Cascading

A few years ago I flew into San Fransisco, and for two weeks I had $300. With those constraints, I traveled 500 miles up to Mt. Shasta and back, still managing to leave the west coast with $100 in my pocket (plus a few extra days to wander). When I returned to the east coast, a friend picked me up in NY, and we drove to Provincetown, Cape Cod for the weekend. I came home with $30.

Money is funny like that. Hitchhiking is free, and walking along the highways passing farm after farm thumbing my way north I met kind-hearted people who invited me onto their property to pick of their harvest. I stumbled into vineyards and picked of the grapes. There were apple orchards and pear orchards and I remember fennel growing 8 feet high, the smell so intoxicating, I felt like Odysseus wooed by the sirens.

I slept under stars, I slept under redwoods. I dreamt of coyotes surrounding me cackling like a bunch of card players smoking cigars. In the morning I found a coyote jaw bone with the teeth still intact. It made me wonder about the blending of waking and dreaming.

If money is funny, there are other constructs too that are just plain made up.

On the road, I learned about the State of Jefferson. A figment of the imagination. A parallel fiction. At one point in time, at the turn of the 20th century, there was a political platform involving something like 3 counties from northern California and 2 counties from southern Oregon campaigning to secede from their respective states to create the new state of Jefferson. A number of farmers pushed the platform; it made sense from an agricultural standpoint. But then WWI and WWII swept everyone into a fervor of nationalism and fighting, and the state of Jefferson fell out of conversation. It only renewed more recently when pot farmers re-established the land. The movement for independent statehood is called Cascadia. And now there is state of Jefferson radio and state of Jefferson newspapers. A few of the county seats even voted to secede from their states, but no new legal boundaries have been made. It’s funny to me this is happening at the same time people want to build a wall, at the same time an architect is planning to build a binational city on the border of US and Mexico.

So much of life is a play at make believe.

I met so many interesting folks on that trip. One night 15 of us camped out in Mt. Shasta and cooked a huge meal. “Good thing you ran into the pot smokers and not the whiskey drinkers,” they joked, “otherwise we’d all be fighting now.” They left their other encampment because of that, but that night we all got along, sharing local legends and staring into the fire. In the middle of the night we woke up to the moon spinning in circles displaying an optical illusion I still can’t explain.

In the morning I hitched a ride with them southwards. Someone gave me a book by Buckminster Fuller called “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.” It talked about synchronicity and time- the way seemingly random connections occur and create rich meaning from minutes expanding into moments into long-lasting memories. I finished the book as we pulled into Sacramento.

I walked with an old man who was also hitchhiking. He was a mix indigenous & latino blood. We grabbed a beer, tramped through the historic district and along a river. He talked to me about the movement of the great spirit in such a calming, knowing way. He moved slowly, so I moved slowly with him. We eventually went our separate ways, and I hopped a bus back to San Francisco.

I arrived in the city at 2 am. As soon as I hopped off, a homeless man in a wheelchair apprehended me and told me to take some of his food. I said no, no it’s okay, but he insisted. He said he had too much, that the Vietnamese place down the street leaves food out every night and he wanted to share it so it wouldn’t go to waste. He gave me 3 quarts of still warm soup, then told me I was glowing. Indeed, I felt like I was, especially after bathing in the alpine creeks of Shasta.

As the adventure wound down, it blossomed in my head, feeling quite like a pilgrimage, like a renewal of spirit.

I had been writing in a journal to document my days, and to my delight, I was marking the date down a day ahead of time. I had an entirely extra day before my flight. It made me laugh, grateful it wasn’t the opposite, that I was a day behind. The realization clicked something in me though: Sometimes we wish we had more than 24 hours, and after that experience, I often feel like I’m working with 48, like I live in a post-scarcity mentality with abundance surprising me at every turn.

Alignment & the Synergy of Rebellious Spirits

We drove through Blue Ridge at sunset. It was perfect timing. We couldn’t have planned it better if we tried. The densely jungled mountains swallowed the evening sun, and we continued on our way to Asheville.

