Rabin knew I was afraid to light the kerosene stove. His patient instructions accompanied open-mouthed delight at my ineptitude. This ten-year-old Nepali, wearing only limp cotton shorts, loved being my teacher in the tiny village where my Peace Corps training took place. My homework was to practice lighting the stove so when I set off to my post in Biratnagar a month later, I could boil water and not die of giardia (or so I said; one doesn’t die of giardia, it turns out). Rabin knelt by the smudged brass canister, pointing. Here you pump. Here you adjust the flow of gas. Here you hold the match, until poof! A ball of fire. His elegant hands exploded in my face to make sure I understood. That explosion was what I feared.
After several pantomimes, Rabin asked if I was ready. I nodded. Rabin’s aunt, watching, serenely threaded the buds of decapitated marigolds onto mala necklaces. Other family members gathered to watch, too. I smelled acrid kerosene.
“Now,” Rabin said, “where are those matches?”
We looked. His two-year-old cousin sat nearby, playing with the box labeled Safety Matches.
I often wondered, during my time in Nepal, why more injuries did not happen in a place so riddled with danger. Back home, children were admonished not to play with fire; preteen Nepali girls used it to prepare meals for the whole family. Six-year-olds in the United States were not allowed to walk to school alone; here, they were charged with carrying younger siblings through dense rickshaw traffic in the bazaar. A preschool-aged boy, who in my homeland might be responsible for a sippy cup, shepherded the family’s 1000-pound water buffalo in from the fields in Nepal. Out bus windows, I often saw such a boy reclined along the animal’s spine, a switch dangling unused over the beast’s massive flank. Perhaps we Americans were obsessed with safety.
I joined the Peace Corps as a way out of my safe white middle-class existence, one that, at the age of twenty-one, struck me as so insulated as to be numbing. I had taken French, painting, Native American anthropology, and literature courses in college, but I still felt exiled in a hostile world of big box stores, other people’s happiness, and keg parties to which I was not invited. Few people my age seemed to feel this sense of peril, and by the end of my senior year, I felt utterly cut off from my Frisbee-toting peers. Moving abroad was an antidote to anesthetization.
Knowing almost nothing about Nepal except what information the Peace Corps had provided in a slim folder, I did not pack well. My governing principle was not to be a stereotypical Peace Corps volunteer, whom I pictured as an earnest do-gooder with hairy armpits and worn Birkenstocks or, worse, Tevas. This dogma led me to pack things like a faux suede bomber jacket with synthetic fur, which I’d bought at Goodwill for five dollars, and a pair of baby blue Adidas. I’d expected to live in the Himalayas but was posted sixty miles south in the Terai—the tropical strip of land in southern Nepal that runs like a lush hem across the bottom of the country. The jacket was so heavy and cumbersome my Peace Corps friends dubbed it “the pet,” and the shoes immediately began sprouting mold in the swampy heat. After a few humbling weeks, I asked my mother to please buy and ship me a pair of Teva sandals. They arrived in Biratnagar, via diplomatic pouch.
Nearly every day, I visited a little shop two blocks from my apartment that I called the doodh pasal, or “milk shop,” because they occasionally sold cartons of refrigerated water buffalo milk. Two brothers in their twenties, Kumar and Guru, ran the shop. Guru was older, slightly rougher, and more handsome. His shorts and white tank top, combined with two days’ worth of stubble, gave him the air of a frat brother who had just finished a round of beer pong. Kumar, gawky and taller, wore a pressed button-down shirt and was clean-shaven except for a carefully trimmed mustache. Only his bare feet, protruding from gray slacks, suggested how hot it was—115 degrees—in the wooden shack where he sat.
They adopted me, insisting I not stand outside the counter but set the kickstand on my bicycle and come inside their shack. They lounged on a pallet under shelves with neatly stacked packets of dried noodles, laundry powder, and cookies. Cloudy plastic jars housed hard candies that Kumar promised I’d like, only to laugh at the faces I made when I tasted the flavors: spicy candy, pepper candy, and the particularly stomach-turning dal bhat candy, which was supposed to taste like the national rice and lentil dish but seemed a blend of fermented cabbage and tomato paste.
They asked me simple questions in Nepali, and by flailing through answers, I learned to say more than the basic phrases I’d learned in training: It’s hot or I like fruit.
“Who lives in your house?”
“My mother, father, and brother.”
“Where do your grandparents live?”
“In a different building. A building full of other old people.”
“In America, old people live in buildings full of other old people.”
