Another Room in Heaven

For someone who has spent 15 years in Nepal, I’ve travelled very little in the country, choosing instead to burrow further and further in to a single community, a single home, a place where now twelve year olds have always thought of me as a part of their world. It was only a few years ago that I suddenly thought: I’d like to explore. I’ve started stetting aside a few days every few years to go climb out on a spine of rock some place, in some location that percolates on a back burner in my mind until it bubbles over and asserts itself: this is the time, go here.  Then life adapts around it.

The Way to Muktinath

One way to travel is to go to see things that are new and unfamiliar and exciting or challenging – like that time I went to Murad Khane in Afghanistan, or when I floated in the Dead Sea, or the month I spent in New Orleans doing oral histories for StoryCorps after Hurricane Katrina.  But this is something else, a magnetic pull to a place that is already inside me, a dot on a primal map created a long time ago.  In 2013, Prem and I went to Mardi Himal by a little-traveled route comprised largely of goat trails snaking along a blade of snowy ridge that rims a basin of Annapurna giants. It was winter, everything wide and blinding, the sunrise spilling pomegranates and mandarins and pineapple juice all over the jaws of the cold earth. When I got there, it made sense.

Now it is summer. Muktinath sits north of Pokhara between Lower and Upper Mustang, a stone’s throw from the Tibetan border, and houses a famous complex of Buddhist and Hindu temples. For some time now I’ve been pulled north, toward the areas of Nepal influenced by Tibetan culture, and also where the landscape climbs up and stays high, where the trees fall away and leave a desert mountainscape that stretches off to the Tibetan plateau, a mystery, an uncrossable border. In the winter even local residents often come down from Mustang to the valley to escape the unforgiving snow and cold.

Prem Bhinaju and I met a bus by a curb in Lakeside early on Friday morning. It was headed to Jomsom, which is only a 15 minute flight from Pokhara, but unlike crystalline winter, the summer is dense and foggy and flights have not come or gone from Jomsom in a week. That leaves us with what should be a ten hour bus ride. You know where this is going.

There’s the obligatory 2.5 hour delay when a bearing that has to do with steering left needs fixing, and magically, the Bagloon Highway presents an auto shop strewn with hulking shells of buses and tractors and cars and unidentifiable transport components, so we pull over to fix the bearing. We set off again around noon under ten-ton heat, but I am relieved to be on the move with my day pack and with Prem, my most familiar travel companion. The road winds upward and the Kali Gandaki River drops below us, black and rumbling with coal-colored silt that will settle by the time the torrent gets to in Pokhara, where it is called the Seti Gandaki, or White River. The road becomes a road story that I can’t tell because my mom reads this blog, but even passengers local to Jomsom are praying and squeezing their eyes shut while we loll side to side on a road that, from afar, looks like a child dragged a pencil across triangles of high mountain forest and then got distracted with a sandwich. In the end, aside from knuckles white from clinging to the seat in front of me as if that can save me from a long descent in to the Kali Gandaki – one of the deepest gorges in the world – I come out fine. Prem and I arrive in Jomsom at 7:30pm.

I know I’m in Nepal, but Jomsom looks like a ski town and I have to keep reminding myself that this is Mustang. We clomp along a stone-laid main street with quaint local shops and hills rising up behind them. In the U.S. we’d call the hills mountains, but in Nepal, the mountains are the sheared white rocks twice as tall that are currently lost in monsoon cotton one row further back on the horizon.  It is hard to believe anything could tower over the already looming hills – I remember thinking the same thing at Ground Zero, knowing that Lower Manhattan’s massive skyscrapers had been dwarfed by the Twin Towers.  It is impossible to imagine land up in the middle of the sky, but I know Diligiri is there, behind the clouds, a thousand stories high.  We settle in at a hotel.  Local plum wine.

