Posts from our 2008 trip
It’s time to begin my journey back to the other side of the world. I’ll fly to Kathmandu tomorrow morning; spend two days in that chaotic city before trying to begin the long process of flying back home. I am deeply worried because of the protesters in Bangkok. As of this writing, they have taken over the Bangkok airport and all flights have been cancelled. Please pray for a peaceful resolution. When I get to Kathmandu, I will make my way to the Thai Air office and see what is going on. Maybe they are diverting all flights through other cities? I mentioned my fears to Bel and Somendra and they both did a jokarna (divination). They both said it will be okay…so I am trying to visualize my safe passage home…but to be honest…I’m freaking out a bit over here.
I made the rounds this past week, saying my tearful good-byes and savoring my final moments with each cherished friend. Last Monday, Yeshi and I traveled by motorcycle up the road towards Sarankot to visit a Buddhist retreat center where monks from the camp’s monastery meditate to become lamas. This center was built last year by Shangpa Rinpoche, who runs the monastery in the camp. He and Yeshi have known each other since they were little boys. Yeshi says they were very naughty…using the young Rinpoche’s powers to divine answers and try to get treats. When a monk enters the center, he commits to meditating for three years, three months, three days and three hours…in seclusion for the majority of the time. They cannot leave the retreat center and outsiders cannot enter. Visitors can go up during their two hour lunch break, but you sit outside the door and carry on your conversation through a cloth door hanging. Yeshi’s nephew Chuing has chosen to do this. He and his cohort entered six months ago. I call him my cosmopolitan monk. He used to ride around on a motorcycle, listening to his I pod and chatting on his cell phone. His English is fabulous. We were all surprised when he made the announcement that he wanted to enter this very important training. So Yeshi and I headed up the steep road on his motorcycle so that I could sit outside the door and chat with Chuing. He’s happy. And he’s different, talking about how this focusing on the sacred is transforming him. We arrived at the same time as Tseyang Rinpoche. He is a ‘tulku’…which means he is a reincarnated lama. At the end of each lifetime, because he is so close to enlightenment, he can direct his soul into the next life and arrive with memories of the previous one. I first met Tseyang Rinpoche when he was only ten years old and he would come Lakeside and sit with me outside of Yeshi’s shop and watch the tourists go by. He greeted me warmly. He is now an educated young man. One of his ears is in the shape of a conch shell. The previous Tseyang Rinpoche was Yeshi’s mother’s uncle. So when he died, it fell upon Yeshi and his brother, who is also a lama, to find his new incarnation. When news came that a child had been born with an ear in the shape of the shell, Yeshi and his brother lama traveled to the border of Tibet and tested the child. They placed before him items that had belonged to the previous Rinpoche. These items included eye glasses, mugs for tea, sacred hand bell and other ritual objects. The items are mixed with similar objects that did not belong to him so that there would be three sets of eye glasses, three mugs for tea, etc. The child then picks out the objects that were his in the previous life. This he was able to do to perfection, so they brought him out of Tibet and down to Shangpa Rinpoche’s monastery. When Shangpa Rinpoche was a young child, the old Tseyang Rinpoche provided support for him as he traveled out of the mountains. Shangpa Rinpoche then returned the kindness by helping the new Tseyang Rinpoche. Shangpa Rinpoche is also a tulku and they follow each other through each lifetime, watching out for each other. We stayed up at the center for the entire two hours before returning Lakeside.
I then began my final visits. Tuesday made my way one last time to see Pau Rhichoe. When I told him about my meeting with Tseyang Rinpoche the previous day, he shared a story of how when he was a young Lhapa (shaman) he had traveled for an audience with the old Tseyang Rinpoche. He was just a teenager and a new Lhapa. They had made offerings to the old Rinpoche, and then were invited to enter the monastery and practice their ‘lha’…which he did with great success. We spent our final time together describing how important a role we each play in the others’ life and talked about the prayers we will say so that we have to good fortune to see each other again. Wednesday was Pau Nyima day and I repeated the process of reminiscing about our many years of shared laughter. His wife makes the most delicious flat noodle soup and his mother, who is now 89 years old, put on her special white Tibetan dress to come and put the blessing scarf around my neck.
Thursday I visited Trinley one more time and soaked in his gorgeous son. He has a cold and was a bit fussy. At one point, Trinley put him into my arms and he quieted down. As I held him, he gazed into my eyes and smiled. I told him that I knew his grandfather. That his grandfather was my friend and had told me many wonderful stories…stories about being a nomad in Tibet, about herding yak, about having the fate to be a Lhapa…and that as he grew, I would share these wonderful stories with him. I think I will start bringing my movie camera again and start recording his son’s life so that if he has the fate to be a Lhapa when he enters puberty, I will have recorded his years leading up to that event and hopefully will be able to capture the process he will be put through to test his karma. I also made the rounds of the old ones that we support. At the end of all of these final visits, the kata (prayer scarf) was put around my neck and we touched foreheads. By the time I reached the taxi, I was covered in the special scarves. They also put small gifts in my hands…usually bracelets and belts that they have woven. I’m always deeply touched by the generosity of those who have so little.
My time with Bel and his family passed way too quickly. We spent Friday recording the key elements of the gufa experience so that Shelly and I can write an article about it. Somendra came each evening and we all sat around and chatted and drank raksi. I slowly packed up my room and with many tears and messages of safe travels and hurry backs, I made my farewells. Guru Baba came, as well as all of the extended family in the area. Grandmother brought me a bottle of her homebrew, fresh buffalo milk and three eggs her chickens had lay. The family put two water containers on either side of their front door and floated flowers on the top. Then they sat me down on a chair in their main room and one by one came and put tikka on my forehead, katas around my neck and flowers in my hands. Bishnu was the first and as she approached me, I started crying…which started her crying…and soon we were all crying. I love this family so much! It is always agonizing to have to leave.
I was able to get one more visit in with Lobsang, sitting in her shop yesterday and being treated to lunch at her home. I haven’t mentioned her much this year, but did make my way to her shop once a week to hang out and chat. Of all of the people I spend time with here in Pokhara, I have known her the longest. That first year when my group tour was finished, I had made my way to Pokhara to trek. I had a down day, so had visited her Tibetan camp, which is different from the one where the Lhapas live. Since that time, all of those many years ago, I have continued to sit with her in her shop. We go to her home and she makes me an onion omelet and Tibetan bread. She is the woman who I sell mallas for stateside to keep that craft tradition alive. She has great street smarts and is a marvelous sounding board for me when things occur that confuse me.
So now I’m packing my final bags. Yeshi will take me to the airport in the morning and push me through the process of a domestic airport to ensure I am put on the airplane. Then two days of R and R before the long flight home. Please let me come home!
My time in Nepal is quickly coming to an end…bringing with it a mix of emotions that can be quite overwhelming. On one level, I’m ready to leave this third world country where I brace against all of the challenges that it brings to stay safe and healthy. But on another level, the thought of leaving my ‘family’ brings great sadness to my heart. When I sit with Rhichoe, in particular, I study his face as if to soak him in. Like Wangchuk before him, I wonder if I will have the chance to see him again next year. There are definite signs that age is catching up with him. The weather here has turned. It is cold. We sleep under piles of blankets each night because there is no indoor heating of any kind.
