16: Celebrating Tihar (Diwali) in a Rural Nepali Village with 12 Other Volunteers

Dear readers,

If you’ve been following along with my travels, you will notice that the story from this point on is significantly hastened. Recently there’s been so many forward-looking developments in my life, and I hope to sooner share those, rather than colourfully detailing my 95-day journey in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, there are significant turnings of the wheel that led to where I am now, and this story deserves a proper ending. For there are such valuable lessons which are just dying to be morphed into words. 

Oct 21st – 29th, 2019

For the first time ever, I taught english for an hour in the mornings, and would continue doing so for the next week. The kids in the neighbourhood all rode their bikes or walked to Tara’s house, where I gave lessons in a hut made of mud & coconut palm right outside his home. I would continue doing so for the following week, occasionally switching off with other volunteers. Without my usual coffee, absorbing the liveliness of the 7-13 year olds was a great way to invigorate my morning. What a joy teaching is. A highlight was when I taught them a song called “Wild One” that I learned as an instructor at Wilderness Awareness School, and changed the words around a little bit to reflect animals they’d be familiar with such as tigers and rhinos. They sang with such vitality! You can hear a snippet here…

For a few hours I was the only volunteer at Tara’s and Anjana’s house, and was hopeful that it wouldn’t be for long. Hastily, my wish was granted. That evening Ana from Colombia arrived, a few days before her husband, Richard, who hails from Colorado, USA. She was a dance teacher and he, an elementary teacher, who met when he took dance lessons in Colombia. They were traveling the world for an entire year, looking for the right place to settle down and continue teaching. Recently coming from China, they’d spend a few more months in Nepal, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, before heading back to the States, where they’d take a road trip all the way through Mexico and down into Colombia. Right on!

The following day, Oct 22nd, saw the arrival of Mikey from New Zealand. He has quite the heritage – coming from the indigenous Polynesian Maori tribe. Their “haka” war dance is imitated by the New Zealand rugby team before each match. Over dal bhaat (the twice-daily meal of most Nepalis consisting of rice, lentils, and vegetables) and Tiger beer we watched the final game of the 2019 Rugby World Cup together in Tara’s house. Unfortunately, the only time New Zealand scored was when the power went out (which amusingly happens very regularly, since Nepal buys electricity from India on apparently a pretty limited budget).

Left to Right: Jerry, Catinka, and Celina

On Oct 23rd, the Germans started to invade. We acquired Lars & Andre, a duo who proudly adopted the title of “low-budget scientists.” I would end up trading my recently finished copy of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse with Andre for The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, a thought-provoking book that I would fanatically read during my upcoming 7-day Himalayan trek. That evening also brought Celina from Switzerland, who naturally spoke German as well. She was a down-to-earth gal who had traveled as a solo female in some not-so-touristy (and assumedly dangerous) countries like Pakistan. 

The 24th of October brought Catinka from Germany, a radiant lady who had just spent a week in Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. She was excited to share with everyone this “new card game” called “Caboo” which I had actually learned at my first workaway in Goa, India, but pronounced “Cabo.” One of my all-time favourite card games, it became a regular evening activity and really brought people together in cheerful spirits. 

That day also saw the arrival of a french couple: Sonya and her husband, and their two small children! Aged roughly 1.5 and 3 years old, they were reportedly much happier here than anywhere they visited in India, due to the overcrowding and lack of any kid-friendly attractions. Here they could play with the animals, roam freely around Tara’s property, and to some extent play with Tara’s children. I was confounded that traveling with toddlers in Southeast Asia was even possible, and though their children’s frequent cries made me cringe at the thought of parenthood, I had so much respect for them for giving their kids a wholly different type of education.

Left to Right: Ana, Me, Catinka, Mikey, Sonya (and Elza), Richard, Rosario

By the 25th all the volunteers I met at Tara’s house were present. We acquired our last German, Jerry, who was an amazing sketch-artist. She met Catinka elsewhere in Nepal, and eventually took Catinka’s suggestion to volunteer with us. And last but not least, there was Rosario from Italy. A fun, light-hearted, middle-aged man, he really enjoyed trying little sweets in every country he visited, and was just a pleasure to be around. His accent made every word that came out of his mouth so beautiful.