IMG_2785

We made the trip, a short one of about five days, to give a hand to a newly found friend we met in the Green Mountains of Vermont. He was leading mushroom walks and just spilling information & knowledge when we met him. We arranged a casual work exchange: We’d help out on his property in exchange for sleeping arrangements and general permaculture & mushroom identifying know-how.

It was quick, but it worked out in mysteriously synergistic ways.

At one point, I was pruning the yard and, inadvertently, snipped down the only elderberry on the 1.5 acre property. When I realized what I had done, a feeling of embarrassment swept over me. How could I be so careless? How could I be so ignorant? Why wasn’t I more mindful? I felt like an asshole. I apologized profusely, and upon instruction, filled a few buckets with water. We placed the elderberry cuttings in the buckets in hopes they’ll shoot out roots. With any luck & encouragement, there will be 8 or nine elderberry trees from the original one.

We got back to work, and the embarrassment eventually passed.

That night, we had a decadent potluck & shared bottles of mead. We sipped lightly appreciating the fermented goodness. As we sat in a circle, a few folks called in one of their herbalist teachers, Frank Cook, who passed a few years back. It was a powerful moment. His spirit was palpable. It pervaded the room. I’ve never felt such a strong connection of lineage as I did with these herbalists, ethnobotanists, mycologists, and permaculturists in Asheville.

We hadn’t planned it as such, and I don’t know that you can plan such things, but so many alignments were occurring: From our journey, to the filling out of the moon, to the work we accomplished earlier in the day, the gathering of people from all around, the potluck that night, the anniversary of their teacher’s death, as well as I’m sure a little magickal residual sparkle from the Perseid meteor showers the week before. & With all this in heart, mind, & spirit, I rolled up a little tobacco to share a few prayerful moments with the elderberry.

I walked outside & the moon hovered brightly in the sky, nearly full, maybe the slightest sliver missing from her edge. Despite it being almost Autumn, it felt like an appropriate time to mistakenly whack down the elderberry. Mateo, who we stayed with, laughed it off pretty quickly after the reality of it set in, saying he’s been wanting to urbanize the elderberry, and this was perhaps an instance of divine comedy or cosmic absurdity that could indeed turn into that opportunity to propagate the tree & spread it.

While I was squatting down saying a prayer blowing tobacco smoke to the heavens, a possum scurried by my feet. It gave me such a fright, I jumped up with a shout. The possum, I think, got such a fright too and redirected its path.

I laughed and shook my head thinking about the possum who plays dead but isn’t really. To think, I snipped the elderberry, but it wasn’t dead either. The symbolic nature of the situation further expounded when I relayed my experience to Mateo. He shared a theory of how the persimmon tree made its way to Central America via the possum.

It all made so much sense.

Here I was, under the moon talking to the elderberry, to the spirit of Frank Cook, to the land, and this little ancient mammal who propagates trees crosses my path.

You know those moments when synchronicity after synchronicity pop up? It’s kind of like deja vu but feels more like the complex, interconnectedness of a Celtic knot. The whole trip was so tightly woven & synergistic. It’s why I like to wake up in the morning & meditate. To let the upsurgence of life settle. To let it make sense. So often I just have to sit back in awe, because the language needed to unravel the journey crumbles at my feet.

This heightened experience is a gift. It takes work, but it’s a gift nonetheless. And it’s really wonderful to share it with other people too.

One night, at a farm house called the Galactic Sanctuary, we enjoyed homegrown squash soup and homemade pumpkin pies. We drank wine and people jammed their instruments. People danced and moved and felt alive. A bonfire blazed outside. We climbed onto the roof and watched the moon rise.

I met a young woman who traveled to Indiana, the Dakotas, and Pennsylvania to work with native tribes in ceremony. She felt a calling from a young age to learn tribal dancing and sit in sweat lodge, but it wasn’t until recently that she learned she has native blood.

I told her about my experience road-tripping through Indiana, how I kept seeing feathers in my mind’s eye, and native spirits flying around expressing anger and pain, and the earth bubbling over with blood. She was wowed at the visions, because, she told me, that goes beyond intuition, that’s psychic perception, it sounds so much like the Lakota Sun Dance.

It was all so intimate and eye-opening.

