EDITORS NOTE: Back in late May, just as this post was ready to be published, so many things happened, frontlined by the tragic murder of George Floyd and the uprisings against racial injustice that followed. All of my blog posts were delayed in coming weeks, which became months of more surprises, transitions, public reckoning, and adjustment. So for now, thanks for reading along as I catch up on unpublished entries from the intervening time.
Here we all are nearly two months in to this bizarre reality. The team in Nepal have all been working from home, and we meet daily for a morning and evening call. I join the evening call in Nepal every day at my 7:15am in Connecticut, and getting up each day for our call has been the ordering event of my American quarantine experience, forcing me to maintain a routine that starts early each morning with human connection on the other side of the world.
The number of Covid cases reported in Nepal is still low, but major cities are on complete lockdown, with police in the streets. In Kaskikot and most of our rural working areas, it seems people are going about their daily business – corn planting season has just ended – but transportation and commerce are mostly shut down. There is a worry that Covid cases may only be starting to hit a rise now, as the first deaths have just occurred; but it is hard to know how the lack of testing, reporting and accessibility to hospitals in so much of the country plays in to the accuracy of data on case prevalence.
One particularly interesting discovery is that Nepal seems to have largely based its quarantine strategy on an extremely well-rehearsed protocol for political shut downs. Political strikes have been the main style of public dissent (or social control, depending on your point of view) for the last 25 years in Nepal. When a strike, or “bandh” (“closing”) is instituted, transportation, schools and businesses are closed, people mostly stay home, and if you need to go somewhere, you walk. Depending on who has called the strike, and the level of power and uncertainty involved, police may patrol the streets to ask what business you are out for and decide whether or not to send you back home.
And for the moment, it seems this is more or less the same strategy that has been enthusiastically deployed for Covid prevention.
On the plus side, Nepali people are pretty used to the bandh-style quarantine. Back when I first started visiting Nepal in the early 2000’s during the civil war, bhandhs were imposed almost weekly by either the Maoists or the government. After the overthrow of the Monarchy in 2006, a notable effect was a bandh-free-for-all whereby any sub group with a pending discontent of any kind would call for a strike: drivers striked to protest fuel prices, teachers striked to protest salaries. In 2012, a series of strikes broke out across the country when the Parliament was trying to move to a federalist political system, and ethnic groups as small as 150 people called for closings to demand representation in a new state constitution. One sub-group would strike one day and everything would be closed, and the next day, everything would stay closed but now on behalf of the responding strike by another sub-group. And because bhandhs are shut downs (not simply a refusal to work), these protests were widely understood to mean that the entire public was to stay home. So everybody would just stay in their houses or go for short walks until everyone with something to say was done striking.
With some exceptions, that is—such as the Gurung strike in Pokhara during the 2012 series, which involved both policed closures and exuberant Gurung dancing and singing at the empty traffic intersection in Mahendrapul. Which was followed later in the week by a Brahamin strike and corresponding displays of cultural force.
All of which is to say, in Nepal coronavirus has met the Olympic World Champions of self-quarantine. However I’d like to also report that for the sake of the global pandemic, a few fantastic additions have been made. Topping the charts, we have these people-catcher-thingies on long poles. Really. See for yourself. This terrific solution ensures police don’t have to potentially touch covid-y pedestrians who are found to be walking without cause or ID, and I am so glad it has had occasion to be invented and put on the internet.
As to our daily team meetings: in the odd dream of a halted, people-catcher filled world, with all primary health care either paused or redirected to coronavirus response, the tinny voices of my colleagues over Viber each morning has helped to maintain a sense of movement while most of our work and so much of the world stands still. We’ve challenged each other to home exercise goals and used our office messaging system to share videos of our respective jump roping efforts (Rajendra impressively did his with a traditional namlo rope used to carry baskets). We employed our dental technicians to make personal phone calls to all the patients in their registers to go over Covid-prevention guidelines. We began a home-made mask campaign.
We have also, finally, taken this time to launch our youtube channel. There is a huge variety of content here: tours of our clinics, cute kids doing school brushing programs, samples of community outreach parent discussions and child-friendly dental care in schools, some words from a village chairman about our project, and my personal favorite: the annual Oral Health Bhailo competition, where schools record traditional bhailo songs on the to topic of oral health during the festival of Tihar (seriously, these are devastatingly adorable). These videos really bring the people and places we work with to life and we’d love you to click around and visit us at home in Nepal! (And better yet, please subscribe to our channel!)
After all, we’re gonna be in this for a while. It’s a great time to connect.
These past few weeks, I increasingly find myself reliving the morning of April 25, 2015, when my phone woke me at 6:30am. I rolled over and Prem was on the line: a 7.8 magnitude earthquake had ripped through Nepal. I stumbled to the kitchen table in my slippers and didn’t move for what seemed like days. The papers were covered with images of fallen temples that were whole in my albums, with tent cities at familiar outdoor intersections in Kathmandu, with maps seen from high above and covered in digital markings. It was a long time before anyone could capture photos of people, especially in the rural expanses of the country, which were accessible only by helicopter for what seemed like ages. But in my mind’s eye the earthquake was a long, long parade of individuals. Today, I reread the email I sent out three days later.
It is a strange feeling to find the whole planet in crisis. Population-level disasters of this scale seem to disproportionately fall upon the shoulders and homes and rivers of the world’s most vulnerable places, while the other places try to help. In the years I have worked in Nepal, Nepali people have plodded on through civil war, three major government transitions, annual landslides and floodsand hail, the 2015 earthquake, water shortages and electricity outages up to sixteen hours a day for years on end, and of course, the daily vulnerability of chronic poverty, weak infrastructure, and floppy safety regulations. The road to Kaskikot has had three bus accidents in the time I have considered it my second home. I remember thinking after the earthquake, as I watched messages flood my accounts, that people didn’t realize how often Nepal’s communities were used to seeing things broken, taken, lost, or never having existed in the first place. The earthquake was unthinkably horrible. Yet for those who didn’t lose everything–people, entire villages–that trauma was largely swallowed within a few months by massive shortages of petrol and goods due to political instability and border closings. The summer brought deadly landslides. Six months later, most of the country was no longer discussing the earthquake.
These last few weeks have been an odd, house-of-mirrors experience. While Nepal is facing pandemic, New York City and Milan and Barcelona and Sydney are also facing pandemic. My colleagues are quarantined in Pokhara and Kaskikot and Tilhar, and I’m quarantined in Hartford, and Prince Charles is quarantined in London. The realization that anything could happen to anyone at any moment has set upon us all, a realization that seems to be expanding daily. And amidst a great deal of chaos and uncertainty and worry, I find myself in occasional moments of disconcerting calm. Things were always this way. Now they are simply unveiled. We are all the defenseless Other.
Now as then, there is great beauty to uncover in difficult times. In the months after the earthquake five years ago, we improvised. I have no idea how many kilometers Dilmaya and I walked. Practically speaking, I learned a huge amount about the contributions a small community-based organization like ours can offer in disaster management. At that time we found we were well placed to spend personalized time on unique household and community circumstances, to mitigate challenges that didn’t meet a universal disaster threshold but were extremely destabilizing for the specific individuals facing them. Our focus became “the lower percentage of damage:” the houses that were not fallen, but cracked and indeterminately unsafe. It was a life-changing experience.
Every day this week I’ve joined in a group call with my colleagues in Nepal as they work from home, developing a strategy to redirect our rural health care personnel from dentistry to coronavirus. Since we launched our Dental Hub app in September, hundreds of patients and their phone numbers have been entered in our database, so our first step is having dental technicians replace their weekly clinics with “phone clinics,” calling every patient in the database. We’ve created a script for checking in with each family to see how well they’ve been able to implement isolation guidelines and what if any obstacles are in the way. We don’t yet know how this will go or how useful it will be, but it’s something to do. It’s a way to be in community.
All that said…the 2015 earthquake was irreconcilably different than the looming crisis we are facing now. To begin with, the rest of the planet is occupied with its own emergency, not fundraising and overloading the aid channels in Nepal with variably useful assistance strategies. Second, Nepal’s health care system was inadequate to meet public need before coronavirus, and there is effectively no intensive care available for severe Covid-19 cases. So even though there are so far very few confirmed coronavirus cases in Nepal, I am still trying to understand how “flattening the curve” works in a health care system where the capacity threshold is fairly close to zero. We don’t know the answer, if there is one. I’m not sure yet if anyone does.
