There is no shortage of advice at the moment from politicians and health officials about how to protect yourself from COVID-19, a.k.a. the coronavirus. Since many readers of this blog are regular travellers, I’m going to chip in with some simple advice of my own that will be familiar to those of you who have trekked a lot in Nepal.
Easy things we can all do to help in this time of crisis include washing our hands regularly, not touching our eyes, nose or mouth if our hands are dirty, travelling less frequently, avoiding large gatherings, and – one for the dickheads – not clearing the shelves in our local supermarket of toilet paper.
We know that the virus can be transmitted by human contact, but it’s not yet clear how much contact is needed. Here in the UK, people have been getting a little unsettled at the prospect of not being able to shake hands. We don’t assault each others cheeks with a dozen or more kisses when we greet each other each morning, like many of our European brothers and sisters, so handshakes are therefore very important – so much so that people might panic were they to be banned.
Luckily our government is not yet recommending that people avoid handshakes (unless you suspect someone of running out of toilet paper). Nevertheless, some doctors have said that it would be a ‘good idea’, and people have therefore started playing it safe by adopting novel methods of greeting such as touching each others elbows, patting each other on the back, or looking at each other directly in the eyes. But these methods aren’t exactly natural, and depending on the delivery could be construed as Masonic, patronising or a little bit creepy, respectively (heaven forbid that we will all start kissing each other, like our continental neighbours).
Other people have suggested that cooler methods of greeting such as high fives and fist bumps are more hygienic than a traditional handshake because they transmit fewer germs, either because the hands are touching for a shorter period or the backs of our hands are cleaner than our palms.
A team of scientists at Aberystwyth University even did some research on it and concluded that high fives transmit 50% fewer germs than handshakes, while fist bumps transmit a healthy 90% fewer. The team also concluded that firmer handshakes transmit more germs than limp ones. But I believe that using the difficult tongue-twister ‘Aberystwyth’ in ordinary conversation must also transmit more germs than any normal place name. They didn’t provide any data on how much using a fist bump makes you look more of a cock.
There is one respectful method of greeting, however, that we can import from Nepal (or, for that matter, India) that is 100% safe – the namaste, a.k.a. the ‘Nepali handshake’.
Here it is in action:
As you can see, it involves putting the palms of your hands together in front of your chest and bowing your head ever so slightly in a respectful way while saying namaste (pronounced: NAM-A-STAY).
Namaste is both the Nepali and Hindi word for ‘hello’, but its literal meaning is ‘I bow to you’ and it’s an important part of Hindu culture. The word originally comes from Sanskrit. The word namah can be interpreted as ‘not me’. In this interpretation, the speaker is indicating that he or she has no ego in the presence of the person they are greeting, thereby generating goodwill (source). But namati is usually interpreted as meaning to bend or bow. Bowing the head slightly is a sign of respect and humility. Te means ‘you’.
I have used this gesture many times in Nepal as both a greeting and as a sign of thanks when leaving, for example when saying goodbye to the proprietor of a teahouse or home (often a woman) where I have been fed. It always draws a smile, and it now feels perfectly natural. I will even use it to children who run up to say hello when I am hiking past them on a trail.
At the time of writing, only a small number of countries have needed to take extreme measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But we are all in this together, and it is highly likely that many of us are just a few days behind. The good news is that if we do the right thing then for most of us it’s a temporary hardship that will soon pass. But in the meantime, we all have a duty to do what we can to protect those who are vulnerable: the elderly, people with existing health conditions, and those with a lower resistance.
And so, friends, trekkers and travellers, let’s all do our bit to control germs and halt the spread of global pandemics by adopting The Nepali Handshake.
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