Nepal Week 2: Births, Deaths and the Bits In-between

3 Nov

In my early twenties I spent a couple of years working as an undertaker in South London. I was struck pretty early on by the contrast between the shear scale of the funeral industry (people will not stop dying) and its virtual invisibility. I had never seen a dead body before I started working there, and I don’t think this experience is particularly unusual. Funeral operatives have become masters of stealth, Men and Women in Black who slide around the peripheries of your awareness in unmarked vans, discretely ferrying the Recently-Departed from A to B, so that the Still Here can carry on their normal lives, unmolested by that most inconvenient truth of all: everybody carks it. Death really gets in the way of our plans, doesn’t it? So we don’t like to talk about it and we certainly don’t like to see it.

Things are different in Nepal. Here, death is something we’ve all been through many, many times before and each death is but a linkage point in an almost infinitely long chain of reincarnations. So death is visible, open–welcomed even–and inextricably woven into everybody’s everyday experience. It is certainly nothing to be feared, and this perhaps goes some way to explaining the atmosphere we encountered when we visited a Nepalese old folks home, at the start of our second week of placement.

The home was in Devghat, one of the holiest of Hindu sites, situated at the conflux of two holy, roiling rivers . The holiest part of this holy town is reached by crossing a wholly terrifying suspension footbridge. But vertigo aside, there was a beautifully calm feeling about this place. Everyone we passed seemed to be very old and very smiley, and all were dressed in the most optimistic shades of orange. When we arrived at our destination we were shown around to a backyard area. Plastic chairs were brought out and lined up, and hey presto!.. we had a clinic. Gradually, our bright-eyed, spritely new friends began to emerge.

And what a gang they were… sometimes, only pictures will do a thing justice, so I refer you to these, taken by my good friend Elsa, with her excellent camera and even better eye:

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Interspersed between dancing, hugging, eating and bicep-flexing, we managed to do a bit of nursing. But really, apart from some general aches and pains and a few athlete’s feet, there wasn’t a whole heap wrong with this crowd. In contrast to my previous experiences of nursing homes, I was amazed to find that everybody was apparently quite happy–not to mention ambulant, self-caring and (most refreshingly), continent. In fact, the whole experience was as much of an enriching tonic for us as it was for our hosts, and I, for one, skipped out of the building at the end of our visit feeling 10 years younger. (On our way back through the town even I stocked up on orange clothing, in the rather optimistic hope that it might help me secure a long and happy life).

We recrossed the mighty grey rivers by boat, passing the point, at the convergence of the two, where the dead are cremated and sent on their final voyage downstream. And if we follow the logic of reincarnation, then the immaterial, immutable essences that formerly animated the burning bodies set adrift here, will now, reembodied, be journeying down smaller, darker waterways as they are squeezed and coaxed into being born anew. Little did we know that the very next day, we would be lucky enough to witness this moment, not once but twice, as our adventures took us to the other end of the mortal coil…

Previously, during our stay in the mountains, we had had the pleasure of working alongside a very gentle and knowledgable obstetrician, who told us that before we left Nepal, he would love to show us around his hospital. The opportunity came the day after our visit to Devghat, and our friend was good to his word. Having placed his long queue of patients on indefinite hold, he led us off through the corridors, wards and departments of this heaving, hot and slightly oppressive public hospital, patiently answering our questions as he went. The last stop on the tour was Maternity. Here, we passed by a series of rooms, each containing women in progressively more advanced stages of labour, until, at the end of the corridor, we were ushered through a door on the left and into the Birthing Room. In this bright, concrete space, as curtains gently billowed in the warm breeze, giving passers-by a fleeting but candid view of proceedings, three women were reclined, legs in stirrups, actively, well… birthing. And so it was that before our very (wide) eyes, two new human beings popped into existence within the space of five minutes. Whilst obviously a routine occurrence for most people in this room, which typically stages around 60 births a day, for myself and some of the other uninitiated among us, this brief episode was as profound as it was unexpected. If I had hair, it would have been standing on end. I do have eyes, and to my surprise, when I blinked at last, I found they were leaking.

Having passed Monday with the Soon-to-be-Departed and Tuesday with the Newly-Hatched, we spent the rest of the week with humans who were somewhere on the road in-between. On Wednesday we were hosted by Raj and Kushab at the farmstead where they had grown up. Here, in response to the number of burns injuries we had seen in the mountains, we split into groups and had a go at making simple clay ovens; something people might be able to build in their homes instead of having open fires, into which it is all too easy to fall.

The huge diversity of experiences available within the nursing profession has always been one of its major appeals for me, but still, I never imagined that one fine day I’d be mashing up cow shit, mud and water with my bare hands, in the name of preventative healthcare. It was fun. An atmosphere of friendly–but nonetheless genuine–competitiveness pervaded proceedings as we broke off into our respective teams. I wish I could tell you that with the combined intelligence and ingenuity at their disposal, the two Melbourne Uni teams were able to revolutionise Nepalese cooking practices forever. Alas, the efforts of my team in particular, whilst admittedly more conceptual than practical, were broadly met with blank incomprehension, followed by great general amusement. We called our visionary creation the BamPoo Oven, in honour of its two chief construction materials: bamboo and poo. Despite the widespread skepticism of our colleagues, once the bamboo had burned away and the poo had hardened a little, we did manage to perch a cooking vessel on top of the oven and bring a small amount of water to the boil. But yeah, perhaps not a design classic.

On the other side of the farmyard, Raj and Kushab had teamed up with some Dutch volunteers and built this seriously impressive, fiery-eyed, double-stove topped affair:

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Having come up with a design that actually works, their team won and to celebrate, we all quaffed beer and barbecued chickens under the shade of the lychee trees. I spied my chance and grabbed a quick photo with Raj and Kushab, legends that they are.

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The final week was winding up, and the following morning we drove out to the next province along from Chitwan and there, in the blazing heat, we staged our last health camp with an excitable horde of 100 or so children. Standing knee-deep in a river, we went through hand-hygiene and toothbrushing, before performing an en-mass de-headlousing operation with combs, river water and a powerful brew of pulped raw mustard seeds. Here, we can see our friend Duane (another legend), gamely demonstrating the procedure and smiling throughout, despite having an excruciatingly stingy, mustard-clogged scalp.

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After this was done we set up another makeshift clinic and, feeling exceedingly nursey by now, did our best to deal with whatever was presented to us. Despite being without doctors this time, we put our heads together and had a pretty good session. It was an enjoyable, confidence-boosting end to an extraordinary placement, and I’ll say now that I couldn’t imagine a finer bunch of soon-to-be nurses to have shared it with.

And so we came to our final night together, with half the team heading off trekking and the rest of us sloping back to Katmandu the following morning. There was beer, a barbecue and an appropriately flamboyant/downright-drunken dance-off of between us and our infinitely more coordinated hosts. I think I may have pulled out the Angus Young scissor-kick dance more times than was strictly necessary, but it was that kind of a night. For Kerrie, our clinical educator/surrogate mother/all round magical person, we sang a  song we had been working on- “Nursing Queen”, sung to the tune of “Dancing Queen”. It made her cry, in a good way.

Goodbyes aren’t much fun, and neither is writing about them, so we’ll just skip ahead to the present. Assignments finished, job secured for next year and another exciting trip just around the corner, I have to say that life is passing through a pretty peachy patch at the moment. Plans are already being formulated for a return to Nepal, this time with Jess, hopefully early in 2019. In the meantime, I will endeavour to keep you informed of exciting/disturbing/amusing happenings, as and when they occur.

All the very best,

 

Hen x

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