I didn’t know what to say. Because old people would rather be around other old people? Because Americans like their old people out of sight? Because a little distance makes everyone more comfortable? None of my answers seemed right, or I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate them. I shrugged.
I liked both brothers, but Kumar was my special friend, patient and guileless. Guru spoke too quickly, sometimes wedging in a side comment to make Kumar laugh.
“What’d he say?” I’d demand.
“Oh, nothing, nothing.” Kumar would grin. “Come, Annieji, sit down. Basnu na.”
They insisted I stop every time I passed by, if only to inspect my purchases (“How much did you pay for those oranges?”). One day, they stopped me on my way to the bazaar.
“Annieji! How are you?” Kumar yelled.
“Not so good,” I said, straddling my bike. “My new stereo broke!” I pulled the tiny cassette player out of my backpack and passed it to Guru, who already had his hand out.
“Of course it broke!” he said, turning it over.
“But I just bought it. It cost 800 rupees!”
“This,” Guru said, “was made in China.”
“This is use-and-throw,” Kumar said, inserting the English phrase to mean “disposable.” In Nepali: Yo use-and-throw cha.
They passed it around to several of their buddies lounging in the shop. Everyone agreed it was use-and-throw.
“Well, I’m going to take it back where I bought it,” I said.
“And they will tell you”—Guru paused dramatically—“that this is use-and-throw. Whatever you do, don’t buy a new one from China. Get one made in Nepal.”
“Nepal doesn’t make stereos,” Kumar scoffed.
“Ke garne. Get one that is made in India!” Guru called.
Ke garne is one of the first Nepali expressions foreigners learn. Literally translated as “what to do,” the meaning is closer to “what can you do?”
You’re mad about your new stereo breaking?
You don’t like my joking?
Ke garne, Nepalis said when the power went out in the evenings. Ke garne, Nepalis said when I complained about teaching The Great Gatsby to twelfth graders who didn’t understand English. Ke garne, they said when I discovered a locked room in my school with a new donated computer disassembled in various cardboard boxes. We cannot let the students use. They will break.
The refrain carries the implicit fatalism of a nation notorious for poverty and corruption, a textbook case of development gone wrong. The expression also suggests the acceptance of suffering, advocated by the Buddha, whose birthplace is Lumbini, in southern Nepal. This acceptance both frustrates outsiders in Nepal—“Nothing ever gets done around here!”—and appeals to us—“If only I could be so content with the way life is.”
Most foreigners in Nepal appropriate this phrase, first with irony, then whole-heartedly. I found it then, as now, an enviable way to live, as did the others in my cohort. It was a relief, after an American childhood, to take everything—even our own safety—less seriously. Risk was everywhere, but this did not make life precious. It made it thrilling.
How worldly it made us feel to toss around the names of parasites we knew intimately. Cyclospora? Roundworm? Hookworm? Ke garne! How cavalierly we set out with our medical kit, as if a plastic briefcase packed with throat lozenges, dental floss, ciprofloxacin, and rehydration salts would save us. Peace Corps forbade us from riding on top of buses, as was the local custom, though nearly everyone did it at least once if only to say she had. A seasoned volunteer warned us greenhorns during training, “Only fly Buddha Air. They use instruments; the others all use dead reckoning. It’s called ‘dead’ for a reason.” His words were serious, but his tone blasé. We all nodded as if we knew that already. Duh.
Maoist rebels, who modeled their insurgency on the terrifying rhetoric of Peru’s Shining Path, lurked in the hills and often called for strikes to close stores and schools. Occasionally, we saw busloads of them careen down into the flatlands, where most Peace Corps volunteers lived. Though newspaper photos showed them in uniform, all of the rebels I saw were seemingly nineteen years old, in red T-shirts and with scraps of red fabric tied around their foreheads, as if they were in a B-grade movie about a Maoist insurgency. Radio Nepal’s morning report included a body count from battles the day before. Over 32-ounce Kingfisher beers, volunteers discussed the latest statistics, the merits and drawbacks of the Maoists, the rumors we’d heard of how kindly they treated villagers, their use of child soldiers, and the impossibility of their campaign. Such talk lent our capers gravitas. Everyone knew if things got really bad, Peace Corps would send us home.
Bravado led us to mock other volunteers who were sent home for mental health reasons, i.e. “wack-evacked.” We expressed grudging admiration for those willing to eat things that made others blanch: goat meat, sometimes with tufts of wiry hair still attached, or pigeon. (“What? Lots of cultures eat it! In England, it’s called squab.”)
