Someone checks their watch. It’s nearly seven, time to go. We push away from the table. The goodbyes start in the dining room and continue into the foyer, where the final hugs bring tears that sting the cheek when we step into the November night. The pair of resident German shepherds romp at our side, their shaggy bodies pushing against our thighs as we pass the pots of marigolds and mums that line the narrow walkway. Ram opens the hefty iron gate and out we go under a massive canopy of fuchsia bougainvillea, shouting one last goodbye. The heavy latch drops into place behind us, and we head up the lane in silence. John opts for the shortcut, the rest of us follow in single file, dodging the sagging high-wires, mindful to keep our balance on the spill of wobbly bricks at the end of the path. Our duffels are waiting on the stoop at Summer Hill House. Another round of goodbyes, more hugs, and we’re off to Tribhuvan International to begin the long journey home.
The idea of another trip to Nepal had me on the fence last winter, filled with longing and angst: the heart wanted to go, the mind was in turmoil. I was disappointed that we couldn’t fit a trek into the schedule, and I worried about money. Could I afford to be away, not working, for a month?
And then March rolled in and with it, a surge of optimism. I purchased a plane ticket, only to be racked with doubt when the 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal on April 25th, and the second three weeks later, and more than four hundred aftershocks registering 5.0 or greater in the months that followed. What about safety? Foolhardy for the sake of adventure? Wouldn’t be the first time. I worried about our friends in Nepal, the villages we had trekked through, what about those people? Thousands killed, thousands more injured, ten thousand schools destroyed, roads and trails blocked by landslides, how would they manage? The desire to bear witness took hold and wouldn’t let go.
The months pass. Summer turns into fall. A friend returns from a medical trip in Nepal six days before we’re scheduled to depart. She brings firsthand news of the hardships. Her email is sobering.
Fuel is extremely scarce – all fuel. LPG for cooking, petrol for bikes and cars, diesel for trucks, buses, cars, generators. Little traffic on the road, what’s on the road is mostly vehicles waiting in queues as long as 5 km for fuel. Taxis are scarce and charging exorbitant prices. Restaurants and cafes, if open, have greatly reduced menus. Having said that, the need is greater than ever. An already marginalized population is being pushed to the brink.
Our trip leader reaches out one last time to our contacts at iDE and Nepal Youth Foundation. Will we be a drain on resources? Can we even get to the villages? Will our visit be one more thing to deal with in a year fraught with challenges?
“Come,” they insist. “You won’t be a burden. We’re as ready as we can be, given the circumstances.” We’ll stay flexible, we tell ourselves, go with the flow, manage.
We fly out of DIA on a balmy Sunday afternoon, the first of November. Four women, three men, ranging in age from eighteen to seventy-six. Two realtors, two retired folks, a pediatrician, a writer, and a young woman taking a gap year before college.
We spend our first week in a village in Gorkha District, thirty miles as the crow flies from the epicenter of the first quake. We travel the winding road to Tandrang in two vehicles, stopping for mid-morning chai and later for roadside dahl bhat. One vehicle loses a wheel en route, but the driver doubles as a mechanic, and Lama Sherpa never panics, so neither do we. Besides, after hours in the Jeep, we welcome the excuse to walk. They pick us up two hours later in Aarughat, wheel repaired, and we make the final climb to Tandrang on a road freshly carved out of the shattered mountainside, passing crumbled homes and sheds, temporary tin roofs, and tarps stamped with US AID: From The American People.
Before leaving Denver, we had raised $30,000 to fund the hard construction costs of a new school in Tandrang. Even though the fuel blockade had delayed the delivery of materials, rock from the crumbled school needs moving, a pile of steel infrastructure needs sorting, and beams and trusses need to be bolted together.
Late one afternoon we make paper chains with the schoolchildren in their temporary tin-shed classrooms, lined up against one another like stalls at the market. Krishna, a local elder, and his wife invite us to their home for chai and water buffalo yogurt. We sit in the shade under the eave of the animal shed, feet resting on mounds of straw drying in the sun.
Another village leader—a man named Megnath—volunteers to give us a tour of the village late one afternoon, when the heat of the day had passed.
He takes us to his home. We drink chai with his 90-plus-year-old father, daughter and grandchild. Megnath walks with us to a terrace where his son and a crew are harvesting this year’s rice crop. The young man beats the stalks against the ground, kernels fly into the air, landing on the tarp at his feet. He sets the straw aside for bundling and, using his hands, scoops the rice from the tarp, then drops the kernels into a sack. He hands a bundle of stalks to Steve, who swings the grain overhead and whacks it on the ground. I take a video. A spider half the size of my palm hangs out in her web on the edge of the rice paddy.
