Into the Real Place, Slowly

It’s always good to experience the real life of a place, even if you are not good at it.

I was looking at the load-shedding schedule for today: 6am – 11am, 4pm -8pm. Nine hours without electricity. My laptop is charged; my phone has enough juice to get to 11am. My thinking is here, in the rhythm of here. My clients provide me with a room and meals (when there is a cook who comes in.) This keeps me from being utterly out of touch with what it is to be FROM here, to be of this place, with its own reality and hardships. People find ways to avoid the hardships. The capital city of this country can’t supply its citizens with clean water, or any water? Here, they circumvent that, if they can afford it, with the water trucks. If you can’t afford it, ah…what to do? Here in Bhaktapur, there are water taps, known as hitis, where people bring buckets, wash their hair, take a bath, wash dishes, and get water for the house.

Some years back, I remember, they tried to get everybody to harvest rainwater. I’ve seen in Bermuda, where there REALLY isn’t any water, the sparkling white stepped roofs leading to the pipes, leading to the barrels. Here, the “they” were probably some international NGO or the UN. It didn’t take on the widespread— the rain is perhaps too unpredictable except during the monsoon, and water requirements are on a more demanding schedule. So people buy water like we all buy electricity. Only here the electricity forces us into a schedule, published in the newspaper, the Load-Shedding Schedule. I watched at night from the roof terrace as the lights of the valley marched across, coming on in swaths, going out in swaths. The roof terrace is part of the normal architecture of this real life. It’s where you hang clothes to dry, to grow plants in pots, to escape for a cigarette so everyone can pretend they don’t know you smoke.

This “here” has no air-conditioning or heat— not that both are unavailable; of course, the major hotels have both. I can deal with the lack of air-conditioning. It’s not that hot here at 3,500 feet in the biosphere; and there’s always a bucket I can fill with water. If the water trucks have come. The lack of heat drove me out of the room and into a hotel the winter of 2015. I continued to sleep here, dressed in every piece of clothing I owned. But I worked at Shiva Guest House, where they provided propane heaters around the dining room. The hotel’s job is to protect people like me from this specific real life. The hotel provides a bubble that feels more like the life we usually live, an expensive undertaking, except of course we can afford it because we have powerful money.

That’s just a fact, our powerful money— one that brings its own inconveniences that annoy and often baffle us. Why do I attract more touts, would-be guides, beggars, rapacious “holy” men, purveyors of rugs, paintings, bells, gadgets, bangles and do-dads? Simple: my powerful money is visible and apparent to everybody, including me. So, sometimes, I just hide. In the warmth of Shiva’s dining room. In a hotel. In my own room. David Whyte, in this morning’s reading, talks about the usefulness of hiding. “Hiding,” he says, “is a way of staying alive…a way of holding ourselves until we are ready to come into the light.” In fact, it may be the only way we can gradually slip into the real life of a place, with hardships we aren’t any good at. The real life of here:

  • The sun is out this monsoon season morning, so I should throw my clothes in a bucket with laundry powder I bought the second day, cover the clothes with water and get them washed, rinsed, wrung out and up on the line while the sun shines.
  • I escape the persistent annoying people because I can speak enough of this language to tell them that I don’t want a taxi, I’m staying here in town. I don’t want a guide because I spent six months here before they were even born.
  • I know the price of a taxi to Kathmandu is $8, but I pay $10 because I have powerful money. I try to think in Rupees, though. That’s more of being here.
  • Breakfast is a dish of some kind of peas, a boiled egg (but the salt shaker is empty), a slice of square, American-style white bread, a tiny banana. The white bread has an ultra-thin layer of some kind of apple jelly.
  • Lunch will be dal-bhat-tarkari, always lentils in a soup, rice and vegetables, heavily coated with various spices that I would not recognize except for having tasted them so often here. There might be meat, but then I’ve walked through the market and…meat…ehhhh. Even chicken looks unhappy dead in the stalls. Real life definitely has limits.
  • I can call America with my Nepali SIM card in my iPhone, which costs about $10 an hour, but it’s better than Skype’s dropped calls and garbled crackling sounds. But everybody here is on Viber.
  • Everything takes three times longer to get done, from figuring out what the client really needs to simply signing up for a free trial of the Nonprofit Starter Pack in Salesforce.
  • People do not schedule or plan the way I’m used to.
  • People are not on top of their email every day.
  • In short: Communication is a puzzle that must be solved, but is surprisingly elusive.
  • I can ride without a helmet on the back of a motorcycle, but the driver always has to have one on. Go figure that one.

I walk and drive past the temporary shelters that have housed the earthquake-made-homeless people for over a year. It seems that, as usual, the hardship was not evenly distributed. Not everyone lost their home. Not everyone can afford to rebuild. Over 73,000 people have lodged complaints that they were excluded from the re-building grants that were supposed to be for everyone who found themselves looking at a pile of rubble that used to be where they lived. Mainly it was poor people with older houses, people already in greater deprivation. The very real question for me everywhere I travel, about them, about the middle class, about the rich here: “How do they manage?” Because we all manage, even with our great wealth, even without our great wealth. I’ll tell you: Here, we sit in the dark, faces illuminated by two or three cell phones where fingers are messaging someone not here, and sing. We make jokes that my poor Nepali can’t begin to understand and we laugh. Even I laugh, because laughter is universal, and contagious.

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