Everest Part 3: Air

<– Prelude: Pemba

<– Part I: The Height

<– Part II: Sagarmatha

Day 6: Air

Gorapchep—> Kyangjuma / 3550m (11,646ft) O2 sats 90

After I got back from Base Camp yesterday, I was absolutely spent. My muscles weren’t tired exactly, but it’s hard to describe the physical sensation of altitude to which you are truly not acclimatized. It is as if each of the cells in your body has its own individual case of asthma and is wheezing. All your organs are wheezing. They work, but you feel a kind of sluggish you didn’t know existed. It is hard too imagine digesting anything, because nothing inside of you feels like it’s doing anything except lying in bed, wheezing.  

With this in mind, I would now like to share that as I approached the hotel on my way back from Base Camp yesterday, right there in the yard was…

A LOCAL SOCCER GAME.

Are you kidding me??

In my wheezy brain, this was one of the most incomprehensible sights of my entire trip to Everest Base Camp. I was practically counting my steps back to my bed. When I got to bed, I was going to hear a knock on the door, and a happy hotelier was going to be standing there with a celebratory hot chocolate for me on the house. And, try as I might to drink this gift because it was so lovely and festive, it was to go cold on the tray, because it just seemed to complicated. AND OUTSIDE, THESE KIDS HAD THE NERVE TO BE PLAYING SOCCER.

Later that evening, we all gathered around the hot stove. The whole group had made it to Base Camp, but the Brit felt too unwell to come downstairs. I was doing comparatively okay, but I barely swallowed any of the noodle soup I had for dinner. We heated our hands, chatted a while, took our oxygen saturation levels for sport, and went to bed.

This morning, Laura (#2) was still too nauseous to drink or eat and couldn’t really get out of bed. She’s a fit marathoner who took a reasonable route up with two acclimatization days. Eventually, her husband decided it was time to call an evacuation helicopter. Out of about ten people I got to know during this week, two were evacuated. Once you know to listen for it, you can hear many helicopters throughout the day. Seriously, hanging out at 16,000+ feet is no joke. As for me, I was making do, but my O2 sats had been in the 60s for almost three days, and I couldn’t wait to get down to thicker air. 

After tea Thorsten and I said goodbye to Franco and Laura and their guide Narayan, and began our descent, along with Thorsten’s guide Dinesh and porter Kisan. Maybe it was mostly psychological, but by Lobuche I wanted breakfast. We continued, retracing our steps at four times the speed we’d labored them the first time. I passed a guy I met at the start of my walk. A few of us have been keeping track of each other in group chats. This guy had lost the trail back around Dingboche and spent an entire night outside with no sleeping bag. I was pretty impressed that he was still on his way up to Base Camp, after that. 

I arrived back at Thukla Pass, this time approaching from the other side, where the regal memorials rise in to view with indescribable majesty—the peaks on the imminent horizon leaning in as if the curvature of the earth itself is drawn toward them. It occurred to me to make sure I got another photo from this angle, where the saddle of the pass yawns dramatically at the sky; but I was so tired. I just wanted to get below Thukla and feel strong again. And, I thought, I had taken pictures once—humbly, I hope, and out of awe and admiration. But now I should just keep my camera where it was, and honor this beautiful place by passing through peacefully. 

We arrived back at Thukla by mid morning, and from here I made the choice to say goodbye to Thorsten and Dinesh and Kisan. Who, like reasonable people, were descending on the steeper route down to Pheriche, which was the route I’d come up a few days ago, idiotically giving myself even less time to acclimatize. Now I wanted to see the parallel path, slightly longer, that most people take on the way up through Dingboche. But also, I knew that I was going to have to rejoin myself in solitude at some point. It had been a great gift to walk quietly along behind others during the hardest days of the trip, and it was difficult to separate. But Thukla was where I’d come in to company, and it was the place where my path was to go its own way again. We exchanged contact information, and then I was alone with my map.

Dingboche

And I felt quite alone.

I walked and walked, losing elevation by the minute. I didn’t stop for lunch, only to occasionally adjust my clothing. Well below Dingboche, the oxygen-deprived environment remained vast and barren. I didn’t mind the absence of people, but I felt a terrible longing for trees and for needles underfoot, to provide order and comfort. For a path with two sides, instead of a mere carving in enormous open space.

Around Deboche, I came across two porters on their way to Namche. One was carrying five blue barrels and the other a load of goods in boxes. I wondered if I could make it all the way to quaint, hotel-packed, latte-serving Namche, where I’d slept my first night of the trip. I considered whether the porters might make road companions, but they alternately walked too fast for me to keep up (yes, while carrying those loads), or stopped for extensive periods of beer drinkin, and this proved difficult to plan around. So I just kept walking. 

I walked 20 miles. Around 5:15, in a frosty dusk I somehow welcomed, I bobbled in to a guest house in Kyangjuma, a few kilometers short of Namche. The hotel owner said it would be an extra 200 rupees (about $1.75) for an attached bathroom. This sounded amazing. I ordered a real dinner of daal bhaat and ate most of it. I was still over 11,000 feet, but I felt like a different person. My O2 sats had, over the course of 8 hours, gone from 65 to 90. 

I got a call from Dinesh, Thorsten’s guide, and an update on where they’d arrived (Deboche) and on how Laura and Franco were doing after the helicopter evacuation (fine). Back in internet contact, I sent messages of my whereabouts and well-being. I had my first good sleep in a few days, and was so glad to feel normal that I didn’t even feel any aches.

 

Day 7: Docking

Kyangjuma —> Lukla 2840m (9317ft) / O2 Sats 95

On the way up, at the elevation of Kyangjuma (where I passed through the first time with Tenzin Dorje Sherpa, the climber and yak herder), I felt myself high above the ground and adventurous in the cold. But on the way down, it feels cosmopolitan. The bucket of water in the bathroom isn’t frozen, and I am normal-tired, not wrecked.

After a cup of tea, I hiked about an hour to Namche Bazaar and stopped for breakfast. Unlike a week ago, this morning Namche was unveiled and shining. Its steep alleyways were nevertheless caked in layers of hardened Februrary ice, and I did a good bit of sliding around in trying to find a place to sit down for breakfast…because with a night’s sleep at lower elevation, I was HUNGRY! I ordered an amazing breakfast at the Khumbu Lodge and ate it looking out at lovely famous Namche. I called my parents. I moved to a coffee shop. I got a latte, and lingered.

I was taken in by a poster on the wall comparing various sites along the route to Everest Base Camp at different points in time. Namche: houses and potato fields where visitors camped then, a hip ampitheatre of cafes and hotels now. Pheriche: fields with stone-shingled huts in 1977, a village of tin-roofed guest houses now. Dingboche: a remote traditional village in the fifties, a mixed crop of buildings now. These images were fascinating. These were places I had been now.

But far more jarring were photos of glaciers from the 1950s and 1970s, next to the exposed rock those same massive ice sheets had become in just a few decades. The river by Pheriche, delicate fifty years ago, was dramatically widened by glacial melting in its twin photo. These changes might have seemed abstract, from far away. But standing in Namche, I momentarily felt the full force of this injustice. How could we do such things to this magnificent wilderness? When it is so much larger than we are? When it has been here so much longer? It demands so much less and gives so much more than we do. The pain of destruction stared blankly at me from the poster, incomprehensible. I ran my finger over the peeling vinyl covering that showed me where my feet had been just hours ago.

I leisured in Namche until 11am. And then it was another 15 miles back to Lukla, where I was determined to make it for the night. I didn’t take many photos on my way back. I felt the natural arc of my journey returning to its source. I had come out of the gate with fire, and now like a rocket falling back to the ocean by the natural progress of gravity, I was ready to dock at home. I was pretty tired by this time, and my toes hurt from ramming against my shoes downhill for 35 miles, and I was walking slower. I missed the boys and Didi and Prem, and the office team, and our List of Things to Do.

