Another Room in Heaven

For someone who has spent 15 years in Nepal, I’ve travelled very little in the country, choosing instead to burrow further and further in to a single community, a single home, a place where now twelve year olds have always thought of me as a part of their world. It was only a few years ago that I suddenly thought: I’d like to explore. I’ve started stetting aside a few days every few years to go climb out on a spine of rock some place, in some location that percolates on a back burner in my mind until it bubbles over and asserts itself: this is the time, go here.  Then life adapts around it.

The Way to Muktinath

One way to travel is to go to see things that are new and unfamiliar and exciting or challenging – like that time I went to Murad Khane in Afghanistan, or when I floated in the Dead Sea, or the month I spent in New Orleans doing oral histories for StoryCorps after Hurricane Katrina.  But this is something else, a magnetic pull to a place that is already inside me, a dot on a primal map created a long time ago.  In 2013, Prem and I went to Mardi Himal by a little-traveled route comprised largely of goat trails snaking along a blade of snowy ridge that rims a basin of Annapurna giants. It was winter, everything wide and blinding, the sunrise spilling pomegranates and mandarins and pineapple juice all over the jaws of the cold earth. When I got there, it made sense.

Now it is summer. Muktinath sits north of Pokhara between Lower and Upper Mustang, a stone’s throw from the Tibetan border, and houses a famous complex of Buddhist and Hindu temples. For some time now I’ve been pulled north, toward the areas of Nepal influenced by Tibetan culture, and also where the landscape climbs up and stays high, where the trees fall away and leave a desert mountainscape that stretches off to the Tibetan plateau, a mystery, an uncrossable border. In the winter even local residents often come down from Mustang to the valley to escape the unforgiving snow and cold.

Prem Bhinaju and I met a bus by a curb in Lakeside early on Friday morning. It was headed to Jomsom, which is only a 15 minute flight from Pokhara, but unlike crystalline winter, the summer is dense and foggy and flights have not come or gone from Jomsom in a week. That leaves us with what should be a ten hour bus ride. You know where this is going.

There’s the obligatory 2.5 hour delay when a bearing that has to do with steering left needs fixing, and magically, the Bagloon Highway presents an auto shop strewn with hulking shells of buses and tractors and cars and unidentifiable transport components, so we pull over to fix the bearing. We set off again around noon under ten-ton heat, but I am relieved to be on the move with my day pack and with Prem, my most familiar travel companion. The road winds upward and the Kali Gandaki River drops below us, black and rumbling with coal-colored silt that will settle by the time the torrent gets to in Pokhara, where it is called the Seti Gandaki, or White River. The road becomes a road story that I can’t tell because my mom reads this blog, but even passengers local to Jomsom are praying and squeezing their eyes shut while we loll side to side on a road that, from afar, looks like a child dragged a pencil across triangles of high mountain forest and then got distracted with a sandwich. In the end, aside from knuckles white from clinging to the seat in front of me as if that can save me from a long descent in to the Kali Gandaki – one of the deepest gorges in the world – I come out fine. Prem and I arrive in Jomsom at 7:30pm.

I know I’m in Nepal, but Jomsom looks like a ski town and I have to keep reminding myself that this is Mustang. We clomp along a stone-laid main street with quaint local shops and hills rising up behind them. In the U.S. we’d call the hills mountains, but in Nepal, the mountains are the sheared white rocks twice as tall that are currently lost in monsoon cotton one row further back on the horizon.  It is hard to believe anything could tower over the already looming hills – I remember thinking the same thing at Ground Zero, knowing that Lower Manhattan’s massive skyscrapers had been dwarfed by the Twin Towers.  It is impossible to imagine land up in the middle of the sky, but I know Diligiri is there, behind the clouds, a thousand stories high.  We settle in at a hotel.  Local plum wine.

Our walk to Muktinath starts the next morning and takes two days, one long day up and one long day back. We walk along the Kali Gandaki in a landscape created contradictorily by the upward smashing of tectonic plates and the downward gouging of receding glaciers. The result is a desolate, heaving geometry, eons of history piled atop one another and laid bare straight from river to the sky. Dwellings impossibly carved out by people who once migrated southward from Tibet are clustered in the sweeping rock face, and the occasional modern village is a patch of irrigated greenery in a borderless expanse of brown. This should be the province of giants, but we are just tiny people, our feet sliding over bazillions of even tinier rocks, where fossils casually present themselves because nobody has owned them yet. They were once underwater and they have been here forever and ever and ever.

The climb starts. No houses, no villages, no ancient dwellings for hours. Prem Bhinaju finds a fossilized creature with gold flecks in it. Uncharacteristically , I haven’t exercised in weeks and my legs feel like playdough, but it’s cool. I have an actual fossil in my pocket.

We arrive in Muktinath around five, eat something, and rest for a while. Then, because tomorrow will be a long day and we’ll be pressed for time, we go out to explore the area around the outside of temple complex.  That will leave us time to go to the temple itself in the morning.  I leave most of my things behind except for my SLR camera and rain jacket. Now that it’s evening a slight mist is drifting downwards, uncommitted to getting us fully wet. Dusk turns dreamlike and enchanted.

Prem says we’ll walk up to the place where the path to Thorong-La pass starts. We would need a whole extra day to get to the 5,416m pass, but there is time, at least, to lay eyes on its direction. We circle the wall of the temple complex, and two nuns are just leaving, one wearing hot pink sneakers. I ask if the nuns if they were born here in Muktinath and they say yes, and even though that is a completely unremarkable fact, to me it seems incredible because I am so far away from the world I know. They bustle off to the nunnery.

We climb quietly past parts of the complex wall that have cracked and broken in the earthquake two years ago, and emerge in a widening field that slopes upward and disappears in to a fog. “The way to Thorong-La,” Prem says. He says we are at 2800m. I say, obviously, we should walk up another 200m, so even though evening is turning denser, up we go in to the haze.

Some ways ahead, a walking bridge is slung across the gorge to our left and we climb until we reach the concrete block anchoring the bridge to the ground on our side of the river. Without any comment, Prem sits and I follow, and then I lie back and stare in to the unremitting white sky. No variations in density or color, no dragons or bears or wizard faces, just an endless, depthless white.   Further up the green rocky slope, on the other side of the embankment of fog, is the path to Thorong-La; below us is everything we’ve come from.

Quiet.  I am filled with a profound gratitude for Prem’s company, his silence, the easy way we can walk up to this concrete block and sit on it at dusk and do nothing at all.

After fifteen minutes, I decide to cross the bridge, for much the same reason we walked up 200 meters. We’re on one side of a bridge, so it should be crossed.  The first step out over the edge ofthe gorge sends a thrill through my nerves, and then out I plod out over the wires, which undulate a little with my steps, until I am standing directly over the water gushing down from the high mountains.  A thunderous cloud of sound rises up through my bones and engulfs my senses; I can barely hear my own breath. It feels like the river is running right through me, and when I shout or chant the water picks up the sound and rumbles away with it taking my voice down down down down to all the places we were.

The instant I step back on to the concrete block the mountain silence envelopes me again; magically, the roar of all that water is audible only between the walls of the gorge. Prem takes a turn on the suspension bridge, and then we head back down the green slope and circle around the other side of the giant temple complex.  Night is creeping in slowly, as if stalling a little to give us just enough time to see one more wonderful thing.

