For some time now, Govinda has been asking me to join him on a trip to Begnas to meet his in-laws. We began planning our visit a few days ago. Govinda’s father in law, who he calls Bua, will be alone for a few days while other members of the family are traveling, so it was a good time for us to arrange a visit to keep him company.

There was some thought that we would travel with Guru sir, who is searching for a match for his daughter. This has raised for me many questions about match-matching procedures. Does one stand in the road and stop the first reasonably marriageable looking male? Go from house to house soliciting bachelors? Distribute letters of inquiry? And why travel all the way to Begnas for this undertaking, twenty kilometers east of Kaskikot? 

I asked around a bit. My investigation was admittedly hindered by a very limited cache of Nepali words related to arranged marriage, but I deduced that Guru sir’s first visit to Begnas was for the purpose of meeting his relatives to discuss the search. So that solved the geographic question, though as far as I could tell, it simply meant Guru sir’s relatives would be standing in the road picking up single men. You can see why I was quite looking forward to whatever was going to happen during our visit to Begnas with Guru sir. But at the last minute it turned out that Guru sir’s rice harvest bonanza would be the same day we had planned our outing, and he would not be able to join us. So I’m afraid that at this time I can’t offer any resolution on the question of Guru sir’s daughter’s marriage arrangement. 

Early in the morning, Govinda and I set off for Begnas on our own. We arrived in Pokhara mid-morning and stopped in to see the artist who is helping us with our school mural, and I paid him. We discussed the idea of having him come to Sada Shiva to give a talk about his profession, as part of the series of visits I’m working on for the kids to learn about topics of interest like how libraries work and what pilots do and how photos are made.

At the bus depot in Prithvi Chowk, where dozens of buses paw sullenly at the pavement and pant in the diesel-filled hot air, we boarded another bus to Begnas. It set off laboriously down the highway, and I felt sleepy in the warm, acrid air inside the bus. Govinda bought some peanuts, and we ate them together in companionable silence, throwing the shells out the window, as storefronts sped by and blended together in a haze of mid-day life: pencils, apples, kilos of sugar, shoes, sticky cartons of fruit juice, pencils, sugar, apples, shoes. Finally the highway dead-ended in another small depot, where a dirt road wandered away from a collection of food stalls and small shops. It disappeared gently up into the hills. We followed it and began a long, rather hot walk to Bua’s house. 

The walk was pleasant, even though I still felt lethargic from the unyielding sun. Govinda’s uneven, methodical gait kept time, spurring us on at a steady and unchangeable pace. Begnas is warmer than Kaskikot, and we passed mango and banana and guava trees; it is currently orange season, and everywhere we could see ripening fruit that will soon find its way back to the roadside stalls and slung baskets and curbside mats heaped with fruit that we passed on the journey in. We stopped at a tea shop for peas and hard boiled eggs, and I drank a moderately cold coke out of a glass bottle, which left me feeling reinvigorated. We bought some hard candy and crackers to gift to the family. When we set off again, a hush had set over the terraces and orange trees, and the city felt far away. Finally, as we approached Bua’s house, I could see Begnas Lake to the west and Rupa Lake further east. Govinda removed his hat, and fanned himself briefly in the yard.

No sooner had we arrived than we were gathered around a plate of oranges with Bua. Govinda’s father in law was a slender, wiry man with a square jaw and lined, approachable face. He had a boyish way of moving that reminded me of my monkey-like fifth graders. Bua had work to do around the house, so even though Guru sir wasn’t there to answer my questions, Govinda and I sat outside talking about marriage practices until the sun dropped below the hills and it got cold.

We went back into the house where Bua was just starting to cook dinner. The next two hours were the longest rice-preparation process I’d ever watched on a hungry stomach. We did have an interlude of tea and biscuits, but I’ve become used to watching rice-cooking as a well-rehearsed, mindless affair, something that occurs very efficiently in the cramped spaces between other work. But Bua cooked very slowly: first one item, then the next, often pausing to talk as he cut vegetables or mashed spices. He was at once nimble, even lively, and unmistakably weary. It was as if he had to keep re-convincing himself that quelling his hunger was worth all the effort, and yet in the absence of dinner, I felt he would have been quite content to simply sit and gaze at the darkening hills with us.


