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.

The Ritual of Goodbye

 

I decided to take the jungle path up to Kaski, which I normally travel multiple times during any visit, but haven’t been up or down yet during this hectic winter. I set off late and as I climbed up, the scramble of things fell away and I was alone on the stone path.  Where there is time to climb and think.

It’s been a few years since the forest was cut here (for grass, firewood) so the way is lush and clustered with greenery.  I always wear flip flops and the contours of the rocks feel close under my feet, even in winter.  At intervals, I came upon dustings of red powder laying bright on the rocks, a trail I suspected had been left by a recent funeral procession headed in the other direction down to the river.  Midway up the path there is a natural spring that has been organized with laid stones, and one large flat rock with a groove in the middle serves as a ledge channeling a steady stream of water for drinking. When I come this way with the kids, they cup their hands under the trickle and funnel the water between their lips, like something out of the Secret Garden. The spring always feels like a sacred place, a steady tributary of water that started who knows where, up high in the mountains, probably, and falls there at our feet as we pass.

As I made my way up from the valley to the ridge, I had that granular awareness of time passing behind me, and it seemed so strange that at any moment I was on one stone, and then I would be on the next one, and just that way the whole path would be behind me and I would be up in Kaski, the secret water tap and everything far below where I’d just been.

img_1031By the time I climbed up the last step to the ridge top, I was a combination of chilly and sweaty in the January dusk. I walked the spine of the ridge, which curves along our cubby of village as if along the top row of a stadium. Little Narayan caught sight of me up along the ridgetop, and yelled out from way down in the first row where he was visiting a neighbor, LAURA DIDIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII!!!!! before launching in to a sprint and leaping up over terraces to come walk the last bit of the way by my side. We made a right turn at our row in the top section of the stadium, and strolled out to the house sitting in the wings, where the fire was lit and Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa were waiting.

We had some popcorn and hot tea as sunset approached. Narayan’s brother Amrit came over and in the yard we practiced taekwondo and played chungi, which is basically Nepali hackey sack using a ball of rubber bands, while Aamaa cried out at us to calm it down and I riled everyone up. Govinda dai came over and we sat with Aamaa in the kitchen while she made anadi paste, a rice dough with ghee that is healing for sore muscles and bones, and then we ate it and it made our hands sticky with ghee. Saano didi came over, and then Mahendra’s mother came over. We transferred to the big room with all the beds, and while our visitors took seats around the room to hang out, I jumped under the blankets with Hadjur Aamaa, and with us both lying down, my long limbs rested against the soft jumbled folds of her sari.

Aside from ritualized procedures and ceremonies – tikka-giving, astrology-reading, mala-making — goodbyes are wholly unfashionable around here. So what usually happens on my last day or last morning in Kaski is our closest neighbors come over to chat, but nobody talks about the fact that I am leaving, going to another world, and won’t be back for a long time. If we do, it is in the form of asking about the trajectory of my flight, how long I’ll be in the air, what they give us to eat during such a long journey, and whether or not it is colder where I’m going than where we are. We discuss what season it will be when I come back (summer), and what fieldwork we’ll all do together (millet planting and rice planting), and this leads us to reminisce about what a klutz I was when I first arrived, and how many things I know how to do now. At some point, people wander out mid-conversation. Because the course of events is set, both the leaving and the returning, and since there is nothing to be done, there is no point in becoming uncomfortable. I understand this ritual of goodbye, and have become grateful for it.

churning milkAfter most people had left, Govinda stayed while I churned milk so I could bring buttermilk to Pokhara tomorrow for the family. Govinda took photos of me, which is kind of nice because I don’t have many photos of myself since I’m always the one taking them – but then, people, he posted them on Facebook and two days later I would discover that this photo album is wildly more popular than anything I’ve ever posted of myself trying to be useful or worthy. What does it all mean?

When the milk was churned, Govinda dai left to go home and Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa and I got ready for bed. It’s always been a nightly habit of mine to go out after everything is quiet and look at the stars, across the village stadium at Kali with her arms stretched out under her cloak, and study the positions of the constellations amassed around her. I usually walk out along the garden, and sometimes I climb halfway up the hill to the ridge and look back at the house with its golden porch light, a warm square in the broad, cold darkness. Even when I am far away from Kaski, I often feel my self located there, outside in the silence, looking back at the still, lit house in its expansive darkness. That spot is a place of gratitude and wonder, of tiny-ness and huge-ness at the same time: my little self, with coordinates in the galaxy.

It was another January night, clear and chilly, the stars laid out overhead like dust. I went out to the yard to brush my teeth, and for whatever reason, instead of going out along the terrace, I stood in the square of light cast off the porch and looked out in to the dark. In the summer, the yard is hemmed in by towering corn stalks, but in January, there are no walls against the yawning night.  I stared out in to the blackness, past the edge of the yard, and all I could see was the outline of trees under the stars, and an opening in the blackness at the top of the hill where the path gives way to the ridge.

