Category Archives: Customs and Rituals

Auspicious April First

This April Fools Day there is something to celebrate, apparently. We were invited to two events on the same day. Both program dates were chosen by pandits in Nepal due to the auspiciousness of the day– a bratabandha in Wisconsin and a pasni in Connecticut.

Those of you familiar with American geography will know that these two destinations are at least a time zone away from each other. And since the bratabandha invitation arrived first, P and I are currently sitting on a plane making our way to the state known largely for beer and cheese.

I attended P’s bratabhanda but it was more of a rag tag, simple ceremony… there weren’t any older family members around to make sure everything was done according to proper family tradition. It was still fun, just probably not as “official” as the ceremony we will attend tomorrow, or anything that would happen back in Nepal.

It’s actually going to be a double bratabandha as P’s cousin’s son will be undergoing the ritual side by side with his other cousin, who is flying in with his family from Germany for the event. Other family members are taking the opportunity to visit from Nepal as well, so there are bound to be a lot of new relatives to meet.

P’s mother instructed me to wear my best new sari and bring my tilari. It’s important for naya buharis to make a good impression. It should be fun, although I get a little nervous when I’m around a lot of P’s older relatives. I’m embarrassed I still can’t speak or understand Nepali very well, and I’m generally worried I’ll do or say something stupid– but I guess most people feel that way around new people.

Sadly the event we are missing is R and S’s son‘s pasni or first rice feeding ceremony. I had really been looking forward to this event, and even told R to try and avoid April 1st so that we would be around, but S’s family pandit in Nepal declared that the 1st was the best day and R was powerless to reschedule. They will have a pasni party in the summer when S’s family visits from Nepal, and the ever tech-oriented S is planning to live-stream the pasni online, so hopefully we can tune in for a little while. At least I can look forward to that, although I’m still disappointed.

So may your April Fools Day not only be filled with practical jokes but much auspiciousness as well.

Sel Roti Prep

Team Nepal is trying to psych me out on the sel roti plan!

Tonight (Nov 4th) at dinner I was told not to get my hopes high, and that I should only try with “a little bit” of batter in case it doesn’t work well, then we can leave a small offering to god for Lakshmi puja and not worry because at least I tried. I keep being told “It’s hard! Really!” which I’m sure is true, but it only makes me stubbornly want to do it even more.

So I spent part of the evening tracking down sel roti videos on youtube and comparing the recipe I plan to use with other recipes I’ve seen online. P even called home to get advice from him mom. This sel roti plan is intense!

So the Sel Roti recipe I plan to practice with is from my Nepali Cookbook (pg 122):

3 cups white rice
1 medium very ripe banana
1 cup sugar, or to taste
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup rice flour, or as needed
4 to 5 cups vegetable oil

In a large bowl, soak rice in water overnight. Drain rice and place in a blender or food processor with banana, sugar, and butter and process, adding up to 1 1/4 cup of water to make a semi-thick puree with no grainy bits. You may have to do this in two batches. Transfer batter to a mixing bowl and beat with a fork until fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel and set aside to rest for 20-25 mins.

When the batter is well-rested, mix it again. The consistency should be similar to heavy cream. If it seems too thick, gradually add 1 to 2 tablespoons of water; if it feels too thin, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of rice flour and mix well.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until it reaches 350 to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Test for readiness by placing a small drop of the batter into the hot oil. If it bubbles and rises to the surface immediately, it is ready. Pour about 1/4 cup batter into the oil slowly making a large circle (pour the batter from a cup or a pastry bag with a medium-size opening). Stretch and move the batter using a wooden spoon or chopstick to create a round shape. As the sel puffs and rises, push it into the oil with the back of a spoon until it is light golden brown. Flip and fry the second side until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain it on paper towels. Repeat until finished with the batter.

Hopefully by the end I’ll have nice rotis!

Some of the videos that helped me visualize the process (since I’ve never seen it done in person)…

Traditional method with your hand… (only for the seasoned veterans)…

Plastic bottle method (with a little “Resham Firiri” in the background)…

Using a metal bowl to help keep the rotis round shape… (cheating method?)

Using a cup to add batter, and timing (skip ahead to 2:28 and watch until 3:57 it gives you a good idea of how long to cook them, the rest of the video is random and not helpful)…

And finally two Nepali women with a cooking show segment. They mostly talk in Nepali with subtitles, but it gives you a good idea as well…

My rice is soaking, and I’m ready for action.

Tune in later to see how it goes…

Planting the Jamara (in pictures)

So, little did I know that traditionally men are in charge of the jamara planting ritual, but I took charge of our planting tonight, since I seemed to be most excited. Hopefully I didn’t commit some terrible taboo. First I took a shower to “purify” myself and then started the planting.

So what did I do?

Step one: Soaked the jamara seeds. You are supposed to soak them overnight, but I only soaked then for about 20 mins. My housemates said that was okay, hopefully it won’t disturb my jamara growing process…

Step two: Gathered materials… jamara seeds, container for the plants, and sand.

