Category Archives: Birganj

Located on the Nepal-India border, Birganj (also Birgunj) is a quintessential Terai town and where I spent my Peace Corps experience.

Last words from Birganj

It’s early still, but the warmth of my bedroom wakes me not long after the sun has risen. I roll out of bed, walk over to the kitchen, and begin making coffee. I turn on my shortwave to the BBC and listen as I pour my coffee, stopping to rub the sleep out of my eyes.

As I sip, I look through my window to the wreckage of the abandoned dry port of Nepal. I can hear someone singing in a temple through a loudspeaker. The sites and the sounds make this place beautiful.

This is my last day in Birganj.

Moments later, I’m at Himanchal Cabin, looking over the Kathmandu Post and Himalayan Times with yet another cup of coffee and eggs and toast on the way.

With the kids working here, I joke and answer questions about the photos in the papers. They know me and sit at my table when they have downtime. I have known many of them for more than a year, a few for more than two.

After breakfast, I walk across Maisthan past the newspaper man who waves to me from his shop. I wave back.

Further down the block, there is a man who sits on his patio with a radio held to his ear. I have seen him nearly everyday since I coming to Birganj. His hair is now shoulder length.

I have never met him or spoke to him, but every time we see one another we mouth, Namaste.

I turn west for one block, and then south one more block to the Internet cafe. As soon as I walk in, the young computer nerd turns on a computer and I wait for it to boot.

After a moment, I log on and read my emails. The keyboard totters and bangs loudly on the uneven desk as I type. I send a few emails and then sign-off. I’m there for just 15, 20 minutes.

Outside, I jump on a rickshaw and head back north past Maisthan, the clock tower, and my neighborhood, Ranighat, towards the water tank area, Murli Gardens, my previous neighborhood.

I get off in front of my first flat and immediately notice that nothing looks different, except that someone else’s laundry hangs from my balcony. This is me. I am coming, I am going.

Rajesh and his family make lunch, Nepali daal bhat, and we sit together, eating lunch and drinking whiskey, perhaps a bit early. This is a goodbye I knew would be hard. I have a little whiskey and realize all those misunderstandings were my misunderstanding.

A flood of memories pours over me, and I feel shame thinking of their patience and friendliness towards me. All I do, though, is compliment the food and ask for another drink, smiling.

Two hours are gone and, as I walk back towards the main road, I stop at Mira’s for tea and a scolding. It has been nearly a week since my last visit, a period of absence that they find entirely unacceptable, and I smile as they hassle me. Still smiling, I ask for a biscuit with my tea. They tell me not to leave. They say I will forget them.

Mira, who gave me bhai tikka, I won’t forget you.

I know that in small ways, I will remember them, but I will probably never see them again.

They opened their home to me. I feel that my friendship and occasional gifts were completely inadequate, so I almost wish they would hassle me more. They don’t. They just give me more tea.

After I finish prolonged goodbyes, I walk to Ashish’s. He lives where a British VSO once lived. She was a friend and showed me much of Birganj.

Now Ashish lives in her flat. I think about my flat and the Australian who lived there before me. I wonder if this cyclical nature of volunteers coming, working, and leaving is good. We fly in, from far away places, try our best to improve things, and then leave just as suddenly as we came. Again and again.

There are already several volunteers from out of town at Ashish’s for the big farewell party. Oh, and St. Patrick’s Day.

There’s green Carlsberg beer ready and water buffalo meat cooking. Just after dark, the music gets louder and the dancing begins. This has happened so many times that I can’t help but be sad to know that this, again, is a last.

Before it’s too late, I walk alone back to my flat. The streets are empty and the houses are dark. I notice (as I always have) how the fluorescent lights hanging as along the way eerily illuminate the crumbling streets and gloomy homes.

It’s beautiful. I walk across the abandoned dry port, past a building that was bombed by Maoists, arrive in Ranighat and finally home.

As soon as I walk in, I notice my packed bag sitting in the kitchen, waiting for tomorrow’s departure. I can’t sleep, so I go to the roof to look over sleeping Ranighat.

