Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Life as Defined by Penguin Bars - I

Penguin bars are these amazing, individually-wrapped chocolate sandwich cookies covered in milk chocolate that I was introduced to while studying abroad in Ireland. Each wrapper has a joke on the flap, with the answer under it. The following are vignettes loosely inspired by those “funnies,” as my Irish friends referred to them. While these vignettes are based on real experience, they are not biographical.

Q. Why did the lobster blush?
A. Because the sea weed.

The transformation that takes place is amazing: preppy girls refuse to take showers for weeks on end, wear the same grey middie and soiled, green Sophie shorts, and throw off their Crocs and splash through the shallower parts of the lake, letting the gunga runga ooze through their toes. Isolated for two or more weeks from the pressures of parents, friends, and whatever else causes anxiety while living on the edge of a freshwater lake in cabins on stilts under the bare, grey face of a mountain locally referred to as Old Bald, these girls are free to really be who they are—or decide who they want to be.

This gives them a chance to mature, and learn life skills—and in the process, drive their counselors insane.

Take Lexi for example. Alexis Christian is her full name, but there’s nothing benevolent or compassionate about her. Just two scary blue eyes glaring at you from under the mess of blonde hair, which she refused after arrival at camp. Sometimes, you wonder if she’s even a girl—her favorite thing to do is act like a puppy, and sometimes, her interpretation is quite convinicing. The only way her cabin could make her act decently for “Deck the Counselor” was to stuff her into a mildewed puppy suit from the Costume Shop, and perch her on the edge of the stage to bark and make puppy faces at the rest of camp while her cabin did their dance routine to “I’m a Little Teapot” in Deb dresses and sparkly wands. The mountaineering team about died when she signed up to climb Old Bald as her Sunday afternoon activity. The only way they kept her from wandering off and falling down the mountain was to put her on a leash—a harness around her middle, tied to her cabin counselor. How Lizzy made it through those two weeks so good-naturedly with such a child under her care was beyond any of us. But there were times when Lexi would evade the counselors’ eyes. They came too late to rescue a family of frogs, living under deck to the counselor’s lounge. The frog’s soft insides oozed from their empty eye sockets, their limp bodies hanging from her arms by the time the counselors were able to jump from the porch and grab the slippery girl. I wasn’t there for this event, but one of my cabin girls witnessed it, and came crying to me afterwards.

“She’s so mean to them! I hate her! How could she do such a thing!” After a short burst of tears, Mabin felt better. “Can I go swing?” she asked.

“Go potty and brush your teeth first,” I told her. “That way, you won’t miss taps.”

I was awoken in the middle of the night by a soft thump on the floor, and a stong scent of urine. A small form in a thin nightdress shone from the middle of the room.


“I think I peed my pants,” she whispered. “I couldn’t hold it.”

I quickly checked her bed. It was dry. I helped her change from her wet nightclothes into some dry ones, and we went to the bathhouse together to make sure we had it all out, and to wash her hands. By the end of two weeks, she was able to make it to the bath house before her bladder exploded. Even Lexi had adjusted somewhat to her newfound freedom, becoming proud of her arts and crafts projects, playing the puppy dog for the show choir song, and beating her own record of how many jelly-lilies she could slap onto her face. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Visit to Nurse Rooke*

*A psuedonymn 

I needed booster shots—for Hepatitis A, DtaP/Tdap, and typhoid, to be exact—before I returned to Nepal for my MA fieldwork. So I called my university’s health center for an appointment. “You’re traveling abroad?” the operator asked. I confirmed. “Oh, well then, you’ll need to make an appointment to see the travel nurse. Its forty dollars per appointment.”

I was annoyed at her insistence that I see the travel nurse for my shots; couldn’t another nurse give me the immunizations? Why did I have to pay an extra forty dollars? I reluctantly agreed to an appointment.

Nurse Rooke seemed friendly enough. “Hello, Tori, what can I do for you today?” she asked as I walked in. I told her the same thing I had told the operator, and handed her my vaccination record. She commented that I had “quite a laundry list” of vaccinations—fourteen different vaccinations, to be exact, each with multiple injection dates. She put it aside, and asked me where I was traveling to? Nepal, I replied. Had I been there before? I told her that I grew up there. I answered her follow-up questions as she proceeded to pull down a large book that listed all diseases found in each country of the world: I had been seven, my brother had been four, when we moved there; we had lived there a total of eight years; my dad is a pediatrician and had worked as a volunteer at a government hospital all that time; we had returned to the States every two or three years for four to six months for furlough. She found the page on Nepal. “What were your parents thinking, taking a four-year-old and a seven-year-old to a disease infested country like Nepal?!?!” was her unfiltered reaction.

