Tag Archives: Birtamod

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.

Closing ceremonies

I was in Birtamod just after the Thanksgiving trip to Kolkata. I was having lunch with two guys from the Peace Corps office in Washington, DC. They were security.

On guy told me that he had been doing, well, military intelligence in Somalia for a several years before retiring and coming to work for the Peace Corps. He told me that when Peace Corps has had to evacuate its volunteers from a country, it’s usually because of families calling the office. Or a senator.

The other guy had done similar work for the armed forces, but some time ago and in Vietnam. We asked him to talk more about what he did.

Counter intelligence, he said as if that was a complete explanation.

I wondered if he was joking, So you spent a lot of time behind a counter, eh?

No laugh.

It was convenient that they had come, because after their night in Birtamod, they were heading west and north to Dharan, where I was to give a teacher training to a government school faculty.

Jen talks with Sunil, her counterpart at the Dharan nagar palika.

Jen talks with Sunil, her counterpart at the Dharan nagar palika.

I was helping out another volunteer from my group, Jen, who was working in youth development but found time to teach English classes at this school and who wanted some help developing the skills of its teachers.

(The teachers in Birganj had clearly expressed their disinterest in what I had to offer, or at least doing those things, so I thought a change of venue might be good; though I was worried.)

I thought, If this training sucks and if the teachers fall asleep of if another student vomits while I’m teaching, then I have to start being critical—maybe it’s me.

I was going to use this training to evaluate myself for better or worse. It was the placebo.

When the Washington folks dropped me in Dharan, I quickly found out that the lovely ANNISU-R had called a bandha for three days—exactly when I had scheduled my training.

A view from the north hills across Dharan.

A view from the north hills across Dharan.

When I met with Jen later that day, we immediately walked over to the school to see what we could do. The headsir told us that he was planning on asking students to come to class on Saturday so they could finish their exams, and meant there wouldn’t be time left for the training.

So we rescheduled. I left the day before the bandha and got to Birganj safely. I sat around my flat for those three days with not much to do, wondering exactly when I’d be working again.

Fast forward a month later. Our yearly All-Vol conference had just finished in the middle of January, and I’d been asked by my program officer to go up to the N/196 group PST to help facilitate sessions with the teacher trainers in Godavari, just outside of Kathmandu. I looked at a calendar and noticed something that didn’t make me happy

Date Agenda
Jan 22, 2004 Fly to Biratnagar; catch bus to Dharan
Jan 23, 2004 First day of training
Jan 28, 2004 Last day of training

This was troubling. I realized that the materials and the curriculum that I had prepared for the first and later rescheduled training were in Birganj. And I realized this on January 21, 2004.

I was up in Godavari and wouldn’t be getting back to Kathmandu until the night of January 22, 2004.

What in the hell was I thinking? I was going to have to conjure up a curriculum as well as the necessary materials in the few free hours I wasn’t traveling in the few days left before the training.

As soon as I got into Kathmandu, I went straight to the office, printed the curriculum I had written in Godavari and ran back to drop off my stuff.

I ate, packed my bags, and passed out. The next morning was January 22, 2004, and I had a early flight to the airport. When I finally opened the door, I was somewhat pleased that it was foggy.

If I’m late and it’s beyond my control, then I’m safe.

My flight left moments after reaching the airport.

Scott, your author, and Tony (left to right) giving instruction to the faculty.

Scott, your author, and Tony (left to right) giving instruction to the faculty.

Once we reached Dharan, I bought the supplies I’d need for the training and then tried to call Tony, who had been planning on helping me facilitate the training.

I got a hold of him and we made plans to meet the next day. The first two days were for all the school’s teachers and would have to be done in Nepali. The other days were for the English teachers in the area cluster.

I had to get in touch with the resource person. I had to find a pocket chart. I had to make flash cards. I had to revise the curriculum. I had to make a games/songs packet to distribute. I had to figure out how to speak Nepali. I had a few hours.

The next two days went well. I worked with the faculty to create rules and consequences to use school-wide as a method of classroom management and positive reinforcement, but it was tough.

I was trying to explain why each rule needs a logical consequence. I asked, What’s a logical consequence if a student is late?

Renu Miss, a bombastic Newari woman who had hugged me when I asked her in Newari, Bala du?, had answered the original question, Beat the student?

Students assemble at school on the day of Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

Students assemble at school on the day of Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

I tried to work through her answer, trying to illustrate through other examples of a rule with a logical consequence (several of the teachers were right on, coming up with some great stuff).

Then asked her if she thought a beating was a logical consequence or if it positively reinforced the rule

Well then, utpas, someone offered.