I can’t look in any direction without remembering encounters with people, street food I ate, places I went and others I didn’t, the houses of kids I knew. They will not see me again, and soon I won’t remember many of them.

The next morning, I get in a jeep headed to the airport. After a few moments, we are outside of Birganj and passing through places like Parwanipur, Jitpur, and finally Simra.

This may or may not have happened.

I may not see the clock tower and think, This is a last. I may not notice the Bollywood movie posters that used to catch my eye.

This part of my life is over (or rather ending very soon), and I will never live again in this city full of contradictions—and that makes me sad. Very.

But a new chapter in my life is opening, and I’m turning the page, anxious for a new beginning.

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.

Characters, part 2

Previously I wrote about some of the odd people I’d met in Jhapa district, namely Sunjay the Islamic Extremists and a child named Time Pass.

I’d now like to write about some of the odd Birganj-wallahs that have crossed my path since coming to this town. These folks are recurring points of conversation with my other Birganj friends.

Here are some of my favorites.

Burning Man

He was the first blatantly mentally troubled person I crossed paths with in Birganj. He’s hard to miss. He always wears shorts, the ones with the fake dollar bill sewn onto a pocket, and has a stripped polo shirt that is, oddly, moderately clean.

Sometimes, fires must be lit.

Sometimes, fires must be lit.

He’s the guy who digs in the garbage and takes out the things that other people throw away. Like pieces of cardboard or posterboard.

What he does then is take some charcoal from a nearby garbage fire that’s cooled and draws some sort of symmetrical design on it. I’ve seen one and it looked like arrangements of the crop circles people in the US are familiar with.

Come to your own conclusions. He draws and scribbles and draws and erases and finally produces something of an odd design. He then produces and cigarette, which he smokes with much satisfaction, as he burns his drawing the street. And the moves on.

One time I asked a local from Birganj, a friend, what the guy’s story was.

Oh, him? He is crazy, he told me while twirling his finger around his ear to further drive the point.

No one seems to know anything about him. I’ve never seen him going into the local shops asking for money. Instead I see him sitting quite quietly outside of the Ganesh temple doing a whole lot of nothing.

And then he’s off . . . to burn something.

Burning Man is really the quintessential lunatic. He’s non-violent and does things that are interesting but that don’t in any way disturb others. Contrary to what you may think, setting fires street-side downtown is not odd.

I’ve never seen Burning Man yell or scream or make any sudden movements. I’ve occasionally caught him sitting outside of the shops that sell TVs watching whatever happens to be broadcasting, but no one seems to mind. Or notice. Or care.

What I’ve learned from Burning Man is that Birganj is like the Phoenix. It is rising from the ashes of the fire consuming it. During the monsoon it does feel like the place is on fire.

And with so much sun baking my brain, Burning Man’s antics seem a lot more . . . significant. He constantly smokes cigarettes, too, just to burn something, I imagine.

Screaming Man

The anti-Burning Man character of Birganj is Screaming Man. Screaming Man is violent and very, very threatening. But not in a dangerous way, if that makes sense.

His presence is unnerving, yet inviting because he is so completely unaware of a world outside of him. He’s gotten his name because, well, he screams a lot. He also collects sticks that he carries with him.

Birganj main street alive with people.

Birganj main street alive with people.

Once there was a small program including a debate-off being held downtown on sanitation and a community’s responsibilities. The boring speeches had finished and the debates had begun.

The debaters were all students from local schools, both private and public. A girl won from one of my feeder schools. I was pleased. Anyhow, while the students were debating I did a little walking around to take some photographs.

At the other end of the platform where the students were speaking, Screaming Man was there. He was also wearing the new Birganj youth club T-shirt. God knows how he got that.

Anyhow, he was standing there, facing the debaters and screaming and screaming and screaming and having a bundle of sticks and screaming.

There was the girl, berating the audience about their duty not to throw trash in the street, and there was Screaming Man, wearing the damn YCC T-shirt, yelling about the color green.

