Aamaa-Rama

 

Ice cream cone practice

If the Guiness Book of Records took entries for Aamaas who had rarely left their villages in Nepal and had the most friends living in the U.S., our Aamaa would win by a landslide. I don’t even know how many people have been to Kaskikot to eat in Aamaa’s kitchen in the last decade and a half, but it’s an impressive cohort of my friends and family, even if you don’t count all the tourists that Prem bhinaju brings by. We wanted Aamaa to get to see as many of them as possible here in their natural habitat. I put out a call for visitors.

My friend Jackie drove all the way down from Maine to meet Aamaa in Connecticut. We went to a hot air balloon festival and ate ice cream.

“We should go. It will be dark soon,” Aamaa clucked.

“The whole point is to see the balloons lit up in the dark!” Bishnu and I objected.

“It’s night,” Aamaa countered logically. The fact that everyone isn’t basically inside by dark is one of the features of American life that Aamaa seems to find continually alarming. As a side note, she has been busting my chops for being out after dark in Kaski for fifteen years.

We had dinner (after dark) with my friends Heather and Abigail and their son Teddy. Heather was in Nepal with a group of my friends in 2010 for a big hiking trip. I took Aamaa to my IMT clinic, where she was received like a celebrity by all of the therapists. Of course, Aamaa knows all about IMT because in 2013 we did a major manual therapy project in Kaskikot based on the model we use in our oral health program, and three of my IMT therapist friends spent a few weeks in Nepal.

For the weekend, we went shopping in a grocery store (what?), got our nails done, did our hair, cooked an insane amount of Nepali food, and had an all day Aamaa-Rama party. Will, Lissa and Catherine, the therapists who’d come for the IMT project in 2013, came in from Boston and D.C. Dr. Keri, my cousins Robert and Audrey, and my friends Mona and Todd all made long drives to meet Aamaa. I set up a slideshow to play through photos and we sat around all afternoon seeing friends.

The next morning, Bishnu and Aamaa packed their things to drive down to D.C. to stay with Bishnu and my parents.  Will and Lissa came over for breakfast, and then we put everything in Catherine’s Mini Coop and I stood on the sidewalk.  Aamaa got in the car an buckled her own seatbelt.

At last, it came…that withdrawing feeling that I am used to having in the front yard of our gentle orange house in Kaski. Like a fishnet has been tied around my insides and is being pulled away by the force of a world that cannot come with me.  The thing is that usually I am on the other side of it, moving away from an anchor and feeling that world slip away as I leave.

This morning, I was the one standing on the porch, watching the color and sound move out in to the road.

“This is no fun,” I mumbled.  I would be going down to Maryland down to my family in a week.  But suddenly it felt like I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been alone.

“No kidding,” said Aamaa in her matter of fact, unsentimental way.  “That’s what I do.  Everyone leaves and it’s not fun and I sit and cry.”  And it’s true.  Every time a group of us come to Kaski, we leave.

“Nice job with the seatbelt,” I noted.  “See you guys next week.”

They pulled off in Catherine’s car, and I waved, like Aamaa always does, and went back in to my house to think of something to do.

*

 

 

All These Lights

 

It’s true that the hardest part is undocking from the house in Kaski, but after that, each step further away gets less difficult and more strange. Now we are completely ummoored and nothing makes sense at all: Aamaa is in JFK airport.

Bishnu was waiting for us and she and Aamaa were reunited after four years. It was quite undramatic.  My parents, by contrast, have been known to stand in the waiting area with an enormous welcome home sign and my mother has a happy attack that involves all four of her limbs. Nepalis are much more subdued. But Bishnu was wearing an orange shirt, a gesture she planned after seeing the photo I posted of Aamaa and me leaving Kathmandu.  Bishnu had also ridden a bus all night from DC, and given that Aamaa and I had been traveling for a few days and endured airport dinosaurs and nauseous teddy bears, it appears I was the only one who was really enthusiastic about taking arrival this picture.

We got in a car back to Connecticut and showed Aamaa how to buckle her seatbelt. The car set out and was soon rising over the Whitestone bridge, where Aamaa caught her first glimpse of the edge of the ocean.  It occured to me then that I hadn’t thought to point the ocean out for the fourteen hours we were crossing the Atlantic. Aamaa looked out the car windows from side to side. “All of this is America!” she exclaimed.

A few weeks ago, my wallet was stolen in Cambodia with my passport, credit cards, all of my IDs, Verizon sim card, and house key. So when we pulled up to my house, I had no keys, no phone, and as it turns out, my internet had been turned off because the automatic payment on the cancelled credit card was rejected. We had to solve at least one of these problems, so we went to the mall. Que the following: Aamaa has only been in the U.S. for about seven hours and we’re in the Apple Store.

At one point I left to go to Verizon to get my lost sim card replaced, and when I came back, Bishnu and Aamaa were sitting outside Nordstrom’s, facing away from me and looking small in the wide, polished corridor of the mall. It is going to take me a while, I thought in a jet-lagged daze, to integrate the incredibly odd experience of seeing Aamaa in these spaces.  In the next few days she would be cooking in my kitchen, strolling down the Farmington Avenue sidewalk in West Hartford, pulling open the door to Starbucks, sitting on a treatment table at the IMT clinic where I worked. Imagine if Barack Obama was suddenly sitting in your living room, watching the TV he is supposed to be inside of. Or if there was a zebra standing in the Emergency Room. Or orange juice coming out of the kitchen sink faucet. The components are all fine, they are just extremely jarring in the new arrangement.

After it is dark, we are driving up Farmington Avenue. Aamaa has buckled herself in to the front seat and Bishnu is in back. We pass a synagogue.

“Aamaa, that’s the temple where people who practice Jewish religion go to pray,” I say.

