Sindure Signs

 

Sindure village is one of the old feudal capitals of Nepal, where a king once ruled over Lamjung district before unification in the mid 1700s. The drive from Pokhara takes about 6-7 hours…the last three are very bouncy.

IMG_3007Our day began in a downpour at 6:30am, with the usual wakeup activity: loading a dental chair on to the top of a Landcruiser. We packed in various boxes of medicines, adjustable stools, plastic goggles, and this fancy Hello Kitty timer. Because Virex disinfecting soak is 20 minutes, exactly, and one must have a proper timer.

Also, we had an extra passenger and her little boy who were headed home to their village. They set up in the front seat, and the little boy kept arranging himself with his knees splayed out and the bottoms of his feet together, so Neha quickly named him Laughing Buddha. Mean time, we squashed ourselves in the back of the cruiser and set off in the rain, picking up our senior technician Megnath on the way. And then we were off to our first ever clinic opening in the district of Lamjung.

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We settled in and the cruiser bounced joyously along. It was strange to be headed off to Lamjung again, where we spent many long hot days after the earthquake at this time last year. I was apprehensive about how our clinic setup would go, if the whether would clear, if the road would be passable, if a lot of things. And it was Sunday the 26th, exactly one year after my beloved friend Mary passed away on another rainy and pregnant day last summer. I stared out at the passing rain and fog, thinking about each moment I’d spent on this morning last June, checking my phone for updates from the other side of the world, stunned and devastated by a sudden change of events.

Then again, the bracing car ride left minimal opportunity for rumination. A few hours in, we stopped for tea, and shortly afterwards, Laughing Buddha barfed all over Gaurab in the front seat.

Well, the best part is yet to come.

We arrived at the Health Post in Sindure at 2pm to find that, while work had been done on the clinic room, such as making sure it had a roof over the entryway, the room itself was filthy. To give you a frame of reference, here are pictures from main room of the Health Post, which sees patients regularly to distribute medicine and make referrals. Unlike our dental clinic, the Health Post is not performing surgical-type procedures—nevertheless, setting up a dental clinic with rigorous infection control is, well, basically up to us.

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Still, there’s a reason we rely on rooms provided by the community instead of building ourselves new facilities. I’ve seen how that can be the difference between imposing new resources haphazardly, and mobilizing existing capacities to raise things to the next level first.  Then it’s a good time to push the boundary, which in this case as in many others, has not yet been approached. After all, with some sweeping and a few buckets of water and phenol, our dreary clinic room started looking a lot better.  There’s no water source at this Health Post, so Dilmaya, Neha, and the Health Post Assistant good-naturedly hauled buckets of water from a “nearby” house at least a quarter mile away.

A few hours of washing, drying, and setup, and things are improving already. This room will need a nice bright coat of paint on its stained walls – we provide the paint, the team does the labor – but for now, here is JOHC Technician Jagat Dura in his new office!  And we’re not even at the best part yet.


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During our pre-opening day, a veteran technician and our medical field officer go over everything from top to bottom with the new technician (who’s already had weeks of training before this) and clinic assistant.  It was awesome watching Megnath Adhikari, who started with us in 2013 and now runs the Puranchaur clinic, reviewing with the new clinic team everything from how to put the top on the autoclave to how to fill out the patient forms to when to change their gloves. Our infection control protocol, when followed, is stricter than that observed by many field teams and local hospitals. The new teams always look so new and wide-eyed that it throws me off every time. To be fair, imagine if you took a few weeks of training in dental medicine, and then, say, your congressman came in and asked you to pull their tooth out?!  But then, as the months go by, inevitably these green clinical teams turn in to people like Megnath, who started out with sagging jeans and a quizzical look, too. This growth in skill and confidence, which I’ve witnessed over and over, is one of the coolest things about this program. It inspires me to believe that this is a system that could be deployed widely by the government with the right investment in training and resources.

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Senior technician Megnath Adhikari reviewing use of the autoclave with the Sindure team

In the evening we stayed at the home of our technician, Jagat. His mother cooked heaps of food and poured us one cup of local moonshine after the next. I was so tired I kept falling asleep and had to get out of bed for each succeeding round of dinner.  And still…the best part is yet to come.

Sindure is a predominantly Gurung area with different traditions of respect than many of the other areas where we’ve worked. The local President had spent the evening with us, and after everyone was overfed, it was time to sit around and sing for a while. I’m not a very good traditional Nepali folk singer, but I’m a decent self-taught drummer and chime-player. So, having secured an empty plastic bottle and a set of tin cups, I am confident saying my role in this process was solid, although you can’t hear it in this video cause I was filming.

The next morning dawned in a downpour, which cleared as we made our way to the clinic for opening day. The clouds nestled down in to the hills like cotton and we climbed up over them. Sindure was too beautiful to leave out a scenic photo.

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In an opening ceremony, we were each given gifts, and I received the finest one, a magnificent Gurung-style ornament made by our technician’s grandmother. These shiny dangles are made from cracker and candy wrappers! I love this thing.

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The door to the clinic was officially opened by the Singing President, who had apparently recovered from last night’s revelry and lay down honorably as the first patient.  Jagat performed his inaugural checkup, supervisor standing by, with a crowd peering in the door and looking very enthusiastic about this whole thing.  Who knew dentistry could be this entertaining?!  And we’re still not at the best part yet.

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Now then…nothing like showing off your new filling!

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It is currently the busy rice planting season, which is about the worst time of year to open a dental clinic because everybody is in their fields. Nevertheless, we had a pretty solid attendance from a fleet of Female Community Health Volunteers (official women’s health workers trained by the government) and some other folks here and there.

