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Published: March 2nd 2010
Trip to the Village of Thannahu for the Thanimai Folk Music Festival
Here it is, the promised account of my excellent village journey, typed up from my pencil-and-paper notes, raw from memory strain and hand cramps. This is the first two days; the rest will come later.
This was departure day—I planned to leave with a big group of folk musicians from Kathmandu to go to the first annual Thanimai folk music festival in the small village of Thannahu, Basantapur VDC. The idea was to leave at 11 am, so I arrived at my friend’s house at 10:45, thinking that I might be late. I wasn’t. He wasn’t even home yet—still at the university where he’s a master’s student—let alone at the place where we were to leave with the other musicians. I waited at his place for a little bit talking to his niece, he arrived, and we leisurely ate a daal bhat lunch. After this we went to the house of a friend and fellow musician who would also be going on the trip. We talked for a little bit—mostly in fast Nepali, so I couldn’t keep up—we played some tunes for the family (little boy, grandma), drank tea, ate millet roti and orange achar (a tasty combination), went to the roof to see the view and enjoy the sunlight, and finally decided to take a walk to Swoyambhu to pass the time there. This took hours, and throughout my friend was making phone calls to this mysterious, ridiculously late, group of musicians with a bus. They were always waiting for something, or would be coming ‘soon.’ Swoyambhu was nice—I just sat down and enjoyed watching people and monkeys—and my friend kept giving me his mp3 player with tunes to listen to. I was fresh from the whole school drama episode, so I had a lot to think about. I was also thinking about NMES, SAISA, and my upcoming Fulbright presentation. At around 5 pm I asked my friend his personal opinion about when we would actually be going (it then being 6 hours late), and he replied that he just called the group, and they said they were nearby, but they were changing a flat tire. That’s fine, I said, we should go meet them. We walked in that direction, and luckily enough, there they were—a bus full of folk musicians and their bags, most of whom I hadn’t yet met. The bus was an old, dilapidated public local bus on hire, painted blue, missing windows, and literally held together with masking tape. This is where the adventure really begins, I though. The internal bus lights were to be turned on and off by pinching wires together. Just outside Kathmandu we stopped at a shop to get more cardboard and masking tape to cover up the missing window openings to stop the cold air from blowing in. I sat next to one of these openings, and it was sad to see the view disappear, but it would be dark most of the way and I appreciated the warmth. On this first leg of the trip I was exhausted from waiting around so long, so I dozed off for a little bit. I couldn’t doze for too long, though, because my seat seemed to get progressively harder and harder and more and more uncomfortable, finally keeping me awake until the next stop. Our first ‘get out and walk’ stop was a t a roadside eating place for ‘tea.’ It was about 7:30 pm, so it wasn’t really tea time, and we didn’t really have tea. The place served up heaping plates of what looked like full meals, but probably were just Newari snacks. I wasn’t very hungry, so I just grabbed a small fruitcake and some mango juice. We sat down with some other musicians, and this was the first chance I got to really meet them. I was introduced around the table, and there proceeded to be some hearty talk and a round of whiskey. I wasn’t in the best mood- my friend was getting a little bit uncomfortably close, the bus was 6 hours late, and I was up late the night before- but I participated as best I could. I really admired the good humor from these guys, joking around and having a sincerely good time, and I wished I could join in more fully. All these guys were new to me, so I didn’t really know what to expect from them, or where they were coming from, or even who was a musician or what he played. At this stop also, during eating, a server came around with a plate of what looked like assorted buffalo spare parts. It looked like there were some fat chunks, skin chunks, veins, and more swimming around and caked in this dark, pasty, crumbly, cakey buffalo substance. It tasted pretty good—especially the things that looked like veins. It was kind of like mac ‘n’ cheese, but entirely of the buffalo. It was then that I realized how awesome a situation I was in—riding the dilapidated tour bus with a group of Nepali folk musicians going to a village festival, stopped at a roadside stall at night eating buffalo veins and drinking whiskey. We then got back on the bus for more attempted dozing and uncomfortableness. During the whole ride somebody had their cellphone playing folk tunes on its small speakers. The next stop was a few hours later, and this one was for dinner proper. It was at a restaurant, and we sat down and ate. I wasn’t hungry, so I just had a cup of tea. The feature of this stop was a rakhsi stall—the other musicians found the rakhsi (kodoko—alcohol ‘from millet’) and had to get me to try it. This was also the stop where I had to field a lot of the initial questions—from what country? First time in Nepal? How do you like it? I chafed a little bit under the attention—it was sugary friendly and the questions didn’t seem to go anywhere. I was also really tired. They made a big deal over the rakhsi, watching me like I was an innocent, inexperienced newcomer trying the real, hard, world of alcohol for the first time. Unfortunately I had to disappoint—I was well acquainted with rakhsi and treated it as just another drink. Many questions came—you like? How is it? What do you think?—and unfortunately I was a little bit rude to one of the really nice guys whom I came to respect quite a bit during the next couple of days. There was then more talking and joking around, and they gave me a Nepali name: SomRaj. I love the name, but I wasn’t extremely keen to abandon my old name, so I took it mildly. Again, I loved the spirited attitude of the guys, and regretted that I couldn’t participate fully. Back on the bus. The tape came off previously, so we had to do a repair job, but it never totally fixed, so it was much colder for this last leg. We stopped one more time to pee on the side of the road, then finally arrived at the village at midnight. I sluggishly got off the bus, followed the guys, and was ultimately led to a small lean-to room on the side of a mud-and-smoked-wood hut, over a stable, with a bed consisting of a wooden platform with a hay mat and a sheet over it to sleep on, and a local sirak blanket to keep warm. The pillow was a solid block of something, covered with a small rug. It was perfect. I fell right asleep.
