Monthly Archives: December 2002

Yuletide beatings

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.

My old students randomly showed up at a different school for an impromptu reunion on Christmas Eve.

My old students randomly showed up at a different school for an impromptu reunion on Christmas Eve.

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.

Kara listens as Laurel explains something possibly unrelated to the holiday events.

Kara listens as Laurel explains something possibly unrelated to the holiday events.

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 Why?!

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.

A cool, damp winter morning along the East-West Highway north of Rajbiraj.

A cool, damp winter morning along the East-West Highway north of Rajbiraj.

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.

My least favorite seat on the bus was in the cabin, and blur here explains why.

My least favorite seat on the bus was in the cabin, and blur here explains why.

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.

Way back in July

Way back in July it was hot—really hot. The hot that you can’t escape, that makes you uncomfortable in your skin. Since it was July it was also the thick of the monsoon. Since it was July, I still wasn’t half sure why or what I was doing in Nepal—or if I’d even be here a week later.

And since it was July I didn’t have anything to do. School was closed and Birganj was an empty, freakish place, like a colonized spot of the sun, nothing less than a prison. A really hot prison.

Not that I want to sound negative, because back in July there was a lot to do yet. I was trying my hardest to do it. My two-month run at school ended on a Friday in the middle of June. The following Monday I was on a plane heading to Kathmandu.

My first two months in Birganj had seemed to last a long, long time. Since then I’ve hardly spent a solid month in Birganj without leaving for one reason or another. I don’t count day trips to Kalaiya or Narayanghat as getting away, since those are no longer than a night or two.

The fallen minaret of a mosque in the northern part of Nepalgunj.

The fallen minaret of a mosque in the northern part of Nepalgunj.

So I had arranged with Peace Corps to go to Nepalgunj to work with Alayne’s faculty and do some trainings there. What a farce, but it was a hell of a good time and I wish I could have been there longer, since I was having a great time and I wasn’t quite ready to be back in Birganj.

But soon my time was up, my plane was in, and I was leaving scenic Nepalgunj, the only place more unfavorable than Birganj.

Not that I didn’t like the place. The people and the place just seemed more, well, doomed. You’d buy some milk and have a feeling that everyone there was starving to death and buying milk for yourself was affront to humanity when others clearly needed it more.

But what do you do? Buy milk for the whole of Nepalgunj? Nepal? No. You buy the milk and then you look into the eyes of the gaunt clerk, soaked from the heat, and ask, How much for that ice cream bar?

After leaving Nepalgunj, I had a few days in Kathmandu before I my flight back to Birganj. I saw a few folks in Kathmandu I hadn’t seen in a while, namely Kara, Lindsay and Erica. Erica was heading back to Dhunche in a Peace Corps jeep on Wednesday, the same day I was supposed to go back to Birganj

My original plan was to Birganj and then take a bus the next day, July 3, 2002, to Janakpur, another Terai town to the east of Birganj and then due south of the East-West Highway, where the PCVs had planned a Fourth of July extravaganza.

That’s where Kara and Lindsay had also left Kathmandu for a day earlier, since they needed more time by taking a bus. I had something of dilemma.

Either I could try and sneak on the Peace Corps jeep headed to Dhunche, which would just be an overnight stay in an astonishingly beautiful place, or I could head back to Birganj and see some more of the horrors that the Terai had to offer.

What to do?

Well, of course I wanted to try and sneak on a jeep and get a free trip into Lang Tang National Park, of which Dhunche is the first city within and also the main city of Rasuwa district. I made my plans and discussed with Erica details of the trip.

The night before I went out with Kara and Lindsay to tell them the news about missing the Fourth of July in Janakpur. Tough news. I have my fans.

OK, whatever, Kara said, shrugging with hands in the air, We’ll just celebrate tonight.

The next day they began their 12-hour bus ride to Janakpur. They were planning on late night on the town to help them sleep as much as possible on the bus.

It was a late night and the next morning, before leaving I saw Lindsay and Kara, both looking haggard and reacting to the daylight as if they were vampires, heading to the Kathmandu bus park, hoping to sleep off one celebration before beginning another.

I was feeling tense about sneaking onto the jeep without telling the office, but I knew that they were expecting me to get on a plane that day and head back to DMZ, love it or leave it.

It’s sad that I just can’t get on to the part about firecrackers and the Fourth of July, that I have to ramble on like this.