Step three: Filled the bottom of the container with sand

Step four: sprinkled jamara seeds in a single layer on top

Step five: covered with a thin layer of sand

Step six: Watered generously

Step seven: covered and stored in a dark place (the seeds grow better when moist and dark)

Step eight: water when necessary. Jamara should be moist but not swamped.

The plants are supposed to look yellowish green not green-green… so hopefully I start to see shoots soon.

I hope my little seeds grow. I’ll let you know what they look like in ten days!

Dashain Ideas

Dashain is soon to be upon us. The first day of the ten day festival is October 8th and it ends on October 17th.

A reader asked me what she might be able to do for her Nepali partner for Dashain. In her specific situation he is across the country. I brought the topic up at dinner last night to see if my in-house Nepali focus group had any ideas.

AS: “That’s tough… Dashain is all about getting together with family and eating lots of food. So if you are far away? I don’t know.”

P: “Make some goat curry and send it through the mail.”

Hmmm… not the most helpful advice.

So I was googling around during lunch today and found a website that explained the importance of Dashain in Nepali culture and the individual aspects of it quite well. It’s not necessarily specific advice, but it might give some ideas:

Dashain is big in Nepal mainly for the following :

  • Holidays – Rest and Relaxation for nearly 10 days!
    This is the longest festival in Nepal. It allows one to travel and be with family and friends for up to a week or more.
  • Shopping – Clothes for wife, children, dad, mum… In spite of extreme hardship, during the festival season, Nepalese families manage to shop if not for all, but at least for the children. Clothes are the most selling item during the season. Those who could not afford to wear even a single new cloth in the entire year will now attempt!
  • Eating – Meat Products, Sweets, Fruits, and meat products again! Dashain’s most popular cuisine is meat, and in popularity order are goat meat, sheep, buffalo, duck, and chicken. Meat is expensive and poor to middle class families usually cannot afford it. So dashain is the time of eating lots of meat. Usually animals are bought live from the animal market such as Kalanki Bazaar, Bag Bazaar, and sacrificed at home or in temples. At home, the whole family is involved in cutting and preparing the meat which usually lasts for 2 to 3 days of feast. But some family prefer to buy the meat already prepared by Butchers
  • Visiting – Meet your Family and Friends near and far
    Dashain is also about forgiveness, kindness and respect, all of which prevails so broken families come together. Cities suddenly seems to empty itself, more people returning back in villages or terai (lower, flat region of Nepal) than that of people joining families in cities. During this season, city rushes to book tickets, bus or plane!
  • Kites – Children love the season also for flying Kites
    If you visit Kathmandu or any other city during this season, the day-sky is filled with colorful kites like shinning stars in the night!
  • Tika and Love – Receiving and Giving Tika and Respect.
    Getting a tika from an older person in your family or from relatives or from anyone is a blessing. Dashain tika begins from the oldest person in your family giving tika to the youngest then the second youngest in the family and so on. Faith, hope, inspiration and blessings, all come alive in Dashain.
  • Money Notes – stacks of notes to give!
    Receive a tika and offer money notes as an appreciation. Popular Dashain notes are Rupees 2, 5, 10, and Rupees 25. Everybody tries to exchange for smaller and new notes, so banks are usually busy during the season.
  • Cleaning – Clean and decorate homes
    Walls get a new coat of paints, roads are cleaned better than before, temples are decorated with lights, villagers join together to clean and build new trails, paint their homes using red-colored mud. People clean themselves mentally too by visiting various temples and worshiping during the festival.
  • Puja – Worshiping God for Peace and Prosperity. Various pujas are performed from beginning to the end of Dashain.
  • Gambling – although not legal in Nepal, but it’s played! Playing cards are popular during Dashain. Usually family members play cards with each-other or with friends for money.

Perhaps you could send or gift your loved one a new shirt or pair of pants and some playing cards, cook a goat curry meal, and/or send Dashain greetings to Nepali family and friends. If you live in a community with Nepali people, you might visit the homes of elder Nepalis for tikka.

Other ideas out there?

Dinner Conversations- Goats and Head Bobbles

You know you are in an intercultural relationship when…

Sometimes at dinner you talk about goats.

And not just any old goat conversation, but about eating and slaughtering goats. You know… like “best practices.”

I remember back in college when various international students sat together in the cafeteria occasionally the Kenyans and Nepalis would start talking about goats since both cultures enjoy eating them. Each culture has a different way of killing the goat. In Nepal the goat (or buffalo) is usually held with its neck stretched tight so that when the butcher swings his axe hard and heavy the goats head is lopped off quick with one swift whack. The Kenyans on the other hand tend to saw the neck (although some groups, like the Maasai might suffocate the goat first) since they want to save the blood. Anyway, I digress…

Last night I found myself having (St. Patrick’s Day) dinner with a large group of friends at a Vietnamese restaurant (very Irish, I know) to celebrate a friend’s belated birthday. I found myself sitting on one end of the long dinner table with two Nepalis, an American planning to travel to Tanzania for summer research, and another American whose husband is Senegalese. And what did we talk about… yeah, goats.

