Nepal is a small, narrow country wedged between the two giants of India and China. Within its humble boundaries we have been immersed in a unique culture of lovely people and spectacular beauty. Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism permeate every aspect of life here and a complex, hereditary caste system exists that determines a person’s occupation, dress, and cultural expectations. The culture is rich and rewarding to experience. However, Nepal seems both blessed and cursed to house the highest mountains in the world as it is burdened by geographical obstacles that have curtailed economic advancement and fostered a widespread poverty unlike anything we’ve experienced. The Himalayas command prestige, but there is nothing glamorous about life for the people who reside under their reign.
Every single day that we spent in Nepal, we found ourselves mentally noting the things that we sorely take for granted being from a first world nation. Some of the things are ‘creature comforts’, and some are conventions that are for the general population’s safety and wellbeing: Sidewalks. Paved roads. Turn signals on vehicles. Emissions controls for vehicles. Traffic laws. (Seeing a trend here?) Being able to drink and brush your teeth with tap water, and shower with your eyes open (without contracting E.coli). Restaurant sanitation inspectors. Garbage collection (here, you burn your trash, or with less effort, toss it in the river). Recycling (yup, you burn your plastic bottles too…a good dose of dioxins for the atmosphere…or with less effort, toss it in the river). Relatively clean public restrooms (as a visual, Brian used one at a bus rest stop and burst out practically gagging from disgust…this was the norm). Washing machines and dryers. Food variety (at one point, Brian said to me, “I’m not eating for pleasure anymore. I’m eating out of pure necessity.” He also said, “I can’t handle another dal bhat, mo-mo, or veg fried rice. All I want is a bacon egg and cheese on a bagel!” The ‘Jersey’ in him was in desperate food withdrawal!).
But, while experiencing life here was exhausting and challenging, it forced us to fervently count our blessings and to be reminded that being comfortable really wasn’t the point of coming to Nepal. Despite the distress of the culture shock, the people of Nepal really, really surprised us. Our travel wit and intuitive reflexes associate poverty with threat—as in, you walk around in a poor neighborhood of Philly at night, you’re putting yourself at risk. We entered Nepal with this same sentiment. It haunted me many nights this past summer as I imagined the potential danger that we were putting ourselves in bumbling naively into a country that is third world through and through. Our first three days, we constantly thought we were getting ripped off, cheated, deceived, swindled, and lied to. But a trend became apparent pretty quickly—the Nepalese people involved in every one of these interactions were actually being genuine, honest, sweet, helpful.
In order to get back to the volunteer base from the town of Pokhara where we began our hike, we had to find and get on a local bus for an 8-hour journey with one connection. Once we had navigated the bus station (the ‘chowk’, which sounds like ‘choke’, which is a good description for how you feel amidst the million people, vehicles, sights, sounds, and smells here), parted with our bags (which get thrown on top of the bus), and got seated in the very back row in a bus filled to the brim with Nepalese people, I had a minor panic attack. Actually, maybe the hyperventilating, sweating, and crying would constitute it as a legit panic attack. Brian did his best to talk me down so that we could survive this journey. I calmed down, but became very irritated again when a large woman in full Nepali garb with a bunch of kids in tow sat right next to me, giving me a negative amount of leg room and a feeling of disgust as our arms and legs were sandwiched together by warm sweat. If it couldn’t get worse, as a passenger on the back of the bus on the roads of Nepal, you are jiggled, lifted, slammed, and whipped around like you’re in a pot of boiling water. When the big lady had the nerve to fall asleep with her head on my shoulder, I was pretty much at my boiling point.
Saved by the bell, the bus pulled over for a rest stop and everyone got off for a break from the ride. I spent my fifteen minutes steaming in the sun and cursing the situation. But when we boarded again, an angel made himself visible to us. Before sitting down, Brian offered his seat to an elderly man who had been standing in the aisle for the whole bus ride, holding on to the hand rail along the ceiling. The man didn’t speak English and didn’t understand what Brian was saying, so a younger man translated into Nepalese, “He would like to know if you would like to sit and he will stand?” The old man’s eyes lit up and he came very close to our faces. He spoke feverishly to us in Nepalese for what seemed like a long time. We must have looked like deer in headlights, and from his tone, we weren’t sure whether he was reprimanding us or trying to give us important information. A teenage boy sitting a few seats away suddenly popped his head up and said with a big smile, “May I translate?!” “Yes, please do!” we replied. The man and the boy alternated their speaking and translating for us: “He says that no, he would like you to sit and he will stand. He says he’s been watching you ever since you got on the bus…He says that he is mad at the bus driver for making him stand, but he would like you to sit so that you can enjoy the views of his beautiful country…He says that he is very happy that you are here. He would like you to know that he has a son who lives in Canada and another who lives in Norway…He says that he has been to Norway and that he had the opportunity to live there, but he chose to come back to Nepal because of the unity of the people.” All the people in the vicinity were smiling and listening to this exchange. This sweet teenager was delighted to be able to translate for us. We were feeling moved by the old man’s observations of us and by his remarks. Now that he had an audience, the old man kept talking and talking. Every once in a while, the boy would pop his head up and say things like, “Now he’s talking about the Nepali government…Now he’s talking about the value of time.” The entire feeling of this bus adventure changed in this moment because the Nepalese people had proven us wrong once again. There was a palpable unity, and we were now feeling blessed to be a part of it on this ride. I nuzzled right up against the big lady, made my left shoulder more available for her to sleep on, and even let her daughter lay her head on my knees. We were like one big, cozy family.
After our time volunteering with All Hands, we headed back to Kathmandu with our new friends Emma and Sophia from England and Anna Leigh from Georgia, U.S. It was amazing going back to this place that had been so jarring and unsettling when we had left it almost a month before. Our relationship with Nepal had deepened tremendously; we now understood the culture and trusted the people, and we were able to see Kathmandu with new eyes. It was still a sensory smorgasbord, but we had acclimatized to it. With our new friends and newfound confidence, we visited the monks and shrines overlooking the city at the Kopan Monastery, and we joined the hundreds of Buddhists in their daily clockwise walk around the grand Boudhanath Stupa. This stupa is the largest in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.
Brian and I spent our last two nights in Nepal in the magical suburb of Kathmandu called Bhaktapur. This sacred, UNESCO World Heritage town is covered in Buddhist temples, Hindu shrines, palaces, monuments, statues, and gathering squares. It is known for artisans of wood, metal, stone, pottery, and weaving. We stayed in a corner room at the only guesthouse on the main square (Durbar Square) and we were serenaded very early each morning by bells chiming, pigeons purring, people praying, and men singing mantras. Wafts of burning incense accompanied the sounds. We explored the town by wandering and getting lost down narrow alleys housing local artisans and through unlucky areas that are still in half-ruins from the earthquake. The relatively few tourists here gave us a chance to see raw glimpses of everyday life for the people of Bhaktapur. We passed groups of old men gathering to play games and women congregating to examine the freshness of the leafy greens in the market. We watched as devout elders lit butterlamps at the doors of shrines before sundown. Across the town, there is an incredible juxtaposed beauty of the women’s vibrant clothing and the colorful artwork, produce, and goods for sale against the washed-out backdrop of ancient buildings and mounds of rubble. Bhaktapur’s essence will linger in our memories as another intriguing facet of beautiful Nepal.