Don Looks Back: From Alaska to The Nepal Valley

Features Issue 31 Aug, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai / Photo: BE DBM

In 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy, who later became President asked American university students to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. That gave birth to what became known as the Peace Corps. These volunteers who first came to Nepal were probably the first foreigners to mingle with local villagers here, which is perhaps why even today, white skinned people are called “Umrikan” in the villages. In 1963, a graduate from the University of Alaska joined the Peace Corps and arrived in Nepal to work in rural development. His name was Don Messerschmidt.

Donald Alan Messerschmidt was born on December 16th, 1940, in Juneau, Alaska, the northernmost and largest state of the USA. He was born into a family of bakers, and lived his youth in the outdoors pursuing hunting, fishing and photography. After graduating from the University of Alaska, at the age of 22 he opted to travel to a world far removed from the vast expanses of America he called home.

Today, Don resides in Ekanta Kuna and finding his house the first time was tricky. We lost our way, called him on his mobile and finally found the narrow hidden lane that leads to his house. We went in, but the road descended to Ring Road. Just as we gave up, I turned and saw Don’s big gate, and beyond it Don, himself, attending to his flowers. He is a six-footer, hard to miss. He ushered us in saying “Aaunuhos” and over tea and delicious cookies recounted his life in Nepal in his easy-going, relaxed manner.

When he first came, Don and other volunteers flew through London to Delhi on a Pan American Airlines (remember?) jet, then on to Kathmandu’s Gaucharan Airport aboard a DC-3. The tiny airport building that Don remembers with the altitude of Kathmandu written on it, was a far cry from today’s Tribhuwan International Airport. They were driven through what he perceived as a medieval city to Narayan Bhawan, an old Rana Palace which today houses the Mahila Bikas Kendra Office, in Jawalakhel. The volunteers were housed for a week in a room that, they were told, was once occupied by harem girls!

Don and the other volunteers were soon on their way for a short, in-country training in Chitwan. He remembers that unlike today, there were no trees in Chitwan. It was just after the massive malaria eradication program was deemed a success and all the trees had been cut down to make room for the new settlers pouring into the area. Upon completion of his training, Don was assigned work in the mid-hills at Kunchha, Lamjung. After driving back to Kathmandu, he made another trip in a DC-3, this time to Pokhara. Then, with two other volunteers, he walked three days to reach his posting.

It was in the villages of Lamjung that Don first got to speak the Nepali he had been taught earlier. Don reflects, “Our Nepali language instructor absolutely forbade us from speaking English at the dinner table. That was a great way of learning the language, because you needed to know the Nepali word to be served or passed anything like salt or bread. If you didn’t know the word, you simply didn’t get what you wanted.” Since few people spoke English in Lamjung, his language proficiency grew quickly.

Don remembers the postman who sometimes delivered mail to that remote area. He wore a loincloth, a singlet and sandals, and carried a spear and a bell. Delivering the mail along Nepal’s mid-hills hulaki bato (postal trail) was one of the most hazardous jobs, as it required negotiating trails through jungles crawling with wild animals. The bell would frighten away most of the scary creatures and the spear could take care of the rest.

During the winter of ’63, Nepal suffered a devastating smallpox epidemic. At the request of villagers through the local Panchayat Development office, Don and his co-worker, Bruce Morrison, offered their help. During the epidemic, Don and Bruce secured vaccines from the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and then set up a series of vaccination camps. With the help of Nepali staff and two foreign travelers who happened by, they vaccinated 25,000 people, mostly children. It was an achievement which Don is quite proud of.

Several times a year, Don and Bruce traveled in to Kathmandu, sometimes on foot, sometimes by DC-3 from Pokhara. “Back in the ’60s Kathmandu was a very quiet place,” Don remembers, “The roads were narrow and the major mode of transport for PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) was rented bicycles and rickshaws. I think at times there were more cows on the streets than cars. Putali Sadak was so named because it had trees and was full of butterflies.” He adds, “Once I rode on a city bus, and made the mistake (in those days) of sitting next to a woman. The bus driver stopped the bus, and after some explaining about the impropriety of it, I had to move.”

