Airport Gymnastics

Bethy and I are on our way to Thailand to present at the International Association of Dental Research Conference in Da Nang, Vietnam.  We are on a panel about “Behavioral Science and Health Sciences,” me to present about Jevaia as a social justice project and Bethy to talk about a system she developed for school-based health care in Cambodia.  Between us, let’s call Bethy the scientist. She plans ahead. She calculates things such as time and has an external battery pack with every configuration of port imaginable and a rubberized exterior that could withstand a nuclear attack, and she brings it with her almost everywhere.  Bethy is a prepared and organized kind of person. I’m what we could call…the artist. I hit snooze 4 times and borrow chargers from nice people along the way. I don’t travel without chocolate.

We meet in Thailand, the mutual transit point on our respective journeys from Nepal and Cambodia to Vietnam.  The next afternoon, at Bethy’s urging we’ve arrived at the airport a solid two hours before our short international flight from Bangkok to Da Nang.  How planny of us. As we are checking in, the clerk asks us to display our visas for Vietnam.

We are both surprised.  Even the scientist! With our American and New Zeland passports, we thought we could purchase visas on arrival in Vietnam.  This is somewhat true, the airline agent tells us. However, there is a new process that requires visitors to submit an online application ahead of time and bring an electronic visa approval to immigration upon landing.  Without the approval, we aren’t allowed on plane.

Well then.  This is awkward.

The Airline Agent informs us politely that we have 47 minutes before check in closes.  I get my phone connected to the WiFi and start googling around for how to apply for a visa to Vietnam.  I find a website called Vietnam Visa Online (lovely name, quite to the point) that says this can be done with approval rushed to one hour, for a fee of only $500.

While I’m poking at my phone looking for a less pricey extortion option, Bethy assures the Airline Agent that we’ll definitely have no problem completing the required process in 47 minutes or less.  I tap madly at my phone screen, and we decide to go for a rush fee that’s only $100 and might or might not get us the visas in time. I click send. Bethy stalls with the Airline Agent. The check-in line shrinks, I hit refresh on my phone, and by now our window has diminished to 13 minutes.

…Tick tick tick…check in closes.

But not before Bethy casually softens the Airline Agent in to printing out a document that shows we arrived on time, and woos her in to walking us over to another desk where we can stare at my email waiting for the visa approval to arrive on the basis of our $100 rushfee. A new Airline Agent looks delighted that our problem has been moved over to her counter, where I set down my phone and Bethy and I peer deeply in to its icons.  We wait.  Airline Agent #2 waits.

An email!  Is it our visa approvals?  No. It’s a reply stating that due to the fact of today being Saturday, urgent processing isn’t possible.  However, we do have an attractive option to pay another $300 to get the visa approval today, or we can certainly wait in Thailand until Monday.

We kind of have no choice but to do the extra-special saturday rush fee, which has been specifically designed, after all, for suckers like us.  So we pay the fee, and then the screen freezes, and we can’t tell if we’ve paid $300 or not. I get an email saying that we can call an office in Vietnam with questions. But honestly, who has questions?   

Calling Vietnam would be a fine idea except that neither of us has phone cards that work in Thailand, so I ask Airline Agent #2 if she can call the Vietnam Visa Online from a land line.  She says the airline has no way to make international calls.  “But you’re an airline,” I point out. This doesn’t change anything, since apparently Asia Air actually cannot make an international call to a mysterious Visa processing office in Vietnam. I deduce this because eventually, Airline Agent #2 takes pity on us and gives us her personal cell phone.  We call Vietnam Visa Online and induct a fourth person in to our lair of chaos.

Mean time, I still can’t tell whether the payment has gone through on my credit card, and my credit card password isn’t working (or theoretically it’s possible I haven’t used it in a few months and I can’t remember it) so I can’t log in and check. For the next twenty minutes, the clock ticks down to our departure while I toggle between my phone and tablet trying to figure out if I’ve paid the fee, and Bethy toggles between Airline Agent #2 and the newly inducted lady from Vietnam Visa Online, whom we have to keep calling from the Airline Agent #2’s personal cell phone.  The voice in Vietnam talks us calmly and assuredly through various steps, which I tap out on my phone, as if we are diffusing a bomb.

Eventually, all three of us–Airline Agent #2 is all in now—are leaning anxiously over my phone, hitting refresh, waiting for the document with our visa approval to show up from the Helpful Voice in Vietnam.  Whose name turns out to be Selina.

Is it there?

How about now?

We may have to carry on our bags.

…Should we call again?

……Is it there yet?

……..How about now??

TADA!

The email arrives.  All three of us bounce up from my tablet screen and give a shout.  Airline Agent #2 triumphantly passes our boarding passes over the counter and we run to the gate.  I won’t see it until we’ve already arrived in Vietnam, but another email has popped up from Selina at Vietnam Visa Online.  It is highlighted in an alarming fluorescent yellow the color of a radioactive duck.

HAVE YOU RECIEVED YOUR VISA YET? IS EVERYTHING OKAY NOW? PLEASE ADVISE!

I write Selina back after we land in Da Nang.

We are here in Vietnam and everything is fine! I didn’t get your mail until we landed. Thank you for all your help today!

