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Thursday, May 12, 2022
I came out of the plane into a blazing noon. It took hardly 60 seconds to cross the tarmac, go past the open-air conveyer belt which made up the single baggage claim, and exit Chandragadhi Domestic Airport. In that time my clothes became a sauna. I felt an insect race down my cheek and hit my hand. I looked. It was not an insect, but a drop of sweat.
Immediately outside the airport was a shaded concrete block where a dozen or so men sat in clusters, poised as though they were having casual chats. But it was too hot to chat. Everyone instead sat around and gazed vaguely over each other’s shoulders. As I walked up, the gazes slid, silently and individually, to fix on me. I stopped in front of a sign crammed with rows of words and numbers. I found myself comprehensively illiterate. Not only was I unable to read the words, but also the numbers—Nepal has its own number symbols. “१” is 1, “४” is 4; most confusingly to an American, “७” is not 6, but 7. I moved past the sign. I met the gaze of the nearest man and said, “Birtamod?”
The instructions from my host family being something around the lines of, Take shared taxi to Birtamod, take tuk-tuk to Birtamod Ilam Taxi Stand, take bus or shared taxi to Fikkal Bazaar, ask locals the way to Arubote Village, ask villagers the way to Deepak Kulung’s house. At least, this was what I gathered out of the three paragraphs of text they sent me, into which location names and transportation options seemed injected at random, to be dissected and re-formulated into an ordered sequence by means of logical reasoning. The week before, I had attempted to plan out my movements. It was pointless. The only plan one can have under such circumstances is to say “Birtamod?” to everyone one passes until one ends up in Birtamod.
The man replied with a lot of stuff in Nepali.
I said, “Ma Nepali boldina. Birtamod?”
The man said a lot of other stuff in Nepali. Or maybe it was the same stuff. I could not tell. “Ma Nepali boldina” was supposed to mean “I don’t understand Nepali,” but apparently I had screwed it up.
The clusters of men were beginning to stir. They merged into one mass; there was a short burst of discussion, and a younger man was squeezed out in front of me. In halting English, he said, “You go to Birtamod?”
“Yes!” I said. “I go to Birtamod!”
He spoke in Nepali to the others. This time, the mass produced a man wearing a faded purple topi. We went to the parking lot. Five or six battered taxis sat fairly steaming under the sun. I held up my hand. “How much?”
“1000,” said the younger man, who had followed us.
NPR 1000 is about $8. My hosts had mentioned that this taxi ought to cost NPR 50, or $0.40. There was enough of a multiplier that I said “Dhanyabaad” to the two men—“thank you”—and began to walk up the dusty road. Whether there were more taxis ahead or Mt. Everest, I had no clue. But I was really hoping for the taxis.
The younger man ran up beside me. “Wait,” he said. He struggled for the English, then gave up and said something in Nepali. He threw some hand gestures. He lifted his eyebrows.
“Ah,” I said. “Ma Nepali boldina.”
“Wait,” he said. Again Nepali and hand gestures. “Other. Wait.”
“Oh!” I said. “You want me to wait for others. Shared taxi. Shared taxi?”
He looked blankly at me. I pointed at the airport and clasped my hands. Then I pretended I was driving a car. “I wait for others,” I said.
He shrugged in a halfway affirmative manner and pointed to the end of the shaded concrete block. I trotted over and sat. My back was drenched in sweat and so was that part of my backpack. I thought I could smell my chocolate-flavored MRE bars melting through the fabric.
After a few minutes, the driver from earlier came up to me, now trailed by a family with two toddlers. He motioned for me to stand up. “Birtamod?” I said.
“500,” he said.
“Very nice,” I said.
I fitted myself and my backpack into the passenger seat. The door slammed with the metal-hits-metal quality that most Nepali vehicles have. We zipped onto the dirt road; the windows were down; wind blew through. My sweat dried within minutes. It was fortunate that I had not kept on walking earlier—there was no Mt. Everest up the road, but there were no taxis, either, only wide lots of dirt and worn, sunbaked houses.
The driver conversed with the couple, once in a while glancing at me. I soon learned that each glance was sure to be followed with a poke from the mother, who spoke a few words of English. The first poke: “Where you from?” “America.” She translated for the driver. The second poke: “Where you go?” “Birtamod Ilam taxi stand.” “Where you go?” “Tea farm.” “Where you go?” “Tea farm?” There were a few more glances and pokes after that, but no more language overlap to support them.
Thirty minutes later, the driver stopped beside a large square with a few buses, which looked simultaneously like they hadn’t been driven in 50 years, and also like they had been driven, every day, for 50 years, at maximum velocity, through sandstorms, explosions, and mudslides. There were also some taxis and Jeeps in similar condition. I paid the driver, thanked everybody, and went up to the counter, where a few men lounged, talking and smoking.
“Fikkal Bazar?” I said.
They laughed so hard they were momentarily engulfed in a cloud of cigarette smoke. It cleared and I saw that they were waving me off. I drifted away in the general direction of the wave. In the middle of the square I washed up against a small gaggle of people. A few turned toward me. “Fikkal Bazar?” I said.
They turned away.
I walked closer. The nearest man turned again towards me. I took out a sheet of paper on which I had printed the Nepali words for the various landmarks between the airport and the tea farm. I pointed at “फिक्कल बजार,” which was Fikkal Bazar.
“Fikkal Bazar,” he said.
“Fikkal Bazar,” I agreed.
“Fikkal Bazar,” he disagreed.
“Fikkal Bazar,” I tried.
He shook his head and beckoned. I followed him to a Jeep, where a long-haired man jumped out and held the door. Inside was another man, square head, small lips. “Fikkal Bazaar?” I said.
“Fikkal Bazaar,” he said. He made a come-inside gesture.
“How much?” I said.
“250,” he said.
Besides the two men and the driver, there was a girl in the front row, maybe 15 or 16. I smiled at her. She stared at me. I unbuckled my backpack and climbed inside. The man with the square head and small lips took my backpack and shuttled it out back, where the driver slung it onto the roof.
The long-haired man climbed into the vehicle, slammed the door, and leaned his head on the window. His eyes were yellow and bloodshot. The other man, on my right, said something to me in Nepali. I said, “Ma Nepali boldina.” We fumbled a few more times at conversation: “My name is Angela.” “Ganga. Where you from?” “America. You come from here?” “America?” “Nepal?” “Thamel.” “You live in Thamel?” “No.” Then we sat and stared purposefully ahead in silence, wearing the abstract, put-on smiles which frequently accompany the urge to converse that lacks the language overlap to do so.
Ten minutes of tense, good-natured silence later, the driver leapt into his seat. He stamped the gas pedal all the way down—our heads jerked back—and did not let off an inch. With one wrist draped over the wheel, he careened us from left to right and back again, dodging oncoming motorbikes and tuk-tuks and the occasional bus. I could not make out whether the road was meant to have one, two, three, or four lanes. Judging by the traffic patterns, it was each of those options, all at once. The driver switched on the radio: staticky, bass-boosted Nepali music. He spun the volume knob to max. He tilted his face to the window; his hair flew back.
What was a 1.5-hour drive on Google Maps panned out to be an indefinite endeavor in which we stopped twice to collect stray travelers on the side of the road, once for a local to throw a bag of rice on the roof, and thrice to sit festering in each other’s sweat as the driver loped about and yelled at passerby until he felt he had loaded up a satisfactory number of additional passengers. I unwrapped an MRE bar. I had not eaten yet that day, besides a banana at dawn, and it seemed feasible that the drive could go on like this for anywhere from two to six hours, the latter of which was likely to see me flat on my face, having sweated out all my remaining essential nutrients.
Whenever someone new climbed aboard the Jeep, the entire vehicle bust into jovial, raucous conversation, everyone hollering over everyone else’s heads, laughing, hollering, twisting around to holler across three rows, laughing, hollering, as the low-def music continued at high volume, and the wind blasted in.
“Elections,” hollered Ganga.
“Elections?” I hollered back. “Oh, yes. Tomorrow is Election Day in Nepal?”
“Yes, so everybody come home. For elections.” He waved a hand at the packed Jeep.
I knew about Election Day because I had received an email from the US Embassy in Kathmandu two days before, with the subject line “Security Alert: Nationwide Elections in Nepal on Friday, May 13.” It began:
Elections will be held nationwide in Nepal on Friday, May 13. This is the largest electoral event in the history of Nepal; over 200,000 security personnel will be deployed to help ensure safety and security.
The Government of Nepal will prohibit public transportation and private cars, trucks, motorcycles, and scooters from driving on roads on election day. Vehicle restrictions will begin at midnight and continue for a full 24 hours.
Most businesses will be closed on election day. If you do decide to walk on the streets, carry your identification card and be aware of your surroundings. If you are out and encounter a security roadblock, please keep in mind that some officials may not have received complete information on what is permissible and may act on their own accord. Do not engage in argumentative or combative behavior if challenged or told that you cannot access a certain area.
Which is to say, I was pretty hard-pressed to get to the tea farm before the stroke of midnight, at which time, apparently, the entire country would shut down, and I would be stuck wherever my two feet stood, unless I had a desire to engage in combative behavior with armed Nepali security.
At last, we entered the mountains, and our driver released his death stomp on the gas pedal. He was forced to slow to 5-10 mph—the dirt road was narrow, constantly bending, and scattered with potholes the size of salad bowls and, on occasion, wheelbarrows. Driving at a crawl was the only way to get over (into and out of) these potholes without being ricocheted directly over the edge of the mountain. We were now 16 or 17 in the Jeep—jammed shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh—and with each pothole, each row of riders flew up and fell back down as a single unit.
The road was one-lane, but two-way. The way this system worked was horn-based echolocation. Rounding a hairpin turn: BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP. Passing a truck: BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP. Coming up behind a pedestrian: BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.
