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.


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.




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.”

Love Letter to Mangal Bazaar

Note: In fact, I visited Mangal Bazaar in July 2015, several weeks after writing this, and determined that in fact it had survived the earthquake completely fine. The information I had received (that had prompted this writing) had been inaccurate: I had been told that there was near total destruction “in the area around the Machhindranath temple” — but I later discovered that the person had meant “the Machhindranath temple in Bungamati,” not Patan.

In other words, the reflections below are based upon a misapprehension of the situation — but I have decided to let the post stand, because I think it continues to convey my initial feelings trying to comprehend and process the earthquake from a distance.   — AM


TO: Mangal Bazaar, Patan, Lalitpur District, NEPAL

Dear Mangal Bazaar,

I know it’s been a few years since I last saw you, so I’m not sure if you even remember me, but I wanted to write to tell you how much I love you.

I was so sorry to hear about the devastation you have suffered from the earthquakes that have rocked Nepal over the past month. A friend told me that some 70% of the buildings from your neighborhood have been damaged or destroyed. I can hardly even imagine what you now look like.

I don’t know if I ever told you before that you are one of my favorite places in Nepal. You are the street that always I go out of my way to walk down, one of the places that I feel most deeply immersed in the world. I love that, even though you brush right by Durbar Square, you are not a tourist attraction: you are not there for me or for people who look like me, you are not putting yourself on display, you are not trying to be what outsiders want you to be. You are just you, unselfconscious and unapologetic.

Street scene

What you have to realize is that I come from a country where space doesn’t mean much. In America, buildings are new and our spaces sprawl. We cover acre upon acre with grass or parking lots, and we stick big-box multinational businesses in soulless strips of concrete. But you, Mangal Bazaar, have lived into every inch of your space — and you have lived into that space over centuries. Every step feels dense, lived in, shaped by the people who have walked your street and inhabited your buildings. Your stone-carved tap, slowly sinking into layers of asphalt, was probably commissioned by the local king four or five centuries ago, but it isn’t behind glass or or ropes or marked with a self-important sign: it is used or simply walked past by your community. Your businesses aren’t glaring, antiseptic warehouses, they are each idiosyncratic and human-sized: shop-fronts that are just enough room for two people and some merchandise, ‘shops’ full of vegetables or spices that are just an upturned basket or a cart or a tarp spread upon the ground.


You know those backpack merchants that hang out along your route down closer to Lagankhel? They are exactly what fascinates me about life in Nepal. When there’s never quite enough capital, infrastructure, or technology to quite go around, people get endlessly inventive. Nepal is the country where people carry refrigerators and couches on their backs, panes of glass or potted trees or entire families on motorcycles, full busloads of passengers in a minivan. If your backpack sellers lack the capital to purchase a store-front or even a pushcart, they use their own bodies as display-racks, and stand month after month, year after year, presenting their wares.

backpack salesmen

Do you still have the shops where the local Newar silversmiths and goldsmiths sit on box-stools behind a single counter? It seemed like there have been fewer of those over the years, but I hope they never disappear. I come from a country where massive jewelry stores promise inventories of bazillions of items, with shiny salespeople who will instantly present whatever your heart desires. It’s a relief sometimes to go into a tiny closet of a shop, where the glass case sometimes has only ten or twenty items out for sale, and you have to drink tea with the proprietor before you can seriously talk prices for any of them. Do you know the long, low shop with a green-painted door, the one that’s owned by a friend of Dinesh’s cousin? I bought my and my husband’s wedding rings there in 2003, and the proprietor’s brother made each ring by hand.

Do you remember that time back in 2001 when I came to Mangal Bazaar looking for a shawl, back when I could barely speak Nepali and hadn’t really gotten the hang of shopping in a fluid-price, haggling economy (and was thus constantly getting overcharged for everything)? I just stumbled into the sari shop near the spice- and fish-merchants, and the proprietor Sunil sold me a red wool shawl that he basically refused to haggle over. I was initially incensed that he wouldn’t lower what I was sure was the inevitably outrageous foreigner-price, but when I got back home, my host family was impressed that he had sold it to me for such an eminently reasonable amount of money. Do you know that I have continued to shop there for years, out of loyalty to the man who didn’t take advantage of my foreignness and inexperience? I went back for my red Tihar sari and my rust-colored spangled kurta; I bought the blue sari that I wore for my son’s first rice feeding ceremony there. When my mother and my sister came to visit me in 2010, I took them to Sunil to pick material for kurta suruwals.

I think I might even have been wearing my very first red wool shawl that morning when I woke up at sunrise to head to Mangal Bazaar to film the morning puja at I Bahi for the class I was going to be teaching the next semester. Do you recall? I remember how crisp the air felt as I peeked into the wood-carved doorway flanked by two lion statues, and that there was a random dog barking persistently as I stepped into in the courtyard. I wanted to be able to show my students the rituals performed there every morning — to the Buddha images behind the lattice doors, to the little chaitya, to all the other sacred images around the courtyard — by the priest who comes on his motorcycle. I wanted to record how the priest’s sacred bell mingles with the bells of other pujas around the neighborhood, Hindu and Buddhist, at homes and at temples. I felt awkward to be there, even though I’d asked permission to come the week before, but the handful of people who were there that morning were so nice to me. They just couldn’t understand why I would ever want to take a video at such a minor temple of something so profoundly ordinary:

Puja to all images

Where I come from, it’s rare for religion to be just an ordinary part of the day or the year in quite the same way as it is in Nepal, and certainly it’s hard to imagine having the enormous chariot of Rato Machhindranath lumbers down a street in America the way it comes annual to Mangal Bazaar. It seems such a patently impractical idea to pull a six-story-tall bamboo tower on wooden wheels through a narrow lane tangled with electrical wires, and Americans would probably get just as worked up about the permits and perimeters as about the idea of a religious display in public. In Patan, though, Rato Machhindranath’s chariot has been tracing this same route (from Pulchowk to Sundara to Mangal Bazaar to Lagankhel to Jawalakhel) since at least 1600 if not far longer, and neither electrical wires nor the possibility of someone getting run over by the chariot stand in the way of taking a god on tour through the streets of the city.

machindranath rath

It is hard to say whether the chariot will make it to you this year, Mangal Bazaar, or if so, when. It was already on its way when the earthquake struck on April 26, but it hasn’t been pulled past where it stands at Sainbu since. The streets were cracked and filled with debris, the people have been busy seeking safety; the god’s two home temples have been destroyed, and last I heard the bhoto that gets displayed at the end of the chariot procession was lost in the rubble.

If the chariot does make it to you, what will it find? Will it roll past broken, empty husks of buildings, or piles of debris, or empty holes where buildings once stood? Does I Bahi still exist, and is there still a buddha image behind a metal lattice door? What has happened to the stone tap and the jeweler’s shop with the green-painted door? Is there still a jeweler to serve tea to his customers, a sari-seller prepared to deal honestly, a backpack seller wearing his stock?

Are you still my beloved Mangal Bazaar after the earthquake?