While Bua cooked, Govinda and I sat at a table, I with my journal resting under my hands. But I didn’t do much writing because Bua began to ask me a series of questions about America. 

“Nani,” he said, addressing me as one does a grandchild, “I hear they have very tall buildings in your country. Very very tall. Is that true?”

“Well, in some places they do.”

“And I hear there are those things that can take you up in the building,” he added, raising his hands.

“Yes,” I replied, “they’re called elevators.”

“Nani, in your country, how do people make money?”

“Nani, in your country, are clothes made to be durable for a long time?”

Between questions, Bua moved around the cooking fire cutting vegetables with his sickle. He seemed a little sad, but without a trace of bitterness, and there was an authenticity about Bua that put me at ease. I don’t think I’d ever met someone who could be genuine and restless at the same time like Bua was when he asked me about worlds I have seen. As the evening wore on, we developed an uncomplicated rapport, Bua taking an interest in this and that, and me content to feel like the kind of guest that he enjoyed: a participator with no agenda. It was a relief not to be waited on in awkward silence, and to have the opportunity for manageable dialogue that left space for the clumsy maneuvering of language-learning. 

As Bua picked up a korela vegetable and pulled his sickle down the middle of its alligator-like lumpy green skin, Govinda rose to go outside. I gazed quietly at Bua in the orange glow of the cooking fire, waiting for the next topic of discussion. 

“I’m going to die here,” he said matter of factly. He lifted his long hand and indicated the house. 

I didn’t have a good answer, because he’s probably right. So I just waited while he picked up my journal and gazed at its pages and pages of tiny writing.

“You will do your writing, see our country, and go back to America,” he sighed. The ink-filled pages suddenly seemed a pathetic sum of Bua’s entire world. “Me…” he waved again at the dim narrow walls, “I will die here.”

Then he shook his head, and picked up his sickle again.

“Nani,” he said amicably. “In your country, what are houses made from?”






It’s Thanksgiving, and I had high hopes that the other teachers would participate in my holiday lesson. I arrived at school to find Govinda, Laximi, Guru sir, and Rita Madam already in the office, each at their usual stations. They seemed reasonably enthusiastic as I described Thanksgiving and my plans for class. Encouraged, I sorted out a few last vocabulary words and assigned various roles to everyone else. Even though my lesson wasn’t usually until recess, we decided to start Thanksgiving early because nobody was teaching their regular classes anyway and the kids were all running about.

I walked across the yard and burst into the classroom, declaring joyously that today is an American festival. Govinda and I wrote “Thanksgiving” in big letters in English and Nepali on the board, and below that, “I am grateful for____” in Nepali.  Then I explained the purpose and practice of Thanksgiving: how we gather with family and friends and think about the things we are thankful for in our lives.  I described a turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. I briefly re-enacted the story of the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock, albeit in a simplistic way that swerved around colonization and focused instead on legendry itself.  The usually chattery room of lit faces quieted and watched me closely, with that deliciously infuriating mix of doubt, amusement, and insatiable interest which has driven me to madness a million times over. 

When I finished explaining Thanksgiving in America, I declared that today we would have Thanksgiving in Nepal.  First, I asked, what should we eat?  

I got a lot of blank stares.  

Listen, it’s important that there’s a lot of eating, I insisted. It’s Thanksgiving.

“…Rice?” someone finally ventured.  

“Rice!”  I agreed enthusiastically.  Govinda wrote it on the board.  The answers began to pour in.




“Excellent idea. But what kind of roti?” I asked.

They went for them all. “Fried roti!  Rice roti!  Millet roti!”

Soon the kids were shouting out every food they could think of too fast for Govinda to write them down.  “Rice Pudding!  Noodles!  Curd!”  The bare room clamoring with noise.  For encouragement, I swayed in anticipation of our upcoming feast.

When the menu was complete, and I passed out notecards so everyone could write what they were thankful for.  This took quite a while and, sadly, ended up being the least successful part of our Thanksgiving.  They didn’t understand it.  Maybe being thankful for certain things implies being less grateful for other ones, which upon reflection is something of an indulgence.

Finally all the kids stood up and we rearranged the benches into a makeshift table with everyone sitting along the sides. I was surprised at how satisfied I felt by the result.  It looked less like class and more like Thanksgiving, all these small bodies crammed in around our long table.  The stone walls became our castle and the dirt floor quieted down to observe with us.

