve lost some weight, maybe they’re sick or stressed out at work, and you show that concern by commenting on it.

I’ve gotten used to people commenting on weight, but I still find other, very direct comments pretty off-putting.

The other night, we were at dinner with some family we see very rarely. We were talking about water problems and how it’s important to treat or filter the water that comes from the tap. Buwa was asking two of the people (a mother and daugher-in-law) if they brush with the untreated water from their house tap, and they said yes.

“You can’t do that,” Buwa said. And then he added, while pointing to their teeth, “duijannako dant bigriyo,” translated as, “Both of you have damaged teeth.”

Their teeth did look kind of black, but I could never imagine pointing that out to them. Of course, Buwa’s relationship with them is very different than my relationship with them. He’s much closer to them than I am. But to me, that comment sounded so very direct! I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say something similar in English. I could imagine someone trying to torment another person by turning it into a gibe, but never could I see it said in good faith. Buwa was definitely saying it in good faith.

Another direct comment took me by surprise today. I had to go to the asthma doctor to get my medicine adjusted. I don’t know this man personally; I had never even met this guy before today (although he does know Tri). As I was getting up on the examination table, he asked, “How long have you two been married?” Tri exagerated a bit, answering with, “almost a year” (even though it’s only been about eight months).

The doctor replied by saying, “In Nepal, if you’ve been married a year and are not pregnant, people start asking questions.” He proceeded to give me an awkward eyebrow raise.

I think I turned bright red on the exam table. I’ve had other people ask me if I’m planning to have kids, but they’ve been very close to me and it has always happened in a private setting, not in a public exam room with about 10 other people in it! I guess he could have been more direct by saying, “Why aren’t you pregnant already?” Maybe I should thank him for his indirectness.

Would a doctor have said something like that to me in the US? I don’t think so. I’ve heard of women in the US being asked when they’re going to have kids, but only by other women they know.

This type of directness really catches me off guard sometimes. Will I ever get used to it?

Shiva’s Birthday

Today was god Shiva’s birthday. We stayed at Mama’s house last night, and this morning, during breakfast, I asked how old Shiva is today. Everybody laughed. So I guess he’s too old to count. But that hasn’t lessened the intensity of the celebration of his birth, at least not in Kathmandu.

People have been warning me this past week that Maha Shivaratri can be a crazy holiday. Hindus living in Kathmandu and many Indian Hindus come into Nepal to visit Pashupatinath, one of the holiest Hindu temples in Nepal and even in South Asia. I wanted to go there and check out the crowd, but Tri said that there would be way too many people and that it would be impossible to get anywhere near the action.

Kids stopping us on the road

Because we had the day off, though, we did get to see some of the festivities. During Shivaratri, kids gather in groups in the street to ask for money. In the morning, when we left Mama’s house, some kids stopped us on the road with a rope. A few drivers were obviously irritated by the kids and were just driving right over the rope, ignoring the poor kids’ plees for money. But we stopped, paid the toll of a few rupees and kept on going.

The parachuting man is beyond the prayer flags

We had to make a quick trip to the doctor this morning, and after we got out of his office, we looked up at the sky to see people floating down with colorful parachutes trailing behind them. Tri was so excited and spent about ten minutes staring at them. It has been six years since he’s seen this, so I understand his excitement 🙂 Apparently, the men in the sky were all soldiers. Shivaratri is a big holiday not only for Pashupathi goers but for the army as well. Last week, I saw tanks assembling in Tundikhel (a big field in the middle of Kathmandu) and soldiers preparing for the festivities.

Another thing that people do on this day is eat bhang, a marijuana derivative. A lot of people, even those who wouldn’t normally touch the stuff, have a little bit of bhang on Shivaratri, and the Nepali government legalizes it for just one day. Shiva is/was a lover of marijuana, so eating it honors him in a way. Tri was saying that we had to be especially careful on the roads today because accidents on Shivaratri are common. In fact, a few years ago, one of his teachers from high school died after riding his motorbike while high. If you’re going to eat this stuff, please don’t drive!

There are aparently two types of bhang, one that doesn’t make a peson high and one that does. The first kind is added to achaar. I guess as a flavoring? The kind that does have an effect is often added to some kind of milk drink. I still haven’t seen anyone stumbling around the streets yet, but I’m keeping my eyes peeled.

