One thing I’ve learned when travelling in Nepal is to always expect the unexpected.Today’s surprise was truly one of those moments.
But first – Yesterday. (10 April)
We arrived home in Khamding after a really long hard day hiking from Salleri.
The day was very hot. Height 20s or more. I was back to wearing my Sherpa dress. You know – the full length wrap around twice wool dress with heavy apron, plus hiking boots and a pack….. Talk about over dressed!
We descended out of filthy Salleri past the town’s southern garbage dump, along its sewer choked river, across a larger river, then began climbing along an eastern exposed ridge. This was in the full sun and the ascent was fairly steady with some steep bits to ensure ample sweating and huffing and puffing. Even Puri and Tendi were sweating. Before long I was way over heated. Tendi and Puri both realized this so set about showing me how to hook the hem of my dress up into my waste band. I was wearing no leggings under the dress so was franticly pointing this out to them – so they aren’t horrified by bare leg. It was not a problem they assure me as this is how it is done by the village women when the weather is warm or when they are planting or in mud. So with dress appropriately hitched up we set off again and it was much cooler having air circulating and less fabric around my lower legs. My apron provided a degree of modesty in the front. The back of my dress still dangled below my knees so that side was well covered. If it wasn’t so damn hot it would have been amusing – in fact looking back on this after a good night’s sleep – it was in the realm of hilarious.
This is not a tourist trekking trail so amenities are rustic and scarce. Our lunch stop was alarmingly humble and filthy but I’m still alive. We three all had soup to keep things easy for the young woman who cooked for us. You should have seen where she picked the veggies (well maybe not) and they were not washed before they were chopped by a crusty knife on a really dirty board. I guess the boiling of the soup water killed any potential nasty bugs that simply must have been lurking. The interior of this hovel was chokingly smoke filled but there was no shady place to sit outside that wasn’t quite cow or goat dung covered so I sat inside with Tendi and Puri in the semi dark (the only light provided by the open door way). The tea tasted smoked, the soup tasted smoked. I’m sure when we left we smelled smoked.
Gulping fresh air, we continued descending to about 2160 m, then walked along a very pretty river which chattered pleasantly as it flowed along its rocky course. Fresh spring green ferns lined its banks. Yellow mustard flowers and white and purple radish flowers were growing in a stone-walled field beside the path. Nearby very young lambs were frolicking around and bleating for their mums who were busy munching lush grass. Blooming Rhododendron and scented pine trees provided shade. New potato plants were pushing up through rich soft brown earth in another field. Nearly ripe barley was bending with the breeze in golden waves in yet another tiny field. That was the nicest part of the day. The joy of walking by the river was soon dispelled when we started the climb up to Khamding (2444m) – it was steep and hot! Took about an hour through quite dense forest. At one point Puri had to get a very large bull to move off the path. These can be dangerous creatures and this one did not go that quietly. Puri had to bounce a well placed rock off its nose to get the beast to let us by. There were some cows in the vicinity which may have accounted for its aggression. Finally we popped out on the windy and cooler hill top near a village close to Khamding. It was just before 4 in the afternoon. An almost eight hour day so far and we still had about half an hour left to walk. I was feeling a little foot sore and knee weary.
That final walk ended just in time. My much loved hiking boots were taking their last steps. They got me to Tendi and Lhamu’s home but only just. No wonder my feet were getting a little sore – both soles are loose, near falling off, and the boot seam just above one of those soles has opened into a gapping hole. They would not have lasted another day maybe not another hour without some kind of significant emergency care!
Now to the “unexpected.” No, the demise of my boots, while somewhat unexpected, is not the subject of this revelation.
Today (11 April) is a rest day before we return to Kathmandu tomorrow. It is also the day Tendi has a number of monks here doing a day long chant and blessing. I remain a bit mystified as to the exact reason for this except that it is necessary to have one’s home blessed every so often.
So by 6:50 this morning I’ve already packed up my bed and paraphernalia as it is all in the dining room where the monks will be doing their chanting. I’ve also washed my hair under the kitchen tap in ice cream headache cold water, washed my laundry outside in a basin with the hose of hand numbing cold water running into it, hung wet clothes on the line in the sun and wind, had two cups of tea and two hard boiled eggs. I’m then sitting outside in the sun reading, when along comes Puri – my porter of the last three weeks – thing is Puri has transformed from porter to monk….. Full red robes – I’m somewhat flabbergasted. He smiles is usual bright smile, bids me good morning and goes inside…. I follow him in. His English isn’t great but I try a complicated question anyway.