What we took most seriously were our attempts to bridge the distance between our culture and Nepal’s. We set up all kinds of measurements to mark how much we had absorbed. We all knew the Nepali word for “rice,” but the volunteer who could also say “rice” in Limbu and Newari won. It was a point of pride to distinguish between the Hindu gods Saraswathi and Parvati, or to know that proselytizing is strongly discouraged in Hinduism, or to identify a rare type of citrus and casually mention in which month it ripens. People on the outside often view a Peace Corps stint as service, but everyone who has done it knows it involves more taking than giving. We had enough sense to know we were there to be schooled.
Nepalis’ genuine goodwill disarmed our jaded irony. You don’t have to be here, they told us, but you came. They accepted our sudden presence in their lives without question, opening their homes to us and protecting us from whatever they deemed dangerous: unscrupulous marketplace vendors, dirty water, eating citrus when you had a cold. “The guest is god,” my students often recited. Nepalis’ kindness and curiosity toward Americans made us want to sit through seven-hour weddings or visit a dozen families on a holiday. We complained about this privilege. We delighted in the burden.
On April 25, 2015, thirteen years after I finished my service in Nepal, the Indian subcontinent thrust its way farther under the Tibetan plateau’s overbite. The glass beads hanging in thick strands in the stalls of Rakhi Bazaar in Kathmandu rattled against each other, blue colliding into green, green into yellow, yellow into orange, orange into red. The wooden stalls began to collapse. People honked their horns until they realized what had happened, and then the sounds disintegrated into shouts of terror. Afterwards, great silence.
Or so I imagine. April 25th was a rainy day in North Carolina, where I lived with my husband, Adam, a fellow volunteer I met in Nepal. We let our kids watch cartoons in the next room while we scrolled through image after image on the Internet: buildings reduced to brick heaps; Nepalis holding cell phone cameras above three-foot fissures in the asphalt; the 19th-century, nine-story Dharahara Tower brought down to a mere mound, like a sand castle smoothed by a wave; bright saris spread to dry over rooftop walls that lunged at forty-five-degree angles. Women in shawls and men in woven topis peered over bodies on the sidewalk. Marigold malas encircled the feet of orange-shrouded corpses. Survivors pulled from the wreckage and caked with dust and debris looked like ghosts, and children, haunted-looking, huddled with their families. I recognized the golden hoops bent crookedly through the earlobes of toddler girls and boys alike. I recognized their eyes, ringed with the kohl their mothers had smeared on to protect them from evil spirits. And when I read that all the Peace Corps volunteers were safe in the US Embassy, I felt a twinge of envy that they were there and I was home. Safe. I had an urge, absurd and misguided, to jump on a plane.
My five-year-old son wandered in. “What’s that?” he asked.
“An earthquake hit Nepal. The ground started shaking, and buildings collapsed. A lot of people were hurt. See?” I showed him. “Daddy and I used to live there. Remember?—we told you.”
He studied the pictures then asked, “That couldn’t happen here, right?”
Eventually, we closed the laptop and took the children to Safari Nation, a room of bounce houses, where machines light up and blare and beep and occasionally dispense prizes. Friendly inflatable snakes and gorillas perch above the slides and tunnels. There are nachos. There are Slush Puppies. Almost all surfaces are padded. My children bounced as I made a mental list of all we try to protect them from: mosquitoes, bullying, peanut and egg products, sunburn, traffic, low self-esteem, splinters, strange dogs. . . .
We spent thirty dollars in two hours—my monthly rent while in Nepal. Surveying the crushed chips underfoot, the parents peering into screens, the children amped up on play without imagination, I asked Adam, “Is it morally bankrupt of us to be here today?” Nepal had never felt so distant, or so close.
For a week, I was weepy. I checked the news every fifteen minutes and gave Adam constant death toll updates, which he politely tolerated. He is a mathematician, so when I said, “7,000,” he said, “You know, over 200,000 died in the Haiti earthquake.” I conceded his point. But I’ve never been to Haiti.
At the same time, my unchecked melodrama embarrassed me. I’m not Nepali. I am hardly in contact with any Nepalis these days. My life was virtually untouched by the disaster. It was puzzling, almost shameful, how when the few people in my current life who remember my connection to Nepal asked about it, my eyes welled up. As if the earthquake was something that had happened to me. As if my own life had been in danger.
