Monthly Archives: January 2004

Finishing touches

During training, one of the hardest and seemingly most necessary things I wanted to communicate to my host family was that I missed home. I missed home. I missed my friends. I missed pizza and beer as dark as the nights in my new, lightless neighborhood.

But the best that I could do, after two months of Peace Corps’ astounding language training, was to tell them, Ma yad garchhu, I remember.

And what do I remember now? Have I changed after two years in this wonderful and flawed organization? Am I better? Did I climb Mount Everest? Did I build a bridge with cave-dwelling, sun-fearing villagers? Wasn’t I supposed to be sick constantly? And what about the United States?

Aren’t I supposed to realize that, at heart, I am a cave-dwelling, sun-fearing villager who could never live like I had before?

I thought I was a PCV. I thought I was the alpha male, able to adapt to anything, pick up a language on the way, and figure out how to be successful in seemingly ‘difficult’ circumstances.

To me, the adjustment after Peace Corps seems a lot like being a PCV a second time. Once in Nepal and then again in the US. Hopefully it’ll be as much fun the second time around.

I’m trying to figure out exactly how right the Peace Corps shrinks will be at forecasting hard times. They told me I’d be sick, which I really wasn’t. I mean, not any more than I would have been if I’d stayed in the US.

Yes, I did have diarrhea, but I’d had that in the US, too. I didn’t need Nepal to get indigestion. Plus, I never got ill enough to really complain about it. Except that one time during the monsoon when it was well over 110° F and the power went out for over a day.

Which was awful.

While I can’t really start to look back at my Peace Corps experience and the very strange and interesting culture that surrounds it quite yet, I can say that for me, my experience as a PCV was completely unlike what I had preconceived.

In a country of mud huts with thatch roofs, I never lived in one.

In a country of sprawling rice fields, I never commuted through one.

In a country of extreme poverty, I never really experienced it.

Sure I saw it. I passed pale corpses dead from the previous night’s freeze. I watched one morning as a set of tractors demolished shanties I used to see from my kitchen window. I fingered bullet holes in the waiting room of the airport. I heard bombs. I saw the muzzle flashes from weapons in the distance before going to bed. I taught shoeless children and paid half-naked rickshaw drivers. I was mugged and robbed.

But I never really experienced the things that gave Birganj its edge. I was always safe, far removed from the real things that change people.

Even when I rode in the backseat of an army captain’s car while he had a Browning 9mm shoved down the front of his pants, explaining how not a month ago the Maoists had attack him at this very spot and killed several of his men, I was safe.

And I can’t think why.

I’m in Dharan, and I’m finishing the training that the ANNISU-R said I couldn’t finish a month earlier because they were trying to keep eastern Nepal closed for some reason, to prove some point to someone somewhere.

I’m here, and I’m thinking about where I’m going to be, what I’m going to be doing, at some point in the future. Sometimes I think about April, when I finish as a PCV. Other times, I think about two years ahead. Future hazy, check back later, as the Magic 8 Ball used to say.

The one thing that I want to do, though, is have one last breath of what I loved about Nepal, outside of what I can get in Birganj. I want to see Birtamod and remember all the crazy people who flock to Andrew, the PCV who lives there.

I want to walk the quiet, dying streets of Rajbiraj and remember dogs, Christmases, and paan. I want to pass along the quieter parts of the East-West Highway, remembering that not all the trees have been cut down yet.

I want to jump off the bus as it pulls into the Birganj bus park with rickshaws swarming about, remembering that in such a place, I can be happy.

I remember Moser’s songs about unrequited love. I remember Andrew’s long hair, which looked awful. I remember Liz being shy, even though we were close, and I guarded one of her secrets—and a hilarious secret at that.

I remember being on Laurel and Kara’s patio, drinking coffee and eating André’s dry biscuits. I remember waking up in Yvette’s living room even before the sun has risen and then making that dusty, cold walk to catch a bus going somewhere.

I remember the apples in Mustang, drinking hot chocolate with Beth in a place she (for some strange reason) thought was nice.

