Thursday, December 23, 2010

Caroling in Nepal...Night 4

I arrived at my brothers’ house in Nakhu just before 4PM. “Tori didi, you know we’re supposed to be at the caroling site by 4PM,” Niran told me when I walked in the gate. I simply said, “I know.” By the looks of it, none of them were ready to go anywhere anytime soon either.

Sunil was sitting on a stool, playing away on the house’s madal. Anish was standing with his back to the sun.

“Hey, Sunil, give Tori didi your seat,” Niran barked at his younger brother. I waved for Sunil to stay seated. “Not needed,” I told him. “I’ll just sit over here.” I moved toward the steps of the house.

“No, it’s a bad habit of his,” Niran countered. “He needs to change it.” Anish came to the rescue by grabbing another stool and insisting I sit on it.

Indra Maya, their mother, was the only one I left with about fifteen minutes later. We weren’t caroling far, just about a ten-minute walk from their place. The rest of the group showed up at around 5:15. “You’re late,” I stated placidly when Niran and Anish walked in the gate.

Our host agreed. “Yes, you’re LATE! Didn’t we tell you 4PM? Come, there’s tea upstairs!”

My brothers weren’t the only ones who arrived late. Kumar showed up about fifteen minutes later. He was greeted with “Hai, you’re LATE!”

“Didn’t I tell you I’d be later?” Kumar countered. “If I’m late, why hasn’t the party already started?”

By this time, it was dark, and the bonfire was lit in front of the house. We all gathered around it to keep warm; this night was colder than previous nights. “Hai, Anu, don’t get too close to the fire, or your new favorite kurta will get lit up!” someone yelled.

We opened with a short song that wasn’t in the hymnbook, but Rupa had the words printed in a small notebook. The women around her crowded around to read. It was a short chorus, telling brothers and sisters, old and young, that we had come to declare the good news of Jesus’ birth, and we entreated them to listen.

Tonight, Radhe dai was leading on guitar, Ashish played madal (Sunil had been complaining that his hands hurt from playing the drum for three days straight; it was someone else’s turn), and Ram played a second madal, much smaller than the one Sunil had been playing all week. Two tambourines from church were also present, and were passed around the womenfolk.

Tonight, more women also danced. Sangita didi and Rosen’s mother, who had both been dancing all week, were there too, but more than one song featured a trio of older ladies, slowly turning tight circles, with their hands in the air. Sangita’s husband decided to join his wife on one occasion, imitating her feminine movements much to her amusement/embarrassment.

The flirtatiousness between Sangita didi and her husband was something else. I had only put the two together three nights before. I knew Sangita didi was married, as she always brought her two daughters with her to church, but I wasn’t sure to whom she was attached. Men and women sit on different sides of the room during the weekly worship service, so it’s not always easy to put families together. For all I knew, maybe her husband didn’t go to church. So I asked her one night after dance practice, “does your husband come to church?”

“Oh, yes, he comes…do you not know him?”

“I don’t think I’d be able to recognize him,” I replied.

She smiled slyly. “Well, I’ll have to introduce you to him next time.”

Once I put the two together, I had enjoyed watching them. Both of them were quick to help the primary host serve food, tea, clean up plates, or whatever else needed to be done. The van we had all crammed into the night before (and that brought people again today) was most likely theirs, or belonged to some member of their family (which would make sense since Sangita didi was the one shoving and arranging everyone in the back). Over the course of the caroling nights, I saw the father show considerable affection for his two school-age daughters; I found this refreshing to see in a Nepali man as sons are usually the more favored. Nor did he fear others catching him showing affection to his wife in public. The night before, Sangita didi had a pile of dishes in her hands, so was unable to take the candy piece he offered to her. Un-phased, he unwrapped it and popped it in her mouth, despite her protests.

At one point, Indra Maya didi walked across the bonfire circle and firmly grasped me as well as the lady next to me. “Come, dance!” she ordered. Both of us protested, but those around us pushed us forward too. The other lady soon got out of it, dissolving back into the singing crowd, leaving me and another lady to dance. I did my best to demonstrate what the song was about, but not knowing the song well, and not being able to think of dance moves on the spot, I failed miserably. Anita didi must have caught what I was trying to do, because she soon joined me, and gave me movements to imitate.

