By: Laura Schmitz
Well, my trip is winding down now and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to head back to the good old U.S. of A to my home, family and friends. However, it is bittersweet, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in Nepal, most especially getting to know and work with our team here. I will miss seeing them every day in person, having coffee and chats and being able to walk over and discuss an issue or item face-to-face. Being here gave me an understanding our operation and being able to visualize them and our space will help immensely. I’ll definitely be Skyping with them regularly from now on.
Samar recently asked me what I’m going to miss most about Nepal, and I said the people, culture, being treated so well by everyone I meet and the incredible history that can be seen at every turn. What I won’t miss: dust, torn up roads and sidewalks, taxi drivers and being seen as a walking dollar sign wherever I go.
This last week my husband and I were finally happily reunited to enjoy Nepal together. It was interesting to see his first reaction, as I imagine it was very similar to mine the first day. As I casually pointed out the sites, he was white-knuckled, reeling at the crazy traffic and pointing out cows on the road. This time, I was the one who shrugged, like, big deal, a cow, here’s a temple, there’s a stupa, yep that’s a whole family riding on a motorbike, keep up Jim! I apologize, I won’t be able to fully do the last seven days any justice, as it was a whirlwind of showing my husband all of the sights, but also some great new adventures when John, Brenda, Phi and Lee later came to town.
One of the great things about the timing of my trip was that I was able to attend Rupi and Susan’s wedding here. It actually lasts about a week, with many different events and rituals. I had the opportunity to be there for Rupi’s supari ceremony, first with Sanjib. It was a mix between a bridal shower and engagement ceremony, though the groom-to-be wasn’t there. She was absolutely gorgeous and the ceremony with her family and friends was exceedingly interesting with wonderful gifts, food and blessings. Sanjib and I enjoyed a delicious dinner and met Rupi’s family and friends and Susan’s sister. On Thursday, we were all able to attend the actual marriage ceremony, to see Susan and Rupi in their finery and witness the rituals and blessings at their auspicious time. Each marriage ceremony here relies on astrology to determine the perfect time to be married for ultimate success and happiness. Fortunately, for Rupi and Susan this was at a decent hour (mid-morning), which makes the invitation a bit hard since you have to give a time as an ‘ish’, but at least it wasn’t at 2 a.m. or 7 a.m., like some others we’ve seen and heard about in the wedding season here in Nepal. Another good reason for the timing was the tradition of the groom’s family to come with a full band processional to pick up the bride. Can you imagine your neighbors with a full band outside our house at 2 a.m.?! Susan’s family did it up right with a great band, a beautifully decorated car and the cheer and joy that the event called for. Brenda and I wore sarees to the event too. Thank goodness for Suluja! She came to our hotel to help us put them on, and if she hadn’t we would have looked like rolled up chiffon balls. She came in and whipped those things on us like a pro in about 15 minutes flat. I mean, it’s a wrap, tuck, pin, tuck, wrap, pleat, pin, tuck kind of deal. My head was spinning just trying to keep up. All I can say is that they are beautiful garments, but not the most comfortable in the world. I kept feeling like I was unraveling as I walked and the bare mid-drift isn’t really what a gal like me is comfortable with in a dark room, much less walking around in public. We wrapped up the week with Rupi and Susan at their reception on Monday night. Brenda braved the saree again and Lee wore a traditional Nepalese blouse. They were gorgeous! I opted for a western dress this time so as not to spend all my time wondering if I was showing the world things that the world doesn’t need to see. The reception was a lot of fun; we were able to talk to the happy couple for a bit, enjoy a delicious meal and see all of the family and friends who came to celebrate the event. As with the previous events it was colorful, traditional and happy. We feel privileged to have been invited to such a special time in their life and thank Rupi and Susan and their parents and family for allowing us to be a part of it.
Over the weekend, we enjoyed the beautiful city of Pokhara with our wonderful guide Sandeep. This is where Lee and Jim soundly conquered their fear of heights in the biggest way possible by jumping off a mountain to paraglide and zip line with the rest of us. The views and experience were absolutely gorgeous and in some ways surreal. The roads to get there were rough and steep and frightening in an exhilarating and we’ll be paying the chiropractor a lot of money to realign kind of way. Sandeep showed us his maternal grandparents’ home, where he spent some of his childhood. It’s a breathtaking spot in the midst of jungle and banana, papaya and pineapple trees high on top of a hill that was only paved in recent history. We stayed at a great hotel with short walks to the lake, hiked to the top of another mountain to see the Peace Pagoda and then hiked down the steep rocks to be greeted by a canoe ride back across the lake. We saw Devil’s Falls, which disappear into a deep cavern where we walked across the street and descended into that same cave to see the end and view the temples inside. John got to play some ping pong on an outdoor table with some local pros. He held his own, but not quite enough to claim victory. After a month in Kathmandu, Pokhara was a much welcomed and exceptional place to relax and see Nepal living at a slower pace while 3rd world living still peeked through with scenes of people doing their laundry in the river and working incredibly hard to cart their wares and goods to and from market.
