An average day in Bhaktapur
As I said in my birthday blog, there are only a few solar water heaters on roofs around town, and there isn’t one on our roof, so my morning shower is night-chilled cold water, mouth clamped shut to avoid swallowing any. It is still not entirely comfortable to start, but once begun I enjoy it, and I really do feel warmer, fresher, and more ready for the day afterwards.
My travel towel is irredeemably stinky so I air dry, brushing my teeth with the water since by now our stomachs are pretty used to the bacteria, and we are able to take more liberties than tourism would otherwise have allowed. The bathroom is an open space, the shower head above the toilet, the sink to the side, so everyone has bathroom flip-flops since the floor is nearly always wet.
7:00 Morning tea time with our hosts, Saroj Sir and his wife Anita Ma’am. Saroj is a teacher at Kalika Higher Secondary School, and is our English-speaking liaison in the area, though Anita understands more than she at first admitted, which she gave away with her infectious laughter at our jokes, stories, and stumbling learning curve of Nepali culture. The tea is black, loaded with sugar, and there are always biscuits on the plate.
K and I sit at the table, trying to add to our day’s lesson plans and talking to Saroj and Anita until around the
8:30 morning meal of dal bhat. Dal is a lentil soup, served in a small dish, which is poured over the heap of white rice (the bhat). There is usually also some achar (I’m guessing on the spelling) which is a pickled spicy salsa, a little dab’ll do ya. Then a side dish of curry veggies, usually potato mixed with a green gourd, bean, or local unknown.
You then smishsmash these all together and eat. Using only your hand. Right hand. The fingernails on our right hands are noticeably yellower than on the left after a month of dal bhat. You scoop up a bite in your hand, manipulate it down to the last couple joints of the fingers, insert the thumb underneath this loose ball, bring the hand to the mouth and scrape it in, using the thumb as a lever/elevator. Licking fingers (even plate) is accepted and even encouraged. A good burp shows appreciation for the food and is polite. I have not yet managed this, I am sorry to say.
It is absolutely delicious food. I expect to have trouble and reluctance returning to the Dictatorship of Silverware Oppression practiced in the west.
We went out to dinner on my birthday in a nice place downtown, and I would choose the food Anita (or our first host-mother Hema) prepares 10 times out of 10.
After this meal Nepali’s don’t eat again until around 8-9:30 PM, taking only a small snack lunch at 1:00, so the portions are massive. Anita returns as many times as we allow, additional scoops of each component headed for our plates. The ratio is very important, since you cannot leave anything on your plate (deeply offensive) and if you have too much dal then it gets too liquid. Several times I have asked for a tiny bit more rice, to soak up the dal, which has arrived with a full round of achar, curry, and more dal. It is a delicious stretch to finish every time.
K and I teach at two schools, three days each at one before trading places (there are six workdays in Nepal, Sunday is their Monday, and they have no summer vacation, just one week between grades). We live at Kalika, and Himalayan is a 20 minute walk across town (and through a couple rice paddies).
If you read my pre-Nepal info blog you may remember that we were expecting a different school from Himalayan and a host family (we live in a room in a building next to the school). Both of these were changed at some point, which is utterly in character with Nepal, where things tend to change ten minutes after they were supposed to start, and you usually find out about an hour later.
Planning does not appear to be a common practice; when we showed up (already twice postponed at our hosts’ request by two days then four hours) there was still no bed in our room. I helped disassemble and relocate one, surreptitiously squishing silverfish the size of housepets when no one was looking, feeling likely a princess for even noticing them. Luckily the giant spiders were all dried husks.
9:45 Assembly at the schools. The children line up in rows by class. A teacher takes them through a series of drills, “cover up” means to reach up and put your hands on the person’s shoulders in front of you, then sides and straight up. They bow tiny heads, fold small hands, and close deep brown eyes for prayer, chanted in unison, and then (at Himalayan only) sing the Nepali national anthem, which I expect to be able to mimic with reasonable accuracy soon.
As they head up to the classrooms the teacher inspects their socks, hair, ties, etc for inadequate cleanliness or ironing (all the schools here have their own uniforms, two per week, changing on Wednesday). The Principal Ma’am at Himalayan appears to be highly intuitive, grabbing kids seemingly at random and holding them back for infractions I can only guess at.
10:00 classes begin. Two 40 minute classes back to back, 5 minute break, two more classes.
12:45 Tiffin Break for 30 minutes. “Tiffin” is apparently an old English word for the small boxes that kids bring their snacks to school in, and the name has come to refer to the break. The kitchen at Himalayan offers teachers a small snack, variable contents but reliably spicy beyond my western palate’s easy comprehension.
