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!