The fervent socializing had settled into quiet. Some people were asleep. Most gazed out the windows. I tried to imagine what they were thinking about. It is tricky even in one’s home country, where strangers speak the same language, to comprehend that a passing consciousness is as much a protagonist as one’s own. When traveling, with communication limited to total silence, jigsawed sentences, or exaggerated facial expressions, such comprehension is even more out of reach. It is too easy to form a shallow, or even false, impression of a person based on their no-language-overlap persona. My host Kaushila would later say, “It is different, you know? Maybe it looks we are happy and cheerful people all the time—but it is not like this always.” What one sees is rarely what is; a universal principle, for sure, but worth noting distinctly in regards to travel, when we are primed to form fast, subconscious impressions of a foreign community and bring observations home to people who must take us for our word.
Gradually the flat land fell downward and away. The air lost its heat, became cool, and then cold; we passed into the clouds. On one side was the craggy flank of our mountain, and on the other, green village-specked mountains planted, gigantic as planets, one behind the other. Among them blew patches of slowly expanding fog, milky and shimmering, in an ether of solid grey.
At 5,100 feet—I had been tracking our progress via Google Maps—I tapped Ganga’s shoulder and pointed outside. “Fikkal Bazar?” I said.
“Stop?” he said.
I assumed this meant that we were indeed in Fikkal Bazar. “Stop.”
He called to the driver. In a snap, I was standing on the Mechi Highway on rubbery legs, pants stiff with dried sweat, opening my arms for my backpack, catching it, dodging the side mirror of a passing minibus, counting out bills and handing them over, buckling my backpack as all around me people pushed in and out of cramped shops, banks, cafes, clinics. Shopkeepers called across the street. Vehicles wedged past each other, honking and belching black smoke. Fikkal Bazar is a business hub of Ilam, a municipality in eastern Nepal famous for Ilam tea. Arubote Village, my next landmark, was due northwest. I shaded my eyes and looked for the sun. It was in front of me. I started walking.
Ten minutes in, the highway diverged, and a smaller dirt road split off down the mountain. I found a spot where I was least likely to be mowed over by a passing Jeep and checked Google Maps. I took the small road.
Arubote Village, compared to Fikkal Bazar, is monastic. The road I took, lumpy with drying mud, tire treads, and rocks, was largely vacant. I passed houses constructed from bamboo, wood planks, concrete, and metal sheets; sometimes residents sat on the stoops. I followed the map easily until, forty minutes down the mountain, the road started branching in places the map didn’t show. I backtracked. The map spun around. My location dot bounced to the middle of nowhere. I backtracked my backtrack. Again the map spun. Ahead was an old woman, carrying a large basket of kush grass via a strap across her forehead. I shut off my useless phone and hurried towards her. “Namaste,” I said. “Deepak Kulung?”
She shook her head smilingly.
Excellent, I thought. Odds I’ve gone up the wrong mountain. “Deepak Kulung,” I said.
She continued to smile.
“Deepak,” I said. “Deepak Kulung?”
And—my heart lifted—she said, “Deepak Kulung!”
“Deepak Kulung!” I said.
She laughed and jabbed a finger up the road. This was exactly opposed to what my map was telling me to do. But I could see, out of the corners of my eyes, the old woman observing my next move with an earnest expression. I put on a grin, said dhanyabaad, and marched myself up the road.
The next local I saw was a woman standing on her roof, hanging baby clothes on a laundry line. By now I had given up my map. “Deepak Kulung?” I said.
She laughed too, and pointed up the road. “Blue,” she said.
“Blue house?” I said.
“Blue!” she said.
This could have been a great help, had I not immediately proceeded to hike past three distinct blue houses, none of which looked like the blue house I was meant to end up in.
And then I nearly hiked straight past a sign nailed to a tree. It was teal with letters in yellow paint: “Kulung Family Organic Tea Farm.” An arrow pointed down, apparently straight into the ground. I went closer. Beneath the sign, a trail disappeared into lush vegetation. I stepped onto it. There was a rustle. A small black snake slid out of the leaves and onto the path.
Oh, hell, I thought. As long as it’s in front of me.
And I followed it all the way down the slope to the tea farm.
The small, grassy yard was empty. Before me stood a two-story house, blue, wood and bamboo and concrete, with sheet metal roofing. White bags of flowers slouched along the front. A few steps away was another blue structure. The doors there were open. I wandered over and peered inside. It was the kitchen—three faces peered back.
“Why, hello there,” one of them said.
These were the other volunteers: Miles (English), Eloi (French), Fleur (Dutch). Two—David (Czech) and Baptiste (French)—were away in Fikkal, buying groceries. We exchanged brief introductions, from which I learned that, while I had arrived in Nepal only the day before, the others had been traveling the country separately for months already (Eloi and Fleur together as a couple), trekking Annapurna and Everest, exploring Pokhara, working on farms near the capital city of Kathmandu, ultimately crossing paths in Ilam at the tea farm. A knock sounded on the wall. I turned and there, in the doorway, stood my hosts.
Deepak (Dee-puhk) and Kaushila (Koe-xi-lah) are in their forties. Deepak is tan and bright-eyed; short, with confident posture; his movements are agile, with the understated energy of the snap of a rubber band. Kaushila has the classic, smooth-featured beauty of a Disney princess; her smile is quick and wide; she has a soft voice which calls the mind the texture of sunlight in a god ray. Deepak’s family has lived in this area for seven generations—300 years. Originally, the villagers here were subsistence farmers, growing millet, corn, rice, and potatoes. In 1977, Deepak’s father received tea seeds from relatives in Darjeeling, India (close enough that the border is visible in the distant mountains). Nowadays, every family has switched from carbs to tea. From a bird’s eye view, Arubote Village and its neighbors are plot after plot after plot of tea. The transformation from subsistence farming to cash cropping is complete.
Kaushila showed me to my room: upstairs in the blue house. The stairs were fashioned from wood planks, each nailed half a foot apart from the next, and most tilted at 30-degree angles, so that I found myself relying largely on foot-to-wood friction to get to the second floor with dignity intact. Then I hit my head on the doorframe. “Whoops,” I said. I immediately hit it on the next doorframe. I’m 5’4”—tall in Nepal, where the average height, according to Wikipedia, is 5’4” for men and 4’11” for women.
Maybe because of the treacherous plank stairs, my room had the feeling of a treehouse. There were two mattresses; I was fortunate to have both to myself. But my fortune came from the Kulungs’ misfortune. Deepak and Kaushila were only just starting to ramp up on hosting volunteers after COVID. Prior, they’d been hosting for over a decade, often ten or so travelers at a time. Volunteers pay a nominal fee of $5/night to work on the farm for room/board, so hosting is, in addition to a culture exchange, a small business for the Kulungs, on top of selling tea (worth ~$0.14 /kg, or ~$2.80 per 6-7-hour workday), some vegetables, and the occasional male goat (worth ~$126 for the full year of work it takes to raise the animal). So COVID, which put a brake on the exchange, was a difficult time. “We did host Nepali family—from Thamel,” Kaushila told me. “They were homeless because COVID—need place to stay.” Thamel is Kathmandu’s tourist center, a frantic labyrinth of shops, restaurants, and hostels where Nepali hopefuls sell (foist) goods and services to (on) foreigners in order to support their families. When COVID hit, these families lost their entire source of income, and many were no longer able to afford rent.
I dropped my backpack at the foot of one bed and followed Kaushila out onto a wooden walkway. It went over the goat shed and ended in a tinny door to a stall with a Western toilet. The stall was dark except for a palm-sized triangular hole in the wall, which blazed with daylight. Beside a toilet sat a small bucket, a dirt-flecked bar of soap, and a faucet piped in through the wall.
“Flush like this,” said Kaushila.
She filled the bucket, and then lifted it overhead and poured it swiftly into the bowl, with the same flourish of the wrist one might use to pour a cup of tea. It was all fine and simple in the clarity of day, but the triangle would not shine forever, I knew, and I had forgotten my headlamp in America. At night it would be a matter of either aiming the bucket at the bowl under the shaky beam of a flashlight pinned between my knees, or holding my pee until morning. The choice was often made for me—a big-bellied nocturnal spider liked to built its web precisely over the top half of the stall door.
Back downstairs, Kaushila led me around the kitchen to a shed with two stalls. The left was the squat toilet—“we think sharing the seat is dirty”—and the right was the shower—“you are okay with cold water?”
I did not know whether I was okay with cold water. But I was desperate to find out, because by this point I had begun to sweat again, and all my conscious attention was tunneling into the question of how bad I smelled at present, and how far this bad could travel, despite the competing bad of the goats sh*tting loudly and passionately in the shed a few feet away. Smelling bad is the most efficient way to make a poor first impression. I thanked Kaushila for the tour and informed her that, for the sake of her, Deepak, and the other volunteers, I better take a shower before I do anything else. She laughed in a manner which signified my joke was lost completely in translation. I felt too stinky to care.
In the stall, a daddy longlegs swayed upside-down by the showerhead. I feigned ignorance, hung my clothes on three nails, and cranked the water lever. Cold spring water burst out. Out of habit, I stood around for a few seconds, waiting for it to get warmer. I stuck my hand in. It had gotten colder. I held my breath and forced in my face. I felt defibrillated. My hands were petrified like little T-rex hands in front of me and I felt on my fingers, strangely, with a brief spark of hope, some warm water; this spark was presently stamped out by the realization that the warm water was only the water falling from my face, which had gained enough heat from its split-second contact with my skin to feel warm in comparison to the rest of the stream.
Afterward, clean and emboldened, I went to the stone tablet outside the kitchen and filled a bin with cold water and camping soap. I squashed around my dirty clothes until it seemed reasonable to hope that they no longer smelled like they’d been sweated in halfway across the country of Nepal. I took them over to the laundry line, which was questionably located in the goat shed, promising that regardless of how one’s clothes smell after they are washed, they will certainly smell like goats after they are dried.
Like the other faucets on the property, the faucet over the stone tablet, emerging from a cluster of vines, produced icy fresh spring water. The stone tablet turned out to be a sort of headquarters for life on the farm: washing dishes (using ash, pictured above in the red plastic lid on the ledge), brushing teeth, washing face, rinsing feet, doing laundry, collecting drinking water (before running it through a clay filter). Tree trunks were stacked around it as furniture.
Leaving the goat shed after hanging my laundry, I bumped into Deepak. “I would like—to give you a tour—of the farm,” he said.
