We’ve been up most of the night, since our flight departed at 11:30 pm and arrived four hours later in a different time zone. We had to wait for another seven hours for the next flight. It’s a nice airport, extremely clean. We’ve gotten used to grime. There are trash cans! I don’t know why Nepal lacks trash cans, or dumpsters, or people who clean bathrooms. Nice to have toilets you can sit on, t.p., and soap again, too.
What else is different. People are diverse. There are a lot more Africans, Europeans, Americans, Middle Easterners. Lots of Arabs, but not as many as you’d expect. Not too many women walking around in abayahs. I’m wearing my favorite kurta suruwal, the one I had made to match the outfits I bought for the girls. We only had one day together in our identical clothes.
Anura painted a sun, surya, on my palm in henna. It is my most precious ornament. Like all things, it will not last. It fades a bit more each time I wash my hands. Who will make sure Anura washes her hands with soap now that I am gone? No one comes to braid their hair before school, to sit with them during their breakfast. A new volunteer will come, I am sure. This does not console me.
Brendan is very happy to be going home, happy to have me with him in the airport. He said that my being with him makes it 100 times easier for him. He would have been fine without me, I think. I have no way of knowing that. No use pushing a child into a situation that they don’t feel ready to face. You can’t build character through intentional suffering or indifferent neglect.
Same day, about 24 hours later:
New York, New York
Sitting in a well-lit Vino/Volo wine bar at JFK with Brendan. When the waitress brought the salad I ordered, I had to stop myself from saying “thank you” in Nepali (danyabad). Then, wonder of wonders, she brought salt and pepper, which never would have happened in Nepal.
I’m drinking pinot grigio, which is somewhat insane since I’m exhausted. I got up yesterday morning at 5:30, Nepali time, and have had only short naps in the past 48 hours. Brendan is dozing in the chair next to me. He has been in a wonderful mood, thrilled to be able to get a milkshake that he could drink safely and very, very happy to be back in the States.
He just opened his eyes and laughed. A woman has come onto the airport intercom twice now to cuss out another woman in standard Black American English. I didn’t catch all her words, but did manage to hear “nigger, bitch, mother-fucking…” Welcome to America!
I have spoken to T now twice. I called him after we got through customs to announce our arrival. We spoke for a few minutes in the usual friendly tones. It was awkward. It has always been hard to talk to him on the phone, and this time the odd silences were no longer or more uncomfortable than usual. Still, it felt strange.
He called again just now to say that he was going to the market for us, and to ask if we had any requests. It’s nice of him to do this, and nice of him to pick us up from the airport, and nice of him to have gotten all his furniture out of the house in time for our arrival. I asked him how he accomplished this. He said that friends from his church gave him a hand, and that one of them had a 22 year-old son who was particularly helpful. I wondered if this was the woman he’s interested in, but didn’t ask.
Tim has bought a house just steps away from mine but won’t close on it until the end of the month. So he’ll go to his sister’s tonight. This will probably be a strange move for him, since my house has been his house for so long now. I’m worried that it will feel very cold and empty without him there.
Brendan said, “Don’t worry! Soon you’ll have me and Danielle and a Great Dane to keep you company.”
It is true. With Baldr and Freya, there will be three dogs, two children, and one cat under the roof. Plenty of company. Thank goodness for Brendan.
I’m sure I can’t possibly assess to what degree or how I have changed in the past few months right now. My brain is not working so well right now, and it’s too soon to say. But it is certain that I have changed. I’m neither devout nor dogmatic, but I’ve become much more seriously interested in Buddhism.
One of the strangest things about being here—in addition to the odd announcements from the airport loudspeaker—is getting used to the fact that from now on most of the people I’ll encounter will be Americans who speak only one language and who have never traveled anywhere outside the country. Given the neighborhood I live in and the places I go, most of the people I see will be white. Some of them will be black. Very few of them will look like the brown faces I’ve come to know as ordinary. There will be no more diversity of Asian faces bearing witness to Indian, Mongolian, Tibetan, or Chinese ancestry!
I have been living at a Buddhist monastery for the past week, getting up to the sound of chanting monks. I have gotten used to women in kurtas, dogs, cows, ducks and chickens in the street, to women swishing their beautiful Tibetan silk skirts and aprons, to men in Newari caps sitting for hours on storefront stoops, to gaudy saris and tikas and tinkling plastic bracelets, to attracting unwanted attention because I am white.
I love the slow pace of life in Nepal and love to gaze upon the stupa.
I miss Anura, Bipin, Gaurima, Krishala, and Nirmala. It seems cruel and unfair that I won’t be able to see them every morning. It is terrible to contemplate the thought of never seeing them again.
What are you willing to go through in order to get a pair of walking sandals? I had brought my old Chackos, my sturdiest, waterproof, hiking sandals to Nepal, where I wore them every day. At night I left them with the myriad other shoes jumbled up at Sughanda’s house door, well behind a locked gate. One morning, towards the middle of my time there, they were gone. Someone had stolen them.
