I can't stop smiling as my plane sinks lower and lower toward the Kathmandu Valley, and the colorful multi-story buildings grow in density while the Himalayas glimmer in the background. It has been two years since I've been here last and so much has happened. I wonder if it will feel the same. Will the knitters and embroiderers that I have worked so hard to find and train still feel connected to this dream? Are they still excited about the work I can offer them? Do they still feel a level of trust in my abilities to keep things going? I will have to wait and find out.
After landing and deboarding on the tarmac, I ride by taxi to my rented room in the heart of the city, the one I keep returning to. It feels like a second home now – a safe, familiar place that offers all of the feelings that a proper home should. Tired and anxious for the day ahead, I soon climb into the large bed, surrounded by thin white sheets to deter any mosquitoes, and fall asleep, hardly able to believe that I have just traveled to the opposite side of the planet, alone.
The next morning begins early, and I throw open the windows to welcome in the smells of incense, the sounds of bustling traffic, and the sight of blooming Jacaranda treetops, heavy with purple flowers this time of year. Breakfast is brought up promptly at 8 am and it's much more than I can eat by myself. Fresh bread, cheese, homemade yogurt, juice, fruit, cereal. I gratefully feast.
Krishna, a kind 27-yr old father of two that I've come to rely on for safe transportation each visit, picks me up at 8:30 am sharp. We chat happily on the long drive up to the village where our makers live, catching up on the last few years. His son is now 6, he says, and his wife has given birth to a second son, now 18 months old. I beam – we have kids very close in age. We both shift into proud parent mode, trading phones back and forth while we share photos and videos of our offspring. Parents are the same the world over, I realize. We're all so darn proud of our little ones.
We bump along the steep dirt road for a good hour and a half, curious villagers stopping their hard work to stare at the strange woman driving off the beaten tourist path. I eye the road's edge nervously, a dramatic cliff, as we climb higher and higher, there is no guard rail to speak of and many spots of the road are wide enough for only one vehicle to pass. "Don't look down," Krishna warns, but of course I can't help it.
At long last we roll into "town" – I recognize it by the few shops at the entrance, followed by a sharp right turn. "We're here," I think. "We're really here." More curious stares from those we pass; this area sees few visitors. We stop so I can buy a handful of candy from a young teenager for my girls back home. Only 40 cents. Suddenly, I recognize a face that turns toward us as we pass. I shout at Krishna to stop and I wrestle the car window down to reach out and greet one of our knitters, Ram Kumari. Not speaking the same language, we can only communicate with laughs and giggles, and I can't seem to stop touching her arm, just to reassure myself that she is real. I offer her a ride the rest of the way, but she politely declines, telling Krishna she will come as soon as her morning chores are done. We drive on.
As we pull up to my manager Sara's home, I can barely wait for the car to stop before jumping out and bounding up the rocky path to the front door. She and her mother Shanti are waiting, with big smiles and big hugs. I'm sensing that maybe they are overwhelmed by my physical affections, but I don't let them off easy. I've simply come too far to allow anyone to escape a monster hug from an excited American.
The knitters slowly trickle in over the next few days, diligently following the schedule Sara and I have devised in an effort to be most productive and respectful of everyone's time. Each one is a happy reunion, an awkward hug, lots of touching from me. They are excited, but shy. Finally Chameli shows up. This is the one I've been waiting for. A year ago we were able to raise funds to provide a hospital birth experience for her and her second son. But the joy was soon followed by pain only a few short months later when her sweet boy passed away due to health complications. I often asked after her, and she's been close to my mind ever since I learned the news. I squeeze her extra tight now, somehow trying to take some of her lingering sadness away. But her eyes are happy, she is bravely continuing on despite the heartbreak.
We pause in our training for a delicious meal cooked by Shanti. She is a talented natural dyer, a pillar in her village of grit and hard work. It wasn't long ago that fellow villagers mocked her for wanting to start such a business – "You will make more money dyeing meat!" they jeered. But she ignored them all, and pulled herself out of poverty as they watched her new venture grow and even employ some of the doubters who humbly came asking for jobs months later. However today is all about the cooking. She happily bustles around the kitchen, clearly in her element, serving up an array of curried eggs, dal baat (rice with a lentil soup poured on top), some sort of cole slaw, and my favorite: cauliflower. I've been craving her cauliflower for two years and it's everything I remember it to be. I make a note to get the recipe this time.
The following days are a blur of endless knitting side by side on floor cushions (thoughtfully purchased by Sara), sharing photos of my kids (they are all intrigued by Ace's white blonde hair), and peppering each other with questions about each other's culture (I'm asked multiple times how long mothers breastfeed in the U.S.) It's a relief to find that yes, they are still excited about this opportunity, the trust is still intact. It's also pleasantly surprising to realize that our comfort with one another has deepened – questions that we may have initially been too timid to ask one another are now fair game and we fire away. We laugh at our language barrier, we laugh at our knitting mistakes, we laugh when we realize we are talking to each other in our own respective languages and nothing is getting across. Above all, we laugh.
The last day we decide to have a little party. A chance to just relax and one last chance to get any knitting conundrums resolved before my departure. They have requested meat (a rare treat) and I pitch in $15 which buys enough chicken for all 15 of us in attendance plus a few more husbands and family members who stop by at the end. I insist on a few public words of thanks, just to let them know that their work and commitment is so deeply meaningful to me. The words seem woefully inadequate, but I try my best to convey my gratitude in just a few sentences before we dive into the food.
The eating is endless. Shanti is circling the room with bowl after bowl for refills, practically forcing everyone to take just one more heaping spoonful. Just when I think I can't eat another bite, dessert is served. I've forgotten that Krishna made a special trip to a famous yogurt shop to buy delicious treats for us, topped with pomegranates and bananas. We all gorge ourselves on the stuff. Then, just for good measure, I pull out a few bags of mint chocolates and chocolate covered fruit I've brought from the U.S. The ladies' eyes grow wide and they shyly take a few to sample, but I'm keeping a close eye on the plate as it makes its way around the circle again...and again...and again. It doesn't take long to become empty, with the chocolate covered cherries declared the clear winner.
We move outside to take a group photo – Sara is insisting that we line up according to our last photo so we can compare how everyone has changed. I agree to this and everyone moves into position on the neighbor's porch, the only nearby spot where the sun isn't beating down on us and I can snap a decent photo. I have to remind them to smile and when I am still met with serious expressions, I put my camera down, give a huge cheesy smile and point to my mouth, shouting "TEETH!" They laugh, I start snapping.
Too soon, it is time to go. I'm exhausted, but I'm so hesitant to leave. How is it possible to feel like you belong on two opposite ends of the planet that could not be more different from the other? Again, I find myself touching everyone, squeezing arms, forcing hugs, hanging on to their presence. They shower me with farewell scarves and send me on my way. "Until next time, my sisters," I whisper under my breath as we make our bumpy descent. Yet again, Nepal has charmed me to the core and made me feel alive, like I am really here and I am really living.