Waiting Out Rain

 

I’ve just arrived in Nepal, and the dust and diesel is shining on the streets of Kathmandu, stilled by summer rain.  Honestly for a whole decade I didn’t want to be here during the hot and buggy monsoon, but last summer I discovered that of course, like any season, the rainy time has a unique and indispensible magic.  The water clatters and pounds, washing everything and making us wait.  It comes down too hard to walk around or do anything.

Just wait.

It’s strange to re-enter this season which was so intense last year, when I arrived to a stunned and grieving city dotted with blue and yellow tents.  It seems that this country has basically just plugged on, absorbing the earthquake on to its pile of other messes, the unlucky people who lost the most – possessions, limbs, relatives – doing what people do: surviving.  The next day just keeps coming, and for anyone whose life wasn’t irreparably altered, that catastrophe isn’t the topic of conversation any more.

Things for me, however, have changed a lot.  When the earthquake threw us in to the ring with the big multinational agencies, it helped show our tiny staff the value of our community-level expertise.  This spring we launched our dental project in Lamjung district where we did earthquake relief.  

In the fall I also started a Master’s Degree in social work, and I’ve been able to incorporate a lot of what I’m learning in to our program right away.  Guys, seriously, a lot of this stuff I’ve been trying to explain has an entire body of theory and practice associated with it called human rights!  People are doing rights-based health care at the United Nations!  I found out I am basically an expert on rights-based dental health care in rural Nepal…WHO KNEW?!  (Who becomes an expert in that by accident?)

Ok, just wait.

Also, a few years ago, we thought we should do some baseline surveys in our villages.  Not too focused on the concept of sample sets, we thought we’d survey ALL the households…3,374 of them distributed over various hills and more hills, actually.  Because as long as you’re doing it, do it, right?  I wrote a survey with input from various people, we trained some high school students as surveyors, and just last week – 2 years later – we completed a 58-page report on this survey (thanks, Sarah Diamond!).  Come to find out there’s very little current research of this kind in Nepal, and this report is a thing.  I am taking it around like my visiting cousin and introducing it to everyone.  Here is a picture of our report.  Let’s call her Cousin Mae.  She’s in color, with pie charts and clones and everything.
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All this has come together in a very cool way.  Over the course of this year, three major U.S. Universities have developed a potential interest in partnering with us for research or medical collaboration.  It feels awesome!

So with all that in mind, this summer, I’ll be doing a few things:

  1. Visiting each of our ten clinic locations (past and present).
  2. Establishing a Rural Dentistry Coalition in Nepal to advocate for policy level recognition of our model, so that rural dental clinics can be established systemically for all villages through the national health care system (eventually).
  3. Laying groundwork for future research partnerships (hey, positive thinking!)
  4. Revisiting some of the places we did earthquake relief  (unforgettable)
  5. Planting rice with Aamaa and getting myself in to as many embarrassing situations as possible (inevitable, really).

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I am very ready for all of this following knee surgery in February.  At physical therapy, I do a warm-up each day where I put the treadmill on “maximum incline” of about 20 degrees and walk for 10 minutes.  Yay!  Now I am here and our newly launched Sindure Clinic is reached by a 5 hour hike.  That means physical therapy + dental clinic supervision at the same time.  This is not a deal you can find just anywhere, people.  Take note.  It’s not even a limited-time offer.

I’ll sign off with a few lines from a recent article in the Guardian that I really appreciated.  It can be very hard to stay motivated doing this this kind of thing, even though it’s true I sometimes get to pretend my iPhone is a grain-sifting woven pan and put it on my head, and we can reliably say it’s not a cubicle job.  But the pervasive story of the American (Social) Entrepreneur is hard to see past, with its celebration of saviorism, speed, and simplicity…as if there’s an equation to solve or a prize at the end.  But society doesn’t work that way, and often building things is just hard work.  You only stick out when you screw up; most of your ideas are 78% wrong the first 8 times, but there’s something good in there; when you disappear, that means it’s working.  If being humbled isn’t exalting, you’re in the wrong business.  I decided to tape this bit up on my door:

“I understand the attraction of working outside of the US. But don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity. Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous. Go because you want to do something difficult. Don’t go because you want to talk. Go because you want to listen.”

And then…just wait.

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Moving Still

 

An exciting week of office work led up to this year’s Maghe Sakranti, which always seems to coincide with some travel experience, astrological event or, in this case, Aidan’s 8th birthday, IMG_3858which, if you think about it, is the same thing.

The main topic of my conversation with Aidan and Pascal since I arrived two weeks ago has been black forest cake. Birthday cake came in vogue in Nepal about five or six years ago – as far as I can tell, it was discovered on TV, and has been translated in to an epic mashup of east-west-birthday-wedding-puja sort of candle-lighting experience that is not to be missed. Anyway, after a hectic week of office meetings and shopping for light fixtures, I caught the last bus up to Kaskikot on Thursday to head home for Maghe Sakranti with birthday cake for Aidan.

Because of Maghe Sakranti, the bus was packed with people heading home to Kaskikot. “Kaskikot packed” means that there is no standing room left inside the bus, and additionally, the people with poor tactical skills who’ve sat in aisle seats have someone’s butt in their ribs or armpit or smushed directly onto their faces. Most definitely, all people with seats are holding either a random package, bag of tomatoes, or someone else’s child on their lap.

As a master bus-rider, I possess a hierarchical mental catalogue of exactly which nooks and crannies make for a tolerable ride relative to a shifting set of variables. I approach “Kaskikot packed” with the focus of a honing pigeon.

IMG_4380It is immediately obvious that today is a top-of-the-bus day. Air is high on my list of prioritized variables, and all of the strategically located nooks and crannies inside the bus are taken or have been invaded by the limbs and odd angles of people who are technically not using these spaces. It’s a total free-for-all. For some reason, Nepalis have an awe-inspiring tolerance for this kind of physical disarray; I on the other hand, while happy to fit myself in to a pretty small nook, need it to be evenly balanced on all sides and protected from random entry, no matter how small my zone is.