I felt the adrenaline pumping through my arms, and I had the sudden urge to punch something nearby, if only to release the surge of power that suddenly, uncomfortably, coursed through my muscles.

Malaria was one of the diseases listed. She immediately gave me options as to malaria medication. I told her that I did not need malaria medication. I was going to Kathmandu, so while mosquitos were present and I would be in Nepal during the monsoon season when the disease was at its peak, Kathmandu’s elevation was too high for malaria. She insisted that I could not risk malaria. While the medication was uncomfortable—one risked yeast infections, one produced nightmares bordering on hallucinations—it was better than getting the disease itself. I admitted that malaria was present in Nepal, but it was only found in the Tarai, along the Nepal/India border—and I would not be going there during the monsoon.

She put her disease book aside and began to ask me questions. How did I get clean drinking water? How did I clean vegetables? Did I eat street food? What did I do about food poisoning? Diarrhea? Pickpockets? Safety on public transportation? Did I speak the local language? I answered her questions as best I knew how, slightly confused as to why she was asking these questions in the first place. After each question, she paused, staring at me, like she was checking me out. I uncomfortably shifted positions, wondering when she would give me my vaccinations.

Nurse Rooke then pulled out an REI catalog and showed me traveler’s pouches that allowed me to put my passport and cash close to my body under my clothes. She pointed out a bag that was advertised as pickpocket proof. She handed me a pamphlet that advertised strong mosquito repellents, going as far as circling one or two that she though particularly effective. She brought up malaria medication again. I told her sternly, in all my time living in Nepal, I never had to take malaria medication; I did not need it now. What about medication for diarrhea? She recommended one that would clean me out within a few hours, killing whatever bacteria had gotten in my gut. I told her no thank you.

I felt my ears and cheeks begin to burn, and I hoped that my face wasn’t visibly turning red.

Nurse Rooke turned back to my vaccination record. She commented that the typhoid was best taken orally—she could give me the pills to take at home—and looking at this record, I had one polio booster remaining. She could give me the hep A and polio today, then I could come back later for the DtaP/Tdap. I agreed to all the above. As she prepped the vaccinations, she commented that I could get malaria medication real cheap at Costco; I thanked her for her concern and reiterated that I did not need it. We scheduled an appointment for my DtaP/Tdap vaccination, and I went to the counter to be discharged, and pay for the vaccinations and my session with her.

As I walked out of her office, I had an epiphany—most of the students who were sent to Nurse Rooke were undergraduates going abroad for the first time. They were clueless as to how to manage themselves in another country. I was the anomaly here. But I remained angry—why was I still required to pay forty dollars for being grilled and humiliated about growing up abroad? Why had she not conceded that I was an expert—especially concerning malaria? I walked out of the health center with my face now completely hot and the adrenaline still coursing through my arms. I had never felt so angry in my life. 

A year later, I needed another booster before returning to Nepal, this time to conduct eight months of volunteer work and pilot research. When the operator said she would make an appointment with the travel nurse for me, I begged otherwise—I did not need a travel counseling session; I regularly traveled abroad and I just needed a shot. She said it was standard procedure, and I needed to see the nurse.

When Nurse Rooke turned around a saw me walk into her office, she blandly commented, “Oh—you again.” She courteously asked me how my previous time in Nepal went; I answered briefly that it had gone well. What could she do for me today? I told her which vaccination I needed. Did I want any malaria medication as well? I told her no thank you. She gave me the vaccination and I left. The assistant at the cashier’s desk had me wait a moment, because that forty-dollar fee wasn’t showing up on my account. She called the travel nurse’s station; Nurse Rooke told her that I hadn’t come for an advice session, just to receive a shot. The assistant was visibly perturbed. I felt triumphant.

I think Nurse Rooke was disappointed that I didn’t contract malaria.

Two years after that, I was due for a TB skin test before returning to Nepal to commence dissertation research. When I walked into her office, Nurse Rooke met me with a smile. “Off to Nepal again?” she asked, and I replied affirmative. She pulled down her book of diseases, and I felt my muscles tense. She asked me where in Nepal I would be going? I admitted that this time, I was going to the Tarai; however, I would not be going during the monsoon, and sleeping under mosquito nets and using repellant would be enough protection. She showed me the page on Nepal in her disease book—according to the map, mosquitos honored Nepal’s sovereignty from India and did not cross the national border from Uttar Pradesh. I laughed, and said that most likely wasn’t the case. Nurse Rooke commented that it was up to me whether I should take malaria medication or not. I decided I didn’t need it, and she didn’t put up a fuss. She took my skin test and told me when to come back for the results. Had I ever had tuberculosis? She asked. I told her I had never had TB.