Shelly has headed stateside. I truly enjoyed introducing her to my world over here. It prompted me to return to people and places that I had not been since I first started coming over. On Monday, we dropped her off at the airport before heading out to the Tibetan camp. Trinley (Wangchuk’s son) had taken a cooking course several years before that had been paid for by Trek Aid…a humanitarian group out of England who does a lot of work in the Tibetan camps in the Pokhara area. They started offering to pay for vocational courses for the younger generation of Tibetans to try and help them learn a skill that would help them to enter the work force. Trinley learned how to cook. On a previous visit he had pulled out the course syllabus and offered to cook anything listed…so I went through the menu and picked a spaghetti dish. It was delicious! We arrived at his home to find that he had done all of the prep and only needed to finish the dish. This required electricity…which was out (of course). As soon as the power came back on, he completed the food and served it. Yum! He was quite excited to be able to try cooking again. No one in his family would eat this kind of food, so he had not practiced since his class ended. I was excited that it really was quite tasty…because I would have had to eaten it and pretend to enjoy it no matter what so that I did not hurt his feelings. Again…yum!
On my recent visit to Rhichoe, I was pleasantly surprised to find his son Singe visiting. He runs a tea house on a trekking route that leads tourists towards the Dhauligiri Mountain. It’s quite far away, so he rarely checks in with his mother and father. Rhichoe had encouraged him to try and come to see me…so he made the special trip. I really quite enjoy him and had worried I would not have a chance to chat with him this year and get caught up. I know that Rhichoe speaks frequently of his wish to have his son nearby so that he can help to take care of them as they age…but there is no work in the area so it sends Singe out to earn a living.
Wednesday found me back at Bel’s home for a Magar puja (ceremony) honoring the Magar deities known as Baja/Baje (Grandfather/Grandmother). This puja happens once a year and requires the sacrifice of a black pig and many chickens. Somendra was the Pujari (man in charge of the puja). On a rice field nestled above the community, under a tree, are two stones that represent Grandfather and Grandmother. They cleared the area and decorated it with colored powders, strips of cloth of many colors, food and incense. As each person arrived, they checked in with Sangita so that she could record their name and where they lived. They then handed their plastic bag to me, which contained rice, millet, incense, ginger, money, strips of colored fabric and eggs. I sorted them into piles that were then added to the altar. At the appointed time, the black pig was sacrificed and the head put on the altar. Then each person lined up with their chicken and approached the altar. They would make a wish and the chicken would also be sacrificed. The head would be put on the altar and the person would take the rest of the chicken home to cook. This went on for quite a long time. The community then gathered at another person’s home and began the process of butchering the pig and distributing the meet in equal amounts for the number of people whose names Sangita had recorded. A portion was also cooked and that was also added to the bags. That evening there was a lot of singing and dancing. They always talk about this particular festival…but this was the first time it happened while I was in the country…so I was very excited to witness the festivities. One old man used to be the Pujari, but he’s become too old to do the fast required the day before…so the responsibility has fallen to Somendra.
The garage and compound that is being built at Bel’s is progressing slowly but surely. I kept telling them that they needed to do the garage portion first. I made this request for several reasons….logistics of where it is located, to remove Tikka’s motorcycle from the sitting room and my cycle from the puja room, so that the small ramp out front can be removed and for financial reasons. I told them that I could only help pay for the garage portion and had no money to help with the outside gate. But instead of making the inside gate first, the man made the outside gate. I again insisted for all of the above reasons that the inside gate needed to be made first, but they continued to build walls and had the outside gate delivered. When I returned on Wednesday, the outside gate was resting on the side of the house, the walls they had built had been torn down and they were installing the inside gate. They told me that I had been right about the sequence…that the man who brought the inside gate needed to complete that portion before the rest could be installed. I itch to pitch in and help. At home, I love doing these kinds of projects, so to just sit and watch drives me crazy. I don’t think it will be completed by the time I leave so the cycle will have to wait until next year to sit in its new home.
Another project that will not be completed before I leave is the path that is being built down to the river. It’s a horrible path that is severely eroded. It’s reached the point that some of the older folks can no longer make that walk down to where they wash their clothes and bathe. Indigenous Lenses donated $1000 towards the building of a new path using stones. The stones have been delivered and set along the path. As soon as the men are done making the compound, they will make the path for the village.
I am now entering my week of ‘one more visit’. I went back to my driver’s home yesterday so say good-bye to his family. Then I will make one more visit to each family in the Tibetan camp and one more visit with Bel’s family. It will be a week of many tears.
This time next week I’ll be flying to Kathmandu. Sigh! And then back to the states. Thai Air, after going through all of their gymnastics to change the type of plane they fly, was refused permission by Japan to land in Osaka to refuel, so they had to go back to the big plane and reschedule all passengers once again to their original flight plans. What a pain in the ass! So, now I’m back to leaving Kathmandu on December 4, will connect immediately in Bangkok to the non-stop flight to Los Angeles where I will overnight before catching a place home the next day. I’ll regain the day I lost to the International Dateline while on the way here, so will arrive in Los Angeles on the same day I left Bangkok. Talk about disorienting!
Wow! Where do I begin? I have just returned from such an incredible experience….I hope that I will be able to do it justice. We left last Tuesday, traveling by bus from Pokhara to Sangye, where Bel’s best friend lives. We hired a bus to take us instead of hopping on the bus that makes that run several times a day. We had way too many things to take to make that an option. Bishnu and Babita literally took their entire kitchen with them to do the cooking…two burner propane stove, huge gas cylinder, pots, pans, cups, plates and utensils. After having a quick bite to eat at the friend’s home, we transferred all of our gear to the jeep and began the climb to the village. We had only traveled a short distance when the jeep’s rear axle broke. They unloaded all of us passengers and returned to Sangye to get it fixed, leaving us by the side of the road. In typical Nepali fashion, they said they’d be right back…and when we’d call to see what was happening, they would say that they were on their way. This went on for four hours. Finally, they returned with the jeep repaired and we once again began the steep climb. There were times when the ride seemed tolerable and times when I closed my eyes and said some prayers. The vistas were spectacular…when I looked. It was a single track road…unpaved…which set the jeep to rocking back and forth, forward and backwards. Sometimes it would lean so far over on its’ side that I was sure it was going to tip over. If another vehicle comes down the road and there is not enough room for them to pass each other, one of them has to back up or down the track until a side turnout is available. Luckily this did not happen. We were stopped for a period of time because another jeep had broken down and we had to wait until it was clear to climb up past it. Shelly and I were given the honor of sitting in the front seat with the driver while the rest either sat in the back on bench seats that faced inwards…or on the top. By the time we finally made it to the village, it was late and dark. We were greeted by all of the villagers, who had built an archway of flowers for us to pass under. After we passed through, they put tikka on our foreheads and flower mallas (necklaces) around our necks. We then began the climb up to the caves.
