Assimilation. We were trained, versed, and talked to ad nauseum on the subject. So much so that during my first month in a village on top of an Annapurna foothill, it was a piece of cake to find my exact place on the downward trajectory of culture shock. Homesickness—check. Anxiety—check. What I hadn’t expected was that no matter how clearly I defined my symptoms, checking them off could not fortify my heart.
I had entered a world of sudden isolation and silence.
At night I huddled against my host family’s smoky fire, wiping irritated eyes with a bandana as I listened to the undulating rhythm of a language I had been given no score sheet to read. Peace Corps trained us to speak Nepali, but not Gurung, the language spoken in people’s homes.
During the day, I would sit on the cliffs above my school, and trace the sky in the place I imagined the Annapurnas. I was told that it was a stunning view, one that trekkers sometimes took a detour off the trail to see. It was lost to me; my hill obscured in a mist that grew like a grey moss, waving back and forth in the wind but sticking stubbornly to the rocks.
Even the village--nearly empty since most everyone was planting the rice fields below--seemed to be in stage two of culture shock, withdrawal. The only time I saw more than a few people at a time was when I ducked behind my host family’s house and undid the burlap bags around the pit latrine. Suddenly hoards of children surrounded my little hole hoping to catch a glimpse of my very white behind. Nothing I said could budge them so I took to holding my bladder until night and sneaking my toilet time in the dark. I slid on my share of cow waste that way, but at least I had some privacy.
As for my teaching assignment, only one child showed up. The others were in the fields and would be for who knew how long. Even the teachers stayed away working their own land far below the mist. No one could tell me when school actually started, so I would trek an hour to work each day only to sit alone in the teachers’ office reading my books. I felt like a jellyfish floating without a skeleton.
Right after finishing War and Peace in three days, I ran. I wrote a good-bye note to my friends in the nearby villages, and without even telling my headsir, I started the long hike down to the nearest phone. After only a month, I was going to ET, early terminate, and I didn’t care. I wanted action, movement, a current to pick up my body and shake it into solid form. About halfway down the hill, as I neared the rice fields, it began to rain the fat tennis ball sized drops of tropical lands, and the ever present moss of mist thickened until I couldn’t see where I was going. But I was racing, skittering, mud-up-to-my knees happy. I was going home. I had made a decision, shrugged off the lethargy of the last month. I felt alive.
Then something stopped me. A noise from somewhere below. I paused beneath the shelter of a banana tree so that I could identify the sound over the clattering rain. Soon I recognized the high-pitched, achingly innocent voices of children singing as they worked in the rice fields. As raindrops ran like mercury down banana leaves, I listened. I had never heard anything like it. The children sang, one song, two, three. I’m not sure how long I stood there beneath that banana tree breathing in the wonder of those joyous voices. I was jolted back only when a water buffalo broke through the mist and jerked back its head in surprise. I smiled at it, as if we two were accomplices in this experience. It raced off and I laughed.
Just like that, Nepal touched my heart.
I turned around, and headed back up. The inertia of that first month lifted. My family began to speak Nepali with me, I learned a few words of Gurung, the children and teachers returned to the school, and one day even the stubborn mist peeled off the rocks to reveal peaks stretching like sails skimming across a vast sea of sky.