For Mary

I haven’t posted in this series on mourning for a while, but today I only have one thing worth writing about. My beloved friend Mary passed away early yesterday morning in New York – my 3:23 in the afternoon in Nepal.

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I understand that Mary’s death was not a huge surprise, except that every death is a surprise in its finalness. She was 71 and she’d already beat the odds many times. The doctors were always saying she might die. I never tired of hearing about all the times she had, in fact, died. She always chose to come back – from the promise of an easier place, from her father beckoning at the foot of the bed, to this world, to this body, to the blue couch in her living room that we sat on for many long afternoons. Where, in addition to other topics, I plied her for every possible detail about dying.

But I can’t imagine my life without her.

We texted often – she was the queen of the multiple exclamation point with a space preceding it !!! – and talked on the phone like champions. She’d say she only had a minute and then we’d talk for no less than an hour or three. Our longest conversation was 4 hours and 11 minutes and it began at 10:03 pm. For the last fifteen minutes or so, we talked about the record we’d set, and how late it was, and how we should hang up, but how we could never seem to hang up.

Once, after we had talked late in to the night about this choosing and coming back, I was lying on my bed thinking about injustice and heartbreak. If souls choose their destiny, what is the point of all these violent and cruel games? I can’t understand why our souls would choose to create this world out of all the choices. I told Mary that I believe in balance, not kindness or purpose. She said I was really smart, that I had a special gift with words. We discussed it until two am, and when we hung up, I felt smart, and Mary still had kindness and purpose. She never minded that I would throw stones at God and then come back to her to get organized.

Mary was never in a hurry to finish a story. She’d say she had to quickly tell me one more story really fast and then the story would take twenty minutes to tell and then we’d analyze it and think of all the other stories it reminded us of and all the life lessons it offered for another forty minutes.

She called me “kid” or “you turkey” so I called her “kid” or “you turkey.”

One time I trimmed her hair with office scissors in the staff bathroom.

I met Mary when I came to the clinic as a patient in 2006. The fact that she became one of my best friends in the history of ever, and that I would talk with her on the phone for hours and hours late in to the night, makes my story completely like almost everyone’s story of Mary. She became one of my mom’s best friends. I became friends with the other patients Mary became friends with. I listened and re-listened to stories of best friends she’d kept since kindergarten.

I never felt that the army of best friends Mary had diminished my best-friendness with her even a little. This is one of the important things about the nature of the universe that Mary taught me without ever explaining it. I just understood with her that there was enough love for an infinite amount for everybody.

I wanted to record so many of her stories. But I never recorded the story about how she got her finger stuck in her friends’ designer bowling ball and ended up in the emergency room attached to the bowling ball. I never recorded the story about how she fixed up her sister with the doctor who tended to her during her first heart surgery forty years ago, or the story about the proud old woman Mary insisted get into her car on a steep hill one day, and how Mary said, “Don’t you just want to cry?” and then cried with the old woman in the car because the hill was so steep and it was so hot. I never recorded the story about the hour she spent chasing down a lost purse in a store for a complete stranger who had left on a bus, and how the bag turned out to have a precious bundle of cash in it, bringing the owner to tears. I never recorded the last story she told me, the night before her surgery, about how the residential suites at NY Presbyterian Hospital are only for VIPs, so she got the mayor of Wallingford to write a letter about all the Very Important things she’d done in Wallingford, and then she mailed it to Angela upstairs, who promptly arranged a residential room for her dear Bill and Colleen. (When the mayor sent the letter to her house, he threw in an edible arrangement.)

Mary, I know you would say it’s totally unimportant that I never recorded these stories. That’s because I’m always trying to keep the past with me, scraping at it with my fingers and toes and arms and legs and everything, and you found all that hassle extremely pointless. You weren’t much for books or movies and I love books and movies. Your living was people. You said books were disconnected from people and took you out of the moment when you could be talking to someone. All this documenting and remembering that consumes me was always, to you, a distraction from the wonderous, fleeting present.

When Mary told me stories about her grandkids and kids, or about dating gentle Bill, or about the best friend she lost when she was sixteen, it was never boring or self-indulgent. Her family brought her so much joy, you couldn’t not be happy with her. I listened to the same stories and looked at the same pictures and read the same poems many times, and I always felt lucky to be in her delight and gratitude.

I spent more time talking with Mary about God than anyone else I’ve known or ever will know. We talked about everybody’s dying. Hers, mine, our friends’, her mother’s, the relatives – we relived and examined all of them, past and future, death in the abstract, the question of choosing, the question – or lack thereof – of God.

