What I love here:


The comforting croak of the frogs at night.

The sound of rain on a tin roof.

Women walking in kurtas, veils trailing.

Hennaed hands on the first of Saun.

Temples like mushrooms in the unlikeliest of places.

Mild-mannered dogs, neither tame nor wild, sleeping in intersections.

Ducklings waddling down the center of the street.

Chicks milling about the gate.

Spindly legged men herding cows.

Bamboo ladders and scaffolding.

Color.

Rice fields in terraces, corn everywhere else.

Squash vines climbing house and garden walls.

Flowers from my homeland by the side of the road.

The rare glimpse of the god-mountains overlooking the valley.

Women driving trucks and buses.

Men balancing wares on bicycles.

Giant metal baskets of mangos.

Fortune-tellers lounging on the sidewalks at Ratna Park.

Women fanning roasted corn at corners.

Goats.

Weed(s).

The red- and the orange-robed.

The dark, dirty, and ragged, red-robed monk who lives at Boudha.

Walking slowly.

Bare feet.

Ankle bracelets and toe-rings.

Saying Namaste.

 

Shanti (Peace) Pagoda, Pokhara, Nepal


If I had known how difficult the journey was going to be, I never would have attempted it. Getting up here to this enormous mountaintop shrine to the Buddha took all my energy.  I started out in the heat of mid-morning, with plenty of water and a good breakfast in my stomach, on a walk that the guidebook said would take two to three hours.  I followed the water’s edge from the center of the tourist strip past the rental boats and scrubby jewelry vendors, past the fancy lakeside restaurants, across a grassy area and over a brick wall where I pointed out a beautiful blue butterfly to a little boy whose parents were bathing below.  I followed a footpath through weeds, across a parking lot for an expensive hotel that you had to take a ferry to, and through a gate to an abandoned park with a brick wall around it.  I headed towards some peaked red roofs atop crumbling brick buildings, which turned out to be ancient temple grounds, four or five smaller shrines set around a larger mandir dedicated to Shiva.

There I met a young priest, who invited me into the sacred area where non-Hindus almost never get to go.  He also opened up the doors to a smaller temple to Durga, the great mother goddess, whom among the thousands of Hindu deities I have adopted as my personal protectress.  The priest told me it was too far to walk to the Buddhist Stupa that I had set out to visit, and that it would be best to take a boat across the lake to the beginning of the path through the forest.  I turned around and looked for a boat.  When I found out how much it was going to cost to cross, and also that the boatman had elected himself my personal tour guide, whether I wanted him or not, I reversed course and headed through the temple grounds again.

I decided to believe the guidebook, not the priest, since like all Nepali men he assumed that western women are unable to discern what is best for them, and this attitude pissed me off.  But before heading out, I asked him for tika, which he happily gave me, apologizing for not having offered it before.  This red mark on my forehead brought me good luck and guidance, as you shall hear.

I crossed a trash-filled stream  on a metal suspension bridge.  Boys stood knee-deep, fishing, in the filthy water.  The path took me around the lake behind a plump, short woman who shielded herself from the burning sun with a purple umbrella.  I had been walking slowly to conserve energy and to stay cool.   Even so, I caught up with the woman pretty quickly, and greeted her as I passed: “Namaste.”

Namaste means, “the divine beauty in me greets the divine beauty in you.”  This is the common greeting, which all Nepalis use to say hello and, sometimes, goodbye.   Strangers on the street do not routinely exchange it the way Californians say, “Hello, how are you,” as they pass one another without waiting for a reply.  But whenever one meets eyes it is polite to say hello and common to hold up one’s hands in prayer as one does so.  If someone greets you with hands in prayer and you do not return the gesture, it is considered very bad manners and bad luck.  I love this greeting!  Namaste: The divine in me salutes the divine in you!   It  feels like the most natural and honest expression of my heart, as well as the most appropriate way for human beings to greet one another.  Every one of us inherently good and capable of remembering and cultivating the goodness in ourselves.

In this spirit, then, I saluted the woman with the purple umbrella, who returned my salute and then quickened her pace to keep up with me.  She was inquisitive. “Where are you from?” She asked.  “Do you like Nepal?”  “How long have you been here?”  “How long will you stay?” “Where are your friends?” she demanded, along with a number of other questions that I didn’t understand.  I did my best to converse but lapsed, with apologies, again and again into frustrated silence.  I showed her the tika on my forehead, which she found so astonishing and wonderful that she insisted that she photograph me immediately.  She managed to hail another woman, sitting in the shade in a walled garden behind a gateway that proclaimed, “No unauthorized persons may enter.”   The woman with the umbrella, now my fast friend, convinced the other woman to allow us into the shade and to take a photograph of us together.  As soon as she handed her phone to the woman, my new friend threw her arms around me.  I obligingly put my arm around her, and smiled.  I was happy to have pleased her so much, if also somewhat bowled over by her enthusiastic affection.

