Sunday, February 12, 2017


For most of us, experiencing other cultures while we travel is much like skipping a stone across a pond or river to the distant shore.   As with the rock, we tend to dip and skim across the surface, reaching the other side without fully exploring the depths.  But occasionally, when we are lucky, we plunge deeply into new cultural waters, immersing ourselves in different beliefs, traditions, foods and places.  We have had the chance to do so in Nepal, one of the first places to which we have returned on our journey that began almost five years ago with our goal of learning with humility and, where possible, giving with grace.

Arjun Nepal (yep, that is his last name) and his family have been inviting us for more than two years to return to Nepal and to visit the region of his youth, Marpak, where his parents and many of his relatives still live.  His voice became even more compelling after the devastating earthquake in 2015.  Many of our family and friends supported his family and friends as we reached across the ocean to try to show how much people care during such natural disasters.  Arjun’s village was destroyed and to this day, the school where children from dozens of villages walk two hours to attend is a row of tents with hand held chalkboards used for daily lessons. 

 The Nepal family group (parents, uncles, sisters, etc.) has about a dozen households in the small village where most depend on what food they can grow/raise to eat and to sell to supplement their diet of dal baht.  Two times a day, the family gathers around wood fires to eat rice, lentils, curried and pickled vegetables, and occasionally indulge in some mutton, chicken or goat.  Dal baht is the national food in Nepal, and it is delicious.  Each time we ate it, it was subtly or overtly different, and we love it.  Loving it turned out to be a necessity as the Nepalese tradition is to provide a plate of food that would easily satisfy three teenage boys and then continuously add to it as one attempts to finish everything on his/her plate.  Arjun’s mother had a special gift for doing so, and as we quickly learned Nepalese words for “full” or “thank you, I have enough,” she gave us an unbelieving look admonishing our wimpy appetites while slipping food into our bowls and plates if we left them undefended or became distracted for even a few seconds.  She was equally skilled at ensuring that between meals we were fed and constantly provided drinks of milk tea and fresh water buffalo milk.  Each night, even if we had fallen asleep on the woven rice stalk mattresses beside Arjun’s daughter, son, and father, she would wake us with warmed water buffalo milk to be drunk under her watchful eyes.  Sometimes she would also bring us hot water to drink which created some entertaining fumbling a few hours later as we sought to quietly sneak through 6-8 others and find a place to pee outside in the moonlight.

After a few days and kilos of weight added to our midriff, we were relieved to learn that we would be fasting during the upcoming Puja, or Hindu celebration, we would be attending with the family.  At that time, we assumed fasting meant being without food, perhaps even without drink, and so it seemed from Arjun’s explanation.  Yet his mother viewed the concept of a “fast” for us as one in which we would consume the allowed items (fruit, tea, and water) as “fast” as we could swallow them.  We each had more than a dozen bananas, countless tangerines, apples, milk tea, and hot water every time she spied us with our hands free and/or our mouths empty!  

The puja, itself, was an incredible ceremony, and we felt incredibly blessed and lucky to witness, and then participate, in this sacred Hindu ritual. Preparations began before we arrived and continued while we were there with special leaves shaped and made into countless bowls, food items and colorful powders arrayed in them, and butter lamps and pieces of wood carefully prepared along with more mysterious items.  The one room we all shared for living and sleeping space was transformed as rice mats and platforms were dragged out and the floor, considered a sacred surface, was cleaned with cow dung, water, and a special soil, after which patterns were drawn on it and sand drawings (mandalas) created.  The bowls containing the powders, food items, and other offerings were placed on the carefully prepared sacred surface and eventually, a large fire was set in what had been our bedroom. We were allowed, at first to watch, and as the day stretched into the afternoon and night, the family and two priests drew us closer, blessing us each time the bell was rung to alert the gods, praying with and for us, tying ribbons and strings on our hands and around our necks to protect us and bring us prosperity, and finally, connecting us to each of them in a human chain, one hand on each other’s back or shoulder.  It was during this day that Arjun’s mother, when learning our own parents had passed, began to call us “Churi” or daughter, making sure that we understood who our brothers and sisters were and where our place was in her heart and family.

It was almost three weeks later that we found out that one of the items we drank from the palm of our hands during the Puja included the piss and poop from the family’s sacred cow.  While that may sound strange to those of us not raised as Hindus, it probably would equally sound strange to them to explain that a weekly miracle Jess participated in each Sunday involved eating the body and drinking the blood of the Catholic’s god.

