To Meet in a Dream

 

We are having a family get together in Asheville, North Carolina. My dad is turning 80 this summer, and it’s Father’s Day, and Bishnu is pregnant with a baby girl. She and Youba arrive on a red-eye from San Francisco, Bethy and I fly in from Connecticut, and my parents drive over from Chapel Hill with Ricky and Julie and the kids. We plop our bags in a cluster of wood-paneled cabins shaded by rustling trees. It is the first time we have all been together since Bishnu got married last year. Now she is Bishnu Subedi Bhatta.

Bishnu and Youba have made the questionable decision of asking for name suggestions. We bat around ideas as we eat ice cream and go to the playground and climb Chimney Rock, where, even though there is an elevator, Bishnu takes the stone staircase up to the top, plodding along step by step while Youba fawns hopelessly over her. At the summit we take a family photo, the North Carolina hills yawning green in to the distance, an endless rustle that is too far off to hear from the top of Chimney Rock, giving way to blue.

In the six years after I first showed up in Kaskikot and before Bishnu came to the US, we would talk on the phone from time to time. It was always morning on one continent, and evening on the other, and in the decade since then I can’t say the phone connection has improved much. Through the static I’d hear about how Saano didi and Mahendra’s families were doing, and whether the millet or corn stalks with their stacked Groucho Marx mustaches had recently been planted or cut down. I’d tell her about New York City, where I was living, and say that Mom and Dad and Ricky were fine. We ended most of our conversations the same way.

“Ok then, well let’s meet in a dream.”

“Where should we go this time?”

And then we’d plan a meeting at the Kalika Temple, or in the kitchen with Aamaa, or on a mat in the yard to paint our nails, or at the festival of Teej. And then we’d say goodbye, and go to sleep to meet in a dream. And always in Nepal.

It has always seemed to me that Bishnu and I were born in to this world with a thread between us, translucent, like the kind used in mobiles or dental floss or to catch carp, because it is unassuming, tensile, and indestructible. The kind that seems as if it can be spooled out forever without reaching the other end that’s buried somewhere in its bottomless coils.

I decide to print the Chimney Rock photo for Father’s Day, which requires sneaking away in to Asheville. We need three copies of the photo for Dad, Ricky and Youba. While I’m out in Asheville I send a text to the family chat to ask if I need to pick up any ingredients for dinner. My mom replies.

Bishnu is cooking dal Bhatta.

I giggle at auto-correct, which has apparently learned Youba’s last name already. My mom means “dal bhaat,” traditional Nepali food–but the more I look at this, the funnier I find it anyway. My fingers tap over the keys.

Does this mean they picked a name for the baby?

It is Youba who replies.

Dal sounds like a boy. Shouldn’t it be Dali?

My mother and I become ecstatic over this. Bishnu’s kid is immediately christened Dali Bhatta. Mostly it is only my mom and me who think this is brilliant. It could be worse, though. My mom called me Loolie-tabooli-tabootznicky…and by “called” I mean “calls.” This is a true story. I was named for my grandfather Louis, and my family turned it turned into Tabootznicky.

We spend the rest of the weekend fishing in the pond, making s’mores on the porch, and turning the kids upside down. Bethy and I are staying in a cabin with Youba and Bishnu, and my mom has brought Bishnu an old notebook along with a pile of belongings from her now-“old” room in Bethesda. We flip through its pages, mystified and awed, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. It contains, in Bishnu’s handwriting: a list of instruments needed for the prehistoric version of the Kaskikot Dental Clinic; draft text for a sticker about fluoride toothpaste to be printed and posted in Kaskikot shops for vendor outreach; and practice answers to questions Bishnu expected to be asked at her visa interview with the US Embassy in 2008. She does a dramatic reading in the living room.

I remember when we bought Bishnu’s first pair of jeans. She looked as out of condition in jeans then as I did in my floppy kurta salwaars, each of us yet to learn to fit our bodies to these foreign garments that we irrevocably longed to inhabit. The more time Bishnu spent attending different trainings and programs that year, the more time I spent at the house with Aamaa alone, learning to move the goats about and cook and plant and cut. When Bishnu was away, Aamaa and I developed a quiet and comfortable flow together. Then Bishnu would come back for a day, arriving on the last bus at 7:30 at night, and I would feel a pang of sadness. The loss of the illusion that I was useful. I would fall back in to following Bishnu around and learning from her for the next twenty four hours. The spool would turn inward, we were drawn together, arguing, sitting in the kitchen, going to the temple, teaching each other about our worlds.