Each morning we awoke and made oats & cut up fruit for breakfast, drank coffee or tea, and listened to Amy Goodman & Democracy Now! It influenced the start of the day. We engaged a lot of political talking, ranting, and raving, a lot about the corruption of Hillary Clinton and her inclination for fracking. We went further than that, but so much of her shadow side is being hyper-focused on, I’ll leave it at that. I am hopeful, though, the Bernie crowd stays active & keeps pressure on Clinton and the status quo. We’re at a crux with this election, soon to see a turnover of presidents. There’s a need to push an organized movement forward to resist the further for-profit destruction of earth. It’s important we don’t fall into apathy. It’s happening. As I write this, the folks in the Dakota regions are raising the spirit against the construction of a new pipeline.

There are those reoccurring questions of how to get more people involved, how to wake people up, how to present & enact radical change without pushing anyone away.

The programming runs deep in so many multi-varied ways. We have to keep our heads high and our eyes wide. How long can we sustain what’s going on?

Baton Rouge is flooding & there are continuous forest fires in California. Not to mention, women are still being sexually harassed and raped.

It all has me wondering: How much violence & death can people mindfully absorb & process? Do we turn a blind eye because we’re already inundated with so much of it?

The ongoing war in Syria is so seemingly hidden. The situation is devastating. Seeing video footage of blown out streets & rubble leaves me wondering how so many people can be silent about it. At this point, since so many Syrians have fled their country, they ought to fully evacuate the worst of the cities, and blow the rest of what is already destroyed to smithereens and re-wild the area. At the very least, create space for the fertile re-emergence of earth living.

We’re dealing with a war in our own streets too. There are food deserts everywhere. There are prisons stuffed to the brims. There are black bodies shot up and thrown around by those who are paid by tax dollars to protect & serve. But who is being protected and who is being served? It’s clear there is a subconscious agenda lingering from the days of slavery, and some might say, it’s not even subconscious anymore. It’s out in the open for all to see.

Yet ever so slowly, we are breaking the chains.

I met a woman a few weeks back who is reaching out to the police to start a meditation class. Among other forms of activism, it’s a necessary frontline to forge if we’re going to see harmony in our streets.

Amidst all of this, we ought to find time for ourselves too.

One day on our trip we dedicated to hiking. To forest bathing. To remembering there is beauty in the world. We hiked to a 60 foot waterfall. We trekked down steep inclines and climbed up vertical walls. Along the way, we collected chanterelles and an enormous specimen of hemlock reishi. I carried the red mushroom with me, stopping every now and again to look at it and appreciate it. I was transfixed. The fan-like nature of the reishi kept conjuring images of the frilled-neck lizard as well as dancing shamans donning headdresses painted on cave walls.

My inner eye blossomed.

Initially, the reishi called to me through the trees from beyond a creek. I balanced across a fallen log to check it out. When I arrived, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were two of them a bit over a foot wide each. I harvested the one mushroom, and cherished it, but decided to leave it in Asheville.

If swimming and meditating at the foot of a gushing, crushing, crashing waterfall is powerful, the reishi stands right there with that potency.

It was all so nurturing.

We put in a hard day’s work too. We plastered the exterior slip straw walls of our friend’s backyard cabin. We built and took down, built and took down temporary scaffolding. We told silly jokes. We plastered and plastered and plastered. A few of us who are skilled with music took breaks to play & sing as we continued to work. It was a wonderful convergence of livelihood & help.

There were friends from New Orleans, from Philly, from New Hampshire. It really amazed me that we all happened to coincide in Asheville at the same time. How many places is this happening? How many people are experiencing this similar interconnectivity? How often are we coming together to work in community?

It’s so true, the revolution will not be televised. If you’re not experiencing it for yourself, you might not even know there is one.

We mixed so many batches of lime & sand for the plaster, it felt like alchemy & earth magic. I wielded the hoe and the shovel, the wheelbarrow and buckets as if they were wands and shields.

IMG_2750

The night prior, we bottled two batches of mead. One had been aging for a year, the other had been aging for two. We sipped on them as we bottled them. I caught a little buzz before going to bed.

I had so many vivid dreams.