We’re aware that it would be responsible, at this stage, to be upset about the insane amount of money our visas just cost, but instead we are delighted with the exchanges of the day, the managing and wooing and reassuring and eventual co-conquership with strangers of our last-minute visas. In fact, we were so irresponsibly pleased by this accomplishment that Airline Agent #2 didn’t even seem bothered when I wanted to take our picture, regardless of the fact that we were holding up an otherwise orderly process of reasonable people getting on a flight from Bangkok to Da Nang.  

And we were able to recharge our tired devices on the fly.   

*

Farmer vs. Medic: Mountain Carry

 

I consider myself something of a carrying specialist.  I have carried water, I have carried wood, I have carried grass, I have carried stinky buffalo-poop fertilizer in a basket and I have carried straw.  I have dropped sacks of rice and recovered and soldiered on with other sacks of rice.  I know carrying, and I know the hills of Nepal.

Relatedly, Bethy is here doing summer-session professional development with our clinical staff, and it just so happens that she spent 10 years as a medic in the New Zealand army.  Recently, we got to talking about the topic of carrying.  It turns out a core skill of army medics is the “fireman’s carry,” and also that this skill may be used either in an emergency with an unconscious or wounded individual or in situations such as on a dance floor, at a bar with friends, or in the middle of the road in Pokhara.

Now Bethy and I are both what you might call competitive individuals–in an entirely healthy and reasonable way, of course.  Out of pure scientific curiosity and in pursuit of expanding human knowledge generally, we got to discussing who could carry whom from the house to the water tap in Kaski.  As Bethy is a scientist and published researcher, and I am a self-made live-in-Nepal-and-start-dental-projects-and-write-stories-er, it became imperative to deploy a proper study on the matter.

Our publication follows herewith.  It is my deep hope that this work will contribute to a deeper understanding of the world and serve as a basis for future investigation.

Phase 1

Phase 2

 

 

 

It’s Not a Problem to Deliver Your Underwear

My friend Ann is here in Pokhara for the summer. She is an IMT therapist and has begun volunteering at the Kaskikot health post, working with the Health Assistant to treat patients using integrative manual therapy. Whenever somebody comes to visit me in Nepal for the first time, I briefly have a renewed sense of chaos, of how from a western sensibility, there is an unnerving feeling of inefficiency and an opacity around how problems get solved. For the most part you don’t rely here on public services, or even private businesses, to pop up with specialized solutions or knowledge in a pinch. You rely on someone’s cousin. To the uninitiated, it’s unclear what people do when things need fixing, and this leaves one with a sinister feeling that small irresolvable inconveniences will accumulate until everything is a hopeless mess and all is lost forever. Therefore, in the presence of first-time visitors I can’t help feeling as though I need to account for a mild but pervasive sense of anarchy that they cannot describe but which, I know, they feel. I don’t know how to explain that there is a different kind of intuitive coherence with other rules.

As for Ann’s visit, everything is basically going great, but one hitch happened early on when she left the bag that contained all her underwear at a hotel in Kathmandu. Also, Ann said it was perfectly fine if I wrote a blog post about her lost underwear. The underwear, while inconvenient but replaceable, was not as much of an issue as the bras that were in the forgotten bag: Ann said her bra size is not that easy to find, and she also said that it’s fine if I write about her bra size too. Replacement of the odd size bras in this environment is one of those opaque things that appears to have no viable solution. The bag needed to be retrieved.

We called Ann’s hotel in Boudanath and determined that they had located the bag of underwear and put it in storage. This was a positive start, however, the next opacity was how the bag would get moved to our district when the mail system exists but doesn’t work according to any particularly obvious or accessible processes. Happily, I was scheduled to go to Kathmandu about a week later. So we rang up Ann’s hotel again and I asked Dorje, the proprietor, if he could hire a taxi to send the underwear to the hotel where I would be staying in Kathmandu. Regarding my hotel, I had previously stayed at the Tibet Peace Guest House only once, but last week after I had called a few times in the process of reserving a room, the hotel clerk and I were officially pals, and when I would call he would answer, “Hello, didi.” I asked the Tibet Peace hotel clerk if he would mind fronting the taxi fare for Ann’s underwear, so that I wouldn’t have to coordinate an exact meeting time with the driver. He said, “Sure didi, no problem.”

“Ann, I have hired a chauffeur for your underwear and the clerk will receive it at my hotel,” I told Ann. She was so excited. Especially for the bras.

I got to Kathmandu and had my meetings and Dr. Bethy arrived and the next day we boarded the plane to Pokhara.

“AH, SHOOT!!” I cried, bonking my forehead against the inside of the double-paned window. A French tourist sitting behind us, who was playing her ukulele in the airplane, became alarmed. She stopped playing her ukulele and leaned forward with her eyes wide.

“Is everything okay?” She asked luxuriously, concerned.

“I forgot Ann’s underwear!” I cried. “Shoot shoot shoot!” Now how would we get it?

The French tourist leaned back and resumed her ukulele playing, and also some singing. The plane was very small, and luckily she was quite a good singer.

Once we’d landed, I called up Ann’s hotel again. Had they forgotten to transport the underwear, I needed to know, or had I left it orphaned for a second time, now at the Tibet Peace Guest House?

