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.


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??”


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.


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.


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.


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.

–  –  –




For some time now, Govinda has been asking me to join him on a trip to Begnas to meet his in-laws. We began planning our visit a few days ago. Govinda’s father in law, who he calls Bua, will be alone for a few days while other members of the family are traveling, so it was a good time for us to arrange a visit to keep him company.

There was some thought that we would travel with Guru sir, who is searching for a match for his daughter. This has raised for me many questions about match-matching procedures. Does one stand in the road and stop the first reasonably marriageable looking male? Go from house to house soliciting bachelors? Distribute letters of inquiry? And why travel all the way to Begnas for this undertaking, twenty kilometers east of Kaskikot? 

I asked around a bit. My investigation was admittedly hindered by a very limited cache of Nepali words related to arranged marriage, but I deduced that Guru sir’s first visit to Begnas was for the purpose of meeting his relatives to discuss the search. So that solved the geographic question, though as far as I could tell, it simply meant Guru sir’s relatives would be standing in the road picking up single men. You can see why I was quite looking forward to whatever was going to happen during our visit to Begnas with Guru sir. But at the last minute it turned out that Guru sir’s rice harvest bonanza would be the same day we had planned our outing, and he would not be able to join us. So I’m afraid that at this time I can’t offer any resolution on the question of Guru sir’s daughter’s marriage arrangement. 

Early in the morning, Govinda and I set off for Begnas on our own. We arrived in Pokhara mid-morning and stopped in to see the artist who is helping us with our school mural, and I paid him. We discussed the idea of having him come to Sada Shiva to give a talk about his profession, as part of the series of visits I’m working on for the kids to learn about topics of interest like how libraries work and what pilots do and how photos are made.

At the bus depot in Prithvi Chowk, where dozens of buses paw sullenly at the pavement and pant in the diesel-filled hot air, we boarded another bus to Begnas. It set off laboriously down the highway, and I felt sleepy in the warm, acrid air inside the bus. Govinda bought some peanuts, and we ate them together in companionable silence, throwing the shells out the window, as storefronts sped by and blended together in a haze of mid-day life: pencils, apples, kilos of sugar, shoes, sticky cartons of fruit juice, pencils, sugar, apples, shoes. Finally the highway dead-ended in another small depot, where a dirt road wandered away from a collection of food stalls and small shops. It disappeared gently up into the hills. We followed it and began a long, rather hot walk to Bua’s house. 

The walk was pleasant, even though I still felt lethargic from the unyielding sun. Govinda’s uneven, methodical gait kept time, spurring us on at a steady and unchangeable pace. Begnas is warmer than Kaskikot, and we passed mango and banana and guava trees; it is currently orange season, and everywhere we could see ripening fruit that will soon find its way back to the roadside stalls and slung baskets and curbside mats heaped with fruit that we passed on the journey in. We stopped at a tea shop for peas and hard boiled eggs, and I drank a moderately cold coke out of a glass bottle, which left me feeling reinvigorated. We bought some hard candy and crackers to gift to the family. When we set off again, a hush had set over the terraces and orange trees, and the city felt far away. Finally, as we approached Bua’s house, I could see Begnas Lake to the west and Rupa Lake further east. Govinda removed his hat, and fanned himself briefly in the yard.

No sooner had we arrived than we were gathered around a plate of oranges with Bua. Govinda’s father in law was a slender, wiry man with a square jaw and lined, approachable face. He had a boyish way of moving that reminded me of my monkey-like fifth graders. Bua had work to do around the house, so even though Guru sir wasn’t there to answer my questions, Govinda and I sat outside talking about marriage practices until the sun dropped below the hills and it got cold.

We went back into the house where Bua was just starting to cook dinner. The next two hours were the longest rice-preparation process I’d ever watched on a hungry stomach. We did have an interlude of tea and biscuits, but I’ve become used to watching rice-cooking as a well-rehearsed, mindless affair, something that occurs very efficiently in the cramped spaces between other work. But Bua cooked very slowly: first one item, then the next, often pausing to talk as he cut vegetables or mashed spices. He was at once nimble, even lively, and unmistakably weary. It was as if he had to keep re-convincing himself that quelling his hunger was worth all the effort, and yet in the absence of dinner, I felt he would have been quite content to simply sit and gaze at the darkening hills with us.


While Bua cooked, Govinda and I sat at a table, I with my journal resting under my hands. But I didn’t do much writing because Bua began to ask me a series of questions about America. 

“Nani,” he said, addressing me as one does a grandchild, “I hear they have very tall buildings in your country. Very very tall. Is that true?”

“Well, in some places they do.”

“And I hear there are those things that can take you up in the building,” he added, raising his hands.

“Yes,” I replied, “they’re called elevators.”

“Nani, in your country, how do people make money?”

“Nani, in your country, are clothes made to be durable for a long time?”

