Lately, this sort of questionnaire is popular among travel blogs: a Travel ABC, where a travel-related question is asked for each letter of the alphabet. I’ve been nominated by my fellow blogger Stephen at Monk Bought Lunch, so here’s my go at it!
A: Age you went on your first international trip
The very, very first time, was to Chamonix, France, with my parents, when I was about 10. It was actually only a few hours as we were spending a week holiday on the Alps in the north-western region of Italy, Valle d’Aosta. The indelible memory of those few hours (and also the only one) is my father speaking French to someone from the car window.
B: Best (foreign) beer you’ve had and where
Beers are really pretty bad where I come from, so this leaves me plenty of choice abroad. One of the nicest beers I have ever tried is a Belgian beer called “Zinne Bier”. It has some very unique taste to it, it’s not too heavy and, cherry on the cake, “Zinne” means “boobs” in Italian.
C: Cuisine (favorite)
(Bias alert!) Is there another possible answer to this question than Italian? Too often, Italian cuisine is very badly represented abroad. I regularly stumble across stuff I have never heard of back in my home country, or recipes that are too much adapted to the local taste. Italian cuisine is much, much beyond what everyone thinks it is. Any town, any little village has its own thing, delicious in a different way than anywhere else in the country. Oh God, don’t even get me started. (Bias alert finished.)
After any fantastic time somewhere there is a necessary journey back.. and so there was from the village where the story in the previous posts took place. And what a journey it was. It took us 13 hours to go back to Kathmandu.
After the 5:30 wakeup, Bhim and I left at 6 to walk in a different direction from the one we’d come from. After about one hour we reached another village, where maybe a bus would have arrived at some point – and it actually did! We got on this bus which was almost empty, but this privileged condition wouldn’t have lasted long. As we proceeded on the bumpy soil (you can’t really call it “road”) we collected more and more passengers, until this bus ride became the busiest I’ve ever been on. The corridor was so full of the usual colored crowd that it literally overflew: I was on the aisle seat but was firmly compressed against Bhim, and at some point my head was actually laying on someone’s chest and I couldn’t move my left arm anymore – watch to believe!
In addition, the bus stopped 1000 times to let more people on the roof or let people down (every time it would take long minutes) or for various small mechanical problems. Four hours of this pleasure and we arrived to Gorkha, where we had lunch and at noon we took another bus to Kathmandu.
On this new, delightful bus, the room to sit was so small that my legs didn’t fit and had to be stretched towards the corridor. The music was terribly loud and the wind was very strong as Bhim wanted to keep the window open the whole time. At least there were the most beautiful girls I’d seen in Nepal so far, all with their kids and their men (mostly older than them).
I was looking forward to arrive in town before 7pm as I wanted to recollect my backpack from Bhim’s office. But that wasn’t going to happen. The journey was so long, slow and with so many stops that we only made it for 7:30 pm, when the city was totally dark, and I spent another night at the hostel. The next morning I went to Bhim’s office to collect Ferrino (he hasn’t been very lucky so far, has he?) to find out a funny happening: the office had undergone a flood in the meantime, as the water storage below it had some problem.
This helps me highlight another attitude that I think I have noticed in people from this country (and I guess it’d apply to people from all similarly poor places). The way they face unexpected problems is remarkable. They just take it without turning a hair, and find a way to fix it. So far, so good. But when it came to me, they applied the same attitude, so Kamel (Bhim’s friend that was in the office at the moment) looked at me with a big smile and said “hehe, it’s wet! Hehe just laundry and then ok!”
Same when we traveled to Bhim’s village four days before: I didn’t know that after Gorkha we’d have to trek for five hours, and I found out only 30 seconds before. Big smile on and “hehe is it problem to walk for few hours?”.
The last two days in Kathmandu were actually spent recovering from a bit everything, strolling around the town and planning the next move.
I spent some time with a French girl who we’d met on the Everest trek and who works in Kathmandu for a tourist agency. I’ve had some lovely walk around the city and played the harmonica as a last goodbye to Durbar Square & Basantapur, my favourite spot in town.
Alright this post has already grown longer than I thought. Soon it was time to move to the airport! The first flight was a short Kathmandu – New Delhi; oddity of the journey, the guys of Royal Nepal Airline (although Nepal isn’t a monarchy anymore) had assigned me and another person to the same seat! Brilliant.
Then New Delhi airport: I had to wait there for TEN hours! I wisely stayed in where the shops are (remembering how difficult it was to get in there, which I described in the post Rush), and time passed by quickly, thanks to a book that Nick gave me at my Haircut Leaving Party and to a German girl (hey Christa!) that offered me the 200 rupies necessary for a snack as I didn’t have any and my cards were not working!
