This is where it happened, in northern Laos.
Every night I go to bed later than I intend, and every morning I leave for work having missed the window where I could be punctual, and always for the same reason. The kids are on my computer, and I cannot check my email or send a note or get anything done in my life without looking for them. Every day, there is another photograph I missed, another detail of a child’s face. Jumma’s sideways grin, careening her face into Dolma. Rajan’s smile in the background. The way Bishnumaya looks right into me– it’s like having my eyes dilated. I love them. Every time I focus on a face, that is all I can feel, until I think, what is this strange fullness, this imperviousness to anything bad, this indestructible thing? I love them.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by Kathmandu, where sending a simple package takes four hours and the political parties can call for a two-day cessation of all business, threatening to let the air out of people’s tires and stone their cars if they try to go out, just because they feel like it. Last week, I wanted to come home early. I was tired of the degree of difficulty, done with hearing, “Not in Nepal.”
I didn’t change my flight, which means I have three more days to walk out my front door. It is impossible to predict what will happen when I walk out the door. To give you a sense of what I mean, this is what happened this morning:
-turn left, walk into friend, who is frozen in his tracks, staring at the electrical lines above him, where a fleet of monkeys are making tightrope walks
-duck under the electrical lines and head to the street, where two Tibetan pilgrims are prostrating themselves on the ground, making the slow spiral up to Swoyambhu: hands up, hands to chest, down to ground, slide arms along the pavement until body is fully prone, touch head to wet pavement, in the exact same place, so that a dark tikka of street filth forms on the forehead. Get up, take one step, and repeat. They might finish by nightfall. Maybe.
-notice that these particular pilgrims have wrapped themselves in blue tarps, to keep their clothes dry.
-walk down the street and turn left down dirt road to house. pass cadre of kids going to gifted school. “Good morning, sister!” Some of them I know well, they are “my kids.” The others I don’t know, but they greet me with the same enthusiasm, high-fiving me or rushing over to do the Secret Orphan Handshake.
– watch two older Nepali men dragging a pile of 40 foot long shafts of bamboo on a bicycle with a cart tied behind it. straight uphill.
– pass a Tibetan man in a golf shirt and khakis, whirling a prayer wheel down the narrow lane. say, “tashi delek!” as I pass, knowing that I will receive the most enthusiastic reply possible from a stranger, just because I know a single Tibetan phrase.
– learn that althought the bandh has been called off, the little kids are off school anyway. weeeeee!
– reaching the orphanage, the heavy iron gates swing open when i peek my head over the top, and i am greeted with hugs by at minimum four awesome children. “Good morning, Jill sister!”
“Sister, when you leave?”
“I leave on Wednesday.”
“This week? Wednesday?”
(Child counts days on hand.)
“Three days? You leave?”
“Yes, I go back to New York in three days.”
(Both parties stand in the dusk, watching the others play on the only dry terraced field in sight.)
“When you come back?”
Walking in Thamel, we pass one of countless drug dealers peering conspicuously from the side of the street as we go by. (The same ones who one afternoon caused Bec to exclaim, “My name is not Marijuana!”) In front of me, I see Dave wheel around.
“Hashish? AND a trekking guide?”
I’d like to be there when that sales pitch works.
In about 24 hours, a ten year-old boy managed to undo four years of failed mathematics instruction from my elite suburban high school. Sushil taught me that I don’t totally suck at math.
The kids do homework in the evenings. (Do you know any American ten year-olds who study foreign languages, math, literature, science history and art for three to four hours every night? Because I don’t, and if I did, I could pretty much bank on one other thing: they’d be whining their fool heads off.)
Everyone sits together in a big room, on cushions on the floor, with their books spread out on low tables. There are two tutors who keep the kids on track, and the kids know to ask volunteers for help with English, science or math, but not with Nepali. (Usually they know not to ask volunteers to help with Nepali, although occasionally a little one will ask me something in a string of Nepali and look at me with every expectation that I will answer without the use of hand gestures and facial contortions.) The other day Sushil called me over: “Jillsister!” (Because I’m pretty sure that’s one word, as is “Jillmiss” and “SisterJill.”) I walked over and he pointed at his workbook. “Maths!” he exclaimed, excitedly. “You! Help.”
I sat down and tried to remember/learn the difference between a highest common factor and a least common multiple. Sushil expected me to understand the particular format his text uses for breaking down factors, which I had never seen in my life. His textbook was borderline unreadable. My head started reeling, because I’ve had all kinds of bitter math history, traumatic math beatings in which I come to believe that I deserve to be mistreated by algebra, because I never deserved to manage it in the first place. “You teach me!” I suggested, optimistically.
As he started to break down the lists of numbers, I realized something shocking– I could figure it out. I didn’t figure it out by reading the book or by looking up the answers, but by having to ask myself what concepts were being taught and why. Watching Sushil try to get to the answer without completely understanding what the answer meant, he taught me maths he didn’t quite understand. Yet.
We pulled out a big sheet of scratch paper and drew the problems out, lingering on the parts where he was having trouble and breaking down the numbers over and over, until he could see what was really being asked. “Yes,” he said. He has this very adult way of declaring things, a grownups squint on a child’s oval face. He got it, and then began pushing through the exercises, crunching the numbers so quickly that I could not keep up with him. I taught him one tiny thing– how to factor– and from there, he took off at warp speed. It has to be this way, having kids, it must be that you are constantly being lulled into thinking you are guiding them, only to watch them pull away from you so deftly that you could never catch them. For a kid like Sushil, that’s incredibly heartening to watch.
And? I taught maths!
In about five minutes, I will go to pick up the kids at school. They line up in rows and do military style exercises as dictated by a teacher with a microphone. Feet apart. Feet together. Arms up. Arms down. Then they bow their heads and palm their hands at their chests like they’re about to say three Hail Marys, screw their eyes shut and say something together that might be a prayer but sounds more like a football chant. Then they get to go home. It’s pretty awesome.
My lungs! Battered into consumption by Kathmandu. Ugh.
The insects! Ugh.
The medium sized river where a street used to be! Ugh.
Yet another aggressive tchotcke hawker. Ugh.
Quoted an outrageous sum for a mobile recharge card. Ugh.
Digging under the burlap sacks for vegetables not coated in street dirt. Ugh.
Mainlining diesel… again. Ugh.
Sign seen in multiple Pokhara pashmina shops:
Please Feel Me,
When I arrived, one of the first emails in my inbox was from my aunt, who asked, “Are the showers still in the middle of the bathrooms at the Kathmandu Guest House? Water gets all over everything?”
Well, yes. In the middle of the bathroom at the guest house, in the middle of most bathrooms I’ve seen. There’s no real demarcation between shower and toilet, shower and sink. It’s all one big wet surface.
I’ve now moved into an apartment with such a shower. I’m not bothered by this shower thing one bit. It comes with a squeegee. Do you realize how ingenious this is? I’m going to get water everywhere, shower door or no shower door. Give me smooth surfaces, a drain, and a squeegee! So much easier!