I thought back to when my family had all had TB skin tests done upon our return to the States in 2001. I was fifteen at the time. When we came back into the office to have our arms looked at, the nurses had a hissy fit when my Dad’s read positive. Dad had prepped them before—he told them he had worked in Nepal and been exposed to TB numerous times; it was likely that he would come up positive, but that did not mean he had contracted the disease. That didn’t matter. It took some time to convince them, and the doctor, that we were all ok.

Thankfully, my TB test came back clean this time as well, much to Nurse Rooke’s satisfaction.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Real Housewives of Sukhrwar: On Family and Female Experience

One of my Kathmandu housemates, between her work as a researcher and photographer/ videographer with an NGO that works in the hill regions of Nepal, has spent a lot of time in various Nepalese hill villages. She made the comment one day that, instead of a reality television show about wealthy women in New Jersey, a similar show about the lives of Nepali village women would be so much more stimulating. In her honor, I’ve put together the following confessionals based on actual events and experiences in and around Sukhrwar. I’ve changed names, the order of some events, and embellished these occurances, so these should be read primarily as fictional, not factual.

Friend’s Aama (mother): So my daughter left to visit friends in another district last Dashai (fall festival time), and then, when we tried to call her, her mobile was either switched off or busy! After a few days, we heard rumors that she had eloped! I went to all my friend’s houses asking them if they had heard from my daughter at all—I even asked our foreign bahini (younger sister) to call her, and even she couldn’t get through! Everyone was kind—they gave me jaar or raksi (home-brewed rice beer and distilled alcohol), they consoled me—but I had such a hard time giving tika to my niece on Vijaya Dashami, because she reminded me that my own daughter wasn’t here! Well finally, we heard from her, and yes, she did get married. Well, she said she was married, but we hadn’t thrown a bhoj (feast) for her, so we decided to do that, to let everyone know that we accepted this marriage. We decided to have it over Maghi. But then she called to ask if we could postpone it three more months! We couldn’t do that—until we had this bhoj, it was as if she wasn’t married, and we had already invited everyone! We told her she HAD to show up! She came so late—we had guests from eight or nine in the morning, and we fed them and gave them tika, and she finally arrived at seven in the evening with her husband and new mother and father-in-law. They came in a jeep from Kailali (three districts west of Dang). Well, we all—the whole extended family—gave them tika and money. My husband and I even performed samdi-melon*. But it was so sad when she left the next morning; she was crying really loudly and had to be carried into the jeep. It’s so sad when a daughter is taken from her family!

* where the in-laws exchange tika and gifts; a tradition in Tharu weddings.

Maili Chori (middle daughter): The foreign bahini (younger sister) was so shocked that Sumitra cried so loudly at her wedding. She thought that because Sumitra had chosen her own husband that she should be happy! She was shocked that all of Sumitra’s aunts also cried! I asked her if mothers ever cried at their daughters’ weddings in her country? She said yes, but it was tears of happiness! Imagine that, happiness! Ours cry because a daughter is being separated from her family! She will encounter so much dukha (pain and suffering) as a new bwari (daughter-in-law) at her new house! I cried a lot at my wedding, my brother’s wife cried a lot at hers—we all cried at our weddings! I mean, we didn’t know how we would be treated! The foreign bahini even said that, in her country, if the bride cried like Sumitra did, the wedding would stop! Well, I told her, there’s no stopping the wedding here, no matter how much a bride cries!

Visiting Ethnographer: Sumitra gave me conflicting messages at her wedding bhoj; in conversation at first she was like “you HAVE to find a husband QUICK!” and then went on to detail how she had such a bad feeling now that she was married, complained that she would have to live separate from her husband—she wasn’t going to just give up her teaching job in Kavre so she could go live with her husband in Kailali; it was so hard to find work in Nepal—and that she would now waste half her salary calling him on the phone, and commented that maybe she did badly by eloping. And after describing all their marriage dukha to me, all the women I talk to want to know when I’m getting married, and if my parents are looking for a husband for me or if I have to look for my own husband?

