An old man is sitting alongside a fence spinning a prayer wheel and quietly mumbling “Om Mani Padme Hum”, the Buddhist mantra, over and over, each spin of his prayer wheel sending his invocations skyward.
This same mantra, sometimes called the Compassionate Buddha mantra, is repeated throughout Nepal by countless people daily, and can be found carved and painted onto rocks and in shrines throughout the country.
The man’s head is tilted to one side in counterbalance to the old prayer wheel, and there is a gentle rolling motion as he spins the wheel. I watch him and after a time he beckons me over. I sit alongside him on a plank. His face is bronze and hardened with a few coarse whiskers and he has dark, watery eyes. He speaks broken English and we talk for a few minutes. He asks me if I like the Helambu region where we are and if I like his village. I tell him yes.
A few minutes later a small older woman emerges from the nearby hut. She is doing something with water. Much of the time in the villages we have passed through seems to be spent dealing with water: filling and carrying water containers, washing dishes and clothes, and bathing. Usually black plastic hoses bring the water down to the village from springs. These hoses are split and run along the surface of the ground bringing water to each house. The woman is emptying water from a red plastic container and refilling it.
The woman, apparently the man’s wife, listens to me talking to him. She speaks some English also and we also talk for a few minutes and then she invites me into her house for tea.
Her house, a hut, is a short distance away and I take off my shoes and enter. The hut is about twelve feet by twenty feet in size and consists of rough timber and corrugated metal. There is only the door, no windows. A wood-burning stove is at ground level with a stove pipe leading through the roof. There are several bedding areas on the ground, one alongside the fire and another farther back. Shelves on the walls are filled with a variety of items: food, spices, and pots and pans near the stove, and other items on the far walls. A few faded posters of Buddhist gods are on the back wall and a several framed photographs on a shelf. She lays a bright red mat alongside the fire and I sit. There is a large pot of water over the fire. She takes a small bag of tea from alongside the fire, places a few pinches of the tea in a strainer and ladles water from the pot over the tea. Then she places a few pinches of sugar from another bag into the tea and hands it to me.
She is a small woman and like all the villagers I have seen is clean and nicely dressed. Despite the harsh conditions in which they live, all the women in these far-off villages wear clean brightly-colored clothing and jewelry.
This village was particularly hard-hit by the earthquake in Nepal last year. Almost all the stone houses were leveled and rebuilding is slow. Piles of rumble with make-shift houses of old wood, rock and corrugated metal now make up the village. The Buddhist gompa in the center of village is collapsed, a giant Om Mani Padme Hum prayer wheel visible inside amidst the wreckage. During the day, men and boys dig suitable-sized rocks from piles of rubble and rebuild. It is backbreaking labor. In the distance, huge swathes of bare rock, landslides from the earthquake, also can be seen scarring the surrounding mountains.
The woman tells me she had a hotel here, a small lodge with several rooms for trekkers like myself, but the earthquake destroyed it, and now she lives with her husband in this hut. The earthquake occurred at about noon and fortunately most people were out working in fields and not in their houses. Only three people were killed in this particular village—a boy, a man cutting bamboo in the forest, and an old man drunk and asleep in his house.
I sip my tea and the woman makes herself tea now that I, the guest, have been served.
The woman’s husband joins us in the hut flopping down on the mat, his bed, next to the fire. He is still spinning the prayer wheel. He sets it down for a moment and then picks it up again and begins his rhythmic whirling. The prayer wheel was passed down to him from his father.
The man tells me how he was injured by rock in the earthquake. He gestures grasping his thigh. His hip was broken and he was airlifted by helicopter to Kathmandu where he spent four months in the hospital while his wife stayed here in the devastated village alone. Later, after he had recovered, a bus brought him as close to the village as possible—it sounds like several miles away—and villagers carried him the rest of the way home.
I ask them about winter. Yes, it gets very cold and snows. The woman grasps her shoulders and makes a shivering gesture. My mind reels at how they are able to survive in these harsh conditions. I think of the Nepal earthquake on the news last year: a few brief videos of collapsed buildings and landmark shrines, and then nothing. But for these people, in this poverty-stricken country, the earthquake will take many years to recover from. Despite this, it seems to have been taken in stride. These things happen. And they are happy. They smile and laugh a lot. It is hard for me to imagine how they can feel so contented under these conditions but they are.
After the earthquake, lots of aid was delivered, the woman continues. Australia, Japan, the United States—she points to sacks of rice alongside the center post of the hut. The backdraft from the fire makes us cough for a moment. We have plenty of rice she says.
The mentioning of Australia seems to stir something in the woman. “Can you help me?” she asks, and then scurries to the back of the hut and after a few moments drags a torn, well-worn duffel bag up near the fire. She roots through the bag for a minute searching for something. She looks up in the air for a few moments—thinking—then returns the duffel bag to the back of the hut and digs around back there while the old man and I gaze at the fire.
The woman returns and hands me a fifty-dollar Australia note. “Can you change this for rupees?” she asks. Apparently, a long time ago her husband was working in a rhododendron forest and sold something to some trekkers from Australia. All they had was Australia money and she has kept this bill for a long time now. This single bill represents a sizable amount of money for the old couple; many people in Nepal survive on 200 rupees/day and this bill is equivalent to 4000 rupees.
“Do you ever go to Kathamandu?” I ask her. Kathmandu is a long bus ride away, but certainly she could have changed this money there if not here in the village.
“Too old now,” she answers. I nod.
I exchange the money for her and she thanks me profusely. “Namaste, namaste,” she repeats over and over clasping her hands together over her heart and bowing her head slightly.
We sit by the fire for longer, sipping tea, talking and laughing, and when it is close to getting dark, I thank them and leave.