Sara Wagner (Nepal 1996-98) left the United States for the first time on the cusp of her 24th birthday, to become a Community Health Volunteer Coordinator with the Peace Corps. Upon returning Stateside, she delved into public health on the country’s largest tribal nation, with the Navajo Area Indian Health Service. She has lived in Northern Arizona for the past 18 years yet still feels an affinity for distant Himals rising in the north, foothills and river valleys cascading down from every direction, flowing to India, to everywhere – for taking a step back in time, as if into a storybook, to a simpler time and place, awakened her heart. While it sometimes feels like this experience never happened, something, or someone, always comes along to remind her that she did not imagine it, that these people who embody love are real.
By Sara Wagner
A magnificent sunset engulfed us on our final ascent. Strong winds kicked up, sending villagers scurrying for cover as we reached the bazar. Shop doors closed quickly against the ensuing storm. Faces stared at us in silence. Our feet hit the uneven marble stones of the bazar just as the sky blackened. Half brilliant blue, half black, it was changing by the second. Susan and I each mentioned Jesus.
The long walk home was daunting, nearly always an ordeal. During monsoon season, entire sections of road would collapse, or be washed away by runoff, necessitating a three-day journey that began with a 16.5-hour night bus ride, overnight stay in Surkhet, followed by a 13-hour walk. We would hunker down at post for three months at a time, saving up the energy to once again venture out. Even so, walking typically proved to be the best mode of transportation.
I was once on a bus, near Gurasay, on the way to Dailekh, when suddenly there was lots of chatter back and forth between the driver and some passengers. Not long afterward, our freshly-decorated bus (lali guras, the bright red national flower, adorned the entire front grill and went down the sides of our chariot) stopped part way down a particularly steep hill and everyone got off. The driver explained that we were going to walk partway, till it was “safe.”
Another time I caught a ride back to post in the back of a filthy dump truck, stacked with barrels and lots and lots of villagers, mostly men, who were grateful for the ride and having a jolly time. I did not know the meaning of “dirty” till that trip. I alternated back and forth between the cab and bed, finally realizing that it was definitely better in the open bed in the back, where I could not see the driver losing control of the wheel as he cranked it around 90-degree hairpin turns in a relentless quest to make great time.
Perhaps the scariest ride back to post was the time I caught a ride on an actual tractor with huge wheels that had the capacity to cut through mud. When I say mud, I mean clay mud, the we-may-as-well-pretend-we’re-riding-a-bucking-bronco type of mud. I eventually surrendered to the experience the same way I did while on the Sun Kosi River; the rhythm of riding the crests and eddies of the mud had the same motion, the same swaying feel, the same prayer-evoking power a person called upon to get through the experience. I do not recall what I held on to, or where my luggage was stored, but the driver happily got us to our destination – the trick was not getting stuck, which meant that no matter what, one had to power through the brown churned muck without ever slowing down. Thank God we had not flipped as we had on the river.
The same road also took one away from Dailekh, like the time I was riding in a big truck when a massive boulder cascaded down from the mountain, squarely blocking the pathway of the road leading to Surkhet. A chain of vehicles built up along the dirt road, waiting to get by. All of the men from these vehicles, as well as locala who just happened to be in the area, donned handheld implements and began the slow process of chipping away this huge blockage, tool by tool.
Fortunately, there was a tea shop right there; its smoke rose up into the cool air. Women and children passed the time talking, doing whatever it was we did in that time span between the realization that the road was impassable sunk in till hours later when a big cheer went up. Large pieces of the boulder were slowly and gently rolled over the steep hillside, one by one. Our vehicle barely squeezed through an opening between the partial boulder that remained and the cliff. It was best not to look down.
Another time, we were walking and a jeep happened to pass. Despite the fact that my friend and I were with other Nepalis, only we were offered a ride, in the front seat, just because we were “guests” in the country. While I knew this was not fair, we gladly accepted it.
Other times a person had no choice to but to take the Number 11 Taxi (as my teacher Swami would say), one’s own two legs. My postmate and I would set off from Surkhet as early as possible, in the hopes of reaching Dailekh by sundown, so as not to have to stay in a hotel along the road. On these return trips, we would have stocked up on food supplies like powdered milk and peanut butter in Kathmandu and have heavy backpacks. We would try to hire porters and set off, up the long and winding path to the top of the first hill, Gurasay, the most scenic spot on the entire trek.
