Category Archives: Both US and Nepal

To Feel Something, Deeply…

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a young woman who was doing research on Hindu/Christian couples for a paper she was working on at the Harvard Divinity School. She had found me through some of my blog postings on negotiating different religious territory for our wedding.

I admit that I am probably not the best “Christian” to interview for such a paper, for even though I was raised in a Catholic home, I don’t really consider myself very Christian. I was upfront about this in the interview, but the interviewer said that it was okay, that it was good to hear a diversity of opinions.

I always mean to write a more in-depth post about my own feelings on religion. I have touched on some here and there, but sometimes I’m afraid of offending more religious readers of this blog. I wouldn’t mean to as I actually find religion a fascinating topic, but sometimes I worry that professing no faith can seem insulting or sad to those that have deep faith.

Yet personally, I’ve never really felt any religious or spiritual stirrings. Perhaps not everyone is struck with a deep religious calling, but I haven’t even felt minor religious or spiritual murmurs. It’s not for a lack of wanting to, or having tried to seek such feelings out. There was a time when I really just wanted to “get” what other people seemed to, without having to try so hard. However it hasn’t happened, and on an intellectual level, at least with the Catholicism that I was raised with, Christianity just never made much sense to me.

So it felt kind of cathartic to talk to this woman about my religious feelings (or lack there of), and how it shaped our multicultural household. As we neared the end of our hour long conversation she asked me if I ever had something close to a spiritual feeling even if I wouldn’t necessarily label it such, and I had to admit there was at least one time.

It sounds like the biggest cliche in the book, but when I signed up to study in India I had been grappling with my complex religious feelings for years. Although the main purpose of my trip was to learn more about South Asia in general, I was hoping that perhaps something in this “spiritual land” (sorry, even I’m cringing as I write that) would speak to me, and that perhaps I’d finally find that missing religious link I’d been searching for.

I didn’t, I came back just as atheist as I was when I departed, but there was one experience that felt inspiring, that did churn something up in my chest.

I pulled out my India journal to see what I had written.

As our program director was a Tibetan monk, our India semester had a special focus on Buddhism, and in addition to learning about Hindu culture and traveling to places like Varanasi, we also traveled to Dharmsala (where the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama reside) and Bodhgaya, the place where Buddha supposedly sat underneath the bodhi tree and meditated until he gained enlightenment.

The town of Bodhgaya is off the regular tourist track, and although you do bump into western tourists, a lot of the visitors are Buddhist pilgrims from around the world, and particularly from Tibet. It wasn’t uncommon to see nomadic Tibetan pilgrims walking down the street looking like they had just stepped out of a National Geographic documentary on life in a yak caravan.

Bodhgaya itself is a bit of a dusty backwater with frequent power cuts, and not much traffic. Around the outskirts of town are various temples from different Buddhist nations, built to reflect each culture’s style and architecture: Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Laos, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, etc.

At the center of town is the Mahabodhi Temple, which sits beside the spot where Buddha meditated. A bodhi tree is still in the spot, supposedly the sapling of a sapling of a sapling of the original tree. Around the temple and the tree is a path that pilgrims circumambulate night and day.

Mahabodhi Temple– “front”

Mahabodhi Temple and Bodi tree at night– “back” of temple

This is the passage from my journal:

Tenzin-ji [our program director] says, “You can sleep when you get back to the US” and I have tried to adopt this as my new motto…

For instance… our last morning in Bodhgaya a group of six of us woke up at five in the morning and walked to the Mahabodhi temple to circumambulate for two hours before our thirty minute meditation. We left in the darkness, as the town slept, yet found the temple bustling with activity as we walked around it with many Tibetan pilgrims. A chant was playing over the temple loud speakers, and we walked until the power went off… and then we walked in darkness, feeling our way along the path… until the power kicked back on and the sun slowly rose. The devotion of the pilgrims is awe inspiring… old and young alike were making slow prostrations around the temple… hours of bending up and down in prayer…

After being here and watching activites such as this, I feel like I could do something crazy and seemingly impossible. Like walk across the US, or do anything I set my mind to do. It would almost be a test of wills, just to see if I could do it. Nothing seems impossible anymore.

Your mind does funny things when you test it… like walking around a temple in a continuous circle at 5 in the morning for two hours. It starts to wander… and you think about life… I meditated on my feelings about religion, I thought about my family, and life after college. I tried to release some of the anger that I have kept bottled inside and tried to breath out my frustrations.

