Looking for Shelter

 

I woke up tired today. Partly because I stayed up so late writing, and partly because we’re all sleeping on the floor of the living room by the front door.

But I had an interesting morning. I made my way to an outdoor lot full of incomprehensible discarded piles of things, where Dr. Kiran’s group, SXJ-95, was meeting about their transitional housing unit, a clean white bubble sitting in the middle of the mess. It was really fascinating to hear how they’d developed this design by researching other units, most notably the post-earthquake shelters used in Pakistan. I’m going to save the details, because I hope to produce a quick audio slideshow about it.

IMG_8773While I was there watching, two government officials came to inspect the prototype, and discuss minor modifications so that it could be used to replace a destroyed Health Post in rural Lalitpur. By the time we left, the builders were getting back to work on the second unit, with a plan to drive the pieces to Lalitpur and set up a shelter within two days.

This has really got me thinking about transitional housing as a possible use for our relief fund. I plan to either donate it to a group doing really valuable work in rural areas, or finding a project that we can do well. It has been such a chore to procure and deliver tents – which are getting more and more expensive – and it’s frustrating to know that, while obviously better for people than no tent, this is such a short-term improvement. Plus, each time a transitional shelter is placed in the field, it’s an opportunity to get feedback and improve the design, so if we can collaborate with a group like Kiran’s, perhaps we could contribute to the larger good in terms of research and design.

SXJ 95’s unit costs about $500, but they put a lot of thought in to user feel and aesthetics. On one hand, this means we could potentially offer rural families upgraded transitional housing; on the other, we couldn’t afford very many. I plan to keep in touch with Kiran about their test in Lalitpur and maybe see if this design could be used for another health post or school classroom. Here’s a recent article by Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the UK, on the importance of reinstating schooling for basic child safety and welfare (sorry for the sensationalist title).

I left the crazy stuff lot with its shelter bubble, and my next stop was the Ministry of Health and Population. The World Health Organization holds bi-weekly meetings in collaboration with the Nepali government, where all of the major players in town for recovery – large iNGOs, foreign medical teams, etc. – come to share information. These meetings are divided in to clusters, such as Health, Communications, Shelter, Security etc. I went to the Health Cluster meeting.

This is the opposite end of the spectrum from the WHR’s and SXJ-95’s of the relief effort. Kiran dropped me off, and I hopped out of his car into a parking lot full of oversized, logo’ed SUVs. I made my way to a packed meeting hall – probably close to 100 people of various nationalities. I sat in the back of the room and scanned the emblazoned vests in front of me: World Vision, Save the Children, AmeriCares, International Medical Corps. Japan, Switzerland, Canada…and then in the back, some straggling foreigners like me, probably there to get the lay of the land.

IMG_8789The meeting was led by the WHO rep to Nepal, Dr. Lin Aung, with government representatives in attendance. I had missed the first 20 minutes or so, but listened to some updated figures, and then attendees were invited to share what they’d been doing. That part seemed a little odd. They would announce the name of an area – “Sindhupalchowk?” and then various groups would stand up and say what they had been doing in Sindhupalchowk since the last meeting. It was more information-sharing than strategizing – but maybe these groups have other methods that they are using for truly coordinating their efforts.

After the meeting, I went to go talk to Dr. Aung. Ironically, I was trying to meet him all winter because I thought he’d be a good person to know for Kaski Oral Health, and I was never able to get in touch since I’m rarely in Kathmandu. But when I introduced myself, he turned out to be a very friendly and genuine guy. He gave me five minutes of undivided attention, even though another half dozen people were waiting to talk with him.

I asked what he thought a small organization like mine in Pokhara could do to pitch in to the relief effort. Like others, he said we should be thinking medium and long-term, which is where multilateral agencies aren’t nearly as agile or embedded. He said that with our community ties, we should focus on counseling and psycho-emotional support.

I said, “We don’t know anything about post-disaster counseling.”

He said that the psycho-social cluster is developing protocols for this kind of thing and gave me an email address where I could access this info.

All of which tells me that, for better or worse, coordination is almost completely at the discretion of aid providers. I think – and you could argue that this makes sense under the circumstances –things are really set up such that, in order to find the best way to participate, organizations large and small have to make a point of reaching out.

I’m not sure why I’m a little hung up on this. But I suppose we’d like to think in a humanitarian crisis of this nature, somebody has the answers and can tell us all what to do – and maybe somebody should know. But the basic fact remains that everybody is winging it to some degree, and I can’t argue this is exactly anyone’s fault. It seems like it’s really one of the cruelties of the whole situation.  The real blame lies in the injustices of the past that led to poverty and bad planning and lack of security, not in the present where nature took over. In any case, it seems like coordinated strategic planning is largely a matter of self-discipline.

