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Week Three: Rain, Tibetan Camp Visits, Life and Death

Forgive me in advance for this long winded message.

Did I tell you that it’s been hot here? And humid. I carry a bandanna with me everywhere so I can mop the sweat off of my face. Rhichoe’s home is the worst…tin roof and no cross ventilation of any kind. I sit in his home and feel the sweat running down my back and legs. It usually stays hot like that until a series of gully washers arrive that scrape the landscape clean. They are then followed by cooler temperatures. Those arrived this past week…three days of heavy, pouring rain accompanied by thunder and lightning. The water pours off of the roofs through a series of pipes and is collected in any available pot or bucket. Because there is such a shortage of water, this manna from heaven becomes the main source of water for cooking and cleaning. Without it, we’d be hauling water from the river several times each day. Now the mornings and evenings are cooler and require a shawl or sweater.

Before heading to Bel’s for Dasain, I was able to get several visits in at the Tibetan camp. Migmar and I made visits to each of the old ones that Indigenous Lenses supports with food and shelter. We were greeted warmly at each place. We first visited the two old women who share a small house together. When they lived in the remote Himalayan Mountains, they also shared the same husband. After he passed, they could no longer take care of the animals, so came out of the mountains and settled in the Tibetan camp. They are in their 80’s. They are not technically a part of the camp, so they do not get the $5 a month stipend that the rest of the old ones receive. When we got there, they put katas (special greeting scarves) around our necks and we touched foreheads in the traditional style. They wanted to offer tea, but their propane stove had stopped working. I offered to buy them a new one ($50) and the next time I was in the camp, we delivered it and got it set up. They were thrilled and kept turning the knobs on and off and clapping with joy. I’ve promised to return and have tea made on the new stove. We also visited the other household that we support. This one has an old brother and sister who live together. We arrived to find out that another elderly brother has joined them. His wife had recently passed away, so he sort of moved in so that the sister could take care of him. They were also thrilled to see us again and did the ritual of the katas and foreheads. We told them that we would add more to their monthly stipend to help cover the extra mouth to feed. Our plan is to add one more household of old ones. Migmar has the exact person in mind. We plan to visit him this coming week to assess his need.

When we went to Pau Rhichoe’s home, his daughter was visiting from Kathmandu. I had never met her before…but I would recognize her…she has his face and ears. This was her first visit to his place in Pokhara. She has spent all of her life living in Kathmandu…first with Rhichoe’s older brother…then with her own family after the brother’s death. One of her sons is a monk in the camp’s monastery. She is the product of Rhichoe’s first marriage and she was born in Tibet. When China invaded, the older brother, Rhichoe, Rhichoe’s wife and two young daughters fled to Nepal. Sadly, after arriving, the wife became sick and died…as did the youngest daughter. Rhichoe got separated from the older daughter and brother, so she wasn’t raised by Rhichoe. She calls him uncle…even though he is her birth father. While we were visiting, one of the granddaughters also arrived for the holiday. Needless to say, there was a lot of talking and laughing and catching up of stories and news. It had been a year since Rhichoe had seen the granddaughter. She is the daughter of Rhichoe’s son by his second wife. It was wonderful to see Rhichoe so happy. He’s moving slowly these days with a noticeable limp and using a cane. I gave him some wonderful wraps for his knees that were donated by a company in Utah called Bioforce. They help relieve some of his pain, but his knees are pretty shot and the wraps will not cure him of the damage that has accrued over the years. Each year I try to bring something to help alleviate his pain…but the damage is structural and all he ends up getting is a brief reprieve from his pain.

The visit to Nyima’s home was a bit more solemn. The man who lived next door passed away on Saturday. In the Tibetan custom, they cannot remove the body if one dies on a Saturday…and according to the astrologer in the Monastery, Sunday was also not a good day to remove the body…we were there on Monday, but before we arrived, they had finally taken the body out and had it cremated. Due to the hot weather, the body had started to decompose quite a bit and the bugs had been very active. They put rice on the eyes and sprinkled the body with saffron…but still… People were coming and going with offerings of butter for the lamps that must stay lit and food to feed the monks that had started the prayers to help to body transition through the ‘time between’. This will go on for 49 days and help the soul move from this life to the next. Nyima’s wife Tashi had to go buy special wood that will be burned down to cinders. Then three times a day, food will be placed on the hot coals and burned to feed the man’s soul as it transitions. The man’s family was concerned that his soul would not leave and wanted to know if Nyima needed to do the ritual of shim pu which would send the soul on its way. This is only done if the soul won’t leave. Nyima told them that he has no indication that the man’s soul is intent on staying and that it’s too early for him to do the ceremony. Only after the monks have done their prayers would he know if his work was needed.

