Traveling in Nepal

Namaste (this is especially added for my friends who think I artificially absorb aspects of foreign culture 😊).

I flew through Dubai on my way to Kathmandu.  It was nice to have a hotel room for my 7 hour layover, if only to have one last hot shower and a darn good cup of coffee.  I look forward to both when I arrive in Dubai on my return trip.

I arrived in Kathmandu on Monday mid-afternoon. The airport was not as chaotic as I would have expected, probably due to the fact that this is not a popular travel destination. Visitors are mostly employees of NGOs, trekkers(not 'Trekkies'), and a few business people. Visas are handwritten and departure dates are 'flexible'.

Kathmandu is ugly. I wish I could say otherwise, but it is crowded, overbuilt with mostly unattractive buildings, polluted, trash-strewn, and heavily congested. Nepal does not make a favorable first impression. Luckily, the people make up for it by smiling all the time.

The ride to the Kathmandu Peace Guest House (KPGH) was interesting. My taxi shared the roads (unmarked by lines) with trucks, buses, motorcycles, buses, dogs and cows. Basically, like many other large cities in Asia. Hitting a cow results in a six year prison sentence, so they get the right of way. And there are wild monkeys!  They congregate at the monkey temple but they also wander the city. I have seen two - one on a rooftop and another walking along the sidewalk. Big monkeys! As soon as I checked into my room, I shut my window lest I have any visitors. 😳

The agency with which I was volunteering, Hope and Home, places all the volunteers in a guest house at the start of the placement. Unfortunately, they had not booked enough rooms so I was moved to the Cosmic Hotel. Calling it a hotel is a stretch. Hostel is actually more appropriate. It was located down a crowded alley in a commercial district not far from KPGH. I was told to buy water and toilet paper, and to make sure I could find my 'torch' (flashlight) as we would soon be losing power. My roommate would arrive sometime later that evening.

I wandered Thamel, a tourist area within Kathmandu, got dinner and went to bed when the lights went out. My poor roommate arrived sometime late that evening - her first time away from home ever, coming from a rural community in England - to find that we had no power, no water, and would be listening to motorcycles racing up and down the alley all night. And just when you thought you could go to sleep, the stray dogs got into a fight outside our window. It was an interesting night.

We met with the rest of the volunteers the next morning. The other volunteers came from all over the world, though half were Australian. Most had committed to assignments of at least 3 months!

Our agency was taking us on an overnight trip to see some of the Nepal countryside. I was happy to get out of Kathmandu so I was looking forward to the trip. Our bus ride was fairly easy, but we soon ran out of road. We switched to 'army jeeps' and we piled into the backs of the trucks.

It's fair to say that the ride was unique. The 'road' is fairly new as there used to be no way to get from this valley to Kathmandu. I can only imagine what it was like before if this was an improvement. For those who have been on safari, it’s like the African chair massage but headed up a mountain with a HUGE drop off in either side. We went uphill, around steep curves, on a pock-marked dirt road, unable to see out the front. We all held on to the roof bars to make sure none of us fell out of the back (it was an open back jeep with canvas sides). When our hour-long ride finished, I think we were all ready for the hike.

We hiked down into Chitlin, a farming community outside the Kathmandu Valley. It was a nice change of pace after the chaos of the city. We saw lots of children at play (not many schools in the rural areas) and women working the fields. We stayed in these 'cabins' with a covered pavilion. As part of the orientation, we had some basic training in the Nepali language and customs. We learned about our placements - there are a variety of different options from teaching English to health services to my own, which was working in a children’s home (they call it an 'orphanage' but it is more like a boarding school.  The children still have families back at home).

The best part about this overnight is it gave me a chance to get to know some of the other volunteers. We got to have our first taste of Dal Baat, a beans and rice dish that the Nepalese eat for most meals. After hanging by the fire, we all went to our cabins to try to get warm - a pretty impossible task as it gets to be freezing at night and these cabins have plastic for insulation. As an added bonus, a rooster and a hen LIVE in the rafters overhead! So when the rooster starts to crow (at 5:12 am), your night is over. So far, I was not loving Nepal.

The next day, we got back into the jeeps for the scary ride out of the valley, then headed back to Kathmandu. For our last night in town, we headed to the Buddha Stupa (temple) and then to a group dinner.  

The only US State Department warnings for Nepal are for the intra-country planes (due to lack of funds for maintenance) and the buses between towns. I would be taking one of these buses to my placement in Pokhara. The only information I had was that the bus ride would take 7-9 hours and that the best way to survive it is to take something for your stomach then immerse yourself in a movie. I hoped this was an exaggeration.

