So this time I’m hanging them up in my bedroom, along with all the other clothes that smell clean until I hang them outside to dry.
28 June 2011 Eve
Just back from the orphanage. Maria, who is starting her fifth year of medical school, went with me to check up on Krishala, who was ill again today. The report on Krishala’s stool sample came back and informed us that she has ameobic dysentery, which is extremely common among children in Nepal. The headaches are harder to explain. She probably needs to see an eye doctor, but Gehlu wants to clear up her other problems—viral tonsilitus and now dysentery—first. So the doctor gave her some paracetamol, which Americans call acetaminophen. Maria and I went over to find out if Krishala was getting the proper dosage of the medicine she needs, and also to see how she was doing.
We arrived at a completely darkened house. The children were eating dinner at candle- and flash-light. Maria, who I have come to like very much, is as drawn to the children as I am. Indeed, everyone who has met them falls in love with them, because they are all extremely affectionate and cheerful. But Nirmala, the youngest, is the most endearing of all. She smiles all the time, and her eyebrows jump up as her eyes ignite when she looks over at you. I call her my little laughing Buddha. “Eh-bhui!” she erupts, bobbing up on her toes or, if she is sitting, onto her haunches, whenever something piques her interest or enthusiasm. Or she starts and points and says “U!” when she sees something she likes. She likes to look at photographs of herself and her new family. She loves to be held. Maria loves to hold her.
Maria also determined that while Krishala is getting the medicine she needs, she has only been given half the amount that she should take to get well. So she and I will go to the pharmacy tomorrow to restock. We don’t know why there is not enough medicine for her. We assume that Gehlu, who picked it up, did not understand that she needed more. We will remedy the situation, but worry about what would have happened to Krishala if we had not been here. We worry about what will happen to all the children when we leave, as we must.
This morning I held Krishala on my lap, because she was sick. So naturally all the children wanted to sit on my lap, and I spent the morning under a heap of loving little bodies. Surely it is impossible to feel unloved and unneeded here.
Today I learned something that made me very sad. Each of the children have suffered from neglect, poverty, cruelty, and forced labor. But Krishala’s body shows the blows that fate has dealt her more than the others. Today I found out that she is 10, not 8, as I had believed. She is much smaller than the other ten year-old, Anura, and smaller even that Gorima, who is indeed 8, or thereabouts.
Why is Krishala so small? Because she has been malnourished. Remember, Krishala is the one who came to the orphanage cleaning up after and serving everyone, because she had been an enslaved servant for most of her life. Her father was a drunkard who squandered the family property and sold all of their land to support his carousing. He desperately wanted a son. When his wife gave birth to the tenth daughter in row, he abandoned the family, and the girls were sent or sold out to work. She is ten years old. She looks six. She is woefully behind for her grade in English, in math, and in science. She is intelligent, very intelligent, but she has spent nearly no time in school. Rupus, the six-year-old, appears to speak better English than she does. But she comprehends a lot.
Sometimes I rock Krishala in my arms and sing lullabies to her. She goes quite still and closes her eyes, drifting back into a baby state in which she drinks in my maternal love for her. She needs desperately to do this. So does Anura, who hangs on me or hugs me or Bimila, like an infant. These children have not only been starved of essential nutrition, they have been starved of essential love, the acceptance, the nurturing, the contact between skin and skin, and eye and eye, that well-loved babies receive from their mothers and fathers.
Thank goodness for Bipin, who looks after them with love because he has been well loved by his mother. He clearly identifies with their plight. His own father disappeared when his mother was pregnant with him. He speaks excellent English, for his age—also 10—and translates for his mother. I communicate with her through him.
Tonight we handed out some of the presents we had bought the children. Maria gave them a skipping rope, and I had brought a soccer ball. Bipin said that it needed air, and told me where I could get it pumped up. We’ll go to the shop on the way to school tomorrow morning.
I was wondering if some of my readers, especially my family and friends, would consider sending play clothes and toys to the children. They have very little to wear after school and, as I mentioned before, nothing to play with other than one another. If you have any decent hand-me-downs, especially dresses, jeans, tee-shirts, shoes, socks, and jackets, and could send them to me here in Kathmandu, you would be doing a great good. And toys—there don’t seem to be any nice, sturdy ones to buy here. Today I brought small rubber balls and stickers, which were a huge hit, but not very educational or comforting. Maria and I asked the children what they wanted. All the girls said dolls, dolls with black hair. The dolls for sale here are cheap, tawdry, and white. They all have blond hair and blue eyes. The boys wanted cars. Bipin specified that he wanted an electric car with a battery.
I continue to worry about Laxmi. We’ve started math classes at the women’s center and she appears to have trouble even with rudimentary arithmetic. This may have something to do with her unfamiliarity with western-style numerals, but I fear that the problem is deeper. It would seem that she has had very little schooling of any kind. This concerns me because at 50 she is old by Nepali standards and will certainly be discriminated against as she looks for a job. I brought her to the attention of the director of VSN, who wanted to do something for her. I had hoped that we would be able to give her a temporary bed at the Women’s Center and a job as a house cleaner and caretaker. But Shreezanna, whom Tej has wisely made manager of the center, did not want to bring her in for fear that she would never leave.
Tej and Shreezanna offered to help her to learn a new skill so that she could go into business for herself. She could take sewing lessons at the center and work as a seamstress. Or she could borrow some money in order to set up a small shop selling vegetables. Neither of these options particularly appeal to her, not because she is lazy but rather because she knows that she lacks the bookkeeping, personality and time-management skills to go into business for herself.
Twenty-three years ago her husband abandoned her after seven months of marriage for another woman. She continued to live with her husband’s family for a few years, but they pushed her out.
Nepal still operates under the medieval cultural assumption that a woman who has had sex but is not living with her husband is little more than a whore. Therefore, traditional Nepalis regard a jilted or divorced woman as unclean, worthless, and untouchable. The double standard permits men to sleep with whomever they please, as often as they please, without losing any status. The fundamental assumption underlying this hypocrisy is that women belong to men as a kind of chattel and constitute lesser human beings. Men enjoy greater political, economical, and social privileges than women do solely because they are not female. What is the most pernicious effect of this misogynist worldview? The damage it does to women’s self-esteem. A woman who has been treated as a lesser being, a servant, a breeder, or a status symbol all of her life generally regards herself in those terms, even if she still has the sense in some forgotten region of her body and mind, that she is worthy, beautiful, and that she has the same right to a dignity and respect as any other person.
Laxmi has a strong sense of her own dignity but few options. After her in-laws excluded her, she went to live with her brother. He was kind to her but his wife looked down on her as a ruined woman and abused her. Laxmi held out for nine or ten years, and then went to live with a niece. I do not know why she did not stay with her niece’s family. Laxmi then went to live with her sister in Pepsi-Cola. Years passed, and the sister and her family decided to move back to their village in Solu Khumbu, the region around Sagarmatha, which westerners call Mt. Everest. Laxmi did not want to join them because the villages would treat her roughly and rudely on account of her status.
She came to the attention of Sugandha, who wanted to help her but did not have much to offer. She has been working long hours in his house for two meals a day and 500 rupees (about $8) per month. He also convinced his sister, , but this situation became unbearable for one or both and ended soon. Laxmi is now living with a friend. Sugandha intended to assist Laxmi for only a short time, to give her shelter and food until she found a way to support herself.