This has been good for me, healthy.

It’s easy to let life and routine get in the way of seeking out these really inspirational moments. I don’t know if I really felt something spiritual while walking around the temple, but I definitely felt something deeply that day, and it will be a moment I’ll never forget.

Bringing Shoe Stealing to a Whole New Level…

In some sectors of Nepali and Indian culture there is a wedding tradition where the sisters of the bride–and this could be immediate biological sisters, or cousin-sisters, or female friends, etc–steal the shoes of the groom.

The set up for this works well because during the ceremony the bride and groom have to remove their shoes since the mandap becomes a small Hindu temple, and in all Hindu temples one must remove their shoes. I believe it is the same with mosques, so I wouldn’t be surprised if shoe stealing happens at South Asian Muslim weddings as well–readers can weigh in.

The groom’s friends or male cousins/brothers are supposed to guard the shoes, and I’ve even heard about “decoy” shoes to throw the sisters off.

Once the sisters steal the shoes the groom has to pay a bribe to get them back at the end of the ceremony. Depending on the parties involved, negotiations can be pretty tough.

When my sister heard about this, she loved the idea, and stole P’s shoes at our wedding, but I gave her a limit on how much she could reasonably ask for. When she asked for $50, S said, “that’s too little!” and gave her a handful of money from his wallet. I think she made off with $100 and was pretty satisfied.

Over the weekend we went to an Indian/Nepali wedding in the DC area. It was the biggest wedding I had ever been too– about 600 people. The bride was a childhood/neighborhood friend of P and his brother, and she was marrying a Punjabi man. Both the bride and groom had 13 or 14 members in their wedding party–“bridesmaids” and “groomsmen,” so when the “bridesmaids” (sisters) demanded payment for the groom’s shoes, they meant business and had the numbers to back it up.

They started chanting, “$3,000! $3,000!”

The groom countered with, “It’s a recession! That’s too much for a pair of shoes!”

Sisters: “We want $3,000!”

Groom: “I’ll give you two-fifty each…”

Sister: “Two hundred and fifty dollars each?”

Groom: “No! Two dollars and fifty cents!”

Sisters: “Noooooooo! Boooo!”

Groom: “Be reasonable girls!”

Groom’s brother: “No more than $50 per sister, otherwise they are being greedy!”

Sisters (urged on by the bride): “No, we want $3,000!”

…Haggling back and forth for quite a while…

Groom: “Okay, how about I give you all the money in my wallet right now? Trust me, it’s a lot, you will be happy… and I’ll throw an awesome party!”

Sisters: “How much is in your wallet?”

Groom: “$800 and a gift card for $25, you can have that too!”

Sisters: “Noooooo!”

…Haggling some more…

Some of the brothers reluctantly open their wallets and sweeten the pot to make an even $1,000 plus the $25 gift card.

The sisters finally accept.

P’s cousin’s American husband leaned in and whispered to me, “Um, is this for real?”

Sisters enjoy their shoe money...

Apparently!

Someday I want to be in South Asia for Holi

I know that the festival of Holi happened a few weeks ago, and I meant to write a post like this at the time, but I was reminded of Holi last night while searching for photos on the internet and figured it was time.

As the title professes, one of these days I would really like to be in either India or Nepal for Holi. I understand and appreciate that there is a religious significance to the festival, so I don’t want to seem disrespectful or  flippant, but there is something that looks so amazingly fun about throwing handfuls of colored powder at each other, regardless of the reason.

I remember once in elementary school someone gave me the idea of putting a spoon or two of flour into an opened  napkin and tying the napkin shut with a piece of string to make a “flour bomb” that “exploded,” sending flour everywhere, when you threw it at someone/something. I made about a dozen, and my sister K and I threw them at each other in the back yard. We were covered in white powder at the end. It was extremely fun, and of course, silly, but I couldn’t replicate it because I got in trouble for wasting flour.

I imagine a full scale Holi is kind of like that, only the flour-like powder is dyed vibrant hues, and the world is covered in rainbows.

P says that in real life (well, in the kid version he remembers) playing Holi can also be kind of brutal. Teenage boys love targeting Western tourists (particularly females) and Holi colors don’t always come in fun handfuls of powder… sometimes they come in buckets of colored water or balloons. There was even a dangerous trend of more mischievous people throwing motor oil in Kathamandu, but I still  like to imagine crowds of happy, friendly people, shrieking in delight and playing tag with fist fulls of beautiful powder.

