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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Between

 

On my way home (by way of Delhi…woe), I have stopped over in the city of Almaty to visit my college friend Freeman, who works for the State Department in Kazakhstan. I know you almost certainly have no idea where Kazakhstan is, and that’s fine. It’s a former Soviet state that shares part of its eastern border with China and its southern border with Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan. Kazakh culture is heavily Russian with a mix of other influences from China and central Asia, and people are predominantly Muslim.  There’s also a significant Korean population, and the art and food maintain a lingering fragrance of the old Silk Road.  The eastern and southern borders are braced by the upper parts of the Himalayan mountain range that eventually makes its way down through Pakistan, India and Nepal.

That Crazy Russian Alphabet

That Crazy Russian Alphabet (bonus: Camca = Samosa)

Basically, Kazakhstan is a gorgeous cultural crossroads, surrounded by mountains, where everything is written in that crazy Russian alphabet that looks like English after a rough night.

On the first day, Freeman and I used a combination of gondolas and hiking to get up to Talgar Pass at 3200m, just outside the city. Later we had an amazing dinner at a Georgian restaurant. Cause also, Georgian.
Talgar Pass, 3200m

Talgar Pass, 3200m

The second and third days we went sightseeing around Almaty. In the Green Market we browsed all manner of essentials including fruit displays from Mars, sacks of rust-colored spices, butt-pad underwear, and a vibrant expanse of fermented Korean goods stretching off nearly to Korea. We spent some time wandering “the area of cheap goods from China, which are the same everywhere,” according to Freeman, who was our only expert in this situation.

One of the most interesting things about Almaty is the mash up of quaint, European-like streets lined with chic cafes and flower gardens, combined with austere Soviet-era concrete fortresses dotted throughout the city: apartments, offices and municipal buildings. On one hand, Kazakhs have enacted such delicate flourishes as distributing mountain runoff over the natural downhill slope of the entire city to create a delightful canal system that sends fresh, cooling streams of water gurgling down the sides of the manicured city lanes. On the other hand, we walked these lovely streets to get to the Central Musuem, which turns out to be housed in the Citadel of Sauron, beamed over directly from the Middle Earth.

 

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“When the Russians build something, they go big,” Freeman explained.

Inside the Central Museum we saw two of my favorite things: mesmerizing spearheads made by prehistoric humans tens of thousand of years ago, and extremely detailed ideas on advanced cosmonogy world organization, painstakingly translated for English speakers.

I was enthralled when we visited a candy store lined with bins of billions of dazzling wrappers in every color, which, it’s candy store-ness notwithstanding, Freeman pointed out had retained a very typical Soviet-era setup, whereby customers wait in long lines while employees put goods in to containers for them. Of course, we’re talking about candy here, and an endless supply at that; under the Soviet Union, basic goods and food were often in short supply. Freeman said it was similar in China, and when he first came to the U.S. at age 11, it was incredible to him to enter a grocery store and be allowed to touch the food.

 

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See, I never thought of that.

As I come to the end of my summer travels, I appreciated the complexity and diversity and contradictions of Almaty. At night, we tried to watch the Olympics, but Kazakh TV was only showing the things where Kazakh athletes were competing, so we attempted to be riveted by the race walking marathon – YES, A WALKING MARATHON – TRY TO STAY RIVETED – and the trampoline competition. When race-walking got to be a lot, I flipped occasionally to the BBC or CNN, where the U.S election is the only thing on, far away and too close, oddly irrelevant, and yet more relevant than ever.  During the time I’ve been in Nepal this summer, there has been an onslaught of international terrorist attacks and domestic racial violence in the U.S….the other day, a friend posted a photo he captured at a Connecticut political rally (where he was protesting) proclaiming “Diversity = White Genocide.”

Mean time, Aamaa has no idea who Barack Obama is, and a major event of our summer was that I acquired some new sheets of corrugated tin to replace the 25-year-old kitchen roof, which was leaking directly into the cooking fire.  How is it possible that a person can go from one side of the world to the other in barely a day?

Nepal is my full-time work, not a summer excursion. Nevertheless, during these transitions from one continent to another, I’m gifted with the chance to be between; to float over the globe and feel the intensity of tiny things, like the drops of water falling where Aamaa sits by the fire, and also the drifty arbitrariness of all of it, how the most urgent fixation somewhere is irrelevant somewhere else, how everything is swallowed in sweeping expanses of destruction and renewal and passages of time. We are so small, yet there are so many treasures to find.

 

Aamaa's cooking fire, Kaskikot, Nepal

 

Maybe that’s why my favorite stop in Kazakhstan was the Central Mosque, which we visited just after the color and chaos of the Green Market. Before we went through the gates, I draped a sheer pink shawl over my head, and while Freeman entered the cavernous men’s side, I made my way around to the smaller women’s side. I removed my shoes and entered a hushed, carpeted room just as a row of women was moving through a series of prayers playing over a speaker.

Standing in the back, I was vaguely aware of myself, a white American Jew standing aside in a Kazakh mosque, a cultural transplant who seems to be at home everywhere and nowhere. I hope these women will forgive my vanity in sharing the over-exposed photo I snapped of their meditation, because at a time with so much violence outside the walls, it was such a soft and sanctified place.  The natural thing was to move to the center of the room and join in the late morning prayer, and it was easy to follow the succession of standing, bowing, kneeling, and bending to the floor. I’ve offered prayers in so many different kinds of temples and situations and settings, these fleeting spaces sometimes feel more like home than many other places where we live.

 

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I don’t speak Arabic, of course, and I’m no more Muslim than Hindu. But with the U.S. border emerging over the horizon, CNN flashing in my head, and the world marching under us, I heard words announce themselves in my ears as I put my forehead to the ground one time and then the next, the pink shawl falling comfortingly around my face.

Please humble our hearts.

Please bring solace to those in sorrow.

Please give wisdom to our leaders.

Please guide us to our better selves.

Please strengthen us through our differences.

Please make me an instrument of peace.

See you soon, USA.