Before I left for Pokhara, I went to visit a friend who is the CEO of Teach for Nepal. Most of their teaching fellows were there for a day of counseling with social workers from Israel, experienced at working with disaster trauma. I learned that one of TFN’s young teachers perished in Sindhupalchowk. The day of the earthquake, my friend and her husband were unable to call a helicopter to Sindhupalchowk, so they drove 5 hours to get there and dig through rubble themselves.  It was out there that they realized they’d actually lost her.  Now they are left with continued aftershocks and their other 89 fellows to send back out to their schools.

Everyone is spinning.

By the time I got on the plane to Pokhara I admit I felt pretty down. I had also spoken with my friend’s husband who has worked on a shelter that costs just $100 and might be a good option – we could potentially provide an entire community of about 100 -200 families with safer housing while they rebuild. But everyone is so hurt, psychologically and otherwise. The scale of rebuilding that’s needed is really hard for me to wrap my head around. I really just wanted all of it to go away.

At the airport in Pokhara, Prem was waiting for me. And as we crossed the road, Aidan was on the other side sticking his head out the taxi window, shiny as a stamp, his cheeky toothless grin lighting up the whole city. Pascal insisted on sitting in my lap for the seven-minute car ride. I gave them some super-sized squirt guns and unloaded the rest of a bag of Reese’s Pieces.

We went out into the late afternoon Pokhara sun, and walked to a plot of land up on a hill, where leveling strings are stretched across deep foundation holes in the ground. Prem and Didi are building their first house.

*      *      *

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For anyone wishing to support Dr. Kiran’s group, SXJ-95, you can do so here: http://bit.ly/1ReQ8gj.

Teach for Nepal is providing relief in their working areas, and will have a special focus on rebuilding schools. You can support them at http://nepalrelief.teachfornepal.org.

A New World

It was nighttime as we flew in yesterday, so I couldn’t watch the terraced hills coming in closer and giving way to Kathmandu’s gritty buildings. Staring at the city lights flickering in the vast darkness below, I felt a wave of sadness. I couldn’t shake the feeling of arriving in a foreign land and it made me feel like a foreigner to myself.

The normally quiet tarmac at the airport was scattered with a handful of helicopters and few gigantic cargo planes with their hatches open. And in a way that only Nepal can do, it seemed that someone had made an effort to spruce up the airport for an onslaught of international visitors: a new routing through the arrival area, which wound past a recently installed station where a vinyl banner reading HEALTH DESK had been mounted. A large sign announced that anyone having recently come from Africa was required to stop at the Health Desk for processing, and behind it, an airport official was tinkering with his iPhone. We all shuffled past him, to the main arrival terminal, where the computers weren’t working.

IMG_4863I was one of only about five foreigners waiting for a visa, which was new. And the baggage scanner that was previously set up at the airport exit was gone, probably to make way for a more official exit procedure. But to either side of the revised exit procedure were piles and piles of packages. I took a photo of a stack of boxes addressed to a hospital; it did not look anyone was in much of a hurry to get these parcels distributed.

Following Tuesday’s second earthquake, everyone is taking precautions again. On the cab ride from the airport, I didn’t see many damaged buildings, but people everywhere had tents up outside along the road. I stayed with a friend and the whole family slept on mattresses in the living room, right by the front door, which was left unlatched.  That’s where we are again tonight.

IMG_8714Today I spent the day getting a taste of local relief efforts, and it validated my early suspicion that the energy and creativity of locals can’t be dismissed. My friend Dr. Kiran Awasthi, who has trained all our dental technicians through his organization, has been furiously working with a group of high school classmates to distribute sanitation materials that will help prevent disease outbreaks. His connections through the private sector and health ministry have allowed his group to become a trustworthy distributor of hard-to-find supplies. They’ve also researched, designed and built a temporary housing unit in just two weeks, and they’ve tried it out in some areas already. Obviously the government will ultimately have to take the lead on a large scale, but groups like this are doing a huge amount to help get there more quickly.

My second stop was with a group called Women for Human Rights. Before the earthquake, I had planned to visit them on this trip to do an interview for a radio story I am producing about young widows in Nepal (as part of a series on migrant labor called Between Worlds…but that’s another story!). Like everyone, Women for Human Rights is also doing what they can towards relief, in this case for women especially. So I interviewed their founder about their aid efforts, and then went to a shelter they’ve set up for young mothers and children. It is a large canopy at one of the tent cities in Narayanchaur, at the center of a gigantic grassy mound in the middle of a traffic circle. I interviewed a 22 year old girl whose baby was three weeks old when the earthquake struck. When I asked the kids what they thought of spending their days lounging and playing in the hot sun at the camp, a twelve year old girl chirped: “It’s fun!”

I know that the government and army are making major efforts, and personally I believe very strongly that the government should be viewed with high expectations, tasked with responsibility, and held accountable.  But that said, there is huge distrust among the people of Nepal and the international community about the government’s ability to distribute aid, much less rebuilding, quickly or equitably.  There are still swaths of the hillsides where people have lost everything, suffered injuries and death, and received NO AID.  I couldn’t help noticing that when I walked past the police station, about two dozen officers were hard at work breaking, organizing and laying bricks – rebuilding the wall of their own compound.

