Nooks and a Little Sauce

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Over the course of 13 years in Nepal, I’ve spent almost all my time in villages. My whole understanding of Nepal, and all my friends, routines, the food I eat, the places I sleep, even the way I speak the language and therefore the way I think, have been organized around my adopted family and rural life, or its popular sister, the cramped and thankless circumstance of recent urban migration.

But this summer, I’m full-time supervising a city-based office with four people and a field staff of 16; getting a latte each morning; diving in to health care policy and human rights frameworks. I schedule coffee meetings and visit offices. All told, it’s only in the last 1-2 years that I’ve started getting to know some of the other long-term foreigners and NGO founders living in Pokhara, who all pretty much know each other, because they all live in the city, which for me has always been just a place to visit for work. And when I’m here, my non-work life is completely centered around my (recent urban migrant) Nepali family.

There’s a vague sense of discovery about this new routine. For example, I’ve been sleeping in a room in the office, and – this is going to sound weird, but – slowly realizing I can put things there to make the bed and little space around it mine. Like: a new blanket. Or: a hook on the wall. This is an especially weird feeling. In all the time I’ve lived in Nepal, the only space that’s been mine-ish is the small house in Kaski, with its two beds and one dresser that I share with the rest of the family. A single bed and little shelf of clothes for me alone, that I can modify to my liking, is a bizarre amount of freedom that I’m only even noticing bit by bit. (Mind you, we’re talking about a bed in the finance and admin room of our office.)

Obviously, I have no trouble with this in the rest of my life. But in Nepal, well, it’s just not the way I’ve learned exist here.

IMG_9195The other night, I had Pascal and Aidan for a sleepover at the office, with its main attraction, the Internet. We watched movies and ate treats. We’ve also been out for boating and out for dinner, because it’s fun, and we live in the city. And yet these are activities that have never remotely crossed my mind in the past, because they are more similar to how I live in the U.S. It actually never occurred to me I could do them here because the communities I spend my time with mostly don’t.

Today I went to a salon and got my hair done. A salon.

When I was a kid, I was literally the pickiest eater the world has ever seen. I know you think your kid is pickier, but trust me on this one. I was okay with a short list of simple foods, and I would gladly sit and watch everyone else eat rather than be forced to alter this known quantity. Once, I went to my best friend Katie Schultz’s house, and they made me pasta with butter while the rest of the family enjoyed a normal meal. It wasn’t till I put the pasta in my mouth and a terrifying and unfamiliar taste exploded on my tongue, that I found out that butter doesn’t taste like margarine, which is what we had in my house. The feeling of shame and fear sitting at the dinner table, hoping nobody would notice if I didn’t eat, is still with me almost 30 years later.

It wasn’t until eighth grade, on a school trip to Smith Island where I was stuck in an adolescent group eating situation, that I tried tomato sauce for the first time. For a few years – ok, until college – I’d put a little blob of tomato sauce on the side of my plate, and kind of dip my fork in it. Eventually I worked my way up to normal pasta, but to this very day, when I make my own meals, every component sits side by side so I can mix as I go. I’m no longer alarmed by new foods like I was as a child, but I don’t adventure much. I eat the same reliable items almost every day.

What, you ask, does this have to do with Nepal?

I’m not sure, but all I can say is it kind of feels the same. I’ve spent a long time in this environment adjusting to the absence of almost everything I was accustomed to before I came. I found my nook and I’m comfortable there. Rural life in particular, while not materially complex, runs miles deep, and each iteration, each day, each season and year, enriches and returns itself to the last one with a sense of familiarity and certainty: the next one will come too, even if we are not here to see it. I haven’t made a life of travel. I plopped down in one place and snuggled in. Altering its fundamentals even in small ways creates a whole orchestra of funny tastes on my tongue.

Also, FYI, we eat the exact same thing for every meal in this country. PHEW.

Mean time, I do like this blanket though. How do you like my office nook?

