Category Archives: Peace Corps culture

Peace Corps has an interesting culture of its own, full of slang, binge drinking, and unusual ways of living.

Peace Corps volunteer safety and security

The last thing that I wrote about safety and security got my Web site shut down by the Peace Corps Washington, DC, office.

Perhaps it’s just a coincident that my predictions (or rather, intelligence collected) about the security situation in the Rautahaut, Bara, and Parsa districts have come true, much to the frustration of the Peace Corps Kathmandu office. Not that it matters.

The fact is that we PCVs are ourselves responsible for our safety. How can someone expect someone else to take care of them?

So let me explain the situation.

Since December 19, 2003, when I wrote an post for this blog titled Bombs Over Birganj, there have been around 18 bombs detonated in the Birganj and Kalaiya areas, all by Maoists or Maoist affiliates.

There was also a large attack by ‘several hundred’ Maoists on the airport in Simra (the local airport for Birganj, about 12 km north).

The office where I work, the District Education Office, was bombed on February 18, 2004.

Fortunately, I was not at the office that day. I was in Kathmandu finishing my close-of-service medical checkup.

There had been two bandhas while I was in Kathmandu, so everything took a bit longer than it should have; however, this is the way of Nepal nowadays, and so one must just get used to the on-off tendencies of the country.

One day things are on, the next they’re off.

When I arrived at the Kathmandu airport on February 21, 2003, I checked in at the counter and went into the waiting area past security to wait for my flight.

As soon as I was inside, a friend who works for another airline told me that because of a ‘security problem,’ a previous flight had been unable to land in Simra. He didn’t provide, perhaps because he didn’t know, many details but assured me that my flight would be canceled. I waited.

Ten minutes after my flight was supposed to leave, an announcement over the loudspeaker said that all persons flying to Simra should return to the check-in desks. We were told that the flights to Simra were canceled, as said before, because of a now mysterious security problem.

I had just heard, while in Kathmandu that the DEO had been bombed, so I was a bit nervous. I called the Peace Corps duty officer and asked them to do a little research on the security problem in Simra and get back to me before I rescheduled my flight.

When the duty officer called me back, he told me that there had been a total of eight bombs planted along the runway in Simra. He didn’t know what type of bombs they were, just that the army was in the process of safely defusing/detonating them.

He then suggested that I wait until a few other planes had landed safely in Simra before taking a flight back. I agreed.

So one day later (and after two other planes landed safely), I boarded a plane bound for Simra. The flight was rough and I was wondering if it was the weather or the pilot’s preoccupation with possible land mines on the runway.

Once at the Simra airport, I was present when the Minister of Information (then Kamal Thapa) was arriving. The first person to exit the plane was a fatigued soldier carrying an M-16. And so was the second and then third person, until Kamal Thapa himself emerged.

Even I thought this was strange.

Back in Birganj, I stopped by an airline’s office to talk with a friend working there to see if I could get some answers about what had happened the day before at the Simra airport. They told me that five minutes after their plane had left Kathmandu for Simra, the bombs had been discovered.

The flight time between Kathmandu and Simra is about 15 minutes.

Early on the day I was flying to Simra, I ate some sekuwa near the airport, and then walked my way up to the terminals, which takes about than 10 minutes.

As I was walked to the airport, the army folks were off to the side of the road where usually stand RNA guards. Next to them were three kids, about 13 or 14 years old, standing on their heads with their shoes off. One of the army guys was beating the kids’ bare feet with a rod of some sort.

They waved me by without asking for my ticket or ID, which is the standard procedure. I stopped for a moment and asked what was happening. The army man in charge of beating feet told me that the kids were naughty. I asked why.

Because they don’t have jobs, he informed me, his frustration with the children palpable.

I thought about the kids, Maoists, and bombs at my airport.

About a week ago in Kalaiya, the army murdered two civilians in their homes, and then took their bodies to the jungle where they were buried.

Family and other folks found out about this and went into the jungle, found the buried bodies, dug them up, and marched in the main bazaar in Kalaiya, putting the bodies on display and rallying in front of the army barracks.

The people called a bandha and there was some confrontation with the police and the army, ending with the army lining up and firing blanks at the crowd, injuring 15 people.

This is how you win the people’s support, right?

Since December 2003, there have been two bombs at the army barracks and another at a police station in Kalaiya.

The number of reported cases by Nepali media of the police or army killing civilians in Nepal has been increasing every day. Stories of rape, murder, and extortion are beginning to appear with disappointing regularity in the newspapers.

Three kids were killed in Narayanghat on Maha Shivaratri. A while ago in Hetauda, a bus conductor was shot through the chest and killed by an army man who apologized on the spot, saying he had accidentally aimed the gun and pulled the trigger.

