Category Archives: Travel

Japanese Encephalitis and “Discriminating Against Meat-Eaters…”

After pulling out my dusty India journal for the last post, I couldn’t help but skim through a lot of other entries, and I found another story that might be amusing…

By now most of you know that I am a vegetarian. I eat eggs and dairy, but no fish or other meats, and I’ve been consistent with this for nearly fifteen years.

When I traveled to India, we had 20 people on our program, with more than half (perhaps more like 3/4) of us vegetarian. It was the first time in my life I was in a group where the veggies were in the majority. It was also the first time I was in a place where I could walk into any restaurant and be guaranteed several vegetarian meal choices, or could have my choice of several completely vegetarian restaurants all within walking distance. It was both liberating and overwhelming.

Making the food transition was one of the hardest parts of returning to the US at the completion of the program. I really missed the South Asian ease of finding vegetarian food (looking for grocery products with a green dot on the packaging to ensure it was animal product free), and was sad to see my restaurant choices relatively limited once again.

Since our student group had a veggie majority, the few meat eaters were suddenly finding themselves in the uncharted territory of feeling similar to how vegetarians sometimes feel in the not-always-vegetarian-friendly US. When our program cohort went out to dinner we would order more vegetarian dishes to share than meat dishes, and the meat eaters had fewer options. Sometimes only vegetarian food was ordered, since the meat eaters liked the veggie dishes too.

Yet transitioning from eating meat every day to once in a while was too much for one student.

I’m going to call him “Bob.”

One night at dinner, about 2-3 weeks into our program, Bob started grumbling loudly. He claimed that he was being discriminated against by the group, that “it wasn’t fair,” and that his “meat-eating rights shouldn’t be trodden upon.”

Now, I get that. I don’t think anyone should be forced to do something that they don’t feel comfortable with, but no one was forcing him to give up meat. It was just on occasions when the whole group had dinner together that it was easier to order more/all vegetarian meals. Plus Bob liked the vegetarian dishes too, so it wasn’t like we were forcing him to eat something he didn’t like.

But the student continued to insist that he was being discriminated against, and that eating all these vegetables was actually making him sick.

So let me back up more, and tell you a little something extra about Bob.

Before departing for India the members of our student group were given a list of recommended shots for the program– stuff like Hepatitis, Polio, Typhoid, and Japanese Encephalitis. I had received Hep, Polio, Typhoid and Yellow Fever immunizations for my Africa trips, and not wanting extra needle jabs if I didn’t absolutely need them, I figured I’d be okay without the Japanese Encephalitis. I think it was optional for where we were going anyway.

Bob intended to get the Japanese Encephalitis shot, but I think he ran out of time before the program was supposed to begin, so he purchased the vaccine from a pharmacy in the US and brought it on the plane with him from New York to Delhi. His thinking was that once he got to Delhi he would find a nurse, or some other qualified medical technician, who could administer the shot.

However the vaccine for Japanese Encephalitis, like I think most vaccines, needs to be kept refrigerated so that the contents of the vaccine don’t spoil (or whatever it is that happens to pharmaceuticals when they are no longer in their proper state).

So here Bob is, on a plane, with a white paper pharmacy bag, containing a vial of Japanese Encephalitis vaccine, for about 30 hours. That vial had warmed to room temperature long before we reached the hot and humid streets of mid-August Delhi.

After a day or two of orientation, Bob went in search of a medical professional, and carted that same white pharmacy bag around steamy Delhi for another 2 days before he found someone to stick the warm Japanese Encephalitis vaccine in his arm.

And surprise, surprise… by evening Bob was laid up in bed sicker than a dog. Pasty and pale, diarrhea and sweating. He was in bed for three or four straight days.

Now most of us assumed that Bob was probably suffering from a combination of Delhi Belly and a reaction to the stale Japanese Encephalitis shot that he had been carrying around, un-refrigerated, for days.

But not Bob. He was pretty sure his sickness stemmed from eating vegetarian. What could be worse than eating lots of vegetables?