This was my first real, full day in a Nepali village, and it came to me as quite a shock. I was treated in a variety of different ways—some looked at me in awe, some in fear, some as a celebrity, some as a fragile, honored guest—but I was not treated like just another human being. This irritated me at first; I hadn’t done anything to deserve this kind of treatment, but I had to realize that I represented certain things as a foreigner, and that they knew I came from a different culture, and they really didn’t know how to treat such a distant cultural outsider. I’m sure most had love in their hearts, and they would have been mortified lest I think anything bad about them, and they probably were on the defensive at the outset, thinking that I would never like their lowly place and culture coming from such a worldly, developed place, and they simply didn’t have any idea of how to be clear or make friends or what to do to get a good response from me. I was similarly at a loss of how to behave. I wanted to make friends, but I didn’t want to scare people off or put them on the spot to confront their paralyzing discomfort in my presence and lead to even more uncomfortably, awkward situations, magnified by the fact that I don’t speak Nepali with very great fluency. As a result my actions were largely subdued and tentative, and so were the actions of many of the people around me. I was a little disappointed with myself—here I was, a foreigner in a Nepali village, not a tourist, in a perfect situation to talk to people and learn a lot and make friends and spread goodwill and play with kids and generally interact—and I had a really hard time doing it. I think if I were a more generally outgoing person I could have made more of the situation. I see now, after having been there, my actions were perfectly natural, and may have even helped ingratiate me with the villagers. They could see that we all had something in common: our uncomfortableness. Over the course of the few days it lessened for everybody, and I ended up making some real, hopefully lasting friendships. I felt a little bit bad at the end of the first day for the people who brought me—here I was, a foreigner to be showed off, and I mostly just sat around quietly during the day, not doing too terribly much. It was a strange situation also because I didn’t make any action decisions—that was the organizer’s job—and I had no idea of what the plan or schedule was. I was destined to be shepherded around blindly. I think if I had a goal and a plan I might’ve been more dynamic. I was also tired. The group did almost all of their talking in fast, local Nepali, and I couldn’t understand most of it. So, that morning I woke up and was soon led to a place to use the toilet, wash my face, and brush my teeth. This happened outside on a terrace below a house, with some little haystacks and stable huts around. I had to go around the bend in the road to get to it; the terrace on one side, and lower terraces down the hill on the other side. Chickens, donkeys, cows, and buffalo were general citizens. I washed up mildly with a small pitcher of water, then conversed a little bit with some trading women from Mustang. They came from an area with many tourists, and referred to me as ‘the tourist.’ They showed me some ‘hercigompa,’ little twigs that look like dried caterpillars that are supposed to be rare and incredibly medicinal. One little twig sold for 150 rupees. We talked a little bit but didn’t really get very far, and then I went back to the crossroads area of town, sat down at a raised corner store/eatery, observed, and thought. Now I can describe the town a little bit. The center is a junction of four dirt roads near the top of a Himalayan foothill ridge northwest of Dhumre. The whole area is terraced, and the roads just happen to be wide terraces. The land raises up on two sides of the junction, one side being home to the featured Thanimai temple, and the other leading up to more farming terraces. These are the East and West sides. To the North and South the land drops away in terraces, and to the North these terraces are occupied mostly be residential huts and barns, all facing West. These are interspersed with animals, tropical wideleafed trees, and stupa-shaped haystacks, and assorted animals. Houses are made from chopped, smoked wood and pounded clay, with smoked hay on top. A lot of them are built on the edge of terraces, so they have wooden supports in the back where they hang over the land. The hangover areas are sometimes barns. To the south is a road with some general stores, and then more farming terraces. The town has electricity and some big electricity poles that look very out of place. Unfortunately there was a water problem—a bulldozer damaged a water line—so people had to walk to the nearest natural water source down the hill with big jugs and carry it all back up. On clear days it is possible to see magnificent Himalayan ridges dominating the northern horizon. Sitting at the corner store I watched as various groups of old men gathered at the crossroads for conversations, kids laid down hopscotch-like arrangements and played skipping games, some had wheels on sticks to push around, occasionally a truck would pull up and various dignitaries would get out, a group of guys constructed a