By Craig Greenman
(Visiting Professor of Philosophy, King’s College)
Letters from Kathmandu
Letter #1: The Wedding
Dear family and friends,
This weekend – my second since arriving in Nepal – was very full, so I thought I’d write to you about it all together. I hope you won’t mind.
On Saturday, I went to a traditional Hindu wedding, up in the “hills” (which we’d call mountains; they weren’t the Himalayas, but they were pretty high up). Then on Sunday, I visited a town called Panchkhal, in a valley among those hills, with a King’s College team.
But first, on the wedding and our journey there.
I’m continually surprised by my inability to imagine things outside of my experience. I generally think I have a good imagination; but as the philosopher David Hume would say, what we imagine is built up from stuff we’ve already seen. A few of you have experienced the things I did this weekend, but they were a first for me.
K., the manager of the bed and breakfast where I’m staying, told me his niece would be getting married on Saturday. He’d be attending, and he’d hired a guard to stand watch at the B&B. (The guard arrived in a military-style uniform, with a traditional, curved Nepali knife on his belt.) I said that was fine, because I was going on an all-weekend trip to Panchkhal, anyway. But due to Covid, the trip turned into a Sunday-only affair; so K. invited me to come along to the wedding.
Initially, we were going to ride K.’s scooter into the hills. I imagined it’d be a relatively traffic-less journey, because I’d been told that once you get outside of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal is very different. (Not true when it comes to traffic.) Still, I suggested we “hire” (i.e., rent) a car and driver, since K. said it’d take two hours and I didn’t want to sit on a scooter for that long. I’d already been on the back of a motorcycle whipping around Kathmandu; it was an exciting, but not always safe, feeling.
So we hired a car and driver. It turned out to be about $75 dollars, not bad for early morning to late evening. The driver takes you where you want to go, waits there all day, then returns you at night. But the small car I was imagining soon became a long van with about four rows of seats behind the driver, filled with seventeen of K.’s relatives, including his parents, a number of cousins, and so on, picked up in various places on our way out of the valley. I kept thinking, “There are no more people we can get in this van,” but more did indeed fit.
But eventually we got going, and hurtled up into the hills, through some of the worst traffic I’d ever seen (but it’d be even crazier coming home). Think Gonzo from The Muppets driving his chickens, barreling forward, with hairpin turns, looking over a sheer edge into the valley – except add huge construction trucks, giant screaming tourist buses, and about a million motorcycles and scooters, with one, two, three people on them, flying past you, honking, beeping, and maneuvering. I’ve learned that road lines and rules in Nepal are merely suggestive; nobody follows them. Everybody tries to get where they’re going as fast as they can, while managing, at the last second, not to kill anyone else – an uncanny mixture of self-interest and last-minute empathy that one of my King’s colleagues calls Nepali “emotional IQ.”
But nobody in the van minded; they were used to it. I didn’t mind terribly (as I said, the traffic coming back was worse), except for the exhaust fumes. I’d worn a surgical mask instead of my P95 mask, because the latter looks weird; and I thought, well, if I’m going to a wedding, I should look normal. (It turned out that almost nobody at the wedding wore a mask; the party consisted of 100 to 150 people. Initially it was going to be 700, but they cut it down because of Covid.) So I could smell the exhaust. Giant diesel trucks (not semi-trucks, but construction trucks of the “Mack” variety) belched out massive clouds of black smoke. It’s no wonder the air here is so polluted.
(A few days ago, we had a morning rain and the smog in Kathmandu cleared: We could see the Himalayas. They were spectacular. The folks at King’s College were happy; they’d been blinded for weeks because of the smoke coming from raging wildfires in the hills.)
I don’t know how anyone is a professional driver in Nepal; I’d go crazy within the first two weeks. But even my college president, N., drives in it, and he doesn’t seem to mind. It shows how differently our brains develop, depending on the conditions in which we grow up. Nepalis deal easily with a number of things – like the dogs constantly barking or the terrible trash in Kathmandu – that drive me insane. I’m sure if they came to New Hampshire, the roles would be reversed, maybe with respect to solitude and quiet.