Right when Bob started feeling better, his first destination out of his room was to a Subway sandwich shop (yes, they have the American chain Subway in urban India) not too far from our hostel. He ate a sandwich stacked with three different kinds of meat. He felt better later in the evening, and much better the following day.

Bob attributed his miraculous recovery to the amazing power of meat. This only reinforced his original idea that he had gotten sick because for a week he was “forced” to eat so many vegetarian dishes.

Even as an undergraduate I had my international educator’s hat on. This was the excerpt from my journal:

After several vocal comments at dinner last night I pulled [Bob] aside and said that study abroad is about pushing your boundaries and being outside your comfort zone. I told him that he should take this as a learning opportunity about how other people may feel in the United States when roles are reversed. Often times, as a vegetarian, you have fewer meal options, you have to eat something you might not necessarily want, or you might have to do without. It can be very frustrating. I told him that for the first time, many students are able to go to a restaurant here and pick anything they want off of a menu without being worried about what could be in the dish, and that feeling is new and liberating for us. I told him that we don’t want him to “convert” but that we ask that he be more flexible and understand that it might be harder, because it is often harder for us in the US, and it is good to see the reverse side of an issue.

Sadly, Bob didn’t take my heart-to-heart truly to heart, and spent a majority of his remaining time in India hunting down US fast food chains like Subway, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and McDonald’s. When we were stationed in Jaipur for six weeks he would have Domino’s Pizzas delivered to his host family’s house each night–I worry what that family’s impression of American students was after his stay!

So the moral of the story is… refrigerate Japanese Encephalitis vaccines and eat more vegetables!

Advertisements

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.

Delicate Mzungu–revisited

**UPDATE** It has now been chopped to 1,998 words! Changes below.

Readers of my blog will be familiar with this story, however I spent a lot of time this month retooling and polishing it into a traditional short story for consideration in an upcoming anthology of “interesting stories of travel abroad” by international educators.

It is only 2,183 words long, so if you have time, I’d love to have my readers give some feedback. Even if I’ve asked you to read this in the past few days, this latest edition has gone through a lot of editing (particularly in the middle and end), so it might be worth a re-read. I think it is nearly ready for submission and I am eager to share:

Mzungu is a Kiswahili word that originally translated as “aimless wanderer.” Yet it has evolved colloquially in East Africa to refer to people of European ancestry—like an 18th century inside joke about imperialists spinning in circles, lost on the Maasai Mara. As an Irish-American with pinky-white skin, my mzungu-ness was as obvious as the strong Kenyan sun.

I felt no offense by this newly christened identity. Neighborhood children would sing, “Hey mzungu! Where are you going mzungu?”  Minibus conductors leaned out their doors to solicit us: “You there! Mzungu! Come!” Kitschy t-shirts in the Nairobi tourist markets quipped: “My name is not Mzungu!”

Instead, it was the adjective “delicate” harnessed to mzungu that stung, like a sharp accusation of weakness.

*

I was in Kenya for five months, studying abroad at one of the oldest undergraduate programs in East Africa. Students spent two weeks in Nairobi taking language and culture courses, alternating between two weeks of field experience in communities around the country. We lived with local Kenyan families and tasted many different recipes of life.

My first wrangle with the “delicate” modifier occurred in agricultural western Kenya. Fresh from orientation in the capital, my group of twelve plunged into our next sojourn, living with rural Kenyan families. I communicated with my hosts in my simple Kiswahili, insisting to work shoulder-to-shoulder with them. “Tafadhali”—please—“let me carry that bucket of water on my head, like you, back from the well…let me hoe the potatoes, let me feed the chickens…” I wanted to hunch over the large aluminum basin in the back yard and learn how to scrub the laundry by hand. I wanted to sit with my host sister and slice the leafy green sukuma wiki in preparation for dinner.

But I was told again and again, “It is okay, please rest. Wazungu# are delicate; we don’t want you to tire. Tafadhali, have some biscuits.”

I respectfully protested, “I’m not delicate. Please, let me help. I’m here to learn!”

The few times I was given a chance, I would either mess up—I stumbled while balancing a bucket of water atop my head, drenching myself—or something odd would happen, like a sudden nosebleed while I bent over the laundry basin. Each unfortunate incident reinforced their theory of the delicate mzungu.