It occurred to me that in all this time, I’ve never looked at it this way. I studied the inscrutable night, brushed my teeth, and threw my eyes up to the sky for a moment to make sure Orien was where I expected him.  Then I went back in to the house, placed the wooden bar across the inside of the door, got under the warm covers, and drifted off to sleep, safe against the morning.

*

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The Put In The Museum Pants

Welcome, world, to the new year 2017.  In honor of this changing of the calendar, I decided to take on some good old Kaskikot cleaning-out-of-old-clothes-from-the-house.  Now in order for you to fully appreciate what this means in context, you must understand a few key points.

First, the clothes in question have been in rotation for anywhere from 2 to 14 years, and for the most part, they are only worn when I’m in Nepal.  Second, these garments are mainly used for activities such as chopping wood and hauling water and painting murals, and they are washed on rocks. Third, p1070133all of the family clothes are stuffed in to one large dresser with drawers that have been labeled with permanent marker by the kids (“Lora and Bishnu, Ama, Malika and Prem, Aidan and Pascl”) and the dresser is always so full you almost can’t open it, or close it, which is why every time I get the Lora and Bishnu drawer open and then shove it almost shut, Aamaa yelps out from across the room and chides me for leaving one inch of air space that will look irresistible to a mouse seeking fluffy shelter from life.

Next you must understand that nobody throws anything away, ever, under any circumstances, because it was once useful, might again be useful, is nicely made, contains a wrapper or other information that might be needed for future reference, or just because I don’t know let’s just keep it here wedged between the roof beams because we have roof beams.

And finally, since I am away for 5 to 10 months at a time, partway through, Aamaa religiously takes out the nicely stacked and folded system I’ve left behind to air out everyone’s clothes in the sun.  They are then returned to their airless purgatory in maximum disarray.

It is also notable that at any given time, most people in the household cannot locate the particular piece of clothing they wish to wear.  I spend most of my time at home either trying to open the Lora and Bishnu drawer, trying to close the drawer, or looking under piles for something while Aamaa cries out, “No matter how big the house gets, it just fills up with things and then we can’t find anything!”  FYI this is a two-room mud plaster house with a kitchen and attic, which was once expanded from a one-room mud plaster house with a kitchen and attic, but that’s the EXACT SAME THING my mom says about our large suburban abode in Bethesda.  So you can put that last point in to your “Deep thoughts on human life” file and stick it between the roof beams for future reference.

In any case, on Dec. 31, 2016, I made a decision, people.  Grandma was sunning in the yard while Aamaa tended to the buffalo, Govinda’s kids were over, an attempt to fold and restore clothes to the Lora drawer with Sulochana’s help was going nowhere, and in a fit of courage I committed to assigning a pile of my best clothes to mattress material.  (I mean it, if you think anything ever gets thrown out, let’s talk about used-up pens and “good” empty cardboard boxes before we start wasting perfectly good 14 year old clothes.)  I handed my camera over to Sudir, and he and Sulo stationed themselves to document these items for posterity.

Now then, with no further ado, I present to you the parade of Useful and Sentimental Clothes.

Item 1: The Mural Surulwar

Mural, White Paint - Me

The very first time I came to Kaskikot, all the way back in October 2002, the volunteer agency took me to a tailor and I had two outfits sewn.  I wore them constantly during my first two years, including through the painting of two murals at Sada Shiva Primary.  One top frayed out of existence a few years ago, but these two outfits are mostly still in circulation for both sentimental and practical reasons: they became my go-to outfits for mural painting.  This pair of pants, however, is difficult to wear in pretty much all circumstances.  Bye bye special beige painting surulwar.  We’ve walked so many places together and you’ve had so many kids I love on your lap.

Item 2: The Elastic Bathing Lungi

Fortunately I don’t have a “before” photo of the bathing lungi.  But it too is a lifer: it has been bathed in for 14 years.  In fact, I think I inherited it from another volunteer that was leaving when I arrived in 2002.  Suffice to say that this little number is no longer appropriate for bathing, or really for anything except becoming a mattress cover.

Item 3: The Red Kurta I Stole From Bishnu

Round about my third visit, I started to wise up a little on style.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that when Nepali tailors sew outfits for white people, they just go huge and hope for the best.  We look like Yetis, but at least we can get in to these outfits.  As I became more interested in a fashion choice that wasn’t a mumu, Bishnu’s loosest outfits were large enough for me to get in to as long as I didn’t breathe too much.  This red top was my favorite and eventually I had it let out a little around the lungs.  When I wore it with some red pants I found, I felt like a princess, but then someone made the red pants in to a mattress, so I reverted to wearing it with the beige Mural Surulwar.  It then became covered in paint, and torn, but it’s had a great life on multiple Spero-Subedi women.

