Living in Public

You certainly have heard of all this noise people are making about the internet ripping away all our privacy and making us live in some Big Brother’s House? Well, if you come to Nepal, you’ll get a feeling of what it is to live in public. For this is a country where they don’t have bathrooms. Rather, you take your bath right by the roadside (but this subject deserves more attention. I’ll write about it shortly)

It’s the height of the dry season (I still can’t get to calling it summer, for in Africa, we call it the dry season. But they should call this one the “oven season”!) and I can’t keep my clothes on. Especially when I’m inside my bedroom. But then, I have to keep the windows open as well, and draw the curtains to maximize airflow. In so doing, I treat my neighbors to a free show!
That’s the one thing about Nepali culture that I find so irritating, the total disregard for privacy. If they see an open window, they will peep in. And if they find it closed, they will open it and peep in to find out why it’s closed.
This afternoon, I woke up from a catnap to find three faces peering into my room, jostling each other for a better view. I rushed for the towel and covered my private parts, hoping that this panicky gesture would embarrass them enough –

This girl never uses the gate.

“What’s he doing?” one of them said. “Is he inside?”

“I think he wants to bathe,” another one said. She had her face pressed onto the mosquito mesh, and so she had the view of what was inside the room.

In anger, I swung the wooden shutter closed. The mosquito mesh makes it impossible to open the window outwards, and you have to open it inwards, otherwise you’d need a hole in the mesh to use to open the shutters. The mesh then acts as a safeguard, like a weak one-way mirror of some kind, for someone outside has trouble seeing inside, it being quite dark inside, though someone inside has a good view of the bright sunny outside.

However, when I slammed the window shut, I sort of activated their curiosity.

“Why has he shut the window?” one asked.

I fumbled about for a pair of trousers. Panicky. I should have closed all the windows to this room, not just the one they were peeping in, for two walls of the room have windows on them. Soon enough, a face showed up on the other window.

“Yes,” she said. “I see him. He is not going to bathe. He is dressing up.”

And another at once appeared besides her.

These were elderly women. I still can’t place the ages of Asian women, for a thirty year old looks no different from a fifty year old, but these looked like they had given birth to many children. I would place them in their late forties, or maybe even fifties. Though they might have been 30something and just looked so old.

They come into my compound everyday to farm their micro-gardens. They plant vegetables in my front and backyard, without my permission, of course. When I rented the place, the came the next day and started digging, and I asked them what they were doing, and they said they are planting vegetables. I wanted to tell them that I now rent the place and they can’t come and go as they please, but they were to far gone in their gardening that I simply walked away to work. A good thing, for in exchange they keep the compound clean. Maybe they are landless people.

They rarely talk to me, apart from a gentle ‘namaste’ in greeting, whenever we run into each other. And they have never done this kind of peeping before. So I was very surprised that they were doing this, very aggressively peeping into room.

“Get out of there!” I shouted at them, in English, so they didn’t understand what I was saying. I wanted to tell them in Nepali, but whatever little Nepali I know couldn’t come to my head at that moment. And my trousers were playing hard to get into my legs. I hopped about in the room, trying to make them fit, but somehow, I managed to get both legs into one trouser leg –

one of the women harvesting vegetables

“Is he talking?” another woman said.

“Yes. He’s speaking in English. He can’t wear his trouser.”

“So he is inside?” a voice that wasn’t peeping said.

“Yes, he’s inside. The trouser is too small for him.”

By this time, I was nearly exploding in shame, for it wasn’t only my trousers that were too small. There’s something else that is too small – but I won’t mention it here for someone might think of this as a pornographic blog.

Just then, the doorbell rang. Persistently. Five times. Maybe six. And I heard the voice of “Didi”, the eldest of them all, who is probably some kind of matriarch for she runs the homestead next door. Or seems to be, they are Tharus, and I don’t know much about how they run their families. Whether women can rule. She seems to be the one in charge though.