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So that was a pretty long day. I already have hours of tape to sort through and tomorrow will bring a whole new chapter of stories before I fly to Pokhara at 3:00. I’ll be glad to get out of Kathmandu – about 70,000 people have left the city since the second earthquake on Tuesday.

Nepal has always shown me a graceful, practical relationship with nature and its whims. But everything feels wrong. Twice today I was in the middle of a conversation with someone who suddenly stopped and said, “Is that an aftershock?” and I couldn’t even feel any shaking. Everyone is on a razor’s edge. People keep telling me, “Things were getting back to normal,” when talking about the second earthquake, which really tells you something, because things were definitely not normal last Tuesday morning. But the second time seems to have redefined “not normal.” It’s as if now the injury of this event is not yet quantified – the sensation isn’t that something terrible happened, but that it is happening, and the final damage is unknown.   As long as the cost remains pending, the reckoning is impossible. You can’t mourn much less rebuild something that is still breaking apart. Everyone is just waiting, even as they run around providing aid to each other.

I will be glad to get to Pokhara tomorrow, but I think this month is going to be as strange and unsettling as expected. My mind is racing with ideas for how to make the best possible use of the $14,000+ we raised for aid, and it is good know that we have the ability to do something, or to provide significant support to someone doing something effective and under-funded. One idea I’m thinking about is collaborating with Kiran or a similar group working on temporary housing. Tomorrow, I am going to get an overview of how the big aid is working.

But I will write about that tomorrow!

Our Future After the Earthquake

IMG_3282 - Version 2

 

Dear friends and family,
First, thank you with all my heart for the flood of emails, texts, calls, posts, and chats that have blown up my phone and computer in the last 72 hours.  It’s true that the darkest moments show us the brightest things – the world has never felt smaller to me than it did this weekend, chatting with people I love in Nepal with one hand while answering emails about them with the other.  Everybody is okay, and I was/am in Connecticut for six weeks.  Everybody’s been sleeping outdoors for fear of aftershocks, one of our students lost his house, and there is some damage in our working areas–but we were mostly spared because the earthquake moved east.  Had it moved west, Pokhara and Kaskikot would be rubble, as we were just 50 miles from the epicenter.
Tons of people have asked how they can help.  After days of looking into this, it’s clear there are a million conflicting answers amid widespread caution; disasters of this nature cause huge sums of money to be suddenly poured in to a poor country with corrupt public systems and an overzealous, wealthy international aid machine. Terrible precedents in Haiti and other places, strong opinions that the punditry is already debating on the news….
We have to start someplace, so here’s the advice I’ve settled on.  There are two types of donating: a large relief agency, and something more closely related to your area of interest or personal connection to a place or organization. These roughly correlate to massive crisis relief vs. community recovery, as well.
1. MASSIVE AID: If you are most comfortable giving to a large, well-recognized agency, there are recommendations in the links below. The up side is these organizations play an essential role in crisis relief, and their financial pluses and minuses are known.  The down side is that they get saturated with more donations than they can spend on the specific crisis in question, and these agencies are not good mechanisms for long-term recovery.  That said, Nepal couldn’t possibly deal with the immediate disaster on its hands without their involvement, and the same will be true of the next disaster, if that’s where your dollar technically lands.  I’d also suggest the Nepal Red Cross Society as these funds will at least stay in Nepal (http://www.nrcs.org – this link doesn’t work in Safari, that’s Nepal for you), or Doctors Without Borders (http://bit.ly/1pf6vN4) in the hope they’ll be quicker to get out to neglected rural areas.
Top recommended by PRI: http://bit.ly/1GjrqTm
2. COMMUNITY-BASED RECOVERY: It is going to take many years to rebuild, and smaller, local organizations with experience in grassroots organizing and sustainable community work will play an essential role because of their nuanced knowledge, experience, and granular infrastructure. The challenge here – and I will be the bad guy who says this now – is that nobody knows exactly what will be required of them yet. I’ve been in contact with many of my friends who have long standing connections and expertise in Nepal, and we’re all grappling with the same problem, trying to figure out where we can best apply our efforts.  But the truth is that everything is unknown.  It has only been three days and people are currently sleeping in the rain with dwindling food supplies.
Here is a short, poignant article that talks about how hard-to-reach areas have already been widely neglected by both aid and the media – because, well, they are harder to reach – but how badly they will be needed to avoid another Haiti fiasco. I wish this could be on the cover of every major newspaper.
Therefore after much deliberation, I’ve decided the best thing I can do is create a relief fund that will be used intelligently as things clarify. I will be arriving in Nepal in 2 weeks, and working with others to find something unreachable by “big aid” that needs doing and figure out who is the best person or agency to do it. I may donate this whole fund to a nimble community organization or individual doing critical work, or we may set up something ourselves. There may be a water source that needs repairing for a whole village, or a single family or child whose life has been forever altered where we can intervene with a surgery or other aid – I just don’t know yet.  But Pokhara is fifty miles from Gorkha, which looks like this:
Courtesy of the New York Times