When we returned home, on the night of the full moon, I started a reishi tincture.

Taking to the Woods

I arrived in Boston at 5:30am. The sun was up, but the skies were grey. I walked around Boston Commons and people watched. A number of homeless folks slept on the grass. Seeing them brought back memories of the panhandlers I met while I went to school here. There was Uncle Bricks who got the name because he was tired of people stealing the few possessions he had, so he carried a brick in his waistband to protect himself. There was the One Armed Push Up Man who IMG_1977was jacked up from doing so many one armed push ups and smoking crack. The next door neighbor who everyone called Papi who I drank beers with on the stoop and listened to his stories about knife fights and gun fights from his days playing baseball in Puerto Rico. He was proud of his scars. He invited me to play dominoes with his family but I was heading home for summer break and moving to a new place the following year. There were also characters I never chatted with but saw often, like the woman who walked around holding a small mirror at arm’s length in front of her face. I don’t know if she was keeping an eye out for someone sneaking up behind her, or if she was bringing the myth of Narcissus to life. There was also a guy who had scraggly hair and long fingernails. He talked to himself and laughed a maniacal laugh. He reminded me of a Merlin type who was deemed mad by modern society. Despite so many colorful characters wandering & creating texture throughout the city, Boston for the most part houses a whole slew of relatively stuffy, conservatively dressed professionals re: basic, flavorless, and vanilla cookie cutter in-the-boxers. It probably has something to do with its Puritan roots. That’s my guess. In any case, the combination offers up a strange juxtaposition of aesthetic.

I walked probably ten miles from the time I got off the bus to early evening. I decided to pay a visit to Northeastern, which hasIMG_1968 the same distinct smell I remember from years ago. I’ve never been able to find the exact words to describe it. The first description that comes to mind is always young hormones & fresh mulch. I went to the philosophy department as I usually do when I’m visiting, but it must have been too early because no one was there. I left a note for one of my professors. I slipped it into the pages of a poetry book I self-published. I’ve been giving them my literature for years now. One of these days maybe I’ll write a masterpiece and it’ll slip its way into the curriculum.

Skipping ahead to the Rainbow Gathering, wherein, the outside world is called Babylon…

Upon arrival, I started hearing “Welcome Home” and “Loving You” and “There’s a hole in my bowl, I need a nugget to plug it” and all sorts of other cheery phrases. But, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. Many people, although having an open heart & gentle countenance, they also maintained a sharp edge of cynicism and realness.

I was walking along the main path enjoying the sunset when I saw an elderly woman wiping her eyes with a tissue. She said she was having a moment. I asked if it had anything to do with the sunset. She kind of laughed and shook her head no. I walked over and sat on the rock next to her & gave her a little hug. She rested her head on my shoulder for a moment and cried a few more tears. Her husband passed away three years ago, and she was feeling disconnected from the gathering which made her sadder than sad. She told me about her family, both her son and daughter who live in Berkeley and Norristown, PA, respectively. Her daughter coincidentally lived in Fishtown for a number of years and married a firefighter. She went on and on about her life and desire to live in more intentional communities. She was sweet. She just needed a friend and a shoulder to lean on. I happened to be there at the right moment.

One dark night a guy attempted to kill himself. He cut his neck and wrist with a knife. The cuts weren’t deep enough, so he survived. That night I made a supply run for a kitchen. It rained and rained and rained. When I was hauling the dolly loaded with supplies through the thick, wet mud, I stopped in front of the medical tent to take a breather. I heard a guy screaming, strapped to a table, “You can’t keep me here! I can’t take this fucking place! I want out! I can’t take it anymore!” The name for the medical tent was CALM (Center for Alternative Living Medicine).

There were a lot of lost souls wandering and babbling probably taking too much acid for their own good. For that reason, Calm occasionally put up a different sign. “There are a number of people experiencing bad trips on acid. Maybe you should consider enjoying these beautiful Vermont woods sober.” Also, “Today is July 5. You are in the northeast region of the United States in the forests of Vermont. Maybe Babylon isn’t out there. Maybe you are Babylon because you are an ass hole. Be kind. Don’t be Babylon… And fuck this “‘loving you’ how about ‘helping you.’” I guess some people needed the reminder.

