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Maila Pani

by Sarah Faeth Sanders about a year ago in asia
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Memories of Family in the USA and Nepal

Dance-Off in Thamel

“Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters;

And you who have no money come, buy and eat.

Come, buy wine and milk

Without money and without cost.”

-Isaiah 55:1

*****

The sprawling city of Kathmandu looks different from the ground, in the jagged, zigzag streets and alleyways, sharp turns and corners illuminated by clouds of dust cast into the air by rickshaws and old women selling corn.

“Taxi? Taxi?”

This is what I hear as I walk back to the guest house in Thamel, the taxi driver leaning out anxiously and hitting the side of his cab. I shake my head, keep walking. We’ve learned to walk most everywhere, our farthest destination usually being Ratna Park. Otherwise, unless we venture the distance to Pashupati, we are here, in Thamel.

Thamel’s streets are slightly wider than those we cut through to go to Ratna Park, paved to accommodate pedestrians and taxi drivers delivering tourists to their guest houses. These streets are familiar, the three of us tracing our steps exactly as we walk underneath the dozens of brightly colored signs advertising restaurants, coffee shops, and shisha lounges toward a small intersection up the road where Krishna will be waiting.

“Chris!” Krishna has a high raspy voice that matches his boyish smile. The rest of him is far from boyish, from the dozens of cuts lining his arms like rows of corn, to the cigarette hanging limp from his scarred, dirty hands. This is the boy Chris came back for, who stole his heart last summer when he came to Nepal for the first time. Kevin and I returned with him expecting to find different reasons for being here, but we too found our hearts connected to this street corner, and we have been here every day since. I’ve never known whether to describe Chris and Krishna as brothers, friends, or something else entirely. At times Chris’ love for Krishna is like a father’s gentle concern, at others like a dear, old friend. Chris embraces Krishna and walks with him a little ways down the road, the two friends locked in silent conversation as they go.

Ashish is at his best right now, not to be disturbed as he approaches unsuspecting tourists, asking for money. When he’s rejected by one couple he nevertheless follows them down the road, winking at Kevin and me as he passes where we’re sitting on the curb. We’ve dubbed Ashish the most dedicated street kid, foregoing shoes in order to gain sympathy even though he’s higher up in the ranks of street boys. Anil is his only superior, the leader of the group. He’s the one who sat us down and sang worship songs the first night we were here, a routine he learned from missionaries and evangelists that he now uses to get drug money.

I’m assessing the street, looking to see if little Ramesh is working today, but he doesn’t seem to be here. He usually takes a break from begging when I’m around to lay his head on my lap and rest, occasionally trying to give me a kiss. Vijay is here, glue-bag in hand, arguing with Sunil on the corner opposite us. Vijay is my favorite, a 17-year-old boy with a deep love for attention and the unfortunate commission of doing the most degrading tasks necessary for the group’s survival. This is due to his most striking feature, a series of disfiguring scars that cover parts of his body and face, making him the most vulnerable in the group, and the one with the most to prove. He comes over and gives me a gentle hug, patting me characteristically on the back.

“Hello, Shara.” He lifts my water from its place on the sidewalk and pretends to sneak away with it, mischief playing at the corners of his mouth. “Vi-jay,” I say, prompting a sudden burst of laughter from Vijay, who returns my water and sits down between Kevin and me.

“Look, Vijay,” I say, pointing to my side satchel where I’ve sewn a beaded bracelet that he gave me last week. “SUMAN,” says the bracelet. I don’t know who Suman is, and I’m sure Vijay doesn’t either, but he beams with joy when I show him where I’ve placed his gift. “Sing, sing!” he says, and we break into a chorus of “Baby” by Justin Bieber. Vijay calls Chris over to “do the rap” and Chris complies, inserting Vijay’s name into the song and causing Vijay to burst into fits of giggling as we sing “Vijay, Vijay, Vijay, ohhh...”

Kev is scanning the streets for our friend Simone, a younger street boy who only occasionally shows up in Thamel. Whenever we see him his face lights up, eyes zeroing in on Kevin before he leaps into his arms, laughing. Chris and I watch as Simone clasps his hands around Kevin’s unshaven face, now broken into a wide smile.

*****

Haiden and Jade are in the living room, hands gripped around the edge of the entertainment center, swinging their hips back and forth. Their favorite show is on, and it’s “Time to dance!” again as trendy music and lyrics emanate from the cartoon children on the screen. When the theme song comes on Haiden will often stop eating, his eyes wide and filled with importance, and ask to get down so he can run into the living room and catch the last minute of the song. Erin quickly wipes his fingers clean, his feet shifting nervously as she does, and he darts from his mother toward the television. Jade follows suit, throwing her arms into the air to be retrieved from her high chair, her eyes also wide in an expression imitating her brother’s. She runs toward him, her left arm jutting characteristically out to the side, head barreling forward in front of her chubby legs until she reaches him, falling in line perfectly with his rhythmic dance: back, forth, back, forth, back, forth.

My niece and nephew are what I look forward to most when I come home, their tiny voices ringing as I walk in the door: “Itsy!” Jade’s hands are always the first to reach out, eager to be held and re-acquainted. Haiden makes me catch him, his grin turning into a laugh as I run toward him with my arms out, promising I’m going to get a hug whether he likes it or not.

