Years ago, steeped in Jungian work, I read a lot of Marion Woodman. I’ve never forgotten something she said: We can go through life with all the grace we can muster or we can kick and scream our way down the road like a stuck pig.
These days I relate to the pig.
How convenient it would be to step back into the luxuries of modern American life after an arduous journey and simply be grateful to be home, among family and friends, happy to return to civilization and the familiar routines of daily life.
The truth? I slept better in the tent than I have in my own bed this past week. The spiritual practices I’ve nurtured for decades are inaccessible. I feel raw and open, untethered, homeless. A friend who traveled to Thailand some years ago shares in an email that she left that fall as an American and came home a foreigner. I spend my days in the in-between place called bardo: I’ve left one shore but haven’t fully arrived at the next. The space is inconvenient, uncomfortable, unsettling. I hold back, afraid that embracing what is here means losing what was there. Ask me what I loved and I will tell you…
The transport drops us off in a busy village and we walk the last two hours, first on a winding dirt road and then up a narrow trail through the hills of central Nepal to the remote village of Majha Badahare. We climb steadily over rock and packed earth. With the last step, we’re met by a group of smiling young women wearing beaded red kurtas, their black hair wrapped in cloth, shiny bangles at their wrists. The first places a strand of marigold blossoms, the mala, around our neck. Another dips her finger into the basin of red powder and marks our forehead with the sacred bindi. One by one they anoint us, place their palms together and bow. “Namaste.”
Two days later, the traveling finally behind us, our journey begins.
We camp on a terrace situated just below the homes of two village families—mud brick houses with thatched roofs, shared by water buffalos and goats. The other sixteen households are staggered on the terraces below. The sherpas have pitched tents for sleeping, cooking, dining and bathrooming. Pads and sleeping bags have been unrolled, the hole dug in the tent closest to the bamboo forest. For eight days this is home. Five sherpas tend to our needs. We eat better than I would have dreamed possible—French fries, pizza, pancakes, lots of vegetables, roasted chicken, even a gorgeous cake for Christmas dinner.
Every morning at seven, Sangay and Krishna come by the tent with steaming milk tea and thirty minutes later, a shallow basin of hot washing water. Breakfast at eight, lunch at noon, tea at four, dinner at six. Midweek they collect our laundry, wash it by hand and hang it on rope strung between the tents. I consider bargaining to bring one of them home.
We rise before dawn one morning to hike with headlamps through the mist to witness the sun rise on the Annapurnas. We share tea with the villagers who live at the top of the mountain while we wait for daybreak. Through an open door I watch an old woman stand at her shrine and light the first candles of the day, burn the morning incense and bow.
We walk to the overlook, stand among Hindu shrines and grave markers and watch in silence as the sun turns the dark masses of the Himalaya lavender, then pink and finally bright white.
Dancing in the shadows of the bonfire, I move my hips to mirror the Nepali men and women and wave my arms high into the air, turning my hands as if they have a language of their own, mindful of the roots sticking up from the bumpy field that is our campground. An old Gurung woman stands near the fire and watches the dancing. Most of her teeth are gone. Bangles circle her wrist. Her skin is wrinkled like an elephant’s back, her eyes bright. The top of her head just reaches my shoulder. Her feet are bare, her head, limbs and torso wrapped in worn fabric. I put my arm around her, feel her tiny body easily find its way into the curves and angles of a stranger. She looks up and smiles. I wonder if letting go is something she has always known or if she, like me, has had to learn it, slowly, painstakingly, over and over.
This past Saturday I spend eleven hours volunteering on audition day at Denver School of the Arts where Tess is a sophomore.
“A week ago I was watching bodies being cremated on pyres of wood alongside the river at Pashupatinath,” I say to Glenna. “Earlier that day I spun prayer wheels as I circumambulated the temple at Bodhnath, the largest stupa in the world. I don’t know how to be here.” My eyes scan the crowded lobby, dazed.
We bring duffels of pencils, scissors, paints, paper and glue to the three-room school. Ruth, the ten-year-old in our group, shows the kids how to make snowflakes and Jennifer, her mother, shows them how to weave and glue strips of paper into chains. Pierce teaches a lesson on picking up litter. Elaine orchestrates stringing a cord through the cloth bags she brought from Denver and filling them with toothbrushes, bars of soap and nail clippers.