“Hello Dorje sir, do you still have my friend’s underwear?” I asked. Dorje revealed that he had planned to send it a day later, today, because the hotel was located in Bouda, a bit of a hike from downtown Thamel where my hotel was, and today they had a driver making an outing anyway. “Oh, I am back in Pokhara now,” I said. “Now what?”

Dorje sir and I pondered the problem for a moment.

“If you know anyone who can bring it to Pokhara, I’ll get your friend’s things to them,” Dorje sir promised. “I will deliver it myself!”

“Ok, I have an idea,” I said. I hung up and walked over to Adam Travel in Lakeside, where we are friends with the owner. Prem often hangs out here in his free time and they book all my tickets. Once, I got to attend a travel agency exhibition in the U.S. with the owner Basu sir.

“Hello Laura didi,” the Adam Travel guys said when Bethy and I walked in. “Ah! Bethy! Hello!” They naturally always know who is traveling with me; the same guys had booked Bethy’s tickets a day earlier, too.

“Hi guys, I was wondering if your Kathmandu office could arrange to have my friend’s underwear sent over. She left all of her underwear at her hotel in Bouda.”

The Adam Travel guys told me that their Kathmandu office is now closed, but the people who used to work at there now work at the Sacred Peace Hotel. Those guys would arrange it. Adam travel proceeded to call Surjet at the Sacred Peace hotel. Surjet said he had some friends at a bus company.

“So,” Adam Travel told me, “They need to bring the items to the Sacred Peace hotel, and you’ll pick it up here. It’s going to be $5 for the cab to the hotel and $5 for the bus to Pokhara. You pay $10.” Where would this be paid? I asked. We’d pay Adam Travel, they said; other people would pay other people in the middle and the debt would accumulate and then we’d pay it off here. No problem.

Sold! I put Adam travel on the phone with Dorje and they discussed all the intermediary checkpoints where someone knows someone who will help reunite the lost underwear bag from Bouda with Ann in Pokhara by Wednesday. We’ve solved the matter within 8 minutes. I wondered why I hadn’t just done this before.

“So there’s bad news, and there’s good news,” I announced that evening to Ann. “The good news is that your underwear will be at Adam Travel in 48 hours. The bad news is I forgot it in Kathmandu.”

“How’s it going to get here?” Ann asked.

“…FedEx.”

*

Politics and Poets

 

With the Nepal government undergoing a major restructuring, a big goal for us this summer is to figure out how the newly formed provincial government works and establish relationships with influential decision-makers.  We’re just getting started, and as I’ve described elsewhere, so is the government: most of the province-level officials are quite new to their desks, and in many cases the scope and processes of their jobs are still being decided.

So let me give you an idea of how this works.  Honestly, this is my real life.  I begin with a friend of mine in Kathmandu, who I was introduced to through an organization that gave us a grant a few years ago.  This friend refers me to a colleague of hers, who I’ll call Sam, who works inside the new Province #4 government office in Pokhara as a representative of a big nonprofit doing policy work on another topic.  So Sam is not exactly a government employee, but he’s connected to people in the Province office because he works in the building, and most happily, he is someone I can ring on his cell phone.  I set up an appointment.  It’s our first trip to the Province offices and we’ll just have to go meet Sam and see where we get.

Are you with me so far?

Muna and I walk about a mile from our office in burning July sun, and meet Sam in his office at the new Province building. Sam is a friendly, energetic and smart guy, and he begins to orient us to the structure of the Province government (we tried to google it–maybe you’ll have better luck). He combs through our present bureaucratic challenge: obtaining official endorsement for a workshop we want to host to train new dental technicians (who will of course work in Government Health Posts).   In the absence of clear procedures, we mull over who best to take this to next.  Sam makes a call to the Province Health Coordinator, an obvious choice, but the Health Coordinator is out today.

Eventually – and this is only possible because Sam is helping us, and because we’ve made a satisfactory case to him – he gets us an invite upstairs to meet direclty with the Minister of Social Development, who holds the highest office in the Province, something like a governor.  This is great news.  Muna and I follow Sam out of his office, and by this act Sam is adopted into our quest and ordained as our guide.  Without him Muna and I are just random people in the hallway. We stroll through the almost-finished government building, which like most government offices outside Kathmandu has a concrete austerity produced by minimalist decoration and a building style that leaves stairwells in the open air.  Even the walls look somehow unfinished, expectant.

At the top of the stairs we move down an echoey corridor and come to the mouth of a room crowded with men.  Peering through the door frame, I see a tall, lean Official sitting at the other end of the narrow office, the throng of visitors clamboring for his attention.  Sam and Muna and I are directed to the room across the hall to wait.

We wait.  It is very hot.

After some time, we are brought back across the hall to the Minister’s office.  It is stuffed with as many black faux-leather couches as the room will allow, and as per standard Important Office decorating style, they are situated perpendicular rather than parallel to the desk where the Official in question is seated. I can’t explain this, but it’s the set up of almost every Important Office I’ve been to in Nepal.  The halls are empty and the offices are packed with extreme quantities of couches, which are almost always lined up along one wall so that visitors find themselves talking to the Official they’ve come to see at an angle, while the Official gazes past their knees at empty space.  A perk of today’s office is that, with the July heat pawing at the walls, the ceiling fan is turned on to the highest setting.  I am seated directly under it.  It feels wonderful for about ten seconds, and then I realize I am doomed to suffer in a singularized typhoon for the length of our Important Meeting.

