An uninvited roommate and a growing sample size

Once again I am back at my little sanctuary in the village Sobru, by Okhaldhunga community hospital. I have just finished cleaning my room thoroughly. I have these rats on my tarpaulin and wood ceiling and I thought we had an agreement, I live down here and they live up there and we stay out of each other’s businesses. I was wrong… In her defense, she may have thought my room was permanently vacated. Anyway, when I came back last night, exhausted as usual and anticipating a good night’s sleep in my own (sort of…) bed, a rat had made my bed her new home. She had taken the liberty of pulling stuffing out of my cover and created a nice fluffy den under the covers. She had also made a brand new entrance to the room, though it is a bit on the small side for me.

It seems neither of us are too keen on having a roommate, the rat has stayed away all day and I have been guarding my territory, only leaving to eat. I have also closed off her new entrance. Not that there aren’t several alternative ways in. I am hoping she dislikes the smell of Dettol. I do, but prefer it to having rats in my bed. We shall see who wins the battle over the room.

My assistant and I have now completed interviewing in our third area. Unfortunately for me, though not for the children in that area, the prevalence of malnutrition was low. Very low compared to the other two areas and compared to Nepali data from the whole district. As my sample size is based on the prevalence of malnutrition this means I have to increase my sample size. Something I don’t really have time for as my visa expires on December 1st. Though I will come back in January, when I can get a new visa, if I have to. This has been way too much hard work to not see it through and get the data I need. I didn’t climb all these hills to end up with an underpowered study! No way.

There are so many new impressions when you see new ways of living and meet so many people. I must say I am deeply appreciative of all the choices I have been able to make in my life and will be able to make in the future. So many of us here in this world, especially women, have so few choices to make, so few options. If I were to pick one thing in my life I am grateful for it is the freedom to choose. I met this 20-year-old mother of two in an abusive relationship. Divorce is not an option as she would have nowhere to go, death is not an option as she does not want to leave her daughters behind. So this is pretty much it, this is her life. She is so young and yet her life is so settled, a life she did not choose. A hard life where she is beaten and mistreated. Her story is not unique.

Now two days of rest and then off again climbing more hills and meeting more families.


Sherpas, tea and leaches

For the two last days we’ve been in an area where most of the people belong to the Sherpa caste. It’s a poor area and the standard of living is simple. I really liked it there because people were so nice and hospitable, it was really a pleasure to visit. We had bucket loads of tea and were fed cucumbers and potatoes in heaps. The first day when they found out we hadn’t eaten lunch, a family cooked us dal baht (rice, lentils and vegetables). There was just no stopping them. Here I come, a comparatively rich westerner, to this area with food shortages and poverty, and they worry about ME being hungry?! I guess they know what it feels like to be hungry. Such wonderfully sweet people. For the record, I gave them money for the food when I left. I do try to take care not to be a burden to the communities I visit, I know they work hard for their food.

I have had to redefine my definition of what constitutes a steep hill. Sometimes I think I am not going to make it to whatever village we are aiming for, or even the next house! I don’t think I have ever spent so much time being out of breathe ever! I guess the altitude of about 2000 meters above sea-level isn’t helping either. Half the time I’m so exhausted I can’t even muster the energy to care about the leaches. Speaking of leaches, on my first day in the hills I was asking what they looked like and soon after a young man said “sister” and pointed to my ankle, and what do you know, there I could see what a leach looks like firsthand, while it was stuffing itself with my blood. Actually I feel like a walking blood bank up here, so many little creatures are helping themselves to what I used to consider MY blood.

Sometimes it is frustrating to hear stories and meet suffering people whom you can not help, so it is very nice when you can actually make a difference to someone here and now. One malnourished girl I referred to the hospital was brought in by her mother the next day and admitted to the nutrition unit. She has now been here for a week and is gaining weight and becoming more energetic. It’s a nice when field research isn’t just something abstract that is supposed to benefit people in general and in the long run, but also directly helps those who contribute to our gathering of knowledge.

Finally in Okhaldhunga!

I have finally reached Okhaldhunga district! I’m in a small village 45 minutes from the main hub (another village) in the district. By foot that is, which is sort of how you get around here, even if it takes several days to reach your destination. So far I love it out here. I guess I’m not so much of a city girl, I tend to like the more rural settings regardless of where I am. Here it is quiet and very green and we are surrounded by huge hills and steep hillsides with little houses clinging to them.

So far it is all about meeting people and planning and talking and things take time, which is fine. I mean it’s not like I didn’t want to finish in December, but it is what it is and I’m fine working here longer if that’s what it takes.

Plans have sort of slightly changed (they always do right?) and my research assistant and I will not as planned be based here in the village with the hospital but walk from village to village and only come back here every few weeks. That is quite a change as life here is fairly comfortable. I have even gotten my own desk at the hospital! Almost sad to leave it, a bit attached to the one spot in my new world that is sort of mine!

