Moving Still

 

An exciting week of office work led up to this year’s Maghe Sakranti, which always seems to coincide with some travel experience, astrological event or, in this case, Aidan’s 8th birthday, IMG_3858which, if you think about it, is the same thing.

The main topic of my conversation with Aidan and Pascal since I arrived two weeks ago has been black forest cake. Birthday cake came in vogue in Nepal about five or six years ago – as far as I can tell, it was discovered on TV, and has been translated in to an epic mashup of east-west-birthday-wedding-puja sort of candle-lighting experience that is not to be missed. Anyway, after a hectic week of office meetings and shopping for light fixtures, I caught the last bus up to Kaskikot on Thursday to head home for Maghe Sakranti with birthday cake for Aidan.

Because of Maghe Sakranti, the bus was packed with people heading home to Kaskikot. “Kaskikot packed” means that there is no standing room left inside the bus, and additionally, the people with poor tactical skills who’ve sat in aisle seats have someone’s butt in their ribs or armpit or smushed directly onto their faces. Most definitely, all people with seats are holding either a random package, bag of tomatoes, or someone else’s child on their lap.

As a master bus-rider, I possess a hierarchical mental catalogue of exactly which nooks and crannies make for a tolerable ride relative to a shifting set of variables. I approach “Kaskikot packed” with the focus of a honing pigeon.

IMG_4380It is immediately obvious that today is a top-of-the-bus day. Air is high on my list of prioritized variables, and all of the strategically located nooks and crannies inside the bus are taken or have been invaded by the limbs and odd angles of people who are technically not using these spaces. It’s a total free-for-all. For some reason, Nepalis have an awe-inspiring tolerance for this kind of physical disarray; I on the other hand, while happy to fit myself in to a pretty small nook, need it to be evenly balanced on all sides and protected from random entry, no matter how small my zone is.

Never fear, this is situation is accounted for. I hand Aidan’s cake to the Ticket Bro – all the guys who collect money on buses are Bros of the first degree, with wiry bodies and saggy pants – and clamber up a metal frame to the roof of the bus. The Ticket Bro, who knows me well (ok, I stick out, and besides I’ve provided many unreasonable entertainment opportunities for the general bus-riding public), hands Aidan’s black forest cake up to the top of the bus. I wedge it in flat between a box of beer bottles and a floppy sack of mystery items that’s soft enough to sit on. Soon I too am wedged in evenly on all sides by other passengers, which is exactly the way I want to be. I bend my knees protectively over the cake and we lurch away. The climb to Kaskikot isn’t a long distance in miles, but it’s all up, one switchback whipping around to the next.

The air begins to rush past and in settles a familiar, soothing reeling. The bus is climbing and honking, people are sticking out every which way, we are ducking the occasional branch – FWAP! – as the trees whoosh by. A wave of exhilarating calm envelops me, soft and malleable.

There have been three accidents on this bus route since in the thirteen years I have been riding it. Each time there is a bus accident, everyone including me swears off this road, these good-for-nothing-regulations, these drivers. The police crack down on the rules; buses are improved and added to reduce passenger load. The new bus I am on today looks like a greyhound, with upholstered reclining seats. But inevitably, the people turn this bus in to a wild beast. It’s inertia.

IMG_8687It just can’t be avoided.

Which, in a way that’s hard to explain, is why it’s so calming. Like in many poor countries, there is no illusory order here: everything is paint splatter all the time, and nobody’s pretending it’s something different. Everyone is hanging on to the spinning planet with one finger, and it is still working, at least until it’s not. Over time you realize that you too are paint splatter. You might think you aren’t now. But when order falls away, all of us are wilderness.

After the tragedies that have happened on this road, I know I shouldn’t admit it’s thrilling to catch the bus just in time, climb up to the roof, and duck branches while people talk on their phones and sway side to side eating peanuts like we are on Amtrak. But it isn’t a thrill because it’s dangerous (for the record, in purely statistical terms, driving on the beltway is just as dangerous)… it’s a thrill because it doesn’t feel dangerous. It makes sense. Because we are all flying through the trees together; because chaos and order have switched places, and everything fits despite the appearance of anarchy, and we are not dead yet.