What we found was truly amazing. The villagers had cleared the area, brought water in through a long pipe, strung wire so that we could have light, built an amazing toilet and a separate ‘bath house’ with a raised bamboo floor and a woven shelf for our things. They pounded bamboo poles into the ground to form a circle and then attached the chitra (woven mats) they had made to serve as the walls. This formed the room in which we did our ceremonies. More woven mats were spread out on the ground and the tall bamboo tree next to the puja room was pulled over the top of the structure and staked to the ground. Over this they threw a large tarp that created our roof. The villagers had a fire burning outside, which they kept going the entire time we were there. Babita and Bishnu were our cooks. And Sangita came to act as our translator. By the time we had eaten dinner, it was quite late, so we got out our sleeping bags and crashed inside the puja room. As the chitra was being put up, two of the village men came and asked Bel if they could also sit gufa…they both work as jhankri (shaman) and have never had the opportunity to do this important initiation…which he, of course, said yes to. Bel’s friend from Sangye also sat gufa with us, as did his nephew Bikesh. Shelly named the friend ‘Tall Man’, the one without hair became ‘Bald Man’ and the third man had wild hair like one Indian holy man named Sai Baba…so that became his name.
Wednesday morning started our fast. We were able to have tea or coffee, fruits and breads. Each morning the villagers would arrive with fresh milk from their cows and buffalos. They also brought us a steady supply of oranges and bananas from their orchards. Whenever it was time to do puja (ceremony) they would all start to arrive so that by the time we were finished, the entire village would be sitting outside of the door of the room, sitting in plastic chairs and watching us as we worked. This was a little bit disconcerting. We knew that we would be stared out because we were foreigners…but to be the night’s (and day’s) entertainment was a bit strange. Also, when it was time to drink tea or to eat fruit, they would set out at table and two chairs and Shelly and I would have to sit in the place of honor and the villagers were watch us as we sipped our drinks.
We spent the day Wednesday doing the different ceremonies that would prepare us to sit in the caves that night. We decorated the puja room. We wore special costumes and hats, we drummed, played cymbals and hand bells and danced around the outside of the puja room…all the while being watched by the villagers. At one point in time we danced up to the top of the ridge that overlooks the next valley where the cremation ground was and drummed towards that place. Down below was a school. When we returned to the room, I jokingly said that I bet the school does a field trip to come see what was happening. Sure enough, that afternoon the entire school and all of the teachers filed in, stood and watched the camp, walked around our puja room, peeking inside before returning to school.
The puja room was located on a clearing above the slot canyon that contained the caves. To get to the caves, we walked down steps carved into the dirt. On the right side was the ‘Shiva Cave’. Inside this cave were naturally occurring rock formations that were considered sacred. Further down on that same side were the ‘caves’ where Shelly, Bel, Guru and I sat. They were not caves in the classic sense of a room that you enter but more depressions on the side of the slot canyon that allowed us to place our plates of rice and oil lamps with enough of an overhang to have shelter. Tall Man, Somendra, Bald Man, Sai Baba and Bikesh sat on the other side. We began sitting gufa at 10:00 that night. The purpose was to acquire power. To do this, we were to spend the night drumming and working with the spirits of that place. You would call them to you, feel their power and let them shake your body. We had taken our alter plates down and needed to keep the oil lamp going all night. The next day, Guru said he was proud of me and that I had done it well. Shelly and I really worked hard together to stay awake and take full advantage of this rare opportunity. Bikesh also was up most of the night shaking and letting his spirits speak through him. Gufa ended the next morning when the rooster crowed (around 5:30). We all made our way back up to the clearing and were sitting around the fire drinking tea when we heard a bell ringing down by the caves. We looked around to see who was missing and possibly back down in their gufa, but we were all there by the fire…so Kalu (another of Bel’s nephews) and Sangita ran down to see who was ringing the bell only to return and report there was no one there. The villagers say they hear bells and drumming all the time and that it’s the Shikari Jhankri spirit either calling for puja to start or expressing his pleasure.
Thursday was full moon day and all of the villagers took the day off from their chores to spend the day with us. Full moon day is a very auspicious day and to have had jhankris working all night on their behalf made them very happy. When they arrived, we put tikka on their foreheads and passed out Prasad (fruits and breads) that had been blessed during the pujas. We started with the oldest man in the village. He spent five years in a Japanese POW camp during World War II having fought in the British army. After we had put tikka on all who were present, the Father group took over distributing tikka and prasad to all who arrived later. Women would come and enter the puja room to light incense at each of our places and put flowers on our plates. The Mother Group began to sing and dance. Shelly and I presented the village with a stretcher to thank them for all of their hard work. Soon, Shelly and I were pulled into the dancing and it became quite the party. The villagers decided that a book of record needed to be created to mark this special event. So Sangita worked with them to find the right words to describe the time two shamans from America came to their village to sit in their caves. They listed our country and names and we signed the book and wrote brief messages of gratitude. This was truly an historical event for everyone. Some of the old women asked that we please return before they died.
That afternoon, we had one more puja to do. We had created a ‘louie’. This is a representation of the evil spirits that cause harm to the villagers. The main jhankri spirit of those caves is called the Sikari Jhankri who is a hunter…so we had bows and arrows made out of bamboo. Sai Baba put on a mask to represent the evils and danced around the louie and Bald Man pretended to shoot the louie with a bow and arrow. A chicken was sacrificed to appease the evils appetite and stop them from ‘feeding’ on the villagers. We then took it all up to the top of the ridge where we each shot an arrow into the louie before setting it on fire. This ritual was originally scheduled for the evening, but something happened to Shelly that required the chicken to be cut earlier. After the singing and dancing had wound down, Shelly had gone into the puja room to rest and when I went in to check on her a bit later, she wasn’t looking so good and asked for help. I summoned Bel and he worked on her behalf. He said that the Sikari Jhanki has a wife, many children and many students….which his wife doesn’t like. So she tries to cut up the students and feed them to her kids. Because Shelly is a new student, she was trying to ‘cut’ her up and prevent her from becoming a jhankri. After Bel’s treatment and the puja with the louie, Shelly was back to herself. That night, we were finally fed a hot meal…yum!!!!!
Friday morning we slowly packed up all of our gear. The Mother group cooked food for everyone (except for Shelly and I). One of the challenges of going remote is that we cannot eat the food they prepare because it is not cooked in a way that is safe for us to eat. So Babita cooked our food and the Mother group cooked for everyone else. Right before we started to head back down to the jeep, a ‘tikka frenzy’ ensued. Everyone in the village came with a plate with red powder, flowers and oranges. They then began to smear the read powder all over our faces so that by the time we left, our faces were totally red. The Father and Mother groups then led a procession down the mountain, playing their drums and singing. At each home we passed through, more tikka would be put and everyone would dance. It was spectacular. We all sadly had to say good-bye and as the jeep crested the first ridge and I looked back down, they were all down there swinging their shawls above their heads in farewell.
I truly felt so blessed by the entire experience. I got to see Bel’s older brother, who I had met years before at Bel’s oldest daughter’s wedding. I had not seen him in many years. And I also got to spend time with his son Kalu, who used to come down to Bel’s periodically and whom I got to know over the years. He was the one who wired us for light and who worked so incredibly hard throughout gufa, helping with any job that came up. Both and he and Bikesh are real treasures.
The jeep ride back down seemed anticlimactic…and we all made it safely back to Bel’s home. Guru said he was feeling sad because in gufa we had become a family and now we were all dispersing in different directions. I also felt that sadness in my heart. Shelly heads to Kathmandu tomorrow and I follow in two weeks. Sigh!
