a home - and a family - away from home

help rebuild nepal

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dusk was settling over the rolling patches of green and yellow in the village of langol, the cloudless blue skies that had hung over earlier in the day slowly giving way to a soft peachy glow that was fading into greys. in the garden, babu raja maharjan and his wife belku were snipping away at the hedges that front their house. a neighbour was resting on their porch, minding her cows grazing in the field just beyond and where two teams of village kids were battling it out in a lively football game. i breathed in crisp air while taking in the bucolic scene and couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that this idyllic hamlet is a mere stone’s throw away from the dust-spewing streets of kathmandu but appears to exist on a different realm altogether.

the distance between nepal’s capital and the ancient city of kirtipur – which sits in kathmandu valley, where langol is located – is no more than 10km, but the journey can take nearly 30 minutes by car. my taxi first had to wind through the traffic-clogged streets of kathmandu, where harried drivers and impatient motorcyclists jostle for right of way with each other and the occasional (and presumably lost) cow before turning into kirtipur. from a distance, the city centre resembles a colourful lego town, formed by stacked buildings in every colour. like kathmandu, kirtipur’s main roads are flanked by shops peddling various trades, the facades of small sundry shops painted in the colours and logos of the international consumer goods brands that pay them for the advertising space; pepsi and coca-cola are among the biggest spenders.

we passed this and went ‘off road’ – off the tarred roads, that is, and trundled over sandy, gravelly paths into the heart of kirtipur where langol lays. immediately, the pace slowed down as expansive grasslands and grazing cattle take the place of buildings and cars. in fact, ours was the only vehicle winding through the single road. blockish houses of exposed bricks dot the landscape sporadically; the unfinished aesthetic is a norm here as a paint job is costly and not everyone can afford it. most homes are constant works in progress that are extended, built up and beautified bit by bit. what they lack in colour is made up for by the natural greens and yellows of the barley and wheat fields that surround them and stretch to the horizon. here, the sky is the skyline.

it’s certainly a rejuvenating change of scene after several days in congested thamel, where one’s senses are constantly bombarded by myriad distractions. as charming as it was, my soul was craving to see more of the land itself and immerse in the essence of local life. what better way to experience that than through a homestay – to live with a local family and see nepal through their eyes?

...the natural greens and yellows of the barley and wheat fields that surround them and stretch to the horizon. here, the sky is the skyline

babu’s homestay nepal came highly recommended on tripadvisor, having been awarded their certificate of excellence for two consecutive years now and topped their list of b&b’s in the kathmandu valley last year. a few emails was all it took to sort everything out between babu and i, including flight reservations for the subsequent portion of my travel, and all done without my having to pay a single rupee upfront. not that i had met or known babu prior to that; it was all based on trust, good will and as they always say in nepal, “namaste” which means ‘the good in me sees the good in you’.

i certainly saw, felt, heard and ate plenty of good in my four days with this hospitable family, who had begun opening up their simple but cosy home to staying guests since 2004. it started when babu, a certified trekking guide, led a group of swedish tourists on outdoor excursions and one of them, gunilla petersson, returned to stay with the family for four months. she cherished the experience so much that she began recommending it to her friends. it grew from there and soon, babu’s homestay nepal began attracting tourists from all over.

the youthful-looking father of two – he and belku have two teenage children, son aayush and daughter ruja – still leads trekking trips and walking tours, and also enlists the help of other guides. the maharjans speak good english so communication is fluid and they share their lives openly; ask babu how he and belku met, and you will be regaled with a romantic story of two childhood sweethearts who fought to stay together.

while belku is the mistress of the house who keeps things in tip-top condition, the whole family pitches in to see to guests’ needs. the kitchen, however, is belku’s domain and she whips up the most satisfying traditional nepalese delights such as dhal bhat (rice with a variety of meat and vegetable dishes), vegetable pakoras (fritters) and a variety of potato dishes. the maharjans have a small vegetable patch at the back of their house with herbs growing randomly, and harvest what they can for the meals they serve their guests. everything else is sourced from within the village; the produce are all organic and the dairy goods are as fresh as milking it yourself.