Mary said she didn’t want any fanfare after her passing, and I told her I was showing up anyway, even if it was by myself in the rain (which would be impossible anyway, given the legions of best friends). I said if I got hit by a bus and went first, she better freaking show up on my day. I didn’t care if that made me less enlightened. She told me there could be a hurricane on the day of my funeral and nobody would come, and that I had to come to a place in my heart where that was okay with me. I said that was the most awful thing I’d ever heard.

Mary didn’t “believe” in God. She just experienced God. She let me argue with her about God and wear myself out, so that I could rest on her experience. Mary helped me make a tenuous peace with the fact that life is easier and fuller and more magical with God, and you can’t win the argument either way. So you might as well be with God. All her dying gave her cred with me in the God department. She knew things I don’t know. She wasn’t afraid of anything except for the pain her death would cause her family. That was no secret – it was a wisdom and fear she offered freely.

Mary was the very first person I ever spoke to about IMT, which eventually healed my body, brought me irreplaceable teachers and friends, and changed my life. She was the person whose arm I curled up under on a fluffy couch during the scary and uncertain week I first moved to Connecticut. She was the person who I sat with at parties and funerals, and who had time to talk to me almost every single day for an hour or two about big wide things, during a period of my life where I felt unmoored and panicked for long, terrifying hours at a stretch. She was the person who, during a moment of lingering emptiness or need for contact, I could always text or call without feeling like I was imposing. She appreciated every last fiber of human connection that this life offered her. My search for meaning was as beautiful and important to her as it is to me, and she was never too much older or wiser to include me in her journey too.

The last time I should have seen Mary was just before I left for Nepal six weeks ago. I was giving a talk at the Hartford library about the earthquake, and it was unfortunately on Mother’s Day. I was feeling sad and disconnected because nobody was around, and I was preparing to return to an unknown Nepal suffering new destruction and loss. I hoped I might get lucky and see some familiar faces in the crowd. There was a small audience of about fifteen people, two of whom were my parents and two were my good friends Steve and Jackie. I put on my bravest face and did the talk, which actually went pretty well.

Later that evening, I got a text from Mary. “Well, we tried !!!” she said. I wrote back to say it meant everything to me that she’d wanted to be there; her text finally brought a little bit of lightness in to my heart.

“No, we WERE there !!! ” she replied. Turns out that Bill and Mary had delayed their Mother’s Day plans with their son Billy, drove an hour to Hartford to surprise me, and arrived 10 minutes after my talk had started. And Mary, being Mary, said it would be rude to enter after the start of the talk, so they sat outside the closed library door. The one I was staring at the whole time during my presentation, with no idea they were right on the other side.

Mary told me later that she was listening to my presentation, but I know she wasn’t concerned with the details. She was there to provide her presence, not to learn about Nepal. They waited and waited, but when the program went much later than planned, they had to leave to go to Billy’s house. So I never saw her. I never snuggled my nose on to her shoulder and got wrapped in her hug, which was the one thing I wished for so much that afternoon, and the one thing she came there to offer. But she was there the whole time.

She was there the whole time.

This is the enduring image I am left to wrestle with of you, my beautiful Mary. Maybe it was your higher wisdom at work, because that was our last meeting. I know that my task is to take comfort in the idea that you are just there on the other side of the door, where I can’t see you, waiting for me to be done with all these cumbersome details, bearing witness to my story so that I can indulge in my own relevance until I find my way out of the room. But today, this is too close to how I actually feel. You are just where I can’t get to you, and I only want to jump in to your arms. It is too soon to appreciate your nearness when I am enraged by the door.

I love you, Mary. I will never be able to quantify your impact on my life. I think this is all new, and you are still basking in the glory of the kingdom where you have finally arrived. I know that with time you will find your way to us, and we will find your way to you. I know impatience won’t help me, and you know I will be impatient anyway. I know you are not afraid, and you know I have borrowed your courage and will have to find a way forward now with my own. I miss you so much. Your last text to me says: !! Drive safely !!! You know perfectly well you sent that to me in reference to a tractor I was preparing to ride on for 12 hours, delivering tin roofs in the hills of Nepal on ridiculous jeep roads. You turkey.

I wish I had at least recorded the story about the bowling ball.

I really should go now. This has gone on much longer than planned and nobody is going to read it to the end. But it always takes so long to hang up, and these aren’t the kinds of things that can be rushed. This is what happens every time. I know you will read it to the end and that’s all that matters.

Ok then—see you in the morning, kid.