Never fear, this is situation is accounted for. I hand Aidan’s cake to the Ticket Bro – all the guys who collect money on buses are Bros of the first degree, with wiry bodies and saggy pants – and clamber up a metal frame to the roof of the bus. The Ticket Bro, who knows me well (ok, I stick out, and besides I’ve provided many unreasonable entertainment opportunities for the general bus-riding public), hands Aidan’s black forest cake up to the top of the bus. I wedge it in flat between a box of beer bottles and a floppy sack of mystery items that’s soft enough to sit on. Soon I too am wedged in evenly on all sides by other passengers, which is exactly the way I want to be. I bend my knees protectively over the cake and we lurch away. The climb to Kaskikot isn’t a long distance in miles, but it’s all up, one switchback whipping around to the next.

The air begins to rush past and in settles a familiar, soothing reeling. The bus is climbing and honking, people are sticking out every which way, we are ducking the occasional branch – FWAP! – as the trees whoosh by. A wave of exhilarating calm envelops me, soft and malleable.

There have been three accidents on this bus route since in the thirteen years I have been riding it. Each time there is a bus accident, everyone including me swears off this road, these good-for-nothing-regulations, these drivers. The police crack down on the rules; buses are improved and added to reduce passenger load. The new bus I am on today looks like a greyhound, with upholstered reclining seats. But inevitably, the people turn this bus in to a wild beast. It’s inertia.

IMG_8687It just can’t be avoided.

Which, in a way that’s hard to explain, is why it’s so calming. Like in many poor countries, there is no illusory order here: everything is paint splatter all the time, and nobody’s pretending it’s something different. Everyone is hanging on to the spinning planet with one finger, and it is still working, at least until it’s not. Over time you realize that you too are paint splatter. You might think you aren’t now. But when order falls away, all of us are wilderness.

After the tragedies that have happened on this road, I know I shouldn’t admit it’s thrilling to catch the bus just in time, climb up to the roof, and duck branches while people talk on their phones and sway side to side eating peanuts like we are on Amtrak. But it isn’t a thrill because it’s dangerous (for the record, in purely statistical terms, driving on the beltway is just as dangerous)… it’s a thrill because it doesn’t feel dangerous. It makes sense. Because we are all flying through the trees together; because chaos and order have switched places, and everything fits despite the appearance of anarchy, and we are not dead yet.

In the mean time, some racing tiger inside of me catches the trees dashing by. I can feel the grumbling pavement even from up on the roof of the bus, and the Ticket Bro heedlessly climbs up and down the side of the bus like a chimpanzee while it is whirling around a corner. The valley below us recedes, and that wild thing in me, with a racing companion to match its speed, is still.

I’ve found this pocket of tranquility in other fast places.  When I catch a seat on the back of a motorbike and take off, zipping up my jacket. When I’m flying down a path in the trees with a sickle and rope in my hand, my flip flops smacking tap-tap-tap-tap on the rocks. Occasionally I have whirled into this thing when jumping on to the subway in New York, snagging a tread of some larger tapestry in the crush of a ten-million-person city with a trillion little shards of disorder that still fit in to something bigger.

In the subway, this is a private knowing. But on this bus, the miracle is out in the open for everyone to see: unruly, electric, FWAP! It’s still working.

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As we climb the lone road up through Sarangkot and closer to Kaski, people filter out at their homes, lugging their bags and boxes and children. The Ticket Bro clambers up and tosses bags off the top of the bus, and our resting props are gradually removed. My stop is the last stop. Soon all the other passengers decide to move down inside the bus, but because I am a honing pigeon I know that none of my approved nooks inside are available yet, and I stay on top of the bus, alone with Aidan’s black forest cake. I lie down so I don’t have to worry about oncoming branches, and crowd myself in with boxes and sacks to block the breeze, and float up the road on my back, watching the night sky roll by. My thoughts spiral in and out, moving still.

Of course, I can’t see where we’re going from this position. No problem. This road only leads to one place.

*

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Memorable Trips

 

It has been six months since our post-earthquake housing projects in Archalbot and Bharte. We’re launching dental programs in or near these areas in 2016, so today Aamod needed to visit the Lamjung District government offices in Beshishar to get signatures that are required complete agreements in our new sites.  Yes, this sort of thing must be done in person in Nepal, not by fax or email or any other method, so Aamod has to travel 3 hours from Pokhara to Besishahar to get the signatures.  We decided that Dilmaya and I would accompany him to Lamjung and get out a few kilometers before Besishahar to visit The Bamboo Village in Archalbot. We wanted to see how everyone was were doing, and we also had to decide what to do about the earth bag house that didn’t get finished over the summer.

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Three good looking people suffed in to two front seats in a van to Lamung

We decided to go with local transportation.

There is a fuel shortage right now due to strikes along the Indian border, so prices for gas have skyrocketed, and most regular people are getting their cooking fuel on the black market. Transport has compensated by raising prices, by running fewer buses and taxis, and, obviously, by stuffing even more people in to the same number of car seats.

I took tons of photos last summer when Archalbot was building, so today we brought prints to give back people. I highly recommend this practice – it’s always much appreciated because until cell phones, most people had very few photos of themselves. Even now, sorting photos is always An Event. Older people will people examine each thing in the photo in great detail – the buffalo, the way their sari is tussled, the water pot in the background – and will ask questions like, “Only one of my sons is in this photo. Where is the other one?”

The first house we arrived at belongs to one of the last houses we helped with.  Last June there were about ten people with a few babies living in the tiny house hidden behind the clothes line.  Now they are still living in their new house and it looks great.

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While we were talking with this family, people from Archalbot started to notice us and come shouting excitedly down the road.  Remember Uttam’s sister in law, and the day she and her husband left to go cut bamboo after much cajoling?  She came bouncing down the hill shouting out to Dilmaya and me.

