Please fasten your seatbelt. We are flying to the heart of Asia. A country that resides in one of the most magnificent and massive mountain range in the world: Nepal!
I am going to interview a close friend of mine which is working as a consultant engineer in Kathmandu. He is helping the city to recover from the tragic earthquake of 2015, which took a heavy toll on the Nepalese society. More than 8000 people lost their lives and 3.5 million remained homeless.
Thanks Joel for giving me this interview. So, tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m Joel Carvalho, a Portuguese Structural Engineer that lived and worked in Norway for more than four years, designing steel structures for the offshore drilling industry. After this, I decided to embark in another adventure: go to Nepal, work, learn and help the society with structural design of buildings after the Earthquake.
How is the working environment in Nepal? How a western engineer fits in that environment?
Relationship are very relaxed among colleagues and superiors. I can relate the environment to the Scandinavian style. Is not common to be put under pressure, since most of the people are very polite and respectful. When it comes to foreigners, they are not so used to have them around. Thus, I can sense that I am a kind of attraction in a positive way: they like to be around me and are curious about my culture and history.
When it comes to a typical working day, there are few differences: They do not have the culture of coffee breaks, since they stop working only for breakfast and lunch. Thanks to the small size of my company, we have a lady that cooks food for us every day. This gives a quite nice sense of familiar environment in the office.
Ok, let’s enter more in details in the culture of Nepal. Which characteristics has the Nepalese society?
When it comes to food, they eat rice twice a day. They eat almost always the same dish called Thali Set. It basically consists in a portion of rice in the middle with vegetables, potatoes and chicken spread around in small portions. On the side you have a sort of soup which you pour over the rice before eating. They eat it with the spoon or with the right hand.
The thing that shocks me the most is the transportation. I am living in Kathmandu, which is the capital of Nepal and they almost do not have public buses. On the other hand they have lots of private ones, which still need to have a license, thus they are regulated by the government. These buses come in many sizes, ranging from small vans with 10 seats to regular buses. These buses are run usually by the driver plus a ticket responsible. To get the most profit, they will squeeze people in this vans up to the limit. So the buses designed for 10 people will be squeezed with even 20 people, with some people hanging also outside the bus doors. The money responsible will shout the name of the bus stops along the way. Of course there is not a timetable. They will leave a stop only when they do not expect anyone else to drop in. At each stop, the money responsible will shout the stops to the people waiting in the street, so they can choose if they can take that bus or not. The bus costs around 10 to 20 USD cents per ride.
When it comes to the religion they have a different approach than us in the West. The main religions here are the Hinduism and Buddhism. They live together and accept each other: you can see Buddhist temple near Hindus temple. From what I know, they do not have religion conflicts, so they are more open in that sense compared to western society.
Which daily routines you find a bit strange?
I remember one in particular: When they drink they do not touch the bottle with the lips: if you touch with the lips while drinking is considered rude. I still cannot figure out how to drink like that though…
Another cultural difference is how they do the breakfast. Here in Nepal the breakfast is a big meal, with rice and curry. I needed some times to get used to that.
About safety. Do you feel safe in the streets?
Yes, I think is a safe country. I do not feel in danger. The criminality rate is very low, so going around the city feels quite safe. The only unsafe thing here is driving. The driving style is wild and they do not have traffic lights. There are only some policemen controlling the traffic in the big crosses. For this reason it is quite common to see small accidents on a daily basis, especially with motorbikes.
Three pros and three cons of your experience in Nepal.
– Work environment. The social interactions here are fantastic and people are respectful. Even though the salary is very low (some hundreds of dollars), you can still live a nice lifestyle. Renting and eating in restaurant is very cheap. The rents are below 100 dollars a month here in Kathmandu.
– I really enjoy the people here. They are very friendly and positive. I like to do stuff together and share my everyday life with them.
– The nature is amazing. I mean, insanely amazing. I never saw anything like that in my life. Apart from the famous extreme mountains around here, you can get gorgeous landscapes even if you do not go high. On the southern part you have the jungle, with nice nature and opportunities for safari.
– The transport system as I said. Both for bus and cars. It is really too messy for me.
– The fact that the roads have no asphalt even in the city. When it rains is terrible, mud everywhere and moving around gets demanding. Furthermore, when you go on the streets in the mountains, there is high risk for the roads to collapse.
– In the big city, most of the areas are dirty: lots of dust and pollution, so some people actually wear masks. Furthermore there is a lot of trash around. The electrical cables are all above the ground, resulting in a messy landscape, like a jungle of cables.
Regarding the industry, which are the strongest economic areas in Nepal?
I would say that the biggest industry is farming. When it comes to engineering, construction is probably the biggest, especially after the Earthquake of 2015. They also have plan to build lots of hydropower plants, since they have a big power crisis. At the moment, they need to do power cuts during some hours of the day.
How is the engineering business in Nepal?
I can see is that the vast majority of the business is done on a governmental level. In my case, most of our contracts come from the University of Kathmandu (Tribhuvan University), which is one of the largest in Asia.
Another difference I noticed is that they tend to be more “standardized” in the constructions. For most of the constructions, they follow some “rule of thumb” regarding dimensions and characteristics. In this way they do not need to pass through third party certification companies, saving a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy. In the cases where they need to build outside those rule of thumbs, they follow mainly the Indian standards in conjunction with their Nepalese standards. In the case of some very basic components, like bolts, they refer to international standards.
Thank you for sharing your experience with us Joel. Any last tips to people interested of working/volunteering in Nepal?
The biggest website I know for searching work or volunteering opportunities is: JobsNepal.com. They need help for recovering from the tremendous Earthquake of last year, so structural and civil engineers will find interesting opportunities.
When it comes to the bureaucracy, is quite easy: as a volunteer you can work as tourist visa. If you find a job, you can come with a tourist visa and you can take care of the working visa once you are in the country. For students, in Kathmandu they have one of the biggest Asian universities, called Tribhuvan University.
Thanks and good luck!
For more info you can check out my blog, where I write more info about my experience in Nepal: jblognepal.net. Cheers 😉