Avoidance and values come with powdered milk

I am once again in Kathmandu. I’ve had too many trips here to count them now. Landing at the crumbling red bricked ‘international’ airport feels familiar. It’s not too long before I am onto the infamous Kathmandu ring road, dense with traffic. In addition to cars and motorbikes one can see tractors, wagons with hand made motors belching out smog, cows straying anywhere they please, and of course buses and trucks. Everything in this landlocked hilly country moves around in a truck or a bus. It is winter now so the air is dense with smog, there is no wind in the valley to blow it away. Along the ring road is the flotsam and jetsam of a busy chaotic impoverished city; plastic bags and rubbish everywhere. I curse again the invention of plastic; as we drive over bridges and see rivers clogged with piles of plastic.

There is sadness about Kathmandu now. One imagines the days, just 60 years ago when motor vehicles had not entered the valley; emerald green farmland, life moved at the speed of man walking. Kathmandu was described back then as Shangri La. Now the emerald green is disappearing behind concrete, the urban sprawl growing by the day, choking out the green air and returning eye watering smog. Silently killing the residents. The political situation here continues to be unsettled. The politicians are locked in a battle to decide the new constitution with just 5 days left. There is tension, everyone talking about whether it will be settled peacefully.

Why am I here then?

Because there is a beauty and charm in the people of Nepal that draws me. As they say, ‘one comes for the mountains and returns for the people.’ The people are kind and peaceful. I don’t know if it is because the population has little material goods, so they cherish family, friends and food. Perhaps it is their 125 different ethnicities and mix of Buddhism, Bon and Hinduism that fosters quiet acceptance between neighbours. I am fascinated by their good humour and peaceful ways that are at odds with the political turmoil. What I do know is there is beauty in this crazy smog filled place.

I am on a writing sabbatical with hopes to see the peoples through my lens of contextual behavioural science. I have personal reasons to be here too; more on that later.

My apartment is a tiny two rooms on the outskirts of Kathmandu, with a shared bathroom and no hot water. A neighbourhood where few, if any, white women have even ventured. The apartment is in a four story block with my room on the rooftop; my window looks out at a shared rooftop, and across the valley. Nargajin’s 2600 metre presence is right outside my window. The whole building uses the space just outside my window for washing and drying laundry and sitting in the sun. The apartment block is a little community. Two new babies have arrived in the past few weeks, each day the women sit on the roof sunning the babies, while grandmothers and sisters tend the new mothers and do her chores. People are reserved and mostly kind. I don’t speak Nepali but the women smile, the kids practice English words to me as I climb the stairs, and those who are unsure are too polite and reserved to make eye contact.

As I write it is school holidays and all the kids in the block are playing, running up and down the stairs, cries of “Ama” (Mum) ringing out. All the kids play together, little pre-school age kids with preteens. In this block there are no playdates, no kids who are sad because they are not invited to play.  Just by virtue of proximity everyone has someone to play with. I wonder about our ‘constructed’ play arrangements for kids these days. Is it helpful to play only with ‘chosen’ friends? What do we lose by not playing in the neighbourhood? These kids play on the stairs, in the streets, and on the roof outside my window where I write. It reminds me of my own childhood, playing in the streets with all the kids until we were hungry or it got dark. This Nepali apartment block is like that. It is a small community of mostly Tamang people (Taming are of Tibetan origin).

Laxmi and Pemba are now at my window, their faces pressed against the glass, calling out,”Hello Auntie., Auntie.” Laxmi is 8, she has the most gorgeous smile and perfect Nepali head wobble, which means ‘ok ok’. She is alway the first to shout out and practise her English, ‘Auntie, how are you today?” She comes into my apartment whenever she smells cooking and the door is open, hoping to be given toast, a cookie, or some other morsel. Her friend Pemba is 12, with quite good English. Today the girls lean in the window and want to talk to me, even though I politely say that I am working, they see me on my computer and say, “Games, games.” I say, “No work.” They shake their heads and continue on as if I’d said nothing, “Auntie hello. Hello Auntie. How are you today?”

I relent, open my window and they lean in and begin chatting in Nepali. I understand only a few words. Laxmi repeatedly says, “sheekaunu, sheekaunu.” I laugh and shrug trying to say I don’t understand but the girls won’t be deterred. I can tell Laxmi has no idea why I wouldn’t understand someone speaking, she has no knowledge of other people outside her small community, so she slows her speech down like I am simple minded – s.h.e.e.k.a.u.n.u. Nope. I still dont get it. So she tries even slower sssshhhheeeekaaauuunnnuuuu. I laugh out loud, “Speaking slowly wont help me but Laxmi”. We break into fits of laughter.

The girls spy a cup with some powdered milk, and say, “Khanu (eat) powdered milk Auntie?” I pass the cup to them, they laugh and spoon mouthfuls of powdered milk in. Pure delight. Faces smeared with white powder, they laugh and chatter in Nepali. No sooner is it all gone and they start asking, “Biscuit?” “No” I say, “time to work.”

I am here to write, I have plans to shut down email and immerse myself in this place so I can write. This is my values move, but truthfully there is equally escape here – toward and away are equally present. The last few years have been the hardest I have ever experienced, relationship changes, financial difficulties that followed, working 7 days a week to try and keep up. Meanwhile our new book, The Thriving Adolescent, was half written; too far in to stop working. Fortunately when I tried to hand it back my co-author Joseph would not let me. My friends and family have carried me through this difficult time.

Now it is time to restore my health. Rest in a peaceful community and write. Laxmi and Pemba are still smiling at the window, even though they don’t believe me. I open my laptop and try to write.

I wonder how often avoidance and values are experienced at the same time and equally contribute to wellbeing?