“Hai, let’s sing ‘ding-tang-tang’ ONE MORE TIME!” someone yelled. I rolled my eyes—the song had simply become about shouting “ding-tang-tang, ding-tang-tang, hai madal la bhajyau!!!” as unmusically as possible, with the guys jumping up and down as they shouted it. Radhe dai and Amos dai were probably the only ones who actually knew the words and melody. Our host shouted, “EVERYONE needs to dance! Just dance where you are, for the Lord, not everyone needs to see!” I was somehow caught up in a can-can line with Sangita didi and Anita didi, alternating with “ting-ing” the hips and flicking the wrists. That was quite something. And, despite the fact that his hands hurt, Sunil was drumming away on the madal with Ashish. The two of them faced each other and mirrored each other’s drumstrokes on the same heads. That has to be difficult, I thought, as it would require one of them—in this case, Sunil—to reverse his drum strokes.

After dinner, I had the pleasure of walking home with Karjun dai, the eldest of Indra Maya’s sons, and consequently older brother to Radhe and Amos. Ashish was his eldest boy. I had unfortunately not been able to spend much time with Karjun since I arrived, as he is a vehicle driver for a large INGO, which frankly overworks him. He was able to make it out that night though, and offered to walk me home. A large group of us were going toward Pulchowk, but we brought up the rear of the group. Out of nowhere, he stated, “Tori, I’d like to see you settled.”

“Um, what do you mean by that?” I asked, though I figured I already knew what was coming.

“Oh, for example, Ira is settled—she’s married, has children. Ira is my younger sister, but I have one more. I’d like to see you settled too.”

He talked like Ira had been newly married, when in fact she had been married at least fifteen years. While married life had not been easy for she and her husband—she had been married, quite hurriedly in my memory, to a Hindu, and things had not been smooth running in their relationship or in becoming financially established as his father had left the extended family in huge debt after his death—they were now at a place where business was going well, and he had been baptized perhaps five years back.

“But don’t do it hurriedly. Don’t make any rash decisions,” Karjun continued. “And now, Radhe, Rajesh, and Amos are all settled. You should be next.”

I had actually been anticipating this conversation. Radhe, Rajesh and Amos had all brought the subject of my marriage up last year when I was here, but Karjun hadn’t said anything. Having a 24-year-old, unmarried “sister” seemed to have become their shared concern. But the course of Karjun’s conversation communicated a concern for me—that I seriously somehow work toward getting married, but not to do anything in haste and not mistake “singleness” for “freedom”—rather than pressure me to change my marital status.

“So, Tori didi, are you coming tomorrow night too?” the young dude, whose name I was still uncertain about, asked me, as he, Karjun, and Abishek (Karjun’s youngest son), dropped me off at my gate.

“Abi, Tori didi, this is such a BIG house!” Abishek exclaimed. “And you’re staying here alone?!”

“Just tonight,” I assured him. Traditionally, Nepalis don’t prefer sleeping alone. Most share bedrooms even, if not beds. “And its not my house, it’s another family’s house. I won’t be there tomorrow; my friends are coming back from Chitwan and I have to meet them.”

“Oh, ok, see you Christmas Eve then! Till the day AFTER tomorrow!”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Caroling in Nepal...Night 3

Today, my Nepali friend’s beat me to the caroling site. I was greeted by Niran—Sunil’s older brother—holding Angel, who is happy enough to leave her uncle and come to my arms despite his protests. The boy who had whacked the lady’s nose the night before greets me with an energetic “Jaimashee, Tori didi!” He then turns to his friend, says something quickly in Nepali, and turns to me with, “hai, Tori didi?” When I don't respond immediately, he adds, “…in the car, last night?” I laugh. “Hajur,” I agree. I'm not entirely sure what part of last night’s car ride he is referring to, but I figure it must have been some part he considered good, so “hajur” was an appropriate reply.

Anita didi, Angel’s mother, looks at me worriedly. “Tori, do you not want to dance on Christmas anymore?”

“Of course I want to dance on Christmas,” I reply.

“Then why aren’t you practicing at home?”

