Travels in the Terai

Politically this has been one of the most interesting, unpredictable of my many visits to Nepal. Last year there were the elections, and even though we didn’t know who would win, we knew that order would be restored. Nowadays we seemed to have had the orderly running of government with all of its problems and machinations, until the Prime Minister (Puspa Dahal, Maoist party) who has been stalemated by the opposition coalition, unexpectedly resigned in May. I think that he pretty much acted alone in this decision and did not seem to have the backing of the party, so I get the sense that this reflects leadership and personal integrity. I remarked to several Nepalis that when someone voluntarily gives up this much power, you have lost an honest man. No one wants to argue that point with me, but he is taking a big political risk. What’s more to the point, because the other parties were stonewalling every reform the Maoists would push, nothing was getting accomplished. Better to quit, and not be blamed for failing! So, after two to three weeks of a power vacuum, a new coalition of three major oppositional parties have gained the majority and have installed a new Prime Minister. His name, appropriately, is Mr. (Madhav) Nepal of the United Marxist-Leninist Party (don’t be fooled: Nepal is of the conservative upper-caste and the party is conservative, not liberal, and certainly not left-wing). The tables are now turned, and the Maoist party is beside itself, thwarting and protesting with parliamentary backbiting and maneuvering. Fortunately, it has all been pretty peaceful with lots of strikes and demonstrations here and there.

I mention all this because the former Prime Minister Puspa Dahal (the Maoist leader who is also known as Prachanda) was compromised by major problems: the delays in getting a new constitution written and approved, removing a conservative general who was blocking the unification of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army with the National Army, and the strikes and highway blockades along the Kings Highway. This last one was of immediate importance to KTM and much of the country because it meant fuel shortages and escalating prices as goods could not get to their markets. For us, the strikes and blockades kept us in KTM as we were unable to ply the highways to visit our schools beyond the KTM Valley.

So, as soon as PM Dahal announced his resignation, the highway blockades were rendered pointless and lifted. Som read this immediately, and so the very next morning saw all of us (Som and his bride Nisha, our co-director Bal, our volunteer from France Gaelle and I) at the airport at 7 AM catching a flight to Biratnagar in the southeast corner of Nepal. We have been doing this corner of Nepal for 6 years now and it went like clockwork: By 10 AM we had landed and our Tata jeep arrived with Kamal, our driver; by the early afternoon, we had visited two schools in as many cities; and as night was falling, we found ourselves doing two more schools in Dharan.  Unfortunately, it was so dark, that some of our photos didn’t turn out, and we later had to send Chanak back to reshoot a few of the children.

Dharan is one of the cleaner, more modern cities in Nepal because it was largely occupied by the British who used it as a training center for the British Gurkha Army. The Brits have now largely vacated and turned over their facilities to the Nepalis, including a huge, modern hospital, renamed the B. P. Khoirala Memorial Hospital. It is one of, if not “The” best medical training facility in Nepal. Here we had the help of our two nursing students, Saraswoti and Mamata, both of whom have outdistanced their classmates and are number one and two in their class (such that you can almost say “in the country”). For the last couple of years Saraswoti and Mamata have graciously, willingly, and even lovingly, helped the children with the reading and writing of letters whenever we visit.

Back on Track from Dharan

As I was saying, we now have this part of Nepal down pat, and we spent the night in Dharan—this time far enough away from the Central Bus Park so as not to be awakened by the unrelenting horn blasting of the buses which begins at 3AM! So, with a good night’s sleep, we were up early the next morning with just a cup of tea and began retracing our route south and then swinging eastward along the King’s Highway to the very SE corner of Nepal. This part of Nepal is about 100 miles from Darjeeling in India, and is Nepal’s “tea garden.” It is rich and verdant, and even children can find jobs in the tea fields. It takes a lot of picking for one person to survive, but whole families picking together can get by easily. Here there is a cash economy, and it is quite a sacrifice for some families to send their children to school.

This past year we have had several families suddenly up and move on us, but whether it is from fear, shame, or outright ignorance, they often do this without informing us. Nevertheless, we have been fairly successful in reestablishing the link as we have schools all over the country. The reasons for relocating are varied but all are related to the fact that these families are truly living on the edge and have to move in order to survive. One girl Rupom has eluded us, despite two years of searching, because creditors are after them; and if the relatives know anything they aren’t divulging anything even to us. They are probably hiding out in India as educating their child is the least of their worries. Her sponsors have been encouraging us to find Rupom, so we are not alone in bearing the disappointment.