It was such a lively group – and at 12 people it was the most that Tara had ever hosted at one time. He was glad there were so many hands, because the day I arrived he started a huge project to repaint basically his entire house. The outer walls turned bright purple, and the hundreds of concrete pineapple-shaped balcony posts were painted gray, as well as the outer bricks, accenting the white trim underneath. The inner walls were over the course of roughly a week entirely transformed from a faded light-blue to a vibrant blue-green. When Tara was asked about the choice of colour, he said that he chose green because it resembles what waking up used to be like for thousands of years – that is, surrounded by luscious nature. It is pleasing to the eyes, and comforting to the spirit. 

We would paint from roughly 9 AM – 2 PM, with lunch in between. In our free time we’d go for walks, searching humorously for hard-to-find products like toilet paper. Otherwise at our home base we’d often play games in the evening, or sit on the rooftop drinking beer, conversing over cooing pigeons and colour-changing skies. On our off-day we all ventured into the Ghaila Ghari Community Forest (which was basically a less expensive version of Chitwan National Park). There we had 2 rhino sightings, and in addition plenty of monkeys, some deer, and elephants (but with people riding on top of them). 

There was a healthy balance of work and play at Tara’s house. Almost all of the volunteers were put to the task of painting, as Tara was hoping to be nearly finished by the final day of celebrating Tihar, where painting/redecorating is one of several commemorative activities. 

Tihar is known as Diwali or Deepavali in India, and is one of the most important observances in the Hindu tradition. It could almost be compared to Christmas in the West. Plenty of multi-coloured lights, most of which flash on and off in a variety of patterns which would typically be viewed as obnoxious back in the States (but felt very fitting for Nepal) decorated virtually every house in the village. On the third day of Tihar, houses glow in a more traditional fashion, with numerous candles illuminating every floor of the house.

Most memorable were the community get-togethers that took place every night at a different person’s house, where we danced and sang. Percussion instruments such as the tabla (drum) and mini hand cymbals would accompany our voices. Singing was primarily in Nepali, yet I recognized one of the tunes as the Maha Mantra (“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare; Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”). However, what really unified the locals with us volunteers was when Ana, the dance teacher from Colombia, was asked to lead a dance that everyone could do. Somehow, she acquiesced into guiding us through the Macarena. Every volunteer was reluctant to join in, yet eventually there we all were: dancing together to the Macarena, among other western and latin american music. It was so strange, and so fantastic.

What a community gathering unlike anything I had experienced before! This is their very special time, where one might expect strict observances of Hindu-only gatherings, singing only spiritual songs. Yet it was the exact opposite. Just as how they all share the duty of hosting each night’s gathering among several households, they divvy up the time spent dancing and singing to make everybody feel welcome. And in the end, I don’t think it was just for us. They gained something from our song & dance, too. 

To give you an overview of what is actually being celebrated during Tihar, what follows is a breakdown of each of the 5 days:

One. Kaag “Crow” Tihar – thanking crows by placing sweets on the roof. Crows are known as the “messengers of death,” so by keeping them happy, they won’t be harbingers of bad news, at least on that day. 

Two. Kukur “Dog” Tihar – thanking dogs by giving them a tika (red marking between the eyes) and garlands of marigolds. Dogs are knows as the “gatekeepers of death,” who help human souls transition from the earthly plane into heaven/the afterlife. 

Three. Gai “Cow” Tihar and Laxmi Puja – to give thanks Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, candles are lit in the evening, and a special “puja” (worship/prayer) is conducted. It is additionally a day of thanking cows by giving them large red markings all over their bodies, as well as garlands and fresh grass. Aside from being sacred creatures, their products (milk for sustenance, and urine & dung for cleaning) have contributed to the survival of countless Nepali families (though like India, cow meat is never eaten). 