“But I am.” I tell her, in simple Nepali, that I practiced this morning in front of the large mirror at the hostel. My hostel mate had emerged from her room just as I finished. Anita smiles, reassured. Sunil takes the opportunity to whisk Angel out of my arms over my shoulder, leaving my arms cold halfway through my story.

“Where are you friends today?” Sunil asks. “Did we make them angry last night with all our teasing?”

“No,” I laugh. “Just confused.”

Sunil was amused by this, as I knew he would be.

“They went to Chitwan today; they’ll be back on Thursday,” I explain.

As soon as it gets dark, we begin singing. There isn't much room for dancing, but Sangita didi clears some space, and Samuel tries to organize people where “dancers” are on one side and “singers” are on the other (I move to the “singer’s” side). We start off with bhajan 51: [Our] salvation and our saviour, Jesus is born, Jesus is born. Bhajans 49, 42, 35 and 480 are all sung as in previous nights, but then someone calls out “Let’s sing ‘ding tang tang, play the madal!’”

“Which bhajan number is that?”

“I don’t think it’s in the hymnal.”

“Have we sung it before?”

“Of course we have! I don’t think we sang it last year though…”

“Well, we all know the words, let’s just sing it!”

“Does anyone remember the melody?”

“Where’s Radhe? He knows it!”

“Radhe is not here, I haven't’ seen him.”

“Oh, I found it! Its bhajan number 528!”

Amos dai decides we’ll just wing it. Ashish doesn’t know the guitar chords though, so Sunil is instructed to start it with the madal.

Ding tang tang, Ding tang tang, play the madal!
Ah ha lau hai, look, in Bethlehem's stable
Hai, Jesus the king is born, look hai, look lai, look!

While Amos apparently knows the melody, he is drowned out by everyone attempting to follow him or making up their own melodies, and the poor guy behind me must be tone deaf because he’s been singing everyone song to a drone.

After Amos dai shares the meaning of Christmas, someone calls out “one more song!”

“Oh, look Radhe is here! Let’s sing bhajan 528 again!”

“Tori, this is the last song, you HAVE to dance!” Sangita didi pulls me away from the singers while another lady relieves me of my purse. While the madal rhythm starts out fine, the melody is as broken as before. “Hey, where are the words? I can’t hear the words!” Sangita didi calls out. This implies that she can’t dance, because she doesn’t know what story is being told. She just laughs and begins to move to the rhythm of the madal. I try to imitate her, but the young fellow to my left was a bit distracting with his big arm movements that I try to avoid making contact with.

Soon, plates of chura, meat, stir-fried greens, curried potatoes and a potent radish achar are passed around. Since there is limited seating, many of us stand to eat. Pratima, Kumar’s 14-year-old daughter, and I are able to find a seat on a mat close to the fire. Sunil seats himself comfortably beside us. “I’m bored,” he tells me in English, “you’re friends aren’t here; no one to tease.” He then turns to Pratima. “We had a really good time last night,” he told her in Nepali. “Where were you?”

“I didn’t get out of school till 5:30.”

“What? Why so late? You couldn’t remember anything you learned, and they made you stay later?”

Brothers…they never know when to stop. I wished for a moment that Pratima wasn’t so kindly natured and would smack him just once. I probably should have smacked him for her, but I didn’t think of this till later.

Pratima and I go to wash our hands, and Sunil follows suite soon after. She hands him the bottle of water. He washes his hands, then takes a drink. Someone nearby says something he finds amusing, and he laughs, gagging on the water. “Laughing and drinking don’t mix,” I tell him. Thinking he is done, I hold out the cap to the bottle. He blurts out a word I don't recognize, but seems to be an imperative of some sort. He pauses, then says, “um, that was Newar for ‘wait’”. Living with a family of Newars for most of his life, he would inevitably pick up phrases and words that he now sprinkles in with his Nepali.

I walk home with Niran, Sunil, Arun, and some guy whose name I haven’t learned yet. The new guy was telling something hilarious to Niran, and Niran turned to me. “Tori didi, did you ride in the vehicle last night?”

“On the way home I did.”

Sunil fills me in. “This guy rode to the house in the vehicle,” he says in English, “and he said someone gassed, and it smelled really bad for a long time.” He starts laughing.

