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?

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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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Hope Against Entropy

(Editor’s note: apologies if you’re on my email list and receiving this a second time.  It won’t happen too often.  If you’re not on my email list, you should be!  Please write “SUBSCRIBE” to laura@jevaia.org).vision-nepal-global-exposure-workshop-088-2

Good morning from sunny Pokhara!  I arrived yesterday and enjoyed a nice homecoming tour of all my regular haunts. Since August, Pascal has rigged up a home-made antenna on the roof, Aidan’s other front tooth has finally come in, and the corn has been cut down in the garden in front of our office, replaced with new seedlings.  I absolutely love this season in Nepal – the cold, wide air, the clear mountain skyline which is obscured by fog during the monsoon, the evening snuggles with my nephews under warm blankets.  Tonight I head up to beautiful Kaskikot to see Aamaa.

photoI’m so excited to tell you about our plans for this winter.  After 10 years of chipping away at all this, we are just days away from a two-week collaboration with dentists, researchers, and students from Berkley, UCSF, UConn and the University of Puthisastra in Cambodia. It is a strange and wonderful feeling to be preparing for such a large and qualified group of visitors after so many years of working away with few outside witnesses to our efforts.  There are many great things wrapped up in upcoming this ball of projects.

The first is helping to implement a UCSF/Berkley study of oral health and nutrition in mothers and their children.  Our own JOHC field teams will get to work with the researchers to conduct this study in one of our villages.  The second project is training our technicians in some new techniques, which they’ll incorporate in to their sustainable clinics.  Third, we have the chance to bring dentists to our rural clinics for medical audits.  Believe it or not, after an entire decade, this will be the first time we’ve had foreign dentists come to visit our clinics.  

And finally, we’re going to pilot an evaluation of past patients who’ve been treated by our technicians over the years.  If you don’t think that sounds like Christmas, listen here! This means comparing the outcomes achieved by our local dental technicians to the results produced by fully credentialed dentists in prior studies of the same treatment techniques. img_3285 This is a HUGE step towards our goal of having Nepal’s national health care system adopt rural dental clinics in to all of its health posts. Why? Thank you for asking!  Because the main criticism is that community-level health workers aren’t qualified to perform dental medicine…even though that excludes millions of people from care.  But we’re making the case that, rather than write off local health workers, the medical field must find ways to properly train them to provide the best care possible in their settings.  And that’s what we’re doing!

Ok, so those are the technical points.  Now let’s talk about me organizing for fourteen people to show up next week from California, Connecticut, India and Cambodia.  We have a schedule, a budget, a training plan, hotels, flights, and t-shirts.  We’re doing our best to keep things under control.  But we are up against the entropy of Nepal, people.  THE ENTROPY OF NEPAL.  Pretty much anything could derail our plans and contingency plans: a wedding, a political strike, rain, someone’s grandpa dying, a forestry meeting, a buffalo falling ill.  A buffalo having a baby.  A traffic jam.  A flat tire.  Lost luggage.  Fog on Sunday afternoon.  Somebody decided to drive this point home for me at the recently renovated, lusciously carpeted arrival terminal in the Kathmandu airport, which has a new row of fancy kiosks for visa filing:

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On the plus side, sometimes fate works to your advantage.  Consider our office.  This fall, our landlord’s son got married.  The son received a number of couches by way of dowry.  They don’t fit in our landlord’s apartment, so I arrived to find them in our office, which now looks rather like a furniture store.  If you have any idea how much I have obsessed over the setup of our office, you will especially appreciate this stroke of….er….luck…

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Well, in solidarity, I think I’ll leave you there on the edge of your seat.  Except for sharing a photo of this year’s Race to the Rock, which was one of our best yet.  If you missed it, please consider Jevaia in your end of year giving.  After all, we’ve made it this far – through many political trials combined with road mishaps, fuel strikes, weddings, earthquakes, and baby buffalos – almost exclusively on the wings of individual donors, and here we are entering a very exciting new chapter.  Thank you for being a part of the ride with me and all of us.

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The WorldEdge Restaurant

 

Now and then I realize I have a collection of items that are too good not to share but have been too random to include in other posts. I present you now with this summer’s collection, the Worldedge Restaurant.

