The Ritual of Goodbye

 

I decided to take the jungle path up to Kaski, which I normally travel multiple times during any visit, but haven’t been up or down yet during this hectic winter. I set off late and as I climbed up, the scramble of things fell away and I was alone on the stone path.  Where there is time to climb and think.

It’s been a few years since the forest was cut here (for grass, firewood) so the way is lush and clustered with greenery.  I always wear flip flops and the contours of the rocks feel close under my feet, even in winter.  At intervals, I came upon dustings of red powder laying bright on the rocks, a trail I suspected had been left by a recent funeral procession headed in the other direction down to the river.  Midway up the path there is a natural spring that has been organized with laid stones, and one large flat rock with a groove in the middle serves as a ledge channeling a steady stream of water for drinking. When I come this way with the kids, they cup their hands under the trickle and funnel the water between their lips, like something out of the Secret Garden. The spring always feels like a sacred place, a steady tributary of water that started who knows where, up high in the mountains, probably, and falls there at our feet as we pass.

As I made my way up from the valley to the ridge, I had that granular awareness of time passing behind me, and it seemed so strange that at any moment I was on one stone, and then I would be on the next one, and just that way the whole path would be behind me and I would be up in Kaski, the secret water tap and everything far below where I’d just been.

img_1031By the time I climbed up the last step to the ridge top, I was a combination of chilly and sweaty in the January dusk. I walked the spine of the ridge, which curves along our cubby of village as if along the top row of a stadium. Little Narayan caught sight of me up along the ridgetop, and yelled out from way down in the first row where he was visiting a neighbor, LAURA DIDIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII!!!!! before launching in to a sprint and leaping up over terraces to come walk the last bit of the way by my side. We made a right turn at our row in the top section of the stadium, and strolled out to the house sitting in the wings, where the fire was lit and Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa were waiting.

We had some popcorn and hot tea as sunset approached. Narayan’s brother Amrit came over and in the yard we practiced taekwondo and played chungi, which is basically Nepali hackey sack using a ball of rubber bands, while Aamaa cried out at us to calm it down and I riled everyone up. Govinda dai came over and we sat with Aamaa in the kitchen while she made anadi paste, a rice dough with ghee that is healing for sore muscles and bones, and then we ate it and it made our hands sticky with ghee. Saano didi came over, and then Mahendra’s mother came over. We transferred to the big room with all the beds, and while our visitors took seats around the room to hang out, I jumped under the blankets with Hadjur Aamaa, and with us both lying down, my long limbs rested against the soft jumbled folds of her sari.

Aside from ritualized procedures and ceremonies – tikka-giving, astrology-reading, mala-making — goodbyes are wholly unfashionable around here. So what usually happens on my last day or last morning in Kaski is our closest neighbors come over to chat, but nobody talks about the fact that I am leaving, going to another world, and won’t be back for a long time. If we do, it is in the form of asking about the trajectory of my flight, how long I’ll be in the air, what they give us to eat during such a long journey, and whether or not it is colder where I’m going than where we are. We discuss what season it will be when I come back (summer), and what fieldwork we’ll all do together (millet planting and rice planting), and this leads us to reminisce about what a klutz I was when I first arrived, and how many things I know how to do now. At some point, people wander out mid-conversation. Because the course of events is set, both the leaving and the returning, and since there is nothing to be done, there is no point in becoming uncomfortable. I understand this ritual of goodbye, and have become grateful for it.

churning milkAfter most people had left, Govinda stayed while I churned milk so I could bring buttermilk to Pokhara tomorrow for the family. Govinda took photos of me, which is kind of nice because I don’t have many photos of myself since I’m always the one taking them – but then, people, he posted them on Facebook and two days later I would discover that this photo album is wildly more popular than anything I’ve ever posted of myself trying to be useful or worthy. What does it all mean?

