Thursday, June 4, 2009

Goodbye, Nepal.

I’m sitting in the Doha airport in the Gulf State of Qatar, absorbing camel-shaped magnets and carpet-shaped coasters in the souvenir shop next to me, turbans and burkhas all around and the loudspeaker lady paging Muhammads and Abduls and Tariqs to Please Make Their Way to their the Gates Immediately.

I sit here, under-slept and over-tired and under-deodorized. Indulging in my second cup of coffee and thinking about my past month. A blessed month… first I trekked in the Himalayas (where a nighttime thunderstorm lit up 360 degrees of Himalaya snug tight around us – the most beautiful scene I’ve witnessed) and then I learned about Buddhism at a Tibetan Monastery (where I explored un-explored and under-explored nooks of my mind).

The monastery!

The mountains!

This past month I also said goodbye to my life in Kathmandu. The goodbye rituals started weeks ago and culminated in tearful embraces with my Nepali family. I had a walnut lump in my throat as I hugged them. They’ve given me the most, by any measure – kgs of cooked rice; distance reached across The Cultural Divide; smiles induced through stories and tickles and bowls of from-the-earth-to-the-pot lentils. This lump came from a painful awareness that I’m unlikely to see them again. (All they have to communicate is one unreliable mobile phone. How will I reach them when, or if, I return to Kathmandu? What if their number changes? If they move?)

Mama Anu (Kicking myself now, as I realize I have no good pictures of the whole family together.)

Papa Namaraj

Nisha, elegant oldest daughter

Anisha, the smiley-quiet middle daughter and I

Anish, wily youngest son

But I’ll leave mountain-buddha-family images for now, shelacking them on my mind rather than paper. And will begin from here. From now. From the gritty and soft and slippery stuff that’s floating in my sentimental mind this moment. Reflections. (Did high school and college teachers program me, my generation, to automatically-like-tying-shoes, ask that ubiquitous essay question What Have you Learned from this Experience?) Yes. Reflections…

* * *

11 months and 12 days ago I sat in the same shiny wooden seat in the same eerily Starbuck’s-esque coffee shop in the Doha Airport. I was on the same layover, but in reverse…

Like before, men in white turbans shuffle past, followed close by figures clad in floor-length black burkhas, slits in the eyes revealing beady glances but no skin. Like before I’m bleary-eyed from latenightpacking and goodbyes and travel. Like before, I…

…I’m tempted to launch into an exposé, a sequence of what’s-different about me now. One year later. Because sitting here in this same-same place, I notice how not same I feel.

And I will. With a caveat though, an awareness that I can’t, I’m not, perceiving the deepest tectonic plate shifts. Not yet. Over the next weeks, months, years, as I meet objects and situations from my Pre Nepal life, Ah-Has will happen. I'll think, I would have done that differently before and Wow – I remember I used to have this attitude about that but now…

So before I plunge into my former life – a cozy bubble of family, friends, coastal towns, familiar dogs and routine – what I write is un-tested, wobbly. But it is real hereandnow, as I sit in My Coffee Shop in the Gulf (Ha! What would the stern waiter say to that?), sipping a latte (my first in a year).

I feel older. No gray hairs... yet. But in the bright bathroom airport lights I did notice cracks, hair-width, sprouting from my eyes. Their seeds were likely planted long before Nepal; while scratching my temple with an eraser during a college final or dashing to catch the subway in New York.

Seeds already planted, during the past year they began to sprout. Each time I shuffled past a street beggar and told myself don’t feel bad you work for a humanitarian organization so I didn’t have to look him or her in the eye, the cracks deepened. Every time I sat in Kathmandu’s constipated traffic and let it bother me, let the dust and soot and rotting trash fumes seep in the window and into my brain, igniting the I’m late and I Blame it On the Traffic tension that drips down to my shoulder muscles, the cracks spread. Ice cold winter showers wedged them open, and so did long sunshine-less days behind a desk, days when I stood and my knees cracked. They’ll continue to deepen, and (though hopefully not for some decades) the same causes will turn my hairs one by one, from brown to silver.