Item 4: The Put In The Museum Pants

I got these jeans for $10 at a discount mall in college, and they were my Nepal jeans for about 10 years.  They got patched in the crotch, the butt, around the ankles and in various locations where they caught on things here and there.  I took a lot of crap for wearing these pants, which Prem had coined the “Put In The Museum Pants” for quite a few years before I stopped wearing them.  I discovered them at the bottom of the Lora and Bishnu drawer, and I’m glad nobody throws things out here, because it would be terrible to think of these trusty pants in a ditch somewhere.  Unfortunately they do not fully qualify as pants any more at this point; they evolved closer to the mattress stage while still on me.  Since I’ve clearly enjoyed sitting on them quite a bit, I’m glad someone will have a nice night’s rest on them…like a museum, but lying down.

They will be next to this AAU Taekwondo Nationals t-shirt that I got in 2008; it had a rougher life once it moved continents.

Item 5: This one’s not my fault.

This is a kurta surulwar that belonged to Bishnu about 10 million years ago.  I was able to convince Aamaa that nobody is going to wear it again ever for the entire future of the planet until the sun explodes.  I tried to lower my arms for these photos but to no avail because the outfit was sewn with inexplicably tiny sleeves and indefensibly large and poofy pants for someone 1/2 my size.  Thank you for just being you, outfit that makes no sense.  You inspire us all.

Item 6: The One I Couldn’t Bear to Actually Give Up

Oct. '03

This is the other kurta surulwaar I had sewn for my first ever visit to Kaskikot.  I wore it constantly and the material appears to be more durable than bulletproof kevlar. I have photos of myself carrying grass in this purple kurta, teaching in this purple kurta, holding a cat in this purple kurta, going to a dental clinic in this kurta, and giving Mom and Aamaa a joint foot massage while wearing this purple kurta when my parents first visited 2003.  Purple became my symbolic color, and often when I receive gifts in Kaskikot they are purple if they are not edible.  The kurta, as you can plainly see, evolved in to my primary mural painting smock, and hasn’t been used in quite a while. But I still wear the dark purple pants around the house even though the crotch is ripped (YES, I have leggings inside, jeez) because the thick purple material is still warm and soft and because the Yeti sizing is perfect for lounging. I decided it was ok to hang on to these much-travelled and much-loved pieces of history a bit longer.  Maybe my great-grandkids will get a kick out of this getup.

So after we had finished modeling the upcoming mattress, we shut the dresser drawer, Sulo did my hair with a complicated formula of braids and safety pins, and we had a dance party with Grandma.

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Happy New Year!

No wait…one more for the road.

Cause I’m keeping the purple one.

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Tihar, Festival of Lights, 2003

 

 

 

 

Between

 

On my way home (by way of Delhi…woe), I have stopped over in the city of Almaty to visit my college friend Freeman, who works for the State Department in Kazakhstan. I know you almost certainly have no idea where Kazakhstan is, and that’s fine. It’s a former Soviet state that shares part of its eastern border with China and its southern border with Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan. Kazakh culture is heavily Russian with a mix of other influences from China and central Asia, and people are predominantly Muslim.  There’s also a significant Korean population, and the art and food maintain a lingering fragrance of the old Silk Road.  The eastern and southern borders are braced by the upper parts of the Himalayan mountain range that eventually makes its way down through Pakistan, India and Nepal.

That Crazy Russian Alphabet

That Crazy Russian Alphabet (bonus: Camca = Samosa)

Basically, Kazakhstan is a gorgeous cultural crossroads, surrounded by mountains, where everything is written in that crazy Russian alphabet that looks like English after a rough night.

On the first day, Freeman and I used a combination of gondolas and hiking to get up to Talgar Pass at 3200m, just outside the city. Later we had an amazing dinner at a Georgian restaurant. Cause also, Georgian.
Talgar Pass, 3200m

Talgar Pass, 3200m

The second and third days we went sightseeing around Almaty. In the Green Market we browsed all manner of essentials including fruit displays from Mars, sacks of rust-colored spices, butt-pad underwear, and a vibrant expanse of fermented Korean goods stretching off nearly to Korea. We spent some time wandering “the area of cheap goods from China, which are the same everywhere,” according to Freeman, who was our only expert in this situation.

One of the most interesting things about Almaty is the mash up of quaint, European-like streets lined with chic cafes and flower gardens, combined with austere Soviet-era concrete fortresses dotted throughout the city: apartments, offices and municipal buildings. On one hand, Kazakhs have enacted such delicate flourishes as distributing mountain runoff over the natural downhill slope of the entire city to create a delightful canal system that sends fresh, cooling streams of water gurgling down the sides of the manicured city lanes. On the other hand, we walked these lovely streets to get to the Central Musuem, which turns out to be housed in the Citadel of Sauron, beamed over directly from the Middle Earth.