But in the various goat slaughter conversations I’ve sat through over the years, I did learn something new. Apparently, when Nepalis sacrifice a goat, such as during Dashain when it is quite popular and ritualized, before the goat can be killed it has to “agree.” The butchers will sprinkle the goat’s head with water to get it to shake it’s head in agreement before its neck can be stretched and chopped.

“Sometimes it can be very amusing” our Nepali friend said, “if the goat refuses to shake its head, the butchers have to wait. Sometimes people get really impatient, and they have to sprinkle lots of water on the goat’s head, or they try to agitate the goat to get it to shake its head. If the goat is stubborn, it could take a long time!”

Of course, another caveat to the story is the South Asian “Head Bobble.” For those familiar with the famous “head bobble” or side to side wag that is popularized by Indians, Nepalis also tend to do this. In Nepali culture shaking your head from side to side means “yes” while shaking your head up and down means “no” (the opposite to American culture). Thus when the goat shakes its head from side to side to shake of the water on its head, Nepalis interpret this as “yes, I’m ready.”

“Good thing you don’t use American goats” the American guy (lamely) joked, “they’d be saying no, and you wouldn’t even realize it.”

“Yeah, I guess it’s harder to get the goat to shake it’s head up and down instead of side to side, so good thing we shake our head differently.” The Nepali friend acquiesced.

So the next time you find yourself eating goat in Kathmandu, at least you can rest assured that the goat shook his head “yes, I’m ready” before hand.

If you enjoyed this little goat story, maybe you’ll like this one too…

Holi and Lent

Last night we celebrated a friend’s birthday and Holi in true Nepali fashion… with momos of course!

This is me during Holi two years ago...

In between wrapping the potato/tofu/cabbage (or chicken for the meat eaters) mixture into wanton wrappers and piling them up to be steamed, we would periodically try to smear bright pink colored powder across each other’s faces.

I have yet to be in South Asia during Holi, although someday I hope to. I know it is kind of crazy to go outside during that time… you have to prepare to be pummeled with colored dust, or in Nepal particularly, color-filled water balloons, but I think it would be great fun. I remember once as a little kid someone gave me the idea of making “flour bombs” where you fill a thin napkin with a spoon or two of flour and tie the napkin shut, so when thrown with force it “explodes” white flour everywhere. Holi is essentially the same idea (if you take away the religious aspect of it), and I could see my inner child running wild. We have celebrated a few times with our friends in New England, but the festivities are usually more subdued, since it is usually too cold to go crazy outside, and no one wants a chaotic colored mess to clean off their apartment floor.

Playing Holi in South Asia

The birthday aspect of the evening concluded with some cake, which brings me to the second topic of conversation… Lent.

My relationship with Christianity has been a long and rocky one. So I really wouldn’t classify myself as religious, or even spiritual, but there is one aspect of the Catholic calendar that I do try to adhere to since I find it a fulfilling endeavor—Lent. Generally speaking, Lent is a 40 day period of time in between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday where Catholics go through a period of fasting. I’ve really tried to do this in earnest each year (but not always successfully) because I think, devoid of its religious connotations, it is a nice anchor throughout the year, a time to abstain from something that you really enjoy or rely on. It helps me to practice self restraint and control, cleanses my system, and puts my needs and desires into perspective for the year.

For many years I’ve tried to focus my 40 day fast on sugary things. I’m a huge sweet tooth. I love chocolate (mmmm, Cadbury caramel Dairy Milk and this time of year… Cadbury cream eggs), and baked goods (pies, strudels, cookies), even sugar in my tea, or a soda at a restaurant for dinner. So cutting out the overtly sugary things in my diet (like all of the above, and including last night’s birthday cake) is really tough, and kicks my butt.

The first two weeks are usually the hardest. I gaze longingly at trays of cookies set out at university events, or mentally debate with myself about how bad it would be to just have a bite. I’ve been eating a lot of apples to help me through… and at the end of the 40 days it will feel really good to know that I didn’t give in to desire.

As a kid I tried to give up different things, like soda or television. I told P that this year we should try to give up eating out, but that would be really tough, because with our work schedules, and his exam studying (he passed! Hurray!), sometimes it’s just easy to grab some quick Chinese or burritos, but I’ll keep that one in mind for the future. Sugar seems to be a good one—a tough challenge, something I use as a crutch, and in giving it up I feel healthier at the end of it all, and it usually helps me decrease my overall sugar intake (after the previous few years fast I prefer less sugar in my tea, and sometimes forgo sugar for honey). Last year our friends R and S gave up rice. I commend them on that feat. I’m sure it equally kicked their butts.

So anyway, 13 days down… 27 more days to go.

A “Female” Taboo

A few days ago AS, N, P and I had dinner together and got into an interesting discussion about female menstruation taboos in Nepal. I don’t know if other people would be turned off by this topic, so I am warning you all outright in case you don’t want to read further.

