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November 17, 1999 (Email)
Tihar Celebration

Ugh -- it's already 6:00.

Ok. Sommer arrived on Friday night from her post near Birgunj. On Saturday morning we walked through Janakpur to the buspark (a large dirt and gravel circle full of roaring, smoke belching buses and dozens of men poking us and screaming out the names of the cities where their buses were headed. Similar to the buspark in every other city but, gratefully, a little bit outside of Janakpur proper.)

Aside: Every bus has a crew of about four men who alternately drive, collect money, or hang from the side of the bus. The side-hanger's job is to go through a ritual of constant whistles and banging upon the side of the bus which somehow communicates when the driver should start or stop. Which is very frequently - the bus is never too full to let 10 more people on.

Janakpur was a jungle as we walked through it. This sounds like a metaphor, but it's actually somewhat accurate. Every shop-owner along the main roads had cut bamboo and large (about 8 feet) fronds from the plethora of banana trees in the area and planted them on the street in front of their shops, obscuring all of the building fronts. I'll show you a picture when you visit next summer.

We got a bus from Janakpur to Inaruwa, 4 hours east (including the three dozen stops along the way - including one where somebody's pet monkey jumped on my leg and scared me -- mostly because I didn't want to have to go to Kathmandu for rabies shots -- which two people from my group have already had to get -- one for a monkey scratch, the other for a rat bite). My head hurt upon arrival in Inurawa as a result of the Hindi music being blared throughout the entirity of the bus-ride. In Inaruwa, Jill (math teacher volunteer) and Elizabeth (drinking water volunteer) - both from my training group - live together. We immediately had to eat sael roti (doughnut-shaped piece of fried bread) and yogurt with their family. Elizabeth took off for Hile, in the hills, to enjoy the cooler weather. Jill made us some Macaroni&Cheese and Stove Top Stuffing - both from a recent package from her parents - for dinner. Yum. After dinner we watched the local kids set off fireworks (roman candles, etc) and looked at all the houses covered with 'Christmas' lights. Jill and Elizabeth's family is pretty well-off, so their house was covered with flashing lights. Very much like a gaudy, garish American house in December.

The next day, we visited Jill's school and a Newari family she knows that lives across the street. This is another very well-off family and they invited us all to spend the day. They forced us to drink their "traditional Tihar drink" (rice grain alcohol) and eat a lot of sael roti and vegetables. We had the usual conversations about how "poor and undeveloped" Nepal is (their words) and we were asked to explain why divorce is accepted in our culture and what we plan to do when we get back to America and how it's possible that we don't know. That night we had venison (actual deer meat!) with our dahl-bhat.

Oops. I already forgot something. The first night in Inaruwa (the Macaroni & Cheese night) at Jill and Elizabeth's, and also at a hotel we visited briefly that night for food, we had been visited by several small groups of Nepali girls who shyly sang songs (carols?) and asked for food or money. It seemed the proper thing to do was to give a small amount of money and some sael roti and sweets. The girls had, conveniently, brought a wicker plate along to collect the food and money.

The second night in Inurawa, at the Newari family's house, it was the boys' turn to make the rounds (notice again the separation of sexes in Nepali traditions and culture). Of course, as Nepali boys are wont to do, they had gathered into gangs of 20 to 30 in each group. The first group brought a stereo and, upon seeing white people, put in the one English language tape they had brought (the Vengaboys - a Nepali group trying very hard to sound American). Every time I've heard music played by a Nepali since I arrived here, it has been played on a low-quality stereo with one speaker (no stereo sound) at about twice the appropriate volume. This was no exception. We eventually got them to lower the volume to a bearable level.  [Editor's Note (7/30/00) : I've been notified that the Vengaboys are actually a Dutch band, not a Nepali group.  As the alert reader who emailed me put it: "I just didn't want the Nepali's to look bad cause the venga Boys are just dead awful..." -- KL]

Now, one thing you need to understand is that Nepali men are horrified by the the thought of dancing with women, so this "boy's night out" type scenario was perfect for them. They all started dancing together in the open area in front of the house - sort of a very energetic disco type of dance that defies description to anybody who hasn't seen a Hindi movie. It would look out of place anywhere except on a football field during halftime - by a group of female cheerleaders. They wanted nothing more than to see me dance, too. They could have cared less that Sommer and Jill were sitting there as well (exception - some of the boys were Jill's students and they were very amused to see her dance -- but they gave her plenty of space). For some reason I actually did dance with them (maybe it was the glass of traditional Tihar drink). I tried to show them how to swing dance, but I think it was too restrained for them.