I bought a knockoff pair in Kathmandu, but they fell apart the first time I climbed a mountain in them. Then I tried to get by on flip-flops and hiking boots, but the former were too flimsy and the latter too hot. My dear friend Shreejanna spent an entire day with me searching for something with which to replace them, but I found nothing suitable and ended up with more blisters.
I found myself walking less and less. After a few miserable weeks I broke down and ordered another pair from R.E.I. I had plans to do some serious mountaineering and needed something sturdy and reliable. The new Chakos cost $95 plus $30 to ship, and arrived 10 days later. I had no idea what I was in for when I headed downtown to pick them up.
Three days before I was supposed to leave Nepal, I received a phone call from an officious official who informed me that I had a package waiting and should come to Room 32 at the General Post Office (GPO). My friend Bill, who knows Kathmandu very well, went with me by cab to the heart of the city. The GPO is an enormous, concrete structure in deteriorating piss-yellow paint.
We entered a cavernous, noisy room with grey walls and floor and stood for a few minutes in front of a teller who sat well behind a high, glass wall. When it became clear that she was determined to ignore us, we moved to two other women who looked a little friendlier. They looked at me and acknowledged my greeting, so I said,
“Hello, my name is Doctor Latta and I have a package to pick up.”
Neither of them said a word. I repeated my statement. They mumbled something in return.
“I need to pick up a package!” I said, raising my voice.
They responded again but I could not comprehend. Finally Bill stepped in and said exactly what I had said, but it was as though he had said something different because the women grinned at him and directed us to a different building. We went back out the door and around what looked like a trash heap through a parking lot and towards some piss-yellow buildings. I saw a lot of crushed boxes mailed from different countries and wondered if the carton of books and tee-shirts that Tim had sent me had ended up here, in this graveyard of undelivered packages.
We went into one building and found another enormous, echoing room At a large wrap-around desk in the center a woman in a purple kurta sat and stared at us.
“Yes?” she demanded crisply.
“Room 32?” I asked.
She pointed to a dirty corridor to her left and we followed it outside again, around a corner and across a concrete slab on which a dog lay. It was hard to tell whether it was dead or alive. We entered another, smaller labyrinth but this time there were signs in English. Room 30, 31, 32 this way. We followed the arrow and entered into a dim corridor which led us to a number of different rooms. Finally we found room 32, a long, dark room with a long counter that ran its length. We waited for about five minutes in line behind someone speaking to an official, when a man dressed in black pants and white shirt—the uniform of the officials at this office—called us in an irritated voice to a different spot at the counter. I explained that I had receive a call from the G.P.O. informing me that I had a package to pick up.
“What is your name?” the official asked.
I told him. He disappeared into a room at the end of the room, behind the counter, for another 5 minutes, and then returned, empty-handed.
“We cannot find your package,” he said, and gestured for me to follow him into the room from which he had just emerged. Bill came with me into another dark room filled with boxes in no particular order, haphazardly stacked in piles on the floor.
“You look for your package,” the man ordered.
We obeyed. After 10 or 15 minutes of searching, we found the box and mistakenly assumed that our ordeal was finished. But no. The man took the box from me and put it behind the counter. He shoved a form at me and told me to take it to room 31.
We took the form to room 31, a bit brighter but dirtier room in which four or five men were lounging behind desks, smoking cigarettes. The only person who appeared to be working was a woman in a pink kurta at a desk near the entrance to the room.
We approached her, but she directed us to one of the more relaxed fellows at a neighboring desk. He allowed us to wait for a few minutes before scanning the form that I handed him and consulting a large, green, leather-bound book. He said that I had to pay about 180 rupees and wrote something on the form. Returning it to me he indicated that we should return to the woman at the front desk, who took my money.
She didn’t have exact change in her drawer so she got some bills out of her purse. Then she told us to return to the central office, where we had encountered the woman in the purple kurta. We went to her, showed her the form, and she told us to return to room 32.
We trudged back through the labyrinth, outdoors again and around, past the still seemingly dead dog. In Room 32 we presented the form to a different man behind the counter, who pulled my box from underneath the counter and looked at it blankly.
“You must wait for Mr. Shrestha,” he said, without further explanation.
We stood there for many minutes, staring at the box that I for some unknown reason was not yet permitted to receive. Finally he told us to sit down in some plastic chairs nailed against the wall opposite the counter and put my box back under the counter. This was all starting to get very tiresome, and I was tempted to simply grab and run, but Bill stayed me. We waited. Mr. Shrestha failed to show.
I got up and went over to the counter, where I did my best to glower at the man who had asked us to wait. Perhaps I looked fierce, or perhaps he was also tired to waiting for his superior, and so he pulled the box out from its hiding place and stood with his hands on it.
Suddenly, Mr. Shrestha appeared. He ceremoniously stepped up, greeted us gruffly, and proceeded to tear open my package. Inside he found the sandals and rooted around for other stuff.
“That’s all there is,” I said, expecting any minute to have them in my hands.