Then the flight to Koala Lumpur, on which I talked to a few people, in particular I listened to incredible stories from a Australian / Dutch lady who used to live in Indonesia before the war (the Country was still a Dutch colony by then) and was therefore captured by the Japanese forces and imprisoned in a concentration camp for three years!
The flight connection in Kuala Lumpur was short, but it let me see something cool: they have a dome in which they recreated a Jungle environment a bit like it happens in European botanical gardens. You can walk in for free, it’s hot and humid as the aforementione greenhouses… and only then you realize that the “dome” is actually an open air space! As in, it’s OUTSIDE the airport, which is in turn a “greenhouse” where they recreated European climate!
The next flight finally took me to the land where I am now. Those who don’t know, guess which one is it from the image!
Do you remember the goat we sacrificed on the first day? Well, for the first time in my life I lived the joke about eating the same stuff forever. We never stopped eating goat and rice. Goat and rice, goat and rice. At the end of the third day, its smell began to anooy me, and the next day it almost nauseated me, probably because by the time we had started eating the part that had been driying up and had therefore stronger odor and taste. The meat had been up in the kitchen for all the time, with some minor heat always there – either a tiny fire or hot ashes.
I finally understood why flip-flops are so universally used: first, it’s immediate to put them on and off, and seen how often they switch from “shoed” to barefoot that’s the most convenient solution. Second, they’re expendable: easy to wash and (in the worst case) cheap to replace.
In the morning, I attended another sacrifice, this time from the beginning. The strong picture below was taken half a second before the goat’s head was chopped off in a dull thump.
Back to the first day, I’m now happy that I didn’t attend the sacrifice of the goad I would have been eating for the next four days. Because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to help Bhim chopping it afterwards. After witnessing the actual beheading, I was unable to speak for 15 minutes, until when a nice girl brought me a cup of milk tea with sugar and cinnamon which brought me back to the world.
That girl actually spoke English very well. Every morning she wakes up at 4:30 and walks one hour to go to school in another village. That’s actually the reason she lives here: her original village is 6 hours walking away.
Today is actually the most important day of Dashain: the Tika day, when the elders of the village give their blessings. They strew colored seeds on people’s foreheads while chanting some Nepali prayers. At the end they give a candy, which is what makes the blessed kids the most happy! I received the Tika as well. I felt extremely honoured.
Bhim’s parents must be among the oldest in the village, so the procession of people and kids coming over to the house for the blessing didn’t stop until late afternoon. It really felt like seeing the “circle of life” in action, I could imagine when today’s blessers were kids and received the treatment from the elders of that time. They were children and now they are highly regarded.
In our society, the elders are more often seen as useless resource eaters. And maybe finally I was able to understand why: because when Bhim’s parents were kids, life must have been very similar to what is today, and their experience really does matter. On our side of the world, where the technological progress is so fast and fuzzy, the knowledge that was so useful just a few decades ago is now maybe good for history books.
I need to add a final remark: the disposal of modern-day garbage. It’s a huge problem there. All the little paths are littered with little plastic things, such as sigarette wraps. Everyone just throws away stuff, in the ground or in a rice field. And one particular episode gave me the key to understanding.
I had a few plastic things (a packet of paper tissues and such), so I asked where could I put it. The answer was astounding: in the compost pile. Shocking. I soon understood why though: they are so used to the fact that anything goes back to Mother Earth, that they treat plastic and similar modern crap in the exact same way.
It was a very, very difficult situation for me. I thought about our discussions with John, who faced the same thing in Sierra Leone. And I finally see what he meant when he said that you can’t go to someone and just teach them how to do things. At the same time, I knew that their approach was fundamentally wrong. What to do?
I opted for a compromise. I didn’t say anything like “you’re doing it wrong”, but I instead talked to Bhim about what I know about plastic degeneration over time, in a very simple way. I told them that in 1000 years that plastic will have broken down into tiny pieces, so small that they can’t even be seen, end up in plants and animals and trigger cancer in both. This seemed to have some effect: Bhim proposed that maybe then it’s better to burn it. Glom. I’m afraid it’s not that easy, Bhim.
The next day, while walking, I casually mentioned the ban that China imposed on free plastic bags giveaway in shops, as those bags were cause of massive fish and sea birds deaths. Like this I gradually provided facts to him, rather than teachings, and then he and the others will draw their conclusion.
As a final thanks and support action for my ideas, I decided to clean the plastic litter from all around the households. Soon others and kids were helping me, and we filled two plastic bags. I showed them a pill container that had maybe been there for years, and still it was pretty intact.
I don’t know if this will have any following now that I’m not there anymore, the responsability for such education should be on the government. But we all know how reliable are the government of such countries, and Nepal in particular.