“Puri, are you a monk?”
“Yes mum, I monk.”
The follow up to this revelation is going to need too much English to continue with any line of query. So I just smile an acknowledgment to this obvious new fact, sit down with him and have cup of tea number three.
Tendi is down visiting mama and papa, I can’t wait til he gets back to explain how this works. When he returns I’m about bursting with curiosity.
“Tendi” I say, “Is Puri a monk?”
This is not really helpful so I persist. “I thought he was a porter.”
“No didi, Puri is monk. You didn’t know this?”
How, I wonder, was I supposed to know this – it’s not like he was wearing his monk robes while carrying my stuff around.
“But he’s been my porter for three weeks.” I’m trying to join the dots as it were.
I’m still confused. So I continue my line of enquiry with the eternal hope that I’ll eventually ask the correct question or make the right comment to illicit a response that makes sense out of this mystery. Asking the key question is sometimes the tricky bit in this part of the world. “How can a person be a monk and a porter?” I try.
“Two kinds of monks didi. Holly monks can not be married or do other work. Other monks can be married and do work. No way to earn money if you are a monk.”
So there you have it. Puri is a monk, and in order to support his family (he’s married and they are pregnant) he’s allowed to do work for pay.
Now he and his fellow chanters will receive a donation for today’s blessing work. This is how monks support themselves – when they aren’t farming or portering or doing whatever other work they find to make ends meet. Monks are often hired in these parts to perform spiritual services, marriages, flag pole raisings, births, deaths, new homes, and a myriad of general random blessings. The payment for these services is by donation in accordance with what can be afforded.
Tendi’s son, who is a monk, is a holly monk but he can change his mind on that at any time he wishes.
So there you have today’s issue of “Mysteries of Nepal unravelled.” And it’s just 8:30 – in the morning! I wonder what other surprises the day holds?
As I write this, I’m sitting in the kitchen. Tendi is smashing a huge mound of freshly steamed potatoes in a big wooden bowl at his feet with a massive rounded piece of well worn wood. Obviously a smashing stick. Lhamu is busy pouring mysterious things into her big black pot on the kitchen fire. The sound of drums, bells and chanting is coming from behind the curtained door to the dinning room. The chanting and music has been going on without stop for about an hour and will continue for the rest of the day. There is an elderly rather toothless woman with a large decorated gold ring in her nose sitting beside me. She’s drinking a tea cup full of Lhamu’s homemade apple roxy (a very potent distilled beverage). I’m drinking my fourth cup of tea for the morning. The third pot of Sherpa tea (yak butter, salt, milk and tea) is brewing – Tendi, Lhamu and the monks are consuming this as fast as it can be made. One of the monks brought a large beer bottle filled with milk over when he arrived to augment the jug of milk already here – from the next door cow as far as I can tell. And it’s now 9:45 am!
Oh – the old woman has now departed and a young man has taken her place he’s drinking Sherpa tea. He will be coming with us to Kathmandu as he has a portering job staring in a couple of days.
And it continues. It’s now noon and I’ve just had lunch – in the dining room with the monks. Why not in the kitchen with mama and Lhamu and the young man who has come to help with the serving and washing masses of dishes I do not know. Papa arrived some time ago and is in his monks garb too so there are a total of six. Three older fellows and three younger ones. I was sat beside Puri, one of the younger, and he took over deciding the volumes of food I’d have. He knows me well enough that he was able to ensure the portions were served within tolerable size levels.
I’ve now escaped from the red robed room and am back in the kitchen. Lhamu has just sat down for the first time today I think! Preparing a meal for 10 plus people on her fire has been quite a production. Tendi who was busy with meal preparations has recently disappeared to get cell phone reception so he can sort out our jeep arrival and departure times, confirm my hotel reservation in Kathmandu, and organize porters for his next trek with three clients in a few days. These guys just never have time to sit around – especially when they have a house full of chanting monks. Not to mention a didi from Canada.