Along the lines of the toilet paper discussion, sometimes things that are deemed to be really private are some of the things that I’m most curious about…

Anyway, I forget how our dinner topic began, but I remember a few years ago P and I somehow started talking about the taboo.

P was telling me about a time when he was young, and he noticed that for a few days each month his dad would do all the family cooking instead of his mom. As Little P, he couldn’t understand why this was happening, so one day he decided to ask at the dinner table. Uncharacteristically his grandfather shushed him up, saying it was an inappropriate topic of conversation, and something he shouldn’t be thinking about.

Little P was perplexed, he didn’t really understand. Eventually he found out that his father cooked for a few days each month because at those times his mother was menstruating and in traditional Nepali culture menstruating women are considered “unclean” and are not allowed to touch food that others will eat. Some strict families might not even serve the woman food in the same room as the rest of the family during these restricted times.

I found this both fascinating and terribly embarrassing. Particularly during my adolescence, I remember being very much a prude when it came to my body. I didn’t want people knowing what was happening to it, and I was horrified to think that if I had grown up in Nepal, it would basically be advertised to my entire family… even my brothers and father and grandfather, that I was having my period. Ick, who wants that?

It also made me really worried the first few times I spent extended periods of time with P’s family… long enough periods (excuse the pun) of time that they must have assumed I menstruated at some point. I fretted, what if they found out that I was? Would I be banished from the kitchen? Would I not be allowed to cook? Would it disgust them if I touched something that someone else would eat during this “taboo” time. I probably spent a bit too much time thinking about it, because nothing was ever said, and I never noticed P’s mom, aunt or female cousins separated out unless it was done in a way that was not very noticeable.

“If you really think about it, the taboo at one point probably made some sense,” P said, during our dinner conversation, “if you think about rural villages, especially a hundred or more years ago, it was difficult to have good hygiene in general, let alone at that specific time for women. Fresh water might be limited, material goods were limited, during that time of each month women probably were unclean because of the conditions they were surrounded by in addition to her own condition.”

The taboo unsurprisingly seems to be enforced much more in rural areas than in metropolitan areas. For example, one  development website states, “Menstrual taboos are deeply rooted in the culture of some Nepali castes… During menstruation, some girls and women are not allowed to enter a kitchen, touch water, attend religious functions, and in extreme cases, are not allowed to drink cow milk, eat fruit or sleep in a bed.” My guess is that as time goes on this taboo in the general Nepali public will probably slowly start to become less widely adhered to, perhaps more like an “old wives tale.”

But even if the taboo in the cities is less strict, a few of my female friends have explained how it affected them in their own childhood households. Every family is different, and different castes have different variations as well, but one common story seems to be that of confinement during a young woman’s first menstruation cycle. The girl is not able to see any of her male relatives or the sun, instead she has to stay in her room with the door and windows closed and shaded. Many of her female friends and relatives will probably come to visit to keep her company, but she is not allowed to do any religious activity during her period of confinement. The length of time seems to vary, around 12 days, although I think P’s younger cousin only did it for 3 or 4 (J Phupu didn’t want her missing out on too much school). Sometimes the young girl might be dressed up in a sari to be portrayed as more “womanly” during  this time.

I also think that it is around this time when Newars have a more elaborate custom for young girls, called the “Bael  Byah” or “bael fruit marriage,” but I’ll talk about that another time.

Anyway, the conversation was interesting, so I wanted to share. Since menstruation taboos isn’t a topic talked about everyday, does anyone else out there have any stories?

Bhai Tikka in Pictures

“Bhai Tikka” marks the final day of Tihar. I believe you could literally translate the holiday as bhai (brother) tikka (blessing); it is a day where sisters celebrate their brothers to ensure their long life and to thank them for the love and protection they give. As part of the festivities lots of good food is prepared for the brothers, and their sisters give them packages of sweets and nuts. There is a special puja, with a seven colored tikka and flower garlands. In return the sisters receive gifts or money from their brothers, and the whole ceremony acts as a strengthening and renewal of the brother-sister relationship.

A Tibetan dipection of Yama

A Tibetan depiction of Yama (Yamaraj)

I had a less detailed “origin story” for Bhai Tikka here before, but a friend sent me a good link, with a nice explanation: “Legend holds that when the Kirati King Bali Hang fell mortally ill, his sister Jamuna looked after him and guarded him. When Yamaraj, the God of Death, came for Bali Hang’s soul, Jamuna pleaded to wait until she finished worshipping her brother; that is, until Panchami (Bhai Tika). She then conducted a long and elaborate ceremony for her brother, and performed the same for Yamaraj. She also put forth some conditions: that Yamaraj should not take Bali Hang until the tika, which she had smeared on his forehead, fades away; until the water sprinkled on her brother dries; and until the makhmali flowers wilt. Over the years Yamaraj sent his messengers to inspect the flowers, and when the next Bhai Tika puja arrived Yamaraj admitted that he had lost Bali Hang’s soul to his pious sister and granted him long life.”