Few people who come here to do research go into the villages, they are usually based at the hospital. The people who have attempted village stays, well, there are failure stories about them and everyone loves to share those stories with us. Like the young man from Kathmandu who couldn’t take the bugs sucking his blood or the foreign woman who didn’t even last two days in rural poverty. My plan is to not become one of those stories! I’m sure they were equally optimistic when they set out though, my only hope it that I am more stubborn. I am know to be fairly stubborn, cross your fingers it’s enough!

We really don’t have much choice, walking 4-5 hours to reach a village, then work a full day, just to walk 4-5 hours back, there just aren’t enough hours in a day. Also, we need daylight to walk. This new plan means my blogposts will be few and far between… I’m not bringing the computer hiking all over, and besides, there’s not a lot of electricity anyway…

By the way, I have seen a huge, almost beautiful, spider! Yes you read correctly, I used beautiful and spider in the same sentence, unbelievable huh? The spider is bright yellow and black-striped. I really do hate spiders but if you happen to be such a frightening creature, I find it highly sympathetic of you to be stationary or preferably completely motionless. Mr Yellowback hasn’t moved an inch in a week and though I do not like him, I do appreciate that courtesy.


So how is my fieldwork and data collection coming along? Well, it isn’t… I’m waiting, sort of on stand-by, ready to leave for Okhaldhunga as soon as I can. First I was sick, then the hospital director at Okhaldhunga Community Hospital isn’t currently in Okhaldhunga, and he is my contact person. My only contact person there. So now we wait… I do have some good news though, I have finally acquired a length board, yay! Also, I still don’t have cholera even though the newspaper said 3 days ago that the outbreak had now spread to my neighborhood. Thrilled to not have cholera! (Doing my best to focus on the positive…)

Finding yourself in a new setting sometimes make you see things from a different perspective and ask yourself new questions. I have asked questions I have never asked before. Like is it a good thing to have a gecko in your closet? Does it eat spiders? Will it leave gecko-poo all over my clothes? I have never previously considered the diet or the digestive functions of geckos… My conclusion: The gecko can stay. I really do hate spiders… I am also considering my relationship to time. Should I care less about time or should I take greater care not to waste it? Probably both. I should probably care less about time as something that is running out and something that is working against me, and take more care not to waste the moments that make up time. Since I can’t really do anything about this waiting situation I am currently in, I’ve decided not to be stressed about it, and just go with whatever happens.

So, for now, I’ll just stay here I Kathmandu and continue my new little life here. Getting by in Kathmandu is easy as most people speak English fairly well. I love meeting the schoolchildren on their way home, they are simply adorable and often make use of the chance to talk to a foreigner and the standard is “Hello, how are you?” and then sometimes the follow-up “I’m fine, where do you live?” Then they giggle and move on. One day I walked through a different neighborhood than I usually do and it was right around the time school finishes. A 9-10 year old girl in a school uniform starts to speak and I expect the usual, but out comes “Hello sugarbaby, you beautiful girl”. Well, that was new. She must be learning her English from quite a different source than the majority of the kids… But hey, I don’t get called beautiful that often, and, nearing 40, I don’t get referred to as a girl very often either.

On being all new

I love traveling, but what I love even more is trying out living in a totally different setting from my normal life. Though it’s challenging, sometimes very challenging, and when you add fieldwork to it, well, it’s almost too much. There is a quote saying “life begins at the end of your comfort zone” and I like that quote, it makes me feel a bit better out here, far from my comfort zone. More than once have I sat on a plane going somewhere new and asked myself “WHY do I do this to myself?” One month into fieldwork here in Nepal I believe I have asked myself this a hundred times. Though in between asking that, there are those awesome moments when I absolutely love it, like when I figure out how to do something, when people understand me, when I laugh with new friends, when I take the right bus or when the shopkeeper understands my brand new, broken and mispronounced Nepali language. Most of all I love it when I start to feel a bit at home and in place. On week six I ask the question of “why” less frequently.

I have now created new routines here in Kathmandu. I eat different foods, washing is different (whether it’s myself, laundry or dishes), power is out 7-8 hours a day, shopping is different and public transport is certainly different. Yet it all starts to feel familiar and function smoothly. This is my favorite feeling of short or long term living abroad, the feeling of having figured it out and doing just fine. Also, how nice it is with a bit of change!

Of course, falling asleep to the neighbors’ daily Bollywood movie took some getting used to. If you are not familiar with Bollywood movies I’ll give you a quick introduction. Though I have never actually SEEN one, I consider myself quite familiar with them. There is always shooting, though it sounds different from shooting in American movies, more like “puff puff”. Fist fighting is mandatory, as is women screaming at regular intervals, sometimes from distress and sometimes from jealousy. It’s topped off with Indian music and I picture beautiful women dancing and some romance to go with that. At first I did not find this soundtrack to be the least bit suitable as a lullaby, but when one evening after three weeks it was not on, I felt something was wrong and it was eerily quiet. I might have to bring a Bollywood soundtrack with me home to Norway!