And she was yelling at me to open the door, calling me ‘kancho’, which means ‘youngest son.’ Which probably explains why they weren’t ashamed to peep into my room while I was stark naked.
Somehow, I managed to get dressed, though I discovered too late that I had the trouser back to front. I threw on a large t-shirt, which covered up this mistake, and opened the door. There were about six women out there, all looking at me as if I was some kind of talking buffalo. I’ve been with them for nearly twenty months, but each time they look at me, they have this expression which tells me that they are wondering what kind of species I am.

But now that they had seen me stark naked, I couldn’t help feeling that they were also wondering why I had a very small rope inside my pants.

“Someone is here from the municipality. They are doing a population census and she wants to ask you some questions,” Didi finally told me.

another one planting rice down the road from my home

So that’s what all the trouble was about. I had a visitor. The women gathered around as the municipality official asked me all sorts of questions. What is your name. age? Country? What is your caste? I told her I have no caste, and she couldn’t believe it. She was at a loss of words, for to her, everyone must have a caste. It’s like saying you have no sex. So I told her that I’m of the male caste, for in my country, there is only two castes, male and female. She still didn’t buy that for an answer, and scribbled something under the column for caste, I don’t know what she wrote.

When they were gone, and I had a semblance of peace in my bedroom again, I started to wonder very much about it all. What privacy means in Nepal. And I think I’ll try to gather my thoughts and write about it tomorrow.

(PS: I did write about it. Here is the article: Bathing at the Roadside)

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Water! Water! I’m burning up!

A clash of color to change lives


What a Thief

Water! Water! I’m Burning Up!

Yesterday was the worst day of the year – well, apart from that day in January when I had two heaters running and yet I still felt frozen. One of the worst things about Nepal is the weather. Especially if you live in the plains, the terrai, where the winter is so cold you can’t stay naked, and the summers are so hot you can’t keep your clothes on!

But yesterday, I faced it rough. The temperatures hit 40 degrees, and then my taps ran dry. I live in Dhangadi, a rural town of Nepal with severe water problems. Most of the ground water has arsenic. I have to rely on piped water, which comes only twice a day, at about 6-9am and 3-5pm.

The problem is I slept very late the other night, because I was chatting with my girlfriend all night (long distance love is very difficult). So I woke up after the water supply company had turned off the tap. To my horror, I discovered that my reservoir tank was empty. I was sweating, humidity was up to 80%, yet I couldn’t take a shower! My skin felt like it was peeling off.

To worsen it, electricity went off. I couldn’t turn on the fan to cool down my room. And the sun shone with such fierceness that I felt I was in an oven.

3pm came and I ran to the taps, to fill up my cans and my tank, but the tap stayed dry. It happens often. It’s the price you pay for living in a rural town.

I could not go to my neighbors to get water. This is Nepal, a Hindu society. I’m a black man, and they think that black people are lower caste, untouchables, you are not supposed to share water with them. All my neighbors are Brahmins (the highest caste) and Tharus, third in the hierachy. And though we talk on the streets, none of them has ever invited me into their homes. In contrast, the white couple who live a short distance away get invited to all the weddings and parties. I once asked my neighbors for water, but they gave me a stupid excuse, which revealed to me that they think I’m an untouchable because I’m black, so I’m not supposed to share water sources with them.

In the past, the caste system wasn’t determined by skin color. But “…because of the colonization in India, some people tend to think in that way.” Dr. Khrisna Bahadur Battachan told me this in an interview I had with him once, which appears in my documentary, Untouchable Love.
The problem with the house I’m renting is that I have a broken manual water pump, and so when the piped water runs out, I have no other water source. I once complained to the landlord, but she never fixed it.

And so here I was in an oven, unable to shower, unable to turn on the fan. I tried ‘dry cleaning’ myself with a towel, which I made wet by wiping the sink, but it only worsened the slimy feeling on my skin. I felt like snails had left their goo all over my body. I endured a terrible night, tossing and turning, with the bed sheets sticking to my skin like filthy rags. I kept all the windows open. The full moon shone all night, smiling at me, laughing at my woes.
Morning came. The sun rose, promising me a new day. But the taps stayed dry until 7am. By this time, I was nearly mad with rage, though I looked as calm as a stone abandoned in the desert.

