By Craig Greenman
(Visiting Professor of Philosophy, King’s College)
Letters from Kathmandu
Letter #2: Panchkhal
Dear family and friends,
I’d like to continue my narrative from my first letter, about this past weekend in Nepal. I hope that’s all right.
First off: Until the wedding, I was fortunate enough not to have any stomach problems; I was eating almost exclusively at King’s College and at my bed and breakfast, where G., K.’s wife, does incredible authentic Nepali cooking – spicy, but not too hot, and not sickness-inducing. The exception was some indigestion after drinking sweet Nepali tea (a.k.a. chai), which had milk in it. (When I lived in Paris twenty years ago, it was the unpasteurized milk that finally did me in.)
At the wedding, however, I drank “muy” or “gurt” – liquid yogurt. Either it or the fresh fruit made me sick. I took them because folks insisted I do and I didn’t want to refuse their hospitality. In the case of the fruit, the man dressed like James Caan (see my previous report) came all the way across the property to take me into a small cottage and offer me sliced apples and grapes. I was told in no uncertain terms before I left the USA not to eat anything that had been washed, but I didn’t want to refuse what was an extraordinary kindness, given that very few other people at the wedding were eating fruit. If I’d refused, I would have looked ungrateful; and I didn’t know enough Nepali language to explain. So I ate the apple, hoping that the water exposure would be minimal, and carefully gave away the grapes. (I was sitting on a bed near where the women had gathered before the wedding; they begin on the inside, while the men begin on the outside.)
I ended up getting very sick the next day, during the King’s College visit to Panchkhal. I still have quite a bit of pain in my stomach, and I’m getting a lot of you-know-what. I think it’s the chance of getting sick that keeps a lot of people from “immersing” themselves in another culture; but if you want to experience how folks really live, you have to be willing to take risks. That goes for subcultures, too – including, say, the bar culture of the USA, where to feel what the “locals” feel, you have to be willing to drink things that, come the next day, won’t “agree” with you. And here, if you want to be a traveler – someone who enters the fray – not just a tourist, you’ve got to take chances.
Our King’s College team, made up of seven faculty and staff members, wanted to immerse itself, too, in Panchkhal, a small city outside of the Kathmandu Valley. But due to Covid, we visited for only one day. Panchkhal is known as a farming community, and we met one farmer who had a beautiful place that she managed with her husband. They grew potatoes (I assume: that’s the main crop of Panchkhal), corn, cucumbers, and other veggies. (One funny note: Traditionally, you’re not supposed to point directly at a cucumber in Nepal; it will shrink and die. So you point with your thumb tucked through two fingers, the index and adjacent finger.)
The farmer reminded me of another woman I’d seen while picking up K.’s family for the wedding, in very different circumstances. She was sitting on a street corner in Bhaktapur, near Kathmandu, with vegetables laid out on a blanket. She was competing against a vegetable store just a stone’s throw away. I don’t know her ethnicity – she looked almost Tibetan – but she had the same physiognomy as the Panchkhal farmer. But where the latter was young and successful, the Bhaktapur woman was old and struggling. She had to cover her face with a scarf as diesel trucks roared by. (I also saw women that day carrying loads of hay on their backs; they had a strap around their foreheads, so that they could use not only their backs, but necks, to carry the load. Rural life in Nepal, at least for the poor, must be very hard.) The Panchkhal farmer told us that farming was deep in her ancestry, but she’d only learned to farm recently, by watching YouTube videos. She was an impressive person, in part because her farm was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, with raised beds and little paths for the irrigation. I couldn’t believe she and her husband had done all the work; it looked like a lot. Such a nice place.
We also visited a public college and talked with two senior administrators who told us the history of the city, including its relatively recent feudal economy. We discussed the conflict between public and private schools as well. I am told – but there’s disagreement about this – that private schools are generally superior to public schools in Nepal. But they have many times the resources, so how can the publics compete? Unfortunately, this college had trash on its campus, near its restrooms – which I’d become intimately familiar with (see below) – as well as dirt and rubble. I assumed the rubble was from the 2015 earthquake – and there’s nothing you can do about that – but the trash was hard to understand.
All of the conversations were in Nepali, so A., my former student who now works at King’s and who brought me here to Nepal, translated for me. It was during all of this that I had my first attack of stomach sickness. I suddenly appreciated what he and my other former students had taught me, just two nights before, about Nepali bathrooms . . .
