The Art of Not Knowing

 

(Re-posted from my June Newsletter – thanks for bearing with me if you are on my mailing list and are receiving this twice!)

Welcome to the Summer 2017 edition of American in Nepal Doing Dental Care and Other Impossible Pursuits.  This season will feature a number of high profile guests, including my cousin Sara and a return to the set by Dr. Keri the Pediatric Dentist from UConn.

Additionally, we have a nail-biting plot lined up for you.  First of all, last month Nepal held its first local elections in about 20 years.  Why are you biting your nails over this?  Because in working to change the health care system in rural villages in Nepal, the posse of bandits that is Jevaia Foundation spends a great deal of time building relationships with local government leaders, a quest peppered with uncertainty, adventure and drama. Presently, in addition to a fleet of newly elected politicians all over the country, there has been some government restructuring, and now nobody is totally sure about things such as who is in charge of distributing funds that were allocated last fall for stuff like, oh I don’t know…let’s just say rural dental clinics.  So, we literally have no idea what government we’re dealing with on day by day basis, and that’s about 75% of the reason we exist.

On that theme, two weeks ago I gave a short talk at my Williams College Reunion called The Art of Not Knowing (beginning at 29:45).  The other women on this panel were powerful ladies pioneering in the fields of journalism and feminism and are well worth a few minutes of time to listen to.  In my ten minutes, I talked about being a restless college student coming from privilege, women as athletes, and the impact of 9/11 happening my senior year of college as these things relate to my work in Nepal.

Back to other coming attractions.  In July Dr. Keri will be leading a second training for our technicians and clinic assistants, along with – TADA! – our new Medical Coordination Officer, hygienist Rajendra Sapkota.  With Rajendra’s help, we’re going to be strengthening our referral system with city hospitals.  We’re preparing for the launch of just one new clinic this year, in Hansapur, and the rest of 2017-18 will be devoted to revisiting our 8 established clinics, upgrading technician skills and equipment, and going back over the community and school programs in all of those villages.

Keri teaching, winter '16

Keri working with technician Megnath Adhikari last winter

And now it’s time for…a plot twist!  Three weeks ago, I’m in the car when Bishnu calls and tells me that she applied for a visa for Aamaa to come see her graduate from her Master’s program in Information Technology (that’s our Bishnu!).  And somehow, in some inexplicable alignment of cosmic unlikeliness getting turned around and coming out possible instead, Aamaa has scored a five year multiple-entry visa to the United States.  She now has the best visa in the family, and it appears that I when I land back in the US in two months, I will have Aamaa in tow.

[Insert sounds of Laura sitting in her car in the parking lot of Walmart, picturing Aamaa in her apartment in Hartford, yelling, “WHAT IN THE – HOW IS – HOW CAN – TH – WH – I – ” (etc.).]

I can comfortably say that there is not one step of that journey that I can visualize once we get on the bus that leaves Kaski.  Aamaa has never even been to Kathmandu.  The furthest reaches of my mind cannot conjure what she will think of JFK airport.

At my Williams talk, an audience member asked if it is “lonely” to live in the ambiguous territory between two incongruous worlds.  My answer was yes.  But also that I was in that between place before I ever left home: uncomfortable, questioning. This bridging is a rare gift I didn’t earn, but each year, I gain more perspective on the importance of staying uncomfortable, especially if you don’t have to.  Bridging keeps you malleable.  When you have to reconcile competing
worlds, you see how quickly things become stuck, how easily even small power becomes narrow-mindedness and false complacency disguised as expertise or experience.  I have been thinking about this a lot.

In my final blog entry last summer, I wrote about visiting a mosque in Kazakhstan, having been mostly isolated from the news for two months, and how I wondered that the most urgent fixations in one place are completely irrelevant someplace else.  I have the same feeling now as I shift back in to the part of my life where my own obsessions in the U.S. are passing trivialities.  If I stayed in one location, they would become deeper and more rigid.  But I have been given this lucky between.  It is rice-planting season, and we hope the rains will be full.  But we won’t know until the sky breaks, so all we can do is prepare seedlings and roll up our trousers.

Ready for action, y’all.

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P.S. School teachers starting dental programs? Fo’ shizzle.  I would love to hear what all of you out there think about the presentation I gave at UCSF’s Global Oral Health Symposium last March (beginning here at 54:30). It focuses on human rights and uprooting academy-based (*cough, elitist*) approaches to solving health care disparities in developing countries.

Wanderlust, with “Trespassing!”

 

So the other day, a friend posted a Luftansa ad on Facebook with the caption, “this is the Nepal I love!” The post popped up in my feed, although it had nothing to do with me.

I clicked on it. The ad follows a Nepali fashion designer from New York back to Nepal as part of a “wanderlust” ad series by the airline. She goes to familiar places in Kathmandu, and then poses in front of the Annapurna mountains. And then, she eats a meal with some women who start to look very familiar – so familiar that I don’t recognize them in this context. And then, a teenage boy runs off of the roof of a house. His feet patter over the corrugated tin over our kitchen, which I had installed last summer to fix a leak over our cooking fire.

