Reflections on Nepal
Six weeks after entering Kathmandu airport, in a state of sleepless bewilderment, it is time to say farewell to this amazing country.
It has been a privilege to be able to spend such an extended period of time in this place. It has not only given me a sense of the country and the people that live here, but has also presented a magnified version of what travelling and all it's many facets can entail. It has struck me that it is only upon revisiting a place and re-experiencing it that it is possible to understand it fully. Being in the same place with prior knowledge enables a freedom of thought that was previously impossible.
We travelled by bus from Pokhara back to Kathmandu a few days ago and it was the process of fully relaxing into the jarring and turbulent bus ride that enabled me to realise how different the experience was from our first ride, one full of trepidation.
When you arrive in a new country, especially one with very different customs and culture from your own, you are on high alert. Your priorities become danger and fear, rather than beauty and wonder. I didn't realise quite how much this was true until revisiting Kathmandu and seeing things that I had missed the first time; the second time round I knew what to expect, I was able to walk confidently and look at things with a clearer perspective. Shops were filled with things I didn't see, temples were missed, as were beautiful buildings. When you are new to a place, you are so preoccupied by working out how to cross roads safely, figuring out public transport systems, trying to remember both where you are and where you are going. You are trying to recall words you have learnt and make sure that you interact appropriately with the people you meet. You are turning down offers to purchase a myriad of items, whilst being respectful and polite. When everything is new, it can be overwhelming.
Nepali cities can be an intense place: They are noisy and polluted; traffic doesn't stop unless it has to; drivers and pedestrians alike cross roads fearlessly and in a manner that is somehow simultaneously calm, committed and crazy. Vehicles are in a perpetual rush, overtaking on treacherous mountain corners and beeping as they go. There is, however, a distinct lack of road rage; everyone drives aggressively but without the anger that so many drivers in other countries exhibit. Kathmandu is a city filled with muted colour and grandeur. There is colour present everywhere - turquoise, pinks, oranges, all shades of tropical - in shops, people's clothes, on buildings and even the decorated vehicles that people drive. However the entire city is clogged with dust. People wear dust masks and cover their faces with scarves. Shop and home owners seem either to spend all of their time fighting the dust in futile attempts to sweep it out and splash water on it or give up entirely and accept the thick grey matter that settles everywhere. Dust is also present in the mountains, in particular on the roads, with vehicles churning up clouds of it as they bump their way up the paths. I have the feeling that in the monsoon season the whole country would be so much more vibrant with the colours of nature and the objects around coming to life in a way that is impossible with the dusty particles that fly around everywhere.
When riding on the bus, I watched villages sweep by through the windows and was struck by the pace of life here. Villages are all built by the sides of the road, with homes ranging from concrete to wood and tin. People live in one room, with their whole family, and they occupy their shops from early in the morning until late at night. There is never a time that is inconvenient to bring custom and the people we have met have been sincere in their desire to provide a good quality service. People are resilient and confident and will go to great lengths to advertise, and hopefully sell, their wares. We have met people that are kind, sympathetic and who treat guests with a hospitality that I can only hope to aspire to.
There are parts of Nepali society that are hard to understand, such as the caste system. This is still active and we met people whose lives are directly affected by this. For example: one friend, in her inter-caste love marriage, has never been accepted by her husband's family. This is greatly distressing and is hard to imagine for us. The caste system puts a ceiling on children's education and can limit a person's ability to achieve or elevate their status in society. In the west, social status, and the possibility of improving one's situation, are often intertwined with money, as well as education. Family and heritage are important to people's individuality and many people cherish their family history, but it no longer plays a part in social mobility. Although we have seen signs of the caste system weakening in Nepal, it may take generations of slow change to eradicate it entirely. Nepali society is a melting pot of spiritual practices and cultural backgrounds. There are people with rich family heritage from all over the world and many religions co-exist here peacefully. Religious tolerance is widely practiced, and is even enshrined in the lyrics of the national anthem! However, political disagreements, like in many countries, can bubble to the surface. During our time in Nepal, the national and local elections have taken place. While we have been here, there have been targeted acts of political violence amidst claims of government corruption. Political groups have attempted to assassinate politicians, destroyed polling stations and enforced transport strikes. It exemplifies the passion that can run deep within this country, despite it's normally calm atmosphere.
Nepal is a country, like many, that is low on the Human Development Index but many hope that continuing political debate will be able to bring about more rapid development and change. In particular, with regards to clean running water, electricity and rubbish disposal. These are things that western cultures take for granted. In Nepal the tap water is unsafe and needs to be filtered or boiled. Many people still live without running water in their homes and share a communal water source. What this means is storing water in big buckets in the home and carrying water to and from the shared tap/drain. This is something that is hard to imagine back home. As are regular power cuts, due to overloaded electricity power lines. It is something that Nepali people, as with many other daily hardships, take in their stride. As for the rubbish situation, this is the one thing that I found difficult to comprehend throughout my time in Nepal. There are a shortage of bins and there are no centralised waste collections. Instead, families burn their rubbish in the street, by the river or anywhere there is space. There is also a lot of litter on communal ground, even surrounding sacred monuments such as temples. Recycling is not present, save for resusing and refilling soft drinks bottles. Having said this, out of the '4 Rs' of recycling (Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle) Nepal is definitely in the lead compared to Britain: nothing is wasted, and things are only discarded when they have no possible further use. Nevertheless, clearing up the environment and introducing recycling would greatly improve the beauty of Nepal. The impressions of Nepal will last what I hope is a life time. I will be left with the smells of dahl bhat, sounds of horns beeping and roosters crowing, sights of mandalas and mountain sunrises. It is a country that has offered me warmth, walking and the opportunity to reflect deeply on pedgagogy and education, as well as society as a whole.