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Saun Sakranti

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Each year, at the end of the rice planting season, on the first of the month of Saun, we submit to the explosion of greenery, the ebullience of the insects and heat and unrelenting rain. On Saun Sakranti, women slide green bangles onto their tan arms and people spend the day decorating their hands in henna patterns. Didi says this is because it’s supposed to keep snakes away in the fields. (Therefore I’m thinking of petitioning to make this practice a more regular public service?)

In case I haven’t made it clear that I’ve gotten really in to henna drawing, it’s one of my favorite things ever. I don’t know why I didn’t discover it sooner, but last year our Gaky’s Light Fellows introduced me to this awesome activity during some of our evening hangouts. Since then, I’ve practiced my henna doodles on anyone who will let me.  Plus anyone who can be convinced.

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Which makes Saun Sakranti pretty much the greatest festival ever, although I realize I say that about almost every festival and celebration in Nepal because so many of them are colorful, awe-inspiring, or loud and joyous.

On my way up to Kaski for Sakranti I collected up some green bangles and a few packets of henna. I had a date with Sulochana, Govinda’s 13 year old daughter, who pleads with me to put henna on her every single week. With such a fast rotation of new designs she’s become a IMG_8914walking advertisement, and some of her friends have been waiting their turn for a few weeks now. So when I got to Govinda’s house mid-afternoon on Saun Sakranti, there were some eager customers waiting already.

Once I started though, more people just kept coming. Mostly kids, but a handful of adults too – one sweet auntie waited for an hour and a half. I ended up doing this for almost three hours! It
was so much fun! And, I must add that 99% of the things I try to do in Nepal are initially met with unwitting displeasure at my incompetence – unfortunately, my skills at cutting grass and sifting grain and plastering houses and planting millet, and a few other things, were not well practiced at age 22 when I started trying them in public – so being received as the uncontested henna queen of Kaskikot was, I admit, a hard-earned affirmation of ego.

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And it’s pretty.

Happy Saun Sakranti, everyone!

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Gaky’s Light Family

 

This may come as a surprise…but in addition to our adventures in bamboo shelters, Eva Nepal still has it’s regular programs going. This week our Gaky’s Light Fellows graduated from 12th grade and from their fellowship.

Two years ago, we received 415 applications for the 12 fellowships that we awarded to Nirajan, Anju, Pabitra, Puja, Sandip, Ramesh, Orientation (4)Bhagwan, Krishma, Shristhi, Sabina, Narayan, and Asmita. Each of them has an incredible life story, and within the next few weeks, I hope we will be posting a tumblr that profiles each of them as well as the eighteen GL fellows before them.

The class of 2015 had a special bond, because it was when they arrived that we established the GL community house.  This batch as lived there together and become a true family, and bonded with a handful of wonderful foreign teaching residents who lived with them – Noam and John, Mary, MJ. While most of our past fellows came from Pokhara, this class comes from all over the country. Anju is the first young woman to leave her very conservative community in Janakpur to study higher education in a city sixteen hours away. Nirajan’s home is in remote Dolpa, and he’d been living on his own in Pokhara since he was twelve, performing at the top of his class. Each of our kids’ stories is unique and beautiful. You couldn’t dream them up.

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These young adults have changed tremendously since they first came together in 2013. At the beginning, basic life skills like arranging a cooking schedule and working out group living issues IMG_7108were new and difficult. Their behavior was segregated heavily by gender. I’ve watched their dress and their mannerisms become urban, confident, progressive. In their weekly Saturday workshops they’ve learned how to use a computer, spell check, do interviews, plan events, speak in front of a group. We’ve taught sections on body language and online image crafting. A number of our fellows have published articles in youth journalism international, including reporting on the morning of the earthquake and on the aftermath shortly thereafter. Last summer, they all did one-month professional internships in sectors ranging from software engineering to child welfare to public health and journalism. Four of them did their internships in Kathmandu.

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But I think the thing that had the most significant and lasting impact was the one where we did the least work: the community house. Each birthday was a whole-house affair. The girls wear each other’s clothes. All of the boys staying in Pokhara are moving in together, except for one who got a job in a nearby youth hostel. The peer community they’ve gained from this transformational two years together is obviously going to be a part of their lives forever.

