The Video Nepal’s Been Waiting For

 

In thirteen years, I have spent at least one of every season here.  I’ve cut rice and planted millet.  I’ve harvested wood.  I’ve cut wheat, and planted corn and churned milk the old fashioned way.  I’ve chased the chicken around and painted the house for Dashain.  Most of these things I’ve done multiple times, and believe me, I received plenty of impassioned feedback as I tried them out.  These are all activities people in rural Nepal learn from toddlerhood.  Seeing a grown woman who can’t flip a pan of rice grain properly is basically impossible not to comment on.

Dec. '03

I’ve pretty much learned a lot of these things because I absolutely insisted on doing them terribly while I figured them out.  In some cases, I’ve really earned my stripes.  In others, let’s just say that people have become happy with the American version of, for example, collecting water.

But there’s one season I’ve purposefully avoided, and it’s the rice planting one.  Even tasks I don’t much enjoy, such as those involving fertilizer (i.e. buffalo poop), are things I have determined to throw myself in to.  It’s like how, when I used to take winter diving lessons, we had a “fun day” where we got to use all of the diving platforms at Montgomery Aquatic Center, and that meant that, for fun, I had to make myself jump off the petrifying 10-meter platform that was level with the third-floor spectator section.  I absolutely hated fun day.  But it never remotely crossed my mind that, if the 10 meter platform was available, I wouldn’t jump off it.

This brings us to the topic of the hot, buggy, wet rice planting season.  I think you get my point.  I stayed in the U.S.  No fun day.

It’s not like this was very clever and nobody noticed.  Every year I am asked when I will come to plant rice.  People will list all of my accomplishments to date, and exclaim as to how I have never participated in this one activity that is so central to the culture and basic survival of Nepal.

Ok, so here it is.  I determined to jump off the 10-meter platform this summer.  Partially because as you get taller, it doesn’t look as high.  I over came my distaste for the idea of the monsoon last summer, and this summer, I appreciate the torrential rain tremendously.

So last weekend I joined Saano Didi’s family in their rice paddies.  Govinda’s daughter Sulojana came with me.  And the amazing thing about waiting 13 years to do this: not one person cried out at how terrible I was at planting rice.

IMG_0801

“You have to teach her, sikaunu parchha, you have to teach her,” all the ladies cooed.

Silky mud, bright clothes, plants in your hands.

“Laura, you’ll be back in November, right?” Neru asked.

“Yep.”

“Because that’s when we can eat this rice.  Make sure you’re back.”

 

 

 

Waiting Out Rain

 

I’ve just arrived in Nepal, and the dust and diesel is shining on the streets of Kathmandu, stilled by summer rain.  Honestly for a whole decade I didn’t want to be here during the hot and buggy monsoon, but last summer I discovered that of course, like any season, the rainy time has a unique and indispensible magic.  The water clatters and pounds, washing everything and making us wait.  It comes down too hard to walk around or do anything.

Just wait.

It’s strange to re-enter this season which was so intense last year, when I arrived to a stunned and grieving city dotted with blue and yellow tents.  It seems that this country has basically just plugged on, absorbing the earthquake on to its pile of other messes, the unlucky people who lost the most – possessions, limbs, relatives – doing what people do: surviving.  The next day just keeps coming, and for anyone whose life wasn’t irreparably altered, that catastrophe isn’t the topic of conversation any more.

Things for me, however, have changed a lot.  When the earthquake threw us in to the ring with the big multinational agencies, it helped show our tiny staff the value of our community-level expertise.  This spring we launched our dental project in Lamjung district where we did earthquake relief.  

In the fall I also started a Master’s Degree in social work, and I’ve been able to incorporate a lot of what I’m learning in to our program right away.  Guys, seriously, a lot of this stuff I’ve been trying to explain has an entire body of theory and practice associated with it called human rights!  People are doing rights-based health care at the United Nations!  I found out I am basically an expert on rights-based dental health care in rural Nepal…WHO KNEW?!  (Who becomes an expert in that by accident?)

Ok, just wait.