After seeing those army men beating those three kids, I think that the army cannot exist like it does without the Maoists, just as the Maoists couldn’t exist without the army being the way it is.

Somehow I forgot to mention this. Forgetting to mention something like this suggests something about how we all feel here in Nepal: safe.

Yet it is a safety borne out of complacency and a feeling of invincibility that most PCVs here feel. I think that the the thing we overlook is that the people who we are working with here just can’t leave the country if things get too bad.

Anyhow, when I got back from the training in Dharan, I was walking to my flat when I noticed a building about 200 meters from where I live looking quite a bit different.

I though, Oh, this must be getting demolished.

Later I asked a local what was happening with the building and he told me that it had been bombed a few nights ago.

Even tonight I walked by that building. Bricks are strewn about the road in front and the one side of the building is mostly exposed.

It was an empty, government building just sitting in a field—across from the the army barracks in Birganj. Why would the Maoists blow-up an old, abandoned government building that’s across the street from the army barracks?

I guess because they can.

What I did

Somehow we came up with idea over dinner. I had just arrived in Birtamod, Jhapa, to visit Andrew one last time before our lives as PCVs.

I was going to stay for a night, maybe two, before heading back to Birganj.

Anyhow, we were having dinner, and Andrew was talking about the school visits he would be making the next day: a short in-and-out trip to invite two English teachers to an upcoming training.

So wouldn’t it be funny, we thought, if I came along pretending to be one of those know-nothing jocks from Washington, DC, pretending:

  1. to know something about the work that we’d just invented
  2. be aware in the slightest of the surrounding people and their culture

We could mock the worst aspect of Peace Corps to the people whose opinions actually mattered—the Nepalis, who were often victims of seemingly random, surprise visits from people with unclear agendas and even stranger messages to deliver to people with whom they have no direct contact before. Weird.

I had seen it happen just a couple of months before when two Peace Corps suits (essentially ‘from corporate’) rolled up in a white SUV at an agricultural co-op where a PCV was working.

Their backgrounds were not in agriculture. They had no visible interest in the economics of the micro-finance scheme of the NGO. In fact, they were ex-military intelligence.

Strange ambassadors to send to a dirt farm needing development assistance, especially considering their collective credentials from Vietnam and Somalia.

After they asked preliminary questions on how the office was built (my favorite question, With what type of steel reinforcement?) and the location of the toilet (there was no toilet, just a pit latrine), they mostly talked amongst themselves about the chiye they had been served.

Oddly, they both compared it with teas they had had in Vietnam and Somalia, respectively. Which was enlightening.

Anyhow, the locals had sat nearby, uncomfortable with their non-comprehension of the foreigners’ curiosity with the tea.

The Nepalis there been told that they two men in starched white shirts, khakis, and high-gloss burgundy loafers had come to Nepal a few days ago from far away to visit their NGO. And so far they had been asked about concrete, and then mumbled to themselves for 20 minutes about, apparently, the tea.

Then they walked to the white SUV and drove off into the sunset, leaving the volunteer behind to explain what had just happened.

Sadly, terrible behavior by the office types in Peace Corps isn’t limited to dumb Americans, although they usually do it with such skill it is humorous for everyone involved.

If only these bumblings were just cultural misunderstandings, they could be excused. But it is usually logistical and financial intimidation. If they don’t put on a good show, they won’t get a PCV.

If they don’t get a PCV, they won’t have access to the piles of money available through grants and proposals.

Now, we are way up in the Himalayas, far from the hot, oppressive Terai. A friend from my group was posted in small village in Lang Tang National Park in the heart of Rasuwa district, north of Kathmandu and bordering the Chinese province of Tibet.

It is a wonderful place of mellow, accepting people: some indigenous to Nepal, some decedents from Tibetans. All are Buddhists in my friend’s village, and there’s only a single government school, which is where she teaches.

So a couple of the senior staff from Peace Corps (who happen to be Nepali) show up in her village to assess the situation. She has but a few months left in her village before her time as a PCV comes to an end.

The staffers are her program officer, a woman, and a training officer, a man. Upon arriving, the two check into the one hotel in the village, which they find awful. They begin complaining to the sole proprietor of the sole hotel in the little village about the hotel’s lack of rooms with joined bathrooms.

Actually, the village is little more than a overnight stop for trekkers heading up, up, up to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Probably a rare occasion to hear the phrase ‘attached bathroom’ spoken in Nepali.

But they’re not done. Much to the PCV‘s horror, during dinner, the duo ask the proprietor for meat with their meal. The guy says that meat isn’t available and heads back into the kitchen.

The PCV is crawling in her skin and explains that most all Buddhists in her village don’t eat meat. She’s lived there for 24 months without meat.

