Things I Have Taken Away from Nepal

Here is a mini-reunion of the CNSP folks in Ithaca (chilly and rainy as usual), so great to see many of you again.

IMG_2451 2

It’s been a month and half since I returned home from Nepal. I spent quite some time thinking about what I have taken away from the entire experience abroad. Also, this post will include borderline unrelated photographs because I’ve always wanted to share them but couldn’t find the right context.


Last winter, before heading off to study abroad, I was told that the place will humble me, that I will need to enter the foreign world with an open mind, ready to learn. And that is completely true—it is not easy to fit the alien culture and people into my own set of understanding and preconceived notions of what the country should be like.

I’m just a student trying to learn (see point 2), but I hope my young 21-year-old insights can give you some inspiration. Here is my list of Things I Have Learned for those interested, especially if you’re looking to study abroad in Nepal through the program too.

1. Find Your Own Sense of Order

What I’m accustomed to in the past, the sense of predictable order and pinpoint punctuality is not how things work in Nepal. The ridiculously narrow, winding streets of Thamel has humbled me. The chaotic (yet miraculously safe) systems of commute has humbled me. The ever-changing cost of each good or service humbled me. Uncertainty humbled me. And I grew to embrace the chaos and strive in it, find excitement in this lack of organization. Holding my breath as I strolled through the street markets in Kathmandu. Accepting that approaching motorcycles will not hit me from behind—that they are simply bats flocking seamlessly through a dark cave armed with ultrasound senses. And this doesn’t just apply to the large cities–I used to heavily rely on the sense of organization engrained in my surrounding environment. Today, I have learned to develop and depend on my own sense of order—in the face of unfamiliar chaos, perhaps you can try to achieve so too.

DSCF2680

Rhododendron trees on hiking trial to Pun Hill in the Anna Purna Circuit.

2. Remember Your Role As A Student

It is difficult for anyone to smoothly adapt to a foreign culture without making mistakes. This is especially pertinent when encountering issues as simple as accidentally stepping on a book when making my way across the classroom, casting immediate chaos upon the faces of our horrified Nepali friends and teachers. Or if my broken Nepali isn’t getting us through a conversation and all I can do is laugh at my own stupidity, head-scratching and awkwardly smiling. And then I remember—we are just students, we don’t know everything, we are here to learn, and sometimes we will mess up but that’s okay.

DSCF4132

Village kids riding a bike in Bharat Pokhari, Kaski District.

3. Vulnerability Encourages Empathy in Social Situations

Honestly I’m not sure why I have never noticed this before. During my many bargaining sessions with local storekeepers, I learned to make friends in hope for better discounts. This tactic doesn’t really work for me, since I immediately feel guilty for opposing prices proposed by my new acquaintance. What I did learn from my little experiments, is how to quickly establish a friendly relationship with strangers of a different background. In addition to reminding yourself of your role as a student, also remind the stranger that you are still learning—stay humble, and admit to your flaws and mistakes. Don’t be afraid to share your struggles that strangers may relate to (e.g. discrimination). Empathy transcends cultural and language barriers, if you can let the person see that you too are human, he/she will treat you more as a friend.

DSCF3481

A 65-year-old Nepali caste villager we spoke to during our research interviews.

4. A Good Sense of Humor Will Carry You a Long Way

And of course, be ready to face the unexpected with a good-humored chuckle. Because unprecedented events will occur and plans will change. I learned to take a deep breath, sit back, and relax. Learned to laugh at myself, pretending it’s the future and I’m already sharing these memorable hilarities to my wide-eyed friends. Plans are constantly changing in field research, and I learned to be grateful that at least the pace of life is half a beat slower to accommodate these discourses. When the aftershocks came, my homestay family spent an (*cough* unnecessary) length of time laughing at my panicked dashes out the house, guaranteed to be running barefoot and slinging a safety backpack with a pair of sneakers dangling from the zippers. It’s this type of humor that kept us going and I have never had so much respect for comedy until that point.

DSCF3796

Ajisa (I call her sano baagh, or “little tiger”), the homestay family grandaughter aka my personal nemesis.

Additionally, Nepali time* is not a myth, I don’t know why I ever secretly doubted this phenomenon. To survive as an outsider accustomed to the urban U.S. or Southeast Asian pace, I believe it is important to look for humor in Nepali time.

IMG_0306

Taking a walk around Kirtipur beside the program house.

That’s all I have for everyone. Thanks for reading, I talked to a few of you after returning, and it warms my heart to hear that many of you seem to be taking something out of my stories. After all, that’s pretty much why I’ve been writing for the past few months.

Laura


*A common phrase used to describe the laid back, flexible concept of time among people in Nepal. It is expected that nothing occurs in time. Possibly related to unpredictable transportation, or simply that people just walk slower there. I don’t know. Be warned, exceptions apply under the roof of the CNSP program house.