We plucked various people off the road, such as one man walking by on his way to plant rice. All in all, the new clinic was inaugurated with about 25 patients, with Megnath carefully supervising the new team, and seeing that was especially gratifying.

As our day was coming to an end, I happened to look up at the sky. And for only the second time in my life – the first time being on the sacred day thirteen after Mary passed away – I saw the following sight:

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Look! I cried, look! Everyone turned their faces up and let out a collective breath of delight. I ran over to a clear patch of ground to try to get a picture, but my camera was having trouble focusing while pointed directly in to the sun.

“It looks just like a roti!” exclaimed the man who had stopped by on his way to plant rice.

Now then, my mind chirped, this must happen a lot. Weather patterns are repetitive; I mean, I know where to find all the rainbows in Kaskikot, and in what sort of light. It’s so predictable that I’ve usually climbed a hill and pointed my camera already by the time a rainbow is emerging. Still, I consigned, how lucky for me to receive this lovely gift today in a brand new place.

“Do you see this kind of rainbow often?” I casually asked the man who had stopped by on his way to plant rice. To confirm my suspicions.

“I see rainbows all the time,” he said, “bent sideways like this. But I’ve never seen this kind of round rainbow in my life!”

I clicked and clicked in to the sun, and the shutter went off only one time. Almost immediately, the clouds moved back in and the wonderful roti faded away.

Later that night, after a long, bouncy and exhausting ride home, back in bed in Pokhara, I lay in the dark and pulled the photo up on my phone. I turned it this way and that, looking for something. I kept thinking of Mary saying trying to show me the big hand in the sky, and how I couldn’t find a thing until much later. I zoomed the photo in and out and scoured for clues. Then, tired and lonely for her, I held the phone back and sighed. And there, right where I couldn’t miss it, was a perfect Buddha, the sun shining from its heart.

Once I saw it, I couldn’t not see it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As a little extra flourish, an unmistakable smiley face, etched off to the right hand side, grinned at me as if to say: how obvious do you want me to get, you little shit? I clicked my phone off and fell asleep with it lying near me on the bed.

Welcome to Sindure, world.

*

A Life of Love

A Life of Love

In the Clouds

Dear Mary,

First of all, don’t worry, this isn’t setting an annual precedent–it’s not like I’m going to write to you every single year on June 26th, which you would find dreadfully contrived. However, I have a few things to tell you about the past year, and I’m thinking about you today.

A year goes by so fast.

Remember those four college guys you told me I should totally convince my parents were okay to stay in my apartment while I was in Nepal last summer? That didn’t work out so great. They threw beer cans in my neighbor’s garden and now my neighbor won’t talk to me. In fact, my neighbor, who chain smokes cigars but used to bring me fresh vegetables from his garden, told me that if I put my recycling in the wrong bin, he’ll take it out and relocate my recycling to my porch. Still, no major damage inside the apartment, and I got a solid month’s rent, so on the whole, I’d say the renters were a win, for me if not my neighbor. You’ll definitely take my side on this one.

The little memory card from your service is on the bookshelf across from my desk. I flip it every few months between your photo on one side, and the picture of the cloud that looks like a hand holding the sun. One afternoon, when you were really exited that you’d taken that picture, we sat in your living room and you tried to show me how the cloud was shaped like a giant hand reaching down from the sky, but I couldn’t make it out. Right here, you said, this is the thumb, going along like this, and the other fingers go along like this. I squinted and turned the paper around and I couldn’t find the hand of God anywhere. You didn’t seem particularly amazed that I couldn’t see this image that was so obvious to you. Eventually, we moved on to something else. Now when I look at it each day I can’t see how I missed it. The hand of God is right there. I can’t not see it.

Just a few days just after I returned from Nepal last summer, I was driving to Wallingford and couldn’t believe you weren’t there.  I consoled myself by deciding we would build all the bamboo houses again.  That would fix things.  We’d hike for days in the hot sun, negotiate with tin vendors and take long bumpy tractor rides, surf waves of despair followed by hope followed by despair and hope, again. We’d be confused all over and learn it all over from the beginning. I’d hike up to that airy ridge in Lakure in the burning sun and drink knockoff Redbull, again. Yes. But when I got up the next day, nothing had changed. The bamboo houses were still standing, and you were still gone.

Often I think about all the people that have died. The list that has grown even this year, when I couldn’t call you. Fifty people were just gunned down at a club in Orlando. So many people die violently or young or right in the middle of dinner. You had a long life full of beautiful things, you were at peace with yourself and the world, you left a tapestry of all of us who love each other because of you and in your memory. I tell myself I should be grateful, and I am. But I miss you anyway.

You are still in the “favorites” in my phone because I can’t delete your name from the list. Once, I was getting in the car and without realizing it I tapped your name and dialed your phone. You picked up your voicemail and started talking to me right there in my car and scared the crap out of me.

VERY FUNNY, YOU TURKEY.

Also, listen, things have gotten really hectic in politics, and I think Bill and I should consider going out as a presidential ticket. I haven’t asked him yet but I think he’ll consider it.  We sometimes watch the debates together on the phone, the way you and I used to have wine dates in our kitchens when it had been too long since our last visit. While Bill and I watch the debates we text and afterwards we debrief till 12 or 1am and I explain all the reasons that I’m right and I represent the future. I am pretty sure that if we ran – of course we’d have to decide which of us was going to be the president – but anyway if we ran, I’m pretty sure we’d have much better ideas than a number of the people who have been running. We’d make you absolutely crazy and you’d roll your eyes over dinner.

Next year I start a field placement for social work school. I’m going to work with Cambodian refugees. This is something we should talk about for a long time. I know I’ll do my internship without you, but it just won’t be the same.

