Usually, when I travel for work, I stay in a hotel. It’s different when I travel to Nepal. Here, I stay with a family at their home in Kathmandu. I could never give you directions to their house on the unnamed street in the warren of hundreds of small streets and alleys in the Battisputali neighborhood. But I could show you how to get there.
Morning noises. I lie in my bed on the third floor and listen as the house wakes up. Doors of wood and metal creak and slam. Outside, I hear the sounds of chickens, dogs, some kind of hoarse-cawing bird. Women speaking in Nepali in the kitchen building below my window at the back of the house. A man sings off-key at the top of his lungs as water sluices into his bucket from the water tap next door. Someone is whistling loudly, someone else is hawking and spitting. No need to modulate your voice – everyone here rises at dawn. All this before the rooster crows. Tinny Nepali music is playing on a transistor radio. There’s a knock on my door, followed by a cheerful “Namaste!” The tea tray is set on my bedside table. I have the first of many, many cups of tea in bed. This is how the day begins in this home in Kathmandu.
Some things have changed since I was last here in March. There is a new security gate with a buzzer, as well as a flat screen TV. Crime is a growing concern in some neighborhoods in Kathmandu.
The biggest news is the daughter has married. Like most marriages in Nepal (but unlike her parents, who made a love match), this one was arranged. Her new husband is in the Army, so the wedding procession was especially grand with a military band and an antique Nepali horse-drawn carriage. Someone told me that the only horses in Nepal are in the Army cavalry, so the only people who know how to ride are in the Army. The polo grounds in the park in central Kathmandu are, therefore, de facto used only by the cavalry. The daughter is 23 and has just finished university. Her mother thought maybe she should go to graduate school first, but she was ready to get married. Her green wedding garland, stitched in red and covered with spangles, is on the wall on the stairway to my room. It has been framed, with a wedding picture in the middle. The wedding couple wore their garlands during the three days of ceremonies. She first met her future husband about two months before the wedding. They come over for dinner and I meet her new husband. She seems happy.
The daughter has now gone to live with her husband’s family. The family I stay with also has two adult sons who are close to my own age. They live here with their parents and their own families. The oldest son just finished building a big, new house in front of the family home. The younger son and his family live in the parents’ house, which he will inherit. Property in Kathmandu is expensive, so it is better to divide what is already in the family. There is a driveway and small courtyard in the front. In the back is a kitchen garden, flowers and fruit trees. It is a small green oasis in a dirty, dusty city.
Three grandchildren live here, too. In the big new house, there is a grandson who is in 12th grade. His classes in college (upper secondary school) go from 6:30 to 11 am. The granddaughter, like my middle son, is in fourth grade and “running 9” (when she turns 10, she will be “9 complete”). Unlike my son, though, she spends 2 to 4 hours a night doing homework. The Nepali is very rigorous and the examinations are taken seriously. The secondary schools post billboards with pictures of their students and their scores on the national standardized exams. Another change since my last visit – the granddaughter is starting to help her mother and grandmother with cooking and serving meals. She shows me some of her sketches – Krishna and Disney Princesses – and gifts me with a sketch of Minnie Mouse.
Her little brother goes to preschool. He speaks Nepali, but understands English and also Hindi from watching Indian cartoons. Nepalis have an interesting relationship with India. In addition to enjoying Indian serials and Bollywood movies, they take the short flight to India if they need a vacation or an operation. Yet they set their clocks 15 minutes off Indian time so they don’t have to be on the same time zone as their much larger neighbor.
There are others who live in this household, helping with the household chores, meal preparation, laundry, washing the cars, minding the kids. There are eight people employed on this compound by my count, but there could be more or less. People come and go in a constant swirl of activity.
The water in the house is city water, but the water for drinking and cooking is delivered by tanker truck and pumped into the polytank on top of the kitchen building. It runs through a filtration system of three plastic basins – one with pebbles, one with sand and one with charcoal.
After a sunny day, there will be hot water because the water for showers is heated by solar panels. As your plane makes the approach to land in Kathmandu, you can see the sun winking off the solar panels on every roof. If the day has been overcast, though, you are out of luck and have to ask for someone to bring up a bucket of hot water for bathing.
