Breaking the Ice

I keep starting blog post after blog post, trying to figure out exactly what I want to write, but I seriously don’t know where to start. So instead I’m just going to say that it’s been way to long since I posted last! I’m going to try and post a bit more for at least the next few months.

Partly because…we’re going back to Nepal for a month in July! I’m super excited to see friends and family and eat a TON of Nepali food while I’m there. Thinking about going back to Nepal is bitter sweet because I know that we’ll only be there for a few weeks, but alas such is life. Tri thinks that after our short visit, I’ll be ready to come home to Boston, and I kind of hope he’s right so that it’s not too painful to leave.

I can tell you a little bit about what I’ve been up to for the past however many months. Since last summer, I’ve been working at a learning center, mostly helping kids who have dyslexia. I’ve also been applying to and getting into grad school and taking classes that I needed to get out of the way before I start school in the fall. For the next two years, I’m going to be studying communication sciences and disorders so that I can become a speech language pathologist. As I’ve written about before, my interest in language and communication all started back in Nepal when I was first learning Nepali. In college, I became more interested in communication disorders when I got the chance to shadow a few speech language pathologists. While I was teaching in Kathmandu, I kept asking around to figure out if anyone knew of any speech language pathologists there. Although I did hear of people in Kathmandu hospitals who work with stroke patients on language skills, I don’t think that any of the schools in KTM have speech therapists. Anyway, I’m kind of hoping to do some more sleuthing while we’re there to see if I can meet a Nepali SLP.

For the month of June, I’ll be finishing up my last prerequisite classes and getting ready for our trip. I’m so excited to be posting again. I had forgotten how much fun it is to blog!

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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?

Landlocked No More

For as long as I can remember, my family has been going to North Carolina in the summers to visit cousins and stay by the sea. The blazing light, hot, burning sand beneath your heels, and grassy, rolling dunes are all things that I love. When you get in the rough water, it’s a rush of salt up your nose, and an exhilerating struggle to stay atop the waves.

A view from Dhampush; one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been

The mountains have their own mystique. You feel tiny in their vastness, and they make you appreciate forces beyond human control. They can also be shockingly beautiful. I loved the view from our home in Kathmandu. Sometimes when I was hanging around the house, I couldn’t help but step out onto our roof every few minutes to look at the hills and search for the snow-spotted Himalayas hiding in the clouds.

Me and Tri at the beach in Miami

But the sea connects you to the rest of the world. You look across and wonder how many people are looking across the same ocean, right back at you. It makes you feel like you’re part of a global community.

I love the mountains; I love looking at them and hiking them, but it’s not the mountains I miss; it’s the ocean. Living in a landlocked country made me miss it even more.

The sun is really strong in Nepal. You can set out vegetables on your roof and turn them into achaar. People also dry meat in the sun to make sukuti. In the Northeastern US, it’s much harder to get enough sun to do that. Anyway, the sun would get so bright sometimes and occasionally the wind would really pick, so I’d sit on the roof with closed eyes and imagine I was at the beach.

Finally, after almost a year, I got to see the coast again. Last night my older brother, his friend, Tri and I went to have dessert in Salem, Massachusetts. It’s a bit of a creepy place, filled with witch shops and haunted houses in honor of the witch trials held there in the 17th century.

As we were walking down towards the harbor, I got a whiff of the Atlantic and finally, a view of the water.

The harbor in Salem

It’s good to be back.

A Fox’s Wedding

It’s been quite stormy around here. In Kathmandu, the month of Chaitra (what we’re in now) is known for it’s lightning, thunder, and rain. The monsoon doesn’t officially start until June, but if I didn’t know any better, I would probably assume this was it. Along with the storms, we’ve been getting some funny rain patterns. Sometimes it will start, stop, and then start again throughout the day, and yesterday it was pouring rain on one side of the house and brilliantly sunny on the other.

I told Buwa about it at dinner last night, and he told me that when he was a kid, they used to say that a sunshower meant that the shyaal (foxes) were getting married. But it wasn’t just foxes that were involved. There was a biraalo baaun (brahman cat) officiating and kukur (dogs) playing instruments during the janti, a procession during the wedding where the new bride is brought to the groom’s house. I then remembered that Tri had told me this story a few years ago while we were watching a Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa called Dreams.