We come to an area of the hill I have been viewing from below in the mist: rows and rows and rows and rows of prayer flags strung behind small white structures scattered high up on a hill. I studied Tibetan Buddhist funerary rituals for a course I took this year, and throughout the evening, my sights have been trained here. When we passed the nun in the hot pink shoes, I pointed this way and asked if it was okay to pay a visit. She said yes. Prem and I make our way over the hill toward the fluttering prayer flags.  He walks down toward the road, and with barely a word, I go up.

I’m expecting to see signs of sky burial, but I realize quickly that this is a land burial site. Everything feels unified and still, but also light and high. There are small cairns everywhere, placed for passed spirits to find refuge to heaven, and as I walk between the grave sites, it suddenly occurs to me to ask Prem, still at an audible distance, if he thinks I could build a cairn. Why not, he says, and sits down on a rock facing out over the endless prehistoric topography while I climb higher up and find a patch of ground abutting the faded squares of color calling tut-tut-tut as the wind tugs them from their strings.

Prem never asks why. He just waits.  And when I have built it, a stack of stones among all the stones and fossils, another room in heaven, and when I have sat over it and cried for some minutes, I walk down the hill and we leave.

Night falls at last.

 

*

 

Between the Corn and the Millet

I try to imagine Aamaa’s life as it was back then, when the water springs in Kaskikot weren’t concrete taps but delicate pools that stirred up silt if you took from them too quickly. As a girl and young wife of 13, she sometimes had to sleep overnight in line while other women had their turns gently lifting the water jug by jug. By the time Aamaa was 22, she was a widow with two young girls of her own, and it would still be years before a bus came to Kaskikot, or a door was put on the entrance to her one-room house.

There have been many impossibles in Aamaa’s life. She raised two educated daughters who could split wood and carry twice their weight by grade school. The civil war started, but it was elsewhere, in other villages. The electric mill came; the bus came; the tourists came; other people converted their houses to homestays and restaurants. Aamaa’s house is off the road in a cul-de-sac of mountainside that nobody wanders past by accident. Even after some foreigners bought the patch of land on the hill behind the house and built a fancy hotel there, passers-by from Korea and Israel and Japan and Australia hiked past with their eyes straight ahead on the sprawling white peaks, rarely looking down to notice Aamaa and Didi and Bishnu there in the sunny yard, drying grain.

The likelihood that I would wander through the door one day has always seemed both insane and inevitable.  And over the last fifteen years, I’ve mostly thought of my life opposite Bishnu’s.  We were the two girls born at the polar ends of the universe, the ones who looked at each other and thought, what if I were her?  She’s been in the U.S. for eight and a half years now, while I spend significantly more time in Nepal than she does.

Aamaa was always more like the soil: everywhere, earthy, constant, essential.  She has all the nutrients and produces all the food and water and shelter.  Aamaa keeps the house alive, the field and gardens fertile from cycle to cycle, the fire crackling.  No matter how many people show up, Aamaa feeds us all. And no matter how many people go away, no matter how empty this house gets or how many of her birthdays pass, she keeps the water jugs full and the seeds sorted in dusty bottles. Aamaa has spent five decades in this village.

I had no idea Bishnu had applied for Aamaa to get a tourist visa to the U.S. to see Bishnu graduate from her Master’s program in information technology. Nobody told me that Prem and Didi took Aamaa to Kathmandu for the very first time last May to go to the U.S. Embassy, or that on the way there, Aamaa didn’t eat any cooked food because she couldn’t be sure who had prepared it. A few weeks later, I answered my cell phone in the parking lot at Walmart, and Bishnu announced that Aamaa had been given a five-year multiple entry tourist visa to America.

“What?” I said.

“For my graduation!” Bishnu explained ecstatically. She hasn’t seen her mom since 2013.

This explanation seemed failed to explain all the questions I couldn’t think of.  Obviously the idea of having Aamaa make this trip has floated through my brain millions of times, but it was the ultimate what if ever.  The craziest version of everything.  Part of me thought that maybe this was all kind of a whim – a thing that might happen next year, or something. But Aamaa had sold the buffalo within a week.

On my way to Nepal in June, I tried to imagine having Aamaa with me on the way back. First I tried to digest the most obvious and superficial matters. For example, how would I explain the enormous statue of a teddy bear bent over with an apparent stomachache dramatically bottom lit in the Doha airport?

I can’t even explain that to you.

When I arrived in Kaski, everybody’s greetings had adjusted to the most up-to-the-minute state of affairs. “Laura! You’re here! How long are you staying? So, you’re taking Aamaa back with you, eh?”

Only Aamaa and I seemed cautious and uncertain with our excitement. The whole thing is so surreal that even the discussion feels like an entirely new and foreign continent. For fifteen years Aamaa and I have had what is now a very well established routine: I come to Kaskikot, we eat together in the kitchen, we go plant things with neighbors and churn milk and carry water from the tap, I fix up some things that need fixing in the house, we gossip about family here in Nepal and all the far away people not in Nepal. Aamaa knows them all – my whole extended family and a good number of my friends who have been to visit – largely through stories. But she’s the stable point, not just for us, but for herself also.

“So we’re going to America, huh?” Aamaa says as we are sitting on the porch, as if testing out the statement.

“Sure seems like it, right?”

We stare out at the tall curly corn stalks, crowding out the grassy millet that’s planted between them.

“What is the name of your District?”

“Pascal, do you know how many states there are in the U.S.?” I ask, and he doesn’t know, so I explain again about Virginia and Maryland and Connecticut and North Carolina.

We discuss departure dates because I have to change plane tickets that currently have me going home from Cambodia, where I’m visiting Bethy in August; Amaa knows Dr. Bethy, because she’s been here too. We mull over how long Aamaa’s trip to America should be. A month would probably be good – she might be bored after a month?

“I’ll go after cutting down the corn, and I’ll come back to cut down the millet,” Aamaa suggests with sudden firmness.

That seems good, I agree.  That is more orderly – maybe because we can see the corn.

Long silences. What, exactly, should we should be planning?

“Bishnu suggested I should get some kurta salwaars made,” Aamaa says. “I guess you aren’t really allowed to wear a sari in the U.S.”

“You’re allowed Aamaa. But a kurta salwaar might be more comfortable.”

“Ok we’ll plan a day to do that in Pokhara,” Aamaa states. “I guess we have to leave time to have it stitched and everything, right? We should go soon.”

“It only takes a couple days, but we can go soon.”

“Nah, you should just pick something out and I’ll meet you at the tailor,” Aamaa adjusts. “I don’t know anything about picking fabric.” Honestly, in sixty years, Aamaa has never walked in to one of Nepal’s fabric shops and picked out material for an outfit, which is how literally everybody in Nepal gets their clothes.

“No no no,” I insist, “I think you should definitely get to do the fabric choosing. Pick your own color, something you like.” I have to talk her in to it.

A few weeks later Aamaa takes the bus to Pokhara and waits for Pascal and I to come meet her at a chautara in Chiple Dunga. She can find her way to Didi’s house, but for the most part she prefers assistance to get around the city. Between the three of us, Pascal is the only one who can properly read in Nepali. We set off up the road to go to the fabric shop.

Laura chiama, let’s have some ice cream,” Pascal suggests wisely, because I am the sucker who will pretty reliably buy us all ice cream. As we pay, Aamaa has sat down on the low wall at the foot of the store, which is not a seating area, and Pascal and I go with it. I hand Aamaa her first ice cream cone.