I could have pushed Tej and Shreezanna harder and even, perhaps, have forced them to give Laxmi a room at the women’s center. My donation, after all, made it possible for VSN to rent the flat, and it still has an unused room. What difference does it make if she comes and never leaves? Is the women’s center not supposed to help women just like Laxmi, women who have no husband, no family, no source of support, no or few skills, and no money? Yes. It is. But the women’s center also needs to keep on going after I am gone.
Here is my still-evolving philosophy: It is wrong to force well-intentioned yet potentially unrealistic and inappropriate Western attitudes and ways of doing things onto a culture that I still imperfectly understand. I believe that all human beings have the right to flourish and to meaningful work and to live their lives with dignity. But I don’t know the best way for Nepali people to flourish with meaning and dignity. I am a visitor here and aim to tread lightly. Even if I did try to impose my way of doing things, the Nepalis would only go along with it for a short time and then return to what makes sense to them, what they know works. So I think the thing to do is to aid people who are already working to improve the lives of their countryfolk in ways that make sense to me
I think it can be very hard to know whom to trust, but I trust Tej and Shreesannah. I will defer to them in most cases. But I will also do what I can to make the lives of the people whom they are helping happier, healthier, and more dignified. I want to enable and empower women and children to make their own decisions about their lives, to have a measure of freedom that they would probably not have without VSN.
So, what will happen to Laxmi? I don’t know. I was not able to raise very much money on her behalf. What I received went to her. People tend to prefer to help children and young people. There is no social security system in place in Nepal. She may end up going to her sister and her village, where she will be excluded from the hearth, the family circle, the fellowship that sustains emotional well-being and good humor. I don’t know for sure that this will happen to her. I only know what people tell me, and that is this: a woman who has been abandoned by her husband leads a very terrible and hard life. I don’t think Tej will let her fall into the streets, but I also do not know what he can or will do for her. She cannot depend on him or on me or anyone else to take care of her. I don’t know enough about her story to do it, or her, credit.
Friday, June 24, 2011
Bad scare this morning. As soon as I got through the orphanage gate, Bipin rocketed himself at me and landed with his legs around my waist and his arms around my neck. Rupus was right behind him, and then Gorima, Nirmala, and Anura were on me. Only Krishala stayed behind. She was sitting on a mat in front of the door. She has been complaining of headaches and stomach trouble for the last few days, and I have been worrying about her. Now she was very ill, hot with fever and a racing heartbeat. I don’t have a cell phone, so I had to walk over to Sugandha’s house, where I hoped to find Pete, one of the fifth-year medical students volunteering here as part of a third world medical course. He had already gone to the hospital, so I borrowed Sugandha’s phone to call Kat and Maria, Pete’s classmates, who came straight away. In the meantime, at my prompting, Bimila had called Tej, who called Gehlu.
Kat and Maria examined Krishala, who had a stiff neck, a fever, and extreme sensitivity to light. These are classic signs of meningitis, which can kill within hours. Gehlu came a few minutes later, propped her up in front of him on his motorcycle, and roared off to the hospital. We checked there about an hour later, but could not find Krishala. Hospitals and clinics are notoriously bad here (the doctors don’t come in when it rains, for example), and we could not get a straight answer from anyone. The staff could not seem to understand why we were concerned about a little Nepali girl, not another westerner. Finally we tracked down Gehlu, who could tell us nothing because the results of the tests had not come back yet. He told us that the doctor did not think it was meningitis, however. We went to check up on Krishala, and she did seem a little better. There was nothing that we could do until we got the lab report.
I taught my class at the women’s center. Deelu, who is very wonderful but also very demanding, insisted that I start to teach them math, so from now on Fridays will be math days. I hated math when I was a kid, so I was happily surprised to find that I enjoyed teaching it. Most of the women can do easy addition and subtraction, but only a few can multiply and divide. I gave the two advanced women more difficult problems to solve. In addition to other topics that I never thought I’d end up teaching, I’m instructing the women in basic business skills. I’m trying to show them how they can make money by borrowing, investing, and repaying, and reinvesting. Like all things in Nepal, it will take time to get this program underway. We are beginning from a rudimentary level.
Nothing moves quickly. I’ve been pestering the landlord to turn on the water and clean the apartment where the women’s center is for over a week. Shreezanna, who directs the sewing classes and manages the center, simply laid a plastic floor covering over the cement and set up shop. I want to wash the floors first, but I need some help. The whole center is still really dirty—the kitchen is covered in construction dust and the toilet is filthy. I had brought a bucket and some Lysol-like stuff and started to clean the bathroom during our break. Devi, Menuka, and Rayphati would not allow this. They snatched the bucket and rags out of my hands, and within twenty minutes had all the tile, ceramic and chrome gleaming. This was a miracle, since the toilet is a squat-style contraption on the floor, and workers had ground the dust and dirt into the groves where you stand to go. Their cleaning was truly remarkable. The Nepalis are nothing if not industrious, but it can be difficult to get them to start or finish a project.
Speaking of projects completed, I got my kurta suruwal back today. It was finished a couple of days ago, but I wanted to have it taken in at the waist. I had bought fabric in Kathmandu and brought it to the women at the center. They charge very little for their services, but they also double the price in order to benefit the women who are learning to become seamstresses. So, it cost 200 rupees (about 3 dollars) to sew each kurta and suruwal, but I paid 400. These women will likely be the first entrepreneurs to take advantage of the micro-credit program that I’m setting up.
After class, I took a bus—the wrong one, of course—into Kathmandu to meet Kat and Maria for lunch. I ended up walking for long stretches without having any idea where in the city had I gone, asking people in my broken Nepali the way. Finally, one young man in a motorcycle helmet told me to get on a bus that was just pulling up, and so I did. It took me a little closer to my destination, Thamel, but I still wandered and begged for directions for another half hour or so. Getting lost is never really a problem, because people are friendly and kind, and taxis are plentiful. I don’t like to spend the money on a cab, since the buses cost about 15 cents and I’m trying to get my bearings by walking. I finally arrived at the restaurant, La Dolce Vita, a touristy joint that claims to serve the best Italian in Nepal.
It was great to be eating penne pomodoro with what looked like real basil leaves on top, but I won’t be going back there again. I could not finish my meal because I got sick halfway through it. I thought I had simply eaten too much and needed to walk it off. When I started to collapse on the street, Kat and Maria rushed me into a café, where I threw up into an airplane sick-bag that Kat miraculously whipped out of her backback just in the nick of time. Then they lay me out on three chairs and pressed a cloth with ice in it to my forehead, wrists, neck, and cheeks. I felt like a complete idiot. There I was, pale white woman with golden hair in a green and red kurta, having a fainting spell. Somehow it seemed so cliché. But Kat and Maria insisted that this sort of things happens all the time. When I sat up I was still quite nauseous and dizzy, but Kat produced an anti-emetic from her magic bag. They said I had become dehydrated, which made some sense. I still wanted to blame the food.
Of course the monsoon broke just as we tiptoed out into the road to go home, and there were no taxis available. When you don’t want one, taxis pull up and pester you every five minutes. We took a bus, but had to change at Ratna Park, where we waited like beggars in the rain for the bus to Pepsi-Cola. After we were thoroughly soaked we snagged a cab, which cost us another 400 rupees, leaving both Kat and Maria broke. They had each changed $20 and spent every cent. It is true that one can live here very cheaply, but not if one is going to tourist restaurants and taking taxis and fainting in cafes where bottled water costs 10 times the price it should. At any rate, by the time we got home the anti-emetic had kicked in and I felt a lot better. I took a shower and headed over to check on Krishala. The report had come in and Gehlu had rushed her back to the hospital. She did not have meningitis, thank goodness, but rather a viral infection of her tonsils. I found her shoveling dhal bhat into her mouth with the other kids at the kitchen table. On the refrigerator were the medicines that the doctor had given her. She was fine and would get better.
