Himalayan Song

As different as people and traditions are around the world, sometimes it’s the similarities that sneak up on us and surprise us the most.

An unexpected layover in a remote Himalayan village can be misery, or exactly what needs to happen for a traveler to see what life wants to show him.

As different as people and traditions are around the world, sometimes it’s the similarities that sneak up on us and surprise us the most.

For three days and three nights I’d been stuck in this village, a day’s hike from the airfield, a week away from Kathmandu and ages from home.

Centuries old, Dunai sits at the crossroads of several primary trekking routes in the lower Dolpo region of Nepal, a frontier land barely reachable by plane. The only highways are dirt roads, the only traffic infrequent trekkers, beastly yaks and brilliantly ordained cows. The freezing, jade-hued glacial waters of the Bheri River carve this deeply cut Himalayan valley, and I cannot leave here until my sherpa feels the autumn weather is right for us to move on.

I’m the only westerner staying at our lodge, the Blue Sheep Hotel. Though the accommodations are far too rustic to really be considered a hotel, it’s the nicest place I’ll see for weeks to come. I may be the only westerner in the entire village, actually. Or at least that’s what it feels like as I walk through the town’s cobblestoned footpaths. Never have I felt so alone amongst so many people.

Tall, white, blonde hair, blue eyes. I stand out among the ruddy, Mongol-Aryan villagers with their earthen skin and straight, coal-black hair. Casual strolls to consume idle time become awkward as every eye locks upon me, the unknown and exotic stranger in a place where the unfamiliar becomes a spectacle and reason for crowds to come running.

I’d become so uncomfortable with the gawking attention of the villagers, I spent most of my time sequestered within the compound of the lodge. On this, the first sunny afternoon since I’d arrived, I took a chair from the dining hall and sat outside trying to while away the enemy time by enjoying a book or writing in my journal.

In the Himalaya time is tracked not on a clock but by how far you can walk in a day and by watching the sun cast a crawling shadow upon the sheer mountain walls. The escaping light bounces off the bronze-colored canyon and powdery clouds overhead, changing the landscape minute by minute. Blink and you’re looking at a new painting of the same scene. Like Van Gogh’s haystacks.

Not long after settling in, as if on cue, a group of children, maybe 20 in all, ages two to 15, entered the courtyard. Some I recognized from the village; kids that had followed me wherever I went. They acknowledged me in their humble, shy Nepali way. Each was wearing what was surely their finest clothing: semi-clean collared shirts and thick woolen trousers not yet frayed at the hem. Yet most were still barefoot. All had a fresh red tika painted on their forehead.

One boy, about age ten, tapped out a soft, consistent rhythm on a simple drum strapped over his shoulder. The children formed into a circle in the middle of the courtyard. They began to hum and chant, solemn and cheerful. Then one boy began to sing alone in words I couldn’t understand. He was bashful and sang through the collar of his shirt which he held over his mouth. After each verse the others repeated him.

Their eyes would look at me then dart away each time I made eye contact. A crowd of villagers gathered around to watch, smiling the way grownups do when children put on a show in the living room.

Then a girl no older than seven began to sing. But she was not so shy. Her melodic voice echoed off the adobe walls, carrying out and beyond the lodge, beckoning even more villagers to come. I was glad I couldn’t understand the lyrics. Her fearless voice alone transcended language, saying more than I could ever comprehend in words.

Then the singers dispersed and, still singing, walked around the courtyard approaching the gathered audience. People handed the children coins then lifted their clasped hands to their forehead and bid them, “Namaste.” A few of the more bold singers approached me, so I dug into my pocket and handed out rupees to each that asked.

Their concert complete, the young choir exited the courtyard, walked up the trail and out of sight. Several looked back to get one more shy glance at the stranger from far away.

My questioning and frustration at being stuck in this village for three days had finally been answered.

One of the lodge workers, a friendly man who spoke serviceable English, told me that this was the first day of an annual fall festival. On this day groups of children dressed up and went from house to house singing in this way, receiving alms from grownups.

As I went to record all this in my journal, I saw that the day’s date was October 31.

I think of these kids each Halloween when I follow my costumed children and their friends from door to door as they bravely and shyly ask for sweet offerings. We are, none of us, so different after all.

 

Excerpted from “Crooked Little Birdhouse: Random Thoughts on Being Human,” available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.

Read more on Travel on The Good Life.

Image credit: MinutesAlone/Flickr

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