All These Lights

 

It’s true that the hardest part is undocking from the house in Kaski, but after that, each step further away gets less difficult and more strange. Now we are completely ummoored and nothing makes sense at all: Aamaa is in JFK airport.

Bishnu was waiting for us and she and Aamaa were reunited after four years. It was quite undramatic.  My parents, by contrast, have been known to stand in the waiting area with an enormous welcome home sign and my mother has a happy attack that involves all four of her limbs. Nepalis are much more subdued. But Bishnu was wearing an orange shirt, a gesture she planned after seeing the photo I posted of Aamaa and me leaving Kathmandu.  Bishnu had also ridden a bus all night from DC, and given that Aamaa and I had been traveling for a few days and endured airport dinosaurs and nauseous teddy bears, it appears I was the only one who was really enthusiastic about taking arrival this picture.

We got in a car back to Connecticut and showed Aamaa how to buckle her seatbelt. The car set out and was soon rising over the Whitestone bridge, where Aamaa caught her first glimpse of the edge of the ocean.  It occured to me then that I hadn’t thought to point the ocean out for the fourteen hours we were crossing the Atlantic. Aamaa looked out the car windows from side to side. “All of this is America!” she exclaimed.

A few weeks ago, my wallet was stolen in Cambodia with my passport, credit cards, all of my IDs, Verizon sim card, and house key. So when we pulled up to my house, I had no keys, no phone, and as it turns out, my internet had been turned off because the automatic payment on the cancelled credit card was rejected. We had to solve at least one of these problems, so we went to the mall. Que the following: Aamaa has only been in the U.S. for about seven hours and we’re in the Apple Store.

At one point I left to go to Verizon to get my lost sim card replaced, and when I came back, Bishnu and Aamaa were sitting outside Nordstrom’s, facing away from me and looking small in the wide, polished corridor of the mall. It is going to take me a while, I thought in a jet-lagged daze, to integrate the incredibly odd experience of seeing Aamaa in these spaces.  In the next few days she would be cooking in my kitchen, strolling down the Farmington Avenue sidewalk in West Hartford, pulling open the door to Starbucks, sitting on a treatment table at the IMT clinic where I worked. Imagine if Barack Obama was suddenly sitting in your living room, watching the TV he is supposed to be inside of. Or if there was a zebra standing in the Emergency Room. Or orange juice coming out of the kitchen sink faucet. The components are all fine, they are just extremely jarring in the new arrangement.

After it is dark, we are driving up Farmington Avenue. Aamaa has buckled herself in to the front seat and Bishnu is in back. We pass a synagogue.

“Aamaa, that’s the temple where people who practice Jewish religion go to pray,” I say.

“What’s Jewish religion?”

“I’m Jewish!”

“Oh right,” Aamaa says.

In the next block, we pass a church.  I point again.

“This is where people who practice Christian religion go to pray.”

Aamaa peers out the window. “We’re Christian, right?”

Bishnu lets out a torrent of giggles. “Aamaa, we’re Hindu!”

“Oh,” she says. By American standards, Aamaa is fairly religious. She mostly sticks to a Brahmin diet, lights incense and prays many days of the week, observes the dictates of the lunar calendar and the demands of solar eclipses.  She honors her ancestors and has practiced ritual widowhood since the age of twenty-two (although you could argue that that’s more about the patriarchy than religion). But from her point of view, Bishnu and I reflected later, it’s just dharma. She’s never had to label it.

Another block of Farmington Avenue rolls past, and we stop at an intersection.

“What’s with all these lights hanging everywhere?”

“They’re traffic lights,” Bishnu says from the back seat. “They tell the cars when to stop and go.”

“Ah, they put them out at night,” Aamaa concludes.

Bishnu and I start giggling again. “No, they are there all the time for the cars,” Bishnu corrects, and explains how the traffic lights work.

Oooooooh,” Aamaa replies.  And then, for the rest of the week, each time we pull up to a traffic light, Aamaa will begin narrating. “It’s red Laura, it’s red, stop….Ok, it’s green now. Go. Go go.”   This is one of the things that I will begin to quickly see about Aamaa: how efficiently she absorbs ordering details of this completely new world, and then references them constantly with an air of mastery and satisfaction. This process of discovery and wonder is absolutely magical to witness. I soon realize that being with Aamaa is a lot like being with my nephew Jonah was when he was about four, and we think that children outgrow their ability to be enthralled by traffic lights because they get smarter. Actually, children just get used to the way the world works. In point of fact, a traffic light is a pretty thing up in the air that brings discipline to the otherwise entirely chaotic phenomenon of traffic (see: Nepal, roads). To splash around in the delight of traffic lights with a highly competent sixty year old adult is a beautiful experience.

We make our first Nepali dinner together and sit at my kitchen table to eat with our hands. In Kaski, Aamaa has usually just boiled milk fresh from the buffalo, and from her throne on a pirka by the side of the fire, she gives us each a cup of velvety, hot cream with dinner.  Now we are taking care of her, and Bishnu pours Aamaa a cup of organic whole milk from the grocery store.

“Aamaa, have some milk.”

“Ok.”

“…Did you try it?”

“Not yet.”

“…Try the milk.”

“I tried it. It’s bad,” Aamaa declares without pause.  On either side of the table, Bishnu and I immediately collapse in hysterics.

On our second night, Bishnu has to leave at four in the morning to fly to Virginia for an interview. A short while later, Aamaa comes knocking on my bedroom door, which shares a corner with the door to my kitchen.  I get out of bed.

“Laura! What is that noise?”

“What noise?”

“VRRRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMMMMM.”

“The refrigerator?”

“Oh, okay. I was scared.”