When the milk was churned, Govinda dai left to go home and Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa and I got ready for bed. It’s always been a nightly habit of mine to go out after everything is quiet and look at the stars, across the village stadium at Kali with her arms stretched out under her cloak, and study the positions of the constellations amassed around her. I usually walk out along the garden, and sometimes I climb halfway up the hill to the ridge and look back at the house with its golden porch light, a warm square in the broad, cold darkness. Even when I am far away from Kaski, I often feel my self located there, outside in the silence, looking back at the still, lit house in its expansive darkness. That spot is a place of gratitude and wonder, of tiny-ness and huge-ness at the same time: my little self, with coordinates in the galaxy.

It was another January night, clear and chilly, the stars laid out overhead like dust. I went out to the yard to brush my teeth, and for whatever reason, instead of going out along the terrace, I stood in the square of light cast off the porch and looked out in to the dark. In the summer, the yard is hemmed in by towering corn stalks, but in January, there are no walls against the yawning night.  I stared out in to the blackness, past the edge of the yard, and all I could see was the outline of trees under the stars, and an opening in the blackness at the top of the hill where the path gives way to the ridge.

It occurred to me that in all this time, I’ve never looked at it this way. I studied the inscrutable night, brushed my teeth, and threw my eyes up to the sky for a moment to make sure Orien was where I expected him.  Then I went back in to the house, placed the wooden bar across the inside of the door, got under the warm covers, and drifted off to sleep, safe against the morning.

*

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The Walk Home

 

There’s nothing like my first visit to Kaskikot after having recently arrived in Nepal. Granted, sometimes there’s a year in between visits, and in this case I was here just last summer after a long winter stay. But still – today did not disappoint.

I woke up to the charming experience of Pascal throwing his arm on my head. Let’s face it: this room where Didi and Bhinaju live is too small for all of us now, but we are persevering while the house is being built. It is the nights when I share a bed with Aidan and Pascal that I question my judgment in teaching them taekwondo while they are awake.

While Didi made tea, we all lay in bed debating whose fault it was that we’d all spent the night practicing kickball rather than sleeping. Then we documented our morning in selfies.

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Late morning, I met up with some of our graduated Gaky’s Light Fellows for lunch. It was so great to see everyone and hear what they are doing. Sandip is marketing for an online news outlet. Ramesh is deciding where to apply for his bachelor’s in journalism. Nirajan is in Kathmandu, working for Teach for Nepal, and Nischal is entering his second year of bachelor’s. Umesh and Narayan have a solid paid gig singing traditional music each night, and Narayan has his own radio show. Bhagwan is a residential supervisor in a school hostel. When Puja and Asmita finally got there a few hours late, we all made plans to go boating later this week.

Next was getting up to Kaski. With the fuel shortages, this is more challenging than it’s been, as the bus is running infrequently. Not to worry!  I caught the back of a motorcycle ride and then secured a taxi to the bottom of “the jungle path” that climbs straight up from the valley to the house. Forget the bus, man.

So first of all, at the beginning of this path you have to cross over the Gandaki river, which is usually dry at this time of year, but swells in the summer and fall. We used to wade through it, but a few years back it got this nice concrete bridge. So I’m crossing the bridge, and…it just stops in midair. The last half of the bridge is suddenly no longer there.

It takes me a few minutes to negotiate the drop over the ledge of the bridge with a torn ACL in my right knee that won’t let me jump down on to the rocky bed five or six feet below. I make my way over, progress to the bank a short way away, and there at the bottom of the path up to Kaskikot is this leathery guy resting next to a bundle of wood. He looks kind of resigned. I chat with him for a minute and then he asks for help lifting the bundle of wood.

“My son is really strong, he can carry this kind of load,” the man says woefully. “It’s just pretty heavy.”

Nevertheless, the bundle must be lifted, so we give it a try- fortunately I am more qualified than your average random American to hoist a bundle of wood on to someone’s back so it can be slung from their head and carried across a dry riverbed – but it is too heavy, he can’t get upright under the weight. He sets it back down, resumes his seat in the road, and looks resigned again.

“What’s with this bridge?” I ask. “Half of the bridge is missing.”

“I know!” He says. “The other night, I drank up a full belly and came here and fell right off of it.” He points to his forehead and says, “I got a bit of a bump right here.”

