Travelling Without Maps

I don’t use maps. Left, right, straight ahead, are confusing terms — too dependent on the direction you are facing or how you hold the map. And, anyway, I typically confuse left and right, one spin, from 12 o’clock to three o’clock and for me, the map has become a bunch of misleading lines. I read somewhere that London cab drivers’ brains show unusual development in the part responsible for topographical orientation. That part, in my brain, has a hole. I get lost when I try to use maps.

My strategy in a unfamiliar place is to exit the door of my sleeping place, circumnavigate the building, taking in the sights, or sites, street names, orienting myself to ‘home’, looking back at the front door, memorising buildings, landmarks. I look for spires or cranes or high rises. I look at door colours, memorials, monuments. I allow myself to veer from the circle only for short distances at first – into interesting side streets with small busy restaurants, those with tired, or unfashionable décor — where the ‘real people’ eat. I carry a phrase book, and a note book. My sleeping place’s name and address is in the note book. If I become disoriented I ask for directions, looking suitable helpless – (it is no act) point to the address in my notebook– and someone will point me in the approximate direction. I like when the sun is out. I understand north. If the finger points east. I bear east. I make detours around areas heavily populated by camera toting visitors. I spend five minutes or so in any church with an open door.

Tom, the pleasant, patient cybervoiced presence on my Sat Nav looks after me when I drive. He tells me three times which exit to take at the roundabout. ‘Go right at the roundabout – third exit. Third exit. Exit the roundabout’. I talk back to him. Thank you, Tom. OK. OK. I heard you. Turn around when it is safe to do so. (Must’a took the wrong exit at the roundabout).

Been there. Done that. Got the tee shirt. One woman, who shall be nameless, told me she didn’t like Scotland. Her whole experience of Scotland was a single visit to Glasgow. I’m happy to confess I still don’t know Scotland. I’m becoming familiar with a one area, SW Scotland, but even then, each time I take the Dee walk I encounter a place I do not know. A bird I’ve never noticed before. An abundance of rose hips, and fatter than I’ve ever seen. The old scuttled boat has lost yet more blue paint.

One night, tenting north of Lytton, British Columbia, Canada, I crawled out of the tent in the middle of the night. Shivering. The temperature had dropped. I squatted to pee, look up and saw for the first time in my life, Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Stars as big as blinding suns. In my astonishment I forgot how cold I was. There is no tee shirt for that. Another night, tenting by the Nimpkish River, North Vancouver Island, I woke up sopping wet, the ground sheet, the sleeping bag, and me. I found out that night the Nimpkish is a tidal river and that breaking camp in the middle of night, dripping with water, is another experience for which there is no tee shirt, instruction book or map.

Recently I bought a smart phone with a camera. But I’ll continue to leave photography to the professionals and map reading for those whose brains are adapted to the exercise. I comfort myself with the wonderful idea that the map is never the territory and no photograph can capture this experience. And this: recently in Budapest I left my sister and her man squabbling over a map and the route back to our hotel. I’ll use my method, I told them. I asked just one person.  He pointed.  I arrived at the hotel a full 15 minutes before them. I deserve a tee shirt for that one.

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The Social Outcasts of the 21st Century


The Telegraph, July 22nd 2014 carried an article by historian Tim Stanley.  He wrote about war crimes against Christians in Iraq.  He  focussed  particularly on the fact that atrocities  perpetrated on Christians seemed to be of little concern to the western world.

I ‘shared’ the article on Facebook. Now any of my posts that smell a little of ‘Jesus’ will be studiously ignored by the majority of my Facebook friends. I’m the embarrassing outlier in my FB social circle. I can be counted on to have an opinion out of the ordinary.  

Indeed, I can count the friends who ‘like’ my Jesus posts on one hand . Sometimes on two fingers.

But this article, and two others I shared, were about gross violations of human rights. Would these posts, although they included the loaded word, Christian, be received more favourably? I wrote a teaser preface:

I don’t expect much support for this cause. My friends (apart from those few who are Christian) just about ‘tolerate’ my Christianity, because they love me. But I share the post today, remembering persecuted people anywhere in the world — people of faith persecuted for their beliefs.

Articles posted around the same time, about Israeli aggression resulting in civilian casualties, received a great deal of attention, and many likes. This is the sexy issue of the year and the vote is in. It’s all the fault of the Jews! There is nothing like a little polarization in debate to make life look simple.

But back to the Christians. How many likes. How many comments. OK, let’s take a look. My three posts about violence against Christians in Iraq received, in aggregate, seven likes.

One update about my neck rash received seven likes.

Secularists 7

Christians 2.3

I do not wish to seem ungrateful, or picky, (and I concede right up front that my survey method is flawed) but why does an article I wrote about a mild rash on my neck receive more attention than news about Christian women being forced to wear the hijab or being subjected to rape? Or of Christian places of worship being destroyed by fire? Or of Christians, men, women and children, forced to flee their homes? Or, on and on.

Dr. Stanley writes, Westerners have been trained to think of Christians as ‘an agent of aggression’, not its victim.

There is that, and then there’s just that it’s unfashionable to be Christian.

Popular opinion gets shaped by our cultural icons: the glib polemics of Richard Dawkins; the pure silliness of his comedian equivalent, Ricky Gervaise — their fundamentalist Sunday School presentation of scripture, their clumsy attempts at humor, their stereotyping, their impoverished and superficial understanding of our complex and subtle mystical heritage.

Yes! The earth is 6,000 years old! (Sycophantic sniggers of contempt from the studio audience).

If you want to win the football game pray better than the other team! The big umpire in the sky is adding up the score! (Roars of laughter from the arena).

On a personal level I try not to be cross when an atheist tells me what I believe rather than asking me what I believe. I resort to quoting Kierkegard – the absurdity of faith. We can agree on that. Sometimes I do the old Uncle Tom shit-eating shuffle, hoping they’ll find another Christian to bait and leave me alone. I try not to react to the stereotyping, the distortions, the scapegoating. I get a little annoyed sometimes when I’m blamed for the Crusades; pedo priests; hateful attitudes towards gays, lesbians, transgendered people; misogyny; and so on. I’ve had my spiritual practice likened to belief in fairy tales, explained as my hiding from the truth and my defending myself against the inevitability of death. I would be lying if I said it doesn’t bug me. It is uncomfortable – persecution, even a flea bite sized persecution eats you up And the personal is political.

The persecution of Christians in Iraq is political. It is about the use of power, the misuse of power, the failure to use power when necessary. Dr. T. Stanley again:

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has compared the suffering of Middle East Christians with Jewish pogroms in Europe and reminded everyone of the words of Martin Luther King: “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” It would indeed be awful to think that the West might remain silent as violence rages purely out of a failure to recognise that Christians can be victimised, or out of a reluctance to cast aspersions on certain brands of Islam. It would make this the first genocide in history to be tolerated out of social awkwardness.


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St. Ninian’s Cave

stninianscave-2006pano (1)  There is no one around.

There is, after all, nothing to see, nothing but a pebbled beach, an expanse of clear ocean and the view of a distant shoreline below the wide sky. Approaching the beach from the glen, look to your right and you can see a cleft in the rocky headland.

There is nothing to hear but the beat of the tide.

There is nothing to do.

Pilgrimage is here to there, there to here, it is a merging of journey and destination. It is departure, approach, arrival. For the pilgrim, destination is not physical place, it is atonement, mystical union.

You get to the cave through the Physgill wooded glen. The winding path splits in two. A moment of deliberation, but it doesn’t matter which way you choose, the paths soon converge again. There are muddy, boggy bits even now, in mid-July. You tread carefully to save your shoes and there is no reason to hurry. No show time. Nothing to see, hear, or do.

The pebbled beach can’t be rushed. The stones range from boulder sized stones to walnut sized stones and every size of stone in between. The stones have hieroglyphs, or pictogram — letters and pictures carved by  earth’s slow time. You walk slowly over the beach, picking footholds on the shifting pebbles. The eye is drawn to the stones. Who doesn’t look down and pick a stone up and decipher its code? I chose two small stones. The first has human stick figure on one of its sides and a cross on the other. The second has a configuration of lines that I read like a Rorschach test or the thrown bones of divination.

One looks towards the bay, the sky, the distant horizon, and then down at the feet, placing each foot carefully to avoid a stumble, then one looks to the cave, then back to the crashing waves, then to the vegetation line to adjudge if the midway point between the beginning of the beach and the cave has been reached.

Ninian’s cave is not the diminutive hermit-cave of imagination. Its ceiling height, in relations to its footprint, makes of it a miniature cathedral. In the 4th Century, AD,  Saint Ninian knelt here to pray. Or maybe he didn’t. Legend or history. Take your pick. I believe that Saint Ninian knelt and prayed in this cave.

St. Ninian’s cave is a sea cave formed along a fault in lower Silurian greywacke  443 (+/– 1.5) million years ago and discovered by human kind long before St. Ninian discovered it anew in 397 AD.

Deep peace of the running wave to you

Deep peace of the flowing air to you

Deep peace of the quiet earth to you

Deep peace of the shining stars to you

Saint Ninian is reputed to have established his ministry in Whithorn.  His stone church, Candida Casa, gave us the name,  Whithorn. St. Ninian is credited with bringing Christianity to the Picts.

The cave is three miles south of Whithorn. The approach is through wooded Physgill Glen, a walk of approximately one mile. The pebbled beach stretches for 400 yards. The cave is 10 feet wide and 15 feet high.

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 The risk from parasites is high in Nepal —  Head lice.  Leeches.  Giardiasis.           Hookworm.    Global Volunteer Network.

Chapter I

I Make Post-Placement Contact with Global Volunteer Network – New Zealand

Back from Nepal on December first, 2013, I am eager to inform Global Volunteer Network, about irregularities I  noted during my two months stay.   It was Global Volunteer Network who’d brokered my placement at Shining Stars Childrens Home in Nepal, at a cost to me of $2,200 US.  (Travel not included!).

Erin, Global Volunteer Network’s CEO, and her subordinate, Fiona, are my contacts.   I let them know first off that their advertisement claiming 24/7 volunteer support is false advertising.   I hadn’t suffered particularly from having no support. Although the office tasked with providing support to volunteers was closed during the 10 days holiday (I arrived in the village at festival time), although the  children’s home internet connection was not working and my Nokia — serviceable throughout Europe — could not pick up a signal in the Kathmandu Valley, although I was a little concerned that my family might worry about me after a week of no FB updates, in spite of all this, I was fine.  I am old, resourceful, and have a strong constitution.

But Erin (I said) think of an eighteen year old volunteer!  Someone that young might have freaked out to find himself in a Nepal village, living with a family with no English,  in a work placement where the only adult English speaker, the house manager, was gone for the festival’s duration.  How would that young person manage if they came down with (for example) a parasitic infection?  And there is the question of the false advertising, I added. 

