The man’s hand is cool on my forehead. The room is dark and his traditional flat-topped hat is silhouetted against the light leaking in from the flimsy, hung tapestry that serves as a door.
Like everyone else in the village, he has waltzed right into my sick room without knocking – not that there is even a door to knock upon.
And eat. Lots and lots of food.
In addition to plastic bottles filled with warm, stagnant water, women and children parade into the bedroom with dish after dish of what I assume they think will cure me.
I try to explain to Deepak that I cannot eat, that eating is what got me into this mess in the first place.
He’s not getting it.
“You just try” he says.
And I do, knowing full well the little bit of rice and soup I manage to ingest is coming right back up.
I’ve been placed in the bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. DeKash, and if I wasn’t about to hurl, might feel a bit strange lying on the same rock-hard slab that serves as their marriage bed. This is where he makes love. With no doors, with people coming in and out whenever they please, with no secrets, no privacy anywhere.
Do they try to be quiet? Are they as loud as they please and everyone hears them and it’s fine because they’re married?
The tall man with the flattop hat removes his hand from my forehead and abruptly leaves the room, shouting something important-sounding to someone outside.
I wonder for a moment if he’s the village medicine man, or the mayor. His towering height must’ve been rewarded with some position of power.
Two humble shelves have been attached to the stone wall above my sick bed. One holds a stick of deodorant, a bottle of lotion, a pink plastic comb, and a tiny hand mirror.
The second shelf holds a carefully-coiled cell phone charger and a photograph of The Mother and Deepak’s father on their wedding day. They are sitting two feet apart from each other, unsmiling, having been positioned in front of an enormous Mount Everest backdrop. I’m certain when looking at the picture that it’s the only one she’s ever had taken of herself, the only one she’s ever kept.
Other photographs and posters dot the walls – Army Brother in his uniform, which makes him look exactly like Bullwinkle; a decorative plate that must’ve been someone’s wedding gift; a poster of a famous Bollywood actress baring her midriff.
The young boy who has remained at my bedside since the Mayor left stares at me expectantly, watching to see if I’m going to die, which he seems to think would be a pretty cool thing to see.
I can’t entertain him, and allow my eyes to close, knowing full well that he’s still standing six inches from me, staring at me intently.
Feeling like shit is a really quick, easy way to let all of your cultural conditioning about privacy and boundaries go out the window.
In and out, in and out they come. There’s a foreigner in the village! An American! A woman! She threw up in Parvarti’s river! And the Mayor says she’s going to die!
I’m the most exciting thing that’s happened since Shiva’s buffalo from two farms over was born with an extra leg.
When the latest horde of visitors gets bored and decides to go torment the goats (who, by the way, have been in and out of my sick room as well), there is a lone figure leaning against the doorless doorway.
I squint in the din, looking for Deepak’s easy smile, but the lips are upturned in a smirk.
“You are sick” says DeKash, Deepak’s younger, unruly, inconveniently attractive brother.
We are alone in the room and through the stench of vomit and sweat and misery, my body still responds to him, inviting him closer.
“This is my room” says Dekash.
I know. More like this is your bed. The bed where you get naked with your wife after The Mother is finally asleep, being careful not to wake the snoozing buffalo.
His English is light years better than Deepak’s, perhaps that’s why Deepak is nowhere to be found. I’ve been pawned off on the women for health, on DeKash for conversation.
His presence makes something spin inside me, and the last thing my stomach needs is more spinning. Another wave of nausea overtakes me, and I am sitting up frantically, pushing past DeKash, running for the “toilet.”
Everyone can hear me retching, it is everywhere, I am naked in front of these strangers, these judging eyes. The cement slab beneath the water pump is filled with my mess, and I can’t help but wonder how on earth people shit here.
Cold sweat breaks out on my forehead, I’m squatting in the filth, my nose and face a mess, shaking, tears leaking from my eyes.
Suddenly I feel two dry, warm hands pressed against my forehead, not letting go. They hold me fast, steadying me, calming the shakes. Hands well practiced at soothing, at making everything OK.
I place my hand over the mystery hands in gratitude, saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again.
I cannot look at her but I know they are the hands of The Mother.
Without standing up, I reach my hand up, trying to touch the handle of the water pump with my fingers.
“Please” I beg, gesturing to the vomit, the mess I’ve made of their super weird toilet. “Please.”
She understands that I want it gone, I need it cleaned, I am ashamed.
I sit squatting on wet cement, the buffalo yawning at my plight, while The Mother pumps and pumps the water until all the evidence has been washed through the narrow openings in the grid covering the drain.
At rock bottom, squatting in one’s own filth, the perks of communal living begin to become apparent.
I am one of the flock, I need to be looked after. I must accept the help that’s offered me, for my own good and for the good of everyone here.
Each individual in the community is one limb of a connected body that survives or perishes based on how everyone works together.
They haven’t been barging into my sickroom because they’re curious. They’re naturally interested in my fate because it impacts them directly – in communal Nepal, all illnesses, recoveries, victories and defeats are suffered by all and celebrated by all.
It’s taken the steadying strength of The Mother’s warm hands to make me begin to see the enormous benefit, the enormous power, of living life this way.
This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!
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When one takes it upon oneself to get food poisoning in a remote village in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Nepal, one must be prepared to live like the Nepalese do in such a village.
That means whatever is coming up (and/or out) of your body is everybody's business, and that the town mayor may very well enter your sick room, place his hand on your forehead, and utter the curse of the dead to the delight of a dozen gawking children.
Want to dig deeper? Go for it!