Our 13-seater plane landed on the grass runway while I was grinning foolishly with excitement. A decade ago, my time with the Peace Corps in Khadbari village was idyllic. Sure, it was hard at times, but it was also a peaceful and communal existence. Landing here again after a two-year absence, I was suddenly bubbling over with pleasure.
The airport tower I knew so well has hardly changed. A small white outpost in the middle of a field, on a hot basin plateau at the confluence of two rivers. During the height of the Maoist conflict, the airport was fortified with razor wire and bunkers on the roof. I was immediately relieved to see that these had finally been removed. It made my heart hopeful for peace, but that was to prove short-lived.
I emerge from the plane and a line of people who have been waiting to cross the airfield filter across single file, like orderly ants. We passengers move to the side and wait 15-20 minutes for our bags to be offloaded onto the grass, for new passengers and bags to be onboard, and for the plane to take off before the single cart is then loaded with our bags and brought to the edge of the field. The bustle of Kathmandu is far behind me. Things move more slowly here in the hills, and I’m fine with it. I stand in the sun, in the dry golden grass, the only foreigner in sight, and I feel like the outline of a traveler in any remote place.
Crossing over to the nearby village, the boy who was sent to meet me (because in Nepal as in much of Asia, we always meet people at the airport) starts to arrange seats in a jeep for us. Years ago the only option was hiking two hours to the top of the ridge, but these days a few battered jeeps run back and forth daily on a dirt road that now connects to the rest of the world (in the dry season only). We negotiate costs and seating arrangements and finally set off. The road is deeply rutted from the monsoon and has dried into powdery red dust that infiltrates every crevice of machine and body. We climb the ridge bouncing, keeling heavily to the side, and stopping every 20 minutes for a boy to clamber down from the roof and fill the engine with water as it overheats. Finally at the top, we carry my bag another 10 minutes to friend’s house–but he’s not yet home.
Eager to see everyone, I don’t even pause to wash my face. I walk down through the bazaar in search of old friends and am reunited over tea and snacks. Affection in Nepal is shown through food. Everyone wants to feed me–tea, beaten rice, cooked rice, roti, meat, vegetables, chutneys, fruit. My primary work while I’m here is to manage my eating engagements effectively!
Over a few days, I exist happily with families I have known for 10 years now. Toddlers transformed into tall girls and boys, older children now married, yet my friends seem much the same. I love the kitchens–provenance of women, smokey, warm, nourishing. I make sesame chutney with my sister-in-law’s family (a household of 4 generations and 13 people!). I dance on the patio in the dark as my sister sings. I become temporary storekeeper as friends step out to make tea. My nails yellow from eating curry with my hand. I bathe in shocking cold water. I walk with bare feet on mud floors. I stand askew, baby on my hip…and I am content in this village life. For a week or two.
Each time I return, I find people engaged in the same routines as 2 years ago, 10 years ago, with only minor modifications. I know where people are likely to be at a given time, I know where things are in their homes. I sleep in the same beds. Part of what I loved about Khadbari was the easy routine of days, the insularity from everything beyond daily life. The rhythm of existence was tied to basic subsistence. News paled in significance as time in these hills ran mostly undisturbed by outside forces–but that is no longer true.
The town feels more modern now, what with vehicles, dial-up internet, cell phone service. It’s also been engaged in some major infrastructure improvements: a steel pipe to resolve the forever-in-disrepair plastic pipe that supplied water to all the houses; concrete paving in the bazaar and slowing expanding higher; a 4-story modern bank building in the heart of town, a new cell tower–but these improvements belie the unfavorable changes pervading life here. Due to climate change, annual rainfall is lower in some areas and higher in others, so farmers struggle with their crops. A haze, whether of dust or pollution, entirely cloaks mountains which used to be clear in December. Inflation of basic goods ranges from 10-60% for the last year. The prices of many things such cooking oil, oranges, and meat have almost doubled in a year.
The deteriorating nationwide politics have also corrupted the culture. Everything in Nepal now rotates around force, political parties, and extortion. Peace is a veneer covering intimidation, factionalism, and entitlement. Political strikes in the faraway lowlands now mean school and business closures in this hill village also. Young boys have broken from their families to run in small gangs high on power. After beating a journalist, one gang got protection from the Maoists against the police–which forever indebted them to the Maoists. Now the group leader, son of a prominent community philanthropist, has brought down his father reputation for community service, forced his father’s resignation from the university board, yet still lives in his father’s house and spends his father’s money. He can’t be forced out for fear of retribution–and because he is their only son. The campus where I used to work has become the site of political struggle, with Maoist students kidnapping 13 other students to prevent the others from winning student elections. Student election day was so controversial that police fired rubber bullets into a crowd of fighting students and injured six. Stories like this are not unusual–they have become the norm. Even the recent cell phone tower on the edge of town remains unused a month after construction because a band of young rogues is demanding USD $40,000 as a “fee” to allow it to go into service. When we talk about extortion, it’s not a few hundred dollars like it used to be.
Faced with all of this, my friends express frustration and resignation. I feel like the Nepal we loved is gone. We are attached, to the land and to each other, but it is also an attachment to the past. We share the remnants of an earlier era, and it allows us to see and enjoy the pieces that exist today. Those pieces are fading year by year, gradually replaced with a hardened, selfish, violent, and alienated youth. I wonder what Nepal will be like when this younger generation becomes the keeper of culture?