Nepal: You Need To Go Here. Now.
Click Here To See the Full Nepal Photo Album.
*Disclaimer – Not all backpackers are pretentious and patronizing. This is an amalgam of several conversations I’ve had with folks in a couple countries so far, and isn’t representative of the whole by any means. Most have been completely great. Them that are condescending just really, really, reallllly bother me.
Them: (After lighting a cigarette) Um...hi.
You: How’re you liking it in (insert country)?
Them: Um...yeah, it’s good. Did you just get in?
You: Yeah, I’ve only been here a week.
Them: Oh, hah. You’re new.
You: Yeah, how long have you been here?
Them: *Drag from cigarette* 2 weeks already.
You: Where are you traveling?
Them: Well, I’m coming from Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, India. I’m a backpacker.
You: Oh. Can you recommend anywhere to go or good places to eat?
Them: I mean...yeah? Just go explore, you know? I mean, adventure. That’s the best way to learn. Just don’t eat the (insert local food, said in an attempt at the local language).
You: What’s that?
Them: Hahaha, you haven’t had that? It’s the local staple. You’ll have it with basically like every meal, so yeah...*drag**gazing back to cell phone*
You: OK. Is there a place nearby that sells that?
Them: *still looking at cell phone* Um...yeah. Just go walk, if you get lost, it’s whatever. Just take a taxi back home, but don’t pay more than $5 to go anywhere, or else you’re just getting robbed.
You: OK. Thanks.
Them: *Drag* *Head nod, still looking at cell phone*
So I hopped the train to a satellite of the airport. I found a spot that seemed serviceable, though nowhere near as good. 20 minutes later, kicked awake again. Moved one more time and thought, “OK. THIS is the spot.” About 30 minutes later I was woken from deep sleep yet again. I was 5 feet past some red tape that wasn’t there when I went to sleep. They were closing that wing of the airport past the red line, so I had to move again. At this point it’s 3am and I concluded the only place in the airport they keep open is the Cinnabon. So, I ‘slept’ in a brightly lit alcove while a family talked at full volume the whole time, let their kids run wild, and sat in the massage chairs but refused to pay so the alarm kept beeping and telling them to leave.
Kuala Lumpur airport 1, Alex 0.
Arrived at a guest house in Kathmandu, which is where I’ll be for the next 4 days during orientation. One thing that definitely stuck out at me after walking through the door is the power schedule. In Kathmandu, and many places of Nepal, there are scheduled power outages. Sometimes it’s 8 hours a day, sometimes 16. The schedule is just a rough estimate. That will take some getting used to.
The food, though, is delicious. Nepali food is, to me, a mixture of Indian and Khmer – rice and lentils, which is called Dal Vat, as well as a lot of curries and chapati – a sort of naan/tortilla hybrid. I think I’ll be a-OK with that, likely imminent food poisoning aside.
Took in sunset from the rooftop of the guest house before heading to dinner and, as a way to cap off my first day in Nepal, this was pretty great.
Now, I’ve been off-roading before, plenty of times: up the scraggly, lava-laden roads of the big island in Hawaii, in Kenya, and many places in the US. But this, the drive up the mountains to Chitlan, is truly off-road. Aside from the fact there are absolutely no guard rails and the driver goes about 30 around hairpin turns, the road itself is nothing but jagged rock hacked out of, and replanted into, the hardened ground. This ride made for some absolutely jaw-dropping views of the greater Kathmandu valley.
After arriving at a small house on the outskirts of Chitlan, we were treated to ginger tea (delicious) and blessed with red ink on our foreheads by the mother of the house, a symbol of respect and hope for a long life. After a brief break, it was back into the vans for a drive into the village and a hike through the forests of Chitlan, down to a lake. Maybe I’m just being homesick, but I’ll be damned if the forest here didn’t smell exactly the same as back home at the height of summer – fresh pine and evergreen trees happens to be one of my favorite smells in all the world, and Chitlan had these in spades. We also happened upon a Nepali music video being filmed on the side of one of the slopes.
At the conclusion of the small little hike, we came to a lake – manmade, but no less beautiful because of it. I could do my best to write some flowery words here, but I’ve better faith in my ability to say the same thing more eloquently with a photo.
