Settling In(to Kathmandu)

First things first: I’ve changed my tickets – delayed my return home for a week. I’ll be back on July 27th (instead of the 18th) – it’s only nine extra days, but it will give me a chance to do some exploring outside of Kathmandu without neglecting my work here.

Life has settled into a pleasant rhythm – waking by 5am (or trying to) for yoga at the Hindu temple three minutes from the house, buying mangoes from the produce sellers’ blankets on the way back, dodging the cars on the road barely wide enough for the bicycles – jumping to the sounds of their horns, which they employ exuberantly – squatting to take a cold shower under the waist-high faucet and grimacing over the instant coffee before shuffling into my sandals at the front door. I walk around the rice fields and guitar-playing teenage boys on the corner and up the steep lose gravel path to the tiny brick road which curves around another open field – the construction taking place there on an apparently permanent hiatus; the men have moved chairs into the field and sit with tea socializing rather than building – and then twists into a narrow alley of high brick walls with clinging vines and iron gates, squeezing to the side to allow old women in colorful saris and men in Nehru hats to pass. I have almost perfected the art of twisting my arm through the gate and sliding open the inside deadbolt. The boys of the Ama Dablam house, in neat school uniforms with ties and black leather shoes, greet me as I run up the steps: “Good morning sister!” “Namaste bhai!”

Hellos in the office are passed around in Nepali, French, Spanish, and English. The office consists of two small rooms on the top floor of a small storage building, in the courtyard of the largest children’s’ home, Ama Dablan. The country director of Umbrella, Jacky Buk, is a silver dread-locked Frenchman who used to work in the fashion industry before moving to Nepal with a folded face and a strong, carrying voice (you can generally hear Jacky long before you see him – sometimes well before even passing the gate) belied by his friendly eyes. An assembly of shoes – ranging from serious leather loafers to battered sneakers and rubber flip-flops – guard the door. The front room is occupied by the various Nepali staff, most of whom double as care-takers and managers of the children’s homes, and the back room filled with laptops and volunteers. From a pin-board high on the wall has the faces and names of all the 350 children look down at us – and we often look down into the courtyard at the children.

The Umbrella Foundation was started by Jacky and his wife Viva, a marvelous woman and a former lawyer who has been living in Nepal for twelve years and now teaches English Literature and Social Studies at an international/American high school, when they found a starving orphan on the streets of Swoyambhu and were unable to find a decent and humane orphanage to take care of the boy, founded Umbrella. In only a few years it has grown into an international NGO with over 350 children, eight homes, education and scholarship programs for not only their children but local college students, medical centers, and is working on building a large school/center in a rural village to, eventually, move the kids out of the city and back to the countryside where most of them have come from. The Gurje Project, named for the village in which it will take place, is also aimed at “village rejuvenation” – the civil conflict that has been tearing Nepal apart for the last decade wreaked awesome havoc on the villages, with the children being trafficked away and the able-bodied moving to the urban areas in search of work – work which isn’t to be found in the polluted, overcrowded cities that are now beginning to suffer black market and criminal problems previously unknown. Umbrella’s village project will combine all of the elements and programs that Umbrella is currently running in Kathmandu with expanded vocational training programs an agricultural program (buying and distributing seeds to grow crops, hiring villagers to take care of them, and creating a market to sell them).

And now I’m a poor regurgitation of the articles and files that I’ve been spending my days working with….

Some days I stay in the office, but most I spend running between the homes/offices of Viva and Prashant, carrying files, messages, and tasks. I’ve been put to work updating the website, doing everything from text-editing and proofreading with Viva (one of the founders of the foundation) to formatting the documents for the web with Prashant (the web designer who initially set-up the site – I get to use his latest versions of DreamWeaver and PhotoShop – and oh, how I covet), and coordinating/enabling the translation of the site into French and Spanish by Typhaine and Lorena.

By lunch-time I’m taking the same path back to the Volunteer House (frequently accompanied by monkeys who take to the ground in the afternoon; we calmly cross paths with each other) or going out to the neighborhoods’ main road to shop. There are dozens of little stores, dry goods inside and baskets of vegetables on the stone steps in front. Tomatoes, spinach, onions and tofu rarely cost more than 20 rupees (25 cents – or so) and there’s a bakery, hidden behind another iron gate, run out of the home of a Nepali chef with amazing English. Amazing bread and biscuits (cookies, sorry) are usually on the shopping list but I rarely manage to get out without sampling some new creation – today it was mango jam and tomorrow he’s promised us hummus. We’ve even found a local grocery store with yak cheese and yogurt.