We had assigned seats on the bus and I was given the one in the front, behind the driver. Apparently, the only seats worse are the last row (you get to feel all the bumps) and the 'cubicle' around the driver where they put the overflow - people and goods. It wasn't long before I saw my life pass before my eyes! We were passing trucks on a two lane highway while we took curves! Everyone honks to let the others know what each will do, but there were far too many close calls for me to relax.  Mix in some motorcyclists who seem to have death wishes, and you get the idea about my ride. I could not read, as the ride was crazy bumpy, and sleep was out of the question. Our ride took nearly 9 hours - some of the added time was likely because we seemed to pick up and drop off Nepalese people and goods along the way as we passed through town. 

Pokhara is supposed to be a cute town. Power outages of 15-22 hoursper day are common - so you start the day by texting a telephone number to find out when you will have power that day. There are lots of nurses working in projects here and all the good meds are available over the counter. 😉

One nice surprise was that my fellow volunteer and I would be staying in a hotel our first night in Pokhara as our beds were still occupied at the volunteer house. This meant one more night of a western toilet - no squat toilet yet! I could feel the beginnings of a migraine so I decided to just go to sleep and meet the children the next day.

We transferred to the hostel the next morning. This would be my home for the next 10 days. There were four other volunteers there, so we took the empty beds. We had three rooms on the fourth floor of a newly-built (actually, being-built) apartment building. The owner had the bottom floor; Lama Pasang, the man who started our orphanage, his wife, and 10-month-old son, Konga, lived on the second floor; there were renters on the third floor, and the volunteers had the fourth floor and roof access. Not a bad set-up, but we did have a squat toilet. 😞

By 9, we were at the orphanage (really, a children’s home). The Himalayan Children's Care Home (HCCH) is not what you might expect. All of the children living here have at least one parent living. They all come from Upper Mustang, a region which has one of the most preserved Tibetan cultures to still exist. Unfortunately, it is also one of the poorest parts of Nepal. Lama Pasang comes from Upper Mustang so he decided to start an orphanage for the children of the region. 58 children now call HCCH home.

It might seem strange that a parent would send a child away. But in Nepal, if a family cannot afford to care for their children, they are put to work at a very early age. Evidence of this was on display as I watched a road paving project take place right around the corner from the home. Boys as young as 8 were manually spreading rocks and pouring black tar along the road.  It was hard to tolerate the fumes when walking by so I cannot imagine what it would be like to breathe them day after day!

About HCCH - There are two Lamas (essentially, Buddhist monks) who run the place. The only real 'staff' who works there is a young woman, Auntie, a member of what they call the 'untouchables' caste, who cleans up after meals. She lives next door in a small room with a toilet, raising a newborn and a two-year-old by herself. In return for her work, she gets food for her family and the older children watch her children while she works. Pretty amazing.

There is a mix of boys and girls who live at HCCH. They go to school six days a weeks from 7:30 until 3:30. School was on holiday while I was there, but the volunteers usually walk all 58 kids to school each day. It's about a half-hour walk. The kids take their school work seriously as they all are hoping for 'good jobs' after they graduate - teaching school tops the list.

The kids had just finished exams when I arrived so it was our job to figure out how to entertain them for 8 hours a day. Lama Pasang wanted to make sure that they got in an hour of 'learning' while they were on break, so we had to add that to our agenda. We had our work cut out for us!

The volunteer agency provides very little direction as to what to do as a volunteer so you need to be a self-starter. Luckily, the other volunteers had been here for a while so they could provide some direction. But it's hard to get some people to do more than play with the kids and take photos. I will admit that I floundered at first, until I found the bookshelf!

Parts of this were locked, and I learned that some long-gone volunteer had lost the key, but we did have one whole open shelf of books. I started to pull them out and ask if anyone wanted to read. I got some takers and was soon surrounded by little ones. We read all the picture books that we had, and some of the older kids even took out chapter books to read. Perhaps we could get this learning done after all.

The most important part of our day was handling dinner. As I mentioned, there is not much staff. Some of the older kids and one father (all the kids refer to him as 'Uncle') handle the cooking. But we do the serving.

At 7:00, the gong rings and all the children come inside. The girls sit at tables while the boys sit in a separate room, on the floor on mats. Some nights, Lama Pasang gives a lecture before dinner, but most nights the children begin a prayer- essentially, a 22-minute chant. It's beautiful. Then they sit in silence until their food is served.