On September 12, 2001, I was a year into my Peace Corps service in Nepal when I saw the US Twin Towers on the cover of the Kathmandu Post: three grainy photographs depicting the slow-motion sequence of the second plane hitting the south tower. I first heard of the attacks when my post mate, an American from New York City, called to say, “Something’s happened at home.” Now the news was everywhere: in newspapers passed around my school’s office, on restaurant TVs, in the mouths of Nepalis who called out to us on the street. (Adam learned of it when a Nepali student on a dirt path shouted to him, “An airplane just hit the world’s biggest house!”). This was my country, my homeland, under attack. And yet, through the filter of Nepal, the attacks felt far, far away.
On the streets in Biratnagar, people saw me as America and offered their condolences. Strangers flagged me down to say I could come in anytime to watch BBC on their televisions. A few days after the attacks, my host mother said, “Your parents and brother can come here. We’ll love them like we do you.”
It didn’t surprise me that our country had created such enemies. Adam, quoting Malcolm X’s comment on President Kennedy’s assassination, said, “Chickens coming home to roost.” But not everyone saw the same connections.
In October, a volunteer passing through met me for morning rice and lentils. He spread open a newspaper and thumped the headline: the United States had begun bombing Afghanistan.
“Let’s bomb the shit out of them,” he said with satisfaction. Here was an American abroad, a supposed champion of peace, who couldn’t wait to start the war. If this was what a Peace Corps volunteer thought, what were people saying back in the United States?
I kept thinking how much the pictures of Afghans reminded me of Nepalis—in their eyes, their dress, their familiarity. Feeling morose, on my way home, I stopped by the doodh pasal.
“You need to call George Bush,” Guru told me right away.
“OK.” I played along. They joked about everything. Of course, a terrorist attack wouldn’t be any different. “Why?”
“You need to call and tell him not to bomb Nepal.”
“Nepal is very close to Afghanistan,” Kumar added.
“He might get mixed up,” Guru said. “And we’re scared.”
“Very scared! We don’t want to be bombed.”
“Who knows? America might bomb anybody,” I said slowly, trying to get the verbs right.
“Exactly.” Guru smiled. “So give him a call. Please. Do it for us.” His tone was light, but we all knew how dangerous my wounded country was.
Many Americans expected me to come home that year following the attacks. To them, the foreign world seemed newly dangerous, an indistinguishable hostile mass. But going home never occurred to me. If anything, 9/11 and the subsequent bombing campaigns gave me another reason to stay away for thirteen more months, no matter how clumsy an ambassador I was. Nepal wasn’t dangerous. Nepal went on exactly the same as it had before, Auden’s horse scratching its behind against a tree—only it was a water buffalo wallowing in the mud. Whereas before, I might have read Auden’s poem as a critique of the world’s indifference to suffering, I now saw compassionate pragmatism in the rest of the world’s determination to keep going. Ke garne? What else can you do?
My service with the Peace Corps ended in October 2002. When I first got home, people kept saying what a brave and admirable thing I had done. This praise seemed ludicrous. All I’d done was learn how sheltered and privileged I was. I had been willing to sit with that discomfort, and now I was back in the land of safe drinking water and free public schools. I spent a few months grading standardized tests at a temp job and staring down from my childhood bedroom window at the still, silent street below. Then, to heighten our culture shock, Adam and I moved to LA, where we set about converting the price of everything into rupees. This did not make us very fun to hang out with.
After being home in the United States for eighteen months, which felt like an unbearably long time away from Nepal, we went back for a visit. On the taxi ride from Tribhuvan airport, I remembered how life is lived in the open there. Already I had forgotten. A man had created a barbershop by nailing a mirror to a tree. In a chair propped in front of the mirror, men tilted their necks to the sky, trusting a straight razor, its edge meeting lather. A boy walked along the roadside with cucumbers as big as clubs, quartered and displayed under a dusty glass case that looked as if it should instead house antique watches. A girl brushed her teeth as she eyed the traffic. Maintaining eye contact with me, she spit a white beam of Neem toothpaste foam into a patch of dirt. A young boy, bare-bottomed, squatted just beside the road, a golden pile of shit forming beneath him. But he was not the spectacle. I was. He watched my blurred white face, protected behind glass.
In Biratnagar, at the doodh pasal, I was disappointed to learn Kumar was visiting his uncle in Kathmandu.
“You’re going back to K’du, right?” Guru asked. “Maybe you’ll see him.”
I pointed out that Kathmandu was a city of almost a million people and without street signs.
Guru shrugged. “Maybe you’ll run into him.” He wrote down the name of his uncle’s neighborhood.