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The next house we came to was Uttam’s family – I admit this house is tied with the Golden Cottage for my favorite of all 150+ houses we helped with after the earthquake. I was thrilled to discover that, while living in the shelter they built last summer, Uttam and his brothers rebuilt houses on their own land. Just four days before we arrived, they had relocated the tin roof we provided on to their new stone house, which has yet to be completed and plastered. What a fantastic example of everyone pitching in the thing they have, and of the dignified resiliency that is so characteristic of Nepali people.

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July 2015

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June 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uttam's family recently moved their shelter tin on to this new permanent house.

Jan 2016 – Uttam’s family recently moved their shelter tin on to this new permanent house.

Uttam’s older brother had also rebuilt his house – so the whole complex has moved back on to the family’s land in six months time. I was really pleased to see that the older brother’s new house is made from plastered bamboo chim – the same building style we pressed people to use when we provided roofs for the original shelters. This house is actually cheaper and far more earthquake resistant than a heavy stone house (you can see Uttam’s stone house in the background).

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We spent a lot of time giving people photos of themselves. This activity produced too many great moments to choose from!

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Overall, the houses that we helped people build in Archalbot look good. In a few cases, people are living in them full-time. In many, they are sleeping in their bamboo shelters while cooking and storing belongings in their damaged houses. In a few, the shelters remain but aren’t being used, either because the family has relocated altogether or just decided not to actually stay in it. Kripa’s family used their tin to rebuild the buffalo shelter where we glamped.

Glamping, June 2015

Buffalo & Goat Hotel, Jan 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The earthbag house is an interesting story. Our role here was as facilitator – my friend Robin had training and materials to build one earthbag home, and we provided a connection with a community that needed a house. I documented this process last summer right up to the point we had to put the building on hold for the monsoon, with promises to return this winter.

Well here we are this winter. The family with the half-earthbag, half-bamboo house has built a pretty impressive collection of houses out of it and they are living there full time.

There are many things I have to say about the earthbag house, so I’ll write about that separately. One of the things we had to figure out on this visit was whether or not we had enough manpower in Archalbot to call Robin back with tools and supplies to finish the house….and the answer was no. So this earthbag/bamboo house will stay as it is, which is a bit frustrating, but that’s that.

After tea and snacks back at our HQ in Kripa’s house, Dilmaya and I left Archalbot and walked back down to Bote Orar. We crossed the bridge that has replaced the one with a loose cable that held us up in the muddy road with a ton of corrugated tin for an hour and a half last summer. We got ourselves some knockoff Redbull in homage to the gallons of knockoff Redbull that kept us going during those hot months.

Aamod came reeling down the road from Besishahar and we clambored in to another crowded, swervy van. As the day became later we and switched to a bus in Dhumre, we settled in for the last two hours of our journey.

Yes, this is where it happens.  The inevitable road travel story.

As it turned out, somewhere up the road people were striking because an accident had struck someone in the road yesterday. There was a blockade that went for miles.

When we reached the blockade it was already dark out.  Our choices were to either wait it out until some undetermined time in the bus, or to start walking.  So we got out of the bus and set out past the endless line of stopped vehicles, some with people in them waiting for the 100% unpredictable hour or day that the blockade would be opened. The highway wound its way alternately through small towns and the middle of nowhere. We were still over an hour’s car ride from Pokhara.

There were still motorbikes coming by, so we made a plan to divide up.  Dilmaya and I hopped on the back of the first bike that could fit both of us, and rode it up to the mouth of the traffic jam. We waited there until Aamod caught up behind us half an hour later on another bike, and then we walked the last half mile or so to where people where crowded around the usual tires and logs blocking the road.  Behind the blockage was a group of women was sitting in on the pavement, not talking much. Some were fiddling on their phones. It occurred to me that they had probably just lost a family member or close community member on this stretch of road just 24 hours earlier – a strange contrast to the miles and miles of hassle that stretched out from either side of their circle.

Now we started past cars lined up in the opposite direction. Just to be clear: we were not a walkable distance from home.  Even by Nepali standards.

All of a sudden a jeep began rolling out past the innermost barriers of the blockade, headed in the direction we needed to go.  I turned around and saw it was an ambulance.

We sprung in to action. Aamod stopped the jeep and spoke with the driver who, understandably, told us that he could not let us hitch a ride in an ambulance. Aamod got on the phone with his brother in law, who is a doctor, and I stalled by keeping one arm in the rolled down window of the ambulance and talking to the drivers in Nepali.

“Sir, what ever shall we do? It’s quite cold out. We can’t possibly sleep here in the road.”

“I don’t know what to tell you- I’m not allowed to take people in an ambulance.”

“I see I see, but this is an unusual circumstance….” Etc.

I keep at this until Aamod has his brother in law on the phone, which he hands to the ambulance driver. Who then opens the back of the ambulance – and in we go.

And thus our day ends with us bouncing along in the back of this ambulance back to Pokhara. At one point, we drive through a checkpoint, and I lie down with my arm over my face, feeling slightly guilty, while Dilmaya sits next to me looking concerned and wearing a surgical mask that she has with her for general dusty road travel purposes. We roll through the checkpoint.

“Can I get up now?”

“Lie down! Not yet.”

It’s 9pm when we get to Pokhara; the ambulance driver amicably drops me off within walking distance from our office.

As Dilmaya, who was my partner in crime for the entire two-month adventure of our post-earthquake housing extravaganza, said: “Laura miss, our road trips are always very memorable.”

Oh, and one other thing – remember how the point of this trip was that Aamod was going to get papers signed by the district officials in Besishahar?

Yeah, well, there was some kind of meeting today and all the government employees were out of the office. So we have to go back to Besishahar for the signatures again.

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The early morning road from Pokhara to Besishahar

 

The Walk Home

 

There’s nothing like my first visit to Kaskikot after having recently arrived in Nepal. Granted, sometimes there’s a year in between visits, and in this case I was here just last summer after a long winter stay. But still – today did not disappoint.

