Language lessons and toothbrushes create smiles

Language lessons and toothbrushes create smiles

Kathmandu — It was easier to find the Namaste Nepali Language Institute online than it was to uncover its location amid the narrow alleyways of Nepal’s capital. I had arranged daily lessons online from Canada. I hoped I was expected.
Jet lagged and groggy, I trailed sleepily behind my guide, Deepak Neupane, a friend from Ace the Himalaya trekking company. He shepherded me through the streets of Thamel, Kathmandu’s bustling tourist area, peeking in courtyards and warrens, dodging tourist vans, cows and dogs. We roamed in circles, got thoroughly lost, and then finally found my language instructor, Urmila, ensconced at a rickety wooden table in her tiny office on the second floor of a non-descript cement building. Her dusty window overlooked an enclosed patio strewn with the discarded packing materials and boxes of a busy shipping company.
It was November, 2018. My fourth visit to Nepal. After three trekking trips and a volunteer stint at a remote school, it was time to learn the Nepali language. This Indo-Aryan language, the official language of Nepal, is also called Gorkhali or Parbatiya. Learning the rudiments of a new language usually comes easily to me.

Urmila  BaristaAmar

Above: After getting a coffee from Barista Amar, right, Patti headed for her lessons with a stern-looking Urmila, left.

As well as English, I speak French and understand a smattering of Spanish. I’ve always sensed the deep appreciation of locals when a traveller tries their best to use the local language, no matter how ineptly.  During a total of eight months of Himalayan trekking I had picked up what I considered a respectable number of words and phrases from guides, local villagers, children and hoteliers. However, trying to put any of it together into intelligent thoughts and sentences proved far more challenging than I had imagined.
After my first roundabout search, I discovered a more direct route from my hotel, Thamel Eco Resort. It took five minutes. Every day for two weeks, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., I strolled out of my hotel, turned at the fuschia flowers of the tall bougainvillea bush across from the stall selling knock-off down jackets, slipped through narrow alleys, dodged cardboard cartons, slumbering dogs and motorcycles to make my way up the railing-free stairway to Urmila’s sanctuary.
Stiff and formal at first, she sat at the end of the cloth-covered table. I positioned myself along the side, pen and notebook ready. She never removed her black horn rimmed glasses. Dark hair pulled severely back from her face revealed a red tika on her forehead and accentuated her serious, somewhat pious expression. Two hours in the morning, one in the afternoon. By the end of each day verbs, nouns and grammar rules danced somewhat randomly in my brain. My knowledge of French helped some. The multi-talented Urmila spoke French, English and several Nepali languages. For my benefit she often complimented her lessons by explaining how elements of Nepali were similar to those of the French language.

ThamelKathmandustree...  bigstock-Thamel-Kath...

Above: The Thamel market, where bright souvenirs are required by tourists, opens early each morning and is a beehive of activity.

Urmila was all business. She rarely cracked a smile. Over our time together I learned she was a wife and mother with a heart of gold. She assigned homework every night and checked the next day that I had completed it. My voice cracked when she invited me to read aloud sentences I had written the night before. She invariably had to correct my pronunciation.
On occasion, her silent husband would cram himself at the computer desk in the corner of the room. It was never clear what he was doing. Urmila ignored him and focused unfailingly on my lessons, always a professional. She never requested a down payment and accepted the envelope of money I presented to her at the end of the lessons without counting the contents.
The only time I got her to smile was when I said goodbye. Along with the envelope stuffed with Nepali rupees I handed her a bag. My dentist and many friends had given me new toothbrushes to distribute to locals. When she opened the bag of toothbrushes, one for each of the family members she had told me about, she smiled. I hoped I had understood correctly and got the number of family members correct. What a bargain. Daily private lessons cost about $6 an hour.


Above: Shiva temple, above, offers an opportunity for Hindu worship in Katmandu.

Between lessons, I practiced at my hotel with the desk clerk and gardener and Amar the coffee bar barista. But it was when I went to visit Devi Jal Kumari School in Gorkha the next week, I realized how much I had learned. The school was situated in Aprik Village, about nine tough driving hours northwest of Kathmandu. Built by a partnership with non-profit Nepal One Day at a Time, Kathmandu-based NGO Sambhav Nepal and Kalamalka Rotary in Vernon, B.C., it replaced the village school decimated by the 2015 earthquake. I presented books to start a school library, read aloud a new English storybook in every class, Kindergarten to Grade 8, and presented a new toothbrush to every student. It was fun translating colours, numbers and a few nouns from each book into Nepali as I read. But, what made me most proud was when my guide teased me by saying to the children, “Be careful what you say. Patti understands more than you think.”
I like to think that would have made Urmila smile.


• Trekking Company:
•  Volunteer and Student Sponsorship Opportunities: https://www.sambhavnepal.orgg

•  Facebook:

•  Namaste Nepali Language Institute:

•  Patti’s Website:

• Nepal One Day at a Time Society:

• Find Patti’s Himalayan adventure travel memoir NEPAL ONE DAY AT A TIME on







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