1. An old lady tending to a street a cow.

As deities, cows freely wander the streets of Nepal, and there are a number of regulars on the stretch that runs between Jarebar and Lakeside. They rummage through the gutters and depend on the kindness of strangers. One day I noticed this old lady attentively grooming one of these gentle animals by the side of the road in the middle of the afternoon.

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2. Paragliders sailing over the valley.

I snapped them one day on the bus ride home to Kaskikot.

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3. Hotel Touch Nepal Worldedge Restaurant

I walk past this establishment each night on my way home, and either nobody was able to reach consensus about which words to include in the business title so they went for everything, or they just have a bit of confusion regarding core mission. In any case, I’m thinking it’s probably best not to use Hotel Touch Nepal for lodging purposes.

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4. This shop of things made entirely out of tin.

Such as storage chests, chimneys, and watering pots.

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5. Pascal and Aidan entertaining themselves at home while the electricity is out.

Because you need power to charge things, but not to dance in the dark.

 

 

6. Aamod’s Shrek Bike

When Aamod puts this cover on his motorbike each day outside the office, it convincingly resembles Shrek. Unfortunately I failed to photo his actual motorbike every day for two months, so on the last day I tried to recreate Shrek on a bicycle, which is why he looks a little anorexic.

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7. A plant lake

During the summer, Phewa Lake apparently becomes so sodden with greenery that it turns in to an enormous garden with boats in it.

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8. The Delhi Airport

Officially and unequivocally the most lavishly decorated circus of an airport on the globe, today’s edition of the Delhi airport brings us this buoyant use of indoor space, and these bottle holders – or something – in the airport hotel fitness center.

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9. Aidan practicing his martial arts during a golden rainstorm.

Life is beautiful.

 

 

Moving Still

 

An exciting week of office work led up to this year’s Maghe Sakranti, which always seems to coincide with some travel experience, astrological event or, in this case, Aidan’s 8th birthday, IMG_3858which, if you think about it, is the same thing.

The main topic of my conversation with Aidan and Pascal since I arrived two weeks ago has been black forest cake. Birthday cake came in vogue in Nepal about five or six years ago – as far as I can tell, it was discovered on TV, and has been translated in to an epic mashup of east-west-birthday-wedding-puja sort of candle-lighting experience that is not to be missed. Anyway, after a hectic week of office meetings and shopping for light fixtures, I caught the last bus up to Kaskikot on Thursday to head home for Maghe Sakranti with birthday cake for Aidan.

Because of Maghe Sakranti, the bus was packed with people heading home to Kaskikot. “Kaskikot packed” means that there is no standing room left inside the bus, and additionally, the people with poor tactical skills who’ve sat in aisle seats have someone’s butt in their ribs or armpit or smushed directly onto their faces. Most definitely, all people with seats are holding either a random package, bag of tomatoes, or someone else’s child on their lap.

As a master bus-rider, I possess a hierarchical mental catalogue of exactly which nooks and crannies make for a tolerable ride relative to a shifting set of variables. I approach “Kaskikot packed” with the focus of a honing pigeon.

IMG_4380It is immediately obvious that today is a top-of-the-bus day. Air is high on my list of prioritized variables, and all of the strategically located nooks and crannies inside the bus are taken or have been invaded by the limbs and odd angles of people who are technically not using these spaces. It’s a total free-for-all. For some reason, Nepalis have an awe-inspiring tolerance for this kind of physical disarray; I on the other hand, while happy to fit myself in to a pretty small nook, need it to be evenly balanced on all sides and protected from random entry, no matter how small my zone is.

Never fear, this is situation is accounted for. I hand Aidan’s cake to the Ticket Bro – all the guys who collect money on buses are Bros of the first degree, with wiry bodies and saggy pants – and clamber up a metal frame to the roof of the bus. The Ticket Bro, who knows me well (ok, I stick out, and besides I’ve provided many unreasonable entertainment opportunities for the general bus-riding public), hands Aidan’s black forest cake up to the top of the bus. I wedge it in flat between a box of beer bottles and a floppy sack of mystery items that’s soft enough to sit on. Soon I too am wedged in evenly on all sides by other passengers, which is exactly the way I want to be. I bend my knees protectively over the cake and we lurch away. The climb to Kaskikot isn’t a long distance in miles, but it’s all up, one switchback whipping around to the next.