We crossed a really large suspension bridge after taking a ride in a canoe and doing a bit of scrambling up the side of a cliff, and happened to emerge on the backside of a farm in the village; it was awesome
Arrived back at the homestay just as a rainstorm was moving in. One of my favorite simple things in the world is falling asleep to the sound of a torrential downpour drumming it’s tune on the top of a metal roof. Tonight, after having a delicious Nepali meal, I slept in an unfinished house the size of a small garage with 4 of the other volunteers. My bed was basically a piece of plywood, but was one of the most sound nights of sleep I’ve had on the whole trip, spiders crawling along my face at multiple times in the middle of the night aside.
After an equally precarious bus ride back to Kathmandu, we went as a group to the “Monkey Temple” in Kathmandu. This site, perched upon one of the highest hills of the whole city, provided a 360 panorama of the whole of Kathmandu, prayer wheels and monkeys aplenty, and just really fun times in general. If and when you go to Kathmandu, it’s definitely worth a trip up.
With a few hours of free time at night, before the 8 hour bus ride to the volunteer placement of the northwestern Nepali city of Pokhara, I did what any sensible Westerner would do in one of the most mystical cities in the world: I went and drank a protein shake while watching the new Star Trek movie in 3D in the movie theater at the top of the local mall. For $5 in total for it all, it was tough to say no, and far be it from me to turn a cold shoulder to Benedict Cumberbatch’s mellifluous voice.
So, we’re at the movie and things are getting pretty intense midway through act two. Then, the movie just stops and the lights in the theater come up. I thought the movie was kaput. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case. It was just time for a 10 minute “interval” break, which is nothing but Nepali commercials (some in English, others local) for soap, coffee, pvc pipes, concrete, and flowers. Then back to the movie.
P.S. The new Star Trek is fantastic. Watch it and be merry.
Up at 5:30 to catch the bus and say goodbye to the local staff at the guest house in Nepal. It’s quite something how quickly it’s possible to grow instantly nostalgic for a place and people you’ve only experienced and known for a number of days.
Pokhara is only 250 kilometers (about 180 miles) from Kathmandu. On the freeways back home, this would be about a 3 hour trip. Here not so much. The corkscrewing roads accompanied by the endless stream of big rigs, construction trucks, taxis, motorcycles, and cows made the journey a good 8 hours. Ordinarily, I’d take this as an opportunity to catch up on some sorely needed sleep. But, ordinarily, buses tend to have shocks and suspension systems, and roads tend to be flat.
This was tantamount to being on the open ocean in a dingy with irregular whitecaps slapping the boat hither and tither. Or, the most low-budget amusement ride of all time. Despite the lack of sleep, and several dozen times I was jettisoned from my chair and hit my head on the luggage compartment, it was a fun ride. The scenery, and being able to see remote mountain villages, made it all worth it. As did the view I was met with upon arriving in Pokhara.
There’s a reason David Attenborough makes his voice so epic anytime he mentions the Himalayas on Planet Earth: because they are. Taking in sunset by Phewa lake as the last rays of sun kiss the tip of Fishtail Mountain is one of those moments that will occupy a space in my memory bank until I’m senile and forget this trip happened. The knowledge that this will be my home for the next month, and that I get to see this every day (weather permitting) is some pretty great news. I hope I don’t take it for granted.
The rain here is something else, and it’s awesome. Monsoon season is quickly moving in, and that makes for flooded streets, nighttime lightning storms, and a return of one of my favorite pastimes: sitting under a metal roof with a cup of tea, my pen and pad for lyrics, and the sound of rain drumming away above me.
Placement #6: Namaste Children’s Home
It took all of about 5 minutes to realize that my new placement, Namaste Children’s Home, is a shining example of how orphanages should be run. I’ve been taking mental notes during my travels of traits an ideal orphanage would and would not have, just in case I were to ever open one someday. Namaste checks off many of my prerequisites, and then some.
- Every staff member is compassionate, polite, and caring. All of their job duties, their days off, and any notes are left on a whiteboard for all to see.
- There are pictures of each of the children on the wall, their names underneath.
- In the office, there is a binder that has info, progress reports, report cards, artwork, and medical histories of the kids.