“Do I eat this bottom part, the biscuit?” Aamaa asks.

“Yes, but don’t eat the paper,” Pascal instructs.

“I’m not going to eat the paper,” Aamaa says.

I can’t even remotely transpose any of this to Connecticut. I ask a passer-by to take our picture, and as you can imagine, she looks at the three of us – the Aamaa who has very obviously just beamed in from the village, the entirely incongruous American, and this regular Nepali boy being raised in the city – and gets a huge grin as she takes our picture. What could our story possibly be?

We set off again. Aamaa has brought along a broken umbrella from the house. “Laura, where’s a place that we can fix this umbrella?” she asks. I blink, there must be an answer to that, but I’ve never thought about an umbrella-fixing place.

“We should probably just replace it,” I say, feeling guilty for my wastefulness and mental laziness. I don’t have the energy to try to figure out where the umbrella fixer might be and there’s really no excuse for it.

As we wander to the center of town I’m distracted and disoriented because everything is inside out. When I first came here I couldn’t say a word or do a single thing for myself, and in Kaski, Aamaa runs everything.  We get a few kilometers off her turf and suddenly she is the foreigner and I’m the one who knows what we’re doing. She has also brought with her a heavy bag of cucumbers and other items for Didi and Bhinaju and the boys, and she’s carrying it on her shoulder, the way people do in the village where nothing is flat.  Pascal is twelve and he goes sprinting out in to traffic as we cross the street and I pay him no heed whatsoever because I’m dodging people to keep eye on Aamaa, having no calibration for how much I do or don’t need to hover over her in traffic. We probably haven’t walked through the city together more than two or three times in a decade and a half, and never just us – not once.

We arrive at the fabric shop.

There are hundreds of colors and textures of cloth to choose from. Aamaa looks hopeful that I will take over. As a young man begins removing options from the shelf she bends over them. He throws one on top of another and another and another and another. Her hands settle on a jubilant orange outfit.

“I like this one,” she suggests. She looks at me as though asking if that one is a good one to like.

Within ten minutes, Aamaa and Pascal and I are pawing through dozens of kurta salwaars, trading opinions on what Aamaa should wear in America. She picks two, and we take them to the tailor, who takes out his tape measure. He’s going to make something just for her, in her size and shape, to wear between the corn and the millet.

“I think you should do short sleeves,” I say. “Definitely short sleeves.”

“I don’t know – I think they should be a bit longer. To the elbow,” Aamaa says. The tailor agrees – maybe longer sleeves for an Aamaa. No way, I say, short sleeves look best on a kurta and it will still be hot in September. Aamaa studies her arms for a minute, apparently imagining them in a very standard piece of clothing she’s never had.

“Yeah. That’s how I want them,” she concludes. “To the elbow.”

*

Lifts

 

The bus to kaski is very hectic right now: in addition to the heat, and the rain, the road has been sporadically damaged by flooding and landslides.  After last week’s sweltering ride with Aidan and Pascal, I decided that this afternoon I would try getting a ride with Nabin who lives up in Parapani and drives a taxi.  He’s always willing to drive me home at the end of the day for a pretty good price, rather than drive his car back up to Kaski empty.

I called Nabin on Tuesday to fix our plan, and then rang him up again as we were leaving the office at 5pm on Wednesday. He picked up, but the connection was bad and I couldn’t catch what he was saying.  I decided it was “I’ll call you right back,” and then I hung up.  I texted to say I’d be ready at 5:30, and went back to my room to putter around on the internet for a while.

I called Nabin at intervals but he didn’t answer.  The clock drifted past 5:15, then 5:30, when the last bus leaves from the bus park for Kaski.  At 5:45 I thought, I better move out if I’m going to get to Kaski today.  If I couldn’t get a hold of Nabin, I was already stuck making the hour long walk from Naudanda – potentially in a downpour, in the dark – because the last direct bus had left already.  I put on my backpack and walked out to the main thoroughfare running to Lakeside.

One advantage of being a foreigner is that you can do things like stop a random guy on a scooter and say, “Hey, would you mind just taking me up to the next intersection?”  I stopped a random guy on a scooter and asked him to take me up to the next intersection.  I hopped on the back of his bike and as we approached the intersection, I shouted over the wind, “So where are you headed?”  The guy was headed straight on to Pirthivichowk, and the bus park was up a road to the left, so I thanked him and said I’d hop off there.

“Oh what the heck, I can take you to the bus park,” the guy said, and turned left.

I’ve never tried this strategy for lift-getting before, ever.

As we drove up the road to the bus park, the guy said he’d served with the US Navy in Bahrain for eight years.  I didn’t even know that was a thing – is there water in Bahrain? – how to Nepalis end up in the US Navy? – and he told me more about it, but I couldn’t hear him over the wind in my ears and the honking traffic, so all these things remained mysteries.  Back in Nepal, he wasn’t doing much at the moment, he said.

“So where are you headed?” the US Navy guy asked.  I explained about Nabin, and about getting to Kaskikot tonight, and that I supposed I’d walk from Naudanda.

“Oh what the heck, I’ll put some gas in the bike and take you up to Kaskikot.”

“What?”

“Why not, I’m not busy.”

“But that’s really far!  It’s probably 45 minutes on the bike.”

“No problem.  I’ll just get some gas first.”

“How much will it cost?” I asked, wondering if that was the least of the confusion.

“No cost.”

“But – but – but……”

The guy pulled over to get gas.  I pondered the situation.  The next bus to Naudanda might not leave for another 30 or 45 minutes.  It would be dusk, if not night, by the time I arrived in Naudanda, and then it might rain, and I’d have another 60 minute walk.  It seemed like I should be worried about why this stranger wanted to take me up in to the hills at dusk to a place he doesn’t live, but I wasn’t.  I tried to get worried and instead I thought, “Wow, it would be pretty great to get a scooter ride up to Kaskikot right now.”

“Ok, let’s go,” I said.  I determined to give him some gas money, at least.  Also, I have a black belt in taekwondo.

For the next half our or so, we rode up the switchbacks, watching the valley recede in to the hazy, rose-tipped blue of evening.  The day fell away below as we climbed up in to the hills.  I cinched the hood on my rain jacket to provide a little wind protection, but the guy was a reasonable driver and the breeze from the movement felt good. Occasionally I stuck my arm out in the direction of the beautiful scenery, as if it was some kind of compensation I could offer for this inexplicable act of generosity.

We came upon a sloshy patch of suspicious looking mud and disembarked.  The two of us regarded the scene: a pit of soft mud with the gash of a thick tire through it, left by something much larger and heavier than the scooter, and surrounded by pools of brown water.

“I can walk from here,” I said.  I was feeling kind of guilty.  “It’s only about half an hour or so. I’d have had to make an hour walk from Naudanda.”

“Still half an hour of walking?”

“I’ve walked from here many times,” I insisted.  “It will be a real mess if your bike gets stuck.”

The guy looked concerned, partly with the matter of my walking, and partly with the oppression of humans by an inert patch of mud.

“Please let me contribute something for gas,” I offered.  He declined.  He had time on his hands and it was a pleasant trip.  I thanked him, asked his name, and we took a selfie.  Raj Kumar Gurung.

A motorbike came up behind us with two young dudes on it.  They sped over the mud pit.  Raj Kumar Gurung looked from them back to his scooter.

“Let me just give it a try,” he said.

“But if–”

“I’ll just try it.”

