April 14, 2002 - Star Tribine: Konnie Hess, my high-school classmate and a newly fluent speaker of Nepali, was working as a Peace Corps volunteer in the village

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Nepal: Peace Corps Nepal : The Peace Corps in Nepal: April 14, 2002 - Star Tribine: Konnie Hess, my high-school classmate and a newly fluent speaker of Nepali, was working as a Peace Corps volunteer in the village

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Konnie Hess, my high-school classmate and a newly fluent speaker of Nepali, was working as a Peace Corps volunteer in the village

Konnie Hess, my high-school classmate and a newly fluent speaker of Nepali, was working as a Peace Corps volunteer in the village

Travel: Volunteer vision
Berit Thorkelson, Special to the Star Tribune

Published April 14, 2002


It was eight in the morning and there was a thud on the front porch. Then again -- the slap of wet clay hitting the ground.

Incomprehensible chatter came next. I ducked my head out the tiny door on the second story of this three-story house edged by rice paddies on a Nepali mountainside.

Twelve-year-old Gayatri (GUY yuh tree) climbed the wooden ladder to the porch where I stood. She had a bucket of water in her hand. She smiled with her chin tucked into her chest and her eyes wide, as if she knew something I didn't and found that both exasperating and funny. Her earnest speech suggested a belief that I'd learned her language overnight. Because my host -- Peace Corps volunteer Konnie Hess -- was washing up at the tap, I had no interpreter.

Gayatri gave up on our futile conversation. She grabbed a chunk of the cow dung she'd tossed up from behind her family's nearby barn and rolled it across Hess' front porch.
Sunset on the Ratti River
Berit Thorkelson
Special To The Star Tribune

The house was made of mud and dung on a wooden frame, just like the three others around it, and they were constantly recoated this way, keeping them clean and crack-free. Gayatri pulled a bit of mud and a handful of water out of the bucket and worked it in with the dung, smearing it into the rough surface of the floor.

As she slowly worked her way across the porch floor, I snapped pictures from different angles. Gayatri averted her eyes and kept her face proud and serious as she worked. Over the few days I'd known her, I'd found she loved having her picture taken. She had become a friend. The introduction had come courtesy of another friend and fellow St. Paulite.
Women's work
Berit Thorkelson
Special To The Star Tribune

Hess, 28, my high-school classmate and a newly fluent speaker of Nepali, was working as a Peace Corps volunteer in the village.

She and I had traveled together before; we signed up for college study-abroad programs in Germany and the Netherlands respectively. After college, we lived in Japan together for a year. In both extended-stay experiences, we found that when you work, eat, shop and play with others daily, you can truly begin to understand their culture and country. In short, when you live with people, you learn from them.
Berit Thorkelson
Special To The Star Tribune

A new life

After a series of interviews, the Peace Corps placed Hess in Nepal and assigned her to work on agroforestry, a field in which she had absolutely no experience.

After 10 weeks of in-country technical, cultural and language training, Hess assumed her remote post in the "Middle Hills" of the Himalayan range, armed with information on new subjects from crop rotation and soil erosion to public bathing and conversational Nepali.
Home work
Konnie Gurung
Special To The Star Tribune

She said she soon learned that Nepal's pace is much slower than America's. That would, at times, trick her into thinking she wasn't accomplishing as much as she could, even when her side projects included coordinating a Nepal-wide agroforestry conference for worldwide volunteers and working with schoolchildren to design and paint murals on the side of their building.

But she said that, in the end, having the time to linger over dinner conversation with a neighbor or sit and watch the sun set -- from the time the first streaks of pink appeared in the late-afternoon sky until the last sliver of glowing orb disappeared under the horizon -- was something she savored and admired, even if it did mean slower progress in bringing an agroforestry-related idea to fruition. She worked within the Nepali culture to do what she could for its people. She said she benefited as much as they did.

In Nepal, Hess was my go-between. She'd been in the Peace Corps for nearly two years. I had just three weeks in Nepal. With the benefit of her experiences, I connected with the country's culture in ways that would have been impossible on my own.

Local connections

I quickly noticed this perk from behind my camera. During my first few days in the country's capital of Kathmandu, I snapped pictures at will. There, people were used to tourist attention and either ignored my lens or asked for a few rupees in exchange for their captured image.

Then I visited Hess in the tiny village where she volunteered. She lived in a cluster of dwellings, all connected to the respected Brahmin caste, with four homes -- one for Hess, one for Gayatri's family of six, another for Gayatri's grandma and a fourth for her uncle's family of seven. The homes shared an outdoor tap that was turned on twice a day and a hole-in-the-ground toilet privatized by sticks and burlap. The nearest town is Gajuri -- half an hour away by foot.