“It’s just the refrigerator,” I reassure her groggily. We go back to sleep.

At 9:00, Aamaa raps on my door again.

“Laura, get up,” she says. “I’ve been up for hours. I thought I’d make some tea, but I don’t know how to use that stove of yours. And I can’t even go outside because I don’t know how to open the door.”

“The door?” I reply, confused. Maybe the deadbolt is locked? And then I realize Aamaa has probably never used a rotating doorknob before. “Oh. I’ll show you how to open the door,” I say apologetically.  For the rest of the week, each morning that I wake up, Aamaa is sitting on the front porch, observing neighbors walking by.

“I learned how to say, ‘good morning,’” she reports.

*

The Other Skies

 

The first thing I have to do is convince Aamaa to wear one of her new kurta salwaars. She has spent 60 years wearing a more dignified sari and she’s shy to dress like a girl. I insist she will be a lot more comfortable on our 24 hour journey with trousers on.

Bhinaju and our cousin Laxu come to the airport with us. As we stand outside the door to the airport, again there seems to be a strange inversion of everything. We say goodbye and move in to the 24-hour netherworld of air travel, but the moment when I detach like a raft in to the sea, alone and timeless until landing back in the rest of my life, never comes. Instead, all my focus is on Aamaa while we pass through various inexplicable passages and security checks, making goodbye phone calls along the way.

We end up seated with Chandrakala, a charming woman probably in her mid-forties leaving Nepal for the first time to go be a maid in Greece. I explain everything from the seatbelt to how to order drinks and use the bathroom. I set up their personal TVs with films for them to watch. They both look disapprovingly at the glass of wine I ask for, so I make a point of asking each of them repeatedly if they would like some wine during the flight. Aamaa has a million questions. Is it night or day? Can I put my passport away yet? Are mom and dad awake now? I don’t know. I’m used to not thinking about any of these things.

We spend the flight talking with Chandrakala didi and when we get off the plane in Doha in the middle of the night, the three of us stick together. The Doha airport will be the first thing we encounter that is a developed country version of the comparable thing in Nepal; Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu only supplemented its two small departure terminals a few years ago and the waiting area is decorated with rows of cheap, attached metal chairs that can be dragged about in units of three. The Doha airport is a dazzling maze of high ceilings, moving walkways, shiny things, monitors, duty free shops where beautiful women are illuminated by fluorescent lights, and of course, the enormous random nauseous teddy bear that is taking up space at the center because space needs to be taken up. It occurs to me how strange it is that in modern times, the first thing an immigrant from a developing country will see in a wealthy country is an airport, which is one of the weirdest environments modernity has to offer.  For example, Aamaa couldn’t even think of a question about the following dinosaur under a passageway in the airport:

I lead Aamaa and Chandrakala didi to the sleeping room and we all try unsuccessfully to doze off. Aamaa and I both end up stretched out on the floor instead of the awkward lounge chairs, and I appreciate how we must look, sprawled out on the ground in a room full of disciplined travelers using the chairs.

We go to the bathroom and use an automatic hand dryer.

By now we are all aware that we’re going to have to abandon Chandrakala didi to the Doha airport when our flight leaves for New York. I take us out to the nauseous teddy bear where a bank of monitors will show Chandrakala’s departure gate when the time gets closer, and explain to her three or four times how she’ll navigate the list of English symbols. Chandrakala didi is literate but uncomfortable with English, and if you don’t know what a gate is or how an airport works, reading the monitors is just one obstacle (how do you even know you’re supposed to read a monitor?). There are many Nepalis working in the Doha airport and we chat some of them.  Chandrakala didi will be able to ask someone if she needs help, but it still feels wrong to leave her alone in the glowing Doha airport with its mysterious halls and signs and statues. Eventually we have to say goodbye, and she sits outside our gate watching us go.

Every time Aamaa and I have to pass through a checkpoint or security screen, the international airport staff first assume that we aren’t traveling together, and then want to know what in the world is going on. Aamaa has all the looks of a first-time traveler from a traditional part of Nepal, and in addition to the fact that I have all the looks of a private-school educated white suburban yuppie from Connecticut, I tower over Aamaa by about eight inches.  Since she doesn’t speak English, I usually have to translate instructions.  After figuring out that we go together, most people assume I am her daughter in law, which would explain how I know Nepali and why I’m the one shepherding her on an overseas journey. “This is my daughter!” Aamaa giggles as she corrects enthralled security guards and airline attendants. We make our way from counter to counter and checkpoint to checkpoint, crossing the globe in a little bubble of delight that we make no sense.

Finally we board our fourteen-hour flight to JFK. We get incredibly lucky with an empty middle seat on a mostly full flight, so we’re able to take turns properly sleeping. I was worried about how Aamaa would handle strange food made by unknown people, but she mostly exclaimed over amount of it, approaching each tray with curiosity and then asking me if I wanted to eat her pats of butter because she was full from the continuous flow of food.

“That goes on the roti Aamaa, you don’t eat it by itself. It’s like ghee.”

And then the next tray would come and she’d ask me if I wanted the butter again.

We peered out the window at the rolling white puffs lolling off to infinity and Aamaa asked if the clouds were the ground or the sky.

“The sky,” I said.

“Does this plane also go to the other skies?” Aamaa asks, long after we’ve lost track of night and day.

“Other skies?”

“They say there is this sky, and then a sky above this, and then a sky below this one,” Aamaa says. “I don’t really know much about it. But I was wondering if this plane goes to the other skies.”

I gaze at her.

“I don’t really know,” I say. “I don’t know much about it either.”

Many trays and questions and naps and pats of butter later, we break through this sky and New York comes in to view. Aamaa reaches behind her for my hand as she stares out the window, and with a dramatic rumble, the plane sets us down on the ground.