The last of the previous visitors is just leaving as we get seated, and when the previous callers have cleared out, Sam introduces us to the Official.  Muna and I – mostly Muna – describe Jevaia and explain the authorization letter we are looking for.  We say are “seeking suggestions on how to properly coordinate and align with the new government.”  We don’t say we are already pretty sure that these procedures are not defined yet; in fact, the inquiry itself is probably the best formal step available.

After some time, the Official falls silent. In my opinion, the Official Silent Phase is one of the great tests of mettle in this line of work, particularly for impatient foreigners.  From a western sensibility it’s completely perplexing: for about five mintues, the Official taps on his laptop and gazes past our knees without saying anything. The fan blasts the top of my head and wooshes through my ears, and I command my self to sit properly through the Official Silent Phase, like Sam and Muna are doing, without fidgeting or asking to turn the fan off.  Take note, impatient American Person With An Agenda.  If you come here on a schedule, it will be silently and inexorably bled out of you. The people on the faux-leather couches don’t own this timetable no matter how bombastic and fantastic their ideas are, and let me tell you right now that nobody else is in a hurry.  It never occurred to me I might need a jacket to get through our first Province government visit in the dead middle of the summer, but I surely wish it had.

Suddenly, the door flies open and an elderly man in traditional daura-suruwal dress walks through the door.  He waves his walking stick at the foot of the couch.

I don’t have a picture of the Poet, so here’s an internet photo of a man in a daura surulwar.

“Son, get up and move over there, I’m just gonna have a seat,” the old man says to Sam, who graciously leaps up from the seat closest to the Official desk, and moves down the line of couches to a spot near the door.  The old man sits down and leans in to the corner of the Minister’s desk with a twinkle in his eye. He begins reciting a legnthy poem.

The Official is, by old man terms, a junior “son” like Sam. In an instant, the hierarchy of the room is reorganized. The Official leans back in his chair with a grin and sets to listening to the poem. All of a sudden, we are all in school.

For forty five minutes–no, I’m not exaggerating–the Official and the Old Man engage in philosophical conversation while the fan hammers my head, Muna waits politely and Sam cycles through expressions of interest.  I won’t find this out until after the meeting, but the old man is the son of a famous poet, and himself a reknowned scholar. More men–all men, Muna and are I the only women for miles around, it seems–wander in to the room to listen while he holds court.  The poet leans dramatically forward and back on the faux-black leather couch, swaying to his recitations, swiveling his attention from the Official to us to other would-be meeting-seekers near the door, and unleashes a reverent Islamic lyric.

“So tell me,” our Official says, with somber studiousness. “I want to know something.  You’re a Hindu man.  But you speak eleven languages and you’ve studied Islamic poetry extensively.  How do you reconcile those who eat cow meat?”

I shiver and try to casually hold my hair out of my eyes.  I look enviously at a corner door, where more men are periodically filing in and out of the room, and notice that Sam seems distracted by the door too.  Why can’t the Minister just tell us whether we can have a letter, or what we have to do to get it?  Why can’t he release us from bondage, and THEN listen to poetry?

“Let’s have another poem,” the old man says. He turns to Muna, who, following Sam’s relocation, has ended up on the couch seat beside the Poet.  Leaning toward her, the old man brightens, saying, “Would you like to hear a Hindi Poem?”

“Nobody properly understands Hindi,” the Official interjects, boldly. “How about a Nepali poem.” I am well aware that we will need to hear all the poems if we want to find out about our letter.

Another gaggle of men comes out of the corner door, and suddenly Sam says, “let’s go.”  Go where? I chatter.  The Minister hasn’t answered our question yet.  I’m confused.

“This way,” Sam says, motioning toward the corner door.  Why are we leaving?  But with no choice, I get up and follow Sam and Muna through the mystery door.  We enter the next room, and there, in a grand office, behind a hefty wooden desk flanked by the National flag, sits the actual Minister of Social Development.  She rotates on her chair, adjusts her sari over her shoulder, and waves us to sit down on two spacious couches where she can examine us directly from across the carpet.

Who was that guy? I whisper to Muna. Suddenly I am afraid I’m about to start giggling uncontrollably.

“The Secretary,” Muna mutters.

“So,” the Minister of Social Development commands, wasting no time and leaning forward on her clasped hands.  “Who are you?”

 

 

Afternoons

 

First Saturday of summer  

our hands sweat in the grass until

plateaus and peaks draw in their woolen covers.

Fried fresh corn kernels from the fire

salt.  

Each drop on tin, a world

An hour, or so

maybe more or less

to talk about, so

We gaze out the door

where slick leaves are dripping

lick our salty fingers

and pass the minutes

…or so they pass us

listening to the rain.

*

At the Base of a Tree

 

The cicadas came when I was five
behind the school yard.
I put my finger on one
and then I picked it up
it was like a fig, dark and rough.

At five cicadas were interesting, like figs.

Now I am much bigger
friendly, the little goat nuzzles my shoulder with his warm snout
soft, we are alive, together easily.
And then I press my eyes shut
as I capture the insect that has invaded this carpet, which is mine
because I own it.

