What I did on Friday, October 4, 2002, does not constitute a normal day in Birganj.
A normal day in Birganj begins with coffee at Himanchal Cabin and ends with a book in bed by nine o’clock. The Friday of October 4, 2002, began with a shot of a starter’s pistol and a hundred Nepalis sprinting through downtown Birganj.
There are no elephants in Birganj, unless it’s Friday, October 4, 2002, which in that case there are three. There would be no lumbering elephant named Krishna Prassad milling about in Birganj unless it’s Friday, October 4, 2002.
The day only comes once a year and that’s enough, considering that Friday, October 4, 2002, includes suffering an limitless, boring speech on Christianity by a Nepali in Hindi.
Since it is allowed, I’ll begin with
It all began with . . .
It all began with a changing of the guard in Birganj. My long time singular male site mate Luke had left for the United States. The same day he left, Rob, who had been the other singular PCV when I had first arrived in Birganj, returned from medically imposed exile.
The social dynamic changed. Suddenly I was being coaxed into riding murderous Ferris wheels and sitting through Hindi magic shows and watching street-side snake handlers laugh as their toothless cobras bite them.
If I hadn’t been with Rob, I wouldn’t have been on a rickshaw that was stopped by a random headsir of a random private school who had decided, perhaps randomly, to hold a marathon to raise money for a government school. A marathon is 26 miles, except in Nepal where it can be 15 km.
We were invited. If we came, there might be free food and endless staring served with the usual side dishes of relentless badgering about my notorious bag of US visas and the question,
Why are you not married?
Weigh that with the prospect of explaining to yet unknown numbers of people questioning me why I didn’t participate in the marathon for the remaining 19 months of my service in Birganj. The prospect of jogging in the oppressive heat wasn’t so awful.
Rob and I showed up that morning. It was Friday, October 4, 2002. The school was packed with people with hand-drawn numbers pined onto their clothes.
Jane-Erie even showed up, which was strange because Jane-Erie had bought a ticket to run in the marathon, whereas Rob and I had just been guilted into showing up. She was the real volunteer. Rob and I were just hoping for some free pizza or daal bhaat in a worse-case scenario.
As the crowd gathered behind the starting tape, a jeep rushed to the front of the crowd. Out stepped a man that looked no less than 106 years old. We were told this was the oldest man of Birganj.
They called him,
Sabundha eckdam boudha Birganj manche, which translates as,
That’s Old Man Birganj.
Unless I didn’t hear correctly, Old Man Birganj was 106 years old, which was a shock since Old Man Birganj looked 106.
Look back at my photos of my host family and you’ll see what I’m talking about. My host father looked easily as if he was in his early 50s when he was actually in his late 30s. Life is hard.
Back to the race, which was about to begin. Before Old Man Birganj cut the tape, however, the women were given their three-minute lead in the race.
After the women left the auspicious occasion, Old Man Birganj blessed the runners, cut the tape, and was rushed back into the jeep before the surge of runners decrowned Old Man Birganj. We ran.
Actually, I’ll be honest. I had come with the full intention of not running in the marathon. I work sneakers and shorts as well as my college T-shirt. I was dressed for athletics, but Rob and I only got from the gates of the school to the main road before Rob told me his plan.
Let’s get a rickshaw, Rob said while rubbing his hands together as if he had a plan, which he didn’t.
We made good time. As we began down Main Street, we passed runners of all ages.
We were headed south towards the Indian border where we’d turn east and then north again and back to the school. Just past the Ghantaghar, we came to the first checkpoint.
The kid tallying the runners’ positions yelled,
What’s your number?
We’re cheating, Rob yelled, pausing for a moment before shouting back at the kid,
We’re number one!
Things got ugly at the next checkpoint. Kids were waiting with water straight from the water system of Birganj. Runners were chugging water swimming with amoebas and who knows what else.
Rob and I were talking about this when one overly excited kid threw a one liter bottle of dirty water at us, hitting rob in the chest and exploding like a well-designed fragmentation grenade. We laughed because, well, what else could we do?
The race continued like this. The absurdity of life in Birganj is sometimes too much to take. At one roundabout we had our rickshaw wallah make a victory lap while Rob and I stood and cheered on the onlookers.
Just past the halfway mark (which was India, actually) we passed a woman, perhaps in her 50s, wearing a sari and white sneakers, jogging along with at a fair pace.
When we finally made it back to the school and negotiated a price with the rickshaw wallah (NRs 100 for full tour of the perimeter of Birganj) we met the elephants that had been walked in from Chitwan National Park for a fair to be held on the school grounds that evening.
Even though the fairgrounds were still being worked on, we decided to check things out before it got crowded.
And as we came just inside the grounds we saw the mantelpiece of the fairgrounds coming to life before our eyes: the Ferris wheel.
Just a week had passed since Rob and I had flaunted our stupidity by riding on this piece of mechanized death. We left, finally running.