But no, he did not hand them over. Instead he scribbled something illegible on another form and told me to take it back to Room 31. Back out we went, past the still unmoving dog, around the piss-yellow walls, and into the enormous central office, and into the dingy room where all the men lounged and the single woman worked. We went back to the surly gentleman who we spoke to before, and he demanded another 50 rupees, which he said was a tax. I was so sick of the process that I didn’t argue and dully handed over the bills, which went again to the woman in the pink kurta, who signed the form.
We took it back to Room 32, where I think I would have screamed and raved had I not finally gotten my hands on the goods that we had expected to get over an hour ago.
As we sailed out the door Bill asked, “Ever get the idea that you’re in a Kafka story?”
As soon as I moved into Kalidas’s unhappy house, I realized that I had had it with Nepal. I like Kalidas, in spite of his domineering ways. He looks me straight in the eyes, which Sugandha rarely did. And he shows the pain of their terrible loss. Not five months ago, they lost their 19 year-old daughter to cancer. He told me directly that the reason he wanted me to live with them was to keep his wife company and to teach her English. I feel sorry for them, but I also think they expect too much from me.
I needed a place where I could relax and recover from the long, hot days. Communal dinners with the other volunteers living at Sugandha’s house provided a wonderful respite. There was much laughter, usually because Brendan was entertaining everyone with silly impersonations of redneck, gun-toting Americans trying to speak Nepali or interacting with foreigners of any kind. He has a gift for jokes—they just tumble out of his mouth. The Brits found him hilarious and insisted that he should be on TV. At Kalidas’s house, I was the entertainment and the teacher at once. Dinner was an exhausting ordeal of answering personal questions or dodging obvious traps such as the following:
Kalidas: We Nepalis have such a relaxed way of life, whereas you westerners are rushing around all the time.
Me: Yes, we live to work, while you work to live.
Kalidas: Who has the better life, Nepalis or Westerners?
Me: Um, well, it depends on which Nepalis and which Westerners you’re talking about. Do you mean Kathmandu street children? Do you mean wealthy businessmen such as yourself?
Kalidas, ignoring my efforts to complicate the question entirely: Which lifestyle is healthier? Who has the better life?
Me: I really couldn’t say. I’m sorry, I just can’t seem to decide.
Kalidas: We Nepalis have the better life….
And here would commence another long lecture about the superiority of Nepal. After two days in his house, Kalidas had convinced himself that I would soon see the light, marry a proper Nepali man, and settle here, in Pepsi-Cola.
It was awkward. I had to get out of there, and did. After a week at this house I rode my bike to Boudha. The ride home that night was hilarious and harrowing. I will write about it in a separate post
I have not been able to write for a while because I have had very limited access to the internet. Also, my last days here in Nepal have been richly complicated and busy, and I have not had the energy or ability to post. Right now I’m sitting in a delightful garden café at the Shechen Gompa, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near the great stupa called Boudha.
There are magnolia and mango trees, and swooping bushy hot pink and orange bougainvillea vines, hibiscus bushes, marigolds, impatiens and countless other shade and sun flowers I cannot name. I have spent a lot of time here in the last week.
There is much to report, much to record, and much more to consider. For now I’m going to upload some thoughts that I wrote during my transition from the last post to today. During that period bedbugs drove me out of Sugandha’s house and into what Sugandha called a palace. It was a nice, upper middle-class Nepali house. I lasted less than a week and ended up here. Brendan moved over with me a few days ago. We’re sharing a well-appointed room at the Tharlam gompa and have had many adventures and conversations.
25 July, 2011
I’m having a difficult time adjusting to the new house. First of all, I miss Brendan. I don’t like having breakfast and dinner without him, and I liked getting to say goodnight. Second of all, I have a lot less privacy here. Every move is scrutinized. Not so much by the wife, Nirmala, as by the husband, Kalidas, a traditional Nepali man. When trying to make conversation on the first day, I asked Nirmala what she liked to do. Did she like to garden? Yes. She told me about her garden. Did she like to cook? She hesitated, and then Kalidas interrupted, practically shouting, “Cooking is her duty!” It didn’t matter to him whether or not she liked it. He asked lots of personal questions, as Nepalis tend to do, and quickly discerned that I was divorced, a status that most Nepalis find disgraceful. He makes me uncomfortable.
I don’t have the nice view from the room that I had at Sugandha’s house, and I can’t hear the frogs chirping in the fields at night. I can’t sleep because the bed is super-hard and the machine that recharges the battery intermittently fires off a round of zaps like a machine gun. This noise goes on from about 9 pm to 2 am.
Kalidas does not approve that I get up at 7 in the morning. He likes to inform me that he gets up at 5. He plays badminton with three other Nepali businessmen, who come over afterwards and drink tea on the front porch. They keep the front door wide open so when I come out to take a shower they are all there gaping.
