Category Archives: Terai

The Terai is the low flatlands stretching across the width of Nepal’s southern border with India and is known for its monsoons, glowing green rice fields, and blazing heat and humidity.

What I did

Somehow we came up with idea over dinner. I had just arrived in Birtamod, Jhapa, to visit Andrew one last time before our lives as PCVs.

I was going to stay for a night, maybe two, before heading back to Birganj.

Anyhow, we were having dinner, and Andrew was talking about the school visits he would be making the next day: a short in-and-out trip to invite two English teachers to an upcoming training.

So wouldn’t it be funny, we thought, if I came along pretending to be one of those know-nothing jocks from Washington, DC, pretending:

  1. to know something about the work that we’d just invented
  2. be aware in the slightest of the surrounding people and their culture

We could mock the worst aspect of Peace Corps to the people whose opinions actually mattered—the Nepalis, who were often victims of seemingly random, surprise visits from people with unclear agendas and even stranger messages to deliver to people with whom they have no direct contact before. Weird.

I had seen it happen just a couple of months before when two Peace Corps suits (essentially ‘from corporate’) rolled up in a white SUV at an agricultural co-op where a PCV was working.

Their backgrounds were not in agriculture. They had no visible interest in the economics of the micro-finance scheme of the NGO. In fact, they were ex-military intelligence.

Strange ambassadors to send to a dirt farm needing development assistance, especially considering their collective credentials from Vietnam and Somalia.

After they asked preliminary questions on how the office was built (my favorite question, With what type of steel reinforcement?) and the location of the toilet (there was no toilet, just a pit latrine), they mostly talked amongst themselves about the chiye they had been served.

Oddly, they both compared it with teas they had had in Vietnam and Somalia, respectively. Which was enlightening.

Anyhow, the locals had sat nearby, uncomfortable with their non-comprehension of the foreigners’ curiosity with the tea.

The Nepalis there been told that they two men in starched white shirts, khakis, and high-gloss burgundy loafers had come to Nepal a few days ago from far away to visit their NGO. And so far they had been asked about concrete, and then mumbled to themselves for 20 minutes about, apparently, the tea.

Then they walked to the white SUV and drove off into the sunset, leaving the volunteer behind to explain what had just happened.

Sadly, terrible behavior by the office types in Peace Corps isn’t limited to dumb Americans, although they usually do it with such skill it is humorous for everyone involved.

If only these bumblings were just cultural misunderstandings, they could be excused. But it is usually logistical and financial intimidation. If they don’t put on a good show, they won’t get a PCV.

If they don’t get a PCV, they won’t have access to the piles of money available through grants and proposals.

Now, we are way up in the Himalayas, far from the hot, oppressive Terai. A friend from my group was posted in small village in Lang Tang National Park in the heart of Rasuwa district, north of Kathmandu and bordering the Chinese province of Tibet.

It is a wonderful place of mellow, accepting people: some indigenous to Nepal, some decedents from Tibetans. All are Buddhists in my friend’s village, and there’s only a single government school, which is where she teaches.

So a couple of the senior staff from Peace Corps (who happen to be Nepali) show up in her village to assess the situation. She has but a few months left in her village before her time as a PCV comes to an end.

The staffers are her program officer, a woman, and a training officer, a man. Upon arriving, the two check into the one hotel in the village, which they find awful. They begin complaining to the sole proprietor of the sole hotel in the little village about the hotel’s lack of rooms with joined bathrooms.

Actually, the village is little more than a overnight stop for trekkers heading up, up, up to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Probably a rare occasion to hear the phrase ‘attached bathroom’ spoken in Nepali.

But they’re not done. Much to the PCV‘s horror, during dinner, the duo ask the proprietor for meat with their meal. The guy says that meat isn’t available and heads back into the kitchen.

The PCV is crawling in her skin and explains that most all Buddhists in her village don’t eat meat. She’s lived there for 24 months without meat.

Nonsense, the woman says, I saw chickens out front. Then the PCV has to explain that chickens also lay eggs.

When the proprietor comes back from the kitchen, they ask him again for meat, mentioning the chickens.

They’re for the trekkers. Although I’m a Buddhist, I’ll prepare eggs. The woman is spurred by this and starts negotiating how much it will cost her to pay him to kill a chicken.