- There is a schedule posted on the wall, adhered to daily. It includes, among other things, three scheduled meals and one snack, exercise time, yoga, reading time, school, cleaning time, etc.
- Cleaning duties are split evenly between all of the children, also on a schedule.
- Volunteers are not allowed to talk about religion with the children, swear, or smoke or drink.
- The children all go to a secondary school a ten minute walk up the road.
- Aside from housing 47 children, Namaste is an advocate for keeping children at home with their families or relatives, when possible, circumventing the desire by some families to send children to an orphanage for a better chance at an education. They do this by providing scholarships to impoverished kids in many different regions of Nepal.
- They have a counselor on-site six days a week for the kids to talk to.
- They are active in – and encourage the kids to be active in – the community. This is evidenced by the fact they organize blood drives, garbage clean-up days, organize hearing clinics, etc.
There are many other incredible positives here, but those are some highlights. I only got to meet the kids briefly today, but I can already tell I’m going to love it here.
8:30 – I arrive and help the kids get ready for school. In the boy’s room, this means helping them get dressed, make sure they have brushed their teeth, etc.
9:30 – Walk all of the kids – ages 4-16 – to school.
10:00 – Return back and help with cleaning. Mop one of the floors, sweep, help with laundry, etc.
11:00 – 2:00 – Lunch break
2:00 – Return back to Namaste, help with food prep: cut pounds of vegetables, clean dishes, etc.
3:00 – Walk back to the school to be there when the kids get out of class, and walk them home.
4:00 – Play with the kids, help them with any pressing homework, just be present.
5:00 – Head home.
While there are only a couple hours of interaction each day with the kids, if today is any indication, it will certainly be a case of quality over quantity. Even though they’ve had dozens of volunteers (who they call “auntie” and “uncle”) come and go in the past, they certainly know how to help you feel welcome and unique. I was immediately shown photo albums by several of the boys, their excitement over sharing their life in pictures an awesome thing.
During days where it rains, Namaste sends their driver and SUV over to Step-by-Step, their school, to pick up the kids. Usually they take two trips. Today, unbeknownst to me and one of the older kids, they only took one. I was told by one of the house sisters to wait for the car to come back as I watched it pull out of the parking lot with a fellow volunteer and about 25 kids (there’s a canopy in the back where they sit, in case you’re wondering how 25 kids fit into an SUV. It’s still kind of clown car-ish). So, we did. We waited. And waited. And waited some more. I walked over to the security guard of the school and asked if he could call Namaste (he knows the number, as all of the kids at Namaste go to the school). After a conversation in which he had a few bouts of hearty laughter he hung up and told me, “yeah, no one’s coming for you” and gave me a smack on the back.
So, Dipak (in his school uniform) and I (in a rainjacket and flip-flops) trekked back through the mud and garbage and cowpies to Namaste. He told me about his life growing up, asked me about America, and laughed at me every time my flip-flop stuck into the mud like some crude epoxy. Undoubted bovine poop on my feet, this walk back will still be one of my favorite memories from this whole trip, I’m sure. The look on the house sister’s face when she saw us approach looking like two drowned rats was priceless and worth the journey alone.
Also, while I was waiting, I got into a conversation with a man who turned out to be the principal of the school. When I told him I was from America, and that I’m traveling as a documentarian, he excitedly let me know about his son who’s currently going to film school in Los Angeles. He then introduced me to his wife, a teacher at the school, and invited me to their house for dinner. I said, “hey, that sounds great, but I don’t know what my sched-“. “-That’s great,” he said, “it’s decided. Then we’re agreed. You will come to dinner at our house.” It’s hard to say you don’t know if you’ll be able to attend because of your schedule when the only acceptable response is “Yes. Yes we’re agreed.”
Done and done.
The second is that the majority of them, in stark contrast to almost every kid back home (including me way, back when), are genuinely happy and excited to go to school, to learn, and to grow. The difference might be that education in Nepal is a privilege, not a right, and it’s for that very reason that it’s not taken for granted. Rather, it’s viewed as a way to build a foundation for a brighter future, and a solo endeavor toward wisdom and a lifetime of learning. Refreshing.