In the mean time, some racing tiger inside of me catches the trees dashing by. I can feel the grumbling pavement even from up on the roof of the bus, and the Ticket Bro heedlessly climbs up and down the side of the bus like a chimpanzee while it is whirling around a corner. The valley below us recedes, and that wild thing in me, with a racing companion to match its speed, is still.

I’ve found this pocket of tranquility in other fast places.  When I catch a seat on the back of a motorbike and take off, zipping up my jacket. When I’m flying down a path in the trees with a sickle and rope in my hand, my flip flops smacking tap-tap-tap-tap on the rocks. Occasionally I have whirled into this thing when jumping on to the subway in New York, snagging a tread of some larger tapestry in the crush of a ten-million-person city with a trillion little shards of disorder that still fit in to something bigger.

In the subway, this is a private knowing. But on this bus, the miracle is out in the open for everyone to see: unruly, electric, FWAP! It’s still working.

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As we climb the lone road up through Sarangkot and closer to Kaski, people filter out at their homes, lugging their bags and boxes and children. The Ticket Bro clambers up and tosses bags off the top of the bus, and our resting props are gradually removed. My stop is the last stop. Soon all the other passengers decide to move down inside the bus, but because I am a honing pigeon I know that none of my approved nooks inside are available yet, and I stay on top of the bus, alone with Aidan’s black forest cake. I lie down so I don’t have to worry about oncoming branches, and crowd myself in with boxes and sacks to block the breeze, and float up the road on my back, watching the night sky roll by. My thoughts spiral in and out, moving still.

Of course, I can’t see where we’re going from this position. No problem. This road only leads to one place.

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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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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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Tractor Cowgirls

 

What a wonderful day!

After a week of endlessly trying to chase down corrugated tin, Dilmaya and I spend the entire day today riding around the hills of Nepal delivering roofs in Archalbot in Bharte.

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Our morning started off pretty slowly – I’ll spare you that part – but let’s just say there was heavy rain and 53 bundles of 12 foot, 60kg, corrugated tin involved – when you stack up even some of that tin and try to lift it, it’s as unmovable as a 12-foot block of concrete. There were two tractors and a jeep.  And, of course, one cute little Life Box.

IMG_0146We had a few special deliveries as well – cash relief for Bal Kumari, and a box of ceramic mugs for Muna Bujel’s family, which had completely rebuilt (minus tin) when I met them on that crazy ridgetop in Lakure. When I asked what else they needed, given that they’d done such an amazing job reorganizing their rubble in to a house already, Muna Bhujel looked around and kind of shrugged, like “Lady, look at this whole situation,” and said, “well a lot of our glasses were smashed.” So we threw a set of teacups for her.

It was nearly 11pm by the time we hit the road in Udipur on tractor #1, which was carrying 17 bundles of tin for Archalbot. Voila, Archalbot tin delivery! While we were here, we met three more families requesting roofs. I visited their houses and told them to start building. We’ll be back next week to check on the rest of Archalbot, and we can bring roofs for a few more families if they build before then.

Next, we had to switch to tractor #2 which was loaded up with our major delivery for about 50 homes all over Bharte.  This led to a situation and the following clip of video that pretty much says it all.  Here is what it’s like to try to provide aid for half a million ruined and damaged homes in Nepal’s hills.  An anchoring wire on a footbridge had popped out of the mud softened by the rains, and our tractor couldn’t get over it.  This video takes place about half a mile from a paved highway, on a 10-meter stretch of the only road that leads up to the village.  We did this for ONE HOUR before crossing this little patch of road that is the access point for the entire hillside of Bharte.