The clouds had once again moved in when I clomped in to Lukla. Its stone-laid street reminded me of a ski town, misty in the fog. I was so ready to have a hotel that when I found a hotel and nobody came to the desk for five minutes, all I could think of to do was go across the street to an “Irish Pub” to figure out my options, and order french fries. That turned out to be a great strategy. I have never had such fantastic fries in my whole life, and let me tell you I have eaten a lot of french fries. 

I found another hotel. I took a hot shower and then raced about chattering in the cold air, flailing at my clothes while the hot water evaporated off me. Lukla is still at 2840m (9318ft), after all, and it is February. I had dinner, did a little writing, and organized my belongings once more for the morning. I set my alarm for 6am so I could get to the airport before the first flight to buy a ticket home.

Everest Part 2: Sagarmatha

<–Read Part 1: The Height

Day 4: Joining forces

Thukla—> Lobuche / 5000m (16,404ft) /O2 sats high 60s

When I woke up this morning I felt immensely improved. My sats were still in the low 70s, but my appetite was somewhat back and the nausea and headache were mostly gone. I had originally thought I’d go up to Gorapchep and maybe even Base Camp today, but even I can learn to slow my roll in response to lack of oxygen. I planned instead to make a short hike about 300m higher to Lobuche. 

I decided to first take a walk for an hour or so around the area on the descending route that leads back down toward Dingboche. When I arrived back in Thukla from my short excursion, there were a handful of hikers there on their way to Lobuche. I was feeling the need for company, so I joined in behind them.

Thukla Pass

The indescribable beauty of Thukla Pass

The walk began with a steep rocky climb up to Thukla Pass, which sits in the palm of a stunning panorama of ocean-blue peaks. This site is home to memorials for climbers of many nationalities who have died on peaks in Nepal. The wind comes gusting through the half-crescent pass, keeping hundreds upon hundreds of fresh prayer flags in constant flutter. I was awed by the power and beauty of this place. We found the memorials for Scott Fisher and Rob Hall, who both perished in the famous 1996 Everest climbing disaster that is documented in Into Thin Air. One of my most vivid pre-Nepal memories remains reading that book on the bottom bunk bed in my freshman college dorm room. I placed a stone on each of their memorials, and we went on.

From Thukla Pass I clomped along behind my new companions, who included two Nepali guides and porters, a German, a Brit, an Italian and me the American (“there must be a war joke in here somewhere,” says the German). We reached Lobuche by 1:00 and I had the whole afternoon to rest. 

My head had a dull throb and my body felt oddly heavy. I lay back in my bed. My room was warmed by a buttery sun pouring through the window. I stayed like that for a few hours, picturing my blood circulating delicious air. In the evening, we all clustered around the heating stove in the dining hall, and ate light meals that our altitude-confused stomachs would accept, and played cards.

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Day 5: Sagarmatha

Lobuche —> Gorapshep—> Everest base camp / 5364m (17,598ft) / O2 sats 65

I have borrowed a fantastic pair of hiking pants from my long time friend Pemba Sherpa, but the button has broken. However, I am my father’s daughter, and you can be sure that I have a random collection of safety pins with me, because you never know when the button on your hiking pants is going to abandon you on exactly the day you are going to Everest Base Camp.

I arrived with my pants pinned at 6:30 for breakfast. I hadn’t been able to get a phone signal to send out any messages of my well being in two days, all liquid everywhere was frozen; hot cups of tea, once served, quickly threw off the efforts of the hard-working stove and turned to water, then ice. We ate small amounts of porridge and eggs and set off through a glacial valley at 5000 meters above sea level. I didn’t think to check the temperature, but once we got going, it actually wasn’t intolerably cold. And once we crossed the horizon line of ecstatic clear sun that was making its way toward us, we let out sighs of gratitude and I put my big futzy gloves away.

On the way to Gorapshep

The hike to Gorapshep was only about 2.5 hours and maybe 150m of climbing. It took us over rocky glacier bed dressed with ice and snow. We arrived at Gorapshep, where we’ll stay for the night, around ten in the morning. I clomped heavily up a wooden staircase to my room, emptied most things out of my backpack, and came down for a cup of tea. Even tea looked intimidating to digest; my O2 sats would sit around 65 for the next day. It feels like all the cells in your body are concentrating on breathing and nothing else.

Before we could get too content resting in warm sunlight outside, the German and I set off for Base Camp with his guide, Dinesh. But Thorsten and Dinesh were a few hundred meters ahead of me for most of the way, and I walked the hour and a half up to base camp mostly in the quiet of my own steps, boots grinding on ice and rocks. We had long since left behind anything green. It is amazing to think that nearly 800 people a day come through this way in the trekking season. In February, that number is about twenty, and I might just as well have been on the moon.

The first thing I recognized was the Ice Fall. Anyone who has spent any time learning about Everest has spent many imaginary hours scrambling precariously across ladders lashed together and fixed over the dangerous crevices that separate Base Camp from Camp One. In real life, the Ice Fall is far more otherworldly than I had understood. It is not a smooth cracked glacier but an enormous army of aqua-blue ice walls, lined up one to the next as far as the eye can see. 

And there in the distance, next to the base of the Ice Fall I spotted a cluster of yellow tents. Base camp. (In a few months, there will be about 2000 people here, but now the area is empty except for a dozen tents huddled together in the wilderness.). The arrival is marked by a large rock with EVEREST BASE CAMP 5364m spray painted across it. 

Climbing teams before the ice fall

Two intrepid winter climbing teams at Base Camp are dwarfed by the Everest’s mighty Icefall.

Before I could do any normal tourist things, such as the obvious thing of taking a picture next to the spray painted rock, I got to chatting in Nepali with Norbu, a Sherpa climber with the German expedition.

Well, then this happened. Norbu Sherpa—who has summited all 8000m peaks in the world except for one in Tibet—invited me over to the German climbing camp. Normally tourists aren’t permitted in the expedition areas. But next thing I knew I was sitting in the dining tent, having a peek at the shower and sleeping quarters, drinking some coffee hot off the stove, and discussing the impending winter summit attempts with a combined group of Sherpa climbers from the two expeditions. One of them was the guy – the ACTUAL HUMAN – in charge of deciding where to lash ladders across the Ice Fall. So that’s how I got the selfie below of me and a group of world class Sherpa climbers hanging out and shooting the breeze at Everest Base Camp and now my life is complete.

Chillin with winter expedition Sherpa climbers

There was some discussion about coronavirus and whether or not the Nepal government would close climbing from the Tibet/China side of Everest (apparently the ministry of tourism is reluctant to lose the income, but the consensus among the climbers was that nobody wants coronavirus). And then Norbu Sherpa and the gang took me over to the Spanish camp, which is a much bigger team of 14 people and led by renowned Spanish climber Alex Txikon, who is making his fourth attempt at a winter summit, something that hasn’t been done on Everest since 1993. 

So this takes us to me hanging out with Alex Txikon in the Spanish kitchen, while the cook prepares imported Spanish meat over the propane stove. Actually, at that moment I didn’t really realize how well known Alex Txikon is, partly because I was so amazed by the fantastic Spanish cooking extravaganza before my eyes. (It smelled amazing; how did they get all this stuff here; who can eat at this altitude?) Txikon has made winter climbing his trademark calling and has succeeded in numerous winter summits. His team had arrived at Everest just two days ago and planned to be there for the next month.

I asked Txikon what they do on the days they aren’t climbing. I was thinking, probably lots of pushups and rope-skipping.

“Read, write, relax,” he said. “Be in nature.” And though I didn’t ask, he added (and I paraphrase), “Here on Everest, they just put people in the summit. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about working with nature. It’s about planning, not luck. It’s not about the summit. So many people who come here, they aren’t climbers. They don’t understand or appreciate what is to plan and interact with the mountain.” I filed away how he used the word “plan,” so many times. It was, in a way, plain to see what he meant. All these people living here all winter at 17,500 feet—where I survived a few hours mostly on adrenaline—did not have an ounce of entitlement about them. They were gently in a relationship, one of respect and diligence and patience.

