Booking a Trip to Nepal

[published under the title BOOKING A TRIP TO NEPAL]

For more than an hour, Laxmi Darje has been standing almost motionless in the shimmering sunshine, just outside the open door. Behind her the hillside field is golden with mustard flowers; before her sixteen people have crowded into a 10′ by 10′ room. This barefoot 14-year-old in her worn and faded blue dress has been silently watching the whirl of activity.

This small room in this two-room house, a few feet away from the main house inhabited by Dhan Bahadur Rai and his wife, Gita, is still metamorphosing. Formerly the bedroom for Gita and Dhan’s sons, it is being transformed into the first library in the village of Badel, an isolated hamlet in Nepal’s eastern hills.

As my friend Marge—who, with me, is largely responsible for this transfiguration—takes a children’s dictionary from the shelf, I glance over at her and for a moment wonder: Are we doing the right thing? Then the moment passes. I look up from the bright poster I am tacking to the wall, my eyes meet Laxmi’s straw-colored ones, and I am rewarded by her radiant smile.

Laxmi never considered stepping over the threshold to join the half-dozen children sitting on the one bed in the little library. Laxmi is from an untouchable caste. She cannot go into the home of anyone except another Darje. If this quiet girl touches someone holding water or cooked food, the water or food, now “polluted” by her touch, must be thrown out. Although the government of Nepal outlawed untouchability in 1963, laws enacted in Kathmandu don’t always travel to these isolated villages.

Laxmi has never been inside a non-Darje home. She has never held a book. She has never been to school. She spends the bulk of her days caring for four younger siblings—and earning a meager handful of rupees by babysitting for other families’ children, planting millet in other families’ fields, collecting wood for other families’ fires. If not for her work, her widowed deaf-mute mother could not support the family. Before this day is up, Laxmi will have taken an unexpected leap. My friend and I, in effect, put her there—and now, two years later, I wonder whether we did the right thing.

In the spring of 1987 I didn’t realize the leap I was taking in my own life, when I gave in to my husband’s urging to go to Nepal, to hike and camp in the shadow of the Himalayas. Mark and I returned in 1991 to trek longer and higher; and when I came home from that trip, I knew I wanted to go back yet again.

I had become entranced, not only by the magnificence of the Himalayan peaks, but by the sweetness of the Nepali people. In spite of the hard lives and arrant poverty with which most of them struggle, the Nepalis I had met exuded a friendliness and a joy that I had never encountered anywhere else. I yearned to know more about their outlook on life, how they thought, their inner resources. What could these people, who wrest serenity from a harsh and primitive land, teach me?

Through a friend, I met Margaret Roche, an artist in Evanston, Illinois, who had also been to Nepal and had produced several hand-bound books filled with vibrant drawings and watercolors of the country and its people. We became friends. I suggested collaborating on a book about Nepal: Marge’s art, my words. She proposed that we visit a village where we would live with local families, take part in their everyday lives, and write and draw about them.

But where to go? And how to get there? We consulted Peter Owens, the American trek leader with whom both Marge and I had traveled. Enthusiastic about our plan, he arranged for a guide.

On April 2, 1993, as our flight approached the Kathmandu airport, my heart caught as I saw the now-familiar, still breathtaking snow-capped peaks ringing the city. Marge and I stepped off the plane and were plunged into the human maelstrom of Kathmandu. In Peter’s hotel room we met a quiet, handsome young man with skin the color of polished brass, the high cheekbones that betrayed his people’s Mongol origins, and eyes like velvet almonds. This was our guide, 27-year-old Buddi Kumar Rai. Buddi’s last name told us that he was a member of the Rai people, one of dozens of ethnic groups in Nepal, all with their own languages, religions, and customs.

Buddi came from Badel, a village where most of the residents had never seen Western women and (he assured us) would be as interested in us as we were in them. The first college graduate from his village, Buddi spoke excellent English. Now doing graduate work at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, he took a keen interest in our project as a way to honor the ways of his people.

We spent the next four days in Kathmandu, recovering from jetlag, getting trekking permits, and shopping with Buddi and his brother-in-law, Jai, for food to supplement the limited village diet, mostly rice with lentils. Then Buddi, Jai, Marge, and I boarded a two-engine plane, which takes 19 Nepalis or 14 westerners. (We’re bigger, and we burden ourselves with more baggage.) Marge and I were the only westerners aboard.