I spent my first full day in this pocket of Nepal exploring Gajuri businesses, checking out the school and dipping my feet in the Trisuli River with Hess as my guide. As we headed back toward her home, we took pictures of a mother and children at a tap washing clothes, a man sitting under a chili-pepper tree, a couple burning dried brush and a woman using a scythe to cut green rice stalks -- all typical scenes as 95 percent of the people in Nepal are subsistence farmers.

Every time, Hess called out namaste, the Nepali word for hello, her palms pressed together near her chest. She spoke to each person in Nepali -- Where was she going? What were they harvesting? Would he mind if we took a photo? We took picture after picture of these people doing their jobs, living their lives. Taking these pictures was different from others taken when traveling. Hess' fluency brought with it a sense of inclusion for me.

Cultural exchanges

As we approached the cluster of homes, Gayatri's grandmother, Ama, was still working in a nearby field. She waved us over and reached a hand into her dusty skirts. I opened my hand to accept familiar white puffs -- popcorn.

We followed Ama as she carried huge bales of rice on her back, making her look like a walking bush. She scuttled along the slick and narrow strip of mud that formed one wall of a rice-paddy irrigation system. With nothing but popcorn in my hands, I cautiously took my time.

In the dirt clearing in front of his home, Ama's son, Bhoj Kumar, sat crossed-legged. He whacked dry yellow stalks that sent kernels of rice flying into the air. His son, Ram Chandra, sat nearby, trying on us the English he'd learned at a boarding school in Kathmandu. Bhoj Kumar's wife, Bhoj Kumari, milked a water buffalo under an awning a few feet away while grandma handed out more popcorn.

Every once in a while, a child's face popped out of a top-floor window -- a study break to ask Hess a question not about studies.

She clearly belonged here. The night before, we'd eaten with this family -- sat on the floor in their home and shoveled rice and spicy lentils and vegetables into our mouths with our hands.

It was then they asked, through Hess, how big is my family? Am I married? What do I do? How far is my home from Hess' home in the United States? They were taken aback by the facts that I'm unmarried at 29 and that I have many relatives whose titles are prefaced by either step or half. I was awed by their 17-year-old daughter's arranged marriage as well as their lack of furniture and forks.

So near, so far

Later that night, we talked by the light of a kerosene lantern, Hess' big splurge after a year and a half of only candlelight.

I ask about her other neighbors, Gayatri's family. She told me a story that has stayed with me.

Hess had returned from one of her many trips outside the village. Gayatri didn't stop by, as she usually would, with tiny bowls of food as an excuse to sit and talk. When Hess asked around, Gayatri's mother told her that the 12-year-old had begun menstruating and therefore, as happens with most Nepali girls, she was locked alone in a room for 11 days.

Gayatri's mother allowed Hess to eat dinner with the girl. She let Hess into the tiny mud-and-dung room, bare with the exception of a few schoolbooks and a bed.

The two sat together and ate the regular meal of rice, spicy lentils and whatever vegetable was harvested at the time. Hess told Gayatri, who's never traveled farther than Gajuri, about her trip to Kathmandu. Gayatri explained that while she was menstruating, she couldn't see her older brothers and father or show her head and face to the sun.

It was a perfect example of how broad the cultural divide between them was. Neither could imagine the life of the other, even though they were friends and neighbors. But they both loved trying.

The morning we prepared for a trip to Kathmandu with Ram Chandra, he came by to tell Hess that Bhoj Kumari wanted to give us each a goodbye tika -- a scarlet dot on our foreheads symbolizing a blessing.

We loaded packs the size of small teenagers onto our backs and balanced our way down the ladder.

Bhoj Kumari stood in her home's doorway. When it was my turn, I stood in front of her as she spooned rice, sweet with fresh milk, into my mouth. Then she dipped her fingertips into a mixture of uncooked rice and watery crimson paste and pressed it into my forehead, right above the space between my eyebrows. A bit dribbled down my nose, and she wiped it off and readjusted the clump that remained. Then she shuffled us into a family picture in the dirt yard overlooking the rice fields.

Back in America, I studied the picture, all of us smiling, all wearing red dots on our foreheads. I had remembered it differently -- only those traveling got tikas, I thought, because we were being blessed for our trip.

Only now do I see I was wrong, and now I notice how awkward I look standing among these people in my Western clothes and white skin while I smile for the camera.

The moment is unlike the others I photographed on that trip: Nepali people caught midstep in their routines of daily life. In this photo, we're all together.

-- Freelance writer Berit Thorkelson is at berit@visi.com.

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Story Source: Star Tribine

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Nepal; Agroforestry



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