Seek the summit, yes; but you shouldn’t be here if the summit is what matters to you the most.

“Hello,” said an enormously tall, fresh-faced German man as he popped into the Spanish kitchen tent. 

“Hi,” I said. 

Actually this man was climber Jost Kobusch, who like Txikon can be found in the newspaper, and who told me he’s attempting a route that hasn’t been taken up Everest in 40 years. 

“So, um, what are you doing today?” I asked. 

“Oh, fixing a thing,” he said. “It broke up there.” That was about the extent of our discussion, but Kobusch had a gentleness and authentic exuberance about him. He looked as happy to be fixing a thing up on a cliff over the ice fall at Mount Everest as some people look fixing their cars in the driveway with a beer on Saturday. 

I ended up spending about two hours at base camp—quadruple my planned time. Thorsten had long since headed back. I asked Anup, one of my new Sherpa besties, to take my obligatory photos on the “base camp” rock. And then finally, before leaving, I took some time to myself, outside of the adventure. To be with the Mountain.

I sat down across from Everest, whose summit just pokes out between Nuptse (so recognizable) and Lhola. An icononic plume of snow drifted from its peak. A mid-day half moon floated in the endless, empty galaxy of sky just above, as if to say: Everything Else, This Way. I built a cairn. And suddenly I heard myself think to this mountain, “You set the path for my whole life.” And it is true. If not for Everest, I don’t know if I’d have been in Nepal.

People journey to this place in all kinds of ways. For many it is the adventure of a lifetime. I understand that for me, as much as I delighted in every the walk up and all its color and beauty and fatigue and unobtrusive companionship, this walk was a pilgrimage. It was about sitting face to face with our Earth Mother, Sagarmatha. I have been coming here for so long.

What a gift it is, to be in this world, and to be free.

*

Everest Prelude: Pemba

 

During the hot summer of 2001, I was drawn to Nepal by the Mountain. Also, the mountains–these grand Himalayas where the world places so much of its imagination–but mostly, the Mountain itself. At some point in young adulthood I began reading books about Everest, and I simply knew I would go. It was never about climbing it, but about following it. Because, as my mom would say, it was there. 

I never could have understood nineteen years ago that the road to the Mountain would be so much longer and more magnificent than I had imagined. I originally visited Nepal with an international group that was studying medicinal plants, and during that muggy August week in Kathmandu, I optimistically rented a bike and made a 36 hour journey into the unknown that foretold something of the road ahead. I didn’t know what a vast constellation of adventures lay before me in the decades to come, or about the family and community that would adopt me as a daughter, or the public health project I would unintentionally co-found to address an issue about which I had no expertise. So many cut fingers and thunderstorms and shelled peas and paint-splattered clothes lay between me and Mt. Everest. But in recent years, my heart has wandered back to that horizon, which has remained an untouchable idea, visible in the real world only from a distance. 

This winter I knew, with the same certainty that first brought me to Nepal, that it was time to visit Everest at last. So I called up my oldest (by time, not age) Nepali friend Pemba Sherpa, who was on the cook and porter staff of the medicinal plant study group back in 2001, when we were both in our early twenties. Pemba has since become an extremely successful tour guide, and at a hotel in Kathmandu he produced for me a backpack, a pile of gear, and instructions to take on my journey. We played with the oximeter and found my oxygen sats to be 95 while sitting in Kathmandu. I downloaded an offline map and purchased a plane ticket to Lukla. 

I’ve decided to post my eight day trip to Everest Base Camp as a separate travel journal. But before it starts, let’s begin at Fire and Ice Pizzera in Thamel, where Pemba and I reminisced over dinner the night before my trip began. We jumped back to August 2001, when we met, and from there travelled backward through the chapters of his incredible life. 

Pemba in me in 2001

Pemba and me in 2001

Pemba was born in a village in Solukhumbu called Soloban. In the 1980s there was no school in Soloban and Pemba spent his days herding, even during the snowy winter months.  I remember him telling me once, “my feet were like rocks!” His herds used to take him from time to time to Lukla. Once, Pemba stayed a hotel for a some days while his goats grazed there, and the hotel owner told him that if he wanted to, he could consider getting hired as a porter for tour groups coming to trek in the Everest region.

Soon after, fifteen year old Pemba decided to leave Soloban without telling anyone. He went to the hotel and said he was ready to work. It was the mid 1990s and there were no phones or regular means of remote communication. It would be six years before he saw his family again.

With the lights of Fire and Ice Pizzera bouncing off wine glasses, Pemba recounted how the hotel owner assigned him to porter on a fifteen day tour with a Spanish group. 

His wage was two dollars a day. Among Pemba’s jobs was to bring tea to the guests in their tents each morning. There was one guest who didn’t drink tea, but every day when Pemba presented this guest with the tea tray through the opening of the tent, the man would put a 200 rupee tip–about two dollars–in the teacup. This continued for the whole trek: the guest never drank tea, but every day he tipped Pemba two dollars. Four dollars a day for fifteen days was more money than Pemba had ever seen in his life. 

At the end of the trip, the tour group produced a tip for the entire trek staff, and part of that went to Pemba. But in addition, he had made a special impression on the guests, and they pooled an extra $100 for him. And finally, he was gifted with several expensive branded down jackets that, at that time, were almost impossible to get in Nepal. He took that stuff all back to Lukla and sold it off and made another $300. He ended the two week trip with an unimaginable seven hundred dollars in cash. 

“‘Well,” Pemba laughed over our pizzas, “I said, ‘this is what I’m going to do!’” 

Pemba in 2001

Pemba on our trip in 2001

He ended up taking a bus to the city, living with a relative of the hotel owner, and working his way through the tourism industry. He began studying languages – English, Japanese, German. He had no way to contact his family back home, and his aunt was living relatively nearby in Boudanath, but there weren’t many people from Soloban in Kathmandu during those years and there was no way for the two of them to discover each other. One day a customer at the mountaineering supply shop where he was employed asked if he wanted to join the cook and porter staff of a plant study expedition for foreigners.

That was the trip where we met in 2001.

Pemba’s career took off in the following years. He speaks seven languages proficiently and has still never had any formal schooling. He runs a massively successful trekking business and has travelled to over forty countries. He has poured resources back into his home village of Soloban, rebuilding a school and helping to organize health care services. He was recently nominated to run for local political office. When I hiked to Soloban from Jiri Bazaar with Pemba and Prem in 2008 (the week our Aidan decided to show up twenty days early…), Pemba was received like a prince. 

“Call me if you have any trouble,” Pemba said, as we bid goodnight. “The path is easy to follow. It has always been your dream.”

–> Read Part 1: The Height

*

Headed to Everest Base Camp, 2020

Baby Oil

 

Aamaa and I landed in San Francisco in mid-afternoon, and Youba came to get us at the airport. It’s hard to imagine that exactly two short years since Aamaa’s first visit to the US, Bishnu has gotten married and had a baby. Little Serena Dali is still just a month old and she doesn’t yet weigh six pounds.

Aamaa and Youba, of course, had never met in person before we arrived. Bedraggled, we emerged from the airport, and Aamaa and her son-in-law looked past each other and shuffled their weight, unsure how to introduce themselves without the normal directives of a proper setting or the customary procedure that goes with such a meeting. Nepali mothers don’t meet their son-in-laws for the first time with nobody else around, at Door #4 of airport arrivals.

“So, um…hi,” Youba offered. He had gallantly driven through Bay Area traffic at rush hour to retrieve us, and now we had to get through rush hour Bay Area traffic in order to get home and take a nap. I was tired and grumpy wanted to sit alone being antisocial in the back seat. 

“Aamaa, you sit in front.”