*

Three months later, it was time for my group to travel to the savanna of southern Kenya, within sight of the Tanzanian border. It was the height of the dry season, and the landscape was barren but for occasional acacia trees. We were in Maasai-land, the ethnic group known by their iconic red clothing—women’s sarongs and men’s wraps called kanga and kikoi—and the wide, flat, beaded necklaces worn like starched Elizabethan collars around the women’s necks. Both genders kept their heads cleanly shaved and sported pierced earlobes that hung in stretched loops.

We camped along the edge of several Maasai family settlements. Called boma, they dotted the plains like sparse oases. The first week we walked through the countryside with the moran, the young male warriors of the tribe, who taught us how to identify different plants, herd goats, and survive a pastoralist lifestyle. Yet out in the relentless sun, the days were long, tolerable only by hiding under hats and loose long-sleeved clothing that kept us ventilated like desert Bedouin.

We burned through the clean bottled water brought from Nairobi, and the group had to share the ground water. We attempted to purify it by boiling it over the campfire, but bits of sediment still floated in the sulphurous liquid. Although it was another lesson in the reality of life shared by much of the world, my stubbornness resurfaced.

I was convinced that I didn’t need as much water as the rest of my classmates. I believed my body had better adapted to the dry climate, and I could, like a camel, sustain myself on just a few sips of water a day. I thought this could prove that being an mzungu didn’t automatically mean I was “delicate.”

My body dehydrated, but I was too naïve to pick up on the signs. My skin became dry and tight, and I had less use for the makeshift outhouse dug from the ground. Young people feel invincible, as though surrounded by an invisible bubble. Eventually everyone has an experience which pierces that bubble.  Mine was coming soon.

*

 During our second week in southern Kenya the group was divided into pairs and sent to different Maasai family boma. The settlements were enclosed in a circular acacia thorn fence.   This kept out roaming predators and protected the large herds of livestock which constituted the principal wealth of the family. Within this fence were several huts made of sticks, mud, and cow dung, built small so that an adult must stoop when standing inside. My hut was empty except for a piece of cowhide pulled tight across an elevated stick frame, used for sleeping.

I was paired with Nicole, a petite spiky-haired student from New York City. We spent the evening sitting outside our hut with our host mother, who was likely younger than either of us. We spoke no Kimaa, the mother tongue of the Maasai, so our communications were mimed. After sharing a dinner of boiled cornmeal and milk tea, the three of us sat under the heavy blanket of stars, which shimmered like millions of shards of glass.

*

The next morning Nicole and I arose from our shared cowhide cot and exited the hut into a cooler, overcast day. A moran named Joel Twiga—twiga being the Kiswahili word for giraffe, and a play on Joel’s lanky physique—had been summoned to help translate. He spoke of a large festival happening a few miles away at the “Big Boma”: every few years, families gathered to celebrate their men as they graduated from one phase of life to the next—childhood to warrior-hood, to junior elder, to elder. Our family wanted to take us.

They dressed Nicole and me in full Maasai regalia; a piece of fabric was tied around our hips like an underskirt, two red kangas were tied like toga across each shoulder, held tight by a belt, and we were adorned with white beaded necklaces. The clothing felt comfortable in the cool morning air—but they left large patches of neck, shoulders, and arms exposed.

Joel led us to the festival, and we joined the thronging mass as the sun broke through the clouds. Nicole and I were the only wazungu faces in the sea of red-clad ebony. Some children cried, scared of the mzungu-Maasai imposters, while other people wanted to greet us—“Soppa!” in Kimaa, answered by, “Ebba!” Two thousand people treated us like celebrities.

At first we were ushered from hut to hut, like high level ambassadors, as we greeted the elders. Then we were stationed in the sun to watch a medley of dance; the women vigorously shook their shoulders, causing their necklaces to bob as if floating on stormy ocean waves. The men responded by pogoing ever higher into the sky. The air was thick with ululations, and with the metallic smell of blood from goats butchered for meals not far outside of the boma fence.