In order to get there you can either take a taxi to the top (yawn) or take a boat across Phewa Lake and hike (tough) – we chose the latter.
The view at the top was gorgeous, and was definitely worth being made to feel I was a noodley-armed man with the strength of a newly hatched, mutated chick on a KFC chicken farm.
When the kids learned I was a rapper, I was signed up without any say-so from my end to perform at said Funny Friday. I rapped my song “Simpleman” for them, and they enjoyed it enough to ask me if I could lead a rap class for some of the kids in the upcoming weeks. Heck yes! So, starting next week, I’ll teach a rap class to a couple of the kids who want to learn the art. I’m excited for this.
It was absolutely gorgeous. The clouds just started to part as we finished planting the trees, and we could make out the faint outline of some Himalayan peaks. I can see why they want to move out here. What an incredible place this would be to grow and flourish for the kids. To be able to run around in the fresh air removed from the bustle of the city (but still near enough) and just...be kids, would be good medicine.
Equally inspiring is that Namaste isn’t just moving out to this village to build and shoehorn themselves into the community. Rather, they’re engaging the community and actively participating in cultivating something local from the ground up. By renovating the school and medical outpost, they are giving work to the locals and involving them in every development. Sustainability is a great thing.
On the way back home, I got to ride on the top of a bus! My seat was initially on steel rebar, which wasn’t the most pleasant. So I changed to riding above the cab, which wasn’t the safest. I had a little lip of metal to grab onto, and my feet were sliding around on the hot sheet metal roof like an elephant trying to tap-dance in the Arctic. There were three times I was positive I was going to slide off the top to my imminent demise below, but here we are. I also met a Nepali soldier who worked as a peacekeeper for the UN in the Congo a few years back.
When they got back from school I took their "casual" pictures, per Rishi's request. Casual in quotes because they were posed in a casual way, like "hey, look at me casually reading" or "hey, look at me in mid-swing playing ping-pong." In other words, it's tough to get candid shots when one of the requirements is they are to be posed. That said, it was fun, and many of the kids probably got tired of me turning their orphanage into a Yuen Lui studio by the end of the day.
(You can see some of the pictures from this shoot throughout the course of this journal.)
For as long as I can remember, clowns have made me depressed, because I felt someone who had to paint their happiness probably had some deep-seated depression and probably a shiv waiting for my spinal column if I looked at them the wrong way. Or, they would turn into Stephen King's "It." With that in mind, you can imagine my relief when what we showed up to wasn't a circus at all, but a dance/gymnastics display for the kids to watch. Score.
The most entertaining part of the whole performance wasn't the dancing itself (though that was good, too), it was the reactions of Dipak sitting next to me as he watched the dancing. Seeing the smile on his face and all of the other kids at Namaste made the car-ride back in which I stood in a crouched position and hit my head on the metal roof of a truck canopy at each bump we encountered worth it.
Last night was the first night since arriving in Pokhara where I could see stars in the sky. My friends and I figured it was our best shot at seeing a clear sunrise over the Himalayas, too. So, we awoke at 3:45, booked a taxi for 4, and groggily made the trek up. Worth it. I almost felt like I could reach out and touch several of the peaks in the Himalayas. Watching the first golden slivers just glance the top of the snowfilled peaks before cascading down into the valleys below will undoubtedly go down as one of the more memorable experiences of this journey.
5.31.13 - 6.1.13
As we were packing up to head out, I was greeted by an enthusiastic and photogenic 5-year-old girl and her dad. Her smile was infectious and, while she posed for pictures for others, I learned from her dad that they lived in a shack near the lake with a literal garbage bag rooftop. He showed me his legs and arms that were completely covered with psoriasis, and told me he had been raising his daughter in their little shack since she was born. He used to be a porter for a company that leads expeditions into the nearby mountains, but then he got injured. With no disability or insurance, he was made homeless and has been unable to find work despite his best efforts and nagging injury. Heartbreaking to say the least. The warmth and tenderness with which he so clearly treated his daughter was inspiring to see and, in the face of roadblocks the size of the Himalayas themselves, they were both smiling radiantly.
