We went to Nepal to visit with our dear friend, a young Nepali man (IL) who lived with us for almost a year in the USA ten years ago. He lived with us when he was 17. He is now 27, married, and has a beautiful 2 year old son. He came from a village about 100km outside Kathmandu, but a lifetime away. Betrawati is a sleepy, beautiful village where the friendships and family ties run deep over many generations. Before he came to the USA he had been to Kathmandu at least once, but never outside Nepal. He did not grow up with running water in his house, reliable electricity, indoor plumbing of any kind. They cooked (and still cook) on a wood fire built at the base of a earthen clay ‘stove’ and all slept together in the loft over the kitchen. The kitchen ceiling is black cinder from years of smoke and heat from cooking. The menu is dal baht (rice and lentil broth), milk tea, and yogurt made from the milk of the water buffalo who resides across the dirt road. She is milked every morning at 5:30am so there will be time to boil the milk and prepare the tea and start the yogurt for that day. No leftovers allowed, there is no refrigeration. Any scraps go back to feed the water buffalo.
Over the years the family was able to save money and built an extension on the house which has two rooms downstairs and four small rooms upstairs. Still no running water inside or reliable electricity. We slept upstairs in the addition on beds with thin futons and windows that looked out to the rice paddies that came right up to the back of the house. On either side were a collection of four or five houses all of which belonged to the extended family. Aunts, uncles, cousins all share the chores of daily life.
A typical day is to rise with the sun, have milk tea when it’s ready, do your chores, wash up, eat dal baht at around 9am and head to school for the 10am start. No busses, everyone walks. School is out at 4 and everyone walks home together. Children change quickly out of school uniforms into their play clothes, do homework, chores, and congregate on the front patio/dining room/laundry line to play games. Adults are finishing chores and the women are preparing dinner, dal baht. Then it is time to wash the dishes by the tap next to the out house. Into the darkness the children play. Then around 8:30 people head off to bed.
The land was very dry and surprisingly soft, and dusty. Since the roads were, for the most part, not paved, there was an huge amount of dust in the air.
Bathing, at least for the women, meant walking down to a cousins house in the morning where they have a tap that is about four feet off the ground and the water falls onto a slab of rock about 2×3 feet. The water is still cold from its journey down through the mountain stream. It only runs until 9am and then is diverted to the rice paddies, so get there early. It is about six feet off the road where people are walking to work and children are going to do chores or go to school.
I was at a total loss of how exactly to accomplish bathing in this set up with any kind of modesty. My wonderful host’s wife (PL) guided me like I was a giant, befuddled child. She told me: Bring your soap, shampoo, clean clothes, and a very small towel. Also bring your ‘washing gown’ which is something like a strapless beach coverup that ties around your chest to keep it secure. Once you have the gown on you shimmy out of your clothes and wash, wearing the gown.( It becomes very wet and clings in all the wrong places.) When you are done and rinsed you hop across a few rocks to the front porch of the adjacent house where you use the tiny towel to dry off and then shimmy into dry clothes while trying not to get them soaking wet from the bathing gown. (All this while trying not to notice the people walking by on the road.) PL was so kind and understanding and patient with me. And I knew it was this or face another few days of total griminess.
To get to school there are bridges made of steel cables with metal slats across the bottom. These bridge/walkways are wide enough to walk single file and are strung across a wide and powerful river which flows from a glacier up in the mountains. We were introduced to a favorite game -walk out to the middle of the river, hold tightly to the cable railing, and lean out over the edge as far as you dare and then just stare at the raging water rushing below you. You lose all sense of yourself as a person standing on a bridge and really do feel like you are flying. Our host, IL, told us they did this often as kids. I can totally see why, but as a parent it would scare me to death.
In this village the women still hike into the mountains to collect the grasses they need to feed the water buffalo. Everyone knows everyone. The warmth and deep sense of community far outweighed any lack of modern conveniences. My kids were enthralled and both vowed to come back to work in the school so that they could live among this wonderful family for more than just a few days.