Speaking to volunteers in English, the Kulungs tend to pause, then deliver several words in rapid succession, then pause, then deliver another several words in rapid succession, and so on. They never officially learned how to speak English—at school, their English classes were taught in Nepali, with a focus on reading and writing. In fact, the Kulungs spoke no English at all when they hosted their first volunteer in 2012, a Brit named Neil. Over the next year, they learned to speak proficient English entirely via conversations with volunteers, despite the diversity of accents, from American to French, Swiss to Chinese.
“Tour,” I said. “Yes please. Sign me up.”
“Haa haa!” said Deepak. We shook on it.
In addition to tea, the Kulungs grow 40+ different fruits and vegetables (limes, broom plants, aloe vera, mint, chili, potatoes, yams, asparagus, cabbage…). The tea shrubs, which occupy a majority of the farm, sprawl down the mountainside in neat plots. There are also plots for corn and squash, and another plot for garlic, as well as a small garden with mostly green onions. Everything else is scattered across the farm. For instance, as we started on the trail which led into the farm, Deepak pointed to a big-leafed plant among a patch of kush grass. “Turmeric,” he said. Then he pointed to a nearby tree. “Avocado.”
“What’s that?” I said, pointing to another tree.
He lifted his eyebrows mysteriously. “Tree.”
Deepak, wearing slides, flitted over the trail, ducking branches and brushing aside foliage. I stampeded behind him in my Columbia hiking boots, spitting, blinking, waving my arms, abdominals fully engaged out of the carnal fear of slipping and log-rolling 4,578 feet straight down the face of the mountain.
After the tour, Deepak excused himself to go feed the goats. This is a 4x/day chore which involves using a sickle to slice a load of kush grass the size of a human being, stuffing that under one arm, and dragging it to the shed, where the goats are yelling for attention, sounding exactly like spoiled middle-aged men stuck in goat bodies. If one happens to pass the shed while Deepak is feeding the goats, one might overhear a pleasant one-sided dialogue which, despite being in Nepali, is fairly transparently some variation on the theme of “Why are you like this?” and “Yell a little louder, I dare you.”
In addition to kush grass, the goats eat leftovers from meals, so long as they’re not spicy, as well as tips of green beans, butts of okra, heaps of potato peels, and other scraps from meal prep. Their poop is then spread beneath the tea shrubs as fertilizer. The Kulungs’ farm is fully self-sufficient.
I wandered into the kitchen, where David, the Czech volunteer, was removing his phone charger from a dusty panel of outlets by the door. He plugged it back in. He removed it again. Seeing me, he waved. “Power cut,” he said. “Oh well.”
“Taking it out and plugging it back in will help?” I said.
“Maybe,” he said, half joking, half morose, and carried his setup over to the table, where the other volunteers were making a Catan board out of bamboo reeds and cardboard.
Random power outages are common in Arubote Village—and even in the capital city of Kathmandu. In fact, I have experienced short blackouts while waiting to board my plane at both domestic and international airports. One wonders how air traffic control operates under such circumstances; however, one must not wonder for long. As the old pan-religious saying goes, If you can do something about it, do something and do not worry. If you cannot do anything about it, do not worry. The strategy was to sit peaceably in the darkness and watch the shadows of airport birds scrounge for food among people’s carry-ons until, inevitably, the lights flickered back on.
I joined Kaushila by the clay stove. She sat cross-legged, splitting bamboo with a machete. She lit a spark in the twiglets and tended it into a flame, and then carefully fed in two logs. The fire rose out of the stomach of the stove and hugged the bases of the cast-iron woks above.
I touched a log. “These are from the farm?”
“Yes. Best is denser, because less wet. But dense ones less common.”
“Because they grow slower, and that’s why the wood is dense?” I had learned this on a cattle farm in Australia, where part of my work included splitting wood; the denser pieces were far heavier, and more difficult to split.
“Yes. So we keep inside less dense more wet logs too.”
The power was still out. Despite the fire, the kitchen was dim. From the ceiling hung a single solar-powered bulb. Roaches and wasps buzzed madly around it, once in a while whipping someone in the face. Outside, cicadas, crickets, frogs, and birds blared. I could understand now why a volunteer called Arubote a jungle. One cricket was particularly vociferous; we would later nickname it “David’s razor,” because we all believed it was the sound of David shaving until, one morning, we noticed that David was growing a beard.
I was given the task of splitting beans to check for bugs—the Kulungs do not use pesticides, so checking for bugs is the first step of any recipe. We were preparing Nepal’s traditional dal bhat: “dal” is beans, and “bhat” is rice. Kaushila will serve, on a tin plate, a heap of bhat, with dal on the side or poured atop, and two scoops of vegetables. Powdered chili is available from an ancient peanut-butter jar. It is so intense that volunteers use the tines of a fork to sprinkle it over their food; otherwise, one is at risk of overdosing and, in addition to crying and sweating, getting a head high. Too much chili, and one may develop a case of constipation, for which Kaushila prescribes a spoonful of sugar.
After dinner and card games, everyone said “subha ratri”—“good night”—and went their respective ways. Entering my room, I felt a tickle on my neck. I brushed at it. A fat roach hit the wall. I could not find a jar so I dumped my sandals out of their Ziploc and used the Ziploc to bag the roach. I carried it outside and threw it down the stairs. I returned to my room and discovered a cricket squatting on some underwear. I bagged it and took it out. I sat on my bed. My neck felt strangely queasy where the roach had been, so I got up and swiped at it with a Lysol wipe. I laid down and shut my eyes. I sat up. I swiped some more with the Lysol. I laid down. I unlocked my phone and messaged my boyfriend, who was starting his workday in California. Within seconds, every moth in the vicinity came to seek the light of my screen, hitting my face in the process. I continued messaging. I felt a tickle on my chest. I brushed at it fast. I did not look because I didn’t want to know whether or not something was there—I just wanted to know that nothing was there, which I did know now that I had brushed at it. A few minutes passed. I did look. A moth was clinging to my boob. I grabbed it and threw it into the indeterminate darkness, shut off my phone, and went to sleep.
The blue house was built by Deepak’s father: Deepak grew up in this house, attended Arubote’s public primary school, went to high school in Fikkal Bazar, and studied political science at the University of Ilam about 40 miles away. There, he met Kaushila, who was studying management—“I like numbers,” says Kaushila. “I wanted to work at a bank.”
Kaushila also comes from a rural background, though her family grows corn and potatoes. Traditionally, in Nepal, a woman moves in with her husband and his parents after marriage. Kaushila, however, spent her first five years traveling Ilam, working in microfinance. It was only when Deepak started hosting volunteers that she settled down at the blue house to help out.
Deepak’s family members are mostly located within walking distance. When asked how often she sees her own family, Kaushila says, “Maybe once a year. Hard to travel with farm. Someone has to feed the animals. Someone has to take care of plants.”
Both of Deepak’s parents passed in the last decade, and are buried, according to tradition, nearby on the farmland. The Kulungs’ only son, Samyog (Sum-yuhg), is currently away from home, attending high school in Kathmandu on scholarship (one of two annual scholarships the Kirat religious community awards its members). On paper, his school is only ~310 miles from Arubote—shorter than the distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which is ~380 miles and a 6-hour drive. But mountainous routes, cratered dirt roads, and frequent landslides mean a one-way bus trip takes 13-20 hours. A domestic flight takes 45 minutes, in the rare scenario that there isn’t a delay or cancellation, but the ticket, at $100, is not an option for the Kulungs. As students aren’t allowed cellphones, Deepak’s and Kaushila’s only contact with Samyog is a five-minute landline call every Saturday. These days, Samyog’s studies are going smoothly, but the transition was a gauntlet: he’s a contemplative kid, and grew up in a mountain village in the outskirts of Nepal, whereas most of his classmates are from wealthy families in the hustle of the capital city.
Samyog will soon begin the process of applying to American universities for a full-ride scholarship. If successful, his parents will remain nestled among the peaks of Nepal’s eastern mountains, while he will journey alone to what may as well be, to the Kulungs, a separate galaxy. My father followed a similar path out of a poverty-stricken village in China, and too poor for airfare, was unable to see his family for several years—“When I saw them again, they had aged so much,” he once told me. “It was like my parents were gone. I felt like I was meeting with strangers.” According to Deepak, about half of Arubote’s parents want their children to leave the village and pursue a new life for future generations. The other half wishes for their children to stay home, take over the farm, and following tradition, care for them as they grow old.
During my stay, Deepak never said he missed Samyog. But early on, he walked around the kitchen showing everyone Samyog’s I.D. photo. “That’s my son,” he said, pointing. “Haa haa!”
Kaushila also didn’t mention that she missed her son. But she did say that she gave birth to him on her own, in the blue house, without even a midwife, even though most village women do go to city hospitals when labor begins. “I wanted to,” she said. “Your body will know what to do,” she tried to assure me. We were hand-rolling black tea at the time, and afterward, I sat in the yard to read. At one point, I glanced up. Kaushila was framed blurrily in the window of the dim kitchen. Her chin was on her hand, and she was gazing at the sky, where white clouds of fog had moved in and combined, so dense that neither of us could see the birds crossing slowly over the yard, though we could both hear loudly, between us, the beating of their wings.
Friday, May 13, 2022
My jetlag woke me at 2:37am. The critter symphony outside was as shrill as ever—in fact, the various critters take shifts, so that, on the mountainside, there is no such thing as silence. I lay on my back for a few minutes. The mattress was hard. My shoulder blades and tailbone connected with it, but not my actual back. I switched onto my side. I felt very homesick. It was like acid in my chest. At 4:00am, a pale light suffused the curtains, and a cock began to crow. At 5:00am, there came the washboard purr that Bili, the Kulungs’ eight-month-old cat, uses to call her four-week-old kittens. Sure enough, there soon came a mewling and soft thundering of paws. I unstuck my joints and got off the mattress. I found the kittens at the top of the stairs, crowded under Bili, drinking milk.