IMG_6126“I hear you,” I reply. “I’m not even drunk, and I nearly fell off the bridge too.”

“Just went right over,” he recalls.

“Should we try this bundle of wood again?” I ask.

“Ok, but you have to come around the front and give me a hand.”

I heave the wood on to his back again and this time give him a hand to brace against as a counter balance, and he stands up.

“Thanks, bye,” he says, as if it makes sense that I appeared for this interaction.  Off he goes.

Partway up the jungle path I run in to two kids coming down.  They stop me.

“Where are you from?” they ask me in English.

“America. Where are you from?”

“Puranchaur,” the little boy answers.

“Oh, I’m going to Puranchaur on Tuesday,” I say. It’s one of the villages where we launched last year. I ask what grades they are in: four and eight. “So,” I say to the fourth grader, “do you brush your teeth at school?”

“Yep,” he answers.

“Huh. For about a year, right?”

“A little less than a year,” he says.

“Cool,” I answer, and down the path they go.

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Finally I come out the top of the jungle path and emerge at the water tap in Kaskikot.

“LAURIEEEE!” the ladies cry. “Here you are, just in time for wood cutting to start tomorrow! Last year you came to cut wood, and this year you’re here to cut wood!”

YES. This is the gold medal of the Welcome Olympics. And yes, when I go to cut wood, I understand that it is a memorable experience for all of us.

On my way to the house, a few other people – completely independently – express their approval that I have arrived just in time for wood chopping. I am winning at Nepal.

At last, I drop over the spine of the ridge and there is home. Baby O’Neil is tethered outside, her wet nose pointed quizzically my way; she has grown some brown fur.  The hillside is dotted with jubilant yellow mustard flowers.  There is the familiar line of the Annapurnas rising in to the dusky sky, distant and close. No matter the path that brings me to this piece of land, it always appears the same way, luminous and inevitable.

*

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Day Thirteen

 

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

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

In addition, there’s the baby buffalo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kalika Hill

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

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

But the direction I decided to look was up.

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

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

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

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

.      .      .

Mama Lulu and Baby O'Neil

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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Small Bundles in Big Spaces

 

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View across the valley, from Bharte

After my visit to Bharte, I went up to Besisahar to spend the night. Many of the international NGOs working in Lamjung operate out of a hotel called the Himalaya Gateway, and I wanted to sit in on a training by the Danish Red Cross on shelter distribution. Plus, I had to retrieve our first delivery of tin: two bundles for Uttam’s family.

I arrived bedraggled and hungry at the hotel at 8:15 pm after many hours of hiking up and down in Bharte in my flip flops (points for irony on the hotel name, Himalaya Gateway). I sat down and talked for a while with Laurienne, the head of CARE’s relief effort in Lamjung. I’d met her at one of the shelter cluster meetings and found her to be a really nice person, so I’ve kept in touch. It’s pretty funny that I’m running around in my flip flops in Bharte and taking a bus to Besisahar to a pick up our first two bundles of tin, while Laurienne is coordinating the transport of 1200 bundles of tin on 28 tractors – TWENTY EIGHT TRACTORS – we had a good laugh over just the image of 28 tractors climbing up the narrow jeep “roads” of Lamjung district. A bit of a nervous laugh, too. The delivery of all this tin is probably going to take a toll on Nepal’s fragile environment. The Red Cross has committed to almost four times that many homes in Lamjung alone – one of the less affected districts.

Speaking of damage, I got myself a pint of ice cream (“Ma’am, how many scoops would you like?…The whole container?…????…Certainly.”). I turned on the air conditioning in my hotel room which noisily and enthusiastically set to delivering air at the same temperature as the rest of the room. I took a shower and fell asleep on the fluffy bed.

The next morning I went to the Red Cross shelter training. It was super interesting, but probably not something I will be able to use much. The topic was how to conduct efficient mass distribution of tin sheets, building kits, and envelopes of cash. For your kind information, and so I can make some use of my training, I offer you the following tips on distributing thousands of corrugated tin sheets to remote Nepal: distribution area has one entry and one exit; recipients move through in a single straight line only, no criss-crossing; vests must be worn at all times and a flag clearly visible to signal that this is a humanitarian space; a question and complaint-receiver stays outside the delivery area.