Kids tending buffaloes enjoy themselves while watering the animals on a hot day in Janakpur.

Kids tending buffaloes enjoy themselves while watering the animals on a hot day in Janakpur.

Anyhow, as soon as I got to Peace Corps office I began thinking that this quick trip wasn’t really worth making a bad name for myself around the office, so I went in to talk with my program officer, a half professional adviser and a half baby sitter of PCVs.

He was cheery enough and listened to my experiences in Nepalgunj. I talked about having done this and that and all sorts of professional crap and then hey by the way could I go with the jeep up to Dhunche just for a night before heading back to Birganj would that be fine please?

No, and that was that.

A few hours later that day I was on one of the terrifying local airlines’ planes, flying back to Birganj, the Twin Otter banging and undulating as I was certain I could sense the hull twist and contort as we skimmed over the foothills of the Himalayas.

When the plane finally landed, I still was glad I hadn’t taken a bus, which is, in comparison, 100% more frightening. Birganj didn’t seem so bad when I returned, perhaps because I knew that the next day, July 3, 2002, I was getting on a bus and heading to Janakpur for the first major get-together of friends since we swore in as volunteers on May 8.

The next day I was on a bus heading due east for a few hours, then turned off the East-West Highway (also called the Mahendra Highway) and headed south on a narrow, local road for 20 km into Janakpur.

The local road was narrow and uneven, since on either side spanned endless rice fields, freshly flooded with monsoon rains and covered with Indian migrant workers, cutting grass and contracting malaria. It was spectacularly beautiful—an image of Nepal I won’t soon forget.

I was staring out of the windows when I the bus slowed and came to a halt. I only noticed because it wasn’t one of the quick, rapid stops the buses make when dropping off or picking up folks. This was gradual and tense. In Nepal, traffic moves to the left.

I was sitting on the left, admiring the beauty of the countryside, when the bus began to lurch rightwards. Women passed weeping. My stomach twisted. I’d seen rolled buses, old with rust and long absent of glass, and I’ve seen sections of guardrail missing along a cliff, with ominous dark skid marks leading to the edge, but I’d never see the human of it.

Scott, your author, and Lynn in Janakpur

Lynn and your author, Scott, in Janakpur on the Fourth of July 2002.

The women were grouped together, crying, spastically throwing about their arms. When the bus crossed to the other side of the road I could see ahead a crowd of people standing in the road.

The bus straightened and I lost my view until we passed the crowd. They were standing quietly—I don’t remember any yelling or commotion—and perhaps 20 feet away in the road was a man, dead, laying in more blood that I’d ever seen in one spot, his cycle nearby equally mangled and contorted.

But just as if it were on television, we moved on, passing to more pleasant scenery—other sights I won’t soon forget.

Janakpur looked a lot like Kalaiya in that it was busy and dusty. Janakpur, though, was more developed. The roads were dusty and wandered in ways that couldn’t have not been planned. I found the roadside pasals to be little more than temporary shanties.

I took a seat at one of these shanties and had a coke while I waited for Ken to meet me and take me to his place. He and Lynne, a married couple, lived with Chris, another volunteer from our group who was a science teacher. All three of them are individuals and rather gregarious, but Chris above all.

The town seemed a maze as Ken and I walked to his place. There was one landmark that we passed I thought was exceptional. I had been told before that Janakpur is the only city in Nepal that has a train.

It’s a small arrangement: a single steam engine pulling two cars with the majority of the passengers riding on the roof to escape the heat. I thought of Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days, seeing Michael peer out of trains racing across some desolate part of India with a city riding on top of the train.

At Ken’s I had a happy reunion with friends: Jeff, Yvette, Lynne, Jennifer, Lynne, Chris, Matt, and others I’m forgetting. Others were still coming in.

In fact, Lynne told us in the midst of the chit-chat, Lindsay and Kara are at the bus park waiting to get picked up.

Kara and Lindsay after arriving in Janakpur from a night bus from Kathmandu.

Kara and Lindsay after arriving in Janakpur from a night bus from Kathmandu.

I was excited that they weren’t at Ken’s when I came in, because I was hoping for a chance to surprise them since the day before they had seen me putting my bags in a Peace Corps jeep headed to the northern edge of Nepal

A day later, though, I’d beaten them to Janakpur and was, geographically and culturally, as far as I could ever be from the beauty of Dhunche.

