From the dawn-laced window of my hotel room on a hilltop on the outskirts of Bhaktapur, the seat of one of the ancient kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley, the skies are hazy from the many smokestacks of brick making operations. With the sun rising behind them in the distance, I find it peculiar how something which can appear so post-apocalyptic can also somehow be so beautiful. Drawn by this particular crystalization of beauty, I left the hotel, worked my way down some terraced farming plots, and ventured forth. With a sense of treading into something secretive, something private, I sheepishly entered one of the brick making grounds. In my estimation, the operation covers about 15 acres, with drying bricks stacked throughout into makeshift walls, creating the appearance of fenced in yards.
As I entered, I stood for awhile near where a man was forming bricks from mud. The process is simple, but mindlessly repetitive. A brick forming box is first dusted and then filled with a hunk of wet clay. The box is bounced on the ground to settle the mud, a wire is drawn over the top to remove excess clay, and the brick is flipped out to lie in the sun – over and over, day in and day out. The pay is piecework with brick makers earning 1 rupee (approx 1cent) per brick. I’m told that every other day is spent moving and stacking bricks which does not come with additional compensation. Each fenced in “yard,” of which there were perhaps 40, appeared to be the domain of one or two brick makers.
I continued onward to where the brick firing operation takes place. While I couldn’t see the bricks that were baking underground, I did come upon a place where about 20 men, women and even some children were unearthing the now-orange-tinted bricks and carrying them to the back of a truck. They were then unloaded, accounted for, and then reburdened upon a separate set of carriers for further stacking elsewhere. I’m guessing that the people on the brick cooking side were of a different caste or from a different area as they were generally darker skinned and carried bricks on their heads, as opposed to those stacking bricks who supported the weight of their bricks over their backs with straps around their forehead.
I experienced a broad range of emotions while there including fear, shame, guilt, and acute sadness. At one point I felt an energy in my body, so I stood for awhile and paid attention. It felt like my body, especially around my chest and shoulders was trying to break upward and outward through it’s own skin. I followed that sense of expansion and realized that my body was exhibiting a desire to “save” all of these people, to grow to superhuman strength and swoop them up and drop them off into a better life, somewhere beautiful with a farm and health care and education, where they could live more gently in idyllic surroundings.
Before too long, a foreman of sorts called me over to talk. I quickly swapped out the memory card on my camera just in case he asked for my pictures. When I got there he asked why I was taking pictures. I told him, quite honestly, that “Where I come from, in America, people generally don’t work so hard, and I think I’m just trying to understand, to make sense of what I see here. This is not easy work.” Although he never acted pleasantly toward me, I think he was glad that I wasn’t a journalist. “No, not easy,” he said and added after a lengthy thoughtful pause, “You can go.” “Go and take more pictures?” I queried, and he replied “No, just go.”
I returned to my hotel, ate breakfast and learned more about the brick making operation from some of the staff. I had thought I would go back out and explore Bhaktapur some more, but it was clear that I needed simply to rest and integrate what I had seen and experienced. From here in my room, I can see eight smokestacks all perfuming the sky with the scent of human toil. While I sit here, emotionally exhausted, in the comfort of my room with my pressing question being whether I should open the windows or continue on with the heater, perhaps 800 people are toiling making bricks within a few miles. It’s difficult enough for me to empathize with some of the individual lives I came in contact with earlier today, but I can’t begin to let in the idea that locally, this toil is happening on eight times the scale that I witnessed this morning, and perhaps in various way on a million times the scale throughout the rest of the world.
Why is one life, my life in particular, so blessed, while others’ lives are fraught with so much difficulty? It is very hard to take in. I think that sense of expansion I felt earlier today was also, in a way, my body trying to make space to allow a new understanding to reside within me. These are not just stories to read about, they are lives, human lives. Lives who also made the piles of feces that I managed to not step in, lives whose bodies are primarily valued for the physical labor they provide, lives who live in homes of stacked unmortared drying bricks, lives with human stories uniquely their own.
While walking through Bhaktapur the evening before and again toay through this encampment, I found myself singing a poignantly rebellious song by Oscar Brown, Jr. called “Excuse Me for Livin’.”
Home was a shack with no paint,
Quality folk call it ‘quaint,’
But when you gotta live there it ain’t,
I didn’t leave home, I was driven,
Excuse Me for Livin’.
Something seems to be cracking open in me. I’ve never really known how to let in the suffering of another person. I remember feeling relatively unaffected after the 9-11 attacks, and the same after reading of suicide bombings, school shootings, wars and other great human tragedies. The defenses of my particular mind seem to be very good at keeping out the suffering of others. When I walk through places such as this and see for myself, see the people themselves, interact with them face to face, the stories transform into actual lives and the challenges they face become personalized. It becomes much more difficult to not be affected.
Although I understand that brick making people here are choosing this work, it would be silly not to recognize that the choices available to them are likely dismally minimal. They migrate for their work, coming to do this work from all over Nepal, to work hard for 4 months before the monsoons begin again, transforming these fields of brick and clay into temporary rice plantations. The pay is perhaps good by Nepali laboring standards. I am told that people can make 500 – 2000 rupees ($5 – $20) per day, 1 rupee per brick made, 1 rupee per four bricks carried. No matter the pay, in my particular opinion, the work remains brutally difficult.
People, myself included, almost always turn a blind eye to suffering. I think there is some wiring in the brain that insulates itself from that which it would be unable to comprehend or process emotionally. We have all read in our morning paper about displaced people, refugee camps, AIDS orphans, survivors of genocide, children forces into sex slavery, victims of natural disaster, animals in factory farms, sweatshops, prisoners in solitary confinement, people suffering from mental health disorders while living on the streets, slum dwellers, victims of domestic abuse, and so many others, yet somehow it is not so hard to turn the page, refill our coffee and move on with our days without truly internalizing what we’ve read or thinking back upon it later in the day.
Seeing things first hand seems to matter more than anything else. Much like if you were to sit with and gaze into the eyes of a cow long enough you would likely forever have a much more difficult time eating of their flesh, when one’s eyes meet those of another being whose life is fraught with difficulty or suffering, suddenly the relationship becomes personal and turning a blind eye is no longer so easily achieved.
I realize there may not be a magic bullet for eradicating toil such as this. As long as there is power and inequality and an insatiable demand for consumerism and growth, there will always be people wishing to exploit the labors of other. In addition, people will always do whatever work they must in order to survive and provide for themselves and their families. Some would like to call it the ‘free market’ but to me it is more of an exploitation of circumstance. The poor are hungry and have few other options, so they acquiesce. Perhaps there is another way, but I’m not certain how we get there from here.
I offer a deep bow to those who are fighting the bigger picture battles: ending the trafficking of slaves, opposing the industrial incarceration complex, fighting for a voice for the voiceless, striving for the betterment of humanity as a whole, and fighting the good fight against oligarchic power structures. I also honor those who work on a local level, serving the needs of others in supporting lives lived with greater dignity. One thing I know that we can do is to try to open up that otherwise blind eye to support whosever life is right there in front of us today, wherever we are, and wake up the next day and do our best to do the same, in whichever ways feel true to our hearts.