Category Archives: Teacher training

My primary goal for my second year of service training primary-level English teachers in curriculum and pedagogy.

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.

Closing ceremonies

I was in Birtamod just after the Thanksgiving trip to Kolkata. I was having lunch with two guys from the Peace Corps office in Washington, DC. They were security.

On guy told me that he had been doing, well, military intelligence in Somalia for a several years before retiring and coming to work for the Peace Corps. He told me that when Peace Corps has had to evacuate its volunteers from a country, it’s usually because of families calling the office. Or a senator.

The other guy had done similar work for the armed forces, but some time ago and in Vietnam. We asked him to talk more about what he did.

Counter intelligence, he said as if that was a complete explanation.

I wondered if he was joking, So you spent a lot of time behind a counter, eh?

No laugh.

It was convenient that they had come, because after their night in Birtamod, they were heading west and north to Dharan, where I was to give a teacher training to a government school faculty.

Jen talks with Sunil, her counterpart at the Dharan nagar palika.

Jen talks with Sunil, her counterpart at the Dharan nagar palika.

I was helping out another volunteer from my group, Jen, who was working in youth development but found time to teach English classes at this school and who wanted some help developing the skills of its teachers.

(The teachers in Birganj had clearly expressed their disinterest in what I had to offer, or at least doing those things, so I thought a change of venue might be good; though I was worried.)

I thought, If this training sucks and if the teachers fall asleep of if another student vomits while I’m teaching, then I have to start being critical—maybe it’s me.

I was going to use this training to evaluate myself for better or worse. It was the placebo.

When the Washington folks dropped me in Dharan, I quickly found out that the lovely ANNISU-R had called a bandha for three days—exactly when I had scheduled my training.

A view from the north hills across Dharan.

A view from the north hills across Dharan.

When I met with Jen later that day, we immediately walked over to the school to see what we could do. The headsir told us that he was planning on asking students to come to class on Saturday so they could finish their exams, and meant there wouldn’t be time left for the training.

So we rescheduled. I left the day before the bandha and got to Birganj safely. I sat around my flat for those three days with not much to do, wondering exactly when I’d be working again.

Fast forward a month later. Our yearly All-Vol conference had just finished in the middle of January, and I’d been asked by my program officer to go up to the N/196 group PST to help facilitate sessions with the teacher trainers in Godavari, just outside of Kathmandu. I looked at a calendar and noticed something that didn’t make me happy

Date Agenda
Jan 22, 2004 Fly to Biratnagar; catch bus to Dharan
Jan 23, 2004 First day of training
Jan 28, 2004 Last day of training

This was troubling. I realized that the materials and the curriculum that I had prepared for the first and later rescheduled training were in Birganj. And I realized this on January 21, 2004.

I was up in Godavari and wouldn’t be getting back to Kathmandu until the night of January 22, 2004.

What in the hell was I thinking? I was going to have to conjure up a curriculum as well as the necessary materials in the few free hours I wasn’t traveling in the few days left before the training.

As soon as I got into Kathmandu, I went straight to the office, printed the curriculum I had written in Godavari and ran back to drop off my stuff.

I ate, packed my bags, and passed out. The next morning was January 22, 2004, and I had a early flight to the airport. When I finally opened the door, I was somewhat pleased that it was foggy.

If I’m late and it’s beyond my control, then I’m safe.

My flight left moments after reaching the airport.

Scott, your author, and Tony (left to right) giving instruction to the faculty.

Scott, your author, and Tony (left to right) giving instruction to the faculty.

Once we reached Dharan, I bought the supplies I’d need for the training and then tried to call Tony, who had been planning on helping me facilitate the training.

I got a hold of him and we made plans to meet the next day. The first two days were for all the school’s teachers and would have to be done in Nepali. The other days were for the English teachers in the area cluster.

I had to get in touch with the resource person. I had to find a pocket chart. I had to make flash cards. I had to revise the curriculum. I had to make a games/songs packet to distribute. I had to figure out how to speak Nepali. I had a few hours.

The next two days went well. I worked with the faculty to create rules and consequences to use school-wide as a method of classroom management and positive reinforcement, but it was tough.

I was trying to explain why each rule needs a logical consequence. I asked, What’s a logical consequence if a student is late?

Renu Miss, a bombastic Newari woman who had hugged me when I asked her in Newari, Bala du?, had answered the original question, Beat the student?

Students assemble at school on the day of Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

Students assemble at school on the day of Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

I tried to work through her answer, trying to illustrate through other examples of a rule with a logical consequence (several of the teachers were right on, coming up with some great stuff).

Then asked her if she thought a beating was a logical consequence or if it positively reinforced the rule

Well then, utpas, someone offered.

Utpas are up-and-down exercises that kids do while holding their ears.

So I didn’t quite reach everyone, but school and class rules were made and the faculty eagerly discussed making banners and posting signs in each classrooms.

One teacher, also a little hesitant in being so explicit with the students queried the other teachers, asked How about we give them the rules, but keep the consequences secret?

Once again, I realized hadn’t explained it as well as I should have. The language was an obstacle.