“What’s Jewish religion?”

“I’m Jewish!”

“Oh right,” Aamaa says.

In the next block, we pass a church.  I point again.

“This is where people who practice Christian religion go to pray.”

Aamaa peers out the window. “We’re Christian, right?”

Bishnu lets out a torrent of giggles. “Aamaa, we’re Hindu!”

“Oh,” she says. By American standards, Aamaa is fairly religious. She mostly sticks to a Brahmin diet, lights incense and prays many days of the week, observes the dictates of the lunar calendar and the demands of solar eclipses.  She honors her ancestors and has practiced ritual widowhood since the age of twenty-two (although you could argue that that’s more about the patriarchy than religion). But from her point of view, Bishnu and I reflected later, it’s just dharma. She’s never had to label it.

Another block of Farmington Avenue rolls past, and we stop at an intersection.

“What’s with all these lights hanging everywhere?”

“They’re traffic lights,” Bishnu says from the back seat. “They tell the cars when to stop and go.”

“Ah, they put them out at night,” Aamaa concludes.

Bishnu and I start giggling again. “No, they are there all the time for the cars,” Bishnu corrects, and explains how the traffic lights work.

Oooooooh,” Aamaa replies.  And then, for the rest of the week, each time we pull up to a traffic light, Aamaa will begin narrating. “It’s red Laura, it’s red, stop….Ok, it’s green now. Go. Go go.”   This is one of the things that I will begin to quickly see about Aamaa: how efficiently she absorbs ordering details of this completely new world, and then references them constantly with an air of mastery and satisfaction. This process of discovery and wonder is absolutely magical to witness. I soon realize that being with Aamaa is a lot like being with my nephew Jonah was when he was about four, and we think that children outgrow their ability to be enthralled by traffic lights because they get smarter. Actually, children just get used to the way the world works. In point of fact, a traffic light is a pretty thing up in the air that brings discipline to the otherwise entirely chaotic phenomenon of traffic (see: Nepal, roads). To splash around in the delight of traffic lights with a highly competent sixty year old adult is a beautiful experience.

We make our first Nepali dinner together and sit at my kitchen table to eat with our hands. In Kaski, Aamaa has usually just boiled milk fresh from the buffalo, and from her throne on a pirka by the side of the fire, she gives us each a cup of velvety, hot cream with dinner.  Now we are taking care of her, and Bishnu pours Aamaa a cup of organic whole milk from the grocery store.

“Aamaa, have some milk.”

“Ok.”

“…Did you try it?”

“Not yet.”

“…Try the milk.”

“I tried it. It’s bad,” Aamaa declares without pause.  On either side of the table, Bishnu and I immediately collapse in hysterics.

On our second night, Bishnu has to leave at four in the morning to fly to Virginia for an interview. A short while later, Aamaa comes knocking on my bedroom door, which shares a corner with the door to my kitchen.  I get out of bed.

“Laura! What is that noise?”

“What noise?”

“VRRRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMMMMM.”

“The refrigerator?”

“Oh, okay. I was scared.”

“It’s just the refrigerator,” I reassure her groggily. We go back to sleep.

At 9:00, Aamaa raps on my door again.

“Laura, get up,” she says. “I’ve been up for hours. I thought I’d make some tea, but I don’t know how to use that stove of yours. And I can’t even go outside because I don’t know how to open the door.”

“The door?” I reply, confused. Maybe the deadbolt is locked? And then I realize Aamaa has probably never used a rotating doorknob before. “Oh. I’ll show you how to open the door,” I say apologetically.  For the rest of the week, each morning that I wake up, Aamaa is sitting on the front porch, observing neighbors walking by.

“I learned how to say, ‘good morning,’” she reports.

*

The Other Skies

 

The first thing I have to do is convince Aamaa to wear one of her new kurta salwaars. She has spent 60 years wearing a more dignified sari and she’s shy to dress like a girl. I insist she will be a lot more comfortable on our 24 hour journey with trousers on.

Bhinaju and our cousin Laxu come to the airport with us. As we stand outside the door to the airport, again there seems to be a strange inversion of everything. We say goodbye and move in to the 24-hour netherworld of air travel, but the moment when I detach like a raft in to the sea, alone and timeless until landing back in the rest of my life, never comes. Instead, all my focus is on Aamaa while we pass through various inexplicable passages and security checks, making goodbye phone calls along the way.

We end up seated with Chandrakala, a charming woman probably in her mid-forties leaving Nepal for the first time to go be a maid in Greece. I explain everything from the seatbelt to how to order drinks and use the bathroom. I set up their personal TVs with films for them to watch. They both look disapprovingly at the glass of wine I ask for, so I make a point of asking each of them repeatedly if they would like some wine during the flight. Aamaa has a million questions. Is it night or day? Can I put my passport away yet? Are mom and dad awake now? I don’t know. I’m used to not thinking about any of these things.

We spend the flight talking with Chandrakala didi and when we get off the plane in Doha in the middle of the night, the three of us stick together. The Doha airport will be the first thing we encounter that is a developed country version of the comparable thing in Nepal; Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu only supplemented its two small departure terminals a few years ago and the waiting area is decorated with rows of cheap, attached metal chairs that can be dragged about in units of three. The Doha airport is a dazzling maze of high ceilings, moving walkways, shiny things, monitors, duty free shops where beautiful women are illuminated by fluorescent lights, and of course, the enormous random nauseous teddy bear that is taking up space at the center because space needs to be taken up. It occurs to me how strange it is that in modern times, the first thing an immigrant from a developing country will see in a wealthy country is an airport, which is one of the weirdest environments modernity has to offer.  For example, Aamaa couldn’t even think of a question about the following dinosaur under a passageway in the airport:

I lead Aamaa and Chandrakala didi to the sleeping room and we all try unsuccessfully to doze off. Aamaa and I both end up stretched out on the floor instead of the awkward lounge chairs, and I appreciate how we must look, sprawled out on the ground in a room full of disciplined travelers using the chairs.

