Sunday, December 2, 2012

Malinda's Commute

Those of you who know Malinda know - and you know because she made sure you know - that the commute from Dorchester through Boston to Andover was the most odious part of her 20-year career at Phillips Academy. (Well, that and chaperoning dances.) The commute is a bit different now....

It begins with a short walk up a stone path to the jeep track, and then continues through a wooded area. The leaning utility poles provide a clue for one reason (but not the only one) why the power goes out at least once a day.
 
Emerging from the woods, we get a view of Annapurna, Machhapuchhre, and Lamjung Himal. On a clear day we can see as far west as Dhaulagiri. Nepalis in our area generally do not know the names of the mountains; ask any four Nepalis what a particular mountain is and you will get three different answers. In our eighth-grade class we read a story about Maurice Herzog's first ascent of Annapurna. We asked the students if they could see Annapurna from Saano Dumre and they all said they couldn't - even though Annapurna dominates the vista to the northwest.

Rounding the hill and coming down a steep slope, we can see Manaslu, Himalchuli and Boudha Himal to the north. As Malinda often remarks, "You don't see that on I-93."

Once we are on the Dumre ridge, we can Thantipokhari in the valley to the southwest. On Mondays we walk down there to teach basic computer skills.

After a few hundred yards along the ridge, we enter downtown Dumre and arrive at the school.


It is a very pleasant walk, but not always easy. Sometimes we run into heavy traffic.

There are also detours due to route construction.

The morning commute takes about 15 minutes. The afternoon commute takes a bit longer because it is mostly uphill.




Sunday, November 11, 2012

Festival Season


The past month has been taken up with festivals.  Desain, a two-week event at the end of October, is the most important in the Nepalese calendar.   A celebration of the warrior goddess Durga, it is the occasion for family rituals and reunions.  Our mit has seven children and 17 grandchildren and most of them (along with numerous in-laws and other extended kin) came to Dharapaani.  

On the eighth day of Desain, each family sacrifices a goat.  Because of the large number of family, we did two.  Meat is eaten only occasionally, and the glut of goat meat added to the festive spirit.

The tenth day of Desain is the most significant, when people receive tika from their senior male relative.  Mit being a patriarch of his extended family, a flood of people came for his blessing.  At times it seemed like we are related to half the population of Nepal.  One of the most pleasing moments was the exchange of tika between Harvey and mit, a reaffirmation of their relationship.
















Last week, mit sponsored a Narayan puja (worship) in honor of his late wife.  Preparations took several days and included sprucing up the yard, making scores of flower garlands, the construction of a temple made from flowers, and cooking for the 200+ people who showed up for a night of worship, dancing, and revelry.  At 3:00 a.m. we set off for a temple two miles away, did puja, ate breakfast and then walked back, wrapping up at 10:00.  Fortunately, we did not have to teach that next day.



























Members of the Damai caste provided the music and played for 12 hours with only intermittent breaks.

The other holiday we observed (sort of) was Halloween.  That afternoon we gave a talk and showed photos to the teachers in our school.  It was interesting that most of their discussion and questions focused on American beliefs about ghosts and witches, both of which are an active presence in village life here.  In the evening we taught the kids living around us to say “trick or treat” and handed out candy.  It was very modest as Halloweens go, but a nice reminder of home.

This coming week is the five-day Tihar festival.  Back in our anthropologist days, we would have looked forward to learning more about the ritual cycle, the social construction of meaning, blah blah blah.  Instead, we are taking off to Pokhara for a few days of R&R and being able to drink beer without people counting the number of empty bottles.

In other news:  The weather has turned markedly colder….  It is rice-cutting season, which means that school attendance is even spottier than usual.  We will have more to say about teaching in a future blog….  Peeps the chicken has passed on, dying of an ailment that had been going around the chicken community.  Malinda found it amazing that a chicken could be so responsive and smart. RIP Peeps….  Malinda is befriending two new kittens that live in our garden.  We hope to bring at least one of them indoors soon since the colder weather has brought an infestation of mice inside the house.







Our house (the white one), with part of the Annapurna range in the background.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Our Daily Routine

With the visa drama behind us, we have settled into a daily routine. Our day begins at 6:00 with a variety of household chores.  Harvey sweeps the courtyard, makes tea for the family, and cooks breakfast. Malinda sweeps the house, cleans the outhouse, does the dishes, and mends the family's clothes. We both help the kids with their homework.