By mid-day, Joel, Nicole and I were summoned to honor the regional chief. He welcomed us to his hut with a chummy slap on the back and handed each of us a warm bottle of Tusker, a popular Kenyan beer. I nursed mine while Joel translated the chief’s sermon. I was having trouble focusing on Joel’s words, as the beer and the heat soaked through my skull. My face had a fever-flush, but my skin remained dry of sweat.

After the chief’s hut, the sun became blinding and severe; I could feel every patch of exposed skin broiling in the afternoon heat. I grew agitated and disoriented by the constant attention of the revelers. Joel offered a placating umbrella, and I found a place to sit in the dust, hiding myself like an ant under a colorful mushroom. When evening shadows pulled long across the boma, Joel agreed to take Nicole and me back. I nearly passed out on the return walk.

*

That night my skin was on fire. My face, arms, and a patch of my neck and upper back were the color of cooked lobster shells. Lying on the cowhide cot was like rolling on a bed of freshly sharpened nails.  I could barely tolerate the weight of my loose fitting clothes.

The following day our professor, a tall sable Sudanese man, returned in the program Land Rover to take us back to our original campsite. I felt sore and periodically lightheaded, but remembered the milder sunburns of my childhood, which subsided in a day or two. I failed to realize anything was seriously wrong, and joined the other students in a night drive through the grasslands in search of zebra, antelope and lion.

We had been driving for nearly three hours, spying on a family of zebra in the Land Rover’s headlights, when my world spiraled.  I was instantly sick. A few moments earlier the bouncing car had been fun; now it was torture. My abrupt shift in demeanor alarmed our professor, who signaled our caravan to turn back. I had to sit very still, and breathe very deeply, to keep from vomiting on the return trek. By the time we reached our camp, I could barely walk under my own power. I retched up the contents of my stomach before I was dragged to my tent.

It was the start of one of the longest nights of my life. I vomited until I could not, then vomited some more. I shook and muttered, delirious. I was certain that the daytime heat would kill me. Nicole and the professor sat by my side all night, forcing me to sip water laced with rehydration salts. Finally, at dawn, I fell into a fitful sleep.

Our professor drove half an hour to find cell reception and made arrangements for my transport to Nairobi Hospital. Before his return, I had awoken, more coherent than the night before, but my back and neck had exploded in a mosaic of sunburned blisters. He loaded me into the Land Rover, and the other students waved goodbye.

*

The Nairobi Hospital, called the “European Hospital” during colonial rule, is a state-of-the-art facility and by far the fanciest in the country. Amongst locals, even the arriving patients dressed in beautiful outfits for their visit, while I arrived straight from the bush; filthy, dusty, and limping.

The intake doctor noted in my chart that the “mzungu dressed like a Maasai and was badly burned,” so each time a new nurse came on duty she had to meet that unusual mzungu. I was admitted for four days due to dehydration, sun poisoning and heatstroke. My treatment was a rehydrating intravenous drip and burn cream for the blisters on my back.

On my second day, the hospital director visited my room. He was a bulky, dark-skinned Ugandan doctor; a personal friend of our program director and one of the urban homestay fathers. He looked at my chart and examined my back.

After making his assessments, he held out his fist and asked, “See this hand?”

I nodded.

“It is a strong African hand. I can put it near fire and it will not burn. But you…you are an mzungu, and you are delicate. You must be more careful.”

*

In Kiswahili there is a saying, heri kufa macho kuliko kufa moyo—it is better to lose your eyes than to lose your heart. I may have bruised my pride on that burnt African savanna, but I found my taste for all the extraordinary experiences life has to offer. I hope never to be far from that next adventure, but I promise there will be a lot of sunscreen and water.


#Wazungu—the plural form of mzungu.


Author bio:
C is Assistant Director at the International Students Office at xxx University. In addition to traveling in various regions of Africa, she enjoys South Asia, especially Nepal. C lives in New England with her  husband and dog.

