Airport Gymnastics

Bethy and I are on our way to Thailand to present at the International Association of Dental Research Conference in Da Nang, Vietnam.  We are on a panel about “Behavioral Science and Health Sciences,” me to present about Jevaia as a social justice project and Bethy to talk about a system she developed for school-based health care in Cambodia.  Between us, let’s call Bethy the scientist. She plans ahead. She calculates things such as time and has an external battery pack with every configuration of port imaginable and a rubberized exterior that could withstand a nuclear attack, and she brings it with her almost everywhere.  Bethy is a prepared and organized kind of person. I’m what we could call…the artist. I hit snooze 4 times and borrow chargers from nice people along the way. I don’t travel without chocolate.

We meet in Thailand, the mutual transit point on our respective journeys from Nepal and Cambodia to Vietnam.  The next afternoon, at Bethy’s urging we’ve arrived at the airport a solid two hours before our short international flight from Bangkok to Da Nang.  How planny of us. As we are checking in, the clerk asks us to display our visas for Vietnam.

We are both surprised.  Even the scientist! With our American and New Zeland passports, we thought we could purchase visas on arrival in Vietnam.  This is somewhat true, the airline agent tells us. However, there is a new process that requires visitors to submit an online application ahead of time and bring an electronic visa approval to immigration upon landing.  Without the approval, we aren’t allowed on plane.

Well then.  This is awkward.

The Airline Agent informs us politely that we have 47 minutes before check in closes.  I get my phone connected to the WiFi and start googling around for how to apply for a visa to Vietnam.  I find a website called Vietnam Visa Online (lovely name, quite to the point) that says this can be done with approval rushed to one hour, for a fee of only $500.

While I’m poking at my phone looking for a less pricey extortion option, Bethy assures the Airline Agent that we’ll definitely have no problem completing the required process in 47 minutes or less.  I tap madly at my phone screen, and we decide to go for a rush fee that’s only $100 and might or might not get us the visas in time. I click send. Bethy stalls with the Airline Agent. The check-in line shrinks, I hit refresh on my phone, and by now our window has diminished to 13 minutes.

…Tick tick tick…check in closes.

But not before Bethy casually softens the Airline Agent in to printing out a document that shows we arrived on time, and woos her in to walking us over to another desk where we can stare at my email waiting for the visa approval to arrive on the basis of our $100 rushfee. A new Airline Agent looks delighted that our problem has been moved over to her counter, where I set down my phone and Bethy and I peer deeply in to its icons.  We wait.  Airline Agent #2 waits.

An email!  Is it our visa approvals?  No. It’s a reply stating that due to the fact of today being Saturday, urgent processing isn’t possible.  However, we do have an attractive option to pay another $300 to get the visa approval today, or we can certainly wait in Thailand until Monday.

We kind of have no choice but to do the extra-special saturday rush fee, which has been specifically designed, after all, for suckers like us.  So we pay the fee, and then the screen freezes, and we can’t tell if we’ve paid $300 or not. I get an email saying that we can call an office in Vietnam with questions. But honestly, who has questions?   

Calling Vietnam would be a fine idea except that neither of us has phone cards that work in Thailand, so I ask Airline Agent #2 if she can call the Vietnam Visa Online from a land line.  She says the airline has no way to make international calls.  “But you’re an airline,” I point out. This doesn’t change anything, since apparently Asia Air actually cannot make an international call to a mysterious Visa processing office in Vietnam. I deduce this because eventually, Airline Agent #2 takes pity on us and gives us her personal cell phone.  We call Vietnam Visa Online and induct a fourth person in to our lair of chaos.

Mean time, I still can’t tell whether the payment has gone through on my credit card, and my credit card password isn’t working (or theoretically it’s possible I haven’t used it in a few months and I can’t remember it) so I can’t log in and check. For the next twenty minutes, the clock ticks down to our departure while I toggle between my phone and tablet trying to figure out if I’ve paid the fee, and Bethy toggles between Airline Agent #2 and the newly inducted lady from Vietnam Visa Online, whom we have to keep calling from the Airline Agent #2’s personal cell phone.  The voice in Vietnam talks us calmly and assuredly through various steps, which I tap out on my phone, as if we are diffusing a bomb.

Eventually, all three of us–Airline Agent #2 is all in now—are leaning anxiously over my phone, hitting refresh, waiting for the document with our visa approval to show up from the Helpful Voice in Vietnam.  Whose name turns out to be Selina.

Is it there?

How about now?

We may have to carry on our bags.

…Should we call again?

……Is it there yet?

……..How about now??

TADA!

The email arrives.  All three of us bounce up from my tablet screen and give a shout.  Airline Agent #2 triumphantly passes our boarding passes over the counter and we run to the gate.  I won’t see it until we’ve already arrived in Vietnam, but another email has popped up from Selina at Vietnam Visa Online.  It is highlighted in an alarming fluorescent yellow the color of a radioactive duck.

