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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