Thursday, April 25, 2013

Marry or Tang?

The past week has been a roller coaster of craziness. The children continue to be on holiday, and with wedding planning, general thirteen-children-mayhem, humid, hot weather and dramatic downpours- it feels like we've been here ages, but in the best way possible! This being my third trip to visit the kids, there was no 'hesitancy' period where they held back, no shy, timid nature, no couple of days of 'testing' me to see if I was the same Britta Miss that they knew. Nope. Their rambunctious selves remembered me completely and we jumped right back into trusting friendship. From the minute Ben and I arrived, we have had nothing but sweaty fun (ending in exhaustion) every single day.

A normal morning with the kids, when they're not on holiday

As we approached the Harka gate a week ago, dripping with sweat after our one mile walk from the Coca Cola Factory where the bus from Kathmandu dropped us off, I spotted Ashish near the chicken coop. "Namaste Ashish," I said quietly as I put my hands together in the traditional greeting. He looked up as he responded with hesitancy at my American accent, "Namaste...[pause...questioning look...spark of recognition] Britta Miss!" before he shot through the yard and the back, screaming to all the others that we had arrived. I love surprising people, and later found out that Laxmi and the kids weren't expecting us until Friday. We arrived on Wednesday afternoon- what a great surprise! Ariana, a young American volunteer, has been at Harka for the past two months and she also looked more than happy to see additional volunteers arriving.

Sujan flies a homemade kite in the field behind Harka
Having another volunteer around is great because it allows each of us to focus our time on small groups of children. Instead of one person fielding the fire of thirteen children, the three of us have been able to  more effectively manage our energy. It was also great to have Ariana around for our 'traditional' Nepali wedding last week, as she was able to capture the whole she-bang on camera! The event was completely planned by Laxmi, as she considers herself my Nepali ama (mother). During our first trip to Nepal, she told both Rebecca and I that if we were ever to get married, we HAD to come to Nepal to have a Nepali wedding as well. Though at the time neither of us was even in a relationship, we laughed and promised we would. Well, four years later and who would have thought that we would both get married and then return to Nepal? Becca's wedding was about a year before ours, so I was able to get a grasp on how serious Laxmi was.

Well, she was serious. The day turned our to be a huge success, which I base solely on the facts that we had a great time, and Laxmi has reiterated how "very very hap-py" the day made her approximately 7 million times since. The day was quite a steambath, reaching into the low 100s.

Sima holds my sari (and makes fun of me, per usual) (Photo: Ariana)
 During the three pre-wedding hours I was restricted to the girls' airless room, as my future groom was not to see me until I was in full wedding attire. In the room I dressed in my wedding sari and had a local 'beauty parlor lady' do my makeup, henna, and hair. Though I almost passed out twice, I sent the girls out to get me water, chocolate, and a piece of paper to make myself a fan, and I managed to save myself from a trip to the hospital. After all my preparation, I realized two things: I love all the girls and how much effort they put into this, and I am not made to wear the color red. My Scandinavian skin screams in sunburned glory when I wear red, and I was wearing a red sari, necklace, headpiece, lipstick, and bindi.

Me and 'beauty parlor lady' (Photo: Ariana)

I managed to sneak a peek at the proceedings a few times before the ceremony began (which I was immediately scolded for, but I couldn't help myself!) and caught Laxmi wearing a towel on her head while she did puja (prayer-like acts showing reverence to different gods) with the guru.

Laxmi performs puja. 
The day before, some of the children had spent almost two hours creating a sort of poop-platform surrounded by gathered branches. They used cow dung to create a rectangular platform, and used the branches as 'trees' around the perimeter. Then, the day of our wedding, the Hindu guru arrived early in the morning and began to create an intricate mandala of colored powders on the platform, which I was fascinated by. It was beautiful.
Soniya and Suman decorate the altar area. 

