The Arun River slices through Eastern Nepal, forming one of the world’s deepest gorges. One spring—having learned some Nepali, and eager to hike in the Himalaya—I flew from Kathmandu to Tumlingtar and then set off on foot, following the Arun toward the Tibetan border. After a few hours on the slippery trail, I realized I needed help. Stopping in a wayside town, I hired a teenage Sherpa named Norbu. He shouldered my pack with ease and we set off toward the mountain snows.
We trekked for days, sharing language lessons and tales. One morning over breakfast, Norbu expressed a wish to visit a nearby village called Bala. His grandparents were the heads of the hamlet, and he hadn’t seen them for years. It would delight them, he said, if we stopped in for a night.
I agreed, with one caveat. Eastern Nepal has scant resources. The harsh winter had just ended, and food would be scarce. We had brought noodles and dried meat, and could cook for ourselves.
“But they’ll insist,” Norbu replied. “You’ll be an honored guest, the first American to visit the village.”
“Well...OK. But see that they don’t overdo it.”
We arrived in the late afternoon. Bala was an oasis of tidy packed-earth homes, nestled between terraced hills. Corn and chile peppers hung from rafters. As predicted, Norbu was greeted like a returning moonwalker. I was an exotic alien; kids ran over to stare at my nose, tug my beard and feel the texture of my expedition parka.
Despite my protests, Norbu’s grandparents—a wizened couple—insisted on cooking dinner. Norbu suggested, diplomatically, that I stay out of their way. Supplied with a flask of local millet raaksi, I climbed a nearby hill and watched the sun fall behind the foothills. The more I drank, the better I felt; soon I was feeling very good indeed. As the last light faded, I heard a cowbell ring: dinner was ready.
The single, mud-walled room of Norbu’s grandparents’ home was illuminated with butter lamps. Villagers filled the low wooden benches along the walls. In the center of the swept-dirt floor was a single chair cushioned with a hand-loomed carpet: my place of honor.
I sat, and the room fell silent. Norbu’s grandmother, wearing a festive woolen apron, turned from the open-pit hearth and approached me carrying a large copper tray, a traditional Nepali wedding gift. Upon the tray was a mountain of rice, served with fragrant daal (lentil stew). She’d prepared a side dish of tarkaari—boiled greens and potatoes—as well as a small bowl of spicy achaar. I detected hints of cumin and timur, the tongue-numbing Sichuan pepper. Atop this already bountiful offering was a fried egg, a rare treat in these subsistence villages. But my heart broke when I saw the crowning touch: a drumstick and thigh. The family had killed and roasted one of their precious chickens in our honor.
With great dignity, Norbu’s grandmother set the heavy dish on my lap. All eyes were upon me. I looked around, giddy from the raaksi and the altitude. A hundred thoughts raced through my head: self-consciousness, astonishment and memories of the elaborate meals I ate back home in San Francisco. Norbu, grinned at me. I grinned back, distracted. And then, without thinking, I crossed my legs. The tray of food toppled to the dirt floor.
For an infinite moment, time stood still. The room was a tableau of shocked faces. And then I was on my feet, incredulous, overcome with shame. “Tik chaina!” I cried, staring at the steaming mess. “This is terrible! I’m sorry!”
Norbu’s grandfather stood up and walked toward me. He put a hand on my shoulder, and turned toward his stunned guests. “Tik cha,” he stated calmly. “It’s fine. It’s good. In fact.… it’s wonderful. Isn’t it?” He scanned the room. “Isn’t it?” Tentatively, heads nodded. People began to breathe again.
Suddenly, I got it. With my oafish faux pas, I’d shattered the mystique. I was no longer a fabulously wealthy Westerner to be revered, or viewed with awe. Truth was, I was merely a pale-faced klutz. We were equals now—no matter what my parka cost.
I found Norbu. “What should I do?”
“Go to your tent,” he said. “And wait. They’re going to do it all over again.”
And they did. This time, though, we all ate together.
Jeff Greenwald, executive director of Ethical Traveler, is the author of Shopping for Buddhas and four other books.