The weather continues to be quite pleasant, with clear mountain views that linger throughout the day. Usually by this time, the mountains cloud over by late morning…but this year we are being treated to wonderful vistas.
On Wednesday, Shelly, Yeshi and I traveled to Sarankot. This is a small group of tea houses that are perched on the ridge that separates Lakeside and the Tibetan camp. It is a popular place to go to watch the sunrise. We left Lakeside around 3:30 in the afternoon and were at the guest house an hour later…half of that time spent in a taxi and the other half climbing the rest of the way up by foot. The guest house we stayed in is run by Pau Rhichoe’s former daughter-in-law’s family. We got our rooms, walked up to where you watch sunrise, returned to the guest house and drank coffee and played cards…followed by dinner before we retired for the evening. We woke the next morning and wandered back up the steep steps to the view point and watched a beautiful sunrise before returning to the guest house and having breakfast. We were back Lakeside by 9:00. After a quick shower, Shelly, Migmar and I made our way to the Mountain Museum to spend a couple of hours wandering the exhibits. Some of them are quite well done. Some of them, as Shelly pointed out, look like a Master’s degree student’s poster session. There were even some maps that were printed off of the ‘Google Map’s’ program and taped to the wall. The museum is quite informative…with sections on the local ethnic groups, mountaineering, geology, flora and fauna…and even a section of the infamous ‘Yeti’.
After the museum, I made my way back to Bel’s home. They are building a compound that will include a small ‘garage’. Significant progress had been made. Each night, the son-in-law parks his motorcycle in the main family room…and now that I have a scooter (which lives in Bel’s puja room) the need became great to create an outside place. They are using bricks and cement for the walls and will put an iron gate that can be locked. It will be protected overhead by a tin roof.
Friday, Bel, Somendra, Shelly and I walked up another ridge to the Peace Pagoda. This is a Buddhist structure that tops the ridge that separates Lakeside and Chhorepatin where Bel lives. It was built by the Japanese and is a popular place to go and take pictures. Yeshi also went up…but on his motorcycle. Although he’s lived here all of his life, he had never been up there. He picked up a friend and met us up there. We ate shell roti that Bel bought from a vender on the street and took in that view. After returning back to Bel’s for lunch, we headed to the market to buy the things we will need for gufa. This included plates, oil lamps, water vessels and decorations for the altar we will create. We also started doing the ceremonies needed to prepare for gufa. One ceremony was to let our power animals and teachers know that we were going to do gufa and see what was important for us to know. Then we did a ceremony to bless the route we will travel for a safe journey and to let the spirits that live in that place know that we are coming. Bel says that we will each need to spend two nights in the caves drumming from 10 Pm to the next morning. We bought the stretcher that will be our gift to the villagers. They are very excited that we are coming to do this in this place.
Each morning, at Bel’s home, his mother-in-law brings me a steaming mug of buffalo milk. It has a very strong, smoky taste. I supplement the milk with instant coffee and sugar. This is a great honor that she brings it every day. It is to thank me for helping her youngest daughter with her school fees and her son with his hospital bills. This is one of those things that I’d rather she not do…because it’s not one of my favorite things to drink and there is a risk of intestinal revolt…but it is also something that I cannot not do. Ke garne (what to do)!
The millet has been harvested. This is the grain that is used to make the raksi…the fermented brew we drink each night at Bel’s. I watched his wife, daughter and granddaughter ‘dance’ on the harvested millet, turning and twisting the plant beneath their feet to release the grains. Simran, the granddaughter, had never done this before but wanted to learn. So she was given her own small pile on which she balanced and slowly ‘did the twist’.
We’ll make our rounds of the old ones one more time before heading to gufa. Keep us in your thoughts and prayers as we venture remotely!
I have just returned from spending a week at Bel’s home, celebrating Tihar and sinking deeper into that family. Boy I sure love them. Tihar was its usual festive self…with twinkling lights strung on houses, candles lining the front stoops each night and the kids coming around singing and dancing for money. The younger kids just sing the Bhailo song quickly and go on their way. The older kids bring a boom box, play songs, dress in their traditional clothes and perform dances. Each group can perform for up to an hour, with many choreographed numbers. They are beautiful to watch….very graceful. Each step and hand movement has significance. Bel’s granddaughter (8 years old) and her cousins formed a group and included Bel’s son Anil (he is 15 years old but functions mentally as a child). Anita’s group did the more elaborate songs and dances. Babita and Sangita traveled around the area with the group but chose not to dance this year. Babita is now married and, once married; you really do not join the single crowd anymore. Sangita was ill quite a bit this past year and for her health’s sake chose not to dance this year. The group of the young neighborhood boys (also all relatives of some sort) came by. Several days prior to tikka day, they promised they’d come and sing. I told them I hoped that they would also dance. These boys are eight and nine years old. They came with a small boom box and put in a tape of Nepali disco music and all started gyrating around. I couldn’t stop laughing. When I went inside to help prepare their offering plate, they pulled Shelly into the mix. Then when I came out I was pulled in, so we were all jumping and dancing around. I ended up giving them 500 rupees, which made them very happy and made me a legend.
Before heading to Bel’s, we made a visit to Wangchuk’s home to visit his son and grandson once again. I had asked Trinley if he would show us around the camp’s monastery. When I first came to Nepal and met Wangchuk, Trinley was a monk in the monastery. Then he chose to leave that calling to take care of his ailing mother and father. I thought he’d be the perfect tour guide. First we climbed to the top of the bluff that sits behind the camp and took in the view of the mountains, the camp and the river behind the camp where last year’s landslides had occurred. The camp still has difficulties with their water lines due to the destruction that occurred. We traversed the bluff then descended to the place where the camp makes special offerings on their holy days. It’s lined with thousands of prayer flags and has chortens where they burn juniper as an offering to the gods. ‘Lha gyal lo!’ ‘May the gods be victorious!’ From there we descended to the monastery and explored inside. The monks had been doing special prayers on behalf of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who had surgery a little while back. Their prayers books were still open on their tables with their mallas (prayer beads) resting on top. From there we went to turn first the small prayer wheels then the big prayer wheel that once you get it turning, will ring a small bell as a sound offering. We were treated to a special lunch at Yeshi’s mother’s home before returning Lakeside.
Murder has come to the Tibetan camp. Last week while walking through the camp, Migmar said hello to one of the women in the camp, then turned towards me and told me the horrible story. This past summer, the woman and her husband were sleeping in their bed when thieves broke into the house and hit them both over their heads with large rocks and beat them both with sticks. Her husband was in his 80s and was frail. He was killed. She survived and has slowly recovered. They stole most of their possessions. The Nepali government, in response, has installed lights to help make the camp not so dark at night. And the camp has formed three groups. Each night, two people from each group patrols the camp from 10 PM to 4 AM. Trinley told us he has taken his turn several times. No suspects have been found. The camp believes that this is related to a growing drug problem among the younger generation…kids looking for money to pay for their habit.
