Day Thirteen

 

Today is the thirteenth day after my friend Mary’s passing.  As I’ve written about before, this day marks the end of the initial kriya period, where the immediate family of the deceased observe two weeks of purification and austere ritual that instructs their food, bathing, clothing, sleeping, movement and prayer.  It is during this time that the spirit wanders in its new world, perhaps hovering about in this one, finding its way.  On the thirteenth day, a large meal is cooked, the family and community drink purifying bitter gaun, and life begins again.

I have decided to go back to Connecticut a week early for Mary’s memorial service.  But I wanted nothing more than to observe this thirteenth day in my own way, here in Nepal, where I feel close to the sky.

In addition, there’s the baby buffalo.

Two weeks ago, on friday morning, I woke up to a misty dawn with my phone near my head, and rolled over to see how my friend had fared since some bad news had arrived in my email the prior night. There was nothing yet – it was now night time in the U.S. – but I had a bad feeling.  And when I walked outside to wash my face, our very, very, very pregnant buffalo Lulu was shifting about uncomfortably in her shed.  She was due any moment.  Since I’ve arrived in Nepal this summer, I’ve been hoping to be at the house when Lulu has her baby – a phenomenon I’ve witnessed only once in twelve years, and will never forget.

For anyone who’s never seen a large animal like a buffalo very pregnant and approaching their moment, it’s hard to describe.  You can feel, like a physical entity, the pent up power of nature, the imminent violence and miracle of birth.  This animal that is normally so much bigger than you is so much smaller than what’s about to happen.

I left that morning for a meeting in Pokhara, already crying on the bus, where another little blue dot popped up on my phone – a new message saying things had not improved, that Mary was probably in her last hours back in New York.  And I was on this strange road in Nepal, on a mountain, the mist close and threatening rain, and the buffalo shifting around uncomfortably in her shed under Aamaa’s watchful gaze.

I spent a surreal day in Pokhara, and called Aamaa late in the afternoon.  The baby buffalo had been born and everyone was doing fine – the marvel of life.  Twenty minutes later, I got a message saying that Mary had died.

IMG_0450

So this little baby buffalo has been a source of wonder and comfort to me.  I named named her O’Neil. When I came up to Kaski a few days later, Aamaa pumped me full of the nutrient-dense, sacred milk that the mother buffalo makes in the first few days after giving birth, because she wanted me to be nourished.

The birth of a buffalo is a ritualized affair that is, in some ways, the inverse of a death.  For eleven days, we are not to eat the milk with food, or wash cups and bowls used for the virgin milk in the same impure space as the rest of the dishes.  When I took a little burnt piece of something out of my milk one day and tossed it on the ground in the yard, Aamaa went and picked it up, lest it touch the bottom of someone’s foot.  It is, essentially, an eleven day observance of the fragility of life and the gift of the milk that our Lulu will provide to her baby, and to us.  Then on the eleventh day there is a puja, with a priest and everything, and on that day we cook rice pudding, putting the milk into our own “bread” and bodies.  And the cycle goes on.

P1020891

Kalika Hill

I had missed O’Neil’s birth puja because I was out in Dhading.  So today was the first chance that Aamaa had to make rice pudding for me with O’Neil’s milk.  And that’s how Day Thirteen began, with a rich and delicious celebration of the life of our little baby buffalo who was born almost the same hour that Mary died.

Then I climbed up to my favorite place in all of Nepal, a spot along the hilltop that leads to the Kalika Temple, for which Kaskikot is named.  First I went to the temple, with flowers and incense from our house.  I made my offering and rang the bell.  Before heading back to my favorite spot along the crest of the hill to do my qigong, something made me think I should look around for some sign, something that would make me feel like Mary was here with me, and I was here with her.  From the Kalika Temple, you can see everything, the valley on all sides, the lake to the southeast, the stretching falling foothills reaching to the horizon, and the soaring Annapurna range to the North, towering halfway up your field of vision.  It is spectacular.

But the direction I decided to look was up.

IMG_5176

I have taken hundreds – literally hundreds – of photos of rainbows in this village.  I know where they show up and in what kind of weather.  But I have never seen a rainbow like this anywhere on the whole planet.