The first time I met Screaming Man was quite, well, personal. I had just walked outside of Himanchal Cabin when I came face-to-face with Screaming Man. He was screaming. He was also wearing one of those short lungees, which he lifted up to expose himself.

He then began wagging his penis around with his hands on his hips as if he was doing something resembling the jitterbug. He’d placed his bundle of sticks on the ground next to him.

Birganj, all of it.

Birganj, all of it.

And then one time I saw him standing in the middle of Ghantaghar. He was screaming. He had a bundle of sticks. He was standing with a bundle of sticks and screaming in the busiest intersection in town.

A rickshaw was trying to ply the traffic when he bumped Screaming Man, who, if he not already been screaming, would have started.

Actually what he did was stop screaming and grab on of his sticks out of his bundle. He took three steps back and then suddenly lunged forward throwing the stick javelin-style at the rickshaw wallah.

His aim was true and the stick struck the rickshaw driver in the middle of his back, which seemed quite painful, because the rickshaw wallah then fell of his rickshaw and writhed around on the ground for a bit.

Screaming Man began screaming.

The Master

The Master is extraordinary. A dumb thing to say, but still, there are too few superlatives that I can use with a man with as much skill, poise, and incomprehensibility as The Master. Besides just calling him ‘The Master.’

The clocktower lit up one night in Birganj.

The clocktower lit up one night in Birganj.

The Master is a barber. No. That’s not right. That’s not enough. The Master is an artist. Wait. Not enough. The Master is a genius. Not right. It’s an insult to the man, to the man who takes an hour and a half to give a normal shave and trim to a guy like me.

Most barbers can sit you down, give you a shave, trim your eyebrows, and pummel your head and shoulders (usually referred to as a ‘massage’) within 20 minutes. The Master takes just under two hours.

Knowledge of The Master was given to me by Luke Shors, who is dead.

(He’s not really dead but when he left Birganj in April 2002, we began using past tenses when speaking of him that suggested he had died. Luke would have liked that, I told Ashish one time, seeing a star chart he’d found at the Peace Corps library. Yeah, I know, but he’s in a better place now, Ashish said, comforting me.)

Anyhow, dead Luke Shors once told me of The Master. I went. I saw. The Master’s hands touched my face and afterwards, somehow, I was a better person.

His razor graced my face with the precision of a stealth bomber’s sub-atomic warhead gracefully wafting through the window of a family’s mud hut in Afghanistan. It was so astounding that it was frightening.

Suddenly, Birganj didn’t seem so bad.

This hell of a city had given me something wonderful. The beauty of it made me compose haiku and even reconsider ugly, like the pigs near my house feasting on the semi-decomposed carcass of a street dog. Its wonderment made me write a haiku after seeing the family of pigs feasting on that semi-decomposed street dog carcass:

   This little piggy
     finally had a hot breakfast—
       of some dead street dog
   Snap crackle and pop,
     its pungent carcass eyeless
       yet looking at me.

If The Master started a cult I would join—just for the shaves. If you’ve never had an elderly Nepali man shave you, at that a shave that takes one and a half hours, then you have no idea what I’m talking about.

For the sake of science, I will explain, in order, exactly what happens when you go for an appointment with The Master:

