Dental Care Anyway

IMG_4898I’ve been in Pokhara for about five days now. All the usual activities – Saturday workshop with our Gaky’s Light Fellows and Asmita’s 18th birthday party at the community house, where I continued practicing my henna tattooing skills on all the girls…

Last week Kaski Oral Health completed this year’s teacher trainings in each of the three villages that launched over the winter. This is where one teacher from each school, who is called an Oral Health Coordinator, learns to conduct a daily brushing program and also do oral health education throughout the school year. We had to postpone our OHC trainings because the earthquake hit right when they were originally scheduled, and when we did hold them, we had to think about how to keep oral health care relevant in the context that teachers are now facing.

IMG_0525There are approximately 129 damaged homes in our working areas, some of which are unlivable, and just outside of a village where we work in Parbat, a nearby area has experienced even more extensive damage and our dental technician has asked us to help. So we’ve made one trip out there, and we’re considering how to approach another. About 13 schools need some or total rebuilding in our 10 villages. All these realities must be acknowledged as we continue trying to advance the work we’ve been doing in oral healthcare over the last eight years.

One widespread issue is that shelter aid has been largely limited to people whose houses were totally destroyed. For thousands and thousands of people whose homes are standing but too dangerous to live in, significantly less help has been available – by not receiving tent distribution, for example, and that’s where organizations like ours filled in. Going forward, the government is compensating only $250 per damaged house, compared to the $1000 that will go to families whose houses are flattened. Then again, everybody will need to rebuild from scratch, and even a simple village home costs closer to $3000.

All of this is why I want to start pulling back from using our limited relief funds for tents and start focusing on transitional housing that will last people for the length of time needed to rebuild.

On a tangential topic, we’ve outgrown our one-room office, and leased a new space that is currently totally empty, which is both exciting and intimidating. So in between scouring the internet and Facebook for examples of tunnel shelters and super-adobe shelters and shelters that reuse tarps, I am also turning over possible arrangements of the sunny new rooms of our office, which have yet to be set up as our home.

I took a detour from dreams of shelters and offices yesterday to spend the morning with our field officer, Dilmaya, at Deurali Primary School in Kaskikot. This school is just five minutes from my house, and it is where Didi and Bishnu attended grades 1-5. I have known the teachers there for twelve years. For about 4-5 years, Deurali school ran a daily brushing program we’d helped them start, but it eventually petered out. Their Oral Health Coordinator, a really sweet young woman named Chandra, had asked me last winter to help them restart it.

So Dilmaya came up to Kaskikot with her backpack full of brushes and paste, had lunch with me and Aamaa at home, and then we went to Deurali school and sat down with all the teachers in the office. Govinda also joined us – he is one of the founders of KOHCP and was the team leader in Kaskikot for the six years the program ran there.

IMG_0577I was amazed when the headmaster pulled a notebook out of the cabinet. He had kept a log, which started in 2011, of each purchase or donation of brushes and paste, each poetry project or dance performance the school had held to advocate for oral health care. We discussed the school’s plans for future sustainability as our contribution declines next year, a plan we require. The teachers presented each of us with kata scarves, a traditional way to welcome and honor guests.

You all may or may not remember that when we tried to hand-over Kaskikot’s KOHCP programs and clinic in 2012, the project collapsed due to personal interests among government officials (a soap opera that, for better or worse, was covered in a 2013 Washington Post story). So it’s a bitter pill I live with that in order to keep this program growing and developing elsewhere, I had to be willing to watch it fail in my home village. And since then, we have since expanded to 7 clinics in 10 other villages that cover an area of about 50,000 people.

Nevertheless, sitting in this tiny school in my back yard, which has no more than 35 young students, and seeing the enthusiasm and sincerity of the teachers to restart their brushing program, was just awesome. We were all so happy with each other that it was basically one big appreciation fest.

Now that we have field officers, we offered to have Dilmaya come back and run a workshop for the teachers on oral health education, where she can teach the art, math and game activities we do with OHCs now to help them promote oral health care in addition to doing the brushing program.  Their teacher took the new brushes and paste and ran the day’s brushing program.

So that was a nice little pick-me up. Now, back to Pokhara to look at earthbag building.