*

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The Contract of Attaining

 

I have been working on rural dental care in Nepal since 2003.  That’s thirteen years.

When I began, the iPhone had not yet been invented.  To call home from Kaskikot, my choices were to wait while Shiva’s dai’s mother rigged up the satellite phone in Deurali, or take what was then a 2.5 hour bus ride to Pokhara and call from an internet cafe.  Now I can Facebook chat while taking breaks during firewood chopping outings.

Our first dental program at the Kaskikot Sub-Health Post, for Sada Shiva Primary School, on May 9, 2004

Our first dental program at the Kaskikot Sub-Health Post, for Sada Shiva School, May 9, 2004

Now in July 2016, Kaskikot’s dingy sub-health post has been upgraded a few times and is a full-scale Health Post.  Someone from almost every house has  left for migrant labor in Malaysia, Dubai, Qatar, or another gulf country, leaving swaths of flush green rice paddies overgrown with grass.  An insurgency overthrew Nepal’s monarchy back in 2006, and the country is still figuring out how to operate a democracy in a place where the young are mostly literate and the middle-aged mostly are not, where rains cut off whole villages from road access during the summer and snow isolates other regions in the winter.  Wireless has long since outpaced plumbing.

Nepal still does not have McDonalds.  Or a majority of schoolbags with zippers that last longer than a year.  Or regularly scheduled elections.  Or, even though it’s the most prevalent disease in the world and influences many of Nepal’s core public health problems, any medicine for dental decay at all in rural places.  Which is still most of the country – and will be for a long time yet.  (See, Wireless vs. Plumbing.)

To the best of my knowledge, our nine rural dental clinics are the only ones of their kind.  There are many aid-funded health care facilities in Nepal, but our clinics are operated by Nepali providers, local to their villages, who practice specialized rural dentistry techniques that are sustainable in limited-resource settings.  We didn’t invent these techniques, but we contextualized them by adding in other pieces like school-based prevention and technician mentoring.  More recently we’ve focused on asking what standard of care these dental technicians can and should be held to within the limitations of environment and training. As a result, we’ve developed considerably more rigorous protocols than are typically applied to permanent rural health services.

Lwang Ghalel Clinic, 2012

Lwang Ghalel Clinic, 2012

This concept is known in international lingo as “rights-based health care.” It’s just the argument that people are entitled to the highest attainable standard of health care within the limitations of context.  This isn’t a new idea, but actually manifesting it through innovation requires a level of patience and detail that could really make you wish you’d gone into a career of monastic asceticism instead.

Fortunately when Roti’s mother came over writhing with a toothache in 2002, I didn’t know I was getting in to a career at all.  At that time I was looking for something I could tell my neighbors in Kaskikot to do when they showed up moaning in pain, which was whenever, not when somebody happened to be rolling by in a mobile clinic.  The answer had to be viable, respectable and available on any random day.  As it turns out, this way of thinking is, by definition, the pursuit of human rights: it seeks a permanent and dignified answer for people, not the implementation of a prefabricated idea.

P1030500That’s how we started combining localized clinics with community awareness programs.  But it took years to realize that wasn’t enough…we had to bring these clinics into the existing health care system of Nepal, a centralized government system that provides a rural Health Post in each village. Basically, our clinics needed to become part of these Health Posts, without losing the benefits of specialization we’d developed.

Nice puzzle.

 

Since 2012, the biggest challenge we’ve faced in this project is handing over our clinics to local ownership after a two-year set-up and supervision period.  Our first clinic in my own adopted home of Kaskikot, the very place I was motivated to have answers for people, ultimately folded after we ran it for SIX YEARS, treating hundreds of people.  The local government wouldn’t run it.  

Honestly, our advocacy strategy was nonexistent in Kaskikot.  Worse yet, I was the American neighbor-kid, and my efforts were seen as personal.  In Kaskikot, I learned the taste of letting go and swallowed a bitter but essential lesson.

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Our second clinic, in the neighboring village of Sarangkot, inched forward.  It’s been operating on its own since 2012, mostly due the persistence of the dental technician, Dipendra, and clinic assistant, Renuka.  They continue to go to the Sarangkot Health Post every single week, and whenever I’ve visited, they have at least 5-10 patients in a day.  But Sarangkot’s local government only “kind of” funded their clinic.  When I sat in a room full of Sarangkot politicians back in 2012, conducting a (kind-of) “handover” ceremony, there was a Washington Post reporter and photographer present while officials explained that the government just didn’t have any money for this clinic.  I had to say bye and hope for the best…and against the odds, another NGO stepped in and donated a moderate dental budget to the Health Post.  Which allowed the Sarangkot clinic to survive, but saved the health care system of the burden of evolving its priorities on a deeper level.

It’s a quandary, so let’s call the problem like it is.  It feels good to do something and see a result.  But when you have an aid state like Nepal, the do-ers are part of an entrenched structure of dependency that absolves Nepal’s public systems of responsibility.  This has been extensively documented, and everyone always seems very dismayed when they’re documenting it.

Okay, but, everyone knows this is the explicit Contract of Producing.  Things mostly run better when the people who decided to start the things are the ones who keep doing them, which mostly is what those people want to do anyway (so that it’s done “right”), and of course the people who didn’t start these things, and probably don’t want to run them, prefer the very same.  Once that’s the way it works, that’s basically what everyone expects and signs up for.  As far as exposés go, it’s not super material.

I am acutely aware of my reluctant participation in this arrangement.  And I too could raise money forever, operate dental clinics one by one in Nepal, and help us all feel like heroes.

But what about the right to the highest attainable care everywhere else?  And besides, what’s “attainable?”  Nepal has a national public health care system that has two key qualities: stability and scale. It’s not famous for quality or agility, but is it capable of incorporating the creations of social innovators and risk-takers to improve its performance one round at a time?

Yes, it has to be.  But only once you break the explicit Contract of Producing.  Instead, there has a be a Contract of Attaining, and then making better things more attainable, and then attaining those.