HAVE YOU RECIEVED YOUR VISA YET? IS EVERYTHING OKAY NOW? PLEASE ADVISE!

I write Selina back after we land in Da Nang.

We are here in Vietnam and everything is fine! I didn’t get your mail until we landed. Thank you for all your help today!

We’re aware that it would be responsible, at this stage, to be upset about the insane amount of money our visas just cost, but instead we are delighted with the exchanges of the day, the managing and wooing and reassuring and eventual co-conquership with strangers of our last-minute visas. In fact, we were so irresponsibly pleased by this accomplishment that Airline Agent #2 didn’t even seem bothered when I wanted to take our picture, regardless of the fact that we were holding up an otherwise orderly process of reasonable people getting on a flight from Bangkok to Da Nang.  

And we were able to recharge our tired devices on the fly.   

*

Farmer vs. Medic: Mountain Carry

 

I consider myself something of a carrying specialist.  I have carried water, I have carried wood, I have carried grass, I have carried stinky buffalo-poop fertilizer in a basket and I have carried straw.  I have dropped sacks of rice and recovered and soldiered on with other sacks of rice.  I know carrying, and I know the hills of Nepal.

Relatedly, Bethy is here doing summer-session professional development with our clinical staff, and it just so happens that she spent 10 years as a medic in the New Zealand army.  Recently, we got to talking about the topic of carrying.  It turns out a core skill of army medics is the “fireman’s carry,” and also that this skill may be used either in an emergency with an unconscious or wounded individual or in situations such as on a dance floor, at a bar with friends, or in the middle of the road in Pokhara.

Now Bethy and I are both what you might call competitive individuals–in an entirely healthy and reasonable way, of course.  Out of pure scientific curiosity and in pursuit of expanding human knowledge generally, we got to discussing who could carry whom from the house to the water tap in Kaski.  As Bethy is a scientist and published researcher, and I am a self-made live-in-Nepal-and-start-dental-projects-and-write-stories-er, it became imperative to deploy a proper study on the matter.

Our publication follows herewith.  It is my deep hope that this work will contribute to a deeper understanding of the world and serve as a basis for future investigation.

Phase 1

Phase 2

 

 

 

It’s Not a Problem to Deliver Your Underwear

My friend Ann is here in Pokhara for the summer. She is an IMT therapist and has begun volunteering at the Kaskikot health post, working with the Health Assistant to treat patients using integrative manual therapy. Whenever somebody comes to visit me in Nepal for the first time, I briefly have a renewed sense of chaos, of how from a western sensibility, there is an unnerving feeling of inefficiency and an opacity around how problems get solved. For the most part you don’t rely here on public services, or even private businesses, to pop up with specialized solutions or knowledge in a pinch. You rely on someone’s cousin. To the uninitiated, it’s unclear what people do when things need fixing, and this leaves one with a sinister feeling that small irresolvable inconveniences will accumulate until everything is a hopeless mess and all is lost forever. Therefore, in the presence of first-time visitors I can’t help feeling as though I need to account for a mild but pervasive sense of anarchy that they cannot describe but which, I know, they feel. I don’t know how to explain that there is a different kind of intuitive coherence with other rules.

As for Ann’s visit, everything is basically going great, but one hitch happened early on when she left the bag that contained all her underwear at a hotel in Kathmandu. Also, Ann said it was perfectly fine if I wrote a blog post about her lost underwear. The underwear, while inconvenient but replaceable, was not as much of an issue as the bras that were in the forgotten bag: Ann said her bra size is not that easy to find, and she also said that it’s fine if I write about her bra size too. Replacement of the odd size bras in this environment is one of those opaque things that appears to have no viable solution. The bag needed to be retrieved.

We called Ann’s hotel in Boudanath and determined that they had located the bag of underwear and put it in storage. This was a positive start, however, the next opacity was how the bag would get moved to our district when the mail system exists but doesn’t work according to any particularly obvious or accessible processes. Happily, I was scheduled to go to Kathmandu about a week later. So we rang up Ann’s hotel again and I asked Dorje, the proprietor, if he could hire a taxi to send the underwear to the hotel where I would be staying in Kathmandu. Regarding my hotel, I had previously stayed at the Tibet Peace Guest House only once, but last week after I had called a few times in the process of reserving a room, the hotel clerk and I were officially pals, and when I would call he would answer, “Hello, didi.” I asked the Tibet Peace hotel clerk if he would mind fronting the taxi fare for Ann’s underwear, so that I wouldn’t have to coordinate an exact meeting time with the driver. He said, “Sure didi, no problem.”

“Ann, I have hired a chauffeur for your underwear and the clerk will receive it at my hotel,” I told Ann. She was so excited. Especially for the bras.

I got to Kathmandu and had my meetings and Dr. Bethy arrived and the next day we boarded the plane to Pokhara.

