Saturday, May 7, 2005

Back from the land where everyone is named Lepcha

Hello all,

We're back in Darjeeling, the original city where we did our homestays and had our first real chance to adapt to life in this part of the world. Being back here is surreal--a slam in the face to confirm how rapidly this journey will come to a close. As much as I have thrived on each new day and the experiences each brought with it, I am also feeling content to return to the language, food, bed, and family I've grown up with. I'm eager to apply some of the attitudes and ideas I've learned here to life back in the states.

Our rural home stays these past few days were absolutely amazing... We backpacked about 45 minutes down to the village with all our gear, then dispersed to families all over the small village of Pekang, in West Bengal, India. My family lived about a 20 minute walk uphill from the main house we used as a group center during our five days there. I've always been directionally challenged, and it really came into play out as I tried to find my way to and from the main house, my home, friends' houses, the elementary school, etcetera on the paths—a winding web of narrow dirt trails worn by years of feet trodding up, down, and around. Though my poor directional sense guaranteed that I'd get lost at least once on any journey, this led me into a lot more encounters with random villagers who would give a fond smile and point me in the right direction.

Pekang is situated in the last dribbling foothills of the Himalayas, which translates to my experience as "extremely steep hillside". It is very much an Agrarian community, with simple dwellings claiming anywhere that it is reasonably flat and terraces occupying the rest of the land. The vast majority of people here are of Lepcha ethnicity, so literally everone's last name is Lepcha, making role-call at the elementary school rather amusing.

My family was absolutely wonderful - so warm and loving and so eager to share with me their way of live. My ama, at 27 years-old, has one 10 year-old son Yuel and an extremely hardworking husband. Our abode consisted of: a 3-room house, a separate cement/mud kichen room, a wooden outhouse-style toilet, an outside cement washing area with a tap, 2 oxen, 1 cow, 2 dogs, 2 hens, a beautiful garden with flowers, banana trees, and vegetables, plus a number of terraced feilds on which we grew rice, millet, and corn.

Though I wasn't there during the peak planting or harvesting season, I was still taken aback by the extent of daily labor in the village. It hit me hardest when I spent some time with another home stay family: watching the absolutely gorgeous the 30-year old mother dressed in worn clothing haul huge baskets of firewood, batter rice with a giant mortar-and-pestle to unsheathe the grains, and look after her children: three-year-old Lagan and five-year old Agan, I was struck by how cheerfully she carried her load but how strongly the exhaustion came through in her eyes.

Basic household tasks and maintenance require so much more work here than we are used to. Take cooking dinner as an example. Rice, the staple grain, is grown on terraces here and then stored in its husks. To un-husk it, you have to use a giant log-and-stump mortar-and-pestle for about 10 minutes, shake the husks off using a flat bamboo basket-tray, and then repeat the process again to completely remove the husks. The heat source for cooking is a gorgeous earthen stove with a space for a small fire beneath two holes with built-in props for pots—forming an earthen, wood burning, two-burner stove. Of course, the fuel must be hauled from the forest, split, and the fire tended as it burns… Now you have the raw materials, and finally the cooking process as we know it can begin.

That's the other thing I realized in my time in Pekang—as you move along the scale towards a more simple, agrarian life-style, conveniences may go by the wayside and daily living may become more labor-intensive, but the fundamentals remain the same. Cooking, cleaning, childcare, family, love, education, sleeping—all of the things that truly matter and really define human life remain remarkably the same. I got lost on the footpaths just as I lose my way on the streets of Madison; kids go to school and do their homework; parents work to provide the best they can for their children. In coming to a "rural village," the preconceptions we are taught are inescapable ingrained in our minds—we think village life is hard, the people are poor, and few opportunities exist to move out or up. Yet we also idealize the serenity of the village, expecting to fall in love with the romance and simplicity of country life. These two extremes are balanced by the reality we experienced: the work is hard, the air is clean and quiet, communities are tighter, and people do not have the same opportunities we do.

I was slightly sick for a few days of our stay—good old traveler's diarrhea come back again as my system struggled to adapt to new food. This made toilets an experience I treated with a lot of care—keeping an eye out of the scorpions, oversize spiders, moths, snakes, and leeches that have all been spotted in the area; trying not to think about exactly what might come out of me; and plotting what it'll require to wash everything down. When toilets consist of a wooden outhouse equipped with a stone hole leading down to a pipe—and, if you are lucky, a bucket of water to help wash things down—things sometimes get a little hairy. I definitely had some experiences I won't forget for a while. Long ago in an early e-mail I promised a toilet description, so there you go—I think you get the idea.

My last evening with my home stay family was an extremely wonderful, warm, memorable one. I was instructed in the finer points of momo-making (momos being small cabbage dumplings that are absolutely delicious and serve as the fast food for pretty much everywhere we've been on this trip). We had a blast as I learned to fold and crease the dough, my brother Yuel cheering me on as I finally caught on to the method of keeping them together. As we waited for them to steam over the fire, we talked about food in America and they were surprised to learn that corn, cabbage, spinach, potatoes, etc were all available in America too. From there, we somehow dissolved into body games; I pulled out the American classics: we curled our tongues, patted our heads while rubbing our tummies, tried to touch our noses with our tongues—and they taught me some new ones—we struggled to lift up the appointed finger with our hands all mixed up, failed to snap our wrists like my baba, and marveled at Yuel's double-jointed thumbs. My ama and baba, though the've been married for 11 years now, still have an amazing youthful exuberance about them and we entertained ourselves with giddy laughter for hours until the momo's were done to perfection and we all enjoyed the warm and tasty treat. We exchanged photographs and addresses (the photo of Yuel was 7 years out of date, but so sweet of them to give to me!), and I went to bed that night brimming with warmth and happiness.

Hurrah! The internet just started to work!! (This e-mail is so long because it took that long for my e-mail program to load, and now it's working fast as can be. Who can ever tell about the internet here).

This is probably my last e-mail before I'm back in America in person. It is unbelievable how fast this trip has gone, and equally unbelievable to look back and think about all the crazy, heartwarming, terrifying, and absurd things I have done and learned.

Love to you all,