Stories From the Langtang Valley-I

Dear Readers,

I recently returned from the Langtang Valley, located in the Himalayan region of Nepal.  I have been participating in projects concerning this section of the country and its inhabitants for several months now; however, this was my first time to see the area from my own eyes, engage with the villagers, and refine my perspective.  This trip was part of a larger Langtang Memory Project.  Aside from living and learning from the Langtangpas in their homes, I conducted interviews and gathered information for the archive project–a project dedicated to remembering and preserving the Langtang culture in the wake of the 2015 earthquake and subsequent avalanche.

During my time in Langtang, I met family members and friends of the Langangpas I know here in Kathmandu.  I met the people who wake up every day surrounded by beauty, yet consumed by the sadness of devastation.  People who cannot escape this sadness; people who are slowly moving on, slowly continuing with the broken pieces of their homes and their families.  I would like to share with you, my readers, some of the people that I met along this journey into Langtang; the stories they shared with me, the experiences we shared together.

Today,  I would like to introduce two special women I met, two women that shared the journey into Langtang with me, two women with vastly different perspectives.  In the following paragraphs, I will share with you my experience with my Langtangpa porter-guide, Pemba Yangjin and my experience with a young girl that accompanied us, Pema Dolma Tamang.

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Pema Dolma and Pemba Yangjin (left to right)

 

 

The first time I met Pemba Yangjin was in Kathmandu during the Tibetan New Year holiday called Losar. This year, after the devastating losses endured by the Langtang community, the people did not celebrate in their traditional festive fashion; rather, family members simply gathered together for the occasion. It was the first Losar after the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal and the absence of those who lost their lives was palpable for the Langtangpas. Pemba’s family lost 12 immediate members—sisters and brothers, the laughter of her nieces and nephews had disappeared, uncles and aunts who had watched Pemba grow were no longer there. Losar is the holiday that Langtangpas look forward to all year; this year, it was a dreaded occasion filled with memories of the past and painful visions of the future.

Pemba offered me some khapse—a hard Tibetan biscuit made from flour, eggs, butter, and sugar and traditionally served during Losar—and some milk tea that she had prepared. Each step she takes, each action, each word, is reminiscent of those who have left her behind in this world. Slowly kneading the khpase dough, braiding it into different shapes, her mind wanders back to the years past where she shared this tradition with sisters and aunts who no longer are here. It is not just in these moments of tradition, but in each moment that she is reminded of what she has lost, who she has lost.

The next time I met Pemba, it was time for our trek to begin. This was my first journey into Langtang, and this was Pemba’s first time acting as a porter-guide. We situated ourselves into the public jeep that would take us away from the crowded streets, polluted air, and diversity of Kathmandu and bring us to a town called Syabru Besi—the place in which our journey by foot would start. The jeep ride from Kathmandu takes several hours; as we slowly made our way around the curving roads into the section of the Himalayan Mountains that the Langtang Valley resides in, I watched Pemba as she conversed with the other passengers, speaking in Tibetan with those local inhabitants of the mountains, and in Nepali with those who were not local to the area.

I watched as she looked out the window; her eyes sometimes glassing over, sighing breathy gasps of air making me wonder what the contents of her brain were. Every so often, she would turn to me with her kind smile, asking me if I was okay as we traveled. Her smile sometimes cracked slightly to reveal the pain that it was masking, pain that had invaded Pemba’s insides for almost a year now. Our jeep was beginning to near the neighboring towns of where we were headed. As we reached the town of Dunche, a cry of sadness escaped Pemba’s body. I turned toward her and watched as her hand reached her forehead as if to keep the memories of her loved ones intact. She was crying out for her sisters that had been taken from her, memories that had become too heavy to contain inside of her as we continued along our journey. My eyes moved to glance out the window, witnessing the evidence of landslides, the physical damage of homes and shops were visible, the brokenness of the inhabitants not so easily seen.

Just as quickly as her pain had revealed itself, it was once again tucked away neatly inside of Pemba. “Om Mani Padme Hum.” The Buddhist mantra quietly emerged from Pemba’s lips. Moments later, she pointed out to us that we were reaching our destination for the evening. The jeep slowed to a halt and Pemba’s hand extended to help me out of the vehicle. As my hand grasped hers, I wondered to myself how I could comfort someone who had been so broken. Her exclamation of pain for the family members she had lost was something I would continue to carry with me—an indication of the pain that marks the daily lives of the Langtangpas. We settled into our night’s lodging at Syabru Besi.

The sun hit my eyes slowly waking me from my sleeping state, reminding me of the journey I was beginning. I placed my toothbrush back into my bag and met Pemba in the dining area of the lodge. One cup of lemon tea and some Tibetan bread fueled our bodies to begin our day’s journey. As we left Syabru Besi behind us, I followed behind the gentle steps of Pemba. No longer was my name “Jennifer”; she had renamed me “Pasang Lamu”—a Tibetan name that her brain could more easily access. As she continued to forget my American name, she explained to me that the place of stress that she had been dwelling in since the 2015 earthquakes had caused her mind to become forgetful, not able to quickly capture new information.

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Our steps were accompanied by a somberness. We slowly winded our way through trees and rocks, the remains of landslides, and into a large patch of black land, charred by a forest fire that had recently stripped the land of its greenness, painting the landscape again in sadness. I watched Pemba as she led me, wondering what thoughts were entering her mind. “Om Mani Padme Hum.” Reaching the top of an incline, she directed her smile toward me and declared that it was time for a rest. Slow steps, heavy breathing, hand in hand we sat, allowing our lungs to fill with air, our bodies to rehydrate with water, and our minds to comprehend our surroundings.

As we sat near the edge of the trail, our eyes rolled over the hills, following the birds overhead. My body was calm as Pemba spoke. At the age of 32, she was a single woman. At that moment, our adult minds interacted as those of children, making a pact to stay unmarried and share our lives as sisters. She extended her hand to confirm our pact and we laughed at the thought as our hands clasped together. As I watched Pemba stand up to begin our day’s journey again, my mind began to curiously wonder why Pemba was still unmarried.

Pemba has lived her entire life in the Langtang Valley; she had not attended school and cannot read or write. She continues to live with her mother and father, fulfilling the traditional roles of Langtangpa females of cooking and carrying out the necessary housework. I silently questioned why her parents had not arranged her marriage or why she had not partaken in a “love marriage”. Keeping my curiosities to myself, I picked up my bag and again followed Pemba as she led me on the trail to her home. A trail so revealing of the past—walking over landslides, viewing the remains of homes that once housed families, seeing the temporary make-shift shelters that currently housed these broken families—yet, the trail was also indicative of a future, of rebuilding, of continuing—passing over a new bridge, watching villagers construct new doors and piece together wood to create new homes. Prayer flags waving in the mountain breeze continued to remind me of those who were lost, and those who were left to place these flags in their memory. “Om Mani Padme Hum”.

 

From Syaphru Besi, we stayed one night in a town called Sherpa Gau.  The next day as the walking portion of our day came to an end as we reached the village of Tangshap. Our bodies became aware of the evening coolness as we placed our belongings in one of the few rooms available during this rebuilding phase. We sipped hot water in the moments that the sun disappeared behind the mountains surrounding us. Pemba had known the people of Tangshap before and was helping the women prepare our evening meal. I listened to the sounds of the Langtangpa dialect of Tibetan language and watched the few other foreigners that were staying the night there.

Darkness flooded the valley; we huddled together in the small kitchen waiting to be served our evening meals of dhal baat—a typical meal that can be found everywhere in Nepal consisting of rice, lentils, and curried vegetables. As we ate, Pemba and the other Langtangpas sat on the floor continuing their conversation. I slowly became aware of the sadness that was being exchanged in this conversation. I looked up from my plate and saw tears brimming the edges of Pemba’s eyes; staining the side of her cheek, she wiped away a tear that had fallen from her eyelashes as she continued to talk to the other women.

The contents of the conversation was revealed to me after finishing my meal. I had returned to my room and a girl who could understand Tibetan explained that Pemba had been speaking about a boy she knew before the earthquake. I listened as I learned that prior to the earthquake, there was a boy that Pemba planned to marry. His life had been taken from him on that April day of the earthquake; Pemba remained. Pemba remains in the brokenness that consumes her, that reminds of her those who are gone, and makes her question why she is still here.

I closed my eyes, laying my head on the pillow provided for me, and my mind wandered back to the previous afternoon, the pact we had made, and the laughter we had shared. The next morning I awoke to the mountains. The beauty, the immensity, the power. I wondered what thoughts entered Pemba’s mind when she looked at these same mountains. Today was the day that we would reach her home in the village of Mundu. Between Tangshap and Mundu, however, lies the village of Langtang. Langtang is the village that endured the most destruction as it was completely covered by the avalanche that accompanied the 2015 earthquakes. I had read reports and listened to many stories about the damage, but had not yet witnessed it for myself.