For many years, Bel has asked if I would go to his remote mountain village. And during the years of the Maoist insurgency, that was never a safe option. But this year, I am finally going to go and not just to visit the village, but to sit in the area’s special shaman caves on the full moon night and spend the night acquiring power. This is a Magar village and most of the people there only speak the Magar language…not Nepali. It is so remote that electricity was just brought to them last week and no foreigner has ever been there. I’ve met some of Bel’s village relatives when they’ve come down off the mountain for treatment. Bel says I’m quite famous up there. Bel traveled there before Tihar to seek the village’s elder’s permission to come and ‘sit gufa’ (meditate in the cave). He had to get the head of the ‘Mother’s’ group, the ‘Father’s’ group and the Youth group permission. They all expressed great excitement that the caves were once again going to be put to use and that even foreigners will be using them. As a gesture of our gratitude, we are going to purchase a stretcher and donate it to the village. If someone falls ill, they load them into a basket and take turns running them down out of the mountain. A stretcher will make that a much easier process. Bel, Somendra, Bel’s Guru, Shelly and I will spend two days doing special ceremonies and then sit all night in the caves on the full moon. Bishnu and Babita will do the cooking (although most of the days we fast) and Sangita will act as our translator. We’ve reserved a bus to transport us and all of our provisions from Pokhara to Sangye…then two jeeps to take us as high into the mountains on a twisty, turny unpaved road that is only as wide as the jeep and is known as a ‘white knuckle’ ride with sharp drop offs into deep mountain gorges. Bel said to just keep my eyes shut and it will all be okay. The villagers are weaving special mats made out of bamboo that will line the ceremonial ground. And they are going to donate a tent to cover the special area in case of rain. We’ll sleep each night around the altar. It will be cold!
On Friday, we began the process of seeking blessings for this adventure. We all traveled to each of the sacred Hindu shrines in the area and made offerings and spoke special prayers. And that evening we did our first of many pujas (ceremonies), starting the process of asking our gods and goddesses…our power animals and teachers for protection and advice on how to do gufa in a proper way. Next Friday, we will do our gufa shopping, getting all of the special objects needed to create the asan (altar), food needed for the trip and shamanic paraphernalia. There is an air of excitement being generated. One of the places we went to for blessings was the Gupteswar Mahadev cave. You descend deep into a cave in which this particular god appears naturally in stone. In one of those classic Nepali ways of mixing the sacred and the profane, when you first start descending into the cave, there is a tunnel on the side you can go down that is named the ‘cow shade’. When you enter that chamber, there is a cow made out of plaster. If you pay ten rupees, you are given a marble to drop into a chute. This will make the cow give milk and pee urine. What a riot. Many times in the states, there is such a solemnity to all things shamanic. There must be quiet and reverence…here, they slip in and out of these shamanic places as needed throughout the day. In Bel’s special puja room, there is now a bed and my scooter sitting side by side with all the drums, bells, costumes and special objects. Time isn’t set aside for the connection with spirit. It’s not a distant thing that occurs only on special days or events…it’s a constant presence…everything is empowered so when you need it, you touch it, do your thing and disengage without any elaborateness. When Bel is treating patients or doing ceremony, folks wander in and out…chatting. Kids are playing, folks are drinking tea. I think I prefer this system.
It was time to get an extension on my visa. The first visa I get from the Nepali embassy in Washington, DC and it’s good for sixty days. I am staying for seventy-five days, so needed to get and extension’. This requires going ‘Damside’ to the visa extension office. This is not usually a pleasant thing to do. Bel went with me, because having a local there to chat the workers up sometimes makes the experience a little bit more tolerable. The office had been moved to a new location, so we had to go search for it. There were many tourists there also needing extensions, but that worked in my favor because the office folks did not have a chance to just sit and ignore me like they would in the past when I was the only tourist there. In fact, because they recognized me from the many years I would have to go to their office and because I was able to conduct the entire transaction in Nepali, my process went quite smoothly compared to some of the others waiting. I might even go so far as to say their eyes lit up and seemed happy to see me.
After getting the extension, I returned to Devi’s Falls and the Gupteswar Mahadev Cave…this time with Bishnu. Although she lives a stone’s throw away, she had never been to either of these sites. We walked over in the afternoon, first visiting the falls and then heading down into the cave. This time while in the cave, I paid the ten rupees to see the cow give milk. I couldn’t quite bring myself to pay ten rupees to see the cow take a leak. Afterwards, Bishnu kept marveling that such wonderful things were so close to her home. Babita’s husband’s older brother passed through, which requires an elegant dance of offering special snacks and drinks. Bishnu stayed in the kitchen and guided Babita in the proper order of greetings and food. In this culture, men sit with men and women stay in the kitchen…so I stayed in the kitchen. Exceptions are usually made because I am the ‘older sister’ and I’m a foreigner. And I started staying with the family because I was studying Bel’s shamanic work, so I find myself more frequently navigating the men’s world…but this was a relative who they do not know as well, so I hid. Towards the end, I was invited to join his and he shyly asked me questions about my home ‘village’. He seemed very kind.
This week I’m back out to the Tibetan camp. It’s time to deliver the November stipends to the old ones. I can’t wait to see Rhichoe’s home now that the work is finished. And we are taking three healing requests I brought with me so Shelly can see both Rhichoe and Nyima perform their treatments.
I have successfully navigated the road between Lakeside and Bel’s home on the cycle. Yeshi and Migmar blessed the cycle with a dab of butter and tied a Tibetan prayer scarf around the handlebars. Bel blessed it with a brightly colored strip of cloth that he uses in his healing ceremonies. How can I go wrong? I have named it my Lungta…my wind horse….although it doesn’t go very fast.
When I made my way to Pau Rhichoe’s home this week, Bel’s brother-in-law Kamal went with us to take a look at the roof and see what needs to be done. He told us that the rafters and the tin are in good condition and do not need to be replaced. This older tin is much stronger then the newer stuff available in the market. He told us that Rhichoe’s tin should be good for at least another ten years where the new tin would only last about 3 years. This was great news. We then shifted inside the home to talk about putting in a plywood ceiling to help with the heat during the summer and the cold during the winter. This he told us would be easy. We also want to create a front porch with a tin overhang so that during the monsoon season, they can more easily enter and leave the home. Kamal told us that he would return the next day with his crew and take precise measurements and give us the bid. The next day, while I was visiting Pau Nyima, Kamal and his crew arrived, so Migmar and I headed over. They took all of the measurements and did their calculations. Total cost for everything will be about $350. What a deal, huh? When Migmar and I visited on Saturday, the inside ceiling was in place and they were working on the porch overhang. It looks great. I was worried that the ceiling might make the room look small, but they followed the lines of the old ceiling and it still has a sense of great height. They are also rewiring his electrical system. They figure that they have one more day of work to finish the porch and paint the inside. Rhichoe and his wife Tserap were beside themselves. Two of their granddaughters were visiting, so between the four man work crew and all of us…it was quite a party. We all sat around outside watching the progress. When I next visit after Tihar, it will be done.
We also worked to get the two old women their water tank. Yeshi went to the market and priced it all out. We purchased a 200 liter tank for them and a 500 liter tank for Yeshi’s mother. They were both delivered and when we dropped by the old women’s home before heading to see Rhichoe, it was all set up and full of water. Boy was it a great day!
Bel has a neighbor named Dal Maya. She is a goat herder. Recently, three of Dal Maya’s goats had babies, who are now finding their legs and experimenting with jumping and head butting. One of the goats was a first time mother and at first rejected her first offspring…so another of the seasoned mothers took over the care and feeding of the new goat. Whenever the birth mother comes near, the substitute mother now charges her to chase her away. Dal Maya has been taking the time to teach the new mother goat how to care and feed her baby. She’ll hold the goat still while the baby suckles. At first the baby was quite weak, but is now playing along with the other newborns.
