Returning to the bustle of Kathmandu after three weeks in rural Helambu was quite overwhelming. I’d become so accustomed to the sound of silence, interrupted only by the bleating of a goat or a local lady shuffling past carrying her grass. The presence of lights everywhere you look was also a stark contrast to village life. There, lightning strikes would wipe the visibility of whole villages off the adjacent mountain side and villagers rose by sunlight, not alarm clock.
From the bottom of the hill looking up, you can see Sirise, a village tucked behind a river crossing with endless rice fields and maize crops. The long walk up left me sweaty and flustered, whilst local women walked past with babies attached and huge baskets of maize on their foreheads. They were not sweaty, or out of breath, but just going about their everyday routines with an ease that left me feeling so much admiration for these beautiful and strong Tamang women.
I had the pleasure of being hosted by Lhakpa Tamang, a local 24 year old man with a clear passion for education in the village. During my time in Sirise, I stayed with a fellow volunteer, Sarah Wooding, and we taught at the local primary school most days through the charity HELP Nepal. The children at first were shy and refrained from all eye contact, but within days were confident as ever, revealing their true personalities which were a joy to get to know.
Although the teaching element of my stay was great fun and I learnt more from the local children than I’m sure they learnt from me, it was the mornings, evenings and days off with my host family that I will remember with fondness.
Everyone in the community was eager for Sarah and me to visit their homes and drink chiya – their generosity was clear by their willingness to kill a chicken or even a goat for us and I had to insist that I genuinely was a vegetarian of eight years, but appreciated their kind offerings nonetheless. Our host’s uncles also saved money during our stay to buy us beer, and a local shaman we came to know as Bombo was equally as apologetic that he could not afford to buy us more than one beer to share.
While life was undeniably hard for many that I met during my stay, the people were some of the happiest I’ve ever met – a message to take home for all, that as my host Lhakpa said, “money does not bring happiness… community does.” What they lacked in rupees, they certainly made up for in hospitality and smiles.
To get to know the local way of life as best as an outsider can, I lent my hand on multiple occasions to farming. This gave the local women such joy, proudly telling me that never before had a tourist wanted to farm with them and get to know their ‘Nepali way.’ It soon became clear that farming for the local women was not simply a household chore, but a social occasion at the heart of village life. It was a time for women to gather and discuss, and they would spend hours cackling with laughter as they plucked away at the rice field.
My host’s sister, Mithu, was a real hand when it came to helping me learn to farm. She showed me the correct way to pull up and cut plants for the animals using an aashi, a small knife most villagers carried on their belt, and she knew little hacks to de-weed a rice field in a fraction of the time it initially took me. One day, she even strapped a tumpline and basket to my head, with some confidence that I could carry it back up the hill (I couldn’t even stand up!).
Another lady I farmed with, who had initially invited me in for milk some days earlier, used a waterlily leaf to intercept a stream perfectly, creating an unofficial highland tap. She was able to walk through the fields with such ease and skill as she breastfed her four month old baby. To the great amusement of women in the field one day, I split my trousers from my thigh to my ankle and had also been bitten by an ant on my backside. At times, it felt that the women were laughing at my inabilities, but soon I realised that they were laughing with me and hours could go by through hand gestures and odd words, in a strange type of lengthy conversation.
Over the course of my first week, I got the impression that women did everything in the village. They cooked, cleaned, farmed and worked on construction, all whilst raising their children at the same time. It seemed initially to be an unfair burden that the women carried so happily, but that was before I noticed the shadow of young men in the village. Many had left to work abroad. My host Lhakpa said that 9 out of his 10 friends from school were now working abroad - he was the only one who chose to stay behind. His passion for Sirise was clear though, and he spoke animatedly about improving education for the next generation in the community.
One night, whilst sitting outside Lhakpa’s uncle’s house, I began to hear the sound of drums and chanting. “Are they dancing?” I naively asked. Five minutes later and a short walk down the path, the source of all the commotion became clear - “Witch doctor!” Lhakpa exclaimed.
The shaman was dressed from head to toe in the most incredible outfit I’ve seen since being in Nepal. His headdress was finished with feathers and impressive colours, which bounced as he shook and drummed his way into the early hours. He managed to keep a very consistent rhythm on his dhyangro, a drum-like instrument made of hollow wood with calfskin stretched across both sides, hit using a bended stick - a gajo. I almost felt bad that I was enjoying this cultural display, as while for me it was a true insight into a unique Tamang tradition, a local baby was ill and the shaman’s arrival was a serious visit for all involved.
Dancing around the mother and sick baby in tight circles, the shaman (who I would later come to know as Bombo) continued a chant which increased in intensity alongside rapid shaking at times. The presence of blood and a carcass outside the door was evidence of a sacrifice just before I arrived. Using the blood and feathers of the sacrificed chicken, he worked for hours trying to exorcise the ill spirits which had caused sickness in the baby. A boiled egg and a baby chicken were also waived around the mother and child, and at one point a spirit was pushed quite physically out of the house. All night I listened to the distant sounds of drums, thankful that such traditions are still indeed alive in their rawest of forms, despite what seems to be a continual global homogenisation of distinctive peoples and cultures.
After receiving multiple dinner invitations to Bombo’s house from his wife Kali, who Sarah and I had met whilst farming, we finally agreed and went along for a meal. On another occasion, we returned to Bombo and Kali’s house on a holy day, which meant that school was no longer running for me and Sarah to teach. In the porch area of the house, multiple local men came to sing, dance and play their dhyangros, an instrument usually reserved for worshipping or treating ill patients. They also gave blessings one by one, working their way around the room and it was an amazing spectacle of all ages gathering and sharing a tradition together.
The local community were also more than happy to try and share their own traditions and ways of life with us. Every morning we were treated to a new local breakfast, ranging from praropa to thamba thumbu, which reminded me of the rice puddings I eat so frequently at home – a true comfort food. In the evenings, we were stuffed with what seemed like endless dahl bhat. We also tried local chamba on multiple occasions, which according to Lhakpa, is the secret behind the community’s strength and longevity, including a local 84 year old man who continued to farm just like his 20 year old counterparts, every day without fail.
It was on my very last day, as Lhakpa, Sarah and I boarded a bumpy seven-hour bus back to Kathmandu that I began to feel a sense of homesickness leaving Sirise. The people there had such a generosity and kind nature that I felt I was leaving my second home. When I am next engulfed by the stress and bustle of the big city, I will sit and reflect, thinking of the small oasis of Sirise and all the lovely people I met during my homestay, including the faces of all the children I came to know so well.