I left the temple gates and ran through the grass in my flip flops, following the hilltop to my favorite rock.  I kept checking behind me to see if this amazing rainbow was still there, and it just kept getting brighter and more extraordinary.

When I found my favorite rock, I lit incense and placed more flowers I’d brought from our house.  I am so close to the clouds on this three feet of rock.  I can see my little house looking like a toy in the hillside.  Everything is far away and whole.  I closed my eyes.

When I opened them forty five minutes later, the rainbow was gone.

.      .      .

Mama Lulu and Baby O'Neil

Mama Lulu and Baby O’Neil under Aamaa’s watchful gaze

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New World

It was nighttime as we flew in yesterday, so I couldn’t watch the terraced hills coming in closer and giving way to Kathmandu’s gritty buildings. Staring at the city lights flickering in the vast darkness below, I felt a wave of sadness. I couldn’t shake the feeling of arriving in a foreign land and it made me feel like a foreigner to myself.

The normally quiet tarmac at the airport was scattered with a handful of helicopters and few gigantic cargo planes with their hatches open. And in a way that only Nepal can do, it seemed that someone had made an effort to spruce up the airport for an onslaught of international visitors: a new routing through the arrival area, which wound past a recently installed station where a vinyl banner reading HEALTH DESK had been mounted. A large sign announced that anyone having recently come from Africa was required to stop at the Health Desk for processing, and behind it, an airport official was tinkering with his iPhone. We all shuffled past him, to the main arrival terminal, where the computers weren’t working.

IMG_4863I was one of only about five foreigners waiting for a visa, which was new. And the baggage scanner that was previously set up at the airport exit was gone, probably to make way for a more official exit procedure. But to either side of the revised exit procedure were piles and piles of packages. I took a photo of a stack of boxes addressed to a hospital; it did not look anyone was in much of a hurry to get these parcels distributed.

Following Tuesday’s second earthquake, everyone is taking precautions again. On the cab ride from the airport, I didn’t see many damaged buildings, but people everywhere had tents up outside along the road. I stayed with a friend and the whole family slept on mattresses in the living room, right by the front door, which was left unlatched.  That’s where we are again tonight.

IMG_8714Today I spent the day getting a taste of local relief efforts, and it validated my early suspicion that the energy and creativity of locals can’t be dismissed. My friend Dr. Kiran Awasthi, who has trained all our dental technicians through his organization, has been furiously working with a group of high school classmates to distribute sanitation materials that will help prevent disease outbreaks. His connections through the private sector and health ministry have allowed his group to become a trustworthy distributor of hard-to-find supplies. They’ve also researched, designed and built a temporary housing unit in just two weeks, and they’ve tried it out in some areas already. Obviously the government will ultimately have to take the lead on a large scale, but groups like this are doing a huge amount to help get there more quickly.

My second stop was with a group called Women for Human Rights. Before the earthquake, I had planned to visit them on this trip to do an interview for a radio story I am producing about young widows in Nepal (as part of a series on migrant labor called Between Worlds…but that’s another story!). Like everyone, Women for Human Rights is also doing what they can towards relief, in this case for women especially. So I interviewed their founder about their aid efforts, and then went to a shelter they’ve set up for young mothers and children. It is a large canopy at one of the tent cities in Narayanchaur, at the center of a gigantic grassy mound in the middle of a traffic circle. I interviewed a 22 year old girl whose baby was three weeks old when the earthquake struck. When I asked the kids what they thought of spending their days lounging and playing in the hot sun at the camp, a twelve year old girl chirped: “It’s fun!”

I know that the government and army are making major efforts, and personally I believe very strongly that the government should be viewed with high expectations, tasked with responsibility, and held accountable.  But that said, there is huge distrust among the people of Nepal and the international community about the government’s ability to distribute aid, much less rebuilding, quickly or equitably.  There are still swaths of the hillsides where people have lost everything, suffered injuries and death, and received NO AID.  I couldn’t help noticing that when I walked past the police station, about two dozen officers were hard at work breaking, organizing and laying bricks – rebuilding the wall of their own compound.

IMG_8736

So that was a pretty long day. I already have hours of tape to sort through and tomorrow will bring a whole new chapter of stories before I fly to Pokhara at 3:00. I’ll be glad to get out of Kathmandu – about 70,000 people have left the city since the second earthquake on Tuesday.

