Dec. 18, 2010 – Jan. 2, 2011
On the plane, middle seat. Mt. Everest appears on the screen that tracks our route. We begin the descent into Kathmandu. It’s ten o’clock at night. We fly in darkness. In the morning, in the light, we are too close, too low to see beyond the hills to the world’s tallest mountain. Halfway around the globe and not so much as a glimpse. Reason enough to return.
We board Buddha Air for the short flight to Pokhara. Out the right side, the Annapurna Range of the Himalaya. I’m seated on the left. I hand John my camera. On land we ride on winding hilly roads, through village after village, horns honking at every turn. Primitive mud-brick dwellings. All ages of people sitting, standing in groups, talking, tending to babies. Children playing and chasing. Toothless old ones squatting and smoking. We pass plots of tomato, potato, squash and lettuce. Two hours of riding and we climb out of the van, start the walk to Majha Badahare. First on the dusty road and then on the trail, switchback after switchback, up the rocky path to the village where we are anointed with the sacred red dot, a marigold mala, a bow. Namaste.
I love looking into their faces. The eyes dark, clear, luminous, men, women and children. Nepalis see with their heart. Humble, present, fearless. I try not to be the first to look away.
From sunup to sundown, villagers stand on the ridge and watch the Americans. They smile, talk among themselves, laugh, stare. The first westerners to visit, to sleep on their ground, to help to dig the trench that will deliver the water that changes their lives, forever.
The Nepali woman and I face each other, our legs straddling the trench. We break up the rocky soil with a lang-handled scoop, then push the dirt onto a flattened cement bag. When the mound covers the bag, each of us grabs two corners. Together we lift the pile to the top of the trench, dump the soil, and start again. Young men swing pic-axes high above their heads, driving the point into the hard soil. The leader has black hair that falls below his shoulder blades. A bandanna covers his head. The young men are lean and strong, dark-complected, focused, white teeth, gorgeous.
The women work in traditional kurtas, their heads wrapped in cloth or a towel, bare-footed or in flip-flops, their feet callused and stable as an animal’s paw. In my Vasque boots and True Value work gloves, I feel protected, privileged, set apart, oddly extravagant.
Do I love myself?
I could do better.
Do I forgive myself?
Not enough, not deeply.
Do I care what others think?
More than I want to.
Do I wish I could start over?
I believe I am homesick.
A man and his granddaughter climb the steep grassy slope and step onto the terrace where we camp. He sees me writing in the dining tent and approaches, holding the child’s hand. The smile does not leave his face as he starts talking. He raises his eyebrows and waits for my answer. I tell him I would give anything to know what he is saying but I’m sorry, I don’t understand. He says something more, waits again. We both laugh, holding the silence like a prize we can’t quite reach, and then they turn to walk away.
Am I happy to be here?
Out of my comfort zone?
Yes, and no.
Am I handling it well?
Talking, talking, nonstop talking. Working, waiting, cooking, eating, they talk. How is it they have so much to say?! They make jokes and laugh easily. Apparently they find life very funny. It seems a good way to live.
I think it’s Christmas Eve day, what would have been Mom’s 82nd birthday. The sherpas are chattering and making breakfast. Soon tea will be coming. Krishna Sherpa has come to the dining tent where I am writing morning pages. He sweeps last night’s crumbs from the cloth, then arranges the condiments down the center of the table—sugar, honey, peanut butter, salt and pepper, a tub of hot cocoa, a small jar of Nescafe, green chile sauce, goat butter, a container of ketchup, a box of peach tea bags and one of black. He carefully sets the table with flatware and stainless plates. I stay at one end, watching and writing, out of his way. Sangay pours the milk for tea and offers me a cup. The stainless mug warms my cold hands. What was the line in The New Yorker a few months ago? “No longer encumbered by the pressure to satisfy the needs of a husband and children, she was free to discover who she was.”
We visit the school made of stones at the bottom of the hill. Three classrooms—youngest, middle, oldest, up to fifth grade. Toddlers spend the day wandering after an older brother or sister. Some cry when the sibling is out of sight; others suck their thumb and kick up dust, stopping to watch the strangers unload the duffels filled with things they do not own: toothbrushes, pencils, colored paper, paints, glue sticks. We talked about the Santa Claus effect before the trip… how to share our bounty and not diminish the beauty that is their life. May they accept these gifts in the spirit with which they are given: we are sharing, not judging.
Bags of concrete and piles of stones fill the corners of the dirt-floored classrooms. The children sit on crude benches and work at crude tables. Wire bars fill the opening that allows light to enter the room. A chalkboard hangs on the front wall. There is nothing more.
Black tea or milk tea? Sugar? Washing water? Sangay and Dawa making rounds at daybreak. Morning mist hangs in the air. Birds call from the bamboo forest, a baby wails in the home just below us. We are perched on a terrace, like the tomato, onion and radish. We live among the villagers, like the goats, the water buffalo and the cat who hides in the thatched roof.
We have a new relationship with dirt. Rather than something to wash away, dirt is something to live with, to play in. Getting rid of it is impossible. Wearing the same clothes day and night and day again. A new kind of freedom. It makes me happy to care so little.