I had started to worry about parasites.  I’d  learned, by perusing the shiny Global Volunteer Network site, the one with the broadly smiling Colin Salisbury, and the Bill Gates recommendation,  that my  ‘volunteer program fee’, was used to finance my Nepal experience, my food, lodging in the village, one night’s stay in a Kathmandu guest house (though I and another volunteer didn’t get this,  We’d to pay the hotel ourselves)  and a cab from the airport on arrival, and the all-important (but conspicuously absent)   24/7 volunteer support, and  ‘training’.  I knew that these costs could not possibly amount to $2,200 but I assumed that I was making a charitable donation and my program fee would help support the children’s home and the local community, I supposed a  small percentage would go to the care and feeding of GVN’s corporate entity.  I am happy to see my money flowing in those directions.

Where did my money actually go?  Well here’s the thing about parasites.  They are sneaky little buggers.  The Colins and the Erins of this world appear benign.  They shake hands with you and your hands look clean but make no mistake you have been touched with something corrupt, and it’s already feeding on you.  You don’t actually see what they are doing.  They hide in the seams.

So I wouldn’t have minded if my money had gone to feeding the kids in the home.  I’d have been happy.

Chapter II  Oliver  Asks for More

One day I was in the ‘treatment room’ (a small room with a box or two of band aids, a couple of bunks, and a bottle of dettol, and a height chart, and scale).   One of the boys, age 16 years, stood on the scale and announced to me that he weighed 48 kg (105 lbs).  He stood 167 cm (5’ 5″) tall.  I am a slightly-built older woman.  I stand 156 cm ( 5’ 1”) tall.  I told Harry that he couldn’t possibly be that light.  I checked.   He did indeed clock in at 48 kg.  To prove that the scales must be broken I stood on the scale.  I weighed in at a little over 50 kg (112 lbs).  Yes.  That’s what I weigh.  The scales were working; How could a post-adolescent male, four inches taller than I,  weigh less than I?  But I had been noticing the kids seemed too thin, especially the older boys.  I remember my kids as teenagers.  They could  hoover up the fridge contents in ten minutes and still be  hungry.

One of my jobs at the home was to help dish out the twice daily Nepal staple of dal bhat.  Each child was given a huge mound of white rice and a ladle of watery lentil soup.  Added to this was a good tablespoon of vegetables.   In addition, a snack  was served early morning and late afternoon — wheat flour biscuits maybe,  and sometimes a small glass of milk. At dal bhat the boys would come up for seconds.  There was usually enough to give seconds of white rice.  There was sometimes enough to give seconds of dal.  There was rarely enough to give seconds of vegetables.  Some of the boys came up for a third helping of white rice.  We’re really scraping the pot at this point and sometimes there is not a grain left to scrape.  During the festivals the strict regime is relaxed.  For example meat is served:  two chickens between 28 – 30 people,  and the children would get a piece of fruit, I mean ‘a piece’, not a whole fruit.

I overlapped with a number of other volunteers (oh yes, the money rolls in.)  A young American volunteer, at the house manager’s request, did  heights/ weights for the resident children and charted same.  In the ‘treatment room’ we found a height and weight chart from 2010.  A fourth year medical student volunteer from Australia —  examined the data and was convinced the children were losing weight.  She photographed the charts.  On her return home during her post-placement contact she offered her opinion on the height and weight issue also on other issues relating to substandard care of the children.  She was soundly rebuffed by Erin and company,  had a residency ahead of her, and knew I’d pick up the baton on my return home.

I firstly took up the issue with Miryam, one of the westerners based in Kathmandu.  Hers is the job of supporting volunteers.  Along with her superior, Kate, she provides case management services for the kids.  Makes sure they are OK.  Visit the home once a month.

I believe Kate represents Global Volunteer Network in Nepal.  I never got a straight answer about her role, function or who she actually reports to.  (I digress and I fear irritating my audience.  Please bear with me.  I am still on the trail of the parasites, Colin, Erin and, yes, let’s add Kate,  maybe  Fiona too, the  ‘program specialist’ .  She works  at Global Volunteer Network in New Zealand.  I expect she is paid for her work).

I talked to Miryam, Kate’s underling —  I know this is confusing.  Kate and Miryam are based in Nepal.  They live in Kathmandu.  Kate, as well as working for  Global Volunteer Network,  runs a business –  Himalayan  expeditions.  She advertises her business  at the VSN Shining Stars Childrens Home.  One can buy postcard adverts for her business and some of the profits! from the sale of the cards go to Shining Stars!  I would call this conflict of interest, but this is  Global Volunteer Network and the  ethics of parasites.

Miryam, (I said) some of the children seem to be underweight and even hungry.  Miryam gave me a lecture of how legumes and rice combined make protein.  Miryam, I said,  I know all of this but here’s the thing:  some of the children seem to be  underweight and hungry.  No, she said.  That’s not true.  Some of them seem to have eyesight problems I said.  I notice when I write on the white board a number of them have to approach very close to take notes.  No.  Miryam said.  That’s not true.  I wondered, I said, if the eye sight problem is a consequence of poor nutrition.  No.  Miryam said.

One of the girls at the home was being treated with water.  She’d been complaining for months of feeling of feeling tired and dizzy.  She was diagnosed by Kate’s team as suffering from dehydration.  This is illness that is easily treated.  She had to drink water.  She took a long walk with me one day.  I noticed she had to pee twice as often as I.  (I’m the elder, our positions should have been reversed. She wasn’t drinking more water than I was).  I asked the house manager if she might perhaps see a doctor for blood tests.  He took her to the local clinic where she was prescribed antibiotics.  Her primary diagnosis was not dehydration.  She was found to have a chronic untreated infection.