I woke up to the charming experience of Pascal throwing his arm on my head. Let’s face it: this room where Didi and Bhinaju live is too small for all of us now, but we are persevering while the house is being built. It is the nights when I share a bed with Aidan and Pascal that I question my judgment in teaching them taekwondo while they are awake.

While Didi made tea, we all lay in bed debating whose fault it was that we’d all spent the night practicing kickball rather than sleeping. Then we documented our morning in selfies.

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Late morning, I met up with some of our graduated Gaky’s Light Fellows for lunch. It was so great to see everyone and hear what they are doing. Sandip is marketing for an online news outlet. Ramesh is deciding where to apply for his bachelor’s in journalism. Nirajan is in Kathmandu, working for Teach for Nepal, and Nischal is entering his second year of bachelor’s. Umesh and Narayan have a solid paid gig singing traditional music each night, and Narayan has his own radio show. Bhagwan is a residential supervisor in a school hostel. When Puja and Asmita finally got there a few hours late, we all made plans to go boating later this week.

Next was getting up to Kaski. With the fuel shortages, this is more challenging than it’s been, as the bus is running infrequently. Not to worry!  I caught the back of a motorcycle ride and then secured a taxi to the bottom of “the jungle path” that climbs straight up from the valley to the house. Forget the bus, man.

So first of all, at the beginning of this path you have to cross over the Gandaki river, which is usually dry at this time of year, but swells in the summer and fall. We used to wade through it, but a few years back it got this nice concrete bridge. So I’m crossing the bridge, and…it just stops in midair. The last half of the bridge is suddenly no longer there.

It takes me a few minutes to negotiate the drop over the ledge of the bridge with a torn ACL in my right knee that won’t let me jump down on to the rocky bed five or six feet below. I make my way over, progress to the bank a short way away, and there at the bottom of the path up to Kaskikot is this leathery guy resting next to a bundle of wood. He looks kind of resigned. I chat with him for a minute and then he asks for help lifting the bundle of wood.

“My son is really strong, he can carry this kind of load,” the man says woefully. “It’s just pretty heavy.”

Nevertheless, the bundle must be lifted, so we give it a try- fortunately I am more qualified than your average random American to hoist a bundle of wood on to someone’s back so it can be slung from their head and carried across a dry riverbed – but it is too heavy, he can’t get upright under the weight. He sets it back down, resumes his seat in the road, and looks resigned again.

“What’s with this bridge?” I ask. “Half of the bridge is missing.”

“I know!” He says. “The other night, I drank up a full belly and came here and fell right off of it.” He points to his forehead and says, “I got a bit of a bump right here.”

IMG_6126“I hear you,” I reply. “I’m not even drunk, and I nearly fell off the bridge too.”

“Just went right over,” he recalls.

“Should we try this bundle of wood again?” I ask.

“Ok, but you have to come around the front and give me a hand.”

I heave the wood on to his back again and this time give him a hand to brace against as a counter balance, and he stands up.

“Thanks, bye,” he says, as if it makes sense that I appeared for this interaction.  Off he goes.

Partway up the jungle path I run in to two kids coming down.  They stop me.

“Where are you from?” they ask me in English.

“America. Where are you from?”

“Puranchaur,” the little boy answers.

“Oh, I’m going to Puranchaur on Tuesday,” I say. It’s one of the villages where we launched last year. I ask what grades they are in: four and eight. “So,” I say to the fourth grader, “do you brush your teeth at school?”

“Yep,” he answers.

“Huh. For about a year, right?”

“A little less than a year,” he says.

“Cool,” I answer, and down the path they go.

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Finally I come out the top of the jungle path and emerge at the water tap in Kaskikot.

“LAURIEEEE!” the ladies cry. “Here you are, just in time for wood cutting to start tomorrow! Last year you came to cut wood, and this year you’re here to cut wood!”

YES. This is the gold medal of the Welcome Olympics. And yes, when I go to cut wood, I understand that it is a memorable experience for all of us.

On my way to the house, a few other people – completely independently – express their approval that I have arrived just in time for wood chopping. I am winning at Nepal.

At last, I drop over the spine of the ridge and there is home. Baby O’Neil is tethered outside, her wet nose pointed quizzically my way; she has grown some brown fur.  The hillside is dotted with jubilant yellow mustard flowers.  There is the familiar line of the Annapurnas rising in to the dusky sky, distant and close. No matter the path that brings me to this piece of land, it always appears the same way, luminous and inevitable.

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On Fractured Temples

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Normally when I leave Nepal, there is an extended process of departure – physical, psychological, emotional. But after being here for most of the last six months, minus six weeks in the middle, I ended up leaving with no procedure at all.

Actually I should amend that a little, since the morning of my flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu, I badgered this hairdresser lady – a friend of a friend – into showing up at 5:30am in her salon to straighten my hair for three and a half hours. That’s right! For two months I’ve been hauling around the hills of Nepal in the hot sun in my flip flops, renting tractors and sleeping under tarps and tin, carrying gurneys of rock with old ladies and filling up rice sacks with dirt to build an earth-bag house, sitting in hot stuffy buses for 5 hours and getting stuck in the mud and walking the last hour in the rain…and the one thing I HAD to do before I suddenly left Nepal to fly home for a funeral was get my hair permanently straightened. Why, you want to know? Because in the U.S. it costs $250 and in Nepal it costs $20. A deal is a deal. And besides, there’s nothing like a good hair day to lift a girl’s spirits.

IMG_5188So in the middle of everything – the whirlwind of our new office setup, the excel sheet full of names and bundles of tin and numbers of people, the scheduling of a planning workshop for our staff, setting up a new financial system – I dropped it all for my last three hours in town and had my hair straightened at 5:30 am. Then I said goodbye to Aidan and Pascal on their way to school, and then to Didi and Bhinaju, who took me to the airport. I didn’t get to say bye to the kids at the children’s home so I bought them some treats and told Ranjita to say how sorry I was I’d missed them, but I’ll be back in 6 months. I’d said goodbye to Aamaa and Hadjur Aama the night before, in Kaski.

