• Adventure
  • 12 February, 2024

Life in Tamang Villages

Life in Tamang Villages
Kalani Gacon talking to local Tamang women in Gatlang.

In May 2015, I was traveling on top of a brick-truck through the hills of Nepal, holding on tight and taking in glances of mist between the valleys which seemed to never end. It had been a long day of traveling, stopping in different road-side towns along the way, picking up pickaxes, crowbars, hammers across different stops. I didn’t understand a word of what was going on, and I wasn’t particularly bothered by it. As the day turned to dusk, and the smell of fires cooking a hearty meal filled the air, the truck became a communal bus for villagers getting home before dark. They took turns getting on and off, and some interesting eye contact was made in these moments. One of the villagers was Chandra Tamang, who had just arrived back home from Malaysia after another stint of hard labour in a tyre factory.

“Why stay in Nepal during the earthquake, brother? Very big problem here,” he told me with sincere eyes. It had not been too many days since the Great Earthquake.

He continued, “road here, also very problem…” as he jumped off the truck and started helping a small crowd move large stones to the side of the road. Landslides were everywhere, as the rainy season poked her head out a bit earlier than usual.

Abruptly, just as night came, Chandra smiled at me, “okay, brother, reached village.” I was glad to know that we had both been heading to the same place.

The truck stopped on the ground where a school had been, nearby a group of young boys had just finished playing football. It was too dark to see the ball anymore; otherwise, they would still be playing. They noticed me jumping off the brick-truck and walked over to take a look at this khaire (white person). One of the youngest boys, Suman Tamang handed me the football, and asked me a question with one word “skill?”

I had traveled to the hills of the Nuwakot district, to a mostly Tamang village called Bhamara, on the recommendation of a friend, who said that there was some relief and emergency rebuilding work that I could help out with there. At the time, I didn’t know who the Tamang were, and in hindsight, I didn’t have much to offer, and my ‘help’ would be mostly tokenistic. There were enough young and able bodies in the village to take care of what I could ever do, and a rosy-cheeked Australian teenager with a sensitive stomach was more likely to get in the way than solve any serious problems.

Life in Tamang Villages
I wish I had packed more clothes on my first trip to Bhamara. After the first week everything I had was covered in red-mud and I was left with a bedsheet.

However, I’d like to believe that my being there, somewhat random and unexpected, might have gently stirred something positive in the air. I made a point to bring the kids of the village together every day before sunset for a game of football and I like to think that perhaps this ritual brought some morale and a healthy distraction in a time when the world felt like it was hardly holding together.

I spent the next 3 and half months living there, with trips to Kathmandu spiced in between. The football goal posts saw many different iterations in this time. Across these days, I experienced some of the most beautiful and precious moments of my time on earth so far. The earthquake had physically and spiritually shaken the atoms of life and so many people’s stories were being rewritten during this time, including my own.

Part of the “work” I was supposed to be doing there was overseeing the removal of the earthquake-destroyed school building and the construction of a temporary bamboo shelter to be used as a makeshift school. One morning, the regular kids who were always hanging around, started to form a line to pass the old building materials down to a pile where they could be reused. More shy kids who were watching from a distance were bellowed down to join.

A bit of commotion spread across the village and some women shy at first, but seeing what was happening, joined in, growing the line longer. Slowly, it felt like everyone from the village was brought together at that moment, forming a massive human chain, with small kids on one end, passing down stones and bricks towards the village elders on the other. I was somewhere in the middle, my eyes wide with awe, holding back a tear. It was a moment of simple inexplicable beauty that I will never forget.

Life in Tamang Villages
The human chain was re-created with the real students who had already done this in real life, in my film ‘Bhukampa’.

Bipin Lama, an elder who spoke an interesting version of English, walked up to me, his smile gentle from so many years of living softly, 

“This is our culture. Do you people also do this back in your country when school is damaged?” He was genuinely curious and keen to learn about the world I had come from. I didn’t have much to say, I was still in awe of the moment. For the villagers, it was probably entirely forgettable, an hour of their time helping build their local school after an earthquake, who knows how else they had worked together recently to protect their family and homes. But for me, I was left with a very special feeling in my heart.

I was so moved by what I experienced I would later recreate this moment and more moments like this in a film about the Earthquake from the point of view of children ‘Bhukampa’ (2015).

Life in Tamang Villages
One day a class at school looked like this. With no classrooms, the teachers had to get creative
Life in Tamang Villages
I recreated this moment above in ‘Bhukampa’, with mostly the   same students and the same teacher, Kiran Sir.

A lot of moments of life didn’t make it into the film. Walking past houses in the mornings I would be invited to drink a cup of fresh home made spirits (‘Raksi’) before breakfast and was not allowed to say no. One glass and I would become quite drunk. I had to quickly learn to find paths that avoided those houses. Soon, there were no paths left and I had to learn to pretend to drink it.

The Tamang take pleasure in seeing guests enjoy their locally produced alcohol and often won’t take no for an answer. Most women are involved in local alcohol production as a source of income, using millet, rice or corn which supplies their major sources of food for the year as well. To say that raksi is a big part of Tamang life is an understatement. It is a spiritual, economic and cultural lifeblood of many communities. Every guest customarily brings raksi to a wedding, or funeral, and people won’t show their face at a family member’s house without bringing raksi to say ‘hello’.

