"I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult." E. B. White

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Inevitable and Unavoidable

The inevitable and unavoidable has happened.

I’m sick.

It was bound to happen sooner or later, and I’m really not surprised considering half the people in my house are sick (both travelers and staff), half of the kids at the monastery are sick (and still insist on climbing all over us), and people on the bus cough, sneeze, and spit (so disgusting!!) without ever covering their mouths or using tissues. The spitting is the absolute worst. Men and women both do it all the time. It appears to be a cultural norm and is without question my absolute least favorite thing about this country.  I’ll spare you the details, but it is so unsanitary and foul that I never would have imagined an entire culture could find it acceptable.

A cold at home normally wouldn’t be enough to stop me from doing anything. After all, it's just a cold. But not here. First of all, Anna and I were so concerned about getting sick from the food or water that we only bothered to pack medicine to treat stomach issues and didn’t think to bring cold medicine. Yesterday we had to stop at a pharmacy, which is really just a random walk-up store on the side of the road, and figure out a way to communicate that we wanted cold and cough medicine. Success!

Second, being sick really depletes my energy, and hiking a mile up a mountain to a monastery didn’t exactly make me feel better. Plus, the food here is seriously lacking in nutrition, so I can’t count on a healthy diet for energy or to get me through. They only have seasonal fruits and vegetables (understandably), but we can’t eat anything raw if the skin is attached. So my only fruit has been a daily banana and I’ve started ordering grilled vegetables whenever we go out. My family and friends know that I’m not one to order fruits and vegetables at home - so you can see that I’m getting desperate.

Finally, I tried to sleep it off. Anna and I are both under the weather, so we told the orphanage that we wouldn’t be in yesterday. I tried to go to sleep at 4:00 p.m. It is now a little after 8:00 a.m. and I probably only got a handful of hours of sleep. We have to sleep with our windows open because the weather is so hot that our room would be like an oven without a little airflow. But sleeping with the window open means dust and noise.

Between the dirt and dust flowing in, non-stop dog barking, cars honking, and people yelling outside, it is nearly impossible to get any real rest. After all those hours trying to sleep, I still feel physically exhausted.

Fortunately, the monastery didn’t need us this morning because they are having another puja, so Anna and I are able to take it easy this morning without having to rush around. We’ll likely head out in a bit in search of fresh juice.

We’ll be back at the orphanage this afternoon, so hopefully we’re both a little better by then.

Wish us well and luck on our juice hunt!  

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Another Wonderful Weekend

With Hindu holy men at Pashupati
We’ve just come back from another interesting weekend away. There are a lot of photos in this blog, because they tell the story of the weekend better than I can.

Anna, Aly, and I joked that it was like being kids at sleep-away camp for the weekend, because we packed our overnight bag and loaded into a van with several of our housemates and two of the staff members to babysit us. In all, our group numbered about 12 - Anish (our Nepalese volunteer director), Santos (our Nepalese volunteer coordinator), several Americans traveling solo, and an Australian couple.

My "I'm so happy to have
an oreo frappuccino!" face
Before we left Saturday morning for the trip, I walked by myself for the first time from our house to the very-nearby tourist district of Thamel to get cash from the ATM and meet a couple of the housemates at a coffee shop with the promise of a frappuccino-like drink at the end. I’ve been to Thamel several times, and I feel very safe here. I was surprised, however, at how many people tried to talk to me during my walk (which can’t have taken more than 10 minutes).

When I walk around with the other girls, we get stared at a lot. Not in a threatening or sexual or mean spirited way, just out of curiosity I suppose. But when I walked by myself I was shocked at how many people approached or attempted to engage me. I guess one person is easier to talk to than two. They shouted hello from cars and shops, followed me on rickshaws, and insisted on walking me to the coffee shop instead of simply providing me directions. The attention was overwhelming and alarming, but again, never in an unsafe way. I figure that I’ll be prepared for it the next time around.

Our first stop of the weekend was Bhaktapur, a decent-sized city with a distinct historic city center that is as much as tourist destination as a religious one. Walking through the main Durbar Square and past the many temples felt like I was walking in another time. It was really beautiful and interesting - the type of place that I could have explored for several days...if I wasn’t limited to a few hours.

Here’s what the tourist brochure has to say, “Bhaktapur’s history goes back to the early 8th century. A blend of northern art and southern mythological philosophy, the aged arts, architecture and culture is the heritage of Bhaktapur that it inherits from the earlier generations. The pagoda and shikhar style temples, vihars and bahis (traditional Buddhist monasteries), lonha hiti (stone spouts), ponds… stupas, city gates, terracotta temples, palaces, … are the major monuments of this ancient city. Bhaktapur Durbar Square was listed in World Heritage Sites in 1979.”