After the photo, my admirer walked along in the same direction, still gabbing away at me, even though it was clear that I understood very little.  I asked her where she was going, and she said that she was heading somewhere off to the left, to her home in the New Road.  My path took me to the right, and I expected her to leave me at any moment.  She chattered away at me in Nepali using that lovely up lilting “enah!” at the end of her sentences, which is both a question and command.  I had no idea what she meant but she sounded friendly and content.  I kept expecting her to break away, but she seemed determined to direct me.   Finally I stammered out something like, “I am strong and okay.  You are going with me? I can go alone.”  She just grabbed my arm firmly and pushed me further down the road.  The one word I recognized again and again in her lectures to me was “Saathi,” or “friend.”    I asked her if she thought it was dangerous to go to the Stupa alone.  The guidebook had warned travelers not to go through the rain forest without a group, because robbers were known to prey upon tourists there.  I had deliberately left my wallet at home, bringing only enough cash to get a little food and a boat back, and this I had hidden well in my backpack.  I also happen to be as tall if not taller than most Nepali men, and relatively brave or foolhardy, and thought I would be fine.  She explained that she was taking me on an alternate route, one that would be safer although longer.  We passed a sign at the trailhead of a path leading straight up through the forest.  It said in large, bold letters: IT IS BEST TO TRAVEL IN GROUPS.

I began to worry about her health.  It was indeed very hot and although she was sturdily built, she did not have the most appropriate walking shoes on.  Then again, the Nepalis never do and they go great distances in flip-flops that tear my feet to shreds.  Still, I felt anxious about the debt that I was building up to her as well as the danger she seemed to determined to protect me from.  A couple of 10- or 12-year old boys approached us from behind, and I stepped aside to let them pass, wondering if these were the sorts of robbers I should look out for.  To my surprise, they very cheerfully and sympathetically began to fire questions at me in English.  This was a relief after the past 45 minutes of language breakdown, and I asked them to please tell the wonderful woman with the purple umbrella that I appreciated her help very much, but did not expect her to take me all the way to the Stupa.  They spoke a few words to one another and she agreed to leave me there, with the boys.  Once again she threw her arms around me, this time kissing me on both cheeks, in the French fashion.  Then she waddled home as the boys announced that they would take me through the forest.

They said that they were 12 years old and cousins, who lived in a nearby village. They pointed to their mothers working in the rice fields as we passed.  They also said that they were in school, but did not know for how many more years they would attend since their parents were poor farmers.  To make extra money, they said, they guided tourists through the forest on the way to the Stupa.   They walked very quickly without any effort and I kept up with them until the path got and stayed very steep.  One of them was very sweet and honest, while the other, taller one had already learned to manipulate and take advantage of others.  After a while they seemed to be two angels, or demons, into whose hands I had unwittingly delivered myself.  The nicer one wanted to know exactly how much money I would give them for guiding them.  I refused to answer this question until we had reached the summit, partly because I was afraid that they would abandon me for a wrong answer in what seemed increasingly like a jungle.  Footpaths led off in every direction, and there were no signs indicating the way to the stupa.  The mosquitoes swarmed and bit mercilessly, and other, tinier, black bugs attached themselves to my legs and arms.  To make things worse, the cheap sandals I had bought to replace the Chakos that someone stole from me fell apart.  The bottom sole sheared away and one of the straps broke, so I had to walk carefully.

Bad and Good Guides in the Forest

We climbed for an hour or two.  My heart began to thud heavily against my chest, partly because I had tried to keep up with the boys, who climbed like mountain goats, instead of pacing myself for the journey.  That would have been hard to do, actually, since I had no idea for how long we would be walking, or how steep the path would be.  Still, because I had gotten winded early on, I had to stop often.  I couldn’t sit down to rest, because leeches lurked under the leaves on jungle-forest floor and I didn’t want to invite any more insects to crawl up my legs.