We finally got to our first stop in Sirwari, which was totally awesome.  When I first visited Sirwari about a week and a half ago, three families were living together under this tarp.  We asked them to build a good quality bamboo house and promised a roof.  When we arrived today, they had built this gorgeous bamboo community home for all three families!  I love this photo because you can still see their old tarp in the middle, hanging out until we can put it out of business with corrugated tin.  We delivered said tin that very afternoon, and promised we’d come back to see the finished product and spend the night.

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We looked at some of the other bamboo frames in Sirwari, and of course I wanted to take lots of photos and hang out and talk with everyone and Dilmaya was texting me madly to hurry up because we still had two tractors and a jeep full of tin and a lot of deliveries to make.  On the way, we picked up Sarita, Kripa’s young sister in law, whose house we’ve been staying in in Archalbot, and who’s become our pal.  The three of us crammed in to the two-person seating area in the front of the jeep, and we were off again, eating some lychees.

Our next stop was Bharte Banjang.  As far as I could tell, it’s the poorest, most remote and devastated area that we’ve visited.  Lakure is also quite remote, but people there had mostly rebuilt, whereas in Banjang, we met families with lots of young kids living between rusty tin or having moved in to the buffalo shed, with the buffalo.

IMG_0219We brought new tin for 10 homes, housing 49 people, to Banjang.  By now we were in a hurry, so I don’t have as many photos, but the building quality wasn’t as good in this area.  People didn’t have access to long bamboo nearby, so even though our coordinator in Bharte offered long bamboo off his land for free, nobody went and got it.  Many of the frames this community had made were far to low to stand up in.  Instead of the bamboo wall technique we saw in Sirwari, which is tight and can be plastered with mud and made permanent like Tulasi’s house in Parbat, people had simply criss-crossed bamboo, like this, which is far less secure.  This is kind of a mystery to me.  I wasn’t IMG_0233sure why so many of the people in Banjang had made structures with such obvious problems.  We decided we’ll do our best to provide day employment for some of the Sirwari people to come up and help the people in Banjang.  We’ll see how that goes.  In any case, at least these folks will be able to move out of the buffalo sheds and such.  I will venture to say that if we had not required that people build before providing these roofing sheets, this is an area where a lot of our tin would likely have sat in the yard or been thrown on top of unsafe houses.

From there we went to Lakure, my favorite spot in Bharte, where we delivered tin to Bal Kumari, and gave her $300 in cash that she was not expecting, to repay her loans.  Here is Muna Bhujel’s father with the teacups we gave him.  As you can see, he is pretty much speechless.

IMG_0236Then it was time to go to Besigaun for another 12 homes.  By now it was dusk, and as we headed out to our final few stops, it was night.  We made our deliveries in the dark.

Now, are you realizing we’ve left something out here?

Life Box, man.  Life Box.

We took this box out here and there to show people, but it was all so hectic that we didn’t really have time to do much with it.  I mean there wasn’t exactly time to dig a hole in the ground and bury the thing.

At our very last stop, we realized we had an extra bundle of tin, and this nice guy, Lok Bahadur Bhujel, and his son, came out and found us in the road.  They had built a temporary house but for now they’d covered it with a tarp, and wanted to ask us for help.  Well, as it happened, we had an extra bundle of tin that needed a home, so off it went.  Along with the Life Box!

Well, that was one of the more interesting days of my life.  All together, we covered over 50 houses and about 250 heads.  We’ll come back to Bharte in a week or so to check on things and see how some of these homes turned out. Dilmaya and I ended up spending the night at Sarita’s birth home in Bharte, and let me tell you, we did not have any trouble falling asleep.

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The Life Box

A short post that I think will speak for itself. Not a bad way to spend a day off in Besishahar.  And why call it a “safe-box”? That sounds like a receptacle for used syringes. “Eva” means life. World, welcome to the one and only (literally) Life Box.

Tomorrow, during our tin delivery in Archalbot and Bharte, we’re gonna take this sample around and see what people have to say about it.

Read more about what this doo-dad is and how the idea came about here.  The idea is to create a secure storage space for people whose homes were compromised in the earthquake and now have no private place to lock away precious items.