Courtesy of the New York Times

As my friend Prashant said, “Laura, I can’t see with my fingers or eat with my knees.  We each have to do the thing we’re suited for.”  So in that vein, please don’t take this as pressure to contribute to Eva Nepal’s recovery fund specifically – the point is to choose something and pitch in.  Since I find myself among a tiny minority of Americans with a long-standing personal connection to this country and its people, that’s what I’m going to start with.  I simply know my area and its ecosystem better than I know other things about this colossal situation.
Here is the link. Please write RELIEF in the indicated space:
https://evanepal.secure.nonprofitsoapbox.com/earthquake-donateObviously, I would be extremely grateful if you would share this with people asking you where to donate.
If something else calls you, go for it.  The only real DONT’s are:
  • send stuff (google “send money not stuff”)
  • go running to Nepal (unless you have an expertise to offer – but I don’t think most of you were considering it?)
  • do nothing. The scale of devastation in Nepal is staggering. When I think about being in New Orleans eight months after Hurricane Katrina and the inside-out buildings that were still piled up on the streets, I can’t even fathom how Nepal with its underlying poverty and challenging terrain is going to rebuild without a lot of help.  Please pick something and pitch in.
I will leave you with a thought from the article I linked above, that helped me put the storm of the last few days in to perspective as they relate to me, one person with a tiny mud and stone home in Nepal that I love dearly.
Far away from Mt. Everest’s glamorous peak…villagers are reeling from injuries, death and the destruction of already precarious livelihoods on a massive scale. One villager told us that although his family and many others were unharmed, his home of mud and stone, like the entire village, was a pile of rubble. For many of the rural poor, a two-story home is a most prized asset. While their plight may not make the international headlines, rural Nepalis across the country will need long-term support to rebuild their lives. 
With much love and gratitude for all of your inquiries and prayers,
Laura and all of us.

Base Camp

How Many

 

The List finally arrived in my inbox on Jan 29. Two lists, actually: one from two years ago, and one from last year. The title of the List, which Laxu picked up from the Foreign Employment Office, is Assistance Decision Made From (Date) to (Date). It’s a record of insurance payments managed by the government that’s as close as I’ve been able to get to a list of migrant laborers who’ve died abroad.

The first question I needed to answer was How Many. It seems as if everyone knows there is a flow of bodies arriving home to Nepal from overseas, but nobody is quite sure what the scale of the tide is. I’ve noticed that people I’ve interviewed usually shrug off the question How Many a few times, and then give me a sudden, precise answer that measures their own anxiety over the problem.

From April 2012 to April 2013, there are 727 names on the List. The following year, ending in April 2014, lists 24 women and 856 men—and average of nearly three laborers per day.

In reality, How Many is a more complicated number than three per day. A certain number of laborers go abroad off the books, or over the border seasonally to India. Study abroad has also become hugely popular, and waves of luckier young people to exodus to foreign countries (although I would guess that most of the boys in Kaskikot, given the choice, would still opt for labor over study).  While about 300,000 laborers per year leave Nepal through manpower companies, the total migration rate is a lot higher – closer to 800,000 annually.

All of which is to say, the airlines officer and security guard may not have been all that far off when they estimated the number of bodies or insurance claims they receive daily. Some estimates put the body count around five per day.  But I’m mainly concerned with young men, and occasionally women, who sign up with labor companies.

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When I opened the List for the first time, I felt like an intruder. To see a list of names in a place of reverence is one thing. But the black and white letters under Assistance Decision Made from (Date) to (Date) are simply data: eight hundred and eighty statistics.

Besides, each name was listed with only a spouse name, village and ward number (there are no house addresses in rural Nepal), and a date of death. It’s 42 pages long.  I had no idea how I would locate or speak with any of these families.

I closed the List and it was a few weeks before I opened it again. Then, yesterday, I was in Kaskikot, filling up our tin jugs at the water tap, when Madu walked by.

“Hey Madu,” I said. “Remember the project I told you about?” I said I was looking for the family of a young man who’d died abroad. After all that work, I was back where I’d started, having talked to Madu three months ago when I first arrived.  Honestly, I hoped Madu could help me circumvent the List.

As we were talking, Sher dai, another neighbor, walked by and joined our conversation.  He offered to do some inquiry on my behalf in Kaskikot, but then I mentioned that I had a List already at my house.  He followed me back home, where I set down the basket and took out the water jug. I pulled up a low stool in the yard and took at my laptop.

