Monday, April 6, 2009

Happy Holi!


Holi is the full-moon springtime festival of colors celebrated in India, Nepal, and neighboring countries. On this day, people come out and throw colored powder and douse each other with water. Some use water guns to spray each other with colored water. (Air can relate because in Thailand they also use water guns on New Year's Day). This year the Holi falls on March 22 (Saturday). According to Mukti, the "hilly people" of Nepal celebrate it on this day, while the Terai people (and the people of India) celebrate it the day after. We're in the Terai, but since a lot of hilly people have settled here, we were guaranteed to see some action.

We had a deadline for our preliminary report at 7pm, so we set out early in the morning to give us enough time to finish writing after lunch. Yep, we decided to watch the festival, and possibly participate as well (Air wore a plain shirt and jogging pants, just in case. I did not intend to join so I didn't dress down.) Mukti said Butwal would be the best place to find people doing the Holi, so we drove for almost an hour from the Hokke hotel in Lumbini to reach Rupandehi's biggest city.

Upon reaching Butwal, we first stopped at a store selling colored powder. There were kids throwing powder at each other and splashing each other with water. Air immediately joined the kids, running around like crazy. Air was so into it that in no time she looked like a huge mess, her shirt and pants (and hair) wet with colored water. I managed to avoid the powder. I just wasn't in the mood. The people were laughing and clapping as Air ran after the kids (and vice versa). Good thing I asked the hotel for a clear plastic bag to cover my camera with because I knew it could get wet.

After that, we drove further until we reached the hills. It was my first sight of Siddhartha Highway, a scenic route that is almost 200 kilometers long that weaves through several districts including Palpa and finally Pokhara (more on them in later entries). We came upon a group of young people who had set up a road block. They wanted to put Holi powder on us and to ask for donations. They were friendly, if a bit stubborn about the donations. We tried to shake them off until Mukti asked for 10 rupees. Air opened her window and threw powder at one of the guys and they laughed. Another group involving old folks wearing colorful clothes sang and danced for us, and even asked Air to join them.

As we went on, we were stopped by at least three more groups asking for money. It seems they were really letting nobody pass without getting money, although I saw a guy in a motorcycle just zoom past. I got irritated and nearly lost my cool. I thought, hey, you cannot coerce people into giving you money. I mean, in the Philippines, people also do this, but not this much, certainly not a few minutes apart in the same highway. And a no is a no. And I know that this seems to be common in Nepal. I feel it's like institutionalized coercion. Young cadres of the Maoist party of Nepal have been known to block roads and trekking trails to ask for specific amounts (I read they even issue receipts, and if you don't pay, well the next collector will ask to see your receipt, so if you can't produce one, then you have to pay him).

We stopped at a roadside teahouse at the edge of a cliff. The air was crisp and the view amazing, reminding me of Tagaytay in the Philippines. There were other tea shops around, selling yummy-looking food. The place seemed a popular stop for buses and other travelers. At the side of the road, an ancient-looking water spout shaped like a lion's head gave out water continuously, where people washed their hands and faces.

On the way to the city, we were stopped again several times by groups asking for money. I got so irritated that I just closed my window and paid no attention, pretending to understand what I was trying to read. I don't know if it's because of the age gap, but I was also a bit upset that Air seemed to be so into this merrymaking that I felt my blood rushed to my head when some green Holi powder flew into my direction when she was trying to horse around with some of the people outside. I didn't mean to be rude, but all I could think about was finishing our report and not getting powder on my clothes. I swore Holi's not my favorite festival in the world.

We made it back to Hokke at around 1 pm. After taking a shower and putting on fresh clothes, we started with our report. I felt we took too much time already so we had to work.

Around 3:30 pm, there was a knock on the door. We were being invited by the hotel staff to eat something at their quarters to celebrate the Holi. Air and I looked at each other and said, okay, 10 minutes, because we're in a hurry.

Upon reaching the quarters at the back of the hotel, we were immediately met by a bucket of cold water and several pairs of hands putting Holi powder on my face! Nyaarrgh! And I'd just taken a shower and was wearing a new, white shirt!?! I was definitely taken aback, not just by how messy I now looked, but also by how happy everyone seemed, which was infectious. It's not unlike when Filipinos celebrate the feast of St. John the Baptist and people just go nuts splashing water at everybody, all with a sense of fun. I tried to escape from more buckets of water and more Holi, to no avail. Air started running around doing the same to everybody. My camera got wet so I gave it to one of the staff to put it somewhere dry. After several more minutes of craziness, we were given delicious food and drinks and posed for group photos. Air thought the celebration was the perfect ice breaker: after that, they were no longer faceless hotel staff. They became our friends. And my new white shirt, now soiled with colorful Holi powder, will remain unwashed for eternity, the perfect souvenir of this unbelievable day.

The celebration didn't end there. In the evening, after e-mailing Kathmandu our report at 7:30 pm, we were invited to join the staff for drinks and music. Under the full moon, we ate Nepalese snacks and drank whiskey and San Miguel beer (go Pinoy!). The staff also invited a group of senior Japanese pilgrims and a couple of Russian guys who were also staying at the hotel. One of the staff, Sachindra (Sachin for short) -- who tends the hotel shop and who strangely looks Spanish because of his Caucasian features (he is a Newari, from the city of Patan; more on that later) -- started singing some Nepali songs with his guitar. He said he plays with his friends in a band in Kathmandu. But to my horror, he called me and asked me to sing something. Yikes, I don't really sing in public in the Philippines, certainly not with Japanese and Russian people around. He gave me a "songhits" with Nepali and English songs. I knew one song there, the Beatles' "And I Love Her," so I mustered up the courage to sing that, which surprisingly went ok. Next to sing was a couple of Japanese ladies, and then it was dancing time, with the cooks and the gardeners giving their all, Bollywood style!

After a quick tour of the kitchen (where they gave us more food), I sneaked back to our room at around 10:30 to call it a night. Mukti and Bhimji followed. Mukti was worried about Air being left alone with the other guys at the party. I told Mukti that I'm sure Air will be fine and I didn't think anybody would do anything bad to her. (You see, Nepalis retreat to their homes quite early, with shops closing at around seven. And women certainly don't stay out late, unlike where Air and I are from where people start coming to clubs at 11 pm. Although Mukti may have had a point, as I learned the next morning that some of the guys got drunk). I appreciate Mukti's concern, but maybe he's just not used to young women staying out late. Air meanwhile thought Mukti acted weird.

(Click on any image to see more photos.)

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