When they finish, two people grab low stools and we set out the huge pots of rice and beans (dal baat) on the floor of the kitchen. They serve bowls and the volunteers take these out to each of the children. When everyone is served, they can then eat. We bring the pots of rice and beans around to each table and the children can have as much as they want to eat.

One interesting thing is that instead of pouring the children water, we provide one pitcher of water for each table. Nepali people drink directly from the pitcher, but never let their mouths touch the container. It's pretty fascinating to watch.

The children then clear the tables, and the best part of the day begins. Many of the children come to the kitchen for good night hugs and kisses! I must admit that this is how I chose my favorites.

After the kids go to bed, the volunteers can eat. After seeing the food prepared, I could not eat at the orphanage. Let's just say that I like to pretend that all my food is prepared in a kitchen where seeing large ants is a source of concern. So I waited to eat at our after work spot - BulletBase Camp. This is a local bar that provides a discount on food and drinks to volunteers, free pool, decent food, and free WIFI. Essentially, nirvana for those traveling on the cheap.

There was one pervasive problem with the children at HCCH - lice. No one had treated the problem so it had seriously festered. Grace, a volunteer who had been at the orphanage for 4 weeks, had wanted to fix the problem but couldn't do it on her own. So we decided to tackle it together. The only way to get rid of lice for 58 kids was to treat all of them in one day, and get their sheets and towels washed at a laundromat (normally, each of the kids hand washes his/ her own clothes). Sunday would be lice day, but we needed supplies.

Grace and I took the local bus to a nearby town to find lice combs and shampoo. The shampoo is only available in trial sized bottles, so we needed about 10 of them. And we knew that we needed 10 combs. Plastic lice combs, which are not as effective as the metal ones, were pretty easy to find, but the shampoo was another matter. We cleaned out 7 pharmacies in order to pickup the needed supply. As an aside, when we returned the following week for additional shampoo, these pharmacies had not re-stocked so we had to expand our search area!

While we were in town, we picked up vinegar (Australians use this for lice treatment, but it turned out that it burned the children's heads so we didn't use it) and hand soap for the orphanage bathrooms. And since I had already noticed that the children never seemed to have anything on which to blow their noses, I bought a supply of handkerchiefs. We headed back to the orphanage after our two-hour excursion. This place will help me with my 'patience problem'.

Saturday was our day off. We started the day with a lakeside yoga class. Since Nepal is so close to India - Mecca for yogis - there were some seriously flexible people on this class! I will admit to getting distracted trying to figure out how some people even got into their poses!

We then headed off to meet one of Grace's friends. Here I should mention that Pokhara is a popular destination for Trekkers and hippies. There are lots of outdoor stores selling knockoff outdoor equipment and trekking permits to those looking to tackle the Annapurna circuit or Everest Base Camp or one of the other many treks. There are also lots of organic food stores and juice bars and tea shops for those who have come on a 'spiritual journey'. This is essential to know before I provide an intro to Grace's friend. For she is known in Pokhara as 'hula girl' since she is traveling India and Nepal, performing with her hula hoops, and making them to sell. We were going to order some hula hoops for the kids at the orphanage.

The next two hours were spent at Freedom Cafe. This place would not be out of place in Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. The cafe was lakeside with a variety of pillow stuffed seating areas surrounded by flowing curtains. People seemed to lounge for hours here, which is only partially reflective of the service. After two hours of people coming and going through our cabana, I was ready to move on. But the hoops were ordered and scheduled for delivery the following week.

Our next stop was listed in Trip Advisor as the number one destination in Pokhara. I was surprised to learn that Pokhara merited its own Trip Advisor page, so we went to check it out.

The Pokhara Beach Club is a 10-minute walk past the main part of Pokhara. It was started by a Canadian man and his Indian wife. They had set out to open a restaurant in Northern India, but got ripped off by their landlord so they moved to Nepal. They found some land on the lake, and opened a very small restaurant. We found comfortable seating with a fabulous view, and the owner proceeded to join us. He's a fascinating man with lots of great stories. Frankly, he should have been dead by now after all he has experienced. We hung out for a few hours, and promised to come back one night for dinner. He asked that we make reservations as he and his wife actually go out to eat if they don't have any reservations. That in and of itself tells you something about the couple.

Sunday was lice day. We started by collecting all the sheets and towels. Some of the children were reluctant to give up their sheets, but we managed to convince them that this was a good thing. With the help of several little volunteers, we delivered 43 kilos of laundry to a laundromat. This was part one.

