I came to build houses; I stayed to plant rice

When I flew to Nepal at the beginning of July 2015, I thought I was going to help people build houses. I had packed sensible shoes and sunscreen, read up on bamboo and earth bag construction, prepared myself to haul rubble and pound nails.

As my past several posts have made abundantly clear, I didn’t build, repair, or do anything else to a single house while I was in Nepal. When I was in Kathmandu, the houses of the people I know and love were all still standing; when I got to Dhading, everyone had already built themselves new shelters before I got there, and they had a variety of needs that needed to be addressed, none of which would be filled by me picking up a hammer or slinging an earth bag.

As I wrote about here, the thing that I seemed to be in the best position to do was to listen to people: to hear them, see them, listen to their experiences, condole with them about their houses. This is something that Parker Palmer has referred to as “the gift of presence,” and so today I want to write about one of the ways that I tried to gift my presence to people in Ward 6, by helping to plant rice.

Rice agriculture is the gravitational center of the rural Nepali world. Rice is the center of pahadi diets — the bhat in the national meal, dal-bhat –and farming rice is the primary occupation of the majority of Nepal’s peasant farmers. The rice farming season frames the Nepali year; rice-farming labor (which is back-breaking in all its phases) helps define gender roles, with men handling plowing and women handling transplanting and weeding. Community relationships also revolve around rice, with different families contributing their labor to each other in rotations to help each other plant and harvest their crops. The annual rice harvest determines the measurement of land (with land acreage measured based on how much rice it can grow, rather than how many square meters it is), and each household’s harvest dictates the family’s food security for the entire coming year.

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The earthquake happened in late April, which was a few weeks before the rice was supposed to be planted in most places in Nepal. That might not seem like a big deal, but think about this: most families grow their rice from seed they saved from the year before. Most families also store their seed rice in large baskets or tubs in their houses. The earthquake killed over 8,000 people outright, but it also destroyed thousands of houses — thousands of houses that contained the seed-rice for the coming year’s crop.

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In Ward 6, where nearly every house in the village had collapsed instantaneously with the earthquake, several people reported their rice as literally their third concern as they tried to take stock of the situation. As the ground stopped shaking, they claimed that the first thought had been, “am I safe?”, second had been, “where is my family?”, and third had been, “is the rice gone?” One mother, from the area of the village at the top of the hill, called Dadagau, told me about how she had sat over the ruins of her house and wept, thinking about the seed-rice trapped under the rubble and dust; she said that she wept again the day when a small bulldozer was brought in to help push away the remains of the houses, because she saw her family’s food security being pushed away with what was left of her house.

Fortunately, Oxfam was very sensitive to this concern, and arranged for large amounts of seed rice to be brought in for villagers to plant. By the time I arrived, this meant that every family who owned or rented wet-rice fields (khet) had already planted dense little patches of rice-seed (which look for all the world like trays of wheat grass in hippie juice bars), and were waiting for the monsoon rains to start up enough to get the fields flooded and prepared for transplant.

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Bishnu’s family was ready to plant their fields several days after I arrived, and I was excited to offer to help. Here’s Bishnu’s mom, Savitri, surveying the area that needs to be planted:

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A big deal was made to get me dressed and ready to go: transplanting rice seedlings into a flooded field involves standing in mud up to your ankles and then in water up to your knees, so you need a nice big sash to wind around your middle to keep your pants and your top hiked up properly.

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There was an enormous amount of excitement as I arrived. There were already a half-dozen or so women gathered, and two men already driving water buffalo through the fields, plowing the areas where the seedlings would go. The women checked my outfit, retied my sash, handed me a bundle of seedlings, and helped me climb down into the first khet.

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Basically, what you do is you bend your knees a bit, fold at the waist, grab one seedling at a time from your bundle in a grip like how you might hold a dart, and stuff it down into the mud. You stick each seedling about 4-6 inches from the last, roughly in rows, and you walk backward as you complete rows (so you don’t step on the seedlings you just planted). This is women’s work, and if the field is wide enough, women plant together in a line, standing a few feet away from each other and fanning across the khet as a team.

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In my case, though, everyone was so excited to have me planting with them that several women took turns micromanaging my planting, and for awhile one woman stayed so close next to me that she kept planting seedlings onto my foot (which was sufficiently squashed in the mud that it was a natural mistake — just not something that would have happened if she had been willing to plant without her shoulder touching mine).

I admit, I was a little nervous about this. I was worried that I wouldn’t do it right, and that the family’s food security would be at stake if I misplanted or killed their seedlings. I also was worried that I would turn out to not really be able to do it: that I might not be strong enough or flexible enough to handle the labor for more than a few minutes. But I managed to plant for the entire morning, and wasn’t even able to tell afterward which seedlings were planted by my hand and which were planted by someone else.

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Everyone seemed to think I was doing fine (and trust me, no one in rural Nepal is ever shy about telling you if you’re messing up an agricultural task), and when we stopped for lunch (which Savitri had provided to everyone, to thank them for their labor for the day), everyone congratulated me.

I offered to keep planting after lunch, but the consensus was that I had put in plenty of time, and that I was developing an epic sunburn that should really be taken care of. Everyone commiserated with me for the sad weakness of my foreigner skin, and laughed when I loudly asked Savitri how much she was paying me for the day.

