EDITORS NOTE: Back in late May, just as this post was ready to be published, so many things happened, frontlined by the tragic murder of George Floyd and the uprisings against racial injustice that followed. All of my blog posts were delayed in coming weeks, which became months of more surprises, transitions, public reckoning, and adjustment. So for now, thanks for reading along as I catch up on unpublished entries from the intervening time.
Here we all are nearly two months in to this bizarre reality. The team in Nepal have all been working from home, and we meet daily for a morning and evening call. I join the evening call in Nepal every day at my 7:15am in Connecticut, and getting up each day for our call has been the ordering event of my American quarantine experience, forcing me to maintain a routine that starts early each morning with human connection on the other side of the world.
The number of Covid cases reported in Nepal is still low, but major cities are on complete lockdown, with police in the streets. In Kaskikot and most of our rural working areas, it seems people are going about their daily business – corn planting season has just ended – but transportation and commerce are mostly shut down. There is a worry that Covid cases may only be starting to hit a rise now, as the first deaths have just occurred; but it is hard to know how the lack of testing, reporting and accessibility to hospitals in so much of the country plays in to the accuracy of data on case prevalence.
One particularly interesting discovery is that Nepal seems to have largely based its quarantine strategy on an extremely well-rehearsed protocol for political shut downs. Political strikes have been the main style of public dissent (or social control, depending on your point of view) for the last 25 years in Nepal. When a strike, or “bandh” (“closing”) is instituted, transportation, schools and businesses are closed, people mostly stay home, and if you need to go somewhere, you walk. Depending on who has called the strike, and the level of power and uncertainty involved, police may patrol the streets to ask what business you are out for and decide whether or not to send you back home.
And for the moment, it seems this is more or less the same strategy that has been enthusiastically deployed for Covid prevention.
On the plus side, Nepali people are pretty used to the bandh-style quarantine. Back when I first started visiting Nepal in the early 2000’s during the civil war, bhandhs were imposed almost weekly by either the Maoists or the government. After the overthrow of the Monarchy in 2006, a notable effect was a bandh-free-for-all whereby any sub group with a pending discontent of any kind would call for a strike: drivers striked to protest fuel prices, teachers striked to protest salaries. In 2012, a series of strikes broke out across the country when the Parliament was trying to move to a federalist political system, and ethnic groups as small as 150 people called for closings to demand representation in a new state constitution. One sub-group would strike one day and everything would be closed, and the next day, everything would stay closed but now on behalf of the responding strike by another sub-group. And because bhandhs are shut downs (not simply a refusal to work), these protests were widely understood to mean that the entire public was to stay home. So everybody would just stay in their houses or go for short walks until everyone with something to say was done striking.
With some exceptions, that is—such as the Gurung strike in Pokhara during the 2012 series, which involved both policed closures and exuberant Gurung dancing and singing at the empty traffic intersection in Mahendrapul. Which was followed later in the week by a Brahamin strike and corresponding displays of cultural force.
All of which is to say, in Nepal coronavirus has met the Olympic World Champions of self-quarantine. However I’d like to also report that for the sake of the global pandemic, a few fantastic additions have been made. Topping the charts, we have these people-catcher-thingies on long poles. Really. See for yourself. This terrific solution ensures police don’t have to potentially touch covid-y pedestrians who are found to be walking without cause or ID, and I am so glad it has had occasion to be invented and put on the internet.
As to our daily team meetings: in the odd dream of a halted, people-catcher filled world, with all primary health care either paused or redirected to coronavirus response, the tinny voices of my colleagues over Viber each morning has helped to maintain a sense of movement while most of our work and so much of the world stands still. We’ve challenged each other to home exercise goals and used our office messaging system to share videos of our respective jump roping efforts (Rajendra impressively did his with a traditional namlo rope used to carry baskets). We employed our dental technicians to make personal phone calls to all the patients in their registers to go over Covid-prevention guidelines. We began a home-made mask campaign.
We have also, finally, taken this time to launch our youtube channel. There is a huge variety of content here: tours of our clinics, cute kids doing school brushing programs, samples of community outreach parent discussions and child-friendly dental care in schools, some words from a village chairman about our project, and my personal favorite: the annual Oral Health Bhailo competition, where schools record traditional bhailo songs on the to topic of oral health during the festival of Tihar (seriously, these are devastatingly adorable). These videos really bring the people and places we work with to life and we’d love you to click around and visit us at home in Nepal! (And better yet, please subscribe to our channel!)
After all, we’re gonna be in this for a while. It’s a great time to connect.
These past few weeks, I increasingly find myself reliving the morning of April 25, 2015, when my phone woke me at 6:30am. I rolled over and Prem was on the line: a 7.8 magnitude earthquake had ripped through Nepal. I stumbled to the kitchen table in my slippers and didn’t move for what seemed like days. The papers were covered with images of fallen temples that were whole in my albums, with tent cities at familiar outdoor intersections in Kathmandu, with maps seen from high above and covered in digital markings. It was a long time before anyone could capture photos of people, especially in the rural expanses of the country, which were accessible only by helicopter for what seemed like ages. But in my mind’s eye the earthquake was a long, long parade of individuals. Today, I reread the email I sent out three days later.
It is a strange feeling to find the whole planet in crisis. Population-level disasters of this scale seem to disproportionately fall upon the shoulders and homes and rivers of the world’s most vulnerable places, while the other places try to help. In the years I have worked in Nepal, Nepali people have plodded on through civil war, three major government transitions, annual landslides and floodsand hail, the 2015 earthquake, water shortages and electricity outages up to sixteen hours a day for years on end, and of course, the daily vulnerability of chronic poverty, weak infrastructure, and floppy safety regulations. The road to Kaskikot has had three bus accidents in the time I have considered it my second home. I remember thinking after the earthquake, as I watched messages flood my accounts, that people didn’t realize how often Nepal’s communities were used to seeing things broken, taken, lost, or never having existed in the first place. The earthquake was unthinkably horrible. Yet for those who didn’t lose everything–people, entire villages–that trauma was largely swallowed within a few months by massive shortages of petrol and goods due to political instability and border closings. The summer brought deadly landslides. Six months later, most of the country was no longer discussing the earthquake.
These last few weeks have been an odd, house-of-mirrors experience. While Nepal is facing pandemic, New York City and Milan and Barcelona and Sydney are also facing pandemic. My colleagues are quarantined in Pokhara and Kaskikot and Tilhar, and I’m quarantined in Hartford, and Prince Charles is quarantined in London. The realization that anything could happen to anyone at any moment has set upon us all, a realization that seems to be expanding daily. And amidst a great deal of chaos and uncertainty and worry, I find myself in occasional moments of disconcerting calm. Things were always this way. Now they are simply unveiled. We are all the defenseless Other.
Now as then, there is great beauty to uncover in difficult times. In the months after the earthquake five years ago, we improvised. I have no idea how many kilometers Dilmaya and I walked. Practically speaking, I learned a huge amount about the contributions a small community-based organization like ours can offer in disaster management. At that time we found we were well placed to spend personalized time on unique household and community circumstances, to mitigate challenges that didn’t meet a universal disaster threshold but were extremely destabilizing for the specific individuals facing them. Our focus became “the lower percentage of damage:” the houses that were not fallen, but cracked and indeterminately unsafe. It was a life-changing experience.
Every day this week I’ve joined in a group call with my colleagues in Nepal as they work from home, developing a strategy to redirect our rural health care personnel from dentistry to coronavirus. Since we launched our Dental Hub app in September, hundreds of patients and their phone numbers have been entered in our database, so our first step is having dental technicians replace their weekly clinics with “phone clinics,” calling every patient in the database. We’ve created a script for checking in with each family to see how well they’ve been able to implement isolation guidelines and what if any obstacles are in the way. We don’t yet know how this will go or how useful it will be, but it’s something to do. It’s a way to be in community.