The air begins to rush past and in settles a familiar, soothing reeling. The bus is climbing and honking, people are sticking out every which way, we are ducking the occasional branch – FWAP! – as the trees whoosh by. A wave of exhilarating calm envelops me, soft and malleable.

There have been three accidents on this bus route since in the thirteen years I have been riding it. Each time there is a bus accident, everyone including me swears off this road, these good-for-nothing-regulations, these drivers. The police crack down on the rules; buses are improved and added to reduce passenger load. The new bus I am on today looks like a greyhound, with upholstered reclining seats. But inevitably, the people turn this bus in to a wild beast. It’s inertia.

IMG_8687It just can’t be avoided.

Which, in a way that’s hard to explain, is why it’s so calming. Like in many poor countries, there is no illusory order here: everything is paint splatter all the time, and nobody’s pretending it’s something different. Everyone is hanging on to the spinning planet with one finger, and it is still working, at least until it’s not. Over time you realize that you too are paint splatter. You might think you aren’t now. But when order falls away, all of us are wilderness.

After the tragedies that have happened on this road, I know I shouldn’t admit it’s thrilling to catch the bus just in time, climb up to the roof, and duck branches while people talk on their phones and sway side to side eating peanuts like we are on Amtrak. But it isn’t a thrill because it’s dangerous (for the record, in purely statistical terms, driving on the beltway is just as dangerous)… it’s a thrill because it doesn’t feel dangerous. It makes sense. Because we are all flying through the trees together; because chaos and order have switched places, and everything fits despite the appearance of anarchy, and we are not dead yet.

In the mean time, some racing tiger inside of me catches the trees dashing by. I can feel the grumbling pavement even from up on the roof of the bus, and the Ticket Bro heedlessly climbs up and down the side of the bus like a chimpanzee while it is whirling around a corner. The valley below us recedes, and that wild thing in me, with a racing companion to match its speed, is still.

I’ve found this pocket of tranquility in other fast places.  When I catch a seat on the back of a motorbike and take off, zipping up my jacket. When I’m flying down a path in the trees with a sickle and rope in my hand, my flip flops smacking tap-tap-tap-tap on the rocks. Occasionally I have whirled into this thing when jumping on to the subway in New York, snagging a tread of some larger tapestry in the crush of a ten-million-person city with a trillion little shards of disorder that still fit in to something bigger.

In the subway, this is a private knowing. But on this bus, the miracle is out in the open for everyone to see: unruly, electric, FWAP! It’s still working.

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As we climb the lone road up through Sarangkot and closer to Kaski, people filter out at their homes, lugging their bags and boxes and children. The Ticket Bro clambers up and tosses bags off the top of the bus, and our resting props are gradually removed. My stop is the last stop. Soon all the other passengers decide to move down inside the bus, but because I am a honing pigeon I know that none of my approved nooks inside are available yet, and I stay on top of the bus, alone with Aidan’s black forest cake. I lie down so I don’t have to worry about oncoming branches, and crowd myself in with boxes and sacks to block the breeze, and float up the road on my back, watching the night sky roll by. My thoughts spiral in and out, moving still.

Of course, I can’t see where we’re going from this position. No problem. This road only leads to one place.

*

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The Walk Home

 

There’s nothing like my first visit to Kaskikot after having recently arrived in Nepal. Granted, sometimes there’s a year in between visits, and in this case I was here just last summer after a long winter stay. But still – today did not disappoint.

I woke up to the charming experience of Pascal throwing his arm on my head. Let’s face it: this room where Didi and Bhinaju live is too small for all of us now, but we are persevering while the house is being built. It is the nights when I share a bed with Aidan and Pascal that I question my judgment in teaching them taekwondo while they are awake.

While Didi made tea, we all lay in bed debating whose fault it was that we’d all spent the night practicing kickball rather than sleeping. Then we documented our morning in selfies.

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Late morning, I met up with some of our graduated Gaky’s Light Fellows for lunch. It was so great to see everyone and hear what they are doing. Sandip is marketing for an online news outlet. Ramesh is deciding where to apply for his bachelor’s in journalism. Nirajan is in Kathmandu, working for Teach for Nepal, and Nischal is entering his second year of bachelor’s. Umesh and Narayan have a solid paid gig singing traditional music each night, and Narayan has his own radio show. Bhagwan is a residential supervisor in a school hostel. When Puja and Asmita finally got there a few hours late, we all made plans to go boating later this week.

