After a journey that began around 4am and entailed a cramped micro bus ride over a little less than 200km, and another 30km or so up the hills to the villages along the Kali Gandiki- the black river, I came upon something absolutely beautiful. During the past month and a half I've spent a lot of time in cities, so walking along a small dirt road past traditional farm homes and stretches of rice paddies and irrigation channels to the east and west as the sun began his descent over the hills was utterly soul affirming.
I had been invited to come along with my host family and a fellow traveler staying with them to celebrate the biggest Nepali festival, Dashain. The festival is a time of year where people in towns and cities flood back to their family homes. (Getting out of Kathmandu that morning was, to say the least, wild) The festival celebrates the victory of the goddess Durga, a representation of good, over Mashishasura a demon. The rational for the festival change region to region, and as I was informed by my host in Kolkata as we observed past Durga statues, there a great deal of interpretation that is left to believers' hearts and minds.
I slept on an open air patio that doubled as dining room, sitting room, and entrance to the home. I couldn't have asked for something better. It was a true gift to wake with the day: to see the sun come up as the mist from the hills in the south rolled down over the valley; to sip coffee under the snow capped Himalayas, stoic in their ever unmoving gaze, and listen as the village stir and rise; men walked their early morning paths thudding along the earth; water sloshed in tin cans carried by women and girls from the mountain taps; cutlery and fire clanged with the setting of the first meal, dhal bhat- rice and lentils spiced to perfection; maize was ground under the turning stone, tea was sipped with waking discussions and debates; the crank of shops opening, the putter of motorbikes setting out, much was to be done, Daishain was only day away; and I sat, content to listen.
The grandfather of this Brahmin family had served as mayor for the village of Dedhgoan. He was, as I picked up from all interactions that took place, a very respected man of the community. He woke early, well before sunrise. He made tea and coffee as he and his wife prepped for the early day. The coffee and tea came from the garden. I would say majority of consumables were locally sourced, although that is changing.
Grandfather and I (I referred to everyone by relation, Bhaba, Uncle, Aunt, Ama) were able to have a few early morning discussions on development and Nepal's future. He was reading a book written by the youngest member of parliament. It proposed a plan to lift Nepal out of the extreme underdevelopment that permeates it's countryside and cities. I mostly listened and asked questions. But as he described the enormous projects of mega-damns, the exporting of energy for capital that then would be used to develop infrastructure and manufacturing and producing potential of the country, I wondered if this was not just the replication of a model that is jeprodisring human life the worldover in the coming decades.
In celebrating the victory of Durga over evil, animals are sacrificed in reverence. Buffaloes are a staple sacrifice in symbolic recreation of the events, in which the demon Mashishasura was a shapeshifter that hid in buffalo. Durga cut of it's head so as to face him in a final battle. On our second day it was time for the slaughter. I anticipated this very much because during Eid, back in Morocco, I was bed ridden with a bad case of food poisoning and I missed witnessing the sacrifice that I had been seeing build up for a week or so. Not that I'm that crazy about animal sacrifice, but as someone who eats a meat and enjoys it I figure I shouldn't shy away from something that is in fact a whole lot more humane than the slaughter of the cows, pigs, and chickens that occur in factory slaughterhouses. My host, Dipak, said it might be possible to have the opportunity of sacrificing an animal my self. Unfortunately by the time the kids were taking me around trying to find someone who'd be willing to let me do the deed, it had all been done. The was an opportunity at a temple a few days later, but it was a baby goat and I didn't really want to do that.
In any case it was something to see. It's actually a very refined practice and there's quite a bit detail that comes into the who process across the village. I should say that the village is actually much larger than I was imagining. It is certainly remote, no highway for miles upon miles and not even a road connecting the Dedhgoan side of the Kali Gandaki. But the village has 4,000 people and 800 homes (I was told- I question that exact number. I would guess 400... And 80 families). All spread out over quite a bit of land. And given this there is a very complex social and ethnic network of both class and status distinction as well as kinship networks. So different groups, castes and ethnicities celebrate the festival in distinct ways, even down to the what type of animal that is sacrificed. Some people sacrifice pigs, others buffalo, and the family was staying with used goats. I'm not sure the significance. I imagine it has to do with the animals roles in the different groups' specific place in the division of labor.
