Archive for December, 2009

Happily Ever After

December 11, 2009

I’ve always wondered if it was just a cliché: are people in developing countries really happier than we are? How many times have friends returned from their travels saying “they were poor but they seemed so much happier”?

Or is this just something we say to feel better about the inequities of the world? To offset the discomfort of drinking cappuccinos that cost the equivalent of a full days labor in Nepal.

Which, I must confess, was exactly what I was doing the other morning in near the Boudanath stupa in Kathmandu.  When dining in Nepal, the whole when-in-Rome axiom doesn’t apply. For me, at least, tarkari soup at the local breakfast joint delivers a bacterial karate-chop that drops me to the bathroom floor for three days.

So, I sipped my fancy coffee and chewed a croissant and surveyed the scene from an outdoor café seat. My friend, James Hopkins, would arrive at 8:00. We planned to visit a nearby tent village where he’s befriended a group of beggars by helping them upstart a quilt-making business.

It was a busy morning at Boudha. The holiest Buddhist site in Southeast Asia, seekers make the pilgrimage from faraway places to walk clockwise “koras”–or circles– around the dome of the stupa. They spin prayer wheels and sprinkle marigolds and blood-red tikka powder on the surrounding statues to gain karmic merit.

This morning there were two very different koras underway.

Closest to the stupa, an inner kora of red-robbed monks shuffled along with strands of prayer beads swaying from their fingertips. For some it seemed a perfunctory morning stroll, while others worked their way around the stupa in arduous prostrations, dropping to their knees and touching their foreheads to the ground in a sort of traveling sun salutation.

While the devotees mumbled prayers and made offerings, on the outer rung of Boudanath, a kora of tourists and touts stirred into action. Shopkeepers unlocked their doors and heaped wares along the street: postcards, incense, tiger balm, and plastic prayer beads. At gear shops, trekkers began fitting boots and sunglasses. They fingered the fleece of knock-off North Face jackets, and occasionally turned to snap pictures of the stupa in the changing morning light.

Are they happier or not? The members inner kora with their simple offerings of mantras and marigolds, or the affluent outer kora, coddled by down jackets and cappuccinos?

“Happier? I think they are more content,” James observed. He’d just arrived. Tall, light-skinned, and blonde, James was clearly an outsider. Still, he is as familiar has one might hope to get with a culture so different from our own. He’s long been studying Buddhism in Kathmandu, and is an assistant to the revered teacher, Chokyy Nima Rinpoche. And his quilt project has put him squarely in the middle of social dynamics of some of the poorest city dwellers.

“Yeah, they fight –but there is a level of contentment there that we don’t have. They are in the company their whole extended family.”

We sipped our coffees and watched as momentum gathered around the stupa. It was morning rush hour at Boudanath, and inner kora was turning into a red whir of monks putting miles on their legs and on the prayer wheels.

“What they also have is devotion,” James said. In his observation, Westerners approach Buddhism more cerebrally, and are deft at analyzing the intricate concepts, such as “no-self.” The local Tibetans have more of a faith in the practice itself–the prayers, the prostrations. “But both methods lead to the same place. “

We paid our bill and set off for the tent village on foot. Away from the stupa grounds, the streets were congested. Taxis swerved and honked to overtake each other, and uniformed kids stepped over downed wires and potholes on their way to school.  On one corner, a construction project was underway. Three saronged women stood in flip-flops atop a dusty heap of gravel.  One watered the pile with a battered hose, while the other two worked shovels to make cement. A bus rumbled by leaving a wake of black soot.

I pulled my scarf up over my mouth. If it seemed like random chaos to me, James could see patterns in the scene. Through the din of the choked street, he pointed out a line of shoe-shiners squatting on crates.  “Those men over there are drunks from the village.”

A teenager appeared in front of us on the sidewalk, holding with a Dutch coin in his outstretched hand. James pocketed the coin and handed over a rupee note. “I’m also known as a money changer around here.”

We parted from the main street and turned down the trash-strewn alley that led to the village. We passed an old woman stooped under a huge basket of rutabagas.  A man in a wheel chair bumped along behind her. “The King of Boudha!”—James called out. A million-dollar smile smile broke across the man’s face.

The alley opened into an expanse of huts cobbled from bamboo and tarps. Children swarmed around, reaching their small fingers up toward us. James shooed them away, scolding them not to beg from his friends.

We found Puja washing aluminum dishware at a small spigot with a small soapy stream flowing behind her. She stood up, tossed her braid back, and repositioned her mustard yellow sari. She flashed a shy ivory smile. With her little knowledge of English, Puja served as a sort of intermediary between James and the village. She greeted us and went for tea.

While Puja boiled water, James walked around the camp to exchange greetings. This community of 500 people began 25 years ago, when three Rajasthani families arrived in hopes of finding work near the touristy stupa. Things must have been desperate in Rajasthan, as the work-scene in Nepal is pretty dismal: With a 47-percent unemployment rate, those lucky enough to glean  work can expect to labor for about $2.50 a day. But the village has managed to keep afloat with begging and shoe-shining over two decades now.

