My head is still in the Himalayas. Two weeks ago, I shared about my childhood in Ghachok, a village in the mountains of Nepal which is home to the Gurung people. We left it in 1976, and over the years, have made several trips back. This is the story of those returns.
The first one was in 1984 with my brother’s friends. Not much had changed then except that Mark and I were now tall enough to bang our heads on the door lintel, which felt like the end of childhood.
We noted on each of our visits how more of our village friends and neighbours were moving away, often to the town of Pokhara down in the valley, but equally often to places overseas. Many young men were serving the Gurkhas in far flung postings and many of the young women were married to them. On one return to Australia in 1987, we met our landlord’s daughter with her new husband in Singapore. The girl who used to tear round the village in bare feet and wild hair that she wouldn’t let anyone brush, had been transformed into a vision of beauty and grace. That entire family has now left the village.
In 1998, we were all working back in Nepal and with our parents, Mark and I took our growing families to see Ghachok: his wife and two wee kids, my husband and our baby, though he was just a tummy bean at the time. Our old house was vacant, so we slept in the musty room upstairs and peered out the back window at Machapuchare. The main difference by then was the establishment of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project and the replacement of goats – whose grazing habits inhibit forest re-growth – with ducks. They were great for curry but not so good for cuddles.
We went again in 2004 to celebrate my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, with a few more children in tow, though my doctor husband and younger son missed out, as the latter came down with pneumonia. A pony helped the kids up the mountain and my Dad, with dodgy knees, back down. We went with a trekking company who erected tents for us at the edge of the village and it felt dislocated. Electricity poles and wires were marching up the plateau, but even more people had gone.
So when I asked to go again this year, as part of my parents’ farewell from Nepal, they were ambivalent. For our sake they would go, but didn’t expect many meaningful connections. We clocked the first major difference before leaving Pokhara: there is now a road and a regular bus that took us all the way there in 90 minutes, heaving and blasting its horn up the un-metalled track, a few kids piled around the driver for good measure.
The second innovation was the well-appointed Machapuchare Village Inn, where a friend had booked us for the two nights. It had spotless rooms with attached western bathrooms (no Time magazines), solar heated water and mobile reception better than the Highlands of Scotland. We walked above the village to find the springs where we used to picnic, but they were lost under the new forest and the dirt cutting for an extension to the road. There was rubbish underfoot, but overhead, scarlet and golden orioles rippled through the branches.
Some of the terraced fields looked abandoned, while others had been cleared by machine. There was no sign of the traditional ploughman with his yoked cattle, though, interestingly, the goats were back. Perhaps they are allowed now that enough forest has taken hold. Whatever the reason, they proved as adorable and obliging as ever, one even kissing me on the lips.
As we explored the village, to our surprise and delight, more and more of the old guard appeared and welcomed us with excitement: Abhwee! they cried. There was also cheerful critique in the case of my brother. Nepalis dye their hair well into old age and the men don’t grow beards, so Mark’s white designer stubble threw them. “Oh you’ve grown old!” they exclaimed. Or, “You used to look good!” He took it on the chin, so to speak.
As the oldest child, he had been named Surya (pronounced Soordzay) by the community, which means ‘sun’. The rest of the family are simply named in relation to the first-born (male or female): Surya-ma-aaba (father), Surya-ma-aama (mother), Surya-ma-nani (oldest girl). In a culture with close ties across extended families, there are distinct kinship terms covering most relationships: father’s eldest brother’s wife; cousin-sister on the mother’s side; youngest son; even younger youngest son (when a surprise turns up). Although everyone gets an official legal name, it is rarely used in childhood, and means there are multiple ‘nanis’ and ‘tagus’ scampering around the village; it also reflects the importance of the place within the family over the identity of the individual.