I began to flag.  I had rationed my water sensibly but had not brought any candy or nuts for energy.  Just before we reached the summit, I had to force myself to lift each heavy foot, one after another, and also had to keep reminding myself not to rest my hands on my hips.  Finally we reached a little shop at a crest of the mountain, from which we could see all of Pokhara as well as the stupa, still a half-hour’s walk up another steep hill.  I threw myself into a chair and drank most of the liter of the water I bought before the shopkeeper could return my change to me.  I also bought the kids, who had complained that they were hungry, some coke and chips.  I also had a coke myself, just to get some sugar into my bloodstream.  I would not have made the final trek without it.

I gave the boys 110 rupees each, all I could afford while keeping just enough to get back by boat at the bottom of the hill.  I didn’t know where that path was, but the boys said that someone could show me as they said goodbye.  All seemed well until the taller, ruder boy called after me and demanded more money.  “I gave you all that I could,” I said and shrugged off his parting curse.

I limped up to the Stupa under a sweltering sun. The plaque at its base, where you are asked to remove your shoes, stated that it had been built by a Japanese Buddhist sect whose mission was to spread Buddhism and peace by erecting 100 peace pagodas in as many countries around the world.  There were very few visitors, just a few Nepali couples and another pair who looked Dutch.  One of the Nepali couples, who had unusually delicate features, asked me to take so many photos of them with their phone that I worked up the courage to ask them if I could photograph them with my camera.  I liked the gentleness of their movements and the way that they looked at each other, obviously very much in love.

Rahda and Krishna?

There were also a few groundskeepers.  Typically, the man lounged in the shade while the woman labored under the sun, which sweltered above.  All the clouds had gathered around the edge of the lake, obscuring the Himalayas, as they usually do at that time of day in the summer time.  I hadn’t come for the view, but rather to see the pagoda and to have a bit of a walk.  I hadn’t expected it to be a trek or an adventure.  The pain and uncertainty I suffered getting up here was worth it.  The four great golden statues and murals, which look off in the four directions, preach peace, enlightenment, love, and universal harmony.

I am now sitting at the doorway of a Japanese Buddhist temple, which is set on the steep hill just below the Peace Pagoda.  The doors are locked but I can see through the screens.  The interior is very different, quite a bit more subdued, than the Nepali and Tibetan temples I have seen.  There are no chairs or benches outside here, just as at the stupa, so I am sitting on the steps.  There are ants and mosquitoes but none of the biting bugs that attacked me in the forest.  This friendly dog passing by probably has fleas, so I will not pet him.

I would like very much to write a letter to Tim, who has been on my mind for so much of this trip to Pokhara.  I can’t resolve the conflicting and violent emotions that beset me,  It is always this way with a breakup.  One belabors the end on and on without reaching any satisfactory understanding.  Usually the party who makes the break is more eager to stop talking about it, while the party caught off guard cannot discuss the problem enough.  The only solution, which comes sooner or later, is to drop it.

I would like to be friends with him.  Certainly what is most terrible and devastating about this breakup is that I seem to have lost my best friend.  I feel very vulnerable and lost without his friendship, his support, his affection.  I cannot deny that I was unhappy in our relationship, too, and that I felt we were not as suited to one another as I would have liked.  Many of my needs were unmet.

Things changed.  They do that.  I gravitated to women friends who spoke freely and openly about their fears and anxieties and weaknesses.  There were times when I felt slighted by him, and there were times when he felt slighted by me.

Still I believed in our bond, in our importance to one another.  I loved the easy way we lived together.  He comforted me.

My brain will not compute this reality. What seemed an oasis was a mirage.

Still, I sit here at the peace pagoda and wish to make peace with him in my heart.  I do not know how to do it.  How do I acknowledge my suffering, my wounds, and yet forgive?  Why am I holding a grudge against him?  What am I afraid of if I let give up this war?  Isn’t the emotion at the bottom of my anger fear?  What do I fear most of all?

That I am weak.

How do I now open conversation with him without attacking him?  By sharing my own insecurities and vulnerabilities with him. Here is the letter I am sending:

Dearest Timothy, Namaste:

My last email was pretty angry, an outburst of the tumultuous emotions that I’ve been struggling to manage since we broke up.  I act like I’m crazy when I am afraid and wanted to tell you about my fears as a way to open conversation between us again.

I am afraid that I will never again meet a man whom I love who also loves me.

I am afraid that no one will see the beauty and goodness that you saw in me, and that I will be alone for the rest of my life.

I am afraid that I will never have a family again, other than the wonderful family that I have with Brendan.

I am afraid that I will never again be included and accepted and desired and protected.

I fear I’ll have to find all strength, all courage, all support from within myself.