And things are looking up since James helped start the quilt business. Now the women spend their days hand-stitching bright designs that sell for $150 each—enough to send their children to school for a year.

They regard James with great reverence. Just weeks ago, he appeared for one of his regular visits, and they pulled him by the arms to the corner of the village. There they’d built him his own hut–a tarp tent that granted the best view in the neighborhood: a sunny tall grass field in a city where open space comes at a premium.

We ducked inside Jame’s new place, and waited for Puja to bring tea. The walls were decorated with posters of fruits and vegetables and images of Hindu deities

James had to explain to the villagers that, though flattered, he was content in his apartment near the stupa.  But he stocked his new village digs with tables and chairs and declared it a study room for the kids.

Puja came into the hut with a tray of scalding hot teas. “Puja makes the best tea,” James said clasping one of the mug handles, “just the perfect amount of ginger.” She closed her eyes and smiled humbly.

We sipped our tea and mostly communicated in the universal language of smiles and nods.

Then James asked: “Puja, could you show us some quilts?”

She pulled one out the dark corner and unfolded it, creating a shock of color against the dingy mud and tarp greens of the hut. Since the women scavenge leftover materials from tailor shops, they make-do with what’s available: pinks are combined with oranges, browns with reds. Lacking a quilting tradition, the women are unbound by conventional approaches, and the results are beautiful and artistic—the blanket perimeters are edged with fabric flowers, the threads holding the pieces together vary in color and size.

If starting a quilt business out of scraps sounds straightforward, it hasn’t been. In setting up the project, James had to contend not just with finding fabrics, setting up a website, and facilitating sales, but working with a totally different mindset.

Again and again with the village, James comes up against the double edge sword of  Nepalese contentment. It’s the national mood, embodied by the cliché “Ke Garne,” which means What to do? In the best sense, the phrase reflects an endearing acceptance of what can’t be changed. But, at its worst, it indicates an apathy that has kept the country stuck and poor.

“The caste system means there is no pulling-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps. They have a different idea of success—a nicely different idea. Praying and having a big family is success.”

James acknowledges these values, but sees real problems in the areas of comfort, health, and sanitation. It’s taken some work to help them envision a better future and more secure life. The villagers, he explains, don’t understand long-term-planning. “They are understandably caught up in the immediate needs. It’s ‘what’s for lunch right now.’”

To counter this, he’s started a savings program by giving them each their own box where he’ll match whatever rupees they drop in. He’s also convinced them of the importance of school, which is all about planning for the future.

On our way back to the stupa, we stopped in at the Kumari Sadan school. The principle came out from his office to greet us.

Achyut Prasad Pudasaini  wore a navy blue jacket and gray trousers, and a neatly trimmed mustache.  His stick straight posture gave him an aire of nobility that stood in stark contrast to the crumbling walls of the school. “Welcome!” he said with a slight bow. “Come. Please.”  He led us into an empty classroom. “We have 100 students total in this school. James has helped sponsor twenty-four of them!”

He turned and looked squarely at me: “Twenty-four! That’s not a joke!”

The classroom was Spartan: dingy concrete walls and metal benches. A weak shaft of light filtered through a tiny window. Drawings of flowers and rabbits were tacked near the cracked chalkboard. Up near the ceiling in large lettering, a quote:

If wealth is lost, nothing is lost. If health is lost everything is lost.

“This school is in trouble,” Principal Pudasaini confessed later, when we were drinking tea in his office, which doubles as a roughshod library for the children. The school opened in 1986 as a place where Kathmandu’s poorest children could be educated. “The government gives us no money.” The school is understocked and understaffed, lacking books, computers, teachers. But there are even more fundamental needs: “You can see its cold now and the children don’t have jackets.”

Principal Pudasaini sees the connection between education and the fate of Nepal. “This country is very sweet. Very nice–like Switzerland! But there is a dirty game being played by the government. They are not clear-headed! We need real leaders for the future. Not just talkers!”

I don’t know if the Nepalese are happier or not
. As we traced our way back toward the stupa, passing trash heaps and skinny dogs, an image lingered in my mind:

Principal Pudasiani standing in the center of the drab “music room” with its crummy tape player and poor lighting, in his starched blue jacket and perfect posture, chin up. He’d been to America. He’d toured the great libraries of our colleges.  He was well aware of what he did and didn’t have to work with.

I can still see him now: extending his arms and issuing a declaration that sounded pessimistic, but might be just what Nepal needs.

“I am not satisfied.”

Photos of tent village here

(If the ring sells, Quilts for Kids will recieve $3,000 to sponsor the tent village kids to attend school)


Family Politics

December 2, 2009

The transition from San Francisco to the remote Northeastern corner of Oregon brings on psychological whiplash. In the city, time coursed by in BART stops, dance club beats, and social appointments. Here, on the outskirts of nowhere, not much distinguishes one day from the next. It’s like moving through a Still Life painting—I climb over barbed-wire fences, traverse pastures, and pause against the quiet backdrop of mountains. I look up into the Spartan bare-branched trees and attune myself to minutiae: a cloud shifting stratus-to-lenticular, the occasional thud of an apple falling onto the dampened ground.

