I’ve edited and rewritten this preface more times than the entry it proceeds. I guess what I want to say, really, is, this story isn’t mine to tell.
To read what’s here is to open to the middle of a novel and read a single page. I know that volunteers past and present who read this will be able to relate and empathize, especially if they served in Nepal, a place where animals live difficult and occasionally brutal lives.
Christmas in Rajbiraj comes as a surprise. Christmas in Rajbiraj is unexpected. Christmas in Rajbiraj begins with a phone call early on the morning of Christmas Eve with carols via speakerphone. Christmas was supposed to be in Birganj and Christmas was supposed to be another day.
I don’t see how foolish that was until a Nepali friend says,
Really? You’re not doing anything for Christmas?
Like I said, it started with a surprise phone call on the morning of December 24, just before 7 a.m. When I answered the phone there was a pause and then,
We Wish You a Merry Christmas, comes belting out.
Christmas in Rajbiraj, they say,
You should come.
But I tell them I can’t. I should teach while I can. After I return from Kathmandu after the All-Vol conference, I’ll only have February and a week in March in my school before I move to the DEO.
As I explained to Linda that the singing on the phone was caroling and that the carolers want me to come to Rajbiraj, I got myself ready for school. I left after coffee with the intention of getting some gauze for a girl in school who’d badly cut her foot. While I was downtown I ran into a friend.
We had met at her sister’s wedding in Birganj. Her sister had married a relative of the family that Shana lives with in Narayanghat. Anyhow, we chatted:
Her: Tomorrow’s Christmas, right?
Me: Yes, it is.
Her: What are you going to do?
Me: Uhh. Nothing, . . . I guess.
Then she said it. Clearly unimpressed with my respect for my culture, I was unimpressed with myself, too. The conversation was over and I was going to Rajbiraj. I had to do something.
I came to Christmas around 3:00 p.m. I made my way through Rajbiraj to Kara and Laurel’s place. Lindsay was in town and Tony had come from his village just south of Rajbiraj, too.
I saw a Christmas tree. I saw a roasted chicken. I saw boxes of instant potatoes, gravy and stuffing. Lindsay had made a salad and cooked some green beans. It was all delicious but the real treat of the meal was Tony’s aperitif—a mead he’d been brewing since after swearing-in.
I clearly understood that I had walked into a well-planned Christmas party: a Christmas complete with ornaments, good friends, and home-made mead. Into the evening we ate, we drank, we ate some more, and we had a jolly Christmas.
Tony gave me a lungee, which I had been putting off buying. So there was something, sort of, under the tree for me.
The next morning began on a more somber note. Lady, a little puppy that they had been keeping was becoming ill. There had been a whole saga of dog problems in Rajbiraj and this seemed like the final straw.
Lindsay was leaving but before she left she said to me,
That dog needs to go.
She had received a pup as a birthday gift and it had to be put down as well about two months earlier. Keeping pets in Nepal is tough.
There was an incident not long ago in Rajbiraj involving a friend of a PCV and one of Rajbiraj’s feral dogs. Nepal has a huge feral dog problem. The municipal governments usually are only interested in eradication of the problem and nothing preventative. Just like Dharan had a month before, Rajbiraj tried to poison the entire feral dog population.
The story as I know it goes like this: city employees went out and poisoned the dogs of Rajbiraj, mostly feral but some not including one belonging to the friend.
The PCV‘s friend was outraged by the sight of so many dead dogs—as well as his own—that he wrapped his dead dog in a blanket and marched into the Nagar Palika and tossed the body on someone’s desk, yelling
He didn’t get an answer he liked and after some scuffling and some general ho-hah, he punched someone. Or something like that.
Kara and Laurel had seen a couple pups in town, one of which was quite ill, being harassed and abused by people. In defiance of those people’s contempt for dogs, they took in the two ill pups. Alas, one pup had rabies and passed on.
All the PCVs in Rajbiraj had contact with the dog and were called into Kathmandu for shots. Afterwards, they returned home before Christmas. Enter the holiday cheer, another sick pup, and then me. Just a day after Christmas, Kara and Laurel were dealing again with the unpleasant mix of terminal illness and puppies.
After Lindsay left, there was something of a serious talk about what to do. Kara and Laurel agreed that it should be put down soon. Lindsay had just faced similar problems with her dog. It was a morbid conversation, us all earnestly trying to figure out what would be humane and possible considering our situation.
We thought of the pros and cons of this way and that. Wanting to help, I couldn’t help but feel that I was on the outside of the situation, just another unnecessary complication in the mix, but it seemed that I was there for the day.
The rest of the afternoon was equally as morbid. Some shopping was done around town and as Kara and I walked back to her place I heard her feebly grumbling, looking to my left.
Kara was saying softly, but with her signature grumble,
Stop. Jeez. Please stop. Don’t do that.
I saw two dogs, tongues waging and happily looking at Kara and I as if they were for us alone procreating. And so the cycle continues. Here were two dogs doing everything they could to undo the Nagar Palika‘s progress.
That night we had dinner at Shiva’s, the local dive in Rajbiraj, known for its mediocre everything. The dog issue would be taken care of the next day so we didn’t talk about that. Mostly, it was chitchat with somber overtones.
That is until we began hearing the sounds of a dog yelping or crying from just outside the restaurant. A few of us got up and went outside to see what was going on.
We saw a man carrying a puppy buy its neck and the puppy yipping. André asked the guy holding the puppy,
What the $&*@#!! are you doing?
And the guy tells André, and I quote,
I am loving the dog, but with an intonation that suggested he wasn’t totally sure he believed it or not, or perhaps it was a curiosity with our questioning.
The Nepalis comfortably laughed at our shock, not understanding us. And vice versa.
Finally, after some convoluted conversation with the Nepali, André asked him to give him the dog. So the Nepali guy threw the dog to the ground like it was the most disgusting thing he’d ever seen. More crying. André took the dog and we walked up the road a ways. He let the dog down.
Laurel, André, and I both had the sense that while there was little else we could do bad things were destined for this pup of Rajbiraj. We hadn’t been sitting down for more than a couple of minutes before we heard the dog yelping again.
André jumped up and I came from behind the table and followed him into the street. As we came to the shop just a few feet from Shiva’s we saw a man kicking the dog in the face, knocking it from the stoop of the store.
André said that someone from the Nagar Palika had said to him, concerning the dead dog on the desk and punching incident, something significant.
He told me they said,
I wouldn’t walk into the mayor’s office in America and throw a dead cow [sacred to Hindus] on someone’s desk. It seems that a dog’s suffering is worse than that of a cow’s, but why?
I can be complacent since it’s away from sight, just like how we control feral dog populations in the United States. The dogs are taken someplace out of sight and put down.
I’d like to think if I saw someone punch a cow in the face next to where I was eating dinner in the States—or in Nepal—that I’d say something. I’d say something like,
Why the $&*@#!! are you punching a cow?
The next day I made my plans to leave. Lady had passed proving, thankfully, that some of Nepal’s problems can be dealt with in a humane way.