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Beautiful Things

We are building houses of many kinds around here, one of which is our own. In between trips out to Lamjung, I’ve been slowly setting up our new office. We’re moving from a one-room office to a four-room office, and anybody who knows me will know that I can labor for weeks or months over small decisions, and filling up a new space requires an infinite amount of decision making. It took me three weeks to choose carpet, and then the people who came to lay down the carpet did a really bad job, cutting jagged lines and making a mess of it. I had the store send them back and then stood there while they cut everything in straight lines. As they left we were chatting, and I asked them not to take it too hard. But this space is going to be our home and we’ve put a lot of care in to it, so it’s a real downer when people come and don’t take care, and besides, if I my job were to cut carpets, I’d want to leave each place I did and say, ‘That’s my work. I made that.’”

Anyone who’s ever worked with a contractor knows that this kind of thing doesn’t happen only in Nepal. But I feel confident saying that Nepal takes it to a new level. The kind of care people put in to their planting, or their outfits when taking a photo, or cooking, or weaving mats, just doesn’t get put in to home decoration. People are okay with leaky faucets and doors that don’t quite fit their frames and paint of any variety of ecstatic colors that overlaps lazily from structure to the next. I’ve learned that I have to lord over each person who comes here to put something together, just to make sure our work space doesn’t become an accumulation of unloved creations.

IMG_5081So it’s not exactly going fast, but it’s going.

One funny quirk of our new space is this sink outside the bathroom, which is just hanging out in full view of the rest of the office. Someone suggested that I get a local bamboo artisan to create a simple screen to put here, so that people coming out of the bathroom would have some privacy while using the sink.

So last week I asked Shiva to go to Mahendrapul with me and stop in at one of the bamboo furniture places. He pulled his bike over at the first one we happened to see, where there was a young man Umesh.

Off all the things we need to set up in the office, the bathroom screen isn’t the one I was most concerned about. But when I set about explaining what we needed, Umesh and I began to examine various chairs and tables and hangers he had in his store, organizing designs I liked. He was extremely attentive and enthusiastic, and as our conversation went on, he couldn’t help himself from admitting that he’d opened his shop just two weeks ago, after fifteen years of working for someone else.

“I told them, I can make anything,” he said, looking like he’d kind of been bursting to tell somebody this. “My hands are full of skills. I said, ‘Why are you keeping me down here?’ And I left and opened this shop.”

Being the choosy perfectionist that I am, I could easily have told Umesh thank you very much and moved on to the next place so he could get his business going with a different customer. He quoted me $90 for the screen – as expensive as one of our desks, three times as much as the chairs he sells. Way to raise the bar, my friend.

Instead, I went with him to our office so he could look at the space itself. And after all the discussing we’d done, I waved my hands and said, “Ok, the main thing is it has to be opaque from here to here. Other than that, do whatever you think will look nice. Make it your own style. By Umesh.”

“I’m going to make you a beautiful screen,” Umesh proclaimed. “This is a very new idea – it will be first of its kind in Nepal.”

Four days later he called to tell me it was ready. He put in in a taxi at his own cost and brought it to our office, and when I arrived to meet him, he was already standing in the road with the screen next to him, trying to hold his smile in.

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This bamboo screen is no doubt my single favorite thing in our new office. It is absolutely gorgeous and in the U.S. would sell for a few hundred dollars. It has the charming quality of being made from bamboo during a period of months where I’ve been, oddly enough, spending inordinate amounts of time in the hot sun encouraging and supporting the creation of bamboo homes as our small but mighty contribution to post-earthquake Nepal. But most importantly, it was created with a great deal of pride and love. One side is bent a little, the natural curvature of the bamboo, a perfect imperfection. What started off as a temporary wall to enclose a bathroom became this wonderful piece of artwork.  And as we were all discussing later, you should have some things that you keep around just because they are beautiful.

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Before Umesh left, he couldn’t help admitting another thing, which was that, actually, I’d been his very first customer. I said he was our very first artisian in our first professional office, and that I expected his career was going to go quite well.

“I’m never going to forget you,” he said as he left.   And I said, “I’m pretty sure I won’t forget you either.”

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Speeches and Roofs in Gijyang

Well folks, we have returned to Parbat. Our most recent delivery of tin was for 25 families in the village of Gijyan, where our dental technician Anita made multiple visits to help coordinate. We’ve learned a lot since our first visit to Parbat a few short weeks ago; now, we require that people begin building a frame before we provide the tin roof.

I present you this awkward photo of me, to prove that at least Dilmaya and Anita were laughing at my jokes.

I present you this awkward photo of me, to prove that at least Dilmaya and Anita were laughing at my jokes.

