After two weeks in the Kathmandu Valley, I arrived in Birganj on a foggy, damp Thursday morning. I stepped off a bus that I had taken from Hetauda, about an hour and a half north of Birganj, the point as far as the Peace Corps jeep had taken me the day before.
I had spent the night in Hetauda, which I can’t complain about since I drank tungba and ate sekuti, throwbacks from PST and unavailable in Birganj, but I was on the first bus the next morning as I was anxious to get back to school.
There's nothing eerier than an empty classroom, like this one at Bal Mandir.
I should have known. As I walked across the mall towards my school, I knew something wasn’t right. The grounds were quiet and the muffled hum of children was absent.
Actually, everyone was absent. I walked in the empty school unshaven and a bit gross from a long run without a shower.
After a moment, the groundskeeper walked in.
No school, he told me,
Too cold. Come back on Monday. He continued on his way to the toilet inside the school. I went home.
My first week in Kathmandu was spent at my education group’s IST, which went quite well.
Just east and a bit to the south of Kathmandu proper by an hour, Dhulikhel is one of many mountain resort towns built around stunning views of the Himalayas. After five days of sessions, we returned to Kathmandu on Friday for a few days off before the yearly All-Vol.
After two months of training when we were around one another all day every day, these two weeks were the first time we would be together in seven months.
Being away from the stresses of post, being back together with friends, and the outlets of the big city, affected us in ways not unlike pure oxygen—or cocaine. I think some of this madness stemmed from our lost ability to socialize normally; our days had to count, and count they did.
Waiting to board the bus and return to Kathmandu after IST in Dhulikhel, January 2003.
We were energized, reckless with our sudden freedom from our responsibilities at post where we were upstanding people. But suddenly it felt like a summer vacation. We sat together planning our evenings giggling like children, intent on pursuing fun by all means necessary.
Monday night was a necessary break from the first weekend of being back together in Kathmandu. Dhulikhel sits along a ridge of the valley and the city exists only because of the guest lodges that dot the ridge.
Before dinner I took a short walk by myself to the top of the ridge where the actual city is. Most of the people live below the ridgeline where the terraced farmlands are easily reachable.
Following the ridge line to more remote places, the Arniko Highway is a smooth two-lane road that runs at least as far as Dhulikhel and the hotels. To the east of the highway are the hotels, situated in view of the Himalayas; to the west are the peasants and their farmlands.
Kids playing on a hill near Dhulikhel pose for a photo.
As I was composing a photo, a mother hauling cut grass in a large, wicker basket slung from her head passed me with her two daughters in tow. The two girls were carrying khukuris and looked as if they’d been working all day.
As they passed I said,
Namaste, and struck up something of a conversation.
After I answered some expected questions like how I knew Nepali, which isn’t a question of “Where did you learn it,” but of how I know how to speak it, they asked me to come for tea.
Their house reminded me of my host family in Gaidankot. They lived in a crumbling concrete structure with the kitchen outside, a good thing considering the chulo produces a harmful amount of smoke.
Just like in Gaidankot, I was led upstairs on a notched, log of a ladder. I sat on their floor and answered questions about why I was in Nepal and just spoke with them casually until, sadly, my tea was followed by questions I should have foreseen.
I’ve heard the same speech dozens of times. It begins with an explanation that Nepal is a poor country, that there are few jobs, and that if they could only get a visa to the United States they’d be able to live a better life.
While true, the logistical reality of travel to and life in the Untied States hasn’t occurred to them. They see America as an idealized version of life, not as a thing to try and obtain. My response varies, especially based on who is asking me.
There’s nothing worse than someone you’ve gotten to know and befriended making clear his or her intentions when they suggest that you should sponsor them for a visa and then quickly disappear when they don’t get the answer they want.
These folks’ intentions were earnest enough so I smiled when I thanked them for the tea. As I ascended to the highway and back down into the east, to the hotels, I waved goodbye hoping they’d have better luck with the next American lured in for tea.
