Monday, March 17, 2014

The Real Hunger Games

Living in Kathmandu feels like urban camping most of the time, especially in the constant fight over resources like water, gas, and electricity during the winter months. If you’re lucky, maybe you have a gas geiser; otherwise, its best to take showers during the day, because even if you don’t have solar panels, the black holding tank soaks in the sun’s rays and heats the water anyway. If there’s no sun, you could boil water and dilute it with cold tap water for a bucket bath. Maybe you have to take a bucket bath anyway, because you forgot to pump water when the electricity was on (there is up to seventeen hours of loadshedding a day during the winter), so there’s not enough water for a shower—or to do dishes. So, if you want a private bath or don’t want to haul the dishes downstairs, you have to haul buckets of water up two flights of stairs from the well in the backyard. Or maybe the well is dry, or the city water is scarce, so you have to purchase a tanker of water. Any water you want to drink you have to boil and filter. Its best to clean all vegetables you want to eat raw in iodine water. If you have multiple gas cylinders, its best to have them from different gas companies. That way, when gas shortages come, you don’t have to rely on one supplier. We haven’t gotten this desperate yet, but a few winters ago, between all the gas, electrical and water shortages, my Scottish neighbor couldn’t get over the fact that, despite living in the nation’s capital city, he had to boil milk for his kids over a wood fire in his backyard!

Recently, I decided to think of Kathmandu as a village on steroids. I mean, my neighbors raise water buffalo, have milk cows, and burn dried cow patties at night to keep warm (which they slap on the side of the cow shed facing the road to dry in the sun). My landlady grows vegetables in every bit of yard not covered with cement—why pay for vegetables when you can grow them? If I think that way, maybe I won’t get so upset when the electricity goes out next time, or my internet isn’t working.

My ideas of resources and urban survival were made to look like first world problems when a pastor’s daughter in a village I recently stayed in commented to me that she spent six days camping and fishing (in the cold damp Kailali winter!) all by herself by the river sixteen kilometers deep in the nearby jungle! She came back one day for church, but her father took her right back out to the river after the service was over! Knowing that the Tharu fish with nets and traps, I asked her why she couldn’t have come home for a few days, then gone back out to retrieve her catch? She said there were sixteen other people there too—she had to make sure they didn’t steal the fish caught in her nets! All those fish were for the Christmas feast her church would have in a few days!

[It took this incident to make me realize that the Tharu could be classified as “hunter-gatherers,” the classic people that anthropologists study. Frankly, that’s just weird to think about, because after living in Tharu communities all this past year, I’ve come to admire their resourcefulness and creativity as people, and “hunter-gatherer” seems like some exotic, non-human specimen.]

Despite the fact that the Tharu rely heavily on agricultural work—rice is the main crop, but wheat, lentils, and mustard are also major crops—and raise numerous kinds of animals, they also rely heavily on the natural resources around them. In addition to eating the fish caught by the pastor’s daughter (these were not minnows, as in Dang, but actual fish with meat on them) I was also served something called gangaria—basically a water potato, culled from the jungle streams—and forest bean pods called tata, both boiled over the fire. I have not been served snails or rat yet, but I do know that the Tharu eat these too. The church I visited recently took a trip into a nearby forest to get firewood to cook their Christmas feast, and during their foraging, one of the men and several of the children sped off after a large forest rat upon disturbing its nest, with the idea to make a meal of it (unfortunately, they were unsuccessful in catching it). On my most recent trip to Sukhrwar, some of the neighborhood boys (ranging from age nine to twelve) caught a large field rat and trooped off to build a fire to roast it. One of the fathers commented to me that a field rat was good eating; the ones around the house however didn’t taste as good!

My Sukhrwar didi goes to the forest before each festival to gather leaves to make plates and bowls, and to get some firewood. She and her sons fish in the rivers and irrigation canals for minnows and crawfish. She often makes her own rope from grasses to bind the wood she forages—and to fix her the broken thong on her flip-flop so she can walk home. Tharu men and women weave numerous kinds of baskets and mats out of bamboo, also gleaned from the forest, and dried bamboo makes good firewood. I’ve seen women gather reeds and brush from the forests and streams to make various kinds of brooms and baskets, which they use around the house but also sell in the bazaars. There are probably lots of other things the Tharu gather from the forest that I’m unaware of.

I’m continually amazed by what I am served in Tharu homes—all the food has been grown or gathered locally. While winter is much more miserable, there are more vegetables. Coriander, dill, and various kinds of green leafy vegetables grow on their own around the potatoes in the field behind the house. My didi’s older brother’s family has a large garden down the road where they grow cabbage, cauliflower and tomatoes to sell in the bazaar. Being a relative, my didi is free to pick from the garden what she needs to feed her family. As a result, we have tomato chutney to flavor our food, and potato and cauliflower curry most days, in addition to saag (green leafy vegetable). The Tharu love having jhol (gravy or juice) to eat with their rice; my didi has been making sinki ko jhol a lot recently—radish stems dried, smashed, fermented for days in the sun then dried out till they’re bleach white; these are then cooked with potatoes, oil, chilis, salt and turmeric to make a sour soup. If there is a family wedding, my didi will bring home leftover goat meat. As much as my hosts apologize that the food is simple, I love that I know exactly where it all came from.

Tharu houses are also made of local materials. In Kailali, with forests a little more numerous than in Dang, many houses are actually made of wood, or alternatively straw or bamboo, and then covered with adobe. The home in which I stay in Dang is made of unbaked clay bricks, and then covered with adobe. Each Dashai, my didi brings various colors of clay to re-mud the inside and outside walls—a whitish clay for the inside walls, which she said she brought from a place further away from the village (and “brought” means carried in a basket balanced on her head!) and the normal brown for the outside, which she brought from the river about ten minutes from the house. I’ve also seen yellow and a deep red, also from different kinds of clay found in different areas of the district, used to decorate houses.

While the houses in Sukhrwar do have electricity—my didi’s husband says they were married in February and the electricity came around October of the same year, so they’ve have electricity about 13 years now—they’re not entirely dependent on it. Sure they have phones that need to be charged, my didi’s husband works off his laptop, and its nice for the boys to have light in the evenings so they can do their homework, but life doesn’t stop when the electricity goes out for four to six hours at a time. While they do have a gas stove, they also cook off of gobar gas (gas extracted from cow dung) and wood fires (which also serves to warm everyone up and create a social circle during the winter). They have a well out back that my didi proudly says has never run dry, even in the dry season.

Undoubtedly, a Tharu tribute would last longer in the arena than I would.