Water Works

 

It used to be that, in the winter, we’d sometimes get up at four AM to fetch water. When the tap nearby in Deurali would dry out due to the dry weather, or the tenuously protected pipe sourcing it would breaksomewhere along its many kilometers between Dhampus and Kaskikot, we’d have to go further downhill to the natural spring in Rotepani.

Deurali

In the summer, Rotepani was so rich with water that people filled their tin water jugs freely under gushing, splashing geysers while others bathed and did laundry and on the surrounding rocks, submerged up to the knees, cooled in the August heat. But in the dry season, sometimes even Rotepani would slow to a trickle from two out of three pipes that protruded from a cemented tap. The gushing natural spring that pours directly over the rocks would evaporate. Sometimes the line for water took half the day.

During those times, Saano didi and Neru would wake up before dawn and come up the path to our house. Aamaa and I, and Bishnu while she was still here, would join them with three baskets slung from our heads loaded with every jug and bottle in the house. We’d pick up Maya Bouju as we passed her house and walk single file along the edge of Gita Bouju’s wheat field. With the hills still shadowy along the southern horizon we’d cross the dirt motor road, make our way down a steep stone walking path to arrive at Rotepani in the dark, and help each other fill all the containers trickle by trickle. Then we’d walk back up the hill, pour the water in to slightly larger vessels in each of our homes, and turn around to do it again. Each trip took about 45 minutes, and we’d make three or four visits before the sky stretched open its arms to reveal another morning.

There have been times when water takes up the majority focus of attention in the household functioning. When pipes break in Deurali, when the weather is dry, when the buffalo is ill, when there many guests, or when there are very few residents to share labor; all of these lead to an immediate and exacting calculation of how much water is in the house, how long it will last, and what amount of physical labor is required to replenish it.  Sometimes it’s one person’s job to ferry water for hours at a time. When I’m here, I tend to gravitate toward the water carrying—a fairly straightforward, essential, and never finished chore.

Over the last year or so, recent changes in the government have led to mumblings about piping water to the yard of each individual home. In sixteen years, I’ve seen many changes come through Kaskikot…new two-story cinderblock houses, paved road, the occasional wifi connection, a completely transformed economy from subsistence to remmittance. Cellphones, Facebook, TVs, hotels, cars.  Many of the houses around us in Kaskikot have already rigged up pipes that they can attach to the Deurali tap when it’s not in use, offering a continuous stream of water that passively fills an enormous polypropylene tank in the yard.

We have a tank, but like the enclave of about four houses near us—including Saano Didi’s and Mahendra’s houses—we still have to carry water to it. Our water situation remains basically unchanged. We still take baskets to fetch our water from the tap in Deurali five minutes away. When Deurali is dry, we still go to Rotepani, 15 minutes away. On occasion, when Rotepani is too busy or the flow of water is almost dried out, we walk windy footpaths half an hour down to the fields in Dadapari and use a cup to lift water from a natural pool under the rocks.  A few times, I’ve accompanied Aamaa to do a household of laundry on flat stones there.

Aamaa, of course, is sixty-two and lives alone most of the time. So by “we,” I mean Aamaa.

Last summer as I was leaving in August, somebody arranged to rig up a pipe that had been brought from Deurali up to the crest of the ridge by our house. Its location wasn’t in our yard, but it was only a up on the ridge, about seventy-five yards away instead of five minutes in each direction. The day I was leaving for the U.S. was the same morning that this new pipe was first hooked up, and all our closest neighbors clamored about filling buckets and oil gallons and jugs while Mahendra’s father BAA! presided over the fray. Any moment that the pipe was unattended, it sprayed wild streams of water that swirled in to muddy rivulets down the side of the hill and in to Khemraj sir’s corn field. Little Narayan and Amrit were ecstatic with the newfound responsibility of presiding over a line of eager adults and aiming the unruly three-headed pipe head as it washed dirt off the footpath and down the hill.

When I arrived back this week in January, I discovered this setup slightly relocated but similarly conceived. With water much more spare in the winter, each household has been assigned to use it on alternating days. When we got up this morning, it was our assigned day. Aamaa began fretting about it last night. I assured her that I would take water duties in the morning, which is fine, but the problem is that for reasons I couldn’t determine, she wanted to get cracking at dawn, and one thing that’s changed in the last ten years: I am no longer so interested in proving something that I am am motivated to get up before dawn. I am happy to prove my value during daylight hours.

Lucky for both of us, for some reason the water didn’t become available this morning until 9am. Having slept until American hours and had my tea, I dutifully began the water retrieval process. Pascal helped me bring all the water jugs and bottles and even buckets up the hill, where we set them down beside Maya Bouju’s house to wait our turn.

