Namo Buddha (Hail to the Buddha) and Nepali Women

Woman praying

3 July 2, 2011

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

Women Together

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.

Low-caste women building a house

Taking Busses

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.

Namo Buddha

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.

Thrangu-Tashi Yangste Gonpa

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!

Boudha

2 July 2011

For my birthday I walked to Bouda, where there is an enormous stupa sacred to Buddhist everywhere.

I went over the hill, asking directions along the way, and ended up on a muddy road that took me to the Bagwati river, which flows through Pashupatinath to the Ganges. I got lost temporarily, but found my way, through mud, to the bridge and into the outskirts of Kathmandu on streets that grew steadily less muddy and more congested, until I was on a busy four=laned street jammed with pedestrians, three-wheelers, buses, taxis, and motorcycles.  Soon I was threading my way through lanes packed with monasteries, butter lamps, drums, singing bowls, prayer beads, and tourist souvenirs.

The stupa was much more crowded than the time I had been there before—see the photos below—and that made it easier to join in the stream of pilgrims and faithful ones walking around.  There were only one or two other Westerners.  I intended to go three times.

There was a heavy bell tolling, somewhat irregularly.  I saw where it was coming from when I rounded the stupa.  There was a string of people waiting in line to make an offering and ring the bell, whose vibration registers the collective Buddhist hope that everyone will soon become enlightened and all war will cease forever.  I was the only westerner in line, and worried that they’d throw me out of it, as usually happens at Hindu temples.  Buddhists are far more welcoming, however, and I was allowed to approach and pull the rope.  From watching others in front of me I learned to touch my hands and forehead to the vibrating bell, bow, sign Namaste, and send my sound into the universe.  It was an intensely beautiful and emotional experience.

The walk to and from was arduous because of the mud, the filth along the way, and the blisters on my feet.

Later that night I went to an Internations expats-living-in-Kathmandu party, but found it pretty dull.

Canada Day

July 1, 2011

Anura, Bipin, Gorima, Nirmala and Krishala sang Happy Birthday to me.  I had brought everyone presents—blue and white ribbons for the big girls, who have long hair, purple barrets for the younger two, and a ping-pong paddle set for Bipin.  We walked to school the way we always do.  We pass the pile of bricks growing steadily smaller next to the house being built, cross the busy intersection, and then go down the road to school, where there live two roosters, an uncertain number of hens and chicks, and a homeless red puppy with a wound on his neck.  I want to rescue the puppy every day.

Shova was upset that no one had come to breakfast today.  She had, after all, gotten up early to cook it.  Even though I had already eaten at the orphanage, I sat down and ate to please her.  I had 3 helpings because it was sooo good: large flat white beans and potatoes in a curry of onion, garlic, ginger, and masala.  I want to cook with her and take lots of notes.

Brendan is still sick and I am worrying about him.  I love fussing over him and mock-threatening to punish him if he doesn’t drink up all his water and take his medicine.

I love love love love love love having him here with me.

I am very happy today.

……

Just back from teaching. Very touched. Darina has been coaching the women to sing happy birthday to me all week long.  They serenaded me right after the Nepali anthem.  Total surprise!  They also brought me flowers and a lovely (well, hideous) plaque that says “Sweet Love/ Best Wishes”.

Exhausted in Nepal

30 June, 2011

Eve of my 51st birthday.  I am tucked into my hard but comfortable bed under a lavender mosquito net in Nepal.    I have views of the mountains from my corner room. The frogs in the fields around the house are making a high-pitched whirring sound that comforts me.  I am here with Brendan who is having yet another attack of the Nepali disease.  He hasn’t eaten all day and can hardly stand, but he did go to work this morning, which impressed me. It’s good for him to be here, psychologically if not physically.

I am utterly exhausted by the business of taking care of people who don’t know or won’t learn how to take care of themselves.  I am also weary from the strain of getting along across cultural and linguistic barriers.

Sughanda and Rupa and Tej are much more generous=hearted than I am.  I see a person who tries to scam other people in to taking care of him or her.  They see the same kind of person, but remain committed to helping and sacrificing.  Modernization has not yet fractured family ties, which are feudal and kin-based here.  I’m conscious of my hypocrisy.  I see how I make judgments about others and their attitudes and behaviors without really understanding what I’m condemning.

Falling asleep.

Missing love.

Krishala, again

28 June 2011 Eve

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.

Gorima (8), Krishala (10), and Anura (10)

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.