Utpas are up-and-down exercises that kids do while holding their ears.

So I didn’t quite reach everyone, but school and class rules were made and the faculty eagerly discussed making banners and posting signs in each classrooms.

One teacher, also a little hesitant in being so explicit with the students queried the other teachers, asked How about we give them the rules, but keep the consequences secret?

Once again, I realized hadn’t explained it as well as I should have. The language was an obstacle.

A student gives another tikka during Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

A student gives another tikka during Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

In the end, the rules were made and the teachers as a whole were excited. After the final (second) day of the training, everyone was complementary on the evaluation.

I felt like I had done something good. That the students were suddenly going to understand exactly what teachers were expecting from them and vice versa. That made me feel good.

When the English training sessions started, I felt relived, since Tony knows English education backwards and forwards, and I would be able to relax for a while.

Tony really commanded the majority of the English training, and I just popped up between segments to provide an activity that the teachers could use in class. My favorite was something that Trey and Tony had developed called ‘paragraph sandwich.’

It was basically a formulaic approach of brainstorming vocabulary and then fitting it into a modeled descriptive paragraph.

Jen was made an official assistant teacher to Tony and I during the training.

Jen was made an official assistant teacher to Tony and I during the training.

I thought the teachers could use it for their 4th and 5th grade classes, but after running through the demo and writing a paragraph as a group, most thought it would work well for higher secondary level.

They offered their concerns, which I thought I addressed well—but still, I couldn’t sure.

On the last day of the training, two teachers, Krishna and Hari Sir, approached me just before we started the last session. Krishna had actually been a student of Hari Sir’s years ago at that very school in Dharan.

They told me that they had tried the sandwich paragraph in a 9th grade class, and it had been a success.

The idea of collaborating, together, a teacher and his former student, trying an activity that I had modeled for them, just blew my mind. Usually the stigma between teacher and student is . . . well, prohibitive of such activities.

Imagining those two teaching a class together, trying new techniques and basically working to become better teachers—together—just overwhelmed me.

At the end of the training, when the teachers presented Tony and I with ties (quite nice, actually) as tokens of their appreciation, I felt like I had somehow found the right people, done the right things, and had actually made a difference.

And it was the first time in two years.

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.

Thanksgiving travels

Birganj to Kolkata: November 26–30, 2003

If I said that my Thanksgiving plans for this year were made by my friends while they trekking around Sikkim with the US Consulate to India, I might sound a little over the top, as if I was trying to impress whoever might stumble across these scribblings.

A bicyclist pauses for a photo in Kolkata.

A bicyclist pauses for a photo in Kolkata.

Actually, that’s about the simplest I can put it. My friends took some vacation, went to Darjeeling and then Sikkim, and happened to share the trail with the US Consulate. His name is Geroge.

George and his wife were nice enough to extend invitations to them and their friends (I would fall in to the latter group) to join them and some other foreign service staff for Thanksgiving in Kolkata.

There were promises of a 23-lb turkey, sweet potatoes, and a swimming pool. But getting to Kolkata wasn’t as simple as it should have been.

The problem wasn’t in logistics, since Kolkata is an overnight 12–13 hour train (or bus) ride from Eastern Nepal.

We had four days to get to Kolkata and back to Nepal to be within the good graces of Peace Corps/Nepal. It wasn’t simple. Because we’re morons.

After congregating in Birtamod, we left en masse for Kakarbhitta and then to Siliguri, where we could catch an overnight train to Kolkata.

Andrew was supposed to have bought train tickets, but because of the present security situation in Nepal, none of us were sure that we would be able to go; that is, until the day before we had planned to leave the country. So Andrew hadn’t bought tickets.

Andrew e-mailed me from Kathmandu:

Dear Fool,

I am in Kathmandu. You are at post. I am watching the BBC. You are listening to it on a scratchy radio. I am taking hot showers. You are sitting under a cold tap. You are listening to the same old music, while I listen to new exciting albums you have never even heard of.

I am staying out late at the discos. You are going to bed at 8 p.m. You know nothing about the trip to Kolkata. I have all the control. I have the tickets. I am negotiating with the office. You do nothing. You sit, and you wait for me, dog.

Sit.

Justin Timberlake

I was mostly confused because of how Andrew had signed his e-mail. Strange man, he is.

Anyhow, when we finally saw him in Birtamod, he informed us that, in fact, he hadn’t bought any train tickets. So we were left to ‘figure it out’ in Siliguri. And off we went.