Lynn pulls out the paints and t-shirts. We all pitch in—Harrison, John Charles, John, Lynn, Steve and I—helping cut, tape, glue, paint, teach, interact. Sangay is there to translate. We notice the absence of fine motor skills juxtaposed with the exquisite ability of even the youngest child to navigate the bumpy, rocky paths. Toddlers follow older siblings around the schoolyard while old men in topis stand to the side and watch, curious about the westerners who have come to their village, a first.
Back home, I pull dirty work boots and a pair of all-terrain sandals from their stuff sacks in the filthy duffel, step outside and pound the soles against one another. Nepali dust fills the air—dust from the village, discoloring our shoes and socks, mixing with sweat and settling between our toes as we dig trenches alongside the barefooted men and women of Majha Badahare. We share six primitive tools among us—two pick axes, three scooper shovels, a large spade. The front man breaks up the ground with the pick axe; the second chops and loosens the dirt, pulling it to the side; another deepens the trench with the shovel. More scooping and digging follow until the furrow is deep enough to weather the monsoons that come in the spring. The hose is laid at the bottom of the trench and with the shovel and scooper, we bury the precious black tube with dirt and rock.
The young men of the village are strong and motivated but it is the women who work until dusk. Of course. They are the ones who will no longer be hauling water in canisters up and down the hills. They have much to gain. The men, too. The average villager farms 500 square feet of terraced land on a hillside—a plot not much larger than a two-car garage in an American suburb—where they grow tomato, potato, cucumber, cauliflower and turnips on raised beds, beautifully tended. At an elevation of 3,800 feet, situated at the latitude of Florida, the Middle Hills—provided the land is irrigated during the dry season—yield abundant crops that farmers sell to the local collection center. From there the produce travels to markets in Pokhara, sometimes as far away as Kathmandu. Thanks to the irrigation system, village men and women can now farm throughout the year and generate an income that takes them out of subsistence farming into Nepal’s cash economy. Pride shows on their faces. They have work, and purpose, money to send their children to school. They are humble and grateful human beings. We find them remarkable.
A ceremony on December 27, 2010, makes it official: the village of Majha Badahare has water! The plaque commemorating the MUS (multiple use system) is read, water taps throughout the village are turned on and the crowd erupts in cheers and clapping. Our visit is timed to coincide with the final stage of the project so that we can leave knowing the work was completed and the water running. Speeches are made by community and political leaders. The head of IDE Nepal (International Development Enterprises) addresses the group. Some of us are asked to speak.
“In America we have many advantages, many blessings,” I tell them, “but living and working alongside you has been one of the most special experiences of my life.” The people slaughter and roast a goat for the occasion. The village enjoys a feast and later that night, a bonfire and dancing. At the close of the ceremony, five Nepali women wrap us in the traditional garb of the Gurung to celebrate the arrival of water in their village and to honor our contribution in making that possible. The fabrics are held in place not with buttons, zippers and hooks but with folds and tucks, secured at the hip with a bright yellow sash. A cord with a machete’s sling over the rear is tied around the sash, a necklace of neon-green glass beads and a mala of hand-rolled poinsettia leaves, picked that morning, placed around our necks. A white embroidered shawl covers our shoulders. We smile at the camera, secretly knowing how rare this is, how good it feels to step out of ourselves into a world unlike the one we know.
On the third day home I replace the covers of the large pillows on the bench with the embroidered covers I purchased our last afternoon in Kathmandu. I drape katas at the corners of three framed photographs in my study. I set the prayer wheel made of silver and yak bone that Pierce brought home for his dad on the mantel. An embroidered piece I bought from an insistent Nepali man early one morning in Pokhara hangs over the piano. The zhe bead I purchased from a woman named Karma does not leave my neck, and I return to work wearing a pashmina kurta. Pierce and I hang the prayer flags across the front of the house. I hang miniature flags above the meditation cushion in my study, and set the buddha from Bodhnath next to the candle.
Was the trip life-changing? I figure some time needs to pass before I can answer that question. I do know how lucky I was to be able to go, to travel safely to the other side of the planet and back again. I lived without a shower for 10 days and didn’t miss it. I developed a fondness for milk tea with sugar, acquired a very special “Nepal” family—the people in our group—and adopted a new benchmark for chaos: the streets of Kathmandu on New Year’s Eve. Snow has fallen in Denver this week. The scene outside my window is as white as the peaks in Nepal. The Tibetan chant that plays at Bodhnath—Om Mani Padme Hum—plays while I write, and I remember thousands of prayer flags waving in the wind. May I one day return.