It was enormously fun, enormously challenging, and I think, enormously gratifying on all sides. For me, helping plant rice made me feel like I was able to participate in something profoundly Nepali that I had never done before — something that was irrelevant to my normally urban life in Nepal, but which is still important to how most Nepalis think about their country and village life. I had proven to have cultural competence, and I had demonstrated my ability to joke around and tease as well as work.

For the Nepalis, I think something else was going on. I think this labor, which is so quintessential to their lives year after year, is something that privileged people normally opt out of. Anyone who is rich or educated or who has ties to “outside” basically definitionally does not do rice planting. Those people either rent out their fields entirely, or hire people to do the labor for them. But here I had come, someone enormous privilege, and stood shoulder to shoulder with them while we all planted together. It was something of a token gesture, since I only planted for 2-3 hours and then went home, but it was long enough to be real, and I think it validated their work. It also made me a part of their resilience, a part of their process of moving on from the earthquake and looking forward toward a new agricultural season, a new harvest, a new normal.

People wanted to talk to me for days afterward about my rice planting. They were delighted that I had done it, delighted that I had experienced their realities, delighted that I had contributed my labor to their village. Their paradigm is that rich, literate people come to their village (or often, come past their village), give them something or tell them what to do, and then move on. By stepping into the rice field, I think I submitted myself to the superiority of their knowledge; instead of coming to instruct or provide, I asked to learn and give.

In a lot of ways, I still think it might have been helpful to have showed up a few weeks earlier with my hammer when it was still time to help build, but it might have been a burden to people to have to feed me and shelter me and figure out what to do with me. By coming a bit late, I came when people were reentering their normal lives, and it meant a lot to me to bend over and literally help them plant their future.

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Disabled in Dhading

In writing these blog posts, I really have two goals. One is to talk about the earthquake, and how the earthquake (and the aid efforts after the earthquake) affected the people I got to know in Dhading district. The other, though, is simply to introduce you, my reader, to some of the people that I met, to help give you a sense of what it means to live in rural Nepal, and to help contextualize how people experienced this enormous disruption.

Today, I want to talk about two of the families that I met, as a way of talking about vulnerability, rural marginalization, and relationships. Each has a family member suffering from debilitating physical and psychological conditions that change the dynamics of the family, and create the need for alternate forms of relationship and care, which inflected the ways the families sorted out the realities of their post-earthquake lives.

The first family that I want to discuss is part of the extended family of Bishnu, the man who invited us to come in the first place. Bishnu’s grandmother lives with two of her daughters and several assorted grandchildren.

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Their house had stood on the main path through Ward 6 between Bishnu’s house and Sailo Dai’s house, and after the earthquake, the family had adapted their animal shelter, which is right next to the path, to serve as their house (meaning that every time I walked past I was basically walking within inches of their open windows). They had modified the animal shed, whose roof had previously been about level with the path (because of the way the land drops away), building a bamboo and reclaimed-wood second floor over top the existing stone structure, which turned out to be just barely above eye level of people walking down the path. By adding some tin walls and a roof, they had been able to create a very serviceable, if not very private, shelter.

I had come to trade pleasantries with the family every time I walked past, primarily the grandmother and her daughter; it’s conventional for everyone to talk to everyone else when out walking in rural Nepal, and so chatting with passersby is a major occupation of that particular household, since they have such proximity to the path. Having had perhaps dozens of small conversations with Bishnu’s grandmother and aunt, it took me a few days to realize that there was also another adult woman who was part of the household, one who didn’t live upstairs with the other family members.

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This daughter lived downstairs, in the three-walled stone structure that had been built for the family’s farm animals, and continued to house their water buffalo. The buffalo was allocated the left half of the ‘room,’ the daughter had a bed frame and a small table to the right. I have no idea if the daughter had been living with the water buffalo before the earthquake or not; I’m sure, though, that she had lived separately in some way from the rest of the family.

The daughter had two different conditions that led to her isolation. She suffered from a fistula, a condition where urine from the bladder continually and uncontrollably leaks into the vagina and out of her body. This condition leads to constant odor and embarrassment for sufferers, and can only be corrected through surgery. The fistula was the reason the Bishnu’s grandmother gave for why her daughter had to stay outside of the normal house: since she leaves urine anywhere she sits or stands, the family prefers for her not to enter the rest of the family’s living spaces.

In addition to the fistula, however, the daughter also had psychiatric problems. She spoke very little, but has an unnervingly piercing stare, one that seemed to look right through my soul and way on behind me down the road. Her family indicated that she was prone both to hysterics and to something that sounded like catatonia.

The family traces both these conditions — physical and mental — to childbirth. The daughter had been married, and had given birth to a child. The labor caused the fistula, and it sounded like the psychological condition set in (or dramatically deepened) in the months after the birth. Perhaps postpartum psychosis? I don’t know. In any event, the husband’s family kept the child, but sent its ‘broken’ mother back to her birth family.