“AH, SHOOT!!” I cried, bonking my forehead against the inside of the double-paned window. A French tourist sitting behind us, who was playing her ukulele in the airplane, became alarmed. She stopped playing her ukulele and leaned forward with her eyes wide.

“Is everything okay?” She asked luxuriously, concerned.

“I forgot Ann’s underwear!” I cried. “Shoot shoot shoot!” Now how would we get it?

The French tourist leaned back and resumed her ukulele playing, and also some singing. The plane was very small, and luckily she was quite a good singer.

Once we’d landed, I called up Ann’s hotel again. Had they forgotten to transport the underwear, I needed to know, or had I left it orphaned for a second time, now at the Tibet Peace Guest House?

“Hello Dorje sir, do you still have my friend’s underwear?” I asked. Dorje revealed that he had planned to send it a day later, today, because the hotel was located in Bouda, a bit of a hike from downtown Thamel where my hotel was, and today they had a driver making an outing anyway. “Oh, I am back in Pokhara now,” I said. “Now what?”

Dorje sir and I pondered the problem for a moment.

“If you know anyone who can bring it to Pokhara, I’ll get your friend’s things to them,” Dorje sir promised. “I will deliver it myself!”

“Ok, I have an idea,” I said. I hung up and walked over to Adam Travel in Lakeside, where we are friends with the owner. Prem often hangs out here in his free time and they book all my tickets. Once, I got to attend a travel agency exhibition in the U.S. with the owner Basu sir.

“Hello Laura didi,” the Adam Travel guys said when Bethy and I walked in. “Ah! Bethy! Hello!” They naturally always know who is traveling with me; the same guys had booked Bethy’s tickets a day earlier, too.

“Hi guys, I was wondering if your Kathmandu office could arrange to have my friend’s underwear sent over. She left all of her underwear at her hotel in Bouda.”

The Adam Travel guys told me that their Kathmandu office is now closed, but the people who used to work at there now work at the Sacred Peace Hotel. Those guys would arrange it. Adam travel proceeded to call Surjet at the Sacred Peace hotel. Surjet said he had some friends at a bus company.

“So,” Adam Travel told me, “They need to bring the items to the Sacred Peace hotel, and you’ll pick it up here. It’s going to be $5 for the cab to the hotel and $5 for the bus to Pokhara. You pay $10.” Where would this be paid? I asked. We’d pay Adam Travel, they said; other people would pay other people in the middle and the debt would accumulate and then we’d pay it off here. No problem.

Sold! I put Adam travel on the phone with Dorje and they discussed all the intermediary checkpoints where someone knows someone who will help reunite the lost underwear bag from Bouda with Ann in Pokhara by Wednesday. We’ve solved the matter within 8 minutes. I wondered why I hadn’t just done this before.

“So there’s bad news, and there’s good news,” I announced that evening to Ann. “The good news is that your underwear will be at Adam Travel in 48 hours. The bad news is I forgot it in Kathmandu.”

“How’s it going to get here?” Ann asked.

“…FedEx.”

*

The Primacy of Snack Time

 

We have had a pretty hectic couple of weeks here, trying to establish good connections in the new province government and chasing meetings that sometimes materialize with little advance warning.  There’s been a lot of dashing about, creating documents that seem like they should be important to somebody, getting signatures and holding coffees with the hope that these activities are all adding up to the “right process.”  The general pace of the office workflow is that the four of us disperse to our desks, and periodically throughout the day we magnetize together in our common area to touch base, update one another on who has had calls with whom Out There, and pump each other up before expanding back out of the common room to our desks.

It has been really nice for me to have this time here to get a feel for the flow of our office without the glare of a tight visiting timeline or imminent program.  This has revealed, among other matters, the primacy of snack time.  Each day Sangita didi arrives around 1:30 and begins a poll on what we want for snacks. Discussion ensues, various viewpoints are considered.  I advocate strongly for buckwheat or rice flour rotis with Nutella and peanut butter, an argument that has recently been strengthened by the purchase of a jar of jam (although, honestly, since when do Nutella arguments need strengthening?).  Others point to the benefits of salty foods such as chowmein and charput (trust me, I realize this should be a non-starter when there’s a vat of Nutella in the kitchen). There are only four of us, but this deciding is nevertheless a substantial process.

In the last three weeks, snacks have been enhanced by the arrival of my friend Ann from Israel.  In the first few days, after I advised her that snack time was the best time to visit our office, and Ann turns out to be a quick study: she arrived promptly on time for the snack poll.  Then–just hours after Ann’s arrival in Pokhara–Sangita put her to work and they hit it off immediately. Ann set learning to make buckwheat rotis while Sangita taught her Nepali words by announcing snack-related vocabulary extremely loudly and waving her hands.  As I mentioned, our office isn’t that big, so from our respective rooms we were all treated to a live cultural soundscape while the two of them, who have an overlapping vocabulary of about two words, tried to communicate the nuances of slicing potatoes and dropping hot batter on to a sizzling frying pan at Sangita’s base-level volume.  Ann, who has the patience of a monk, rose to the occasion by not only making some spectacular rotis, but also by picking up a whole set of Nepali phrases (largely related to eating) amazingly fast. She continues to come over regularly at snack time to help cook rotis while Sangita ecstatically yells words at her.

