Between the Corn and the Millet

I try to imagine Aamaa’s life as it was back then, when the water springs in Kaskikot weren’t concrete taps but delicate pools that stirred up silt if you took from them too quickly. As a girl and young wife of 13, she sometimes had to sleep overnight in line while other women had their turns gently lifting the water jug by jug. By the time Aamaa was 22, she was a widow with two young girls of her own, and it would still be years before a bus came to Kaskikot, or a door was put on the entrance to her one-room house.

There have been many impossibles in Aamaa’s life. She raised two educated daughters who could split wood and carry twice their weight by grade school. The civil war started, but it was elsewhere, in other villages. The electric mill came; the bus came; the tourists came; other people converted their houses to homestays and restaurants. Aamaa’s house is off the road in a cul-de-sac of mountainside that nobody wanders past by accident. Even after some foreigners bought the patch of land on the hill behind the house and built a fancy hotel there, passers-by from Korea and Israel and Japan and Australia hiked past with their eyes straight ahead on the sprawling white peaks, rarely looking down to notice Aamaa and Didi and Bishnu there in the sunny yard, drying grain.

The likelihood that I would wander through the door one day has always seemed both insane and inevitable.  And over the last fifteen years, I’ve mostly thought of my life opposite Bishnu’s.  We were the two girls born at the polar ends of the universe, the ones who looked at each other and thought, what if I were her?  She’s been in the U.S. for eight and a half years now, while I spend significantly more time in Nepal than she does.

Aamaa was always more like the soil: everywhere, earthy, constant, essential.  She has all the nutrients and produces all the food and water and shelter.  Aamaa keeps the house alive, the field and gardens fertile from cycle to cycle, the fire crackling.  No matter how many people show up, Aamaa feeds us all. And no matter how many people go away, no matter how empty this house gets or how many of her birthdays pass, she keeps the water jugs full and the seeds sorted in dusty bottles. Aamaa has spent five decades in this village.

I had no idea Bishnu had applied for Aamaa to get a tourist visa to the U.S. to see Bishnu graduate from her Master’s program in information technology. Nobody told me that Prem and Didi took Aamaa to Kathmandu for the very first time last May to go to the U.S. Embassy, or that on the way there, Aamaa didn’t eat any cooked food because she couldn’t be sure who had prepared it. A few weeks later, I answered my cell phone in the parking lot at Walmart, and Bishnu announced that Aamaa had been given a five-year multiple entry tourist visa to America.

“What?” I said.

“For my graduation!” Bishnu explained ecstatically. She hasn’t seen her mom since 2013.

This explanation seemed failed to explain all the questions I couldn’t think of.  Obviously the idea of having Aamaa make this trip has floated through my brain millions of times, but it was the ultimate what if ever.  The craziest version of everything.  Part of me thought that maybe this was all kind of a whim – a thing that might happen next year, or something. But Aamaa had sold the buffalo within a week.

On my way to Nepal in June, I tried to imagine having Aamaa with me on the way back. First I tried to digest the most obvious and superficial matters. For example, how would I explain the enormous statue of a teddy bear bent over with an apparent stomachache dramatically bottom lit in the Doha airport?

I can’t even explain that to you.

When I arrived in Kaski, everybody’s greetings had adjusted to the most up-to-the-minute state of affairs. “Laura! You’re here! How long are you staying? So, you’re taking Aamaa back with you, eh?”

Only Aamaa and I seemed cautious and uncertain with our excitement. The whole thing is so surreal that even the discussion feels like an entirely new and foreign continent. For fifteen years Aamaa and I have had what is now a very well established routine: I come to Kaskikot, we eat together in the kitchen, we go plant things with neighbors and churn milk and carry water from the tap, I fix up some things that need fixing in the house, we gossip about family here in Nepal and all the far away people not in Nepal. Aamaa knows them all – my whole extended family and a good number of my friends who have been to visit – largely through stories. But she’s the stable point, not just for us, but for herself also.

