IMG_4085My layover in Dubai was eight hours.  Long enough to trek back and forth many times along the glaring fluorescent strip of duty free shops betwen terminals one and two.  It was daytime in Dubai, but for me it was the no-time that happens during a trip from one hemisphere to another.

I wandered in to one of the bathrooms and soon found myself looking for an earring that had dropped.  A young employee who’d been sitting idly when I walked in came over to help me.  As I was shuffling through my belongings she noticed a coin.

“This is from Nepal,” she said.  “Have you been?”

Yes, I said, I’d been.  We got to talking in Nepali right away.  I wasn’t surprised to find out
that Mandira is 26 years old with a 1-year old baby she left in Nepal with her in-laws and her husband, who is also waiting for a visa to travel abroad.  When I asked what she’d paid a manpower company to broker her position in the Dubai Airport bathroom, I already knew roughly what the answer would be: about 10,000 dinars.  Her salary: 900 dinars per month.  It would take her a year to pay off her loan to the company before she started earning anything to send back to her family. It will be a few more years more before she can afford the 3.5 hour flight home to see her then four-year-old child.

It’s a typical story but it’s still amazing to see it in action without having to try. This kind of position has become so preferable to looking for local employment in Nepal that I don’t even have to leave the duty free section of the airport to find Mandira.

The flight from Dubai to Kathmandu is a special kind of cultural experience.  You step out of a hip multinational terminal in to a waiting area where almost everybody who isn’t a white person wearing hiking boots and tie-dye is a Nepali person returning home from a labor contract.  For many it is the second flight of their entire lives.  A large percentage of passengers have none of the practiced movement that comes with routine air travel.  There’s a lot of helping each other find seats, opening and closing latches to see what they do, gazing out the window at baggage trucks, calling to one another across the rows to look at this or that.  It’s about as close as you can get to walking out of an airport and getting on a city bus in Kathmandu that launches in to the air.

On the plane I immediately leaned against the window and tried to sleep.  I’d been traveling for 20 hours.  The young man next to me was quiet and stared straight ahead, and I assumed that he, too, was an amateur passenger just surviving the journey.  After an hour of half-sleeping, I sat up, and as I jostled my position, we exchanged a few words.

“My father just died,” he said.

I drew in my breath.  “I’m so sorry,” I said.

“I came straight from duty.  I don’t have a bag with me or anything.  I came straight to the airport and bought a ticket.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“He was in the U.K.  I work at a hotel in Dubai.  My family just got back to Nepal with his body.  After we land I have to take a 10 hour bus ride home, because they are waiting for me to start the rites.”  He stared ahead. “I usually talk to him quite often, but we hadn’t talked in about three days.  I don’t know why.”

The snack cart came along.

“Can I get you something?” he asked.  I declined, but he asked a few more times, and I declined again.  He bought a sandwich for himself. He asked the boy in the aisle seat – who didn’t look any older than 18 – what he wanted.

“Many of the new ones are scared,” he explained softly.  “So we help them out.”  He bought the boy a cup of tea.  “Are you sure you don’t want anything?”

“I’m really okay,” I said.

He opened and closed his sandwich.  “I’m not supposed to be eating this food,” he said.  “We have traditions – it’s called kriya.

I know about this of course.  It’s not just the sandwich.  The death of this young man’s father should have immediately been followed by 13 days of eating food cooked as part of a series of rituals, without salt, and by wearing only white clothes with no seams, and by sleeping on the ground, and by drinking special water, and by not touching any other people, and by daily pujas and bathing. He should have shaved his head.  But he was crammed next to me on a floating bus.

He took a bite of the sandwich.  “I haven’t had anything to eat or drink since yesterday,” he said.  “Actually, I haven’t talked to anyone.  Now I’m talking to you.”

“I can’t imagine how hard it must be in this strange situation,” I offered.  “It will be good to be in the right place with your family where you can do…all the things.”

“Are you sure you don’t want any of this sandwich?”

“I’m sure.  Thank you.”

“I usually talk to him often.  I don’t know why we hadn’t talked the last few days,” he repeated.

He gazed over the sandwich again to the back of the next seat.  “There’s no point in being sad now.”  He ate a chip.  “I can’t think of what to do.”  He offered me more of the sandwich.

I asked after the details of how he’d get from the airport to a friend’s house to the bus to his house.  It seemed like the only relevant thing to discuss.  Everything else was either too small or too big.

“So you will be with your mother and siblings by morning,” I said. I told myself that things would make more sense then. I wanted to believe that it would be better when he knew what to do.

“Yes.”  He gave the rest of his sandwich to the trash pick-up.  “But when I get there, you know…it will be real.”



Learning by Cucumber


It had been a long day for both of us: me at school, Aamaa cutting grass for the buffalo all afternoon in the heat. We convened in the kitchen as the sun was going down. Both of us were too tired to bother with rice, so Aamaa began putting wheat rotis in a pan for us to eat for dinner with some iskus left over from this morning. Iskus is my favorite vegetable, a slightly sweet gourd that’s plentiful at the end of summer. I was just about to bite in to a little scoop of it I had carefully placed on a nice hot roti, when shouting began outside.

So listen, my language skills are pretty good for someone who’s lived in Nepal for a total of a few months, but at the end of the day, I can no more decode haphazard shouting outside the door than I can follow a parliamentary debate. And since I can’t understand the words, it took me longer to notice the sound at all…and to be honest, I was really focused on my roti and my little pile of vegetables. So Aamaa was the first to jump up and run outside, leaving me in a momentary cognitive stall-out after a wearying day of trying to think in another language.

