Normally when I leave Nepal, there is an extended process of departure – physical, psychological, emotional. But after being here for most of the last six months, minus six weeks in the middle, I ended up leaving with no procedure at all.
Actually I should amend that a little, since the morning of my flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu, I badgered this hairdresser lady – a friend of a friend – into showing up at 5:30am in her salon to straighten my hair for three and a half hours. That’s right! For two months I’ve been hauling around the hills of Nepal in the hot sun in my flip flops, renting tractors and sleeping under tarps and tin, carrying gurneys of rock with old ladies and filling up rice sacks with dirt to build an earth-bag house, sitting in hot stuffy buses for 5 hours and getting stuck in the mud and walking the last hour in the rain…and the one thing I HAD to do before I suddenly left Nepal to fly home for a funeral was get my hair permanently straightened. Why, you want to know? Because in the U.S. it costs $250 and in Nepal it costs $20. A deal is a deal. And besides, there’s nothing like a good hair day to lift a girl’s spirits.
So in the middle of everything – the whirlwind of our new office setup, the excel sheet full of names and bundles of tin and numbers of people, the scheduling of a planning workshop for our staff, setting up a new financial system – I dropped it all for my last three hours in town and had my hair straightened at 5:30 am. Then I said goodbye to Aidan and Pascal on their way to school, and then to Didi and Bhinaju, who took me to the airport. I didn’t get to say bye to the kids at the children’s home so I bought them some treats and told Ranjita to say how sorry I was I’d missed them, but I’ll be back in 6 months. I’d said goodbye to Aamaa and Hadjur Aama the night before, in Kaski.
And the next thing I knew, I was flying back to Kathmandu, in that reverse warp that happens when I leave Nepal. Except about six times faster. Normally on my way out I have a few days in Kathmandu and they are mostly filled with meetings. This time I had just a few hours between my flight from Pokhara and my flight home.
Everything looks different in Kathmandu than it did when I arrived on May 13, less than 48 hours after the second earthquake (remember the second earthquake???), when the city was filled with bright blue and orange tents clustered at intersections, and all the people were quivering like leaves, waiting for another hit. Things seem to have settled in to a process that is serving as the new norm. And the truth is that if you landed here now, from anywhere, you’d be amazed to find that the apocalyptic situation that’s on the TV is not how things look. That’s because the collapsed buildings that the photographers zoomed in on aren’t the whole story. In fact, they were the tremor after the earthquake of poverty and poor governance, which is too chronic and undramatic to capture our attention, but remains most of the problem.
But the real difference is me.
When I arrived here two months ago, this situation felt vast and unknowable and as tragic as my imagination could make it. Now I can locate myself within it. Our piece, which will ultimately total around 150 homes and piles of stories, was small but meaningful. I have a sense of how people are moving forward with their lives one step at a time (although I should add that during these months, I met only one family that had lost people in the earthquake). Which is not to trivialize what’s been destroyed – only to say that, in the beginning, when everything collapses, it’s impossible to imagine a different future. All the unseen things are terrible and insurmountable in your mind’s eye, and you can’t conceive of the steps between here and there. I couldn’t even visualize “there.” Now I feel like can at least be at peace with a changing target, because that shifty feeling of uncertainty and failure is a known thing, not a shadow. And so far, we’ve done our part despite it.
My last few hours in Nepal were perfect. I met up with two friends from the U.S., both doing doctoral work in Nepal, both fluent in Nepali. We walked down to Patan Durbar Square, my favorite section of old city, known not only for its temples but also its artisans and craftsmen. Patan is one of the areas that was featured heavily in the days after the earthquake, when the only photos of villages were from the air.
On this last afternoon, the rains held off, making way for a cool golden evening, the light waving in the folds of cloth that ripple along the edges of the temples. We sat high up on the foundation of what used to be a temple, observing the courtyards that were filled with people eating ice cream, buying balloons, whispering on dates, playing. Between the scaffolding that surrounds the damaged buildings, people were busy living in the very space that, I know full well, much of the world sees in its own mind as a pile of dust and despair.
My thoughts drifted to conversations that Anne and I have had about the beauty and strangeness of Pashupathi Temple, Nepal’s holiest cremation site, where passers-by sit across the river and watch pyres burn during the day and night. Sometimes there are kids playing soccer, or folks out enjoying the sun or the beauty of this thousands-year-old place of pilgrimage. What’s always amazed us about this is that people can play soccer near death. Or go on dates near death. Or just gaze, for no reason at all, at death.
Of course, it’s there anyway, even if you’re not looking at it. And once you get used to the idea that you do not have to avert your gaze from a pyre, or from a mother wailing over a pyre, everything else looks different too. Suddenly that moment belongs, in some way, to everyone.
There is no caution tape around Patan Durbar Square, or even around the base of this foundation that used to have a temple on it. The reconstruction is public and unbashful, but it’s also not desperate. In a courtyard tucked away to the left, bricks are patiently stacked up and a young couple is talking furtively under a tree.
But who would think to take their picture for the news?
I think maybe, in the sterilized West, it is hard to believe in loss unless it looks like something we wouldn’t feel right resting our gaze upon in person. We see the spectacle and only the spectacle, because cracks don’t mean much, but the un-witnessable speaks to our understanding of destruction, and insulates it from the safe and organized world we know. But that’s impossible in this part of the world. Things are lost so often, so publicly, and with so little fanfare. All the falling and building is mixed up together with the balloons and scaffolding; the moment belongs to everyone. So it is still okay to play.
We sat for two hours with all the other people doing normal things on the bald foundation of this temple, looking out over the square, talking in the warm breeze, and watching the balloons and ice cream and couples and pilgrims swirling around these fractured structures, which are on to the next chapter of their lives with minimal complaint or ceremony.
When I boarded the plane to come home, my pants still had thorns in them from Tripureswor, Ward #6. These feisty little guys are so hard to get out you have to either pluck them one by one, or have a couple of ladies grooming them off you with a sickle like a baby chimpanzee. I’ve been groomed a few times in the course of these last weeks, but I just kept walking through the thorns and re-collecting them, and now I’m taking them back to America.
Hey, my hair looked good.
. . .