Matters of Poop

P1070066I came home to find Bishnu and Aamaa painting the house in preparation for the festival of Dashain.  Aamaa had a pot in one hand, and in the other, a rag dripping with goop that she was slapping and smearing over the walls.  Next door, Saano didi was doing the same thing – in fact, all over the village this week, women are standing on their roofs, sticking up like chimneys and shouting to each other across the open space.

Now, and this house-painting business is an interesting topic.  Because it’s something I really want to be a part of: the annual re-making of our house, renewing and refreshing the walls that shelter us.   It is both an extremely practical and very beautiful tradition, which we in our brick-and-plaster, carpeted houses are denied.  It a special opportunity to want to share in restoring the house and strengthening it for the coming year.

Unfortunately, the house is made of mud and buffalo shit.

See, I have this problem with shit.  I’ve really made some serious efforts to get over it.  I accepted Didi standing knee deep in a mound of shit and hacking at it with an axe, sending little bits of buffalo turd flying everywhere.  I accepted Aamaa walking into the house with an enormous heap of poop in her hands and cooking it in a vegetable pot in the kitchen and then putting it on Bishnu’s sprained ankle and then putting Bishnu in bed with me.  I’ve accepted that the hands that carry buffalo shit around the house are dark with grit beneath the nails and also cook the food that keeps me alive.  I even carried some shit in a basket hanging on my back and swung it bravely over my head to make it land in a tidy basket-sized pile of fertilizer in the wheat field.

But I cannot put my hands directly and purposefully on shit.  I can’t do it.

I know that the house is made of shit.  I know that I walk around in bare feet in the house made of shit; I eat off a plate on the floor of the house made of shit; I know that the wall that I lean on next to the bed is made of shit.  This is all perfectly okay with me.  But it is not okay with me to sink both hands into a pile of shit, mush it around with water and mud, and smear it against the wall.  I simply cannot touch shit in pure shit form.  It needs to at least be disguised as part of a house.

So instead of helping to paint the house, I took a nap inside, stewing in guilt and regret that could not quite defeat this final barrier in my relationship with shit.  And much later on, when Bishnu and Aamaa had come in for the day, and the ladder to the attic had been put back inside, and the mud and shit mixture was still drying on the rungs and I kept putting my hands in it and then washing them with soap and water, and our various water jugs—used both inside and out, for washing, cooking, and occasionally for giving liquid to the animal family members—had had the soupy brown water washed out of them, but had not been sterilized with hospital antiseptic, and everyone was going about the evening business of sitting around and cooking rice…even then, I still felt bad that I hadn’t helped paint the house.  But I felt worse that I’m afraid to just up and pick up a wad of shit—and worst of all, that I still didn’t want to.

And the conclusion that I came to is that I’m simply never going to want touch shit before I do it.  If I’m going to do it at all, and if I’m going to use my own two hands to renew the house for the new year, I’m just going to have to touch buffalo shit before I’ve decided that it’s okay with me.


Learning by Cucumber


It had been a long day for both of us: me at school, Aamaa cutting grass for the buffalo all afternoon in the heat. We convened in the kitchen as the sun was going down. Both of us were too tired to bother with rice, so Aamaa began putting wheat rotis in a pan for us to eat for dinner with some iskus left over from this morning. Iskus is my favorite vegetable, a slightly sweet gourd that’s plentiful at the end of summer. I was just about to bite in to a little scoop of it I had carefully placed on a nice hot roti, when shouting began outside.

So listen, my language skills are pretty good for someone who’s lived in Nepal for a total of a few months, but at the end of the day, I can no more decode haphazard shouting outside the door than I can follow a parliamentary debate. And since I can’t understand the words, it took me longer to notice the sound at all…and to be honest, I was really focused on my roti and my little pile of vegetables. So Aamaa was the first to jump up and run outside, leaving me in a momentary cognitive stall-out after a wearying day of trying to think in another language.

What about my roti? I thought, looking longingly at the little pile of carefully placed iskus. And then I snapped alive to the world outside, where my attention fully redirected to the ruckus coming through the door. Not wanting to miss any action, I put my down roti untouched, leapt up, and followed Aamaa outside.

It was dark and Aamaa had already taken off with the light. Our mountain alcove was thick with nighttime, but shouting was coming from all around, and leaping from squares of yellow light and vaulting off the terraces and bouncing maniacally about in the huge darkness.

I scrambled half-blind over the path from our house to the edge of the terrace, which drops off to the next field below. There, Aamaa stood at attention on the terrace edge, listening to the tempest of voices. Without warning, she let go an unbridled screech and submitted her own opinion to the fray.

There were no further clues as to what anyone was yelling about. I wanted to ask, but I was afraid to interrupt the flow.