The third group of boys brought a synthesizer and a microphone. One of the boys sang (actually fairly well, although they put the mike on that annoying reverberation setting which makes it impossible to actually tell what anybody sounds like or is saying. My theory is that the reverb setting was used because it made the presentation sound more "technical" which, to most Nepalis I've met, equates with "better"). One of the little doo-boppa-doo-boppa rhythmic background songs which can be played on any synthesizer was being played, and one of the boys would push a button now and then to change keys or add a percussion lick.

Every group that came got about 50 rupees and a pile of various types of rotis (ranging in taste from bland and greasy (sael roti), to bland and dry, to sweet, to very very sweet). When the singing was done, we went in for our venison meal.

Aside: Another example of Nepali humor - which I have yet to decipher. Until now I had thought Nepali humor was always connected to some form of personally detrimental comment about the person the 'joke' is being told to or about somebody nearby. But something else I've found many Nepalis seem to find funny is to ask me what type of meat I've been served and laugh when I can't say for certain whether it's goat or deer or bufalo.

The next day Sommer and I continued on to Shantinagar, about 1.5 hours away. A lot of the women had returned to their childhood homes, including my oldest sister - who I'd never met before - who had returned all the way from... Inaruwa.

The women were, of course, busy. They were putting together huge plates of food (the plates being made out of leaves which they had sewn together with some sort of long, twiggy vine). The food included vegetables, fruits, and various rotis. In the evening, all of the men gathered together to gamble. This is considered an appropriate thing to do during Tihar because it is a festival honoring Laxmi - the goddess of wealth. So I played cards with my two younger sisters and one of my sister-in-laws until I fell asleep.

The next day was the big day of Tihar - baii tika. Everybody from my huge family was there. Nine sons and daughters (including me), and two of the sons' families (two wives, three grandsons, and one grand-daughter). The two sons' families went inside to conduct the Tihar family ritual first. When they were finished, it was "my" family's turn - my father, mother, and eight brothers and sisters went inside. The sons sat in a circle ordered from youngest to oldest. The daughters walked clockwise around us three times throwing water and flowers on us. They then painted an elaborate, multi-colored tika on our foreheads. After each sister contributed to the tika, we were obliged to give them a present (usually an envelope of money) and touch our forehead to their feet. Oh, and they also laid one of those huge plates of food in front of us. I gave my two older sisters (who I don't know very well) 50 rupees each. To my two younger sisters (who lived with us during training), I gave materials to have a new coorte suruwal (Nepali dress) tailored. My two sisters-in-law who were present also put a plate of food in front of each son - making a pile of three huge plates in front of me, one on top of the other. I ate what I could of the bananas, apples, and coconut and started on the vegetables and roti until I couldn't eat anymore (most of one plate down). My family said I could save the rest for later -- just then it was time to eat dahl-bhat.

I have to mention that while I was waiting for the "ceremony" to begin, it was very moving to see all of the three generations of my family sitting together on the porch laughing and talking. It's a really happy holiday.

That afternoon, Sommer and I left for Dharan where we met Jill and, the following day, Elizabeth. We also ran into Dick and Joann -- two other education volunteers from my group. Dick is an exceptional volunteer - a 60+ ex-president of Alabama university. He is currently merely teaching, but will soon be working for the Ministry of Education and living in Kathmandu. A group of us are going to share the rent with him so we can afford a really nice place and have somewhere to stay when we get into Kathmandu. Dick will be a good landlord.

Have to finish up quickly for now -- it's terribly late. From Dharan - Jill, Sommer, and I continued to Dhankuta and visited the married couple in our group --- Sean and Lori Huff. These two are also pretty remarkable volunteers - and also a very happy couple in their late 20s. It was really nice to see that the other PCVs' living conditions are also very comfortable and sustainable for 2 years. The next day, Sommer and I made it the whole way back to Janakpur to see the Chait candle-lighting festival (a second Terai holiday that follows hard upon Tihar). I'll write more when I get a chance.....


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