Laura Chiama

 

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

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

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

Up we went. Switchbacks.

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

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

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

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

Narayan with his other American gift

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Downpour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MILK TEA.  I fill up my cup twice.

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

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

We have to walk to Naudanda.

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

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

Was there a hurry?

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Hittin’ the Big Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And at the same time, I guess wasn’t.

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

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

*

 

Wanderlust, with “Trespassing!”

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of Catching a Goat

 

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

1. Grab Your Desire

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

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2. All the Religions at the Same Time

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

3. The Power of Power

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

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

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

4. KP’s Dental Technician Henna Tattoo 

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

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5. The Power of Catching a Goat

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

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

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

6. Paragliders in the Mirror

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

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7. It's My Shit

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

8. The Prime Minister on a Tractor

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

I mean, What?

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

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

8. The Power of The Stage

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

9. These extremely uncomfortable mannequins in Kathmandu Mall.

Why, world? Why? Who approved this?

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The Ritual of Goodbye

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Put In The Museum Pants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Item 1: The Mural Surulwar

Mural, White Paint - Me

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

Item 2: The Elastic Bathing Lungi

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

Item 3: The Red Kurta I Stole From Bishnu

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

Item 4: The Put In The Museum Pants

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

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

Item 5: This one’s not my fault.

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

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

Oct. '03

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

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

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Happy New Year!

No wait…one more for the road.

Cause I’m keeping the purple one.

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Tihar, Festival of Lights, 2003

 

 

 

 

Real Work in the ‘Hood

 

After our week of screenings in Puranchaur and Hansapur, I took our university teams up to Kaskikot. We didn’t arrive in until late on Sunday night, after visiting our Bharat Pokhari clinic during the day.  Everybody stayed in the hotel behind the house, but most people came down to hang with me and Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa for a while.  We had tea, chilled in the kitchen, and of course I put some Henna on Neha and Justin.

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The next morning, we said bye to Karen and the Berkeley/UCSF crew.  It’s been so special hosting these guys, and we’ve all learned so much from them.  First of all, we had an immersion week in the science of oral health and nutrition, and also in research and evaluation.  But it was also so invigorating for our field teams to get to work with Dr. Karen, Dr. Madhurima, and the students they brought, and I can’t wait to see all of these guys later this spring out in California!

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Keri and Bethy are sticking around for another week, which began with a trip to Sarangkot to screen past patients and do a clinic audit, which I’ll write about in another post.  We came back to Kaskikot on Monday night so that after this marathon week, we’d have the next day to just hang out.  In the evening, we lay around in bed exchanging songs with Hadjur Aamaa.  She wanted to see some dancing, and Keri turns out to have an amazing workout mix on her laptop, so that kept Hadjur Aamaa solidly entertained for quite a while.  In exchange, she allowed us to teach her some lyrics from “Holla Back.”  This is Hadjur Aamaa learning to declare, “It’s my shit.” (Video credit: Keri.)

First thing in the morning, I put Bethy and Keri to work churning milk, while Aamaa bustled back and forth past us over and over again, saying we were going to ruin it, which was a possibility, and I replied that everything was going to work out just fine, the foreigner way.  Which basically gave Keri and Bethy the full experience of my life.

Next, of course, I commandeered the dentists carry to water in baskets, which was well worth it just for this fantastic piece of documentation.

What?  We needed a lot of water.

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We hiked up to the Kalika temple and had a photo shoot.  I’m not even gonna explain how this happened…Bethy was in the New Zealand military and has superpowers.  I just had a good photographer named Keri.

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We came home and spent a couple hours in the yard with Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa shucking corn.  TBT to the time my family came to visit in 2004, and we shucked corn in the yard:

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Shuckin' Corn

Tomorrow we’re on to a school seminar in Rupakot, and then Salyan for another clinic audit.  But this was a pretty swell stop, in my unbiased opinion.

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Saun Sakranti

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Each year, at the end of the rice planting season, on the first of the month of Saun, we submit to the explosion of greenery, the ebullience of the insects and heat and unrelenting rain. On Saun Sakranti, women slide green bangles onto their tan arms and people spend the day decorating their hands in henna patterns. Didi says this is because it’s supposed to keep snakes away in the fields. (Therefore I’m thinking of petitioning to make this practice a more regular public service?)