Also, a few years ago, we thought we should do some baseline surveys in our villages.  Not too focused on the concept of sample sets, we thought we’d survey ALL the households…3,374 of them distributed over various hills and more hills, actually.  Because as long as you’re doing it, do it, right?  I wrote a survey with input from various people, we trained some high school students as surveyors, and just last week – 2 years later – we completed a 58-page report on this survey (thanks, Sarah Diamond!).  Come to find out there’s very little current research of this kind in Nepal, and this report is a thing.  I am taking it around like my visiting cousin and introducing it to everyone.  Here is a picture of our report.  Let’s call her Cousin Mae.  She’s in color, with pie charts and clones and everything.
FullSizeRender-2
All this has come together in a very cool way.  Over the course of this year, three major U.S. Universities have developed a potential interest in partnering with us for research or medical collaboration.  It feels awesome!

So with all that in mind, this summer, I’ll be doing a few things:

  1. Visiting each of our ten clinic locations (past and present).
  2. Establishing a Rural Dentistry Coalition in Nepal to advocate for policy level recognition of our model, so that rural dental clinics can be established systemically for all villages through the national health care system (eventually).
  3. Laying groundwork for future research partnerships (hey, positive thinking!)
  4. Revisiting some of the places we did earthquake relief  (unforgettable)
  5. Planting rice with Aamaa and getting myself in to as many embarrassing situations as possible (inevitable, really).

IMG_6059 (1)

I am very ready for all of this following knee surgery in February.  At physical therapy, I do a warm-up each day where I put the treadmill on “maximum incline” of about 20 degrees and walk for 10 minutes.  Yay!  Now I am here and our newly launched Sindure Clinic is reached by a 5 hour hike.  That means physical therapy + dental clinic supervision at the same time.  This is not a deal you can find just anywhere, people.  Take note.  It’s not even a limited-time offer.

I’ll sign off with a few lines from a recent article in the Guardian that I really appreciated.  It can be very hard to stay motivated doing this this kind of thing, even though it’s true I sometimes get to pretend my iPhone is a grain-sifting woven pan and put it on my head, and we can reliably say it’s not a cubicle job.  But the pervasive story of the American (Social) Entrepreneur is hard to see past, with its celebration of saviorism, speed, and simplicity…as if there’s an equation to solve or a prize at the end.  But society doesn’t work that way, and often building things is just hard work.  You only stick out when you screw up; most of your ideas are 78% wrong the first 8 times, but there’s something good in there; when you disappear, that means it’s working.  If being humbled isn’t exalting, you’re in the wrong business.  I decided to tape this bit up on my door:

“I understand the attraction of working outside of the US. But don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity. Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous. Go because you want to do something difficult. Don’t go because you want to talk. Go because you want to listen.”

And then…just wait.

*

IMG_6334

The Road We Followed

 

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop in Lakeside, and overheard a woman at another table on the phone, trying to figure out how to help a village in Dhading. When she hung up she was frustrated and kind of flustered. We got to talking, and it turned out her name is Janet, she’s from Taiwan, and she has a friend named Bishnu in this village in Dhading, Tripureswor, Ward #6.  She explained all the ways she’d been trying, unsuccessfully to help Bishnu’s village.

I don’t know why, but after asking her a few questions, I told her I’d try to figure out what was going on in Tripureswor, Ward #6. Dhading is a few districts over from Pokhara, quite far from us, but I’ve learned enough about the system now that I figured I could at least make a few calls and get more information for Janet.

Plus, although I’m proud of the work we’ve been doing in the lower percentage of damage, I can’t help but feel drawn to at least see the higher percentage of damage first hand. So I was fascinated with Tripureswor Ward #6, because it fell in my lap.

I made some early phone calls a few weeks ago and confirmed, to my surprise, that Janet was correct in thinking that so far Oxfam had only provided 2 bags of rice, hygiene kits, and 20 kg of rice seed to residents of Tripureswor. Any other work there had been done by small, private groups.  I learned that out of 947 households in Tripureswor Village, 924 had been destroyed or damaged.  Fifteen people died.

I never actually saw Janet again in person, although I called to tell her what I’d found out, and she left to return to Taiwan a few weeks later, and recentlyIMG_5124 sent me a disappointed email saying she’d never been able to get anything together to help Bishnu’s village. One organization after another had either refused to help, or said they’d help and then backed out.