What about my roti? I thought, looking longingly at the little pile of carefully placed iskus. And then I snapped alive to the world outside, where my attention fully redirected to the ruckus coming through the door. Not wanting to miss any action, I put my down roti untouched, leapt up, and followed Aamaa outside.

It was dark and Aamaa had already taken off with the light. Our mountain alcove was thick with nighttime, but shouting was coming from all around, and leaping from squares of yellow light and vaulting off the terraces and bouncing maniacally about in the huge darkness.

I scrambled half-blind over the path from our house to the edge of the terrace, which drops off to the next field below. There, Aamaa stood at attention on the terrace edge, listening to the tempest of voices. Without warning, she let go an unbridled screech and submitted her own opinion to the fray.

There were no further clues as to what anyone was yelling about. I wanted to ask, but I was afraid to interrupt the flow.

Abruptly, Aamaa took off again. Now to the left, and down over the terrace, past where the buffalo stay in the winter; a patch of field that now, in late summer, is a wet leafy carpet. The Ritz Carleton for leeches. Determined to be a full participant, I ran after her, jumping over the terrace ledge, and plunging heedlessly through the soft plants to where she was standing with a flashlight, now yelling again. Two small girls had appeared out of literally nowhere; and logically, given the leech situation, they stayed perched on the ledge over my head.

“WHAT HAPPENED?” I asked Aamaa breathlessly, my feet absorbing moisture from the buzzing ground. I was rewarded with more incomprehensible shouting coming from everywhere.

Finally, without averting her gaze from the inscrutable darkness, Aamaa said something about a cucumber, which I couldn’t quite catch, except for “cucumber.” And then she was promptly too distracted to tell me any more.

I thought about the leeches. Fine. I returned to the base of the ledge, resolved to climb back up. While doing so, my sandal fell off. The two mystery girls wanted to to help me up, but on principle I fixed my sandal and got myself up the ledge. Still utterly baffled, I returned to our house with the two girls, and a minute later, Aamaa followed. The yelling wafted along behind us, still unattached to any source or story.

The girls had brought us what I now know was belaunti, a cheese-like, crumbly, slightly sweet milk product that comes from a buffalo that has just calved. It is packed with both nutrition and luck; birth, after all, is a dangerous and miraculous thing, and belaunti is treated with the respect any auspicious gift of the universe is due. But in that moment, all I knew was that we’d gone from the inexplicable cucumber crisis outside to an equally illogical and randomly-timed cottage cheese situation inside, which unfolded as follows: Aamaa put a bit on her forehead and then started eating it. Then she asked if I wanted some, so I said yes, and I was about to eat it when she told me to put some on my head first.

Alas, I’d started out tired, and my mental state was only becoming more fragile as the number of things that made no sense accumulated.

Just as I was trying to work out why the two mysterious girls had brought over cottage cheese while people were shouting about the cucumber, and why we had interrupted that serious event to put the cheese on our foreheads, Aamaa offered the girls some roti. I’d nearly forgotten about my once-important roti. And I forgot again, because in the half second it took the girls to refuse the roti, Aamaa had gone back outside to shout about the cucumber.

Not to be outwitted, I dashed back in to our yard, where now I found our neighbor Saano Didi and her three boys. They were standing as if squinting with their bodies, leaning slightly forward in to the darkness, watching the invisible shouting. I pleaded with Saano Didi to explain what in God’s name was going on. I just wanted to be in on the cucumber issue. I just wanted to play with everyone.

What followed was an extended five-way exchange that involved a fantastic amount of explaining and re-explaining, handwaving, pointing, and acting, in which I tried to piece together the story of the cucumber emergency based on comprehension of only one out of every fifteen words. At first I believed that somehow a cucumber plant had fallen over–I was not focused right then on the fact that our cucumber plant is most decidedly a vine–and I became very worried that somebody had been injured by a falling cucumber tree. But Saano Didi and her boys kept mentioning boys and girls; apparently the cucumber tree had fallen when too many boys and girls were climbing it, and a mystery man appeared–wait, no, the cucumbers were stolen! The tree fell over and the boys and girls were stealing all the cucumbers from it! Oh–no–a man came and stole all the cucumbers–but not from a tree, he went around to people’s homes and asked for cucumbers, and didn’t tell anyone else that he was exploiting cucumber generosity from them all–no, he didn’t ask, the man was just stealing cucumbers from each person’s house! And then he was CAUGHT! Ah, this was beginning to make sense–but wait, how did the man go running from house to house with a growing collection of cucumbers? Hold on, he was eating them as he collected them.

Yes, this surely explained the excitement! A man had been caught–well, seen, but escaped–while sneaking from house to house eating cucumbers. And now he had got away, despite the dazzling mountain-sized net of female screeching through which nobody could possibly run freely and un-apprehended, even without an untold number of cucumbers to carry.

Saano Didi invited me over to her house. Aamaa was clearly indisposed with the cucumber crime, so I wasn’t to get any further intel any time soon, and I’d forgotten about my roti, so I went and sat by the fire in Saano Didi’s house and drank some hot buffalo milk. Then she produced a cucumber.

Which turned out to be the most enormous vegetable I’d ever laid eyes on. It could easily have crushed a cricket bat. It was of a stature that unequivocally qualified its seeds to be harvested for next year’s cucumber crop. This new evidence threw the cucumber fraud situation in to chaos all over again. It was hopeless. I would never solve it. Saano Didi cut the Gozillacumber in to massive, dripping hunks of flesh, and we sat slurping, crunching and dripping in cucumber juice, while somewhere unknown, some cucumber lover was apparently reclined in the dark recesses of his home, totally immobile.


Aamaa with a Godzillacumber