THE SHORT OF IT:
We have been home from Nepal for over four weeks now. The re-entry process has been slow. For the first two weeks it was difficult to stay awake during the day. It still feels daunting to check email—and responding even more so (—this may be why you have not heard from us).
When people ask: “How was Nepal?” I love that they ask, but it is difficult to respond—because how can any job of describing do this trip justice!?
I am going to give it a try here. And, if you don’t have time for a long read, here are three(-ish) words to sum it up and then you can skim through the photos. (I want to especially thank Dan Driscoll who accompanied us to Nepal and took mad-good pics of us and all that was happening!)
(Pawan, Kumar’s son, checking out Dan’s camera)
Bringing Drawing the Tiger to Nepal was:
A PERFECT END…
Or, Another way of putting it is by this list of WHAT WE DID:
5 screenings (Film South Asia x2, UNICEF, US EMBASSY, Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival)
3 suicide awareness workshops (Fulbright and two government schools with all girls)
18 miles in 2 days on 1 family trek
1 trip to the village
1 film award accepted
1 short film about Nepali migrant labor starring Kumar in the can (that means we are done shooting!)
1 six year old son knighted a true and truly adventurous traveler
Countless numbers of new friends made, teas drunk, meals shared—being bathed in generosity
1 big friendship—ours with The Darnals—made deeper and more real
THE LONG OF IT:
I will start where our last post left off: in the mid-swing of things in Kathmandu. We were just about to leave for the village in the Ramechhap district where The Darnals live.
(If you didn’t get a chance to read Drawing the Tiger Travels to Nepal: Part One, check it out here.)
We were truly blessed to have had a donor at our opening night at Film South Asia who offered to find and pay for a vehicle/driver for the village trip. Due to the current fuel crisis in Nepal, traveling to where The Darnals live was financially out of reach for us. We would not have been able to accomplish this journey without this act of generosity. We feel so fortunate to have had this support. Not only did it make it possible, but let us know that we were not the only ones to believe this return trip to the village was important.
There were 9 of us nestled into a truck. It was a lovely truck and driver, Shree Krishna. He kept us safe and bobbing our heads to some great India/Nepali music all the way to our destination.
Kumar and his son, Pawan, came with us to assess the earthquake damage. It would be Kumar’s first time seeing the destruction as well. He arrived home from Malaysia the week before. He was let go from his company for not having an electronically readable passport. Nepali migrant workers are so replaceable, the company did not see the need to spend the $60 it would take to update his paperwork.
So, they sent him home—on his own dime. But more on that later (we are actually making a short film about Kumar’s migrant labor experience. Working title: The Eldest Son.)
Unfortunately, neither Ramyata, our co-director and usual interpreter, nor Shailendra, our Nepali cameraman, could come with us this time. Ramyata was busy preparing for the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival. She is director of this prestigious South Asian festival. And Shailendra is shooting a Nepali teenage romantic comedy. (He was so funny when he was telling me about this gig. He was embarrassed to be working on such fluff. He kept saying, “It pays the bills, man.” I think it is awesome that he is such a hot commodity in Nepal. I have no doubt that Shailendra Karki will continue to do incredibly meaningful work. And, don’t we all need a RomCom from time to time?).
We were excited to find Yopesh who was able to accompany us to the village be our interpreter. He came to us because he is married to Prerana, one of our original translators on Drawing the Tiger. Yopesh is a filmmaker as well and we hit it off with him right away. He loves kids, has a son, and that made it all the more easy to do challenging travel with two seven-year-old boys.
(Yopesh, Pawan on Scott’s lap and Kumar. Kristin, Hale and I were in the back. Dan in front with Shree Krishna, our driver.)
Here is a link to a short video of what it was like to drive on the new Nepali highway! (Thank you Kristin!)
I can’t say enough how wonderful it felt to hang out with Kumar and his family—to just really hang out. Dan, our friend and photographer who joined us from Seattle for the trip, raised the bar for learning and speaking Nepali. He learned the alphabet, pronunciation, grammar and a bunch of vocabulary via an app called Cram while working at his high-powered desk job (Scott, Kristin and I no longer have an excuse to lean on when it comes to not speaking Nepali).
(Here is me practicing my Nepali with Kumar. I am getting better.)
