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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Merit of Stories

 

Last night in Tripureswor, Anne and Dilmaya and I slept in a makeshift tin cottage with the sound of the river rushing by outside. When we got up in the morning, we were astonished to find that the shelter was buttressed up against this stunning prayer site.

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It is hard to capture the beauty of this place in a photo: river-worn, looping rock formations swirling around the base of this strong and humble tree. It is maintained daily and with great joy by our host, Krishna Man Shrestha, known by everyone here as Saila Dai.

He took us in to this wonderful garden and proudly went around showing Anne and I where each of the Gods sleeps in it. Below is the bed for Shiva, king of the Hindu gods. I missed a brilliant moment where Saila Dai lay down in this nook in his shorts and Nepali hat with a blissful smile, eyes closed, hands clasped in a Namaste over his head, to demonstrate how Shiva sleeps here.

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Yesterday, as soon as we met Anne and crammed in to a hot bus with tiny seats to drive to Dhading, I told her about my friend Mary, who died a week ago. I’ve been missing her terribly and I feel myself trying to sort out where she is in this strange journey I am on in post-earthquake Nepal. Even today, I’m not sure why we’re headed out to Dhading. Because Anne is an expert on ritual, I knew she’d have some ideas of ways we could connect with Mary on our impending adventure in Tripureswor. While we bounced along in the bus, Anne told me about the Buddhist ritual of cultivating and offering merit to a departed soul, to help them along on their transition from this world to the next. I knew that was the perfect thing to take with me into our undiscovered story in Ward #6.

Saila Dai

Saila Dai

So Saila Dai’s gorgeous prayer site was an auspicious beginning to our day. After tea, we left with Bishnu to explore his village. I brought along my recorder and camera. With no clear plan and full day from Pokhara, it is safe to say we were winging it.

What we ended up doing was sitting down at house after house talking with the owners. We asked about their families and where they were when the earthquake hit; how they’d rebuilt and what they thought the future held. When asked what we were doing there, we were honest: we said we weren’t sure. We admitted don’t have the capability to do a complicated or expensive project so far from our base in Pokhara, but we were interested in understanding what people are experiencing in Tripureswor.

IMG_2357To our great surprise, person after person told us that we were doing a great service by taking time to talk with them. One person said, “by coming here and looking us in the eye.” Anne and I were both amazed by how many people said things like this. People’s lives are pretty shaken up in Tripureswor. But of course, it’s not just the talking, it’s the sitting, the cup of tea or slice of cucumber, the story of the prized son who is studying college in Kathmandu, the unwritten story of getting old in this place. It’s the lack of an agenda. That’s how most of the things that have mattered in the end have started for me in Nepal.

And then there was the water. The main focus of the iNGO community right now is shelter, but no matter who we asked, everybody told us that the biggest problem in Ward #6 is water. The earthquake damaged the water tank that supplies this whole ward, so they’ve been piping water in from neighboring wards, but that sharing won’t last. And even so, people have to walk very long distances to fetch water. Having done plenty of that myself, I can tell you it’s no picnic. The community has already located a new spring, and all that’s needed is infrastructure to collect and distribute. But in addition to some simple concrete tanks and many kilometers of pipe that they need – which is something we could provide – there are some complicated engineering factors, one of which is that the water source is on the other side of the river, so pipes need to be slung across it like electric wires.

Ward #6’s water pipes will have to be slung over this river.

Ward #6’s water pipes will have to be slung over this river.

As the day went on, it became clear that the water project also is too complicated for us. However, Dilmaya and I did feel like we’re capable of advocating for it. I can contact Oxfam, the major iNGO doing recovery this village, and my contacts at United Mission to Nepal, who are also involved with relief in Dhading district. We decided that Anne would stay for the week and help get together enough details for a proper proposal. Late in the afternoon, we all went in to town to meet with the Village Chairman and run this all by him.

The last thing to come out of our day was that Anne, who’s spent many years doing cultural and sociological research in Nepal, came up with a beautiful project for her upcoming week. There is a Japanese tradition whereby people write prayers or wishes on small pieces of paper, tie them to strings, and then hang the strings in the air, sort of like prayer flags. She plans to have tea with all sixty families in Ward #6, look people in the eye, and write their worries and prayers with them. She bought the paper and string while we were in town meeting the chairman.