I fear I’ll get weak and dizzy and make mistakes and lose my way.

I fear again wandering in the terrible desert of loneliness.

I know that these are fears, not truths, and also that they come and go like waves on the sea.  I know that these anxieties cloud my mind and make me say and do things that I regret.  I also know that these fears are not my fault.  That is, they well up in me because of my experiences and culture and inheritance.  I meditate to survive them.

I am sorry for every hurtful word and gesture between us, for every breakdown of communication, every dissipation of the love we have for one another.  Above all, I want to hold you in my life as the cherished and trusted friend that you have always been to me.  When my feelings of loss, fear, and self-criticism drive me to lash out at you or to despair I forget that what I want most of all is peace and harmony within and between us. I want to face the crossroads we have come to squarely with compassion for both of us.   I wish now to be strong, serene, and levelheaded, to know my own Buddha nature and to be a good and kind friend to you.

Most of all, I wish to let go of my attachment to you and hold onto my love for you.  You have been a good friend to me, after all. You are taking care of my house, our dogs, my cat, and my yard.  You are collecting my mail and scanning and sending important documents to me by email.  You let me know how the animals are doing and actually treat the cat better than I ever did.  You words since our breakup have always been kind and soft.  All of these gestures show your love for me, and I feel incredibly lucky to have you in my life as a friend, still my best friend.  Thank you.

Peace,

Kimberly

The Turtle


11 July 2010

The Little Tibetan Inn, Pokhara, 6 am

The Turtle

I dreamed that I was the passenger in a car.  The person driving was a supportive male friend.  A turtle wandered into the road and flipped itself over right in the middle of the lanes.  I made the driver stop, got out of the car, and stopped oncoming traffic.  Then I carefully turned the turtle right side up and gingerly carried it to the side of the road.  I had never picked up a turtle before and worried that I was hurting it by holding it only from its shell.  When I set it down, it began to crawl toward the center of the highway again, propelled by some archaic instinct.  I rescued it once more and again held it nervously while I scanned the area for the place that it seemed to be wanting to go.   I saw a path leading down away from and then underneath the road to a glen.  I set the turtle at the edge of a pool and watched it as it sat, stunned.  Then it eased itself forward into the water and swam away.  I climbed back up the hill, feeling very happy.

When I awakened I wondered if I had dreamed about rescuing myself.  I had to leave the car driven by a supportive man and carry myself to water, safety, and freedom.  I didn’t quite know how to carry myself, and worried about getting hurt.  But it was essential to figure out how to save myself.  Only then could I return to companionship with the person who has always been waiting for me.

Compassion and Capability


I feel a strong, emotional connection with Kat and Maria, best friends who are just beginning their fifth year of medical school in Northern England.  They are very grounded in their femininity, very earthy, compassionate and capable.  Both of them are strikingly beautiful, although quite different, like the sisters Rose-White and Rose-Red.  Kat has pale, milky skin, light blue eyes, and long, waving golden hair.  Maria has olive skin, large, luminous dark eyes, and long, thick, black hair.  Kate is delicate, somewhat nervous, and compulsive, while Maria is steady and athletic.  They are both skilled, intelligent, strong and able to bring about the good that they seek.

Maria and Kat with Joost, Brendan, Pete, Angela, and Sophia in between them

They remind me of best friends in my family history.  My grandmother, Solveig Kristoffersen immigrated from Oslo, Norway to Rosebud, Alberta, Canada, and  went to nursing school with Hilda Hanson. Solveig later worked as a nurse in British Columbia and California, while Hilda became a midwife and eventually opened her own obstetrical clinic in the tiny farming town where she was born. Solveig married Hilda’s quiet brother, Alfred at a double wedding with Hilda and her beloved.

 

Hilda, Alfred, and Solveig on their honeymoon, heading from Canada to California

Observing Kat and Maria at the beginning of their careers has given me a lot to think about.  I’ve been asking myself where my zeal for scholarship disappeared to.  When I was 23, as they are now, I was living in cold-water flat with a poorly functioning coal oven at the top of a pre-war building in Hamburg, and applying to graduate school in Comparative Literature.   I got accepted at Columbia U, Washington U and Berkeley.  Washington U even offered me a scholarship.   I chose Cal because I was so homesick. I should have gone to St. Louis.  At Berkeley I suffered a catastrophe that set me back.  One of my professors, who was and still is very famous both for his scholarship and his habit of sleeping with his students, raped me and then threatened to destroy my career if I told anyone about it.