THAT’S MY HOUSE!!!! I start yelling. Luftansa decided to make an ad about wanderlust, and out of the ENTIRE GLOBE, they picked MY HOUSE IN NEPAL!!! I watch again. You can see Aamaa sitting right there on the porch with a white towel on her head. Have a look for yourself:

The colors of home – LUFTHANSA?!  I don’t think so!  Aamaa and Bishnu and I painted those colors!!  As my friend Bess says…trespassing!  You guys, this video has well over 3 million views.  Now, next question: who has a friend at Luftansa?  I think we should look in to a new corporate partner, no?

Go ahead and send your ideas my way…laura@jevaia.org.

The Ritual of Goodbye

 

I decided to take the jungle path up to Kaski, which I normally travel multiple times during any visit, but haven’t been up or down yet during this hectic winter. I set off late and as I climbed up, the scramble of things fell away and I was alone on the stone path.  Where there is time to climb and think.

It’s been a few years since the forest was cut here (for grass, firewood) so the way is lush and clustered with greenery.  I always wear flip flops and the contours of the rocks feel close under my feet, even in winter.  At intervals, I came upon dustings of red powder laying bright on the rocks, a trail I suspected had been left by a recent funeral procession headed in the other direction down to the river.  Midway up the path there is a natural spring that has been organized with laid stones, and one large flat rock with a groove in the middle serves as a ledge channeling a steady stream of water for drinking. When I come this way with the kids, they cup their hands under the trickle and funnel the water between their lips, like something out of the Secret Garden. The spring always feels like a sacred place, a steady tributary of water that started who knows where, up high in the mountains, probably, and falls there at our feet as we pass.

As I made my way up from the valley to the ridge, I had that granular awareness of time passing behind me, and it seemed so strange that at any moment I was on one stone, and then I would be on the next one, and just that way the whole path would be behind me and I would be up in Kaski, the secret water tap and everything far below where I’d just been.

img_1031By the time I climbed up the last step to the ridge top, I was a combination of chilly and sweaty in the January dusk. I walked the spine of the ridge, which curves along our cubby of village as if along the top row of a stadium. Little Narayan caught sight of me up along the ridgetop, and yelled out from way down in the first row where he was visiting a neighbor, LAURA DIDIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII!!!!! before launching in to a sprint and leaping up over terraces to come walk the last bit of the way by my side. We made a right turn at our row in the top section of the stadium, and strolled out to the house sitting in the wings, where the fire was lit and Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa were waiting.

We had some popcorn and hot tea as sunset approached. Narayan’s brother Amrit came over and in the yard we practiced taekwondo and played chungi, which is basically Nepali hackey sack using a ball of rubber bands, while Aamaa cried out at us to calm it down and I riled everyone up. Govinda dai came over and we sat with Aamaa in the kitchen while she made anadi paste, a rice dough with ghee that is healing for sore muscles and bones, and then we ate it and it made our hands sticky with ghee. Saano didi came over, and then Mahendra’s mother came over. We transferred to the big room with all the beds, and while our visitors took seats around the room to hang out, I jumped under the blankets with Hadjur Aamaa, and with us both lying down, my long limbs rested against the soft jumbled folds of her sari.

Aside from ritualized procedures and ceremonies – tikka-giving, astrology-reading, mala-making — goodbyes are wholly unfashionable around here. So what usually happens on my last day or last morning in Kaski is our closest neighbors come over to chat, but nobody talks about the fact that I am leaving, going to another world, and won’t be back for a long time. If we do, it is in the form of asking about the trajectory of my flight, how long I’ll be in the air, what they give us to eat during such a long journey, and whether or not it is colder where I’m going than where we are. We discuss what season it will be when I come back (summer), and what fieldwork we’ll all do together (millet planting and rice planting), and this leads us to reminisce about what a klutz I was when I first arrived, and how many things I know how to do now. At some point, people wander out mid-conversation. Because the course of events is set, both the leaving and the returning, and since there is nothing to be done, there is no point in becoming uncomfortable. I understand this ritual of goodbye, and have become grateful for it.

churning milkAfter most people had left, Govinda stayed while I churned milk so I could bring buttermilk to Pokhara tomorrow for the family. Govinda took photos of me, which is kind of nice because I don’t have many photos of myself since I’m always the one taking them – but then, people, he posted them on Facebook and two days later I would discover that this photo album is wildly more popular than anything I’ve ever posted of myself trying to be useful or worthy. What does it all mean?

When the milk was churned, Govinda dai left to go home and Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa and I got ready for bed. It’s always been a nightly habit of mine to go out after everything is quiet and look at the stars, across the village stadium at Kali with her arms stretched out under her cloak, and study the positions of the constellations amassed around her. I usually walk out along the garden, and sometimes I climb halfway up the hill to the ridge and look back at the house with its golden porch light, a warm square in the broad, cold darkness. Even when I am far away from Kaski, I often feel my self located there, outside in the silence, looking back at the still, lit house in its expansive darkness. That spot is a place of gratitude and wonder, of tiny-ness and huge-ness at the same time: my little self, with coordinates in the galaxy.

It was another January night, clear and chilly, the stars laid out overhead like dust. I went out to the yard to brush my teeth, and for whatever reason, instead of going out along the terrace, I stood in the square of light cast off the porch and looked out in to the dark. In the summer, the yard is hemmed in by towering corn stalks, but in January, there are no walls against the yawning night.  I stared out in to the blackness, past the edge of the yard, and all I could see was the outline of trees under the stars, and an opening in the blackness at the top of the hill where the path gives way to the ridge.