Of course, they didn’t get any meat. All they had done was attempt to bribe a person into abandoning religious beliefs for money. And meat. The volunteer was so mortified that she spent the next day apologizing for her office’s thulo manches.

Touching lives, making a difference.

Our plan was for me to wear Andrew’s pin-stripped suit, a Nepali >topi, and act like a total ass.

A few rules: I couldn’t speak Nepali and would have to pretend like I was from Mars and be totally baffled by everything. Yet I would have to press them for certain pointless information and ask them to complete specific pointless tasks in my absence.

We showed up at the school in a white car that we had rented for effect. We had the driver pass through the gate and right up to the office’s front door.

The driver, convinced by a test dialogue Andrew and I had run through during the drive, got out and opened my door for me. I then walked directly into the office and began loudly introducing myself to the faculty who were waiting together before the school day began and exams were handed out.

Hello, I am from Aaaaahmeriii-cah, I said in my best moron-from-Washington voice and then, commanding Andrew, shouted, Translate! The faculty then gave their introductions.

I listened and then began asking them random statistical information, like how many 14 year olds were currently attending the school. It’s the age when children learn the best, I told them, Get ’em when they’re 14, and it’s all over—translate!

Andrew was trying to translate, but the sight of me looking so out of place and acting like such a fool was too much for him and he started laughing, quietly to himself.

His counterpart came over to ask him a question while I was discussing dental health with the headsir, putting his hands around Andrew in an unexceptional display of affection.

I turned to him, We don’t do this in America, I said, looking as dumb as I sounded, And I find it . . . disturbing.

I realized that I was losing steam and asked the headsir if I could address the entire student body, but he told me that because of exams, only a few classes were present.

That’ll be sufficient, I said, because I need to share some things about dental health.

I then asked the faculty what they thought was more important, learning English or dental health.

They talked amongst themselves and then told me in unison, Both are important.

Fine. I then walked out of the office and wandered around the school, pointing at students and shouting, Is this a student, Andrew?

Once the students were assembled, I produced a whistle I had taken from Andrew’s and blew it as loud as I could. I had them.

Out of another pocket, I took out some floss that I had grabbed it as we left Andrew’s, thinking a prop or two might come in handy. I asked the students, What is this?

No one knew so I told them it was floss, yelled at Andrew to translate, and began giving a demonstration of how to use it in front of the 8th and 9th graders, who were assembled outside.

A girl raised her hand and asked (in Nepali), Is this available here?

I said something and Andrew translated, Probably not.

I then asked the students if they enjoyed learning English and of course they said yes.

And how can you speak English, I was really being ridiculous, without a nice smile?

I then asked the kids how to take care of their teeth.

Brushing, they responded in unison.

I then asked some other ways. A hush fell upon them and no one said anything for about half a minute, until a small boy in the back of a line said, Exercise?

Exactly! I told them, glad that the kid had given me something else to ramble on about, Mouth exercises!

I then went through the three mouth exercises I invented on the spot, the big O, the sidewinder, and the cat’s meow. I’ll let you imagine what these were.

I had the kids going through the exercises when the headsir came up to me, It is time to begin the exams.

I concluded by telling those present that I would come back in five years. If they hadn’t taken care of their teeth, I would remove them—forcibly, Translate!

A girl raised her hand and mentioned that they wouldn’t be at this school in five years. Good point. So I took their names and told them that I would track them down. This seemed to make them happy.

The faculty hadn’t bought my act, though, and I think that’s a good thing.

Next time when a white Peace Corps SUV rolls up in the school grounds, drives right up to the office, and some hack with absolutely nothing important or significant to share with the faculty marches into the office, maybe they will have a broader context to understand the significance of such things.

One last note.

As Andrew and I were leaving, we noticed two teachers. One was Andrew’s counterpart, mouth wide open, and the other was the headsir.

The headsir hand a length of floss in his hand and was carefully flossing the other teacher’s teeth.

Touching lives, making a difference.

Finishing touches

During training, one of the hardest and seemingly most necessary things I wanted to communicate to my host family was that I missed home. I missed home. I missed my friends. I missed pizza and beer as dark as the nights in my new, lightless neighborhood.

