I turned 31 in Bhaktapur, Nepal yesterday.
I am at peace with the gradual increase of casualness in one’s birthdays as age increases. Gone are the frantic pool parties that defined my childhood summers, and I’m okay with that.
I woke up yesterday morning 6:00 AM under the mosquito net in our room in Nepal, aspiring to gratitude for the pure exuberant fantasticosity of that statement, as every day. And it being my birthday added an extra layer of smile.
K is arguably the most skilled person I know at making someone feel celebrated and special, and her “happy birthday” wishes and CD gift of the mantras we heard at Swayambhunath (Buddhist stupa on the hill above Kathmandu) were already gifts enough. No more required, but more to come.
Before my cold shower (there are a few solar water heaters around here, but not many, and not on our roof) I was reminded of the reality of reality by a not-infrequent visitor on our wall, this time one of the flat spiders who move faster than an animal with legs that long really should be able to move. I had my deodorant wrapped in a piece of paper, ready to squish it, but declined its death in homage to my Buddhist/Hindu nature. Instead I opted to try and herd it out the door by tapping the wall next to it.
After a few up and down circuits it made a frantic dash for the door before reversing course, reaching the edge of the wall and flying off, straight down into our things. My 8 legged friend had reminded me that just because it was one’s birthday doesn’t mean the world dances to your tune, all things falling into place (as of course they do every day). I smiled and took my cold shower, which are still not easy to begin, but are by now enjoyable once I’m in.
Every morning we have tea with Saroj and Anita, our hosts at Kalika Higher Secondary School, before eating dal bhat at 9:00. This morning they shared the birthday ritual of Sagun (no idea of spelling) which includes the gift of a hard boiled egg fried in curry spices, with cucumber and home-grown radishes (the giant white kind, not the little red guys). They lit the Ganesh oil lamp (think Aladdin) which they daubed with the ritual red paste and an offering of the veggies placed on top for the god.
Then they blessed me with a kata, the white scarf one presents to honored guests and sometimes hosts, red flower received and placed on one’s head, and tika, the red dollop of rice and coloring in the center of the forehead that one receives on special occasions or as a sign of welcoming. I felt more blessed and welcomed and included and honored than I could hope for.
Feeling at peace and in love with the world I began walking to school. K and I alternate schools, each teaching three days at either Kalika or Himalayan English Secondary School before switching. (I’ll post an everyday schedule and details…one of these days.)
There are no other foreigners (beyond India, Bhutan, China, and maybe Bangladesh) in our area, and at first we were continually stared at on our travels around town. We have been here long enough that the locals seem to have gotten used to us, at least in our specific neighborhood, though they still bring their children out to greet us (especially K who they still stare at with something that looks like awe) as we pass their homes. Tiny voices shout out “hi!”, “bye-bye!”, or “namaste!” and shy smiles erupt at our responses.
It was my first day at Himalayan, which began with a surprise request by the principal for me to address the entire school during their morning assembly, a couple hundred little faces peaking at me from their evenly spaced rows.
We teach six classes a day there, and my introduction to each class began with recitals of the Happy Birthday song that varied from bold and shouted (10 year olds) to shy and blushing (17 year olds). K had advised them of my birthday, and small right hands delivered birthday cards and gifts, left hands reached across to hold the right elbow in a sign of respect. (The left hand is impure, there is no toilet paper here…)
For dinner our absolutely amazing hosts allowed us to take them out (it took some convincing), and we ate in a garden restaurant next to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Durbar Square (palace/temple/monument area) in Bhaktapur, considered by many (including myself) to be the most beautiful of the three competing such squares in the Kathmandu Valley. Walking there, past ancient temples and palaces, and monuments/shrines uncountable, wearing our traditional local outfits, called “kurtha” and not feeling like dumb tourists doing so, was an experience in itself that left us smiling, dumbstruck.
We feel safe here in Nepal (though we are locked in every night behind two layers of metal bars with padlocks, and there are bars on all the windows) but I would still not normally take my camera out after dark, but with our host escort and four people I did last night. The yellow street lights at night on the streets and red brick buildings is another manifestation of the maddening beauty here that I can only helplessly observe and enjoy. I snapped a pair of quick tries towards it, one place, and as a result, just for spice, my birthday ended with us being followed nearly home by shady characters from the shadows, Saroj, our host, putting on his stern teacher’s face and walking between us and them.
My own teaching instincts made me want to advise them that following someone is much less sneaky when you shuffle with your left foot the whole time.
They were menacing enough that I moved my memory cards from the camera case into various pockets to minimize loss if they did get my bag, but in the end they gave up and melted away.
Today was a “normal” day, and yet I find myself still overflowing with gratitude. Maybe it has something to do with the half hundred people who wished me happy birthday on facebook and email. Doubtful/cynical as I am regarding the internet age and facebook society, that felt good, real good.
I admit that turning 31 was somewhat more perilous-feeling than turning 30 was. (After all, now I’m IN my 30s.) But experiencing it in circumstances this amazing, and I mean that on a global level, made it all sacred.