Participant/Observer in Kathmandu

I cannot believe I’ve been in Nepal for 23 days and am only now updating my blog! Where do I begin?
In addition to the tasks we had outlined for the non-profit organization, Mountain Heart Nepal, I planned to do and learn a lot here. I wanted to be a participant in this society and learn all about the culture. But I’m 38 years old and for those that know me well, know I’m set in my ways. Even when living with a local family, being a participant is not always easy.
I don’t have a problem with some things. I often eat with my right hand, I sometimes wear local clothing, I eat breakfast and dinner with my family. I ride public transport (which is NOT easy). I’ve only taken a taxi once, at night, after the busses stopped running. For the most part, I don’t buy expensive things, and I often think in relative rupee terms. I ask if something is expensive here vs. expensive in the United States.
As much as I wanted to be a participant, I’ve found in so many ways, I’m not. Let me count the ways…

Me- dressed in local clothing, giving a presentation on nutrition during a medical camp with Mountain Heart Nepal.
Me- dressed in local clothing, giving a presentation on nutrition during a medical camp with Mountain Heart Nepal.

I wanted to learn some Nepali. I hate being illiterate, especially considering my first love in life was language, but my adult brain does not acquire language the way it used to, I just don’t have the knack anymore. I don’t remember stuff. It’s horrible for me, but everyone speaks English, at least a little, so I get by.
Sadly, the Kathmandu Valley is a giant trash can. There is garbage everywhere, and I mean everywhere. I often don’t share these negative things on social media, but here, you can’t escape it. People litter, they don’t give it a second thought. Just finished a bottle of water? Toss the container on the ground. Ate some chips? Throw the bag out the window. There are loads of individually wrapped tobacco packets sold everywhere. Subsequently, there are empty tobacco packs all over the ground, embedded in the dirt, forever preserved in this giant dump of a city. Some days, I’ll walk around with trash in my bag for hours, until I find a proper receptacle, but even at that, I fear it will be dumped in the street or into a river somewhere, but I cannot bring myself to throw anything onto the ground. I don’t force my western ideals onto anybody, but me personally, can’t do it…

This is just a small snippet of the volume of trash all over this city.
This is just a small snippet of the volume of trash all over this city.

I can’t eat rice. I’m “riced out.” In Mongolia, the people are meat eating champs, here, it’s rice, white rice, nutritionally sparse white rice. I’ve done my best and do eat some, especially when I’m hungry, but the thought of a mountain of rice in the middle of my plate kind of makes me queasy, and yet one day, I’ll probably miss it. I want protein. I may sound like a meat head, but we get very little at home, not even from the lentils, as a minimal amount is cooked, they are more used as a gravy. I began buying eggs- they are a cheap source of some quality protein and then, I guess my Didi felt badly, so she began buying them, and making them for me instead of rice. And, it’s glorious, but I’m not a participant- I get my own, special dishes, cooked with egg yolks and all… Typically, after one a day, I eliminate the yolk because I don’t need all the fat… But I can’t tell my Didi that. Not only do I get added protein, but now I don’t want the yolks? You freaking picky American!! And do you know how good her food is? I want to eat it!! It’s so good, but she serves a lot. I like to have a small protein containing snack or meal mid-day, so I end up consuming a lot of calories. And did I mention how good the food is? How about the traffic? The traffic is so bad here I usually walk- it’s quicker. I guess it’s balancing out some of my food intake, my clothes still fit, for now.

I love the food my Didi makes. Plenty of tasty veggies, and for me- eggs!
I love the food my Didi makes. Plenty of tasty veggies, and for me- eggs!

I took the van/bus the other day. A 10 year old boy was working. They hang out of the door yelling the stops they’ll make so people know which van or bus to jump into. I asked him how much my ride costs and handed him a 100 rupee note (about $1.00). He quickly counted out 85 rupees, handed them back, and added, “I’m fast, no?!” It was early afternoon on a school day. I asked him if he went to school. “Me no school,” he said. I told him he should be in school, not working, and then I stopped talking, realizing that yet again, I was being an observer, this time, even sharing my opinion on what I thought he should be doing with his life… Because I’m from the west and that’s what kids do, they go to school. I felt so badly for him I wanted to cry.
The list goes on. I go to the gym. That doesn’t seem to be an activity that’s popular amongst the women here, but I go and I get a lot of looks. I’m bigger than 98% of the men in there. It took a little convincing, but the owner agreed to let me come, so long as it was from 9:00-10:30 am, the least busy time. As the days went on, he saw how serious I am about my workouts and let me have some leeway. I can now go pretty much whenever I want and the members often ask me questions on how to put on some muscle mass. My gym experience here has truly been unique.

The gym owner wanted to take a picture with me.
The gym owner wanted to take a picture with me.

I get “special” food. ?
I’ve hardly learned any language. ?
I wish all children could go to school. ?
I workout. ??
I use toilet paper. ?
I brought my laundry to get washed instead of hand washing it. ?
I shower often. ?
I don’t cough up my phlegm anywhere and everywhere. ? I also blow my nose using a tissue. ??
My list goes on. Am I a failure at participating in this society? Am I too much of an observer? I think I’m a little of both (participant and observer, I mean, not a failure), but at 38, I am set in my ways. Maybe that’s just something that happens as we age. Participant/observer aside, I’ve learned a lot here. About life, about myself, about a new country and culture, about nutrition and policy, about NGOs, about people, about how I appreciate my own country in ways I don’t often think about, like cleanliness and how we keep our bodily functions to ourselves! ?
Before I leave my current Nepali family, maybe I’ll have one whole meal, rice and all, just for good measure… ? To help balance me out! I’ll be trekking soon anyway- I’ll burn off that rice eventually! ?

Author: Tiffany Batsakis

Registered Dietitian
Fitness Fanatic
World Traveler
Food Lover
Weimaraner Owner

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