Namaste sabaailaai. Namaste to everyone. This morning I woke up to a cold and misty morning, the fog clinging to the buildings and trees like cobwebs. The mist lifted with the rising of the sun, and the day turned beautiful, crisp and autumnal despite the city smog that hangs on no matter what. The mountains were even visible in a jagged line to the north of the city. I’m back from 3 weeks in the hills, in a Gurung village called Tanting, a 6 hour trip from Pokhara (half by car and half on foot). It’s been a challenge coming back to the city, lines of traffic meeting us before we even got close, fumes and the stacks of houses, layer upon layer of buildings. I guess I’m glad to be at least a little way outside of it. But I catch myself missing the village, one of the most beautiful places I have been.
Of course, I have to acknowledge that as a guest, I did not really experience the hardship of high prices, low availability of goods, a total of 3 telephones for 200 families, hours spent walking downhill to fields to collect the recently ripened rice and then the long haul back up the hill. I do not have to bend over the earth, blackening my hands as I plant potatoes for the months to come. I do not have to worry about whether the rains will be sufficient but not too much, if the crops will last the year. I simply got to come in and enjoy the community and their hospitality.
While I was there I shared in the festivities for Tihar, what is in India called Diwaali or the festival of lights. It is a several day festival but because of all the work to do in the rice fields, the village really celebrated the final day, Bhai tika. It is a day to celebrate siblings – sisters and brothers exchange tika (a mark of red or white rice placed on the center of an individual’s forehead), good things to eat, gifts of clothes and money and of course well wishes. I awoke early in the attic room I shared with one of the two sisters in my host family who were at home while I was there. After washing my face and having some chiyaa and sel roti (a semi-savory deep fried ring of dough), Pabitra and Shanta (my two host sistsers) dressed me in the traditional gurung dress – a piece of dark cloth pleated around my waist with a band of turquoise material that acted as a belt to keep it up and a red crushed velvet blouse covered by a cape also made of red crushed velvet worn over one shoulder.
When my baabaa (host father) returned from playing cards (an activity in which all must participate at Tihar), he led me up the steps towards the top of the village (which is stretched vertically and horizontally along a
hillside) to the home of one of his sisters. When we arrived, I followed my baabaa into the kitchen, ducking under the low wooden doorway into the gray smokiness of the room within. An old wrinkled woman squated next to the fire on which she heated a bean stew, and about 6 men sat on woven mats around this area in a U-shape. They made room for us on the mats, giving us honored seats in the “upper” end of the seating area. The old woman served my baabaa raksi (homemade liquor), and me chiyaa (tea) and then both of us fresh sel roti (deep fried rings of rice batter) and the bean stew, reaching it across the fire and placing it before us. We ate slowly. As we finished, the woman edged her way around the fire to where we sat with a tray of flowers and a sticky rice and milk paste to us for a tikka (round blessing placed on someone’s forehead). She proceeded to place the white tikka on my baabaa’s forehead, speaking softly to him in their native language of Gurung; she placed one flower behind his left ear and one behind his right. My baabaa namasted her and placed a gift of money in thanks to his sister for her blessing.
This ritual was followed by a meal of daal bhaat (rice and lentils). My baabaa and the other men ate chicken meat, and my baabaa’s sister fried an egg forme. The men laughed and talked, excited by my ability to converse in Nepali and eagerly encouraging me to tackle their language, Gurung, next.
(below are photos of my host sisters and aamaa)
(photos of my baabaa winnowing rice that he and my sister harvested)
After finishing the meal, my baabaa jokingly turned to me saying, now it is time for me to go for duty. He paused. Card playing duty. I laughed as we rose together to wash our hands of food. Together we made our way down the stone steps again, parting where he turned right to go play cards, and I turned left to continue to the house where my sisters were awaiting my return. I had promised that we would ghumnu (wander) when I returned from observing the Bhaai tika ceremony.
I caught myself wishing that my own brother, Mandla, was nearby. Not that we would exchange tika or perform the ritual I had just witnessed, but certainly catching up on life and being in the same place at the same time. Being in this culture that puts such a great emphasis on family and relationships reminds me of how important my own family is. And sometimes how far away they are.
When I stopped by the program house later that afternoon, I got to watch some of the program staff celebrate bhaai tika together.
Afterwards, I got talking with one of the language teachers, Shova ji for a while. Watching her, I was reminded of how difficult it is to spend these most important holidays away from those we love, from our families.
Thinking of all of you, friends and family, far away. I hope you’re well and would love to hear from all of you. And for those of you in the US or from the US who celebrate Thanksgiving, one of our important family gatherings, happy thanksgiving a little bit early.
Love and peace,