The article goes on to explain the individual elements of the ritual: “To begin

The elephant-headed god Ganesh-- one of the most famous images in Hindu iconography

The elephant-headed god Ganesh-- one of the most famous figures in Hindu iconography

the ceremony, the sister draws three mandaps or boundaries at a designated place. The mandaps are made for Lord Ganesh, Janmaraj (the God of Birth), and Yamaraj. The sister then performs the puja of the deities after which the brother is requested to sit on the mat for the tika ceremony. Special offerings are placed in front of him. While intoning a protective spell, the sister pours a circle of oil and holy water from a copper pitcher around his body as a boundary over which death and evil spirits cannot pass. Then, kneeling before him, she worships him with the offerings of flowers, nuts, fruits, and rice amidst flaming wicks and incense. She then breaks walnuts before applying the actual tika. The most important act is applying the special bhai tika—called saat rangi tika (seven colored tika), consisting of the colors of the rainbow. This is applied on top of a white base on the brother’s forehead. Creating the tika begins… [when the sister] applies the tika base (made from rice paste). The seven colors are dabbed on top of the base with her fingers… [or with a little stick.] Then, a flower garland is put around brother’s neck as the sister prays for his long life, happiness and continued prosperity.”

This year AS organized a small gathering for people who wanted to participate in Bhai Tikka. Usually one would tikka their “own” (biological) brothers as well as male cousins (cousin-brothers). AS’s “own” brother and cousin-brother live nearby, but for many their “own” sisters and brothers are far away. Being the tight-knit community that we are, long lasting friendships can grow into a brotherly/sisterly relationship anyway, and so we expanded the definition of “sister” and “brother” for this event.

We didn’t have garlands, but we made do with what we did have. Below are some pictures of the event:

The "puja platter"...with the seven different colors for the tikka

The "puja thaal"...with seven different colors for the tikka

AS rubs oil on P's head

AS rubs oil on P's head with a banana leaf

AS sprinkles water three times in a clockwise motion around P's head

AS sprinkles water three times in a clockwise motion around P's head

"Old Neighbor" puts tikka on P as other "sisters" get ready to put tikka

"Old Neighbor" puts tikka on P as other "sisters" get ready to put tikka

"Sisters" do an aarti for P's long life...

"Sisters" do an aarti for P's long life...

Two "brothers" with colorful tikkas

Two "brothers" with colorful tikkas

"Sisters" and "brothers"

"Sisters" and "brothers" post-tikka

Kukur Puja

The past few days have been busy, and will finish off tonight with a celebration of “Bhai Tikka”… no wonder my masters thesis isn’t finished yet! There is something new every week. However, every time I participate in these festivals I learn something new… I swear, it’s educational!

Garlanded "kukurs" in Kathmandu

Garlanded "kukurs" in Kathmandu

Anyway… as part of Tihar (as you guys all now know… what Nepalis call Diwali, the “festival of lights”) there are several days, where each day is “special” for a specific thing. One day it is crows, another day cows, another dogs, then yourself, and finally brothers. As part of the festivities you are suppose to do a special “puja,” or ceremony/prayer, for each thing on their specific day and (I guess the word is) “spoil” them with treats and attention. This is hard… P and I don’t have a bunch of crows and cows wandering around, but this year we were in luck… because in January P and I adopted a dog–a cute little rescue mutt from Puerto Rico. So this year we had a chance to celebrate “Kukur Puja”—kukur meaning “dog” in Nepali.

Our little "kukur" Sampson wiggled a bit and got tikka powder on his face :)

Our little "kukur" Sampson wiggled a bit and got tikka powder on his face :)

Thus Sampson had a special Saturday, filled with treats (especially his favorite- cheese!), puja and lots of love! The holiday essentially celebrates the old adage “dog is man’s best friend” or as Wikipedia so eloquently explained, the holiday “acknowledge[s] the cherished relationship between humans and the oldest ever tamed animal.” It was the first time P and I celebrated, so we invited our friends AS and N over to help. We lit some incense, and made a flower garland for Sampson and gave him a red powder tikka for good measure. I must say, he looked awfully cute (although the flower garland didn’t last long).

C lighting candles in hopes of Lakshmi giving us wealth and prosperty for the next year...

C lighting candles in hopes of Lakshmi giving us wealth and prosperity for the next year...

Other then that, we spent a large part of the weekend driving back and forth to central New York for a Diwali party at a friend’s house. As part of the party we all dressed up South Asian style (of course, I’ll jump at any excuse to do so!) and lit lots of little tea lights to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Supposedly, on Lakshmi Puja she visits houses that are clean, adorned with lights and where the people are hardworking (not lazy!) and she brings wealth and good fortune for the upcoming year.