Our international group of travelers 

Me and a lion/dragon fellow
The many temples in Durbar Square

Lunch on the rooftop
After walking around the city for a while, our group went to lunch at a rooftop restaurant five stories high with beautiful views of the town and the mountains in the distance. Nepal is covered in buildings with rooftop terraces, a unique feature I haven’t seen as extensively anywhere else. As the raining season has come to an end (supposedly), kids were outside on rooftops across the city flying kites, which are made from thin sheets of plastic and cost about 5 rupees, or 5 US cents to buy. It reminds me of the book Kite Runner, as the kids try to cut down each other kites using their own.

Drenched and happy
Halfway through our lunch, and despite the “end” of the rainy season, it started pouring again. The same type of rain we experienced while riding elephants - rain like a sheet of non-stop water from the sky. We went inside to finish our meals and then headed out to find our van. I actually really like the rain here. It’s probably the cleanest water around and provides a welcome cool from the constant heat. I feel like I’m playing in the rain, and its fun to stop caring what I look like, if my hair is messed up, or of the rain will ruin my next appointment and just let go and embrace getting soaked and walking through the city in dripping wet clothes.
Woman and girls in bright colors take shelter from the rain

After we left Bahktapur, our van took us to Nagarkot, a village at the top of a mountain that is known to locals for having beautiful views of the sunrise and sunset. In my opinion, it lived up to its reputation.

View on the ride from Bhaktapur to Nagarkot
With Anish and Santos on the road to Nagarkot

The main house
The weather was tens of degrees cooler, and I was excited to wear a cardigan for the first time since arriving in Nepal. Our hotel was...interesting. The main house was great - it had a large patio overlooking the mountains with dining tables for those who want to sit outside, an indoor restaurant, and a rooftop viewing deck. The deck had gorgeous, unobstructed views and I didn’t hesitate to get up there for sunset and sunrise. Getting down, of course, was another issue because my fear of heights kicked in and the stairs were questionable at best. I didn’t want to cause a scene, so I headed down as quickly as possible, but it took a lot for me to conquer those steps twice.

The lower house is a different story. It is detached from the main building and separated by several flights of stairs on a slightly lower part of the mountain. The bottom two levels of the hotel are complete, so that is where we stayed. The rooms had giant private patios and the interiors were a combination of exposed stone and brick. For $20, you’re not going to find a better deal. BUT, the top two levels of the hotel were under construction.  I’m not talking about a little renovation, I’m talking about a completely gutted framework with exposed pipes, concrete pillars, and workers drying their laundry from ropes strung between construction shafts. It was pretty comical walking down the stairs for the first time and seeing this, because we could only see the construction and not the lower levels, and I was pretty sure that meant we were camping for the night (much to my dismay).

As a side note - one of the girls went to open her door after dinner and found a giant spider sitting on the lock. Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to exaggerate the size of bugs, but this really was a huge spider. It was the size of my fist, if not bigger, with a body the size of a quarter and the rest of him all legs. I’ve seen a lot of bugs since we’ve been here, but the spider wins the prize.

Anyway, at sunset we all headed to the deck to watch the sun go down over the west of Nepal. There was a brilliant double rainbow from the earlier storm, and we sat up there for the better part of an hour enjoying the view.

Beautiful sunset

Silhouettes at sunset

Double rainbow

This morning, we woke up at 5:30 a.m. to watch the sunrise in the east - meaning we watched the sun rise over the himalayas! I imagine this will be one of those once-in-a-lifetime things for me. The clouds were below us and looked like a white ocean, and when the sun came up we had to look carefully to determine where the clouds ended and the snowy mountains began. It was beautiful and totally worth the uncomfortable and precarious drive up and down the mountain.

The himalayas just before sunrise

Sunrise in Nagarkot
While several people went back to their rooms for a couple more hours of sleep, Anna, Aly, and I stayed up for a cup of tea on the patio to enjoy the cold air and views while we still had the chance.

Morning tea overlooking the himalayas

We headed back down the mountain and into Kathmandu Valley this morning for our final stop of the weekend at Pashupati - recognized by Hindus as one of the holiest temple in Nepal. This area sits on the Bagmati river, and it is the place where Hindus and some Buddhists bring their deceased loved ones. It is a holy site for public cremations, which may sound morbid to westerners, but is considered a holy way of returning the body to the elements by the people who worship here.