Sometimes I wonder how I can find my way back
from the pliant kid to the figs to the cicadas, captivated
with all their legs, their slick ribbed shells, all their songs enchanting
the school yard
all chirping and chirping tickling my ears until my ears overflowed with music
amid the crunching leaves and delicate wings
a symphony, a society, a universe blossom
after seventeen years of silence.

Sometimes I wonder
what we are afraid of
why we crush things, bugs and leaves and oceans and people
when I was five, I used
just one tiny finger
to say hello.

*

 

The Idea of the Mountain

 

I started searching for Mt. Everest abstractly.  It wasn’t exactly about the mountain; it was about the idea of the mountain.  With my college books lying next to the bottom bunk, I would retreat in to stories about mountaineering and daydream about exploration. I collected pieces of Asian culture without dwelling on their origins or innate meanings.  These articles and wanderings were satellites of the idea of the mountain, which I assigned to Mt. Everest, and the idea of the mountain was in Nepal, and therefore going to Nepal became inevitable.  But I didn’t even really aim at Mt. Everest. I just got out of bed and aimed at Nepal.

This is how, on a hazy August morning in 2001, I found myself in Kathmandu with a group of foreigners, looking for things to do.  For two weeks we had been traveling to different parts of the country learning about medicinal plants. This was long before I would develop a focused interest in natural medicine, so that detail was just a bonus. Actually, the trip was the result of me Googling “Go to Nepal, August 9 – 22,” which was when I had a window available to travel after the competitive summer rowing season.  But I had not accounted for the little-known and unlikely fact of summer. The monsoon fog, as it does, had blanketed the sky for two weeks, perpetually pressing heat and moisture against our bodies and blotting out the entire horizon.  Now we had a few days to entertain ourselves at the end of the trip.

“I want to see mountains,” I suggested.  We were really so close.

The travel agent brought my new friends and me tea and told us we had options.  Theoretically, the options involved flights.  However, the airplanes might or might not end up taking off, the travel agent cautioned, what with the blanket of clouds obscuring the whole atmosphere.  My friends and I tried to sort out the weather, and things.

There was a tower in Nagarkot, said the travel agent.  A lookout tower.  I inspected my guide book, and my guide book said I could bike to the lookout tower in Nagarkot.

“I’m going to bike to the lookout tower in Nagarkot,” I announced.

At the suggestion of the travel agent, my friends and I refined the plan further.  We would first bike to the old city of Bhaktapur about an hour away, and from there, I would continue biking up to the lookout tower in Nagarkot.  This plan made sense to me because a) it was in my guidebook and b) the travel agent was able to rent us some bikes.  Nepal-bikes, if you will.  They had wheels and gears and hand-brakes and they were heavy as hell.

We woke early the next morning and set off for Bhaktapur.  As I clicked along the road, I felt a swell of freedom.  It reminded me of the first solo drive I had made, to the ice rink, after obtaining my drivers license.  The past two weeks had had various ups and downs and dramas and mishaps, but the main thing was that I’d been packed in with a group of other foreigners and we’d been on a schedule and somebody else was in charge.  Suddenly here I was on two wheels being powered by my own legs, on a road that led to the idea of the mountain.

If you ever get to visit Nepal, you must visit Bhaktapur.  Its name means “the place of devotees.”  The area is located on a historic trade route between India and Tibet, and is jammed full of gorgeous architecture, art and cultural life dating back to the 1400s. Wonderfully preserved temples and stupas surround a tidy public square, whose graceful wooden carvings curl up like a garden that sweeps the gaze from one frozen deity to the next.  It is a place that makes you want to bow your head for a moment to whatever all this is…not because it’s religious exactly, but because it feels bigger than you. Because it is old, and earnest, and fully itself.

We took photos.

My friends left.

I clicked over to a small shop, parked my bike, and met a woman and her daughter.  Something had caught my eye…a sheaf of heavy lavender silk.  I asked to hold it, and it slid cool over my hands, a whisper of winter hiding under the heavy roof of summer.  I turned it over and moved it from one arm to the other.  The mother and daughter draped it over my shoulders and wrapped it around and around my waist to show how it would be worn.  I asked the price.

The material was intended to be made in to a sari, which, needless to say, was something I would never put on.  I set it down, and picked it up.  Eventually, I reached for my guidebook, checked the route, and left without the lavender silk.  Now I was fully alone.  I rode down a long hill and pedaled laboriously up another.  As the heavy biked clicked toward Nagarkot, Bhaktapur began to disappear behind me.

I stopped the bike.  I turned around and biked all the way back to Bhaktapur and bought the lavender silk from the mother and daughter.  I folded it carefully in to my backpack and set off again for Nagarkot.

Beginning early in the day, we had not been particularly focused on the schedule.  It was now about 2:00.  And something else I ought to mention is that only about ten weeks prior, on June 1, 2001, nearly the entire royal family of Nepal had been massacred by the crown prince, and a stunned hush lay over everything.  A Maoist insurgency that had started in 1996 was also gathering force.  It would crescendo around 2004 and topple the monarchy in 2006.  But in August of 2001, while I was biking alone from Bhaktapur to Nagarkot at 2:03pm, everything was humid, and pregnant, and subdued.  It is only now, looking back fifteen years later, that I feel the uncertainty of that stillness, stretching out across the emerald for miles and miles around me on my tiny bike.