A student gives another tikka during Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

A student gives another tikka during Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

In the end, the rules were made and the teachers as a whole were excited. After the final (second) day of the training, everyone was complementary on the evaluation.

I felt like I had done something good. That the students were suddenly going to understand exactly what teachers were expecting from them and vice versa. That made me feel good.

When the English training sessions started, I felt relived, since Tony knows English education backwards and forwards, and I would be able to relax for a while.

Tony really commanded the majority of the English training, and I just popped up between segments to provide an activity that the teachers could use in class. My favorite was something that Trey and Tony had developed called ‘paragraph sandwich.’

It was basically a formulaic approach of brainstorming vocabulary and then fitting it into a modeled descriptive paragraph.

Jen was made an official assistant teacher to Tony and I during the training.

Jen was made an official assistant teacher to Tony and I during the training.

I thought the teachers could use it for their 4th and 5th grade classes, but after running through the demo and writing a paragraph as a group, most thought it would work well for higher secondary level.

They offered their concerns, which I thought I addressed well—but still, I couldn’t sure.

On the last day of the training, two teachers, Krishna and Hari Sir, approached me just before we started the last session. Krishna had actually been a student of Hari Sir’s years ago at that very school in Dharan.

They told me that they had tried the sandwich paragraph in a 9th grade class, and it had been a success.

The idea of collaborating, together, a teacher and his former student, trying an activity that I had modeled for them, just blew my mind. Usually the stigma between teacher and student is . . . well, prohibitive of such activities.

Imagining those two teaching a class together, trying new techniques and basically working to become better teachers—together—just overwhelmed me.

At the end of the training, when the teachers presented Tony and I with ties (quite nice, actually) as tokens of their appreciation, I felt like I had somehow found the right people, done the right things, and had actually made a difference.

And it was the first time in two years.

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.

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.

Small world after all

For the past two weeks I’ve started becoming rather familiar with the underground world of primary schools in Birganj.

For the next year I’ll be working with primary English teachers, helping them to develop their teaching and English skills. At the moment this requires lots of visits to my cluster of schools, roughly 26 in the urban parts of Birganj.

So far it’s been a tour of the bizarre. I’m not seeing things through a cracked looking-glass, but through one that’s so old the glass is beginning to run. The schools really aren’t that old.

I think the oldest is around 42 years old. But Birganj is not a gentle place and the schools are beginning to show their ages. At one school, I saw a classroom that had collapsed into the sewer below.

But it’s really the people who have made the school visits interesting. With three trips to the training site, three weeks in India, a week in Kathmandu for a workshop, and all the travel time in between, I really hadn’t been in Birganj for more than a few days straight for almost two months.

One day back when I was sitting and having tea and talking with the tea didi about how I was a truly terrible person since I’d never given her photos of myself I was accosted by a very strange, very articulate man: RK Yadav.

He sat down across from me smiling broadly and asked me for my ‘good’ name. He asked me if I knew John. RK told me about how he and John had worked together in a small village a ways north of Birganj called Chhotaily for two years. He began telling me about how he and John had started an eco club at a nearby secondary school.

A painted poster for the film Andaaz

Theaters in Birganj had hand-painted film posters, like this one for Andaaz.

It sounded like the ghost of a previous PCV and it was. I’ve heard of this happening to other volunteers—almost always in small village settings—but it’d never happened in Birganj before.

I was surprised and interested to learn about this guy who’d been in Birganj who I’d never heard of before.

There are two major ghosts of volunteers in Birganj: Martha and Randall. I know about Randall because a current PCV in Birganj taught at the same school for a year.

I feel like I know Martha a little better because I used to live with the fellow she worked with while she was in Nepal, Rajesh. Rajesh had photos of his family together with Martha in the same room where I ate with them.

And then there was John. RK‘s English was archaic and sometimes spoken like a single line of an EE Cummings poem. Actually, RK himself was a poet.

He was in Birganj because he’d just had a collection of children’s poems in English published and had come to check on the order. His plan was to take the books to primary schools and help the teachers use them in teaching English.

Chhotaily was an excessively earnest guy. I couldn’t really get a clear picture of this John character, mainly because RK remembrances of him were so bizarrely inflated that it was impossible to figure out what was and what wasn’t.

Apparently, John had taught English, founded conservation projects, wrestled tigers to the ground, and built a few schools, as well as a hospital.

It was dizzying. Then RK pulled out of his shirt pocket a crumpled envelope.

He said, I have received this letter from John.

While slightly exhibitionistic, I couldn’t help but take the letter from RK, who was still smiling. When I finished reading the letter, I put it back into the envelope and collected my thoughts.

A painted poster for the film Andaaz

Theaters in Birganj had hand-painted film posters, like this one for Andaaz.

The letter was a single typed page. The envelope was dated June 2001 and was soft and slightly discolored. I could feel the oil from hands opening it, holding it, reading it, refolding it, again and again.

RK wore his topi and tikka, both symbols of the Hindu Kingdom (which is Nepal), and smiled at me proudly.

In his letter, John told RK that he was at seminary and suggested to RK that he read the Bible, pray to Jesus, and become a Christian in order to save himself for eternal damnation in hell for his pagan ungodly beliefs.

