Second Chances

We were sitting on the porch eating popcorn beneath a rumbling sky, when all of a sudden, the air became thick and threatening.  Fat plops of water began to fall, and the four of us leapt up and scrambled in to the yard: Aamaa headed for the buffalo shed, and Didi to the goats tethered outside with their three jumpy children, while Bishnu and I ran for the wheat lying in the yard, where it had been drying just minutes earlier.  I bent over the precious pile of grain to shield it with my back, frantically sweeping it into a basket, and Bishnu scrambled around the yard brushing it towards me with a bundle of straw.  When that was done, I joined Didi in her tug of war with the goats, and just as we managed to get them untied and inside, and Aamaa threw the last few baskets and bundles of grass in to the buffalo shed, the clouds disgorged a furious rainstorm.  With the belongings and grain and goats stored away, the four of us dashed into the house to shelter ourselves.  We jumped up on to the beds and turned off the single light bulb to protect against an electrical surge.  And then we sat there, staring out the door.

Rain from PorchIt began to hail.  First a little; then in golf balls.  I’d never seen anything like it.  For a while Aamaa kept running back outside with a mat over her head—to put this or that away, to put the plastic tarp under shelter (why?).  But finally we had done all we could, and there was nothing left but to lean against each other on the beds and stare out the open door, where pale light came in and lit our four faces.

The torrent was powerful and close and deafening on the tin roof over the buffalo shed.  I looked down at my fingernails, where dirt and little grain fibers had taken harbor.  The hail pounded and clattered; a heartbeat.  It was thrilling.

“The corn is ruined,” Aamaa said.

“What?”  I turned towards her.  We’ve just spent weeks slaving over planting the corn.  I’m still sore.

“Oh, this rain will damage all the crops pretty badly,” Bishnu repeated.  “And everything else—cucumber, beans, zucchini—is already gone.”

My mouth dropped.  “What do you—how—I mean—we need to plant the corn again?!

The three of them looked at me for a long moment.

“We have no more seeds.”

I blinked.  This was obviously unacceptable.

“Doesn’t everyone have the same problem?” I finally demanded.  I felt this made it an unreasonable problem, which therefore, by the laws of logic, could not have cosmic permission to exist.  There had to be more seeds.  Meantime, the yard was an inch and a half deep in water and golf balls.

“Yes,” Aamaa said.  “Everyone.”

I glared at Bishnu, seeking a revision.

“If it stops soon, the corn will be damaged, but okay,” Bishnu offered.  “But the other things are already gone.”

And that seemed to be all there was to say about it.  Bishnu turned her face back toward the door.  Nobody appeared upset, which was what confused me the most.  I couldn’t even bother to ask, What will we eat?–the injustice of our wasted effort was enough.  So I sat on the bed and stared at the rain while it ruined the corn.  Because it was the only thing to do; because the people who knew how to make things work out were doing just that and nothing else.

There are no more seeds.

I have thought of this moment many times since.  Maybe loss, like mortality, is that globally unknowable thing so innate to our humanness that we can never discover it.  We can only be confronted directly with what we always knew: that we control things only with the permission of a universe that can render our efforts irrelevant or take everything away at any instant.  But we almost never separate from that reality and stare it in the eye as its own fact–instead, we are surprised again and again, each time something more unreasonable is broken.

My gaze falls back to my fingernails.  How have our lives been so different that what is unacceptable to me is already a familiar whim to Aamaa and Didi and Bishnu?  They will wait until the storm ends and salvage what they can.  In May, they’ll plant millet.  And in that moment I envy their grace, over and over, because my effort is still wasted throwing stones at a dispassionate sky while theirs is diverted back to planting.  To the ground.  Where things grow.

*

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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.

Dain

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.

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

 

Water

Around the house, I am like a wind-up toy.  Maybe there’s a job for me over there!  Bzzzt.  Job?  Nope.  Bzzt.  Job?  Oh well, ok.  Job!  I see a job!!  Bzzt.  I have bumped in to the wall—bad naviagation—bzzt—rotate—sigh…bzzt??

Everyone is always doing interesting things.  Cooking, sifting, feeding, chopping, churning.   I can do stuff.  I’m a fast learner.  I’m enthusiastic.  If someone would just explain how to use this circular basket-pan-thing, for instance, I could be useful.

