The Language of Mothers


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bishnu: Ok, ok.

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

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

Bishnu: Ok, Mom.

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

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

Bishnu: Starting to giggle.

Me: Can somebody please have some more pasta?

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

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

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

Me: Thanks Bishnu—

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

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

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

Aamaa: Oooohhh! Mitho bhaat.

Bishnu: How are they talking to each other?

Me: It’s a hostile takeover.

Mom: Bhaat. RIIIIICEEE!

Aamaa: RRRRRRIIIICE! BHAAT!

Me: Dad, do you want more pasta?

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

*

(Photo credit: Bishnu)

Bonus reel:

Borders

 

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

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

Nobody is entirely sure.

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

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

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

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

The summer has begun…stay tuned.

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

*

The Other Side of Democracy

Today women all over the U.S. – and the globe – are marching again on the 1-year anniversary of the 2017 Women’s March that overshadowed the inauguration of our current celebrity President.

I had half-written this post last January, and then my spring semester of graduate school took over.  I almost completed the entry in June, and then my summer in Nepal took over, followed by my fall semester.  So today, as women walk by on the other side of this glass café window wearing their pink hats for a second time, seems like a good time to finally post it.

 – – – – –

The day that Bishnu arrived in the US for the first time was January 18, 2009. We flew in to JFK and took a cab to my apartment on the Upper West Side. The next morning we got up to find snowflakes drifting past my fifth floor windows, and ran outside with our palms open. Bishnu had never touched snow. We got bagels at Lenny’s and took the train to Washington DC. When we got out in Union Station, the place was exuberantly decked out for President Obama’s inauguration.

“Union Station doesn’t always look like this,” I said. “This is an incredible moment in our history.”

President Obama’s Inauguration

We woke up to President Obama’s inauguration a few days later. While Bishnu went to register for her first college classes in the United States, my mom and I got in the subway and went down to the National Mall.  We’d been able to get seats at the Inauguration through a family friend who is a former member of Congress, which allowed us special access to a maze of hallways under the capitol building itself. Wearing our winter coats and hats, we ran through mysterious marbled corridors, dragging our gloved fingers along the polished walls, and then emerged dizzy in to an ecstatic crowd of tens thousands. It was only a week after Bishnu arrived in this country, and everything seemed enchanted.

 

Almost a decade later, on Jan 21, 2017, my family woke up in Bethesda and once again put on our warm clothes to go down to the capitol. This time, to protest. For women’s rights, immigrant rights, tolerance and celebration of diversity and equal opportunity. The previous day had felt…how can I describe it?  The somberness of President Trump’s Inauguration had been additionally weighted down the tug of that marvelous day eight years ago, which, in addition to the pain and sadness we all felt, created a kind of suction, a vacuum of joy.

It seems like Bishnu and I live our lives at bookends. Here we are again. The other side of democracy, the other side of celebration, the other side of the freedom to gather in America.  Outrage.

Under my winter jacket I put on my #6 Red Hots jersey, which I wore from age 12 to 17 on my youth soccer team. A group of us started playing together as girls, made up the core of the varsity soccer team at our high school, and won my high school’s first ever Independent School League championship in women’s soccer. Our Red Hots coach Chris was on the Jamaican National Team and he was also God.  When we were on the road to tournaments in Virginia Beach or wherever, he passed the time by testing us on our ability to understand pidgin Jamaican English. We adored him and he taught us that “anybody can teach a donkey to kick a ball,” but we were going to be “brilliant.” In my Red Hots jersey, I had superpowers.

Bishnu, my mom, and my two of my friends and I crammed in to the Metro at Bethesda station just as we had eight years prior. We came up above ground near Pennsylvania Avenue. As we rounded the top of a hill, a sea of people came in to view ahead of us. Immediately, our anger and resentment rose up on a tidal wave of protesters marching toward the capitol. Thousands and thousands and thousands pulling us in with a thrill of momentum.  Bishnu and I floated in to the river like two leaves.The events of these past weeks have forced my mind in to new contortions. I have had an easy life. It is easy for me to go to Nepal on a grand adventure, with no idea what I am doing, take my time figuring it out, and be falsely credited with kindness or courage. I can indulge in experiments of curiosity and empathy and generosity, and it doesn’t cost me anything except for the pain, later, of confronting that as a luxury. This is something I have recognized for a good while now. But in the climate of our recent election, the sting is fresh and hot. What kind of world do we live in where empathy is a privilege assumed only after survival? As long as my survival remains easy, what is my responsibility? I waffle between rage at the outpouring of ignorance and bigotry happening here in the United States, and shame at the helium balloon I live on. From up there, it is easy to take the high road.

The Women’s March provokes this disquiet, luring it back in from around the edges to the center of my attention. With my mom and our friends, Bishnu and I drift through currents and eddies of elation, passion, and indignation – not all that different from the torrent that welcomed the nation’s first black president, right here where I now stand. But this river swells with anger rather than euphoria. When the speeches start, I climb a tree (for the record, some ladies ahead of me try but can’t scale the long trunk to reach a perch higher up; thanks for help with tree-climbing, Nepal). Bishnu sits on a ledge at the base of the tree. From my location, I can see a vast ocean of people stretching out in all directions, and it is breathtaking. I also can’t help noticing, and being surprised, that it is a predominantly white ocean.

Later, the critiques will roll in from feminist advocates, and especially from those who have spent lifetimes advocating on behalf of people of color, of all those in this country marginalized by class or race or sexuality. What will happen after all of this? Will we march, feel better, and then go home? What about those who have been railing against injustice for decades, centuries?  Where were we then?  This sea of whiteness is angry and disappointed and embarrassed, but we are not being profiled and shot. Our sons are not wasting in jail because they cannot pay bail on an arrest for marijuana possession (but our sons are high, I’ll tell you that). Our daughters are not making sixty cents on a dollar, not spit at, welfare queens, baby mamas, you bought that hand-bag and you’re on stamps, learn English bitch, lazy—

Maybe, after today, we’ll feel better, and then we’ll be…you know, busy.

Maybe we have a lot of nerve showing up here at all.

I cling to the tree branch as words fly past me, originating from massive speakers many blocks away.  At the base of the tree, I can see Bishnu looking a little bored, although she is a great sport. I don’t know what she will make of all of this. In the world Bishnu is from, it doesn’t matter what you are doing here in America: if you can get your feet on U.S. soil, you’ve won the golden ticket. Period.  Or so it is perceived, for better or worse.  You hang on and don’t let go.

This thing happens sometimes where I zoom out and I feel I am seeing us from far above. Little me and little Bishnu, like neon dots of radar in an anonymous expanse of blue-gray nothingness, moving in some configuration that must have meaning to it I do not understand. What are they doing? Where are they going?  These two little dots…what is their story?  Can they explain anything about the topography around them?

After all this time, I am no closer to an answer. There we are, leaning on a tree, just as far from something that holds together as when we started.  But in the decade and a half we’ve mucked around in each other’s worlds, there is one I thing never stop coming back to.  It is always better to show up.  Be a little blip of radar.  Even if you screwed up the first two centuries.  Even if you don’t know what you’re going to do about it next.

*

Aamaa-Rama

 

Ice cream cone practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

 

 

All These Lights

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s Jewish religion?”

“I’m Jewish!”

“Oh right,” Aamaa says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aamaa, have some milk.”

“Ok.”

“…Did you try it?”

“Not yet.”

“…Try the milk.”

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

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

“Laura! What is that noise?”

“What noise?”

“VRRRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMMMMM.”

“The refrigerator?”

“Oh, okay. I was scared.”

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

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

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

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

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

*

The 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

 

 

 

 

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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