breakfast is a wholesome spread of toast, free-range eggs cooked any way you like, farm-fresh milk and fresh yogurt with a variety of seasonal fruits. for dinner, belku makes practically everything from scratch and cooks with the ease and instincts of someone who has clearly been doing – and loving – it for a long time. it’s a joy to watch her at her stove, often with several pots, pans and a pressure cooker bubbling and sizzling away at the same time. with her trusty platter of masala (spice mix) in one hand, she seasons, stirs and fries while appetising aromas whirl around the pink-walled kitchen. it’s my favourite portion of their home: this is where i not only get to savour beautiful food prepared with love, but also help out while learning about the different ingredients and pairings from a willing teacher – just as i used to at home, watching my late grandmother and my mother prepare the family’s favourite food. the kitchen is also the gathering point for everyone in the house, as its residents get to know each other over hearty meals.

the line-up of people changes nearly every day as visitors arrive and leave after varying lengths of stay. one night at dinner, i joined a pair of jovial french grandparents and their three grandchildren as they recounted their three-hour queue for visa-on-arrival at the tribhuvan international airport. but the well-travelled couple have seen it all, this being their second time in nepal. they told me about their maiden visit to nepal in the 1970s, when tourism was just budding and facilities were almost non-existent. they returned this time to show the young offsprings how different life is on another side of the world. in fact, every year during the school holidays, the couple whisk different grandchildren off on such mind-opening trips.

appetising aromas whirl around the pink-walled kitchen. it’s my favourite portion of their home

another night, i dined with a sprightly belgian couple in their 60s, hugo and francine, who had just returned after a five-day trekking trip that took them through remote villages, valleys and pine forests. it’s a trail that babu had mapped out from his intricate knowledge of the land around his village and provides an intimate look at what he calls ‘unseen nepal’. exhausted but in high spirits, hugo and francine recounted their adventure while i silently cringed because at half their age, i can muster neither the will nor stamina for it!

i opted for the village tour instead, led by babu’s ex-schoolmate nama. we set off after breakfast on my second morning there and walked at a leisurely pace as i took in the serene surrounds, stopping occasionally to say hello to the friendly villagers, who were dressed up in their finest as it’s the newari new year. most of the villagers here are newars (including babu and nama), one of nepal’s biggest ethnic groups.

a bubbly lady stopped us and blessed us by marking our foreheads with a red tika (a paste usually made of ash or clay, and coloured) each. at a small hill where a gigantic tree stands overlooking kathmandu valley, we met a group of ladies clad in similar orange and red parsi – similar to indian sarees – on their way home after prayers at the temple. young children would run up and ask “hello, do you have sweets?” while flashing me their saccharine smiles, thanking me politely before running off happily with the little chocolate bars i handed out. english is not taught at the local schools but there are a number of private institutions, funded by ngos or foreign corporations, which use the language as their medium. forward-thinking parents like babu and nama toil to send their children to such academies, so it is not surprising to find many young nepalese speaking good english.

i asked nama how the newars typically celebrate new year and in answer, he led me to chobar, another village in the valley that’s known for a breathtaking gorge that one can view from a suspended bridge. the crowds were clearly in a festive mood as they made their way to a nearby hill, the perfect vantage point to take in all of kathmandu valley. it’s also a popular picnic spot where families gather to feast, their colourful outfits popping against the natural sand-and-grass backdrop. we walked past a group dancing by their car, from which loud music was blaring, and they invited us to join them. as is customary on that day, they offered us drinks before we say goodbye.

this is the nepal that i had hoped to see, and babu had more to offer me. the next morning, we took a short stroll from his home – and what i have come to think of as mine – to a similar house two minutes away which his grandfather built decades ago. it’s where he and his siblings were born and grew up in. babu’s parents and a brother still live here and if needed, there’s a room to spare for his homestay guests. unlike babu’s house, which is considerably modern and spacious, his family home sports newari architecture with low ceilings, tight corners, steep wooden staircases and walls of clay. it’s cosy and cooling, with the aura of time having stood still.

i got another sense of authentic, traditional nepali life as we headed back to babu’s house. the entire household was outside the house – shopping.  they crowded around a young seller who had his wares bound by thick ropes tied to two ends of a long stick that he balances on one shoulder as he makes house calls across the villages. belku was checking out a large cooking pot, hugo wanted some cups and another guest was eyeing a small pressure cooker.

it was a joyous scene filled with laughter, banter and bargaining and it summed up my first homestay experience so perfectly. this is what a home feels like and at babu’s, i feel like i have also found a family away from home.

 

for more information on babu homestay nepal, go to http://www.familyhomestaykathmandu.com/ and also https://www.facebook.com/familyhomestaykathmandu