Walking along the river valley was a wonderful experience. The sun glistened off the fast-moving water. All you would want to do on a hot day was jump in, or take a drink. On the approach, descending down that last little way into Chiso Pani, one would feel fresher and cleaner just to be near it. There was a hillside tap once one got through the village, from which to fill your water bottle.
Then it was just pure bliss. You’d be walking along, listening to its rushing sound, the river carrying its water all the way up high, with more force and power with each successive twist in the mountainside. During planting season, there’d be bright green rice growing along every slice of terrace, like steps all the way up to the ridges. The vast sky and expansive trails in these never-ending foothills would transport you to another place and time. You’d reach a spot where you could not continue along the trail without fording the river. At certain times of the year, the water was high and fast, and you’d need to hold someone’s hand in order to cross without being washed away.
In the afternoons, I would often make my way to the hillside overlooking the Bheri Anchal (river), amidst the pines, to contemplate life. The pine needles reminded me of home, and it was coveted journal time. One of my favorite things about living on the ridge was Dailekh’s cool, wet weather, when the entire river valley would fill with thick, dense white clouds, giving the impression that a giant had come through and spread meringue everywhere. For hours tafts of white would drift up, across the distant foothills, evoking a very mystical feel. Other times, there was just a heavy, pervasive fog, wherein one could scarcely see two feet in front of herself, let alone the valley. It was on a day very much like this that I first met Karki.
Perhaps I had been to the tap and was on my way home. I don’t recall exactly what I had been doing. What I am sure of is that I was alone when Karki emerged from the haze. He stepped through the curtain of fog saying, “Hell-o” with a mischievous smile. I must have said hi back, as this is my recollection of the beginning of our friendship.
My next memory of him was while I was sitting with Susan, at the pasal just behind the district hospital, having dinner. He happened to pass by, just as I was telling Susan about meeting him on the hillside. She and I had ordered fish, not realizing that it’d be served with all its skin and bones. We just picked at it, leaving the rest. Later I found out it was well known throughout the village that we had “thrown the fish,” which Karki loved to bring up, with a “tsk tsk” nod of his head and a smile every time he mentioned it.
In Nepal there’s a concept expressed as “piarro manche,” or favorite person, for whom which one slit their throat. Karki was always telling me that I was his piarro manche. Over time, he grew to be mine.
Karki once came to see me on a morning when I had been up early doing laundry, which entailed taking multiple loads down the mountain to the natural spring tap. I made several trips because the wet clothes were too heavy to carry all at once. I always got soaked during these ventures.
On one of the trips back up the trail, I had tripped on something and gotten a cut on my leg. Somehow Karki noticed it when he stopped over to say hello. He was very upset. He looked at it and said in Nepali, “Oh no, not a cut like this on your nice skin.” We decided to get tea together at Jit Narayan’s pasal practically next door, just down the road in the Purano (Old) Bazar.
We ordered our tea with chewra in it (rice flakes that expanded when hot), which would be more substantial. I think he also got some dahi chewra for me, which was Jit Narayan’s signature snack. No one made it more delicious than him – his thick, creamy yogurt with rock sugar would crunch against your teeth.
Before I knew it, Karki was telling everyone in the place that I had fallen because I hadn’t eaten that morning. He (as did they) believed that had I eaten rice before doing laundry, such a thing would never had occurred. In Nepal, eating rice is not just about feeding one’s body; it is a spiritual venture.
When persons pass each other on the street they’ll say “Cana canabayo?” (“Have you eaten yet?”) the way Americans would say, “How are you” when passing another, without even listening for the answer. You are not considered to have eaten if you haven’t had rice, especially if you have not yet “taken” rice in your own home.
I had moved into the second story apartment of my Peace Corps postmate, Wes, at Bhakta Kisor’s residence. While the apartment was relatively upscale and even had a 60-watt bulb that would slowly light up when the generator was going at Bhakta’s movie theater across town, staying lit for a couple of hours till the video was over, it was as drafty as any wooden dwelling up high would have been. Wes was away for an extended period, as he often was. I was at home, cold and lonely, on one of these nights when Karki paid me a surprise visit.
We sat on the floor of my apartment, or dhera, as he remarked about how cold and windy it was. He hugged himself, as though he were shuddering, to emphasize just how cold he was, shaking his head in disapproval. He scowled and looked at me like it was no place for me. He told me I should come home with him but I politely declined. He was persistent.
I found myself going home with him that night. I trusted him. We chatted all the way and it was the most wonderful walk. We had to go quite a long way, first crossing the old bazar. The entire time, there was this prevailing feeling of comfort, and excitement. We traversed the ridge, then the pine-laden hillside, till we came to his home. He said hello to Amah (his wife), whom was working outside as we approached, telling her he had brought me home.
