The Voyage of the Tomato

When I was studying abroad, I lived with a Sherpa family in the hilly region of Nepal for about a month. It was an amazing experience that introduced me to a side of Nepal very different from Kathmandu, the side I was used to. One of the best parts about living in the village was getting to know my host sister who was both patient and continually willing to teach me about her culture and life. Although her village felt very remote at the time, I eventually learned that it had surprising connections to my own home.

My second day in the village, I went to help my Sherpa sister in her fields. She gave me a scythe, and we started cutting millet. Her cutting was quick and seamless, mine clumsy and labored. But as the sun spread through the valley in the early morning, I gained a bit of confidence and settled into the meditative field work. Maybe I was too confident because within a few minutes, the scythe had slipped and it’s sharp blade dug deep into my finger.

I looked down in horror at the white gash turning to red, but my didi reassured me. “Don’t worry. Come over here, quick,” she said to me in Nepali as she motioned for me to follow her through the waist-high stalks of millet. Once we reached the hillside, she dug through the brush until she had found a thin, red vine with leaves flanking both sides. She stripped the leaves off in one sweep, rolled them between her hands, and squeezed the green juice into the gash on my finger.

I had never used leaves to heal a cut before, so that night I looked at the wound skeptically. The next morning, however, the broken skin had almost completely closed.

As I continued to live with my host sister for that rest of that month, I learned about her use of all sorts of plants for religious purposes, as medicine, and, of course, for food.

She taught me about what they grow during the different seasons and showed me the plants they burn as incense. While I was helping out in the fields, she and the other women would point out things that grew wild but were edible, like nettle (sisnu) and a tiny, almost neon-orange, round fruit…

Fast forward about eight months: I was in North Carolina at the beach, and we went kayaking to one of the small islands off the coast. As we were trudging along the island, scanning the trees for wild horses, I looked down at the dry, sandy ground. There, nestled in it’s green, leafy shell was that little orange fruit, the same type that I had seen in my didi‘s village the year before. I picked up the nearly trampled specimen and inspected it carefully in disbelief. Both the US and Nepal grow some of the same well-known fruit (bananas, apples, oranges, etc.), but it seemed unbelievable to me to find this obscure berry on both the islands of North Carolina and in a remote village in the Himalayas.

After a quick search on the Internet, I found out that the plant is called a ground cherry, a relative of the tomato. I also learned that the tomato and related plants, which are native to the Western Hemisphere, didn’t reach Europe and Asia until explorers brought them over. The ground cherry couldn’t have been part of Nepal’s landscape for more than a few hundred years.

As I learned about the voyage of the tomato and its relatives from the new world to the old, I wondered in amazement at how intricately connected our world is. I always thought of globalization as a modern thing, something of the 20th century. Plane travel and increased migration opportunities may have sped up the process, but its been happening for much longer than the last hundred years.

Nepal used to seem like such a far away place. The village seemed especially far with no internet access and my allotted one-call-per-week back to the US. But there’s been trade and connection between the East and the West for a long time. The migration of the ground cherry and tomato from its origins in the Americas to the rest of the world may seem like a small blip in the history of things, but it’s a reminder that people have been traveling, sharing ideas, crops, and food probably for as long as we’ve been around.

It also raises a whole bunch of questions. Tomatoes are a part of the Nepali cuisine, but they’re not necessarily a main feature. Consider the chili pepper, though, which is another imported plant and an integral part of the Nepali and South Asian diet. What did South Asians eat for spice before chili peppers? Was spicy food as big a part of Nepali cuisine before they used the chili pepper in their cooking? And where did all of the Nepali names for these foods come from? golbedha (tomato), aloo (potato), khorsani (hot pepper). Are they loan words? Did they arise within the Nepali community?
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One Foot in Tibet

Friday was Nepali New Year’s Day. Most people in Kathmandu had the day off including us, so we decided to go on a trip outside of Kathmandu. Last month I wrote a post about our trip to bahra bise, which is along the road to Tibet. While we were hiking, some people had been discussing this place called The Last Resort (I love the name!), which is further towards the border with Tibet. It sounded beautiful, and Tri’s cousin knows some of the people who work there, so he suggested that we all go for an overnight stay.