Caroling in Nepal...Night 2

“Tori bahini, be sure to come tomorrow at 4:30 exact,” Pastor Samuel told me. “We’re caroling in Kathmandu, and we need to get there by 5PM. There will be a vehicle, but there is limited room, and its first-come-first-serve.”

The vehicle that showed up at 5:15 was in fact not meant to transport people, but cargo. Nevertheless, Sangita didi began shoving people in, first the kids, then the women. “There’s room for two more!” she called. She waved Carly and I into the back. LeAnna was already comfortably seated up front, with the driver and at least two other people. As soon as Carly and I were settled, Kumar came running up. “Actually, you two get in the taxi,” he said. A few minutes later, Carly and I were squashed into a taxi with Anish, and Kumar’s wife and son, Nani Beti and Prashant. Sunil rode comfortably as a passenger on Kumar’s motorbike, the guitar situated between his stomach and Kumar’s back, the neck reared into the air above his head.

Inevitably, we were stuck in a traffic jam. But this gave Anish a chance to warm up to Carly. I encouraged Anish to speak English with her, but my situation between the two of them in the backseat made translating all the more convenient. It gave me a good exercise into how much Nepali I actually understand. Kumar and Sunil caught up to us. The taxi driver yelled out the window, “I’ll just follow you!” He had been confused as to where he was taking us when Kumar first told him where to go anyway.

Carly began taking pictures of Sunil on the bike. She eventually gave the camera to Anish to try. “Just snap pictures,” she told him when he protested he didn’t take good ones. “You’ll get better as you experiment.” He immediately pointed it to the truck parked on his side of the car. “What is it?” Carly asked.

“Um, bones,” Anish said, and showed her the picture. Sure enough, it was a truck full of animal bones, mainly buffalo from the size of them. Suddenly, we all realized the strong smell wafting in from the truck’s direction. I immediately covered my nose with the scarf around my neck, and Carly grabbed the end of the scarf to put over her nose. “Where are they taking those?” I asked him.

“To India,” he replied, “to make things like buttons, glue, etc.”

Our vehicle was the last to arrive at the house. We were ushered up onto the roof, where we celebrated as last night. This time, LeAnna joined in the dancing, much to everyone’s delight. As we stood around after the program, I summarized what Amos dai had told everyone.

“Basically, they expound from the songs we sing,” I said. “He’ll choose a few sentences from the song to build upon. Its something they do in church services as well; it usually happens between each of the bhajans sung, and sometimes between choruses. This time, he asked the question “why did Christ need to come in the form of a man?” (many of the songs mention that Christ was born in the form of man). He went back to Adam to talk about sin, and how Christ was born to rectify the relationship between God and man. And that this was what we were here to declare—Christ’s birth—through our singing and dancing.”

Since it was late, we were served a true evening meal. LeAnna sat next to me, and I described the food to her as it was brought by: rice, curried chicken meat, curried vegetables and a spicy radish achar. When Radhe dai put a dollop of the achar on my plate, the boy next to me—who I had been with in bal sangati (children's fellowship or "Sunday School") for the past few months—asked, obviously surprised, “You like achar?” I assured him I did.

Carly, in the meantime, was having quite a time with Ashish, Sunil and Anish in the corner of the roof behind us. “I had almost finished everything,” she told me later, “and Anish had them put MORE food on my plate. I told him he had to eat what was left, because I couldn’t do it.”

I laughed. “If you’re not hungry anymore, then leave a little left on your plate,” I told her. “Otherwise, that’s a signal that you’re still hungry, and they’ll put more food on your plate.”

“Oh!” Carly exclaimed. “They kept telling me I didn’t have to eat everything, but then I insisted on finishing, and that’s when they put more on. And I thought I was doing so well…we’d consider it rude or a waste to leave food on a plate in the States.”

“And,” I said, “people here don’t eat each other’s leftovers. It was a little rude to offer your leftovers to Anish.”

“Oh! I’m so sorry!” Carly apologized.

“Don’t worry,” I told her. I had seen her offer to plate to Anish, and Anish kind of stiffened at first, signaling that he didn’t quite know what to do next. But later, he took her plate downstairs, and had showed it to me. “See, your friend is such a waste; she didn’t finish her food,” he shook his head. “He wasn’t offended,” I assured Carly.