Life in Kathmandu then was vastly different from what it is today. Most of the expatriates would frequent the Royal Hotel at Kanti Path (today it houses the Election Commission Office), which was run by the flamboyant Russian entrepreneur named Boris Lissanevitch. Don would go there occasionally and sit around the chimney of the Yak & Yeti Bar (the famous chimney is now at the Chimney Restaurant, Hotel Yak & Yeti). There would be Inger, Boris’ wife mingling with guests like Prince Basundhara and Barbara Adams, Father Moran, various mountaineers including Sir Edmund Hillary and many others. Boris would recount endless tales to entertain his customers.

The only post office was at Bhotahiti, and the only book store selling English books was Ratna Pustak Bhandar also at Bhotahiti. Don recalls, “We PCVs were attracted to Tibetan refugee culture, and often sought out Tibetan mo-mo and thukpa shops. One that was very popular was in a dark side-alley near the old Post Office. There, we met a Tibetan Khampa who had fought the Chinese before fleeing to Nepal. I remember him pulling up his shirt to show us all his bullet wounds, which he got as he was trying to escape the enemy...”

Reminiscing on the old days, Don talks of Mr. Wong who owned Peace Restaurant, “Sometime in the middle to late 1960s, Mr. Wong (who originally had a Chinese restaurant about where the Nanglo Bakery is on Durbar Marg) opened the ‘Peace Restaurant’ near the Peace Corps Office in Lazimpat. ‘Chez Wong’ was very popular among PCVs. We held many a grand bhoj at his Peace Restaurant. The Peace Corps office and the dormitory were in Lazimpat in those days, where the Toyota Company used to have its office, just up north from the Shanker Hotel.” The restaurant later moved further north and became known as ‘Wong’s Kitchen’.

After leaving the Peace Corps, Don briefly returned to the states to finish his teacher certification, then bounced back to Nepal. Don recalls, “Between 1965 and ’67, I taught at Lincoln School - in those days it was only class 1 through 8, plus a kindergarten. I taught social studies, ran the library, headed up the Boy Scouts, taught physical education, and a few other classes. I also led the first Lincoln School trek with some of the older boys. We flew to Gorkha (to Paluntar airport, this was before the road), and then walked the hulaki bato to Pokhara. What an adventure!”

Lamjung Revisited
After 1967, Don returned to the United States where he met and married his wife, Kareen, and began his graduate studies in Anthropology. For his PhD dissertation, he chose to return to Lamjung District. “Kareen, my wife, came out with me then,” he says. “We lived for a year in a remote Lekhali Gurung village (in Durgam Chhetra – in the remote northern part of the district) where I did my PhD dissertation research on Gurung society and culture.” His dissertation was subsequently published as Gurungs of Nepal: Conflict and Change in a Village Society in 1996 by Aris & Phillips, UK.

One day in the village, Kareen had done the laundry, and hung the clothes out on a line to dry. Immediately, a delegation of Gurung village elders came to Don to insist that he tell her to take the clothes down. Their flapping around in the wind only attracted hail storms, they said, and hail storms destroyed the field crops. “After that”, he says, “We dried our clothes on rocks to be sure we weren’t blamed for crop failure!”

Back and Forth
In 1968 Don returned to the US for graduate studies in Anthropology, at the University of Oregon. He already had a Bachelors Degree in Education from the University of Alaska. After completing his PhD studies in 1974, Don worked in many different places in the USA. Then in 1980, he came back to Nepal briefly on assignment with the National Academy of Sciences, with a high level team looking into natural resource development. He was recruited at that time and asked to return in the fall. He brought his whole family back with him – his wife Kareen, and their daughter, Liesl, and son, Hans. The children were quite young and attended Lincoln School, while Don worked as a Social Scientist for the Resource Conservation and Utilization Project (RCUP), funded by USAID and run through the Soil Conservation and Watershed Management Department. Don spent a lot of time, then, out in the three districts of the project - Gorkha, Myagdi and Mustang, but also frequently revisited his many friends in Lamjung.