“No way, you sit in front.”

“Come on, you and Youba can—“

“Nope,” Aamaa replied, and annexed the back seat of Youba’s Honda before any further negotiations could be held.

When we arrived at Bishnu’s apartment, of course, baby Dali was all bundled up waiting for us. We immediately took our first US-side family photo.

I am staying in San Francisco for a week before leaving Aamaa and Bishnu and Dali and Youba to head back to Connecticut for the fall. So we’ve got about eight days together to hover over the baby and deploy a non-unified strategy of obsessing over competing certainties about what to do with a baby.

Even though it’s obvious, we’ll state right off the bat that I am on the lowest rung of qualifications in this debate by many orders of magnitude. The baby did not come out of me and I have never raised one. Bishnu comes in at a solid second place since she’s the one who made the human. But in the lead, Aamaa is Aamaa. She raised Bishnu and Didi and two grandsons and she runs shit. The issue is that the shit she runs is usually in Nepal and we are in America and I come in first place at being American, thus resulting in a rare case of circular cross-continent baby-doting logic that cannot be solved.

Let’s take the matter of baby massages. It is traditional for Nepali mothers to massage their babies with mustard oil a few times a day, usually in front of a fire where they can warm the oil and warm their hands. I watched Aamaa drip oil in to Aidan and Pascal’s eyes and ears until they were well past toddlerhood. This is thought to be good for the baby’s development. 

As we were unloading our suitcases, I extracted a few 2-liter sprite bottles that Aamaa had filled with ghee. I admit I knew these illicit items were stowed in my luggage and I consented to the, um—smuggling—for the sake of the baby. But then—Lo!—a two-liter bottle of mustard oil was discovered next to my shirts. 

“You can’t get good mustard oil here,” Bishnu explained. Yes, these two were in cahoots.

“The oil massage is fine, but no oil in the eyes and ears,” Bishnu told Aamaa.

“Oh god, definitely no oil in the ears,” I squirmed. “And the eyes are out of the question.”

“La, la,” Aamaa murmured.

Aamaa set happily to her oil massages. However: we were missing fire. She would sit in a patch of sun in the living room, but it wasn’t the same thing as having fire, and fire was needed.

Are you worried about where this is going? Be worried.

September in San Francisco is temperate to hot. Bishnu’s apartment consists of a small living room attached to the kitchen, and there is one south-facing glass door that collects heat all afternoon. When the door is slid open, it lets through a nice breeze. For fully developed human mammals like me, this nice breeze is refreshing and has other benefits such as abundant availability of breathable oxygen. But for Nepali babies, moving air is considered cold. ANY MOVING AIR. There is a general understanding in Nepali culture that babies should be kept warm, so much so that they are ensconced in multiple layers of clothing and hats even in the middle of the summer. I have tried to free many sweaty babies from their multiple baby hats when I’ve had occasion to visit with said babies in said season in Nepal. It’s futile; the babies are going to be re-swaddled and re-sweated immediately. But I’m intolerably hot and uncomfortable just looking at them in their hot clothes, so I try to free them anyway.

Seeing Dali bundled in layer upon layer of clothes and blankets in San Francisco raised my sense of temperature regulation distress to a previously unattained level. Clearly, American territory calls for American swaddling to American body temperatures.  Plus, the nurse who came by to check on Dali our second morning told Bishnu that the baby didn’t need to be put under so many layers and that the breeze was good for her. See, that’s what I said too.

So what this means is that each morning, I get up and crack the glass door – or sometimes just throw it open – and Aamaa runs to Dali in the opposite corner of the room to shelter her from the evil hypothermia-inducing fall breeze. Henceforth, we alternately, each when the other isn’t looking, adjust the glass door and Dali’s armor of clothing to our respective levels of comfort. This is of course an implicit pact. I know Aamaa’s going to undo my adjustments, and she knows the same, and the deal is that you have to respect the other person’s catastrophic approach to baby temperature maintenance by executing your improvements on the sly.

Advocating for your method, on the other hand, happens in the open and frequently. This is a lot of where Bishnu comes in. (Remember Bishnu?) Throughout the day, each of us loudly comments to Bishnu on why her baby should be kept hot or breezy. Bishnu tolerates this expertly. Both of our contradictory opinions are correct at all times. Bishnu is both too happy and too tired to care. We have nothing better to perseverate about. Everyone’s fine.

Now, the so-called absence of heat for Dali is particularly problematic during Mustard Oil Massage Time every few hours, due the aforementioned missing open-fire pit. On Wednesday, I go for a run. I breathe a great deal of healthy unimprisoned oxygen wafting off San Francisco Bay.  Hot and refreshed I enter the apartment to find the glass door sealed shut…and Aamaa puttering in front of the floor-to-ceiling central heating unit, which is going at full blast, and where I realize she has just given Dali an oil massage. The apartment is about 10 million degrees.

I stand in the door, probably with a friendly look on my face.

“What?” Aamaa asks.

“Are you serious, you turned on the central heat in the middle of summer and closed the door and we’re all gonna cook and die in here!”

“Oh, it’s warm for the baby,” Aamaa says innocently.

“Oh my God, Aamaa, ok…Listen!” I throw open the glass door. “In a week, I’m gonna be in Connecticut and you guys are going to do whatever you want. But for the love of God, while I’m here, can we have air for the grown ups to breathe?”

“La, la,” Aamaa says, satisfied. I do have to hand it to her for that round. 

The next day a package shows up from Amazon. Youba, bless his cotton socks, has ordered it.

Space heater.

For the rest of the week, and indeed as she will do for the next six months, every few hours Aamaa sits in front of the space heater in Bishnu’s room, which rises to five thousand degrees, happily massaging her squishy granddaughter. She warms her hand in front of the space heater and dips it in the mustard oil we brought from Nepal and presses it in to Dali’s tiny belly, cooing and giggling over her. Bishnu dotes around the two of them, delighted in their overheating together, and I pop in and out of the room reminding everyone that it’s much too hot for any normal person, and Aamaa answers, “La, la,” but I also have to take some pictures—they are so beautiful together and that space heater is so ridiculous and fantastic—and Youba sits in the living room letting us girls do what we do, and we are utterly content in our Dali’s world.

*

 

Goddess

 

Bishnu had baby Dali six weeks early, on August 2nd. We got the news while we were all finishing dinner at Didi and Prem’s. On the English calendar, Pascal’s birthday is a day earlier, on August 1st, but by a twist of the planets, on the lunar Nepali calendar Pascal and his cousin share a birthday of Saun 17. This convention-defying-cross-cultural-intercontinental-astrologically-phenomenal-birthday-coincidence —a shared birthday in Nepal, but not in America—has us thrilled. We texted Bishnu and Youba and Dali a Welcome to the World picture, marveling over a coincidence, fourteen years plus eternity in the making, that has initiated our Dali’s life.

Dali’s name is actually: Serena Subedi Bhatta.

Aamaa is coming back with me to the US to meet her granddaughter, an American citizen. We’ll fly directly to San Francisco, but we can’t leave Nepal until after summer professional development the last week of August. So we’ve passed the weeks talking with Bishnu on the phone, and each Friday I download new photos and ferry them to Kaski where Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa and the neighbors pore over them. Aamaa’s favorite is the one with Youba holding Serena just minutes after her entrance in to the world, shiny and swaddled. Aamaa likes to pull this one up on my iPad and zoom in and stare at it for ten, fifteen minutes at a time. 

“It’s like, the longer you look at it,” she says, “the more you want to look at it. You can just look at it and look at it.”

Bishnu had a difficult and sometimes unnerving pregnancy. Serena was born six weeks early, at 3.9 lbs, less than 2 kilograms of sugar, I told Aamaa. She spent a month in the NICU. Bishnu wouldn’t bring any baby shower gifts home until it was almost time for the baby to leave the NICU and join her there. I’ve found myself thinking back to the day fifteen years ago when I stood outside Gandaki Hospital with Didi, right after she wasn’t able to see a doctor at what was supposed to be her last prenatal checkup, when we ate cel roi at a roadside stand. A week later Didi’s first child was stillborn at full term. 