I think.  I’m still working on this theory before I publish.  But actually, I’m pretty sure about it.

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Salyan Dental Clinic, July 2016

In any case, here we are in 2016, billions of dollars of foreign investment later.  In our corner, we’ve decided to revisit all nine of our dental clinics and focus on their permanent integration in to the government health system.  They’re are all at different stages, from nebulous commitments of local funding to full halts to pre-handover.  We’ve begun by brainstorming with the technicians, and then meeting for coffee with individual village leaders.

Our first stop: Sarangkot…scene of the 2012 Kind-of-Handover.

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Sarangkot Clinic, Post Earthquake

I’ve never visited Sarangkot’s weekly clinic and seen it without patients.  At this point, Dipendra has more specialized experience in rural dentistry in Nepal than pretty much anyone other than the trainers.  He’s treated thousands of children and adults in rural settings, taken refresher trainings, and had at least two clinic audits by a dental surgeon.  But since the kind-of-handover in 2012, we’ve significantly upgraded clinic standards, and the Sarangkot clinic is isn’t supplied for our present quality protocols.  In fact, it’s also being used as a storage room, and the earthquake last year did some interior decorating…and, dusty books. The decor doesn’t really convey, “awesome and critical.”

But here’s our idea. Let’s imagine Sarankgot’s local government was to allocate funding for Dipendra and Renuka, and in exchange, we put about $1000 in to refurbishing the clinic and providing further mentoring.  Sarangkot becomes one of nine places we can invite policy makers in and say: look, this works.  This is awesome and critical.  Here’s another one in Bharat Pokhari, and one in Lwang Ghalel, and…see?  The central health ministry should allocate funding for a rural dentistry specialist in all of its Health Posts.  These progressive village governments are doing it already on their own.

No sweat.  Chop chop.

But it’s important, not just for our issue, primary oral health care, but in principle.  The Contract of Attainment is fairly unpopular, because it’s unmarketable, and we’d all rather feel like heroes.  Somebody has to champion it for its own sake.

IMG_8867Therefore, we’ve spent two long afternoons in the office strategizing, and tomorrow, we’re off to a meeting with local politicians in Sarangkot.  All four of us – me, our Program Director Aamod, and our field officers Dilmaya and Gaurab – are going.  None of us are particularly schooled in political lobbying, but hey, as far as advocating for dental clinic funding in villages in Nepal, I think we’re as good as it gets.  When we met with the Health Post chairman yesterday, he was much more positive than I expected. But things can sound different in a room of people with competing agendas.

So this is where we are in 2016.  We’ve all been thoroughly self-schooled in Virex disinfecting procedures and gloving-regloving infection control, as well as of course the difference between upper molar forceps and an enamel spoon, and we are now embarking on an in-depth immersion experience in citizen advocacy in emerging democracies.

It’s like a career in…in…

…a career in attaining?

Wish us luck!  Time to jump in.

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Salyan Dental Clinic, 2016

Salyan Dental Clinic, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Clouds

Dear Mary,

First of all, don’t worry, this isn’t setting an annual precedent–it’s not like I’m going to write to you every single year on June 26th, which you would find dreadfully contrived. However, I have a few things to tell you about the past year, and I’m thinking about you today.

A year goes by so fast.

Remember those four college guys you told me I should totally convince my parents were okay to stay in my apartment while I was in Nepal last summer? That didn’t work out so great. They threw beer cans in my neighbor’s garden and now my neighbor won’t talk to me. In fact, my neighbor, who chain smokes cigars but used to bring me fresh vegetables from his garden, told me that if I put my recycling in the wrong bin, he’ll take it out and relocate my recycling to my porch. Still, no major damage inside the apartment, and I got a solid month’s rent, so on the whole, I’d say the renters were a win, for me if not my neighbor. You’ll definitely take my side on this one.

The little memory card from your service is on the bookshelf across from my desk. I flip it every few months between your photo on one side, and the picture of the cloud that looks like a hand holding the sun. One afternoon, when you were really exited that you’d taken that picture, we sat in your living room and you tried to show me how the cloud was shaped like a giant hand reaching down from the sky, but I couldn’t make it out. Right here, you said, this is the thumb, going along like this, and the other fingers go along like this. I squinted and turned the paper around and I couldn’t find the hand of God anywhere. You didn’t seem particularly amazed that I couldn’t see this image that was so obvious to you. Eventually, we moved on to something else. Now when I look at it each day I can’t see how I missed it. The hand of God is right there. I can’t not see it.

Just a few days just after I returned from Nepal last summer, I was driving to Wallingford and couldn’t believe you weren’t there.  I consoled myself by deciding we would build all the bamboo houses again.  That would fix things.  We’d hike for days in the hot sun, negotiate with tin vendors and take long bumpy tractor rides, surf waves of despair followed by hope followed by despair and hope, again. We’d be confused all over and learn it all over from the beginning. I’d hike up to that airy ridge in Lakure in the burning sun and drink knockoff Redbull, again. Yes. But when I got up the next day, nothing had changed. The bamboo houses were still standing, and you were still gone.

Often I think about all the people that have died. The list that has grown even this year, when I couldn’t call you. Fifty people were just gunned down at a club in Orlando. So many people die violently or young or right in the middle of dinner. You had a long life full of beautiful things, you were at peace with yourself and the world, you left a tapestry of all of us who love each other because of you and in your memory. I tell myself I should be grateful, and I am. But I miss you anyway.

You are still in the “favorites” in my phone because I can’t delete your name from the list. Once, I was getting in the car and without realizing it I tapped your name and dialed your phone. You picked up your voicemail and started talking to me right there in my car and scared the crap out of me.

VERY FUNNY, YOU TURKEY.

Also, listen, things have gotten really hectic in politics, and I think Bill and I should consider going out as a presidential ticket. I haven’t asked him yet but I think he’ll consider it.  We sometimes watch the debates together on the phone, the way you and I used to have wine dates in our kitchens when it had been too long since our last visit. While Bill and I watch the debates we text and afterwards we debrief till 12 or 1am and I explain all the reasons that I’m right and I represent the future. I am pretty sure that if we ran – of course we’d have to decide which of us was going to be the president – but anyway if we ran, I’m pretty sure we’d have much better ideas than a number of the people who have been running. We’d make you absolutely crazy and you’d roll your eyes over dinner.

