Sometimes I forget that I am the luckiest person alive. I go days without remembering and then a day like today, with one person after another appearing out of nowhere, reminding me of how wonderful life can be in each moment.
I woke at 3 a.m. and the internet was out, so I got up and washed some of my laundry by hand in a sink. I have clean fresh water where I am staying and the remote variation of T.I.N. wifi for a few hours a day if lucky. (This Is Nepal) Mobile apps are painfully slow and not worth the effort, although I am just 60 miles from a mountain resort area in India where internet and cellular service was excellent for the last 6 months I lived there.
I had planned on a long 6 mile walk up to a famous temple at the base of the mountains to the north of the valley here. Without internet to post Google Earth photos of maps on my mobile, I have to go blind, from memory, in the early morning fog, just able to see the outline of the mountains in the distance.
I have cognitive issues in regards to short term memory from a history of sports concussions which will leave me with only my camera with the attached fixed focal length portrait lens for much of the day as I forget my backpack at the first unexpected stop of the morning. I don’t even notice the missing weight for the next hour of walking until I run into a group of women on the road where a lens change would be useful. Then shortly thereafter I am face to face with the elderly of Briddashram who are living in conditions far inferior to mine.
It is a glance into the future of elderly in the U.S.A. For many even in the U.S.A. it is a reality now, as they have no retirement funds to speak of, are homeless in many cases, with a growing segment of the population who see their social security funds they put into for much of their lives as an entitlement program which they would love to eliminate. Funds which have been raided so often by their government that interest earned on those funds is difficult to discern in terms of the real value of their forced retirement savings. In Nepal there is no forced social security savings program and few real entitlements at all for the elderly and they suffer greatly.
The paved road I begin walking on in the early morning hours ends just 1 km from the main East West Highway that connects all of Nepal. The pavement ends just a hundred yards or so after the Social Welfare Council office for Kanchanpur. The sun is not yet up and it is cold and foggy as usual for this time of year. About 45 minutes later I pass a school with about 10 bicycles sitting outside it. The sun is up now and the fog has quickly lifted. A girl walks out of the school from morning tuition (tutoring) and as I look back she runs to catch up to me. To my surprise she speaks English, rare in rural areas where I am. She is a Nepali treasure, instantly recognized by one who has lived in this country for much of the last 6 years.
Yasoda tells me I have made a wrong turn on the twisting turning dirt roads that connect little villages in her area which have no signs, there are no house numbers. You find people you are in search of by asking people. Do you know so and so? Yes, at the third hut or home on the left after the fork in the path, take the drainage ditch for 300 meters to the blue home on the left.
“Please come to my house for breakfast. My older sister Pabitra speaks perfect English. She speaks 5 languages.” I live to meet children like Yasoda and Pabitra so off we go, soon crossing a wide dry river bed which I recognize as a landmark, as the temple I am in search of lies between two river beds less than a mile apart.
We wander off of a dirt road onto paths and along dry drainage ditches and rice paddies and soon I know I will not find my way out of here without visibility of the mountains to the north and the sun. I am grateful for the now clear skies.
I have met thousands of children in this country in the last 6 years and I like to guess what I will find when I get to their homes. From my 10 minute walk with Yasoda I guess to myself that her father is educated to at least 10 class and mother also given Yasoda’s confidence and the way she talks about her two older sisters. She also has one younger brother, which also tells me much about the mother and father. The golden boy has arrived last in this family and the girls are respected and well educated. Yasoda (15) is in 9 class, Pabitra (16 1/2) is doing her plus 2 (11th and 12th) and Manisha (20) is attending the local university about 6 miles away by bicycle.
Girls of their parents generation were not well respected or desired as they married as young as 13 years of age and went to live with their husbands family to care for them, for life. Times are rapidly changing as girls are being educated now and attitudes regarding women are being demanded by this new generation of educated girls. Parents are seeing the value of having educated daughters and how it changes their lives even if they marry and leave the family. The changes in their grandchildren are very evident as they become better educated as well. They have higher self esteem and ambitions beyond what the parents themselves experienced.
The golden boy in the family and the father I won’t go into detail about for personal reasons. The mother is doting on the boy getting him ready for school and he has no interest in having his photo taken. The oldest daughter avoids me as she is hurriedly doing chores all around us so she can get herself ready and off to college classes. Pabitra is amazing and very grounded, able to talk as she does her chores and I free myself from the non-English speaking father every few minutes to spend time with her talking as she welcomes the attention. I wonder, as I often do, how girls like her end up incarnating in remote villages with the interests and the skill sets she possesses. What will her life be like?
Neighbors, mostly children, come over quickly to see what is going on, each is quietly given a Cadbury chocolate bar from my pocket. By the time Manju wanders over and gets her chocolate bar all the children have eaten theirs. Unknowingly, like all Nepali children she opens hers with the intention to share with everyone around her. It is one of my most loved qualities about this culture. Everything is shared. She breaks off a piece for each child around her and even the adults, which leaves her with only a small piece for herself. No one tells her they have already eaten an entire bar themselves. I struggle to keep from laughing. I am instantly enamored with this child I have only just met. She is adorable.
