First of the year

About three weeks ago I left Birganj and headed into the Kathmandu Valley. First, I went in for my education group’s IST. The week after was the yearly Peace Corps Nepal’s All-Vol, something that is talked about from the moment of arrival in country.

I’d been in the Terai, i.e., Birganj, for a couple of months and I was ready to get out of the flatlands and into the valley.

The day I was to leave Birganj I was doubtful my flight would leave. The irony of Nepal is that Birganj is around 90 miles from Kathmandu as the crow flies; however, by private jeep or taxi the trip takes around 8 hours and by bus it’s even longer, sometimes 10 hours.

Royal Nepal aircraft parked at Simra airport, waiting for passengers.

Royal Nepal aircraft parked at Simra airport, waiting for passengers.

Peace Corps is benevolent enough to fly us to and fro for official business, though the flights are anything but pleasurable. Most of the airlines operate weathered Twin Otters: small, prop-driven planes that seat around 12–18 people. The flight between Birganj (nearby Simra, actually) and Kathmandu from take-off to landing lasts around 14 minutes.

While I was waiting and wondering if my plane was going to show up, I went just outside the airport to the concession stand, which is a small building made of corrugated steel and about the size of a building someone in the States might keep a lawnmower in, precariously aloof on wooden stilts, raising the structure about a foot off the ground.

Besides me, the only other folks sitting around the pasal were the armed police guarding the airport, a favorite target of the Maoists.

A few months earlier the Maoists had blown up a radio relay tower near the airport. Alas, the missed the airport’s communications tower, knocking out Birganj’s only radio station, Manakamana FM, for several days. This did not help the People’s War’s already dwindling popularity in Birganj.

I love Manakamana FM, if only for its self-promotional jingle, which is in English that goes

It’s raining,
And it’s snowing.
It’s . . . all of the excitement,
And none of the resentment . . . 92.9 FM!

Yes, it’s strange. It made so much more sense after the Maoists did what they did, because with the radio station out of order there was none of the excitement and all of the resentment, as someone told me.

While I was sitting and having my Coke with the cops, a big, yellow mutt (it clearly had some golden retriever in its blood) came from behind the dhaba and towards us, looking for something to eat I suppose.

When the dog meandered its way over to me I saw that something was written across its forehead. I thought that someone given the dog a black tikka.

Actually, someone had written ‘D’ on the dog’s forehead.

D for dog, one of the policemen told me.

Laxmi's dog at the Simra airport, complete with 'D' and 'Laxmi' written on its side.

Laxmi's dog at the Simra airport, complete with 'D' and 'Laxmi' written on its side.

Then when the dog turned so I could see its profile, I knew who the culprit was: Laxmi. Someone had written the name ‘Laxmi’ in Nepali on the side of the dog. And on its other side was a large heart with an arrow shooting through it.

The dog’s decorated presence seemed to amuse the policemen endlessly or maybe it was just that there was this Nepali-speaking foreigner taking photos of it. They chuckled occasionally jabbing the dog with their machine guns and telling it, Bas, so the tourist could take his photos.

I needed to get away from this place before I went insane.

Let’s go back to January 1, 2003: the first day of the new year and also the first sunny day in a month. It had rained through the night and into the morning of New Year’s, but by the time I’d had my coffee and biscuits the sun had come out and the day seemed promising.

I was walking to school, enjoying the sun on my face and seeing Birganj in somewhat more flattering light. About a block from my school, I turned north and headed towards town hall, next to which is my school.

What I’m about to say may sound strange or even ridiculous but stay with me. After I rounded the corner I was thinking about polishing my shoes or some such nonsense. I wasn’t even aware that the large white bull in the road was pissed off. It was just one of a dozen feral bulls I had passed that morning.

Anyhow, I’m moving right along thinking about my lesson plan or what I might have for lunch when I finally noticed the bull as it’s angrily rolling its head to and fro. I noticed it then just because the bull slung its saliva almost landing on me.

And my first reaction is to see if in fact any saliva landed on me, but I don’t do this for long because my peripheral starts shouting, Run you fool! This bull is about to gore you to death right here on this dirty street!

And so I turned and began to run. But I looked behind only after a few steps to see if the bull was still actually chasing me, which it was. I ran down the road, opposite the town hall, with its corrupt directors, crooked administrators, and evil police security no doubt staring in wonderment as a foreign development worker was chased across the thoroughfare to a violent death.

Thankfully I didn’t have to run far. When I rounded the corner from where I came, the bull slowed to a standstill and grunted while tossing its head a few more times as if to say, And don’t come back.

I was a bit shaken as I walked away, going the long way around the town hall to get to school, my adrenaline quickly manifesting as mindless giggling. For some reason after escaping a gruesome end—probably it was the adrenaline—I started laughing, imaging myself pinned against the wall of town hall with a bull’s horn through my gut.

Docile looking, at least. Feral animals such as this are usually pretty tame. Usually.

Docile looking, at least. Feral animals such as this are usually pretty tame. Usually.

But what’s really funny is what happened to me on my way home after school. With the bull incident mostly forgotten, I took my time getting home, taking photos, going down explored paths, and just being leisurely in my existence.

Trouble came just a block from my home when a drunken rickshaw driver rode alongside me, trying to coax me into getting into his rickshaw. I used all of my usual lines for rickshaw drivers, but he was drunk enough to not comprehend anything or just didn’t care.

When I got to the gates of my place I ran into three friends of mine who go to the private school just down the road. I stopped and talked for a while, ignoring that the rickshaw driver was still talking to me. When I finally grew tired of the background noise I asked my friends to come in for tea.

Just as I was walking through my gate the rickshaw driver dismounted his rickshaw and came at me, first just getting in my face and demanding money.

When I refused he said something in Hindi that I didn’t follow. My friend translated, He’s saying he’s the bigger man, he stood about 5-foot 4 inches, and that he wants your money.

Perhaps laughing wasn’t the best response, but it’s what I did. I put my hand on his shoulder and walked towards the gate to get him outside, away from my friends, but he suddenly and with agility I hadn’t expected from his earlier drunken swagger, put his arms around me, trying to wrestle me to the ground.

While he didn’t have the strength or stature to take his aggressions much farther, the suddenness of the situation scared the hell out of me. And then just as quickly as it had begun, it ended.

Deepak, my friend who runs a store opposite of my house, had come over as he saw the rickshaw driver push his way inside the gates. He came from behind and put the rickshaw driver in a headlock, dragging the drunken maniac kicking outside.

Without thinking I went outside to see things through, but Deepak, releasing the man who fell to the ground, told me to go inside, that this was finished.

My friends, startled by the sudden fighting, were quickly on their way without their tea. I went inside and took a cold shower and made myself a cup of tea.

I called it a day at 5:00 p.m. and sat down with a book wondering what I had around to cook, since I was done wandering the city for one day. My flight left in three days for Kathmandu. I was hoping that the rest of the year would be better than the first day, though it seemed that the farther from Birganj I was the safer.

Three days later I was watching men prodding a vandalized dog with machine guns.

I was drinking a Coke that tasted like ketchup.

I was about to fly 90 miles in a plane that Al-Qaeda wouldn’t bother taking down.

Clearly, I needed to get out of this place—a place that I call, with some trepidation and some pride, home.