The shortage of electricity in Nepal has resulted in load sharing in Kathmandu. Each district has electricity for 4-5 hours at a time, usually twice a day. The schedule changes every day, so you may have power from 4-8 am and 7-11 pm one day but 10 am- 1 pm and 1 – 4 am the next. The week’s schedule is on a government website somewhere, but I never know what it is. Twice already during my stay, a fluorescent light in my room has buzzed to light in the middle of the night. Our house has a backup battery, but that means that there are only lights in 4 rooms in the house. Supposedly, there are hydro-electric plants being built with the help of international community. Once these are completed, Kathmandu will have more regular electricity. Hopefully.
The power situation makes cooking difficult, but the women of the house, who share the cooking duties, somehow manage. For Nepalis, a typical meal involves dal (lentil “soup”), bhat (rice) and tarkari (vegetable curry). We usually also have at least two kinds of tarkari and sag (greens), as well as aloo (potatoes, usually fried). Often, there is also chicken but served on the side. Like my own family, this family has both vegetarians and meat-lovers in residence. I have never eaten so well. For dinner, I eat a healthy dal seasoned with turmeric and ginger that is served to women after childbirth. Punctuated by bright green scallions float, it contains fried chickpea lentils that give it a surprising crunch. At breakfast, I eat papaya from the tree in the backyard. I see grapefruits the size of my head growing there, too.
Here in Nepal, people often greet each other by asking, “Bhaat khanu bhayo?” Literally, this means, “Have you eaten rice?” but in practice it means “Have you had your meal?” Babies eat rice as their first solid food during their first rice feeding ceremony at age 5 months for girls, 6 for boys. They will eat rice just about every day of their lives.
It is winter, so the days are short in the Kathmandu Valley. Offices and schools are on winter hours, opening a little later – 10:30 instead of 10 – and closing a little earlier so people can be home by dark. There is not much nightlife in Kathmandu. During the day, if there is sun, it warms up nicely but at night it is cold. I sleep under a cotton comforter as thick as a mattress. Buildings are not insulated and floors are often marble or tile. I notice that people working in offices and stores are often wearing their coats.
Traffic is a huge problem in Kathmandu. The population grew during the conflict as internally displaced persons fled the Maoists in the countryside. Now the Maoists are in a power-sharing coalition government. The violence has ended but the coalition government is gridlocked. Nepalis have been waiting three years for a new constitution. In the newspaper today, the government promises a completion of the process within the next four months but people are skeptical. When the committee drafting the constitution gets paid by the month, where is the incentive to finish the job?
The Kathmandu population has continued to grow due to the country’s high unemployment. People come to the capital looking for work. There are now 3 million people living in the Kathmandu valley, driving too many cars and motorcycles on streets that were designed for oxcarts. The air is polluted and many people wear masks over their lower faces. Many Nepalis have gone abroad to study in India, the UK or the US or work in Malaysia and the Middle East. Every Nepali I meet has a relative somewhere in the diaspora.
Right now, in January of 2012, there is a scarcity of petrol in Nepal. I see long queues for gas and hear stories of people waiting 12-14 hours a day and still not getting to the front of the line. The government recently hiked the price of petroleum, resulting in student protests. The protesters, who are members of different political parties, called a nationwide bandh for today. Bandh, the Nepali word for “closed”, is a form of protest requiring the closing of markets and schools. It was a Maoist tactic during the conflict. Now they are in the government, but the practice continues. The headline in one newspaper is “Maoists reap the bandhs they sowed.”
No driving is allowed today. The Nepali Police, as well as the Armed Forces Police, are out in full riot gear today, but the bandh is enforced by the protesters themselves. It is strange to walk in the middle of the street, with no cars and motorcycles. There is a holiday mood, more so than yesterday – an actual public holiday. People mill around, chat, play badminton in the street. Most people support the protesters and their criticism of the government for the rising prices.
When I get back to the house, my friend waves from the second floor balcony. When we arrived last week, she was the one who opened the door and said, “Welcome home!”