We reopened the list.  I searched “Kaski.” Sher dai and I started copying and pasting a short list of names in to fresh document.  Many were from Pokhara or surrounding Kaski villages that I know well: Leknath, Syangia, Hemja.  And then we came upon Dirgharaj Adhikari, Kaskikot-08.

“Sher dai, this boy is from Kaskikot.  Where is ward number 8?”

Sher dai said said he would look into our short list and get back to me. To my surprise, he came back not two hours later.

Dirgharaj Adhikari’s house is just half an hour up the road. It’s likely that, at some point in the past, I ran in to him in a bus or shop or at Kalika School, where he studied. He died last spring in Qatar. He was 22 years old.

“Shall we go?” Sher dai asked.

It was only 11 am.  Just a few hours earlier it had been a month since I’d faced the matter at all.  I’d assumed before I even began this project that I wouldn’t have to look far to find the bereaved family of a young male laborer.  But it was still unnerving to be so flatly correct.

I pulled my microphone and camera out of the back of the dresser and put them in my bag.  I got on the back of Sher dai’s motorcycle and we left for Dirgharaj’s house.  Within minutes, we turned off the main dirt road on to a small motor path that lead to a lone house, perched high up on the hillside. As we approached, I could see the yard was full of people.  A leather-thin man with clear green eyes emerged from the yard to greet us a respectful distance from the entry way. He was Dirgharaj’s father.

We had arrived exactly on the day of sarad, the annual puja that marks the anniversary of a death.  The entire family was there to honor Dirgharaj.  He died exactly one year ago today.

“Hello sir…may we come in?” I asked. “We’d like to hear about your son.”

*

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The List


Since the day I arrived in Nepal, I have been trying to get a list of migrant laborers who have died abroad. Partly this is so that I can find a family willing to tell me about their son’s life. And partly it’s because everybody has a different opinion on how common it is for migrant laborers to die abroad.

The night I landed in Kathmandu’s national airport back in December, I spoke with an airlines agent, who told me that bodies arrive at the airport daily. Someone else milling about the office said they receive a body every few months. When I asked for a record to sort it out, they said each airline keeps a separate list, and to get a combined total of bodies received, I’d have to go to customs.

A few days later I went to customs, which eventually sent me to the cargo office, which eventually sent me to an insurance company, all in search of this List. Our cousin Laxu, who was helping me, agreed to go to the insurance company while I was back in Pokhara. He texted me later saying that the insurance company had sent him to the government’s Foreign Employment Office, where families of the deceased to go pick up renumeration.

On an afternoon in early January, a month after my first night at the airlines office in Tribhuvan Airport, Laxu and I went to the Foreign Employment Office. We arrived to find it closed for a holiday. There was nobody there except for a guard standing outside.

The elusive List still beyond our reach, I asked the guard what he’d noticed about families coming to deal with the legalities of a loved one who’d died abroad. He said the families are easy to recognize. They come regularly.

Who, I asked, is “they?”

Usually, the guard told us, the immediate family of the deceased arrives with someone who can help navigate the system and explain things. This is something I’ve heard a lot. The families of many migrant laborers are minimally educated and have little experience outside their home villages or communities. Handling the logistics of a death is complicated under the best of circumstances, and for many of these families, it is impossible without someone to help with things as simple as travel and reading.

I asked how people normally transport the body of their loved one home to perform rites. This is one of the central my questions of this project, because transporting bodies around is so starkly incompatible with the traditional ritual treatment of the sacred dead body.  And, it’s expensive. It’s important to understand who pays to make kriya possible by getting everyone in the right place. Is the labor industry involved in supporting the families of workers who die overseas? Is it the government of Nepal? Do poor families have to sort this out themselves?

“It’s the government that pays for transport back to villages, not the manpower companies,” the guard told us. Everyone I’ve talked to so far flatly disagrees on this point, so the truth is, it probably varies from company to company.

“Why would anyone go through a manpower company?” I demanded, suddenly gripped by a wave of frustration. “The first year of salary goes back to loans and is basically free work. All the risk seems to be on the laborers. Why does anyone do it?”

“If you don’t go through a manpower company, it’s very difficult to work abroad,” the guard replied. “Very difficult. How many people are simply left abroad, in hospitals?”

He went on to explain in general terms that when laborers arrange their own jobs abroad, they are unaccounted for – even by the Nepali government. If anything unfortunate happens, it is much harder for freelance laborers to get home, or even for them to be identified. Their families, in all likelihood, would have no way to trace them. So the only way to do it is through a manpower company, because stacked insurance is a lot better than none.

It was clear that Laxu was going to have to come back another day to get The List. Before we left, I asked the guard how many families he thinks come to the Foreign Employment Office each day to receive insurance payments.

Eh, they come, he said, they come. We went back and forth a few times; I thought he was being vague because it wasn’t all that often, and our conversation was overdue to end. Then he looked straight at me.

“Every day,” he said. “Ten to fifteen per day.”