This one, our volunteer group was invited to witness. There was singing, dancing, and eating of holy foods prepared specially for this day. We each also received a big, clumpy, red tikka, about an inch in diameter, on the center of the forehead.

Four. Several different celebrations depending on one’s cultural background occur on this day. Some give thanks to the ox, others worship Govardhan Mountain, and others celebrate the start of a new year, and/or the divinity within themselves. At Tara’s house, there were gambling card games, too.

Ananta & Aakriti, the son and daughter of our hosts, Tara & Anjana

Five. Bhai Tika or Kija Puja (Brother’s Day) – Sisters give their brothers a multi-coloured tika on their forehead, as well as a gift, to ensure long life. Brothers return the favour to their sisters, and those without siblings receive a tika from another family member. 

Receiving a tika from Aakriti while Tara holds a stencil-like object on my forehead

This last day was especially memorable for us volunteers, as instead of tending to our typical painting duties, we made our way to the original meet-up point for Tara and his volunteers: the Honda Showroom. There, one-by-one, we all received tikas from Tara and Anjana’s children. Ladies received one from Ananta, their son, and guys from Aakriti, their daughter. Tara, our host dad, did however not receive a tika since he had a close relative die within the past year. Following this, we feasted on a special yogurt/fruit dish, our “24-hour power” meal of dal bhaat, and one of the best foods I had in Nepal: “sel roti” – a scrumptious donut-like food made only during Tihar out of rice flour, coconut, banana, and sugar. I came at the right time!

There was now coloured-sand “rangoli” artwork in front of the plants that I previously hid behind to sleep.

At the Honda Showroom it was such a warm, indescribable feeling to be invited back into their home as a recognized guest, and to receive a tika just like any other family member, after I was invited inside roughly a week ago as a complete stranger who was asleep on the ground outside of their business. At our first encounter I was offered water and tea, and was driven on the back of a motorbike through the rain to arrive after a long journey at my final destination: Tara’s house. Now, instead of my first day, it was my last. The sun was shining, the temperature was cozy, and I was surrounded by people who I knew, and in a wider sense of the word, who I loved. I went from being a rather disoriented and exhausted tourist, to a valued member of their community, albeit ephemerally so.

Although I came to Tara’s house with hopes of contributing primarily to gardening and teaching for my own sake, I spent most of my time painting. And in the end, this was the best work that I could have done for them. I’m happy that I was able to make a significant contribution to the well being of Tara’s family, and all the future guests. Perhaps since I was the first volunteer of our steadily growing group, Tara entrusted me with the main painting duty: using a roller to evenly apply the main colours, while most others were given the smaller (but equally important) detail work. I felt privileged to serve him, and to feel like a part of his family. In the end, it was a win-win situation. 

This is the real beauty of traveling: Getting to know a place and its people. Being open to whatever is in store for you, and being vulnerable to share who you really are with whomever you meet. When you have the humility to serve, and not just be treated like a king (which all over Southeast Asia is relatively easy with an average Western income), it serves you several fold in return. For in the Anthropocene (aka the human era), what makes a place is its people. And how can you see one’s true colours when you place yourself above another? When you choose luxury over authenticity, and the only purpose of other humans in your environment is to serve you?

The ephemeral nature of such cultural exchange opportunities means there is little pressure to impress, whether host or volunteer. Chances are, I’ll never see any of the faces who lit up my experience at Tara’s house ever again. And especially in such a unique opportunity of having 12 volunteers from all around the world under the same roof – why waste such precious moments being anybody but yourself? Why ruin your “vacation” by second-guessing how much of yourself you ought to reveal? This spirit is pervasive among most travelers who I meet, and makes personal connection so easy.

I once was a rather anti-social creature, but especially when traveling I’ve learned to embrace my extroverted side. For by freely conversing with others, especially those who come from a different background than you, there is so much to gain and so much to offer. In the process, you somehow get to know yourself and humanity as a whole a little better too.

Hop hop hop,