Nepal, Aug ‘05

Nepal highlighted in RED

In August of 2005, I got 2 weeks off of work in Japan. I returned to Nepal for almost the full vacation and volunteered my time to my orphanage, YAUC.

When I left Nepal earlier this year, I vowed to stay active with the orphanage. I chose a country in Asia specifically so that I could be close to my orphanage, while still making a “Western salary”. I had hoped to return 2-3 times per year to continue helping, and to actually play a significant role in these children’s lives (though from behind the scenes for most of the year). During the rest of the year I am still the acting Volunteer Coordinator. To be honest, we are such a small organization (technically a 1-man operation) that even that title is self-appointed. But since I spend a great deal of my time contacting potential volunteers, and prepping them and making myself available to them 24-7, I am for all intents and purposes the Volunteer Coordinator. But as often as I can, I intend on returning and actually being a regular volunteer again.

So after my first 4 months in Japan, I bought the most expensive flight I’ve ever paid for ($1300!!), and began preparing for 2 weeks in Nepal. In Japan things are expensive. REALLY expensive. But rationally, things should be at least as cheap as America. I mean, everything in America is made in China, right? And Japan is right next to China. For all I know the same ships that bring goods to America, stop in Japan! So why so expensive? Well, that’s a complaint I’ll save for the Japan blog, but I can say that they have redeemed themselves in one way. The Dollar Store has caught on here BIG time! It’s not called the dollar store, of course, but the 100 Yen Shop (110 yen = US$1).

So I went to the 100 Yen Shop and bought 20,000 yen (about $200) worth of things for the kids. So aside from my usual small rucksack, I brought a suitcase full of toys, and dress-up stuff, and books, and foam flooring. The director, Tej, and I had planned on turning a spare room into a playroom. But the toys and books and pretty much everything in Nepal is really poor quality. They’re right next to China, but they can’t even afford THAT. So all their goods are made in Nepal and India and Pakistan. Sad.  

Suicase of toys

  So I went with all my luggage to the airport near Tokyo, and transferred in Hong Kong to a Royal Nepal flight. I got to talking to some Korean guys as we flew over Kathmandu. I pointed out mountains, and talked about what to expect in Kathmandu. I was probably being pretty arrogant, but I was so eager to return to my “second home”. Well, as I was pointing at cities below I saw what could only be Kathmandu… and watched it pass. It had been a VERY rough flight after we passed the Himalayas, and we were all talking partly to calm our nerves. The big joke was that Royal Nepal Airlines was infamous for crashing. Unfortunately it is also the truth. You can joke all you want until the moment arrives when you start to wonder if those poor souls burning in the mountain jungle were also joking the moment before they crashed.

The captain came on and said that it was not safe to land, due to a storm. We were rerouting to INDIA! Well, that’s one of the several problems with flying into an extremely poor country. There’s bound to be ONLY one airport, so if you can’t land you have to fly hundreds of miles out of your way to another country!

So this was my first time to India’s capitol, Delhi. I didn’t see much, but from what I saw, I wouldn’t want to go back. I love India, but it’s a country which does a good job embracing its “old-world” ways. When cities like Delhi try to modernize, it only highlights the huge division of rich and poor. The trickle-down theory didn’t work in America and it REALLY doesn’t work in India. Build up a city all you want; it will only entrench the population in their poverty. So that’s what I saw. Big, wide streets, and beautiful private gardens for sprawling government complexes, but still the same dirty buses spewing black fumes; shoeless locals walking miles to work in a tin-roofed shop; and families living in abject poverty trying to make their way down the side of dusty, new highways.

The airline put us up in a 5-star hotel 1 hour away from the airport. There was a lot of waiting in the airport (where we just gave them our passport to hold for the night - none of us had Indian visas), for the buses, at the hotel desk. By the time we got to sleep it was past 2am. We had to be up in 3 hours to start getting in lines again. I would have been as pissed as others were if I didn’t look at the bright side - at least I can say I’ve been to Delhi… and don’t want to go back…

So I couldn’t help noticing a beautiful, tall, Chinese girl on the plane, and since I was Mr. Knowitall, I thought I’d chat her up back at the Delhi airport. Yvonne was from Mainland China, but obviously had some sort of money; otherwise she wouldn’t be flying Nepal, and probably couldn’t have entered Hong Kong to catch the flight in the first place. She seemed pretty artsy, and had somewhat of a British accent for some reason. I recommended some sights, and restaurants in Kathmandu, and we agreed to meet at OR2K (my favorite restaurant).