Saraswoti was there of course, and Jivan’s young wife Bal Kumari, and BAA!, and everyone had brought literally any item in their house that could hold liquid. The issue–and the thing is, I’m American, I’m trained to spot potential matters of inefficiency and to fret about them–was that the pipe itself was barely producing a trickle. So filling the army of receptacles from our three households was a phenomenally lengthy task that quite literally involved watching water drip for long, yawning minutes. And minutes. And more minutes.

I squatted down next to my pals Saraswoti and Bal Kumari. They were perfectly happy with the distraction, the pace of the task, the opportunity to sit on a hill and chat or not chat and pick at blades of grass. I was like, “Yo you guys, it’s going to take me approximately one million years to fill all this stuff.” My gaze drifted to the footpath.  Four minutes away was a perfectly functional, largely unmanned water tap.

I calculated that in the time it would take Saraswoti and Bal Kumari’s water jugs and buckets and bottles and gallons to fill in front of mine, I could easily take a jug to Derail, fill it, bring it home, and bring it back here for a second filling.

“Just wait, Laura, it won’t take too long,” Saraswoti assured me, despite the fact that this was plainly inaccurate advice.

“I’m just going to go…um, fill this jug and come back,” I said. I did. When I came back, my other six jugs and buckets and bottles were still waiting in line. Bal Kumari had left and Saraswoti was taking her turn.

“Have a seat, Laura,” Saraswoti said. I sat. Saraswoti and I watched the water drip lazily, its splashy pitch changing as the surface level crept up the inside of the tin jug. The winter mountains pierced the entire panorama of the northward sky, and to the south the hills were clear and fresh. When it was my turn, I filled our jugs, took them home, dumped them in to the tank, and began the whole process again.

Of course, Bal Kumari was back.

“Laura didi, it won’t take long,” she and Saraswoti assured me. Given that the water hadn’t become more abundant, this statement had also not become less untrue. I couldn’t take it. I took one jug off to Deurali, repeating the entire process as before.

As my trips accumulated, so did the various filled containers in the yard. The tank filled. Aamaa has recently installed a recycled oil barrel that comes to my chest; it was filled. At intervals, Pascal was reluctantly cajoled in to retrieving filled bottles and buckets from and dumping them out at home and returning them to our muddy hill. The tubs and emptied kerosene gallons were filled. Each time I thought I was done getting water, Aamaa would find another centimeter of space inside some container or another and make an entire four liter tin jug of water disappear in to it. I started to get annoyed, and then I started to giggle. The teapot, after all, was still empty.

I couldn’t help but think of when our only containers were two tin jugs, a leaky plastic box, and two small lotos. By comparison, there was now enough water in the house for all of us to bathe five times and do a midnight water puja under the moon. But Aamaa kept finding more spaces to add water and sending me back to the maddeningly dripping pipe by Maya Bouju’s house.

“Aamaa, I think–” I wanted to point out that the tap in Deurali was currently available daily. Why was I an indentured servant to the drippy pipe by Maya bijou’s house, today, just because it…existed?

“It’s so much closer,” Aamaa said. “If the tap dries up, I’ll be without water,” she explained. I found this both entirely logical and entirely illogical at the same time. It couldn’t be solved. It reminded me of the time that Bishnu and I had dozed off in the middle of the afternoon with Pascal lying between us when he was a baby, and we woke up to find the lights on in broad daylight amidst the ruthless load shedding schedule; Bishnu yawned groggily, “Hey when the electricity is available, we have to utilize it.” This immediately launched me in to fits of hysterical laughter for the next ten minutes and I would lose it every time I thought about it for years. Now, I also knew the only thing to do was keep getting more water from the pipe on this, our assigned day. The opportunity was not to be missed, irrespective of any broader analysis about overall benefit. And while I claim to have nothing left to prove in Kaskikot, let’s face it: where the rubber meets the road, I still have too much pride to throw in the towel early.

The only way out was to prove this labor was unwarranted.

“Aamaa, are you gonna take the cups out of the kitchen and have me fill them up too?!” I cried, half joking and half serious. Truthfully, I wanted to sit around and read. I resented this unreasonable purgatory, even though I not only signed up for it voluntarily, but also understood that it technically started and ended far away from the pipe by Maya Bouju’s house. I didn’t want Aamaa to have to haul water tomorrow or really ever. It just seemed to me, like, you know, we totally had lots of water.

Finally, when our entire yard was ringed with anything that could be turned in to a basin or pitcher, each brimming so high that the act of dipping a cup in it would spill a few steps worth of hauled water, I put the basket and rope down on the porch.

The buffalo honked lazily. It was mid-morning, and the day stretched bright and clear in front of us.