But Tripureswor Ward #6 has stayed in my mind. Since Lamjung is one district in the right direction and we were going there on Thursday and Friday to deliver tin, I called Janet’s friend Bishnu on Wednesday and introduced myself. On Saturday morning, Dilmaya and I decided to keep going on from Lamjung to Dhading.

Additionally, my good friend Anne has just arrived from the U.S. Anne and I met in the one Nepali class I’ve ever taken, during the summer of 2006 at Cornell. We are a great pair because she can read Sanskrit and speak royal Nepali, and I can’t read at all but I can talk with animals; she did her PhD and wrote a book on modern politics and public ritual in Nepal, making her an expert in local history and religion, and I am the world’s leading expert in carrying things on my head with village wives and cracking jokes in my rural accent. Between the two of us there’s pretty much no situation that we don’t have covered.

So on Saturday morning, Dilmaya and I took a bus east from Lamjung and Anne took a bus west from Kathmandu, and we met by the highway in Malekhu. And from there: to Dhading.

This is now the part of the story about a very, very long muddy road.  The second and main part of the journey, a few dozen kilometers from Dhading Besi to Khahare, took us five hours.

We passed this jam,

IMG_5131

and this jam,

IMG_5127

…let’s just zoom in on that grandma on the back of the motorbike with the goat.

IMG_5130

 

Inevitably, the bus gets stuck, because someone had decided that morning that it was a good idea to use a bulldozer to churn up the dirt on this road to improve it.  During the monsoon.

 

We sit in the bus for a long time, it is raining, I have no idea where we are, I play some Amy Winehouse on my phone and entertain everyone with my village accent. Eventually we get out of the bus and we start walking. We passed some people standing near the bus clucking their tongues, saying, “The dozer had just dug up this road and made it so nice and flat. And then just like that the rain came.”

I just want to use this opportunity to make a public service announcement: IT’S MONSOON SEASON, PEOPLE.  The rainy season.

IMG_2319

Dilmaya and me walking to Khahare (photo credit: Anne).

 

Now that we were all used to the idea that we would not be arriving in Tripureswor at 2pm or 5pm, but more like 8:30pm, or maybe never, the walk was nice. It gave us an opportunity to take in more and for me to take photos of the misty evening that had turned the glassy rice paddies blue and green.

IMG_0654

 

First of all: Dhading is nothing like Archalbot and Bharte. Almost all the houses collapsed or became tear-downs.

IMG_0636

 

However, the rebuilding that’s already happened here is amazing. We realized right away that even though we don’t have the capacity to do tin delivery in a place like this, we don’t need to. House after house had been fully demolished by hand, materials organized in to piles, and new homes made from extremely innovative techniques. Our favorite was this one, made almost entirely out of doors and windows.

IMG_0635

 

We followed this road for what seemed like forever to its endpoint in Khahare. Bishnu’s mother came to meet us, and led us across a suspension footbridge over the river (this river and footbridge, has been one of the major obstacles to efficient aid delivery in this Tripureswor). And then there we were, at Bishnu’s house in Tripureswor Ward #6. We left Lamjung at 8am, and arrived here at 8:30pm.

IMG_0779

 

Not sure what we’re doing here, but I guess we’ll find out, and then I’ll tell Janet about it.

.      .      .

IMG_0745

Bishnu’s recently built tin house, sitting among the corn fields in Tripureswor Ward #6.

 

 

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.

IMG_0147

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.

IMG_0202

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

.      .      .

IMG_0271

Follow Up in Bharte

 

Today Dilmaya and I went for a follow up visit to Bharte. I made my first trip here a little less than a week ago. We walked from Archalbot to Lakure, the hilltop where Bal Kumari lives, and it took five hours. I did some recording with Bal Kumari because I hope to include her in a radio story.

We visited a large school in Banjang that needs a classroom for grades 9 and 10, who are currently holding classes under this tarp.

IMG_9802

Banjang had a whole strip of houses in bad shape. A local shopkeeper, Laxmi, is going to to help oversee the construction of bamboo shelters here, so that we can come back next week with tin roofs.

IMG_9824We were especially popular with these kids, who followed us around this ridge top until we got to the house of the girl on the right, Ganga.  As you can see, they’ve moved in with the buffalo, so we’re gonna bring them some tin for a new bamboo house too.