The Meaning of Water

Currently in Taiwan working on research, eating decent food, and doing more research. Here’s a piece long overdue. I think what’s interesting about returning home from abroad is sharing my experiences with family and friends and seeing how they react. They seem to be most intrigued by stories surrounding a topic–you guessed it–water! Figured I’ll share this with you too.


It was 10:30am, after morning in Bagmara, Bharat Pokhari. After washing my hands from the grains of sticky daal bhaat hiding in the corners of my fingers, I quickly made room for didi (older sister) as she squatted down with a plastic bowl and a bar of green soap. Time to wash the dishes.

Truth is, I have never really given much thought about water, not until I came to Nepal.

DSCF2966

Didi (older sister) collected some water in a pot, swiftly ran her hand around the curry-coated walls, and poured the remaining liquid into the next pot. She then proceeded to clear the contents into the second pot, and emptied its contents to a nearby metal plate. Within a time span of five minutes, she managed to run every inch of surface with the same cup of water, now finally dumped into the drain that leads straight into the fields for watering. That is the first stage of dish washing.

The meticulous attention placed in ensuring that no single drop of water is wasted. I stood beside them in silence, awestruck.

The next day, I tried to do the dishes the same way. It was difficult, but definitely not as challenging as taking a shower outdoors.

DSCF2868

The catch in public showering is that–we had to wear lungis, a strapless water-friendly dress that covers the essential areas under the bright village sun. Here’s what it looked like in Mhanegang, featuring me and my good friend Ann. (Photo credit: Ann L.)

10646921_10205469354165306_856851141841570121_n

As oppose to our enthusiastic faces, public showering is actually not as easy as it seems, at least not without offending the entire village. To be able to ensure that all parts of the body is properly washed is hard, especially in Bharat Pokhari when water is acquired from a metal water container. I helplessly splashed futile cups of water on my soapy hair, when I detected an unanticipated presence.

Didi!” 

I swung around. It was the neighbor’s little girl, standing in her pink tutu and multi-coloured stockings.

“Hajur…?” (Yes…?) I replied in horror.

She then proceeded to ask me about something that I couldn’t comprehend. Maybe she’s puzzled by what I’m doing, which is understandable–I, too, was pretty confused.

Sometimes, there’s also rain water. Lots of rain water. Sujata and I were sitting in the front porch with a young schoolboy, as the growing sound of raindrops suddenly joined our exchanges–light pattering echoed throughout surrounding keti (fields) and soil roads. And then the sky continued to dim as the thousands of drops grew into large splashes. By this point mother nature was pouring lakes and lakes from above, filling pools of soil, rocks, and water around us. Kids running back home in their muddy flip-flops.

DSCF3285

We quickly moved our interview indoors, my phone still recording the blasting symphony of rainfall. A couple more children joined us as we sat in the hallway. One of the didis stood up to prepare some sweet chiyaa (tea). Sujata and I wrapped up our business quickly, as I watched them blow bubbles in the dim light.

DSCF3301

When it rains, everyone stops their work and finds shelter, whether in the neighbor’s or in their own houses. Chiyaa is guaranteed to be served, and mothers and children huddle together under a roof, conversing merrily. Water running through the fields, soil, and mud houses, flowing.

And after the rain, a little boy playing in a puddle of water.

DSCF3331

Let’s not forget a different type of water, the one that runs through the roots of Hinduism, Buddhism, and many other religions.

DSCF3709

Babu (little boy. He’s actually not a little boy anymore, the family just seems to refer to him as one), wrapped in a single white cloth, forehead blessed with red rice, concluding the final procedure of the Puja (cleansing ceremony in Hinduism). With his left hand holding onto a metal jar, he carefully poured the blessed water on the child’s little feet, collected the remaining drops in his right palm, and swiftly guided the blessing into his mouth, and over his head.

DSCF3810

“MiTho chha!” (tasty!)

The little girl giggled as she fiddled with the blue-printed paper money on her tiny hands, somewhat dyed in red.

I honestly don’t know where I’m getting at about water. It just seems to be something many of us forget about when living in a country where water is pre-filtered, supposedly copious, and easily accessible from a tap. Sometimes I would sit quietly with the village family, amidst of their loud, laughter-filled chattering, and wonder what water means to them, because it’s obviously different from what it means to me.

Laura

A Week of Many Goodbyes

The plan prior to the earthquake was to start from the very end of my field experience, and work my way backwards to the very beginning. I think I’m still gonna stick with it today. So here I am, sitting in a cafe in China, typing away, reminiscing.

(Photo credit to Grace R. for CNSP group photo in the very end, thanks girl!)


