Mental health days

It had been a rough couple of weeks. I had the misfortune of being in the first group of volunteers to leave Narayanghat the day after swearing in. We were to leave early, by 6 o’clock.

We were the volunteers to the southeast or Narayanghat: Jane-Erie, also going to Birganj; Patty, a forestry instructor heading to Hetauda (due east of Narayanghat, due north of Birganj and where we would turn south towards India); and Lee, a science teacher going to Kalaiya, a rural village near Birganj.

Emotions ran high, and I hadn’t expected to see so many people in the morning wishing us off. Since leaving the States, I’ve been the one leaving, never the one to stay behind to wave and smile to people on their way.

At the Vishuwa Buddhist monument in Birganj, a woman prays by candles on Buddha Poornima

At the Vishuwa Buddhist monument in Birganj, a woman prays by candles on Buddha Poornima

After two months of incubated friendships, many of us were parting ways with close friends—I felt in some ways that they were my only friends—with whom we’d shared phenomenal experiences. We’d meet again at the All-Vol, the ‘all volunteers’ conference in January, eight months away. What I’m trying to say is that it was sad. Really sad. Grown men-crying sad. Women wailing and beating their breasts sad.

Of course there were easy goodbyes, the token, We’ll write. It was exactly what I didn’t need as I was driven off to what I knew would be an awful few weeks. In a matter of hours, I was unloading my bags into my new deraa, wondering, bedless, What now?

I left for a hotel, overwhelmed by the settling in I would have to begin in the morning. The enormity of a simple task of, let’s say, finding a bed turns into, How do I ask to buy a bed in Nepali without buying a water buffalo?

That night, eating alone, thinking about people who I missed, people who I knew where finding out how much the presence of others had made our previous adjustments easier, more communal. But now I alone. Alone. Just me. Big time. Lonely? Yes. Acute? Indeed.

There were a couple other PCVs living near me in Birganj, Luke and Rob, but both were gone from site for the next few weeks. The anxiety and sadness that I had felt leaving the States had been manageable, but now it began to erupt—almost uncontrollably.

Staying in a hotel was awful. Nothing exacerbates loneliness more than sleeping in a room overtly symbolic of the transient nature of my presence. And here I was, doing two years hard time in the inferno-like heat of Birganj, spending one more night in one more bed that I’d never see again.

I was not sure of being a nomad by choice. I had eaten at Himanchal Cabin, a restaurant with a Nepali-speaking staff, in comparison with Birganj’s large Bhojpuri-, Hindi-, and incomprehensible Nepali-speaking populations. (A combination of all three of these is something I call ‘Hippurali.’)

But man was it depressing. It was like I was in Hopper’s Nighthawks, alone with the soda jerk, who could only speak Nepali and with whom I could only discuss fruit preferences let alone my feelings of unrelenting depression. Now that would be a painting.

But that was weeks ago. I might have not been able to make it if I hadn’t broken the rules, though.

We’re not supposed to leave our site (also called ‘post,’ as in a big stick that is stuck in the ground that doesn’t move) for the first three months, which isn’t that tough since we’re just getting settled in and beginning our work. (I had walked into the school year in progress and was playing catch up with the book as my students hadn’t had an English teacher all year).

It was announced after I had been at school for two weeks that we would have a long weekend in celebration of the Buddha’s birthday, born in 5 BCE on a Sunday, apparently in Lumbini, a village west of Narayanghat by about seven hours.

A good friend, Chelsea, had taken her assignment in Gaidankot, the village where our training had taken place. Her school, in fact, was about 500 meters from our training site. She had found a deraa in nearby Narayanghat.

Chelsea was living with Shana, another volunteer from our group who worked with an NGO that promoted sexual health awareness and offered assistance to sex workers. Good work. Interesting pamphlets.

Matt, a science teacher and secretly Canadian, with whom I’d drank Glenfiddich with at the bar way back in San Francisco, also lived nearby. It was going to fun, old times recaptured, and it was going to save (or at least distract) me from my discontent.

Then on the morning I was to catch my bus, I heard on the BBC that Nepal’s Prime Minister, Deuba, had dissolved the Lower House of Parliament, a major elected body. Nepal had been under a state of emergency since the previous November, and the House was to vote to either reinstate or discontinue the state of emergency, which, in effect, is martial law.

I live under martial law. I never thought about it like that before.

The police and army are a constant presence. On my way to the bus park at exactly 5:30 a.m., I passed a formation of army marching and armed. Apparently the House had told the PM that it would vote against reinstating the State of Emergency.

So the PM took action by getting support from the Crown to simply do away with the elected (and also dissident) faction of the government. I expected to go home then, that Peace Corps would be calling me shortly to warn of impending riots.

But there weren’t any riots. There wasn’t even a peep of social unrest in Birganj. I had been told about a Bollywood actor who had been quoted making anti-Nepali statements, and there were huge displays of violence in Nepal. Buses were burned.