Just like that, I moved in. His three children vacated their room. As they gathered up their belongings, he showed me around the dark, dirt-floored room that he said would be my apartment (“timbro dhera,” he told me, which was a particularly affectionate way to address someone, as you would your own children). My new brothers and sister relocated to the upper level of the home. There were three tiny windows, as well as a little diamond-shaped hole in the door. When I woke up, someone would be at the side window most days, saying good morning to me. More than once I also saw an eyeball peering at me through that hole in the wooden door.
When I’d emerge from my room in the morning, invariably Karki was there asking me if was going “pisajane” or “disajane” (he was wondering of what the nature of my trip to the bathroom was, so that he could hand me a glass bottle filled with water in case I needed it). I grew agitated by the lack of privacy but later realized their interest in what I was doing at all hours of the day was just their way of expressing love.
Meals were always homemade, prepared slowly over several hours. Amah and Urmilla, my older sister, made food to nurture the soul. It was amazing what they could do with simple grains and lentils and a few spices. In their household, it was a luxury to have extra sugar – they really loved sugar, so much so that Amah’s front teeth were missing. Karki’s remaining one was very, very loose. He enjoyed wiggling it for people.
At mealtime, it was customary to be cheery and talk about one’s day. I was always given the seat of honor, the spot just by the fire where typically Karki would have sat, as the head of the family. Sometimes I’d try to sit directly on the clean dirt floor, but without fail they’d protest and grab a burlap sack for me to sit on.
Karki would often give me some of his roti (bread), even when I was already full. The most intimate moment came when Karki poured some of his own hot, sugary milk into my cup, from his own (this is usually reserved for husband to wife, or a very close familial relationship of this caliber). All I could do was look away, as there was no end to his kindness toward me.
It was in in this very same kitchen that my mother was introduced to Karki’s ailing water buffalo baby, shyly sleeping in a corner, fighting for its life. He was so proud of that baby, who would grow up to produce fine milk.
It was quiet there, save for the flies buzzing. When I’d awake from my nap, Karki would always prepare a snack for me – often hot. One of my favorite pictures is him peeling peas on his veranda, which overlooked the river valley. No matter how many weeks I stayed, I was treated like a queen.
I tried to help wash the dishes after a meal, and Amah would stop me. My older sister laughed. “We do this,” they told me. I bumped my head on the kitchen doorway while exiting once, and Amah said to me (in Nepali), “Tall persons must duck when they go through the doorway” (I am all of 5’1”).
Somehow Karki found out that Tina (a visiting European) was getting special snacks where she was staying. He recounted everything she was eating to me, down to the details of what kind of oil her snacks were being cooked in. Then he said, “If Tina can have that, so can you.” The next day, I had fancy snacks, too.
I once was travelling on a bus to a Peace Corps conference, and he and Amah sent me off with a bundle of fried food. When I pulled it out enroute, unwrapping it from its paper, a fellow passenger remarked, “Someone really loves you.”
Karki told me that he was going to send me off (to the States) with a basket that any father would give his daughter (this is the tall, covers-your-whole-back-and-more kind of basket). He described filling the entire thing full of pots, dishes, and other items I would need. He said something about their local gold jewelry as well.
Amah was always outside, sorting grains of one sort or another. While “chamel” was the name for rice before it was cooked, dhan is what rice was called before it was hulled, when it is more freshly harvested from the fields. This rice always had to be tossed, to separate stones and other undesirables from the food. They also grew wheat.
With a nostril ring, large earrings, marriage necklace, and years of hard work in her face, Amah was a photographic journal-in-waiting. I would have loved shooting her picture every single day, to convey who she was and what she represented. The problem was, however, that getting candid shots was nearly impossible if a Nepali knew that you were going to take their picture. Such was the case with Amah.
One day while she was sorting, as she had done thousands of times before, in her layered, non-matching dirty clothes, I yearned to capture the moment. Amah, upon seeing the camera, quickly went inside and emerged with hair combed and clothes changed. She remarked that if her photo was going to go all the way to America, she didn’t want her dirty, ripped shirt showing.
I always loved the perspectives of the villagers, in imagining what things were like in America. One of the neighbors’ favorite things to talk about with me when they stopped by was the time difference between Nepal and the United States. “Do you mean to tell me, when it’s daytime here it’s nighttime there?” they’d remark (in Nepali), astonished.