  1. You approach the door and The Master looks at you, silently
  2. The Master tells you where to sit (You cannot sit before this since there are six chairs and you just don’t know which one)
  3. The Master remains seated, watching 1960s Hindi movies on a black and white TV that you helped pay for (You pay 50% more than others)
  4. The Master takes a sheet, which he begins wildly whipping (You didn’t expect such virility and strength in The Master since he looks over 60, but he is wearing a muscle T-shirt)
  5. The Master puts the sheet over you, tucks in your collar, which takes 10 minutes to perfect He pauses, watching the commercials
  6. The Master then collects a variety of odd, steel instruments (You do not question)
  7. As if he is also a ninja master, suddenly he grabs your head from behind and slams it against the headrest of the chair, nearly decapitating you (Yet you are still relaxed, maybe from the incense, maybe from the half-naked pin-up of Hindi star that you are now gazing at)
  8. The Master looks you in the eyes and further into your soul, but only through the mirror you face, of course
  9. He asks you, Everything good? (You have been there 20 minutes thusfar)
  10. You answer, Everything’s good
  11. He then takes a handful of water into his palm and slaps you across the face, which turns into something of a massage
  12. He takes the brush and lotion and begins lathering your face
  13. He stops and walks outside, spitting up what sounds to be the largest throatal phlegm known to man
  14. He finishes lathering—Again, he looks into your soul and ask, What do you want?
  15. And as if he was a lumberjack, he chops at your face with the razor, gauging perfect pressure and angle (You know he is The Master; you do not worry that he may be drunk)
  16. Tea arrives and everything pauses
  17. He finishes shaving you, including trimming around the backsides of your ears and around the back of your neck
  18. More water, more beating about the face (You must tolerate this, it is purifying you)
  19. The then produces a polished rock, somewhat coarse, that he rubs aggressively into your face, which hurts
  20. He stops, goes outsides and spits again
  21. The Master returns reinvigorated and maliciously rubs many balms, creams, and lotions with high amounts of alcohol that scortches your skin inside out
  22. Your face is burning as if it has been dunked in sulfuric acid, yet you are still being Zen
  23. The Master beings the head massage, which, let’s face it, consists of being punching in the back of the head
  24. You remind yourself for the hundredth time to say, Shave, no massage
  25. The Master takes his scissors and comb and begins trimming your facial hair, which is a meticulous process
  26. You watch in the mirror as he singles out hairs, considers each, then trims accordingly
  27. He finishes trimming and takes the sheet off you and outside, which he whips wildly
  28. More water, another slap, something like a massage
  29. He reexamines your face, uses the razor to touch up
  30. More balms, lotions, tonics, and some baby powder
  31. The Master then takes a towel and wraps it completely around your head and begins drying you off (You consider this is what it would feel like if your head was chopped off and put into a dryer)
  32. The Master combs your hair and asks you again, Everything good?

Honestly, I haven’t been back to The Master in months. While his shaves are extraordinary—unlike any other shave I’ve gotten in Nepal—the other places are, well, gentler.

And these days in Nepal we could all use a little gentleness.

Burning candles, Tihar

I remember where I was last Tihar, a year ago. A year ago? A year ago I’d gone to Kathmandu to hang out at the Spice deraa, my old co-owned flat in Kathmandu, with some of the folks there.

Pardon me while I wax nostalgic, but a year ago I was living in a different house in Birganj and I had another flat in Kathmandu. Now I’m squatting with an Australian working with a Birganj NGO and Peace Corps kicked us out of our places in Kathmandu.

I’ve since become a fixture at the Hotel Ambassador and Kate’s kitchen.

Tihar candles on my balcony at the flat in Raniganj.

Tihar candles on my balcony at the flat in Raniganj.

This year I was staying in Birganj. All the other PCVs had left during the holiday, just as I had done a year ago, and I was half looking forward to settling back into a rut in Birganj after not having been here continually for very long.

Since returning from the US I’d only manage to spend around 10 days, maybe two weeks, continually in town before leaving. Since getting back from the States I’d been to Kathmandu (of course), Pokhara, Hile, Ilam, Karkarbhitta, and Rajbiraj. And then back to Kathmandu.

I had been feeling somewhat lost of late. Like not sure where I was going with work or whether or not I was actually welcome in Nepal. Just before Tihar the Maoists had sent a notice to the newspapers and government that it was making steps to change its policies.

No longer would they be targeting infrastructure or low-level personnel of the army and police. Instead, they’d be targeting US imperialists. Or those associated and funded by US imperialists. Or who knows what this means.

Even during training when we could hear the crackle of gunfire in the distance as we ate daal bhaat we knew that we were safe. Really.

And even when the police (or was it the Maoists?) came and kidnapped a trainee’s host-brother, tied him to the back of motorcycle and drove off into the Chitwan jungle, we felt safe.

Even when the Maoists (apparently, it might have as easily of been the police) came and burned down a trainee’s neighbor’s house by cover of darkness, we felt safe. But this is different. This could be personal.