I remember drinking jar at 8 a.m. with my host family in Gaidankot, then telling my language teacher, in Nepali, that I was drunk, which they always thought was a joke since it was 8 a.m. and I was speaking Nepali.

And I remember sinking that damn boat in Fewa Lake, laughing all the while.

I remember the first walk through the Birganj bazaar, not sure if I was in an Indiana Jones or a Mad Max movie, but knowing I was going to be OK.

I remember my first night in Birganj, staying in such a bad hotel that I even surprised myself. I remember being woken numerous times in a shady hotel in Thailand by roaches crawling over my body. And that had become a vacation.

I need to go to Jhapa and see the green, lowland tea fields one more time. I need to stay a night in Rajbiraj one last time, because I didn’t know that my last visit there was going to be my last visit there.

I need one more cold Coke from a wet glass bottle on a hot, sticky day in the Itahari bus park.

I want more foggy mornings spent over coffee and newspapers at Himanchal Cabin in Birganj.

I have to see more smiling faces of eager students—and teachers.

I have to experience everything again, so I can remember.

And yet there’s no time.

Blogging in the Peace Corps

It was the end of December, and I was coming back to Birganj from Rajbiraj. I had celebrated Christmas for a second time in Rajbiraj and was thinking that this would be the last time I would be there, the last time I would make the trip I had made perhaps ten times before.

Last year’s Christmas was, well, difficult. We had the Ghost-of-Boyfriend-Past haunting us as well as the unpleasant work of dealing with the house dog dying of rabies. The mood was somber and the days were foggy. Late night calls were made to Kathmandu and long silences stood for explanations. The dog died the morning I left.

The day after Christmas, the winter fog settled over the East-West Highway north of Rajbiraj.

The day after Christmas, the winter fog settled over the East-West Highway north of Rajbiraj.

This year, however, Rajbiraj was a little more joyous. This was, at least as PCVs, our last Christmas away from home. There were nearly a dozen of us in Rajbiraj this year, and we filled our friends’ deraa, sleeping two to a bed with two on the floor and maybe five or so on the floor of the kitchen.

We bought two chickens, ate them. Tony made his yeast wine that everyone tried, some enjoying more than others. And the night of Christmas, Kara organized a burning program on the roof of the house.

I think I understand a little better now how a lynch mob operates. Once the fire was burning strong, with relics of things best forgotten smoking in the wet, cold night, we ran out of things to burn.

Suddenly a chair was in the fire. I went down to Laurel’s room and found knick knacks to feed the fire. Soon books and clothing found their way in the fire. A moment of clarity is all that saved Kara’s entire catalog of underwear from the blaze.

The actual fire mentioned in this story, garments as indicated.

The actual fire mentioned in this story, garments as indicated.

I was planning on going back to Birganj the day after Christmas, but it turned out that a Maoist bandha has closed the district of Saptari.

Luckily, these things get communicated quickly among the buses going to and fro, and I was saved from spending a night in Simra or Patalayia or in one of the godforsaken towns along the East-West Highway outside of Parsa district, one of the poorer stretches of the East-West Highway, known for little else besides growing problems proportionate to the Maoist one.

But I made it back to Birganj without incident. I have always managed to enjoy using public transportation in Nepal. I think it is the best way to meet people, learn the language, and see this beautiful country.

The ride was uneventful, but I started to look at things a bit more teary-eyed since my days as a PCV were coming to an end. I can’t help but force myself to look at the scenery blurring past in the window and say, The last time, the last time.

Back in Birganj, I was about to leave for Kathmandu the day before New Year’s. According to the Peace Corps policy on vacation, I can’t take vacation during my final three months in country, which means that if I wanted to use those last nine days I had earned, I would have to use them before January 7, 2004.

The Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj, Kathmandu, about two months after opening.

The Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj, Kathmandu, about two months after opening.

So I decided to fly to Kathmandu and spend the New Year’s with friends. I was going to get things right this year. I had succeeded in my Thanksgiving (in Kolkata with the US Consulate) and in Rajbiraj (no breakups or dead puppies), and I was going to get New Year’s right this year.