*

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Bitter Medicine

 

The last day of kriya for Malika’s father has been moved to Tuesday night, because the morning of the thirteenth day has fallen on a Wednesday, when it is inauspicious to end kriya. I ask Aamaa and Didi why, and they say, Wednesdays are inauspicious for many things.

“It’s tradition. It has been this way for a long time, “ Didi explains.

So after dark on Tuesday night, Kanchaa and I walk down to Malika’s house, where tonight, everyone will drink gaunut—cow urine. As we pass the water tap, Kanchaa explains to me that gaunut has tremendous medicinal cleansing properties. He says that he had jaundice when he was fourteen, and for six months he didn’t eat salt, and every single day he took a shot of cow urine, and he completely recovered from the jaundice.

The priest is preparing the puja on the porch and neighbors are milling about in the yard. The atmosphere is anticipatory and almost festive. After two weeks of austerity, life seems to be rushing back in to this house with inexorable force.  There is a vacuum.

I’m inside when I hear Kanchaa call my name. It’s my turn to drink cow urine. I squeeze my eyes closed and throw it back. The gaunut is thin and bitter.

IMG_6425Everything looks mysterious and beautiful because of the nighttime. Kanchaa tells me I can take photos, but I’m worried that’s inappropriate, especially if I have to use a flash. At my bidding, he asks Malika’s brothers if they mind the camera, and reports back that they don’t mind. Unconvinced, I ask them myself. It’s really fine, they say.

So when the puja starts, I fiddle with my camera, testing different settings to see what works at night. I find a setting that I can use without the flash, and am clicking away at the tilting shadows on the wall when all of a sudden I hear Krishna dai’s voice cut exuberantly through the reverent stillness:

“So many photos – somebody is going to make a lot of money!”

I feel like I have been struck by lightening. Everything is silent; everyone is staring at me.

“Come over here!” Krishna dai cries. “This is the best view!”

Slowly I lower my camera. “Please, dai,” I say softly. He is supposed to be my friend.

“Come come come!” Krishna dai bellows. “Take some photos from here.”

“Please dai, I’m embarrassed,” I whisper, frozen.

“Don’t be embarrassed! No problem!” he shouts.

I hear murmuring behind me. What am I doing taking photos where a man has died?

For a few minutes I literally can’t move, even to go put my camera away. Eventually I slide in to the shadows and find my camera bag. It’s a few more minutes before I get the courage to find Kanchaa, who is tending a fire. I tell him what happened.

“I’m sorry Laura didi, don’t mind Krishna dai. Some people just don’t understand.”

“I feel awful. I said I wouldn’t if—“

“It’s not a problem Laura didi. Some people have this concept that foreigners sell photos of them. Krishna dai doesn’t understand. Nobody else minds. You can take pictures.”

But of course I can’t bring myself to take out my camera again. I knew when I began this project how easy it would be for it to become voyeuristic or exploitative. Before this evening, I spent twelve years in Nepal, learned the language, and have known the daughter of this house for that long. On two evenings I paid respects without so much as a pencil in my hand. I have been conscientious of placing myself discreetly out of the way with my recorder or camera, and have chosen to use only photos of Malika’s family where their faces are obscured, not because they asked, but because it seems right.

But at the end of the day, I am still an outsider looking in on their pain. And what’s more, I can’t promise that, if given the opportunity to publish this work and be paid, I wouldn’t do it, because, of course, I would.

I tell myself that to bear witness is to honor someone’s experience. But only when we don’t impose anything or expect anything back. Do I meet that standard? Maybe Krishna dai is right.  Maybe more than right; photos are hardly the point. Perhaps I am deceiving myself of a much more basic indulgence.

I will worry about that for the entirety of this project. But in the end, I know I will be drawn back every time, and Krishna dai will never see it as honorable. I can’t change who either of us are. It is bitter medicine, but it will keep me honest.

It is about an hour later when I find myself sitting next to Malika’s eldest sister and apologize profusely. But it is no problem, she insists once more, for me to take photos. After multiple reassurances, the seeker in me wins out. Which was predictable.

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So I have my camera discreetly in my hands while five separate cooking fires are lit, mountains of vegetables are sliced, huge pots of oil heated, and vats of tea are brewed. The hushed tones of the last two weeks have blossomed in to busy conversations. Gigantic heaps of celebratory cel roti begin to pile up as the puja comes to an end.

I have my camera when it is time to say goodbye. A brand new bed has been set up in the yard. Malika’s father’s picture is at the head, and the bed is covered with gifts for the afterlife. At the foot of the bed, as per tradition, is the walking stick that he carried.

 

A candle is lit in the middle of the bed, and the family members circle it, touching their foreheads to it, the way one shows respect at the feet of a senior family member in life. The bed is so life-like, with the walking stick leaning against its side, that it is impossible not to feel the presence and the absence of the man.

For a moment the camera hangs around my neck, and I am still. And then, shielded by shadows, I pick it up. Sharing this moment is my way of paying tribute, so I put that thought in my heart and offer gratitude.  It is stunningly beautiful.

