The sweetness of new contexts

Yet another Kathmandu rookie error. In the shower combined toilet, I drop my expensive bon voyage gift of handmade soap on the floor, it shimmies across the floor and scoots down the toilet hole faster than a goal shooter’s hockey puck. I can’t grab it while holding the water jug, and shampoo, and keep my balance on the slippery floor; and there is no way I am putting my hand in the hole for its retrieval. Sure it is just soap, I shrug, but I find myself staring down the now soapy hole feeling a twinge of loss.

Later I tell my Nepali friend what happened, and I get a big laugh and am told the ‘obvious way’ as if I was a 5-year-old, “Why aren’t you putting your sandal over the hole?”

Uhm? Because I never thought of repurposing my sandals as a toilet plug, that’s why.

These are stories of old clinging and new discoveries. My soap is not just for washing here, it functions as a memory of home, hot showers, and my dear friend; it disappearing feels like I have lost them all. And my use of sandals is limited to functioning strictly as footwear, not toilet plugs. Both these events highlight my contextual history.

As a functional contextualist we talk of context all of the time, one might think of it as little pieces of our lives that evoke responses; context includes our personal history, time, interpersonal and intrapersonal factors, and of course the physical environment. Our contexts evoke responses, pieces of what we know from the past influence how we respond in the present. Often we are not fully aware.

Life in Kathmandu, is an experiment of dramatically changing one’s context and watching what happens with one’s history.

We have 8 hours of electricity a day, now that isn’t 8 hours straight in civilised time like 9am to 5pm. No. It is usually two blocks of 4 hours at any random time in the day, so one might have electricity between say 2am and 6am, but one might not have it, and never know why. Then there is the water problem, at times the entire apartment block runs out of water, and I seem to be the only one really bothered by it. When there is water it is strictly cold, no hot water here, unless you boil it. There are squat toilets, no heating, no television (which I love), and definitely no dishwasher, washing machine or air-conditioning. Oh and there’s no refrigerator in the apartment either, not much point when the electricity rarely works. It is a challenge to be here and not think I am totally crazy, not be an impatient demanding westerner, and not want to flee home.

Let me tell you about the middle of the night pee run. My bedroom is gloriously on the rooftop, and it overlooks the 2000 metre forest covered ‘hill’ of Nargajin (I say hill because it’s not called a mountain here unless it’s 6000 metres). To go to the bathroom I have to go outside in the night air or rain, cross the slippery marble tiles of the roof, down an outdoors marble staircase and into the unlit dark toilet/shower room. It does make me long for home and the adjacent ensuite bathroom with hot water, a flushing toilet and electric lights – remember that tonight won’t you?

Each day the west feels further away. Sometimes it even feels like it has disappeared altogether, like a lost time. Everything here is so new, everything so unfamiliar that when old pieces of context come up it looks, well, weird. I can see it. I miss home and realise how attached I am to my family or friends, and that makes sense. But attached to soap? Or toast? Or red wine in a wine glass? I did try buying red wine but I couldn’t find a wine glass and without the glass it totally missed the mark. You see context (our learning history) is everything.

Here, there is a dramatic change to home, I can see how much context is a part of being human. There is me here now and me back home. I can see how I am longing for home or how I cling to it. Removing oneself from the familiar is illuminating and liberating.

Take the illuminating part. On a trek in the mountains, we are sitting eating mandarins during our break, lying in the sun, on the grass. I throw one to a friend and accidentally hit him in the head. My heart stops for a second as I wait, like a rabbit in the headlights, I feel a microsecond of panic. I say, “Oh sorry, sorry” as quickly as I can. My friend just laughs and says, ‘no problem’. My behaviour was from the past, like lightning I had a flashback to past times when a similar accident on my part led to a very different outcome. It’s almost like a reflex, I was instantly on alert, waiting to run for cover. When nothing happened but laughter I was dramatically aware of my old context clashing up against this new one. Like thunder that follows the lightning – I have a space to see two contexts clashing together.

Then there are the liberating experiences I have never had before that allow me to look at everything with fresh eyes. To see this world as wonderful. Take this morning, we are walking through the forest, the snowy mountains are in view, and the forest is lush green and quiet. We’ve been walking for ages and all getting hungry, when my Sherpa guide stops, plucks a big red rhododendron flower from the tree and begins to shake the raindrops into his mouth. I do it too and discover the drops taste like honey! As we walk we eat the rhododendron flowers too. I’m told to eat only the red flowers, because the pink are bitter, and the white are poisonous. In this new context I am discovering peace and nature and joy. It is delightful.

Maybe we should all spend time in different spaces so we can see our old learning and experience new things. This is the advantage I see of dramatically pulling myself away from a place like my western home and planting myself in the Nepal Himalaya. I get to see how I use context. I’d like to think I could let the past be, but as a human we need the past. Perhaps it is enough just to see the past and how I use it.