Raj Kumar Gurung, US Navy, revved the scooter and launched it in to the mud pit.  It rolled through to the other side.

“I’m coming!” I said, and stepped directly in to sucking mud-slosh the consistency of hummus up to my ankle.  “Be right there!” I cried, rinsing off some of the brown hummus in a puddle, and then in a clear stream that had had developed across the road on the other side of the mud pit.

Raj Kumar Gurung said that instead of returning back to Pokhara the way we’d come up, he’d continue straight on past Deurali and meet the road in Naudanda.  At this point, he was going to drive past my stop regardless.  I decided to get off a half mile or so early to stop in and say hi to Thakur sir, one of our founding oral health program members, and I insisted that Raj Kumar Gurung at least have some tea before continuing on, but he demurred again.  Off he sped, having lifted me directly from Lakeside to Kaskikot just as night was falling.

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laura Chiama

 

I’ve been here a week and by yesterday it was time to head to Kaski for the weekend. Pascal and Aidan have their exams this week, but I like taking one or both of them with me when I can.  In Pokhara, there is too much sitting. When Didi and Bishnu where 9 and 11, they spent all their non-school hours working, carrying, cooking, washing, or studying by the little kerosene lamp. Aidan and Pascal should examine bugs and trip on roots while running over the terraced fields.

Pascal said he wanted to come along, so I told him to show up at 4:30 the room I’m renting this summer.  He was here and ready at 4, and Aidan showed up a few minutes later. While I put my things together, they explored my little apartment, and I suggested they take the opportunity to try out the private shower with its shiny hot and cold faucets. The boys are used to bucket bathing. Pascal gave the shower a go (very refreshing, Laura-chiama), but Aidan ran out of time. The sky was gathering a storm and we had to get to the bus park.

We arrived just in time to cram ourselves in to the last Friday bus. The bus to kaski is always crowded and always an adventure, but Friday evenings are the worst. I found a spot up near the front of the bus with my back to the driver – I was sitting, so that’s a plus – and Aidan wiggled up on to my lap.  The bus was packed well beyond capacity, every knee and elbow and hip bent to accommodate a body part belonging to somebody else, a situation made worse by the rain that had started.  With all the windows closed it felt like oxygen was being consumed faster than it could be collected, and the window panes fogged up with body heat, leaving everything slick and heavy. Aidan was hot on my lap, and I wished I’d shoved him in to the shower. Then again, he was my only shield against the sea of limbs and sweaty brows, and at least his sweat is familiar. For a 5’8” American, I can pack myself in to a pretty small space in a crowded Nepali bus, but this ride was set to put my capabilities to the test.

Up we went. Switchbacks.

By the time I peeled Aidan off my lap in Kaski, dusk had settled soft and blue on the hills. We emerged outside into the cool wide air, suspenseful with pending rain, and ran through the corn stalks to the house (Laura-chiama, the corn is so much taller than you!). Aamaa put dinner on our plates, and sitting on the floor, we arranged our knees to fit in the narrow kitchen. The electricity went out.  The very same kerosene lamp Didi and Bishnu studied by all those years (my single favorite object in the house) lit up the clay walls and the boys’ faces in the kitchen, where I feel happy.

Aidan and I are both partial to the new kitten, a bony sliver of a thing that always seems hungry and cold. Aidan likes to pet its fragile spine with two fingers, the only thing I’ve ever seen him do gently.  Normally Aidan moves too fast, is covered in bruises, and breaks everything. But he feeds the kitten little bits of rice on the clay floor while we eat. When we get in bed, the kitten wants to cuddle with us and I let it nestle on to my shoulder while I read. It purrs in to my neck. Aidan is delighted, but Aamaa and Pascal are displeased. The cat is a feral beast with no business in a bed. It is here to eat mice. Poor little thing.

During the night, I wake up every time I have to roll over because I don’t want to smush the kitten. Aidan jabs his knee in to my back.   Around 4am, the kitten poops exuberantly onto the blanket. I take the kitten and the blanket off the bed and go back to sleep.

I wake up my favorite way: gradually, lazily, inside the conical mosquito net drifting up to the ceiling, with rain pattering on the tin roof.  Aidan is already gone out of bed.  Saturday stretches out before us, a long summer meadow rustling and flowered.

Narayan with his other American gift

I come out on to the porch and Aamaa is serving milk tea. Milk tea! Aamaa sold the buffalo a few weeks ago and we are milk-less.Where did the milk come from? But Aamaa knows that I forget about black tea halfway through, and it gets cold sitting on the porch.  Somehow this morning she is pouring creamy milk tea in to a tin cup and everything is perfect.

Narayan comes over from next door, and within a few minutes, Aidan has broken the toy I gave Narayan: a set of Velcro pads and a Velcro ball to play catch with. The boys set to fixing it. Aidan recruits some tape from someplace, I can’t imagine where, and Pascal has taken a sickle to a piece of bamboo. He is making a walking stick. They want to watch TV and Aamaa tells them that’s fine so I unplug the TV and hide the remote and tell Pascal to go wield a sharp object too close to his hands, like the rest of the kids.

I walk over to Govinda dai’s house for is sarad, the anniversary of his mother’s death.  I get there just as  the priest is arriving to start the puja, and he asks after how I am doing. The priest knows me partly because I stick out, and also from my project documenting death and mourning rituals. I have sat and listened to him and taken his photo and written about him and sought explanations from him often. The house fills with incense and stillness and an oil lamp is lit. Sulochana doesn’t want me to leave; she asks for some henna on her hands, and I’m surprised this is allowed on sarad, but Govinda’s father doesn’t seem to mind.

In the afternoon little Narayan takes a break from his exploits with Aidan and Pascal to bring me down to his mother’s fields where Aamaa is helping plant rice. I follow his tiny frame along the edges of the flooded rice paddies, and through the part of Kaskikot where the students I taught in 2003 are from. Their families know me as Laura-miss, and I spend less time in this area, so people might only see me every couple of years, but I sense a certain look of recognition when I pass somebody who knows me as the teacher of their kid. “Eh!! Laura, Laura right?” She is going to cut rice, they shake their heads, isn’t that delightful? Yes yes, it’s Laura. I have a weird life, I think, and it is pretty great. After all this time, it is still magical to be known on a wooded stone path winding down to the rice paddies.

 

We pass our neighbor Butu bouju. Laura! Did you have milk tea this morning? Aamaa wanted to pay for the milk, Butu bouju says, and I said no, Laura is here from America. Aidan and Pascal are visiting from Pokhara. They should have milk.  How was the tea?

For three or four hours, Saraswoti and I stand shin-deep irrigated mud, planting one sprig at a time.  The gleaming hills stretch out across the valley, monsoon humidity draped over their shoulders.  The edge of my left leg will get burnt below the knee, where my rolled up trousers cease to shield skin against the hot sun. Mostly we work together in silence. Every once and a while Saraswoti looks over and murmurs, bhay chha Laura, bhay chha, it’s good. Or, Laura, how much does a plane ticket cost to get to America? I bet it is scary, being on a plane. I ask if Saraswoti has ever been on a plane, even though I know the answer. Does she think it would be scary? Probably, I think. It would be scary, I guess. Splash, plop. Bhay chha, Laura.

Last Saturday, I think, I was in Connecticut.  I try to remember what I was doing…errands?

*

Downpour.