Nonsense, the woman says, I saw chickens out front. Then the PCV has to explain that chickens also lay eggs.

When the proprietor comes back from the kitchen, they ask him again for meat, mentioning the chickens.

They’re for the trekkers. Although I’m a Buddhist, I’ll prepare eggs. The woman is spurred by this and starts negotiating how much it will cost her to pay him to kill a chicken.

Of course, they didn’t get any meat. All they had done was attempt to bribe a person into abandoning religious beliefs for money. And meat. The volunteer was so mortified that she spent the next day apologizing for her office’s thulo manches.

Touching lives, making a difference.

Our plan was for me to wear Andrew’s pin-stripped suit, a Nepali >topi, and act like a total ass.

A few rules: I couldn’t speak Nepali and would have to pretend like I was from Mars and be totally baffled by everything. Yet I would have to press them for certain pointless information and ask them to complete specific pointless tasks in my absence.

We showed up at the school in a white car that we had rented for effect. We had the driver pass through the gate and right up to the office’s front door.

The driver, convinced by a test dialogue Andrew and I had run through during the drive, got out and opened my door for me. I then walked directly into the office and began loudly introducing myself to the faculty who were waiting together before the school day began and exams were handed out.

Hello, I am from Aaaaahmeriii-cah, I said in my best moron-from-Washington voice and then, commanding Andrew, shouted, Translate! The faculty then gave their introductions.

I listened and then began asking them random statistical information, like how many 14 year olds were currently attending the school. It’s the age when children learn the best, I told them, Get ’em when they’re 14, and it’s all over—translate!

Andrew was trying to translate, but the sight of me looking so out of place and acting like such a fool was too much for him and he started laughing, quietly to himself.

His counterpart came over to ask him a question while I was discussing dental health with the headsir, putting his hands around Andrew in an unexceptional display of affection.

I turned to him, We don’t do this in America, I said, looking as dumb as I sounded, And I find it . . . disturbing.

I realized that I was losing steam and asked the headsir if I could address the entire student body, but he told me that because of exams, only a few classes were present.

That’ll be sufficient, I said, because I need to share some things about dental health.

I then asked the faculty what they thought was more important, learning English or dental health.

They talked amongst themselves and then told me in unison, Both are important.

Fine. I then walked out of the office and wandered around the school, pointing at students and shouting, Is this a student, Andrew?

Once the students were assembled, I produced a whistle I had taken from Andrew’s and blew it as loud as I could. I had them.

Out of another pocket, I took out some floss that I had grabbed it as we left Andrew’s, thinking a prop or two might come in handy. I asked the students, What is this?

No one knew so I told them it was floss, yelled at Andrew to translate, and began giving a demonstration of how to use it in front of the 8th and 9th graders, who were assembled outside.

A girl raised her hand and asked (in Nepali), Is this available here?

I said something and Andrew translated, Probably not.

I then asked the students if they enjoyed learning English and of course they said yes.

And how can you speak English, I was really being ridiculous, without a nice smile?

I then asked the kids how to take care of their teeth.

Brushing, they responded in unison.

I then asked some other ways. A hush fell upon them and no one said anything for about half a minute, until a small boy in the back of a line said, Exercise?

Exactly! I told them, glad that the kid had given me something else to ramble on about, Mouth exercises!

I then went through the three mouth exercises I invented on the spot, the big O, the sidewinder, and the cat’s meow. I’ll let you imagine what these were.

I had the kids going through the exercises when the headsir came up to me, It is time to begin the exams.

I concluded by telling those present that I would come back in five years. If they hadn’t taken care of their teeth, I would remove them—forcibly, Translate!

A girl raised her hand and mentioned that they wouldn’t be at this school in five years. Good point. So I took their names and told them that I would track them down. This seemed to make them happy.

The faculty hadn’t bought my act, though, and I think that’s a good thing.

Next time when a white Peace Corps SUV rolls up in the school grounds, drives right up to the office, and some hack with absolutely nothing important or significant to share with the faculty marches into the office, maybe they will have a broader context to understand the significance of such things.

One last note.

As Andrew and I were leaving, we noticed two teachers. One was Andrew’s counterpart, mouth wide open, and the other was the headsir.

The headsir hand a length of floss in his hand and was carefully flossing the other teacher’s teeth.

Touching lives, making a difference.

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.

Still learning

Things should be simpler. If people can travel to another hemisphere, learn a somewhat obscure second language, eat with their hands, and grow comfortable with the sounds of bombs and gunfire, then surely organizing and executing a basic teacher training with motivated teachers in a scenic location shouldn’t be a problem.

Piece of cake. Kid stuff. I had done it before, in Nepalgunj (not even a scenic location), and it was a success.