There is an even happier ending to this story. While Kat and Maria were examining Krishala, they noticed that the children have no toys whatsoever, not even so much as a ball to throw. They told their parents, who now want to donate some money to buy toys. They are planning to give the toys to the children at a party. Since so few of the kids know when they were born, Kat and Maria want to celebrate all of their birthdays at once. They want to have cake, and candles, and lots of presents individually wrapped. It’s a grand idea. I wish I had the money to get each of them something really wonderful, bicycles, for example. I would love to teach them how to ride. If you have any ideas, or want to give, please let me know.
After a bad bout of the johhny-jump-ups I’m back to work and beginning to settle in. I rise with the rest of the Nepalis, at 5 or so, puddle around on the rooftop garden having tea in my pajamas and then get myself into the shower. On clear mornings I can see the Himalayas looming up behind the Kathmandu Valley hills like a huge, benevolent spirit. I study Nepali for about half an hour and then gather up whatever I’m bringing to the orphanage, and walk two minutes to the west to its gate. There I am greeted by beautiful, cheerful children who throw themselves on me, all six of them wanting to hug me at once. They grab my hands and pull me into the house.
On the way to this delightful destination, I pass intensely thin and dark-skinned women throwing bricks into enormous baskets that hang from straps around their foreheads and balance on their back. They are building a house. Sometimes they stand at a plastic barrel brimming over with water and cement, mixing the water into the sand by hand. Or they are shoveling dirt. They labor in the mud or on rocky ground in full sun from early in the morning until sundown. They wear ragged, faded saris and tie their hair back with the scarves that wealthier women wear properly draped across their chests. They work for men and receive very little to live on. They did not go to school. They have no marketable skills, no property, no support system. If they fall ill, they die. I think about this as I pass them on my way to work that never feels like work in the morning. I salute them with Namaste as I go, and they return the greeting. And then I thank the universe that we have the chance to save Gorima, Nirmala, Anura, and Krishala from their fate. Because of VSN, its staff, and its current and former volunteers, they have a clean and pleasant house, nutritious food, and a good school. They have also been very lucky to find a home with Bimala, who is loving, patient, and kind to them. All of this costs money, and without donors from abroad these kids would end up breaking and hauling rocks or worse. Many Nepali girls are sold into servitude or sexual slavery by parents who can’t afford to keep them. They spend their lives in windowless, dank rooms submitting to rape. Anura, Gorima, Krishala, and Nirmala are lucky. Today I brought earrings for the girls and nothing for the boys, so I’ll have to find something tomorrow.
Well, I’ve got it. My grandfather called this condition the Johnny Jump-Ups. I’ve had mild intestinal discomfort for the past week, and thought I had beaten it. I even ventured into the big city by bus for the day yesterday. But I have been confined to my quarters for the entire day, and have not felt so exhausted for a very long time. I can’t eat anything. Earlier in the day I made the mistake of having some salty crackers, thinking to replenish lost salt. I have been quite nauseous and feverish since then. So here I am in bed with my computer, my link to the world.
Click here to donate to this wonderful woman: HELP LAXMI NOW
I’m very worried about Laxmi, the woman who has been working at Sugandha’s house. As I reported before, she was living with relatives in Pepsi-Cola until quite recently. They moved away, leaving her homeless. I do not know why they did this to her. It is unthinkable for a Nepali family to abandon one of their own and yet it happens all the time. Most of the children in the orphanages have been abandoned or rejected by their parents, usually their fathers. Husbands abandon their wives when they become pregnant, or if the children from her body fail to be male. In this powerfully patriarchal culture, women do not count for much.
Laxmi came to the attention of VSN only because she has been attending English lessons at the orphanage, where the women’s group has been meeting. She is my age, 50, very gentle and kind. When she first arrived she had a strong, full-bellied laugh and a direct gaze. Now, only a week later, she is withdrawn, downcast, and somewhat frightened. She is also very, very anxious. Sugandha arranged for her to live with her sister, but the sister’s generosity has expired, and Laxmi again has no place to sleep. In my very broken Nepali and her weak English, I discerned that she will spend the night at a friend’s house tonight, and that the friend’s house is very far away. Before she could set out on this journey, she needed to eat. She receives two meals of dhal bhat (rice and a watery lentil soup) per day, at 10 am and at 8pm, after the volunteers have eaten. For this she spends the entire day, beginning at 6 am, cleaning and waiting upon the family. She has no source of income. I would like to help her find a secure place to live and a more reliable and dignified way to earn a living.
I have donated an amount of money to set the women’s group up in their own headquarters. These funds will pay a year’s rent on a large flat. I want this place to become a shelter for women like Laxmi, women who have suddenly found themselves cast out, good women who need help.
Right now the apartment stands empty. We need to bring in furniture, a counter-top gas range, a refrigerator and basic household items. Most important of all, we need beds, mattresses, pillows, and sheets. It is vital that we provide a safe harbor where Laxmi and others like her can recover from the trauma that they have undergone, and begin to rebuild their lives.
I am still in the process of bringing this project about, but Laxmi cannot wait. She needs your help now. Any amount that you can give will go directly to her. She is a very strong and capable woman, but she has suffered a severe setback and needs support to get back on her feet again. Please give as much as you can. Your money will help her through this crisis. There are no overhead costs. Every cent will go this deserving woman who needs your help. Please click to HELP LAXMI NOW
This afternoon I concluded my two-hour English lesson for the women’s group with an 10 minute meditation session. All twelve women very agreeably got down onto the floor with me. I kept trying to tell them that, for once they were the teachers and I was the student, but they simply copied everything that I did. If I sat cross-legged, they sat cross-legged. When I sat up on my knees, so did they. Only Susshila refused, thankfully. She is fairly old and portly by Nepali standards and wanted to lean against the wall. This gave everyone the option to sit as they pleased.
Deelu showed me how to hold my hands for chanting Om–arms outstretched on my knees, thumb and forefinger touching–and we got started. We actually ended up chanting Om a few times, sustaining the sound for much longer than I had expected. Then we theoretically lapsed into silence. We were not quiet for 20 seconds, when Susshila and Sova started to chatter in the back of the room. Rayvati began to smile, and I cracked up. This got the rest of the room laughing. And that was my experience meditating with Nepali women.
The monsoons have started. All the trash-filled fields have turned overnight into swamps or lakes. Some kind of bullfrog sounds like sawing wood or braying is under my window. It and the frogs seem to have fallen from the skies. They weren’t here before, were they?
When Brendan and I live in the same house, I am much happier. The keening ache that has become so habitual, I don’t even notice it, stills at last. I become aware of it only when he comes back into my everyday life. Like the summer rain and the sun that returns, he nourishes.
You don’t live apart from your only child from the time he is six and not suffer serious damage. Not if you have a heart, I think.
When Brendan was six years old, his father and I separated. I was just finishing my dissertation and felt as though I had to choose between my was-band and my dream of becoming an English professor. I had supported him financially and emotionally as he went on the academic job market; had moved with him from one position to the next and postponed my education until he was settled, working and earning money to keep the house up; had sold my mother’s jewelry to put a down payment on our house in Arlington, Virginia; and financed my return to graduate school out of my private funds. But once he got tenure he made it clear that he would not be making any sacrifices for me. In fact, he resented the time I devoted to my studies.