Mourners prepare the dead on the left as vendors and visitors watch from the right
Hindu holy man
We sat on the opposite side of the river and watched as families carried their dead, covered in bright orange shrouds, down to the river to be prepared. They then moved the body to a platform above the water, which has been set up with wood, and lay the body down for cremation. I am told that the entire cremation process takes about three hours, and this site operates 24 hours a day and hosts 50 to 60 families every day. It is an honor for Hindus to be released in this place, and I learned that those near death often go to hospice near the river so that they can die there, believing that a death near the holy site will earn them a better reincarnation.

Color merchant
It was a very emotional place, because for the worshipers, this is their way of saying their final goodbyes. It was also a surprising place, because men bathed in the river that is littered with trash and flowing with ashes, tourists and vendors walk freely among mourners, and cows, stray dogs, and monkeys wander around completely uninterested in each other. It was also a difficult place to visit, because the dust, smog, and ashes made the whole sky grey. We wore our sunglasses and masks the whole time to protect our eyes and keep from ingesting anything.

Pashupati was unlike any place I have ever been before, mixing the extremely intimate with the extremely public. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to observe this cultural practice.

Series of temples with aligned doors to see through to the end
So, now we’ve finished our second weekend and only have two weeks and one weekend left in Nepal. I can’t believe how quickly this time is passing. I expected that the more things I did in Nepal, the more I would feel like I had checked everything off my to-do list. Instead, the more I do, the more I learn about other things I want to do, so the list keeps growing.

We're back to the monastery and orphanage tomorrow, so I'll write again soon with stories of the adorable kids and little monks!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Mornings in the Monastery

The monastery is quickly becoming one of my favorite places in the world. It is beautiful, calm, peaceful, and everyone has been more warm and welcoming than I could have ever imagined.  Every time I walk through the gate, I feel happy and stress free.

I’m also really happy that the children in the monastery all seem so healthy and well taken care of. They are always clean, well-fed, smiling, well-treated, and well-educated. Considering they are young boys between the ages of 6 and 24 years old, I can’t believe how well behaved they are. They may be monks, but they are still kids. Of course, they have their silly times, but the focus and composure I see in them is unlike any child I have ever encountered. Note to self - if I ever have a rowdy child, send him to the monks for discipline!

The cutest 6-year-old monk you will ever meet
The other thing about these little monks is that they are so cute. I mean really, really cute. Their little faces make me melt. And their sweet dispositions make them that much more adorable. I can’t say enough about them. Fortunately, I took dozens of pictures (these are just a few of them).

Teaching English has actually proven slightly easier than Anna and I expected. We teach three classes a day - beginner, intermediate, and advanced. We have devised ways to engage them and encourage them to write, read, and speak only in English in our class. For instance, we assigned a letter to each child in the intermediate class and had them write a word on the whiteboard beginning with that letter. Once we had about 10 words on the board, we asked them to write a series of sentences incorporating all of the words. They then had to read their sentences aloud. It has been very effective and we’ve been able to modify the exercise depending on the language abilities of each class.

Monks during the puja in the main ceremonial hall
Yesterday was incredibly interesting because we were invited to the monastery, even though classes were canceled. The monks were conducting a puja, or a ceremony. Kunga explained to us that pujas are conducted for various reasons, including as a daily prayer, for celebrations, to pray for the sick, and to pray for the dead. Different pujas last different amounts of time, and this one was to last several hours (we stayed for two).

Hand painted mandala on the exterior wall
The puja room was gorgeous. It was decorated in colorful fabrics and had a giant gold buddha statue. The walls and ceilings are hand-painted in ornate detail, and the monks sit on mats behind small prayer tables. Several of them play bells, a gong-like drum, or instruments resembling horns.

Elaborate decorations
This particular puja was for the recently-deceased father of one of the monks. Kunga told us that Buddhists believe the soul stays with the body or near its home and family for four to seven weeks after death. After that time, the conscience is reborn. Through the puja (lots of chanting, reading, and playing of musical instruments together), they hope to make the transition for the conscience easier and garner good “merits” toward a better rebirth. There are good and bad rebirths - the good being a god, a demi-god, or a human, and the bad being hell, an animal, or a hungry goose...which I’m told is somehow different to an animal. Being a hungry goose seems like a very bad situation, indeed.

I felt so fortunate to be invited to watch this intimate ceremony. It was beautiful to watch and an honor to be trusted to observe.

