From the moment you step off the plane in Kathmandu, you will notice several obvious cultural differences from your home in the Western world.
Perhaps these tips will leave you a little less jolted during your first few days in Nepal, and a little more prepared to dive into a new culture!
A Bit on ‘Om’
In Nepal, religious practice is not limited to one day a week, but is displayed, practiced and respected every day, all day long.
It is refreshing and intriguing to see a Shiva shrive rather than a Starbucks on every corner.
About 80% of Nepali people are Hindu and the rest are mostly Buddhist with a touch of Christian and Muslim followers.
You will see and hear puja (worship) mostly in the early mornings, when woman are walking to shrines and temples to give daily offerings.
Puja will often include loud noises from blowing into conch shells or from chanting; there will be brief gestures of faith when people touch their heads when passing an image of Shiva or longer gestures when monks sit and recite their dharma for hours on end.
The best time to witness the intricate practice of devotion is to walk around temples early on Saturday mornings, the main day for worship.
Unless you are Hindu, you will not be able to enter the Hindu temples, but you can still be blessed if you bring an offering (money, flowers, or rice are typical gifts).
There are several gestures and motions to follow when being blessed or when worshiping; just follow the local example and you should be okay.
You will see religious symbols and references all over Kathmandu and Nepal. There is a subtle difference between religion being over commercialized and simply being omnipresent in daily life.
In Nepal, religion is omnipresent, which is a refreshing difference compared to the West. Take note of the symbols you see, such as “om” and the “swastika.”*
If you can see the effect that worship has on the daily culture in Nepal, religion will become a beautiful part of your visit.
The Clump and Push (vs the Lift and Drop)
Traditionally, Nepalis use their hands to eat their meals. Although you will almost always be offered silverware, you will impress your hosts if you show them you can eat properly with your hands.
This technique will make your culinary experience more authentic and adds a personal connection to meals. However, do not embark on this adventure unprepared.
Most beginners will try the “Lift and Drop” method. They pick up their rice (and fail to pick up their lentils) with their fingers, tilt their head back and drop the food into their mouth, like eating trail mix.
This will undoubtedly result in spilling on your clothes, not capturing the full flavor of your dish and simple embarrassment.
Instead, try the “Clump and Push” method. Use your whole hand to clump all the food together.
Mix the lentils with your rice; throw the meat on top; mush those juicy flavors together! You’re going to have to wash your hand no matter what, so you might as well use the whole palm and all five fingers to really clump it properly.
The food will stick together quite well and you can make a little ball of deliciousness. Then hold this ball of food on top of your thumb (as if you were going to play a game of Marbles or flip a quarter), raise it to your face and gracefully push it into your mouth.
By successfully executing the Clump and Push, you will have no problem leaving your plate clean, your tummy full and your hosts impressed.
Intra-sexual vs Inter-sexual
It is common to see two men walking down the street holding hands or linking arms. Likewise, it is common to see two women showing the same affection.
Intra-sexual relations can be public and quite affectionate and are a sign of friendship and kindness.
However, PDA of any sort between a man and woman is not common. In fact, husband and wife will rarely show affection in public.
These guidelines hold true for rural parts of Nepal and among the older generations throughout the country, although sometimes in cities you will see the youth adapting more modern social guidelines.
No matter where you are, however, sticking to conservative social guidelines is important to avoid offending the locals.
If you visit Kathmandu, you will notice a certain quality of rawness.
Traffic is hectic, animals roam the roads with free will, butchers slaughter animals next to corner stores, dogs bark, beggars sit with compelling grief, horns honk, and pujas are preformed loudly and frequently.
Shopkeepers pursue you aggressively, dead animals are left on sidewalks, and the dust in the street can add a haze to your day.
Despite these unfamiliar exposures, once you step past the raw edge of Kathmandu, you will notice that it is also an very human place.
Kathmandu is alive. Its pulse is vibrant and its activity is dynamic. With a steady look, you will notice Kathmandu’s rich history and its world-renowned architecture. If you invest some patience you will notice a sincerely approachable city.
Don’t hesitate to initiate a conversation with a neighbor on the microbus and you will soon find that for all its rough edges, Kathmandu is distinctly personable and friendly.
Bathrooms, Showers, and Water
The general state of water will be a new and foreign concept to most travelers sojourning to Asia for the first time.
Nepal suffers from a severe water shortage; there simply isn’t the infrastructure or management to supply enough water for washing, bathing and drinking year-round.
For this reason, water is very scarce and is used with precious mindfulness; the amount of water a family has will often reflect their economic ability to tap into limited sources or collect rainfall during the rainy season.
You will immediately notice that the bathroom situation is quite different from the Western norm.
The toilets are Asian style (squat toilets), of course, but in addition, many households will equate “taking a shower” as “taking a bucket shower.”
You should feel free to ask for water to shower with, but know that it is a valued commodity and that you will receive about one cooking pot full of cold water.
If you ask politely, you can have a little extra boiled water to make your bath water warmer. Because of the scarcity of this resource, it is normal for people to shower only once a week.
At first, these bathroom differences can be uncomfortable for travelers, but you will adapt faster than you think.
Like water, electricity has a lack of infrastructure and management and therefore is also a precious commodity.
Electricity will typically be available for between four to eight hours of the day. The entire city of Kathmandu is divided into a grid system where each zone receives electricity at different times.
The tricky part of this situation is realizing which shops, houses and offices fall under what zone.
No house or store is invincible to the frequent power shortages; businesses will often casually shoo you away with a flick of their wrist if there is no electricity available (it is wise to note what hours your closest internet café runs on).
Occasionally, houses and shops will have generators that grant them electricity throughout the day. However, sometimes these generators don’t work.
Basically, it is in your best interest to become accustomed to patiently letting go of a strict time schedule and calmly watching how the rest of the country reconciles these inconveniences.
Kathmandu is a dusty, culturally rich and energetic city. It may present inconveniences at first, but it will undoubtedly leave you will a greater sense of patience and a new found appreciation for the vivacity, diversity and culture of Nepal.
Ramro sanga janusna!
* The Swastika is a ancient religious symbol of good luck that predates the Nazi regime.
Going to Nepal?
Finally, study up on your Nepali language skills with Sarah Vazquez, and get ready for your Himalayan adventure.