Playing in the Band

Yesterday, the boy who lives next door to Govinda dai’s house had his bartan, which is kind of like a Hindu Bar Mitzvah (except different).  In the evening, there was a bajan, drums and cymbols and chanting that create the most gorgeous and hypnotic devotional music you’ve ever heard.  So after dinner, around 9pm, Kaushik and I went over to listen.  I was actually tired and didn’t feel like heading out, but I knew that Govinda would be playing in the bajan and I didn’t want to let him down.

As we walked up the road, Govinda’s kids Sulo and Sudir came running towards us, and the sound of music followed soon after – driving, jubilant.  We turned in to the yard, which had been covered by a tarp.  Two men, one of them with a huge belly, were twirling with their hands in the air, amid a crowd of adults wrapped in shawls and children up past their bed time sitting on the ground.  The sparkle and joy of it washed over us and my heart lifted.

I sat near the bajan for a while with my recorder.  Govinda was on the symbols.  I have been coveting a recording of this wonderful music with its surrender and elation and praise all wrapped together.  Of course, Kaushik and I were both invited to dance.  But a lot of the time I was just listening, the night time around us, Sulo leaning on my bent shins and my arm across her chest, like Bishnu and I used to sit.

During a break, Govinda left his cymbols lying on the ground next to me.  I picked them up and started tinkering.  I tried to be discreet but in order to really play devotional cymbols, you just have to go for it; they don’t have a volume control and the physical movement of the hands only works out rhythmically if you play without restraint.

So soon I was just playing the cymbols while people chatted and rested around me.  But the sound started attracting attention, and them some smiles, and then a woman who’d joined the bajan picked up her cymbols too and matched my chime.  So the drummer started, and the next thing I knew, I was playing in the bajan.  I was a part of it.  The other pieces came up around me like a garden, and until I had to hand the little chimes back over a minute later, the music was coming right from me.


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The Value of a Dollar

This was the fastest trip I’ve ever had to Nepal – I don’t know where it went!  Apparently, my Nepal life which was once just in Kaskikot and at a little primary school has been divided in to multiple villages and cities.  On the other hand, the more time goes by, the more I find things grow in depth rather than width.  As much as I seem to run around, during the last two months I’ve been much more aware of the dimensionality that time adds to the same routines, and it seems more important than any of the cutting-edge details of this project or that.

Last week I went with Govinda to visit his father in law in Begnas, because he was Buba (Govinda's Father in Law) - Version 2diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer in August.  I first made the trip to Begnas when Govinda and I were teaching together in 2003, and it became one of our most legendary adventures – we still tell tales of how I climbed in the orange trees, and sat with Bua while he cut vegetables, and we all slept up in a tiny attic–this elderly man insisted on giving me his bed (I was a 23 year old collegiate rower) and he slept on the floor and I could not convince him otherwise.  As we were all lying there in the dark, he slowly and carefully asked me questions like, “Nani, Little One, in your country, what do they eat at weddings?” “Nani, in your country, what do the roads look like?”  I told him about elevators and the job market and hot water taps.

Bua worked as a security guard in India for five years and is not as sheltered as he sometimes pretends to be. But he is the gentlest human being I have ever met and every tiny detail of the world seems to move him.  He has a way about him that is intimate and unceremonious at the same time.  Most of his wealth from working abroad was lost to loans he made and never demanded back – how would they pay?  On that magical trip to Begnas with the orange trees, Bua asked to see a rupee from my country and I gave him a dollar bill which he folded in half and put away.

00012004050900500110In the decade since, Bua has come to visit me in Kaski every year that I’ve been here.  Each year he’s older and more frail but he takes a few bus rides and schleps all the way to Kaskikot, and we never know when he is coming; he just arrives in the yard one morning.  Aamaa and I beg him to sit and eat with us before he goes and he always says he has to get home to do this or that.  Every single time he says, Nani lai dekhna paeyo, “I got a glimpse of the Little One, I have to go now,” and then he schleps all the way back to Begnas.  Once I brought him a poster of a photo of the moon.