“They say,” Aamaa mused to nobody in particular, “that we’re each going to have our own water tap. I brought the pipe here already. But I’m not allowed to connect it up to the yard.”

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cash on Delivery

 

As the start of our winter Professional Development session approaches, it’s time for me to bite the bullet and shell out a bunch of cash for a pile of tablets for an App we’re developing. Teaching clinical teams how to use the app will be the focus of the first part of our upcoming workshop.

The problem is the tablet-acquiring part is…a bit intimidating. At home, I’d search options on the internet and then probably order a few different options, which would arrive at the door with an option for 30-day free returns. But I will shamelessly admit that when it comes to Nepal, I have no idea how to do this. I know how to do stuff that involves baskets, ropes, and misplaced stretches of mud…but I do not know how to do a normal officey thing I am in charge of, such as acquire some expensive pieces of unfamiliar technology.

I asked Muna, our Program Manager Who Literally Fixes Anything, how and where one buys a pile of tablets in Nepal. We were hoping for something with a little flexibility on standard retail price, since we’d be needing 5-7 of them to start.

Muna, did I mention she Literally Fixes Anything, told me about a site called Daraz.com where I could order things on the internet to my house. Or our office. I was floored. Internet ordering is a thing in Nepal? Where the heck have I been? Muna explained to me excitedly that they literally bring it TO YOUR DOOR.  Right to your very own door! And then, you pay for it there. If you don’t want it, you return it with the courier.

“The courier?”

“A person brings it.”

“You order it on the internet and a person brings it? But how do they find you?” I was pretty sure this wasn’t happening through the regular mail system.

“They call.”

I just want to point out that, while a postal service certainly exists in Nepal, most houses don’t have street addresses, and a minimum of streets go by name (that anyone uses or that command street signs), and a large percentage of the houses and streets that do exist were only recently built, and in the majority of the country there are a minimum of streets altogether.

“Are you sure this works?”

“I use it all the time,” Muna said, becoming excited again by the phenomenon of internet ordering. “It’s cash on delivery.”

We looked on daraz.com and ordered five $280 tablets to Ravi’s office in Kathmandu. I arrived in Kathmandu a day later, a week before our training was to start, intending to return with both our trainer (Bethy) and the highly necessary tablets. By this time Daraz.com had called Muna, and Muna began relaying messages between the company, Ravi, and me. At first everything seemed fine. Then Daraz explained that they had the five tablets, but needed to get them out to a store where the courier would pick them up and bring them to Ravi’s office. Or my hotel. Or wherever we asked them to come on the day that they would call us, some time soon, having secured the assets through the official processes.

“Are these going to get here on time?” I asked Muna. She knows things. Admittedly we’d ordered the tablets at the last minute, and even on-time things are almost never fast things. And I seriously doubt that Daraz often receives orders for a heap of five tablets at once.

“Let’s see?”

While the tablets whereabouts remained uncertain, Bethy did arrive as planned from Cambodia.  We spent an afternoon with Ravi to map out our training plan for next week. By Sunday, I was starting to worry. I started calling around in Kathmandu to see about buying some tablets from a show floor, something that in my mind was randomly assigned as a more feasible activity in Kathmandu than Pokhara.  We ended up locating a completely obvious strip of cell technology stores around the corner from New Road. I called Muna and told her we were going on an expedition to find the tablets ourselves.

“If I find them, we can cancel the order, right?” I asked her.

“I called to ask, and they said that when the courier shows up, we just say we don’t want them.”

My mouth opened and closed for a few seconds. “It’s seventeen hundred dollars of merchandise!”

“I know, it doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what they said.”

Just to be clear, I’m not telling this story as a lesson in how things don’t work in Nepal. To the contrary, this is exactly how things work in Nepal. The internet company wasn’t trying to give us the run around, they were just trying to figure out how to find a guy who could get his hands on the pile of pricey tablets we wanted and get them to our guy in a short period of time. Without street names. In a cash economy.

Bethy and I set off to New Road to begin the in-person search. If I’d been more savvy, I’d have known from the start that we should have gone to New Road: as we rounded a corner, there before us, like Oz, was a fairlyand of Samsung and Oppo and Huwaei stores packed together for a block and a half. We walked in and out of them pricing out different tablets, including the one we’d possibly or possibly not ordered online, and when we thought we’d settled on a winner, we wandered in to one last alley for a final try.

There we met Ravi #2, who presented us with our final and ultimately champion tablet, a simpler and smaller version than everything else we’d located. At about 40% of the price.

“I’m a movie star,” Ravi #2 said.

He is. Look him up.