I also did a lot of recording and hope to produce an audio slideshow about Tripureswor, as well as a radio story about the effect of the earthquake on animals. So if that works out, I’ll have a concrete reason to point to that we schlepped – and I mean SCHLEPPED – all the way out to this village. And if the water project actually comes around, that will be really amazing.

But on some level, I understand that this expedition was not about something concrete anyway.

Late in the evening, I went up to a high hill behind the house, overlooking the valley and emerald hills that are glistening with humidity and rain. I did my qigong practice and offered the merit of our day to Mary, to guide her on her way. I offered the merit of Saila Dai and the humility and joy he gives to his enchanted prayer site, and which he had in turn offered freely to us. I offered the merit of looking people in the eye, of meeting Janet for twenty minutes in a coffee shop and connecting her good heart to mine and following the road out to Tripureswor Ward #6, with no agenda but to listen to stories and return them to Janet, whom I don’t know at all. I got started late, so by the time I was finished with my practice, it was nighttime on the unlit hill, nothing but moonlight reflecting off the river in the valley and the spare lights of the bazaar down below. Which seemed right. The merit of stories is how they linger past sunset, into the darkness, when all the people have gone to bed.

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You Win Some, You Delay Some Wins

 

Well the earth bag house was coming along pretty well, but this week the rain started, which means planting season has begun. Colin has been working incredibly hard for hours a day in the heat, along with Moriah, an American volunteer who found out about the project on the facebook page that’s being used to coordinate earth bag building projects in Nepal. But completing an earth bag house in a week requires 8-10 people working all day, and we’ve had trouble getting consistent manpower from Archalbot.

I also have to confess that my part in the collaboration with the earth bag project went differently than I expected. After our experience in Parbat, I thought our main housing challenge was motivating people to gather bamboo (or other natural materials from the environment or their damaged homes) and build good quality shelters for us to provide tin roofing for. I expected, at the start of this week, that the earth bag project would be leverage for other local building projects, starting with Uttam’s bamboo house – in other words, that people’s interest in seeing the earth bag home completed would motivate them to fulfill our requirement that they also build a bamboo home for another especially needy family. I also expected that not everyone in Archalbot needed or wanted to move out of their cracked homes and live in bamboo houses. We thought we’d end up with be two high-quality sample homes in Archalbot – one earth bag, one bamboo – and residents would choose to one or the other them if they desired.

Instead, what happened is that once Uttam’s bamboo house started getting built, everyone became extremely motivated to go cut bamboo and make similar homes. It was much more successful than I ever imagined. And the earth bag house, while a brilliant long-term building solution, is extremely labor and resource intensive compared to familiar local building methods such as bamboo. With time and money scarce, everyone quickly became pre-occupied with the solution that met their needs and existing skills most efficiently. By mid-week, the strategy had reversed: we were pushing people to finish the earth bag home as a requirement for further tin distribution for bamboo houses.

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Uttam’s family’s two bamboo houses under construction

I realize maybe this is starting to sound a little weird – us putting these conditions in place for aid distribution, leveraging one community project against another. But that’s often the best way to collaborate as well as introduce new concepts or infrastructure in a place where people are used to doing things a certain way, and where the hierarchy of priorities is a well-entrenched survival system. We use this principle all the time when we do dental care. We have to put conditions in place that wedge new priorities in to this hierarchy: providing treatment only at the clinic and requiring people to go there to access it; charging nominal fees; making sure local shopkeepers sell toothpaste, but not giving the toothpaste out for free, so that people have to buy it themselves from the same place they buy sugar and soap. The reason for this isn’t for our benefit, it’s that the goal of our dental project is not to distribute toothpaste or provide one-off treatments, but to elevate the overall level of long term, sustainable oral health care in the places we work.  That only happens when people reorder their own priorities and behaviors, no matter what country or situation they live in.

Similarly, the purpose of the earth bag house is to train people in an earthquake-safe, affordable building method. But at first, it’s just a weird performance using rice sacks and dirt, so you can’t blame IMG_9549people for wondering if it’s really worth their time. It’s important to leverage the attractive elements of the project: the creation of a new structure, the intrigue of a new idea brought by foreigners, the incentive that we’ll provide materials to trainees for building one of these houses themselves. If we can capture participation based on these points, we can hopefully keep people’s attention long enough to teach the skills we want to transfer.  Like our dental clinics, the point is to see people absorb this safe-building technique over the long term because they realize it has value.

