The house is empty. I know even on the approach, footsteps beating a frosty rhythm on the track, the forest etched onto the steep slopes behind it like pressed flowers. I know because though sounds from the village – water slapping on the communal tap’s stone flags, a peal of laughter as a woman threshing rice hails a friend – carry on the crisp air, the ghar in front of me is as still and lifeless as the dawn’s steel-cut chill. And it was never silent.
Ghar. The Nepali word for home: in this case, a two-storey, terracotta earth farmhouse in the community of Godawari. In 2001, I lived here for a month with a host family and two other volunteers while training for a teaching post in the Himalayas. Nestled in a crease of the Kathmandu Valley, life here bridged the gap between the capital and more remote regions of the country, offering a crash course in local culture and language, plus opportunities to hone vital skills like outdoor washing and the use of long-drop toilets.
The days of hosting guests were long over when the earthquake of 2015 devastated the village. The blocky, Technicolor houses that mushroomed in the rebuild have rendered Godawari unrecognisable. But miracles happen. Somehow, this farm, with its crumbling mud walls, survived that day. While no longer inhabited, my host mother and father still use it as a crop store, though hopes they might be here on this impromptu visit – a bolt-on to a trek in Langtang – seem increasingly naïve as the seconds tick by.
All the same, I’m at the door before I know it. Everything: the creaky porch bench; the cat’s-cradle tangle of sunburst marigolds and morning glory in the side garden, the ammonia tang of the chicken coops, is exactly as I remember. Bar signs of life. Bending double I cross the tiny threshold, struts warped and stained by decades of monsoon rains. “Hajur?” I call out a traditional greeting. There’s no reply.
In the musty darkness of the main living quarters, memories pulse like strobe lights. Morning dhal bats, the national dish of lentils and rice, eaten by the stove with a sloppy right hand. A solo performance of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, the family as gaping audience. A black goat trotting in one mealtime, then prancing out again, tail held high.
And the noise: from the first light’s whispers to gossip at nightfall, the ghar throbbed with life, presided over by ama: our hummingbird host mother. Endlessly patient, she spoke to us; her three foreign daughters, in slow Nepali that made no sense, until, as the weeks progressed, we began to extract meaning from her sentences. Rice. Forest. Water: the words finally came, each one a hard-earned, precious jewel.
There are no words now, only dust motes and a stand of sugarcane wilting in a corner. The stools we once crouched on, to chat or play with the chubby baby, lie abandoned on a mat. Still, in the far left of the room, a rickety ladder leads to what I recall in a lightning flash is a balcony; an afternoon suntrap where we patched together our new world in letters home. I decide to go up for old time’s sake. Perhaps the view will banish the disappointment of a phantom reunion.
The ancient ladder’s wooden struts groan beneath me, but when I breach the hatch, popping up like a mole onto the planked terrace, a surprise awaits. I recognise her instantly, hair streaked silver, the high forehead with its scarlet tikka now a map of wrinkles. She holds a bronze pot, thin trickle of dried corn spilling from the sack at her side. Ama. We both blink. A moment passes, then another; nothing but cold air and almost two decades swirling around the draughty platform.
“Jethi chori!” Finally, she speaks. Eldest daughter. My name for the four weeks I spent under her roof. Setting down the pot, she steps in my direction, talking now in a river-rush tumble. Panic rises. My Nepali, unused in the last twenty years, has all but vanished, but the need to respond triumphs. From somewhere long ago, the ultimate survival phrase bubbles up; the one we all learned immediately, the one we would say again and again over the following months.
“Maile buijhina, ama.” It comes out creaky the first time, easier the second. “Maile buijhina.” I’m telling my host mother that I don’t understand, but when she wraps me in her arms, I do.
About the author
Ruth Cox is a freelance educational materials editor. Currently based in West Cornwall, she has lived in Colombia, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Australia and Nepal, where she volunteered for several months in the Eastern Himalayas.