Nothing's a given
Wednesday, 27 February 2019
I should know this by now but nothing’s a given in Nepal. Take breakfast this morning, for example. We are in Dhading Besi about 60km west of Kathmandu at around 600m above sea level. It is a district headquarters in one of the worse earthquake-affected regions and because of aid efforts the best hotel in town, the Janajibika, has seen a lot of foreigners come and go.
We came down for breakfast. The cleaner was busy mopping the floors and there were no other guests in evidence. S ordered his usual travelling fare of an omelette. I’m not so keen on the way Nepalis keep chickens or the way they make omelettes – often there are plenty of chillies and onions and potatoes within and too much oil without so it is quite heavy for the early morning. I opted for scrambled egg, imagining a light fluffy yellow heap on a piece of freshly toasted bread, with perhaps a tomato or two, or some coriander garnish.
S’s masala omelette, toast, jam and banana arrived and by the time he had finished his breakfast there was still no sign of my food or of any drinks either. But then tea very firmly comes after food, never mind if you request it earlier. I was getting hangry.
Finally, on hassling the three chaps in the kitchen my breakfast arrived. It was – just as I requested – scrambled eggs. They were unadorned. They were in a bowl, wobbling and rubbery and unaccompanied by any of the usual extras. There was nothing but a spoon to shovel it into my mouth.
It seemed that somehow, in some unstated way, S had ordered a ‘breakfast set’ while I had ordered scrambled egg. I asked for toast. After a considerable pause, some slightly warmed plain white sliced bread arrived. I asked for butter. I asked for fruit. A rather blackened banana arrived. Then some butter. By this time the toast was cold. My rubber egg was almost cold and even less appealing. I decided on a banana sandwich. The milk tea – which was delicious and spicy – came a good while later, S’s order of coffee having been countermanded or ignored in the kitchen.
When his coffee eventually joined our mugs of tea on the table, it was a small cup of milky water sprinkled with coffee powder, and, of course, there was no spoon to mix the Nescafe into the less-than-hot liquid.
I don’t know why being taken literally continues to take me by surprise here. Only last evening, we ordered khana (literally food but implying rice, lentils and vegetables) and I asked if yoghurt was available. The waiter confirmed it was available and when it didn’t come with our food the waiter was unsurprised when I asked for it. He had taken me literally and appeared to think I was asking about the availably of yoghurt simply as a conversation opener. But he supplied it quickly and the evening meal – the food that most Nepalis will eat twice a day – was delicious. And the great thing about Nepali khana is that your plate is replenished as often as you want.
The problem is that we foreigners have very odd habits and Nepalis who are used to dealing with outsiders feel that we have such weird tastes and habits that they take what we say literally. They want to please us, not questioning the assumptions we make when placing our orders, and seldom asking if we mean what we say. But nothing’s a given here.