Volunteering in Nepal – To every thing there is a season

I first wrote about my volunteer experience in March 2014, three months after returning from a two-month long placement at the Shining Stars Children’s Home.  The home, located in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, is operated administratively by Volunteer Services Nepal (VSN).  My placement there was brokered by Global Volunteer Network (GVN), a New Zealand based charitable organization,

To place this post in context, I have to tell you that when I wrote the initial post, I was feeling rather like a casualty of a war.

On returning home, I was invited, as are all volunteers, to provide feedback to GVN.  I did so, honestly and in good faith.  The ensuing correspondence stretched out over three frustrating months. My feedback was not welcomed — I received the whistle blower’s reward.  My concerns, about deficits in the children’s nutrition, health care and discharge planning, were met with stony silence, counter-arguments or disingenuous assurances that the ‘serious allegations’ I had made would be dealt with at some time in an indeterminate future.   Questions and criticisms regarding lack of transparency around financial arrangements were met with defensiveness, denial and obfuscation.  I picked up my pen.

This month (February 2015), after a total of 15 months of frustration and anger, I was contacted by Colin Salisbury of Global Volunteer Network with an offer to start a new dialogue.   He wanted me to modify my March 2014 blog.  The content — and this I will tell those of you who missed reading it (it’s now gone) — was excoriating.  If I had been Colin or any of the staff mentioned I would have wanted the blog to disappear.  Colin explained to me that the blog had, in fact, impacted on the reputation of GVN and affected volunteer recruitment and donations.

I and another volunteer, who had also been treated high-handedly when she voiced concerns and criticisms similar to mine, were offered an apology by Colin and an acknowledgement that our concerns and criticisms had been valid.  By way of expiation he agreed to donate a substantial sum of money directly to the children at the home.  This money, identified principally for their further education, will go directly to the educational institutions.  In addition, Colin has also agreed to make funding arrangements – particularly the use to which the Volunteer Program Fee is put – transparent and easy for GVN site visitors to understand.

War is always bad but it is sometimes necessary.  The experience of having my words fall on stony ground was frustrating.  But worse was being a witness to a social wrong and feeling powerless to do anything about it.  I used my pen like a weapon.  It’s all I could do.   I feel sad that I needed to be heavy handed.  War is not fun.  I feel bad for the hurt feelings of GVN staff, and the hurt feelings of staff at their partner organization in Nepal.  I wish it could have been different but war is sometimes necessary.  Colin Salisbury has said that he wants to move forward.  I also want to move forward.  The war between us is ended and the issues, more or less, resolved.

 

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Santiago de Compostela

I bought hiking boots today in an expensive Castle Douglas shoe store.

Meinl, Made in Germany, £115. Beautiful green leather and seriously elegant, not at all like the hiking boots that resemble moon landing craft.

So I decided to give them their first airing. A five minute walk down to the harbour and five minutes back. On return home I see the heels beginning to separate from the uppers amidst a miasma of black powder. The rubber had perished. This was my first go at breaking in boots intended for Santiago de Compostela in 2015.

Is this An Omen? Am I meant to do the 500 Mile Pilgrimage in Bare Feet?

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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 tangle 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  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

Nun

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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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.

October/19

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

Photo

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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