Like many of us, I can’t help but wonder how we would understand our society if we felt this vulnerable and interdependent all the time. It is deeply unfamliar to us in the dominant American culture–replacing the community of work-productivity with the community of survival. Confronting the primacy of the nuclear family, when that family is cut off from neighbors, schools, social supports, food production, occupation, and future planning. This discomfort feels worthy of deep and shared reflection. In the mean time, I have made a call list, and have been doing one quality catch-up each day with someone I’ve missed, or who I want to make sure isn’t alone.
For whatever reason I also found myself drawn back this week to this poem, written during the (still unresolved) family separation crisis at the US border in the summer of 2018. I hope to use coming weeks to catch up on past entries and continue posting about the unfolding of this pandemic Nepal on my blog. In the mean time, wishing all of you patience and resilience and comfort as we, as a world, navigate the weeks and months ahead.
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.
Bishnu had baby Dali six weeks early, on August 2nd. We got the news while we were all finishing dinner at Didi and Prem’s. On the English calendar, Pascal’s birthday is a day earlier, on August 1st, but by a twist of the planets, on the lunar Nepali calendar Pascal and his cousin share a birthday of Saun 17. This convention-defying-cross-cultural-intercontinental-astrologically-phenomenal-birthday-coincidence —a shared birthday in Nepal, but not in America—has us thrilled. We texted Bishnu and Youba and Dali a Welcome to the World picture, marveling over a coincidence, fourteen years plus eternity in the making, that has initiated our Dali’s life.
Dali’s name is actually: Serena Subedi Bhatta.
Aamaa is coming back with me to the US to meet her granddaughter, an American citizen. We’ll fly directly to San Francisco, but we can’t leave Nepal until after summer professional development the last week of August. So we’ve passed the weeks talking with Bishnu on the phone, and each Friday I download new photos and ferry them to Kaski where Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa and the neighbors pore over them. Aamaa’s favorite is the one with Youba holding Serena just minutes after her entrance in to the world, shiny and swaddled. Aamaa likes to pull this one up on my iPad and zoom in and stare at it for ten, fifteen minutes at a time.
“It’s like, the longer you look at it,” she says, “the more you want to look at it. You can just look at it and look at it.”
Bishnu had a difficult and sometimes unnerving pregnancy. Serena was born six weeks early, at 3.9 lbs, less than 2 kilograms of sugar, I told Aamaa. She spent a month in the NICU. Bishnu wouldn’t bring any baby shower gifts home until it was almost time for the baby to leave the NICU and join her there. I’ve found myself thinking back to the day fifteen years ago when I stood outside Gandaki Hospital with Didi, right after she wasn’t able to see a doctor at what was supposed to be her last prenatal checkup, when we ate cel roi at a roadside stand. A week later Didi’s first child was stillborn at full term.
For a long time after I moved to Kaskikot, I didn’t know that Aamaa had little a sister. One day Aamaa was reclined on the bed, lying sideways with her head on her arm and an elbow pointed out at me, when she mentioned that her sister had died in childbirth, along with the child.
“Wait,” Didi said the other day, her eyes widening when I told her about Bishnu’s baby shower. “People her gave her baby presents before the baby was born?”
The day of our departure for America gets closer. We are scheduled to fly out on Teej, the festival of women. In the strange way that our lives here seem to cycle back like knitting stitches, it was Teej when I arrived in Kaskikot in August, 2003. I had stayed in Kaski for two months, gone back to New York, worked as a waitress, and then called six months later to say I was coming back to Kaskikot. I arrived under the hot gaze of summer and found Didi and Bishnu dancing in Maula, where the whole village was gathered for the festival of women. Didi was newly married to Prem, and I realized she was pregnant. And that is how our year together began, with dancing.
Our summer is a theater of rains, curtain after curtain, a production that will eventually deliver the harvest. By then we will be in America. Teej begins from Sept 1, when Aamaa and I will leave Kaskikot, and goes to September 2, when we’ll fly out of Kathmandu. It’s funny how people attempt to impose order over the unknown when they are about to embark on a long journey. I like to leave my living space robotically clean and organized, and I will compulsively sift through 5-month old stacks of mail and fix wobbled stools that have been committedly ignored for months. Aamaa’s strategy appears to be getting fixated on the cucumbers. They are ripe and fat on the the vines around the house.
“Laura,” Aamaa says, “we’ll bring cucumbers to Tulo Mama in Kathmandu.” The breed of cucumbers Aamaa grows in Nepal isn’t like little American cucumbers. They can grow to a foot or two long, and the circumference of a coffee can.
“We’re going to bring cucumbers to Kathmandu with our luggage for America?” I ask. Tulo mama is our Aamaa’s eldest brother, our ‘big uncle.’
“…Is it allowed?” Aamaa asks a bit sheepishly.
“Sure, cucumbers are allowed.” I realize this is happening no matter what. “Let’s definitely bring cucumbers to Kathamandu.”
Aamaa has just a few outfits to take to America, but food items are another story. Provisions are sorted over the entire month of August. We pick all the ripe cobs off the corn stalks, roast some in the fire for snacks, give some away, and hang the rest all over the house to dry by winter. Last time we left for America, we also cut down the empty corn stalks, leaving only the milletto ripen by late fall. But this time Aamaa skipped planting millet altogether, and she said we’re not going to cut the empty corn stalks down because they will dry out on their own. I keep surveying the gardens and feeling that the tall scraggly corn stalks are going to look a bit like an army of tuxedos at a beach party by October, when everyone else’s fields are left only with slender waist-high millet and rice plants. But that’s her plan and she’s Aamaa, so we leave them be. The house remains hemmed in by walls of stripped corn stalks.
A sack of rice is sent to Didi in Pokhara. Periodically we revisit the cucumber question.
“We’ll take a large stash of cucumbers to Didi, and a smaller bag for Tulo Mama in Kathmandu,” Aamaa revises.
“It’s allowed right? To take cucumbers to Kathmandu?”
“This will be my first go at taking a bag of cucumbers to Kathmandu, but I think it’s allowed.”
“Just a small bag.”
“Ok,” I assure her.
One evening Aamaa ponders: “How will we get to Pokhara when we leave here on Teej? Because, see we’ll have luggage and we need to bring the big sack of cucumbers to Didi.”
“We’ll call Hari Bhaai in Caragaun and go in his taxi.”
“Will it fit all the cucumbers?”
“Um….” I search for the right answer. How many cucumbers are we talking about? I decide to gamble. “Yes. Hari bhai’s taxi will definitely fit the cucumbers.”
In addition to a little baby outfit, I want to bring something special to San Francisco for Bishnu’s little Dali, who’s acquired about twenty times her bodyweight in baby clothes during her short life so far. I make a plan. Pascal comes with me on the expedition.
We spend Saturday afternoon hiking up the Kalika Hill, and I film him leading the way, finding berries and hidden water springs, waving a stick of bamboo around at the skyline and narrating our journey until we reach the Kalika Temple. We ring the large bells at Kali’s door; the clanging and echoes out over the trees, the familiar houses below, over the valley. I pan my camera over sheets of rain that have blanketed the foothills, and frozen into a bruised mist on the north and south horizons. We search over the laid stones of the Temple ground and choose a rock that Pascal holds in front of my camera, little chips of flint gleaming under a stormy and imminent sky. I will bring it to a silversmith and have it made in to a necklace. Our descent is fast under gathering clouds, sandals pounding and tapping over the brambles.
As the summer draws to a close, relatives stop by to bid Aamaa a safe journey. Aamaa sends them off with cucumbers or ears of corn. A few days before the buffalo calf is due, some men from Parapani come to purchase pregnant Isabella, who nobody calls Isabella except for weirdo foreigners like me and Ann. Aamaa has cared for Bella during her whole pregnancy, cutting her grass and watering her and keeping her living quarters clean. I am grumpy that Bella will be taken just before having her baby and providing us a week of delicious milk. But four days later, we find out that Bella’s calf was born dead. The buyers withhold $40 of the remaining amount they still owe to Aamaa.
Aamaa is sad about Bella. All that work for nothing. “What’s wrong with her?” she asks nobody. We won’t know now. We are quiet over Bella’s loss for a few mornings.
“We don’t need to bring any cucumbers to Kathmandu,” Aamaa updates me later. “Tulo Mama has to leave for Nepalgang before we get there.”
I’m disappointed; I was excited to see Tulo Mama. He is the oldest of Aamaa’s three younger brothers and the one who dotes on her. But he lives in the far West and even though he always asks to talk with me on the phone when he calls, in seventeen years I’ve only met him in person twice.