Getting drinking water is one of the highlights of our day. Household water flows from a stream into a tank near the house through a series of plastic pipes. For drinking water we walk a quarter mile to a spring where the water bubbles out of the mountain. It is pure and delicious and needs no treatment. People were initially amused that Harvey carries water, but it has earned him some cred.

Schools runs from 10:00 to 4:00, although we teach only until 1:00. Between various Hindu holidays and a two-week district-level exam period, we have not been in a classroom since mid-September and don't return until next week. With time on our hands, we have been trying to get traction on a number of projects. But Nepal is a place where things unfold at their own pace: walking one hour to see someone who is not at home; waiting all afternoon for someone who may or may not show up; walking 90 minutes to teach a computer class in Thantipokhari only to find there is no power; chatting with a shopkeeper for 20 minutes as a prelude to buying a bar of soap; spending 30 minutes tracking down why water is not flowing into the tank; before we know it, it is time to prepare dinner. Sometimes it takes an entire day for nothing to happen.

The days starts to wind down at 5:00 when we take our showers. The solar hot water system has exceeded our expectations and we still consider ourselves blessed to have a daily hot bath. After some initial hesitation, the family has also taken to the system in a big way and has found new uses for it. Who would have guessed that a shower is the perfect place to de-hair and gut goats? They do a reasonable job cleaning up so we just roll with it.

Harvey has taken over cooking duty and the family has finally declared his daalbhaat to be excellent. It is not hard to perfect a recipe when the menu is the same every day: rice, lentils, potatoes, and whatever form of squash is available that day. The menu will evolve as the seasons change. Malinda then washes the dishes, increasingly in the dark as the days get shorter.

After dinner we sit in front of the house chatting with the family. One evening we brought out a large world map, the first time some of the adults had seen one. Another time we gave a slide show of pictures we had taken of them. When we get a table we will start showing films. But most evening are spent just sitting and talking, a very pleasant way to wrap up the day. If we are up past 8:30 it is a late night.

A few weeks ago, while slogging our way to Thantipokhari in a monsoon downpour, Malinda commented, "We are having a wonderful experience here." Indeed we are.

In other news:

The family is emerging from a spate of illnesses. Biraspati and her son Asim were in the hospital for a few days with typhoid, a Nepali term that covers a range of flu-like illnesses. Mit's back was especially bad for a while, the result of a fall from a tree last year. Around the same time, Asmita had her first period, which put her in seclusion for five days. We tried to help out as best as we could, but there is no escaping the fact that we are totally incompetent at the most basic tasks of running a Nepalese farm and household.

Hindus recently celebrated teej, a holiday in which women pray for the health and long life of their husbands. The women in our family made sure that Malinda was properly attired and adorned, including giving her red toe nails for the first time in her life. They also took her to a dance festival where she was dragged before an audience of hundreds to do a traditional Nepalese dance. That was two weeks ago and strangers are still coming up and making polite comments about her performance. Malinda wishes they'd all just drop it.

Believing in full cultural exchange, we have been teaching Asim and Sumana, two of our grandkids, the basics of 1960s music and dance. One evening, to the tune of Jumping Jack Flash, they strutted their stuff for the rest of the family. The adults were not terribly amused and were somewhat slack-jawed when Asim and Sumana did the bump (which they did very well - perhaps too well). So we have cooled it on the dance lessons for a while, although recently when the adults were gone we did a session to Michael Jackson's Bad. Our secret greeting now with Sumana is who's bad! The kids are absolutely delightful.

Our furniture has started dribbling in.  First to arrive was the shelving for the kitchen, which extends the entire 7' across the eastern wall. Unfortunately, the carpenter only measured from the floor and didn't realize the walls slope in as they go up. So he had to gouge out a lot of concrete on both sides in order to jam the shelves up to the ceiling. It kind of looks like hell, but it is what it is and we are just glad to have a place to put stuff. The shelves for the northern wall arrived as well, but they extended too far down, making it impossible to sit on the bench below. Sending it back has delayed things further, but Harvey got satisfaction from discovering that he knows multiple ways to say "I told you so" in Nepali.

We finally have a pet, but not what we had expected. We tried to befriend the two cats (Squeaky and Growly) associated with the house, but they just don't like people and feeding them would have undermined their value as mousers. Instead, an orphan chick named Peeps has adopted Malinda as her mother. Malinda used to keep chickens in her hippie farmer days, but this is the first time she has been on intimate terms with one. When the time comes, we will see how she does at eating Peeps.

