Tag Archives: Rasuwa

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.

Traditional medicine

Another night in a hotel room and I’m missing my flat in Birganj.

I’ve been in Kathmandu (Thamel, actually, which is the tourist district) for four nights. I’ll be away from Birganj for almost a week more before I get back to teaching and facing the devils who are my students.

Two weeks ago in Birganj I developed an upper respiratory infection, which worked its way through my sinuses and into my ear—my inner ear to be specific.

I had jinxed myself by telling one of the PCMO nurses that because I had been in Nepal six months without any problems, I should be rewarded with a break from my post with a visit to Kathmandu.

And when I did get sick, I was suddenly afraid that perhaps PCMO would think that I was sick of post instead of other things. I was in a situation I hadn’t been in since elementary school.

I finally made a trip to Dhunche to visit Zach, and Lang Tang was extraordinarily beautiful.

I finally made a trip to Dhunche to visit Zach, and Lang Tang was extraordinarily beautiful.

I had to go to nurse, tell her I didn’t feel well, and have her send me away from my responsibilities with a comforting pat on the back. After all those times in elementary school when I told the nurse my stomach hurt (I can’t remember how many times it did hurt), I had the notion that the nurse secretly knew I was merely trying to indulge myself.

But my ear was bothering me. I just had to let it go on long enough so that there would be no denying that I was ill and that something needed to be done. I wasn’t crying wolf, yet why was I feeling so guilty at the possibility that the PCMO would have me leave the sweltering heat of Birganj for the temperate climate and delicious food of Kathmandu?

The first time I had called the PCMO the nurse told me, Play it by ear.

I realized that my symptoms would have to be more severe before I’d be called to Kathmandu.

I thought that finally having an ear infection for two weeks merited another call to the PCMO and, ergo, a departure from Birganj. I had the feeling of some disembodied finger being in my ear, but nothing painful.

I often had the inclination to take something, like a Q-tip, a pencil, or my Swiss Army knife, and try to get at whatever it was that was bothering my ear. It was driving me crazy.

My hearing had been affected and my students were developing this especially annoying habit of mimicking me when I asked them questions by saying, What? Sorry? Say again?

The best part of this was being referred to a Nepali doctor by the PCMO. When I went to Phora Dubar, the location of the medical offices for both Peace Corps and the embassy staff, and the nurses looked at my ear and told me stories about finding roaches and leeches in PCVs’ ears, but that my ear was free of bugs and such.

All this talk reminded a nurse that she had some intestinal worms in formaldehyde and insisted that she show them to me, which she did.

This one, she said, holding up a yellowish tapeworm about a meter long, was vomited up by embassy staff.

She then showed me a book of horribly infected ears and gave me an idea of what the swollen membrane in my ear looked like. After she looked through the book with a grotesque eagerness, she took another look at my ear and said to herself, Oh, I’ve seen worse.

The worst part about seeing the Nepali doctor was the awful preferential treatment I received because of my skin color. The doctor’s office opened at 5:00 p.m. and he saw patients until 10:00 p.m.

Odd hours, I thought, but apparently common in Nepal. My appointment was for 5:30 p.m. and I got the office just a few minutes early after a painless cab ride from Thamel.

Maybe there’s some sort of Nepali cab dispatch office where the cabbies are taught how to try and chat with passengers who are possibly American. During any given cab ride in Kathmandu a cabbie will at least use one of the three standard conversation starters:

Osama bin Laden.

September 11th?

George W. Bush!?

But these aren’t even intended to start conversation. They’re just statements, like a complete sentence needing only an understanding nod. I’ve tried to engage drivers in Nepali to talk about their notions of any one of those subjects. I get the same responses, time and time again, which are (respectively)

Na ramroo manche. (not a good person)

Na ramroo. (not good)

Confusion. Al Gore. (even the United States has its day)

This driver mentioned all three topics, but left me only with a perplexing Na ramroo.

I’m not sure if he was talking about Osama bin Laden or September 11th or just the lot.

When I came into the waiting room I saw about six or seven individuals and several kids with waiting parents, all Nepali.

A sign welcomes visitors to Lang Tang National Park with a prohibition against honking.

A sign welcomes visitors to Lang Tang National Park with a prohibition against honking.

I hadn’t been in the office two minutes before they led me to the doctor, who spoke with me for a bit. His English was soothing since I was slightly concerned upon coming into his office slash examination room.

On one side of the room sat his desk and several chairs in front. The other side was an examination table with a trey next to it filled with peculiar, stainless steel tools. All of this was illuminated by a single, 60 watt light bulb. The lighting alone made me think something illegal was going on.

But he practiced just as any doctor I had ever known. He asked me a few questions about how I was feeling, looked at me for an equal amount of time, and then wrote out a prescription for some antibiotics and said I should be better in three days.

His assistant gave me some hearing tests before I left. The machines, though skillfully manipulated by the doctor’s son, were circa 1965. I have a BA in English, so who am I to say if that’s a problem?

But I’m feeling better. I was planning to return to Birganj last Saturday, but since that would require me flying back and then returning in three days time on another flight, I asked the PCMO just to keep me in town so my ear wouldn’t have to suffer all the pressure from the flights.

It’s been tough occupying my time in Kathmandu. Today I walked to Patan, and old historic district to the south of Kathmandu. One of the Peace Corps’ drivers asked me to go to Dhunche with him on Tuesday morning.

Dhunche is the main city of Lang Tang National Park, Rasuwa district, one of the more beautiful places in the world, so that’s definitely something to do.

After getting back from Dhunche the next day I’m working with Trina to help plan the regional peer support conference, a quarterly excuse for everyone to get together at least regionally. The conference is being held in Nagarkot, which is a beautiful city just to the east of Kathmandu and famous for its views of the Himalayas.

And then it’s back to facing the kids. I think my stomach hurts.