Thirty-five minutes after takeoff, the plane dipped and slanted, turned right, bumped the ground a couple of times, and landed. We had arrived at Lamidanda. The airstrip was a stony field about the size of a football field, the airport a minuscule stone structure. A throng of hopeful young men stood behind a wire fence, trying to pick up jobs as porters. Three had already been hired for us and had walked here from Badel, to go back there with us. It took them one day to make the trip that would take us three.

We watched these small, slight men load our duffel bags, tents, cooking gear, and food into dokos, cone-shaped woven bamboo baskets used to carry everything from firewood to sick people en route to hospital. Bearers support their dokos by a tumpline, a headband worn around the forehead and going under the base of the basket; the weight of the head helps support the weight of the load. Carrying more than their own body weight, they bent under their loads—and, wearing flimsy flip-flops on broad splayed feet, stayed ahead of us for the next three days—and laughed and joked with us when we caught up with them.

And then, it was the afternoon of the third day. Just after we crossed the Liding Khola river, we reached the bottom slopes of Badel. We heard their shouts before we saw a dozen or so children rushing out to get a first look at these big, funny-looking people from so far away. Our welcoming committee lined up along the ridge above us, gazing intently. Then the older children ran down, barefoot, like little brown mountain goats, making death-defying leaps among the jagged rocks and boulders.

We couldn’t see most of the 300 or so houses in Badel from here because of the topography: The hills that scroll around the village hide the houses. We were soon set up in a new house belonging to Jai’s father. Buddi and Jai had arranged for us to stay there our first week and then move up the hill to Buddi’s house, paying each family $20 for the week’s stay.

There is no electricity in Badel. No movie theater. No TV. But music, oh yes. The night we arrived, a crowd gathered in the courtyard next door. They greeted us with drumming, merry tunes on the flute, folk and popular songs, and graceful, sinuous dancing. Another night the two of us were festooned with flower garlands and entertained by the “Rungi-Chungi (multi-colored) Children’s Troupe,” which put on a show of singing, dancing, and mime for us and the villagers.

Our second week we stayed at the big white house with blue trim that Buddi shared with his parents and two younger brothers, his wife, and their toddler daughter. With four bedrooms and a large kitchen/living room, it is the grandest house in Badel. It is one of only fifty households in Badel that have installed charpis (latrines); most villagers attend to their toileting needs behind a tree or large boulder in a field or in the family pigpens. The first time I used the charpi here, I heard heavy breathing and thought someone was about to walk in on me; I finally realized I was eavesdropping on the snuffling of the two skinny little black baby pigs in the pen on the other side of the latrine.

As our cicerone during our two weeks in Badel, Buddi took us all around the village. We visited the elementary school, sat in on a shaman-led ceremony to bless the first house we stayed in, and met with the 75-year-old senior midwife and the elected headman. We didn’t get to meet all 1500 villagers, but every day we dropped in on two or three, all of whom stopped what they were doing to invite us in for little boiled potatoes and tea or rakshi, a homemade liquor.

As we came to know the villagers, we saw many needs crying to be filled. A woman with a drooping eye asked us if we had medicine for her; we didn’t. The local midwife told us that, with the nearest hospital three days away, the only backup in a complicated delivery is a hastily summoned shaman. We saw for ourselves how dark the school rooms were, how bare of furniture, how dull the books. The headman’s wish list for his village included education, a bridge over the Liding Khola, irrigation, a highway, electricity.

Marge and I, conscious of how much we had, how little they did, both felt a hunger to serve these kind people in some way. But how? Neither of us was in a position to provide a health clinic, equip a school, build a hydroelectric plant, or construct a bridge. What could we do?

Then one day Buddi took us on a day hike up to the highest point above the village. As we rested in an alpine meadow, fragrant with wildflowers—tiny white asterisks, blue primroses, yellow bells—he said: “Education very important. In my village, people don’t have books or newspapers. If people don’t have education, cannot have development. Cannot vote for good people. Cannot get health care and electricity.”

He looked into our eyes and said, “Some day I will start a library in my village.” Then he stood up, declared, “Janne ho” (time to go), and led us across the grassy lea.

