The Walk Home


There’s nothing like my first visit to Kaskikot after having recently arrived in Nepal. Granted, sometimes there’s a year in between visits, and in this case I was here just last summer after a long winter stay. But still – today did not disappoint.

I woke up to the charming experience of Pascal throwing his arm on my head. Let’s face it: this room where Didi and Bhinaju live is too small for all of us now, but we are persevering while the house is being built. It is the nights when I share a bed with Aidan and Pascal that I question my judgment in teaching them taekwondo while they are awake.

While Didi made tea, we all lay in bed debating whose fault it was that we’d all spent the night practicing kickball rather than sleeping. Then we documented our morning in selfies.

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Late morning, I met up with some of our graduated Gaky’s Light Fellows for lunch. It was so great to see everyone and hear what they are doing. Sandip is marketing for an online news outlet. Ramesh is deciding where to apply for his bachelor’s in journalism. Nirajan is in Kathmandu, working for Teach for Nepal, and Nischal is entering his second year of bachelor’s. Umesh and Narayan have a solid paid gig singing traditional music each night, and Narayan has his own radio show. Bhagwan is a residential supervisor in a school hostel. When Puja and Asmita finally got there a few hours late, we all made plans to go boating later this week.

Next was getting up to Kaski. With the fuel shortages, this is more challenging than it’s been, as the bus is running infrequently. Not to worry!  I caught the back of a motorcycle ride and then secured a taxi to the bottom of “the jungle path” that climbs straight up from the valley to the house. Forget the bus, man.

So first of all, at the beginning of this path you have to cross over the Gandaki river, which is usually dry at this time of year, but swells in the summer and fall. We used to wade through it, but a few years back it got this nice concrete bridge. So I’m crossing the bridge, and…it just stops in midair. The last half of the bridge is suddenly no longer there.

It takes me a few minutes to negotiate the drop over the ledge of the bridge with a torn ACL in my right knee that won’t let me jump down on to the rocky bed five or six feet below. I make my way over, progress to the bank a short way away, and there at the bottom of the path up to Kaskikot is this leathery guy resting next to a bundle of wood. He looks kind of resigned. I chat with him for a minute and then he asks for help lifting the bundle of wood.

“My son is really strong, he can carry this kind of load,” the man says woefully. “It’s just pretty heavy.”

Nevertheless, the bundle must be lifted, so we give it a try- fortunately I am more qualified than your average random American to hoist a bundle of wood on to someone’s back so it can be slung from their head and carried across a dry riverbed – but it is too heavy, he can’t get upright under the weight. He sets it back down, resumes his seat in the road, and looks resigned again.

“What’s with this bridge?” I ask. “Half of the bridge is missing.”

“I know!” He says. “The other night, I drank up a full belly and came here and fell right off of it.” He points to his forehead and says, “I got a bit of a bump right here.”

IMG_6126“I hear you,” I reply. “I’m not even drunk, and I nearly fell off the bridge too.”

“Just went right over,” he recalls.

“Should we try this bundle of wood again?” I ask.

“Ok, but you have to come around the front and give me a hand.”

I heave the wood on to his back again and this time give him a hand to brace against as a counter balance, and he stands up.

“Thanks, bye,” he says, as if it makes sense that I appeared for this interaction.  Off he goes.

Partway up the jungle path I run in to two kids coming down.  They stop me.

“Where are you from?” they ask me in English.

“America. Where are you from?”

“Puranchaur,” the little boy answers.

“Oh, I’m going to Puranchaur on Tuesday,” I say. It’s one of the villages where we launched last year. I ask what grades they are in: four and eight. “So,” I say to the fourth grader, “do you brush your teeth at school?”

“Yep,” he answers.

“Huh. For about a year, right?”

“A little less than a year,” he says.

“Cool,” I answer, and down the path they go.


Finally I come out the top of the jungle path and emerge at the water tap in Kaskikot.

“LAURIEEEE!” the ladies cry. “Here you are, just in time for wood cutting to start tomorrow! Last year you came to cut wood, and this year you’re here to cut wood!”

YES. This is the gold medal of the Welcome Olympics. And yes, when I go to cut wood, I understand that it is a memorable experience for all of us.

On my way to the house, a few other people – completely independently – express their approval that I have arrived just in time for wood chopping. I am winning at Nepal.

At last, I drop over the spine of the ridge and there is home. Baby O’Neil is tethered outside, her wet nose pointed quizzically my way; she has grown some brown fur.  The hillside is dotted with jubilant yellow mustard flowers.  There is the familiar line of the Annapurnas rising in to the dusky sky, distant and close. No matter the path that brings me to this piece of land, it always appears the same way, luminous and inevitable.