This day went really nicely. There was a welcome ceremony with flowers and tikka and everything – a process which all of us prefer to skip, but which must be allowed for if the community is really looking for a chance to express thanks – and I was asked to give a speech. I’m not much for public speaking in English, but every once and a while I find myself in some Nepal speech situation where aliens take over my brain and make me suddenly completely fluent in another language, and I have everyone’s rapt attention for four solid minutes. I cracked jokes, I said how much we appreciated how hard they’d all worked to rebuild, that we know roofs don’t do much without the effort of the people who need to live under them, but that we hope our small contribution to their efforts will go a long way to extend their results. I offered that the reason I was taking photos and recording was to share their village and their story with other people in the world, not to show off photos of my disaster vacation, so I hoped they wouldn’t mind. Anyway, as you can see, this speech was more riveting in Nepali than English. The strange thing is if you asked me to write it down in Nepali now, I’d need lots of help. Sometimes these things just come out of my mouth and I don’t know where they come from!

After that we began our tin delivery and it was hot as all get out. This one lady kept following me around trying to keep an umbrella over my head for some shade, much like an 18th century European Dutchess, which I truly appreciated because it was hot, I tell you, HOT.

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We visited a handful of the houses that were being made or had been completed in anticipation of our tin delivery. Some of them had wonderful bamboo work. I spent some time talking with this 21 year old woman who is going to deliver her baby any day and was living under this tarp, where her family had hooked up electricity and a TV.  I hope that with the tin roof, her family will replace this heat-insulating tarp with ventilated walls made from something natural.

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Dilmaya and Anita and I all felt really great about today. Our 25 bundles of tin went on 25 respectable shelters.  Success!

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Tractor Cowgirls

 

What a wonderful day!

After a week of endlessly trying to chase down corrugated tin, Dilmaya and I spend the entire day today riding around the hills of Nepal delivering roofs in Archalbot in Bharte.

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Our morning started off pretty slowly – I’ll spare you that part – but let’s just say there was heavy rain and 53 bundles of 12 foot, 60kg, corrugated tin involved – when you stack up even some of that tin and try to lift it, it’s as unmovable as a 12-foot block of concrete. There were two tractors and a jeep.  And, of course, one cute little Life Box.

IMG_0146We had a few special deliveries as well – cash relief for Bal Kumari, and a box of ceramic mugs for Muna Bujel’s family, which had completely rebuilt (minus tin) when I met them on that crazy ridgetop in Lakure. When I asked what else they needed, given that they’d done such an amazing job reorganizing their rubble in to a house already, Muna Bhujel looked around and kind of shrugged, like “Lady, look at this whole situation,” and said, “well a lot of our glasses were smashed.” So we threw a set of teacups for her.

It was nearly 11pm by the time we hit the road in Udipur on tractor #1, which was carrying 17 bundles of tin for Archalbot. Voila, Archalbot tin delivery! While we were here, we met three more families requesting roofs. I visited their houses and told them to start building. We’ll be back next week to check on the rest of Archalbot, and we can bring roofs for a few more families if they build before then.

Next, we had to switch to tractor #2 which was loaded up with our major delivery for about 50 homes all over Bharte.  This led to a situation and the following clip of video that pretty much says it all.  Here is what it’s like to try to provide aid for half a million ruined and damaged homes in Nepal’s hills.  An anchoring wire on a footbridge had popped out of the mud softened by the rains, and our tractor couldn’t get over it.  This video takes place about half a mile from a paved highway, on a 10-meter stretch of the only road that leads up to the village.  We did this for ONE HOUR before crossing this little patch of road that is the access point for the entire hillside of Bharte.

We finally got to our first stop in Sirwari, which was totally awesome.  When I first visited Sirwari about a week and a half ago, three families were living together under this tarp.  We asked them to build a good quality bamboo house and promised a roof.  When we arrived today, they had built this gorgeous bamboo community home for all three families!  I love this photo because you can still see their old tarp in the middle, hanging out until we can put it out of business with corrugated tin.  We delivered said tin that very afternoon, and promised we’d come back to see the finished product and spend the night.

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We looked at some of the other bamboo frames in Sirwari, and of course I wanted to take lots of photos and hang out and talk with everyone and Dilmaya was texting me madly to hurry up because we still had two tractors and a jeep full of tin and a lot of deliveries to make.  On the way, we picked up Sarita, Kripa’s young sister in law, whose house we’ve been staying in in Archalbot, and who’s become our pal.  The three of us crammed in to the two-person seating area in the front of the jeep, and we were off again, eating some lychees.

Our next stop was Bharte Banjang.  As far as I could tell, it’s the poorest, most remote and devastated area that we’ve visited.  Lakure is also quite remote, but people there had mostly rebuilt, whereas in Banjang, we met families with lots of young kids living between rusty tin or having moved in to the buffalo shed, with the buffalo.