“Here’s a video of me,” Ravi #2 said offhandedly, handing us his phone, his Bieber coif spilling over his brow glamorously but without obstructing his vision. We bent our heads over the small screen, which showed our tablet salesman serenading a beautiful woman on a bridge.

“I’m not the singer,” Ravi #2 admitted. “Just the actor.”

I withdrew a heap of cash from the ATM and forked it over. While five separate people bustled about unpacking our tablets in order to fill out warranty cards, add screen covers, and repack them, we waited and chatted with Movie Star Ravi. He reclined on his stool, a physically not possible thing that only Nepali movies stars can do.

“Do you know my pal Mahesh? He’s a movie star also,” I volunteered.

Why yes, Ravi #2 did know Mahesh, the brother of our field officer Gaurab (the human). Gaurab and Mahesh are both from Kaskikot and I’ve known Mahesh since he was a kid, and even produced a radio story about his robot-making career before he was a movie star with Ravi #2. His father Thakur was one of the founders of Jevaia Oral Health Care back when it was Kaski Oral Health Care, a bazillion years ago.

“Small world,” I said. “You should consider a further discount, considering that Mahesh’s family is closely involved with the very worthy project that these tablets are for.”

“Sorry,” Ravi the Movie Star said. “But here’s my number. Call if you have any problems with the tablets and I’ll get them fixed right away.”

We needed tablet covers.

Ravi the Movie Star didn’t have any tablet covers, but he gave us the name of a shop in another part of the city about a mile away. Obediently I put it in my GPS and Bethy and I set off at a fast clip, racing against the gathering dusk, the new tablets in my bag. In no time the main thoroughfare of Cell Phone Oz had narrowed, then faded away behind us and deposited us in to the heart of Kathmandu’s old, cloistered Newar alleys. Ornate wooden windows leaned precariously in over our heads, while vendors presided over every vegetable and shoe and devotional item imaginable, and as we dashed alternately through crowds and crowded passageways it seemed unlikely that we were headed closer to tablet covers. Night fell, and the cobbled paths and squares became lit by yellow squares falling out of spice stalls, flickering lamps dotting the pavement where vendors had spread out their treasures. We sped through, dodging colored blobs in our path like marbles rolling through a game.

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Out the mouth of a maze we arrived, suddenly, at the destination on Ravi the Movie Star had directed us to, and Lo and behold, there before us was a shop with exactly the name he had provided.

It sold a lot of stuff, but none of the stuff was tablet covers.

We turned around and went back in to the din. We wove about, passing up vacuum cleaners and suitcases and incense and frilly skirts. Surely, somebody, somewhere among all these objects, had some simple tablet co—-

And there it was. Bending off the laid stone path and its hoard of pounding feet was a harshly lit corridor of electronic gadgetry shops that contained four bazillion types of cell paraphernalia. At the end of it, positioned in such a way that suggested anybody arriving must surely be doing so at the end of a great pilgrimage, was a casual shop crammed with phone covers. A woman sat among them as if, obviously, we had been on the way and due to arrive at some point, whenever.  Inexplicably, she had only one type of tablet cover, in one size, and it was a size that fit our efficient little mini-tablets.

“We’ll take five,” I said.

We packed them up, shoved them in our now very full backpacks, and set off on the last part of our expedition through Bishal Bazaar and Ason, butter lamps burning what seemed like everywhere in the lively chill.

“Muna,” I said over the phone a little later, “I’ve secured our tablets. We can cancel the online order.”

“Where did you find them?” she asked.

…You know…streets?

*

Dad Explains It

 

Let’s start with background info: my father is both an engineering physicist and a tech entrepreneur. Add to that Olympic athlete and type A+ personality, and you have a world-class Explainer.  My dad is so good at Explaining Things nobody even knew existed, much less needed explaining, that some time ago I started a Dad Explains It video collection.

In this collection you can find such explanations as the anti-slip rubberbander (see below); how to separate an egg using a plastic bottle (a favorite – highly recommend); why an empty wine glass will, albeit unsatisfactorily, substitute for spectacles in a pinch; how to fix your fire truck ladder with glue, and how glue works; how to make a one-flip pancake; advanced paper-lantern lighting in a five-pointed star from Nepal; why it is easy to rip saran wrap in one direction but not the other; and a best-hit, the benefits of curtain velcro.  My mom typically plays a key supporting role in these videos, as herself:

 

On the Explaining front, Dad and Aamaa turn out to be a match made in heaven.  Because Aamaa requires explanations of everything from traffic lights to faucets, and Dad has a limitless endurance – some might even say compulsion – to leave no beautiful creation of the universe Unexplained.  This is extremely handy for all of us.  We girls (Bishnu and Mom and I) just aim them at each other and go about our business.