All that said…the 2015 earthquake was irreconcilably different than the looming crisis we are facing now. To begin with, the rest of the planet is occupied with its own emergency, not fundraising and overloading the aid channels in Nepal with variably useful assistance strategies. Second, Nepal’s health care system was inadequate to meet public need before coronavirus, and there is effectively no intensive care available for severe Covid-19 cases. So even though there are so far very few confirmed coronavirus cases in Nepal, I am still trying to understand how “flattening the curve” works in a health care system where the capacity threshold is fairly close to zero. We don’t know the answer, if there is one. I’m not sure yet if anyone does.
Like many of us, I can’t help but wonder how we would understand our society if we felt this vulnerable and interdependent all the time. It is deeply unfamliar to us in the dominant American culture–replacing the community of work-productivity with the community of survival. Confronting the primacy of the nuclear family, when that family is cut off from neighbors, schools, social supports, food production, occupation, and future planning. This discomfort feels worthy of deep and shared reflection. In the mean time, I have made a call list, and have been doing one quality catch-up each day with someone I’ve missed, or who I want to make sure isn’t alone.
For whatever reason I also found myself drawn back this week to this poem, written during the (still unresolved) family separation crisis at the US border in the summer of 2018. I hope to use coming weeks to catch up on past entries and continue posting about the unfolding of this pandemic Nepal on my blog. In the mean time, wishing all of you patience and resilience and comfort as we, as a world, navigate the weeks and months ahead.
The cicadas came when I was five
behind the school yard.
I put my finger on one
and then I picked it up
it was like a fig, dark and rough.
At five cicadas were interesting, like figs.
Now I am much bigger
friendly, the little goat nuzzles my shoulder with his warm snout
soft, we are alive, together easily.
And then I press my eyes shut
as I capture the insect that has invaded this carpet, which is mine
because I own it.
Sometimes I wonder how I can find my way back
from the pliant kid to the figs to the cicadas, captivated
with all their legs, their slick ribbed shells, all their songs enchanting
the school yard
all chirping and chirping tickling my ears until my ears overflowed with music
amid the crunching leaves and delicate wings
a symphony, a society, a universe blossom
after seventeen years of silence.
Sometimes I wonder
what we are afraid of
why we crush things, bugs and leaves and oceans and people
when I was five, I used
just one tiny finger
to say hello.
After I got back from Base Camp yesterday, I was absolutely spent. My muscles weren’t tired exactly, but it’s hard to describe the physical sensation of altitude to which you are truly not acclimatized. It is as if each of the cells in your body has its own individual case of asthma and is wheezing. All your organs are wheezing. They work, but you feel a kind of sluggish you didn’t know existed. It is hard too imagine digesting anything, because nothing inside of you feels like it’s doing anything except lying in bed, wheezing.
With this in mind, I would now like to share that as I approached the hotel on my way back from Base Camp yesterday, right there in the yard was…
A LOCAL SOCCER GAME.
Are you kidding me??
In my wheezy brain, this was one of the most incomprehensible sights of my entire trip to Everest Base Camp. I was practically counting my steps back to my bed. When I got to bed, I was going to hear a knock on the door, and a happy hotelier was going to be standing there with a celebratory hot chocolate for me on the house. And, try as I might to drink this gift because it was so lovely and festive, it was to go cold on the tray, because it just seemed to complicated. AND OUTSIDE, THESE KIDS HAD THE NERVE TO BE PLAYING SOCCER.
Later that evening, we all gathered around the hot stove. The whole group had made it to Base Camp, but the Brit felt too unwell to come downstairs. I was doing comparatively okay, but I barely swallowed any of the noodle soup I had for dinner. We heated our hands, chatted a while, took our oxygen saturation levels for sport, and went to bed.
This morning, Laura (#2) was still too nauseous to drink or eat and couldn’t really get out of bed. She’s a fit marathoner who took a reasonable route up with two acclimatization days. Eventually, her husband decided it was time to call an evacuation helicopter. Out of about ten people I got to know during this week, two were evacuated. Once you know to listen for it, you can hear many helicopters throughout the day. Seriously, hanging out at 16,000+ feet is no joke. As for me, I was making do, but my O2 sats had been in the 60s for almost three days, and I couldn’t wait to get down to thicker air.
After tea Thorsten and I said goodbye to Franco and Laura and their guide Narayan, and began our descent, along with Thorsten’s guide Dinesh and porter Kisan. Maybe it was mostly psychological, but by Lobuche I wanted breakfast. We continued, retracing our steps at four times the speed we’d labored them the first time. I passed a guy I met at the start of my walk. A few of us have been keeping track of each other in group chats. This guy had lost the trail back around Dingboche and spent an entire night outside with no sleeping bag. I was pretty impressed that he was still on his way up to Base Camp, after that.
I arrived back at Thukla Pass, this time approaching from the other side, where the regal memorials rise in to view with indescribable majesty—the peaks on the imminent horizon leaning in as if the curvature of the earth itself is drawn toward them. It occurred to me to make sure I got another photo from this angle, where the saddle of the pass yawns dramatically at the sky; but I was so tired. I just wanted to get below Thukla and feel strong again. And, I thought, I had taken pictures once—humbly, I hope, and out of awe and admiration. But now I should just keep my camera where it was, and honor this beautiful place by passing through peacefully.
We arrived back at Thukla by mid morning, and from here I made the choice to say goodbye to Thorsten and Dinesh and Kisan. Who, like reasonable people, were descending on the steeper route down to Pheriche, which was the route I’d come up a few days ago, idiotically giving myself even less time to acclimatize. Now I wanted to see the parallel path, slightly longer, that most people take on the way up through Dingboche. But also, I knew that I was going to have to rejoin myself in solitude at some point. It had been a great gift to walk quietly along behind others during the hardest days of the trip, and it was difficult to separate. But Thukla was where I’d come in to company, and it was the place where my path was to go its own way again. We exchanged contact information, and then I was alone with my map.
And I felt quite alone.
I walked and walked, losing elevation by the minute. I didn’t stop for lunch, only to occasionally adjust my clothing. Well below Dingboche, the oxygen-deprived environment remained vast and barren. I didn’t mind the absence of people, but I felt a terrible longing for trees and for needles underfoot, to provide order and comfort. For a path with two sides, instead of a mere carving in enormous open space.
Around Deboche, I came across two porters on their way to Namche. One was carrying five blue barrels and the other a load of goods in boxes. I wondered if I could make it all the way to quaint, hotel-packed, latte-serving Namche, where I’d slept my first night of the trip. I considered whether the porters might make road companions, but they alternately walked too fast for me to keep up (yes, while carrying those loads), or stopped for extensive periods of beer drinkin, and this proved difficult to plan around. So I just kept walking.
I walked 20 miles. Around 5:15, in a frosty dusk I somehow welcomed, I bobbled in to a guest house in Kyangjuma, a few kilometers short of Namche. The hotel owner said it would be an extra 200 rupees (about $1.75) for an attached bathroom. This sounded amazing. I ordered a real dinner of daal bhaat and ate most of it. I was still over 11,000 feet, but I felt like a different person. My O2 sats had, over the course of 8 hours, gone from 65 to 90.
I got a call from Dinesh, Thorsten’s guide, and an update on where they’d arrived (Deboche) and on how Laura and Franco were doing after the helicopter evacuation (fine). Back in internet contact, I sent messages of my whereabouts and well-being. I had my first good sleep in a few days, and was so glad to feel normal that I didn’t even feel any aches.
Day 7: Docking
Kyangjuma —> Lukla 2840m (9317ft) / O2 Sats 95
On the way up, at the elevation of Kyangjuma (where I passed through the first time with Tenzin Dorje Sherpa, the climber and yak herder), I felt myself high above the ground and adventurous in the cold. But on the way down, it feels cosmopolitan. The bucket of water in the bathroom isn’t frozen, and I am normal-tired, not wrecked.