On our way home, we visited the group in Sirwari that I met on my first visit a little less than a week ago. Three families are living together under a tarp in the yard, and they’ve begun organizing to turn this in to a bamboo community house. I called Santa, a young mother there, to say we’d be stopping by in the afternoon, and we were really excited to that they’ve already started! There was lots of bamboo piled up, ready for construction, and their tarp shelter had already been improved with thick bamboo posts.

We enjoyed some corn for snacks, and I took a lot of crap for
IMG_9839eating like a monkey. Nepalis eat fresh corn by pulling the kernels out with their fingers, not sticking the entire thing in to their faces like heathens. Oh well. It’s not the first thing I had a different way of doing. And it makes for a good photo.

It was after dark by the time the two of us wandered in to a hotel in Bote Orar. We walked for ten hours today, all of it either climbing up or climbing down. We were too tired to even discuss our day over dinner, so it wasn’t till the next morning that we rolled out of bed, still sore, and I took out my notebook so we could add up all the names and bundles of tin. We’ll come back next week to put roofs on over fifty homes!

.      .     .

IMG_9826

 

Glamping and Magic Cake Houses

 

Reading over my blog entries, I’m realizing I’ve left out some of the nicest details of the hospitality we’ve received in Archalbot this week. So let’s just put them all together.

Detail #1: Glamping

IMG_9481Dilmaya and I stayed at Kripa’s house. It’s standing, but unstable, so we’re all sleeping outside or in small rooms on the edges of the house. For years I’ve joked with Aamaa about going to sleep with the buffalo, or sending Pascal and Aidan to sleep with the buffalo when they’re being cheeky. Now, I can say I’ve actually slept with the buffalo. This glamping site (a phrase I learned this winter when a new “glamorous camping” hotel was going up in Pokhara) was one of the best places I’ve ever gotten to sleep. I loved dozing off each night in the open air and waking up slowly each morning to a cool breeze rustling over the corn, the green hills coming in to focus through the mosquito net.

Later in the week it started raining, so Kripa’s mother moved the bed to the porch. Cute, right? Our last night in Archalbot it rained heavily all night and all morning, and I lay on this cot listening blissfully to the tap-tap-tap-tap on the tin roof.

IMG_9726

 

Detail #2: Dancing

The night before Robin and Colin left Archalbot, we had a dance party at Kushal’s house, in the same yard where we first met this whole community just a short week and a half ago. It was so much fun. All the uncertainty and worry that the earth bag house hadn’t been finished, who had and hadn’t fulfilled what responsibility, what would be done next and who’d been let down or left out…everyone just kicked back and had a big old dance of it.  Which is how we handle potentially stressful situations in Nepal.

IMG_9741

 

Detail #3: This Grandma

For the days when we had lots of help with the earth bag house, everybody, and I mean everybody, pitched in. You just couldn’t miss this grandma, who unfailingly monitored the scene all day, and during stone-breaking, sat with her legs in a perfect South Asian squat, clicking stones in to pebbles.  One day, I was loading rocks on to our makeshift carriers, and she came over and carefully began placing stones one at a time on to the tarp, with this kind of tentative body language that said, “I mean why not? It’s the thing to do.  Let’s see about it.”  After I got too excited and overloaded one bundle, we made the next one a little lighter so she could carry it with me. I couldn’t choose between these two amazing photos so you’re getting both of them.

IMG_9608

IMG_9611

 

Detail #4: Breaking stones

IMG_9624The foundation of the earth bag house is made of alternating layers of stone and packed dirt, and the first two layers of the house itself are made from sacks filled with little stones, which I now know to be called giti. In order to get enough stones, Mahendra’s family demolished one of the unstable rooms of their house, which was highly satisfying since the house will eventually need to be taken down anyway. Then, for days, there were all these people just sitting around clinking away at stones. A lot of the women and kids worked incredibly hard on this.

I’ve always had an association between stone-breaking and the awful child labor that you often see in the river bed: poor families breaking stones all day in the hot sun, children out of school. But this scene was totally different. It was like some kind of anti-submission-to-earthquake factory. It felt defiant and exhilarating having all these people in the community dismantling their own home in order to put the pieces in to the heavy foundation of a new house.