Before I forget, let’s begin with my village family picture.

DSCF3999 copy

I honestly don’t know how to describe my last days of field research, the study program, and Nepal. The day the earthquake bestowed itself upon this world, everything changed. It was as if–

Imagine a very normal day, you’re kind of happy and content, walking on the streets to somewhere, on this metaphorical timeline where you know where you’re going and what you’re gonna do in the next few weeks. And suddenly, a ginormous hand came down from the sky and plucked you straight out of the world you once knew.

Everything was very abrupt, and just as surreal.

But don’t get me wrong, it was a peaceful steady-paced process. It’s just that, I never thought my four-month experience abroad would end so… soon.

DSCF4087 copy

Bua (homestay dad) was helping out with the tarkari (vege curry) in morning of departure. That was something I remembered very clearly, as I hid away into the walls of the stone house, camera ready to capture the lasting moments of our last day in Bagmara, Bharat Pokhari. I’m not sure why this instance stood out to me, but it reminded me of my first night there, sitting at the dining mat and attempting to decipher the social structures in our traditional Brahmin family. I remember thinking–if I were his daughter, I would be the one cooking all the meals, serving daal bhaat morning and night, and eating last after everyone else at 7:40pm. But that day, I understood that things are actually a bit different.

The night before, the aamaa of another family asked me if I could take her to Taiwan and American with me, jokingly offering to babysit for my future newborn. The night before that, sano dhai told me to send their regards to my family. They all asked me if I will return.

My response was simple: ma pheri aaunchhu | ek ganda paachi aaunchhu! 

I’ll be back in a year, I promise. When it’s safer, and when my family and school are not freaking out at every precious day spent at this country.

DSCF4125 copy

Saying good bye, red rice blessing our foreheads and white khata scarves around our necks. I don’t know why I simply couldn’t cry. Still feeling heavy in the heart, weighing me down with my trekking backpack.

A brief bus ride back to the city, away from the hill of tigers, crossing the setho nadi (white river), vehicles around us multiplying by the second as we finally reached Pokhara, almost untouched by the disaster.

DSCF4040 copy

Saying goodbye to Sujata as we hugged and she stepped out of the vehicle. As she turned away with her traveling backpack towards the apartment, it hit me that this adventure has reached a conclusion. I remembered the time when we held each other on that grassy field, how vulnerable we felt. And the tears finally came and I can’t believe all this has ended.

I can go on forever about how weird it felt to be in Pokhara. I cannot imagine what is it like for my friend Ann, who arrived from a Chepang village in the mid hills of Chitwan. Coming from an area of destructed houses and dangerous landslides in a community of heavily-marginalized villagers, Ann told me it was as if the earthquake never happened in this strange bubble of Pokhara.

DSCF4160

One last glimpse of the Annapurna range before we leave the Kaski district…

DSCF4172

…and suddenly, back to Kathmandu. I pressed my nose against the airplane window, peering through my foggy breath as my heart pounded with anticipation. It took me a while to realize that the bright orange squares are not roofs, but disaster relief tents.

DSCF4178 copy

“I think they’re from a rescue team.” “Where do you think they’re heading to?”

DSCF4186

Arriving at Kathmandu. Rushing to our long-separated friends, our little group reunited finally, chattering filling the bus with excitement. It did not take long before the atmosphere dropped. I held my breath.

DSCF4191 copy

According to my friend, buildings here are a hit or miss. You can walk by a couple blocks of perfectly well-standing apartments, and suddenly–the bricks, rocks, and glass everywhere.

I wish that everything was back to normal, that we just came back from our 1-month field research, that we will continue our well-planned CNSP curriculum in the program house and that our roommates are in the hostels, waiting for our arrival.

But we all know that’s not true.

“I feel like this is all a dream, and I will wake up in my bedroom in the girl’s hostel and find out that we haven’t even left for field research yet.”

I would play this game, where whenever I turned into the fourth floor hallway and approached my bedroom, I would pretend Samiksha, my roommate, was sitting on her bed, reading away at her physiology notes for the next upcoming exam.

DSCF4193 copy

Where is the resolution? I don’t know, it breaks my heart to even think about leaving.

DSCF4215 copy

Saying good bye to the lovely streets of Thamel, to its hundreds of multi-coloured signs and tangled phone lines, to the numerous metal doors rolled down for the time-being, a temporary state of quiet before the exciting chaos returns again with the recovery of this country. But for now, tents. Everywhere.

DSCF4233 copy

A final night-time gathering in the program house basement (aka classroom, occasional dining area, theatre room, or napping space) as we watched yet another episode about funny governors, parks, and recreation.