The following day it was time to go back to Kathmandu, but this is already another story. It was incredible to spend those four days there, I’ve seen so many things I would have probably never seen elsewhere in my life. And funnily enough, such a far environment helped me realise so many things about MY original society and setting. Will I be able to make the most of what I’ve learned? That’s always the big question.
[recap: I spent four days in a rural, remote community in Nepal, where my friend Bhim comes from. See Dashain in Nepal – part 1.]
For the night, I’m given a little room built on one side of the house using wood; there is quite some space in between the wooden beams, so it is a bit like being outside.
Light and sounds make easily their way in… and not only those! During the night, at some point I wake up as something relatively big is flapping his wings right on my face! It was probably a bat, or maybe a little bird.. or maybe a rat. Whatever that was, I instinctively sent it away and fell asleep again without really thinking about it. It scared me more the next morning, when I woke up and on the wall next to the bed there was a big spider! I took a picture with my foot to try to give an idea of the dimension – but as you can see I didn’t feel like putting my foot right on the wall next to it!
The second day was a bit more relaxed. No important cerimonies, just being together. Which here has a different meaning than what we’re generally used to.
Sociality is absolutely important. I noticed that I was looked upon with a certain suspicion when I would sit alone and read a book, and in fact it feels like you’re kind of supposed to be always with someone else or somehow interacting, probably because there is not much else to do, as I mentioned before. I think this is also the reason why meals often come at random times: when women are bored, they get together into the kitchen and prepare something.
“How did people react to your presence there?”, I was asked by a reader (hey Dorien!) Well, I was certainly an unusual presence, but not for the family I was part of. For sure, everybody in the village seeing me for the first time would stare at me with curiosity, try to say “Hallo” in English and then ask Bhim who I was, but the people in my same household took me in very naturally. I would do everything with them, such as helping with little daily tasks such as collecting water.
People would trust me, to the point that during the afternoon I was given the taks to walk with some 10 kids of the village up to the Shiva temple and look after them. We played a few games together – thanks to a lot of scout memories – among which Grandmother’s Steps (“Un, Due, Tre, Stella!”) and Capture The Flag (“Rubabandiera”)!
The only category that was a bit hostile was that of young men, say from teenagers on. Men were usually more competitive and somehow needed to make a statement about territory ownership, and maybe also show some kind of “women ownership”, even though things in the village work with marriage proposal and combined marriages. I believe the primal reason behind combined marriages is to avoid too much inbreeding. Based on the stories I collected, the partner is chosen in a reasonably distant village, something between 3 and 6 hours walking. Once married, wife and kids move to the husband’s family and become part of it. That is why my friend’s sisters were never around but in some villages at the other end of the jungle.
At some point in the afternoon, a group of people walked singing next to our village: they were coming from further villages and were going to a temple one hour away to sacrifice the animals that you see marked in red in the picture.
Ah, I need to mention something expressely for Sergi: the article that shocked us about how many people in India, Pakistan and surrounding areas are supposedly neo-Nazi was a hoax, I’m 100% sure. Both in India than here, swastikas are EVERYWHERE, even on planes and on company logos, and that’s because of its original meaning. For instance, in the village I used to sleep under the cardboard box of a soyabean oil company called “Swastik” that was used to prevent humidity to come in. I can guarantee you that the most of the people in this area of the world don’t know that Nazi existed and possibly don’t even know that something called “Europe” exists far away and that stuff happened there.
Like probably every social photographer knows, once that you’re part of the community, onke the villagers know and trust you, they will ask you themselves to be taken on picture. That’s why I was able to take so many – those that end up here on the blog are really just a tiny fraction. I have actually taken almost more pictures in four days at the village than in three weeks of trek for the Everest! These are Bhim’s parents, almost 80 years old and still strong like an oak. They are sitting in the veranda of the house where most of the time is spent and where Bhim’s father always sleeps, in order to watch over the house.
One last thing that I noticed in all the villagers is how much knowledge they possess about what surrounds them directly. This really impressed me. Everything that they use, or drink, or eat, they know its story and how it has been grown and processed to become the way it is now. They know how their house has been built, and probably they have built it themselves (which is true in my friends case). They know where their food comes from, and probably they have harvested / slaughtered it themselves. They know what is inside a pillow and where it was before, probably because they have collected and processed it themselves. The list is endless. How much do we know about the stuff that surrounds us? Not much I would say, because of all the “compartmented knowledge layers” that the society has put in between us and the stuff that we have around.
Probably because our knowledge tends to be more and more specialized: each of us might have a good understanding of his discipline, but the rest is vaguely known. Their knowledge spectrum is broader: from growing vegetables to building houses, from plumbing to proper worshipping, everybody knows everything he needs to carry out these tasks. Of course, things in our side of the world are far more complex, which makes such “universal knowledge” simply not sustainable. But it was interesting to think that long time ago also our lands had no secrets to anyone.