We go to the bathroom and use an automatic hand dryer.

By now we are all aware that we’re going to have to abandon Chandrakala didi to the Doha airport when our flight leaves for New York. I take us out to the nauseous teddy bear where a bank of monitors will show Chandrakala’s departure gate when the time gets closer, and explain to her three or four times how she’ll navigate the list of English symbols. Chandrakala didi is literate but uncomfortable with English, and if you don’t know what a gate is or how an airport works, reading the monitors is just one obstacle (how do you even know you’re supposed to read a monitor?). There are many Nepalis working in the Doha airport and we chat some of them.  Chandrakala didi will be able to ask someone if she needs help, but it still feels wrong to leave her alone in the glowing Doha airport with its mysterious halls and signs and statues. Eventually we have to say goodbye, and she sits outside our gate watching us go.

Every time Aamaa and I have to pass through a checkpoint or security screen, the international airport staff first assume that we aren’t traveling together, and then want to know what in the world is going on. Aamaa has all the looks of a first-time traveler from a traditional part of Nepal, and in addition to the fact that I have all the looks of a private-school educated white suburban yuppie from Connecticut, I tower over Aamaa by about eight inches.  Since she doesn’t speak English, I usually have to translate instructions.  After figuring out that we go together, most people assume I am her daughter in law, which would explain how I know Nepali and why I’m the one shepherding her on an overseas journey. “This is my daughter!” Aamaa giggles as she corrects enthralled security guards and airline attendants. We make our way from counter to counter and checkpoint to checkpoint, crossing the globe in a little bubble of delight that we make no sense.

Finally we board our fourteen-hour flight to JFK. We get incredibly lucky with an empty middle seat on a mostly full flight, so we’re able to take turns properly sleeping. I was worried about how Aamaa would handle strange food made by unknown people, but she mostly exclaimed over amount of it, approaching each tray with curiosity and then asking me if I wanted to eat her pats of butter because she was full from the continuous flow of food.

“That goes on the roti Aamaa, you don’t eat it by itself. It’s like ghee.”

And then the next tray would come and she’d ask me if I wanted the butter again.

We peered out the window at the rolling white puffs lolling off to infinity and Aamaa asked if the clouds were the ground or the sky.

“The sky,” I said.

“Does this plane also go to the other skies?” Aamaa asks, long after we’ve lost track of night and day.

“Other skies?”

“They say there is this sky, and then a sky above this, and then a sky below this one,” Aamaa says. “I don’t really know much about it. But I was wondering if this plane goes to the other skies.”

I gaze at her.

“I don’t really know,” I say. “I don’t know much about it either.”

Many trays and questions and naps and pats of butter later, we break through this sky and New York comes in to view. Aamaa reaches behind her for my hand as she stares out the window, and with a dramatic rumble, the plane sets us down on the ground.

*

First Firsts

 

The morning we were leaving, Aamaa’s brother and mother come over and we ate together. Aidan and Pascal were looking unacceptably dapper in their school ties. I can barely stand it when they look like this and it shouldn’t be allowed on these mornings when I’m leaving the country and won’t get to see them for five or six months.

Didi accompanied Aamaa and me to the airport, and while we were waiting for the flight to arrive, we made our first stop in a public bathroom. I showed Aamaa how to use the faucet at the sink (actually, the entire bathroom is a mystery), and what I hadn’t realized yet was how many different kinds of faucets there are between Pokhara and Hartford. Finally it was time to say goodbye to Didi.  We went through security, and now it was just us, on the road.

We climbed in to a small commuter plane for Aamaa’s first airplane ride.

Aamaa had only been to Kathmandu once before, when she picked up her visa a few months ago. We arrived at my friend Aparna’s house and Aamaa said wanted to accompany me to my meetings. I was afraid she’ll be bored.  Why should she sit around, she wanted to know, while I go do things in Kathmandu?  Let’s see the city!  Let’s see what I do when I’m here, doing all these meetings, she said.

My first meeting was with a Berkeley professor in a coffee shop. I ordered Aamaa a salad.  She poked at it suspiciously.

“Uncooked spinach,” she pointed out.

“It’s a salad,” I offered.

“Raw leaves,” she sighed, and switched over to helping me with my French fries instead.

My second meeting was on a fancy rooftop restaurant in a mall. On the way there, in the cab, Aamaa craned her neck at the window. “These buildings,” she said. “So tall! My goodness! Look at them, Laura!”

We arrived in the mall lobby to find, to my great satisfaction, AN ESCALATOR. I convinced Aamaa to ride it, leading to one of my favorite pieces of Nepal footage in fifteen years.

The escalator, I am pleased to say, is followed by a ride on a glass elevator.

We stay on the rooftop as dusk settles, eating appetizers and gazing out over the city, which stretches off smoggy and hazily lit. The next day, we will do some shopping in Assan Bazaar. Aamaa needs a few pieces of clothing, and I need a container to burn the incense from Solukhumbu that Sonam sir gifted me when I bought his tea yesterday. Prem Binaju is in Kathmandu with a client, and he’ll guide us through the crush and throng of shoppers and vegetables and piles of Himalayan rock salt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We only have one night in Kathmandu. I wake up in Aparna didi’s house to early morning light filtering through the sheer curtain as street sounds muffle their way in to our room. Aamaa is lying on the other bed, a place I never ever find her in the morning, because she gets up hours before I do to milk the buffalo, start the fire, heat water, and prepare for the day head.

“Get up Laura,” Aamaa says, lounging on her arm in an exaggerated display of leisure. “Let’s get to work.”