Nepal has always shown me a graceful, practical relationship with nature and its whims. But everything feels wrong. Twice today I was in the middle of a conversation with someone who suddenly stopped and said, “Is that an aftershock?” and I couldn’t even feel any shaking. Everyone is on a razor’s edge. People keep telling me, “Things were getting back to normal,” when talking about the second earthquake, which really tells you something, because things were definitely not normal last Tuesday morning. But the second time seems to have redefined “not normal.” It’s as if now the injury of this event is not yet quantified – the sensation isn’t that something terrible happened, but that it is happening, and the final damage is unknown.   As long as the cost remains pending, the reckoning is impossible. You can’t mourn much less rebuild something that is still breaking apart. Everyone is just waiting, even as they run around providing aid to each other.

I will be glad to get to Pokhara tomorrow, but I think this month is going to be as strange and unsettling as expected. My mind is racing with ideas for how to make the best possible use of the $14,000+ we raised for aid, and it is good know that we have the ability to do something, or to provide significant support to someone doing something effective and under-funded. One idea I’m thinking about is collaborating with Kiran or a similar group working on temporary housing. Tomorrow, I am going to get an overview of how the big aid is working.

But I will write about that tomorrow!

Stone Paths

 

Yesterday, I went with Aamaa and Neru and Didi to carry 40 kg of cauliflower up the mountain from Pokhara, because, as we know, that’s the kind of thing I do to relax.  Why, you ask? Fair question. At Milan Chowk people are selling cauliflower and potatoes at seasonal wholesale rates, and because our relatives are there, we got an even sweeter deal.  Tell me you’ve ever purchased cauliflower for less than 6 cents per kilogram, baby.

What are we going to do with 40 kilograms of cauliflower? Ah, I thought you’d want to know. First, we’re going to schlep it up to Kaskikot. Then we can chop it in to thin pieces and dry it in the sun to eat later in the fall. And that brings us to yet another day of long steep stone paths, ropes, and heavy loads.

We took the forested footpath on north side, a walk I regularly make in about 35 minutes going down and one hour going up. It leaps (or drops, depending on which direction you’re going in) directly from the flat valley to the spiny ridge top.

IMG_2858

As we neared the bottom of the trail, Didi was walking a short way ahead when Aamaa pointed to a lone man in an empty rice paddy on the valley floor.

“That’s the field where Didi was born,” she said.

I’ve always known that Didi was born during rice planting season, when Aamaa went to work and returned home instead with her first baby.  But I didn’t realize the field was so far away from the house. It belongs to a relative, and I’ve never been to it.

“That one?” I squinted and pointed like I was on safari in Zimbabwe.

“Yes.  And then we walked up this path that afternoon.”

“…What?”

“I came here the night before to plant rice, but I had Didi at 8am the next morning.  And at 4pm we walked back up this same way with the baby.”

“…THIS one?! How is that possible?”

“I know.  Can you believe it? I couldn’t do it now.”

I might as well insert here that my brother and sister-in-law welcomed my niece Eliza Jane Spero in to the world just a few days ago, on March 6, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Running around here in Nepal, my mind has been largely preoccupied with thoughts of soft blankets and white linens and wrinkled baby feet at home. So maybe it was just the way the moment came together. But I looked at Didi chasing Aidan and Pascal down the stones in front of us, and all of a sudden it seemed impossible all over again that all of us were there together.

IMG_7151Aamaa was 20 years old when she had Didi, and she endured many hardships after she hiked up this long, unforgiving path later that same afternoon.  I can only imagine how birthing a child must have been then, when medical facilities, telephones, basic shops, and decent roads—to the extent any of these existed at all—were at least a day’s walk away.

Now, 35 later, here we were walking on the same stones. Standing on them, it’s hard to comprehend that millions of people in the world still live in that kind of poverty today, when it seems like an unbearable situation for one single individual. Every once and a while, all those millions are suddenly the one person in front of me, and today, it was Didi. She seemed like a miracle. And the path – which I’ve skipped down and climbed up hundreds of times – just stays there while people go up and down it, carrying their stories from one decade to the next.

It was 6pm by the time Aamaa and I got home with our 20kg loads of cauliflower. We have a lot of slicing to do.

*

 

IMG_7454