Immersion.  We spent only one week of our life in Marpak.  Walking to local schools; begging Samundra, Arjun’s amazing wife, to allow us to help with chores; helping cut up the yield of a crop of turmeric, turning our white skin a gorgeous shade of yellow; learning games from local kids and teaching them a few of our own; attending a village meeting about a new  bridge as more than a dozen men watched us comment in their building log; gazing intently at the monthly butchering of the one goat being shared by a dozen families, each of which would supply their own goat once a year; being invited and accepting tea in houses wherever we wandered; learning to make leaf bowls and rings of rice bread; but mainly listening to and living as family.  Each night, we would fall asleep next to Sushma, Arjun’s daughter and our new friend, listening to her grandfather tell elaborate stories in Nepales to her little brother Shiva who shared his platform bed.  We would awaken to the same voice as he enticed his grandkids awake, to welcome the new day with him.  Immersive experiences are very different than skipping across the surface of another place or people.  When a stone sinks, rings spread from where it entered, eventually touching far shores and connecting them all as the waves hit, then slip back into what is familiar.

Posted in Kathmandu, Nepal.  Images are of Jess and Shiva, us with Arjun’s father, Samundra making a wonderful treat for us, Arjun and Sushma during the Puja prior to the fire being set, Jess cutting turmeric with Arjun's mother, and the careful division of the goat. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Just Another Day

We are often struck dumb when friends or family ask us how things went on our trips.  The reality for us, in part, is that each trip, even each day, is often indescribable.  For this blog posting, we are going to try to describe a typical day or two from our most recent Madagascar journey.  In the end, they were… just another day like so many others.

We began the day in darkness, not only because of the early hour, but also because of the power outage that hit our hotel.  Being seasoned to such, our headlamps are always by our bedside.  We slipped them on, packing our bags for the last few hundred kilometers of a 1500 kilometer journey across Madagascar to see a giant jumping rat.  Madagascar has some strange wildlife and one of the strangest is this creature found only in the west.  Of course, the rat is not all we expected or hoped to see, but we often smile at which sights drive us forward along the road.  As the lights came back on, so did the internet.  We now had 30 minutes to do a wire transfer, make a skype call, answer emails from a few of our students and friends, pay a few bills, gulp down the daily Madagascar breakfast of dry bread, butter and jam, and hit the road.  We headed out, behind trucks and taxi-buses bellowing poisonous black clouds of exhaust.  Before long we were bumping along a highway, dodging the many people, carts, zebu, dogs, chickens, and children filling the streets as well as numerous potholes the size of small canyons.   It is a holiday weekend, Easter and Independence Day together, and the crowds are epic.  At every river, the narrow, one lane highway bridges are blocked by thousands massing for their traditional family picnics, food and games. Our vehicle inches through, literally an inch at a time as the crowds squeeze in around us, some revelers expressing their displeasure by thumping on the car.  Alcohol is flowing and there is a palatable sense that the roads are no longer owned by those who drive. 

We move through landscapes of deep red and verdant green once populated by forest, but long denuded of trees by the French decades ago.  The erosion is stunning, and we are not surprised an hour into our journey to find it at an abrupt end.  The road has been swept downstream, and people are on each side of the chasm, staring across a makeshift bridge more than 100 feet long that the military is building.  Some have been stuck here for more than 24 hours.  We wander about, looking at the women and families below in the newly cut stream channel as they pan for gold in the freshly uncovered land flushed with turbid, murky water.  Kids, as they always do here, begin to gather and follow us.  This time it is primarily a group of boys, wanting us to take their picture as they play by the bridge, its steel girders placed on wooden blocks not yet secured.  We eye the structure wondering how and when they will secure it when the army soldier beckons us forward…to cross it.  Our driver carefully aligns us along two planks as we hold our breath, wondering if the the 30 foot drop into the new river channel would be better experienced with or without seatbelts.  Then we are over and on the other side, the driver and guide clearly as relieved as we are. 