At meal times, Nirmala serves Kalidas, then me, and hovers at the table to see if we want any more vegetable curry or rice. I am so sick of dal bhat. Somehow I have got to persuade her not to pile the rice into a mountain on my plate. If I say “pugyo,” or “I am full,” when she wants to give me more, Kalidas suggests that I do not like the food. Nirmala sits only after Kalidas has had his second or third helping. I want to wait for her to finish her food before leaving the table, but Kalidas gets impatient and wants me to bring my dishes to the sink as soon as possible. He barks at me to get up, so I do. He is used to ordering women around. I find this unsettling. I like Nirmala and am willing to like Kalidas.
Nepali sexual politics are difficult for me. There are four ways to address a person in the language: the very, very formal “You” (hajur) used for kings and magistrates; the ordinarily formal “You” (tapaai); the very familiar “timi” used for children and between friends; and the very low “ta” which is used for dogs, lower beings and between intimates. Kalidas says “ta” to his wife but she says “tapaai” to him. He addresses her by her first name. She always and only says “tapaai” to him. “The husband dominates the wife,” he explains to me as she sits beside him smiling and agreeing. Nirmala never leaves the house. Her sister-in-law comes over with her 18 month-old during the day and they watch t.v.. Nirmala keeps a relatively clean house—but the bathrooms are not nearly as clean as mine back home.
They are Brahmin and not particularly religious, which is somewhat of a relief after Sova’s morning puja, which began loudly at 5 with the same version of “Om Nama Shivaya” on the stereo, and concluded at about six with a long and vigorous ringing of a bell and the blowing of a horn. I will try to adjust to this new dwelling.
Now that I know how to look, I can see how poor the people are. Here is a woman shoveling wet sand into an enormous wicker basket that she carries with a strap around her forehead. There is a man washing his face at an outdoor tap. A man in a crisp pink shirt and shorts stands reading the newspaper at a shop. Children in clean white uniforms stand in the mud, waiting for the school bus.
We have stopped for ten minutes on the eastern outskirts of Kathmandu. The landscape is hilly and the streets are broad. A young, barefoot woman in a dirty sari carries a toddler on her shoulders. There is a series of sheds built of brick with metal roofs held down by rocks. They might once have been shops, like the row selling chips, water, candy, soft drinks, and ice cream. People appear to be living in the sheds above, where the metal pull-down doors are up halfway to let in the light.
I’m thinking about Tim. I’m forgiving him, understanding and even admiring him for having the guts to follow his heart and his faith. Yet I’m also furious.
It’s like a cannonball through the heart. Will I heal? The pain is sharp, bitter, and unrelenting.
I’ve been pretty sick for the past few days with a cold, an affliction that has beset many people in Pepsi-Cola. The Nepalis blame the rain. I blame the pollution, but who cares? I haven’t had much energy and my spirits have flagged. Lying around in bed, trying in vain to sleep while serenaded by carpenters cutting wood on electric saws, blacksmiths pounding metal rods, construction workers banging hammers, and, today, a brass band that struck up a cacophonous beat every 20 minutes or so, depressed me. I’ve had too much time to think about the breakup with Tim and have dwelled unhealthily on my weaknesses, failures, shortcomings, and losses. I started to get hold of myself when I realized that I was pre-menstrual and exhausted. What I needed was a a good, solid rest.
I took a nap and then meditated for about 30 minutes. What a relief it was to drop into stillness, into the what-is-ness of my life right now, right here and to stop fighting, stop resisting, stop expecting, and, best of all, stop finding fault with myself. It struck me that I was wasting time. There is no running away from the grief that I feel for what I have lost. I am riding that wave. But I can’t let it overwhelm me. I am so incredibly lucky, after all. Not only have I the opportunity to get to know truly unusual and generous human beings such as Kat and her best friend, Maria, I am also here with my son, my only child. I came here to Nepal in order to do something extraordinary with him. I have spent much of the past ten years mourning my distance from him, and here he is now, a young, intelligent, and engaging adult. We are bonding with one another but also with some of the same people during our travels. We will only be here for another four weeks. Every moment with this man, this man whom I love more than any man in the world, is a gift.
I took a harrowing cab-ride with Kat and a driver who seemed to delight in roaring directly toward pedestrians and stopping half an inch from their legs. He veered into oncoming traffic two-thirds of the way into town. Kat and I have both adopted the same strategy for managing our fear during these journeys. We talk briskly to one another and keep our eyes off the road ahead. We were meeting the group at a restaurant in Thamel, but Brendan and the crew had not yet arrived. My heart ached for him and swelled when he came swinging into view. I often worry about how I’ll do when he goes back to the States.
We all go to Pokhara tomorrow morning. The gang—Brendan, Joost, Peter, Angela, Maria, and maybe also Sophia–will meet at 6 am downstairs before heading together into Kathmandu for the “tourist bus,” a lot more expensive and allegedly more comfortable vehicle than the notoriously overcrowded and filthy regular busses. No farmer is likely to hop on board and deposit ten to fifteen half-dead chickens on my feet. Still the road itself is terrifyingly narrow, busy, and likely to be rained out in places. I am not looking forward to it. But I am happy to be going with good friends, my friends who are also Brendan’s friends. It will be heaven to escape Pepsi-Cola and the Kathmandu Valley for a few days. We all need the break.