Another Relaxing Day Off

Yesterday I did what I usually do to relax on my day off: go with Aamaa and about thirty neighbors to chop and haul firewood for six hours.  As Aamaa and I were headed down the hillside in the morning, carrying our ropes and sickles, a buffalo was baying loudly in the distance.  Aamaa stopped for a second and listened.
“…Oh, it’s a buffalo,” she said.
“Of course it’s a buffalo,” I said.
“For a minute I thought it was a cell phone.”
“You thought cell phone before you thought buffalo?”
“Sometimes cell phones make that noise…bzzzt, bzzzt.”
Cultural moment.
Woodcutting is highly regulated and occurs en masse, and it is a brilliant example of the chaos and color of rural Nepali life.  Today there are about 35 people in the steep, unruly forest shouting and singing and chopping with axes and saws and sickles.  Every now and then there is a loud whoop and a huge tree falls over.  Then you have the random American running around in the middle of this scene.  I am wearing one of my old “work” outfits – a hot pink and green kurta sulwaar from 8 years ago that’s got a rip here or there.  I am ready for action, baby.
I get assigned to a group of women bundling wood and carrying loads uphill to a clearing.  I would like to say that, after twelve years of voluntarily putting myself in these situations, I’ve actually earned a fair amount of respect – I do pretty well for a foreigner.  But there’s just a baseline level of awe that comes along with having a 5’8” white girl waving a sickle around in the woods a tuesday afternoon in the hills of Nepal.  Also, it’s the obvious topic of conversation.
IMG_7056For one thing, “Laura” is, exactly, the Nepali word for “stick.”  This is an endlessly entertaining point.  I look like a stick and I’m carrying sticks and my name means stick.  Unfortunately for me there is also a lot of discussion about actual sticks (after all we are in the forest chopping wood) and I am constantly answering “Yes?” in response to people saying things like, “Hey, give me that stick.”
After a few hauling trips, we’re resting in the clearing when the ladies get to talking about how nobody should submit to pressure from the choppers to carry too much at once.  Loads should be adjusted to the size and strength of each person – after all, it’s really hard work and we have people of all ages and levels of health among us.
Lady one: “I mean look at this foreigner here from Japan.”
Lady two: “It’s America.”
Lady one: “Whatever.”
On most trips I get paired up with Saraswoti or Aamaa, who I follow around like a baby cub. And I appreciate that all the wives look out for me.  However I do get a little fed up with being babied on tasks I’ve sweated significantly to master, such as carrying stacks of wood slung from a rope on my head.  So late in the day, when fatigue and disorder have evolved to a stage where I find myself momentarily separated from the group as everyone is bundling their loads, I find a huge log and wonder if I can lift it.  I manage to get it upright but can’t sling from my head because it keeps falling over.
“PUT DOWN THE HUGE LOG!” yells a guy from across a ravine.  I call this guy Michael Jackson, but that’s another story.  Michael Jackson makes the mistake of shouting across an entire forest that the log is too heavy for me to lift.
I set the log up again.  Michael Jackson abandons his first strategy and calls to Barat to come hold the log so that at least it doesn’t roll away while I’m making a bad decision.  I manage to stand up in the steep underbrush with this huge chunk of tree slung from my forehead.  It’s added at least 75 lbs to my bodyweight.
For future reference, putting DOWN a 75 lb log slung from your head is almost as hard as picking it up.  So I just start walking up the hill with it.  I have no idea whether I can carry this thing all the way up to the clearing, which requires climbing over terraced fields on narrow footholds.  But so far, Michael Jackson is losing, even with my Japanese disadvantage, and that is all that matters.
I plod along until a line of women with their own bundles of wood catch up behind me.  They begin scolding me to put down the gigantic log, and to be fair I kept thinking that, over the next ledge, I would give it up.  But everyone was moving forward as a group, and it was never exactly the right moment to stop, and each time I hit a ledge I would think I’m putting this stupid log down on the other side, but then the other side would be flat enough to take a few steps and I’d find myself at the next ledge.  So we just kept moving up the hill one ledge at a time.
We get to a particularly difficult terrace that has a narrow foothold and a large height difference.  With the added weight, these high steps are treacherous because I literally can’t lift myself.  So instead of stepping up over the edge of the terrace, I put my knee over the top and get myself over on all fours.
For the record, this is a fair tactic.  I watched Sandrakali didi do it earlier in the day.  But it is super awkward, and leaves you waving your butt over the edge of the field at all the people behind you.  Which is really okay in most circumstances, but as it happens, my work pants from eight years ago are ripped right at the butt crack.  So I am waving my underwear at a line of women behind me carrying bundles of wood, while I am crouched under a 75 lb log that is attached to my head by a rope.
This actually happened in my life.  Yesterday.
“Laura, PUT DOWN THE LOG,” all the women are chastising me.  Out of love of course.  What would my Japanese mother think?
“I’ve got it guys, I’ve got it,” I reply, from under the log.
With a burst of leg strength I stand up and make my way up to the clearing, which is now close at hand.  As I approach, Michael Jackson has his cell phone out and is taking a video.
I put the log down and throw my hands up in the air in triumph.  For the rest of the afternoon, everyone is talking about my wood carrying prowess, while simultaneously scolding me for my poor judgement.  THAT log, everyone says, pointing to it.
Also, Srijana tells me to take Aamaa’s shawl and wrap it around my butt.  My pants are ripped and the entire world knows.
We’re off for the next load.  I’ll be ready for the office again tomorrow.
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