Welcome flowers from Ganesh and the OR2K crew

When I finally made it to Kathmandu airport, I was surprised to meet, not Tej, but my friends from OR2K! They had come to pick me up and bring me welcome flowers and hugs! They are so nice!!

So I went back to Thamel (the tourist neighborhood) with them, and checked into a guesthouse before making my way (predictably) to OR2K. Later on I met the Koreans there (I had given them the OR2K business cards, which I always keep in my wallet when in Kathmandu - it’s THE meeting point). I enjoyed my big pot of tea and some Israeli food (it’s an Israeli vegetarian restaurant) and headed out to YAUC with my big suitcase of toys.

The children were overjoyed to see me again! I didn’t expect anything else, but it’s always possible kids that age can forget people after 6 months. I had been in touch with Tej the whole time, so I knew pretty much what was new. A new volunteer had arrived (not my doing…) earlier that August, and he was doing a bang-up job. He was a German who had spend 6 years volunteering on and off with Nepali orphanages. He even spoke some Nepali, and had connected so deeply with Nepal, he almost got married to a Nepalese woman. He was a terrific guy to have around for his expertise and discipline (fuckin’ Germans, eh?). No really. I’m not a disciplinarian. I like to have fun with the kids, and play all day. He didn’t do that too much, but he always made it an important nightly duty to help the kids with their homework. I have tried in the past, but beyond English homework, I’m not much use. He was able to help tremendously with the Nepali he spoke, and the strict rules he had. The kids were very good about studying when he was helping. I probably just fucked his shit up ’cause I’m too much of a goofball.

The one girl who can speak some English (Sabina) read some stories to me. I checked her understanding (being an English teacher), and was dismayed that they were being taught reading and phonics instead of comprehension. She could read till the cows came home, but if I asked her anything about it, I lost her. We can all read: andipt Randome si grapstil windsolum tok riz Makum. . . But if someone asked us to explain why Randome tok riz to Makum, we wouldn’t know WHAT to say. It’s sad to see English taken HALF way. It’s so much effort to go half way, and so LITTLE effort to go the rest of the way. But half way is all it takes to pass the education requirement I guess.

If I could get English-speaking volunteers there year-round, we might be able to actually teach these kids English. A trade 1000 times more useful than any other in this tourism-dependant economy. But for now, we are there too infrequently, and sporadically to put together a concrete curriculum.

So for my 10 days in Nepal I maintained my $3 hotel room AND the free volunteer room at YAUC. This was the first time I stayed at YAUC, and the first night was LESS then a dream. The room is nice, actually, and has a lock on the door, and bars on the windows. But it also has a Nepali style fireplace. Nepalese use it for cooking. It’s their kitchen. Obviously volunteers aren’t going to cook, so I put a nice big desk in front of it. It’s on the second floor, so I wasn’t worried about the rats and animals coming in through the windows, like they did on the first floor. The German, Tom, was also handy with mechanics (a stereotypical German!), so he did a seamless job installing screens in the kid’s rooms and Tej’s room.

This was one of his MANY handy donations, and I think it made living standards 200% better at YAUC. But when he saw I was setting up a new volunteer room, he commented that the rats WOULD come in through the windows. I was shocked, but I wasn’t about to question his German expertise. SO I closed the windows. Well where there’s a will, there’s a way. So about 10 minutes after I turned off the lights to go to bed, I head a bang. It came from behind the desk. I knew it was rats, but they sounded HUGE!! Like Teenage Mutant Ninja Rats or something!!!!! They must have been 3 kilograms each, the amount of noise they were making. Well, they were pissed! They had HOPED to just jump out of the fireplace as usual, and escape through the hole in my door to the neighbor’s kitchen. But some asshole put a 50 kilogram desk in their way! Well, they just weren’t having it. So after a few bangs, they MOVED THE DESK, and were in my room!! Fuckin’ hell! There were 2. I could hear them. I thought if I ignored them, they would make their escape and then I could fall asleep. But apparently they usually escaped through the window, and used MY BED as a ladder. So there I am laying down, shaking with stupid fear for Teenage Mutant Ninja Rats, when one of them JUMPS ON ME!!!!