Next year I start a field placement for social work school. I’m going to work with Cambodian refugees. This is something we should talk about for a long time. I know I’ll do my internship without you, but it just won’t be the same.

I never did the follow up talk I had planned in the library, and I never tried to get on Fox news again, after that adventure where you convinced me to call and get myself a TV interview about the earthquake in Nepal. I just couldn’t bear the thought of being back in the television studio where I texted you, and especially not the thought of standing before a crowd at that same podium in the library meeting room, looking at the door you sat behind. But strangely enough, I walk past the other side of that door every time I go in the library to get my parking ticket validated. I glance over at the spot where you and Bill sat listening to my talk, and then hustle past it.

Why do I feel better when I’m missing you the worst? I think you should have explained this to me before you left.  The absence is in the shape of you, right where you fit here. I think more people should be made aware of this. It’s a real fucker, as you’d say. You wouldn’t say “fucker” though. You’d make the “f” with your teeth and squish up your nose and then jab the air with your pointer finger, and then slide your gaze sideways from the imaginary fucker back to me. Like this thing about this fucker is slightly classified information that I get to know because I’m with you.

The clock would gong in the living room, and we’d say, it is getting so late!

Also, can something be slightly classified? Isn’t it all or nothing?

Isn’t it all or nothing? 

I’m going to declassify everything. But there are just so many things we didn’t get to.

I think you would approve of how I’ve grown this year. We don’t have a lot of time to spend being afraid or making ourselves small. My life is very blessed with family and friends and challenges of merit. After our visit to Tripureswor Ward #6 last summer, just days after you died, I came home early for your memorial service, but my friend Anne stayed behind. She and Saila dai did a puja for you in his magnificent temple garden. Anne saved prasad for me, a tiny branch with two tear-shaped leaves. She mailed this delicate offering to me months later from Moorehead, Minnesota. Isn’t it an amazing thing to have friends like that? The branch sits on my mantle next to the hand of God. It connects me to you, and Anne, and Saila dai, and those hot and trying weeks after the earthquake, to the bamboo houses, which I can’t trade for you, which is not a deal you’d take anyway.

Well…maybe you’d consider it.  You had a pretty good time here I think you’d take another day.

You will always be one of my favorites. Call, ok?

I love you kid,

Laura

p.s. me trying to get you to sing “imagine that” while listening to it through headphones…first the song, in case you need to reference the lyrics up there

..and this, which I can’t listen to without laughing

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And one from Nepal I think you’ll like…

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Puranchaur Clinic

 

Today I made my first visit to our clinic in Puranchaur, which launched a year ago in winter 2015. We rode motorbikes – I hopped on one with our program director Aamod, and I stuck my friend Freeman on the back of the other bike with our field officer Gaurab. Freeman lived in rural Afghanistan for two years and his training involved things like “how to drive through a blockade,” so I figured it would be okay.

FYI, re: riding on the back of a motorbike:

  1. Paved road –> plus side: fast / minus side: scary
  2. Rutted dirt road –> plus side: good workout, bracing / minus side: rather sore bum, dust
  3. Previously paved road that has deteriorated and broken up in to a patchy mess with some dirt packed around in it –> plus side: there’s a road, so you’re not walking / minus side: everything else

IMG_6319The way to Puranchaur comes in at a solid #3 for a vigorous 64 minute joy ride.

Fortunately, we were greeted at Puranchaur by the sight of a very well-built Health Post. All of our clinics are in buildings provided by the community, and where possible it is ideal if the building can be in or next to the existing government Health Post. But Health Posts aren’t usually this nice.

It was immediately clear that we’ve received good local support at this stage of the game in Puranchaur. There was a lively crowd of patients waiting on the balcony, and this clinic is run by one of our more experienced technicians, Megnath.

See for yourself:

We went through our supervision checklist, which includes a rigorous infection control protocol that I wrote myself by talking with dentists and rural trainers, then making modifications based on my own knowledge of the environment, because I realized that none of the existing guidelines were really adapted for these conditions. Amazingly, the only existing protocols I could get my hands on were for dental hospitals with electricity and technology – think, UV disinfection – or, alternatively, unwritten procedures used in temporary dental camps, which presume very high patient volume and the lack of any stable infrastructure. Can you believe that I could not locate a single infection control protocol designed for a permanent rural dental clinic in Nepal? 80% of Nepal’s population and nearly all the government Health Posts operate in rural conditions!

Which is why now I know more than I ever planned to about gloving and re-gloving, positioning of safety boxes, and timing of Virex disinfection, among other topics.

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Our rewarding visit to Puranchaur has me thinking more and more about the larger idea of our project. It’s great when we’re able to establish these services and it sure is gratifying to come all the way here, after hours and hours of sitting at a desk, meetings on Skype, researching oral health data, giving talks and raising money, and see patients coming in to a clinic in Puranchaur on a Wednesday afternoon. It’s also awesome to me that none of these people associate their clinic with me or my slideshows or any kind of charity, which is not what these services are intended to be. All that is good stuff.

On a bad day it seems like it just isn’t enough. There are so many problems here. A toothache is definitely one of the worst things in the world if it is in your mouth…but it’s not as bad as child trafficking. These clinics don’t solve problems of violence or lack of basic security or opportunity. Sometimes it seems like a lot of effort to still end up in a world that has those problems anyway.

But one thing I think we’re isolating bit by bit has to do with recouping lost opportunities for self-determination. Something our little project does increasingly well that I don’t see very often in this sector is to understand and respect the present capacities of individual people and the communities where we work on all levels. That means letting go of the UV disinfection, but it also means having a proper replacement and monitoring it. It means making services accessible, but then holding people accountable for accessing them by choice, rather than spoon feeding and disempowering everyone for our own gratification. It means that explaining to an old lady that she will not be blind if we pull her tooth out, and making the service psychologically available, is just as important as having a dental clinic that’s physically available.

