Thursday, June 9, 2011

Kathmandu, Nepal

Today will be our third day in Kathmandu.  We are living with Sova and Sugandha Shrestha, in their enormous, three-story house, which sits in a lush, green suburb of the capital.  The locals call it “Pepsi-Cola” after the factory that lured many families to the region.  It is quite new, by any standards, and rapidly expanding.  Only ten years ago fields and jungle covered this area. Now there are many beautiful houses in bright Nepali colors, enclosed gardens and kitchen fields planted with corn, cabbage, cauliflower, beans, and herbs.  The poor and the rich live still live on top of one another, as in the central city, and wild dogs roam everywhere.  The dogs lay about, half-dead, all day long, and spend the nights fighting and barking.Some of them are tame, but it is hard to tell which ones are friendly.  Many of them are quite beautiful and sweet-faced, if ragged, but it is best to let them lie.

The people set up their shops for metal work, concrete, brick-making, and furniture construction right against the lovely houses, and throw their trash into the river, the ditches, and the fields.  You can see one of those shops—this one happens to be a place where they make metal gates and railings—alongside the purple house in the photos.  Notice also the cow grazing in the yard just below our house.

From our house in Pepsi-Cola

There are also many small shops selling candy, packaged foods and other household goods crowded into the bottoms of the houses.  We have only to open the gate and step to the right to get most of toiletries we need.   Shoemakers, tailors, and cloth-sellers, and tiny restaurants that sell mo-mos, or dumplings, fried rice, noodles, and alcohol have also set up shop in Pepsi-Cola.  The volunteers who have been to the place they call the “bar” say that rats run across the floors.  I haven’t yet ventured out into the night.  So far I have been too tired even to read, and have passed out shortly after dinner, which we have communally at 7 o’clock.

It makes sense to turn in early, since there a local Hindu festival—apparently they are reading the entire Bagavad-gita (pronounced “vag-wa-GITa”)—blares music and prayers throughout the neighborhood from 5 am to 9 pm.  From the moment we first encountered them at the airport in Doha, the Nepali people have been bewildering intense.  They crowd and jostle one another while queing for the bus, but do so quite cheerfully and without the frenetic single-mindedness that a Westerner would expect.  They drive maniacally, constantly beeping their horns to shoo pedestrians, cows, bicycles, and other drivers out of their way, and veer frighteningly close as they pass, but they do all of this with an equanimity and good humor that seems strange to western eyes.  How can they behave so chaotically and calmly at the same time?  This apparent contradiction is what I find most seductive and charming about them.

cowherd in Kathmandu

We have been so busy during the day getting to know the other volunteers, taking Nepali lessons during the mornings, and sight-seeing in the afternoons, that I have had little time to think about Tim.  Only at the last moment of they day, as I am in bed, do I return to my sorrows, which flood in with such unbearable intensity that I flee from them into sleep.  When I awaken during the night, as I often do, I ache and feel his withdrawal from me as a terrible betrayal that has left me empty and vulnerable and lonely.   He still writes to me and is very kindly taking care of my house and the dogs that we parent together and the cat, who is mine, but who likes Tim much better because Tim is much nicer to him.  When he writes now he does not sign his messages “love” as he used to, and I wonder when it was that he began to pull away from me or felt that I was pulling away from him.  I wasn’t nearly as attentive to him as I had been during our last month together, and I am not sure whether that was because I unconsciously sensed him moving away from me or whether it was that I felt I needed more space for myself.   It was the happiest and healthiest relationship of my life and yet it ended abruptly and without any warning.  I suppose I could be grateful for not having to go through the usual protracted and agonizing period of breaking up that seems interminable when you are going through it.  I am indeed grateful that we are still on friendly terms with one another.  I don’t know quite how to think about it.  My husband and other significant boyfriends—there were only two—were far more compatible with me on paper, as it were. That is, we were all academic, cultural historians or critics and skeptics.  All three of them recoiled a bit from my spiritual inclinations, which struck them as naïve and touchy-feely.   Odd that the man with whom I have the most in common spiritually should leave me for not being religious enough.  I am not a Christian, and that is a problem for him.  I am writing this while listening to haunting tunes played on an instrument I do not recognize, flutes and Hindu chanting.

Brendan has undertaken a passionate romance with a young woman from McKee’s Rocks.  They write to one another constantly on facebook and spend our mornings and her evenings chatting on the internet.  Our connection is probably not strong enough for skype.  I disapprove of this because it keeps him from getting to know the other volunteers, two of whom are living with us in Sugandha and Sova’s house, and I also understand it.  The other volunteers are all female and only two or three years older than he is, in their early twenties.  Some of them are quite beautiful, and they are all fascinating, motivated young women who have paid their way to come here.   Sue, a pharmacy student from Canada, and Dorina, who comes from the Czech republic but who has lived in England for the last three years, have both spent time volunteering in Africa. They both live with us.  Shannon is American and on her way home from a nine-month stint waiting tables and traveling around in Australia, Singapore, and Indonesia.  There are also Eileen and Sara from Germany, where they study architecture, and a few others whom I have not yet met.