Back to the slaughter. There was blessing with tikka for the goat, and a quick chop (In some cases two, or three...I would hope not more. More than two chop and another guy or girl probably should have done it) with the traditional short sickle and off comes the head. The blood is immediately begun to be collected, and before this has even started vats of boiling water have been prepped. As the blood is being drained and collected the boiling water is used to ease the process of removing the coat. A tin cup was used by scrapping vigorously all over the animal, both head and body. This is done as so to remove the coat on the body and head. As the coat comes off, turmeric goes on. It is meant to act as an antibacterial agent. More scrapping. The carcass is then hung up by its hind quarters and a small blow torch is used to cauterize the neck and burn off any more hair. All this is done with some urgency, you don't want any time wasted. The butchering started by slicing off the quarters and breaking the ribs down. A tarp is set out and the butchering into cookable sizes begins, this was to my eyes not a precise art. More of a slice and dice deal. The meat is weighed, part competition, part purchasing. The biggest goat was 34 kilos! Every single bit is used, meat that isn't cooked immediately for that days meals is sun dried and smoked. And man is it tasty.
The blood is used along with turmeric, cumin, ginger, garlic, and coriander to make a sort of curry, along with okra, pumpkin, green beans for different meals.
And with all great meals, there is good drink. In Nepal that is millet whisky. The name sounds like Roxie, I'm sure it would be spelled different, but the Nepal script is a complete different alphabet, in any case the word sounds exactly like the name Roxie. And the best Roxie is local Roxie. Brewed and distilled right at home. Kept in bottles with a corncob cork.
The absolute best meal I had throughout all of my time in Nepal took place in one of Dipak's friend and neighbor's (back in Kathmandu) home. He was of a different ethnicity, I believe Magar (which everyone thought I was) this group lived at the very top of the hill (small mountain) that sat to the south of the Kali Gandaki. After a nice walk up one evening we paid Mister, a visit for dinner. What was provided topped or at least competes with any meal I've had at some of the best restaurants in Ann Arbor. First came slices of pork belly and shoulder that had been freshly slaughtered that morning. The slices of pork were sautéed in what I think was a fish paste based curry with ginger, garlic, and chile. The pieces of pork belly were so succulent it was unbelievable. Along with it came some big jugs of beer and local Roxie. What came next was even better. Pieces of smoked dried fish that had been cooked in a similar manner, the smoke flavor was so rich it was incredible. It wasn't a char taste, or a smoke that's found in some street food that almost reminds me of ink..., no this was true wood smoke that had been captured in sun dried fish. I will look long and hard for fish hat can top that.
On the last night in the village, after dancing and music at the center, an old blind man who had come to visit the grandfather asked me- the only person who did not think I was Nepali as he could only hear me- what news I had from America. The translation was difficult because how could I say what I had to say? Plus Dipak, who was translating, was being called to help sort some matters out and could only give a few quick responses, plus he told me this man wasn't going to understand the things I had to say. But I was able to say this: "Changes, big changes are happening. And we don't know what to do with them yet..."
As I laid on the cot to sleep, listening to the night sounds and deafening silence that isolates that patch of country at night. I thought about what I had meant. Forget the election, I'm talking about trends and patterns of change that predate this televised mockery of democracy. Yet, these currents will certainly work themselves out with vindication as the results are heard in the late hours of November 8th.
The contradictions of the U.S.A, the land of liberty and slavery, of commercial progress and indigenous genocide -that continues to this very day- will forever in the stains of the nation's DNA. How that will be demonstrated or hopefully reconciled in months, years, generations down the line, I do not know. But the earth, the land, water, and sky that this so-called nation state claims dominion over remains a mass of pressing energy. Energy that moves with rhythms a so-called enlightened society has time and time again failed to understand.