After a cup of tea, I hiked about an hour to Namche Bazaar and stopped for breakfast. Unlike a week ago, this morning Namche was unveiled and shining. Its steep alleyways were nevertheless caked in layers of hardened Februrary ice, and I did a good bit of sliding around in trying to find a place to sit down for breakfast…because with a night’s sleep at lower elevation, I was HUNGRY! I ordered an amazing breakfast at the Khumbu Lodge and ate it looking out at lovely famous Namche. I called my parents. I moved to a coffee shop. I got a latte, and lingered.
I was taken in by a poster on the wall comparing various sites along the route to Everest Base Camp at different points in time. Namche: houses and potato fields where visitors camped then, a hip ampitheatre of cafes and hotels now. Pheriche: fields with stone-shingled huts in 1977, a village of tin-roofed guest houses now. Dingboche: a remote traditional village in the fifties, a mixed crop of buildings now. These images were fascinating. These were places I had been now.
But far more jarring were photos of glaciers from the 1950s and 1970s, next to the exposed rock those same massive ice sheets had become in just a few decades. The river by Pheriche, delicate fifty years ago, was dramatically widened by glacial melting in its twin photo. These changes might have seemed abstract, from far away. But standing in Namche, I momentarily felt the full force of this injustice. How could we do such things to this magnificent wilderness? When it is so much larger than we are? When it has been here so much longer? It demands so much less and gives so much more than we do. The pain of destruction stared blankly at me from the poster, incomprehensible. I ran my finger over the peeling vinyl covering that showed me where my feet had been just hours ago.
I leisured in Namche until 11am. And then it was another 15 miles back to Lukla, where I was determined to make it for the night. I didn’t take many photos on my way back. I felt the natural arc of my journey returning to its source. I had come out of the gate with fire, and now like a rocket falling back to the ocean by the natural progress of gravity, I was ready to dock at home. I was pretty tired by this time, and my toes hurt from ramming against my shoes downhill for 35 miles, and I was walking slower. I missed the boys and Didi and Prem, and the office team, and our List of Things to Do.
The clouds had once again moved in when I clomped in to Lukla. Its stone-laid street reminded me of a ski town, misty in the fog. I was so ready to have a hotel that when I found a hotel and nobody came to the desk for five minutes, all I could think of to do was go across the street to an “Irish Pub” to figure out my options, and order french fries. That turned out to be a great strategy. I have never had such fantastic fries in my whole life, and let me tell you I have eaten a lot of french fries.
I found another hotel. I took a hot shower and then raced about chattering in the cold air, flailing at my clothes while the hot water evaporated off me. Lukla is still at 2840m (9318ft), after all, and it is February. I had dinner, did a little writing, and organized my belongings once more for the morning. I set my alarm for 6am so I could get to the airport before the first flight to buy a ticket home.
It’s steep alleyways were nevertheless caked in layers of hardened Februrary ice
I was pretty tired by now.
I missed the boys and Didi and Prem, and the office team, and our List of Things to Do.
Thukla—> Lobuche / 5000m (16,404ft) /O2 sats high 60s
When I woke up this morning I felt immensely improved. My sats were still in the low 70s, but my appetite was somewhat back and the nausea and headache were mostly gone. I had originally thought I’d go up to Gorapchep and maybe even Base Camp today, but even I can learn to slow my roll in response to lack of oxygen. I planned instead to make a short hike about 300m higher to Lobuche.
I decided to first take a walk for an hour or so around the area on the descending route that leads back down toward Dingboche. When I arrived back in Thukla from my short excursion, there were a handful of hikers there on their way to Lobuche. I was feeling the need for company, so I joined in behind them.
The indescribable beauty of Thukla Pass
The walk began with a steep rocky climb up to Thukla Pass, which sits in the palm of a stunning panorama of ocean-blue peaks. This site is home to memorials for climbers of many nationalities who have died on peaks in Nepal. The wind comes gusting through the half-crescent pass, keeping hundreds upon hundreds of fresh prayer flags in constant flutter. I was awed by the power and beauty of this place. We found the memorials for Scott Fisher and Rob Hall, who both perished in the famous 1996 Everest climbing disaster that is documented in Into Thin Air. One of my most vivid pre-Nepal memories remains reading that book on the bottom bunk bed in my freshman college dorm room. I placed a stone on each of their memorials, and we went on.
From Thukla Pass I clomped along behind my new companions, who included two Nepali guides and porters, a German, a Brit, an Italian and me the American (“there must be a war joke in here somewhere,” says the German). We reached Lobuche by 1:00 and I had the whole afternoon to rest.
My head had a dull throb and my body felt oddly heavy. I lay back in my bed. My room was warmed by a buttery sun pouring through the window. I stayed like that for a few hours, picturing my blood circulating delicious air. In the evening, we all clustered around the heating stove in the dining hall, and ate light meals that our altitude-confused stomachs would accept, and played cards.
I have borrowed a fantastic pair of hiking pants from my long time friend Pemba Sherpa, but the button has broken. However, I am my father’s daughter, and you can be sure that I have a random collection of safety pins with me, because you never know when the button on your hiking pants is going to abandon you on exactly the day you are going to Everest Base Camp.
I arrived with my pants pinned at 6:30 for breakfast. I hadn’t been able to get a phone signal to send out any messages of my well being in two days, all liquid everywhere was frozen; hot cups of tea, once served, quickly threw off the efforts of the hard-working stove and turned to water, then ice. We ate small amounts of porridge and eggs and set off through a glacial valley at 5000 meters above sea level. I didn’t think to check the temperature, but once we got going, it actually wasn’t intolerably cold. And once we crossed the horizon line of ecstatic clear sun that was making its way toward us, we let out sighs of gratitude and I put my big futzy gloves away.
The hike to Gorapshep was only about 2.5 hours and maybe 150m of climbing. It took us over rocky glacier bed dressed with ice and snow. We arrived at Gorapshep, where we’ll stay for the night, around ten in the morning. I clomped heavily up a wooden staircase to my room, emptied most things out of my backpack, and came down for a cup of tea. Even tea looked intimidating to digest; my O2 sats would sit around 65 for the next day. It feels like all the cells in your body are concentrating on breathing and nothing else.
Before we could get too content resting in warm sunlight outside, the German and I set off for Base Camp with his guide, Dinesh. But Thorsten and Dinesh were a few hundred meters ahead of me for most of the way, and I walked the hour and a half up to base camp mostly in the quiet of my own steps, boots grinding on ice and rocks. We had long since left behind anything green. It is amazing to think that nearly 800 people a day come through this way in the trekking season. In February, that number is about twenty, and I might just as well have been on the moon.
The first thing I recognized was the Ice Fall. Anyone who has spent any time learning about Everest has spent many imaginary hours scrambling precariously across ladders lashed together and fixed over the dangerous crevices that separate Base Camp from Camp One. In real life, the Ice Fall is far more otherworldly than I had understood. It is not a smooth cracked glacier but an enormous army of aqua-blue ice walls, lined up one to the next as far as the eye can see.
And there in the distance, next to the base of the Ice Fall I spotted a cluster of yellow tents. Base camp. (In a few months, there will be about 2000 people here, but now the area is empty except for a dozen tents huddled together in the wilderness.). The arrival is marked by a large rock with EVEREST BASE CAMP 5364m spray painted across it.
Two intrepid winter climbing teams at Base Camp are dwarfed by Everest’s mighty Icefall.
Before I could do any normal tourist things, such as the obvious thing of taking a picture next to the spray painted rock, I got to chatting in Nepali with Norbu, a Sherpa climber with the German expedition.