A woman rejected from a marriage is always a problem and a liability in Nepal, regardless of whether or not she has any other issues. In traditional Nepal, property passes through men, and women marry out. When almost every family farms, women have to marry into property-holding families in order to have any opportunity to meaningfully participate in economic and social life. She contributes her house holding skills, her farm labor, and her reproductive capacities, and in exchange, her marital family is supposed to ensure her welfare and comfort for the rest of her life. If a marriage doesn’t work, however, the woman is left vulnerable: her birth family may or may not have roles for her to play or resources with which to support her, and they may or may not wish to take responsibility for supporting someone who ‘left’ the family.

In this particular case, then, the daughter was in some respects quite fortunate that her birth family would agree to house and feed her. She is not in a position to cook or farm for the family, and so she is consuming limited resources without contributing much in return. She is a little unnerving to be around, and people seem to give her wide berth. Her mother, though, strokes her hair and buys her psychiatric medication from the pharmacy in Khahare bazaar. She apologizes to strangers that her daughter has to stay with a water buffalo, and lovingly bullies her daughter to eat. I’m guessing that if she had the money, she would send her daughter to Kathmandu to have surgery for the fistula, which might allow them all to stay in one house together.

The family seems to be doing its best, given a tragic and uncomfortable situation. They care as best they can for someone whose body, mind, and marriage have all fallen apart, and they help me tell a joke to get a genuine smile:

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This family feels resolute and loving, but on a deep level tragic and broken — quite different from another family, their neighbors up the hill.

I met this second family a few days after I had arrived in Ward 6, a married couple plus his mother and sister, and the couple’s children. This family is, if anything, more compromised than Bishnu’s grandmother’s household. The husband’s sister has some facial features that suggest a genetic condition, his mother is blind and deaf. (He explained how frantic he was trying to find her after the earthquake to make sure she was alright; the front edifice and porch of their house had survived, but the whole back half of the house had collapsed, and it took a few minutes searching through the settling dust to find someone who couldn’t hear or see you looking for her.)

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But most strikingly, the couple’s son is profoundly disabled. He was twelve years old when I met him, but the size of perhaps a seven year old. He was completely non-verbal and unable to walk; he could sit by himself, clap, and grunt, but not grasp with his fingers, and it was unclear how much language he might understand. He was a child that, if born in the United States, would have had a high-tech wheelchair, nine intervention specialists, a special bed, a regimen of exercises and stimulation activities. In rural Nepal, he has a woven straw mat, the strong arms of his relatives, the sun in the courtyard — and his mother.

His mother loves her son more intensely than almost anything I have ever seen. She is effervescent, incandescent with her affection for this boy. She holds him in her lap, she coos over him, she wipes his drool, and melts when he smiles. When I want to take a family picture, she wants a portrait just of him, and so she she tries to hide herself as she holds him up.

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She told me ruefully that they had tried taking him to a hospital in Kathmandu, and that maybe she should have left him there with the doctors so that they could take care of him. But she missed him so much that she took him back so that he could stay at her side. So every day, she committed to feed him, dress him, make sure he changed position regularly so he wouldn’t get sores, talk to him, kiss him, and sleep with him in her bed. She also, after the earthquake, would rush to carry him away from the house every time there was an aftershock.

She was the most caring, child-centered mother I think I’ve ever met — one who took her child on his own terms, and delighted in everything he could be or do, without any apparent regard for all the ways his life would not be what she might have expected.

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I spent a lot of time thinking about the daughter under the house and the son who is the light of his mother’s life. I think what struck me so much in meeting these families was my own sense of helplessness in the face of their family members’ profound non-normalcy. In my world, people who are non-neurotypical or whose bodies are radically uncooperative belong in the hands of experts. They should be helped by “people who know what they’re doing” — doctors and physiotherapists and psychiatrists and nurses who would be able to diagnose, label, medicate, design therapy regimens, and organize complicated equipment.

In Nepal, though, there simply aren’t experts or therapies or equipment. If the experts exist, they are all the way in the capital — a full day’s bus ride away — and treatment from them is out of financial reach for most people. What’s on hand is a local pharmacy, some local knowledge of ayurveda and herbs, and families who make it up as they go along, taking care of their vulnerable members as best as they are able.

Certainly, if these two disabled people had been in the United States, there would have had more options for taking care of their physical needs. But would they have necessarily been any better loved, any better cared for? A woman with miscellaneous psychosis might actually be more ostracized from her community in America, where family bonds are weaker, and lives are much more defined on one’s ability to hold down a job. A boy who can’t walk or talk might have been institutionalized — or worse, might have been diagnosed in utero and never born to begin with.

It is part of the discourse of “aid” and “development” that American (/Western) ways are always best, and that other ways of being in the world are worse the more they are unlike our ways. Our technologies, our medicines, our conveniences are thought to be definitionally better. But I think what matters far more, regardless of whether you have easy access to education and electricity, or whether you farm rice in the Himalayas, is the relationships you have with the people around you. And relationships, regardless of where you live, can range anywhere from “underdeveloped” to everything you could ever ask for.

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Sailo Dai and the Nag Than

I want to write for the rest of the week about the efforts to deliver aid to Tripureswor, but for today, I want to introduce you to where I stayed while I was there.