“So we’re going to America, huh?” Aamaa says as we are sitting on the porch, as if testing out the statement.

“Sure seems like it, right?”

We stare out at the tall curly corn stalks, crowding out the grassy millet that’s planted between them.

“What is the name of your District?”

“Pascal, do you know how many states there are in the U.S.?” I ask, and he doesn’t know, so I explain again about Virginia and Maryland and Connecticut and North Carolina.

We discuss departure dates because I have to change plane tickets that currently have me going home from Cambodia, where I’m visiting Bethy in August; Amaa knows Dr. Bethy, because she’s been here too. We mull over how long Aamaa’s trip to America should be. A month would probably be good – she might be bored after a month?

“I’ll go after cutting down the corn, and I’ll come back to cut down the millet,” Aamaa suggests with sudden firmness.

That seems good, I agree.  That is more orderly – maybe because we can see the corn.

Long silences. What, exactly, should we should be planning?

“Bishnu suggested I should get some kurta salwaars made,” Aamaa says. “I guess you aren’t really allowed to wear a sari in the U.S.”

“You’re allowed Aamaa. But a kurta salwaar might be more comfortable.”

“Ok we’ll plan a day to do that in Pokhara,” Aamaa states. “I guess we have to leave time to have it stitched and everything, right? We should go soon.”

“It only takes a couple days, but we can go soon.”

“Nah, you should just pick something out and I’ll meet you at the tailor,” Aamaa adjusts. “I don’t know anything about picking fabric.” Honestly, in sixty years, Aamaa has never walked in to one of Nepal’s fabric shops and picked out material for an outfit, which is how literally everybody in Nepal gets their clothes.

“No no no,” I insist, “I think you should definitely get to do the fabric choosing. Pick your own color, something you like.” I have to talk her in to it.

A few weeks later Aamaa takes the bus to Pokhara and waits for Pascal and I to come meet her at a chautara in Chiple Dunga. She can find her way to Didi’s house, but for the most part she prefers assistance to get around the city. Between the three of us, Pascal is the only one who can properly read in Nepali. We set off up the road to go to the fabric shop.

Laura chiama, let’s have some ice cream,” Pascal suggests wisely, because I am the sucker who will pretty reliably buy us all ice cream. As we pay, Aamaa has sat down on the low wall at the foot of the store, which is not a seating area, and Pascal and I go with it. I hand Aamaa her first ice cream cone.

“Do I eat this bottom part, the biscuit?” Aamaa asks.

“Yes, but don’t eat the paper,” Pascal instructs.

“I’m not going to eat the paper,” Aamaa says.

I can’t even remotely transpose any of this to Connecticut. I ask a passer-by to take our picture, and as you can imagine, she looks at the three of us – the Aamaa who has very obviously just beamed in from the village, the entirely incongruous American, and this regular Nepali boy being raised in the city – and gets a huge grin as she takes our picture. What could our story possibly be?

We set off again. Aamaa has brought along a broken umbrella from the house. “Laura, where’s a place that we can fix this umbrella?” she asks. I blink, there must be an answer to that, but I’ve never thought about an umbrella-fixing place.

“We should probably just replace it,” I say, feeling guilty for my wastefulness and mental laziness. I don’t have the energy to try to figure out where the umbrella fixer might be and there’s really no excuse for it.

As we wander to the center of town I’m distracted and disoriented because everything is inside out. When I first came here I couldn’t say a word or do a single thing for myself, and in Kaski, Aamaa runs everything.  We get a few kilometers off her turf and suddenly she is the foreigner and I’m the one who knows what we’re doing. She has also brought with her a heavy bag of cucumbers and other items for Didi and Bhinaju and the boys, and she’s carrying it on her shoulder, the way people do in the village where nothing is flat.  Pascal is twelve and he goes sprinting out in to traffic as we cross the street and I pay him no heed whatsoever because I’m dodging people to keep eye on Aamaa, having no calibration for how much I do or don’t need to hover over her in traffic. We probably haven’t walked through the city together more than two or three times in a decade and a half, and never just us – not once.