A week later, on our last night in Kathmandu, Adam and I went to the Buddhist stupa Swayambhunath. Its huge white dome is decorated with Buddha’s elaborately lined eyes and a golden-topped tower. Strings of prayer flags stretch from the dome to the surrounding shops in the pavilion, like the spokes of a wheel. At sunset, you can sit at the base of the stupa and survey the hazy city as young Buddhist monks in burgundy robes stroll past. Swayambhunath is somewhat near Kumar’s uncle’s neighborhood—but this is where my memory and Adam’s memory differ. Did we go looking for the uncle’s house? Did we even know Swayambhunath was near his neighborhood at the time? We cannot remember how it happened, only that it did.
At twilight in Nepal, everyone is on the streets, coming home from work or hurrying out, plaid plastic shopping bags in hand, to buy pumpkin vines for curry. The evening settles like a benediction. You let go of whatever has or hasn’t happened that day—ke garne, go home, have some rice—and are content until morning. In this turmeric-scented hustle, on a crowded street, Kumar appeared just ahead of me. I was sure it was him.
“Kumar!” I called.
He turned around.
“Annieji!” He greeted me as if we’d last met yesterday and he’d been expecting me here around this time. Time folded neatly, like a hanky.
“I can’t believe it!” I kept saying. “I can’t believe I just ran into you like this!”
Kumar was as unfazed as I was incredulous. His nonchalant acceptance of the improbable was characteristically Nepali, perhaps borne out of living with fewer illusions of control. For two years, I had witnessed how people could rest easily alongside chance and contradiction, but I am still an American. Knee-jerk astonishment and indignation is my birthright. After many handshakes, Kumar strode off. I watched his dark head recede until I was no longer certain I saw him anymore. It’s as if he is still moving away from me, all these years later.
I meant to return to Nepal, but life intervened. A year in South America. Then grad school. Babies. A mortgage. Somehow, in eleven years, we hadn’t gone back. The earthquake reminded me that to know another country well is both a gain and a loss—for the rest of your life, there is always somewhere you could be but are not.
In Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist district, you can buy souvenirs: Maithili paintings of elephants; incense pellets; bootleg CDs of the ever-present chant Om Mani Padme Hum; a nose ring; sustainably made purses from women’s collectives; a smoothie that may or may not give you giardia, which, in any case, won’t kill you; Tibetan singing bowls; thangka paintings of intricate mandalas limned in gold; wrapping paper stamped with water buffalo; postcards of Mt. Everest; lapis lazuli rings; pashmina shawls; knockoff North Face jackets and Mountain Hardwear tents; Gurkha kukri knives; and quilts made from vintage saris.
I shipped some of these things home because I could not bring home the angular hindquarters of cows that stand at dawn with their heads inside storefronts, waiting to be fed from nosebags. I could not take the tiny glasses of chiya, sweet milk tea, sold at roadside stands with a torn piece of newsprint covering the glass and sealed by steam. I could not take the mangy monkey on a chain, his earring glinting in the sun. Or the lane of tailor shops, tiny hovels where men operate their ancient foot-pedal sewing machines. Or the bus park in Kathmandu where ticket sellers grind tobacco in their palms with betel leaf and slaked lime.
I have a trekking map of Nepal on my living room wall and a green glass Buddha in my bedroom, but most of the things I brought home are folded in closets or boxed in the basement. More than any souvenir, Nepal gave me an idea of how big the world is and how small my own place in it. My years there gave me some distance from my own culture, which seems obsessively, often to its detriment, focused on protection, whether for our children or for our borders.
When I remember Nepal, I realize that earthquakes and fires and illnesses happen all over the world, including in my country, and that it may be better for kids to be brave and happy than safe and bored. We balance the risks of the physical world—malaria, plane crashes—with the risks of an insular life, lived underground, in fear. Too much safety creates its own dangers. I’m still an American mother with hand sanitizer in the diaper bag, but when I remember that learning requires exposure, I’m happier and calmer. I’m a better parent and wife and teacher. I laugh more. It’s hard, joyless work being so damn afraid all the time. This is what I want to teach my kids.
While I’m kneeling on the tile to give my infant son a bath, the memory of a water tap in Nepal might well up unbidden, the shouts of girls bathing together, no thought given to the baby cobras gliding through the fields beyond. These memories arrive like an expanding breath: the scope of the world working on me from within, as a stent widens an airway, creating the space to make me feel safe. Or safe enough.