Joy is sometimes a blessing, but it so often a conquest. Our magic moment help us to change and sends us off in search of our dreams. Yes, we are going to suffer, we will have difficult times, and we will experience many disappointments- but all of this is transitory, it leaves no permanent mark. And one day we will look back with pride and faith at the journey we have taken.
The situation was still the same in Nepal thanks to the continuing blockades at the Indian border, and while the rest of the world was celebrating the Christmas holidays, a 4-day bout of diarrhea had left me feeling sorry for myself.
I had not been born into a third world country and I was not used to the harsh living conditions. Unlike in developed countries where you can flick a switch and have instant heating or a hot shower, Nepal had neither and our cooking gas had now run out, which meant we couldn’t even boil water for a hot flannel wash.
As the temperatures dropped to below freezing, I huddled in bed most days wearing three layers of jumpers and a pair of woolen mittens, while daydreaming about hot showers, lasagna, and sunbathing on the beach back home in New Zealand.
I was used to living rough, from the year before when I had lived in my van, but never in my life had I felt as if I were cold to the bone, and genuinely suffering. My hair built up a greasy sheen, and the heels on my dirty feet had become hard and cracked from the lack of showers.
Kathmandu was a dusty city and each time I went out I would accumulate a layer of dirt on my skin and clothes, but I’d end up wearing the same old dirty clothes every day because it was better than having to hand-wash them in bitterly cold, sub zero water!
I could count on one hand the times I did shower. I would try and go as long as I could to avoid having one. No words can describe the feeling of ice-cold water on your body in the middle of winter, and in freezing temperatures! My body would go numb and submerging my head was the hardest so half the time I would leave shampoo still in my hair, before racing upstairs to the rooftop to warm up in the sun.
Had I been overly ambitious to think I would be strong enough to live in a third-world country?
I wasn’t cut up for this type of lifestyle and yet I felt guilty for even feeling sorry for myself, as I knew there were many Nepali’s who were far worse off than me.
The news showed an elderly woman in tears and the image of her sad face stayed with me. When I asked Rubin why she was crying, he told me she had been forced to live in a tent since the April earthquake took her home and she said from the moment she woke up she could not escape the feeling of being cold.
I really admired the strength of the Nepalese, especially the woman. They would sit on mats on the floor from the moment they woke up, preparing food for the whole family (In Nepal it is common for the sons and their wives and children to live with their parents in the same house). They would take care of all the chores, run the household and devote their lives to caring for others. I never heard them complain nor did I ever hear them raise their voices. They simply accepted the way things were with grace. They were the nurturers and the backbone of the family.
Christmas was only two days away and I couldn’t help thinking about my mum and daughter. It was my first time away from them during Christmas and I longed to be back home, eating and celebrating with them and enjoying the warmth of a New Zealand summer.
In Nepal, things were very different compared to developed countries. The government would have specific times where they would cut off certain areas electricity supply, and we would often go for days without having any electricity, which meant no television, cellphones or internet, and we would sit in the dark at night and fall asleep to the sounds of howling dogs by 8pm.
The whole household would wake before the sun came up, but I would always try and sleep in a little. The smell of burning incense, and sounds of whispered prayers in the room next to me was my alarm clock.
The days were very short, and we would all gather on the rooftop to warm up before the sun disappeared at around 4pm.
My love for animals and vegetarianism was challenged each time I left the house. Meat was not packaged into clean, neat packets where consumers didn’t have to think about how it was butchered or where it came from. The butchery was done on the streets right there in front of you, leaving a blood stained mess where flies would congregate. Goat’s heads sat on tables, their eyes telling a story of fear, along with their dismembered body parts, with hoofs still attached. The innards of water buffaloes filled large buckets, like a scene from a horror movie, and chickens and ducks were left in tiny basket cages waiting for their death.
