Another Relaxing Day Off

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.”
Cultural moment.
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.
IMG_7056For 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.
.     .     .

Rice Pot Literacy

IMG_2668A year or two ago, Aamaa starting making noises about getting an electric rice cooker.  Of all things, right?  I am constantly baffled by the perceived awesomeness of this contraption in a place with no plumbing, no heat in the winter or A/C in the summer, no political system, and widespread illiteracy, where the one thing that people have been doing for hundreds of years with no problem whatsoever is cooking rice. In pots. And never mind that in the winter, there’s load shedding for up to 16 hours a day.

Nevertheless, it is a thing.  By some mysterious process, the rice cooker has become the iPhone of the rural Nepali woman, just like TVs became standard in Kaski’s mud-and-stone houses when so many kids left the village to work abroad, where they send home just enough money to cover a few celebrity amenities.  Now a TV I can understand.  But a rice cooker?  I used to say that about cell phones – remember how we used to just call each other on landlines?  And that worked fine?  Aamaa used to cook rice in a pot, from 56 years ago until last June.  It’s not about whether it’s fine.  It’s about having a celebrity rice cooker.

So last year when Bishnu was visiting, she picked up a rice cooker for Aamaa.  And of course, Bishnu went for a large, impressive looking one – even though Bishnu should know better than that by now.  Because first of all, when you put rice for one or two people in a large, impressive rice cooker, you get a wide, unimpressive rice pancake.  And let’s not forget that there’s no electricity half the day.  So I arrived this year to find that when the electricity comes on, the first thing Aamaa does is rush to plug in the big electric rice cooker.

No matter what time of day it is.

IMG_1042This is how we have found ourselves eating a room-temperature rice pancake as our 2013 featured dinner entrée.  And the thing that blows my mind is that it’s not like Aamaa doesn’t know what hot, properly prepared rice tastes like. It’s the only meal she’s eaten for her entire life.  But this rice-cooker-chilled-pancake-system inexplicably retains its a status of superiority in the face of damning evidence that it is terrible.

“You know, Aamaa,” I said as we were eating the rice-pancake the other day (for the record, it can literally be cut like a pie), “the rice cooker is too big.  You should have a little one, like I have in Connecticut.”

Aamaa’s expression widened.  “Really?  Do they make small ones?”

Sometimes life is so strange.

“Yes Aamaa, they’re just—they’re just like that one, but smaller.  So you can cook less rice in it and it won’t come out like a roti.”

Ehhhhh,” Aamaa cooed.  “If you see one of those, will you get me one?”

I wasn’t sure how serious she was, but the next time I was in Pokhara, I decided to get Aamaa a 1-liter rice cooker.  Like the one I have, in Connecticut.

I brought the small rice cooker home the other day and we unwrapped it on the front porch.  It was like the Second Coming.

“Look at this pot Laura got me!” Aamaa has been telling the neighbors.  “It’s the perfect size.”

The fourth beloved grandchild of the family is introduced to all visitors. Aamaa takes it out and points to its dainty circumference and shiny exterior.  Then she and I regale the neighbors with stories about the failings of the large rice cooker – it makes rice like a roti, for goodness sake – and swoon over the shimmering, earth-shattering perfection of the small rice cooker.  Which is just right for two people.

Or one person.  Like my rice cooker, in Connecticut.

As we were eating our fluffy rice today, I couldn’t help being re-amazed that Aamaa, as my protector and general knower of all things, had no idea that the big awesome rice cooker was too big and awesome.  For somebody who can build anything, cook a complex meal over a fire with no measuring devices and not a single taste test, detect subtle changes in the mood of the buffalo, and nurture soil and seeds with a nuanced literacy that is invisible and incomprehensible to me, it seems completely incongruous that she didn’t look at the rice cooker and think, “That’s too big.”

I am so used to Aamaa’s highly technical and nimble mind that it never stops surprising me to run in to the boundaries of her experience. I remember during my first year in Nepal, I got first-grade primers so that Aamaa and I could learn to read together.  I started copying new letters and sounding out the phonetic alphabet.  It turned my world upside down the first time I watched Aamaa try the same thing and saw that she copied letters slowly and awkwardly like a child.  Why wouldn’t she?  I sifted grain like a child.

