Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Office is Very Normal

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned

Ritter meets with a colorful array of people. His appointment schedule ranges from meeting with local crooks (aka land brokers) to British thangka scholars who bash Italians, to first time (hence confused) visitors to the country. His occasional visits to the US embassy put the security up in arms for parking his jeep in a restricted area. His idea of “documentation” for a visa application is “I am the documentation!” Phone conversations range from “we gave the solar panels to the organization, but the Maoists stole them” to “and what happened to the dog, did they bury it or pitch it over the Bagmati bridge?” He regularly stalks academics researching the ethnic groups with whom we work. “Academics are like plumbers,” he told me, “you have a problem, you hire them to figure it out.” Figure it out, yes, but our office and partner organizations are the ones who “fix” it—for academics, such work is “meddling.”

Prakash recites numbers aloud to himself as he double-checks a budget for the umpteenth time. He is also a bit of a news junkie, so reads portions from the Nepali and English news websites online quietly. “Did you hear about the bridge collapsing in Cambodia?” “Eh, those Maoists, they’re in deadlock again” “Did you hear about the tsunami in Japan?” These have been our conversation starters in the morning. Occasionally he decides to listen to rock music, without headphones, but the volume is still quiet. He yells at Radhe to get the puppies to stop fighting over nothing or chewing his motorcycle’s parts. He Skypes regularly, chatting or calling with people he’s met at various MLE (that’s “multilingual education”) workshops, conferences, and training programs all over South Asia; with office associates in other parts of Nepal; or his brother’s family in the United States. My favorite day was when I returned back from West Nepal and couldn’t remember what the Tharus call that sweet, dense, steamed dough they make, so Prakash calls up Ram, one of the office workers in Dang, over Skype just to ask him “Hey! What’s that sweet, dense, steamed dough made of rice flour that you eat at Maghi called? Dhikiti? Ok thanks! Yeah, that’s it.”

Eva, a former Fulbright scholar, has government ministers stop by just to say “hi” and welcome her back to the country. In reorganizing our library, she has found awesome bilingual children’s books chronicling the adventures of Tommy Tempo in Kathmandu and Chitwan. She has been spreading her ideas concerning democracy in writing a grant concerning the NFE classes we support. Bluntly, she knows that the Nepali government will fail to meet its deadlines or fulfill its promises to the people, and she says so in the grant; hence, we need to look for other ways to build democratic ideals and empower people to participate at the grassroots level in the process. How about teaching marginalized women how to read?

Ritter believes we’re all under Radhe's thumb. Radhe is the half blind and half deaf guardsman who opens the gate in the morning for us all. We’ve all been locked out or locked in, depending on which side of the gate we’re on when he has an errand to run or decides to walk the street. He sweeps and mops the floors of the office in the morning, gives us tea with too much sugar in it, and decides when we’re done drinking said tea. Eva has taken to holding her cup of stone cold tea just so Radhe won’t take it when he thinks she should be done with it. Ritter and Prakash have sent Radhe out to buy everything from tea bags to electrical plugs, and have sent him back out to get the correct item when he’s arrived back with the wrong item. Once, he broke a lamp on the ceiling while cleaning it; both Ritter and Prakash took turns fixing it to their satisfaction.

Daily office activities include double-checking the electricity schedule to make sure the batteries for the inverter are charged or when we can print something, huddling around the gas heater when second winter sets in, and answering the phone with our own greetings. I with “LDC, this it Tori,” Ritter with “Guten morgen!” and Prakash with “Hello?!” We still deal with crashed computers, finicky printers, impending deadlines, and take time to brainstorm ideas—all the usual stuff. If you ask me, our office is very normal.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Very Normal Day

So, last Tuesday, I bussed between all three cities in the Kathmandu Valley. I left my home at about 7:30AM. First, I went from my place in Patan to Bhaktapur for my madal lesson. The bus fare cost me 20 rupees, and my travel buddies included crates full of melons from the wholesale market, and large, lumpy sacks of something on top of the bus that caught the local policeman's eye. He wanted to know what the heck that stuff was. "Stuff to sell," the bus driver told him, then yelling inside, "whose bags are those anyway?"