Our camp is situated on a terrace that our sherpas, Lama and Chongba, had chosen during a scouting trip weeks before our arrival. The tents are pitched in a semi-circle, with the larger dining tent near the path to the cooking area on the lower terrace, and the toilet tent down a half-dozen steps in the other direction. Lama had secured the “cot” that Lindy, our Queen Mother, had requested—a low wooden table borrowed from a villager, a piece of crude furniture that looks like something you’d see in a museum about American life in pioneer days.
The views from the campsite are breathtaking. Snow-covered peaks, lush mountainsides awash in green, dramatic gorges that are shrouded in fog every morning at daybreak. We count five cell towers on the distant ridge, providing five-bar reception to the States—better than what I have at home. We entertain ourselves with Two Truths and a Lie in the dining tent after dinner, revealing secrets about ourselves that are rarely spoken, as if this distant place has given us permission to step closer to the truth of who we really are.
The morning we leave, a crowd of villagers gathers on the grounds of the new school to thank us, and to say goodbye. “Come back for the dedication!” shouts Shyam, the headmaster, a huge grin on his handsome face. And why not, he reasons. They are from America. Anything is possible.
Back in Kathmandu, we walk everywhere. We eat incredible Nepali food, visit with friends, shop for Christmas presents, and then, midway through the trip, fly to Pokhara for a week of village visits.
We help villagers dig a trench that will bring water from a mountain spring into the village. We work alongside villagers who stand barefoot in the grass, primitive tools in their callused hands, topis on the heads of the older men and scarves wrapped around the heads of the women. At break-time we distribute baseballs, mitts and Rockies caps, and play catch. We pull knitted hats from our duffel and place them on the heads of boys and girls, who sit quietly, waiting their turn, staring at these people who look nothing like anyone they’ve ever seen.
We celebrate the success of earlier water projects in other villages. In one day we are the recipients of three tikha ceremonies, three welcome programs, and two huge meals. We walk with the villagers among plots thick with tomato plants, carefully staked and laden with fruit. We notice the swept paths free of litter, the new goat herd, the way every foot of growing space contains a plant. We hear the stories.
Access to water has changed their lives. Women are at the table now, making decisions alongside the men, farming, earning money, sending their children to school. The ability to irrigate and grow crops year-round has empowered the villagers. Leaders emerge. Committees are formed. People work together to accomplish mutually-beneficial goals. There’s dialogue between neighboring villages. Like its nurturing, fluid quality, water is helping to break down the ancient division among castes and turn people’s attention toward opportunity, collaboration, sustainability. The villagers treat us like royalty. Even better, they treat us like family—family who have returned after a long stay on the other side of the world.
Two years ago I found my bliss on a trek in the Khumbu (Everest region) and vowed never to return to Nepal without a trek on my itinerary. I broke that promise this fall and traveled anyway.
I traded a trek for service. I traded walking the trails of the Khumbu for hauling rocks, digging a trench, and learning—again—how freeing it is to do without. I drank countless cups of tea (fine by me) and rode for hours squeezed with friends in the middle row of a vehicle with no shocks, careening the curves of narrow roads lined with wild lantana, horns honking. We watched magnificent sunrises from the camp in Tandrang, stood in silence at the haunting site of a landslide that had taken the lives of twenty-eight people, and repeated Lama’s mantra about building the school at least once a day: May we success our project very joyfully.
Back in October, the night before we left Denver, I picked up carryout from Spicy Thai and brought it to Ali’s apartment. It was Halloween, a holiday she wants no part of, so we had decided on a quiet evening away from the costumes and the masks and the mayhem. We hung out and talked mostly, about what I no longer recall, and then it was time to say goodbye. For a month. Neither of us cried that night—a first since I started traveling abroad in 2009. She’s used to not seeing me every day, I think to myself, holding her. She knows I’ll be back. She’s learned she can manage without me. She has her own life now and, to my amazement, I have mine.
As I’m leaving Ali’s apartment, I notice the fortune cookie we’d neglected to open at dinner on the table, next to my car keys. I toss the cellophane wrapper and cardboard cookie in the trash, but keep the fortune, now taped to the opening page of my 2015 Nepal journal.
There is a prospect of a thrilling time ahead for you.
PS – A huge thanks to all who supported the construction of the school in Tandrang. The villagers have made great progress since our visit. Namaste!