I never did the follow up talk I had planned in the library, and I never tried to get on Fox news again, after that adventure where you convinced me to call and get myself a TV interview about the earthquake in Nepal. I just couldn’t bear the thought of being back in the television studio where I texted you, and especially not the thought of standing before a crowd at that same podium in the library meeting room, looking at the door you sat behind. But strangely enough, I walk past the other side of that door every time I go in the library to get my parking ticket validated. I glance over at the spot where you and Bill sat listening to my talk, and then hustle past it.

Why do I feel better when I’m missing you the worst? I think you should have explained this to me before you left.  The absence is in the shape of you, right where you fit here. I think more people should be made aware of this. It’s a real fucker, as you’d say. You wouldn’t say “fucker” though. You’d make the “f” with your teeth and squish up your nose and then jab the air with your pointer finger, and then slide your gaze sideways from the imaginary fucker back to me. Like this thing about this fucker is slightly classified information that I get to know because I’m with you.

The clock would gong in the living room, and we’d say, it is getting so late!

Also, can something be slightly classified? Isn’t it all or nothing?

Isn’t it all or nothing? 

I’m going to declassify everything. But there are just so many things we didn’t get to.

I think you would approve of how I’ve grown this year. We don’t have a lot of time to spend being afraid or making ourselves small. My life is very blessed with family and friends and challenges of merit. After our visit to Tripureswor Ward #6 last summer, just days after you died, I came home early for your memorial service, but my friend Anne stayed behind. She and Saila dai did a puja for you in his magnificent temple garden. Anne saved prasad for me, a tiny branch with two tear-shaped leaves. She mailed this delicate offering to me months later from Moorehead, Minnesota. Isn’t it an amazing thing to have friends like that? The branch sits on my mantle next to the hand of God. It connects me to you, and Anne, and Saila dai, and those hot and trying weeks after the earthquake, to the bamboo houses, which I can’t trade for you, which is not a deal you’d take anyway.

Well…maybe you’d consider it.  You had a pretty good time here I think you’d take another day.

You will always be one of my favorites. Call, ok?

I love you kid,

Laura

p.s. me trying to get you to sing “imagine that” while listening to it through headphones…first the song, in case you need to reference the lyrics up there

..and this, which I can’t listen to without laughing

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And one from Nepal I think you’ll like…

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Moving Still

 

An exciting week of office work led up to this year’s Maghe Sakranti, which always seems to coincide with some travel experience, astrological event or, in this case, Aidan’s 8th birthday, IMG_3858which, if you think about it, is the same thing.

The main topic of my conversation with Aidan and Pascal since I arrived two weeks ago has been black forest cake. Birthday cake came in vogue in Nepal about five or six years ago – as far as I can tell, it was discovered on TV, and has been translated in to an epic mashup of east-west-birthday-wedding-puja sort of candle-lighting experience that is not to be missed. Anyway, after a hectic week of office meetings and shopping for light fixtures, I caught the last bus up to Kaskikot on Thursday to head home for Maghe Sakranti with birthday cake for Aidan.

Because of Maghe Sakranti, the bus was packed with people heading home to Kaskikot. “Kaskikot packed” means that there is no standing room left inside the bus, and additionally, the people with poor tactical skills who’ve sat in aisle seats have someone’s butt in their ribs or armpit or smushed directly onto their faces. Most definitely, all people with seats are holding either a random package, bag of tomatoes, or someone else’s child on their lap.

As a master bus-rider, I possess a hierarchical mental catalogue of exactly which nooks and crannies make for a tolerable ride relative to a shifting set of variables. I approach “Kaskikot packed” with the focus of a honing pigeon.

IMG_4380It is immediately obvious that today is a top-of-the-bus day. Air is high on my list of prioritized variables, and all of the strategically located nooks and crannies inside the bus are taken or have been invaded by the limbs and odd angles of people who are technically not using these spaces. It’s a total free-for-all. For some reason, Nepalis have an awe-inspiring tolerance for this kind of physical disarray; I on the other hand, while happy to fit myself in to a pretty small nook, need it to be evenly balanced on all sides and protected from random entry, no matter how small my zone is.

Never fear, this is situation is accounted for. I hand Aidan’s cake to the Ticket Bro – all the guys who collect money on buses are Bros of the first degree, with wiry bodies and saggy pants – and clamber up a metal frame to the roof of the bus. The Ticket Bro, who knows me well (ok, I stick out, and besides I’ve provided many unreasonable entertainment opportunities for the general bus-riding public), hands Aidan’s black forest cake up to the top of the bus. I wedge it in flat between a box of beer bottles and a floppy sack of mystery items that’s soft enough to sit on. Soon I too am wedged in evenly on all sides by other passengers, which is exactly the way I want to be. I bend my knees protectively over the cake and we lurch away. The climb to Kaskikot isn’t a long distance in miles, but it’s all up, one switchback whipping around to the next.

The air begins to rush past and in settles a familiar, soothing reeling. The bus is climbing and honking, people are sticking out every which way, we are ducking the occasional branch – FWAP! – as the trees whoosh by. A wave of exhilarating calm envelops me, soft and malleable.

There have been three accidents on this bus route since in the thirteen years I have been riding it. Each time there is a bus accident, everyone including me swears off this road, these good-for-nothing-regulations, these drivers. The police crack down on the rules; buses are improved and added to reduce passenger load. The new bus I am on today looks like a greyhound, with upholstered reclining seats. But inevitably, the people turn this bus in to a wild beast. It’s inertia.

IMG_8687It just can’t be avoided.