He has been pestering Gehlu to let him go back to his auntie’s house since the moment he came into the orphanage. Why? He is six. At the orphanage, he has to go to school every day and is never allowed to step outside of the small courtyard at his home. In the afternoons, he had to sit with a tutor to catch up in school.
With his “auntie,” he runs through the streets with the other children and plays. Here he is playing tag on the sandy mounds across from Sugandha’s house, where I live. I can hear him laughing below my windows even now, as I write.
Gehlu had to let him go. He won’t force a child to live where he doesn’t want to. Also, once a kid states that he wants to leave he becomes a runaway risk. And if a child escapes from the orphanage and gets lost, the state gets very suspicious and makes it harder for the institution to help children who really want to be rescued.
I don’t know what will happen to Rupus now. Will he go to school? Will he be loved? He will probably not go to college. He is happier now. Will he be happier in the future? Hard to say. But now there is room for another child.
Nirmala very much wants us to bring her younger sister, who is three, to live with her and her sister, Krishala. (By the way, Krishala got her medicine today because Maria brought it over. She paid for it out of her own pocket.) There is also an even younger sister, Moinjana, who is 1 or 2, still at home with their mother in Dolaka. She sold or sent her older children into servitude after her husband, a drunkard, abandoned her. He had only stuck with her because he was so desperate for a son. After 10 daughters in a row, he left her.
Anura also has a brother, who is six, who is living somewhere. Today Gehlu asked him if she wanted him to come and live with her. She said she did. She likes it in the orphanage.
Yesterday I visited an important Buddhist shrine, Namo or Naya Buddha, with two other volunteers, Shannon and Darima, and a group of Hindu women from the Women’s Center. I teach these Nepali women English, and they taught me more about Nepali spirituality than any book or article I’ve read. They don’t think of the Buddha as a god–he is “very different,” they said, from Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Saraswati, Durga, and the rest of the Hindu pantheon. They think of him as a “wise man.” He is buddamani, sage. So why do they venerate him with all the same emotional intensity as they bring to Ganesha and others? Because they are Nepali. The following are notes from my journal during the day. Headings have been added.
2 July 2011
I’m on a bus with Menuka, Devi, Susshila, Dilu, Ambica. They are taking Darina, the other teacher at the Women’s Center, and me somewhere towards Banepur to place called Namo Buddha. Shannon is coming along for the ride because tomorrow is her last day in Nepal and she and Darina have become very close. It is raining, of course. This bus looked suspicious decrepit when we boarded it. It did not seem to bother Dilu, who tends to take charge, that the driver’s head was halfway into the engine. The last bus ride that started out this way was supposed to take only one hour but actually took 6 because the bus kept breaking down.
I’m very pleased to be going anyway, since this is my first outing with my new Nepali friends. I love women but would not say, as I was about to say, that I like women better than men. Sometimes I trust them more, but not always and not finally.
As I get older, I find comfort in the similar experiences and challenges that women have and suffer because we are women: menstruation, childbirth, menopause, hormonal shifts, surges, stress, discrimination, catcalls on the streets, harassment, come-ons, rape, stares, the policing of the body, its clothing, gestures, and locations. Not all women will admit or talk about it. Some women are ashamed to be women; some deny and some repress.
Not all women become mothers, of course, or get to keep and take care of their children. But we all as women share the common lot of women. We all live in cultures that, to various extents and in different manners, insist that we dress, behave, and move through the world as women. Those who resist these codes are brave. If they survive and thrive, we celebrate them, but not generally during their lifetimes. What do we call the ones who defy their cultures’ policing of the body and mind and who then fall into poverty, isolation, and depression? weird, insane, unnatural, or evil.
We’re climbing through endless terraces of rice fields doted with brick houses. Many of the houses are habitable only on the ground floors. These send up aspiring columns of brick or concrete that bristle with steel reinforcing rods. Many roofs in the city are flat, which is useful for hanging laundry or creating gardens with potted plants. In the country, where there is room, roofs are peaked. Susshila touches her palms together as we pass a giant stature of Shiva, who holds his trident and looks benevolently over the valley. She says this place is called Sagar, or something like that. The bus strains up the mountain and we go through a small village where a butcher displays flayed carcasses of unidentifiable animals on stone counters and rocks.
The sun breaks out and I want to mention it, but have to look up the word, surya, for sun. Suriya the sun-god is one of the oldest Indo-European deities, along with Chandra, the moon, Indra (war, storms and rain), and Agni (fire). My book is wrong about the word for sunny. Gamlagyeko is the correct term. It is not yet gamlageko but the surya has come out.
I see women bent under loads of bricks carried with a forehead strap, dark-skinned children standing in dirt lanes between fields, corn in patches everwhere. Women wearing red headcloths and ragged red saris are planting rice in the rain. A butcher shaves the hair and hooves off of a headless goat. A shirtless man washes himself by a concrete cylinder. Now we are arriving in a larger town, driving down a broad street bordered by 4 and 5 story buildings. Dogs forage in spread-out mounds of garbage lining the road. This is Banepa.
