Goddess

 

Bishnu had baby Dali six weeks early, on August 2nd. We got the news while we were all finishing dinner at Didi and Prem’s. On the English calendar, Pascal’s birthday is a day earlier, on August 1st, but by a twist of the planets, on the lunar Nepali calendar Pascal and his cousin share a birthday of Saun 17. This convention-defying-cross-cultural-intercontinental-astrologically-phenomenal-birthday-coincidence —a shared birthday in Nepal, but not in America—has us thrilled. We texted Bishnu and Youba and Dali a Welcome to the World picture, marveling over a coincidence, fourteen years plus eternity in the making, that has initiated our Dali’s life.

Dali’s name is actually: Serena Subedi Bhatta.

Aamaa is coming back with me to the US to meet her granddaughter, an American citizen. We’ll fly directly to San Francisco, but we can’t leave Nepal until after summer professional development the last week of August. So we’ve passed the weeks talking with Bishnu on the phone, and each Friday I download new photos and ferry them to Kaski where Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa and the neighbors pore over them. Aamaa’s favorite is the one with Youba holding Serena just minutes after her entrance in to the world, shiny and swaddled. Aamaa likes to pull this one up on my iPad and zoom in and stare at it for ten, fifteen minutes at a time. 

“It’s like, the longer you look at it,” she says, “the more you want to look at it. You can just look at it and look at it.”

Bishnu had a difficult and sometimes unnerving pregnancy. Serena was born six weeks early, at 3.9 lbs, less than 2 kilograms of sugar, I told Aamaa. She spent a month in the NICU. Bishnu wouldn’t bring any baby shower gifts home until it was almost time for the baby to leave the NICU and join her there. I’ve found myself thinking back to the day fifteen years ago when I stood outside Gandaki Hospital with Didi, right after she wasn’t able to see a doctor at what was supposed to be her last prenatal checkup, when we ate cel roi at a roadside stand. A week later Didi’s first child was stillborn at full term. 

For a long time after I moved to Kaskikot, I didn’t know that Aamaa had little a sister. One day Aamaa was reclined on the bed, lying sideways with her head on her arm and an elbow pointed out at me, when she mentioned that her sister had died in childbirth, along with the child.

“Wait,” Didi said the other day, her eyes widening when I told her about Bishnu’s baby shower. “People her gave her baby presents before the baby was born?”

The day of our departure for America gets closer. We are scheduled to fly out on Teej, the festival of women. In the strange way that our lives here seem to cycle back like knitting stitches, it was Teej when I arrived in Kaskikot in August, 2003. I had stayed in Kaski for two months, gone back to New York, worked as a waitress, and then called six months later to say I was coming back to Kaskikot. I arrived under the hot gaze of summer and found Didi and Bishnu dancing in Maula, where the whole village was gathered for the festival of women. Didi was newly married to Prem, and I realized she was pregnant. And that is how our year together began, with dancing.

Our summer is a theater of rains, curtain after curtain, a production that will eventually deliver the harvest. By then we will be in America. Teej begins from Sept 1, when Aamaa and I will leave Kaskikot, and goes to September 2, when we’ll fly out of Kathmandu. It’s funny how people attempt to impose order over the unknown when they are about to embark on a long journey. I like to leave my living space robotically clean and organized, and I will compulsively sift through 5-month old stacks of mail and fix wobbled stools that have been committedly ignored for months. Aamaa’s strategy appears to be getting fixated on the cucumbers. They are ripe and fat on the the vines around the house. 

“Laura,” Aamaa says, “we’ll bring cucumbers to Tulo Mama in Kathmandu.” The breed of cucumbers Aamaa grows in Nepal isn’t like little American cucumbers. They can grow to a foot or two long, and the circumference of a coffee can.

“We’re going to bring cucumbers to Kathmandu with our luggage for America?” I ask. Tulo mama is our Aamaa’s eldest brother, our ‘big uncle.’

“…Is it allowed?” Aamaa asks a bit sheepishly.

“Sure, cucumbers are allowed.” I realize this is happening no matter what. “Let’s definitely bring cucumbers to Kathamandu.”

Aamaa has just a few outfits to take to America, but food items are another story. Provisions are sorted over the entire month of August. We pick all the ripe cobs off the corn stalks, roast some in the fire for snacks, give some away, and hang the rest all over the house to dry by winter. Last time we left for America, we also cut down the empty corn stalks, leaving only the millet to ripen by late fall. But this time Aamaa skipped planting millet altogether, and she said we’re not going to cut the empty corn stalks down because they will dry out on their own. I keep surveying the gardens and feeling that the tall scraggly corn stalks are going to look a bit like an army of tuxedos at a beach party by October, when everyone else’s fields are left only with slender waist-high millet and rice plants. But that’s her plan and she’s Aamaa, so we leave them be. The house remains hemmed in by walls of stripped corn stalks.

A sack of rice is sent to Didi in Pokhara. Periodically we revisit the cucumber question.

“We’ll take a large stash of cucumbers to Didi, and a smaller bag for Tulo Mama in Kathmandu,” Aamaa revises.

“Ok.”

“It’s allowed right? To take cucumbers to Kathmandu?”

“This will be my first go at taking a bag of cucumbers to Kathmandu, but I think it’s allowed.”

“Just a small bag.”

“Ok,” I assure her.

One evening Aamaa ponders: “How will we get to Pokhara when we leave here on Teej? Because, see we’ll have luggage and we need to bring the big sack of cucumbers to Didi.”

“We’ll call Hari Bhaai in Caragaun and go in his taxi.”

“Will it fit all the cucumbers?”

“Um….” I search for the right answer. How many cucumbers are we talking about? I decide to gamble. “Yes. Hari bhai’s taxi will definitely fit the cucumbers.”

In addition to a little baby outfit, I want to bring something special to San Francisco for Bishnu’s little Dali, who’s acquired about twenty times her bodyweight in baby clothes during her short life so far. I make a plan. Pascal comes with me on the expedition. 

We spend Saturday afternoon hiking up the Kalika Hill, and I film him leading the way, finding berries and hidden water springs, waving a stick of bamboo around at the skyline and narrating our journey until we reach the Kalika Temple. We ring the large bells at Kali’s door; the clanging and echoes out over the trees, the familiar houses below, over the valley.  I pan my camera over sheets of rain that have blanketed the foothills, and frozen into a bruised mist on the north and south horizons. We search over the laid stones of the Temple ground and choose a rock that Pascal holds in front of my camera, little chips of flint gleaming under a stormy and imminent sky. I will bring it to a silversmith and have it made in to a necklace. Our descent is fast under gathering clouds, sandals pounding and tapping over the brambles.

As the summer draws to a close, relatives stop by to bid Aamaa a safe journey. Aamaa sends them off with cucumbers or ears of corn. A few days before the buffalo calf is due, some men from Parapani come to purchase pregnant Isabella, who nobody calls Isabella except for weirdo foreigners like me and Ann. Aamaa has cared for Bella during her whole pregnancy, cutting her grass and watering her and keeping her living quarters clean. I am grumpy that Bella will be taken just before having her baby and providing us a week of delicious milk. But four days later, we find out that Bella’s calf was born dead. The buyers withhold $40 of the remaining amount they still owe to Aamaa.

Aamaa is sad about Bella. All that work for nothing. “What’s wrong with her?” she asks nobody. We won’t know now. We are quiet over Bella’s loss for a few mornings.