At the base of the stairs, I maneuvered via belly over the rail in order to avoid stepping on Fili, who slept there on a bag filled with grass. Fili is the Kulungs’ old dog. She has a skin condition, picked up from local strays, common among village dogs, which causes her to be constantly twisted around, biting and scratching herself. No home remedy has seen any improvement; the antibiotic is not available in Fikkal. Water puts her in more pain, so the Kulungs have not washed her in over a year. One surmises as much from her smell, which gives her a six-foot radius to herself at all times. Sometimes one finds her wearing a short length of chain which is not attached to anything—the chain itself is enough to keep her from following people onto the village road, where she is at risk of being kicked at by passing locals.
I crossed the grassy yard in my bare feet—at the farm, where the Kulungs and their volunteers often go barefoot, the bottom of one’s feet takes on the role of a fat, clumsy tongue, delivering the sweet sensation of fluffed morning grass; the rich pressure of concrete warmed by sun; doughy mud after rain; pebbles. I balanced, squatting, on the ledge of the stone tablet to brush my teeth. The air was cold and wet. Before me the morning light came over the corn and squash plots. The corn was still young. The tops of the leaves shone. The squash was just beginning, with its curlicue tendrils, to explore the bamboo poles erected for them. In the backdrop the mountains were draped with fog.
I sat on the bench in front of the house, six feet away from Fili, and read a book as the kittens tussled audibly on the sheet-metal roof over my head. At 6:00am a door creaked behind me. I turned to see Kaushila, puffy-eyed, emerging from her room. “Good morning,” she whispered. “How did you sleep?”
“Excellently,” I lied. “How about you?”
“Not very good,” she said. “Sometimes I have the problem—I wake up—I cannot get back to sleep.”
“Insomnia,” I said.
“Insomnia,” she said. She pressed the heel of a hand to one eye. On tiptoe, she crossed the yard to open the kitchen doors, which are shut at night, but must be kept open all day, or else the homeowner is considered rude. Indeed, around 6:30am, an old man carrying a metal jug drifted into the kitchen, spoke with Deepak and Kaushila for half an hour, and drifted back out. Neighbors and relatives pass in and out like this in a steady stream throughout the day.
By 7:30am, all the volunteers had trickled out of their rooms to sit along the bench. Deepak brought us a pot of yellow tea. “You can make tea whenever you want here,” Miles informed me as he poured. “There are three massive Thermoses by the fireplace—at least one of these will always have hot water. Somewhere nearby will be a metal container with tea leaves inside. Just pour in some water, let it steep for however long, and then the teapots and cups are on the shelf.”
I had finished my tea and was lacing up my boots when Deepak walked up. He wore a grave expression. “I need your help,” he said.
I jumped up. “Yes sir.”
“Please help me—”
He held out a bowl with two scallop-edged crackers. “Please help me eat these crackers.”
“Oh,” I said. “That will be hard. But one must persevere.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“My pleasure,” I said. And we shook on it.
I tried to conceal my greed as I scooped up the crackers. The diet at the farm was simple and vegetarian, so I’d take my calories where I could get them. I crushed them one by one between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. The next meal would be dal bhat at 10:00am, and then a snack at 3:00pm, and dal bhat again at 7:00pm. Deepak has never tasted meat—his mother’s family was several generations vegetarian, and he’s been vegetarian since birth. Kaushila stopped eating meat after she moved in to the blue house. It is easier like this, anyway: the Kulungs do not have a fridge.
Maybe since it was Election Day, we did not harvest tea. Kaushila distributed us across the farm, with David and Baptiste and Miles chopping wood, Eloi shucking corn (he preferred to chop wood, but had cut his leg during a run, and his stitches—from the one-room, swallow-nest-filled hospital in Fikkal Bazar—were still healing), Fleur and I pulling weeds. The weeds in the garden, we uprooted by hand, but for the grasses by the house and yard, we used sickles: grab a fistful, slice at base with sickle, toss, repeat. All “lawnmowing” in the village is done by sickle. We weeded for four hours, which gave us plenty of time to converse. I learned that Fleur is passionate about sustainability and plans to open a sustainability café when she and Eloi return to Europe.
“I’ve been curious,” I said. “What do they do with trash here?” I have found, when traveling, that in some countries, garbage collection is a matter of politics; in rural areas, a system may not even exist.
“They burn it,” said Fleur.
“There is no collection service.”
Later, I would confirm this with Kaushila, who would add, “We don’t want to. But we have no choice. So we try not to—produce any waste.”
Indeed, the Kulungs produce practically no inorganic waste. Kaushila brings used fabric bags to the market, where all the produce she buys is free of plastic wrappings. All food waste is composted or fed to goats to produce compost. Problems arise when foreign volunteers visit and, whether aware of the lack of garbage service or not, purchase processed food, like chips and bottled sodas, and leave the packaging in their rooms upon departure. Plastic, foil, paper, or metal, the Kulungs are forced to burn it in the garden.
Of course, garbage collection exists in urban areas. But during my visit, Kathmandu’s garbage service was halted due to a protest in the town near the landfill. By June, service had been inactive for a month. Trash piled indoors. Families started spending more time in cafes and restaurants, unable to bear the stench at home. In the anonymity of night, the more desperate ones dragged the bags outside and left them in the street, where during the day, the trash spilled and festered in the hot sun. Each week put the city at higher risk of disease, as monsoon season approached with its mosquitoes and threat to the water supply, which is already so compromised that a few sips from the tap can send an uninformed tourist to the hospital.
After weeding, Deepak and I hiked thirty minutes to the local public school for the election. Voters were packed into lines outside the three-room building; underneath a tarp, officials guided them through the ballot submission process. As promised by the Embassy email, rifle-toting guards patrolled the tarp perimeter.
For political context: Nepal was once a monarchy. From 1996 to 2006, the country fought a civil war, and in 2008, was declared by the newly elected Constituent Assembly to be a Federal Democratic Republic. Now, Nepal’s leadership is organized into the federal government, 7 provincial governments (December election), 753 local governments (this May election), and further, 6743 wards (this May election).
Deepak, who I’d heard was deeply invested in local politics, was quiet on the way home. A gravity had settled over him. While he went to feed the goats, I joined Miles and Eloi, who were observing a trail of a hundred or so black ants. The ants left their nest and marched several feet to a patch of moss, where they scrambled in a few circles and—immediately—turned around and went straight home. Apparently, this exercise took place twice a day without fail. We tried placing morsels of food in their path, but they ran right by.
I continued to observe the ants daily. Once, they did not run to the moss, but to a nearby flowerpot, where they formed a circle around the rim. They stayed there for fifteen minutes, most standing still, some, oddly, holding on to the pot with their two front legs. And then they ran straight home. Their movements were swift and resolute—they obviously had some purpose—but this purpose only became more and more obscure to me. It was only a month later, when I returned home and described the drills to my boyfriend, that the mystery was solved: “I bet they were going to get water,” he said. That strange, secret purpose was, indeed, an essential tenet of life.
Saturday, May 14, 2022
A tea shrub stands at hip-level. The harvester begins at the end of a packed row of shrubs, picks all the way down, and then wades forcefully through the branches to get into the next row. Most of the leaves are dark green, stiff. The leaves at the ends of the branches are younger, yellow and tender. And at the tip is the “needle”: the youngest leaf, which has not yet unfolded.
All colors of tea come from the same plant—what differentiates them is which leaves are harvested, and how they are processed. For example, black tea is made by picking two yellow leaves and a needle, then “withering” (drying in weak sunlight) to remove 30% of water, hand-rolling to remove 60% of water, oxidizing inside a bamboo tray for 20-30 minutes, and finally spreading the leaves on a mattress to dry completely. Green tea is made from the same two yellow leaves and needle—but they are merely steamed for two minutes, hand-rolled, and dried in direct sunlight. The Kulungs produce black, superblack, smoky black, roasted green, steamed green, yellow, oolong, white, golden tip, and silver teas. The latter two are the most expensive, as they are made from just the needles of the shrubs; it takes almost an hour to pick a cupped handful.
So long as one wears long sleeves against sun and insects, and brings a poncho in case of rain, harvest is a pleasing experience. Each pluck is a rubbery snip under the fingernail, the plump shudder of the shrub. The air is fresh; critters thrum freely; goats shout; cows bellow. White butterflies float past. Mornings, the noise of someone chopping wood in the valley travels all the way up the mountain in firm, rippling echoes.
We harvested for two short hours, and then paused to eat a dal bhat of bitter gourd, potatoes, and green beans. Kaushila was running low on turmeric, so as rain began to fall, we put off the tea harvest in favor of processing more.
Kaushila brought us iron canisters equipped with iron pestles. Inside were piles of dry, misshapen, ginger-looking chunks. We pounded the pestles repeatedly into the centers of the piles. As we pounded, we saw no change. But when we poured the contents over a sieve, a fine golden mist floated out the other side. Over three hours, two half canisters became one full bowl of turmeric powder.
Sunday, May 15, 2022
Sunday is the day of rest for Nepal, where the work week is six days.
I spent the morning at “tea school” with Deepak, taking notes on tea harvest and production. Tea farmers in Arubote grow Chinese tea (camellia sinensis). Other breeds of tea include Indian tea (assam), which grows in hot, low-elevation areas, and Ugandan tea.
Around noon, I hiked to the bottom of the mountain. Early on I passed a flat green building nestled among tea fields: the local tea factory, owned by Indian investors across the nearby border. Inside were gloomy rooms of loosely wriggling machinery. Women tended to the leaves on the belts. I passed a sheet of paper stapled to the wall: 8:00am to 5:00pm, 30-minute lunch break, NPR426/day ($3.40). I would later learn that even the waiters at the restaurant near my Kathmandu Airbnb make ~$4/day. This is the context, then, for the $0.70 meals that tourists gush over. The same tourists can often be heard lamenting, as they haggle for souvenirs or bus tickets, “They think I’m rich.” The truth is that we, as tourists in Nepal, are rich. How many $4s go into, say, round-trip airfare? How many go into the opportunity cost of stopping work to travel? In my opinion, it is not worthwhile to haggle a shopkeeper down a couple dollars. Maybe I don’t get the best deal, but that couple dollars has a physical outcome for one side—groceries, rent—and a largely mental outcome for the other—the pride or satisfaction of getting a good deal. After all, in America, a couple dollars will hardly buy a fistful of gumballs.
