I arrived in Nepal a few hours late, due to delays in Abu Dhabi and was extremely tired, but to be reunited with Rajan and Manoj after 2 months injected some excitement and energy back into me. They took me to Manoj’s home where all the Roots & Shoots members were waiting with a welcome party for me and good bye party for Manoj’s sister, Prabha, who would be leaving for Japan in a couple of days. We ate the best Black Forest cake I have ever tasted in my life and then talked until the early hours. I woke up the next day still in shock that I was finally in Nepal and eager to get my hands dirty.
These first two weeks have been very relaxed as the Roots & Shoots boys have been taking some well earned time out. But we have released a couple of snakes back into the wild and force fed some poorly snakes, including a very feisty speckled cobra. I have been introduced to the adorable yet very dangerous leopard cub Milestone, we held a Roots & Shoots recruitment workshop where I gave a speech about my Roots & Shoots experiences and we have visited the Shivapuri National Park, where we climbed up to 2000m and I got my first glimpse of the lesser Himalayas. The last two weeks have been in no way uneventful, I have had to adapt to a dramatically different culture that is by no means an unpleasant one.
The Nepalese culture is very social and communal; I was amazed at how many different faces come in and out of the house on a daily basis. Cousins share beds, friends share beds, brothers share beds, sisters share beds, everyone bunks up as much as necessary, but boys and girls never share and very, very rarely share the same room. Everyone is very close, there are no sofas so everyone lounges on one another on the cushions on the floor and boys hold hands when they walk down the street, which I find a little strange but this is normal practice for male friends. An interesting observation that I have made of the family structure is the lack of hierarchy – there does not seem to be a head of the family. Everyone is fully informed of any issues and makes a valued contribution to any decision.
There is a saying in Nepalese culture that ‘Guest is God,’ which means that I am not allowed to make any contribution to the house work, cooking or cleaning which I find very difficult as I wish to help as a way of thanking Manoj’s parents for their hospitality. The Nepalese are in fact extremely accommodating, which ever friend’s house we visit we are offered chiya (tea) and khani (food) even if there are ten of us. When we went to Manoj’s friend’s house his sister-in-law cooked for all 8 of us, plus the rest of the family – rice pudding, pudi (a type of bread), and spicy potato. It just so happened that on this particular day, 15th Shrawan, it is believed that if you do not eat rice pudding you will become a caterpillar in your next life. I am not so sure that being a caterpillar would be such a bad life, but the rice pudding was so delicious that I ate it all.
Many people, particularly young educated people can speak English, so I have many conversations with the Roots & Shoots boys, but most conversations are in Nepalese, so I am never sure what is being said. Nepali is such an old language, however, that some English words are used because there are not the relevant Nepali words, so I can usually get the jist of the conversation. I am learning a couple of words everyday, Namaste [Na-ma-stay] is the typical greeting of the Nepalese, Dhanyavad [Dan-ya-vad] is the word for ‘thankyou,’ and Swagatam [Swar-ga-tam] is the word for ‘you’re welcome.’ Manoj’s father has also shown me the Nepalese alphabet which has very different characters to our own and a very different structure.
Even day to day life is very different. You get up at 6 and have chiya (tea) and sometimes roti (bread). Manoj and his friends have college at 6.30am, they have two classes, each are 200 minutes long and there is about 30 minutes break in between. I attended a couple of the classes because some are taught in English and the teaching quality is really quite poor. One of the teachers who insisted in speaking in English couldn’t pronounce the words properly, nor used them in the correct context. Manoj and his friends become very frustrated with the teaching but their Principal does not take their complaints seriously. We eat a meal around 10 – 11am and then one at 3-4pm and then again at 9-10pm. It’s a lot of food for me to get used to eating and unless Manoj, his friends and I are out in the city, we eat Daal Bhaat. Bhaat means rice and Daal is cooked chickpeas in a soupy sort of consistency which you pour onto your rice so that it is not dry. This is always served with a small amount of vegetables, like runner beans, and a pickle. Occasionally we also have fried or spiced potatoe and today we had some natural yoghurt. It is actually quite tasty, especially if you have good vegetables, but I don’t think that Manoj’s mother Uma believes me when I say that it is delicious.
Just one month ago Nepal’s monarchy fell after 300 years. They have been in a state of political instability for almost a decade after the royal family was murdered by the crazed prince in 2001. The government is currently in turmoil and they are slowly trying to re-organise the political roles so that they can start to rebuild the country. The Maoists have taken control of the government and so communist regime rules the country, which the Nepalese are generally happy about because it was the people’s decision. The most amazing thing about the Nepalese people which makes them so admirable is that despite all the conflicts and the poor infrastructure and the lack of money, they always laugh and smile.
The roads have pot holes, there are no road signs, people drive on the wrong side of the road and when there are traffic jams motorbikes mount the pavement. Education must be paid for and many families cannot afford it, so many children go without education. There is no free health service. Petrol is not in constant supply, it arrives days after the petrol station has dried up, resulting in hundreds of people blocking the roads anxiously hoping to receive any amount of the golden liquid. This means that taxi fares have doubled, so the boys are constantly trying to negotiate a reasonable price to get us from A to B. There are regular protests in the street, in fact a road block in the form of a burning tyre is expected somewhere in Kathmandu every other day. Police, security and the army have a large presence and you are occasionally stopped and asked where you are going. Even the electricity fails every couple of nights because the power station cannot keep up with the demand. This is just regular day to day life for the Nepalese and it can sometimes be an inconvenience but it is no more a problem than us running out of milk and having to pop to the shops. It just makes life a little more spontaneous.