17 October 2015


Two weeks ago I had the sort of adventure that made me fall in love with this country three years ago, and it was too great not to share.

I recently met a lovely woman named Sunita through a mutual friend in the States. She works for the Himalayan Education Center, an NGO that promotes rural education. They run a hostel in Khandbari where they host women from rural villages and subsidize the cost of their higher studies, and they also create libraries for government schools in rural areas. They happened to be working on such a library last weekend and Sunita invited me to join them, so I happily bumbled along, as is the way of my people.

My impression of what was going to happen was that we would walk for a few hours to a village and assess their resources and needs, or something like that. What actually happened is that we took a five hour drive in a truck packed with five people, boxes full of maps, charts, and about three hundred books, and one very heavy bookshelf. We drove past Chainkuti Danda, a pass from where one has a panoramic view of the not-so-distant high Himalaya on a sunny day, and the farthest point down the road that I had previously seen. Continuing on, the road condition quickly declined from "Rural Maine" to "I'm Pleasantly Surprised That We Didn't Tip Over," though the scenery was, of course, gorgeous. We wound through terraced rice paddies wafting the divine scent of the coming harvest, rocky switchbacks ravaged by monsoon downpours, forests of thick bamboo, and villages of increasingly rustic appearance. We drove all the way across a valley, down one side and back up the other - no small task when in the vicinity of the Arun Valley, the deepest valley in the world - and finally came to our destination.

On the Doorstep
The village of Devitar (here...?) is way out there - thatched roofs, little evidence of packaged foods, and only solar panels for electricity. Their school, though, seemed to be fairly new. After we unloaded all of the supplies and ate lunch, the faculty of the school held a big ceremony to celebrate the new library. Nepali people love having such ceremonies, but this one was over-the-top even by their standards. I've received a lot of tika in my day, but never so much as this. The principal, some teachers, and Sunita all gave speeches, and some students sang and performed traditional dances of their castes. Nobody there knew that I was coming, but they asked that I give a talk to the students, because most of them had never heard a native English speaker before. After all the fanfare had ended we promptly made our departure, since we wanted to get home at a reasonable hour.

This is where things get interesting. About a minute up the road from the school, our truck got stuck on a section of "I'm Pleasantly Surprised That We Didn't Tip Over"-type road. So we called 'Triple A'... but once we walked up to where the truck had stopped, we noticed that it had one less wheel than before. Bummer.

Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire
Our driver tried to figure out if he could fix the problem, and after a few minutes a local guy came down the road and invited us to hang out at his house while we waited. He had a lovely home composed of two buildings with a stone courtyard in between, a common old-school Nepali layout.

A Short Rest
After a while we learned that our driver had called a mechanic who wouldn't arrive for several hours and that there was no way we'd make it home that evening. Upon hearing this, another local who was there invited us to sleep at her home that night, and we gladly agreed to. We took a very picturesque walk through banana groves and rice fields perfectly lit by the setting sun, and came to another beautiful village home.

Queer Lodgings
Our host's father came out to greet us and showed us a great time. He was a real character - probably about sixty or sixty-five and wearing a vest that would make any hipster bartender jealous. He also smiled when I took his photo, which isn't so common among rural folks.

An Unexpected Party
He talked almost non-stop from when we arrived until when we went to sleep four hours later. He told stories about everything from politics to his memories of countless Tibetan monks walking past his house during the diaspora in 1959 (the Dalai Lama himself came through Taplejung, the next district east of here). I wish I could've understood more of what he said, because he had everyone else in stitches.

We were given a great abundance of food, including tongba - a very taste home-brewed beer, shishnu - a soup of nettle, and a really fantastic curry of iskus (this one is ubiquitous here at this time of year - apparently it's called 'chayote' in English), string beans, and guava. There was also a rice dish, a specialty of the Rai ethnic community, which is somehow made with chicken feathers (!) and which, after facing the ethical conundrum of whether such a thing is vegetarian, I decided against trying.

Not at Home
We slept that night on the porch with a delightfully warm blanket (if there's one way that Nepal totally outperforms the US, it's in the field of blanket development). I slept more soundly than I have in a long time and woke in briskly cold morning air, just like the air back home this time of year. After tea we said our thankful goodbyes, walked back to the truck to find it almost back in working order, and departed shortly thereafter.

This is where things get interesting again. About a minute up the road from where the truck had stopped, we ran into another impassable uphill section of "I'm Pleasantly Surprised That We Didn't Tip Over"-type road. This time we didn't bother with 'Triple A', and instead got some shovels and started fixing the road. We ended up doing this in a few different places, but despite our best efforts the troubled wheel sustained additional damage. This time, the driver got out, briefly inspected the wheel, unscrewed the outermost piece, threw it in the ditch, and said, "Okay, let's go!"

We did make it back to Khandbari eventually, about five minutes before I was supposed to proctor an exam at school. It was a fine excursion, through and through. If you happen to be in the area I highly recommend visiting Devitar. But take a motorcycle, not a truck.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

-Bilbo Baggins

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