Makalu-Barun, part II: Namaste, Tihar, Maoists
Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
351Trip End Ongoing
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Young men would often say the word more emphatically than musically, with accent on the last syllable.
Elders sitting in doorways would often say "Namaskar," the old Sanskrit word.
Namaste and Namaskar are not simply interchangeable words for "hello" and "goodbye." Instead, they mean "I salute the divine in you," referring to the Atman that is beyond the ego in all of us.
Pressing the hands together refers to the joining of the self and a higher spiritual nature, leading people to forget the differences in one another and connect with one another. The children, curious as usual, also often just wanted to talk to and look at a foreigner.
As we began our trek in the morning sun, connections, honor, and spirit abounded, heading north past storefronts and homes. Soon, Surya, Sandy, Maila, Sandy's porter, and I left the long narrow strip of ridgetop town called Khandbari and were walking through terraced, golden rice fields and past springs shaded with bamboo.
After several hours of walking, we reached a house overlooking the valley below. Khandbari was two thousand feet below us, on the ridge we had followed. We were staying on the main trading route between Khandbari and the mountains above. Passing us on the way were dozens of mountain villagers bringing large sacs of dried cardamom from the mountain forests to town. Surya and I continued to hike to the nearby pass for sunset. There we met his aunt who gave us both a bulb of cardamom, composed of a dozen purple seed pods.
Opening a seed pod, I looked into the world of the cardamom. The dark brown seeds were coated with a sweet, jelly-like substance that rolled on the tongue. The seeds crisply broke in my mouth, releasing a throat-soothing, nostril-cleansing peppery taste that resembled ginger and cough drops with a slight bitter after taste. I felt that the cardamom would help my bronchitis, contracted in smoggy Kathmandu.
Cardamom is the key ingredient in Nepali tea, which we enjoyed throughout the trip at rest stops. For breakfast, Nepalis typically only drink tea.
Heat milk and water infused with cardamom and black pepper
Soak tea leaves in boiled water
Pour milk and water infusion through a strainer of tea leaves into a pot
A few hours after morning Nepali tea typically comes an "all you can eat" dal bhat meal. I continue to be amazed by the amount of food people eat for this meal, as heaps of rice and curry are piled on a large metal plate. The West, it seems, did not invent "all you can eat."
Surya and I returned to our home for the night to eat the second meal of the day, also "all you can eat" dal bhat. After a long day of hiking, large amounts of food were welcome.
I awoke at dawn the next morning and went with Surya to watch the sun rise on the Himals. Chamlang, at 7200 meters, soon turned a rosy-white glow as the first rays of light struck its summit. Behind it were the tallest mountains on earth.
After some Nepali tea and a granola bar or two, we all continued north into dense forests. The trees were covered in orchids, ferns, and lichens. Many of these forests, however, were cultivated. Cardamom plants grew in the understory. People tended the plants, weeding them after the harvest. Pods were dried at makeshift tent sites along the way. Sandy mentioned that Harry had loved these forests and its diversity.
I said, "Surya, please tell Maila that I'm also interested in these things, so he can point out anything he sees to me." Along the way, I rested often on the trailside, watching birds and enjoying the forest atmosphere. We all went at our own pace, sometimes together, sometimes apart, enjoying the day.
As this was Tihar, we wanted to celebrate Bhai Tikka day together. Bhai Tikka, meaning "brother tikka," is the last day of Tihar, when sisters celebrate their brothers, wishing them good things, a long life, and giving them a tikka. Brothers then give their sisters gifts. The tradition began when a girl named Jamuna tricked Yama, god of death, into postponing her brother's death.
Tomorrow, however, was our last day together, as Sandy wanted to return to the school and to spend more time with Surya, her son away from home. Maila and I would continue north.
Therefore we needed to celebrate Bhai Tikka a few days early. We stayed in a cozy Sherpa cottage set high on a mountainside, surrounded in golden millet fields. Corn dried on mats in their backyard, surrounded by marigolds, ripened gourd vines, and harvested corn stalks. After a dal bhat dinner and long sleep, we awoke to celebrate before going our own way.
We exchanged gifts. Maila gave Sandy and Harry two cast figures of Buddha to be placed in their Garung Gompa. Maila showed his love by learning to cast himself--the carving, the melting of the metal, the entire process. I gave Sandy a green and gold sari; she had picked it out herself earlier, so it wasn't a surprise. Sandy gave us topis, Nepali men's hats, and tikkas, saying a wish and prayer for each of us. We said goodbye, perhaps seeing each other again in Khandbari when Maila and I returned.
Tihar was much more than exchanging gifts and tikkas, as I would learn. It was many Nepalis' favorite holiday, the Festival of Lights, ruled by Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, and Yama, lord of death and the underworld. The five days celebrate the crow, the dog, the cow, Lakshmi, the ox, and brothers. As Maila and I continued on our trip, we passed dogs and cows with marigold garlands. Village children lit fireworks and firecrackers, trying to scare dogs and people as they ran around with mischevious grins. Men gambled along the trade routes. During the day, bands of people traveled between houses singing, dancing, and playing music, asking money for the poor or for a local school, a tradition called diusire. At dinner in Num, our host family lit a sparkler.
One of the thresholds we would pass was the Arun River, which marked the boundary of the Makalu-Barun Conservation Area, established as a buffer zone for protecting the national park. The river also marked the beginning of a long upwards journey from 695 meters to 5000 meters. As we crossed the river, four days into the trek, porters left offerings of plant leaves to the spirit of the Arun River, as we crossed a long and narrow pedestrian suspension bridge.
That night, the new moon, in the town of Sheduwa, lightning storms flowed violently through the valley and pounded the mountains with snow. Sheduwa was a major crossroads for the Makalu-Barun area, thus the location of the new moon market as well as headquarters for the Maoists. A red hammer and sickle flag flew above the town.
"Do you like the Maoists," I asked one boy? He looked around, nervous: "Don't worry I won't tell anyone."
"No, they kill our goats to eat."
In the morning, two Maoists extortionists, Barat Rye Bimand and Pemba Sherpa (fake names), came to our cottage, as we knew would happen. They asked for 5,000 rupees, about $70 US. I told them that they were in violation of the cease fire agreement, which they were. We didn't yet reach an agreement, but met later after I talked to a Belgian group who was also heading north. Finally, after an hour of negotiations, we agreed on 1,000 rupees per person. Maila would tell me later that if we didn't pay, we'd get robbed later. Today's Kathmandu newspaper also said that of 43 trekkers who traveled to this area this year, 19 were robbed.
At this point, I began to wonder how far the trip would go, as Makalu Base Camp was not the ultimate goal. Instead I wanted to visit the many life zones of the National Park, ranging from tropical forest to snow and ice. But as we traveled through the forests, we saw few animals and many said that the animals were elsewhere. At the same time, I was now low on money, although we had plenty of food.
We continued, climbing up 1500 meters to mani stones marking the entrance into the National Park.