The guru begins to clean up the altar post-ceremony. 
About an hour after Laxmi began her prayers with the guru, Ben and I were ushered from our separate rooms and we were finally able to see each other 'for the first time'. I use quotes here because if I was a true Nepali bride (of an arranged marriage), I would only have met Ben once in my life, and I would have had no say in his choice to marry me. I am thoroughly grateful for my privilege to choose who I married, but I have also had many serious discussions with Nepali and Bangladeshi friends who have very happy arranged marriages. Though cultures are different, it doesn't mean that one is right and one is wrong.

During the ceremony, which lasted only about 45 minutes, we (not in this order): puja puja-ed an array of dishes of fruit, noodles, and rice in the center of our intricately drawn altar area, which involved blessing each item with a mixture of red powder and rice; walked slowly in circles around the altar; I ran as Ben chased me in circles (which I took literally, and received an uproar of laughter in return, as I was only supposed to pretend to run); tied a knot of fabric around rupees and offerings; more puja puja; exchanged grass necklaces (which I was instructed to keep until I die); exchanged rings (except we forgot to get one for Ben); and then a long white fabric was draped over my eyes for an indeterminately long period of time when I had no idea what was going on. Evidently there was some confusion as Ben determined how he was supposed to drag red colored powder onto the part in my hair, a traditional tikka mark that I was instructed to wear on my head until I died as well.

Ben and I literally "tie the knot" (photo: Ariana)

And then came the dancing. Oh, the dancing! When discussing the wedding prior to the big day, the kids all seemed really excited for the dancing part. But when the day came and our yard was filled with strangers, they became wallflowers. Shyness in full force, Ben and I were left to dance alone to the awesome Nepali band. The band was one of our favorite parts of the wedding, a group of six musicians-- one equipped with a horn that looked like a huge elephant trunk, and made an elephant sound.

The elephant trunk horn
Over the course of my three trips to Nepal, I have come to understand one critical aspect of culture: if there is one thing Nepalis love more than dancing, it is watching foreigners dance. So we did, for hours. I could only take so much, with the heat and humidity seeping into my layers of cotton sari, and after a while I gave Ben the "you think this is the last one?" look after every song. It usually wasn't, but two hours later Laxmi called a taxi so that we could spend the night in Chitwan National Park. She insisted we go, as it is bad luck to stay at your mother's house the night of your wedding, and she's a firm believer in luck.  As we bid adieu to the village of Nauranga, residents threw coins, grasses, and rice around the car, wishing us luck on our wedding night.

Ben and Laxmi dance pre-ceremony

Though we have been at Harka for couple of weeks, Ben is still getting used to both being around kids 24/7 and sitting around because it's too hot to do anything for eight hours of every day. It's not in either of our natures to sit around and not be involved, but I have the precious experience of knowing that just being present and playing with the kids is positive. Slowly but surely (or maybe only because I love being here so much) Ben is becoming comfortable in this loud, chaotic, no-boundaries family-- a far cry from our cabin in the woods where we spent the last five months.

Twister is an international hit! 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Harka Round #3

Just as kooky and crazy as the last time I was here, those kiddos at the orphan home never cease to amaze me! Though they are bigger (older, not necessarily any taller) and can speak better English than ever before, they are still the same little munchkins that Becca and I met 5 years ago. The baby Tulie is now in class 4, and at 7 years old can carry a complete conversation in English while climbing all over my body and probably doing my hair 12 different ways, while little pudge-face Sima is no longer pudge-faced, but 15 years old, sometimes dresses like a rapper (oversized ball cap and low slung jeans) and listens to Nepali pop music constantly. Ahhh, what is the world coming to? Times change, but not too much.

We arrived almost a week ago, and have spent nearly every minute just hanging with the kids, flying kites in the field, painting with watercolors, and playing Jenga (but the crappy Target version, which, you should note, is worth spending more money on the real version). It was pretty darn hot the first few days that we were here, but yesterday it rained nearly all day, cooling off the skies yesterday and today. Hopefully the temperature lasts through tomorrow, as that is the big NEPALI WEDDING day.