We are hungry as the hours pass by our windows, but there are no hotels or restaurants along this route.  We stop to buy an avocado, finding a simple place for our driver and guide to get rice as we ask for a spoon to share our green treat.  We buy water as it becomes more expensive and hard to come by where we are going.  We are headed for the fabled Tsingy, a geological wonder found only in two places on the planet.  It is now boiling hot, and we hide under hats and wrap-a-rounds to avoid the direct sun in the un-air conditioned car.  Most of the traffic on the road is Zebu cart and foot traffic; few vehicles pass here.  Finally, late in the afternoon, we arrive in a small town and must now transfer to the 4-wheel drive that we will need for the next three days’ journey.  There is one small problem.  Our new vehicle and driver are nowhere to be found.  Day slides into dusk and it gets dark as our guide calls and eventually locates our transport and new driver.  Driving in Madagascar at night is risky and we are not thrilled.  There are bandits and the roads are so broken and challenging that accidents at night are common.  Most vehicles have suffered the effects of the poor infrastructure and are quick to breakdown as well.  We start down the dirt road for the supposedly 40 minute journey, the vehicle slipping in and out of gear, and two hours later find ourselves at a small preserve.  We are happy to get out.  So far, we have eaten only half an avocado each and shared some dry bread, but we are not to eat dinner yet…instead, we start our much delayed night hike in one of the most intriguing forests in the country.  We see much in the next two hours, with one of the many highlights watching a newly discovered lemur species, Madame Berthe’s, the tiniest primate in the world, as it stares back at us with impossibly large eyes.  We get back, famished, and just as we begin to eat our pasta, our guide rushes to us and beckons us into the night… the giant jumping rat is close.  We stalk it, looking for all the world like Elmer Fudd from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, as our guide turns to us, puts his finger across his lips for silence, and tip toes forward.  We surprise one and the chase is on as we follow it to its mate.  Giant jumping rats crossed off the list, we can now rapidly consume our bowls of pasta then head to our cabin for the night.  We turn on the shower water, hopefully, and nothing comes out.  The windows are unscreened holes in the wall, the boards thin, and the entire shack is falling apart, chunks of wood hanging from the roof and sides.  We climb onto thin pallets with thinner frayed foam mattresses under mosquito nets showing real wear.  Just as we begin to drift off, it becomes clear we are only visitors, not the real property owners.  Something in the roof above our heads has awakened and it begins the night with a screeching fight.  All night long, it and a likely mate drag sticks across the bamboo thatching above our heads, raining debris onto the beds.  It is a long, relatively entertaining, but almost completely sleepless, night. 

We head out for another hike in the morning, the lost sleep forgotten as chameleons, waking lemurs, and butterflies greet us. Too soon we are back in the 4x4, which navigates holes in the road large enough to swallow it, slowly making our way north.Several hours later, we stop along with a few other vehicles at a flooded water crossing.  We see village people taking advantage of the new waterway resulting from rains up north by boating their goods downstream.  However, we cannot see the other side.  This will be the first of three crossings, our guide tells us…the next two have vehicle ferries.  The driver and our guide are nervous and talk to local people, one of whom hops into our vehicle to guide us through the hundreds of yards of water filled road and ravines. We tell our driver that we are OK turning around, as we understand that the vehicle is his livelihood.  But he goes forward. It becomes clear to us halfway through that while our driver and guide think our Nissan Pathfinder is a submarine, it is not.  We are not surprised when the engine floods as does the vehicle when the driver opens his door.  We hike up our feet, crawling onto the seats, trying to bag up our luggage and vulnerable electronics.  Out our window, flat bottom canoes and kids floating by on logs stare in at us.  We are in trouble.  Worse yet, we are in schistosomiasis country and prolonged exposure to water allows the parasites access to softened skin.  Wiggling their way through, they will cause blindness if left untreated. 

