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 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.