People Peeping in Pokhara

When I was in undergraduate and graduate school in California, I used to like to watch people.   There was a lot to see in Santa Barbara in the late sixties and early seventies, from beach “bums” to surfers, fraternity and sorority guys and gals, to nerds, although they weren’t called that back then.   I’d buy a coffee (back when I consumed a pot a day, look at me now, I can’t sleep for a week if I even take a few sips ), curl up on a bench outside the student center on campus, and watch the stream of grads and undergrads, faculty and university straff, pouring in and out of the heart of UCSB.   I mean, I was on the US campus that set the Bank of America on fire to protest the Vietnam war.  So, during the time we were under Marshall Law, there was even more to see.  At that time, we were a stain on the UC system’s stellar reputation for academic excellence.   A significant portion of the student body was perpetually stoned, although that may have been true at other campuses as well.  No, our claim to fame was the burning of the local branch of BoA that had had the misfortune of establishing a branch in the middle of Isla Vista, the student ghetto where everyone who did not live in the dorms on campus resided.

Things were even better at UC Berkeley in the seventies, where I found myself attending graduate school.   Those of us living the heartland of the peace movement, the flower children of the sixties and radicals of the seventies, were a motley-looking crew, from those of us with  long hair, and flowing skirts and baggy jeans, to the  ore button-down frat boys and frilly girls trying to pretend that a sexual and political revolution was not well under way.  Yes, there was a lot to see in those days.   Since then, the only peeping that I have done in recent years is leaf-peeping in New England… until now.

Pokhara reminds me a bit of Berkeley back in “the day” although, in some ways, the assortment of people is more varied.   First, you have the native residents, the Nepali women whose wardrobe choices are on the top of my list for clothing.    Although I didn’t find a sari that comfortable when I wore one in the early seventies in Kenya since I was dating an Indian boy at the time, the baggy pants and long with kurti (long tops with slits up the sides) are as comfortable as can be for someone who absolutely abhors tight clothing.   The only other wardrobe I have ever seen that I thought would have suited me as well had I lived in those times were the dresses that “flapper” women wore in the early 19’s.  Then, baggy was fashionable.  Oh, how often I’ve wished I’d been around in those times to wear some of the dresses such as those that I’ve seen in movies about the period.

Red is a very popular color for saris and pant-kurti combos during festival season.  Of course, whenever possible, these are adorned with gold ornamentation of some sort, trim on the fabric, jewelry dripping from  their necks and wrist.   But, like the houses, all colors of the rainbow are represented, many of which I cannot wear at all for fear of looking half-dead — yellow, orange, lime green.   I don’t even look that great in red, or so I was informed by the woman who rented wedding attire to me in Rwanda. She refused to rent me the dress that I liked because it wouldn’t look as good with my skin as blue would.  Well, perhaps this was true, but as someone who now sports the requisite number of years to wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t match (Jenny Asher, earlier post), I didn’t see why I could get what I wanted to wear to a wedding where, no matter what I wore, I was going to stick out like a sore thumb.

Nepali men typically wear dark-colored western clothing.  Nothing to get too excited about.  There are young men sporting jeans and t-shirts, as well as a few scattered businessmen, wearing suits and ties.  Unlike in Rwanda, where men can wear bright colored shirts and pants made from African fabric, the Nepali male wardrobe appears to be limited to dark black, blue, or gray, with a few bright colored t-shirts among the younger set.   There are also Nepali men who are obviously about go trekking, or who have just returned from doing so.  Usually, they have immense backpacks on, made from well-worn canvas, and the woolen hats with the ear flaps that are now a fashion statement in the U.S. often adorn their heads.   Their skin is burned almost black from years in the sun on the mountains.

After the women dressed to kill, there are the women who work in the various shops along the “boulevard” that follows along the lake, the area is called the lakeside of town, as a matter of fact.  They usually are wearing kurti of all styles and colors imaginable, with a choice of  pants: baggy pants that are gathered at the ankles, or not.  These may actually have “legs”, like Western pants, or may be, more-or less, triangular in shape where two corners have openings for the legs and the top an opening to climb in.  These are incredibly comfortable.  Many Nepali women wear leggings that cling to their bodies as leggings are supposed to do.  In a country where women are supposed to keep themselves covered for reasons of modesty, I find leggings to be a odd option since, to my mind, they are incredibly revealing, certainly if you compare them to the traditional baggy pants.   With most leggings, you can see every curve, every nook and cranny, in “naked” detail.  The only thing you can’t see is the skin beneath them.

Next come the diminutive Nepali women with skin burnished into a deep shade of golden brown wearing colored skirts and sweaters who carry huge baskets of fruit around to sell, or to transport somewhere for sale.  I find it interesting that, everywhere where fruit and vegetables are to be transported personally, it is the women who do the carrying.  However, in Nepal, they use a different approach than women in Africa.  Although they still use their heads, they have a great long straps which they place below the basket and then run up and over their heads.  The result is that they end up being bent forward, with the strap across the top of their heads and the baskets across their backs.  Not nearly as good for posture as the African approach.  I am not surprised to see many of these tiny older women to be stooped even when they are not carrying loads.  While the African approach clearly strengthens the spine, I fear that the Nepali style of carrying may cripple it.