Tri’s cousin mentioned that we would be sleeping in tents, so Tri and I thought that it would  be a very outdorsy trip. Even though the place does have “resort” in its name, in Nepal, that’s no guarantee that there’s going to be running water or even a hot meal, but The Last Resort really was resort-like.

After driving all morning, we stopped at a long hanging bridge. Holy crap. It was quite a drop to the racing river below.

One of the major attractions of this location is the bungee jumping that they offer. No, I didn’t go bungee jumping, even though everyone was pushing me to, but we did get a video of a beautiful flying leap by one brave soul…

Once we crossed the bridge, we were at The Last Resort.

We rested in grassy common area, had lunch, kicked a ball around with the kids, and then settled into our tents.

They certainly weren’t what I was expecting. These were huge tents with wooden floors and tin roofs built over them to protect from the rain. Here’s Tri settling into our luxury tent…

While exploring, we realized how private and hidden the whole place was. From the other side of the bridge, you can only see the tip of a couple of the tents because of the abundant trees and because of the way it is built onto the hill. The area was green and breezy and nestled between two looming mountains. Quite a relaxing atmosphere.

     

Saturday morning we woke up, hung out for a while, and then decided to drive towards the Tibet border. I was reluctant to leave the resort, but I really wanted to figure out how close I could get to the border. After breakfast, we started on our drive.

It took at least another hour to make it to the small town next to the bridge to China. When the microbus we rented could go not further, we all got out and walked. We weren’t sure If I would be able to get close to the border because I’m American. Nepalis used to be able to cross freely and visit a Chinese market in the town of Khasa by showing their citizenship cards, but these days, they need some kind of permit to go. Someone told us that they knew a guy who wanted to cross, but instead of bringing his citizenship card, he brought his Nepali passport. He showed it to one of the Chinese guards on the bridge, but the guard didn’t recognize it, so he threw it over the side of bridge into the water below. Kind of extreme if you ask me.

Anyway, after we had walked a ways through the sloping town, we finally made it to the famous checkpoint. In turns out that Tri’s cousin knows someone who knows Nepali border patrol guards, so he made sure that it was okay for me to pass by the initial guards before we got to the actual line separating Tibet and Nepal. After we squeezed through a small caged in walkway, past women and men carrying Chinese goods, we walked slowly across the bridge that connects the two countries. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us take photos while on the bridge, but here’s a picture of China from the Nepali side..

While on the bridge, I walked slowly up to the line separating the two countries, and then stepped my right foot over into Tibet. There’s something about straddling the border between two countries that’s just awesome. Borders separating areas that have been traversed freely for centuries or more can be ridiculous and irritating, and without humans around, country borders are meaningless, but I still get a thrill out of being in two places at once. As soon as I stepped my foot over the line, a Chinese guard starting eyeing me and walking towards us, so I quickly pulled it back.

So I made it to Tibet. Next time I go I want to put both feet on Tibetan soil and maybe walk around a bit 🙂

After filling our bellies in the town below the border, we went on our way back to Kathmandu.

On the Road to Tibet

Every weekend Tri’s office goes for a hike somewhere in the hills around Kathmandu Valley or occasionally somewhere a few hours away. Sometimes we get the chance to go, and yesterday was one of those days. We went with about 10 other people from his office to a place called bahra bise, which means “twelve times twenty.” It’s apparently 240 km from somewhere, although we weren’t sure where. Bahra bise is along the road that leads from Kathmandu to the Tibet border. It took us about 4 hours to get there from Kathmandu, and apparently it would take another hour or so to reach Tibet. I’d love to go there someday. We were told that if we drove further along the road we were on, towards the mountains above, we’d make it to the border.

The bus came to pick us up at around 8am yesterday morning, and we reached bahra bise at almost noon. Then we started walking from the little town in the valley up a steep set of stone steps. However, before we got to the long path of stairs that we were about to embark on, a few kids started throwing water balloons at us from their roof. It seems the Holi festivities have begun.

The first part of the hike was quite shady, but soon the trees gave away to farmland, and we could see all around the valley. The hills were spotted with houses, some clustered together to make small villages, some spread out, each house on its own. As we walked along, we met villagers hanging out or heading somewhere, and shortly after starting, we met a woman with a feverish baby. She had gone to a hospital a few hours away in the base of the valley and was returning to her village in the hills. At the beginning of our hike, we were walking and talking with her, but I soon realized there was no way we were going to keep up. Even with a baby on her back and several bags to carry, she quickly outpaced us.

