On December 16th, the VSO Volunteer November ’08 group embarked on a 9-day Village Stay in Chankhu Besi thaau near Dhulikhel. As part of VSO’s In-Country-Training (ICT) programme, the 12 volunteers and their guru’s will eat, sleep, and live all that is traditionally Nepali.
Here is one volunteer’s story…
Day 1 – The Arrival
Tuesday December 16th.
Armed with only a few of bags, we left Chetena Kendra around noon and walked towards the main road to catch a public bus to Dulikhel. We were all excited and nervous at the same time. We were leaving the friendly-familiar confines of CK and starting another journey into the unknown. Dulikhel was only 3 km away from Banepa and it didn’t make financial sense for us to hire our own bus. In doing so, taking the public bus was an actual experience itself.
Since Banepa was the starting point for buses heading east, every bus that came our way were already full and literally bursting out the seams with passengers. People were either sitting on the bus roof tops, crammed in like sardines, or hanging out the door of the bus. Much to the chagrin of our insurance policy, I was one of them hanging on for dear life – dangling bags and all. It felt like riding a two-passenger-car roller coaster but to be just a little more efficient ($$$), let’s ignore the rider capacity and add 3 more people to the car. What a ride indeed.
15 agitating minutes later, we arrived at our stop along the main road. Because of the crowded bus situation, our 17-person group had to be separated into 3 parties. My group was the first group to arrive which met up with the second group (Tlell’s group) that somehow got dropped off half a kilometer up the road. After making sure everyone survived the ordeal, we then began our decent to the village.
Chankhu Besi Thaau (place) as we have learned is a small mountain-side community located just off the main road of Dulikhel. Since Udaya was in the third group, we didn’t know the exact way (nor the easy way) to the village. As we proceeded down various dirt paths we noticed that the village itself was literally on the side of mountain with numerous narrow walk-terraces zig-zagging up, down, and sideways in every direction. We then began to ask anyone that we came across for directions. Our final destination was the local community public school in the middle of the town in front of the big tree.
In retrospect, we figured out that for any mountain side community village that we intend to visit in the future, we should be very specific in how we want to get to where we want to go. In our minds, there is the proverbial shorter way and the longer way. You would think the shorter way is always the easiest way, but not in this case as we have learned that it was the hardest way (for us at least) as it meant a very, very steep descent. Yes, we took the shortest way down.
With our knees and thighs throbbing, we made it to the school where we met with our Nepali host families for the very first time. Curiosity and excitement was at its highest as new foreign faces were being seen and everyone wondering who would live with who. After an hour of general introductions and debriefings, we matched names with faces and then all parted ways to settle into our new homes.
The Janardan Parajuli family consisted of 11 people. I was amazed when I first heard the number as most of the volunteers had 4 to 6 people. I had my own football team (with 1 substitute which was me). I had a Hajurbaa (grandfather) – Janardan Parajuli, Hajuraamaa (grandmother), three sons and their wives, two grand daughters (5 and 7 year old), and a 9-month old grand son. However, one set of the family (the eldest son, his wife, and daughter) lived in Kathmandu part-time, and thus the family gave me their room while they were away.
My room was actually the biggest bedroom in the house. It was accessible from the side of the house and up a set of wooden stairs which reminded me of climbing up into a tree club house. The funny thing is, when I entered my room, it actually felt and looked like a tree club house (I had to permanently bend my head down while moving around the room). Nonetheless, the room was really cozy with wood ceiling beams, laminate flooring, a couple of arm chairs, a sofa, a desk plus coffee table and two beds perpendicular to each other. Finally, there is a 4 foot wooden door that looks over the family garden and towards the Himalayan mountains. My bed and pillow were both rock hard but I was quite content with using my sleeping bag. With no heat in the room and the chills of winter flowing through the cracks, it was kind of like camping at a cabin. By then, 7’oclock came around and it was “show time” as my first Nepali dinner was ready to eat.
The kitchen and eating area was essentially one room in the middle of the house. Candles and the clay wood-fire cooking stove provided a dim setting while wood-fire smoke filled the room. We were told that most houses do not have chimneys because the smoke actually helps deter bugs and termites from eating away at the wood. Before I entered the home, I washed my hands, took off my shoes, squinted my eyes and proceeded towards the eating area, acknowledging everyone as I came in and sat down cross-legged in front of the fire.
In traditional Nepali culture, guests and the men are served their food first, followed by the elders and/or children. Once everyone has actually finished eating, the women then eat. I have heard and read about this practice before but actually seeing it before my eyes still felt bizarre. The eldest wife who also cooked the meal sat beside the stove and was eagerly waiting and ready to serve up second helpings of food if needed. It took me a moment to get used to as there were many times when I wanted to say “Are you going to eat now? Lets all eat together.”
For dinner, I was served a big heaping serving of rice and daal or daal bhaat (rice and yellow curry), cauli-alu tekaari (cauliflower-potato vegetables), saag (green-leaf vegetables), achaar (pickled vegetables for flavouring) and yogurt (from either their goat or cow, not sure which one). Most of these foods I had already eaten at Chetena Kendra and thus I was ready to impress with my hands (also known back home as Filipino silverware). I could feel all eyes in the room were on me as I began to take my first bite.
Actually, the evening started with a chuckle when I first touched my food. The food was either piercing hot or my hand was simply sensitive to the heat (which was obviously the case). The sons showed me how to mix the food properly but I opted to just pile a bit of everything with my cupped fingers and merrily eat away.
Mitho chha… but uhh…
In Nepali culture, you will be insistently fed second and third helpings of food even if you are noticeably full. I have sometimes heard that even if you are not looking they will put more food on your plate. It is all in the name of being nutritionally full so you will not be hungry. Furthermore, you are expected to eat everything on your plate and it is not right to waste any food. So if you are full, the thing to do is to cover your plate with your hands to visually indicate that you really don’t want any more food. I was ready to cover my plate with my arms if necessary.
However, earlier in the afternoon I had already eaten a sizeable snack and coupled with my first introduction to the yogurt I had trouble eating my first helping of food. I was struggling and proceeded to say the phrase “Ukusmukus bhayo” which I thought it meant “I am full”. However, its literal translation is “I am suffocating because my stomach is full” and is mostly used as comedic thing to say. The youngest son in all seriousness calmly told me “bistaari khaanne” which meant “eat slowly”. Not knowing what to do, it felt like I had to finish eating everything on my plate and after 10 struggling minutes, I did. In retrospect, I think the youngest son actually thought I was choking on my food and thus advised me to eat slowly. Who knows what really happened but in the end, I will make sure to closely watch how much food they are serving me for the next time.
That night, I was of course the last person to finish eating dinner. The middle son then asked me to follow him outside where I then washed my hands and followed him to his room. For the next hour or so, along with the youngest son, we talked about anything imaginable (in reality, it was about anything that I could speak and understand in Nepali). It was not only my chance to see how much English they knew (which was very little) but also more of chance for them to know how much Nepali I know. There were many moments of uncomfortable silences, hand gestures, mispronunciations of Nepali words, and desperate searches on my end to figure out what to talk about.
Day 1 was a very long day and it was only the beginning.