Night Runners

While we were at S-di’s place for Maghe Sankranti, in addition to M-dai’s story about the flatulent Peace Corp teacher, they told me a story about how they had recently attended a wedding party for one of the local Bhutanese refugee families, and that during the party one of the guests became possessed by a spirit or a god that wanted the party organizers to know that some ritual during the wedding had been conducted incorrectly. This went on for a while, and eventually two other people became possessed as well, and it created a bit of a ruckus at the party. That started a brief discussion about what actually transpired—was it a delusion? Or acting? Or real?

It reminded me of another story from my time in Kenya:

A week after arriving in Nairobi and going through program orientation our professors brought us to Western Kenya—Nyanza Province, the Kenyan state which borders the famous Lake Victoria—to stay with families in rural farming villages. The community gathered at a local school and each family stood up to proudly claim their American student, and one by one we were taken away to far reaching corners of the surrounding villages. For the first time, each American student felt they were finally on their own in East Africa.

My homestay sister and I road in the back of a pickup truck down the main road, and were eventually dropped off at a small cement building set up like a shop. My sister insisted on carrying my backpack, and I followed behind her on the footpath that led away from the road and into a thicket of grass and trees. I realized later that these footpaths, only wide enough for a person or an animal, were the superhighways of the villages, leading from one house to the next along the widely spaced farms.

Eventually we found our home, a mud walled building with corrugated metal roofing, blue painted wooden doors and wooden window panels that latched shut in the evening to keep out mosquitos. The family compound had three small buildings—a cooking house, the main house (which had a dining/living room, two bedrooms and a sitting room for special guests), and the eldest son’s two roomed home. There was no electricity, but there was an outhouse on the edge of the family compound, and many chickens and other small farm animals running around or tied up to stakes in the yard.

In a mix of Swahili and English I got to know the family quite well over the next week, and I was eventually told the story of the “Night Runners.” Nyanza is home to the Luo tribe, the second largest ethnic group in Kenya, the same tribe that Obama’s father came from. You can usually tell a Luo based on their last name—most start with “O.” Within the Luo tribe there is a superstition about people who were completely normal by day, but have an uncontrollable compulsion to run in the middle of the night.

Supposedly the propensity for night running runs (no pun intended) in families—so if your grandfather was a Night Runner then you might be one too—and is generally passed along the male line. A Night Runner can’t really help himself, and will get up in the middle of the night and run for hours; they say if you try to stop a Night Runner their bodies become swollen and bloated. Night Runners like to scare people on their run, and will circle around family compounds, throwing dirt and sticks up on to the metal roof to make a lot of noise, or will try to throw small stones through the gap between a roof and the top of the house wall. It isn’t a violent action, it’s more to be a nuisance.

In addition to being noisy in the night, they are rumored to have certain magical abilities—first they can possess animals and often bewitch them to come along on their run, and secondly they can possess a person, in the sense that if a Night Runner takes you by surprise from behind you become frozen to the spot, unable to move your arms or legs or any other part of your body. Once the Night Runner has passed, and is out of sight, your mobility returns.

Most of these stories were told to me around the table while the entire family sat together for dinner. The room was lit with two or three kerosene lamps, which helped to give these tales a ghost story type of mystique. I was assured that the village hadn’t had a Night Runner for many years, and that there were none around that the family knew of; however I was also assured that these Night Runners certainly existed.

Shortly after dinner the dishes would be cleared and put in buckets to soak and be washed at sunrise, and the family would retire to bed. As I was their “honored guest” for the week, I was encouraged to eat the most food, and the best pieces, and was given a hefty glass of milk especially for me as a treat for dinner each night (I’m definitely not a milk drinker, and I’d have to force myself to drink the whole glass) as well as cups of tea.

Not surprisingly at some point during the night I would have to go to the bathroom really badly. The outhouse was quite a distance in the dark at the edge of the compound, and doubly difficult to get to as the main door to the house was very securely locked. To even get to the door I would have to step over sleeping family members who were on mats in the main room. The first two or three nights I woke up well before dawn and wiggled in my bed until daybreak, afraid to make the journey to the outhouse before the rest of the family woke up. But one night I really had to go, and no amount of wiggling was going to save me until morning.

