Sitamai: Celebrations

By way of the aforementioned hour-long-10km-taxi-bus ride, we arrived to the farm late in the afternoon sweaty and a little sleepy, with dirt in our nostrils and curiosity in our pulses. It was the end of September and, for those of you not in the know, Eli's birthday was the next day (Friday the 30th). After getting settled, receiving a henna tattoo from Dipika and her best friend Monita, enjoying the first of many delicious dal bhat dishes, and being safely under the protection of our mosquito net, we passed out - but not without fleeting wonderings of what was to come with our time here, what makes birthdays really memorable and why we celebrate them anyway, and the new faces and names of those who had invited us graciously into their home floating in front of us in the dark.

The next day, I helped to grind toasted sesame seeds into a paste in the kitchen. It was satisfying to work with my hands, and particularly so because the grinding was done with a large, smooth rock on a wooden board. In the middle of this meditative prepping, I asked Pramila how, and more importantly if, Nepali people generally acknowledge birthdays. It turns out that many people aren't sure of their exact age or date of birth, particularly of the older generation, so the tradition of celebration doesn't really exist. This is changing somewhat, with the development of medical centers and health/birth awareness, but not at all swiftly. Pramila wanted to know, immediately, whose birthday it was and, cornered, I spilled the beans. This moment seemed casual enough and faded with the morning.

After some exploring in the late afternoon, we ate more dal bhat and cleaned up at the water pump. As dark came, some local kids wandered into the yard...then some more neighbors...then folks from the orphanage next door...then Madalina, a volunteer from Romania who we rode to Sitamai with, strolls in with her host family. We were wondering what was going on, fairly obliviously because of the size (approx. 30-50) of the village and the nature of people to wander in and out. Next, Pramila and Padam dragged a chair out into the middle of the yard and ordered Eli to take a seat. They had invited everyone over for a birthday celebration of Tika giving, music, and dancing! Here is Eli right before that realization...and right after receiving flowers from a stream of people and Tika from Padam.

The general mood of the village was already celebratory thanks to the national holiday of Dasain being just ready to begin. More folks were home for the gatherings, puja (devotional activities) and associated festivities; Eli's birthday was a great way to harness that energy into a night of traditional folk songs (farmer centric), drumming, and the rest. It was near that same night that the moon was to be seen and barley/corn planted, and set to seed in a dark corner of the home. The fun was surprising and exhilarating; we wanted so badly to record some songs, but decided instead to just hang out with the present moment.

Dasain essentially celebrates the victory of gods and goddesses over demons, and does so in intricately timed and highly representative ways. There is also a focus on family and the renewal of community ties during this time, hence the build up of excitement and amount of gatherings during these 15 days. As part of an offering to the goddess Durga, goats are sacrificed nationwide and the blood and meat is considered auspicious. We were invited to, and attended, a sacrifice in the village at 7am. What resonated most with us was not only the commitment to ritual, but the fact that each and every part of this animal was both honored and utilized for two families. They had raised it and they would go on to worship it and their gods by way of this process. (Though the family insisted I could photograph any part of the event, I decided the aftermath was more appropriate for me):

There is an all day Tika event, during which the elders of the families bless others by placing a holy mixture of rice, red dye and curd on the third eye area of the forehead, sprouts from the planted barley/corn are tucked behind ears or in braids, and sharing a specific wish to each person. This happens first in the immediate family and then throughout the village, as most everyone is related where we were staying. Women and men wear new clothes on this day, adding to the official excitement of the day, and we (and Madalina and Corine, another farm volunteer from Switzerland, and Kelli, from Chicago) were not left out of this part:

Swings are constructed at the entrances to villages; symbolic and literal vehicles of the requirement to have one's feet leave the earth, particularly on Tika day. They are taken down several weeks later around the time of yet another festival, Diwali. Many we saw, and used, were made of gigantic bamboo poles and rope - and the clear pros were the children and Nepali men of the village, who could stand up and get insanely high. The day we went to visit Pramila's parents (just the girls went), our taxi driver pulled to a stop near one and insisted we all get out and swing. By far the most awesome taxi ride I had in Nepal. Below is our driver, and then Dipika and Monita demonstrating the two-person tandem approach. My form was terrible, but I had fun:

While Nepal is decidedly rich in culture, tradition and ritual year-round, we feel especially lucky to have shared this time with not only a family, but an entire community. The stateside equivalent is inviting someone new (a stranger from another land entirely) into your home for a combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. We can only hope to return or pass along the favor, and open door, sometime.