Bishnu always left to go back to her training programs early in the morning. They got progressively further away- Sarangkot, Pokhara, Damauli. America. (I didn’t know it then, but there would be a time when Bishnu was to wake me early in the morning in Bethesda, before going to work in Virginia.) On these mornings I could never motivate myself to wake up any earlier than necessary. Instead I would close my eyes to stave off departure, and then in the dawning bloom of morning, Bishnu would come take my shoulder to say goodbye, and slip out the door to catch the 7am bus. It always seemed, once she had been here, that she was going terribly far away; suddenly, I would be at a lose end. For a few hours, everything seemed empty.

And inevitably, after some period of months, I would spool away to America, and we would meet in a dream.

It is 2019. In my parents’ cabin, I assign my nephew Jonah, Ricky’s eldest and and a lanky eight, to instruct his three and four year old sisters as to how we are going to surprise three fathers with their family photographs. Jonah orders his sisters about for fifteen minutes, placing them behind the curtain, behind a couch, and practicing a chaotic toddler chorus of “Happy Father’s Day!” It is decided that I am to cue the surprise with a casual unsuspicious phrase, for which Jonah has selected “Wasn’t it nice weather today!” With this, my nephew and nieces are to spring from their hiding places and proclaim the happiness of Father’s Day.

The plan goes remarkably well. Youba’s features spread momentarily in to an arrangement of euphoric surprise: he is going to be a dad. And then, a collage of moments fluttering around us. We coo over Dali Bhatta. Jonah and Eli and Nell swing elatedly in the hammock, laughing hysterically over each other, until my dad and Ricky and Youba take their places. The trees around the cabin fall in to a still sheltering, rustling blessings over us, and the sun drops slowly over the hammock, delayed like a water droplet on velvet. We are gorgeously suspended in time.

Bishnu and Youba have booked a 6am flight. So it is still dark when Bishnu comes in to wake me the next morning. I roll over and can almost feel the straw mat under arm as Bishnu whispers, “Bye Laura, we have to go to the airport.” I wrap my arms around her and Dali Bhatta, suddenly both at peace and without coordinates; it is an old feeling, ancient as the notebook and the Dead Sea Scrolls, bottomless as a whole new human being.

The enormous future seems unimaginable in this pre-dawn, where we stretch away in to a miraculous dream, until we are real again.

*

2004

Aging

The second half of our winter professional development is focused on treatment of older adults. Even though a lot of treatment that dental technicians do is in schools, during the weekly dental clinic at the Health Post, they mostly get adult patients. And since most rural adults have had little or no dental care, and likely weren’t exposed to fluoride toothpastes or other preventative measures for their first few decades of life, some of the conditions that present in our rural clinics are pretty extreme. Besides that, tooth loss in older age is common enough that it’s more or less expected.

Of course, our technicians can refer older patients to higher care, and they do. But following up on referrals isn’t always that easy, especially for older folks with reduced mobility. Not to mention that rehabilitation of many mouths we see in elderly patients would require months of ongoing, expensive, complex treatment even in a state-of-the-art dental hospital–something that’s simply is not feasible for the majority population even in a first-world city. So here we are in rural Nepal working in primary care, which is about disease prevention and improving quality of life. But save for the occasional extraction, older adults are mostly left out of the process when it comes to primary oral health care: directly related to the ability to eat, sleep, and participate socially. If we can relieve pain and preserve teeth longer, that seems like a solid contribution.

With this in mind, we wanted to develop a professional development workshop on how the simple techniques that we’re already using – glass ionomer, silver diamine fluoride – can be used to help relieve the diseases experienced in older populations in Nepal. By “we” I mean Bethy since she’s the one obviously who did this because I write stories about teeth and she is a public health dentist. And even if you’re not a dentist or especially interested in cariology, I have to say that how this turned out is really pretty cool.

A few years ago, Bethy and Keri took photos of about 65 people who’d had restorations done in our clinics, and we used these as the basis for a quality-of-care assessment. It resulted in a few different things. One was adding some missing instruments. Another was noticing an apparent pattern among older adults where, around middle adulthood, adult teeth begin to wear rather than decay. It might be caused by anything from an acidic diet, to abrasive brushing with spices, to a lifestyle change like a new medication. The lower part of the tooth near the gums wears down and become loose, causing sensitivity and difficulty eating, and gradually, the teeth simply fall out. These are the adults who, right now, are getting no care at all besides the occasional extraction.  They were the focus of our training.