With this graduating class, we’re bringing Gaky’s Light to an end, IMG_0021at least for now, so that we can focus on dental care, which is our more scalable program. But boy am I going to miss these kids. I am so proud of them. I am going to miss our sleepovers and henna parties. I’m going to miss eating breakfast in Connecticut over chat with them while they eat dinner in Pokhara. At least I know they will be keeping my social media pages full of news (work that online image crafting, kiddoes) and keeping in touch with each other.

GL alumni speaker Kiran Banstola

Their graduation featured lots of speakers: male, female, alumni, parent, me, and our featured speaker, Ramesh Khadka from Right 4 Children, who told his unbelievable life story of growing up on the streets of Kathmandu for ten years and then becoming a very successful social worker with street children.

Instead of going for a day-long celebratory outing like last year, we decided to spend the afternoon at a refugee camp in Pokhara that is housing earthquake victims from the ravaged epicenter in western Gorkha. Our fellows bought and served afternoon snacks.  The Gurung areas of Gorkha have a unique culture, language, and dress. Many of the older people don’t speak Nepali. There were some stunning faces in the crowd. I let the kids and counselors use my camera – I didn’t take all these photos.

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But I did take this one below, one of my all time favs. The woman in the white shirt kept laughing every time I tried to shout 1-2-3 in their Gurung dialect. Watching her through the viewfinder made me start laughing too. That of course made her laugh harder, which made me laugh harder, and soon this entire group of people couldn’t stop laughing. I love this picture.

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And this one…

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Glamping and Magic Cake Houses

 

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

Detail #1: Glamping

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

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

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Detail #2: Dancing

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

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Detail #3: This Grandma

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

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Detail #4: Breaking stones

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

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

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Detail #5: Flour

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

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Detail #6: Kushal

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

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

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Dental Care Anyway

IMG_4898I’ve been in Pokhara for about five days now. All the usual activities – Saturday workshop with our Gaky’s Light Fellows and Asmita’s 18th birthday party at the community house, where I continued practicing my henna tattooing skills on all the girls…

Last week Kaski Oral Health completed this year’s teacher trainings in each of the three villages that launched over the winter. This is where one teacher from each school, who is called an Oral Health Coordinator, learns to conduct a daily brushing program and also do oral health education throughout the school year. We had to postpone our OHC trainings because the earthquake hit right when they were originally scheduled, and when we did hold them, we had to think about how to keep oral health care relevant in the context that teachers are now facing.

IMG_0525There are approximately 129 damaged homes in our working areas, some of which are unlivable, and just outside of a village where we work in Parbat, a nearby area has experienced even more extensive damage and our dental technician has asked us to help. So we’ve made one trip out there, and we’re considering how to approach another. About 13 schools need some or total rebuilding in our 10 villages. All these realities must be acknowledged as we continue trying to advance the work we’ve been doing in oral healthcare over the last eight years.

One widespread issue is that shelter aid has been largely limited to people whose houses were totally destroyed. For thousands and thousands of people whose homes are standing but too dangerous to live in, significantly less help has been available – by not receiving tent distribution, for example, and that’s where organizations like ours filled in. Going forward, the government is compensating only $250 per damaged house, compared to the $1000 that will go to families whose houses are flattened. Then again, everybody will need to rebuild from scratch, and even a simple village home costs closer to $3000.

All of this is why I want to start pulling back from using our limited relief funds for tents and start focusing on transitional housing that will last people for the length of time needed to rebuild.

On a tangential topic, we’ve outgrown our one-room office, and leased a new space that is currently totally empty, which is both exciting and intimidating. So in between scouring the internet and Facebook for examples of tunnel shelters and super-adobe shelters and shelters that reuse tarps, I am also turning over possible arrangements of the sunny new rooms of our office, which have yet to be set up as our home.

I took a detour from dreams of shelters and offices yesterday to spend the morning with our field officer, Dilmaya, at Deurali Primary School in Kaskikot. This school is just five minutes from my house, and it is where Didi and Bishnu attended grades 1-5. I have known the teachers there for twelve years. For about 4-5 years, Deurali school ran a daily brushing program we’d helped them start, but it eventually petered out. Their Oral Health Coordinator, a really sweet young woman named Chandra, had asked me last winter to help them restart it.