For more information on Maha Shivaratri, check out nepaliaustralian’s blog.

The Valentine’s Day Break In

Before I explain, let me tell you how our typical day works. We leave the house at 7:45am so that I can get to school by 8:15. After Tri drops me off, he heads over to his office. In the afternoon, after school is out, I take the school bus over to Tri’s work. Most of the teachers just ride the bus home, but since we live outside of Ring Road, the school bus doesn’t travel that far; that’s why I go to Tri’s place. I sit there working on my computer until around 6pm, and then Tri and I go home together in our car.

But there were a few kinks in our routine today. At 6pm, when we were ready to leave, Tri started rooting around in his backpack for the keys. Unfortunately, they’re weren’t showing up. So he said, “Um, Zo? I think I may have left the keys in the car.”

damn! “Okay, I’ll go to the car and see if they’re in there and report back,” I replied.

I walked over to the parking lot, peered in through the window and sure enough, there they were, dangling just out of reach. I walked back over to where Tri was, and we started to  plan. We have a spare set of keys that saved us on this day and were hoping that someone would be able to bring them to us. But after calling Buwa, we found out he was in a meeting and wouldn’t be able to drive them over. Tri’s brother was busy as well.

Buwa suggested that we take a taxi home, and I figured that’s what we’d do, but Tri had other ideas. He went to look for the drivers who work at his office to see if they new anything about opening a locked car. After discussing the problem with them for a minute, one of them pulled out a long metal ruler, and we walked back to the car.

I was getting kind of excited at that point, thinking it would be just like in the movies, where someone slides the ruler down a small slit on the side of the window, pokes around for a few seconds, and the lock pops open. But it wasn’t that easy…

First the driver and Tri had to remove a line of rubber along the base of the window to access the slot to the side of the window. That took about half an hour. And then they took turns jabbing the ruler up and down, hoping to catch something on the side of the door that would unlock it. But dusk was steadily turning into dark, and nothing was progressing. At one point, another guy brought out a long metal rod, the end of which he had bent into a hook. That seemed promising for a bit, but I was getting too fed up with the whole thing to wait it out. I needed a break, so I went inside Tri’s office building to use the bathroom. I told him to call me with good news.

As I was walking back out, I heard my phone ring and picked up the call optimistically. “We did it.” Tri said. Wohoo!

So we ended up breaking into our own car on Valentine’s Day. Not the most romantic evening but kind of interesting.

Anyway, Happy Valentine’s Day everybody! May we always love and appreciate the ones close to us who can solve life’s irritating problems 🙂

Why We Married Young and Thoughts on Married Life

Tri completely changed the direction of my life. If I hadn’t had met him, I would likely never come to Nepal and never have learned to speak Nepali. I would never have realized my interested in Linguistics, probably would not have majored in that subject, and would never have thought about getting a masters in what I’m hoping to go to grad school for. My own habits and manerisms have been deeply affected by my husband and the time I’ve spent abroad. Without having met him I think I would be a very different person with a very different life. And this same goes for him. I know that I’ve changed the way he thinks and experiences things, his view and opinions, and goals. I don’t credit or blame him for every success and failure I’ve had, and I certainly am my own person, but he was one of the major catalysts that set my life going in the direction it has.

I met Tri when I was 18, pretty young to meet your future spouse (although not out of the question), and we got married when I was 21, soon after college graduation last spring. The last year of our lives has been a whirlwind of activity and emotion, filled with a lot of sadness but excitement too. What happened during this time that led us to marry at a young age was a set of events that we could never have predicted.

Everything started in the early spring of 2011. Tri and I had been dating for about 3 years at that point. Right from the beginning of our relationship, we knew that we were in it for the long haul. Everything just felt right with him and always has. I know that sounds horribly cliche, but it’s true. We had always talked about getting hitched sometime after my college graduation (he graduated two years before me), so last spring, we started talking to both of our parents about the possibility of getting engaged over the summer. We didn’t want to get married yet…we didn’t feel like there was any reason to, but we thought it would be nice to take the next step in our relationship.