Who said that Nutella and peanut butter couldn’t get even better?

*

 

 

Dad Explains It

 

Let’s start with background info: my father is both an engineering physicist and a tech entrepreneur. Add to that Olympic athlete and type A+ personality, and you have a world-class Explainer.  My dad is so good at Explaining Things nobody even knew existed, much less needed explaining, that some time ago I started a Dad Explains It video collection.

In this collection you can find such explanations as the anti-slip rubberbander (see below); how to separate an egg using a plastic bottle (a favorite – highly recommend); why an empty wine glass will, albeit unsatisfactorily, substitute for spectacles in a pinch; how to fix your fire truck ladder with glue, and how glue works; how to make a one-flip pancake; advanced paper-lantern lighting in a five-pointed star from Nepal; why it is easy to rip saran wrap in one direction but not the other; and a best-hit, the benefits of curtain velcro.  My mom typically plays a key supporting role in these videos, as herself:

 

On the Explaining front, Dad and Aamaa turn out to be a match made in heaven.  Because Aamaa requires explanations of everything from traffic lights to faucets, and Dad has a limitless endurance – some might even say compulsion – to leave no beautiful creation of the universe Unexplained.  This is extremely handy for all of us.  We girls (Bishnu and Mom and I) just aim them at each other and go about our business.

Over the weekend, we’ve made a family visit to a high rise apartment being constructed in downtown Bethesda. Aamaa is curious about all forms of construction. Like my nephew Jonah, she presses her nose to the window every time we drive past something being built. I decide this comes in the same vein as knowing the origins of food and other things that in Aamaa’s world travel very short distances from creation to use. There are comparatively few things in her life that just appear with no traceable origins–I mean, back in the day, Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa used to walk to the border of Tibet with baskets to trade for salt. Even modern concrete houses in Kaski are constructed without machinery using materials readily available in the local environment. So a suburban high rise presents a mystery on many levels. How is it all put together? Where does it come from?

First we stop at the building company, where we are provided hard hats. We all agree that Aamaa kills in the hard hat.  (She has to sign a visitor agreement, and since Aamaa can’t write her name, she uses a kind of plus sign – it is always strange to see Aamaa’s incredibly dextrous hands fumble unfamiliarly with a pen.)  Then we head across the street to a service elevator that is in place just for purpose of constructing the high-rise. When Aamaa and I were in Kathmandu a few weeks ago, we visited the third-floor rooftop of a mall. “Holy crap this is high up,” Aamaa proclaimed. “All the buildings in Kathmandu are enormous.”

“Push the button for floor seventeen!” Mom cries as we enter the service elevator.

Aamaa grasps Mom with both hands and the elevator lifts us off the ground with a jolt.

 

We wander the half-built highrise apartment, whose main walls are still open to the sky. Aamaa and Dad are transformed in to a superhero team patrolling Gotham City: there are things that need explaining EVERYWHERE.   The space is divided by empty wall frames which have mammoth-size pallets of insulation stacked up between them. Dad and Aamaa commence an epic geek-out over insulation and plaster, and then shift their nerdfest to the feat of having transported the insulation – and the rest of this stuff – seventeen floors above the ground. Where will the plumbing go? And electricity?

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The construction company employee treats us to a view of the roof. Aamaa has surprised us all with an ominously keen sense of direction in this unfamiliar world. The first few days after she arrived, we were driving around in Connecticut when we approached the drug store on the corner of my street. “This is your street, right?” Aamaa asked, before I had made the turn. I was absolutely baffled that she could get oriented so quickly when most of the visual landmarks are foreign objects with no inherent meaning, like a drug store. Now, on the roof of the high-rise apartment, Aamaa surveys the city below, which she has spent some time touring with Bishnu and me. She extends one finger toward the top of some buildings.

“The subway is in that direction, right?” she asks, correctly.

My Dad becomes ecstatic over Aamaa’s engineer-like spacial acuity. My Mom responds by scanning the horizon herself.

“And over there I see…Machhapuchhre!” she announces.

A few days later we went to go visit Great Falls and the Tow Path and along the Potomac River, where my parents used to take us for hikes on the weekends. Back then we had a special rock bench that my brother and I “discovered,” and which was, for purposes of eating a picnic of peanut butter sandwiches, the target of every summer expedition we made to Great Falls. My dad and I have both rowed many miles on the Potomac River, and on the fourth of July our family would come to the boat house and put on smelly life jackets and watch the fireworks from canoes on the water. This area is part of the circulatory system of our family.  We pulled in to the parking lot at Great Falls with Aamaa.

