While traveling during the summer of 2014, Rebecca LeBeau wrote several emails to a friend detailing her experiences exploring Nepal.
Subject: Thoughts from an Italian place in Pokhara, Nepal
There are a lot of Italian restaurants in Pokhara. It fits the whole “tourist” vibe of the area, but it’s weird to be eating pizza and pasta every day when I know around the corner there’s some good dal bhat (lentil soup poured over rice, served with side dishes) waiting to be tasted. I think if I had traveled to Pokhara first without spending time in the rest of Nepal, I might never have eaten real Nepali food.
It’s a bit unsettling to be in a tourist city after three weeks of learning about Nepal and its culture. It felt like during most of my time here, I was working hard to adapt to Nepal — eating the food, using the hand gestures and body language and sharing the same places. Here in Pokhara, everything Nepali tries to adapt to the tourist. Every street is teeming with gimmicky souvenirs, fancy Western-style hotels and restaurants and a plethora of travel agencies advertising treks and thrill-seeking activities. The Nepali culture is so heavily commercialized it’s almost unrecognizable, such as in the cultural shows performed in the evenings in some restaurants. Travel books always mention the “real” or “authentic” parts of a country you can visit, which I always thought was a bit silly, because how can I, as a rich American tourist, really get “authentic”? Yet, through this course, I have felt the slightest bit like I’ve lived in Nepal rather than just toured it, and it makes me uncomfortable to realize how privileged I am to sit here eating a pizza that costs three times what an average Nepali person makes in a day. (It’s a very good pizza.) I am forced to wonder how many tourists realize the power we have as rich foreigners to change entire cities.
One difference in Nepal compared to America is the sheer number of stray dogs. One wandered into the restaurant earlier, flopped down next to me and is now sleeping with his head underneath my chair. The waiters looked at him like they were going to chase him out, but I told them the dog could stay. He’s just too cute. My study abroad leader would scold me for letting him stay in case he bites me. If he follows me when I leave, I’ve decided he can have my leftover pizza.
Now I’m eating some tiramisu for dessert that only cost me 1.5 times the daily wage. (By the way, the average wage is somewhere around $2 USD a day, depending on estimates. So a high quality meal here is maybe $5, which, although expensive for Nepal, is a steal for an American college student. I’ve spent that much on coffee in the States.)
My dog friend did end up following me out of the restaurant. He gladly ate my pizza and trotted along with me for part of the way back. I wonder if someone feeds him or if he relies on back door scraps and the kindness of strangers. Judging by his ribcage visible through his coat, I think it’s probably the latter. In a lot of ways, he reminds me that the rest of Nepal is not a simple façade of souvenirs, cultural shows and tiramisu. The lives of the Nepali people are as complex and beautiful as our own. And I think if I had just come here as a tourist, I wouldn’t have seen that. It’s easy, when you have money (and Americans generally do), to only see and do what you want to see and do. But even though it’s less comfortable for me, I think I’ve learned a lot more by taking this course and seeing and doing, at least a little, what the Nepali people see and do.
Click here to see another email from Rebecca.