I mention the trash because we pit-stopped at a little café in Panchkhal (to which, coincidentally, I’d be back the next day). They had a liquor store of sorts next door (many of the stores in Nepal are just little shops that open onto the street), and K., after asking me how I was doing and me replying, “It’s a lot!” – I was totally overwhelmed (I should mention that I’d been out the night before, drinking with three of my former students; I’d had three beers and a small martini at a lovely, open-balconied Newar restaurant where we could see the Himalayas). K. asked me, “Do you want a beer?” (he and most of his family don’t drink, being observant Brahmin Hindus) and I said, “Yes!” And he said, “One?” and I said, “Two.” He laughed and I gave him a 1,000 rupee note (about 8 to 9 dollars) to buy me two beers. (I never ended up drinking them: It was too bumpy and illegal-seeming in the van, and even at a “teetotaler” wedding – almost nobody drank anything – there was a festive quality that transcended alcohol.)
K. also bought a two-liter bottle of orange soda, and distributed it in little plastic cups to his family members in the van. One of them drank from his cup, crumpled it up, and threw it on the ground. I saw then, quite innocently, how there can be so much trash here. My friend who lives in Delhi says it’s the same thing in India. There are almost no trash bins – I was told that when the government put them out, they were stolen – so there’s nowhere to throw your waste; and there isn’t a great consciousness of the “circular file.” Nepali culture doesn’t seem accustomed to stuff that doesn’t degrade (like, say, a banana peel does); and a Brahmin like this passenger, poor as he was – nobody in the family had much money; they were planning to ride in the bed of an open-air truck until we rented the van; the van was “luxurious” for them, K. told me – probably wasn’t used to cleaning up. Traditionally, that’s the role of the “Dalits,” or “untouchables,” the lowest caste of Hindu society. (Brahmins are the highest caste, and some take pride in it, even if they’re poor. The caste system is gone now, officially, but like in the USA with our classes, the habits remain.)
I should note that despite the smog briefly clearing in Kathmandu, we’re back to “Very Unhealthy” air conditions today; the smog is so thick you can’t see the surrounding hills. Rain is expected later, and that should help; but given what I saw on the roads – the constant puffs of diesel exhaust – plus the fact that some Nepalis burn their trash (maybe to save money on private garbage collectors; it’s not something the government does), the smog will probably return. I should add that individuals don’t pay much tax here, so the government is poor and can’t perform basic services. If you want “freedom” – to the point of anarchy – come here. Americans who support a very small government should consider what it might look like; it may look like trash everywhere and bad air . . .
I worried about Kathmandu’s air before I came, because my mom died of sinus cancer years ago. But I must say, what I’ve experienced since I’ve been here – now to the positive – has been amazing: The country is incredible, rich and vibrant, even with all its problems: traffic, trash, pollution, barking dogs, etc. It’s been worth it, even if I keel over dead (or, what’s more likely, get hit by a taxi) tomorrow. Nepal is a love/hate thing for me at this point, but it’s amazing how the good things make up for the bad. There’s just so much life here. I’ve thought it’s a little like heaven; and if I die tomorrow, I’ll have been here briefly.
Anyway, on to the wedding.
We got up into the hills and the road became dusty, then impassable. The van bottomed out and we had to move a few rocks (one of K.’s cousins – who’d earlier stuck his head into my window and asked, “How old are you?” and when I told him, was flabbergasted I wasn’t married – did the moving). But then the driver saw what was ahead – deep craters – and refused to go any further. We had to walk the rest of the way (10 to 15 minutes). It was a beautiful walk, hot and dry, and the road was dusty (almost sand); it made me think of Sicily. They’ve had very little rain this year in Nepal, and you can see it from the tones of the landscape. But everything is terraced – they make as much as they can out of the mountainous landscape, where they grow potatoes, cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots, and rice – and there are occasional goats (and, I was told, a buffalo, but I never saw it). (For a picture of Nepali “hill” life, read the short novel, Mountains Painted with Turmeric (in Nepali: Basain, or “home,” but one where you don’t quite belong) by Lil Bahadur Chhetri.)
The house and property where the wedding was held were humble and pretty. Everything was done on the sleep slope of a mountain – a phenomenon I also witnessed on Sunday, when the King’s College team and I drove up into the hills and stopped at an organic coffee shop, set out over a valley. The Nepalis have found a way to make habitable space out of no-space, on the sides of steep topographies, like the Dutch have created space with dikes out of the ocean. Life seems to go on vertically in much of Nepal . . .