We just returned from Jaubari, a day's travel to the northeast. There is a small government hospital there and like the hospital in Ampipal up the mountain from us there is a desperate need for medical doctors. If you know of anyone who wants to volunteer to spend time doing a tremendous service with wonderful people in a spectacular setting, please have them contact us at hblustain@gmail.com.



Saturday, September 8, 2012

Visa secured


We have been out of touch, but all for a good cause.  We are happy to report that we have obtained a visa for a year.  That process occupied 18 days of the last four weeks.  Six of those days were spent traveling to and from Kathmandu – a day-long trip on crowded and cramped public buses.  Who would ever have thought that a middle seat on USAIR out of Philadelphia could be made to seem posh?

The other twelve days were spent following our visa application within and between ministries and departments, with much of that time spent waiting for letters, waiting for signatures, waiting for official stamps, and waiting because we were told to wait.  We have some amazing stories to tell, few of which are fit for print. We will say here only that it was a remarkable process, the memory of which needs to fade before we are ready to do it all over again next year.

We would not have made it past step one had it not been for the tremendous help we received.  Hari Ram Devkota, the principal of the Shree Dumre Lower Secondary School, advocated for us in Kathmandu and Gorkha Bazaar despite being sick….  Ramji Giri was with us every step of the way.  The consummate schmoozer, he never took ‘no’ for an answer and moved the process forward even when there wasn’t a clear path….  The Giri family in Kathmandu offered a refuge every evening after long days and reminded us why we are in Nepal.  Their willingness to activate networks and mobilize resources on our behalf was awesome and humbling….  As we went through a series of fire drills, Ted Rowland and son Jonah provided critical logistical support from the States….  A heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all.

So we are good to stay until the end of August, 2013.  And now we can focus our efforts on teaching, which if we recall correctly was the reason we came to Nepal in the first place.

In other news….  Our solar hot water system has been installed.  Buckets of cold water over the head are fine in the hot, sticky monsoon but a hot shower will be appreciated as the weather changes….  One indication of the changing seasons: the clouds to the north lifted long enough this morning to discover that we can see Manaslu Himal from our second-story porch….  Nepal has an ongoing electricity shortage and Dharapaani often goes two, three, or four days without power.  It is inconvenient, but it is what it is.  But it has also meant that the carpenter is unable to work on our furniture.  We have a cabinet upstairs for our clothes, but downstairs we feel like we are still camping out….  Of all the adjustments we have had to make, one of the most difficult (not yet made) has been learning to share a very hard, 40”-wide bed, a sleeping arrangement that Malinda refers to as “two bodies on a morgue slab.”  We may do something about it at some point, but it is not a priority right now.  (Note to Jonah and Elijah:  do not marry a sprawler.)….  We are getting more proficient at cooking with local materials and tools.  Daughter-in-law Biraspati has taken on the task of teaching us and that has been fun.  Our latest efforts have earned from her only a Thikai ('okay') rating, but with practice we hope to earn a more enthusiastic response.... Malinda’s Nepali is coming along fine.  She understands more of what is said to her, and her responses are climbing on the understanding-to-quizzical-looks ratio.  She is getting the hang of putting verbs at the end of sentences where they belong.  Most impressively, she bravely plunges into speaking even when she has no clear idea of where the sentence is going....  Apologies for the lack of photos in this post.  For some reason our data service lately has been operating at sub-kbps speeds.

With the visas secured, we feel like we can reboot our lives here and get on with why we came.  On Friday, we made the long, awful trip from Kathmandu and arrived in Dharapaani in the early evening.  As we were greeted by our family and unlocked our door, we had that delicious feeling of being home, followed by a marathon session of killing spiders that had taken over in our absence.



Visa secured


We have been out of touch, but all for a good cause.  We are happy to report that we have obtained a visa for a year.  That process occupied 18 days of the last four weeks.  Six of those days were spent traveling to and from Kathmandu – a day-long trip on crowded and cramped public buses.  Who would ever have thought that a middle seat on USAIR out of Philadelphia could be made to seem posh?

The other twelve days were spent following our visa application within and between ministries and departments, with much of that time spent waiting for letters, waiting for signatures, waiting for official stamps, and waiting because we were told to wait.  We have some amazing stories to tell, few of which are fit for print. We will say here only that it was a remarkable process, the memory of which needs to fade before we are ready to do it all over again next year.