We arrive at the fabric shop.

There are hundreds of colors and textures of cloth to choose from. Aamaa looks hopeful that I will take over. As a young man begins removing options from the shelf she bends over them. He throws one on top of another and another and another and another. Her hands settle on a jubilant orange outfit.

“I like this one,” she suggests. She looks at me as though asking if that one is a good one to like.

Within ten minutes, Aamaa and Pascal and I are pawing through dozens of kurta salwaars, trading opinions on what Aamaa should wear in America. She picks two, and we take them to the tailor, who takes out his tape measure. He’s going to make something just for her, in her size and shape, to wear between the corn and the millet.

“I think you should do short sleeves,” I say. “Definitely short sleeves.”

“I don’t know – I think they should be a bit longer. To the elbow,” Aamaa says. The tailor agrees – maybe longer sleeves for an Aamaa. No way, I say, short sleeves look best on a kurta and it will still be hot in September. Aamaa studies her arms for a minute, apparently imagining them in a very standard piece of clothing she’s never had.

“Yeah. That’s how I want them,” she concludes. “To the elbow.”

*

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 Walk Home

 

There’s nothing like my first visit to Kaskikot after having recently arrived in Nepal. Granted, sometimes there’s a year in between visits, and in this case I was here just last summer after a long winter stay. But still – today did not disappoint.

I woke up to the charming experience of Pascal throwing his arm on my head. Let’s face it: this room where Didi and Bhinaju live is too small for all of us now, but we are persevering while the house is being built. It is the nights when I share a bed with Aidan and Pascal that I question my judgment in teaching them taekwondo while they are awake.

While Didi made tea, we all lay in bed debating whose fault it was that we’d all spent the night practicing kickball rather than sleeping. Then we documented our morning in selfies.

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Late morning, I met up with some of our graduated Gaky’s Light Fellows for lunch. It was so great to see everyone and hear what they are doing. Sandip is marketing for an online news outlet. Ramesh is deciding where to apply for his bachelor’s in journalism. Nirajan is in Kathmandu, working for Teach for Nepal, and Nischal is entering his second year of bachelor’s. Umesh and Narayan have a solid paid gig singing traditional music each night, and Narayan has his own radio show. Bhagwan is a residential supervisor in a school hostel. When Puja and Asmita finally got there a few hours late, we all made plans to go boating later this week.

Next was getting up to Kaski. With the fuel shortages, this is more challenging than it’s been, as the bus is running infrequently. Not to worry!  I caught the back of a motorcycle ride and then secured a taxi to the bottom of “the jungle path” that climbs straight up from the valley to the house. Forget the bus, man.

So first of all, at the beginning of this path you have to cross over the Gandaki river, which is usually dry at this time of year, but swells in the summer and fall. We used to wade through it, but a few years back it got this nice concrete bridge. So I’m crossing the bridge, and…it just stops in midair. The last half of the bridge is suddenly no longer there.

It takes me a few minutes to negotiate the drop over the ledge of the bridge with a torn ACL in my right knee that won’t let me jump down on to the rocky bed five or six feet below. I make my way over, progress to the bank a short way away, and there at the bottom of the path up to Kaskikot is this leathery guy resting next to a bundle of wood. He looks kind of resigned. I chat with him for a minute and then he asks for help lifting the bundle of wood.

“My son is really strong, he can carry this kind of load,” the man says woefully. “It’s just pretty heavy.”

Nevertheless, the bundle must be lifted, so we give it a try- fortunately I am more qualified than your average random American to hoist a bundle of wood on to someone’s back so it can be slung from their head and carried across a dry riverbed – but it is too heavy, he can’t get upright under the weight. He sets it back down, resumes his seat in the road, and looks resigned again.

“What’s with this bridge?” I ask. “Half of the bridge is missing.”

