The Toaster Iron

Down the alley behind the place I’ve been staying in Delhi, the neighborhood iron-wallahs -- the guys who iron your clothes -- ply their trade. They work in the open air, at a wooden table.

A coal-powered iron and bread warmer.

Fifteen years ago I happened to live in an apartment just a block or so from this alley, so I know that the iron-wallahs previously commanded a “better” location for their business. Back then, they were out on the main street, not tucked away in the alley. 

Things were different then in other ways, too. For example, in 2001 the neighborhood still had open sewers. And the iron-wallahs’ wooden table straddled that sewer. Today the open sewers are history, so the iron-wallahs have a better work situation no matter where they set up shop.

Still, some things don’t change. Here we are at the dawn of the 21st century, and yet these two men still share an iron that is heated by burning charcoal placed inside. I stopped by recently and the coal iron was doing double duty as lunchtime bread warmer.

Fresh Adventure!

I have a fantastic new job, editing narrative and investigative projects at The New York Times. You can read about it here

My run at the WSJ -- first in New York, then Hong Kong, then New Delhi, then the Big Apple again, and finally India 2.0 -- provided the experience of a lifetime. If someone ever travels back in time and tells the childhood me that one day I’ll wander the world, writing, photographing and doing storytelling for money, I’ll tell them to lay off the schnapps.

‘Waiting For That Cut’

Dhanbahadur Shresta is a country doctor in the village of Sipa Ghat in Nepal. He had just pulled someone’s tooth, and was reassuring his patient that the pain wouldn’t last too long, when the earthquake came.

Dhanbahadur Shresta points to the place where he was buried.

His small stone building collapsed, burying patient and doctor alive. Lying under the rubble, Mr. Shresta said, he decided: “Death was certain.” 

The two remained trapped for an hour, he told me, before he finally caught the attention of rescuers by whistling loudly to indicate he was there beneath the stones and timber. I spoke with him two days after the quake.

Sipa Ghat is quite literally at the end of the road. It’s a tiny market town, surrounded by paddy, on the banks of the Irawaddy River several hours’ drive outside Kathmandu. If you want to cross the Irawaddy and travel further, you must walk across a rope bridge. Like I said, end of the road.

I found myself in this place because I wanted to quickly travel as far as possible into the countryside to get a sense of scope. 

Some of the few buildings that remained standing in Sipa Ghat, Nepal.

Sipa Ghat is, or was, a village of 200 or so homes and shophouses selling groceries, fertilizer and other rural staples. Almost every building has collapsed. As I arrived, residents feared there were still dead to be discovered, though they couldn’t be sure. After all, it’s a market town, one man pointed out -- who knows what unlucky souls might have walked in from the countryside to do some shopping?

I found Mr. Shresta sitting beside his ruined shop, near the rope bridge. He described the horror of being buried alive. “It’s like when you’re ready to slaughter a goat, but you haven’t chopped it yet,” he said, making a cutting motion across his neck. “It’s like waiting for that cut.”

Gunshot Mailbox

Gunshot Mailbox

I like this photo of a mailbox. But maybe not for reasons that first come to mind. 

I made the photo while out on a walk one day. It’s a simple enough idea. Who shoots their gun at the mailbox of love? But the image is just slightly out of focus, which bothered me. So I returned a few days later to try again. Same time of day -- the better to catch the sun repeating its trick, right?

Well guess what. Sun and Earth were no longer in the same alignment. The hard-hearted universe had moved on, one might say. 

I stood and waited, and the sun fell, and then suddenly the moment passed without happening again. We’re left with an imperfect image, capturing that special moment when a hostile sentiment -- namely, the mailbox of love with a bullet hole in it -- sparkled in the sun.

So that’s one thing I like about it, the trying again and failing. It fits the mood.

Looking Up the Road

The Pesta homestead is nestled in the woods, just off a winding lane that meanders past country churches, the coon hunters’ club, overgrown pioneer graveyards and the guy who tunes tractor-pull engines. I’m describing Starve Hollow Road. It’s been around a while. If you look at plat maps dating back 150 years, there it is, “Starved Holler.”

 An old well in a cornfield along Starve Hollow Road.

An old well in a cornfield along Starve Hollow Road.

When I was a kid, Paul and Doris Herndon were our nearest neighbors on Starve Hollow Road. Doris collected pioneer recipes and had a remarkable wall of cast iron pioneer cookware in her kitchen. Doris and Paul lived in a tiny home that echoed a simple design favored by settlers of an earlier era -- two rooms, two front doors. In the hillside out back, a root cellar had been dug. 

Paul Herndon once befriended and tamed a wild turkey. The turkey would roost in a tree in front of the Herndon home, at a bend in the road, and gobble aggressively at passing cars. Paul knew where to find a wildcat den in the woods behind his place -- maybe a bobcat? Whatever it was, he took me there once as a kid when I bumped into him out there one day, where he was tapping maple trees. 

Paul disapproved of Starve Hollow Road being paved.

Today, Doris Herndon’s collection of pioneer recipes is in the hands of Molly, who lives in a curiosity cabinet of a converted barn a mile or two up the road. Molly claims to know where bootleggers’ stills used to be hidden in the wilderness out back, and she can tell you about the historic architecture of her barn. If memory serves, the barn is a traditional “three cross” design, referring to its framework of heavy timbers held together with wooden pegs.

When Molly first moved into her barn, many years ago, she had a horse problem. If she left the front door ajar, the horses who previously lived in the barn would clip-clop right into her living room.

The times are changing, horses! Anyway, this is the view from Starve Hollow Road.