IMG_0219We brought new tin for 10 homes, housing 49 people, to Banjang.  By now we were in a hurry, so I don’t have as many photos, but the building quality wasn’t as good in this area.  People didn’t have access to long bamboo nearby, so even though our coordinator in Bharte offered long bamboo off his land for free, nobody went and got it.  Many of the frames this community had made were far to low to stand up in.  Instead of the bamboo wall technique we saw in Sirwari, which is tight and can be plastered with mud and made permanent like Tulasi’s house in Parbat, people had simply criss-crossed bamboo, like this, which is far less secure.  This is kind of a mystery to me.  I wasn’t IMG_0233sure why so many of the people in Banjang had made structures with such obvious problems.  We decided we’ll do our best to provide day employment for some of the Sirwari people to come up and help the people in Banjang.  We’ll see how that goes.  In any case, at least these folks will be able to move out of the buffalo sheds and such.  I will venture to say that if we had not required that people build before providing these roofing sheets, this is an area where a lot of our tin would likely have sat in the yard or been thrown on top of unsafe houses.

From there we went to Lakure, my favorite spot in Bharte, where we delivered tin to Bal Kumari, and gave her $300 in cash that she was not expecting, to repay her loans.  Here is Muna Bhujel’s father with the teacups we gave him.  As you can see, he is pretty much speechless.

IMG_0236Then it was time to go to Besigaun for another 12 homes.  By now it was dusk, and as we headed out to our final few stops, it was night.  We made our deliveries in the dark.

Now, are you realizing we’ve left something out here?

Life Box, man.  Life Box.

We took this box out here and there to show people, but it was all so hectic that we didn’t really have time to do much with it.  I mean there wasn’t exactly time to dig a hole in the ground and bury the thing.

At our very last stop, we realized we had an extra bundle of tin, and this nice guy, Lok Bahadur Bhujel, and his son, came out and found us in the road.  They had built a temporary house but for now they’d covered it with a tarp, and wanted to ask us for help.  Well, as it happened, we had an extra bundle of tin that needed a home, so off it went.  Along with the Life Box!

Well, that was one of the more interesting days of my life.  All together, we covered over 50 houses and about 250 heads.  We’ll come back to Bharte in a week or so to check on things and see how some of these homes turned out. Dilmaya and I ended up spending the night at Sarita’s birth home in Bharte, and let me tell you, we did not have any trouble falling asleep.

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The Life Box

A short post that I think will speak for itself. Not a bad way to spend a day off in Besishahar.  And why call it a “safe-box”? That sounds like a receptacle for used syringes. “Eva” means life. World, welcome to the one and only (literally) Life Box.

Tomorrow, during our tin delivery in Archalbot and Bharte, we’re gonna take this sample around and see what people have to say about it.

Read more about what this doo-dad is and how the idea came about here.  The idea is to create a secure storage space for people whose homes were compromised in the earthquake and now have no private place to lock away precious items.

So, we begin as follows:

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This random treasure chest looking thing was lying around so we used it as a model in discussing the design.

 


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Everything in life starts with a beat up piece of unassuming sheet metal.

 

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All the pieces of our Life Box were made by hand – every piece of metal is cut by having one guy hold the chisel in place along a straight edge, while the other guy whacks the chisel.

 

Making reinforced edging.  High tech!
Making reinforced edging. High tech!

 

This shop is full of random stations like this
This shop is full of random stations like this

 

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and this

And twenty four hours later…
This!
This!
Sneak preview…this is right after I got out of the bus and set our new toy down at the bus stop…

The Long Road to Tin

 

IMG_0105Everyone predicted a tin shortage in Nepal, and now it’s here. Just last week, I got two bundles of tin for Uttam’s family in the morning and delivered it to them in the afternoon. Now we are ready to bring 53 bundles of tin to our two villages, Archalbot and Bharte, and we’ve been trying to get tin for five days. I have all kinds of random new phone numbers stored in my phone – in addition to all the people we’ve met in the communities where we working, I now have contacts for Tin Shop Dhumre, Tin Shop Lamjung, Tin Shop Udipur…

Last tuesday night at about 6pm, I finally found a hardware store, on reference from one of the guys we’ve gotten to know in Archalbot, that had the 50 bundles of 12ft. tin we needed.  They had a tractor and everything. We’ve been putting people off in our villages for about five days, so we confirmed our plans on the phone and got ready to go the next morning.