RK then went on to tell me about how once he and John had to spend the night together in the jungle of the Parsa Wildlife Refuge.

There was only one sleeping bag and John refused to let RK walk back to his home because it required a trip through a dangerous area (probably something to do with the Maoists, I thought).

John enticed RK into staying by giving him his sleeping bag. And what did John do? He slept only in his clothes the night through.

Sadly, I don’t know much else about the story. RK told me that John had only sent the single, proselytizing letter sine he left Nepal around four years before.

I think about what sort of character RK painted John to be, but when I think of the singular letter that may well have been a form letter from the How to Convert Heathens manual, it just doesn’t add up. It’s fascinating.

Anyhow, maybe I’ll see RK again and he’ll sing more glories of John. But let me sing of RK‘s glories, through his own poems.

First, an excerpt from the poem Means of Transportation:

Trucks carry heavy load,
Buses bring passengers;
Careless driving
Is very danger
Flying plane…………

Actually, there’s no clever tie-in between that excerpt and what I wrote about the mysterious John or RK himself, who is probably an excellent teacher; however, it is our duty to recognize the humorous in everything. From SEASONS:

Rainy uncle is dangerous.
Bring landslide and flood
Crops grows very fast
Parasites Suck the blood.

While RK‘s poetry showed me that he was really interested in contributing to the schools, to the community, to my amusement, John’s prose forced me to answer difficult questions that RK asked me about a man I’d never meet

Who was I defending? And why? Rainy uncle is dangerous, I guess.

Biha Bhayo?

It’s the question I’m asked the most. Well, I’m probably asked about US visas more often. Anyhow, I get asked if I’m married a lot. Every day, probably.

Adult film poster near Murli Gardens, Birganj

Adult films weren't shown in Birganj, but they were in nearby Raxual.

Every day. Every single day. The same question. Constantly. But this is life and I have fun with it. Some days I’m a widower, some days I am waiting for my elder brother to be married, etc.

But I didn’t have a clever response when the headmiss of JP Primary asked. I just told her that I wasn’t married, that perhaps when I returned to the US I’d get married.

She was a hefty woman. She was, in fact, enormous. She was a big, fat, jolly woman who strongly suggested that she find me a wife. I explained that almost no-one in the US had arranged marriages.

When love comes, I said in Nepali, we marry.

She looked at me, confused. (I do speak Nepali terribly.)

She then told me about how Mike had married a Nepali woman. I didn’t quite understand, so I asked again. Yes, she arranged a wife for Mike.

Who’s this Mike?

Mike was an English volunteer who had worked in Birganj some time ago for some NGO or INGO. I read in the school’s ledger where Mike had written an entry after awarding a student a prize for a drawing contest.

So the headmiss would have me believe that one day an English-speaking aid worker came to JP Primary, awarded a prize for a Birganj-wide drawing contest, and then entered into a marriage the headmiss had arranged. The day before.

Then I asked the headmiss, Can you find me a nice wife? I asked again and again.

Mike’s wife was from Hetauda, a city about two hours north of Birganj, and had been found by the headmiss.

Basically she had discredited everything I had ever said about how ‘my people’ don’t have arranged marriages.

She was quiet for a moment, waiting for me to concede that (a) I needed to get married immediately, and (b) she was the only qualified person in Birganj to find a white man a nice Nepali girl to marry. It was my lucky day.

My head was spinning. Never before had been stumped like this by a Nepali. Usually I’m the one saying strange things, but an Englishman distributing prizes for an art contest in Birganj and then asking the headmiss, Find me a wife, please, was a lot to understand at one moment.

Was this woman kidding? She told me that they met at their wedding and then went back to England together about a week later.

Anything’s possible in Birganj. While the headmiss waited for my concession, I considered—for a minute—having her arrange maybe half a dozen candidates for me to look over, like troops presenting arms for inspection.

It was a rather misogynistic daydream, but after keeping company in a patriarchal society for so long, the idea didn’t immediately strike me as inherently evil.

A kid stands with the endless line of bicycles in Birganj

The endless number of bicycles in Birganj can be a bit boggling.

After a moment, the headmiss then said something I’ve heard more than once. Look at you. You’re white. White is beautiful, she said.

I told her that I thought Nepalis were some of most beautiful people I’d ever seen, which she quickly dismissed, We’re black. Black is ugly. Look at me, she said pinching her forearm before turning to mine, You’re white. Very nice.

I found my loophole. I asked, So why do you want me to marry a Nepali woman if you think they are ugly?

She didn’t even hesitate, You are white. Your Nepali bride will be black. You children’s color will be very beautiful.

Her logic was a bit cloudy to me, but I didn’t press for more answers. I was uncomfortable discussing this woman’s hatred of her own skin color, let alone her admiration for mine.

It’s been strange times since coming back to Birganj after my month long hiatus, filled with poets, matchmakers, and the strange, mysterious bideshis that made all of this relative to me.

And to add to the dynamic, the two new N/196 PCVs just showed up in town yesterday.

I wonder what stories they’ll hear of me when I’m gone.