DSCF4228 copy

And lastly, saying good bye to my CNSP family, to the didis and dhais, to Summy and Benji, to Janak and Banu, to the program house, to Kirtipur. I remember hugging everyone, walking towards the waiting taxi, and–as tears came again, rolling and rolling–I turned around for one last farewell.

“Thank you for everything!”

group photo 2Laura

All Those Preparations

Two days before we set off to our respective villages, trekking backpacks layered with month-long essentials and hard copies of research paperwork. We’re sitting around in our Busy Bean cafe in Jhamsikel (in our satisfying natural habitat), taking in the peace before all chaos unleashes. I stirred away at my over-sugared latte, lost in thoughts.

DSCF2703

I can’t believe it. I can’t believe all this is happening so soon! Everything is flying by in an incredible pace, and yet–thinking about the previous series of events here in Nepal–we have done so, so much. And it’s not just traveling around the country and eating decent daal bhaat everyday.

It’s more than trekking in Poon hill, more than riding elephants in Chitwan, or more than perhaps lungi showering (public showers in water-friendly dresses) in Mhanegau.

What I haven’t been putting down in writing, is all the assignments, applications, requests, meetings, and networking in between these episodes of brief vacations.

Let me share with you–the miraculous process of learning and working that finally led up to our somewhat prepared selves today. And perhaps you, my fellow reader, will take away something valuable from my hopefully inspiring accounts. I remember…

DSCF2699

Staring emptily at our IRB initial request forms, thinking about what the hell am I supposed to fill in these funny blanks. How am I supposed to know who will I interview? Children? Adults? At least I don’t need to figure out my research topic–

which inevitably haunted me in my troubled dreams as our Research Proposal deadline came along shortly. How are we supposed to know what we will be doing our research on? Where in the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic world of Nepal are we supposed to find a single village for our work? I scrambled through oral health epidemiological surveys, hunting for papers one at a time in Himalayan Java (mediocre wifi).

Okay. Maybe I’m starting to see something here.

Voice quivering slightly, as words flew out of my mouth, possibly regarding sociocultural background, oral health, and perceptions. Kath and David listened attentively in the back of the group, sometimes nodding but concurrently looking very serious. Many had things to say about the research proposal, a couple of dents to be straightened out. Lots of dents.

DSCF2705

You are all required to find a research advisor by this Friday. Research advisor. What is that supposed to mean? Banu and I left the clinic in defeat after an unsuccessful case of requesting to meet with their dentists. She turned to me–

“Have you called Kiran yet?”

A friend of a friend of mine referred me to Kiran a few weeks ago, but for some unknown reasons it never came to me that I should talk to him. “No I haven’t, do you have his number?”

A new door of opportunity swung open when the previous slammed shut. Placing my shoes aside as I stepped into the unfamiliar clinic, this one run by a different non-governmental organization. Shaking hands with my soon-to-be research advisor.

Tacked up on a bulletin board in the clinic office. I’m looking at — photographs of the past. Yee, Cox, Mcdonald, Dixit. Smiling at the lens, busy at their gathering for one amazing purpose–to improve the mouth and teeth of Nepali people. Oblivious to the young stranger who would be gazing up at them in awe, many years later. Their numerous accomplishments, sitting humbly in the references page of my proposal.

I turned around to my advisor in bewilderment. “You know these people??”

The Oral Health National Finder Survey 2004–a very, very thick bundle of pages held together in plastic spirals, sitting in my bag like a baby joey in his mother’s pouch. I will guard you with my life, I whispered, to the holy bible of Nepali oral health.

Bits and pieces assembling together all of a sudden. Research proposal, submitted. Paper on upstream oral health projects in the past decade, work in progress. Riding to Jhamsikel and riding back before seven. Tin saya (300)? Char saya (400)? Pandhra (15) by bus. Stalking Taiwanese friends on facebook and perhaps typing a little bit more.

DSCF2700

Sujata sitting at the edge of our morning daal baat table chain. Summy nodded at me and muttered to my future Nepali research partner. “—Laura?” The woman nodded. She turned around, and I shook her hand. “Namaste, you must be my research assistant.”

Coming up with interview questionnaires. Looking at Sujata, looking back at the screen. She spoke the phrase in a string of fluent Nepali words. We fell silent. What is the English common name for pan? 

Emails flying back and forth, phone calls here and meetings there. Lodging plans confirmed, but what about transportation? Bandha (worker’s strike) tomorrow yet again.

Sitting on the roof with three other girls, scrubbing ruthlessly at our dusty socks with funny-smelling green soap. One last batch of laundry, before it is time to go.

Before it is time to go. I’m sitting at the rooftop staircase, legs crossed and feet cold from the chilly dusk. Back from Jhamsikel, again. Just before the cycle–of work, eat, repeat–ceases its spinning and our travel backpacks weigh heavy on our hips. It is time to go.