The views were incredible as we got higher, but the smells are what I loved the most. Rural areas and farms in Nepal (and I assume other places) have such particular and wonderful odors that are so completely different from the city. There’s wood smoke and a rich grassy smell, the smell of damp leaves and animals. I feel sort of weird to admit this, but my favorite smell comes from cow dung. It’s got this intense, earthy aroma that doesn’t remind me of poop, just of something organic. As we were passing one of the houses early on, I even picked up the sweet scent of local rakshi (alcohol).

Here are a few pictures we took on our way up the hill…

A view of the valley from above

A boy carrying branches

A woman in her home

A man making a straw mat

Tri and I have been on a few hikes around and outside of Kathmandu since we got to Nepal last summer including our two trips to Namo Buddha, our hike in Pokhara, and a trip to Ichangu Narayan. Although this hike wasn’t the longest, it was definitely the most difficult, mostly because of the trail’s steepness. It was almost straight up until we eventually found a flat road that curved around the hill. We took that for a while but soon found another steep trail to follow and went up that way. After about 3 or 4 hours of almost constant up up up, I couldn’t go any further and called it quits. Some of the guys had stopped before us and were resting in a little grassy area out of sight, and some of the seasoned hikers kept going onto the next hill top.

Tri and I decided to rest on a little ledge for a while. We couldn’t hear any voices, just the rustling of leaves. The sun was beginning to lower in the sky but was still shining brilliantly on the valley below us. My legs were aching but I felt more relaxed than I have in a long time, and with the wind blowing gently in my hair, I nearly fell asleep. Here I am on the ledge…

After enjoying those few minutes, we walked just a little bit further around a bend in the hill and sat there for a bit. Then one of the guys who had gone to a further hill met up with us on his way back. We walked downhill a ways, met up with more of the guys and finally started down towards the valley base. It took us another two hours to get down to the town where we relaxed and had dinner. On the ride back, we got stuck behind a stopped truck for a few minutes but other than that, there were no complications. I completely conked out on the way home, and we got back to the house around 10pm.

The Girl with the Beautiful Eyes

The fog-surrounded monastery

Some of Tri’s co-workers take hiking trips every Sunday, and today we went with them to Namo Buddha.

The first time we visited I was blown away by the beautiful monastery there. It was just as pristine this time around, but the fog just wouldn’t lift, so we didn’t get much of a view. I won’t go into the details of Namo Buddha because I did that in my first post, but there were three interesting things from today that I wanted to mention.

Tri holding an orange grown on Buwa's land

The first is that we visited Tri’s dad’s land near Namo Buddha. In my last post, I mentioned that Buwa’s parents immigrated to Kathmandu from that area. They originally lived in a small village called Sankhu, located in a valley below the hill that Namo Buddha sits on. This morning, the bus dropped us off right in Sankhu, so Buwa took us to his parent’s (and now his) land. The oranges growing there weren’t completely ripe, but we opened them up anyway.

I’m starting to get a cold, in particular a sore throat. Nepalis say not to eat sour things during the winter, especially when your throat hurts, but I haven’t eaten an orange in months! So I gobbled it down.

The second interesting thing that happened today is that I learned something about the photo at the top of this blog. I took that photo the first time we went to Namo Buddha. Nepali, the most widely-spoken language in Nepal, is written using Devanagari, the script also used to write Hindi. Newari (or Newa Bhasha), spoken by the Newars (the indigenous people of Kathmandu Valley), is written using the Ranjana script, which is what you see in that photo up top.

Ranjana is displayed on the walls of many a Buddhist temple, and I’ve always wondered why because the monks who live in the monasteries in Nepal are not usually Newar. Even temples in Tibet have Newari script written on their walls. Thulabaa (Tri’s uncle) also went with us today, and he explained why. Apparently someone named Arnico, an architect from Kathmandu, went on a trip to Tibet and then China in the 13th Century. He brought the Ranjana script with him, introducing it to Buddhists he met during his travels. So even though the Buddhist monks who inhabit the Monasteries in Nepal and Tibet are more often of Tibetan or Sherpa descent, they decorate their religious spaces with the Ranjana script. Arnico is also the guy who supposedly introduced the Pagoda style to China.

