Notes from the field: jackfruit in the Himalayas

BY Bentley Kaplan ON 23 October 2015

Fieldwork is a great opportunity for C4 consultants to engage with those who benefit most from our projects – communities at project sites. As part of a mission for the SCCF-funded Ecosystem-based Adaptation through South-South Cooperation Project (EbA South) to assess the effects of the Gorkha earthquake, Bentley Kaplan surveyed community members in Lamjung District, Nepal. Below, Bentley recounts some of the highlights of his trip.

Just as Alice McClure (a C4 colleague) predicted, Nepali people – from the bustle of Kathmandu to the quiet hilltops in Lamjung – have been kind and welcoming. Moments are filled with humour as people laugh often and heartily. Much of my work has been in the rural areas of Chiti, Jita and Taksar and has involved interviewing community members about the effects of the earthquake on their houses, their livelihoods and their state of mind. Without exception, these interviews have taken place on each house's veranda – an unofficial communal area. Without requiring an explanation, people have welcomed Bishnu (my kind guide and translator) and me into their homes and invited us to Basnuus (sit down). During many interviews, neighbours would drift in and join the conversation and a constantly changing mishmash of geriatrics, youngsters and chickens would troop after us, chattering away as we moved from house to house.

Figure 1. The blog author

Figure 1. The blog author, Bentley Kaplan, an ecologist (who rapidly developed an appreciation for the complexity of structural engineering) on the far left with community members from Chiti VDC, Lamjung District.

Sadly, the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks have damaged houses considerably – nearly every house we visited will have to be demolished and a new one built in its place. The severity of earthquake damage was exacerbated by the age of houses – some were 70 years' old – and the use of building materials such as clay and stone. Despite my self-professed ignorance in structural engineering, my clipboard, pen and GPS accessory evidently projected an authoritative, knowledgeable veneer. With little variation, upon arriving at each household I would be required to conduct an external inspection while the owner explained the damage to my translator: "This man says that the house has twisted, the back wall is bending out and the roof has partially collapsed. They will need to demolish this house as it is extremely unsafe for people to be inside." And with a kindly gesture, "Please come inside and take pictures." I would then lean gingerly over the threshold with the plan of taking photographs from afar and then swiftly lean back into safety. This tentative approach was not appreciated by most homeowners and I would be urged – somewhat insistently – to "Please, please come in. Do not be scared. Climb up this ladder. There is damage there in the far corner – you can see the floor is collapsing. Please go and take pictures."

Despite facing an uncertain future, the villagers have been overly generous. I as offered a rich array of food and drinks, including dahi (yoghurt), sweetened black tea, buffalo milk, honey, sour oranges, dried pickled vegetables and bamboo curry. As I enjoyed each meal, I recalled vividly one of my first few days at C4. Upon learning that I was a vegetarian – Alice, in her direct, but well-meaning way – warned me that on mission, it might be difficult to avoid eating meat. Indeed, it was possible that a goat or sheep might be slaughtered to commemorate my visit and it would be rude to turn the resulting meat down. If I needed to gnaw on a piece of goat's knuckle, then I would just have to deal with it – being a part of the C4 team means being out of your comfort zone!

Figure 2. The feast from a slaughtered jackfruit.

So naturally it was only a matter of time until one of the interviewees asked if I was hungry and through my translator, I answered "Only a little". With a beaming smile, the interviewee picked up a rusty machete—unsettlingly close at hand – and took a sprightly walk around her house. I sat there in quiet anticipation, knowing that somewhere in the peaceful afternoon, a baby goat or something similarly unsuspecting had met a sudden and enthusiastic end. I steeled myself for some cartilage gnawing and bone crunching. Minutes later, my host emerged triumphant and tossed the weighty carcass at my feet...... That poor jackfruit just never saw it coming.