We have boarded a crowded bus. The Nepalis sit three to two seats and push towards the back, where all the spots are claimed. Darina and Shannon are complaining that the trip is taking too long. We have gotten on our third bus. The women told them that we were going to someplace far away. Menuka said that it will cost 1500 rupees to get into Namo Buddha, and this has really set Shannon and Darina off. They say, “I’m not paying that,” and want to go home. Darina is sick with a bad case of gastrointestinal dis-ease. Shannon has been traveling too long and longs to get back to the States and her boyfriend. Darina understands that the women have high hopes for this journey and doesn’t want to disappoint them, but she looks miserable.
At least she has a seat. Ambica is sitting on Susshila’s lap. The rest of us are standing and have been standing for almost an hour. Once we get going we will travel for yet another hour, so we will be weary when we arrive. I don’t know where the bus driver is. Few of the Nepalis appear to be distressed or impatient. Ah, here is the driver. He has started the engine, but still we sit. At last we are leaving the filthy city of Banepur.
We climb through a village where I see a tall, thin, grey-haired woman in Tibetan dress, which is much plainer than the Hindu style. Tibetan women wear long dark skirts and vests over along-sleeved blouses, and tie horizontally striped aprons around their waists.
The family next to me has brought cucumber from a vendor outside. It looks and smells delicious. I dare not touch it.
We have been climbing a winding, steep dirt road and seem to have come up 2 or 3 thousand feet. But bus rolls into a deep pothole and everyone hears tearing metal. The driver cuts the engine and the ticket-takers jump out to inspect. No damage is found, and we crawl forward. I have finally found a seat, which I am sharing with Menuka. It is quite uncomfortable but better than standing.
We get off the bus at an inauspicious crossroads—a muddy track bordered by brick shacks. We head down a dirt trail and I am worried that Shannon and Darina are going to be very angry because there seems to be nothing here. Signs of civilization ahead include an outdoor restaurant where the chickens are pecking around the frying pans on top of the stove. A battered sign reads, in English: “We serve hygienic, fresh food here.” There is a somewhat clean squat toilet with a door. After we use it a ragged boy with a Dalai Lama medallion appears from nowhere and shouts at us to pay the fee. Devi gives him 30 rupees. He still complains, so she throws some coins into his palm. We head down the hill and pass under prayer flags that lead us to a medium-sized stupa. This is Namobuddha, then. This is looking better.
Lunch: Amazing food: channa (round, red beans), roti, tharkari (curried vegetables), roti (fried bread) and chura (beaten rice), ladu (Nepali sweet cakes), and coffee-chocolate candy which we wash down with Mountain dew and sweet Nepali tea. We westerners cannot believe that they brought so much to eat, and are even more surprised and grateful when we find out that they have gotten up at 4:30 in the morning to cook it all. Menuka pays for the tea. Shannon says that she feels better and that she always gets cranky when she is hungry. Darina has a serious stomach ache and cannot eat much, but she soldiers on.
After we eat we visit the small stupa. I make an offering and light a butter candle, then round the shrine, spinning prayer wheels as I go. I join the Hindu women at the inner temple of the stupa, and offer prayers. Menuka pour a handful of rice into my hand and give me some marigolds and a white, silken scarf. I throw the rice around the Buddha inside and give the flowers and the scarf to the old man who tends the shrine. He tucks the blossoms into the statue’s knees, drapes the fabric around the Buddha’s neck, and then blesses me with a tika, a smear of red powder that he mixes in his hand, combines with some of the sacred orange smear on the Buddha, and then rubs into the crown of my head. He also pours holy water and flower petals into my hands, which Susshila shows me to throw over my forehead and hair.
We go to another shrine nearby, removing our shoes as we enter. Inside there are three relatively large Buddha statues and a frightening looking demon who looks like Bhairab, the angry manifestation of Shiva. I have no idea which bodhisattva this is, but I make an offering here, on impulse, and hope for strength to manage the stormy changes that seem to be coming my way.
End of journal. Continuation of the Story
We walk up a very steep hill bedecked with thousands of prayer flags. Many of the women fall behind and finally it is only Shannon and I puffing towards the summit, where we find expansive views of the valley in all directions and a line of Buddhist shrines. The red, yellow, blue and white flags festoon the top and lead down the hillside on a path that I am eager to follow. We wait for our companions. They, however, refuse to take another step, so I content myself with what purports to be the holiest spot at Namobuddha, the site where a young prince—who may have been the Buddha himself—encountered a starving tigress and her five cubs. She was about to devour a small child, but the prince offered his own flesh instead. His sacrifice transformed him into a boddhisattva. After he died, legend says, he was reincarnated into Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha himself. The Tibetans call this place Takmo Lujin (Tiger Body Gift). Namo Buddha means Hail to the Buddha.
