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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An Eclipse For Small People

P1010918My first solar eclipse was in sixth grade.  Our science teacher, Max – I went to a progressive school where we called our teachers by their first names, so I actually had a real science teacher named Max – took us outside and we sat in the grass, next to a blacktop, near the soccer fields.  In groups, we held something up in the air and peered through it, a notecard with a hole in it, or something like that.  I don’t recall exactly.  The entire memory is just an image of us, kids, sitting by the blacktop, holding a thing up in the air and squinting.  I found it rather tedious.

My second solar eclipse fell on the festival of Maghe Sakranti.  Before the solar eclipse, there had been a number of times when Maghe Sakranti had coincided with the day of my departure from Nepal, so over time, during visits when I found myself still there for this festival, Maghe Sakranti and its associated rituals had taken on a special flavor of celebration.  We were still together.

In the days leading up to the eclipse, I was at school from early in the morning right up until dusk, painting. Govinda and the kids and I were rushing to finish a mural before yet another departure.  It was a picture of their community: haystacks and houses, the whipped-cream shaped Kalika Hill with its little temple at the top, a paraglider sailing overhead, and road winding around from one place to the next, with a dominating school at the center.

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As the day of the eclipse approached, there was a great deal of anticipation.  Everyone was talking about it.  Once, Aamaa said, she’d been out during a solar eclipse and, just like that, it had turned to night.  They’d been forced to wait for a few hours until it got light again so they could go home.

Now that was something I wanted to see.

I went to visit Thakur sir, the astrologer, to get his opinion on a gift.  Back home, a great healer and teacher of mine was losing her eyesight.  I had purchased a necklace with the symbol kali chakra on it, and I wanted to ask about taking it up to the temple to be blessed, or infused, or something of that sort.  I wasn’t exactly sure, but I thought Thakur sir would know what I meant to ask.  A solar eclipse, he said, would be a very auspicious day to bless a necklace, even though it wasn’t allowed to do a puja during the hours of the eclipse itself.  And, once the necklace was up there at the temple, at the top of the Kalika hill, I couldn’t take it away until the eclipse was over.

The movement of necklaces was one of many things couldn’t happen during the eclipse.  Everyone would fast, of course, from exactly 12:36pm to 3:30pm, and many people would fast the whole day.  Any water in the house would have to be poured out after it was over, and replaced with fresh water from the tap.  It is wood cutting season, and trips to the forest were put on hold for the day.  And Maghe Sakranti was, for all intents and purposes, cancelled.

In the U.S., a solar eclipse is, for the majority of busy people, a science project for kids.  But here, where astrological charts are consulted for even the opening of businesses and choosing of brides, everything seemed to slow down as the days spiraled towards a grand and humbling halt.  Gazing at the top of the Kalika hill against the sky, I could feel the world catapulting through the solar system to a particular magical position—a great thing getting closer and closer to us, small people, standing where we would witness the movements of the galaxy.

By the prior night, there were three buses waiting to take people all the way to Chitwan in the morning so they could bathe at the place where the Trishuli, Gandaki and Kali rivers meet.  First thing in the morning, Aamaa repainted the floors with a fresh layer of mud.  It would be a day filled with ritual.

Like the rest of the world, I had hoped to stay put for the solar eclipse…but the mural wasn’t finished.  We had painted and painted that week, trying to finish in time, but when we pounded the lids in to the tops of the metal paint canisters the night before what should have been Maghe Sakranti, our creation still wasn’t complete.  So I departed for school early in the morning, swearing to Aamaa I’d be back by noon so that I could eat before the fast.

I met Govinda in the road with the necklace in my pocket.  When I’d taken it out that morning, I’d been surprised to see how mysterious and powerful the kali chakra looked, separated now from the rows of silver and symbols in the glass case at the shop.  When we passed Thakur sir’s house, I put it in his hand and he gave it a long look.  I wasn’t sure if I’d actually end up giving it to my teacher back home. I thought I’d send it up to the temple during the solar eclipse, and then give it away later if it seemed appropriate.  I was afraid it might seem kind of silly, and ridiculously enough, decided I would ask the priest at the temple for an opinion when I went to retrieve it later; after the solar eclipse.

Govinda and I arrived at school to find the kids waiting anxiously, and out came the paint. I had stayed out past the witching hour, painting a mural, many times over my years in Kaskikot.  But there was no thought of that today, not in the quivering air, under the glare of that acute collective focus on the cosmos.  I was incredibly P1010864excited.  It felt huge and magical and a little ominous, and made me think about what it must have been like for ancient cultures that didn’t know the science behind such events.  It must have been incredulous and awful to see the sun – so reliable! – disappear in the middle of the day!