It occurred to me that in all this time, I’ve never looked at it this way. I studied the inscrutable night, brushed my teeth, and threw my eyes up to the sky for a moment to make sure Orien was where I expected him.  Then I went back in to the house, placed the wooden bar across the inside of the door, got under the warm covers, and drifted off to sleep, safe against the morning.

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The Put In The Museum Pants

Welcome, world, to the new year 2017.  In honor of this changing of the calendar, I decided to take on some good old Kaskikot cleaning-out-of-old-clothes-from-the-house.  Now in order for you to fully appreciate what this means in context, you must understand a few key points.

First, the clothes in question have been in rotation for anywhere from 2 to 14 years, and for the most part, they are only worn when I’m in Nepal.  Second, these garments are mainly used for activities such as chopping wood and hauling water and painting murals, and they are washed on rocks. Third, p1070133all of the family clothes are stuffed in to one large dresser with drawers that have been labeled with permanent marker by the kids (“Lora and Bishnu, Ama, Malika and Prem, Aidan and Pascl”) and the dresser is always so full you almost can’t open it, or close it, which is why every time I get the Lora and Bishnu drawer open and then shove it almost shut, Aamaa yelps out from across the room and chides me for leaving one inch of air space that will look irresistible to a mouse seeking fluffy shelter from life.

Next you must understand that nobody throws anything away, ever, under any circumstances, because it was once useful, might again be useful, is nicely made, contains a wrapper or other information that might be needed for future reference, or just because I don’t know let’s just keep it here wedged between the roof beams because we have roof beams.

And finally, since I am away for 5 to 10 months at a time, partway through, Aamaa religiously takes out the nicely stacked and folded system I’ve left behind to air out everyone’s clothes in the sun.  They are then returned to their airless purgatory in maximum disarray.

It is also notable that at any given time, most people in the household cannot locate the particular piece of clothing they wish to wear.  I spend most of my time at home either trying to open the Lora and Bishnu drawer, trying to close the drawer, or looking under piles for something while Aamaa cries out, “No matter how big the house gets, it just fills up with things and then we can’t find anything!”  FYI this is a two-room mud plaster house with a kitchen and attic, which was once expanded from a one-room mud plaster house with a kitchen and attic, but that’s the EXACT SAME THING my mom says about our large suburban abode in Bethesda.  So you can put that last point in to your “Deep thoughts on human life” file and stick it between the roof beams for future reference.

In any case, on Dec. 31, 2016, I made a decision, people.  Grandma was sunning in the yard while Aamaa tended to the buffalo, Govinda’s kids were over, an attempt to fold and restore clothes to the Lora drawer with Sulochana’s help was going nowhere, and in a fit of courage I committed to assigning a pile of my best clothes to mattress material.  (I mean it, if you think anything ever gets thrown out, let’s talk about used-up pens and “good” empty cardboard boxes before we start wasting perfectly good 14 year old clothes.)  I handed my camera over to Sudir, and he and Sulo stationed themselves to document these items for posterity.

Now then, with no further ado, I present to you the parade of Useful and Sentimental Clothes.

Item 1: The Mural Surulwar

Mural, White Paint - Me

The very first time I came to Kaskikot, all the way back in October 2002, the volunteer agency took me to a tailor and I had two outfits sewn.  I wore them constantly during my first two years, including through the painting of two murals at Sada Shiva Primary.  One top frayed out of existence a few years ago, but these two outfits are mostly still in circulation for both sentimental and practical reasons: they became my go-to outfits for mural painting.  This pair of pants, however, is difficult to wear in pretty much all circumstances.  Bye bye special beige painting surulwar.  We’ve walked so many places together and you’ve had so many kids I love on your lap.

Item 2: The Elastic Bathing Lungi

Fortunately I don’t have a “before” photo of the bathing lungi.  But it too is a lifer: it has been bathed in for 14 years.  In fact, I think I inherited it from another volunteer that was leaving when I arrived in 2002.  Suffice to say that this little number is no longer appropriate for bathing, or really for anything except becoming a mattress cover.

Item 3: The Red Kurta I Stole From Bishnu

Round about my third visit, I started to wise up a little on style.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that when Nepali tailors sew outfits for white people, they just go huge and hope for the best.  We look like Yetis, but at least we can get in to these outfits.  As I became more interested in a fashion choice that wasn’t a mumu, Bishnu’s loosest outfits were large enough for me to get in to as long as I didn’t breathe too much.  This red top was my favorite and eventually I had it let out a little around the lungs.  When I wore it with some red pants I found, I felt like a princess, but then someone made the red pants in to a mattress, so I reverted to wearing it with the beige Mural Surulwar.  It then became covered in paint, and torn, but it’s had a great life on multiple Spero-Subedi women.

Item 4: The Put In The Museum Pants

I got these jeans for $10 at a discount mall in college, and they were my Nepal jeans for about 10 years.  They got patched in the crotch, the butt, around the ankles and in various locations where they caught on things here and there.  I took a lot of crap for wearing these pants, which Prem had coined the “Put In The Museum Pants” for quite a few years before I stopped wearing them.  I discovered them at the bottom of the Lora and Bishnu drawer, and I’m glad nobody throws things out here, because it would be terrible to think of these trusty pants in a ditch somewhere.  Unfortunately they do not fully qualify as pants any more at this point; they evolved closer to the mattress stage while still on me.  Since I’ve clearly enjoyed sitting on them quite a bit, I’m glad someone will have a nice night’s rest on them…like a museum, but lying down.

