Waiting, waiting, waiting - and now, writing. I've spent the past several days hunkered down here in Kathmandu, first working on a more detailed research proposal, and then waiting and working through some glitches with some logistics back on the US side of things.
I still have a couple more laps to do before my swim through US and Nepalese bureaucracy is complete, but if all goes well I should have finished the process of converting my visa within the next couple weeks, and will likely head to the Melamchi Valley even sooner, if I am able to swing in a several-day trip outside of the city while the remaining paperwork is processing.
In the meantime, I am still kickin' it up in room 401 on what most Europeans would call the 4th floor, or 5th floor for all those American speakers/readers out there (To be fair, a number of countries call the ground floor the "first floor"). Regardless of what you want to call it, I thoroughly enjoy being up a few floors, especially when the stairs are the only way up, as is the case with most buildings here in Kathmandu. And while I don't exactly have much of a view, there are numerous rooftop cafes and restaurants scattered around the city.
I've also had plenty of time to get to know some of the people who work here at the guest house better. February is not a particularly busy travel month to Nepal, and it seems that the number of staff, along with the affiliated touts and commission-wallahs who hang out here all the time far outnumber the guests staying here (Many of the younger guys, in particular, just sleep out under an awning on the rooftop every night).
One floor up from the main reception is a living room area with some chairs and sofas where all of the staff and their friends hang out when they are not working, or when business is slow. During the day when everyone is busy, Bollywood music videos play around the clock on the newish flat-screen TV in this living room area. At night, however, professional wrestling (WWE or similar) is always on in the background, as seems to be the case nearly everywhere I go in Nepal that has a TV.
None of the more common international spectator sports (football, cricket, basketball) ever seem to be playing anywhere I go, and I would never have imagined that professional wrestling would be as omnipresent as it is, not only where I'm staying, but also in little hole-in-the-wall establishments well outside of the main tourist areas.
Most of the time the wrestling events are just part of the backdrop - a sort of ever-moving wallpaper of flickering fists that no one really seems to pay attention to. In the evenings, the few women staff here usually chat with one another up on the rooftop, while the men and younger guys all sit and smoke and chat with each other downstairs in the living room area while professional wrestlers body slam one another on the TV in the background.
On some rare occasions, the conversation dies down entirely. The room becomes so quiet you could hear a pin drop. All of the guys sit on the edge of their seats transfixed, taking much longer and deeper drags on their Surya-brand cigarettes than before. "Lady wrestling" is on. Prior to this trip I had not viewed any professional wrestling program since my early adolescent years, back when Hulk Hogan was still young, Goldberg was still undefeated, and long, long before anyone had ever smelled - or indeed suffocated from - whatever it was that "The Rock" was cooking. Back then the WCW was staged, steroid-driven festival of ridiculousness. But I do not recall their being any "Lady Wrestling" as part of the program.
For all official intents and purposes, Nepal is one of the few countries of the world that formally acknowledges at least three gender categories at every level of government. From the airport arrival card, to university enrollment, to forms to open a bank account, to all official documents - every single last one lists at least three, and sometimes more, gender categories (usually "Male", "Female" and "Other"). What the federal government acknowledges on paper, and how things play out on the ground, however, do not generally seem to be one and the same.
From my first visit to Nepal, I remember being struck by how prevalent western-style dress seemed to be, especially among women, when compared to what I had encountered traveling across much of India. Outside of Kathmandu and the major tourist areas, though, traditional expectations remain strong, although what those expectations entail can vary quite significantly from village to village, and from ethnic group to ethnic group, even within the same district or geographic region. For example, many low-elevation Hindu villages retain rituals surrounding ideas of purity and pollution, as they relate to water collection. Bahun (Brahmin) villages might have their own water source that only members of that group are entitled to use. Even within a given village there usually exist additional restrictions on where and how mensturating women may collect and use water, and in many lower-elevation villages mensturating women are expected to sleep outside, or else in the stables, in accordance with local customs.
Practices in higher-elevation Buddhist areas are entirely different. The local people in most of these higher-elevation areas are descendants of common ancestors with Tibetans and, more distantly, Mongolians and have local practices that emerge from these cultural traditions rather than those of lowland-Hinduism, the latter of which shares a lot in common with the practices of northern (Hindustani) India.
In the Middle Hills, these two sets of disparate traditions meet, with the Newari people of the Kathmandu Valley being among a few anywhere in the world that observe both Hindu and Buddhist religious practices. The Newari people are the traditional inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, and today the term "Newari" refers to anyone whose ancestors resided in Kathmandu prior to the Gorkha Kingdom's invasion in 1759. The term "Newar" dates back to the Hindu Vedas, and for many centuries, the local word "Newar" and "Nepal" were one and the same. The British referred to the Kathmandu Valley as "Nepal Proper" - a region that had developed a complex urban civilization with a highly specialized division of labor based on caste, long before the era European colonialism.
Nepal itself was never directly colonized. However, tens of thousands of its inhabitants served as mercenaries for the British, becoming enforcers of its overseas rule in other parts of the British empire, and even serving on the front lines in both world wars. These soldiers were formally referred to as Gurkhas named after the Gorkha Kingdom that conquered Kathmandu Valley in 1759, but in fact, the Gurkha mercenaries were Kaharis (Hill Peoples) of many different sorts, encompassing a wide range of ethnic groups that inhabited the mountain regions at the time. Today, Gurkha-lore lives on strong in Nepal, inspiring everything from beer brands and advertisements, to knife and sword shops, to phrases and slogans seen on shops and vehicles around Kathmandu.
In the coming week or two, I will try to provide some more updates on the social dynamics and history both of Kathmandu, but also of the Melamchi Valley area once I have a chance to get there. In the meantime, I am delighted to have found a 50-rupee "Buff Momo" cart just a short walk from where I am staying. Actual beef is generally taboo in Nepal, given that the country has a Hindu-majority, but "Buff" or water buffalo meat is ubiquitous, and in local places, Buff Momos are far more popular than the Veg-variety. Ten buffalo-meat dumplings for 47 cents is a great value, so I anticipate going back.
I shall update this blog again in the next several days.