Starting around 4pm, we could barely hear ourselves for the rain pummeling the tin roof.  Sulochana and Narayan were both over.  I decided Aidan still needed a shower and began to goad him in to going out in the deluge.  Narayan, who is even more of a spaz than Aidan, launched himself into the center of the patio with all of this clothes on and was immediately soaked.  Aamaa began screeching at all of us.  In this weather! Get inside!  Everybody on the beds with the windows closed!  Aidan changed in to shorts and came running on to the porch, alight with glee, while Aamaa scolded him loud enough to cut through the noise of the pounding water.  There was a curtain of rivulets dripping off the corrugated tin all along the edge of the porch.  Aidan stuck his hand out, stuck his toe out, and then finally

I dried Aidan off.  See, Aamaa?  Now he’s clean-ish.

Narayan spent the rest of the afternoon without his shirt on.

I lay down on the bed to read by the gray light of an open window, because we’d unplugged all the lights and turned off the electric sockets.  Lightening has ended more than one life in this neighborhood; in Saano Didi’s family, it was inside the house.

Laura-chiama!  Let us use the henna!  Please please please….I allow Aidan, Narayan, and Sulochana to decorate my outstretched left arm with henna while I use my right arm to hold mybook on my chest.  The three of them hover intently over their work by the light of the window, while the rain continues singing loudly over our heads.  It tickles.  Sulochana has been learning by watching me, and she makes a lovely flower in my palm.  I take my eyes off my book and notice Aidan squeezing the tube of henna lusciously in to a pile of brown goo under the spot where he has scratched out my name below the elbow.  Later, this will become a bearded LAURA hat looks like a large bruise.  Oh well.

Aamaa and I debate all afternoon over the boys’ exams.  They haven’t brought their books, she says, and they should have gone back to Pokhara today to study.  Aamaa comes up with all kinds of nonsensical plans such as walking them to Naudanda an hour away to catch the bus.  I say that if they want to get on the 3:30 bus from Kaski, we can send them off and Didi will meet them at the bus park.  I say we are leaving at 7:30 am tomorrow morning on the first bus.  Aamaa says they shoudl be reading now.  I ask Pascal how old he is and he says almost twelve and I say, “Do you know you have an exam on Sunday?” and he says yes Laura-chiama!  And I say, see Aamaa?  They decided not to bring their books and that’s up to them.  Aamaa says the bus could be cancelled tomorrow morning, and I say there could be a flood or alien space landing or invasion by Mongols, but generally speaking, the bus leaves Kaski every single morning at 7:30am.

It pours torrentially all night.  Waterfalls, oceans, tidal waves coming from the sky, filling every bucket, drum, jug, pot; washing the stones clean; overflowing the planted rice paddies.

Aamaa wakes us up at 5:30am.  I scold her from inside my mosquito net.  Aamaa!  I set my alarm for 6:30am!  Why do we need to get up in the middle of the night?!  Grumpy, I stay in bed until 6:15.  When I get up, the boys are eating heaping plates of rice, vegetables and daal that Aamaa has cooked before 7am.  Like she does for me when I am leaving at 9am for the office, when I eat rice because I know how much it matters to her to feed us before we leave the house for the day.

MILK TEA.  I fill up my cup twice.

Aamaa wants us to make the hour long walk to Naudanda to take the bus to Pokhara.  I roll my eyes.  There is a bus leaving from right here at 7:30am!  The road will be washed out, Aamaa says, the bus could break down, a million problems could occur.  We could be late.  The boys have their exams, they haven’t even studied, why don’t we walk to Naudanda?  Has Aamaa spoken with my mom lately, I wonder?  Moms are all the same.

We go backwards through the drenched corn stalks to Deurali to wait for the bus.  Prem sir greets us.  The bus is not going this morning, Prem sir says, because there have been some small landslides and the road is blocked.

We have to walk to Naudanda.

Laura-chiama, we have to walk to Naudanda!!  HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!

Everything is soft and cottony in a mist that makes us unsure whether or not it has stopped raining.  Even though there is no water coming down, the air is wet, our hair is damp, the road is full of puddles, and the hills float in and out of a white sky.  We take photos of the mythical landscape.  We find sparkles of radiant purple and red poking out of the clouds in our hands.  Some vehicles pass, taking, like us, the opposite route to town this morning due to the blocked road, and I could stop them, but now we are not in a hurry.

Was there a hurry?

*

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Hittin’ the Big Stage

The chain of events that led to the UCSF Global Oral Health Symposium included, somewhere in the middle, a very serendipitous conversation about baskets.  But let’s start at the beginning.

Two years ago, when our work was going through a big transition and I was trying to identify exactly what it was about in the long-term, I happened to meet Tula Ram Sijali. He leads a research organization based in Pokhara and was a trove of knowledge about the broader health care system in Nepal, including well beyond our focus area of oral health. When we changed our name to Jevaia Foundation shortly afterwards, I asked Tula Ram to join an informal advisory group.

A few months later, Tula Ram introduced me to his boss, Michael, who was in Pokhara overseeing a project. We’d been hearing about Michael for about a year: he was a public health researcher at Berkeley who was the principal investigator on a few studies in Nepal. At the time, I was pulling my hair out trying to set up a research partnership with a university. So when Tula Ram brought Michael to our office on one of Michael’s visits to town, Aamod and I prepared ourselves to meet a bigwig academic from the prestigious halls of Berkeley. Michael turned up wearing sandals, easygoing and friendly, and sat on the roof drinking tea with us and talking about how much we all love Nepal.

We told Michael about our work in oral health (ok fine, I gave him a thinly clad pitch for Berkeley to start doing research on oral health in Nepal) and Michael told us that he waslaunching a new project.  He’d been shocked to see women in rural Nepal carrying heavy loads twice their own size, slung from their heads by ropes, and wanted to study the impact of this on their bodies.  But seriously, had I seen this? It looked brutal! Michael had already purchased a basket and rope and brought it back to an ergonomics lab at Berkeley.

Listen, I said, you really need to know me.

Also, if there’s a basket study happening, I need it in my life.

As you can see, we hit it off quite well.

When Michael got back to Berkeley, he introduced me by email to the head of Global Oral Health Programs at UCSF. Who turned out to be…my classmate Ben Chaffee from Williams College. Now he’s Dr. Ben Chaffee and he introduced me to Dr. Karen Sokal in the Joint Medical Program at UCSF and Berkeley, and Karen was responsible for organizing our university research collaboration last winter. The rest is history.

Mean time, to return to the punch line of this story, Dr. Chaffee invited me to be a keynote speaker at UCSF’s annual oral health symposium in March. This year’s theme was to be “global perspectives on the health care delivery team.” I would be the second of two keynote speakers.  The first was by Dr. David Nash, who I’d heard of and met the evening before the event.  He’s a congenial doctor from Kentucky working to advance the role of dental therapists in the U.S., a comparable effort to what we are doing in Nepal, although our version takes some decidedly unconventional turns.

All of this brings me to the podium in front of over a hundred academics at one of the best medical schools in the country, barely a year after Tula Ram introduced us to Michael, and just two short years after I was feeling rather lost about our long-term goals.

I spent weeks preparing my talk, but I also understood there was only one presentation I could give. As soon as Dr. Chaffee invited me to present, I said so. Mainstream professionals don’t always warm up to our work because it challenges established definitions of expertise and seeks to reorganize institutions that many people are invested in. Put simply: if you spent eight years going to dental school and getting a PhD, you might not clap your hands at the idea of community health workers in rural Nepal taking a two week training and then opening dental clinics. And I can understand why.  However, that’s also the only thing I can talk about.