 

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“When the Russians build something, they go big,” Freeman explained.

Inside the Central Museum we saw two of my favorite things: mesmerizing spearheads made by prehistoric humans tens of thousand of years ago, and extremely detailed ideas on advanced cosmonogy world organization, painstakingly translated for English speakers.

I was enthralled when we visited a candy store lined with bins of billions of dazzling wrappers in every color, which, it’s candy store-ness notwithstanding, Freeman pointed out had retained a very typical Soviet-era setup, whereby customers wait in long lines while employees put goods in to containers for them. Of course, we’re talking about candy here, and an endless supply at that; under the Soviet Union, basic goods and food were often in short supply. Freeman said it was similar in China, and when he first came to the U.S. at age 11, it was incredible to him to enter a grocery store and be allowed to touch the food.

 

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See, I never thought of that.

As I come to the end of my summer travels, I appreciated the complexity and diversity and contradictions of Almaty. At night, we tried to watch the Olympics, but Kazakh TV was only showing the things where Kazakh athletes were competing, so we attempted to be riveted by the race walking marathon – YES, A WALKING MARATHON – TRY TO STAY RIVETED – and the trampoline competition. When race-walking got to be a lot, I flipped occasionally to the BBC or CNN, where the U.S election is the only thing on, far away and too close, oddly irrelevant, and yet more relevant than ever.  During the time I’ve been in Nepal this summer, there has been an onslaught of international terrorist attacks and domestic racial violence in the U.S….the other day, a friend posted a photo he captured at a Connecticut political rally (where he was protesting) proclaiming “Diversity = White Genocide.”

Mean time, Aamaa has no idea who Barack Obama is, and a major event of our summer was that I acquired some new sheets of corrugated tin to replace the 25-year-old kitchen roof, which was leaking directly into the cooking fire.  How is it possible that a person can go from one side of the world to the other in barely a day?

Nepal is my full-time work, not a summer excursion. Nevertheless, during these transitions from one continent to another, I’m gifted with the chance to be between; to float over the globe and feel the intensity of tiny things, like the drops of water falling where Aamaa sits by the fire, and also the drifty arbitrariness of all of it, how the most urgent fixation somewhere is irrelevant somewhere else, how everything is swallowed in sweeping expanses of destruction and renewal and passages of time. We are so small, yet there are so many treasures to find.

 

Aamaa's cooking fire, Kaskikot, Nepal

 

Maybe that’s why my favorite stop in Kazakhstan was the Central Mosque, which we visited just after the color and chaos of the Green Market. Before we went through the gates, I draped a sheer pink shawl over my head, and while Freeman entered the cavernous men’s side, I made my way around to the smaller women’s side. I removed my shoes and entered a hushed, carpeted room just as a row of women was moving through a series of prayers playing over a speaker.

Standing in the back, I was vaguely aware of myself, a white American Jew standing aside in a Kazakh mosque, a cultural transplant who seems to be at home everywhere and nowhere. I hope these women will forgive my vanity in sharing the over-exposed photo I snapped of their meditation, because at a time with so much violence outside the walls, it was such a soft and sanctified place.  The natural thing was to move to the center of the room and join in the late morning prayer, and it was easy to follow the succession of standing, bowing, kneeling, and bending to the floor. I’ve offered prayers in so many different kinds of temples and situations and settings, these fleeting spaces sometimes feel more like home than many other places where we live.

 

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I don’t speak Arabic, of course, and I’m no more Muslim than Hindu. But with the U.S. border emerging over the horizon, CNN flashing in my head, and the world marching under us, I heard words announce themselves in my ears as I put my forehead to the ground one time and then the next, the pink shawl falling comfortingly around my face.

Please humble our hearts.

Please bring solace to those in sorrow.

Please give wisdom to our leaders.

Please guide us to our better selves.

Please strengthen us through our differences.

Please make me an instrument of peace.

See you soon, USA.

*

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Waiting Out Rain

 

I’ve just arrived in Nepal, and the dust and diesel is shining on the streets of Kathmandu, stilled by summer rain.  Honestly for a whole decade I didn’t want to be here during the hot and buggy monsoon, but last summer I discovered that of course, like any season, the rainy time has a unique and indispensible magic.  The water clatters and pounds, washing everything and making us wait.  It comes down too hard to walk around or do anything.

Just wait.

It’s strange to re-enter this season which was so intense last year, when I arrived to a stunned and grieving city dotted with blue and yellow tents.  It seems that this country has basically just plugged on, absorbing the earthquake on to its pile of other messes, the unlucky people who lost the most – possessions, limbs, relatives – doing what people do: surviving.  The next day just keeps coming, and for anyone whose life wasn’t irreparably altered, that catastrophe isn’t the topic of conversation any more.