I am happy to report that Prem has been released from the hospital and is now home resting comfortably…under strict orders by the doctor to never drink again. He has also been told that he should not drive his taxi for two months, eat only cold food because hot food will create a fever in his stomach and to not treat patients (he is a shaman in training). His power is gone and will take several months for it to be restored. He walked over to Bel’s Friday morning and sat with me on the roof. He looks wan…but every day he walks a bit and, as for now, speaks the words of abstinence.
It was bedlam at Bel’s home. The Tihar festival started yesterday and it is common practice for people to clean their homes from top to bottom and put a fresh coat of paint on the windows and walls. The family had shifted most of their belongings outside while Bel was repairing holes in the ceiling’s plaster (cement). As he finished in each room, the girls would come behind and clean up the mess then restore the room. When Kamal finishes out at Rhichoe’s he will paint the house for Bel. Bel, Bishnu, Durga and I headed to the market to do our Tihar shopping. I always buy Bel and Bishnu a new set of clothes for this holiday. Bishnu chose a beautiful blue sari and Bel found pants, shoes and material to make a vest. I also must buy each of my brothers a topi (Nepali men’s hat), the colored powder for the tikka, special lights to hang outside and candles that will line the front porch. We were gone for five hours. In addition to the items I purchased, we went furniture shopping for a cabinet for their television set and ordered new cushions for their sofa and chairs. After entering and exiting many stores, we finally found a beautiful one. Durga, Bishnu and I headed home in a taxi with all of our goodies and Bel rode in the furniture truck. When all was set up in their main room, it looked wonderful.
Tihar is my favorite festival. It lasts five days and celebrates the relationship between sisters and brothers. The first day crows are honored and people will set out plates of food to feed them. The second day honors dogs and you will see them running around with red tikka on their foreheads and flower mallas (necklaces) around their necks. The third day is the new moon day and they do a special ceremony to honor Laxmi. Laxmi is a goddess represented by a cow, so cows are honored with tikka and special food. The fourth day honors bulls and the last day is Bhai tikka day. This day honors brothers. Each night kids go from house to house and sing and dance for money. We will turn on the special lights and line the porch with candles. The younger kids will just run quickly from home to home and shout out a song as fast as they can. The older kids will actually practice for weeks and come wearing traditional clothing and perform many of the old songs and dances. They usually donate part of the money they earn for some charity work….and they also will treat themselves to a picnic once it is all over. My job on Bhai tikka day will be to honor and bless my brothers for long life. Bel tells a story about a young man who while on his way to visit his sister, met a snake on the road who wanted to kill him and eat him. The brother asked the snake to please let him first visit his sister so he can get tikka one more time. Then he promised to return and be killed. The snake let him pass. The brother told his sister that this would be the last time he would ever receive tikka and told her of his promise. She put a ring of water around him, rubbed special oil in his hair, then put four vertical lines of rice paste on his forehead and dotted them with colored powders. She placed a special flower malla around his neck and put a new hat on his head. When the boy returned to the snake to keep his promise, the snake had been cut into four pieces. So on Bhai tikka day, I will walk around my three brothers pouring water on the ground, rub special oil in their hair, put the four lines of tikka on their foreheads, a flower malla around their neck and then put the new hat on their heads. They will then touch their foreheads to my feet and offer me either a gift or money. Bel will then put tikka on my forehead to complete the ritual. There is a lot of singing and dancing. I will be on shell roti duty again and will need to make sure I have enough Nepali rupees to hand out to the singers.
Shelly has safely returned from her trek in time to witness her first Tihar. Her time is quickly coming to an end in Nepal.
I am so excited!!! When I came to Nepal this time, I brought a router for Yeshi and Migmar’s computer. After another round of dancing with their IP provider: phone calls, no shows and showing up only to have the power go off…we got the router working. I can now sit in my room with my laptop and access the internet using my wireless connection. I think part of the reason we were able to get it to work is that Yeshi and Migmar’s son Chime has returned from college in India. His field of study was Information Technology (IT). A lot of his studies were about computers, so through phone calls and in house visits, they were able to get the router working. Yahoo!
Another reason for my great excitement is that I am now the proud owner of a scooter…but now just any scooter…it’s a new model that has just arrived in Nepal from China. It does not run on gasoline (or petrol as they call it over here)…but runs on a battery. You plug it in and charge the battery and you can go 50 kilometers on that one charge. It also has petals…so is technically considered a bicycle and does not need license or registration. It’s so new that when Yeshi first brought it Lakeside, all the people on the street ran over and surrounded us oohing and aahing. I woke early the next morning and practiced riding it before all of the buses, taxis, motorcycles, buffaloes, cows, dogs, chickens and people crowded the road. It’s great! I’ll only use it to go from Lakeside to Bel’s home and back. I’ll still use my taxi driver for the trips to the camp. There were many colors to choose from…Yeshi chose the color of the sky.
And speaking of camp, Migmar and I made our weekly rounds…spending a morning each with Rhichoe and Nyima. The roof on Rhichoe’s home is so old that when it rains it leaks horribly. His home is one of the oldest in the camp and the walls are three feet think and made of rocks and mud. The beams that hold the corrugated tin roof are made of wood and black with age. For several years I’ve been exploring the option of replacing it for him. With Rhichoe, I find that it takes a couple of years of repeated suggestions about a particular home improvement before he agrees to the change. For several years we did this round of talks about tearing out a stone wall that one needed to climb up and over to get to his home and replace it with a gate. We did that in the spring and now it’s so easy, he keeps saying he wishes he had done it many years ago. About the roof, I broached the subject again this year with the added information that Bel’s brother-in-law (Kamal) does this kind of work and is willing to come and give a bid. Kamal does wonderful work and several years ago put the new roof on the Vocational Training Center’s (VCT) new building. It’s beautiful. So…I will try to coordinate a trip to the camp with Kamal so that he can check it out. I teased Rhichoe about the speed in which he agreed to this modification. He laughed and then gently stroked my cheek and told me I was a good daughter. His wife has slowly gone blind over the years…her eyes covered up by cataracts. I first took her to the Himalayan Eye Hospital many years ago to have them checked. At that time, the cataracts had not grown enough to remove them and her blood pressure was too high. She also expressed uncertainty about the procedure. In the camp, they believe that if an old one has the surgery, one of their children will lose their life. And there are the stories of botched procedures. This year, as we were sitting in the restaurant in the camp that is run by the camp cooperative, she told me that now she no longer sees any light…even if she is in the bright sun…and that she would be willing to have the cataracts removed. Migmar and I discussed this with her daughter who agreed to take her back to the eye hospital for an updated check-up. Sadly, behind the cataracts she has macular degeneration and in the doctor’s opinion, it would do no good to remove the cataracts. Sigh! The daughter got the doctor to write down his diagnosis and she brought it Lakeside to show me. At least now the family does not have to make that difficult decision as to do the procedure or not and in their mind…risk a child’s life.
