Unanswered prayers

I finished my last week at school with giving an exam. Something like a pop quiz, except it involved excessive and indiscreet cheating by the students. What do you do when you’re in a classroom the size of a bedroom with 60 students sitting at benches that even the strictest Puritan would deem exceedingly humble?

Testing evaluates, but when that means of evaluation is ineffective then the answer is to find some other means, which as of time of print I haven’t figured out exactly. It’s coming, though.

Just as few days ago I found myself being on the other side of an exam for the first time in Nepal. I signed up for the Foreign Service written exam, which was given Saturday, September 21, 2002.

More than anything else, the test was an excuse to take a break from my school situation (recently improved thanks to a visit by my PO from Kathmandu) and see some friends.

At the Vishuwa Mandir in Birganj, kids light candles on the occasion of Buddha Poorima, Buddha's birthday.

At the Vishuwa Mandir in Birganj, kids light candles on the occasion of Buddha Poorima, Buddha's birthday.

I had gone to the Birganj bus park on Thursday, September 19, 2002, to get on a bus to Narayanghat where I’d stay just one night to break up the long bus ride to Kathmandu. I hadn’t taken a bus all the way from Birganj to Kathmandu yet, but I have been told that it is long (8–12 hours). I thought a trip to Narayanghat (only 3 hours) would help break up the travels.

I taught my classes and then rushed to my deraa to get my bags. I told my family that I’d be back in a few days and boarded a rickshaw for the bus park. However, when I finally got to the bus park by 4:00 p.m., I found that all the buses for Narayanghat had left.

Very danger, I was told by a man in the ticket office.

Because Narayanghat is in one of the regions heavily affected by the Maoists, the buses don’t run at night for fear of being attacked by the Maoists or the police. People see both as equally dangerous in affected areas.

So I bought a ticket for Kathmandu for early the next morning and left my bags in the bus agency’s office and went home, dreading explaining to the family why I wasn’t leaving until the next morning. Their questions would be fired at me much like an automatic submachine gun.

The next day’s travels seemed to last forever. Unlike the Air Bus’ air conditioning, traffic was thick and constant the entire way to Kathmandu. And by the time we got to the final ridge just outside the valley, a landslide had reduced the main pass to one lane, holding us in backed-up traffic for nearly three hours.

You know what I suggest you bring to Nepal? Bring endless and enduring patience to sit in a crowded bus with no moving air, so you can watch for hours a trail of buses and trucks crisscrossing the mountainside and not feel complete desperation.

By the time I finally got to the Spice Deraa (the name of the apartment in Kathmandu I share with a number of other volunteers, pronounced “e-spice”) it was half past 7 o’clock, the time I had arranged to meet friends in Thamel.

I showered and took to the streets, hoping that I’d just run into folks in Thamel, which is exactly what happened.

I finally found people at Pub Maya. I hadn’t time to finish my first beer before Zach left the pub and returned with five new N/195 PCTs who’d just arrived in Kathmandu on Tuesday, September 17, 2002.

The next day they were due to leave for their host families near Butwol. They seemed nice enough, and I found their complete disinterest in my advice outstanding indicators of better sense than what I had exhibited. I know there’s some cliché I can use for such courage, like “The dead have no fear,” or some such nonsense.

Anyhow, the next day I took the exam and ate nachos at Phora Dubar, the American Club where the test was administered. We met a guy named Richard who was passing through Kathmandu on his way back to America after finishing two years as a JET volunteer in Japan.

That Saturday was a full moon and several of us had made plans to visit Bouddanath, a Buddhist temple in the valley that has a huge candle lighting ceremony. It’s quite a peaceful place. Andrew, Richard, and I got there somewhat before the ceremony began and did a bit of wandering around the temple.

The one thing that was disappointing about this temple was the lack of monkeys. Some things you just come to expect of holy places in Nepal. One of those things is monkeys—lots of monkeys.

When it came time to light candles, Andrew and I entered one of the rooms where candles were kept. It was not much larger than a walk-in closet (here I am explaining the size of a holy place in relation to a closet) and quite hot, since the room held nothing more than a full sized table covered in oil lamps, most the size of tea light candles.

At the Bal Mandir school during Laxmi Puja, one of the younger students prays (until disturbed).

At the Bal Mandir school during Laxmi Puja, one of the younger students prays (until disturbed).

In the center of the table elevated on small stands were several very large oil lanterns. Being in that room crammed with smal fires was not unlike being in Birganj.

When our turn came around to light some candles (sort of for prayer, sort of for vigil) Andrew looked at me solemnly and said, I’m going to light one for Thumba. Thumba is a Doberman pincher that Andrew bought for a friend from Kolkata. Thumba is not well. Actually, Thumba is long of this world.

As the English dailies in Nepal would report, it was an auspicious occasion. Heartiest felicitations. Et cetera. Shortly thereafter, we met up with several other PCVs, namely two PCVs who were being sent home for stealthing.

Stealthing is the Peace Corps term for being away from post without informing anyone officially. Most every PCV does this at some point, except these two were caught and paid a hefty price that most would say was excessive.

Anyhow, these two knew of a hidden Italian restaurant near Bouddanath. It’s one of those places you have to know someone in order to find. Getting to the dining area including knocking on someone’s front door, walking through a family’s kitchen, and finally sitting in the dining area, which was clearly the family’s living space.

Oddly enough this wasn’t your normal family in Nepal. The woman who answered the door, a small, stout, and cheery woman who seemed to heave with excitement when she spoke, was something of a surprise. I came in first and began speaking to her in Nepali, asking her about where we’d sit and other questions that she answered in Nepali.

I asked her, quite stupidly, where she’d learned to cook Italian food.

In Italy, she answered in Nepali.

I then asked where she was from.

From Italy, she answered again. Here I was speaking Nepali to an Italian woman who’d been living in Nepal for some time.

The dinner, my friends, was splendid. What she made for us was nothing more than home-cooked Italian food. I’ve never had an experience like that before.

There we were: eight or so volunteers, sitting in an Italian expat’s living room, drinking wine that had already been opened (no doubt they’d been drinking from it earlier), over-looking the still glowing candles of Bouddanath, and I couldn’t help but think, What a strange, strange life I’ve gotten myself into.