Nepal and the Art of Layering

Kavanaghnepal1Being in Nepal gives new meaning to the idea of putting on the whole armour of God. At times, I wanted to put on my whole contents of clothes to get to a desired fashion or comfort effect. As a woman always prone to carrying excess weight: read “a chubby child,” “heavy set,” and “rubenesque.” So, I have generally avoided layering my clothing. Who wants to add extra bulk to an already ample figure? I have often looked admiringly, even longingly, at taller and slimmer women sporting sweaters and coats and swathes of scarves knowing full well that I would be dwarfed and ridiculous in such attire. My looks tend to be a thin t-shirt and a light, snug-fitting jacket.

Even when I joined my running group, I could see that the art of layering was lost on me. Others would arrive with leggings and shorts overtop, long-sleeved shirts, with tank tops over that, and then a jacket. Sometimes gloves and hats completed the look. There I was in my yoga pants and t-shirt feeling once again somewhat underdressed. There is a knack to layering when running. Clothes near the skin need to be snug enough not to chaff, but not so snug that they bind. Everything but the inner layer might need to be removed depending on the length of the run and the weather conditions of the day. And what you remove you either need to carry, or if it is a race day, be prepared to discard along the route. I’m just not that good at layering.

But now that I am in Nepal, I am learning fast! I am sitting in the garden of the Shangri-La hotel in Kathmandu on this slightly overcast mid-day at the tail end of January. I am sporting layers with new found confidence. Currently, I am wearing trousers and my Sole Sister socks with sturdy walking shoes and have my jacket over my legs. On top, I have a t-shirt, turtleneck, fleece jacket, and a merino wool neck scarf. This last item can also be pulled over my head if the temperature drops and cover my mouth and nose when it gets particularly dusty, smoggy, or chilly. I don’t have gloves today as I am typing and have handy pockets if my hands get cold. I am also enjoying my favourite beverage in Nepal—hot honey lemon with ginger.

You may wonder why I am sitting outside if I am finding the need to layer. Why not go inside where it is warm, you might ask? Well, in Nepal it is generally much colder inside than out. Buildings are often constructed of brick or stone, and have no insulation. They also have no heat. Even in homes that may have heaters, they are rarely used due to the fuel shortage caused by the blockade from India. Inside, the cold is persistent and unrelenting. People take their coats off when they come outside and if they are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the sun through the hazy sky, a scarf or toque might also be removed.

One night while we were traveling in Surkhet, which is the western part of the country, I went to bed wearing leggings, long underwear (tops and bottoms), pajamas, socks, and a sweatshirt. I had a sheet and heavy quilt on too, and my hands were still cold! We were in quite a nice hotel and there was even hot water from time to time, but the rooms were still bone-chillingly cold. I can only imagine how the local people fare. I see the school children on the street in their uniforms— button shirt and tie, jacket and/or vest, trousers or skirt, with leggings. The material looks like wool and I imagine they have an undershirt on as well. Yet, is it enough?

Kavanaghnepal2Most people are wearing scarves all the time and not just as a fashion statement. Here it is a necessity to keep warm and to deal with the poor air quality. I saw a woman the other day wearing a sari—not sure what she had underneath—and then she wrapped scarf around scarf around her head and shoulders. There is amazing creativity in the use of scarves here. They are worn by both men and women, though the ones men wear tend to be smaller and worn around the neck and head exclusively. Women wear them to cover much of their bodies over whatever else they are wearing. On and off the scarf goes throughout the day—tie and retie, adjust, cover your face, uncover your head, set it aside, rewrap, and so it goes.

Here in Nepal layering is not so much about fashion. It doesn’t matter if I look bulky or foolish with my two sweaters and a coat and scarf and pants that feel too tight because of the leggings I am wearing underneath. It is about being warm and comfortable—it’s an art.

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