I was reminded again about how much we take for granted. On the way up the mountain to zip line, as our jeep was hugging the very edge of a sure drop to our deaths, I realized that I had a problem. I apologize now if this is too much information, but I have to relate it so at least the women out there can get an idea of how good we have it. I’m routinely asked if I have kids and upon saying “no”, I get a quizzical look since I’m over 40, happily married, etc. Many of you know that I have a disease that prevents this blessing and that Jim and I are long over the grief about it, and choose instead to live our lives as happy Dual Income No Kids people. One of the perks of this is that I very infrequently deal with the discomfort that most women face on a monthly basis. For some ungodly reason it was, as I was headed up a mountain, on rocky terrain to go zip lining where you are required to keep your legs spread at all times, that this infrequency became a right now matter. As we reached our destination to climb a steep stairwell to the launch pad, we were in the middle of nowhere. However, there was a small shop/café selling water, pop, candy, tea, etc. and I prayed I could find the necessary supplies. I had to ask Sandeep to translate for me (not something you really want to talk to your male boss about). No supplies, but I was offered toilet paper. Great. I asked to use restroom, was shown the way and figured I could piece something together from my purse. I walked in and it was a hole in the ground! This is when I slapped myself, trying to wake up from the nightmare. I walked back out and was stopped by the woman. Apparently the use of the hole in the ground required 10 rupees. I paid her and then came to find out that there were actual restrooms at the launch site! None of the women had supplies, so I did what I could, zip-lined down, had a great time, laughed my head off and couldn’t wait to find a more comprehensive shop in town. In subsequent days, I encountered more holes in the ground with no real appropriate facilities as needed. I adapted and made it through, but I will never take for granted even the most sketchy gas station bathrooms available to us, wherever we go in the U.S.
After a great trip to Pokhara , Sandeep treated us to an evening with his family in his home. We were able to meet and talk with his mom and dad, sister-in-law and nieces. We had a wonderful homemade dinner, interesting conversation, fun with the kids, got the grand tour of their lovely home and were struck by the warmth and coziness of their family lifestyle. Everyone was so welcoming and nice; it was a great surrogate for our families waiting for us at home. We are grateful to them all for their time and hospitality.
Before attending the final wedding event, we had the opportunity to hang out with Samar and see some more sites in Kathmandu and to do some shopping. Samar was our price monitor, negotiator and overall big brother, and ensured that we all got the souvenirs and wares to remind us of our time here in Nepal. After shopping until we almost dropped, we swung by his childhood home which currently has been converted to a nursing school. It was fun to see where Samar hung out and the neighborhood where he played soccer and did all the things kids do. We were then treated to a homemade lunch at his home. There, we met his mother, father and sister. We came to find out that his mother had woken up at 4:30 a.m. to make our lunch! It was delicious and again very special to have some homemade food that clearly was made with love. They had also gotten us gifts to commemorate our time in Nepal: traditional Nepalese topis for the guys and bangles, tikas and necklaces for the ladies. We wore them to the wedding reception that night; it was a perfect way to fit in and so sweet of his family to give them to us. They were exceedingly kind, warm and interesting to talk to. We appreciated their time with us and appreciated being so warmly welcomed.
Now that I’ve gotten used to the crowds, the traffic, and seeing a cow and temple wherever I go, I’ve had the opportunity, as I drive and walk around, to pay more attention to people going about their daily lives. It’s incredible to me the diversity in activities, jobs and overall living here. For example, the other day as we were on the way to work, right in front of us was a motorbike with two people on it. The driver and the guy in back were carrying 48 dozen eggs, so there was no way for him to hang on! They weren’t putt-putting along either; the driver was gunning it whenever he could. Had that been me, there’d be a 48 dozen mess just trying to get on the bike. I don’t think I could even transport 48 dozen eggs in a car!
Cars are very expensive here, so often times the only mode of transport for a whole family is a motorbike (they aren’t necessarily cheap either), so it’s not uncommon to see mom, dad and baby in between them cruising along…. No child seat. No sling. Just holding on. I saw a whole family of five taking their three kids to school, all dressed up in their uniforms and everything. Makes you wonder why soccer moms need those mini vans or mega three row seater SUVs with DVD players… are our kids just spoiled, or are we? I mean, I have an SUV and my husband has a 4-door F150 truck, just for the 2 of us, which puts things in perspective about what I really need.