Let me get them, I said, asking for directions and maybe a map, too, to the Janakpur bus park, I want to surprise them.

They were supposed to be waiting near the Janakpur dhoka, a ‘gate’ that was being built in the middle of an intersection just south of the house. It wasn’t hard to miss, though all Ken said was that it was a big concrete mess.

After seeing it I can’t think of a more articulate way to describe it, so maybe that’s what makes him Ken from Janakpur.

It is a winding of concrete snakes, making something of a shape; though Ken’s words are the best description, they don’t quite emphasize the immensity of it. It’s big. It’s lots of concrete. And it’s clearly a mess. Sort of like Janakpur.

As I walked to the table where Kara and Lindsey were sitting, snarling at their steaming cups of tea, I could see that they were still hung-over and clearly unhappy. It became that my surprise wouldn’t be met with smiles.

I readied my camera and walked near, framed my shot, and told the girls, Hi.

The girls squinted in the foul monsoon sunshine, Scott?

Slowly people arrived: Liz and Drew arrived from Jhapa; Tony, Laurel, and André from Rajbiraj; and Kira from Biratnagar. That night we were ready to celebrate the Fourth. We were happy, we felt patriotic, more American than perhaps ever before, and we had fireworks.

Just before Chris lit the first of the fireworks, we all had a worry that we’d probably never had before. These will sound like gunfire. The police will come. The Maoists will come. They will shoot. Is this is a good idea?

And I noticed that they were already lit. We stood back, anxious, and giddy with guilt, knowing that we were happily entertaining a bad idea. They were loud, they were bright, and they were getting everyone’s attention in the area.

Traditional but not a good idea, fireworks can give the impression of gun fire.

Traditional but not a good idea, fireworks can give the impression of gun fire.

Those fireworks, my friends, were American. But before another round the downstairs neighbor rushed upstairs, begging us to cease igniting more fireworks, clearly scared of being taken for a rebel and dying for some US holiday. He was calmed, the music was turned back up, and we were back to our merry-making sans faux gunfire.

Earlier that evening, in Ken’s living room, I had been sitting and talking with Lynne. She turned away for a moment to answer the phone, and I sat back in my chair, thinking about Dhunche, about places I could be where I wouldn’t be sweating at nine o’clock at night, quickly drinking my beer while it was still cold from the store where we’d bought them.

It’s for you, Lynne said, asking, as surprised as I was, It’s someone from America.

America indeed. Still it seems magical that someone on the other side of this planet, separated by an ocean and sea or two, depending on which way you go, can pick up a phone, dial a number, and my phone, or the Bests’ phone, will ring moments later. Whereas getting a package here is like reliving Christmas, getting a phone call is like Santa Claus himself calling you.

For ten minutes with rock music loud in my ears, friends calling my attention, I spoke with Nikkie back home, her hearing the background noises of my new life in Nepal, and me feeling a little less far from home.

Which is where home was, way back in July.

Collected stories, part 1

Let me tell you, some days when I make the first morning appearance in Birganj just outside of my flat the three-year-old kid, half-naked, covered in the black muck of Birganj, yells at me, Hello seto! Hello seto, and, finally, Hello whitey!

I think to myself, Gee, was he talking to me? I think I’ve abandoned such naïvety a while ago. And I think I can pinpoint the exact moment.

Here’s a digression. Today when I came home there was a decapitated goat’s carcass where I usually park my bike. Next to the carcass was a black plastic bag, matching the goat’s color.

I suspect that’s where the goat’s head was. I didn’t look. But it felt about the weight when I picked it up and put it in Jane-Erie’s cycle’s basket. I came inside and sat down to where I’m currently typing.

Soaked in iodine, this pig head didn't find a buyer its first day on display.

Soaked in iodine, this pig head didn't find a buyer its first day on display.

After a few minutes there was a knock on my screen. I was expecting Jane-Erie and we’d have a good laugh about the old ‘goat’s head in basket’ gag.

Instead it was Parbhati, the domestic servant, laughing a grizzly cackle that is a bizarre mix of her throaty, TB-afflicted speech and brutal childhood, holding the goat’s head sans plastic bag.

I gave her a look. You know, the look you give when your neighbor’s slave womanchild comes to your door holding the severed head of an animal and is laughing madly while she raps on your screen door, as if she’s trying to break and force the head on you.