So leveraging earth bags and bamboo against each other was a great idea, but the thing I didn’t anticipate was that the time of year and the urgent need for shelter would make the one of the two so much more attractive. So for anyone out there doing earth bag building, my suggestion is, wait until about late September, just before the harvest time. Better yet, the best time of year would be December or January, the only season when there’s any semblance of a real break from field work. While earth bagging is a fast, democratic construction method compared to a block or large mud and stone house, it does require a lot of city-based resources and labor compared to other readily available options. There are almost no families that have 8-10 people in their household who can work intensively for 8 hours a day for a week, and definitely not during rice planting season. That means that families will have to hire labor, and that means other people need to have time.

IMG_9720In the end, Colin and Robin decided to have Archalbot build a bamboo shelter around the half-finished earth bag home, with the goal of returning to finish it up in the fall. So here is a photo of our nepal’s first earth-bag-bamboo-tarp home. Tarp soon to be replaced by bamboo.

In the evening, the community had another meeting about why the earth bag house hadn’t been completed. There was quite a bit of contrition – people hadn’t fulfilled their promises to help out. But there was still confusion over the concept that the earth bag house was a training opportunity, not a private building project. No matter how many times we explained this – and I speak pretty fluent Nepali, and Dilmaya is Nepali – the tendancy has been for people to think of the earth bag project as “Mahendra’s house.”

In any case, there was this slightly downer of a meeting, and everyone vowed that when Robin returns in the fall they will all be totally ready to devote time to completing the training. Then we went home to eat dinner, and I got a phone call from little Kushal.

A speaker system had been set up in the yard, and we had a rocking dance party. And why not, man. You win some, you delay some wins. When I left in the morning, there was cut bamboo lying around all over the place, ready for construction.

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How Many

 

The List finally arrived in my inbox on Jan 29. Two lists, actually: one from two years ago, and one from last year. The title of the List, which Laxu picked up from the Foreign Employment Office, is Assistance Decision Made From (Date) to (Date). It’s a record of insurance payments managed by the government that’s as close as I’ve been able to get to a list of migrant laborers who’ve died abroad.

The first question I needed to answer was How Many. It seems as if everyone knows there is a flow of bodies arriving home to Nepal from overseas, but nobody is quite sure what the scale of the tide is. I’ve noticed that people I’ve interviewed usually shrug off the question How Many a few times, and then give me a sudden, precise answer that measures their own anxiety over the problem.

From April 2012 to April 2013, there are 727 names on the List. The following year, ending in April 2014, lists 24 women and 856 men—and average of nearly three laborers per day.

In reality, How Many is a more complicated number than three per day. A certain number of laborers go abroad off the books, or over the border seasonally to India. Study abroad has also become hugely popular, and waves of luckier young people to exodus to foreign countries (although I would guess that most of the boys in Kaskikot, given the choice, would still opt for labor over study).  While about 300,000 laborers per year leave Nepal through manpower companies, the total migration rate is a lot higher – closer to 800,000 annually.

All of which is to say, the airlines officer and security guard may not have been all that far off when they estimated the number of bodies or insurance claims they receive daily. Some estimates put the body count around five per day.  But I’m mainly concerned with young men, and occasionally women, who sign up with labor companies.

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When I opened the List for the first time, I felt like an intruder. To see a list of names in a place of reverence is one thing. But the black and white letters under Assistance Decision Made from (Date) to (Date) are simply data: eight hundred and eighty statistics.

Besides, each name was listed with only a spouse name, village and ward number (there are no house addresses in rural Nepal), and a date of death. It’s 42 pages long.  I had no idea how I would locate or speak with any of these families.

I closed the List and it was a few weeks before I opened it again. Then, yesterday, I was in Kaskikot, filling up our tin jugs at the water tap, when Madu walked by.

“Hey Madu,” I said. “Remember the project I told you about?” I said I was looking for the family of a young man who’d died abroad. After all that work, I was back where I’d started, having talked to Madu three months ago when I first arrived.  Honestly, I hoped Madu could help me circumvent the List.

As we were talking, Sher dai, another neighbor, walked by and joined our conversation.  He offered to do some inquiry on my behalf in Kaskikot, but then I mentioned that I had a List already at my house.  He followed me back home, where I set down the basket and took out the water jug. I pulled up a low stool in the yard and took at my laptop.

We reopened the list.  I searched “Kaski.” Sher dai and I started copying and pasting a short list of names in to fresh document.  Many were from Pokhara or surrounding Kaski villages that I know well: Leknath, Syangia, Hemja.  And then we came upon Dirgharaj Adhikari, Kaskikot-08.

