KATHMANDU: A line of diners, holding on to the shoulders of the person in front of them, enters the pitch dark hall at Nepal’s first blind restaurant, which treats guests to food they can smell, touch and taste but not see.
The 16-seat dining room has been heavily curtained from ceiling to floor in black, and the guests grope their way to the table, guided deftly by the waiters – all of whom are visually impaired.
But while similar blind dining venues have already opened in Europe and the United States, the one here comes with the key difference that it provides a rare chance for the Nepali handicapped to gain a measure of independence.
“We should see this from two angles – giving opportunities to the blind and a new experience to the public,” said Shyam Kakshhapati, president of the Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN).
“It is important to give opportunities to disabled people because there are not many job openings for them in our country.”
The blind restaurant, a separate wing of an ordinary eatery, comes on the heels of a separate restaurant chain that employs deaf waiters and has become popular with patrons.
Trainees are nominated by the Nepal Association of the Blind, a charity working for the visually impaired, of whom there are estimated to be 200,000 in Nepal. Some are already working as telephone operators, teachers and musicians.
Waiters get a daily wage of US$6, a substantial income in a country where nearly one quarter of its 26.6 million people live on an income of less than US$1.25 a day.
“With this I can continue my studies and the money is a financial relief to my family,” said 23-year-old Utsav Nepal, a waiter and a bachelor’s level student in a Kathmandu college.
In impoverished Nepal disabled persons are considered economic burdens on many families. Some take disability as a curse for things they have done wrong in their previous lives.
But notions are changing fast as Nepal undergoes rapid political changes after the Maoist rebels, who waged a decade-long civil war, joined the mainstream and the 239-year-old feudal monarchy was abolished in 2008.
Still, change comes slowly, and the restaurant may play an important role.
“It gives customers a small taste of what it is like to be blind…If they understand the problems of the visually impaired people they can help them better,” said Adam Levene, a senior official of the Embassy of Israel, which helped set up the facility and train waiters.
At the restaurant, lined by a small bamboo grove, waiters put their white walking sticks into their bags and flit between tables to help diners find a fork or advise them on orders.
“If you want spicy food then take fusilli with cheese, mushroom, chilli and olives,” Nepal, the waiter, is heard suggesting to the guests.
A Spanish couple, who wanted to do “something special and different” on their first wedding anniversary, came to eat.
“At the beginning I was scared completely…how to find food, how big is the dish,” said Milca Hanukoglu, after the anniversary dinner with her husband, a native of Malaga.
“It was romantic. Instead of candle light, it was darkness.”