The Darnals are such fabulous hosts. I was not sure they were going to be so enthusiastic about us coming to visit post-earthquake. It takes a lot of work for them to feed us, especially for Amma. On the way to the village we spent the night in Manthali, the nearest town, and bought a bunch of food to bring. It is so clear watching Kumar shop for vegetables that he is a culinary guy. He is meticulous in his selecting process.
(Buwah greeting us upon our arrival in the village)
It was shocking to see the Darnals’ new living situation—and a true testament to their gifted survival skills.
We interviewed Kumar inside his quake-damaged childhood home. It is up to him as the eldest son to fix it. Yes, we shot with an iPhone—more on that in another post.
The two houses that they used to live in are no longer livable and stand abandoned with their cracks still—sad and somewhat scary. The water spout that used to throng with the hubbub of this corner of their village is no longer there. Walking through the doorway of the house—now eight months defunct—was eerie. We did not stay long. It didn’t feel safe. There are still tremors in Nepal. Also, the neighbors were hanging around, wanting to know why we had come back, what we were providing to the Darnals that we were not providing them.
We were only in the Darnals’ village for a couple of days, so it is dangerous to make sweeping statements, but I felt a sorrow there that was not there before. The place has always vibrated with hardship and resignation, but not sorrow.
Kristin had this post-earthquake analysis of the village and Nepal in general: they are grieving. Nepalis are grieving, and everyone is in different stages of this grief.
I asked Kumar and Buwah about how difficult it is for them when we come—about their neighbors giving them hard time for having this much attention from foreigners. Their response was funny and not surprising. They basically said, “Oh, no one here has ever liked us—way before you came. We have always been the outsiders. They are the ones missing out.”
The Darnals are a fairly typical Nepali family, by virtue of being not-well-off, uneducated subsistence farmers… but they are quirky in their approach to life. This time staying with them really confirmed our belief that they are all artists at heart. Maybe that is why we get along so well.
(A fan Ram Kumar and his brother, Sitaram built for summer days on the farm, using the guts of a broken cassette player, at center.)
(Drawing from Sitaram’s notebook)
(Goat on a shelf)(Ram Kumar sparring with the goat.)
The Darnals have moved onto their farmland, about a 20-minute walk from the center of the village, and where they used to reside. They are using the small house that is usually just used during farming season. The two brothers, Ram Kumar (in the film) and Sitaram (not in the film because he was away doing roadwork for years) occupy the upstairs, and a buffalo and her calf live downstairs. (The buffalo was bought with the money many of you sent post-earthquake! We drank the buffalo’s milk, which is the Darnals’ primary source of protein. Yummy and super filling!) They have put together two small open-ended shed structures out of thatch, tin and plastic tarp (also bought with donation money from you).
They also built a bathroom, behind the farmhouse. It was quite lovely and way more convenient than finding a tree to hide behind.
These are far from permanent structures and really only a medium-sized step up from camping (which is what we were doing). However, the Darnals being who they are and the celebratory vibe of our visit made these cramped, breezy spaces feel cozy—even though we were all dressed in multiple layers while hanging out in the kitchen.
The second family—Saraswati, Sarita and the baby, Anugra are living in a much less desirable situation. They no longer live next door. They live about a 15 minute walk away under two even-less-permanent thatch-and-tin hovels. Sarita does have her own room to study.
Saraswati is still wearing my hat. The one she took off my head and started wearing in 2013. (It’s from Jcrew with a Made in Nepal label—for some reason I love this little big/small-world factoid.) I didn’t even recognize it till she pointed it out, because it’s so faded and threadbare.
Sarita continues to study hard. She is in the 10th grade and takes the big country-wide gatekeeper test, the dreaded School Leaving Certificate (SLC), this spring. She starts her hour-long walk to school at 5am and does not return home till close to dark.
Shanta’s other school-aged siblings, Rashmita and Ram Kumar (both in the film) are also still going to school. Rashmita has grown up so much since we saw her two years ago. While we were there, she was doing her chores and homework without being asked—and on a Friday night with a bunch of guests no less. She is in the 9th grade.
