During our cultural training, they advised us not to look at anyone bathing. You are expected to look away, but I find this very hard. How can I look away when there is a very pretty woman taking a bath by the roadside?Of course they aren’t stark naked, the way you would be in a proper bathroom, but they are considered naked. The women in the terrai (plain areas) wrap a sari around them, or some cloth, and those from the hills wear what they call a lungi (I might have got it wrong, but well, they have some special cloth they wear while taking a bath). Men wear shorts. So when they are in these costumes, they are considered to be totally naked, and you aren’t supposed to look at them. Yet, even while they are in these special clothes, they publicly reach into their privates parts and wash, and scratch off all the dirt or however it is that they do the washing. Both women and men do this.What puzzles me is why they don’t put these water pumps in the backyards, hidden away from the public. Why do they put them right by the roadside? I guess it has a lot to do with the living in public characteristic of their society.The whole family bathes from here, but to avoid clashes, for in some areas several families share a water pump, the men bathe in the afternoon, and the women in the morning. Which means I get treated to the sight every time I walk to work.
I was warned to look away, to take an interest in the trees and the flowers, and the buffaloes, to look any place but not at the bathing women. But that is something that beats my understanding, for these are pretty and young women, and some of them, when they see you coming by, start to rub soap into their breasts in a manner that is only meant to provoke you into staring. How can I not look?
I guess if I had grown up in this country, I might have learnt the technique of not looking, for this is a place with no sense of privacy at all. Doors and windows don’t mean a thing, they are more ceremonial than anything. I’ve visited several families, and I’ve been surprised to be hosted in their bedrooms – even in the master bedrooms – as if they were hosting me in the living rooms. Or the verandah.
A friend of mine got married last year, and he told me it took him three months before he managed to sleep with his wife. Every time they wanted to do it, someone interfered, for though he was thirty years old, with a good job, he couldn’t rent a place of his own. He had to live in the family house, along with his younger brothers and parents and uncles. And even after he got married, he continued to share the room with his two younger brothers. How could he have private time with his wife? (but his story deserves a lot more attention! I’ll certainly tell you about it later 😀 ) Finally, he did it only because he asked me for help, and I helped him out, but will tell you more later. :-))
Yet his case made me see the depth of the lack of privacy in Nepal. When my girlfriend came over, the way they stared at me stunned her. I tried to tell her that they stare because they don’t think it’s rude, because to them, nothing should be hidden, everything is public, every body lives in a fish bowl, and so standing right in your path and studying you as if you are a statue isn’t rude, or wrong (well, this too deserves another post!)
The funny thing about it is the women who take baths by the road side stare at me as I pass by, and they expect me not to stare back? Not to oogle? No way.
Talk about culture shock, baby. I had started to write something about living in public, but living in Nepal these two years has given me a peek of what life will be like when we lose privacy, due to the Internet, or government policy. Scary, ugh? Imagine not being able to make love because there is a camera of some sort hooked onto the Internet and pointing at every bed you take your girl to.
Update on 27th July: Yesterday I talked to my boss, a forty something lady, about this habit of bathing in public. She is Nepali, but has lived in Kathmandu city for so long that she has lost touch with the lifestyle in the rural areas. She couldn’t believe that people in rural Nepal still bathe at the roadside, but she said the culture came about as a result of the need for safety. This is what her grandmother told her. That in the terrai, where there are snakes and scorpions in abundance, where all kinds of creatures find their way into your house (I wrote about it here in this blog post called “House Mates”) , damp places are considered unsafe. Breeding grounds for all kinds of bugs. Also, no one can rape you while you are bathing out in the public :-)) But over the years, it evolved into a kind of culture, or habit, or whatever it is. Though, in the City and in the big towns, it rarely happens. Only poor people still bathe at the roadside, most of the rich, well off, urbanized have proper bathrooms.