IMG_9603

 

Detail #5: Flour

We used recycled sacks for the earth bag house, and they had previously contained flour. A team of two to three people was fully devoted to shaking out each and every sack to gather the palmfuls of flour remaining in each bag. Over the course of hundreds of sacks, the flour piled up like so. And, as Mariah pointed out, our earth-bag house was also something of a cake-house, and our team looked like a bakery.

IMG_9594

 

Detail #6: Kushal

I interviewed Kushal twice. Once, so he could show me around his house (look for him in an upcoming radio piece for BBC’s The World). The second time, to ask him what he thought about this whole housing thing, and what his perfect house looks like in his imagination. He talked to me about magic, in english, and I recorded it:

“Everything is magic. I walk, you walk, it is a magic. We can jump, we can speak, anything is magic. This is a house, it is also a magic. In the stone age, there was nothing like this house. In the stone age people lived in caves and they didn’t feel safe because animals can any time harm them. But we can feel safe here. There are many inventions like radio, microphone, camera, and DVD, laptop, computer and radio, it is also a magic. The people are developing magic. I don’t know surely, but I want to do some magic in my life. My life is also a magic that someone has gifted me, and your life is also a magic that someone has gifted you.”

.      .      .

IMG_9437

You Win Some, You Delay Some Wins

 

Well the earth bag house was coming along pretty well, but this week the rain started, which means planting season has begun. Colin has been working incredibly hard for hours a day in the heat, along with Moriah, an American volunteer who found out about the project on the facebook page that’s being used to coordinate earth bag building projects in Nepal. But completing an earth bag house in a week requires 8-10 people working all day, and we’ve had trouble getting consistent manpower from Archalbot.

I also have to confess that my part in the collaboration with the earth bag project went differently than I expected. After our experience in Parbat, I thought our main housing challenge was motivating people to gather bamboo (or other natural materials from the environment or their damaged homes) and build good quality shelters for us to provide tin roofing for. I expected, at the start of this week, that the earth bag project would be leverage for other local building projects, starting with Uttam’s bamboo house – in other words, that people’s interest in seeing the earth bag home completed would motivate them to fulfill our requirement that they also build a bamboo home for another especially needy family. I also expected that not everyone in Archalbot needed or wanted to move out of their cracked homes and live in bamboo houses. We thought we’d end up with be two high-quality sample homes in Archalbot – one earth bag, one bamboo – and residents would choose to one or the other them if they desired.

Instead, what happened is that once Uttam’s bamboo house started getting built, everyone became extremely motivated to go cut bamboo and make similar homes. It was much more successful than I ever imagined. And the earth bag house, while a brilliant long-term building solution, is extremely labor and resource intensive compared to familiar local building methods such as bamboo. With time and money scarce, everyone quickly became pre-occupied with the solution that met their needs and existing skills most efficiently. By mid-week, the strategy had reversed: we were pushing people to finish the earth bag home as a requirement for further tin distribution for bamboo houses.

IMG_9716

Uttam’s family’s two bamboo houses under construction

I realize maybe this is starting to sound a little weird – us putting these conditions in place for aid distribution, leveraging one community project against another. But that’s often the best way to collaborate as well as introduce new concepts or infrastructure in a place where people are used to doing things a certain way, and where the hierarchy of priorities is a well-entrenched survival system. We use this principle all the time when we do dental care. We have to put conditions in place that wedge new priorities in to this hierarchy: providing treatment only at the clinic and requiring people to go there to access it; charging nominal fees; making sure local shopkeepers sell toothpaste, but not giving the toothpaste out for free, so that people have to buy it themselves from the same place they buy sugar and soap. The reason for this isn’t for our benefit, it’s that the goal of our dental project is not to distribute toothpaste or provide one-off treatments, but to elevate the overall level of long term, sustainable oral health care in the places we work.  That only happens when people reorder their own priorities and behaviors, no matter what country or situation they live in.

Similarly, the purpose of the earth bag house is to train people in an earthquake-safe, affordable building method. But at first, it’s just a weird performance using rice sacks and dirt, so you can’t blame IMG_9549people for wondering if it’s really worth their time. It’s important to leverage the attractive elements of the project: the creation of a new structure, the intrigue of a new idea brought by foreigners, the incentive that we’ll provide materials to trainees for building one of these houses themselves. If we can capture participation based on these points, we can hopefully keep people’s attention long enough to teach the skills we want to transfer.  Like our dental clinics, the point is to see people absorb this safe-building technique over the long term because they realize it has value.