Which, in a way that’s hard to explain, is why it’s so calming. Like in many poor countries, there is no illusory order here: everything is paint splatter all the time, and nobody’s pretending it’s something different. Everyone is hanging on to the spinning planet with one finger, and it is still working, at least until it’s not. Over time you realize that you too are paint splatter. You might think you aren’t now. But when order falls away, all of us are wilderness.

After the tragedies that have happened on this road, I know I shouldn’t admit it’s thrilling to catch the bus just in time, climb up to the roof, and duck branches while people talk on their phones and sway side to side eating peanuts like we are on Amtrak. But it isn’t a thrill because it’s dangerous (for the record, in purely statistical terms, driving on the beltway is just as dangerous)… it’s a thrill because it doesn’t feel dangerous. It makes sense. Because we are all flying through the trees together; because chaos and order have switched places, and everything fits despite the appearance of anarchy, and we are not dead yet.

In the mean time, some racing tiger inside of me catches the trees dashing by. I can feel the grumbling pavement even from up on the roof of the bus, and the Ticket Bro heedlessly climbs up and down the side of the bus like a chimpanzee while it is whirling around a corner. The valley below us recedes, and that wild thing in me, with a racing companion to match its speed, is still.

I’ve found this pocket of tranquility in other fast places.  When I catch a seat on the back of a motorbike and take off, zipping up my jacket. When I’m flying down a path in the trees with a sickle and rope in my hand, my flip flops smacking tap-tap-tap-tap on the rocks. Occasionally I have whirled into this thing when jumping on to the subway in New York, snagging a tread of some larger tapestry in the crush of a ten-million-person city with a trillion little shards of disorder that still fit in to something bigger.

In the subway, this is a private knowing. But on this bus, the miracle is out in the open for everyone to see: unruly, electric, FWAP! It’s still working.

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As we climb the lone road up through Sarangkot and closer to Kaski, people filter out at their homes, lugging their bags and boxes and children. The Ticket Bro clambers up and tosses bags off the top of the bus, and our resting props are gradually removed. My stop is the last stop. Soon all the other passengers decide to move down inside the bus, but because I am a honing pigeon I know that none of my approved nooks inside are available yet, and I stay on top of the bus, alone with Aidan’s black forest cake. I lie down so I don’t have to worry about oncoming branches, and crowd myself in with boxes and sacks to block the breeze, and float up the road on my back, watching the night sky roll by. My thoughts spiral in and out, moving still.

Of course, I can’t see where we’re going from this position. No problem. This road only leads to one place.

*

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The Obvious Practicalities

 

The other day I came across a dazzling, haunting article in the New York Times. The Lonely Death of George Bell opens with a chaotic photo of George Bell’s apartment. He was a hoarder, and until you look at the photo directly, it meets you more like a cubist painting than a photo of an apartment: an angular, colorful, dump.

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The story follows a public administrator in a bleak office in Queens as he searches for George Bell’s next of kin, distributes George Bell’s assets, makes arrangements for George Bell’s cremation and burial. These tasks unfold in unceremonious anonymity – in fact, a significant amount of procedure is devoted to proving George Bell’s body is George Bell. No friends or relatives come forward to identify him. He was discovered in his apartment only after neighbors called to report the stench of his lonely end. This is the story of thousands of deaths in New York City every year.

To me, the article itself serves to witness and exalt George Bell’s silent passing, as well as what might have been among the most authentic feature of his life: isolation. In a way it is a glorious tribute, nearly impossible to look away from.

As you will see from the letters at the bottom, not everyone agrees.  But I was taken with this rare and unapologetically voyeuristic look at the mechanics of death in its most cold and undignified form.  In Western culture, we rarely visit death undressed. Jobs that in other parts of the world – certainly in Nepal – fall to the community in an old and well-traced set of patterns fall for George Bell to the Queens County Public Administrator.

George Bell’s situation is extreme, but it in other ways it simply exposes a shared fear and denial of death in the West: how the body, sacred in many cultures, is foreign and terrifying to us once it is dead.  It must be managed by professionals, or at the very least, out of sight, and as a society we treat any honoring of the spirit as a bonus round after the paperwork has been completed. We take this for granted, as if it is obvious because it is practical.

When I happened upon The Lonely Death of George Bell this week, I was editing a radio story about young widows in Nepal. The piece is about how widowhood rituals are changing for young women, and features 21-year Bishnu Pande, whose young husband died while working in Qatar. He never met their six month old daughter.

This topic is close to my heart, because historically, young women who lost their husbands have been forced to live out lives of ritual mourning, and Aamaa is a direct result of these traditions. She hasn’t worn the color red in 35 years. There was never any question of remarrying. Her husband’s family didn’t entirely abandon her, but they’ve done little to help her. When I arrived in Aamaa’s life, her daughters were in their early twenties, and her identity as a widow had long since blended in to the larger idea of her. I have always known Aamaa just as who she is, not as a woman bereaved. She has good friends, and people to look out for her, and she goes to weddings and dances.

And yet, for all practical purposes, Aamaa has lived a life of ritual widowhood. She is alone. Dancing is on limits, but ritual celebration – wearing sindur powder, receiving celebratory tikka, red clothing – are forever out. Moving back to the home where she grew up is out. A new marriage is definitely out. Her role in society is that of a woman who lost her husband, and has been since she was a 23 year old girl.

That will not be Bishnu Pande’s story.  But something will be.

So today I come across George Bell while editing a piece about Bishnu, having spent over a decade as part of Aamaa’s life. And it’s clear that what is obvious is not just what is practical. And neither is the ritual discipline that Aamaa observes. The obvious is just what we’re used to. Our treatment of death seems inevitable because it stems directly from our collective, subconscious attitude toward life, toward the nature of existing. Which can span the range of possibilities from Aamaa to the Queens County Public Administrator.