Fuckinghellshitballscocksuckermotherfuckerpisscrap!!! That was it! I got up. Turned the lights on, and stormed out to tell Tej to fix this shit right away! Tej and I both thought it would be smart to smoke them out. So we lit some papers on fire in the fireplace. Well I guess someone blocked this fireplace (it was probably a rats nest full of millions of 3 kilo rats!!), so my room was now filled with smoke. Finally we decided to leave the windows open with plenty of chairs up against them so the rats could just come and go as they pleased without jumping on me.

Sadly this was a nightly routine for the kids until Tom installed the simple screens. It’s amazing how easy it its to improve the living standards of these kids sometimes!! And it’s equally sad to thing of how long they went without these simple precautions. The next day Tom bought some more mesh, and fixed my fireplace and windows as well as the maid’s (”Didi” in Nepali) fireplace and windows. He also boarded the hole in my door and the playroom door. So now the house is totally rat-proof! Great! Such a big improvement with so little money and effort. After that there were no more bumps in the night or bedtime bites.  

A bad picture of Tom and Tej

  The kids went crazy for their new playroom, and I spend the next day shopping for essentials with the money I collected. We bought things like raincoats, a new giant pot, cooking gas, school notebooks, books for a new library I set up, sheets, etc. As usuall Tej, and I had different priorities. He didn’t see the use in books, and I didn’t think the donations should go to him in the form of cash. He says he needs money for rent. I don’t doubt it. But from what I’m told, the government does NOT subsidize him in any way, and before I came along, there were no other volunteers. Logic follows, that there were no other donations. And yet he has been running YAUC since 1999. So where did the rent come from before? And why is it so expensive? He says he pays as much for his minimalist house (7 rooms. No kit or bath) as I did for my Western style house (3 rooms. Huge western kit and hot water bath) in the most expensive neighborhood in Nepal (embassy district). It seems like I can’t get the truth, and by western standards, that is suspicious. But in Nepal, it’s normal, and the most honest of men can sometimes come across that way. It’s totally confusing, and sometimes frustrating.

One of the other suspicious, and frustrating things that happened, was that I arrived to find 2 kids gone, and 3 new kids. I had actually known about 2 of the new kids, but was surprised Tej had not told me about the 2 eldest kids leaving. The boy, Naresh, was supposedly a bad egg. Tej said he stole, and skipped school. So he kicked him out. A little suspicious, considering he seemed like SUCH a nice kid and was only 14 years old when Tej kicked him out. The other, Guamaya, I’m more worried about. She was kind of the leader, and a total angel. She was on crutches, and when I saw her it seemed unlikely she would never be “healed”. Also she was probably just entering puberty. In Nepal they still have some really medieval ideas of menstruation, and women who are menstruating are not allowed in the home or near the kitchen. They are considered dirty. Tej says she “healed” and went “home”. Well, I was under the impression she was an ORPHAN, and didn’t realize she COULD heal. And I think it’s a suspicious coincidence that she and Naresh were the oldest. An alternative possibility is that Tej doesn’t want to deal with the hassles of teenagers, so when kids get old enough, he dumps them.

Well, that is understandable and would be fine if there was a system of gradated orphanages, or something. But it sounds like Tej just dumps them onto the nearest living relative… or maybe just the village they were from, regardless of any relatives. Who knows what these kids could be thrown into? It worries me, and it’s one of the many reasons I get frustrated at the lack of communication in Asian countries like Nepal.  

Taking the kids on a field trip

  But those were the only negative thoughts or experiences I had. The only other weird thing was that I got woken up at 5am in my guesthouse by Yvonne’s friend. I had met Yvonne at OR2K a couple times and when her newspaper photographer friend joined her in Nepal, she invited him to OR2K as well. We had a good time, and I got a big boner for his camera equipment. But a few days later she blew me off. Then the next day he showed up at my door at 5am in a panic. He is Chinese, and thus prone to panic when separated from his fellow countrymen for more than a few hours. But he said she went off the day before with some “new Nepali friends” and then missed a meeting with him (as well as me). I told him not to worry too much because Nepalese are SO friendly and nice. She probably just made friends and had such a good time, she didn’t want to leave. But he was already in a panic, and had alerted the police and embassy. I thought, “Whoa, man. She’s not your girlfriend. You aren’t even staying together. As far as you should be concerned, you are both independent travelers. She was doing fine for a few days before you showed up.” But since he was so concerned, and he knew her better than I did, I thought maybe I should help him out. I asked around, and told the Nepalese who’d seen her to keep an eye out and pass a message to her if they saw her. A waste of time and networking if you ask me. She showed up the next day with a smile ear to ear and stories galore! Fuckin’ clingy group-types! They can all stick to package tours to Bali as far as I’m concerned.