Marge and I went home. Over the next couple of years, with my notes and her drawings, we completed the manuscript for this book. Meanwhile, with each of us back in our own affluent suburb, each with its abundantly stocked library, thoughts of a little bookhouse in a remote little village kept haunting us. At almost the same time she and I realized: We could help Buddi’s dream come true. We needed to work out logistics, to make plans: how to get books, how to get them to Badel, where to keep them.

As that first post-Badel summer gave way to fall, we saw that our library project was do-able. We didn’t tell Buddi yet, but we began to gather books and library materials, and to tap the interests of other people. Friends and relatives gave us money for our library fund. Peter, the trek leader, asked all his trekkers who would be coming to Nepal the next year to bring with them one little book each. Marge bought some children’s books. (Almost all of Badel’s adults are illiterate, but most of the children go to school six days a week and, from fourth grade on, learn English along with Nepali.)

I bought library supplies and approached my local book shop and public library. The shop contributed Hats for Sale and other classics; the library offered boxfuls of used books. But when I looked at them, I realized that stories about bicycles and television and trains and skyscrapers would read like science fiction to the children of Badel. I didn’t take these; instead, I took books about animals and farms and school.

As our excitement mounted, Marge and I resolved to return to Badel, to help midwife the library. We would help Buddi deliver it, we would serve at its birth, but we wouldn’t direct or advise unless asked. This was not to be our baby.

When I faxed Buddi, asking whether he would be able to go with us to Badel in October of the following year, I also wrote: “We would like to start the library in Badel that you talked about. What kinds of books should we bring? And where can we buy books in Nepali?”

He wrote back: “I can go Badel with you.” And: “There are many books about stories, poems and drama in our book store in Kathmandu. We will buy some for Badel library. I hope we can get good discount.” We still didn’t know where these books would be housed, but we weren’t worried. We knew Buddi was a young man who makes things happen. He would find a place.

We did not expect or receive Buddi’s extravagant thanks. The Nepali word for “thank you” is used rarely, not sprinkled liberally as in the west. In the Eastern tradition, a good deed is a happy event that will do as much for the donor’s well-being in future lives as it will for the present beneficiary.

When we next returned to Nepal a year and a half later, in October 1994, we brought with us about 100 children’s picture books in English and a library fund of $400. Money goes astonishingly far in Nepal. With part of the cash, Buddi went to a bookstore and carefully chose 250 books in Nepali; there was still enough money left to pay $60 for the first-year’s salary of a part-time librarian, handle various expenses, and start a modest bank account.

Buddi’s choices were eclectic: folk tales, children’s stories, songbooks (one including “We Shall Overcome”), books about women’s rights and farmers’ rights and the environment, novels and poetry, dictionaries and encyclopedias, books on communism, democracy, and history. We applauded most of the choices, but were privately puzzled by a few—like the weighty dictionary of legal terms. Who in this village, where few people had even graduated from high school and lawyers were as nonexistent as electric power, would need to refer to it? But we didn’t question Buddi’s selection.

Buddi, Marge, and I would now go from Kathmandu to Badel, taking the same 35-minute flight, the same three-days’ walk as before—but this time, with the added weight of 350 books. On internal flights in Nepal, passengers are limited to 33 pounds of baggage, and our own gear filled that. Worried we’d have to leave precious volumes behind, we scooped up as many as we could and crammed them into our backpacks, our pockets, Marge’s art bag, any place we could possibly squeeze one. Still, we paid $40 in overweight charges (more than we’d paid for the overweight books themselves) and hired extra porters to carry them from Lamidanda to Badel.

Every book got to Badel, and we got to work. The outdoor balcony in Buddi’s father’s house where Marge and I slept was converted into an atelier. My bed, buried under 350 books, became the production site. With the help of a couple of children, Marge mended torn pages, made new covers, reinforced spines with library tape. Dhana (Buddi’s wife), Kiran (his 12-year-old brother), and I put plackets and cards in all 350 books. Buddi, Tara (our cook), and I wrote English titles on the cards and the names of donors on photocopied bookplates. Tara and Uttam (Buddi’s teenage nephew) wrote Nepali titles on the cards. Ishwor (Uttam’s brother) made new labels to acknowledge gifts.