So, we begin as follows:

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This random treasure chest looking thing was lying around so we used it as a model in discussing the design.

 


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Everything in life starts with a beat up piece of unassuming sheet metal.

 

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All the pieces of our Life Box were made by hand – every piece of metal is cut by having one guy hold the chisel in place along a straight edge, while the other guy whacks the chisel.

 

Making reinforced edging.  High tech!
Making reinforced edging. High tech!

 

This shop is full of random stations like this
This shop is full of random stations like this

 

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and this

And twenty four hours later…
This!
This!
Sneak preview…this is right after I got out of the bus and set our new toy down at the bus stop…

Follow Up in Bharte

 

Today Dilmaya and I went for a follow up visit to Bharte. I made my first trip here a little less than a week ago. We walked from Archalbot to Lakure, the hilltop where Bal Kumari lives, and it took five hours. I did some recording with Bal Kumari because I hope to include her in a radio story.

We visited a large school in Banjang that needs a classroom for grades 9 and 10, who are currently holding classes under this tarp.

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Banjang had a whole strip of houses in bad shape. A local shopkeeper, Laxmi, is going to to help oversee the construction of bamboo shelters here, so that we can come back next week with tin roofs.

IMG_9824We were especially popular with these kids, who followed us around this ridge top until we got to the house of the girl on the right, Ganga.  As you can see, they’ve moved in with the buffalo, so we’re gonna bring them some tin for a new bamboo house too.

On our way home, we visited the group in Sirwari that I met on my first visit a little less than a week ago. Three families are living together under a tarp in the yard, and they’ve begun organizing to turn this in to a bamboo community house. I called Santa, a young mother there, to say we’d be stopping by in the afternoon, and we were really excited to that they’ve already started! There was lots of bamboo piled up, ready for construction, and their tarp shelter had already been improved with thick bamboo posts.

We enjoyed some corn for snacks, and I took a lot of crap for
IMG_9839eating like a monkey. Nepalis eat fresh corn by pulling the kernels out with their fingers, not sticking the entire thing in to their faces like heathens. Oh well. It’s not the first thing I had a different way of doing. And it makes for a good photo.

It was after dark by the time the two of us wandered in to a hotel in Bote Orar. We walked for ten hours today, all of it either climbing up or climbing down. We were too tired to even discuss our day over dinner, so it wasn’t till the next morning that we rolled out of bed, still sore, and I took out my notebook so we could add up all the names and bundles of tin. We’ll come back next week to put roofs on over fifty homes!

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Glamping and Magic Cake Houses

 

Reading over my blog entries, I’m realizing I’ve left out some of the nicest details of the hospitality we’ve received in Archalbot this week. So let’s just put them all together.

Detail #1: Glamping

IMG_9481Dilmaya and I stayed at Kripa’s house. It’s standing, but unstable, so we’re all sleeping outside or in small rooms on the edges of the house. For years I’ve joked with Aamaa about going to sleep with the buffalo, or sending Pascal and Aidan to sleep with the buffalo when they’re being cheeky. Now, I can say I’ve actually slept with the buffalo. This glamping site (a phrase I learned this winter when a new “glamorous camping” hotel was going up in Pokhara) was one of the best places I’ve ever gotten to sleep. I loved dozing off each night in the open air and waking up slowly each morning to a cool breeze rustling over the corn, the green hills coming in to focus through the mosquito net.

Later in the week it started raining, so Kripa’s mother moved the bed to the porch. Cute, right? Our last night in Archalbot it rained heavily all night and all morning, and I lay on this cot listening blissfully to the tap-tap-tap-tap on the tin roof.

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Detail #2: Dancing

The night before Robin and Colin left Archalbot, we had a dance party at Kushal’s house, in the same yard where we first met this whole community just a short week and a half ago. It was so much fun. All the uncertainty and worry that the earth bag house hadn’t been finished, who had and hadn’t fulfilled what responsibility, what would be done next and who’d been let down or left out…everyone just kicked back and had a big old dance of it.  Which is how we handle potentially stressful situations in Nepal.