I’m the type of person who turns the lights on while on the way to the bathroom in my own apartment, on the slight chance I might bump into something unexpected. Now I was going to have to sneak out of a locked house with people sleeping in my path with only the aid of my small Petzl headlamp, then scurry across a farm compound in the dark African night, and hope that I wouldn’t a) bump into a farm animal, b) or a scarier bigger animal, c) or someone else wandering on the village paths that skirted the edge of the farm or d) a Night Runner who might freeze me to the spot while he runs around with possessed animals.

As I stepped over the sleeping people and unlatched the door as quietly as I could, I peered into the dark expanse that came between the doorstep and the corrugated tin of the outhouse and I thought to myself, “If I run into a Night Runner, I am going to have a heart attack and die right here on the spot. I will literally just die of fright, I know it.”

I took a deep breath, and I ran like a crazy Night Runner myself. Luckily the only thing I saw on my journey was a giant spider on the wall of the outhouse while I squatted over the hole.

When our homestay was over, we traveled back to Nairobi to begin our courses. I signed up for an anthropology class on health, healing and sickness in Kenya. The professor happened to be Luo, and we were eager to ask him about some of the Luo cultural intricacies we were exposed to in Nyanza. At some point the discussion turned to Night Runners.

He explained that he had heard stories about Night Runners throughout his childhood, and may have even heard some of the night rustling sounds they made, but he never really believed they had “magical powers.” Then he went to university and sat in many Anthropology classrooms where he learned more about “magic” and “superstition” from an academic stand point. He was cynical. Sure, these were “his people” and he grew up with all the stories, but he believed more than ever that these superstitions were nothing more than that—superstitions.

“I was certain Night Runners were just crazy people out for a jog, but then one year I was home from university on break. I was your age, in my twenties, and I didn’t want to sleep early. Instead I decided to walk to the nearby village for some beer and dancing.” His eyes grew wide, “I was on the same path I had walked many times before, and I had no reason to be afraid. I had been walking for some time when I tried to take a step and my right foot was rooted to the ground. No amount of force could release it. Then I noticed my other leg was also stuck, then my whole body. I panicked, but nothing would move. I stood frozen for several seconds and heard a sound behind me, and a Night Runner brushed past. I continued to be stuck for several more moments before my limbs would move again.”

A cheeky smile appeared on his face, “I didn’t believe. I was absolutely certain that Night Runners couldn’t have the powers my grandmothers insisted upon. Logically, academically, it didn’t make sense. I was the most cynical of all! But I am also telling you, as your teacher, I experienced it firsthand. I know I couldn’t move. I can’t explain it, but for me, it was real. I guess you will have to decide for yourself.”

Even Barak Obama had a short passage about Night Runners in his book, “Dreams of my Father” from when he went to visit his family in Kenya:

A moment later we heard a strange, low-pitched moan off in the distance.

“The night runners must be out tonight,” Auma said.

“What’s the night runners?”

“They’re like warlocks,” Auma said. “Spirit men. When we were children, these people here” – she pointed at Granny and Zeituni – “would tell us stories about them to make us behave. They told us that at daylight the night runners are like ordinary men. You might pass them in the market, or even have them to your house for a meal, and never know their true natures. But at night they take on the shape of leopards and speak to all the animals. The most powerful night runners can leave their bodies and fly to faraway places. Or hex you with only a glance. If you ask our neighbors, they will tell you that there are still many night runners around here.”

Fast forward a few years… I’m sitting in the dining hall of my graduate school having lunch with several student friends. We are all international education professionals, and the past few days we have been swapping stories of interesting experiences overseas. I had just finished my Night Runner story, and one woman, a Caucasian woman from New York City who had been listening intently chimed in, “This is going to sound crazy… My sister married a Kenyan man. He is the sweetest man, very kind and gentle, but for many years every time he came to my house my dog would get very nervous and pee on the floor. It happened every single time. I know my brother-in-law wasn’t beating him, or hurting him, so I couldn’t figure out why the dog always cowered and peed in his presence.