Actually, P has a “battle wound” from a Holi shenanigan in his youth. One year he was up on the roof of his house, leaning far over the ledge to hit a neighbor girl with a balloon filled with colored water. As he positioned himself for the sneak attack he let the balloon go, but lost his balance and fell off the roof with it! He cracked the side of his head on the path below and started bleeding. As luck would have it, the timing of his accident coincided with a city curfew, and his family couldn’t taken him to the hospital until the following morning. Several stitches later, he still has a bump on his noggin that you can see in the right light if you know where to look.

But I’m not deterred :)

We have played Holi a few times in Massachusetts, although of course a tamer version, at Holi potluck gatherings where fellow party goers gently wipe powder in a streak across each others faces. But much like smearing birthday cake on someone’s face, the real fun is getting a little crazy. I wouldn’t mind coming back from Holi looking like this:

Pictures are from The Telegraph and Boston.com.

Titaura

Today I simply have to link to another Nepali blog. Many of the readers of this blog probably already read NepaliAustralian‘s, but if not you should check out her most recent post on titaura.

From time to time I like to write about things Nepali people like…
momo,  sel roti, WaiWai, heck even the Bryan Adams song “The Summer of ’69

… and  titaura  should certainly be added to the list.

Often when friends or family return from Nepal they bring with them packets of these small dried and candied fruit snacks, and the packets don’t usually last long in our house.

There are several kinds of titaura– salty, sweet, sour or hot. Many are made from the Nepali fruit “lapsi” which comes from a tree native to Southern and Eastern Asia.

Lapsi fruit hanging on a tree

I’m not a fan of the spicy or salty titaura. Early on in my friendship with the Nepali crowd at my university I was talked into trying a spicy mango titaura and I’m not interested in eating another one of those any time soon! However I love the sweet and sour ones. Even writing about titaura is making my tongue tickle with sweet and sour anticipation. Too bad I polished off a recently found (and presumably last) packet  from our October trip a few weeks back.

Packets of Nepali titaura candies.

I like the yellow ones in the lower right hand picture, but I’ll eat the orange ones in the upper right and the ones right below that too! yum yum :) P likes the ones that are sticky and wet like the red ones in the lower left picture. I think he is also more of a salty or spicy fan.

Musing on Gas

My blogging ebbs and flows, depending on what is going on in life, how busy work tends to get, and if I need a distraction. Even if I’m not a super consistent writer (although I try), I’m usually lurking on other blogs, and when I get really hooked on one and all of a sudden there hasn’t been a post in a few weeks (or months) I find myself thinking, “Come on!” [in the voice of GOB] “Where did this blogger go… I miss them!

Alas, as of late, I’ve become one of those absentee bloggers. Je suis très désolée.

It’s not that I don’t have anything to say, I just sometimes lose the motivation to sit down and put it together in a post. I have a bad habit, during dark chilly New England months, of burying under blankets in the evening and reading good books. Perhaps I was a hibernating creature in another life.

So, to transition in to writing a little bit more, I decided to share an amusing story from the weekend.

January 15th is P’s western calendar birthday (his Nepali calendar birthday was near the beginning of January, and like every year he didn’t know it was happening until he got a call from his parents one night wishing him a happy birthday) and this year it was also the Nepali holiday of Maghe Sankranti. I’m not totally clear on the details of this specific holiday (although the ever handy Wikipedia gave me a better idea), other than it marks the start of the Nepali month of Magh and the passing of the unlucky month of Poush, and that on this holiday you eat boiled cassava and purple colored sweet potato that can only be found locally at the Vietnamese grocery store.

This year, as last year, S-di invited our local crew over to her place for the day. Between S-di, M-dai and his wife’s cooking there was much to be had—the required boiled cassava and sweet potato, sel roti, a giant bowl of homemade ghee, sesame sweets, rice, taarkari, chicken, etc.

And as usual, we went to her house thinking that we would only stay for a few hours… and we wound up being there for eight or nine. After our bellies were full, and M-dai, Bhauju (M-dai’s wife), S-di, P and I were settled on the couch under cozy blankets, we spent time chatting and M-dai told a funny story.

M-dai grew up in a village up in the hills of Okhaldhunga district. When he was a kid there was a Peace Corps volunteer who worked at his school. He even remembered the volunteer’s name… “Spike.”