The rice cooker more than anything has reminded me that we simply have different types of literacy.  Most of Aamaa’s life has been extremely repetitive, and she moves in it with a technical and intuitive agility that I think few people in my world ever have the chance to know – if only because of the much wider range of experiences we have to integrate.  I think that makes us more adaptable across novelties and habituates us to thinking relationally; it’s what allows me to look at a new situation or task and decode it or try out variations in my mind.  But Aamaa just doesn’t encounter nearly as many new situations in her life, so instead, she knows the ones that are familiar to her with a level of subtlety that maybe only Olympic athletes and ultra-dorky mathematicians ever encounter where I come from.

So much so that even the rice cooker, which seemed just a few degrees removed from Aamaa’s mainstream world, turned out to be a static event for her, not something to be adapted or improved the way the millet seedlings can be tended to in the garden.  Now I’m trying to get her to use the “warming” feature, so that when dinner gets cooked at 3:06 pm, it stays warm as long as possible.  I mentioned this the other day when Aamaa rushed to unplug the cooker rather than leaving it with the warming light on.

“Aamaa, it’s going to get cold,” I said.

“I don’t want it to overcook,” she said.

“It’s just…” I sighed. “…Warming.”

Right.  It’s warming but not cooking…that makes no sense, does it?


Putting Away a Chicken

This afternoon, a handful of serious looking men were sitting on the porch visiting with Aamaa, who is still not moving much after her operation a few weeks ago.  I was puttering around when Aamaa called me to put the chicken inside for the night.  Now, I’ve never put a chicken away before, but I was so pleased to be asked that, without any questions, I strode out to the porch and walked up to the chicken.  It promptly went skittering off.

Ah, I thought, I see.  This is going to be like climbing on to the upper roof.  Seems straightforward until you try to do it, at which point it’s too late; you’re already committed.  And standing on a middle roof.  With everyone looking at you.

As I pondered how one goes about putting away a skittering chicken, my doubt must have been obvious on my face because Aamaa immediately told me to forget about it and let Bishnu put the chicken away.  That’s the routine: I try to do something, we all realize just how much I don’t know how to do it, everyone tells me to stop, I insist, there is a contest of wills, and then something happens.  But one thing is certain: I’m not about to lay down and be defeated by an uppity chicken.

So the array of serious looking men, and Aamaa lying on a mat, watched as I chased the chicken around the yard, into the radish patch, through a thick of flowers, back into the yard and through the door of the house, where I thought I finally had it cornered, and then back outside, all the while trying to act casual.  I frittered after the disobedient little excuse for a bird, and eventually, after another trip through the flowers, managed to chase it back inside, where I finally got my hands on it with a decisive dive and firm grasp.  Like the surprisingly solid upper roof, it turns out that a chicken does not squirm as much as one would expect if one chooses to grab it forthrightly.

I emerged triumphantly onto the porch holding the gleeful chicken, which seemed very satisfied with the trouble it had caused, having certainly never enjoyed such an entertaining bedtime.  I went into the goat room to put it in its little chicken box, which I’d never really seen, because the goat room is unlit and I never have a reason to be in there.  I felt around for the chicken box, which turned out to have a top and a bottom compartment.  Not wanting to ask any questions, I promptly stuffed the chicken into the top compartment.  But it didn’t seem to want to fit and I had to push on its chicken butt while calling, “Aamaa, the top or the bottom?”  I got the chicken and its butt into the top compartment.

“The bottom,” Aamaa called from the porch.

I pulled the chicken out–it must have been quite perplexed by this point after years of daily extraction and replacement from its box in an efficient and reasonable manner–and then stuffed it into the bottom compartment.  I learned later that there’s a little piece of wood I’m supposed to put across the box for a door, but I didn’t now it at the time, so I was quite pleased with myself when I came stumbling out of the dark goat room back onto the porch.

There the gathered group of serious men sat there impassively, or stunned, if you will, no comments to be made.  As for Aamaa, she had a look I’ve become familiar with.  It says, “Well, that’s a hell of a way to put away a chicken.  But it appears to have worked.”



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.