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Detail #3: This Grandma

For the days when we had lots of help with the earth bag house, everybody, and I mean everybody, pitched in. You just couldn’t miss this grandma, who unfailingly monitored the scene all day, and during stone-breaking, sat with her legs in a perfect South Asian squat, clicking stones in to pebbles.  One day, I was loading rocks on to our makeshift carriers, and she came over and carefully began placing stones one at a time on to the tarp, with this kind of tentative body language that said, “I mean why not? It’s the thing to do.  Let’s see about it.”  After I got too excited and overloaded one bundle, we made the next one a little lighter so she could carry it with me. I couldn’t choose between these two amazing photos so you’re getting both of them.

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Detail #4: Breaking stones

IMG_9624The foundation of the earth bag house is made of alternating layers of stone and packed dirt, and the first two layers of the house itself are made from sacks filled with little stones, which I now know to be called giti. In order to get enough stones, Mahendra’s family demolished one of the unstable rooms of their house, which was highly satisfying since the house will eventually need to be taken down anyway. Then, for days, there were all these people just sitting around clinking away at stones. A lot of the women and kids worked incredibly hard on this.

I’ve always had an association between stone-breaking and the awful child labor that you often see in the river bed: poor families breaking stones all day in the hot sun, children out of school. But this scene was totally different. It was like some kind of anti-submission-to-earthquake factory. It felt defiant and exhilarating having all these people in the community dismantling their own home in order to put the pieces in to the heavy foundation of a new house.

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Detail #5: Flour

We used recycled sacks for the earth bag house, and they had previously contained flour. A team of two to three people was fully devoted to shaking out each and every sack to gather the palmfuls of flour remaining in each bag. Over the course of hundreds of sacks, the flour piled up like so. And, as Mariah pointed out, our earth-bag house was also something of a cake-house, and our team looked like a bakery.

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Detail #6: Kushal

I interviewed Kushal twice. Once, so he could show me around his house (look for him in an upcoming radio piece for BBC’s The World). The second time, to ask him what he thought about this whole housing thing, and what his perfect house looks like in his imagination. He talked to me about magic, in english, and I recorded it:

“Everything is magic. I walk, you walk, it is a magic. We can jump, we can speak, anything is magic. This is a house, it is also a magic. In the stone age, there was nothing like this house. In the stone age people lived in caves and they didn’t feel safe because animals can any time harm them. But we can feel safe here. There are many inventions like radio, microphone, camera, and DVD, laptop, computer and radio, it is also a magic. The people are developing magic. I don’t know surely, but I want to do some magic in my life. My life is also a magic that someone has gifted me, and your life is also a magic that someone has gifted you.”

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You Win Some, You Delay Some Wins

 

Well the earth bag house was coming along pretty well, but this week the rain started, which means planting season has begun. Colin has been working incredibly hard for hours a day in the heat, along with Moriah, an American volunteer who found out about the project on the facebook page that’s being used to coordinate earth bag building projects in Nepal. But completing an earth bag house in a week requires 8-10 people working all day, and we’ve had trouble getting consistent manpower from Archalbot.

I also have to confess that my part in the collaboration with the earth bag project went differently than I expected. After our experience in Parbat, I thought our main housing challenge was motivating people to gather bamboo (or other natural materials from the environment or their damaged homes) and build good quality shelters for us to provide tin roofing for. I expected, at the start of this week, that the earth bag project would be leverage for other local building projects, starting with Uttam’s bamboo house – in other words, that people’s interest in seeing the earth bag home completed would motivate them to fulfill our requirement that they also build a bamboo home for another especially needy family. I also expected that not everyone in Archalbot needed or wanted to move out of their cracked homes and live in bamboo houses. We thought we’d end up with be two high-quality sample homes in Archalbot – one earth bag, one bamboo – and residents would choose to one or the other them if they desired.