Next was getting up to Kaski. With the fuel shortages, this is more challenging than it’s been, as the bus is running infrequently. Not to worry!  I caught the back of a motorcycle ride and then secured a taxi to the bottom of “the jungle path” that climbs straight up from the valley to the house. Forget the bus, man.

So first of all, at the beginning of this path you have to cross over the Gandaki river, which is usually dry at this time of year, but swells in the summer and fall. We used to wade through it, but a few years back it got this nice concrete bridge. So I’m crossing the bridge, and…it just stops in midair. The last half of the bridge is suddenly no longer there.

It takes me a few minutes to negotiate the drop over the ledge of the bridge with a torn ACL in my right knee that won’t let me jump down on to the rocky bed five or six feet below. I make my way over, progress to the bank a short way away, and there at the bottom of the path up to Kaskikot is this leathery guy resting next to a bundle of wood. He looks kind of resigned. I chat with him for a minute and then he asks for help lifting the bundle of wood.

“My son is really strong, he can carry this kind of load,” the man says woefully. “It’s just pretty heavy.”

Nevertheless, the bundle must be lifted, so we give it a try- fortunately I am more qualified than your average random American to hoist a bundle of wood on to someone’s back so it can be slung from their head and carried across a dry riverbed – but it is too heavy, he can’t get upright under the weight. He sets it back down, resumes his seat in the road, and looks resigned again.

“What’s with this bridge?” I ask. “Half of the bridge is missing.”

“I know!” He says. “The other night, I drank up a full belly and came here and fell right off of it.” He points to his forehead and says, “I got a bit of a bump right here.”

IMG_6126“I hear you,” I reply. “I’m not even drunk, and I nearly fell off the bridge too.”

“Just went right over,” he recalls.

“Should we try this bundle of wood again?” I ask.

“Ok, but you have to come around the front and give me a hand.”

I heave the wood on to his back again and this time give him a hand to brace against as a counter balance, and he stands up.

“Thanks, bye,” he says, as if it makes sense that I appeared for this interaction.  Off he goes.

Partway up the jungle path I run in to two kids coming down.  They stop me.

“Where are you from?” they ask me in English.

“America. Where are you from?”

“Puranchaur,” the little boy answers.

“Oh, I’m going to Puranchaur on Tuesday,” I say. It’s one of the villages where we launched last year. I ask what grades they are in: four and eight. “So,” I say to the fourth grader, “do you brush your teeth at school?”

“Yep,” he answers.

“Huh. For about a year, right?”

“A little less than a year,” he says.

“Cool,” I answer, and down the path they go.

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Finally I come out the top of the jungle path and emerge at the water tap in Kaskikot.

“LAURIEEEE!” the ladies cry. “Here you are, just in time for wood cutting to start tomorrow! Last year you came to cut wood, and this year you’re here to cut wood!”

YES. This is the gold medal of the Welcome Olympics. And yes, when I go to cut wood, I understand that it is a memorable experience for all of us.

On my way to the house, a few other people – completely independently – express their approval that I have arrived just in time for wood chopping. I am winning at Nepal.

At last, I drop over the spine of the ridge and there is home. Baby O’Neil is tethered outside, her wet nose pointed quizzically my way; she has grown some brown fur.  The hillside is dotted with jubilant yellow mustard flowers.  There is the familiar line of the Annapurnas rising in to the dusky sky, distant and close. No matter the path that brings me to this piece of land, it always appears the same way, luminous and inevitable.

*

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Looking for Shelter

 

I woke up tired today. Partly because I stayed up so late writing, and partly because we’re all sleeping on the floor of the living room by the front door.

But I had an interesting morning. I made my way to an outdoor lot full of incomprehensible discarded piles of things, where Dr. Kiran’s group, SXJ-95, was meeting about their transitional housing unit, a clean white bubble sitting in the middle of the mess. It was really fascinating to hear how they’d developed this design by researching other units, most notably the post-earthquake shelters used in Pakistan. I’m going to save the details, because I hope to produce a quick audio slideshow about it.