Roof Leaping

Bishnu and I went to the field at about 7am to cut grass before breakfast.  After we ate, it was time for more house painting.  Fortunately, the structural layer involving buffalo poo is all done, so now we just have to go over it again with thinner mud that has color mixed into it.  This is how the house ends up orange on the bottom and white from the middle up.

The village looked like a party.  The jaunty line where the orange and white paint meet seemed to be winding from house to house in the sunlight, leaving its fresh mark on one cheerful home after another.  Women splattered in paint and mud were scattered over rooftops and sticking out of the grass behind their houses, painting away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur house is shaped kind of like a house on a house.  There is the roof over the first floor, and then the attic built on top of that, and then a triangular roof on top of the attic.  I came outside to find Bishnu and Aamaa standing on the highest roof, painting the uppermost part of the house.

As I stood there planning my next move, Mahendra came over carrying a severed goat head and smeared blood over our door.  His family was roasting the body in their yard on the terrace behind and above our house, in preparation for today’s big meat-eating celebration.

I climbed up to the lower roof, where I go frequently to lay out laundry in the sun, and after a while I got bored waiting for Aamaa and Bishnu to give me something to do.  So I did what you would do if you were standing on a middle roof with nothing to do: I made to climb up a level to the upper roof.

Aamaa immediately had a fit about how I was going to fall and kill myself.  “You can’t, you can’t do it!” she cried, as if she didn’t know by now that the fastest way to get me to do something I’m unqualified for is exactly like that.  And Bishnu expressed her disdain in characteristic fashion by smirking and standing in that unsympathetic posture that says, “What are you going to do, American?”

This attracted the attention of Mahendra’s entire family on the terrace above us, where they had previously been observing the headless roasting goat.  Just as I was realizing that climbing on to the upper roof really wasn’t that easy, I also took some pleasure in being more interesting than a headless roasting goat.  I calculated that climbing up on to a roof wouldn’t be all that difficult if a) I hadn’t been wearing a lungi and b) I had full confidence in the stability of the upper shingles.

So there I was.  Ironically, the only one trying to help me was Baa!, Mahendra’s father, who as a general rule seems more ambivalent than anyone of my right to show up like this, to explore the poverty he got stuck with like it’s some kind of escapade.  Let’s just say that Baa! has shown a distinct lack of confidence in my ability to be a fast learner.  But from edge of the roasting goat pit, he was, quite generously, making emphatic motions indicating the pulling up of one’s lungi above the knees.

Let’s face it – there really is no way to climb up from a middle roof to a top roof in a lungi except by grabbing on to the shingles over your head and jumping.  You hope for the best and don’t ask yourself what’s really worth risking your life for.

I was up.  The shingles did not fall off the roof, but Aamaa was still yelling “YOU CAN’T!” in a prolonged and energetic babble that apparently couldn’t be cut off simply by being proved incorrect.  I stood to my full height–more than enough to be a chimney for this house–raised my hands up, and tromped around defiantly.  Great view up there.

And that ended the show.  Everybody went back to their business.  Roasting goats; smearing mud.  I, however, still had nothing to do.  So when Bishnu and Aamaa went around to the other side of the house, I decided it was time to go down.  I returned to the spot where I’d come up.

Well, let’s just say that leaping up is one thing.  Leaping down a different matter entirely.

The audience had dispersed.  So it was before the eyes of God alone that I saw myself peering off the edge of one little roof, down to the top of another, reaching one leg down and straining with my toe, which dangled a good foot above the sloped shingles below, at the bottom of which was a nice little drop to the ground.  I looked over my shoulder to make sure nobody was watching.  I tried everything: this leg, that angle, slide on my bum, brace to the left, hike up the goddamn lungi; I looked for another disembarkation spot, an invisible step; I considered the unthinkable—waiting for Bishnu to give me a hand.

With sudden clarity I thought of Katharine Hepburn climbing houses (I’ve been reading her memoir, of course), and wondered if the roof below me could support my weight if I just jumped.  I pictured myself tumbling off the edge below, breaking my leg, and thinking that any small concession would have been a better gamble than loosing every last shred of dignity (and my leg).  I really dwelled on that image – what it would feel like, lying there on the ground in my own pain and stupidity.

I jumped.  I landed softly on the lower roof and walked over to the other side of the house, where Aamaa and Bishnu were still painting, and demanded that they give me a job.

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.



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.


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