He encouraged me to enter a different profession. In retrospect, I see that he was probably right. It probably would have been better to have gotten a job in government relations or nonprofit work. I could have stayed in Arlington and would have made a lot more money and felt a lot more appreciated and respected than I did in academia. But I didn’t know that then.
I had a dream and I wanted to pursue it. I luckily got a good, tenure-track job my first year out on the market, which was hard to do then because there were so few jobs and so many Ph.D.s applying for them. The only trouble was that the job was in Missouri, and we lived in Virginia. To make a living, I had to move. I wanted to bring Brendan with me, and fought a bloody battle with his father for custody. I wasn’t trying to get full custody. I was fighting for joint custody. This I got, but the compromise, which I truly believed was best for Brendan, was to leave him in the home he had grown up in, at the school where he felt comfortable, for two years. After that, he was supposed to come live with me. But when the time came, I took a half-year sabbatical in Washington, D.C. and went on the market again, searching for a job closer to him. I got the job at the University of Pittsburgh and postponed Brendan’s move to my household, again thinking first of his best interests. When the moment finally came for Brendan to come to me, his father balked. I insisted.
The chair of my new department promised me that Brendan would be able to go to the University School, and Michael, my was-band, reluctantly agreed that it would be a good place for him. Nevertheless he remained so angry about having to give him up—even though this was something that he had agreed to and that had already been postponed for an entire year—that he dropped his son off with his clothes in a cardboard box and not a single pair of shoes.
So Brendan came to Pittsburgh, but lo, the school that he was supposed to go to said that they did not have any room for him. I appealed to my chair for help, because I knew that he had had enough clout to get the son of another professor, who only taught one semester a year, in. He claimed he could do nothing for me..
Had I known that Brendan would be put onto a waiting list, and not admitted into the university school, I would not have taken the job. I would have stayed in St. Louis, where there was an excellent school with room for Brendan. I did not prefer this option because my aim had always been to keep both parents in my son’s life.
So now I had him with me but no school to send him to. The local public institution was a magnet school, and Brendan would have to pass a test in German to get in. He took lessons and did very well, but not well enough to pass the test. So he was bussed halfway across the city to a school where he felt afraid of the children.
He was there on 9/11. A plane had gone down outside of Pittsburgh, and all the teachers and students at the university were sent home. But I could not get word from Brendan’s school about his whereabouts until many hours later. Everyone has his or her own memory of that terrifying day. I remember people on bicycles, foot, and in cars streaming away from the city. We believed we were under attack, and fled all tall buildings. I could not find out what had happened to Brendan. The school did not answer calls. He didn’t have a cell phone. He was only 9.
Furthermore, bullies tormented him on the bus and at school. It was clear that the district was not going to do anything about it. I took him out of the public system, which was very poor, especially in comparison to the Arlington schools, and enrolled him in a private, Catholic academy just down the street from me. My teaching schedule—given to me by someone who knew I had a school-age child—kept me on campus for an hour after school let out. So he was home alone for a little over an hour each day. I cycled home as fast as I could and got it down to 8 minutes.
The kids at the Catholic school bullied Brendan even more than the public school kids had, partly because the principal humiliated him, who was then in the fifth grade, by forcing him to sit with the second-graders for math. I tried yet another private, secular, alternative school, which only had room for him in the fourth grade class. I interviewed the hoity-toity establishments in town and quickly discerned that I lacked the cash to get or keep him in them. In short I considered every alternative available to me and then some.
Brendan became very depressed. He started to say alarming things such as “I wish I were dead,” and “I’m just going to throw myself in front of a train.” He grew more and more morose and withdrawn, and did not want to talk to his father when he called. The was-band, being more childish than his son, threw a fit about it and, in a churlish fit of spite, dis-invited Brendan from Thanksgiving with his grandparents, whom Brendan loved and wanted to see. His own father actually instructed me to inform Brendan that, if he would not come to the phone, then he would never speak to him again. I knew that I was both stronger and wiser than the was-band, and that if Brendan were to have both parents in his life, I would have to make the sacrifice. I drew strength from Lao-Tzu, who said the master is strong because she bends like a willow. In a storm she bends all the way to the ground but does not break like the oak, who foolishly barrels up to difficulty with his manly chest.
I also knew that Brendan was struggling so much on the social level at school, where he was being savaged, that he was in danger of a serious breakdown. He would not thrive here. When we talked about it, he was visibly relieved but he also said, “You’re nicer,” and that a part of him felt very sad about going, but another part knew that it was for the best. He missed his friends and the school in which he felt relatively strong and confident.
I was renting a crap apartment on the edge of a very active graveyard. Burials at least once daily. Not a happy place. Psychologists and psychiatrists come to Pittsburgh because the per capita percentage of depressed people is so high. They say it’s because it rains a lot. The chubby kid across the street was treated terribly by his dreary hippie, unthinkingly politically correct parents, who continuously pointed out that he was their adopted son of a crack addict who had ruined him in the womb.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve come to love Pittsburgh for all kinds of reasons, but I hated it then. After Brendan went back to Arlington I hated it more. I used to collapse on the kitchen floor and weep. Or I’d go lie down on his bed and breathe through the pain, try to accept not fight it. I came completely undone. I went into the darkness. Those years in St. Louis and Pittsburgh, during which I could not physically mother or protect my child, where the hardest and most painful in my life.
The university had a lot to do with that. One of my friends, who was a brilliant philosopher who had her pick of the top jobs in England and America, swore that the institution itself had infected her with a virus, from which she later died. True story. She was a Platonist and a feminist, and fussy old patriarchal bastards ran the department. Another friend, the head of the women’s studies program left the university because she was so pissed off at her colleagues, who had slapped the wrists of a married guy in her department, a medium bigwig in the tiny academic pond, when they found out that he had been handing out lucrative scholarships to the female students he was fucking. The woman who replaced my friend in Women’s Studies was and remains mad, insane, crazy, ooby-shooby.
Worst time in my life, but it’s over. Through persistence, diligence, and many tears, I kept the bond. We like as well as love each other. And here we are in Nepal. We went up to the top of the house after everyone else had gone to bed, and listened. We hugged, and then joked with one another as we parted. His room is directly above mine.
The night air is throbbing with frogs. It rained hard earlier but the rain has ebbed. It is pleasantly temperate, neither too warm nor too cool.
I had a magical day with beautiful and affectionate children, as well as with a group of women in their late 30s, 40s, and 50s who have a fantastic sense of humor and are genuinely down-to-earth. I’m learning Nepali as fast as I can so that I can talk to them, hear and tell their stories. But Nepali is hard. It’s written in the same script as Sanskrit. Spoken Nepali is a lot easier but the language doesn’t really make sense, I think, until you learn the script. How did I get here? It’s a long story and I’m trying to tell it. What am I doing here? Writing is supposed to help me figure that out.
Here is a verse from the second chapter of the Dhammapada,
A practitioner delighting in diligence,
Seeing dread in negligence,
Advances as a fire—
Every fetter, coarse and subtle, burns.
I am not sure I am practicing diligence or not. I am staying up way too late to write and edit this blog, and I am taking tomorrow off to go with Brendan to Thamel to buy sandals for him and books for me. I need a Nepali-English dictionary, and some guide to writing Devanagari. It is neither necessary nor wise, anyways, to adhere to strictly to any teachings.