Our technicians practiced placing glass ionomer restorations on the root-surface lesions, near the gums, that so often lead to tooth loss in older adults. Bethy explained how an event in the life of a middle-aged adult, such as an illness, can cause a simple change like dry mouth that alters the whole environment and leads to deterioration of a previously resilient set of teeth over the next period of years.

I loved this workshop. For the first two hours, instead of looking at teeth, Bethy brought in pictures of older people and the clinical teams simply talked about aging. What makes people old? Are all old people the same? Do they have the same priorities and daily demands and ideas of self? What do we assume when we see someone who we think is “old”? How does a person’s identity factor in to how we work with them to improve their lives? What is our responsibility to someone’s dignity?

In preparing for the workshop, Bethy and I mined our respective photo archives for pictures of elderly people in Nepal and Cambodia. One by one their faces stared out at our group of clinicians, suddenly daring: Who do you think I am?

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In the beginning, most participants had a sort of default position that older people are weaker and less capable of handling dental treatment. But as we went through the photos for well over an hour, stories blossomed. In some cases, they were people whose backgrounds we knew- my neighbors in Kaskikot, steely women I’d photographed during our work after the earthquake in 2015, caretakers and weavers and shopkeepers who’d given interviews in Bethy’s surveys in Cambodia. Bethy used a clever framework called “Go-go, go-slow, no-go” to talk about what each of these people might be expecting or hoping for from a medical professional. I got to laugh about how Hadjur Aamaa has basically no teeth left and gets around pretty slow, but she’ll put one foot in front of the other to get to the house and then frets the entire day, every day, about the dishes or the peas that need to be shelled; it is absolutely vital to her human essence to be busy with something useful. By the end, our clinical teams were musing over what their patients might be thinking about, who they depended on, and who relied on them, what made them human and alive in the world. This was probably a go-slow patient, like Hadjur Aamaa; this one likely a go-go patient ready to sit there all day and get her teeth fixed; this patient probably wasn’t really about treatment, and mainly needed to have his discomfort acknowledged.

The next day, we returned to the same school in Kaskikot to treat patients age 45 and over. (We’re in rural Nepal, 45 is approaching the pre-elderly group…60 is safely considered “aged” and the point is to catch people BEFORE their teeth are gone.) It was exciting to see the same situations we’d learned about the previous day in the real lives of real people and to be able to offer simple treatments that have the potential to forestall tooth loss for years. The teams continued using the App, entering patient data digitally along side the paper forms.

While patients were waiting outside, the father in law of our local Channeler came by for a checkup. I’ve been to see our Channeler a few times – she lives down near Laushidunga, in the direction of Sada Shiva where I taught primary school for a year.  The story that’s told about the Channeler is that she suffered terribly from a kind of delirium for a period of time. She was treated in a hospital, but nothing helped. Then she began to channel spirits. She rebalanced. People travel from all over to see her; I’ve brought a handful of visitors there to connect with people they’ve lost.  Before Bishnu left for the U.S. in 2008, she went to see the Channeler to connect with her father. The Channeler’s husband has a bum knee, and once I gave him my knee brace from CVS, and he always greets me with an old familiarity when we meet in the road up in Deurali.

Anyway, at some point in the afternoon I couldn’t find our technician K.P., and I walked outside to find he was having his palm read in the waiting area. The Channeler’s father in law spent about an hour reading almost everyone’s palm for fifty rupees each. Everyone–our office staff, the field teams, the schoolteachers and other patients–exclaimed over the things he knew: who’s father had died young, who was still to be married, who was destined to successfully stay with one line of work for a long time (one of our clinic assistants! yay!). I didn’t get a turn because by the time I was ready – I’d had my 50 rupees in my pocket for like an hour – he’d had enough with palm reading. Palm reading was over.

Still, my most favorite patient of the day was a 93 year old woman who arrived alone. She was frail, used a walking stick, and barely spoke to anyone even to ask them to move out of the way as she plodded through clusters of people like Moses parting the sea. She wore a jaunty white knit cap that stuck up boisterously on her head. Her entire mouth was completely empty except for one jutting molar with an expanse of exposed root.

“How can we help you?” Hira, the Deurali technician, asked.

“This tooth hurts,” the woman said simply.

 

Hira treated the one tooth with silver diamine fluoride, a completely painless procedure that will hopefully preserve it a while longer and ease her suffering. Then the woman stood up, picked up her walking stick, parted the seas and went home without a word.

*

 

Worry For My Sons

I’ve just come back from my third visit to Cambodia, and each time I expect to write about it. I’m no qualified scholar of Cambodian history, but I spent a short time working with Cambodian refugees in Hartford and two months researching the Extraordinary Chambers, or ECCC, the war crimes tribunal created to adjudicate the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.