As the afternoon progressed, the pavement ended and the switchbacks started.  The heavy-as-hell bike was now clicking over the back of a dragon, lumpy and steep, the first of what would be many, many, many Nepal Road Experiences (NREs) in my future.  With increasing frequency, I had to dismount completely and haul the heavy bike uphill with my arms.  In addition to unfortunate lack of planning around time, I had only two granola bars for food.  I might have bought some snacks in Bhaktapur, but now I was in the middle of nowhere.  This was also before cell phones, and in fact and even land lines in 2001 were commodities mainly rented by the minute at shops or small businesses, most of which were in cities.  So, to recap, I was in a completely foreign country on a rural road with a guidebook and a heavy bike and no food during an insurgency, a few weeks after a royal massacre, in a place I knew nothing about except for stories of Mt. Everest written by North Americans and Europeans.

“Tower,” I thought contentedly, and clicked over another crater in the road.

I look back now and the little part of me that the world has worn down scolds her for this.  For the presumptuousness and irresponsibleness.  But even now, most of me is still enchanted by the idea of the mountain.  That is who she is, even all alone on a road.  She doesn’t realize she’s going to write this story later, and she is not performing.  She is biking on a road because she is on it and there is a lookout tower at the other end.  Hopefully.

As dusk began to fall, I checked my guidebook more frequently.  It did seem mildly alarming that I had no idea how far I was from civilization.  What to do?  Well there was, after all, only one road, so if I had taken a wrong turn I had inevitably biked to a different district altogether, which was a problem far outside the reaches of my ability to solve by worrying.  No use mulling over that.  Soon buildings started appearing at the roadside and it looked like, possibly, I was somewhere.  Just as darkness was confirming its authority over my climb, I came upon – true story – The Hotel at the End of the Universe.

However, the Hotel at the End of the Universe was not near the lookout tower, and my guide book said there was a hotel near the lookout tower.  So, and don’t ever ask me to explain this, I biked past the Hotel at the End of the Universe in to full-fledged night.  Uphill.

It was after 9pm when I found it.  In rural Nepal in 2001, 9pm is the middle of the night.  I walked in to the hotel that my guidebook had suggested, sweating and with every muscle in my body limp.  Two young men emerged behind the hotel counter and they assigned me a room.  The kitchen was closed for the night and it was too late to make dinner.  Oh well.  I had some of a granola bar.

“Please wake me at 5am so I can go to the lookout tower,” I said.

“If the weather is good, we’ll wake you, miss,” the hotel guys said.  “But it’s usually cloudy.”

Nope.  “I want to go either way.  Will you make sure to wake me at 5am?”  (Besides, maybe it wouldn’t be cloudy.)

“Of course, miss,” the hotel guys said.

I woke up at 5:15am.  No hotel guys.

I jumped out of bed, paid for my room, and got back on the heavy-as-hell bike.  I followed the directions in the guide book, and just as the sun was creeping over the horizon, I came upon…THE TOWER.

LOOK AT THIS TOWER.

Yes, this is a lookout tower made of sticks.

Which only strikes me as incredible now, much later, on behalf of the little part of me has been chastened and worn down.  At the time, I thought, quite happily, “This is a lookout tower.”

I climbed up the lookout tower, which was advertised in the guide book to offer a panoramic view of the Himalayas surrounding the Kathmandu valley, sweeping giants, famous the world over, visible from THIS STICK TOWER that I am climbing.  The top of the structure was rickety, like a platform treehouse.  I stand up.

There are clouds as far as I can see.  Not a mountain to be seen anywhere.  Silence for miles and miles and miles.  I sit down on the tree-house platform.  I am here.  I float out over the clouds, newly lit by morning, silky and cool, endless.  I take a photo.  For a few minutes, these are my clouds.

“This is going to be a good story,” it occurs to me vaguely.

Then some Nepalese tourists turn up, and they take my photo.  It will be a prized possession.  But soon the platform is crowded, and the floating is over.

Now all I have to next do is get back to Kathmandu.

I climb down the tree-house-lookout-at-clouds-tower.

We are going downhill.  I run my finger down a page where my guide book says that up ahead I can either take a normal road, or another road that is a bit less organized but somewhat shorter and “good fun.”  And so help me God, nobody will ever no why, but I decide it is a good idea to take the Good Fun Road.

The Good Fun Road is the dragon’s back I climbed up, now with measles and more speed.  So basically, I can barely ride on it at all.  Every time I try to get the heavy bike going, a terrifying hole in the dirt screeches in front of my tire and I have to slam on the hand breaks and I nearly topple over.  I end up walking my bike for most of the Good Fun Road.  “This is good fun,” I think, “and I should write my own guide book.”

I eat the last remaining bite of granola bar.

After what seems like forever, I come to the valley floor.  It is hot again and I am drenched in sweat. As I bike through the valley in what I certainly do hope is the direction towards the tourist area of Kathmandu where my friends are waiting, I pass a school and the Headmaster flags me down.

I end up spending about an hour at the random school in the Kathmandu valley.  I play with the kids and talk with the Headmaster.  I am oblivious at the time to the certainty that the Headmaster is hoping to make a connection and cultivate me as a patron, and this works to my advantage because I am not resistant or cynical.  I am playing with kids at a school in Nepal because it is on the road associated with the idea of the mountain.