When I visited Wangchuk’s son Trinley this week, he called me by a very different kinship term. I miss visiting that home on a weekly basis and want to find a way to build that back into my schedule. Migmar and I made our way there last Thursday and he made us omelets and bread. He also makes a mean thermos of ginger tea. I held his son and marveled at this new life. Trinley told me that with his father gone, I am really the only parental figure left in his life to guide him. His mother is deaf and blind so is of no help…and his wife’s parents live in a village that is very far away. I laughed and told him that that then makes me a grandmother. He and his wife Asa kept asking us questions about how to bathe the baby and when to introduce food into the baby’s diet. When I used to visit Wangchuk he would tell great stories and jokes and we would laugh and laugh. Trinley apologized for not having any stories or jokes to tell. He also showed me the special Thanka (painting of a deity) and statue that were created at the time of his father’s death through the help of donations given from Michael Harner and members of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, from those who have given donations throughout the years to help make his life easier and from me. He did an amazing job with all of those death rites and I told him that I hope he has peace in his heart that he honored his father well.
That same day, Migmar and I also visited an old couple that she recommended for assistance. The man has been very sick and his wife is the only source of financial income. She goes to one of the Hindu temples and puts her wares out on the ground in the hope that someone will purchase something. Her husband used to sell meat in the camp. The meat would be delivered to their home and he would divide it into kilos. Then the camp folks would come by and purchase one or two kilos. Because he’s been so sick, he hasn’t been able to do this. We sat and chatted with them for a while and Migmar explained that she would come by each month with an envelope with rupees in it to help them buy food and pay their bills. They still owe 5000 rupees ($60) on their hospital bill, so we told them we would cover that for them. So now Indigenous Lenses is supporting three households consisting of 7 elders. We made our way to the home of the two old women so that they could make us a cup of tea on their new stove. They rent the two room home from a man in the camp who is known as a mean man. He charges them a huge rent and even though there is a water tap in the yard, he refuses to connect it so they rely on the neighbors to hang a hose over the fence so they can fill their buckets. We deliberated on how we could help in this situation. We don’t want to pay to hook up the tap because we don’t know how long the women will live there and, in the end, this would benefit the mean man. We’ve settled on buying a 100 liter container with a spigot and setting it on cinder blocks. The women are going to talk to their neighbors and see if that is okay with them to provide water to fill such a big container. If they agree, I recommended to Migmar that we give the job of getting the blocks and water container to Wangchuk’s son so he can earn a little income. She’s currently thinking about it.
This past week, Bel’s brother-in-law Prem fell seriously ill and ended up at the Manipal teaching hospital. His body started swelling and he was vomiting blood. They rushed him in a taxi to the emergency room late that afternoon. That evening, word came that he needed blood. As the word spread, the entire community gathered in the road to try and help. It was an amazing thing to watch. Everyone who had the same blood type volunteered to go to the hospital and make a donation. The problem was that there was no way to get them to the hospital. I was so frustrated. This community does not have an ambulance and it was past the time when the taxis and buses run…I sent Bel to the home of the driver who took us to Lumbini several years ago and he agreed to take a car load. Also, the younger boys called all of their friends who had motorcycles and they also transported some of the blood donors. The taxi driver and the boys waited until the donors were done, the brought them back home. I made my way to the hospital on Friday. This was my first visit to Manipal and I was really impressed. For a third world country, it seems to be pretty state of the art. The funny thing about hospitals in Nepal is that the patient is given a bed and will be treated by the medical staff, but it’s the family’s responsibility to care and feed the patient. Whole families move into the room to bathe the patient, change the sheets and cook and feed the sick. Prem was sharing a room with four others. If the doctor orders medicine or an IV drip, the family takes the prescription down to the pharmacy, purchases the medication and brings it back to the room so the doctors and nurses can administer it. I read through Prem’s medical chart and when the doctor came in, I asked him questions about his diagnosis and suggested treatment. For a Nepali to do this kind of questioning is taboo. The doctor will yell at the family member and ask them if they went to medical school. The people have learned not to ask questions. But if a foreigner asks the questions, they openly chat and share their information. According to the doctor treating Prem, he came in with alcohol poisoning and his liver is pretty shot. He was experiencing the DTs when first admitted. The recommended treatment is abstinence from alcohol. A surgeon who specializes in using a scope is due back from his Dasain holiday. When he arrives, he will use the scope to check Prem out internally, cauterize any bleeders then send him home. I sat with Prem and told him I hope that in the name of his god, his wife, children, mother and all who love him, that he will stop drinking from that moment on…not one drop should pass his lips…not even a whiff of alcohol should he take. He acknowledged me with a nod of his head…we’ll see. His family, friend and neighbors are rotating in and out of the room so that someone is always with him until he can come home.
Forgive me in advance for this long winded message.
Did I tell you that it’s been hot here? And humid. I carry a bandanna with me everywhere so I can mop the sweat off of my face. Rhichoe’s home is the worst…tin roof and no cross ventilation of any kind. I sit in his home and feel the sweat running down my back and legs. It usually stays hot like that until a series of gully washers arrive that scrape the landscape clean. They are then followed by cooler temperatures. Those arrived this past week…three days of heavy, pouring rain accompanied by thunder and lightning. The water pours off of the roofs through a series of pipes and is collected in any available pot or bucket. Because there is such a shortage of water, this manna from heaven becomes the main source of water for cooking and cleaning. Without it, we’d be hauling water from the river several times each day. Now the mornings and evenings are cooler and require a shawl or sweater.
Before heading to Bel’s for Dasain, I was able to get several visits in at the Tibetan camp. Migmar and I made visits to each of the old ones that Indigenous Lenses supports with food and shelter. We were greeted warmly at each place. We first visited the two old women who share a small house together. When they lived in the remote Himalayan Mountains, they also shared the same husband. After he passed, they could no longer take care of the animals, so came out of the mountains and settled in the Tibetan camp. They are in their 80’s. They are not technically a part of the camp, so they do not get the $5 a month stipend that the rest of the old ones receive. When we got there, they put katas (special greeting scarves) around our necks and we touched foreheads in the traditional style. They wanted to offer tea, but their propane stove had stopped working. I offered to buy them a new one ($50) and the next time I was in the camp, we delivered it and got it set up. They were thrilled and kept turning the knobs on and off and clapping with joy. I’ve promised to return and have tea made on the new stove. We also visited the other household that we support. This one has an old brother and sister who live together. We arrived to find out that another elderly brother has joined them. His wife had recently passed away, so he sort of moved in so that the sister could take care of him. They were also thrilled to see us again and did the ritual of the katas and foreheads. We told them that we would add more to their monthly stipend to help cover the extra mouth to feed. Our plan is to add one more household of old ones. Migmar has the exact person in mind. We plan to visit him this coming week to assess his need.