In August 2017, I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, where I filled in the mental scaffolding I’d established by standing outside of empty torture rooms and running my eyes over thousands and thousands and thousands of names, knowing they would vanish from my memory. 15,000 people were imprisoned and killed at Tuol Sleng, which had once been a high school. I lit incense in a somber memorial room at the end that is filled with skulls.

Sometimes it seems that the cruelties of history are mostly remembered through their persistent pain, despite our best efforts to know them through redemption.

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“What do you think of Cambodian politics?” asked my tuk tuk driver today, on the way to the airport.

“…What do you think?” I replied carefully.

“No good,” said the driver. “Not much has changed.”

Motorbikes and trucks and cars and luxury sedans jockeyed for space on the highway, pressing in on the open sides of our tuk-tuk, where I had my leg through the strap of my bag after twice having items snatched off of me by passing motorists. It seems hard to argue that not much has changed. When Phnom Penh was reclaimed from the Khmer Rouge in 1979 after four years of destruction and enslavement, the rubbled city no longer had electricity or plumbing or safe water or schools or working telephones; the use of money had been abolished. Nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population and most of the educated class had been slaughtered. There were at total of seven lawyers left in the whole country to rebuild the government. Working off my not-particularly-relevant experience of what it’s like trying to develop infrastructure in Nepal, I find it absolutely astounding what Cambodia has rebuilt in just four decades, albeit under an authoritarian regime.

I guessed my tuk-tuk driver to be in his early fifties, old enough to have been alive during the genocide. I wondered what he wanted to tell me about.

“Where were you during the war?” I asked.

“In the province,” he said. “We planted rice, you know? Planting all day. All the kids slept together in a large area, on a rough surface. My skin got very irritated on my whole body. We had no rice to eat. We only ate porridge.”

“How long did you do that for?”

“Two years,” he said. “I was eight.”

I learned that the driver had one sister and five brothers, and I wanted to ask how they had fared, but didn’t know if I should. Many children whose stories started this way lost their entire families under the Khmer Rouge, sometimes before their eyes.

“What do you think is the biggest problem for Cambodia now?” I asked instead.

“Education,” the driver stated firmly. I learned that he had been able to pick up his studies again in 1982. That Cambodia has struggled to rebuild its education system is no wonder. In 1979, there were so few intellectuals left alive that a former math teacher, Chan Ven, was put in charge of rebuilding the Ministry of Education. The three-decade old United Nations, with its dominant American, British and Chinese powers, opposed the new Cambodian government because it was backed by the Vietnamese. So after receiving more American bombs on its soil during the Vietnam war than Japan received during World War II–an act that won Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize–a traumatized Cambodian populace was left to prosecute war crimes, reconstruct the government, and reestablish basic institutions without the help of international human rights bodies. During the Cold War, the Hun Sen military regime that liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge was systematically and repeatedly denied U.N. support, which was deferred instead to the Khmer Rouge in exile.  To this day, the regime continues to run the government and suppress opposition.

My tuk tuk driver took his gaze off the road and turned his head toward the side, maybe only because I was seated behind him, but it made it seem like he was looking out at the tall buildings around the highway. “My sons are studying law and engineering,” he said. “I worry about them.”

Last Saturday, a bunch of us took a long ride out to see the new Win-Win monument. The tower was recently built to commemorate the end of civil war in Cambodia in 1998, when outlying factions of the Khmer Rouge finally entered in to an agreement with the Hun Sen government, bringing about the end of decades of violence. The monument is built of intricately carved sandstone and polished granite, and in many places is still under construction even while throngs of mostly Cambodian visitors visit each day.

What most caught our attention, though, was a lengthy retelling of Cambodian history carved in to stone panels around the base of the monument. It starts before the genocide and continues for probably a quarter mile or more. The story is portrayed with a nationalistic fervor that is not subtle, and the monument also sits across the way from a large athletic complex being built for the 2020 ASEAN Games. It is clearly a display of political pride and might. One might say unvarnished propaganda. On the ride home, we found ourselves talking about the importance of uniting narratives in national identity.

But before we left, we trod through the entire narrative display panel by panel by panel, slowly watching sun change its shadows on the carved faces. One, near the beginning, captivated me for some time. It’s intimate brutalities are historically accurate.

“During the war,” said my tuk tuk driver as we reached the airport, “it was just me and my sister. We were separated from our parents. Then my mom had five more children after it was over.”

I expelled a sigh of relief. “So your family survived?”

