Submitted by Ben Ayers on Sat, 2010-11-20 08:55.
The monsoon rains arrived late this year and overstayed their welcome well into September. The rain just kept coming, flooding the streets of Kathmandu, grounding airline flights, and making nearly everyone edgy and irritable. I kept postponing my scheduled visit to the field, hoping to make it out once the rain stopped, but was eventually forced to bite the bullet, grab my favorite umbrella, and march reluctantly out into the rain.
The monsoons are a powerful and mystical thing. The countryside turns an eye-popping shade of green, and even the smallest rivulets turn into impassable rivers. The locals construct temporary bamboo bridges that sway and weave with every tiptoe as you cross, and are then swept away with each new flood. Travel is delayed constantly, often for days, due to flooding or landslides. In contrast to the torture and frustration the rains bring humans (especially, foreigners – namely, myself), the rice rejoices in the heat and the moisture. The rice paddies cover nearly every inch of available space in the lowlands near the rivers. They bleed across the main trails, forcing you to walk in and out of filthy irrigation ditches, and to balance along the tightrope edges of the terraces. Boots and shoes are a soggy and miserable option on the flooded trails, and during this past field visit I walked for nine long days in my bare feet and sandals.
As my travels took me away from the rice paddies and up towards the high ridges and pastures of the mid-hills, I was very much looking forward to walking on regular trails and crossing manageable-sized rivers. There would still be rain, but the day would end with cool evenings and warm cups of chhang.
Exit rice, enter leeches.
Leeches don’t like the heat, and prefer the highland forests and pastures of the mid-hills. They sense heat and stretch after you from low bushes, they crawl and squirm across the grasses, and drop off of tree branches onto your unsuspecting arms, head, and neck.
In just four days of walking between our target communities, thirty-seven leeches feasted upon my feet, ankles, and toes. I swallowed my childhood memories of the infamous leech scene in Stand By Me, and rejoiced in my fortitude and my toughness. I cried out with great enthusiasm each time I flicked, scraped, or tore off another squirming monster. I proved and re-proved that the leeches didn’t bother me a bit. I bragged and blustered. Then I realized that I was the only one counting.
And then the thirty-seven leech bites got infected.
Every time I travel into the field, I come back humbled, silent, and a little beat up. I realize now that, yet again, I have made some epic scenario out of what is just regular life for millions of people. While I was groaning and counting my leeches, my friends from the communities were talking about the intricacies of school construction techniques, the best cultivation methods for medicinal plants, and which local politicians were the most corrupt and how to exert pressure on them to do right. The leeches were just a background detail - another fact of life, as is maternal mortality, illness, and, in turn, the sunset exploding red and orange across the Himalayas each and every evening.
In this line of work it is all too easy to focus on the wrong things, and to miss the point entirely. It is so tempting to fixate on the immediate, the obvious, or the gross and, in doing so, missing the opportunity to listen to what is really going on, and what is really important.
This week, thanks to antibiotics, I can finally recognize my ankles again. The dozens of bites are no longer swollen and red, but you can still see the small punctures like freckles all across my feet. Each one is a reminder of how fortunate I am to experience all of this - to learn, and to be constantly humbled by people who are so much more wise, focused, and rugged than I will ever have the chance to be.