They will be next to this AAU Taekwondo Nationals t-shirt that I got in 2008; it had a rougher life once it moved continents.

Item 5: This one’s not my fault.

This is a kurta surulwar that belonged to Bishnu about 10 million years ago.  I was able to convince Aamaa that nobody is going to wear it again ever for the entire future of the planet until the sun explodes.  I tried to lower my arms for these photos but to no avail because the outfit was sewn with inexplicably tiny sleeves and indefensibly large and poofy pants for someone 1/2 my size.  Thank you for just being you, outfit that makes no sense.  You inspire us all.

Item 6: The One I Couldn’t Bear to Actually Give Up

Oct. '03

This is the other kurta surulwaar I had sewn for my first ever visit to Kaskikot.  I wore it constantly and the material appears to be more durable than bulletproof kevlar. I have photos of myself carrying grass in this purple kurta, teaching in this purple kurta, holding a cat in this purple kurta, going to a dental clinic in this kurta, and giving Mom and Aamaa a joint foot massage while wearing this purple kurta when my parents first visited 2003.  Purple became my symbolic color, and often when I receive gifts in Kaskikot they are purple if they are not edible.  The kurta, as you can plainly see, evolved in to my primary mural painting smock, and hasn’t been used in quite a while. But I still wear the dark purple pants around the house even though the crotch is ripped (YES, I have leggings inside, jeez) because the thick purple material is still warm and soft and because the Yeti sizing is perfect for lounging. I decided it was ok to hang on to these much-travelled and much-loved pieces of history a bit longer.  Maybe my great-grandkids will get a kick out of this getup.

So after we had finished modeling the upcoming mattress, we shut the dresser drawer, Sulo did my hair with a complicated formula of braids and safety pins, and we had a dance party with Grandma.

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Happy New Year!

No wait…one more for the road.

Cause I’m keeping the purple one.

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Tihar, Festival of Lights, 2003

 

 

 

 

Hope Against Entropy

(Editor’s note: apologies if you’re on my email list and receiving this a second time.  It won’t happen too often.  If you’re not on my email list, you should be!  Please write “SUBSCRIBE” to laura@jevaia.org).vision-nepal-global-exposure-workshop-088-2

Good morning from sunny Pokhara!  I arrived yesterday and enjoyed a nice homecoming tour of all my regular haunts. Since August, Pascal has rigged up a home-made antenna on the roof, Aidan’s other front tooth has finally come in, and the corn has been cut down in the garden in front of our office, replaced with new seedlings.  I absolutely love this season in Nepal – the cold, wide air, the clear mountain skyline which is obscured by fog during the monsoon, the evening snuggles with my nephews under warm blankets.  Tonight I head up to beautiful Kaskikot to see Aamaa.

photoI’m so excited to tell you about our plans for this winter.  After 10 years of chipping away at all this, we are just days away from a two-week collaboration with dentists, researchers, and students from Berkley, UCSF, UConn and the University of Puthisastra in Cambodia. It is a strange and wonderful feeling to be preparing for such a large and qualified group of visitors after so many years of working away with few outside witnesses to our efforts.  There are many great things wrapped up in upcoming this ball of projects.

The first is helping to implement a UCSF/Berkley study of oral health and nutrition in mothers and their children.  Our own JOHC field teams will get to work with the researchers to conduct this study in one of our villages.  The second project is training our technicians in some new techniques, which they’ll incorporate in to their sustainable clinics.  Third, we have the chance to bring dentists to our rural clinics for medical audits.  Believe it or not, after an entire decade, this will be the first time we’ve had foreign dentists come to visit our clinics.  

And finally, we’re going to pilot an evaluation of past patients who’ve been treated by our technicians over the years.  If you don’t think that sounds like Christmas, listen here! This means comparing the outcomes achieved by our local dental technicians to the results produced by fully credentialed dentists in prior studies of the same treatment techniques. img_3285 This is a HUGE step towards our goal of having Nepal’s national health care system adopt rural dental clinics in to all of its health posts. Why? Thank you for asking!  Because the main criticism is that community-level health workers aren’t qualified to perform dental medicine…even though that excludes millions of people from care.  But we’re making the case that, rather than write off local health workers, the medical field must find ways to properly train them to provide the best care possible in their settings.  And that’s what we’re doing!

Ok, so those are the technical points.  Now let’s talk about me organizing for fourteen people to show up next week from California, Connecticut, India and Cambodia.  We have a schedule, a budget, a training plan, hotels, flights, and t-shirts.  We’re doing our best to keep things under control.  But we are up against the entropy of Nepal, people.  THE ENTROPY OF NEPAL.  Pretty much anything could derail our plans and contingency plans: a wedding, a political strike, rain, someone’s grandpa dying, a forestry meeting, a buffalo falling ill.  A buffalo having a baby.  A traffic jam.  A flat tire.  Lost luggage.  Fog on Sunday afternoon.  Somebody decided to drive this point home for me at the recently renovated, lusciously carpeted arrival terminal in the Kathmandu airport, which has a new row of fancy kiosks for visa filing:

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On the plus side, sometimes fate works to your advantage.  Consider our office.  This fall, our landlord’s son got married.  The son received a number of couches by way of dowry.  They don’t fit in our landlord’s apartment, so I arrived to find them in our office, which now looks rather like a furniture store.  If you have any idea how much I have obsessed over the setup of our office, you will especially appreciate this stroke of….er….luck…

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Well, in solidarity, I think I’ll leave you there on the edge of your seat.  Except for sharing a photo of this year’s Race to the Rock, which was one of our best yet.  If you missed it, please consider Jevaia in your end of year giving.  After all, we’ve made it this far – through many political trials combined with road mishaps, fuel strikes, weddings, earthquakes, and baby buffalos – almost exclusively on the wings of individual donors, and here we are entering a very exciting new chapter.  Thank you for being a part of the ride with me and all of us.