I’d never been the celebrated “American” – when I lived briefly in Paris, twenty years ago, I was less a star than an afterthought, because I was a poor student – but I experienced it at the wedding. I was given an honored place in the shade of a cottage porch, surrounded by people, on a chair (which not everybody had). Children crowded around (especially boys) and started asking me questions with the basic English they’d learned in school. I was a point of interest – due to Covid, there are few white people in the country, and this was outside of the usual tourist zone; not many tourists go to weddings in the hills. But my hosts were great, and I was reenergized by meeting them; within the first few minutes, they’d made the drive worth it.
I’ll note that Nepali children are sticklers about the pronunciation of their language. Reasonable adults accept foreign accents; they understand the fact of difference. But I annoyed the kids by not pronouncing “thau” correctly – I don’t even know if that was the word, because I never got it right . . . “Thau!” one boy shouted. “Tau,” I replied, thinking of the Greek letter. “Thau! Thau! Thau!” they all exclaimed. It became a running joke.
I was given a cup of what my hosts called “gurt,” which they thought I’d understand, being an English word for them – in Nepali, it was “muy” (which, again, I don’t know if I’m getting right; I remember Nepali words by connecting them to words I already know, in this case “muy,” or “very” in Spanish . . . and I’d end up getting muy sick from this drink). Muy is a liquid yogurt, sort of like orange juice with all the pulp. It was good. But I drank too much (it was constantly being offered to me, in lieu of water; I’d brought a couple of bottles of water, on the suggestion of N., but “gurt” was the main drink and I didn’t want to refuse it).
The crazy thing about Nepali (and other Hindu?) weddings is that everything happens more or less at once. The ceremony and reception go on at the same time. So while I’m talking to these kids, the wedding is beginning; but nobody seems to care, because you’re not required to actually pay attention at a Nepali wedding. You can talk; or watch if you want to; or wander about if you’re bored. The whole thing happened outdoors, and the ceremony lasted about five hours – which was shorter than usual because of Covid (weddings here can go 7 or 8 hours). My Nepali friends joke that the only people who don’t enjoy a Hindu wedding are the bride and groom, because they’re busy with the ceremony (with a Brahmin priest officiating and telling them all the little rituals to do; and there are many). The ceremony takes place around a small fire pit, with all kinds of colorful objects by it. I won’t go into all the details, because I didn’t see them all: There was a crowd gathered around, and then plenty of other people hanging out, eating, or dancing. Yes, the dancing at a Nepali wedding happens as the ceremony is still going on . . . The ceremony is in one place and the dancing is in another.
Most of the women were dressed in traditional outfits (red and yellow dresses, and quite beautiful), while some of the men were dressed traditionally (with the Nepali hat, or “topi”; one thinks of a rooster, which are plentiful in Kathmandu), but others wore modern or “Western” dress. One man who was particularly nice to me was dressed like James Caan in The Godfather (though he looked like Jeff Bridges; he was a very handsome man). If you remember the wedding scene from The Godfather, too, that will give you a sense of the festive atmosphere. Sometimes the Nepali language, an Indo-European tongue, reminded me of Italian or Spanish.
I stole away occasionally (I was sometimes overwhelmed) to walk along the road and look at the valley. (And to go to the bathroom: I was too shy to go into the house and ask for a restroom.) On my walks, I invariably met up with others who were taking a break (one teenage girl told me she didn’t like weddings; they were boring and too long) or just arriving. There was a great diversity of opinion about weddings themselves; Nepali folks, like us, differ from each other; and the worry about a story like this is that you’ll end up seeing them all as “Nepalis,” when they are human beings, with all their quirks and differences.
One young man – he was thirty or so, and one of the only people who could speak English – had been a hiking guide until his brother, also a guide, was killed in a landslide. Now he was an organic farmer, doing his best, he told me, while his sister worked in Denmark and sent money home. That’s a common way that Nepalis earn money: by working in other countries; about a quarter of the country’s GDP comes from remittances. The young man took driving jobs occasionally, too. He lived a simple life with his wife and two kids, he said, and he was happy. He looked happy. He taught me a lot about Nepali life in the short time we talked. It’s great to find somebody who speak English, not because they’re well-educated, but because they’ve come upon it in their jobs or are self-taught. They can give you a better sense of the average person’s life than some of the more educated people. We each know the life we lead; and educated people know theirs.