*

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 produces 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.

 

*

 

Lifts

 

The bus to kaski is very hectic right now: in addition to the heat, and the rain, the road has been sporadically damaged by flooding and landslides.  After last week’s sweltering ride with Aidan and Pascal, I decided that this afternoon I would try getting a ride with Nabin who lives up in Parapani and drives a taxi.  He’s always willing to drive me home at the end of the day for a pretty good price, rather than drive his car back up to Kaski empty.

I called Nabin on Tuesday to fix our plan, and then rang him up again as we were leaving the office at 5pm on Wednesday. He picked up, but the connection was bad and I couldn’t catch what he was saying.  I decided it was “I’ll call you right back,” and then I hung up.  I texted to say I’d be ready at 5:30, and went back to my room to putter around on the internet for a while.

I called Nabin at intervals but he didn’t answer.  The clock drifted past 5:15, then 5:30, when the last bus leaves from the bus park for Kaski.  At 5:45 I thought, I better move out if I’m going to get to Kaski today.  If I couldn’t get a hold of Nabin, I was already stuck making the hour long walk from Naudanda – potentially in a downpour, in the dark – because the last direct bus had left already.  I put on my backpack and walked out to the main thoroughfare running to Lakeside.

One advantage of being a foreigner is that you can do things like stop a random guy on a scooter and say, “Hey, would you mind just taking me up to the next intersection?”  I stopped a random guy on a scooter and asked him to take me up to the next intersection.  I hopped on the back of his bike and as we approached the intersection, I shouted over the wind, “So where are you headed?”  The guy was headed straight on to Pirthivichowk, and the bus park was up a road to the left, so I thanked him and said I’d hop off there.

“Oh what the heck, I can take you to the bus park,” the guy said, and turned left.

I’ve never tried this strategy for lift-getting before, ever.

As we drove up the road to the bus park, the guy said he’d served with the US Navy in Bahrain for eight years.  I didn’t even know that was a thing – is there water in Bahrain? – how to Nepalis end up in the US Navy? – and he told me more about it, but I couldn’t hear him over the wind in my ears and the honking traffic, so all these things remained mysteries.  Back in Nepal, he wasn’t doing much at the moment, he said.

“So where are you headed?” the US Navy guy asked.  I explained about Nabin, and about getting to Kaskikot tonight, and that I supposed I’d walk from Naudanda.

“Oh what the heck, I’ll put some gas in the bike and take you up to Kaskikot.”

“What?”

“Why not, I’m not busy.”

“But that’s really far!  It’s probably 45 minutes on the bike.”

“No problem.  I’ll just get some gas first.”

“How much will it cost?” I asked, wondering if that was the least of the confusion.

“No cost.”

“But – but – but……”

The guy pulled over to get gas.  I pondered the situation.  The next bus to Naudanda might not leave for another 30 or 45 minutes.  It would be dusk, if not night, by the time I arrived in Naudanda, and then it might rain, and I’d have another 60 minute walk.  It seemed like I should be worried about why this stranger wanted to take me up in to the hills at dusk to a place he doesn’t live, but I wasn’t.  I tried to get worried and instead I thought, “Wow, it would be pretty great to get a scooter ride up to Kaskikot right now.”

“Ok, let’s go,” I said.  I determined to give him some gas money, at least.  Also, I have a black belt in taekwondo.

For the next half our or so, we rode up the switchbacks, watching the valley recede in to the hazy, rose-tipped blue of evening.  The day fell away below as we climbed up in to the hills.  I cinched the hood on my rain jacket to provide a little wind protection, but the guy was a reasonable driver and the breeze from the movement felt good. Occasionally I stuck my arm out in the direction of the beautiful scenery, as if it was some kind of compensation I could offer for this inexplicable act of generosity.

We came upon a sloshy patch of suspicious looking mud and disembarked.  The two of us regarded the scene: a pit of soft mud with the gash of a thick tire through it, left by something much larger and heavier than the scooter, and surrounded by pools of brown water.

“I can walk from here,” I said.  I was feeling kind of guilty.  “It’s only about half an hour or so. I’d have had to make an hour walk from Naudanda.”

“Still half an hour of walking?”

“I’ve walked from here many times,” I insisted.  “It will be a real mess if your bike gets stuck.”

The guy looked concerned, partly with the matter of my walking, and partly with the oppression of humans by an inert patch of mud.

“Please let me contribute something for gas,” I offered.  He declined.  He had time on his hands and it was a pleasant trip.  I thanked him, asked his name, and we took a selfie.  Raj Kumar Gurung.

A motorbike came up behind us with two young dudes on it.  They sped over the mud pit.  Raj Kumar Gurung looked from them back to his scooter.

“Let me just give it a try,” he said.

“But if–”

“I’ll just try it.”

Raj Kumar Gurung, US Navy, revved the scooter and launched it in to the mud pit.  It rolled through to the other side.

“I’m coming!” I said, and stepped directly in to sucking mud-slosh the consistency of hummus up to my ankle.  “Be right there!” I cried, rinsing off some of the brown hummus in a puddle, and then in a clear stream that had had developed across the road on the other side of the mud pit.

Raj Kumar Gurung said that instead of returning back to Pokhara the way we’d come up, he’d continue straight on past Deurali and meet the road in Naudanda.  At this point, he was going to drive past my stop regardless.  I decided to get off a half mile or so early to stop in and say hi to Thakur sir, one of our founding oral health program members, and I insisted that Raj Kumar Gurung at least have some tea before continuing on, but he demurred again.  Off he sped, having lifted me directly from Lakeside to Kaskikot just as night was falling.