Ram Kumar took and failed the standardized SLC exam. Apparently he was devastated. I feel so much for him. Only 44% of Nepali students passed the exam last year. Ram Kumar’s disadvantages: going to a crappy village school, losing his house, having to work on the farm and help his mom who broke her foot, having illiterate parents…. The odds stacked against this kid are daunting just to tabulate.
Ram Kumar is now repeating the 10th grade. We got the sense that his heart is just not that into school though. I get it. He likes working on things, making stuff work. The chances he will pass the SLC exam this year are grim no matter how hard he studies.
I know Sarita is freaked out about the SLC. Every time it came up her eyes got wide and the smile on her face faded.
A Bit of Good News?
At the opening night screening at Film South Asia, there were some prominent Nepali society folks in attendance. Many who said they want to help The Darnals. One famous Nepali actor (someone described him as the Nepali Marlon Brando), who wants to remain anonymous, said he would like to support Ram Kumar go to technical school—one that does not require passing the SLC. We are currently researching how this can happen without taking Ram Kumar too far from home.
We are trying to do the same for the girls. It’s tricky—the school thing—because their parents need their help for everyday survival—logistically and emotionally. The school in the village is simply not enough. The teachers are inexperienced and have no supplies. I know there must be a solid solution. We are working on it and will keep you posted.
(Kristin and I walked part way with Rashmita to school.)
(Here is Ram Kumar with a GravityLight he just put together and hung up in his room. It’s a device that uses a bag of rocks to power a small LED light–designed for living where there is no electrical grid. It was a gift from our dear friend and neighbor Paul, who funded the device’s launch on Kickstarter because he wanted Ram Kumar to get a taste of outside-the-box technology thinking. It was a hit.)
Ram Kumar is still wearing the same sweater he wears in the film, even though he is a foot taller.
We visited the headmaster at the elementary school. The Darnal kids have graduated from the primary school that is featured in Drawing the Tiger and now go to the high school one village over. We went and visited the headmaster and he gave us a tour of the school’s earthquake damage. The government came this summer and condemned the building. They promised a temporary shelter that has yet to be built. So, they are teaching the kids who are showing up in the broken-walled classrooms of the falling apart condemned school. “What to do?” the Headmaster sighed.
Not being able to speak Nepali was difficult the whole time for me, but while sitting with Amma, it was the worst. I could tell in her eyes there is a lot she wanted to say. I feel sure she would have communicated more about what she was feeling if Ramyata had been there. It takes awhile to win Amma’s trust, but I feel like once you’ve got it….
It was hardest to say goodbye to Amma. She is so sad. And so funny—always cracking jokes (Damn. I wish I understood them.) She works so hard. Her house is gone. Her foot is too painful to walk on. Her son returned from Malaysia empty-handed. Her husband continues to be a charming ne’er-do-well. She still misses her daughter who is gone.
I could not help but imagine Shanta there with us. That sense that ‘if things had just been a little different….’
(The Darnals having a family meeting about what to do next, now that Kumar working in Malaysia did not pan out.)We did get to meet for the first time Shanta’s oldest sister, Sangita. She is lovely. She came with her oldest child to finally meet us and to help her mom out. The food they made us was SO DELICIOUS!
(Sangita at the stove.)
After the earthquake, Sangita and her family moved to Manthali, just down the mountain from the village. We dropped her off there on our way home. She asked if we knew anyone who had work for her husband, a road worker.
(Kristin, Sangita and I before saying goodbye. I love the universality of the selfie.)
Leaving the village was hard. On the one hand, I felt so relieved that it was over and that we were going back to our sweet apartment in Kathmandu with espresso next door. (Embarrassing, but true.) And, at the same time, I wanted to stay. It was not enough. It was the trip I have been imagining for years—the film is finished. We were able to be with the Darnals in this much different way. It was both the end and the beginning of something big. And, because of that, I felt pretty content as we pulled away. I knew we would we back. We all did. When and how? These are details we don’t know yet. What I do know is we could film them for years to come, and I get the sense they’d be just fine with that too.
I love The Darnals so much.
More to come later this week with the third and final part of Drawing the Tiger Travels to Nepal. I will tell you about how we used Shanta’s story as a suicide awareness tool! Another dream come true.
(Saraswati saying goodbye. I don’t know who that boy behind her is or what he is thinking.)