“We don’t need to bring any cucumbers to Kathmandu,” Aamaa updates me later. “Tulo Mama has to leave for Nepalgang before we get there.”

I’m disappointed; I was excited to see Tulo Mama. He is the oldest of Aamaa’s three younger brothers and the one who dotes on her. But he lives in the far West and even though he always asks to talk with me on the phone when he calls, in seventeen years I’ve only met him in person twice.

The last two weeks of August I don’t get up to Kaskikot, because we are completely consumed with our summer professional development training. I take Dali’s rock to a jeweler and search through gems before finally pairing it with a fiery pink ruby. The week ends on a breathless and exhausted August 30th, Friday afternoon.  Bethy helps me pack up my room all in one go, throwing things in to bags over just a couple hours, cleaning the kitchen, ferrying items between the office and my apartment. By the time we get in to a taxi to go up to Kaski it is 8:30 at night, and we arrive at 9:30 to find Aamaa sitting in the house surrounded by friends. Swirled up in their saris and shawls, Saano didi and Parbati Bouju and Mahendra’s older sister are there, and an aunt has come to visit – Aamaa’s sister in law, who would have grown up right here with these women and her brother, Aamaa’s husband. The old friends are sitting on stools in the old main room of our house, by the kitchen, where I have fallen asleep to the chatter of so many women. As we organize our things in the outer room, a wave of gratitude rolls over me, carried on the familiar soothing sound of their muffled voices on the other side of the wall.

“Tulo Mama delayed his travel so he could meet us in Kathmandu,” Aamaa revises when Bethy and I take up seats on a bed. “So, we can bring him cucumbers.”

“Great.”

“Tomorrow we have to pack the cucumbers in a sack.”

“Right.” I reply. “I am ready for cucumber packing.”

Night brings brings a steady rain that clangs on the roof long in to a lazy Saturday morning. It bathes everything, washes away the work week, the summer, the soil around curling roots that are retreating beneath our feet as we prepare to walk away from this village and into another world. It rains as we get up for our last day in Kaski, as we have our black tea, as a man and woman I don’t know arrive and sit on the porch and begin talking with Aamaa.

Bethy and I are ready to spend Saturday helping Aamaa pack up the house—but it is unclear what this involves. Before I can identify a plan of action, Aamaa has disappeared with one of the morning’s visitors and they’ve returned with armfuls of voluptuous cucumbers. The cucumbers, each a foot or two long, are dumped in a pile in the middle of the yard, slick with rain, and the two women disappear again. Then neighbors start showing up – Saraswoti, Saano didi, BAA! – all with more rainy cucumbers. It turns out the visitors are vendors from Pokhara, come to purchase cucumber stock. Aamaa’s yard is transformed into a cucumber staging area. It takes an hour to pick the rest of our cucumbers and combine them with cucumbers from contributing neighbors. The female vendor sorts them in to excellent and sub-excellent status cucumber piles while the male vendor chats with Bethy about countries he’s traveled to. When the yard is fully covered in piles of cucumbers, an amazing ghetto-fabulous hand scale is brought out, made of two plastic tubs hanging on a hand-held balance. Aamaa produces a collection of rocks.

“Wait a second,” the vendor says cautiously.

“This rock is one kilogram,” Aamaa announces, picking up a black, smooth river stone. “And this one is a half kilograms if you combine it with this other little one.” 

The vendor tries out the rocks in different combinations, weighing them against each other.

“Huh,” she says. “Well there you have it.” 

Weighing and calculating against river stones commences on the ghetto fabulous plastic tub scale. Some 100 kg of cucumbers are weighed and sold. Aamaa makes about $15.

“Now,” Aamaa says to me shortly thereafter, “we still have to pack up the cucumbers for Didi and Tulo Mama.” 

“Yep.”

“The big sack of cucumbers is for—“

“I think I’ve got it.”

The afternoon passes. The evening arrives. The cucumbers are packed in to a large sack for Didi and a handbag for Tulo Mama. Dinner comes and goes. We have taken the cases off all the blankets and put them in the only dresser in the house. The floor has been repainted with a smooth layer of clay. Aamaa’s single bag sits in the window. Our last night falls.

I slip out of the house to brush my teeth, and there is Kali rising above the empty uncut corn stalks, a wide triangle of hillside, holding the village in her lap. The damp summer air has cloaked away all but her gray glow in the night sky, revealing only a broad a density etched into meager starlight. I stand facing her familiar outlines, and feel suddenly, like a darkening storm, the women who have come through this house and have sat by this fire and grieved by its ashes and made nourishment over its flames. The inexplicable, inevitable certainty of the four of us draped over the blankets after sunset, while she presides over us, immutable divine feminine, creating again and again from dust.

Watch over us, I find myself asking.

I see us in my mind, walking out to the road. I see our hands holding Serena in San Francisco. I see us moving from place to place, but with a sudden and forceful clarity understand we are tied together here, under her gaze, where we have always been.

Stay with us.

It is time to go to bed.

The next morning neighbors trickle in to see us off to America. BAA! arrives, and then goes home again to retrieve tikka powder to put on our foreheads. Aamaa still can’t stop talking about the cucumbers. After Saano didi’s husband has taken the large sack of the cucumbers out to Deurali where Hari Bhai will pick us up in his taxi, there are still cucumbers lying about and we’re not sure who they are for. I end up with three of them in my bag and we eventually remember these were gifts for my office.

Today is the beginning of Teej. In a few hours when we are in Pokhara, we’ll see off Prem’s cousins who will come to take his porcelain, wrinkled mother back to Piodi, her snow white hair tilted forward as she is carried away piggy-back down to the road, so she can celebrate the Festival of Women at home in her village.

But now we are waving through the taxi window, and driving down, down, down the switchbacks while our house disappears behind us. The driver and Aamaa make small talk over the weather.

“All this dry hot summer, and the last two days, nothing but rain,” Aamaa remarks.

“Didi bahini rhuera hola,” the driver replies, talking about Teej. “Maybe it’s the tears of our sisters.”

“Maybe,” Aamaa answers offhandedly. The hills roll by. “It could be.”’

*

The Family of Harry Prasad Caray

 

This week, my cousins Lynne and Neil came to visit from Chicago. We usually see each other once a year at a family holiday gathering in December that Lynne and Neil have been hosting since I was in college, when they took the job over from my Aunt Peggy. Our Spero family reunion is usually about three days of of extended family bonding in Chicago: walking the dogs by Lake Michigan, making our grandmother Gaky’s icebox cake, spending lazy afternoons sitting around while the Bulls play on TV, and long evenings talking in the kitchen until one in the morning. We’ve been having the annual family reunion in Chicago our whole lives.

But when Lynne and Neil said they were coming to Nepal, I was thrilled by the idea of getting to have my cousins see me in my natural habitat. In the wild.

They arrived on a Friday afternoon just as we were finishing up at the office. It was a bit surreal to see them transplanted from the suburbs, sidling up the walkway past Maya didi’s garden, and then sitting in our common room. They unloaded a collection of toys and books to keep under the coffee table (between the small people attached Sangita, Muna and me, we are badly in need of some kid-friendly distractions for workdays when school is off). They produced a jar of Nutella and then five gourmet chocolate bars which I immediately transferred to a secure location.