So Dilmaya came up to Kaskikot with her backpack full of brushes and paste, had lunch with me and Aamaa at home, and then we went to Deurali school and sat down with all the teachers in the office. Govinda also joined us – he is one of the founders of KOHCP and was the team leader in Kaskikot for the six years the program ran there.

IMG_0577I was amazed when the headmaster pulled a notebook out of the cabinet. He had kept a log, which started in 2011, of each purchase or donation of brushes and paste, each poetry project or dance performance the school had held to advocate for oral health care. We discussed the school’s plans for future sustainability as our contribution declines next year, a plan we require. The teachers presented each of us with kata scarves, a traditional way to welcome and honor guests.

You all may or may not remember that when we tried to hand-over Kaskikot’s KOHCP programs and clinic in 2012, the project collapsed due to personal interests among government officials (a soap opera that, for better or worse, was covered in a 2013 Washington Post story). So it’s a bitter pill I live with that in order to keep this program growing and developing elsewhere, I had to be willing to watch it fail in my home village. And since then, we have since expanded to 7 clinics in 10 other villages that cover an area of about 50,000 people.

Nevertheless, sitting in this tiny school in my back yard, which has no more than 35 young students, and seeing the enthusiasm and sincerity of the teachers to restart their brushing program, was just awesome. We were all so happy with each other that it was basically one big appreciation fest.

Now that we have field officers, we offered to have Dilmaya come back and run a workshop for the teachers on oral health education, where she can teach the art, math and game activities we do with OHCs now to help them promote oral health care in addition to doing the brushing program.  Their teacher took the new brushes and paste and ran the day’s brushing program.

So that was a nice little pick-me up. Now, back to Pokhara to look at earthbag building.

Holi

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Today was the festival of Holi. Weirdly enough, I’ve only been in Nepal once for Holi in twelve years, and that was back in 2004, when I was in Kaskikot and basically missed it. So this was the first time I’ve really seen all the action, and it was pretty much the awesomest holiday in the history of ever.

Holi is a Hindu festival that celebrates the equinox, the start of spring, the renewal of relationships, and most importantly, the triumph of good over evil. In a brilliant stroke of luck, this is done by having people throw colored dust and water on each other in the streets all day.  Water balloons are allowed.  Anyone is fair game. Dude taking out the trash? Fair game. Small child sucking their thumb on the curb? Fair game. Foreigner walking home with morning coffee and a laptop in her backpack? Especially fair game. Leave the laptop at home, idiot.

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For weeks leading up to Holi, white clothes were on sale in every version and size. I got myself an “I Heart Pokhara” t-shirt and a cheap pair of pants, and on the morning of Holi I picked up some squirt guns and packets of brightly colored powder for the kids. I returned to the children’s home with my stash and presented them to the kids. They just looked at me like: you only got one squirt gun? What’s wrong with you? Sanjay filled up an empty plastic water bottle and dumped a packet of purple powder in to it. Someone had the excellent idea to poke a hole in the cap, and this bottle was to become our most potent weapon.

When we ventured out in to the street around noon, people were walking around with super soakers. I mean that kind where you spray the entire jumbo water cartridge continuously until it is empty. Poor little Laxu was carrying the mini squirt gun I’d given him that had to be refilled every three minutes through a flubbering hole in the side. We quickly began looking for a good deal on six more squirt guns.

IMG_4611We walked the streets for two hours, and then our Gaky’s Light Fellows showed up and I went back in  for round two. For a culture that’s fairly concerned with propriety as a general matter, Holi is an unruly and joyous anarchy – all the best of the bright pandemonium that is Nepal. Clouds of yellow and pink and green puffing up in to the air over the crowded sidewalks while colored water sprays haphazardly on to soaked shirts and faces. Strangers running up to each other and smearing hot pink powder on each other’s cheeks. Hooting and yelling and rainbows exploding every which way. I was with a group of kids ranging from age 7 to 13, and everyone in the packed streets was acting just like them. It was magic.