“Yes,” said the driver. “Five more children!” he chuckled. “And I’m the eldest.” He stared at the road ahead, thinking a swirl of thoughts I couldn’t intuit. He seemed to want to discuss it with me during the thirty minutes we would know one another. “You have freedom in America,” he said, shaking his head. “I just…worry for my sons. And their education.”

“They sound very smart,” I replied. At the time, I assumed he was worried about affording his sons’ education, or about whether they would be successful in their pursuits, and maybe that is he that is what he meant. But it occurred to me later that, maybe not.

We arrived at the airport, and the driver dropped me off, and rode back in to the traffic.

*

Another Room in Heaven

For someone who has spent 15 years in Nepal, I’ve travelled very little in the country, choosing instead to burrow further and further in to a single community, a single home, a place where now twelve year olds have always thought of me as a part of their world. It was only a few years ago that I suddenly thought: I’d like to explore. I’ve started stetting aside a few days every few years to go climb out on a spine of rock some place, in some location that percolates on a back burner in my mind until it bubbles over and asserts itself: this is the time, go here.  Then life adapts around it.

The Way to Muktinath

One way to travel is to go to see things that are new and unfamiliar and exciting or challenging – like that time I went to Murad Khane in Afghanistan, or when I floated in the Dead Sea, or the month I spent in New Orleans doing oral histories for StoryCorps after Hurricane Katrina.  But this is something else, a magnetic pull to a place that is already inside me, a dot on a primal map created a long time ago.  In 2013, Prem and I went to Mardi Himal by a little-traveled route comprised largely of goat trails snaking along a blade of snowy ridge that rims a basin of Annapurna giants. It was winter, everything wide and blinding, the sunrise spilling pomegranates and mandarins and pineapple juice all over the jaws of the cold earth. When I got there, it made sense.

Now it is summer. Muktinath sits north of Pokhara between Lower and Upper Mustang, a stone’s throw from the Tibetan border, and houses a famous complex of Buddhist and Hindu temples. For some time now I’ve been pulled north, toward the areas of Nepal influenced by Tibetan culture, and also where the landscape climbs up and stays high, where the trees fall away and leave a desert mountainscape that stretches off to the Tibetan plateau, a mystery, an uncrossable border. In the winter even local residents often come down from Mustang to the valley to escape the unforgiving snow and cold.

Prem Bhinaju and I met a bus by a curb in Lakeside early on Friday morning. It was headed to Jomsom, which is only a 15 minute flight from Pokhara, but unlike crystalline winter, the summer is dense and foggy and flights have not come or gone from Jomsom in a week. That leaves us with what should be a ten hour bus ride. You know where this is going.

There’s the obligatory 2.5 hour delay when a bearing that has to do with steering left needs fixing, and magically, the Bagloon Highway produces an auto shop strewn with hulking shells of buses and tractors and cars and unidentifiable transport components, so we pull over to fix the bearing. We set off again around noon under ten-ton heat, but I am relieved to be on the move with my day pack and with Prem, my most familiar travel companion. The road winds upward and the Kali Gandaki River drops below us, black and rumbling with coal-colored silt that will settle by the time the torrent gets to in Pokhara, where it is called the Seti Gandaki, or White River. The road becomes a road story that I can’t tell because my mom reads this blog, but even passengers local to Jomsom are praying and squeezing their eyes shut while we loll side to side on a road that, from afar, looks like a child dragged a pencil across triangles of high mountain forest and then got distracted with a sandwich. In the end, aside from knuckles white from clinging to the seat in front of me as if that can save me from a long descent in to the Kali Gandaki – one of the deepest gorges in the world – I come out fine. Prem and I arrive in Jomsom at 7:30pm.

I know I’m in Nepal, but Jomsom looks like a ski town and I have to keep reminding myself that this is Mustang. We clomp along a stone-laid main street with quaint local shops and hills rising up behind them. In the U.S. we’d call the hills mountains, but in Nepal, the mountains are the sheared white rocks twice as tall that are currently lost in monsoon cotton one row further back on the horizon.  It is hard to believe anything could tower over the already looming hills – I remember thinking the same thing at Ground Zero, knowing that Lower Manhattan’s massive skyscrapers had been dwarfed by the Twin Towers.  It is impossible to imagine land up in the middle of the sky, but I know Diligiri is there, behind the clouds, a thousand stories high.  We settle in at a hotel.  Local plum wine.