Over the weekend, we’ve made a family visit to a high rise apartment being constructed in downtown Bethesda. Aamaa is curious about all forms of construction. Like my nephew Jonah, she presses her nose to the window every time we drive past something being built. I decide this comes in the same vein as knowing the origins of food and other things that in Aamaa’s world travel very short distances from creation to use. There are comparatively few things in her life that just appear with no traceable origins–I mean, back in the day, Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa used to walk to the border of Tibet with baskets to trade for salt. Even modern concrete houses in Kaski are constructed without machinery using materials readily available in the local environment. So a suburban high rise presents a mystery on many levels. How is it all put together? Where does it come from?

First we stop at the building company, where we are provided hard hats. We all agree that Aamaa kills in the hard hat.  (She has to sign a visitor agreement, and since Aamaa can’t write her name, she uses a kind of plus sign – it is always strange to see Aamaa’s incredibly dextrous hands fumble unfamiliarly with a pen.)  Then we head across the street to a service elevator that is in place just for purpose of constructing the high-rise. When Aamaa and I were in Kathmandu a few weeks ago, we visited the third-floor rooftop of a mall. “Holy crap this is high up,” Aamaa proclaimed. “All the buildings in Kathmandu are enormous.”

“Push the button for floor seventeen!” Mom cries as we enter the service elevator.

Aamaa grasps Mom with both hands and the elevator lifts us off the ground with a jolt.

 

We wander the half-built highrise apartment, whose main walls are still open to the sky. Aamaa and Dad are transformed in to a superhero team patrolling Gotham City: there are things that need explaining EVERYWHERE.   The space is divided by empty wall frames which have mammoth-size pallets of insulation stacked up between them. Dad and Aamaa commence an epic geek-out over insulation and plaster, and then shift their nerdfest to the feat of having transported the insulation – and the rest of this stuff – seventeen floors above the ground. Where will the plumbing go? And electricity?

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The construction company employee treats us to a view of the roof. Aamaa has surprised us all with an ominously keen sense of direction in this unfamiliar world. The first few days after she arrived, we were driving around in Connecticut when we approached the drug store on the corner of my street. “This is your street, right?” Aamaa asked, before I had made the turn. I was absolutely baffled that she could get oriented so quickly when most of the visual landmarks are foreign objects with no inherent meaning, like a drug store. Now, on the roof of the high-rise apartment, Aamaa surveys the city below, which she has spent some time touring with Bishnu and me. She extends one finger toward the top of some buildings.

“The subway is in that direction, right?” she asks, correctly.

My Dad becomes ecstatic over Aamaa’s engineer-like spacial acuity. My Mom responds by scanning the horizon herself.

“And over there I see…Machhapuchhre!” she announces.

A few days later we went to go visit Great Falls and the Tow Path and along the Potomac River, where my parents used to take us for hikes on the weekends. Back then we had a special rock bench that my brother and I “discovered,” and which was, for purposes of eating a picnic of peanut butter sandwiches, the target of every summer expedition we made to Great Falls. My dad and I have both rowed many miles on the Potomac River, and on the fourth of July our family would come to the boat house and put on smelly life jackets and watch the fireworks from canoes on the water. This area is part of the circulatory system of our family.  We pulled in to the parking lot at Great Falls with Aamaa.

For some reason that now I can’t completely put together, one of the first things to occur was that Aamaa and Dad got to trading their shade-producing accessories.  I’ll just leave that there.

The only major bodies of water near Kaskikot are the Gandaki River and Phewa Lake. The first, we can cross through the riverbed in our flip flops unless a flood or unusually extreme rain has come through. The second can be crossed by paddle boat in about half an hour. So Great Falls was…great.

And now another confession. For all the years that my family has spent at Great Falls, for all the rowing and firework-watching and picnicking…my brother and I somehow both grew up thinking this was the “Toe Path.”

I know. It’s bad.  Because of the Explaining that is required with Aamaa there, this comes up in conversation.

“What?” my dad says, with the displeasure of a Master Explainer who has realized, at a time when his offspring are grown-ass adults raising children and trying to survive in the world on their own, that something so basic, and so explainable, and so important to the family history as the tow path, NEVER. GOT. EXPLAINED.

Dad explains the history of the C & O Canal as a trade route, complete with a detailed explanation of the the locking mechanisms that allowed canal boats to move upriver. And, swept up in all this Explaining, Dad finally breaks out in to song. This is a thing that happens sometimes.

And so on.  Lead the way, Dad!!

*

*Bonus reel (true undoctored historical evidence)*:

 

Afternoons

 

First Saturday of Summer  

our hands sweat in the grass until

plateaus and peaks draw in their woolen covers.