By this time, it was about 8PM. “Come one, all the ladies to the van!” Sangita didi told people. Apparently, public transport had dwindled, and they had decided that everyone present would be split into two groups: ladies and gents. And ladies would go first. Carly, LeAnna and I would get to experience the squash of the small van.

The three of us were packed into the back after the kids. It took a while to get settled.

“You’re sitting on my lap!”

“Uf! You stepped on my foot!”

“Get your hand out of my face!”

“Move over; I don’t have enough room!”

I ended up with a little girl of about six years old on my lap, and the bony butt of an eight-year-old boy on my knee. At one point in the journey, we hit a bump in the road that left one boy standing up looking for something to hold onto. He unintentionally whacked a lady’s nose, and was given a good telling-off. Sanju—a high school girl who had practically adopted LeAnna and Carly; she had been talking to them in English all evening—tried to teach them some Nepali phrases. Much as they tried, they could not get the “tsa” sound essential for the verb endings. In the course of conversation, a Nepali lady was trying to say “three,” but it kept coming out “tree” with a rolled "r" (there is no “th” in Nepali). Much as one little boy—who apparently attended an English-medium school—tried to correct her, she couldn’t’ do it. Finally, he smacked his forehead in frustration and gave up.

“I’m so content here,” the six-year-old girl on my lap told me at one point. My knees and feet screamed otherwise. When we were dropped off at the Jawalekhel chowk, and I was able to stand up, they began to tingle like crazy.

“Wow, we’re getting the full Nepali experience,” LeAnna concluded. “Caroling, food in people’s houses, being squashed into a van—as well as trekking and jungle safaris!”

Monday, December 20, 2010

Caroling in Nepal...Night 1

“Caroling in Nepal?” Yes, Christmas caroling in Nepal. Its something my family does every year with great anticipation. Each night of this week, caroling will take place at a different family member’s house, in different parts of town. Neighbors will gather, either in the square or on their roofs, to hear us sing, see us dance, and hear the reason for Christmas spoken through every song.

Yesterday, we went into Mangal Bazaar, the dense marketplace of Patan. As Carly and LeAnna—who are currently visiting me from the States—have found out, Patan is a maze of alleyways, back roads and courtyards that open to more courtyards, many containing small (or large) Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas. We were a merry party going to the home—a bunch of youths carrying a guitar, a madal (double-headed drum), and tambourines, women carrying small children, guys bringing up the rear, and a few young boys scampering around Carly, the one carrying a camera with a fancy zoom lens they all enjoyed playing with. We made a circle in the middle of the courtyard, lit candles and set them in the middle of the circle for light (since there was no electricity that night) and started to sing. “Bhajan number 35,” is passed from ear to ear. Some people open their words-only hymnbooks, but many people have it memorized. Sunil starts the song off with a typical (and danceable) madal rhythm, and we begin to sing.

Look at the sky, see the star’s brightness, don’t be late to greet the newborn king…

One elderly lady comes into the circle and begins to dance. Everyone punctuates the lines of the song with sounds of encouragement. Later, when we begin to sing “oho, what a pleasant, happy day has come, God’s salvation has been born in Bethlehem,” Sangita didiis pushed forward. During the break between songs, she comes up to me, “Tori, you should dance!”

“Oh, no, I’m not going to dance!”

“Yes, come on! You can do it!”

“Ok, but only if I dance with you!”

Sangita didi smiles, and as everyone begins to sing “tell the world with laughter and play, salvation has been born to take the world’s load, salvation has been born in a poor stable,” I follow Sangita didi into the circle. She winks and smiles at me, and begins to mover her hips and shoulders to the madal rhythm, and tell the story of Christ’s birth with her hands. I see Radhe dai beam at me, and several people shout their encouragement. I do my best to mimic Sangita didi’s movements, perhaps coming in a second late. At one point she whispers to me, “switch sides, switch sides,” and I exchange sides of the circle with her.

