Afternoons

 

First Saturday of summer  

our hands sweat in the grass until

plateaus and peaks draw in their woolen covers.

Fried fresh corn kernels from the fire

salt.  

Each drop on tin, a world

An hour, or so

maybe more or less

to talk about, so

We gaze out the door

where slick leaves are dripping

lick our salty fingers

and pass the minutes

…or so they pass us

listening to the rain.

*

The Idea of the Mountain

 

I started searching for Mt. Everest abstractly.  It wasn’t exactly about the mountain; it was about the idea of the mountain.  With my college books lying next to the bottom bunk, I would retreat in to stories about mountaineering and daydream about exploration. I collected pieces of Asian culture without dwelling on their origins or innate meanings.  These articles and wanderings were satellites of the idea of the mountain, which I assigned to Mt. Everest, and the idea of the mountain was in Nepal, and therefore going to Nepal became inevitable.  But I didn’t even really aim at Mt. Everest. I just got out of bed and aimed at Nepal.

This is how, on a hazy August morning in 2001, I found myself in Kathmandu with a group of foreigners, looking for things to do.  For two weeks we had been traveling to different parts of the country learning about medicinal plants. This was long before I would develop a focused interest in natural medicine, so that detail was just a bonus. Actually, the trip was the result of me Googling “Go to Nepal, August 9 – 22,” which was when I had a window available to travel after the competitive summer rowing season.  But I had not accounted for the little-known and unlikely fact of summer. The monsoon fog, as it does, had blanketed the sky for two weeks, perpetually pressing heat and moisture against our bodies and blotting out the entire horizon.  Now we had a few days to entertain ourselves at the end of the trip.

“I want to see mountains,” I suggested.  We were really so close.

The travel agent brought my new friends and me tea and told us we had options.  Theoretically, the options involved flights.  However, the airplanes might or might not end up taking off, the travel agent cautioned, what with the blanket of clouds obscuring the whole atmosphere.  My friends and I tried to sort out the weather, and things.

There was a tower in Nagarkot, said the travel agent.  A lookout tower.  I inspected my guide book, and my guide book said I could bike to the lookout tower in Nagarkot.

“I’m going to bike to the lookout tower in Nagarkot,” I announced.

At the suggestion of the travel agent, my friends and I refined the plan further.  We would first bike to the old city of Bhaktapur about an hour away, and from there, I would continue biking up to the lookout tower in Nagarkot.  This plan made sense to me because a) it was in my guidebook and b) the travel agent was able to rent us some bikes.  Nepal-bikes, if you will.  They had wheels and gears and hand-brakes and they were heavy as hell.

We woke early the next morning and set off for Bhaktapur.  As I clicked along the road, I felt a swell of freedom.  It reminded me of the first solo drive I had made, to the ice rink, after obtaining my drivers license.  The past two weeks had had various ups and downs and dramas and mishaps, but the main thing was that I’d been packed in with a group of other foreigners and we’d been on a schedule and somebody else was in charge.  Suddenly here I was on two wheels being powered by my own legs, on a road that led to the idea of the mountain.

If you ever get to visit Nepal, you must visit Bhaktapur.  Its name means “the place of devotees.”  The area is located on a historic trade route between India and Tibet, and is jammed full of gorgeous architecture, art and cultural life dating back to the 1400s. Wonderfully preserved temples and stupas surround a tidy public square, whose graceful wooden carvings curl up like a garden that sweeps the gaze from one frozen deity to the next.  It is a place that makes you want to bow your head for a moment to whatever all this is…not because it’s religious exactly, but because it feels bigger than you. Because it is old, and earnest, and fully itself.

We took photos.

My friends left.

I clicked over to a small shop, parked my bike, and met a woman and her daughter.  Something had caught my eye…a sheaf of heavy lavender silk.  I asked to hold it, and it slid cool over my hands, a whisper of winter hiding under the heavy roof of summer.  I turned it over and moved it from one arm to the other.  The mother and daughter draped it over my shoulders and wrapped it around and around my waist to show how it would be worn.  I asked the price.

The material was intended to be made in to a sari, which, needless to say, was something I would never put on.  I set it down, and picked it up.  Eventually, I reached for my guidebook, checked the route, and left without the lavender silk.  Now I was fully alone.  I rode down a long hill and pedaled laboriously up another.  As the heavy biked clicked toward Nagarkot, Bhaktapur began to disappear behind me.

I stopped the bike.  I turned around and biked all the way back to Bhaktapur and bought the lavender silk from the mother and daughter.  I folded it carefully in to my backpack and set off again for Nagarkot.

Beginning early in the day, we had not been particularly focused on the schedule.  It was now about 2:00.  And something else I ought to mention is that only about ten weeks prior, on June 1, 2001, nearly the entire royal family of Nepal had been massacred by the crown prince, and a stunned hush lay over everything.  A Maoist insurgency that had started in 1996 was also gathering force.  It would crescendo around 2004 and topple the monarchy in 2006.  But in August of 2001, while I was biking alone from Bhaktapur to Nagarkot at 2:03pm, everything was humid, and pregnant, and subdued.  It is only now, looking back fifteen years later, that I feel the uncertainty of that stillness, stretching out across the emerald for miles and miles around me on my tiny bike.

As the afternoon progressed, the pavement ended and the switchbacks started.  The heavy-as-hell bike was now clicking over the back of a dragon, lumpy and steep, the first of what would be many, many, many Nepal Road Experiences (NREs) in my future.  With increasing frequency, I had to dismount completely and haul the heavy bike uphill with my arms.  In addition to unfortunate lack of planning around time, I had only two granola bars for food.  I might have bought some snacks in Bhaktapur, but now I was in the middle of nowhere.  This was also before cell phones, and in fact and even land lines in 2001 were commodities mainly rented by the minute at shops or small businesses, most of which were in cities.  So, to recap, I was in a completely foreign country on a rural road with a guidebook and a heavy bike and no food during an insurgency, a few weeks after a royal massacre, in a place I knew nothing about except for stories of Mt. Everest written by North Americans and Europeans.