Our walk to Muktinath starts the next morning and takes two days, one long day up and one long day back. We walk along the Kali Gandaki in a landscape created contradictorily by the upward smashing of tectonic plates and the downward gouging of receding glaciers. The result is a desolate, heaving geometry, eons of history piled atop one another and laid bare straight from river to the sky. Dwellings impossibly carved out by people who once migrated southward from Tibet are clustered in the sweeping rock face, and the occasional modern village is a patch of irrigated greenery in a borderless expanse of brown. This should be the province of giants, but we are just tiny people, our feet sliding over bazillions of even tinier rocks, where fossils casually present themselves because nobody has owned them yet. They were once underwater and they have been here forever and ever and ever.

The climb starts. No houses, no villages, no ancient dwellings for hours. Prem Bhinaju finds a fossilized creature with gold flecks in it. Uncharacteristically , I haven’t exercised in weeks and my legs feel like playdough, but it’s cool. I have an actual fossil in my pocket.

We arrive in Muktinath around five, eat something, and rest for a while. Then, because tomorrow will be a long day and we’ll be pressed for time, we go out to explore the area around the outside of temple complex.  That will leave us time to go to the temple itself in the morning.  I leave most of my things behind except for my SLR camera and rain jacket. Now that it’s evening a slight mist is drifting downwards, uncommitted to getting us fully wet. Dusk turns dreamlike and enchanted.

Prem says we’ll walk up to the place where the path to Thorong-La pass starts. We would need a whole extra day to get to the 5,416m pass, but there is time, at least, to lay eyes on its direction. We circle the wall of the temple complex, and two nuns are just leaving, one wearing hot pink sneakers. I ask if the nuns if they were born here in Muktinath and they say yes, and even though that is a completely unremarkable fact, to me it seems incredible because I am so far away from the world I know. They bustle off to the nunnery.

We climb quietly past parts of the complex wall that have cracked and broken in the earthquake two years ago, and emerge in a widening field that slopes upward and disappears in to a fog. “The way to Thorong-La,” Prem says. He says we are at 2800m. I say, obviously, we should walk up another 200m, so even though evening is turning denser, up we go in to the haze.

Some ways ahead, a walking bridge is slung across the gorge to our left and we climb until we reach the concrete block anchoring the bridge to the ground on our side of the river. Without any comment, Prem sits and I follow, and then I lie back and stare in to the unremitting white sky. No variations in density or color, no dragons or bears or wizard faces, just an endless, depthless white.   Further up the green rocky slope, on the other side of the embankment of fog, is the path to Thorong-La; below us is everything we’ve come from.

Quiet.  I am filled with a profound gratitude for Prem’s company, his silence, the easy way we can walk up to this concrete block and sit on it at dusk and do nothing at all.

After fifteen minutes, I decide to cross the bridge, for much the same reason we walked up 200 meters. We’re on one side of a bridge, so it should be crossed.  The first step out over the edge ofthe gorge sends a thrill through my nerves, and then out I plod out over the wires, which undulate a little with my steps, until I am standing directly over the water gushing down from the high mountains.  A thunderous cloud of sound rises up through my bones and engulfs my senses; I can barely hear my own breath. It feels like the river is running right through me, and when I shout or chant the water picks up the sound and rumbles away with it taking my voice down down down down to all the places we were.

The instant I step back on to the concrete block the mountain silence envelopes me again; magically, the roar of all that water is audible only between the walls of the gorge. Prem takes a turn on the suspension bridge, and then we head back down the green slope and circle around the other side of the giant temple complex.  Night is creeping in slowly, as if stalling a little to give us just enough time to see one more wonderful thing.

We come to an area of the hill I have been viewing from below in the mist: rows and rows and rows and rows of prayer flags strung behind small white structures scattered high up on a hill. I studied Tibetan Buddhist funerary rituals for a course I took this year, and throughout the evening, my sights have been trained here. When we passed the nun in the hot pink shoes, I pointed this way and asked if it was okay to pay a visit. She said yes. Prem and I make our way over the hill toward the fluttering prayer flags.  He walks down toward the road, and with barely a word, I go up.

I’m expecting to see signs of sky burial, but I realize quickly that this is a land burial site. Everything feels unified and still, but also light and high. There are small cairns everywhere, placed for passed spirits to find refuge to heaven, and as I walk between the grave sites, it suddenly occurs to me to ask Prem, still at an audible distance, if he thinks I could build a cairn. Why not, he says, and sits down on a rock facing out over the endless prehistoric topography while I climb higher up and find a patch of ground abutting the faded squares of color calling tut-tut-tut as the wind tugs them from their strings.

Prem never asks why. He just waits.  And when I have built it, a stack of stones among all the stones and fossils, another room in heaven, and when I have sat over it and cried for some minutes, I walk down the hill and we leave.