Things for me, however, have changed a lot.  When the earthquake threw us in to the ring with the big multinational agencies, it helped show our tiny staff the value of our community-level expertise.  This spring we launched our dental project in Lamjung district where we did earthquake relief.  

In the fall I also started a Master’s Degree in social work, and I’ve been able to incorporate a lot of what I’m learning in to our program right away.  Guys, seriously, a lot of this stuff I’ve been trying to explain has an entire body of theory and practice associated with it called human rights!  People are doing rights-based health care at the United Nations!  I found out I am basically an expert on rights-based dental health care in rural Nepal…WHO KNEW?!  (Who becomes an expert in that by accident?)

Ok, just wait.

Also, a few years ago, we thought we should do some baseline surveys in our villages.  Not too focused on the concept of sample sets, we thought we’d survey ALL the households…3,374 of them distributed over various hills and more hills, actually.  Because as long as you’re doing it, do it, right?  I wrote a survey with input from various people, we trained some high school students as surveyors, and just last week – 2 years later – we completed a 58-page report on this survey (thanks, Sarah Diamond!).  Come to find out there’s very little current research of this kind in Nepal, and this report is a thing.  I am taking it around like my visiting cousin and introducing it to everyone.  Here is a picture of our report.  Let’s call her Cousin Mae.  She’s in color, with pie charts and clones and everything.
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All this has come together in a very cool way.  Over the course of this year, three major U.S. Universities have developed a potential interest in partnering with us for research or medical collaboration.  It feels awesome!

So with all that in mind, this summer, I’ll be doing a few things:

  1. Visiting each of our ten clinic locations (past and present).
  2. Establishing a Rural Dentistry Coalition in Nepal to advocate for policy level recognition of our model, so that rural dental clinics can be established systemically for all villages through the national health care system (eventually).
  3. Laying groundwork for future research partnerships (hey, positive thinking!)
  4. Revisiting some of the places we did earthquake relief  (unforgettable)
  5. Planting rice with Aamaa and getting myself in to as many embarrassing situations as possible (inevitable, really).

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I am very ready for all of this following knee surgery in February.  At physical therapy, I do a warm-up each day where I put the treadmill on “maximum incline” of about 20 degrees and walk for 10 minutes.  Yay!  Now I am here and our newly launched Sindure Clinic is reached by a 5 hour hike.  That means physical therapy + dental clinic supervision at the same time.  This is not a deal you can find just anywhere, people.  Take note.  It’s not even a limited-time offer.

I’ll sign off with a few lines from a recent article in the Guardian that I really appreciated.  It can be very hard to stay motivated doing this this kind of thing, even though it’s true I sometimes get to pretend my iPhone is a grain-sifting woven pan and put it on my head, and we can reliably say it’s not a cubicle job.  But the pervasive story of the American (Social) Entrepreneur is hard to see past, with its celebration of saviorism, speed, and simplicity…as if there’s an equation to solve or a prize at the end.  But society doesn’t work that way, and often building things is just hard work.  You only stick out when you screw up; most of your ideas are 78% wrong the first 8 times, but there’s something good in there; when you disappear, that means it’s working.  If being humbled isn’t exalting, you’re in the wrong business.  I decided to tape this bit up on my door:

“I understand the attraction of working outside of the US. But don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity. Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous. Go because you want to do something difficult. Don’t go because you want to talk. Go because you want to listen.”

And then…just wait.

*

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The Obvious Practicalities

 

The other day I came across a dazzling, haunting article in the New York Times. The Lonely Death of George Bell opens with a chaotic photo of George Bell’s apartment. He was a hoarder, and until you look at the photo directly, it meets you more like a cubist painting than a photo of an apartment: an angular, colorful, dump.

Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 10.30.57 PM

The story follows a public administrator in a bleak office in Queens as he searches for George Bell’s next of kin, distributes George Bell’s assets, makes arrangements for George Bell’s cremation and burial. These tasks unfold in unceremonious anonymity – in fact, a significant amount of procedure is devoted to proving George Bell’s body is George Bell. No friends or relatives come forward to identify him. He was discovered in his apartment only after neighbors called to report the stench of his lonely end. This is the story of thousands of deaths in New York City every year.

To me, the article itself serves to witness and exalt George Bell’s silent passing, as well as what might have been among the most authentic feature of his life: isolation. In a way it is a glorious tribute, nearly impossible to look away from.

As you will see from the letters at the bottom, not everyone agrees.  But I was taken with this rare and unapologetically voyeuristic look at the mechanics of death in its most cold and undignified form.  In Western culture, we rarely visit death undressed. Jobs that in other parts of the world – certainly in Nepal – fall to the community in an old and well-traced set of patterns fall for George Bell to the Queens County Public Administrator.

George Bell’s situation is extreme, but it in other ways it simply exposes a shared fear and denial of death in the West: how the body, sacred in many cultures, is foreign and terrifying to us once it is dead.  It must be managed by professionals, or at the very least, out of sight, and as a society we treat any honoring of the spirit as a bonus round after the paperwork has been completed. We take this for granted, as if it is obvious because it is practical.

