Project Nepal: Weeks 3 & 4

Ten days at the Gau, Holi in Kathmandu

Week Three: The Gau

The Gau is a collection of tents and toilets and shower stalls made of four sides of tarp and a bucket. It is home to about 15 permanent residents—volunteers who have been living up there between three weeks and three months (the Gau was begun in December in an attempt to save fuel during the fuel crisis—with volunteers on the mountain itself, we don’t need to waste fuel getting them up there). Most of these are team leaders for our various construction teams.

There is also room for about ten temporary residents, a rotating roster of volunteers who sign up for one week of the camping life. After seven days the temporaries return to our main base in Melamchi. I signed up for one week…and lucky me, I got ten days!

You see, the Holi festival was approaching. We knew we were getting the day of Holi (Tuesday the 22nd) off, but we had to decide how to celebrate: we could either take the previous Saturday as our typical, weekly day off, or work through the Saturday and take two days off for Holi. The decision was practically unanimous: two days for Holi!!

So I arrived at the Gau on Friday, March 11th, and soon after that it was decided that instead of sending the temporaries back to Base in a week, we would stay at the Gau for 3 extra days, and go back to Base just in time to catch the bus to Kathmandu.

Anyways…life at the Gau. It is better than living at the base in almost every way (except the toilets, which are perpetually dirtier and smellier). After work every day, you walk to the Gau, which takes only 5-10 minutes depending on which site you’re on—as opposed to the 30-40 minute jolting ride to Base. You sit and watch the sunset, and when the sky is dark somebody lights a fire. You get to know your campmates better, because there are fewer of you and the environment is more conducive to interesting conversation. It is also a perfect setting to relax with a good book. Somehow, sickness is also rare up there. While the Base has a perpetual roster of patients (basis for my theory of the two natural states of an All Hands Volunteer: Sick and Awesome, or Exhausted and Awesome), only one or two people got sick at the Gau for my entire extended stay.

Needless to say people get a little filthy up at the Gau. When your only cleaning facility for both your laundry and your body is a bucket of cold water, you quickly lose the urge for a daily clean. It’s not such a problem—any time I felt dirty, I just reminded myself that all my campmates were equally rancid, or more so.

My first day at the Gau was wonderful: it was Super Sherpa Day!! Because there was yet so much building material to move to various sites, and mere weeks until the end of project, every single volunteer was a Sherpa that day. It was fun to be acknowledged, already, as one of the more experienced volunteers in that line of work, and to watch those who had never yet dared to Sherpa try on the baskets and lift the 110lb cement bags. It was also fun because we all worked together, which lightened the ultimate workload for the day, and there was music to keep us upbeat and Snickers to keep us energized. Apart from finished over a week’s worth of Sherpa work in a single day, the event had another benefit: several people grew attached to it just as I have, and thus SPT (Sherpa Power Team) gained some new regulars.

Unfortunately, Super Sherpa Day worked a little too well. As my ten days progressed and Holi approached, the work for SPT dwindled until, last Sunday, we were finished before lunchtime and on Monday, there was no Sherpa team at all. We have been promised some Sherpa work for after Holi, but it won’t last long—construction on All Hands’ 50 homes in Melamchi has effectively ended (on a short break from SPT last Wednesday I joined the foundations team, digging holes for the very last All Hands house), and therefore, come April, there will be nothing left to Sherpa (April is the last month for Sindhupalchok base. Most volunteers will leave at the end of March, to their various homes or subsequent travel arrangements. A few of us are staying behind to clear a few sites of rubble, and then this base closes, and I, along with a few others, will move to the sister base in Nuwakot).

On the Sunday after Super Sherpa Day we had to carry 90 cement bags a good distance (ultimately over 10km up and down the mountain throughout the day). I learned something new that day: cement burns. Though I wore a jacket for cover, the bags still rubbed the skin of my neck raw and some grains of sand lodged into my skin. The scabs have still not entirely healed, but it gets a little better every day. The things I do for love (of Sherpa-ing).

My week at the Gau also saw my first batch of handovers. When an All Hands home is complete, and the beneficiaries are ready to move in, we have a fun little ceremony during the last hour of the work day. I went to two handovers that week and though they were wildly different (one was serene, the other rowdy), they shared some basic elements: an All Hands staff member gives a speech, which we enjoy and is then translated by Pemba, who is actually, ethnically Sherpa and our beneficiary coordinator, into Nepali for the benefit of the other attendees. There is food and many photos. The beneficiaries bless us with marks of red paint (a preview for Holi). The staff member gives the beneficiaries a give of housekeeping supplies. We pack up and go home, red-face and happy.