This is hard to do. It requires an unreasonable amount of patience and the willingness to constantly sort out where to impose control and where to throw everything you think is correct out the window. Inevitably, there are moments where it seems like you’re dong everything wrong and it’s all for nothing.  At some level, I think it only works if you find people as interesting and challenging and curious as the problem you are trying to address.

That’s what has me wondering what we’re really getting at here. I’ve always felt like, even with the visible services this dental project provides, for me as a person, it’s an exercise in something else I haven’t understood yet. Maybe this is just a story I tell myself after a good day, but we would live in and more dignified and peaceful world if we cared as much about actual people as we do about ideas of people.

Today, one old lady with a toothache spent a good bit of time explaining how she’d treated it by putting tobacco in there.  The tobacco helped. Megnath couldn’t extract her tooth because she had complicating heart issues that require referral to a hospital – but he had a nice long conversation with her about the tobacco, anyway.

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The Obvious Practicalities

 

The other day I came across a dazzling, haunting article in the New York Times. The Lonely Death of George Bell opens with a chaotic photo of George Bell’s apartment. He was a hoarder, and until you look at the photo directly, it meets you more like a cubist painting than a photo of an apartment: an angular, colorful, dump.

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The story follows a public administrator in a bleak office in Queens as he searches for George Bell’s next of kin, distributes George Bell’s assets, makes arrangements for George Bell’s cremation and burial. These tasks unfold in unceremonious anonymity – in fact, a significant amount of procedure is devoted to proving George Bell’s body is George Bell. No friends or relatives come forward to identify him. He was discovered in his apartment only after neighbors called to report the stench of his lonely end. This is the story of thousands of deaths in New York City every year.

To me, the article itself serves to witness and exalt George Bell’s silent passing, as well as what might have been among the most authentic feature of his life: isolation. In a way it is a glorious tribute, nearly impossible to look away from.

As you will see from the letters at the bottom, not everyone agrees.  But I was taken with this rare and unapologetically voyeuristic look at the mechanics of death in its most cold and undignified form.  In Western culture, we rarely visit death undressed. Jobs that in other parts of the world – certainly in Nepal – fall to the community in an old and well-traced set of patterns fall for George Bell to the Queens County Public Administrator.

George Bell’s situation is extreme, but it in other ways it simply exposes a shared fear and denial of death in the West: how the body, sacred in many cultures, is foreign and terrifying to us once it is dead.  It must be managed by professionals, or at the very least, out of sight, and as a society we treat any honoring of the spirit as a bonus round after the paperwork has been completed. We take this for granted, as if it is obvious because it is practical.

When I happened upon The Lonely Death of George Bell this week, I was editing a radio story about young widows in Nepal. The piece is about how widowhood rituals are changing for young women, and features 21-year Bishnu Pande, whose young husband died while working in Qatar. He never met their six month old daughter.

This topic is close to my heart, because historically, young women who lost their husbands have been forced to live out lives of ritual mourning, and Aamaa is a direct result of these traditions. She hasn’t worn the color red in 35 years. There was never any question of remarrying. Her husband’s family didn’t entirely abandon her, but they’ve done little to help her. When I arrived in Aamaa’s life, her daughters were in their early twenties, and her identity as a widow had long since blended in to the larger idea of her. I have always known Aamaa just as who she is, not as a woman bereaved. She has good friends, and people to look out for her, and she goes to weddings and dances.

And yet, for all practical purposes, Aamaa has lived a life of ritual widowhood. She is alone. Dancing is on limits, but ritual celebration – wearing sindur powder, receiving celebratory tikka, red clothing – are forever out. Moving back to the home where she grew up is out. A new marriage is definitely out. Her role in society is that of a woman who lost her husband, and has been since she was a 23 year old girl.

That will not be Bishnu Pande’s story.  But something will be.

So today I come across George Bell while editing a piece about Bishnu, having spent over a decade as part of Aamaa’s life. And it’s clear that what is obvious is not just what is practical. And neither is the ritual discipline that Aamaa observes. The obvious is just what we’re used to. Our treatment of death seems inevitable because it stems directly from our collective, subconscious attitude toward life, toward the nature of existing. Which can span the range of possibilities from Aamaa to the Queens County Public Administrator.

I feel like these hours I am spending with Bishnu Pande in my ear come at a time when  she and I are both somewhere in the middle. We’ve approached this crossroads from opposite sides: I from New York, where George Bell died, and Bishnu from Kaskikot, where Aamaa’s husband died. Her culture is learning to shed ritual, and I feel that mine has lost something vital and is scrambling to get it back. It’s like we’ve bumped in to each other in the middle of some misty dreamscape, each of us missing someone and renegotiating the collective attitude we’ve been taught.

Some letters to the editor have already been posted the article on George Bell. One says:

At first I wondered why “The Lonely Death of George Bell” was on Sunday’s front page above the fold. As I got into the article, I couldn’t put it down…Mr. Bell’s sad experience reinforced for me the importance of reaching out to relatives, friends and all those in a situation similar to Mr. Bell’s so that they have dignity in their final days. He deserved better.

And then another:

What could possibly justify this callous violation of George Bell’s privacy?…Mr. Bell could not have made his wish for privacy any clearer if he had specified it in his will, and no decent purpose is served by inviting us all in to trespass on his home….With this article The New York Times inflicted on Mr. Bell a final indignity.

     *

George Bell in 1956. / The New York Times

George Bell (L) in 1956. / The New York Times

 

Fall

 

Tiny yellow petals have started collecting in the right angle between the sidewalk and the street. They are huddled there like a paper river, jumping around and changing places ever so slightly as the cars drive by. It is fall.

It was the end of summer before I started to feel like I had arrived here in Connecticut. Even though I’ve been moving between these two very different worlds for twelve years, it has been over a decade since I was abroad for so long at once – nearly seven months, with a brief six weeks back in the U.S. in April, which is when the earthquake hit in Nepal.

