Trekking in Nepal
© Copyright 2015 by June Calender
Many scenes, a shifting kaleidoscope of memories have played through my thoughts in April as I heard about the tragedy of earthquakes and avalanches that killed so many people and devastated so many homes in Nepal. Only personal memories can give a sharp edge to news of such events in other parts of the world. “Terrible” we mutter about a massacre, a bomb in a country we have never seen. We do not have the empathic scope to think for more than a short while–as we watch a brief news clip, read an article in a paper. We need that self-defense; we have our own concerns. (Frankly I think a little less self-involvement would be a good thing.) I am not a Buddhist but I know of the practice called boddhichita in which one meditates about taking on the suffering of others. Such a practice would be a comfort; without it grief simply comes with the memories; one memory begets another and then another. If writing has been a lifelong habit, as it has for me, writing is both meditation and identification.
Mustang is a subkingdom in northwestern Nepal where, in 2003, life remained much as it had been in 1230 when the kingdom was consolidated. When I trekked in Mustang fewer than 1000 westerners had traveled to this area. Our small group spent ten days entirely on foot. Mustang had mountain paths, no roads.
We were waiting for Jamyang, our guide, to arrive with the pack mules. Last night the young man in charge of hobbling them got drunk on chang and forgot. Freedom is a rarity for pack mules so they took advantage and disappeared during the night. We walked on with the sherpas. We couldn’t get lost; the trail was obvious; it was a few miles west of the one we had taken to reach Lo Monthang. By lunchtime we had crossed three passes. I was so acclimated now that, although I was the slowest, I enjoyed the hike. At lunchtime we stopped in a small town. The sherpas took their time preparing lunch. I wandered around the one main street. A tiny stream trickled down the main path. A few decent sized trees soften the simple adobe village. In the shade of a tree in the middle of town a number of elderly people sat in a circle. Some sat on sacks that seemed to contain grain, others sat on the stones of the street. All were dressed in simple, timeless dark clothes.
A woman with her gray hair turbaned in a blue cloth was the only person standing. She wore a dark blouse and long dark skirt with the traditional striped apron that married Tibetan women wear. Balanced on her hands was a basket woven almost flat, like a platter. It contained grain. She tipped the basket slightly, shaking it gently, letting grain sift down in a slow cascade. The breeze was moderate, just strong enough to catch the lighter flakes of chaff and blow it away from the woman, the grain mounded slowly at her feet. She was winnowing the grain as people had done for thousands of years. Not for the first time here in Mustang, I felt I had entered a world of long ago, a Biblical world, maybe a world from the birth years of agriculture, perhaps somewhere in the Middle East.
After lunch on the roof of the house where we had lunch, some of our group settled on benches and napped. I looked down into the courtyard of the house next door. It was being used as a threshing floor. Two men and one woman, all in traditional dress, were working in the middle of the walled yard. There was a pile of cut wheat in the center, other piles, one of wheat, one of straw, were piled, left and right. Each of the three workers wielded a flail: a simple stick about two feet long with a long strap of leather nailed to one end. They beat the wheat to release the grain, raising a dust of chaff, each worked with his or her rhythm. They seemed to breathe in rhythm with the slap and lift of the flail.
At a word, they stopped, put down their flails, lifted the straw, shaking it to loosen any remaining grains and threw the straw into the proper pile. Then, using a straw broom, the woman swept the wheat into a pile. With their hands the men knelt and scooped it up and put it into a bag. Eventually the woman would, like the woman I had seen in the center of town, winnow this grain, cleaning it of chaff so it could be ground into flour. Perhaps most of it would be roasted to make tsampa, the staple of traditional Tibetan diet, often simply mixed into the Tibetan style tea, which was made with crumbled tea leaves, salt and butter whisked together, becoming more soup than tea.
The men spread a pile of cut grain in the now empty middle of the courtyard, picked up their flails and, again, began beating the grain out of this wheat. I watch a long time, living in another age.
As a very small child on a farm where my father used a pair or horses and had not yet bought a tractor, I watched a steam-powered threshing machine chug like a locomotive to our farm. My father had a wagonload of wheat in sheaves that I had seen him cut with a scythe. He and another man untied the sheaves and fed them to the bellowing machine. A chimney-like spout spewed wheat into the box-bed of another wagon. Then the wheat was stored in a big bin in the barn. At times I would climb into the bin and sit on the wheat, digging my hands down into it, sifting it into little mounds. It smelled sweetly nutty. I had seen, in storybooks, that children who lived beside the sea could sit on sand and sift it the same way. But we were so deep in the middle of America I would not see the ocean until I was twenty-two. These Nepalis probably would never see the ocean.