The last two weeks of August I don’t get up to Kaskikot, because we are completely consumed with our summer professional development training. I take Dali’s rock to a jeweler and search through gems before finally pairing it with a fiery pink ruby. The week ends on a breathless and exhausted August 30th, Friday afternoon. Bethy helps me pack up my room all in one go, throwing things in to bags over just a couple hours, cleaning the kitchen, ferrying items between the office and my apartment. By the time we get in to a taxi to go up to Kaski it is 8:30 at night, and we arrive at 9:30 to find Aamaa sitting in the house surrounded by friends. Swirled up in their saris and shawls, Saano didi and Parbati Bouju and Mahendra’s older sister are there, and an aunt has come to visit – Aamaa’s sister in law, who would have grown up right here with these women and her brother, Aamaa’s husband. The old friends are sitting on stools in the old main room of our house, by the kitchen, where I have fallen asleep to the chatter of so many women. As we organize our things in the outer room, a wave of gratitude rolls over me, carried on the familiar soothing sound of their muffled voices on the other side of the wall.
“Tulo Mama delayed his travel so he could meet us in Kathmandu,” Aamaa revises when Bethy and I take up seats on a bed. “So, we can bring him cucumbers.”
“Tomorrow we have to pack the cucumbers in a sack.”
“Right.” I reply. “I am ready for cucumber packing.”
Night brings brings a steady rain that clangs on the roof long in to a lazy Saturday morning. It bathes everything, washes away the work week, the summer, the soil around curling roots that are retreating beneath our feet as we prepare to walk away from this village and into another world. It rains as we get up for our last day in Kaski, as we have our black tea, as a man and woman I don’t know arrive and sit on the porch and begin talking with Aamaa.
Bethy and I are ready to spend Saturday helping Aamaa pack up the house—but it is unclear what this involves. Before I can identify a plan of action, Aamaa has disappeared with one of the morning’s visitors and they’ve returned with armfuls of voluptuous cucumbers. The cucumbers, each a foot or two long, are dumped in a pile in the middle of the yard, slick with rain, and the two women disappear again. Then neighbors start showing up – Saraswoti, Saano didi, BAA! – all with more rainy cucumbers. It turns out the visitors are vendors from Pokhara, come to purchase cucumber stock. Aamaa’s yard is transformed into a cucumber staging area. It takes an hour to pick the rest of our cucumbers and combine them with cucumbers from contributing neighbors. The female vendor sorts them in to excellent and sub-excellent status cucumber piles while the male vendor chats with Bethy about countries he’s traveled to. When the yard is fully covered in piles of cucumbers, an amazing ghetto-fabulous hand scale is brought out, made of two plastic tubs hanging on a hand-held balance. Aamaa produces a collection of rocks.
“Wait a second,” the vendor says cautiously.
“This rock is one kilogram,” Aamaa announces, picking up a black, smooth river stone. “And this one is a half kilograms if you combine it with this other little one.”
The vendor tries out the rocks in different combinations, weighing them against each other.
“Huh,” she says. “Well there you have it.”
Weighing and calculating against river stones commences on the ghetto fabulous plastic tub scale. Some 100 kg of cucumbers are weighed and sold. Aamaa makes about $15.
“Now,” Aamaa says to me shortly thereafter, “we still have to pack up the cucumbers for Didi and Tulo Mama.”
“The big sack of cucumbers is for—“
“I think I’ve got it.”
The afternoon passes. The evening arrives. The cucumbers are packed in to a large sack for Didi and a handbag for Tulo Mama. Dinner comes and goes. We have taken the cases off all the blankets and put them in the only dresser in the house. The floor has been repainted with a smooth layer of clay. Aamaa’s single bag sits in the window. Our last night falls.
I slip out of the house to brush my teeth, and there is Kali rising above the empty uncut corn stalks, a wide triangle of hillside, holding the village in her lap. The damp summer air has cloaked away all but her gray glow in the night sky, revealing only a broad a density etched into meager starlight. I stand facing her familiar outlines, and feel suddenly, like a darkening storm, the women who have come through this house and have sat by this fire and grieved by its ashes and made nourishment over its flames. The inexplicable, inevitable certainty of the four of us draped over the blankets after sunset, while she presides over us, immutable divine feminine, creating again and again from dust.
Watch over us, I find myself asking.
I see us in my mind, walking out to the road. I see our hands holding Serena in San Francisco. I see us moving from place to place, but with a sudden and forceful clarity understand we are tied together here, under her gaze, where we have always been.
Stay with us.
It is time to go to bed.
The next morning neighbors trickle in to see us off to America. BAA! arrives, and then goes home again to retrieve tikka powder to put on our foreheads. Aamaa still can’t stop talking about the cucumbers. After Saano didi’s husband has taken the large sack of the cucumbers out to Deurali where Hari Bhai will pick us up in his taxi, there are still cucumbers lying about and we’re not sure who they are for. I end up with three of them in my bag and we eventually remember these were gifts for my office.
Today is the beginning of Teej. In a few hours when we are in Pokhara, we’ll see off Prem’s cousins who will come to take his porcelain, wrinkled mother back to Piodi, her snow white hair tilted forward as she is carried away piggy-back down to the road, so she can celebrate the Festival of Women at home in her village.
But now we are waving through the taxi window, and driving down, down, down the switchbacks while our house disappears behind us. The driver and Aamaa make small talk over the weather.
“All this dry hot summer, and the last two days, nothing but rain,” Aamaa remarks.
“Didi bahini rhuera hola,” the driver replies, talking about Teej. “Maybe it’s the tears of our sisters.”
“Maybe,” Aamaa answers offhandedly. The hills roll by. “It could be.”’
We are having a family get together in Asheville, North Carolina. My dad is turning 80 this summer, and it’s Father’s Day, and Bishnu is pregnant with a baby girl. She and Youba arrive on a red-eye from San Francisco, Bethy and I fly in from Connecticut, and my parents drive over from Chapel Hill with Ricky and Julie and the kids. We plop our bags in a cluster of wood-paneled cabins shaded by rustling trees. It is the first time we have all been together since Bishnu got married last year. Now she is Bishnu Subedi Bhatta.
Bishnu and Youba have made the questionable decision of asking for name suggestions. We bat around ideas as we eat ice cream and go to the playground and climb Chimney Rock, where, even though there is an elevator, Bishnu takes the stone staircase up to the top, plodding along step by step while Youba fawns hopelessly over her. At the summit we take a family photo, the North Carolina hills yawning green in to the distance, an endless rustle that is too far off to hear from the top of Chimney Rock, giving way to blue.
In the six years after I first showed up in Kaskikot and before Bishnu came to the US, we would talk on the phone from time to time. It was always morning on one continent, and evening on the other, and in the decade since then I can’t say the phone connection has improved much. Through the static I’d hear about how Saano didi and Mahendra’s families were doing, and whether the millet or corn stalks with their stacked Groucho Marx mustaches had recently been planted or cut down. I’d tell her about New York City, where I was living, and say that Mom and Dad and Ricky were fine. We ended most of our conversations the same way.
“Ok then, well let’s meet in a dream.”
“Where should we go this time?”
And then we’d plan a meeting at the Kalika Temple, or in the kitchen with Aamaa, or on a mat in the yard to paint our nails, or at the festival of Teej. And then we’d say goodbye, and go to sleep to meet in a dream. And always in Nepal.
It has always seemed to me that Bishnu and I were born in to this world with a thread between us, translucent, like the kind used in mobiles or dental floss or to catch carp, because it is unassuming, tensile, and indestructible. The kind that seems as if it can be spooled out forever without reaching the other end that’s buried somewhere in its bottomless coils.
I decide to print the Chimney Rock photo for Father’s Day, which requires sneaking away in to Asheville. We need three copies of the photo for Dad, Ricky and Youba. While I’m out in Asheville I send a text to the family chat to ask if I need to pick up any ingredients for dinner. My mom replies.
Bishnu is cooking dal Bhatta.
I giggle at auto-correct, which has apparently learned Youba’s last name already. My mom means “dal bhaat,” traditional Nepali food–but the more I look at this, the funnier I find it anyway. My fingers tap over the keys.
Does this mean they picked a name for the baby?
It is Youba who replies.
Dal sounds like a boy. Shouldn’t it be Dali?
My mother and I become ecstatic over this. Bishnu’s kid is immediately christened Dali Bhatta. Mostly it is only my mom and me who think this is brilliant. It could be worse, though. My mom called me Loolie-tabooli-tabootznicky…and by “called” I mean “calls.” This is a true story. I was named for my grandfather Louis, and my family turned it turned into Tabootznicky.
We spend the rest of the weekend fishing in the pond, making s’mores on the porch, and turning the kids upside down. Bethy and I are staying in a cabin with Youba and Bishnu, and my mom has brought Bishnu an old notebook along with a pile of belongings from her now-“old” room in Bethesda. We flip through its pages, mystified and awed, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. It contains, in Bishnu’s handwriting: a list of instruments needed for the prehistoric version of the Kaskikot Dental Clinic; draft text for a sticker about fluoride toothpaste to be printed and posted in Kaskikot shops for vendor outreach; and practice answers to questions Bishnu expected to be asked at her visa interview with the US Embassy in 2008. She does a dramatic reading in the living room.
