Walking down the streets of Kathmandu feels a little like playing a video game that I can get better at, but will never be able to win. The roads are congested and chaotic: the space is shared by motorcycles & taxis, cows & dogs stretched under the sun and dust. Somewhere, in the midst of the swirling movement, is me.
I spend my first week in Kathmandu memorizing signs on shops, choosing temples as landmarks, trying to remember the twists and turns that lead me from home to school and back again. Week two is about moving through the streets faster, trying to cross roads without getting hit by honking motorcycles. By the end of our stay, I've found my footing---armed with the knowledge that motorcycles won't hit me if I move too slow, but taxis might. It takes me some time to understand all of this, to begin to feel the rhythms of my neighborhood, so it isn't until my last week in Nepal that I notice the stares.
Women in Nepal always seem to be in transit. If I catch the eye of a girl on the way to school, I smile, their eyes flit away. Men, on the other hand, often socialize on the streets, posed on door stoops or in front of shops. When they stare as my roommate and I walk by, I stare back. Sometimes, cars on empty streets honk as we pass. Once or twice men slow down on their motorcycles, yelling at my friends and I to tell us we're beautiful. The few times we go out, the bars are filled mostly with men, many of whom are drunk beyond belief. We can barely dance without feeling bodies too close to us, we can't move at all without attracting unwanted attention. By the time I get home, I am exhausted, not from my day but from the walk. Part of me wants to stop wearing makeup. Part of me wishes I could hide this body in a closet. I rarely interact with my host mother, although she cooks for us every day. She doesn't speak any English and my 20-something host brother never translates between us.
Many of the women I meet in Nepal are quiet, some even deferential. One group of women in a rural village in the Terai laugh at their difficulties in talking to my group of students. "We many not know what to say but we are strong in our hearts", they tell us. That much is clear. These women developed a time diary in which they record their daily activities to demonstrate to their husbands and families the amount of domestic work they are doing on a daily basis. They've done all of this, improving the quality of lives for them and the rest of the women in their village, despite only have a second-grade education.
Every woman I have met in Nepal is strong, although that strength is often displayed in different ways. Our professor, Anshu didi, is a firecracker, often interrupting lecturers to correct or question them. The first day we arrive in Nepal, she leads us in an hour-long meditation. She's quick to offer her wisdom, about how to approach life's challenges, her thoughts on big INGOs, or quips about men who talk as if they know everything. It seems she has a hand in social justice work happening all over the country. When we travel around Nepal, everyone we meet has nothing but the deepest respect for Anshu didi.
The streets of Kathmandu are rambling, and so, it seems, am I. As I make the journey from school to home, having just left Anshu didi for the last time, there is something heavy in my chest. "We'll see you later", we tell her. Soon my group will pack up our belongings, hug our host mothers goodbye, and cross the streets a final time on our way to the airport. There is so much we carry forward with us. Goodbye seems like the wrong thing to say.