Mark was 7 months old when my parents arrived in the village and were given a vacant hovel to rent. Abandoned because it was allegedly haunted, their capacity to survive its maleficence perhaps changed its fortunes, as it has been in use ever since. As a baby, Mark spent many happy hours on a potty out the front waving to passers-by, so we took a commemorative photo on the same spot, though without the full re-enactment.
We returned to a second house where we had stayed (too young for my memory) finding the elderly owners now crippled by stroke. Sitting in their dark kitchen/living/bedroom, with him half-paralysed and her hobbling, we talked as their daughter-in-law made tea over a fire-pit in the earthen floor, a method unchanged in fifty years. Then she went outside and took a video call on her smart phone.
Back at the house where we had spent most of our time, we climbed the wooden log ladder to the verandah that had been school and dispensary. It was covered in corn cobs and the door to our living space was locked. Peering through, I saw the light from the northern window fall into a dusty cavern of corn husks and old bamboo mats. The ceiling was gone and the wooden beams gave way to slated darkness. It was hard to imagine the bright home that had been filled every night with people and the sounds of Gurung chatter, songs and even dancing.
But as we walked the old trails, more and more of those people remembered and found us again. One was Bara Hakim, a man with speech and learning disabilities whose nickname meant ‘Big Boss’ because he very ably commanded all around him. Then there was Goma-ma-aama whose son had been our playmate, and the widow of Purna, the porter who had delivered our mail and supplies. Another was Bobar Singh, the son of our neighbours up the path who had been desperately poor. It was reassuring to see he was dignified and well educated, though, like many, he has no work.
He insisted on guiding us around to Lasti Shon, a waterfall that had been a favourite picnic spot. Although the water is snow melt and icy cold, I have swum there on every visit and this occasion was no different.
Returning via the plateau rim, hundreds of feet above the Seti river gorge, we were stopped in our tracks by the sight of eagles riding the thermals. They took off from the cliffs below and passed us, their vast wingspans just feet away, before rising above, a dozen or more wheeling in the sun.
Another old acquaintance, Baru Kaji, got wind of our visit and insisted we eat at his home on our last night. Like many places in the village, his is now a Home Stay with support from Australian Aid and Australian Caritas. Though most village houses are still traditional with earthen floors and cattle sheds at the side, they now have external brick toilets and a courtyard tap. Many also have satellite dishes. Made entirely of organic produce from Baru Kaji’s own fields, our meal of rice, daal and curries was plentiful and delicious. One thing that hasn’t changed in Ghachok, however, is the wife preparing the food, serving everyone and then eating alone at the end. The position of women in Nepal has improved dramatically in the past fifty years, but they still have multiple challenges (of greater significance than dinner time etiquette.)
Our mornings in the village began with clear skies and the sunrise lighting Machaphuchare behind us. The quiet was touched only by the old familiar sounds of cocks crowing and people’s voices, carried easily on the windless air. And then the bus would arrive, rumbling and blasting its way up the road, under the concrete archway and past the multi-storey, multi-coloured Buddhist gompa. (There were none here even 15 years ago.) But that breach of the peace was nothing against our final night, when Nepali pop music was broadcast across the valley till 5am in celebration of a local wedding. In one bouncy song, a young man tries to woo his girl but discovers the price of love these days includes an iphone and a flight to America. (She’s certainly not eating last!)
One thing remained. On the final morning, standing in the sunshine with Machapuchare behind, I got my family to close their eyes and figure out the object I placed into their hands. It didn’t take too much fumbling and false guesses before they realised it was the old knitted dolls quilt. You can watch the moment here. There was something both gentle and powerful in the coming together of those hands that had made the quilt all those years ago; a family weaving back together in stitch and story.
They say you can’t go home, and we were all aware of the perils of nostalgia and the reality of change. But that journey was far more than a return to the past; it was an affirmation of a family’s life together. It was a difficult life at times and we are no dream family, but it was a life fired by a purpose greater than itself. We were ordinary people in an extraordinary place and I am forever thankful. To be there again together, for the last time, was gift.