“I know!” He says. “The other night, I drank up a full belly and came here and fell right off of it.” He points to his forehead and says, “I got a bit of a bump right here.”

IMG_6126“I hear you,” I reply. “I’m not even drunk, and I nearly fell off the bridge too.”

“Just went right over,” he recalls.

“Should we try this bundle of wood again?” I ask.

“Ok, but you have to come around the front and give me a hand.”

I heave the wood on to his back again and this time give him a hand to brace against as a counter balance, and he stands up.

“Thanks, bye,” he says, as if it makes sense that I appeared for this interaction.  Off he goes.

Partway up the jungle path I run in to two kids coming down.  They stop me.

“Where are you from?” they ask me in English.

“America. Where are you from?”

“Puranchaur,” the little boy answers.

“Oh, I’m going to Puranchaur on Tuesday,” I say. It’s one of the villages where we launched last year. I ask what grades they are in: four and eight. “So,” I say to the fourth grader, “do you brush your teeth at school?”

“Yep,” he answers.

“Huh. For about a year, right?”

“A little less than a year,” he says.

“Cool,” I answer, and down the path they go.

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Finally I come out the top of the jungle path and emerge at the water tap in Kaskikot.

“LAURIEEEE!” the ladies cry. “Here you are, just in time for wood cutting to start tomorrow! Last year you came to cut wood, and this year you’re here to cut wood!”

YES. This is the gold medal of the Welcome Olympics. And yes, when I go to cut wood, I understand that it is a memorable experience for all of us.

On my way to the house, a few other people – completely independently – express their approval that I have arrived just in time for wood chopping. I am winning at Nepal.

At last, I drop over the spine of the ridge and there is home. Baby O’Neil is tethered outside, her wet nose pointed quizzically my way; she has grown some brown fur.  The hillside is dotted with jubilant yellow mustard flowers.  There is the familiar line of the Annapurnas rising in to the dusky sky, distant and close. No matter the path that brings me to this piece of land, it always appears the same way, luminous and inevitable.

*

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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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Coordination Tactics

On Tuesday, the first thing I woke up to was a call from an unknown number at 6:45am. I silenced my phone but got three more calls from the same number, so I picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Hello.”

“Who is this?” I could already tell who it was.

“Archalbot.” It was the little boy, Kushal, from our visit to Archalbot yesterday.

“Hello Archalbot,” I said. “How are you?

“Fine.”

I waited. “Ok….Well….I’m fine too.”

“Ok.”

“All right then, talk to you later?”

“Ok.”

“Bye, Archalbot,” I said.

“Bye!”

Later in the morning, Dilmaya and I debriefed with Robin and Colin over coffee. We reconfirmed the plan we’d come up with yesterday. Dilmaya was to call our main contact, Kripa, and I’d coordinate with the government. If everything was organized, we’d start Thursday.

IMG_5049I’ve been here three and a half weeks and I haven’t spent a single day in Kaski. Wednesday is millet planting day, so I promised Aamaa that I would take a day off from coordinating housing outreach and tooth brushing programs to come churn up dirt between the corn stalks and shove little millet seedlings in to it. I spent the rest of Tuesday running around, planning for a day in Kaskikot away from internet like it was year on Mars. Finally I ran to the bus park at 5:30pm, just as a downpour began.

The bus left an hour late, at 6:30pm. That’s where I was when I realized that I was supposed to submit my enrollment for graduate school classes in September at exactly 6:45pm my time, 9am EST. If you don’t do this right when registration opens, it’s likely that the classes or sections you want will fill up within an hour or two.

I tried to log in from my phone, but not surprisingly, the cell connection wasn’t strong enough. So I called my parents to see if they could log in to my account from in Maryland and click “submit.” I got my dad on the phone, but in order to log in he needed a password. And the meticulously written document I’d made before I left for Nepal with all my logins and passwords in it had evaporated from my computer. I searched and searched and it was nowhere to be found.