Last week Govinda and I went back to Begnas to see Bua during his last months of life.  It poured on the walk there and the rice paddies turned to mirrors under the clouds.  We spent the night at a relative’s house he has moved in to, in a space over the buffalo shed and under the slant of a corrugated tin roof, which sloped down over our heads and stopped in thin air, leaving an unobstructed drop to the ground and a view out to the hills.  The sheltered stone paths and trickling water of Begnas are quiet and patient like Bua, so different from Kaski’s dramatic himalayan perch.  He had asked for a light from the U.S. – maybe they make them better in my country – and I gave him a red metallic maglite that he tucked under his pillow.  We chatted some, about India, and then we fell asleep.

The next morning we got up to leave and Bua walked us down a path from the house to the dirt motor road.  He is barely more than the circumference of his bones, but still moves with an elegant deliberateness with no notice of my constant, automatic haste.  He stopped on a random set of descending stones in the trees and turned around.

“Nani, you won’t be back again till next year.  Me – maybe six months, who knows.  I’m in a lot of pain.  I am going to die now.”  In his unhurried way, he reached in to his breast pocket to get something.  I could hardly believe my eyes when he unfolded a dollar bill.  Ten years later, it still looked perfectly new.  He looked at it and shook his head, and in my mind I heard him say, “Nani lai dekhna paeyo–I caught a glimpse of the Little One–I have to go now.”

He put the dollar back in his pocket, and sent us on our way.

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An Eclipse For Small People

P1010918My first solar eclipse was in sixth grade.  Our science teacher, Max – I went to a progressive school where we called our teachers by their first names, so I actually had a real science teacher named Max – took us outside and we sat in the grass, next to a blacktop, near the soccer fields.  In groups, we held something up in the air and peered through it, a notecard with a hole in it, or something like that.  I don’t recall exactly.  The entire memory is just an image of us, kids, sitting by the blacktop, holding a thing up in the air and squinting.  I found it rather tedious.

My second solar eclipse fell on the festival of Maghe Sakranti.  Before the solar eclipse, there had been a number of times when Maghe Sakranti had coincided with the day of my departure from Nepal, so over time, during visits when I found myself still there for this festival, Maghe Sakranti and its associated rituals had taken on a special flavor of celebration.  We were still together.

In the days leading up to the eclipse, I was at school from early in the morning right up until dusk, painting. Govinda and the kids and I were rushing to finish a mural before yet another departure.  It was a picture of their community: haystacks and houses, the whipped-cream shaped Kalika Hill with its little temple at the top, a paraglider sailing overhead, and road winding around from one place to the next, with a dominating school at the center.

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As the day of the eclipse approached, there was a great deal of anticipation.  Everyone was talking about it.  Once, Aamaa said, she’d been out during a solar eclipse and, just like that, it had turned to night.  They’d been forced to wait for a few hours until it got light again so they could go home.

Now that was something I wanted to see.

I went to visit Thakur sir, the astrologer, to get his opinion on a gift.  Back home, a great healer and teacher of mine was losing her eyesight.  I had purchased a necklace with the symbol kali chakra on it, and I wanted to ask about taking it up to the temple to be blessed, or infused, or something of that sort.  I wasn’t exactly sure, but I thought Thakur sir would know what I meant to ask.  A solar eclipse, he said, would be a very auspicious day to bless a necklace, even though it wasn’t allowed to do a puja during the hours of the eclipse itself.  And, once the necklace was up there at the temple, at the top of the Kalika hill, I couldn’t take it away until the eclipse was over.

The movement of necklaces was one of many things couldn’t happen during the eclipse.  Everyone would fast, of course, from exactly 12:36pm to 3:30pm, and many people would fast the whole day.  Any water in the house would have to be poured out after it was over, and replaced with fresh water from the tap.  It is wood cutting season, and trips to the forest were put on hold for the day.  And Maghe Sakranti was, for all intents and purposes, cancelled.

In the U.S., a solar eclipse is, for the majority of busy people, a science project for kids.  But here, where astrological charts are consulted for even the opening of businesses and choosing of brides, everything seemed to slow down as the days spiraled towards a grand and humbling halt.  Gazing at the top of the Kalika hill against the sky, I could feel the world catapulting through the solar system to a particular magical position—a great thing getting closer and closer to us, small people, standing where we would witness the movements of the galaxy.