Red and yellow . . . After the ceremony, I ended up with the red and yellow thread bracelet I’m wearing now. I received the tikka (for Americans: the red dot on my head) and bracelet from the Brahmin priest who’d officiated at the wedding, as I knelt down by the fire pit. I actually got two tikkas: one of red with some yellow, and the other black, which K. tells me – he got both, too – lets the negative energy out. K. himself wouldn’t eat until he’d received the tikkas, as I guess that’s what devout Hindus do (?); he had to help with the ceremony all day on an empty stomach.
I’m beginning to tire as I write this – as I’m sure you are, reading it; it’s long – and we all did, too, at the wedding. But before that, the dancing began and I was dragged out on a patio with a mother whom I’d been talking to earlier. (Her son had been one of the kids.) She was a lot of fun and I was shy to dance but I did all right. K.’s father (60-something? though he looked older; he’s probably had a hard life) pulled me onto the dance floor; and he danced, too. K.’s sister was the main dancer, and K.’s family seemed to be more outgoing than most. Like in the USA, most of the attendees were too shy to dance, and there was no booze to encourage them; but unlike most Nepali Hindu weddings, I’m told, there was no band, due to Covid. (We heard another wedding across the valley that did have a band; K. told me that many people were getting married that day, which partly accounted for the traffic.) The only music we had came from a speaker run by a bunch of cell phones. The young male DJs did an awful job playing the music – they kept starting and stopping it, and the dancers, who were mostly women, had to keep starting and stopping, too. It felt like Kathmandu traffic, with everybody trying to get his favorite song on and nobody getting anything.
When I danced, everybody thought it was hilarious. Another point of hilarity for them: Earlier that day, they gave me what ended up being a sort of hard candy, made, I believe, from ground rice and cinnamon (or something like it). I thought I was supposed to chew it, but I couldn’t bite into it and everybody laughed. Later that day I found out you were supposed to suck it; and it took a long time to suck. I made the joke that it was a good candy for Nepali weddings, because they took a long time, too. The joke was appreciated.
After the wedding, K. got the idea not to walk back to the van – remember that we’d had to do that last 10 to 15 minutes ourselves – and instead commandeered the truck that the family was originally going to use to get to the wedding. He got me into it, with his cousin at the helm, and we barreled along – again, way, way up, hundreds of feet, curvy, with no guardrails – picking up his family members on the way (who jumped in the cargo bed). We made it back to the van.
It was night now, and the traffic jams coming home were like none I’ve ever experienced. Think Mad Max plus Blade Runner, except with two giant vehicles trying to pass on what looks like (and is) a single-lane road; and drivers yelling at each other and you and the entire oncoming lane filled by cars going the wrong direction . . . Meanwhile, K’s family is in the back, singing songs and laughing. I was gripping the seat. On the way there, K. had asked me, “Are you bored, sir?” – despite my insistence that he call me by my first name, because we’re equals and he knows much more about everything here, he insists on calling me “sir,” part of the hierarchical assumption that still exists in Nepal despite people, including K., saying all are equal) – and I said, “No, I am definitely not” . . . They’d honored me by giving me the front seat, so I could see all the action.
Several traffic jams and roads suddenly ending in dirt and relatives dropped off later – oh, and we also stopped briefly for some “medicine,” which turned out to be tobacco (a brand you couldn’t get in Kathmandu, I guess) – we arrived home. I was exhausted, and the driver looked terrible. I gave him a tip, which at first he didn’t understand – you don’t give tips on trips like these – but I thought, this guy saved my life. (And remember, against the habits of my American mind, all this was happening on the left-hand side of the road.) My mind, coming back, was saying, “I hate Nepal, get me the f*ck to bed.” Of course, the next morning I felt better; one has periods of intense love and hate for this place. But the love comes back when you remember the good stuff. It was a miserable beginning and end, but a wonderful middle; and the mix – Nepal is extreme in everything – seemed par for the course.
So that’s my wedding story.
I hope you’ll forgive me the long letter, but as you can see, there were a lot of details. I also hope it wasn’t too self-indulgent; I wanted to give you a sense of the wedding and the travel. And remember I’m only an ignorant observer who’s been in Nepal very briefly; so many of the things I’ve said could be wrong.
Anyway, I hope everybody’s well and the snow is gone!