Our walk to Muktinath starts the next morning and takes two days, one long day up and one long day back. We walk along the Kali Gandaki in a landscape created contradictorily by the upward smashing of tectonic plates and the downward gouging of receding glaciers. The result is a desolate, heaving geometry, eons of history piled atop one another and laid bare straight from river to the sky. Dwellings impossibly carved out by people who once migrated southward from Tibet are clustered in the sweeping rock face, and the occasional modern village is a patch of irrigated greenery in a borderless expanse of brown. This should be the province of giants, but we are just tiny people, our feet sliding over bazillions of even tinier rocks, where fossils casually present themselves because nobody has owned them yet. They were once underwater and they have been here forever and ever and ever.

The climb starts. No houses, no villages, no ancient dwellings for hours. Prem Bhinaju finds a fossilized creature with gold flecks in it. Uncharacteristically , I haven’t exercised in weeks and my legs feel like playdough, but it’s cool. I have an actual fossil in my pocket.

We arrive in Muktinath around five, eat something, and rest for a while. Then, because tomorrow will be a long day and we’ll be pressed for time, we go out to explore the area around the outside of temple complex.  That will leave us time to go to the temple itself in the morning.  I leave most of my things behind except for my SLR camera and rain jacket. Now that it’s evening a slight mist is drifting downwards, uncommitted to getting us fully wet. Dusk turns dreamlike and enchanted.

Prem says we’ll walk up to the place where the path to Thorong-La pass starts. We would need a whole extra day to get to the 5,416m pass, but there is time, at least, to lay eyes on its direction. We circle the wall of the temple complex, and two nuns are just leaving, one wearing hot pink sneakers. I ask if the nuns if they were born here in Muktinath and they say yes, and even though that is a completely unremarkable fact, to me it seems incredible because I am so far away from the world I know. They bustle off to the nunnery.

We climb quietly past parts of the complex wall that have cracked and broken in the earthquake two years ago, and emerge in a widening field that slopes upward and disappears in to a fog. “The way to Thorong-La,” Prem says. He says we are at 2800m. I say, obviously, we should walk up another 200m, so even though evening is turning denser, up we go in to the haze.

Some ways ahead, a walking bridge is slung across the gorge to our left and we climb until we reach the concrete block anchoring the bridge to the ground on our side of the river. Without any comment, Prem sits and I follow, and then I lie back and stare in to the unremitting white sky. No variations in density or color, no dragons or bears or wizard faces, just an endless, depthless white.   Further up the green rocky slope, on the other side of the embankment of fog, is the path to Thorong-La; below us is everything we’ve come from.

Quiet.  I am filled with a profound gratitude for Prem’s company, his silence, the easy way we can walk up to this concrete block and sit on it at dusk and do nothing at all.

After fifteen minutes, I decide to cross the bridge, for much the same reason we walked up 200 meters. We’re on one side of a bridge, so it should be crossed.  The first step out over the edge ofthe gorge sends a thrill through my nerves, and then out I plod out over the wires, which undulate a little with my steps, until I am standing directly over the water gushing down from the high mountains.  A thunderous cloud of sound rises up through my bones and engulfs my senses; I can barely hear my own breath. It feels like the river is running right through me, and when I shout or chant the water picks up the sound and rumbles away with it taking my voice down down down down to all the places we were.

The instant I step back on to the concrete block the mountain silence envelopes me again; magically, the roar of all that water is audible only between the walls of the gorge. Prem takes a turn on the suspension bridge, and then we head back down the green slope and circle around the other side of the giant temple complex.  Night is creeping in slowly, as if stalling a little to give us just enough time to see one more wonderful thing.

We come to an area of the hill I have been viewing from below in the mist: rows and rows and rows and rows of prayer flags strung behind small white structures scattered high up on a hill. I studied Tibetan Buddhist funerary rituals for a course I took this year, and throughout the evening, my sights have been trained here. When we passed the nun in the hot pink shoes, I pointed this way and asked if it was okay to pay a visit. She said yes. Prem and I make our way over the hill toward the fluttering prayer flags.  He walks down toward the road, and with barely a word, I go up.

I’m expecting to see signs of sky burial, but I realize quickly that this is a land burial site. Everything feels unified and still, but also light and high. There are small cairns everywhere, placed for passed spirits to find refuge to heaven, and as I walk between the grave sites, it suddenly occurs to me to ask Prem, still at an audible distance, if he thinks I could build a cairn. Why not, he says, and sits down on a rock facing out over the endless prehistoric topography while I climb higher up and find a patch of ground abutting the faded squares of color calling tut-tut-tut as the wind tugs them from their strings.