I feel like these hours I am spending with Bishnu Pande in my ear come at a time when  she and I are both somewhere in the middle. We’ve approached this crossroads from opposite sides: I from New York, where George Bell died, and Bishnu from Kaskikot, where Aamaa’s husband died. Her culture is learning to shed ritual, and I feel that mine has lost something vital and is scrambling to get it back. It’s like we’ve bumped in to each other in the middle of some misty dreamscape, each of us missing someone and renegotiating the collective attitude we’ve been taught.

Some letters to the editor have already been posted the article on George Bell. One says:

At first I wondered why “The Lonely Death of George Bell” was on Sunday’s front page above the fold. As I got into the article, I couldn’t put it down…Mr. Bell’s sad experience reinforced for me the importance of reaching out to relatives, friends and all those in a situation similar to Mr. Bell’s so that they have dignity in their final days. He deserved better.

And then another:

What could possibly justify this callous violation of George Bell’s privacy?…Mr. Bell could not have made his wish for privacy any clearer if he had specified it in his will, and no decent purpose is served by inviting us all in to trespass on his home….With this article The New York Times inflicted on Mr. Bell a final indignity.

     *

George Bell in 1956. / The New York Times

George Bell (L) in 1956. / The New York Times

 

Fall

 

Tiny yellow petals have started collecting in the right angle between the sidewalk and the street. They are huddled there like a paper river, jumping around and changing places ever so slightly as the cars drive by. It is fall.

It was the end of summer before I started to feel like I had arrived here in Connecticut. Even though I’ve been moving between these two very different worlds for twelve years, it has been over a decade since I was abroad for so long at once – nearly seven months, with a brief six weeks back in the U.S. in April, which is when the earthquake hit in Nepal.

I’ve always felt that the gift of living in two worlds, if I am open to it, is the chance to deepen my appreciation of multiple realities. Certain particularities, like the soft muffle of people arriving to temple during the High Holidays, or the rustle of fall and how it smells like apples and makes me think of being outside with my dad, the amazing fact of the New York bagel, a spectacular city skyline twinkling at night, the miraculous convenience of speedy internet – these gifts and many more have been imbued with a resonance that comes only from heightened gratitude. What a tremendous blessing that this is my world, my life, my palette of choices.

Besides being near friends and family, it’s this intensifying of senses that makes me look forward to returning to the States when I’ve been in Nepal. Whatever the tradeoffs, they come with the euphoric feeling of appreciation. Maybe this is why I’ve come to realize that in some way my role on the planet will always be to move between disparate worlds, rather than settle comfortably in one and become stagnant.

This last arrival, however, has been different. It’s been harder for me to access the joys of this plentiful environment. Maybe we are in a new season in America, and maybe I am different, or maybe some of both. I arrived back to the U.S. during the week of Sandra Bland, just as Donald Trump was taking center stage. Everybody seemed so angry and so loud. Among the significant, real outrages and pathologies happening at our doorsteps – Sandra Bland! – precious few were garnering a majority of the words being expended in mainstream discussion. Outside my house, everybody was disconnected from each other, and inside, I couldn’t hear the wind blowing.

It was like being in solitary confinement and being assaulted at the same time.

I’ve started and stopped this post many times, wondering how to write about this season of being between realities without resorting to clichés. I was in rural Nepal working with people to rebuild their houses after an earthquake, sleeping under tin roofs while the early summer monsoon pounded the hills.  Now I’m in Connecticut listening to the Republican debate in my living room. It’s totally cliché.

And yet it’s not these visible differences that constituted the turbulent vacuum between my worlds this summer. Mostly the last two months have been an exercise in putting up barriers. Between myself and the pavement. Between myself and indifferent crowds. Between myself and a certain nothing that creeps in between the activities and compartments of cars and apartments. Between myself and a hailstorm of unmourned and even unacknowledged injury. Between my ears and the fantastic amount of noise, all the talking and procedure that is not about anything.  Between myself and the precious narcissism of our public discourse.

I realize that these barriers have their value. But it feels like a loss. I’m more aware than ever before how many ways American culture forces us to reduce our perceptiveness in order to survive. It’s true that the catastrophe of the earthquake created an especially unique doorway to a productive social consciousness: there was a gigantic and terrible event, but it was fairly concrete – at least on the surface – and I located myself and my community within it. I was one of many people who looked destruction in the face and began rebuilding with patience and humility and a willful connection with others.

But I didn’t really realize how much my sense of my self in the world and in society had swelled out beyond me in these last seven months – even to the earth and its power, to the inevitability of the monsoon, to the practical absurdity of dirt roads going up mountains – until I was back here, and my world became a cacophony of conflicting radio stations, all purporting to be of critical importance.

The summer has been an exercise in shutting down one channel after another, and then re-learning how to decide which ones to turn back on for brief and highly monitored periods of time.

The summer has been an exercise in dodging the frustration, despondency, and aggression that billows about on the street, unchecked, like car exhaust. Then re-learning how to locate and selectively engage sources of collaboration and joy. After all, it is still a blessing to have this palette of choices, whether or not we see it, whether or not anybody sees it. Gratitude is not something that can be faked – it comes directly from a place of knowing.

The summer has been an exercise in observing our political system, our environmental system, and our media, with the surprised naiveté of a newcomer, and hearing the same story repeated in different packages: in how we describe ourselves, our problems, our economic and racial tensions, the rest of the planet.  In the way we talk about the earthquake in Nepal and the victimized people of the third world.  It is a story of detachment, silence, and frustration transmuted in to righteousness.  And yet the power of our systems is tremendous, if only we could see them.  If only we could hear ourselves.