*

Keys and Threes

 

Thirteen days ago, Butu bouju’s father died. Out of all the possible things that might have been happening today, the whole community was gathered at Butu Bouju’s house for the last day of kriya. As the sound of the priest reading propagated over the arrival and bustle of visitors, Butu bouju’s house had that particular feeling of the world being unveiled after a deep and intense period of ritual mourning. Aamaa and Pascal and I pulled up plastic chairs in on the patio, where many relatives had come to pay respects. So the chance for us to be with family and community before our departure across the world was brought about by a death.

“How are you both? Laura, when did you arrive, when are you leaving?”

“We’re leaving for America today,” we told everyone. “We’re both going.”

Bhim arrived. We haven’t seen each other in probably three or four years. This November will make fifteen years since Bhim first brought me to a small house around the corner, where a widow and her daughters were living, and offered to have me move from his household to theirs.

“You’re taking Aamaa to America?” Bhim asked.

“Yep.”

“Today?”

“Yep.”

Bhim shook his head and smiled with that ironic twinkle he gets sometimes when I’m just not figure-outable. Which is a lot of the time.

“This has been a long story,” Bhim concluded.

“Yeah,” I laughed, “it has.”

“Tell Bishnu hello from me,” he said.

We left the kriya and went home to finish organizing. I’ve left this house nearly twenty times, and always the leaving is leaving Aamaa. After that, it’s just physically departing from Nepal. Bringing Aamaa along feels like bringing the house, and I’m not to sure how to pack.

Something else strange – the quiet. One of the things I remember from when Bishnu left in 2008 is how crowded the house was with people on the last night: neighbors, uncles, relatives I’d never met before and have rarely seen since, they were all crowded on to two beds, talking and laughing. In most households, when a family member is going abroad – “outside,” is the word people use – there is a great deal of activity. But Aamaa’s house is not a usual household. There’s nobody else in it.

So as mid morning became afternoon, it was just us, wondering how to ready the house to be without its mother. I swept and Aamaa put the mattresses up. It was unclear what else to do; I just wanted it to look organized. Like we’d prepared something.

Sonom sir came down from the Resort. I’ve bought six packets of local tea that he grew in the resort gardens behind our house. I hang out at the Resort now and then, to jump rope or do qigong, to chat with Sonam sir and his wife and nephews. Many of my friends have stayed there over the years while visiting me. Sonam sir’s family is from Solukhumbu, and like me, they are outsiders who have their custom-made place in Kaskikot.

“Good journey,” Sonam sir said, giving Aamaa and I each a kata in the Sherpa tradition.

Throughout the prior evening and afternoon, there was one person who spent a good amount of time sitting with us: BAA!, Mahendra’s father. Our cranky, sarcastic, exhausted neighbor, the one whose missing teeth prompted my career in delivering rural dentistry to underserved people. From the time I first came to Kaskikot, BAA! seemed unapologetically resentful of my unearned privilege in the world. He and Saano didi’s husband often function as the men in our house, chopping branches or negotiating social matters that require representation by men. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time with BAA! collecting branches or chasing the chicken while he watched me fumble or drinking tea and admitting that I don’t have any explanation for why the world is crap. That God gave me easy and he got dealt hard was never to be smoothed over or ignored. On some unspoken level, it wasn’t my fault, but I didn’t deserve any credit for being ahead, either. So we just collect branches and sip tea and that’s how it is. I took to calling him BAA! because he would point at himself and say, kind of demandingly, BAA!  Father. That’s how I was to address him, even though Bishnu and Didi call him “dai” or brother. At least he would be in charge of that.

Often our closest neighbors simply wander off when I’m leaving Kaski, as goodbyes are uncomfortable and pretty pointless, anyway, and at some point in the afternoon BAA! had indeed wandered off, and that was that. So I was surprised when he reappeared holding two silky white katas. He gave one to each of us.   BAA! will probably never see America, or probably anywhere outside Nepal. All the tourists come and go from this village and he is getting old with fewer and fewer teeth that I could not save, either.

“Go well,” BAA! said. “Take good care of Aamaa. And bring me back a son-in-law.”

After we’d done whatever we could think of to do, Aamaa changed in to the clothes that she’d hung outside in the shed the night before. Once her travel clothes were on, she couldn’t go back inside.  It’s also inauspicious to leave the house for a long journey in threes, so Aamaa left first, her bag packed with cucumbers and ghee and the CDMA phone for Didi and almost nothing to take America. In one of the strangest moments of my adulthood, Aamaa walked out of the yard and around the garden of cut corn stalks while I stood on the porch with Pascal, watching her go.

Then Pascal took a key out from around his neck and jammed it in to the wooden door. With that, he and I followed Aamaa up the little path, to the road, to the bus that will take us to the other side of the world.

*

Auspicious Leaving

 

Our flight to America was scheduled for a Monday night, but finding a day to leave the house in Kaski was a problem. Generally speaking, Saturdays and Tuesdays are inauspicious days to leave one’s house for a long journey (although on Tuesdays, you can get away with it, but ideally you shouldn’t stay at the house you are going to). Plus, Aamaa has a special restriction on Mondays that doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone: she is so much a part of her house, so rarely leaves it, that Mondays are off limits too when it comes to locking the door and saying goodbye. That left us with Sunday morning they day before our flight from Kathmandu as the only viable date for departure. And then it turned out that was ahmse ko chatujasi, a monthly position of the sun that is inauspicious for leaving one’s house. Sunday was a non-starter.

Problem.

The solution we came to was that Aamaa would put her packed bag outside the house in the early hours of Saturday morning, before it was fully Saturday.