“Itsy.” Haiden takes my finger and leads me toward the back door. “Hay gon’ ride my bike.” He cocks his head to the side when he says this, squinting his eyes tightly and nodding as if this will make his request more convincing. He is three now, and though most words still only have one syllable, we seem to communicate just fine.

“Ok, bubba.” I let him lead me to our backyard, where his swing set is fixed against a wide plain of Arizona desert. We spend the day pretending the pile of rocks by the fence is a mountain we have to climb, his tiny fingers closing around the pebbles at the top that signal his freedom.

*****

In grade school I learned that three quarters of my body was made up of water. I had to draw a picture about water for one of my classes, and I drew a person filled with water, and then I drew an earth filled with water. I later told a friend of mine that “water is in everything.” I confidently nodded as she pointed around the room, quizzing me as to whether there was any water in the chalkboard, or a paved road. This was before I knew the other side of water, the side shown in pictures of children kneeling by rivers filled with garbage, or houses destroyed by floods and tsunamis. Water, the one substance that in its unique form is necessary for our survival, has the power to kill us.

*****

Vijay lifts the water above his head like the others, head tilted back, and pours it into his open mouth. His hands, clutched on either side of the container, are disfigured. Fingers are missing or cut short, bent this way and that around the hard green plastic.

*****

There was a growing list of things beyond the usual barriers of language, culture, and skin tone that separated the three of us from locals in Nepal. The question of how one ordered water at a restaurant became a marker of strangeness, even of status.

“Filtered pani, please.”

Not just “pani,” the mantra repeated to us daily by the kids as they reached for our water bottles. Filtered pani connoted not only the ability but the necessity to pay for clean water. Filtered pani (the English term being used even by Nepalis) was opposed to maila pani, bad water, that many of our local friends took great care to protect us from. As westerners, our stomachs had been pampered for over 20 years with water that comes in plastic bottles instead of large wooden barrels like the one Kale showed me when I ran out one day. His body and those of the other street kids were either less delicate or more accustomed to the local water. Kevin, Chris and I filled our bottles up every morning at the filter in our guest house, never having to worry about strange diseases hiding in our life source. Or perhaps we had diseases of our own, and we had simply grown accustomed to them, too.

*****

In high school I wanted to be a good witness. It was the word of the day, a vague and heavy word we threw around in youth group to remind each other not to smoke, drink, or have sex. It also carried with it the implication that you would tell people about your faith, either in not-so-casual conversation like Mandy Moore in A Walk to Remember, or Ray-Comfort-and-Kirk-Cameron-style, approaching people on the street with a microphone and asking them if they’d ever broken one of the ten commandments. This was my boyfriend Michael’s method of choice, systematically getting people to admit they were sinners before telling them about the Good News of God’s salvation. He was convinced it was the only way to witness, the “way that Jesus did it.” I disagreed, feeling uncomfortable quizzing people on which commandments they had broken until they finally realized they were going to hell. Speeches were something I made at school fairly often, but there was something wrong about manipulating language on such a personal level, looking them in the eye as I attempted to make them want something they didn’t.

I sat with Michael in my car one day as he tried to convince me that the “Way of the Master” was the only way.

“I don’t know, Michael,” I said. “I mean it’s fine, but I don’t think it’s the only way to do things.” I was trying to mediate, torn between my disgust at Ray Comfort’s propaganda and my wish to pacify Michael’s intense gaze. He wanted me on his side, a partner in the battle to win the lost souls of Elko, Nevada, using the ten commandments coins he had ordered from wayofthemaster.com.

“I really believe this is the only way to witness to people,” he said. “I mean come on, Sarah.” He lowered his voice. “When was the last time you shared the gospel with someone?”

I looked away, shamed by the implication that I fell short. I couldn’t meet his eyes, filled with judgment and pity as he waited patiently for me to repent. After a sufficient silence, he took my chin and kissed me, and I reacted until I could safely pull away without alarming him to my disgust. I wanted to hit him, wanted to hide my face. Instead I kept my mouth shut until he got out of the car, and I drove home, wanting desperately to take a shower.

*****

The summer after my sophomore year of college I went to Darjeeling, India with nine other people from my school. Darjeeling sits on the side of a steep mountain, and from across the valley it looks like the houses and buildings are stacked right on top of one another. The jeeps we took from village to village visiting churches and schools looked like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, making us feel daring and adventurous for doing simple tasks like going to lunch. The vehicles sped down roads that twisted, turned, and jutted, making their way up the mountain in a zigzag formation and making some of us sick.

I was in the back of a jeep sitting on the bench-style seats that faced inward. Kevin was sitting across from me, one of the many on our team whom I had known only for a few months. I had a good feeling about him. He was one of the few men I’d ever met who let me act like a child, but never treated me like one. I went to India during a time of transition, following a hard year and a bad break-up, and my team’s warm and surprising acceptance was just what I needed. I was just coming up for air, and I appreciated the room to breathe.