By something of a fluke, I had arrived in Tripureswor the week that school exams were happening, and that put beds in the village at a bit of a premium. Ward 6, where I was, happens to be right across the river from the high school where the district examinations are administered, and so every year, students from other villages (usually students who live an hour or more away, walking distance) come to stay for a few nights so that they can be close to the testing site during the testing week. Families from distant villages make arrangements with families they know for bed space, and so a large number of the tin shelters in the village were housing not only the family who usually lived there, but anywhere between one and five test-anxious high schoolers. The family of Bishnu, the man who had invited Laura’s organization to come stay in the first place, not only had Bishnu, his parents, his brother, and his sister who came from Kathmandu following her own exams, but an extra boy from one of the villages a few hills up. So they didn’t have anywhere to put me.

Instead, they made arrangements for me to stay with an older couple, locally known to everyone as Sailo Dai (second-oldest brother) and Saili (second-oldest sister-in-law).

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They are the only Newar-ethnic couple in an otherwise entirely Brahmin-Chhetri village, and theirs was one of the only houses to survive the earthquake. It is a beautiful multi-story stone house, with clay-washed floors and a blue-and-red-painted wood porch. It stands next to the river, and because it was built on a solid rock-slab rather than the loose riverine gravel under the rest of the village, it didn’t fall with the other houses.

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Sailo Dai, though, thinks that his house survives because it stands between the Shiva temple by the bridge, and a remarkable place called the Nag Than.

The Nag Than (“Place of Serpent-Deities”) is a grotto of large rocks with a pipal tree in the middle, located right behind Sailo Dai and Saili’s house. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful things I have ever seen, an improbably wild-feeling, peaceful, powerful place that can yet be seen from the kitchen window of the house it abuts.

The Nag Than consists of maybe a dozen very large rocks in a cluster. There are hollows in the rocks that collect pools of water, and a straight-vertical cave in the middle that is purportedly where Nagas reside.

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One section of rock cradles a self-emergent Shiva-linga — an emanation of divine power, the great Mahesvara voluntarily coming into the world through a special geological formation.

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Sailo Dai serves as the ad-hoc priest for this remarkable place. He is a farmer by trade — he has no formal schooling, nor the caste status to technically qualify as a Hindu priest — and yet every morning he performs puja rituals to the powers of the universe, which become available through the grotto. He gathers flowers from around his house, places tika powder on a plate, lights wicks, and goes through the Nag Than honoring the deities of his life.

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He doesn’t know any fancy puja liturgies; instead, he just sings the names of his gods. Om namah Shivaya — om Hare Hare — om Mahesvara — jai Bhagawan.

Sailo Dai doing puja

Sailo Dai is one of the most deeply spiritual people I have ever met — as well as one of the most industrious, insanely hard-working people I’ve ever met. He grins from ear to ear at the smallest provocation, and talks constantly about how lucky he is, to have his health and his life, his children and his spouse, and to be able to do puja every day in a place like the Nag Than.

He is also exceptionally, embarrassingly generous. When I was presented to him as a house guest, he instantly agreed to share his family’s modest space. Even though Sailo and Saili’s house still stands, they do not feel safe inside, and so right along with the rest of the village, they built a new tin shelter, a bit away from the house (close to the outhouse, which, fortunately, also survived the earthquake). So Sailo and Saili were cooking in their kitchen, sitting in the mornings and evenings to drink tea on their porch, but sleeping in the single-room tin hut where they felt safe.

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(The tin shelter which Sailo Dai built is to the right in the photo. An old brick pilgrim’s shelter, probably for people visiting the Nag Than, stands to the left, housing part of the corn harvest and showing some of the ravages of earthquake damage.)

They had moved two beds from their house down to the tin shelter, and before I arrived, Sailo had slept in one and Saili had slept in the other. When I arrived, though, Sailo Dai set himself up to sleep on the floor. (In most households, the pressure would probably have been on the wife to give up her bed. Saili is quite frail, though, and suffers back pain, so I don’t think this was ever entertained as an option.) I told him that this arrangement hurt my heart — that I didn’t want to sleep in his bed if it meant he had to sleep on the floor. After all, I had come in the first place to try to help people who had lost so much in the earthquake; I didn’t want to just come to take more from them.

Sailo Dai looked me in the eye and said, “No, no: My god (mero Bhagawan) picked you up from your country, and brought you here to be a guest in my house and sleep in my bed. You are a blessing to me, and if I serve you as my guest, I will be serving my god.”

There was definitely one of us who was a blessing to the other, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.

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(photo credit: Laura Spero)

Bees for Breakfast

This is Dil Bahadur (with his wife, Sushila):

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Dil Bahadur is one of the true nice guys of the world — earnest, hardworking, sincere to a fault, jovial — and he lives next to where I was staying in Ward 6.

Dil Bahadur has worked a lot of jobs in his life. He worked heavy machinery at a rubber factory in India in his teens and twenties, did a stint as a security guard, and eventually came back to Nepal to settle down and get married and farm. Here’s the thing, though: Dil Bahadur doesn’t own any land to farm. Neither does his older brother who lives adjacent to him. Both of them pooled their resources to buy just enough land to build their two houses, and then they tenant farm.

