Beautiful Things

We are building houses of many kinds around here, one of which is our own. In between trips out to Lamjung, I’ve been slowly setting up our new office. We’re moving from a one-room office to a four-room office, and anybody who knows me will know that I can labor for weeks or months over small decisions, and filling up a new space requires an infinite amount of decision making. It took me three weeks to choose carpet, and then the people who came to lay down the carpet did a really bad job, cutting jagged lines and making a mess of it. I had the store send them back and then stood there while they cut everything in straight lines. As they left we were chatting, and I asked them not to take it too hard. But this space is going to be our home and we’ve put a lot of care in to it, so it’s a real downer when people come and don’t take care, and besides, if I my job were to cut carpets, I’d want to leave each place I did and say, ‘That’s my work. I made that.’”

Anyone who’s ever worked with a contractor knows that this kind of thing doesn’t happen only in Nepal. But I feel confident saying that Nepal takes it to a new level. The kind of care people put in to their planting, or their outfits when taking a photo, or cooking, or weaving mats, just doesn’t get put in to home decoration. People are okay with leaky faucets and doors that don’t quite fit their frames and paint of any variety of ecstatic colors that overlaps lazily from structure to the next. I’ve learned that I have to lord over each person who comes here to put something together, just to make sure our work space doesn’t become an accumulation of unloved creations.

IMG_5081So it’s not exactly going fast, but it’s going.

One funny quirk of our new space is this sink outside the bathroom, which is just hanging out in full view of the rest of the office. Someone suggested that I get a local bamboo artisan to create a simple screen to put here, so that people coming out of the bathroom would have some privacy while using the sink.

So last week I asked Shiva to go to Mahendrapul with me and stop in at one of the bamboo furniture places. He pulled his bike over at the first one we happened to see, where there was a young man Umesh.

Off all the things we need to set up in the office, the bathroom screen isn’t the one I was most concerned about. But when I set about explaining what we needed, Umesh and I began to examine various chairs and tables and hangers he had in his store, organizing designs I liked. He was extremely attentive and enthusiastic, and as our conversation went on, he couldn’t help himself from admitting that he’d opened his shop just two weeks ago, after fifteen years of working for someone else.

“I told them, I can make anything,” he said, looking like he’d kind of been bursting to tell somebody this. “My hands are full of skills. I said, ‘Why are you keeping me down here?’ And I left and opened this shop.”

Being the choosy perfectionist that I am, I could easily have told Umesh thank you very much and moved on to the next place so he could get his business going with a different customer. He quoted me $90 for the screen – as expensive as one of our desks, three times as much as the chairs he sells. Way to raise the bar, my friend.

Instead, I went with him to our office so he could look at the space itself. And after all the discussing we’d done, I waved my hands and said, “Ok, the main thing is it has to be opaque from here to here. Other than that, do whatever you think will look nice. Make it your own style. By Umesh.”

“I’m going to make you a beautiful screen,” Umesh proclaimed. “This is a very new idea – it will be first of its kind in Nepal.”

Four days later he called to tell me it was ready. He put in in a taxi at his own cost and brought it to our office, and when I arrived to meet him, he was already standing in the road with the screen next to him, trying to hold his smile in.

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This bamboo screen is no doubt my single favorite thing in our new office. It is absolutely gorgeous and in the U.S. would sell for a few hundred dollars. It has the charming quality of being made from bamboo during a period of months where I’ve been, oddly enough, spending inordinate amounts of time in the hot sun encouraging and supporting the creation of bamboo homes as our small but mighty contribution to post-earthquake Nepal. But most importantly, it was created with a great deal of pride and love. One side is bent a little, the natural curvature of the bamboo, a perfect imperfection. What started off as a temporary wall to enclose a bathroom became this wonderful piece of artwork.  And as we were all discussing later, you should have some things that you keep around just because they are beautiful.