I met up with my Nepali friends regularly, and went to J-Bar (the first and only posh club in Nepal) to enjoy my VIP status - the only bar on earth where I can. And my best friend, Ganesh, offered to take to me his home. In Nepal that is a HUGE honor. It’s even more of an honor than being invited to a wedding! No one has guests at their family’s houses. It’s not part of their social life. So I was very excited to go stay with his family for a night. They live in the mountains very far from Kathmandu valley. We took a bus to a big dusty transfer town (on the way to Pokhora). There he informed me that I had to wear a belt. It’s funny that in an old culture like Nepal’s, where men were traditional outfits (like pajamas) that people still know what a western outfit SHOULD look like and they hold you to it.

The funniest thing about dressing up for his family is that it was just for the first 5 minutes. It was REALLY hot and humid to be wearing a button-down shirt tucked in with a belt. But we had to at least show up looking like that. But after saying hello, he took me upstairs and told me we were to change back into comfortable clothes. His families village was… well, it is sort of this muddy patch on a hillside. I’m scared for everyone I met there, because it seems so obvious to me this is mudslide territory. The bus couldn’t even make it through all the mud on the cliffside road. I am not easily scared, but I was constantly shifting myself in my seat in the hopes that even the tiniest bit of help might keep us from sliding off the cliff.

After 8 hours, 1 breakdown, and getting stuck in the mud, we arrived in his small village. Nepali villages aren’t anything more than 5 or 10 houses relatively near each other. There doesn’t even have to be a common area, or store that they share. Basically it’s a village if it’s inhabited and there is more than 1 house. So of course everyone in Ganesh’s “village” is a cousin, or aunt, or uncle. It’s hard to know when it’s literal and when it’s figurative. In Nepal and India an important, or close elder will be called auntie or uncle. Even my American and British friends of Indian decent back home call all their elders auntie or uncle, even though they may have just met that person for the first time, and are of no relation. So I met all his cousins and sisters and brothers, and aunts and uncles, but I think there was only one actual aunt. All the rest probably shared the same “Caste” because they were from the same village (and for all I know that may mean that somewhere down the road they ARE related - they just don’t know how). For a group of people who don’t even know how old they are half the time, this is all totally understandable.

Riding the bus to Ganesh's village

So I walked around the village and learned all about the normal Nepali way of life. Most Nepalese live in a 2-story clay and earth house with holes and windows in the walls for ventilation. Upstairs is for humans, and downstairs is for the animals (food) and the hearth. The hearth is the kitchen, and all cooking is done over an open camp-style fire. The downstairs floor is just dirt, but the stairs, and upstairs floor is wood. It may be the only wood in the house - I’m not sure. Outside the house is a garden and maybe a rice patty (Ganesh’s family didn’t have one that I saw), as well as at least one other building. Ganesh’s family had 2, and they seemed to be storage. The toilet is anywhere, but I only peed, so I didn’t find out how they deal with. . . um. . . bowl movements. The upstairs is 2 rooms divided by the stairs. I was definitely sleeping in someone’s bed, but they probably just went to another village house to stay that night. All the beds are simple, but are at least raised off the ground like Western ones. They all have mosquito nets hanging over them as well, so bugs must get pretty bad. It’s not a malaria region though.

When I showed up all the local kids came to look at me and try to talk to me. I was the first Westerner to visit the village. A nearby village had a school donated by the Japanese Embassy though. But it was old, so that must have been over 10 years ago, and I don’t know if the Japanese even came personally.