But the best that I could do, after two months of Peace Corps’ astounding language training, was to tell them, Ma yad garchhu, I remember.

And what do I remember now? Have I changed after two years in this wonderful and flawed organization? Am I better? Did I climb Mount Everest? Did I build a bridge with cave-dwelling, sun-fearing villagers? Wasn’t I supposed to be sick constantly? And what about the United States?

Aren’t I supposed to realize that, at heart, I am a cave-dwelling, sun-fearing villager who could never live like I had before?

I thought I was a PCV. I thought I was the alpha male, able to adapt to anything, pick up a language on the way, and figure out how to be successful in seemingly ‘difficult’ circumstances.

To me, the adjustment after Peace Corps seems a lot like being a PCV a second time. Once in Nepal and then again in the US. Hopefully it’ll be as much fun the second time around.

I’m trying to figure out exactly how right the Peace Corps shrinks will be at forecasting hard times. They told me I’d be sick, which I really wasn’t. I mean, not any more than I would have been if I’d stayed in the US.

Yes, I did have diarrhea, but I’d had that in the US, too. I didn’t need Nepal to get indigestion. Plus, I never got ill enough to really complain about it. Except that one time during the monsoon when it was well over 110° F and the power went out for over a day.

Which was awful.

While I can’t really start to look back at my Peace Corps experience and the very strange and interesting culture that surrounds it quite yet, I can say that for me, my experience as a PCV was completely unlike what I had preconceived.

In a country of mud huts with thatch roofs, I never lived in one.

In a country of sprawling rice fields, I never commuted through one.

In a country of extreme poverty, I never really experienced it.

Sure I saw it. I passed pale corpses dead from the previous night’s freeze. I watched one morning as a set of tractors demolished shanties I used to see from my kitchen window. I fingered bullet holes in the waiting room of the airport. I heard bombs. I saw the muzzle flashes from weapons in the distance before going to bed. I taught shoeless children and paid half-naked rickshaw drivers. I was mugged and robbed.

But I never really experienced the things that gave Birganj its edge. I was always safe, far removed from the real things that change people.

Even when I rode in the backseat of an army captain’s car while he had a Browning 9mm shoved down the front of his pants, explaining how not a month ago the Maoists had attack him at this very spot and killed several of his men, I was safe.

And I can’t think why.

I’m in Dharan, and I’m finishing the training that the ANNISU-R said I couldn’t finish a month earlier because they were trying to keep eastern Nepal closed for some reason, to prove some point to someone somewhere.

I’m here, and I’m thinking about where I’m going to be, what I’m going to be doing, at some point in the future. Sometimes I think about April, when I finish as a PCV. Other times, I think about two years ahead. Future hazy, check back later, as the Magic 8 Ball used to say.

The one thing that I want to do, though, is have one last breath of what I loved about Nepal, outside of what I can get in Birganj. I want to see Birtamod and remember all the crazy people who flock to Andrew, the PCV who lives there.

I want to walk the quiet, dying streets of Rajbiraj and remember dogs, Christmases, and paan. I want to pass along the quieter parts of the East-West Highway, remembering that not all the trees have been cut down yet.

I want to jump off the bus as it pulls into the Birganj bus park with rickshaws swarming about, remembering that in such a place, I can be happy.

I remember Moser’s songs about unrequited love. I remember Andrew’s long hair, which looked awful. I remember Liz being shy, even though we were close, and I guarded one of her secrets—and a hilarious secret at that.

I remember being on Laurel and Kara’s patio, drinking coffee and eating André’s dry biscuits. I remember waking up in Yvette’s living room even before the sun has risen and then making that dusty, cold walk to catch a bus going somewhere.

I remember the apples in Mustang, drinking hot chocolate with Beth in a place she (for some strange reason) thought was nice.

I remember drinking jar at 8 a.m. with my host family in Gaidankot, then telling my language teacher, in Nepali, that I was drunk, which they always thought was a joke since it was 8 a.m. and I was speaking Nepali.

And I remember sinking that damn boat in Fewa Lake, laughing all the while.

I remember the first walk through the Birganj bazaar, not sure if I was in an Indiana Jones or a Mad Max movie, but knowing I was going to be OK.