Well, then this happened. Norbu Sherpa—who has summited all 8000m peaks in the world except for one in Tibet—invited me over to the German climbing camp. Normally tourists aren’t permitted in the expedition areas. But next thing I knew I was sitting in the dining tent, having a peek at the shower and sleeping quarters, drinking some coffee hot off the stove, and discussing the impending winter summit attemptswith a combined group of Sherpa climbers from the two expeditions. One of them was the guy – the ACTUAL HUMAN – in charge of deciding where to lash ladders across the Ice Fall. So that’s how I got the selfie below of me and a group of world class Sherpa climbers hanging out and shooting the breeze at Everest Base Camp and now my life is complete.
There was some discussion about coronavirus and whether or not the Nepal government would close climbing from the Tibet/China side of Everest (apparently the ministry of tourism is reluctant to lose the income, but the consensus among the climbers was that nobody wants coronavirus). And then Norbu Sherpa and the gang took me over to the Spanish camp, which is a much bigger team of 14 people and led by renowned Spanish climber Alex Txikon, who is making his fourth attempt at a winter summit, something that hasn’t been done on Everest since 1993.
So this takes us to me hanging out with Alex Txikon in the Spanish kitchen, while the cook prepares imported Spanish meat over the propane stove. Actually, at that moment I didn’t really realize how well known Alex Txikon is, partly because I was so amazed by the fantastic Spanish cooking extravaganza before my eyes. (It smelled amazing; how did they get all this stuff here; who can eat at this altitude?) Txikon has made winter climbing his trademark calling and has succeeded in numerous winter summits. His team had arrived at Everest just two days ago and planned to be there for the next month.
I asked Txikon what they do on the days they aren’t climbing. I was thinking, probably lots of pushups and rope-skipping.
“Read, write, relax,” he said. “Be in nature.” And though I didn’t ask, he added (and I paraphrase), “Here on Everest, they just put people in the summit. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about working with nature. It’s about planning, not luck. It’s not about the summit. So many people who come here, they aren’t climbers. They don’t understand or appreciate what is to plan and interact with the mountain.” I filed away how he used the word “plan,” so many times. It was, in a way, plain to see what he meant. All these people living here all winter at 17,500 feet—where I survived a few hours mostly on adrenaline—did not have an ounce of entitlement about them. They were gently in a relationship, one of respect and diligence and patience.
Seek the summit, yes; but you shouldn’t be here if the summit is what matters to you the most.
“Hello,” said an enormously tall, fresh-faced German man as he popped into the Spanish kitchen tent.
“Hi,” I said.
Actually this man was climber Jost Kobusch, who like Txikon can be found in the newspaper, and who told me he’s attempting a route that hasn’t been taken up Everest in 40 years.
“So, um, what are you doing today?” I asked.
“Oh, fixing a thing,” he said. “It broke up there.” That was about the extent of our discussion, but Kobusch had a gentleness and authentic exuberance about him. He looked as happy to be fixing a thing up on a cliff over the ice fall at Mount Everest as some people look fixing their cars in the driveway with a beer on Saturday.
I ended up spending about two hours at base camp—quadruple my planned time. Thorsten had long since headed back. I asked Anup, one of my new Sherpa besties, to take my obligatory photos on the “base camp” rock. And then finally, before leaving, I took some time to myself, outside of the adventure. To be with the Mountain.
I sat down across from Everest, whose summit just pokes out between Nuptse (so recognizable) and Lhola. An icononic plume of snow drifted from its peak. A mid-day half moon floated in the endless, empty galaxy of sky just above, as if to say: Everything Else, This Way. I built a cairn. And suddenly I heard myself think to this mountain, “You set the path for my whole life.” And it is true. If not for Everest, I don’t know if I’d have been in Nepal.
People journey to this place in all kinds of ways. For many it is the adventure of a lifetime. I understand that for me, as much as I delighted in every the walk up and all its color and beauty and fatigue and unobtrusive companionship, this walk was a pilgrimage. It was about sitting face to face with our Earth Mother, Sagarmatha. I have been coming here for so long.
What a gift it is, to be in this world, and to be free.
We crossed the horizon line of ecstatic clear sun.
A fellow traveler
Encouragement from past travelers
The Icefall is far more otherworldly than I had imagined.
The air strip in Lukla is world famous, and for good reason. One end is abutted against a vertical wall of land where the hills leap toward the sky, and the other end is abruptly concluded by an abyss. Takeoff from Lukla literally entails driving down a relatively short motorway and off the side of a cliff. Landing is the reverse: dropping down out of the sky and flying full speed at a meager strip of pavement on the edge of a canyon, at the other end of which is a wall. The cheers that erupt from the passengers after this thrilling landing are almost unwitting, a primal reflex produced by the exhilaration of (still) being alive. It was captured by my new friend Mac from China.
Since flights to Lukla can only occur in near-perfect weather, a handful of us had spent the last two days together ensconced in the Kathmandu airport. Each morning we showed up in the dark at six am as required, and waited the entire day for the weather to clear in Kathmandu and Lukla at the same time. We ate airport snacks, we tried to rent a helicopter together, we bonded through the searing disappointment of dashed efforts to fly to Lukla. And then, poof! On the third day, we were in Lukla by eight in the morning. We exchanged contact information and started a chat group to keep tabs on each other, which was nice because a few of us including me were traveling alone.
Most of the day was a gentle rolling climb without any areas that were too steep. When I saw my first herd of yaks I got so excited I jumped up on a wall, took out both my SLR camera and phone, tried to video and photo the yaks and the same time and didn’t quite accomplish either. Then five minutes later there was another herd of yaks, and then another, and soon I was just trying to stay out of the way of herd after herd of yaks made wide by their rucksacks. Then, late in the afternoon I found out that none of these herds were yaks. They were mules and “jopiya,” a mule-yak blend. Yaks, it turns out, are only at the higher altitudes.
I had thought to maybe stop in Monjo, but after days of sitting in the airport with unemployed adrenaline, I was elated to be outside and free. So at two o’clock I crossed through Monjo and began a challenging two and a half hour climb up to Namche bazaar. This ascent covers about 3000 feet of vertical elevation over the course of four and a half miles. For many travelers, the road from Monjo to Namche is an entire day’s hike. But the truth is that the tireder I got, the better I felt.
As four o’clock approached, the sky became gauzy and cool. Namche Bazaar is a name you may have heard, recognizable even to people who don’t travel in these mountains, and late in the afternoon it appeared over the crest of a hill, like a dream. I felt something lift off of me, a yearning that has been around since my teens, to lay eyes on this amphitheater that has been the way through for so many travelers . By the time my boots were clomping over its stone-laid alleyways, fog was creeping in around Namche’s edges and over its rooftops.
Modern Namche is quite the trekking hub, but now hotels are closed for the winter and the village is cast with the quiet of hibernation. A few months from now, rooms will be nearly impossible to come by, but there were almost no people around. I found a lodge and set my bag down next to a bed by a window. I excitedly used the oximeter Pemba had given me to test my oxygen saturation. At 11,000 feet this is mostly just for fun, the way my rowing teammates and I used to wear heart rate monitors all day in college for unnecessary interesting data about ourselves. My O2 sats were still quite strong at around 92.
I was the only guest in the hotel. I changed my clothes, put my feet up next to a space heater, and ordered tea.
I woke up and pulled the curtain back to find my room in a cloud. I had expected Namche Bazaar to be announced in glorious morning sunlight, but even the yard of the lodge was veiled in fog. I spent a slow morning in my sleeping bag and then having breakfast and tea. My body had a mild soreness that was rather satisfying after yesterday’s long walk, but the dull persistent ache in my head was less enjoyable. I didn’t realize that that was the beginning of the effects of altitude change.
I set off late, around ten, and quickly became unsure which of Namche’s many footpaths to follow back to the trail. I had a map on my phone that was to be put to good use throughout the week, but it was no time before a passerby simply pointed me in the right direction.