There’s also the reality that the Academy, like other structures central to the development of medical systems, is oriented around various credentials that I don’t have. While the other speakers were medical professionals and researchers, I have a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. I can really only claim to be a storyteller.  But Dr. Chaffee assured me that it would be a welcoming, progressive audience, and of course it was a huge honor to be invited. So off I went.

Most of the time, being a little bit of a weirdo outsider is basically just awkward. But every once and a while, it’s completely exhilarating. The response to my presentation, Rural Oral Health Care in Nepal: A Rights-Based Approach, was, from my point of view, comparable to arriving at a party wearing stilts and discovering that everyone had been, without entirely realizing it, just hoping somebody would show up on stilts. The talk can be viewed here beginning at 54:30. I barely had time to eat a strawberry at the reception because so many people wanted to ask me questions. I was invited to co-lead a workshop called “Delivering Improvements in Oral Health in Low Resource Settings” at a conference in Delhi next October.

But it was also so much fun. There were the photographs of our technicians, team leaders, teachers, and the kids in our school programs, a collection of images I’ve essentially memorized, projected on a large screen before a brand new audience.  As I said in my discussion, these are communities that do not get a voice in the ivory tower. What I realized was that it was the perfect moment to be a storyteller. To be able to talk about something that you do partly because you think it’s a good idea, but mostly because you love the people.  Anyone can disagree with a thing, but how can anyone disagree with people?  I saw how much eagerness there is for something surprising, human, and manifest.  I felt like what I had to say was not tolerated but welcomed.  Maybe that shouldn’t have felt as odd as it did.  But I’ve spent so many years plugging away in Nepal that it was a bit of a shock to watch the story unfold here in California, and realize how…much of it there is.  I think I was the most surprised person there.

And at the same time, I guess wasn’t.

I also got to reunite with Michael, who provided an update on the evolving basket-carrying study.  Dr. Karen and many of the students from last winter attended the symposium, and Bethy was in town for a conference that began the next day. She and Karen and I had coffee together after the talk, and then I lay on a bench in the sun, collecting my thoughts. My heart filled with gratitude.  I had the feeling that over a decade of work had come lightly to rest on a bench under the sunny San Francisco sky, and for just a second, this whole journey made sense. There have been so many false starts, disappointments, rejections and failures.  Here was one of those rare instances of rest.  We’d landed on something.

Then, I got up to wander the city for a few hours.  You can’t just sit there, or the magic evaporates.  Besides, it was a lovely afternoon, and surely there were gems on the sidewalks.

*

 

Wanderlust, with “Trespassing!”

 

So the other day, a friend posted a Luftansa ad on Facebook with the caption, “this is the Nepal I love!” The post popped up in my feed, although it had nothing to do with me.

I clicked on it. The ad follows a Nepali fashion designer from New York back to Nepal as part of a “wanderlust” ad series by the airline. She goes to familiar places in Kathmandu, and then poses in front of the Annapurna mountains. And then, she eats a meal with some women who start to look very familiar – so familiar that I don’t recognize them in this context. And then, a teenage boy runs off of the roof of a house. His feet patter over the corrugated tin over our kitchen, which I had installed last summer to fix a leak over our cooking fire.

THAT’S MY HOUSE!!!! I start yelling. Luftansa decided to make an ad about wanderlust, and out of the ENTIRE GLOBE, they picked MY HOUSE IN NEPAL!!! I watch again. You can see Aamaa sitting right there on the porch with a white towel on her head. Have a look for yourself:

The colors of home – LUFTHANSA?!  I don’t think so!  Aamaa and Bishnu and I painted those colors!!  As my friend Bess says…trespassing!  You guys, this video has well over 3 million views.  Now, next question: who has a friend at Luftansa?  I think we should look in to a new corporate partner, no?

Go ahead and send your ideas my way…laura@jevaia.org.

The Power of Catching a Goat

 

At the end of each of my visits to Nepal, there is usually a collection of ridiculous, entertaining, and lovely things that haven’t found a home in any of my blog posts, but deserve to be known to the world. Herewith is enclosed this winter’s box of treasures.

1. Grab Your Desire

Signage is a very reliable source of amusement in Nepal. This is definitively the most awkward hotel welcome sign ever, surpassing even Hotel Touch Nepal, a winning entry from last summer. And yes, the hotel is actually shaped like an octagon, which under the circumstances I assess to be both logical and insane.

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2. All the Religions at the Same Time

Because Santa suit and Nepali pop song and traditional (Tamang?) dress.  This is how we do the Christmas street fair, y’all.

3. The Power of Power

For the entire decade and a half I’ve spent in Nepal, there’s been an ever-increasing amount of load shedding due to lack of electricity. The flashlight and solar power industries are enormous; our own office has $2,000 worth of back up battery power just so we can keep the lights and computers on. Everybody simply takes scheduled power outages to be a fact of life, familiar as rush hour traffic–in the winter when hydropower is lowest, load shedding lasts for up to 16 hours a day.

So apparently, just this fall, a new minister was appointed to the Energy Department, and revealed that the load shedding problem is, well, entirely due to collusion between the government and the energy industries. ENTIRELY.  Therefore, he simply declared load shedding to be over. After fifteen years, the lights went back on, and that was the end of it. I am telling you, there wasn’t more than 5 hours of load shedding this whole month, in the dead of winter.

I asked my friends why everyone isn’t absolutely up in arms about this. The answer was simple: everyone’s just glad the lights are back on. And besides, if anyone gets annoyed, they will probably be turned off again.

4. KP’s Dental Technician Henna Tattoo 

On the closing day of our university screening program, we discussed lessons learned, watched a slideshow of our week, and traded contact information. I had asked our technician Anita to bring some henna, and I did henna tattoos as people filtered out. Our technician KP demanded to have one placed on his chest, so obviously, he got K.P. and a tooth. His biggest UCSF fan, Helen, approved.

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5. The Power of Catching a Goat

My last morning in Kaski I got up and, as per routine, wandered outside to brush my teeth. As I was puttering around in the yard and splashing freezing water on to my face, I looked up to the terrace behind the house to see our 11 year old neighbor Amrit creeping up behind his goats, trying to catch and tether them to their posts, while muttering in a sinister tone: “DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF CATCHING A GOAT.” He would pounce just as a goat slipped through his hands and clomped off a yard or two away before losing interest and lazily looking around for something to chew on. Then Amrit would creep again, intoning, with intense focus: Don’t underestimate the power of catching a goat.

I highly recommend this as idle morning entertainment while brushing one’s teeth.

When I woke up the next day in Pokhara thinking about Amrit and started giggling hysterically in bed, Aidan and Pascal explained that there’s an action hero called the Blue Cat Man, who apparently goes around saying, “Don’t underestimate the power of the NILO. BIRO. MAN.”  It’s like the power of power, but with blue cats.  I unfortunately didn’t take a picture of Amrit with a goat, so here’s me with a goat.  You want to catch a goat now too, don’t you?

6. Paragliders in the Mirror

On Saturday afternoon following the closing program of our screening camps, when our field staff left to go back home, I went for a run to clear my head. The paragliders who we often see sailing down from Sarangkot make their landings in various spots by the lake in the valley, and every now and then I happen upon them at the moment they float down to the ground. That afternoon, as they drifted out of the sky, they were perfectly mirrored by other paragliders rising to the surface edge of the lake. The paragliders came down and attached themselves to their own feet, like Peter Pan and finding his shadow.