And then, though I would stay at the Gau my entire time in Nepal if I could, I had to actually pack up again. At 2:00 on Monday the 21st (two hours earlier than normal) the volunteers returned to base. It was my first time back in 10 days, and I immediately moved into one of the ‘private’ rooms (not the Love Hub), the one called Indiana Jones and the Temple of Room. I share the room with four other volunteers and the best damn bathroom the Riverside Inn has to offer (shower: cold, but occasionally lukewarm). I unpacked my things and then re-packed, and the bus left for Kathmandu.

 

Week Four: Holi in Kathmandu

As it is only Thursday, and I have already covered Monday, “Week” Four is a bit of a misnomer. But I trust you can bear with me on that account.

The two busses were privately hired and therefore packed with All Hands volunteers (there are currently about 70 of us) and therefore loud with shouting and music and drinking (yes, the drinking managed to be loud) and therefore difficult to nap in. But the closer we got to Kathmandu, the more excited I was.

We arrived in Thamel, the backpackers’ and tourists’ district of the city, around 7:30, and all went to our separate hotels to freshen up and change. I was booked at a place called Alpine, a popular All Hands destination, thanks to a friend who booked me during my Internet-less stay at the Gau. However, we arrived to find the reservation had been lost. The hotel owner, distraught but frustratingly also amused, referred us to a sister hotel across Thamel, too which he helpfully led us himself (Thamel being a labyrinth of unmarked streets and alleys which, thanks to all being packed with identical-looking shops, cafes, and hostels, are themselves identical) and negotiated a slight discount on our behalf.

After the first hot shower I’ve had since I was on Koh Chang with my parents over a month ago, I met up with many volunteers a Friends, a burger restaurant. There were so many of us there that the food took nearly two hours to arrive, and we spent the time relatively quiet save for our grumbling stomachs. But when it did come, nobody complained. Daal Baht (rice and lentils) twice a day for three or more weeks means you don’t complain about a perfectly cooked burger no matter how long it takes to arrive.

And yet the food wasn’t the most remarkable thing about Friends. It was that, though we trickled in by ones and twos and threes, we all recognized each other upon arrival. This is remarkable because nobody looked like themselves—at least, not the version we’ve come to know, the dirty, smelly, exhaustedly content versions. That night we were clean, freshly dressed, tired perhaps but also wired up, ready to take on the town.

The night progressed from Friends to Everest Irish Pub, where we met up with other volunteers who had eaten at Fire & Ice (pizza), who work at the Nuwakot base, or who have recently ended their time on project. From Everest we went to Club OMG where we had a great time engaging in exhaustive physical labor of a different sort than usual (dancing) and generally disregarding our bedtimes.

Which means that Holi began slowly. The few of us who stayed in Kathmandu Home Hotel met for breakfast at the very last minute it was offered. The holiday began there: before we were allowed our food, hotel staff members smeared our faces with red, blue, and green. We ate, then stumbled back to our rooms for a little extra R&R. I went out to buy a white shirt, and then it really began.

At various times through the day I was with different people—all, of course, friends from All Hands. I began with one crowd and we wandered through Thamel. It is impossible to understate the energy of the city: all of Kathmandu was happy. Everyone was covered in colors. It was messy, vibrant, wet with water and other liquids more likely to enhance the aforementioned euphoria, and above all, friendly. Everybody you passed wished you a Happy Holi, smeared you with color or splashed you with water, and then smiled when you smeared them back.

In terms of activity, there wasn’t much to do, per se. The spectacle was in simply being there, being a part of the wonderful mess. In midmorning I joined a group for a dance party, but even though people got on the stage and through colors at the audience, I had the feeling there weren’t DJ’s when Holi was being celebrated thousands of years ago. So I most enjoyed wandering the city, occasionally with friends and occasionally alone. In Durbar Square I joined some volunteers. One of them, in a moment of perfect coincidence and recognition, acquired a Sherpa basket and headstrap (in Nepali, dhoko and namro, respectively) from somewhere and put it on me. It was empty and easy to carry, and for two hours in mid-afternoon I was a Sherpa on Holi. The locals, by the way, went crazy for this. I couldn’t go 10 seconds without somebody demanding my picture.

In the evening I showered (again!! Two hot showers in two days. This is the height of luxury), partook in one of my favorite activities (plundering the local bookstores) and then joined my friends at the Purple Haze, a rock bar with live (excellent) music, a trip to a bakery, and finally, a return to Club OMG to once again pointedly ignore my bedtime.

The following day was Wednesday, our second day off in a row (THE HEIGHT OF LUXURY!), the day for which we worked 9 days in a row and I was granted 10 days at the Gau. It was a day for R&R (recovery and return). It began just as slowly as the previous day, with eggs and pancakes at Rosemary’s Diner, then we mostly just gathered and separated throughout Thamel as some of us checked out of hotels, bought snacks for the journey home, and went for tattoos.