Laxmi Update

27 June 2011

I continue to worry about Laxmi.   We’ve started math classes at the women’s center and she appears to have trouble even with rudimentary arithmetic. This may have something to do with her unfamiliarity with western-style numerals, but I fear that the problem is deeper.   It would seem that she has had very little schooling of any kind.  This concerns me because at 50 she is old by Nepali standards and will certainly be discriminated against as she looks for a job.  I brought her to the attention of the director of VSN, who wanted to do something for her.   I had hoped that we would be able to give her a temporary bed at the Women’s Center and a job as a house cleaner and caretaker.  But Shreezanna, whom Tej has wisely made manager of the center, did not want to bring her in for fear that she would never leave.

Tej and Shreezanna offered to help her to learn a new skill so that she could go into business for herself.  She could take sewing lessons at the center and work as a seamstress.  Or she could borrow some money in order to set up a small shop selling vegetables.  Neither of these options particularly appeal to her, not because she is lazy but rather because she knows that she lacks the bookkeeping, personality and time-management skills to go into business for herself.

Twenty-three years ago her husband abandoned her after seven months of marriage for another woman.  She continued to live with her husband’s family for a few years, but they pushed her out.

Nepal still operates under the medieval cultural assumption that a woman who has had sex but is not living with her husband is little more than a whore.   Therefore, traditional Nepalis regard a jilted or divorced woman as unclean, worthless, and untouchable.  The double standard permits men to sleep with whomever they please, as often as they please, without losing any status.  The fundamental assumption underlying this hypocrisy is that women belong to men as a kind of chattel and constitute lesser human beings.  Men enjoy greater political, economical, and social privileges than women do solely because they are not female.  What is the most pernicious effect of this misogynist worldview?  The damage it does to women’s self-esteem.  A woman who has been treated as a lesser being, a servant, a breeder, or a status symbol all of her life generally regards herself in those terms, even if she still has the sense in some forgotten region of her body and mind, that she is worthy, beautiful, and that she has the same right to a dignity and respect as any other person.

Laxmi has a strong sense of her own dignity but few options.  After her in-laws excluded her, she went to live with her brother.  He was kind to her but his wife looked down on her as a ruined woman and abused her.  Laxmi held out for nine or ten years, and then went to live with a niece.  I do not know why she did not stay with her niece’s family.  Laxmi then went to live with her sister in Pepsi-Cola.  Years passed, and the sister and her family decided to move back to their village in Solu Khumbu, the region around Sagarmatha, which westerners call Mt. Everest.  Laxmi did not want to join them because the villages would treat her roughly and rudely on account of her status.

She came to the attention of Sugandha, who wanted to help her but did not have much to offer.  She has been working long hours in his house for two meals a day and 500 rupees (about $8) per month.  He also convinced his sister, , but this situation became unbearable for one or both and ended soon.  Laxmi is now living with a friend.  Sugandha intended to assist Laxmi for only a short time, to give her shelter and food until she found a way to support herself.

I could have pushed Tej and Shreezanna harder and even, perhaps, have forced them to give Laxmi a room at the women’s center.  My donation, after all, made it possible for VSN to rent the flat, and it still has an unused room.  What difference does it make if she comes and never leaves?  Is the women’s center not supposed to help women just like Laxmi, women who have no husband, no family, no source of support, no or few skills, and no money?  Yes.  It is.  But the women’s center also needs to keep on going after I am gone.

Here is my still-evolving philosophy:  It is wrong to force well-intentioned yet potentially unrealistic and inappropriate Western attitudes and ways of doing things onto a culture that I still imperfectly understand. I believe that all human beings have the right to flourish and to meaningful work and to live their lives with dignity.  But I don’t know the best way for Nepali people to flourish with meaning and dignity.  I am a visitor here and aim to tread lightly.  Even if I did try to impose my way of doing things, the Nepalis would only go along with it for a short time and then return to what makes sense to them, what they know works.  So I think the thing to do is to aid people who are already working to improve the lives of their countryfolk in ways that make sense to me

I think it can be very hard to know whom to trust, but I trust Tej and Shreesannah.  I will defer to them in most cases.  But I will also do what I can to make the lives of the people whom they are helping happier, healthier, and more dignified. I want to enable and empower women and children to make their own decisions about their lives, to have a measure of freedom that they would probably not have without VSN.

So, what will happen to Laxmi?  I don’t know.  I was not able to raise very much money on her behalf.  What I received went to her.   People tend to prefer to help children and young people.  There is no social security system in place in Nepal.  She may end up going to her sister and her village, where she will be excluded from the hearth, the family circle, the fellowship that sustains emotional well-being and good humor. I don’t know for sure that this will happen to her.  I only know what people tell me, and that is this: a woman who has been abandoned by her husband leads a very terrible and hard life.  I don’t think Tej will let her fall into the streets, but I also do not know what he can or will do for her.  She cannot depend on him or on me or anyone else to take care of her.  I don’t know enough about her story to do it, or her, credit.