“Tower,” I thought contentedly, and clicked over another crater in the road.

I look back now and the little part of me that the world has worn down scolds her for this.  For the presumptuousness and irresponsibleness.  But even now, most of me is still enchanted by the idea of the mountain.  That is who she is, even all alone on a road.  She doesn’t realize she’s going to write this story later, and she is not performing.  She is biking on a road because she is on it and there is a lookout tower at the other end.  Hopefully.

As dusk began to fall, I checked my guidebook more frequently.  It did seem mildly alarming that I had no idea how far I was from civilization.  What to do?  Well there was, after all, only one road, so if I had taken a wrong turn I had inevitably biked to a different district altogether, which was a problem far outside the reaches of my ability to solve by worrying.  No use mulling over that.  Soon buildings started appearing at the roadside and it looked like, possibly, I was somewhere.  Just as darkness was confirming its authority over my climb, I came upon – true story – The Hotel at the End of the Universe.

However, the Hotel at the End of the Universe was not near the lookout tower, and my guide book said there was a hotel near the lookout tower.  So, and don’t ever ask me to explain this, I biked past the Hotel at the End of the Universe in to full-fledged night.  Uphill.

It was after 9pm when I found it.  In rural Nepal in 2001, 9pm is the middle of the night.  I walked in to the hotel that my guidebook had suggested, sweating and with every muscle in my body limp.  Two young men emerged behind the hotel counter and they assigned me a room.  The kitchen was closed for the night and it was too late to make dinner.  Oh well.  I had some of a granola bar.

“Please wake me at 5am so I can go to the lookout tower,” I said.

“If the weather is good, we’ll wake you, miss,” the hotel guys said.  “But it’s usually cloudy.”

Nope.  “I want to go either way.  Will you make sure to wake me at 5am?”  (Besides, maybe it wouldn’t be cloudy.)

“Of course, miss,” the hotel guys said.

I woke up at 5:15am.  No hotel guys.

I jumped out of bed, paid for my room, and got back on the heavy-as-hell bike.  I followed the directions in the guide book, and just as the sun was creeping over the horizon, I came upon…THE TOWER.

LOOK AT THIS TOWER.

Yes, this is a lookout tower made of sticks.

Which only strikes me as incredible now, much later, on behalf of the little part of me has been chastened and worn down.  At the time, I thought, quite happily, “This is a lookout tower.”

I climbed up the lookout tower, which was advertised in the guide book to offer a panoramic view of the Himalayas surrounding the Kathmandu valley, sweeping giants, famous the world over, visible from THIS STICK TOWER that I am climbing.  The top of the structure was rickety, like a platform treehouse.  I stand up.

There are clouds as far as I can see.  Not a mountain to be seen anywhere.  Silence for miles and miles and miles.  I sit down on the tree-house platform.  I am here.  I float out over the clouds, newly lit by morning, silky and cool, endless.  I take a photo.  For a few minutes, these are my clouds.

“This is going to be a good story,” it occurs to me vaguely.

Then some Nepalese tourists turn up, and they take my photo.  It will be a prized possession.  But soon the platform is crowded, and the floating is over.

Now all I have to next do is get back to Kathmandu.

I climb down the tree-house-lookout-at-clouds-tower.

We are going downhill.  I run my finger down a page where my guide book says that up ahead I can either take a normal road, or another road that is a bit less organized but somewhat shorter and “good fun.”  And so help me God, nobody will ever no why, but I decide it is a good idea to take the Good Fun Road.

The Good Fun Road is the dragon’s back I climbed up, now with measles and more speed.  So basically, I can barely ride on it at all.  Every time I try to get the heavy bike going, a terrifying hole in the dirt screeches in front of my tire and I have to slam on the hand breaks and I nearly topple over.  I end up walking my bike for most of the Good Fun Road.  “This is good fun,” I think, “and I should write my own guide book.”

I eat the last remaining bite of granola bar.

After what seems like forever, I come to the valley floor.  It is hot again and I am drenched in sweat. As I bike through the valley in what I certainly do hope is the direction towards the tourist area of Kathmandu where my friends are waiting, I pass a school and the Headmaster flags me down.

I end up spending about an hour at the random school in the Kathmandu valley.  I play with the kids and talk with the Headmaster.  I am oblivious at the time to the certainty that the Headmaster is hoping to make a connection and cultivate me as a patron, and this works to my advantage because I am not resistant or cynical.  I am playing with kids at a school in Nepal because it is on the road associated with the idea of the mountain.

For many hours afterwards, I am not one hundred percent sure that I am on the correct route back, although I do know that I’m overall aiming at Kathmandu.  Gradually, around 4pm, the streets start to narrow into corridors, clustering together in the traditional Newar style of Kathmandu, and then, miraculously, like an actual fuck-all miracle, I recognize where I am, back in the middle of Thamel. Vendors are selling tiger balm in the streets, tourists with dreadlocks and tie-dye are browsing knockoff North Face gear.  My friends are near here somewhere.  We have a hotel we are staying in.  I bike to it.  It is 5pm.  I’ve been gone for about 36 hours.

I unpack the lavender silk.  Sixteen years later, it is still carefully stored in wait of a special occasion.

“How was the tower?” everyone asks.

“Cloudy,” I answer. “There were a lot of clouds.”

Outside, night is falling fast.

“So when is dinner?”

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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“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.
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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).

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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.

*

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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,

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and this jam,

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

.      .      .

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Box, man.  Life Box.

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

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

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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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