The problem with tenant farming, though, is that you have to hand over fully half of everything you grow to the person who owns the field, and so while the labor of a single family can provide full bellies for the year, it’s hard to put together any surplus to have any cash. So Dil Bahadur periodically works as a porter for foreign tourists, carrying their backpacks and cameras and tents and whatever else they have brought so that they can enjoy their hiking. It’s a good, honest way to make money, and Dil Bahadur clearly enjoys both meeting new people and seeing new places. (He explained to me that he was a “hiDeko manche” rather than a “paDheko manche”: someone who has walked rather than studied for his education.)

Dil Bahadur also must be popular with his clients, because when the earthquake happened, a pair of Australian tourists he’d trekked with wired him US$800 to help him get through the crisis. The problem, though, is that Dil Bahadur not only lives in a very rural village, he is also completely illiterate. The Australians therefore wired the money to the trekking guide who had led their trip (and who speaks English and can read). The guide duly handed Dil Bahadur Rs 35,000 (about $350) and pocketed the rest.

Here’s where I come in. I have access to a world that Dil Bahadur doesn’t: I speak English, I can read and write, I have an email address, I can understand how a wire transfer and an exchange rate work. So shortly after I arrived, Dil Bahadur shyly asked if there was anything I could do to help him, starting by emailing the Australians to see if they knew about the situation. I told him that there might not be much I could accomplish, but that I would certainly write the email on his behalf once I got back to Kathmandu and see what I could find out.

Dil Bahadur was so grateful for my promise of modest future assistance that he insisted that I come eat daal bhaat at his house one morning. So I duly arranged my eating schedule, and made my way over to the bamboo/tin structure behind their mostly-still-standing house. Once there, I discovered that I was being served as though I were a state guest: special seat (while everyone else in the family respectfully stood and watched me eat), separate little dishes for everything (which is a big deal when every single dish needs to be handwashed at an outdoor tap), three different beverages.

I had known that Dil Bahadur wanted to extend special hospitality to me, so I had made very clear in advance that I don’t eat meat — which would have been the usual special-hospitality thing to serve. I saw with approval that there was a fried egg on a dish next to my plate, and I sat down to eat.

At that point, though, Dil Bahadur disappeared briefly and reappeared ceremoniously bearing … a small dish of fried wasps. There were full sized wasps the size of my pinky, small rolled-up wasps, and wasp larvae, all carefully fried in oil and spices.

Apparently, Dil Bahadur had concluded that an egg was simply not enough for his special guest, and had wracked his brain for some way to feed me some special protein of some sort that didn’t include killing an animal. Concluding that insects were not really animals (and so were permissible food for a vegetarian), he had gotten up at 4 a.m. to go find and harvest a wasp nest for me. He showed me where the wasps had stung him all down the one side of his hand.

Fetching wasps at the expense of his sleep and his bodily well-being? I was overwhelmed. It was probably one of the sweetest — though admittedly also one of the weirdest — things that anyone has ever done for me.

I didn’t actually have the nerve to try the full-sized wasps, but I ate all the larvae. They were really reasonably tasty — squishy little vehicles for spices. Eventually, Dil Bahadur sat down beside me to chat, and to munch on the adult wasps that I was too chicken-hearted to eat.

It was a lovely, and remarkably memorable, breakfast, and Dil Bahadur holds a very special place in my heart.

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The Tea Project

As I explained in my last post, having set out with the expectation of doing housing work in Dhading, I found myself instead pledging to do something a lot more like pastoral care. I had decided to (to the best of my ability) visit every house in Ward 6 at least long enough to drink tea, according to the well-established social conventions of Nepali hospitality. (Not everyone served me tea — some served me the local yogurt drink mohi, some served me milk or juice — but I pledged a tea-sized visit.)

To this, I added a second component. Since this was to be essentially a listening tour, I thought it would be nice to create some kind of visual result of all of my listening. I had a brainstorm in this regard, remembering the Japanese temple tradition of writing wishes on small pieces of paper and tying them onto strings outside of Shinto temples:

It occurred to me that as I talked to people in Dhading, I could write down what they said on small pieces of paper, tie all the papers onto a string, and display it at the Shiva temple right by the footbridge, which had completely survived the earthquake. (I figured this spot was not only attractive and had some nice trees outside to help hang things from, but was a spot most people walk past pretty routinely on their way down to Khahare bazaar.)

My pitch to people was that I was collecting everyone’s “man-ko kura” — the words of their hearts — regarding the earthquake, and that by hanging it at the Mahadev Mandir we would be “showing everyone’s man-ko kura to Bhagawan (Lord).”

This project turned out to be enormously popular. Pretty much no one had ever heard of such an idea before (except for one man who had worked as a cook in Japan and said, “oh yeah, I’ve totally seen that”), but almost everyone grasped the idea pretty quickly and were soon explaining it to each other.

So I bought some paper and string (and a piece of cardboard to wind the project-in-progress) and set out to start visiting.

My visits tended to last about half an hour. I would arrive and make small talk for awhile, and usually they would provide me tea, fruit, or something similar. I would carefully examine the site of their old house, and ask them about their earthquake experiences — where were you when it happened? were you able to save anything from the house? Then I would explain my project and ask what they wanted to say. Usually I would write for them, because the majority of adults in Ward 6 are illiterate, but some people proudly wrote for themselves.

