Yesterday I did what I usually do to relax on my day off: go with Aamaa and about thirty neighbors to chop and haul firewood for six hours. As Aamaa and I were headed down the hillside in the morning, carrying our ropes and sickles, a buffalo was baying loudly in the distance. Aamaa stopped for a second and listened.
“…Oh, it’s a buffalo,” she said.
“Of course it’s a buffalo,” I said.
“For a minute I thought it was a cell phone.”
“You thought cell phone before you thought buffalo?”
“Sometimes cell phones make that noise…bzzzt, bzzzt.”
Woodcutting is highly regulated and occurs en masse, and it is a brilliant example of the chaos and color of rural Nepali life. Today there are about 35 people in the steep, unruly forest shouting and singing and chopping with axes and saws and sickles. Every now and then there is a loud whoop and a huge tree falls over. Then you have the random American running around in the middle of this scene. I am wearing one of my old “work” outfits – a hot pink and green kurta sulwaar from 8 years ago that’s got a rip here or there. I am ready for action, baby.
I get assigned to a group of women bundling wood and carrying loads uphill to a clearing. I would like to say that, after twelve years of voluntarily putting myself in these situations, I’ve actually earned a fair amount of respect – I do pretty well for a foreigner. But there’s just a baseline level of awe that comes along with having a 5’8” white girl waving a sickle around in the woods a tuesday afternoon in the hills of Nepal. Also, it’s the obvious topic of conversation.
For one thing, “Laura” is, exactly, the Nepali word for “stick.” This is an endlessly entertaining point. I look like a stick and I’m carrying sticks and my name means stick. Unfortunately for me there is also a lot of discussion about actual sticks (after all we are in the forest chopping wood) and I am constantly answering “Yes?” in response to people saying things like, “Hey, give me that stick.”
After a few hauling trips, we’re resting in the clearing when the ladies get to talking about how nobody should submit to pressure from the choppers to carry too much at once. Loads should be adjusted to the size and strength of each person – after all, it’s really hard work and we have people of all ages and levels of health among us.
Lady one: “I mean look at this foreigner here from Japan.”
Lady two: “It’s America.”
Lady one: “Whatever.”
On most trips I get paired up with Saraswoti or Aamaa, who I follow around like a baby cub. And I appreciate that all the wives look out for me. However I do get a little fed up with being babied on tasks I’ve sweated significantly to master, such as carrying stacks of wood slung from a rope on my head. So late in the day, when fatigue and disorder have evolved to a stage where I find myself momentarily separated from the group as everyone is bundling their loads, I find a huge log and wonder if I can lift it. I manage to get it upright but can’t sling from my head because it keeps falling over.
“PUT DOWN THE HUGE LOG!” yells a guy from across a ravine. I call this guy Michael Jackson, but that’s another story. Michael Jackson makes the mistake of shouting across an entire forest that the log is too heavy for me to lift.
I set the log up again. Michael Jackson abandons his first strategy and calls to Barat to come hold the log so that at least it doesn’t roll away while I’m making a bad decision. I manage to stand up in the steep underbrush with this huge chunk of tree slung from my forehead. It’s added at least 75 lbs to my bodyweight.
For future reference, putting DOWN a 75 lb log slung from your head is almost as hard as picking it up. So I just start walking up the hill with it. I have no idea whether I can carry this thing all the way up to the clearing, which requires climbing over terraced fields on narrow footholds. But so far, Michael Jackson is losing, even with my Japanese disadvantage, and that is all that matters.
I plod along until a line of women with their own bundles of wood catch up behind me. They begin scolding me to put down the gigantic log, and to be fair I kept thinking that, over the next ledge, I would give it up. But everyone was moving forward as a group, and it was never exactly the right moment to stop, and each time I hit a ledge I would think I’m putting this stupid log down on the other side, but then the other side would be flat enough to take a few steps and I’d find myself at the next ledge. So we just kept moving up the hill one ledge at a time.
We get to a particularly difficult terrace that has a narrow foothold and a large height difference. With the added weight, these high steps are treacherous because I literally can’t lift myself. So instead of stepping up over the edge of the terrace, I put my knee over the top and get myself over on all fours.
For the record, this is a fair tactic. I watched Sandrakali didi do it earlier in the day. But it is super awkward, and leaves you waving your butt over the edge of the field at all the people behind you. Which is really okay in most circumstances, but as it happens, my work pants from eight years ago are ripped right at the butt crack. So I am waving my underwear at a line of women behind me carrying bundles of wood, while I am crouched under a 75 lb log that is attached to my head by a rope.
This actually happened in my life. Yesterday.
“Laura, PUT DOWN THE LOG,” all the women are chastising me. Out of love of course. What would my Japanese mother think?
“I’ve got it guys, I’ve got it,” I reply, from under the log.
With a burst of leg strength I stand up and make my way up to the clearing, which is now close at hand. As I approach, Michael Jackson has his cell phone out and is taking a video.
I put the log down and throw my hands up in the air in triumph. For the rest of the afternoon, everyone is talking about my wood carrying prowess, while simultaneously scolding me for my poor judgement. THAT log, everyone says, pointing to it.
Also, Srijana tells me to take Aamaa’s shawl and wrap it around my butt. My pants are ripped and the entire world knows.
We’re off for the next load. I’ll be ready for the office again tomorrow.