Way back in July

Way back in July it was hot—really hot. The hot that you can’t escape, that makes you uncomfortable in your skin. Since it was July it was also the thick of the monsoon. Since it was July, I still wasn’t half sure why or what I was doing in Nepal—or if I’d even be here a week later.

And since it was July I didn’t have anything to do. School was closed and Birganj was an empty, freakish place, like a colonized spot of the sun, nothing less than a prison. A really hot prison.

Not that I want to sound negative, because back in July there was a lot to do yet. I was trying my hardest to do it. My two-month run at school ended on a Friday in the middle of June. The following Monday I was on a plane heading to Kathmandu.

My first two months in Birganj had seemed to last a long, long time. Since then I’ve hardly spent a solid month in Birganj without leaving for one reason or another. I don’t count day trips to Kalaiya or Narayanghat as getting away, since those are no longer than a night or two.

The fallen minaret of a mosque in the northern part of Nepalgunj.

The fallen minaret of a mosque in the northern part of Nepalgunj.

So I had arranged with Peace Corps to go to Nepalgunj to work with Alayne’s faculty and do some trainings there. What a farce, but it was a hell of a good time and I wish I could have been there longer, since I was having a great time and I wasn’t quite ready to be back in Birganj.

But soon my time was up, my plane was in, and I was leaving scenic Nepalgunj, the only place more unfavorable than Birganj.

Not that I didn’t like the place. The people and the place just seemed more, well, doomed. You’d buy some milk and have a feeling that everyone there was starving to death and buying milk for yourself was affront to humanity when others clearly needed it more.

But what do you do? Buy milk for the whole of Nepalgunj? Nepal? No. You buy the milk and then you look into the eyes of the gaunt clerk, soaked from the heat, and ask, How much for that ice cream bar?

After leaving Nepalgunj, I had a few days in Kathmandu before I my flight back to Birganj. I saw a few folks in Kathmandu I hadn’t seen in a while, namely Kara, Lindsay and Erica. Erica was heading back to Dhunche in a Peace Corps jeep on Wednesday, the same day I was supposed to go back to Birganj

My original plan was to Birganj and then take a bus the next day, July 3, 2002, to Janakpur, another Terai town to the east of Birganj and then due south of the East-West Highway, where the PCVs had planned a Fourth of July extravaganza.

That’s where Kara and Lindsay had also left Kathmandu for a day earlier, since they needed more time by taking a bus. I had something of dilemma.

Either I could try and sneak on the Peace Corps jeep headed to Dhunche, which would just be an overnight stay in an astonishingly beautiful place, or I could head back to Birganj and see some more of the horrors that the Terai had to offer.

What to do?

Well, of course I wanted to try and sneak on a jeep and get a free trip into Lang Tang National Park, of which Dhunche is the first city within and also the main city of Rasuwa district. I made my plans and discussed with Erica details of the trip.

The night before I went out with Kara and Lindsay to tell them the news about missing the Fourth of July in Janakpur. Tough news. I have my fans.

OK, whatever, Kara said, shrugging with hands in the air, We’ll just celebrate tonight.

The next day they began their 12-hour bus ride to Janakpur. They were planning on late night on the town to help them sleep as much as possible on the bus.

It was a late night and the next morning, before leaving I saw Lindsay and Kara, both looking haggard and reacting to the daylight as if they were vampires, heading to the Kathmandu bus park, hoping to sleep off one celebration before beginning another.

I was feeling tense about sneaking onto the jeep without telling the office, but I knew that they were expecting me to get on a plane that day and head back to DMZ, love it or leave it.

It’s sad that I just can’t get on to the part about firecrackers and the Fourth of July, that I have to ramble on like this.

Kids tending buffaloes enjoy themselves while watering the animals on a hot day in Janakpur.

Kids tending buffaloes enjoy themselves while watering the animals on a hot day in Janakpur.

Anyhow, as soon as I got to Peace Corps office I began thinking that this quick trip wasn’t really worth making a bad name for myself around the office, so I went in to talk with my program officer, a half professional adviser and a half baby sitter of PCVs.

He was cheery enough and listened to my experiences in Nepalgunj. I talked about having done this and that and all sorts of professional crap and then hey by the way could I go with the jeep up to Dhunche just for a night before heading back to Birganj would that be fine please?

No, and that was that.

A few hours later that day I was on one of the terrifying local airlines’ planes, flying back to Birganj, the Twin Otter banging and undulating as I was certain I could sense the hull twist and contort as we skimmed over the foothills of the Himalayas.

When the plane finally landed, I still was glad I hadn’t taken a bus, which is, in comparison, 100% more frightening. Birganj didn’t seem so bad when I returned, perhaps because I knew that the next day, July 3, 2002, I was getting on a bus and heading to Janakpur for the first major get-together of friends since we swore in as volunteers on May 8.

The next day I was on a bus heading due east for a few hours, then turned off the East-West Highway (also called the Mahendra Highway) and headed south on a narrow, local road for 20 km into Janakpur.

The local road was narrow and uneven, since on either side spanned endless rice fields, freshly flooded with monsoon rains and covered with Indian migrant workers, cutting grass and contracting malaria. It was spectacularly beautiful—an image of Nepal I won’t soon forget.

I was staring out of the windows when I the bus slowed and came to a halt. I only noticed because it wasn’t one of the quick, rapid stops the buses make when dropping off or picking up folks. This was gradual and tense. In Nepal, traffic moves to the left.