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7. It's My Shit

During their week of clinic audits and past patient assessments, Bethy and Keri came to spend a day in Kaskikot, and in the evening, we got to singing with Grandma. Thanks to Keri’s choice to blast “Holla Back” off her laptop, we ended up teaching Grandma to say, “It’s my shit,” and I did post a link to this before, but I am embedding it here because when you watch Grandma declaring that her shit is hers and not to be messed with, you will see why this is an absolutely brilliant thing to have happened.

8. The Prime Minister on a Tractor

The other night I looked up to see an evening news broadcast of Nepal’s Prime Minister inaugurating this tractor. He is covered in celebratory marigold malas far past the tops of his ears, making it hard to achieve either neck rotation or peripheral vision. In the TV broadcast, the gathered audience shuffles tenuously along on the muddy ledge around the paddy, clapping admiringly as the Prime Minister drives the tractor for about a full minute on the evening news, with no background commentary or voiceover whatsoever from the news anchors.  He stops and disembarks, and then the segment ends, while I squeal and point at the TV, my dinner forgotten on my plate, and the rest of the family is going…”What?” I present you the photo that was published in the Himalayan Times, with its caption.

I mean, What?

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal plants rice in a field using a modern tractor during the inauguration of the Super Zone programme under the Agriculture Modernisation project, in Baniyani VDC of Jhapa district, on Tuesday, January 3, 2017. Photo: PM Secretariat

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal plants rice in a field using a modern tractor during the inauguration of the Super Zone programme under the Agriculture Modernisation project, in Baniyani VDC of Jhapa district, on Tuesday, January 3, 2017. Photo: PM Secretariat

8. The Power of The Stage

Our sweet Pascal is 11.  He is named for the little boy in The Red Balloon who makes a strange and magical friend that leads him to see the world.  While Aidan is our Joker, Pascal is serious and perceptive.  He and I have always had the bond of The Observer, that sensitive creature who is perpetually catching up with the world on the outside, but seeing a little more than the next guy on the inside.  One night during this year’s holiday street festival in Pokhara, Pascal came to the hotel to find me and we spent some time walking around in the crowd.  We came upon a stage where kids where dancing until the scheduled performers came out.  Pascal paused a moment, and then jumped up and…he’s on the back left in the striped shirt.

9. These extremely uncomfortable mannequins in Kathmandu Mall.

Why, world? Why? Who approved this?

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The Ritual of Goodbye

 

I decided to take the jungle path up to Kaski, which I normally travel multiple times during any visit, but haven’t been up or down yet during this hectic winter. I set off late and as I climbed up, the scramble of things fell away and I was alone on the stone path.  Where there is time to climb and think.

It’s been a few years since the forest was cut here (for grass, firewood) so the way is lush and clustered with greenery.  I always wear flip flops and the contours of the rocks feel close under my feet, even in winter.  At intervals, I came upon dustings of red powder laying bright on the rocks, a trail I suspected had been left by a recent funeral procession headed in the other direction down to the river.  Midway up the path there is a natural spring that has been organized with laid stones, and one large flat rock with a groove in the middle serves as a ledge channeling a steady stream of water for drinking. When I come this way with the kids, they cup their hands under the trickle and funnel the water between their lips, like something out of the Secret Garden. The spring always feels like a sacred place, a steady tributary of water that started who knows where, up high in the mountains, probably, and falls there at our feet as we pass.

As I made my way up from the valley to the ridge, I had that granular awareness of time passing behind me, and it seemed so strange that at any moment I was on one stone, and then I would be on the next one, and just that way the whole path would be behind me and I would be up in Kaski, the secret water tap and everything far below where I’d just been.

img_1031By the time I climbed up the last step to the ridge top, I was a combination of chilly and sweaty in the January dusk. I walked the spine of the ridge, which curves along our cubby of village as if along the top row of a stadium. Little Narayan caught sight of me up along the ridgetop, and yelled out from way down in the first row where he was visiting a neighbor, LAURA DIDIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII!!!!! before launching in to a sprint and leaping up over terraces to come walk the last bit of the way by my side. We made a right turn at our row in the top section of the stadium, and strolled out to the house sitting in the wings, where the fire was lit and Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa were waiting.

We had some popcorn and hot tea as sunset approached. Narayan’s brother Amrit came over and in the yard we practiced taekwondo and played chungi, which is basically Nepali hackey sack using a ball of rubber bands, while Aamaa cried out at us to calm it down and I riled everyone up. Govinda dai came over and we sat with Aamaa in the kitchen while she made anadi paste, a rice dough with ghee that is healing for sore muscles and bones, and then we ate it and it made our hands sticky with ghee. Saano didi came over, and then Mahendra’s mother came over. We transferred to the big room with all the beds, and while our visitors took seats around the room to hang out, I jumped under the blankets with Hadjur Aamaa, and with us both lying down, my long limbs rested against the soft jumbled folds of her sari.

Aside from ritualized procedures and ceremonies – tikka-giving, astrology-reading, mala-making — goodbyes are wholly unfashionable around here. So what usually happens on my last day or last morning in Kaski is our closest neighbors come over to chat, but nobody talks about the fact that I am leaving, going to another world, and won’t be back for a long time. If we do, it is in the form of asking about the trajectory of my flight, how long I’ll be in the air, what they give us to eat during such a long journey, and whether or not it is colder where I’m going than where we are. We discuss what season it will be when I come back (summer), and what fieldwork we’ll all do together (millet planting and rice planting), and this leads us to reminisce about what a klutz I was when I first arrived, and how many things I know how to do now. At some point, people wander out mid-conversation. Because the course of events is set, both the leaving and the returning, and since there is nothing to be done, there is no point in becoming uncomfortable. I understand this ritual of goodbye, and have become grateful for it.

churning milkAfter most people had left, Govinda stayed while I churned milk so I could bring buttermilk to Pokhara tomorrow for the family. Govinda took photos of me, which is kind of nice because I don’t have many photos of myself since I’m always the one taking them – but then, people, he posted them on Facebook and two days later I would discover that this photo album is wildly more popular than anything I’ve ever posted of myself trying to be useful or worthy. What does it all mean?

When the milk was churned, Govinda dai left to go home and Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa and I got ready for bed. It’s always been a nightly habit of mine to go out after everything is quiet and look at the stars, across the village stadium at Kali with her arms stretched out under her cloak, and study the positions of the constellations amassed around her. I usually walk out along the garden, and sometimes I climb halfway up the hill to the ridge and look back at the house with its golden porch light, a warm square in the broad, cold darkness. Even when I am far away from Kaski, I often feel my self located there, outside in the silence, looking back at the still, lit house in its expansive darkness. That spot is a place of gratitude and wonder, of tiny-ness and huge-ness at the same time: my little self, with coordinates in the galaxy.

It was another January night, clear and chilly, the stars laid out overhead like dust. I went out to the yard to brush my teeth, and for whatever reason, instead of going out along the terrace, I stood in the square of light cast off the porch and looked out in to the dark. In the summer, the yard is hemmed in by towering corn stalks, but in January, there are no walls against the yawning night.  I stared out in to the blackness, past the edge of the yard, and all I could see was the outline of trees under the stars, and an opening in the blackness at the top of the hill where the path gives way to the ridge.