One night at the deraa I was fiddling with the necklace that I was given during training. In the first weeks we spent in Nepal, the N/190s had their COS, meaning they had completed their two years and were on their way home.
One had been stationed in Narayanghat. A bunch of us were staying at the Rhino Hotel, and Kath, a N/190, had arranged quite a party for herself. She brought her stereo and arranged for a buffet-type meal that night at the hotel.
Her imported liquor and the Nepali beer flowed quite freely. And as a gesture that every N/194 remembers, she gave us all malla. Sorting of passing the torch, I suppose.
I took one for myself and was later given one by another friend. The latter fell off just after swearing-in and was forgotten in a room at the Rhino Hotel the day after I swore in as a volunteer and left for Birganj.
Volunteers pitched in and kept shared flats in Kathmandu, like the Spice Deraa. In 2003, they were closed.
The other was a little more resilient, though it had developed this strange habit of collecting lint from my shirts. So on occasion I had to cut off strands of lint that had woven their way onto my necklace. It’s sort of an arduous task, looking down at my neck while I try to cut off the lint without taking off a finger, too.
Back to the deraa: A bunch of us were sitting around killing time before we went out for dinner. The TV was on and I was letting my mind wander.
I felt that my necklace had some lint on it so I reached over and grabbed some scissors on the table. I was fumbling around until Cindy noticed and said,
Need some help there?
As I nodded she took the scissors in one hand and my necklace in another. In one quick moment she snipped off my necklace, letting it drop into my hands and saying,
There you go.
All-Vol is memorable only for what happens after the dull sessions. Months ago, Zach and I had been burdened by the All-Vol planning committee, VAC, to plan the second annual scavenger hunt.
Zach and I argued about ideas and still hadn’t finalized what we’re going to do up until the day before, but it worked out. The scavenger hunt was divided into two areas: feats of intellect and feats of strength.
The feats of intellect were riddles that led teams to find something they had to take to the judges, Zach and I, for points. The feats of strength were acts of bravado, i.e., acts beyond the scope shame inhibits one, that were judged by VAC members for points.
I’ll never forget seeing Andrew and Jane-Erie running through the streets with two dressed mannequins, dragging the lifeless but sharp dressed objects up the narrow stairwell of Pub Maya. They were trying for points for a feat of strength that required bringing something ‘impressive’ to Trey.
Sadly, they were taking the mannequins to the wrong bar. After a minute, the came back down the stairwell amid stares and darted off through the streets again. Though a the life-size mannequins were impressive, another team managed to find three GAP volunteers willing to moon Trey, which took the cake.
Things can get out of hand during All-Vol, especially on the night of the yearly 'talent' show.
For another feat, teams had to organize a parade through Thamel, down the main road and probably the most trafficked spot by tourists in Nepal. Curtis, a huge guy with a massive presence, stood atop a rickshaw followed by his teammates who had made signs.
They were chanting something as Curtis threw popcorn out like confetti as they paraded down the street. Suddenly a tourist yelled in English,
Don’t you know there’s a war going on?
Curtis, stationed in the east in Taplejung, has been on security hold more than most volunteers still around. If any foreigner were to know there was a war going on, it would be Curtis.
Yes I do, Curtis replied in Nepali.
Teams also had to organize a mini trash pickup in Thamel with the help of tourists and Nepalis. From our lookout we watched group after group convincing people to help them pickup trash. Oddly, many people (perhaps those quite concerned about the war) were reluctant to help even though we had provided gloves and bags.
I remember Mariko talking to a Japanese woman who just walked away, stopped for a moment, and picked up some half eaten food and brought it back to Mariko, who wasn’t sure what to do, except laugh.
The last day of All-Vol all of the wardens were asked to stay after for a meeting. The volunteers are split up across Nepal into regions that have a warden, a person responsible for relaying messages and being the point person in case something bad happens.
It’s not a job that’s assigned so much as it’s inherited. I inherited it from Luke and will pass it on to someone else when my time comes. But for now, being the warden pays my phone bill and gives me even just a slight impression of being responsible.
