It’s twenty years ago to the day since I travelled to Nepal to teach English in a tiny village school. I was 19 years old and wanted to explore some of the world before going to university and the idea of voluntary work overseas really appealed. My parents had travelled around Asia as students and said how friendly the people in Nepal were. Despite spending moths preparing for my trip it was a total culture shock for me on my arrival. I was a young girl from a Cornish fishing village navigating the hustle and bustle of Katmandu but the explosion of fabrics and colours really made a lasting impression.
My volunteer partner, Julie, and I travelled for ten hours on the roof of a bus(!) to a village in the foothills of the Himalayas nestled within rice paddy fields. This was to be home for six months. and we were to be living with the headmaster of the local village school, his wife and their two teenage sons in their home made out of dried compacted mud. After a few days of getting to know the area the Headmaster’s wife ‘Amar’ (Nepali for mother as she liked us to call her) asked if we’d like to wear sarees. We both agreed without hesitation and were honoured to wear the traditional dress for women on a daily basis. Ever since our arrived in Nepal I had been admiring the colourful saree fabrics with their intricate embroidery details and bold colours displayed on stalls and worn by women everywhere. However, we needed a masterclass on how to wear the 5.5m length of fabric. Typically, one end is tucked into a long cotton petticoat and then its wrapped around it. The next section is gathered/folded and tucked into the front, finishing another wrap around the body with the end part folder/draped over one shoulder. It’s such a simple, practical and beautiful design that one length of fabric can fit any size or shape of body yet everyone looks different depending on the design, colour and accessories worn.
Shopping for sarees was a truly memorable experience. Amar took us to the market in the local town where we browsed amongst the most beautiful fabrics. We chose plain coloured sarees to teach in and more intricate and elobarate designs for other days and special occasions. It was also the first time I had ever had bespoke garments by a tailor but it is standard practise when you need the fitted blouse to wear under the saree. In today’s era of buying off-the-shelf and mass produced clothes it's easy to forget a time when most clothes were made to measure in most cultures.
Amar and the other women in the village were very patient and helpful in teaching us how to tie the sarees but washing them was a very different cultural experience indeed. We joined the women by the local river on washday and started washing our clothes with a bar of soap that that had been given to us. The women all looked at us. We were struggling. We weren’t used to washing clothes and fabric by hand and explained, bashful and embarrassed, that we had machines to do this for us so never needed to wash by hand. The women kindly showed us how to do it whilst taking care not to damage the fabrics, especially the ones with embroidery. The sarees were left to dry on the rice plants in the intense heat and then we'd would work together folding them into neat fabric stacks. Watching the women make a domestic chore into a social activity was quite eye-opening. We’d then carry piles and piles of clean colourful sarees back to the village full of satisfaction and pride (once we’d mastered the washing!).
This may have been two decades ago but I have such vivid memories of the colours, fabrics and of the amazing women who let us be part of their community and taught me so much.