So leveraging earth bags and bamboo against each other was a great idea, but the thing I didn’t anticipate was that the time of year and the urgent need for shelter would make the one of the two so much more attractive. So for anyone out there doing earth bag building, my suggestion is, wait until about late September, just before the harvest time. Better yet, the best time of year would be December or January, the only season when there’s any semblance of a real break from field work. While earth bagging is a fast, democratic construction method compared to a block or large mud and stone house, it does require a lot of city-based resources and labor compared to other readily available options. There are almost no families that have 8-10 people in their household who can work intensively for 8 hours a day for a week, and definitely not during rice planting season. That means that families will have to hire labor, and that means other people need to have time.

IMG_9720In the end, Colin and Robin decided to have Archalbot build a bamboo shelter around the half-finished earth bag home, with the goal of returning to finish it up in the fall. So here is a photo of our nepal’s first earth-bag-bamboo-tarp home. Tarp soon to be replaced by bamboo.

In the evening, the community had another meeting about why the earth bag house hadn’t been completed. There was quite a bit of contrition – people hadn’t fulfilled their promises to help out. But there was still confusion over the concept that the earth bag house was a training opportunity, not a private building project. No matter how many times we explained this – and I speak pretty fluent Nepali, and Dilmaya is Nepali – the tendancy has been for people to think of the earth bag project as “Mahendra’s house.”

In any case, there was this slightly downer of a meeting, and everyone vowed that when Robin returns in the fall they will all be totally ready to devote time to completing the training. Then we went home to eat dinner, and I got a phone call from little Kushal.

A speaker system had been set up in the yard, and we had a rocking dance party. And why not, man. You win some, you delay some wins. When I left in the morning, there was cut bamboo lying around all over the place, ready for construction.

.      .      .

IMG_9755

The Heart of the Matter

It seemed we took all the right steps to set up our first transitional housing project.   I attended two of the cluster meetings of INGOs and government, one on health and one on shelter. I read articles and talked with people who know about various forms of building and disaster housing. I learned two things: that we should keep design minimal and focus on raw materials and local building knowledge, and that we could only learn more by doing. Combine this with eight years of experience coordinating grassroots outreach in rural Nepal, and you have the basics.

We arranged our first project through our dental technician in Parbat, an assertive, organized woman named Anita who’s been very proactive about contacting us with information on communities in need in Parbat. We made a delivery of emergency tarps and supplies to Parbat a few weeks ago that went very well. Anita helped us locate a 23 homes in a village called Tanigaun where people were still living outside. She visited to do an assessment and collected data from the local government.

If all that weren’t enough preparation to rely on, our plan was basically just what the major relief agencies are doing: deliver sheets of corrugated tin roofing, and let people build using local materials. We planned to add a day working alongside a few especially vulnerable families to get their shelters up faster. On Friday night, Anita was on the phone with our field officer Gaurab until midnight, getting 25 bundles of tin, wire, and nails on to a tractor, which left the night before so that the supplies would be in Tanigaun in time for our arrival on Saturday.

IMG_9410We were all in good spirits as we drove out to Kusma city at 7:30am. Four of our Gaky’s Light Fellows came to help build. In Kusma we met Anita and switched over to a jeep, which had the requisite 20-something boys covered in car grease clunking around underneath it with medieval looking tools right up until the moment we spun out of the lot with Gaurab and his friends sitting on top of the vehicle.

This is the part of the story with another bumpy 3-hour jeep ride on a dirt road through rolling green hills and the occasional village. One guy had to keep getting out of the jeep and laying stones in the road for us to loll over ruts and mud pits.

Which makes a good story—but honestly, a lot of Nepal is like that. The greasy jeep guys are always under your rented vehicle; the road is always rutted and laying stones to get over the next rut is just called driving. People sit on top of unreasonable modes of transport wherever they are. None of this is actually exotic in Nepal. And this is an anti-romantic post.

So I’ll cut to the chase…Tanigaun didn’t go anything like we thought it would. There was the welcome, the flowers, a woman grabbing my arm in tears. All the things you see in pictures that make you think you’re doing the right thing.

It wasn’t until we began helping people bring their bundles of tin to their houses that we realized we weren’t doing the right thing.