So I hung up and waited a precious 45 minutes until I got to Kaski, where there’s one hotel that sometimes has internet, and my password is saved in my browser so I can log in without the missing document. I got to the Kaski hotel and the internet wasn’t working. I called my dad back while the hotel owner tried to restart the internet, which took about 15 minutes. Then the UConn registration site let me take every step except for actually hitting “submit,” because the site itself was having technical problems, which I now knew because my dad was on the phone with the registrar.

Which is to say that by this point my dad was holding the phone up between the registrar in Hartford and me in Kaskikot, while we discussed options for resetting my password, which required me explaining to my dad that the registrar was saying she was going to send him an email with a reset link; now I’m walking home from the hotel to the house so Aamaa doesn’t think I’ve fallen off a mountain, and the registrar needs to get someone else on the phone so she adds yet another person to this phone chain. Then my iphone won’t download the new password, and then when it does, and I read it over the phone from our house in Kaski to the person four phones away in Hartford, it gets rejected.

It’s like the Nepal jeep travel version of online class registration.

In the end, the registrar’s office took pity on us and just overrode their system to register me for my classes. It was 9:30pm here. Aamaa and finally sit down for dinner. Bring it on, millet planting season.

.      .      .


 

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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Another Relaxing Day Off

Yesterday I did what I usually do to relax on my day off: go with Aamaa and about thirty neighbors to chop and haul firewood for six hours.  As Aamaa and I were headed down the hillside in the morning, carrying our ropes and sickles, a buffalo was baying loudly in the distance.  Aamaa stopped for a second and listened.
“…Oh, it’s a buffalo,” she said.
“Of course it’s a buffalo,” I said.
“For a minute I thought it was a cell phone.”
“You thought cell phone before you thought buffalo?”
“Sometimes cell phones make that noise…bzzzt, bzzzt.”
Cultural moment.
Woodcutting is highly regulated and occurs en masse, and it is a brilliant example of the chaos and color of rural Nepali life.  Today there are about 35 people in the steep, unruly forest shouting and singing and chopping with axes and saws and sickles.  Every now and then there is a loud whoop and a huge tree falls over.  Then you have the random American running around in the middle of this scene.  I am wearing one of my old “work” outfits – a hot pink and green kurta sulwaar from 8 years ago that’s got a rip here or there.  I am ready for action, baby.
I get assigned to a group of women bundling wood and carrying loads uphill to a clearing.  I would like to say that, after twelve years of voluntarily putting myself in these situations, I’ve actually earned a fair amount of respect – I do pretty well for a foreigner.  But there’s just a baseline level of awe that comes along with having a 5’8” white girl waving a sickle around in the woods a tuesday afternoon in the hills of Nepal.  Also, it’s the obvious topic of conversation.
IMG_7056For one thing, “Laura” is, exactly, the Nepali word for “stick.”  This is an endlessly entertaining point.  I look like a stick and I’m carrying sticks and my name means stick.  Unfortunately for me there is also a lot of discussion about actual sticks (after all we are in the forest chopping wood) and I am constantly answering “Yes?” in response to people saying things like, “Hey, give me that stick.”
After a few hauling trips, we’re resting in the clearing when the ladies get to talking about how nobody should submit to pressure from the choppers to carry too much at once.  Loads should be adjusted to the size and strength of each person – after all, it’s really hard work and we have people of all ages and levels of health among us.
Lady one: “I mean look at this foreigner here from Japan.”
Lady two: “It’s America.”
Lady one: “Whatever.”
On most trips I get paired up with Saraswoti or Aamaa, who I follow around like a baby cub. And I appreciate that all the wives look out for me.  However I do get a little fed up with being babied on tasks I’ve sweated significantly to master, such as carrying stacks of wood slung from a rope on my head.  So late in the day, when fatigue and disorder have evolved to a stage where I find myself momentarily separated from the group as everyone is bundling their loads, I find a huge log and wonder if I can lift it.  I manage to get it upright but can’t sling from my head because it keeps falling over.