“So one day I asked my mother. I said, ‘Why does Buddy always get scared and pee when Peter comes over?’ She answered, ‘I don’t know, they seem okay together later on. Peter usually takes him out for a run in the middle of the night most nights. It’s the funniest thing; I’m not sure why he does it.’”

“Is your brother-in-law Luo?” I asked the student.

“I don’t know. I never thought to ask, I just know he is ‘Kenyan,’ I’ll have to call my mother later.”

The next day at lunch we were all eager to know… and yes, Peter was in fact Luo.

“Maybe your brother-in-law is a Night Runner! That means your sister’s kids might be Night Runners too!” I said.

So are Night Runners real? Do they really have “magical powers” to possess animals and freeze people in their paths?

What about the possessed guests at the Bhutanese wedding party? Acting or delusion? Pretending or real?

Preparing for Bhoj

It’s about time I start back in with some of the Nepal posts…

We started preparing for the Bhoj around 12:15 when P’s younger cousin walked me to the local beauty parlor, a small shop tucked off one of the main neighborhood roads. The shop was barely big enough to fit the four parlor chairs (which were computer/office chairs) and the small sitting area for waiting customers.

The beautician seemed excited to work on a foreigner, and commented that my hair was “ramro” [nice] and soft (I’ve been told quite a few times my hair was “so nice” and “so soft” this trip. I’ve never really thought of my hair as nice, but kind of thin, stringy and frizzy; instead I’m jealous of many of my South Asian friends’ hair which I think of as “so nice” and “so thick.” I was told my hair was “so soft” in East Africa, but compared to tightly curled Sub-Saharan African hair my straight longer hair probably does seem “soft,” so I didn’t seem as surprised.)

Since my hair was “so soft” and apparently slippery to handle, the beautician slicked my hair with about a bucket of hair gel, then divided my ponytail into sections and rolled each section into a tight loop and secured it with bobby pins so that the final product was a large circular pun that looked weaved together at the center. She added small pearl pins and small red fabric flower pins to give it some color and design, and finished it off with glittery hair spray.

I was happy I could follow most of the conversation between the hairdresser and P’s cousin. They spoke sparingly and in short sentences:

“Is this for a wedding or a bhoj?”

“Where is your bhauju [sister-in-law] from?”

“How long has your dai been in America?”

“How does she like Nepal?”

When I got back to P’s place, his mother told me it was time to do the rest of my preparation. The two women who help in the house sat me down in P’s parents’ bedroom. One woman—L Didi—gently strung a long red pote necklace over my head and new hair style while the other painted my toe nails and finger nails fire engine red. As my fingers and toes dried P’s cousin (the one who took me to the beauty parlor) and the women who painted my nails debated over what make-up would look good on me–in a place where my pale-as-a-ghost skin color sticks out like a sore thumb, make-up shades take some deliberation. The nail polish woman powdered my face and P’s cousin started putting pale sparkly eye shadow on my eyelids. The woman took some kajol (eye liner) and lightly lined my eyes and put mascara on, while P’s aunt and mother debated over what shade of lipstick I should wear. I vetoed the first bright red one, and agreed to the lighter more natural looking pink.

What the 'naya buhari" should look like was a group decision...

Borrowed some gold bangle bling from mamu, although that thick one was a tight squeeze that scraped the back of my hand as it was forced over my thumb

With makeup done the extra women left the room while I put on my red petticoat and blouse. L Didi is the resident sari expert in the house and generally helps Mamu tie her saris (Mamu feels more comfortable in salwar kameze and usually wears those instead of sari on a daily basis). The last time I was here L Didi tied my saris, not because I didn’t know how, but because I was too slow, and her sari fixing looked nicer.

L Didi wrapped me up and made sure everything looked correct, occasionally patting me on the hip and saying, “dheri ramro cha” [very nice].

L Didi, getting the job done nicely.

Getting wrapped and fluffed up by others makes me feel like a living doll, but this was their family’s wedding party and I was ready to go with the flow. Everything looked so nice once they were done anyhow. One I was finished everyone else had to get ready—P’s mom’s hair was done by the woman who painted my nails, P’s cousins got in their saris– hair was curled, makeup applied, high heeled shoes put on. By 4:30 we were all ready to go.