And that’s how we found ourselves rushing to complete our masterpiece before the stroke of noon, small people painting small people, the sun under the brush racing the sun circling in the sky.  “The eclipse is coming!” passers-by admonished us.  What were we doing out?

At 11:15, we decided we were done, and with terrible haste threw remaining paint in to boxes, picked up old gloves, ran and locked the office, forgot something in the office (Unlock the office!  The eclipse is coming!) and, at last, set off running down the road to get home before the eclipse struck us dead in the road.  Kids peeled off at their homes.  As we raced by in the dust, people called to us from their houses: Hurry!  The eclipse is coming!  There had been conjecture that we would see stars.  The entire world was about to evaporate.

I made it home by noon, in time to eat. One o’clock in the afternoon, twenty-four minutes after the official start of the eclipse, brought a subtle change in the quality of the light.

Bhinaju and Bishnu and I decided we would climb up the hill behind the house and watch from the resort.  We set to discussing what we should bring along.  A flashlight?  Poncho?  Extra sweater?  Rubber bands?  Camera?  (Would it be too dark for photos?)  We rummaged around and put some belongings together.  We climbed up to the top of the hill. And there I was, surrounded by a Himalayan panorama during a solar eclipse!  I wondered if I would be permanently altered, perhaps suffused with some kind of wisdom?

We sat in the grass.  We waited.

We stared earnestly at the sun for 30 minutes before admitting that we could see nothing.

We came home and sat on the porch.  It was a devastating disappointment.  I took out my journal.  I became impatient for tea.  As I looked a the water vessels and thought sullenly that we’d have to fetch new water before we could make tea, I considered the idea of “touched” water – that’s the word, chueko, “touched” water, the same word used for the impurity that a menstruating woman imparts to the things she contacts – and it occurred to me that all of these rituals – abstaining from pujas, fasting, dumping touched water – were fundamentally based in a fear of the awesome, not a celebration of it.  Too bad I wouldn’t see anything.  Even Maghe Sakranti had been cancelled.

For some reason, some of Aamaa’s old, beat-up x-rays were lying in a large envelope on the porch.  I have no idea why.  She’d had them taken when she was first sick, eight years ago; one of the slides showed her ribs and abdomen, a faded spine in the background, and another, a ball and socket joint.  Maybe they’d been deposited in this random location during a recent tidying, or while we’d been arranging articles to bring on our failed observation mission an hour earlier.

I was writing when Bhinaju suddenly said, “Laura, come here.”  He was standing in the yard, holding up the ribs and studying them.  I thought he wanted to continue a recent debate we’d had about the number of vertebrae in the spine.

“Why,” I mumbled.  “Vertebrae?”  I was in no mood to be proved wrong.

“Just come here.”  He switched to the ball and socket.

I got up and went to stand beside him.  And right there in Aamaa’s humeral head was a clean outline of the sun with a smooth bite out of the upper left-hand corner.

For the last twenty minutes of the solar eclipse, as the bite of shadow moved eastward and the sun became whole again, Bishnu and Bhinaju and I leaned together, small people, holding the x-ray over our heads and squinting.  We exclaimed and pointed and cried to each other: “The x-ray!  The x-ray!  It was here the entire time!  If we’d had it on the hill, what would we have seen?  What??”

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A Story

Back in Kathmandu, Tom and Jerry ends, and we turn off the television.  We eat our rice.  I mush the grains between my fingers but resist the temptation to try to give the meal special attention.  You can’t grasp a thing at the last minute if you weren’t paying attention along the way.

I repack my bags, and don’t get in bed till after midnight.  With the heat and mosquitoes it’s a long time before I fall asleep.  I toss and turn, thinking about watching Bishnu and Bhinaju get in the bus back to Pokhara, and about the strange idea of being even farther away than I am now.  It seems like, for the rest of my life, I will keep getting farther and farther away.  Which is strange because, even from Kathmandu, in a big bedroom where I can hear Nepali music videos playing on TV, Kaskikot feels like a memory, a separate universe where I once was.  I was there only a few days ago.