Gas or Petrol stations are radically different too. I’ve had the opportunity to stop with Ram every now and then to fill up (and by fill up, it’s never a full tank, usually about a ¼ tank each time). It’s no less crazy than the roads themselves. Everyone pulls up kittywampus to the guys who fill up the tanks (making it a brain teaser as to how to extricate your vehicle back out). This isn’t SuperAmerica or 7-Eleven folks, it is gas only; two pumps, and that’s it. There are also no regulations about what type of containers you can use, so in addition to filling up the cars, bikes and buses, people bring plastic bowls, pitchers, and the other day, I saw a guy polish off the last of the water in his bottle and then present it to be filled with gas!
It is extremely difficult to describe, via words or pictures, the sheer hustle and bustle of Kathmandu. It’s a consistent, colorful, noisy, frenetic tableau of selling, buying, transporting, building, worshipping and interacting. Within one block you can see a small shop the size of a closet with a doorway about four feet tall, selling water, candy, cigarettes and chips (all covered in dust) while next door is a full size shop selling beautiful silk sarees and other fine dress wear and walking in front is a woman with a 100 lb bag of rice strapped to her back and forehead while a guy drives by her, within inches, in a Range Rover, honking madly to get past the guy pushing a cart of nuts and fire, because a taxi has also come head on and now there’s about a ½ inch between them. Meanwhile, a motorbike cuts him off with a baby riding in front, and narrowly misses the two dogs that are running by as a cow ambles it way across the road to join the goats in the courtyard. This upsets the cage of chickens that are next to the butcher with full-size fish sitting on a table on the sidewalk, and next to him, the chicken guy with full plucked chickens laying out in all their glory as well, and then there’s the woman next to them who has laid out a number of different fruits and vegetables on blankets on the sidewalk. Down another few doors is the guy selling hardware and other household items that have spill out onto the street from his closet sized shop, while on the balcony above, a woman is braiding her daughter’s hair for school, and on the roof, a woman is beating rugs and putting laundry out to dry. So the guys from the bike shop, with a stack of tires and little else, wait for their next customer, which is bound to be any minute since the street is unpaved with sharp rocks jutting out from everywhere. The furniture store isn’t very busy, but they have about five couches and six chairs to choose from, while by contrast, the shoe shop has about three customers at once. An older man is hanging out on the stoop waiting for friends to walk by and three women with fresh tikas on their heads are walking back with their tray after leaving offerings at the temple at the end of the block, and a Buddhist is walking clockwise and chanting around the stupa next to it, oh here comes a government vehicle with police in riot gear, and the loudspeaker letting everyone know the evils of gambling and drinking, followed by a tye-dye colored water truck with a huge bumper sticker that says ‘Just Love Me’ on the back but watch out, it’s going to be awhile, because coming in the opposite direction is a huge bus overloaded with a guy hanging out the side with a wad of cash in his hand and telling everyone to move, but still offering rides in some imaginary-free space on the bus, while about six tempos are backed up behind it, hoping to snag customers that will not fit. This isn’t just one block or one neighborhood; this is pretty much every block and every neighborhood. It’s a sensory overload, because not only is all of this going on, but you also have the smell of various spices, incense, food and trash, the feel of grit and dirt that permeates everything, and the sound of honking, kids laughing and playing, and buyers and sellers haggling and music.
As relieved as I may be to get home, I have a feeling the Twin Cities are going to seem like a hick town after this, and I will miss this fascinating show I have gotten to see every day. I found out two days before leaving that I don’t have a flight out of Kathmandu as expected. I’m ashamed to say that I have not taken this news very well. After all of my experiences here, seeing what I’ve seen, you’d think that I would have realized that no matter how stressful, frustrating or disappointing something is in my life, that I could be more tolerant, patient and grateful for what I have. But alas, the desire to get home and back to my life has been stronger and even an additional day or two seems like forever. I have loved my time here. I have experienced incredible hospitality and accommodation. I have seen amazing scenery, architecture, history and the hardworking Nepalese people. I think this reaction is just coming because it’s overwhelming here. It’s a constant swirl of activity without all of the comforts of home, and frankly, it’s frustrating that I can’t help everyone here that I’d like to help who struggle everyday just to ensure they have basic necessities like water, food and shelter.
I will be returning home at some point in the next few days. I am grateful to Samar, Sandeep, Sunny and Saluja for taking their time to show me around, taking me shopping, helping me understand, teaching me, providing for transportation, feeding me, untangling problems and ensuring that I squeezed as much as I possibly could out of the goodness in Nepal. I am grateful to them and the Nepal team for putting up with my ignorant American ways and the times when I was critical or crabby just because I missed the comforts of home. Thank you John, Phi, Samar and Sandeep for the memories and the knowledge I’ve gained from this experience. I will never be able to fully express, nor repay, how much it’s all meant to me.