They say field research will be a truly amazing experience, a trip so eye-opening that I will come back enlightened–inspired, and perhaps little bit more mature. I believe in it. I have yet to confirm this claim, I know that it just will be.

I just wish that someone would have told me, how much time and effort will be committed to prepare for this tremendous one-month event. Sitting in bed, late into the night, yet eyes wide in anticipation for the adventures we will soon embark in. I do have to tell you–that these past few strange months, was definitely worth every minute of chaos, panic, and post-accomplishment satisfaction.

DSCF2715

Laura

On Taxis and Buses

It was time to return to the program house from Jhamsikel, or as many may refer as, Jamel (a quieter, cleaner, coffee-shop abundant version of Thamel).

Equipped with our touristy backpacks, and eyes somewhat wearied from hours of staring emptily at our barren contemporary issue paper behind dimming laptop screens, we prowled around the busy crossroad at a late afternoon, hunting for the slightest presence of taxis.

There’s one over there!

I jogged to the white painted vehicle, greeted the driver with a quick wave, and waited for his window to roll down slowly.

Namaste, dhai!” (Hello, older brother!) To the extend of my knowledge, it is common to address male shopkeepers and taxi drivers in this manner. A friendly version of identification.

Namaste.”

Now the challenge about being a non-Nepali commuting in Nepal, is the simple fact that I look like a non-Nepali. And with foreign faces, comes foreign prices.

“Kirtipur jaanchau?”

dhai nodded.

“Kati paisaa?”

I waited. Four hundred rupees would be the reasonable price—three fifty if we’re lucky, five if it’s dark, and six if it’s raining.

Tapaaii kati din?” (how much would you give?)

I studied him momentarily.

“Tin saya, Thik chha?” (three hundred, okay?)

He shook is head in disbelief.

“Pan saya—” (five hundred) he started explaining how there are no customers in Kirtipur, how it’s getting late too, and how it’s kind of far.

“Pan saya ali mahango bhayo!” (five hundred is a little expensive!) I pleaded, trying to sound as fluent as possible. I decided to play the student card—a card I have no way of measuring its effectiveness because I have never really not played this card before.

“Hami.. tourist hoiina! Hami biddharthi chhau.. or hau.” (We are students) (in questionable grammar)

He nodded slightly. “Char saya pachhas.” (Four fifty)

Pursed lips and scrunched-up brows.

Still mahango bhayo, maaph garnus.. ali ali gataaunus?” (Still expensive, pardon me.. but could you lower the price a little?)

He dismissed us with a rejecting wave. I straightened my back, and looked up at my companions, head shaking.

“Let’s look for another one.”

“Yeah.”

We began to stride away from the site of negotiation, strolling in a hesitant petty pace, perhaps slow enough just for the dhai to catch to with us. And he did—the white taxi pulled up at our side again. This time, he held out his hand, four fingers extended in the dusty air.

Char saya, char saya, thik chha?”

 We shared a couple looks again. Probably won’t get anything lower than a four, considering that it’s almost six.

Hunchha.. dhanyabaad dhai!”

 It’s like a game we play everyday, a well-rehearsed tug of war with well-predicted results—we knew what to settle for, and dhai knew exactly what to say, to hopefully earn a couple hundred more rupees from a couple tourists stranded on a crossroad. And personally, I don’t see anything wrong with aiming for a higher price. Because we, too, aim for a sub-par price. It’s a cultural norm, an inevitable negotiation in a market with no fixed prices. And to be honest, I have a lot of fun haggling.

IMG_1057

Alternatively, if one comes to familiarize with the busing patterns, the bus rates are much cheaper at a fifteen to twenty rupee rate per ride. Also, these prices are set.

BAM!

I jerked my head towards the cacophonous explosion on the side of the bus, somewhat slipping back and forth in my limited space on the warm cushioned seat, shoulders sandwiched between two middle-age Nepalese women dressed in their multicoloured khortas. An entire mini-van, packed with an abundance of strangers—five persons squeezed tightly into every undersized bench, four individuals hanging off metal bars on the elephant hide-like ceiling. Suddenly, three more passengers joined the voyage.

BAM! BAM!

 Pound once for stop, twice for go. (or is it the other way around?) The teenage boy stuck his head out the window, one hand balancing on a metal handle on the vehicle, perhaps strategically designed just for his role.

And as the bus slowed down in a seemingly arbitrary destination, he swung open the beaten heavy doors, stepped down, and started announcing a Nepali phrase, over and over again on the top of his lungs. As if he is calling for passersby to come this way! Join our ride! You sir, would you like to come with us in this exciting adventure?

Sometimes strangers would hop in, blending into the blend of human flesh and perspiration. Other times they would peek into our comfy space, and hesitantly back away for the next arriving party. In both occasions, the boy has never turned down a single person.