So at my first conference, (skype), with Erin and Fiona,   (Colin would have been at his two martini lunch.  He’d have been tucking into his New Zealand lamb)  I related all of the above, and more.  I tried to help them make a  link between payments to them from folk like me, and a Nepal home where kids go hungry.  The two things linked in my mind.

Now I know that 50% of kids in Nepal don’t get enough to eat. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world.  But  wouldn’t you  expect children living in a home funded by a respected charity, a charity that brokers the placement of volunteers, and takes a hefty fee from them, to land in the advantaged group? In the healthy 50%?  We would all agree that these children can’t be kitted out in a way that makes them stand out too much from their disadvantaged peers, but we would expect children in a home under the auspice of Global Volunteer Network to be fed properly and to have shoes without holes, shoes that do not need to be repaired with layers of cardboard.  We would expect a charity that receives large ‘volunteer program fees’ to direct some of these funds to making sure the children are fed.

That’s what I told Erin and Fiona on the skype call.

Chapter  III  I  call in my consultants


The minutiae of the email correspondence between Global Volunteer Network and myself (following the first skype conference)  apropos  of nothing.  Months go by.  Some pretty useless budget information, an opportunity for Erin, CEO to chide me for my ignorance about how Global Volunteer Network and its subsidiaries really work,  futile attempts on my part to communicate my concerns about the children.  I tell them I don’t care about the volunteer support part, sure there is false advertising, yes they need to provide what they say they’ll provide, but let’s just look after the kids here.   There are issues beyond just feeding the kids, there are discharge planning issues, there are privacy issues, there are issues to do with clothing, shoes,  soap, toothpaste, feminine protection for one child (with heavy flow)  for whom rags are  insufficient to ensure her comfort and dignity.  But food.  At least get them fed.

I am fortunate in having a friend with a master’s degree in nursing.  She’s an academic,  a woman who has worked in third world countries, with children, a health-care professional with an interest in nutrition.  She charted the children’s heights and weights on the appropriate instrument and was convinced there was cause for concern.  But, just to be sure, she elicited the assistance of a pediatrician she had worked with at some point.  This doctor currently works in underdeveloped countries.  His assignment is to teach health care professionals in these countries about childhood nutrition.  He took the data and charted it.  He did some additional research  to ensure the findings would reflect the situation in Nepal.  This information was then directed to Erin and Fiona. A dietitian came on board too and provided additional analyses.   There follows a quote from one of the health specialists:

Here are the growth charts of the four children whose growth is very poor and who need to be reviewed by a paediatrician.  Each one has crossed two or more centile lines.  All of them have poor growth in height as well as weight, and therefore each of them may have a chronic illness, or inadequate nutrition, or both.”

Here is a second quote from another health specialist:

If these children were in this country we would be concerned to get them seen urgently by a senior experienced paediatrician to find the cause of their very poor growth, and to ensure that there are no child protection issues involved.

Erin began her response to the experts’ advice with these words:  ‘Whilst not a health care professional, I am of the opinion…’ (By truncating the quote, and omitting the consultant’s exasperated response to Erin’s show of ignorance,  I spare Erin further embarrassment).

At some point during the long correspondence. and as time passed,  I recalled that the nature of the parasite is to exploit the host, not help it, and realized that Colin and Erin have no genuine desire to help  anyone other than themselves.  This is an organization that has  forgotten its mission, if it ever had one, their energy is directed towards self-preservation maybe towards personal status,  financial rewards.  You might think that is a harsh thing to say, and it is hard for me to write it of another human being, but one question I asked Global Volunteer Network was this:  if your  children were  hungry would it take three months for you to feed them?  I never did get an answer.

What I got was an assurance that since I had made a serious accusation  Global Volunteer Network  would see that Kate and company had an opportunity to respond.  I would hear back ‘in due course’.  I pointed out that you do not ask a body that has been shown to need investigation to investigate itself.  I think this might have been a new concept for Global Volunteer Network.  My eyewitness accounts could now be set up to be refuted. Why?  I have no vested interest.  I have no motive for interfering other than I don’t like to see neglected children.  The consultants worked for no fee only out of concern for children that they saw as neglected.

For those of you hungry for detail, I and some other volunteers did a little sleuthing. Host families are  paid  180 rupees a day for providing dal bhat and a bed to a volunteer.  180 rupees is about £1 or $1.70.  The indigenous house manager is paid $100 per month.  If any one is interested in the budget allocated for food I can include it.  I have the information.   It is not that the manager gets paid too little, I’m not sure if he should be getting a little more or not, it is again the puny expense of running the home that I want people to know about, the low cost of keeping the free labour that a volunteer provides,  while GVS is doing God knows what with the large income derived from volunteer program fees.

I’ve used parasitic behavior as a metaphor for the modus operandi of Global Volunteer Network.  But let me be clear.  It is not that I have been eaten by the parasite, it is not my $2,200 expenditure that I am bemoaning here, rather it is  that Global Volunteer Network is a parasite on the back of  impoverished communities and vulnerable children. They are stealing resources meant for the needy.

Chapter IV  I am stapled, collated, shredded and trashed

After three months my patience wears thin.  Last week I posted some critiques of Global Volunteer Network on volunteer evaluation sites.   Global Volunteer Network was quick to  post a rebuttal.  Out of respect for  the limit of your patience I will not regurgitate it here.