After making a pretty long walk from Lukla to Namche yesterday, I had decided on a normal day, a choice I considered leisurely. I chose one of the trails that cuts along the edge of the mountainside, is flatter and easier, and has fewer hotels along the way. It’s still a trekking route but on the map it looked like it might also have more transit by locals going about their everyday business. The clouds hung low all day, making the dusted hills look like black and white etchings.
It wasn’t long before I came upon a man herding yaks—and this time they were real yaks. They look nothing like yesterday’s mules. They have wide bodies and long rugged hair. We said hello to each other.
So that is how I spent the morning herding yaks around a mountainside with Tenzin Dorje, walking at yak herding pace, a light swirl of snow about us. I learned that Tenzin is a Sherpa climbing guide who has summited Everest twelve times, and many other major summits in Nepal as well. He herds yaks in the off season. The yak bells made a gentle, optimistic clanging music as we walked and he whistled to his herd. After descending down to the valley, we stopped for tea in a wood-paneled house run by a delightful young woman named Dixya. She was delighted that I spoke Nepali, and I was delighted for her to teach me to say “May I please have a cup of tea” in Sherpa.
From the cottage, I bid farewell to Dixya and Tenzin Dorje. The afternoon was a long solo climb up to Tengbuche under a low sky. I had considered going another half hour or so up the road to Debuche, but by the time I crested the deserted, snow-covered ridge in Tengboche, I was feeling the chill of the dusty air. And besides, Tengbuche was too beautiful to rush away. There was a monk on skis. I decided to wake up here tomorrow, and got a room in the only open hotel. Even the monastery appeared shuddered.
In the high season, over eight hundred people a day pass through any given station on the Everest Base Camp route. My hotel had long, empty hallways and a long empty dining room where the hotel staff played cards all evening at one end. I was the only guest. Oxygen saturation is only 64% of sea level in Tengboche, but my O2 sats were still going strong at around 92.
I’ve been feeling quite strong, so today I decided to take a route that many hikers take down, but fewer take up. It took me to a higher elevation, in Thukla, than the more common stop at Dingboche 200m lower. I felt fine hiking all day, but the last bit is a continuous 400m climb to over 15,000 feet, and when I sat down in my room, I definitely felt the altitude. So, point penalty to Spero for over-enthusiasm.
The day getting to Thukla however was lovely. I awoke to a glorious, shining morning in snow-covered Tengboche. The monastery, dormant and friendless in yesterday’s afternoon’s mist, presided confidently over the sleeping buildings and searing white ground around it. Unlike the hushed mystery of yesterday’s walk in the low hanging clouds and fog, today was a sunglasses and SPF-50 kind of day.
I wound along the river, and the terrain changed to glacial riverbed warming under an electric blue sky, encircled in mighty peaks. I ran into a number of people portering goods to and from Namche Bazaar to higher elevations. The first was a pair of young men who, when I came upon them as I was crossing a bridge, had set down their loads on the other side and were hysterically laughing while taking photos of each other leaping into the air. They had left Namche the SAME DAY—-the place I hiked from yesterday—and made it here by about 11am, on their way to Periche. (That’s my day and a half of efficient hiking.) They said they were each carrying 96kg and getting paid about .35/kg.
Next the path moved into the glacier bed and became more vaguely defined. Fortunately, around this time I happened upon a pack of porters carrying sheets of corrugated tin and slabs of faux-wood paneling to Periche. So any time I wanted to confirm the route, all I had to do was look for a walking door moving across the plain. I found this so funny that I took about fifty pictures of doors with legs resting in the gaping wide mountain landscape.
As I left the doors with legs behind, the afternoon became more and more solitary, with only an occasional hiker passing in the opposite direction. I crossed a pass in where the morning sun had given way to theatrical, solitary and proud gusts of wind, and Pheriche appeared in the valley. When I arrived down in Periche, I was utterly gratified to see a hotel with door-loads all around it, awaiting the day’s delivery that was coming along behind me. I stopped in at a hotel and chatted with a few locals who said it would take me about another two hours to hike to Thukla. So up I went.
The climb was stunning, but there was something lonely about the desolate landscape and the wind gusting up the plain from behind. The afternoon clouds had settled in again, and the skies were no longer optimistic and bright. I arrived in Thukla around four, feeling far away from everything. And, once I set down my bag, admittedly nauseous. There is a very big difference between 12,700 feet and 15,150 feet. My O2 sats had dropped to the low 70s.
When it was clear I was “feeling the height,” two gentle and matter-of-fact hoteliers made me vegetable soup and filled up my bottles with hot water for free. I knew immediately that tomorrow I’ll have to take it very easy and adjust to the altitude. I invited the hotel dog into my room to stay for company, but he wanted to sleep directly on my pillow, and ended up curling up just outside in the hall instead.
Bonus: Find the Walking Door on the Way to Pheriche
During the hot summer of 2001, I was drawn to Nepal by the Mountain. Also, the mountains–these grand Himalayas where the world places so much of its imagination–but mostly, the Mountain itself. At some point in young adulthood I began reading books about Everest, and I simply knew I would go. It was never about climbing it, but about following it. Because, as my mom would say, it was there.
I never could have understood nineteen years ago that the road to the Mountain would be so much longer and more magnificent than I had imagined. I originally visited Nepal with an international group that was studying medicinal plants, and during that muggy August week in Kathmandu, I optimistically rented a bike and made a 36 hour journey into the unknown that foretold something of the road ahead. I didn’t know what a vast constellation of adventures lay before me in the decades to come, or about the family and community that would adopt me as a daughter, or the public health project I would unintentionally co-found to address an issue about which I had no expertise. So many cut fingers and thunderstorms and shelled peas and paint-splattered clothes lay between me and Mt. Everest. But in recent years, my heart has wandered back to that horizon, which has remained an untouchable idea, visible in the real world only from a distance.
This winter I knew, with the same certainty that first brought me to Nepal, that it was time to visit Everest at last. So I called up my oldest (by time, not age) Nepali friend Pemba Sherpa, who was on the cook and porter staff of the medicinal plant study group back in 2001, when we were both in our early twenties. Pemba has since become an extremely successful tour guide, and at a hotel in Kathmandu he produced for me a backpack, a pile of gear, and instructions to take on my journey. We played with the oximeter and found my oxygen sats to be 95 while sitting in Kathmandu. I downloaded an offline map and purchased a plane ticket to Lukla.
I’ve decided to post my eight day trip to Everest Base Camp as a separate travel journal. But before it starts, let’s begin at Fire and Ice Pizzera in Thamel, where Pemba and I reminisced over dinner the night before my trip began. We jumped back to August 2001, when we met, and from there travelled backward through the chapters of his incredible life.
Pemba and me in 2001
Pemba was born in a village in Solukhumbu called Soloban. In the 1980s there was no school in Soloban and Pemba spent his days herding, even during the snowy winter months. I remember him telling me once, “my feet were like rocks!” His herds used to take him from time to time to Lukla. Once, Pemba stayed a hotel for a some days while his goats grazed there, and the hotel owner told him that if he wanted to, he could consider getting hired as a porter for tour groups coming to trek in the Everest region.
Soon after, fifteen year old Pemba decided to leave Soloban without telling anyone. He went to the hotel and said he was ready to work. It was the mid 1990s and there were no phones or regular means of remote communication. It would be six years before he saw his family again.
With the lights of Fire and Ice Pizzera bouncing off wine glasses, Pemba recounted how the hotel owner assigned him to porter on a fifteen day tour with a Spanish group.
His wage was two dollars a day. Among Pemba’s jobs was to bring tea to the guests in their tents each morning. There was one guest who didn’t drink tea, but every day when Pemba presented this guest with the tea tray through the opening of the tent, the man would put a 200 rupee tip–about two dollars–in the teacup. This continued for the whole trek: the guest never drank tea, but every day he tipped Pemba two dollars. Four dollars a day for fifteen days was more money than Pemba had ever seen in his life.