By the prior night, there were three buses waiting to take people all the way to Chitwan in the morning so they could bathe at the place where the Trishuli, Gandaki and Kali rivers meet.  First thing in the morning, Aamaa repainted the floors with a fresh layer of mud.  It would be a day filled with ritual.

Like the rest of the world, I had hoped to stay put for the solar eclipse…but the mural wasn’t finished.  We had painted and painted that week, trying to finish in time, but when we pounded the lids in to the tops of the metal paint canisters the night before what should have been Maghe Sakranti, our creation still wasn’t complete.  So I departed for school early in the morning, swearing to Aamaa I’d be back by noon so that I could eat before the fast.

I met Govinda in the road with the necklace in my pocket.  When I’d taken it out that morning, I’d been surprised to see how mysterious and powerful the kali chakra looked, separated now from the rows of silver and symbols in the glass case at the shop.  When we passed Thakur sir’s house, I put it in his hand and he gave it a long look.  I wasn’t sure if I’d actually end up giving it to my teacher back home. I thought I’d send it up to the temple during the solar eclipse, and then give it away later if it seemed appropriate.  I was afraid it might seem kind of silly, and ridiculously enough, decided I would ask the priest at the temple for an opinion when I went to retrieve it later; after the solar eclipse.

Govinda and I arrived at school to find the kids waiting anxiously, and out came the paint. I had stayed out past the witching hour, painting a mural, many times over my years in Kaskikot.  But there was no thought of that today, not in the quivering air, under the glare of that acute collective focus on the cosmos.  I was incredibly P1010864excited.  It felt huge and magical and a little ominous, and made me think about what it must have been like for ancient cultures that didn’t know the science behind such events.  It must have been incredulous and awful to see the sun – so reliable! – disappear in the middle of the day!

And that’s how we found ourselves rushing to complete our masterpiece before the stroke of noon, small people painting small people, the sun under the brush racing the sun circling in the sky.  “The eclipse is coming!” passers-by admonished us.  What were we doing out?

At 11:15, we decided we were done, and with terrible haste threw remaining paint in to boxes, picked up old gloves, ran and locked the office, forgot something in the office (Unlock the office!  The eclipse is coming!) and, at last, set off running down the road to get home before the eclipse struck us dead in the road.  Kids peeled off at their homes.  As we raced by in the dust, people called to us from their houses: Hurry!  The eclipse is coming!  There had been conjecture that we would see stars.  The entire world was about to evaporate.

I made it home by noon, in time to eat. One o’clock in the afternoon, twenty-four minutes after the official start of the eclipse, brought a subtle change in the quality of the light.

Bhinaju and Bishnu and I decided we would climb up the hill behind the house and watch from the resort.  We set to discussing what we should bring along.  A flashlight?  Poncho?  Extra sweater?  Rubber bands?  Camera?  (Would it be too dark for photos?)  We rummaged around and put some belongings together.  We climbed up to the top of the hill. And there I was, surrounded by a Himalayan panorama during a solar eclipse!  I wondered if I would be permanently altered, perhaps suffused with some kind of wisdom?

We sat in the grass.  We waited.

We stared earnestly at the sun for 30 minutes before admitting that we could see nothing.

We came home and sat on the porch.  It was a devastating disappointment.  I took out my journal.  I became impatient for tea.  As I looked a the water vessels and thought sullenly that we’d have to fetch new water before we could make tea, I considered the idea of “touched” water – that’s the word, chueko, “touched” water, the same word used for the impurity that a menstruating woman imparts to the things she contacts – and it occurred to me that all of these rituals – abstaining from pujas, fasting, dumping touched water – were fundamentally based in a fear of the awesome, not a celebration of it.  Too bad I wouldn’t see anything.  Even Maghe Sakranti had been cancelled.

For some reason, some of Aamaa’s old, beat-up x-rays were lying in a large envelope on the porch.  I have no idea why.  She’d had them taken when she was first sick, eight years ago; one of the slides showed her ribs and abdomen, a faded spine in the background, and another, a ball and socket joint.  Maybe they’d been deposited in this random location during a recent tidying, or while we’d been arranging articles to bring on our failed observation mission an hour earlier.