And the next thing I knew, I was flying back to Kathmandu, in that reverse warp that happens when I leave Nepal. Except about six times faster. Normally on my way out I have a few days in Kathmandu and they are mostly filled with meetings. This time I had just a few hours between my flight from Pokhara and my flight home.

Everything looks different in Kathmandu than it did when I arrived on May 13, less than 48 hours after the second earthquake (remember the second earthquake???), when the city was filled with bright blue and orange tents clustered at intersections, and all the people were quivering like leaves, waiting for another hit. Things seem to have settled in to a process that is serving as the new norm. IMG_0904And the truth is that if you landed here now, from anywhere, you’d be amazed to find that the apocalyptic situation that’s on the TV is not how things look. That’s because the collapsed buildings that the photographers zoomed in on aren’t the whole story. In fact, they were the tremor after the earthquake of poverty and poor governance, which is too chronic and undramatic to capture our attention, but remains most of the problem.

But the real difference is me.

When I arrived here two months ago, this situation felt vast and unknowable and as tragic as my imagination could make it. Now I can locate myself within it. Our piece, which will ultimately total around 150 homes and piles of stories, was small but meaningful. I have a sense of how people are moving forward with their lives one step at a time (although I should add that during these months, I met only one family that had lost people in the earthquake). Which is not to trivialize what’s been destroyed – only to say that, in the beginning, when everything collapses, it’s impossible to imagine a different future.   All the unseen things are terrible and insurmountable in your mind’s eye, and you can’t conceive of the steps between here and there. I couldn’t even visualize “there.” Now I feel like can at least be at peace with a changing target, because that shifty feeling of uncertainty and failure is a known thing, not a shadow. And so far, we’ve done our part despite it.

My last few hours in Nepal were perfect. I met up with two friends from the U.S., both doing doctoral work in Nepal, both fluent in Nepali. We walked down to Patan Durbar Square, my favorite section of old city, known not only for its temples but also its artisans and craftsmen. Patan is one of the areas that was featured heavily in the days after the earthquake, when the only photos of villages were from the air.

On this last afternoon, the rains held off, making way for a cool golden evening, the light waving in the folds of cloth that ripple along the edges of the temples. We sat high up on the foundation of what used to be a temple, observing the courtyards that were filled with people eating ice cream, buying balloons, whispering on dates, playing. Between the scaffolding that surrounds the damaged buildings, people were busy living in the very space that, I know full well, much of the world sees in its own mind as a pile of dust and despair.

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My thoughts drifted to conversations that Anne and I have had about the beauty and strangeness of Pashupathi Temple, Nepal’s holiest cremation site, where passers-by sit across the river and watch pyres burn during the day and night. Sometimes there are kids playing soccer, or folks out enjoying the sun or the beauty of this thousands-year-old place of pilgrimage. What’s always amazed us about this is that people can play soccer near death. Or go on dates near death. Or just gaze, for no reason at all, at death.

Of course, it’s there anyway, even if you’re not looking at it. And once you get used to the idea that you do not have to avert your gaze from a pyre, or from a mother wailing over a pyre, everything else looks different too. Suddenly that moment belongs, in some way, to everyone.

IMG_0956There is no caution tape around Patan Durbar Square, or even around the base of this foundation that used to have a temple on it. The reconstruction is public and unbashful, but it’s also not desperate. In a courtyard tucked away to the left, bricks are patiently stacked up and a young couple is talking furtively under a tree.

But who would think to take their picture for the news?

I think maybe, in the sterilized West, it is hard to believe in loss unless it looks like something we wouldn’t feel right resting our gaze upon in person. We see the spectacle and only the spectacle, because cracks don’t mean much, but the un-witnessable speaks to our understanding of destruction, and insulates it from the safe and organized world we know. But that’s impossible in this part of the world. Things are lost so often, so publicly, and with so little fanfare. All the falling and building is mixed up together with the balloons and scaffolding; the moment belongs to everyone.  So it is still okay to play.

We sat for two hours with all the other people doing normal things on the bald foundation of this temple, looking out over the square, talking in the warm breeze, and watching the balloons and ice cream and couples and pilgrims swirling around these fractured structures, which are on to the next chapter of their lives with minimal complaint or ceremony.

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When I boarded the plane to come home, my pants still had thorns in them from Tripureswor, Ward #6. These feisty little guys are so hard to get out you have to either pluck them one by one, or have a couple of ladies grooming them off you with a sickle like a baby chimpanzee.  I’ve been groomed a few times in the course of these last weeks, but I just kept walking through the thorns and re-collecting them, and now I’m taking them back to America.

Classy, right?

Hey, my hair looked good.

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Beautiful Things

We are building houses of many kinds around here, one of which is our own. In between trips out to Lamjung, I’ve been slowly setting up our new office. We’re moving from a one-room office to a four-room office, and anybody who knows me will know that I can labor for weeks or months over small decisions, and filling up a new space requires an infinite amount of decision-making. It took me three weeks to choose carpet, and then the people who came to lay down the carpet did a really bad job, cutting jagged lines and making a mess of it. I had the store send them back and then stood there while they cut everything in straight lines. As they left we were chatting, and I asked them not to take it too hard. Americans, you know?

If I’m honest, my obsession over our new office setup isn’t just about an neurotic issue with straight lines. These walls are going to be ours for some time to come, I hope, and a home where we chase a vision of some kind. And after over a decade of sharing spaces – from dressers to offices – there is a part of me that feels the slightly daunting emptiness and possibility of this unfinished office. The prospect that it will be a space I designed, and that when we walk in, it will feel like it has something of me in it. I realize this is pretty indulgent, but the compulsion is real. 