You know, it never has been missing it that I dread, or the thought of loneliness that fills me with worry.  It’s the shift from real to remembered, from substance to recall; it’s that the absence has no bulk when you get far enough away, and that life goes on and—even if you can remember to miss it, it’s so disconnected, so unreal, that it’s mostly just a story.  And what of the part of you that has become the story, the skin that has touched this world and walked on it and dug fingernails into its mud?  When all of it is farther away than the moon—which at least your eyeballs can see at night—is that part of you just a story, too, that only exists to the extent that you still believe you were there?

Wouldn’t that be something, if after all this, all I could bring home with me was a story.

*

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Second Chances

We were sitting on the porch eating popcorn beneath a rumbling sky, when all of a sudden, the air became thick and threatening.  Fat plops of water began to fall, and the four of us leapt up and scrambled in to the yard: Aamaa headed for the buffalo shed, and Didi to the goats tethered outside with their three jumpy children, while Bishnu and I ran for the wheat lying in the yard, where it had been drying just minutes earlier.  I bent over the precious pile of grain to shield it with my back, frantically sweeping it into a basket, and Bishnu scrambled around the yard brushing it towards me with a bundle of straw.  When that was done, I joined Didi in her tug of war with the goats, and just as we managed to get them untied and inside, and Aamaa threw the last few baskets and bundles of grass in to the buffalo shed, the clouds disgorged a furious rainstorm.  With the belongings and grain and goats stored away, the four of us dashed into the house to shelter ourselves.  We jumped up on to the beds and turned off the single light bulb to protect against an electrical surge.  And then we sat there, staring out the door.

Rain from PorchIt began to hail.  First a little; then in golf balls.  I’d never seen anything like it.  For a while Aamaa kept running back outside with a mat over her head—to put this or that away, to put the plastic tarp under shelter (why?).  But finally we had done all we could, and there was nothing left but to lean against each other on the beds and stare out the open door, where pale light came in and lit our four faces.

The torrent was powerful and close and deafening on the tin roof over the buffalo shed.  I looked down at my fingernails, where dirt and little grain fibers had taken harbor.  The hail pounded and clattered; a heartbeat.  It was thrilling.

“The corn is ruined,” Aamaa said.

“What?”  I turned towards her.  We’ve just spent weeks slaving over planting the corn.  I’m still sore.

“Oh, this rain will damage all the crops pretty badly,” Bishnu repeated.  “And everything else—cucumber, beans, zucchini—is already gone.”

My mouth dropped.  “What do you—how—I mean—we need to plant the corn again?!

The three of them looked at me for a long moment.

“We have no more seeds.”

I blinked.  This was obviously unacceptable.

“Doesn’t everyone have the same problem?” I finally demanded.  I felt this made it an unreasonable problem, which therefore, by the laws of logic, could not have cosmic permission to exist.  There had to be more seeds.  Meantime, the yard was an inch and a half deep in water and golf balls.

“Yes,” Aamaa said.  “Everyone.”

I glared at Bishnu, seeking a revision.

“If it stops soon, the corn will be damaged, but okay,” Bishnu offered.  “But the other things are already gone.”

And that seemed to be all there was to say about it.  Bishnu turned her face back toward the door.  Nobody appeared upset, which was what confused me the most.  I couldn’t even bother to ask, What will we eat?–the injustice of our wasted effort was enough.  So I sat on the bed and stared at the rain while it ruined the corn.  Because it was the only thing to do; because the people who knew how to make things work out were doing just that and nothing else.

There are no more seeds.

I have thought of this moment many times since.  Maybe loss, like mortality, is that globally unknowable thing so innate to our humanness that we can never discover it.  We can only be confronted directly with what we always knew: that we control things only with the permission of a universe that can render our efforts irrelevant or take everything away at any instant.  But we almost never separate from that reality and stare it in the eye as its own fact–instead, we are surprised again and again, each time something more unreasonable is broken.

My gaze falls back to my fingernails.  How have our lives been so different that what is unacceptable to me is already a familiar whim to Aamaa and Didi and Bishnu?  They will wait until the storm ends and salvage what they can.  In May, they’ll plant millet.  And in that moment I envy their grace, over and over, because my effort is still wasted throwing stones at a dispassionate sky while theirs is diverted back to planting.  To the ground.  Where things grow.

*

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The Middle Girl

Aamaa talks often about my departure now. She’s worried about being left alone when Didi also leaves to join Bhinaju in Pokhara, which will be happening any day now.  And of course, Bishnu will stay in the city as long as she can, to study for her 12th grade exam.  It’s so strange to think that when I first arrived a year and a half ago, Aamaa and Didi and Bishnu were so intimately bound here in Kaskikot, and now Didi is married, and Bishnu is studying, and we are all wondering what Aamaa will do when I leave for the U.S. in a few weeks.  It’s strange that despite everything, it’s my departure, of all things, that will thrust her in to real solitude for the first time.