Night falls at last.

 

*

 

Between the Corn and the Millet

I try to imagine Aamaa’s life as it was back then, when the water springs in Kaskikot weren’t concrete taps but delicate pools that stirred up silt if you took from them too quickly. As a girl and young wife of 13, she sometimes had to sleep overnight in line while other women had their turns gently lifting the water jug by jug. By the time Aamaa was 22, she was a widow with two young girls of her own, and it would still be years before a bus came to Kaskikot, or a door was put on the entrance to her one-room house.

There have been many impossibles in Aamaa’s life. She raised two educated daughters who could split wood and carry twice their weight by grade school. The civil war started, but it was elsewhere, in other villages. The electric mill came; the bus came; the tourists came; other people converted their houses to homestays and restaurants. Aamaa’s house is off the road in a cul-de-sac of mountainside that nobody wanders past by accident. Even after some foreigners bought the patch of land on the hill behind the house and built a fancy hotel there, passers-by from Korea and Israel and Japan and Australia hiked past with their eyes straight ahead on the sprawling white peaks, rarely looking down to notice Aamaa and Didi and Bishnu there in the sunny yard, drying grain.

The likelihood that I would wander through the door one day has always seemed both insane and inevitable.  And over the last fifteen years, I’ve mostly thought of my life opposite Bishnu’s.  We were the two girls born at the polar ends of the universe, the ones who looked at each other and thought, what if I were her?  She’s been in the U.S. for eight and a half years now, while I spend significantly more time in Nepal than she does.

Aamaa was always more like the soil: everywhere, earthy, constant, essential.  She has all the nutrients and produces all the food and water and shelter.  Aamaa keeps the house alive, the field and gardens fertile from cycle to cycle, the fire crackling.  No matter how many people show up, Aamaa feeds us all. And no matter how many people go away, no matter how empty this house gets or how many of her birthdays pass, she keeps the water jugs full and the seeds sorted in dusty bottles. Aamaa has spent five decades in this village.

I had no idea Bishnu had applied for Aamaa to get a tourist visa to the U.S. to see Bishnu graduate from her Master’s program in information technology. Nobody told me that Prem and Didi took Aamaa to Kathmandu for the very first time last May to go to the U.S. Embassy, or that on the way there, Aamaa didn’t eat any cooked food because she couldn’t be sure who had prepared it. A few weeks later, I answered my cell phone in the parking lot at Walmart, and Bishnu announced that Aamaa had been given a five-year multiple entry tourist visa to America.

“What?” I said.

“For my graduation!” Bishnu explained ecstatically. She hasn’t seen her mom since 2013.

This explanation failed to explain all the questions I couldn’t think of.  Obviously the idea of having Aamaa make this trip has floated through my brain millions of times, but it was the ultimate what if ever.  The craziest version of everything.  Part of me thought that maybe this was all kind of a whim – a thing that might happen next year, or something. But Aamaa had sold the buffalo within a week.

On my way to Nepal in June, I tried to imagine having Aamaa with me on the way back. First I tried to digest the most obvious and superficial matters. For example, how would I explain the enormous statue of a teddy bear bent over with an apparent stomachache dramatically bottom lit in the Doha airport?

I can’t even explain that to you.

When I arrived in Kaski, everybody’s greetings had adjusted to the most up-to-the-minute state of affairs. “Laura! You’re here! How long are you staying? So, you’re taking Aamaa back with you, eh?”

Only Aamaa and I seemed cautious and uncertain with our excitement. The whole thing is so surreal that even the discussion feels like an entirely new and foreign continent. For fifteen years Aamaa and I have had what is now a very well established routine: I come to Kaskikot, we eat together in the kitchen, we go plant things with neighbors and churn milk and carry water from the tap, I fix up some things that need fixing in the house, we gossip about family here in Nepal and all the far away people not in Nepal. Aamaa knows them all – my whole extended family and a good number of my friends who have been to visit – largely through stories. But she’s the stable point, not just for us, but for herself also.

“So we’re going to America, huh?” Aamaa says as we are sitting on the porch, as if testing out the statement.

“Sure seems like it, right?”

We stare out at the tall curly corn stalks, crowding out the grassy millet that’s planted between them.

“What is the name of your District?”

“Pascal, do you know how many states there are in the U.S.?” I ask, and he doesn’t know, so I explain again about Virginia and Maryland and Connecticut and North Carolina.

We discuss departure dates because I have to change plane tickets that currently have me going home from Cambodia, where I’m visiting Bethy in August; Amaa knows Dr. Bethy, because she’s been here too. We mull over how long Aamaa’s trip to America should be. A month would probably be good – she might be bored after a month?