Luckily we finished the dishes and made the bed before running off to the party… because in these tough economic times, who doesn’t need a little Lakshmi in their life? ;)

Tonight is “Bhai Tikka” when “sisters” celebrate their “brothers” and the brothers give their sisters gifts in return. AS is planning a puja and gathering, so I’ll write more about that later.

Phew, between American and Nepali holidays… autumn can be exhausting!

African Hare Krishna

What to write today? Perhaps a fun story? Here’s an “oldie” but a “goodie…”

First, a preface:

1) My dad had a good friend in high school who was very smart, had high ambitions, and never really thought about life not going his way. After graduating from college he applied for medical school, and for whatever reason, wasn’t accepted.

The friend was devastated. As a result he went on a cross-country road trip that ultimately led to him getting involved with some sort of “religious cult” out in California. He used to send all sorts of weird brainwashed-sounding letters back to my dad, and my dad’s friend’s family was really worried. Eventually they hired a private investigator to go out and bring the friend home—eventually kidnapping him from the supposed cult. However, when the family brought him back to New York, some of the cult members actually kidnapped him back, and it was a bit messy for a while. Eventually though, the friend got away and went on to lead a perfectly normal life (although he never did make it to medical school).

Anyway, I’d heard this story growing up and for some reason—maybe because I was interested in things my dad found unusual and didn’t understand—he always worried that I might end up like his friend if I wasn’t careful. Remember this, it’s important.

2) Prior to this story I’d known P about a year and a half. I hadn’t yet visited India or Nepal, and knew very little about Hinduism.

Okay, now fast-forward a few years to when I was in college. As I’ve alluded to before, my academic major allowed me to study abroad in France, Kenya and India. While I was in Kenya, P was able to finagle a research grant to join me in East Africa over the winter break to conduct comparative research on the environmental impacts of urbanization on rivers. The year before he had received a research grant to travel home to study the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, and he planned to compare this to the Nairobi River in Kenya as a thesis project.

Our university was quite small (everyone knew everyone else’s business), and apparently the faculty panel that reviewed the research requests had a discussion on whether or not it was ethical to fund P’s research since he was asking for money to travel to where his girlfriend was studying abroad. A close professor friend on the panel, who is probably more of a romantic than her feminist heart would admit, championed in our defense, “The research proposal is very strong in its own right… and who are we to stand in the way of true love?”

Kisumu is on the shore of Lake Victoria in western Kenya

Kisumu is on the shore of Lake Victoria in western Kenya

I was elated. I couldn’t wait until P arrived. For years it had been my dream to live and work in Africa, and after spending several months there, I was dying to share this new world with him. Over the Christmas holiday, when I knew Kenya was effectively shut down (at least for anything research or administratively oriented), I planned a whole trip for P and I “up-country” to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria.

I had a few friends who had conducted their internship in the city, and they gave me a list of recommended things to see and do, including visiting an orphanage where one of them had worked. I found a small guest house near the orphanage, off the beaten path of the city, down a red dirt road along the water.

We arrived by overnight bus (riding through the Rift Valley on the local bus was brutal, the road was completely pockmarked and rutted from the rainy season) and took a local taxi to our guest house. After settling in we decided to check out the neighborhood and find the orphanage. On our walk we ran into some local Kenyan kids with long vertical Vishnu markings on their foreheads and shortly thereafter a passenger van drove by with Hare Krishna information written on the side paneling.

“We had a Hare Krishna temple near my high school,” P said when the van passed, “they had a van like that too, and we all used to say that they used the van to kidnap you.” P said this very deadpan, as if he was very serious. I only learned later he was joking.

According to a Hare Krishna website the Kisumu orphanage, "houses children who are abandoned on the streets of Kenya. Here they are given food, shelter and education, and helped to end their glue-sniffing and drug-taking street days."

According to a Hare Krishna website the Kisumu Hare Krishna program, "houses children who are abandoned on the streets of Kenya. Here they are given food, shelter and education, and helped to end their glue-sniffing and drug-taking street days."

I knew close to nothing about the Hare Krishna movement, in fact, the only thing that I had heard was that some people believe it is a type of cult. I know people make arguments that are both pro-Hare Krishna and anti-Hare Krishna, so I won’t take an official stance, but at the time the cult association was the only exposure to the organization I had known. This knowledge, coupled with P’s sarcastic comment, and the old story of my dad’s friend, had me a bit on edge about the Hare Krishnas.

As the week wore on, P and I had a great time. We spent Christmas eve and day volunteering at the orphanage, we went out on an early morning canoe ride in the lake and saw hippos up-close. We met with a friend’s brother in a tiny local (tasty) hole-in-the-wall fish place, and had dinner at his house with his whole family. It was fun.

P on a boda boda

P on a boda boda

Then the time came to return to Nairobi. We met some of the orphanage kids on the road to say good bye before trying to hitch a ride on a boda boda (bicycle taxi) back to town to catch the bus. The kids were trying to help us haggle but the boda boda drivers wouldn’t budge even though the kids and I knew we were being “grossly overcharged.” We were haggling over about 50 cents, but it was the principal of the thing, and eventually we decided to try our luck and started walking towards town. We were really early for the bus anyway, since we planned to find something to eat before heading out on the long journey back to Nairobi.