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memorable Trips

 

It has been six months since our post-earthquake housing projects in Archalbot and Bharte. We’re launching dental programs in or near these areas in 2016, so today Aamod needed to visit the Lamjung District government offices in Beshishar to get signatures that are required complete agreements in our new sites.  Yes, this sort of thing must be done in person in Nepal, not by fax or email or any other method, so Aamod has to travel 3 hours from Pokhara to Besishahar to get the signatures.  We decided that Dilmaya and I would accompany him to Lamjung and get out a few kilometers before Besishahar to visit The Bamboo Village in Archalbot. We wanted to see how everyone was were doing, and we also had to decide what to do about the earth bag house that didn’t get finished over the summer.

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Three good looking people suffed in to two front seats in a van to Lamung

We decided to go with local transportation.

There is a fuel shortage right now due to strikes along the Indian border, so prices for gas have skyrocketed, and most regular people are getting their cooking fuel on the black market. Transport has compensated by raising prices, by running fewer buses and taxis, and, obviously, by stuffing even more people in to the same number of car seats.

I took tons of photos last summer when Archalbot was building, so today we brought prints to give back people. I highly recommend this practice – it’s always much appreciated because until cell phones, most people had very few photos of themselves. Even now, sorting photos is always An Event. Older people will people examine each thing in the photo in great detail – the buffalo, the way their sari is tussled, the water pot in the background – and will ask questions like, “Only one of my sons is in this photo. Where is the other one?”

The first house we arrived at belongs to one of the last houses we helped with.  Last June there were about ten people with a few babies living in the tiny house hidden behind the clothes line.  Now they are still living in their new house and it looks great.

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While we were talking with this family, people from Archalbot started to notice us and come shouting excitedly down the road.  Remember Uttam’s sister in law, and the day she and her husband left to go cut bamboo after much cajoling?  She came bouncing down the hill shouting out to Dilmaya and me.

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The next house we came to was Uttam’s family – I admit this house is tied with the Golden Cottage for my favorite of all 150+ houses we helped with after the earthquake. I was thrilled to discover that, while living in the shelter they built last summer, Uttam and his brothers rebuilt houses on their own land. Just four days before we arrived, they had relocated the tin roof we provided on to their new stone house, which has yet to be completed and plastered. What a fantastic example of everyone pitching in the thing they have, and of the dignified resiliency that is so characteristic of Nepali people.

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July 2015

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June 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uttam's family recently moved their shelter tin on to this new permanent house.

Jan 2016 – Uttam’s family recently moved their shelter tin on to this new permanent house.

Uttam’s older brother had also rebuilt his house – so the whole complex has moved back on to the family’s land in six months time. I was really pleased to see that the older brother’s new house is made from plastered bamboo chim – the same building style we pressed people to use when we provided roofs for the original shelters. This house is actually cheaper and far more earthquake resistant than a heavy stone house (you can see Uttam’s stone house in the background).

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We spent a lot of time giving people photos of themselves. This activity produced too many great moments to choose from!

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Overall, the houses that we helped people build in Archalbot look good. In a few cases, people are living in them full-time. In many, they are sleeping in their bamboo shelters while cooking and storing belongings in their damaged houses. In a few, the shelters remain but aren’t being used, either because the family has relocated altogether or just decided not to actually stay in it. Kripa’s family used their tin to rebuild the buffalo shelter where we glamped.

Glamping, June 2015

Buffalo & Goat Hotel, Jan 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The earthbag house is an interesting story. Our role here was as facilitator – my friend Robin had training and materials to build one earthbag home, and we provided a connection with a community that needed a house. I documented this process last summer right up to the point we had to put the building on hold for the monsoon, with promises to return this winter.

Well here we are this winter. The family with the half-earthbag, half-bamboo house has built a pretty impressive collection of houses out of it and they are living there full time.

There are many things I have to say about the earthbag house, so I’ll write about that separately. One of the things we had to figure out on this visit was whether or not we had enough manpower in Archalbot to call Robin back with tools and supplies to finish the house….and the answer was no. So this earthbag/bamboo house will stay as it is, which is a bit frustrating, but that’s that.

After tea and snacks back at our HQ in Kripa’s house, Dilmaya and I left Archalbot and walked back down to Bote Orar. We crossed the bridge that has replaced the one with a loose cable that held us up in the muddy road with a ton of corrugated tin for an hour and a half last summer. We got ourselves some knockoff Redbull in homage to the gallons of knockoff Redbull that kept us going during those hot months.

Aamod came reeling down the road from Besishahar and we clambored in to another crowded, swervy van. As the day became later we and switched to a bus in Dhumre, we settled in for the last two hours of our journey.

Yes, this is where it happens.  The inevitable road travel story.

As it turned out, somewhere up the road people were striking because an accident had struck someone in the road yesterday. There was a blockade that went for miles.

When we reached the blockade it was already dark out.  Our choices were to either wait it out until some undetermined time in the bus, or to start walking.  So we got out of the bus and set out past the endless line of stopped vehicles, some with people in them waiting for the 100% unpredictable hour or day that the blockade would be opened. The highway wound its way alternately through small towns and the middle of nowhere. We were still over an hour’s car ride from Pokhara.

There were still motorbikes coming by, so we made a plan to divide up.  Dilmaya and I hopped on the back of the first bike that could fit both of us, and rode it up to the mouth of the traffic jam. We waited there until Aamod caught up behind us half an hour later on another bike, and then we walked the last half mile or so to where people where crowded around the usual tires and logs blocking the road.  Behind the blockage was a group of women was sitting in on the pavement, not talking much. Some were fiddling on their phones. It occurred to me that they had probably just lost a family member or close community member on this stretch of road just 24 hours earlier – a strange contrast to the miles and miles of hassle that stretched out from either side of their circle.