Dilmaya and I set out in a cab from Pokhara at 6am. On the way, we decided to provide $300 in cash relief to Bal Kumari to help her repay her loans, because I shared a post about her on facebook and people offered to support her. So we had to find an ATM that would work in Dhumre. Two of them wouldn’t take my card, and finally Dilmaya was able to withdraw $300 and I shoved it in my bag and we were off again.

We arrived at the tin shop in Udipur, just north of Bote Orar before you get to Besishahar, and things started to get crazy. First, our cab driver demanded more than the fare he’d agreed to. Then, the tractor driver seemed like he was never going to show up. But things got really funky when the shop owner suddenly informed us that the tin would be $10 cheaper per bundle than she’d promised me on the phone the night before. In rupee terms, that’s an extra 53,000 rupees – enough to cover ten entire houses according to her original price.

I normally keep my southasian cool pretty well, but I was enraged. This is exactly what the government said wouldn’t happen when others said it would happen. And our hands were totally tied: we had fifty families who had built homes and, after we’d told them to sit tight each day for a week, were waiting for us to show up with roofs because we’d totally promised this time it was for sure. Today.

There’s also the blinding fury of watching people casually do something awful, such as profit off of the plight of earthquake victims and manipulate social workers encumbered by a tin shortage.  Certain things will really light your fire, if you know what I mean.

Stuck between an major rock and a hard place, called our pal Pradeep, the head official of shelter relief for Lamjung district, to explain our plight. Among other things, he told us to check the weight of the tin. Turns out that even 26 guage tin comes in all different weights and thicknesses. When we went and looked, the tin was only 42kg…lightweight. It folded like tinfoil.  They were selling it at the price of medium weight tin which is 25% stronger.

Reluctantly, Dilmaya and I realized we had to give up our plans for the day and drive up to Besishahar, Lamjung headquarters. We’d spoken repeatedly with tin vendors there on the phone, but it was impossible to get any straight answers. We were going to have to sit down in person at a tin vendor and wait it out, even if it meant calling all of our contacts in their villages, again, and telling them, again, to trust us.  We were still coming.  Really.

Before we left Udipur, we walked up the street and took down the name and number of another tin vendor named Sagar. He seemed like an honest guy. In any case, we sure had learned all the right questions to ask, and we needed all hands on deck.  The way the tin situation is working is that vendors in this region, which is in central nepal along the edge of the earthquake’s epicenter in Gorkha, drive about 10 hours south to Chitwan to pick up tin near the border in India.  Then they drive it back up here.  Often, they can’t say for sure what kind of tin they’ll be returning with until they get there and see what’s in stock.  That’s what Sagar was up to later that day.   If you’re lucky, you can order ahead of time and there will be a delivery of exactly the thing you need, which is what we were trying to do.

IMG_0106So that’s how we found ourselves in this shop, Raja Enterprises, in Besishahar, where we sat for about three hours, watching the owner Rajesh make calls about tin. And at 5pm, when we’d finally secured and ordered the tin, and it wasn’t going to come for a week, we were ready to get in a bus back to pokhara, successful on one hand and defeated on the other.

Then my phone buzzed. It was Sagar from Udipur – the guy we met in the morning. He was driving to Chitwan to pick up tin and could get us the 50 bundles we needed by the day after tomorrow.

Reboot. Reschedule. We reordered the tin from Sagar. Plus some other items of a different size from Rajesh in the shop where we’d spent three hours. By now we knew our list of households, the size of their tin, the number of people in their homes and the areas of these villages they live in so well that we were referring to them by their first names. FIFTY OF THEM.

Dilmaya got a call from a friend and said wearily, “I’m ready to open a tin business.”

So this all meant that we were going to stay the night in Besishahar, and hang around tomorrow, because there was no point in going all the way back to Pokhara only to turn around again tomorrow night.

It was late evening and we were absolutely wiped out. On the way home, we passed a steel-working shop, and suddenly I had an inspiration.  After all, we had a day to kill in Besishahar, and this place looked like a Willy Wonka Dreamland of junk turned wonder.

I went in and described my imaginary safe-box. “Is this something you could make?” I asked.

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A Willy Wonka Dreamland of Junk Turned Wonder

A Willy Wonka Dreamland of Junk Turned Wonder

Gaky’s Light Family

 

This may come as a surprise…but in addition to our adventures in bamboo shelters, Eva Nepal still has it’s regular programs going. This week our Gaky’s Light Fellows graduated from 12th grade and from their fellowship.

Two years ago, we received 415 applications for the 12 fellowships that we awarded to Nirajan, Anju, Pabitra, Puja, Sandip, Ramesh, Orientation (4)Bhagwan, Krishma, Shristhi, Sabina, Narayan, and Asmita. Each of them has an incredible life story, and within the next few weeks, I hope we will be posting a tumblr that profiles each of them as well as the eighteen GL fellows before them.