Luckily, it is becoming clear that, other deficiencies not withstanding, I make a perfectly adequate mule.  In fact, as a mule I am more than adequate—I am talented.  Carrying loads is mostly a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.  So even though Aamaa is nervous about my wrecking most of the other household tasks (I don’t know why), every load that I carry is one that someone else doesn’t have to haul from one place to another.  So, I am granted some latitude to do it inelegantly.  Thank you.

It appears that I have found my calling in water.  Everything else involves mysterious kinds of dexterity, or intuition, or magical powers.  But fetching water simply means taking an empty jug to the tap, filling it, and IMG_2362carrying it home in a basket.  And you can never have too much water.

And that, my friends, is how I have come to watch the water jugs like an underworked waiter monitoring the wine glasses at her only table for the evening.  My awareness gets magnetized to these tin vessels, God forbid they languish for a single moment with any spare real estate inside.  An entire section of my mind is devoted to calculating when and how water could be combined in various receptacles to leave the main jugs empty and in need of filling.  It isn’t exactly that I enjoy getting water, but that I passionately want this job to depend on my contribution.

Each evening when I return from school around 4:45, the four of us sit on the porch drinking tea and eating popcorn.  And I absolutely cannot relax as long as an inch of space remains available inside those tin jugs in the yard.

The routine is as follows.  First, I say, “I’m going to get water,” and leap off the porch.

Then Bishnu says, “Sit down, Laura.  I’ll get water.”   Then I insist.  Then Didi or Aamaa says, “Just take one jug.”  But I have no idea what the logic of taking just one jug is.  As long as I’m going, why wouldn’t I take two?  And get more water.

And then Aamaa always tries, “Tomorrow, do it tomorrow.”  What in the world is that supposed to mean?  First of all, I know that we need water before tomorrow.  I know because there is space in the big jug, and if there wasn’t space, I could create space by pouring water out of the big jug and into a smaller jug, and I could do that now, before tomorrow.

P1000858

I’m not easily fooled.

So invariably, I get water.  And the water tap is one of my most pitiless houses of education.  This is mainly due to a strict Canon of Maneuvering that determines the order of access to the waterspout; moreover, everyone fends for themselves, and negotiations occur manually, not vocally.

Let me explain.  It’s like chess.  Upon arrival at the tap, you set down your basket and rope and jugs strategically: close to the spout, but not too close.  You can’t be cocky about it.  At the same time, you will take stock of your place in line.  However, there is no linear line, just a theoretical, jointly acknowledged line–it’s a virtual line where everyone knows who arrived when.  Nevertheless, you absolutely must monitor exactly where your place is, because you hold your spot in the virtual line by moving in as your turn approaches—protectively, but not too protectively—and the instant the person in front of you whisks their jug from under the relentless stream of water, you have to be ready to replace it with yours.

If you’re too slow, a few things can happen.

1. An aggressor might swoop in.  Depending on the age and status and ferocity of the aggressor, it might be over before you know it, and if the aggressor has three jugs to fill, approximately nine minutes of your life are therein committed to waiting.  Loners are especially vulnerable; I don’t stand a chance.

2. On the other hand, an ally might come to your aid.  This is more likely to happen if the aggressor is young and overly ambitious, or, less often, if the ally is old and forceful.  But old and forceful ladies don’t usually waste their time being allies, so most commonly the ally is a young girl like Laximi, who does housework for Bhim.  Laximi and I are a great team.  She stands up on the ledge behind the spout, and when someone tries to mess with the virtual line, Laximi grabs my water jug and hooks it immediately under faucet, holding it there until the aggressor removes the offending vessel below it.  Then, when my jug gets full, I hand Laximi hers, and she hooks it just as mine fills, securing access before there’s an opening for challenge.  Then we leave together while the old ladies yell after us.

But ultimately, skilled water-getters stay totally disinterested in the entire affair.  Only the old, ferocious aggressors—tired out ladies who have every right to be weary with life and too busy for the nonsense of waiting—have the chutzpah to ignore the virtual line and the Canon of Maneuvering and just butt right off the bat.  Most of the time, a challenge involves placing your water jug too close too fast.  That’s how the arguing and shouting starts, and it’s really like a hundred times more fun than being an intern in some crappy office somewhere in New York.

I bring the basket of water home and sit back down.  Is there anything else to do?  Are you sure?  Definitely not?

Bzzt.  Maybe we need more water.

Rules of the Water Tap - 2010

Rules of the Water Tap – 2010