Cancha was my little brother. In Nepal, children are referred to by their birth order, so, being the youngest he was affectionately called “Canchie” or Cancha by Amah. He was about 12 years old and had never been to school. When I finally asked why he didn’t go to school, they told me that he was getting “this kind of education,” pointing to the goats that he tended to on the hillside each day. He was a quiet, gentle boy, typically with Amah and always smiling. He was a bit curious, too.
I had been going on and on about being excited to make Kraft dinner that had arrived in a care package, so there we were, heating up water in the kitchen of the clay house, box open on the dirt floor. Once the noodles were boiled and cheese sauce stirred in, Cancha, who had been at my side the entire time, couldn’t wait to try it. I will never forget his face. He was so disappointed, almost puzzled. He was never interested in my packages after that.
Another time, I took measurements of the windows in my room (they were absolutely tiny, about eight inches high by six inches wide on average) so I could buy screens in the bazar and put them up to keep out flies. I went to the bazar and found netting that I had cut to the proper dimensions. Upon returning home with the mesh netting, everyone gathered outside when I started hammering the screens to the outside of the house with nails.
My brother Ram Bahadur who was just about my age took over the hammer. Amah simply shook her head and remarked, “Nani (Daughter), how did you get so smart, where did you learn to do this?” When the job was done, Cancha looked like the Cheshire cat, grinning ear to ear.
He went inside my room to look at the screens from that angle, and then back outside. They had never seen such a thing. He then proudly asked whether we thought the truckers would be able to see the screens from the road when they drove by.
I had a sano sathi (little friend) who lived along the walking path to the tap. She’d nearly always be out, somewhere, peering at me as I walked by. I loved talking with her and/or just saying hello to see her shyly turn away or say hi back. Once she even carried one of my smaller yellow jarkins (water jugs) back to the house for me when she saw my heavy load.
One day I went by and this beautiful little girl was wearing a scarf wrapped around her head, covering her in way that seemed odd for such a person of her age. I must have asked, after the second or third time seeing her this way, why she was wearing it. It turns out she had lice, and her mother had cut off all of her hair, which was the easiest solution when there are lots of kids at home (mothers with more time on their hands were always picking lice from their kids’ heads in the bazar; it was something you’d often see while strolling down the street). She was embarrassed, hence the scarf.
Another sano sathi was a pre-teen boy who was really small and thin, albeit extremely cute, who’d often be a group of his friends after school. In their uniforms, they’d love to raise trouble, calling out who-knows-what to me and then giggling and running off. One day, I happened to be at the tap just above Swami’s house when he and his friends were hanging out. Rather than chide them for their mocking ways, I decided to play with them. I noticed that my little friend had hand-drawn a watch to his arm, its band going all the way around his arm, much the way a real watch would have could he have afforded one. It even had the numbers and large and small hands on it, everything. Filling my container, I didn’t even look up at him and casually asked, “Coti bajou?” (or, “What time is it?”) and looked him in the eye. I will never forget the smile originating from a place deep within him that met my gaze, so surprised. His friends and he all giggled and ran off. They never gave me trouble again.
I usually dreaded going down to the tap, either to bathe or do laundry, because I would inevitably have an audience. It might be adults who were curious to see how someone with white skin from another land washed her clothes, or her body, or what kinds of birthmarks I had. Even more energy-draining, though, would be the kids, all full of energy and antics. They’d never tire of hovering about, just to laugh and stir things up.
Other times, it seemed that everyone was at the tap at the same time, all doing their laundry. During one of these episodes, I grabbed an extremely dirty shirt of a very old woman whom was trying to get the fabric clean. I scrubbed it for quite some time, deriving satisfaction from watching the dirt disappear with each successive wash and rinse. At last, when it was more or less “ready,” I handed it back to her. I finished my own washing and went home. That night at dinner, or the next day, Karki asked me if I had washed the shirt of an elderly woman down at the tap. That one simple gesture had meant a lot to them all.
The sano bahinis (little sisters) at the tap were so beautiful, so precious. They would go in groups to bathe, do laundry, or washes dishes. One day toward the end of my stint, one of these little girls said to me, “You’re just like our very own didi. You’re just like us.” It remains one of the best compliments I have ever received.
Amah showed me how she could tilt her head and make white pus run from the inner corner of her eye. “Ke garne,” (“What can a person do?”) she remarked. She gestured toward the cooking stove in the corner, which had no chimney, and said a bunch of things that I could not decipher. My conversations with Amah were often this way. I wished I had medical training, I wished there was something I could do or say to make her life easier.