Anyway, they used to find this foreign teacher really interesting. He was quite different from the rest of them in various ways, but he had this one habit that all of the students found really bizarre—he used to fart in public like it was no big deal.

Now one could speculate. Maybe this guy was a bit of a bum, and he would have farted in public anywhere, including in the US. Or maybe the combination of Nepali food, a different altitude, and intestinal bugs continually agitating his GI tract, left him with no choice but to let loose, or else be plague by terrible gas pains (hey, it could happen). Yet it’s also possible that maybe this guy simply thought passing gas wasn’t a big deal in Nepal—burping certainly isn’t, although apparently there is a different feeling about flatulence from the other end—and never thought much about doing it where ever he was, alone or with others.

Certainly Westerns fall into this mentality when it comes to clothing while traveling in the “developing world,” myself (formerly) included. Sometimes even the most “culturally interested” or “attuned” just fail to realize things. I used to think that when walking through dirty, dusty streets, or living in a village, it didn’t really matter what you looked like. I’m not really one to get really dressed up in general, but I wouldn’t bring my “nicer” clothes on my study trips to Kenya or India, in part, because I was worried about “ruining” them, but also I just figured there wasn’t really a need to bring them. Even before my time in Kenya was over, I was starting to catch on and dress a little more “East African chic,” but it wasn’t until my embarrassing first clothes buying experience with P’s family in KTM that I really realized that in the “developing world” (and, let’s face it, most of the rest of the world outside of America) clothing is more formalized than back home. When you go out, you dress up, period—whether it’s for school, going to a party, going to a friend’s place, going for dinner, going to the market. It’s simply not acceptable to show up in a shabby pair of shorts and a dusty t-shirt, even if you sit next to a goat on the minibus you take to your friend’s house!

So maybe this guy thought the same way about farting—hey, it’s the “developing world,” people burp, I’m not in America where they have social etiquette rules about this, I feel gassy, and I’m going to let it go. According to M-dai this guy would fart all the time, including while he was standing in front of his class, and the students just couldn’t believe it.

“Sure people fart.” M-dai said, “But not in front of others, and certainly not in a formal situation like a class, or in front of elders!”

So from this early ambassador to American culture, the young M-dai thought that in America it was acceptable to fart at any time, that there were no social taboos in the US about doing so in public.

When he came for graduate school in Massachusetts five years ago he was shocked to discover this wasn’t the case! ;)

“Hot, Fresh, Sweet”

This post is dedicated to our DEAR FRIEND D who said last night, “I know what C’s blog post will be about tomorrow…  I even know the title” and who was sad that a few posts ago I referred to him as “our neighbor D” and thus felt demoted in relationship status.

As many of you probably know, Hurricane Irene blew through New England on Sunday. It also happened to be my birthday. We spent much of the weekend sitting around the apartment with Mamu and Daddy talking about what a hurricane is, and how they are different/similar from/to other weather events. I think they were both a little nervous and a little excited—they were curious to see what a “hurricane” was like, but worried that something would maybe happen to them. Mamu would stand near the window watching the trees bend and say, “Hurricane is coming…”

We had some gusty winds, but never lost power (although it seems a lot of other people around us did), and didn’t have the same flooding problems as other places an hour or two drive north or west of us. By evening the weather calmed enough for us to even go out for a little birthday dinner and cake.

After Irene blew through the weather cooled off, so I thought I would experiment with some “American autumn” inspired food. Always on the lookout for foods that I love, that I could try and introduce to Mamu and Daddy, during our pre-Irene grocery shopping I snuck a bag of brussels sprouts and a butternut squash into our cart.

Attempt #1: On Saturday I decided to pair the sautéed (in olive oil, garlic, salt and fresh ground pepper) Brussels sprouts—or “baby banda” (cabbage) as I called them—with the vegetable curry that Mamu made. P and I were practically fighting over the sprouts… but I saw Daddy push a few around his plate, and eventually toss the two or three half pieces that he couldn’t manage to eat into the garbage before washing his plate. I guess the “baby bandas” were a “fail”–my guess is that they were still too “raw” (crunchy) for their taste, but overcooked brussel sprouts are really bad and bitter, so “what to do?

Attempt #2: Again Mamu had some taarkari left over from lunch, and made a pot of rice, but I decided to whip up a quick butternut squash bisque. I sliced up the butternut—

“Is it a pharsi? [pumpkin]” Daddy asked.