For some reason that now I can’t completely put together, one of the first things to occur was that Aamaa and Dad got to trading their shade-producing accessories.  I’ll just leave that there.

The only major bodies of water near Kaskikot are the Gandaki River and Phewa Lake. The first, we can cross through the riverbed in our flip flops unless a flood or unusually extreme rain has come through. The second can be crossed by paddle boat in about half an hour. So Great Falls was…great.

And now another confession. For all the years that my family has spent at Great Falls, for all the rowing and firework-watching and picnicking…my brother and I somehow both grew up thinking this was the “Toe Path.”

I know. It’s bad.  Because of the Explaining that is required with Aamaa there, this comes up in conversation.

“What?” my dad says, with the displeasure of a Master Explainer who has realized, at a time when his offspring are grown-ass adults raising children and trying to survive in the world on their own, that something so basic, and so explainable, and so important to the family history as the tow path, NEVER. GOT. EXPLAINED.

Dad explains the history of the C & O Canal as a trade route, complete with a detailed explanation of the the locking mechanisms that allowed canal boats to move upriver. And, swept up in all this Explaining, Dad finally breaks out in to song. This is a thing that happens sometimes.

And so on.  Lead the way, Dad!!

*

*Bonus reel (true undoctored historical evidence)*:

 

Politics and Poets

 

With the Nepal government undergoing a major restructuring, a big goal for us this summer is to figure out how the newly formed provincial government works and establish relationships with influential decision-makers.  We’re just getting started, and as I’ve described elsewhere, so is the government: most of the province-level officials are quite new to their desks, and in many cases the scope and processes of their jobs are still being decided.

So let me give you an idea of how this works.  Honestly, this is my real life.  I begin with a friend of mine in Kathmandu, who I was introduced to through an organization that gave us a grant a few years ago.  This friend refers me to a colleague of hers, who I’ll call Sam, who works inside the new Province #4 government office in Pokhara as a representative of a big nonprofit doing policy work on another topic.  So Sam is not exactly a government employee, but he’s connected to people in the Province office because he works in the building, and most happily, he is someone I can ring on his cell phone.  I set up an appointment.  It’s our first trip to the Province offices and we’ll just have to go meet Sam and see where we get.

Are you with me so far?

Muna and I walk about a mile from our office in burning July sun, and meet Sam in his office at the new Province building. Sam is a friendly, energetic and smart guy, and he begins to orient us to the structure of the Province government (we tried to google it–maybe you’ll have better luck). He combs through our present bureaucratic challenge: obtaining official endorsement for a workshop we want to host to train new dental technicians (who will of course work in Government Health Posts).   In the absence of clear procedures, we mull over who best to take this to next.  Sam makes a call to the Province Health Coordinator, an obvious choice, but the Health Coordinator is out today.

Eventually – and this is only possible because Sam is helping us, and because we’ve made a satisfactory case to him – he gets us an invite upstairs to meet direclty with the Minister of Social Development, who holds the highest office in the Province, something like a governor.  This is great news.  Muna and I follow Sam out of his office, and by this act Sam is adopted into our quest and ordained as our guide.  Without him Muna and I are just random people in the hallway. We stroll through the almost-finished government building, which like most government offices outside Kathmandu has a concrete austerity produced by minimalist decoration and a building style that leaves stairwells in the open air.  Even the walls look somehow unfinished, expectant.

At the top of the stairs we move down an echoey corridor and come to the mouth of a room crowded with men.  Peering through the door frame, I see a tall, lean Official sitting at the other end of the narrow office, the throng of visitors clamboring for his attention.  Sam and Muna and I are directed to the room across the hall to wait.

We wait.  It is very hot.

After some time, we are brought back across the hall to the Minister’s office.  It is stuffed with as many black faux-leather couches as the room will allow, and as per standard Important Office decorating style, they are situated perpendicular rather than parallel to the desk where the Official in question is seated. I can’t explain this, but it’s the set up of almost every Important Office I’ve been to in Nepal.  The halls are empty and the offices are packed with extreme quantities of couches, which are almost always lined up along one wall so that visitors find themselves talking to the Official they’ve come to see at an angle, while the Official gazes past their knees at empty space.  A perk of today’s office is that, with the July heat pawing at the walls, the ceiling fan is turned on to the highest setting.  I am seated directly under it.  It feels wonderful for about ten seconds, and then I realize I am doomed to suffer in a singularized typhoon for the length of our Important Meeting.

The last of the previous visitors is just leaving as we get seated, and when the previous callers have cleared out, Sam introduces us to the Official.  Muna and I – mostly Muna – describe Jevaia and explain the authorization letter we are looking for.  We say are “seeking suggestions on how to properly coordinate and align with the new government.”  We don’t say we are already pretty sure that these procedures are not defined yet; in fact, the inquiry itself is probably the best formal step available.