Once again, I was being led by Pemba. This time, she was leading me to her home. The path began to open up; no longer were we tightly surrounded by a covering of trees. We were now surrounded by distant mountains, slowly making our way through the valley. We passed porters carrying materials for rebuilding, men carrying heavy bags of stone, and large pieces of wood strapped to their heads. Ringing bells and heavy steps signaled to us that donkeys were approaching. We stood to the side of the trail as they passed, following them for a short time as we neared the area where the village of Langtang had once stood. This was where Pemba’s family, friends, community members—people she had known her whole life—were killed. Some found; some still buried under the rubble that we were about to walk over. The air felt heavy as we continued to move forward.

“Om Mani Padme Hum”. I looked around me. Prayer flags danced in the wind above the broken village. Signs of a past life quickly began to surround us. Broken chairs, bent tea thermoses, torn sweaters, old wallets, cracked television sets and radios, old shelves. Remnants of those who once inhabited the land that I walked over. Pemba signaled me to follow her. We walked through the space that her sister’s house once stood, a house that no longer remained, people that no longer remained.

 

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Just past Langtang is the village of Mundu. The rocks that we had been walking on began to be replaced with a dirt tail that had not been covered by the avalanche and landslide. Mundu is a small village of about 18 households. Pemba’s house no longer stands after the earthquake. There is a closed in kitchen and storage area where she and her family sleep now.

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Pictured above is Pema Dolma Tamang.  The following is an account of our journey starting from the jeep ride again as I experienced it with her.

Our jeep stopped in Ramche and a young girl entered, taking the hand of Pemba and sitting next to the window. We were close to our destination of Syabru Besi, and I wondered to myself where this girl was traveling alone to. The driver started the jeep again and Pemba informed me that this young girl, Dolma, was accompanying us on our journey. She was dressed in a sheer black top, black pants, and brown shoes that buckled around her ankle. Her shirt had plastic pearls around the neck and she carried a red coat, small backpack, and leopard print purse. Dolma’s eyes were fixed on the changing scenery out the window; she didn’t speak more than a few words as we traveled.

I wondered who Dolma was. Was she a friend of Pemba’s? A relative? How long would she stay in Langtang? Pemba did not speak to her in Tibetan; rather, they conversed in Nepali, revealing to me that Dolma was not a Langtangpa. When we reached Syabru Besi, Dolma remained quietly by Pemba’s side. Pemba and Dolma made milk tea for themselves as I drank lemon tea from the lodge. We explored the area and Pemba brought us to one of the shops along the road to buy Dolma a pair of sneakers—shoes much more suited for a trek into Langtang Valley than the ones she was currently wearing.

The next morning, we left Syabru Besi and were headed to Sherpa Gau. Dolma was still wearing the shoes she had arrived in and I asked her why she wasn’t wearing the new sneakers. She responded by telling me that those sneakers would make her hot and she preferred to wear the flat shoes with a buckle. I wondered if she knew how far we would be walking that day. I listened to the wooden soles of her shoes click against the stones that we walked over. Her bags looked heavier that morning.

Dolma slowly began to reveal pieces of herself as we walked through the paths of the Langtang Valley. She comes from the caste of Nepalis called Tamang—a distinct culture complete with its own language and customs. A language that differs from Pemba’s native tongue. She told me she was 17 years old and had only gone to school until Class 7. We continued to walk, led by Pemba, into the mountain landscape. As we walked, I wondered why she was with us, what was she going to do when we got to Langtang. The sun was becoming stronger and our stomachs were becoming empty again. We decided it was time to take a break and eat some lunch.

I reapplied sunscreen; offering some to Dolma, I asked her how long she had known Pemba. She told me that the day she met me was the day she met Pemba. Confusion washed over my mind—How could she have just met Pemba? I inquired a bit further as we waited for our meals. Dolma explained to me that she had been at her uncle’s house the day that we picked her up. Her house, consisting of her mom, dad, two brothers, and one older sister, is two hours away from her uncle’s house. Prior to that day, she had not been told that she would be traveling to Langtang. Pemba appeared from the kitchen, carrying our plates of dhal baat. I poured my dhal—the lentil soup—over my rice and began to eat while my mind continued to ponder Dolma’s words.

I picked up her leopard print purse and explained that I would carry it for the rest of the journey as she seemed to be having a difficult time with so many bags. The sun was setting when we reached our night’s destination of Sherpa Gau. That night we met a young girl of similar age to Dolma. She was there from a different region of Nepal as a worker for the lodge owner, cooking the meals for guests, making tea, cleaning the dishes. I realized that this was the work that Dolma’s future consisted of.

“How long will you stay with Pemba’s family?” Dolma answered with uncertainty. “What will you do there?” Pemba explained that her family needed assistance now that there was so much work to be done in the rebuilding process and less family members to help out. Dolma would be working for Pemba’s family—cooking, cleaning, doing as she will be asked to do. Dolma sat quietly next to Pemba. How did Pemba know Dolma? Pemba explained that her mother had met Dolma’s uncle about a month prior to this day. Her uncle had been helping out with some rebuilding for Pemba’s family and Pemba’s mother had inquired about some extra help around the house. The product of that conversation was what I was witnessing. Dolma had no authority over her choice. She was sent by her uncle and she would stay with Pemba’s family until her work was no longer needed.

As we continued to walk, Dolma would ask me how many more days, how many more hours until we would reach Mundu. She had not been told where Langtang Valley was; she had not been told how cold it would be; she had only been told that she must go—an order that she reluctantly obeyed. After realizing that she had no choice but to obey her uncle’s command, she hastily had packed two pairs of pants and one shirt; clothing that was suitable for the weather she was accustomed to, not for Langtang. I watched her flat shoes carry her over stones and I began to understand that she did not know where she was going.

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We were slowly approaching the village that she would now call home. I watched her face wrinkle as we walked over broken homes. What was she thinking? Was she scared? We both were experiencing our first time into Langtang Valley together—coming from vastly different perspectives. My perspective gave me the agency to leave, the ability to return, to make my own agenda. Her perspective left her in a place she had no prior knowledge about, to people she did not know but must listen to. I wondered if her mind was free to comprehend her situation. Where were her thoughts leading her? We reached Mundu.


The first three days of my journey into the Langtang Valley, described above, taught me so much about the situation that plagues this region of the country.  The sadness, the loss, the pain.  Pemba allowed me to understand this from the Langtangpa perspective.  Dolma allowed me to understand this story from a broader Nepali perspective–the need for workers in this earthquake-devastated area and the obedience young girls must display to their older relatives.  For now, I would like to leave you with just these two perspectives, and slowly share with you more stories of my time in Langtang as I continue to write about the people I met along the way.

Thank you, as always, for reading and for allowing me to share my experience with you.

Jennifer

“Langtang Rising” Photo Exhibition: A Platform for Stories to be Heard

Dear Readers,

The “Langtang Rising” photo exhibition that I wrote about to you last time has begun! We had our opening reception at the Taragaon Museum in Boudha, Kathmandu–an afternoon gathering of tea, cookies, friends, photographs, and stories of the Langtangpas.  It was a special day for everyone involved; most importantly, it was a day for the stories of the Langtangpas to be heard.  As I watched the Langtangpa photographers viewing their printed photographs, I was reminded once again of the power of having a platform for one’s story to be heard.  I have been listening to their stories for months, organizing the exhibition, curating the material, gathering the photographs; the exhibition is the platform for others to hear their stories–the stories they choose to tell.  I would like to further share their work through this post as a means for more people to learn about the meaning of “Langtang Rising”.

[These 4 photos have been taken by Austin Lord.]

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Above is a picture of some of the Langtangpa photographers that attended the opening of the photo exhibition.  Each of the photographers that participated in this venture told a different story; their individual stories culminating in a larger story of the Langtangpa experience.  The exhibition was organized into six different themes–themes that emerged from the material that I gathered: 1. Langtangpas: The People of Langtang, 2. Langtang Before the Earthquake, 3. Langtang After the Earthquake, 4. Life in Kathmandu, 5. Langtang Culture and Traditions, and 6. Langtang Rising. The physical exhibition is being displayed in Boudhanath, Kathmandu for one month; each theme is displayed in one of six different cafe locations.  The exhibition’s seventh location, the Taragaon Museum, is housing photographs from each of the six thematic collections allowing viewers to experience a more holistic representation of the Langtangpa story.

[Above photos taken by Austin Lord.]

The exhibition’s first theme–“Langtangpas: The People of Langtang”–is a collection of portraits and photographs of the Langtangpas.

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“This is a shaman from Kyanjin Village.  I took this photo during a pilgrim tour to Langshisa Jatra just a month before Janai Purnima, above the Langtang Valley.” — Lhakpa Jangba
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“My grandmom at Chamki after 5 months of earthquake.  Trying to collect the remaining materials and memories.  She shouted, cried, and lastly breathed.  It was far beyond our thought to be alive during earthquake; luckily we survived and now I even cannot imagine how my dear one faced the death undr rocks and avalanche within a minute.  RIP. So sorry for them. RIP.” –Ngawang Dorjee

The second theme is “Langtang Before the Earthquake”; viewers of this piece of the exhibition are invited into the landscapes, the homes, and the lives of the Langtangpas prior to the earthquake.