Now we started past cars lined up in the opposite direction. Just to be clear: we were not a walkable distance from home.  Even by Nepali standards.

All of a sudden a jeep began rolling out past the innermost barriers of the blockade, headed in the direction we needed to go.  I turned around and saw it was an ambulance.

We sprung in to action. Aamod stopped the jeep and spoke with the driver who, understandably, told us that he could not let us hitch a ride in an ambulance. Aamod got on the phone with his brother in law, who is a doctor, and I stalled by keeping one arm in the rolled down window of the ambulance and talking to the drivers in Nepali.

“Sir, what ever shall we do? It’s quite cold out. We can’t possibly sleep here in the road.”

“I don’t know what to tell you- I’m not allowed to take people in an ambulance.”

“I see I see, but this is an unusual circumstance….” Etc.

I keep at this until Aamod has his brother in law on the phone, which he hands to the ambulance driver. Who then opens the back of the ambulance – and in we go.

And thus our day ends with us bouncing along in the back of this ambulance back to Pokhara. At one point, we drive through a checkpoint, and I lie down with my arm over my face, feeling slightly guilty, while Dilmaya sits next to me looking concerned and wearing a surgical mask that she has with her for general dusty road travel purposes. We roll through the checkpoint.

“Can I get up now?”

“Lie down! Not yet.”

It’s 9pm when we get to Pokhara; the ambulance driver amicably drops me off within walking distance from our office.

As Dilmaya, who was my partner in crime for the entire two-month adventure of our post-earthquake housing extravaganza, said: “Laura miss, our road trips are always very memorable.”

Oh, and one other thing – remember how the point of this trip was that Aamod was going to get papers signed by the district officials in Besishahar?

Yeah, well, there was some kind of meeting today and all the government employees were out of the office. So we have to go back to Besishahar for the signatures again.

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The early morning road from Pokhara to Besishahar

 

Puranchaur Clinic

 

Today I made my first visit to our clinic in Puranchaur, which launched a year ago in winter 2015. We rode motorbikes – I hopped on one with our program director Aamod, and I stuck my friend Freeman on the back of the other bike with our field officer Gaurab. Freeman lived in rural Afghanistan for two years and his training involved things like “how to drive through a blockade,” so I figured it would be okay.

FYI, re: riding on the back of a motorbike:

  1. Paved road –> plus side: fast / minus side: scary
  2. Rutted dirt road –> plus side: good workout, bracing / minus side: rather sore bum, dust
  3. Previously paved road that has deteriorated and broken up in to a patchy mess with some dirt packed around in it –> plus side: there’s a road, so you’re not walking / minus side: everything else

IMG_6319The way to Puranchaur comes in at a solid #3 for a vigorous 64 minute joy ride.

Fortunately, we were greeted at Puranchaur by the sight of a very well-built Health Post. All of our clinics are in buildings provided by the community, and where possible it is ideal if the building can be in or next to the existing government Health Post. But Health Posts aren’t usually this nice.

It was immediately clear that we’ve received good local support at this stage of the game in Puranchaur. There was a lively crowd of patients waiting on the balcony, and this clinic is run by one of our more experienced technicians, Megnath.

See for yourself:

We went through our supervision checklist, which includes a rigorous infection control protocol that I wrote myself by talking with dentists and rural trainers, then making modifications based on my own knowledge of the environment, because I realized that none of the existing guidelines were really adapted for these conditions. Amazingly, the only existing protocols I could get my hands on were for dental hospitals with electricity and technology – think, UV disinfection – or, alternatively, unwritten procedures used in temporary dental camps, which presume very high patient volume and the lack of any stable infrastructure. Can you believe that I could not locate a single infection control protocol designed for a permanent rural dental clinic in Nepal? 80% of Nepal’s population and nearly all the government Health Posts operate in rural conditions!

Which is why now I know more than I ever planned to about gloving and re-gloving, positioning of safety boxes, and timing of Virex disinfection, among other topics.

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Our rewarding visit to Puranchaur has me thinking more and more about the larger idea of our project. It’s great when we’re able to establish these services and it sure is gratifying to come all the way here, after hours and hours of sitting at a desk, meetings on Skype, researching oral health data, giving talks and raising money, and see patients coming in to a clinic in Puranchaur on a Wednesday afternoon. It’s also awesome to me that none of these people associate their clinic with me or my slideshows or any kind of charity, which is not what these services are intended to be. All that is good stuff.

On a bad day it seems like it just isn’t enough. There are so many problems here. A toothache is definitely one of the worst things in the world if it is in your mouth…but it’s not as bad as child trafficking. These clinics don’t solve problems of violence or lack of basic security or opportunity. Sometimes it seems like a lot of effort to still end up in a world that has those problems anyway.

But one thing I think we’re isolating bit by bit has to do with recouping lost opportunities for self-determination. Something our little project does increasingly well that I don’t see very often in this sector is to understand and respect the present capacities of individual people and the communities where we work on all levels. That means letting go of the UV disinfection, but it also means having a proper replacement and monitoring it. It means making services accessible, but then holding people accountable for accessing them by choice, rather than spoon feeding and disempowering everyone for our own gratification. It means that explaining to an old lady that she will not be blind if we pull her tooth out, and making the service psychologically available, is just as important as having a dental clinic that’s physically available.

This is hard to do. It requires an unreasonable amount of patience and the willingness to constantly sort out where to impose control and where to throw everything you think is correct out the window. Inevitably, there are moments where it seems like you’re dong everything wrong and it’s all for nothing.  At some level, I think it only works if you find people as interesting and challenging and curious as the problem you are trying to address.