Chora [son]: So it’s nine in the morning and I’m eating my daal-bhaat [rice and lentils, the common, every-day Nepali food dish] out back, and making the warm mash for the goats over the fire, when kaka [paternal uncle] shows up drunk on the road. He’d drunk too much jaar at the wedding. He’s the husband of my paternal uncle’s wife’s sister. We just all call him “kaka.” Anyway, two of the village bhais [younger brothers] were trying to get him to calm down and come with them, but he started throwing mud clods at them. He also kept making motorbike sounds, like he was going somewhere. Anyway, he sees me eating and comments that wants to eat too. He disappears down the road, and the next thing I know, he’s coming in my front door! So I call the two village bhais, who come running, I push him out the front door and close it on him and he’s cursing me the entire time, and finally the bhais drag him down the road. What’s more, the fire can’t seem to stay lit this morning; I won’t be able to finish making this mash before I leave for the office. Shyam’s mom* will have to finish making it later.

*Men often refer to their wives as the mother of their eldest son.

Sumitra: I told our foreign bahini to help my didi (older sister)* with the face cream I got her. The instructions are in English, not Nepali, and my didi can’t read well anyway. My didi liked the face cream I use, but the shopkeeper said this one was better.

*Didi doesn’t always refer to one’s actual older sister; it can be any female relative or close friend’s sister. In this case, Sumitra is referring to woman I refer to as “bwari” in her confessionals.

Visiting Ethnographer: So this stuff that Sumitra got my didi is basically facial bleach. It says there’s no side effects and is perfectly safe, but still cautions the user to try a bit on their hand to see if their skin gets irritated. My didi said that she’s trying to get rid of some dark spots on her cheek, which resulted from a bout of acne she had when she was younger. 

Maili Chori: So we’ve all discussed this, and we’ve decided that it must be the hawa-pani [weather or environment] in her country that makes our foreign bahini so fair. Maybe if we went to her country we would come back all fair as well?

Bwari: So I noticed that my foreign bahini didn’t wear churra (glass bracelets), tikli (adhesive decorative sticker worn between the eyebrows), or sindur (red powder worn in the part of the hair), so I asked her: is she married? She said she wasn’t married. I asked her how people recognized a married woman in her country? She said that women—and men!—wear a gold ring on their left ring finger. That’s how they recognize a married person. Imagine being able to recognize if a man is married! Here, most men don’t even let on that they’re married…

Visiting Ethnographer: Sumitra told me quite pointedly that I needed to buy a new kurtha the other day. Well, she’s been seeing me wear the same four kurthas for over a year now, I guess they’re getting shabby?

Pahadi (non-Tharu) Bwari: So we’ve all discussed this, and we think that our foreign bahini (she’s actually my didi though—I’m twenty-three, she’s twenty-seven) must wear nicer clothes in her country. I mean, in movies people from her country wear nicer clothes. But I’ve only seen her wear jean-pants once. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Real Hunger Games

Living in Kathmandu feels like urban camping most of the time, especially in the constant fight over resources like water, gas, and electricity during the winter months. If you’re lucky, maybe you have a gas geiser; otherwise, its best to take showers during the day, because even if you don’t have solar panels, the black holding tank soaks in the sun’s rays and heats the water anyway. If there’s no sun, you could boil water and dilute it with cold tap water for a bucket bath. Maybe you have to take a bucket bath anyway, because you forgot to pump water when the electricity was on (there is up to seventeen hours of loadshedding a day during the winter), so there’s not enough water for a shower—or to do dishes. So, if you want a private bath or don’t want to haul the dishes downstairs, you have to haul buckets of water up two flights of stairs from the well in the backyard. Or maybe the well is dry, or the city water is scarce, so you have to purchase a tanker of water. Any water you want to drink you have to boil and filter. Its best to clean all vegetables you want to eat raw in iodine water. If you have multiple gas cylinders, its best to have them from different gas companies. That way, when gas shortages come, you don’t have to rely on one supplier. We haven’t gotten this desperate yet, but a few winters ago, between all the gas, electrical and water shortages, my Scottish neighbor couldn’t get over the fact that, despite living in the nation’s capital city, he had to boil milk for his kids over a wood fire in his backyard!

Recently, I decided to think of Kathmandu as a village on steroids. I mean, my neighbors raise water buffalo, have milk cows, and burn dried cow patties at night to keep warm (which they slap on the side of the cow shed facing the road to dry in the sun). My landlady grows vegetables in every bit of yard not covered with cement—why pay for vegetables when you can grow them? If I think that way, maybe I won’t get so upset when the electricity goes out next time, or my internet isn’t working.