Moving from campsite to the school to the dance to Arapita to the collective to the worksite—we recognize faces! At every encounter, we press our palms together, bring them to our foreheads and bow. Namaste. How to bring the sentiment home…
Steady on. No slowing down as the workday nears an end; no rushing to finish before sundown. Steady down the hills and up. Steady cooking on the veranda. Steady digging trenches and mixing the cement. We are on their turf. We do as they do.
The men build the new “plastic house” with a machete, shovels, an oversized sheet of plastic, and wire. No hammer, no nails, no screwdriver. No power tools. No wheelbarrow. The handle falls off the scoop Pierce is using to work the soil in the greenhouse. No run to Home Depot. A Nepali man takes the tool, whittles two pieces of bamboo and carefully wedges them into the metal fitting. Ten minutes later, Pierce is back at work.
Ramp up the exercise; return to trek.
More walking, biking and scootering; less driving.
Grow vegetables in Ali’s new backyard in honor of the villagers and their way of life.
Simplify where possible.
Groundlessness. Nothing familiar. Isn’t that what I wanted? For heart and mind to be blown open? Yes, and yes. Thank you. No one asks about my work, my husband’s work, where I live, what car I drive, how much money I have. This moment, this exchange, is what matters.
After breakfast we visit the Nutrition Rehabilitation House started by Olga Murray, an 85-year-old retired lawyer from Sausalito, not five feet tall. She trekked in Nepal when she was 60, broke her foot and recommitted her life to one of the poorest countries on the planet. The bus parks among the puddles on the side of a street. We walk up an alley to the three-story House. A vegetable garden sits behind a blue gate at the back of the lot. Marigolds line the walkway. A Nepali woman steps out the back door to greet us. We follow her through the house, poking heads into bedrooms, and onto the roof where children and their mothers rest in the sunlight. The kids are here because they are malnourished. A closely monitored diet restores the majority of them to health in less than a month. The mothers are here to learn how to prepare nutritious food for their families. A boy lies on a blanket in the sunlight. He’s wearing a blue sweater. I recognize the head rolling from side to side, the spastic arms and legs. He smiles when we say namaste. We learn from the supervisor that he is six, that he is here because his family does not have the resources to care for him. I step back from the group, grateful for sunglasses to hide my wet eyes.
At his age, Ali presented like he does when she was on her back, on the floor. The same flailing arms, the tight limbs and weak torso, the rolling head. At six she was also going to school, receiving physical and language therapy, eating healthy food, taking Feldenkreis lessons, driving a power wheelchair, communicating on a talker and living with her family. What if she had not made the journey from Korea? What if I had
not committed to the journey of motherhood? I walk down the steps and into the backyard, find a quiet place in the shade and watch two women wash the breakfast dishes at the outdoor pump. I feel my heart beating beneath my worn red vest, and cry in silence for what might have been, in gratitude for what is.
Morning, around eight. At a table near the space heater in the New Orleans Cafe in Kathmandu. I’m the only patron, their first of the day. Drinking piping hot Nepali chai, neither as spicy nor as sweet as the chai served in the US. Candles light a few tables. The sun hasn’t yet hit this pocket of the city. I sit on a cushioned bench along a brick wall and reflect on the pandemonium that is Kathmandu. Burning incense and burning garbage. Cows alongside cabs; emaciated dogs and playful children. Piles of raw, red meat. Skinned chickens stacked on tables in the open air. Men squatting around small fires. Beautiful women in red beaded kurtas, bangles at their wrists, slippers on their feet. Horns honking, always the honking. Pedestrians both faster and slower than I. “Come in, see more, see more,” coax the shopkeepers. The bag on the handlebar of a scooter brushes my thigh on our walk to the bead stalls. I hear the flap of a pigeon’s wing over my right shoulder at the Monkey Temple. Cows and dogs pick through garbage in the shallow river flooded with debris. Bodies burn in cremation ceremonies along the riverbank. To find calm in this chaos is to find it anywhere.
You have to find the path that has heart and walk it impeccably. Again and again you encounter your own uptightness, your own headaches. In this chaos I feel my uptightness, watch it in my mind. Being in this city humbles me. Being in the village humbled me. The heart opens another millimeter in the quest to be more loving, accepting and kind, to let go.
It’s weird to call home, or to write a message on facebook. I love you. Where else to begin? We have traveled so far, seen and felt so much. And soon we must leave. Am I ready for the hardest part of the journey? Am I ready to be home?
Kathmandu or Majha Badahare? I would choose village life. Closer to nature. Quieter, more peaceful. Hands in the soil, feet touching the earth. Life’s rhythm as natural as the rise and fall of the sun. Equanimity seems to come easier in the village and yet I have spent the last 37 years in two of America’s largest cities. I’ll say this much: Chicago and Denver are no Kathmandu.
Noise, always noise. My mind goes to a more peaceful time just two days ago. How are the villagers? Are they still talking about us as we are about them—and will be next month, in five years, forever?
Happy New Year from the corner table in the front window of the Roadhouse Cafe. It’s tea time, a few hours before beginning the long trip home. On the other side of the glass, motorcycles, backpacks, a man in a manual wheelchair pushing through the crowd. A couple in their twenties, blond and blue-eyed, strolls past the window. What if I had made this trip at their age, or not said no to the Peace Corps in the late ’70s, a few weeks before departing? Some things we cannot know. The barista rings the bell. Another milk tea waits to be served.