I'm not sure if you can really see the color of her eyes, but here we are near Namo Buddha

The last thing today worthy of mention is the girl we met with absolutely beautiful eyes. I like brown eyes (Tri’s eye color), and I like blue eyes too (my eye color), but I really love hazel-colored eyes. This little girl had hazely/grayish eyes with a green ring around the outside. Tri’s dad said that our kids would look just like her…I can only hope!

A Day for Laxmi

This past week, many Nepalis celebrated Tihar, the festival of lights. It’s also called Dipawali here and in India Diwali. Tihar is a series of puja‘s (“religious worship”) that are done over the course of 4-5 days. On the first day is kaag (crow) puja and on the second kukkur (dog) puja. On the third day, there is both gai (cow) puja and Laxmi (the goddess of wealth) puja. On the fourth day, according to wikipedia, there are potentially three pujas that can be performed: gobardhan (cow dung) puja, goru (bull) puja, and Mha (self) puja–performed in the Newar community. On the last day is Bhai (brother) Tika, which is not a puja but a day where sisters put tika (often red vermilion powder mixed with water) on their brothers’ foreheads.

This year, Laxmi Puja fell on a Wednesday, our fourth night in Bhutwal. The family friends we were staying with on Wednesday worked much of the day, cooking food and preparing the alter for the puja. The day before, they made some of the traditional Nepali treats that are eaten around Tihar, like celrotikhajuri, and goje (or bharuwa). Celroti is made from rice flower batter that’s been fried in oil. It’s crunchy when right out of the frying pan but gets stale quickly, so it’s not one of the favorite desserts. However, the khajuri, made from flower, butter, and sugar was so delicious, sweet and crumbly. I also like the goje (comes from goji, meaning “pocket), which was stuffed with ground coconut and sugar.

There were already enough hands in the kitchen, so I went with one of the girls to help make the rangoli. A rangoli is placed in front of the door to the house and is be made from colorful powder (avir) and flowers (often marigolds, sayapatri). I didn’t see these in Kathmandu when we returned on Friday, and Tri told me that they’re more popular in Southern Nepal. I also found out through my friend’s blog that South Indians living in Indonesia make rangolis as well.

The girl I was helping bought some avir from the market. After bringing it home, she added very finely ground cement to thin out the brightly colored powder. To start, she made a rectangle of marigolds and then used the lid of a big pot to trace a circle inside of the rectangle. Then she added some designs with white powder inside of the circle and filled them in with color. To do this, she took a bit of powder between her fingers and slowly sprinkled it inside of the white lines. I thought it looked easy, so I tried it, but my work looked awful. It was clumpy and uneven, so, due to my lack of skill, I mostly just watched the making of the rangoli. After about half and hour, it was finished…

Footprints were also painted on the stoop outside of the house.

They lead up to the room in which puja was performed and are supposed to guide Laxmi into the home.

Before the puja started, our hosts lit lots of diyo‘s (small ceramic bowls with wicks) and put them in front of every room in the house. They also prepared them for the puja…

Then everyone, dressed in their finest, gathered for the puja.

I like Tihar because it’s about respecting things that are important in our lives. The crow and dog are worshipped because they perform important services; they are messengers and guards. The cow and bull are respected because of the milk and work they provide. I’m not sure about why cow dung is worshiped, although it is considered a sacred substance because it comes from the cow, a representation of Laxmi. Although my family doesn’t celebrate Mha Puja because they aren’t Newar, I think that’s my favorite of the pujas. nepaliaustralian describes it here. It’s an opportunity to formally show respect to ourselves. I also enjoy Bhai Tika, the last day of Tihar, because it acknowledges the important and unique relationship between sister and brother. I’ve been told me that when we celebrate tihar next year, I’m going to have to perform Bhai Tika. I have to two brothers back in the US, so maybe I’ll have to give them tika through skype 🙂

A Trip Down South

We’re back! It was an intense trip that included meeting lots of new people, a visit to the birthplace of the Buddha, and a trip to the emergency room, but we all made it back in one piece.