The next step was getting all 58 children to let us wash and comb their hair. The girls were going to be easiest, but we knew that the boys would be a challenge. Unfortunately, when we returned to the orphanage, we did not have water so we would have to wait to start this process.

This brings up an interesting fact about Nepal. Water and power are not always available when you need them. The country does not make enough power for the whole country to have power at once, so it allocates it across the country. You can actually send a text to some number and it lets you know when your area will have power. All areas get some daytime power, but the bigger cities get it for longer. You can always count on the power going on for several hours in the middle of the night. You can see why you always need to know where to find your flashlight.

Water is run on electric pumps. When you don't have power, you often don't have water.  Most bathrooms keep a full bucket of water near the toilet so that you can flush when you don't have power.

We finally got water around 1. There were 5 volunteers working in this project, and we took nearly 6 hours to complete the task. It was a gross job, but the children were so genuinely appreciative that we had done this for them that you quickly got over it. I had never been thanked and hugged so much.

After cleaning our own heads (no lice but sympathetic itching!) and clothes, we went to pick up all the sheets and towels. When we brought them back, one little boy grabbed his and sniffed it, then said 'ah, nice!'. It made my day. We would need to do this entire project again the next week, and Grace would need to do it for two weeks following, but I think we had started to address the problem.

As part of our volunteer assignment, we had breakfast with Lama Pasang and his family every day. This was a nice way to start the day and for us to share our concerns and Lama to provide some direction. One morning, I decided to broach the locked bookshelf situation. I asked why the books had been locked up. He explained that if they are unlocked, the children take the books all over the house, which to me does not seem like a problem. But at least I could pay to get the lock fixed from the shelf that we could not access so I asked that he find a locksmith. Two days and $20 later, we now have new locks on all the bookshelves, but at least we now have the keys.

It won't surprise you to learn that I was twice the age of the other volunteers. They tended to be taking time off before starting college or taking a break from studies. This was not a problem, but provided some interesting fodder for the children. One day, I was sitting on a stoop with a little girl, reading a book, and she started to rub my arm. Then she asked me why I have loose skin 😳. I explained that this is because I am old. She seemed to be okay with that answer and continued to rub my skin, and pull it away from the bone.

Another day, one of the children asked me how old I am, and when I answered she gasped - full, open mouthed gasp! Her friend then asked why I had lines around my eyes. On my last night, one of the boys announced that my Nepali name is 'Eewi' (sp?). I asked what that name meant since all the boys giggled, and one of the girls told me that it means grandmother. You see the pattern...

I love all the children here, but I developed a special fondness for Junchup and Yeshilalmo. These beautiful little girls would stop whatever they were doing when I arrived to run and give me a hug. And they would sit on my lap while I read stories, and just smile. Neither one of them speaks much English, but we communicated. 

And I wish I could bring them home with me. But Nepal has outlawed international adoptions. Human trafficking is widespread in the country so the government ended adoptions as a means of solving the problem. But this does not address the Nepali adoption problem where some families will adopt a child because they need the labor. One of the volunteers who joined me at HCCH left her previous placement when the orphanage allowed a woman to adopt a girl to see if she would be a good weaver, but said that she would bring her back if she couldn't keep up. There's probably more to the story but there were articles in the local paper about child labor and human trafficking.

On my final night at the orphanage, after another day-long lice party, I felt prepared to say goodbye. Until after dinner, when I was inundated with hugs and kisses from so many different children! Some of whom I had felt like I had never connected with, but I somehow must have. I did not cry until Junchup came back into the kitchen for the third time to hug me and kiss me. 

Although I had enjoyed my time at the orphanage in Guatemala, I don't believe that I had any sort of lasting impact on the children there. But the kids at HCCH were special to me, and I found myself really useful and loved there.  It was such a great experience that I am already planning to go back to see how they grow. 

I feel blessed to have been given this time off to pursue another path, if only temporarily. It has been nice to get immersed in another culture and see how children live in other parts of the world. I look forward to seeing what is next for me.

I know this is a long note. I enjoy putting my thoughts in writing beyond my journal so I can reflect on my experience.  And I hope those who read this enjoy what I have to say. 

Before I sign off, I do have to share that I went paragliding in Nepal! It is one of the top five places in the world to paraglide so I had to try it. The scariest part of the event was the jeep ride up to the starting point. You don't really jump off the cliff, merely run until there is nothing beneath you.  There was an eagle soaring nearby while we flew. When I landed on the beach, I was a bit nauseous, but I didn't get sick!

That's all from 35,000 feet!