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.

*

First Firsts

 

The morning we were leaving, Aamaa’s brother and mother come over and we ate together. Aidan and Pascal were looking unacceptably dapper in their school ties. I can barely stand it when they look like this and it shouldn’t be allowed on these mornings when I’m leaving the country and won’t get to see them for five or six months.

Didi accompanied Aamaa and me to the airport, and while we were waiting for the flight to arrive, we made our first stop in a public bathroom. I showed Aamaa how to use the faucet at the sink (actually, the entire bathroom is a mystery), and what I hadn’t realized yet was how many different kinds of faucets there are between Pokhara and Hartford. Finally it was time to say goodbye to Didi.  We went through security, and now it was just us, on the road.

We climbed in to a small commuter plane for Aamaa’s first airplane ride.

Aamaa had only been to Kathmandu once before, when she picked up her visa a few months ago. We arrived at my friend Aparna’s house and Aamaa said wanted to accompany me to my meetings. I was afraid she’ll be bored.  Why should she sit around, she wanted to know, while I go do things in Kathmandu?  Let’s see the city!  Let’s see what I do when I’m here, doing all these meetings, she said.

My first meeting was with a Berkeley professor in a coffee shop. I ordered Aamaa a salad.  She poked at it suspiciously.

“Uncooked spinach,” she pointed out.

“It’s a salad,” I offered.

“Raw leaves,” she sighed, and switched over to helping me with my French fries instead.

My second meeting was on a fancy rooftop restaurant in a mall. On the way there, in the cab, Aamaa craned her neck at the window. “These buildings,” she said. “So tall! My goodness! Look at them, Laura!”

We arrived in the mall lobby to find, to my great satisfaction, AN ESCALATOR. I convinced Aamaa to ride it, leading to one of my favorite pieces of Nepal footage in fifteen years.

The escalator, I am pleased to say, is followed by a ride on a glass elevator.

We stay on the rooftop as dusk settles, eating appetizers and gazing out over the city, which stretches off smoggy and hazily lit. The next day, we will do some shopping in Assan Bazaar. Aamaa needs a few pieces of clothing, and I need a container to burn the incense from Solukhumbu that Sonam sir gifted me when I bought his tea yesterday. Prem Binaju is in Kathmandu with a client, and he’ll guide us through the crush and throng of shoppers and vegetables and piles of Himalayan rock salt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We only have one night in Kathmandu. I wake up in Aparna didi’s house to early morning light filtering through the sheer curtain as street sounds muffle their way in to our room. Aamaa is lying on the other bed, a place I never ever find her in the morning, because she gets up hours before I do to milk the buffalo, start the fire, heat water, and prepare for the day head.

“Get up Laura,” Aamaa says, lounging on her arm in an exaggerated display of leisure. “Let’s get to work.”

*

Keys and Threes

 

Thirteen days ago, Butu bouju’s father died. Out of all the possible things that might have been happening today, the whole community was gathered at Butu Bouju’s house for the last day of kriya. As the sound of the priest reading propagated over the arrival and bustle of visitors, Butu bouju’s house had that particular feeling of the world being unveiled after a deep and intense period of ritual mourning. Aamaa and Pascal and I pulled up plastic chairs in on the patio, where many relatives had come to pay respects. So the chance for us to be with family and community before our departure across the world was brought about by a death.

“How are you both? Laura, when did you arrive, when are you leaving?”

“We’re leaving for America today,” we told everyone. “We’re both going.”

Bhim arrived. We haven’t seen each other in probably three or four years. This November will make fifteen years since Bhim first brought me to a small house around the corner, where a widow and her daughters were living, and offered to have me move from his household to theirs.

“You’re taking Aamaa to America?” Bhim asked.

“Yep.”

“Today?”

“Yep.”

Bhim shook his head and smiled with that ironic twinkle he gets sometimes when I’m just not figure-outable. Which is a lot of the time.

“This has been a long story,” Bhim concluded.

“Yeah,” I laughed, “it has.”

“Tell Bishnu hello from me,” he said.