Anyone who’s ever worked with a contractor knows that anyone in any country can obsess endlessly over both important and insignificant issues of build, and contractors can correspondingly obsess not enough over these things. But I do feel confident saying that Nepal takes certain aspects of haphazard interior design to a new level. The kind of care people put in to their planting, or their outfits when taking a photo, or cooking, or weaving mats, just doesn’t get put in to home decoration. Modern housing in Nepal is quite compatible with leaky faucets and doors that don’t quite fit their frames and paint assortments of ecstatic colors that overlap lazily from one feature to the next. So for better or worse, I’ve begun to lord over each poor unlucky soul who comes here to put something together, just to make sure our work space doesn’t become an accumulation of unloved creations.

IMG_5081So it’s not exactly going fast, but it’s going.

One funny quirk of our new space is this sink outside the bathroom, which is just hanging out in full view of the rest of the office. Someone suggested that I get a local bamboo artisan to create a simple screen to put here, so that people coming out of the bathroom would have some privacy while using the sink.

So last week I asked Shiva to go to Mahendrapul with me and stop in at one of the bamboo furniture places. He pulled his bike over at the first one we happened to see, where there was a young man Umesh.

Off all the things we need to set up in the office, the bathroom screen isn’t the one I was most concerned about. But when I set about explaining what we needed, Umesh and I began to examine various chairs and tables and hangers he had in his store of handmade bamboo furniture, organizing designs I liked. He was extremely attentive and enthusiastic, and as our conversation went on, he couldn’t help himself from admitting that he’d opened his shop just two weeks ago, after fifteen years of working for someone else.

“I told them, I can make anything,” he said, looking like he’d kind of been bursting to tell somebody this. “My hands are full of skills. I said, ‘Why are you keeping me down here?’ And I left and opened this shop.”

Being the choosy perfectionist that I am, I could easily have told Umesh thank you very much and moved on to the next place so he could get his business going with a less high-maintenance customer. He quoted me $90 for the screen – as expensive as one of our desks, three times as much as the chairs he sells. Way to raise the bar, my friend.

Instead, I went with him to our office so he could look at the space itself. And after all the discussing we’d done, I waved my hands and said, “Ok, the main thing is it has to be opaque from here to here. Other than that, do whatever you think will look nice. Make it your own style. By Umesh.”

“I’m going to make you a beautiful screen,” Umesh proclaimed. “This is a very new idea – it will be first of its kind in Nepal.”

Four days later he called to tell me it was ready. He put in in a taxi at his own cost and brought it to our office, and when I arrived to meet him, he was already standing in the road with the screen next to him, trying to hold his smile in.

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This bamboo screen is no doubt my single favorite thing in our new office. It is absolutely gorgeous and in the U.S. would sell for a few hundred dollars. It has the charming quality of being made from bamboo during a period of months where I’ve been, oddly enough, spending inordinate amounts of time in the hot sun encouraging and supporting the creation of bamboo homes in post-earthquake Nepal. But most importantly, it was created with a great deal of pride and love. One side is bent a little, the natural curvature of the bamboo, a perfect imperfection. What started off as a temporary wall to enclose a bathroom became this magnificent piece of artwork.  And as we were all discussing later, you should have some things that you keep around just because they are beautiful.

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Before Umesh left, he couldn’t help admitting another thing, which was that, actually, I’d been his very first customer. I said he was our very first artisian in our first professional office, and that I expected his career was going to go quite well.

“I’m never going to forget you,” he said as he left.   And I said, “I’m pretty sure I won’t forget you either.”

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The Long Road to Tin

 

IMG_0105Everyone predicted a tin shortage in Nepal, and now it’s here. Just last week, I got two bundles of tin for Uttam’s family in the morning and delivered it to them in the afternoon. Now we are ready to bring 53 bundles of tin to our two villages, Archalbot and Bharte, and we’ve been trying to get tin for five days. I have all kinds of random new phone numbers stored in my phone – in addition to all the people we’ve met in the communities where we working, I now have contacts for Tin Shop Dhumre, Tin Shop Lamjung, Tin Shop Udipur…

Last tuesday night at about 6pm, I finally found a hardware store, on reference from one of the guys we’ve gotten to know in Archalbot, that had the 50 bundles of 12ft. tin we needed.  They had a tractor and everything. We’ve been putting people off in our villages for about five days, so we confirmed our plans on the phone and got ready to go the next morning.

Dilmaya and I set out in a cab from Pokhara at 6am. On the way, we decided to provide $300 in cash relief to Bal Kumari to help her repay her loans, because I shared a post about her on facebook and people offered to support her. So we had to find an ATM that would work in Dhumre. Two of them wouldn’t take my card, and finally Dilmaya was able to withdraw $300 and I shoved it in my bag and we were off again.

We arrived at the tin shop in Udipur, just north of Bote Orar before you get to Besishahar, and things started to get crazy. First, our cab driver demanded more than the fare he’d agreed to. Then, the tractor driver seemed like he was never going to show up. But things got really funky when the shop owner suddenly informed us that the tin would be $10 cheaper per bundle than she’d promised me on the phone the night before. In rupee terms, that’s an extra 53,000 rupees – enough to cover ten entire houses according to her original price.

I normally keep my southasian cool pretty well, but I was enraged. This is exactly what the government said wouldn’t happen when others said it would happen. And our hands were totally tied: we had fifty families who had built homes and, after we’d told them to sit tight each day for a week, were waiting for us to show up with roofs because we’d totally promised this time it was for sure. Today.

There’s also the blinding fury of watching people casually do something awful, such as profit off of the plight of earthquake victims and manipulate social workers encumbered by a tin shortage.  Certain things will really light your fire, if you know what I mean.

Stuck between an major rock and a hard place, called our pal Pradeep, the head official of shelter relief for Lamjung district, to explain our plight. Among other things, he told us to check the weight of the tin. Turns out that even 26 guage tin comes in all different weights and thicknesses. When we went and looked, the tin was only 42kg…lightweight. It folded like tinfoil.  They were selling it at the price of medium weight tin which is 25% stronger.