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When I was writing for someone, it was a bit of a toss-up whether I recorded what they said in English or Nepali, so I hope that Shiva Mahadev is biligual. If someone talked slowly and conventionally, I usually wrote in devanagari in their exact words; if they spoke quickly and dynamically, I generally reverted to English.

A lot of people who told me very interesting things in general conversation reverted to established platitudes for the paper project — like “bhagawan, sabailai raksha garnu hos” (Lord, please protect everyone), but when someone shared something especially moving or special, I slipped the paper back into the pile to record:

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Then, to complete the visit, I would carefully write down everyone’s names in my notebook, and take photographs of everyone present. This seemed to be the part of the process where people felt most officially noticed.

It’s a little hard to get Nepalis — especially older Nepalis — to smile naturally for a photo, because photographs are important occasions and so you should be serious. But I didn’t at all want to send out into the world images of people looking dour and sad. I wanted to capture people looking like themselves — funny, warm, complicated, contentious, aggressively hospitable — and so sometimes it took some time joking and teasing and cajoling to get something a little more natural:

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Altogether, I visited 38 houses in addition to the house where I ate my meals and the house where I slept. There were a handful of houses where I couldn’t catch anyone at home, two houses where people didn’t really want to be visited, and possibly a handful of houses that I failed to locate — but because some people have left after the earthquake I think the current size of Ward 6 is probably only about 50 houses, so my coverage was pretty close to comprehensive.

It took me the full two weeks to do all my visiting — partly because of the limitations of time (since it is rice-planting season, I could only rely on people to be home from about 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., and then about 5 p.m. until it got dark a bit after 7 p.m.), and partly because of the natural limitations of my ability to be wholly present — not to mention the natural limitations of my stomach. (To my credit, though, on Saturday July 11th I drank an epic eleven cups of tea.)

By the end of the time, I had a camera full of pictures, a notebook full of names, and a string full of earthquake memories and sadnesses and hopes for the future. I woke up early on the day I had to catch my bus to leave, and Dil Bahadur and I went and hung the string of tied up paper at the temple. Dil Bahadur was insistent that all the words would best reach Mahadev if we wrapped the string around the tridents over his gate, and so here is how we left it.

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It probably won’t last long in the monsoon rains, but I hope enough people walk past to be able to see their words all collected together. It’s common in rural Nepal for people to tell each other not to cry or to dwell on hard things (since hard things happen all the time, and there’s so little you can do), so I hope it was helpful to have the opportunity to talk about the earthquake to me.

Certainly the majority of people thanked me effusively for coming. One woman in particular held my hand and said over and over, “Thank you for coming hear to my house. I had the opportunity to tell you my sorrows (dukha) in my own language, and you could listen and understand. I could tell you, and you could hear. So thank you — thank you.”

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What is the Problem, and What Can We Do?

Having arrived in Ward 6 in the dark, it was a little clearer in the morning where we were and what the situation was. Once it was light, we could see that we were in a relatively low section of hill country — a bulging triangle of land between two rivers, that consisted of a wide raised plain of farming land ringed on three sides by a spur of higher ground. The people of Ward 6 live in what I would come to identify as four village-clusters, distributed roughly in a C-shape around the farmland.

What also became clear once it was daylight (especially once we began walking around) was the overwhelming scope of the damage. While there were three essentially undamaged houses near the footbridge over the river we had crossed the night before, and another three that were partly standing but fatally damaged, almost every house in the entire rest of the Ward was simply gone. I did eventually locate one more intact house, and two or three residences that had sustained major damage but still had something recognizable left, but the overwhelming majority of the 65-odd houses and assorted other buildings (most notably the school) were simply piles of rubble.

Perhaps because of the scale of the catastrophe, though, it was clear that Ward 6 had gotten itself to work, and that basically everyone had at least suitable short-term housing of some kind (and wouldn’t have the energy, money, or basic wherewithall to tackle long-term housing until fall or winter, after the rice-planting season). So then the question was, if we weren’t there to do shelter work, what were we going to do?

Bishnu (who had made contact with us) and his mother and their assorted friends had a clear answer: we should work on water. Bishnu brought us to meet and interview Binda, a forceful and funny widow of about 50, who showed us the ruins of her old house and the nice new tin cottage she had commissioned later, and then who held forth for a good half an hour on the local water crisis. She explained that the spring from which the Ward had previously sourced its drinking water had either dried up or been redirected somewhere by the earthquake, and now the villagers were left without drinking water. She pointed dramatically to the rubber pipe into her courtyard, out of which no water was flowing. We were then all walked around to several more houses, where people explained their lack of access to drinking water.

Yes, drinking water is a problem, we acknowledged. We don’t do anything with drinking water.

It’s no problem, said Bishnu, all we need is some pipe.

How much pipe, and what do you need to do with it?

Oh, about 5km of pipe, preferably metal pipe for the start, to bring water from a waterfall in the middle of the Ward 6 community forest, pipe it through the forest floor, across the river, and into the concrete holding tank. Or better, build us a new, better concrete tank, because the current one has some cracks from the earthquake.