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Within this theme, we featured the bakery of a very special Langtangpa–Lhakpa Jangba.  Lhakpa’s bakery is no longer standing.  When Lhakpa shared these photos of his bakery, he wrote:

“Finally I start liking as Baker and love to be known as Baker of Dorje bakery. In 2011 I change German Bakery Cafe into Dorje Bakery which is my late father’s name.  Now it’s little famous in the town for quality products and great coffees of mountain. When I start liking my job and doing it well then there was nature who don’t like us. 25th April 2015 earthquake and avalanches destroyed everything which was going happily. I have not lose hope of rebuilding Dorje Bakery for everyone who love my place. When I look at my Guest book and read the comments by my lovely customers I get new energies for starting again. I just pray and hope to stand again one more time. Hope everyone will supports us and walk with us in this period of time.

Time change and hope it will change for us as well into new sunshine.
With Love
Lhakpa Tamang Jangba
Baker
Dorje Bakery”
Lhakpa’s words accompanying his beautiful photographs continue to inspire me each time I read them.
Following this theme is “Langtang After the Earthquake”, a theme that shows viewers the destruction of livelihoods, homes, and villages in the Langtang Valley.  This thematic collection gives voice to the Langtangpas who chose to tell the stories of devastation and loss.
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Every member of Pasang’s immediate family was lost in the April 2015 earthquake.

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The top two photographs from the picture above are by a Langtangpa named Gyal Po.  The photo on the left is of his home after the earthquake.  He writes:

My heart collapsed with this house because it lives here. My parents spent decades building this house, but how easily it was destroyed in minutes. They have been dreaming to modify this house for a long time, but they left us without completing their dream. Now who could carry it out? I don’t feel I can. My heart will be hollow without their presence.

Of the photo placed next to the one of Gyal Po’s destroyed family home, he writes:

In this small courtyard, I used to play games with my brother and most of time I won as I am older in age, but I often cheated him. I visualized him in my eyes magnificently that he is still alive at the moment when I recalled my times being with him. I can’t believe he is no more with me, but no one can change the truth. Tears falling down constantly from eyes, at that moment I became so somber which will take me to unknown zone.”

Gyal Po’s images and words are so powerful shedding light on the importance of this exhibition, the importance of the Langtangpa stories being told.

The next theme represented in the exhibition is “Life in Kathmandu”–a theme representing the displacement of Langtangpas following the earthquake.  While many Langtangpa youth have spent much time in Kathmandu prior to the earthquake for education, many villagers have never left the Langtang Valley.  Displacement in Kathmandu was difficult on many levels for these people.

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Nawang Lama captured the bottom photo in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake when displaced Langtangpas resided in a makeshift camp set up at the Yellow Gumba in Swayambhu.  Many Langtangpas refer to this monastery as their ‘second home’; in the words of Lhakpa Jangba, “First couple of week after eathquake it was our home to take shelter with other forty more people together in this small temporary triple tent.  When have nothing, then this is more luxurious than five star hotel.”

The photo above Nawang’s was taken by Chhime Tamang.  While the Langtangpas have been displaced in Kathmandu, they have been faced with the larger hardships of fuel and other shortages that Nepal has been experiencing this winter.  He writes:

“The busses are extra crowded during the fuel crisis.  This picture was taken in Chahabil Chowk in Kathmandu City.  A fuel shortage in Nepal has hit public transportation hard, leading to fewer vehicles in service.  As a result, those that are running are more likely to carry more riders than they should.  Therefore, riders are forced to travel like this, bearing the risk of their own.  As a result, it leads to accident.” 

Chhime has become very interested in photography in these last couple of months.  He has learned the art of capturing a story through his camera lens.

The fifth theme of the exhibition is called “Langtang Culture and Traditions”, providing insight into the unique culture of the Langtangpas.

When curating this material, I learned so much about what is important to the Langtangpas, about their origins, and about their daily lives.  It is a piece of the story that many Langtangpas fear will be lost due to the devastation that the earthquake caused to the community, allowing viewers to understand the importance of this exhibition.

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“Getting blessed by elders in the community is the biggest thing in our society.  Langtangas always stay in queue for getting blessed.” -Lhakpa Jangba
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“This is Tashi’s one remaining daughter.  Tashi lost many family in the landslide, including his wife and other immediate family.” –caption by Brigid McAuliffe/ Photo by Tashi Tsering

The exhibition culminates in a final theme called “Langtang Rising”, where the collective spirit of heartbreak, hope, and continuing after devastation is captured.

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In this piece of the exhibition, photographs and stories of rebuilding and of remembering are shared.

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The photo on the left above was taken by a young Langtangpa named Jangbu.  He writes, “July 2015.  Baby Langtangpa at the Yellow Gumba.  He is happy and free now, but someday he will know what happened to Langtang too.”  Jangbu lost his mother in the earthquake; his words represent the sadness that still envelopes the Langtangpa community as they continue to work together to move on after disaster.

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“Situations and conditions being created to force you to travel here and there in search of life.  She is Yanki (my aunt) waiting for bus to return back to Langtang.” –Ngawang Dorjee

The Langtangpas are rising together, in spite of heartbreak, in spite of devastating experiences.  It is this community that continues to inspire me here in Nepal.  The last location of the exhibition, at the Taragaon Museum, serves as the platform for the collective story to be told. It is not my story to tell; I serve merely as the facilitator, the means for a story to be heard–a position I am grateful to hold.

[Above photos taken by Austin Lord.]

I have shared with all of you only pieces of the exhibition.  I would like to share the complete collection with you as well.  It can be found following this link to an album I created on Facebook: “Langtang Rising” Collection .  I invite all of you to explore these photos and learn more about the Langtangpa story.

In addition to working on this photo exhibition–a continuation of a project that started with the organization Picture Me Here–I have had the opportunity to be involved with the larger Langtang Memory Project.  A project concerned with creating a digital archive and physical memory center dedicated to preserving the Langtangpa culture and creating another platform for Langtangpas to tell their own stories.  I am grateful to be working with the other members of the LMP team, learning from them, and giving a voice to the Langtangpas in the wake of the April 2015 earthquake.  The digital archive for this project can be found here.
During my time here in Nepal, I have learned so much about the Langtangpas; I have viewed so many photographs and listened to so many stories; however, I have not yet traveled to this part of the country.  I am excited to tell all of you that I will finally get to see the Langtang Valley next week with some of the other members of the Langtang Memory Project.  I have set up a personal fundraising campaign that will end a few days before I begin my trek to Langtang.  This fundraiser, called the “Langtang Rising” Fund, is a means for me to extend a personal token of gratitude to the Langtangpas for all of the wisdom and love they have shared with me during my time with them.
Thank you to everyone reading this post, viewing the photographs and stories of the Langtangpa community.  I hope to continue to serve as a means for their stories to be heard.  All of you–those on the receiving end of these stories–play such an important role in the story-telling process.  Along with me, you are the listeners; the people who validate the stories being told.
Until next time,
Jennifer

“Langtang Rising”: The Role of the Listener in Story-Telling

Dear Readers,

I would like to introduce you to a community of displaced persons that I have had the opportunity to work with during my time here in Kathmandu.  This is the community that I have written about to you before as my work with them reaches back into the beginning of my time here in Nepal.  A community with Tibetan origins that have made their homes in the villages that make up the Langtang Valley. Geographically, the Himalayan Region of Nepal—the region in which the Langtang Valley lies—is situated just under the border that the country shares with China.  The ancestors of today’s Langtangpas are believed to have origins from Tibet that reach back more than 600 years.  This area is sometimes referred to as “Beyul”, meaning “hidden valley”, as it was untouched by outsiders for hundreds of years.  Due to this, their Tibetan roots can still be seen in the Langtangpa culture through their food, dress, and local language—a dialect of Tibetan spoken almost exclusively by the Langtang people. This region originally sustained itself through agriculture; however, in relatively recent years, it has become a popular trekking destination complete with tea houses, lodges, hotels, a cheese factory, and even a bakery.

 

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Photograph of Kyanjin Gumba Village found in the Langtang Valley taken by Kancha Langtang.
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Photograph of Langtangpa women wearing “Shyamaa”–a traditional article of clothing for this community.  Photo taken by Lhakpa Tamang Jangba.
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Photograph of Dorjee Bakery that was located in Kyanjin Gumba before the earthquake.  Photo taken by the owner of the bakery, Lhakpa Tamang Jangba.

Just under a year ago–on April 25, 2015–the Langtang Valley was devastated by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal.  In this specific area, the earthquake caused an avalanche that comprised half the force of the atomic bomb that as dropped on Hiroshima according to a study published in the journal Science.  Ellen Barry writes in an article for the New York Times, “The impact was equivalent to the detonation of 7.6 kilotons of TNT, the study estimated; the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was equivalent to about 16 kilotons.”  You can read the rest of Barry’s article about the avalanche in Langtang here.  The analogy presented allows outsiders to gain some insight into the devastation; however, the impact can only fully be understood by those personally affected.

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Photograph of a destroyed area in Langtang Valley following the earthquake taken by Chhime Tamang.