Another family’s story reveals just how convoluted life becomes when eking out a living. The father of our student Smritii had left his job and family near KTM and moved back to his home village to take care of his own father. Meanwhile, he had paid out a fortune to a middleman and was fortunate to have landed a new job as a migrant worker in Dubai. Consequently, the mother and daughter, without notifying us, moved to this tea-growing corner of Nepal in order to begin caring for her aged father-in-law while his son went abroad. What made matters worse, the school where we had Smriti enrolled, had not informed us either, hoping to first extract another term’s payment from us—but that’s another story! Fortunately, Som was able to locate them, and enroll Smriti in a local school. Smriti is in the 3rd grade with a straight A average, so without ANSWER, a real opportunity for a deserving child would be lost! Although it takes a lot to track down our students, these instances are often win-win as it usually puts us in contact with new schools with new students. So, by the afternoon of Day Two, we had visited our four schools in as many cities, made our payments, met the children, collected their report cards distributed sponsor letters to them and had them write their response letters, and last but not least re-established Smriti in a new school.

Now, we had gone as far south and east in Nepal as we could go, so we turned around and retraced our steps, beginning our long, 500-mile journey westward across Nepal. We were making good time in Kamal’s Tata Jeep, when all of a sudden we came to our first blockade on the King’s Highway. The blockade was set up by local Maoists who were protesting the resignation of their Prime Minister (even though this was of his own choosing!). Getting around these stops were usually routine stuff for us, but this time we were at a loss. On a number of occasions I had posed as a doctor sent out to rescue a critically ill child in a remote village, but we knew that this time this wouldn’t fly as we were now heading in the wrong direction, back towards KTM rather than outward bound. So, we waited for about half an hour hoping the local authorities would do something. Finally, our driver Kamal pulled out a large book from the glove compartment, placed it on top of the dashboard, said something to Som, and then waved to the Maoists to come and talk. Gaelle (our volunteer from France) and I were to get out our foreign passports. Kamal told the Maoists that we were Human Rights investigators, and we needed passage to do our monitoring. He then pulled out and an old ID card which showed him to be under the employment of a Norwegian Human Rights Agency! They disputed that until he pointed to the thick text in Nepali about Human Rights and then they backed off…they couldn’t read the English card, but the Nepali book title was comprehendible to them and confirmed what Kamal was telling them. They then backed away from the car when they suddenly pulled out their automatic weapons and blasted us. The car was riddled with bullet holes. We were covered in blood. Bal was breathing his last…….and I, and I….

No, no, no. That was just dramatic license! The local Maoists had backed away, smiled, and waved us through. As soon as we were out of sight, we whooped it up, patted Kamal on the back, and promised him a big tip! So, if any of you are thinking I am brave and courageous, or really dumb and stupid, I can only say it is more the latter and definitely not the former. I am no Greg Mortensen (of Three Cups of Tea) who as a mountain climber is used to living on the edge. He works in Pakistan despite the fatiwahs issued against his life, an abduction by Waziristanis, and being caught up in violent drug wars. (Thankfully, his wife has finally made him stop taking so many risks!) Nepal is not Pakistan. In Nepal I am protected by a US passport (which could serve as a death warrant in places in Pakistan), and I have inherited a lot of the goodwill generated by US Aid and several generations of Peace Corps Volunteers. In addition, I am lucky and blessed with a very knowledgeable, dedicated staff who are well aware of the risks. The truth be told, it is my staff that is most at risk… year after year, they have been able to visit every school and child despite the possibility of being beaten up by these vigilantes, extortion, or worse, if caught in an “act of defiance” such as running a blockade.

On to Lahan and the Bates’ Motel

photo1Still on our second day the sun was racing for the western horizon, as we approached the Koshi River, right on the Nepali-Indian border. As many of you read in your children’s letters, this was the site of mass flooding during last year’s monsoon. The flooding was a result of silting behind the dam which actually caused the river to change course—taking out villages, roads and bridges. I think something like 20,000 Nepalis lost their homes and most are still living in camps waiting for some kind of compensation from the government. As we crossed the flood zone, we could see a huge expanse of sand which had buried their once fertile fields.