It is now 6 in the evening. The day has continued with a constant stream of visitors and constant pots of tea being prepared and served. As the day progressed the tea was accompanied by increasingly numerous dishes of roxy. I slipped outside to read in the sun at the front of the house for a while. Tendi also snuck off and had a snooze behind the house. He said later he was being pressured by too many people for too many things. This seems to happen regularly when he comes home.
Mama came outside for a while too and we sat together. She brought me a very ripe banana. I went and got my hand cream and we rubbed cream on our hands. She seemed entranced by the softness and the scent. We “discussed” I’m not sure what – with my very limited Nepali vocabulary but it was a pleasant interlude to the busy goings on inside!
Lhamu is now serving everyone copious quantities of her roxy and beer (in separate glasses) whether they want it or not. One poor old lady has had her untouched bowl of roxy filled so many times it’s over flowing. I have an untouched bowl in front of me too but have firmly put my hand over it every time the refill jug comes near. I’m beginning to appreciate how extremely difficult it is to have a “no” respected as it flys in the face of intended “hospitality.” It feels quite rude to refuse, so I accept more and more cups of tea instead.
As the chanting came to an end about half an hour ago I was asked to join Lhamu, Tendi and mama in being blessed. This was a complicated procedure. First I was to bow my head down to a holly book in front of papa while receiving his blessing. Next I moved to the monk holding an ornamental bronze jug of water and a feather. Here I put out my hands palms up and he sprinkled a generous amount of water on them which I then rubbed onto my head. This was repeated three times so I had quite a drippy head by the end. He waved the feather around over my hands and head as it did this. Next I went to the monk with some powder in a small china dish which he put into my right palm. This I was to eat. I did so. I think it may have been a crushed cookie. Then a clear fluid was poured into my palm. I though it would be water but it was roxy. As instructed, I drank that. My expression enlisted a good chuckle from the six monks. All this bowing, head wetting and ceremonial eating and drinking was accompanied by chanting. Each of us went to the three monks in turn. The third monk told me in very careful English that now I would be lucky. This is good to know.
Three of the monks have now left, but Lhamu is insisting that one older fellow stay and drink. A younger one who seems to be his assistant is therefore also staying. Mama and papa are still here as well. Lhamu has now finally removed my untouched roxy and poured me a beer, despite repeated assurances I don’t want it. Karin and I experienced a similar situation when we visited. At that time Tendi was very much part of the drinking experience but he’s not drinking these days. He is being left alone as is papa who is a non drinker. It would be so much easier to to accept a drink. I’ve already had a peculiar concoction of warmed roxy, served with melted butter and pan fried dry rice. Not too unpleasant – the rice tasted a bit like pop corn but more crunchy. The drink had a powerful enough kick that I’m calling it quits while I’m still sensible enough to do so. Trouble is that in accepting one drink I’ve left the door open to be harangued to have another…..and another…. It seems the trick is to declare complete abstinence. Too late for that now.
7pm. Between all the drinks serving Lhamu is now also preparing the fifth meal of the day. At least now there are only six of us remaining. I really don’t know where she gets the stamina – she’s been in this kitchen for over 14 hours now! I’m exhausted and I’ve done nothing all day except bring in a couple of loads of wood. I’m well qualified for that task and have actually been permitted to do this one small thing.
Around 9pm Lhamu and I enjoy a quiet dinner together in the kitchen. She drinks my untouched beer and offers me more roxy, but finally accepts that I’ll have tea instead. Tendi has gone up in the village to meet with our jeep driver who has finally arrived from Kathmandu. He also ends up mediating a peaceful conclusion to a fight between two young men. Just before his return Lhamu ushers the last dining room guests into the kitchen to join the group there, and sets up my bed for me. (She’s had a phone call from Tendi asking her to do this.) Besides the toilet room, the washing up room, and Lhamu and Tendi closet size bed room there are only two other rooms in this house. I’m relieved because I was wondering if I’d ever get to bed as the numbers of people visiting are swelling again. I gratefully climb into bed and shortly after hear Tendi do the same in the little room he and Lhamu share. Meantime however Lhamu has a full on party going on in the kitchen. Just before I left the scene she was opening a second four litre jug of roxy…..
What a “rest” day!
(I’m lucky I sleep easily and deeply. The party went on to the not so wee hours of the morning.)