I remember when we bought Bishnu’s first pair of jeans. She looked as out of condition in jeans then as I did in my floppy kurta salwaars, each of us yet to learn to fit our bodies to these foreign garments that we irrevocably longed to inhabit. The more time Bishnu spent attending different trainings and programs that year, the more time I spent at the house with Aamaa alone, learning to move the goats about and cook and plant and cut. When Bishnu was away, Aamaa and I developed a quiet and comfortable flow together. Then Bishnu would come back for a day, arriving on the last bus at 7:30 at night, and I would feel a pang of sadness. The loss of the illusion that I was useful. I would fall back in to following Bishnu around and learning from her for the next twenty four hours. The spool would turn inward, we were drawn together, arguing, sitting in the kitchen, going to the temple, teaching each other about our worlds.
Bishnu always left to go back to her training programs early in the morning. They got progressively further away- Sarangkot, Pokhara, Damauli. America. (I didn’t know it then, but there would be a time when Bishnu was to wake me early in the morning in Bethesda, before going to work in Virginia.) On these mornings I could never motivate myself to wake up any earlier than necessary. Instead I would close my eyes to stave off departure, and then in the dawning bloom of morning, Bishnu would come take my shoulder to say goodbye, and slip out the door to catch the 7am bus. It always seemed, once she had been here, that she was going terribly far away; suddenly, I would be at a lose end. For a few hours, everything seemed empty.
And inevitably, after some period of months, I would spool away to America, and we would meet in a dream.
It is 2019. In my parents’ cabin, I assign my nephew Jonah, Ricky’s eldest and and a lanky eight, to instruct his three and four year old sisters as to how we are going to surprise three fathers with their family photographs. Jonah orders his sisters about for fifteen minutes, placing them behind the curtain, behind a couch, and practicing a chaotic toddler chorus of “Happy Father’s Day!” It is decided that I am to cue the surprise with a casual unsuspicious phrase, for which Jonah has selected “Wasn’t it nice weather today!” With this, my nephew and nieces are to spring from their hiding places and proclaim the happiness of Father’s Day.
The plan goes remarkably well. Youba’s features spread momentarily in to an arrangement of euphoric surprise: he is going to be a dad. And then, a collage of moments fluttering around us. We coo over Dali Bhatta. Jonah and Eli and Nell swing elatedly in the hammock, laughing hysterically over each other, until my dad and Ricky and Youba take their places. The trees around the cabin fall in to a still sheltering, rustling blessings over us, and the sun drops slowly over the hammock, delayed like a water droplet on velvet. We are gorgeously suspended in time.
Bishnu and Youba have booked a 6am flight. So it is still dark when Bishnu comes in to wake me the next morning. I roll over and can almost feel the straw mat under arm as Bishnu whispers, “Bye Laura, we have to go to the airport.” I wrap my arms around her and Dali Bhatta, suddenly both at peace and without coordinates; it is an old feeling, ancient as the notebook and the Dead Sea Scrolls, bottomless as a whole new human being.
The enormous future seems unimaginable in this pre-dawn, where we stretch away in to a miraculous dream, until we are real again.
This week, my cousins Lynne and Neil came to visit from Chicago. We usually see each other once a year at a family holiday gathering in December that Lynne and Neil have been hosting since I was in college, when they took the job over from my Aunt Peggy. Our Spero family reunion is usually about three days of of extended family bonding in Chicago: walking the dogs by Lake Michigan, making our grandmother Gaky’s icebox cake, spending lazy afternoons sitting around while the Bulls play on TV, and long evenings talking in the kitchen until one in the morning. We’ve been having the annual family reunion in Chicago our whole lives.
But when Lynne and Neil said they were coming to Nepal, I was thrilled by the idea of getting to have my cousins see me in my natural habitat. In the wild.
They arrived on a Friday afternoon just as we were finishing up at the office. It was a bit surreal to see them transplanted from the suburbs, sidling up the walkway past Maya didi’s garden, and then sitting in our common room. They unloaded a collection of toys and books to keep under the coffee table (between the small people attached Sangita, Muna and me, we are badly in need of some kid-friendly distractions for workdays when school is off). They produced a jar of Nutella and then five gourmet chocolate bars which I immediately transferred to a secure location.
Then Neil pulled out a pair of oversized plastic glasses. “So, while we’re here, I need some photos of people wearing these glasses,” he said.
“I see,” I replied.
Next thing I knew, Neil and Lynne were excitedly talking over each other about this guy Harry Caray, who apparently I didn’t know about only because I live in a village in Nepal. Harry Caray is a superfamous Major League sportscaster for the Cardinals and the Cubs whose statue is erected at Wrigley Field, and every year on his birthday, fans celebrate – mostly be honoring the way Harry Caray liked his booze and sang drunk tunes off key and, furthermore, my cousins explained breathlessly talking very fast almost at the same time but somehow not directly over each other while our medical coordinator Rajendra tried to figure out what to do with the slinky on the coffee table, furthermore, Harry Caray had a mysterious connection to Nepal, for example (Neil pulled out his phone and began reading), he was the first major league sportscaster to say “Holy Cow” on air and in Nepal cows are LITERALLY HOLY.
“I don’t really understand how this slinky works,” Rajendra puzzled.
“Hang on, we have to take it outside to the stairs,” I said.
“–AND THIS MONTH IS HARRY CARAY’S BIRTHDAY, AND–”
“–PICTURES ARE BEING SHARED ALL OVER THE INTERNET–”
“–THE CUBS WON 108 YEARS AFTER THEIR LAST WORLD SERIES AND 18 YEARS AFTER HARRY CARAY DIED AND IN HINDUISM 18 IS A LUCKY NUMBER AND–”
“–SO WE HAVE TO TAKE PICTURES OF PEOPLE WITH THESE GLASSES–”
“–IN KASKIKOT, AND IN AMAZING MOUNTAIN PLACES IN NEPAL–”
“–LORD KRISHNA DIED ON FEBRUARY 18 AND HARRY CARAY DIED ON FEBRUARY 18–”
“–AND ALSO OMGOSH ALSO–”
–Neil produced a handful of full-size face cutouts of Harry Caray, who’s head then began bouncing around excitedly as my cousins completed their explanation.
“–AND WE HAVE TO SEND THE PHOTOS TO OUR FRIEND GRANT DEPORTER–”
“–AND HE’S GOING TO SHARE THE PHOTOS ON THE INTERNET WITH EVERYBODY FOR HARRY CARAY’S BIRTHDAY!!!!!”
“Rajendra, don’t tangle the slinky, or it will be ruined before we can do anything with it,” I said. Harry Caray’s shock of white hair and full-toothed smile sat perched on Neil’s hand, waiting.
“Ok, got it. Big glasses. White guy cutout. Take photos with mountains. I think we can make this happen fairly easily…all the components seem to be available.”
Then we moved on to the business of introducing the cousins to my natural habitat. We packed up a some snacks and wine, picked up Aidan and Pascal and Didi, and spent the afternoon on a paddle boat and visiting the Barahi Temple. The next day we had planned to take the jungle path up to Kaskikot and hang around carrying and chopping things and getting astrology readings all day. But at the last minute, Aamaa called to tell me that we absolutely had to change our plan.
“There’s a family picnic,” Aamaa said. “Everyone will be there. Like literally everybody in the whole universe. Two or three thousand people.” Ok that’s an exaggeration, except for the two or three thousand people part. That’s actually what Aamaa said.
“So it’s like a family reunion?”
“It is going to be so much fun,” Aamaa cooed. The picnic would include descendants of five brothers – The Grandfathers. One of The Grandfathers is Didi and Bishnu’s grandfather. That Grandfather alone had nine children, of which Aamaa’s husband was the youngest. So my point is, it’s a very enormous family.
“Don’t you think Lynne and Neil might be bored?”
“Who would be bored?!” Aamaa cried. “There will be two or three thousand people!”
“Do you want to go to a family reunion?” I asked Lynne and Neil. Having a picnic with the descendants of The Grandfathers would mean compressing our schedule in Kaskikot a little.
“Basically what it comes down to,” said Lynne, “is that a family reunion is always a thing to go to.”
We met Didi and Prem and Aidan and Pascal at Hollan Chowk at 8:30am to wait for a family reunion bus. (Neil and Aidan, who turn out to be roughly the same age, commenced exchanging shoes.) One of the buses started in Kaskikot and Aamaa called with updates of its progress as it rambled down through the hills and wound through the valley, picking up uncles and cousins and great-aunts at Milan Chowk and Simpani and Harichowk and Vindivasini.