At the end of the trip, the tour group produced a tip for the entire trek staff, and part of that went to Pemba. But in addition, he had made a special impression on the guests, and they pooled an extra $100 for him. And finally, he was gifted with several expensive branded down jackets that, at that time, were almost impossible to get in Nepal. He took that stuff all back to Lukla and sold it off and made another $300. He ended the two week trip with an unimaginable seven hundred dollars in cash.
“‘Well,” Pemba laughed over our pizzas, “I said, ‘this is what I’m going to do!’”
Pemba on our trip in 2001
He ended up taking a bus to the city, living with a relative of the hotel owner, and working his way through the tourism industry. He began studying languages – English, Japanese, German. He had no way to contact his family back home, and his aunt was living relatively nearby in Boudanath, but there weren’t many people from Soloban in Kathmandu during those years and there was no way for the two of them to discover each other. One day a customer at the mountaineering supply shop where he was employed asked if he wanted to join the cook and porter staff of a plant study expedition for foreigners.
That was the trip where we met in 2001.
Pemba’s career took off in the following years. He speaks seven languages proficiently and has still never had any formal schooling. He runs a massively successful trekking business and has travelled to over forty countries. He has poured resources back into his home village of Soloban, rebuilding a school and helping to organize health care services. He was recently nominated to run for local political office. When I hiked to Soloban from Jiri Bazaar with Pemba and Prem in 2008 (the week our Aidan decided to show up twenty days early…), Pemba was received like a prince.
“Call me if you have any trouble,” Pemba said, as we bid goodnight. “The path is easy to follow. It has always been your dream.”
On December 12, Tuli Aamaa died. She was 94 years old and has been one of the oldest, most endearingly tired people I’ve ever known since I first met her seventeen years ago. Tuli Aamaa means “big mother” – in Nepali culture aunts are mother-figures, and they are either big or small depending on whether they are older or younger than your parent. Bishnu and Didi’s father was the youngest of five brothers, and Tuli Aamaa was his older sister-in-law. So she was our Big Mother.
Tuli Aamaa and her husband had settled down in the valley, just where the jungle path dumps us out on the highway in Pokhara. So when she came to visit us in Kaskikot, it was usually early in the morning, and she walked up the entire jungle path, a route that takes me about an hour of climbing at a good clip. Tuli Aamaa would arrive with her walking stick and a litany of woes. These woes – and Bishnu will back me up on this – would have us giggling within minutes of her arrival and for a good while after she left. In a breathy exhausted voice, high pitched but only in the range of a dull butter knife, Tuli Aamaa would tell us, and anybody who was around, perhaps even the chicken or a wooden post holding up the porch or, barring these, the morning breeze, that everything was wrong with her, and it was enough already, it was time for her to die. She never looked pleased, and yet this activity brought her such return of satisfaction, or perhaps relief, that she hiked all the way up a mountain to participate in it, and then all the way back down the mountain a few hours later. It was wonderful.
Amazingly, Tuli Aamaa has always been the oldest person in the world, and she never got older. She looked just as old in 2005 as she did when I saw her last February, in 2019.
Tuli Aamaa with baby Pascal in 2005.
Yesterday, on the solstice, Didi and Pascal and I went out to Tuli Aamaa’s house, where her relatives are sitting kriya, the thirteen days of mourning. We sat outside talking with her son Ram Chandra dai, and found things here and there to help out with as callers came in and out of the house. Didi helped Tuli Aamaa’s daughter in law Tara bouju prepare her daily meal, which has to be cooked in a single pot during the kriya period.
And then the three of us left to walk up the jungle path, along the route that Tuli Aamaa always took to visit us. It’s also the way that Aamaa climbed after she gave birth to Didi 42 years ago in Tuli Aamaa’s fields. Aamaa took refuge briefly in Tuli Aamaa’s buffalo shed, before carrying her newborn, our Didi, up the mountain the very day of her birth. I have always been captivated by this story, but today it seemed phenomenal all over again, the traverses these generations have made over these stones. Pascal bounded up ahead of us, and found some luxurious blue maiyur feathers, and wanted me to take his picture with them behind his mom, standing on the same stones his grandmother once carried her over.
Later, I unearthed a picture of Tuli Aamaa’s field, and her famous buffalo shed, that I took when I was first introduced to these climbs and their histories back in 2005…
…and then I found one I’d taken the same day, in 2005, of Tuli Aamaa in the buffalo shed where Aamaa and Didi spent their first incredible moments together.
She looked just as old in this photo, as ever. As far as we could tell, she was always ready for this day, that to the vast majority of human beings seems a cliff edge, but to her was only another day.
We’ll miss you, and your loving, irrepressible climb through this world, Tuli Aamaa.
Bishnu had baby Dali six weeks early, on August 2nd. We got the news while we were all finishing dinner at Didi and Prem’s. On the English calendar, Pascal’s birthday is a day earlier, on August 1st, but by a twist of the planets, on the lunar Nepali calendar Pascal and his cousin share a birthday of Saun 17. This convention-defying-cross-cultural-intercontinental-astrologically-phenomenal-birthday-coincidence —a shared birthday in Nepal, but not in America—has us thrilled. We texted Bishnu and Youba and Dali a Welcome to the World picture, marveling over a coincidence, fourteen years plus eternity in the making, that has initiated our Dali’s life.
Dali’s name is actually: Serena Subedi Bhatta.
Aamaa is coming back with me to the US to meet her granddaughter, an American citizen. We’ll fly directly to San Francisco, but we can’t leave Nepal until after summer professional development the last week of August. So we’ve passed the weeks talking with Bishnu on the phone, and each Friday I download new photos and ferry them to Kaski where Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa and the neighbors pore over them. Aamaa’s favorite is the one with Youba holding Serena just minutes after her entrance in to the world, shiny and swaddled. Aamaa likes to pull this one up on my iPad and zoom in and stare at it for ten, fifteen minutes at a time.
“It’s like, the longer you look at it,” she says, “the more you want to look at it. You can just look at it and look at it.”
Bishnu had a difficult and sometimes unnerving pregnancy. Serena was born six weeks early, at 3.9 lbs, less than 2 kilograms of sugar, I told Aamaa. She spent a month in the NICU. Bishnu wouldn’t bring any baby shower gifts home until it was almost time for the baby to leave the NICU and join her there. I’ve found myself thinking back to the day fifteen years ago when I stood outside Gandaki Hospital with Didi, right after she wasn’t able to see a doctor at what was supposed to be her last prenatal checkup, when we ate cel roi at a roadside stand. A week later Didi’s first child was stillborn at full term.
For a long time after I moved to Kaskikot, I didn’t know that Aamaa had little a sister. One day Aamaa was reclined on the bed, lying sideways with her head on her arm and an elbow pointed out at me, when she mentioned that her sister had died in childbirth, along with the child.
“Wait,” Didi said the other day, her eyes widening when I told her about Bishnu’s baby shower. “People her gave her baby presents before the baby was born?”
The day of our departure for America gets closer. We are scheduled to fly out on Teej, the festival of women. In the strange way that our lives here seem to cycle back like knitting stitches, it was Teej when I arrived in Kaskikot in August, 2003. I had stayed in Kaski for two months, gone back to New York, worked as a waitress, and then called six months later to say I was coming back to Kaskikot. I arrived under the hot gaze of summer and found Didi and Bishnu dancing in Maula, where the whole village was gathered for the festival of women. Didi was newly married to Prem, and I realized she was pregnant. And that is how our year together began, with dancing.