So now I’ve filled up all my water cans, and the tank, and I can’t wait for the day I fly back home to Uganda!

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Inter-racial Blues

I recently remembered a saga that happened about four years ago, in 2007. A friend of mine from the US came to Uganda on a filmmaking workshop – or something like that – and in the short period he was in Kampala, he fell in love with a girl, let’s call her Vicky (and we call him Peepy 🙂

Anyway, one day, Peepy and I went to see this Bahai temple in the outskirts of Kampala. It’s an amazing structure, that has stood since 1959, but I wasn’t aware of it. Since I grew up in the rural areas, and not in Kampala. And while we were touring this breathtaking structures, taking photos and feeling inspired by some unknown religious force, Peepy blurts out, “Dilman, do you know of any emergency pills?”

“What emergency pills?”

Was the first time I was hearing of such a thing as an emergency pill, and I couldn’t figure out what it’s purpose could be. Was it something you carried in a first aid kit, such that when you hurt your toe while walking, you swallow it? Or was it something that you carried around in a war-prone area, such that the moment the gunshots go off, you swallow one – and then what happens? you develop superhuman abilities to outrun a bullet?

“I banged Vicky last night, and I was too drunk to use a condom! Isn’t there like a pill I can give her to swallow?”

And my first thought was, why is he worried about that?

“You know she is afraid that she might have contracted some disease,” he went on. “But that’s really not the problem, my friend. “I don’t want to give her a baby!”

Ah, I couldn’t stomach my shock. While one of them was frightened about dying because of the incident, the other was frightened about making a life. He started to think that maybe she had trapped him, and now will make him marry her, or he’ll have to send her money for the rest of his life.
I couldn’t blame him. He probably came from a background where they didn’t have to bomb his brains senseless with AIDS information, so his only concern would be not to get her pregnant. But she would have lived every single day of her life with someone screaming at her something about AIDS – and about using a condom – so much so that when it happened, she just freaked out.

Why am I blogging this, more than four years after it happened? I don’t know. Just getting into an inter-racial relationship myself, and I know that getting entangled with someone who grew up in a totally different culture and environment has it’s own challenges.

For one thing, your reactions to the same incident will be so totally different that if you don’t learn how to handle it, you might fail to handle the relationship.

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Snake in the Backyard.

a kiss in the sunset is proof of true love!

After two weeks of beautiful weather and incredible time with an incredible girl in incredible circumstances, I’m back in my small and very boring town. Very hot here. 35 degrees, but feels like 50! Because of the humidity. And I’m wondering what I’m really doing here. The last two weeks have passed like a dream, more like a very sweet dream, and I wonder if time will turn it into a nightmare. But for the moment, I’m relishing the sweetness of it all, the honey that dripped out of the rays of each sunrise for the last two weeks, and the beauty of the elusive sunsets that nevertheless brought me dreams from fairy tales.

Suddenly, I’m in a relationship.

And when I got back home, it struck me how hard it is to be a bachelor. I found the house very dirty, with cobwebs smothering every inch of the ceiling, the kitchen littered with plates and pans that I left unwashed two weeks ago – and something stinking somewhere – and a mat of dust on the floor lent the house the smell of desolation.

Normally, I would have simply slumped into my bed – unmade for two weeks! – and cleaned up one bit at a time over the next few days. But this time, I had this feeling that she might walk in any moment, though she’s an ocean away – I just thought it wasn’t right to live in such a dirty place, because she is now in my head as though she is an imaginary Siamese twin clinging to my heart. And you can’t live in a pigsty if there is a girl with a clinical repulsion to dirt living inside your head.

So I cleaned up, and spent a really good part of the afternoon making the house as clean as it could be – though I was starving. I had to make the house clean before cooking, and by the time I sat down to eat, it was already 6pm.
Talk about life changing all of a sudden, all because someone burrowed her way into your head like a mole looking for a piece of cassava to steal.