175 Langtangpa lives were lost that day.  About 350 individuals in total—including tourists and foreigners in Langtang Valley during that time—were killed. It is a story of loss and destruction; a story transitioning into remembering and rebuilding.  . The surviving members of the Langtang community have bound together in mourning their losses, remembering the past, and looking towards the future collectively—a future that holds the “New Langtang”. Physical rebuilding efforts have been led by the Langtang Reconstruction Committee–a committee that was formed in the aftermath of the earthquake that is led by community leaders working in conjunction with local and foreign assistance.  The committee has been able to accomplish a lot by way of distributing financial assistance to those in need, gathering and transporting materials needed for the rebuilding process, as well as organizing training programs such as baking classes, jewelry-making and knitting projects, and language lessons for the Langtangpas to partake in.

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Photograph of the rebuilding process taken by Dawa Lama.
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Photograph of jewelry made my Langtangpa participants in jewelry-making training.  Photo taken by Lhakpa Tamang Jangba.

The physical damage of the villages endured by this community is not the only area in need of repair.  The most valuable loss is the loss of life, the subseuqent loss of cultural knowledge, and the incompleteness felt within the Langtangpas.  As one leader of the Langatangpa community, Lhakpa Tamang Jangba, has said many times,

Langtang Valley is not just a location; it is our identity.

An identity that has become threatened by loss.  Identities are made up of personal and collective elements–culture, location, the people around you.  Perceiving one’s identity as being threatened is to find oneself in the depths of the unknown, detached from familiarity, questioning who you are and how to hold on to what once was. It is a position characterized by suffering.

In order to preserve some pieces of the Langtang identity, there has been a demand for the preservation of the Langtang culture, a dedication to remembering what is distinctly Langtangpa, and creating a platform for the Langtangpas’ voices and stories to be heard. The work that I have been participating in with this community seeks to create this platform. I wrote to you before about the work that I have been doing with the U.S.-based organization, Picture Me Here. Since that time, this work has been evolving, combining forces with a larger project connected to the community—The Langtang Memory Project. This project is comprised of a group of individuals and organizations working to create a web-based and physical archive dedicated to the Langtang Valley, the stories and the people–passed and remaining.

Currently, I am organizing a photography exhibit with the help of another American woman, Robyn Scarth, to display the work of the Langtangpa participants in the photography empowerment training led by Picture Me Here.  The photos that you see in this post are photos taken by the Langtangpas and are an example of the work that will be shown in the exhibit.   It will be located in Boudhnath, Kathmandu, home to the Boudha Stupa—a World Heritage Site and sacred location for followers of Buddhism. Although the Stupa was also damaged by the April 2015 earthquake, it remains a popular destination for foreign visitors as well as Nepalese citizens. This location will serve as a means for many individuals to be introduced to the story of Langtang. It is not just the story of the earthquake that we seek to tell; it is the complete Langtangpa story told by the Langtangpas themselves.

The concept of telling one’s story is a concept that has become very important to me in recent years. The courage that accompanies the telling of one’s story is not validated without another person to listen to that story. I first experienced this in my personal life through my own struggle with my head injury—a time in which I also felt a threat to my identity, a sense of self loss. When I finally learned to tell my story, there were many people who did not listen, leaving me again with a sense of incompleteness. It was when the other person listened, that I felt my story was validated. After experiencing this firsthand in my personal life, I encountered this concept in my return to academics.

Within the academic realm of postcolonial studies, there is an article written by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak entitled “Can the Subaltern Speak?” The term subaltern refers to the person who is marginalized, oppressed, the individual with less social agency. As a response to the question posed in this article J. Maggio wrote an article entitled “Can the Subaltern Be Heard?”—an article that put words to what I experienced in my struggle to be heard. Maggio writes:

The ‘cannot speak’ in ‘the subaltern cannot speak’ is gesturing to the impossibility of speech to an audience that refuses to hear and respond to the crying out. It is in this incomplete transaction that suppresses the subaltern . . . [S]peaking, as a complete transaction, is only possible on the contingency of the reception of the sent message (430).

It is my intention to facilitate this complete transaction of speaking and listening.  As I collect the photos for this project, some common themes have emerged amongst the different photographers. Organizationally, I have identified these themes as the following: Langtang Culture and Tradition, The Faces and People of Langtang, Langtang in the Past, Langtang Now, Langtang Rising, Life in Kathmandu, and “Home”. After meeting with some of the participants, we have decided to name the exhibit “LANGTANG RISING”—a self-empowering phrase that has been used often by the Langtangpas themselves during this rebuilding phase.

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Photograph of Langtangpa women taken Lhakpa Tamang Jangba.

The photographs that the Langtangpas have been taking are incredible–capturing the beauty of the people and the culture, capturing the stories of devastation and heartbreak.  These individuals are telling their stories through their photographs.  It is a time for those outside of the Langtangpa community to listen, to learn, and to validate their experiences.  I am so grateful to have met this community, to have been given the privilege to hear their stories and to create platform for others to hear it as well.

Thank you for listening to what I have gathered from the Langtangpa story thus far.  I look forward to sharing more with all of you as I continue to learn here in Nepal.

Jennifer

 

Citation:

Maggio, J. “Can The Subaltern Be Heard? A (re)Examination of Spivak.” 2007. http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p143726_index.html

A Reflection: Familiarity and the Present Moment

Dear Readers,

I am writing to you from Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, where I have returned about two and a half weeks ago.  Coming back to Kathmandu, I am met with a sense of familiarity in the once very unfamiliar.  Returning to the home I stayed in before I left Kathmandu, walking on the same roads, seeing the familiar shops and markets, waiting for the same public transportation–it all has given me a sense of the familiar while living in the unfamiliar.  In addition to environmental familiarity, Kathmandu has reunited me with familiar friends that I have made thus far in my adventures.

Tenji Sherpa (trekking guide) and daughters at his home in Kathmandu
Ngate Sherpa (porter)

Coming back, beginning again in Kathmandu, has allowed me to reflect on my time here in Nepal so far.  Upon my return to the capital, I am reminded of my introduction to the country–my time trekking in Solokhumbu–as I have been meeting some of the individuals who guided us through the mountains.  Individuals who have invited me into their lives, their homes, and their families in the hospitable fashion that I have grown to be accustomed to during my time here.  These people are known as Sherpas, a caste that reigns from the Himalayan region of Nepal with ancestral ties to Tibet.

The name Sherpa is a recognizable name in the Western world.  We have brands of jackets, hiking gear, slippers, etc. named after this group of people.  They are world famous as trekking guides, mountaineers, and fearless climbers.  Now they are my friends.  I have learned from my friends that the life of a Sherpa is often a difficult life.  Originating from villages in the Himalayan region of Nepal, economic opportunities are scarce; education opportunities are scarce.  Many of my Sherpa friends were educated in a small village schoolhouse; some of them have not been afforded the privilege of education at all.

When I visited the village of my Sherpa friends in October during my trek, I learned that many of the men in the village were living abroad in order to make money to send to their families living here–a situation that is found in many parts of the country as the economy is very poor.  The small villages of Solokhumbu that have not been touched by the tourist industry–such as the village that my friends originate from–exist merely by the money that is earned through working in the trekking industry and those who send money from abroad in addition to subsistence farming.  Those involved in the trekking industry must spend months at a time away from their wives, children, and families in order to earn a living.  These villages are difficult to access and many of the villagers who are not involved in the trekking industry have never left the village.

From Left to Right: Nima Sherpa (porter), me, Nima’s wife, Dendi (trekking guide)

My heart was so full this day when I was able to spend time with the people in the photo above.  It was the first time that the woman in the photo had ever been to Kathmandu  Her husband, the man wearing the hat, was one of our porters.  I wrote about him in one of my earlier posts describing his energy and smile that lifted our spirits each day.  The man on the right side of the photo was our lead trekking guide, Dendi; he and his family live in Kathmandu now and since returning here, I have been able to spend a lot of time with him, learning about his life, about the life of Sherpa people in Nepal.

As I mentioned before, economic opportunities for Sherpas mostly come in the form of the trekking industry-an industry that has been hit hard recently due to a severe decrease in tourism following the April 2015 earthquake.  When the trekking industry is in the off-season, these individuals who have summitted mountains like Lhotse, Ama Dablam, or even Mount Everest must return to their homes either in their villages or Kathmandu.  During these times, their days are just the opposite of their trekking days.  Dendi expressed to me that when he is not trekking, life becomes very difficult; there is no work to be found and each day he is unsure what he will do in order to fill the hours.

Since spending time with Dendi and his family, I have been wondering about the perspective of a person in his position.  The trekking industry is a product of globalization, tourism that depends upon modern technologies that brings Westerners into the lives of these Nepalese persons.  It is a phenomenon that invites cultural sharing, allowing the tourists to catch a small glimpse into life here, and allowing the locals here to gain some insight into the lives of foreigners from face-to-face interaction rather than what they can gather from television or English films.  However, these are just glimpses, short periods of times–a week, maybe a month–in which cultural exchange takes place and then the tourists set off for the homes and the tour guides remain in Nepal waiting for the next group of trekkers to arrive.

That is why the day that I met with our past porter and his wife while they were visiting Kathmandu was so special for me.  It is often the case that trekking guides and porters will never see those they led through the Himalayan mountains again; however, I have been afforded the chance to reconnect with my guides, to look at life through their eyes.