We would not have made it past step one had it not been for the tremendous help we received.  Hari Ram Devkota, the principal of the Shree Dumre Lower Secondary School, advocated for us in Kathmandu and Gorkha Bazaar despite being sick….  Ramji Giri was with us every step of the way.  The consummate schmoozer, he never took ‘no’ for an answer and moved the process forward even when there wasn’t a clear path….  The Giri family in Kathmandu offered a refuge every evening after long days and reminded us why we are in Nepal.  Their willingness to activate networks and mobilize resources on our behalf was awesome and humbling….  As we went through a series of fire drills, Ted Rowland and son Jonah provided critical logistical support from the States….  A heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all.

So we are good to stay until the end of August, 2013.  And now we can focus our efforts on teaching, which if we recall correctly was the reason we came to Nepal in the first place.

In other news….  Our solar hot water system has been installed.  Buckets of cold water over the head are fine in the hot, sticky monsoon but a hot shower will be appreciated as the weather changes….  One indication of the changing seasons: the clouds to the north lifted long enough this morning to discover that we can see Manaslu Himal from our second-story porch….  Nepal has an ongoing electricity shortage and Dharapaani often goes two, three, or four days without power.  It is inconvenient, but it is what it is.  But it has also meant that the carpenter is unable to work on our furniture.  We have a cabinet upstairs for our clothes, but downstairs we feel like we are still camping out….  Of all the adjustments we have had to make, one of the most difficult (not yet made) has been learning to share a very hard, 40”-wide bed, a sleeping arrangement that Malinda refers to as “two bodies on a morgue slab.”  We may do something about it at some point, but it is not a priority right now.  (Note to Jonah and Elijah:  do not marry a sprawler.)….  We are getting more proficient at cooking with local materials and tools.  Daughter-in-law Biraspati has taken on the task of teaching us and that has been fun.  Our latest efforts have earned from her only a Thikai ('okay') rating, but with practice we hope to earn a more enthusiastic response.... Malinda’s Nepali is coming along fine.  She understands more of what is said to her, and her responses are climbing on the understanding-to-quizzical-looks ratio.  She is getting the hang of putting verbs at the end of sentences where they belong.  Most impressively, she bravely plunges into speaking even when she has not clear idea of where the sentence is going....  Apologies for the lack of photos in this post.  For some reason our data service lately has been operating at sub-kbps speeds.

With the visas secured, we feel like we can reboot our lives here and get on with why we came.  On Friday, we made the long, awful trip from Kathmandu and arrived in Dharapaani in the early evening.  As we were greeted by our family and unlocked our door, we had that delicious feeling of being home, followed by a marathon session of killing spiders that had taken over in our absence.



Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Settling In


At this writing (August 11), we have been in Dharapaani less than a week but it feels a lot longer.  The transition has been far smoother than we could have hoped, largely because mit, the family, and neighbors have been incredibly welcoming and generous.  We will have much more to say about them in future posts.

Most of our time so far has been spent setting up house and establishing a daily routine.  Our house has two rooms – one up, one down – each 8’ by 14’.  We have laid linoleum on the ground floor, hung curtains, and are slowly turning it into a home.  A day-long shopping expedition to Dumre Bazaar to the south provided us with pots, pans and other household basics. 
We have had less than a day of power since we came, one result being that the carpenter making our furniture has been unable to work.  We are still living out of shipping crates and since we brought waaaaaaay too much stuff we feel like we are living in a jumble sale. 

Once we had cooking gas installed, we were able to start cooking for ourselves, much to the relief of daughter-in-law Mira.  Mira and her daughter Sumana, as well as mit, live in the house with us.  Everyone respects our space (more or less), but the household population density is higher than we are used to.  

Our teaching schedule is becoming clearer – three days of English in Saano Dumre, one day teaching computer science in Thantipokhari (a 1.5 hour walk down the hill) and perhaps one day teaching something in Ampipal (an hour walk up the hill).  Next month, when the monsoon clears and the roads dry out, we will explore opportunities in Jaubari, about 6 hours to the north.  The idea of getting a motorbike is becoming more appealing. 

