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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