My travels in Nepal have not been as much of a culture shock as I had expected as I had learned a bit about Hindu customs when I traveled in India a few years back.
There are many aspects of Nepal that remind me of India: the crazy traffic, stray dogs, trash-eating cows, polluted city air and beautiful women in colorful saris with raven-black hair and red tikas on their foreheads.
There are also differences, fewer beggars and aggressive vendors, for example, and the stark contrast between a luxury hotel and a makeshift tent on top of a rubbish heap serving as some unfortunate person’s home right next to it, is also lacking.
Somehow I have the feeling that even though India may be a wealthier country overall, the gap between rich and poor is not as vast in Nepal.
People are extremely friendly and have made me feel welcome, from the kids calling: “Hello, how are you?” from the corner of the street to the elderly couple who generously invited me to stay in their home in rural Sarangkot for two weeks, serving me two portions of daal bhaat (rice, lentils and vegetables) daily and trying to uphold conversations with me in Nepali, of which I understand painstakingly little, or “aliali”.
The wife of my volunteering coordinator was especially kind to me. At 26 and five years my junior she is the mother of two and busy looking after her kids, especially the little prankster Amrit who loves to “hug” baby goats a little too hard.
She showed me how to take the crammed bus from Sarangkot to Pokhara one day, navigated me through the busy streets, and then invited me in for tea.
Upon leaving I felt compelled to give her a hug, at which she looked puzzled, shying away as I embraced her. Afterwards she explained that she found it all right to hug girls once in a while but never men.
Forgetting for a moment where I was, I knew of course that it isn’t customary to hug in Hindu culture. Touching is generally kept to a minimum; even handshakes aren’t practiced much, with the hands-in-prayer-position “namaste” greeting being the norm.
Female, but especially male, friends may hold hands in public but never men and women, not even married couples.
It got me thinking about how touching is practiced in different cultures as a gesture of respect and affection.
Icelanders usually keep their distance when meeting new people, although a handshake is considered respectful during introductions.
Couples often hold hands in public but rarely adult friends, at least not male friends, although, while out on the town, women are sometimes seen walking with interlocked arms and men patting each other on the back.
Friends and family members commonly hug and as a sign of special affection one kiss on the cheek is in order.
In Germany I learned that you should give two kisses and that in France their number grows to three, even replacing a handshake while being introduced to complete strangers.
When meeting Europeans I’m always uncertain of the number of kisses that should be placed on each cheek, which often leaves me in a rather awkward position.
One such moment occurred when a fellow volunteer from Quebec bid me farewell after our time together in Sarangkot. Moving into Icelandic mode, I had prepared for one kiss on the cheek, but he surprised me with two.
Afterwards, when I bid my Nepali ama goodbye, I remembered the no hugging rule and put my hands together in prayer position instead.
She proceeded to smear a tika on my forehead while speaking in her language, which I took to be something like “may the gods watch over you.”
It felt like a really sincere goodbye from her side but I felt a little sad, especially as I wasn’t able to express my gratitude properly, neither in words nor actions.
But ama is a clever lady used to accommodating silly westerners in her home. Having observed the moment of farewell between me and the other volunteer, she grabbed my face and kissed both my cheeks.
Just like that the culture and communication barrier was broken and I was more at ease with leaving these wonderful people.
These wonderful people... who have touched my heart.
Eyglo Svala Arnarsdottir – firstname.lastname@example.org
P.S. Before my trip is over I will experience other pleasant encounters with locals, I’m sure, as my trek to the Everest Base camp will lead me through several mountain villages (it was set to start on Wednesday, weather permitting, and will take 12 days).