With P and his grandfather, waiting for the car to the Bhoj venue.

“Changa” Flying in Photos

P returned home safely on Thursday, just in time for Tihar. Sampson and I are very happy to have him back.

He also brought home the camera, so now I can share some photos from our trip. This will hopefully inspire me to finish the half dozen posts I have partially written about the rest of our journey.

When I wrote the posts Vijaya Dashami, Now Go Fly a Kite and Changa Chet! some readers asked for photos… so I wanted to share a few:

Our first day of kite flying (Vijaya Dashami post)

Starting out...

Getting a feel of the wind

A sharp tug surges the kite upwards...

A happy man and his "changa"... even though he is dodging the laundry to fly ;)

From Day 2 (“Changa Chet” post)

Another day, another kite...

The "moves"

Thumbs up can only mean one thing... "chheeeeeeeet!"

Another day:

P and his cousin ready another kite...

Battling changas

P's kite flutters over the neighorhood

His cousin takes the helm...

Flying at sunset...

Khasi Bazaar

In the US we have turkey for Thanksgiving, and some people have ham for Christmas, but in Nepal when it’s time for Dashain only one kind of meat will do—khasi ko masu—goat meat.

In preparation for the main day of Dashain, called Dashami—tikka day– P, his dad, his dad’s friend (“Uncle”), and I went to the Khasi Bazaar [Goat Market]. The market consisted of the sidewalk on both sides of the road filled with roped up tarp tents and lines of goats tied to strings and posts. A second part of the market was down a small alleyway where goat pens where stuffed with goats. Small weighing stations consisting of a metal cage for the goat, counter balanced by a platform and heavy metal weights were scattered throughout the market so customers could buy their animal by the kilo.

Before we got into a taxi to go to the market I asked P’s dad what kind of goat we were looking for. “About 30-35 kilos, long legs, not too fat, brown in color, because brown goats are nice to look at.” We found goats of all sizes and colors—black, white, spotted, brown. Daddy at first seemed displeased. He said that these goats were from the Terai [plains of Nepal bordering India], he could tell because of their long ears, and they seemed to be too fat. “Not good,” he said, “We don’t eat the fat.”

We circled around the market for a while, and finally settled on a goat that they had spotted earlier. It was a darker brown goat with even darker brown, almost black, streaks, and small horns. The goat was untied from its post and Uncle picked it up to test its weight. Then the goat was ushered into one of the metal cages for an official weigh in. P’s dad haggled the price, and the goat was ours.

I took its rope and gently led it out of the market saying, “Aao khasi, aao.”[come goat, come]. I wanted the goat treated nicely since it only had a few more hours left of its life. We found a taxi and opened the back hatch and loaded the goat in the back so that it was standing behind the back seat and on top of the spare tire. There was just enough space in the back section of the taxi for the goat, almost like the space was designed for goat travel. P’s dad, myself and P sat in front of the goat on our way home. I pet its head to make it feel more relaxed.

When we got home the goat was unloaded and brought to the back of the house to eat some grass. P and I pulled up clumps from the ground and put our hands up to the goat’s mouth and he happily chewed. After a few minutes P’s dad lead the goat inside the house and two people—P’s dad pulling the string from the front and “Uncle” swatting at the goat from the back—led the goat upstairs to the roof.

The goat was tied in the corner and Mamu give it leaves from the cauliflower she was cleaning for Dashain meals, and we gave it a large pan of water. It bleated a few times then settled down in the shade.

Khasi is thakai.” J Phupu said [goat is tired].

When I pass the goat on the way up to the second roof top (above the kitchen) where P is flying some changa [kites] I feed the goat some more cauli leaves.

Tomorrow the goat will be cut up for Dashami meat, some going to Uncle, some going to P’s relatives, and the rest eaten for the holidays. Daddy said in the morning he would take the goat to the butcher to be killed, cleaned and to have the larger sections of the goat separated (head, thighs, mid-section, etc), but that he was going to Uncle’s house to get a khukuri knife so that they could cut up the larger sections from the butcher into smaller sections.

“You will see, tomorrow.” He said.