I remember my first night in Birganj, staying in such a bad hotel that I even surprised myself. I remember being woken numerous times in a shady hotel in Thailand by roaches crawling over my body. And that had become a vacation.

I need to go to Jhapa and see the green, lowland tea fields one more time. I need to stay a night in Rajbiraj one last time, because I didn’t know that my last visit there was going to be my last visit there.

I need one more cold Coke from a wet glass bottle on a hot, sticky day in the Itahari bus park.

I want more foggy mornings spent over coffee and newspapers at Himanchal Cabin in Birganj.

I have to see more smiling faces of eager students—and teachers.

I have to experience everything again, so I can remember.

And yet there’s no time.

Characters, part 1

Oh, the places you go and the people you met. I’ve been in Nepal now for 15 months and met more than a couple interesting people. I decided that I’d write about some of the more interesting people I’ve met in installments. This is the first.

Here are three individuals I met while in Jhapa back in March 2003. All live in Birtamod, where my friend Drew is posted, and all are strange. While Birganj has enough lunatics to fill several entries, these are some special people.

Sunjay the Islamic extremist

Take the appearence of the scuzziest rickshaw driver from across Nepal, give him a thick English accent as spoken by someone who learned English in India, circa 1950, and add a lazy eye to the mix. I met Sunjay in Birtamod, Jhapa

He’s an odd man, what many Nepalese would call a tragedy manche, because of his rather unpleasant and/or unlucky life story.

One of Drew’s friends in Birtamod runs an optical shop, selling mostly sunglasses but also producing fine facsimiles of eye glasses. On any given day in Birtamod you can find Sunjay at the optical shop, waiting for a most likely mythical ophthalmologist to show up and fix his eye.

I asked Sunjay how long he’d been waiting. About seven years, he answered, without smiling.

The optical shop is run by Nissam et al. Nissam is an Islamic extremist, trapped to a life of infidelity in Nepal, or so he says, Other Muslims do not think I am true Muslim, he grimaced, as if defeated, because I do not live in Muslim country.

A sign at a restaurant pretty much simplifies the Are you Nepal? question.

A sign at a restaurant pretty much simplifies the question.

He told me this several times during our first meeting and I began to detect it was the source of a great inferiority complex within the world-wide Muslim community.

This inferiority complex, I also believe, is what gave birth to his Islamic extremism. A while ago when Drew stopped by to say hi, Nissam asked Drew to come in and sit down.

We have something to ask you, he asked Drew. He went on to ask Drew to help him go to the US. Drew, remembering past conversations about the US with Nissam (not good) asked, Why do you want to go the US?

Unlike most Nepalis seeking exodus to the US, Nissam had a formulated reason, I want to kill George W. Bush. Yes. OK?

I didn’t understand how strange the dynamic at the Nissam & Co. Optical was until Sunjay asked Drew and I over to his house. On the second floor of a building either being built or crumbling (hard to tell), Sunjay lives in a single room with his mother and two sons.

The wife ran off around ten years ago and Sunjay has been a destitute tragedy manche ever since. Sunjay kicked open the door and Drew and I got a full glimpse of his mother sitting on the bed, mostly naked.

Sunjay immediately launched into a diatribe about Muslims, or rather, Those fukcing Mohammedans, man (it’s the 1950’s Indian English), after telling us about his Christian faith and showing us a dusty photograph of not quite completely decomposed saint from Goa, India.

His mother was getting dressed in the corner or the room during all of this.

You can’t trust Mohammedans, man, Sunjay told us, Once they move in, the place goes to hell, man with a special emphasis on the last word as if he knew what he was talking about, but mostly amused at what he was telling us.

Drew and I looked at one another. Sunjay, Drew said, You spend all your day with Nissam and, um, he’s a Mohammedan.

Good God man, Sunjay yelled, That’s what I’m talking about, man. Mohammedans!

A bit later, Drew said that Nissam and Sunjay had gotten into a fight. Out of the kindness of his heart, Nissam had been asking Sunjay over to eat with his wife and son.

Sunjay always accepted and was usually intoxicated, most likely as a coping mechanism to deal with the harsh reality that the mystical ophthalmologist was never, ever going to come and fix his eye.

(No one is really sure where Sunjay got this notion that his eye could be fixed or that some specialist was coming to Birtamod, Jhapa, to do the operation in a small bazaar pasal for free.)