Fried fresh corn kernels from the fire

salt.  

Each drop on tin, a world

An hour, or so

maybe more or less

to talk about, so

We gaze out the door

where slick leaves are dripping

lick our salty fingers

and pass the minutes

…or so they pass us

listening to the rain.

*

At the Base of a Tree

 

The cicadas came when I was five
behind the school yard.
I put my finger on one
and then I picked it up
it was like a fig, dark and rough.

At five cicadas were interesting, like figs.

Now I am much bigger
friendly, the little goat nuzzles my shoulder with his warm snout
soft, we are alive, together easily.
And then I press my eyes shut
as I capture the insect that has invaded this carpet, which is mine
because I own it.

Sometimes I wonder how I can find my way back
from the pliant kid to the figs to the cicadas, captivated
with all their legs, their slick ribbed shells, all their songs enchanting
the school yard
all chirping and chirping tickling my ears until my ears overflowed with music
amid the crunching leaves and delicate wings
a symphony, a society, a universe blossom
after seventeen years of silence.

Sometimes I wonder
what we are afraid of
why we crush things, bugs and leaves and oceans and people
when I was five, I used
just one tiny finger
to say hello.

*

 

The Idea of the Mountain

 

I started searching for Mt. Everest abstractly.  It wasn’t exactly about the mountain; it was about the idea of the mountain.  With my college books lying next to the bottom bunk, I would retreat in to stories about mountaineering and daydream about exploration. I collected pieces of Asian culture without dwelling on their origins or innate meanings.  These articles and wanderings were satellites of the idea of the mountain, which I assigned to Mt. Everest, and the idea of the mountain was in Nepal, and therefore going to Nepal became inevitable.  But I didn’t even really aim at Mt. Everest. I just got out of bed and aimed at Nepal.

This is how, on a hazy August morning in 2001, I found myself in Kathmandu with a group of foreigners, looking for things to do.  For two weeks we had been traveling to different parts of the country learning about medicinal plants. This was long before I would develop a focused interest in natural medicine, so that detail was just a bonus. Actually, the trip was the result of me Googling “Go to Nepal, August 9 – 22,” which was when I had a window available to travel after the competitive summer rowing season.  But I had not accounted for the little-known and unlikely fact of summer. The monsoon fog, as it does, had blanketed the sky for two weeks, perpetually pressing heat and moisture against our bodies and blotting out the entire horizon.  Now we had a few days to entertain ourselves at the end of the trip.

“I want to see mountains,” I suggested.  We were really so close.

The travel agent brought my new friends and me tea and told us we had options.  Theoretically, the options involved flights.  However, the airplanes might or might not end up taking off, the travel agent cautioned, what with the blanket of clouds obscuring the whole atmosphere.  My friends and I tried to sort out the weather, and things.

There was a tower in Nagarkot, said the travel agent.  A lookout tower.  I inspected my guide book, and my guide book said I could bike to the lookout tower in Nagarkot.

“I’m going to bike to the lookout tower in Nagarkot,” I announced.

At the suggestion of the travel agent, my friends and I refined the plan further.  We would first bike to the old city of Bhaktapur about an hour away, and from there, I would continue biking up to the lookout tower in Nagarkot.  This plan made sense to me because a) it was in my guidebook and b) the travel agent was able to rent us some bikes.  Nepal-bikes, if you will.  They had wheels and gears and hand-brakes and they were heavy as hell.

We woke early the next morning and set off for Bhaktapur.  As I clicked along the road, I felt a swell of freedom.  It reminded me of the first solo drive I had made, to the ice rink, after obtaining my drivers license.  The past two weeks had had various ups and downs and dramas and mishaps, but the main thing was that I’d been packed in with a group of other foreigners and we’d been on a schedule and somebody else was in charge.  Suddenly here I was on two wheels being powered by my own legs, on a road that led to the idea of the mountain.

If you ever get to visit Nepal, you must visit Bhaktapur.  Its name means “the place of devotees.”  The area is located on a historic trade route between India and Tibet, and is jammed full of gorgeous architecture, art and cultural life dating back to the 1400s. Wonderfully preserved temples and stupas surround a tidy public square, whose graceful wooden carvings curl up like a garden that sweeps the gaze from one frozen deity to the next.  It is a place that makes you want to bow your head for a moment to whatever all this is…not because it’s religious exactly, but because it feels bigger than you. Because it is old, and earnest, and fully itself.

We took photos.

My friends left.

I clicked over to a small shop, parked my bike, and met a woman and her daughter.  Something had caught my eye…a sheaf of heavy lavender silk.  I asked to hold it, and it slid cool over my hands, a whisper of winter hiding under the heavy roof of summer.  I turned it over and moved it from one arm to the other.  The mother and daughter draped it over my shoulders and wrapped it around and around my waist to show how it would be worn.  I asked the price.