Also, it is suggested that your team (and, one assumes, your tractors) arrive at your distribution area the night before.  Because there might be some problems with travel.  Maybe.

Mean time, I was coordinating our first delivery of a grand total of two bundles of tin for Archalbot. In the morning, I ran in to the Chief District Officer of Lamjung at the hotel, and of course, we are old friends. I said I was delivering two bundles of tin today in Archalbot and asked if he had any transport suggestions.

The Chief District Officer looked at me funny and said, “Two?” Awkward pause. “That…doesn’t seem like a enough.”

Right right, I said.  True enough.  But see it’s part of this thing that’s going step by step. I promised there’d be more.  There will totally be more.  Also, I’m two bundles ahead of the Red Cross, and I’m going to enjoy every bundle of my lead for each hour that it lasts.

It was about 2:00 by the time I hopped in to a truck with our two bundles of tin. The hardware store owner had a delivery vehicle that was headed south anyway, and agreed to take our tin sheets (and me) for free. And thank goodness this truck was large enough to house a killer whale, because only thing inside it was our two little bundles of tin, which you literally couldn’t even see in the gaping darkness.

We hit the road and I called Kripa to say I was on my way with Uttam’s roof.

IMG_9669When we arrived in Bote Orar to unload the tin by the side of the road, about eight people from Archalbot had come down to roll the sheets and carry them up to the village (note to self: get a tractor when it’s time to deliver tin to the other 15 families). I hoisted an end of one tin roll over my shoulder, uttam’s sister in law took the other, and we were off.

I could hardly believe it when I arrived at Uttam’s house.  I’d only been away for 24 hours, but what used to be the tarp shelter in one field was now two bamboo frames under construction, with lots of people about.

The family called me for snacks. They had gone to buy a few kilograms of meat – a pricey indulgence – to feed to all the people.

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Later, I was talking with Uttam’s brother. Even after all the days we’d been in Archalbot, working on the earth bag house, sleeping in Kripa’s home, stopping by to visit people in their yards and encouraging them to go cut bamboo, eating and bathing and washing our clothes with everyone else – after all this, Uttam’s family wasn’t completely convinced that we’d really show up with their tin.

It wasn’t until I’d called from the truck a few hours earlier, to say I was on my way from Besisahar with the tin, that the mood turned celebratory. That’s when someone was sent out to buy the meat.

Oh, and also, added Uttam’s brother, they’d made this excellent and spacious bamboo frame, and as I could plainly see, one bundle of tin wasn’t going to be enough to cover it.  They would need another, he informed me.

Very clever, Uttam’s brother.

Uttam and his brother building their bamboo house

Uttam and his brother building their bamboo house

If there’s one moment that will stay with me the most, it’s when I asked Uttam’s oldest brother, who is building the IMG_9677smaller upper house, to explain what each area of the inside would be when it was done.  He and his wife had clearly thought about this.  He pointed to the place where the kitchen fire would be, and the sleeping area (there weren’t exactly a lot of rooms, but that’s not the point).  I motioned to a spot at the edge of the house that was a few feet wide.  From the frame it was clear that the roof would slope down over it.

“What is this for?” I asked.

“That’s a place to stay if someone comes to visit,” he said.

Uttam’s family’s two houses are still going up, but before I left the next morning, I was happy to take this picture of his wife and two month old baby.  Another small bundle in a big space…nice improvement.

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Possibility of Tin

 

The first part of the group left for Archalbot on Thursday: Robin and Colin, the French volunteers, and our field officer Dilmaya. I came a day later because I was working on IMG_9463getting our new office set up. Actually I was busy repainting it with the wrong type of paint, so before I left for Archalbot on Friday, I had to call a painter to redo my redo.

On Friday I rode out to Bote Orar, where the road to Archalbot turns off the main highway between Dhumre and Besisahar. When I arrived at about 5pm, the earth bag house already had a one-meter deep rectangular foundation.  Not bad for one day’s work.

As dusk fell, Dilmaya and I accompanied some of the young men to a clearing on the edge of a terraced field for a community meeting. We sat across from the tarp-shelter in the field.

We’d explained the plan to our local organizers, Kripa and his cousin Surya: anyone who builds a shelter gets a tin roof from us; the earth bag house is a sample building style and we can provide materials if anyone else wants to do it; the family in the field will be a sample building project where the community works together build a bamboo house in a day. Kripa and Surya were getting a lot of questions about who would get tin for what, and they wanted to gather their neighbors and discuss this plan in front of us, to protect themselves from future accusations of greed or favoritism.

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With night falling around us, the discussion that unfolded was amazing. It basically boiled down to: “This organization is here to give us tin roofs for completed shelters. How are we going to help each other complete shelters?” They discussed the order of priority in the village – everybody agreed that the tarp family in the field was the top priority – and other matters such as where and how to get enough bamboo. Even the tarp family made their way over to the meeting, but they seemed guarded, unsure whether to believe us and everybody else. It was their neighbors who explained the plan and assured them they needed to start collecting bamboo.

People kept turning to us and saying, “How many houses are you going to build? Tell us and we’ll figure out who should get them.” And Dilmaya and I kept saying, “You tell us how many houses you’re going to build, and we’ll bring one bundle of tin per family. If we have the problem of too many people building, we’ll deal with it later. That’s never happened.”

Dilmaya did a great job of continually redirecting the discussion back to that point, that everything depended on their planning, and we’re there to meet them wherever they can get to. One guy asked if large families would be able to get more than one bundle of tin. We replied that’s not up to us; our allotment is one bundle of tin per family, and people can add more area with re-used tin or natural materials. “On the other hand,” we said, “as a community, if you guys tell us that a certain household really needs more tin than that, we’ll believe you.”  Because nobody’s going to be the jerk who tries to make off with unneeded extra tin under the scrutiny of the entire village.

There are still many of steps between this meeting and a rebuilt bamboo village in time for monsoon. But I’ve been doing community work in rural Nepal for nearly a decade, and this was as good as it gets at this stage. What you hope is that your attention will mobilize existing capacity and snowball in to a collaboration that combines the best of what we have with the best of what local people have. When we can frame our “aid” as an incentive, even though we want to give it away, people start to ask each other, How are we as a community going to capture the possibility of tin?  Our responsibility is to maintain a consistent and intelligent presence, to keep redirecting ownership back to the community, to closely monitor to make sure nobody’s taking advantage, and to live up to our word. We bring in a small quantity of crucial expertise in building, plus the final critical hardware: a new roof.

There’s also the simple value of spending time with people.  When we arrived, the corn field that needed to be cut down to make the earth bag house was still standing, and the family slashed it in half an hour–but IMG_9492they weren’t going to do that until they saw us standing there for real.  Kushal, the twelve year old boy we met during our assessment, called me almost every morning between Monday and Thursday, and he never had anything to say. He just wanted to see if I’d pick up.  Millions of rural poor go unseen by the world unless they are in the midst of a thrilling crisis that offers the chance for airdrops, mass collection of first aid materials, teeth-clenching field medicine, and smoky photos of catastrophe. But the persistent plight of invisibility and systemic disenfranchisement is too complicated and time consuming for most of the world to attend to by looking people in the eye.  It’s not the habit of our global society, of our governments or social organizations, to sit down in a clearing and say, “We’ll stay here and work on this with you. What do you think?”

I understand why large aid agencies can’t work like this. It’s not their job. They have the budget and infrastructure to strategize to best possible average and cast a wide net; their purpose is to get to the highest number of people, not to reduce the amount of waste or increase the amount of human connection. And Nepal needs them.  An organization like ours could never hope to reach any reasonable fraction of those in urgent need using our approach. But I’m reminded how much groups like us matter, even in the face of a gigantic task like building half a million houses in a few weeks. Because the best possible average still leaves out a lot of people, and for each one of those people, their house is 100% of the problem.