“It’s in the pharsi family, it’s a butternut squash” I explained.

When I sliced open the round bottom part of the butternut and scooped out the seeds with a spoon Daddy said, “It is a pharsi! Look at the seeds!”

“Yes,” I responded, “pharsi family different type.”

—then sautéed some sliced onions, garlic, salt and pepper, added the butternut, and then a few cups of water and some veggie bullion. I let it boil, covered, for about ten minutes until the butternut was soft, and then poured the whole soup into the blender and pureed. Lastly I heated the pureed soup with a bit of whole milk mixed in for creaminess, and then brought it to the dinner table in a serving bowl.

I turned back to the kitchen to grab bowls for everyone but before I returned to the table Mamu and Daddy had already ladled my “pharsi soup” on to their heaping piles of rice—“like daal!” Mamu exclaimed.

“Whatever gets you excited about it” I thought.

I returned the bowls to the kitchen, keeping one for D and myself, since we both elected to eat my soup like soup.

While we ate I asked Mamu if she liked the dish. She smacked her lips and declared, “I like… hot, fresh, sweet!”

D started giggling… “I know what C’s blog post will be about tomorrow” he said, “I even know what the title will be!”

Mamu, Daddy and P had a few more spoons of “pharsi soup—like daal” on their rice while I finished up my large bowl.

Finally an American culinary win!

I’ll take it, “like daal” or not!

Going to a Friend’s Wedding

I mentioned previously that we went to a wedding in Pennsylvania last Friday. Our friends DM and CN were married. Like many of the friendships we made at university, we met them through international student connections/international interests, and eventually we all lived in the International House on campus together.

I remember meeting DM pretty early his freshman year. Three years before I had attended an international youth summit in Washington DC and had made a friend who lived in the Netherlands but was Bulgarian by birth/heritage. I kept in touch with this friend for several years, and had learned a bit about both these countries through him. So when I met DM for the first time I was happy to pull out the few words of Bulgarian I knew– Как сте? (Kak si-te? How are you?) and Добре съм (Dobre sãm. I’m fine) which was probably pretty unexpected from an American girl in rural northern New York.

Although we are both American, CN and I had similar intercultural interests—we both studied in France but during different semesters. Her freshmen year roommate was from Kenya, another eventual close friend of ours, and my Swahili language teaching assistant. All of us wound up in the International House for the rest of our college careers. Eventually CN and I both enrolled in the same international education masters program, and we both have jobs working with international students (she’s an ESL teacher) in addition to both being married to former international students.

Their wedding was the first wedding P and I attended after our own. I guess the first one you go to after your own always feels a little weird. You are very happy for your friends, but seeing them go through the motions can’t help but remind you of your own experience and how you were feeling at the time. Everything happened so quickly during our own wedding, that I didn’t really have a time to process it, but as a spectator at theirs I felt like I was processing a lot. I was that annoying person sitting in the audience whispering to the person sitting next to me, “I remember at this point I was feeling/thinking ______. I wonder if he/she is feeling the same.”

At your own wedding, the guests are there because they know you,  so there are so many people to talk to.  I remember people constantly approaching us, asking us for pictures, wanting to chat, wanting to dance, it felt a bit overwhelming sometimes, and certainly added to the feeling that time was passing so quickly. At someone else’s wedding you think about how you don’t know a lot of people, and how you want to be that person approaching the bride and groom to talk, to steal them to take pictures, to dance with them on the dance floor, but you try to be understanding because you know how it feels to be inundated.

It is certainly more relaxing to be at someone else’s wedding. To have a drink or two during the cocktail hour, to sit back and enjoy your meal, and dance your heart out on the dance floor without worries or distraction. It also hits you that your wedding time is really over. You are not the “bride” anymore, but a “wife” which has its own mystique and excitement.

They did one of those anniversary dances during the reception where all the married couples dance to a song and the MC calls out dates, and the longest married couple is the last remaining at the end of the song. P and I were the first ones off the dance floor when the guy called out, “Anyone married a month or less?” It will be a month next Tues/Wed. Holy cow… a whole month already, where did that month go? Can’t time just stand still for a little while?

Fat chance with international orientation coming up in the next two weeks with our largest international class ever. My summer is pretty much over now.

I better finish my last two wedding posts before I forget to jot down my “white wedding” thoughts.