I will start with a confession: Today I had my first proper shower since I arrived in Kathmandu (almost 4 days ago, that is). If you are Brazilian (like myself) you will be probably shocked (I don’t want to say disgusted). If you have been to Kathmandu, however, you probably won’t be surprised at all. Isn’t everything in life just so relative?
It turns out that hot water (or just water, for that matter) is a great treat over here that you can’t simply take for granted. That been said, showers are as short and practical as possible as we just can’t afford to waste water -or gas, or electricity (to make it warm enough that it won’t kill me of hypothermia during a shower. I mean it). Plus, it is so cold all the time (you guessed it, no house heaters) that it takes necessity to move you into the shower -and, most importantly, out of the shower with a wet hair. I am not exaggerating: it is often colder inside the house than outside. It is a dry, penetrating kind of cold that is constant and builds up and increasingly attaches itself to the body as days and nights go by (seriously, instead of getting used to it, I am feeling a little colder everyday). But I survived my shower and came out gloriously feeling like myself again (I probably wouldn’t have survived another day with my disgusting hair, though). To make up for the temperature shock of coming out into the freezing house after the burning water shower (hard to control the temperature of gas-warmed water in my circumstances) I warmed myself up outside the house by seating under the extremely strong and burning wonderful sun (oh! huge tip of you are coming to Nepal: bring a stock of good facial sun cream). Ok, I give in, it was not as bad as I thought. I might do it again in the upcoming 3 months.
Besides hot water and (lack of) house heating, clean water for drinking and cooking is something to always be attentive to (and thankful for). It is said that on monsoon season (Summer, rainy season, that is) cholera is still a reality, as the city’s infrastructure is very poor and all sorts of water systems and sewage and street garbage end up flowing the same urban currents (the picture below might spark your imagination).
In the house where I am staying we are lucky to have water tanks that get filled by pipe-trucks, not manually bombed, and -supposedly- warmed by solar panels or gas systems. I have not yet discovered how most locals deal with water (or lack of) for their showers, drinking and cooking yet. But it is unfortunate and sort of popularly known that if you eat in some local restaurants or street food carts you are most certainly bound to get the worst stomach ache/diarrhea of your life (and possibly some other sketchy diseases).
But although this might sound like a crazy difficult city to live in from what I have described here so far (why the hell did you move there again?), I don’t want to give the wrong impression (a purely negative one, that is). In fact, one of my strongest impressions of Nepal so far, I must say -under the risk of generalizing-, has been how kind looking, welcoming and respectful everyone seems to be. Besides all daily difficulties (for my standards, such as shortages of electricity and water, harsh weather, possible thirst and hunger or health problems, and intensely noisy/dusty/polluted/stressful city environment of most parts of Kathmandu), I have gotten a genuine looking-in-the-eye smile and a namaste gesture from almost everyone I crossed paths with that made me feel acknowledged (and is it strange how being acknowledged as an individual by random casual encounters with strangers on the streets has struck me as out-of-the-norm positive? I think I got used to think that it is the norm to be the unremarkable blurriness of nobody-in-the-crowd after living in other busy cities such as London and Rio de Janeiro).
Anthropological analysis left aside, that kind of contained, polite, respectful posture towards each other, and the acknowledgment of fellow human beings as I have observed so far, simply seemed somewhat dissonant from all the noisy city chaos happening around us. It made me think of how rude, disrespectful and unappreciative people are capable of being back home (and many other places) when living in plenty (I mean, many cities in Brazil feel like First World when compared to Kathmandu). Not that generosity and kindness are necessarily related to comfort and abundance (in fact, I have heard stories that illustrate the idea that ‘people living with less tend to give more’), but it might help to be nice and respectful when you are not hungry or cold or feeling dirty or sick or too-busy-trying-to-make-a-somewhat-safe-living… you get the picture. It is remarkable how there seems to be a constant sense of softness in how people acknowledge each other even on quick, casual encounters. Peoples’ expressions and interactions seem to create an emotional and social softness to balance out the physical and urban harshness.
(Pause for appreciation).
And back to water reflections. As obvious as this may be, living in this kind of environment has made me actually understand what is entailed in the realization that water is present in pretty much every necessity we have daily. Cooking, drinking, showering and other toilet needs… all involves water. And yet I used to take it for granted how there is always water available (just turn on the tap and voilà, there it is). Although I have always had a weakness for eco-friendly practices and am completely against any sort of waste, I realize that I have had a very spoiled relationship with water throughout my life. Meaning: there was always plenty of it. More than enough for hygiene and comfort and even entertainment (swimming pools, for instance). This is not new information to me, but the extent to which I appreciate it now has definitely increased.
As the traveller I am (or like to think I am), I rejoice in the new feelings that new places awaken in me. Since my first day here I tried to figure out what sorts of emotions and reflections does this place bring about in myself. I enjoy being exposed to the strange, the new, the unusual… So, I was not necessarily expecting to be already involved in some sort of Buddhist inspirational nature watching, or Hindu ritual, colours and incense contemplation (although that would be awesome). But yes, it came rather as a surprise to me that my most familiar and taken-for-granted element has been the theme to dominate my thoughts after 4 days of Kathmandu (rather than something more… exotic?).
It seems I have began this journey inclined by an unintended internal voyage, a meditative, contemplative kind of experience. I have started, more than ever, to consciously calculate and feel my necessity of water, air, heat, food, sun. Having to be conscious about things that I used to take for granted, things that are directly linked to my body and consequently to my emotions, have led me to reflect on my most ‘natural’ (automatic-mode) habits. Which is tricky. (You know the saying ‘the fish is the last to discover water’s existence’?). And, because I have a tendency to focus on my cultural self (rather than my ‘biological’ self, I guess), I end up by reflecting on the habits I preserve that are most accepted and/or encouraged by my own culture and how interesting it is that they have contributed to my to understanding of myself for a very long time… and yet they are so transitory. Some habits I took for granted 5 days ago don’t seem to have a role to play in my current life context anymore (just to get a picture, and insisting on the shower situation, where I come from it is quite common to take showers pretty much every time we leave the house for a social encounter and when we come back, even if that happens several times a day).
It seems that something as natural/simple/necessary as having a shower today, under very different circumstances from what I am used to (so far!), has proven to spark productive thoughts on self-reflection/habits, making adjustments to a new lifestyle, privileges and curses of a big-city, the importance of clean hair for my sense of self, and how it is the little things I don’t usually talk about (washing my hair, for instance) that prove to be the memorable ones after all. (Or, if not memorable, the little things that turn out as worth writing about. Apparently.). And why do I have a feeling that indulging in the reflections provoked by my shower is a good way to start experiencing (and documenting) my new life ? Probably because reflection and self-awareness have always proven helpful when I am trying to learn more about the culture in which I am inserted at the moment. (That been said, I am only a woman and extremely thankful for good smelling hair while I reflect and work on examining my surroundings and my habits right now).