“Tik cha, sister?”
It was four in the morning and I was huddled over coffee and muesli; pre-verbal time, but perfectly fine. I gestured to the pot of coffee on the stove and waved at a second cup, which was accepted gratefully but briefly, for no sooner had Didi sat down than she jumped up again.
“Sister ready go Dhading! Didi get clothes now!”
Didi is a tiny Nepali woman with a deeply-lined face and a worried frown that peers out from her smiling eyes. A widow, she takes care of the Volunteer House, employed by the foundation for which I was working, so that she can be near to her sons. They live in one of the houses for children displaced after the decade of civil unrest in Nepal, and while they are receiving a decent education in the city, Didi’s daughter still lives in the village, cleaning house, harvesting rice, feeding buffalo, and helping raise her male cousins.
Along with another volunteer, I had invited myself to Dhading – offering Didi a trip home, which she said she is able to make less than once a year, in exchange for the opportunity to see rural Nepali life. We’d waved at the language charts on the wall, dancing around the kitchen table holding candles and peering at each others’ faces in the dim light; we’d expected the trip to take place weeks later, but Didi had woken up the next morning and announced we would be leaving the day after – her mother was sick.
The French girl with whom I’d pantomimed the plan was unable to come at the last minute and although hesitant to go off into the countryside with the sweet but often misleading woman I’d just met. Not only did I own only a bare handful of Nepali words, but two other girls had just gone trekking out of Kathmandu and disappeared; the strikes, petrol shortage, and bandits had turned their three day trek into a two week vacation and I’d only just arrived and started working. I hated to break our word, though, and I found myself on a six hour bus-ride practising yoga. The ride to the small town nestled in the steepled hills approaching the Himalayas was gorgeous – gorgeously confusing, confining, hot, and smelly. Didi battled fiercely for our seats and wouldn’t conceive of my climbing out onto the roof for space, so I twisted and contorted, breathing out the window when I could, ducking my under the hacking spats that went flying out from all the Nepali. Although Didi maintained graceful composure in the city (with the exception of her “monkey rampages”, in which she ran through the house throwing stones and yodelling and her habit of watching static on the television for hours, laughing quietly to herself – we’d decided she must drink) the further we drove, the more she relaxed. The spats grew more frequent as her voice grew shriller with each exciting landmark we passed.
I’d been uncertain what to expect – or what to bring – and had bought two bags of cookies in town and some sweets. I’d no idea the size nor scope of the sea of relations I was about to get lost in: relatives were spotted before the bus even stopped. Rather than staying at her own home, as it was “walking walking walking very walking” we were visiting her brothers. Stepping off, we were hustled quickly to a shop front and given tea by a husband’s mother’s younger brother’s widow who took it upon herself to to try and teach me relation-names. It was unsuccessful, and from thereon I was constantly surrounded by a complicated and but incredibly hospitable network of children, brothers, in-laws, elders and infants whose names and roles were given differently each time I asked.
We went first to her younger brother’s house (further questions revealed that he was actually her younger sister’s widower, now married to a cousin). It was nestled behind a larger house, a muddy stream of water from the toilet the only property-boundary between one house and the other, with a school next door and an old abandoned hotel behind it. It was a two room adobe, so small that food was stored under the bed and an old sewing machine on top of the television. Didi’s mother’s sister’s youngest daughter was a sweet woman overwhelmed with taking care of her two sons and ageing mother and a job in the town. Her husband, who spoke English thanks to having worked construction in Malaysia, as a security guard in Israel, and been sent to Lebanon with the UN Security force while serving in the Nepali army, continuously thanked me for having come. He proudly showed me photo albums, certificates, and mementos and waved his arms at the two “lines” behind his house – corn and wheat, possibly – that he owned. The walls of the house were covered with drawings and paintings done by the older son, quiet and polite, and the rooms filled with noise from the younger son, a rambuctious brat who threw himself into every photograph and smacked the younger children who wandered in but squalled when smacked by his mother.
We stayed just long enough to be fed dhaal bhat – respect that I got for knowing how to eat with my hands only earned me more refills than I could handle – on large tin plates with a pickled relish, pulled from under the bed with a flourish, and sliced onions. I had what might have been the only cup in the house. I pulled out the cookies – they disappeared quickly – a shame, as there were far more relatives to visit. Didi wore a blue sari and carried a small sequined purse, her head high, and we walked up and down the main road, visiting every last possible acquaintance. She kept a hand on my arm, proud of me, shouting down everyone who glanced our way – quite a few as I gained the usual entourage of children that materialize in rural areas. The last white visitor to the town, a school teacher I met on the road told me, had been in the sixties; he’d even lived there and taught at the school – but times had changed. I wasn’t sure if I believed him; I’d been places, had met children who had never seen a Caucasian before in their life and Dhading’s curiosity had less urgency behind it – but so, it seemed, did everything in town.