I did learn a few critical pieces of wisdom that I hereby pass on to you.

  1. Keep your mouth closed. I realize that when someone is throwing a fistful of green powder on you or blasting your armpit with orange water, your instinct is going to be to squeeze your eyes an open your mouth in a gleeful expression of frolickness. But, your mouth is going to get full of green powder (that’s really bad) or orange water (which is just gross on principle). So frolic with your lips tightly sealed.
  2. IMG_4638Don’t be the douchebag who does the move where you grab someone else’s water bottle, bend it towards them, and spray them with their own water. Because first of all, I’m already wet, so you’re not as special as you think you are, and second of all, Sanjay made this water bottle and you’re ruining it, douchebag. Make your own water bottle and squirt me with that.
  3. Pay attention to the color distribution on your target’s shirt. Your target, if your target is me, wants to save this I Heart Pokhara shirt forever and ever, and it’s no fun if the entire thing just turns brown. Am I missing yellow? Would a splash of blue do well to bring out the hot pink? And aim for the empty areas, for Pete’s sake. I paid $3 for this t-shirt and I want it properly ruined with some sense of artistry.
  4. Hit me from ahead where I can see you. Because the first person to grab me from behind and putt purple powder on my face and up my nose will probably get away with it – partially because I’m not ready to drop my mini flubbering squirt gun to whoop your ass, since I’m holding on to it for this small kid I came here with. However, if you’re the second or third person, I reserve the right to take out a can of taekwondo on your poorly executed headlock, and that’s not going to work out well for you. I don’t like purple powder in my nose. Thanks.

Happy Holi, fools.

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Shooting Lights at the Sky

 

Didi, Pascal and Aidan and I left for the New Year’s street festival right around dusk. It was already jammed with people and food stalls, a challenge for us because, while Pascal carefully soberly dodges people’s legs and ponders over his food options, Aidan absolutely doesn’t care where he’s going, and he’s only about 3.5 feet tall, and he wants to eat everything he sees, and he can’t take his eyes off anything.  We got some ice cream, and some hot dogs, and some cotton candy.

At 9pm the Gaky’s Light Fellows showed up with arms locked in a blob. It was such a fantastic moment – they were all dressed up and so excited to be there together, and then they practically mowed me down in the street in a mob of happiness.  On the corner a crowd of people was dancing to some impromptu devotional drumming and singing.  So that’s how I ended up on New Years spinning around with Aidan on my shoulders and Pascal on my leg and our fellows clinging to my hands while we all danced in the street to a bajan.

The street crowd grew so thick that it became river.  I left Didi and the boys and waded in with our fellows – we were literally all holding on to each other and being carried down the street by a massive crowd.  Every once and a while someone would pick the person right in front of them and, just for fun, shout: “SANDIP IS LOST!” or “SOMEONE HOLD ON TO PABITRA, SHE’S SMALL AND WILL GET LOST!”  Samundra, our program director, had a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck.  “SAMUNDRA’S NECK IS LOST!” I cried.

Eventually, we got lost.  There were just too many people, our group was cleaved, and I ended up swimming along with Sabina and Asmita and Anju.  All the phone networks were jammed and we couldn’t get through to any of the others.  We were finally catapulted through a gate to the fair – I mean washed over the threshold while clutching each others jackets, past a wall of police trying to look for tickets. We came tumbling out next to a ferris wheel like Alice in Wonderland.

We dusted our selves off and looked around.  It was 10:30pm.  There were lights and huge objects everywhere, surreal and dizzying.  The four of us stood locked together so we wouldn’t be separated in the hectic sea of people, until we boarded a boat that swings back and forth on a pendulum.  We let people in line pass us until we could get a spot all the way at the tip of the boat, where we had the highest view, where all the strange fair lights streak across the sky and the top of the ferris wheel is right there, and you can’t ignore the moment the boat reverses direction and you’re suspended for an instant in mid-air with nothing under you.