I’ve always felt that the gift of living in two worlds, if I am open to it, is the chance to deepen my appreciation of multiple realities. Certain particularities, like the soft muffle of people arriving to temple during the High Holidays, or the rustle of fall and how it smells like apples and makes me think of being outside with my dad, the amazing fact of the New York bagel, a spectacular city skyline twinkling at night, the miraculous convenience of speedy internet – these gifts and many more have been imbued with a resonance that comes only from heightened gratitude. What a tremendous blessing that this is my world, my life, my palette of choices.

Besides being near friends and family, it’s this intensifying of senses that makes me look forward to returning to the States when I’ve been in Nepal. Whatever the tradeoffs, they come with the euphoric feeling of appreciation. Maybe this is why I’ve come to realize that in some way my role on the planet will always be to move between disparate worlds, rather than settle comfortably in one and become stagnant.

This last arrival, however, has been different. It’s been harder for me to access the joys of this plentiful environment. Maybe we are in a new season in America, and maybe I am different, or maybe some of both. I arrived back to the U.S. during the week of Sandra Bland, just as Donald Trump was taking center stage. Everybody seemed so angry and so loud. Among the significant, real outrages and pathologies happening at our doorsteps – Sandra Bland! – precious few were garnering a majority of the words being expended in mainstream discussion. Outside my house, everybody was disconnected from each other, and inside, I couldn’t hear the wind blowing.

It was like being in solitary confinement and being assaulted at the same time.

I’ve started and stopped this post many times, wondering how to write about this season of being between realities without resorting to clichés. I was in rural Nepal working with people to rebuild their houses after an earthquake, sleeping under tin roofs while the early summer monsoon pounded the hills.  Now I’m in Connecticut listening to the Republican debate in my living room. It’s totally cliché.

And yet it’s not these visible differences that constituted the turbulent vacuum between my worlds this summer. Mostly the last two months have been an exercise in putting up barriers. Between myself and the pavement. Between myself and indifferent crowds. Between myself and a certain nothing that creeps in between the activities and compartments of cars and apartments. Between myself and a hailstorm of unmourned and even unacknowledged injury. Between my ears and the fantastic amount of noise, all the talking and procedure that is not about anything.  Between myself and the precious narcissism of our public discourse.

I realize that these barriers have their value. But it feels like a loss. I’m more aware than ever before how many ways American culture forces us to reduce our perceptiveness in order to survive. It’s true that the catastrophe of the earthquake created an especially unique doorway to a productive social consciousness: there was a gigantic and terrible event, but it was fairly concrete – at least on the surface – and I located myself and my community within it. I was one of many people who looked destruction in the face and began rebuilding with patience and humility and a willful connection with others.

But I didn’t really realize how much my sense of my self in the world and in society had swelled out beyond me in these last seven months – even to the earth and its power, to the inevitability of the monsoon, to the practical absurdity of dirt roads going up mountains – until I was back here, and my world became a cacophony of conflicting radio stations, all purporting to be of critical importance.

The summer has been an exercise in shutting down one channel after another, and then re-learning how to decide which ones to turn back on for brief and highly monitored periods of time.

The summer has been an exercise in dodging the frustration, despondency, and aggression that billows about on the street, unchecked, like car exhaust. Then re-learning how to locate and selectively engage sources of collaboration and joy. After all, it is still a blessing to have this palette of choices, whether or not we see it, whether or not anybody sees it. Gratitude is not something that can be faked – it comes directly from a place of knowing.

The summer has been an exercise in observing our political system, our environmental system, and our media, with the surprised naiveté of a newcomer, and hearing the same story repeated in different packages: in how we describe ourselves, our problems, our economic and racial tensions, the rest of the planet.  In the way we talk about the earthquake in Nepal and the victimized people of the third world.  It is a story of detachment, silence, and frustration transmuted in to righteousness.  And yet the power of our systems is tremendous, if only we could see them.  If only we could hear ourselves.

Our narcissism isn’t that we’re a bad society or a bad people.  We just can’t see it.

I have spent a great deal of time sitting quietly in my living room, wondering how we get outside of ourselves without leaving.  I think it is human nature to cling to anything that tells us what we already know about ourselves.  I’m no different than anyone else.  I’ve just spent a lot of time in situations where there wasn’t much to cling to, so there was no choice but to adjust.  We are much more arbitrary than we think we are.

I think about my dear friend Mary every day and I miss her.  I would like to tell her about these things, so she can remind me without saying so that I am just one more well-meaning narcissist, and we are all going to the same place, so we might as well be good to each other and enjoy the scenery.

Now it’s September and the brittle yellow leaves are collecting in the gutter.  They dance around when the cars and people rush by, but they could care less for the hurry that makes them play like that.  It’s just their season to fall from green branches, and become a river in the street.

.      .      .

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For Mary

I haven’t posted in this series on mourning for a while, but today I only have one thing worth writing about. My beloved friend Mary passed away early yesterday morning in New York – my 3:23 in the afternoon in Nepal.

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I understand that Mary’s death was not a huge surprise, except that every death is a surprise in its finalness. She was 71 and she’d already beat the odds many times. The doctors were always saying she might die. I never tired of hearing about all the times she had, in fact, died. She always chose to come back – from the promise of an easier place, from her father beckoning at the foot of the bed, to this world, to this body, to the blue couch in her living room that we sat on for many long afternoons. Where, in addition to other topics, I plied her for every possible detail about dying.

But I can’t imagine my life without her.

We texted often – she was the queen of the multiple exclamation point with a space preceding it !!! – and talked on the phone like champions. She’d say she only had a minute and then we’d talk for no less than an hour or three. Our longest conversation was 4 hours and 11 minutes and it began at 10:03 pm. For the last fifteen minutes or so, we talked about the record we’d set, and how late it was, and how we should hang up, but how we could never seem to hang up.

