A cluster of ramshackle tin sheds, where women serve chai and children buy handfuls of sweets constitutes the central business district of Chondeni, a short walk uphill from Ganesh Than.
Chickens, dogs and small children rummage up, down and from side to side, along the dusty, rocky road. The local bus passes through each morning, it is grubby, overloaded and overworked, yet its resilience matches those it services. After delivering sacks of food, parcels and school children, the old workhorse trundles down the mountain side. My eyes follow it and as I gaze into the valley the morning sun glints off the scattering of tin roofs. Those new shiny shelters, constructed next to the remains of family homes – a broken wall, a caved in roof, a living room filled with rubble – will house families in Chondeni and throughout Nepal for many years to come.
I wander around Chondeni, amongst the curious eyes and whispering children. The morning mist still lingers, a hangover from the previous night’s storm. All is calm in Chondeni on a Sunday morning and the only irritant is that the plug in my thong continues to come loose. Finally, after one more slip, on grass still damp with morning dew, it gives way for good and I walk one-thonged, amidst a chorus of sniggering children, to buy a new pair.
After fitting into my new footwear I am offered a cup of chai. ‘Always say yes’ is sage travel advice and I use my Nepali phrasebook to talk with the family. Srijane is 20 years old and works at the shop with her mother, Mira. Her two younger brothers are still at school, though the 18 year old is already married. Her father, who has been working in Saudi Arabia for ten years, is due home in a fortnight, for the first time in 2 years. He too will be sleeping with his family in a tin shed, though with a grocery shop and steady employment as a driver in Riyadh, the family are in a better position than most.
Srijane invites me to visit her secondary school, where she graduated the previous year. It is the last day before a festival holiday and she tells me the students have lost all interest in school for the moment. It proves to be correct as they amble in whenever they like and gossip throughout the teachers’ morning address. The school also has two temples and both were destroyed in the earthquake. From the rubble of one, shards of tiles have been salvaged and a makeshift shrine has been created in the remains. Half of Ganesh’s face sits next to Sheva’s upper body, which sits alongside another partial figure. The temple may have been taken down, but the people’s devotion cannot be destroyed.
We leave the school and Srijane wants to know if I would like to see more of ‘her culture,’ she tells me a grandmother has died overnight and the funeral is happening nearby. ‘Always say yes.’ We take the same road as the morning bus, before diverting through rice fields and goat tracks until we reach a small, double storey mud house, one of the only ones still standing in the area.
Inside, Buddhist lamas are preparing deity’s made from sticky rice. They invite me to sit beside them and I watch as they prepare a display of sticky rice gods and place them amongst brass cups, candles, incense sticks, flowers and bowls of uncooked rice – the essential ingredients to ensure safe passage into the afterlife.
Srijane points out the woman’s son and other relatives, uncles, brothers, cousins and explains that they are no longer speaking in Nepali, rather their dialect of Thaman. The lamas also speak another language at times, one she does not know. I look around the room, taking in the smells, noises and colours when I notice the body. Slumped against the wall, legs crossed, arms folded, the deceased is covered with a sheet and her relatives place flags on the wall above her and wreaths of flowers around her head. It takes a minute or two of readjustment to feel comfortable again.
After the lamas complete their display, they unwrap a stack of old papers written in scripture and a cache of musical instruments – small bouzouki type horns, a seashell, bigger bugles, cymbals and a large drum which hangs from the ceiling. For one hour they play music, chant and read from the scripts, honouring the deceased and ensuring she reaches the afterlife safely. The room is consistently full of smoke, from the incense sticks, burning leaves or cigarettes. People come and go throughout. Srijane tells me the rituals and tributes will continue throughout the day and into the evening.
After some time we are both bhok lahgyo (feeling hungry) so we bid farewell and return through the goat tracks and rice fields to Chondeni.
Srijane cooks a rice and egg dish for lunch, while her brother watches American wrestling on TV and her mother talks with visiting neighbours. It feels much longer than the few hours it has been, since I first visited to the families shop in search of new, sturdier footwear. But that’s the way it is in Nepal and in village’s right across the world. A stranger is always invited, welcomed and made to feel comfortable and before long is no longer a stranger, but a friend.