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

The Video Nepal’s Been Waiting For

 

In thirteen years, I have spent at least one of every season here.  I’ve cut rice and planted millet.  I’ve harvested wood.  I’ve cut wheat, and planted corn and churned milk the old fashioned way.  I’ve chased the chicken around and painted the house for Dashain.  Most of these things I’ve done multiple times, and believe me, I received plenty of impassioned feedback as I tried them out.  These are all activities people in rural Nepal learn from toddlerhood.  Seeing a grown woman who can’t flip a pan of rice grain properly is basically impossible not to comment on.

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I’ve pretty much learned a lot of these things because I absolutely insisted on doing them terribly while I figured them out.  In some cases, I’ve really earned my stripes.  In others, let’s just say that people have become happy with the American version of, for example, collecting water.

But there’s one season I’ve purposefully avoided, and it’s the rice planting one.  Even tasks I don’t much enjoy, such as those involving fertilizer (i.e. buffalo poop), are things I have determined to throw myself in to.  It’s like how, when I used to take winter diving lessons, we had a “fun day” where we got to use all of the diving platforms at Montgomery Aquatic Center, and that meant that, for fun, I had to make myself jump off the petrifying 10-meter platform that was level with the third-floor spectator section.  I absolutely hated fun day.  But it never remotely crossed my mind that, if the 10 meter platform was available, I wouldn’t jump off it.

This brings us to the topic of the hot, buggy, wet rice planting season.  I think you get my point.  I stayed in the U.S.  No fun day.

It’s not like this was very clever and nobody noticed.  Every year I am asked when I will come to plant rice.  People will list all of my accomplishments to date, and exclaim as to how I have never participated in this one activity that is so central to the culture and basic survival of Nepal.

Ok, so here it is.  I determined to jump off the 10-meter platform this summer.  Partially because as you get taller, it doesn’t look as high.  I over came my distaste for the idea of the monsoon last summer, and this summer, I appreciate the torrential rain tremendously.

So last weekend I joined Saano Didi’s family in their rice paddies.  Govinda’s daughter Sulojana came with me.  And the amazing thing about waiting 13 years to do this: not one person cried out at how terrible I was at planting rice.

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“You have to teach her, sikaunu parchha, you have to teach her,” all the ladies cooed.

Silky mud, bright clothes, plants in your hands.

“Laura, you’ll be back in November, right?” Neru asked.

“Yep.”

“Because that’s when we can eat this rice.  Make sure you’re back.”

 

 

 

The Obvious Practicalities

 

The other day I came across a dazzling, haunting article in the New York Times. The Lonely Death of George Bell opens with a chaotic photo of George Bell’s apartment. He was a hoarder, and until you look at the photo directly, it meets you more like a cubist painting than a photo of an apartment: an angular, colorful, dump.

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The story follows a public administrator in a bleak office in Queens as he searches for George Bell’s next of kin, distributes George Bell’s assets, makes arrangements for George Bell’s cremation and burial. These tasks unfold in unceremonious anonymity – in fact, a significant amount of procedure is devoted to proving George Bell’s body is George Bell. No friends or relatives come forward to identify him. He was discovered in his apartment only after neighbors called to report the stench of his lonely end. This is the story of thousands of deaths in New York City every year.

To me, the article itself serves to witness and exalt George Bell’s silent passing, as well as what might have been among the most authentic feature of his life: isolation. In a way it is a glorious tribute, nearly impossible to look away from.

As you will see from the letters at the bottom, not everyone agrees.  But I was taken with this rare and unapologetically voyeuristic look at the mechanics of death in its most cold and undignified form.  In Western culture, we rarely visit death undressed. Jobs that in other parts of the world – certainly in Nepal – fall to the community in an old and well-traced set of patterns fall for George Bell to the Queens County Public Administrator.

George Bell’s situation is extreme, but it in other ways it simply exposes a shared fear and denial of death in the West: how the body, sacred in many cultures, is foreign and terrifying to us once it is dead.  It must be managed by professionals, or at the very least, out of sight, and as a society we treat any honoring of the spirit as a bonus round after the paperwork has been completed. We take this for granted, as if it is obvious because it is practical.

When I happened upon The Lonely Death of George Bell this week, I was editing a radio story about young widows in Nepal. The piece is about how widowhood rituals are changing for young women, and features 21-year Bishnu Pande, whose young husband died while working in Qatar. He never met their six month old daughter.

This topic is close to my heart, because historically, young women who lost their husbands have been forced to live out lives of ritual mourning, and Aamaa is a direct result of these traditions. She hasn’t worn the color red in 35 years. There was never any question of remarrying. Her husband’s family didn’t entirely abandon her, but they’ve done little to help her. When I arrived in Aamaa’s life, her daughters were in their early twenties, and her identity as a widow had long since blended in to the larger idea of her. I have always known Aamaa just as who she is, not as a woman bereaved. She has good friends, and people to look out for her, and she goes to weddings and dances.

And yet, for all practical purposes, Aamaa has lived a life of ritual widowhood. She is alone. Dancing is on limits, but ritual celebration – wearing sindur powder, receiving celebratory tikka, red clothing – are forever out. Moving back to the home where she grew up is out. A new marriage is definitely out. Her role in society is that of a woman who lost her husband, and has been since she was a 23 year old girl.

That will not be Bishnu Pande’s story.  But something will be.

So today I come across George Bell while editing a piece about Bishnu, having spent over a decade as part of Aamaa’s life. And it’s clear that what is obvious is not just what is practical. And neither is the ritual discipline that Aamaa observes. The obvious is just what we’re used to. Our treatment of death seems inevitable because it stems directly from our collective, subconscious attitude toward life, toward the nature of existing. Which can span the range of possibilities from Aamaa to the Queens County Public Administrator.

I feel like these hours I am spending with Bishnu Pande in my ear come at a time when  she and I are both somewhere in the middle. We’ve approached this crossroads from opposite sides: I from New York, where George Bell died, and Bishnu from Kaskikot, where Aamaa’s husband died. Her culture is learning to shed ritual, and I feel that mine has lost something vital and is scrambling to get it back. It’s like we’ve bumped in to each other in the middle of some misty dreamscape, each of us missing someone and renegotiating the collective attitude we’ve been taught.

Some letters to the editor have already been posted the article on George Bell. One says:

At first I wondered why “The Lonely Death of George Bell” was on Sunday’s front page above the fold. As I got into the article, I couldn’t put it down…Mr. Bell’s sad experience reinforced for me the importance of reaching out to relatives, friends and all those in a situation similar to Mr. Bell’s so that they have dignity in their final days. He deserved better.

And then another:

What could possibly justify this callous violation of George Bell’s privacy?…Mr. Bell could not have made his wish for privacy any clearer if he had specified it in his will, and no decent purpose is served by inviting us all in to trespass on his home….With this article The New York Times inflicted on Mr. Bell a final indignity.

     *

George Bell in 1956. / The New York Times

George Bell (L) in 1956. / The New York Times

 

Day Thirteen

 

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

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

In addition, there’s the baby buffalo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kalika Hill

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

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

But the direction I decided to look was up.

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

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

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

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

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Mama Lulu and Baby O'Neil

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