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Between

 

On my way home (by way of Delhi…woe), I have stopped over in the city of Almaty to visit my college friend Freeman, who works for the State Department in Kazakhstan. I know you almost certainly have no idea where Kazakhstan is, and that’s fine. It’s a former Soviet state that shares part of its eastern border with China and its southern border with Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan. Kazakh culture is heavily Russian with a mix of other influences from China and central Asia, and people are predominantly Muslim.  There’s also a significant Korean population, and the art and food maintain a lingering fragrance of the old Silk Road.  The eastern and southern borders are braced by the upper parts of the Himalayan mountain range that eventually makes its way down through Pakistan, India and Nepal.

That Crazy Russian Alphabet

That Crazy Russian Alphabet (bonus: Camca = Samosa)

Basically, Kazakhstan is a gorgeous cultural crossroads, surrounded by mountains, where everything is written in that crazy Russian alphabet that looks like English after a rough night.

On the first day, Freeman and I used a combination of gondolas and hiking to get up to Talgar Pass at 3200m, just outside the city. Later we had an amazing dinner at a Georgian restaurant. Cause also, Georgian.
Talgar Pass, 3200m

Talgar Pass, 3200m

The second and third days we went sightseeing around Almaty. In the Green Market we browsed all manner of essentials including fruit displays from Mars, sacks of rust-colored spices, butt-pad underwear, and a vibrant expanse of fermented Korean goods stretching off nearly to Korea. We spent some time wandering “the area of cheap goods from China, which are the same everywhere,” according to Freeman, who was our only expert in this situation.

One of the most interesting things about Almaty is the mash up of quaint, European-like streets lined with chic cafes and flower gardens, combined with austere Soviet-era concrete fortresses dotted throughout the city: apartments, offices and municipal buildings. On one hand, Kazakhs have enacted such delicate flourishes as distributing mountain runoff over the natural downhill slope of the entire city to create a delightful canal system that sends fresh, cooling streams of water gurgling down the sides of the manicured city lanes. On the other hand, we walked these lovely streets to get to the Central Musuem, which turns out to be housed in the Citadel of Sauron, beamed over directly from the Middle Earth.

 

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“When the Russians build something, they go big,” Freeman explained.

Inside the Central Museum we saw two of my favorite things: mesmerizing spearheads made by prehistoric humans tens of thousand of years ago, and extremely detailed ideas on advanced cosmonogy world organization, painstakingly translated for English speakers.

I was enthralled when we visited a candy store lined with bins of billions of dazzling wrappers in every color, which, it’s candy store-ness notwithstanding, Freeman pointed out had retained a very typical Soviet-era setup, whereby customers wait in long lines while employees put goods in to containers for them. Of course, we’re talking about candy here, and an endless supply at that; under the Soviet Union, basic goods and food were often in short supply. Freeman said it was similar in China, and when he first came to the U.S. at age 11, it was incredible to him to enter a grocery store and be allowed to touch the food.

 

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See, I never thought of that.

As I come to the end of my summer travels, I appreciated the complexity and diversity and contradictions of Almaty. At night, we tried to watch the Olympics, but Kazakh TV was only showing the things where Kazakh athletes were competing, so we attempted to be riveted by the race walking marathon – YES, A WALKING MARATHON – TRY TO STAY RIVETED – and the trampoline competition. When race-walking got to be a lot, I flipped occasionally to the BBC or CNN, where the U.S election is the only thing on, far away and too close, oddly irrelevant, and yet more relevant than ever.  During the time I’ve been in Nepal this summer, there has been an onslaught of international terrorist attacks and domestic racial violence in the U.S….the other day, a friend posted a photo he captured at a Connecticut political rally (where he was protesting) proclaiming “Diversity = White Genocide.”

Mean time, Aamaa has no idea who Barack Obama is, and a major event of our summer was that I acquired some new sheets of corrugated tin to replace the 25-year-old kitchen roof, which was leaking directly into the cooking fire.  How is it possible that a person can go from one side of the world to the other in barely a day?

Nepal is my full-time work, not a summer excursion. Nevertheless, during these transitions from one continent to another, I’m gifted with the chance to be between; to float over the globe and feel the intensity of tiny things, like the drops of water falling where Aamaa sits by the fire, and also the drifty arbitrariness of all of it, how the most urgent fixation somewhere is irrelevant somewhere else, how everything is swallowed in sweeping expanses of destruction and renewal and passages of time. We are so small, yet there are so many treasures to find.