Did you know that Buddhism spread from Nepal to India and the Tibet? The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama in what is now known as Nepal in the fifth or sixth century B.C.E. He rejected the Hindu belief in a creator god and the caste system. The Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley, my hosts and neighbors, developed a unique mix of Buddhism and Hinduism with a strong emphasis on tantra. The Buddhist part of that blend faded as orthodox Hindu immigrants from what is now India swarmed into the Valley. Buddhism declined severely from the 18th through the 20th century, but was revived by Tibetan refugees from the Chinese invasion of their homeland in the 1950s. Tibetan Buddhism, or Vajrayana, has a more structured set of beliefs and practices than the native strain. Has my exposure to Buddhism through yoga helped to bring me here? Absolutely. I’m thrilled, moved, awed by the physical nearness of the great Stupa, Boudanath, one of the holiest Buddhist places on earth. I expected to feel this way. What I had not anticipated is how much I am also drawn to Pashupatinath, one of the most sacred Hindu sites this side of the Ganges. Because I’m not Hindu (i.e., white), I can’t enter the shrine, but I did witness the majesty of the place, with its deer park, Mrigasthali Ban, supposedly the site where Vishnu appeared as a stag, and the burning cremation pyres and the orange-swathed bodies on the bank of the Bagwamati River.
Bhisal took me there, and explained that he had recently attended a funeral on the very site where a body—heaped with wood—was burning. Knowing this made the sight all the more serious and disturbingly beautiful. Bishal also told me that there was a Buddhist burial ground in the jungle on the east side, where the monkeys live.
I like the idea of advancing as a fire, burning away all impediments in my path. But I’d like to do more than destroy and consume. I’d like to be in the light and to be the light, but I don’t know how I feel about the concept of burning up everything, including myself, even though I understand that what ceases to be is dross, not the gold inside each being. Something valuable remains, but this is not simply the spirit, separated from the body. The spirit cannot live without the body, body and mind are mutually informing and enlivening parts of a unity, yin and yang, not opposites, but component elements.
I brought a camera to the orphanage this morning. The kids loved it. First they each wanted to pose wearing my hat. Bipin then got hold of it and rushed around snapping shots of the house, his mother, Bimila, and us.
He also took this one of the open refrigerator and gave me a test: “What is this food?” He asked. I really wasn’t sure. I guessed oranges, apples. “No!” he cried, delighted, “It is EGG!” Later on, Anura had the camera, and she photographed this chart on the wall of their class- and play-room. It has a nice new carpet, all over which I spilled tea on the first day, during a game of ring-around-the-rosy. Bimala, Bipin’s mother, brings me a fresh cup every morning. On my second day she suggested that I drink it down right away
VSN runs three or four orphanages. The largest one holds 16 children, who I understand are all terrified of their “mother,” the woman who keeps the house, bathes, feeds, and clothes them with funds that VSN volunteers and donors provide. A few years ago, a young Dutch couple came to volunteer for six weeks. While they were here, they raised over $2,000 from family and friends for VSN in general, which was just getting started. They later raised enough to found and support another orphanage, where my co-volunteer and friend, Dalina, works. She brought a lot of craft projects for the children to do, and she also brought cases filled with pens and pencils. The children showed their delight by opening them, peering inside, and zipping them closed again. They have never had anything to call their own. The children’s mother, who is very strict, insists that they spend every minute of the day studying. She took the pencil cases and contents away and locked them into a closet. She said that the children would break them. Dalina said she didn’t care; she had brought them a gift and wanted them to have it. She complained so much about it that the housemother relented and gave them back. But she still would not let them play games. Here were five-, six-, and seven-year olds sitting straight in their chairs, never fidgeting, because they were afraid. After Dalina’s prodding, the housemother allowed her to do craft projects with the children for 30 minutes every day.
The “mean” housemother is not as unkind as she sounds. From her perspective, the children have one chance to save themselves in this society in which family and village connections mean everything. They must excel at school, and excel they do. The children from this orphanage are at the top of their classes at the Career Building International Academy (CBIA), which VSN also runs. This school is a private school, sustained by tuition from parents in the neighborhood. VSN volunteer fees sponsor the orphan children. Most Nepali schools emphasize discipline and rote learning over creative analysis, and they do not seem to have the concept of recess. When school lets out, the fields fill with kids who have shed their uniforms for play-clothes. Keep in mind that the fields are also covered with trash, which is occasionally burning and releasing toxic chemicals into the air. They play where they can. There is a slightly cleaner football (i.e., soccer) field where and exciting match between high schools took place this afternoon.. I love to walk about the neighborhood at this time a day. Every child cheerfully hails me because I am white, piping “Hello! Hi! How are you?” They are very friendly.
I don’t know how the children I am teaching will do. I expect very well, since they are l very bright. Like children the world over, they have short attention spans. I play games with them. It is actually quite challenging to work with them, because I don’t have a blackboard or a whiteboard to write on, no books with which to teach—not even picture books—and only a room with a new carpet and a few sleeping mats ranged around the walls. We always begin sitting down in a circle, but the children want to tumble backwards, or get up and go to their room to bring me something. Yesterday Anura offered me hair oil and Bipin sprayed deoderant under my arms. “Are you trying to tell me I smell?” I asked. “No,” he replied and sprayed all the other children’s pits.
I allow them a lot of freedom because I know how controlled they must be in school. I incorporate movement into our lessons to keep them smiling. Yesterday I taught them Simon Says. When they get too rambunctious, I switch to modified yoga. Breathing deeply and regularly, they learn “in” and “out.” They tumble and wiggle again, just as Brendan did when he was little. Bimala, their housemother, indulges them, too, thankfully. They have finally come to a home in which they feel how much they are loved.
Don’t be fooled by their smiling faces and cheerful, loving dispositions. These kids have seen desperation, death, violence and abuse for most of their short lives. I’m still finding out their story, but as far as I have gathered the children were rescued from other, terrible, dark, dirty, and crowded hovels that pass for orphanages, where they received very little food, and almost no protein. VSN found them and brought them into this family home, where there are a mother, a father, and two children, 10 and 13.
Krishala is eight and very shy. I have to coax her to speak. But she always knows the answer before everyone else, and is starting to get more confident with me. It is hard for her, Gorima, and Anura, since they are far behind their classmates, who have always had mothers and fathers and who have been going to this very rigorous school for years. Gorima is the joker, the coyote of the crowd, always making mischief. If I have a pen or a book in my hand, she grabs it and examines it carefully or insists on writing out her numbers to show me what she knows, or drawing a flower to give to me. Since I had been so permissive with my hat, she assumed that it would also be okay to pull the glasses off my face. She put them on and laughed. Then Krishala snatched them away from her, and we had our photo taken. Of course we had to do another with Gorima wearing the glasses. And then Bipin, Bimala’s outspoken and self-assured son, wanted them on. I couldn’t tolerate this for much longer, since these frames were outrageously expensive and I had already had to replace them once, when my dogs found them on the table at home and chewed them up.