The Family Bus arrived and drove right past us at Hollan Chowk. Pascal took off down the road with all his limbs waving, the rest of us jogging along behind him and dodging tourists out for their morning coffee in Lakeside. Luckily, due to Pascal’s dedicated flailing, family bus huffed to a stop and we climbed aboard.
Lynne and I squeezed in to the back row of seats with Didi, Prem and the boys, while Neil sat up front and got in to a conversation with our first cousin Ram Chandra Dai. This struck me as extremely entertaining: my first cousin Neil from Chicago, shooting the shit with my adopted first cousin Ram Chandra Dai, on a bus driving out to a family reunion in Chisapani. We ambled on past the edge of Phewa Lake and into the valley along the southern edge of the Kaskikot hills. The cut wheat fields yawned dry and dusty in to the distance.
After about an hour and a half, we arrived to find a shade tarp and plastic chairs set up in the hillside. Music thumped over a speaker. We set our things down and people starting flocking over to welcome us, grabbing my hands. “Laura! Isn’t this wonderful! A family picnic! Everybody is here!” Many were neighbors and longtime friends in colleagues in Kaskikot – Butu Bouju, Bhim sir and Krishna sir and Indra sir, Maile Bouju – whom I’d never really had the chance to mentally arrange as family relations.
Of course in Nepali culture people aren’t called by names, but by a relationship like Didi so I didn’t know almost anybody’s name. But it made introducing Lynne and Neil exceptionally easy.
“My Didi and Bhinaju are here from America!” I’d say.
“Oh, Didi and Bhinaju!” the thousands of relatives (who probably numbered about 200) would reply. After explaining a few times that Lynne was a cousin on my dad’s side, I learned to introduce her as my “banja-didi,” which literally means my father’s-older-sister’s-daughter. As my Banja-didi and Bhinaju, Lynne and Neil were instantly organized in to their places at the family reunion and that was that.
Cousins: Lynne and Neil with Ram Chandra Dai and Aamaa
As we wandered about the grounds, I motioned over to where a goat’s head was being prepared.
Banja-didi and Bhinaju looked alarmed.
“Most likely they brought the goat here this morning and slaughtered it nearby,” I offered. It bears mentioning that I’m the near-vegetarian in the group, but Lynne and Neil took this news hard.
Soon we were scattered about the field, seated on the plastic chairs and chatting over breakfast. I kept being worried that my cousins would get bored. I went and found Lynne.
“How’s it going?”
“Pretty good!” She pointed to Neil.
I’m going to say it was only minutes before Neil had people passing around the oversized glasses and Harry Caray’s head was bobbing up and down around the plates of chickpeas. And that’s how this happened
“Time for the program, time for the program!” somebody announced. We were all summoned to the foot of an empty garden terrace that was to act as a stage.
I didn’t really know what to expect. Our family is very musical and our reunion always includes an ad-hoc music concert in Lynne and Neil’s living room. Uncle Gus plays a spoof he wrote called the Russian Number. The younger kids plunk out notes on whatever instrument they’re learning. For about a million years, my brother had to sing Mr. Grinch in his booming base that would later anchor his college a capella group. Our cousin Greg, who is an actual rock star and jazz composer who played keyboard for Halsey, eventually takes over from the amateurs and the evening dissolves in to a combination of improv and mulled wine and Christmas music played in Jewish minor keys.
“First up, Grandfather Number One!”
A collection of relatives shuffled up on to the barren garden. I realized what was about to happen. The patriarch of Grandfather Number One’s branch of the family introduced the entirety of Grandfather Number One’s descendants to the rest of us. Photos were taken. Discussion was had. I understood what we were doing.
“This is brilliant,” I thought, as each branch of the family was called up and a senior member meticulously mapped out its relational geography. We were here to keep the books organized: to name the membership, introduce new additions, and have a long, solemn moment of silence for those no longer here, like Bishnu and Didi’s dad–Grandfather Number Four’s youngest son, born to his second wife.
It came time for our branch of the family. I dragged Lynne and Neil up with us on to the garden stage, where we stood packed in near Didi and Aamaa before the crowd. Ram Chandra Dai began an accounting of each of Grandfather Number Four’s offspring. Eventually he came to Aamaa and Didi and Bishnu (“who is living in America”), and then, to me.
“And of course Laura, Aamaa’s middle daughter. We take Laura in the family just as Bishnu and Malika. And today Laura’s Didi and Bhinaju are here from America.”
I poked Lynne and Neil and they waved, so that it would be obvious which were the three American people at the family reunion in Chisapani.
Neil looked expectant and hopeful like a puppy with a chewed up ball. I leaned forward and stood up on my toes, which made me three times the height of everyone else on stage.
“Um, thank you everybody,” I said to the crowd. “And, um, there’s just one thing I’d like to do. See, Bhinaju here, it’s his friend’s birthday. And his friend wears these glasses, and his name is Hari.” Hari is a very common Nepali name so this seemed like the simplest path to internet fame. “And Hari really liked Nepal. So, um, we’d like to have a family picture of people wearing these glasses and holding Hari’s picture and saying happy birthday to him.”
We passed out the glasses and Neil ran down in to the crowd, where he stretched his arms out over the descendants of the other four Grandfathers and snapped pictures on his phone, while we waved Harry Caray’s head around and cried “Hari! Hari!”
Man, I thought, I can’t believe anyone listens to the manic things that I say. This is actually working. Lynne and Neil looked ecstatic.
Then someone tapped my shoulder.
“We should be saying Hari Prasad,” she told me matter-of-factly. The oversized glasses and random photos of the white guy didn’t seem to faze her at all.
“Why?” I asked.
“That’s our Grandfather’s name,” she said, “Hari Prasad Subedi.” Then she rejoined the chant. “HARI!HARI!‘
The roof of the house is 40 years old and leaking. Aamaa has placed little containers on the wooden beams in the attic, and they catch droplets that sneak through the same holes where sunlight drives dusty spindles inside when it’s not raining. The stone shingles were laid back when the house was first built, and in addition to the leaking, the rough hand-cut wooden beams that hold up the roof up are rotting. The whole thing needs an upgrade.
In past years we’ve replaced the stone roof over other areas of the house, and the uppermost part that covers the attic is the only one that hasn’t been converted to corrugated tin. I wanted to restore the beautiful old shingles, and we called builders in to give us an estimate. But it was clear that Aamaa had already imagined the house covered in shiny new tin. She wanted the royal blue kind.
Before I continue this story, I need to say first that anybody who’s spent time in Nepal but is not from here will tell you that, and I don’t mean to generalize, but literally all Nepalis, I mean every single one, are obsessed with keeping stuff in the packaging. Everything. I remember once my friend Anne telling me that when she noticed the family she lived with chopping vegetables before every meal with a dull knife, she gifted them a fancy new cooking blade from the U.S. They kept it in its plastic armor and hung it on the wall.
To take this further – stay with me here – if things like, say, a vacuum cleaner or cell phone do need to come out of a box, the packaging still gets kept. You can totally normally have entire storage areas taken up just by boxes and covers. Not a mere two shelves of the pantry, like I have in my apartment in Connecticut due to an inability to throw out satisfyingly sturdy takeout containers, but whole storage spaces like the one under the stairs in our office, stuffed with the likes of vacuum cleaner boxes. Every time I arrive in Pokhara, I end up dragging a variety of packaging out to the dust heap from there.
“Why are we keeping the box for our WiFi router?” I’ll ask.
“In case we need it.”
“You never know.”
“Are we going to resell our router?” We use the router all day, every day. It’s attached to the wall.
“It’s a good box. Let’s just keep it.”
Even the furniture stays stays covered, sometimes in real cloth covers but at least as often in the actual factory plastic. I arrived in Sindure once to find our dental chair still wrapped in cling wrap, a patient lying atop its torn and receding shards while having an exam.
But let’s come back to the leaky roof.
I met Aamaa in Pokhara and we went to the tin shop. Needless to say I know far more about corrugated tin than I ever expected to. An uncle met us there, and he and Aamaa loaded up ten sheets of royal blue tin on to the bus. Aamaa kept pretending to defer to us – “I don’t know anything about it, I’ll do whatever you say” – but in fact I could tell Aamaa knew exactly what she wanted. We tossed some bags of long, thick nails to the driver, and sent the roof up the hill.