The most amazing experience so far has been the welcome given us by the Saano Dumre school.  We showed up for what we thought was a school committee meeting, but when we rounded the corner there were two lines of a hundred students and teachers.  As we walked between them, we were festooned with garlands and showered with flowers.  Local dignitaries gave welcoming speeches and in return Harvey gave an impromptu speech of thanks in Nepali, which was then retranslated into Nepali for the benefit of the bewildered school kids. 
This was followed by teachers and people from Harvey’s past placing welcoming tikas of vermillion powder on our foreheads, a process that went from respectful daubs to enthusiastic smears to willy-nilly dumping of powder over our heads.  Harvey’s favorite moment came when his cook from the old days, now an old woman, ground fistfuls of powder in his hair, shouting “Who was your mother!  Who was your mother!”  It was all very overwhelming and quite wonderful.

We do have internet access after all, thanks to a something called a USB data stick that provides wireless 3G service.  We were warned in Kathmandu that it would not work in the hills, but it does, at the blinding speed of 50 kbps.  We welcome emails, but no attachments please.



Sunday, July 22, 2012

Starting with the Basics....

Our decision to move to the village of Dharapaani in central Nepal raised many questions, two of which seemed pretty fundamental:   What would we do once we got there, and where would we live?

The housing issue gave us the greatest angst over the longest period.  Rental housing stock in a small village of farmers is limited and the few options offered no privacy and/or had low ceilings that would have crippled us. Ram Kanta Giri, Harvey's mit (ritual friend), offered us an 8' x 8' room above the water buffalo shed, but a week's residence there last summer convinced us that our marriage would not survive a month of that.  Building a house in mit's compound proved impossible due to lack of space.  In the end, mit came to the rescue by suggesting that he tear down his 35-year-old house (above) and, with our financing, build a new one for the three of us.   

Construction was more involved than we had anticipated.  Stringent community forestry regulations meant that mit had to search far and wide for trees for the frame lumber.  Water to the compound is gravity-fed and that complicated the placement of the water tank and related issues. Labor was scarce.  While there in 2011, we had discussed with mit only in general terms what the house might look like, and every phone call revealed new features and work-arounds.  Nothing resigns one to the arms of fate quite like building a house on the other side of the world in an imperfectly-spoken language over a bad phone line.  


We recently got these photos and we are delighted with the house. Mit will live on the left side, we on the right. The glass windows are a novelty in the village and, since the house is unheated, will be welcome in the winter. We will find a carpenter to make us tables, chairs and cupboards, and will buy dishes, pots, and everything else needed to set up a home.   What we cannot get locally we will likely find in Dumre Bazaar, two hours to the south by foot and bus. 



The detached bathroom has an outhouse and bathing area. A solar hot water tank (the first in the village) will be installed after we get there.  The wall reads “Let’s always keep the bathroom clean.” With nine of us using the facilities, that will be a challenge.



We are curious about mit’s reaction to his new home. One clue comes from the inscription on the south peak of the house.  20 Chait 2068 (April 2, 2012) is the date a goat was sacrificed to consecrate the house. Following Ram Kanta is the single word nebas: residence. We think he is proud of it. He should be.

For work, our initial idea was to teach English and computer literacy in the local public school.  We met with the school committee in 2011 and they seemed happy to have us teach the normal six-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week load.  That is not why we retired.  Over the past year, we have been involved with three excellent NGOs.  The Gorkha Foundation has an array of projects in health care, livestock, and microfinance throughout Gorkha district.  The Rural Education Network provides teacher training.  OLE Nepal, which operates across Nepal, offers computer-based training and resources in English, math and science.  We plan to work with all three organizations as well as to teach (in smaller doses) in the school.  We will figure out our scope and schedule when we get there, and are especially enthused about a role that will take us all over the district. 


This past year has been an endless series of "what about...?" conversations and
to-do lists. Expecting limited communications, we have tried to anticipate every family, financial, tax, health, household, and logistical contingency. After 27 years in the same house, uprooting ourselves has been a challenge. We think we have done a good job getting ourselves ready, but we won't know for sure until we get there. We take comfort in knowing that Roald Amundsen, that most experienced of polar explorers, forgot to take snow shovels to Antarctica in 1910.  

Meanwhile, mit, two daughters-in-law, four grandchildren, and a hillside of extended kin are in Dharapaani waiting for us to arrive.  We imagine that they are counting down the days, speculating on what living with us will be like, and wondering what on earth they got themselves into.  Which is pretty much how we feel.


For background and more photos, go to www.blustain.net/nepal.htm.

Use of photographs only with permission.