Tenji Sherpa guiding me on a “one-day trek” in Kathmandu

Dendi’s brother Tenji also lives in Kathmandu for the time being.  He will soon be leaving the country for Iraq where he and his wife will be working in order to send money back to Nepal for their daughters.  This is the story of so many families here in Nepal, where economic chances simply are not available for many of its citizens.  One day Tenji and I went on a “one-day trek” to a hill that is located about 25 minutes by foot from my house here.  It was a day that rejuvenated both of us, reminding me of the days I spent trekking and the freedom that comes from such experiences.

Along the way, we met people who live on this hill and were invited into their homes to rest and drink some water or tea.  It was a day that allowed me to forget the stressors that have been haunting me lately.  I have been finding myself each day worrying about my future, my mind flooding with questions of which direction I want my life to go in.  It is a situation in which I am recognizing my privileges, privileges that have become even more apparent during my time in Nepal–privileges to travel, to pursue an education, to work, to choose my path.  However, with this recognition of privilege, I have been confronting difficulties in knowing just how to use it.

I am surrounded by people whose lives are not a matter of personal choice.  In Nepal there are so many external factors that determine a person’s life activities before the matter of personal preference is taken into account.  Factors such as caste, religion, gender, marital status, age, etc.  The woman in the photo above is often found at the house that I stay in; she is a relative of the family I am living with.  It is not rare to see relatives gather together each day to spend their time together drinking tea and making conversation.  I have noticed that when in my presence, the topic of comparing life in Nepal to life in America and other Western countries is often discussed. The woman pictured with her grandson in the photo above has welcomed me with her warm smile and laugh since I was placed in her life.  She has expressed to me many times that work is just simply not an option for many Nepalese people in the way that it is available in places like America.  It is conversations like this that have caused me to reflect on my perspective deeper; however, the deeper I find myself in this reflection, the more I feel my hesitation, my uncertainty in what my future holds for me.

However, Reflecting is a practice that has the ability to restore me.  It is a practice that allows me to revisit the lessons of my past in an effort to dwell in my uncertainty from a place of peace rather than this place of stress that I have been residing in.

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In my reflective state, I am reminded of the beauty that I have witnessed, the simplicity of the mountains that have been there before I came to Nepal and that are still there after I have left them.  The enormity of their stature, their stillness, their power.  I am reminded of the connections that I made during this time.  The people who experienced this beauty with me.

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I think back to the lessons I learned while trekking.  Remembering to dwell in my present moment–a moment that is informed by my past and creates my future.  It is a matter of  balance, a matter of learning from my surroundings and the people around me–giving and receiving.  Lessons that escape me from time to time creating spaces for me to remember once again, to be grateful for remembering. Remembering that I must always be aware of my present moment; without this awareness, I will fall, I will lose my footing, stumble across the rocks that lay in my path.

In this awareness, I can clearly see my perspective, the place that I am approaching my experiences here.  I am learning so much about cross cultural communication, living surrounded by my difference–living as the “other” in a society very far from my home.  Living deep inside this culture as an “other” has revealed to me many themes of perceptions–social constructs–that differ between cultures.  Approaching a culture from the view of an outsider living amongst insiders has enhanced my understanding of these themes.  I would like to share with you a few of my observations.


 

Food  The Nepalese understanding of food emerges from the collective nature of this society.  I am offered food at each encounter with my Nepalese friends–dhal bhat (rice with lentils and curried vegetables), boiled potatoes, chow mein, Tukpa (a heavy noodle and vegetable soup), soybeans, etc.  It is a form of welcoming a person, of sharing love through food.  To refuse this food is a difficult endeavor.  I have learned that people do not eat alone here.  There is one person in each household who will cook the meals for everyone in the house; this person is most often the youngest of the adult women in the home.

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This woman, Pratima didi, is the woman who cooks the meals in the home that I am staying in–a home comprised of her youngest son, her husband, his parents, a distant elderly female relative, and me.  I was helping her prepare some vegetables the other day when she told me she spends four hours each morning and four hours each evening preparing the meals.  The eldest members of the household are served first–a hierarchical system that is representative of the larger culture here in Nepal.  To refuse food here is a difficult task and often met with bad feelings on behalf of the person who prepared the meal.

Beauty.  Perspectives on what is beautiful varies across cultures.  What is the ideal weight? Ideal skin color?  Clothing?  All of these questions are answered differently by those who come from different places.  Here in Nepal, light skin color is idealized; one will often find skin lightening creams inside the homes of Nepalese people.  The Nepalese conception of an ideal weight emerges from their food culture.  It is not rude here to comment on a person’s weight, telling them that they have gained a few pounds may even be acknowledged as a compliment.  I have been told by many of my Nepalese friends that gaining weight is a sign that you are being loved; someone is feeding you, caring for you, loving you.  If a person is very thin, it is common to believe that he or she is stressed out or not cared for.  Coming from the Western culture, this has been a very different conception to wrap my head around, stressing to me once more that these are merely perceptions.  However, I must qualify that statement.  Although these are just perceptions–perceptions that differ vastly between cultures–perceptions have power within society; power to influence thoughts and decisions.  Perception is based off of these social constructs.  Understanding that these are social constructs leads to understanding just how powerful society is in effecting our lives.

Identity markers  Identity markers can be seen in many different forms; they are part of our external appearance.  The appearance that gives others the opportunity to see our identities without knowing us.  Clothing, jewelry, religious paraphernalia.  For example, wearing a nose ring in America is not a religious decision, rather it has traditionally been attached to different rebellious movements or even hippie culture.  Nowadays, it can be seen as a fashion statement in many Western cultures.  In Nepalese culture, it is a religious identity marker.  In Hindu culture, it is compulsory for a woman to have her nose pierced prior to marriage.  It is common to see girls as young as four years old with their noses pierced.  In many of the Buddhist sects of Nepal, nose piercings are forbidden.

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Wearing a tika is also indicative of Hindu culture.  A tika is the dot that is placed on a woman’s forehead between her eyebrows; however, there are many different types of tikas.  A red tika placed on the top of a woman’s forehead indicates that she is married.  When attending religious ceremonies, poojas, or visiting a temple, tikas will often be given.  However, in Buddhist cultures, this is not customary.  Clothing differs as well.  I have witnessed this as my adventures have taken me through the different regions of the country.  The Himalayan region is concentrated with Buddhist culture–long bhakus are worn by the women symbolizing their Tibetan roots.  The lowlands, or the Terai, is concentrated with Hindu culture where sarees and kurta surwals are customarily worn.  Kathmandu is a center of globalizing forces where one can see the traditional dresses worn by older generations juxtaposed with the younger generation’s clothing choices that have been influenced by the Western culture of jeans, t-shirts, flannels, and boots.  Coming into contact with these different cultures represented within Nepal has brought the theme of identity markers to my attention every day; every day I am learning more about how we use identity markers to represent who we are and how others view us through the use of these markers.  It is a theme that I am increasingly fascinated by.


 

Settling into a sense of familiarity upon my return to the capital has allowed me to process what I have witnessed and am witnessing each moment, allowing me to analyze deeper each day my surroundings.  My experiences here are not only teaching me about what is external to me, but also my internal self.  Revealing to me my priorities, my perceptions, my difficulties; giving me space to reflect and once again return my awareness to where I presently find myself.  Allowing me to acknowledge the stress I have been experiencing by focusing on the future.  I want to choose to make space for my uncertainty, for my discomfort, for my fears.  Rather than pushing them away, ignoring or condemning them, I would like to acknowledge these feelings as part of my present experience.  Through this acknowledgement, I am able to remove the power that it holds over me, to make space for what I am feeling, rather than only making space for what I wish to feel.  In this acknowledgement, I can again see clearly what I am experiencing; I can again find my gratitude in finding this space to remember my past lessons, to look to the future from a place of contentment rather than fear, and to dwell in the presence that is available to me in each moment.  These are lessons that have escaped me lately; lessons that I am grateful for learning and grateful for remembering.

Thank you for reading; I will write again soon about the work I have been participating in here in Kathmandu.

Until next time,

Jennifer

The Female Experience in Nepal

Dear Reader Friends,

These past couple of weeks have been the deepest I have found myself within Nepal’s complex culture thus far—living in a traditional village of the Terai region, with limited wifi availability, alone in my culture surrounded by difference. I have been learning so much every day; I have been learning about cross cultural communication, about ethnic relations within the country, regional and geographical relations. However, there has been one theme that has continually emerged during these last couple of weeks—the theme of Nepal’s women.

While discussing American culture with a class of ninth graders here, the teacher made the following remark to me: “You are very far from your home and you came here alone. Even Nepal’s women are afraid to travel the country alone. Where does your courage come from?” It was a question that caused me to reflect. Reflect on my perspective, where I come from, the place from which I approach life.  Upon being asked the question, I wondered what it was about Nepal—the place that has welcomed me so heartily—that instills this fear into the women, the context that provoked the questioning of my ability to be alone as a female in this world.  It was a question that unexpectedly framed the weeks that followed.  Weeks that I have been learning from Nepal’s women about their position in this society that has been described to me so many times as “male dominated”.

