By Mark Sconce
When she first saw me, the jar of water on her head almost fell into the dusty road.
Recovering her balance if not her composure, she heard me say Namaste but rapidly walked away behind a hut.
After a long day’s trek starting in Pokhara that morning, I was covered in sweat and dust, and my Kelty Pack felt heavier than usual. I was pretty sure that I had taken a wrong turn early on and didn’t even know the name of the village I had just stumbled into. As I un-shouldered my pack, a gentleman about sixty made his appearance wearing a lungi wrap-around, T-shirt and a special Nepali hat called a topi to indicate he was a local official, probably the mayor. I put my palms together and said Namaskar Hazoor, the honorific title of respect I used often during my two years in Peace Corps/Nepal. The look on his face told me that he couldn’t believe his ears let alone his eyes because, as I found out later, I was the first Westerner ever to enter his village.
“Khasto hunchha, Hazoor?” I asked. He said he was just fine and then began a short conversation to find out who I was and why I had arrived in his village. First, sir, may I trouble you for some water? He barked an order and in no time I had a tumbler of pure Himalayan-fed water. I told the mayor, Sri Ram Adhikari Baun, that I was an American but worked for His Majesty’s Government in Khatmandu, and I came to find out about development programs in his village, a village that had no electricity or running water outside the rambling river that ran nearby. Then I told him my Nepali name, Makaar Bahadur Thapa, Brave Jupiter of the Thapa caste, one step down from the Mayor’s Brahman caste. The perfect host, he barked an order, and I thought I heard: Slaughter the Goat! I was right. We would feast tonight.
I was led to the mayor’s home with a large porch and settled there to take a rest after my all-day trek up ancient stone steps. I was now in an orthodox Hindu village whose residents had never seen anyone like me. My Nepali name had served me well over the past two years. The caste name Thapa fit my job description as a government worker, and I was treated with respect. I did not mention the words Peace Corps. It was an unfortunate name from the start. The soldiers who guarded our Embassy in Khatmandu were Marines. Since the Nepali dictionary defined Corps as a military unit, Peace Corps became an instant oxymoron and instantly fed into the narrative that Peace Corps was simply another name for CIA. No, I’m just an ordinary American who came to help out and let it go at that. My reveries were interrupted by an invite to dinner. As the sun was settling into a pure perfect mountain night, I was led to a large home where the village elders, sitting cross-legged around a glowing warm fire pit, greeted me sincerely, almost reverently, with deep bows and friendly expressions. What would the evening bring?
Since our only light was firelight and a few sooty kerosene lanterns, I couldn’t get a clear view of the women in the dark recesses cooking the meal. I could only smell their creations. Soon a plate arrived with squares of hot goat meat, skin intact, bite size. The elders prevailed on me to try their delicacy. As I lifted the first bite to my mouth, I couldn’t help notice that the animal’s fur hadn’t been completely burned off, and I was about to sink my teeth into a charred stubble or two. Well, it was tasty enough but one of those delicacies that gets bigger the more you chew it. I sent my compliments to the chefs back there in the smoke-filled recess which made them all laugh. I took another sip of rakshi, a powerful drink made from fermented millet that all but cancelled the taste of stubbled goat skin.
After a wonderful meal of rice, lentils, spicy stewed tomatoes, curried pumpkin and sizzling goat meat all served on banana leaves, we got down to business. It was summer, 1969. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had just stepped onto the moon. My hosts had heard about it from the transistor radio His Majesty’s Government had given to every village leader.
Bellies full of curry and rakshi, they began to ask questions. I begged them to slow down. “Is it true that Americans flew to the moon and settled there?” Well yes, Sri Armstrong and Sri Aldrin are both Americans, but they didn’t settle; they flew back home. There was a long pause. Shadows flickered on the mud-dung walls. Mountain chills set in. The eldest of the elderly finally spoke up to say that their village was not in favor of such a flight because their goddess Saraswati abides on the moon, and they didn’t want her tranquility disturbed. I knew that Saraswati was the goddess of music, poetry and everything that flows.
I let the seriousness of their grievance sink in. I knew that a white lie was necessary, and I suddenly found myself saying, “You need not worry. The control center knows where Saraswati abides. And that is why they landed on the opposite side of the moon.” The proverbial pregnant pause followed. I took a sip of rakshi and looked the old one in the eye. He suddenly smiled with an expression of good will and understanding. The mood lightened and thereby encouraged another elder to ask, “How many rupees did it cost?” I had read somewhere that the Apollo mission cost in excess of 300 million dollars, but my Nepali vocabulary was not up to the task. “What is the most expensive thing in your village?”
I asked. A water buffalo at 1200 rupees a head. Rounding up for cost overruns, I donned a serious expression and said, “About 3 million water buffalo.” Nepalis don’t say Wow! when amazed nor do they emit a low whistle. In unison, the village elders said Bhaprebhop!
And that’s how the evening ended. We bade each other a fond good night, and I retired to my porch and sleeping bag for a long look at the night sky brilliant with stars unimpeded by electric lights. Suddenly I thought of Brigadoon, the bewitching Scottish village appearing only once in awhile but, in my case, appearing once in a lifetime…