After some time, the Official falls silent. In my opinion, the Official Silent Phase is one of the great tests of mettle in this line of work, particularly for impatient foreigners.  From a western sensibility it’s completely perplexing: for about five mintues, the Official taps on his laptop and gazes past our knees without saying anything. The fan blasts the top of my head and wooshes through my ears, and I command my self to sit properly through the Official Silent Phase, like Sam and Muna are doing, without fidgeting or asking to turn the fan off.  Take note, impatient American Person With An Agenda.  If you come here on a schedule, it will be silently and inexorably bled out of you. The people on the faux-leather couches don’t own this timetable no matter how bombastic and fantastic their ideas are, and let me tell you right now that nobody else is in a hurry.  It never occurred to me I might need a jacket to get through our first Province government visit in the dead middle of the summer, but I surely wish it had.

Suddenly, the door flies open and an elderly man in traditional daura-suruwal dress walks through the door.  He waves his walking stick at the foot of the couch.

I don’t have a picture of the Poet, so here’s an internet photo of a man in a daura surulwar.

“Son, get up and move over there, I’m just gonna have a seat,” the old man says to Sam, who graciously leaps up from the seat closest to the Official desk, and moves down the line of couches to a spot near the door.  The old man sits down and leans in to the corner of the Minister’s desk with a twinkle in his eye. He begins reciting a legnthy poem.

The Official is, by old man terms, a junior “son” like Sam. In an instant, the hierarchy of the room is reorganized. The Official leans back in his chair with a grin and sets to listening to the poem. All of a sudden, we are all in school.

For forty five minutes–no, I’m not exaggerating–the Official and the Old Man engage in philosophical conversation while the fan hammers my head, Muna waits politely and Sam cycles through expressions of interest.  I won’t find this out until after the meeting, but the old man is the son of a famous poet, and himself a reknowned scholar. More men–all men, Muna and are I the only women for miles around, it seems–wander in to the room to listen while he holds court.  The poet leans dramatically forward and back on the faux-black leather couch, swaying to his recitations, swiveling his attention from the Official to us to other would-be meeting-seekers near the door, and unleashes a reverent Islamic lyric.

“So tell me,” our Official says, with somber studiousness. “I want to know something.  You’re a Hindu man.  But you speak eleven languages and you’ve studied Islamic poetry extensively.  How do you reconcile those who eat cow meat?”

I shiver and try to casually hold my hair out of my eyes.  I look enviously at a corner door, where more men are periodically filing in and out of the room, and notice that Sam seems distracted by the door too.  Why can’t the Minister just tell us whether we can have a letter, or what we have to do to get it?  Why can’t he release us from bondage, and THEN listen to poetry?

“Let’s have another poem,” the old man says. He turns to Muna, who, following Sam’s relocation, has ended up on the couch seat beside the Poet.  Leaning toward her, the old man brightens, saying, “Would you like to hear a Hindi Poem?”

“Nobody properly understands Hindi,” the Official interjects, boldly. “How about a Nepali poem.” I am well aware that we will need to hear all the poems if we want to find out about our letter.

Another gaggle of men comes out of the corner door, and suddenly Sam says, “let’s go.”  Go where? I chatter.  The Minister hasn’t answered our question yet.  I’m confused.

“This way,” Sam says, motioning toward the corner door.  Why are we leaving?  But with no choice, I get up and follow Sam and Muna through the mystery door.  We enter the next room, and there, in a grand office, behind a hefty wooden desk flanked by the National flag, sits the actual Minister of Social Development.  She rotates on her chair, adjusts her sari over her shoulder, and waves us to sit down on two spacious couches where she can examine us directly from across the carpet.

Who was that guy? I whisper to Muna. Suddenly I am afraid I’m about to start giggling uncontrollably.

“The Secretary,” Muna mutters.

“So,” the Minister of Social Development commands, wasting no time and leaning forward on her clasped hands.  “Who are you?”

 

 

The Language of Mothers


….so I got behind on Aamaa-Rama, the epic (obviously) recounting of Aamaa’s journey to visit us in America last fall.  Now I’m catching up months later, which is a thing to never do–the whole point of keeping a blog is that even though you think you will remember things just as you felt them in the moment, nobody does.  Anyway, now it’s 8 months later and you can’t miss Aamaa’s visit to America, so we just have to make do.

When last I left you, Aamaa had buckled herself in to my friend Catherine’s Mini-Coop and rolled out from my house in Connecticut with Bishnu to shift to my parent’s house in Maryland. My parents, for their part, have been to Kaskikot in 2003 and 2010.  And Bishnu has been in the US since the start of 2009. Which means that since our early twenties, Bishnu and I have slept in each other’s childhood beds and grown up a second time in one another’s families, learning a new language over dinner plates on each other’s tables (or kitchen floors, as it were), gaining autonomy over time, absorbing the values and habits of one another’s households.  So even though my folks and Aamaa have only met twice, they share a peculiar confidence, forged in a wormhole that compressed an enormous distance in to the finest intimacy—parenthood.