I arrived back from Cambodia on Friday evening with Pascal in tow, and found the corn cut down. We did all the usual things – making dinner, playing with Amrit and Narayan from next door, chatting with neighbors passing through. Aamaa set to arranging things in a small shoulder bag. Two saris, two blouses and a petticoat to wear with them, and the two new kurta salwaars we had had made. What else should she bring? The bag looked disconcertingly empty. I show up in Nepal with two large duffel bags every time and most of my wardrobe lives here. What do I usually have in there? Can that give us any clues as to what Aamaa should add to her bag?

A sweater for the plane, I suggest. It is cold in the plane.

Mostly Aamaa was concerned with what items we would bring to Didi in Pokhara tomorrow. An enormous cucumber the size of a cricket bat. A bottle of heavy ghee (and a collection of smaller bottles for Bishnu, Mom and Dad, Ricky’s family, and me.). Aamaa’s CDMA telephone needs fixing, and besides, someone might call it while we are in America – we were to leave the telephone with Didi. Most of Aamaa’s bag was filled with things to be left in Pokhara.

“Laura, set your alarm for 3am.”

“I set it.”

The evening wore on, our last evening, the one where normally my bags sit threateningly zipped and ready, signaling the splitting of our worlds. Instead we just fell asleep, wondering what is going happen next.

“Did you set the alarm?”

“I set it.”

We drifted off. My dreams wove in and out, waiting for the alarm. Finally I opened my eyes. It was 4am.

“Aamaa, wake up.”

“Hadjur?”

“The alarm didn’t go off. It’s 4am, go quick.”

Aamaa took her hand bag and hung it outside in the shed. The phone and other belongings were allowed to finish the night in the house, but the clothes she would travel in needed to leave before daylight betrayed them.

I drifted off again, the feeling of uncharted territory hanging softly in the pre-dawn.

*

Between the Corn and the Millet

I try to imagine Aamaa’s life as it was back then, when the water springs in Kaskikot weren’t concrete taps but delicate pools that stirred up silt if you took from them too quickly. As a girl and young wife of 13, she sometimes had to sleep overnight in line while other women had their turns gently lifting the water jug by jug. By the time Aamaa was 22, she was a widow with two young girls of her own, and it would still be years before a bus came to Kaskikot, or a door was put on the entrance to her one-room house.

There have been many impossibles in Aamaa’s life. She raised two educated daughters who could split wood and carry twice their weight by grade school. The civil war started, but it was elsewhere, in other villages. The electric mill came; the bus came; the tourists came; other people converted their houses to homestays and restaurants. Aamaa’s house is off the road in a cul-de-sac of mountainside that nobody wanders past by accident. Even after some foreigners bought the patch of land on the hill behind the house and built a fancy hotel there, passers-by from Korea and Israel and Japan and Australia hiked past with their eyes straight ahead on the sprawling white peaks, rarely looking down to notice Aamaa and Didi and Bishnu there in the sunny yard, drying grain.

The likelihood that I would wander through the door one day has always seemed both insane and inevitable.  And over the last fifteen years, I’ve mostly thought of my life opposite Bishnu’s.  We were the two girls born at the polar ends of the universe, the ones who looked at each other and thought, what if I were her?  She’s been in the U.S. for eight and a half years now, while I spend significantly more time in Nepal than she does.

Aamaa was always more like the soil: everywhere, earthy, constant, essential.  She has all the nutrients and produces all the food and water and shelter.  Aamaa keeps the house alive, the field and gardens fertile from cycle to cycle, the fire crackling.  No matter how many people show up, Aamaa feeds us all. And no matter how many people go away, no matter how empty this house gets or how many of her birthdays pass, she keeps the water jugs full and the seeds sorted in dusty bottles. Aamaa has spent five decades in this village.

I had no idea Bishnu had applied for Aamaa to get a tourist visa to the U.S. to see Bishnu graduate from her Master’s program in information technology. Nobody told me that Prem and Didi took Aamaa to Kathmandu for the very first time last May to go to the U.S. Embassy, or that on the way there, Aamaa didn’t eat any cooked food because she couldn’t be sure who had prepared it. A few weeks later, I answered my cell phone in the parking lot at Walmart, and Bishnu announced that Aamaa had been given a five-year multiple entry tourist visa to America.

“What?” I said.

“For my graduation!” Bishnu explained ecstatically. She hasn’t seen her mom since 2013.

This explanation failed to explain all the questions I couldn’t think of.  Obviously the idea of having Aamaa make this trip has floated through my brain millions of times, but it was the ultimate what if ever.  The craziest version of everything.  Part of me thought that maybe this was all kind of a whim – a thing that might happen next year, or something. But Aamaa had sold the buffalo within a week.

On my way to Nepal in June, I tried to imagine having Aamaa with me on the way back. First I tried to digest the most obvious and superficial matters. For example, how would I explain the enormous statue of a teddy bear bent over with an apparent stomachache dramatically bottom lit in the Doha airport?

I can’t even explain that to you.

When I arrived in Kaski, everybody’s greetings had adjusted to the most up-to-the-minute state of affairs. “Laura! You’re here! How long are you staying? So, you’re taking Aamaa back with you, eh?”

Only Aamaa and I seemed cautious and uncertain with our excitement. The whole thing is so surreal that even the discussion feels like an entirely new and foreign continent. For fifteen years Aamaa and I have had what is now a very well established routine: I come to Kaskikot, we eat together in the kitchen, we go plant things with neighbors and churn milk and carry water from the tap, I fix up some things that need fixing in the house, we gossip about family here in Nepal and all the far away people not in Nepal. Aamaa knows them all – my whole extended family and a good number of my friends who have been to visit – largely through stories. But she’s the stable point, not just for us, but for herself also.

“So we’re going to America, huh?” Aamaa says as we are sitting on the porch, as if testing out the statement.