In case I haven’t made it clear that I’ve gotten really in to henna drawing, it’s one of my favorite things ever. I don’t know why I didn’t discover it sooner, but last year our Gaky’s Light Fellows introduced me to this awesome activity during some of our evening hangouts. Since then, I’ve practiced my henna doodles on anyone who will let me.  Plus anyone who can be convinced.

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Which makes Saun Sakranti pretty much the greatest festival ever, although I realize I say that about almost every festival and celebration in Nepal because so many of them are colorful, awe-inspiring, or loud and joyous.

On my way up to Kaski for Sakranti I collected up some green bangles and a few packets of henna. I had a date with Sulochana, Govinda’s 13 year old daughter, who pleads with me to put henna on her every single week. With such a fast rotation of new designs she’s become a IMG_8914walking advertisement, and some of her friends have been waiting their turn for a few weeks now. So when I got to Govinda’s house mid-afternoon on Saun Sakranti, there were some eager customers waiting already.

Once I started though, more people just kept coming. Mostly kids, but a handful of adults too – one sweet auntie waited for an hour and a half. I ended up doing this for almost three hours! It
was so much fun! And, I must add that 99% of the things I try to do in Nepal are initially met with unwitting displeasure at my incompetence – unfortunately, my skills at cutting grass and sifting grain and plastering houses and planting millet, and a few other things, were not well practiced at age 22 when I started trying them in public – so being received as the uncontested henna queen of Kaskikot was, I admit, a hard-earned affirmation of ego.

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And it’s pretty.

Happy Saun Sakranti, everyone!

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The Video Nepal’s Been Waiting For

 

In thirteen years, I have spent at least one of every season here.  I’ve cut rice and planted millet.  I’ve harvested wood.  I’ve cut wheat, and planted corn and churned milk the old fashioned way.  I’ve chased the chicken around and painted the house for Dashain.  Most of these things I’ve done multiple times, and believe me, I received plenty of impassioned feedback as I tried them out.  These are all activities people in rural Nepal learn from toddlerhood.  Seeing a grown woman who can’t flip a pan of rice grain properly is basically impossible not to comment on.

Dec. '03

I’ve pretty much learned a lot of these things because I absolutely insisted on doing them terribly while I figured them out.  In some cases, I’ve really earned my stripes.  In others, let’s just say that people have become happy with the American version of, for example, collecting water.

But there’s one season I’ve purposefully avoided, and it’s the rice planting one.  Even tasks I don’t much enjoy, such as those involving fertilizer (i.e. buffalo poop), are things I have determined to throw myself in to.  It’s like how, when I used to take winter diving lessons, we had a “fun day” where we got to use all of the diving platforms at Montgomery Aquatic Center, and that meant that, for fun, I had to make myself jump off the petrifying 10-meter platform that was level with the third-floor spectator section.  I absolutely hated fun day.  But it never remotely crossed my mind that, if the 10 meter platform was available, I wouldn’t jump off it.

This brings us to the topic of the hot, buggy, wet rice planting season.  I think you get my point.  I stayed in the U.S.  No fun day.

It’s not like this was very clever and nobody noticed.  Every year I am asked when I will come to plant rice.  People will list all of my accomplishments to date, and exclaim as to how I have never participated in this one activity that is so central to the culture and basic survival of Nepal.

Ok, so here it is.  I determined to jump off the 10-meter platform this summer.  Partially because as you get taller, it doesn’t look as high.  I over came my distaste for the idea of the monsoon last summer, and this summer, I appreciate the torrential rain tremendously.

So last weekend I joined Saano Didi’s family in their rice paddies.  Govinda’s daughter Sulojana came with me.  And the amazing thing about waiting 13 years to do this: not one person cried out at how terrible I was at planting rice.

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“You have to teach her, sikaunu parchha, you have to teach her,” all the ladies cooed.

Silky mud, bright clothes, plants in your hands.

“Laura, you’ll be back in November, right?” Neru asked.

“Yep.”

“Because that’s when we can eat this rice.  Make sure you’re back.”