The sand is so deep, I doubt if this will ever be arable land again. We drove through miles of what seemed like desert and all around were Indian and Nepali construction crews trying to reestablish levees and rebuild roads before the coming monsoon in a month and a half.

photo2Finally the road ended, buried by a huge sand dune. But in its place, was a plowed track in the sand over which everyone had to pass for a couple of miles in order to meet up with the road on the other side. It wasn’t long before we came up to a huge truck tilting to one side with a broken axle. As cars slowed to go around, a little minivan, aka “clown car” carrying a dozen people and a ton of luggage on the roof-rack, tried to go around the truck. It had hit a soft spot in the sand, and dug its own grave. Dozens of people gathered around the minivan, but only succeeded in pushing it deeper into its burrow. After about an hour a giant landmover with a cable managed onto the scene and towed it out, and then re-blazed a new track for all of us.    photo3People all gathered around to gawk at arm’s length, and I was sure that something would snap and the cable would thrash about like an angry cobra wiping out dozens of people on every side. Luckily and happily, it didn’t happen, but stupid stuff like that happens all the time here because of people’s curiosity and innocence gets the better of them—like the time during the Maoist war, a bomb squad was called in to disarm a bomb left on a bridge. Of course the bomb squad attracted a lot of attention, and rubberneckers gathered all around the bomb to see them at work…when it was accidentally detonated by the bomb squad. There was no damage to the bridge, but there were plenty of casualties from a bomb that was intended only to get people’s attention. Yes, innocence, like a little knowledge, can be a dangerous thing.

Well, the Maoists and the Dunes had managed to slow us down so that we didn’t get to our hotel in Lahan until well into the night. Tired and hungry, I was in no mood to discover that our hotel which had a thick menu full of great delights, including pizza, could only offer us more rice and lentils! I am not a culinary chauvinist, but the ubiquitous rice and lentils was no reason for my breaking a short fast. I was now in a foul mood because I hate this hotel anyway and deride as the “Bates’ Motel” (recall they movie Psycho and the shower scene).  Last year I was almost electrocuted in the shower when the ill-fitting showerhead let loose with a spray that went all over everywhere, including the hot light bulb over the sink, shattering glass everywhere. I went ballistic not just because my life was at risk, but also because if it happened to me, it had obviously happened a dozen times before to others, and all they could do to fix the problem is to repeatedly replace the bulb, vis-à-vis repair the showerhead. Most Nepalis, and even Som, cannot understand why I should be upset when a mere bulb blows leaving me in the dark with broken glass and water underfoot with the spray now striking the live socket. But that’s Nepal—innocence!

Last year one of our principals was electrocuted when he was hosing down the dirt and grime around some new classrooms that were being constructed on his campus. No one had bothered to disconnect the 30,000 Volt line that was feeding the unit, and it was lying “live” on the ground! As soon as the line and the stream met, he was knocked unconscious, but managed to survive. Fortunately, he was near an airport and immediately med-evacked to KTM by air and treated. It took months of hospitalization and rehab to bring him back with “just” severe burn scars running from his hand, up his arm, down his torso and legs where the water and current passed through and over his body. This principal is one of the brightest and most progressive that Som and I have met, and we are relieved that he survived as well as he did. This happens all the time: I read about another electrocution like this of a 9th grade student at school in newspaper, but he succumbed, and then there was another such case just a few days later.

Accidents don’t just happen; they are all set-ups due to thoughtlessness. For example, I don’t know how a family of four can all mount a single motorcycle, wedge a child between the mother and father on the back seat, perch the baby between the handle bars, and then all of them watch sublimely as the father puts on one and only  helmet which must serve protect them all from head injuries! There are seat belt laws and seat belts in the cars, but no one wears them. When I buckle up in a cab, half the time the belt has never been used, and I have a dirt smudge running diagonally across my chest simply from the dust in the air that accumulates on it from hanging idly behind the front window. It’s exasperating!