“Sher dai, this boy is from Kaskikot.  Where is ward number 8?”

Sher dai said said he would look into our short list and get back to me. To my surprise, he came back not two hours later.

Dirgharaj Adhikari’s house is just half an hour up the road. It’s likely that, at some point in the past, I ran in to him in a bus or shop or at Kalika School, where he studied. He died last spring in Qatar. He was 22 years old.

“Shall we go?” Sher dai asked.

It was only 11 am.  Just a few hours earlier it had been a month since I’d faced the matter at all.  I’d assumed before I even began this project that I wouldn’t have to look far to find the bereaved family of a young male laborer.  But it was still unnerving to be so flatly correct.

I pulled my microphone and camera out of the back of the dresser and put them in my bag.  I got on the back of Sher dai’s motorcycle and we left for Dirgharaj’s house.  Within minutes, we turned off the main dirt road on to a small motor path that lead to a lone house, perched high up on the hillside. As we approached, I could see the yard was full of people.  A leather-thin man with clear green eyes emerged from the yard to greet us a respectful distance from the entry way. He was Dirgharaj’s father.

We had arrived exactly on the day of sarad, the annual puja that marks the anniversary of a death.  The entire family was there to honor Dirgharaj.  He died exactly one year ago today.

“Hello sir…may we come in?” I asked. “We’d like to hear about your son.”

*

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Stone Paths

 

Yesterday, I went with Aamaa and Neru and Didi to carry 40 kg of cauliflower up the mountain from Pokhara, because, as we know, that’s the kind of thing I do to relax.  Why, you ask? Fair question. At Milan Chowk people are selling cauliflower and potatoes at seasonal wholesale rates, and because our relatives are there, we got an even sweeter deal.  Tell me you’ve ever purchased cauliflower for less than 6 cents per kilogram, baby.

What are we going to do with 40 kilograms of cauliflower? Ah, I thought you’d want to know. First, we’re going to schlep it up to Kaskikot. Then we can chop it in to thin pieces and dry it in the sun to eat later in the fall. And that brings us to yet another day of long steep stone paths, ropes, and heavy loads.

We took the forested footpath on north side, a walk I regularly make in about 35 minutes going down and one hour going up. It leaps (or drops, depending on which direction you’re going in) directly from the flat valley to the spiny ridge top.

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As we neared the bottom of the trail, Didi was walking a short way ahead when Aamaa pointed to a lone man in an empty rice paddy on the valley floor.

“That’s the field where Didi was born,” she said.

I’ve always known that Didi was born during rice planting season, when Aamaa went to work and returned home instead with her first baby.  But I didn’t realize the field was so far away from the house. It belongs to a relative, and I’ve never been to it.

“That one?” I squinted and pointed like I was on safari in Zimbabwe.

“Yes.  And then we walked up this path that afternoon.”

“…What?”

“I came here the night before to plant rice, but I had Didi at 8am the next morning.  And at 4pm we walked back up this same way with the baby.”

“…THIS one?! How is that possible?”

“I know.  Can you believe it? I couldn’t do it now.”

I might as well insert here that my brother and sister-in-law welcomed my niece Eliza Jane Spero in to the world just a few days ago, on March 6, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Running around here in Nepal, my mind has been largely preoccupied with thoughts of soft blankets and white linens and wrinkled baby feet at home. So maybe it was just the way the moment came together. But I looked at Didi chasing Aidan and Pascal down the stones in front of us, and all of a sudden it seemed impossible all over again that all of us were there together.

IMG_7151Aamaa was 20 years old when she had Didi, and she endured many hardships after she hiked up this long, unforgiving path later that same afternoon.  I can only imagine how birthing a child must have been then, when medical facilities, telephones, basic shops, and decent roads—to the extent any of these existed at all—were at least a day’s walk away.

Now, 35 later, here we were walking on the same stones. Standing on them, it’s hard to comprehend that millions of people in the world still live in that kind of poverty today, when it seems like an unbearable situation for one single individual. Every once and a while, all those millions are suddenly the one person in front of me, and today, it was Didi. She seemed like a miracle. And the path – which I’ve skipped down and climbed up hundreds of times – just stays there while people go up and down it, carrying their stories from one decade to the next.

It was 6pm by the time Aamaa and I got home with our 20kg loads of cauliflower. We have a lot of slicing to do.

*

 

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Holi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Holi, fools.

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