Then Neil pulled out a pair of oversized plastic glasses. “So, while we’re here, I need some photos of people wearing these glasses,” he said.

“I see,” I replied.

Next thing I knew, Neil and Lynne were excitedly talking over each other about this guy Harry Caray, who apparently I didn’t know about only because I live in a village in Nepal. Harry Caray is a superfamous Major League sportscaster for the Cardinals and the Cubs whose statue is erected at Wrigley Field, and every year on his birthday, fans celebrate – mostly be honoring the way Harry Caray liked his booze and sang drunk tunes off key and, furthermore, my cousins explained breathlessly talking very fast almost at the same time but somehow not directly over each other while our medical coordinator Rajendra tried to figure out what to do with the slinky on the coffee table, furthermore, Harry Caray had a mysterious connection to Nepal, for example (Neil pulled out his phone and began reading), he was the first major league sportscaster to say “Holy Cow” on air and in Nepal cows are LITERALLY HOLY.

“I don’t really understand how this slinky works,” Rajendra puzzled.

“Hang on, we have to take it outside to the stairs,” I said.

“–AND THIS MONTH IS HARRY CARAY’S BIRTHDAY, AND–”

“–PICTURES ARE BEING SHARED ALL OVER THE INTERNET–”

“–THE CUBS WON 108 YEARS AFTER THEIR LAST WORLD SERIES AND 18 YEARS AFTER HARRY CARAY DIED AND IN HINDUISM 18 IS A LUCKY NUMBER AND–”

“–SO WE HAVE TO TAKE PICTURES OF PEOPLE WITH THESE GLASSES–”

“–IN KASKIKOT, AND IN AMAZING MOUNTAIN PLACES IN NEPAL–”

“–LORD KRISHNA DIED ON FEBRUARY 18 AND HARRY CARAY DIED ON FEBRUARY 18–”

“–HOLY COW!–”

“–AND ALSO OMGOSH ALSO–”

–Neil produced a handful of full-size face cutouts of Harry Caray, who’s head then began bouncing around excitedly as my cousins completed their explanation.

“–AND WE HAVE TO SEND THE PHOTOS TO OUR FRIEND GRANT DEPORTER–”

“–AND HE’S GOING TO SHARE THE PHOTOS ON THE INTERNET WITH EVERYBODY FOR HARRY CARAY’S BIRTHDAY!!!!!”

“Rajendra, don’t tangle the slinky, or it will be ruined before we can do anything with it,” I said. Harry Caray’s shock of white hair and full-toothed smile sat perched on Neil’s hand, waiting.

“Ok, got it. Big glasses. White guy cutout. Take photos with mountains. I think we can make this happen fairly easily…all the components seem to be available.”

Then we moved on to the business of introducing the cousins to my natural habitat. We packed up a some snacks and wine, picked up Aidan and Pascal and Didi, and spent the afternoon on a paddle boat and visiting the Barahi Temple. The next day we had planned to take the jungle path up to Kaskikot and hang around carrying and chopping things and getting astrology readings all day. But at the last minute, Aamaa called to tell me that we absolutely had to change our plan.

“There’s a family picnic,” Aamaa said. “Everyone will be there. Like literally everybody in the whole universe. Two or three thousand people.” Ok that’s an exaggeration, except for the two or three thousand people part. That’s actually what Aamaa said.

“So it’s like a family reunion?”

“It is going to be so much fun,” Aamaa cooed. The picnic would include descendants of five brothers – The Grandfathers. One of The Grandfathers is Didi and Bishnu’s grandfather. That Grandfather alone had nine children, of which Aamaa’s husband was the youngest. So my point is, it’s a very enormous family.

“Don’t you think Lynne and Neil might be bored?”

“Who would be bored?!” Aamaa cried. “There will be two or three thousand people!”

“Do you want to go to a family reunion?” I asked Lynne and Neil. Having a picnic with the descendants of The Grandfathers would mean compressing our schedule in Kaskikot a little.

“Basically what it comes down to,” said Lynne, “is that a family reunion is always a thing to go to.”

We met Didi and Prem and Aidan and Pascal at Hollan Chowk at 8:30am to wait for a family reunion bus. (Neil and Aidan, who turn out to be roughly the same age, commenced exchanging shoes.) One of the buses started in Kaskikot and Aamaa called with updates of its progress as it rambled down through the hills and wound through the valley, picking up uncles and cousins and great-aunts at Milan Chowk and Simpani and Harichowk and Vindivasini.

The Family Bus arrived and drove right past us at Hollan Chowk. Pascal took off down the road with all his limbs waving, the rest of us jogging along behind him and dodging tourists out for their morning coffee in Lakeside. Luckily, due to Pascal’s dedicated flailing, family bus huffed to a stop and we climbed aboard.

Lynne and I squeezed in to the back row of seats with Didi, Prem and the boys, while Neil sat up front and got in to a conversation with our first cousin Ram Chandra Dai. This struck me as extremely entertaining: my first cousin Neil from Chicago, shooting the shit with my adopted first cousin Ram Chandra Dai, on a bus driving out to a family reunion in Chisapani. We ambled on past the edge of Phewa Lake and into the valley along the southern edge of the Kaskikot hills. The cut wheat fields yawned dry and dusty in to the distance.

After about an hour and a half, we arrived to find a shade tarp and plastic chairs set up in the hillside. Music thumped over a speaker. We set our things down and people starting flocking over to welcome us, grabbing my hands. “Laura! Isn’t this wonderful! A family picnic! Everybody is here!” Many were neighbors and longtime friends in colleagues in Kaskikot – Butu Bouju, Bhim sir and Krishna sir and Indra sir, Maile Bouju – whom I’d never really had the chance to mentally arrange as family relations.

Of course in Nepali culture people aren’t called by names, but by a relationship like Didi so I didn’t know almost anybody’s name. But it made introducing Lynne and Neil exceptionally easy.

“My Didi and Bhinaju are here from America!” I’d say.

“Oh, Didi and Bhinaju!” the thousands of relatives (who probably numbered about 200) would reply. After explaining a few times that Lynne was a cousin on my dad’s side, I learned to introduce her as my “banja-didi,” which literally means my father’s-older-sister’s-daughter. As my Banja-didi and Bhinaju, Lynne and Neil were instantly organized in to their places at the family reunion and that was that.

Cousins: Lynne and Neil with Ram Chandra Dai and Aamaa

As we wandered about the grounds, I motioned over to where a goat’s head was being prepared.

Banja-didi and Bhinaju looked alarmed.

“Most likely they brought the goat here this morning and slaughtered it nearby,” I offered. It bears mentioning that I’m the near-vegetarian in the group, but Lynne and Neil took this news hard.

Soon we were scattered about the field, seated on the plastic chairs and chatting over breakfast. I kept being worried that my cousins would get bored. I went and found Lynne.

“How’s it going?”

“Pretty good!” She pointed to Neil.

I’m going to say it was only minutes before Neil had people passing around the oversized glasses and Harry Caray’s head was bobbing up and down around the plates of chickpeas. And that’s how this happened

“Time for the program, time for the program!” somebody announced. We were all summoned to the foot of an empty garden terrace that was to act as a stage.