That’s what has me wondering what we’re really getting at here. I’ve always felt like, even with the visible services this dental project provides, for me as a person, it’s an exercise in something else I haven’t understood yet. Maybe this is just a story I tell myself after a good day, but we would live in and more dignified and peaceful world if we cared as much about actual people as we do about ideas of people.

Today, one old lady with a toothache spent a good bit of time explaining how she’d treated it by putting tobacco in there.  The tobacco helped. Megnath couldn’t extract her tooth because she had complicating heart issues that require referral to a hospital – but he had a nice long conversation with her about the tobacco, anyway.

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The Road We Followed

 

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop in Lakeside, and overheard a woman at another table on the phone, trying to figure out how to help a village in Dhading. When she hung up she was frustrated and kind of flustered. We got to talking, and it turned out her name is Janet, she’s from Taiwan, and she has a friend named Bishnu in this village in Dhading, Tripureswor, Ward #6.  She explained all the ways she’d been trying, unsuccessfully to help Bishnu’s village.

I don’t know why, but after asking her a few questions, I told her I’d try to figure out what was going on in Tripureswor, Ward #6. Dhading is a few districts over from Pokhara, quite far from us, but I’ve learned enough about the system now that I figured I could at least make a few calls and get more information for Janet.

Plus, although I’m proud of the work we’ve been doing in the lower percentage of damage, I can’t help but feel drawn to at least see the higher percentage of damage first hand. So I was fascinated with Tripureswor Ward #6, because it fell in my lap.

I made some early phone calls a few weeks ago and confirmed, to my surprise, that Janet was correct in thinking that so far Oxfam had only provided 2 bags of rice, hygiene kits, and 20 kg of rice seed to residents of Tripureswor. Any other work there had been done by small, private groups.  I learned that out of 947 households in Tripureswor Village, 924 had been destroyed or damaged.  Fifteen people died.

I never actually saw Janet again in person, although I called to tell her what I’d found out, and she left to return to Taiwan a few weeks later, and recentlyIMG_5124 sent me a disappointed email saying she’d never been able to get anything together to help Bishnu’s village. One organization after another had either refused to help, or said they’d help and then backed out.

But Tripureswor Ward #6 has stayed in my mind. Since Lamjung is one district in the right direction and we were going there on Thursday and Friday to deliver tin, I called Janet’s friend Bishnu on Wednesday and introduced myself. On Saturday morning, Dilmaya and I decided to keep going on from Lamjung to Dhading.

Additionally, my good friend Anne has just arrived from the U.S. Anne and I met in the one Nepali class I’ve ever taken, during the summer of 2006 at Cornell. We are a great pair because she can read Sanskrit and speak royal Nepali, and I can’t read at all but I can talk with animals; she did her PhD and wrote a book on modern politics and public ritual in Nepal, making her an expert in local history and religion, and I am the world’s leading expert in carrying things on my head with village wives and cracking jokes in my rural accent. Between the two of us there’s pretty much no situation that we don’t have covered.

So on Saturday morning, Dilmaya and I took a bus east from Lamjung and Anne took a bus west from Kathmandu, and we met by the highway in Malekhu. And from there: to Dhading.

This is now the part of the story about a very, very long muddy road.  The second and main part of the journey, a few dozen kilometers from Dhading Besi to Khahare, took us five hours.

We passed this jam,

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and this jam,

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

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Inevitably, the bus gets stuck, because someone had decided that morning that it was a good idea to use a bulldozer to churn up the dirt on this road to improve it.  During the monsoon.

 

We sit in the bus for a long time, it is raining, I have no idea where we are, I play some Amy Winehouse on my phone and entertain everyone with my village accent. Eventually we get out of the bus and we start walking. We passed some people standing near the bus clucking their tongues, saying, “The dozer had just dug up this road and made it so nice and flat. And then just like that the rain came.”

I just want to use this opportunity to make a public service announcement: IT’S MONSOON SEASON, PEOPLE.  The rainy season.

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Dilmaya and me walking to Khahare (photo credit: Anne).

 

Now that we were all used to the idea that we would not be arriving in Tripureswor at 2pm or 5pm, but more like 8:30pm, or maybe never, the walk was nice. It gave us an opportunity to take in more and for me to take photos of the misty evening that had turned the glassy rice paddies blue and green.

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

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However, the rebuilding that’s already happened here is amazing. We realized right away that even though we don’t have the capacity to do tin delivery in a place like this, we don’t need to. House after house had been fully demolished by hand, materials organized in to piles, and new homes made from extremely innovative techniques. Our favorite was this one, made almost entirely out of doors and windows.

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We followed this road for what seemed like forever to its endpoint in Khahare. Bishnu’s mother came to meet us, and led us across a suspension footbridge over the river (this river and footbridge, has been one of the major obstacles to efficient aid delivery in this Tripureswor). And then there we were, at Bishnu’s house in Tripureswor Ward #6. We left Lamjung at 8am, and arrived here at 8:30pm.

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

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Bishnu’s recently built tin house, sitting among the corn fields in Tripureswor Ward #6.

 

 

Life Boxes in Bharte

 

We ended up providing roofs for 19 bamboo shelters in Archalbot, all tightly concentrated in a single community. But I’d still say Archalbot was a training ground for us. We really hit our stride in the neighboring village of Bharte, where we’ll end up having done about 80 houses. The community in Bharte really stepped up to the plate; we didn’t really have to do much running around encouraging people to build. Once we offered roofs in exchange for walls, we got walls and more walls. Today was our second tin delivery in Bharte – we were only able to bring about 30 more roofs, because we’re having trouble securing enough tin! So there will be one more lap as soon as we can get our hands on the rest.