Prem never asks why. He just waits.  And when I have built it, a stack of stones among all the stones and fossils, another room in heaven, and when I have sat over it and cried for some minutes, I walk down the hill and we leave.

Night falls at last.

 

*

 

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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On Fractured Temples

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Normally when I leave Nepal, there is an extended process of departure – physical, psychological, emotional. But after being here for most of the last six months, minus six weeks in the middle, I ended up leaving with no procedure at all.

Actually I should amend that a little, since the morning of my flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu, I badgered this hairdresser lady – a friend of a friend – into showing up at 5:30am in her salon to straighten my hair for three and a half hours. That’s right! For two months I’ve been hauling around the hills of Nepal in the hot sun in my flip flops, renting tractors and sleeping under tarps and tin, carrying gurneys of rock with old ladies and filling up rice sacks with dirt to build an earth-bag house, sitting in hot stuffy buses for 5 hours and getting stuck in the mud and walking the last hour in the rain…and the one thing I HAD to do before I suddenly left Nepal to fly home for a funeral was get my hair permanently straightened. Why, you want to know? Because in the U.S. it costs $250 and in Nepal it costs $20. A deal is a deal. And besides, there’s nothing like a good hair day to lift a girl’s spirits.

IMG_5188So in the middle of everything – the whirlwind of our new office setup, the excel sheet full of names and bundles of tin and numbers of people, the scheduling of a planning workshop for our staff, setting up a new financial system – I dropped it all for my last three hours in town and had my hair straightened at 5:30 am. Then I said goodbye to Aidan and Pascal on their way to school, and then to Didi and Bhinaju, who took me to the airport. I didn’t get to say bye to the kids at the children’s home so I bought them some treats and told Ranjita to say how sorry I was I’d missed them, but I’ll be back in 6 months. I’d said goodbye to Aamaa and Hadjur Aama the night before, in Kaski.

And the next thing I knew, I was flying back to Kathmandu, in that reverse warp that happens when I leave Nepal. Except about six times faster. Normally on my way out I have a few days in Kathmandu and they are mostly filled with meetings. This time I had just a few hours between my flight from Pokhara and my flight home.

Everything looks different in Kathmandu than it did when I arrived on May 13, less than 48 hours after the second earthquake (remember the second earthquake???), when the city was filled with bright blue and orange tents clustered at intersections, and all the people were quivering like leaves, waiting for another hit. Things seem to have settled in to a process that is serving as the new norm. IMG_0904And the truth is that if you landed here now, from anywhere, you’d be amazed to find that the apocalyptic situation that’s on the TV is not how things look. That’s because the collapsed buildings that the photographers zoomed in on aren’t the whole story. In fact, they were the tremor after the earthquake of poverty and poor governance, which is too chronic and undramatic to capture our attention, but remains most of the problem.

But the real difference is me.

When I arrived here two months ago, this situation felt vast and unknowable and as tragic as my imagination could make it. Now I can locate myself within it. Our piece, which will ultimately total around 150 homes and piles of stories, was small but meaningful. I have a sense of how people are moving forward with their lives one step at a time (although I should add that during these months, I met only one family that had lost people in the earthquake). Which is not to trivialize what’s been destroyed – only to say that, in the beginning, when everything collapses, it’s impossible to imagine a different future.   All the unseen things are terrible and insurmountable in your mind’s eye, and you can’t conceive of the steps between here and there. I couldn’t even visualize “there.” Now I feel like can at least be at peace with a changing target, because that shifty feeling of uncertainty and failure is a known thing, not a shadow. And so far, we’ve done our part despite it.

My last few hours in Nepal were perfect. I met up with two friends from the U.S., both doing doctoral work in Nepal, both fluent in Nepali. We walked down to Patan Durbar Square, my favorite section of old city, known not only for its temples but also its artisans and craftsmen. Patan is one of the areas that was featured heavily in the days after the earthquake, when the only photos of villages were from the air.