IMG_2071

For the most part, I stayed grounded. It’s easy when you’re learning about the plants and mushrooms in the area. We were literally grounding our focus and language into the surrounding flora. I also remained more or less sober. One night we sat around a fire passing tinctures, wines, meads, and teas all homemade and wild-foraged. We each got a little squirt of tincture and maybe two sips on each bottle. The mood was light and floating and our little camp got giggly from the fresh air and sips of spirits.

IMG_2093Outside of that night, I was offered acid a few times, but passed, because I like to do my drugs in the city. The forest is the real world where the air is clear and there’s filtered water to drink directly from the spring. It’s easy to open up the heart. It’s easy to dive deep into conversation. Clarity of vision allows realizations to unfold without effort. Why do drugs? I’m already there. Whereas the city is ripe for psychedelic medicine because there’s so much bull shit in the air & water and we close off our hearts more quickly because there are so many people in close proximity it’s likely we’d lose our bearings if we opened up to everyone. Low doses of mushrooms or LSD help facilitate deeper connections when there are obstacles like electric wires and concrete slabs blocking us from the natural energy flows of life. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be psychedelics: eating healthier foods from local gardens & farms and growing your own goes a really long way in building relationships as well as your defenses via your immune system.

I’ll say also, taking refuge in the woods (or the ocean or the mountains or the desert) is a necessary recharge. Some people view it as an escape, but it’s really rejuvenation when done with the right intention. I believe everyone needs to take time away from social media and work and return to the earth for extended periods of time or even short spurts. I understand this isn’t always an option, but I strongly encourage the culture to shift in that direction.

Many of the folks I connected with, we had very real conversations about the world we are currently living in. We discussed privilege and questioned why it’s so hard for some people to come to terms with it. We discussed emotions and why so many men (and women) have trouble dealing with them. We talked about polyamory and the need to be vulnerable and open. We talked about the implications of converging in the woods and living communally. For every few people talking about chakras, there was another person talking about biochemistry. I’m still amazed at the depth & variety of interests and archetypes.

Rainbow Gathering came together for the first time in 1972 in Colorado. It was inspired by a Hopi prophecy that spoke of the “rainbow people” who would rise up from the earth in all races, colors, and cultures who would help steward in the renewal of community and earth living. In the beginning years of the gathering it was a good portion vets from Vietnam, recovering alcoholics (one reason alcohol is still strongly discouraged), and hippies. It has been consistently moving around the country from year to year, slowly taking on different forms & evolutions. Every year it’s held on the week of July 4th; re-independence day. It’s held in a different national forest for free as an exercise & practice of assembling freely. The economy is solely based on gifting and bartering. While there, I saw zero exchange or handling of money. Every evening there is a center circle where folks gather to eat. Songs are sang and hands are held. Hundreds & hundreds of people circling together. This particular gathering hosted something like 6000-8000 people. A village of tents and other small structures temporarily put up & spread throughout the forest. There were many, many kitchens that prepare meals over wood fires and feed everyone. Some people bring their own food too. There’s an interesting crossover of self-reliance and interdependence.

So many nomadic people.

The Hare Krishnas had a camp and they went deep into the night with their repetition of mantra. They served food too, but for one reason or another, not at the main dinner circle. In the morning, they paraded around singing Hare Krishna.

I’m really happy I met up with Green PathIMG_2045, a group whose intentions are to educate. Their focus is primarily on plants, fungi, primitive skills, and the like; more or less a skill-share/knowledge-share group of people. There were maybe one or two other crews who brought a similar intention to the Rainbow table. I found it pretty incredible how easy it was to access information. All you had to do was ask someone about this or that plant, and they could tell you so much you wanted to know: what it’s good for, how to cultivate it, how to process it, etc. My notebook was full to the brim with practical education, and I returned home with a pocket full of goldenrod.

Trade circle, or trade circus, started everyday around noon. People set up their blankets covered with crystals, stones, beads, clothes, trinkets, mushrooms, feathers, knives, jewelry, magic cards, herbs, crafted objects, books, zines, seeds, tinctures, tents, tools, boots, and all other kinds of odds & ends. Oh, and patches, lots of patches. Acid & bud fetch a good value at trade circle. It’s interesting to see what people place value on. I traded a couple of beads and stones for a brown paper bag loaded with chaga.