I feel especially moved by this place, because tigers have always been my favorite animal. When I was little I had a giant Steiff tiger named Suzann who guarded me while I slept. She had glowing green eyes and was nearly as big as I was. I made up the story that she protected me so that I would not feel afraid of her. I say a sincere prayer to the tiger spirits of the mountain and move on with my friends, who have gone ahead.
From here we follow a narrow path up the spine of the mountain to another sacred spot, where we again give rice, flowers, silk, and money. Menuka seemed to have an endless supply of scarves. Susshila, the holdest and most overtly religious of the group, brings out her chrome offering bowl, her waxed wicks, and incense, as she does at every holy spot. She circulates the burning flame and smoke three times over the sanctuary while murmuring a prayer. Menuka waves the heat and light from the butter lamps over her head. All the women pay their respects by raising their hands to their foreheads, setting money, and pouring rice into the center of the shrine. Before we enter, we walk clockwise around it turning prayer wheels. I join their venerations out of curiosity as well as spiritual need. Shannon and Darina stand apart and watch.
We still have not reached the highlight of our journey. a spectacularly beautiful, enormous, and seemingly brand-new monastery, the Thrangu-Tashi Yangste Gonpa, which at first glance looks like an expensive resort hotel.
The Tibetans have thrived in Nepal and they like to spend their wealth on monasteries. Inside we find a large and elaborately painted rectangular passageway with columns decorated with tiger heads and lotus flowers.
We remove our shoes and follow a young monk up to golden doors, and then wait with him for an older monk, who opens the great doors to the great hall, drawing a gasp from all of us. Inside we see a huge, vaulted temple with six huge, golden Buddhas serenely staring down over rows and rows of prayer benches, silken banners, drums, and exploded thangka-like wall paintings, some of which are still in process. There is the customary large photograph of the Dalai lama on the central dais, where we leave more rice, scarves, bills, and prayers. We linger for a long time but not long enough for me. As we leave monks begin to arrive and to sound cymbals, drums, and chants.
Back downstairs in the open passageway that runs beneath the temple, I copy out the following text from a newspaper entitled “The Voice of the Young Monks” and dated July 2011:
Today we collectively are facing so many environmental crises such as global warning, natural disasters, extinction of animals, population growth…
Now we cannot simply rely on current economical and political systems to solve the problem, because to a large extent they themselves are the problem. The critical element of our problem is lack of awareness, which brings us to Buddhism.
Buddhism offers a precise solution to the environmental crisis by showing the method of cutting the self [off] from clinging. The delusions of a separate self, which does not exist and is empty in nature, still because of which we become obsessed with things that we hope will give us control over situations, especially the competition for power, sex, and fame.
The syntax gets a little convoluted there at the end, but the message is clear enough.
I think all of us have been renewed by our visit to Namo Buddha. I feel more at peace with myself than in a long time. It has been a welcome escape from the tensions of the VSN project, which have been particularly taxing lately.
Here the journal ends.
Returning home through the language haze
The journey back to Pepsi-Cola was so arduous, the buses so crowded and steamy, that we decided to walk the last short leg home. This turned out to be more difficult for some of the women than they had expected. Shannon and Darina, anxious to get home, sped ahead and were soon lost in the mud, dust, cows, motorbikes, vendors, bicycles, dogs, and mayhem of the busy road. I also longed to rush towards my room, but remained with my hosts, who had taken us so far to see wonderful sights. I had happily spent most of the day with them anyway, listening to their chattering, picking up words were I could, and building my vocabulary. While Darina and Shannon and spent most of the day talking to each other, I had made the effort to speak to my friends in their own language. They were not very good students of English, after all, and if I was going to get to know them I would have to do it in Nepali. But this long, voluntary language lesson had exhausted me, and I was eager to retreat and recoup.
To my dismay, Ambica lived on the road we were walking along and invited everyone in for cold drinks. It would have been rude to refuse, so I spent yet another hour in a language haze, following the women’s tone and facial expressions more than what they said.
Dogs and Men
Ambica’s son has a beautiful German Shepherd puppy, with whom I fell in love. The son—I never did catch his name—said he was going to get rid of him because the dog does not bark and is too obedient. To my mind, this made the dog perfect, but the son wanted an animal to scare unwanted visitors. He spoke pretty good English and launched a barrage of questions at me, which I was glad to escape. He insisted that I come back again soon and often, to see the new, better dog. I demurred and explained that Americans do not like to drop in on people without warning. Throughout this interchange his mother, Ambica, said nothing. She remained silent not only because her English is weak, but also because in Nepal women have very little say about what their sons do. The husband rules the house and in his absence, the eldest or only son takes over as lord.
Nepali women are strong, like women everywhere, but they use their strength to endure and cooperate with their subordination, instead of resisting it. If they work a full-time job, they come home to cook, clean and cater to the men in their families. A good wife presses her forehead to her husband’s feet. She marries a man from a collection of suitors from her caste whom her parents have selected. Then she moves into her husband’s family and never return to her mother’s house again.
