The other side of the lens
In 1993, when I was studying in Nepal, I got to spend a month off studying something by myself. I spent part of that month going back to the village, Dapcha, where we'd stayed with host families for two weeks early on. I stayed there for about a week. On the way into the village, I got a ride in a jeep for Rs. 70 or so (about $1.20) but on the way back the jeep wasn't running, so I walked.
Dapcha was about a three-hour walk from Dulikhel, which was where there's a paved road and buses run to Kathmandu. (Sometime after 1993, I think the road through Dapcha got paved. While I was there, they had a dirt road that became a sea of reddish mud during the monsoon season, and had to have the ruts smoothed out once the rain stopped before cars could drive on it again.)
A three-hour walk in the U.S. that was purely to get somewhere (as opposed to a hike for recreational purposes) would pretty well suck, but in Nepal, it's how everyone gets around. There are rest areas with huge shade trees and walls that are built to be just the right height to rest your load on without putting it down. (Just as most travel is done on foot, most transportation -- bottles of Coke, for example, or grain that needs to go to a mill -- is done by humans carrying it.) People bring oranges and sliced cucumbers and daikon radishes to sell. Travelers smoke cigarettes and chat with each other while they rest.
As I was sitting under one of these trees, I was approached by a pair of police officers, who wanted to know where I was coming from, and where I was going. I was initially worried that I was in some sort of trouble, but realized quickly that they were just asking me the standard opening questions for a stranger on the road you wanted to chat with. What was I doing in Nepal? Was I married? (That's another very standard question, incidentally, and the correct answer translates as, "My marriage has not yet occurred.") Since I was heading towards Dulikhel, and so were they, we walked the rest of the way together. These were small-town cops, going in to district headquarters to make their weekly report -- since there was no phone service in their part of the district, they had to come in person.
They asked me all sorts of questions as we walked -- about myself, about what I thought of Nepal, etc. I spoke halting but understandable Nepali by that point in my trip, and I'd answered a lot of these questions before, so I was able to at least take a shot at most of them. They were clearly thrilled to find an American who spoke any Nepali at all; I was an exotic foreigner who could actually talk to them.
I should probably mention at some point how I was dressed. I was wearing a kurta surwal (it's called a salwar kameez in other parts of South Asia) -- it's a long tunic with a pair of very loose-fitting pants underneath. Teresa Nielsen Hayden likes to wear these, so if you've seen her at a con, you probably know what I'm talking about. However, hers tend to be really beautiful and ornate; mine was extremely utilitarian. I'd had it made out of a light blue cotton fabric that looked almost denim-like, with no ornamentation at all. I'd wanted something I wouldn't feel bad about getting filthy, as I wore these the whole time I was in Nepal -- my blue jeans stayed in my duffel until I was packing to leave.
In addition to the kurta surwal, I was wearing a necklace made out of marigold buds; this had been presented to me as part of a ritual blessing by my host mother when I left. And I was wearing my sneakers, because my hiking boots had been annoying me.
The sneakers turned out to be a mistake. I started getting a huge blister on my heel. When my police escort stopped in a village to rest in the shade, I started to dig out some fresh socks, but was distracted by a white person holding what looked like a video camera. This village had a nice (if distant) view of the Himalayas, and this person appeared to be videotaping them. I found this hilarious, and got up and went over to get a closer look. I was debating saying something like, "Are they doing anything interesting?" Once I got closer, though, I realized that he was actually holding an incredibly fancy and elaborate SLR camera, and also, that he was the first of a substantial group.
All of them had huge, impossibly fancy cameras. They turned out to come from the St. Louis Camera Club, and were a chartered and escorted trip. The stragglers arrived by van as I was standing around chatting with them. The weirdest thing was, they found me almost as exotic as the Nepalis had -- here I was, a white person, wearing a kurta surwal and able to speak the local language! They asked me all sorts of questions -- not whether I was married, but most of the rest were the same questions the police officers had asked me. Where was I going? What was I doing in Nepal? How long had I been here? How long was I staying? What did I think of it?
One of the women asked me how much my backpack weighed. I told her not a whole lot. I was measuring it by Nepali standards, by which it was trivially light. She then picked it up and grunted with disbelief.
We chatted a little longer and then I went back to sit down by the police officers and finish changing my socks. ("Do you know them?" one of them asked me.) I was focusing pretty intently on getting new socks on without pointing the soles of my feet at anyone, since that's an insult in Nepal, when I heard a click.
One of the women from the camera club had taken my picture. As I laughed in disbelief, she said, "I just had to capture that moment! A true trekker!"
I found that hilarious -- I wasn't trekking, first of all, just walking back from a village. My study-abroad program had included a trek, months earlier, and I had actually been a miserable trekker, always dead last. I was in better shape (and more acclimated to the altitude) after three months in Nepal, but I still thought that description was about as far off as you could get.
But mostly, I was overwhelmed by the weirdness of being the person on the other side of the camera lens. I took hundreds of pictures while I was there (with my crappy little auto-focus camera -- if I could do it all over again, I'd buy something much nicer and learn to use it before leaving Northfield). Nepal was full of things I found strange and fascinating, from the political graffiti to the mounds of corn that had been shucked by hand to the autorickshaws. I wanted photos to show my friends and family, and to look at years later.
That moment made me realize that to someone else -- someone from my own country! -- I was the strange and exotic object, at least for that moment.
I told the story to my parents, and a few months after I got home, my father sent me a copy of it. He'd tracked down the St. Louis Camera Club (harder to do back in the dark ages before Google) and through them had found the photographer and requested two copies.
I'm unrolling my socks. The police officers on either side of me make it look like I must either be under police protection, or else under arrest. My kurta surwal is pretty dirty, and is dusted with red powder that was also part of the sendoff from my host mother. I am a pretty strange and exotic object, I guess. I might have wanted a picture of me, too.