IMG_9373Many of Tanigaun’s homes have been damaged, some of them quite badly, and many are unlivable. A number of people were sleeping in the school. I visited the Dalit (in non-PC terms, low caste) area, and there were houses with large holes in them. Other houses had cracks of varying sizes here and there.

But there was plenty of reusable tin in Tanigaun. What’s more, a variety of public bamboo structures had already been made, using the same technique we hoped to help people with in their own homes. But if residents of Tanigaun were already in the habit of constructing safe, plastered-bamboo structures, why would anyone sleep in a school for a month?

In fact, raw materials were lying around everywhere, but the people appeared confusingly passive. One group of families showed us a shelter where they had four families living together, and begged us to reallocate more tin to them for space. But they were using corrugated tin as siding under a tin roof – which, in case you’ve never lived in a shiny tin house during a pre-monsoon summer, is a miserable idea, while a bamboo house with a tin roof is cool, sound-insulated, and sturdy. They had enough tin to cover double the area they were living in.  Already.

And that’s really the heart of the matter. Sheets of corrugated tin aren’t going to help anyone who isn’t motivated to build under them. What we should have done in Tanigaun was to come with nothing but manpower, demolition tools, and moral support. We could have provided tin later as needed.

IMG_9380

My heart sank all the way to my feet and I felt so ashamed I wanted to disappear. With all that planning, we’d still made the ultimate beginner’s mistake: providing material goods in place of mobilization. People were bickering over unneeded tin sheets, both exasperated with us and trying to impress us with their individual causes, playing out a story I’ve watched a million times—I’ve designed my entire dental care project to subvert this very drama.

I should have known. But this is exactly what all the experts are doing – without the personal contact that we were able to bring in.

It wasn’t until late afternoon, when we were about to leave, that I stopped at a structure I’d passed a few times. There was one plastered bamboo hut sitting in the middle of the village, and I finally stood still and inspected it carefully. A line down the center gave away that half was old, half freshly made. Someone came over and told me it had been the house-owner’s kitchen, and after the earthquake, he’d simply added on another half.
“Ah – here he is now,” said the neighbor.

I looked up to see a man in shorts and a cap walking toward me, weathered with a look of curiosity lingering on his features that made him seem both coarse and naturally kind. He told me his name was Tulasi.

“Did you make this house?” I asked.

“Yes.” He didn’t elaborate. But he didn’t look the least bit impatient either.

I asked how long it had taken him.

“The first three days after the earthquake, I couldn’t really do anything. But then I started and it took me about a week and a half. My daughter and I built it.”

Tulasi had a funny way of talking, almost a stutter but not quite. In all likelihood, this man, who is also Dalit, has faced a great deal of discrimination in his life. His daughter told me that it’s just them and her little sister. Their mother is “gone” – either run off or passed away, I didn’t ask which.

“Where is your original house?” I asked.

He pointed to an empty lot across the road. He’d already demolished his old, cracked house. There was nothing but a pile of stones.

IMG_9392

Every now and then, I meet a type of person who has a prophetic quality. It has a sound like a thick velvet curtain that mutes the noise and nonsense of the rest of the world. You probably know what I’m talking about. These are usually the quietest people, the ones who are simply being their wisdom. They have nothing to prove, and often nothing they need to achieve. They simply exist with tremendous grace.

IMG_9396The inside of Tulasi’s bamboo house was cool and smooth. While not luxurious, it was far more than an emergency hut, and will certainly shelter this man and his two daughters through the monsoon. It will be safe in case of another earthquake. If they take care of it, it will last years, and indeed, the original half that was the kitchen turns out to be five years old. They have plenty of time to rebuild their main house in safety.

His daughter raised her hand towards a joint in the ceiling. “It was just leaking right here,” she said, “but we put your tin up already. So that’s solved.”

Everyone else’s tin was still sitting in their yard.

I wonder if Tulasi noticed that?

On the way home we had a long walk through the valley. The river rushing by and the green hills tumbling all around, endless in every direction, my thoughts spiraling out the same way, uncertain where to land. Everything seemed like a fool’s errand, and we were all disspirited.