So Nissam had taken Sunjay aside, shoeless and smelling of third-rate cheap liquor, and asked him if he was going to come to his house, eat his food, and sit with his wife and child, he’d sure appreciate it if he could try and do it sober.

God damn Mohammedans! Sunjay screamed, I’m going to Cally, man, (‘Cally’ meaning Calcutta) and he left.

And off Sunjay went. Drew was sad when he told me about Sunjay’s departure, but a month later when I talked to Drew he told me that Sunjay had returned, had his operation in Cally, and his eye was still grotesquely gazing in the wrong direction.

Oddly Drew found Sunjay sitting in Nissam’s optical shop and, as far as Sunjay was concerned, having no need for the fantastical ophthalmologist. Sunjay is notorious around Birtamod—not popular.

I have no doubt that Sunjay is still sitting at Nissam & Co. Optical with his best (and only) friend. A Mohammedan.

A child named Time Pass

Another interesting resident of Birtamod, Jhapa, is Time Pass, a most unusual 10-year-old boy. I first met Time Pass while walking through Birtamod with Drew on our way to his place.

As we passed a shack, a motorcycle repair shop, a couple young grease monkeys from inside yelled out at us, Hey! Time pass! Time pass!

I politely responded that I didn’t have time for ‘time pass’ and had to be on my way. Drew’s ears perked up and he said, No, Time Pass is a kid you have to meet, and we headed inside.

Posing in Birtamod, Time Pass. What else to say?

Posing in Birtamod, Time Pass. What else to say?

When the young men, apparently the guardians of Time Pass, went inside to look for him they reappeared empty handed. No Time Pass today, I guess, and we left. Just a few hundred meters from the shop this small, rather chubby kid comes running around a corner at full speed.

His pants were pulled up to his armpits and a candy bar was hanging out of his mouth, chocolate slathered around his face. Hey, hey. How ya’ doin’ there? he asked me, invoking the voice of a 50-year-old used car salesman.

Drew had told me what made this kid exceptional was that there was merely the body of a child, but a soul of washed up small-time crook. Besides his name, Time Pass had the strangest body language and behavior I’ve ever seen exhibited by a child. I grabbed my wallet.

Before I could actually say anything to Time Pass, though, and old, also chubby woman in a sari came stumbling around the corner from where Time Pass had come rushing from. She was clearly in a hurry, clearly mad, clearly trying to kill Time Pass.

Above her head in one hand she held a jagged rock, about the size of a softball, and her eyes were burning to see Time Pass’ blood spilt.

Time Pass noticed this as well, Hey ya. Well, don’t you know. Gotta be goin’, and off he went about the time the old woman sent the rock sailing through the air narrowly missing Time Pass, executing a move reminiscent of OJ Simpson’s football footwork.

We stayed until we could no longer see the old woman chasing Time Pass into the jumbled streets of Birtamod. I never met Time Pass again, but Drew gave me an update a while back. While Drew was out of town, Time Pass had come by looking for Drew, looking for money.

Between two volunteers, Time Pass.

Between two volunteers, Time Pass.

The only person at home was Drew’s Aamaa, the old woman of the house, a moderately insane woman as well, who often tells people calling for Drew that he’s dead, and spends most of her time watching Animal Planet dubbed in Hindi while smoking marijuana.

She’s a kind, old Limbu woman who’s just become slightly eccentric in her retirement. She wouldn’t harm a fly.

Time Pass, apparently, does not qualify as a fly. All that Drew could discern from his Aamaa‘s rambling, drug-influenced recollection of the incident was that Time Pass had squatted in the house refusing to leave until Drew returned or his was given a bribe to leave.

The Aamaa finally had it with Time Pass, who was undoubtedly being a buzz-kill during her zany animal bloopers program, and chased him out of the house with a khukuri (those scary banana-shaped Nepali knifes) drawn and waving about.

Time Pass lived to tell the tale, but I must say, Time Pass walks a fine line.

After meeting Time Pass, I asked Sunjay about him.

You can’t trust that boy, man, he said rather somberly, Good God, man. He’s notorious! I think he’ll be the damn mayor one day, man.

And if Sunjay doesn’t trust someone . . .