When the song is over, I return to my point of safety in the surrounding crowd, and thank the lady who held my purse for me. After Amos dai finishes sharing the meaning of Christmas, and Amit dai has given a benediction, we all begin to file into the house for food. “You danced well,” one lady told me as we went in. Sangita didi heard that and smiled. “I taught her how to move like that,” she announced to the small crowd of women. She smiled and winked at me again. I smiled inside—in practicing the choreography of the group dance for the Christmas program, I sometimes think I'm the bane of her existence. What other student can't move their hips right, flick their wrists correctly, or has trouble moving forwards them backwards? I'm an adult, had no one taught me how to dance? These movements weren’t difficult, she assured me. My body testified otherwise. Her invitation and instance that I dance that night came as a complete, and pleasant, surprise to me.

Upstairs, Carly and LeAnna experience paneer achar, buffalo meat, and chura (beaten rice) for the first time. Having eaten before coming, they are unable to finish their plates. Our host becomes worried. I assure him that the food is good, but its not their habit to eat hot food (green chilis permete the achar), and that we had eaten before coming. “Should I make them a plain omelet instead?” he asks. “No, that’s not necessary, don’t worry about it,” I tell him.

We walk home with Anish, Sunil, Ashish, and another young man who I had seen at church recently. “Here, you walk beside your friends,” Anish tells me, moving to my other side.

“Its ok,” I tell him, “you can walk here.”

“Oh, no, I’m too shy, I’ll start sweating,” he said.

Ashish and his friend lag behind and get lost in the bazaar crowd. Sunil and Anish begin to pour forth the usual questions: how is your family? When are they coming back to Nepal? Does Robert dai want to come back too? Which do you like better, Nepal or America? Then what are you going to do, settle in America or Nepal? I know, you should have twins, and put one in Nepal and one in the States, and just live in between. But in between is an ocean, I say, and they just laugh with boyish, brotherly giggles. At some point, Ashish and his friend catch up, and rejoin our group.

We part close to Jawalekhel, Ashish and his friend going on to Pulchowk, we veering off to go toward Ekantakuna. “Ok, good-night,” Ashish tells everyone, and boldly shakes Carly and LeAnna’s hands. Anish freezes up and puts his nose in his scarf. “My hands are cold,” he mumbles as he shakes my American friend’s hands, following suite with everyone else, even though we’re still traveling together. He then turns around, and bends down to talk directly in my ear—it amazes me how tall both he and Sunil are; Ramesh and Niran, though older, are still just my height—“is it ok to shake a girl’s hand in your culture?”

“Oh, yes,” I assure him. “Everyone shakes hands.”

“What about hugs?”

This question surprises me. “We do hug, between guy and girl friends too. Its ok.”

“Oh, its not ok in Nepal,” he says quickly.

They wave us off when we cross the street to go behind the zoo. Carly and LeAnna drop me off at my place, stay a while to check email and chat with my hostel mates before going on to their guesthouse for the night. After taking a shower, I decide to call Ramesh. Radhe dai had given me his mobile number weeks ago, but I had not had time to call him between work and dance practice. I had keenly felt his absence that night. Away at medical school, he would not have enough time off to come back to celebrate Christmas either. I decided this may be a good opportunity to call him.

His phone rang, and he picked up. “Hello?”

“Hello, Ramesh? Do you recognize my voice?”

“Yes, I do. How are you?”

We talk for a good fifteen minutes, mainly in Nepali, but I cheat and throw in few English sentences. He inserts a word or two of English in his Nepali sentences where he feels I may not know the Nepali term. “So, I hear you’re dancing on Christmas?” So my family had told on me. He laughts. “I never dance. I'm too shy, and I'm not good. You should have it videotaped, and have Ashish put it on Facebook. Are you on Facebook? Ok, I’ll find you’re name, and send you a request.”

“Hey, thanks for calling,” he says to sign off. “Its been pleasant, and made me happy. Its best to call after 10PM, I’m usually free-er then.”

I go to bed happy: my stomach is full of Nepali food, and soul fed on fellowship with Nepali and American friends. I looked forward to what tomorrow’s caroling would bring.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A few trips across town...