But the cracks are just the surface. Under the cracks, wisdom happens, too. As does stupidity, but I’ll get to that. There’s new clutter in the top of my brain… skills and knowledge that isn’t broad or deep enough to be called wisdom yet. But precursors maybe. Unlike the me who sat in this coffee shop 11 months and 12 days ago, today’s me can speak basic Nepali. I know how to balance budgets and write proposals. I can manipulate language, and this is my one marketable skill – a skill that I can take pride in when the ends (projects) justify the means (proposals and reports). And when the ends are worthy. I wish I’d seen more of the ends.

Plunging deeper still. (Am I at wisdom yet? Or still just brain stuff?) I can look a taxi driver in the eye, connect with him (I’d say “or her” but never met a woman taxi driver in Kathmandu), get underneath that thin protective barrier we arm ourselves with (especially in taxis) and tell him, No, that’s not a fair price. (Or, Hoina, dherai mahango cha, dai.) I can be direct and honest without wincing because I’m more confident about right and wrong and even if someone has a million times fewer rupees than I have, I will tell them when I believe something is unfair. That’s new.

Deeper still, another layer underneath. My mind feels looser, less wound, better able to breath and say ke garne ('what to do?') when something bumps into My Plan. More a product of the past one-month than the past 11, after 10 mind-altering days at a Buddhist monastery.

This self-reflection, navel-gazing could go on pages more. And it will in my mind. (It continues now, as I write this…I’m more cynical. And more hopeful. My lungs are sootier. I am more patient…my mind continues.) But my flight boards and in 30 minutes I’ll be hurtling through the sky in a metal tube, catching up with the sun’s spreading clasp around the world. Racing towards a country I feel unacquainted with. A country that’s been through a lot since I last saw it. Its economy burped and hiccuped then fell ill. And a new leader took power who's steering the big, vague, red-white-blue blob that we call America in a direction we’re all meant to feel better about.

Most of you are in that country and I’ll see you within days (parents), weeks (most family), months (most friends). I’ll save the mind searching, the reflections for when I meet you all soon. Over a cup of Nepali tea and a vein-popping hug. (I haven’t hugged – really hugged in 11 months either. Only Namastes and head bows. Pent up hug energy – watch out.)

I can’t wait to see how you’ve changed, too.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cloudy Times

For Nepali politics, that is. While I was trekking, Nepal’s Maoist-led government dissolved. Tomorrow I leave for another week out of touch. (Taking a course on Buddhism here.) I’m nervous for what kind of country – and government – I’ll find when I return.

Here are my first impressions on the news:

Red hammer and sickles sprinkle the country, reminding Nepalis of the 10 years when the Maoists ran the jungles and bullied the Powers that Be.

Now the Maoists are the Powers that Be. 13 months ago The People, or three million of them (a plurality), queued and fingerprinted and cast their votes to deliver an outcome no analyst or expert or Kathmandu pants-suit wearer foresaw. The red jungle party, the party of Mao and Marx and Castro won the country’s first fully democratic election. In this country of monarchy and caste hierarchy, the Maoists won on a simple but powerful message: Power to the People.

I arrived in Nepal two months after the Maoist's victory. Now, ten months later, I’m in the woods, tucked close to a Himal, and a Nepali I meet on the trail says, by the way, Prachanda, the Maoist leader and Prime Minister resigned yesterday did you hear?

Walking in the woods that day, I wondered what it means for the Maoists and The Peace Process and Nepal. I wondered what those millions who voted for the Maoists think about their party now. What happened to the hope and jubilation that exploded in the streets in straight marching bands and flags and tears after The People’s Party won the majority of votes?

Democracy takes time. This would be a marketable bumper sticker here. But it’d be a tough sell. Like democracy, bumper stickers are new to Nepal.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Trekking - then and now.

