Bees for Breakfast

This is Dil Bahadur (with his wife, Sushila):

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Dil Bahadur is one of the true nice guys of the world — earnest, hardworking, sincere to a fault, jovial — and he lives next to where I was staying in Ward 6.

Dil Bahadur has worked a lot of jobs in his life. He worked heavy machinery at a rubber factory in India in his teens and twenties, did a stint as a security guard, and eventually came back to Nepal to settle down and get married and farm. Here’s the thing, though: Dil Bahadur doesn’t own any land to farm. Neither does his older brother who lives adjacent to him. Both of them pooled their resources to buy just enough land to build their two houses, and then they tenant farm.

The problem with tenant farming, though, is that you have to hand over fully half of everything you grow to the person who owns the field, and so while the labor of a single family can provide full bellies for the year, it’s hard to put together any surplus to have any cash. So Dil Bahadur periodically works as a porter for foreign tourists, carrying their backpacks and cameras and tents and whatever else they have brought so that they can enjoy their hiking. It’s a good, honest way to make money, and Dil Bahadur clearly enjoys both meeting new people and seeing new places. (He explained to me that he was a “hiDeko manche” rather than a “paDheko manche”: someone who has walked rather than studied for his education.)

Dil Bahadur also must be popular with his clients, because when the earthquake happened, a pair of Australian tourists he’d trekked with wired him US$800 to help him get through the crisis. The problem, though, is that Dil Bahadur not only lives in a very rural village, he is also completely illiterate. The Australians therefore wired the money to the trekking guide who had led their trip (and who speaks English and can read). The guide duly handed Dil Bahadur Rs 35,000 (about $350) and pocketed the rest.

Here’s where I come in. I have access to a world that Dil Bahadur doesn’t: I speak English, I can read and write, I have an email address, I can understand how a wire transfer and an exchange rate work. So shortly after I arrived, Dil Bahadur shyly asked if there was anything I could do to help him, starting by emailing the Australians to see if they knew about the situation. I told him that there might not be much I could accomplish, but that I would certainly write the email on his behalf once I got back to Kathmandu and see what I could find out.

Dil Bahadur was so grateful for my promise of modest future assistance that he insisted that I come eat daal bhaat at his house one morning. So I duly arranged my eating schedule, and made my way over to the bamboo/tin structure behind their mostly-still-standing house. Once there, I discovered that I was being served as though I were a state guest: special seat (while everyone else in the family respectfully stood and watched me eat), separate little dishes for everything (which is a big deal when every single dish needs to be handwashed at an outdoor tap), three different beverages.

I had known that Dil Bahadur wanted to extend special hospitality to me, so I had made very clear in advance that I don’t eat meat — which would have been the usual special-hospitality thing to serve. I saw with approval that there was a fried egg on a dish next to my plate, and I sat down to eat.

At that point, though, Dil Bahadur disappeared briefly and reappeared ceremoniously bearing … a small dish of fried wasps. There were full sized wasps the size of my pinky, small rolled-up wasps, and wasp larvae, all carefully fried in oil and spices.

Apparently, Dil Bahadur had concluded that an egg was simply not enough for his special guest, and had wracked his brain for some way to feed me some special protein of some sort that didn’t include killing an animal. Concluding that insects were not really animals (and so were permissible food for a vegetarian), he had gotten up at 4 a.m. to go find and harvest a wasp nest for me. He showed me where the wasps had stung him all down the one side of his hand.

Fetching wasps at the expense of his sleep and his bodily well-being? I was overwhelmed. It was probably one of the sweetest — though admittedly also one of the weirdest — things that anyone has ever done for me.

I didn’t actually have the nerve to try the full-sized wasps, but I ate all the larvae. They were really reasonably tasty — squishy little vehicles for spices. Eventually, Dil Bahadur sat down beside me to chat, and to munch on the adult wasps that I was too chicken-hearted to eat.

It was a lovely, and remarkably memorable, breakfast, and Dil Bahadur holds a very special place in my heart.

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The Tea Project

As I explained in my last post, having set out with the expectation of doing housing work in Dhading, I found myself instead pledging to do something a lot more like pastoral care. I had decided to (to the best of my ability) visit every house in Ward 6 at least long enough to drink tea, according to the well-established social conventions of Nepali hospitality. (Not everyone served me tea — some served me the local yogurt drink mohi, some served me milk or juice — but I pledged a tea-sized visit.)