Instead, what happened is that once Uttam’s bamboo house started getting built, everyone became extremely motivated to go cut bamboo and make similar homes. It was much more successful than I ever imagined. And the earth bag house, while a brilliant long-term building solution, is extremely labor and resource intensive compared to familiar local building methods such as bamboo. With time and money scarce, everyone quickly became pre-occupied with the solution that met their needs and existing skills most efficiently. By mid-week, the strategy had reversed: we were pushing people to finish the earth bag home as a requirement for further tin distribution for bamboo houses.

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Uttam’s family’s two bamboo houses under construction

I realize maybe this is starting to sound a little weird – us putting these conditions in place for aid distribution, leveraging one community project against another. But that’s often the best way to collaborate as well as introduce new concepts or infrastructure in a place where people are used to doing things a certain way, and where the hierarchy of priorities is a well-entrenched survival system. We use this principle all the time when we do dental care. We have to put conditions in place that wedge new priorities in to this hierarchy: providing treatment only at the clinic and requiring people to go there to access it; charging nominal fees; making sure local shopkeepers sell toothpaste, but not giving the toothpaste out for free, so that people have to buy it themselves from the same place they buy sugar and soap. The reason for this isn’t for our benefit, it’s that the goal of our dental project is not to distribute toothpaste or provide one-off treatments, but to elevate the overall level of long term, sustainable oral health care in the places we work.  That only happens when people reorder their own priorities and behaviors, no matter what country or situation they live in.

Similarly, the purpose of the earth bag house is to train people in an earthquake-safe, affordable building method. But at first, it’s just a weird performance using rice sacks and dirt, so you can’t blame IMG_9549people for wondering if it’s really worth their time. It’s important to leverage the attractive elements of the project: the creation of a new structure, the intrigue of a new idea brought by foreigners, the incentive that we’ll provide materials to trainees for building one of these houses themselves. If we can capture participation based on these points, we can hopefully keep people’s attention long enough to teach the skills we want to transfer.  Like our dental clinics, the point is to see people absorb this safe-building technique over the long term because they realize it has value.

So leveraging earth bags and bamboo against each other was a great idea, but the thing I didn’t anticipate was that the time of year and the urgent need for shelter would make the one of the two so much more attractive. So for anyone out there doing earth bag building, my suggestion is, wait until about late September, just before the harvest time. Better yet, the best time of year would be December or January, the only season when there’s any semblance of a real break from field work. While earth bagging is a fast, democratic construction method compared to a block or large mud and stone house, it does require a lot of city-based resources and labor compared to other readily available options. There are almost no families that have 8-10 people in their household who can work intensively for 8 hours a day for a week, and definitely not during rice planting season. That means that families will have to hire labor, and that means other people need to have time.

IMG_9720In the end, Colin and Robin decided to have Archalbot build a bamboo shelter around the half-finished earth bag home, with the goal of returning to finish it up in the fall. So here is a photo of our nepal’s first earth-bag-bamboo-tarp home. Tarp soon to be replaced by bamboo.

In the evening, the community had another meeting about why the earth bag house hadn’t been completed. There was quite a bit of contrition – people hadn’t fulfilled their promises to help out. But there was still confusion over the concept that the earth bag house was a training opportunity, not a private building project. No matter how many times we explained this – and I speak pretty fluent Nepali, and Dilmaya is Nepali – the tendancy has been for people to think of the earth bag project as “Mahendra’s house.”

In any case, there was this slightly downer of a meeting, and everyone vowed that when Robin returns in the fall they will all be totally ready to devote time to completing the training. Then we went home to eat dinner, and I got a phone call from little Kushal.

A speaker system had been set up in the yard, and we had a rocking dance party. And why not, man. You win some, you delay some wins. When I left in the morning, there was cut bamboo lying around all over the place, ready for construction.

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Small Bundles in Big Spaces

 

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View across the valley, from Bharte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very clever, Uttam’s brother.

Uttam and his brother building their bamboo house

Uttam and his brother building their bamboo house

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

“What is this for?” I asked.

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

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

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