Today was special because we joined the monks for lunch. They prepared dal bhat, a traditional Nepalese dish consisting of rice, lentils, and often some sort of vegetable. Anna and I sat chatting with Kunga for an hour about the puja we had observed, how he had come to the monastery, different types of Buddhists, and why many of the monks in the monastery came to Nepal from Tibet.

The wonderful Kunga
Kunga is so genuine in the way he speaks, and he really touched me today with something that he said. He told Anna and I that we are no different to the monks. He said the only thing that separates us is that he lives in a monastery, and we live outside. But, he said, monks often work to better the lives of others through their actions and thoughts. In the same way, he praised us for traveling all the way to Nepal to do something for the monks and the orphans in a spirit of service. He told us that a monk who sits in a monastery but does nothing for anyone else is not nearly as good as people like us, who he described as having good souls - good conscience. I was really touched by his sincerity and high opinion of us. I don’t know that we are helping as much as he gives us credit for, but it was a very impactful moment for me all the same.

I love him. He is 8-years-old with the sweetest spirit in the world
He is very shy but was excited to see his picture on my camera
The youngest "beginners" class
Young teen monks
He loves to be silly and participate in class. He's the monk equivalent to a class clown.

Young monks relaxing during a tea break
They treat each other like family and have welcomed us in

Sarita's Safe Haven

The baby of the house
Yesterday was our third day at Sarita’s, the orphanage. The kids continue to greet us with excitement and enthusiasm, and welcome us through the gates with hugs. In the afternoon we focused on reading, as most of the kids have an English exam in school tomorrow. A few of the younger children don’t go to school yet, partially because it costs $280 a year for each child to get an education - a cost that the orphanage cannot afford. The older kids have all been “sponsored” by past volunteers, and Anna and I are hoping to help at least one or two of the younger ones so that they can get an education, too. 

At 12, Manik is one of the oldest in the house
Two of the kids that really stand out to me so far are a 12-year-old boy, Manik, and 6-year-old Rajip. Manik is smart, curious, and mature for his age. He is incredibly sweet and seems well adjusted. He told me proudly that he is studying computers at school, and he wants to one day go to university in America. He also told me that the other kids at school make fun of him because they have laptops and he doesn’t, but that its okay because, instead of using the internet he reads the newspaper. I haven’t seen any of the bad qualities in him one might expect in a boy his age, but I have seen so much good in him.

I showed him on a map where I live and how far I had traveled. He asked me yesterday, “Why did you come from America to Nepal?” I explained that I wanted to see Nepal because it is a very beautiful country, but also because I had heard of Sarita’s and him and the other children, so I wanted to come to meet him. He was blushing and visibly happy to know that Anna and I had traveled all that way for him.

Rajip smiling for the camera
As for little Rajip, he makes me melt. He is quiet, shy, and doesn’t fight for attention like the other kids. He has warmed up to us and wants to be near us and included, but he avoids competition with the others in favor of sitting quietly in the corner until we are free to sit with him alone. He doesn’t speak much, but I know he’s listening. On our first day, we tried to teach him the “itsy bitsy spider” song and hand motions, but he didn’t play along. Then suddenly yesterday he walked up and started singing the song and doing the motions, wanting us to join in with him. He’s a smart little boy with the most adorable face, and I would take him home in a heartbeat if I had the chance.

Tuesday, Anna and I brought crayons and construction paper for the kids, and I can honestly say that I have never seen any child so excited to have the opportunity to color. When they saw the boxes of crayons in our hands, they began screaming with joy and yelling, “Painting! Painting! We are painting!”

Anna reading to the girls
They sat down to begin coloring and I was surprised to see how well they shared. The kids counted out crayons to make sure they each got some and carefully put them back in the boxes when they were done. They drew cows and elephants and people and were quiet for the first time since we met them. It made me so happy to see how happy they were, but it also broke my heart a little that a box of crayons meant so much to them because they have so little.

After each drawing, they would hold up their papers to show us and call out, “Sister, sister, look at me!” They call us sister. And they are so desperate for our attention and approval that we do our best to cheer on each one and spend a little time each day paying one-on-one attention to each child. If there is nothing else we can do for them, at least we can give them that.

Anna and I have also started trying to recall our days on the playground so that we can come up with some games to play with the children. Yesterday was Red Light/Green Light. Once we got over the language barrier and explained the rules, the kids loved it. Of 
course, most of them spent the majority of the 
time trying to find ways to cheat so that they can win. Cheating or not, they all had a blast running in the yard and playing this game, so it didn’t matter to me that the rules went out the 
window. That seems to be a common thing here, anyway.