“I’ll go after cutting down the corn, and I’ll come back to cut down the millet,” Aamaa suggests with sudden firmness.

That seems good, I agree.  That is more orderly – maybe because we can see the corn.

Long silences. What, exactly, should we should be planning?

“Bishnu suggested I should get some kurta salwaars made,” Aamaa says. “I guess you aren’t really allowed to wear a sari in the U.S.”

“You’re allowed Aamaa. But a kurta salwaar might be more comfortable.”

“Ok we’ll plan a day to do that in Pokhara,” Aamaa states. “I guess we have to leave time to have it stitched and everything, right? We should go soon.”

“It only takes a couple days, but we can go soon.”

“Nah, you should just pick something out and I’ll meet you at the tailor,” Aamaa adjusts. “I don’t know anything about picking fabric.” Honestly, in sixty years, Aamaa has never walked in to one of Nepal’s fabric shops and picked out material for an outfit, which is how literally everybody in Nepal gets their clothes.

“No no no,” I insist, “I think you should definitely get to do the fabric choosing. Pick your own color, something you like.” I have to talk her in to it.

A few weeks later Aamaa takes the bus to Pokhara and waits for Pascal and I to come meet her at a chautara in Chiple Dunga. She can find her way to Didi’s house, but for the most part she prefers assistance to get around the city. Between the three of us, Pascal is the only one who can properly read in Nepali. We set off up the road to go to the fabric shop.

Laura chiama, let’s have some ice cream,” Pascal suggests wisely, because I am the sucker who will pretty reliably buy us all ice cream. As we pay, Aamaa has sat down on the low wall at the foot of the store, which is not a seating area, and Pascal and I go with it. I hand Aamaa her first ice cream cone.

“Do I eat this bottom part, the biscuit?” Aamaa asks.

“Yes, but don’t eat the paper,” Pascal instructs.

“I’m not going to eat the paper,” Aamaa says.

I can’t even remotely transpose any of this to Connecticut. I ask a passer-by to take our picture, and as you can imagine, she looks at the three of us – the Aamaa who has very obviously just beamed in from the village, the entirely incongruous American, and this regular Nepali boy being raised in the city – and gets a huge grin as she takes our picture. What could our story possibly be?

We set off again. Aamaa has brought along a broken umbrella from the house. “Laura, where’s a place that we can fix this umbrella?” she asks. I blink, there must be an answer to that, but I’ve never thought about an umbrella-fixing place.

“We should probably just replace it,” I say, feeling guilty for my wastefulness and mental laziness. I don’t have the energy to try to figure out where the umbrella fixer might be and there’s really no excuse for it.

As we wander to the center of town I’m distracted and disoriented because everything is inside out. When I first came here I couldn’t say a word or do a single thing for myself, and in Kaski, Aamaa runs everything.  We get a few kilometers off her turf and suddenly she is the foreigner and I’m the one who knows what we’re doing. She has also brought with her a heavy bag of cucumbers and other items for Didi and Bhinaju and the boys, and she’s carrying it on her shoulder, the way people do in the village where nothing is flat.  Pascal is twelve and he goes sprinting out in to traffic as we cross the street and I pay him no heed whatsoever because I’m dodging people to keep eye on Aamaa, having no calibration for how much I do or don’t need to hover over her in traffic. We probably haven’t walked through the city together more than two or three times in a decade and a half, and never just us – not once.

We arrive at the fabric shop.

There are hundreds of colors and textures of cloth to choose from. Aamaa looks hopeful that I will take over. As a young man begins removing options from the shelf she bends over them. He throws one on top of another and another and another and another. Her hands settle on a jubilant orange outfit.

“I like this one,” she suggests. She looks at me as though asking if that one is a good one to like.

Within ten minutes, Aamaa and Pascal and I are pawing through dozens of kurta salwaars, trading opinions on what Aamaa should wear in America. She picks two, and we take them to the tailor, who takes out his tape measure. He’s going to make something just for her, in her size and shape, to wear between the corn and the millet.

“I think you should do short sleeves,” I say. “Definitely short sleeves.”

“I don’t know – I think they should be a bit longer. To the elbow,” Aamaa says. The tailor agrees – maybe longer sleeves for an Aamaa. No way, I say, short sleeves look best on a kurta and it will still be hot in September. Aamaa studies her arms for a minute, apparently imagining them in a very standard piece of clothing she’s never had.

“Yeah. That’s how I want them,” she concludes. “To the elbow.”

*

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