The material was intended to be made in to a sari, which, needless to say, was something I would never put on.  I set it down, and picked it up.  Eventually, I reached for my guidebook, checked the route, and left without the lavender silk.  Now I was fully alone.  I rode down a long hill and pedaled laboriously up another.  As the heavy biked clicked toward Nagarkot, Bhaktapur began to disappear behind me.

I stopped the bike.  I turned around and biked all the way back to Bhaktapur and bought the lavender silk from the mother and daughter.  I folded it carefully in to my backpack and set off again for Nagarkot.

Beginning early in the day, we had not been particularly focused on the schedule.  It was now about 2:00.  And something else I ought to mention is that only about ten weeks prior, on June 1, 2001, nearly the entire royal family of Nepal had been massacred by the crown prince, and a stunned hush lay over everything.  A Maoist insurgency that had started in 1996 was also gathering force.  It would crescendo around 2004 and topple the monarchy in 2006.  But in August of 2001, while I was biking alone from Bhaktapur to Nagarkot at 2:03pm, everything was humid, and pregnant, and subdued.  It is only now, looking back fifteen years later, that I feel the uncertainty of that stillness, stretching out across the emerald for miles and miles around me on my tiny bike.

As the afternoon progressed, the pavement ended and the switchbacks started.  The heavy-as-hell bike was now clicking over the back of a dragon, lumpy and steep, the first of what would be many, many, many Nepal Road Experiences (NREs) in my future.  With increasing frequency, I had to dismount completely and haul the heavy bike uphill with my arms.  In addition to unfortunate lack of planning around time, I had only two granola bars for food.  I might have bought some snacks in Bhaktapur, but now I was in the middle of nowhere.  This was also before cell phones, and in fact and even land lines in 2001 were commodities mainly rented by the minute at shops or small businesses, most of which were in cities.  So, to recap, I was in a completely foreign country on a rural road with a guidebook and a heavy bike and no food during an insurgency, a few weeks after a royal massacre, in a place I knew nothing about except for stories of Mt. Everest written by North Americans and Europeans.

“Tower,” I thought contentedly, and clicked over another crater in the road.

I look back now and the little part of me that the world has worn down scolds her for this.  For the presumptuousness and irresponsibleness.  But even now, most of me is still enchanted by the idea of the mountain.  That is who she is, even all alone on a road.  She doesn’t realize she’s going to write this story later, and she is not performing.  She is biking on a road because she is on it and there is a lookout tower at the other end.  Hopefully.

As dusk began to fall, I checked my guidebook more frequently.  It did seem mildly alarming that I had no idea how far I was from civilization.  What to do?  Well there was, after all, only one road, so if I had taken a wrong turn I had inevitably biked to a different district altogether, which was a problem far outside the reaches of my ability to solve by worrying.  No use mulling over that.  Soon buildings started appearing at the roadside and it looked like, possibly, I was somewhere.  Just as darkness was confirming its authority over my climb, I came upon – true story – The Hotel at the End of the Universe.

However, the Hotel at the End of the Universe was not near the lookout tower, and my guide book said there was a hotel near the lookout tower.  So, and don’t ever ask me to explain this, I biked past the Hotel at the End of the Universe in to full-fledged night.  Uphill.

It was after 9pm when I found it.  In rural Nepal in 2001, 9pm is the middle of the night.  I walked in to the hotel that my guidebook had suggested, sweating and with every muscle in my body limp.  Two young men emerged behind the hotel counter and they assigned me a room.  The kitchen was closed for the night and it was too late to make dinner.  Oh well.  I had some of a granola bar.

“Please wake me at 5am so I can go to the lookout tower,” I said.

“If the weather is good, we’ll wake you, miss,” the hotel guys said.  “But it’s usually cloudy.”

Nope.  “I want to go either way.  Will you make sure to wake me at 5am?”  (Besides, maybe it wouldn’t be cloudy.)

“Of course, miss,” the hotel guys said.

I woke up at 5:15am.  No hotel guys.

I jumped out of bed, paid for my room, and got back on the heavy-as-hell bike.  I followed the directions in the guide book, and just as the sun was creeping over the horizon, I came upon…THE TOWER.

LOOK AT THIS TOWER.

Yes, this is a lookout tower made of sticks.

Which only strikes me as incredible now, much later, on behalf of the little part of me has been chastened and worn down.  At the time, I thought, quite happily, “This is a lookout tower.”