Reluctantly, Dilmaya and I realized we had to give up our plans for the day and drive up to Besishahar, Lamjung headquarters. We’d spoken repeatedly with tin vendors there on the phone, but it was impossible to get any straight answers. We were going to have to sit down in person at a tin vendor and wait it out, even if it meant calling all of our contacts in their villages, again, and telling them, again, to trust us.  We were still coming.  Really.

Before we left Udipur, we walked up the street and took down the name and number of another tin vendor named Sagar. He seemed like an honest guy. In any case, we sure had learned all the right questions to ask, and we needed all hands on deck.  The way the tin situation is working is that vendors in this region, which is in central nepal along the edge of the earthquake’s epicenter in Gorkha, drive about 10 hours south to Chitwan to pick up tin near the border in India.  Then they drive it back up here.  Often, they can’t say for sure what kind of tin they’ll be returning with until they get there and see what’s in stock.  That’s what Sagar was up to later that day.   If you’re lucky, you can order ahead of time and there will be a delivery of exactly the thing you need, which is what we were trying to do.

IMG_0106So that’s how we found ourselves in this shop, Raja Enterprises, in Besishahar, where we sat for about three hours, watching the owner Rajesh make calls about tin. And at 5pm, when we’d finally secured and ordered the tin, and it wasn’t going to come for a week, we were ready to get in a bus back to pokhara, successful on one hand and defeated on the other.

Then my phone buzzed. It was Sagar from Udipur – the guy we met in the morning. He was driving to Chitwan to pick up tin and could get us the 50 bundles we needed by the day after tomorrow.

Reboot. Reschedule. We reordered the tin from Sagar. Plus some other items of a different size from Rajesh in the shop where we’d spent three hours. By now we knew our list of households, the size of their tin, the number of people in their homes and the areas of these villages they live in so well that we were referring to them by their first names. FIFTY OF THEM.

Dilmaya got a call from a friend and said wearily, “I’m ready to open a tin business.”

So this all meant that we were going to stay the night in Besishahar, and hang around tomorrow, because there was no point in going all the way back to Pokhara only to turn around again tomorrow night.

It was late evening and we were absolutely wiped out. On the way home, we passed a steel-working shop, and suddenly I had an inspiration.  After all, we had a day to kill in Besishahar, and this place looked like a Willy Wonka Dreamland of junk turned wonder.

I went in and described my imaginary safe-box. “Is this something you could make?” I asked.

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A Willy Wonka Dreamland of Junk Turned Wonder

A Willy Wonka Dreamland of Junk Turned Wonder

Coordination Tactics

On Tuesday, the first thing I woke up to was a call from an unknown number at 6:45am. I silenced my phone but got three more calls from the same number, so I picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Hello.”

“Who is this?” I could already tell who it was.

“Archalbot.” It was the little boy, Kushal, from our visit to Archalbot yesterday.

“Hello Archalbot,” I said. “How are you?

“Fine.”

I waited. “Ok….Well….I’m fine too.”

“Ok.”

“All right then, talk to you later?”

“Ok.”

“Bye, Archalbot,” I said.

“Bye!”

Later in the morning, Dilmaya and I debriefed with Robin and Colin over coffee. We reconfirmed the plan we’d come up with yesterday. Dilmaya was to call our main contact, Kripa, and I’d coordinate with the government. If everything was organized, we’d start Thursday.

IMG_5049I’ve been here three and a half weeks and I haven’t spent a single day in Kaski. Wednesday is millet planting day, so I promised Aamaa that I would take a day off from coordinating housing outreach and tooth brushing programs to come churn up dirt between the corn stalks and shove little millet seedlings in to it. I spent the rest of Tuesday running around, planning for a day in Kaskikot away from internet like it was year on Mars. Finally I ran to the bus park at 5:30pm, just as a downpour began.

The bus left an hour late, at 6:30pm. That’s where I was when I realized that I was supposed to submit my enrollment for graduate school classes in September at exactly 6:45pm my time, 9am EST. If you don’t do this right when registration opens, it’s likely that the classes or sections you want will fill up within an hour or two.

I tried to log in from my phone, but not surprisingly, the cell connection wasn’t strong enough. So I called my parents to see if they could log in to my account from in Maryland and click “submit.” I got my dad on the phone, but in order to log in he needed a password. And the meticulously written document I’d made before I left for Nepal with all my logins and passwords in it had evaporated from my computer. I searched and searched and it was nowhere to be found.

So I hung up and waited a precious 45 minutes until I got to Kaski, where there’s one hotel that sometimes has internet, and my password is saved in my browser so I can log in without the missing document. I got to the Kaski hotel and the internet wasn’t working. I called my dad back while the hotel owner tried to restart the internet, which took about 15 minutes. Then the UConn registration site let me take every step except for actually hitting “submit,” because the site itself was having technical problems, which I now knew because my dad was on the phone with the registrar.

Which is to say that by this point my dad was holding the phone up between the registrar in Hartford and me in Kaskikot, while we discussed options for resetting my password, which required me explaining to my dad that the registrar was saying she was going to send him an email with a reset link; now I’m walking home from the hotel to the house so Aamaa doesn’t think I’ve fallen off a mountain, and the registrar needs to get someone else on the phone so she adds yet another person to this phone chain. Then my iphone won’t download the new password, and then when it does, and I read it over the phone from our house in Kaski to the person four phones away in Hartford, it gets rejected.

It’s like the Nepal jeep travel version of online class registration.

In the end, the registrar’s office took pity on us and just overrode their system to register me for my classes. It was 9:30pm here. Aamaa and finally sit down for dinner. Bring it on, millet planting season.

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Looking for Shelter

 

I woke up tired today. Partly because I stayed up so late writing, and partly because we’re all sleeping on the floor of the living room by the front door.

But I had an interesting morning. I made my way to an outdoor lot full of incomprehensible discarded piles of things, where Dr. Kiran’s group, SXJ-95, was meeting about their transitional housing unit, a clean white bubble sitting in the middle of the mess. It was really fascinating to hear how they’d developed this design by researching other units, most notably the post-earthquake shelters used in Pakistan. I’m going to save the details, because I hope to produce a quick audio slideshow about it.