This is not exactly the kind of project Laura’s organization can take on. They have a staff of (I believe) four, and are based in the city of Pokhara, probably 100 miles or more from Dhading. They do not have the budget, staff, or expertise to undertake a huge infrastructure project like this, as Laura and Dil Maya promptly started informing everyone.

Over the first day, then, the plan evolved that the organization should, rather than trying to deliver drinking water to Ward 6 itself, should rather serve in an advocacy position, trying to attract the attention and commitment of some bigger organization. And Laura and Dil Maya made preparations to leave.

But I wanted to stay. Partly, I didn’t especially need to dash off to monitor other projects in Lamjung, and wanted to understand the situation and the problems better, but partly, I had gotten the feeling that there was another problem in Ward 6 — one that wasn’t pitched to us, and that would never make it onto a list of aid to be delivered to the district, but that I could actually myself do something to alleviate.

That problem was that the people of Ward 6 were clearly feeling unacknowledged. They had endured the catastrophic loss of their homes and their normal daily lives (though fortunately no one had lost his/her actual life), and they seemed to need to be recognized. Every time we went some place and stood over someone’s house with them, listened to their experience and admired their efforts to rebuild, people thanked us profusely, just for coming and looking and listening.

This I thought might be the real service I could provide: to sit with people, to witness their suffering and acknowledge their lives. To give them my undivided attention.

So I talked with Laura and Dil Maya and Bishnu, and hit upon the idea that I would stay behind, for as long as I wanted, to learn more about the water situation, but mostly to go on a listening tour, with the goal to visit every house in Ward 6 for long enough to drink tea (which is a key Nepali social custom). I would ask them about their lives and their experiences during the earthquake; I would stand over the wreckage of their houses and condole with them, I would take their photographs and write down their names.

It’s not really “aid” in any traditional sense, but it turned into the Tripureswor Tea Project, which I’ll explain in more depth in my next post.

Unexpected Arrivals

As soon as I had confirmed that I was coming to Nepal, I had arranged with my dear friend, Laura Spero, to help in her NGO’s earthquake relief efforts. Her group — which in non-earthquake times primarily facilitates community-based dental program — had been working in villages in Lamjung and Parbat districts, primarily ding housing projects designed to get people still living under tarps into medium term to long-term bamboo and tin houses. (You can read all about her exploits on her blog, allthepiecesof.com.)

When I landed in Kathmandu, however, Iwas instructed to stay put for a few days. Laura’s team had learned of a village in Dhading district, immediately west of Kathmandu, that had had upwards of 80% of its houses destroyed, but that had purportedly not received any help from any NGO since an early emergency food delivery. (Much more to come on the aid situation in Dhading in future posts!) “I have no idea what we’ll find when we get there,” Laura said, “but it seems like it might be important to go, even though it’s not near our existing projects.”

So I was instructed to meet Laura and her associate Dil Maya at the Malekhu Bridge on the east/west highway around midday on Saturday the 4th. That seemed straightforward enough when I set out by bus from Kathmandu, but I found myself on the phone with Laura a few hours later having a conversation that ran —

“I don’t see you. I’m on the bridge.”
“I’m on the bridge too. I don’t see you either.”
“I’m wearing a red shirt.”
“Me too. I still don’t see you.”
” . . . . . ”
“Could there be two Malekhu bridges?

(Spoiler alert: Yes.)

We finally reached the same place, and got on a bus headed for Khahare, from where we would be able to cross a footbridge to reach Tripureswor Ward 6, which was the place we were headed for. As our bus bumped along the winding rural road between the district seat in Dhading Besi and Khahare, however, it started raining heavily, and eventually our bus got helplessly stuck in the heavy clay mud. So we gave up on our bus (which, to its credit, did reach Khahare some six hours later), and walked for two hours or so up the winding dirt road.

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As we walked, what became increasingly clear was that a lot of rebuilding had already been done in the area — unlike in Lamjung, where many people’s houses had been damaged but not destroyed, and people were sort of stuck in limbo. Here, where the destruction was overwhelming, people had clearly just set to work. there were a handful of the tin-tunnel transitional houses popular in the early weeks of disaster relief with Oxfam and a few other big NGOs, but mostly there were houses that seemed to have been improvised by teh local populations: bamboo constructions, tin constructions, a house made entirely out of doors, a tidy little building that looked like a chicken-raising long-house that had been cleaned out and repurposed to be a snug (if rather short) home for humans. There was plenty of rubble, yes, but plenty of energy and competence turning the rubble into new things.

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We stopped and talked to some brothers who were making a new wood-frame house, a longer-term structure to replace a short-term shelter. We talked to a woman who was trying to corrall her goats down from the remains of the house where her 1 1/2 year old grandson had been killed. She has been staying on the property of the brothers we had just talked to, because she doesn’t feel safe where she was and she didn’t want to be quite so alone with her daughter-in-law while her sons work abroad.

As we finally got to Khahare, it was getting dark, so it was harder to see how damaged (or rebuilt) things were. What was sort of surprising, though, was that the mood wasn’t exactly what I would have expected from a bunch of earthquake victims sitting around waiting for help to walk up the hill. Instead, the local teenagers were entertaining each other (and celebrating the end of their school exams) with a street party. Someone said it was a play, but it seemed much less organized and a lot rowdier.