Finally, as the sun began to sink, we hurried back to the elder brother’s house. It was larger, two stories, made of both stone and adobe with a metal sheet roof held down by stones. The walls were painted the ubiquitous turquoise plaster I’d already come to love and the view was amazing. I sat inside listening to the conversations, drinking tea, tea, and more tea, and indulgently photographing everyone in every possible combination. When my batteries finally died the next day I tried to leave for a shop and it was only after arguing and accepting two children to follow me (one to hold an umbrella in case it rained, the other to hold my hand), that I was allowed. I tried every shop in town for AA s that felt real and finally conceded to buying a set of rechargables from a man with three inch fingernails on his left hand.
Dhaal bhat, came late – long after I’d assumed we wouldn’t be eating another meal and had asked where I could bathe. The gestured to the side of the path and I attempted to do what I’d seen local women doing – maintain my decency in a sarong, bought as a novelty a few months before in Laos, and actually get clean. I’d never even taken a public shower in high school gym but, that night in Dhading, as the men sat on the porch only a few yards away smoking cigarettes and watching the crawling babies while the gathered women poured water over my head and laughed at the way my hair changed color while wet, I felt no sense of shame nor awkwardness. Back in the house the young girls watched the door as I changed, then everyone crowded in to watch TV until the power was cut. The couple had given up their bed for me; I insisted that, at least, Didi share it. I wasn’t allowed to carry my plate to the kitchen much less wash it – nor, to my disapointment, help cook. I sat there in the place of honor as the night stretched on, leaning back in the candle-light, falling asleep as the rice wine and conversation continued to flow around me.
Leaving, the next day, was a challenge. The plan had been six am; Didi had told me perhaps ten; we didn’t board a bus until nearly three pm. Didi Indu was gone before I woke up, some business having to do with a national id card, and I began to worry. “Tik cha, tik cha,” I’d been told each time I stood up and tried to make my way to the bus station myself, “she will return.” She did – not before everyone in town attacked with demands I stay longer; I defended with a promise to return in a few weeks.
I had my photographs developed a few days later. I wasn’t sure how to present them to Didi. I handed over the pack, tried to explain that I had more for her family so they were all for her, and retreated to the stove to make tea. She laughed and cried while I watched from the corner of my eye. I’d wanted to take have pictures of her seeing the pictures, but I couldn’t bring myself to so much as stand next to her much less reach for a camera. She spent the next several days with the photos spread across the living room floor, ordering and reordering them, trying to sort out how to put them into her album.
I did go back to Dhading, and to Dola, to Didi’s house itself – without Didi, even, who wasn’t given permission to leave work. She sent two nephews with me and I’d brought proper gifts this time, art supplies for the boy who painted, bangles for the girls who’d bathed me, blankets for the two dying old women. I wanted to spend time with the people I’d met before; instead, I was whisked off deeper into the mountains. I’d just trekked in another mountain area of Nepal to look at the site at which the NGO I was working with intended to build a large school-hospital complex; my feet were bandaged and I had leech-scabs and blisters. A three hour walk to Dola was unappealing. I hesitated, I tried to demur; I was over-ruled and have never been more grateful it was so. We hopped in the back of a truck at least, and but it was still a good hour walk after that – straight as the crow flies, down and up, cutting through rice fields and streams. I talked to the nephews about development and history, economics and Hollywood in English parsed. I watched them transition from the college students of a wealthier branch of the family that they were in Kathmandu to young country boys. They indulged my frequent desires to stop, first to catch my breath from walking and later to regain it from awe at the land. Hills cut into stairs swum out below and above us; the red mud seemed to dance as much as the trees to sing.
Didi’s elder elder brother’s house was large but simple, three goats on the rood and a water buffalo in the yard. I was once more paraded through the town. The children were dumbstruck, peering shyly from behind corners at me, and the old men leaned against the brick walls that were still covered with the hammer-and-sickle insignia that explained the lack of young men and the abandoned houses. They took me to the rice fields so I could see them harvest and I sang with them in the evening before being presented with a feast. Allowed to eat first with the men, I ate slowly so as to still be there when the women arrived. I watched Didi’s daughter scurry about doing the majority of the manual labor for the family and drank milk still warm. I couldn’t even write – I just sat and watched, I laughed and slept.
Dhading had been an incredible perspective, but Dola was another world.