For a long time after I moved to Kaskikot, I didn’t know that Aamaa had little a sister. One day Aamaa was reclined on the bed, lying sideways with her head on her arm and an elbow pointed out at me, when she mentioned that her sister had died in childbirth, along with the child.

“Wait,” Didi said the other day, her eyes widening when I told her about Bishnu’s baby shower. “People her gave her baby presents before the baby was born?”

The day of our departure for America gets closer. We are scheduled to fly out on Teej, the festival of women. In the strange way that our lives here seem to cycle back like knitting stitches, it was Teej when I arrived in Kaskikot in August, 2003. I had stayed in Kaski for two months, gone back to New York, worked as a waitress, and then called six months later to say I was coming back to Kaskikot. I arrived under the hot gaze of summer and found Didi and Bishnu dancing in Maula, where the whole village was gathered for the festival of women. Didi was newly married to Prem, and I realized she was pregnant. And that is how our year together began, with dancing.

Our summer is a theater of rains, curtain after curtain, a production that will eventually deliver the harvest. By then we will be in America. Teej begins from Sept 1, when Aamaa and I will leave Kaskikot, and goes to September 2, when we’ll fly out of Kathmandu. It’s funny how people attempt to impose order over the unknown when they are about to embark on a long journey. I like to leave my living space robotically clean and organized, and I will compulsively sift through 5-month old stacks of mail and fix wobbled stools that have been committedly ignored for months. Aamaa’s strategy appears to be getting fixated on the cucumbers. They are ripe and fat on the the vines around the house. 

“Laura,” Aamaa says, “we’ll bring cucumbers to Tulo Mama in Kathmandu.” The breed of cucumbers Aamaa grows in Nepal isn’t like little American cucumbers. They can grow to a foot or two long, and the circumference of a coffee can.

“We’re going to bring cucumbers to Kathmandu with our luggage for America?” I ask. Tulo mama is our Aamaa’s eldest brother, our ‘big uncle.’

“…Is it allowed?” Aamaa asks a bit sheepishly.

“Sure, cucumbers are allowed.” I realize this is happening no matter what. “Let’s definitely bring cucumbers to Kathamandu.”

Aamaa has just a few outfits to take to America, but food items are another story. Provisions are sorted over the entire month of August. We pick all the ripe cobs off the corn stalks, roast some in the fire for snacks, give some away, and hang the rest all over the house to dry by winter. Last time we left for America, we also cut down the empty corn stalks, leaving only the millet to ripen by late fall. But this time Aamaa skipped planting millet altogether, and she said we’re not going to cut the empty corn stalks down because they will dry out on their own. I keep surveying the gardens and feeling that the tall scraggly corn stalks are going to look a bit like an army of tuxedos at a beach party by October, when everyone else’s fields are left only with slender waist-high millet and rice plants. But that’s her plan and she’s Aamaa, so we leave them be. The house remains hemmed in by walls of stripped corn stalks.

A sack of rice is sent to Didi in Pokhara. Periodically we revisit the cucumber question.

“We’ll take a large stash of cucumbers to Didi, and a smaller bag for Tulo Mama in Kathmandu,” Aamaa revises.

“Ok.”

“It’s allowed right? To take cucumbers to Kathmandu?”

“This will be my first go at taking a bag of cucumbers to Kathmandu, but I think it’s allowed.”

“Just a small bag.”

“Ok,” I assure her.

One evening Aamaa ponders: “How will we get to Pokhara when we leave here on Teej? Because, see we’ll have luggage and we need to bring the big sack of cucumbers to Didi.”

“We’ll call Hari Bhaai in Caragaun and go in his taxi.”

“Will it fit all the cucumbers?”

“Um….” I search for the right answer. How many cucumbers are we talking about? I decide to gamble. “Yes. Hari bhai’s taxi will definitely fit the cucumbers.”

In addition to a little baby outfit, I want to bring something special to San Francisco for Bishnu’s little Dali, who’s acquired about twenty times her bodyweight in baby clothes during her short life so far. I make a plan. Pascal comes with me on the expedition. 

We spend Saturday afternoon hiking up the Kalika Hill, and I film him leading the way, finding berries and hidden water springs, waving a stick of bamboo around at the skyline and narrating our journey until we reach the Kalika Temple. We ring the large bells at Kali’s door; the clanging and echoes out over the trees, the familiar houses below, over the valley.  I pan my camera over sheets of rain that have blanketed the foothills, and frozen into a bruised mist on the north and south horizons. We search over the laid stones of the Temple ground and choose a rock that Pascal holds in front of my camera, little chips of flint gleaming under a stormy and imminent sky. I will bring it to a silversmith and have it made in to a necklace. Our descent is fast under gathering clouds, sandals pounding and tapping over the brambles.

As the summer draws to a close, relatives stop by to bid Aamaa a safe journey. Aamaa sends them off with cucumbers or ears of corn. A few days before the buffalo calf is due, some men from Parapani come to purchase pregnant Isabella, who nobody calls Isabella except for weirdo foreigners like me and Ann. Aamaa has cared for Bella during her whole pregnancy, cutting her grass and watering her and keeping her living quarters clean. I am grumpy that Bella will be taken just before having her baby and providing us a week of delicious milk. But four days later, we find out that Bella’s calf was born dead. The buyers withhold $40 of the remaining amount they still owe to Aamaa.

Aamaa is sad about Bella. All that work for nothing. “What’s wrong with her?” she asks nobody. We won’t know now. We are quiet over Bella’s loss for a few mornings.

“We don’t need to bring any cucumbers to Kathmandu,” Aamaa updates me later. “Tulo Mama has to leave for Nepalgang before we get there.”

I’m disappointed; I was excited to see Tulo Mama. He is the oldest of Aamaa’s three younger brothers and the one who dotes on her. But he lives in the far West and even though he always asks to talk with me on the phone when he calls, in seventeen years I’ve only met him in person twice.

The last two weeks of August I don’t get up to Kaskikot, because we are completely consumed with our summer professional development training. I take Dali’s rock to a jeweler and search through gems before finally pairing it with a fiery pink ruby. The week ends on a breathless and exhausted August 30th, Friday afternoon.  Bethy helps me pack up my room all in one go, throwing things in to bags over just a couple hours, cleaning the kitchen, ferrying items between the office and my apartment. By the time we get in to a taxi to go up to Kaski it is 8:30 at night, and we arrive at 9:30 to find Aamaa sitting in the house surrounded by friends. Swirled up in their saris and shawls, Saano didi and Parbati Bouju and Mahendra’s older sister are there, and an aunt has come to visit – Aamaa’s sister in law, who would have grown up right here with these women and her brother, Aamaa’s husband. The old friends are sitting on stools in the old main room of our house, by the kitchen, where I have fallen asleep to the chatter of so many women. As we organize our things in the outer room, a wave of gratitude rolls over me, carried on the familiar soothing sound of their muffled voices on the other side of the wall.

“Tulo Mama delayed his travel so he could meet us in Kathmandu,” Aamaa revises when Bethy and I take up seats on a bed. “So, we can bring him cucumbers.”

“Great.”

“Tomorrow we have to pack the cucumbers in a sack.”

“Right.” I reply. “I am ready for cucumber packing.”

Night brings brings a steady rain that clangs on the roof long in to a lazy Saturday morning. It bathes everything, washes away the work week, the summer, the soil around curling roots that are retreating beneath our feet as we prepare to walk away from this village and into another world. It rains as we get up for our last day in Kaski, as we have our black tea, as a man and woman I don’t know arrive and sit on the porch and begin talking with Aamaa.