These last couple of weeks I have spent with the family of my Nepalese friend, Pramila, who has lived in my hometown in the U.S. for the last four years.  My presence in her hometown of Bagmati gives her friends and family a piece of Pramila through me.  At first glance my appearance is foreign, my accent is foreign, but once my story is revealed–my connection with Pramila–her friends and relatives embrace me as one of their own.  I have spent these weeks being led by Pramila’s mother, who I call Ama.

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Ama has taught me many things about life in a traditional village of Nepal–how to wash my clothes without a washing machine, how to cook inside over firewood when gas is in shortage, how to make sel roti, a traditional food pictured above.

I have followed her through beautiful places to beautiful people.

The above pictures are from one of my first adventures with Ama–a Kirtan.  A kirtan is a Hindu ceremony in which dancing, worship, singing, and praying take place.  This was not my first Kirtan as I had attended these ceremonies in America as well, but it was my first Kirtan in Nepal.

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In the above picture, this woman’s all white clothing is indicative of the Hindu ritual that follows the death of a husband or father.  In this ritual, the woman of the deceased man as well as his surviving sons must wear only white clothing for the duration of an entire year as a means of remembering and respecting his life.  However, when I inquired about the death of a woman–wives and mothers–I was told that there are no such similar practices set in place.  The husband and sons are not required to dress in white; there is no formal requirements to honor the woman in such a way that men are honored.  Women are, as many Nepalese individuals have explained to me, of lower status than men here in Nepal.

At the Kirtan, I met one very special woman–a woman that welcomed me with her smile and laughter, a woman who became my friend and allowed me into her world, a world that shed light on the plight of women inside this country.

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I followed my new friend, Manju, as she led me on new adventures.  On each new adventure, I listened to her stories that were tucked away deep behind her smile.

 

There is a beautiful river that runs through Nepal called the Bagmati river; one day Manju and her son took me on a walk alongside the river–a day that is burned into my memory juxtaposing the natural beauty of Bagmati, the beauty of my new friendship, and the ugliness of Manju’s past.  Manju’s story allowed me to understand the paralysis of self autonomy that characterizes the female experience in many parts of Nepal.

I had learned earlier that Manju’s husband was working outside of Nepal; this is an arrangement that occurs often as the economy here is poor and job opportunities are often scarce.  However, Manju did not seem to be upset about this long distance arrangement.  Marriage in Nepal is conceptualized quite differently from the Western perspective, the perspective from which my own perspective has emerged.  Although Nepal is geographically a small country, it is rich in ethnic diversity among its people.  The following summation of marriage practices are relevant to the Hindu majority found in Nepal.

“Men are the priority in Nepal”–a quote that has been attached to explanations of so many traditions, practices, and laws in this country; it especially applies to the marriage practices. Traditionally, Nepalese marriages are arranged marriages, stemming from the collective nature of this society.  This collective nature can also be seen in the joint living style of the culture.  A single household is often comprised of grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, and grandchildren–a set up that enforces group thinking and gender roles.  When a woman and man are joined in marriage, the woman is expected to leave her family and move in with the family of her new husband.  This practice leaves the woman vulnerable in many aspects.  For example, the vast majority of a family’s property will be distributed among the sons rather than the daughters because the sons will remain with the parents and the daughters are expected to leave at the time of marriage due to to cultural expectation, leaving women economically dependent on men.  In addition to this, men are granted the privilege of remaining with their family–the central unit within this collective society–while the women must be uprooted and planted into a new family.  Women are often left with no choice but to submit to the will and decisions of her husband and his family due to this living arrangement.

Manju’s story highlighted this vulnerability that characterizes the larger situation of women here in Nepal.  Although her husband is living and working abroad currently, Manju is still expected to live with his family–an arrangement that she follows due to custom, due to societal pressure; an arrangement that has led her to make the statement that “the life of women here is not a happy life.”  Her story quickly unfolded and as I listened I could feel my heart begin to pound, my arms developing goosebumps, accompanied by a mixture of feelings comprised of anger, sadness, and empathy.  I was listening to my new sweet friend recite her own horror story.  Manju explained to me that her marriage was a marriage by force.  When I told her I didn’t understand that term, she explained that it meant that before marriage her husband expressed feelings for her and she had expressed that she did not have feelings for him.  However, in her situation, this did not matter.  She told me that one day the man that is now her husband entered her room without permission and forced her to have sex with him.  The result of this situation was the marriage that followed and the toddler she held in her arm as we walked along the river.

Manju continued to reveal more of her story.  Some time after marriage, her husband disappeared from her life.  When he came back into her life, she later came to know that he had left in order to acquire a second wife in a separate town.  Upon hearing this, Manju expressed her desire for a divorce; however, as she described to me, since her husband denied her request, a divorce was impossible for her.  As for now, she must remain with her husband’s family, playing the role that is expected of so many women here in Nepal.

Her story is heartbreaking; her strength is inspiring. I am humbled by the time that I spent with her and grateful for this friendship that I stumbled upon in my adventures in Bagmati.  Manju’s story is heavy, but her spirit is light, welcoming, and beautiful.

The day that she revealed her story to me, she gave me a ring that she was wearing and I gave her the ring that I was wearing.  Manju’s life comprises many spots of sadness; so much has been taken from her, yet she continues to give love to those around her. I wear her ring every day and each time my eyes settle on it, I am reminded of my new friend, of her situation, and the situation that so many of Nepal’s women find themselves in.  My experience with Manju comprises so many emotions; it is an experience that inspires me to continue my journey, to carry the spirit of Manju wth me, and to use the privilege that my place in this world has granted me.

My days in Bagmati continued to reveal the plight of Nepal’s women to me.  It’s funny how life unfolds in such a way sometimes; each day I have spent here I have been learning more and more about women’s place in this society.  Ama is part of an NGO here in Nepal called Harihar Chhetra Women Development Institution, a small organization of individuals working toward enhancing the rights of women inside of Nepal.  One day Ama and I traveled to the nearby town of Haryon where she and the other members of Harihar Chhetra had organizd a protest for women’s rights in response to some internal political issues concerning the female president of Nepal.

The newly elected female president, Bidhya Devi Bhandar, is the widow of a very famous politician here in Nepal.  Recently she traveled to the city of Janakpur located in the district that I am currently residing in.  Due to the current crisis caused by the closing of the Indian border into Nepal, I have been told many times by locals that now is not a safe time to travel to Janakpur.  It is a center for many violent protests at the moment in which people have been injured and killed.

However, the president was able to travel to Janakpur, located in the Terai region near India, with the purpose of conducting a pooja inside of the large temple that is located within the city.  Conducting a pooja is a cleansing ritual within the Hindu religion.  A ritual that is conducted every day in most Hindu households that I have visited in Nepal; a sacred ritual within this culture.  Directly following the pooja conducted by President Bandhari, a few Nepalese individuals entered the temple and immediately began to wash the walls due to the president’s status as a widow.  This is custom that was followed many many years ago, but is no longer observed in the culture here.  It was a political statement by the individuals involved; a statement that motivated the rally by Ama’s NGO.

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The rally was complete with signs and a megaphone; a collective spirit filled the air as I walked alongside the Nepalese women fighting for their rights.  The woman on the far left’s sign is translated to “Punish the criminal.”  The sign held by the woman in the middle reads “End all discrimination against women.” Ama’s sign, on the far right, is translated to “Punish the culprits of the Janakpur incident.”

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In the above photos, the woman in the background is holding a sign with the message, “Make sure women’s participation is in all formats.”  The woman in the middle is holding a sign that reads, “Women’s honor, nation’s honor.”  I am inspired by these women; women who recognize the situation that their society has handed them; women who are working together to change this situation.

For the New Year celebration, I traveled to Souraha with Ama’s youngest son, where we stayed at a friend of the family’s house.  Again, I was met with the topic of women’s rights in Nepal–this time from the historical perspective of tradition.  The woman we stayed with, Reema, asked me to watch a movie with her called Jhola, a film that explains the tradition of Sati in Hindu culture.  Sati is a term that refers to “the ancient practice of burning a widow on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre or burying her alive in his grave,” according to the film which can be viewed by clicking here.

Watching this movie gave me more insight into the collective nature of this society.  During the time that the film was set, the decision to not commit suicide in this way was not an option for the widows.  It was compulsory and if it was not done by will, it would be done by force through the community. One quote from a female character in the film is particularly indicative of the tradition of female inferiority within this society.  She says to the young son of the widow who must burn herself alive,

Life of a woman is full of sacrifice and misery.  Our value is less than that of cows and sheep . . . Is this world only for men and their pleasure?

It is a chilling quote; a quote that unfortunately still holds relevancy.  Relevancy that was presented to me when I met my friend Bandana Jha, a member of the highest caste of the Madhesi community here in the Terai.  Bandana is a 20-year-old teacher at the boarding school that I spent some of my time at.  We quickly connected through her bubbly personality and eagerness to welcome me into her life.  However, just as I learned from my friend Manju, Bandana’s smile hid the pain that boiled inside of her.