To this, I added a second component. Since this was to be essentially a listening tour, I thought it would be nice to create some kind of visual result of all of my listening. I had a brainstorm in this regard, remembering the Japanese temple tradition of writing wishes on small pieces of paper and tying them onto strings outside of Shinto temples:

It occurred to me that as I talked to people in Dhading, I could write down what they said on small pieces of paper, tie all the papers onto a string, and display it at the Shiva temple right by the footbridge, which had completely survived the earthquake. (I figured this spot was not only attractive and had some nice trees outside to help hang things from, but was a spot most people walk past pretty routinely on their way down to Khahare bazaar.)

My pitch to people was that I was collecting everyone’s “man-ko kura” — the words of their hearts — regarding the earthquake, and that by hanging it at the Mahadev Mandir we would be “showing everyone’s man-ko kura to Bhagawan (Lord).”

This project turned out to be enormously popular. Pretty much no one had ever heard of such an idea before (except for one man who had worked as a cook in Japan and said, “oh yeah, I’ve totally seen that”), but almost everyone grasped the idea pretty quickly and were soon explaining it to each other.

So I bought some paper and string (and a piece of cardboard to wind the project-in-progress) and set out to start visiting.

My visits tended to last about half an hour. I would arrive and make small talk for awhile, and usually they would provide me tea, fruit, or something similar. I would carefully examine the site of their old house, and ask them about their earthquake experiences — where were you when it happened? were you able to save anything from the house? Then I would explain my project and ask what they wanted to say. Usually I would write for them, because the majority of adults in Ward 6 are illiterate, but some people proudly wrote for themselves.

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When I was writing for someone, it was a bit of a toss-up whether I recorded what they said in English or Nepali, so I hope that Shiva Mahadev is biligual. If someone talked slowly and conventionally, I usually wrote in devanagari in their exact words; if they spoke quickly and dynamically, I generally reverted to English.

A lot of people who told me very interesting things in general conversation reverted to established platitudes for the paper project — like “bhagawan, sabailai raksha garnu hos” (Lord, please protect everyone), but when someone shared something especially moving or special, I slipped the paper back into the pile to record:

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Then, to complete the visit, I would carefully write down everyone’s names in my notebook, and take photographs of everyone present. This seemed to be the part of the process where people felt most officially noticed.

It’s a little hard to get Nepalis — especially older Nepalis — to smile naturally for a photo, because photographs are important occasions and so you should be serious. But I didn’t at all want to send out into the world images of people looking dour and sad. I wanted to capture people looking like themselves — funny, warm, complicated, contentious, aggressively hospitable — and so sometimes it took some time joking and teasing and cajoling to get something a little more natural:

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Altogether, I visited 38 houses in addition to the house where I ate my meals and the house where I slept. There were a handful of houses where I couldn’t catch anyone at home, two houses where people didn’t really want to be visited, and possibly a handful of houses that I failed to locate — but because some people have left after the earthquake I think the current size of Ward 6 is probably only about 50 houses, so my coverage was pretty close to comprehensive.

It took me the full two weeks to do all my visiting — partly because of the limitations of time (since it is rice-planting season, I could only rely on people to be home from about 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., and then about 5 p.m. until it got dark a bit after 7 p.m.), and partly because of the natural limitations of my ability to be wholly present — not to mention the natural limitations of my stomach. (To my credit, though, on Saturday July 11th I drank an epic eleven cups of tea.)

By the end of the time, I had a camera full of pictures, a notebook full of names, and a string full of earthquake memories and sadnesses and hopes for the future. I woke up early on the day I had to catch my bus to leave, and Dil Bahadur and I went and hung the string of tied up paper at the temple. Dil Bahadur was insistent that all the words would best reach Mahadev if we wrapped the string around the tridents over his gate, and so here is how we left it.

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It probably won’t last long in the monsoon rains, but I hope enough people walk past to be able to see their words all collected together. It’s common in rural Nepal for people to tell each other not to cry or to dwell on hard things (since hard things happen all the time, and there’s so little you can do), so I hope it was helpful to have the opportunity to talk about the earthquake to me.

Certainly the majority of people thanked me effusively for coming. One woman in particular held my hand and said over and over, “Thank you for coming hear to my house. I had the opportunity to tell you my sorrows (dukha) in my own language, and you could listen and understand. I could tell you, and you could hear. So thank you — thank you.”

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