Waking Up, Stepping Out
- Asia, Nepal
I wake to chattering voices, a bus horn, bells ringing, an old man with a hacking cough, the squeak of a rusty latch opening across the hallway. A year ago, any of these noises would have been a disturbance, but now the morning ensemble is simply a part of my day. I push open the flaps in the mosquito net and step out into my bedroom. I stretch my arms upward to the ceiling and exhale a bearish yawn. It's six in the morning.
Meanwhile, the village has been up for several hours. At the tea shop two floors below my bedroom window, rush hour has arrived. When I walk downstairs to the ground floor, the shop's four tables are packed with village men dipping sell roti, a doughnut-like pastry, into their milk tea. Some of the men draw long breaths of cigarette smoke as their conversation hammers away above the shop's buzzing commotion. A rice-filled pressure-cooker whistles, spouting white steam like a miniature locomotive while the adjacent pot sizzles to life with the aroma of onions and garlic. Each customer has brought with him a silver bucket overflowing with milk, fresh from the barn. As the men pass time in the shop, the buckets await transfer to the street bazaars of Kathmandu , Nepal 's frenetic capital city 10 miles down the road at the base of the valley.
In front of the shop, I sit down on a wooden bench between Janak, a short, amiable teacher at the school where I taught English last year, and Hajurbaa, my 104-year-old host grandfather. From the inside of the shop behind me, I hear someone calling my Nepali name, "Hare Krishna!" Gita, the shopkeeper, smiles and stretches her hand beyond the counter to hand me a cup of tea. "Namaste!" she says, and then "Good morning!" With this English phrase she lets out an excited giggle in anticipation of my approval. Over the course of my year in the village, Gita has been learning bits of English and practicing with me, although we rarely get past "Hello?How are you?I'm fine" without her erupting into laughter. Gita is typical of many Nepali women in that she married young—in her case, when she was 14—and never attended school. Now 30, she gave birth to her son when she was 16 and her daughter at 18. For the past eight years, she's worked alongside her husband at the tea shop, which opens before dawn and closes after dark. Since I arrived last year, I've never seen her take a day off, nor have I ever heard her complain about it.
Next to me, Hajurbaa asks a question I strain to comprehend, although with Hajurbaa I'm typically able to guess what he's asking. Our conversations tend to be an exercise in stating the obvious. When he sees me drinking tea, he'll ask, "Are you drinking tea?" "Yes! I'm drinking tea," I'll respond. It's a tacit agreement that helps to bridge our extremely wide lingual, cultural, and generational gap. Today he's wearing a light-blue dowra surwal, the traditional dress for Nepali men, a knee-length lightweight robe and pants with a matching cap. While I might be laughed at if I were to wear a dowra surwal, Hajurbaa wears the clothing naturally and gracefully. "Where are you going today, Hajurbaa?" I ask. I ask him this question every morning and always get the same response. "Going? I'm 104 years old! I'm not going anywhere. I'll stay here."
A young boy stops his bicycle on the dirt road in front of us to deliver three copies of the daily newspaper. Janak gets a copy and buries himself in the front-page headlines. The big news of the day is the king appointing a new prime minister, someone who, many people seem to agree, will fail to bring stability to the country's shaken political ground. Over the past seven years, the country has witnessed a deadly civil war responsible for more than 10,000 deaths, the massacre of the royal family in 2001, and the 2002 dismissal of parliament and suspension of elections. Very few people, including Janak, seem to be optimistic about the future of the country.
But Janak has other things on his mind. Today, like every other day for the past three months, he wears white clothing from head to toe in remembrance of his father, who passed away in early March. For the first 10 days after his father's death, Janak mourned his loss in the traditional Hindu way, by remaining at home in a corner of the house, draped in a white sheet. He shaved his mustache and his head, fasted all morning, and ate only rice and fruit in the evenings. One rainy morning I went to visit him. I wasn't allowed to touch him and had to sit on a chair several feet away from his makeshift grieving area. My instinct at the time was to reach out to him, to shake his hand or give him a hug, but this wasn't allowed. Janak needed this time to purge the grief from his body, after which time only the happy, warm memories of his father would remain.
Close to the tea shop, a group of women congregate at the base of the village chautara, which translates in English to "resting tree." In rural Nepal , these giant trees mark the center of the village and provide a canopy of shade where the villagers relax and escape from the sun during the hot summer months. Today, as they wait for the bus to arrive, the women chat and stand over their dokas, handmade wooden baskets they're using to transport heaping loads of cucumbers and pumpkins for sale in Kathmandu . Among these women is Amma, my host mother. She wears a red sari with decorative gold trim; a sari is a long, flowing wrap worn by Nepali women. Amma is hauling nearly 50 pounds of pumpkins to Kathmandu, where she can earn about 20 cents a pound. If she can make 10 dollars today, she'll be happy; within a few weeks the markets will be flooded with pumpkins from all over the Kathmandu Valley, and the going price for a pound of pumpkins could drop to 10 cents. When I ask if she'll bargain for a higher selling price, she lets out a hoarse cackle and waves off my suggestion. "I don't fix the price. What can I do?" she says with a smile.
Around 8 in the morning, the business of village life slows as people retreat to their homes for their morning meal. Steaming plates of rice, curried vegetables, and lentil soup await the men, women, girls, and boys of the village, many of whom have worked up an appetite in the surrounding fields, cultivating the soil for the coming rice season. The rituals and routine of village life—the work, the meals, even the conversation—are as unchanging as the seasons. The only thing that seems to be different here is me. But, after a year of living and working here, even I'm starting to fit in.