I really, really hoped to be in Kaski during the days the roof got dismantled and replaced. We’ve had some great adventures together. On the outside, the stone shingles are beautiful, each one representing a journey from another place, fitted and laid by hand. I hated to see them go, but if they had to, I wanted to help. And then there was the inside, in the attic, where the underside of the stone shingles are exposed.
I slept in the attic for the first year I lived in Kaskikot, when the house was smaller. I loved it up there. I felt protected but open to the world, which was visible through the slatted window that I had to bend over to peer through even when seated on a mat. Even now, when I climb the increasingly creaky ladder and poke my head through the attic floor, I feel a rush of nostalgia that nearly knocks me back down to the basket of millet by the kitchen door. When I lived in the attic, Nepal was completely new to me, but so was the sensation that I had always been on my way and now I had arrived. I had been looking for the attic forever, and I’d found it. In the renovation, two massive raw wood pillars that hold up the hefty stone roof would be rendered obsolete and removed. The attic would feel different; more spacious, and more tinny, I imagined.
Despite my hopes, the renovation occurred while I was in Pokhara. It only took three days to remove all the heavy stones from the roof, break down rafters, remove the boxy supports, and replace everything. By thursday it was finished. I arrived on Saturday morning.
I came over the hill eagerly, feeling the arrival momentous. The appearance of our roof over the crest of the ridge is always a kind of solemn performance, the overture to my favorite symphony, grand and dependable, a confident transition from the chaotic street to the hushed and orderly theater.
One cue, the gleaming blue roof emerged through the trees. But something looked funny. I squinted at it.
It looked like there were logos all over the roof.
We got tin with logos printed all over it? This is something I was sure a tin company would do. I mean, all the doors in my apartment in Lakeside still have factory stickers on them that were clearly never designed to be removable. Sometimes houses by the highway get huge ads painted on to them. There’s nothing too out of the ordinary about having logos all over one’s house. I came running down the hill, around the edge of the terraced wheat, and met Aamaa in the yard.
“Aamaa why does the roof have printing on it? Doesn’t this–” I scratched at an extra section of tin that was on the buffalo shed, digging my nail in to the logo.
Back it peeled.
“Hold on a second.” I scratched more. A long strip of plastic peeled away.
“Aamaa did you leave the roof in the wrapping?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” She replied innocently.
“This sticky plastic is supposed to come off.” I felt a prickly, alarmed feeling at the base of my head.
“Aamaa, the house is wrapped in plastic!”
“Why didn’t the builders——”
“Honestly Laura, it’s stronger this way,” Aamaa finally admitted.
“It looks crazy!”
“No it doesn’t, it looks fine. The rain will eventually peel it off anyway.”
“That’s why we should just peel it off ourselves,” I proclaimed.
“This way is stronger,” Aamaa insisted.
A debate ensued. This is an activity Aamaa and I are highly practiced at. How it goes is, I declare that our roof should be unwrapped and that I am going to unwrap it. Aamaa tells me it’s fine as it is. We keep having this disagreement while I climb up on to the house, clomp across the section of tin roof over the porch, pull myself up to the next level over the bedroom, and for the forty minutes it takes me to strip back the factory plastic while squatted on the highest part of the house like some sort of possessed gargoyle. I scratch madly at the logoed plastic until I can get an edge free, and then use all my counter bodyweight to stretch it upwards while trying not to slide myself downwards, on to the lower roof, and splat in to the yard. Each yank makes an uproarious and lengthy honk, as if to express the gravity of the situation. The plastic is covered in lettering that reads: AFTER INSTALLATION REMOVE THE GUARD FILM.
Saraswoti calls out from her yard, which is about level with me when I’m squatting on the roof like a possessed gargoyle.
“Whatcha doin’ Laura?”
“Unwrapping the house.”
“It was stronger in the wrapping!” (Aamaa from the yard)
“It says ‘remove this plastic’ right here on the plastic!” (Me from roof)
“Aamaa, Laura’s unwrapping the house?” (Saraswoti, pot-stirring)
“Laura, whatcha doin?” (Saano-didi’s husband wanders in to the yard)
“She’s taking off that nice plastic!” (Aamaa to Saano didi’s husband)
“I didn’t think it looked bad.” (Saano didi’s husband)
“It looks crazy!” (Me to Saano didi’s husband)
“Giggling hysterically” (Saraswoti)
“I started taking it off yesterday and then told Aamaa to leave it on….It’s stronger this way?” (Saano didi’s husband, pot stirring but also unsure what’s real anyway)
“Pascal! Get my camera and take a video will you?”
It used to be that, in the winter, we’d sometimes get up at four AM to fetch water. When the tap nearby in Deurali would dry out due to the dry weather, or the tenuously protected pipe sourcing it would breaksomewhere along its many kilometers between Dhampus and Kaskikot, we’d have to go further downhill to the natural spring in Rotepani.
In the summer, Rotepani was so rich with water that people filled their tin water jugs freely under gushing, splashing geysers while others bathed and did laundry and on the surrounding rocks, submerged up to the knees, cooled in the August heat. But in the dry season, sometimes even Rotepani would slow to a trickle from two out of three pipes that protruded from a cemented tap. The gushing natural spring that pours directly over the rocks would evaporate. Sometimes the line for water took half the day.
During those times, Saano didi and Neru would wake up before dawn and come up the path to our house. Aamaa and I, and Bishnu while she was still here, would join them with baskets slung from our heads and loaded with every jug and bottle in the house. We’d pick up Maya Bouju as we passed her house and walk single file along the edge of Gita Bouju’s wheat field. With the hills still shadowy along the southern horizon we’d cross the dirt motor road, make our way down a steep stone walking path to arrive at Rotepani in the dark, and help each other fill all the containers trickle by trickle. Then we’d walk back up the hill, pour the water in to slightly larger vessels in each of our homes, and turn around to do it again. Each trip took about 45 minutes, and we’d make three or four visits before the sky stretched open its arms to deliver another morning.
There have been times when water takes up the majority focus of attention in the household functioning. When pipes break in Deurali, when the weather is dry, when the buffalo is ill, when there many guests, or when there are very few residents to share labor; all of these lead to an immediate and exacting calculation of how much water is in the house, how long it will last, and what amount of physical labor is required to replenish it. Sometimes it’s one person’s job to ferry water for hours at a time. When I’m here, I tend to gravitate toward the water carrying—a fairly straightforward, essential, and never-finished chore.
Over the last year or so, recent changes in the government have led to mumblings about piping water to the yard of each individual home. In sixteen years, I’ve seen many changes come through Kaskikot…new two-story cinderblock houses, paved road, the occasional wifi connection, a completely transformed economy from subsistence to remmittance. Cellphones, Facebook, TVs, hotels, cars. Many of the houses around us in Kaskikot have already rigged up pipes that they can attach to the Deurali tap when it’s not in use, offering a continuous stream of water that passively fills an enormous polypropylene tank in the yard. But water still lords great power over us.
In our case, we’ve had a tank for years, but like the enclave of about four houses near us—including Saano Didi’s and Mahendra’s houses—we still have to carry water to it, the regular way. Our water situation remains basically unchanged. We still take baskets five minutes up the road to fetch our water from the tap in Deurali. When Deurali is dry, we still go to Rotepani, 15 minutes away. On occasion, when Rotepani is too busy or the flow of water is almost dried out, we walk winding footpaths half an hour down to the fields in Dadapari and use a cup to lift water from a natural pool under the rocks. A few times, I’ve accompanied Aamaa to do a household of laundry on flat stones there.
Aamaa, of course, is sixty-two and lives alone most of the time. So by “we,” I mean Aamaa.
Last summer as I was leaving in August, somebody rigged up a pipe that had been brought from Deurali up to the crest of the ridge by our house. Its mouth wasn’t in our yard, but it was only a up on the ridge, about seventy-five yards away instead of all the way in Deurali. The day I was leaving for the U.S. was the same morning that this new pipe was first hooked up, and all our closest neighbors clamored about filling buckets and oil gallons and jugs while Mahendra’s father presided over the fray. Whenever the pipe was unattended, it sprayed wild streams of water that swirled into muddy rivulets, spilling down the side of the hill and into Khemraj sir’s corn field. Little Narayan and Amrit were ecstatic with the newfound responsibility of presiding over a line of eager adults and aiming the unruly three-headed pipe head as it washed dirt off the footpath and over the terrace.
When I arrived back this week in January, I discovered this setup slightly relocated but similarly conceived. With water more spare in the winter, each household has been assigned to use the pipe on alternating days. Today was our assigned day; Aamaa began fretting about it last night. I assured her that I would take water duties in the morning, which is pretty straightforward, but the problem is that for reasons I couldn’t determine, Aamaa wanted to get cracking at dawn…and one thing that’s changed in the last ten years is that I am no longer so interested in proving something that I’m motivated to get up before dawn. I am happy to prove my value during daylight hours.
