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20 January 2011

Nepal #3: Some Immediately Apparent Cultural Differences

I promise the next post will not be another list. It's just that I won't have photos/videos until the weekend so I don't want to start telling stories yet!

Anyways, there are a number of things that you notice quite soon after arrival in Nepal. These are the ones that were most apparent to me:

Sometimes there is power, sometimes there is not, and no one seems to notice.
This is mainly true in Kathmandu where the amount of power available at any given time is not nearly enough to supply the entire city. In the village there were also power outages, but these were less frequent and less important since very few things rely on power. There are scheduled outages in Kathmandu which are published in the newspaper. It's different every day, but in general there is power for about 12 hours per day. Half the city gets power at a time. The majority of the power comes from hydroelectricity, which is much less available in the dry season (now) than in the monsoon season (June/July). In all the time we were there it only rained once. Additionally, the city has seen a huge increase in population over the past 20 years. An American who has been living there said that the population grew from 1.5 to 4 million, and the infrastructure has not grown anywhere near that same rate.

Most businesses have generators that turn on when the power turns off, but these are usually only used to power a minimal number of light bulbs. For example, you can't buy any steamed beverages during outages, but you can certainly still get tea! There was something comforting in the fact that no one seemed to mind the power going out, even at night. Just strike a match, light the nearest candle, and carry on.

There are few chairs, but it is not acceptable to sit on the ground.
This was mostly true in the village (there were chairs in the guest house in Kathmandu and we generally stood during the trek). What is the solution for this contradiction? Pull up a mat! There were countless times when I would sit down on the floor in my host family's living room and my Ama (grandmother) would come out of nowhere with a little round woven mat saying basnuus, basnuus! (sit down!). In general people sit on woven mats, little wooden boards, cushions, and these fun, rungi-chungi (colorful) chairs made of bamboo and old bike tires:

I really wanted to bring one home with me, but it wouldn't really have fit in my little suitcase...

Don't even think about wearing those shoes inside!
This one was the most difficult to remember. Both the guest house in Kathmandu and the houses in the villages had certain rooms where shoes were allowed and others where they were unacceptable. In our village house, for example, it was okay to wear shoes in the kitchen/cooking area but not in the room where we slept. It was okay, however, to run around outside in barefeet and then just walk inside... this was somewhat perplexing!

Another thing to consider is what you do with your feet. In general, feet are considered juto (roughly, dirty). It's a good idea to avoid pointing with your feet and stepping over people/things. Also, your feet should never be higher than your head (or anyone else's). For example, when people meet the Dalai Lama they bow down until their heads are touching the ground to demonstrate that they consider their head to be dirtier than his feet.

When in doubt, use the right one.
This refers to using your hands. Toilets in Nepal (and India and many other countries in the east) are often a ceramic hole in the ground flushed by pouring in a bucket of water from a nearby spout. The left hand is usually used in the place of toilet paper, ideally followed by a good washing with soap and water. For this reason, people generally avoid using their left hand for anything else if possible. My friend Alberto and I counted the number of people we saw with their arms around each other during the trip and we found that the number of right-arms greatly outnumbered left-arms over someone else's shoulder. Over all, if you are giving/recieving something or eating you should use your right hand.

What if you are left handed? Karla and I asked Kusum (Nepali student that stayed in our home-stay with us) that question after we noticed that our 7-year-old host-sister was writing with her left hand. She said it's okay to be left-handed in Nepal - you just use your left hand for everything instead of the right one.

Hmmmm that's all for now, I suppose!

1 comment:

Maya said...

The eating/etc. with only the right-hand thing is the same as in India!