Kareen has a Masters Degree in Music from the University of Oregon. An accomplished pianist, pipe organist, and choir conductor, she is also a business-woman currently living in Vancouver, Washington (near Portland, Oregon). In 1983, while living in Kathmandu, she founded the ‘Kathmandu Chorale’ of expatriate singers, and later a few Nepalis - two of her finest Nepali singers were raised in London, the daughters of a Gurung Lahure officer. Her most famous concert was Mozart’s Requiem, celebrating the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death. It was held in City Hall, and was a spectacular production. Kareen also worked with the amateur theatre group - HAMS. ‘Himalayan Amateurs’. She was musical director on several musical plays, including ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and ‘Pirates of Penzance’. These musical productions were very popular in Kathmandu. They always drew large crowds and featured some of the most talented expatriates and Nepalis in town.

Don sometimes goes back to Lamjung and has taken his children, as well as university students, to visit old friends. He remembers those early days when the village people treated them like royalty and took no money for food and shelter. The Thakali people they met along the trails were also extremely hospitable. In Kunchha, Don taught English to Mangal Singh Thakali, whose mother ran a trailside bhatti inn each winter. The boy later went to a high school in Pokhara, and was recruited into the Royal Nepal Army. Twenty years later he was one of the top Nepali helicopter pilots and personally chauffeured the king around the country. Also while in Kunchha, he taught English to a young man who then won a scholarship to the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. He studied hydrologic engineering, and later became one of UNICEF’s chief water engineers in South Asia. “We made a difference to some people’s lives,” says Don, and that means more than anything else to him.

While here doing his PhD field research, Don also studied the Thakali custom known as Dhukuti, a sort of rotating credit association. The members of a Dhukuti group pool a certain amount of money which is shared from one to another over a period of time for purposes of investment — “an informal version of a bank loan,” he says. Another time, Don studied the Hindu pilgrimage to Muktinath, describing the Brahmin ritual of changing the sacred thread (janai) on the Full Moon Day (purnima) in August. He has published this study in an international journal, and as a small booklet that is still available in local bookstores.

One summer, in the mid-1980s, Don came out to Nepal to spend several months at Godavari and in Kathmandu, researching the life of Father Moran, who was invited by King Tribhuwan (King Gyanendra’s grandfather) to open an English school in Kathmandu. Father Moran established St. Xavier’s School at Godavari in 1951 and went on to help set up St. Mary’s on the outskirts of Patan. After ten years of research, Don completed his biography of the priest and educator, entitled “Moran of Kathmandu”, which can be found in Kathmandu bookstores. This was his first venture into non-academic writing.

Don is now a well-known author. His second popular book, on the life of the Nepali writer, artist and art historian Lain Singh Bangdel, was launched early this year in Kathmandu. It is entitled ‘Against the Current’ and published by Orchid Press, Bangkok. Don spent another ten years researching this book, taking great pains to learn all about Bangdel’s life starting with his humble beginnings at a tea estate in Darjeeling, then his life in Calcutta as a student and the glory days as a poor art student in Paris. Don also visited Darjeeling to understand the kind of life Bangdel led as a boy and read a great deal about art and art history so he could understand the depths of Bangdel’s paintings and scholarship. He spent countless hours talking to the artist, and is grateful for the help given by Dina, Lain’s daughter, and Manu, Lain’s wife.

Don’s own daughter Liesl lives in Nepal and was on hand to introduce her father at the Bangdel book launch. She works as a consultant in public health. Don’s son Hans is a graphic artist and lives in Portland, Oregon. As a development consultant, Don leads a busy life and has contracts running up to 2009. He has worked with a large number of organizations in Pakistan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Belize, Canada and rural USA, besides Nepal. The little spare time that he can find, he spends writing books, and is now considering what to write next. Meanwhile, his wife Kareen is making plans to move to Nepal.

Don says, “I came to enjoy life in Nepal so much that I made it the center point of my life as a cultural anthropologist, researcher, teacher and development consultant.” Don is at home in Nepal. Having spent most of forty years of his life in this country, it is only natural.