A page in a book
Under trail footsteps
The sound of a bell
I am nearing six months in South Asia. Three and a half in India and two and a half in Nepal. I am also halfway through my Watson year. Time for another letter home to the Watson Foundation. I will include excerpts of my letter here in a larger essay.
I am sitting on the warm concrete roof of the house where I live in Kathmandu. My Nepali friend from university, Porcia Manandhar, and her family lent me a room here, and their invitation allowed me to find my earthbound footing again.
Just north of the house is the Hanuman Dhoka, a five-story pagoda palace at the center of Basantapur Durbar Square; the uncountable bricks of the palace are held in place with ornate teakwood carvings of deities and serpents. Abutting it is a colonial palace built by Britain a century ago in thanks for Gorkha soldiers who served in the Great War. The façade of this white, Romanesque elephant reveals most conspicuously the scars of the earthquake that happened two years ago; cracks glare through the white plaster and the walls are in a stunted tumble outward. The rows of collapsed balconies are poised at skewed angles, ready to fall. A whole story is missing from the top of the pagoda. Walls around the square are bowed in S shapes, miraculously still standing with help from braces and scaffolding. Whole temples disappeared to leave only a pedestal, standing empty.
What do we invest
In the everyday?
In the understanding
That around the corner
Life will appear as
Do we feel
That the places
We invest our spirit
Will protect us like a mother?
A lovely thought
But what if it tumbles
And in a cloud of dust
What is there to do?
With the people I have encountered in Nepal, I have found remarkable compassion. Nepal is a nation plagued by bad politics; bullied by expansionary imperial neighbors north and south; in utter disrepair from the earthquake in 2015; with streets and public works disregarded by the government; a capital city with black rivers and poor air; a country still recovering from a civil war. It is hospitable here because of the heart of the people.
Looking beyond Durbar Square, I can see the Langtang Peaks, gazing down at the urban oasis. The sight of their quiet presence brings me back to the weeks I spent in the mountains when I first arrived here.
I believe that a section of our hearts and our minds is shaped purely by the landscape. In Buddhism the virtues are linked to the sun, earth, air, sky, and water. Looking up at the pinnacles of Machha Puchhre and Numbur Himal, the holy peaks, this is no surprise. Their majesty instills at once a humble disposition and reminds us that we are but fleeting visitors on an earth itself growing and falling. The rivers, thousands of them, are arteries pumping life and power into the land as far afield as New Delhi, Kolkata, and Dhaka. This landscape—its majesty, its forbidding heights, landslides, avalanches, floods, earthquakes, high passes—has shaped a nation of hearty, reverent people.
My awe has come most in these past weeks. Rather than assign myself directly to a river, I decided to spend my days working with a group of papermakers in Kapan, a region in the northeast of Kathmandu that is home to a number of Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries. Kapan also abuts Boudhanath, an enormous stupa where thousands of people daily go to walk in circles around its glorious point, pray, and empty themselves.
The papermaking workshop is called Tibetan Handicraft & Paper. It began in 1995 as three cousins, Nimto Sherpa, Nima Sherpa, and Samten Lama, decided to create a business that would allow village people like themselves to sell paper at higher dollar. Instead of having to travel for days with a small load of paper to the city only to return from the expensive journey with little or no cash, the process and transport could be organized and made more efficient and more profitable. This was their motive, to help the people.
The business began with help from some American friends including Tom Leech, a dear family friend and my printing mentor. Tom is a prodigious papermaker and marbler, and he has been to Nepal and Tibet various times to make paper. He told me about Tibetan Handicraft with high regard for their good nature and generosity. One of Tom’s beautiful prints adorns the walls of a café next to the factory.
The paper for Tibetan Handicraft is mostly made in villages around Nepal. It is made with bark from the Lokta Plant, a bushy flowing thing that looks a bit like a mini rhododendron. After harvesting the Lokta, wait a few years and the one plant that was cut becomes five new plants. The bark is stripped and dried, then soaked, cooked, pounded, pulped, and made into sheets. The paper is phenomenal. It is very strong and it doesn’t dissociate in water so it can be dip dyed. Fine paper can be printed on with an ink jet printer, and the sheets have a wonderful deckled edge and very fibrous appearance.
After the paper is made, it is brought to Kathmandu for dying, printing, cutting, sorting, and so on. The Kathmandu facility employs nearly 100 skilled workers, primarily from discriminated castes and mostly women. In their hands the paper may become a box, a journal, a set of prayer flags, or take on a new life with silkscreened designs. The finished products are sold to clients mostly in Europe and North America.
The profits from the company are worked right back into the community. In 2006, after Samten Lama passed away, Nima and Nimto started Samten Memorial Educational Academy. Currently 410 students study there and many receive scholarships, including the children of the company’s employees. Nima and Nimto also support education in their home village east of the city and chair the Himalayan Regional Welfare Association.
Their humanitarian interest is really striking, and while it is extraordinary, it doesn’t seem uncommon here. Many of my Nepali friends, those I’ve met here and those I’ve known from the past, practice this spirit of giving and sharing.
In times when politics seem so spoiled and the news provides nothing but grief and worry, we must invest in each other. We are all family after all, somewhere down the line. Living with Porcia’s family, working in Kapan, making many new friends, I am reminded of how we find family, even when far from home.
It’s as though the void of the everyday
The spaces in between
Melt through the hallway rug
Melt through the kitchen table
Feeling certain we know
Everything about the other
Only to find out
We know nothing
The depth of human spirit
Are bathrobes and flipflops
Baring it all
Even the heart’s doldrums
As I prepare to leave Nepal for a long ski up the Torne River in Finland, I am left with a keen sense of the moral obligations I want to carry with me through my life. I want to hone my discipline and develop a thoughtful demeanor to approach situations as I have seen people here do—with care, resilience, patience, grace, hard work, and compassion. How can I do that? How can we do that?
Thank you again, for setting my feet walking.