When I happened upon The Lonely Death of George Bell this week, I was editing a radio story about young widows in Nepal. The piece is about how widowhood rituals are changing for young women, and features 21-year Bishnu Pande, whose young husband died while working in Qatar. He never met their six month old daughter.

This topic is close to my heart, because historically, young women who lost their husbands have been forced to live out lives of ritual mourning, and Aamaa is a direct result of these traditions. She hasn’t worn the color red in 35 years. There was never any question of remarrying. Her husband’s family didn’t entirely abandon her, but they’ve done little to help her. When I arrived in Aamaa’s life, her daughters were in their early twenties, and her identity as a widow had long since blended in to the larger idea of her. I have always known Aamaa just as who she is, not as a woman bereaved. She has good friends, and people to look out for her, and she goes to weddings and dances.

And yet, for all practical purposes, Aamaa has lived a life of ritual widowhood. She is alone. Dancing is on limits, but ritual celebration – wearing sindur powder, receiving celebratory tikka, red clothing – are forever out. Moving back to the home where she grew up is out. A new marriage is definitely out. Her role in society is that of a woman who lost her husband, and has been since she was a 23 year old girl.

That will not be Bishnu Pande’s story.  But something will be.

So today I come across George Bell while editing a piece about Bishnu, having spent over a decade as part of Aamaa’s life. And it’s clear that what is obvious is not just what is practical. And neither is the ritual discipline that Aamaa observes. The obvious is just what we’re used to. Our treatment of death seems inevitable because it stems directly from our collective, subconscious attitude toward life, toward the nature of existing. Which can span the range of possibilities from Aamaa to the Queens County Public Administrator.

I feel like these hours I am spending with Bishnu Pande in my ear come at a time when  she and I are both somewhere in the middle. We’ve approached this crossroads from opposite sides: I from New York, where George Bell died, and Bishnu from Kaskikot, where Aamaa’s husband died. Her culture is learning to shed ritual, and I feel that mine has lost something vital and is scrambling to get it back. It’s like we’ve bumped in to each other in the middle of some misty dreamscape, each of us missing someone and renegotiating the collective attitude we’ve been taught.

Some letters to the editor have already been posted the article on George Bell. One says:

At first I wondered why “The Lonely Death of George Bell” was on Sunday’s front page above the fold. As I got into the article, I couldn’t put it down…Mr. Bell’s sad experience reinforced for me the importance of reaching out to relatives, friends and all those in a situation similar to Mr. Bell’s so that they have dignity in their final days. He deserved better.

And then another:

What could possibly justify this callous violation of George Bell’s privacy?…Mr. Bell could not have made his wish for privacy any clearer if he had specified it in his will, and no decent purpose is served by inviting us all in to trespass on his home….With this article The New York Times inflicted on Mr. Bell a final indignity.

     *

George Bell in 1956. / The New York Times

George Bell (L) in 1956. / The New York Times

 

Day Thirteen

 

Today is the thirteenth day after my friend Mary’s passing.  As I’ve written about before, this day marks the end of the initial kriya period, where the immediate family of the deceased observe two weeks of purification and austere ritual that instructs their food, bathing, clothing, sleeping, movement and prayer.  It is during this time that the spirit wanders in its new world, perhaps hovering about in this one, finding its way.  On the thirteenth day, a large meal is cooked, the family and community drink purifying bitter gaun, and life begins again.

I have decided to go back to Connecticut a week early for Mary’s memorial service.  But I wanted nothing more than to observe this thirteenth day in my own way, here in Nepal, where I feel close to the sky.

In addition, there’s the baby buffalo.

Two weeks ago, on friday morning, I woke up to a misty dawn with my phone near my head, and rolled over to see how my friend had fared since some bad news had arrived in my email the prior night. There was nothing yet – it was now night time in the U.S. – but I had a bad feeling.  And when I walked outside to wash my face, our very, very, very pregnant buffalo Lulu was shifting about uncomfortably in her shed.  She was due any moment.  Since I’ve arrived in Nepal this summer, I’ve been hoping to be at the house when Lulu has her baby – a phenomenon I’ve witnessed only once in twelve years, and will never forget.

For anyone who’s never seen a large animal like a buffalo very pregnant and approaching their moment, it’s hard to describe.  You can feel, like a physical entity, the pent up power of nature, the imminent violence and miracle of birth.  This animal that is normally so much bigger than you is so much smaller than what’s about to happen.

I left that morning for a meeting in Pokhara, already crying on the bus, where another little blue dot popped up on my phone – a new message saying things had not improved, that Mary was probably in her last hours back in New York.  And I was on this strange road in Nepal, on a mountain, the mist close and threatening rain, and the buffalo shifting around uncomfortably in her shed under Aamaa’s watchful gaze.