When we went to Pau Rhichoe’s home, his daughter was visiting from Kathmandu. I had never met her before…but I would recognize her…she has his face and ears. This was her first visit to his place in Pokhara. She has spent all of her life living in Kathmandu…first with Rhichoe’s older brother…then with her own family after the brother’s death. One of her sons is a monk in the camp’s monastery. She is the product of Rhichoe’s first marriage and she was born in Tibet. When China invaded, the older brother, Rhichoe, Rhichoe’s wife and two young daughters fled to Nepal. Sadly, after arriving, the wife became sick and died…as did the youngest daughter. Rhichoe got separated from the older daughter and brother, so she wasn’t raised by Rhichoe. She calls him uncle…even though he is her birth father. While we were visiting, one of the granddaughters also arrived for the holiday. Needless to say, there was a lot of talking and laughing and catching up of stories and news. It had been a year since Rhichoe had seen the granddaughter. She is the daughter of Rhichoe’s son by his second wife. It was wonderful to see Rhichoe so happy. He’s moving slowly these days with a noticeable limp and using a cane. I gave him some wonderful wraps for his knees that were donated by a company in Utah called Bioforce. They help relieve some of his pain, but his knees are pretty shot and the wraps will not cure him of the damage that has accrued over the years. Each year I try to bring something to help alleviate his pain…but the damage is structural and all he ends up getting is a brief reprieve from his pain.
The visit to Nyima’s home was a bit more solemn. The man who lived next door passed away on Saturday. In the Tibetan custom, they cannot remove the body if one dies on a Saturday…and according to the astrologer in the Monastery, Sunday was also not a good day to remove the body…we were there on Monday, but before we arrived, they had finally taken the body out and had it cremated. Due to the hot weather, the body had started to decompose quite a bit and the bugs had been very active. They put rice on the eyes and sprinkled the body with saffron…but still… People were coming and going with offerings of butter for the lamps that must stay lit and food to feed the monks that had started the prayers to help to body transition through the ‘time between’. This will go on for 49 days and help the soul move from this life to the next. Nyima’s wife Tashi had to go buy special wood that will be burned down to cinders. Then three times a day, food will be placed on the hot coals and burned to feed the man’s soul as it transitions. The man’s family was concerned that his soul would not leave and wanted to know if Nyima needed to do the ritual of shim pu which would send the soul on its way. This is only done if the soul won’t leave. Nyima told them that he has no indication that the man’s soul is intent on staying and that it’s too early for him to do the ceremony. Only after the monks have done their prayers would he know if his work was needed.
Shelly and I made a visit to my driver’s home before she left trekking. He, his wife and four children shared a small, two room home until he made extra money last spring driving UN workers around who had come to Nepal to monitor the elections. The extra money was used to add a third room. I am always greeted by the family who stands on their front porch…each holding flowers in their hands. They tell me how happy they are to see me once again and hand me the flowers. I’m always touched by this small gesture. We sit inside and drink tea and eat boiled eggs (any other food they would try to cook would probably make us sick). The children are always clean and they sit politely and try to make small talk. The two oldest boys are now in class ten plus one. Nepali schools go until class ten. That is when the children must take the SLC exam (also known as the send up exam). If they pass, they can join a campus and complete class ten plus one and ten plus two…after that they would join a different campus and start working on a three year bachelor’s degree. I was happy to hear that the sons passed the exam and joined a campus. Although Indigenous Lenses primarily focuses on educating girls, we are helping these two young men continue their education. The oldest son also has a seizure disorder, so we help with his medication.
The road out to the Tibetan camp was filled with goats that were brought down from the Tibetan plateau for the Dasain holiday. This is a nine day festival to honor the goddess Durga and she likes blood sacrifices. The entire time the Nepalis are cutting the heads off of the goats, the Tibetans are in their monasteries praying for the goats souls. The number of goats seemed smaller this year. We joked that there seemed to be more people then goats on the side of the road. You’ll see goats in taxis, on motorcycles and on top of buses being taken away. Dasain masu (Dasain meat).
For Dasain, I move in with Bel Thapa and his family (Bel, his wife Bishnu, oldest daughter Durga, her husband Tikka, their daughter Simran, second oldest daughter Babita, her husband Don Bahadur, third daughter Sangita, fourth daughter Anita and son Anil). I enter the cooperative ‘We’ form of living. Luckily, several years ago I provided money to have a room built on the roof (they are all flat concrete slabs) and my own toilet…so I now have some privacy. Before the room was built, I shared a room with the daughters and there was only one communal toilet. Bel is of the ethnic group known as the Magars and he says they are of Mongolian descent. Bel and his cousin Somendra are jhankri (shaman) and every Dasain we do a Guru Puja (ceremony) to honor the spirits we work with. One of Bel’s nephews, Bikesh, showed the signs several years ago that he was to study to become a jhankri (uncontrollable shaking with the family gods speaking through him throughout the nights). He was living in Bel’s mountain village, but he had to drop out of school and find a job to help support his family. His father fell out of a tree last year and can barely function. Bikesh now lives on the flat lands (Terai) near the Indian border and helps on a tanker truck. I have a horrible time telling ages…they always end up being much older then I think they look…but my guess is he is in his late teens. Anyway, Bikesh came to do his first Guru Puja…so I did not have as much work to do to help prepare the ceremony. Bel was concerned because Bikesh has not been able to practice and he was having a difficult time controlling his shaking. Bikesh built the elaborate altar and prepared all of the special food needed to offer to the gods and goddesses. He wore special white clothes while Bel, Somendra and I wore red. We sat on one side of the altar and Bikesh sat across from us. Until he masters the teachings, he cannot sit alongside of us. We drummed and sang and danced for several hours. The obligatory chicken was offered for the gods who crave blood and vegetables were used to create fake animals to sacrifice to the evils spirits. They smear red color on each half of the ‘beheaded’ vegetable animal to simulate blood…you don’t want the evil spirits to acquire a taste for the real thing or they would be attacking humans right and left and making everyone sick and miserable.
My main job the day before Dasain Tikka day was to help make the shell roti. Bishnu prepares the batter using finely ground rice flour and baking powder. Hot oil is heated and you scoop up a handful of the batter and carefully pour it into a circle…kind of like a funnel cake but round like a donut. My hands are shaped differently from theirs and I have a hard time capturing enough batter to make a nice fat circle. So now I use a small funnel and I’m proud to say the shell roti came out looking good this year. Just as I was finishing, the rain started to pour and we had to abandon the fire so that we could capture the water. We were all soaking wet.
Dasain Tikka day is always fun. We start at Bel’s home and he puts tikka (rice mixed with yogurt and color) onto our foreheads, hands us sprouts that were planted on the first day of the festival and some money. We then get fed the shell roti, vegetables and raksi (Bishnu’s home brew make in her still in the back yard using fermented millet). Next comes a full meal. You then travel to grandmother’s home and repeat…then uncle’s home…then another uncle’s home…etc., etc., etc. For me the balance is to eat and drink in such a way as to not offend each household and be able to still walk at the end of the day. One difference this year was that Sangita’s best friend had her marriage ceremony that day. So we made our way to their home. This is an arranged marriage…as most of the marriages in Nepal are. The bride and groom sat next to each other on the couch. She wears red and he has a suit coat on. We first threw the tikka over their heads three times…then put it on their foreheads, then handed them each an envelope with money inside and touched our foreheads to their feet. We then were given more food and drink. The next morning, Bel and I made our way to his Guru’s home to receive tikka from him. This is the man who guides Bel in his work as a jhankri. His home is behind the Pokhara airport and to get there requires a taxi. His home is like grand central station with patients who come for shamanic healing…some of who are ‘inpatient’ and will stay with him for as long as it takes for them to get well. One great thing about Dasain…there is no load shedding. How nice to have the lights stay on.