The class of 2015 had a special bond, because it was when they arrived that we established the GL community house.  This batch as lived there together and become a true family, and bonded with a handful of wonderful foreign teaching residents who lived with them – Noam and John, Mary, MJ. While most of our past fellows came from Pokhara, this class comes from all over the country. Anju is the first young woman to leave her very conservative community in Janakpur to study higher education in a city sixteen hours away. Nirajan’s home is in remote Dolpa, and he’d been living on his own in Pokhara since he was twelve, performing at the top of his class. Each of our kids’ stories is unique and beautiful. You couldn’t dream them up.

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These young adults have changed tremendously since they first came together in 2013. At the beginning, basic life skills like arranging a cooking schedule and working out group living issues IMG_7108were new and difficult. Their behavior was segregated heavily by gender. I’ve watched their dress and their mannerisms become urban, confident, progressive. In their weekly Saturday workshops they’ve learned how to use a computer, spell check, do interviews, plan events, speak in front of a group. We’ve taught sections on body language and online image crafting. A number of our fellows have published articles in youth journalism international, including reporting on the morning of the earthquake and on the aftermath shortly thereafter. Last summer, they all did one-month professional internships in sectors ranging from software engineering to child welfare to public health and journalism. Four of them did their internships in Kathmandu.

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But I think the thing that had the most significant and lasting impact was the one where we did the least work: the community house. Each birthday was a whole-house affair. The girls wear each other’s clothes. All of the boys staying in Pokhara are moving in together, except for one who got a job in a nearby youth hostel. The peer community they’ve gained from this transformational two years together is obviously going to be a part of their lives forever.

With this graduating class, we’re bringing Gaky’s Light to an end, IMG_0021at least for now, so that we can focus on dental care, which is our more scalable program. But boy am I going to miss these kids. I am so proud of them. I am going to miss our sleepovers and henna parties. I’m going to miss eating breakfast in Connecticut over chat with them while they eat dinner in Pokhara. At least I know they will be keeping my social media pages full of news (work that online image crafting, kiddoes) and keeping in touch with each other.

GL alumni speaker Kiran Banstola

Their graduation featured lots of speakers: male, female, alumni, parent, me, and our featured speaker, Ramesh Khadka from Right 4 Children, who told his unbelievable life story of growing up on the streets of Kathmandu for ten years and then becoming a very successful social worker with street children.

Instead of going for a day-long celebratory outing like last year, we decided to spend the afternoon at a refugee camp in Pokhara that is housing earthquake victims from the ravaged epicenter in western Gorkha. Our fellows bought and served afternoon snacks.  The Gurung areas of Gorkha have a unique culture, language, and dress. Many of the older people don’t speak Nepali. There were some stunning faces in the crowd. I let the kids and counselors use my camera – I didn’t take all these photos.

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But I did take this one below, one of my all time favs. The woman in the white shirt kept laughing every time I tried to shout 1-2-3 in their Gurung dialect. Watching her through the viewfinder made me start laughing too. That of course made her laugh harder, which made me laugh harder, and soon this entire group of people couldn’t stop laughing. I love this picture.

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And this one…

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Follow Up in Bharte

 

Today Dilmaya and I went for a follow up visit to Bharte. I made my first trip here a little less than a week ago. We walked from Archalbot to Lakure, the hilltop where Bal Kumari lives, and it took five hours. I did some recording with Bal Kumari because I hope to include her in a radio story.

We visited a large school in Banjang that needs a classroom for grades 9 and 10, who are currently holding classes under this tarp.

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Banjang had a whole strip of houses in bad shape. A local shopkeeper, Laxmi, is going to to help oversee the construction of bamboo shelters here, so that we can come back next week with tin roofs.

IMG_9824We were especially popular with these kids, who followed us around this ridge top until we got to the house of the girl on the right, Ganga.  As you can see, they’ve moved in with the buffalo, so we’re gonna bring them some tin for a new bamboo house too.

On our way home, we visited the group in Sirwari that I met on my first visit a little less than a week ago. Three families are living together under a tarp in the yard, and they’ve begun organizing to turn this in to a bamboo community house. I called Santa, a young mother there, to say we’d be stopping by in the afternoon, and we were really excited to that they’ve already started! There was lots of bamboo piled up, ready for construction, and their tarp shelter had already been improved with thick bamboo posts.

We enjoyed some corn for snacks, and I took a lot of crap for
IMG_9839eating like a monkey. Nepalis eat fresh corn by pulling the kernels out with their fingers, not sticking the entire thing in to their faces like heathens. Oh well. It’s not the first thing I had a different way of doing. And it makes for a good photo.