I spent a surreal day in Pokhara, and called Aamaa late in the afternoon.  The baby buffalo had been born and everyone was doing fine – the marvel of life.  Twenty minutes later, I got a message saying that Mary had died.

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So this little baby buffalo has been a source of wonder and comfort to me.  I named named her O’Neil. When I came up to Kaski a few days later, Aamaa pumped me full of the nutrient-dense, sacred milk that the mother buffalo makes in the first few days after giving birth, because she wanted me to be nourished.

The birth of a buffalo is a ritualized affair that is, in some ways, the inverse of a death.  For eleven days, we are not to eat the milk with food, or wash cups and bowls used for the virgin milk in the same impure space as the rest of the dishes.  When I took a little burnt piece of something out of my milk one day and tossed it on the ground in the yard, Aamaa went and picked it up, lest it touch the bottom of someone’s foot.  It is, essentially, an eleven day observance of the fragility of life and the gift of the milk that our Lulu will provide to her baby, and to us.  Then on the eleventh day there is a puja, with a priest and everything, and on that day we cook rice pudding, putting the milk into our own “bread” and bodies.  And the cycle goes on.

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Kalika Hill

I had missed O’Neil’s birth puja because I was out in Dhading.  So today was the first chance that Aamaa had to make rice pudding for me with O’Neil’s milk.  And that’s how Day Thirteen began, with a rich and delicious celebration of the life of our little baby buffalo who was born almost the same hour that Mary died.

Then I climbed up to my favorite place in all of Nepal, a spot along the hilltop that leads to the Kalika Temple, for which Kaskikot is named.  First I went to the temple, with flowers and incense from our house.  I made my offering and rang the bell.  Before heading back to my favorite spot along the crest of the hill to do my qigong, something made me think I should look around for some sign, something that would make me feel like Mary was here with me, and I was here with her.  From the Kalika Temple, you can see everything, the valley on all sides, the lake to the southeast, the stretching falling foothills reaching to the horizon, and the soaring Annapurna range to the North, towering halfway up your field of vision.  It is spectacular.

But the direction I decided to look was up.

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I have taken hundreds – literally hundreds – of photos of rainbows in this village.  I know where they show up and in what kind of weather.  But I have never seen a rainbow like this anywhere on the whole planet.

I left the temple gates and ran through the grass in my flip flops, following the hilltop to my favorite rock.  I kept checking behind me to see if this amazing rainbow was still there, and it just kept getting brighter and more extraordinary.

When I found my favorite rock, I lit incense and placed more flowers I’d brought from our house.  I am so close to the clouds on this three feet of rock.  I can see my little house looking like a toy in the hillside.  Everything is far away and whole.  I closed my eyes.

When I opened them forty five minutes later, the rainbow was gone.

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Mama Lulu and Baby O'Neil

Mama Lulu and Baby O’Neil under Aamaa’s watchful gaze

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coordination Tactics

On Tuesday, the first thing I woke up to was a call from an unknown number at 6:45am. I silenced my phone but got three more calls from the same number, so I picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Hello.”

“Who is this?” I could already tell who it was.

“Archalbot.” It was the little boy, Kushal, from our visit to Archalbot yesterday.

“Hello Archalbot,” I said. “How are you?

“Fine.”

I waited. “Ok….Well….I’m fine too.”

“Ok.”

“All right then, talk to you later?”

“Ok.”

“Bye, Archalbot,” I said.

“Bye!”

Later in the morning, Dilmaya and I debriefed with Robin and Colin over coffee. We reconfirmed the plan we’d come up with yesterday. Dilmaya was to call our main contact, Kripa, and I’d coordinate with the government. If everything was organized, we’d start Thursday.

IMG_5049I’ve been here three and a half weeks and I haven’t spent a single day in Kaski. Wednesday is millet planting day, so I promised Aamaa that I would take a day off from coordinating housing outreach and tooth brushing programs to come churn up dirt between the corn stalks and shove little millet seedlings in to it. I spent the rest of Tuesday running around, planning for a day in Kaskikot away from internet like it was year on Mars. Finally I ran to the bus park at 5:30pm, just as a downpour began.

The bus left an hour late, at 6:30pm. That’s where I was when I realized that I was supposed to submit my enrollment for graduate school classes in September at exactly 6:45pm my time, 9am EST. If you don’t do this right when registration opens, it’s likely that the classes or sections you want will fill up within an hour or two.

I tried to log in from my phone, but not surprisingly, the cell connection wasn’t strong enough. So I called my parents to see if they could log in to my account from in Maryland and click “submit.” I got my dad on the phone, but in order to log in he needed a password. And the meticulously written document I’d made before I left for Nepal with all my logins and passwords in it had evaporated from my computer. I searched and searched and it was nowhere to be found.