As we walked, the notorious Hare Krishna van (which we had passed on numerous occasions during the week) started rumbling down the dirt road. The kids started jumping and waving and one kid yelled, “You are lucky! The van will take you to the city for free!”

The van responded to the kids’ arm flailing and slowly pulled to the side of the road a few feet in front of us. There were two men and a woman sitting in the front, and they rolled down the passenger window, “need a lift?”

P, knowing my habit (challenge?) of traveling cheaply, figured this fit the mold… free trip to town, you can’t get more cheap than that… so he opened the van door and climbed in with a big grin on his face. My stomach sank; didn’t these people belong to a cult? What if something happens to us? Yet by this time everyone was looking at me, so I caved and stepped into the van.

Idi Amin famously threw out all people of South Asian and European descent from Uganda during his murderous and ethnocentric regime

Idi Amin (depicted in the movie "The Last King of Scotland") famously threw out all people of South Asian and European descent from Uganda during his murderous and ethnocentric regime

The driver of the van was Colombian and the two passengers were a married couple, the man was from Bolivia and the woman was a Ugandan of Indian descent whose family was thrown out of the country during the Idi Amin era. The couple explained that they had come to visit East Africa so the woman could “retrace her roots” and show her husband her home country. They were also using the trip as an opportunity to connected with Hare Krishna communities in the area.

The Hare Krishna crew seemed very interested in P, particularly after he mentioned he was from Kathmandu. The Colombian driver said he had worked at the Hare Krishna posting near P’s old high school, and the two bonded over shared geographical knowledge. As the van neared the bus depot the driver asked, “you must be hungry, have you eaten yet today?”

I was just about to say that we were fine when P spoke up, “no, actually we haven’t eaten yet. We were planning to find something while waiting for the bus.”

“We can’t have you travel hungry! Please, join us for breakfast!” the driver said.

“Yeah! Sure!” P said, the big grin popping back on his face. I’m sure he thought, more free stuff… alright!

The driver turned the van around and started driving out of the city. That’s when my panic level began to rise. I looked at P concerned, but he seemed oblivious, no doubt already thinking about food.

On the outskirts of the city the van approached a gated compound. A security guard let the van through, and we parked in the driveway of a large secluded mansion. I heard the front gate slam shut and my heart started racing. This is it! I thought, My dad was right… I’m never going to get out of this… I’m going to be brainwashed by a cult, and lost in Africa forever! I’ll never see my family again!

The Colombian driver rang the bell and a Kenyan maid opened the door, dressed in a sari. Although no more unusual than a white American in a sari, I’d never seen an African in a sari before, and it added to the mystic of the compound, and my mounting dread. They are all dressing alike… it must be a cult! The house was decorated with lots of South Asian iconography including large statues and carvings of gods and goddesses. Everything seemed very exotic and different, particularly from the largely Christian Kenyan culture I had been living in for the past several months. In my terrified mind it all added up, this had to be a cult.

The driver encouraged us to sit in a parlor area, and the maid was sent to get us some drinks. I frantically looked around the room assessing my surroundings and trying to make sense of it, looking for an escape route, trying to figure out what would be used to brainwash me.

A few minutes later, the maid brought in a tray of glasses filled with a thick looking green liquid. When I was handed a glass I quickly took a whiff, trying to detect if it was safe to drink. I was told it was some sort of wheat germ smoothie. Was this going to drug me? I watched as the others were served and the driver took a large gulp. P had a sip and he looked fine. I decided to just hold it and pretend to drink.

The driver and couple asked us many questions. What were we doing in Kenya? How long were we staying? What brought us to Kisumu? They continued to take an interest in P, especially when he talked about his research. I started making excuses about time, and catching the bus, but they courteously brushed aside my concerns.

Blowing the conch shell...

Blowing the conch shell...

Suddenly a conch shell horn sounded in another room and the the couple quickly stood up and walked towards the sound while the driver paused to invite us to worship with them.

Aha! This is how they will do it! They’ll brainwash us while “worshiping.” Now I’m done for! I wanted to grab P and run, but he didn’t seem concerned at all.

Life sized Radha and Krishna statues

An example of life sized Krishna and Radha statues

Dumbly, I followed and we turned a corner into a large room made up like a temple with two life-sized Krishna and Radha statues. The entire wall was meticulously decorated in fabric and flowers, and the statues sat on large wall-length altars. The gods were elaborately dressed in shiny clothes and garlanded with fresh flowers. I’d never in my life (up  to that point) seen anything like it. Already scared out of my mind, I thought for sure that this legitimized my fear.

Had I been to India before  this story took place, or visited a temple with P–even an American Hindu temple–or if I knew more about Hinduism at the time, I’m sure I would not have found the room so threatening. Yet all I could think of was my dad’s cult prediction.