Once, after we had talked late in to the night about this choosing and coming back, I was lying on my bed thinking about injustice and heartbreak. If souls choose their destiny, what is the point of all these violent and cruel games? I can’t understand why our souls would choose to create this world out of all the choices. I told Mary that I believe in balance, not kindness or purpose. She said I was really smart, that I had a special gift with words. We discussed it until two am, and when we hung up, I felt smart, and Mary still had kindness and purpose. She never minded that I would throw stones at God and then come back to her to get organized.

Mary was never in a hurry to finish a story. She’d say she had to quickly tell me one more story really fast and then the story would take twenty minutes to tell and then we’d analyze it and think of all the other stories it reminded us of and all the life lessons it offered for another forty minutes.

She called me “kid” or “you turkey” so I called her “kid” or “you turkey.”

One time I trimmed her hair with office scissors in the staff bathroom.

I met Mary when I came to the clinic as a patient in 2006. The fact that she became one of my best friends in the history of ever, and that I would talk with her on the phone for hours and hours late in to the night, makes my story completely like almost everyone’s story of Mary. She became one of my mom’s best friends. I became friends with the other patients Mary became friends with. I listened and re-listened to stories of best friends she’d kept since kindergarten.

I never felt that the army of best friends Mary had diminished my best-friendness with her even a little. This is one of the important things about the nature of the universe that Mary taught me without ever explaining it. I just understood with her that there was enough love for an infinite amount for everybody.

I wanted to record so many of her stories. But I never recorded the story about how she got her finger stuck in her friends’ designer bowling ball and ended up in the emergency room attached to the bowling ball. I never recorded the story about how she fixed up her sister with the doctor who tended to her during her first heart surgery forty years ago, or the story about the proud old woman Mary insisted get into her car on a steep hill one day, and how Mary said, “Don’t you just want to cry?” and then cried with the old woman in the car because the hill was so steep and it was so hot. I never recorded the story about the hour she spent chasing down a lost purse in a store for a complete stranger who had left on a bus, and how the bag turned out to have a precious bundle of cash in it, bringing the owner to tears. I never recorded the last story she told me, the night before her surgery, about how the residential suites at NY Presbyterian Hospital are only for VIPs, so she got the mayor of Wallingford to write a letter about all the Very Important things she’d done in Wallingford, and then she mailed it to Angela upstairs, who promptly arranged a residential room for her dear Bill and Colleen. (When the mayor sent the letter to her house, he threw in an edible arrangement.)

Mary, I know you would say it’s totally unimportant that I never recorded these stories. That’s because I’m always trying to keep the past with me, scraping at it with my fingers and toes and arms and legs and everything, and you found all that hassle extremely pointless. You weren’t much for books or movies and I love books and movies. Your living was people. You said books were disconnected from people and took you out of the moment when you could be talking to someone. All this documenting and remembering that consumes me was always, to you, a distraction from the wonderous, fleeting present.

When Mary told me stories about her grandkids and kids, or about dating gentle Bill, or about the best friend she lost when she was sixteen, it was never boring or self-indulgent. Her family brought her so much joy, you couldn’t not be happy with her. I listened to the same stories and looked at the same pictures and read the same poems many times, and I always felt lucky to be in her delight and gratitude.

I spent more time talking with Mary about God than anyone else I’ve known or ever will know. We talked about everybody’s dying. Hers, mine, our friends’, her mother’s, the relatives – we relived and examined all of them, past and future, death in the abstract, the question of choosing, the question – or lack thereof – of God.

Mary said she didn’t want any fanfare after her passing, and I told her I was showing up anyway, even if it was by myself in the rain (which would be impossible anyway, given the legions of best friends). I said if I got hit by a bus and went first, she better freaking show up on my day. I didn’t care if that made me less enlightened. She told me there could be a hurricane on the day of my funeral and nobody would come, and that I had to come to a place in my heart where that was okay with me. I said that was the most awful thing I’d ever heard.

Mary didn’t “believe” in God. She just experienced God. She let me argue with her about God and wear myself out, so that I could rest on her experience. Mary helped me make a tenuous peace with the fact that life is easier and fuller and more magical with God, and you can’t win the argument either way. So you might as well be with God. All her dying gave her cred with me in the God department. She knew things I don’t know. She wasn’t afraid of anything except for the pain her death would cause her family. That was no secret – it was a wisdom and fear she offered freely.

Mary was the very first person I ever spoke to about IMT, which eventually healed my body, brought me irreplaceable teachers and friends, and changed my life. She was the person whose arm I curled up under on a fluffy couch during the scary and uncertain week I first moved to Connecticut. She was the person who I sat with at parties and funerals, and who had time to talk to me almost every single day for an hour or two about big wide things, during a period of my life where I felt unmoored and panicked for long, terrifying hours at a stretch. She was the person who, during a moment of lingering emptiness or need for contact, I could always text or call without feeling like I was imposing. She appreciated every last fiber of human connection that this life offered her. My search for meaning was as beautiful and important to her as it is to me, and she was never too much older or wiser to include me in her journey too.

The last time I should have seen Mary was just before I left for Nepal six weeks ago. I was giving a talk at the Hartford library about the earthquake, and it was unfortunately on Mother’s Day. I was feeling sad and disconnected because nobody was around, and I was preparing to return to an unknown Nepal suffering new destruction and loss. I hoped I might get lucky and see some familiar faces in the crowd. There was a small audience of about fifteen people, two of whom were my parents and two were my good friends Steve and Jackie. I put on my bravest face and did the talk, which actually went pretty well.

Later that evening, I got a text from Mary. “Well, we tried !!!” she said. I wrote back to say it meant everything to me that she’d wanted to be there; her text finally brought a little bit of lightness in to my heart.

“No, we WERE there !!! ” she replied. Turns out that Bill and Mary had delayed their Mother’s Day plans with their son Billy, drove an hour to Hartford to surprise me, and arrived 10 minutes after my talk had started. And Mary, being Mary, said it would be rude to enter after the start of the talk, so they sat outside the closed library door. The one I was staring at the whole time during my presentation, with no idea they were right on the other side.