It’s a fantasy movie composed of eight short stories. Although I didn’t watch the whole movie, the IMDb page says that the stories are mostly about “man’s relationship with his environment.” The first one, called “Sunshine Through the Rain” is about a little boy who slips out of his house during a rainstorm and goes to a forest where he witnesses a fox’s wedding. The foxes end up seeing him, which is very bad luck for the boy. He returns home and his mother tells him that a fox has left a knife for him with which he must commit suicide. She tells her son to go and beg forgiveness from the foxes so that he doesn’t have to go through with it. The image at the top of the page is the little boy walking into the forest in search of the foxes.

Now that I’m recalling what happened in the story and looking up the details I’ve forgotten, I’m remembering what a disturbing tale it is! Sometime I’d like to watch the whole movie. It’s a bit slow but its stories are intriguing. I think you can stream it on Netflix if you have it, and here is a good review of the whole film if you’re interested.

Because the Nepali story and the Japanese one are so similar, I’ve been trying to find out if they could be related. The first thing I thought is that the tale might have spread to East Asia along with Buddhism. I found a page from Wikpedia about fox folklore in Japan, and the page does suggest that some of the stories about foxes could have a connection to Buddhism. It also notes that many of the stories about foxes were recorded in a book called Konjaku Monagatarishu, translated as Anthology of Tales from the Past. This book was written in about 794-1185 AD and includes tales from India and China in it.

What I love about blogging is that it gives me a good reason to go searching around the internet for interesting stuff. I especially love Wikipedia, and as I’ve been exploring information about sunshowers, I found out that a lot of different cultures say that something special happens when the rain and sun are battling it out. This page gives some examples. For one, some people in the US claim that “the Devil is beating his wife” when the sun and rain are both present, but more interesting than that, most of the cultures mentioned on this page claim that some kind of animal is getting married while it’s both raining and the sun is shining. Below I copied the sayings from the website that mentioned something about animals getting married. Look at this…

  • In South African English, a sunshower is referred to as a “monkey’s wedding”, a loan translation of the Zuluumshado wezinkawu, a wedding for monkeys.[2] In Afrikaans, it is referred to as jakkalstrou,[2]jackals wedding, or also Jakkals trou met wolf se vrou as dit reën en die son skyn flou, meaning: “Jackal marries Wolf‘s wife when it rains and the sun shines faintly.”
  • In Hindi, it is also called “the foxes wedding”.[2]
  • In Konkani, it is called “a monkey’s wedding”.
  • In Sinhala, it is called “the foxes wedding”.
  • In Bengali, it is called “a devil’s wedding”.
  • In Brazil, people say “Rain and sun (chuva e sol), Snail’s (caracol) wedding”, “Sun and rain (sol e chuva), Widow’s (viúva) marriage”, or “Casamento da Raposa” (Fox’s Wedding).
  • In Arabic, the term is “the rats are getting married”.[2]
  • In Korea, a male tiger gets married to a fox.
  • In various African languages, leopards are getting married.
  • In Kenyahyenas are getting married.
  • In Bulgaria, there is a saying about the bear marrying.[2]
  • In Tamil Nadu, South India, the Tamil speaking people say that the fox and the crow/raven are getting married.
  • In Mazandarani language, in north of Iran, it is also called “the jackal’s wedding”.
  • In Pashto, it is also called “Da gidarh wade” or “the jackal’s wedding”.

I can imagine why many areas in South Asia and the Middle East would have folklore about animals (mostly jackels or foxes) getting married. Contact among and between these places was and still is common. Of the above languages, that includes: Hindi, Konkani, Sinhala, Bengali, Mazandarani, Tamil, Pashto, and Arabic (not all related languages).

The European cultures and languages that make use of this folklore may have come up with it independently, but the wedding aspect that is associated with sunshowers seems so specific to me, so maybe the folklore about the wedding goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European. Maybe it spread to areas of Europe with the spread of language (that would include Bulgarian, Afrikaans, and Portuguese, spoken in Brazil).

But I’m so intrigued by the similar folklore that has African routes, the “monkey’s wedding” that comes from Zulu and the “Hyenas wedding” that comes from Kenya. Could folklore from other parts of the world have influenced the African folklore? Or could the African folklore have influenced folklore elsewhere? Could these tales have arisen independently? I would guess they probably did, but it seems so incredible to me. Is there something about a sunshower that seems particularly matrimonial? So many questions… I don’t really know anything about the rise and spread of tales, stories and oral traditions, but the whole thing is quite interesting.

Waiting

It’s always difficult to wait, and lately it’s been wearing me down.