The driver explained that Hare Krishnas worshiped through music and handed each of us a small musical instrument. I received a pair of wood blocks and P was given finger cymbals.

At this point I was shooting death glares at P, who seemed totally unaffected by the situation. The music started and he bobbed his head back and forth to the music, ting-tinging the little cymbals to the beat, happy as a clam.

How can he be so oblivious?? My mind screamed, trying to telepathically send him messages, P we need to get out of here NOW and save ourselves!!!

Example of a man doing aarti for puja with the platter of incense and candle

Example of a man doing aarti for puja with the platter of incense and candle, a perfectly normal aspect of Hindu worship

Then the caretaker of the house, an Indian woman dressed in a starched cotton sari, entered the room with a shiny metallic platter carrying incense, a candle and other items for the aarti. During the music and chanting, she stood in front of the statues with the platter, rotating it in circles in front of the gods.

I was feeling queasy with fear and internally freaking out. I wasn’t sure what was going to brainwash me, but I was absolutely… absolutely… sure that it was going to happen. Would it be the music? The exotic smelling incense? The rhythmic chanting? Would I ever see the light of day again???

The music seemingly continued on forever. I kept making exaggerated gestures to check my watch to show how impatient I was to catch the bus while also trying to catch P’s attention, and hum something in my head to counteract the alleged brainwashing. Its hard to think of another time that I had ever been so scared.

Yet finally the music stopped, and miraculously I still had control over my own mind. I can’t help but admit that I was both very surprised, and extremely relieved. The driver asked if we enjoyed the worship and I began reiterating the fact that we had tickets for the bus and had to get going.

The Ugandan woman asked, “are the buses really on time here?” to which the driver answered, “never…” but I insisted, “the one time you count on their tardiness is the one time the bus is ready to go at the correct time… we really really need to get there.”

“But we can’t let you leave without breakfast!!” the driver insisted.

“No, trust me, we are fine. We really need to go. I’m not even hungry… P, are you hungry?” I said, hoping he would get the hint.

“Actually, I am still kind of hungry.” P said.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME??!!

The Indian caretaker led us to her dining room, which had been laid out with a full Gujarati meal for breakfast. The driver insisted we sit. I sat down and started shoveling food into my mouth at a tremendous speed, insisting over and over, in-between bites and gulps for air, that we had to go, we had to make the bus, we were already late. I was hoping the more I insisted, and the faster I ate, the quicker we could get out of there.

Meanwhile, P was savoring the food. He looked utterly satisfied, “I haven’t eaten some of this stuff in years! Delicious!” he kept repeating, taking a second helping, and cleaning his plate.

“Please, we have to go!” I continued to beg.

“You can’t go without snacks for your journey” the Indian caretaker said, and asked the maid to go in the kitchen and pack some food.

“No really, its fine.” I pleaded.

“Its no trouble” the woman insisted.

Finally, FINALLY, the maid entered with our packed food, and the Colombian driver stood up to take us out the door. P thanked everyone and happily followed the driver, while I grumbled a quick thanks and scurried after them.

It’s hard to describe the relief I felt to walk through the front door, and feel the warm African sun on my face. To breathe in the earthy air of the garden, and to hear the birds chirping in the trees. When I went in that house, I never expected to exit, not like this.

We climbed into the van, and the driver turned the key. We started back towards the city while he continued to chat with P, “when you get back to Nairobi you should check out our temple there, it’s quite impressive!”

The van made it to the bus depot moments before our bus was ready to depart the station, and  P and I were the last two to scramble on-board. P waved goodbye, and we took our seats at the front. I watched the Colombian drive away, and when he was out of sight I turned to P and wacked him repeatedly on the shoulder…

“What… were… you… THINKING??!!??” I exploded, “You could have gotten us KILLED!!”

“What??” he looked at me completely bewildered, “what the heck are you talking about??”

Me: “Aren’t they a cult?”

P: “I don’t think so.”

Me: “Seriously?? What about all that, ‘oh there goes the kidnapping van’ stuff?”

P: “That was just a joke. Why are you freaking out?”

Me: “Because I have been scared out of my mind for the last hour and a half!” and I explained my dad’s cult story.

P looked at me for a moment and couldn’t help but let out a sympathetic laugh, “ohhhh… you must have been so scared in there… I had no idea!” Born and raised a Hindu, everything in the house seemed quite normal, or at least not scary. Then he opened up the snack bag, and pulled out the crunchy fried munchies they gave us, “alright! I haven’t had these since the last time I was home!”

So, the moral of the story is: my first interaction with a form of Hinduism thoroughly freaked me out. However, I’ve learned so much since then, and I think I would have handled the situation a lot better if it had happened today. Looking back, everyone was actually very nice, and I now find the story amusing and the situation comical since I know it has a happy ending.

Meanwhile… try to communicate with your partner better than just shooting him “death glares” from across the room… because maybe they can help explain the situation if they actually know what you are thinking.

And lastly, never listen to cult stories from your dad as a kid. It will scar you for life.