“Sure seems like it, right?”

We stare out at the tall curly corn stalks, crowding out the grassy millet that’s planted between them.

“What is the name of your District?”

“Pascal, do you know how many states there are in the U.S.?” I ask, and he doesn’t know, so I explain again about Virginia and Maryland and Connecticut and North Carolina.

We discuss departure dates because I have to change plane tickets that currently have me going home from Cambodia, where I’m visiting Bethy in August; Amaa knows Dr. Bethy, because she’s been here too. We mull over how long Aamaa’s trip to America should be. A month would probably be good – she might be bored after a month?

“I’ll go after cutting down the corn, and I’ll come back to cut down the millet,” Aamaa suggests with sudden firmness.

That seems good, I agree.  That is more orderly – maybe because we can see the corn.

Long silences. What, exactly, should we should be planning?

“Bishnu suggested I should get some kurta salwaars made,” Aamaa says. “I guess you aren’t really allowed to wear a sari in the U.S.”

“You’re allowed Aamaa. But a kurta salwaar might be more comfortable.”

“Ok we’ll plan a day to do that in Pokhara,” Aamaa states. “I guess we have to leave time to have it stitched and everything, right? We should go soon.”

“It only takes a couple days, but we can go soon.”

“Nah, you should just pick something out and I’ll meet you at the tailor,” Aamaa adjusts. “I don’t know anything about picking fabric.” Honestly, in sixty years, Aamaa has never walked in to one of Nepal’s fabric shops and picked out material for an outfit, which is how literally everybody in Nepal gets their clothes.

“No no no,” I insist, “I think you should definitely get to do the fabric choosing. Pick your own color, something you like.” I have to talk her in to it.

A few weeks later Aamaa takes the bus to Pokhara and waits for Pascal and I to come meet her at a chautara in Chiple Dunga. She can find her way to Didi’s house, but for the most part she prefers assistance to get around the city. Between the three of us, Pascal is the only one who can properly read in Nepali. We set off up the road to go to the fabric shop.

Laura chiama, let’s have some ice cream,” Pascal suggests wisely, because I am the sucker who will pretty reliably buy us all ice cream. As we pay, Aamaa has sat down on the low wall at the foot of the store, which is not a seating area, and Pascal and I go with it. I hand Aamaa her first ice cream cone.

“Do I eat this bottom part, the biscuit?” Aamaa asks.

“Yes, but don’t eat the paper,” Pascal instructs.

“I’m not going to eat the paper,” Aamaa says.

I can’t even remotely transpose any of this to Connecticut. I ask a passer-by to take our picture, and as you can imagine, she looks at the three of us – the Aamaa who has very obviously just beamed in from the village, the entirely incongruous American, and this regular Nepali boy being raised in the city – and gets a huge grin as she takes our picture. What could our story possibly be?

We set off again. Aamaa has brought along a broken umbrella from the house. “Laura, where’s a place that we can fix this umbrella?” she asks. I blink, there must be an answer to that, but I’ve never thought about an umbrella-fixing place.

“We should probably just replace it,” I say, feeling guilty for my wastefulness and mental laziness. I don’t have the energy to try to figure out where the umbrella fixer might be and there’s really no excuse for it.

As we wander to the center of town I’m distracted and disoriented because everything is inside out. When I first came here I couldn’t say a word or do a single thing for myself, and in Kaski, Aamaa runs everything.  We get a few kilometers off her turf and suddenly she is the foreigner and I’m the one who knows what we’re doing. She has also brought with her a heavy bag of cucumbers and other items for Didi and Bhinaju and the boys, and she’s carrying it on her shoulder, the way people do in the village where nothing is flat.  Pascal is twelve and he goes sprinting out in to traffic as we cross the street and I pay him no heed whatsoever because I’m dodging people to keep eye on Aamaa, having no calibration for how much I do or don’t need to hover over her in traffic. We probably haven’t walked through the city together more than two or three times in a decade and a half, and never just us – not once.

We arrive at the fabric shop.

There are hundreds of colors and textures of cloth to choose from. Aamaa looks hopeful that I will take over. As a young man begins removing options from the shelf she bends over them. He throws one on top of another and another and another and another. Her hands settle on a jubilant orange outfit.

“I like this one,” she suggests. She looks at me as though asking if that one is a good one to like.

Within ten minutes, Aamaa and Pascal and I are pawing through dozens of kurta salwaars, trading opinions on what Aamaa should wear in America. She picks two, and we take them to the tailor, who takes out his tape measure. He’s going to make something just for her, in her size and shape, to wear between the corn and the millet.

“I think you should do short sleeves,” I say. “Definitely short sleeves.”

“I don’t know – I think they should be a bit longer. To the elbow,” Aamaa says. The tailor agrees – maybe longer sleeves for an Aamaa. No way, I say, short sleeves look best on a kurta and it will still be hot in September. Aamaa studies her arms for a minute, apparently imagining them in a very standard piece of clothing she’s never had.

“Yeah. That’s how I want them,” she concludes. “To the elbow.”

*

Laura Chiama

 

I’ve been here a week and by yesterday it was time to head to Kaski for the weekend. Pascal and Aidan have their exams this week, but I like taking one or both of them with me when I can.  In Pokhara, there is too much sitting. When Didi and Bishnu where 9 and 11, they spent all their non-school hours working, carrying, cooking, washing, or studying by the little kerosene lamp. Aidan and Pascal should examine bugs and trip on roots while running over the terraced fields.

Pascal said he wanted to come along, so I told him to show up at 4:30 the room I’m renting this summer.  He was here and ready at 4, and Aidan showed up a few minutes later. While I put my things together, they explored my little apartment, and I suggested they take the opportunity to try out the private shower with its shiny hot and cold faucets. The boys are used to bucket bathing. Pascal gave the shower a go (very refreshing, Laura-chiama), but Aidan ran out of time. The sky was gathering a storm and we had to get to the bus park.