A few days after I left Dedhgoan I returned the other side of the Kali Gandaki with some folks I met on the solo-bus ride to Pokhara after Dashain. They brought me to their home, more modest and earthen made. The grandfather coughed with what I'm certain is tuberculosis and a lifetime of cigarette and indoor wood (and refuse) smoke inhalation from indoor cooking. They asked a multitude of questions about America, we drank local Roxie, and watched videos of their slaughter a few days before. The night quieted and beds were taken up, I shared a bed with a two other young men, the older uncles across the ground floor, a few aunts and cousins in a lager mat in the corner and 5 more family members upstairs. The grandfather slept outside.
Later I stepped out. And in the night I saw the hills that shaped the horizon over the river glowing with dots of solar powered homes. I do not remember what I thought.
But I closed my eyes and I found myself upon a great vast darkness. The ground rolled out under me to all directions, mounting the horizon in low mounds. A red moon hung in the deep purple black sky. I ran on. The ground hard beneath my pace. The curse of no nation, the wildness of no tribe. What is this a practice of? Escaping death.
I came back to the sun dry hills of the country my bus from Casablanca to Chefchaouen drove through. The hills high and golden. Every so often sat upon by a man sitting. Watching. Gazing at the road carry buses and carts onwards. And every so often a few boys kicking futbol.
I was in Hero's plaza. The grey tiles and marble columns of soldiers with no names and Kings immortalized in stone passed and were photographed by eager youth.
I looked out a tram window at a courtyard where a fellow student pointed out a tree where Soviet proxy officials had been hung. I wondered what horrors awaited the would be revolutionaries when the soviet tanks rolled in.
Riding along the countryside/birthing city on the outskirts of pokhara with a friend and his truck, stopping at all multitudes of shops across the strange lake city that was both more rural than most small towns and more urban than the city I'm from. We came to a colony of connected homes next to a marsh where young men trawled for fish and children giggled and watched. My cafe working/tea and biscuit delivery man stopped to sort out a bad check from one of the vendors, I met eyes with a child peeking from behind the shop facade of cigarettes and biscuits. "Pani?" I asked, holding out 25ruppies. She obliged, trading a bottle of water for the two bills. Little did she know she had just met an American.
I made my way back to Kathmandu in time for Tihar, the celebration of lights that last 5 days or so, it seems to vary on caste etc., the bounds of brotherhood and sisterhood are celebrated with the giving of tikka to brothers. On the night Laksmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity is given puja (worship), I was back with Dipak's family. As the sun set, after cards had been played (and money won, 35 rupees by yours truly) the mandalas were alight with millions of lights across the city. And as we looked out from the roof across the Kathmandu Valley, a city usually of dust became truly a city of light and music. We played cards long after the sun had set and puja given.
I had no idea, when I arrived to Kathmandu, now almost a month ago that the roads I would walk though would be so dusty, and that cars and bikes come inches to your shoulder as you weave through streets along small creeks a float with the waste that capital cannot reuse, and that I would enjoy weaving and side stepping through the evening traffic. That I would walk into a sweet shop and be able to buy treats without a word of English (barley and Nepali) and never raise a suspicion that I was from halfway around the world.
The infrastructure, public service, and institutional tracks for democracy are abysmal; the poverty, obscene; the exploitation of all those by some more socially or politically powerful, particularly young women is tragic; but as Dipak told me and a fellow traveler as we walked to the morning bus leaving Dedhgoan, that in a report he ad been asked to compile he started it by saying: "The Nepali people are among the most resilient in the world." I doubt a truer thing could be said.
And now in West Bengal I sit in wonderfully comfortable and stimulating Kolkata home. Dinner will be soon. I look forward to chat with my hosts, Rono and Keya about our respective work and projects we've been at during the day.
The fire crackers that have rocked the sky over Kolkata for the past few nights have seemed to quieted this evening. The Durga Pujas have been trucked away. But yet, I await to explore this hazy marvel along the Hooghly for the next three weeks.