We left Kathmandu on Sunday and arrived at about 5pm in Bhuttwal, a little city an hour’s drive from Lumbini. We stayed there with some friends of my father-in-law. Much of their family was gathered there for Tihar, and we brought along 9 people (including me, Tri, Tri’s brother and dad and a number of family friends). All together, including the staff in the house, we were 33 people. Although it was, at times, a little overwhelming, I loved it. There was always something to do, people to talk to, food to eat. I had never met these people before this week, but now they feel like family.

On Monday morning, we set out for Palpa, a hill station about an hour and a half out of Bhuttwal. It was a bit crazy getting out of the house because there were so many of us, but we finally made it for a picnic lunch.

On Tuesday, 10 of us went over to Lumbini to see the temples. Lumbini is in the Terai (the planes of Nepal), only about half an hour from the Indian border. Before coming to Nepal in 2009, I visited Delhi and Agra, and Lumbini really reminded me of what I saw there. In India, the land was flat and dry and the weather hot, very much like Lumbini. The people also looked more like the Indians I met in Agra and Delhi than the Nepalis I know in Kathmandu. Lumbini is a cluster of beautiful temples right in the middle of a vast expanse of farmland. Different countries have donated money to build temples to the Lord Buddha, many of them replicates of Budhhist temples from those places. Here’s the Thai one…

The Cambodian one was under construction, so we couldn’t go inside, but you can see the top of it here…

The German, supposedly one of the most elaborate ones, is built in a Nepali style. I love the ceiling…

Going to see the Buddha’s actual birthplace was the best. There are ruins in the middle of Lumbini supposedly from Siddhartha Gautam’s family palace. They also have the stone on which Siddhartha’s foot was imprinted after he was born. Of course I was a bit skeptical about the lumpy imprint on that stone being from the baby Buddha’s foot, but I didn’t mind extending my imagination a bit 🙂 There were tourists from all over, including a number of pilgrims from South India. You can see the ruins on the grass. The people in white are the pilgrims…

I started re-rereading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse when we were down there, a book I remember loving in high school. It’s a little slow but a good story. I can’t give a proper review of it because I haven’t read it in so long, but I would recommend it to anyone interested in religion in this area.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection between Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepal, partly because of one of Barani’s comment on this post about Buddhism having only a small influence in Nepal. Thulobaa (Tri’s uncle; literally means “big dad”) came with us on the trip down to Bhuttwal, and I asked him if there were any Buddhists in his family. Although I don’t think he would call himself a Buddhist, he said that he and many other Hindus practice Buddhism because they consider the Buddha to be a god. Similarly, there are a number of people in Nepal who would call themselves Buddhists but celebrate Hindu holidays. The fact that the Buddha can be worshiped and loved in what was once considered the only Hindu Kingdom on earth is only one example of the tolerance for diversity and difference that I see so often in Nepal.

Anyway, I’ll add some more photos to the photo page, and I’ll post a little about what we did for Tihar, in particular Laxmi Puja, soon.

More on Pokhara and Chitwan

We just got back to Kathmandu! It felt so quiet and almost deserted where we were staying, so it was a little strange to be hit with the traffic in the valley when we drove in today, but I’m glad to be home. Here’s some more about our trip.

On Wednesday, we stayed on in Pokhara and walked up to Sarangkot, one of the high hills near the city. Here’s the beautiful view from the top:

After getting back to the hotel in the afternoon, we rested and then went to an amazing Nepali restaurant for dinner, called Thakali Kitchen. If you’re looking for great Nepali food in Pokhara, definitely go to this place. Here was a our main dinner:

In the middle is dedo. It’s buckwheat flour that’s been added into boiling water and stirred vigorously. It’s often eaten in villages where rice is not available and really fills the belly,  necessarily for a long day in the fields.

On Thursday morning, we left for Sauraha, home to Chitwan National Forrest. Chitwan was very quiet and full of beautiful fields of grass. The best part is the forest, which we road elephants into this morning. Although we didn’t see any rhinos, we did see a jungali kukhura “Wild chicken” and a ghore “monitor lizard.”

The elephants there have lots of personality, and just like humans, they understandably get mad if you don’t treat them well. Our guide told us that a few years ago, a tourist started teasing an elephant, offering him food, and then snatching it away. Soon enough, the elephant ran over and killed the tourist. As long as they’re respected, though, the elephants are fun to be around and very friendly.

Check out the photo page for more pictures from our trip.