Day 1, Wednesday

It was the day before Thanksgiving when we finally were allowed to leave Nepal and enter India. By the time we reached the Siliguri train station, NJP, we had been throwing around a football and talking about white vs. dark meat, pumpkin vs. apple pie, swim vs. nap.

A tree grows in Calcutta.

A tree grows in Calcutta.

It didn’t take long at the booking office to know that we weren’t going to get on a Kolkata-bound train. We would require another means of transportation.

Those means were limited to a bus. Kara sounded suddenly excited and talked about a bus she had taken from Goa to Mumbai back in April: seats that reclined into beds, air conditioning, comfort, et cetera.

We bought our bus tickets and waited for our luxury bus to arrive. We sat around the travel agency playing hearts and spades until 7 p.m. Our bus ride would last something like 12 hours, which would put us in Kolkata well before anyone carved anything.

Seeing the bus wasn’t nearly as disappointing as actually boarding it. While it wasn’t any worse than the average bus in Nepal, it was not any better.

As soon as Laurel sat in her chair, it squeaked loudly, collapsed backwards into a total recline, and rested on the legs of the man sitting behind her. It was broken. As I sat down next to her, I thought of her misfortune in not being able to sit upright for next 12 hours.

Logically, my seat next to Laurel’s was incapable of reclining at all. My chair was to remain at a precise 90°ree; angle. I sat perfectly upright for the entire duration of the bus ride, which was, in retrospect, longer than 12 hours.

Sitting in the erect position, as soon as I would nod off, I would slowly begin to lean forward and descend until the bottom of my chin was touching the top of my stomach and then the top of my head would collide with the back of the seat in front of me.

And sometimes just the light from on-coming traffic burning into my eyes was enough to jostle me awake. But I was not alone, as no one slept.

And then at odd moments in the night, when I was neither asleep or awake, the bus would stop and we would be herded off for food. I have a cloudy memory of stopping somewhere in the black of the early morning. It must have been 3 a.m.

I staggered off the bus and faced three identical rice shops, all glowing violently with an incandescent flicker, all with a single bundled man in front screaming—sort of a shouting chanting—to attract people to the respective rice shop.

I was cold. I was half awake, half dreaming, and there were three men, wearing sweater vests, somewhere in anonymous India, shouting at the zombie-like bus passengers milling around a dirt lot.

At some point, jostled by the chanting, I remembered how a few hours earlier I had awoken to find an Indian Army guy walking up the isle in the bus with a digital video camera, sweeping the passengers’ faces while a bright on-camera light shined into our faces.

I remember waking up for a moment to think I was being kidnapped. And then falling back to my near-asleep state.

After that, the next thing I remembered was this most bizarre sight: three rice shops with similarly dressed touts in front shouting the nearly identical things about actually identical food. I found this odd.

The touts chanted, HEY! WEGOTLOTSOFRICE! LOTSOFHOTRICE! OHRICE! OHROTI! YOUWANTROTIWEGOTROTI! HOTROTI! COLDROTI! LOTSOFFOOD! ROTI! RICE!

During the 20-odd minutes we spent at this rest stop, the three touts never stopped chanting nor, as far as I could tell, breathing.

I ate, but it didn’t help me sleep. The touts haunted my dreams.

Day 2, Thursday (Thanksgiving)

It was still early when we reached the US Consulate in Kolkata. The taxi driver had taken us without any difficulty to Ho Chi Minh Sarayani, the humerous address of the US Consulate.

The Ambassador car in Kolkata.

The Ambassador car in Kolkata.

Apparently West Bengal’s long-standing (and long-ruling) Communist Party thought it quite clever to rename the street in the early 1970s to tease the US foreign service. Kind of like the British with India’s city names.

Anyhow, this was the day of relaxation. We had some breakfast and saw the Buddha that Laloo Prasad Yadav, the then defacto minister of Bihar, had given George.

He told us a story about a man who had met Laloo once to discuss the subject of Laloo’s poor record on education in Bihar. Why was education in Bihar lacking behind other states in India?

Laloo looked at the man. You’re educated, he said. Would you vote for me?

Bihar is an interesting place. Even though I’ve been within spitting distance of it (the border town of Raxual, Bihar, is just on the other side of Birganj), I’ve never actually been there. For better or worse.

After coffee, we played a game of touch football with the pigskin that we had brought from Nepal (and tested at the Siliguri bus depot). We ha been tossing it to and fro to entertain ourselves during the lulls of travel. Most people had assumed it was a rugby ball.

When we told them that it was US-rules football, people just stared at the ball with even greater confusions, I assume trying to figure out how one would kick the oddly shaped ball.