We left the kriya and went home to finish organizing. I’ve left this house nearly twenty times, and always the leaving is leaving Aamaa. After that, it’s just physically departing from Nepal. Bringing Aamaa along feels like bringing the house, and I’m not to sure how to pack.

Something else strange – the quiet. One of the things I remember from when Bishnu left in 2008 is how crowded the house was with people on the last night: neighbors, uncles, relatives I’d never met before and have rarely seen since, they were all crowded on to two beds, talking and laughing. In most households, when a family member is going abroad – “outside,” is the word people use – there is a great deal of activity. But Aamaa’s house is not a usual household. There’s nobody else in it.

So as mid morning became afternoon, it was just us, wondering how to ready the house to be without its mother. I swept and Aamaa put the mattresses up. It was unclear what else to do; I just wanted it to look organized. Like we’d prepared something.

Sonom sir came down from the Resort. I’ve bought six packets of local tea that he grew in the resort gardens behind our house. I hang out at the Resort now and then, to jump rope or do qigong, to chat with Sonam sir and his wife and nephews. Many of my friends have stayed there over the years while visiting me. Sonam sir’s family is from Solukhumbu, and like me, they are outsiders who have their custom-made place in Kaskikot.

“Good journey,” Sonam sir said, giving Aamaa and I each a kata in the Sherpa tradition.

Throughout the prior evening and afternoon, there was one person who spent a good amount of time sitting with us: BAA!, Mahendra’s father. Our cranky, sarcastic, exhausted neighbor, the one whose missing teeth prompted my career in delivering rural dentistry to underserved people. From the time I first came to Kaskikot, BAA! seemed unapologetically resentful of my unearned privilege in the world. He and Saano didi’s husband often function as the men in our house, chopping branches or negotiating social matters that require representation by men. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time with BAA! collecting branches or chasing the chicken while he watched me fumble or drinking tea and admitting that I don’t have any explanation for why the world is crap. That God gave me easy and he got dealt hard was never to be smoothed over or ignored. On some unspoken level, it wasn’t my fault, but I didn’t deserve any credit for being ahead, either. So we just collect branches and sip tea and that’s how it is. I took to calling him BAA! because he would point at himself and say, kind of demandingly, BAA!  Father. That’s how I was to address him, even though Bishnu and Didi call him “dai” or brother. At least he would be in charge of that.

Often our closest neighbors simply wander off when I’m leaving Kaski, as goodbyes are uncomfortable and pretty pointless, anyway, and at some point in the afternoon BAA! had indeed wandered off, and that was that. So I was surprised when he reappeared holding two silky white katas. He gave one to each of us.   BAA! will probably never see America, or probably anywhere outside Nepal. All the tourists come and go from this village and he is getting old with fewer and fewer teeth that I could not save, either.

“Go well,” BAA! said. “Take good care of Aamaa. And bring me back a son-in-law.”

After we’d done whatever we could think of to do, Aamaa changed in to the clothes that she’d hung outside in the shed the night before. Once her travel clothes were on, she couldn’t go back inside.  It’s also inauspicious to leave the house for a long journey in threes, so Aamaa left first, her bag packed with cucumbers and ghee and the CDMA phone for Didi and almost nothing to take America. In one of the strangest moments of my adulthood, Aamaa walked out of the yard and around the garden of cut corn stalks while I stood on the porch with Pascal, watching her go.

Then Pascal took a key out from around his neck and jammed it in to the wooden door. With that, he and I followed Aamaa up the little path, to the road, to the bus that will take us to the other side of the world.

*

Auspicious Leaving

 

Our flight to America was scheduled for a Monday night, but finding a day to leave the house in Kaski was a problem. Generally speaking, Saturdays and Tuesdays are inauspicious days to leave one’s house for a long journey (although on Tuesdays, you can get away with it, but ideally you shouldn’t stay at the house you are going to). Plus, Aamaa has a special restriction on Mondays that doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone: she is so much a part of her house, so rarely leaves it, that Mondays are off limits too when it comes to locking the door and saying goodbye. That left us with Sunday morning they day before our flight from Kathmandu as the only viable date for departure. And then it turned out that was ahmse ko chatujasi, a monthly position of the sun that is inauspicious for leaving one’s house. Sunday was a non-starter.