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Before Umesh left, he couldn’t help admitting another thing, which was that, actually, I’d been his very first customer. I said he was our very first artisian in our first professional office, and that I expected his career was going to go quite well.

“I’m never going to forget you,” he said as he left.   And I said, “I’m pretty sure I won’t forget you either.”

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Dreaming of Safe Boxes

 

With a lot of thought going in to our current Kaski Oral Health working areas, we’ve also had quite a bit of discussion about whether, how, and why to get involved in a village closer to the center of the damage, where a higher percentage of houses – in some cases up to 90% – have been destroyed.  Lamjung, the next district over, shares its eastern border with Gorkha and this border was the epicenter of the earthquake.

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With all this going on, I’m gradually appreciating how much experience we’ve developed in community-centered design that incorporates multiple systems and people to address even a very specific issue like dental care.  I think that if we can work in one of these districts, we should because we can.  I also feel it’s important to have local, grassroots organizations involved and setting examples in the places where large agencies are doing a lot of work.

As I ponder how we can turn this expertise in to something useful for earthquake-relief (and I think we should have a moment of appreciation for the activity of pondering about turning expertise in rural South-Asian dental care in to earthquake relief), it seems the first step is to be working with a single community in a defined area.

I am hoping that if we can locate a community that’s a manageable size for our capacity and funds, we can at least do a really good job of using a community-centered approach to set up transitional housing in one Lamjung village, with the goal of creating an example to be copied by agencies with more resources. Once we see how that goes, we can decide if it makes sense to bring in another layer in the same community, such as the counseling element that Dr. Aung from the WHO suggested.

I’ve looked at four types of housing so far: Kiran’s tunnel, a simple tin tunnel, something called earthbag building that uses sacks of dirt and can be made to look very much like a traditional home – and then there’s the option of simply providing people with a corrugated tin and some other materials and letting them have at it.

All this was kicking around in my head the other night when I was in Kaski with Aamaa. While we were having dinner a crazy lightening storm started—the kind that’s more like a constant flickering than separate strikes of lightening. There is a lingering sense of nature’s awfulness in the air and everything feels foreboding, even the normal, dramatic patters of weather typical to this season. As we turned in for the night, it began to pour.

P1070133Lying in bed between the sturdy earth walls of our house, listening to rain clang on the tin roof, is one of my places of greatest serenity. This is my favorite way in the world to fall asleep, and my favorite way to wake up. You can hear the entire the distance from the ground under you up to the sky, but all the noise and space are close and balanced and soft like a blanket.

In my half-dream state, I found myself thinking about people lying in their makeshift shelters, with doors of plastic sheets or thin bamboo or synthetic, brightly-colored things, easily torn down or penetrated. Aamaa walks around all day with a key to this house hanging around her neck. She even sleeps with it.  It suddenly seemed like a great indignity to have no door to close, nothing to lock up, no single space to block out the rest of the unknown and uncaring world.

Not to mention the practicalities. Where are people storing any precious photos of grandparents extracted from the rubble? The few pieces of jewelry or any cash they are lucky enough to still possess? You’d have to walk around with all of this stuff on you all the time.

IMG_1719My mind reached about, searching for something that people could shut tightly, a safe box that can’t be stolen when there are no bolts or securities anywhere. Into my head floated a picture of a locked metal container with a pipe welded perpendicularly to the bottom, and a wide plate attached to the other end, like an upside down T. You could dig a hole, place the box in the ground so that the top of the T rests on the bottom of the hole, and then fill the hole in so only about half the box is above ground with the top accessible. There would be no way to lift this locked, anchored box, so if someone wanted to steal it they’d have to surreptitiously dig up the entire affair inside your tarp-house and then sneak out with a large metal T sticking out from under their shirt. Which, if they could pull it off, AND get your lock undone, then hats off to them.  Because the key would be on a string around your neck.

I fell asleep to the sound of the rain, wondering if we could produce a safe like that.

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