My previous New Year’s Eve was spent at Luke and Rob’s place in Birganj. The sun hadn’t made an appearance in a week, and the cold, humid air was permeating everything. The fog was beautiful in its way, and I fell in love with the gray Birganj winter just as reluctantly as I had fallen in love with the hellish Birganj summer.

That day, we got pizzas from a Hotel Vishuwa and shared a bottle of wine and whiskey, toasting the New Year with each pour.

I remember at some point in the evening, having to wander through the midnight rain in search of a corkscrew to open the bottle of wine. It was raining and cold but beautiful. The streets were deserted with the feral dogs sleeping in warmer places, and I felt like I was alone, like the city was mine.

Back at Rob and Luke’s, we sat in a circle trying to play one of Luke’s board games, one called Naughty Monkeys, all thinking about what we should have been doing on New Year’s Eve. That was last year.

This year, it was the day before New Year’s Eve, and I was checking my email after visiting a school. I got an email from the Peace Corps’ office saying that I needed to call immediately.

When I called, I was forwarded to talk to to the ‘number two’ in the Peace Corps office, someone with a title like “Senior Training Coordinator.” I thought it was about her upcoming visit to Birganj.

It’s about your blog, she said and my stomach sank, We’re a little concerned about some of the things you’re writing.

I immediately remembered the story of a Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa who had been sent home because of what he had been writing in his personal Web site.

They said that Al-Qaeda could use it to track down Peace Corps volunteers in Samoa, he told me, I told them if Al-Qaeda wanted to find volunteers in Samoa, they could just come ask where the Peace Corps volunteers lived.

He had been shuttled out of the country 72 hours after being contacted.

The finance office In once-new Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj.

The finance office In once-new Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj.

I had three months left in Nepal. I wanted to finish my work and leave knowing that I hadn’t failed in any way. So I agreed, perhaps too quickly, that I would suspend publishing to my Web site until I finished my remaining three months of service.

After that, I could say whatever I wanted, granted it wasn’t libelous, which I’m not worried about since the Peace Corps office wasn’t concerned about the truthful things I was publishing.

Seems that people coming in the soon-to-arrive group of volunteers had been chatting and reading Web blogs of volunteers and were concerned about the security situation.

This phone call had occurred exactly two weeks after I had posted an entry titled Bombs Over Birganj about something like half a dozen bombs in the Birganj area (where I live) and a massive attack by the Maoists on my airport, which was, by most measures, a failed attack.

Two people had called the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC, and said they weren’t coming based on this and other stuff they had read in chat rooms about the situation in Nepal. I was a thorn in the recruiting office’s side.

When I got to Kathmandu, I knew things were going to be different this year. We gathered at the Hotel Ambassador on New Year’s Eve, ordered pizzas, and brought wine bought from a store down the road.

Kathmandu was cold, but the staff at the hotel built us a bonfire in the hotel’s garden. We gathered around the warmth, told stories, met our Nepali friends who happened to be in town.

PCVs using the computers at the Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj.

PCVs using the computers at the Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj.

That’s what made this year different. I wasn’t a solitary bideshi walking through the dirty empty streets of Birganj in search of a corkscrew. I was just a guy with a kaleidoscope of friends enjoying the fleetingness of the moment.

Since Thanksgiving, my days have been filled with lasts. My last impromptu Thanksgiving with curries. My last Christmas with second-hand gifts. My last New Year’s Eve with more than a dozen friends.

Nothing about finishing my Peace Corps service frightens me, except that in leaving Peace Corps, I’m parting ways with some of best people who I have come to call friends.

A week later, during our COS conference in late January, I was rushing around in the computer room trying to get materials arranged and the curriculum printed for a teacher training in Dharan.

Kara was working at a computer, and I went by before I left, since I wouldn’t have time to go out that night and was leaving bright and early the next morning for Biratnagar (and from there, Dharan).

I said, See you later, but for a moment neither of us really knew when later would be.

There was a pause, looking at one another, really, for the first time in two years, uncertain of what would come next.