Our narcissism isn’t that we’re a bad society or a bad people.  We just can’t see it.

I have spent a great deal of time sitting quietly in my living room, wondering how we get outside of ourselves without leaving.  I think it is human nature to cling to anything that tells us what we already know about ourselves.  I’m no different than anyone else.  I’ve just spent a lot of time in situations where there wasn’t much to cling to, so there was no choice but to adjust.  We are much more arbitrary than we think we are.

I think about my dear friend Mary every day and I miss her.  I would like to tell her about these things, so she can remind me without saying so that I am just one more well-meaning narcissist, and we are all going to the same place, so we might as well be good to each other and enjoy the scenery.

Now it’s September and the brittle yellow leaves are collecting in the gutter.  They dance around when the cars and people rush by, but they could care less for the hurry that makes them play like that.  It’s just their season to fall from green branches, and become a river in the street.

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On Fractured Temples

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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.

IMG_5188So 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. IMG_0904And 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.

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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.

IMG_0956There 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.

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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.

Classy, right?

Hey, my hair looked good.

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Day Thirteen

 

Today is the thirteenth day after my friend Mary’s passing.  As I’ve written about before, this day marks the end of the initial kriya period, where the immediate family of the deceased observe two weeks of purification and austere ritual that instructs their food, bathing, clothing, sleeping, movement and prayer.  It is during this time that the spirit wanders in its new world, perhaps hovering about in this one, finding its way.  On the thirteenth day, a large meal is cooked, the family and community drink purifying bitter gaun, and life begins again.

I have decided to go back to Connecticut a week early for Mary’s memorial service.  But I wanted nothing more than to observe this thirteenth day in my own way, here in Nepal, where I feel close to the sky.

In addition, there’s the baby buffalo.

Two weeks ago, on friday morning, I woke up to a misty dawn with my phone near my head, and rolled over to see how my friend had fared since some bad news had arrived in my email the prior night. There was nothing yet – it was now night time in the U.S. – but I had a bad feeling.  And when I walked outside to wash my face, our very, very, very pregnant buffalo Lulu was shifting about uncomfortably in her shed.  She was due any moment.  Since I’ve arrived in Nepal this summer, I’ve been hoping to be at the house when Lulu has her baby – a phenomenon I’ve witnessed only once in twelve years, and will never forget.

For anyone who’s never seen a large animal like a buffalo very pregnant and approaching their moment, it’s hard to describe.  You can feel, like a physical entity, the pent up power of nature, the imminent violence and miracle of birth.  This animal that is normally so much bigger than you is so much smaller than what’s about to happen.

I left that morning for a meeting in Pokhara, already crying on the bus, where another little blue dot popped up on my phone – a new message saying things had not improved, that Mary was probably in her last hours back in New York.  And I was on this strange road in Nepal, on a mountain, the mist close and threatening rain, and the buffalo shifting around uncomfortably in her shed under Aamaa’s watchful gaze.

I spent a surreal day in Pokhara, and called Aamaa late in the afternoon.  The baby buffalo had been born and everyone was doing fine – the marvel of life.  Twenty minutes later, I got a message saying that Mary had died.

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So this little baby buffalo has been a source of wonder and comfort to me.  I named named her O’Neil. When I came up to Kaski a few days later, Aamaa pumped me full of the nutrient-dense, sacred milk that the mother buffalo makes in the first few days after giving birth, because she wanted me to be nourished.

The birth of a buffalo is a ritualized affair that is, in some ways, the inverse of a death.  For eleven days, we are not to eat the milk with food, or wash cups and bowls used for the virgin milk in the same impure space as the rest of the dishes.  When I took a little burnt piece of something out of my milk one day and tossed it on the ground in the yard, Aamaa went and picked it up, lest it touch the bottom of someone’s foot.  It is, essentially, an eleven day observance of the fragility of life and the gift of the milk that our Lulu will provide to her baby, and to us.  Then on the eleventh day there is a puja, with a priest and everything, and on that day we cook rice pudding, putting the milk into our own “bread” and bodies.  And the cycle goes on.

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Kalika Hill

I had missed O’Neil’s birth puja because I was out in Dhading.  So today was the first chance that Aamaa had to make rice pudding for me with O’Neil’s milk.  And that’s how Day Thirteen began, with a rich and delicious celebration of the life of our little baby buffalo who was born almost the same hour that Mary died.

Then I climbed up to my favorite place in all of Nepal, a spot along the hilltop that leads to the Kalika Temple, for which Kaskikot is named.  First I went to the temple, with flowers and incense from our house.  I made my offering and rang the bell.  Before heading back to my favorite spot along the crest of the hill to do my qigong, something made me think I should look around for some sign, something that would make me feel like Mary was here with me, and I was here with her.  From the Kalika Temple, you can see everything, the valley on all sides, the lake to the southeast, the stretching falling foothills reaching to the horizon, and the soaring Annapurna range to the North, towering halfway up your field of vision.  It is spectacular.

But the direction I decided to look was up.

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I have taken hundreds – literally hundreds – of photos of rainbows in this village.  I know where they show up and in what kind of weather.  But I have never seen a rainbow like this anywhere on the whole planet.

I left the temple gates and ran through the grass in my flip flops, following the hilltop to my favorite rock.  I kept checking behind me to see if this amazing rainbow was still there, and it just kept getting brighter and more extraordinary.

When I found my favorite rock, I lit incense and placed more flowers I’d brought from our house.  I am so close to the clouds on this three feet of rock.  I can see my little house looking like a toy in the hillside.  Everything is far away and whole.  I closed my eyes.