I, as well as a number of other people, found edible mushrooms, so one night we brought them together and cooked up a hearty meal around the campfire. That night we also sang plant songs to call in the spirits of our favorite wild medicinals.

Kid Village was another camp. On the morning of the 4th from sunrise to noon, we observed silence to reflect on life & peace. It was pretty incredible to experience the silence, the whispers of breeze & birds, especially after so much rowdiness and drum circles that went through the night into the early morning. At noon on the 4th, people gathered in a large circle to meditate, and from Kid Village a parade of all the children came through to break the silence.

IMG_2107

There was very little police presence there, and just a handful of park rangers who rolled through. Because we were in Vermont, which is generally laidback anyway, was everyone’s best guess to the low level of authority. Apparently in prior years, there’s been a higher presence of police. Who knows. It was surreal coming back from the woods to hop on the internet and see everyone in a frenzy about the recent murders of Philando Castile & Alton Sterling (may their souls rest in power). It’s sad for more to say, but it feels as though very little has changed. People are erupting (understandably & necessarily so) and showing their dismay about the way police are over stepping their boundaries, and then police are showing up to protests in military gear and, yet again, over stepping their boundaries. There is absolutely no chill and absolutely no accountability. The law of the land is living above the law. The culture of authority is in need of radical change. Our society at large is in need of radical change. People are overheating and inflamed like the planet we’re living on. Especially when summer rolls around and our blood boils twofold. I’m hesitant to say much more, because it sounds as though the story is on repeat. One thing I do notice from last summer until now is that more people are speaking up and voicing their opinions. In general, it seems more people are engaging with what is happening. And with the shootings in Dallas (may their souls rest in peace), people are realizing the severity of the circumstances. The cries are real. No justice, no peace. There is war in our streets, and everyone is in need of re-evaluating priorities & where we expend our energy.

There are images (and even words) that very easily trigger the sympathetic nature of our bodies into a frenzy of flight and fear. We become agitated by gunshots & death. We get stuck in our heads. We get so accustomed to a state of madness that we very easily sputter out, lose our bearings, and freak. We become consumed by the news. Tapping into the heart helps create a balance. It’s as simple as, let’s say, staring at a rose. When you stare at a flower, allow yourself to not only see it, but feel it. This is the heart at work. So often we find medicine and energy through ingesting food, but there’s something to be said about eating with the eyes too. Like when the brain entrains with the gut entrains with the feeling center of the body, and this consciousness of heart leads the body’s rhythm: the sympathetic branch of the nervous system shifts to the parasympathetic nervous system, at which point the levels of cortisol produced by our bodies begins to reduce. We go from stressed to resting. As we continue to integrate with the digital world, these moments of meditation are very necessary, not only with activism, but also with simply living a healthy life. We absolutely need to ground into our bodies, and access our abilities to connect with our environments via feeling-perception. Otherwise, the brain will run amok, and we’ll witness a spiking pattern of enflamed reaction sputtering into dejection & burnout. We must incorporate rest & respite. We must transmute our anger & rage.

So many of us wanted to be here; we just didn’t know what it was going to look like. The breakdown of modern society is happening. This is what it looks like when we smash the white patriarchy.

And there is more that I can do. There is always more that I can do.

If I learned anything from Rainbow, life starts on the ground. It’s important to grow from there, to shed light where there is shadow, to bring definition where there is blurriness, to give knowledge where there is ignorance. We have to stop giving our stories over to the top-down model and build our stories from the ground up. I know it seems impossible when it’s raining down bullets from above and misinformation is rampant, but other paths are available for walking & living. It takes work. When you start believing in a new world, you start seeing where it exists. If you’re not willing to take the first step on your own, no one can lead you to it. The least I can do in this moment is clean a window so you can see out.