Shelly and I made a visit to my driver’s home before she left trekking. He, his wife and four children shared a small, two room home until he made extra money last spring driving UN workers around who had come to Nepal to monitor the elections. The extra money was used to add a third room. I am always greeted by the family who stands on their front porch…each holding flowers in their hands. They tell me how happy they are to see me once again and hand me the flowers. I’m always touched by this small gesture. We sit inside and drink tea and eat boiled eggs (any other food they would try to cook would probably make us sick). The children are always clean and they sit politely and try to make small talk. The two oldest boys are now in class ten plus one. Nepali schools go until class ten. That is when the children must take the SLC exam (also known as the send up exam). If they pass, they can join a campus and complete class ten plus one and ten plus two…after that they would join a different campus and start working on a three year bachelor’s degree. I was happy to hear that the sons passed the exam and joined a campus. Although Indigenous Lenses primarily focuses on educating girls, we are helping these two young men continue their education. The oldest son also has a seizure disorder, so we help with his medication.

The road out to the Tibetan camp was filled with goats that were brought down from the Tibetan plateau for the Dasain holiday. This is a nine day festival to honor the goddess Durga and she likes blood sacrifices. The entire time the Nepalis are cutting the heads off of the goats, the Tibetans are in their monasteries praying for the goats souls. The number of goats seemed smaller this year. We joked that there seemed to be more people then goats on the side of the road. You’ll see goats in taxis, on motorcycles and on top of buses being taken away. Dasain masu (Dasain meat).

For Dasain, I move in with Bel Thapa and his family (Bel, his wife Bishnu, oldest daughter Durga, her husband Tikka, their daughter Simran, second oldest daughter Babita, her husband Don Bahadur, third daughter Sangita, fourth daughter Anita and son Anil). I enter the cooperative ‘We’ form of living. Luckily, several years ago I provided money to have a room built on the roof (they are all flat concrete slabs) and my own toilet…so I now have some privacy. Before the room was built, I shared a room with the daughters and there was only one communal toilet. Bel is of the ethnic group known as the Magars and he says they are of Mongolian descent. Bel and his cousin Somendra are jhankri (shaman) and every Dasain we do a Guru Puja (ceremony) to honor the spirits we work with. One of Bel’s nephews, Bikesh, showed the signs several years ago that he was to study to become a jhankri (uncontrollable shaking with the family gods speaking through him throughout the nights). He was living in Bel’s mountain village, but he had to drop out of school and find a job to help support his family. His father fell out of a tree last year and can barely function. Bikesh now lives on the flat lands (Terai) near the Indian border and helps on a tanker truck. I have a horrible time telling ages…they always end up being much older then I think they look…but my guess is he is in his late teens. Anyway, Bikesh came to do his first Guru Puja…so I did not have as much work to do to help prepare the ceremony. Bel was concerned because Bikesh has not been able to practice and he was having a difficult time controlling his shaking. Bikesh built the elaborate altar and prepared all of the special food needed to offer to the gods and goddesses. He wore special white clothes while Bel, Somendra and I wore red. We sat on one side of the altar and Bikesh sat across from us. Until he masters the teachings, he cannot sit alongside of us. We drummed and sang and danced for several hours. The obligatory chicken was offered for the gods who crave blood and vegetables were used to create fake animals to sacrifice to the evils spirits. They smear red color on each half of the ‘beheaded’ vegetable animal to simulate blood…you don’t want the evil spirits to acquire a taste for the real thing or they would be attacking humans right and left and making everyone sick and miserable.

My main job the day before Dasain Tikka day was to help make the shell roti. Bishnu prepares the batter using finely ground rice flour and baking powder. Hot oil is heated and you scoop up a handful of the batter and carefully pour it into a circle…kind of like a funnel cake but round like a donut. My hands are shaped differently from theirs and I have a hard time capturing enough batter to make a nice fat circle. So now I use a small funnel and I’m proud to say the shell roti came out looking good this year. Just as I was finishing, the rain started to pour and we had to abandon the fire so that we could capture the water. We were all soaking wet.

Dasain Tikka day is always fun. We start at Bel’s home and he puts tikka (rice mixed with yogurt and color) onto our foreheads, hands us sprouts that were planted on the first day of the festival and some money. We then get fed the shell roti, vegetables and raksi (Bishnu’s home brew make in her still in the back yard using fermented millet). Next comes a full meal. You then travel to grandmother’s home and repeat…then uncle’s home…then another uncle’s home…etc., etc., etc. For me the balance is to eat and drink in such a way as to not offend each household and be able to still walk at the end of the day. One difference this year was that Sangita’s best friend had her marriage ceremony that day. So we made our way to their home. This is an arranged marriage…as most of the marriages in Nepal are. The bride and groom sat next to each other on the couch. She wears red and he has a suit coat on. We first threw the tikka over their heads three times…then put it on their foreheads, then handed them each an envelope with money inside and touched our foreheads to their feet. We then were given more food and drink. The next morning, Bel and I made our way to his Guru’s home to receive tikka from him. This is the man who guides Bel in his work as a jhankri. His home is behind the Pokhara airport and to get there requires a taxi. His home is like grand central station with patients who come for shamanic healing…some of who are ‘inpatient’ and will stay with him for as long as it takes for them to get well. One great thing about Dasain…there is no load shedding. How nice to have the lights stay on.

Apologies again for the length!


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