Most people who handled the ball, however, were amused and informed us that the ball was made in China.

The Thanksgiving feast was wonderful. We had cleaned up and tried to look as presentable as possible. I sat near the head of the table, next to our hosts, George and Lee.

There were the seven of us PCVs, two other foreign service folks working at the consulate, and both George’s and Lee’s mothers.

The table was set with beautiful china upon a brilliantly white table cloth, with a few candelabrum here and there.

Things got complicated when Andrew and I were both served the gigantic legs of the turkey. My first impulse was to use my silverware, but Lee quickly scolded me, We’re like your family. You can eat Henry VIII style.

There was a reason that the PCVs had been given these obtuse pieces of meat to eat: shamelessness. We had been eating with our hands since coming to Nepal. The same goes for India.

So who cares if Andrew and I, in the US Consulate on for a major US holidays, looked like we were on a poster for the Society of Creative Anachronism at a medieval festival.

Moser spilled his red wine all over the table cloth. He covered it up with his plate. Liz broke a glass in her bedroom. She stuffed the pieces in newspaper into the bottom of a garbage can. Several of us trampled decorative Deepawali lights while running into the bushes playing football.

We were a mess. They should have kicked us out.

But they were kind people.

Day 3, Friday

We had set aside the day after Thanksgiving to do a few tourist activities before our departure on Saturday. We asked George’s mother to come along with us, and she was game.

First, we walked over to the India Museum. It was a strange place, the museum itself being as interesting as its holdings. There was a display of a family of gorillas that had been donated nearly a 100 years ago.

Late, we approach our platform to find our train back to NJP.

Late, we approach our platform to find our train back to NJP.

Stitches down the middle of each gorilla dated the quality of the taxidermy. But even stranger were the clear marks of bullet wounds in the chests of each animal: Papa, mama, and their two baby gorillas.

I imagined an old honourable East India Company Britisher with his entourage of Indians wandering jungles and killing every God damn beast that crossed their path.

The gorillas were a gift to the museum by a man who, most likely, had a sufficient supply of stuffed dead things. Just thinking this guy had blown away a family was slightly disturbing, but I guess that was a long while ago.

Hunting ethics are different, I suppose. Recently I had read about foreigners paying to shoot exotic animals caught in wildlife reserves that were tied to the ground.

Afterwards, we wandered to New Market. Mostly we found shop after shop after shop selling saris and a surprising number of wig outlets. I thought of the gorillas in the museums.

There were porters wandering everywhere and most spoke passable English. Or at least enough to convey that they had a special friend that would give us a special price on some special fabric. It was the same gimmick used across the subcontinent: convince the person that they are being ripped off, and then rip them off.

Which is quite effective, actually.

I did find a shop with a reasonable prices and salesmen unlike starving jackals. Even there, though, buying a CD wasn’t as easy as I would have liked. I found a CD I wanted to buy, and the staff, seeing that I was actually buying something, began producing other things they thought I might be interested in: porno movies.

I thought back to Mumbai when a man in an open-air bazaar had asked me, You want sex?

I quickly told the man that I really wasn’t much of a spender, put down the CD, and wandered back to find my friends. I saw one of my pals at a similar shop, flipping through a pile of adult films.

I felt foolish for having not realized what the other guy was trying to sell me.

Not like I was going to buy any. I always think that if I were to die somewhere along the way, if our bus crashed or I snapped my spine somewhere, what would my family think when they received my belongings, complete with what people here call ‘blue films.’

We had arranged a time to met as a group to walk back to the Consulate together.

Andrew had been playing a strange game where when approached by beggars, he would direct them to another person in our party saying, See that guy? He has our money.

The first time Andrew employed this technique, about a dozen young beggar girls surrounded me in less than a minute.

It was a rather passive activity, since about that many had congregated around me at different times while walking through the market.

When I saw Andrew standing aside, I told the girls, He has lots of money, in my occasionally passable Hindi.

On the train from Kolkata to NJP, somewhere in West Bengal.

On the train from Kolkata to NJP, somewhere in West Bengal.

In a matter of seconds the girls swarmed Andrew. Before he could get out of the market, he had given the girls about 200 Indian rupees and a packet or two of food he had bought along the street.

After meeting, we jumped in to taxis with kids chasing after us, enjoying our game (really, it was fun) as well as their snacks.

George’s mother freely expressed her contempt for our childishness. You just ruined it for the rest of the tourists! she told us, holding back her smile.

Our taxi driver didn’t quite know the way back to the Consulate. We had filled two taxis, and our driver finally pulled over to ask the other if he knew the way. The two drivers shouted various directions at one another in Hindi, and I basically understood what they were saying.