Yep, Laxmi has taken me to the market three times already to go 'shopping', which I am all for, albeit the scooter ride itself. We've picked up our outfits, decorations, and some food already, and are headed back today for more.Riding a scooter in Nepal is nothing short of a horrifying experience every time, unless of course, you are blind. With functioning vision, however, you will see that truck honking and rapidly approaching from the rear as you head into an already overcrowded alley way, and thus also see your impending death by smooshing. Despite the sometimes anxiety-ridden ride,  I do enjoy my chats with Laxmi at the stores while we wait, the 25 minutes it takes to haggle with every single shop owner for a reasonable price (just think of what it would be like to haggle with the Gap cashier, the Safeway cashier, and the waiter at Chili's...yep, nothing would ever get done), and the fact that sometimes Laxmi leaves me sitting on her scooter for 15 minutes, only to come back and give me a chocolate and tell me it will just be a little longer. I think I may actually be one of her American children. This, of course, is all leading to tomorrow...the big day. We have no idea what is going to go on except for "drumming man" "lot of food" "wedding cake" and "beauty parlor girls". Should be a hoot!

I will definitely write more about the kids and what happens tomorrow when we are on our "honeymoon" to Chitwan on Wednesday .... until next time.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

We're off! En route through the Middle East

My parents dropped Ben and I off at the airport last night, gave quick hugs and said we'd see them again in a month. It felt like we'd only been in Chicago a few minutes because, well, we had.

On Wednesday we had breakfast with friends in Whitefish before hitting the road to Portland, camping en route in the Umatilla National Forest, poaching a "seasonal" camping spot in a narrow, lush valley beside the Umatilla River in eastern Oregon. The valley came out of nowhere, a crack in an otherwise Iowa-like landscape that transported us to another climate in under 20 minutes. After accidentally tossing the shrimp we brought with for dinner into the river (blonde moment), I crafted spaghetti in an IPA+butter sauce with bits of deer stick as we sipped our remaining before heading into the tent for bed. We woke early the next morning and headed to Portland, where we'd leave our car at the R&R household for the next month and a half, while we travel and Russell and Rachel have their first baby! Friday we flew to Chicago, spent a night and day with the family, and headed out on a Qatar Airways red eye to Doha.

And here we are. I've been here before, in Doha, under probably equally stressful circumstances, but at a totally different time in my life. My first time at the Doha Airport was 5 years ago, when I met Rebecca en route to our Nepal journey. We had never met the kids at Harka, had never really traveled to such a place, were both fairly fresh out of college and had been thinking about our trip for months. Now, 5 years later, I get to bring Ben to meet the kids I can never stop talking about, just finished my winter job on Tuesday, and have only been thinking about this trip for about a month. I haven't really even thought about it until a couple of weeks ago when I realized- holy crap! We're traveling again!

The apparent ease I feel with traveling to Nepal from being there twice already is probably good and bad, good in that there is nothing to be nervous about (fyi, for all you scaredy-cats out there, Nepal was just put in "good standing" on the State Department website after being on the warning list for nearly 15 years), bad in that I didn't even look at the visa requirements until three hours before our flight yesterday, when I realized we each needed to have 2 official passport photos with us. Thank the good lord Shiva Walgreens is only three blocks from my parents' house.

So here we are, on the road again, currently posted up in Doha for 10 excruciatingly long hours staring at Middle Eastern men who stare back blank faced (really hope that if I become a foreign service officer, it is not in the Middle East), women with beautiful eyes and equally beautiful Coach purses, and screaming children with heavy sideburns. We both slept tumultuously on the flight over, as the plane held the greatest proportion of children and infants I have experienced on any flight, ever. In fact, at one point I woke up from a dream in which I was at an amusement park racing go-karts with three 5-year-olds, probably incited by the yelping child to my right and my recent completion of the Cirque du Soleil movie.

Luckily, I was just forwarded two videos of the kids at Harka from Anthony, a friend who was just there for 3 months with the kids. The videos were of the quirky girls and boys dancing to Michael Jackson, and it reminded me that some children are just hilarious, and not as annoying as children that have just endured a trans-Atlantic flight. I can't wait to see those kooks in a couple of days, even if it is going to be 1879243 degrees outside!

Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks!