My friend Ann is here in Pokhara for the summer. She is an IMT therapist and has begun volunteering at the Kaskikot health post, working with the Health Assistant to treat patients using integrative manual therapy. Whenever somebody comes to visit me in Nepal for the first time, I briefly have a renewed sense of chaos, of how from a western sensibility, there is an unnerving feeling of inefficiency and an opacity around how problems get solved. For the most part you don’t rely here on public services, or even private businesses, to pop up with specialized solutions or knowledge in a pinch. You rely on someone’s cousin. To the uninitiated, it’s unclear what people do when things need fixing, and this leaves one with a sinister feeling that small irresolvable inconveniences will accumulate until everything is a hopeless mess and all is lost forever. Therefore, in the presence of first-time visitors I can’t help feeling as though I need to account for a mild but pervasive sense of anarchy that they cannot describe but which, I know, they feel. I don’t know how to explain that there is a different kind of intuitive coherence with other rules.
As for Ann’s visit, everything is basically going great, but one hitch happened early on when she left the bag that contained all her underwear at a hotel in Kathmandu. Also, Ann said it was perfectly fine if I wrote a blog post about her lost underwear. The underwear, while inconvenient but replaceable, was not as much of an issue as the bras that were in the forgotten bag: Ann said her bra size is not that easy to find, and she also said that it’s fine if I write about her bra size too. Replacement of the odd size bras in this environment is one of those opaque things that appears to have no viable solution. The bag needed to be retrieved.
We called Ann’s hotel in Boudanath and determined that they had located the bag of underwear and put it in storage. This was a positive start, however, the next opacity was how the bag would get moved to our district when the mail system exists but doesn’t work according to any particularly obvious or accessible processes. Happily, I was scheduled to go to Kathmandu about a week later. So we rang up Ann’s hotel again and I asked Dorje, the proprietor, if he could hire a taxi to send the underwear to the hotel where I would be staying in Kathmandu. Regarding my hotel, I had previously stayed at the Tibet Peace Guest House only once, but last week after I had called a few times in the process of reserving a room, the hotel clerk and I were officially pals, and when I would call he would answer, “Hello, didi.” I asked the Tibet Peace hotel clerk if he would mind fronting the taxi fare for Ann’s underwear, so that I wouldn’t have to coordinate an exact meeting time with the driver. He said, “Sure didi, no problem.”
“Ann, I have hired a chauffeur for your underwear and the clerk will receive it at my hotel,” I told Ann. She was so excited. Especially for the bras.
I got to Kathmandu and had my meetings and Dr. Bethy arrived and the next day we boarded the plane to Pokhara.
“AH, SHOOT!!” I cried, bonking my forehead against the inside of the double-paned window. A French tourist sitting behind us, who was playing her ukulele in the airplane, became alarmed. She stopped playing her ukulele and leaned forward with her eyes wide.
“Is everything okay?” She asked luxuriously, concerned.
“I forgot Ann’s underwear!” I cried. “Shoot shoot shoot!” Now how would we get it?
The French tourist leaned back and resumed her ukulele playing, and also some singing. The plane was very small, and luckily she was quite a good singer.
Once we’d landed, I called up Ann’s hotel again. Had they forgotten to transport the underwear, I needed to know, or had I left it orphaned for a second time, now at the Tibet Peace Guest House?
“Hello Dorje sir, do you still have my friend’s underwear?” I asked. Dorje revealed that he had planned to send it a day later, today, because the hotel was located in Bouda, a bit of a hike from downtown Thamel where my hotel was, and today they had a driver making an outing anyway. “Oh, I am back in Pokhara now,” I said. “Now what?”
Dorje sir and I pondered the problem for a moment.
“If you know anyone who can bring it to Pokhara, I’ll get your friend’s things to them,” Dorje sir promised. “I will deliver it myself!”
“Ok, I have an idea,” I said. I hung up and walked over to Adam Travel in Lakeside, where we are friends with the owner. Prem often hangs out here in his free time and they book all my tickets. Once, I got to attend a travel agency exhibition in the U.S. with the owner Basu sir.
“Hello Laura didi,” the Adam Travel guys said when Bethy and I walked in. “Ah! Bethy! Hello!” They naturally always know who is traveling with me; the same guys had booked Bethy’s tickets a day earlier, too.
“Hi guys, I was wondering if your Kathmandu office could arrange to have my friend’s underwear sent over. She left all of her underwear at her hotel in Bouda.”
The Adam Travel guys told me that their Kathmandu office is now closed, but the people who used to work at there now work at the Sacred Peace Hotel. Those guys would arrange it. Adam travel proceeded to call Surjet at the Sacred Peace hotel. Surjet said he had some friends at a bus company.
“So,” Adam Travel told me, “They need to bring the items to the Sacred Peace hotel, and you’ll pick it up here. It’s going to be $5 for the cab to the hotel and $5 for the bus to Pokhara. You pay $10.” Where would this be paid? I asked. We’d pay Adam Travel, they said; other people would pay other people in the middle and the debt would accumulate and then we’d pay it off here. No problem.
Sold! I put Adam travel on the phone with Dorje and they discussed all the intermediary checkpoints where someone knows someone who will help reunite the lost underwear bag from Bouda with Ann in Pokhara by Wednesday. We’ve solved the matter within 8 minutes. I wondered why I hadn’t just done this before.
“So there’s bad news, and there’s good news,” I announced that evening to Ann. “The good news is that your underwear will be at Adam Travel in 48 hours. The bad news is I forgot it in Kathmandu.”
For about a year now, the Government of Nepal has been undergoing a decentralization of power. The country has been divided in to five provinces and outfitted with new government employees at the state level. It’s an exciting moment for a project like ours, which is aimed at capacity building in the government health system. Right now entire tier of government in Nepal is literally undergoing construction for the first time.
In the mean time, a large number of essential items are not yet decided even as the new government is deploying its duties. The desks are purchased and people have been assigned to sit behind them – literally – but exactly what these people are responsible for and how their responsibilities are to be executed is still a work in progress. Many operational policies are still not in place, and decision-making power isn’t yet clearly defined between different levels of government. Basically, we are in a car that is being built while rolling down the highway. You’ve probably been there too, right? And I accept that many people would find this alarming.
These people, however, find it AWESOME.
This a great time to be a grassroots organization in Nepal that has been working on health care with previously less-empowered leaders in villages. Jevaia Foundation has accumulated a lot of specialized knowledge on a key primary health issue that few if any other organizations are working on in Nepal. We have policy ideas that we’ve already modeled in multiple health posts, and there are elected officials in lower levels of government with an interest in getting this model supported by the Ministry of Health. And right around the corner from us is the capital of Province #4, where policies, budgetary headings, and guidelines that will decide these matters are currently being created.
Our hope is that in coming months, we’ll be able to play a role in influencing some of the new health policy. Currently oral health care in Nepal is available almost exclusively in private practice. The ministry of health doesn’t even have a budget heading for oral health at the primary care level, and in the villages where we work, leaders have cobbled funds from other budget categories to run dental clinics in their Health Posts. In the new provincial system, we’re hoping to organize local officials and communities to demand the creation of oral health budgets from the Ministry of Health at the province level. Cool, right?
So even though everything’s a bit weird here at the moment, a time of change and uncertainty is of course always, potentially, a time of heightened opportunity. It is certainly a million times better than an unyielding stasis, as anyone who has been in one of those surely knows.
Now let’s bring this all back down to the ground for a second, in my home village of Kaskikot, where the newly elected village leaders reopened the dental clinic we started…which had been closed for SIX YEARS. (Here’s the Washington Post story about our handover of the Kaskikot clinic in 2013.) The new Kaskikot clinic is fully integrated in to the Health Post and financed by the village government. Patients register in the main building and then take a registration ticket to the dental room. Data on patient flow and treatments provided is maintained just like all other primary care services delivered in the government Health Post. Our job is now confined to monitoring quality of care and technical support. It’s AMAZING.
In order to garner backing for this example and its variations in other villages, we’ve been hard at work over the last few weeks meeting people behind desks in the new province government, and then meeting with other people they suggest we meet with. It’s so refreshing to talk with these newly appointed officials and to brainstorm with folks outside government who, like us, have been chipping away at sticky issues for a long time and are trying to sort out what the new system means for these bigger goals. The confusion of the moment is offset by what feels to us like a sense of possibility and movement. At the same time, it’s important that everyone carry on with a grand performance of confidence, even though nobody is sure what is going on. So, ok, we’re doing that.
For example, recently I thought to invite a couple folks we’d met up to Kaskikot to see the dental clinic one Sunday. They agreed to come. I immediately began worrying over how to make sure that they’d be there on a busy day. The Kaskikot clinic is generally seeing about 8-15 patients a day, which is getting close to full capacity…but it’s also the busy planting season, and it’s raining, and….and anyway, it would just be a bummer if we invited Important People to our clinic and there were not a lot of patients when they arrived. Maintaining confidence under construction means pulling out all the stops.
Fortunately, the Kaskikot clinic runs on Sundays, and I spend Saturdays at home in Kaskikot. I decided to invest in some advertising. Here’s where we move this story from Important Offices to Aamaa’s Kitchen.
“We’re going to the clinic tomorrow morning,” I informed Didi and Aidan and Pascal over dinner. They were in Kaski last week for school vacation. Didi protested that she needed to leave early morning to cut grass for the buffalo because Aamaa’s leg has been sore. Also, she pointed out, What if it rains later in the day? I told her I was 100% certain that it never rains on Sundays and that, in conclusion, we were all to leave for dental exams at 9:30am sharp.
On Sunday morning I started my rounds early, at Saano Didi and Saraswoti’s houses. Nobody looked like they’d been planning on a dental checkup after breakfast. “C’mon guys, we’ll go together, it will be fun. Malika Didi is coming,” I begged. With dignity, of course. For the greater good. Then, walking down the ridge toward Deurali, I ran in to Mahendra sauntering home.
“I need you to come to get a dental checkup today,” I said.
“A dental checkup?”
“At the health post. There are some important people coming to see it.”
“Ok Laura didi.”
“Really? You wouldn’t lie to me.”
“I wouldn’t lie to you Laura didi.”
“Hey and bring some of your friends,” I added, testing my luck. Mahendra has a posse of bros that move as a pack.
“Ok Laura didi.”
Mahendra and Saila
“Really?” It seemed suspicious.
“I’ll be there Laura didi.”
“Around 11,“ I said, and continued down the ridge.
I came to the yard of Saili Bouju, who’s married to our local shaman, Bauta Dai. Since I pass their front yard every time I walk home from the main road, we check in pretty regularly. When I’d arrived on Friday, we had already made a plan to go to the dental clinic Sunday morning.
“Saili Bouju, we’re going for a dental checkup today, right?”
“Yes, yes Laura,” she assured me in her deep raspy voice.
“I’ll be by at 9:45,” I said. “With Malika didi.”
I continued up the walk to the the next two houses, where I made my pitch to Barat’s two sisters-in-law and their families over tea. Ambika Bouju happened to stop by as I was rinsing my teacup.
“Ambika Bouju, come for a dental checkup today.”
“Hey, I’ve been meaning to do that,” she replied, to my great happiness. “I need to take my son in.”
“Today’s the day! There are some Important People coming from Pokhara to see it. We need a crowd.”
“Ok, I’ll be there,” Ambika Bouju agreed.
Out at the main road I came upon Amadev bouju in her yard. She can’t hear very well. “Bouju, let’s go to the health post today,” I said. She smiled and nodded and said, “Sure, Laura.” She’s an overall positive person.
“Ok, ok,” Amadev Bouju said.
“To get your teeth checked.”
I had a feeling we might not be talking about the same thing, so I hopped down in to the yard to discuss the matter at a shorter distance. “COME TO THE HEALTH POST WITH ME TO GET A DENTAL EXAM,” I repeated.
“Oh! Dental exam? My teeth don’t hurt.”
“A checkup is important!” I proclaimed. Amadev Bouju rolled over fairly easily. She said she’d meet us at the clinic.
I made my way toward Butu bouju’s house. Back in the day, when her daughters were younger, we used to have sleepovers and make chocolate chip pancakes over the fire. Butu bouju was out in the yard and tried to impose more tea upon my already full-of-tea stomach. I was delighted to find out that she’d been thinking to bring her grandkids to the health post for a dental checkup at some point. “I’ll be by with Malika didi to pick you up,” I said, making sure that Didi would have no out now that I’d advertised her all over the village, and headed home.
“I’ve rounded up most of the people in Deurali,” I announced over breakfast. Didi replied that she was going to cut grass. I countered withthe importance of oral hygeine, and of my schemes, and how she loves me. And so on.
We set off mid-morning. Narayan and Amrit, who over to play with Aidan and Pascal, were rounded up and I shuttled the whole gaggle along the edge of the cornfield. They disappeared in to the tall stalks and I turned around to make sure that Didi was following close behind.
Somehow, by the time we got to Govinda Dai’s house, I was already alone again. Didi had peeled off to go retrieve Butu Bouju. Saili Bouju said she had a headache and would go another time, and only after much cajoling said that she’d meet us there in a little while, which I was pretty sure was a way of pacifying me and sending me on my way. When I passed Ambika Bouju’s house, she was nowhere to be found, and even though her daughter said she’d be up the road shortly, it seemed improbable. All four boys—Pascal, Aidan, Narayan and Amrit—had taken off ahead of me down the road while I was trying to recapture our patients, and by the time I reached Govinda’s house in Dophare they were nowhere in sight. I walked in to Govinda’s yard alone, not seven minutes after mission launch.
As Govinda dai readied his umbrella, I looked in the road and saw that Mahendra had appeared out of thin air, with a friend. They were carelessly posted by the side of the road, sullen and awesome as usual.
“I told you I was coming, Laura didi,” Mahendra said with casual authority. “You guys go ahead. We’ll be along.”
Near Maula, we caught up with Aidan and Narayan. “Where are Pascal and Amrit?” I asked. “THEY WENT HOME,” Aidan declared triumphantly, beaming. I sighed. Oh well. “I’m going to call your mom,” I said, and took out my phone to dial Didi, who was missing in action. “I HAVE MOMMY’S PHONE,” Aidan proclaimed ecstatically. “IF YOU CALL MOMMY IT WILL RING RIGHT HERE!”
I thought morosely that Didi and Butu Bouju most likely got to chatting and weren’t coming along.
We arrived at the Health Post in a thick fog. The previous night’s rain had left everything squishy and slick. Durga, the clinic assistant, was just getting through the morning disinfection and setup process. The technician Dipendra was nowhere to be found. It was 10:40 and our visitors where scheduled to arrive at 11.
10:50. Dipendra rolled up on his bike.
10:53. Pascal and Amrit came tumbling out of the fog through the gate to the Health Post complex. They tore across the lawn, jumped over the wall, and went back out in to the road to play by the pond until called for their exams.
10:57. Didi materialized from the fog at the gate. Behind her, Butu Bouju was walking and chatting with her grandkids, like spirits emerging out of a cloud. I blinked. There was Saili Bouju behind them.
11:10. A line of non-recruited folks had taken tickets and were awaiting appointments. The bench outside was full, not just with my neighbors, but with the natural flow of weekly patients.
11:15. Ambika Bouju arrived with her son.
11:20. Mahendra and his bros sauntered in to the yard.
11:30. Our two visitors showed up to find a full clinic with a long line of adults, children and elderly patients sitting out a roughly 40 minute wait. Inside the clinic room, Dipendra demonstrated the treatment planning form that was developed during our last professional development in December. I pointed out our infection control protocol on the wall and other features of the clinic protocol that we’ve added to the Health Post setting, like floor coverings, dress, tray numbers and documentation.
We retreated to the local government building next door to talk about our next steps at the province level. By the time we came back outside to get in a car back to Pokhara, it was about 12:00, and the line outside the clinic has grown even further.
“Saili Bouju!” I call across the lawn.
“I told you I was coming!” Saili Bouju shouted back.
(p.s. I have no idea what’s going on with my weird knome-hairdo in this photo)
If the Guiness Book of Records took entries for Aamaas who had rarely left their villages in Nepal and had the most friends living in the U.S., our Aamaa would win by a landslide. I don’t even know how many people have been to Kaskikot to eat in Aamaa’s kitchen in the last decade and a half, but it’s an impressive cohort of my friends and family, even if you don’t count all the tourists that Prem bhinaju brings by. We wanted Aamaa to get to see as many of them as possible here in their natural habitat. I put out a call for visitors.
My friend Jackie drove all the way down from Maine to meet Aamaa in Connecticut. We went to a hot air balloon festival and ate ice cream.
“We should go. It will be dark soon,” Aamaa clucked.
“The whole point is to see the balloons lit up in the dark!” Bishnu and I objected.
“It’s night,” Aamaa countered logically. The fact that everyone isn’t basically inside by dark is one of the features of American life that Aamaa seems to find continually alarming. As a side note, she has been busting my chops for being out after dark in Kaski for fifteen years.
We had dinner (after dark) with my friends Heather and Abigail and their son Teddy. Heather was in Nepal with a group of my friends in 2010 for a big hiking trip. I took Aamaa to my IMT clinic, where she was received like a celebrity by all of the therapists. Of course, Aamaa knows all about IMT because in 2013 we did a major manual therapy project in Kaskikot based on the model we use in our oral health program, and three of my IMT therapist friends spent a few weeks in Nepal.
For the weekend, we went shopping in a grocery store (what?), got our nails done, did our hair, cooked an insane amount of Nepali food, and had an all day Aamaa-Rama party. Will, Lissa and Catherine, the therapists who’d come for the IMT project in 2013, came in from Boston and D.C. Dr. Keri, my cousins Robert and Audrey, and my friends Mona and Todd all made long drives to meet Aamaa. I set up a slideshow to play through photos and we sat around all afternoon seeing friends.
The next morning, Bishnu and Aamaa packed their things to drive down to D.C. to stay with Bishnu and my parents. Will and Lissa came over for breakfast, and then we put everything in Catherine’s Mini Coop and I stood on the sidewalk. Aamaa got in the car an buckled her own seatbelt.
At last, it came…that withdrawing feeling that I am used to having in the front yard of our gentle orange house in Kaski. Like a fishnet has been tied around my insides and is being pulled away by the force of a world that cannot come with me. The thing is that usually I am on the other side of it, moving away from an anchor and feeling that world slip away as I leave.
This morning, I was the one standing on the porch, watching the color and sound move out in to the road.
“This is no fun,” I mumbled. I would be going down to Maryland down to my family in a week. But suddenly it felt like I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been alone.
“No kidding,” said Aamaa in her matter of fact, unsentimental way. “That’s what I do. Everyone leaves and it’s not fun and I sit and cry.” And it’s true. Every time a group of us come to Kaski, we leave.
“Nice job with the seatbelt,” I noted. “See you guys next week.”
They pulled off in Catherine’s car, and I waved, like Aamaa always does, and went back in to my house to think of something to do.
So the other day, a friend posted a Luftansa ad on Facebook with the caption, “this is the Nepal I love!” The post popped up in my feed, although it had nothing to do with me.
I clicked on it. The ad follows a Nepali fashion designer from New York back to Nepal as part of a “wanderlust” ad series by the airline. She goes to familiar places in Kathmandu, and then poses in front of the Annapurna mountains. And then, she eats a meal with some women who start to look very familiar – so familiar that I don’t recognize them in this context. And then, a teenage boy runs off of the roof of a house. His feet patter over the corrugated tin over our kitchen, which I had installed last summer to fix a leak over our cooking fire.
THAT’S MY HOUSE!!!! I start yelling. Luftansa decided to make an ad about wanderlust, and out of the ENTIRE GLOBE, they picked MY HOUSE IN NEPAL!!! I watch again. You can see Aamaa sitting right there on the porch with a white towel on her head. Have a look for yourself:
The colors of home – LUFTHANSA?! I don’t think so! Aamaa and Bishnu and I painted those colors!! As my friend Bess says…trespassing! You guys, this video has well over 3 million views. Now, next question: who has a friend at Luftansa? I think we should look in to a new corporate partner, no?
Go ahead and send your ideas my way…email@example.com.
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.
By 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.
After 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.
Over the course of 13 years in Nepal, I’ve spent almost all my time in villages. My whole understanding of Nepal, and all my friends, routines, the food I eat, the places I sleep, even the way I speak the language and therefore the way I think, have been organized around my adopted family and rural life, or its popular sister, the cramped and thankless circumstance of recent urban migration.
But this summer, I’m full-time supervising a city-based office with four people and a field staff of 16; getting a latte each morning; diving in to health care policy and human rights frameworks. I schedule coffee meetings and visit offices. All told, it’s only in the last 1-2 years that I’ve started getting to know some of the other long-term foreigners and NGO founders living in Pokhara, who all pretty much know each other, because they all live in the city, which for me has always been just a place to visit for work. And when I’m here, my non-work life is completely centered around my (recent urban migrant) Nepali family.
There’s a vague sense of discovery about this new routine. For example, I’ve been sleeping in a room in the office, and – this is going to sound weird, but – slowly realizing I can put things there to make the bed and little space around it mine. Like: a new blanket. Or: a hook on the wall. This is an especially weird feeling. In all the time I’ve lived in Nepal, the only space that’s been mine-ish is the small house in Kaski, with its two beds and one dresser that I share with the rest of the family. A single bed and little shelf of clothes for me alone, that I can modify to my liking, is a bizarre amount of freedom that I’m only even noticing bit by bit. (Mind you, we’re talking about a bed in the finance and admin room of our office.)
Obviously, I have no trouble with this in the rest of my life. But in Nepal, well, it’s just not the way I’ve learned exist here.
The other night, I had Pascal and Aidan for a sleepover at the office, with its main attraction, the Internet. We watched movies and ate treats. We’ve also been out for boating and out for dinner, because it’s fun, and we live in the city. And yet these are activities that have never remotely crossed my mind in the past, because they are more similar to how I live in the U.S. It actually never occurred to me I could do them here because the communities I spend my time with mostly don’t.
Today I went to a salon and got my hair done. A salon.
When I was a kid, I was literally the pickiest eater the world has ever seen. I know you think your kid is pickier, but trust me on this one. I was okay with a short list of simple foods, and I would gladly sit and watch everyone else eat rather than be forced to alter this known quantity. Once, I went to my best friend Katie Schultz’s house, and they made me pasta with butter while the rest of the family enjoyed a normal meal. It wasn’t till I put the pasta in my mouth and a terrifying and unfamiliar taste exploded on my tongue, that I found out that butter doesn’t taste like margarine, which is what we had in my house. The feeling of shame and fear sitting at the dinner table, hoping nobody would notice if I didn’t eat, is still with me almost 30 years later.
It wasn’t until eighth grade, on a school trip to Smith Island where I was stuck in an adolescent group eating situation, that I tried tomato sauce for the first time. For a few years – ok, until college – I’d put a little blob of tomato sauce on the side of my plate, and kind of dip my fork in it. Eventually I worked my way up to normal pasta, but to this very day, when I make my own meals, every component sits side by side so I can mix as I go. I’m no longer alarmed by new foods like I was as a child, but I don’t adventure much. I eat the same reliable items almost every day.
What, you ask, does this have to do with Nepal?
I’m not sure, but all I can say is it kind of feels the same. I’ve spent a long time in this environment adjusting to the absence of almost everything I was accustomed to before I came. I found my nook and I’m comfortable there. Rural life in particular, while not materially complex, runs miles deep, and each iteration, each day, each season and year, enriches and returns itself to the last one with a sense of familiarity and certainty: the next one will come too, even if we are not here to see it. I haven’t made a life of travel. I plopped down in one place and snuggled in. Altering its fundamentals even in small ways creates a whole orchestra of funny tastes on my tongue.
Also, FYI, we eat the exact same thing for every meal in this country. PHEW.
Mean time, I do like this blanket though. How do you like my office nook?
Each year, at the end of the rice planting season, on the first of the month of Saun, we submit to the explosion of greenery, the ebullience of the insects and heat and unrelenting rain. On Saun Sakranti, women slide green bangles onto their tan arms and people spend the day decorating their hands in henna patterns. Didi says this is because it’s supposed to keep snakes away in the fields. (Therefore I’m thinking of petitioning to make this practice a more regular public service?)
In case I haven’t made it clear that I’ve gotten really in to henna drawing, it’s one of my favorite things ever. I don’t know why I didn’t discover it sooner, but last year our Gaky’s Light Fellows introduced me to this awesome activity during some of our evening hangouts. Since then, I’ve practiced my henna doodles on anyone who will let me. Plus anyone who can be convinced.
Which makes Saun Sakranti pretty much the greatest festival ever, although I realize I say that about almost every festival and celebration in Nepal because so many of them are colorful, awe-inspiring, or loud and joyous.
On my way up to Kaski for Sakranti I collected up some green bangles and a few packets of henna. I had a date with Sulochana, Govinda’s 13 year old daughter, who pleads with me to put henna on her every single week. With such a fast rotation of new designs she’s become a walking advertisement, and some of her friends have been waiting their turn for a few weeks now. So when I got to Govinda’s house mid-afternoon on Saun Sakranti, there were some eager customers waiting already.
Once I started though, more people just kept coming. Mostly kids, but a handful of adults too – one sweet auntie waited for an hour and a half. I ended up doing this for almost three hours! It
was so much fun! And, I must add that 99% of the things I try to do in Nepal are initially met with unwitting displeasure at my incompetence – unfortunately, my skills at cutting grass and sifting grain and plastering houses and planting millet, and a few other things, were not well practiced at age 22 when I started trying them in public – so being received as the uncontested henna queen of Kaskikot was, I admit, a hard-earned affirmation of ego.
I’ve pretty much learned a lot of these things because I absolutely insisted on doing them terribly while I figured them out. In some cases, I’ve really earned my stripes. In others, let’s just say that people have become happy with the American version of, for example, collecting water.
But there’s one season I’ve purposefully avoided, and it’s the rice planting one. Even tasks I don’t much enjoy, such as those involving fertilizer (i.e. buffalo poop), are things I have determined to throw myself in to. It’s like how, when I used to take winter diving lessons, we had a “fun day” where we got to use all of the diving platforms at Montgomery Aquatic Center, and that meant that, for fun, I had to make myself jump off the petrifying 10-meter platform that was level with the third-floor spectator section. I absolutely hated fun day. But it never remotely crossed my mind that, if the 10 meter platform was available, I wouldn’t jump off it.
This brings us to the topic of the hot, buggy, wet rice planting season. I think you get my point. I stayed in the U.S. No fun day.
It’s not like this was very clever and nobody noticed. Every year I am asked when I will come to plant rice. People will list all of my accomplishments to date, and exclaim as to how I have never participated in this one activity that is so central to the culture and basic survival of Nepal.
Ok, so here it is. I determined to jump off the 10-meter platform this summer. Partially because as you get taller, it doesn’t look as high. I over came my distaste for the idea of the monsoon last summer, and this summer, I appreciate the torrential rain tremendously.
So last weekend I joined Saano Didi’s family in their rice paddies. Govinda’s daughter Sulojana came with me. And the amazing thing about waiting 13 years to do this: not one person cried out at how terrible I was at planting rice.
“You have to teach her, sikaunu parchha, you have to teach her,” all the ladies cooed.
Silky mud, bright clothes, plants in your hands.
“Laura, you’ll be back in November, right?” Neru asked.
“Because that’s when we can eat this rice. Make sure you’re back.”
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.
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.”
“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.
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!”
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.