I climbed up the lookout tower, which was advertised in the guide book to offer a panoramic view of the Himalayas surrounding the Kathmandu valley, sweeping giants, famous the world over, visible from THIS STICK TOWER that I am climbing.  The top of the structure was rickety, like a platform treehouse.  I stand up.

There are clouds as far as I can see.  Not a mountain to be seen anywhere.  Silence for miles and miles and miles.  I sit down on the tree-house platform.  I am here.  I float out over the clouds, newly lit by morning, silky and cool, endless.  I take a photo.  For a few minutes, these are my clouds.

“This is going to be a good story,” it occurs to me vaguely.

Then some Nepalese tourists turn up, and they take my photo.  It will be a prized possession.  But soon the platform is crowded, and the floating is over.

Now all I have to next do is get back to Kathmandu.

I climb down the tree-house-lookout-at-clouds-tower.

We are going downhill.  I run my finger down a page where my guide book says that up ahead I can either take a normal road, or another road that is a bit less organized but somewhat shorter and “good fun.”  And so help me God, nobody will ever no why, but I decide it is a good idea to take the Good Fun Road.

The Good Fun Road is the dragon’s back I climbed up, now with measles and more speed.  So basically, I can barely ride on it at all.  Every time I try to get the heavy bike going, a terrifying hole in the dirt screeches in front of my tire and I have to slam on the hand breaks and I nearly topple over.  I end up walking my bike for most of the Good Fun Road.  “This is good fun,” I think, “and I should write my own guide book.”

I eat the last remaining bite of granola bar.

After what seems like forever, I come to the valley floor.  It is hot again and I am drenched in sweat. As I bike through the valley in what I certainly do hope is the direction towards the tourist area of Kathmandu where my friends are waiting, I pass a school and the Headmaster flags me down.

I end up spending about an hour at the random school in the Kathmandu valley.  I play with the kids and talk with the Headmaster.  I am oblivious at the time to the certainty that the Headmaster is hoping to make a connection and cultivate me as a patron, and this works to my advantage because I am not resistant or cynical.  I am playing with kids at a school in Nepal because it is on the road associated with the idea of the mountain.

For many hours afterwards, I am not one hundred percent sure that I am on the correct route back, although I do know that I’m overall aiming at Kathmandu.  Gradually, around 4pm, the streets start to narrow into corridors, clustering together in the traditional Newar style of Kathmandu, and then, miraculously, like an actual fuck-all miracle, I recognize where I am, back in the middle of Thamel. Vendors are selling tiger balm in the streets, tourists with dreadlocks and tie-dye are browsing knockoff North Face gear.  My friends are near here somewhere.  We have a hotel we are staying in.  I bike to it.  It is 5pm.  I’ve been gone for about 36 hours.

I unpack the lavender silk.  Sixteen years later, it is still carefully stored in wait of a special occasion.

“How was the tower?” everyone asks.

“Cloudy,” I answer. “There were a lot of clouds.”

Outside, night is falling fast.

“So when is dinner?”

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

*

Animal Yoga

As the summer comes to an end, I want to share a special part of my spiritual practice with all of you out there – millions, even billions of you – in search of inner peace and the wisdom of the zodiac or whichever comes first.

Just before I left for this summer in Nepal, I was at an end of season party with my soccer team in West Hartford and we got to talking about a new fad in Connecticut: goat yoga. This is a thing where you do yoga while baby goats run about jumping up on your back and snuggling your bum.

RIGHT????

That very weekend my friend Sam was planning to attend goat yoga, but I couldn’t go because, alas, I was headed instead to Nepal. But then, on the plane to Nepal, I got to thinking. Nepal lacks numerous amenities such as proper butter, a fully functional government, rural dental care, and Pandora. But goats are not a problem. So then I got to thinking more, and I what I thought was, let’s be open minded and work from a strengths perspective.

This proved to be fairly straightforward.  I started with a beginner practice:

Adorable Bunny Yoga.

The fan response was prompt:

 

I proceeded without hesitation.  I am a very focused person when I need to be.

Baby Chick yoga

 

French Bulldog At Sunset

 

Pairs Kitten Yoga

 

The Rooster

(this posture, which is excellent for improving the flexibility of the tongue to reach the tip of the nose, was immediately preceded by me trying to catch the rooster)

Preparation for Rooster Pose

 

A Herd Of Sheep Crossing a Road in Upper Mustang Yoga

Also, meditations on being very very still:

Farm Pose After Dental Camp

Pondering the impossible:

How is there a Dalmation in Nepal Pose

Ironic Yoga, very powerful in the Year of the Carrot:

I tire of you appropriating us in to your yoga names just because you’re humans withering stare dog

 

And finally,

Goat Yoga

Goats Doing People Yoga

                  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NAMASTE, HUMANS!!!

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.

 

*