“PUT DOWN THE HUGE LOG!” yells a guy from across a ravine.  I call this guy Michael Jackson, but that’s another story.  Michael Jackson makes the mistake of shouting across an entire forest that the log is too heavy for me to lift.
I set the log up again.  Michael Jackson abandons his first strategy and calls to Barat to come hold the log so that at least it doesn’t roll away while I’m making a bad decision.  I manage to stand up in the steep underbrush with this huge chunk of tree slung from my forehead.  It’s added at least 75 lbs to my bodyweight.
For future reference, putting DOWN a 75 lb log slung from your head is almost as hard as picking it up.  So I just start walking up the hill with it.  I have no idea whether I can carry this thing all the way up to the clearing, which requires climbing over terraced fields on narrow footholds.  But so far, Michael Jackson is losing, even with my Japanese disadvantage, and that is all that matters.
I plod along until a line of women with their own bundles of wood catch up behind me.  They begin scolding me to put down the gigantic log, and to be fair I kept thinking that, over the next ledge, I would give it up.  But everyone was moving forward as a group, and it was never exactly the right moment to stop, and each time I hit a ledge I would think I’m putting this stupid log down on the other side, but then the other side would be flat enough to take a few steps and I’d find myself at the next ledge.  So we just kept moving up the hill one ledge at a time.
We get to a particularly difficult terrace that has a narrow foothold and a large height difference.  With the added weight, these high steps are treacherous because I literally can’t lift myself.  So instead of stepping up over the edge of the terrace, I put my knee over the top and get myself over on all fours.
For the record, this is a fair tactic.  I watched Sandrakali didi do it earlier in the day.  But it is super awkward, and leaves you waving your butt over the edge of the field at all the people behind you.  Which is really okay in most circumstances, but as it happens, my work pants from eight years ago are ripped right at the butt crack.  So I am waving my underwear at a line of women behind me carrying bundles of wood, while I am crouched under a 75 lb log that is attached to my head by a rope.
This actually happened in my life.  Yesterday.
“Laura, PUT DOWN THE LOG,” all the women are chastising me.  Out of love of course.  What would my Japanese mother think?
“I’ve got it guys, I’ve got it,” I reply, from under the log.
With a burst of leg strength I stand up and make my way up to the clearing, which is now close at hand.  As I approach, Michael Jackson has his cell phone out and is taking a video.
I put the log down and throw my hands up in the air in triumph.  For the rest of the afternoon, everyone is talking about my wood carrying prowess, while simultaneously scolding me for my poor judgement.  THAT log, everyone says, pointing to it.
Also, Srijana tells me to take Aamaa’s shawl and wrap it around my butt.  My pants are ripped and the entire world knows.
We’re off for the next load.  I’ll be ready for the office again tomorrow.
.     .     .

A Story

Back in Kathmandu, Tom and Jerry ends, and we turn off the television.  We eat our rice.  I mush the grains between my fingers but resist the temptation to try to give the meal special attention.  You can’t grasp a thing at the last minute if you weren’t paying attention along the way.

I repack my bags, and don’t get in bed till after midnight.  With the heat and mosquitoes it’s a long time before I fall asleep.  I toss and turn, thinking about watching Bishnu and Bhinaju get in the bus back to Pokhara, and about the strange idea of being even farther away than I am now.  It seems like, for the rest of my life, I will keep getting farther and farther away.  Which is strange because, even from Kathmandu, in a big bedroom where I can hear Nepali music videos playing on TV, Kaskikot feels like a memory, a separate universe where I once was.  I was there only a few days ago.

You know, it never has been missing it that I dread, or the thought of loneliness that fills me with worry.  It’s the shift from real to remembered, from substance to recall; it’s that the absence has no bulk when you get far enough away, and that life goes on and—even if you can remember to miss it, it’s so disconnected, so unreal, that it’s mostly just a story.  And what of the part of you that has become the story, the skin that has touched this world and walked on it and dug fingernails into its mud?  When all of it is farther away than the moon—which at least your eyeballs can see at night—is that part of you just a story, too, that only exists to the extent that you still believe you were there?