It was after dark by the time the two of us wandered in to a hotel in Bote Orar. We walked for ten hours today, all of it either climbing up or climbing down. We were too tired to even discuss our day over dinner, so it wasn’t till the next morning that we rolled out of bed, still sore, and I took out my notebook so we could add up all the names and bundles of tin. We’ll come back next week to put roofs on over fifty homes!

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Glamping and Magic Cake Houses

 

Reading over my blog entries, I’m realizing I’ve left out some of the nicest details of the hospitality we’ve received in Archalbot this week. So let’s just put them all together.

Detail #1: Glamping

IMG_9481Dilmaya and I stayed at Kripa’s house. It’s standing, but unstable, so we’re all sleeping outside or in small rooms on the edges of the house. For years I’ve joked with Aamaa about going to sleep with the buffalo, or sending Pascal and Aidan to sleep with the buffalo when they’re being cheeky. Now, I can say I’ve actually slept with the buffalo. This glamping site (a phrase I learned this winter when a new “glamorous camping” hotel was going up in Pokhara) was one of the best places I’ve ever gotten to sleep. I loved dozing off each night in the open air and waking up slowly each morning to a cool breeze rustling over the corn, the green hills coming in to focus through the mosquito net.

Later in the week it started raining, so Kripa’s mother moved the bed to the porch. Cute, right? Our last night in Archalbot it rained heavily all night and all morning, and I lay on this cot listening blissfully to the tap-tap-tap-tap on the tin roof.

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Detail #2: Dancing

The night before Robin and Colin left Archalbot, we had a dance party at Kushal’s house, in the same yard where we first met this whole community just a short week and a half ago. It was so much fun. All the uncertainty and worry that the earth bag house hadn’t been finished, who had and hadn’t fulfilled what responsibility, what would be done next and who’d been let down or left out…everyone just kicked back and had a big old dance of it.  Which is how we handle potentially stressful situations in Nepal.

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Detail #3: This Grandma

For the days when we had lots of help with the earth bag house, everybody, and I mean everybody, pitched in. You just couldn’t miss this grandma, who unfailingly monitored the scene all day, and during stone-breaking, sat with her legs in a perfect South Asian squat, clicking stones in to pebbles.  One day, I was loading rocks on to our makeshift carriers, and she came over and carefully began placing stones one at a time on to the tarp, with this kind of tentative body language that said, “I mean why not? It’s the thing to do.  Let’s see about it.”  After I got too excited and overloaded one bundle, we made the next one a little lighter so she could carry it with me. I couldn’t choose between these two amazing photos so you’re getting both of them.

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Detail #4: Breaking stones

IMG_9624The foundation of the earth bag house is made of alternating layers of stone and packed dirt, and the first two layers of the house itself are made from sacks filled with little stones, which I now know to be called giti. In order to get enough stones, Mahendra’s family demolished one of the unstable rooms of their house, which was highly satisfying since the house will eventually need to be taken down anyway. Then, for days, there were all these people just sitting around clinking away at stones. A lot of the women and kids worked incredibly hard on this.

I’ve always had an association between stone-breaking and the awful child labor that you often see in the river bed: poor families breaking stones all day in the hot sun, children out of school. But this scene was totally different. It was like some kind of anti-submission-to-earthquake factory. It felt defiant and exhilarating having all these people in the community dismantling their own home in order to put the pieces in to the heavy foundation of a new house.

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Detail #5: Flour

We used recycled sacks for the earth bag house, and they had previously contained flour. A team of two to three people was fully devoted to shaking out each and every sack to gather the palmfuls of flour remaining in each bag. Over the course of hundreds of sacks, the flour piled up like so. And, as Mariah pointed out, our earth-bag house was also something of a cake-house, and our team looked like a bakery.

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Detail #6: Kushal

I interviewed Kushal twice. Once, so he could show me around his house (look for him in an upcoming radio piece for BBC’s The World). The second time, to ask him what he thought about this whole housing thing, and what his perfect house looks like in his imagination. He talked to me about magic, in english, and I recorded it:

“Everything is magic. I walk, you walk, it is a magic. We can jump, we can speak, anything is magic. This is a house, it is also a magic. In the stone age, there was nothing like this house. In the stone age people lived in caves and they didn’t feel safe because animals can any time harm them. But we can feel safe here. There are many inventions like radio, microphone, camera, and DVD, laptop, computer and radio, it is also a magic. The people are developing magic. I don’t know surely, but I want to do some magic in my life. My life is also a magic that someone has gifted me, and your life is also a magic that someone has gifted you.”

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