Drawing the Line

The last time I posted about my life in the Peace Corps, I talked about the water scarcity situation in my village. How we often go days without the tap coming on. How sometimes we don’t have water to bathe, wash our hands or brush our teeth. And how this situation was impacting my physical and mental health and well-being, not to mention my work as an agriculture volunteer. I thought, however, that this was just a dry season challenge and that the monsoon would bring with it reliable access to water.

Turns out, I was very wrong.

Community Tap

The community tap (with no water, obviously)

When I returned to village in mid-July following a two-week Peace Corps training, it was clear there had not been reliable access to water while I was away. I wasn’t too worried at the time, however, because I had a 100 L barrel of water that I filled before I left for training and I was sure the tap would come on in the next few days. But it didn’t and the situation continued to deteriorate. Over the next two weeks, I was only able to access water once from our community tap.

Monsoon is officially from June-September and is critical for agriculture and recharging the groundwater table so communities have enough water to get through the rest of the year. July is, on average, the wettest month of the year. But this July was different. Despite it being peak monsoon season, the rains were few and far between and, at one point, stopped entirely, damaging crops. Of course, being a meteorologist, I knew this wasn’t normal and looked up the precipitation data for the region. Sure enough, what I had feared was correct, the Dipayal-Silgadhi region had seen significantly below average precipitation the past five months and July, in particular, only received half the average monthly precipitation. These numbers only confirmed the severity of the situation we were living in village.

Monthly weather data for Dipayal

This chart shows average monthly weather data for Dipayal, the district capital of Doti close to my village. As you can see, July is, on average, the rainiest month of the year with an average of 238.7 mm of rainfall. Source: Government of Nepal Department of Hydrology and Meteorology

Water Jug

This is a 15 L jug and I usually filled it to about 10 L in order to carry it uphill

After about a week, my barrel was empty and our community tap was still dry. At this point, my family and I (and the rest of my village) had to hike down into the valley to the last functioning tap in the area in order to get water to meet our basic needs. It took about 20 minutes to reach the tap, down a steep, treacherous trail through the jungle. Once there, we got in line with dozens of people and often had to wait a long time just to fill a jug. The hardest part, however, was hiking back up, straight up, with heavy jugs of water. It was slow and exhausting, easily taking 45+ minutes. I couldn’t carry more than 10 L (water is heavy, you know), which had to last me an entire day. And let me tell you, 10 L does not go far. I still couldn’t bathe and there were days I skipped meals to try to conserve water, just in case the tap down in the valley ran dry too.

After two weeks, our community tap finally came back on, although it usually didn’t last more than an hour, which isn’t long enough for 10 households to collect sufficient water. While I felt a great sense of relief being able to access water again, I never expected the sense of guilt that would come with it. Standing in that line at the tap, waiting to fill my jugs, I realized I was taking valuable, precious water from families who needed it much more than I did. Yes, I needed water to survive just like everyone else. But, I didn’t have to be there. I didn’t have to live in that village. I didn’t have to be an added strain on an already stressed water tap. I didn’t have to be taking water from this community.

And that’s where I drew the line.

It became clear that my existence in this community could potentially do more harm than good. Although I am quite familiar with water scarcity in the context of community development, I knew that I, alone, do not have the skills and resources to address this challenge, which was much larger than me, or anyone, for that matter. And despite trying to get my community on board with some potential water projects, such as rainwater harvesting, there was little to no interest. At that point, I knew I did not have enough to give that would justify me taking water from those families every day. I knew I had to leave.

With that being said, the water situation was not the only reason I left. It was just the final straw, the point in which I realized that I could not be effective in this community. I won’t go into details, but ever since I arrived in that village, I faced one challenge after another, some more significant than others, many leaving lasting impacts on me.

At this point, I asked to be moved to a different village, and to speak to a counselor to help me process everything that has happened in the last few months in a healthy way. I was flown to Kathmandu for unrelated medical reasons (which were quickly resolved) but ended up staying for three weeks, once again in limbo. While it was fun playing tourist and enjoying some luxuries, such as hot water, Wi-Fi and western food, it was also a time full of uncertainty as I worked with staff to try to sort out these issues.

Boudhanath

Enjoying some sights in Kathmandu

After many discussions, staff and I finally agreed on a new site in a neighboring district, which looks very promising. However, there was a lot of uncertainty regarding how long it would take to move me there, due to visa restrictions. At one point, we were talking 4-5 months, which made me question if it was even worth staying in the Peace Corps. However, in the end, staff said they could move me into that site within a few weeks. While this is definitely an improvement, I also realized I wasn’t quite ready to start over so soon. Understandably, I had a lot of anxiety thinking about moving to another village and completely starting over after such a rough few months in my first village.

While staff was figuring out my site transfer, I was working with the Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMOs) to arrange counseling sessions. While the PCMOs were great, this ended up being a really a frustrating process. Eventually, after about a month, I was finally able to talk to a counselor who listened and understood what I was saying. We both decided it would be best for me to come home for a few weeks and receive additional counseling while being surrounded by friends, family and the comforts of home. It will be an opportunity to take a step back from everything, gain some perspective and focus on taking care of myself, physically and mentally. Hopefully, I reach a point in the next few weeks where I feel prepared to return to Nepal and start this whole thing over again in a new village. But, if I don’t, then I  will cross that bridge when it comes.

Despite all the challenges of the past few months and the uncertainty of what lies ahead, there’s always a silver lining. I got the all-clear from Peace Corps Headquarters to travel home Friday morning (Nepal time) and was on a plane that evening. After 32 hours of traveling halfway across the world, I landed in Tennessee just 2 hours before one of my best friend’s wedding. I had been mentally preparing myself to miss this day for almost a year now, but it’s crazy how life works out like that.

Wedding

 

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