When I opened them forty five minutes later, the rainbow was gone.

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Mama Lulu and Baby O'Neil

Mama Lulu and Baby O’Neil under Aamaa’s watchful gaze

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Merit of Stories

 

Last night in Tripureswor, Anne and Dilmaya and I slept in a makeshift tin cottage with the sound of the river rushing by outside. When we got up in the morning, we were astonished to find that the shelter was buttressed up against this stunning prayer site.

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It is hard to capture the beauty of this place in a photo: river-worn, looping rock formations swirling around the base of this strong and humble tree. It is maintained daily and with great joy by our host, Krishna Man Shrestha, known by everyone here as Saila Dai.

He took us in to this wonderful garden and proudly went around showing Anne and I where each of the Gods sleeps in it. Below is the bed for Shiva, king of the Hindu gods. I missed a brilliant moment where Saila Dai lay down in this nook in his shorts and Nepali hat with a blissful smile, eyes closed, hands clasped in a Namaste over his head, to demonstrate how Shiva sleeps here.

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Yesterday, as soon as we met Anne and crammed in to a hot bus with tiny seats to drive to Dhading, I told her about my friend Mary, who died a week ago. I’ve been missing her terribly and I feel myself trying to sort out where she is in this strange journey I am on in post-earthquake Nepal. Even today, I’m not sure why we’re headed out to Dhading. Because Anne is an expert on ritual, I knew she’d have some ideas of ways we could connect with Mary on our impending adventure in Tripureswor. While we bounced along in the bus, Anne told me about the Buddhist ritual of cultivating and offering merit to a departed soul, to help them along on their transition from this world to the next. I knew that was the perfect thing to take with me into our undiscovered story in Ward #6.

Saila Dai

Saila Dai

So Saila Dai’s gorgeous prayer site was an auspicious beginning to our day. After tea, we left with Bishnu to explore his village. I brought along my recorder and camera. With no clear plan and full day from Pokhara, it is safe to say we were winging it.

What we ended up doing was sitting down at house after house talking with the owners. We asked about their families and where they were when the earthquake hit; how they’d rebuilt and what they thought the future held. When asked what we were doing there, we were honest: we said we weren’t sure. We admitted don’t have the capability to do a complicated or expensive project so far from our base in Pokhara, but we were interested in understanding what people are experiencing in Tripureswor.

IMG_2357To our great surprise, person after person told us that we were doing a great service by taking time to talk with them. One person said, “by coming here and looking us in the eye.” Anne and I were both amazed by how many people said things like this. People’s lives are pretty shaken up in Tripureswor. But of course, it’s not just the talking, it’s the sitting, the cup of tea or slice of cucumber, the story of the prized son who is studying college in Kathmandu, the unwritten story of getting old in this place. It’s the lack of an agenda. That’s how most of the things that have mattered in the end have started for me in Nepal.

And then there was the water. The main focus of the iNGO community right now is shelter, but no matter who we asked, everybody told us that the biggest problem in Ward #6 is water. The earthquake damaged the water tank that supplies this whole ward, so they’ve been piping water in from neighboring wards, but that sharing won’t last. And even so, people have to walk very long distances to fetch water. Having done plenty of that myself, I can tell you it’s no picnic. The community has already located a new spring, and all that’s needed is infrastructure to collect and distribute. But in addition to some simple concrete tanks and many kilometers of pipe that they need – which is something we could provide – there are some complicated engineering factors, one of which is that the water source is on the other side of the river, so pipes need to be slung across it like electric wires.

Ward #6’s water pipes will have to be slung over this river.

Ward #6’s water pipes will have to be slung over this river.

As the day went on, it became clear that the water project also is too complicated for us. However, Dilmaya and I did feel like we’re capable of advocating for it. I can contact Oxfam, the major iNGO doing recovery this village, and my contacts at United Mission to Nepal, who are also involved with relief in Dhading district. We decided that Anne would stay for the week and help get together enough details for a proper proposal. Late in the afternoon, we all went in to town to meet with the Village Chairman and run this all by him.

The last thing to come out of our day was that Anne, who’s spent many years doing cultural and sociological research in Nepal, came up with a beautiful project for her upcoming week. There is a Japanese tradition whereby people write prayers or wishes on small pieces of paper, tie them to strings, and then hang the strings in the air, sort of like prayer flags. She plans to have tea with all sixty families in Ward #6, look people in the eye, and write their worries and prayers with them. She bought the paper and string while we were in town meeting the chairman.

I also did a lot of recording and hope to produce an audio slideshow about Tripureswor, as well as a radio story about the effect of the earthquake on animals. So if that works out, I’ll have a concrete reason to point to that we schlepped – and I mean SCHLEPPED – all the way out to this village. And if the water project actually comes around, that will be really amazing.

But on some level, I understand that this expedition was not about something concrete anyway.

Late in the evening, I went up to a high hill behind the house, overlooking the valley and emerald hills that are glistening with humidity and rain. I did my qigong practice and offered the merit of our day to Mary, to guide her on her way. I offered the merit of Saila Dai and the humility and joy he gives to his enchanted prayer site, and which he had in turn offered freely to us. I offered the merit of looking people in the eye, of meeting Janet for twenty minutes in a coffee shop and connecting her good heart to mine and following the road out to Tripureswor Ward #6, with no agenda but to listen to stories and return them to Janet, whom I don’t know at all. I got started late, so by the time I was finished with my practice, it was nighttime on the unlit hill, nothing but moonlight reflecting off the river in the valley and the spare lights of the bazaar down below. Which seemed right. The merit of stories is how they linger past sunset, into the darkness, when all the people have gone to bed.