Since the Great Earthquake, I have continued to spend my time in this village and have grown to know it as another home. Time must move faster in the hills of Nepal as on my most recent trip, while I was watching ‘Bhukampa’ again with some of my friends in Bhamara, we took turns pointing at the faces of the kids in the movie – “he has 3 kids now, she’s married and in Dubai, he’s in Malaysia, just left the village after meeting his 2nd child for the first time.” This is barely 9 years on, and most of these kids were between 7 and 10 years old when we filmed with them. I too, had changed a lot since my first visit.

I now have a pretty good grasp of the Nepali language (the second language of most rural Tamang), and have been learning various dialects of Tamang from Nuwakot and Sindhupalchowk. I spent a few years volunteering with different NGOs in human trafficking prevention which brought me back to Bhamara and closer again to the community and the families of the girls we were supporting. I was adopted by one of those families in Bhamara and have built a house for them. This is no doubt, a story for another time. 

Fast forward a few years, and in 2023, I set out to shoot my film ‘Family Man’ (2024) in Nepal, and I was in search of the perfect location. The script demanded a nearby lake, traditional style houses and a location with a timeless beauty for its fictional setting of ‘Sanugau’ (‘Small Village’). For its small size, Nepal packs an amazing amount inside it. The fact that all the roads outside the plains are winding across hills and mountains means there is more crammed into a smaller geographic area and traveling takes a lot longer than expected – a lot longer. I bought a map of central Nepal and looked for the villages in between the cracks, hidden on corners and in small, unnoticeable text between valleys. I told myself I was not going to come back to Kathmandu until I found ‘Sanugau’.

Kalani Gacon during th shoot of Family Man in Gatlang.

After the Earthquake it had become increasingly hard to find a traditional style of house in the earthquake affected parts of the country, as almost everyone had rebuilt in brick, cement, and tin. It became a kind of poetic mission, following roads where there were whispers of a village lost in time. When we arrived in those places, there was often no one left living there or the houses had already been rebuilt – we were too late.

I was on the road for many days and had already made quite an extensive tour of the Nuwakot, Sindhupalchowk and Rasuwa districts, all major districts of population for the Tamang. I knew I wouldn’t be confident or comfortable filming in another community, where I hadn’t collected the years of life experiences, language and stories. We were traveling during a particularly dry spell. It hadn’t rained for quite a few months. My film, too, coincidentally, was a story about a storm that comes after a very long time and the mysterious effect it has on a family.

When we finally arrived in the village of Gatlang, and it snowed the first snow of the season, and the first rain of the year lower down the hill, I took it as a gentle nod from the gods of cinema, to take some rest from the big journey of location scouting and shoot the movie there. It would end up being a very consequential decision of my life.

My search for Sanugau took me across the Tamang Heritage Trail, and I was lucky enough to visit all the villages on the Trail and more. In this special area of Nepal, culture has been preserved in fascinating ways. Young and old walk around still wearing their traditional dress, made from Yak and sheep wool by artisans, often outside their homes, which you can still see as you walk through the villages. Many of the houses have been preserved and or rebuilt in their traditional form, and the mayor of Gatlang proudly shared his vision with me one morning over tea to rebuild all the houses in Gatlang bazaar in the traditional method. We definitely found what we were looking for, plus a whole lot more.

When we were casting for our film, we were recommended by the mayor to spread the word using local technology – a messenger (‘chogo’). The chogo arrived late but ready. I followed him as he walked his way through the village to his favourite vantage points, where he used his loud and ancient voice to yell into the valleys and spread the word that we were casting for our movie. He would only accept payment in bottles of raksi.

With its difficult terrain and relative remoteness, the Tamang of the Heritage Trail area had to learn how to be self-sufficient, with trade from Tibet and the lower lands of Nepal providing some outside goods unreliably and variably through harsh winters. The need to be self-sufficient has created an enduring independence and a distinct unique local identity. The influence of Tibetan culture is tangible, and on a clear day in Gatlang you can see Tibet across the hill. It is a place both stuck in time and on the verge of immense change. It is a fascinating paradox, the children of wealthier families are living in foreign countries like Australia, driving a Toyota Corolla to their office job, while their parents weave clothes and wait for the daily bus to bring their supply of salt and oil from the city. 

One of my unexpectedly favourite surprises of the area was the abundance of hot springs. Nothing quite compares to the feeling of letting your body sink into the heat of natural mineral waters after a long day of walking. It is a primally satisfying experience that everyone needs to try. As a lover of sauna and hot springs, this was a much appreciated treat of my time there. My favourite hot spring was located just above the town of Chilme. We reached there on a full moon night, surrendered our bodies to the water gods, with a river flowing Himalayan waters right next to us.

Nothing could have ever prepared me for the shoot of ‘Family Man’. Despite it being one of the most difficult exercises of my life, I would go back to Gatlang and film another movie tomorrow if I had the chance. I spent over a month in Gatlang for the shoot plus at least a month exploring the surrounding villages area prior to settling there. Shooting a movie in a village creates a lifetime bond with that place. It opens you right up to learning things about the people and yourself that you wouldn’t see coming. 

  • Leave a reply

  • Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *