Dhal Bhat Days Vol 7
To view snapshots of Barbot – click here! (opens new window)
To view the photography of Nepalese village life – click here! (opens new window)
What the F have I done? Just when I was starting to settle in – I agreed to turn my little village world upside down again. I think the Dhal Bhat is making me crazy. I’m traveling through some of the worst conditions for the past 8 hours. Maybe it is more mental than anything physical, but after the 6th hour of sweating profusely, feeling disgusting, and now trekking in the complete darkness up a trail that I cannot see – I started to cry. You know that feeling, tears welling up in your eyes, throat tightening; on the verge of letting it all lose. However I soon realized that it would get me absolutely nowhere. It wouldn’t even make me feel better. In fact, it would make me feel worse.
It was that moment that I realized I was not on any ‘organized’ trekking outing or tour where there was a leader responsible for taking care of me and my safety; someone that knew tourists were different than locals; our cultures are vastly different. I realized that I had absolutely no choice but to keep going – keep following in the dark. I had surrendered to the fact that when we arrived at our destination there would still be no one to talk to, no shower, no clean clothes, no comfortable bed, no sort of ‘visitor’s welcome’. Instead there would be more people staring at me in an environment where I am a complete oddity.
Let me back up a bit, the principal of the school in Puma, Naba Raj, invited me to visit his village, Barbot. I was honored by the invite, but I actually had to stop and ponder this for a bit. This was not simply an invite to come across town and have dinner with his family. This was an invite for a journey down the mountain to Besisharha, to a local bus to another town, then yet another trek back up a different mountain. Naba does this every Friday to get to his home and it takes him 3 1/2 hours taking very steep shortcuts that I knew I couldn’t handle. So in my head this was more like a 6 hour journey if I was lucky. To top that off, in some weird way I had just become ‘comfortable’ with my little existence in Puma; the sleeping conditions, the toilet, the food. Did I really want to turn my little village world upside down again? Naba did not speak English very well so I knew that it would be a very solitary trip once again.
I decided to go. I felt like I was up for the challenge and I didn’t really have anything else to do, so what the hell. I decided in the name of photography and the Ottsworld blog I would accept his invitation.
I packed something to sleep in, my first aid kit, a pair of flip flops, my sleep sheet, toothbrush, soap, towel, and of course my camera and lenses. I didn’t have hiking boots, and decided to trek in my water sandals since the trails are normally wet and we frequently have to go through streams. These aren’t the ideal shoes to be trekking for 6 hours in, but it was really my only option. I tried to tell Naba that I was very slow and couldn’t walk as fast as him when climbing and descending. The Nepalese are like Kenyan marathon runners; fast beyond my comprehension. They wear cheap, plastic sandals that don’t fit and practically run up and down the steep stone trails that are typically wet and slick. I told him I preferred to stay on the jeep trail when possible as the other trails were the ones the locals used and were simply a vertical incline of stone steps. He obliged and we slowly made it down the mountain to the town of Besisharha. I was exhausted by the time we made it down as the sun was out and it was very hot. My clothes were soaked through with sweat. Naba had to stop at the education office in Besisharha so I simply sat and waited in an office. I found it amusing being inside an ‘office environment’ in a small town in the hills in Nepal. I compared their office with the cubicles that I was so used to in America. There were no computers, instead there were shelves and shelves of binders and stacks of papers. There were a number of ink stamps and a two hole punch that the women would use when they put another set of papers in a binder. I felt like I had stepped back into the 40’s.
We left the office to go catch a bus, but Naba soon learned that there were no buses running any longer due to mudslides. However, that story quickly changed when he talked to other people on the street. Actually, the story seemed to change every few steps, so we went to the bus area and waited. At this point I was at a mental and physical low, I was hot, sunburned, and hungry. I stupidly didn’t pack sunscreen, and I didn’t want to eat as I knew we would be on a bus that would turn my insides upside down; instead I had a coke and tried to imagine the sudden influx of sugar in my system energizing my mind and body. Soon Naba told me to follow him onto a crowded bus. We squeezed into a seat in the back near the window where the sun was beating down. I got out my pashmina and tried to drape it over me so that my sunburn would not get any worse. I squeezed into the back seat with 4 other people and my knees were crammed against the seat in front of me in a very uncomfortable fashion; I could not move an inch of my lower body. I said to Naba “The bus is running?” and he said that we wait here to see if it goes; it could be 2 hours before it leaves. I immediately started a mental panic….2 hours crammed in this seat in the sun going nowhere? I really wasn’t cut out for this. After about 45 minutes and 10 more people cramming on to an already full bus we left. I wasn’t sure if I should be happy or scared…so instead I just tried to shut my eyes and find a happy place. I surrendered in my head; gave up; I was just a puppet at that point and would do and go wherever anyone told me. We kept stopping to pick up more people who sat up on the top of the bus and after 1 ½ hrs of bumpy travel on paths that shouldn’t even have the honor of being called a road – we made it to our destination. Ahhhh – but this was not our final destination; we still had to climb up the mountain again for another 3 hrs.
We took a short break for a coke at a market stand and sat down. A crowd of people gathered outside to see the ‘foreigner’ drink her coke. I was a rather popular attraction and apparently word traveled fast. We took off along the jeep trail again and I felt a bit revitalized; Coke does wonders. After about an hour we stopped at a colorful little village for a break; Naba’s brother lived here so he welcomed us with a glass of milk. I was a bit intestinally apprehensive about drinking the milk, but they had boiled it so I thought that it must be ok. As we sat and drank warm milk, the crowd started to gather to come look at me. I was beginning to get used to this celebrity status. However it was already 5PM and it gets dark around 7PM, so we took off again, however this time there was no jeep road. Instead we had 2 hrs of steep uphill climb ahead of us that I don’t think I was mentally prepared for. I started off ok – but soon I was soaked with sweat, breathing heavy, and blisters had started to form on my feet. After an hour and a half, it started to get dark and that’s when I hit my ultimate low and started to cry as I was following Naba. My tears didn’t last long and Naba was aware of them because I realized that it did me absolutely no good to cry – no one was coming to rescue me, I just had to deal with it.
We arrived at Naba’s house and I dreamed of having a shower, a big hamburger and beer and then falling asleep in a comfortable bed, but I had to settle with washing my feet and hands, changing out of my wet shirt, having rice and beans for dinner, making my way to a new outhouse in the darkness, and then going to bed on a mat with no padding and various rats hanging out in the ceiling above me (thank God for ear plugs). Sleep came fast to me that night…but I can’t say that it was a good, relaxing sleep. The next morning when I could actually see my surroundings, I surveyed the area a bit and then they started coming, the family, the friends, the kids – it was as if I was an attraction at the zoo. They would all come and stare and talk to each other about me. I know they were talking about me because they would all talk a bit, and then look at me, then start talking again and look at me. This didn’t bother me too much, as every so often I would try to ask Naba what they were talking about and he would try to give me an explanation of sorts. I had to accept the fact that I was an oddity to them; this wasn’t a village on the tourist trekking route.
Naba and I spent the day walking from village to village around the area and I was able to photograph much of the daily life. Everyone wanted their photo taken, I was bombarded at times with photo requests. They would laugh in glee when I would show them the photo on the screen as if it were magic. As we would walk around it was as if I were the ice cream truck, everyone would come running. Kids would yell at their parents and soon everyone would come out and take a look at me. Naba had kindly arranged for me to talk with a few of his teaching colleagues that knew English rather well; this was really the nicest ‘gift’ anyone could give me besides a hot shower! These conversations were the highlight of my time there as I was finally able to ask some of the questions that I had been saving up for a couple of days. One man even had a masters degree in English so we talked about Nepali and American culture, politics, the role of women; it was delightful.
Seeing another village and staying with a different family provided me a different perspective. I realized that even in village living there are vast differences in quality of life. If I were giving labels – I would say that the family putting me up in Puma (Didi and Ama) were upper class and the Principal and his wife were middle class. Both well off in Nepali standards and well respected in their small communities; but there were subtle differences that I noticed in food quality, sleeping pads, size of home, clothing, size of kitchen and toilet. Little did I know, but I was living quite the ‘high’ life in Puma.
Even though I was enjoying my time in Barbot, there was something nagging me in the back of my mind…how hard was the journey back to Puma going to be. I dreaded the idea of having to do another 8 hr journey up and down the mountain and on a bus that may or may not be running. Naba had suggested that we go a different route back to Puma the next morning; one where it didn’t require a bus or the steep up and down, but the downside was that it would be a longer to trek and he warned me that there would be leaches. Wow…what a toss up….strenuous climbing and bus of death vs. leaches…what to do, what to do? Considering I hate doing the same thing twice – even if it is something that is known, I generally take the new path…so I opted for the leaches. After all, how bad could they be? Naba makes the trek to Puma via leach country in 4 hours, so I mentally prepared myself for a 7 hr. journey for my slow, old body.
The next morning, after many more photos (I seriously think the government of Nepal could employ me to simply go around and take family photos of village communities and make a directory) , we departed. Naba kindly provided me with a walking stick and carried one of my heavy bags. I think he did this in hopes that it would move me along a bit faster! The walk was hot and challenging at times, but I was doing fine and actually enjoying it until we reached the cold side of the mountain. Naba informed me that leaches congregate on the cold side of the mountain…a fact that I never really cared to know before.
Sure enough it was as if the leaches could smell the foreign white skinned person plodding slowly along and they took the opportunity to pounce on me. Over the last week I have become a bit more comfortable with the occasional leach – no problem; but 5 at a time did not make me comfortable. It was difficult to keep up any decent pace when I had to constantly stop to pull the leaches off my shoes. Eventually I just gave up and tried not to look at my bloody feet and just keep walking until we got to a clearing where I could take off my shoes and pull them off and try to wash off the blood. After 90 minutes of this, Naba decided to tell me that there is a plant that is supposed to keep leaches away and heal the wounds. He picked some and I happily rubbed it all over my feet and put it in my sandals as he suggested. I would have been willing to pee on my own feet if it would make them go away…so a plant seemed pretty harmless.
We had a final push up a steep section and finally arrived in Balugpani, the village only 30 minutes away from Puma. I was so focused on trying to climb that I didn’t even realize that we were close, but was relieved when I knew that I had actually made it back. As I trekked into Puma, I was greeted by my students who came running to me to say hello – a ‘welcome home’ of sorts. It actually felt good to get back to my familiar surroundings and see familiar faces in this small foreign village. A feeling that took me completely by surprise.