Our summer is a theater of rains, curtain after curtain, a production that will eventually deliver the harvest. By then we will be in America. Teej begins from Sept 1, when Aamaa and I will leave Kaskikot, and goes to September 2, when we’ll fly out of Kathmandu. It’s funny how people attempt to impose order over the unknown when they are about to embark on a long journey. I like to leave my living space robotically clean and organized, and I will compulsively sift through 5-month old stacks of mail and fix wobbled stools that have been committedly ignored for months. Aamaa’s strategy appears to be getting fixated on the cucumbers. They are ripe and fat on the the vines around the house.
“Laura,” Aamaa says, “we’ll bring cucumbers to Tulo Mama in Kathmandu.” The breed of cucumbers Aamaa grows in Nepal isn’t like little American cucumbers. They can grow to a foot or two long, and the circumference of a coffee can.
“We’re going to bring cucumbers to Kathmandu with our luggage for America?” I ask. Tulo mama is our Aamaa’s eldest brother, our ‘big uncle.’
“…Is it allowed?” Aamaa asks a bit sheepishly.
“Sure, cucumbers are allowed.” I realize this is happening no matter what. “Let’s definitely bring cucumbers to Kathamandu.”
Aamaa has just a few outfits to take to America, but food items are another story. Provisions are sorted over the entire month of August. We pick all the ripe cobs off the corn stalks, roast some in the fire for snacks, give some away, and hang the rest all over the house to dry by winter. Last time we left for America, we also cut down the empty corn stalks, leaving only the milletto ripen by late fall. But this time Aamaa skipped planting millet altogether, and she said we’re not going to cut the empty corn stalks down because they will dry out on their own. I keep surveying the gardens and feeling that the tall scraggly corn stalks are going to look a bit like an army of tuxedos at a beach party by October, when everyone else’s fields are left only with slender waist-high millet and rice plants. But that’s her plan and she’s Aamaa, so we leave them be. The house remains hemmed in by walls of stripped corn stalks.
A sack of rice is sent to Didi in Pokhara. Periodically we revisit the cucumber question.
“We’ll take a large stash of cucumbers to Didi, and a smaller bag for Tulo Mama in Kathmandu,” Aamaa revises.
“It’s allowed right? To take cucumbers to Kathmandu?”
“This will be my first go at taking a bag of cucumbers to Kathmandu, but I think it’s allowed.”
“Just a small bag.”
“Ok,” I assure her.
One evening Aamaa ponders: “How will we get to Pokhara when we leave here on Teej? Because, see we’ll have luggage and we need to bring the big sack of cucumbers to Didi.”
“We’ll call Hari Bhaai in Caragaun and go in his taxi.”
“Will it fit all the cucumbers?”
“Um….” I search for the right answer. How many cucumbers are we talking about? I decide to gamble. “Yes. Hari bhai’s taxi will definitely fit the cucumbers.”
In addition to a little baby outfit, I want to bring something special to San Francisco for Bishnu’s little Dali, who’s acquired about twenty times her bodyweight in baby clothes during her short life so far. I make a plan. Pascal comes with me on the expedition.
We spend Saturday afternoon hiking up the Kalika Hill, and I film him leading the way, finding berries and hidden water springs, waving a stick of bamboo around at the skyline and narrating our journey until we reach the Kalika Temple. We ring the large bells at Kali’s door; the clanging and echoes out over the trees, the familiar houses below, over the valley. I pan my camera over sheets of rain that have blanketed the foothills, and frozen into a bruised mist on the north and south horizons. We search over the laid stones of the Temple ground and choose a rock that Pascal holds in front of my camera, little chips of flint gleaming under a stormy and imminent sky. I will bring it to a silversmith and have it made in to a necklace. Our descent is fast under gathering clouds, sandals pounding and tapping over the brambles.
As the summer draws to a close, relatives stop by to bid Aamaa a safe journey. Aamaa sends them off with cucumbers or ears of corn. A few days before the buffalo calf is due, some men from Parapani come to purchase pregnant Isabella, who nobody calls Isabella except for weirdo foreigners like me and Ann. Aamaa has cared for Bella during her whole pregnancy, cutting her grass and watering her and keeping her living quarters clean. I am grumpy that Bella will be taken just before having her baby and providing us a week of delicious milk. But four days later, we find out that Bella’s calf was born dead. The buyers withhold $40 of the remaining amount they still owe to Aamaa.
Aamaa is sad about Bella. All that work for nothing. “What’s wrong with her?” she asks nobody. We won’t know now. We are quiet over Bella’s loss for a few mornings.
“We don’t need to bring any cucumbers to Kathmandu,” Aamaa updates me later. “Tulo Mama has to leave for Nepalgang before we get there.”
I’m disappointed; I was excited to see Tulo Mama. He is the oldest of Aamaa’s three younger brothers and the one who dotes on her. But he lives in the far West and even though he always asks to talk with me on the phone when he calls, in seventeen years I’ve only met him in person twice.
The last two weeks of August I don’t get up to Kaskikot, because we are completely consumed with our summer professional development training. I take Dali’s rock to a jeweler and search through gems before finally pairing it with a fiery pink ruby. The week ends on a breathless and exhausted August 30th, Friday afternoon. Bethy helps me pack up my room all in one go, throwing things in to bags over just a couple hours, cleaning the kitchen, ferrying items between the office and my apartment. By the time we get in to a taxi to go up to Kaski it is 8:30 at night, and we arrive at 9:30 to find Aamaa sitting in the house surrounded by friends. Swirled up in their saris and shawls, Saano didi and Parbati Bouju and Mahendra’s older sister are there, and an aunt has come to visit – Aamaa’s sister in law, who would have grown up right here with these women and her brother, Aamaa’s husband. The old friends are sitting on stools in the old main room of our house, by the kitchen, where I have fallen asleep to the chatter of so many women. As we organize our things in the outer room, a wave of gratitude rolls over me, carried on the familiar soothing sound of their muffled voices on the other side of the wall.
“Tulo Mama delayed his travel so he could meet us in Kathmandu,” Aamaa revises when Bethy and I take up seats on a bed. “So, we can bring him cucumbers.”
“Tomorrow we have to pack the cucumbers in a sack.”
“Right.” I reply. “I am ready for cucumber packing.”
Night brings brings a steady rain that clangs on the roof long in to a lazy Saturday morning. It bathes everything, washes away the work week, the summer, the soil around curling roots that are retreating beneath our feet as we prepare to walk away from this village and into another world. It rains as we get up for our last day in Kaski, as we have our black tea, as a man and woman I don’t know arrive and sit on the porch and begin talking with Aamaa.
Bethy and I are ready to spend Saturday helping Aamaa pack up the house—but it is unclear what this involves. Before I can identify a plan of action, Aamaa has disappeared with one of the morning’s visitors and they’ve returned with armfuls of voluptuous cucumbers. The cucumbers, each a foot or two long, are dumped in a pile in the middle of the yard, slick with rain, and the two women disappear again. Then neighbors start showing up – Saraswoti, Saano didi, BAA! – all with more rainy cucumbers. It turns out the visitors are vendors from Pokhara, come to purchase cucumber stock. Aamaa’s yard is transformed into a cucumber staging area. It takes an hour to pick the rest of our cucumbers and combine them with cucumbers from contributing neighbors. The female vendor sorts them in to excellent and sub-excellent status cucumber piles while the male vendor chats with Bethy about countries he’s traveled to. When the yard is fully covered in piles of cucumbers, an amazing ghetto-fabulous hand scale is brought out, made of two plastic tubs hanging on a hand-held balance. Aamaa produces a collection of rocks.
“Wait a second,” the vendor says cautiously.
“This rock is one kilogram,” Aamaa announces, picking up a black, smooth river stone. “And this one is a half kilograms if you combine it with this other little one.”
The vendor tries out the rocks in different combinations, weighing them against each other.
“Huh,” she says. “Well there you have it.”
Weighing and calculating against river stones commences on the ghetto fabulous plastic tub scale. Some 100 kg of cucumbers are weighed and sold. Aamaa makes about $15.