This strategy doesn’t always work, and I don’t know how things will turn out in Archalbot, although I admit I have a good feeling about it. But the hardest part is that you have to be willing to walk away if the community can’t carry its weight, and that’s devastating when it happens, because you and your team have put your heart in to it. You sit in the grass with people while they work things out. You tell them you are there for them and that you respect the wisdom they bring to the process as well as the result. When it falls through, it doesn’t just hurt your budget, it hurts your sense of hope and capability. It’s not something you write up in a report and send up the chain to management. You just go home and cry.

But what am I talking about?  Here’s to you, Archalbot.  We’ll stick it out for better or worse.  Show us how it’s done.

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Coordination Tactics

On Tuesday, the first thing I woke up to was a call from an unknown number at 6:45am. I silenced my phone but got three more calls from the same number, so I picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Hello.”

“Who is this?” I could already tell who it was.

“Archalbot.” It was the little boy, Kushal, from our visit to Archalbot yesterday.

“Hello Archalbot,” I said. “How are you?

“Fine.”

I waited. “Ok….Well….I’m fine too.”

“Ok.”

“All right then, talk to you later?”

“Ok.”

“Bye, Archalbot,” I said.

“Bye!”

Later in the morning, Dilmaya and I debriefed with Robin and Colin over coffee. We reconfirmed the plan we’d come up with yesterday. Dilmaya was to call our main contact, Kripa, and I’d coordinate with the government. If everything was organized, we’d start Thursday.

IMG_5049I’ve been here three and a half weeks and I haven’t spent a single day in Kaski. Wednesday is millet planting day, so I promised Aamaa that I would take a day off from coordinating housing outreach and tooth brushing programs to come churn up dirt between the corn stalks and shove little millet seedlings in to it. I spent the rest of Tuesday running around, planning for a day in Kaskikot away from internet like it was year on Mars. Finally I ran to the bus park at 5:30pm, just as a downpour began.

The bus left an hour late, at 6:30pm. That’s where I was when I realized that I was supposed to submit my enrollment for graduate school classes in September at exactly 6:45pm my time, 9am EST. If you don’t do this right when registration opens, it’s likely that the classes or sections you want will fill up within an hour or two.

I tried to log in from my phone, but not surprisingly, the cell connection wasn’t strong enough. So I called my parents to see if they could log in to my account from in Maryland and click “submit.” I got my dad on the phone, but in order to log in he needed a password. And the meticulously written document I’d made before I left for Nepal with all my logins and passwords in it had evaporated from my computer. I searched and searched and it was nowhere to be found.

So I hung up and waited a precious 45 minutes until I got to Kaski, where there’s one hotel that sometimes has internet, and my password is saved in my browser so I can log in without the missing document. I got to the Kaski hotel and the internet wasn’t working. I called my dad back while the hotel owner tried to restart the internet, which took about 15 minutes. Then the UConn registration site let me take every step except for actually hitting “submit,” because the site itself was having technical problems, which I now knew because my dad was on the phone with the registrar.

Which is to say that by this point my dad was holding the phone up between the registrar in Hartford and me in Kaskikot, while we discussed options for resetting my password, which required me explaining to my dad that the registrar was saying she was going to send him an email with a reset link; now I’m walking home from the hotel to the house so Aamaa doesn’t think I’ve fallen off a mountain, and the registrar needs to get someone else on the phone so she adds yet another person to this phone chain. Then my iphone won’t download the new password, and then when it does, and I read it over the phone from our house in Kaski to the person four phones away in Hartford, it gets rejected.

It’s like the Nepal jeep travel version of online class registration.

In the end, the registrar’s office took pity on us and just overrode their system to register me for my classes. It was 9:30pm here. Aamaa and finally sit down for dinner. Bring it on, millet planting season.

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Archalbot

 

I agreed to team up with Robin and his friend Colin to build an earth bag house. They know how to build earth bag houses, and I know how to do rural community organizing, so that’s that.