So, here we were a year later, checked into “the Bates’” tired, hungry, pizza-lessly disappointed, and perfectly set up for yet another night of misery that would have Som and Bal sharing hilarity in years to come.  Gaelle and I were sharing a room on the second floor facing the busy highway. The shower was the same dangerous set up: the shower head was situated over a light fixture, but this time the plumbing was tight. Partially refreshed, I emerged from the shower and found Gaelle looking out the window at a wedding reception happening across the street with a large brass section blowing their lungs out. To those attuned, they were recognizable as popular Hindi songs; to the Western ear, the tunes more closely resembled unadulterated cacophony. It was now after 10:00 pm and we were beat, but neither the heat nor the brass band was letting up. The temperature outside had cooled down to 85-90 degrees. However, if we closed the window to shut out the noise, the inside temperature would soon climb another 20 degrees, even with the fan on full-throttle. All through the night, the temperature and the gala went on unrelentingly, and either Gaelle or I would get up and open or close the window when the noise or the heat became more intolerable than the other! It was a dreadful night, and I wondered how it must have been for the newlywed couple! Som, Bal, and Kamal were on the far side of the hotel and had a blissful night. Even so, early the next morning I found myself in much better spirits appreciating the early morning peace and quiet and knowing that we were heading out of town, leaving this rat-hole motel in the dust and din.

The Kapri Clan

photo4And so began another day, and then another day, for the next two weeks: 14 hours per day of driving and visiting schools. Exhausted, some of us would doze off as our heads would bob up and down, bouncing in and out of consciousness. There was always something unexpected beyond the bend that would greet us. We did meet up with two more blockades on the highway, but diverted around one and lied our way through the other. At one town on the highway, with a ridiculous, long name Chandranigahapur, which even Som and Bal shorten to “Chapur,” we put up for the night in another roadside hotel. This time there was no dining room, so we found a “greasy spoon” (an inappropriate designation as elegant dining in Nepal requires no utensils). On these trips, as I mentioned, I find it really easy to diet and could easily get by on less than a single meal per day. Scales are few and far between, but I was reminded that my attempts were having results as every other week I would cinch up my belt another notch. I once read that a loss of one inch of girth around the waist represents 5 pounds of weight loss. It proved to be pretty close: at the end of my stay I had indeed lost 25 pounds in ten weeks. This makes me look like I have great will power, but if this were so, I wouldn’t keep gaining back the weight each year, would I? When I return home, it’s a real challenge not to binge out on Rocky Road ice cream.

photo5Any way during dinner, Som revealed that he would like to drop in on three new students in Chapur and see how they are doing before it got too late. Som had offered for us to pay for the schooling of these “special” boys…if the families would cover their room and board. This school was a real, urban, private English-speaking school, about 20 miles from their village, and if these boys could make it here then they could go all the way, with college and a career, too.

What made these boys “special” was their handicap: they were ethnically Madeshi.
Many regard the Madeshi as backward and anti-education, but I now know that this impression derives simply from their lack of familiarity with and understanding of what education entails. These three boys were of the Kapri Clan (their caste) who had lived in the tents along the Manohara river (read this as flood plain and garbage dump) in KTM some years back when we first encountered them. The boys are now 13-15 years old, and in the third grade, and to be honest I could only recognize one of them as they were all twice as tall since I last saw them. We had started educating some of the children 5-6 years ago in the “bamboo school/clinic” we built among their tents on the mudflats. The next year we mainstreamed them into a nearby government school in KTM. They were wild, undisciplined, and would even cuss out the teachers in their native tongue, which fortunately, was totally unintelligible to the teachers. But they loved their uniforms, and I now understand better that school gave them something to do when their moms left them behind and went out with their younger sibs to beg. The past few years many of the Kapri families stopped migrating to KTM because the children were too old to use as begging bait for tourists,  and so they stayed in their home village “down on the farm” near the Indian Border.

Finally, last year we decided we would stop by their home village and verify rumors that the boys were still going to school.  When we arrived, we were amazed to find that almost all of the boys we had started in schools were still going to school, including a few who were actually attending a local private school and learning English! Even better: the parents were footing the entire bill, uniforms and all! We were so pleased that we struck a deal with this private school to offer free tutorials to any of the Kapri boys. This had the immediate impact of consolidating all of the Kapri boys into the superior school and even elicited a few more enrollees. “Something for nothing, even though we don’t need it” is more than some can resist.