This has manifested in odd bits of cross-pollination. For example, the first time my parents and brother came to Kaskikot, which was well before cell phones or Internet, they stayed for a week. When they were leaving, Aamaa came out to the road to see them off. She stood up on a high terrace near Butu boujou’s house and waved her arms back and forth like one of those people with the reflective orange vests who directs airplanes on a tarmac. In the absence of another common language, my parents lingered in the road and returned the movement, swinging their palms back and forth over their heads dramatically: TEN-FOUR AAMAA, COPY, WE HAVE REACHED THE ROAD, WE ARE CLEARED FOR WALKING TO NAUDANDA. This gesture was then adopted in to our family lexicon for momentous goodbyes. For example, when I back out of the driveway in Bethesda to go to Connecticut, my mother stands in front of the garage and waves both arms back and forth over her head: FAREWELL, DAUGHTER, OFF YOU GO TO A FAR AWAY PLACE CALLED CONNECTICUT.

It was hard to picture Bishnu and Aamaa turning in to my parents driveway in Catherine’s Mini-Coop. Bishnu and I are like zipliners, swinging between two distant worlds connected by a suspiciously unbreakable cable. For me Aamaa’s arrival had the feel of an asteroid collision, primal, made inevitable a long time ago by gravitational forces in a distant solar system. And it happened. Our planets crashed together. Bishnu sent this wonderful piece of documentation, complete with garage:

Over the next few days, Bishnu took Aamaa to the National Zoo, to McDonalds, to her office, and to monuments all over Washington D.C. In the evenings, we would video-chat over dinner in my parents recently renovated kitchen, where Aamaa was eating all sorts of new foods cooked in a variety of contraptions such as the oven or on the electric stove in nonstick pots. And it quickly became apparent that if Bishnu and I thought we were running this show, our mothers were going to overtake us in imminently.

By the time I came to town a week later, my Mom and Aamaa had built a solid telepathic bond over topics such as whether Bishnu and I are eating enough, why we live so far away from them, and how unmarried we are. It didn’t matter what language these topics came up in (which they did extremely frequently) or which mother started it. The other mother would just inexplicably pipe up in her own language with reinforcing material. Since to our knowledge Aamaa only knew how to say “light” and “good morning” in English, and my Mom’s Nepali vocabulary consists solely of “chicken,” “buffalo,” “rice,” and “delicious,” this was confounding. It would go something like this:

Me (using both languages): Anyone want more pasta? Pasta khannu hunchha Aamaa?

Aamaa (in Nepali): I just want you and Bishnu to bring me some grandchildren.

Bishnu: Ok, ok.

Aamaa (Nepali): When’s there going to be a wedding? All I want is some grandchildren from you before I die, happy.

Mom (English): I keep telling them to get out there! Krishna over at the Nepali restaurant could be my son-in-law.

Bishnu: Ok, Mom.

Me: What the hell Mom, how do you even know what we’re talking about?

Aamaa (Nepali): See, Mom agrees with me. We’re getting old. You’re getting old. You’re both old.  Soon we’ll be dead.

Bishnu: Starting to giggle.

Me: Can somebody please have some more pasta?

Mom (English): I think Laura needs to get fatter. Her face looks too small.

Aamaa (Nepali): Laura, you go out in the morning without even eating rice! Walking all day! You’re just a nose!

Bishnu (giggling hysterically): Mom, Aamaa says Laura is just a nose.

Me: Thanks Bishnu—

Mom: I remember when she used to row and she was big and strong! Now she’s too skinny!

Aamaa (Nepali): And only eats THIS MUCH rice!

Mom (English): Aamaa, Bishnu cooks Dad and me delicious Nepali food. Bhaat. Mitho! Bishnu!! 

Aamaa: Oooohhh! Mitho bhaat.

Bishnu: How are they talking to each other?

Me: It’s a hostile takeover.

Mom: Bhaat. RIIIIICEEE!

Aamaa: RRRRRRIIIICE! BHAAT!

Me: Dad, do you want more pasta?

The day I arrived, Bishnu was out with Aamaa most of the day, and I confess now that I was in a high-stress state. I’d only been home from Nepal for about a week, my graduate program was starting again in a few days along with a 25-hour-a-week internship, and a Situation came up that set off a fluorescent, strobing life-anxiety. My head hurt, my heart was racing, I demoralized and tired. All day, I dealt with The Situation while Bishnu took Aamaa to the Washington Monument.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That evening Aamaa and Bishnu arrived home. They had already been in Maryland for a week, but with my arrival that morning it was the first time we were all together in my parents’ house, and instead of being totally in to the momentous occasion I was exasperated and upset about The Situation. I went upstairs to my childhood bedroom and found Aamaa lying in bed with Bishnu, resting in the fading light after their long day of adventuring. I flopped down with them, and they asked after The Situation, and I filled them in, and they told me not to worry and reassured me that of course I was right and the world was wrong, and all would be okay. Bishnu reported that, unexpectedly, Aamaa had rather taken to McDonalds.  Then the door creaked open, a bar of light fell in from the hallway, and my Mom poked her head through it.