The river in the valley was brown, rushing. Mugwort and wild marijuana grew along the banks. I saw a butterfly with a third wing, bright red, clasped between the regular two.
During the first minute of the hike back up, the path was so steep, my ears popped. I had to pause for the black spots to clear out of my vision. As I walked, the sun went away, but the midday heat remained. My face dripped sweat. I patted it with a sleeve. The gesture was pointless; my sleeve was also soaked with sweat.
I went directly from my hike into a cold shower. I was clean for hardly five minutes before Deepak came into the yard. “You know how to climb a tree?” he said.
“Well,” I said, “if the branches are shaped like a ladder, yes.”
“Haa haa!” said Deepak. “Come with me.”
Miles, David, and I hurried after him up the trail to the village road. Near the top, Deepak stopped abruptly. “I will climb—this one.” And he opened an arm to a slender trunk which rocketed upward, utterly branchless for at least fifteen vertical feet.
He kicked off his sandals. “I am getting old,” he said cheerfully.
He put his arms around the tree, leaned back, and jumped his feet up so they were pressed against the trunk. He proceeded to walk ten feet up the trunk, moving right arm and left leg, left arm and right leg, as nonchalantly as I might walk up the street to Starbucks.
Kaushila came up beside me. She shaded her eyes and watched her husband. One eyebrow lifted in a mixture of amusement and concern.
“That’s incredible,” I said.
“We learn as kids,” said Kaushila. “When we were six or like that. We climb up to gather”—she gestured at the leaves and branches—“for chores.”
Deepak, by this point, was starting to evaporate into the upper leaves. “I am getting old,” he shouted down.
“Is he okay?” I said.
“I hope so,” said Kaushila. She called to him in Nepali.
He came walking right back down, landed on both feet, and swept a bow. “My boss say to come down,” he said. He bopped a thumb in Kaushila’s direction. In a conspiring whisper he said, “My boss.”
Kaushila ignored him. Smiling to herself, she went back to the garden, where she was collecting vegetables for dinner.
“Who’s next?” said Deepak.
“Ladies first,” said David.
“Oh, God,” I said. “Gentlemen. I insist.”
“No, please,” said Miles.
“No, you,” I said.
“You’re outnumbered,” said David.
I picked my way to the tree and put my arms around the trunk. I pulled up my feet. I began to walk. Instantly I was back on the ground. After three such attempts it became clear that taking one arm off the tree would cause the rest of my body to come off too. So I kept both arms around the trunk and, hugging it, executed a deranged bunny hop a vertical distance of six feet. At that point I realized that I could not bunny-hop back down. I slid scrapingly two feet down the trunk and jumped. I hit the ground like a dropped rock.
“Good job,” said Deepak.
“Don’t look at me,” I said.
I was rescued from humiliation by David’s and Miles’ subsequent attempts. Which is not to attribute my performance to talent, but rather to say that I had only 100 pounds to get up the tree, whereas David and Miles, well, I do not know how much they weigh, but I am sure it is more than 100 pounds.
Afterward Deepak chaperoned us a minute’s walk down the village road to the home of a neighbor who makes chhaang and raksi, alcoholic drinks native to Nepal, Tibet, and parts of India. Chhaang smells like yogurt and kombucha; it tastes sour, but like a sour layered cake, lacy and subtle, rather than like sour milk, which is one-dimensional. Raksi is fermented rice or millet—it tastes similar to sake. Both were sold to Miles in unlabeled secondhand bottles.
Deepak and Kaushila don’t drink at all, nor do most of their neighbors, though substance abuse does take place in the village. Once every couple days, a gaunt, lanky man with ragged hair loafed through the yard of the blue house. Whenever she saw him coming, Kaushila would duck into in an interior room to avoid him. He was addicted to weed, she said, and spent his days loitering and asking for money. There was another man, well into his seventies, who would crop up on the road or in the yard. Each time he would wander up to me, slurring heavily in Nepali. He was an alcoholic.
“Only men?” I asked Kaushila once.
“Mostly,” she said. “Very hard for family. You know?”
“Yes,” I said. “These kinds of problems, we have everywhere.”
That evening, Deepak came in to dal bhat with his hands clasped. He opened them and showed me five bumpy, bead-looking stones. “Rudraksha,” he said. “For you.” He rolled one onto my palm. “For your mother.” Another. “For your father. For your brother. For your boyfriend.”
“Aw, Deepak,” I said. “You ought to save them for yourself.” Rudraksha are used as prayer beads by Hindus and Buddhists, and in certain Asian countries, are said to have creative power. They are sold on necklaces and bracelets everywhere in Thamel, though most of those are wood or plastic carved to have a real rudraksha’s signature bumps. A rudraksha tree grows in the Kulungs’ goat shed. Deepak is considering selling the stones across the border to India or China to supplement the tea business.
“You take,” said Deepak. “Gift. To your family. We are new family. You know?”
“Ah, yes,” I said. “Dhanyabaad, dhanyabaad. Dhanyabaad.”
Monday, May 16, 2022
Tea picking transpired all day. In the morning Eloi yelled out—he had nearly stepped on a snake skin. When he told her during dal bhat, Kaushila was unperturbed. She took Miles’ phone and admired the photo. “They don’t like to be in tea,” she said. She gave the phone back. “Too wet. Dark.”
“Are there lots of them around?” said Miles.
“Yes,” said Deepak. “But we let them be. They do not harm us. Why bother them?”
“Are they poisonous?” said Miles.
Deepak held up his thumb and index finger. “Maybe a little.”
“Maybe a little!” said Eloi.
But Deepak and Kaushila had already returned to their own conversation. They spoke quietly, though none of us could have understood a word anyway. Kaushila nodded. She looked out the window. They finished their meal in silence.
After work, we took turns showering, and sat in front of the blue house to read and write. The day passed from shadow into sun, and into shadow, and once again brightened. Fili began to bark. A moment later, two kids came skidding down the trail. The older one, a girl named Saksa, was ten or eleven. The boy, her cousin, big-toothed, always on the brink of laughter, was maybe six. He wore a holey white T-shirt with a Supreme logo stamped on it, and pants which were, apparently, simultaneously Gucci and Adidas. This is common across Nepal. Apple slippers? No problem. Gucci minibus? Put it on the road.
The kids skidded straight down the slope to David and insisted on “The Dizzy Game.”
“Nope,” said David.
“Please please please please please,” said Saksa.
David turned to me. “The Dizzy Game is where you swing them around in circles,” he said. “Be careful to start it. After one kid the other kid will want to play and then other kids in the village will come too and there are a lot more kids in the village than you think. The next day you will be very tired.”
“Noted,” I said. “No Dizzy Game for me.”
“Dizzy Game,” said Saksa.
“No Dizzy Game,” I said.
“Ice and Water,” said Saksa. She ran along the bench. Everyone pretended to be deeply invested in their reading material. “Ice and Water.” She grabbed my wrist. “Ice and Water, please please please.”
“Here,” I said, “let’s play Slide.”
It was a clapping game from my grade-school years. Saksa played with me for thirty seconds, and then tired of me and went to David. She smacked him on the arm. “Ice and Water, Ice and Water.”
“Okay, okay,” said David. He leapt off the bench and chased her into the yard. It turned out that Ice and Water was freeze tag.
In Arubote, children can attend the free public school until fifth grade. The other option is a nearby private school; tuition is expensive, but includes fancy-looking uniforms and a well-promoted English curriculum (which, Deepak says, is not as competent as advertised). Lately, parents have been switching their kids from the public school to the private school, even though they cannot afford tuition. This has set up a harmful situation not only for these parents, but for all the parents in the village. The free public school will lose its government funding—and close down—if it has less than 20 students. Currently, only 26 remain. Saksa attends the private school. Her little cousin goes to public school.
During my stay, Deepak collaborated with the public school’s administrators to design a program to increase enrollment: each year, the school will award three certificates: to the children with the best performance, with the best attendance, and from the poorest family. Importantly, the certificates carry a cash prize, funded by Deepak and Kaushila.
The issue of education has deeper roots. Continued education is restricted: scholarships are rare, and student loans do not exist. So a child from an underprivileged family has a slim-to-zero chance of becoming, say, a doctor or engineer, professions which require attending an expensive institution.
In America, we grow up being told “dream big,” “hard work pays off,” and “don’t just dream it, do it.” Of course, our social mobility is neither fair nor entire; systemic discrimination and other factors forge their own complicated chains. But we do, at least, offer student loans. (Though this “at least” is no excuse for Americans to decide our system is perfect and lacks the need for improvement.)
Many young Nepali are leaving the country. So someone is fortunate to receive a good degree—then what? Well-paid job opportunities are scarce. There is little hope for change in the near future. At least, this is what I learned from Nilima, the woman I sat next to the flight from Qatar to Nepal. She and her boyfriend had emigrated to Chicago; most of their friends were scattered around the globe. It is also a theme in the books of Samrat Upadhyay, a Nepali American author.
“In Nepal maybe parents—don’t tell kids to dream,” says Kaushila. “Maybe it is useless.”
Later, in Kathmandu, I would meet Shailesh Adhikari, the Director of Social Inclusion & Research at Holistic Development Nepal, an organization which runs projects in areas like Action & Policy, Education, Social Equity and Justice, and Livelihood Improvement. He has given me more context:
“Firstly, geographical complexities coupled with low infrastructure development in rural areas have a huge role to play in limiting the access of otherwise hard-to-reach populations across the country.
Another aspect to note is the micro-politicization of education and other public services. Political leadership or their kin holds ownership of most education and health institutions, resulting in an “elite first” system and process. This also reflects in the unjust distribution of subsidies such as scholarships in technical education (such as medicine and engineering).
Finally, the inability of rural (usually less educated and poor) populations to get timely information (notices about scholarships, admissions) is also an underlying factor, although there is a reservation/quota system for dalits (so-called lower castes), marginalized, disabled, and minorities.
There are millions of things that affect public service delivery in Nepal and similar underdeveloped parts of the world. I have just tried to summarize the major Nepalese pretext here.”