I didn’t really know what to expect. Our family is very musical and our reunion always includes an ad-hoc music concert in Lynne and Neil’s living room. Uncle Gus plays a spoof he wrote called the Russian Number. The younger kids plunk out notes on whatever instrument they’re learning. For about a million years, my brother had to sing Mr. Grinch in his booming base that would later anchor his college a capella group. Our cousin Greg, who is an actual rock star and jazz composer who played keyboard for Halsey, eventually takes over from the amateurs and the evening dissolves in to a combination of improv and mulled wine and Christmas music played in Jewish minor keys.

“First up, Grandfather Number One!”

A collection of relatives shuffled up on to the barren garden. I realized what was about to happen. The patriarch of Grandfather Number One’s branch of the family introduced the entirety of Grandfather Number One’s descendants to the rest of us. Photos were taken. Discussion was had. I understood what we were doing.

“This is brilliant,” I thought, as each branch of the family was called up and a senior member meticulously mapped out its relational geography. We were here to keep the books organized: to name the membership, introduce new additions, and have a long, solemn moment of silence for those no longer here, like Bishnu and Didi’s dad–Grandfather Number Four’s youngest son, born to his second wife.

It came time for our branch of the family. I dragged Lynne and Neil up with us on to the garden stage, where we stood packed in near Didi and Aamaa before the crowd. Ram Chandra Dai began an accounting of each of Grandfather Number Four’s offspring. Eventually he came to Aamaa and Didi and Bishnu (“who is living in America”), and then, to me.

“And of course Laura, Aamaa’s middle daughter. We take Laura in the family just as Bishnu and Malika. And today Laura’s Didi and Bhinaju are here from America.”

I poked Lynne and Neil and they waved, so that it would be obvious which were the three American people at the family reunion in Chisapani.

Neil looked expectant and hopeful like a puppy with a chewed up ball. I leaned forward and stood up on my toes, which made me three times the height of everyone else on stage.

“Um, thank you everybody,” I said to the crowd. “And, um, there’s just one thing I’d like to do. See, Bhinaju here, it’s his friend’s birthday. And his friend wears these glasses, and his name is Hari.” Hari is a very common Nepali name so this seemed like the simplest path to internet fame. “And Hari really liked Nepal. So, um, we’d like to have a family picture of people wearing these glasses and holding Hari’s picture and saying happy birthday to him.”

We passed out the glasses and Neil ran down in to the crowd, where he stretched his arms out over the descendants of the other four Grandfathers and snapped pictures on his phone, while we waved Harry Caray’s head around and cried “Hari! Hari!”

Man, I thought, I can’t believe anyone listens to the manic things that I say. This is actually working. Lynne and Neil looked ecstatic.

Then someone tapped my shoulder.

“We should be saying Hari Prasad,” she told me matter-of-factly. The oversized glasses and random photos of the white guy didn’t seem to faze her at all.

“Why?” I asked.

“That’s our Grandfather’s name,” she said, “Hari Prasad Subedi.” Then she rejoined the chant. “HARI! HARI!

*

 

Politics and Poets

 

With the Nepal government undergoing a major restructuring, a big goal for us this summer is to figure out how the newly formed provincial government works and establish relationships with influential decision-makers.  We’re just getting started, and as I’ve described elsewhere, so is the government: most of the province-level officials are quite new to their desks, and in many cases the scope and processes of their jobs are still being decided.

So let me give you an idea of how this works.  Honestly, this is my real life.  I begin with a friend of mine in Kathmandu, who I was introduced to through an organization that gave us a grant a few years ago.  This friend refers me to a colleague of hers, who I’ll call Sam, who works inside the new Province #4 government office in Pokhara as a representative of a big nonprofit doing policy work on another topic.  So Sam is not exactly a government employee, but he’s connected to people in the Province office because he works in the building, and most happily, he is someone I can ring on his cell phone.  I set up an appointment.  It’s our first trip to the Province offices and we’ll just have to go meet Sam and see where we get.

Are you with me so far?

Muna and I walk about a mile from our office in burning July sun, and meet Sam in his office at the new Province building. Sam is a friendly, energetic and smart guy, and he begins to orient us to the structure of the Province government (we tried to google it–maybe you’ll have better luck). He combs through our present bureaucratic challenge: obtaining official endorsement for a workshop we want to host to train new dental technicians (who will of course work in Government Health Posts).   In the absence of clear procedures, we mull over who best to take this to next.  Sam makes a call to the Province Health Coordinator, an obvious choice, but the Health Coordinator is out today.

Eventually – and this is only possible because Sam is helping us, and because we’ve made a satisfactory case to him – he gets us an invite upstairs to meet direclty with the Minister of Social Development, who holds the highest office in the Province, something like a governor.  This is great news.  Muna and I follow Sam out of his office, and by this act Sam is adopted into our quest and ordained as our guide.  Without him Muna and I are just random people in the hallway. We stroll through the almost-finished government building, which like most government offices outside Kathmandu has a concrete austerity produced by minimalist decoration and a building style that leaves stairwells in the open air.  Even the walls look somehow unfinished, expectant.

At the top of the stairs we move down an echoey corridor and come to the mouth of a room crowded with men.  Peering through the door frame, I see a tall, lean Official sitting at the other end of the narrow office, the throng of visitors clamboring for his attention.  Sam and Muna and I are directed to the room across the hall to wait.

We wait.  It is very hot.

After some time, we are brought back across the hall to the Minister’s office.  It is stuffed with as many black faux-leather couches as the room will allow, and as per standard Important Office decorating style, they are situated perpendicular rather than parallel to the desk where the Official in question is seated. I can’t explain this, but it’s the set up of almost every Important Office I’ve been to in Nepal.  The halls are empty and the offices are packed with extreme quantities of couches, which are almost always lined up along one wall so that visitors find themselves talking to the Official they’ve come to see at an angle, while the Official gazes past their knees at empty space.  A perk of today’s office is that, with the July heat pawing at the walls, the ceiling fan is turned on to the highest setting.  I am seated directly under it.  It feels wonderful for about ten seconds, and then I realize I am doomed to suffer in a singularized typhoon for the length of our Important Meeting.

The last of the previous visitors is just leaving as we get seated, and when the previous callers have cleared out, Sam introduces us to the Official.  Muna and I – mostly Muna – describe Jevaia and explain the authorization letter we are looking for.  We say are “seeking suggestions on how to properly coordinate and align with the new government.”  We don’t say we are already pretty sure that these procedures are not defined yet; in fact, the inquiry itself is probably the best formal step available.

After some time, the Official falls silent. In my opinion, the Official Silent Phase is one of the great tests of mettle in this line of work, particularly for impatient foreigners.  From a western sensibility it’s completely perplexing: for about five mintues, the Official taps on his laptop and gazes past our knees without saying anything. The fan blasts the top of my head and wooshes through my ears, and I command my self to sit properly through the Official Silent Phase, like Sam and Muna are doing, without fidgeting or asking to turn the fan off.  Take note, impatient American Person With An Agenda.  If you come here on a schedule, it will be silently and inexorably bled out of you. The people on the faux-leather couches don’t own this timetable no matter how bombastic and fantastic their ideas are, and let me tell you right now that nobody else is in a hurry.  It never occurred to me I might need a jacket to get through our first Province government visit in the dead middle of the summer, but I surely wish it had.

Suddenly, the door flies open and an elderly man in traditional daura-suruwal dress walks through the door.  He waves his walking stick at the foot of the couch.

I don’t have a picture of the Poet, so here’s an internet photo of a man in a daura surulwar.