Lucky for both of us, for some reason the water didn’t become available this morning until 9am. Having slept until American hours and had my tea, I dutifully began the water retrieval process. Pascal helped me bring all the water jugs and bottles and even buckets up the hill, where we set them down beside Maya Bouju’s house to wait our turn.
Saraswoti was there of course, and Jivan’s young wife Bal Kumari, and Mahendra’s father. Everyone had brought literally any item in their house that could hold liquid. The issue–and the thing is, I’m American, I’m trained to spot potential matters of inefficiency and to fret about them–was that the pipe itself was barely producing a trickle. So filling the army of receptacles from our three households was a phenomenally lengthy task that quite literally involved watching water drip for long, yawning minutes. And minutes. And more minutes.
I squatted down next to my pals Saraswoti and Bal Kumari. They were perfectly happy with the distraction, the pace of the task, the opportunity to sit on a hill and chat or not chat and pick at blades of grass. I was like, “Yo you guys, it’s going to take me approximately one million years to fill all this stuff.” My gaze drifted to the footpath. Four minutes away was a perfectly functional, largely unmanned water tap.
I calculated that in the time it would take Saraswoti and Bal Kumari’s water jugs and buckets and bottles and gallons to fill in front of mine, I could easily take a jug to Derail, fill it, bring it home, and bring it back here for a second filling.
“Just wait, Laura, it won’t take too long,” Saraswoti assured me, despite the fact that this was plainly inaccurate advice.
“I’m just going to go…um, fill this jug and come back,” I said. I did. When I came back, my other six jugs and buckets and bottles were still waiting in line. Bal Kumari had left and Saraswoti was taking her turn.
“Have a seat, Laura,” Saraswoti said. I sat. Saraswoti and I watched the water drip lazily, its splashy pitch changing as the surface level crept up the inside of the tin jug. The winter mountains pierced the entire panorama of the northward sky, and to the south the hills were clear and fresh. When it was my turn, I filled our jugs, took them home, dumped them in to the tank, and began the whole process again.
Of course, Bal Kumari was back.
“Laura didi, it won’t take long,” she and Saraswoti assured me. Given that the water hadn’t become more abundant, this statement had also not become less untrue. I couldn’t take it. I took one jug off to Deurali, repeating the entire process as before.
As my trips accumulated, so did the various filled containers in the yard. The tank filled. Aamaa has recently installed a recycled oil barrel that comes to my chest; it was filled. At intervals, Pascal was reluctantly cajoled in to retrieving filled bottles and buckets from and dumping them out at home and returning them to our muddy hill. The tubs and emptied kerosene gallons were filled. Each time I thought I was done getting water, Aamaa would find another centimeter of space inside some container or another and make an entire four liter tin jug of water disappear in to it. I started to get annoyed, and then I started to giggle. The teapot, after all, was still empty.
I couldn’t help but think of when our only containers were two tin jugs, a leaky plastic box, and two small lotos. By comparison, there was now enough water in the house for all of us to bathe five times and do a midnight water puja under the moon. But Aamaa kept finding more spaces to add water and sending me back to the maddeningly dripping pipe by Maya Bouju’s house.
“Aamaa, I think–” I wanted to point out that the tap in Deurali was currently available daily. Why was I an indentured servant to the drippy pipe by Maya bouju’s house, today, just because it…existed?
“It’s so much closer,” Aamaa said. “If the tap dries up, I’ll be without water,” she explained. I found this both entirely logical and entirely illogical at the same time. It couldn’t be solved. It reminded me of the time that Bishnu and I had dozed off in the middle of the afternoon with Pascal lying between us when he was a baby, and we woke up to find the lights on in broad daylight amidst the ruthless load shedding schedule; Bishnu yawned groggily, “Hey when the electricity is available, we have to utilize it.” This immediately launched me in to fits of hysterical laughter for the next ten minutes and I would lose it every time I thought about it for years. Now, I also knew the only thing to do was keep getting more water from the pipe on this, our assigned day. The opportunity was not to be missed, irrespective of any broader analysis about overall benefit. And while I claim to have nothing left to prove in Kaskikot, let’s face it: where the rubber meets the road, I still have too much pride to throw in the towel early.
The only way out was to prove this labor was unwarranted.
“Aamaa, are you gonna take the cups out of the kitchen and have me fill them up too?!” I cried, half joking and half serious. Truthfully, I wanted to sit around and read. I resented this unreasonable purgatory, even though I not only signed up for it voluntarily, but also understood that it technically started and ended far away from the pipe by Maya Bouju’s house. I didn’t want Aamaa to have to haul water tomorrow or really ever. It just seemed to me, like, you know, we totally had lots of water.
Finally, when our entire yard was ringed with anything that could be turned in to a basin or pitcher, each brimming so high that the act of dipping a cup in it would spill a few steps worth of hauled water, I put the basket and rope down on the porch.
The buffalo honked lazily. It was mid-morning, and the day stretched bright and clear in front of us.
“They say,” Aamaa mused to nobody in particular, “that we’re each going to have our own water tap. I brought the pipe here already. But I’m not allowed to connect it up to the yard.”
The second half of our winter professional development is focused on treatment of older adults. Even though a lot of treatment that dental technicians do is in schools, during the weekly dental clinic at the Health Post, they mostly get adult patients. And since most rural adults have had little or no dental care, and likely weren’t exposed to fluoride toothpastes or other preventative measures for their first few decades of life, some of the conditions that present in our rural clinics are pretty extreme. Besides that, tooth loss in older age is common enough that it’s more or less expected.
Of course, our technicians can refer older patients to higher care, and they do. But following up on referrals isn’t always that easy, especially for older folks with reduced mobility. Not to mention that rehabilitation of many mouths we see in elderly patients would require months of ongoing, expensive, complex treatment even in a state-of-the-art dental hospital–something that’s simply is not feasible for the majority population even in a first-world city. So here we are in rural Nepal working in primary care, which is about disease prevention and improving quality of life. But save for the occasional extraction, older adults are mostly left out of the process when it comes to primary oral health care: directly related to the ability to eat, sleep, and participate socially. If we can relieve pain and preserve teeth longer, that seems like a solid contribution.
With this in mind, we wanted to develop a professional development workshop on how the simple techniques that we’re already using – glass ionomer, silver diamine fluoride – can be used to help relieve the diseases experienced in older populations in Nepal. By “we” I mean Bethy since she’s the one obviously who did this because I write stories about teeth and she is a public health dentist. And even if you’re not a dentist or especially interested in cariology, I have to say that how this turned out is really pretty cool.
A few years ago, Bethy and Keri took photos of about 65 people who’d had restorations done in our clinics, and we used these as the basis for a quality-of-care assessment. It resulted in a few different things. One was adding some missing instruments. Another was noticing an apparent pattern among older adults where, around middle adulthood, adult teeth begin to wear rather than decay. It might be caused by anything from an acidic diet, to abrasive brushing with spices, to a lifestyle change like a new medication. The lower part of the tooth near the gums wears down and become loose, causing sensitivity and difficulty eating, and gradually, the teeth simply fall out. These are the adults who, right now, are getting no care at all besides the occasional extraction. They were the focus of our training.
Our technicians practiced placing glass ionomer restorations on the root-surface lesions, near the gums, that so often lead to tooth loss in older adults. Bethy explained how an event in the life of a middle-aged adult, such as an illness, can cause a simple change like dry mouth that alters the whole environment and leads to deterioration of a previously resilient set of teeth over the next period of years.
I loved this workshop. For the first two hours, instead of looking at teeth, Bethy brought in pictures of older people and the clinical teams simply talked about aging. What makes people old? Are all old people the same? Do they have the same priorities and daily demands and ideas of self? What do we assume when we see someone who we think is “old”? How does a person’s identity factor in to how we work with them to improve their lives? What is our responsibility to someone’s dignity?
In preparing for the workshop, Bethy and I mined our respective photo archives for pictures of elderly people in Nepal and Cambodia. One by one their faces stared out at our group of clinicians, suddenly daring: Who do you think I am?