IMG_0564So remember that road with the double-tractor-head-butting situation from the first time we did this? Ok, so, now they are taking down that pesky bridge where the wire had popped out of the ground. Therefore our tin delivery to Bharte was held up for a few days because the previously bad road was…well this photo is what it looked like the afternoon before we were supposed to go to Bharte.  You can see that the bridge cable that had been a problem at knee height a week ago was now at head height, and the road completely churned up by a back-hoe.  The reason is because they decided to take that entire footbridge down.  In any case, there was no getting pas this road block, tractor or no tractor, and the entirety of Bharte is on the other side of this 10 meter stretch of road.

Luckily, the cable was taken down and road cleared by late morning.

Bharte Village pioneered the group house, which is awesome not only because the group houses are very well made, but because it was their idea and they ran with it. It’s also a great solution to the land problem that so many families in Nepal are facing if their houses didn’t completely collapse. And when you build with bamboo, it’s not too hard to partition the inside if you want to.

The group houses also offer a brilliant opportunity to distribute…Life Boxes!! Since people are sharing these structures, they are the perfect place to put my little invention that provides some lockable privacy. In my personal opinion.  We ordered ten more Life Boxes and had them delivered with our tin.

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The group house is Sirewari

One of our first stops was the amazing and now completed group house in Sirewari, where we gave out the first five Life Boxes. I started to put one in the ground with my twin sister Santa (many people, including my mother, have said she looks like me – and I’ve done a double take myself at some of her photos!). But we ran out of time and had to jump back in our jeep. So, here’s Sirewari…you can see the tarp this replaced here.

We continued with the rest of our deliveries of tin and boxes. Late in the afternoon, we arrived for a drop off and these two ladies got to talking with me. One of them had gotten tin from us that day, and the other handn’t. They’d been sharing a tarp with one other family and took me on to a ridge to show me the tarp from afar, in the hope the other two families under the tarp IMG_0614could be part of our last remaining delivery. There was something about them that was naturally appealing and almost familiar. I remember thinking their voices and speech patterns were a perfect representation of “how people talk around here,” because I was sure I’d heard it before.

Come to find out, these are Bal Kumari’s older sisters!   They were like, “You guys are the people who helped our little sister, with the roof and the cash.” And we thereby became besties immediately. And I love how they all seem to wear purple. I think I know these gals from a past life.

Since we couldn’t add to our tin list today, I did the obvious thing in the mean time: provided Bal Kumari’s other sister with a Life Box. We’ll get her tin on the next round.

IMG_0630Here’s another group house at the junction in Lakure. We have them Life Boxes too. Our local coordinator Laxmi was excited that this is a junction area that gets some traffic, so our Box will get some visibility. That’s right, you heard it here first, folks. Life Box. Soon to become famous at this junction in Lakure.

Laxmi has been an amazing liason and I think Bharte is a place where we will definitely consider starting our dental program in the future. The people here have been good natured and proactive. For me it’s been a pleasure to have these small personal stories woven in, moments of connection with Santa and Bal Kumari and the ladies at the tea shop in Lakure. It was late at night again by the time Dilmaya and I got back to the hotel in Bote Orar, ate something, and fell right to sleep.

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Discovery of Shelter Kids

 

Slide24Lamjung district borders Kaski immediately to the East, and shares its other border with the district of Gorkha. The Lamjung/Gorkha border was the epicenter of the April 25 earthquake.

At 7:30pm last night, Aamod and I made a plan to drive out to Lamjung today and meet with the district government. We wanted to find out what plans the government has for transitional housing and who else is working on it.

As per Nepal style this plan was finalized only late yesterday evening. My job was to type up two official letters for the two government offices we’d be visiting. So got that done by 11pm, and I was planning to print the letters out in the morning, but at 6:15am my phone rang. Aamod had realized the letters should be in Nepali, and I can’t read or write in Nepali. So I emailed the English version to him and went back to sleep. Aamod translated the letter and emailed it to Neha, who was home sick, but nevertheless braved out to her office, but the electricity wasn’t working at her office, so she texted to say I should meet her at a cyber on my way out of town. But when I arrived at the cyber Neha was only just opening up Aamod’s translation, and there were problems with the computer and network and printer and….1.5 hours later, we printed two copies of the letter.

By the time we finally left Pokhara it was 1:45 instead of 11:30. We picked up Aamod in Damauli, and in Dhumre, turned off the east-west road between Kathmandu and Pokhara, and headed northward toward Lamjung. It began to rain.

As soon as we started toward Lamjung we found ourselves trundling along behind a line of relief trucks covered in orange tarps. Once we passed them, I watched the blooming green hills rolling by on the other side of a lush valley and was soothed at being on the road, moving toward some kind of answer, however small, after weeks of anxiety. The flying scenery seemed to catch some speeding thing in my mind and race alongside it, leaving me momentarily still.

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The road went on and on. It began to feel very late. And in the front seat, Aamod was sifting through the letters Neha and I had printed out in the morning. There were some mistakes.

Yep. Mistakes. Not kidding.

Now I personally felt that if we had letters with stamps on them, they would surely fulfill procedure. But one must remember that I couldn’t read these letters, so I might have been biased.   On the other hand, it was starting to feel like we were never actually going to arrive at our meeting with the District Health Office, and government offices aren’t known for staying open past working hours.

We pulled in to Besishar no earlier than 3:45pm. And Aamod, God bless him, had become committed to finding a place to reprint these blasted letters. We curbed up at a cyber, shoved my pen drive in the computer, Aamod hastily typed in some changes, the cyber owner went to click print…and the power promptly went out.

