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.