I went to Aruchour village, about 260km from Kathmandu, when the Nepalese paiyu flowers were blooming everywhere in the fields. It was turning to winter and the temperature dipped to 10 degrees Celsius at night. I stayed at Ramakanta’s house. It was close to the bus stop, however, the street was rough and dark. Ramakanta’s neighbor was with me. He carried a full bag of goods and staggered about drunkenly. He was not a big drinker. He just wanted to keep warm by drinking a little alcohol. Unfortunately, he fell down because it was dark but stood up fast and kept going. I took the phone out of my pocket and turned it on to light the way for him and Ramakanta. I did not know how they would see without my phone but they did get home safely many times without lights.
My job was to assist Chinu teach children English. Actually, I did not help much but people were happy to talk with a young foreign teacher. After class, I went to a farm to help the farmers. To be honest, I did not do much but the villagers were excited to see a traveler working in the fields. I was very glad to witness their lives.
A particular day in Aruchour
Everyone in the village was awake by 5 a.m. I knew that from the howling of a trumpet and the sound of people calling each other. Mr. Ramakanta also got up early. He wore short pants and went to the shed to cook food for the cattle and milk his buffalo even though it was very cold. Mrs Ramakanta prepared breakfast in the kitchen. The Nepali usually have breakfast at 10 o’clock. After cooking, Mrs. Ramakanta put the food in the cupboard and went to the field to harvest codo.
Sightseers would think Aruchour was heaven. The Paiyu flowers had crimson blooms, the rice terraces resembled broken mirrors, the mountains were covered by white clouds, the sun rose in the mist and sunset peeked out from behind old bamboo trees, the cock crowed in the early morning and there was a chorus of birds. However, if you worked in the fields with the farmers, you could see how hard their lives were.
This area was surrounded by mountains: in front were mountains, behind were mountains, right flank and left flank were also mountains. Arable land was used for cultivation. The peasants carried out crop rotation. They started with rice, then corn and codo (a kind of millet), then potatoes. They made the most of the valuable time, and there was no rest for the land. They also took full advantage of each crop. The grain from corn was used for food, the stalks and cobs were dried and used for firewood. With rice and codo, after separating the seeds, the stalks were used as fuel. Every house had a huge stack of straw that was used as food for cattle in the winter and summer. If a family had no cattle, they could exchange their straw for cow-dung to fertilize the fields. Most of the arable lands were used for crops so there was no room for grass. To cut fresh grass for the cattle, people climbed to the tops of mountains and crossed the hills to get baskets of grass.
Each house could only devote a small piece of land to grow vegetables. I was surprised and did not understand why Mrs. Ramakanta cooked vegetables so long. I later realized that they did not want to waste old vegetables so they softened them for chewing. In summer and winter, vegetables couldn’t grow so they would dry field cabbages and put them in a bag in the cupboard. When the harsh weather came they used dried vegetables to make food.
Although they live in the mountains they lack firewood because they dare not cut trees. Therefore, there was no firewood to heat water. They took a bath only once a week so most people have head lice.
They did not have machines for anything. When they wanted to plow the fields, they called their neighbors for mutual help. People with buffaloes could offer their buffaloes, healthy people could offer their health. In return, payment was a meal with rice and vegetables. The village only had one tailor who had to take his sewing machine around the village to make new clothes for people. They lived and experienced poverty like that.
Carrying words to school
Mrs. Chinu and I once took some young students to an English competition called “Spelling Contest”. The contest was held in support of this poor mountainous area, which lacked learning facilities. Books, notebooks, pens, dictionaries, etc. were luxuries here. Teachers in this region had not been trained in any teachers’ colleges. To help children learn English, a teacher read out a word and students tried to memorize that word by spelling it. Each school chose five students for the contest. There were 10 schools in Syangja District which participated in the contest. Going from Shree Sabodaya School to Shree Dara Daurali, we had to pass three very high, long hills. It seemed that the students did not care about the sinuous, sloping path. They were holding a sheet of paper and reading words silently while walking.
It took us three hours to reach the contest venue. The contest took place from11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in a solemn atmosphere. The representative of the board of examiners made a speech and contestants took an oath. Drums and trumpets were played. When the chairman of the board of examiners read out a word, the team that spelled it correctly first would score points.
The award for the winning team was not worth much. Each student received a notebook wrapped in old sheets of newspaper. The award for the winning school consisted of a wooden certificate of merit and a dictionary. The dictionary was small and old. In my country, such a dictionary would be put somewhere and forgotten because most people no longer use paper dictionaries. The teacher of the winning school stepped to the podium and received the dictionary with extreme joy and pride. I thought that the dictionary would be passed and considered as a treasure in this country. I called the journey “carrying words to school”.
I burst into tears when I saw the teacher holding the dictionary with much care as a treasure. I was aware that people in Aruchour village had never suffered from starvation because the villagers always worked hard on their farms. Although the students in the village led a life of deprivation, I strongly believed that they would reach new horizons by continuing to “carry words to school”. They would follow the example of the ancient Nepalese, who attempted to break mountains to build such a beautiful country…
Vo Thi My Linh