In the Kulungs’ yard, Saksa and her cousin allowed David to rest only once he collapsed in the grass from exhaustion. The fog had come in. It was as solid as a color or a wall. I watched it as the two began to climb the trail to return home. Upon inspection, the fog was not really solid. Inside were masses of silver and gray, shifting slightly, like the inside of a crystal ball. Halfway up the slope, the cousins vanished inside.
Tuesday, May 17, 2022
After a picking, Deepak and Kaushila dump the harvest onto bamboo mats and slide them onto the roof to dry. Some of the roofs are tilted and, sometimes, one will hear a sudden scrape, and out of the corner of the eye, see a mat leap off the roof and hit the ground in an explosion of tea leaves. Deepak comes running, calling “Katam!”—“Disaster!” Other times, clouds race over the sun, rain starts, and Kaushila has to dash outside to shuttle the leaves to shelter.
By the afternoon, some of the leaves we’d picked in days before had dried enough for hand-rolling. Kaushila dragged a mat into the shade; she, Baptiste, and I sat around it. We were each assigned two handfuls of wilted, rubbery leaves. The technique is similar to that of kneading dough, except instead of applying all pressure vertically, one also applies horizontal pressure, so that the leaves make up a sort of loose, bulky rolling pin. The “rolling pin” sheds leaves with each knead, so part of the technique is constantly sweeping the stray leaves back in. An hour spent hand-rolling is an hour of core and upper-arm work. Kaushila, who has been rolling for two decades, also feels it in her wrists.
“Is there a machine for this?” I said. “Then you wouldn’t have to hand-roll anymore.”
“Yes,” she said. “But too expensive. Four hundred. Five hundred dollars. Maybe.”
“We could put together a donation campaign,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “we buy machine. Yes?”
“Then we have to pay for electricity.”
“It is a lot. You know?”
Kaushila sent us back into the tea shrubs to harvest needles for silver tea. As we worked, we chatted about our next steps: India, Malaysia, or for some, back to Europe. Fog edged up the mountain so that the hot day became cool. Fog obscured entirely the face of the adjoining mountain. It cleared briefly near the top, so that the village there appeared to be an island floating in the sky. Then that spot filled too and we were surrounded by fog as one is surrounded by water when looking downward during a deep-ocean snorkel.
During dinner, some volunteers continued to go over their travel plans. Deepak and Kaushila listened from their place by the stove. “How about you two?” said Miles amiably. “Where would you go?”
“Don’t know,” said Deepak. “Maybe Europe. Maybe America. We heard a lot from our volunteers. We learn a lot too. We really—wants to travel.”
“I’d be happy to host you,” someone said.
“Me too,” said someone else.
“Cannot get visa,” said Deepak. “Hard to be in ‘poor country.’ Other countries see you are from Nepal and they don’t give visa.”
“Ah,” I said. “They want people to come and spend lots of money.”
“Even if someone wrote you an invitation letter?”
“Still very hard. Almost impossible.”
Visa and plane tickets aside, Deepak and Kaushila must consider room and board. The cheapest meal in a typical American city is cost-equivalent to ten Nepali meals. I do not know whether any American hotel charges $9/night, which is what some places charge in Kathmandu. But if I did locate an American hotel for $9/night I don’t imagine I’d sleep there without my own mattress and a bulletproof vest. Western tourists visit Nepal because the cost of living there is several times cheaper. For the same reason, most Nepali cannot hope to visit a Western country—“wanderlust” is not a personality type, but a privilege.
“Maybe one day,” said Kaushila. “For now we visit other countries—through the volunteers that come. They show us photos. They teach us a lot.”
Wednesday, May 18, 2022
For two days now, Deepak was sick with a cold. Kaushila picked it up and did not leave her room all of Tuesday. I woke up on Wednesday with a sore throat and runny nose. I went into the kitchen for warm water and salt, a gargle which has yet to disappoint me.
“Nepali way,” said Deepak.
He poured a cup of boiling water and mixed in turmeric and salt. “In the end you can drink some too,” he said.
I did not make it to the drinking part. I gargled too soon. The hot water decimated my throat and I could not bring myself to put it any further down my gullet.
We picked needles, this time for golden tip tea. I felt woozy but the sun and sweat were good, I think, for recovery. I wiped again and again at my insurgent nose with single squares of my toilet-paper rations. I pumped ginger tea into my system. Kaushila was present for the making of one cup, and offered to add raw honey from a neighbor’s bees. She tipped the jug to show me. The honey was so sturdy it did not budge. “We save this for medicine,” she said, digging a spoon into the upper crust. “Very good honey.”
“Thinc yu,” I said nasally.
I was sipping this honey ginger tea, watching the kittens, when Bili crept up the stairs. Something black was bent backwards in her mouth. I went in close. It was a live salamander. The kittens went mewling to Bili as usual, seeking milk, and she dropped it in their midst. It bulged, thick and slimy, over tiny crooked legs. It was almost the size of a finger banana. It scuttled a few feet forward in lazy escape. Bili caught it again and dangled it from her teeth. She looked piercingly at her kittens. There was a challenge to the look. Then she turned the look on me. I put a challenge in my eyes too, like, “You better either take that back downstairs or kill it before it runs into my room, I swear to God.”
She dropped the salamander again. The kittens eyed it nervously. The salamander waddled away. Bili batted at it, but missed. It waddled into a crack in the wall and disappeared.
“You f*cker,” I said to Bili.
She shrugged one shoulder, like, “We’re next to Baptiste’s room, not yours.”
“With my luck,” I said—I had been grumpy all day because I, out of all six volunteers, was the only one to catch the cold—“it’s going to end up in mine.”
I went into my room to read and keep watch. Nothing came under the door over the next hour. I was pleased. I went downstairs in better spirits. A man was coming down the trail from the village road, swinging a metal pail. “Bili Bili Bili Bili Bili,” he said.
Bili scampered over to investigate. The man began tossing small blobs out of the pail. Blind, pink, naked, and squirming: live baby rats.
I was all smiles with the man. As soon as he left I lost the smile. I pointed at Bili. “You didn’t deserve a single one of those,” I said.
She gave a plaintive meow. Overhead, the kittens scurried out onto the roof, craning their tiny necks, hoping that she was talking to them.
Thursday, May 19, 2022
Over nine hours I managed to sleep off the cold. However, my nose was still running. By midday only two squares remained in my toilet-paper rations. I was accustomed to rationing toilet paper, as I live with roommates in America, and we play this terrible game where none of us wants to purchase the next pack of toilet paper, and we try to wait each other out; there are no rules to this game; it was never really begun; no one has ever said it aloud. But even this game could not have prepared me for the intensive rationing I did at the tea farm.
“Do they have toilet paper at the shop up the road?” I asked Kaushila.
“No,” she said. “We do not use here. We never saw it until tourists. But in Fikkal they have—for tourists.”
After dal bhat, I ran a Google image search on toilet paper, took a screenshot of the results page, and hiked fifty minutes to Fikkal Bazar, where the weekly Thursday marketplace was underway. Sellers from across Ilam had traveled to Fikkal Bazar to hawk their goods. Men and women sat behind blanket spreads of food, spices, clothing, shoes, backpacks, plastic pots, and keychains. A man stood slicing fish on a scythe. I went along showing my toilet-paper screenshot to shopkeepers for maybe half a mile (no one spoke English). Finally, a man gave me a jaded nod, pushed a swivel chair to the back corner of his shop, and climbed onto it. He rummaged through a stack of notebooks and, at last, dug out a single roll of dusty, fun-size, plastic-wrapped toilet paper.
I took it in both my hands. I held it that way. I might have raised it to the light too but one can only go so far. I put it in my string bag and took a different route home to evade the shopkeepers who had previously witnessed me charging through the market with eight thumbnails of toilet paper on my phone screen.
By the time I got home, I was, unsurprisingly, soaked in sweat. My Nike sandals had failed me and my right foot had a new blister, which was bleeding and numb. I went up to my room thirsting for a shower and a Band-Aid. I opened the door. Squatting in the center of all my folded clothes was Bili’s salamander.
“Bili!” I yelled.
She was conveniently absent.
I blew my nose and changed into shorts—in Nepal, it is uncommon for women to expose their legs, so I spent my outside time, no matter how hot, in cargo pants. As I changed, the salamander did not move. It sat fatly. It stared in opposite directions. I retrieved my roach-catching Ziploc bag, snuck up behind it, and lowered the bag in front of its face. I inched the bag toward it. In a flash, it ducked the bag and scuttled two feet to the right. I tried again. It scuttled inside my folded overalls. I dumped it out. It made a dash for the corner of the room. A flash of heat went up behind my face. My shorts were already damp with sweat. My blister smarted. Also, I was starved. I grabbed the edge of the bed and flipped it over. Using the Ziploc bag, I tried to force the salamander out through a crack in the wall, figuring I would duct-tape the crack afterward. Alas. There was not a single crack in the wall.
Thirty minutes later, I requested help from Miles. He brought a bowl and we chased the salamander for another several minutes. Out of desperation Miles chucked the bowl like a Frisbee; God spoke; the salamander got capped underneath. We used one of my manuscripts—ironically, titled “An Absence of Fear”—to scoop the contraption. We took it downstairs and let the damned salamander free by some kush grass.
“Nice,” said Miles. “It gets a second chance at life.”
“I hope not,” I said. “Where’s Bili?”
I cleaned the manuscript with a Lysol wipe but did not touch it for the rest of my trip.
Friday, May 20, 2022
I got into cargo pants and a tee. I put an arm through a sleeve of my puffy jacket; a roach flew out. It bounced off the wall and landed on the floor. I looked at it. I looked at my roach-catching Ziploc bag. I Lysoled my jacket sleeve and left the room.
The house and farm next door belong to Deepak’s brother. The day before, the family had stood a five-foot speaker in the garden, and from dawn to dusk, blasted bass-boosted traditional Nepali dance music at nightclub volumes across the valley. On Friday, the music started again at 7:00am. The speaker was not aimed at the house, but away from it, at the distant horizon, so that it was very possible the music was felt in the bone marrow of every villager in the five or six adjoining mountains.
In the kitchen, I said to Deepak, “Your brother has a pretty nice speaker.”