Anyhow, I gave her that look and she turned the goat’s head towards her and spoke to it, mumbling something gruffly (the TB) I couldn’t follow. Then both her and goat turned and looked at me in unison, giggling.

It was an eerie bit of puppetry and she was laughed at the horror my face looked. You know, the look you give when your neighbor’s slave girl comes to your door and begins performing amateur puppetry with a decapitated goat head.

You know, that look. Anyhow, she was satisfied, and then she and her marionette left me to my thoughts, which where, in fact, disturbing.

If I could record half of the things that happen to me then I would be busy enough writing said things that additional things might stop happening. Some days, it’s too much. Like I was just about to tell you, I abandoned a certain naïvety about who I was and where I was a couple of months ago.

Three Himanchal Cabin staffers pose is Birganj.

Three Himanchal Cabin staffers pose is Birganj.

This is what happened. I was at Himanchal Cabin, where I often have a coke a read a book, do some lesson planning or just read the paper. It’s my favorite place in Birganj, since I know the people there and they know me.

One of the employees is a 12-year-old boy who works there and sends money to his parents who live in a village outside of Birganj. He’s a nice enough kid and likes to practice his English, which is limited to one conversation:

Him: How are you?

Me: I’m fine. And how are you?

Him: I am also fine. Thank you.

Rinse and repeat. I guess he learned a new word in English and wanted to try it out on me. Anyhow, one day I was in and having some toast while reading the paper when the kid comes up to me and we have our little conversation. He smiles and says to me, You are white. You are very white. I was completely taken aback, asking What?

He then sits on the edge of the chair across from me, saying in Nepali, Look at you. Just look how white you are. I’ve never seen anyone as white as you before. I mean white–white. White. You’re white. My. White.

With that, he stands up and walks towards a dirty table and begins clearing it.

I’m still sort of in shock, half laughing and half thinking about what I should do. Do I explain to him that saying such things is rude? Do I ask Vijay, the owner, to explain that to him? Or do I just tell him how black he is?

And while I’m wondering in my limited intellectual capacity, the kid walks by with his arms full of dishes, chanting, White, white, white, white, white, white, white . . . and fades to silence as he walks into the kitchen. I go back to the newspaper.

Here’s a story that correlates to Himanchal Cabin. Just a couple of days ago, there was a parade heading down Main Street. It was a gathering of CPN-UML, a very popular opposition party, and there were thousands of them marching, fists hammering the air and pissed off.

They were shouting, Let democracy live, let the monarchy perish!

I didn’t follow the slogan and asked Vijay what they were saying. He shrugged and said, Maybe they want to kill the King.

I looked at him, Maybe?

Since moving into my new place, I have had to do some adjusting. I had to get used to living with a PCV as a neighbor, and not just any PCV, because I had Luke and Rob as neighbors for nearly six months and that had never been a problem.

I was sick and bedridden for a few days. She came by at least three times every day and would bang on my door until I answered it. She wanted my laptop, wanted the phone, wanted to know if anyone had called for her, wanted a book, etc. Sigh.

And I had another problem with other unwanted guests coming in whenever they please: mice. When I lived in my old place, I had problem with bats. Now I have problems with mice. Which is worse? Which makes for a better story? Well, the bats of course. Forgive me if you’ve heard this already.

This was the moment I realized that I had to get a new deraa.

I didn’t pay any mind when folks came to visit and said, It looks comfortable, while their faces said, Better you than me.

The kitchen in my first place in Birganj explains why I didn't cook often.

The kitchen in my first place in Birganj explains why I didn't cook often.

Plus the family was building some rooms on the floor above my room. The constant dropping of bricks and milling about of workers performing their trade was causing the old and brittle concrete in my second bedroom to crumble in increasing large chunks.

It wasn’t an odd sight to be sitting and reading or writing letters and have marble-size pieces of concrete falling here and there with the sound of work above.

Then on a mild Terai night I was up late doing some typing. Even though my place had screens, bugs would find their way in to fly around the fluorescent lights.

Their flickering in the light was especially annoying while I was trying to type, since my peripheral was never at rest. Then there was this paper, or something, brushing against my back. Since I always have my fan on high, papers and what not from my desk are bound to blow around.

Finally, the ADHD kicked in and I got up to straighten things out before I could get back to work. Then I saw my problem was, in fact, a bat flying around the room.