Today was also the start of hip hop class! My two students, Purna (16) and Dipesh (13), are fantastic - so eager and willing to learn the craft. We started with the basics: beat, rhythm, syllables, bars, examples of words that rhyme, breathing, flow, etc. I played them examples of some of my favorite hip hop tracks from Outkast, Fashawn, and Eyedea, and then they wanted to hear examples of mine so I played them a few songs from The Fall of Atlas. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how big a smile it put on my face to hear how much they enjoyed every example, both from me and everyone else I played.
I gave them their assignment for the following week: write a short essay about their lives for me to read so that we can work together to turn it into a song and, as much as they want, write a hip hop song about anything (minimum of 8 bars). Once we get a good verse written, I'll record them rapping it over a beat I make next week. After they record, I'll do the same with kids in other countries where I volunteer. When I get home, I'll put all the verses together on one big track, post it on iTunes and other places online, and give the proceeds to all of their orphanages. I can't wait to hear what they come up with for the song!
Purna presented me with a 16 bar verse he had written today, too, and given the fact that he wrote it in English - not his native language - it was pretty remarkable that he had solid rhymes and rhythm and it fit to the beat I played for him using my fists pounding the table during our class a few days ago. In a few days, I've no doubt he'll turn out a great verse for the song!
Purna grew up in Damside, a suburb a little ways away from Pokhara. His dad was a drinker and would beat him and his mom. When he was about 8 years old, his dad came home drunk and beat Purna's mom especially aggressively. Purna tried to get him to stop, but his dad was unrelenting and beat his mom to death. He told Purna that if he said anything, he would come back and kill him and his grandma. For the next couple years, Purna lived with his grandma and worked as a dishwasher and tea delivery boy in a small cafe. His grandma was not in shape physically or financially to care for him, and Purna was dropped off at an orphanage in Damside. They didn't accept him because of his size - he was severely malnourished. Visma heard about Purna and brought him to live at Namaste shortly after. He has been at Namaste since he was 11.
Dipesh has an older brother at Namaste. When they were younger, they lived with their father who worked as a farmhand in a rural village. Their mom fell sick and then left them. They weren't making enough to survive, and they moved from town to town looking for work. Eventually, their dad deserted them and they lived in the street near Kathmandu begging for food. After months living on the street and barely surviving off of the scraps people would give them, Dipesh and his brother were brought to live at Namaste several years ago.
The best part of the interviews to me was how genuine and candid they were with their responses to each question. While their answers to each question varied, all of them thought that having volunteers is a generally positive experience, but that volunteers are most helpful when they show up with the goal of simply being present and helping on a daily basis and not trying to "fix" or "save" anything or anyone. I'm really looking forward to adding the footage of their interviews to the documentary, and based on how well these interviews went, I'm even more excited to interview some of the kids tomorrow.
Lalita was especially particularly important for me to interview. She was the first child, ten years ago, to come to Namaste. Her story made the national news, and it goes like this: when she was six, her stepmom killed her mom. Her dad was under investigation for the murder, too. With no other relatives around to raise her, Lalita went with her stepmom and dad to prison and lived with them there. Through absolutely no fault of her own, Lalita was a six year-old inmate, sharing a jail cell with the woman who killed her mother.
Sarmila is one of the most grounded kids I've met, and interviewing her was a treat. She was so enthusiastic and joyous and happy to be interviewed. When she was an infant, her father left. Shortly after, her mom eloped with another man and abandoned Sarmila, forcing her grandmother to raise her. However, her grandparents hardly made enough money to feed themselves, let alone Sarmila or any of her siblings. Shortly after, Namaste brought Sarmila to live at the orphanage.
To say that the courage and strength of Purna, Lalita, Sarmila, and all the kids at Namaste is "inspiring" would be to call the sun "warm." It's true, sure, but the description doesn't quite do it justice. The sun is unfathomably hot, and these kids are unequivocally valiant and uplifiting. I'm blessed to know them.
Today was also largely devoted to interviews, among them Rishi (the in-charge/counselor for the kids), Anita (one of the older girls), and some of the younger children. The interview with Rishi was so good. He was incredibly animated, insightful, passionate, and answered a lot of my questions before I even asked them: an interviewers dream. Anita and the younger children shared their usual ebullient selves with me, which is always an awesome experience to capture (and share with you in the not too distant future).