The wheat harvest, with the lack of fanfare it has produced, has been a kind of seal for us.  It’s fun to be exotic to one another.  But as crazy as it sounds, one day we looked around and found that something had tipped over.  Today I did housework on my own most of the day, with no direction: watering the buffalo, doing dishes, pounding wheat, moving goats.  Just because it was there and needed to be done.  The fact that nobody’s all hot and bothered about these feats anymore feels…strange.  It’s an entirely new reality, for all of us.

“Everyone is saying to me, ‘Don’t let your mailie go,’” Aamaa said in the late afternoon, while Didi and I were lying on the beds inside, writing, and she was on the porch pounding wheat.  Mailie means middle girl.  “Your maile does all this work around the house,” they’re saying.  “She brings you good food, she helps you all the time.  Don’t send her to America.”

Didi interrupted Aamaa mid-sentence to ask me something from her book, but Aamaa doggedly re-commanded my attention.  She wanted to make her point.  I looked at her through the doorway.

“Other people have said that?” I asked.  Despite myself, I was delighted. I realize I had no business being here, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve taken some knocks.

“A lot of people,” Aamaa sighed. “When you go, I won’t be able to say anything, so I’m saying it now: raamro sanga jannus, eh?

Go well, okay?

I lay on my tummy on the bed with my head near the door, where Aamaa resumed pounding wheat.  I was writing a poem and story and speech I’ll recite at my school farewell if I get one.  And then where will I go?  Where on earth does a person go from here?

*

Family

Roof Leaping

Bishnu and I went to the field at about 7am to cut grass before breakfast.  After we ate, it was time for more house painting.  Fortunately, the structural layer involving buffalo poo is all done, so now we just have to go over it again with thinner mud that has color mixed into it.  This is how the house ends up orange on the bottom and white from the middle up.

The village looked like a party.  The jaunty line where the orange and white paint meet seemed to be winding from house to house in the sunlight, leaving its fresh mark on one cheerful home after another.  Women splattered in paint and mud were scattered over rooftops and sticking out of the grass behind their houses, painting away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur house is shaped kind of like a house on a house.  There is the roof over the first floor, and then the attic built on top of that, and then a triangular roof on top of the attic.  I came outside to find Bishnu and Aamaa standing on the highest roof, painting the uppermost part of the house.

As I stood there planning my next move, Mahendra came over carrying a severed goat head and smeared blood over our door.  His family was roasting the body in their yard on the terrace behind and above our house, in preparation for today’s big meat-eating celebration.

I climbed up to the lower roof, where I go frequently to lay out laundry in the sun, and after a while I got bored waiting for Aamaa and Bishnu to give me something to do.  So I did what you would do if you were standing on a middle roof with nothing to do: I made to climb up a level to the upper roof.

Aamaa immediately had a fit about how I was going to fall and kill myself.  “You can’t, you can’t do it!” she cried, as if she didn’t know by now that the fastest way to get me to do something I’m unqualified for is exactly like that.  And Bishnu expressed her disdain in characteristic fashion by smirking and standing in that unsympathetic posture that says, “What are you going to do, American?”

This attracted the attention of Mahendra’s entire family on the terrace above us, where they had previously been observing the headless roasting goat.  Just as I was realizing that climbing on to the upper roof really wasn’t that easy, I also took some pleasure in being more interesting than a headless roasting goat.  I calculated that climbing up on to a roof wouldn’t be all that difficult if a) I hadn’t been wearing a lungi and b) I had full confidence in the stability of the upper shingles.

So there I was.  Ironically, the only one trying to help me was Baa!, Mahendra’s father, who as a general rule seems more ambivalent than anyone of my right to show up like this, to explore the poverty he got stuck with like it’s some kind of escapade.  Let’s just say that Baa! has shown a distinct lack of confidence in my ability to be a fast learner.  But from edge of the roasting goat pit, he was, quite generously, making emphatic motions indicating the pulling up of one’s lungi above the knees.

Let’s face it – there really is no way to climb up from a middle roof to a top roof in a lungi except by grabbing on to the shingles over your head and jumping.  You hope for the best and don’t ask yourself what’s really worth risking your life for.

I was up.  The shingles did not fall off the roof, but Aamaa was still yelling “YOU CAN’T!” in a prolonged and energetic babble that apparently couldn’t be cut off simply by being proved incorrect.  I stood to my full height–more than enough to be a chimney for this house–raised my hands up, and tromped around defiantly.  Great view up there.