It was nice to see two neighbors stop by yesterday to donate bags of apples or rice to help feed the children. These neighbors may not have much, but they obviously recognize that these kids have even less, and a little nutrition can go a long way.

Our first day in the orphanage was the most difficult. How do we divide our time to make sure each kid feels loved and important? How do we know what to do for them or give them when they need so much? I left that day feeling physically and emotionally drained because I know that no matter what I do for these sweet, deserving kids while I’m here, at the end of this I’ll be flying home to my fiance (soon enough!), family, friends, warm bed, stocked refrigerator, and safe home. Once I’m gone, they’ll still be parent-less, packed into a small orphanage and sleeping on the floor because there aren’t enough beds, needing an education, and sometimes sick without enough money to get the necessary medical care. This is a tough reality to accept.

We have ended every day with the kids 
asking what time we will return the following day.  Whatever time we tell them, they always ask us to come earlier so that they can see us sooner. They send us off with, “See you tomorrow!” I like the satisfaction of knowing that I will be back the following day, both for my sake and for theirs.  

I worry, even if they are used to saying goodbye to volunteers, about explaining to them on our last day that it may be many tomorrows before I see them again.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

(Lack of) Rules of the Road

Let’s talk about driving in Nepal for a minute.

I’ve already written about the roads and the terrible lack of paving. But I haven't shared with you the way people handle themselves on these roads.

The basic rule is that people drive on the left. Sort of. There are no marked lanes (I suppose painting lines on dirt would be an exercise in futility) and people drive on the left, in the middle, or on the totally wrong side of the road depending on traffic.  The cars don’t bother to stay in any sort of organized line, they just pile onto the roads and drive wherever they see fit.

If the car in front is moving too slow, it is totally acceptable to drive on the wrong side of the road to pass. Drivers will stay on the wrong side of the road for extensive periods of time and only swerve back onto the correct side seconds before causing a head-on collision. Giant trucks and motorcycles appear to play chicken as common practice. This is particularly alarming driving along the edge of a mountain, as we experienced over the weekend.

The driving on the wrong side of the road to get around other cars becomes increasingly problematic because of the traffic in Kathmandu. There is always traffic. Always. And when cars move around each other to try to pass in traffic, they end up blocking cars on the opposite side of the road. The other day, Anna and I sat on the bus for 30 minutes without moving a single inch because of a traffic jam in which dozens of drivers tried to move around each other, effectively creating a parking lot in which cars were stuck on both sides of the road facing both directions. I have seen some bad traffic before, and I have never seen anything like this.  

The other rule of the road to which I am yet to fully adjust is that all drivers honk constantly. They honk to notify that they will pass on the left. They honk if they will pass on the right. They honk to let you know they are close behind or turning corners or anything else you can possibly think of.  The honks can mean “hello,” “be careful, I’m passing,” or “get out of my way.” With so many vehicles on the road at all times, the honking is constant. It never stops. Ever.

There are also thousands of motorcycles that follow the same driving rules, but also take the liberty of driving on sidewalks, in pedestrian alleys, and narrowly missing my toes by cutting as close to people as possible. The drivers tend to wear helmets, but their passengers riding on the back, including extremely young children, do not.

And remember the busses I wrote about? They are generally designed to fit maybe 10 people. Anna and I were crammed in a bus the other day and counted 30. 30 people standing, leaning, sitting on other people, and all of them totally unphased by the lack of personal space. We have resolved that we have to get used to people touching us on the bus - there is no way around it. They grab our arms for balance and knees (if we are lucky enough to find a seat) as leverage to move to the back and front of the bus.  It was alarming at first because we would never dream of touching complete strangers in this way back at home, but we’re not at home anymore and this is the way things work around here. It is quite the adjustment.

Did I mention that there are no traffic lights? I haven’t seen a single light in almost two weeks, including in this big city. Without lights directing traffic, intersections become very challenging places to navigate. It is all of the chaos I just described, times two.

With all of that said, now that I have become used to this...interesting...traffic situation, I have noticed that drivers are actually very accommodating of one another. Despite all the honking and aggressive maneuvering, which at first appears like a severe case of cultural road rage, the truth is that drivers make room for the cars that honk to pass, give each other notice before making sudden moves, and always seem totally calm in spite of being constantly cut off and stuck in the craziest traffic jams I have ever seen.

That’s all for now. I’m off to the orphanage and hope to have pictures to post soon.