If there is to be any action outside the forces of weather and gravity, it’s by invention, and so people around here gather to stoke the social fires. On Thursdays they sing karaoke, and scoot their cowboy boots across the floor at The Hydrant. They drink lots of beer. And since there are not many restaurants to chose from, they host potlucks.

Dinner with friends the other night: cheese-covered Spanish rice, hot soup, and an olive-cabbage-pinto salad that brought a summer crunch into the winter evening. Conversation turned to the ring. Our host, Philip, works with gems. His wife, Jodie, is a loving presence who monitors her guest’s wellbeing like the warmest sort of mother, overfilling our plates and topping our water glasses. Across the table from me their friend, Loring, sat and remarkably worked four needles at once, stitching socks to give as Christmas presents to her family.

I mentioned the latest ring development: Anna Griffin, a reporter from The Oregonian, contacted me recently with an interest in writing about the ring. Anna’s column is sharp, strident, and political. But what kind of political angle would she find for the With This Ring Project?

I was excited. The Oregonian has a wide group of active readers, and it was just the kind of publicity the ring needed. But it also had me scared. Though I’d never really considered it before, maybe selling the ring was a political act. Although I believe fully in the auction, I’ve been nagged by the sensation of doing something transgressive. Is it okay to sell a family heirloom?

Historically, English law stated that the owner of an heirloom could dispose of it during his lifetime, but it must remain within the estate. In other words, it wasn’t cool to sell an heirloom to just anyone, like I’ve been hoping to do.

Though such directives maintained social inequities by keeping valuables contained in families, I can understand such laws. At its best, an heirloom preserves a family story. It’s a tangible reminder of the past, of our origins, and it symbolizes of our ancestors. An heirloom is a testament to the fact that we do not simply appear out of nowhere, but are inexorably linked to a long line of people who came before us: people who struggled, migrated, married, worked, survived, reproduced, and parented.

So, if an heirloom is symbolic of this fact, then is selling it dishonoring them in someway? Are we obligated to covet grandma’s punch set, and pass it along in the prescribed way, even if sometime we find ourselves totally broke, or discover that our values are different?

Since setting up the ring website, I’ve heard a lot of  heirloom stories—how a string of pearls from a deceased mother-in-law has been languishing in the attic forever, or how diamonds like my own have been holed up in a safe deposit box, owned by someone who feels too uncomfortable to wear it, and too guilty to sell it

My own thinking has been this: why keep that Japanese urn or Confederate belt buckle in storage when its value could be unleashed for good causes?

Not that I would advocate that everyone liquidate their heirlooms, and sell off their family history. Where we come from is important, and if an antique picture of Mary Queen of Scots transmits our family story in some way, then that is valuable.

Selling an heirloom is a highly personal choice, and my decision to do it comes from individual circumstances that make it feel “right” in someway.

Perhaps I am able to do it because my family has never been particularly close (except for mom!). We don’t use affectionate nicknames, hold few traditions, and rarely tell stories. Our estranged tribe is scattered to the winds–across California, Oregon, Nebraska and Minnesota and, especially since my grandmother died,  often fail to gather for holidays. We don’t talk on the phone, and routinely forget each other’s birthdays. Though we have mourned this, and wished it were different, we remain largely aloof.

I have regretted this at times–when I hear of brothers  rafting the Grand Canyon with their sisters, or watch whole Thai families running restaurants, or even when I see families bicker, because at at least they are interacting. But the upshot of my family’s discombobulation is that we are sort of free to be who we are. We’ve set off in our own directions, forged new lives, new identities, and are not particularly bound to follow in any particular footsteps. If I want to grow dreadlocks, I will. If I want to be tightrope walker, that’s okay too.

So, the little part of me that is afraid to sell the ring is just a little part–the part that wishes we were close, that wants to belong to be in a family where I’m obliged to tow the line. It’s also the child part– that powerful longing for approval that persists too long into adulthood.

Because I’m not 100-perent sure that my grandmother would like what I’m doing. In selling the ring, I guess I have a sense of ‘coming out,’ of saying ‘hey, my values are different.’

Someone recently asked me if I had $22,000 in cash–instead of a ring–would I still give it away. My answer was ‘probably not.’ I would likely spend the money on a new paraglider, a camper van, or on a trip to Morocco. But cashing in the ring for these indulgences would never sit right in my conscience. On the other hand, donating the diamond money to great causes feels like the right use, and serves as sort of an ‘out’ for a person like myself.


I still fret.  Friends assure me that this is actually a great way to honor my grandmother. They constantly remind me that it is MY ring now, and therefore MY decision.

But across the dinner table that evening in eastern Oregon, Loring, who was nearing the end of her sock, was much less reverent: “You know that all stuff about the deceased rolling over in their grave? I always say ‘well, they probably need the exercise.’”

NOTE: I’m behind on my blogging! Stay tuned for a visit to the amazing Quilts for Kids project at the beggars’ village in Kathmandu. If the ring sells, Quilts for Kids will receive $3,000 (see