Tomorrow morning, the bed and its gifts will be taken from the house forever.

11:30pm. At last, it is time to eat.

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A Kilogram of Sugar

 

Yesterday Kanchaa and I were at Malika’s house most of the afternoon. It was 1:00 by the time Malika’s brothers had finished washing, praying, cooking, and eating their daily salt-less meal off banana leaves. We accompanied them back to the house and I noticed Malika a fastidiously maintained log of contributions in a school notebook: name, donation, location of house. People streamed in with gifts of incense, ghee, money and tea. In the morning I’d discreetly placed some oranges and bananas in a donation basket.

On the fifth day of kriya a priest begins a daily reading at the house. It’s in Sanskrit, which nobody can understand, so at intervals the priest translates and reflects on the reading.

IMG_6359A king from early times was walking through the forest, thirsty. In the woods, he encountered a spirit who blocked his way to the river. The spirit told the king that he was caught between worlds, unsatiated because his kriya had not been properly observed.

“Honor my kriya,” the spirit said, “and observe my annual ‘sarad’ on the anniversary of my death.” Then he let the king go to the river to drink. When the king returned home, he paid kriya respects, observing all the necessary rituals. And at last, the spirit was at rest.

Tonight I Kanchaa and Neru and I went back to the house after dinner again. I hadn’t remembered until I got home yesterday that while oranges and apples are a central part of the fasting diet, bananas are off limits during kriya. We stopped and Shiva dai’s house and I bought a kilogram of sugar and some incense. We turned on our flashlights and followed the stone path down to Rotepani, past the concrete shelter, past the tap, to the dimly lit house.

The crowd of women was gathered around the fire again, and Malika’s mother sleeping on the floor again, the brothers already asleep on their beds of straw outside. Malika looked weary. She and her sisters are still sleeping on mats on the floor, and it’s cold.

I took off my sandals and handed her my gifts, along with 200 rupees. She took out the school notebook, placed it on a low stool and bent over it with a pencil.

Laura Spero. Incense, 200 rupees, one kilogram of sugar. She paused and looked up.

“America,” she said. “I’m going to write ‘America,’ ok?”

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Kriya

 

Thursday was the seventh day of kriya for Malika’s father. Kanchaa and I arrived around 11am, long after Malika and her sisters had repainted the floors with a new layer of mud, gone to bathe at the tap, and returned home.

The sons’ turn to bathe comes at mid-day. We leave for the water tap with an entourage of men who bring along firewood and a basket of cooking supplies. Malika’s brothers carry only a special set of water vessels. They are not to touch any of the other items directly – not even the basket.

IMG_5955A tarp has been put up a respectable distance away from the water tap, and we set everything down. Just on the other side of the spring there is a sizeable concrete shelter for kriya mourners that was built with funds raised from the community. This gives you an idea of the deference paid to these customs.

Malika’s brothers leave for the water tap. Some of the other men get a cooking fire going, and the rest sit on the edge of the terrace having a rollicking conversation about politics. I can see Malika’s brothers from far away, through a haze of bamboo stalks and leaves. They go through a series of rituals with the water vessels, washing their white linens, and bathing in the discreet way that everyone learns to do in public. Their brother in law stands guard at the edge of the tap, but nobody approaching would be confused. They will wait.

When the brothers return, the youngest sets to cooking their daily meal over the fire that’s been started. The elder brother begins a puja over a small mound of dirt.

I spend a good bit of time gazing at the mound of dirt. It is about a foot wide. When we arrived it was protected with a branch lying over it. Malika’s brother smooths mud around its sides. It makes a rough, wet sound under his palms. A series of other rituals unfold, and each time he needs a new object – leaf, water, jug – one of the other men places it on the ground for him, careful that the two people do not touch anything at the same time.IMG_5950

The mound of dirt symbolizes his father’s body. On the tenth day of kriya, the oldest son will destroy
the dirt body with the crown of his head, and for the last three days of kriya, his puja will move to a different piece of ground, a few feet away. Where there is nothing.

The physicality and deliberateness of this performance is beautiful to me. When we lose someone, there is something missing between our hands, between our minutes, between our thoughts. No matter how long the process of departure takes, there is a moment of disappearance…and then emptiness.

Kriya is an unremitting physical process. Sitting around the edge of the terrace, we bear witness to the externalization of that mercilessly intangible absence. And this seems very important. Observers can carry the baskets, light the fires, put the prayer objects in reach. But they cannot inhabit these things. We are not naked, cold, untouchable; the body has not disappeared from our houses; we are only there to make this reality manifest. But we must be there. Otherwise the process is impossible to complete.

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If I Can’t Say Namaste

 

Last Saturday evening I came home with a fresh bundle of vegetables from the market, but Aamaa said we’d be cooking without salt. A man at the house near the water tap in Rotepani passed away yesterday. Aamaa and I ate plain rice with ghee for dinner.

