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Week Three on the Other Side of the World

an email Sally sent October 3, 2009:


Great balls of fire, it’s been hot here. I walk around drenched in sweat. On the positive side these hot, humid days make taking a cold shower much more tolerable. It’s the first gasp when the cold water hits that’s the most shocking….then it becomes refreshing. Just wait until the weather turns…then I’ll be wishing I was wilting again.

Sally making shell roti

I have been doing my annual dance with the internet providers. In typical Nepali fashion, they take our money for one service, then try to give us something worth much less. This time, they let us use our user name and password for two days before denying access. When we contacted them to complain, they said we had only purchased one month’s worth of time and that had expired. This, of course, was not true. We paid for a year’s worth of unlimited time. I joked with them that even if what they said was true…that we had only paid for one month…it had only been two days…so we should still have access. Each day we must call them to see what username and password to use. Now that Dasain has ended, they said they will get it all straightened out. Every time I go to sign on, I hold my breath.

The Dasain festival has now come and gone. In Nepal, the dates of the festivals are determined by the country’s Astrologer. Nepal has more months then we do because they follow the moon cycle instead of the sun. This creates a shift each year as to when the festivals will occur. This year, Dasain came earlier than normal. Bel had contacted me to inform me of this last spring when their new calendars were issued, so I could make sure I was in country in time to celebrate. A week ago Friday, Bel, his wife Bishnu and I headed to the market to do our ‘Dasain shopping’. The market was crowded with people purchasing their chickens and goats, colored powders for the tikka, and provisions to make the special Dasain foods. For Bel, Somendra and I Friday meant starting our two day fast for the Guru Puja (ceremony honoring our gods and goddesses). Fasting doesn’t mean doing without food totally. We could still eat fruits, bread, yogurt and milk. That afternoon, we built the special alter using bamboo, flowers, cow dung and colored powders…and in the evening drummed and danced our spirits in. Saturday was the main puja day where special offerings were made…including the chicken and goat. Bel’s son Anil enjoys the whole goat part of the festival the best. He pesters Bel until the goat is purchased, then walks it around on a rope and sleeps with it at night. But don’t misunderstand…he doesn’t enjoy it as a pet. He also pretends he’s cutting the head off and can’t wait until it is time to eat the meat. All the extended family and neighbors come to watch the puja and then celebrate its success by eating the fruits, breads and meats that had been offered during the ceremony (these offerings are known as prasad). On the last day of Dasain (yesterday) when it is the ‘small’ full moon day, we take the altar to the river and offer it and the offerings to the nagas (serpent spirits who live in water) so they can take the blessings out into the world. That is also the last day to put tikka…so there is always a last minute spurt of traveling to make sure all in the family was blessed.

Sunday was a day of rest. It is also the day when the playing cards come out and gambling commences. This will continue until after the Tihar festival. Sunday was also the day Bel’s wife made shell roti. Shell roti is delicious bread that is made out of rice flour, clarified butter, bananas, salt and baking powder. Bishnu soaks the rice for a day then takes it to the mill to be ground into flour. She sets up a type of stove that is packed with saw dust and lit from within. She feeds sticks of wood into the stove from the side to keep the fire going. A cast iron wok is placed on top and filled with oil. When the oil is hot, she scoops the batter into her hand and drips the dough in a circular pattern, creating what looks like a huge doughnut. It takes her three hours to make the entire batch. Each year I sit with her and at some point in time, she has me try my hand at making the bread. Last year I cheated and used a funnel, but this year she insisted I do it the old fashioned way. One serious burn on my knuckles and fifteen sad looking shell roti later she nodded her approval and took over the stove again. The next thing she wants to teach me is how to make her homebrew of fermented barley in her still in the back yard. The brew is called raksi and seems to be a complicated process. Woohoo!

making shell roti

Monday was tikka day. The astrologer announced on the radio that the official tikka time was 11:00 AM…and that the people giving tikka needed to be facing south. The morning was spent cooking special food and preparing the tikka. In Bel’s home, they mix rice and yogurt…leaving the color white. Bel puts a blob of cow dung above each of our doors and sticks coins and sprouts into it. The sprouts are called jamara and were planted in cow dung on the first day of Dasain. If planted correctly and the correct prayers were given, they will have grown to about five inches tall by tikka day. A table is prepared with a plate of the shell roti and fruit, a plate with rice and an oil lamp, a water vessel containing flowers and a special plate with the tikka. Incense is then lit. One by one, we sit in the chair and Bel and Bishnu first toss rice onto our feet, then over our heads, then into our hands, then place it onto our forehead. We are each then handed some of the jamara and Nepali money (rupees). This is then followed by a plate of shell roti, some of the vegetables they had cooked and a glass of raksi. At this point, I am already full, but they then serve a full meal of dal bhat (rice and lentils), vegetables and meat dishes. And this is just the first home. We then head to grandmother’s home and repeat…then uncle’s home and repeat, then great aunt’s home and repeat, then Bishnu’s father’s uncle and repeat, then another great aunt’s home and repeat…then Guru’s home and repeat. They are all greatly offended if you don’t eat and drink…hence the delicate balancing act of eating enough to appease them and drinking enough to honor their kindness but not become falling down drunk. By the end of the day our foreheads are so covered in tikka and we have so many jamara stuck in our hair that we are quite the sight to see. In between the visits to the other homes, we would get word that someone had come to Bel’s home for tikka, so we would have to return so he and Bishnu could do the dance again. As we moved from home to home, the women do this dance exchanging their raksi. Bishnu fills empty coca cola bottles with her brew, and then when we enter another woman’s home, she places the bottle in their kitchen. When we leave, they hand her a bottle of their raksi. Considering that the ingredients and brewing process is quite similar, it is surprising how each person’s version tastes a little bit different. I am particularly partial to Bishnu’s version.

With the passing of Dasain, I have settled back into my routine of visiting the Tibetan camp. I found Rhichoe feeling much better…but still having a bit of pain. By next visit he predicted that he would be fully recovered. Nyima’s brother had his surgery to shorten the bone on his amputated leg and that went quite well. This god awful heat has started to produce afternoon thunder storm which will herald in a cooler season. If history repeats itself, everyone around me will spontaneously come down with colds in honor of the changing season. I’ve started my needs assessments for Indigenous Lenses: how much are the school fees this year…do the stipends for the old ones need to be increased… do we have enough to add more old ones to our stipend program…what medical and eye care needs can be covered. I walk around with a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that I have not brought enough money to even make a dent. Sigh!



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