I was sitting on the left, admiring the beauty of the countryside, when the bus began to lurch rightwards. Women passed weeping. My stomach twisted. I’d seen rolled buses, old with rust and long absent of glass, and I’ve seen sections of guardrail missing along a cliff, with ominous dark skid marks leading to the edge, but I’d never see the human of it.

Scott, your author, and Lynn in Janakpur

Lynn and your author, Scott, in Janakpur on the Fourth of July 2002.

The women were grouped together, crying, spastically throwing about their arms. When the bus crossed to the other side of the road I could see ahead a crowd of people standing in the road.

The bus straightened and I lost my view until we passed the crowd. They were standing quietly—I don’t remember any yelling or commotion—and perhaps 20 feet away in the road was a man, dead, laying in more blood that I’d ever seen in one spot, his cycle nearby equally mangled and contorted.

But just as if it were on television, we moved on, passing to more pleasant scenery—other sights I won’t soon forget.

Janakpur looked a lot like Kalaiya in that it was busy and dusty. Janakpur, though, was more developed. The roads were dusty and wandered in ways that couldn’t have not been planned. I found the roadside pasals to be little more than temporary shanties.

I took a seat at one of these shanties and had a coke while I waited for Ken to meet me and take me to his place. He and Lynne, a married couple, lived with Chris, another volunteer from our group who was a science teacher. All three of them are individuals and rather gregarious, but Chris above all.

The town seemed a maze as Ken and I walked to his place. There was one landmark that we passed I thought was exceptional. I had been told before that Janakpur is the only city in Nepal that has a train.

It’s a small arrangement: a single steam engine pulling two cars with the majority of the passengers riding on the roof to escape the heat. I thought of Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days, seeing Michael peer out of trains racing across some desolate part of India with a city riding on top of the train.

At Ken’s I had a happy reunion with friends: Jeff, Yvette, Lynne, Jennifer, Lynne, Chris, Matt, and others I’m forgetting. Others were still coming in.

In fact, Lynne told us in the midst of the chit-chat, Lindsay and Kara are at the bus park waiting to get picked up.

Kara and Lindsay after arriving in Janakpur from a night bus from Kathmandu.

Kara and Lindsay after arriving in Janakpur from a night bus from Kathmandu.

I was excited that they weren’t at Ken’s when I came in, because I was hoping for a chance to surprise them since the day before they had seen me putting my bags in a Peace Corps jeep headed to the northern edge of Nepal

A day later, though, I’d beaten them to Janakpur and was, geographically and culturally, as far as I could ever be from the beauty of Dhunche.

Let me get them, I said, asking for directions and maybe a map, too, to the Janakpur bus park, I want to surprise them.

They were supposed to be waiting near the Janakpur dhoka, a ‘gate’ that was being built in the middle of an intersection just south of the house. It wasn’t hard to miss, though all Ken said was that it was a big concrete mess.

After seeing it I can’t think of a more articulate way to describe it, so maybe that’s what makes him Ken from Janakpur.

It is a winding of concrete snakes, making something of a shape; though Ken’s words are the best description, they don’t quite emphasize the immensity of it. It’s big. It’s lots of concrete. And it’s clearly a mess. Sort of like Janakpur.

As I walked to the table where Kara and Lindsey were sitting, snarling at their steaming cups of tea, I could see that they were still hung-over and clearly unhappy. It became that my surprise wouldn’t be met with smiles.

I readied my camera and walked near, framed my shot, and told the girls, Hi.

The girls squinted in the foul monsoon sunshine, Scott?

Slowly people arrived: Liz and Drew arrived from Jhapa; Tony, Laurel, and André from Rajbiraj; and Kira from Biratnagar. That night we were ready to celebrate the Fourth. We were happy, we felt patriotic, more American than perhaps ever before, and we had fireworks.

Just before Chris lit the first of the fireworks, we all had a worry that we’d probably never had before. These will sound like gunfire. The police will come. The Maoists will come. They will shoot. Is this is a good idea?

And I noticed that they were already lit. We stood back, anxious, and giddy with guilt, knowing that we were happily entertaining a bad idea. They were loud, they were bright, and they were getting everyone’s attention in the area.

Traditional but not a good idea, fireworks can give the impression of gun fire.

Traditional but not a good idea, fireworks can give the impression of gun fire.

Those fireworks, my friends, were American. But before another round the downstairs neighbor rushed upstairs, begging us to cease igniting more fireworks, clearly scared of being taken for a rebel and dying for some US holiday. He was calmed, the music was turned back up, and we were back to our merry-making sans faux gunfire.

Earlier that evening, in Ken’s living room, I had been sitting and talking with Lynne. She turned away for a moment to answer the phone, and I sat back in my chair, thinking about Dhunche, about places I could be where I wouldn’t be sweating at nine o’clock at night, quickly drinking my beer while it was still cold from the store where we’d bought them.

It’s for you, Lynne said, asking, as surprised as I was, It’s someone from America.

America indeed. Still it seems magical that someone on the other side of this planet, separated by an ocean and sea or two, depending on which way you go, can pick up a phone, dial a number, and my phone, or the Bests’ phone, will ring moments later. Whereas getting a package here is like reliving Christmas, getting a phone call is like Santa Claus himself calling you.

For ten minutes with rock music loud in my ears, friends calling my attention, I spoke with Nikkie back home, her hearing the background noises of my new life in Nepal, and me feeling a little less far from home.

Which is where home was, way back in July.