We finally walked across the footbridge into Tripureswor Ward 6, the place we had set out for, We made our way in the dark to the shelter that had been built by the family of Bishnu, the man who had been in touch with Laura to bring us there in the first place.

When I say ‘shelter,’ though, I really mean full-out new house. It’s a full-sized tin/wood/bamboo structure that only has one room, but could easily be partitioned into two or three. There were three beds, and a ceiling fan rigged up to an electrical system. There was a bench rigged up from lengths of bamboo, and in the morning I discovered they had planted marigolds all along the side of the house. They had rescued their satellite dish from the wreckage of their old house, and had carefully mounted it on a bamboo pole outside, its receiver wound with a plastic bag to protect it from the monsoon rains.

Laura and Dil Maya and I all duly admired the house — and then looked at each other.

“I don’t think they’re going to need any help with housing.”

Unbroken Kathmandu

I have had a wonderful three days in Kathmandu — wonderful in large part because of how absolutely normal they have felt. I have lived in the same house that I did in 2009-2011, and seen lots of old friends. I’ve been to aarati at Pashupatinath, I’ve picked up necessities at the Bluebird Departmental Store, I’ve visited with people’s assorted relations, I have gotten squashed and hot on the Nakkhu public microbus.

Somehow, this was not at all what I was expecting. People here had told me several times that Kathmandu was very much back to business-as-usual, but I just couldn’t process it. After all, hadn’t I spent weeks in April and May morbidly looking at disaster-photos, crying over all kinds of places I knew?

Here’s the thing, though: when the earthquakes first happen (they are still happening, by the way, on a small scale but almost daily basis), people rushed out to photograph the most impressive ad horrifying examples of damaged houses and temples and businesses. It makes sense: that’s what people will spend hours and weeks looking at.

But nobody took pictures of the houses and temples and businesses that were actually OK — and in Kathmandu itself, that’s most of the houses and temples and businesses. Certainly there are houses that are gone; certainly there are beautiful and important temples that have been reduced to rubble. Certainly there are structures that will need to be demolished and rebuilt. Certainly the open space of the Tundikhel in the middle of Kathmandu is stacked with bricks and rebar, around the lines of tents for people still displaced.

But numerically, the structures of the capital are overwhelmingly intact, and the families are overwhelmingly in apartments or houses. Kids are going to school, buses are running, vegetable markets are operating. There’s even pretty good access to electricity, which is an unusual bonus in the capital.

This reality was completely invisible to me before I arrived, though, because of the ways Kathmandu has been photographed after the earthquake. So to try to tip the balance just a bit, here are some photos of buildings that have not fallen down:

download (12) This house.

download (11) This neighborhood (as seen from my roof).

download (3) This temple.

download (1) These shops.

download (2)This entire street.

(I could seriously go on and on and on like this. But hopefully you get the beginning of the picture.)

Tomorrow I’ll be heading to Dhading district, to a village estimated to have lost upwards of 80% of its houses. So that will be an entirely different story — one which I’ll be able to tell once I’ve returned to internet contact. But for now, cheers from Kathmandu-as-usual.

Giraffes and the Costs of Leaving

I’m sitting in the international terminal of O’Hare airport right now, in transit to Nepal, and while I have been looking forward for weeks to being able to be back to the country I love so much, right now I am mostly thinking about the costs of being gone.

Mostly, I am thinking about my son. He only just turned three, and I have never been away from him for remotely this long. I have been working to prepare him (and myself) for my trip for about as long as I knew I would be going — I set up a calendar with stickers for him to count the days until I left and then until I get back, and I even ordered him a little pillow with my photo on it in case he got lonely and needed a mommy-hug, and I know Daddy is going to take excellent care of him — but it still felt terrible this morning to go.

What I think has helped, though, is that we have been reading a lovely book called Meet Me At The Moon, about an elephant mother who has to leave her elephant baby. The mother talks all the way through how much she loves Little One, and how he can feel loved when he can’t see her, and then they reunite at the end and snuggle. So night after night, we have been saying together, over and over, “You are in my most secret heart, Little One,” and “I love you like the sun loves the earth. Whenever you feel the warmth of the sun, you will know that I am loving you from where I am.”

So I’ve been thinking a lot about how fiction can help you rehearse feelings before you’ve had the experience — how thinking about a wise mother elephant walking to the mountain has helped me practice feeling like a human mommy getting onto an airplane, and how hearing about a baby elephant missing its mommy will (hopefully) have helped my human kid watch me go.

I think the best way that my son has rehearsed our separation, though — the most constructive lesson he has drawn from our book-reading — has been that when the mommy elephant leaves, all the giraffes come to nuzzle the baby elephant and help him feel better. Every time we turn to that page (the page where Mama walks away), he invariably points out the giraffes.

So even though, by his own prediction, my son is “prolly gonna cry” while I’m gone (because of course there is no one quite like mommy when you’re little), I know he’s prepared himself to see not just his daddy elephant but the many wonderful and loving giraffes in his life.

I just hope I have enough giraffes to hep me through on my end.