I’ve surprised myself with the discovery that I am capable of (some rudimentary) cooking. I can saute, at least, and Typhaine and I are usually dancing around the kitchen together, comparing notes on various projects and putting together the pieces of the office-work. Endless cups of tea – there is always, I have discovered, more tea – fill all the moments between work, chores, and playing with the children in their homes. I wash my clothes on the roof, kneading them in buckets of water and spreading them out on the tiles to scrub and borrow needles to fix the tearing seams and rips in the knees from when I’ve tripped. I could take my things to any of the tailors along the road but, like cooking, sewing is another ability I’ve discovered – and an excuse for a few solitary quiet moments.

The camaraderie in the volunteer house is amazing, however, and most of the time is spent around the kitchen table. Lorena (from Galicia, Spain) makes us tapas in the evenings if we haven’t taken daal bhat (rice and lentils) at one of the houses or if Typhaine (from Bordeaux, France) hasn’t started cooking something amazing. We swap out ipods, plugging them into the power-box on-top of the refrigerator there’s only one outlet in the kitchen and the toaster takes priority); Cliodhna,(from Cork, Ireland) surprised us a few days ago with a recording of a concert she’d given – playing her own compositions on the violin. There’s an omnipresent pot of tea on the stove and even a vase (round plastic tubberware) of flowers. If someone has gone into Thamel (the western/touristy/backpackers’ district) we might even have red wine and chocolate – generally by candle-light, as the power tends to go out for several hours in the evenings.

It’s difficult, sometimes, especially in the kitchen, to remember that I’m not in Europe – or home. The walls are the quintessential Nepali-turquoise that seems to be the favored paint and dark wood lines the arched doorway. The windows, however, are protected by grates in the shape of swastikas and the view out them shows us fields, men and women planting and harvesting, women in sarongs washing clothing in front of their houses, monks with prayer beads serenely parading past, children playing soccer, people carrying humongous loads of on their backs (baskets piled high with straps tying them around their foreheads) and the colorful strands of Tibetan flags flying across roofs. The windows also bring us the sounds of drums from the temples – a Hindu temple to one side, a Buddhist to the other – and monks chanting, between and above the neighbor’s loud Nepali pop.

And then, to remind us where we are, there’s the monkeys. And Didi’s monkey-rampages.

They freely roam the neighborhood, climbing onto the roof and pulling clothes off the line, jumping in windows that haven’t been securely closed and even daring to come into the house and down the stairs. They rip the heads off of the sunflowers that Lorena planted in the front courtyard and absolutely terrorize Didi – although I suspect that she secretly enjoys their interruptions to her otherwise routine days. Her voice, normally shrill enough, gains in pitch and volume what it loses in timbre as she runs screaming and flailing through the house. The very word “monkey” is enough to set her off on a frantic search and she keeps a stash of pebbles to through at them. The first morning I arrived we woke up the sound of shattering glass as she accidentally broke a window in pursuit of a monkey – not that any of us actually came down to investigate, but as everyone slowly made their way to the kitchen and noticed the lack of a pane, the story was repeated over and over – complete with pantomime by Didi, who acted out both her own part and that of the monkey.

My room is on the roof (I have to climb three flights of stairs to reach it – or to get down to a toilet in the middle of the night – but the three walls’ worth of windows make up for that) so I get to bear witness to the majority of the monkey-rampages (and carry out my own). A few days ago I heard an odd combination of shouting and laughter and jumped off of my bed and out the open window (the door sticks and is hard to open) to find her leaning over the railing hurling stones at a monkey below with a broad grin on her face and laughter bubbling out; “Sorry, sorry sister,” she apologized for having disturbed me.