You’ll be happy to know (Mom and Dad) that I did not add a new tattoo to my collection, though I desperately wanted to. Between the struggle of deciding which of my many brilliant ideas to get and the ticking clock signifying it was almost time for the bus, I lost my opportunity. Only somewhat dejected, I enjoyed a last non-Daal Baht meal in Thamel and joined my friends on the bus home to Melamchi.

All Hands Time

I will conclude this blog with a brief note about All Hands Time. All Hands Time operates differently than normal time. This is mostly because of friendship. Between sharing the aches, pains, and joys of manual labor and sharing close quarters, you quickly become, if not friends for life, at least very close. So when a volunteer you’ve known for a week leaves the project, it can feel like saying goodbye to somebody you’ve known for years. At the same time, new volunteers are always arriving, and new fast friendships are being made. Because of this rotating roster, and because of the quickness with which you can acquire responsibilities, time most in a strange way, at once pleasantly slow and alarmingly fast. I just arrived a few weeks ago but already I am a part of this good thing. Volunteers I thought had months of experience more than me arrived mere days before I did. Volunteers who arrived after me have already left. After 10 days at the Gau I was disappointed to be leaving my familiar home.

Of the group of ten volunteers who arrived on March 1st, only two of us remain. Several have gone trekking the Annapurna Circuit, a few are enjoying time in the Shangri-La of Pokhara, one has gone home, and one has been removed from project for violating All Hands’ zero-tolerance drug policy. Of the remained two, one is now a Rubbling team leader, and I am poised to become a base manager, a team leader, or both.

All Hands Time works in strange and mysterious ways.

More on everything to come!

Be dareful.

 

Project Nepal Weeks One & Two

NOTE: Internet here in Melamchi is terrible. As such I will not be uploading any photos to my Project Nepal blogs, at least not yet.

WEEK ONE:

After a night in Kathmandu, I headed to Melamchi, a town in the Sindhupalchok district. Because I forgot to set my watch back an hour and a quarter from Thai time to Nepal time, I was an hour early to the bus, and the first person there. I expected to be the only kai-dai (Nepali for farang) on the bus, but it soon filled with no less than nine other foreigners from all over the globe, all headed to volunteer at All Hands. We quickly bonded!

The bus ride was long and cramped. When the bus filled up, new passengers sat on the roof. We went through beautiful valleys and over high hills on roads that have seen better days. Whereas the hills of Thailand are adorned with statues of Buddha, in Nepal the Exalted One is joined by Shiva and other Hindu figures.

When we arrived, this incoming class of volunteers, we had a tour of base. All Hands has taken over the Riverside Inn, a five minutes’ walk outside Melamchi town. High hills surround us on all sides. Most volunteers sleep in a dorm affectionately titled the Love Hub. But others sleep in the six or seven actual rooms of the Inn, and access here is granted first-come-first-serve. We were not first come.

Work on the Project is divided into many teams: Rubble, Foundations, Structure, Walls, Roofs, Toilets, and Sherpa. Here’s a general idea of what each team does. Keep in mind I have not yet worked on every team so some portion of the descriptions are based on assumption/observation:

  • Rubble: the Rubble team clears away debris. Whether a site used to be a house or a school, the old stones, collapsed from last year’s earthquake, need to be cleared away to make space for the new structure. So far as I can tell, the rubble is either simply moved into a pile away from the site, or used to make walls near paths.
  • Foundations: When rubble team is done, Foundations moves in to dig holes which will be filled in with cement.
  • Structure: All Hands buildings are made with steel frame structures. This team puts the frames in place.
  • Walls: This team does NOT build walls. Funny, right? No, the Nepalese locals build the walls. What the Walls team does is wrap the steel frames with wire mesh. The mesh is critical to All Hands making ‘earthquake proof’ buildings. It will prevent bricks or blocks from falling into the home.
  • Roofs: Places corrugated galvanized iron (CGI) roofs.
  • Toilets: The toilets we make are outhouses. As such, in addition to digging septic tanks (a huge hole, then filled with a layer of gravel, then concrete rings and a lid), the toilets team does a little of all of the above. The rubble their site, dig the foundations, place the structure, wrap the walls, and place the roofs. They also place the squat plates and lay cement for the floor.
  • Sherpa: The Sherpa team hauls the vital materials (sand, gravel, cement, CGI, steel) to all the other teams.

Because I wanted a little taste of it all, I signed up for Toilet team my first day. I wrapped wire mesh around two outhouses, lowered concrete rings into a septic tank, hauled blocks for the locals to build the walls, and spent the rest of the day rubbling.