“Yes.” He listened, and then performed a few seconds of the Sakela dance. “Planting rice,” he said, making one motion. “Harvesting.” The dance became a step forth, step back, scoop of the arm.
I moved my foot one inch and stopped myself there. “You do not want to see me dance,” I said.
“Haa haa!” he said.
“Why’s the music facing away from the house?”
“Louder like that. Want people to know—there is party.”
“What’s the party for?” I said. I had learned recently that it is not customary for the villagers to celebrate birthdays; in fact, many don’t know the exact dates they were born.
“Once a year,” said Deepak, “every family in village give amount—like NPR1000—to one family. Today—my brother family. He have big party, collect money. In future he will pay back—with interest.”
“Like a community loan.”
“Yes. Kinds of.”
“Is your turn coming up?”
“Maybe we wait five years. Every family gets maybe every seven or ten years.”
All morning, people from Arubote and its neighboring villages passed through Deepak’s yard to get to his brother’s house. Everybody seemed in grand spirits. The music blared nonstop. In my head all consciousness of other musical genres was beginning to get crowded out. Deepak and Kaushila went to attend the party, but came back once every few hours to check on the house. Deepak, of course, had to feed the goats.
“How is it?” asked Fleur.
“Tired,” said Kaushila. “Lot of people. Lot of cooking.”
For our afternoon snack, she carried in bowls of food from the party. There was chowmin—a Nepali version of the Chinese chaomian (on American menus, spelled chowmein)—and sweet fried dough.
In the evening, we were invited to the party. We followed Kaushila toward the noise. When we got close to the house, we started to see fir tree needles spread on the dirt path. “So people don’t slip,” Kaushila explained. We passed a station under a tarp where five men cooked over a gigantic wok in which they could have easily stir-fried a full-grown adult. Beside it was the dishwashing station, where partygoers scrubbed through heaps of plates using ash and metal-tooth sponges. Someone had thrown a cloth over the loudspeaker to spare the valley a few decibels. There was a tent where people sat around in wooden chairs, eating. There was another tent where men traded cash, ate peanuts, and made marks in a notebook.
A young man with scruffy black hair and energy in his eyes tended a cauldron of boiling water. Seeing us, he pulled six chairs into an oblong. “Come sit,” he said. “Tatu pani?”
He passed around steaming steel cups and introduced himself as Deepak’s cousin-brother. “My farm,” he said, smiling. He pointed over his shoulder.
“What do you grow?” I said.
“Tea,” he said. “Squash.”
“You sell it?”
“Sort of. Survival production.”
“We eat,” he said. He had stopped smiling. “Not easy.”
“No,” I said.
“We are very difficult here,” he said, fully serious now. “You know?”
“Ah,” I said. “I see,” I said.
And then I did not say anything. I did not know what to say. I stared mutely at him, and he at me. I wanted to reply with more, but had no words, and he too had no words, though for a different reason, for he seemed to have reached the limits of his English.
Once Kaushila mentioned, in passing, that bringing foreigners into Arubote can be complicated for both their family and their neighbors. And so I, a foreigner, happened to be born into the life that I have, and this man his. Perhaps we are both good people, or bad people, or more practically, a mix of both; perhaps we have similar proportions. What can this mean besides some inconceivable luck of a draw that never happened? Hindus and Buddhists can understand it by logic of karma. Logic is a wonderful comfort. Many have other religions or no religion—what then? Statisticians, mathematicians, scientists can explain everything with logic of numbers. Yet numbers fail to capture a birth: from nonexistence to existence; from nowhere to here, and importantly, not any there, but here.
As travelers, we ought to be wary, in certain situations, of indulging ourselves with the idea that we are some sort of intrepid adventurer. For in these situations we are no more adventurers than interlopers, walking with our binoculars banging on our chests through the doors of someone else’s ordinary life, in which they are the protagonist of a story that we, living in our own stories, can never truly enter, no matter with which manner we try.
Saturday, May 21, 2022
In the afternoon Kaushila set out large baskets. Attached to them were fabric straps which one would brace around the forehead to carry the basket. Kaushila did not demonstrate, but sent us directly to the tea farm, where Miles, Baptiste, and David, the only volunteers remaining, set their baskets atop the shrubs and tossed leaves in by the handful.
“You’re not wearing it on your head?” I said.
“I can never tell whether or not I’m actually throwing the leaves into the basket,” said Miles. “It’s safer this way.”
“It keeps slipping for me,” said David. “But you can try it.”
Up until then, we’d been picking needles, which were small enough for fabric bags. Today, we were picking one needle and two leaves, to be processed into green or black tea. A fabric bag would fill within minutes.
I waited until Kaushila came down the trail wearing her basket. I watched: she plucked leaves with both hands, and when she couldn’t hold any more, tossed them backward, over her head, into the basket. I waited some more until she took a phone call. I braced the strap on my forehead and plucked covertly and ferociously. After the first backward toss, I twisted around to assess my aim. The leaves had hit the side of the basket and stuck there. But they had stayed inside.
Harvesting wearing the head-strap basket was like walking with a stack of books on one’s head. I kept at it for another hour—Kaushila hung up the phone and moved along down her row, sometimes in silence, sometimes humming a tune. Then I gave up and set the basket atop the shrubs.
In the evening, as I sat splitting beans for dal bhat, Deepak taught me about their religion: Kirat, indigenous to the Kirati ethnic groups (“mountain people”) of Nepal, Darjeeling, and Sikkim. Approximately five percent of Nepali are Kirat. They worship Mother Nature, their ancestors, and relationships among living friends and family.
“Main thing,” said Deepak, “is this: from nature we come, to nature we return. Everything is nature. Sun. Air. Water. Soil. Plants. Trees.”
“So you don’t believe in an afterlife or reincarnation?” I asked.
“When we die, we will be buried in ground,” said Deepak. “After some time we grow to tree or flower. To nature we return.”
“Do you have gods?”
“Our ancestors. Yalambar is man, Sumnima is woman.”
“Dhanyabaad,” I said. “I had not heard of the Kirat religion before. I was only learning about Hinduism before I came to Nepal.”
“Most of Nepal is Hindu,” said Deepak. “There is caste system. Even we do not believe in caste system they treat us like in caste system—you know? Because it is their religion.”
In my later conversation with Shailesh Adhikari, I would learn:
“In Nepal, the caste system is embedded into social and economic lives of people regardless of religion or political alignments. To be more specific, caste system is a form of systemic discrimination that is reflected in day-to-day realms. Of course, it is a criminal offense to preach or advocate the caste-based discrimination according to Nepalese law but the problem lies in the practical applications of the interpretations.
Caste system is not overtly discussed in law or policies but at the same time it is covertly internalized into people’s mindset. The new generation (mostly) disregards the caste discrimination but orthodox social and economic structures still possess discriminatory practices.
It would be incorrect to say that caste-based discrimination is supported by policy responses because there have been numerous policy reforms to outcast this systemic discrimination. The real problem lies in the righteous implementation of such policies. Again, the issue with implementation is that orthodox socio-economic systems prevailing over centuries often cloud the people’s perspectives.”
That night, Bili brought her kittens a mouse. One kitten gnawed on the head as its siblings watched unblinkingly. Finally the skin tore. Wet innards came into view. At the first taste of blood, as if by instinct, the kitten began to emit a low, throaty rumble. He had played tenderly with his siblings only moments ago; now, whenever one approached him, he hissed and flashed his teeth. He straddled the mouse to get a better angle and chewed through the skull. He was hardly bigger than his prey. Again, a sibling tried to get closer. The kitten snarled. The sibling shrank back, trembling.
Gradually, the siblings moved under Bili and began drinking milk. It took the kitten an hour to finish the mouse. Only then did its siblings move in, with timid half steps, and lick quietly at the scraps.
Sunday, May 22, 2022
Day off. Will say no more because this write-up is already 3x the intended length.
Monday, May 23, 2022
The usual. Again, must keep brief. Around four, clouds moved in, and a violent rain began to fall. It was a breed of rain which I would later dub diarrhea rain. It slammed down on the sheet-metal roof and jetted over the edge like a waterfall. The noise was so loud I had to yell at Deepak to be heard, and he was standing just two feet away. Rain oversaturated the dirt and pooled in the grass. The lily pond overflowed. A spongy white membrane rose to the top. A sack of frog eggs, said Kaushila.
Tuesday, May 24, 2022
Something new today: garlic harvest.
Kaushila and I carried head-strap baskets down to the plot behind the kitchen, along with blunt tools which looked halfway between a hoe and a pickaxe. We slammed the tools into the soil, pulled up the soil, and shook it, exposing the heads of garlic tucked inside. After yesterday’s diarrhea rain, the soil had the consistency of clay. Often I had to grab a chunk and split it with a squeeze of my hand.
The harvest lasted an hour. We spent the entire interval bent over at the waist. At some point, my spine began to tingle. My lower back became a closed accordion which, when I finally stood straight, got dragged painfully and unceremoniously open.
Our efforts filled about 85% of the basket. The garlic was small; many cloves were the size of pebbles. Kaushila and I commiserated over the back pain for a few minutes, resting in the dirt. In the background the goats screamed for Deepak, who was out, going door-to-door speaking to parents about the public school’s certificate program.
“I feel like that,” said Kaushila suddenly.
“The goat sound,” she said. “We harvest only one basket.”
“You usually harvest more?”
“Last year, four baskets. And this”—she held up a loose clove between two fingers—“so small, cannot hang up to dry.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “Do you know why?”
“Too much rain. Next year I plant earlier.”
“Maybe. Also mole come. They do not eat the garlic—they just dig the tunnel—destroy roots. Hard to find mole. Maybe two or three. We find one day but Bili does not like to eat.”
She tossed the clove at the basket. It missed. She did not move to retrieve it.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“No,” she said. “Do not be sorry. It’s nature.”
“You’ll have to buy garlic from the marketplace, then?” I said.
“Yes. But prices rising. Gas price rise, other price rise.”
“Are you getting paid more for your tea?”
She smiled. “No,” she said. And she heaved the basket onto her back.
Wednesday, May 25, 2022
Kaushila and I spent sunrise in the yard. She repotted flowers in front of the kitchen. I sat in the grass and pricked the blisters from garlic harvest with a needle to let out the water.