It occurred to me that in all this time, I’ve never looked at it this way. I studied the inscrutable night, brushed my teeth, and threw my eyes up to the sky for a moment to make sure Orien was where I expected him.  Then I went back in to the house, placed the wooden bar across the inside of the door, got under the warm covers, and drifted off to sleep, safe against the morning.

*

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The Put In The Museum Pants

Welcome, world, to the new year 2017.  In honor of this changing of the calendar, I decided to take on some good old Kaskikot cleaning-out-of-old-clothes-from-the-house.  Now in order for you to fully appreciate what this means in context, you must understand a few key points.

First, the clothes in question have been in rotation for anywhere from 2 to 14 years, and for the most part, they are only worn when I’m in Nepal.  Second, these garments are mainly used for activities such as chopping wood and hauling water and painting murals, and they are washed on rocks. Third, p1070133all of the family clothes are stuffed in to one large dresser with drawers that have been labeled with permanent marker by the kids (“Lora and Bishnu, Ama, Malika and Prem, Aidan and Pascl”) and the dresser is always so full you almost can’t open it, or close it, which is why every time I get the Lora and Bishnu drawer open and then shove it almost shut, Aamaa yelps out from across the room and chides me for leaving one inch of air space that will look irresistible to a mouse seeking fluffy shelter from life.

Next you must understand that nobody throws anything away, ever, under any circumstances, because it was once useful, might again be useful, is nicely made, contains a wrapper or other information that might be needed for future reference, or just because I don’t know let’s just keep it here wedged between the roof beams because we have roof beams.

And finally, since I am away for 5 to 10 months at a time, partway through, Aamaa religiously takes out the nicely stacked and folded system I’ve left behind to air out everyone’s clothes in the sun.  They are then returned to their airless purgatory in maximum disarray.

It is also notable that at any given time, most people in the household cannot locate the particular piece of clothing they wish to wear.  I spend most of my time at home either trying to open the Lora and Bishnu drawer, trying to close the drawer, or looking under piles for something while Aamaa cries out, “No matter how big the house gets, it just fills up with things and then we can’t find anything!”  FYI this is a two-room mud plaster house with a kitchen and attic, which was once expanded from a one-room mud plaster house with a kitchen and attic, but that’s the EXACT SAME THING my mom says about our large suburban abode in Bethesda.  So you can put that last point in to your “Deep thoughts on human life” file and stick it between the roof beams for future reference.

In any case, on Dec. 31, 2016, I made a decision, people.  Grandma was sunning in the yard while Aamaa tended to the buffalo, Govinda’s kids were over, an attempt to fold and restore clothes to the Lora drawer with Sulochana’s help was going nowhere, and in a fit of courage I committed to assigning a pile of my best clothes to mattress material.  (I mean it, if you think anything ever gets thrown out, let’s talk about used-up pens and “good” empty cardboard boxes before we start wasting perfectly good 14 year old clothes.)  I handed my camera over to Sudir, and he and Sulo stationed themselves to document these items for posterity.

Now then, with no further ado, I present to you the parade of Useful and Sentimental Clothes.

Item 1: The Mural Surulwar

Mural, White Paint - Me

The very first time I came to Kaskikot, all the way back in October 2002, the volunteer agency took me to a tailor and I had two outfits sewn.  I wore them constantly during my first two years, including through the painting of two murals at Sada Shiva Primary.  One top frayed out of existence a few years ago, but these two outfits are mostly still in circulation for both sentimental and practical reasons: they became my go-to outfits for mural painting.  This pair of pants, however, is difficult to wear in pretty much all circumstances.  Bye bye special beige painting surulwar.  We’ve walked so many places together and you’ve had so many kids I love on your lap.

Item 2: The Elastic Bathing Lungi

Fortunately I don’t have a “before” photo of the bathing lungi.  But it too is a lifer: it has been bathed in for 14 years.  In fact, I think I inherited it from another volunteer that was leaving when I arrived in 2002.  Suffice to say that this little number is no longer appropriate for bathing, or really for anything except becoming a mattress cover.

Item 3: The Red Kurta I Stole From Bishnu

Round about my third visit, I started to wise up a little on style.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that when Nepali tailors sew outfits for white people, they just go huge and hope for the best.  We look like Yetis, but at least we can get in to these outfits.  As I became more interested in a fashion choice that wasn’t a mumu, Bishnu’s loosest outfits were large enough for me to get in to as long as I didn’t breathe too much.  This red top was my favorite and eventually I had it let out a little around the lungs.  When I wore it with some red pants I found, I felt like a princess, but then someone made the red pants in to a mattress, so I reverted to wearing it with the beige Mural Surulwar.  It then became covered in paint, and torn, but it’s had a great life on multiple Spero-Subedi women.

Item 4: The Put In The Museum Pants

I got these jeans for $10 at a discount mall in college, and they were my Nepal jeans for about 10 years.  They got patched in the crotch, the butt, around the ankles and in various locations where they caught on things here and there.  I took a lot of crap for wearing these pants, which Prem had coined the “Put In The Museum Pants” for quite a few years before I stopped wearing them.  I discovered them at the bottom of the Lora and Bishnu drawer, and I’m glad nobody throws things out here, because it would be terrible to think of these trusty pants in a ditch somewhere.  Unfortunately they do not fully qualify as pants any more at this point; they evolved closer to the mattress stage while still on me.  Since I’ve clearly enjoyed sitting on them quite a bit, I’m glad someone will have a nice night’s rest on them…like a museum, but lying down.

They will be next to this AAU Taekwondo Nationals t-shirt that I got in 2008; it had a rougher life once it moved continents.

Item 5: This one’s not my fault.

This is a kurta surulwar that belonged to Bishnu about 10 million years ago.  I was able to convince Aamaa that nobody is going to wear it again ever for the entire future of the planet until the sun explodes.  I tried to lower my arms for these photos but to no avail because the outfit was sewn with inexplicably tiny sleeves and indefensibly large and poofy pants for someone 1/2 my size.  Thank you for just being you, outfit that makes no sense.  You inspire us all.

Item 6: The One I Couldn’t Bear to Actually Give Up

Oct. '03

This is the other kurta surulwaar I had sewn for my first ever visit to Kaskikot.  I wore it constantly and the material appears to be more durable than bulletproof kevlar. I have photos of myself carrying grass in this purple kurta, teaching in this purple kurta, holding a cat in this purple kurta, going to a dental clinic in this kurta, and giving Mom and Aamaa a joint foot massage while wearing this purple kurta when my parents first visited 2003.  Purple became my symbolic color, and often when I receive gifts in Kaskikot they are purple if they are not edible.  The kurta, as you can plainly see, evolved in to my primary mural painting smock, and hasn’t been used in quite a while. But I still wear the dark purple pants around the house even though the crotch is ripped (YES, I have leggings inside, jeez) because the thick purple material is still warm and soft and because the Yeti sizing is perfect for lounging. I decided it was ok to hang on to these much-travelled and much-loved pieces of history a bit longer.  Maybe my great-grandkids will get a kick out of this getup.

So after we had finished modeling the upcoming mattress, we shut the dresser drawer, Sulo did my hair with a complicated formula of braids and safety pins, and we had a dance party with Grandma.

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Happy New Year!

No wait…one more for the road.

Cause I’m keeping the purple one.

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Tihar, Festival of Lights, 2003