IMG_8773While I was there watching, two government officials came to inspect the prototype, and discuss minor modifications so that it could be used to replace a destroyed Health Post in rural Lalitpur. By the time we left, the builders were getting back to work on the second unit, with a plan to drive the pieces to Lalitpur and set up a shelter within two days.

This has really got me thinking about transitional housing as a possible use for our relief fund. I plan to either donate it to a group doing really valuable work in rural areas, or finding a project that we can do well. It has been such a chore to procure and deliver tents – which are getting more and more expensive – and it’s frustrating to know that, while obviously better for people than no tent, this is such a short-term improvement. Plus, each time a transitional shelter is placed in the field, it’s an opportunity to get feedback and improve the design, so if we can collaborate with a group like Kiran’s, perhaps we could contribute to the larger good in terms of research and design.

SXJ 95’s unit costs about $500, but they put a lot of thought in to user feel and aesthetics. On one hand, this means we could potentially offer rural families upgraded transitional housing; on the other, we couldn’t afford very many. I plan to keep in touch with Kiran about their test in Lalitpur and maybe see if this design could be used for another health post or school classroom. Here’s a recent article by Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the UK, on the importance of reinstating schooling for basic child safety and welfare (sorry for the sensationalist title).

I left the crazy stuff lot with its shelter bubble, and my next stop was the Ministry of Health and Population. The World Health Organization holds bi-weekly meetings in collaboration with the Nepali government, where all of the major players in town for recovery – large iNGOs, foreign medical teams, etc. – come to share information. These meetings are divided in to clusters, such as Health, Communications, Shelter, Security etc. I went to the Health Cluster meeting.

This is the opposite end of the spectrum from the WHR’s and SXJ-95’s of the relief effort. Kiran dropped me off, and I hopped out of his car into a parking lot full of oversized, logo’ed SUVs. I made my way to a packed meeting hall – probably close to 100 people of various nationalities. I sat in the back of the room and scanned the emblazoned vests in front of me: World Vision, Save the Children, AmeriCares, International Medical Corps. Japan, Switzerland, Canada…and then in the back, some straggling foreigners like me, probably there to get the lay of the land.

IMG_8789The meeting was led by the WHO rep to Nepal, Dr. Lin Aung, with government representatives in attendance. I had missed the first 20 minutes or so, but listened to some updated figures, and then attendees were invited to share what they’d been doing. That part seemed a little odd. They would announce the name of an area – “Sindhupalchowk?” and then various groups would stand up and say what they had been doing in Sindhupalchowk since the last meeting. It was more information-sharing than strategizing – but maybe these groups have other methods that they are using for truly coordinating their efforts.

After the meeting, I went to go talk to Dr. Aung. Ironically, I was trying to meet him all winter because I thought he’d be a good person to know for Kaski Oral Health, and I was never able to get in touch since I’m rarely in Kathmandu. But when I introduced myself, he turned out to be a very friendly and genuine guy. He gave me five minutes of undivided attention, even though another half dozen people were waiting to talk with him.

I asked what he thought a small organization like mine in Pokhara could do to pitch in to the relief effort. Like others, he said we should be thinking medium and long-term, which is where multilateral agencies aren’t nearly as agile or embedded. He said that with our community ties, we should focus on counseling and psycho-emotional support.

I said, “We don’t know anything about post-disaster counseling.”

He said that the psycho-social cluster is developing protocols for this kind of thing and gave me an email address where I could access this info.

All of which tells me that, for better or worse, coordination is almost completely at the discretion of aid providers. I think – and you could argue that this makes sense under the circumstances –things are really set up such that, in order to find the best way to participate, organizations large and small have to make a point of reaching out.

I’m not sure why I’m a little hung up on this. But I suppose we’d like to think in a humanitarian crisis of this nature, somebody has the answers and can tell us all what to do – and maybe somebody should know. But the basic fact remains that everybody is winging it to some degree, and I can’t argue this is exactly anyone’s fault. It seems like it’s really one of the cruelties of the whole situation.  The real blame lies in the injustices of the past that led to poverty and bad planning and lack of security, not in the present where nature took over. In any case, it seems like coordinated strategic planning is largely a matter of self-discipline.

Before I left for Pokhara, I went to visit a friend who is the CEO of Teach for Nepal. Most of their teaching fellows were there for a day of counseling with social workers from Israel, experienced at working with disaster trauma. I learned that one of TFN’s young teachers perished in Sindhupalchowk. The day of the earthquake, my friend and her husband were unable to call a helicopter to Sindhupalchowk, so they drove 5 hours to get there and dig through rubble themselves.  It was out there that they realized they’d actually lost her.  Now they are left with continued aftershocks and their other 89 fellows to send back out to their schools.

Everyone is spinning.

By the time I got on the plane to Pokhara I admit I felt pretty down. I had also spoken with my friend’s husband who has worked on a shelter that costs just $100 and might be a good option – we could potentially provide an entire community of about 100 -200 families with safer housing while they rebuild. But everyone is so hurt, psychologically and otherwise. The scale of rebuilding that’s needed is really hard for me to wrap my head around. I really just wanted all of it to go away.

At the airport in Pokhara, Prem was waiting for me. And as we crossed the road, Aidan was on the other side sticking his head out the taxi window, shiny as a stamp, his cheeky toothless grin lighting up the whole city. Pascal insisted on sitting in my lap for the seven-minute car ride. I gave them some super-sized squirt guns and unloaded the rest of a bag of Reese’s Pieces.

We went out into the late afternoon Pokhara sun, and walked to a plot of land up on a hill, where leveling strings are stretched across deep foundation holes in the ground. Prem and Didi are building their first house.

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For anyone wishing to support Dr. Kiran’s group, SXJ-95, you can do so here: http://bit.ly/1ReQ8gj.

Teach for Nepal is providing relief in their working areas, and will have a special focus on rebuilding schools. You can support them at http://nepalrelief.teachfornepal.org.