By this morning, Pokhara looked like the day after the worst frat party you’ve ever seen.  Trash, tables askew, dejected looking tents, all kinds of equipment and decorative paraphernalia sagging with a January 1st hangover.  Even the sunrise seemed weary.  But it was pretty worth it while it was happening.  Welcome to 2015, World.

Which reminds me of something.  When we’d left for the street festival, Aidan had been begging for a new light.  Throughout the festival they’ve been selling slingshot lights with wings that sail way up in the air and then slowly float down, so the night was full of beautiful falling blue lights.  Pascal, like me, is enthralled with the light but cautious of losing it, and kept his slingshot safe in his pocket most of the time.  Aidan on the other hand is completely reckless.  He’s too excited about shooting the light up in to the air to worry about what happens to it, and we had rescued his flying toy from more than one rooftop on tuesday night.  Each time it got lost he was utterly dejected, and then we’d retrieve it, and he would go right back to catapulting it at the night with unbridled enthusiasm.

“Laura auntie,” Aidan explained to me as we walked in to the street again on New Year’s Eve, “when you shoot the light, it goes up toward the sky like this.”  His put his hands over his head and pointed his little fingers toward his palm, in an angled T-shape, to show the way a light sails toward the sky.  “But then just when it’s about to touch the sky…” his eyes got big and his palm drifted up “…the sky MOVES, Laura auntie!  The sky MOVES!”

.      .      .

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Homecoming

 

Mahendra and Madu are two of the first boys I ever met in Kaskikot. They grew up in the houses on either side of us, and when I first arrived in 2002, Mahendra was about 13 and Madu was 11.

Mahendra, '06Mahendra has the chiseled features and doe eyes of a movie star and the athletic, wiry frame of a boy who is too restless for his environment. As a teenager, when all the kids built swings for the festival of Dashain, Mahendra would climb a towering stalk of bamboo like a monkey and fix the rope at the top while hanging horizontally, high above the ground. If Mahendra had grown up in the U.S., he would have been the star of the high school soccer team who smokes pot and can be counted on for a party when the parents are out. He’d always hated being born poor in this bottomed out village, even from the time he was very young. It bored the hell out if him and insulted his power. He was meant to be dangerous and to cut his teeth on anything but here.

Madu on the other hand was a gentle, slender boy with a soft voice and midnight skin. I often used to sit in his house in the evenings while his mother brewed moonshine to sell for a few dollars. Like Mahendra, Madu dropped out of high school before he graduated, and signed up with a manpower company when he was about 16. Before he left, Mahendra married and left behind a pregnant wife. Madu’s older brother Jivan left; then Madu left.

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So many of the boys in this village are like Madu and Mahendra. For the first few years I was coming to Kaskikot, we spent a lot of time together working in the fields, carrying loads, pounding and climbing and chopping and joking in the yard over tea. There was a posse of them that used to wander out at dusk after the work was done, to play soccer or roam or plan the future. Sometimes I would hear Barat playing his flute on the other side of the hill, where the posse used to hang out in his yard.

Then they started disappearing. Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai. Madu’s house gained a TV and a new room, and Mahendra’s mud house, like many others, was rebuilt with cinderblocks. Large swaths of the hillside turned year by year from fertile to uncultivated land. One home after another became inhabited only by old people.

Last Monday night I arrived in Kaskikot for the twelfth year in a row. The next morning when I got up, Madu came over and sat in the yard talking with me for half an hour. He was wearing a faux-leather jacket and shoes. He has been working at a noodle factory in Malaysia for three years, first sealing spice packets, then as a line manager. It started off bad: the overtime they were promised not paid, the meals they were promised not provided, the roommate who ate dinner, went to bed, and then didn’t wake up the next morning for a reason nobody knows. Everyone was afraid to touch him, this body that at home would have been sacred. Once Madu got promoted, his salary doubled and it was better. Most of them, he admitted, don’t promoted.

I went to fetch water at the tap. I passed Barat’s yard and the whole posse was there. All home from their various countries this winter. Most of them married. Leaning carelessly against the wall, sitting with an arm angled across a knee, laughing at a private amusement, hair greased and shining in the morning sun. Mahendra looked as glamorously bored as ever, but he did light up – to the extent he does – to see me.