“Son, get up and move over there, I’m just gonna have a seat,” the old man says to Sam, who graciously leaps up from the seat closest to the Official desk, and moves down the line of couches to a spot near the door.  The old man sits down and leans in to the corner of the Minister’s desk with a twinkle in his eye. He begins reciting a legnthy poem.

The Official is, by old man terms, a junior “son” like Sam. In an instant, the hierarchy of the room is reorganized. The Official leans back in his chair with a grin and sets to listening to the poem. All of a sudden, we are all in school.

For forty five minutes–no, I’m not exaggerating–the Official and the Old Man engage in philosophical conversation while the fan hammers my head, Muna waits politely and Sam cycles through expressions of interest.  I won’t find this out until after the meeting, but the old man is the son of a famous poet, and himself a reknowned scholar. More men–all men, Muna and are I the only women for miles around, it seems–wander in to the room to listen while he holds court.  The poet leans dramatically forward and back on the faux-black leather couch, swaying to his recitations, swiveling his attention from the Official to us to other would-be meeting-seekers near the door, and unleashes a reverent Islamic lyric.

“So tell me,” our Official says, with somber studiousness. “I want to know something.  You’re a Hindu man.  But you speak eleven languages and you’ve studied Islamic poetry extensively.  How do you reconcile those who eat cow meat?”

I shiver and try to casually hold my hair out of my eyes.  I look enviously at a corner door, where more men are periodically filing in and out of the room, and notice that Sam seems distracted by the door too.  Why can’t the Minister just tell us whether we can have a letter, or what we have to do to get it?  Why can’t he release us from bondage, and THEN listen to poetry?

“Let’s have another poem,” the old man says. He turns to Muna, who, following Sam’s relocation, has ended up on the couch seat beside the Poet.  Leaning toward her, the old man brightens, saying, “Would you like to hear a Hindi Poem?”

“Nobody properly understands Hindi,” the Official interjects, boldly. “How about a Nepali poem.” I am well aware that we will need to hear all the poems if we want to find out about our letter.

Another gaggle of men comes out of the corner door, and suddenly Sam says, “let’s go.”  Go where? I chatter.  The Minister hasn’t answered our question yet.  I’m confused.

“This way,” Sam says, motioning toward the corner door.  Why are we leaving?  But with no choice, I get up and follow Sam and Muna through the mystery door.  We enter the next room, and there, in a grand office, behind a hefty wooden desk flanked by the National flag, sits the actual Minister of Social Development.  She rotates on her chair, adjusts her sari over her shoulder, and waves us to sit down on two spacious couches where she can examine us directly from across the carpet.

Who was that guy? I whisper to Muna. Suddenly I am afraid I’m about to start giggling uncontrollably.

“The Secretary,” Muna mutters.

“So,” the Minister of Social Development commands, wasting no time and leaning forward on her clasped hands.  “Who are you?”

 

 

All These Lights

 

It’s true that the hardest part is undocking from the house in Kaski, but after that, each step further away gets less difficult and more strange. Now we are completely ummoored and nothing makes sense at all: Aamaa is in JFK airport.

Bishnu was waiting for us and she and Aamaa were reunited after four years. It was quite undramatic.  My parents, by contrast, have been known to stand in the waiting area with an enormous welcome home sign and my mother has a happy attack that involves all four of her limbs. Nepalis are much more subdued. But Bishnu was wearing an orange shirt, a gesture she planned after seeing the photo I posted of Aamaa and me leaving Kathmandu.  Bishnu had also ridden a bus all night from DC, and given that Aamaa and I had been traveling for a few days and endured airport dinosaurs and nauseous teddy bears, it appears I was the only one who was really enthusiastic about taking arrival this picture.

We got in a car back to Connecticut and showed Aamaa how to buckle her seatbelt. The car set out and was soon rising over the Whitestone bridge, where Aamaa caught her first glimpse of the edge of the ocean.  It occured to me then that I hadn’t thought to point the ocean out for the fourteen hours we were crossing the Atlantic. Aamaa looked out the car windows from side to side. “All of this is America!” she exclaimed.

A few weeks ago, my wallet was stolen in Cambodia with my passport, credit cards, all of my IDs, Verizon sim card, and house key. So when we pulled up to my house, I had no keys, no phone, and as it turns out, my internet had been turned off because the automatic payment on the cancelled credit card was rejected. We had to solve at least one of these problems, so we went to the mall. Que the following: Aamaa has only been in the U.S. for about seven hours and we’re in the Apple Store.

At one point I left to go to Verizon to get my lost sim card replaced, and when I came back, Bishnu and Aamaa were sitting outside Nordstrom’s, facing away from me and looking small in the wide, polished corridor of the mall. It is going to take me a while, I thought in a jet-lagged daze, to integrate the incredibly odd experience of seeing Aamaa in these spaces.  In the next few days she would be cooking in my kitchen, strolling down the Farmington Avenue sidewalk in West Hartford, pulling open the door to Starbucks, sitting on a treatment table at the IMT clinic where I worked. Imagine if Barack Obama was suddenly sitting in your living room, watching the TV he is supposed to be inside of. Or if there was a zebra standing in the Emergency Room. Or orange juice coming out of the kitchen sink faucet. The components are all fine, they are just extremely jarring in the new arrangement.

After it is dark, we are driving up Farmington Avenue. Aamaa has buckled herself in to the front seat and Bishnu is in back. We pass a synagogue.

“Aamaa, that’s the temple where people who practice Jewish religion go to pray,” I say.

“What’s Jewish religion?”

“I’m Jewish!”

“Oh right,” Aamaa says.

In the next block, we pass a church.  I point again.

“This is where people who practice Christian religion go to pray.”

Aamaa peers out the window. “We’re Christian, right?”

Bishnu lets out a torrent of giggles. “Aamaa, we’re Hindu!”

“Oh,” she says. By American standards, Aamaa is fairly religious. She mostly sticks to a Brahmin diet, lights incense and prays many days of the week, observes the dictates of the lunar calendar and the demands of solar eclipses.  She honors her ancestors and has practiced ritual widowhood since the age of twenty-two (although you could argue that that’s more about the patriarchy than religion). But from her point of view, Bishnu and I reflected later, it’s just dharma. She’s never had to label it.

Another block of Farmington Avenue rolls past, and we stop at an intersection.

“What’s with all these lights hanging everywhere?”

“They’re traffic lights,” Bishnu says from the back seat. “They tell the cars when to stop and go.”

“Ah, they put them out at night,” Aamaa concludes.

Bishnu and I start giggling again. “No, they are there all the time for the cars,” Bishnu corrects, and explains how the traffic lights work.

Oooooooh,” Aamaa replies.  And then, for the rest of the week, each time we pull up to a traffic light, Aamaa will begin narrating. “It’s red Laura, it’s red, stop….Ok, it’s green now. Go. Go go.”   This is one of the things that I will begin to quickly see about Aamaa: how efficiently she absorbs ordering details of this completely new world, and then references them constantly with an air of mastery and satisfaction. This process of discovery and wonder is absolutely magical to witness. I soon realize that being with Aamaa is a lot like being with my nephew Jonah was when he was about four, and we think that children outgrow their ability to be enthralled by traffic lights because they get smarter. Actually, children just get used to the way the world works. In point of fact, a traffic light is a pretty thing up in the air that brings discipline to the otherwise entirely chaotic phenomenon of traffic (see: Nepal, roads). To splash around in the delight of traffic lights with a highly competent sixty year old adult is a beautiful experience.