We practiced for about an hour to get his voice warmed up and to help him feel comfortable recording to the beat he listened to through headphones. After a couple dozen takes, each better than the last, Purna delivered his verse with a level of confidence and ease that belies the fact he was rapping in his non-native language, for the first time, and under a fair amount of pressure. I'm so, so proud of him.
The fact that I never saw the children cry led me to three conclusions: they are happy, they are well cared for, and they posses a strength of character and powerful perseverance that almost defies belief.
After saying my goodbyes to the kids until sunset, I juggled hackey-sacks with Dipak for about an hour. Though my unpacked bags were calling on me to hurry up and pack them for the early morning wake-up tomorrow, it was impossible to say no to Dipak's joy and laughter, and this will go down as one of my favorite nights in Nepal.
My bags packed, in bed by around 12, I was expecting a good 5 hours of shut-eye before the 8 hour bus ride back to Kathmandu. This was one of those nights where expectations didn't really meld with reality. With monsoon season knocking at the door, there have been several night-time storms the last couple weeks, and none more powerful than tonight. There was thunder so loud that it actually hurt my ears and shook objects in the room. It felt like I was on a soundstage in Hollywood. While I love storms, I adore sleep (which has proven to be elusive for the last 28-ish years) and tonight ended up being another in a long list of sleep-deprived nights.
Goodbyes are an imperfect artform, but I'm a firm believer in the goodbye being final until the next time you see one another. After bidding a fond farewell to the new friends I made in Nepal, all of them truly wonderful people I look forward to knowing for a long, long time, I hopped in a car for the bus station. With the rain letting up, I packed my rain jacket in my duffel. Not two seconds after I handed off my bag to the bus attendant for packing under the bus did the skyward floodgates open. No matter, I thought, as I'd be sitting on the bus for the next 8 hours anyway. Or so I thought.
I figured I'd play Angry Birds or something to pass the time until we pulled out of the parking lot, and reached into my pocket for my phone. Nothing. Reached into my other. Nothing. No phone on or under the seats, either. Figs.
I hopped up and asked the attendant how long until we'd leave. 25 minutes he told me, 30 at most. I must have left the phone at the guest house. Just enough time to make it back, grab the phone, and return. With the Ganges transplanted to the clouds above Pokhara, Nepal, I was completely soaked by the time I got to a taxi. The taxi also didn't have a defroster, and by the way he was driving it seemed like he was guessing whether or not there was a car, person, or cow in front of him. I was pretty sure I was going to die in a car wreck in Pokhara (but here we are).
Made it back to the guest house, and re-said goodbye to my friends. They helped me urgently look for my phone. Nothing. Luckily, one of the workers called the driver who picked me up, and it fell out in his car, so he kindly drove it back to the bus station. Crisis averted.
Looking forward to catching up on a few hours sleep, I hunkered down in my seat, leaned against the window, and waited for the man of sand to visit me. Instead, I was kept awake by two things: the lady in front of me who reclined her seat all the way back, which apparently turned it into a flat bed and eliminated the small semblance of leg room to which I was clinging, and the woman next to me who every ten minutes violently dropped her head onto my shoulder in her slumber, woke up a few minutes later, and repeated the process for the next five hours.
Needless to say, by the time I got to my hostel in Kathmandu, I was ready to sleep before my flight to Kenya tomorrow and ensuing ten hour layover in Mumbai. Let's do this.
Initially, she wouldn't take my passport because I didn't have a ticket for the flight. I told her that I didn't have a ticket because I couldn't check-in online since the flight was booked through her airline but operated by another carrier. She told me without a ticket I couldn't get a boarding pass. I politely told her that was a pile of poo, and it was her job to get my boarding pass since the ticket was bought through them. Finally, she took my passport and I waited. And waited. And waited.
1am rolled around, and I was greeted by a different Jet Airways worker who told me I was going to be sent back to Kathmandu because I didn't have the necessary paperwork to enter Kenya. False though that was, I had two hours to convince them otherwise and make my 3:10am flight.
I'll leave it as a cliffhanger as to whether or not I made it to Kenya. (Spoiler alert, I'm in Kenya...)
Thank you for reading. Until next time, my friends!