Between questions, Bua moved around the cooking fire cutting vegetables with his sickle. He seemed a little sad, but without a trace of bitterness, and there was an authenticity about Bua that put me at ease. I don’t think I’d ever met someone who could be genuine and restless at the same time like Bua was when he asked me about worlds I have seen. As the evening wore on, we developed an uncomplicated rapport, Bua taking an interest in this and that, and me content to feel like the kind of guest that he enjoyed: a participator with no agenda. It was a relief not to be waited on in awkward silence, and to have the opportunity for manageable dialogue that left space for the clumsy maneuvering of language-learning. 

As Bua picked up a korela vegetable and pulled his sickle down the middle of its alligator-like lumpy green skin, Govinda rose to go outside. I gazed quietly at Bua in the orange glow of the cooking fire, waiting for the next topic of discussion. 

“I’m going to die here,” he said matter of factly. He lifted his long hand and indicated the house. 

I didn’t have a good answer, because he’s probably right. So I just waited while he picked up my journal and gazed at its pages and pages of tiny writing.

“You will do your writing, see our country, and go back to America,” he sighed. The ink-filled pages suddenly seemed a pathetic sum of Bua’s entire world. “Me…” he waved again at the dim narrow walls, “I will die here.”

Then he shook his head, and picked up his sickle again.

“Nani,” he said amicably. “In your country, what are houses made from?”






It’s Thanksgiving, and I had high hopes that the other teachers would participate in my holiday lesson. I arrived at school to find Govinda, Laximi, Guru sir, and Rita Madam already in the office, each at their usual stations. They seemed reasonably enthusiastic as I described Thanksgiving and my plans for class. Encouraged, I sorted out a few last vocabulary words and assigned various roles to everyone else. Even though my lesson wasn’t usually until recess, we decided to start Thanksgiving early because nobody was teaching their regular classes anyway and the kids were all running about.

I walked across the yard and burst into the classroom, declaring joyously that today is an American festival. Govinda and I wrote “Thanksgiving” in big letters in English and Nepali on the board, and below that, “I am grateful for____” in Nepali.  Then I explained the purpose and practice of Thanksgiving: how we gather with family and friends and think about the things we are thankful for in our lives.  I described a turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. I briefly re-enacted the story of the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock, albeit in a simplistic way that swerved around colonization and focused instead on legendry itself.  The usually chattery room of lit faces quieted and watched me closely, with that deliciously infuriating mix of doubt, amusement, and insatiable interest which has driven me to madness a million times over. 

When I finished explaining Thanksgiving in America, I declared that today we would have Thanksgiving in Nepal.  First, I asked, what should we eat?  

I got a lot of blank stares.  

Listen, it’s important that there’s a lot of eating, I insisted. It’s Thanksgiving.

“…Rice?” someone finally ventured.  

“Rice!”  I agreed enthusiastically.  Govinda wrote it on the board.  The answers began to pour in.




“Excellent idea. But what kind of roti?” I asked.

They went for them all. “Fried roti!  Rice roti!  Millet roti!”

Soon the kids were shouting out every food they could think of too fast for Govinda to write them down.  “Rice Pudding!  Noodles!  Curd!”  The bare room clamoring with noise.  For encouragement, I swayed in anticipation of our upcoming feast.

When the menu was complete, and I passed out notecards so everyone could write what they were thankful for.  This took quite a while and, sadly, ended up being the least successful part of our Thanksgiving.  They didn’t understand it.  Maybe being thankful for certain things implies being less grateful for other ones, which upon reflection is something of an indulgence.

Finally all the kids stood up and we rearranged the benches into a makeshift table with everyone sitting along the sides. I was surprised at how satisfied I felt by the result.  It looked less like class and more like Thanksgiving, all these small bodies crammed in around our long table.  The stone walls became our castle and the dirt floor quieted down to observe with us.

Guru-Sir was in charge of the legend.  I don’t know what it was because he told it in Nepali, but all the kids listened with rapt attention to some story about the history of Nepal and Kaskikot.  Then we gave thanks—and while this was not, as I said, entirely satisfactory, most were thankful that Laura-Miss had come from America, so I forgave them for copying each other.

At last, it was time to eat.  

Leaning forward from my seat on the bench, I reached for an invisible bowl in the center of our improvised table.  I heaped a spoonful of air-rice on to my imaginary plate, piled a few kinds of roti next to it, and started eating.  Everyone blinked at me.

“Aren’t you all going to eat?!” I said through a mouth full of fruit.  “There’s a lot of food here.” I indicated our scribbled list on the blackboard.  

There was a bit more silence while I stuffed myself hopefully.

“THIS IS AN ORANGE!” Krishna shouted. (Krishna is incapable of speaking to me without shouting.)

“Oh!  Give me one!” I cried, cramming it into my face.  Soon I had kids shoving food at me from every direction. I did my best to add each offering to my plate, but the treats were coming at me so fast that I began to slouch, holding my stomach.  I took a bookbag and shoved it under my shirt, eliciting a satisfying explosion of laughter.  Then I couldn’t convince them I was full.  So I tried swaying, then sleeping, and then fainting, but I was still pressed to put some rice pudding in my pocket for later.  I finally had to stand up and say firmly, “Thanksgiving is over!  Go outside and play.”

*Sada Shiva Classroom


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.