On this last afternoon, the rains held off, making way for a cool golden evening, the light waving in the folds of cloth that ripple along the edges of the temples. We sat high up on the foundation of what used to be a temple, observing the courtyards that were filled with people eating ice cream, buying balloons, whispering on dates, playing. Between the scaffolding that surrounds the damaged buildings, people were busy living in the very space that, I know full well, much of the world sees in its own mind as a pile of dust and despair.

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My thoughts drifted to conversations that Anne and I have had about the beauty and strangeness of Pashupathi Temple, Nepal’s holiest cremation site, where passers-by sit across the river and watch pyres burn during the day and night. Sometimes there are kids playing soccer, or folks out enjoying the sun or the beauty of this thousands-year-old place of pilgrimage. What’s always amazed us about this is that people can play soccer near death. Or go on dates near death. Or just gaze, for no reason at all, at death.

Of course, it’s there anyway, even if you’re not looking at it. And once you get used to the idea that you do not have to avert your gaze from a pyre, or from a mother wailing over a pyre, everything else looks different too. Suddenly that moment belongs, in some way, to everyone.

IMG_0956There is no caution tape around Patan Durbar Square, or even around the base of this foundation that used to have a temple on it. The reconstruction is public and unbashful, but it’s also not desperate. In a courtyard tucked away to the left, bricks are patiently stacked up and a young couple is talking furtively under a tree.

But who would think to take their picture for the news?

I think maybe, in the sterilized West, it is hard to believe in loss unless it looks like something we wouldn’t feel right resting our gaze upon in person. We see the spectacle and only the spectacle, because cracks don’t mean much, but the un-witnessable speaks to our understanding of destruction, and insulates it from the safe and organized world we know. But that’s impossible in this part of the world. Things are lost so often, so publicly, and with so little fanfare. All the falling and building is mixed up together with the balloons and scaffolding; the moment belongs to everyone.  So it is still okay to play.

We sat for two hours with all the other people doing normal things on the bald foundation of this temple, looking out over the square, talking in the warm breeze, and watching the balloons and ice cream and couples and pilgrims swirling around these fractured structures, which are on to the next chapter of their lives with minimal complaint or ceremony.

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When I boarded the plane to come home, my pants still had thorns in them from Tripureswor, Ward #6. These feisty little guys are so hard to get out you have to either pluck them one by one, or have a couple of ladies grooming them off you with a sickle like a baby chimpanzee.  I’ve been groomed a few times in the course of these last weeks, but I just kept walking through the thorns and re-collecting them, and now I’m taking them back to America.

Classy, right?

Hey, my hair looked good.

.      .      .

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Merit of Stories

 

Last night in Tripureswor, Anne and Dilmaya and I slept in a makeshift tin cottage with the sound of the river rushing by outside. When we got up in the morning, we were astonished to find that the shelter was buttressed up against this stunning prayer site.

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It is hard to capture the beauty of this place in a photo: river-worn, looping rock formations swirling around the base of this strong and humble tree. It is maintained daily and with great joy by our host, Krishna Man Shrestha, known by everyone here as Saila Dai.

He took us in to this wonderful garden and proudly went around showing Anne and I where each of the Gods sleeps in it. Below is the bed for Shiva, king of the Hindu gods. I missed a brilliant moment where Saila Dai lay down in this nook in his shorts and Nepali hat with a blissful smile, eyes closed, hands clasped in a Namaste over his head, to demonstrate how Shiva sleeps here.

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Yesterday, as soon as we met Anne and crammed in to a hot bus with tiny seats to drive to Dhading, I told her about my friend Mary, who died a week ago. I’ve been missing her terribly and I feel myself trying to sort out where she is in this strange journey I am on in post-earthquake Nepal. Even today, I’m not sure why we’re headed out to Dhading. Because Anne is an expert on ritual, I knew she’d have some ideas of ways we could connect with Mary on our impending adventure in Tripureswor. While we bounced along in the bus, Anne told me about the Buddhist ritual of cultivating and offering merit to a departed soul, to help them along on their transition from this world to the next. I knew that was the perfect thing to take with me into our undiscovered story in Ward #6.