 

Aamaa's cooking fire, Kaskikot, Nepal

 

Maybe that’s why my favorite stop in Kazakhstan was the Central Mosque, which we visited just after the color and chaos of the Green Market. Before we went through the gates, I draped a sheer pink shawl over my head, and while Freeman entered the cavernous men’s side, I made my way around to the smaller women’s side. I removed my shoes and entered a hushed, carpeted room just as a row of women was moving through a series of prayers playing over a speaker.

Standing in the back, I was vaguely aware of myself, a white American Jew standing aside in a Kazakh mosque, a cultural transplant who seems to be at home everywhere and nowhere. I hope these women will forgive my vanity in sharing the over-exposed photo I snapped of their meditation, because at a time with so much violence outside the walls, it was such a soft and sanctified place.  The natural thing was to move to the center of the room and join in the late morning prayer, and it was easy to follow the succession of standing, bowing, kneeling, and bending to the floor. I’ve offered prayers in so many different kinds of temples and situations and settings, these fleeting spaces sometimes feel more like home than many other places where we live.

 

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I don’t speak Arabic, of course, and I’m no more Muslim than Hindu. But with the U.S. border emerging over the horizon, CNN flashing in my head, and the world marching under us, I heard words announce themselves in my ears as I put my forehead to the ground one time and then the next, the pink shawl falling comfortingly around my face.

Please humble our hearts.

Please bring solace to those in sorrow.

Please give wisdom to our leaders.

Please guide us to our better selves.

Please strengthen us through our differences.

Please make me an instrument of peace.

See you soon, USA.

*

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In the Trenches

 

This summer I’ve been spending a lot of time sitting at a computer, in our lovely bright office, which is definitely a first.  Last summer, for example I was hiking for 10-12 hours a day in the hot sun visiting earthquake-affected homes in Lamjung, and in general, my time in Nepal is spent covering ground, carrying things, and changing elevations.  Well finally, today was a more typical day in the trenches.

We had scheduled our advocacy meeting with the Health Post committee in Bharat Pokhari.  We’re holding these meetings to push for local funding like we did in Sarangkot.

I woke up at home in Kaskikot.  I had to meet Dilmaya at the bus station in Pokhara at 8:30am, and the local bus from Kaski leaves too late and goes too slow to get me there on time, so I’d cleverly arranged a ride with a neighbor in Kaski who drives a taxi.  However, the road between where he lives and our house is totally washed out with the monsoon, so I woke up at 6am – POINTS FOR ME, THAT’S THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT IN MY WORLD – and walked 20 minutes to the other side of the muddy section to meet him at 7:05.  Naturally, I discovered at this point that we were still waiting for another passenger, an ill lady slowly making her way to us.  While I got nervous and then annoyed that I’d be late, there wasn’t much to do.  This is why you don’t stay in your village instead of in Pokhara the night before catching an 8:30am bus for an important meeting.

Naturally, we made it to the bus station on time despite all signs to the contrary.  Dilmaya and I took 1.5 hr very, very bumpy ride out to Bharat Pokhari, cutting over some intervening foothills.

After another 20 minute walk up the road to the Health Post, and we had arrived by 10am for a 12:00 meeting.  No sweat – two walks and two vehicles later, all before breakfast.  Aamod came bouncing up the road on his motorbike and, with plenty of time to pass before the meeting, we went in to visit Bharat Pokhari’s weekly clinic.

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Bharat Pokhari was handed over just this past spring, which means that its protocols are up to date, subject only to how well they’re being observed.  But funding wise, things are in limbo.  The clinical team has been showing up and working without pay, trusting that between us and their local government, someone is going to come through.  In all transparency, we signed a funding agreement with Bharat Pokhari before we launched the clinic, as we do everywhere.  But seeing these through is challenging in every single place, so realistically, we’re in basically in negotiation with Bharat Pokhari’s leaders about it anyway.

We’ve already met with both the Health Post Chairman, a young and ambitious Public Health graduate, and the Village Chairman, who is older and more traditional; these two hold the main influence, technically speaking, over how funds get budgeted.  We’ve briefed both of them extensively over coffee in Pokhara.  The Health Post Chair was very much down with the idea of piloting a new health service in Nepal’s rural system, and as a public health specialist was easily oriented to the larger vision about what this would mean; but, like many Health Post leaders, he’s an appointed transplant who will be moved to a new location within the year.  By contrast, the Village Chairman is very, very local, with social clout and a more complex set of competing interests.  Any meeting is functionally meaningless without both of them present.

At 12, nobody had arrived yet to meet us.  We used the time to mill about Bharat Pokhari’s Health Post, an impressive, hefty hospital-like building constructed with foreign funds, in which many rooms appear to be empty or minimally used.  At 1, we were still waiting in a spacious meeting room with one very talkative local leader who discussed with us, at length, how difficult it is to get everyone together for a meeting.  We agreed.

Around 1:30, this wonderful looking man came in, and it turns out that in addition to being on the Bharat Pokhari government committee, he is our dental technician’s 86 year old grandfather – a magnificently venerable age for these parts.

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1:45pm, we were still waiting for the Village Chairman, who, in theory, had called the meeting.  But then he had apparently been summoned urgently to the municipality in Pokhara.

By 2pm we decided to go for tea with anyone who would come with us, and there we finally got in to a vibrant conversation with some of the health post staff, local leaders, and passers-by about the permanence of the dental clinic.  It dawned on me as we talked “informally” over tea that we weren’t even ready for a meeting of 10 or 15 social leaders in Bharat Pokhari, and that in Sarankgot we were lucky with how quickly things got organized.  Here, we’re still lobbying individual people.  It was probably advantageous that we ended up in a public space, chatting in a tea shop with locals sitting around about how the village should be using its public funds.