Yes, it was rape.  He pushed himself on me and I said no.  He said, “you American women say no when you mean yes” and then did what he wanted to.  I deadened my mind.  I was 23 years old and taking a course with him.  I wrote a crap paper on Pride and Prejudice. He gave me an  A.

I dropped out of graduate school for 8 years, during which time I wrote legislation and speeches for a U.S. Congresswoman, and became the Assistant Director of Government Affairs and Director of State Affairs at New York University, taught part-time at Vassar College, got married, and had a baby.  I returned to graduate school when my son was 2, whizzed through the program and got a job my first time out on the market.

My marriage did not survive my academic career, and my academic career did not survive my separation from my son.  I became so depressed living apart from him that I could not focus fully on my work, even though I spent all my time doing it.  My manuscript is about 600 pages long.  Much of it is quite good.  I loved writing it but could not figure out how to finish it, nor could I see the point of publishing it, other than to jump through the hoop I had to clear to get tenure.  No one would read it.  It no longer seemed to be a means to effect positive change in the world.

I left the university and started to volunteer full-time as a legal advocate for women whose boyfriends, husbands, and fathers routinely demean and beat them up.  Now I’m trying to get a women’s center going in Nepal.  It’s not quite the glamorous life I had imagined.  I fantasized about saving Nepali girls from the clutches of slave-traders and pimps, policing the borders and invading illegal orphanages to rescue forgotten children.

Yet every morning I help little girls who used to be slaves get ready for school.  They greet me at the gate of the orphanage, kiss and clutch my hands and pull me into play with them.

Cannonball through the heart


9 July 2011

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.

On the outskirts of Kathmandu

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.

Evening:

It’s like a cannonball through the heart. Will I heal?  The pain is sharp, bitter, and unrelenting.

Before Leaving for Pokhara


7 July 2011

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 abrass band that struck up a cacaphonous 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.

Nepali Women’s Attitudes Towards Women


6 July 2011

I’m frustrated and depressed.   Most of the women at the center have never been to school or studied a different language, unlike their brothers and husbands.   They have been coming to English classes now for more than a year and still do not know how to conjugate the verbs “to be” or “to have,” not to mention any of the other useful verbs in the English language.  And then there is the problem of getting them to understand how to use the verb “to do” in combination with other verbs, as in “do you have a toothbrush?” or “she does not live at that address.”  If they cannot progress beyond this very rudimentary level, then how am I going to teach them to think critically about gender, which is what I imagined I would be doing with them?

I had this lovely fantasy of getting them to talk about their relationships with their husbands and their sons and daughters and asking them why they go along with certain customs.  For example, if the family is having meat for dinner, then usually only the men will get some.  Why do they regard women whose husbands have abused and abandoned them as fallen women?  Why do they think it is so shameful for a woman to get divorced? I had imagined having stimulating and revealing discussions about these and other, similar questions in class.

One of the women in the class is, in fact, divorced, but she doesn’t want any of the other women to know. This woman’s husband beat her before taking off and leaving her with three children.  She gets by on the earnings her 13 year-old son brings in.  She can’t reach out to her sisters for emotional support, because the women have internalized the cultural codes that stigmatize all women who have cut themselves off from their husbands.  The underlying, unconscious assumption is that women do not count in and of themselves, but have value only in relation to men, who alone have inherent value.  So, a woman who stands alone in society is valueless, without worth, and should be treated accordingly.  The very few Nepali women who have gone to college and established careers are beginning to challenge these assumptions, but they must fight their own and their families’ deeply-ingrained beliefs.  Women who marry work 40+ hour weeks and then cook, clean, and cater to husbands, sons, and father-in-laws.  Women who wise up and reject this drudgery are shunned.  It is an appalling situation that does no one any real good.

Rupus, June 30, 2011


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.

Dreaming


This morning I dreamt I was on a beach that I’ve been to many times in my unconscious.  I had been there overnight because I was working on my book.  I had a flash of insight into how to explain the relationship between economic production and human reproduction, and needed just a bit longer.

I remember walking across the broad, open landscape and thinking, yes, here I am at home.

Night came and brought a storm, snow, and wind to the beach.  In the morning the table I had been working at was buried in the sand.  As I started to walk back to find a different place to work I looked around and realized that all the places that I had thought were far apart from one another actually converged here.

Namo Buddha (Hail to the Buddha) and Nepali Women


At Namo Buddha with Menuka, Susshila, Dilu, and Ambica

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.

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.