Eventually, a group of boys gather.  They range in ages from 8 to around 15, none very large, all very curious.  With our guide, they begin to rock our vehicle.  It does not move.  Then it does, but they are trying to push it uphill, through clay and sand and a couple of feet of water toward a dry island a few dozen feet away in what is now a vast lake of muddy brown water with river currents swirling.  For what seems like an eternity they fail.  Then a strap somehow magically appears and some of them pull while others push, one with an old fashioned radio hanging from a belt around his neck to provide tunes and a beat for their efforts.  Remarkably, inch by inch, they succeed.  We are stunned and appreciative but our attempts to thank them with money results in friction in the group that was so seamlessly together for the past hour.  Now on a small patch of dry land, with curious locals watching from the far shore, our driver and the local guide begin to take our engine apart.  Unfortunately, the damage was too great, the challenge too much.  The vehicle is not going anywhere, and….the water is rising.  The boys find a ride for us, a giant ferry without a motor that people pull through the water.  We will have to cross quite a bit of the water to get to the ferry.  We head backwards, the way we came rather than toward the Tsingy.  The next crossings are worse and the news is that the area we have been heading toward for the past four days of driving is now inaccessible.  We will have to go back.  We look at each other, our luggage, our gear, and the rising river, wondering how we are going to navigate this watery world.  The boys come to our rescue again, carrying our bags, one on each side of us grabbing our arms, telling us Mora Mora (slowly, slowly) as they help us get to and up the ramp onto the ferry.  They then get out, wading waste deep, pushing the ferry to the distant shore.  We rent a truck, clambering into the back with our bags, and head to the nearest village.  It represents the abject poverty we have seen all along the road on our journey----no electricity, shacks built out of discarded boards.  A small porch with two stools and a “store,” a 3x3 space to sell soda and a few sundries with a curtain hiding the bar in the back----it is the only place of refuge. Men drink the local rum.  As we had driven toward this place in the past few days, we had seen "rum runners", men with barrels of the distilled sugar cane running across the road, avoiding the frequent police stops.  It is illegal to transport the rum and the police stop every vehicle, in hopes of small infractions or finding bottles of moonshine so they can pocket small bribes. 

We get cokes which allows us a stool on which to sit and a thatched roof over our heads.  It begins to rain.   Children gather, first a few, then more than two dozen.  They cannot help themselves as they keep moving in closer until they can brush against us, touch our strange clothes, giggle and whisper.  They have little clothing of their own and none have shoes or sandals.  They have no toys, playing with nails and round pieces of wood they carve by rubbing on the only concrete in the village, a well installed by an NGO.  Shyly, one asks us for a coke bottle cap, and they pounce on it playing with their new toy.  They take our empty bottles later, briefly arguing among themselves for who might get the prize.  Most are ill, and their coughs rain down on us as they press in, surrounding us for hours.  The flu has been ripping through the country and clearly this village has been struck.  Hungry, we are too embarrassed to bring out our emergency food for us to eat, but purchase some cookies for our guide to give the kids.  They line up, carrying their smaller siblings, eyes round with anticipation.  The company is sending out another vehicle to rescue us and take us back, but the hours pass and once again dusk approaches along with the new truck, our ride to a safer place.  The villagers are friendly at first, but the holiday and drinking causes some to confront us, and we have grown increasingly uncomfortable.  We are grateful to get into the vehicle, even if it means driving at night.  Our headlights expose men carrying weapons, hunting other men, Zebu rustlers, who will be beaten and hung if caught.  Three times carts full of precious and illegally harvested hardwoods are moved aside for our truck to pass, the men driving to oxen carts ducking down so their identities cannot be known.  We are not safe but have no choice but to move forward.

Finally, we reach a port town on the coast, arriving at the hotel where we were to stay four days from now.  The first driver we left behind greets us and along with the ever present hotel guards, helps us get our bags inside locked gates.  We enter our hotel room, and while insufferably hot, it is a safe haven and we don’t even mind that the electricity is off and the air conditioner is long unused and not working.  There is bland food for dinner, a couple of long overdue gin and tonics, and beds without previous occupants.  We are grateful.  Our room comes with a flush toilet and two buckets full of water to provide manual flushing during the power outages that prevent water pumps from working.  We look at each other and grin, adding soap to one bucket.  We have a chance to do some laundry and strip off our river clothes, soaking them in the bucket, rinsing them in the other.  We hang clothes around the room like a family preparing Christmas decorations, every surface covered with a bright color or piece of underwear.  In the 90 plus degree heat, they will dry overnight.  At last, we settle into the stifling hot bed, cover it with the mosquito net and wonder if we will be able to sleep.  We have no idea where we will head the next day, our trip forward is no longer feasible, but we are fine with the unknown destinations before us.  We have eaten good Malagasy food, our laundry is drying, our bodies are cleaner, and the day is done.  Just another day on the road.  While these two days were typical, the next one was kind of challenging.  But that is a different story.

Written in Antananarivo, Madagascar; posted in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Images are of the road washed away and make shift bridge, families panning for gold below; a giant jumping rat, the young men pulling our vehicle to safety and our ferry to shore; kids gathering for a cookie at the village; and a daytime image of illegally harvested hardwood from the preserve.