The next two days I joined Sherpa team. It has a reputation as the most difficult team to be on, but I wasn’t afraid. In fact I was excited. If I look at my time on the Project as training for my Everest trek, Sherpa team is the right place to be—the Sherpas spend all day taking heavy loads up and down steep hills. I made the right choice.

On Sherpa team I have spent many hours carrying concrete blocks, which is fine. I really enjoy hauling sand and gravel. For that we use a basket and a headstrap. We fill the baskets, put them on our backs, and wrap a rope around our heads and the basket. It was awkward and heavy at first—I dropped my first load of sand. But I quickly got the hang of it and now I enjoy it. My shoulders and lower back are scratched up, but it’s okay!

The only task I haven’t enjoyed on Sherpa team so far was carrying bags of unmixed concrete. The bags are 110 pounds and very awkward to carry. But I expect and hope that this task, too, I will come to enjoy.

Every night after returning from the site we have a meeting where we review the day’s work and sign up for the next day’s teams. Sign-up is done on an alphabetical rotation based on first name. So if your name starts with A-F, you go first today, but you’ll go last tomorrow. I’ve noticed that Sherpa team is the most unpopular to sign up for. Lucky me, since I enjoy it. I will spend time with the other teams of course, but will probably be a Sherpa the most, especially this month. Why this month?

As of March 31, all construction efforts at Sindhupalchok base will close down. The base itself will stay open through the end of April, but the only work we’ll do in April is rubbling. About half the team is leaving on March 31, and whoever is left by the end of April (myself included) will go to Nuwakot, the other base of Project Nepal.

On my first day off I went for a hike with five other volunteers. The group was very international: Lena from Austria, Andrea from Columbia, Catarina from Portugal, Jill from Singapore, and the coolest volunteer on site, Monique, a grandmother from France who does all the manual labor with as much or more energy than some of the twenty-somethings.

We hiked for a couple hours and then stopped to rest. At our resting two Nepali men found us and invited us to their sister’s wedding which was happening just a minute’s walk away. We got up and had lunch at the wedding, then took photos with the wedding party (and gave them a small gift of money) before we left. But some children from the wedding, enamored with their unexpected guests, first led us to their homes where we met their parents and shared tea.

There’s a good overview of my first few days here! I’ve enjoyed it a lot, and I look forward to the rest of my time here.

WEEK TWO

Ouch 🙂

My first two days on site this week were spent on Sherpa team again! It was as difficult and excellent as last week! After that I was assigned housekeeping on base for a day, which most volunteers do within a week of arriving on site. It was nice to have a day “off,” but that day consisted of cleaning well-used toilets and burning shitty toilet paper, so I quite missed laboring on site.

Yesterday I was on the rubble team. Rubble is notorious for being second in difficulty only to Sherpa, but many of us who enjoy Sherpa would argue that Rubble is the greater challenge. As one volunteer put it, “ Sherpa is a sprint but Rubble is a marathon.” That’s because Sherpas do intense activity in short bursts with a minute or two of break in between, while rubblers are almost constantly moving albeit at a somewhat lower intensity. I prefer Sherpa still.

Today I’m on break from the site AGAIN, for two reasons. One is that I was ill last night. It is only natural when you put 62 people in close quarters, sharing limited bathrooms (only some of which have toilets, the rest are squatty potties) in a foreign country that you will get sick. Every day there are at least two people ‘home sick’ at the base. It doesn’t help that the river from which we get our water has E.Coli in it. We use an extensive filtration system for our drinking water and our dish washing, but unfortunately the hotel staff is not always so diligent. Luckily I feel a lot better today!!

The main reason why I’m back at base is to train for Base Manager. This is a duty some people do once or twice a week, which involved overseeing the housekeepers, keeping inventory and taking information about who is home sick, updating some spreadsheets, and doing other busywork for the higher staff members. As many of our current base managers are leaving next week, Jill and I are training to step in.

Tomorrow is Super Sherpa Day. In order to make sure all sites have the right materials before the construction aspect of the project closes on March 31, everybody on site will be a Sherpa tomorrow! Only a few of us are excited about it. I’m also moving tomorrow! We have a satellite base, a collection of tents and a bathroom, at the top of the hill where our current sites are. It’s called Hamro Ramro Gar, Nepali for home sweet home. Nicknamed, the Gau: the village. There are only a few spots open, and we go up for a week at a time. So tomorrow the volunteers living there now come back to base, while a few other volunteers and I move up to camp out for the week!

Volunteers are required to take 3 day breaks once every month. I hope/expect to take my March break around the 22nd, and head to Kathmandu to experience the Holi festival, which is as popular there as it is in India. A side benefit of that trip will be hot showers and better wifi, so I may be able to post some photos then.

More on everything to come!

Be dareful.