The dowry system is still in effect in certain communities of Nepal, particularly the Madhesi community that Bandana was born into.  My friend explained to me that in the dowry system, a girl’s family must give payment in the form of money and property to the family of the boy.  In the case of Bandana, her dowry is even more expensive due to her decision to further her studies as she is a student working toward her Bachelor’s Degree.  She informed me that most families do not even allow their female children to study at all due to the increase in payment that accompanies the education of a female.

Bandana explained these customs in her culture with fear in her eyes as she knows that her time for marriage is nearing.  Her parents are currently searching for a suitable boy for her to marry and she knows that after marriage, her life will be under the control of her new husband.  Even her ability to continue her education will be decided by her husband.  She told me that a girl’s life is full of punishment.  She said, “Marriage is a woman’s punishment.  I never want to get married.  Boys never understand girls.  They only love our bodies; they don’t love us.”  However, Bandana knows that within her community, marriage is compulsory.  It is not an option to refuse marriage in her situation; it is an impending fate that has instilled fear within my new friend.  She said to me one day,

I hate myself.  I ask why am I a girl.  If I were a boy I could do anything I want, but I am girl.

She explained that her community marks women as physically and mentally weaker than men, a condition that is enforced through practices like the dowry system, practices that rob women of any leverage to change the situation that they find themselves in.  Bandana and so many other women know that they must accept their fate; a fate that again allows me to understand my privilege that is granted to me from my place in this world, a fate that allows me to understand why I was asked where my courage comes from to travel alone in this country.

The women I have met along this journey are incredible humans.  They have allowed me to enter their lives, to understand their situations, and to understand the situation of Nepal’s women from a more nuanced perspective.  The collection of stories I am left with are heartbreaking; however, the connections I am left with are inspiring.  Upon confiding in me her story, Bandana remarked that I am like a mirror.  She explained that she can never talk about such things with her family or friends because they will just make jokes or tell her to stay quiet; however, I allowed her to present her true feelings, to see who she was through the eyes of another person, to look at herself from the outside by allowing what was on the inside to finally come out.  She told me that her body can heal from the pain on the outside, but her heart never will.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be her mirror; I am grateful to have met these women; and I am grateful for my place in this world which allows me to have the courage to embark on this journey.

Thank you for reading.

Until next time,

Jennifer

Understanding Identity Within Nepal’s Current Crisis

Dear Readers,

Understanding identity—understanding the concept, understanding others, understanding my identity—has been an unexpected journey that has brought many contradictions into my life. Contradictions that clarify the mysterious nature that comprises identity, bringing me closer to understanding who I am, revealing my identity components, my identity markers, but also revealing the elusiveness of identity. I learned through my head injury the way in which people attach themselves to activities, to other people, to appearances as a means of identity formulation—a process that grounds us, that helps us find direction in life. However, as I learned, life often will alter our plans, disrupt what we identify with, and therefore disrupt our identities. A disruption of identity can come in varying degrees with varying responses—sadness, defeat, anger, anxiety.

During my time here, I have been learning—learning about people, about culture, about my surroundings. In each day of learning, I confront difference. Confrontation of difference is how we discover bits of our identity; seeing what we are not gives us insight into who we may be. The process of confronting our differences is uncomfortable, painful at times, but these feelings can be translated into beauty, into sharing, into transformation of self and others. However, identity comes in many forms. The identity I have been writing about is personal identity, but there are collective identities as well formed by the people around us, our surroundings, our culture.

When I was studying International Relations for my Bachelor’s degree, I often read about how some societies are comprised of individualistic identities, while others are comprised of collective identities. Understanding these concepts from a book is very different than experiencing these concepts. Living here in Nepal highlights my past experiences, my background as an American girl living in a society comprised mostly of individual identities. I have been learning what it means to live in a collective identity during my time here, confronting my differences in this way. I have been learning about the identities of the Nepalese people, often associated with ethnicity, region, caste, gender, and family relations. These components become visible to me as I confront them with the differences in which I have been composing my identity.

In each of my adventures here in Nepal, the current crisis the country faces due to the blockade of the Indian border is visible.  In this adventure that I find myself in now–participating in cultural exchange at a boarding school in the Terai region of the country–I have been able to view this crisis from an ethnic identity perspective, but more importantly, from a human perspective.  Throughout my time here I have heard much talk about the Madhesi ethnic group; this is the group that is concentrated in the Terai, or southern part, of Nepal.  The students who stay at this boarding school just so happen to also identify as Madhesi.

Despite the small size of the country, Nepal’s geography is an important factor to understanding the people.  There are three distinct regions of Nepal–the Himalayan or Mountainous Region, The Pahad or Hilly Region, and the Terai or Plains Region. The Terai is also called the Madhes in Nepali as this is the area in which the Madhesi people come from. Within each of these regions, different people, customs, langauges, and cultures will be found.  Before traveling to this boarding school, my time in Nepal consisted only of the Himalayan and Hilly Regions, therefore everything I knew about the Madhesi people was from what I read and from what others around me told me.

Many people in the country are upset with this ethnic group, blaming them for the political agitation that is resulting in the blockade of the India-Nepal border.  In times of crisis, finding a group to place blame is a common reaction; however it is a reaction that can place a collective identity on each of the individuals.  I have seen many pleas of Madhesis to be recognized as citizens of Nepal–a legal category of identity within the nation-state system.  Within the current international nation-state system, legal identity is given in the forms of citizenship, refugee status, driver’s licenses, etc.  Without these documents, and without the recognition of this status, a denial of identity occurs.  Denying someone of identity in any form is a denial of the humanity of the individual.

I have had the rare chance to spend time with these individuals, to laugh with them, to share with them, to teach them, and to learn from them.  The school system here is very different; Nepal is very different; however, in saying this I must qualify that what I see as difference is a result of my perspective as an outsider.  From the perspective of the students, I am very different–the way I look, the way I greet them, my gestures, my language.  Difference can be met with varying reactions; at this particular time, we are meeting difference with mutual fascination.

Rahul, pictured above, is a student from grade 8.  On one of the first days of my time here he said to me

You teach us what we don’t know, and we will teach you what you don’t know.

At the age of just 14, Rahul is a leader within this school.  Yesterday, while walking to the market together, he confided in me that his family situation is one of poverty.  He explained that this is his motivation to study hard and to do well in school. “If I succeed in this, then I can help my family,” he explained to me. Rahul has quickly found a place in my heart, along with the other students here, showing me that despite circumstances, love can prevail.

The boys here have told me that each of the boarding students here are their brothers.  From what I have witnessed, this statement is true–they play like brothers and they fight like brothers, but their love and loyalty for one another endures in every action.  It’s a beautiful piece of humanity to observe.  It is this human perspective that I am interested in understanding; it is this perspective that is so particularly interesting to view the current crisis of Nepal as it is often a perspective not shown in the news.

The Kathmandu Post reported on December 12, 2015, “The blockade is led by ethnic minorities who say they are discriminated against in the new constitution.” Find the full article here.  Placing blame on ‘ethnic minorities’ blames full communities, but is this the case in Nepal? I have met some of the most delightful, peaceful, and welcoming people coming from these ethnic minority groups during my time here in the Terai.  Essentializing identity in this way, placing blame on a community rather than individuals, rather than situations, rather than geopolitics, fosters discrimination on the innocent members of the community.  Discrimination fueled by misinformation, misinformation that leads to fear.

In the post-earthquake state that Nepal finds itself in, the people are looking for solutions from a non-responsive government.  The people are suffering, the government is remaining quiet.  Coupled with the current crisis, the situation is becoming dire.  With transportation becoming increasingly more difficult, people find themselves out of work.  Without work, they are not earning money.  Without money, the simple questions of how to feed their families, and where to find shelter become more and more pressing each day that the blockade remains.

The common way of cooking in Nepal is to use gas from a cylinder.  This method of cooking is becoming impossible for almost everyone here besides those belonging to the high classes.  These are the people that can afford the exorbitant black market prices.  Where do these black market goods come from? India.  They are trickling over the border and sold at prices double and triple the normal value.

In the picture above, the common gas cylinder is seen next to the improvised method.  Structures such as the one to the right of the cylinder are seen in every home, market, and restaurant that I have visited as the crisis worsens.  People are forced to improvise.  What other options do they have?

These improvised cooking devices are made at home in such a way as the picture below shows.

As you can see, firewood is becoming increasingly more important in order to cook food here.  Firewood comes from trees found in forests; forests that are slowly being destroyed due to this new method of cooking.  In the Terai, open spaces permit more safety in using this method to cook; however, in the capital city of Kathmandu cooking with firewood is dangerous.  Medicine, ink, and paper are in shortage affecting hospitals and schools.  The whole of Nepal’s economy is being affected.  People are desperate and in desperation, we blame others.  This has become a case of competing identities, of us versus them.

My friend, Madan Acharya, grew up in the Terai region of Nepal amongst the Madhesi people; however, Madan is not a Madhesi person.  His family originally comes from the Pahad region of the country and so he and his family are designated the identity of Pahadi; an identity that is commonly found in the Terai.  Madan explained to me that during his childhood, the Pahadi and the Madhesi people played together, studied together, and respected each other.  It was a time of peace; however, once difficult times came, these two identity groups became more hostile.  Why? Madan’s answer characterizes the issue with political roots.  He explains, “The Madhesi leaders want security from the Pahadi people.”