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Tractor Cowgirls

 

What a wonderful day!

After a week of endlessly trying to chase down corrugated tin, Dilmaya and I spend the entire day today riding around the hills of Nepal delivering roofs in Archalbot in Bharte.

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Our morning started off pretty slowly – I’ll spare you that part – but let’s just say there was heavy rain and 53 bundles of 12 foot, 60kg, corrugated tin involved – when you stack up even some of that tin and try to lift it, it’s as unmovable as a 12-foot block of concrete. There were two tractors and a jeep.  And, of course, one cute little Life Box.

IMG_0146We had a few special deliveries as well – cash relief for Bal Kumari, and a box of ceramic mugs for Muna Bujel’s family, which had completely rebuilt (minus tin) when I met them on that crazy ridgetop in Lakure. When I asked what else they needed, given that they’d done such an amazing job reorganizing their rubble in to a house already, Muna Bhujel looked around and kind of shrugged, like “Lady, look at this whole situation,” and said, “well a lot of our glasses were smashed.” So we threw a set of teacups for her.

It was nearly 11pm by the time we hit the road in Udipur on tractor #1, which was carrying 17 bundles of tin for Archalbot. Voila, Archalbot tin delivery! While we were here, we met three more families requesting roofs. I visited their houses and told them to start building. We’ll be back next week to check on the rest of Archalbot, and we can bring roofs for a few more families if they build before then.

Next, we had to switch to tractor #2 which was loaded up with our major delivery for about 50 homes all over Bharte.  This led to a situation and the following clip of video that pretty much says it all.  Here is what it’s like to try to provide aid for half a million ruined and damaged homes in Nepal’s hills.  An anchoring wire on a footbridge had popped out of the mud softened by the rains, and our tractor couldn’t get over it.  This video takes place about half a mile from a paved highway, on a 10-meter stretch of the only road that leads up to the village.  We did this for ONE HOUR before crossing this little patch of road that is the access point for the entire hillside of Bharte.

We finally got to our first stop in Sirwari, which was totally awesome.  When I first visited Sirwari about a week and a half ago, three families were living together under this tarp.  We asked them to build a good quality bamboo house and promised a roof.  When we arrived today, they had built this gorgeous bamboo community home for all three families!  I love this photo because you can still see their old tarp in the middle, hanging out until we can put it out of business with corrugated tin.  We delivered said tin that very afternoon, and promised we’d come back to see the finished product and spend the night.

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We looked at some of the other bamboo frames in Sirwari, and of course I wanted to take lots of photos and hang out and talk with everyone and Dilmaya was texting me madly to hurry up because we still had two tractors and a jeep full of tin and a lot of deliveries to make.  On the way, we picked up Sarita, Kripa’s young sister in law, whose house we’ve been staying in in Archalbot, and who’s become our pal.  The three of us crammed in to the two-person seating area in the front of the jeep, and we were off again, eating some lychees.

Our next stop was Bharte Banjang.  As far as I could tell, it’s the poorest, most remote and devastated area that we’ve visited.  Lakure is also quite remote, but people there had mostly rebuilt, whereas in Banjang, we met families with lots of young kids living between rusty tin or having moved in to the buffalo shed, with the buffalo.

IMG_0219We brought new tin for 10 homes, housing 49 people, to Banjang.  By now we were in a hurry, so I don’t have as many photos, but the building quality wasn’t as good in this area.  People didn’t have access to long bamboo nearby, so even though our coordinator in Bharte offered long bamboo off his land for free, nobody went and got it.  Many of the frames this community had made were far to low to stand up in.  Instead of the bamboo wall technique we saw in Sirwari, which is tight and can be plastered with mud and made permanent like Tulasi’s house in Parbat, people had simply criss-crossed bamboo, like this, which is far less secure.  This is kind of a mystery to me.  I wasn’t IMG_0233sure why so many of the people in Banjang had made structures with such obvious problems.  We decided we’ll do our best to provide day employment for some of the Sirwari people to come up and help the people in Banjang.  We’ll see how that goes.  In any case, at least these folks will be able to move out of the buffalo sheds and such.  I will venture to say that if we had not required that people build before providing these roofing sheets, this is an area where a lot of our tin would likely have sat in the yard or been thrown on top of unsafe houses.

From there we went to Lakure, my favorite spot in Bharte, where we delivered tin to Bal Kumari, and gave her $300 in cash that she was not expecting, to repay her loans.  Here is Muna Bhujel’s father with the teacups we gave him.  As you can see, he is pretty much speechless.

IMG_0236Then it was time to go to Besigaun for another 12 homes.  By now it was dusk, and as we headed out to our final few stops, it was night.  We made our deliveries in the dark.

Now, are you realizing we’ve left something out here?

Life Box, man.  Life Box.

We took this box out here and there to show people, but it was all so hectic that we didn’t really have time to do much with it.  I mean there wasn’t exactly time to dig a hole in the ground and bury the thing.

At our very last stop, we realized we had an extra bundle of tin, and this nice guy, Lok Bahadur Bhujel, and his son, came out and found us in the road.  They had built a temporary house but for now they’d covered it with a tarp, and wanted to ask us for help.  Well, as it happened, we had an extra bundle of tin that needed a home, so off it went.  Along with the Life Box!

Well, that was one of the more interesting days of my life.  All together, we covered over 50 houses and about 250 heads.  We’ll come back to Bharte in a week or so to check on things and see how some of these homes turned out. Dilmaya and I ended up spending the night at Sarita’s birth home in Bharte, and let me tell you, we did not have any trouble falling asleep.

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