One thing the we’re waiting for is the one year mark of Tri’s mom’s death. Last weekend was the shradda for the eleventh month, so the one year mark is only a few weeks away. I guess it’s sort of like the final funeral for Mamu. There’s going to be a priest, a puja, and family members and friends will be over at the house. We’ve been waiting for this day for the last eleven months, waiting for the mourning period to end, waiting for things to go on. As the year has inched by, things have progressively gotten better. Tri’s dad is definitely doing better, and so are Tri and his brother. Things feels less overwhelming and more normal. But as we move closer to this one year marker, I’m feeling more and more anxious. I just want it to be over with, and waiting has gotten under my skin.

The other thing that we’re waiting for is more news about our return to the US.

When we came here last summer, we weren’t really sure how long we’d stay. We knew we had to be here at least until the one year date of Mamu’s death, but beyond that, we had nothing telling us to stay or to go. We considered the possibility of settling in Nepal, but a few months after moving here, I decided I didn’t want to make Nepal our home base. There are so many amazing things about being in Nepal, but there have been some real challenges too. So a few months into our stay, Tri and I talked about when we wanted to go back. I knew that I wanted to start grad school in fall of 2013, but before that, we were free to be where we wanted. At first, we thought we’d stay here for a year; then we moved it to two years, then a year and half. We kept changing our minds. But now it seems like we’ll be going back sooner than we had planned. I won’t say more about it until I have more details, but our return to the US is definitely on the horizon.

A few weeks ago, I started to look at some pictures that Tri took of my parents’ house and backyard right before we came to Nepal last summer. He had bought a DSLR for his uncle, and was testing it out before we packed it into our suitcase. Here are some of the picures

Upstairs hallway

Flowers in the backyard

More flowers

Stone face on a wall

While I was looking at pictures, I felt a wave of longing to be back in the US. For the last eight months, I’ve been swallowing feelings about my family, kind of ignoring how much I miss them. I knew I wouldn’t see them for a long time, so I had put the idea of being with them out of my head. But once there was some indication that I’d get to see them sooner than I thought, I really started to miss them.

So for now, I wait. When I have free time, I try to keep myself occupied. Reading, writing, a little bit of cooking, and yesterday I did a deep cleaning of our room, which definitely made me feel better!

Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Nepal 2011: A Mixed Bag

Before the holidays started, I was surprised to learn that there are many Nepalis who celebrate Christmas in Nepal. There is a population of Nepali Christians who celebrate Christmas similar to the way I did growing up (with a Christmas tree and presents), but there are also a number of Nepali Hindus and Buddhists who celebrate without the tree and gifts.

A hotel all decked out for the holidays

The first Christmas tree I saw was at Bhatbateni, the grocery store. They had put out a few trees and thrown some light strings over their bushes, and as Christmas approached, I saw more and more hotels, restaurants, and stores putting out decorations. During Tihar, one of the holidays here, people cover (sometimes from roof to ground) their houses with lights, so many people have lights in store.

I asked some Hindus here why they celebrate Christmas, and a lot of them told me that it’s just for fun. One person said that she has special “Christmas friends” who she calls up every year to celebrate with. Another person told me that Christmas and New Year’s are just another excuse to drink!

After our Thanksgiving celebration, I was trying to think of ways to celebrate. And some people were debating wether or not I was even allowed to celebrate at all. Before my break started, I was sitting in the lunchroom at school talking with some of the people who work there, and we had kind of a funny conversation about celebrating. They were asking me about whether I was a Hindu or a Christian. After women marry in Nepal, they traditionally take on the caste and religion of their husbands, so some people assume that I’m Hindu because Tri is. But then they were trying to figure out if I could be both Hindu and Christian and therefore be allowed to celebrate Christmas. I would definitely say yes! I’m allowed to celebrate 🙂

But my plans pretty much amounted to nothing. Even though I wanted to celebrate this year, I was feeling both lazy and sad on Christmas Eve. I was really missing the US and sort of wallowing at home in the dark (because there was no electricity), thinking about how hard it is to celebrate a holiday without having others around to celebrate it with. It makes me all the more impressed with those people abroad who work so hard to organize Dashain parties and celebrations. But anyway, I started to feel better once the lights came back on, so Tri and I decided to make some cookies.

Roasting the Peanuts

Peanut Butter

One of the things I miss most from the US is good peanut butter. I used to slather it on bread, crackers, put it in my cereal. It was seriously a staple food for me. They have a few brands of peanut butter here, but they’re all incredibly sweet and have trans fats in them, something I try to avoid. So lately we’ve been making our own. There’s a little shop on the way to our house that sells different types of daal and nuts, and it’s convenient for us to get our peanuts from them. Once we get the peanuts to our kitchen, we roast them in a frying pan. We then throw them in a small food processor with some oil and honey, which results in some pretty darn good peanut butter.

