Namaste is my first Nepali word. I first heard it when we arrived at the small airport in Kathmandu and a woman in front of us greeted the immigration officer by putting her two palms together as if in prayer and saying “namaste.” “Namaste” is a greeting. It literally translates to “bowing to you.”
They say that the sense of smell is directly linked to memory. Once this summer while I was walking to the beach, memories of Nicaragua suddenly flashed into my mind. I remembered rocking absentmindedly in Doña Petrona’s chair and walking with José Ángel along a dusty road after giving a training session to brigadistas. I almost stopped in place trying to figure out why all the memories were rushing back to me unprovoked. And then I realized that it smelled like Nicaragua. As I tried to place the familiar scent, I looked up and saw the guards were burning a small pile of trash in front of the guard stand. Nicaragua smells of many things, but for reasons unknown, the combination of trash and fire, hot sun and dust will always smell uniquely of Nicaragua to me.
Kathmandu also smells of many things. It smells of dust and of car pollution, of momos and of crowds of people. But out of all of those smells, it’s the smell of incense that hits me when I venture out onto the main streets. I’m staying in an area of Kathmandu called Patan. The streets are narrow and lined with old buildings of about three or four stories, with doors and shutters that are painted in deep blues, reds, yellows and greens. The first floor of these buildings are characterized by short entryways– probably about 5 feet high– which open up into various types of shops.
Temples are littered throughout the streets and they are adorned with strings of marigold flowers, candles, Hindu gods and goddesses, and of course, incense. Because of this, the whole neighborhood smells of incense.
In addition to the warm smell of incense, my other first impression of Kathmandu is of the traffic. There are more motos here than I have ever seen in my life. It is the main form of transportation. Traffic moves in the opposite direction as it does in the States. Like in England, you drive on the left side of the road. This is a big adjustment for a foreign pedestrian trying to cross the street. To get to the UN complex where we’ve been taking meetings with our partners at UNICEF, we have to cross a highway without any traffic lights, pedestrian bridges, stop signs, or cross walks. Especially at rush hour, it is hard to find a break in the flow of traffic to dart across to the median, and then to the other side of the street. Usually we wait for a local to cross and follow suite. Today we literally used a microbus as a shield. As it cut across traffic to turn right, we walked on the outside of it knowing that cars would need to slow down to let it complete its turn. As jarring are the motos that weave around pedestrians on the narrow streets of Patan.
We’ve been in Nepal for a little over a week. After being so immersed in Nicaraguan culture, it feels odd being in a country where I don’t know the history or the language. And since we’ve been busy with meetings, I haven’t gotten the chance to dive in and get to know the city.
I need to get my bearings.
Towards the end of this week, right before heading back to the States, we’ll have some time to look around and venture out beyond the 10 minute route between our guest house and the UN complex. Since I’ll be making many more trips to Nepal this year, I know this trip is a mere introduction to all it has to offer.
While this trip is only the beginning, we’ve already accomplished quite a bit. We’re here to prepare for the roll out of a new mobile vaccine registry project in two districts in Nepal. We ventured out to the Far Western Region and caught a glimpse of rural Nepal. We saw some serious access issues, with people needing to walk several hours through the mountains to reach the nearest health facility. We also saw a huge capacity within communities to self-organize and ensure that every child is immunized.
I’m looking forward to continuing to get to know the culture, places, and people as we finish this trip and look on to the next. On Friday we’re going to go to Thamel, a touristy neighborhood in Kathmandu where we’ll get to visit the famous Durbar Square, see big temples, and go shopping for spices, tea, scarves, and jewelry. We’re leaving on Saturday morning.
But after the long journey home, when I get to my room, sit down on my bed, and open my suitcase, I’m anticipating the moment when the smell of incense pours out and floods my room with memories of our time in Nepal.