Except for a couple of points:

Erin, the signatory of the rebuttal, stated that the height and weight charts we used were out of date;  that the most current height and weight charts were kept locked in the Kathmandu for privacy reasons.  This is a lie. And Erin knew that the most recent chart had been completed at the home by a volunteer.  The house manager had asked her to do this.   Erin knew this because I told her. The part about the children’s privacy is also a complete crock!  I can’t understand why she would set herself up to be caught out in a lies.  The rebuttal also mentioned that Global Volunteer Network  was ‘saddened’ that I had gone public while the review was underway and I had thus jeopardized the program funding, the children etc etc.

If I were ever to steal from children, (I won’t, I’ll leave that to Global Volunteer Network), but if I did   I would never have Erin as my accomplice.  She’d let the cat out the bag.

I wrote to Global Volunteer Network a couple of days ago pointing out that the rebuttal contained  bare-faced lies.  I received an email  this morning stating that since the government in Nepal were closing the children’s home Global Volunteer Network had decided a review was unnecessary.

Full stop.

Global Volunteer Network runs this scheme in Vietnam and Africa, Thailand too I think.  Visit their site.  Have a look.  Ask them before you pay where exactly your Volunteer Program fee will go.

Please share this link.

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NEPAL — TRAVEL DIARIES: Thamel and Glasgow — Twin Cities

Apologies to my huge international following for neglecting to post my Nepal travel notes chronologically and on time.

September 28/13

Kathmandu — Thamel

In a foreign place, the first thing to hit me is the smell . . . .  . traffic emissions,  incense drift. Mustard-seed oil smokes on little braziers.  Nepali fast food.  And then noise, movement, colour. Narrow, unkempt streets, decaying buildings.  Strolling musicians, cycle-rickshaws, motor bikes, more motor bikes,  plant-dyed cloth and pots, marigolds,  tea shops, merchants hissing their best prices.  A tangle of young dread-locked back-packers, locals with their kids,  shaven-headed saffron-robed monks talking on their mobiles, more motor bikes, beeping at me.  I learn  to jump out of the way.

It’s after dark but  street vendors don’t rest.  NO.  I don’t want  Tiger Balm, or bangles.

Heritage Home  in Thamel,  exudes low-budget grandeur:  a hefty (bronze) many-armed female deity sits cross-legged on the front desk  brandishing  weaponry.  The  manager winks.   I am reminded of  Glasgow and  Glaswegians.

The three week long Dosain festival will soon be upon us,  hundreds of goats sacrificed;  cars, bikes, rickshaws, aeroplanes, etc. smeared with blood, goat meat eaten at every meal, the slaughter  done publicly. I may give certain aspects  a miss, such as watching the slaughter and eating actual dead  goat.

It’s no wonder that the City of Glasgow is twinned with  Thamel.

Awake for 30 hours, somewhat demented, I hope that tiredness kicks in soon.  Tomorrow I must cruise the bazaars, buy some clothes suitable for working in a Nepal village and purchase a mosquito net. The hotel computer has a  slow keyboard. I am less wordy than is usual — my typing agility equivalent to being tongue tied.

September 29/13

My first sleep in Nepal. I woke up thinking I was in my bedroom in Scotland — wondering who had redecorated while I slept.  There is a good flow of cool water at the bathroom sink  but the taps  leak so water goes everywhere. Everything almost works.  There is a flush toilet!  but sluggish, solid matter won’t flush readily.   No A/C in my cheap room. I slept on top of the covers in my silk sleeping bag liner.

I see a building site from my window, a  structure  in the brick laying phase.  Two  young women,  slightly built,  shift bricks from the brick pile  to where the men are laying them.  Each woman, wearing traditional  salwar kameez, nose ring, tika, plastic flip-flops, lifts  bricks, one brick at a time,  and extending the arm over her shoulder,  drops the brick in the wicker basket, affixed with straps or strings, to her body. When their baskets are filled and, I imagine very heavy the women walk to the  part of the wall under construction, and, bending, tip out the bricks and then hand them up to the men. Over and over again all the long hot day that is their job.  They are paid 100 rupee a day — one dollar US.  I hope the part of me that whines and complains about very little starts to die.   You might ask why they don’t use wheel barrows.  I would guess that the employer expects them to provide their own tools.   I read an article in the Kathmandu paper (English language edition) where the writer argued that the $1 US  labourer’s wage is insufficient to pay rent and buy food for a family which may include growing children.  I believe him.

My  sleeping bag liner cost me about $70 US.  The tariff at Heritage House where I am staying is about $8 US a day.

What a good breakfast! — toast and ‘orange juice’ — orange squash really.  I am easily pleased when it comes to breakfast providing  there is milky tea.   The tea served here is grown in the foothills of the Himalyas and is very good.  The svelte waiter brings  the tea  pot  to my table and engages me in conversation.  I am called didi (sister)  for the first, but not the last time.

I met Raju just a day ago,  at the airport. He’d greeted me  in fluent English. I hired him to accompany me on my first visit to the bazaars — to help me negotiate the local economy,  rupee/dollar conversion,  bartering.  I will pay Raju too much.  The tailor measures me.    It will take  him a couple of hours to run up my salwar kameez  on his  treadle sewing machine. I can fit in a visit to the famed  Monkey Temple, and we have time for lunch — dal baht, (rice and lentils) the local staple and my preferred type of food. I’ll be off to the village  in a couple of days — rigged out like a local.