The rubbish dump pups were growing bigger by the day. I would spend a lot of time watching them play from the rooftop, but I was worried about two of them. One had a broken leg as it kept falling onto its face each time it tried to run around with its brothers and sisters, and the other pup who was from a different litter, was looking skinny and sick. It was loosing hair and I could see it’s poor ribs protruding out from its side. Rubin’s brother, Bikash had been doing a good job of feeding them all chicken feet and left over food scraps from home but I still wanted to phone the animal hospital to get them looked at. However, Rubin explained to me that the puppies would adjust, there were thousands of puppies worse off than them, and unlike in the West, the vet wouldn’t come even if I did call them.
So I prayed they would be okay, but the next day the sick looking pup had disappeared. I resigned myself to thinking that God had answered my prayers and a kind-hearted soul had adopted him rather than facing the truth that he had probably died overnight, in the cold.
The street dogs took up a lot of my thoughts and I wished they could all be taken care of but unfortunately reality was very different in Nepal.
Food was simple and always consisted of rice, dhal, vegetables and occasionally meat (which I didn’t eat). We would have a light breakfast of plain chapatti or a type of pancake made from lentils with a milk tea and lunch would be eaten at around 11am. Dinner was always the same as lunch and because of the lack of gas, it was usually served cold.
I noticed that food was eaten quickly, as a means to sustain life, and most Nepali’s used their fingers to eat. There was no over-indulgence, and the food was always shared out equally amongst family members. What little was left over would always be given to the birds and street dogs, leaving nothing to go to waste. Biscuits or potato chips were rarely eaten and when they were, a very small amount would be shared out between everyone. A packet would often last a whole week, whereas back home I could easily devour a whole packet myself in one sitting!
Where consumerism, greed, and over indulgence drives the West, the Nepalese are humble people and the little they have is appreciated.
There were no fast food restaurants like McDonald’s or Burger King. Food was mainly cooked fresh at home and instead of fast food chains, ayurvedic medicine and artisan shops lined every street corner.
Driving around in Nepal was often a hair raising experience and I was glad Rubin was a slow driver. The Nepalese had a unique set of road rules that only they could understand. It was a chaotic mix of beeping horns, with no respect to driving within lanes, and pedestrian crossings didn’t actually mean you were free to cross the road as trucks, buses, cars and motorbikes coming from all directions, would instead drive around you or look at you and furiously beep their horn as if you had done them some big injustice by having to stop.
Instead of manicured parks and shopping malls, a mix of ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples, rich in history, were Nepali’s main attractions and an important part of their culture. Every Saturday (their day of rest) locals would gather at their temples to pray and give offerings to their gods.
I had first arrived in 30-degree temperatures and all the differences were a real culture shock for me, but now I felt like I had been living in Nepal for years. I had got used to hearing only Nepali spoken, and I had learnt to communicate with Rubin’s parents using sign language, which often brought us all to fits of laugher while trying to figure out what each other was trying to convey. I even caught myself doing a little sideways shake of the head to Rubin, a common gesture that all Nepali’s do.
Rubin was the youngest of five. He had three sisters, one of which lived in America, and one brother. He was born 10 years apart from his youngest sibling, and his elder sisters were my mothers age and his parents were my grandparents age.
The Khadka’s came from the second highest caste, beneath only Brahmins in Nepal. Chhetri’s are known for being fierce warriors, who fought for their kings back in the ruling dynasties of Nepal. Most Chhetri’s nowadays work in the military, police and governments of Nepal.
Rubin’s father is a retired high-ranking police officer and a well respected member of the community. Rubin, however, didn’t want to work in the police force or follow in his long-held family traditions.
He instead chose a different path.
He also broke tradition by marrying me outside his caste, and I was grateful that his parents were open minded enough to allow us.
Rubin’s whole family had arranged marriages, except for his sister Bebina. Her marriage was a love marriage, and our marriage was deemed a paper marriage. We were also the only couple in the household to share the same bed.
One day Bebina showed me her Sari’s and told me to choose one. It was a hard decision as all the colours were so beautiful but I eventually chose a brilliant red one. Bikash’s wife Kabita, put it on me (there is a certain way to wear a sari) and then did my hair while Bebina painted my nails and adorned me in her jewelry.