Perhaps it’s a community-based form of commute—to never leave any prospective passenger behind. A new addition to the group slipped his way into a newly discovered margin of air a feet away from me.

Whether via taxi or bus, there’s always something new to learn while commuting in Nepal.

Laura

One Morning on Pun Hill

DSCF2567 copy

We went on a five-day trek around the Annapurna circuit, starting from Nayapul > Ulleri > Tadapani > Ghorepani > Ghandruk. While staying at a guest house in Ghorepani, we also hiked up to Pun hill, which turned out to be quite an experience.


It was 4:29 in the pitch-black morning. I lay on my soft hostel bed, looking up to the empty shadowed ceiling in silence, waiting for my signal to rise.

Ring ring!

My roommate and I shuffled in our beds momentarily and reluctantly rolled out of our warm beds. I dashed to the restroom on the creaky wooden floor—no sign of light to be seen outside, but my eyes are wide awake.

Everyone gathered outside in excitement, white puffs of condensed air escaping our morning dry lips. Someone pointed up to the pre-dawn atmosphere high up above–luminescent paint splashed across the brilliant dark canvas, each majestic droplet radiating with an otherworldly glow.

“Wow…”

But our amazement could not be continued any longer, for it was time for the hike. Quarter-filled water bottles hanging off our gloved index fingers, cameras sitting impatiently in our swinging knapsacks. Step after step, we crossed rocky boulders and stairs, our single-filed line meandering up the forest path. Resting birds and dreaming critters. Not a single rooster to be heard, just the morning stars watching us in silence.

“Wait.”

It was Ann. I turned around and ceased my footsteps, she pulled out her water for rehydration. It wasn’t long before I too needed to catch a few breaths.

The rest of the group disappeared into the darkness above, quickly swallowed by a growing influx of unfamiliar passersby, who are, too, making their way up to witness the grand wake.

DSCF2585 copy

I looked out into the horizon—I can already make out the blue outlines of the mountain afar, the early signs of day. The sky is changing, forming a gradient of violet and blue, and perhaps a shade of magenta, too?

Heavy breathing against the feather down hood, my lungs gasping for more air. Wearied steps, one after another, sneakers crunching on frosted leaves. We stopped.

Ann took another sip of water again, an unanticipated dehydration. I wanted to say something, but words along the lines of

“I’d rather see the sun set than see you pass out”

slipped out my mouth. I thought it made no sense, but in retrospect it sounded alright.

I thought we’ll miss the moment on the hill top, but turned out we were early. After 40 minutes of intensive uphill hiking, we finally arrived at Poon hill, 3210 m above sea level. A sliver of gold, lining the expansive clouds in the far distance.

I sat down on a stone edge, and observed the horizon. My, we are surrounded by giants. Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, Macchapucchre.

DSCF2584 copy

Trekkers and adventurers from all four corners of the world all gathered here, capturing photographs from all four directions on this little hill. And with people, comes culture—a whole salad bowl of mother tongues and foreign sayings mixed in with the crisp himal air.

But when the moment came, it all became a hush. It was as if mother nature held her breath.

DSCF2603 copy

I took a solitary walk back down, taken away by the strange lit-up forest glittering with morning dew and melted ice. As if we have never crossed this path before. A completely new experience, so fresh to the human senses.

DSCF2666 copy

I would assume I am still the same person as before, but I can never be sure.

DSCF2606 copy

Laura

The Stories of Teeth

Kath and David advised us to conduct mini research projects in our study tour based on our interests and intended focus of our program field research. There were three components to it–interviews (held in Nepali!), mapping, and creative collections.

I had no idea where to start, but I knew I wanted to talk to people about their teeth. Armed with my dad’s camera (hanging on my neck like an amulet), a notebook in one hand, and my one black ink pen in the other, I stepped into the winding, manure-coated village paths and embarked upon my adventure!

But truth is, I didn’t learn much about oral health behavior & conditions with the little number of days I have in this hilly world. I can tell you that everyone (tries to) brush their teeth once every morning with toothbrush and toothpaste.

Although, I did enjoy taking pictures of people smiling, and I might as well tell you about these wonderful people I happened to cross paths with in my short five-day journey. Keep in mind, that this is not how the villagers would typically act in front of the camera–they were either heavily encouraged to show their teeth, or laughing at the peculiarity of the situation.

DSCF2368 copy

This is Minakumali aamaa, my house mother in charge of most things that go on under the roof. She’s originally from India, fell in love with a Tamang man and moved all the way to Mhanegang to start a family. Her husband, secretly married prior, was unfaithful and left her for yet another marriage. But she chose to stay in Mhanegang and raise three amazing sons, two of whom are working abroad in Qatar. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder how brave she is to raise a family all by herself. She also told me she doesn’t drink, smoke, or eat junk food, which is why she has such great teeth.