Didi Indu, the house-caretaker, is a widow whose two sons live under the care of Umbrella (her sixteen year old daughter, Latiimi, still lives in her home village with a relative). She’s a tiny woman a whole head shorter than me (and I’m short), only thirty-two, despite the deep lines in her face and the worried frown that lurks even behind her smiles and laughing eyes, and speaks almost no English. We call her Didi (older sister), as she does us – I was “Sister America” for the first few days until she learned my name but was upgraded to “Sister Dhading ramro” for a few days after I visited her home town with her and pronounced it beautiful – and try not to get frustrated as she follows after us cleaning the pots we’re still using, putting away the food we’re still eating, and refilling the tea jars with coffee and the coffee with tea. She takes care of the house diligently – for the most part. Some mornings (most mornings, to be fair) she’s up at 6am scrubbing the kitchen floor and walls – and others she’s belatedly emerged blurry-eyed and hiccuping, holding her head, and we’ve ordered her back to bed. Our frustration with her cleaning stems largely from our own discomfort at being served, I’m sure; dishes sit in the sink for no more than ten minutes before she intuits their presence and appears to wash them – but there is a fair share of miscommunication

Swoyambhu, the neighborhood in which I’m staying and where all of Umbrella’s children’s’ homes are located (all eight of the houses are within five minutes of each other), is absolutely beautiful. It’s probably (I’m stabbing in the dark with this guess) a middle-class Nepali suburb filled with multi-story houses whose architectural styles range from classical to Jenga-game construction.

The streets of Kathmandu, what little Ive seen from the back of a taxi, are brilliantly colored, utterly chaotic – and smell terrible. The river is so terribly polluted, the banks having become a dumping ground, that even driving alongside it is nauseating. Traffic, the bane of all cities, flows along uncontrolled by any perception of lanes or direction ; I can’t recall having seen a stoplight yet. Cows sleep in the middle of the busiest roads, meditating perhaps, with a profound aura of relaxation that rivals the monks. Cars are lined up for miles around the few petrol stations thanks to the serious fuel shortage. Piles of garbage, most of it simply rotting refuse, are everywhere – next to butcher shops, in the gutters, an on street corners. Goats, cows, and dogs sleep atop the trash while crippled beggars and children, shouting salesmen and hurried businessmen rush along. Golden-topped temples dot the horizon and incense fights a valiant, although absolutely futile, battle against the stench

It is beautiful.

I haven’t really spent any time exploring the city yet, although I intend to remedy that this weekend. I spent last weekend in Dhading Besi, the capital “town” of the Dhading district which, although it is next to Kathmandu, is incredibly rural. I visited Didi’s family – payed the bus fare so that Didi could visit her sick mother in exchange for amazing hospitality and a chance to see typical Nepali life – it was absolutely incredible. I’m planning to get to Pokhara and Baktapur – and probably a couple other places, I’m not really sure yet – and want to return to Dhading, after the majority of the website work is finished. (It has to get completed before the 14th, as Jacky and Viva are going out of town for a few weeks.)

I’ve been here just over a week – actually, make that nearly two weeks (oh how the time is flying!). I’m drinking what has to be at least my tenth cup of tea today and sitting at the kitchen table with two Irish girls who just arrived disrupting Chandra’s attempts to give them a proper introductory information session – they keep turning to me and asking questions (the American accent being easier, I’m certain, to decipher than his Nepali). Distraction is only fair turnabout – I’ve been disrupted so far, by: Cliodhna pulling out a box of tin whistles and distributing them to us (we enthusiastically butchered Ode to Joy and Frere Jaques); Didi on a monkey-rampage; being called to the courtyard as moral support to Typhaine’s haircut (model, as she tries to demonstrate with my hair what she’s asking for and referee, as Lorena and I jump around waving our hands and using the little Nepali under our command to minimize the loss of hair); and the inevitable power-outage.

Although I’ve started to think about home more and more – the idea of it is becoming increasingly foreign. I’ve settled in, settled down here surprisingly quickly. It’s the little things – the simple tangible elements like company and conversation around the kitchen table, snacks, red wine and cheese, and chai masala – as much as, perhaps, some larger and less explicable settling of myself that I can’t explain. I can’t wait to see my family and friends again. but I feel at home here – in our curious blend of west and east – old habits and new ones. I wander the house in silk sawal house and light mosquito coils in my room; I’ve hung my clothes on hangers for the first time in six months and, despite my lack of money, there will probably soon be art hung on the wall. I’m living on mangoes and, while on the phone home to my family blasely chasing monkeys across the roof to retrieve the colored pictures the children made – while searching for my keys because some things of course, never change.



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