October 10/13

Bhadikel Village, Kathmandu Valley

I’m settled in with my host family.  The internet connection at Shining Stars Children’s home is finally working, albeit fitfully.    My room in the host family’s house has a rough concrete floor, bare brick walls and a single bulb,  center ceiling,  that hangs from a loopy wire stretched from the main feed at the front corner of the house. I operate the light with a toggle switch that doesn’t work all the time. I live in fear of electric shock.  It’s been ‘ fixed’ with Scotch tape. Furniture consists of a bedstead constructed of unplaned common lumber and big galvanized nails. The mattress is a thin (little more than half an inch thick) cotton batting pad that doesn’t nearly cover the bed base. There is no pillow nor sheet. There is one thick, stiff,  cotton blanket. I have my sleeping bag and a silk liner. Also a head flashlight that I need if I wish to visit the toilet (squat toilet) in the night. I bought a mosquito net in Thamel. It is pink flower patterned lace design trimmed with white lace ruffles. I put it up using a nail in the wall. When stretched over the bed, attached to the bedstead corners by the splintered wood, it forms a tent — a pink Barbie doll palace that normally I would fall over laughing at. Here I really enjoy crawling inside my pink house. I have my kindle, my head flash- light, my reading glasses. Everyone is in bed by 8:30 pm — it gets dark early now. I fashioned a pillow by rolling up my plaid serape but managed to get a crick in my neck none the less. Now I see the benefit of having a little fat on ones bones — my bony frame, hip bones and spine, grind on the wood under the thin pad.   My host family serves me dal baht twice a day — same thing they eat.  Bina is learning about my predilection for tea — with milk (on the days she has milk).  I am learning the essentials of Nepali.  The first phrase I memorize is the  Nepali for tea with milk and no sugar.  

Today I will take the two hour bus(es) trip back to  Thamel to find a pillow and  chocolate.


I’ve taught the little girl child of my host family to sing the abc song! She corrects my pronunciation of Nepalese phrases. The childrens home’s delightful residents  call me ‘Annie sister’.

Yesterday I spent three hours with the house mother preparing dal baht for 30 people. Preparation begins by going to the garden and digging vegetables and cutting greens for the saag then weeding the part we’ve dug and taking weeds to compost.

From the orphanage roof I see the Himalayan range. It is just as beautiful as you would expect it to be.  Actually more beautiful, unbelievably beautiful.  The first time I saw the Canadian Rockies I thought I might be looking at a stage prop.  I thought of cut out  plywood sheets, shaped like mountains,  scaffold-ed together to hide the unsightly  factories and petrol stations, the warehouses, restaurants, charity stores, and bus shelters that must lie behind them.

October 21/13

Badikhel is a fairly isolated village.  I have very spotty access to internet  and no luck  at all with my  ancient Nokia phone.  It works in deepest, darkest Transylvania but  doesn’t pick up a signal here.   It rained recently and I couldn’t get physically out because of mud on the primitive roads. Today my little sister Lashra walked with me to the small town of Godwari  — an hour long walk (we’d hoped to catch a bus but it didn’t show, too much mud).  I am in an internet place trying to catch up on  correspondence.  How can I begin to tell you what it is like here. It would take at least five hundred words and today I only have time for these few.  I took my boots to be re-heeled.  The cost was 100 rupee ($1 US) to have heels done and the boots cleaned and polished.  I can see my face in them.  I had an argument with 14 years old Lashra about the amount to tip.  I wanted to pay him double (200 rupee, $2 US).  She was shocked and said I should give him no tip. We compromised.  She reluctantly allowed me to give him a  20 rupee tip (20 cents US).  The children are beautiful and wonderful and too thin. I want to bring them all back to Scotland with me.

October 22/13

Hot, Sunny in Nepal. Yesterday I was a guest at the Everest School, the school my Shining Star children attend.  I ‘taught’ two classes and sat in on two others. 40-45 students per class crowded into small brick classrooms, the rooms in a row — the walls don’t quite reach ceiling height, allowing you to be deafened by the clamor from adjoining classrooms. The children chatter incessantly. There is no way of getting their attention other than to yell! I gave a talk on the differences between my home(s) Canada/Scotland and their home,  Nepal — governments, populations, health care, education, obesity/lack of (in Nepal — I wonder why?) and other matters of interest to them. I explained that the west had a minority of the world’s population yet used the vast majority of the world’s resources and conversely that in the east the population was vast yet their share of the world’s resources was tiny. I asked them to think of how that could have happened. They talked about birth control, literacy etc. I suggested they added western imperialism and colonization (aka villainy and theft) to the list. Was I wrong to do this? I added that my countries were sorry to be part of this sad history and were trying to make amends. Are we?

I got the best attention from them when I sang them God Save the Queen and Oh Canada. Then at my request they sang me Nepal’s national anthem.

I don’t know how the Nepali teachers survive more than a year! I told the teachers they were heroic and that our teachers we’d strike if asked to work under anything even approaching those conditions.  I am invited to come back again and teach.  I chat over tea with  an earnest young man, the English teacher, who tells me he loves the  poetry of Robert Frost.   He requests that on my next visit I teach a poem to the senior class.

Temples.  More Temples


I’ve lost count.   Buddhist and Hindu or a combination of both. Tiny roadside shrines, sprawling complexes.   Many of the large temples require the ability and fortitude to climb hundreds of steps.  If you can’t walk you probably shouldn’t come here.  The Shining Star children act as guides, taking us to those temples that are inaccessible to those  unwilling or unable to go that extra, sweaty, foot-slogging, uphill all the way,  mile.  The children kindly tell me the rules, shoes off for certain parts, clockwise round the prayer wheels (Buddhist), pay some rupees to the holy man who offers you a tikka on your forehead.   Not knowing any Hindu prayer and  nothing more than Om Mani Padme Hum for  Buddhist observance, I usually sit quietly, (catch my breath)  close my eyes and do some of the rosary.  It’s God’s party.  We’re all are invited, no matter what our colour or creed.