“Now,” Aamaa says to me shortly thereafter, “we still have to pack up the cucumbers for Didi and Tulo Mama.”
“The big sack of cucumbers is for—“
“I think I’ve got it.”
The afternoon passes. The evening arrives. The cucumbers are packed in to a large sack for Didi and a handbag for Tulo Mama. Dinner comes and goes. We have taken the cases off all the blankets and put them in the only dresser in the house. The floor has been repainted with a smooth layer of clay. Aamaa’s single bag sits in the window. Our last night falls.
I slip out of the house to brush my teeth, and there is Kali rising above the empty uncut corn stalks, a wide triangle of hillside, holding the village in her lap. The damp summer air has cloaked away all but her gray glow in the night sky, revealing only a broad a density etched into meager starlight. I stand facing her familiar outlines, and feel suddenly, like a darkening storm, the women who have come through this house and have sat by this fire and grieved by its ashes and made nourishment over its flames. The inexplicable, inevitable certainty of the four of us draped over the blankets after sunset, while she presides over us, immutable divine feminine, creating again and again from dust.
Watch over us, I find myself asking.
I see us in my mind, walking out to the road. I see our hands holding Serena in San Francisco. I see us moving from place to place, but with a sudden and forceful clarity understand we are tied together here, under her gaze, where we have always been.
Stay with us.
It is time to go to bed.
The next morning neighbors trickle in to see us off to America. BAA! arrives, and then goes home again to retrieve tikka powder to put on our foreheads. Aamaa still can’t stop talking about the cucumbers. After Saano didi’s husband has taken the large sack of the cucumbers out to Deurali where Hari Bhai will pick us up in his taxi, there are still cucumbers lying about and we’re not sure who they are for. I end up with three of them in my bag and we eventually remember these were gifts for my office.
Today is the beginning of Teej. In a few hours when we are in Pokhara, we’ll see off Prem’s cousins who will come to take his porcelain, wrinkled mother back to Piodi, her snow white hair tilted forward as she is carried away piggy-back down to the road, so she can celebrate the Festival of Women at home in her village.
But now we are waving through the taxi window, and driving down, down, down the switchbacks while our house disappears behind us. The driver and Aamaa make small talk over the weather.
“All this dry hot summer, and the last two days, nothing but rain,” Aamaa remarks.
“Didi bahini rhuera hola,” the driver replies, talking about Teej. “Maybe it’s the tears of our sisters.”
“Maybe,” Aamaa answers offhandedly. The hills roll by. “It could be.”’
I’ve just come back from my third visit to Cambodia, and each time I expect to write about it. I’m no qualified scholar of Cambodian history, but I spent a short time working with Cambodian refugees in Hartford and two months researching the Extraordinary Chambers, or ECCC, the war crimes tribunal created to adjudicate the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.
In August 2017, I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, where I filled in the mental scaffolding I’d established by standing outside of empty torture rooms and running my eyes over thousands and thousands and thousands of names, knowing they would vanish from my memory. 15,000 people were imprisoned and killed at Tuol Sleng, which had once been a high school. I lit incense in a somber memorial room at the end that is filled with skulls.
Sometimes it seems that the cruelties of history are mostly remembered through their persistent pain, despite our best efforts to know them through redemption.
“What do you think of Cambodian politics?” asked my tuk tuk driver today, on the way to the airport.
“…What do you think?” I replied carefully.
“No good,” said the driver. “Not much has changed.”
Motorbikes and trucks and cars and luxury sedans jockeyed for space on the highway, pressing in on the open sides of our tuk-tuk, where I had my leg through the strap of my bag after twice having items snatched off of me by passing motorists. It seems hard to argue that not much has changed. When Phnom Penh was reclaimed from the Khmer Rouge in 1979 after four years of destruction and enslavement, the rubbled city no longer had electricity or plumbing or safe water or schools or working telephones; the use of money had been abolished. Nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population and most of the educated class had been slaughtered. There were at total of seven lawyers left in the whole country to rebuild the government. Working off my not-particularly-relevant experience of what it’s like trying to develop infrastructure in Nepal, I find it absolutely astounding what Cambodia has rebuilt in just four decades, albeit under an authoritarian regime.
I guessed my tuk-tuk driver to be in his early fifties, old enough to have been alive during the genocide. I wondered what he wanted to tell me about.
“Where were you during the war?” I asked.
“In the province,” he said. “We planted rice, you know? Planting all day. All the kids slept together in a large area, on a rough surface. My skin got very irritated on my whole body. We had no rice to eat. We only ate porridge.”
“How long did you do that for?”
“Two years,” he said. “I was eight.”
I learned that the driver had one sister and five brothers, and I wanted to ask how they had fared, but didn’t know if I should. Many children whose stories started this way lost their entire families under the Khmer Rouge, sometimes before their eyes.
“What do you think is the biggest problem for Cambodia now?” I asked instead.
“Education,” the driver stated firmly. I learned that he had been able to pick up his studies again in 1982. That Cambodia has struggled to rebuild its education system is no wonder. In 1979, there were so few intellectuals left alive that a former math teacher, Chan Ven, was put in charge of rebuilding the Ministry of Education. The three-decade old United Nations, with its dominant American, British and Chinese powers, opposed the new Cambodian government because it was backed by the Vietnamese. So after receiving more American bombs on its soil during the Vietnam war than Japan received during World War II–an act that won Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize–a traumatized Cambodian populace was left to prosecute war crimes, reconstruct the government, and reestablish basic institutions without the help of international human rights bodies. During the Cold War, the Hun Sen military regime that liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge was systematically and repeatedly denied U.N. support, which was deferred instead to the Khmer Rouge in exile. To this day, the regime continues to run the government and suppress opposition.
My tuk tuk driver took his gaze off the road and turned his head toward the side, maybe only because I was seated behind him, but it made it seem like he was looking out at the tall buildings around the highway. “My sons are studying law and engineering,” he said. “I worry about them.”
Last Saturday, a bunch of us took a long ride out to see the new Win-Win monument. The tower was recently built to commemorate the end of civil war in Cambodia in 1998, when outlying factions of the Khmer Rouge finally entered in to an agreement with the Hun Sen government, bringing about the end of decades of violence. The monument is built of intricately carved sandstone and polished granite, and in many places is still under construction even while throngs of mostly Cambodian visitors visit each day.
What most caught our attention, though, was a lengthy retelling of Cambodian history carved in to stone panels around the base of the monument. It starts before the genocide and continues for probably a quarter mile or more. The story is portrayed with a nationalistic fervor that is not subtle, and the monument also sits across the way from a large athletic complex being built for the 2020 ASEAN Games. It is clearly a display of political pride and might. One might say unvarnished propaganda. On the ride home, we found ourselves talking about the importance of uniting narratives in national identity.
But before we left, we trod through the entire narrative display panel by panel by panel, slowly watching sun change its shadows on the carved faces. One, near the beginning, captivated me for some time. It’s intimate brutalities are historically accurate.
“During the war,” said my tuk tuk driver as we reached the airport, “it was just me and my sister. We were separated from our parents. Then my mom had five more children after it was over.”
I expelled a sigh of relief. “So your family survived?”
“Yes,” said the driver. “Five more children!” he chuckled. “And I’m the eldest.” He stared at the road ahead, thinking a swirl of thoughts I couldn’t intuit. He seemed to want to discuss it with me during the thirty minutes we would know one another. “You have freedom in America,” he said, shaking his head. “I just…worry for my sons. And their education.”
“They sound very smart,” I replied. At the time, I assumed he was worried about affording his sons’ education, or about whether they would be successful in their pursuits, and maybe that is he that is what he meant. But it occurred to me later that, maybe not.
We arrived at the airport, and the driver dropped me off, and rode back in to the traffic.