Bethy and I are ready to spend Saturday helping Aamaa pack up the house—but it is unclear what this involves. Before I can identify a plan of action, Aamaa has disappeared with one of the morning’s visitors and they’ve returned with armfuls of voluptuous cucumbers. The cucumbers, each a foot or two long, are dumped in a pile in the middle of the yard, slick with rain, and the two women disappear again. Then neighbors start showing up – Saraswoti, Saano didi, BAA! – all with more rainy cucumbers. It turns out the visitors are vendors from Pokhara, come to purchase cucumber stock. Aamaa’s yard is transformed into a cucumber staging area. It takes an hour to pick the rest of our cucumbers and combine them with cucumbers from contributing neighbors. The female vendor sorts them in to excellent and sub-excellent status cucumber piles while the male vendor chats with Bethy about countries he’s traveled to. When the yard is fully covered in piles of cucumbers, an amazing ghetto-fabulous hand scale is brought out, made of two plastic tubs hanging on a hand-held balance. Aamaa produces a collection of rocks.

“Wait a second,” the vendor says cautiously.

“This rock is one kilogram,” Aamaa announces, picking up a black, smooth river stone. “And this one is a half kilograms if you combine it with this other little one.” 

The vendor tries out the rocks in different combinations, weighing them against each other.

“Huh,” she says. “Well there you have it.” 

Weighing and calculating against river stones commences on the ghetto fabulous plastic tub scale. Some 100 kg of cucumbers are weighed and sold. Aamaa makes about $15.

“Now,” Aamaa says to me shortly thereafter, “we still have to pack up the cucumbers for Didi and Tulo Mama.” 

“Yep.”

“The big sack of cucumbers is for—“

“I think I’ve got it.”

The afternoon passes. The evening arrives. The cucumbers are packed in to a large sack for Didi and a handbag for Tulo Mama. Dinner comes and goes. We have taken the cases off all the blankets and put them in the only dresser in the house. The floor has been repainted with a smooth layer of clay. Aamaa’s single bag sits in the window. Our last night falls.

I slip out of the house to brush my teeth, and there is Kali rising above the empty uncut corn stalks, a wide triangle of hillside, holding the village in her lap. The damp summer air has cloaked away all but her gray glow in the night sky, revealing only a broad a density etched into meager starlight. I stand facing her familiar outlines, and feel suddenly, like a darkening storm, the women who have come through this house and have sat by this fire and grieved by its ashes and made nourishment over its flames. The inexplicable, inevitable certainty of the four of us draped over the blankets after sunset, while she presides over us, immutable divine feminine, creating again and again from dust.

Watch over us, I find myself asking.

I see us in my mind, walking out to the road. I see our hands holding Serena in San Francisco. I see us moving from place to place, but with a sudden and forceful clarity understand we are tied together here, under her gaze, where we have always been.

Stay with us.

It is time to go to bed.

The next morning neighbors trickle in to see us off to America. BAA! arrives, and then goes home again to retrieve tikka powder to put on our foreheads. Aamaa still can’t stop talking about the cucumbers. After Saano didi’s husband has taken the large sack of the cucumbers out to Deurali where Hari Bhai will pick us up in his taxi, there are still cucumbers lying about and we’re not sure who they are for. I end up with three of them in my bag and we eventually remember these were gifts for my office.

Today is the beginning of Teej. In a few hours when we are in Pokhara, we’ll see off Prem’s cousins who will come to take his porcelain, wrinkled mother back to Piodi, her snow white hair tilted forward as she is carried away piggy-back down to the road, so she can celebrate the Festival of Women at home in her village.

But now we are waving through the taxi window, and driving down, down, down the switchbacks while our house disappears behind us. The driver and Aamaa make small talk over the weather.

“All this dry hot summer, and the last two days, nothing but rain,” Aamaa remarks.

“Didi bahini rhuera hola,” the driver replies, talking about Teej. “Maybe it’s the tears of our sisters.”

“Maybe,” Aamaa answers offhandedly. The hills roll by. “It could be.”’

*

To Meet in a Dream

 

We are having a family get together in Asheville, North Carolina. My dad is turning 80 this summer, and it’s Father’s Day, and Bishnu is pregnant with a baby girl. She and Youba arrive on a red-eye from San Francisco, Bethy and I fly in from Connecticut, and my parents drive over from Chapel Hill with Ricky and Julie and the kids. We plop our bags in a cluster of wood-paneled cabins shaded by rustling trees. It is the first time we have all been together since Bishnu got married last year. Now she is Bishnu Subedi Bhatta.

Bishnu and Youba have made the questionable decision of asking for name suggestions. We bat around ideas as we eat ice cream and go to the playground and climb Chimney Rock, where, even though there is an elevator, Bishnu takes the stone staircase up to the top, plodding along step by step while Youba fawns hopelessly over her. At the summit we take a family photo, the North Carolina hills yawning green in to the distance, an endless rustle that is too far off to hear from the top of Chimney Rock, giving way to blue.

In the six years after I first showed up in Kaskikot and before Bishnu came to the US, we would talk on the phone from time to time. It was always morning on one continent, and evening on the other, and in the decade since then I can’t say the phone connection has improved much. Through the static I’d hear about how Saano didi and Mahendra’s families were doing, and whether the millet or corn stalks with their stacked Groucho Marx mustaches had recently been planted or cut down. I’d tell her about New York City, where I was living, and say that Mom and Dad and Ricky were fine. We ended most of our conversations the same way.

“Ok then, well let’s meet in a dream.”

“Where should we go this time?”

And then we’d plan a meeting at the Kalika Temple, or in the kitchen with Aamaa, or on a mat in the yard to paint our nails, or at the festival of Teej. And then we’d say goodbye, and go to sleep to meet in a dream. And always in Nepal.

It has always seemed to me that Bishnu and I were born in to this world with a thread between us, translucent, like the kind used in mobiles or dental floss or to catch carp, because it is unassuming, tensile, and indestructible. The kind that seems as if it can be spooled out forever without reaching the other end that’s buried somewhere in its bottomless coils.

I decide to print the Chimney Rock photo for Father’s Day, which requires sneaking away in to Asheville. We need three copies of the photo for Dad, Ricky and Youba. While I’m out in Asheville I send a text to the family chat to ask if I need to pick up any ingredients for dinner. My mom replies.

Bishnu is cooking dal Bhatta.

I giggle at auto-correct, which has apparently learned Youba’s last name already. My mom means “dal bhaat,” traditional Nepali food–but the more I look at this, the funnier I find it anyway. My fingers tap over the keys.

Does this mean they picked a name for the baby?

It is Youba who replies.

Dal sounds like a boy. Shouldn’t it be Dali?

My mother and I become ecstatic over this. Bishnu’s kid is immediately christened Dali Bhatta. Mostly it is only my mom and me who think this is brilliant. It could be worse, though. My mom called me Loolie-tabooli-tabootznicky…and by “called” I mean “calls.” This is a true story. I was named for my grandfather Louis, and my family turned it turned into Tabootznicky.

We spend the rest of the weekend fishing in the pond, making s’mores on the porch, and turning the kids upside down. Bethy and I are staying in a cabin with Youba and Bishnu, and my mom has brought Bishnu an old notebook along with a pile of belongings from her now-“old” room in Bethesda. We flip through its pages, mystified and awed, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. It contains, in Bishnu’s handwriting: a list of instruments needed for the prehistoric version of the Kaskikot Dental Clinic; draft text for a sticker about fluoride toothpaste to be printed and posted in Kaskikot shops for vendor outreach; and practice answers to questions Bishnu expected to be asked at her visa interview with the US Embassy in 2008. She does a dramatic reading in the living room.

