Monday, 13 March 2017

Holi in Nepal

Woken at 5am by the call to prayer at the other side of the village, Michael is up to meet his nemesis, the squat toilet. Then outside to chat with Nirmal and some others who were keeping warm by a fire, not used to this unseasonably cold spring.

Michael comes back to get me just before 7 and we walk to the market in the next village for some chai. Every house in the village seems to be in the middle of butchering a goat for their festival feast, and I find it strange that others goats are so close by, seemingly unaware of what is happening to their kin. We see goats hanging and partially skinned, or further on in the process of being dissected, with intestines and other organs laid out on mats, the whole family gathered at each house to help or watch. It is quite a sight and not one we are comfortable with, yet what they are doing is very real. Everyone is completely in touch with the source of their food, they are confronted with the fact that a life was sacrificed to provide their meal. It is brutal to see it, but so much more respectful that what goes on behind closed doors in abattoirs so that we can just go into a supermarket and purchase a cleanly packaged lump of meat and not question where it came from or our conscience. Thankful today that I am a vegetarian.

Nirmal gets some Fanta and Sprite, a special treat for the festival, and we get some more bottled water, still not wanting to risk the pumped water even though it is filtered. Back to the house and Nirmal has given the children some balloons. This leads to hours and hours of fun, especially for his sister's eldest daughter -- who must be about six -- who never tired of this game. Balloons are passed in the air between the children; they occasionally goes up onto the kitchen roof and we all hold our breath to see if it will come down on this side of the roof or the other. Then there are the casualties as the thin rubber  becomes a victim of one sharp object or another.

The chairs are brought out again and our breakfast is served. The women have been in the kitchen since dawn, cooking up special food for the festival. No goat at this house, but there is a chicken sitting in the courtyard, legs tied and soon to be taken out back where it will meet its fate. After breakfast we join in with the balloon game and then Michael produces some of the liquorice allsorts and wine gums that we have been carrying since London. It is a miracle that I have managed to not eat them. He gives them out to everyone, children and adults alike. And it seems like such a small gesture compared to how we have been welcomed, but they seem to enjoy the sweet treats. Chatou, the youngest nephew, seems to take forever to eat his wine gum and an hour later he is still clutching his allsort in his sticky little hand. One of the little girls is savoring her wine gum by just licking it from time to time.

Soon the Holi colour is flying. Nirmal's younger brother arrives and it appears he has had a drink or two, Nirmal describes him as 'fully charged'. He smears our faces in paint and we reciprocate with the pink bag of powder Nirmal has provided us with. His young son is with him too, they want us to visit their house and 'play holi' so off we go. We are offered all sorts of alcohol but decline it all, finally accepting some Sprite, and then there is more paint and the women come out and play too. We have coloured water poured on us as well, and again we reciprocate under Nirmal's instructions. He seems to have got away with out any colour so far, but just as we are leaving they get him too and he has bright yellow smeared all over his face.

More balloon game. Still not tiring of it and although it is not long since breakfast we are soon being provided with lunch, then we leave to visit Nirmal's late father's brother at another village. Nirmal calls it his ancient village, and his father used to have a house there before selling it and moving to the other house. It is an hour's ride away, and we only take two bikes to save on petrol. Nirmal warns us not to take our phones with us, as we will get wet as the children in the villages we pass will be playing Holi, and will throw coloured water as we ride through. Sure enough this happens. Some aren't quick enough, stopped in their tracks by the sight of the strange white people riding by, but others get direct hits and I hear squeals from Michael, who is riding behind, as the cold water hits him.

It is fascinating to see. So many children playing outside in once white, but now pink, clothes. So much fun being had, on the one day that you are allowed to throw coloured water bombs at strangers riding past. Sitting on the back or Nirmal's bike I have more chance to enjoy the scenery, as I don't have to concentrate on the uneven road. Each village and each concrete house much the same, more goats and buffalo and cows. Being in the back isn't any more comfortable though and when we arrive, everything is numb. Two chairs are produced for us and we meet uncles and brothers and nephews. More food is brought out for us, and we eat though we are still full from breakfast and our early lunch. The nephew is adorable, but so serious. He is also two, but refuses to crack a smile and just intensely stares at the two alien creatures at his house. There is a little girl too but she hides inside, retreating further every time we catch her peeping through the door. We are called inside to play Holi and meet the smiling women of the family. In the inner courtyard there is a sort of lower floor and a hand pump, and we are apprehensive as we are directed to step down into it. One by one the women pour water down our backs and smeer colour on our faces, and we reciprocate. Each time I try to just pour a little water, but each time Nirmal grabs the cup from me and pours the whole thing. The women get their revenge though, as he emerges dripping with pink from head to toe. The serious little two year old stoically allows us to dab our colour on his face, and then we nod gratitude and goodbyes and it is back on the bikes to ride home, more water flying along the way. U

Back in the village we are off to another uncle's house. Even more food is given to us; we eat inside with a huge audience waiting to play Holi, more introductions and shy smiles from the women, more water and more colour. Feeling slightly awkward about what we are doing, not used to touching faces or pouring water on people we have only just met. We meet the village leader again and Michael is the first one to put colour on his, till now, clean face.

Back to the house and Nirmal's sister and sister-in-law have made a huge bowl of water balloons; we spot them and laugh and then the sister-in-law, giggling, picks one up and launches it at me, then another. They bounce off and burst on the ground. I have had a lucky escape, I hide behind Michael and after a bit of encouragement she throws one at him, again it bounces off but this time it lands, intact on the ground. Michael grabs it and the sister-in-law swiftly retreats into the kitchen, slamming the door behind her and quickly shutting the wooden window shutters. Micheal was never going to throw it at her, so pretends that it bursts in his hands before he gets a chance to throw it. Still, she stays hidden for a while.

We go and sit in the courtyard by the road. I am thinking that we are going to relax for a while, but today is Holi so that doesn't happen. Michael ends up in a kind of water fight, first with one cheeky girl from the house across the road with the buffalo, and then with a whole bunch of children. They pelt him with water balloons and he reciprocates with a whole bucket that Nirmal has filled for him. There is quite a crowd watching. And there is a huge eruption of laughter when Michael, in retreat, stumbles and falls on a grassy bank. This goes on for a while and then I get called back to the house as the women want to play Holi with me. I am reluctant as I have only just dried out, but I oblige and soon have two cups of water poured down my front. Laughing along and still not fully understanding this strange festival. Also not understanding why the women must stay in the house out of sight when there is so much fun going on outside. I know Nirmal's nieces and nephews all go to school, but I wonder about the other children in the village, especially the cheeky girl from across the road with so much personality. Is she getting and education or is she destined to stay at home hidden away for all her life?

It's late afternoon and we head to the pump at the back of the house, where we manage to wash our hair under the cold water. Then it's into dry clothes and Michael takes our wet coloured clothes up to the roof to dry. We sit up there talking for a while, trying to process what we are experiencing -- it has been such a strange, wonderful, alien day. We feel so lucky to be here. In the inner courtyard there is more of the balloon game, though sadly there is only one left, all the others have popped. Michael takes some of the allsorts and wine gums to the children across the street, and I take an hour or so in our room to myself.

Our meal is prepared for us, although we seem to have been eating all day and we still haven't seen anyone else eat. I guess they take it in turns to eat in the kitchen.
We have some vegetable pakora and it is so delicious that we accept more when it is brought to us. In the evening the village leader and some other men visit all the houses in the village to play a drum and sing a song filled with joy. We hear it in the distance for a while and then they reach the neighbours house. We stand and watch and listen; there is a fire and it is just wonderful. But it is too much and we have to head to our hard bed to sleep.