Bridging U.S. and Nepalese Operations: My First Week in Nepal

by Laura Schmitz, VP of Operations


Well, my first full week is almost over.  I feel like I’ve experienced more this week than I have in the last five years of my life! All at once, it seems like it’s been a year since I landed, but it also feels like it was just five minutes ago. This week I’ve experienced an earthquake – yes, a quake! One thing that didn’t seem to come up in my extensive study of Nepal or Kathmandu was the fact that it has some of the most active seismic activity in the world. They typically have the “big” one every 80 years or so (the last one was 1934) and knowing my luck, they may want to escort me out of here in the interest of national security. It was weird, since I was sitting at dinner and felt it, even saw stuff moving, but no one reacted or even paused, so I thought it was just me being paranoid. Samar had just told me this little tidbit about 1934, until I found out it really happened and it was a 5.7 on the Richter scale. I mean, imagine just being so used to EARTHQUAKES that you don’t even blink or pause your conversation!

 I’ve started to settle into a routine. I go down for breakfast at Manaslu, say hello to all of my friends there, have a coffee and then head out to the courtyard to wait for my ride. As soon as I start hearing beep, beep, beep I know the Ram is here. Apparently, hitting the horn is as natural to them as turning on a blinker is for us. Each morning, we sail through the streets of Kathmandu on our way to pick up Samar, Sunny & Arza. After a couple of days, he let me know that he’s a smoker too, so we enjoyed a smoke together every morning and on the way home. He even stopped just to buy me a Nepali cigarette the other night, I’m going to stick with Marlboro.

You’d think we’d see the same things and it would be hum drum after a full week, but that’s far from the reality. Each morning is something new, whether it’s a herd of cows crossing through in a busy intersection, fruit vendors struggling through the construction on their bikes, which defy the laws of gravity, the cages upon cages of chickens lining the road, awaiting their fates for some passerby’s dinner that night, or the straw vendors walking through town with impossibly large bags strapped to their backs and anchored to their heads. Some days, the roads are somewhat smooth, but the very next day it’ll look like a bomb hit it with piles of gravel and new holes, which create an even more precarious game of chicken with on-coming traffic. There are temples and shrines seemingly on every corner. Some have trees growing out of them while others are just little windows on the side of the wall, but they’re all amazing.

On Wednesday, we drove past a rather busy intersection and saw the Nepalese police, just standing there in full riot gear with their shields up, while people just whizzed by on motorbikes, buses, Tuk Tuks, bicycles and vehicle-like contraptions. I asked Ram what was up and he just shrugged and said “Police”.   On the way home that same night, Sanjib was giving me a lift and we saw what I think might have been the one and only stop light in the city; it was red and everyone just kept going through it. Apparently, the concept just wasn’t catching on. We were stopped in traffic at a busy intersection, with no traffic light, so the police stood on these little covered platforms in the middle doing their best to direct traffic.  A motorbike tried to sneak by and the police man hopped off the stage to go scold him. He kept telling the guy to pull over and wait to be ticketed (I think) and all of a sudden the guy just took off while the policeman chased him on foot. The policeman almost caught him, since everything is at a complete standstill, without room to even squeeze by if you were 80 lbs soaking wet, but all of a sudden he jumped up on the curb and got away. It was hilarious.

The cutest thing that happened this week was being serenaded by Arza on the way to the office while she sang “Call Me Maybe”. I had sworn that after ASA, and listening to and seeing the Avionte video on a continuous loop, that I would never listen to that song again, but she is just so darn cute and knew all of the words.  She loves the Avionte version and watches it all the time. It’s how she has managed to memorize all of our names. Her favorite moves are Nathan’s and Mike Ferrazzo’s and she tries to replicate them. Each morning she fills me in on her life and thoughts, it’s adorable. At only 28 months, she has quite the vocabulary and can carry on a full conversation with no problem. Samar and Sunny will sure have their hands full when she reaches full negotiation and debate stage!

One day we were on our way to lunch from the office and right there across the little road were two cows, just hanging out.  I mean, this is like a downtown area…the building is eight stories and the other buildings are the same and there were two cows!! I took a picture and told the Nepal team that we certainly don’t have something cool like anywhere near our office in Eagan!