A friend advised that if I was to be effective in my community health work, I should first start with my own family. I heeded this advice. One day Amah fell very sick. She was weak and had diarrhea (which was very common) and other symptoms. So I pulled out my jeevan jal (or “life fluid”) packets, explaining that when mixed with water, they were nothing more than “noon, chini, pane” (salt, sugar, and water); I recommended that Amah be fed these, and that someone else take over her work for a while, to let her rest.
The day passed with no changes to Amah’s typical routine. When I inquired as to why no one was listening to me, Karki finally told me what was going on. In Nepali, he basically said, “Look, Amah was working in the lower field the other day. Our upper neighbor (whom they often scowled about) gave Amah the evil eye, but don’t worry; I’ve called for the dhamicharya from the distant hills and he’ll be here in a couple of days.” Similar action was taken once for a lost person – the traditional healer was called in to do a puja, to determine which spirit house was holding that individual. Until this is known, one cannot be helped.
I never ceased to be amazed by the expressions of gratitude from the Nepali people. When times were tough, we’d eat sinki, a Himalayan soup, to help stretch food. Other days, the lentil spices and tarkari were varied just a tiny bit; it would seem that we were eating the very same things day in and day out, often without enough to go around. Rather than complain, they’d always graciously give me, their guest, the very best of what they had, saying things like, “Look at this, Bhagawan (God) always provides for us. We never go hungry.”
Two other examples come to mind. Karki had this friend who went by “Tigerji” (I thought because he was always growly, sort of sounding like a tiger). Tigerji would drink a bit too much. I think his family life had gone a bit south as well. Anyway, he had this habit of stopping by our place nearly every single morning, to bum some smoke from Karki’s chillum. They’d sit in the kitchen and smoke and talk, like clockwork, before he made his way to the bazar, or work, or wherever it was he was going.
Over time, I perceived Tigerji to be a real mooch. Also, I felt that the schoolchildren and their parents, plus other more well-to-do villagers who lived further down the hillside (and hence closer to the water tap) who’d stop by regularly for glasses of fresh water were doing us a real disservice. Amah and Urmilla had painstakingly hauled that water all the way up the hill, with loads so heavy on their backs that they could scarcely turn their necks/heads under the weight. One day a woman also stopped by asking for a needle, to mend something; when we gave it to her, she complained that it wasn’t quite the right kind. These things annoyed me. Then one day Karki said to me, “Look, not one day goes by when we don’t have the opportunity to help someone.
Wes was always trying to give Karki warmer clothes. Without fail, Karki would give them to his son or someone else. He pretty much wore just two sets of kurta pajamas, one white (although it was so stained it could hardly be called white anymore), and one that was baby blue. He wore chappels (flipflops), and his topi (Nepali national hat). His clothing was incredibly thin, the fabric quite worn. One day he pulled at his shirt and told me, “Sara, this is all you and I need.”
He tried to learn English when he could, saying to me “milka, M-I-L-K, milka” as we walked down the final hill home. He was so proud of himself for knowing this; it is beyond me who taught him this before I arrived.
Gita was just about the best friend anyone could ask for. Though young, she was wise beyond her years and so reliable. I came to really admire her.
In the beginning, I found Gita to be a nuisance. She’d always stop by the apartment, invited or not, and just sit. It didn’t seem to matter what you were up to, she’d sit and stare at you, for hours it seemed, while you worked. That drove me crazy.
Over time, though, she proved herself to be a valuable confidant, and she always brought laughter. I really enjoyed her lighthearted, fun-loving demeanor. She certainly had lovely features, too. Her complexion was beautiful, and her bright white eyes and Hollywood smile set her apart.
Gita would appear at the tap, just when you had very heavy jarkins to carry home. She would insist, against your instructions, on carrying them. She would also take in everything you said, wearing a super-serious face, then break into a joke and smile that would light any room.
It was Karki’s house that I went home to when Swami died. Karki asked me if I had dreamt about Swami. He was sure to tell me that he had bet I hadn’t, shaking his head (indeed, I hadn’t). He told me that Swamiji had visited him in a dream already.
Villagers packed the helicopter landing pad. It was very windy. The propellers began moving faster and faster; there was no point in trying to talk above their sound. Colors swirled as we left the ground. I was wearing a headset. I could see everything so well from my all-glass vantage point in the cockpit. We dipped to one side, Dailekh suddenly appearing as a fairytale land – one that that got tinier and tinier the higher we rose. The home I had known, first the ridge and then the river valley itself, disappeared completely.