We make our first Nepali dinner together and sit at my kitchen table to eat with our hands. In Kaski, Aamaa has usually just boiled milk fresh from the buffalo, and from her throne on a pirka by the side of the fire, she gives us each a cup of velvety, hot cream with dinner.  Now we are taking care of her, and Bishnu pours Aamaa a cup of organic whole milk from the grocery store.

“Aamaa, have some milk.”

“Ok.”

“…Did you try it?”

“Not yet.”

“…Try the milk.”

“I tried it. It’s bad,” Aamaa declares without pause.  On either side of the table, Bishnu and I immediately collapse in hysterics.

On our second night, Bishnu has to leave at four in the morning to fly to Virginia for an interview. A short while later, Aamaa comes knocking on my bedroom door, which shares a corner with the door to my kitchen.  I get out of bed.

“Laura! What is that noise?”

“What noise?”

“VRRRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMMMMM.”

“The refrigerator?”

“Oh, okay. I was scared.”

“It’s just the refrigerator,” I reassure her groggily. We go back to sleep.

At 9:00, Aamaa raps on my door again.

“Laura, get up,” she says. “I’ve been up for hours. I thought I’d make some tea, but I don’t know how to use that stove of yours. And I can’t even go outside because I don’t know how to open the door.”

“The door?” I reply, confused. Maybe the deadbolt is locked? And then I realize Aamaa has probably never used a rotating doorknob before. “Oh. I’ll show you how to open the door,” I say apologetically.  For the rest of the week, each morning that I wake up, Aamaa is sitting on the front porch, observing neighbors walking by.

“I learned how to say, ‘good morning,’” she reports.

*

The Other Skies

 

The first thing I have to do is convince Aamaa to wear one of her new kurta salwaars. She has spent 60 years wearing a more dignified sari and she’s shy to dress like a girl. I insist she will be a lot more comfortable on our 24 hour journey with trousers on.

Bhinaju and our cousin Laxu come to the airport with us. As we stand outside the door to the airport, again there seems to be a strange inversion of everything. We say goodbye and move in to the 24-hour netherworld of air travel, but the moment when I detach like a raft in to the sea, alone and timeless until landing back in the rest of my life, never comes. Instead, all my focus is on Aamaa while we pass through various inexplicable passages and security checks, making goodbye phone calls along the way.

We end up seated with Chandrakala, a charming woman probably in her mid-forties leaving Nepal for the first time to go be a maid in Greece. I explain everything from the seatbelt to how to order drinks and use the bathroom. I set up their personal TVs with films for them to watch. They both look disapprovingly at the glass of wine I ask for, so I make a point of asking each of them repeatedly if they would like some wine during the flight. Aamaa has a million questions. Is it night or day? Can I put my passport away yet? Are mom and dad awake now? I don’t know. I’m used to not thinking about any of these things.

We spend the flight talking with Chandrakala didi and when we get off the plane in Doha in the middle of the night, the three of us stick together. The Doha airport will be the first thing we encounter that is a developed country version of the comparable thing in Nepal; Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu only supplemented its two small departure terminals a few years ago and the waiting area is decorated with rows of cheap, attached metal chairs that can be dragged about in units of three. The Doha airport is a dazzling maze of high ceilings, moving walkways, shiny things, monitors, duty free shops where beautiful women are illuminated by fluorescent lights, and of course, the enormous random nauseous teddy bear that is taking up space at the center because space needs to be taken up. It occurs to me how strange it is that in modern times, the first thing an immigrant from a developing country will see in a wealthy country is an airport, which is one of the weirdest environments modernity has to offer.  For example, Aamaa couldn’t even think of a question about the following dinosaur under a passageway in the airport:

I lead Aamaa and Chandrakala didi to the sleeping room and we all try unsuccessfully to doze off. Aamaa and I both end up stretched out on the floor instead of the awkward lounge chairs, and I appreciate how we must look, sprawled out on the ground in a room full of disciplined travelers using the chairs.

We go to the bathroom and use an automatic hand dryer.

By now we are all aware that we’re going to have to abandon Chandrakala didi to the Doha airport when our flight leaves for New York. I take us out to the nauseous teddy bear where a bank of monitors will show Chandrakala’s departure gate when the time gets closer, and explain to her three or four times how she’ll navigate the list of English symbols. Chandrakala didi is literate but uncomfortable with English, and if you don’t know what a gate is or how an airport works, reading the monitors is just one obstacle (how do you even know you’re supposed to read a monitor?). There are many Nepalis working in the Doha airport and we chat some of them.  Chandrakala didi will be able to ask someone if she needs help, but it still feels wrong to leave her alone in the glowing Doha airport with its mysterious halls and signs and statues. Eventually we have to say goodbye, and she sits outside our gate watching us go.

Every time Aamaa and I have to pass through a checkpoint or security screen, the international airport staff first assume that we aren’t traveling together, and then want to know what in the world is going on. Aamaa has all the looks of a first-time traveler from a traditional part of Nepal, and in addition to the fact that I have all the looks of a private-school educated white suburban yuppie from Connecticut, I tower over Aamaa by about eight inches.  Since she doesn’t speak English, I usually have to translate instructions.  After figuring out that we go together, most people assume I am her daughter in law, which would explain how I know Nepali and why I’m the one shepherding her on an overseas journey. “This is my daughter!” Aamaa giggles as she corrects enthralled security guards and airline attendants. We make our way from counter to counter and checkpoint to checkpoint, crossing the globe in a little bubble of delight that we make no sense.

Finally we board our fourteen-hour flight to JFK. We get incredibly lucky with an empty middle seat on a mostly full flight, so we’re able to take turns properly sleeping. I was worried about how Aamaa would handle strange food made by unknown people, but she mostly exclaimed over amount of it, approaching each tray with curiosity and then asking me if I wanted to eat her pats of butter because she was full from the continuous flow of food.

“That goes on the roti Aamaa, you don’t eat it by itself. It’s like ghee.”

And then the next tray would come and she’d ask me if I wanted the butter again.

We peered out the window at the rolling white puffs lolling off to infinity and Aamaa asked if the clouds were the ground or the sky.

“The sky,” I said.

“Does this plane also go to the other skies?” Aamaa asks, long after we’ve lost track of night and day.

“Other skies?”

“They say there is this sky, and then a sky above this, and then a sky below this one,” Aamaa says. “I don’t really know much about it. But I was wondering if this plane goes to the other skies.”

I gaze at her.

“I don’t really know,” I say. “I don’t know much about it either.”

Many trays and questions and naps and pats of butter later, we break through this sky and New York comes in to view. Aamaa reaches behind her for my hand as she stares out the window, and with a dramatic rumble, the plane sets us down on the ground.

*

Keys and Threes

 

Thirteen days ago, Butu bouju’s father died. Out of all the possible things that might have been happening today, the whole community was gathered at Butu Bouju’s house for the last day of kriya. As the sound of the priest reading propagated over the arrival and bustle of visitors, Butu bouju’s house had that particular feeling of the world being unveiled after a deep and intense period of ritual mourning. Aamaa and Pascal and I pulled up plastic chairs in on the patio, where many relatives had come to pay respects. So the chance for us to be with family and community before our departure across the world was brought about by a death.