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Bharat Pokhari Health Post

We returned to the towering Health Post with our precarious baby clinic inside.  It sits across from a similarly built community center that the same international agency is building; when I asked for what, I was told, “community things.”  I sighed and, knowing it was a bit too simplistic – but nevertheless, true at this moment – said to Dilmaya, “It’s so easy to build something one time and go, isn’t it?”

By 3:15 we decided we had made the most of our day, and climbed on to bikes to head home: me with Aamod, and Dilmaya with the Health Post Chairman, because, we’re in Nepal.

At 3:30, as we were literally rolling down to the road, the Village Chairman showed up.

We got off the bikes.

All of the positive talk from our earlier coffee with the Village Chairman seemed to have dissipated. Tired, we began again at the beginning, making the same case we’d made just a week ago.  We’re realizing that’s just part of how it works.

Finally, around 4pm, Aamod and I left Bharat Pokhari on his motorbike, which is 9 years old and regularly stalls out.

“Should we take the short road?” he asked.  I know this is a trick question that translates to, “I am planning to take this steeper, bumpier short cut, and I am letting you know that we will not be going the other way, which is only for sissies.”

The bike stalls out.

“Well, why take the long road if there’s a short road?” I oblige. “I don’t really know any of these roads.”  Actually, those things are all true.

The bike starts.  We take the short road.

About ten jostling minutes down the short road, just as we are yelling loudly over the bike about how our day of meeting-hazing in Bharat Pokhari was a necessary step in which we feel we put the time to good use, a bike comes up in the other direction.

“The road is closed below!” says the Guy Going Up the Hill.

“What do you mean ‘closed?'” Aamod asks.

“No road,” the Guy Going Up the Hill explains.

I mentally sigh; now we will have to ride 10 minutes back up the bumpy short road, and then down the long road.  We still have a coffee scheduled at 5:30pm with the Village Chairman from Lwang Ghalel.

“I think we should see it,” Aamod says.  “I mean, how closed can it be? I came up this road this morning.”  I know this is a trick question that means, “I don’t want the road to be closed, so I’m going to ignore the obvious and keep going.”

“Well, if you came up the road this morning, what does ‘no road,’ really mean, anyway?” I oblige.

We pass another bike coming in the opposite direction.

“THERE’S NO ROAD BELOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooo…w!” he zooms by.

“Maybe there’s no road,” I suggest traitorously.

“Let’s just see,” Aamod replies.

We pull up to some construction workers – the ones turning around all the bikes.  Presumably the same people responsible for the missing road.

“No road below!” the construction workers inform us.

“None at all?” Aamod asks, because, we should be sure.  “Can a bike cross?”

“Absolutely nothing,” they confirm.  Finally.

“Let’s just have a look,” Aamod says.

“I think it’s going to be closed,” I confess.  “Maybe we should just turn around here, we’re wasting time.”

“How closed can it be?” Aamod asks.

So it takes us about 30 minutes to drop Aamod’s extremely heavy bike down this seven foot trench, maybe cut for concrete piping, roll it across the uneven loose dirt and rocks at the bottom, and get it back up the other side.  I now have a lot of dirt and exhaust up my nose.  But, we have won the road.

“That was definitely faster than going back up to the long road,” Aamod points out as we set off again.  I know this is code for “I never suggested we wouldn’t get drenched in sweat and that rolling this five ton bike out of a ditch wouldn’t be part of the process, and it was still worth it because we have won the road.”  He calculates the amount of time each stage of the going up would have wasted, and, indeed the total is longer than the half hour we have spent in the trench.

“Yes, that’s true,” I agree, mildly confused about my final evaluation of having won the road.  “It would have taken way too much time to go back up.”

“You know, the thing is in Bharat Pokhari,” Aamod shouts over the wind, “is that if they just give us a fixed challenge, we can solve it.  But if the challenge keeps changing, it’s gonna be really hard.”

He’s definitely right about that, and we discuss it as we zoom down the short road.  If there’s a real and defined obstacle to overcome to sustain our clinic, we can strategize through it, but if the landscape keeps changing and people aren’t really working with us, we’re pretty much doomed.

“What’s wrong with these people?”

“Yeah,” I shout over the wind.  Politics in Nepal is a whole special level of screwed up, I think.

“They just dig a trench across the road and leave it like that.  They at least need to lay a walkway across before they go.”

“Oh that,” I call out.  “I thought you meant—”

And then my sentence trails off.  The short road presents us with:

Trench Number Two

Trench Number Two

Now we’re between two trenches.

“Well, we have no choice but to cut across this one too,” Aamod states.

“That does seem to be the case,” I agree with happiness and enthusiasm.  It’s either this one, or the first one again.

A bike comes up the road on the other side of the trench and, peering over the opposite side, turns around in dismay. We, however, roll Aamod’s heavy bike in to the trench – for a second time – and lay stones, gun the motor, push the thing from behind, the hot exhaust huffing hot on to our ankles.  I eat a lot more dirt.  I am not very effective at this, so Aamod is doing most of the work, although I get exertion points for lifting a heavy bike at the wrong time and pushing it in the wrong direction, and also for laying stones behind a cloud of exhaust.  And then we are through.