For many hours afterwards, I am not one hundred percent sure that I am on the correct route back, although I do know that I’m overall aiming at Kathmandu.  Gradually, around 4pm, the streets start to narrow into corridors, clustering together in the traditional Newar style of Kathmandu, and then, miraculously, like an actual fuck-all miracle, I recognize where I am, back in the middle of Thamel. Vendors are selling tiger balm in the streets, tourists with dreadlocks and tie-dye are browsing knockoff North Face gear.  My friends are near here somewhere.  We have a hotel we are staying in.  I bike to it.  It is 5pm.  I’ve been gone for about 36 hours.

I unpack the lavender silk.  Sixteen years later, it is still carefully stored in wait of a special occasion.

“How was the tower?” everyone asks.

“Cloudy,” I answer. “There were a lot of clouds.”

Outside, night is falling fast.

“So when is dinner?”

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Better Questions

 

After getting our first study with UCSF-Berkeley students under our belt last winter, this year I had the chance to work more closely with the lead student, Tanya, to help design a qualitative research project I’ve been wishing someone would do for a long time: conduct focus groups in rural areas to explore people’s lived experiences of their health care.

The reason I was hoping that Tanya would use her fellowship for qualitative research is that there seems to be a lack of rigorous investigation of health practices from the perspective of populations like those we work with in Nepal. In a talk I gave at UCSF last spring, I suggested that research agendas tend to be set by institutions that are far removed from marginalized communities, even when those communities are the target of the research (a phenomenon that is, in fact, its own area of critical analysis in human rights literature – no points to me for coming up with that).

Focus group prep with students and JOHC field staff

The result is that too often, resources are directed at research that serves the researchers instead of the development of better health care structures in places like Nepal. Worse still, whether or not we realize it, academics sitting in California or Ohio or Connecticut designing research questions about people in Rupakot, Nepal, are inevitably influenced by implicit biases about rural, non-western, non-white poor people. The result is an overage of studies on things like shamanism and use of medicinal chewing branches, and a lack of documentation on what drives people to practice inadequate oral hygiene even though, in point of fact, modern hygiene products like those in your own bathroom are widely available in rural Nepal and people already know how they should be used. This bias in research then translates to poorly conceived interventions such as distribution of free dental care products and lessons on personal hygiene, even though that’s not addressing the causes of disease. From a human rights standpoint, this result is demeaning.  And the overall dynamic preserves research institutions from the voices of marginalized communities and a responsibility to legitimize non-academic perspectives.

This year Tanya and I worked together to design focus group questions that would lead to conversation among rural residents about their actual beliefs and practices around health care. In Jevaia we’ve seen through years of trial and error that understanding people’s perceptions of their resources is as important as what those resources are. The focus groups will look at how much residents feel oral disease matters and why, and try to break down the choices that villagers make about both daily hygiene and seeking of treatment services. Knowing how little up-to-date research of this kind exists in Nepal, I am really hopeful that Tanya’s study will provide a foundation for more relevant, application-oriented quantitative research in the future.

So here you have it – our focus groups! The first was actually a presentation of last year’s study to the villages where last year’s students collected the surveys, in Puranchaur and Hanspaur. Then we had a lengthy and very informative discussion with leaders and teachers from those areas about the meaning of the study results.

The second and third focus groups were in two areas where our project has completed the two year seed cycle and the clinics and school programs are continuing in the handover phase.  We did two parallel focus groups in each location, and our Jevaia field staff took roles as facilitators and note takers, which is was a great professional development experience for them (and me!).

Bharat Pokhari

Salyan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fourth pair of focus groups was in an area where our program will soon be launching, in the district of Parbat.  Finally, the last was in an area we’ve never worked in before, called Dhital, during our promotional camp.  By this time, our facilitator Sujata and I were really in the groove…

Note taking at the Dhital focus group facilitated by Sujata

In each of these, I took a job as an official note-taker, which gave me an awesome opportunity to listen in closely to what participants had to say. I learned that there is a very high level of awareness that sweets and junk food cause oral disease, and also that parents largely feel helpless to control their children’s junk food intake. I heard some things I expected, such as that basically everyone already knows you are supposed to clean your mouth twice daily, and that products to do this are available and affordable, but that for some reason, people don’t do it anyway. Some of the groups began to get in to nuanced discussions of why that is which were totally fascinating.

Important for us, many groups talked about treatment-seeking behavior. There was categorical agreement that this only happens when there is pain that is impacting someone’s ability to function. People felt that traveling to a city was a significant burden and that proximity of services was a major determinant of what kind of treatment they would seek. There was a widespread awareness that dentistry is a vaguely dangerous and poorly regulated practice, and that you can never be certain that a provider is qualified.

A few of the groups I was in veered in to more practical brainstorming once the official “focus group” discussion was over. These conversations ranged from funding their local clinics to requesting clarification around beliefs raised in the focus group (for example, dangers of blindness from dental care). One group even asked for a proper brushing lesson, so our Sarangkot Clinic Assistant Renuka, who was acting as a note taker, got up and gave an excellent demonstration right there in the focus group!

