The Milk Truck

We spent a very long time waiting for the milk truck to pick us up.  As part of Optional Class, I’ve found people to come up from the city and tell the kids about their jobs: a librarian, a radio jokey, and someone from the photo shop.  Today, we were headed to Pokhara to visit the places they work.

While we waited for our ride, the kids sat on the grass, leaning on each other, practicing the song that Govinda and I wrote about the solar system.  We make them sing it every day – Venus has poisonous air, there’s a big storm on Jupiter, la la – so the tune has more or less become the Optional Class Anthem.  The radio jockey had invited our students to sing the solar system song on air during our visit, and the quartet selected for that job was practicing next to a few other students who we’d chosen to read their poetry on the radio.  The early morning hour was one of quiet satisfaction for Govinda and me, watching our kids with their heads bent over the books they’ve made, feeling important.

The milk truck finally came, and we all crammed in to the back: Govinda, Laximi, and eighteen kids, and me.P1060843  The inside was a military-style canvas box with two benches and railings on the ceiling to provide handholds.  With a lurch we set off, bouncing down the dirt road toward the city.

To keep out the dust from the road, we had all the canvas flaps down over the back and side windows.  I looked around at all the little faces squashed into our sealed box, and was struck with the sudden feeling that nothing, no words or photos or documentaries, would ever be able to recreate that stuffed space.  At the end of the day, we will be exactly that: a giggling ring of faces pressed together inside our container, moving along a dirt road towards something, out into a world which sees us as if from above, tiny on the crumpled earth.  The instant reels in my mind from its birds eye view, and I look from the inside out, where we are now, and fall on the moment with a surrendering crush of love.

Because the outside is moving, moving, always crawling along the road, but the inside—the inside is still, aside from the bouncing.  With the windows covered we couldn’t see the road going by, or the place we’d come from, or where we were headed.  And when I considered that we would eventually arrive, and get out, and be outside too, I felt the weight of a universe crammed into a milk truck.  This is our now: the gravity of all the past and future collapsed into a present that will pass and forever be gone.  It seems almost impossible, amazing, to be here now.  In a milk truck, with these kids.

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Lookout point (and clouds!)

Help from Elves

A flat rock about the size of a medium pizza, I figured, would work nicely.  I arrived at Sada Shiva half an hour early carrying my stone.

Last week, we installed a water hose that is propped up on a stick where the schoolyard drops off and slopes downhill.  It’s a great setup, except that in order to use the waterspout, you have to stand on the hill, which is gradually eroding under the constant stream of water splashing out of the pipe.  I had decided to improve things by wedging a rock into the hill, so that at least one small pair of feet could find purchase on the muddy slope.

Setting my bag down outside class three, I climbed over the edge of the yard and scooted down to where I could crouch below the water spout.  Using another rock, I began chipping away at the hill.  It was peaceful in the deserted yard.

“MISS!”

I looked up to see Sunil and Hari looking down at me.

“ARE YOU BUILDING A WATER TAP?”  They always talk in capital letters.

“Yes,” I said, although it seemed generous of the boys to elevate my stone to a “tap.”  Without further discussion, Sunil and Hari disappeared.  I began chipping again.

“MISS!!”

Overhead, Sunil and Hari were leaning over the edge of the yard, holding two wide, flat rocks.

“MISS!!!”  Krishna came galloping up behind them with a third rock.

I looked down at the small stone I was using to whittle away an indent in the hill.  Things were not going according to plan.  When I looked up all three boys had left their three stones and gone off again.

“MISS!!!!” Madu and Ganga arrived. More rocks.

Five minutes later, students were coming out of the woods, like elves, by the dozens.  Their stones piled up at the edge of the yard.  I was impeached, moved aside, and replaced by Ganga and Madu, who began wedging the stones into the hillside where I had been standing.  Rita-Madam arrived and squatted at the top of the slope, looking down at us.  Her ponytail rolled around to the front of her shoulder.

Thik, thik,” she murmured.  Good, good.

More rocks marched out of the woods.  Ganga and Madu shouted up to Hari, who passed them down.  It was not eight minutes before the students had built a neat ledge where the water splatted onto a flat rock, sending up fine celebratory drops that leapt into the grass.  Just to show off, they’d created a few steps leading down to the tap from the yard.  There were still five minutes to spare before morning line.

That, I thought, is what I meant.

Thik, thik,” Rita Madam said.

We climbed back up to the yard and they scrambled into place for morning exercises.  Govinda arrived and initiated the daily yard routine.  I went into the office, where everybody had taken up their normal posts: by the table, with the comic book, quietly off to the side.  Rita Madam rang the bell, and the day began.

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Pictures of Schools

all 710I had heard that there was a small school in the woods, facing south, far below the road that cut through Kaskikot along the mountain ridge.  On a late fall morning in 2002 I went looking for it.

I followed a descending path of broad stones as far as the village mill, and from there I turned onto a winding footpath that halted and dropped and navigated roots in the ground and in some places seemed to disappear entirely.  Soon I heard no sounds except the whir of the trees and the suggestive rustle of an occasional monkey in the tall grass.  I passed a spring and a temple.  I came around a bend.  And then, demurely, as if waiting for a visitor, a stone wall appeared in a clearing up ahead.

I approached the building and emerged from the hushed woods into its open yard, a bald mound of dry dirt looking out over forests and terraced fields.  The view extended all the way down to the valley floor, but the school ground still felt hidden among the trees.  There were two piled stone buildings with wooden shutters and doors, most of which were missing panels, the gaps blocky and conspicuous like missing teeth in the open-jawed windows.  I peeked in to some of the classrooms and saw benches sitting mid-wobble on the dirt floor, facing blackboards whose still-fading scribbles bespoke prior lessons.  These objects regarded each other diplomatically, as if ready for anything but expecting nothing soon.

When I’d left the United States, I hadn’t decided where I was going to end up.  China was a leading Sada Shiva (Class 3?) - Version 3contender.  I was offered a position in a school with 2000 students. My mother didn’t want me to go to Nepal—there was an insurgency happening.  I didn’t know anything about any of these places.  I didn’t speak Chinese, for example.  I spoke French.  I was a terrible candidate to do any reasoning on the topic.  One day, in Bhutan, I was sitting still doing nothing except worrying about where I was going next, when, with as little ceremony as a tenant entering his flat, a picture of a small classroom floated in to my mind and landed there.

To this day I can’t explain why, but I knew that classroom was in Nepal.  I was going to Nepal.

I wound my way back through the forest, past the spring and the temple and the mill, and up a different set of ascending broad stones, I emerged again onto the wide bus road along the ridge.  Directly across from me a man was sitting in front of his house on a low wall.  He was wearing simple brown pants and a V-neck sweater over a long sleeved shirt, and chatting with a round-bellied man dressed in the clothing of a Brahmin priest.

The two men called me over and asked when I had arrived in Kaskikot and what I would be doing there.  I told them I had just been to a small school in the woods, whose name I had forgotten, but where I was hoping to teach.  As it turned out, both of these men were teachers at that school, which was called Sada Shiva Primary.

The man in the V-neck sweater introduced himself as Govinda Prasad Paudel, the English teacher.  For the next two and a half months Govinda and I walked the wooded path back from school together every day.  During that time our friendship was formed, and instead of calling each other by name, we began to follow the Nepali tradition of addressing one another by a familial relation.  I called him daai, or “older brother,” and he called me bahini.

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