Leaving tomorrow for TREKKING. Very last minute. Very excited. Headed for the Everest Region. For 2 weeks? 3? Unsure. Off to buy granola bars and toilet paper.

And here are pictures from a trek I did with two friends in October. Never uploaded them!

Lena, Katherine and I, Day 1. Slightly excited. Good stuff ahead.

Off we went. Little Hobbitses.

We stayed in tea houses. Cozy.


Lots of Buddhism.

And tea breaks.

Lena developed a fetish for floral teapots. Contagious.

We stayed in this village for 3 nights. High and cold and utterly surreal.

The glacier is coming. The view from our bedroom.

Few things would pull me out of a warm sleeping bag at 5 in the morning. This is one.

This is perhaps another: yak cheese.

Sun + fuzzy chairs = great nap station.

Sun + mountain top = even better.

We did.

The. Future.

Yesterday was my last day at work. Surreal. What’s next? No answers yet. But here’s a journal entry I wrote last month, when I was starting to reflect on that question.

I was biking down my alley towards my house when I passed a man selling Tupperware on his head. The plastics were all colors and sizes – large maroon bowls for washing babies, rounded turquoise ladles for serving dal (lentils) and every plastic kitchen utensil in between – all balanced improbably on his head.

I wanted to stop and talk to him. I wanted to ask him how many bowls he’s sold today, how he became a bowl seller, and how many children he has. What is it like to carry bowls around on your head all day? and Does your neck ever hurt? I might have asked.

I might have followed my impulse but I had a report due in two hours. A report on how IRC is teaching business skills to Nepalis. If the man were a number in my report, I wouldn’t know.

I wanted to work abroad because I love to steep myself in a foreign place and to discover that it’s not so foreign after all. But traveling and working abroad are two very different things, I’m learning. I can’t talk to the plastic utensil-seller and meet work deadlines. I might choose to work abroad again. But over the long run, I think I'll choose the plastic seller.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

It’s spring and…

…the mosquitoes buzz at night and I have not touched my bag of wool socks in weeks.

…the tourists are back with their dog-eared Lonely Planet guides and European accents and expectations of snowy peaks and cheap cashmere and elephants and 'culture.'

…the electricity is on 12 hours a day instead of 8, thanks to the week of pre-monsoon rain. (Despite the improvement, grumbles continue and they’re getting louder and It's the Government’s Fault they say.)

…the days are longer and that means the restaurant that serves slimy garlic fried mushrooms stays open an hour later which is great because its not just next door.

… I only have 4 days left of work. And that’s crazy because I’ve been here 10 months but sometimes it feels like only 10 minutes.

… my mind is set on May and mountains. And the next 30 days when my main responsibilities will be to drink yak milk tea when I’m thirsty and lean my back against a sunny rock when I’m tired.

… I’m wondering where ill be next spring. I’ve sent out a resume or two but most of my attention is not on the next but on the now. Because now I can say “now or never” and mean it. I'm trying to choose now.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Eat us we're noodles.

My mom recently unearthed a photo of a plate I made for my Grandma when I was 5. My dad emailed me the picture, and raised the following thought-provoking questions that deserve a larger audience than just me:

  • Why are the horse and the llama in love (note hearts)?
  • Is it a llama, or is it a camel (note two humps -- dromedary)?
  • Why doesn't the horse fall over (note two legs -- other creature has four)?
  • What is the nature of those orange things above the hearts; vegetable, mineral, or animal?
  • What is the meaning of the yellow popcorny stuff the two creatures seem to be floating in?
  • Is 'Grandma' protecting the horse? If so, why not the camel?
  • Why does the horse have a red shield over itself (note -- same color as hunter's pants)
  • What exactly is the hunter carrying?
  • Why is the hunter frowning?
  • Why is the sun frowning?
  • Is the hunter looking for noodles?

Profound stuff.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sometimes I wish I were a Monkey

Here's one reason why:

I've yet to see a sign like this for humans in Kathmandu. And it's getting hot.