IMG_8773While I was there watching, two government officials came to inspect the prototype, and discuss minor modifications so that it could be used to replace a destroyed Health Post in rural Lalitpur. By the time we left, the builders were getting back to work on the second unit, with a plan to drive the pieces to Lalitpur and set up a shelter within two days.

This has really got me thinking about transitional housing as a possible use for our relief fund. I plan to either donate it to a group doing really valuable work in rural areas, or finding a project that we can do well. It has been such a chore to procure and deliver tents – which are getting more and more expensive – and it’s frustrating to know that, while obviously better for people than no tent, this is such a short-term improvement. Plus, each time a transitional shelter is placed in the field, it’s an opportunity to get feedback and improve the design, so if we can collaborate with a group like Kiran’s, perhaps we could contribute to the larger good in terms of research and design.

SXJ 95’s unit costs about $500, but they put a lot of thought in to user feel and aesthetics. On one hand, this means we could potentially offer rural families upgraded transitional housing; on the other, we couldn’t afford very many. I plan to keep in touch with Kiran about their test in Lalitpur and maybe see if this design could be used for another health post or school classroom. Here’s a recent article by Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the UK, on the importance of reinstating schooling for basic child safety and welfare (sorry for the sensationalist title).

I left the crazy stuff lot with its shelter bubble, and my next stop was the Ministry of Health and Population. The World Health Organization holds bi-weekly meetings in collaboration with the Nepali government, where all of the major players in town for recovery – large iNGOs, foreign medical teams, etc. – come to share information. These meetings are divided in to clusters, such as Health, Communications, Shelter, Security etc. I went to the Health Cluster meeting.

This is the opposite end of the spectrum from the WHR’s and SXJ-95’s of the relief effort. Kiran dropped me off, and I hopped out of his car into a parking lot full of oversized, logo’ed SUVs. I made my way to a packed meeting hall – probably close to 100 people of various nationalities. I sat in the back of the room and scanned the emblazoned vests in front of me: World Vision, Save the Children, AmeriCares, International Medical Corps. Japan, Switzerland, Canada…and then in the back, some straggling foreigners like me, probably there to get the lay of the land.

IMG_8789The meeting was led by the WHO rep to Nepal, Dr. Lin Aung, with government representatives in attendance. I had missed the first 20 minutes or so, but listened to some updated figures, and then attendees were invited to share what they’d been doing. That part seemed a little odd. They would announce the name of an area – “Sindhupalchowk?” and then various groups would stand up and say what they had been doing in Sindhupalchowk since the last meeting. It was more information-sharing than strategizing – but maybe these groups have other methods that they are using for truly coordinating their efforts.

After the meeting, I went to go talk to Dr. Aung. Ironically, I was trying to meet him all winter because I thought he’d be a good person to know for Kaski Oral Health, and I was never able to get in touch since I’m rarely in Kathmandu. But when I introduced myself, he turned out to be a very friendly and genuine guy. He gave me five minutes of undivided attention, even though another half dozen people were waiting to talk with him.

I asked what he thought a small organization like mine in Pokhara could do to pitch in to the relief effort. Like others, he said we should be thinking medium and long-term, which is where multilateral agencies aren’t nearly as agile or embedded. He said that with our community ties, we should focus on counseling and psycho-emotional support.

I said, “We don’t know anything about post-disaster counseling.”

He said that the psycho-social cluster is developing protocols for this kind of thing and gave me an email address where I could access this info.

All of which tells me that, for better or worse, coordination is almost completely at the discretion of aid providers. I think – and you could argue that this makes sense under the circumstances –things are really set up such that, in order to find the best way to participate, organizations large and small have to make a point of reaching out.

I’m not sure why I’m a little hung up on this. But I suppose we’d like to think in a humanitarian crisis of this nature, somebody has the answers and can tell us all what to do – and maybe somebody should know. But the basic fact remains that everybody is winging it to some degree, and I can’t argue this is exactly anyone’s fault. It seems like it’s really one of the cruelties of the whole situation.  The real blame lies in the injustices of the past that led to poverty and bad planning and lack of security, not in the present where nature took over. In any case, it seems like coordinated strategic planning is largely a matter of self-discipline.