Gorima is surprisingly solicitous of me. I have a wound on my hand from a bicycle that I tried to unhook and bring down from the garage ceiling back home. It fell straight down. I ducked, but the gears cut into the back of my left hand. It’s hard to keep a bandage on it, and the cut has become slightly infected. I’ve ignored it, but Gorima would not. She found a bit of dirty plastic tape on the floor, and pressed it on the wound. Then Bipin brought me a clean bandage, which one of the other volunteers had brought from home, removed the tape, and bound up my hand. It was a little band-aid, for children, from the US. It had cats on it and tt fell off the first time I washed my hands. But Gorima’s concern for me got me to take the wound seriously, and after dinner at Sugandha’s house, I allowed on of the other volunteers to attend to it. She’s a fourth-year medical student in Newcastle, England. She cleaned it properly and applied a much sturdier plaster. Because of Gorima, my wound will now heal. Maybe she, too, will go to medical school. Her fate will depend on the success of the VSN project. As long as volunteers keep on coming, and if donors from around the world help to support the project, she will have a chance.
See how beautiful they are. If Nirmala, Gorima, Krishala, and Anura had not been rescued by VSN, they very likely would have spent their lives in sexual slavery. Krishala and Nirmala, in fact were found enslaved as servants. When Krishala first arrived at the orphanage, about three weeks ago, she went around cleaning everything because she had been made to do so. I will get more details very soon. Sugandha does not know their story as well as Gehlu, who brought them to Pepsi-Cola. VSN has been good to Bipin and his mother, too, as well. She has no husband—another story to find out and tell—and had been living in a hovel before VSN rented a flat in a beautiful house. Bipin, who is constantly doing headstands and somersaults, thinks he’s living in a palace. He and his mother sleep in the same room with the other children. They have two other rooms—the children’s play and lesson-room, and a kitchen. They also have flowers in pots in the front courtyard, and Bipin always thinks to bring me a flower when we play ring-around-the rosy.
Today I showed them videos of my dogs and cat on my computer. I have been missing my dogs very much, and wondering how I will get through the three months after Brendan leaves without anyone to hug or hold. Freya and Baldr are very affectionate, like most well loved dogs, and much cleaner and healthier than the dogs around here, who survive on rotting, maggot-infested food and scraps, and who have all sorts of diseases and infestations. When I’m lonely or sad I can pull them up onto my lap or fall asleep with them at my side. But here I have no such friends. Even if I could find a young puppy, clean it up and bring it into the house, which I can’t, I would still have to release it back into the streets when I return home, and that would be cruel. So I have been feeling sorry for myself in anticipation of future loneliness. There is no way I’m going to have any kind of romance with a Nepali man. First of all, they are very short. Second of all, most of them have very strange ideas about women. We could never get on. Thirdly and most importantly, I’m not even close to being ready for a new relationship, and look forward to the time alone. I will be living more or less like a nun, as I have been, rising early, working hard for the benefit of others, living on simple food and water, and going to bed early and sober. It will be lonely at times, of course, but I will not lack for love.
The orphan children hang on me, crawl into my lap, and all try to hold my hand at the same time. Nirmala, the youngest, gets the most attention from the other kids, but she also loves it when I pick her up. In fact all of them want me to pick them up and hold them. All of them except for Gorima, the dreamiest, shyest one, who nevertheless wants to touch me in some way. How to express how happy this makes me, how it satisfies the mother in me who was starved of mothering for so many years? But this story will have to wait until the next post.
13 June 2011 Around 8pm. Well! What an astonishing day. After I wrote the bit above I went to the women’s center, where I mostly observed Dalina, a volunteer from the Czech republic, teaching a small group of women to write and speak some English words. Their English is rudimentary but still better than my Nepali, and I think that the experience will be mutually beneficial. After Dalina finished her lesson, we started a conversational role-playing game which brought us all to the floor laughing. Then I met with Tej, the director of VSN, to discuss how I can best use my time here. He would like me to teach in their school because of my credentials, but I prefer to spend my time developing and expanding their women’s program. I have proposed that we set up a microcredit loan program for poor, unattached women.
Because family connections are everything in this society, a woman who has no husband and who has somehow become disconnected from her relations almost always finds herself in a very vulnerable economic situation. Laxmi, for example, our cook, has never been married, has no children, and no family or village connections to help her. She was living with some relatives, but, as best as I can understand, they moved to American and left her homeless. She came to Sugandha, who arranged for her to live nearby and to cook for the family. He does not know much more of her story because she has worked for him for a little more than a month. He has promised to sit down with both us to translate while I ask her questions about her life.
Laxmi is precisely the sort of women whom I would like to help. There are many women in similar situations—some of them have fled abusive husbands, others have been disowned for some act that the family considers dishonorable, and others have fallen on hard times through other means. Tej seems to be quite excited about this project. Obviously, we have much more to discuss, since neither of us has any experience with microfinance. I welcome any suggestions from you, my readers. I will be researching the topic and making an effort to learn as much as I can.
There is so much for me to learn here, my brain sometimes feels as though it will explode. Today, for example, began and ended with a lecture from two different men, Sugandha and a professor of American literature, philosophy, and religion, whom I met in a local shop, about Hindu cosmology and the caste system. Both of them emphasized what must be an elementary concept, namely that there can be no life, no generation, without death and destruction. The Mahadeva, or great god, manifested himself in three forms, Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the protector, and Mahesora, sometimes also known as Shiva, the destroyer. Shiva is by far the most popular god, as far as I can tell. He is figured with snakes and a trident-like staff. There must be thousands of temples to Shiva in Kathmandu, and in every one of them Shiva is represented by a ligna, or phallic stone. So, the bringer of death and destruction is also the god of the sex act that brings life into being.
Shiva is often seen with Parvati, his wife or lover, sometimes in an explicit sexual embrace.
The apparent contradiction between life and death is also seen in the important goddess Kali, who is a manifestation of Durga, the great mother goddess.
The delightful professor whom I met in what we call the general store is called Baikuntha, which means “heaven,” Poudel. He looks to be about 58 or 60, with short, steel-colored hair, tan skin, high cheekbones and large, dark eyes. He is smaller than I am, about 5’ 4, sturdily built and still quite fit. We struck up a conversation about his studies of Native American mythology, and I gave him my card. He invited me to his home, where his wife served us some cucumber slices and banana. She brought us sweet lemon tea when we went up to his study, which was a light-filled room at the top of the house, where there were three single beds pushed against the wall. One of them was covered with stacks of books, the others were scattered with pillows and were obviously designed for lounging and reading. There were more books on shelves in an adjoining room. We knelt in on cushions on the floor, directly facing one another, and talked about yoga, his current fascination with Chinese culture and language, and the current political situation in Nepal, which is very uncertain and flammable.
The country is still reeling from a ten-year civil war between the Maoists, who rose to power in the hills, and the Nepali army, which owed it allegiance to the King. The war ended in 2006, after more than 14,000 people died. In 2008 the Maoists won an astounding victory in the Constituent Assembly elections, winning over a third of the total seats and forming a bloc larger than either of the other political powers, the Congress party and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML). A Hindu monarchy was declared a secular republic. Since then feuding between the former adversaries, the Royal National Army and the People’s Army, as well as party in-fighting and corruption all around, has prevented the government from writing a new constitution. The deadline for a final constitution was set for 28 May 2010 came and went and still the politicians could not cease fighting amongst themselves. A crisis about this dire situation was recently averted when lawmakers agreed to extend the deadline for yet another three months. I will still be here when that dates arrives. Since I have been reading about this stiutation online and in the newspapers, it made me happy to find someone knowledgeable with whom to discuss it.