In Nepal, most people don’t use toilet paper. Instead, they use water: They reach in and clean up; then they wash their hands afterwards. They think toilet paper is a bad way to get clean; it smears the sh*t around. When my Nepali students came to the U.S., they were astonished that we only used toilet paper. It was dirty, from their point of view.
The restroom in Panchkhal was the first time I had to do things the Nepali way: Use a wet hand to clean myself after going “number two,” then wash my hands afterwards. The problem was that the restroom only had an empty water bucket. So I had to step outside (after pulling up my pants) to get water from a tap that a young man happened to be using for a stand-up bath . . . I excused myself, filled my bucket, and went back inside and cleaned up. All this, incidentally, happened over a non-seat toilet, a hole that you stand over and squat. It was a new experience for me, and not exactly at the best time.
I found more amenable facilities at the mayor’s office in Panchkhal. The mayor was a King’s College alumnus, and he’d gotten a glowing review recently in a Nepali newspaper. We found out that he had aspirations to become the mayor of Kathmandu; he was from the Nepali Congress Party, the center-left party here. He kindly switched over into English at various points, in part to talk about his mayoral aspirations. He wanted a photo with me afterwards – I guess he thought I was somebody important; I didn’t have the courage to tell him he was mistaken.
Generally, the people here, especially at King’s, have been very interested in me and in what I have to say. I feel very special and important, and it’s a really good feeling. The fact that so many people speak English is also huge: It makes me feel less alone. I remember in Paris, the great isolating thing was not being able to have conversations in English. There’s a deep connection – as the French know – between language and identity, if only because it’s language that allows us to describe reality. When you listen to conversations in a foreign tongue and then suddenly hear words like “public” and “private,” or “motivation” and “collaboration,” they’re like flashes of lightning on a darkened landscape. Our religious and political commitments do the same: They’re the means by which we understand reality. That’s why we fight over them and why they’re so important to us, whatever they are.
Anyway, our visit to Panchkhal was interesting, and I got to see more of Nepali life. I also got to hang out with my colleagues, who are all cool to be with.
Before the trip, I’d begun to explore Kathmandu itself, as well as the city I actually live in, Lalitpur, which borders it. Lalitpur is slightly less urban than Kathmandu, but often the two feel indistinguishable; so for ease of expression, I’ll call them both “Kathmandu.”
My first visit was to a “U.S.” store (as it billed itself) for a tube of Colgate. Later I’d find a bottle of Head & Shoulders at the Bhat Bhateni supermarket, near my route to King’s College. I decided to walk to work, even though N. had offered me a regular ride, then a driver. N. got up too early; and a driver seemed decadent (I used him only once). I figured, too, if I was going to teach in this town, I’d better learn something about it.
The streets of Kathmandu are a game of Frogger. They’re packed with motorcycles, scooters, cars, pedestrians, and animals of various sorts. It takes dexterity to navigate from A to B. I’ve heard there’s an indigenous tribe in South America where suicide is unheard of; life is such a struggle, nobody would think of killing themselves. The same goes for Kathmandu streets; you never worry about being unsafe, because you’re never safe.
The brickwork in Kathmandu is incredible – I’ll have more to say about it in the future – but the sidewalks, made of hexagonal bricks, are uneven and trip you up. It’s like hiking on a forest trail; you have to step over the exposed roots. But here we have exposed wires, too: Think of a messy run of yarn, draped from building to building, with loose threads hanging down. Somebody was killed, I’m told, by hitting a live one. It’s not a great city to be tall in. (I am 6’1”, which makes me taller than most Nepalis; and my feet are too big to buy “Gold Star” shoes, made here in Nepal: I need at least a 45 – in metric – but the biggest I’ve found is 44.)
People also stare. It’s the first time I’ve been a racial minority. A. asked me, “Do you think they’re looking at you differently than whites would look at black or brown people?” I don’t know. I am unusual – which is the same innocent reason many whites look at people of color in the U.S. – but maybe they also look because they don’t like tourists (which I can understand) or they identify me with wealth (I’m not rich, but I’m wealthier than many Nepalis) or they’re angry at whites for political reasons. In any case, being ogled is the price you pay for being special. But I understand a black friend better who moved from New Hampshire to Oakland because she got tired of people staring at her. Are they looking innocently, or are they racist? This uncertainty must cause anguish for minorities; people often don’t smile when they look at you anyway, and it can make you nervous.