It is a quest for identity preservation; such quests often emerge when a group fears that their identity is in jeopardy of being destroyed.  During such times, differences are often exploited.  Madan explained to me that the distinctions have caused Pahadi people to harass the Madhesi people as backwards, illiterate, and not developing along with the rest of the population.  Pahadi people easily identity Madhesi individuals through their clothing, and skin complexion–often much darker than the complexion of other Nepalese individuals.  Madhesi people are often called “dhoti”.  Dhoti is the name of the long white cloth that the traditional Madhesi people wear, clothing that has roots in the Madhesi ancestry.  Madan explained that by calling a Madhesi person a ‘dhoti’, the connotation is:

You are not developed.  You are illiterate.  You are still using the clothes of your ancestors.

The situation is complex for those who identify as Madhesi.  They are being designated as an “other” within the Nepalese society; however, these individuals are also being suppressed by their leaders.  The Madhesi leaders are those in charge of the agitation, fearing what will happen to the culture of the people without a strong political voice.  The leaders as of now do not have the support of the people, but it is the people who are suffering.  It is the individuals found within this community who are being harassed, who are being feared, whose identity is at risk.

Individual identity is how I began this post.  This aspect of identity–how we define ourselves, how we know ourselves–has become so important to me and so intriguing to me over the past couple of years.  I would like to end this post with the remark that in human interaction, the individual identity must always be taken into account.  We each have our collective identities, and within these identities there will be people who disagree with us, but it is the individual who stands in front of us and because of that we must view them from their individual identity.  I am lucky enough to meet some of the most beautiful individuals who identify with the Madhesi community but differ in so many ways individually.  It is these differences that makes us human and it is these differences that I am so grateful to be encountering.

Thank you for reading.  Until next time,

Jennifer

 

Learning, Remembering, and Continuing

Dear Readers,

These past days have been filled with the magic that new experiences bring coupled with the warmth that comes with familiarity. Last week, my friend Dhan Subedi traveled to Nepal for his wedding ceremony. Dhan’s father, Prem, was my first Nepalese friend. About four years ago Prem was my student in the class I helped out in teaching adult refugees English. Prem and his family welcomed me into their home and sparked new life in me, life that was missing as this was during the difficult recovery time of my head injury. Who would have thought that just four years later I would be halfway across the world with his son attending his wedding as his “didi”, elder sister?

Dhan’s wedding was beautiful—the colors, the flowers, the people, the music, the dancing. I was greeted with smiles and in my heart I felt a piece of home was with me during this time; Dhan’s presence comforted me with memories of the past, memories of my family and his family. As I think back to my first experiences with Dhan’s family, I am reminded of the lessons I learned—lessons of reciprocation, giving and receiving, learning and teaching. My life circumstances at this time had felt difficult; I felt lost and helpless at points. However, it was in these circumstances that life offered me a lesson if I was open to learning. I learned that everyone and every circumstance can be my teacher if I am willing to learn. I am grateful for this lesson and for every moment that I am reminded of it.

Dhan’s wedding was in Hetauda, the village where his wife is from. In the Hindu culture, it is customary for the groom and his family members to travel to the bride’s home for the ceremony. Following this, the bride accompanies the groom and his family members back to the home of the groom. The transit from Kathmandu to Hetauda took about six hours. Traveling by bus, I was reminded every so often of the current political situation in Nepal. The blockade of the Indian border has surpassed the 100-day mark. Every day it is becoming increasingly difficult to find not only petroleum, diesel, cooking oil, and gas, but now the crisis has spread to other commodities such as sugar, salt, and medicine. Buses traveling the opposite way of ours showed signs of this as their front windows had cracks or were completely shattered due to the protests in the Terai region lying in the south of the country next to India. It is a situation that continues to deter everyday life, a situation that cannot be ignored, but somehow persists.

This picture tells the story of the desperation, the helplessness, of the situation. A woman standing at the closed gates of a gas station. I wonder what is in her mind, what does she think at this moment? Nepal is facing a crisis that the world is ignoring, that the region is ignoring, that the Nepalese government is ignoring. What are the people to do? I have heard the Nepalese characterized as resilient, but I am hesitant to use this word. I think it may be better to characterize them as flexible, not easily broken. Internally, this country faces problems often; it is circumstances that have taught these people to be resourceful, to adapt, to be flexible. In this flexibility, their ability to find joy teaches me and inspires me.

In the midst of this political chaos, I find joy sparkling in my interactions with the people here. As I entered the area for Dhan’s wedding, a reaction occurred that is similar to my every day experiences here. Everyone was staring at me—I am foreigner in a land of people who I do not look like; however, in this land, my foreignness is not met with hostility, rather it is met with curiosity. I sat next to the man in the photo above and when he realized I could communicate with him, his face lit up with excitement. I learned that his granddaughter was now living in America; he was overjoyed to meet someone from the country that she is now residing in. I believe my presence offered him some closeness to his granddaughter for him, a feeling of familiarity, of warmth.

As I was brought to the dining area, this man brought me extra food and dessert—an action that, in Nepal, suggests feelings of caring and love for the recipient. It is in these actions that I am beginning to explore the themes of food in culture—what does food represent? What does cooking for a person mean in a particular culture? In Nepal, I believe I am beginning to understand that food is a representation of love, a welcoming gesture. I walk into a person’s home and I am instantly offered a cup of tea, some biscuits, a meal. Food is communal here; it is a tradition that family shares together, that friends share together. I rarely see a person cook for only him or herself here—a contrast that I am aware of through means of comparison to the culture I am familiar with.

As I mentioned before, my difference here is often met with curiosity. While at the wedding, I slowly became aware of a set of eyes following my every move. These eyes belonged to a child dressed in tattered clothing; eyes that glimmered with curiosity at this foreign person in front of her. She was accompanied by a few other children that followed me around at a distance as I partook in the wedding ceremony. Each time my eyes caught hers, smiles were exchanged just before her shyness pulled her feet to go the other direction. Finally I was able to talk to this little girl and in this exchange, her shyness began to disappear. The appearance of these children quickly distinguished them from the glittery dresses of the wedding guests; however it was this time I had with the children that brought laughter to my face and warmed my heart. Feelings that transitioned into sadness when it became time to depart. I presented my new friend with a bangle from my wrist and a flower I had been given as this was all I had to give—gifts that I hoped would represent the joy she had given to me throughout the day.

In the photos above, you will see the members of Dhan’s family that welcomed me into their homes, that cooked for me, that cared for me. They did not know me before I arrived, however, I was treated as a member of the family; I was treated as Dhan’s sister. Family relations are so important here; however, it is a different conception of family than I am accustomed to. Family is not only designated to blood relations; the festival called “Bhai Tika” that I wrote to you about before is an occasion in which placing the “tika” on the other person’s forehead transforms you into the relative of that person, a relation that is not merely ceremonial, but is taken very seriously.

The woman in the yellow saree pictured above helped me to dress in the red saree that you see me in—a dress that is comprised of one very long piece of cloth, folded in various ways and fastened with safety pins. It is a complex process. While wearing a saree, I often feel a bit uneasy about the situation. I wonder: Am I imposing in a culture that is not mine? Am I mocking this culture by wearing their dress as an outsider? However, as quickly as these thoughts appear in my mind, they are distinguished by the people around me. As they see a new person partaking in their culture with eagerness to learn and to understand, their eyes sparkle with new light, smiles whisk across their faces. It is these situations that make me wonder about external identity markers—markers that show the outside world the identity we choose to present. This became more apparent when I spent some time with my trekking guide’s family the day after the wedding.

This family is part of the Buddhist culture in Nepal, more specifically, they are Sherpa people. Last names here represent a person’s caste. When I tell a person my name here, I am often asked to also tell my caste. My response that there is no caste system in America is often met with looks of confusion as this is an ancient system of life that has been accepted for a very long time and only recently has begun to be questioned by newer generations.

In the photo above, you see me dressed in the traditional dress of not only Sherpa people, but many of the people with Tibetan roots here in Nepal. From an outside glance, Nepalese people may seem not to differ very much from each other; however, in spending just under two months here, I am learning every day just how different each section of the society is, and the associated power that accompanies these differences. As photos were clicked of me and the younger girls of the family, I was told by one of the older members the merits of the Sherpa dress in comparison to the Hindu traditional dress of the saree. It’s interesting how comparison is such a common thought process across cultures, creating ingroups and outgroups, feelings of us versus them. This theme of external identity markers is something that I continue to explore each day.

As for now, I would like to thank you for listening to my stories.  Today I find myself in the district of Sarlahi–a district that lies in the Terai region, where the political agitation is concentrated.  I would like to urge you not to worry as I am with Nepalese friends.  During this month I will be fulfilling my commitment to help out in my friend’s school.  After a long day of traveling, we have arrived.  I am excited to experience this new part of Nepal with the comfort of good friends who will keep me safe amongst the chaos that this blockade has been creating.

Until next time,

Jennifer