Before I left for Pokhara, I went to visit a friend who is the CEO of Teach for Nepal. Most of their teaching fellows were there for a day of counseling with social workers from Israel, experienced at working with disaster trauma. I learned that one of TFN’s young teachers perished in Sindhupalchowk. The day of the earthquake, my friend and her husband were unable to call a helicopter to Sindhupalchowk, so they drove 5 hours to get there and dig through rubble themselves.  It was out there that they realized they’d actually lost her.  Now they are left with continued aftershocks and their other 89 fellows to send back out to their schools.

Everyone is spinning.

By the time I got on the plane to Pokhara I admit I felt pretty down. I had also spoken with my friend’s husband who has worked on a shelter that costs just $100 and might be a good option – we could potentially provide an entire community of about 100 -200 families with safer housing while they rebuild. But everyone is so hurt, psychologically and otherwise. The scale of rebuilding that’s needed is really hard for me to wrap my head around. I really just wanted all of it to go away.

At the airport in Pokhara, Prem was waiting for me. And as we crossed the road, Aidan was on the other side sticking his head out the taxi window, shiny as a stamp, his cheeky toothless grin lighting up the whole city. Pascal insisted on sitting in my lap for the seven-minute car ride. I gave them some super-sized squirt guns and unloaded the rest of a bag of Reese’s Pieces.

We went out into the late afternoon Pokhara sun, and walked to a plot of land up on a hill, where leveling strings are stretched across deep foundation holes in the ground. Prem and Didi are building their first house.

*      *      *

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For anyone wishing to support Dr. Kiran’s group, SXJ-95, you can do so here: http://bit.ly/1ReQ8gj.

Teach for Nepal is providing relief in their working areas, and will have a special focus on rebuilding schools. You can support them at http://nepalrelief.teachfornepal.org.

Stone Paths

 

Yesterday, I went with Aamaa and Neru and Didi to carry 40 kg of cauliflower up the mountain from Pokhara, because, as we know, that’s the kind of thing I do to relax.  Why, you ask? Fair question. At Milan Chowk people are selling cauliflower and potatoes at seasonal wholesale rates, and because our relatives are there, we got an even sweeter deal.  Tell me you’ve ever purchased cauliflower for less than 6 cents per kilogram, baby.

What are we going to do with 40 kilograms of cauliflower? Ah, I thought you’d want to know. First, we’re going to schlep it up to Kaskikot. Then we can chop it in to thin pieces and dry it in the sun to eat later in the fall. And that brings us to yet another day of long steep stone paths, ropes, and heavy loads.

We took the forested footpath on north side, a walk I regularly make in about 35 minutes going down and one hour going up. It leaps (or drops, depending on which direction you’re going in) directly from the flat valley to the spiny ridge top.

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As we neared the bottom of the trail, Didi was walking a short way ahead when Aamaa pointed to a lone man in an empty rice paddy on the valley floor.

“That’s the field where Didi was born,” she said.

I’ve always known that Didi was born during rice planting season, when Aamaa went to work and returned home instead with her first baby.  But I didn’t realize the field was so far away from the house. It belongs to a relative, and I’ve never been to it.

“That one?” I squinted and pointed like I was on safari in Zimbabwe.

“Yes.  And then we walked up this path that afternoon.”

“…What?”

“I came here the night before to plant rice, but I had Didi at 8am the next morning.  And at 4pm we walked back up this same way with the baby.”

“…THIS one?! How is that possible?”

“I know.  Can you believe it? I couldn’t do it now.”

I might as well insert here that my brother and sister-in-law welcomed my niece Eliza Jane Spero in to the world just a few days ago, on March 6, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Running around here in Nepal, my mind has been largely preoccupied with thoughts of soft blankets and white linens and wrinkled baby feet at home. So maybe it was just the way the moment came together. But I looked at Didi chasing Aidan and Pascal down the stones in front of us, and all of a sudden it seemed impossible all over again that all of us were there together.

IMG_7151Aamaa was 20 years old when she had Didi, and she endured many hardships after she hiked up this long, unforgiving path later that same afternoon.  I can only imagine how birthing a child must have been then, when medical facilities, telephones, basic shops, and decent roads—to the extent any of these existed at all—were at least a day’s walk away.