Finally, before turning to the array of Western faces strolling the boulevard, we have the young Nepali women who are wearing Western style clothing.    They, like their mothers and grandmothers and aunts, do not walk about with uncovered legs, although they do wear leggings without kurti that don’t leave much to the imagination.  Some will have bare arms but this is not common.

Turning to the foreigner contingency in Pokhara, there is no shortage of white faces although, i must admit I don’t recall seeing one black face, either African or American the whole time I was there.  While I might not have noticed an African American, an African would have certainly caught my eye.  First, there are the trekkers.  Some of them look as though they haven’t taken a bath in weeks, and perhaps they haven’t, while others look like they just stepped out of a catalogue from North Face.  Presumably, the latter just spent the last few hours suiting up at the North Face store in town, or at any of the smaller shops carrying North Face equipment.  North Face appears to have cornered the market on trekking gear available in town.  Perhaps this contributes to my feeling of being back in northern California.  North Face headquarters is in Alameda, California, right next door to where I went to high school.

The younger trekkers look like we did in the sixties and seventies in northern California although, at that time, white folks did not attempt to have dreadlocks.  Back then, we knew that locs usually work better with Afro-textured hair.   However, locs are apparently not a new thing, as there is a Sanskrit word for them — jata. Apparently, depictions of them in artwork date back over 2000 years ago.  As usual, that which the young think is new and “cool” actually isn’t that new at all.  To the contrary, jata have been around for centuries.

The younger “trek sect” as I like to call them since they are, in some ways, like a religious sect in terms of having their own customs and costumes, and their dedication to their  higher (literally) purpose is not unlike that of orthodox clergy.   They dress in a wide variety of styles, all of which are, of course, sturdy and practical, and frequently engage in the public displays of affection that have made us — the purveyers of such repugnant practices —  famous among the Nepali, who frown on any type of PDA.  Although I must confess that in my youth I engaged in such behaviors myself, back when I actually had a sex life, I now found it somewhat distasteful to see young people draping themselves over one another while walking down the street in public.  Apparently, the folly of my youth has not stopped me from becoming a disapproving old woman in my elder years.   Maybe I am jealous.  If I recall correctly, it was fun to be young and in love…

The most interesting thing about trekkers in general in Pokhara is that they are of all ages, some even appear to be older than I am.  I wonder if they have been Sierra Club members for life or if some spent their youth as urban housewives and are now living out the dreams of their youth by coming to trek in Nepal.  I suppose I will never know, but I am impressed every time I see a gray-haired man or woman kitted up to climb something.  Presumably they are not going to climb Sargamatha.

After the trekkers come other white-skinned tourists, French, German, American, British, no Western culture goes unrepresented on the main drag of Pokhara.  Their clothing is as varied as their countries of origin.  They are shorts so short that they almost no longer qualify as shorts as well as baggy traditional pants that they have obviously purchased from a local shop.  I fall into the latter category.  Some wear stylish dresses proudly  “strut their stuff” as I remember doing in my youth when I was wearing for the first time some new piece of clothing that I had either purchased or sewn for myself.    Ah…. those were the days before my body had become something unfamiliar resembling a wrinkled pear. 

Some Europeans wear shirts and blouses with sleeves, others wear diminuative tops that, again, don’t leave much to the imagination.  When these are coupled with the short-shorts, I am embarassed for the  tiny women wearing thick baggy sweaters and skirts and carrying their heavy baskets from one place to another.   I can’t imagine that they perceive such styles of dress as respectful but, then, what can you expect from foreigners anyway?  And, they do bring much needed commerce into town so namaste to them as well.  After all, they might buy some of my bananas. 

No one seems to pay anyone much attention in Pokhara no matter how they dress or the color of their skin.  A refreshing change after being stared at for nearly a year.   Everyone is used to one another and, like the caste system of Nepal, each group has its place — and its function– in the colorful mosaic of humanity that fills the sidewalks from morning to night.

Of course, mixed among the people, are the street dogs and cows.  Both, for the most part, appear to be well-fed and groomed.  Some may have even get an occasional bath.   There are two young male calves that hang together regularly.   They wander along the sidewalks and the throngs of tourists and Nepali part like the Red Sea to let them pass.  Westerners sometimes reach out and pet them as the pass.  They are irresistibly cute.  So  when I found myself face-to-face with them in front of a shop, I couldn’t resist saying Hello, aren’t you cute and petting the one closest to me.  He, in response, butted me with his head.  It was a like a love tap really, at least that is what I thought at the time.   A howdy, how are you?  In hindsight I realized it could have been a call to battle.  Either way, it startled me so that I stepped back and knocked over a sidewalk placard that was next to me.  Everyone swarming around us laughed.  I decided that my cow-petting days were over.  After all, I know less about cows than I know about dogs.  Although my resume is replete with a multitude of experiences in teacher education, all grouped into neat little categories, the section on urban animal husbandry is, regrettably, absent.