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.
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.
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!