The first person you meet when you go abroad is yourself.

31 08 2010

I’m paraphrasing E. M. Forster for this post’s title, because the quote may end up being the main theme of my travels after “ke garne”. Forster was a great traveler and spent a good amount of time in India, whose culture is similar to Nepal’s in many ways, both being predominantly Hindu nations (if you haven’t read a Forster novel, I highly recommend it. If you’re not a reader, several of his works have been made into very good films such as A Passage to India, A Room with a View, Howard’s End, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Maurice). Forster’s quote foregrounds the best reason to travel anywhere, because you learn (or re-learn) so much about yourself. I’m learning so much and I’ve only been here 2.5 weeks! Imagine how “smart” I’ll be after 5 months.

With my internet down for most of last week and without hot water for the last 2 days (going on 3), I’ve had plenty of opportunity to adjust to doing without. My refrigerator shuts off several times each day so that my food remains a few degrees above room temperature, at best. This  forces me to carefully consider my grocery purchases and to shop more often. All of this and we’re not even to the post-monsoon season electricity rationing period yet when I’ll only have 4-8 hours of power each day. But then, I actually have a computer with internet access, a small water heater that provides enough for a 5-minute shower, and a refrigerator. I’m lucky.

In my last 2.5 weeks, I’ve seen and heard the horrible and wonderful.

  • My daily walk to the campus where I’ll (theoretically) be teaching takes me past at least 2 beggars afflicted with leprosy, and more beggars with other unidentifiable social and medical problems.
  • Nearly every cab ride with a driver who speaks English involves the telling of his life story and in these life stories, there is always death, disease or family strife with occasional happy moments.
  • I was eating lunch the other day in a lovely little cafe when I heard a dog being hit by a car. There are stray dogs everywhere and accidents (or purposeful poisoning of dogs) is fairly common.  The dog began yelping and I ran out to find her but she must have slunk into an alley or dark corner, as animals do when they’re sick. There was nothing I could do, so I ate the rest of my lunch while listening to the yelping slow to a quiet whimper, until it stopped.
  • A local ethnic group living near the garbage dump is protesting their conditions by blocking dump access so garbage is piling up on street corners everywhere. Cows have emerged from nowhere to feast throughout the city, which is beautiful and sad.
  • Teenage boys in a tourist neighborhood accosted me for money. I noticed their bags of glue immediately. Click here for more on Kathmandu’s glue-sniffing street children.
  • Boys of about 7 years, one carrying a baby in a sling on his back, wove through multiple lanes of heavy traffic begging for money and playfully pushing one another. The baby nearly toppled from the sling with each shove. If I gave them money, would they also sniff glue?
  • Out of work necessity, I bought a computer printer yesterday. The salesman unpacked the printer, installed the ink cartridge, demonstrated every feature of the machine and its use, and printed a test page for me before re-packing everything. If I had brought my laptop with me, he would’ve installed the printer driver as well. Even American Geek Squads don’t provide this kind of service when customers purchase electronics.

And these are only some of the highlights to meeting myself.

Garbage pile

Growing pile of refuse near my apartment.

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9 responses

23 11 2010
Anna

Kathryn,

I know that you posted this long ago, but I read it again and wanted to leave a comment.
As I’ve told in already, I’m an international student from Sweden, and I think it is very true that you learn about yourself when you travel to other countries. I didn’t know anyone here before I came, but there are so many friendly people here, and I have several friends in Iowa now. Even though USA is different from Sweden, it’s not the same change as you experience during your travels. But what would you say is your greastest experience so far?

Anna

23 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Anna,

I have a Swedish friend named Anna (not so unusual a name, right?). She lives in Gotland and someday I’ll go visit her and see your country.

I’m glad you’ve met many people and made friends. Moving to a new country can be so hard. It’s like you become a baby again and have to learn everything from the beginning. Even little things that seem like they should be the same are different.

Like you, I would probably say that my greatest experience here has been the people I’ve met. Nepalis are very open and willing to help. In that sense, I’ve had many pleasant surprises, such as the taxi driver who blessed me one morning because I was his first customer of the day. Normally, you don’t think of taxi drivers as being the friendliest bunch, but having an experience like that changes you outlook, or at least reminds you that everyone has the potential of being a kind person.