Guru-Sir was in charge of the legend.  I don’t know what it was because he told it in Nepali, but all the kids listened with rapt attention to some story about the history of Nepal and Kaskikot.  Then we gave thanks—and while this was not, as I said, entirely satisfactory, most were thankful that Laura-Miss had come from America, so I forgave them for copying each other.

At last, it was time to eat.  

Leaning forward from my seat on the bench, I reached for an invisible bowl in the center of our improvised table.  I heaped a spoonful of air-rice on to my imaginary plate, piled a few kinds of roti next to it, and started eating.  Everyone blinked at me.

“Aren’t you all going to eat?!” I said through a mouth full of fruit.  “There’s a lot of food here.” I indicated our scribbled list on the blackboard.  

There was a bit more silence while I stuffed myself hopefully.

“THIS IS AN ORANGE!” Krishna shouted. (Krishna is incapable of speaking to me without shouting.)

“Oh!  Give me one!” I cried, cramming it into my face.  Soon I had kids shoving food at me from every direction. I did my best to add each offering to my plate, but the treats were coming at me so fast that I began to slouch, holding my stomach.  I took a bookbag and shoved it under my shirt, eliciting a satisfying explosion of laughter.  Then I couldn’t convince them I was full.  So I tried swaying, then sleeping, and then fainting, but I was still pressed to put some rice pudding in my pocket for later.  I finally had to stand up and say firmly, “Thanksgiving is over!  Go outside and play.”

*Sada Shiva Classroom


The Rice Harvest

Bishnu and I got up early to do housework, and then we left with Saano Didi and her kids for today’s rice harvest in her fields. Saano and Bishnu carried big baskets loaded with pots and array of cooking materials; I had a bucket of spinach in one hand, a pot of tea in the other (life can be so odd), and my audio recorder slung over my shoulder.

Saano’s boys and I stopped at the tap to wash the bucket of spinach.  The ground still hasn’t dried out from the monsoon, and path through the rice paddies was narrow, slippery, and sometimes non existent.  When we finally arrived, we found an elaborate and energetic rice thrashing, ox-circling, tea and rice cooking, straw flinging fiasco I am becoming familiar with.  Mahendra’s father was perched on top of the hut-sized pile of cut rice stalks, smoking a cigratte and handing down bundles of crop every twenty seconds or so.

I ended up in the rice thrashing group.  Our job is to pick up the bundles of cut rice stalks as Mahendra’s father unloaded them from the haystack.  We lift the bundles over our heads and slam the grain end on a flat rock to separate out the seeds.  Then we put the straw aside, where the straw flinging people shake it out and toss it over to where the are circling.  Saano Didi’s son Kancha drives the oxen in circles and they trample the straw to soften it, so it is easier to carry (for us) and easier to eat (for our baby buffalo Sticky and her parents).

It’s quite a scene.  Very spritely.


Today’s seen was mainly composed of boisterous men, slightly older than me and Bishnu, in their mid and late twenties.  I make great entertainment, banging rice from the unreasonable height reached by my upended arms, hay sticking out of my hair and attaching itself to my lungi.  Also, dudes in their mid and late twenties are just generally loud.

So for three hours while we thrashed and drove oxen and whatnot, we talked about America, our respective governments, poverty, wealth, opportunity, taboo subjects like royal murders.  I was so glad I wasn’t logging tape in a carpeted sound studio.

Mean time, Saano didi was putting the pots and spinach and teapot to work over a fire she’d built nearby.  When we had thrashed and trampled the entire haystack, we sat down right there in the fields to eat.  Then I had to leave for school.  While I was away they would have get all the grains into sacks and bundle the straw into loads, and spend the afternoon going back and forth carrying it all up to the house.

I returned late in the afternoon to see if there were more loads to carry.  It had begun to rain, and the narrow, field-winding route was even more treacherous.  I met up with the gang: Siete, a wiry young man about my age; Radju-daai, slightly older but youngish man, and Saano Didi’s husband, a solid ball of muscle a few inches and a few teeth shorter than I am.