Abruptly, Aamaa took off again. Now to the left, and down over the terrace, past where the buffalo stay in the winter; a patch of field that now, in late summer, is a wet leafy carpet. The Ritz Carleton for leeches. Determined to be a full participant, I ran after her, jumping over the terrace ledge, and plunging heedlessly through the soft plants to where she was standing with a flashlight, now yelling again. Two small girls had appeared out of literally nowhere; and logically, given the leech situation, they stayed perched on the ledge over my head.

“WHAT HAPPENED?” I asked Aamaa breathlessly, my feet absorbing moisture from the buzzing ground. I was rewarded with more incomprehensible shouting coming from everywhere.

Finally, without averting her gaze from the inscrutable darkness, Aamaa said something about a cucumber, which I couldn’t quite catch, except for “cucumber.” And then she was promptly too distracted to tell me any more.

I thought about the leeches. Fine. I returned to the base of the ledge, resolved to climb back up. While doing so, my sandal fell off. The two mystery girls wanted to to help me up, but on principle I fixed my sandal and got myself up the ledge. Still utterly baffled, I returned to our house with the two girls, and a minute later, Aamaa followed. The yelling wafted along behind us, still unattached to any source or story.

The girls had brought us what I now know was belaunti, a cheese-like, crumbly, slightly sweet milk product that comes from a buffalo that has just calved. It is packed with both nutrition and luck; birth, after all, is a dangerous and miraculous thing, and belaunti is treated with the respect any auspicious gift of the universe is due. But in that moment, all I knew was that we’d gone from the inexplicable cucumber crisis outside to an equally illogical and randomly-timed cottage cheese situation inside, which unfolded as follows: Aamaa put a bit on her forehead and then started eating it. Then she asked if I wanted some, so I said yes, and I was about to eat it when she told me to put some on my head first.

Alas, I’d started out tired, and my mental state was only becoming more fragile as the number of things that made no sense accumulated.

Just as I was trying to work out why the two mysterious girls had brought over cottage cheese while people were shouting about the cucumber, and why we had interrupted that serious event to put the cheese on our foreheads, Aamaa offered the girls some roti. I’d nearly forgotten about my once-important roti. And I forgot again, because in the half second it took the girls to refuse the roti, Aamaa had gone back outside to shout about the cucumber.

Not to be outwitted, I dashed back in to our yard, where now I found our neighbor Saano Didi and her three boys. They were standing as if squinting with their bodies, leaning slightly forward in to the darkness, watching the invisible shouting. I pleaded with Saano Didi to explain what in God’s name was going on. I just wanted to be in on the cucumber issue. I just wanted to play with everyone.

What followed was an extended five-way exchange that involved a fantastic amount of explaining and re-explaining, handwaving, pointing, and acting, in which I tried to piece together the story of the cucumber emergency based on comprehension of only one out of every fifteen words. At first I believed that somehow a cucumber plant had fallen over–I was not focused right then on the fact that our cucumber plant is most decidedly a vine–and I became very worried that somebody had been injured by a falling cucumber tree. But Saano Didi and her boys kept mentioning boys and girls; apparently the cucumber tree had fallen when too many boys and girls were climbing it, and a mystery man appeared–wait, no, the cucumbers were stolen! The tree fell over and the boys and girls were stealing all the cucumbers from it! Oh–no–a man came and stole all the cucumbers–but not from a tree, he went around to people’s homes and asked for cucumbers, and didn’t tell anyone else that he was exploiting cucumber generosity from them all–no, he didn’t ask, the man was just stealing cucumbers from each person’s house! And then he was CAUGHT! Ah, this was beginning to make sense–but wait, how did the man go running from house to house with a growing collection of cucumbers? Hold on, he was eating them as he collected them.

Yes, this surely explained the excitement! A man had been caught–well, seen, but escaped–while sneaking from house to house eating cucumbers. And now he had got away, despite the dazzling mountain-sized net of female screeching through which nobody could possibly run freely and un-apprehended, even without an untold number of cucumbers to carry.

Saano Didi invited me over to her house. Aamaa was clearly indisposed with the cucumber crime, so I wasn’t to get any further intel any time soon, and I’d forgotten about my roti, so I went and sat by the fire in Saano Didi’s house and drank some hot buffalo milk. Then she produced a cucumber.

Which turned out to be the most enormous vegetable I’d ever laid eyes on. It could easily have crushed a cricket bat. It was of a stature that unequivocally qualified its seeds to be harvested for next year’s cucumber crop. This new evidence threw the cucumber fraud situation in to chaos all over again. It was hopeless. I would never solve it. Saano Didi cut the Gozillacumber in to massive, dripping hunks of flesh, and we sat slurping, crunching and dripping in cucumber juice, while somewhere unknown, some cucumber lover was apparently reclined in the dark recesses of his home, totally immobile.


Aamaa with a Godzillacumber