So I hung up and waited a precious 45 minutes until I got to Kaski, where there’s one hotel that sometimes has internet, and my password is saved in my browser so I can log in without the missing document. I got to the Kaski hotel and the internet wasn’t working. I called my dad back while the hotel owner tried to restart the internet, which took about 15 minutes. Then the UConn registration site let me take every step except for actually hitting “submit,” because the site itself was having technical problems, which I now knew because my dad was on the phone with the registrar.

Which is to say that by this point my dad was holding the phone up between the registrar in Hartford and me in Kaskikot, while we discussed options for resetting my password, which required me explaining to my dad that the registrar was saying she was going to send him an email with a reset link; now I’m walking home from the hotel to the house so Aamaa doesn’t think I’ve fallen off a mountain, and the registrar needs to get someone else on the phone so she adds yet another person to this phone chain. Then my iphone won’t download the new password, and then when it does, and I read it over the phone from our house in Kaski to the person four phones away in Hartford, it gets rejected.

It’s like the Nepal jeep travel version of online class registration.

In the end, the registrar’s office took pity on us and just overrode their system to register me for my classes. It was 9:30pm here. Aamaa and finally sit down for dinner. Bring it on, millet planting season.

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Dreaming of Safe Boxes

 

With a lot of thought going in to our current Kaski Oral Health working areas, we’ve also had quite a bit of discussion about whether, how, and why to get involved in a village closer to the center of the damage, where a higher percentage of houses – in some cases up to 90% – have been destroyed.  Lamjung, the next district over, shares its eastern border with Gorkha and this border was the epicenter of the earthquake.

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With all this going on, I’m gradually appreciating how much experience we’ve developed in community-centered design that incorporates multiple systems and people to address even a very specific issue like dental care.  I think that if we can work in one of these districts, we should because we can.  I also feel it’s important to have local, grassroots organizations involved and setting examples in the places where large agencies are doing a lot of work.

As I ponder how we can turn this expertise in to something useful for earthquake-relief (and I think we should have a moment of appreciation for the activity of pondering about turning expertise in rural South-Asian dental care in to earthquake relief), it seems the first step is to be working with a single community in a defined area.

I am hoping that if we can locate a community that’s a manageable size for our capacity and funds, we can at least do a really good job of using a community-centered approach to set up transitional housing in one Lamjung village, with the goal of creating an example to be copied by agencies with more resources. Once we see how that goes, we can decide if it makes sense to bring in another layer in the same community, such as the counseling element that Dr. Aung from the WHO suggested.

I’ve looked at four types of housing so far: Kiran’s tunnel, a simple tin tunnel, something called earthbag building that uses sacks of dirt and can be made to look very much like a traditional home – and then there’s the option of simply providing people with a corrugated tin and some other materials and letting them have at it.

All this was kicking around in my head the other night when I was in Kaski with Aamaa. While we were having dinner a crazy lightening storm started—the kind that’s more like a constant flickering than separate strikes of lightening. There is a lingering sense of nature’s awfulness in the air and everything feels foreboding, even the normal, dramatic patters of weather typical to this season. As we turned in for the night, it began to pour.

P1070133Lying in bed between the sturdy earth walls of our house, listening to rain clang on the tin roof, is one of my places of greatest serenity. This is my favorite way in the world to fall asleep, and my favorite way to wake up. You can hear the entire the distance from the ground under you up to the sky, but all the noise and space are close and balanced and soft like a blanket.

In my half-dream state, I found myself thinking about people lying in their makeshift shelters, with doors of plastic sheets or thin bamboo or synthetic, brightly-colored things, easily torn down or penetrated. Aamaa walks around all day with a key to this house hanging around her neck. She even sleeps with it.  It suddenly seemed like a great indignity to have no door to close, nothing to lock up, no single space to block out the rest of the unknown and uncaring world.

Not to mention the practicalities. Where are people storing any precious photos of grandparents extracted from the rubble? The few pieces of jewelry or any cash they are lucky enough to still possess? You’d have to walk around with all of this stuff on you all the time.

IMG_1719My mind reached about, searching for something that people could shut tightly, a safe box that can’t be stolen when there are no bolts or securities anywhere. Into my head floated a picture of a locked metal container with a pipe welded perpendicularly to the bottom, and a wide plate attached to the other end, like an upside down T. You could dig a hole, place the box in the ground so that the top of the T rests on the bottom of the hole, and then fill the hole in so only about half the box is above ground with the top accessible. There would be no way to lift this locked, anchored box, so if someone wanted to steal it they’d have to surreptitiously dig up the entire affair inside your tarp-house and then sneak out with a large metal T sticking out from under their shirt. Which, if they could pull it off, AND get your lock undone, then hats off to them.  Because the key would be on a string around your neck.

I fell asleep to the sound of the rain, wondering if we could produce a safe like that.

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