Another Room in Heaven

For someone who has spent 15 years in Nepal, I’ve travelled very little in the country, choosing instead to burrow further and further in to a single community, a single home, a place where now twelve year olds have always thought of me as a part of their world. It was only a few years ago that I suddenly thought: I’d like to explore. I’ve started stetting aside a few days every few years to go climb out on a spine of rock some place, in some location that percolates on a back burner in my mind until it bubbles over and asserts itself: this is the time, go here.  Then life adapts around it.

The Way to Muktinath

One way to travel is to go to see things that are new and unfamiliar and exciting or challenging – like that time I went to Murad Khane in Afghanistan, or when I floated in the Dead Sea, or the month I spent in New Orleans doing oral histories for StoryCorps after Hurricane Katrina.  But this is something else, a magnetic pull to a place that is already inside me, a dot on a primal map created a long time ago.  In 2013, Prem and I went to Mardi Himal by a little-traveled route comprised largely of goat trails snaking along a blade of snowy ridge that rims a basin of Annapurna giants. It was winter, everything wide and blinding, the sunrise spilling pomegranates and mandarins and pineapple juice all over the jaws of the cold earth. When I got there, it made sense.

Now it is summer. Muktinath sits north of Pokhara between Lower and Upper Mustang, a stone’s throw from the Tibetan border, and houses a famous complex of Buddhist and Hindu temples. For some time now I’ve been pulled north, toward the areas of Nepal influenced by Tibetan culture, and also where the landscape climbs up and stays high, where the trees fall away and leave a desert mountainscape that stretches off to the Tibetan plateau, a mystery, an uncrossable border. In the winter even local residents often come down from Mustang to the valley to escape the unforgiving snow and cold.

Prem Bhinaju and I met a bus by a curb in Lakeside early on Friday morning. It was headed to Jomsom, which is only a 15 minute flight from Pokhara, but unlike crystalline winter, the summer is dense and foggy and flights have not come or gone from Jomsom in a week. That leaves us with what should be a ten hour bus ride. You know where this is going.

There’s the obligatory 2.5 hour delay when a bearing that has to do with steering left needs fixing, and magically, the Bagloon Highway produces an auto shop strewn with hulking shells of buses and tractors and cars and unidentifiable transport components, so we pull over to fix the bearing. We set off again around noon under ten-ton heat, but I am relieved to be on the move with my day pack and with Prem, my most familiar travel companion. The road winds upward and the Kali Gandaki River drops below us, black and rumbling with coal-colored silt that will settle by the time the torrent gets to in Pokhara, where it is called the Seti Gandaki, or White River. The road becomes a road story that I can’t tell because my mom reads this blog, but even passengers local to Jomsom are praying and squeezing their eyes shut while we loll side to side on a road that, from afar, looks like a child dragged a pencil across triangles of high mountain forest and then got distracted with a sandwich. In the end, aside from knuckles white from clinging to the seat in front of me as if that can save me from a long descent in to the Kali Gandaki – one of the deepest gorges in the world – I come out fine. Prem and I arrive in Jomsom at 7:30pm.

I know I’m in Nepal, but Jomsom looks like a ski town and I have to keep reminding myself that this is Mustang. We clomp along a stone-laid main street with quaint local shops and hills rising up behind them. In the U.S. we’d call the hills mountains, but in Nepal, the mountains are the sheared white rocks twice as tall that are currently lost in monsoon cotton one row further back on the horizon.  It is hard to believe anything could tower over the already looming hills – I remember thinking the same thing at Ground Zero, knowing that Lower Manhattan’s massive skyscrapers had been dwarfed by the Twin Towers.  It is impossible to imagine land up in the middle of the sky, but I know Diligiri is there, behind the clouds, a thousand stories high.  We settle in at a hotel.  Local plum wine.

Our walk to Muktinath starts the next morning and takes two days, one long day up and one long day back. We walk along the Kali Gandaki in a landscape created contradictorily by the upward smashing of tectonic plates and the downward gouging of receding glaciers. The result is a desolate, heaving geometry, eons of history piled atop one another and laid bare straight from river to the sky. Dwellings impossibly carved out by people who once migrated southward from Tibet are clustered in the sweeping rock face, and the occasional modern village is a patch of irrigated greenery in a borderless expanse of brown. This should be the province of giants, but we are just tiny people, our feet sliding over bazillions of even tinier rocks, where fossils casually present themselves because nobody has owned them yet. They were once underwater and they have been here forever and ever and ever.

The climb starts. No houses, no villages, no ancient dwellings for hours. Prem Bhinaju finds a fossilized creature with gold flecks in it. Uncharacteristically , I haven’t exercised in weeks and my legs feel like playdough, but it’s cool. I have an actual fossil in my pocket.

We arrive in Muktinath around five, eat something, and rest for a while. Then, because tomorrow will be a long day and we’ll be pressed for time, we go out to explore the area around the outside of temple complex.  That will leave us time to go to the temple itself in the morning.  I leave most of my things behind except for my SLR camera and rain jacket. Now that it’s evening a slight mist is drifting downwards, uncommitted to getting us fully wet. Dusk turns dreamlike and enchanted.

Prem says we’ll walk up to the place where the path to Thorong-La pass starts. We would need a whole extra day to get to the 5,416m pass, but there is time, at least, to lay eyes on its direction. We circle the wall of the temple complex, and two nuns are just leaving, one wearing hot pink sneakers. I ask if the nuns if they were born here in Muktinath and they say yes, and even though that is a completely unremarkable fact, to me it seems incredible because I am so far away from the world I know. They bustle off to the nunnery.

We climb quietly past parts of the complex wall that have cracked and broken in the earthquake two years ago, and emerge in a widening field that slopes upward and disappears in to a fog. “The way to Thorong-La,” Prem says. He says we are at 2800m. I say, obviously, we should walk up another 200m, so even though evening is turning denser, up we go in to the haze.

Some ways ahead, a walking bridge is slung across the gorge to our left and we climb until we reach the concrete block anchoring the bridge to the ground on our side of the river. Without any comment, Prem sits and I follow, and then I lie back and stare in to the unremitting white sky. No variations in density or color, no dragons or bears or wizard faces, just an endless, depthless white.   Further up the green rocky slope, on the other side of the embankment of fog, is the path to Thorong-La; below us is everything we’ve come from.

Quiet.  I am filled with a profound gratitude for Prem’s company, his silence, the easy way we can walk up to this concrete block and sit on it at dusk and do nothing at all.