Wouldn’t that be something, if after all this, all I could bring home with me was a story.

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Second Chances

We were sitting on the porch eating popcorn beneath a rumbling sky, when all of a sudden, the air became thick and threatening.  Fat plops of water began to fall, and the four of us leapt up and scrambled in to the yard: Aamaa headed for the buffalo shed, and Didi to the goats tethered outside with their three jumpy children, while Bishnu and I ran for the wheat lying in the yard, where it had been drying just minutes earlier.  I bent over the precious pile of grain to shield it with my back, frantically sweeping it into a basket, and Bishnu scrambled around the yard brushing it towards me with a bundle of straw.  When that was done, I joined Didi in her tug of war with the goats, and just as we managed to get them untied and inside, and Aamaa threw the last few baskets and bundles of grass in to the buffalo shed, the clouds disgorged a furious rainstorm.  With the belongings and grain and goats stored away, the four of us dashed into the house to shelter ourselves.  We jumped up on to the beds and turned off the single light bulb to protect against an electrical surge.  And then we sat there, staring out the door.

Rain from PorchIt began to hail.  First a little; then in golf balls.  I’d never seen anything like it.  For a while Aamaa kept running back outside with a mat over her head—to put this or that away, to put the plastic tarp under shelter (why?).  But finally we had done all we could, and there was nothing left but to lean against each other on the beds and stare out the open door, where pale light came in and lit our four faces.

The torrent was powerful and close and deafening on the tin roof over the buffalo shed.  I looked down at my fingernails, where dirt and little grain fibers had taken harbor.  The hail pounded and clattered; a heartbeat.  It was thrilling.

“The corn is ruined,” Aamaa said.

“What?”  I turned towards her.  We’ve just spent weeks slaving over planting the corn.  I’m still sore.

“Oh, this rain will damage all the crops pretty badly,” Bishnu repeated.  “And everything else—cucumber, beans, zucchini—is already gone.”

My mouth dropped.  “What do you—how—I mean—we need to plant the corn again?!

The three of them looked at me for a long moment.

“We have no more seeds.”

I blinked.  This was obviously unacceptable.

“Doesn’t everyone have the same problem?” I finally demanded.  I felt this made it an unreasonable problem, which therefore, by the laws of logic, could not have cosmic permission to exist.  There had to be more seeds.  Meantime, the yard was an inch and a half deep in water and golf balls.

“Yes,” Aamaa said.  “Everyone.”

I glared at Bishnu, seeking a revision.

“If it stops soon, the corn will be damaged, but okay,” Bishnu offered.  “But the other things are already gone.”

And that seemed to be all there was to say about it.  Bishnu turned her face back toward the door.  Nobody appeared upset, which was what confused me the most.  I couldn’t even bother to ask, What will we eat?–the injustice of our wasted effort was enough.  So I sat on the bed and stared at the rain while it ruined the corn.  Because it was the only thing to do; because the people who knew how to make things work out were doing just that and nothing else.

There are no more seeds.

I have thought of this moment many times since.  Maybe loss, like mortality, is that globally unknowable thing so innate to our humanness that we can never discover it.  We can only be confronted directly with what we always knew: that we control things only with the permission of a universe that can render our efforts irrelevant or take everything away at any instant.  But we almost never separate from that reality and stare it in the eye as its own fact–instead, we are surprised again and again, each time something more unreasonable is broken.

My gaze falls back to my fingernails.  How have our lives been so different that what is unacceptable to me is already a familiar whim to Aamaa and Didi and Bishnu?  They will wait until the storm ends and salvage what they can.  In May, they’ll plant millet.  And in that moment I envy their grace, over and over, because my effort is still wasted throwing stones at a dispassionate sky while theirs is diverted back to planting.  To the ground.  Where things grow.

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