“How are you both? Laura, when did you arrive, when are you leaving?”

“We’re leaving for America today,” we told everyone. “We’re both going.”

Bhim arrived. We haven’t seen each other in probably three or four years. This November will make fifteen years since Bhim first brought me to a small house around the corner, where a widow and her daughters were living, and offered to have me move from his household to theirs.

“You’re taking Aamaa to America?” Bhim asked.

“Yep.”

“Today?”

“Yep.”

Bhim shook his head and smiled with that ironic twinkle he gets sometimes when I’m just not figure-outable. Which is a lot of the time.

“This has been a long story,” Bhim concluded.

“Yeah,” I laughed, “it has.”

“Tell Bishnu hello from me,” he said.

We left the kriya and went home to finish organizing. I’ve left this house nearly twenty times, and always the leaving is leaving Aamaa. After that, it’s just physically departing from Nepal. Bringing Aamaa along feels like bringing the house, and I’m not to sure how to pack.

Something else strange – the quiet. One of the things I remember from when Bishnu left in 2008 is how crowded the house was with people on the last night: neighbors, uncles, relatives I’d never met before and have rarely seen since, they were all crowded on to two beds, talking and laughing. In most households, when a family member is going abroad – “outside,” is the word people use – there is a great deal of activity. But Aamaa’s house is not a usual household. There’s nobody else in it.

So as mid morning became afternoon, it was just us, wondering how to ready the house to be without its mother. I swept and Aamaa put the mattresses up. It was unclear what else to do; I just wanted it to look organized. Like we’d prepared something.

Sonom sir came down from the Resort. I’ve bought six packets of local tea that he grew in the resort gardens behind our house. I hang out at the Resort now and then, to jump rope or do qigong, to chat with Sonam sir and his wife and nephews. Many of my friends have stayed there over the years while visiting me. Sonam sir’s family is from Solukhumbu, and like me, they are outsiders who have their custom-made place in Kaskikot.

“Good journey,” Sonam sir said, giving Aamaa and I each a kata in the Sherpa tradition.

Throughout the prior evening and afternoon, there was one person who spent a good amount of time sitting with us: BAA!, Mahendra’s father. Our cranky, sarcastic, exhausted neighbor, the one whose missing teeth prompted my career in delivering rural dentistry to underserved people. From the time I first came to Kaskikot, BAA! seemed unapologetically resentful of my unearned privilege in the world. He and Saano didi’s husband often function as the men in our house, chopping branches or negotiating social matters that require representation by men. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time with BAA! collecting branches or chasing the chicken while he watched me fumble or drinking tea and admitting that I don’t have any explanation for why the world is crap. That God gave me easy and he got dealt hard was never to be smoothed over or ignored. On some unspoken level, it wasn’t my fault, but I didn’t deserve any credit for being ahead, either. So we just collect branches and sip tea and that’s how it is. I took to calling him BAA! because he would point at himself and say, kind of demandingly, BAA!  Father. That’s how I was to address him, even though Bishnu and Didi call him “dai” or brother. At least he would be in charge of that.

Often our closest neighbors simply wander off when I’m leaving Kaski, as goodbyes are uncomfortable and pretty pointless, anyway, and at some point in the afternoon BAA! had indeed wandered off, and that was that. So I was surprised when he reappeared holding two silky white katas. He gave one to each of us.   BAA! will probably never see America, or probably anywhere outside Nepal. All the tourists come and go from this village and he is getting old with fewer and fewer teeth that I could not save, either.

“Go well,” BAA! said. “Take good care of Aamaa. And bring me back a son-in-law.”

After we’d done whatever we could think of to do, Aamaa changed in to the clothes that she’d hung outside in the shed the night before. Once her travel clothes were on, she couldn’t go back inside.  It’s also inauspicious to leave the house for a long journey in threes, so Aamaa left first, her bag packed with cucumbers and ghee and the CDMA phone for Didi and almost nothing to take America. In one of the strangest moments of my adulthood, Aamaa walked out of the yard and around the garden of cut corn stalks while I stood on the porch with Pascal, watching her go.

Then Pascal took a key out from around his neck and jammed it in to the wooden door. With that, he and I followed Aamaa up the little path, to the road, to the bus that will take us to the other side of the world.

*

Auspicious Leaving

 

Our flight to America was scheduled for a Monday night, but finding a day to leave the house in Kaski was a problem. Generally speaking, Saturdays and Tuesdays are inauspicious days to leave one’s house for a long journey (although on Tuesdays, you can get away with it, but ideally you shouldn’t stay at the house you are going to). Plus, Aamaa has a special restriction on Mondays that doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone: she is so much a part of her house, so rarely leaves it, that Mondays are off limits too when it comes to locking the door and saying goodbye. That left us with Sunday morning they day before our flight from Kathmandu as the only viable date for departure. And then it turned out that was ahmse ko chatujasi, a monthly position of the sun that is inauspicious for leaving one’s house. Sunday was a non-starter.

Problem.

The solution we came to was that Aamaa would put her packed bag outside the house in the early hours of Saturday morning, before it was fully Saturday.

I arrived back from Cambodia on Friday evening with Pascal in tow, and found the corn cut down. We did all the usual things – making dinner, playing with Amrit and Narayan from next door, chatting with neighbors passing through. Aamaa set to arranging things in a small shoulder bag. Two saris, two blouses and a petticoat to wear with them, and the two new kurta salwaars we had had made. What else should she bring? The bag looked disconcertingly empty. I show up in Nepal with two large duffel bags every time and most of my wardrobe lives here. What do I usually have in there? Can that give us any clues as to what Aamaa should add to her bag?

A sweater for the plane, I suggest. It is cold in the plane.

Mostly Aamaa was concerned with what items we would bring to Didi in Pokhara tomorrow. An enormous cucumber the size of a cricket bat. A bottle of heavy ghee (and a collection of smaller bottles for Bishnu, Mom and Dad, Ricky’s family, and me.). Aamaa’s CDMA telephone needs fixing, and besides, someone might call it while we are in America – we were to leave the telephone with Didi. Most of Aamaa’s bag was filled with things to be left in Pokhara.

“Laura, set your alarm for 3am.”

“I set it.”

The evening wore on, our last evening, the one where normally my bags sit threateningly zipped and ready, signaling the splitting of our worlds. Instead we just fell asleep, wondering what is going happen next.

“Did you set the alarm?”

“I set it.”

We drifted off. My dreams wove in and out, waiting for the alarm. Finally I opened my eyes. It was 4am.

“Aamaa, wake up.”

“Hadjur?”

“The alarm didn’t go off. It’s 4am, go quick.”

Aamaa took her hand bag and hung it outside in the shed. The phone and other belongings were allowed to finish the night in the house, but the clothes she would travel in needed to leave before daylight betrayed them.

I drifted off again, the feeling of uncharted territory hanging softly in the pre-dawn.

*

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.

 

*

 

Sindure Signs

 

Sindure village is one of the old feudal capitals of Nepal, where a king once ruled over Lamjung district before unification in the mid 1700s. The drive from Pokhara takes about 6-7 hours…the last three are very bouncy.

