Sun Salutations

 

We experienced a classic Nepalese traffic jam on our way up the mountain, a herd of goats, three fat hens, and a single cow blocked our way along the bumpy, pothole-ridden dirt road. The cab driver honked and yelled and inched his way forward until the animals dispersed and we continued our bumpy ride. We were headed to Nagarkot, a small rural town in the foothills of the Himalayas, known for its views of the mountains and beautiful sunrises. Our plan was to stay with Pramila, a Brahmin woman who’d agreed to let us (and several other travelers) in for a week or two, in exchange for helping out with the chores and cooking once in a while. We didn’t know exactly where we were going - the directions said to get ourselves to a certain temple, walk right for a few minutes, then simply, “ask the local people where Pramila’s house is” - but we weren’t worried. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Nepal so far, it’s that the people, no matter how much or little they may have, are always willing to lend a hand to their neighbor.

 
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And so we ended up finding the house by doing just that, asking for help. We found an old dirt path that led to a cluster of houses, maybe one of them hers, we asked a man nearby and he pointed down the path and said “the one with the blue roof”. We walked down and were soon greeted by Pramila. She had a warm smile, crinkly eyes, and would always stick our her tongue when she laughed.

The hut was small, and surrounded by flowers. The walls were made of mud, bamboo, and plywood, there was a single squat toilet outside, and each day it was a toss-up whether we’d have electricity or hot water. The evenings got cold, but there were such beautiful stars at night. It was simple, and it was just enough.

 
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The days were long at the cottage, we spent a lot of time reading, or weeding the garden, or going on long hikes in the valley. Sometimes we’d go into town and get milk, or medicine, a few of the things Pramila couldn’t grow at home. We’d lounge on the daybed outside, often the window above us would open and Pramila would shove a warm drink into our hands - ginger or mint tea straight from the garden, freshly-made soy milk, black tea with spices, buffalo milk and honey.

 
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Every so often, a little village girl named Shikha would drop by. Sometimes she’d help with the chores around the house, and Pramila would let her pick a passionfruit off the trees in the garden. Sometimes we’d braid each other’s hair and play a simple board game with wooden tiger figurines and dried kernels of corn meant to be goats, Pramila would wink at me when I’d let Shikha win. And sometimes we’d just sit together, breathing in deeply the Himalayan air and the heady aroma of marigolds and lemongrass that permeated the yard.

 
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Evenings were spent in the kitchen, learning how to cook Nepalese food and eating it together. The meals were simple but incredible, the freshest food I have ever eaten - all the fruits and vegetables we’d eat were picked straight from the garden, and usually that same day, too. We would often have dal bhat - lentil soup with rice and vegetables. Or eggplant, squash, and spinach, mixed with rice and homemade chili-garlic sauce. Or vegetable soups, stretched with water and rice... we ate a lot of rice. One evening we spent a few hours making momo from scratch, traditional Nepalese dumplings. We sat together on the floor and Pramila taught us how to fold them a million different ways, how her mother taught her to do it. She doesn’t usually eat in the evenings, but she made an exception for momo.

Another time she asked me if I liked spicy food and when I replied yes, she sent Shikha down to the garden, where she returned a moment later with a few green chilis in her hand. Pramila taught me to break the chili in half and press only the oils into the rice, so the spiciness doesn’t overpower the dish. She also taught me how to eat with my hands the traditional Nepalese way, she said the five fingers represent the five elements, so eating like this is a fuller way to experience and taste the food. I savored every bite.

 
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After dinner we’d stay in the kitchen, sitting on the floor together, a single lightbulb above our heads. Pramila would tell us stories about her life - about the earthquake back in 2015, how she felt the ground sway beneath her feet. How she sat with her friends and family, and thought, this is the end. Stories about her childhood in Nepal, her brothers, sisters, and parents. About how when she got her first period, she had to stay in a hut outside the main house for two weeks, eating alone, not allowed to see the sun or to see any men. She talked proudly about her son in Kathmandu, an engineer, and her daughter in America, a nursing student. Sometimes she’d sing, too, old Nepalese mantras, or songs she wrote herself. I’d close my eyes and listen to the melodies, sung in a language I didn’t understand, and wonder what decisions in my life had lead me up to these moments.

 
 

Pramila would usually head to bed early, and the rest of us would sit in a circle - me, Peter, a girl from the Netherlands, a girl from Australia, a guy from Norway, a girl from Germany. A mix of foreign accents and different lives from all over the world. Foreign names, too - we were all introduced in the beginning, but have long since forgotten. It became a running joke between us, that nobody knew each other’s name*. But still we didn’t ask, even though we all passed what would be considered a “first-name” basis - cooking our meals together every night, teaching each other words in our native tongues, making fun of my Birkenstock tan. We talked about our different experiences around the world and in our home countries, but also the similarities between us - we all love to travel (obviously), we’re all youngest siblings, we all know the same card games but by different names. It’s no coincidence that five rowdy small-town kids from all over the world who grew up playing the same card games would someday end up sitting in this far corner of the world, sitting on a mud floor, playing them together. 

 
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My favorite times in Nagarkot were the mornings - we’d hike a short ways away from the house, up steep stone steps in the earth that led to a beautiful clearing in the hills. We’d bring along our mats and Pramila would lead us in a yoga exercise called Surya Namaskar, or, “Sun Salutations”. On cloudy days, the fog would roll in and the mist would envelope us as we practiced. On sunny days, we’d see the sun rise off the mountains, and watch as the morning dew evaporated from the grass. One morning, a farmer brought his herd of goats to pasture in the glade. The animals made it hard to concentrate (especially during our thirty minutes of silent meditation), but it was so charming to watch and to hear the goats bleating as they grazed. Sometimes Shikha would join us too, sharing Pramila’s mat and falling over laughing when we tried to balance.

I have never considered myself a religious person, but practicing sunrise yoga in the foothills of the Himalayas, led by a kind Brahmin woman who had taken us into her home - it was hard not to feel very spiritual in those moments.

 
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* We later learned their names when we all exchanged numbers as we left. They were Sarah, Lena, Annetta, and Thord.