I asked what they’re all doing now. The answer: waiting for new visas.

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An Eclipse For Small People

P1010918My first solar eclipse was in sixth grade.  Our science teacher, Max – I went to a progressive school where we called our teachers by their first names, so I actually had a real science teacher named Max – took us outside and we sat in the grass, next to a blacktop, near the soccer fields.  In groups, we held something up in the air and peered through it, a notecard with a hole in it, or something like that.  I don’t recall exactly.  The entire memory is just an image of us, kids, sitting by the blacktop, holding a thing up in the air and squinting.  I found it rather tedious.

My second solar eclipse fell on the festival of Maghe Sakranti.  Before the solar eclipse, there had been a number of times when Maghe Sakranti had coincided with the day of my departure from Nepal, so over time, during visits when I found myself still there for this festival, Maghe Sakranti and its associated rituals had taken on a special flavor of celebration.  We were still together.

In the days leading up to the eclipse, I was at school from early in the morning right up until dusk, painting. Govinda and the kids and I were rushing to finish a mural before yet another departure.  It was a picture of their community: haystacks and houses, the whipped-cream shaped Kalika Hill with its little temple at the top, a paraglider sailing overhead, and road winding around from one place to the next, with a dominating school at the center.

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As the day of the eclipse approached, there was a great deal of anticipation.  Everyone was talking about it.  Once, Aamaa said, she’d been out during a solar eclipse and, just like that, it had turned to night.  They’d been forced to wait for a few hours until it got light again so they could go home.

Now that was something I wanted to see.

I went to visit Thakur sir, the astrologer, to get his opinion on a gift.  Back home, a great healer and teacher of mine was losing her eyesight.  I had purchased a necklace with the symbol kali chakra on it, and I wanted to ask about taking it up to the temple to be blessed, or infused, or something of that sort.  I wasn’t exactly sure, but I thought Thakur sir would know what I meant to ask.  A solar eclipse, he said, would be a very auspicious day to bless a necklace, even though it wasn’t allowed to do a puja during the hours of the eclipse itself.  And, once the necklace was up there at the temple, at the top of the Kalika hill, I couldn’t take it away until the eclipse was over.

The movement of necklaces was one of many things couldn’t happen during the eclipse.  Everyone would fast, of course, from exactly 12:36pm to 3:30pm, and many people would fast the whole day.  Any water in the house would have to be poured out after it was over, and replaced with fresh water from the tap.  It is wood cutting season, and trips to the forest were put on hold for the day.  And Maghe Sakranti was, for all intents and purposes, cancelled.

In the U.S., a solar eclipse is, for the majority of busy people, a science project for kids.  But here, where astrological charts are consulted for even the opening of businesses and choosing of brides, everything seemed to slow down as the days spiraled towards a grand and humbling halt.  Gazing at the top of the Kalika hill against the sky, I could feel the world catapulting through the solar system to a particular magical position—a great thing getting closer and closer to us, small people, standing where we would witness the movements of the galaxy.

By the prior night, there were three buses waiting to take people all the way to Chitwan in the morning so they could bathe at the place where the Trishuli, Gandaki and Kali rivers meet.  First thing in the morning, Aamaa repainted the floors with a fresh layer of mud.  It would be a day filled with ritual.

Like the rest of the world, I had hoped to stay put for the solar eclipse…but the mural wasn’t finished.  We had painted and painted that week, trying to finish in time, but when we pounded the lids in to the tops of the metal paint canisters the night before what should have been Maghe Sakranti, our creation still wasn’t complete.  So I departed for school early in the morning, swearing to Aamaa I’d be back by noon so that I could eat before the fast.

I met Govinda in the road with the necklace in my pocket.  When I’d taken it out that morning, I’d been surprised to see how mysterious and powerful the kali chakra looked, separated now from the rows of silver and symbols in the glass case at the shop.  When we passed Thakur sir’s house, I put it in his hand and he gave it a long look.  I wasn’t sure if I’d actually end up giving it to my teacher back home. I thought I’d send it up to the temple during the solar eclipse, and then give it away later if it seemed appropriate.  I was afraid it might seem kind of silly, and ridiculously enough, decided I would ask the priest at the temple for an opinion when I went to retrieve it later; after the solar eclipse.