We were headed back to our hotel from a village about an hour away and when we got back, I found my water bottle under the seat, where it had stopped after having rolled all over the metal floor. I picked it up and assessed the damage—my brand new Nalgene, all scratched and scuffed in the matter of an hour. Earlier in the day I had been able to see right through it, the image on the other side tinted bright green. It looked like it had been through a war.

“Well I wish I had a cooler story about how this got all scuffed,” I said. “It was just rolling around in the back of a jeep.”

“Sarah,” Kevin said. “Are you serious?”

I looked at him dumbly.

“Your water bottle was rolling around in the back of a jeep... while we drove through the Himalayan Mountains.”

I looked at my war-torn water bottle, new affection building in me as I did.

“I guess that is pretty cool.”

*****

Water is free. That is, until something makes it un-free. Until a parasite makes its home there, exacting from you the price of your health in order to stay alive. Or a man in a conference room decides to bottle it, and convinces you that his water is the best water—is the only water— and that you must have it. The beautiful clear liquid associated with life, provision, peace, salvation—that covers 70% of the planet—is what people gather around, what people live for, what people die for.

*****

One day Kevin, Chris, and I were walking to lunch when a group of little girls stopped us, asking if we would buy a postcard. They were the same postcards a boy named Aftab had shown me a few days before. He sat with me on the steps of the Ratna Park amphitheater, teaching me the names of the various Hindu gods represented on the sheets of paper. Ganesh, whose head was replaced by an elephant’s after his father Shiva decapitated him, was the easiest to remember, followed by the god-child Krishna, his skin tinted blue.

A picture of Ganesh was prominently displayed in the hostel we stayed in when we first arrived in Nepal. The lord of success and the remover of obstacles, Ganesh was created from the sandalwood paste on his mother Parvati’s body. His large, disfigured head is usually depicted with one broken tusk, and his pot belly signifies the bounty of nature and his role as protector, swallowing the sorrows of the universe. Krishna is said to have been dark and handsome, one of the most powerful incarnations of Vishnu, the godhead of the trinity and container of all reality. According to sacred Hindu texts, on the day of his birth Krishna’s father was carrying him to safety across the River Yamuna when he fell in. When the dust of Krishna’s lotus feet touched the water it was immediately sanctified, making Yamuna the most sacred river in India, its waters washing away even the worst sins.

I told the girls that I had no rupees. “Sorry bahini,” I said to one of them. They were clustered around me, blocking my path to the restaurant until I gave in. “Please, Miss?” said one of them, holding out her hand.

“Tapaiko nam ke ho?” I asked her. “What is your name?”

“My English name is Orange,” she told me. “And you?”

“Sarah.”

“Sarah,” said the smallest one, whom I would later come to know as Pineapple. She wrapped her wiry arms around mine and clutched my hand, looking up at me with a sweetly naive smile. Later she and the other children in her group would call me “Banana” after the Nepali word kara. While walking down the street I’d often hear a sudden chorus of “Banana! Banana!” and look up to see a sizable crowd of young children running toward me. My fruit babies, we called them.

I smiled at her and tucked my hand under her chin.

“Pani?” I said. “Water?”

Orange took my Nalgene, a bright green bottle with a pink carabiner that I had nicknamed Indiana, and opened it, carefully prodding the splashguard from its place until it fell into the water below. She took turns with Pineapple and Apple in emptying it of its contents and handed it back to me. Kevin and Chris were waiting a few feet away, browsing pirated DVDs as I said goodbye to my new friends. I hooked the lid of my Nalgene through my middle finger and joined them, swinging the now empty bottle back and forth as I walked.

*****

When I got home from Nepal, my first stop was my sister’s old apartment in Las Vegas. Haiden and Jade were the people I wanted to see the most, were the sole image in my mind as I convinced myself that it was okay to leave my family in Nepal. Erin’s apartment had a deck that overlooked a tall wooden fence and one newly planted tree. The air outside is usually hot and dry, but inside it was air-conditioned and the blinds were drawn, casting a shadow on the cool grey carpet that covered the spacious living room.

I went to the bathroom, down the hall and to the right. When I came out and turned the corner into the living room, Haiden was standing at the edge of the couch holding Indiana between his two hands, positioned above his head, attempting to pour water into his mouth.

*****

I still have the nalgene, named after Indiana Jones, honoring the many adventures this object and I have been on together. In each new place, scuffs and scratches appeared highlighted by a layer of dust and dirt. If each impact had been etched permanently, one image would stand out as the most prominent. Tiny fingerprints covering the surface, overlapping with the larger molds of my own hands, and Kevin’s and Chris’s. On top of the scratches, and dents, and layers upon layers of dirt, dust, and sweat would be the prominent image of the fingerprints of dozens of children, my family, my friends, reaching out for water. And on either side there are two perfect shapes, sitting gently among all the rest: my nephew’s hands, holding the bottle above his head and pouring the water into his mouth, splashing it all over his face.

asia

About the author

Sarah Faeth Sanders

Hello, and nice to meet you!

I’m a storyteller currently working on my first book.

I’m an Oregonian from NE Nevada. I love writing about life as we know it, and as it could be. Stories are what connect us; thank you for sharing in mine!

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