Location:Chitwan, Nepal

Sitamai Harvest List*

A brief addendum to my previous farm post. To give a clearer picture of how diverse the produce on the farm was, I have listed everything I remember to be just past, during, or just before harvest season while we were there. Some things in rows, some interplanted, some randomly growing on and taking over trees or thatched roofs. My future garden is taking notes. *This is in no way complete but helps round out a picture:

Mango Guava Papaya Lemon Pineapple Bananas

Ginger Turmeric Lemongrass Neem Tulsi Chili Peppers a Plenty

Spinach Bitter gourd (bitter melon) Broccoli Cabbage Cauliflower Potato Radish Zucchini like squash Sponge gourd (left to dry, you can peel and have a loofah!) Cucumber Green pumpkin Lettuce Jungle Spinach (use leaves like spinach and stalk in a pickle) Carrots

Location:Chitwan, Nepal

On The Farm, Nepal Style

After a six hour bus ride spent swerving through the rocky cliff passes and easing our way down into the Terai jungle territory of southern Nepal, we stopped in Narayangarh, a small city north of our destination. We would pile into a Toyota minibus, fit with with a Suzuki windshield screen topper, and head for approximately 17km (or 10.5 miles) towards Sitamai Eco Farm. It would take a full hour. This is due to the condition of the roads, which are really just broad hosts for potholes, pedestrians, motorcyclists, buffalo and people carrying the days harvest home on or by their noggins. With the frenetic wildness of Kathmandu behind us, we entered the steamy (yet, as visually stimulating) calm of village life. It is still impossible to pinpoint the exact name of the village where the farm is and, truly, it may not actually have one that is officially on any map. For technical purposes, we will refer to it as Sitamai, near Patihani.

The view above, of those never ending rice fields, can only be experienced from the top of a twenty foot high bamboo structure built in the back corner of the small, well utilized property. It was one of the first places we sat and settled our minds and bodies after the day's travel and is a pretty magical experience every time.

The farm is the family property of Padam and Pramila Ghimire, and is home to the two of them, their two children (Dipika and Dependre), and Padam's mother, known to us only as Ama. Pramila and the children live part time in Kathmandu, where they attend school and she manages her myriad projects - a school near Sitamai, a volunteering non-profit, and planning another farm which aims to employ disadvantaged women. Our timing was perfect for sharing the time and space with the whole family, as the national holiday of Dasain was taking place during the exact two weeks we would be there. More on that later, though.

There are countless essentials growing all around the property, which are always being utilized for the twice daily dal bhat meals. Besides the lentils and rice, there is always tarkani (vegetables) and pickle, as well as fresh buffalo curd...from the feisty buffalo (named Martial Art, by Padam who milks her each morning at 6am). There was also a big, beautiful Mango tree, Neem tree, and Tulsi plants, which are considered holy in the Hindu religion. Both neem and tulsi are considered to be incredibly healing; the former (and first pictured below) is puckeringly bitter and the latter more gentle but tongue numbing. Eli and I would eat one in the morning with milk chiya (masala tea) for good measure.

Speaking of the buffalo, there is a bio-gas system set in place which utilizes the buffalo and human waste. The toilets feed underground directly into a holding tank and the buffalo dung is collected each day in a nifty mixer (lovely smelling job, really), which goes to the same tank. Somehow, there is a siphoning off of the natural gases emitted by it all and it is brought via underground pipe to fuel the cook top in the kitchen. Three very important things: (1) this is not unique to this farm - almost everyone in the village here, and throughout Nepal, has a buffalo (or a few) and bio-gas systems are gaining popularity, though still expensive. (2) having this system helps ensure that the main source of cooking is not firewood, which is damaging to lungs and the shrinking landscape. (3) Pramila just dug right in and collected the dung with her bare hands, laughing kindly at me while i tried to find a shovel. In the end I dumped the buckets and mixed while she collected. It balanced out well.

Below is the buffalo waste collection mixer, where you combine it with urine or water to make a liquid, and Padam (who didn't usually wear that amazing hat) explaining how the system works while Eli stands on top of a main collection tank. Next to all of this were the three compost piles, which didn't smell as bad as one might imagine in the heat.

Due to the weather being just post rainy season, with mid-day temperatures reaching around 36C (97F), the best working times were from about 5am to 9am and then again in the early evening. We managed to turn over a few new beds, replant some spinach, broccoli and cabbage, fix a tower step, and help with many meals. We also learned how to weave a local plant into small brooms and happened to really enjoy it. We manufactured about 40 of them, which the family could sell for approximately 50 Nepali rupees (64 cents USD) a piece, a decent additional income. Within and through all of this, the ever-present echo of Pramila's reminder on how to approach our Sitamai time floated in the air: Everything slowly, slowly. We will take this, and so much more, with us - onward in self-sustainability and life in general.

Location:Ganganagar, Chitawan National Park, Nepal