Selfies, Saris, and Snake Bites
By Cindy Wei • Schulich Leader at University of Waterloo
I’m not sure what I was thinking when I flew 11,000 km to live alone in a third-world country known for devastating earthquakes and altitude sickness. Living in Nepal, a country landlocked by India and China, allowed me to discover the rich diversity our world offers. From sipping milk tea with monks to feeding monkeys, my month-long adventure in Nepal opened my eyes – and my heart. I was shocked by the state of poverty of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city. Bricks from fallen buildings dotted the dirt roads. Shacks constructed by broken wood and sheets of bent metal. Exhausted grandmothers in stained saris, pleading tourists to purchase mangoes from their meager array of fruit. Vans that served as buses, jammed with thirty people and the occasional goat. “License plates”, which were hand-painted Nepali numerals on the backs of vehicles.
On top of a gas leak scare, a midnight flood, and a terrifying helmet-less motorcycle ride through the rain, I interacted with countless locals. One taught me to carve stone, and another showed me woodcarving techniques. I practiced various types of yoga with Indian gurus. I explored a temple, where I was fortunate enough to see Nepal’s six-year-old living goddess. I danced with young girls in orphanages and learned to introduce myself in Nepali. I was introduced to the dark history of Nepal’s monarchy, and observed the bullet-riddled walls of the Narayanhity Royal Palace, where Nepal’s crown prince went on a killing spree and murdered nine family members in a massacre that shocked the world. I even had the opportunity to take a nine-hour bus ride to Pokhara, a stunning town known as the ‘City of Lakes’. One of the highlights of my trip was parasailing off the 1600m Sarangkot mountain, renowned for panoramic Himalayan views.
Of course, the real reason I travelled to Nepal was to be a medical intern. I’ve volunteered at hospitals before, from assisting child life specialists at the Grand River Hospital in Ontario to feeding the elderly at the Eagle Ridge Hospital in BC. However, none of that could prepare me for the Kanti Children’s Hospital, Nepal’s only pediatric hospital.
“I would love to be in the surgical ward,” I insisted to the volunteer coordinator. “I’m a Kinesiology student with experience in human physiology and anatomy. I’ve even volunteered in the cadaver lab, where I dissected human bodies.” Knowing that several student volunteers have fainted in the operating room, he agreed reluctantly. “I’ve done this before,” I reassured him confidently. “It will be the same experience!”
It wasn’t. After a taxi ride across town that cost only two Canadian dollars, I was appalled to see hundreds of families swarming in the hospital lobby; it was busier, noisier, and stuffier than a subway station during rush hour. I thought it was fascinating that everyone took off their shoes at the hospital door, as a sign of respect, some donning communal slippers and others wandering the hospital hallways barefoot. I spent most of my days in the crowded operating room (which lacked air conditioning!), wearing a hair net and those mismatching rubber communal slippers. Certain sights were horrifying, like snake bites and eyelid cysts removed from squirming children – using secondhand scalpels and no anesthesia. I quickly learned that handwashing was not the norm, since gooey brown water gushed from the rusty faucets. Desperate parents slept on torn blankets in hallways and staircases. Bloodied towels were hung to air-dry on clotheslines. Scalpels and needles were strewn on the tile floor.
The hospital, however, gave me a feeling of unity and collaboration like I’ve never experienced before. I often saw parents of different children teaming up to cook, clean, sing, and interact with nurses. While some parents slept, others cooked massive pots of lentil dahl for the entire room (which, by the way, had ten beds). Uncles brought balloons and tiny plastic toys for all, and friendly aunts read stories to groups of recovering kids. In Canada, hospitals gave me a sense of isolation and aloofness, but in Nepal, solidarity and unconditional kindness.
Speaking of kindness, I have a couple amazing anecdotes. Once, I was browsing a store full of pashminas, or cashmere scarves, and admitted to the store owner that I wasn’t entirely sure if I liked it. Without hesitation, he told me to take it home, wear it for a week, and come back to pay if I decided to purchase it! When both my phone and my camera broke during monsoon (seriously), local storeowners and restauranteurs were quick to offer bags of rice. Another time, I was getting off a taxi when I realized I’d spent the last of my Nepali rupees. The driver shrugged and told me that I could find him on the same road, and pay, the next day. Everywhere I went, I was greeted with incredible hospitality, bright smiles, and little plastic cups of milk tea.
Turns out, friendship can blossom in the unlikeliest places. Amidst rickety beds and emaciated stray dogs (yes, inside the hospital, but that’s a different story), I befriended Elija, a young Nepali nurse. Initially, she played the role of my translator, whispering quick English explanations while surgeons spoke in Nepali. I subconsciously picked up the nuances of her language and habits, such as tilting my head from side-to-side to signal ‘yes’, and gesturing ‘thank you’ to drivers with the back of my hand. Little by little, she shared tips about Kathmandu’s transportation and food hubs, including the ubiquitous Himalayan Java, one of her top spots for a caffeine fix. Turns out, with plenty of baked goods, milkshakes, great Wi-Fi, and comfortable couches, Himalayan Java is Nepal’s equivalent of Starbucks!
Once, Elija invited me to her place for breakfast. After cooking pizza-flavoured instant noodles with Nepali spices and eggs, we brewed Nepali masala tea and enjoyed it with buttery cashew cookies. We watched India’s Next Top Model, and she showed me how to create an asymmetrical double braid. Like mine, her parents love buying furniture, framing embarrassing photos, and cracking jokes. She even introduced me to her brother, a medical technician with a penchant for selfies with shimmering filters.
Of course, there are vast differences between Elija’s family and my own. For instance, her family wakes up at 4:00 AM each morning to chant and do chores. Like most Nepali families, their main meal of the day is lunch, which is eaten at 9:00 AM and includes rice, vegetables, potatoes, and curry. Snacks, such as noodles, momos (dumplings), or more biscuits, are enjoyed at 1:30 PM. Dinner is eaten at 7:00 or 8:00 in the evening, and would typically look the same as lunch – rice, dahl, vegetables, and more.
Throughout my trip, I made a list of some unique cultural differences. In Nepal, Sunday is the first day of the school and work week. Everyone has Saturday off, in addition to sporadic weeks throughout the year for festivals and celebrations. Also, local females never reveal their shoulders or knees. Men rarely wear tank tops, and even on the hottest days, dress conservatively in t-shirts and jeans. Unlike in Canada, Nepali men will never go shirtless in public! Furthermore, men hold hands all the time. In Nepal, handholding does not insinuate homosexuality, and one will often see young male friends with their arms around each other, or with intertwined fingers. When shopping, store owners are always open to bargaining. While bargaining is looked down upon (and potentially disrespectful) in Canada, Nepalis view bargaining as a way to incorporate casual small talk. In fact, without bargaining, tourists might end up paying triple the regular “Nepali price”. In addition, most middle-class people in Nepal take showers once a week because water is scarce. Clothes are washed once weekly, by hand, and hung up to air-dry. Finally, toilet paper is nonexistent! Nepali toilets have attached water hoses used for cleaning, and tourists generally bring their own toilet paper.
It’s easy to group “them”, people from countries, into one category and oppose their culture to our own. Today, I understand that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to celebrate, dress, worship, or demonstrate politeness. I took home more than a couple handmade postcards and boxes of tea – I came home feeling like my life in Canada is more extravagant than it needs to be. Do I truly need to take fifteen-minute showers, or use a dryer for my clothes? And why should I drive to school, if it is a fifteen-minute walk away? Living in Kathmandu gave me the opportunity to promote the vibrant differences within races, cultures, and religious backgrounds - while appreciating how much we share as humans.