Stranger yet is how I’ve felt about the whites here. I traveled halfway around the world to live in Kathmandu, and I feel unique. So when I see other white people, something in me doesn’t like it: They’re unique, too. I’ve tried to smile and nod occasionally, but I typically get no response – or I can’t see it: we’re all wearing masks – except from younger, more well-dressed women. (I like that.) Sometimes the white people don’t look so good; they have dark circles under their eyes, like hippies who got stuck. It makes me wonder: Is this a healthy place for a white boy like me? Or is it just the price of being a minority, any minority?
Then a I hear a BEEP! BEEP! HONK! HONK! and a motorcycle flies past and I forget about all these abstract questions. Because I have to survive. And the primary fact of the streets of Kathmandu is noise. (I feel like the Grinch: “Noise, noise, noise, noise!”) I’m told it’s better than it used to be; if so, it must have been pretty bad. Imagine sitting at a green light in the USA for, say, half a minute, and how people would honk at you.
I now walk into traffic – the correct way here is with the traffic – because the motorbikes and scooters beep to let you know they’re coming. Some treat it like a video game, swerving and cutting through pedestrians. It’s against the law in Kathmandu to use the horn; but I’m told the government wrote the law so broadly that many drivers ignore it. Law-abiding, as I’ve said, is more or less optional in Nepal; and that means, ironically, that drivers don’t know, rounding a corner, if the driver coming the opposite way will stay in their lane. So they have to honk . . .
I’ve only seen one police car in Kathmandu, a Toyota pick-up, and it was a shambles. I’m not a big fan of police power – in New Hampshire, they’re everywhere, at least on the roads – but in Kathmandu, the police are almost nonexistent. The best they can do is set up a roadblock and stop you. Even then, they often stand around at the roadblock and chat with each other, or use their phones.
But if noise is the primary fact of Kathmandu’s streets, the most striking thing may be the dogs. I’d heard a lot about the stray dogs before I came – they’re legion here – and I was expecting the hounds of hell. They’re actually quite nice. They look like the average American mutt, with mixes of Labrador and beagle and shepherd and so on. A. tells me he’s been bitten four or five times – he’s a jogger and presents, perhaps, a moving target – but I find them friendly or indifferent; and they cheer me up with their smiles. (It helps that I had rabies shots before I came.)
Most strays seem to adopt a home or a business, or are half-adopted by them. They’ll sit outside and wait for scraps; they live on the porch, so to speak. My sense is they split the streets into territories, unconsciously, with just enough dogs for the amount of food available. They can get very aggressive when another dog intrudes – I’ve seen four or five go after an interloper – or when they’re attached to a house and you get too close.
While the strays can bark in the middle of the night, like coyotes, it’s the “kept” dogs that make most of the noise in Kathmandu. And these dogs bark incessantly. It’s the worst thing about the city, besides the trash. Many people buy dogs for their barking; it’s considered a “security” measure. But how much security is it if all the dogs are barking? It reminds me of car alarms in Southern California, or a kennel, as an animal-loving friend told me.
And the owners sometimes treat their dogs abominably. We have a Doberman next door; he’s kept outside on a tiny, pee-stained patio, which is literally brown with his urine. It’s far too small, and he runs in tight circles, wanting to be let outside or inside. He barks in the morning and late into night. I feel bad for him, and for me: He wakes me up. As I write this, a few kids are playing in our alleyway, and the Doberman is just going nuts, wanting to play. It breaks your heart. A second dog in our neighborhood also gets left out and barks nonstop . . . And I saw a third dog in a cage on my way to work; and that dog was barking, too . . .
One comes to the conclusion that the stray dogs, for all of their problems – I saw one the other day who was probably dying; and when the Covid lockdown comes, they likely won’t be fed as often – live better lives than some of the “kept” dogs. The opposite is true of the stray cows, which are also part of the cityscape here. Cows are a sacred animal for Hindus – I saw a near-collision of three scooters trying to avoid one the other day – but they sometimes look sickly and thin, and they root around in garbage. I watched one being harassed by a flock of crows, swooping in to compete for a pile of trash. Tough streets . . .
But that’s enough analysis. Like I’ve said, I’ve only been in Kathmandu a short time, so my judgments may be underdeveloped or wrong. But writing helps me process what I’m experiencing, so I hope the letters are reasonably interesting, and that you’re all doing well.