I felt as though I was preparing for my wedding day, although Rubin and I had already married in October at the local office, so this was a nice consolation considering we hadn’t even exchanged rings, or celebrated that day.
Most people fall in love, get married and have a baby. I did everything backwards!
Rubin hadn’t had much experience in relationships (it is uncommon for Nepali’s to date or have sex with different people like in most western cultures) so I found his naive-like, innocent approach towards me quite endearing.
He was my rock, an avid realist, and the most honest person I knew. At times I would tell him to be more tactful when he spoke to avoid offending people. He said what he thought and always spoke his mind. He was the type of person who was always helping and doing things for others.
We had a mutual trust for each other, a strong friendship and a deep bond, which was at times hard to understand.
He shattered my childhood fantasy of marrying a knight in shining armor who lived in a castle. Instead he came from a poor country and lived in a modest home with his parents. He had a way of shattering all my illusions around love and he would often remind me that if we were happy together now during the hard times, imagine how happy we would be during the good times.
We would often joke that he was like the wife and I the husband as he would always serve me food and wait on me. Little did he realize that he had married a feminist!
We chopped and changed our minds right up to the day we married. He was just as scared as I was. I can remember him telling me the first day we met that he saw all his married friends as being in jail, but we wanted to be together so we took a leap of faith. We knew we couldn’t be together outside of Nepal otherwise.
Our relationship was not perfect, we had our fair share of arguments, but I eventually fell in love, after letting go of my childhood dream of wearing a pretty white wedding dress.
Sometimes love is not like what we see in movies or read in books and it took me 35 years to take off my rose tinted glasses and realise this. Expectations are the bane of all misery, especially in the realms of love.
Our plan was to move to Australia but we had to wait for his visa to be approved and we didn’t know how long it would take. I had also learnt from previous experience that sometimes the best laid plans come unstuck so our future together was uncertain.
Christmas day arrived and I spent the morning talking to my mum and daughter in New Zealand, before having my usual breakfast of a chapatti and milk tea. Being a predominantly Hindu culture, the Nepalese didn’t celebrate Christmas, so I wanted to go out to dinner with Rubin, but Rubin’s mother told us to stay home as they had gone and bought kerosene to cook with and they were making sweets for me. I felt so grateful by their kind gesture, so we decided to stay home.
I had a traditional Nepalese lunch of rice, chickpeas and spiced greens and then Bebina showed me how to make the sweets, however my hands weren’t as nimble as theirs at rolling out the dough into cone shapes so I gave up rather quickly.
Rubin and I spent the rest of the day watching movies, and for dinner I had a small bowl of cold leftover chickpeas by candlelight. It’s interesting how feeling cold and hungry can really change your mood as I went to sleep angry, wishing I had gone out to dinner.
It was a Nepalese Christmas that I’d never forget!
I was now four weeks out from my flight back to NZ, and soon my time in Nepal would be nothing but memories. It saddened me to think about having to say goodbye to everyone so I decided to just enjoy the time that I had left, despite the frequent aftershocks or whether I felt cold, dirty or hungry.
All experiences were only a matter of my perceptions to them anyway, and I wanted to transcend my old ways of relating to the world by finding the blessings in even the most challenging of times!
I was also trying really hard to let go and accept that we may not be able to go trekking because of the crisis, but I couldn’t help but feel a terrible sense of disappointment. It was sheer bad luck that I had come at a time where so much strife had befallen the Nepalese.
Trekking the Himalayas had been a dream of mine and the idea of going had been the only thing that I’d looked forward to since arriving and enduring all of the difficulties. If someone had of told me “Taleta, a humanitarian crisis is going to take place in Nepal and a lot of people are going to suffer,” at least I could have had the choice not to come.
But unfortunately in life, there are no warnings or guaranteed outcomes.
Now my dream was hanging in the cosmos by a fine thread, and only Buddha knew if I would end up seeing the snow capped mountain peaks of the highest mountain range in the world, before I left.