IMG_1974Banjos and guitars, fire and drums, a primal twang & a thumping racket reverberating the trees in the stars so many stars like glitter and gold spread across the sky. Voices go up like the smoke of tobacco and prayers for peace acted out boldly sometimes silent in this world overrun with a war of police. The rhythm of feet stomp the fertile earth, hoots and howls ring the air, bare feet dance long into sunrise.

I am full of gratitude to have crossed paths and sat deeply with so many kindred spirits.

A collection of photos and writings from my first visit to Asia.

I was working with a volunteer group called Conscious Impact, waking up early to cook and eat together, building with bamboo and stone, living communally and very close to the earth. On either side of the volunteering, I had a few days to explore Kathmandu. It was a relatively short adventure lasting 3 weeks, yet it surely had its impact on my experience:

Reflections Nepal

We were invited to a wedding, or the aftermath of a wedding. I’m not sure how the ceremonies work here, but I think they last a week. It all happened rather spontaneously.

To set the scene, we hiked down to the lower village, which is also the lower part of the mountain. The caste system is set up so that the highest caste is atop the mountain, so, being towards the bottom of the mountain, we were visiting the lowest caste. There are many cultural institutions that we respect here in Nepal, like a nightly curfew because the villagers wake up so early, but when it comes to the caste system, we visit all the little communities regardless of caste to show them we are here for people in general. Although the caste system is still a complex tradition here, more people are questioning its respectability and usefulness. By visiting every caste, we encourage such dissolution of boundaries.

For the most part, regardless of caste, the villagers live in bamboo huts with corrugated tin roofs. In large part, this is due to the earthquake. There are a few families whose brick, stones, and mud houses survived the quakes, but they are generally used to store grain and house animals. Most families have goats and chickens and water buffalo. Occasionally a dog can be seen wandering around. Houses are grouped together, maybe fifteen or twenty, situated on different terraces, or levels, of the mountain. People share the land, and quite often, while we are working, villagers make their way through our encampment to harvest herbs and plants to feed their animals.

IMG_6736

This particular family we encountered on our community visit asked us to come down for a performance. They brought us to a lower terrace, through a winding path of tied up goats and curious roosters. Everyone gathered around, perhaps forty people including the four of us from our group and the three interpreters who accompanied us. We sat very close together under a small roofed-in area. It was all very intimate. Aside from the interpreters and a couple others who communicated slowly, the rest of us spent a few minutes just looking at one another, staring and smiling, whispering and giggling.

After waiting and observing, food came out for us to share: fried dough, sweetened hot tea, a dish of spicy potatoes with peas, and the delicacy, chunks of goat meat and baby goat skin. Although we had just eaten lunch, and I tend to stay away from meat, I gave it a little try as not to be rude, but also to get a taste of the local cuisine. For dessert, we were given milk curd. As we ate, the men sang and banged a drum while people clapped along. The songs only lasted a minute or so, but with each interval, the spirit of everyone became charged and joyous.

When we finished eating, a man came around with a pitcher of water, pouring a little in our hands to wash up. The space was cleared and the festivities continued. A woman danced along with the singing, spinning in slow circles jingling her bracelets. The females in our little crew joined the dancing, then two of our male interpreters had their turn to dance.

IMG_6737

The gender divide is very clear here in Nepal, in that men are usually seen with men, women with other women and children, boys with boys, and girls with girls. But as we immersed ourselves in this family celebration, the interactions blended with subtlety. For instance, only the men started the songs, but at one point, a woman suggested a song and everyone joined in. I think this is due in part to the caste system, the way people are “placed” together. There was another moment the caste system was reflected in family life when an older gentleman shooed on the children away from the circle. They all scattered and ran off together, but slowly made their way back to gathering.

It wasn’t until the end of our visit that we met the bride and groom. She was adorned in red and smiled rather bashfully. As we were leaving, a little girl, maybe one or two years old, came over to me, and prompted by her uncle, the brother of the groom, she said “Namaste” lifting her hands to her forehead in what we would consider a prayer, but for them, it’s a salutation. Then she held her hand out for me to shake, which I did, and so adorably, she turned my hand over and gave it a little kiss. It was the cutest thing I think I’ve ever seen, especially because of our size difference: she barely came up to my knee and her hand wasn’t much bigger than my thumb.