A slight struggle ensued. I was in one corner with an ragged New Yorker (probably read by a dozen other volunteers), and the bat made repeated swoops from the opposing corner. It struck me several times, ramming into my chest and madly squeaking, before it made another loop around the room.

Finally, I batted it out of that room and into the kitchen.

The advantage fell into my hands, as I had a supply of sharp things to throw at the bat; He wasn’t small, but he was spritely guy and I never found my target. The image of Yosemite Sam chasing Bugs Bunny with one of those large nets came to mind. I took a bucket and tried to get the rhythm of the flying mammal.

Then I pounced and caught the bat underneath the bucket and trapped him in the floor. I then got some of the butcher paper that our weekly mail packets came in and slipped it under the mouth of the bucket, so I could lift it and take it outside without freeing the bat in my deraa.

As I sat down to work again I thought, I really should move.

But now I have mice. You can buy medieval looking mousetraps and poison in the bazaar, but I’ve elected to pursue a more conventional method. I have discovered their main entry point into my deraa, the front door; I’ve also discovered where they hide—under my bed.

The daughters of Rajesh, my landlord, color and do homework in my apartment.

The daughters of Rajesh, my landlord, color and do homework in my apartment.

I had just discovered all of this about the time that Matt and Shana came to Birganj for a wedding (last weekend). Their first night at my place we were sitting around and talking into the wee hours of night (being 11:00 p.m.), when we all turned simultaneously to notice a huge rat slowly crawl underneath the front door, look around, and then quickly dart back outside. We mouse-proofed the place that evening.

I hadn’t had such a run-in with a mouse or rat since living with my host family in Gaidankot. One night I awoke to the very specific sensation of a mouse crawling up my leg. I can be a groggy person in the morning. If there were just an alarm clock that instead of buzzing created the sensation of a mouse crawling up your leg, I would never dawdle in bed in the morning again.

I would also probably stop sleeping well. I mean, what if I got desensitized to the sensation of a mouse crawling up my leg? What would have happened that night in Gaidankot? Let’s not think about what if.

What did happen was I got out of bed and stood in the middle of my room for a moment, expressing A mouse crawling up my leg! by using inarticulate but expressive language.

After I collected myself, I knew that I would have to see the mouse leave my room before I would be able to get back to sleep. I finally found the mouse hiding in a small crevice between my mattresses and chased him out of the room.

Then I went back to sleep.

Rethinking Thanksgiving

We were supposed to have a turkey. By we, I mean everyone congregating in Biratnagar for Thanksgiving. The celebrations had been planned ahead of time and your invitation merely required bringing something Thanksgiving related, where it was food or an accordion-style turkey for décor.

I hadn’t thought of what I was going to bring for Thanksgiving until Vijay, operator of Himanchal Cabin (the Birganj Cheers of sorts), said something to me about Thanksgiving.

He told me about how back when he was a kid and his father was running Himanchal Cabin, Peace Corps was having trainings in Birganj and for Thanksgiving a Peace Corps would put together a huge feast of Nepali food for the trainees. Well, it was Nepali except for the turkey.

Turkey? I thought he was using the wrong word, though his English is the flawless variety that originates from Darjeeling, You mean a turkey–turkey?

Yeah, sure, Vijay told me, quite matter-of-fact.

There here. I’ll show you, and that’s all that was said on the subject for the day.

After giving thanks, we got busy: Thanksgiving at Shana's place in Narayanghat.

After giving thanks, we got busy: Thanksgiving at Shana's place in Narayanghat.

Then suddenly my Thanksgiving plans changed. My friend Lindsay who had been living in small, migrant worker community outside of Biratnagar until Peace Corps changed her post, asked me if we could have Thanksgiving in Birganj, since her new post was on the other side of Narayanghat, about half way to Nepalgunj, and too far from Biratnagar to make the trip in a weekend.

With so few people out west I really couldn’t say no since the other option was for her to stay home that weekend and celebrate it with herself.

But even before I could really make any plans in Birganj, I got a phone call from Shana in Narayanghat.

You want to have Thanksgiving with us in Narayanghat? asked Shanda.

This would be a lot easier. The only thing I’d done was arranged for my host family to get some Newari raksi for the auspicious occasion.

I quickly realized how much work it would be to plan and prepare for Thanksgiving and it made deciding on uniting forces with my friends in Narayanghat quite easy.