I’ve had a few exciting things happen to me as I use public transportation in Kathmandu. Once, as a friend and I were walking from one bus stop to another, a young boy showered us unintentionally with dirty water when he abruptly slammed the jug on his shoulder down on a low wall next to the sidewalk. Another time (with the same friend) our bus broke down on Ring Road, and we had to find a new one. Last week, I told the tempo driver that I was going to Sundara in Nepali, and the lady across from me was like “Oh! You speak Nepali!” and I got to have an impromptu test of my Nepali conversational skills as I answered her barrage of questions about my work, language ability, and how I like Nepal. I tried to make appropriate comments on her railings about how underdeveloped her country is and the fact that she can’t get a job at an NGO because her English skills are far from perfect, despite having a master’s degree and significant experience in advocacy work.

Two days ago, I got onto the microbus at Jawalekhel, and a young Nepali guy got in after me. In order to make room for more passengers, he comfortably took the seat next to me. When the bus boy came around to collect our fare, the Nepali guy handed him a 20-rupee bill. “That’s not enough,” the bus boy said (he was probably about sixteen or seventeen), “give me four more.”
“But I gave you a twenty,” the Nepali guy told him.
“Not enough; give four more.”
“How much is it for one person?”
“See, I gave you a twenty.”
The bus boy slowly looked from the Nepali guy to me, then back to the Nepali guy. “Oh…sorry,” he said in English. I smiled and handed the bus boy my fare of twelve rupees. The Nepali guy staunchly refused to look in my direction the remainder of the trip to Sundara.

Since I’ve been going from Sundara to Tinchuli for two weeks now, the drivers at the safa tempo stations at both ends have begun to recognize me. They automatically direct me to the correct tempo—a three-wheeled truck run on battery power—and ask me where my two travel buddies are if I happen to be alone. “One just now arrived, and the other had work today,” I told one of the drivers once, after her inquiry. “La, see, I understood EVERYTHING she said!” the driver declared to another driver that happened to be nearby.

Half my drivers have been women. The come to work donned in socks with flip-flops, fingerless gloves and wrapped in shawls to protect against the morning cold. The majority are married. They wear their gold earrings, bead necklaces and glass bangles, and display a red sinduri on their forehead (the tikka that declares they have worshipped or honored their husband that day). I can’t help but admire the stride in which they take their work. A young man with long hair threw a comment at my driver one morning as she got into her tempo, and she threw back, “well, you have too much hair yourself!” An older guy got in front with her later, and he made the comment that he was going to Gaushala to either look for work or start work. The driver asked, “Well, older brother, have you eaten?” (a common question between people here), to which he replied the affirmative. Later, when he tried to give his fare, she waved it away: “Not needed,” she said, and drove on. At other times, they’ve tactfully argued with passengers as to whether a fare should be ten or twelve rupees, or whether a child’s fare should be applied if they’ve take a seat instead of been placed on the parent’s lap. They've won their argument every time.

Sundara to Tinchuli is a long route. It can take anywhere from forty-five minutes to one and a half hours one way, depending on traffic. Turning off from the Durbar Marg into Bag Bazaar is almost like going into the jowels of a big creature, and then the downhill slope into Gyaneshwor/Dili Bazaar is like going further into the animal. Buildings tower over the narrow streets that wind through the bazaars. Coming out of Gaushala onto the stretch of Ring Road going to Chabahil is like emerging from some depth; the road is wider and there are actually sidewalks that line the highway. There have been a few times when I feel like I've been able to breathe again.

People get on and off all along this route. Some are going to work; others are on their way to Pashupati or Maiti Devi temples for morning worship (or returning home from morning worship), many are school children or college students on their way to or from class. There were four young men on my tempo yesterday morning, all very friendly with each other as Nepali guys usually are. One had his arms happily wrapped around his friend’s neck; another held his friend’s knees across from him the entire way (its tight seating in the tempo, so this position was actually a comfortable for the bumpy ride). They made comments about the drive the entire way. My favorite was made when the driver was pulled over by a policeman in Dili Bazaar. “La, he’s going to take fifty rupees,” the one guy said. Policemen are notorious for being corrupt in Nepal. All the guys had their attention to the cab as they watched to see how the driver would handle the policeman.