We scooted over and my Mom wrangled bum-first on to the bed with us. The four of us arranged our entangled limbs on the puffy comforter. Night edged in. Without ceremony, the outside world fell away and I felt the collapse of time and space that is unique to parents and children and to long, long distances completed. And then a blossoming awe. How were we here together, like this?  Nobody can sit at one end of a road and plan a route that ends in this place. We were somewhere that can’t be reached using the mind.  With a jolt of clarity I saw the whole geography of it, like a continent, a huge swath of my life that is navigated only by the heart, which brought me to this shore. I felt us safely encompassed by an endless higher wisdom.

It was dark now, save for the bar of light from the hallway. The Situation shrank and became a hard, rocky thing shooting pain in to my foot, low and dense and false. It was not the real thing.

“Can you imagine,” Aamaa said in Nepali, “how nice it will be when there are more grandchildren? Like Ricky’s.”

“They’re always going and living far away, ” Mom added in English. “They should stay near their mothers.”

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(Photo credit: Bishnu)

Bonus reel:

Afternoons

 

First Saturday of summer  

our hands sweat in the grass until

plateaus and peaks draw in their woolen covers.

Fried fresh corn kernels from the fire

salt.  

Each drop on tin, a world

An hour, or so

maybe more or less

to talk about, so

We gaze out the door

where slick leaves are dripping

lick our salty fingers

and pass the minutes

…or so they pass us

listening to the rain.

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Borders

 

It’s another newsletter repost, so please forgive me if you get both….

Dear Friends,

It is the first day after the solstice and the monsoon is is still trapped up in the clouds, pressing the heat heavy on to our heads. In a few weeks the sky will break and we will be deliciously soaked for weeks and weeks.

I arrived in Nepal a few days ago after graduating from my Master’s in Social Work this spring, and it is a pretty interesting point in time to be here.  Over the course of the last year, the government of Nepal has gone through a major restructuring, with power being distributed from the central level out to newly-formed provinces.

We have a front-row seat to this transition: working with local level governments in rural areas.  Our big goal is to impact policy and establish oral health services at the community level throughout the public health system in Nepal, so we are constantly getting new footing based on changes in Nepal’s ever-shifting government. The fiscal year ends in mid-july, so during this season our tiny staff of four is busy riding around on motorbikes and variously getting out to the villages we work in to meet with local leaders who are planning their health budgets for next year.  The key mission of course is to make sure that funding gets allocated to sustain the dental clinics we’ve set up in rural government health posts.

The twist is that at the moment, with the entire Ministry of Health changing, all the rules are up in the air.  Who is responsible for allocating funding from the federal to provincial governments?  What are the budget headings?  When will funds be provided to provincial governments?  Will the District Public Health Office still exist in the second quarter of next year?

Nobody is entirely sure.

So anyway, that’s what we’ll be working on this summer.

From my side, today was the first day I arrived at our office in Pokhara, and we had a long jam session trying to predict how political forces in the country will affect health care in rural villages.  Then it was time for the main show- heading home with some tennis rackets, DVDs, and a lot of candy.  My first order of business was getting Aidan and Pascal to play tennis inside the house, because I can be relied upon to help with childcare, and then we went to play frisbee in the square and eat ice cream.  We’ll go up to Kaskikot tomorrow.

It has to be said that as I re-enter beautiful country that has welcomed me as a daughter without asking any questions, the borders of the U.S. are heavy on my heart.  As always, I casually purchased my visa upon arrival in the Kathmandu airport.  At our office, everyone wanted to know what on earth is going on in America. The papers say that New York is receiving many stranded children, including in Harlem just a stone’s throw from where I lived and taught art in schools for many years. I find myself thinking about the years I have spent in Nepal, and how they began one afternoon when I arrived at two-room plastered mud home and Didi was standing by the sewing machine and I asked if I could move in to the house. The best spaces were cleared out for me. The tiny rice pot went from thirds to quarters. I could have been anywhere on the planet, I wasn’t running from anything, I had alI needed and nobody asked why I presumed to eat out of that little pot, which was filled with food that had been laboriously cultivated from the ground.  I had nothing to offer except my curiosity.

It is particularly jarring to look back across the ocean at the news from here; in a way, the politics blur with distance.  But the shame is crushing.  This world is so very magical when its doors are open.

The summer has begun…stay tuned.

Laura, Aidan, Pascal, Didi, Prem, and the Jevaia Foundation Posse on Soon-to-be-muddy-bikes

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