Mary told me later that she was listening to my presentation, but I know she wasn’t concerned with the details. She was there to provide her presence, not to learn about Nepal. They waited and waited, but when the program went much later than planned, they had to leave to go to Billy’s house. So I never saw her. I never snuggled my nose on to her shoulder and got wrapped in her hug, which was the one thing I wished for so much that afternoon, and the one thing she came there to offer. But she was there the whole time.

She was there the whole time.

This is the enduring image I am left to wrestle with of you, my beautiful Mary. Maybe it was your higher wisdom at work, because that was our last meeting. I know that my task is to take comfort in the idea that you are just there on the other side of the door, where I can’t see you, waiting for me to be done with all these cumbersome details, bearing witness to my story so that I can indulge in my own relevance until I find my way out of the room. But today, this is too close to how I actually feel. You are just where I can’t get to you, and I only want to jump in to your arms. It is too soon to appreciate your nearness when I am enraged by the door.

I love you, Mary. I will never be able to quantify your impact on my life. I think this is all new, and you are still basking in the glory of the kingdom where you have finally arrived. I know that with time you will find your way to us, and we will find your way to you. I know impatience won’t help me, and you know I will be impatient anyway. I know you are not afraid, and you know I have borrowed your courage and will have to find a way forward now with my own. I miss you so much. Your last text to me says: !! Drive safely !!! You know perfectly well you sent that to me in reference to a tractor I was preparing to ride on for 12 hours, delivering tin roofs in the hills of Nepal on ridiculous jeep roads. You turkey.

I wish I had at least recorded the story about the bowling ball.

I really should go now. This has gone on much longer than planned and nobody is going to read it to the end. But it always takes so long to hang up, and these aren’t the kinds of things that can be rushed. This is what happens every time. I know you will read it to the end and that’s all that matters.

Ok then—see you in the morning, kid.

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Glamping and Magic Cake Houses

 

Reading over my blog entries, I’m realizing I’ve left out some of the nicest details of the hospitality we’ve received in Archalbot this week. So let’s just put them all together.

Detail #1: Glamping

IMG_9481Dilmaya and I stayed at Kripa’s house. It’s standing, but unstable, so we’re all sleeping outside or in small rooms on the edges of the house. For years I’ve joked with Aamaa about going to sleep with the buffalo, or sending Pascal and Aidan to sleep with the buffalo when they’re being cheeky. Now, I can say I’ve actually slept with the buffalo. This glamping site (a phrase I learned this winter when a new “glamorous camping” hotel was going up in Pokhara) was one of the best places I’ve ever gotten to sleep. I loved dozing off each night in the open air and waking up slowly each morning to a cool breeze rustling over the corn, the green hills coming in to focus through the mosquito net.

Later in the week it started raining, so Kripa’s mother moved the bed to the porch. Cute, right? Our last night in Archalbot it rained heavily all night and all morning, and I lay on this cot listening blissfully to the tap-tap-tap-tap on the tin roof.

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Detail #2: Dancing

The night before Robin and Colin left Archalbot, we had a dance party at Kushal’s house, in the same yard where we first met this whole community just a short week and a half ago. It was so much fun. All the uncertainty and worry that the earth bag house hadn’t been finished, who had and hadn’t fulfilled what responsibility, what would be done next and who’d been let down or left out…everyone just kicked back and had a big old dance of it.  Which is how we handle potentially stressful situations in Nepal.

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Detail #3: This Grandma

For the days when we had lots of help with the earth bag house, everybody, and I mean everybody, pitched in. You just couldn’t miss this grandma, who unfailingly monitored the scene all day, and during stone-breaking, sat with her legs in a perfect South Asian squat, clicking stones in to pebbles.  One day, I was loading rocks on to our makeshift carriers, and she came over and carefully began placing stones one at a time on to the tarp, with this kind of tentative body language that said, “I mean why not? It’s the thing to do.  Let’s see about it.”  After I got too excited and overloaded one bundle, we made the next one a little lighter so she could carry it with me. I couldn’t choose between these two amazing photos so you’re getting both of them.

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Detail #4: Breaking stones

IMG_9624The foundation of the earth bag house is made of alternating layers of stone and packed dirt, and the first two layers of the house itself are made from sacks filled with little stones, which I now know to be called giti. In order to get enough stones, Mahendra’s family demolished one of the unstable rooms of their house, which was highly satisfying since the house will eventually need to be taken down anyway. Then, for days, there were all these people just sitting around clinking away at stones. A lot of the women and kids worked incredibly hard on this.

I’ve always had an association between stone-breaking and the awful child labor that you often see in the river bed: poor families breaking stones all day in the hot sun, children out of school. But this scene was totally different. It was like some kind of anti-submission-to-earthquake factory. It felt defiant and exhilarating having all these people in the community dismantling their own home in order to put the pieces in to the heavy foundation of a new house.

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Detail #5: Flour

We used recycled sacks for the earth bag house, and they had previously contained flour. A team of two to three people was fully devoted to shaking out each and every sack to gather the palmfuls of flour remaining in each bag. Over the course of hundreds of sacks, the flour piled up like so. And, as Mariah pointed out, our earth-bag house was also something of a cake-house, and our team looked like a bakery.

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Detail #6: Kushal

I interviewed Kushal twice. Once, so he could show me around his house (look for him in an upcoming radio piece for BBC’s The World). The second time, to ask him what he thought about this whole housing thing, and what his perfect house looks like in his imagination. He talked to me about magic, in english, and I recorded it:

“Everything is magic. I walk, you walk, it is a magic. We can jump, we can speak, anything is magic. This is a house, it is also a magic. In the stone age, there was nothing like this house. In the stone age people lived in caves and they didn’t feel safe because animals can any time harm them. But we can feel safe here. There are many inventions like radio, microphone, camera, and DVD, laptop, computer and radio, it is also a magic. The people are developing magic. I don’t know surely, but I want to do some magic in my life. My life is also a magic that someone has gifted me, and your life is also a magic that someone has gifted you.”

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