What I like best about Baikuntha, perhaps, was that he is the first Nepali person who had the nerve to complain about the infernally loud music that has been blasting into the neighborhood for the past eight days. It was an enormous relief to meet someone else whom the noise was driving insane. He was also humorously disdainful of the priest and all the “ridiculous activities” that have been going on at the makeshift temple. He said that the priest was preaching a narrow and imprecise interpretion of the Vedas that could appeal only to the most uneducated Hindu people who think that, in order to be good Hindus, they need do nothing more than dumbly listen to Sanskrit verses that they cannot understand, cover themselves with red powder, dance a bit and go home. This confirmed my own sense, when I sat for an hour or so among the priest’s swaying acolytes, that they were alarmingly glassy-eyed.
According to the professor, true spirituality requires a great deal of thought and questioning, and does not consist in blindly following a dogma. I agreed with him, but he did most of the talking. He also very generously invited me to stop by his house at any time to visit him, or to share meals with his family. He even said that I could live with them if I wanted to. I very politely thanked him and said that I was happy at Sugandha’s house.
After our conversation in his airy study, he invited me to Nepali tea at the local tea shop, and that is where he answered my questions about Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and the caste system. I found everything he had to say very interesting. As he explained it, uneducated Hindus believe that caste is a permanent, inherent condition, but in fact a person born into a Brahmin caste who does not act like a Brahmin can easily degenerate into a Dalit, or untouchable, whereas a person born into the Dalit caste who behaves ethically and strives to do good in the world, to work on behalf of others, will be reborn as a Brahmin. Nevertheless, he also said some to my ears uncharitable things about the fourth caste, the Shudra, to which my very generous and kind hosts, Sugandha and Sova, as well as the director of VSN, Tej, belong. He naturally was born a Brahmin, as his surname indicates.
This conversation took place in the café, which sits on a corner and open on all sides to the street. As we perched on stools and drank our hot tea in the humid afternoon, Nepali children passing by would interrupt the professor’s lecture to say “Hello! How are you? What is your name?” to me. I get this greeting nearly everywhere I go. It always comes with large smiles and usually with a hand or two, or four, outstretched to shake, and I always stop to talk. Baikuntha didn’t seem to mind, and picked up everytime exactly where we left off. One little boy simply stood and stared at me for about 10 minutes. Perhaps he was trying to understand our conversation. Nepalis are unabashedly curious, and do not hesitate to ask strangers their age, marital status, and weight.
At any rate, I am tremendously happy to have met Baikuntha, because I know that I will learn a lot about Nepali culture and politics from him. He has already lent me one book, on the “art of tantra,” which is a serious spiritual practice and nothing like what most Westerners assume. I want to read it to understand the discrepancy between the highly erotic art on many of the mandirs, or temples, and palaces, and the sexually repressed contemporary society. He has offered to lend me more so that I can learn about the multitude of Hindu gods and goddesses and better comprehend how Hinduism and Buddhism coexist in Nepali society. He has also promised to bring me to the university and has also invited me to give a lecture in one of his literature classes. The only thing that displeases me were his rather prejudiced opinions about the Shudra caste, which contradicted all that he had said about the fluidity of character. Since I had just met him, and he had been so kind, I did not challenge him when he disparaged all Shudras. I will have to ask more pointed questions the next time we meet.
But here is how he left me today. He said that it was remarkable that I had given up my job as a professor and come to Nepal to volunteer. And that if I stayed and studied the culture and the language that this a alone would be a great achievement. It was nice to hear.
June 13, 2011
Just back from the orphanage. There are currently four orphans there, Anura, who is 10, Gorima, 8, Khrisala, also 8, and Nirmala, 5. Two more are coming. We played a lot of games because they wiggle and squirm a lot and it is hard for 5 and 8-year olds to focus their attention on one thing for more than a few minutes. Unbelievably, children as young as five years are forced to sit very still for long periods of time in school. Nepali educational philosophy, as far as I can tell from the other volunteers working here and my teacher, Bishal, holds that children should be rigidly disciplined and made to memorize great reams of material. They are very good at listening and rote learning but not at creating or innovating.
I taught them Ring-around-the Rosy today, and we all laughed a lot when we hit the floor on “down.” This is how I am teaching them “down” and “up” and “around.” When they begin to get too excited, I have them breathe “in” and “out.” Poor little Nirmala was completely unfocused by the end, and I really can’t imagine how the children sit at attention for hours on end in the schools. They all waved goodbye to me very affectionately, and I was glad that I could tell them that I would be here for a long time. Working with loving and beautiful children, children who would otherwise almost certainly end up trafficked and enslaved as prostitutes, fills me with light and happiness.
One of the things I meant to mention in earlier posts is how wonderful it is to be here with Brendan, who is very good company. He still gets mad at me occasionally for treating him like a child (in his opinion), and I am trying hard not to “matronize” him. I take great comfort in his presence here. He loves me, and is unlikely to announce, out the blue, that he is finished with me and will be looking elsewhere for a more suitable mother. This alone is quite reassuring in light of recent events.
He started working at a different orphanage today. He and the two German girls, Sarah and Eileen, will be painting it in bright colors over the next month. He has already met the children, and on that day he came back from them as radiant as I felt this morning. Now I must return to my Nepali studies. The second book of the Dhammapada begins
Diligence is the path to the deathless
Negligence is the path of death.
Those who are negligent Are as the dead.
Understanding this distinctly,
Those who are skilled in diligence
Rejoice in diligence,
Delighting in the pasture of the noble one.
I could easily spend four or more hours a day studying the language, but in fact have only one or two hours to devote to it. I am getting better at asking for things in shops, and the children are also teaching me. They find my Nepali accent utterly abominable. There is much work for me to do here, and if I work diligently, I believe my heart will grow lighter. What I am trying to express is, there are more than one kind of love, and I look forward to a period of sensuous but not sexual connections with other people.
Today is the first of my real working days here in Nepal. For now, my schedule will be:
7am Orphanage—where there are six children who have been rescued from the street.
9am –Breakfast of dal bhat and water
11am—Women’s Center, where I will be teaching very poor women how to speak conversational English
2pm—Teaching at a local private school
As most of you know, I feel passionately devoted to working on behalf of women around the world, and my goal here is to make a small dent in the lives of Nepali women. I had a conversation with the director of the program (Volunteer Society Nepal, or VSN) yesterday, and it seems that he would like to develop the women’s center. I asked him if he would be interested in starting up a microcredit loan program, and also if he had interest in expanding the Women’s Center, which is currently housed in an orphanage (and that is why it only runs for two hours a day), into a full-fledged shelter for battered women and their children. He sounded very enthusiastic about these ideas. I have decided to stay for five months in order to help to expand the women’s portion of their program. They already have started a sewing class to help women learn to become self-sufficient. I have bought material to have two kurtas made by a seamstress who works there. Half the proceeds she receives will benefit the women’s center (WC).
One of the women who attends English classes at the WC also works here, for Sugandha and Sova, as a cook. She just brought me a cup of delicious Nepali tea, milky and sweet. This was very sweet of her since usually the volunteers do not get their tea until 7am. It is now 6:30am. She speaks very little English and I speak very little Nepali, so we mostly smile broadly at one another to express our affection. Last night she gave me a delicious hug in the kitchen.
June 12, 2011
I haven’t written for a couple of days because I’ve been too tired to do anything but go to bed at the end of the day. There I read a few pages of my new favorite author, Samrat Upadhyay’s The Guru of Love and listen to the Hindu priest, who is actually very handsome, sing into the night. The festival he heads begins with loud, but pleasant, music every morning at 5 and continues throughout the day. I am never certain when they stop because I always fall asleep before 10, usually before 9. I shall recount what I can of the last few days by moving backwards in time.
