I became a woman in Nepal. Not that kind of woman. No, that happened another time, in another place. This night, I became a Mother Daughter Sister of the World, a Female of the Earth, member of the tribe Woman.
It happened on a rickety bus heading east from Kathmandu. Night pressed on the dirty windows, black and foreign, seeping in occasionally when the door swung open to pick up riders huddled under trees or standing in front of low, mud buildings. Men wearing dress pants and sweater vests crammed into the seats, bench-style like a school bus. I sat in the front seat near the only light source, next to a well-behaved man with well-groomed facial hair, overnight bag clutched to his chest, wearing muddy shoes.
The bus lurched to a stop unexpectedly along an empty stretch of road with no buildings or trees in sight, though it was so dark outside the emptiness could only be seen for a few feet beside the road, then a wall of nothing. The door folded open and a beautiful young woman peered inside. Her sari was wrapped around her in that way that looks so simple when executed by an expert, but I could never quite figure out. It was a chilly March night and piles of soft scarves and shawls made her look like a rainbow of dusty, sun-faded colors shining into this world of dull greys and browns.
Her eyes quickly scanned the mustached crowd and landed on me. With no hesitation, she shoved a small bundle in my arms that she had apparently been cradling under all that fabric, then turned around to drag her bags up the bus steps. No one moved to help her.
The bundle squirmed. Two huge dark eyes looked calmly up at me, chalked on the bottom rims with thick black make-up. The baby felt warm in my arms, alive and moving. Without a plastic diaper, it felt as small as a newborn pig.
In that moment, as that little body was thrust into my arms, something happened.
Up to that point, my life had been, at best, stunted. I lived with mentally ill women, cooking and cleaning for free room and board. My latest loves had been an alcoholic musician and an insecure, out-of-work biologist. I had no education, no career. No children, few friends. (Hosting is difficult when your roommates are crazy). I floated through foreign countries eating up the adventure, the fear, the loneliness, the flings. I didn’t think of myself as an adult, nor did I act like one. At twenty three, I was in some kind of purgatory between child and grown-up, totally without direction.
But when that woman boarding the bus saw me, she didn’t see a frightened foreigner who was starting to question the wisdom of buying a one-way ticket to Asia. She didn’t see a silly girl who’d dropped out of three different colleges in two different states in the last five years. She saw a woman. When she found my face in that sea of her countrymen’s blank stares, she found a human being whom she had no doubt would help her. I saw it in her eyes. She felt relief to find a sister she knew she could trust with her most precious package. When she looked at me, she saw a woman.
In that darkness, with tiny feet kicking under swaddling clothes, the shuffling of bags, the men coughing impatiently, something ancient turned.
When she looked at me, she saw a woman.
I am a woman.
I will help you.
I will help you as you do your work.
I will hold your baby, keep it safe, even if just for a minute while you straighten your things to make your way in the night.
I don’t remember giving the baby back, or where the woman decided to sit on that packed bus ride. I do remember transferring to a bouncing Jeep for the last leg to Darjeeling and getting not-so-deftly fondled by the army officer sitting next to me for three hours while I tried desperately to keep our legs from touching. But that didn’t bother me much that morning. Because the night before I had entered into a proud, sacred pact. I had been invited to a party I had begun to wonder if I would ever attend. I had been initiated into the oldest, most powerful organization to ever run the earth. I had become a woman.