Saila Dai

Saila Dai

So Saila Dai’s gorgeous prayer site was an auspicious beginning to our day. After tea, we left with Bishnu to explore his village. I brought along my recorder and camera. With no clear plan and full day from Pokhara, it is safe to say we were winging it.

What we ended up doing was sitting down at house after house talking with the owners. We asked about their families and where they were when the earthquake hit; how they’d rebuilt and what they thought the future held. When asked what we were doing there, we were honest: we said we weren’t sure. We admitted don’t have the capability to do a complicated or expensive project so far from our base in Pokhara, but we were interested in understanding what people are experiencing in Tripureswor.

IMG_2357To our great surprise, person after person told us that we were doing a great service by taking time to talk with them. One person said, “by coming here and looking us in the eye.” Anne and I were both amazed by how many people said things like this. People’s lives are pretty shaken up in Tripureswor. But of course, it’s not just the talking, it’s the sitting, the cup of tea or slice of cucumber, the story of the prized son who is studying college in Kathmandu, the unwritten story of getting old in this place. It’s the lack of an agenda. That’s how most of the things that have mattered in the end have started for me in Nepal.

And then there was the water. The main focus of the iNGO community right now is shelter, but no matter who we asked, everybody told us that the biggest problem in Ward #6 is water. The earthquake damaged the water tank that supplies this whole ward, so they’ve been piping water in from neighboring wards, but that sharing won’t last. And even so, people have to walk very long distances to fetch water. Having done plenty of that myself, I can tell you it’s no picnic. The community has already located a new spring, and all that’s needed is infrastructure to collect and distribute. But in addition to some simple concrete tanks and many kilometers of pipe that they need – which is something we could provide – there are some complicated engineering factors, one of which is that the water source is on the other side of the river, so pipes need to be slung across it like electric wires.

Ward #6’s water pipes will have to be slung over this river.

Ward #6’s water pipes will have to be slung over this river.

As the day went on, it became clear that the water project also is too complicated for us. However, Dilmaya and I did feel like we’re capable of advocating for it. I can contact Oxfam, the major iNGO doing recovery this village, and my contacts at United Mission to Nepal, who are also involved with relief in Dhading district. We decided that Anne would stay for the week and help get together enough details for a proper proposal. Late in the afternoon, we all went in to town to meet with the Village Chairman and run this all by him.

The last thing to come out of our day was that Anne, who’s spent many years doing cultural and sociological research in Nepal, came up with a beautiful project for her upcoming week. There is a Japanese tradition whereby people write prayers or wishes on small pieces of paper, tie them to strings, and then hang the strings in the air, sort of like prayer flags. She plans to have tea with all sixty families in Ward #6, look people in the eye, and write their worries and prayers with them. She bought the paper and string while we were in town meeting the chairman.

I also did a lot of recording and hope to produce an audio slideshow about Tripureswor, as well as a radio story about the effect of the earthquake on animals. So if that works out, I’ll have a concrete reason to point to that we schlepped – and I mean SCHLEPPED – all the way out to this village. And if the water project actually comes around, that will be really amazing.

But on some level, I understand that this expedition was not about something concrete anyway.

Late in the evening, I went up to a high hill behind the house, overlooking the valley and emerald hills that are glistening with humidity and rain. I did my qigong practice and offered the merit of our day to Mary, to guide her on her way. I offered the merit of Saila Dai and the humility and joy he gives to his enchanted prayer site, and which he had in turn offered freely to us. I offered the merit of looking people in the eye, of meeting Janet for twenty minutes in a coffee shop and connecting her good heart to mine and following the road out to Tripureswor Ward #6, with no agenda but to listen to stories and return them to Janet, whom I don’t know at all. I got started late, so by the time I was finished with my practice, it was nighttime on the unlit hill, nothing but moonlight reflecting off the river in the valley and the spare lights of the bazaar down below. Which seemed right. The merit of stories is how they linger past sunset, into the darkness, when all the people have gone to bed.

.      .      .

