It was a sunny afternoon in Pokhara, Nepal when my friend was asking a street vendor about the price of a musical instrument – a singing bowl, to be specific. He’d already bought a small one a day earlier, and wanted the bigger one too. What better way to use the years-of-experience-honed Egyptian mastery of negotiation (aka fesal)? My friend kept going back and forth with the guy for almost 10 minutes, but eventually told him that he’d already bought one, so, no thanks. I expected the guy to give him a finger other than the thumbs up; much to our surprise he said “it’s okay, as long as it’s money spent in our country, it’ll help.”
This had me thinking, a lot; it wasn’t some subtle nuance. It was a stark contrast from what I knew, what I experience regularly. Is it the place that makes such a difference in mindsets? Or is it the people? I mean, yeah, in Nepal, they had humanity greatest invention: the shatafa, but there was an inherent difference in being there. I don’t just mean the fact that they drive on their left (though that is messed up).
That was the final day of our trip, and I started looking back that night and remembering all the tiny –– and not so tiny –– situations that made me examine in retrospect what we had in common, and where we were miles apart.
One very early morning during the trip, we were waiting for a bus, and this person comes and says a few prayers, paints a dot on our foreheads (a religious symbol in Nepal and a token of good luck), sprinkles flowers over us, and then bows in silence. Turns out he was a beggar. The first question that popped to my head was what if a Christian beggar tried doing the sign of the cross or something to a Muslim back home?
Monkey temple, Kathmandu
Nepal is a poor country, and it has many religions and faiths. Yet, somehow, there’s this shared warmth and spirituality spread out everywhere. There’s tolerance, and I’m not talking about the kind you see in an Adel Imam movie. There are Buddhist temples and Hindu shrines everywhere –– kinda like how a mosque is built next to any newly built church around here –– and people accept each other with open arms. I haven’t felt like an outsider because of my faith or ethnicity; my beliefs were my own, and no one asked my about them just because I was a stranger.
I felt safe in Nepal. Our guesthouse in Pokhara was up a cliff or a hill, and it was surrounded by, well, other mountains. It was a 15 min hike down pitch black darkness at night –– with only our phones’ flash as a guide –– and a 30-minute walk to town. Our first instincts were not to go out at night, to save the trouble of hiking/walking 45 minutes in an abyss, but we weren’t there to stay at the guesthouse.
First time we started moving, we were each armed with a rock, and our feet were ready to fly at any second. It was pitch black and there was no one but us in the street, not even Nepali folk. Once a person emerged in the street, being the trusting Egyptians we are, we assumed a mugging would happen. It didn’t; people would smile and say hi and then pass you by. By the end of the third day in Pokhara, going out at night felt safer than in Egypt.
Pokhara view from our trek
People aren’t just kind and tolerant, they’re also liberal and respectful of people’s personal choices. While my friend and I were going upstairs to our dorm in our first hostel, we found condoms over a counter in the hall with a gentle note to be “safe.” In a poor, underdeveloped, religious country, people were free to do as they pleased. Scratch that; they were encouraged to do as they pleased. I then remembered that women back home weren’t even allowed to stay in hotels alone; they’d have to be with other female friends or a husband. How is it a country that is far less developed than us has more respect for people’s choices and personal space?
And it wasn’t just Nepal and its people that shook me; it was also exposure to foreigners in Nepal that made me realize how different things were back home. I stayed in a mixed dorm in that first hostel. One time, I was going back to the room to get something, and this girl was changing and there were others in the room; I was the only one to panic and retreated while apologizing repeatedly. I felt like I violated her privacy –– thought it was a shared room –– and when I got back to the room she laughingly told me it was okay and that she wasn’t naked, you know. It made sense; the context was different. I wouldn’t offend her while changing any more than I’d offend the guy in the next bed changing. What if the same situation happened back home? Would a girl be half as comfortable staying in a hostel with an Egyptian, let alone change?
Women in Nepal also move on motorbikes, like almost everyone, and you don’t keep hearing the whole “women can’t drive” rhetoric. I wonder how that would work out around these parts, women roaming the streets on bikes night and day.
One more thing that drew my attention was people’s faces. Peace of mind is rare; it’s something many aspire to, but only a few actually achieve. In Nepal, people work very hard and they’re not rich or powerful. Yet, there’s this feeling of content on their faces. People are satisfied; they look happy and at peace, with their realities and with themselves. For the few days I was there, I felt the same. Maybe it was the experience of travelling abroad for the first time, or being on vacation from work; I like to think it was the place, and the people.
Random dog at our guesthouse in Pokhara
Travelling changes you in so many ways, and you’ll discover much about the world and yourself. Maybe you’d stumble upon a swastika in an Asian country like I did and start getting riled up. But then you’ll discover that swastikas are an ancient religious icon and a symbol of divinity and spirituality in Indian and East Asian religions. You’ll encounter people that you’d remember years down the line, people that would leave an everlasting impression on your mind and soul. You’ll go places and do new things and meet new people, and you’ll be all the better person for it.