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