We arrived just in time to cram ourselves in to the last Friday bus. The bus to kaski is always crowded and always an adventure, but Friday evenings are the worst. I found a spot up near the front of the bus with my back to the driver – I was sitting, so that’s a plus – and Aidan wiggled up on to my lap.  The bus was packed well beyond capacity, every knee and elbow and hip bent to accommodate a body part belonging to somebody else, a situation made worse by the rain that had started.  With all the windows closed it felt like oxygen was being consumed faster than it could be collected, and the window panes fogged up with body heat, leaving everything slick and heavy. Aidan was hot on my lap, and I wished I’d shoved him in to the shower. Then again, he was my only shield against the sea of limbs and sweaty brows, and at least his sweat is familiar. For a 5’8” American, I can pack myself in to a pretty small space in a crowded Nepali bus, but this ride was set to put my capabilities to the test.

Up we went. Switchbacks.

By the time I peeled Aidan off my lap in Kaski, dusk had settled soft and blue on the hills. We emerged outside into the cool wide air, suspenseful with pending rain, and ran through the corn stalks to the house (Laura-chiama, the corn is so much taller than you!). Aamaa put dinner on our plates, and sitting on the floor, we arranged our knees to fit in the narrow kitchen. The electricity went out.  The very same kerosene lamp Didi and Bishnu studied by all those years (my single favorite object in the house) lit up the clay walls and the boys’ faces in the kitchen, where I feel happy.

Aidan and I are both partial to the new kitten, a bony sliver of a thing that always seems hungry and cold. Aidan likes to pet its fragile spine with two fingers, the only thing I’ve ever seen him do gently.  Normally Aidan moves too fast, is covered in bruises, and breaks everything. But he feeds the kitten little bits of rice on the clay floor while we eat. When we get in bed, the kitten wants to cuddle with us and I let it nestle on to my shoulder while I read. It purrs in to my neck. Aidan is delighted, but Aamaa and Pascal are displeased. The cat is a feral beast with no business in a bed. It is here to eat mice. Poor little thing.

During the night, I wake up every time I have to roll over because I don’t want to smush the kitten. Aidan jabs his knee in to my back.   Around 4am, the kitten poops exuberantly onto the blanket. I take the kitten and the blanket off the bed and go back to sleep.

I wake up my favorite way: gradually, lazily, inside the conical mosquito net drifting up to the ceiling, with rain pattering on the tin roof.  Aidan is already gone out of bed.  Saturday stretches out before us, a long summer meadow rustling and flowered.

Narayan with his other American gift

I come out on to the porch and Aamaa is serving milk tea. Milk tea! Aamaa sold the buffalo a few weeks ago and we are milk-less.Where did the milk come from? But Aamaa knows that I forget about black tea halfway through, and it gets cold sitting on the porch.  Somehow this morning she is pouring creamy milk tea in to a tin cup and everything is perfect.

Narayan comes over from next door, and within a few minutes, Aidan has broken the toy I gave Narayan: a set of Velcro pads and a Velcro ball to play catch with. The boys set to fixing it. Aidan recruits some tape from someplace, I can’t imagine where, and Pascal has taken a sickle to a piece of bamboo. He is making a walking stick. They want to watch TV and Aamaa tells them that’s fine so I unplug the TV and hide the remote and tell Pascal to go wield a sharp object too close to his hands, like the rest of the kids.

I walk over to Govinda dai’s house for is sarad, the anniversary of his mother’s death.  I get there just as  the priest is arriving to start the puja, and he asks after how I am doing. The priest knows me partly because I stick out, and also from my project documenting death and mourning rituals. I have sat and listened to him and taken his photo and written about him and sought explanations from him often. The house fills with incense and stillness and an oil lamp is lit. Sulochana doesn’t want me to leave; she asks for some henna on her hands, and I’m surprised this is allowed on sarad, but Govinda’s father doesn’t seem to mind.

In the afternoon little Narayan takes a break from his exploits with Aidan and Pascal to bring me down to his mother’s fields where Aamaa is helping plant rice. I follow his tiny frame along the edges of the flooded rice paddies, and through the part of Kaskikot where the students I taught in 2003 are from. Their families know me as Laura-miss, and I spend less time in this area, so people might only see me every couple of years, but I sense a certain look of recognition when I pass somebody who knows me as the teacher of their kid. “Eh!! Laura, Laura right?” She is going to cut rice, they shake their heads, isn’t that delightful? Yes yes, it’s Laura. I have a weird life, I think, and it is pretty great. After all this time, it is still magical to be known on a wooded stone path winding down to the rice paddies.

 

We pass our neighbor Butu bouju. Laura! Did you have milk tea this morning? Aamaa wanted to pay for the milk, Butu bouju says, and I said no, Laura is here from America. Aidan and Pascal are visiting from Pokhara. They should have milk.  How was the tea?

For three or four hours, Saraswoti and I stand shin-deep irrigated mud, planting one sprig at a time.  The gleaming hills stretch out across the valley, monsoon humidity draped over their shoulders.  The edge of my left leg will get burnt below the knee, where my rolled up trousers cease to shield skin against the hot sun. Mostly we work together in silence. Every once and a while Saraswoti looks over and murmurs, bhay chha Laura, bhay chha, it’s good. Or, Laura, how much does a plane ticket cost to get to America? I bet it is scary, being on a plane. I ask if Saraswoti has ever been on a plane, even though I know the answer. Does she think it would be scary? Probably, I think. It would be scary, I guess. Splash, plop. Bhay chha, Laura.

Last Saturday, I think, I was in Connecticut.  I try to remember what I was doing…errands?