Yesterday Brendan and the two German girls, Eileen and Sarah, Eeshwor, one of the Nepali teachers and guides at VSN (Volunteer Society Nepal), and I went rafting. We boarded a bus downtown at 6:30 and headed west, towards Pokhara, to a point on the river Mugling, about two hours down the road. There is only one road going that direction, so all the trucks, buses, vans, and motorbikes bound for Pokahara, Chitwan, India, and all other points west and southwest, crowd the narrow two-lane highway.
Imagine driving on California Highway One in busy traffic with different traffic laws. It is understood that faster vehicles will pass slower ones, and that they will do so on sharp turns high above a river bed, honking their horns to alert drivers coming the opposite direction. The driver revs up his engine and pulls out into the oncoming lane, and then abruptly swerves back behind the slow-moving truck that is probably also belching black smoke into the atmosphere, narrowly avoiding the oncoming truck barreling down upon him. All the passengers, who are squeezed into tiny seats obviously designed for small-boned Nepali people, and not enormous westerners, lurch backwards and forwards, to the right and to the left, holding on to whatever they can in order not to fall into one another’s laps. Imagine this treacherous passing experience, not unlike a game of chicken, happening every five minutes or so for two to five hours. Our journey to the river was actually not so bad.
The rest stops are generally no more than set of fruit, vegetable and bottled water vendors grouped under tarps by the side of the road (the toilet is a hole in the ground surrounded by plastic sheets). So I was garrulous when I got back on the bus and struck up a conversation with two couples, one Dutch and one Swedish, who were sitting nearby. The Dutch woman, very tall and thin, with nearly white blond hair, blue eyes, and creamy, pale skin, had gone rafting before. She said her companions were 30 Chinese people, who kept on falling out of the rafts because they didn’t listen to the guide’s instructions. Her name is Linda and she works for the Ministry of Education through VSO. Her boyfriend was visiting her for two months.
The Swedes, Marie and Kun, were also in Nepal for at least a year. Kun works for a Swedish IT company in Kathmandu. Marie, who is some kind of biologist, had been volunteering for a water treatment project but quit in frustration over the slow pace of change. They and two other Swedish women in their group shared our raft with us down the Mugling River. This was very good because they were very fluent and comfortable in English, and made a lot of jokes. At one point Kun, who had playfully been complaining that we needed a drum to help us keep time with the rowing, started booming “Ho! Ho! Ho!” with every stroke, and we all went along with his game of pretending that we were Vikings. We hit some pretty good rapids, although nothing more than a class 2, and got nice and wet. It was tremendous fun.
We stopped for lunch at a sandy beach where three, and then five, and then seven, dark brown, elfin Nepali children were playing. They’d run across the ridge of sand behind our landing, roll down the sandy slope, and then dive into the river upstream of us. They had to have been very strong swimmers, because the current was very strong, and they’d head out the middle of the river and sweep back to the end of the beach with ease. I watched them anxiously for a while, worrying when their heads would disappear under the brown water, and breathing again when they’d reappear, like seals, and scramble up the beach. So much energy! They watched us, too, for time, especially when the guide laid out our lunch, for which we were ravenous. It was especially nice to have something other than dhal bat to eat. We had a cucumber, tomato and onion salad in some delicious mayonnaise, brown bread, cheese (!), jam, baked beans and tuna from the can. We ate so much that we didn’t really have room for dinner.
We were also rather sick, for the bus ride back was miserable. What should have taken 2 hours took 5, since there was a lot of traffic and the bus kept on breaking down. The driver would pull over to the side of the road, open up the engine, which was in the main cabin and which filled the bus with greasy smoke and heat, fiddle with something or other, and set off again. We were all squished into the extra-small seats. Brendan swears the ratio is 10 Nepali for 1 Westerner, although it is really more like 3 to 1, and tried in vain to find room for our knees. When I first boarded the bus was so crowded that I had to stand. That was actually nicer than sitting, since I had a bit of room and received the breeze from the door, which remains open throughout the drive so that the teen conductors can hang out and scan for potential passengers. I had a view of the river through the window there, too, and felt quite comfortable, if tired, until a farmer got on and set six half-dead chickens on my feet. This was too much for me. “No. Hoina! Hoina!” I said, and jabbered at him in English and Nepali until he moved them, only a few inches away.
By the time we got back, which involved a harrowing ride in a taxi whose driver tail-gated everyone and everything, including bicycles, we were late for dinner. I ate some to be polite, since Laxmi, the servant, had spent hours cooking it. It was Jackfruit, which I had never heard of before. It grows on trees as big as pumpkins. I saw only a portion of it, cut, in the kitchen. It has a tough, prickly rind, like pineapple, and you have to dig out the sweet round bulbs or seed-like shapes from the mass around them. Apparently when the fruit is green is has a chicken-like consistency, and is a good meat substitute.. Laxmi cut up those pods as well as the surrounding pulp, with a yellow curry sauce that had a lot of onion and garlic and ginger, as well as other spices I cannot name. She pounds the garlic and ginger together in a stone mortar. We are going to have a cooking class here soon, and I will take notes so that I can try to reproduce some of the wonderful vegetarian meals we’ve had. Brendan and I are both keeping to our vegetarian regime, which is quite easy to do here. He skipped dinner last night because he didn’t realize that it was on the table and wasn’t very hungry anyways.
It’s at night that I get most depressed about the breakup. I miss Tim still so much. And love him, in spite of everything. I never stopped loving him, and indeed can’t imagine not loving him. Every time I look at him, I want to kiss him, or hug him, or help him. It has always been this way. This is a very strange breakup. I feel, of course, tremendously wounded by his withdrawal. I will not say rejection because it does not feel like that. It is true that we are very different and that has made finding common ground hard at times. He has lately become much more religious, and my apostasy, my turning away, from Christianity has bothered him more than it used to. I respect his honesty even though I do with he hadn’t withheld his feelings and thoughts about this from me until the last minute. He tried to end the relationship as kindly as he could. He said he loved me and still wanted to be friends, still wanted to do things together, go for dog-walks, kayaking, bike-riding, yoga—all the things we used to do together. I have found this confusing. I can understand his desire to grow old with someone who shares his religious values and enthusiasm for sports.
I suppose if I were picking a boyfriend the way one could pick apples off the cart, I would chose someone more in tune with my own wanderlust and educational background. The apples matching that description so far have not proved very sweet, and Tim was often very sweet.
I am writing about how I feel about this relationship, and feel somewhat uncomfortable writing sharing personal details about him that he would probably rather not have publicly known. Therefore it is important for me to say that I bear him no ill will at all, and do not wish to give the impression that he is a heartless or cruel person. He is a very good man, very good indeed. Among the best I have ever met.
I remain grateful for the time we had together. I would also say that he has more courage than I had, for even I could see that our differences in life-style and spirituality and interests could potentially make things harder for us in the future. Recognizing this does not make it any easier to say goodbye to him, and I like to believe that he feels the same way. I miss his arms around me and I miss the ease with which we kept house together. I remain very sad, and the sadness drags me down at the end of the day especially.
It is morning now. I have to stop writing and study. Today I have the last of five days of lessons. Like Hindi, Nepali is based on Sanskrit. There are very few cognates and the script is entirely foreign, so learning this language presents me with the intellectual challenge that I enjoy. Tomorrow I begin my work here, and I will need all the language skills I can muster.