Som grew up in the Terai, and he had many Madeshi friends and knew their language and ways. I would have never have dreamt that Som’s “experiment” of enrolling Madeshi teenagers in a real private school would really have a snowball’s chance in the Terai, but these three boys took the bait and so did their parents. Moreover, Som had worked out a deal with the principal of the school to give them tuition waivers (so we didn’t actually have to pay anything!) if we chose some of his needy scholars as our candidates: this was a win-win-win scenario. We were now visiting at the beginning of the school year and the boys had set up house and were already attending classes….So, after dinner Som phoned up the principal, who met us at a street corner, and took us to the humble apartment of the three boys. It was 8-9 pm, pitch dark, and their room was very near the school. When the boys opened the door, they were blown away to find Som, and the unlikely return of the pale-skinned god!

We stepped into their small, single room. I couldn’t believe that more than a single person could live in this space, but Som seemed to have expected as much…or as little; and with six of us now crammed in it, we only had room to stand. The windows were all open as it is still very warm, and they had been cooking, and there were all kinds of night life flying around their light…I was tired, but stifled my yawns for inhaling and choking on the bugs. There was a single bed in which all three boys snuggled together, and a kerosene stove with dinner still warm in the pot. They told us about their classes and their determination in their language (Maithali), Nepali, and even simple English. I congratulated them for being so persistent in their studies, and there was no doubt that our visit was as good a motivational kick in the pants as we could give. I reminded them that this was truly their big moment to prove to everyone that they could make something of themselves, and if they did well, we would help them go all the way…even college! They were so serious…not the sassy little smart asses I once knew. When out of ear shot, I asked Som if he thought that they can really do it. Som didn’t even smile, but wisely said, “We’ll see.” Generations of tenant farming has made them into determined survivalists. The Kapris keep on amazing me. If only one made it, they would have their next leader!

photo6The next day Som and I drove the twenty miles south, just north of the Indian border and visited their village. We were warmly greeted and embraced by the elders, who seemed as glad to see us as we were to see them. We visited the local private school where all the boys were attending, and were surprised to find that the tin roof had been totally blown off along with some of the interior walls blown over from a recent wind storm! Sadly but undaunted, they erected matted screens between classes, and everyone was studying al fresco within the confines and ruins of the school.

Of course, they hoped we would help, but we only offered to extend the afterschool tutorials from 12 to 18 children, and included other Madeshi clans in the village. This would befriend us to those clans who felt we excluded them last year when our offer was extended only to the Kapris. It would also put pressure on the Kapris that if more of them didn’t take advantage of our offer, other Madeshi would do so! At first I felt we should do more, but Som handled all of this. To help a private school increase its earnings is a much better way to rebuild a school than to pay for a new roof…its empowering! Som reminded me that these are private “for profit” schools, and if we helped in other ways they would be after us to rescue them for any number of calamities in the future, real or contrived. I was immediately reminded of how our government rescued Chrysler in the 70s only to have GM come back to us in their corporate jets for a bailout in 2008.

photo7As we tooled down Route 66, east to west, we are always on the lookout for possible schools we could recruit more students. When we stopped for lunch, Som would typically ask the restaurant owner about the local schools. Sometimes things panned out, sometimes we were chasing our tail, but always it was an adventure…and nothing ‘ventured, nothing gained. When we finally reached the Far West, we decided that this year we would explore the Western Border and headed north 3-4 hours to Dadeldhura. Sure enough, we did find a fairly good school and selected some candidate children there. We then inquired about other private schools might be in the next town. We heard high commendations about a school in Dipalaya, another 2.5 hours drive, so after catching an early lunch, we made a dash for it. The school we found was being supported by the South Koreans, and they had scholarships for all the good students and were handing us report cards of children who were simply poor. They only wanted additional funds, not necessarily to help their students. We politely said that they have a good thing going and that we felt that our program would be in competition with the Koreans, and we didn’t want to jeopardize their funding source.  We then quickly jumped in the car and drove non-stop all the way back to Dadeldura and then to the Kings highway. That day we drove for 12 hours only to visit 2 schools and one was a no go. Still, we had reached the outer limits!

Next year we would return to Dadeldhura and drive further north to the end of the road in that direction, the town of Baitadi. We have essentially covered all the navigable roads in Nepal. The remaining areas can only be accessed by airplanes setting down in cow pastures, and it is doubtful if any of them have schools of a caliber that we can use. Viewed from the other direction, children from all across Nepal will be tomorrow’s leaders.