Then I remembered about the turkey. When I had called Andrew in Birtamod he told me that his quest for a turkey had proven fruitless. In fact, everyone had referred him to a government farm north of Birganj. He gave me a number for the place and suggested I check it out for the sanctity of the occasion.

At first the farm told me they didn’t have any turkeys, which I didn’t believe. I thought that what I really needed was the leverage of a Nepali bigwig to get some straight answers and perhaps a big turkey.

I found just the guy. He was exactly the sort of fellow I shouldn’t be socializing with and normally I wouldn’t strike up conversations with majors in the Nepali armed police, but the occasion brought us together and so I decided that I would see if I could get him to help me get a turkey. I had thought briefly about the ‘what if’ if I were to actually get a hold of a turkey.

Naomi prepares garlic for something that we ate that day. What, I cannot remember.

Naomi prepares garlic for something that we ate that day. What, I cannot remember.

Basically, I would have to keep the turkey at my place in Birganj until I left for Narayanghat. And I would go by bus. Finally, I could truly assimilate if I were to bring livestock onto public transportation. I would stand with my leashed turkey talking to the guy with the four goats with their heads hanging out of the windows.

Later I thought of him and his armed police goons torturing the farm workers, demanding to knows, “Where’s the turkey?” Whatever his methods were, he didn’t procure a turkey for me. Sadly, I would have to find some other excuse to drag some livestock onto a bus. I’ve carried a chicken up a mountain, which is worth something.

I killed a chicken and I’d kill a turkey—but another day, I suppose. I think turkeys have bigger necks, too, so it’d be easier. Plus I think I figured out how to handle the Nepali khukuri.

Anyhow, I later found out that it was best that I hadn’t brought the turkey since I was attending a vegetarian Thanksgiving. I had been so consumed with the idea of getting a turkey for Thanksgiving that I had befriended one of the more evil factions in Nepal’s current war to try and get me a turkey, as well as had daydreams about killing this very elusive turkey.

Thanksgiving equaled turkey. I didn’t really ask many questions when I found out, since I’m in Nepal and I have to be flexible.

On Saturday we went as a group to bazaar in Narayanghat to get veggies, flour, spices, etc. The main bazaar is located across the street from the Balkumari Kanya School, where I did my practice teaching during training. I talked with a few kids that had been in my class and I felt really good about what I had done to change my work situation at post.

Lindsay demonstrates the traditional post-Thanksgiving feast stretch.

Lindsay demonstrates the traditional post-Thanksgiving feast stretch.

Let me also say that I just really love going to the bazaar. It’s a totally social affair and can’t be done by foreigners without attracting the attention of everyone in the bazaar.

I let everyone else do the real shopping while I spoke with the locals and explained why pumpkins are so important to Americans. In the middle of my blather one of the shop owners, just a ways off, says, to me, Are you married?

No, I am a volunteer, which was sort of confusing answer, but it’s what I said. I wasn”t really paying any attention to this man, but keeping one eye on my friends and another on the small mob that had formed.

Do you want to marry my daughter? the man asked, earnestly.

Well, I said, not thinking, I do live alone.

Luckily Matt came and grabbed me, hurrying me out of the crowd before I wound up with tikka on my forehead and on an elephant in a wedding procession. These are the dangers of living in a place like Nepal. I really didn’t even realize what I was saying until I started laughing along with my rescuer.

Thanks to my brazen behavior in the bazaar I hadn’t a clue what we had bought or what was going to be prepared. A few other PCVs from the area were coming later with a few prepared dishes.

I was delegated chopping duty and spent the better part of an hour skinning garlic. I kept myself busy in the kitchen with Matt, Shana, and others while people slowly arrived. A VSO volunteer came to celebrate her first Thanksgiving. Another American showed up who works with women’s rights organizations.

When we finally sat down to eat there were ten of us together. We had mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie to validate the occasion as being a legitimate incarnation of the holiday in Nepal. Ironic, I thought, that here we were, just like our forefathers, with so many Indians around.

Yet none came to eat with us, probably because, I thought, we wanted our festival to be as American as possible; yet, we had misunderstood the whole point of Thanksgiving.

The day has less to do with just being thankful for food than for being thankful to sit and eat with those you live around, but separate from.

I’m sure the Native Americans thought the English and Dutch food was as disgusting and repulsive as the Nepalis I know in Birganj find American food; nonetheless, I feel like there was a more significant absence than just the bird.

Maybe next Thanksgiving we’ll get everyone together, including the natives.