Both of our parents were very happy with this idea and supported our plan to have an engagement ceremony in Nepal. We all thought that an engagement in Nepal and then a wedding in the US a few years later sounded good. But then Nepali culture and the rules that go along with it kicked into high gear. In the process of planning for our wedding, Tri’s mom consulted an astrologer. He felt like it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to just have an engagement ceremony, that we needed to get married as well. In Nepal, people don’t often have long engagements. Usually they have a khura chine ceremony and then a wedding a few weeks (or sometimes days) later, so the astrologer felt it would be culturally inapropriate for us to have just an engagement ceremony.

Tri’s mom started talking to us about the possibility of upgrading our engagement to a wedding. I think we were both a little bit in shock at this idea. Of course we had thought about marriage and wanted to be married someday, but it was strange to think it would be happening so soon. But after talking about it, the idea started warming up to us, and we agreed.

That set the wedding planning in motion. Tri’s parents were choosing a location, compiling a guest list with hundreds of people, and doing lots of shopping. I was excited to be getting married but a little bit freaked out too. I was trying to finish up my last semester of college and frantically look for some kind of employment. Doing that on top of preparing to be married in a foreign country was a bit overwhelming.

And then everything came to a horrible halt. Tri’s mom died suddenly in April, 2011. I don’t feel like going into the details of what happened because it’s still very painful to dwell on, but maybe later, when we’ve come to terms with her death a little better, I can write more about going through those initial days and weeks of grief.

Everything was put on hold, the wedding, Tri’s job, our lives. Tri left for Nepal within 12 hours of getting the horrible phone call, and I felt stranded and alone. Getting through those last few weeks of my last semester of college was hell. But I do have to say, my friends and family were incredibly supportive and helpful. You know who you are! And I love you guys.

About a month later, after the funeral and initial grieving period in Nepal were over, Tri came back to the US with a plan for us to return to Nepal to live with his brother and dad. I was incredibly supportive of his decision.

But in order for me to stay in Nepal for an extended period of time, I had to be married to Tri. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, Nepali Hindus believe that having any kind of celebration, doing puja, or going to weddings, etc. is not allowed the year after a family member dies, so us getting married was a bit of a problem. That’s why we decided to have the simplest wedding we could manage, nothing religious and without any bells and whistles. We had the mayor of our small town marry us at my folks’ house. Because it was such a small ceremony, we didn’t get an opportunity to celebrate with most of our family and friends, but we’re not going to leave them out. Tri and I are planning a wedding ceremony that will hopefully happen in about a year and a half…a topic for future posts.

Anyway, some Nepali people were very against our marriage at the time because of breaking the one year rule, but we had no choice. We both felt that Tri needed to go back to Nepal, and there was no way that Tri and I were going to be separated.

In the craziness of those few months and the aftermath of that period that included moving to a new country, lots of culture shock, and language learning, I haven’t really had the time and energy to process and understand the fact that I’m married and what that means for my life and relationship.

It’s only now that I’m really starting to think about how my life has changed after marriage. Being in Nepal has definitely had a huge affect on those changes.

In Tri’s parents’ generation, marrying young, even for educated women living in urban areas, was normal. Tri’s mom was 19 when she married his dad. Even now, women in rural areas marry young, sometimes as teenagers. But it is a bit unusual these days for a woman who comes from an urban, middle class family to be married at age 21. Because I’m mostly around people from urban, middle class families, I sometimes get surprised looks when I tell them I’m married.

I think part of it is that some Nepalis have certain stereotypes about Western women, about them having many different partners and marrying very late, so I don’t fit into their stereotype. But it’s also that there has been a push in Nepal from NGO’s, social service organizations, and other influences for women to marry later.

When I was in Dhampush, I made friends with another one of the girls on the trip who is about 27 and was married last year. We stayed in a lodge, and one day we started talking to the owner about her daughters. Like me, they married in their very early 20’s. My friend started scolding the lodge owner (in a friendly way), telling her that she should have made them wait, finish school, and then marry. But then my friend looked at me and remembered that I was 21 when I married too! We both laughed.

Besides getting some funny looks and reactions from Nepalis about being married young, I’ve also received greater acceptance.