So I tried to give as best directions as I could to the two drivers, as if to jar their memories.

George’s, sitting in front with the driver, turned around to ask Andrew in the back as I spoke, How does he know Bengali?

Andrew looked out the window, shook his hand to indicate contempt, and said with a straight face, It’s gibberish!

She seemed convinced that I was just parroting the two men and remained quite for rest of the trip.

Really, I thought, my Hindi isn’t that bad.

Later, at the Consulate, we decided to go to the Park Hotel’s club, Tantra—supposedly the swankiest club in town. We sat around in George and Lee’s living room questioning whether or not we would even be able to get in to such a place.

I mean, Kolkata’s quite a bit more sophisticated than Kathmandu. And we were barely getting by there, frankly. Each of us had stories about how we would ended up places, parties, and functions looking quite scruffy.

Lee overhead our talk and asked if we really wanted to go.

Of course, we told her.

She picked up the phone, called a friend, and suddenly we were on The List.

I don’t think I’d ever been on a list before, let alone The List. We were excited.

While the club was far classier than any place we had been in a while, it wasn’t quite what I had expected. Perhaps I had been brainwashed by Bollywood.

I’m smart enough to know that when I see a club or some hip place portrayed in a US movie, I can say, Yes, this does not exist, but I hadn’t quite been able to do that and had some pretty crazy preconceptions of what this club would be like.

I mean, just watch a Bollywood movie. To prepare myself for the hordes of beautiful women who I would have to fight off at the club, I sat in the living room, drank Corona, and watched Fashion TV for two straight hours while everyone else napped and washed clothes.

Day 4, Saturday

The day before we left went quickly. I slept until 11 a.m. for the first time in a long, long while. Granted, I hadn’t gotten to bed until 4 a.m. the previous day (that morning?), but the fact that I hadn’t been woken by people milling about, calling for milk, banging on my door, was wonderful.

A small shop, open late, near the Howrah train station.

A small shop, open late, near the Howrah train station.

After a hot shower and a strong cup of coffee, I walked over to Flury’s for a late breakfast. A few folks had gone to the Botanical Gardens to check out the world’s largest banyan tree. Others just enjoyed the Consulate’s garden or did some reading.

Soon the day was gone, and we found ourselves waiting for our train by wandering around Howrah Station. We had bought return tickets in Kolkata, although we had been put on a waiting list, which didn’t worry us much. We had been in the same situation back in April when we visited Goa.

I checked in at the station and got our seat assignments, illegibly written on our tickets. Six people were together in one car (I couldn’t make out the seat assignments but knew they’d be posted outside the train once it arrived) and one person was alone in a separate car.

So I elected to be the guy alone in the separate car. As we boarded our train, I waved goodbye to my pals thinking that if I got bored enough during the train ride, I could wander through the cars and sit with the them for a while. But a couple hours into the ride, I discovered that passage between cars was blocked in one car by an iron door.

I went back to my seat and settled in for the night. I didn’t sleep well since I was under the window and froze all night long. Plus I hadn’t brought a sheet let alone a pillow, so I woke early the next morning with quite a stiff neck.

All in a day’s travel, I thought.

Day 5, Sunday

When we pulled into the NJP station, back near Siliguri, I met the others at the entrance to the train station. They looked awful. Apparently, their tickets had been made so that two people were assigned to each bed (on the train, beds are much smaller than a single).

No one had slept, all were grumpy, all were ready to get to Birtamod, Nepal, and take a shower at Andrew’s flat. We arranged for a jeep to take us to the India-Nepal border and put Liz in the middle of two people—out of reach of the doors.

The Howrah station was almost itself alive with activity at all hours.

The Howrah station was almost itself alive with activity at all hours.

Let us return to the beginning of our trip for a moment. We only gotten as far as passing through Indian immigration after exiting Nepal, when Liz opened her door without looking for oncoming traffic. Of all things, a fast-moving rickshaw had slammed in to the door, damaging its hinge.

We received an estimate, which was the driver estimating how much he wanted to charge us for the accident, and pooled our money and paid him off—and quickly got another driver before word spread.

At both the Indian and Nepali customs offices, the staff remembered us and asked us how our Thanksgiving had been. Well, they didn’t remember ‘Thanksgiving’ but just knew that we had left for a national holiday.

I was mostly interested in finding out if any security-related problems had occurred in Nepal in the, oh, 108 hours that had passed since we left.

Peaceful. Quiet. Nothing to mention. What a relief. And for that, I was thankful.

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 . . .