All around, this was a GREAT learning experience for all of us, and I hope it will produce some pretty solid qualitative data on health beliefs and practices in these areas.  Super proud of our whole team, especially Muna, Gaurab and Rajendra in the office, who organized an insanely complex tapestry of logistics to to make this happen.

*

The Other Skies

 

The first thing I have to do is convince Aamaa to wear one of her new kurta salwaars. She has spent 60 years wearing a more dignified sari and she’s shy to dress like a girl. I insist she will be a lot more comfortable on our 24 hour journey with trousers on.

Bhinaju and our cousin Laxu come to the airport with us. As we stand outside the door to the airport, again there seems to be a strange inversion of everything. We say goodbye and move in to the 24-hour netherworld of air travel, but the moment when I detach like a raft in to the sea, alone and timeless until landing back in the rest of my life, never comes. Instead, all my focus is on Aamaa while we pass through various inexplicable passages and security checks, making goodbye phone calls along the way.

We end up seated with Chandrakala, a charming woman probably in her mid-forties leaving Nepal for the first time to go be a maid in Greece. I explain everything from the seatbelt to how to order drinks and use the bathroom. I set up their personal TVs with films for them to watch. They both look disapprovingly at the glass of wine I ask for, so I make a point of asking each of them repeatedly if they would like some wine during the flight. Aamaa has a million questions. Is it night or day? Can I put my passport away yet? Are mom and dad awake now? I don’t know. I’m used to not thinking about any of these things.

We spend the flight talking with Chandrakala didi and when we get off the plane in Doha in the middle of the night, the three of us stick together. The Doha airport will be the first thing we encounter that is a developed country version of the comparable thing in Nepal; Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu only supplemented its two small departure terminals a few years ago and the waiting area is decorated with rows of cheap, attached metal chairs that can be dragged about in units of three. The Doha airport is a dazzling maze of high ceilings, moving walkways, shiny things, monitors, duty free shops where beautiful women are illuminated by fluorescent lights, and of course, the enormous random nauseous teddy bear that is taking up space at the center because space needs to be taken up. It occurs to me how strange it is that in modern times, the first thing an immigrant from a developing country will see in a wealthy country is an airport, which is one of the weirdest environments modernity has to offer.  For example, Aamaa couldn’t even think of a question about the following dinosaur under a passageway in the airport:

I lead Aamaa and Chandrakala didi to the sleeping room and we all try unsuccessfully to doze off. Aamaa and I both end up stretched out on the floor instead of the awkward lounge chairs, and I appreciate how we must look, sprawled out on the ground in a room full of disciplined travelers using the chairs.

We go to the bathroom and use an automatic hand dryer.

By now we are all aware that we’re going to have to abandon Chandrakala didi to the Doha airport when our flight leaves for New York. I take us out to the nauseous teddy bear where a bank of monitors will show Chandrakala’s departure gate when the time gets closer, and explain to her three or four times how she’ll navigate the list of English symbols. Chandrakala didi is literate but uncomfortable with English, and if you don’t know what a gate is or how an airport works, reading the monitors is just one obstacle (how do you even know you’re supposed to read a monitor?). There are many Nepalis working in the Doha airport and we chat some of them.  Chandrakala didi will be able to ask someone if she needs help, but it still feels wrong to leave her alone in the glowing Doha airport with its mysterious halls and signs and statues. Eventually we have to say goodbye, and she sits outside our gate watching us go.

Every time Aamaa and I have to pass through a checkpoint or security screen, the international airport staff first assume that we aren’t traveling together, and then want to know what in the world is going on. Aamaa has all the looks of a first-time traveler from a traditional part of Nepal, and in addition to the fact that I have all the looks of a private-school educated white suburban yuppie from Connecticut, I tower over Aamaa by about eight inches.  Since she doesn’t speak English, I usually have to translate instructions.  After figuring out that we go together, most people assume I am her daughter in law, which would explain how I know Nepali and why I’m the one shepherding her on an overseas journey. “This is my daughter!” Aamaa giggles as she corrects enthralled security guards and airline attendants. We make our way from counter to counter and checkpoint to checkpoint, crossing the globe in a little bubble of delight that we make no sense.

Finally we board our fourteen-hour flight to JFK. We get incredibly lucky with an empty middle seat on a mostly full flight, so we’re able to take turns properly sleeping. I was worried about how Aamaa would handle strange food made by unknown people, but she mostly exclaimed over amount of it, approaching each tray with curiosity and then asking me if I wanted to eat her pats of butter because she was full from the continuous flow of food.

“That goes on the roti Aamaa, you don’t eat it by itself. It’s like ghee.”

And then the next tray would come and she’d ask me if I wanted the butter again.

We peered out the window at the rolling white puffs lolling off to infinity and Aamaa asked if the clouds were the ground or the sky.

“The sky,” I said.

“Does this plane also go to the other skies?” Aamaa asks, long after we’ve lost track of night and day.

“Other skies?”

“They say there is this sky, and then a sky above this, and then a sky below this one,” Aamaa says. “I don’t really know much about it. But I was wondering if this plane goes to the other skies.”

I gaze at her.

“I don’t really know,” I say. “I don’t know much about it either.”

Many trays and questions and naps and pats of butter later, we break through this sky and New York comes in to view. Aamaa reaches behind her for my hand as she stares out the window, and with a dramatic rumble, the plane sets us down on the ground.

*