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized I knew the one of the bereaved daughters. “Malika,” Aamaa said, “Don’t you know Malika?” Of course. I remember her hanging around with Didi and Bishnu back when we were all in our early 20s, before anyone was married. “The really skinny one?” I asked. Yes, that Malika. Her father, in his sixties, had been ill for about a month.

This has given me an opportunity to pay respects during a traditional period of kriya, when a man with grown children has lived an honorable life and passed away at an age that, in these parts, is considered decent.

On the sixth evening of kriya, after Aamaa and I had eaten dinner, I rounded up Neru and Kanchaa from next door. Lighting our way with flashlights down the stone path toward Rotepani, we left for Malika’s house.

As we approached the house, a warm mist of voices bubbled up in the cold black night. We found a tarp stretched out over the yard from the edge of the roof, to shelter the stream of visitors from sun during the day and provide some warmth at night.

Three men were sitting on the mud-smoothed porch, leaning against the wall of the house. I recognized Krishna dai, who I’ve known since the first week I came to Kaskikot twelve years ago.

“Namaste,” I said, raising my hands.

“We don’t say Namaste now,” Krishna dai said.

“Sorry.” I looked down.  I had trouble figuring out where to replace my hands.  Lesson one, of many.

Malika’s brothers were peering through the door of an attached room on the small house – I’m guessing that at some point it was used for goats – sitting on the ground with white blankets wrapped around them, like bowling pins. Until the thirteenth day they will only wear new white clothes with no seams, and they’ll wash these clothes daily.

We talked quietly with Krishna dai and the other men outside for about ten minutes. They are all friends and relatives of the deceased. Their role is to sleep on mats on the porch and guard the door of the house, because the sons are not to touch anyone or anything during kriya.

“For example, if a chicken comes by,” Krishna dai said, “we shoo it away. So it won’t touch them.”  This seemed awful and gorgeous.

Krishna dai asked about our mourning traditions in the United States. I said they vary a lot according to religion and habit, but that I am Jewish, and our rules mandate a quick burial – strictly speaking, we don’t cremate. I explained how we have a gathering where people stand up and tell stories about the life of the person who has died, so that everyone can share and honor these memories in one place. The sons leaned in closely by the door of the goat room to listen to me. I said we bury our dead in a special place that’s marked with a stone, where we can return to do puja and be with our loved one. That we return from the cemetery and wash our hands and fill our stomachs with food, and people stream through our houses with flowers and food while we sit shiva – a mourning period when we keep our homes full of life, because we must keep living. By contrast, kriya imposes strict and challenging rules on almost every movement of the bereaved: fasting, washing, praying, isolation, burning. In some ways, everyone has died.

It occurs to me now how little I know about the orthodox dictates of Judiasm and mourning. Is there a period of purification? I have no idea. I could look it up easily for this post. But it’s more interesting that I have no idea.  So I’ll look it up afterwards.

As we were talking, a slight woman with her uncombed hair falling over her shoulders came out of the house. Malika and I haven’t seen each other in about eight years, but she heard my voice from inside the house. Despite the circumstances, it was a really lovely moment. There wasn’t a lot that needed saying, other than, “I heard.”

We entered the small house. Malika’s widowed mother was sleeping by herself on a bed of straw – she too must observe kriya for thirteen days. “Say ‘Aamaa,’” Malika said.

“But what do I say if I can’t say Namaste?” I asked.

“Just say ‘Aamaa,'” Malika said.  So I softly said, “Aamaa,” and her mother sat up.  There wasn’t really much more to add after that.

But just on the other side of a low wall, a crowd of women was gathered around a fire, where a kettle of tea was brewing for all the visitors. Mourning customs for daughters are lighter than for sons and wives: Malika and her two sisters observed kriya for four days, and on the fifth day, they added salt to their food and were allowed to touch other people.  Their straw beds, upgraded now to straw mats, are still arranged on the floor of the house. They’ll sleep there together and continue cooking their own food and eating only once a day for thirteen days. Their hair will stay uncombed until then.

Neru and I sat by the fire for about an hour. Between other chatter, the huddle of women asked me all kinds of things about death rites in the U.S., and also about my family and what I’ve been up to. There was lots of quiet laughing. We spent a long time on the topic of marriage, which, in these parts, is almost always arranged by parents. People here are endlessly enthralled by the concept that I am tasked with finding my own spouse.

“Love marriage,” I said by way of explanation.  Here the phrase has an illicit undertone, like eloping. “That’s our culture.”

An old lady next to me was having trouble following. The expectation she’s always known is that you are paired with a spouse who is astrologically compatible with you and socially compatible with your family, and then you sign up for a life together, and then you go from there. A younger auntie jumped in to help out.

“Love,” the auntie said, looking up at us from her seat by the fire. “When two people make things work between them—that’s love, right?”

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