On the first day I ate some soup, and was well into the resulting heavy sweating when the principal brought all the other teachers in to meet me, one by one. I had brought some little cakes to share with the teachers (since it was my birthday) but instead of leaving them on a counter, I was portioning them out to shy teachers, who politely didn’t look at my dripping face. They seem to be shy/intimidated by us, and the principal urges them to speak with us, hoping we will improve their English, which is…of various levels. It was another of those delightfully awkward experiences that I am so skilled at finding.
After Tiffin is a mirror image of the morning, two 40 minute classes, 5 minute break, then two more before school ends at 4:00. There are 8 classes a day, of which we teach 5 at Kalika and 6 at Himalayan.
These class times are misleading to a western sense of scheduling. That soup I ate the first day was given to me at 1:14, and Tiffin ends at 1:15. Students tend to show up to the classroom 10-15 minutes after class “begins” and when I show up to a room on time I invariably have to wait outside for another 5+ minutes until the previous teacher leaves.
4:00 Students line up again for a short prayer, maybe an announcement or message, then dismissal. At Himalayan I am instructed to follow the kids out to the main street to protect them, although the schedule there now has our two “leisure” periods as the last two, so I usually leave early (and for example type this blog).
4:30ish the kids have mostly left the school, and when we are both back at Kalika we have our second tea with Saroj and Anita. Then we run any errands we may have, tell each other about how the various classes went and plan our next day’s lesson plans together since we share most classes (K has 3rd to 8th at Himalayan, while I have 5th to 10th, we both have 4th to 8th at Kalika).
8:30ish evening meal of dal bhat, same as morning, just as delicious. We don’t usually linger afterwards because the culture dictates that someone always has to be available to serve, and Anita usually doesn’t eat until we go home. (When we were staying with our host family in Kathmandu we, as guests, were served first, given a headstart, then the grandmother, as elder, was served. Once we had all finished the son was served, and once he had finished and we had all left the table, the mother would eat. The father was sick/absent the whole time we were in that home, so I am not sure when he eats, but I believe it would be between Elder and Child. Sometimes Saroj eats after we start, and sometimes we don’t see him eat at all. When he does, he manages an awesome Nepali quantity of rice.)
We get ready for bed and fall asleep around 10:30, re-stringing the mosquito net and pushing open the windows. When we are lucky the sound of the monsoon rainfall drowns out the piercing whine of the incredibly persistent mosquitoes who will hover around our net all night long. Other critters come and go at various times, our favorite being the small lizards, who we revere as protectors, optimistically hoping they will eat some of the mosquitoes, although the second night we watched a rather embarrassing chase where a spider seemed to effortlessly evade the little guy.
The reason why someone has to be available to serve food at all times during dinner is owing to the cultural rules regarding cleanliness. The left hand is always considered jutho, or impure, since there is no toilet paper here. Some toilets have a little bucket, and most have a spray nozzle. You put water in your left hand, and clean yourself.
Us westerners at first usually find this fairly challenging/shocking, but it quickly became apparent to me that it is a superior method to toilet paper.
Of course you wash well with soap and water afterwards, but the left hand is still considered impure. This is why you walk around the temples (and stupas) clockwise only. You reach up to spin the prayer wheels, and must use only your right hand, the left should not face the temple. Handling communal dishes, water bottles etc with your left hand makes them jutho. Serving from a dish with your own utensil makes it jutho. Once you have begun to eat food on your plate it is jutho and cannot be shared, except dry food like crackers. A husband may give jutho food from his plate only to his wife, but cannot accept any from hers.
If food is made jutho, it is inedible (to others) and is dumped out.
Since food is eaten with your right hand, that hand is generally covered in dal, and is considered more impure than the left at that point, so you drink from your glass of water with your left while eating. We drink boiled water, which is often still warm and seems to have an incredible cleansing effect, rushing through our bodies with unbelievable speed and irresistible urgency.
The most profane part of the body for Nepalis is the feet. You must never touch anyone (or anything) else with your feet, or step over a person, object, food, or anything involved in worship. This is sometimes difficult since every house has a small spot in front where offerings are made, so walking down the street involves watching carefully where you step, which is hazardous given that traffic obeys no rules, only tendencies, and during the monsoon season the puddles will last about four months, and sometimes reach epic proportions as muddy quagmires.
The only cultural aspect I have felt challenged by was the late meal then going right to bed. K still struggles to observe the gender roles with unattached interest.
We are incredibly happy to be here; it is a singular opportunity to encounter a place at a level profoundly deeper than simple tourism. It is also far more challenging and uncomfortable. I find myself longing for a stint of “normal” travel, but expect I will crave this type of intimate interaction more frequently from now on. I think I may be addicted.
And I’m going to miss the dal bhat.