Which reminds me of what I was really writing about – hope she doesn’t read this and get angry and sulk for the rest of her life, but she’s in my head, so I figure she is reading it as I write! Well, at one point, as I was taking out the trash, I heard something slither away amidst the dry leaves. I turned sharply, and caught the tail end of a snake.

It wasn’t a normal snake. It was really long. I remember that first time I didn’t see it’s head, or it’s middle part, but what seemed like the rear end, and it was slithering away, but I still saw it for a good many seconds, which made me think that this is one very huge snake! Right in my backyard! It climbed up a tree – more like a shrub – and vanished in the thin foliage. I can’t imagine how, for the tree is barely twelve feet high. Now I tried to look for the snake up there, but couldn’t see it.

Was I scared? Nope. Just excited. As if I’d walked into a zoo and seen a snake – only that this was more interesting because it was a really huge wild snake slithering about in my backyard. Should be scary, ugh?

The snake came back a few hours later. I was looking out for it this time, with my camera ready. Only that I should have deleted some of the useless photos first, to create space on the memory card, but still, I managed to capture a few shots of it. Something was telling me that I should try to kill it, or make noise and let the neighbors deal with it, but I was pleased to see this monster. As if it was some kind of pet. I wasn’t scared at all. It seemed to be playing with itself, maybe hunting for food, as it went round and round in circles, keeping itself to a certain corner of my backyard. And I kept myself a good distance away, at the doorway to my kitchen, hoping no one stumbles upon us and scares it away.

And I snapped away happily. Until the camera started to tell me ‘memory card full’. Which pissed me off, because this was the best part.

The snake was climbing up the tree again. But for a few seconds, it reared it’s head up, so tall, standing maybe three feet off the ground as though it had legs. It reminded me of the way the snakes poke their heads out of the baskets of snake charmers. Only that there was no one playing any flute here. The snake was for a few seconds standing parallel to the tree trunk, then it kissed the tree, wound itself up and vanished into the leaves. I had managed to delete some unnecessary pictures, but by this time, the snake was gone up the leaves. And I cursed.

But at least I got some pictures of him. And this tiger color on his face is something I’ve never heard of before. Or is it zebra color? If my ‘brand new’ girlfriend learns of the zebra color, she might think there is a connection, for between us, zebra has a special meaning.

Well, later, as I ate a mango, I remembered the story of the forbidden fruit. You know, Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden? And suddenly the unexpectedness of the last two weeks, the way things rushed, and a heated conversation I had with her just this morning before my flight, sort of mingled up with the image of a snake in the garden of Eden, telling Eve to eat the fruit. And many words and images tumbled through my head. Temptress. Liar. Virgin – I figure Adam was a virgin then, wasn’t he? – Discovering the meaning of true love.

And I asked myself, is the appearance of this snake a sign that this relationship is similar to that of Adam and Eve? That I have made the biggest mistake of my life? Something that will cast me out of Eden, and into a world of tears and torment and all that?

And even as I asked myself these questions, I could hear her voice screaming at me – remember, she’s inside my head all the time and she could hear these doubts and fears as clearly as if I was speaking them out aloud – and she was screaming back at me. “Stop thinking like that! This is the kind of thing that can break a relationship before it even starts! You are insulting me with these thoughts! You are making me very sad.”

But in this time of Aids, you can never stop having such thoughts. And even if it weren’t for disease, anyone would have second thoughts just before committing to something so big in his or her life. Even Juliet was thinking twice about what she was doing during that famous monologue on the balcony, with Romeo eaves dropping, asking ‘but what’s in a name’ signifies that she was torn between two forces.

And love won.

And even as this ‘brand new’ girlfriend screamed at me to stop thinking like that, I couldn’t get the snake out of my head. And I couldn’t help thinking that, though Eve and Adam blamed each other, they never broke up. They went ahead and got married, and lived happily ever after, which is the reason why I’m writing this blog and you are reading it, because without Adam and Eve, we wouldn’t have existed. Would we?