My ideas of resources and urban survival were made to look like first world problems when a pastor’s daughter in a village I recently stayed in commented to me that she spent six days camping and fishing (in the cold damp Kailali winter!) all by herself by the river sixteen kilometers deep in the nearby jungle! She came back one day for church, but her father took her right back out to the river after the service was over! Knowing that the Tharu fish with nets and traps, I asked her why she couldn’t have come home for a few days, then gone back out to retrieve her catch? She said there were sixteen other people there too—she had to make sure they didn’t steal the fish caught in her nets! All those fish were for the Christmas feast her church would have in a few days!

[It took this incident to make me realize that the Tharu could be classified as “hunter-gatherers,” the classic people that anthropologists study. Frankly, that’s just weird to think about, because after living in Tharu communities all this past year, I’ve come to admire their resourcefulness and creativity as people, and “hunter-gatherer” seems like some exotic, non-human specimen.]

Despite the fact that the Tharu rely heavily on agricultural work—rice is the main crop, but wheat, lentils, and mustard are also major crops—and raise numerous kinds of animals, they also rely heavily on the natural resources around them. In addition to eating the fish caught by the pastor’s daughter (these were not minnows, as in Dang, but actual fish with meat on them) I was also served something called gangaria—basically a water potato, culled from the jungle streams—and forest bean pods called tata, both boiled over the fire. I have not been served snails or rat yet, but I do know that the Tharu eat these too. The church I visited recently took a trip into a nearby forest to get firewood to cook their Christmas feast, and during their foraging, one of the men and several of the children sped off after a large forest rat upon disturbing its nest, with the idea to make a meal of it (unfortunately, they were unsuccessful in catching it). On my most recent trip to Sukhrwar, some of the neighborhood boys (ranging from age nine to twelve) caught a large field rat and trooped off to build a fire to roast it. One of the fathers commented to me that a field rat was good eating; the ones around the house however didn’t taste as good!

My Sukhrwar didi goes to the forest before each festival to gather leaves to make plates and bowls, and to get some firewood. She and her sons fish in the rivers and irrigation canals for minnows and crawfish. She often makes her own rope from grasses to bind the wood she forages—and to fix her the broken thong on her flip-flop so she can walk home. Tharu men and women weave numerous kinds of baskets and mats out of bamboo, also gleaned from the forest, and dried bamboo makes good firewood. I’ve seen women gather reeds and brush from the forests and streams to make various kinds of brooms and baskets, which they use around the house but also sell in the bazaars. There are probably lots of other things the Tharu gather from the forest that I’m unaware of.

I’m continually amazed by what I am served in Tharu homes—all the food has been grown or gathered locally. While winter is much more miserable, there are more vegetables. Coriander, dill, and various kinds of green leafy vegetables grow on their own around the potatoes in the field behind the house. My didi’s older brother’s family has a large garden down the road where they grow cabbage, cauliflower and tomatoes to sell in the bazaar. Being a relative, my didi is free to pick from the garden what she needs to feed her family. As a result, we have tomato chutney to flavor our food, and potato and cauliflower curry most days, in addition to saag (green leafy vegetable). The Tharu love having jhol (gravy or juice) to eat with their rice; my didi has been making sinki ko jhol a lot recently—radish stems dried, smashed, fermented for days in the sun then dried out till they’re bleach white; these are then cooked with potatoes, oil, chilis, salt and turmeric to make a sour soup. If there is a family wedding, my didi will bring home leftover goat meat. As much as my hosts apologize that the food is simple, I love that I know exactly where it all came from.

Tharu houses are also made of local materials. In Kailali, with forests a little more numerous than in Dang, many houses are actually made of wood, or alternatively straw or bamboo, and then covered with adobe. The home in which I stay in Dang is made of unbaked clay bricks, and then covered with adobe. Each Dashai, my didi brings various colors of clay to re-mud the inside and outside walls—a whitish clay for the inside walls, which she said she brought from a place further away from the village (and “brought” means carried in a basket balanced on her head!) and the normal brown for the outside, which she brought from the river about ten minutes from the house. I’ve also seen yellow and a deep red, also from different kinds of clay found in different areas of the district, used to decorate houses.

While the houses in Sukhrwar do have electricity—my didi’s husband says they were married in February and the electricity came around October of the same year, so they’ve have electricity about 13 years now—they’re not entirely dependent on it. Sure they have phones that need to be charged, my didi’s husband works off his laptop, and its nice for the boys to have light in the evenings so they can do their homework, but life doesn’t stop when the electricity goes out for four to six hours at a time. While they do have a gas stove, they also cook off of gobar gas (gas extracted from cow dung) and wood fires (which also serves to warm everyone up and create a social circle during the winter). They have a well out back that my didi proudly says has never run dry, even in the dry season.

Undoubtedly, a Tharu tribute would last longer in the arena than I would.