Just before tea picking, we were hit with another diarrhea rain. Deepak declared a rain holiday and we sat beneath the alcove of the blue house, shouting at each other over the clamor. The sky had the electric pale shine of a fluorescent lightbulb.
Many of Nepal’s difficulties, Deepak told me, come from its landlocked position between two big countries: India on three sides, and China right over the mountains. Geography poses a challenge to importing and exporting. Fast population rise in Nepal has caused the country to rely on imports, a fact which my friend Shailesh later corroborated. Shailesh clarified that Nepal has no strong production sector of its own: Nepali businesses buy from foreign companies, sell inside Nepal for a profit, and then use the profit to buy more from foreign companies. As a result, the money does not stay within the economy. The same goes for remittance, money sent home by the many Nepali abroad. “That money comes in and passes right back out,” says Shailesh. “What do people buy with remittance? Goods like smartphones—produced by foreign countries.”
As Deepak puts it, “Nepal is too reliant on other countries.” The best solution, according to Shailesh, is the tourism industry. Nepal is the perfect travel destination: trekking routes in the Himalayas and Mt. Everest, safari tours of Chitwan National Park, the lake in Pokhara, great food, great music, all available for eye-bogglingly cheap prices. In Shailesh’s mind, tourists will bring in the money that the country needs.
That night, we made momos. Kaushila’s recipe turned out to be almost ingredient-for-ingredient the same as my grandmother’s recipe for Chinese dumplings. After we mixed the stuffing, Saksa and her little cousin sprinted into the yard hoping for Ice and Water. Instead, they were recruited by Kaushila to help with the momos. They sat in chairs—it dwarfed the little cousin—and rolled momo peels. Saksa worked with straight-backed precision: all village children know how to cook full meals by age six, so that they can cook while their parents are out working. Saksa’s cousin struggled more with the peels, needing extra flour to keep them from sticking to the rolling pin.
For dessert, we each chewed a cardamom seed: a minty crunch. We went out into the rain-fresh night. Three goldfish lay belly-up in the pond. Deepak brought them to Bili and her kittens. Soon, each time they shifted their positions, their jaws shimmered gently with tiny orange scales.
Thursday, May 26, 2022
“Two more nights,” said Deepak. “And then you leave. Oh, no.”
“Oh, yes,” I said.
“Oh, no,” said Deepak.
“We don’t think about it,” I said. “No such thing.”
It was Thursday, so the weekly marketplace was underway. A drizzle started as we left the farm; Kaushila lent me an umbrella. By the time we reached Fikkal Bazar, the drizzle had magnified into diarrhea rain. Sellers yanked plastic sheets over their goods. Shoppers ran for shelter. A kid with a beak-like nose trampled a seller’s display of slippers and received a ferocious berating.
The marketplace takes place along a street under a tarp. The rain hammered onto the tarp; at one spot, the tarp had not been pulled tight enough, and rain pooled instead of sliding off. This spot was located near the tarp’s edge—the pool grew bigger and heavier until, ultimately, it spilled in a torrent onto the ground, splashing the women sheltering in a shop nearby. The women shrieked and giggled. The procedure repeated: the pool grew, got dumped, grew, got dumped. I stood watching the cycle as Miles bought a “North Face” backpack—there are plenty of brands available for cheap prices in Nepal, but they are almost guaranteed to be fake.
The diarrhea rain eased into a normal rain. Shoppers, after handling dirt-flecked vegetables, tugged on the edge of the tarp to rinse their fingers in the collected rainwater.
We were stopped from crossing the Mechi Highway by a river of brown water which surged along the side. “Dirty,” said Kaushila. “Sewer overflow. We take different route.”
When we entered Arubote, the sky was clear. But the dirt road had become an obstacle course of wet mud over hard earth. Tire treads had caved; here and there, rocks jutted out. Every step required full attention, or else one risked slipping and dropping the load of groceries. I’d been tasked to carry a stack of pails, which Kaushila purchased to repot her chili plants. The top pail was filled with fresh tomatoes and spinach. I carried the stack by the metal handle and soon the tips of my fingers turned blue. I shifted the load onto my right hip. In my left hand I held the umbrella, whose stem, it turned out, was slicked with rust, which now slid wetly and orangely down my arm.
Every ten minutes, I maneuvered the groceries onto my other hip and switched the umbrella to the other hand. In this way I made it back to the blue house, trailing slowly behind Kaushila, who, making this trip once a week, picked her way among the mud and rocks with no great concern.
Friday, May 27, 2022
“Last day,” said Kaushila. “You can pick whatever you want—wherever.”
“Oh God,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“No,” I said, “thank you.”
She shook her head, amused.
My harvest was interrupted by another diarrhea rain. I ran up to the alcove and pushed the bench inward. Still, rain sprayed onto it. I pushed my boots to the far wall and sat facing the downpour. Deepak came out of his room.
“Look,” he said.
He opened his photos and tapped. “My son,” he said. He swiped to the next photo. “Turmeric harvest.” A swipe. “My son. He likes this kinds of food.”
“He really has Kaushila’s mouth,” I said.
“Haa haa!” said Deepak. “Fifty-fifty. He is fifty-fifty.”
We scrolled through his phone to the beginning of time. The rain did not give any sign of letting up. Deepak suggested that I use the time to make my tea purchase, for which I had already cleared out 60% of my backpack. I called Miles, the only volunteer left besides me, and one by one, we dashed through the yard to the kitchen.
The Kulungs sell tea leaves in factors of 500 grams. To measure, Deepak used a hanging balance scale and weights of 500 or 1000 grams. He packed the leaves into silver foil bags, folded the openings, and taped them. Miles and I sat diligently labeling the silver packets, which had the appearance of astronaut food. The rain stopped as completed the last purchases. I was satisfied with my backpack: despite being a school backpack, it fit everything I needed for a month, in addition to three kilos of tea and turmeric.
I was glad for the sale. As Deepak sealed his bags of tea leaves and moved them back into the closet, a sense of closure seemed to expand among us.
He shut the closet door and sat down. “One more night,” he said. He folded his hands on the table.
“We don’t think about it,” I said.
To which Deepak, as always, laughed.
Saturday, May 28, 2022
I woke up at 5:00am to pack. I finished packing at 5:07am. I lay down. I sat up. I walked in a circle. I got ahold of my backpack and carried it downstairs. I did not visit the kittens one last time.
Farewell with a host family carries a strange sensation; I always wish I could leave without a farewell, without a “one last time.” That way our final shared memories will be untouched by the strangeness. Naturally, one feels sorrow; we live together, we become close, sorrow is not strange. But we are each thinking, silently, as we look at the other, that we may never see each other again in this lifetime, a notion which casts the time we spent together into a dream state, despite the fact that we are still living in that time, breathing each other’s air, so it must be not a dream but reality. And just as I will go on to meet other hosts, they will go on to receive other volunteers. We are each only one small face in the other’s sea of remembered faces. Both sides recognize this, individually—but no one ever says it aloud. One feels dissociated from one’s protagonism—that, too, makes up the strangeness.
I went into the tea shrubs for a final harvest, and then we were eating a dal bhat of squash and green beans, and then it was 9:45am, and I found that my backpack was buckled and my boots on. I found myself shaking Deepak’s hands. The grip was firm. I turned away. I found myself at the top of the trail with one foot on the village road. Miles had already gone ahead. I glanced over my shoulder and saw, for a heartbeat, Deepak and Kaushila standing down below, under the alcove of the blue house, waving. I waved back but it was too quick; I did not make eye contact with either. And suddenly I was hiking the old road to Fikkal Bazar.
Miles and I hiked through two landslides, announced each time by a parked bulldozer. The mud there had become a slurry, crossed by dozer tracks, and once in a while my foot plummeted in to the ankle. I hiked past a group of villagers building a wall to prevent future landslides. They stacked pieces of shattered rock and wrapped them in place with wire netting.
In Fikkal Bazar, Miles took a bus to Dharan. I spent fifteen minutes asking locals how I could get to Charali. Eventually I boarded a shared Jeep. I rode it down the mountain. There was a situation involving the man next to me and the police; I would like to tell it, but it is largely irrelevant, as I arrived safely and as planned in Charali. The flatness of the land was startling after even a short interval in the mountains. I turned in a circle. I felt as if the regular 3 dimensions had rearranged into 2.5.
I wandered onto a bus, was instructed to cross the road, followed three locals’ directions around a bend in the highway, and ended up at a line of tuk-tuks. A driver offered to take me to the airport. I climbed in and he shut the door. Ten seconds into the drive the door opened again. That was all right. The tuk-tuk rattled; bells jingled; we raced forward, dirt blowing from the wheels. The driver wanted to talk to me face-to-face and twisted around each time I answered a question; the tuk-tuk would beeline for the shoulder; I would finish talking; he would spin around and swerve us back onto the road.
He dropped me off at the turquoise gates of Chandragadhi Domestic Airport. It was not as hot as the day I landed. I sat on a bench and looked around. Already the flatness of the land seemed normal. I could not even see mountains in the distance. Any farm I had gone by in the past hour was a flat, dull plot; I had long left behind the billowing emerald fields of the high mountain villages.
Deepak’s father and his friends were the “true innovators,” as Deepak says. They were the first to bring tea to Arubote Village. Neighbors thought they were crazy. A few years later, every family in the village had a tea farm. This changed the economy of tea farming. Last year, Deepak and Kaushila tried to dig up a row of tea shrubs, thinking to replace them with a crop they could eat instead of sell. It took an entire month’s labor to clear six square feet.
Perhaps one begins to understand when one sees the roots: strong, elegant, emerging as thick as human arms from the soil surface, beneath which they are even thicker, and entrenched deeply, so that to remove the plant, one must dig and dig, and, with no hope of digging all the way down to the bottommost tip, hack those beautiful roots apart.
Special thanks to Shailesh Adhikari for his generosity, time, and insightful remarks.
Eloi Boulangé took the photograph on which the cover-art illustration is based.
Gaurav Pathak and Jaird Meyer gave excellent travel advice.
Those interested in learning more may enjoy Samrat Upadhyay’s work.
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