Problem.

The solution we came to was that Aamaa would put her packed bag outside the house in the early hours of Saturday morning, before it was fully Saturday.

I arrived back from Cambodia on Friday evening with Pascal in tow, and found the corn cut down. We did all the usual things – making dinner, playing with Amrit and Narayan from next door, chatting with neighbors passing through. Aamaa set to arranging things in a small shoulder bag. Two saris, two blouses and a petticoat to wear with them, and the two new kurta salwaars we had had made. What else should she bring? The bag looked disconcertingly empty. I show up in Nepal with two large duffel bags every time and most of my wardrobe lives here. What do I usually have in there? Can that give us any clues as to what Aamaa should add to her bag?

A sweater for the plane, I suggest. It is cold in the plane.

Mostly Aamaa was concerned with what items we would bring to Didi in Pokhara tomorrow. An enormous cucumber the size of a cricket bat. A bottle of heavy ghee (and a collection of smaller bottles for Bishnu, Mom and Dad, Ricky’s family, and me.). Aamaa’s CDMA telephone needs fixing, and besides, someone might call it while we are in America – we were to leave the telephone with Didi. Most of Aamaa’s bag was filled with things to be left in Pokhara.

“Laura, set your alarm for 3am.”

“I set it.”

The evening wore on, our last evening, the one where normally my bags sit threateningly zipped and ready, signaling the splitting of our worlds. Instead we just fell asleep, wondering what is going happen next.

“Did you set the alarm?”

“I set it.”

We drifted off. My dreams wove in and out, waiting for the alarm. Finally I opened my eyes. It was 4am.

“Aamaa, wake up.”

“Hadjur?”

“The alarm didn’t go off. It’s 4am, go quick.”

Aamaa took her hand bag and hung it outside in the shed. The phone and other belongings were allowed to finish the night in the house, but the clothes she would travel in needed to leave before daylight betrayed them.

I drifted off again, the feeling of uncharted territory hanging softly in the pre-dawn.

*

Animal Yoga

As the summer comes to an end, I want to share a special part of my spiritual practice with all of you out there – millions, even billions of you – in search of inner peace and the wisdom of the zodiac or whichever comes first.

Just before I left for this summer in Nepal, I was at an end of season party with my soccer team in West Hartford and we got to talking about a new fad in Connecticut: goat yoga. This is a thing where you do yoga while baby goats run about jumping up on your back and snuggling your bum.

RIGHT????

That very weekend my friend Sam was planning to attend goat yoga, but I couldn’t go because, alas, I was headed instead to Nepal. But then, on the plane to Nepal, I got to thinking. Nepal lacks numerous amenities such as proper butter, a fully functional government, rural dental care, and Pandora. But goats are not a problem. So then I got to thinking more, and I what I thought was, let’s be open minded and work from a strengths perspective.

This proved to be fairly straightforward.  I started with a beginner practice:

Adorable Bunny Yoga.

The fan response was prompt:

 

I proceeded without hesitation.  I am a very focused person when I need to be.

Baby Chick yoga

 

French Bulldog At Sunset

 

Pairs Kitten Yoga

 

The Rooster

(this posture, which is excellent for improving the flexibility of the tongue to reach the tip of the nose, was immediately preceded by me trying to catch the rooster)

Preparation for Rooster Pose

 

A Herd Of Sheep Crossing a Road in Upper Mustang Yoga

Also, meditations on being very very still:

Farm Pose After Dental Camp

Pondering the impossible:

How is there a Dalmation in Nepal Pose

Ironic Yoga, very powerful in the Year of the Carrot:

I tire of you appropriating us in to your yoga names just because you’re humans withering stare dog

 

And finally,

Goat Yoga

Goats Doing People Yoga

                  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NAMASTE, HUMANS!!!

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 produces 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.

 

*