After fifteen minutes, I decide to cross the bridge, for much the same reason we walked up 200 meters. We’re on one side of a bridge, so it should be crossed.  The first step out over the edge ofthe gorge sends a thrill through my nerves, and then out I plod out over the wires, which undulate a little with my steps, until I am standing directly over the water gushing down from the high mountains.  A thunderous cloud of sound rises up through my bones and engulfs my senses; I can barely hear my own breath. It feels like the river is running right through me, and when I shout or chant the water picks up the sound and rumbles away with it taking my voice down down down down to all the places we were.

The instant I step back on to the concrete block the mountain silence envelopes me again; magically, the roar of all that water is audible only between the walls of the gorge. Prem takes a turn on the suspension bridge, and then we head back down the green slope and circle around the other side of the giant temple complex.  Night is creeping in slowly, as if stalling a little to give us just enough time to see one more wonderful thing.

We come to an area of the hill I have been viewing from below in the mist: rows and rows and rows and rows of prayer flags strung behind small white structures scattered high up on a hill. I studied Tibetan Buddhist funerary rituals for a course I took this year, and throughout the evening, my sights have been trained here. When we passed the nun in the hot pink shoes, I pointed this way and asked if it was okay to pay a visit. She said yes. Prem and I make our way over the hill toward the fluttering prayer flags.  He walks down toward the road, and with barely a word, I go up.

I’m expecting to see signs of sky burial, but I realize quickly that this is a land burial site. Everything feels unified and still, but also light and high. There are small cairns everywhere, placed for passed spirits to find refuge to heaven, and as I walk between the grave sites, it suddenly occurs to me to ask Prem, still at an audible distance, if he thinks I could build a cairn. Why not, he says, and sits down on a rock facing out over the endless prehistoric topography while I climb higher up and find a patch of ground abutting the faded squares of color calling tut-tut-tut as the wind tugs them from their strings.

Prem never asks why. He just waits.  And when I have built it, a stack of stones among all the stones and fossils, another room in heaven, and when I have sat over it and cried for some minutes, I walk down the hill and we leave.

Night falls at last.

 

*

 

Lifts

 

The bus to kaski is very hectic right now: in addition to the heat, and the rain, the road has been sporadically damaged by flooding and landslides.  After last week’s sweltering ride with Aidan and Pascal, I decided that this afternoon I would try getting a ride with Nabin who lives up in Parapani and drives a taxi.  He’s always willing to drive me home at the end of the day for a pretty good price, rather than drive his car back up to Kaski empty.

I called Nabin on Tuesday to fix our plan, and then rang him up again as we were leaving the office at 5pm on Wednesday. He picked up, but the connection was bad and I couldn’t catch what he was saying.  I decided it was “I’ll call you right back,” and then I hung up.  I texted to say I’d be ready at 5:30, and went back to my room to putter around on the internet for a while.

I called Nabin at intervals but he didn’t answer.  The clock drifted past 5:15, then 5:30, when the last bus leaves from the bus park for Kaski.  At 5:45 I thought, I better move out if I’m going to get to Kaski today.  If I couldn’t get a hold of Nabin, I was already stuck making the hour long walk from Naudanda – potentially in a downpour, in the dark – because the last direct bus had left already.  I put on my backpack and walked out to the main thoroughfare running to Lakeside.

One advantage of being a foreigner is that you can do things like stop a random guy on a scooter and say, “Hey, would you mind just taking me up to the next intersection?”  I stopped a random guy on a scooter and asked him to take me up to the next intersection.  I hopped on the back of his bike and as we approached the intersection, I shouted over the wind, “So where are you headed?”  The guy was headed straight on to Pirthivichowk, and the bus park was up a road to the left, so I thanked him and said I’d hop off there.

“Oh what the heck, I can take you to the bus park,” the guy said, and turned left.

I’ve never tried this strategy for lift-getting before, ever.

As we drove up the road to the bus park, the guy said he’d served with the US Navy in Bahrain for eight years.  I didn’t even know that was a thing – is there water in Bahrain? – how to Nepalis end up in the US Navy? – and he told me more about it, but I couldn’t hear him over the wind in my ears and the honking traffic, so all these things remained mysteries.  Back in Nepal, he wasn’t doing much at the moment, he said.

“So where are you headed?” the US Navy guy asked.  I explained about Nabin, and about getting to Kaskikot tonight, and that I supposed I’d walk from Naudanda.

“Oh what the heck, I’ll put some gas in the bike and take you up to Kaskikot.”

“What?”

“Why not, I’m not busy.”

“But that’s really far!  It’s probably 45 minutes on the bike.”

“No problem.  I’ll just get some gas first.”

“How much will it cost?” I asked, wondering if that was the least of the confusion.

“No cost.”

“But – but – but……”

The guy pulled over to get gas.  I pondered the situation.  The next bus to Naudanda might not leave for another 30 or 45 minutes.  It would be dusk, if not night, by the time I arrived in Naudanda, and then it might rain, and I’d have another 60 minute walk.  It seemed like I should be worried about why this stranger wanted to take me up in to the hills at dusk to a place he doesn’t live, but I wasn’t.  I tried to get worried and instead I thought, “Wow, it would be pretty great to get a scooter ride up to Kaskikot right now.”

“Ok, let’s go,” I said.  I determined to give him some gas money, at least.  Also, I have a black belt in taekwondo.

For the next half our or so, we rode up the switchbacks, watching the valley recede in to the hazy, rose-tipped blue of evening.  The day fell away below as we climbed up in to the hills.  I cinched the hood on my rain jacket to provide a little wind protection, but the guy was a reasonable driver and the breeze from the movement felt good. Occasionally I stuck my arm out in the direction of the beautiful scenery, as if it was some kind of compensation I could offer for this inexplicable act of generosity.

We came upon a sloshy patch of suspicious looking mud and disembarked.  The two of us regarded the scene: a pit of soft mud with the gash of a thick tire through it, left by something much larger and heavier than the scooter, and surrounded by pools of brown water.

“I can walk from here,” I said.  I was feeling kind of guilty.  “It’s only about half an hour or so. I’d have had to make an hour walk from Naudanda.”

“Still half an hour of walking?”

“I’ve walked from here many times,” I insisted.  “It will be a real mess if your bike gets stuck.”

The guy looked concerned, partly with the matter of my walking, and partly with the oppression of humans by an inert patch of mud.

“Please let me contribute something for gas,” I offered.  He declined.  He had time on his hands and it was a pleasant trip.  I thanked him, asked his name, and we took a selfie.  Raj Kumar Gurung.

A motorbike came up behind us with two young dudes on it.  They sped over the mud pit.  Raj Kumar Gurung looked from them back to his scooter.

“Let me just give it a try,” he said.

“But if–”

“I’ll just try it.”

Raj Kumar Gurung, US Navy, revved the scooter and launched it in to the mud pit.  It rolled through to the other side.

“I’m coming!” I said, and stepped directly in to sucking mud-slosh the consistency of hummus up to my ankle.  “Be right there!” I cried, rinsing off some of the brown hummus in a puddle, and then in a clear stream that had had developed across the road on the other side of the mud pit.

Raj Kumar Gurung said that instead of returning back to Pokhara the way we’d come up, he’d continue straight on past Deurali and meet the road in Naudanda.  At this point, he was going to drive past my stop regardless.  I decided to get off a half mile or so early to stop in and say hi to Thakur sir, one of our founding oral health program members, and I insisted that Raj Kumar Gurung at least have some tea before continuing on, but he demurred again.  Off he sped, having lifted me directly from Lakeside to Kaskikot just as night was falling.

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Trenches

 

This summer I’ve been spending a lot of time sitting at a computer, in our lovely bright office, which is definitely a first.  Last summer, for example I was hiking for 10-12 hours a day in the hot sun visiting earthquake-affected homes in Lamjung, and in general, my time in Nepal is spent covering ground, carrying things, and changing elevations.  Well finally, today was a more typical day in the trenches.

We had scheduled our advocacy meeting with the Health Post committee in Bharat Pokhari.  We’re holding these meetings to push for local funding like we did in Sarangkot.

I woke up at home in Kaskikot.  I had to meet Dilmaya at the bus station in Pokhara at 8:30am, and the local bus from Kaski leaves too late and goes too slow to get me there on time, so I’d cleverly arranged a ride with a neighbor in Kaski who drives a taxi.  However, the road between where he lives and our house is totally washed out with the monsoon, so I woke up at 6am – POINTS FOR ME, THAT’S THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT IN MY WORLD – and walked 20 minutes to the other side of the muddy section to meet him at 7:05.  Naturally, I discovered at this point that we were still waiting for another passenger, an ill lady slowly making her way to us.  While I got nervous and then annoyed that I’d be late, there wasn’t much to do.  This is why you don’t stay in your village instead of in Pokhara the night before catching an 8:30am bus for an important meeting.

Naturally, we made it to the bus station on time despite all signs to the contrary.  Dilmaya and I took 1.5 hr very, very bumpy ride out to Bharat Pokhari, cutting over some intervening foothills.

After another 20 minute walk up the road to the Health Post, and we had arrived by 10am for a 12:00 meeting.  No sweat – two walks and two vehicles later, all before breakfast.  Aamod came bouncing up the road on his motorbike and, with plenty of time to pass before the meeting, we went in to visit Bharat Pokhari’s weekly clinic.

IMG_8999

Bharat Pokhari was handed over just this past spring, which means that its protocols are up to date, subject only to how well they’re being observed.  But funding wise, things are in limbo.  The clinical team has been showing up and working without pay, trusting that between us and their local government, someone is going to come through.  In all transparency, we signed a funding agreement with Bharat Pokhari before we launched the clinic, as we do everywhere.  But seeing these through is challenging in every single place, so realistically, we’re in basically in negotiation with Bharat Pokhari’s leaders about it anyway.

We’ve already met with both the Health Post Chairman, a young and ambitious Public Health graduate, and the Village Chairman, who is older and more traditional; these two hold the main influence, technically speaking, over how funds get budgeted.  We’ve briefed both of them extensively over coffee in Pokhara.  The Health Post Chair was very much down with the idea of piloting a new health service in Nepal’s rural system, and as a public health specialist was easily oriented to the larger vision about what this would mean; but, like many Health Post leaders, he’s an appointed transplant who will be moved to a new location within the year.  By contrast, the Village Chairman is very, very local, with social clout and a more complex set of competing interests.  Any meeting is functionally meaningless without both of them present.

At 12, nobody had arrived yet to meet us.  We used the time to mill about Bharat Pokhari’s Health Post, an impressive, hefty hospital-like building constructed with foreign funds, in which many rooms appear to be empty or minimally used.  At 1, we were still waiting in a spacious meeting room with one very talkative local leader who discussed with us, at length, how difficult it is to get everyone together for a meeting.  We agreed.

Around 1:30, this wonderful looking man came in, and it turns out that in addition to being on the Bharat Pokhari government committee, he is our dental technician’s 86 year old grandfather – a magnificently venerable age for these parts.

IMG_9013 (1)

1:45pm, we were still waiting for the Village Chairman, who, in theory, had called the meeting.  But then he had apparently been summoned urgently to the municipality in Pokhara.

By 2pm we decided to go for tea with anyone who would come with us, and there we finally got in to a vibrant conversation with some of the health post staff, local leaders, and passers-by about the permanence of the dental clinic.  It dawned on me as we talked “informally” over tea that we weren’t even ready for a meeting of 10 or 15 social leaders in Bharat Pokhari, and that in Sarankgot we were lucky with how quickly things got organized.  Here, we’re still lobbying individual people.  It was probably advantageous that we ended up in a public space, chatting in a tea shop with locals sitting around about how the village should be using its public funds.

IMG_9017

Bharat Pokhari Health Post

We returned to the towering Health Post with our precarious baby clinic inside.  It sits across from a similarly built community center that the same international agency is building; when I asked for what, I was told, “community things.”  I sighed and, knowing it was a bit too simplistic – but nevertheless, true at this moment – said to Dilmaya, “It’s so easy to build something one time and go, isn’t it?”

By 3:15 we decided we had made the most of our day, and climbed on to bikes to head home: me with Aamod, and Dilmaya with the Health Post Chairman, because, we’re in Nepal.

At 3:30, as we were literally rolling down to the road, the Village Chairman showed up.

We got off the bikes.

All of the positive talk from our earlier coffee with the Village Chairman seemed to have dissipated. Tired, we began again at the beginning, making the same case we’d made just a week ago.  We’re realizing that’s just part of how it works.

Finally, around 4pm, Aamod and I left Bharat Pokhari on his motorbike, which is 9 years old and regularly stalls out.

“Should we take the short road?” he asked.  I know this is a trick question that translates to, “I am planning to take this steeper, bumpier short cut, and I am letting you know that we will not be going the other way, which is only for sissies.”

The bike stalls out.

“Well, why take the long road if there’s a short road?” I oblige. “I don’t really know any of these roads.”  Actually, those things are all true.

The bike starts.  We take the short road.

About ten jostling minutes down the short road, just as we are yelling loudly over the bike about how our day of meeting-hazing in Bharat Pokhari was a necessary step in which we feel we put the time to good use, a bike comes up in the other direction.

“The road is closed below!” says the Guy Going Up the Hill.

“What do you mean ‘closed?'” Aamod asks.

“No road,” the Guy Going Up the Hill explains.

I mentally sigh; now we will have to ride 10 minutes back up the bumpy short road, and then down the long road.  We still have a coffee scheduled at 5:30pm with the Village Chairman from Lwang Ghalel.

“I think we should see it,” Aamod says.  “I mean, how closed can it be? I came up this road this morning.”  I know this is a trick question that means, “I don’t want the road to be closed, so I’m going to ignore the obvious and keep going.”

“Well, if you came up the road this morning, what does ‘no road,’ really mean, anyway?” I oblige.

We pass another bike coming in the opposite direction.

“THERE’S NO ROAD BELOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooo…w!” he zooms by.

“Maybe there’s no road,” I suggest traitorously.

“Let’s just see,” Aamod replies.

We pull up to some construction workers – the ones turning around all the bikes.  Presumably the same people responsible for the missing road.

“No road below!” the construction workers inform us.

“None at all?” Aamod asks, because, we should be sure.  “Can a bike cross?”

“Absolutely nothing,” they confirm.  Finally.

“Let’s just have a look,” Aamod says.

“I think it’s going to be closed,” I confess.  “Maybe we should just turn around here, we’re wasting time.”

“How closed can it be?” Aamod asks.

So it takes us about 30 minutes to drop Aamod’s extremely heavy bike down this seven foot trench, maybe cut for concrete piping, roll it across the uneven loose dirt and rocks at the bottom, and get it back up the other side.  I now have a lot of dirt and exhaust up my nose.  But, we have won the road.

“That was definitely faster than going back up to the long road,” Aamod points out as we set off again.  I know this is code for “I never suggested we wouldn’t get drenched in sweat and that rolling this five ton bike out of a ditch wouldn’t be part of the process, and it was still worth it because we have won the road.”  He calculates the amount of time each stage of the going up would have wasted, and, indeed the total is longer than the half hour we have spent in the trench.

“Yes, that’s true,” I agree, mildly confused about my final evaluation of having won the road.  “It would have taken way too much time to go back up.”

“You know, the thing is in Bharat Pokhari,” Aamod shouts over the wind, “is that if they just give us a fixed challenge, we can solve it.  But if the challenge keeps changing, it’s gonna be really hard.”

He’s definitely right about that, and we discuss it as we zoom down the short road.  If there’s a real and defined obstacle to overcome to sustain our clinic, we can strategize through it, but if the landscape keeps changing and people aren’t really working with us, we’re pretty much doomed.

“What’s wrong with these people?”

“Yeah,” I shout over the wind.  Politics in Nepal is a whole special level of screwed up, I think.

“They just dig a trench across the road and leave it like that.  They at least need to lay a walkway across before they go.”

“Oh that,” I call out.  “I thought you meant—”

And then my sentence trails off.  The short road presents us with:

Trench Number Two

Trench Number Two

Now we’re between two trenches.

“Well, we have no choice but to cut across this one too,” Aamod states.

“That does seem to be the case,” I agree with happiness and enthusiasm.  It’s either this one, or the first one again.

A bike comes up the road on the other side of the trench and, peering over the opposite side, turns around in dismay. We, however, roll Aamod’s heavy bike in to the trench – for a second time – and lay stones, gun the motor, push the thing from behind, the hot exhaust huffing hot on to our ankles.  I eat a lot more dirt.  I am not very effective at this, so Aamod is doing most of the work, although I get exertion points for lifting a heavy bike at the wrong time and pushing it in the wrong direction, and also for laying stones behind a cloud of exhaust.  And then we are through.

We set off again.

“It’s cause you said that thing about the obstacles,” I offer.

“We should stop for a snack,” Aamod says.

As we finally get near town, we stop for pakora and knockoff Redbull.  We deserve it.  I rinse the dust out of my mouth and wash my arms and shins.  Our 5:30 meeting!  Aamod calls the Lwang Ghalel Chairman.

No answer.

It starts to rain.

We sit for forty five minutes, talking strategy, thinking about new clinic launches, considering how to adjust the initial setup and benchmarks along the way, based on what we’re rapidly learning now.  We still have three other post-handover sites and four mid-term sites to manage.

Aamod calls the Lwang Ghalel Chairman again.  No answer.

More rain.

“Can we call it a day?”

“He’s not coming.”  That was a day all right.

We get back on the bike.  It stalls out.  We restart it.  Aamod drops me off in Pokhara.

Good night.

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moving Still

 

An exciting week of office work led up to this year’s Maghe Sakranti, which always seems to coincide with some travel experience, astrological event or, in this case, Aidan’s 8th birthday, IMG_3858which, if you think about it, is the same thing.

The main topic of my conversation with Aidan and Pascal since I arrived two weeks ago has been black forest cake. Birthday cake came in vogue in Nepal about five or six years ago – as far as I can tell, it was discovered on TV, and has been translated in to an epic mashup of east-west-birthday-wedding-puja sort of candle-lighting experience that is not to be missed. Anyway, after a hectic week of office meetings and shopping for light fixtures, I caught the last bus up to Kaskikot on Thursday to head home for Maghe Sakranti with birthday cake for Aidan.

Because of Maghe Sakranti, the bus was packed with people heading home to Kaskikot. “Kaskikot packed” means that there is no standing room left inside the bus, and additionally, the people with poor tactical skills who’ve sat in aisle seats have someone’s butt in their ribs or armpit or smushed directly onto their faces. Most definitely, all people with seats are holding either a random package, bag of tomatoes, or someone else’s child on their lap.

As a master bus-rider, I possess a hierarchical mental catalogue of exactly which nooks and crannies make for a tolerable ride relative to a shifting set of variables. I approach “Kaskikot packed” with the focus of a honing pigeon.

IMG_4380It is immediately obvious that today is a top-of-the-bus day. Air is high on my list of prioritized variables, and all of the strategically located nooks and crannies inside the bus are taken or have been invaded by the limbs and odd angles of people who are technically not using these spaces. It’s a total free-for-all. For some reason, Nepalis have an awe-inspiring tolerance for this kind of physical disarray; I on the other hand, while happy to fit myself in to a pretty small nook, need it to be evenly balanced on all sides and protected from random entry, no matter how small my zone is.

Never fear, this is situation is accounted for. I hand Aidan’s cake to the Ticket Bro – all the guys who collect money on buses are Bros of the first degree, with wiry bodies and saggy pants – and clamber up a metal frame to the roof of the bus. The Ticket Bro, who knows me well (ok, I stick out, and besides I’ve provided many unreasonable entertainment opportunities for the general bus-riding public), hands Aidan’s black forest cake up to the top of the bus. I wedge it in flat between a box of beer bottles and a floppy sack of mystery items that’s soft enough to sit on. Soon I too am wedged in evenly on all sides by other passengers, which is exactly the way I want to be. I bend my knees protectively over the cake and we lurch away. The climb to Kaskikot isn’t a long distance in miles, but it’s all up, one switchback whipping around to the next.

The air begins to rush past and in settles a familiar, soothing reeling. The bus is climbing and honking, people are sticking out every which way, we are ducking the occasional branch – FWAP! – as the trees whoosh by. A wave of exhilarating calm envelops me, soft and malleable.

There have been three accidents on this bus route since in the thirteen years I have been riding it. Each time there is a bus accident, everyone including me swears off this road, these good-for-nothing-regulations, these drivers. The police crack down on the rules; buses are improved and added to reduce passenger load. The new bus I am on today looks like a greyhound, with upholstered reclining seats. But inevitably, the people turn this bus in to a wild beast. It’s inertia.

IMG_8687It just can’t be avoided.

Which, in a way that’s hard to explain, is why it’s so calming. Like in many poor countries, there is no illusory order here: everything is paint splatter all the time, and nobody’s pretending it’s something different. Everyone is hanging on to the spinning planet with one finger, and it is still working, at least until it’s not. Over time you realize that you too are paint splatter. You might think you aren’t now. But when order falls away, all of us are wilderness.

After the tragedies that have happened on this road, I know I shouldn’t admit it’s thrilling to catch the bus just in time, climb up to the roof, and duck branches while people talk on their phones and sway side to side eating peanuts like we are on Amtrak. But it isn’t a thrill because it’s dangerous (for the record, in purely statistical terms, driving on the beltway is just as dangerous)… it’s a thrill because it doesn’t feel dangerous. It makes sense. Because we are all flying through the trees together; because chaos and order have switched places, and everything fits despite the appearance of anarchy, and we are not dead yet.

In the mean time, some racing tiger inside of me catches the trees dashing by. I can feel the grumbling pavement even from up on the roof of the bus, and the Ticket Bro heedlessly climbs up and down the side of the bus like a chimpanzee while it is whirling around a corner. The valley below us recedes, and that wild thing in me, with a racing companion to match its speed, is still.

I’ve found this pocket of tranquility in other fast places.  When I catch a seat on the back of a motorbike and take off, zipping up my jacket. When I’m flying down a path in the trees with a sickle and rope in my hand, my flip flops smacking tap-tap-tap-tap on the rocks. Occasionally I have whirled into this thing when jumping on to the subway in New York, snagging a tread of some larger tapestry in the crush of a ten-million-person city with a trillion little shards of disorder that still fit in to something bigger.

In the subway, this is a private knowing. But on this bus, the miracle is out in the open for everyone to see: unruly, electric, FWAP! It’s still working.

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As we climb the lone road up through Sarangkot and closer to Kaski, people filter out at their homes, lugging their bags and boxes and children. The Ticket Bro clambers up and tosses bags off the top of the bus, and our resting props are gradually removed. My stop is the last stop. Soon all the other passengers decide to move down inside the bus, but because I am a honing pigeon I know that none of my approved nooks inside are available yet, and I stay on top of the bus, alone with Aidan’s black forest cake. I lie down so I don’t have to worry about oncoming branches, and crowd myself in with boxes and sacks to block the breeze, and float up the road on my back, watching the night sky roll by. My thoughts spiral in and out, moving still.

Of course, I can’t see where we’re going from this position. No problem. This road only leads to one place.

*

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Memorable Trips

 

It has been six months since our post-earthquake housing projects in Archalbot and Bharte. We’re launching dental programs in or near these areas in 2016, so today Aamod needed to visit the Lamjung District government offices in Beshishar to get signatures that are required complete agreements in our new sites.  Yes, this sort of thing must be done in person in Nepal, not by fax or email or any other method, so Aamod has to travel 3 hours from Pokhara to Besishahar to get the signatures.  We decided that Dilmaya and I would accompany him to Lamjung and get out a few kilometers before Besishahar to visit The Bamboo Village in Archalbot. We wanted to see how everyone was were doing, and we also had to decide what to do about the earth bag house that didn’t get finished over the summer.

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Three good looking people suffed in to two front seats in a van to Lamung

We decided to go with local transportation.

There is a fuel shortage right now due to strikes along the Indian border, so prices for gas have skyrocketed, and most regular people are getting their cooking fuel on the black market. Transport has compensated by raising prices, by running fewer buses and taxis, and, obviously, by stuffing even more people in to the same number of car seats.

I took tons of photos last summer when Archalbot was building, so today we brought prints to give back people. I highly recommend this practice – it’s always much appreciated because until cell phones, most people had very few photos of themselves. Even now, sorting photos is always An Event. Older people will people examine each thing in the photo in great detail – the buffalo, the way their sari is tussled, the water pot in the background – and will ask questions like, “Only one of my sons is in this photo. Where is the other one?”

The first house we arrived at belongs to one of the last houses we helped with.  Last June there were about ten people with a few babies living in the tiny house hidden behind the clothes line.  Now they are still living in their new house and it looks great.

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While we were talking with this family, people from Archalbot started to notice us and come shouting excitedly down the road.  Remember Uttam’s sister in law, and the day she and her husband left to go cut bamboo after much cajoling?  She came bouncing down the hill shouting out to Dilmaya and me.

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The next house we came to was Uttam’s family – I admit this house is tied with the Golden Cottage for my favorite of all 150+ houses we helped with after the earthquake. I was thrilled to discover that, while living in the shelter they built last summer, Uttam and his brothers rebuilt houses on their own land. Just four days before we arrived, they had relocated the tin roof we provided on to their new stone house, which has yet to be completed and plastered. What a fantastic example of everyone pitching in the thing they have, and of the dignified resiliency that is so characteristic of Nepali people.

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July 2015

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June 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uttam's family recently moved their shelter tin on to this new permanent house.

Jan 2016 – Uttam’s family recently moved their shelter tin on to this new permanent house.

Uttam’s older brother had also rebuilt his house – so the whole complex has moved back on to the family’s land in six months time. I was really pleased to see that the older brother’s new house is made from plastered bamboo chim – the same building style we pressed people to use when we provided roofs for the original shelters. This house is actually cheaper and far more earthquake resistant than a heavy stone house (you can see Uttam’s stone house in the background).

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We spent a lot of time giving people photos of themselves. This activity produced too many great moments to choose from!

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Overall, the houses that we helped people build in Archalbot look good. In a few cases, people are living in them full-time. In many, they are sleeping in their bamboo shelters while cooking and storing belongings in their damaged houses. In a few, the shelters remain but aren’t being used, either because the family has relocated altogether or just decided not to actually stay in it. Kripa’s family used their tin to rebuild the buffalo shelter where we glamped.

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Buffalo & Goat Hotel, Jan 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The earthbag house is an interesting story. Our role here was as facilitator – my friend Robin had training and materials to build one earthbag home, and we provided a connection with a community that needed a house. I documented this process last summer right up to the point we had to put the building on hold for the monsoon, with promises to return this winter.

Well here we are this winter. The family with the half-earthbag, half-bamboo house has built a pretty impressive collection of houses out of it and they are living there full time.

There are many things I have to say about the earthbag house, so I’ll write about that separately. One of the things we had to figure out on this visit was whether or not we had enough manpower in Archalbot to call Robin back with tools and supplies to finish the house….and the answer was no. So this earthbag/bamboo house will stay as it is, which is a bit frustrating, but that’s that.

After tea and snacks back at our HQ in Kripa’s house, Dilmaya and I left Archalbot and walked back down to Bote Orar. We crossed the bridge that has replaced the one with a loose cable that held us up in the muddy road with a ton of corrugated tin for an hour and a half last summer. We got ourselves some knockoff Redbull in homage to the gallons of knockoff Redbull that kept us going during those hot months.

Aamod came reeling down the road from Besishahar and we clambored in to another crowded, swervy van. As the day became later we and switched to a bus in Dhumre, we settled in for the last two hours of our journey.

Yes, this is where it happens.  The inevitable road travel story.

As it turned out, somewhere up the road people were striking because an accident had struck someone in the road yesterday. There was a blockade that went for miles.

When we reached the blockade it was already dark out.  Our choices were to either wait it out until some undetermined time in the bus, or to start walking.  So we got out of the bus and set out past the endless line of stopped vehicles, some with people in them waiting for the 100% unpredictable hour or day that the blockade would be opened. The highway wound its way alternately through small towns and the middle of nowhere. We were still over an hour’s car ride from Pokhara.

There were still motorbikes coming by, so we made a plan to divide up.  Dilmaya and I hopped on the back of the first bike that could fit both of us, and rode it up to the mouth of the traffic jam. We waited there until Aamod caught up behind us half an hour later on another bike, and then we walked the last half mile or so to where people where crowded around the usual tires and logs blocking the road.  Behind the blockage was a group of women was sitting in on the pavement, not talking much. Some were fiddling on their phones. It occurred to me that they had probably just lost a family member or close community member on this stretch of road just 24 hours earlier – a strange contrast to the miles and miles of hassle that stretched out from either side of their circle.

Now we started past cars lined up in the opposite direction. Just to be clear: we were not a walkable distance from home.  Even by Nepali standards.

All of a sudden a jeep began rolling out past the innermost barriers of the blockade, headed in the direction we needed to go.  I turned around and saw it was an ambulance.

We sprung in to action. Aamod stopped the jeep and spoke with the driver who, understandably, told us that he could not let us hitch a ride in an ambulance. Aamod got on the phone with his brother in law, who is a doctor, and I stalled by keeping one arm in the rolled down window of the ambulance and talking to the drivers in Nepali.

“Sir, what ever shall we do? It’s quite cold out. We can’t possibly sleep here in the road.”

“I don’t know what to tell you- I’m not allowed to take people in an ambulance.”

“I see I see, but this is an unusual circumstance….” Etc.

I keep at this until Aamod has his brother in law on the phone, which he hands to the ambulance driver. Who then opens the back of the ambulance – and in we go.

And thus our day ends with us bouncing along in the back of this ambulance back to Pokhara. At one point, we drive through a checkpoint, and I lie down with my arm over my face, feeling slightly guilty, while Dilmaya sits next to me looking concerned and wearing a surgical mask that she has with her for general dusty road travel purposes. We roll through the checkpoint.

“Can I get up now?”

“Lie down! Not yet.”

It’s 9pm when we get to Pokhara; the ambulance driver amicably drops me off within walking distance from our office.

As Dilmaya, who was my partner in crime for the entire two-month adventure of our post-earthquake housing extravaganza, said: “Laura miss, our road trips are always very memorable.”

Oh, and one other thing – remember how the point of this trip was that Aamod was going to get papers signed by the district officials in Besishahar?

Yeah, well, there was some kind of meeting today and all the government employees were out of the office. So we have to go back to Besishahar for the signatures again.

*

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The early morning road from Pokhara to Besishahar

 

The Road We Followed

 

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop in Lakeside, and overheard a woman at another table on the phone, trying to figure out how to help a village in Dhading. When she hung up she was frustrated and kind of flustered. We got to talking, and it turned out her name is Janet, she’s from Taiwan, and she has a friend named Bishnu in this village in Dhading, Tripureswor, Ward #6.  She explained all the ways she’d been trying, unsuccessfully to help Bishnu’s village.

I don’t know why, but after asking her a few questions, I told her I’d try to figure out what was going on in Tripureswor, Ward #6. Dhading is a few districts over from Pokhara, quite far from us, but I’ve learned enough about the system now that I figured I could at least make a few calls and get more information for Janet.

Plus, although I’m proud of the work we’ve been doing in the lower percentage of damage, I can’t help but feel drawn to at least see the higher percentage of damage first hand. So I was fascinated with Tripureswor Ward #6, because it fell in my lap.

I made some early phone calls a few weeks ago and confirmed, to my surprise, that Janet was correct in thinking that so far Oxfam had only provided 2 bags of rice, hygiene kits, and 20 kg of rice seed to residents of Tripureswor. Any other work there had been done by small, private groups.  I learned that out of 947 households in Tripureswor Village, 924 had been destroyed or damaged.  Fifteen people died.

I never actually saw Janet again in person, although I called to tell her what I’d found out, and she left to return to Taiwan a few weeks later, and recentlyIMG_5124 sent me a disappointed email saying she’d never been able to get anything together to help Bishnu’s village. One organization after another had either refused to help, or said they’d help and then backed out.

But Tripureswor Ward #6 has stayed in my mind. Since Lamjung is one district in the right direction and we were going there on Thursday and Friday to deliver tin, I called Janet’s friend Bishnu on Wednesday and introduced myself. On Saturday morning, Dilmaya and I decided to keep going on from Lamjung to Dhading.

Additionally, my good friend Anne has just arrived from the U.S. Anne and I met in the one Nepali class I’ve ever taken, during the summer of 2006 at Cornell. We are a great pair because she can read Sanskrit and speak royal Nepali, and I can’t read at all but I can talk with animals; she did her PhD and wrote a book on modern politics and public ritual in Nepal, making her an expert in local history and religion, and I am the world’s leading expert in carrying things on my head with village wives and cracking jokes in my rural accent. Between the two of us there’s pretty much no situation that we don’t have covered.

So on Saturday morning, Dilmaya and I took a bus east from Lamjung and Anne took a bus west from Kathmandu, and we met by the highway in Malekhu. And from there: to Dhading.

This is now the part of the story about a very, very long muddy road.  The second and main part of the journey, a few dozen kilometers from Dhading Besi to Khahare, took us five hours.

We passed this jam,

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and this jam,

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…let’s just zoom in on that grandma on the back of the motorbike with the goat.

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Inevitably, the bus gets stuck, because someone had decided that morning that it was a good idea to use a bulldozer to churn up the dirt on this road to improve it.  During the monsoon.

 

We sit in the bus for a long time, it is raining, I have no idea where we are, I play some Amy Winehouse on my phone and entertain everyone with my village accent. Eventually we get out of the bus and we start walking. We passed some people standing near the bus clucking their tongues, saying, “The dozer had just dug up this road and made it so nice and flat. And then just like that the rain came.”

I just want to use this opportunity to make a public service announcement: IT’S MONSOON SEASON, PEOPLE.  The rainy season.

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Dilmaya and me walking to Khahare (photo credit: Anne).

 

Now that we were all used to the idea that we would not be arriving in Tripureswor at 2pm or 5pm, but more like 8:30pm, or maybe never, the walk was nice. It gave us an opportunity to take in more and for me to take photos of the misty evening that had turned the glassy rice paddies blue and green.

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First of all: Dhading is nothing like Archalbot and Bharte. Almost all the houses collapsed or became tear-downs.

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However, the rebuilding that’s already happened here is amazing. We realized right away that even though we don’t have the capacity to do tin delivery in a place like this, we don’t need to. House after house had been fully demolished by hand, materials organized in to piles, and new homes made from extremely innovative techniques. Our favorite was this one, made almost entirely out of doors and windows.

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We followed this road for what seemed like forever to its endpoint in Khahare. Bishnu’s mother came to meet us, and led us across a suspension footbridge over the river (this river and footbridge, has been one of the major obstacles to efficient aid delivery in this Tripureswor). And then there we were, at Bishnu’s house in Tripureswor Ward #6. We left Lamjung at 8am, and arrived here at 8:30pm.

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Not sure what we’re doing here, but I guess we’ll find out, and then I’ll tell Janet about it.

.      .      .

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Bishnu’s recently built tin house, sitting among the corn fields in Tripureswor Ward #6.

 

 

Coordination Tactics

On Tuesday, the first thing I woke up to was a call from an unknown number at 6:45am. I silenced my phone but got three more calls from the same number, so I picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Hello.”

“Who is this?” I could already tell who it was.

“Archalbot.” It was the little boy, Kushal, from our visit to Archalbot yesterday.

“Hello Archalbot,” I said. “How are you?

“Fine.”

I waited. “Ok….Well….I’m fine too.”

“Ok.”

“All right then, talk to you later?”

“Ok.”

“Bye, Archalbot,” I said.

“Bye!”

Later in the morning, Dilmaya and I debriefed with Robin and Colin over coffee. We reconfirmed the plan we’d come up with yesterday. Dilmaya was to call our main contact, Kripa, and I’d coordinate with the government. If everything was organized, we’d start Thursday.

IMG_5049I’ve been here three and a half weeks and I haven’t spent a single day in Kaski. Wednesday is millet planting day, so I promised Aamaa that I would take a day off from coordinating housing outreach and tooth brushing programs to come churn up dirt between the corn stalks and shove little millet seedlings in to it. I spent the rest of Tuesday running around, planning for a day in Kaskikot away from internet like it was year on Mars. Finally I ran to the bus park at 5:30pm, just as a downpour began.

The bus left an hour late, at 6:30pm. That’s where I was when I realized that I was supposed to submit my enrollment for graduate school classes in September at exactly 6:45pm my time, 9am EST. If you don’t do this right when registration opens, it’s likely that the classes or sections you want will fill up within an hour or two.

I tried to log in from my phone, but not surprisingly, the cell connection wasn’t strong enough. So I called my parents to see if they could log in to my account from in Maryland and click “submit.” I got my dad on the phone, but in order to log in he needed a password. And the meticulously written document I’d made before I left for Nepal with all my logins and passwords in it had evaporated from my computer. I searched and searched and it was nowhere to be found.

So I hung up and waited a precious 45 minutes until I got to Kaski, where there’s one hotel that sometimes has internet, and my password is saved in my browser so I can log in without the missing document. I got to the Kaski hotel and the internet wasn’t working. I called my dad back while the hotel owner tried to restart the internet, which took about 15 minutes. Then the UConn registration site let me take every step except for actually hitting “submit,” because the site itself was having technical problems, which I now knew because my dad was on the phone with the registrar.

Which is to say that by this point my dad was holding the phone up between the registrar in Hartford and me in Kaskikot, while we discussed options for resetting my password, which required me explaining to my dad that the registrar was saying she was going to send him an email with a reset link; now I’m walking home from the hotel to the house so Aamaa doesn’t think I’ve fallen off a mountain, and the registrar needs to get someone else on the phone so she adds yet another person to this phone chain. Then my iphone won’t download the new password, and then when it does, and I read it over the phone from our house in Kaski to the person four phones away in Hartford, it gets rejected.

It’s like the Nepal jeep travel version of online class registration.

In the end, the registrar’s office took pity on us and just overrode their system to register me for my classes. It was 9:30pm here. Aamaa and finally sit down for dinner. Bring it on, millet planting season.

.      .      .


 

No Time Like the Present

 

I woke up after our day in Lamjung feeling all grayed out. I didn’t want to get up so I stayed in bed until 8:45am, which is mid-afternoon here. Everything seemed complicated and shifty. I haven’t even been out to any of the real damage yet and I’m having trouble keeping my spirits up.

I went for a run along the lake in the hot sun, showered and sat down in a café with some iced coffee. I took out Manisha’s email from May 1 and reviewed it with everything in mind that I’ve learned now about transitional housing.

One thing that’s obvious is that there’s no more time for talking and thinking and researching without acting. We’re going to have to learn as we go. The basics are the basics – don’t impose ill-conceived ideas on people, focus on local resources and let people use their own knowledge to build. Supplement with structural ideas, manpower, and additional raw materials as possible when you know what can be used. Building for thousands of people at once in a short time is a different ballgame than designing the ideal temporary rural house.

I looked at how the destroyed and damaged houses are distributed among our working areas and put them in to an order I thought made sense for us to learn by doing. In some, where there are just 2-6 damaged houses, we can try something like earthbag building. In others, were there are 40 or 100 homeless families, we’ll follow the generally accepted plan to provide tin and manpower. We’ll see what happens and improve as we go.

I put this all in an email and sent it out to our advisory board. Things felt a little more organized. I needed to confirm that my data from our villages was still correct, because the second earthquake caused more damage, and also other groups may have already provided some materials to some of these places. But Kaski and Parbat, the districts where we are, weren’t hit as hard, so there’s a lot less attention here, even though hundreds of homes are unlivable. There are no big cluster meetings and the government is under very little public pressure to act quickly around here.

Once that was all sorted out, I headed to the Gaky’s Light community house. Our Fellows have the first performance of their final project tonight. It’s a tribute to earthquake victims that they’ve beenIMG_8841 working on with a dance teacher. When I arrived they were practicing and setting up a sound system outside. A crowd was beginning to gather around.

As soon as the kids were about to start their performance, the clouds came in, purple and ominous. The rain began but they did their performance anyway, and people watched from under the eaves of shops on either side of the street. One man pulled over on his bicycle, wrapped up in plastic bags from head to toe. He was upset to find out that we weren’t collecting donations, which we weren’t allowed to do in a public space because there’s so much worry about people exploiting the situation to raise funds for dishonest purposes.

I decided to have dinner with the kids and sleep at the GL community house. Just as it was getting late, I got a message from Bene and Robin, French friends of mine who live in Pokhara, that there was a meeting the next morning in Sarangkot where they’d be doing presentations about earth bag building. So the next morning I got up and went straight to meet them in this crazy jeep they bought that looks like it was used for transporting goats or ammunition at some point.

Robin drives like a bat out of hell, and the road to Sarangkot – the same one I take many times each week to Kaski – isn’t exactly paved with pavement. I’m a pretty hearty passenger, but we were all in the back of the truck bouncing like popcorn, things rolling out the back, I hit my head on the bars a few times, all while trying to shout at the two other guys in the back of the jeep to figure out what we were all doing there.  Then I was up at Sarangkot for a few hours with a random collection of foreigners who’d all been doing various forms of freelance aid, learning about how to build houses with earthbags.

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This beautiful boy in the crowd started dancing during a tribute song written by our fellow Umesh, and kept going for a full five minutes.

For the record, I’d left the office at 2pm the prior afternoon, thinking I’d be back in 4 hours after watching a dance performance.

I didn’t get back from Sarangkot until late afternoon and went straight to watch the kids do their second performance. A good crowd gathered and lots of people were filming on their phones. But the instant their dance ended, the performance was once again interrupted by rain – this time a thunderous downpour of fat plops of rain and huge chunks of hail. We all ran under a nearby tin roof and waited it out while the sound guy pulled in all his equipment.

When the storm ended, most people had gone home. But the kids set up one of the speakers and did the rest of their show – a poem, a few more songs, and a candle lighting. It took all of them at the same time lighting and relighting the wet candles, hovering over them to keep them all going at once, to get the Nepal flag surrounded. And of course a new crowd formed around them.

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My phone rang and I found out we had a last minute board meeting. I showed up quite wet and bedraggled at 6pm on the back of Shiva’s motorcycle. All my electronics were dead because I had no chargers with me. We ended up sitting there till the place closed, and I finally hopped in a cab and went home.

Well that’s kind of how things go here, moving from one universe to another on the backs of bikes and jeeps, following things as they unfold in the moment. I left the office at 2pm on a Tuesday thinking I was coming back for dinner, and didn’t come back until 9:30pm the next day, having been to up to Sarangkot in a jeep and hiked down through the woods for an hour and a half in my flip flops, watched two dance performances, run from hail, spent a night with the kids in the community house, and had a 3 hour board meeting while sipping an americano in a coffee shop under a thinly disguised knockoff Starbucks logo.

Nothing like a little Nepal style to shake you out of your gray and put you back on your toes…

Boxes and Glass Cases

It’s been a tough arrival.  The monsoon is still clinging to the hills, thick and cloistering, and each afternoon it dumps an unremitting rain that I swear to God follows everybody inside.  The air itself is full of water; there’s no place to be dry.

And the truth is, I am also a drop suspended in mid air.  I’ve moved out of my apartment in New York, but I haven’t moved in to a new apartment in Connecticut, so all my things are in boxes in my parents’ basement.  The plan is that when I get back in two months I’m going to be working in a manual therapy clinic in Hartford…but it hasn’t actually happened yet.  It’s an idea, hovering in good faith around some boxes in a basement, waiting to be taken out and used.

That feeling has trailed me all the way to Pokhara–the hint that my life is full of theories.  Even IMG_2479though my contact with my projects in Nepal has increased a great deal in the past year through Skype and regular written reporting, and I have files and files of documents proving to me that these creations are real, they still feel like experiments when I re-encounter them on the ground.  Plus, there’s a big disappointment right off the bat: our first program director has left unexpectedly, after growing the Kaski Oral Health Care Project much less than we’d hoped since last fall.  I’m tired and frustrated and it’s enough with the freelancing.  I am ready to feel like I know what I’m doing, and some of this fits together, and it’s leading somewhere that matters.

Today it led back up the road to Kaski.  I went to Vindivasini Temple this morning to catch the bus on its way down, so I could save a seat before the bus arrived at the park, where a crowd  gathers around the door and starts pushing in to secure real estate for the ride up before people can even get out.  As I waited, I sat on a stoop with my duffel by my feet, watching a man selling vegetables across the road.  And I wondered again if this is all some kind of act.  I’m just doing the same thing over and over.  I can’t keep my grasp on what it’s about.

Other than a story.  The word comes to me again, and then again: Story.  Right out of the blue, at nine in the morning, I’m sitting on a stoop waiting for a bus, watching a man weigh a cauliflower, and the next thing I know I’m watching a story, and my identity is divorced from my soul.  Poof!  I am a character.

It must be natural that when you go through enough repetitions of something, even something incredible, it becomes unmoored from any particular episode.  And with that goes its singular miraculousness, because it’s just what it is: a cycle.  How profound would the sunset be if you only saw it once in your life?

Sometimes the sense that everything is just a series of events, with nothing transcendent to tie them together, seems like the most awful thing possible.  Even the leaves clinging to the trees look worthless.  But in certain moments, that same arbitrariness erases the perpetual burden of discerning the purpose of each passing instant, and my role in things is set free from an anchor that, in truth, may never have been there.  What a relief.

This morning I watched the vegetable vendor.  The story settled around me, like snow in its glass case, shaken from the sky.  I waited, again, for the bus to take me up to Kaski, where I knew Aamaa would be waiting.  Again.  For me.

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