Getting Sick in Nepal

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bad scare this morning.  As soon as I got through the orphanage gate, Bipin rocketed himself at me and landed with his legs around my waist and his arms around my neck.  Rupus was right behind him, and then Gorima, Nirmala, and Anura were on me.  Only Krishala stayed behind.  She was sitting on a mat in front of the door.  She has been complaining of headaches and stomach trouble for the last few days, and I have been worrying about her.  Now she was very ill, hot with fever and a racing heartbeat.  I don’t have a cell phone, so I had to walk over to Sugandha’s house, where I hoped to find Pete, one of the fifth-year medical students volunteering here as part of a third world medical course.  He had already gone to the hospital, so I borrowed Sugandha’s phone to call Kat and Maria, Pete’s classmates,  who came straight away.  In the meantime, at my prompting, Bimila had called Tej, who called Gehlu.

Kat and Maria examined Krishala, who had a stiff neck, a fever, and extreme sensitivity to light.  These are classic signs of meningitis, which can kill within hours.  Gehlu came a few minutes later, propped her up in front of him on his motorcycle, and roared off  to the hospital.  We checked there about an hour later, but could not find Krishala.  Hospitals and clinics are notoriously bad here (the doctors don’t come in when it rains, for example), and we could not get a straight answer from anyone.    The staff could not seem to understand why we were concerned about a little Nepali girl, not another westerner.  Finally we tracked down Gehlu, who could tell us nothing because the results of the tests had not come back yet.  He told us that the doctor did not think it was meningitis, however.  We went to check up on Krishala, and she did seem a little better. There was nothing that we could do until we got the lab report.

I taught my class at the women’s center.  Deelu, who is very wonderful but also very demanding, insisted that I start to teach them math, so from now on Fridays will be math days.  I hated math when I was a kid, so I was happily surprised to find that I enjoyed teaching it.  Most of the women can do easy addition and subtraction, but only a few can multiply and divide.     I gave the two advanced women more difficult problems to solve.  In addition to other topics that I never thought I’d end up teaching, I’m instructing the women in basic business skills.  I’m trying to show them how they can make money by borrowing, investing, and repaying, and reinvesting.   Like all things in Nepal, it will take time to get this program underway.  We are beginning from a rudimentary level.

Nothing moves quickly.  I’ve been pestering the landlord to turn on the water and clean the apartment where the women’s center is for over a week.  Shreezanna, who directs the sewing classes and manages the center, simply laid a plastic floor covering over the cement and set up shop.  I want to wash the floors first, but I need some help.  The whole center is still really dirty—the kitchen is covered in construction dust and the toilet is filthy.  I had brought a bucket and some Lysol-like stuff and started to clean the bathroom during our break.  Devi, Menuka, and Rayphati would not allow this.  They snatched the bucket and rags out of my hands, and within twenty minutes had all the tile, ceramic and chrome gleaming.  This was a miracle, since the toilet is a squat-style contraption on the floor, and workers had ground the dust and dirt into the groves where you stand to go.  Their cleaning was truly remarkable.  The Nepalis are nothing if not industrious, but it can be difficult to get them to start or finish a project.

Speaking of projects completed, I got my kurta suruwal back today.  It was finished a couple of days ago, but I wanted to have it taken in at the waist.   I had bought fabric in Kathmandu and brought it to the women at the center.  They charge very little for their services, but they also double the price in order to benefit the women who are learning to become seamstresses.  So, it cost 200 rupees (about 3 dollars) to sew each kurta and suruwal, but I paid 400.  These women will likely be the first entrepreneurs to take advantage of the micro-credit program that I’m setting up.

In my new Kurta Suruwal on an Elephant at Bhaktabur

After class, I took a bus—the wrong one, of course—into Kathmandu to meet Kat and Maria for lunch.  I ended up walking for long stretches without having any idea where in the city had I gone, asking people in my broken Nepali the way.  Finally, one young man in a motorcycle helmet told me to get on a bus that was just pulling up, and so I did.  It took me a little closer to my destination, Thamel, but I still wandered and begged for directions for another half hour or so.  Getting lost is never really a problem, because people are friendly and kind, and taxis are plentiful.  I don’t like to spend the money on a cab, since the buses cost about 15 cents and I’m trying to get my bearings by walking.  I finally arrived at the restaurant, La Dolce Vita, a touristy joint that claims to serve the best Italian in Nepal.