We set off again.

“It’s cause you said that thing about the obstacles,” I offer.

“We should stop for a snack,” Aamod says.

As we finally get near town, we stop for pakora and knockoff Redbull.  We deserve it.  I rinse the dust out of my mouth and wash my arms and shins.  Our 5:30 meeting!  Aamod calls the Lwang Ghalel Chairman.

No answer.

It starts to rain.

We sit for forty five minutes, talking strategy, thinking about new clinic launches, considering how to adjust the initial setup and benchmarks along the way, based on what we’re rapidly learning now.  We still have three other post-handover sites and four mid-term sites to manage.

Aamod calls the Lwang Ghalel Chairman again.  No answer.

More rain.

“Can we call it a day?”

“He’s not coming.”  That was a day all right.

We get back on the bike.  It stalls out.  We restart it.  Aamod drops me off in Pokhara.

Good night.

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The WorldEdge Restaurant

 

Now and then I realize I have a collection of items that are too good not to share but have been too random to include in other posts. I present you now with this summer’s collection, the Worldedge Restaurant.

1. An old lady tending to a street a cow.

As deities, cows freely wander the streets of Nepal, and there are a number of regulars on the stretch that runs between Jarebar and Lakeside. They rummage through the gutters and depend on the kindness of strangers. One day I noticed this old lady attentively grooming one of these gentle animals by the side of the road in the middle of the afternoon.

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2. Paragliders sailing over the valley.

I snapped them one day on the bus ride home to Kaskikot.

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3. Hotel Touch Nepal Worldedge Restaurant

I walk past this establishment each night on my way home, and either nobody was able to reach consensus about which words to include in the business title so they went for everything, or they just have a bit of confusion regarding core mission. In any case, I’m thinking it’s probably best not to use Hotel Touch Nepal for lodging purposes.

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4. This shop of things made entirely out of tin.

Such as storage chests, chimneys, and watering pots.

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5. Pascal and Aidan entertaining themselves at home while the electricity is out.

Because you need power to charge things, but not to dance in the dark.

 

 

6. Aamod’s Shrek Bike

When Aamod puts this cover on his motorbike each day outside the office, it convincingly resembles Shrek. Unfortunately I failed to photo his actual motorbike every day for two months, so on the last day I tried to recreate Shrek on a bicycle, which is why he looks a little anorexic.

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7. A plant lake

During the summer, Phewa Lake apparently becomes so sodden with greenery that it turns in to an enormous garden with boats in it.

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8. The Delhi Airport

Officially and unequivocally the most lavishly decorated circus of an airport on the globe, today’s edition of the Delhi airport brings us this buoyant use of indoor space, and these bottle holders – or something – in the airport hotel fitness center.

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9. Aidan practicing his martial arts during a golden rainstorm.

Life is beautiful.

 

 

The Video Nepal’s Been Waiting For

 

In thirteen years, I have spent at least one of every season here.  I’ve cut rice and planted millet.  I’ve harvested wood.  I’ve cut wheat, and planted corn and churned milk the old fashioned way.  I’ve chased the chicken around and painted the house for Dashain.  Most of these things I’ve done multiple times, and believe me, I received plenty of impassioned feedback as I tried them out.  These are all activities people in rural Nepal learn from toddlerhood.  Seeing a grown woman who can’t flip a pan of rice grain properly is basically impossible not to comment on.

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I’ve pretty much learned a lot of these things because I absolutely insisted on doing them terribly while I figured them out.  In some cases, I’ve really earned my stripes.  In others, let’s just say that people have become happy with the American version of, for example, collecting water.

But there’s one season I’ve purposefully avoided, and it’s the rice planting one.  Even tasks I don’t much enjoy, such as those involving fertilizer (i.e. buffalo poop), are things I have determined to throw myself in to.  It’s like how, when I used to take winter diving lessons, we had a “fun day” where we got to use all of the diving platforms at Montgomery Aquatic Center, and that meant that, for fun, I had to make myself jump off the petrifying 10-meter platform that was level with the third-floor spectator section.  I absolutely hated fun day.  But it never remotely crossed my mind that, if the 10 meter platform was available, I wouldn’t jump off it.

This brings us to the topic of the hot, buggy, wet rice planting season.  I think you get my point.  I stayed in the U.S.  No fun day.

It’s not like this was very clever and nobody noticed.  Every year I am asked when I will come to plant rice.  People will list all of my accomplishments to date, and exclaim as to how I have never participated in this one activity that is so central to the culture and basic survival of Nepal.

Ok, so here it is.  I determined to jump off the 10-meter platform this summer.  Partially because as you get taller, it doesn’t look as high.  I over came my distaste for the idea of the monsoon last summer, and this summer, I appreciate the torrential rain tremendously.

So last weekend I joined Saano Didi’s family in their rice paddies.  Govinda’s daughter Sulojana came with me.  And the amazing thing about waiting 13 years to do this: not one person cried out at how terrible I was at planting rice.

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“You have to teach her, sikaunu parchha, you have to teach her,” all the ladies cooed.

Silky mud, bright clothes, plants in your hands.

“Laura, you’ll be back in November, right?” Neru asked.

“Yep.”

“Because that’s when we can eat this rice.  Make sure you’re back.”