Mira knits at her tea stand in Murli Gardens, Birganj.

Mira knits at her tea stand in Murli Gardens, Birganj.

Sadly, the only way to gauge to what extent of danger there is we must wait and see. It’s a gamble. It’s (pardon the metaphor) like playing Russian roulette. In Birganj I’ll be fine. I’ve got bigger considerations, like my new landlord.

He’s a weaselly man that I don’t trust farther than I can throw him. One morning the family came knocking on my door to ask if I’d left my phone off the hook. While I don’t usually use it at all, the miserly bastard decided to disconnect my phone and then lie to me to my face about it.

He said he had three phone lines in his house and mine was ‘disturbed.’ It was such an out-and-out lie that I couldn’t even call him on it. It wouldn’t have mattered.

And the same morning I’d received a phone call on the disturbed phone line (in his house), did I get a visit from my old landlord, an equally niggardly man.

He’d been sitting in my living room telling my friend how I owed him money for a phone bill I’d forgotten to pay before I left.

While true enough, it was a minor amount of money and our understanding that such outstanding bills would be considered paid in full as I’d given him my old bed and another previous PCV‘s bed, both worth far more than the phone bill.

I’d also agreed to leave him my gas cylinder as well as a fan, a bookshelf, a couple chairs, et cetera. And here he was, sitting in my living room, moaning about money and complaining about my tea.

For some reason, I wasn’t feeling terribly welcome in Birganj—or even Nepal.

When Tihar began, though, things took a turn for the better. My bastard of a landlord’s younger brother asked me over to his place for dinner. My first landlord, perhaps the only honest man in this town, also asked me over. And so did Mira, my local tea stand operator.

I decided to go to Mira’s and then finish off the evening at my neighbor’s (the nice one, the younger brother) in a hope create some ties with the better half of the family. In the manner of Tihar we’d lit some candles and decorated the front door with a malla.

At Mira’s we ate and talked, but we couldn’t stay long because we had to run back to my place. We had some puri sabji and ate some sweets, looked at photos, and were the first people that Mira’s younger sister, Asha, and friends played their dialo for.

Soon, though, we left in a hurry to get back to my place. As we were ascending the stairway the Indian family living below me quickly came out to ask if I’d take some photos for them of their children.

I complied and soon I was burning nearly an entire roll of film of kids touching this idol, that idol, in this room, in that room. The film wasn’t a problem, but I was late.

The family asked if I’d go to the roof with them and set off some firecrackers, also a Tihar tradition. I was beaten and said, Sure.

On the roof the father began lighting off some sparklers and what not.

Fireworks on the roof of the apartment with the downstairs neighbors.

Fireworks on the roof of the apartment with the downstairs neighbors.

Soon, though, he had a sparkler in each hand and was lighting roman candles that he’d propped up on the side of the house. I felt like I was in Baghdad. I ducked under a fountain sprayer sparks across the roof and bid my farewell, promising prints in the future.

When I finally got to my neighbor’s house the food was on the table and they were waiting for me. I was more than daunted when I saw the family was expecting me to eat an small mountain of daal bhaat. They were smiling and asking me to sit, eat.

So I did. I guess I should say I tried since there was no way I could eat all of the food without vomiting and even thought I might do that halfway through the plate.

Finally I apologized and said I couldn’t eat any more. We chatted for a while, but soon it was the family’s bedtime and I thanked them again and left.

As I walked around the balcony back to my place I noticed that the candles I’d put out had gone out. Even though it was still a bit windy I went ahead and lit the candles again. The bad man’s daughter came by and said I should position my candles closer together.

I told her I had about thirty left in my room and would do so the next night, the second night of Tihar. In my room I sat on my bed and listened to my stomach complain about the food to me. After a moment I decided to turn off the light and sleep off my stomach cramps.

A moment later I heard the stingy man’s wife and daughter talking outside of my window.

The candles have all gone out, the mother said.

The American inside, the girl replied, He says he has many more.

I hope I do. I hope I can make these days last longer.