Sara and Eileen in a Duk-Duk

They have taken up with one another and made plans to travel together.   I really should not complain too much about Brendan.  He loves being here, even though he is already pestering me to let him go home early.  I’m hoping that he will gradually wean himself from the internet and spend more time being here, as it were.  But for now the contact with another American, who lavishes him with affection and attention, may be offering him the stability and familiarity that he needs in order to venture into this very foreign culture with the ease and confidence that he has so far displayed.  I am therefore temporarily deciding to approve of this behavior.  Plus, it would be hypocritical in the extreme for me to criticize him since I spend so much time in my own room writing.

Brendan at Boudha, the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist Shrine outside Tibet

Yesterday he chastised me for treating him like a child.  We are taking Nepali lessons together, and we are the only students in the class. I was trying to encourage him to do better through positive reinforcement, but of course he saw right through that and got pissed off.  I apologized and said that I was still getting used to hanging out with him, and that I would try to behave better.  What I really wanted to say was that I would happily treat him like an adult if he would only act like one.  I see insecurity and self-absorption in him that I recognize in myself, however, and urge myself to be more patient with both of us.

I worry because I don’t know exactly what I’m doing here.  It seems enough to say that I am contributing to my son’s education, broadening his horizons, and giving him something that I have always wanted to give him—exposure to a different culture, language, and set of experiences that will develop his mind and spirit in important ways.  Yet I feel restless and unhappy with myself, so unmoored, so unfocused, and uncertain.  Last night I dreamt about leaving academia.  At least I think that’s what the dreams were about.  Michael McKeon, my dissertation advisor and mentor, was lecturing at a conference alongside other bigwigs.  I had gone back to graduate school—I have this dream often—and taking a class with him that covered 18th century poetry and science.  I had completely ignored the science portion of the class, and skipped the final, so I figured I would fail the course.  I didn’t really care about the grade, since I already had my Ph.D. and was simply passing time, but I worried that I had disappointed him.  He and some other bigwigs were giving speeches at a conference, commending other colleagueas who had graduated and gotten their first jobs at the same time as I, and I realized that I hated the way they talked down to us all—they called us “kids” even though we were all in our forties and fifties.   Apparently it would take a lifetime to reach their level of intellectual maturity, and this goal seemed both unreachable and pointless to me.

What else do I want to share with you today?  We eat dal bhat, rice, lentils, and cooked vegetables in a curry sauce, twice a day.  At lunchtime we go to tiny, often steamy, hole-in-the wall restaurants for mo-mos or fried rice.  Rice three times a day.  I begin the day at 5 am, when the music starts, and collapse into bed by 8.  Did I mention that there is no hot water during the summer months?  Gas for heat comes from canisters, and it’s expensive, so they do without it in the bathroom when it’s warm outside.  I am learning to force myself under the cold shower and wash my hair as fast as I can, gasping and yelping.

Yesterday I bought some fabric for a kurta. It’s a shocking cerulean blue with silver filigree and mirrors.  Today I’ll skip lunch and go to a woman tailor sponsored by the organization I’m working for.  Half the proceeds of what she charges me will go to support the Women’s Center, where indigent women learn to read and write in their own language, and to speak English.  Laxmi, the servant who works in our house, goes there during her lunch hours.  She calls me “Didi,” which means older sister, so it is right for me to call her “Bahini,” little sister.  Sova also calls me “Didi.”  It is a term of endearment and respect, and Nepalis prefer referring to one another this way than by name.  They also don’t customarily say “thank you,” so we Westerners, who are continually saying “Danyabaad” for practically everything, must seem excessively and weirdly formal.  I think it strikes them as an expression of inadequacy, the way it does when a woman frequently says, “I’m sorry.”  I’m trying to learn not to say it and to smile, as they do, instead.

I also bought some wide green trousers, which the volunteers call “comfy pants” yesterday.  I’m wearing them with a white tee-shirt and a blue scarf, worn Nepali-style, draped in an arc on my chest with the ends hanging down my back.  I feel tremendously fat here, in comparison to the 20-year olds all around me.  I’m not drinking here, not because it’s not available but rather because it’s not done in my family house, and because I don’t feel the need.  It would be nice to lose weight, but with all the rice I’m eating, I’m not counting on it.  Farewell, my friends and loved ones, for now.

old woman at Boudha