November 9/2013

Bina took me for a walk along the jungle path today. There are occasional tiger sightings there and unscheduled goat ‘sacrifices’. Poor goats. If it’s not the sacrificial knife at Dosain, it’s a surprise tiger attack. Saw huge butterflies and exotically coloured spiders. Also many plants that I didn’t recognize, and some I did — hedges made of poinsettia, extra terrestrial, giant poinsettia.  Some plants grab you and leave a hundred burrs on your clothing. We passed a section (nearest the village) used as a latrine by those economically disadvantaged villagers who don’t have a toilet (and when I say toilet I mean the squat toilet, flushed by a plastic jug of water from a plastic barrel). Watch your feet! It’s delicate walking.  Hold your nose!  We came across a broken rubber pipe — a water supply to some of the dwellings that had come adrift. The water was rushing down onto the steep path we were traversing, turning the baked clay to slippery clay. I wear plastic ‘crocs’. Down I went,  on my ass, slid about three feet, got up, my blue cotton Nepali pants and my socks well coated in slimy terra cotta. Nothing broken and, as always, a fall is always good for a laugh. Yes. I managed to laugh too, although not quite as hard as Bina.  Saw no tigers, thankfully.

November 11/13

The golden persimmon is native here. A sweet and succulent treat! Cold last night and this morning but again glorious warm sunshine around 10 am when the sun comes up over the hills. Was up in the middle of the freezing night playing nurse. Our  USA volunteer had  diarrhea. There was a power cut — actually power is rationed — we have power maybe 10 hours a day.  You never can  quite predict when the  overhead bulb will go out.  Each time it happens it feels like a fresh surprise and is invariably accompanied by  gasps of dismay.      I nursed by the light of my kindle book light, then found a candle. I had given my headlight to our host, Bina.  A power outage often occurs at cooking time. It made me nervous to see her cook in the light of a single candle. Eventually our wailings and stumblings woke Bina  up  and she  helped me in my blind ministrations. At around 0400 hours, I, and the ailing volunteer,  walked up the bumpy, dried mud, road to Shining Stars Childrens home, where we’d sleep  — in the office (near the village’s one western style toilet stall  — the diarrhea victim’s heart’s desire).  Badhikel is in a dark place so the constellations shone like diamonds in the frosty sky.  Then this morning the snow-capped Himalayan range glittered brilliant white against radiant  sun-lit blue.  I think I  may be in heaven.  Until Bina serves me my dal bhat.  I loved dal bhat when I didn’t have to eat it twice a day, every day.

November 19/13

I have a cold and I am not enjoying being unwell in the village. No oranges, no orange juice, no soft warm bed or duvet, no unlimited supply of tea, running out of Kleenex, no where to buy same. But last night had a wonderful dream about my father — first dream about him since he died end of September while I was en route to Kathmandu. He was standing by a waterfront — a lovely lake, a wharf, day time, blue sky. He looked well, younger, happy and relaxed. I was surprised to see him. He didn’t seem surprised to see me. We greeted each other. ‘What’s it like being dead?’, I asked him. ‘It’s OK’, he said. ‘Have you seen mom?’. ‘No’, he said, still smiling. I woke up with the dream fresh in my mind and it’s stayed with me all day. My dad was an atheist. We’d discuss the hereafter. I asked him to come back and let me know what was on the other side. Now I know whatever it is, it’s OK. Dad said it was OK.

What to do in Badikhel, Kathmandu Valley

On a visit to Kathmandu I purchased replacement strings and pegs to repair the  two battered old guitars.  I don’t actually play guitar, I’m capable of no more than chording and easy strums or picks,  but 6-10 interested kids appreciate my meager skills and take lessons, one at a time.  The guitars are truly awful, the tuning mechanisms beyond repair, the nuts stripped, the only way I can tune is to string some of them backwards and turn the tuners in reverse direction.  I  try to teach tuning but with little success given the difficulty.  Replacement guitars urgently needed.

We form the 24 kids into the Shining Stars Choir.   Kum ba ya and Barges  (we try for harmony) are a big success. The majority of the kids importune for more frequent and longer choir practices.  (No TV, no computer games to distract).

Public speaking.  The kids appreciate the chance to improve their English.  Two sessions of public speaking with a focus on posture, delivery, volume, facial expression.  They all get a chance to deliver an introduction to an audience of  their peers.  Even those with the typical public speaking phobia do it.  I’m a pretty awful sergeant major.  They find out it feels better after you’ve done it.

Some of the  older boys anticipate interviews (in English) as a component of the application process for precious and rare scholarships. I work intensely with a small group.  We work on speeches.  For fluency we use poetry —  Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening — because it’s in one of their English books.  These kids, from Humla,  understand snow and woods, and what it feels like to be uneasy/uncertain.  By the time I’ve left they’ve all memorized at least the last two lines:  And I have promises to keep/ and miles to go before I sleep/ and miles to go before I sleep.

In Pilgrims Bookshop in Kathmandu I found an English translation of   Muna Madan, by Nepalese poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota —  Nepal’s answer  to Robert Burns.  The kids have copies of the poem in Nepali.  We spend a few hours, a section at a time —  I read the English, they read the Nepali.  The translation is very true to the original.  So they tell me.