Uttam brought over about a dozen tattered high school textbooks that he no longer needed. The pages were dog-eared and dirty, the covers missing. In America they would have gone into the garbage, but here nothing is wasted.

After I alphabetized the English books, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Seaended up next to a children’s story, One Fine Day. Buddi gave every book a number, entered the titles in a ledger that Marge bound, and shelved the books according to those numbers. His numbering method owed nothing to the Dewey decimal system: He simply assigned a consecutive number to each book in the order in which they were stacked. I bit my tongue. It would be up to the librarian and local helpers to figure out a system for finding books. I knew they would. Nepalis have systems for everything else.

Now for a librarian. Buddi would be in Kathmandu or off trekking most of the time. Marge and I broke our vow of silence to suggest his sister, Gita. In this patriarchal country, where women have few opportunities, this job seemed like a natural for a village woman who had gone to high school and knew some English. But Buddi asked Gita’s husband, Dhan Bahadur. Dhan, a teacher, would be in a good position to encourage children to use the library. Buddi planned to form a library committee with seven people; two would be women. They would make policy decisions and spread the word about the library. They’d be the trustees, and the outreach and public relations departments.

After all the books were placed carefully on the shelves, Buddi demonstrated the checking-out procedure. The first patron, Sabate Rai, asked for a children’s story,Jinki ra Joker (Jinki and the Clown). Dhan looked it up in the catalog. It was #46. Buddi went to the shelf, began counting from the left, and pulled out the book. He withdrew the title card from the placket and wrote Sabate’s name and the date on the card, which he then placed in the file box.

“The books, people take out for only two or three hours,” Buddi said.

“But what about the long ones?” I asked.

He acquiesced to one or two days. He would keep close, take-no-prisoners track of the books. “If someone loses book, they must have to pay to buy a new one.”

And so, on Thursday, October 13, 1994, with no ceremony, no fanfare, Hamro Ramro Badel Pustekalaya, “Our Beautiful Badel Library,” was launched.

With the library, Marge and I may have helped to bring about a major change in the village. In the nearly two years since the excitement of that opening day, we don’t know how much the library has changed life in Badel. Was the committee organized? Has the library become the village center we had envisioned? Buddi wrote us: “I think this year will be around 1,000 books in our pustakalaya. The children are using.” But how are they using it? And has it indeed their lives? If so, will this change be for the good? I think so, but I can’t be sure.

The villagers of Badel live their days in concert with the same rhythms they have followed for centuries, a way of life that may not exist in another fifty years. And herein lies my own conflict: By helping Buddi found his library, I am joining those forces of change that will eventually wipe out the routines and values that have made the Nepali people who they are today.

What will happen to the simplicity of this cashless life where no one goes hungry and each family helps its neighbors, when villagers begin to compete with each other for industrial jobs? What will happen to the purposeful contentment of hard-working people when electricity brings TV showing riches attained by fellow Nepalis? Will the very real gains of improved health care and education be great enough to offset the very real losses that are sure to go along with them in the underside of progress? Were my friend and I wrong in serving as agents for a home-grown dream? Maybe some answers will emerge when Marge and I return to Badel this coming October. On opening day, neither of us was overly troubled by any of these thoughts. We finally coaxed Laxmi Darje inside. She stepped in hesitantly, timidly sat down with the other children, and diffidently accepted the children’s dictionary Marge thrust into her rough, calloused hands. Laxmi soon became entranced by the bright illustrations.

Laxmi lingered in the library for an hour, fingering one book after another, looking at pictures, asking questions. She left only when her mother came to the door looking for her. Laxmi showed her mother the book she was holding; but, unable to give up the old ways, the woman would not, could not yield to her daughter’s urging to cross that alien threshold.

Before she left, Laxmi smiled buoyantly at us, the two “grandmas” from so far away. I looked after her as she walked away, her slight figure in sharp relief against the fields of mustard blossoms and ripening millet, the overlapping misty hills, the azure sky. Just beyond the doorway, she turned her head and cast a backward glance toward Our Beautiful Badel Library.

An adaptation of this article constitutes Chapter 20 of A Balcony in Nepal: Glimpses of a Himalayan Village.

This article was published in The Pennsylvania Gazette, July 1996.

©Sally Wendkos Olds