But things are not getting simpler in Nepal. The bombs are creeping closer, and people are growing uneasy with the developing situation. The police seem less restrained, and, as most people are slowly realizing in the Terai, the Maoists are wielding more power than most of us thought possible.

Swimming and drinking during an overnight evacuation drill at Hotel Vishuwa.

Swimming and drinking during an overnight evacuation drill at Hotel Vishuwa.

Less than a month, ago I was met some ICRC (Red Cross) folks in Birganj. We chatted a bit and started talking about security and the Maoists. Without thinking, I told them that there wasn’t much of a Maoist presence in Birganj.

Actually, he told me, There are many more Maoists here than you think.

And we left it at that.

Seven of us had been invited to go to the US Consulate in Kolkata for Thanksgiving, which we all eagerly accepted. About a week before Thanksgiving, we were to meet out east in Nepal though there was trouble.

The PST in Butwol had to be moved elsewhere because of the sudden realization that the security in the area might not have been at the levels necessary.

Peace Corps pulled volunteers out of two districts, Palpa and Rupandehi, and put everyone on alert not to leave their sites in case . . . in case of . . . something.

Luckily, we had approval to leave Nepal and travel to Kolkata for Thanksgiving. For that, we were thankful. But there was a condition on which travel permissions had been granted.

Peace Corps required us to acknowledge in writing that there was a chance, A small chance they told us, that we might not be allowed to return to Nepal if something happens.

None of us knew exactly what they meant by ‘something,’ and none of us asked. We left.

We stayed in touch with the office while in India, and we arrived back in Nepal as if everything was normal. Even though it was never said explicitly, we knew that the office had made our trip conditional because, in fact, there was a chance that the program could be suspended, and Peace Corps volunteers evacuated from Nepal.

It was obvious. We called to the office, talked to the receptionist about the weather, and strolled back into Nepal tossing our Thanksgiving football around.

I had made plans with another volunteer in Dharan to hold a training for the teachers of the government school where she’d been doing some extra circulatory stuff, like conversation English.

They had asked for help, and I had volunteered. I am a volunteer, after all. I wrote up a proposal for the Peace Corps office, and everything had been approved. I wrote the lesson plans for the training, and was all set after Thanksgiving. But it wasn’t that simple.

After being back in Nepal just a few days, the Maoists had announced a couple bandhas. One called for a education strike that would happen during the middle of my planned training.

Not a problem, I thought, just a single day.

I thought we’d be able to either move the training up, cut a day, or just add a day to the end. After spending a couple nights in Birtamod, I made my way to Dharan to meet with Jen, my counterpart for the training.

The training’s been cancelled, she said when I met her in Dharan.

At least in Dharan the single-day education bandha had turned into a two-day education bandha immediately followed by a third day everything bandha.

It wasn’t going to happen. Also, I had to hurry up and make my way back to Birganj before the third day of the strikes otherwise I might end up stranded somewhere in between while traveling.

I had to call a friend in another Terai town who was going to help with the training before he left his site for Dharan. When I finally talked to him, he told me that the night before there had been a bomb at a private school about 50 m from another volunteer’s house in his town.

They were walking home together at about 6:30 p.m. when it exploded.

I felt it in my stomach, he told me.

I left Dharan more with the intention of getting back to Birganj before admin did something rash. Yet I don’t believe they would. I remember during my PST, there was the occasional breakfast chat about waking up to gunfire or an explosion.

I’ve since held to my conviction that Peace Corps/Nepal will never pull out of Nepal. Just a couple days after getting back into Nepal, a PCV on his way up to visit the last volunteer remaining in Ilam told us about cycling around the Kathmandu Valley and watching the Royal Nepal Army fire RPGs from one distant hill to the other side.

Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

We tell these stories and we laugh. We laugh at either the coincidence or irony or whatever it is (we can’t tell because we’ve had a couple beers) that a PCV ate dinner one night while watching the neighbor’s house burn down at the hands of Maoists or, remember that one time, about how teacher told a PCV that neighborhood Maoists had asked the teacher’s permission/opinion for kidnapping him. And that one time when the police shot Ryan’s host brother near the house.

We are not desensitized. We are not complacent. We are resolved. We stand fast.

After the bombing near my friends’ house, Peace Corps sent one of the senior staff to go and check out the situation.

The PCV living nearby went with the staff member, and after looking at the school and talking to a few people, he turned to the PCV and said, Well, saathi, they can put bombs in pumpkins, dead dogs, and under the ground. So be careful, hoina, and patted her on the shoulder, making everything OK again.

These are not the droids you’re looking for.

The training has been rescheduled for January, after our All-Vol in the middle of the month.

Honestly, I think we are safe enough to be here. Today. Tomorrow. And probably the day after.

After that, though, my Magic 8 Ball says, Future unclear. Check back later.