So I spent the night talking to a really smart boy with great English named Krishna. When I’m in Nepal I frequently say my name is Krishna. It makes sense, because otherwise I would just say Chris anyway, and Krishna sounds like the local version of Chris with a “na” at the end. So I told Krishna I had the same name, and he had SO many questions. He had never even been to Kathmandu (though he has moved there since) so he wanted to know everything about everything! It was lots of fun. Then we listened to the propaganda on the radio before going to bed. I couldn’t understand, but Ganesh happily translated it for me. I asked if he realized it was propaganda, and in that very Nepali way, he answered “yes/no/maybe”.

I was surprised to have a very comfortable nights sleep and before I knew it I was being woken up with chai and biscuits. There were no mosquitoes at night, as I had expected, so I was well rested. It was really early (no one had a watch) and the morning fog made the whole area look that much more mysterious. Now that there was light I could see that his families plot was on the edge of a steep hill (cliff) and overlooked a huge valley.

By the time we left I could see the Himalayas in the distance. It was a very quiet, remote setting. We headed out and dropped by Krishna’s house for a minute to say goodbye. I was surprised at how important it seemed to be to have met me. I don’t think so, but Krishna has remembered me ever since, and whenever I talk to Ganesh he tells me about Krishna and that he said hello. So it was a very happy goodbye, and I promised to be back and everything.

Ganesh's house

The bus didn’t show up either because we were late (no one had a watch, remember) or because of the muddy road. So we had to walk to the next village. That was fine with me, because it allowed me to see more at a leisurely pace. We were on a mountaintop, so the next village was an hour’s walk down hill. It wasn’t a real village in the way we’d think of one. It was a shop, and a couple houses, and I was told there was a school nearby, but I couldn’t see it. It was on a 90-degree corner in the dirt road, and a stone house on the corner had collapsed into the road. You could see inside to the 2 floors and everything, but the inhabitants had vacated it recently. Ganesh said OUR bus had hit the corner of the house last week, and the whole wall collapsed. Nepali construction quality isn’t quite up to snuff if I haven’t mentioned it… but then again, in a country where bus drivers think alcohol helps them stay away (like coffee), the bus drivers are even worse!

We headed back and had no breakdowns this time. When we got to Kathmandu I went to spend my last full day shopping for souvenirs for co-workers (a Japanese expectation) and some apartment decorations for me. One of the many projects I was doing at the orphanage was to take photos of the kids that could be used to raise money. I spent a bit of time printing just a few of the 1000 photos for Tej, the director. We had a little going away party and I tore myself away from the kids.

It is tough to describe these kids, or even what I do there at the orphanage. As you noticed, I really haven’t explained what I did with most of my volunteer time. But this is Nepal, so even small things can take days of running around just trying to find the necessary supplies, etc. Nothing is easy, and nobody seems to be able to help. So there’s a lot of time spent figuring things out on my own. That’s the same for all volunteers here and it’s actually not that annoying. After I got used to “the Nepali way” it all seems ok. Very relaxed approach to life. “No Worries” is a big motto here.

I don’t want to bore you with how much I love the kids, but to put it in perspective, I’ll just mention that I do NOT like kids. When I got here I was forced into going to the orphanage in the first place after turning my friend down many times. But these kids are so independent, and mature, and happy, and friendly, and full of love, there’s no way anyone can NOT love them. They aren’t the little hell-raisers that western kids can be, and they aren’t a bunch of dirty, depressing, rag-tag kids that are used to manipulate you or make you depressed. They are a tremendous group of smart boys and girls that just drew the short straw in life, and are trying hard to make do with what they have. They inspire me to be a better person, and any family would be lucky to have any one of these great, energetic, smart kids. But in economically deprived Nepal, all they got was thrown out or abandoned by dead, missing, or sick parents. So I try to make a difference and help as much as I can to give them a healthy, happy environment to grow up in.

I’ve always been someone partial to the idea of adoption over natural children. Not to get into it all, but I’d adopt these kids in an instant if it were legal. Unfortunately, no one can adopt them due to Nepali laws. Even if you DO want to adopt, the government system assures you can never chose your child, and can’t even meet him/her until the adoption is complete. So while there is no hope of ever including these kids in my family, I can play as much a role in their lives as an uncle. I hope to remain with them as long as they are at YAUC. So that’s my 2 weeks in a nutshell. I hope to return frequently, and please feel free to contract me if you are interested in helping of making a donation. Thanks.