It is amazing how snippets of people’s lives that you witnessed while travelling can stick like glue in your mind, and how you often find yourself thinking about encounters you had months or even years later. Sometimes time is a lens through which we can reflect on our encounters, and the more time passes, the deeper the reflection.
Whilst backpacking in Nepal, I accidentally stumbled across a traditional wedding ceremony, and I have even though I do not even know her name or her story, I have often thought about the girl who was around my age, and what may have become of her.
It was that magical hour before sunset when the shadows grow long. The orphans, from my volunteer placement and I were going about our twilight task of collecting tomorrows water in old faded sprite bottles.
As we awaited our turn, amongst some monks and several shoeless gap-toothed children, the peaceful serenity of the late afternoon was disturbed by the screech of a scooter. This was unusual as the water pump was on the outskirts of Nepal’s second city, Pokhara. It was located next to a crumbling but still majestic temple and a rice field on a little-used side road and was generally exempt from the numerous scooters that zigzagged around filling the fresh mountain air with petrol on the main roads.
On the scooter was a girl and a man. They were surprisingly formally dressed compared to the often shoe-less inhabitants of this largely rural, and rather improvised area. As they approached the temple dust kicked up on the pot-holed excuse for a side road.
I suddenly became aware of the scent of burning incense, and noticed a small gathering of around 20 people around the temple’s shrine. There was small forlorn looking suitcase with a few rich looking golden and red pieces of material and some bowls and pans. The girl had long brown hair braided the same way the orphan’s wore their hair to school, she had a red bindi and was wearing traditional clothing. She had a ethereal look about her, as if she wasn’t fully there.
The girl would have had to have been a few years younger than my nineteen years. The man appeared several years her senior, and did not have a face which appeared kind or gentle. It was the face of a man which had been hardened by the reality of his existence, I could see no glint of joy in his eyes. There was no visible sign of romance or lust or love between the two soon-to-be newly weds.
The surroundings were breathtakingly beautiful — it was twilight, the sky was still clear, on the horizon the snowcapped Annapurna ranges were fully visible. The temple was simple yet adorned with fading prayer flags which swayed gently in the breeze and red and gold sculptures of the many Gods which caught the fading sunlight.
However there was something overwhelmingly melancholy and sad about the scene before me. As I stood witness to this union, the opening stanzas to a Michael Drainsfield poem I had studied in Literature class entitled ‘After a birthday’, came to mind..
i drew a line
on one side now
on the other, childhood
the line was not
wavering partly because
one’s hand trembles
at such a closing-off
In many parts of Nepal, one day you are a little girl running around helping to collect water and kicking bunches of rubber bands with the other children and the next you are a married woman with a dowry and a husband and expected to do the cooking and take on the role of wife and mother. A line is just drawn in the dust of the temple ground, a ceremony takes place, and innocence is closed off.
In Western society the demarcation is less clear. Marriage is not something we have arranged for us or is necessarily required or desired by all. In Western culture, marriage is celebration of love, saying you want to be with this person for the foreseeable future (and gain the legal benefits) — not a closing off of innocence.
In our society we draw wavy, jagged and unbroken lines between childhood and adulthood. We get to be young adults. Stuck in a limbo where we can become ourselves, make our own choices, be they good or bad, and decide who we want to marry or even if we want to get married at all.
One day (hopefully by the time the children I was fortunate to meet in my volunteering placement are my age) I hope that the third world also shares this opportunity and girls younger than me won’t be force in to marriage with men they don’t love before they have had time to be their own person and figure out what they want from life.
Not that there is anything in aspiring to marriage and motherhood. But I believe everyone deserves to have the chance to be something more than a wife and a mother.
Everyone deserves to have the chance to develop their own sense of self and draw their own lines.
Growing up is not about drawing a straight line through one day and the next, the line is jagged, missing pieces and likely to loop around a few times. Western culture sure has it’s problems and shortcomings, but at least I am blessed to come from a country where I get some say in choosing my own path.