I kept circling around this image of that simple bamboo house. This guy had built something magical in the middle of a gloomy swamp, and he didn’t even seem to notice or care that it was amazing. He just needed a house. It was only amazing because nobody else seemed to believe in houses – in every other respect, it was the most obvious thing in the universe.

It wasn’t until a few days later that Robin reminded me the World Food Program just distributed 1.5 million pounds of unedible rice, or that there was another disaster where over 800 people died from a relief distribution of moldy grain. You want to bat 100%, but that never happens. In our case, people will find some way of using our tin, even if it’s not the way we wanted, or even if they sell it. We learned an expensive lesson, but nobody was hurt – actually somebody will benefit, somewhere – and expensive lessons at scale cost millions of dollars.

And besides, I’d met Tulasi. Maybe when I tell my grandkids about being in Nepal after the great earthquake, the only part I will really need to make sure they understand will be Tulasi’s bamboo house.

We still had plenty of room to adapt for our next project. These were my meditations as I walked along the evening river with the rest of the group. I suddenly remembered Robin had called me earlier in the day while I was dealing with the tin situation. He’s my friend, the crazy truck driver, who gave a presentation on earth bag housing recently. I have desperately been wanting to try this out, but haven’t been able to find anyone to help. I rang him back.

“Bad news for us, good news for you,” Robin buzzed in to my ear over a bad cell connection. “The project we had planned in Gorkha has been cancelled. So we need to build an earth bag house before June 12.  Do you have a place where we can collaborate?”

.      .      .

 

IMG_9394

Boxes and Glass Cases

It’s been a tough arrival.  The monsoon is still clinging to the hills, thick and cloistering, and each afternoon it dumps an unremitting rain that I swear to God follows everybody inside.  The air itself is full of water; there’s no place to be dry.

And the truth is, I am also a drop suspended in mid air.  I’ve moved out of my apartment in New York, but I haven’t moved in to a new apartment in Connecticut, so all my things are in boxes in my parents’ basement.  The plan is that when I get back in two months I’m going to be working in a manual therapy clinic in Hartford…but it hasn’t actually happened yet.  It’s an idea, hovering in good faith around some boxes in a basement, waiting to be taken out and used.

That feeling has trailed me all the way to Pokhara–the hint that my life is full of theories.  Even IMG_2479though my contact with my projects in Nepal has increased a great deal in the past year through Skype and regular written reporting, and I have files and files of documents proving to me that these creations are real, they still feel like experiments when I re-encounter them on the ground.  Plus, there’s a big disappointment right off the bat: our first program director has left unexpectedly, after growing the Kaski Oral Health Care Project much less than we’d hoped since last fall.  I’m tired and frustrated and it’s enough with the freelancing.  I am ready to feel like I know what I’m doing, and some of this fits together, and it’s leading somewhere that matters.

Today it led back up the road to Kaski.  I went to Vindivasini Temple this morning to catch the bus on its way down, so I could save a seat before the bus arrived at the park, where a crowd  gathers around the door and starts pushing in to secure real estate for the ride up before people can even get out.  As I waited, I sat on a stoop with my duffel by my feet, watching a man selling vegetables across the road.  And I wondered again if this is all some kind of act.  I’m just doing the same thing over and over.  I can’t keep my grasp on what it’s about.

Other than a story.  The word comes to me again, and then again: Story.  Right out of the blue, at nine in the morning, I’m sitting on a stoop waiting for a bus, watching a man weigh a cauliflower, and the next thing I know I’m watching a story, and my identity is divorced from my soul.  Poof!  I am a character.

It must be natural that when you go through enough repetitions of something, even something incredible, it becomes unmoored from any particular episode.  And with that goes its singular miraculousness, because it’s just what it is: a cycle.  How profound would the sunset be if you only saw it once in your life?

Sometimes the sense that everything is just a series of events, with nothing transcendent to tie them together, seems like the most awful thing possible.  Even the leaves clinging to the trees look worthless.  But in certain moments, that same arbitrariness erases the perpetual burden of discerning the purpose of each passing instant, and my role in things is set free from an anchor that, in truth, may never have been there.  What a relief.

This morning I watched the vegetable vendor.  The story settled around me, like snow in its glass case, shaken from the sky.  I waited, again, for the bus to take me up to Kaski, where I knew Aamaa would be waiting.  Again.  For me.

IMG_2638