The children take me on long walks.  They teach me about the flora and fauna of Kathmandu and about the caste system.  We walk through villages with small pockets of large fine houses and swathes of humbler dwellings.   The caste system is openly acknowledged and ‘accepted’.  I got a sense that it is accepted more readily by the Brahman class than the ‘inferior’  castes.

I mend tears, repair hems, lengthen trousers, and teach mending to the few kids interested in learning.  Some just bring  items to me hoping  my needle will turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.  The kids are responsible for cleaning the home (there is a rota for chores), and for keeping themselves and their clothing clean and in good repair.

I help in the kitchen every afternoon.  Chopping, cleaning.  Mummy, who works a 16 hour day, appreciates my help.  Her days off occur during her monthly menses when she is prohibited from working in the kitchen.  A male staff takes over the cooking on those occasions and assigns me my tasks.

Most mornings one of the kids walks to the village and picks up  the Kathmandu News — English and Nepal editions.  I am asked by the older boys to read aloud  reprints from the New York Times — political articles — and explain them.  We have long discussions about politics.  The Nepal elections are coming up.  We read articles about the platforms of the main parties:  the Maoists, the Republicans.  Lively debate.

I do a history lesson on November 11.  The kids form into trenches and enact going over the top,  into no man’s land  —   going to almost certain death.   I explain that the young men who lose courage and run away will later be shot for cowardice.   The figures for world war casualties, by country,  are listed on the whiteboard.  The kids know about the role of the courageous,  much decorated, Gurkha and their contribution to the war effort.  We have two minute silence for the  dead and our hope for world peace.

Athletically inclined volunteers involve themselves in  football, dancing, table tennis, and so on (that wouldn’t be me).  We all answer questions about the west, about ourselves, about our embarrassingly luxurious lifestyles.  We all soon learn to downplay our wealth and privilege.

November 20/13

I leave Nepal in 10 days. I’ll be in Glasgow December 1.  I’ve had a rat visitor to my room.  I recognized its droppings and didn’t mind too much until the night it decided it wanted to share my bed.  Middle of the night — I was as repelled as the princess of  golden ball fame was when the  frog wanted to eat off her plate and sleep on her pillow — I awoke with a start, cussed at the frog-rat and experienced not a little fear.  My arms attempted to flail but were trapped in the sleeping bag.  I didn’t want the little bastard to get nearer my face.   Bina thought it was quite funny when I told her next day but she kindly made me a door gap sausage from rice sack stuffed with bamboo plant.

November 28/13

My last week.  I took the internal flight to Pokhara and the ‘tourist’ bus back from there to Thamel. It was seriously thrilling, close at times to shit in your pants thrilling. Many large vehicles, the lorries have their names painted on the side, ‘No time for Love’. ‘Drive fast and don’t arrive’, along with a picture of a smiling Ganesh. The drive reminded me a bit of driving  through the Canadian Rockies, those dangerous passes, but take away any shoulder, any concrete buttresses or metal rails that might help a vehicle avoid toppling over and plunging into the ravines and steep valleys, take away check points for brakes, and well maintained vehicles, add badly maintained pavement (where there is pavement) and occasional stalled vehicles on a two lane road with no room for forgiveness. There are many road accidents on this stretch, I’ve seen reports in the Kathmandu News: Tourist bus plunges into canyon 62 dead. In other countries this would make international news. Here it’s just like a goat sacrifice — no biggy. I’m glad to be back on solid ground. I have only tomorrow and the next day. I plan a visit to Patan tomorrow and a visit to one of the spas for exfoliation. Sometimes a woman needs to just exfoliate.  I lied.  Glasgow is not twinned with Thamel,  and  while I do have an international audience,  it’s not huge.

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The Holy Child is an Elephant

The Holy Child is an Elephant

Ganesh,  the beloved son, suckled

at Parvati’s breast,  suffered death

and by a miracle (so it came to pass)

was gloriously  resurrected.

In this story there is no stable,

star, shepherds, nor magi

but there is Christmas magic,

belief, rejoicing, dancing and drumming

and oh come let us adore

far into the night, feasting

on  sel roti, coconut and jaggery.

Parvati felt the flash from  Shiva’s  eye,

saw  his arm blur, heard a whoosh

of air,  a slicing sound, saw Ganesh,

the innocent,   beheaded — dead

as a dashain goat.  His head vanished.

So it came to pass, the holy trinity

was formed:  Shiva and Parvati,  delicious

friction of lingam and yoni, love’s

constant recreation; and Ganesh,

reborn, chubby elephant-headed god.

Oh come let us adore the resurrected

god of grace, restored now

to his mother’s warm embrace,

his father’s high regard.

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The Mist Hangs Like a Soiled Dhoti

The Mist Hangs Like a Soiled Dhoti


Bina  yells,

Annie sister!  Tea!

The Nepali god of winter

shudders. The sun is hiding

behind  a hill.  Feet, in anticipation

of grit, a sprinkling of rat shit,

the toe-staining, withered marigold

petals from last week’s mala,


from the concrete floor

and slide into plastic sandals

damp and cold,

expiation for the karmic debt

accumulated by women from the well fed  west.   I whimper,

groan,  I want to go home.  My right foot, ruled by the base chakra


at the recalcitrant sliding  low set galvanized metal bolt

that holds the door shut,

kicks aside the bamboo-stuffed

rice sack that keeps rats out.


thinner than I,  bobble-hatted,

perished with cold

sets down the tray

a  chipped cup of hot tea,

a cold  damp naked slice  of stale white


We shiver at each other.


the god within me honours the god within you





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