There were riots and the army and police had to be deployed until the actor assured the public that he had been inaccurately quoted. But for half of the government being tossed aside, there wasn’t even that. Buses ran on time, including my bus with me on it, and I even got to Narayanghat ahead of schedule.

The Makalu line is the one to take. Outside the Makalu ticket office in the bus park there is a gorilla-like man working for Makalu who chants, quite passionately as if he’s trying to get a batter to miss a pitch, Makalu, Makalu, Makalu, Makalu, Makalu. Hey! Hey! Makalu, Makalu . . . .

It wasn’t until this past Tuesday when I went to Kalaiya to visit Lee that I had a bad bus ride. Experience has proven that on any given bus ride, you’re definitely along with at least one or two people who will suffer from motion sickness. Vomit will be sprayed along the side of the bus as it roars down the road.

See, local buses are what you take between the big city and the village. Local buses stop and pick up anyone—or any thing for that matter—along the way. This is also means that most of these people on local buses are rural folk, less used to vehicular transportation (in contrast to animal-powered transportation).

We were so close to Kalaiya when this woman sitting two rows ahead began to lose it. Boy howdy did she.

I first saw the men sitting in front of me jump up into the isle as the woman made quite a mess of herself. She then got her head out of the window and made a mess of the bus. And then I sat and watched streams of vomit splash along the outside of my window.

Suddenly, turning to talk to the man next to me who had been pleading with me to give him a US visa was the better option. That’s why bus rides can be awful. But not for my big return to Narayanghat.

The bus arrived early and I had enough time to take a tempo to Gaidankot to visit my host family. I saw many old faces, drank chiye at all the old pasals and was appalled by the same tremendous wave of heat that is Narayanghat.

A brother and sister pose for me near Shana's place near Narayanghat.

A brother and sister pose for me near Shana's place near Narayanghat.

The second pose is more natural, probably because I waited for it.

The second pose is more natural, probably because I waited for it.

It was nice, though. It didn’t take long to feel an absence of the people who had made these places special. My host family clearly had no idea of what to do with me. I sat in the room where I had ‘grown up’ in Nepal, although it had become again what it had always been: my host parent’s room.

I could see that as long as I was in Nepal, I would be a drifter. In the early evening I met Chelsea on the Narayni Bridge. She and Shana were living with the old host family of one of the language teachers, followers of Sai Babba, one of the most popular living Hindu gurus.

I have only met one Nepali who didn’t like Sai Babba. He ran the Nepali Guest House, a hotel in Narayanghat with the finest daal bhaat around. Andrew and I were eating lunch one day when he began examining an extremely kitsch photo Andrew had bought of Sai Babba.

It was a gold-flaked photo, like Gustav Klimt posters you can buy in the mall’s artmart. He had said, in Nepali, “What a great picture, but what a bad man.”

The followers of Sai Babba, as far as I can tell, have two distinguishing features from other Hindus. First, they hang pictures of Sai Babba instead of the usual orthodox Hindu gods. He’s a funny looking man, somewhat portly in an orange robe, sporting a massive Harlem Globe Trotter’s-esque fro.

They also keep a small ornamental chair near their Sai Babba shrine, a sign of respect and hope that perhaps some day Sai Babba will pop by to visit and need a place to sit.

Secondly, the have a daily call to prayer that initiated by a high pitched bell, rung with incredible fervor by a true believer, at least every morning at 5:00 a.m.

The weekend went well. All sorts of people showed up from the area. I met a volunteer, Renee, a science teacher stationed in Monglepur, 30 minutes away by bus from Narayanghat, who had gone to UNT, who had finished up in the fall of 1998 and who had lived in Bruce Hall that semester, my old dorm.

We knew a few people in common, namely Bean, my old roommate my first semester in Bruce. There isn’t much to say about what actually happened that weekend but about what I saw, what I felt, and how far I have come since then. Birganj is home, and I feel planted. There was one special moment.

We had gone to Sarauha, a scenic, tranquil city on the edge of the Chitwan National Park, home to Bengali tigers, where elephants are as common a sight as cars or bikes. To go to Sarauha, you take a bus east from Narayanghat and then south at the city of Tandi Bazaar, when the scenery becomes more distinct.

Instead we walked most of the way from Sarauha back to Tandi, through pastures with dozens of water buffalo, to see a clear horizon where the sun was setting. There were seven of us, and I felt then that I was really a part of something cohesive. We crossed a small foot bridge and then came to the main road. And tempo happened across us. We decided to hitch a ride back to Tandi Bazaar even though the tempo was already more than full.

Matt took the roof with two other Nepalis, and Shana, Renee, Naomi, and myself hung to the sides and back of the tempo as it buzzed along rural Nepal. It was cool by then—evening is the only time when Terai weather is bearable—and scenery rolled by not unlike summer trips across Kansas to visit grandma’s.

Boy, that’s some sentimental garbage.

But emotions seem to run high in Nepal. Things are better now, good even, and I’m looking forward to a summer full of adventures. There’s a Fourth of July event in Janakpur (four hours by bus). I’m planning on going: many friends, many stories, and many chances to be sprayed by vomit.