Each year at Chitwan National Park, there is a 10-day interval during which villagers can enter the National Park and cut elephant grass, pick mushrooms, and otherwise take advantage of its natural resources from which they are barred during the rest of the year. The villagers were removed from the land when the park was established in 1973. Elephant grass is wide, green grass that grows as high as eight feet tall. The villagers use elephant grass in constructing their homes, especially for the roof and to make furniture such as table tops. I visited in late January.
On a canoe ride, I saw people coming from everywhere, converging on the river, and wading from one bank to another with huge stacks of elephant grass. The elephant grass seemed much higher from the perspective of the canoe than it did from an elephant’s back. An estimated 60,000 people were in the park that day. They cut the elephant grass with a scythe and bundled it. Generally, the bunches were up to 1.5 feet in diameter and fastened using horizontal braids made of that same grass.
People carried the heavy stacks, sometimes triple stacks, fashioned into arches, that leaned onto their backs backs like a knapsack. Close up you could see that the stacks were tied on their backs with a strap that looped over their foreheads. The stacks were often larger than the people themselves such that it looked as if the haystacks were traveling about on their own. The people were mostly barefoot and had mud marks up to their knees. It looked like a scene of multifold deprivation from a distance. I was quietly thankful that I was born on the other side of the world.
As I drew closer to the people who were cutting and carrying the elephant grass, I saw they were having a great time and singing happy songs. It was both bewildering and humbling. Looks can be deceiving, and I was determined to continue my time in Nepal without rushing to judgment.
from Chapter 4 of Tattoo—Journeys on My Mind
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