And that ended the show.  Everybody went back to their business.  Roasting goats; smearing mud.  I, however, still had nothing to do.  So when Bishnu and Aamaa went around to the other side of the house, I decided it was time to go down.  I returned to the spot where I’d come up.

Well, let’s just say that leaping up is one thing.  Leaping down a different matter entirely.

The audience had dispersed.  So it was before the eyes of God alone that I saw myself peering off the edge of one little roof, down to the top of another, reaching one leg down and straining with my toe, which dangled a good foot above the sloped shingles below, at the bottom of which was a nice little drop to the ground.  I looked over my shoulder to make sure nobody was watching.  I tried everything: this leg, that angle, slide on my bum, brace to the left, hike up the goddamn lungi; I looked for another disembarkation spot, an invisible step; I considered the unthinkable—waiting for Bishnu to give me a hand.

With sudden clarity I thought of Katharine Hepburn climbing houses (I’ve been reading her memoir, of course), and wondered if the roof below me could support my weight if I just jumped.  I pictured myself tumbling off the edge below, breaking my leg, and thinking that any small concession would have been a better gamble than loosing every last shred of dignity (and my leg).  I really dwelled on that image – what it would feel like, lying there on the ground in my own pain and stupidity.

I jumped.  I landed softly on the lower roof and walked over to the other side of the house, where Aamaa and Bishnu were still painting, and demanded that they give me a job.

Matters of Poop

P1070066I came home to find Bishnu and Aamaa painting the house in preparation for the festival of Dashain.  Aamaa had a pot in one hand, and in the other, a rag dripping with goop that she was slapping and smearing over the walls.  Next door, Saano didi was doing the same thing – in fact, all over the village this week, women are standing on their roofs, sticking up like chimneys and shouting to each other across the open space.

Now, and this house-painting business is an interesting topic.  Because it’s something I really want to be a part of: the annual re-making of our house, renewing and refreshing the walls that shelter us.   It is both an extremely practical and very beautiful tradition, which we in our brick-and-plaster, carpeted houses are denied.  It a special opportunity to want to share in restoring the house and strengthening it for the coming year.

Unfortunately, the house is made of mud and buffalo shit.

See, I have this problem with shit.  I’ve really made some serious efforts to get over it.  I accepted Didi standing knee deep in a mound of shit and hacking at it with an axe, sending little bits of buffalo turd flying everywhere.  I accepted Aamaa walking into the house with an enormous heap of poop in her hands and cooking it in a vegetable pot in the kitchen and then putting it on Bishnu’s sprained ankle and then putting Bishnu in bed with me.  I’ve accepted that the hands that carry buffalo shit around the house are dark with grit beneath the nails and also cook the food that keeps me alive.  I even carried some shit in a basket hanging on my back and swung it bravely over my head to make it land in a tidy basket-sized pile of fertilizer in the wheat field.

But I cannot put my hands directly and purposefully on shit.  I can’t do it.

I know that the house is made of shit.  I know that I walk around in bare feet in the house made of shit; I eat off a plate on the floor of the house made of shit; I know that the wall that I lean on next to the bed is made of shit.  This is all perfectly okay with me.  But it is not okay with me to sink both hands into a pile of shit, mush it around with water and mud, and smear it against the wall.  I simply cannot touch shit in pure shit form.  It needs to at least be disguised as part of a house.

So instead of helping to paint the house, I took a nap inside, stewing in guilt and regret that could not quite defeat this final barrier in my relationship with shit.  And much later on, when Bishnu and Aamaa had come in for the day, and the ladder to the attic had been put back inside, and the mud and shit mixture was still drying on the rungs and I kept putting my hands in it and then washing them with soap and water, and our various water jugs—used both inside and out, for washing, cooking, and occasionally for giving liquid to the animal family members—had had the soupy brown water washed out of them, but had not been sterilized with hospital antiseptic, and everyone was going about the evening business of sitting around and cooking rice…even then, I still felt bad that I hadn’t helped paint the house.  But I felt worse that I’m afraid to just up and pick up a wad of shit—and worst of all, that I still didn’t want to.

And the conclusion that I came to is that I’m simply never going to want touch shit before I do it.  If I’m going to do it at all, and if I’m going to use my own two hands to renew the house for the new year, I’m just going to have to touch buffalo shit before I’ve decided that it’s okay with me.

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