*

Downpour.

Starting around 4pm, we could barely hear ourselves for the rain pummeling the tin roof.  Sulochana and Narayan were both over.  I decided Aidan still needed a shower and began to goad him in to going out in the deluge.  Narayan, who is even more of a spaz than Aidan, launched himself into the center of the patio with all of this clothes on and was immediately soaked.  Aamaa began screeching at all of us.  In this weather! Get inside!  Everybody on the beds with the windows closed!  Aidan changed in to shorts and came running on to the porch, alight with glee, while Aamaa scolded him loud enough to cut through the noise of the pounding water.  There was a curtain of rivulets dripping off the corrugated tin all along the edge of the porch.  Aidan stuck his hand out, stuck his toe out, and then finally

I dried Aidan off.  See, Aamaa?  Now he’s clean-ish.

Narayan spent the rest of the afternoon without his shirt on.

I lay down on the bed to read by the gray light of an open window, because we’d unplugged all the lights and turned off the electric sockets.  Lightening has ended more than one life in this neighborhood; in Saano Didi’s family, it was inside the house.

Laura-chiama!  Let us use the henna!  Please please please….I allow Aidan, Narayan, and Sulochana to decorate my outstretched left arm with henna while I use my right arm to hold mybook on my chest.  The three of them hover intently over their work by the light of the window, while the rain continues singing loudly over our heads.  It tickles.  Sulochana has been learning by watching me, and she makes a lovely flower in my palm.  I take my eyes off my book and notice Aidan squeezing the tube of henna lusciously in to a pile of brown goo under the spot where he has scratched out my name below the elbow.  Later, this will become a bearded LAURA hat looks like a large bruise.  Oh well.

Aamaa and I debate all afternoon over the boys’ exams.  They haven’t brought their books, she says, and they should have gone back to Pokhara today to study.  Aamaa comes up with all kinds of nonsensical plans such as walking them to Naudanda an hour away to catch the bus.  I say that if they want to get on the 3:30 bus from Kaski, we can send them off and Didi will meet them at the bus park.  I say we are leaving at 7:30 am tomorrow morning on the first bus.  Aamaa says they shoudl be reading now.  I ask Pascal how old he is and he says almost twelve and I say, “Do you know you have an exam on Sunday?” and he says yes Laura-chiama!  And I say, see Aamaa?  They decided not to bring their books and that’s up to them.  Aamaa says the bus could be cancelled tomorrow morning, and I say there could be a flood or alien space landing or invasion by Mongols, but generally speaking, the bus leaves Kaski every single morning at 7:30am.

It pours torrentially all night.  Waterfalls, oceans, tidal waves coming from the sky, filling every bucket, drum, jug, pot; washing the stones clean; overflowing the planted rice paddies.

Aamaa wakes us up at 5:30am.  I scold her from inside my mosquito net.  Aamaa!  I set my alarm for 6:30am!  Why do we need to get up in the middle of the night?!  Grumpy, I stay in bed until 6:15.  When I get up, the boys are eating heaping plates of rice, vegetables and daal that Aamaa has cooked before 7am.  Like she does for me when I am leaving at 9am for the office, when I eat rice because I know how much it matters to her to feed us before we leave the house for the day.

MILK TEA.  I fill up my cup twice.

Aamaa wants us to make the hour long walk to Naudanda to take the bus to Pokhara.  I roll my eyes.  There is a bus leaving from right here at 7:30am!  The road will be washed out, Aamaa says, the bus could break down, a million problems could occur.  We could be late.  The boys have their exams, they haven’t even studied, why don’t we walk to Naudanda?  Has Aamaa spoken with my mom lately, I wonder?  Moms are all the same.

We go backwards through the drenched corn stalks to Deurali to wait for the bus.  Prem sir greets us.  The bus is not going this morning, Prem sir says, because there have been some small landslides and the road is blocked.

We have to walk to Naudanda.

Laura-chiama, we have to walk to Naudanda!!  HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!

Everything is soft and cottony in a mist that makes us unsure whether or not it has stopped raining.  Even though there is no water coming down, the air is wet, our hair is damp, the road is full of puddles, and the hills float in and out of a white sky.  We take photos of the mythical landscape.  We find sparkles of radiant purple and red poking out of the clouds in our hands.  Some vehicles pass, taking, like us, the opposite route to town this morning due to the blocked road, and I could stop them, but now we are not in a hurry.

Was there a hurry?

*

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Wanderlust, with “Trespassing!”

 

So the other day, a friend posted a Luftansa ad on Facebook with the caption, “this is the Nepal I love!” The post popped up in my feed, although it had nothing to do with me.

I clicked on it. The ad follows a Nepali fashion designer from New York back to Nepal as part of a “wanderlust” ad series by the airline. She goes to familiar places in Kathmandu, and then poses in front of the Annapurna mountains. And then, she eats a meal with some women who start to look very familiar – so familiar that I don’t recognize them in this context. And then, a teenage boy runs off of the roof of a house. His feet patter over the corrugated tin over our kitchen, which I had installed last summer to fix a leak over our cooking fire.

THAT’S MY HOUSE!!!! I start yelling. Luftansa decided to make an ad about wanderlust, and out of the ENTIRE GLOBE, they picked MY HOUSE IN NEPAL!!! I watch again. You can see Aamaa sitting right there on the porch with a white towel on her head. Have a look for yourself:

The colors of home – LUFTHANSA?!  I don’t think so!  Aamaa and Bishnu and I painted those colors!!  As my friend Bess says…trespassing!  You guys, this video has well over 3 million views.  Now, next question: who has a friend at Luftansa?  I think we should look in to a new corporate partner, no?

Go ahead and send your ideas my way…laura@jevaia.org.