Our trip to Parbat has given me lots to think about. I’ve decided on a new strategy: treat shelter construction like dental care. Assume people have almost everything they need except for encouragement and a few key items, and then use stuff as an incentive to organize and act. We’ll start by lending a hand to repurpose materials from damaged homes. At the same time we’ll do some sample building using earth bags, plastered bamboo, andIMG_9411 whatever else we can come up with. Anyone who completes a shelter will get tin to cover it. Basically, it’s the reverse of the housing strategy being used by the government and large INGOs.

On Monday when we set out in Robin’s truck to look around in Archalbot, one of the villages where the Lamjung government has asked us to work. I’m happy to say that the same morning Robin brought his truck in for maintenance, and returned it outfitted with fresh tires and a new suspension. Perhaps it’s first suspension.

However, when we arrived in Archalbot in late afternoon, we saw that most people had already patched up their houses with bamboo and tin. Which was great, but it didn’t really leave much for us to do, since that was our own plan. Before leaving, we went to visit the Dalit part of the village, and found our way up to a collection of four families sharing tarps over beds they had outside.  Their hosues are standing, but dangerously cracked on the inside.  We got to talking and hit it off right away.

On the other hand, this is a tricky scene. We’re basically checking people out for an aid project, and they know it, so they’re checking us out too while trying to casually impress us with their cause. Everyone wants it to work out, but there’s a lot of suspicion on both sides. We don’t want to get pulled in to personal interests or hidden local politics; villagers want us to stick around, but only if we are going to do decent work. They’ve surely watched numerous groups come and go with false promises. Would it be crass to call it aid-dating? Probably. But accurate.IMG_9434

Our date went as well as a first date can. People gathered in the yard and asked a lot of questions. A young guy named Kripa especially took an interest and seemed ready to organize his friends to come to an earth bag building workshop. Soon we were all laughing and eating roasted corn.

We left in good spirits, but not before an eleven year old boy named Kushal demanded my phone number. He was so unapologetic that I gave it to him.

On our way down, we stopped at the shelter of a family whose unlivable house we’d passed earlier. Since there was no room to build on their own property until their house gets demolished, they were living in someone else’s empty rice paddy under a pileIMG_9440of repurposed tin, blankets and tarps. Sitting at the edge of the dark space inside, which was lower than my height, was a seventeen year old mother with her two month old baby. A listless looking elderly couple sat outside.

This family seemed to be the neglected poor of the neglected poor, minimally educated, an air of stasis lingering about. The task of getting from here to a rebuilt house on their property seemed inconceivable. Even our escorts – their neighbors – inadvertently gave off a vibe that this family was a hopeless case. I can’t blame them; it was hard to imagine what to do.

By the time we got back to Robin’s truck, we had a plan. Kripa would be our organizer. We’d work in Archalbot on three conditions: they clear a small corn field for building an earth bag house for the collection of Dalit families; Kripa recruits six to eight volunteers from around the village to learn the building technique; everyone takes a day in the middle of the training to build a bamboo house for the family in the field, and we’ll provide tin to cover it. In other words, we’ll leverage the earth bag building project to rally the community around this other family. And then if anyone else decides to build either kind of structure afterwards, we’ll give them tin too.

A group of kids got a huge kick out of clamboring up in to the back of the truck and riding it up the dirt road, bouncing and laughing until we turned off to head south on the highway.

We sped and rattled all the way back to Pokhara with a feeling of possibility. On the way, we stopped for a snack at a road side restaurant in the middle of nowhere, called the Cock Fight Restaurant, run by a Nepali guy who served as a contractor in Afghanistan for seven years, teaching US military how to disassemble and reassemble guns. He knew about every kind of gun imaginable. Well after it was dark he was still telling us about working with the US Military in Afghanistan, and about the actual cock fights that he holds at his restaurant, and about the goat farm and security businesses he runs now in Nepal, where he is quite wealthy.

Another mysterious day.

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The Heart of the Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_9380

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

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

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

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

“Did you make this house?” I asked.

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

I asked how long it had taken him.

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

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

“Where is your original house?” I asked.

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

IMG_9392

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

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

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

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

I wonder if Tulasi noticed that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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