29 09 2010
Mallory Singbeil

Oh my! Coming into that culture must have been a big culture shock for you. I completely agree with you about learning more about yourself while traveling. have you ever felt the urge to talk so some of the people about the different issues that you have discussed. For example, talk to the group of boys sniffing glue?! That seems crazy to me. Do you like being able to experience out of the ordinary occurrences on a daily basis? I see in the picture you posted the amount of garbage pilling up outside your apartment, that would drive me nuts. Do you see any distinct culture style in any of the art work you are seeing? Has any of the Nepal culture grown on you?

3 10 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Mallory,

Wow – lots of questions! Yes, Nepal has grown on me. This is my second time here, so obviously it interested me enough to return. I do enjoy having unique and different experiences on a regular basis, even when I’m back in the U.S. because those experiences make the best stories! But I think your professor Jane Gilmor has had far more interesting experiences than I.

I do talk to Nepalis about some of the things I notice, but it helps to talk with Nepalis who’ve traveled outside Nepal and can relate to the “out-of-body” experience and/or have seen their culture through new eyes upon their return. One of the oddest and most unsettling experiences is returning home (in my case, to the U.S.) after being abroad because you feel a little bit like a foreigner in your own country and can see your own culture more objectively. It takes that kind of objectivity to be able to discuss your own culture with a foreigner without seeming defensive. So what I’m trying to say is that I don’t just walk up to anyone and ask, “Why do people in Nepal do such-and-such?” because it might cause offense, whereas I’m asking an honest question and I really want to know the answer. I think this is why I have so many friends in the U.S. who come from other countries, because they know they can ask me why Americans do certain things and I’ll patiently answer their question without getting defensive. Receiving the answer, “Because that’s just the way we do things here” doesn’t help people understand American culture, and when I get this answer to my Nepal questions, it leaves me feeling just as baffled.

And yes, there are cultural styles to the art. Nepal is a land of many cultures and traditions and you see a wide variety of approaches to the same subject. On the other hand, within some traditions there are regulated approaches, or “canons” (and art history term – ask Jane to explain) that define how, for example, Buddha should be drawn: his size and placement in relation to other figures within a composition. This might be similar to Jesus’ placement within Christian art and the conventions that emphasize his importance (e.g. halo over his head).

20 09 2010
Lindsey

How hard is it to see all of these things happening? Is this an everyday occurence? What is the economy like in Nepal and are your examples effects of the economy?

21 09 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Lindsey,

As I wrote, these were things I observed over the course of 2.5 weeks, so I wouldn’t say that the above are everyday sights. But at the same time because this is a different culture, I do learn something new everyday, which is why I love being here! There are many similarities between Western/American culture and Nepalese culture however even if people have the same traits, they might express them differently or if they engage in the same activities, they might for different reasons.

It’s true that Nepal is one of the world’s poorer countries but there are other factors contributing to the posted examples, including the caste and political systems. There are many individuals and organizations trying to improve situations, but change is never easy.

Nepal is a semi-feudal society even today. Their biggest industry is tourism but the last decade of political instability has kept many tourists away. That is changing as politics gets back on track and Nepal has declared 2011 the year of the tourist. Nepal is rich in biodiversity and has huge hydro-electric potential with its Himalayan-fed rivers. The past political problems forced many to flee their rural homes and villages for larger cities like Kathmandu. Some of those people are better off now and some aren’t.

Have you traveled to another country before (or even in the USA) and noted your experiences? I’m always curious to hear stories.

Kathryn

31 08 2010
crgardenjoe

We’ve not updated the “Times” much this year yet, but I am hoping you don’t mind if we include at link to your blog on our web site. You’re telling many compelling stories-and even if it’s hard to get going teaching in Nepal, you’re still teaching in Cedar Rapids!

3 09 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Yes, link away. And thanks for the encouragement and reminder that I’m still teaching somehow!

31 08 2010
jane gilmor

Whew! I’m overwhelmed and reminded of India -more so than my time in Katmandu –somehow I missed much of the darker side in Nepal, but like in so much of the world is like this –and we here are mostly oblivious! My Intro students will begin reading the blog next week and they seem an interesting a diverse group who will learn a great deal from you! onward!! msg

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