My madal lesson included an information session on Holi--the holiday coming up--which includes boys throwing water and colored powder at girls. While I knew about this, I was told that the festivities (should) only happen after a certain puja (worship ritual) is conducted at the Kathmandu Durbar Marg. After that, the song whose rhythm I am now learning on the madal, can be played. And its played all over, just for fun and merry making. There's some book, written in English by a French guy, in the department's library on the subject; I can contact the librarian if I'd like to see it. Only be aware that there are many mistakes in the notation of the various melodies; the guy who wrote the book apparently talked to people who didn't know their music very well, in my instructor's opinion. I could leave my lesson early today--my instructor's niece was getting married, and he needed to be at the ceremony.

Next, I went to the very north end of Kathmandu. From the road that goes by the music department, I got the Chabahill-Maharajgang-Chakrapat bus, not the Chabahill-Boudha bus. I had to double check this with the bus boy. This trip cost me 25 rupees, and my travel buddies included two tobacco-chewing men who commented that too many people have to leave the country now for work as we passed by the international airport. I took the bus as far as Narayan Gopal Chowk, where I was picked up by motorbike by a friend. This short trip cost me 200 rupees, since my friend had left his wallet at home accidentally and didn't realize this until we were at the petrol pump.

The afternoon was spent at a rock concert that took place in a church, which also happened to have an old people's rest home on the ground floor. As a result, there were several very old men and women who attended the concert, toothlessly smiling at all the young people wildly jumping and clapping about. They served us all tea afterwards.

I then took a tempo and micro home, respectively. My travel buddies here included a few-month-old baby who wanted to grab and hold my nose, fingers, and ears, and whose mother got her to say "hi" and "namaste" to me respectively. This ride to Ratna Park cost me 14 rupees. I then got a micro to Jawalekhel, which cost me 13 rupees--the fare had gone up by a rupee since I last rode on the route. But, instead of asking "since when [has it been 13 rupees]" I asked "how long [will it be 13 rupees]"--I still make elementary language mistakes at the drop of a hat.

I arrived back home at around 7:30PM. After a filling supper of cauliflower soup, garlic bread and hummus, and a much needed shower, I went to bed, and slept very soundly.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A few thoughts on sojourning

“And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?” And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning.”” Genesis 47:8,9 ESV

I had to move, yet again. Not for any fault of mine—the family I house sat for and with whom I expected to stay until my leave date unexpectedly had some relatives coming from India for an extended visit. When they would leave, no one was sure. I had two weeks to find a new place to stay. I was welcome to move into their guesthouse should I choose, but since it was a little farther away from my locus of activity, I thought it best to look elsewhere.

An American family, working at an international school and living not far from my office, kindly offered me a place in their home. Only, I would be on the couch for about a week—they had a secondary student staying in their guestroom whose parents were at a conference abroad. So, my books and I have taken up temporary residence in their TV room, complete with a VHS player (that unfortunately doesn’t work), a sewing machine and various crafty/scrapbooking supplies piled along the walls.

Wide-awake at 3AM, with no electricity, all I could do was stare at the dark above and ask God “Why? You know how much moving stresses me out! It should be a lifestyle by now, but no, I actually rather like staying in one place.”

I couldn’t help but think again about pilgrimages and sojourning. And God has kindly brought this subject up in my quiet times. When I think about it, the subject is all over the Bible—Abraham being told to go to a land that he did not know; Jacob fleeing Esau and working fourteen years at his uncle’s place before returning to Canaan and then moving to Egypt to escape famine; Joseph being sold to his brothers and going to Egypt, not to mention all the ups and downs he had in Egypt; Israel sojourning in Egypt for generations; Moses fleeing Pharaoh then coming back to Egypt; the great Exodus, and wandering in the desert for 40 years; David fleeing Saul; Daniel and the exile to Babylon; Nehemiah and Ezra and the Israelites coming back to the Promise Land. The list could go on. Exile, sojourning and a hope for a better place are still written in the history of the Jewish people.

And the reference in Hebrews 11:13-16: “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland, if they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

“So, Tori, where is home for you?” Pankaj asked me one evening as he took me home from his place after watching the TV airing of the Sprite Band Challenge (a rock band competition that a band from the music school I worked at two summers ago was competing in). He had asked me whether I felt more “at home” in Nepal or the States, and I truthfully answered that neither place was completely “home.”

“Heaven of course!” was my answer.