It was great to be eating penne pomodoro with what looked like real basil leaves on top, but I won’t be going back there again.   I could not finish my meal because I got sick halfway through it.  I thought I had simply eaten too much and needed to walk it off.  When I started to collapse on the street, Kat and Maria rushed me into a café, where I threw up into an airplane sick-bag that Kat miraculously whipped out of her backback just in the nick of time.  Then they lay me out on three chairs and pressed a cloth with ice in it to my forehead, wrists, neck, and cheeks.   I felt like a complete idiot.  There I was, pale white woman with golden hair in a green and red kurta, having a fainting spell.  Somehow it seemed so cliché.  But Kat and Maria insisted that this sort of things happens all the time.   When I sat up I was still quite nauseous and dizzy, but Kat produced an anti-emetic from her magic bag.  They said I had become dehydrated, which made some sense.  I still wanted to blame the food.

Of course the monsoon broke just as we tiptoed out into the road to go home, and there were no taxis available.  When you don’t want one, taxis pull up and pester you every five minutes.  We took a bus, but had to change at Ratna Park, where we waited like beggars in the rain for the bus to Pepsi-Cola.  After we were thoroughly soaked we snagged a cab, which cost us another 400 rupees, leaving both Kat and Maria broke.  They had each changed $20 and spent every cent.  It is true that one can live here very cheaply, but not if one is going to tourist restaurants and taking taxis and fainting in cafes where bottled water costs 10 times the price it should.  At any rate, by the time we got home the anti-emetic had kicked in and I felt a lot better.  I took a shower and headed over to check on Krishala.  The report had come in and Gehlu had rushed her back to the hospital.  She did not have meningitis, thank goodness, but rather a viral infection of her tonsils.  I found her shoveling dhal bhat into her mouth with the other kids at the kitchen table.  On the refrigerator were the medicines that the doctor had given her.  She was fine and would get better.

There is an even happier ending to this story.  While Kat and Maria were examining Krishala, they noticed that the children have no toys whatsoever, not even so much as a ball to throw.  They told their parents, who now want to donate some money to buy toys.  They are planning to give the toys to the children at a party.  Since so few of the kids know when they were born, Kat and Maria want to celebrate all of their birthdays at once.  They want to have cake, and candles, and lots of presents individually wrapped.  It’s a grand idea.  I wish I had the money to get each of them something really wonderful, bicycles, for example.  I would love to teach them how to ride.  If you have any ideas, or want to give, please let me know.

Daily life

After a bad bout of the johhny-jump-ups I’m back to work and beginning to settle in.  I rise with the rest of the Nepalis, at 5 or so, puddle around on the rooftop garden having tea in my pajamas and then get myself into the shower.  On clear mornings I can see the Himalayas looming up behind the Kathmandu Valley hills like a huge, benevolent spirit.   I study Nepali for about half an hour and then gather up whatever I’m bringing to the orphanage, and walk two minutes to the west to its gate.  There I am greeted by beautiful, cheerful children who throw themselves on me, all six of them wanting to hug me at once.  They grab my hands and pull me into the house.

On the way to this delightful destination, I pass intensely thin and dark-skinned women throwing bricks into enormous baskets that hang from straps around their foreheads and balance on their back.  They are building a house.  Sometimes they stand at a plastic barrel brimming over with water and cement, mixing the water into the sand by hand. Or they are shoveling dirt. They labor in the mud or on rocky ground in full sun from early in the morning until sundown.  They wear ragged, faded saris and tie their hair back with the scarves that wealthier women wear properly draped across their chests.  They work for men and receive very little to live on.  They did not go to school.  They have no marketable skills, no property, no support system.  If they fall ill, they die.  I think about this as I pass them on my way to work that never feels like work in the morning.  I salute them with Namaste as I go, and they return the greeting.  And then I thank the universe that we have the chance to save Gorima, Nirmala, Anura, and Krishala from their fate.   Because of VSN, its staff, and its current and former volunteers, they have a clean and pleasant house, nutritious food, and a good school.  They have also been very lucky to find a home with Bimala, who is loving, patient, and kind to them.   All of this costs money, and without donors from abroad these kids would end up breaking and hauling rocks or worse. Many Nepali girls are sold into servitude or sexual slavery by parents who can’t afford to keep them.  They spend their lives in windowless, dank rooms submitting to rape.  Anura, Gorima, Krishala, and Nirmala are lucky.  Today I brought earrings for the girls and nothing for the boys, so I’ll have to find something tomorrow.

 

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