No reason. This wasn’t a scheduled outage for load shedding. Just good luck.

We wait for a minute to see if the power will come back on. It doesn’t. We leave and look for another cyber. Eventually we find a one and now I am running between the cyber and the taxi with Aamod’s bag while people in the street in Besishar are looking at the tall foreigner sprinting down the road in flip flops with Aamod’s backpack. The revised letters are finally delivered like manna from a printer in to Aamod’s hands. He gently tri-folds them, slides them in to some envelopes, and stamps our organization logo on the front. We jump back in the cab and drive to the District Health Office in Besishar.

Now it’s well after 4:15. As we pull in, the sun comes out, and suddenly it seems early in the day again and things are possible.

We sat down on a couch, and Aamod reached in to his backpack, pulled out an envelope, and handed it formally across the desk to the District Health Officer. This immediately made me want to start giggling like a six year old, because the letter had just gone IN the envelope about five minutes earlier.

Next, we waited quietly and watched the officer read the letter. This is the protocol. The District Health Officer was an affable guy and he took us to the office of the Chief District Officer, the head official of Lamjung. Where, of course, Aamod placed the second letter on the second desk, to be read in silence while we watched.

Just as we began talking at long last, with the late afternoon sun getting lower in the window, we were interrupted by the entrance of an animated employee, who strode in with a huge file and thunked it on the CDO’s desk. He then launched in to a torrential briefing for the Chief District Officer on housing.

He turned out to be the guy in charge of shelter coordination in Lamjung.

And this is how Aamod and I got an up-to-the-minute report on transitional housing in Lamjung District. It was PURE LUCK. If it hadn’t taken us 2.5 hours longer than planned to get to Lamjung, we would have missed this entire interaction. The man’s name was Pradeep Khanal, and we are going to be best friends.

Pradeep (and indeed, much of our afternoon in Lamjung) countered all the negative stereotypes of Nepal’s apathetic, dysfunctional bureaucracy.  He provided us a list of the six big agencies doing shelter in Lamjung, updated at a meeting just that morning, and directed us to villages not yet adopted by the large iNGOs doing housing. We looked at drawings of government shelter models and I was surprised to realize I could quickly tell which had advantages and why; which were too resource-heavy or laborious to construct except as a permanent house.

This surprised me as much as when I watched a Hindi film with the boys last winter, and discovered I understand a good bit of Hindi.  With no background in construction, the only reason I could interpret all this information from housing drawings is because I’ve lived in a rural house for 12 years, and done things like wood collecting and carrying heavy loads up long distances. Looking at these models, I had a pretty realistic sense of how the proposed spaces would be used daily, of what would be involved in constructing them, and how the result and effort required would compare to a permanent house.

See, you just never know when your niche specialty is going to turn out to be JUST THE THING, right?

We also learned that just that day the government had finalized shelter kits (or Shelter Kids, as the documents charmingly call them) which include tin, nails etc., for each family that needs to rebuild. The government will provide the raw materials, and let people figure out how to use them.

I asked if the government will still provide these kits in places where NGOs had taken on housing projects. They said no – no reason to duplicate money and materials.

Aamod and I scoured a list of districts, numbers of damaged houses, and a huge map on the wall of Lamjung district. We can only afford 100 – 200 housing structures; was there any place where that was the right number? The CDO asked us to please consider offering at least 300 houses, to properly cover a single village.

Suddenly something occurred to me. It was actually completely obvious.

When we do dental care, one of the most difficult parts of our job is motivating the government to collaborate on investment. But this government is already investing. Why would we steal their thunder?  If we can simply fill in around the government, we can use our resources to supplement and improve their plan instead of replicating it. What’s more, one of the major lessons from Haiti was that the NGO industry that usurped the government was a giant debacle, essentially displacing governance to outsiders and leaving public systems powerless.

“Sir,” I asked the District Health Officer, “how are you going to deliver these rebuilding kits?”

IMG_4968He said the district government would bring housing kits to the village governments for distribution. I can tell you right now that we’ll be reading stories about how housing kits didn’t reach people who needed them. You know how easy it is to carry hundreds of bundles of tin and nails around in the hills of Lamjung and Gorkha?  And what’s more, the government is under pressure to show transparency, so distribution of government aid is already being hampered by a requirement that people have identity cards.  Which obviously, have mostly been buried under rubble.

“I was wondering,” I said, “If we were to provide manpower for distribution and building, would the government still be able to provide materials?”

The DHO turned to the CDO sitting behind the desk.

“She’s wondering if we can provide materials in their working areas, if they help with distribution and building.” Is it possible nobody else has asked this question?

“Sure, of course,” said the CDO.  As if this wasn’t a miracle. If it was that easy with dental clinics…

Aamod and I practically bounced back out to the taxi. There are countless advantages to channeling the resources of the government to an efficient, people-centered result, over acting independently. One is supporting the government, which, for all its problems, is in charge of the welfare of its people. And instead of buying tin sheets and nails, we can use our relief fund to think about quality of life. Instead of roofs, we can think about walls. Instead of crisis shelter, we can learn about design that can be transferred over time to permanent housing.

Also, we have communities in our own working areas in Kaski and Parbat, where the government currently has no plans to offer housing kits, asking for tents. Instead of using funds on tents, we can reallocate the money saved in Lamjung to mimic the housing kits in our villages, see how people use them, and learn how to supplement supplies and design ideas.

On the way home we talked for 3 hours nonstop about ideas that seemed accessible now: creating day-labor employment, paired-village building, little things that could be easily discounted or added to make all the difference. Out the window, the hills rolled by in reverse, and night fell.

“I was thinking,” I said from the back seat, “about this idea of a safe box for valuables. What do you think?”

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