banner on a bamboo support as a special gateway for the festival, a businessman set up an outdoor souvenir shop on the corner with pictures of the temple for sale, and a computer from which it was possible to print out and frame your own pictures (a funny sight—a desktop computer outside at a small village crossroads), and a group of policement in uniform at the top of the stairs leading to the temple, standing around and waiting for their festival jobs to commence. At one point the Mustang women set up a small business blanket at the crossroads and drew a crowd. I sat at the store for maybe two hours, talking sometimes with guys in the group, eating breakfast of an egg and roasted chickpeas and tea, and mostly watching and thinking. After breakfast we went as a group up the rise in the east to the place where the festival would happen. It would be on a large terrace near the top of the hill, and various venders and food stalls were preparing themselves on lower terraces. We watched the stage be set up, then went to the very top to attempt to see some mountains. Not possible—it was too hazy. We then went down to a food stall and ate a big daal bhat lunch. There were various discussions, but I couldn’t really understand, so I was quiet most of the time. At this point, after lunch, the festivities looked like they were starting, so we went to the stage area where a small crowd was gathered. This day of the festival was mostly about recognizing dignitaries, so there were a lot of speeches and various other formal things. I talked a little bit with some English teachers in the crowd who had some grammar questions. I was then surprised to be called on stage myself, recognized for being a foreign guest, and given the ribbon and kata like all the other organizers and officials. I met with the Deputy Chief Inspector of Police, and a Constituent Assembly member. After recognizings, there were some culture performances—panchebaja and local dance. I recorded them on audio, and following the lead of the CA official I jumped in and danced—much to the delight of everybody. It was more difficult than I thought. After this small party I went with the music rew to another food stall for rakhsi and snacks, more jokes, and more rapid Nepali incomprehensibility. Occasionally my friend would translate, but there just wasn’t much room for response. After a while the music guys went back to the stage for a preview performance, and I stayed back to finish my drink. I was joined by a tourism official from KTM, and we had a nice conversation about plans for Tourism Year 2011. I then went back to the stage to join the group, record their tunes, and hang out. I danced a little bit. When finished we went back to the same stall for snacks and rakhsi, me foolishly thinking that this was dinner. At this time I was getting a better idea of who was who in the group, and I could identify some general personalities. One of the guys—the flute player—was way too concerned with getting me to drink. Another guy—the sarangi player—was there with his family and was a really nice, kind of quiet guy. The dolok player was an excellent jokester, always with a smile on his face having a great time. The madal player was small and kept out of the spotlight most of the time. I similarly didn’t see much of the guitar player. The camera guy was rambunctious and made it well known that he likes to drink and be loud and silly. The announcer was all sugary smiles and tentative, nervous questions. One of the organizers from KTM was friendly and liked to talk about big ideas about how the country needs to be improved. My friend’s wife was funny and sharp, always ready with a witty comment and hearty laugh. The whole group played rhyming games, setting up verses and completing other people’s, often with really funny results. Nepali is an easy language to rhyme in. Another woman was there as a counterpart, a little bit quieter but with great ideas of her own and always ready to make a funny thing funnier. After this snacking and drinking time we went to another stall for real dinner: daal bhat. I didn’t mind eating with my hands, but they insisted on finding me a spoon. More rhyming games and some small conversations with me. I was given a Gurung/Magar name: Gazab Bahadur Gurung. When everybody was absolutely stuffed we went back to the house for more fun times. I was approached by several people with offers of dinner and a place to stay, but that was already taken care of. The house was owned by an excellent, fun-loving old man. We sang some songs and he danced, getting out a special pair of finger tambourine/woodblock things to help him. I was really tired and full of ideas that I needed to write, so I wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as I should have been. After some time I was asked to get out my clarinet and play, so I did, and we had some more musical fun. The old man loved it, and every time I saw him after that he made horn gestures with his hands. I could only take a little bit, unfortunately, and had to go back to my room, exhausted, after only a short time. I was heartily thanked for playing, then went to my room and fell asleep to the continuing sounds of folk music being played in groups all around the village.
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