Govinda and I arrived at school to find the kids waiting anxiously, and out came the paint. I had stayed out past the witching hour, painting a mural, many times over my years in Kaskikot.  But there was no thought of that today, not in the quivering air, under the glare of that acute collective focus on the cosmos.  I was incredibly P1010864excited.  It felt huge and magical and a little ominous, and made me think about what it must have been like for ancient cultures that didn’t know the science behind such events.  It must have been incredulous and awful to see the sun – so reliable! – disappear in the middle of the day!

And that’s how we found ourselves rushing to complete our masterpiece before the stroke of noon, small people painting small people, the sun under the brush racing the sun circling in the sky.  “The eclipse is coming!” passers-by admonished us.  What were we doing out?

At 11:15, we decided we were done, and with terrible haste threw remaining paint in to boxes, picked up old gloves, ran and locked the office, forgot something in the office (Unlock the office!  The eclipse is coming!) and, at last, set off running down the road to get home before the eclipse struck us dead in the road.  Kids peeled off at their homes.  As we raced by in the dust, people called to us from their houses: Hurry!  The eclipse is coming!  There had been conjecture that we would see stars.  The entire world was about to evaporate.

I made it home by noon, in time to eat. One o’clock in the afternoon, twenty-four minutes after the official start of the eclipse, brought a subtle change in the quality of the light.

Bhinaju and Bishnu and I decided we would climb up the hill behind the house and watch from the resort.  We set to discussing what we should bring along.  A flashlight?  Poncho?  Extra sweater?  Rubber bands?  Camera?  (Would it be too dark for photos?)  We rummaged around and put some belongings together.  We climbed up to the top of the hill. And there I was, surrounded by a Himalayan panorama during a solar eclipse!  I wondered if I would be permanently altered, perhaps suffused with some kind of wisdom?

We sat in the grass.  We waited.

We stared earnestly at the sun for 30 minutes before admitting that we could see nothing.

We came home and sat on the porch.  It was a devastating disappointment.  I took out my journal.  I became impatient for tea.  As I looked a the water vessels and thought sullenly that we’d have to fetch new water before we could make tea, I considered the idea of “touched” water – that’s the word, chueko, “touched” water, the same word used for the impurity that a menstruating woman imparts to the things she contacts – and it occurred to me that all of these rituals – abstaining from pujas, fasting, dumping touched water – were fundamentally based in a fear of the awesome, not a celebration of it.  Too bad I wouldn’t see anything.  Even Maghe Sakranti had been cancelled.

For some reason, some of Aamaa’s old, beat-up x-rays were lying in a large envelope on the porch.  I have no idea why.  She’d had them taken when she was first sick, eight years ago; one of the slides showed her ribs and abdomen, a faded spine in the background, and another, a ball and socket joint.  Maybe they’d been deposited in this random location during a recent tidying, or while we’d been arranging articles to bring on our failed observation mission an hour earlier.

I was writing when Bhinaju suddenly said, “Laura, come here.”  He was standing in the yard, holding up the ribs and studying them.  I thought he wanted to continue a recent debate we’d had about the number of vertebrae in the spine.

“Why,” I mumbled.  “Vertebrae?”  I was in no mood to be proved wrong.

“Just come here.”  He switched to the ball and socket.

I got up and went to stand beside him.  And right there in Aamaa’s humeral head was a clean outline of the sun with a smooth bite out of the upper left-hand corner.

For the last twenty minutes of the solar eclipse, as the bite of shadow moved eastward and the sun became whole again, Bishnu and Bhinaju and I leaned together, small people, holding the x-ray over our heads and squinting.  We exclaimed and pointed and cried to each other: “The x-ray!  The x-ray!  It was here the entire time!  If we’d had it on the hill, what would we have seen?  What??”

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