It’s very important to me to do my best to ensure that  I’m being respectful of the culture and etiquette here and despite my big mouth, no nonsense personality, I do my best to try to fit in and not make any waves.  But after five days, my hotel room hadn’t been cleaned. The trash was overflowing, and I was getting low on supplies, particularly towels and toilet paper. I wasn’t sure what the scoop was or if this was normal. I certainly wasn’t expecting daily turn down service, but five days is quite a while. So I asked Samar and Sunny and they too were surprised and told me to just ask at the desk. So the next day, I walked up to the desk and politely asked if I could get my room cleaned. Turns out that they were wondering what the hell I was doing in there, since apparently you’re supposed to turn in your hotel key when you leave in the morning, so they can access your room to clean it! Awkward.

I have been doing some actual work this week as well.  It’s been fun training the new hires when I can. We’ve made it through to the back office and they are a really smart crew. It’s been great to walk around the office and see what everyone is up to and to help when and where I can to clarify or just give a high five for all of the team’s hard work.  We’ve been working on fine tuning the operation in the office, and I am excited about the new initiatives that we’ll be implementing.  Everyone has been very warm and welcoming to me. 

After work tonight, while waiting for Ram, Samar and I were standing on the street chatting and four children walked up and just started staring at me. All of a sudden the youngest one yelled out “Hi” and ran around. I said hi back and they all started giggling. Apparently, they got a real kick out of seeing and talking to a “real” American. 

So tonight, I really got myself into a weird situation. Around the hotel neighborhood, there are a number of cafes, restaurants and bars. I have only ventured out once or twice after dark, choosing instead to eat at the hotel at night or in some cases, to just skip dinner. Anyway, I ventured out tonight to stock up on cigarettes (less than $2.00 a pack!) and to find a hair dryer. I’ve been rocking some really weird hair without one.  On my way back, I stopped into a restaurant that touted the fact that it’s a “family restaurant” but there was no indication about the type of food, so I figured, what the heck?  It’s up a couple flights of stairs and I was greeted by a guy hanging out on the stoop; he kind of gave me a weird look but led the way into the place.

It was dimly lit with some red lights, but there were tables ready for dinner. At first, I didn’t realize that I was the only woman in the place who wasn’t working. So I chose a table and was immediately greeted by three women, dressed identical in green saris, and was asked what I’d like. A menu was shoved in my face and because of a lack of lighting they pulled out a flashlight so I could see the menu. They all stood there waiting for my decision and holding the flashlight. Feeling a little awkward, and more than a little under the gun, I quickly decided on a glass of wine and a chicken dish. They called over a guy (who seemed like the manager) and then he called a guy and had him go get my order under way.  Then the women moved about half a foot away and stood there.

By this time, I had a chance to look around and realized that not only was I the only person eating, but I was also the only foreigner and the only woman.  At the same time, a bunch more women in green saris started coming out of some back room.  I mean, they just kept streaming out. All of a sudden, I was literally surrounded; I counted 12 in all. My table was like a little island within this fortress of women in green saris. All of the men sitting at the bar and lounge area were just staring at me. Feeling more than a little self-conscious, I wasn’t sure what to do or where to look. Then the music started. At first, I thought it was just a little ambience, but then it got louder and the beat picked up and suddenly there were strobe lights and laser lights and a woman stepped out, scantily clad and started dancing!! I panicked, was I in a strip club??? I didn’t see any money being exchanged but the men were watching her pretty intently. Then more and more men started coming out of the mysterious back room and taking seats at the bar and surrounding tables. The women in green saris started closing in on me, smiling and staring at me. Were they protecting me, trying to draft me into this weird club? One after the other, songs played and different women came out to dance. Thankfully, they all kept their clothes on. But after each dance, there was no clapping and I became the center of attention by everyone in the place until the next one. The women just stayed right around my table. I had no idea what was going on or what to do. I waited and waited for my chicken dish, trying not to guzzle my wine out of sheer nervousness. And finally it came. I ate more quickly than I should have (I had everyone staring at me), got my bill and high-tailed it out of there. I still don’t have any idea what had happened there or what it was…..but I can’t wait to take John and Brenda there!  J

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