Very slowly, I am learning about how women live within these strictures. One of the women at the center, for example, is divorced. But she tells everyone else that she is married, because even these seeming friends of hers would shun her if they found out the truth.
Finally it was time to go. Susshila split off a few steps down the road, and Dilu and Menuka accompanied me to Sugandha’s house, where I gratefully collapsed, finally alone, onto my bed.
All in all it was a very good day—ramaylo cha—as I learned to say. I made better friends with the women from the center as well as with myself. We had made a pilgrimage together and it was very good. Hail to the Buddha and to Nepali women!
Just back from the orphanage. Maria, who is starting her fifth year of medical school, went with me to check up on Krishala, who was ill again today. The report on Krishala’s stool sample came back and informed us that she has ameobic dysentery, which is extremely common among children in Nepal. The headaches are harder to explain. She probably needs to see an eye doctor, but Gehlu wants to clear up her other problems—viral tonsilitus and now dysentery—first. So the doctor gave her some paracetamol, which Americans call acetaminophen. Maria and I went over to find out if Krishala was getting the proper dosage of the medicine she needs, and also to see how she was doing.
We arrived at a completely darkened house. The children were eating dinner at candle- and flash-light. Maria, who I have come to like very much, is as drawn to the children as I am. Indeed, everyone who has met them falls in love with them, because they are all extremely affectionate and cheerful. But Nirmala, the youngest, is the most endearing of all. She smiles all the time, and her eyebrows jump up as her eyes ignite when she looks over at you. I call her my little laughing Buddha. “Eh-bhui!” she erupts, bobbing up on her toes or, if she is sitting, onto her haunches, whenever something piques her interest or enthusiasm. Or she starts and points and says “U!” when she sees something she likes. She likes to look at photographs of herself and her new family. She loves to be held. Maria loves to hold her.
Maria also determined that while Krishala is getting the medicine she needs, she has only been given half the amount that she should take to get well. So she and I will go to the pharmacy tomorrow to restock. We don’t know why there is not enough medicine for her. We assume that Gehlu, who picked it up, did not understand that she needed more. We will remedy the situation, but worry about what would have happened to Krishala if we had not been here. We worry about what will happen to all the children when we leave, as we must.
This morning I held Krishala on my lap, because she was sick. So naturally all the children wanted to sit on my lap, and I spent the morning under a heap of loving little bodies. Surely it is impossible to feel unloved and unneeded here.
Today I learned something that made me very sad. Each of the children have suffered from neglect, poverty, cruelty, and forced labor. But Krishala’s body shows the blows that fate has dealt her more than the others. Today I found out that she is 10, not 8, as I had believed. She is much smaller than the other ten year-old, Anura, and smaller even that Gorima, who is indeed 8, or thereabouts.
Why is Krishala so small? Because she has been malnourished. Remember, Krishala is the one who came to the orphanage cleaning up after and serving everyone, because she had been an enslaved servant for most of her life. Her father was a drunkard who squandered the family property and sold all of their land to support his carousing. He desperately wanted a son. When his wife gave birth to the tenth daughter in row, he abandoned the family, and the girls were sent or sold out to work. She is ten years old. She looks six. She is woefully behind for her grade in English, in math, and in science. She is intelligent, very intelligent, but she has spent nearly no time in school. Rupus, the six-year-old, appears to speak better English than she does. But she comprehends a lot.
Sometimes I rock Krishala in my arms and sing lullabies to her. She goes quite still and closes her eyes, drifting back into a baby state in which she drinks in my maternal love for her. She needs desperately to do this. So does Anura, who hangs on me or hugs me or Bimila, like an infant. These children have not only been starved of essential nutrition, they have been starved of essential love, the acceptance, the nurturing, the contact between skin and skin, and eye and eye, that well-loved babies receive from their mothers and fathers.
Thank goodness for Bipin, who looks after them with love because he has been well loved by his mother. He clearly identifies with their plight. His own father disappeared when his mother was pregnant with him. He speaks excellent English, for his age—also 10—and translates for his mother. I communicate with her through him.
Tonight we handed out some of the presents we had bought the children. Maria gave them a skipping rope, and I had brought a soccer ball. Bipin said that it needed air, and told me where I could get it pumped up. We’ll go to the shop on the way to school tomorrow morning.
I was wondering if some of my readers, especially my family and friends, would consider sending play clothes and toys to the children. They have very little to wear after school and, as I mentioned before, nothing to play with other than one another. If you have any decent hand-me-downs, especially dresses, jeans, tee-shirts, shoes, socks, and jackets, and could send them to me here in Kathmandu, you would be doing a great good. And toys—there don’t seem to be any nice, sturdy ones to buy here. Today I brought small rubber balls and stickers, which were a huge hit, but not very educational or comforting. Maria and I asked the children what they wanted. All the girls said dolls, dolls with black hair. The dolls for sale here are cheap, tawdry, and white. They all have blond hair and blue eyes. The boys wanted cars. Bipin specified that he wanted an electric car with a battery.