Everywhere I go there are children who stand out in very unique ways. The males in power who are 20 years younger than I, do not understand my stance about each child. They repeatedly say “I can introduce you to thousands like her.” I can assure you there is only one like this child anywhere in this country. This Manju is very special in ways I cannot put into words. There is only one Manju. This I know in as little as 10 minutes in her prescence, a little girl who speaks no English, but has a vibratory quality that is rare.
I am forced to sit and eat a meal with the father, the absurdly large quantity of food and the forced seconds. I know the routine so well and I make the decision to go along with the ritual as I very much value the children I have just met and do not want to insult their parents. The father slips away after finishing eating and Pabitra helps me by removing some of the portions. I eat quickly and escape along with the children, however I forget my day pack with the camera lenses, fruit and water in it. In the commotion of everyone getting off walking to schools in different directions, no one notices it sitting on the front porch. An hour later I realize as I stop to photograph women carrying wood and grass from the jungle near the mountain. I will have to retrace my steps back later, and knowing it will be easy to find the river bed, I am not concerned.
One hundred percent of the women in rural areas work very hard. Men, I would not even care to venture a guess, probably 50 to 60 %. The men can be seen paying cards or board games along roadways all day long. I pay little attention to them unless necessary as in navigating the patriarchy at borders and government offices and in shops of course. I don’t give them a thought. I am not proud of my attitude but given my experience with what women have to tolerate on a daily basis in this culture, I can easily forgive myself and work through my judgments on a person by person basis when needed.
I never find the temple but I come across something far more wonderful as I begin to see signs for an ashram when I reach the jungle as the mountain range approaches and only one road remains. I stumble upon a social welfare program for the elderly. It a day program in this remote area and 8 of the 12 participants are already in attendance waiting for the others to arrive for their daily meeting and meal mid-day. I take photos of all of them and there is fortunately a boy about 16 years old who speaks broken English. He too is a rare find, as he has a compassion for the elderly which is serious far beyond his years. He tells me the background bits and pieces of each of the members of the group and when I am leaving he escorts me to the gate begging me to come back again and visit. He is so busy taking care of the needs of everyone that I fail to get his picture, not realizing it until later in the evening as I recount my day.
The final gem of the day is a young boy who I randomly meet as school is getting out. Fridays are a half day of school in Nepal, the final day of a 6 day school week. Saturdays being the only day off with the new school week beginning again on Sunday. As I walk by a large school it empties out and I am surrounded by 5o or 60 children. He is the only child who speaks English and he is a WWE wrestling fanatic who has taught himself to speak English by totally watching wrestling. He has no one to speak it to other than himself, but he has made himself fluent by doing play by play broadcasting to himself. He is amazing.
I laugh hysterically for much of our 15 minute walk down the road to his home. He loves Dean Ambrose and the name is repeated no less than 50 times in our walk. Do I know him? Will I see him my next trip back to the U.S.? Will you take my photo and show it to him? On and on and on…Dean Ambrose, world champion. Is wrestling fake? I want to be Dean Ambrose, I want to wrestle, but not if it is fake. Is it fake?
I look into his eyes and I can tell he wants the truth, which I am well known for as an attribute that children value in me universally everywhere I go. I tell him with humor and laughter, WORLD WRESTLING ENTERTAINMENT, the key word is ENTERTAINMENT. It is staged, scene by scene, so well that it looks real. But it is like a movie, they are exceptional athletes, but they are actors, playing parts in dangerous scripted scenes. He looks at me with the utmost gratitude, saying “you are so funny, I love you. I don’t want to be a wrestler if it is fake.” I tell him about h.s. and college wrestling, and of course olympic wrestling, but that it is not glorified, nor glamorous like the WWE. That is the part he connects to, the entertainment aspect, so even though he is disappointed to hear my take on wrestling he is grateful to hear my version of the truth.
We part company at his home right on the road we are walking on after a short conversation about a problem he has regarding a younger brother who is not connecting well to school or responsiblities in the culture. I ask him if he sees himself at his brothers age at all and he says no, he himself has always been responsible and his brother seems to be a bad apple, like many of the adult males in the culture and he fears for his brothers well being. His brother is only about 7 or 8. Yes, you can see it very early on in the culture. Alcohol, abuse of women, and even drugs are present all around this culture, and the city is only 5 miles away. He worries about his younger brother.
I haven’t shared the return to get my daypack as it is a story unto itself and quite revealing of the culture. It affords me an opportunity to meet many women who live in Yasoda’s village within a very narrow window of time when they meet to share lunch, the main meal of the day. I will save it for another time. I get to see Yasoda again on her way across the river bed returning from school shortly after noon. She is shut down from just a half day of school. It’s a village school, rote memorization, and physical punishments doled out to those who don’t behave. I say “boring day at school” and the head nods. She livens up as I briefly tell her I found the elderly program and we both go on our way with the promise I will return to visit before I leave the area.
I have a delightful interaction with 4 little girls who are just entering the river bed who have no clue what I am saying. I act out all of them drinking all the water from the river bed leaving it completely dry. Asking each, did you drink all the water? They giggle with delight. They sadly won’t let me take their photo, which is typical for girls in the culture until you get to know them well. The rest of the journey is uneventful and I nap to catch up on sleep when back to my room.