I was writing when Bhinaju suddenly said, “Laura, come here.”  He was standing in the yard, holding up the ribs and studying them.  I thought he wanted to continue a recent debate we’d had about the number of vertebrae in the spine.

“Why,” I mumbled.  “Vertebrae?”  I was in no mood to be proved wrong.

“Just come here.”  He switched to the ball and socket.

I got up and went to stand beside him.  And right there in Aamaa’s humeral head was a clean outline of the sun with a smooth bite out of the upper left-hand corner.

For the last twenty minutes of the solar eclipse, as the bite of shadow moved eastward and the sun became whole again, Bishnu and Bhinaju and I leaned together, small people, holding the x-ray over our heads and squinting.  We exclaimed and pointed and cried to each other: “The x-ray!  The x-ray!  It was here the entire time!  If we’d had it on the hill, what would we have seen?  What??”

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The Milk Truck

We spent a very long time waiting for the milk truck to pick us up.  As part of Optional Class, I’ve found people to come up from the city and tell the kids about their jobs: a librarian, a radio jokey, and someone from the photo shop.  Today, we were headed to Pokhara to visit the places they work.

While we waited for our ride, the kids sat on the grass, leaning on each other, practicing the song that Govinda and I wrote about the solar system.  We make them sing it every day – Venus has poisonous air, there’s a big storm on Jupiter, la la – so the tune has more or less become the Optional Class Anthem.  The radio jockey had invited our students to sing the solar system song on air during our visit, and the quartet selected for that job was practicing next to a few other students who we’d chosen to read their poetry on the radio.  The early morning hour was one of quiet satisfaction for Govinda and me, watching our kids with their heads bent over the books they’ve made, feeling important.

The milk truck finally came, and we all crammed in to the back: Govinda, Laximi, and eighteen kids, and me.P1060843  The inside was a military-style canvas box with two benches and railings on the ceiling to provide handholds.  With a lurch we set off, bouncing down the dirt road toward the city.

To keep out the dust from the road, we had all the canvas flaps down over the back and side windows.  I looked around at all the little faces squashed into our sealed box, and was struck with the sudden feeling that nothing, no words or photos or documentaries, would ever be able to recreate that stuffed space.  At the end of the day, we will be exactly that: a giggling ring of faces pressed together inside our container, moving along a dirt road towards something, out into a world which sees us as if from above, tiny on the crumpled earth.  The instant reels in my mind from its birds eye view, and I look from the inside out, where we are now, and fall on the moment with a surrendering crush of love.

Because the outside is moving, moving, always crawling along the road, but the inside—the inside is still, aside from the bouncing.  With the windows covered we couldn’t see the road going by, or the place we’d come from, or where we were headed.  And when I considered that we would eventually arrive, and get out, and be outside too, I felt the weight of a universe crammed into a milk truck.  This is our now: the gravity of all the past and future collapsed into a present that will pass and forever be gone.  It seems almost impossible, amazing, to be here now.  In a milk truck, with these kids.

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Lookout point (and clouds!)

Help from Elves

A flat rock about the size of a medium pizza, I figured, would work nicely.  I arrived at Sada Shiva half an hour early carrying my stone.

Last week, we installed a water hose that is propped up on a stick where the schoolyard drops off and slopes downhill.  It’s a great setup, except that in order to use the waterspout, you have to stand on the hill, which is gradually eroding under the constant stream of water splashing out of the pipe.  I had decided to improve things by wedging a rock into the hill, so that at least one small pair of feet could find purchase on the muddy slope.

Setting my bag down outside class three, I climbed over the edge of the yard and scooted down to where I could crouch below the water spout.  Using another rock, I began chipping away at the hill.  It was peaceful in the deserted yard.

“MISS!”

I looked up to see Sunil and Hari looking down at me.

“ARE YOU BUILDING A WATER TAP?”  They always talk in capital letters.

“Yes,” I said, although it seemed generous of the boys to elevate my stone to a “tap.”  Without further discussion, Sunil and Hari disappeared.  I began chipping again.

“MISS!!”

Overhead, Sunil and Hari were leaning over the edge of the yard, holding two wide, flat rocks.

“MISS!!!”  Krishna came galloping up behind them with a third rock.