Before getting married, I had some people tell me that life after marriage didn’t change their relationship with their signficant other one bit, and I’ve had others say it changed everything. I’ve found that the way that Tri and I treat each other hasn’t changed, but the way that others treat us has. This is particularly true in Nepal. Our relationship wasn’t really valid in the eyes of many Nepalis before we were married, and although Tri’s parents accepted our relationship, they were hesitant to tell others that Tri had a girlfriend. When I was in Nepal for study abroad, I stayed with Tri’s parents and brother for a week here and there, and they only revealed to their closest family and friends that I was Tri’s girlfriend. Being married has made our relationship in Nepal valid in the eyes of others, which is honestly a relief. Some say that that validation from others shouldn’t matter, and our love for eachother is definitely more important than what others think, but having that societal acceptance does make things easier.

I’ve also found that women treat me differently. For some reason, I think being married has made other people, especially women, see me as more of an adult. They talk to me about more adults things and divulge secrets with me that I probably wouldn’t have been privy to before. Part of this may be the fact that I’m older. But I think it’s got something to do with being married.

Since we were only in the US for about a month after being married, I don’t know if others there will treat us differently as married people. I think that they probably will but maybe not to the same extent that people do in Nepal. I guess I’ll find out in a year or so 🙂

Degrees of Separation: Nepali Style

As I’ve mentioned before, Kathmandu Valley is a pretty small place. There are millions of people who live here, but I swear, sometimes I feel like I know at least half of them. Part of it is because people here often have large families and are highly connected. These types of connections carry over to Nepali communities in other countries as well. I’ve had many experiences in the US where I’ll be surprised to find that a new Nepali I meet is somehow related to or closely connected with another of my Nepali friends. I’ve met a number of people through Nepali connections and coincidences (like americanepali 🙂 ). Every. single. time. it gets me when I find out that someone I know is somehow connected with someone else I’ve just met. And what happened today really brought home those Nepali connections.

I’ve been wanting to post more this week but have been busy at work and too tired to write anything afterwards because my school has been preparing for a mela (“fair”) put on to celebrate the school’s 20th anniversary. There were a ton of people there today, not only students, teachers, and staff but alums, parents, and others as well.

The first coincidence happened about midday. I was walking around with my friend who teaches fifth grade with me, and we stopped at one of the stalls to check it out. She started to talking to a woman whose daughter was apparently in my friend’s class last year. The woman looked vaguely familiar, and she said, “Namaste, Zoe.” I was really trying to place her face, and then she reminded me that she was the wife of one of coordinators of my study abroad program. I haven’t seen any of the coordinators since I came here for study abroad, and I was so surprised to hear that her daughter attends the school I teach at.

Then a while later, I walked over to the food area with my friends and saw both of the coordinators of my study abroad program! I’ve been meaning to meet up with them for months but it just never worked out. It was so good to see them 🙂

Then we sat down to rest for a while with some of the other teachers. Another of the fifth grade teachers (call her “N”) had invited her parents to the mela, and we started talking to them. I got to talking with “N”s dad (call him “R”) about how I’m married to a Nepali and was telling them Tri’s name and his dad’s name. And then R said that he knows my father-in-law and is a cousin of Buwa’s business partner (who is also a very close family friend). It wasn’t a huge shock to me that he knows my father-in-law. Buwa seems to know everybody! But meeting “R” started the ball rolling for another chance meeting.

There were a few Nepalis besides Tri who attended the college I went to, and there was one in my year (call her “S”). She also went to the school I teach at now. The fifth grade teacher, “N” (who is the daughter of “R”) had told me before that she is a cousin of “S”s. I was talking to “R” about how I know “S,” and he turned around, pointed to another part of the outdoor area where we were sitting and said, “She’s right over there!”

I followed his gaze and lo and behold! There was “S.” I had forgotten that Tri had told me she’s in Nepal for her brother’s wedding. I ran over to hug and say hi. And then, finally, the last coincidence of the day came when one of my students’ parents walked up and started talking to “S.” Apparently they’re first cousins!

All of the coincidences really do make Kathmandu feel small. Nepalis are used to it, but that’s not how things work where I’m from. So I’m always surprised. The highly connected nature of Nepali life is surprising to a foreginer like me but reassuring too; it makes me feel like I’m part of one big family.