DSCF2369 copy

This is Palden, the little adorable rascal who would take apart anything he can possibly get his tiny hands on in the kitchen or elsewhere, and scream and cry until he gets what he wants (didi’s breast milk). It is important to note that once presented with candy, he will immediately transform into a beaming angel of a child and sit obediently beside the wall so I can finally take a decent, focused picture.

DSCF2379 copy

Say hello to Kamala didi, the daughter-in-law and beautiful wife of aamaa‘s second son. She came from a different village, and has the heart of a thousand mother lionesses. Regardless of all the troubles Palden brings to the house (Bang! Clash! Splatter!) , by night she will always be holding him in her arms, kissing his forehead, and nurturing him with her warmth until he drifts off to sleep.

DSCF2402 copy

This is Krishnaman dhai, the son of the village headman’s sister. He is very much troubled by teeth and gum problems, and claimed to change a toothbrush once every week. He is also an jaw-droppingly amazing dancer, as witnessed in our final celebration night in the village.

DSCF2391 copy

This is Joma, the grandmother of the village. She is 97 years old and doesn’t speak any Nepali–I had to ask another didi and Anjalaji, our Nepali teacher, to orchestrate a three-way translation (English-Nepali-Tamang). She told me that back in her days, women would rub ground coal on their teeth for cleaning and men would brush their teeth with the soft branches of the usele tree.

DSCF2411 copy

This is Setebika (sp), I’m not sure if he’s from this village. He and his son approached me when I was resting on a stone fence under the shade one sunny afternoon. I showed him some pictures of other people’s teeth, and his son insisted that I take a picture of his dad’s too (but he didn’t want a picture of his own!).

DSCF2415 copy

One of my favorite people in this village, Mr. Dibatur. Some claim that his perfect wrinkles can lighten up anyone’s day like an unanticipated double rainbow after a gloomy rain. I am personally more lightened by his perfect set of porcelain dentures acquired all the way from China. He is very proud of them! And would constantly take them off and show them to us, which can always be a pleasant surprise.

DSCF2435 copy

This is Budalimaya aamaa–a neighbor and regular audience of our house television after 7 pm. She has an amazingly beautiful smile that I will never forget. On my last day, she asked me when will I come back, and hugged me so tightly that I felt like a granddaughter she never had.

DSCF2453 copy

And last but not least, Kabira Tamang, the wealthiest man of the village. After hearing great things about his teeth, I decided to hike downhill (at the grave risk of missing daal bhat) on my last day to meet this extraordinary man. I wish I had more time to ask him about his teeth, but I like to imagine that he lost his front set of teeth while saving the lives of fifteen children, and now live a secret alternative life as a friendly vampire.

I have taken many more pictures, but I figured this would be the extent of your short-lived internet attention span. If you have some time, I would strongly encourage you to pack your bags, notebooks, and camera and head off to a Nepali village like Mhanegang. The people you will meet there (and their teeth) will truly be like no other, really.

Laura

Some Moments in Mhanegang

Five days ago, our group went on a study tour to Mhanegang, a Tamang village located four hours away from Kathmandu. We rode on a bus for three hours, got out at the bottom of a mountain, and hiked for about an hour–crossing rivers, climbing steep trails, and finally arriving at the one and only post office of the village. School children dressed in blue and red uniforms, peeking through windows, waving hello and namaste as they all gathered around to witness our foreign presence.DSCF2262 small

Our legs were wearied by our heavy backpacks, but a strange sensation of happiness tinkled in my heart as I sat cross-legged in the guest room of our mud-built house. What is going on outside?

DSCF2149 small

It was the second day of our stay. Sunlight creeping through our metal-coated windows as I swung my feet off the bed. The floorboards creaked. A rhythmic echo of liquid churning traveled through the mud walls from the kitchen. Prithula, my Nepali roommate, and I slowly made our way down the wooden ladder and saw our aamaa, Minakumali, pulling at two strings attached to a wooden pole, concurrently spinning a thick, metal stick (a mace?) held perpendicular to the floor. And on the bottom of the stick, lay a bucket, filled with a paper-white substance–milk, or dudh.

DSCF2193 copy

We just finished our daal bhat at half past ten, and stood up from the straw mat with our plates in one hand and our daal bowls in the other, ready to head over to the water tap for dishwashing. Kamala didi (sister) immediately halted us, strong hands grabbing onto our empty plates. “Ma ma ma..” I fought back with my limited terminology. I tugged the plate back, running my fingers across its metallic rim.