I remember when we bought Bishnu’s first pair of jeans. She looked as out of condition in jeans then as I did in my floppy kurta salwaars, each of us yet to learn to fit our bodies to these foreign garments that we irrevocably longed to inhabit. The more time Bishnu spent attending different trainings and programs that year, the more time I spent at the house with Aamaa alone, learning to move the goats about and cook and plant and cut. When Bishnu was away, Aamaa and I developed a quiet and comfortable flow together. Then Bishnu would come back for a day, arriving on the last bus at 7:30 at night, and I would feel a pang of sadness. The loss of the illusion that I was useful. I would fall back in to following Bishnu around and learning from her for the next twenty four hours. The spool would turn inward, we were drawn together, arguing, sitting in the kitchen, going to the temple, teaching each other about our worlds.

Bishnu always left to go back to her training programs early in the morning. They got progressively further away- Sarangkot, Pokhara, Damauli. America. (I didn’t know it then, but there would be a time when Bishnu was to wake me early in the morning in Bethesda, before going to work in Virginia.) On these mornings I could never motivate myself to wake up any earlier than necessary. Instead I would close my eyes to stave off departure, and then in the dawning bloom of morning, Bishnu would come take my shoulder to say goodbye, and slip out the door to catch the 7am bus. It always seemed, once she had been here, that she was going terribly far away; suddenly, I would be at a lose end. For a few hours, everything seemed empty.

And inevitably, after some period of months, I would spool away to America, and we would meet in a dream.

It is 2019. In my parents’ cabin, I assign my nephew Jonah, Ricky’s eldest and and a lanky eight, to instruct his three and four year old sisters as to how we are going to surprise three fathers with their family photographs. Jonah orders his sisters about for fifteen minutes, placing them behind the curtain, behind a couch, and practicing a chaotic toddler chorus of “Happy Father’s Day!” It is decided that I am to cue the surprise with a casual unsuspicious phrase, for which Jonah has selected “Wasn’t it nice weather today!” With this, my nephew and nieces are to spring from their hiding places and proclaim the happiness of Father’s Day.

The plan goes remarkably well. Youba’s features spread momentarily in to an arrangement of euphoric surprise: he is going to be a dad. And then, a collage of moments fluttering around us. We coo over Dali Bhatta. Jonah and Eli and Nell swing elatedly in the hammock, laughing hysterically over each other, until my dad and Ricky and Youba take their places. The trees around the cabin fall in to a still sheltering, rustling blessings over us, and the sun drops slowly over the hammock, delayed like a water droplet on velvet. We are gorgeously suspended in time.

Bishnu and Youba have booked a 6am flight. So it is still dark when Bishnu comes in to wake me the next morning. I roll over and can almost feel the straw mat under arm as Bishnu whispers, “Bye Laura, we have to go to the airport.” I wrap my arms around her and Dali Bhatta, suddenly both at peace and without coordinates; it is an old feeling, ancient as the notebook and the Dead Sea Scrolls, bottomless as a whole new human being.

The enormous future seems unimaginable in this pre-dawn, where we stretch away in to a miraculous dream, until we are real again.

*

2004

Gaurab the Bear

Recently, Bethy was in Thailand and discovered that someone there has been making teddy bears with a full set of teeth.

In my life, this is a very interesting and exciting finding.

Bethy decided to order some teddy bears with teeth for health centers in Cambodia that are running an early childhood hood oral health program, and I figured I would bring a teddy bear over to Nepal. It was fairly simple. In brainstorming the idea, we got to thinking about the enormous contribution that Jevaia’s Education Field Officer Gaurab has made in our organization, beginning long before we had a name. Gaurab was our first Clinic Assistant in our first clinic in Kaskikot. He volunteered for years as a teenager in school seminars, teaching kids about about oral health. He became one of our field officers in 2015 and has walked literally countless miles, up and down hills, in the rain, after dark, and in just about every crazy situation possible to promote oral health in schools in Nepal.

We decided our first teddy bear with teeth should obviously be named Gaurab.

When I arrived recently in Cambodia, Gaurab the Bear had completed the first leg of his journey, from Thailand to Cambodia. He came with frens.

We were so excited to meet him!

We hung out in Cambodia for a while, and then Gaurab’s frens said goodbye

And we left for the airport.

We took a tuk tuk.

Gaurab seemed to like the airport

and he really blended in with all the other travelers.

Especially while waiting for his flight.

He settled in, clutching his ticket to Kathmandu

And we enjoyed perusing very expensive jewelry that isn’t really less expensive even though it’s Duty Free, in Kuala Lumpur.

Honestly we were pretty tired by the time we finally arrived in Kathmandu and Gaurab tried to be patient with the visa process but he was ready for a nap.

The next day, refreshed for our flight to Pokhara, we made some NEW Frens in the airport!

You can imagine Gaurab’s anticipation on the flight west…

And finally, upon arrival we were greeted by some real big fans.

Finally, after meeting the rest of the team, Muna and Rajendra,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gaurab was united in the office with Gaurab!

Welcome to Nepal Gaurab!!

Worry For My Sons

I’ve just come back from my third visit to Cambodia, and each time I expect to write about it. I’m no qualified scholar of Cambodian history, but I spent a short time working with Cambodian refugees in Hartford and two months researching the Extraordinary Chambers, or ECCC, the war crimes tribunal created to adjudicate the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.

In August 2017, I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, where I filled in the mental scaffolding I’d established by standing outside of empty torture rooms and running my eyes over thousands and thousands and thousands of names, knowing they would vanish from my memory. 15,000 people were imprisoned and killed at Tuol Sleng, which had once been a high school. I lit incense in a somber memorial room at the end that is filled with skulls.

Sometimes it seems that the cruelties of history are mostly remembered through their persistent pain, despite our best efforts to know them through redemption.

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“What do you think of Cambodian politics?” asked my tuk tuk driver today, on the way to the airport.

“…What do you think?” I replied carefully.

“No good,” said the driver. “Not much has changed.”

Motorbikes and trucks and cars and luxury sedans jockeyed for space on the highway, pressing in on the open sides of our tuk-tuk, where I had my leg through the strap of my bag after twice having items snatched off of me by passing motorists. It seems hard to argue that not much has changed. When Phnom Penh was reclaimed from the Khmer Rouge in 1979 after four years of destruction and enslavement, the rubbled city no longer had electricity or plumbing or safe water or schools or working telephones; the use of money had been abolished. Nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population and most of the educated class had been slaughtered. There were at total of seven lawyers left in the whole country to rebuild the government. Working off my not-particularly-relevant experience of what it’s like trying to develop infrastructure in Nepal, I find it absolutely astounding what Cambodia has rebuilt in just four decades, albeit under an authoritarian regime.

I guessed my tuk-tuk driver to be in his early fifties, old enough to have been alive during the genocide. I wondered what he wanted to tell me about.

“Where were you during the war?” I asked.

“In the province,” he said. “We planted rice, you know? Planting all day. All the kids slept together in a large area, on a rough surface. My skin got very irritated on my whole body. We had no rice to eat. We only ate porridge.”

“How long did you do that for?”

“Two years,” he said. “I was eight.”

I learned that the driver had one sister and five brothers, and I wanted to ask how they had fared, but didn’t know if I should. Many children whose stories started this way lost their entire families under the Khmer Rouge, sometimes before their eyes.

“What do you think is the biggest problem for Cambodia now?” I asked instead.

“Education,” the driver stated firmly. I learned that he had been able to pick up his studies again in 1982. That Cambodia has struggled to rebuild its education system is no wonder. In 1979, there were so few intellectuals left alive that a former math teacher, Chan Ven, was put in charge of rebuilding the Ministry of Education. The three-decade old United Nations, with its dominant American, British and Chinese powers, opposed the new Cambodian government because it was backed by the Vietnamese. So after receiving more American bombs on its soil during the Vietnam war than Japan received during World War II–an act that won Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize–a traumatized Cambodian populace was left to prosecute war crimes, reconstruct the government, and reestablish basic institutions without the help of international human rights bodies. During the Cold War, the Hun Sen military regime that liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge was systematically and repeatedly denied U.N. support, which was deferred instead to the Khmer Rouge in exile.  To this day, the regime continues to run the government and suppress opposition.