The safa tempos can hold eight or nine people in the back, and up to two people in front with the driver. There are no seat belts, and no door in the back; everyone just squashes in together. On a cold morning, nobody seems to mind. There’s been more than once when I’ve missed the passengers next to me after they get off and the chilled air hits my sides. Micros are even more crowded. On the way home to Jawalekhel from Sundara last Monday, the guy behind me had a notorious cough, and didn’t have the sense to cover his mouth when he did it. My hair received several blasts of warm air during our forty minute ride. On that same ride, I was snugly fit between the window and under some dude’s armpit. The bus boy didn't seem to take the hint that we were full, and kept shoving more people inside as we wound through Thapathali and into Kupondole.

Each trip across town has had the potential to turn into some kind of adventure. The above stories are just my highlights. Then again, just walking on my own two feet has landed me in enough trouble. On my way to buy a newspaper one Saturday morning, I got hit in the face with a (well aimed?) soccer ball by the Jawalekhel soccer team, practicing in the field in front of the zoo. I’ve had to dodge a few birdies being smacked around by businessmen playing badminton before work at the same sports/meditation/temple area. Motorbikes are notorious for popping out of nowhere, and if I’m walking up to Lagankhel at 5PM, I get to go against the crowd of college students pouring out of the institutes that line the main road. My travels never cease to be interesting.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

“Ours is a strange existence”

At one moment, I’m convinced that my only purpose in life is to amuse my Nepali friends. My sentences come out awkwardly, my verb conjugations don’t always match, some of my phrasing isn’t Nepali; rather, its how I would say it in English, not how Nepalis express it. Yet, I get volunteered to do things like lead singing at children’s fellowship, teach a game at youth fellowship, and oddly enough, (by my older brother) to be on the folk dance troupe for the yearly Christmas program. My hips are learning to move in ways that might be a cause for church discipline in the States, especially since it’s to a song asking God to lead me in the way of salvation. Well, I don’t think the reaction would be any worse than reactions to my brother belching after dinner to show the cook he appreciated the meal she made. If it happened to be our Nepali house help, she was pleased; if it happened to be my American grandmother, she was not.

At other moments, it takes me a while to realize where I am, and I have to take a moment to remind myself why I’m here. That happened when I attended the opening ceremony of the 31st annual conference for the Linguistic Society of Nepal at the Tribhuvan University campus in Kirtipur. I didn’t know I was going to this conference—all I had been told was that my Nepali boss’s book on multilingual education in Nepal was going to be officially released, and everyone at the office would attend in support. I end up mingling with Fulbright scholars, SIL international committee members, and hearing Nepal’s foremost linguist give his reason why India’s police force is so wimpy—it’s a noun that requires feminine verb endings. You would hear that kind of joke at a linguistic convention…

I celebrated Thanksgiving this year. I was invited to the home of a family where the mother is Filipino and the father is south Indian. Their invited guests were another Filipino lady, another south Indian family, and a couple where the wife is British and the husband is American. We had a good 3-course meal: soup, bread and salad; chicken and roast vegetables; topped off with a British Christmas pudding drowned in custard, a chocolate cake baked in its own chocolate sauce, and all washed down with three kinds of red wine, and coffee. I did make pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread around that time too. The pumpkin bread I gave to some Nepali friends (my mom would always make them such things about this time of year, so I knew they’d enjoy it), and the two pumpkin pies I’ve left on the hostel dining room table. They’re slowing disappearing, being consumed by the Nepali staff, and my British, American and Dutch hostel mates.

Every Friday after youth fellowship (that means, if you’re under the age of forty, you’re entitled to be there), my two younger brothers escort me to the end of my road, since it’s on their way home. Our conversation revolves around things like “Do you think you could manage to wear a sari?” “What’s the meaning of the English word ‘macho’?” “Is it ok to spit in public in the States? You can get fined if you spit in public? What if you’re a high-ranking person, can you spit in public then? No? No discrimination. Well, you don’t mind if I spit in public, do you? Of course you don’t, you’re used to Nepali behaviors.”

“Ours is a strange existence,” one foreigner commented to me over a cup of tea and a plate of shortbread biscuits. “I’ve attended cocktail parties for radio station and art gallery openings and met the British Prime Minister on his last visit to Nepal.” But then, she went on to talk about her family’s work with their local congregation and her husband’s work to set up and maintain a business that trains Nepalis in software development and providing IT services.

Strange existence indeed.