Because we had made some peanut butter that day, we wanted to incorporate it into our cookies, so I looked for a recipe for peanut butter cookies. I found one online for cookies with peanut butter filling. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it again, but trust me, those cookies looked amazing. We decided to try it out, but I can get kind of lazy about following recipes, so I just winged it. I mixed a simple batter of butter, flour, and sugar and then rolled out little patties onto which we put peanut butter balls. We then sealed up the cookies and stuck them in the oven for a while.

You can imagine that without following the recipe, the cookies didn’t come out right, and surprise, surprise, that’s exactly what happened. They were far from fluffy with a gooey center, which is what the picture on the website insinuated we were going to get. In fact, they didn’t really taste like cookies at all. They were more like little dense buns.

So it wasn’t the Christmas cookie I was hoping for, but it wasn’t all that bad either.

For New Year’s Eve, because we hadn’t done much for Christmas, I wanted to actually put some effort into celebrating. That day we were trying to figure out what to do, and I suggested we try to go to the Chhauni museum. I know, I know, going to a museum is not necessarily the typical way to ring in the New Year, but I’ve heard this is a neat place with a collection of old Buddhist and Hindu statues, something I’ve always been interested in. I’ve been wanting to go for a while, so this would have been a real treat. But it closed too early for us to make it, so we scrapped that idea.

Toasting to the New Year

Then Tri called his friend, and she said that she could meet us in the afternoon. We drove over to Jhamsikel, where she works, and ate pizza and pasta at the Vespar Cafe. Then, since none of us had any other plans, we decided to stay in the area for the evening. We made our way over to Saleways to buy snacks and refreshments and then drove over to where she’s staying. We just hung out and talked and talked until late with a few of her friends. (late meaning about 9:30, which really is late in Nepal 🙂 ). No, we didn’t go to a big bash or stay up till midnight, but for the first time in a long time, I felt really relaxed. I miss being able to talk to people other than Tri in my own language (I talk to Tri in English all the time, but I don’t have deep conversations with anyone in English aside from him). I guess it kind of felt like college again.

Anyway, Happy New Year everybody!

Sunbathing the Nepali Way

My family in the US has been skyping us from sunny Florida, and it’s making me miss warm weather. As I mentioned in this post about my toes, the cold is really getting to me, so I’ve been trying to get a little bit of the sun my family is soaking up this week by sunbathing on our roof.

In Nepal, there are multiple ways to balance the hot and cold in your body. One way is to eat certain foods at different times of the year or on certain occasions. Oranges are a cold food, so they shouldn’t be eaten when you have a cold or cough because they supposedly make it worse, as I mentioned in this post. I ignore this a lot of the time, though, because they have so much Vitamin C, something I was always told to eat when sick.

Sugar is a warm food. A few weekends ago, Nepalis who are part of the Newar ethnic group in Kathmandu celebrated Yomari Purnima. This is a holiday celebrated on the day of the full moon in December, and those who practice it make little dumplings called Yomari, which are often stuffed with a sweet paste made of molasses and sesame. (Ironically I’ve only ever eaten these in the US, at a family friend’s house, but never in Nepal). Anyway, the Yomaris are supposed to be a hot food, good for winter because they’re sweet. Honey is also considered to be a hot food, and some people won’t eat it in the summer because they’re afraid it will make them too warm.

I also just learned the other day that after women give birth, their bodies are thought to be cold. So a special food called gutpak is made for them to eat. This food supposedly warms up their bodies. It has sugar and spices in it and is both sweet and bitter (I think because of the methi, fenugreek, that’s in it).

My host family sitting on a sukul

The way to get rid of the cold in Kathmandu is to eat food that is thought to produce warmth like Yomari and to of course dress warmly, but you can also sunbathe. Because women’s bodies are considered to be cold after giving birth, they are often encouraged to sunbathe with their babies.

Traditionally, Nepalis might have taken sunbaths on woven mats called sukul (and many still do). To the right is a picture of one of my host families sitting on a sukul.

But we don’t have one at our house, so we’ve been using a styrofoam mat that we found in a closet.

Over the weekend, we brought a few oranges, a computer, and some books up to the roof to just hang out and relax…

Our Sunbathing Spot