My tuk tuk driver took his gaze off the road and turned his head toward the side, maybe only because I was seated behind him, but it made it seem like he was looking out at the tall buildings around the highway. “My sons are studying law and engineering,” he said. “I worry about them.”

Last Saturday, a bunch of us took a long ride out to see the new Win-Win monument. The tower was recently built to commemorate the end of civil war in Cambodia in 1998, when outlying factions of the Khmer Rouge finally entered in to an agreement with the Hun Sen government, bringing about the end of decades of violence. The monument is built of intricately carved sandstone and polished granite, and in many places is still under construction even while throngs of mostly Cambodian visitors visit each day.

What most caught our attention, though, was a lengthy retelling of Cambodian history carved in to stone panels around the base of the monument. It starts before the genocide and continues for probably a quarter mile or more. The story is portrayed with a nationalistic fervor that is not subtle, and the monument also sits across the way from a large athletic complex being built for the 2020 ASEAN Games. It is clearly a display of political pride and might. One might say unvarnished propaganda. On the ride home, we found ourselves talking about the importance of uniting narratives in national identity.

But before we left, we trod through the entire narrative display panel by panel by panel, slowly watching sun change its shadows on the carved faces. One, near the beginning, captivated me for some time. It’s intimate brutalities are historically accurate.

“During the war,” said my tuk tuk driver as we reached the airport, “it was just me and my sister. We were separated from our parents. Then my mom had five more children after it was over.”

I expelled a sigh of relief. “So your family survived?”

“Yes,” said the driver. “Five more children!” he chuckled. “And I’m the eldest.” He stared at the road ahead, thinking a swirl of thoughts I couldn’t intuit. He seemed to want to discuss it with me during the thirty minutes we would know one another. “You have freedom in America,” he said, shaking his head. “I just…worry for my sons. And their education.”

“They sound very smart,” I replied. At the time, I assumed he was worried about affording his sons’ education, or about whether they would be successful in their pursuits, and maybe that is he that is what he meant. But it occurred to me later that, maybe not.

We arrived at the airport, and the driver dropped me off, and rode back in to the traffic.

*

Airport Gymnastics

Bethy and I are on our way to Thailand to present at the International Association of Dental Research Conference in Da Nang, Vietnam.  We are on a panel about “Behavioral Science and Health Sciences,” me to present about Jevaia as a social justice project and Bethy to talk about a system she developed for school-based health care in Cambodia.  Between us, let’s call Bethy the scientist. She plans ahead. She calculates things such as time and has an external battery pack with every configuration of port imaginable and a rubberized exterior that could withstand a nuclear attack, and she brings it with her almost everywhere.  Bethy is a prepared and organized kind of person. I’m what we could call…the artist. I hit snooze 4 times and borrow chargers from nice people along the way. I don’t travel without chocolate.

We meet in Thailand, the mutual transit point on our respective journeys from Nepal and Cambodia to Vietnam.  The next afternoon, at Bethy’s urging we’ve arrived at the airport a solid two hours before our short international flight from Bangkok to Da Nang.  How planny of us. As we are checking in, the clerk asks us to display our visas for Vietnam.

We are both surprised.  Even the scientist! With our American and New Zeland passports, we thought we could purchase visas on arrival in Vietnam.  This is somewhat true, the airline agent tells us. However, there is a new process that requires visitors to submit an online application ahead of time and bring an electronic visa approval to immigration upon landing.  Without the approval, we aren’t allowed on plane.

Well then.  This is awkward.

The Airline Agent informs us politely that we have 47 minutes before check in closes.  I get my phone connected to the WiFi and start googling around for how to apply for a visa to Vietnam.  I find a website called Vietnam Visa Online (lovely name, quite to the point) that says this can be done with approval rushed to one hour, for a fee of only $500.

While I’m poking at my phone looking for a less pricey extortion option, Bethy assures the Airline Agent that we’ll definitely have no problem completing the required process in 47 minutes or less.  I tap madly at my phone screen, and we decide to go for a rush fee that’s only $100 and might or might not get us the visas in time. I click send. Bethy stalls with the Airline Agent. The check-in line shrinks, I hit refresh on my phone, and by now our window has diminished to 13 minutes.

…Tick tick tick…check in closes.

But not before Bethy casually softens the Airline Agent in to printing out a document that shows we arrived on time, and woos her in to walking us over to another desk where we can stare at my email waiting for the visa approval to arrive on the basis of our $100 rushfee. A new Airline Agent looks delighted that our problem has been moved over to her counter, where I set down my phone and Bethy and I peer deeply in to its icons.  We wait.  Airline Agent #2 waits.

An email!  Is it our visa approvals?  No. It’s a reply stating that due to the fact of today being Saturday, urgent processing isn’t possible.  However, we do have an attractive option to pay another $300 to get the visa approval today, or we can certainly wait in Thailand until Monday.

We kind of have no choice but to do the extra-special saturday rush fee, which has been specifically designed, after all, for suckers like us.  So we pay the fee, and then the screen freezes, and we can’t tell if we’ve paid $300 or not. I get an email saying that we can call an office in Vietnam with questions. But honestly, who has questions?   

Calling Vietnam would be a fine idea except that neither of us has phone cards that work in Thailand, so I ask Airline Agent #2 if she can call the Vietnam Visa Online from a land line.  She says the airline has no way to make international calls.  “But you’re an airline,” I point out. This doesn’t change anything, since apparently Asia Air actually cannot make an international call to a mysterious Visa processing office in Vietnam. I deduce this because eventually, Airline Agent #2 takes pity on us and gives us her personal cell phone.  We call Vietnam Visa Online and induct a fourth person in to our lair of chaos.

Mean time, I still can’t tell whether the payment has gone through on my credit card, and my credit card password isn’t working (or theoretically it’s possible I haven’t used it in a few months and I can’t remember it) so I can’t log in and check. For the next twenty minutes, the clock ticks down to our departure while I toggle between my phone and tablet trying to figure out if I’ve paid the fee, and Bethy toggles between Airline Agent #2 and the newly inducted lady from Vietnam Visa Online, whom we have to keep calling from the Airline Agent #2’s personal cell phone.  The voice in Vietnam talks us calmly and assuredly through various steps, which I tap out on my phone, as if we are diffusing a bomb.

Eventually, all three of us–Airline Agent #2 is all in now—are leaning anxiously over my phone, hitting refresh, waiting for the document with our visa approval to show up from the Helpful Voice in Vietnam.  Whose name turns out to be Selina.

Is it there?

How about now?

We may have to carry on our bags.

…Should we call again?

……Is it there yet?

……..How about now??

TADA!

The email arrives.  All three of us bounce up from my tablet screen and give a shout.  Airline Agent #2 triumphantly passes our boarding passes over the counter and we run to the gate.  I won’t see it until we’ve already arrived in Vietnam, but another email has popped up from Selina at Vietnam Visa Online.  It is highlighted in an alarming fluorescent yellow the color of a radioactive duck.

HAVE YOU RECIEVED YOUR VISA YET? IS EVERYTHING OKAY NOW? PLEASE ADVISE!

I write Selina back after we land in Da Nang.

We are here in Vietnam and everything is fine! I didn’t get your mail until we landed. Thank you for all your help today!

We’re aware that it would be responsible, at this stage, to be upset about the insane amount of money our visas just cost, but instead we are delighted with the exchanges of the day, the managing and wooing and reassuring and eventual co-conquership with strangers of our last-minute visas. In fact, we were so irresponsibly pleased by this accomplishment that Airline Agent #2 didn’t even seem bothered when I wanted to take our picture, regardless of the fact that we were holding up an otherwise orderly process of reasonable people getting on a flight from Bangkok to Da Nang.  

And we were able to recharge our tired devices on the fly.   

*