Impressions upon returning home from Nepal.
1. American burbs, are rather mundane and dull compared to Kathmandu’s burbs.
No children running and playing in the streets, no men gathered around the board-game table outside a strip of dust-covered trinket shops, no women hanging out clothes on the concrete walls to dry, no schoolgirls giggling on their walk home or mothers carrying babies in shawls draped across their bosoms, no shopkeepers staring and whispering as you pass, no crazy motorcycles swerving around honking taxis and diesel-spewing buses, no clutter of signs and posters and billboard ads overwhelming the streetscape, and no dirt. No dirt, not a speck of trash, no empty lots filled with piles of bricks and weeds, not a bush or clump of grass out of place, no burning plastic or flea-bitten dogs lying along the gravel streets. Not even a lonely, scrawny cow trudging up the road.
No, here in the American middle-class burbs, it’s just quiet, calm and tidy. How boring.
2. Dal bhat, momos, prawn crackers, and roasted potato with egg and cheese are conspicuously absent from the menus.
It’s brutally disappointing. I take a menu and start greedily searching for the “rice dishes” section only to remember I’m not looking at a tea house menu. Asking for milk tea at Chili’s would just draw a confused look from the waiter. So I get water. He politely tries to accommodate for the lack of dal bhat (what the hell is dal bhat?!) by offering me some black bean soup. I appreciate his effort though I’m sure my face didn’t convey it.
Then today, I was resolute that for dinner, we were going to eat Nepali. I told Luke that we should go to Sherpa’s as visions of dal bhat, rice and little brown waiters danced in my head. As he drives past the mall, Luke replies “Well, we could go there, but you know it’s not going to be the same. Want to go to Pei Wei?” Poof. Lentil soup served by Saheed, gone. I sigh and succumb. “Yeah, you’re right.” I fought the truth in my mind for a second, arguing with myself that even if it didn’t taste the same, it would still be good… and maybe it might make things feel the same. Maybe it would bring back all the beauty and power of my memory. Then again, maybe it would just be food. I am a writer afterall and my specialty is dramatic interpretation of….well, everything.
As I stuffed myself with deep-fried honey-goo chicken and soy sauce drenched rice at Pei Wei, I thought, the food here has no soul. Mass prepared, previously frozen, produce trucked in from California. How can that possibly taste good compared to cauliflower and carrots fresh picked from the backyard garden, steamed and tossed in turmeric curry? Then again, it seems that even organic, eco-conscious gourmet restaurant food here doesn’t taste as good as Nepali meals, maybe because it’s just too fashionable. Food eaten to survive always seems to taste better than food eaten just for food’s sake.
I don’t know, maybe it’s not that food itself has or does not have the spiritual component, but we merely assign it soul based on the quality of the sensory experiences we have surrounding it.
3. Starbucks tea lattes, as soothing as they may be after a long journey home and sorting through 265 unread e-mails, do not remotely compare to hot, sweet Nepali “millek” (you know, milk, in Nepali) tea boiled lovingly on a yak-dung burning stove.
4. The radio is horrible.
I knew this before I left, but it’s all the more intolerable now that I’m back. I don’t want to hear about the revolutionary eyelash enhancing treatment that is going to fix my lifelong insecurities about my … gag… eyelashes. Are you friggin’ kidding me? Of all the reasons to hate America, our billion-dollar superficiality has got to be the biggest.
I wouldn’t normally be complaining except that all of these seemingly tiny observations have accumulated to remind me that it’s not going to be possible to be a Nepali here at home. Not that I ever became a Nepali, of course, but after a month of establishing new habits, new tastes and gleefully gathering new experiences, I promised myself this time I was going to be different when I got back. I unwitting committed to a simpler lifestyle – one more free of technology, the constant barrage of media input, eating simple and delicious homemade dishes, and taking time every day to reflect on the important things in life. Yes, I know, doesn’t every good traveller promise to be a better person after learning all that you do abroad? But I was really committed this time: I even had a plan laid out in my head of how I would eat, work, socialize, shop and live.
But after just a day and a half, these annoying obstacles are sure signs that home relentlessly sucks you back up from the fertile ground of your enlightenment, like a 20-horsepower vacuum. You’re left clinging to your photographs and slowly dissolving memories like the last remnants of the day’s sunlight warming your feet through a glass window.
As Luke rather unwittingly and pragmatically pointed out: Sure, I could eat all the Sherpa’s dal bhat I want, but it’s not going to be the same. His solution is to calmly head back to our old familiar haunts, while mine is to fight, kicking and screaming, until weary reality overcomes me.
After all, here just is not, and never will be there.
I suppose it’s ok that’s the case. For if here were there it wouldn’t be so mystical, and there’d be no reason to learn anything new or go anywhere different. It’s just sad that you can’t take it with you. How does anyone ever change? How do you incorporate the new things you learned into your life and influence your relationships without succumbing to the monstrosity of your daily rut? I wondered this especially as I was trekking across the alpine pastures of the Khumbu, walking one foot in front of the other through the narrow, rutted trails left by hundreds of yak trains. Some were so deep you could barely walk in them at all. What does that say about our daily habits? They are comfortingly familiar until they get us so deep into the muck that we’ve not only worn away all of our fertile grass but left ourselves too narrow a gorge from which to move or retreat.
And so we go.