I was a little surprised when Saano didi’s husband prepared for me to take over his enormous load, so that he could go get another.  I’m used to everyone bending over backwards to find me the easiest work, and arguing to do more; this time, exhausted and wary of the path up, I was prepared to happily accept something a little easier.  As they propped the fat white bag up on a ledge, someone asked if I’d rather take Siete’s load, which was a little smaller.  Well, working off principle rather than common sense (and noting, after all, that nobody ever offers me harder work than I can do–I always argue my way in over my head), I shrugged and said I’d try this one.

Let me pause to explain the mechanics of carrying a 100 pound sack of rice on your head.  One way to get started is to lift the heavy load from the ground. The bag sits there with a circular rope around it and you lean against it like a chair, stick your head in the sling, and as you lean forward you gradually take on more and more weight until you’re crouched beneath the sack.  Then with a massive effort and a burst of leg power you stand up – that’s the hardest part, because you’re 100 pounds heavier.

Alternatively, the bag can be placed on a ledge, where you can sling it from a standing position and avoid the killer leg press.  The tradeoff is that you don’t take on the gravity of the bag bit by bit using your muscles, either.  Conveniently, it can be pushed right off the ledge.  Onto you.

Today we decided to go with method number two.  So I leaned against the sack, on a ledge behind me, slung the rope on my forehead, and crouched just slightly, to about 3/4 standing. I’d still have to pop myself up to full walking height, but it’s much harder from the ground and I already had a 120 degree angle in the knees.  Raju dai moved the weight of the bag from the ledge to my back, neck, and 120 degree bent legs.

Go ahead and picture a perfectly balanced scale sitting next to a ledge.  Now picture that a 50 kg sack of rice is ever so gently tipped off the ledge onto one side.

That’s me.  One instant we are executing a delicate but routine operation; the next I am pinned to the ground by a sack of rice.  It never passed go, it just went directly off the ledge and crashing to the ground with me underneath it.  There no pause where my astonished quads considered staying at a 120 degree angle.  There was never the slightest consideration of straightening up.  Luckily, because I fell over on my side, my foot (the same one the ox tried to mangle a few days ago when I was a straw flinger) was the only thing besides my ego that got directly squashed.  Of course, what with the enormous sack of rice on my foot (and my ego), I couldn’t get up. Or get my foot out.  My excellent problem-solving skills eventually led me to remove my foot from my sandal.

Also, the sack of rice ripped.  Thanks a lot, sack of rice.

With my first try now finished, I took Siete’s smaller load.  He stayed behind to get a new bag for the one I’d ruined.  Raju and I set off.

For the first bit of the climb, there was no path at all.  We climbed up over the terraces, which are narrow and rocky, and by now it was raining and slick.  Often getting up to the next terrace required a big step up, for which one would use hands and feet together even without the added body weight of a 100 pound sack of rice.

Not to worry!  I gallantly wobbled and teetered my way up as awkwardly and pathetically as anyone has ever done in the history of rice cultivation.  We came to a terrace that was about my height.  Happily, I was able to pull myself up and over to the field above.  Unhappily, I could not quite get the weight of the rice on my back to tip forward with me onto the upper ledge.  So it did what a sack of rice does when it cannot tip forward onto a ledge.  It tipped backwards off the ledge.

Given that said bag was slung to my forehead, this was rather terrifying, but luckily the rope slipped right off my brow. The traitorous bag went tumbling down, and I landed in an upside down hanging position with my legs on the ledge and my torso dangling off.  A passer by (it’s a rather popular spot) might have thought me just shot by an arrow.  Raju might have considered it.

Fortunately the sack was still in tact this time.  I vehemently refused to let Raju carry it over the ledge for me, which I’m sure he found very thoughtful.  We put the whole operation back together and set off again.  By now my back was cramping and spasming despite the relatively easy load, and nobody needed to convince me not to go again when we reached Saano didi’s some untold hour later.

After getting over the initial shock of my actually having arrived alive, the tired crowd wasted no time rocking back on their stools and retelling tales of my performance over the course of the day.  Everyone kept asking if I’d hurt myself, but other than my foot, I was fine–nothing had been badly bashed except my pride. Everyone’s attention was soon diverted to a vat of boiling millet alcohol.  I have never enjoyed whiskey before, but it’s like they say when you’ve been twice attacked by a sack of rice: there is a time and a place for everything.