All-Vol was made quite tense by the presence of two Peace Corps folks from outside the country. One was the regional security director, based somewhere in the Pacific. The other was a woman from the Office of Special Services in Washington, DC.
Everyone had generally the same idea why these people where in Nepal, though the significance varied on the spectrum of severity from volunteer to volunteer. Some heralded their presence as the beginning of the end, suggesting that they were here to help with the evacuation. I didn’t think so.
Instead it seemed that their presence was a reminder to the Peace Corps/Nepal office that someone was looking over the shoulder.
During the warden meeting we discussed the two different kind of emergency action plans. Plan A was something initiated by the office in Kathmandu or Washington.
If Plan A is enacted, the warden contacts people to come to the consolidation point, Hotel Vishuwa in Birganj for my area (Birganj, Kalaiya, Hetauda, and Janakpur). From there we would either make our way together to Kathmandu or cross the border into India and then to Delhi.
Plan B is a little scarier. Plan B is enacted locally because either communications have been destroyed or time necessitates immediate action, as if there is an earthquake or if Armageddon occurs.
Basically, it’s everyone for themselves and people are responsible for grouping themselves in smaller, local clusters. If Plan B is enacted it will be done without any contact with any Peace Corps or US office anywhere. We’ll go to New Delhi and make contact with the US Embassy there.
This was the final meeting for the All-Vol conference and it was a somber one.
In a place that’s highly unstable, both politically and geologically, I don’t find the thought of being responsible for the wellbeing of volunteers scattered across the flatlands of Nepal comforting as the potential that someday soon Plan A or Plan B might come to life is good; however, it’s something someone has to do. I think that one of these new volunteers coming to Birganj in May will make a fine warden.
After leaving the warden meeting, I met up with Andrew. We were on our way to the Hyatt, the swankiest hotel in town. Thanks to the deathly slump in tourism and the power of numbers, Peace Corps had arranged it that we could stay in the regularly priced US$ 200 rooms for US$ 30 for one night.
We had also arranged to use the restaurant/bar for a costume party that the VAC had organized. The theme was Good vs. Evil.
Andrew is awarded the opportunity to drive a Tuk-Tuk around the Hyatt fountain.
Standing on the street, Andrew and I decided to get a tuk-tuk to take us to the hotel, which was on the other side of the valley. Some call the tuk-tuk an autorickshaws since it’s a step down from the tempo, also a three-wheeled, two-stroke pollution mobile.
The tuk-tuk has a basic steel floor pan, but the rest of it is canvas and PCVs often refer to them as hearses. They’re cheap and usually make it to their destination, but they’re the lowest form of public transportation in Nepal.
So Andrew and I are sitting in the cramped tuk-tuk on the way to the most upscale hotel in town. After a forty minute drive that would have taken ten in a taxi, we arrive at the front gates of the Hyatt.
The driver is reluctant to go in, since the gate itself costs more than his tuk-tuk, but we nudge him into going inside. We don’t get far, since the guard at the main gate is quick to stop the ghetto cruiser, but once he sees that there are actual foreigners inside he lets us pass.
By the time we get to the front doors we’ve gotten everyone’s attention and were stopped again by another guard. And there was this one gardener who I think wanted to stop us as well. The doorman was happily surprised by the arrival of guests in the decrepit machine.
The image is pretty hilarious, since just opposite the front doors is a magnificent fountain, surrounded by a brick roundabout, reminiscent of old brick roads in the historic districts of towns in the United States.
I ask the tuk-tuk driver if I can drive. He says,
I tell him I’ll give him 25 rupees. He says,
He is uncomfortable in the swankiest hotel in town and is itching to get the hell out of there. I ask again, but it isn’t until the doorman says,
Awh, let’em drive it, that I get into the drivers seat.
I could technically be kicked out of the Peace Corps for driving the crappiest form of transportation in one of the world’s poorest countries around a fountain at the Hyatt Regency, the swankiest hotel in one of the world’s poorest countries.
I’ll say this: I had fun.