In the beginning, most participants had a sort of default position that older people are weaker and less capable of handling dental treatment. But as we went through the photos for well over an hour, stories blossomed. In some cases, they were people whose backgrounds we knew- my neighbors in Kaskikot, steely women I’d photographed during our work after the earthquake in 2015, caretakers and weavers and shopkeepers who’d given interviews in Bethy’s surveys in Cambodia. Bethy used a clever framework called “Go-go, go-slow, no-go” to talk about what each of these people might be expecting or hoping for from a medical professional. I got to laugh about how Hadjur Aamaa has basically no teeth left and gets around pretty slow, but she’ll put one foot in front of the other to get to the house and then frets the entire day, every day, about the dishes or the peas that need to be shelled; it is absolutely vital to her human essence to be busy with something useful. By the end, our clinical teams were musing over what their patients might be thinking about, who they depended on, and who relied on them, what made them human and alive in the world. This was probably a go-slow patient, like Hadjur Aamaa; this one likely a go-go patient ready to sit there all day and get her teeth fixed; this patient probably wasn’t really about treatment, and mainly needed to have his discomfort acknowledged.
The next day, we returned to the same school in Kaskikot to treat patients age 45 and over. (We’re in rural Nepal, 45 is approaching the pre-elderly group…60 is safely considered “aged” and the point is to catch people BEFORE their teeth are gone.) It was exciting to see the same situations we’d learned about the previous day in the real lives of real people and to be able to offer simple treatments that have the potential to forestall tooth loss for years. The teams continued using the App, entering patient data digitally along side the paper forms.
While patients were waiting outside, the father in law of our local Channeler came by for a checkup. I’ve been to see our Channeler a few times – she lives down near Laushidunga, in the direction of Sada Shiva where I taught primary school for a year. The story that’s told about the Channeler is that she suffered terribly from a kind of delirium for a period of time. She was treated in a hospital, but nothing helped. Then she began to channel spirits. She rebalanced. People travel from all over to see her; I’ve brought a handful of visitors there to connect with people they’ve lost. Before Bishnu left for the U.S. in 2008, she went to see the Channeler to connect with her father. The Channeler’s husband has a bum knee, and once I gave him my knee brace from CVS, and he always greets me with an old familiarity when we meet in the road up in Deurali.
Anyway, at some point in the afternoon I couldn’t find our technician K.P., and I walked outside to find he was having his palm read in the waiting area. The Channeler’s father in law spent about an hour reading almost everyone’s palm for fifty rupees each. Everyone–our office staff, the field teams, the schoolteachers and other patients–exclaimed over the things he knew: who’s father had died young, who was still to be married, who was destined to successfully stay with one line of work for a long time (one of our clinic assistants! yay!). I didn’t get a turn because by the time I was ready – I’d had my 50 rupees in my pocket for like an hour – he’d had enough with palm reading. Palm reading was over.
Still, my most favorite patient of the day was a 93 year old woman who arrived alone. She was frail, used a walking stick, and barely spoke to anyone even to ask them to move out of the way as she plodded through clusters of people like Moses parting the sea. She wore a jaunty white knit cap that stuck up boisterously on her head. Her entire mouth was completely empty except for one jutting molar with an expanse of exposed root.
“How can we help you?” Hira, the Deurali technician, asked.
“This tooth hurts,” the woman said simply.
Hira treated the one tooth with silver diamine fluoride, a completely painless procedure that will hopefully preserve it a while longer and ease her suffering. Then the woman stood up, picked up her walking stick, parted the seas and went home without a word.
For the year and a half, we’ve been extremely lucky to be able to provide bi-annual professional development for our dental technicians and clinic assistants. It has quickly become one of my favorite parts of our project. Jevaia dental clinics deliver the Basic Package of Oral Care, a collection of dental procedures that was designed in collaboration with the World Health Organization for limited-resources settings. The BPOC was developed by Europeans, and it has mostly been used in developing world settings as aid or transient care.
Since we train local dental technicians to provide the BPOC in Health Posts instead of temporary camps or outreach programs, we’ve had the chance think about applying it as a sustained primary health care strategy–especially since we started working with Berkeley, Dr. Bethy and Dr. Keri and other collaborators in 2016. I suppose that kind of thinking is one difference between aid, or any kind of temporary relief, and human rights, which entitles people to a consistent standard of health care.
Our past three professional development workshops have focused on the use of Silver Diamine Fluoride; infection controltailored to rural Health Posts; and treatment planning (one thing about a stable primary care provider is: they can actually plan!). This summer, Dr. Bethy is teaching our professional development on school-based treatment planning, so we can shift to a more systematic school-based oral health care model with local dental technicians.
Dental technicians in JOHC already conduct monthly school seminars to do school-based screening and treatment for children and parents. We call these “seminars” rather than “camps” because they are run by a local provider and they help connect people with the Health Post dental clinic. Unlike most “camps,” seminars don’t aim to treat as many teeth as possible in the shortest time, but to build relationships with the technician and raise public support for a government dental clinic and community outreach programs.
Our 2018 summer professional development was seven days long for veteran technicians and ten days for new technicians. It kicked of with technicians and assistants examining photos of real ART fillings (like the kind they do) organizing them in to acceptable and unacceptable outcomes. Then the clinicians had to use the photos to diagnose why the unacceptable treatments had partly or fully failed, which lead to a review of practice technique. It was really gratifying to see how this impacted everyone’s thinking a few days later, when we were back in a school placing fillings.
Since the BPOC was originally conceptualized as crisis management, a challenge of our project establishing a quality of care standard in a stable primary care setting. At this year’s workshop Bethy helped introduce a competency framework. During the three days of classroom work, our new technicians supervised old technicians in a “simulation seminar” where they had to demonstrate each technique using the competency checklist. When we moved to the three-day school setting with live patients, new technicians were supervised through ten of each procedure and had to pass the competency checklist ten times. Veteran technicians performed one of each technique under a doctor’s supervision and we used the completed checklists to award “competency certifications” that are valid for 18 months. We even created a framework for technicians to review their competency certification every 1-2 years.
Overall, the workshop was meant to guide our clinical teams toward a more rigorously informed, holistic approach to school-based health care, where JOHC technicians work as members of the primary care system rather than visitors. The training emphasized taking time to slow down and connect with patients rather than blowing through a line at the door. Dentistry can be scary and rather than jumping straight at a kid’s teeth, the intake leaves time to comfort frightened children and to learn about their lifestyle habits and disease risk factors. In turn that information is used to provide more complete and well-informed care, instead of just treating as many teeth as possible. It seems obvious, especially for primary care practice, but in reality that’s not usually how dentistry is done in our setting (or often, in general, if we’re being honest). As part of this, the clinical teams spent a good amount of time reviewing cariology (the biology of oral disease) which unlike the practicalities of how to mix cement and apply it properly, informs which techniques should be used when. In other words, without adding in more high-technology interventions, we are focusing on more effective deployment of the conventional BPOC.
For me as a non-clinician, it’s super interesting to see how these minimally-invasive techniques can be used not only for emergency management of foregone problems, but for early intervention and prevention of disease in the whole child. In all children, actually. This same package of care can be used in service to population level public health needs where resources are a practical limitation, and yet there has been little focus on applying it that way. My dream is that one day it will be rural technicians and assistants presenting to academics at conferences on how they’ve adapted and improved these innovations to benefit their communities in the real world.
An incredible thing happened on the third day of our practice seminar in Kaskikot. The school we chose is next door to the Health Post. The third day was reserved for parents so that technicians could apply the training concepts to adult patients. I was waiting out in the stairwell when suddenly I saw a face I could never forget: Nisha, one of the students I taught for a year at Sada Shiva Primary when she was in fourth grade, a million years ago. It was with Nisha and her classmates that Govinda dai and I ran our first ever school oral health program back in 2004. At the end of that day, we took a photo of all of us in front of the Kaskikot Health Post, which at that time was just one simple building that today is fully dedicated to our Dental Clinic. Nisha had come to our seminar because her daughter is a student at the school where we were running the training in 2018–with five dental technicians, seven assistants, and an international expert in public health dentistry as trainer.
Finally, the icing on our professional development cake was a world-class makeover for the Kaskikot Clinic. My friend Maelle who lives in Pokhara started an organization called We Art Onethat paints murals and does art programs in schools. We asked We Art One to turn our Kaskikot Dental Clinic in to something bright and welcoming. They took it next level, putting this exuberant mural on the outside and literally building a ceiling mobile inside for patients to gaze at while lying in the chair. It’s made from hand-cut wooden clouds that Maelle painted.
I know not every rural Health Post in the world can have clouds and rainbows hanging from the ceiling. But I think they all should and I think we should try. The only reason we need is that every patient in the world is a person. Those of us with choices would never choose health care in an unfriendly, cold or unwelcoming environment, especially for medical treatment that can be scary like dentistry. I don’t know why we seem to believe in some kind of false economy that suggests it’s not realistic to afford that dignity to everyone. This beautiful artwork was not expensive or difficult; it was just a decision. It mattered more than doing something else for some other purpose.
So that was our summer. Two new clinics and nine veterans are open for business, if anyone out there needs an appointment! Come visit us soon!