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How Many

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shall we go?” Sher dai asked.

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

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

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

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

*

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Holi

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Today was the festival of Holi. Weirdly enough, I’ve only been in Nepal once for Holi in twelve years, and that was back in 2004, when I was in Kaskikot and basically missed it. So this was the first time I’ve really seen all the action, and it was pretty much the awesomest holiday in the history of ever.

Holi is a Hindu festival that celebrates the equinox, the start of spring, the renewal of relationships, and most importantly, the triumph of good over evil. In a brilliant stroke of luck, this is done by having people throw colored dust and water on each other in the streets all day.  Water balloons are allowed.  Anyone is fair game. Dude taking out the trash? Fair game. Small child sucking their thumb on the curb? Fair game. Foreigner walking home with morning coffee and a laptop in her backpack? Especially fair game. Leave the laptop at home, idiot.

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For weeks leading up to Holi, white clothes were on sale in every version and size. I got myself an “I Heart Pokhara” t-shirt and a cheap pair of pants, and on the morning of Holi I picked up some squirt guns and packets of brightly colored powder for the kids. I returned to the children’s home with my stash and presented them to the kids. They just looked at me like: you only got one squirt gun? What’s wrong with you? Sanjay filled up an empty plastic water bottle and dumped a packet of purple powder in to it. Someone had the excellent idea to poke a hole in the cap, and this bottle was to become our most potent weapon.

When we ventured out in to the street around noon, people were walking around with super soakers. I mean that kind where you spray the entire jumbo water cartridge continuously until it is empty. Poor little Laxu was carrying the mini squirt gun I’d given him that had to be refilled every three minutes through a flubbering hole in the side. We quickly began looking for a good deal on six more squirt guns.

IMG_4611We walked the streets for two hours, and then our Gaky’s Light Fellows showed up and I went back in  for round two. For a culture that’s fairly concerned with propriety as a general matter, Holi is an unruly and joyous anarchy – all the best of the bright pandemonium that is Nepal. Clouds of yellow and pink and green puffing up in to the air over the crowded sidewalks while colored water sprays haphazardly on to soaked shirts and faces. Strangers running up to each other and smearing hot pink powder on each other’s cheeks. Hooting and yelling and rainbows exploding every which way. I was with a group of kids ranging from age 7 to 13, and everyone in the packed streets was acting just like them. It was magic.

I did learn a few critical pieces of wisdom that I hereby pass on to you.

  1. Keep your mouth closed. I realize that when someone is throwing a fistful of green powder on you or blasting your armpit with orange water, your instinct is going to be to squeeze your eyes an open your mouth in a gleeful expression of frolickness. But, your mouth is going to get full of green powder (that’s really bad) or orange water (which is just gross on principle). So frolic with your lips tightly sealed.
  2. IMG_4638Don’t be the douchebag who does the move where you grab someone else’s water bottle, bend it towards them, and spray them with their own water. Because first of all, I’m already wet, so you’re not as special as you think you are, and second of all, Sanjay made this water bottle and you’re ruining it, douchebag. Make your own water bottle and squirt me with that.
  3. Pay attention to the color distribution on your target’s shirt. Your target, if your target is me, wants to save this I Heart Pokhara shirt forever and ever, and it’s no fun if the entire thing just turns brown. Am I missing yellow? Would a splash of blue do well to bring out the hot pink? And aim for the empty areas, for Pete’s sake. I paid $3 for this t-shirt and I want it properly ruined with some sense of artistry.
  4. Hit me from ahead where I can see you. Because the first person to grab me from behind and putt purple powder on my face and up my nose will probably get away with it – partially because I’m not ready to drop my mini flubbering squirt gun to whoop your ass, since I’m holding on to it for this small kid I came here with. However, if you’re the second or third person, I reserve the right to take out a can of taekwondo on your poorly executed headlock, and that’s not going to work out well for you. I don’t like purple powder in my nose. Thanks.

Happy Holi, fools.

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The List


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

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

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

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

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

Who, I asked, is “they?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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Bitter Medicine

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I feel awful. I said I wouldn’t if—“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

.      .      .

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