DSCF2348 copy

We wanted to help with cooking. As soon as my dusty socks descended from the ladder steps, heavy scent of burnt wood overwhelmed my nose. Cough. How does didi and aamaa prepare food in such an closed, smokey space? Cough. Cough. Basnus, Bahini, basnus.” (Sit, little sister, sit) I joined their triad beside the wood fire. Suddenly, the smoke cleared from in my lungs. Turns out it was an altitude issue.

DSCF2146 small

It was our last morning in the village home. I spooned the daal and bhaat in my metal plate quietly, mixing rice and lentil in a petty, reluctant pace. “Bahini.” My didi signaled me to look up at her smart phone camera. A flash–a photo taken. I smiled at her. She seemed more talkative today.

And not too long after, her hands held onto the ends of a golden-shaded scarf (khata) wrapped around my lowered neck. I bowed low to her too. We hugged each other under the village sunshine, through the wire windows on the orange-shaded floor. I have to say, albeit the absence of words lost in language, it was truly a warming kind of love.

DSCF2482

Laura

When I Got Sick Many, Many Days Ago

DSCF1785

Dear mom, dad, auntie, and Felix (yes it is your obligation as a decent brother to translate this for them),

I know am writing about getting sick, but that’s only because I was sick a couple days ago. My voice sounded funny over the phone, but I swear I am recovering now and feeling perfectly fine, please do not send me back home from Nepal. I miss you all, and have a happy Chinese new year. 新年快樂!

Love,

Laura


 

kay garnay: “what to do?”–a rhetorical question to express letting go of worries under a condition one has little control over.

Today I had daal bhat in bed. And no, it was not really daal bhat, but it was definitely in bed.

Didi entered the room with two metal plates stacked with miniature pots. She placed them on a desk beside me and unloaded a metal cup from the plate.

“Paani.” (water) Clink.

“Bhat.” (rice) Clonk.

She emptied some rice from one of the pots onto the plate. Her hands moved to a neighboring container, and emptied half its contents onto an empty bowl. Soup.

DSCF1814

“Dhanyabaad didi.” (Thank you older sister) I muttered, almost choking on the phlegm that filled my lungs. “Swagatam” (you’re welcome) I wish I knew more Nepali to express my feelings.

Today I also skipped Nepali class, 80% of it to be precise. My hands raised hesitantly, and lowered under Saritaji’s (our Nepali teacher) acknowledgement. “Ma… ma biraami hunu, sutnu? (I sick, sleep)” She immediately corrected my broken grammar. “No, um… ahile (now)”. She raised her eyebrows. “Ahile?” I nodded, trying to keep my eyelids from collapsing from all the fluid. She looked calm. “Hunchha.” (okay)

Somewhat flattered by the kind words of my fellow peers, I left the program house and made my way to the girl’s hostel. Why am I so sick?

But in some ways it’s nice to lie on my bed (curled up in a sleeping bag under two layers of thick soundproof mattresses) and do anything but sleep. No, I can barely doze off without suffocating in copious liters of phlegm. The world spins, and the minimum I could do was hold a pen with my right hand and scribble on my journal with my cheeks resting on the contralateral page.

In five minutes, CI (contemporary issues) discussion would have begun, and I would have been engaged in a deep conversation about Nepal’s politics, gender inequality, medical voluntourism, or environmental issues. But I will not be present for that. And maybe in a few hours after, I would be sitting on a rocky staircase, not too far away from kilagan (the Hindu god of teeth), with a notebook in one hand and the same pen on the other, noting down semi-participating observations of human behavior as passersby receive their blessings for good oral health. But will I really be there, or am I just going to hide under these incredibly warm layers, waiting for load shedding to end so I can finally charge my phone? Kay garnay.

I closed my eyes momentarily, only to give up and open them again. Sick days have always been my favorite, a funny form of guilty pleasure. It’s just somewhat peaceful to take a breather from all the intensive 2-hour sessions of Nepali, guest lecturers on contemporary issues, and research design courses on ethnographic fieldwork.

And I know I’m not the only one getting sick these days. Every day in kajaa (snack), someone would contribute something new to our Journey to Collect All The Illnesses of the World! Stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting. And now, the common cold.

I creaked open the door to place my emptied trays in the hallway. Summy, our TA, appeared before me with a phone in one hand.

“Laura, Jack’s (originally Zach, but “z” was a tough one for the Nepali tongue) going to the hospital now. Do you want to join?” I looked at her, and then at my bed a few feet away from us.

“No, I’ll be fine. I just need to rest.”

Oh right, he wasn’t in class today either. I crawled my way back into my overheated nest.

I hope he recovers in the good hands of CIWEC (international hospital in Kathmandu). But other than that, I don’t know how much more we can really do in the face of unforeseen illnesses in this foreign country.

Laura