I have sat down several times to write an end-of-fieldwork blog post, only to find that my thoughts stubbornly stick in my mind, refusing to be transformed into sentences that will gather into paragraphs that will, in turn, create some coherent “this is the end, but it’s actually just beginning” message. But last week something kind of cool happened, which loosened the vice on my creative juicer and has allowed me to sit down at my computer, once again, to tell you a little bit about it.
About two months ago, I was contacted by Begoña Sieiro, an editor for Altair Magazine, a Spanish language travel magazine based in Barcelona that also runs one of the largest travel bookstores in Europe. Begoña was interested in featuring my project in the launch of the open-access portion of their new website, Las Voces de Altair. Whereas one must subscribe to read the rest of the website’s content, Las Voces de Altair is free to the public. Through Las Voces, Altair hopes to introduce their readers to interesting and less well-known travel-centered projects; Begoña and her team found What We See through the magic of Google!
On July 3, the new website launched with my project as one of the main features. I wrote the article and edited together the short video found at the bottom. My piece has been translated into Spanish, but the video has English subtitles so scroll down to the bottom if your language skills aren't up to snuff! ** You may be asked to register -- it’s still free, they just want you to create a username **
I have been home in Boston for the past month. I took some time off to regroup, but I am now diving headfirst back into my work. This will include editing footage, developing photographs (in the darkroom that will soon exist in my father’s basement), transcribing interviews -- mainly trying to absorb the multitude of information I have collected over the past five months. I’ll keep this page updated with my progress along the way -- as per usual, the more people who know about my project the better, so feel free to share my website with anyone and everyone.
The Year is 2071
As one can imagine, life in Nepal is very different from that in the US. And these differences span all magnitudes of the culture, from the majority Hindu population, rich with traditions and celebrations, to the more subtle day-to-day actions of life––such as drinking water, shaking hands, or even knowing what day it is. When immersed in a country so different from home, knowing these smaller customs can help a foreigner seem slightly less bumbling and awkward. For those interested, here is a short (and very incomplete) list of some of the customs to be found in Nepal.
“Namaste!” -- The literal translation, “I bow to you,” highlights the idea that you are acknowledging the god within the person you are greeting. Depending on the formality of the situation, the word is usually accompanied by touching your palms together in front of your chest and a slight bowing of the head.
Shaking for “No”
Two years ago, when I first came to Nepal, I was confused as to why I couldn’t get anyone to give me a straight “yes” when I asked a question. Entering a restaurant, I would ask “Can I sit in the garden?” The waiter would tilt his head from side to side––the way one in the US might do to signify an unenthusiastic “I guess so.” I would walk towards my seat wondering, is the garden usually closed? Am I not actually allowed to sit there? Soon enough I caught on that the side-to-side motion is equivalent to the western head nod. It’s a testament to how difficult it is to unlearn body language that even though I myself now do the Nepali head motion instinctually, it still doesn’t create the same immediate recognition of “yes!” for me as nodding of the head would.
If sharing a drink with someone, it is a big no-no to put your mouth on the bottle. Meaning that if there is any chance you will share your drink at some point, you must pour the bottle from above your mouth. Yes, this results in a lot of spillage the first ten times or so. But, with practice, you get the hang of it. I watched one woman in awe as she chugged a bottle of water without spilling a drop or touching her mouth to the rim. If you don’t think this is as impressive as it sounds, please try it at home––but make sure you have some napkins on hand to mop up the mess.
Right Hand Only
As in many cultures, the left hand is considered unclean. (Think about our own shaking with the right hand). When handing anything to someone, it is customary to use your right hand while placing your left on your right elbow––making the shape of an upside down 4. This applies to almost every situation, from paying to passing a water bottle. The same applies if you are on the receiving end as well.
What Year Is It?
Nepal follows the lunisolar Bikram Samwat calendar (BS), which is 56.7 years ahead of the western Gregorian calendar. The New Year occurs around mid April. Today is Jestha 5 2071.
Last weekend, I was invited to attend a fashion show with my Nepali friend, Rashmi. It was a formal affair, attendees dressed beautifully, the crowd spotted with celebrities. We arrived at 5:30pm, the start time according to our tickets, and then waited around in a nearly empty courtyard for two hours until the organizers finished setting up and everyone else arrived at 7:30pm. As Rashmi very correctly noted, the interesting question is did the organizers know that the guests would be late or did the guests know the organizers would be behind schedule? This conundrum appears to be at the crux of what is known as Nepali Time.
Dhal Bhat 24 Hour Power
Possibly the most flummoxing part of Nepali culture for foreigners is the national meal: dhal bhat. The meal itself is delicious, a mountain of rice (bhat) accompanied by small portions of curried vegetables, pickled tomato, and a bowl of thin lentil soup (dhal). You make each bite as you go, pouring a bit of dhal over a bit of bhat, and adding some vegetables. The accompanying sides can vary, but essentially the meal is found in every village in the country. Most Nepalis eat this meal twice a day, every day, for their entire lives. At 10am and 8pm, it’s dhal bhat time.
This isn’t to say that dhal bhat is the only food specific to Nepal. The Newars (a caste of Nepal that heavily populates Patan, where I am living) have delicious “snacks” that range from buff choila (cubes of chewy buffalo meat in a spicy ginger-garlic mix) to peanut sandeko (chopped peanuts with tomato, onion and spices). Nepal is also famous for momo––dumplings that can be found on almost every street corner and in every restaurant. My favorite are buff kothey momo, buffalo panfried dumplings served with a spicy dipping sauce.
This Kathmandu version of Pharrell's Happy gives a very good sense of what the city is like!