IMG_3007Our day began in a downpour at 6:30am, with the usual wakeup activity: loading a dental chair on to the top of a Landcruiser. We packed in various boxes of medicines, adjustable stools, plastic goggles, and this fancy Hello Kitty timer. Because Virex disinfecting soak is 20 minutes, exactly, and one must have a proper timer.

Also, we had an extra passenger and her little boy who were headed home to their village. They set up in the front seat, and the little boy kept arranging himself with his knees splayed out and the bottoms of his feet together, so Neha quickly named him Laughing Buddha. Mean time, we squashed ourselves in the back of the cruiser and set off in the rain, picking up our senior technician Megnath on the way. And then we were off to our first ever clinic opening in the district of Lamjung.

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We settled in and the cruiser bounced joyously along. It was strange to be headed off to Lamjung again, where we spent many long hot days after the earthquake at this time last year. I was apprehensive about how our clinic setup would go, if the whether would clear, if the road would be passable, if a lot of things. And it was Sunday the 26th, exactly one year after my beloved friend Mary passed away on another rainy and pregnant day last summer. I stared out at the passing rain and fog, thinking about each moment I’d spent on this morning last June, checking my phone for updates from the other side of the world, stunned and devastated by a sudden change of events.

Then again, the bracing car ride left minimal opportunity for rumination. A few hours in, we stopped for tea, and shortly afterwards, Laughing Buddha barfed all over Gaurab in the front seat.

Well, the best part is yet to come.

We arrived at the Health Post in Sindure at 2pm to find that, while work had been done on the clinic room, such as making sure it had a roof over the entryway, the room itself was filthy. To give you a frame of reference, here are pictures from main room of the Health Post, which sees patients regularly to distribute medicine and make referrals. Unlike our dental clinic, the Health Post is not performing surgical-type procedures—nevertheless, setting up a dental clinic with rigorous infection control is, well, basically up to us.

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Still, there’s a reason we rely on rooms provided by the community instead of building ourselves new facilities. I’ve seen how that can be the difference between imposing new resources haphazardly, and mobilizing existing capacities to raise things to the next level first.  Then it’s a good time to push the boundary, which in this case as in many others, has not yet been approached. After all, with some sweeping and a few buckets of water and phenol, our dreary clinic room started looking a lot better.  There’s no water source at this Health Post, so Dilmaya, Neha, and the Health Post Assistant good-naturedly hauled buckets of water from a “nearby” house at least a quarter mile away.

A few hours of washing, drying, and setup, and things are improving already. This room will need a nice bright coat of paint on its stained walls – we provide the paint, the team does the labor – but for now, here is JOHC Technician Jagat Dura in his new office!  And we’re not even at the best part yet.


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During our pre-opening day, a veteran technician and our medical field officer go over everything from top to bottom with the new technician (who’s already had weeks of training before this) and clinic assistant.  It was awesome watching Megnath Adhikari, who started with us in 2013 and now runs the Puranchaur clinic, reviewing with the new clinic team everything from how to put the top on the autoclave to how to fill out the patient forms to when to change their gloves. Our infection control protocol, when followed, is stricter than that observed by many field teams and local hospitals. The new teams always look so new and wide-eyed that it throws me off every time. To be fair, imagine if you took a few weeks of training in dental medicine, and then, say, your congressman came in and asked you to pull their tooth out?!  But then, as the months go by, inevitably these green clinical teams turn in to people like Megnath, who started out with sagging jeans and a quizzical look, too. This growth in skill and confidence, which I’ve witnessed over and over, is one of the coolest things about this program. It inspires me to believe that this is a system that could be deployed widely by the government with the right investment in training and resources.

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Senior technician Megnath Adhikari reviewing use of the autoclave with the Sindure team

In the evening we stayed at the home of our technician, Jagat. His mother cooked heaps of food and poured us one cup of local moonshine after the next. I was so tired I kept falling asleep and had to get out of bed for each succeeding round of dinner.  And still…the best part is yet to come.

Sindure is a predominantly Gurung area with different traditions of respect than many of the other areas where we’ve worked. The local President had spent the evening with us, and after everyone was overfed, it was time to sit around and sing for a while. I’m not a very good traditional Nepali folk singer, but I’m a decent self-taught drummer and chime-player. So, having secured an empty plastic bottle and a set of tin cups, I am confident saying my role in this process was solid, although you can’t hear it in this video cause I was filming.

The next morning dawned in a downpour, which cleared as we made our way to the clinic for opening day. The clouds nestled down in to the hills like cotton and we climbed up over them. Sindure was too beautiful to leave out a scenic photo.

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In an opening ceremony, we were each given gifts, and I received the finest one, a magnificent Gurung-style ornament made by our technician’s grandmother. These shiny dangles are made from cracker and candy wrappers! I love this thing.

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The door to the clinic was officially opened by the Singing President, who had apparently recovered from last night’s revelry and lay down honorably as the first patient.  Jagat performed his inaugural checkup, supervisor standing by, with a crowd peering in the door and looking very enthusiastic about this whole thing.  Who knew dentistry could be this entertaining?!  And we’re still not at the best part yet.

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Now then…nothing like showing off your new filling!

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It is currently the busy rice planting season, which is about the worst time of year to open a dental clinic because everybody is in their fields. Nevertheless, we had a pretty solid attendance from a fleet of Female Community Health Volunteers (official women’s health workers trained by the government) and some other folks here and there.

We plucked various people off the road, such as one man walking by on his way to plant rice. All in all, the new clinic was inaugurated with about 25 patients, with Megnath carefully supervising the new team, and seeing that was especially gratifying.

As our day was coming to an end, I happened to look up at the sky. And for only the second time in my life – the first time being on the sacred day thirteen after Mary passed away – I saw the following sight:

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Look! I cried, look! Everyone turned their faces up and let out a collective breath of delight. I ran over to a clear patch of ground to try to get a picture, but my camera was having trouble focusing while pointed directly in to the sun.

“It looks just like a roti!” exclaimed the man who had stopped by on his way to plant rice.

Now then, my mind chirped, this must happen a lot. Weather patterns are repetitive; I mean, I know where to find all the rainbows in Kaskikot, and in what sort of light. It’s so predictable that I’ve usually climbed a hill and pointed my camera already by the time a rainbow is emerging. Still, I consigned, how lucky for me to receive this lovely gift today in a brand new place.

“Do you see this kind of rainbow often?” I casually asked the man who had stopped by on his way to plant rice. To confirm my suspicions.

“I see rainbows all the time,” he said, “bent sideways like this. But I’ve never seen this kind of round rainbow in my life!”

I clicked and clicked in to the sun, and the shutter went off only one time. Almost immediately, the clouds moved back in and the wonderful roti faded away.

Later that night, after a long, bouncy and exhausting ride home, back in bed in Pokhara, I lay in the dark and pulled the photo up on my phone. I turned it this way and that, looking for something. I kept thinking of Mary saying trying to show me the big hand in the sky, and how I couldn’t find a thing until much later. I zoomed the photo in and out and scoured for clues. Then, tired and lonely for her, I held the phone back and sighed. And there, right where I couldn’t miss it, was a perfect Buddha, the sun shining from its heart.

Once I saw it, I couldn’t not see it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As a little extra flourish, an unmistakable smiley face, etched off to the right hand side, grinned at me as if to say: how obvious do you want me to get, you little shit? I clicked my phone off and fell asleep with it lying near me on the bed.

Welcome to Sindure, world.

*

A Life of Love

A Life of Love