I looked down at the small stone I was using to whittle away an indent in the hill.  Things were not going according to plan.  When I looked up all three boys had left their three stones and gone off again.

“MISS!!!!” Madu and Ganga arrived. More rocks.

Five minutes later, students were coming out of the woods, like elves, by the dozens.  Their stones piled up at the edge of the yard.  I was impeached, moved aside, and replaced by Ganga and Madu, who began wedging the stones into the hillside where I had been standing.  Rita-Madam arrived and squatted at the top of the slope, looking down at us.  Her ponytail rolled around to the front of her shoulder.

Thik, thik,” she murmured.  Good, good.

More rocks marched out of the woods.  Ganga and Madu shouted up to Hari, who passed them down.  It was not eight minutes before the students had built a neat ledge where the water splatted onto a flat rock, sending up fine celebratory drops that leapt into the grass.  Just to show off, they’d created a few steps leading down to the tap from the yard.  There were still five minutes to spare before morning line.

That, I thought, is what I meant.

Thik, thik,” Rita Madam said.

We climbed back up to the yard and they scrambled into place for morning exercises.  Govinda arrived and initiated the daily yard routine.  I went into the office, where everybody had taken up their normal posts: by the table, with the comic book, quietly off to the side.  Rita Madam rang the bell, and the day began.

–  –  –

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Pictures of Schools

all 710I had heard that there was a small school in the woods, facing south, far below the road that cut through Kaskikot along the mountain ridge.  On a late fall morning in 2002 I went looking for it.

I followed a descending path of broad stones as far as the village mill, and from there I turned onto a winding footpath that halted and dropped and navigated roots in the ground and in some places seemed to disappear entirely.  Soon I heard no sounds except the whir of the trees and the suggestive rustle of an occasional monkey in the tall grass.  I passed a spring and a temple.  I came around a bend.  And then, demurely, as if waiting for a visitor, a stone wall appeared in a clearing up ahead.

I approached the building and emerged from the hushed woods into its open yard, a bald mound of dry dirt looking out over forests and terraced fields.  The view extended all the way down to the valley floor, but the school ground still felt hidden among the trees.  There were two piled stone buildings with wooden shutters and doors, most of which were missing panels, the gaps blocky and conspicuous like missing teeth in the open-jawed windows.  I peeked in to some of the classrooms and saw benches sitting mid-wobble on the dirt floor, facing blackboards whose still-fading scribbles bespoke prior lessons.  These objects regarded each other diplomatically, as if ready for anything but expecting nothing soon.

When I’d left the United States, I hadn’t decided where I was going to end up.  China was a leading Sada Shiva (Class 3?) - Version 3contender.  I was offered a position in a school with 2000 students. My mother didn’t want me to go to Nepal—there was an insurgency happening.  I didn’t know anything about any of these places.  I didn’t speak Chinese, for example.  I spoke French.  I was a terrible candidate to do any reasoning on the topic.  One day, in Bhutan, I was sitting still doing nothing except worrying about where I was going next, when, with as little ceremony as a tenant entering his flat, a picture of a small classroom floated in to my mind and landed there.

To this day I can’t explain why, but I knew that classroom was in Nepal.  I was going to Nepal.

I wound my way back through the forest, past the spring and the temple and the mill, and up a different set of ascending broad stones, I emerged again onto the wide bus road along the ridge.  Directly across from me a man was sitting in front of his house on a low wall.  He was wearing simple brown pants and a V-neck sweater over a long sleeved shirt, and chatting with a round-bellied man dressed in the clothing of a Brahmin priest.

The two men called me over and asked when I had arrived in Kaskikot and what I would be doing there.  I told them I had just been to a small school in the woods, whose name I had forgotten, but where I was hoping to teach.  As it turned out, both of these men were teachers at that school, which was called Sada Shiva Primary.

The man in the V-neck sweater introduced himself as Govinda Prasad Paudel, the English teacher.  For the next two and a half months Govinda and I walked the wooded path back from school together every day.  During that time our friendship was formed, and instead of calling each other by name, we began to follow the Nepali tradition of addressing one another by a familial relation.  I called him daai, or “older brother,” and he called me bahini.

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