Now, 35 later, here we were walking on the same stones. Standing on them, it’s hard to comprehend that millions of people in the world still live in that kind of poverty today, when it seems like an unbearable situation for one single individual. Every once and a while, all those millions are suddenly the one person in front of me, and today, it was Didi. She seemed like a miracle. And the path – which I’ve skipped down and climbed up hundreds of times – just stays there while people go up and down it, carrying their stories from one decade to the next.

It was 6pm by the time Aamaa and I got home with our 20kg loads of cauliflower. We have a lot of slicing to do.

*

 

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Shooting Lights at the Sky

 

Didi, Pascal and Aidan and I left for the New Year’s street festival right around dusk. It was already jammed with people and food stalls, a challenge for us because, while Pascal carefully soberly dodges people’s legs and ponders over his food options, Aidan absolutely doesn’t care where he’s going, and he’s only about 3.5 feet tall, and he wants to eat everything he sees, and he can’t take his eyes off anything.  We got some ice cream, and some hot dogs, and some cotton candy.

At 9pm the Gaky’s Light Fellows showed up with arms locked in a blob. It was such a fantastic moment – they were all dressed up and so excited to be there together, and then they practically mowed me down in the street in a mob of happiness.  On the corner a crowd of people was dancing to some impromptu devotional drumming and singing.  So that’s how I ended up on New Years spinning around with Aidan on my shoulders and Pascal on my leg and our fellows clinging to my hands while we all danced in the street to a bajan.

The street crowd grew so thick that it became river.  I left Didi and the boys and waded in with our fellows – we were literally all holding on to each other and being carried down the street by a massive crowd.  Every once and a while someone would pick the person right in front of them and, just for fun, shout: “SANDIP IS LOST!” or “SOMEONE HOLD ON TO PABITRA, SHE’S SMALL AND WILL GET LOST!”  Samundra, our program director, had a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck.  “SAMUNDRA’S NECK IS LOST!” I cried.

Eventually, we got lost.  There were just too many people, our group was cleaved, and I ended up swimming along with Sabina and Asmita and Anju.  All the phone networks were jammed and we couldn’t get through to any of the others.  We were finally catapulted through a gate to the fair – I mean washed over the threshold while clutching each others jackets, past a wall of police trying to look for tickets. We came tumbling out next to a ferris wheel like Alice in Wonderland.

We dusted our selves off and looked around.  It was 10:30pm.  There were lights and huge objects everywhere, surreal and dizzying.  The four of us stood locked together so we wouldn’t be separated in the hectic sea of people, until we boarded a boat that swings back and forth on a pendulum.  We let people in line pass us until we could get a spot all the way at the tip of the boat, where we had the highest view, where all the strange fair lights streak across the sky and the top of the ferris wheel is right there, and you can’t ignore the moment the boat reverses direction and you’re suspended for an instant in mid-air with nothing under you.

By this morning, Pokhara looked like the day after the worst frat party you’ve ever seen.  Trash, tables askew, dejected looking tents, all kinds of equipment and decorative paraphernalia sagging with a January 1st hangover.  Even the sunrise seemed weary.  But it was pretty worth it while it was happening.  Welcome to 2015, World.

Which reminds me of something.  When we’d left for the street festival, Aidan had been begging for a new light.  Throughout the festival they’ve been selling slingshot lights with wings that sail way up in the air and then slowly float down, so the night was full of beautiful falling blue lights.  Pascal, like me, is enthralled with the light but cautious of losing it, and kept his slingshot safe in his pocket most of the time.  Aidan on the other hand is completely reckless.  He’s too excited about shooting the light up in to the air to worry about what happens to it, and we had rescued his flying toy from more than one rooftop on tuesday night.  Each time it got lost he was utterly dejected, and then we’d retrieve it, and he would go right back to catapulting it at the night with unbridled enthusiasm.

“Laura auntie,” Aidan explained to me as we walked in to the street again on New Year’s Eve, “when you shoot the light, it goes up toward the sky like this.”  His put his hands over his head and pointed his little fingers toward his palm, in an angled T-shape, to show the way a light sails toward the sky.  “But then just when it’s about to touch the sky…” his eyes got big and his palm drifted up “…the sky MOVES, Laura auntie!  The sky MOVES!”

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