Project Nepal: Weeks 5 & 6

The last week of project; the start of something new.

The first thing I ought to say, and I ought to say it now because I’ve already come damn close to forgetting, is: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MOM! If you’re reading this and you’re not my mother, bear with me a moment.

Everything I’ve done over the past year, whether it was a blog-worthy adventure or my daily life abroad, had only been possible because my mother is the most supportive, hard-working, generous, and inspirational person I know. I love you Mom.


Week 5: End of Project

After Holi we all went back to work. With construction finished on the 50 homes and 52 outhouses we built in Bansbari, the collection of villages (Damai Tole, Magi Tole, Katri Tole, and Bagaicha) on the mountain where the Gau was, there was only one thing left to do: Rubble. No more Sherpa Power Team, no more Foundations or Roofs or Walls or Toilets. Just Rubble, my least favorite job. However, thanks to the closer friendships I’d built over the past weeks and our Holi break, it didn’t take long for me to start enjoying Rubble just as much as Sherpa—well, almost as much.

During that week I often read aloud from the book I was reading (Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns) by popular demand of my teammates and much to my own embarrassment. On our day off that week I enjoyed an 8 hour hike to the top of the hill across the river from our base. I enjoyed watching movies with my roommates in Indiana Jones & the Temple of Room. The next Monday, a dust storm began just as we were coming back to base from the work site. Though it wasn’t as intense as the hail storm that blew in during my week at the Gau, the winds were just strong enough that the Gau itself collapsed. All the Gau’ers came down to base. With only two days left on project, they would remain there until they left.

Then on Wednesday we left site at 2:00pm, two hours early. It was the final day of project. Everybody who wouldn’t be staying for April (approximately 60 of the 80 volunteers) had to pack their things and clear their rooms. Those of us who are staying for April had to pack up as well, because All Hands would no longer be paying for the hotel’s extra rooms. We were migrating back to the Love Hub.

That night was our end of project party. Some of the hotel staff had bought a pig. A volunteer named David, an Indian cargo ship captain, spent the day barbequing the pork to absolute perfection. Rikard, a Swedish bartender, set up a Raksy bar. Raksy is the liquor of Nepal, a very nasty rice-based product. Chang, a rice-based beer, is equally nasty, but at 30 rupees (equivalent to 30 cents) per jug, it’s quite popular among the volunteers. Anyways, all proceeds from Rikard’s Raksy bar were donated to All Hands. My personal contribution to the party was meant to be popcorn made with kernels I bought from a shack along my most recent hike. But after nearly burning the kitchen down (twice) I gave up.

The end of project party had a lovely mix of western and Nepali music (including the hit song “Saani,” the chorus of which goes like this: “mmm Paani Paani Paani Paani Paani Paani” and is repeated ad nauseum), dancing and poi (colored lights on strings used to make lovely patterns while you dance; popular among the hippie crowd), and a Free Box fashion show.

One of the simple pleasures of All Hands is the Free Box. If somebody is leaving and wants to unload some extra cargo—work clothes, socks, mosquito nets, sleeping bags, toiletries, pajamas, etc.—they can put it in the free box, and there it stays until some other volunteer decides they want it. Very simple, very nice. And because things get lost here easily, very handy. Many of my work pants and t-shirts are free box finds.

With about 60 volunteers leaving all at once, the Free Box blew up like a balloon. For the fashion show, people put on the strangest combinations to the applause of many onlookers.

The next morning was sad. By 7:30am it was time to say goodbye to many friends. Many of us have expressed the desire to see each other again and have even started to make plans to do so, but it is likely that some of us will never see each other again.

Among the friends I’m likely to see again are a few from New Jersey (for the month of March, NJ was the most well-represented state at Melamchi). We will have a reunion this summer at none other than Long Beach Island.


Week 6: The Rubble Queue

After the bus left, bearing our friends away to Kathmandu, our cleaning day began. We 20 who remained moved our belongings into the Love Hub, washed floors and windows and toilets, tossed extra belongings left behind into the Free Box, dismantled the extra beds in the Love Hub to make room for our new office, and moved the tools from their special room into our kitchen space. I personally spent about an hour setting up a Library, taking all the books left behind, all the ones I’d brought and finished reading, and others donated by other remaining volunteers, and gathered them all on an unoccupied bunk bed. Within minutes of its completion other volunteers were browsing this newfound wealth of literature and it has continued to be a success—every day a book has been added or removed from our Library.

By the end of the day, base was compacted into less than a third of the space it had once occupied.

Another job we did was take out the mattresses, blankets, and pillows from the bedrooms. Because volunteers buy their own bedding, none of this belonged to the hotel. We temporarily left these all in a heaping pile in our old meeting room, which is really a communal space for the hotel, with a TV and all. After cleaning, many of us spent the afternoon napping on the Pile.

It was during this lazy afternoon that Vicky, the assistant project director, gave a wonderful announcement: our typical one-day weekend was, for that week, being extended to include Friday! We had two days off! In a row! It felt like Christmas. Our minds went abuzz. We could go to Kathmandu and spend precious time with our friends who’d only just left that morning. We could go camping. In two days we could do anything.

But in the end, we spent the vast majority of our weekend in the Pile. It was a complete antithesis to our normal way of life here—to the amount of energy we expend on site, and to the energy with which we spend our time off, whether it be hiking the hills of Sindhupalchok or taking on Thamel. Many volunteers have hard drives full of good movies, and so there was always something interesting playing at the Pile. For our first day off with marathoned the original Star Wars trilogy. Though it was a lazy weekend, I feel as though it helped us recover from the sudden shock of losing three-quarters of our friends, and it made us ‘leftovers’ develop stronger bonds. There were always people in the Pile, always a snack or two and maybe even something to drink. At one point the Pile became a fort. We even came up with a little slogan that weekend: Pile is Love.

Food that weekend was delightful: home-cooked pizza to celebrate a volunteer’s birthday along with cake special-ordered from Melamchi’s only bakery, as well as buffalo steaks one night and lots of chow mein. That being said I should make a note—despite doing manual labor 42-48 hours a week, working longer and harder than I’ve ever worked, I don’t think I’ve lost any weight. That’s in part due to the nutritional inadequacies of daal baht, the Nepali staple dish we eat at least once a day which consists of rice, lentils, and potatoes, and in part due to the amount of food (of any kind) a volunteer eats. I’ve definitely toned some muscle, though!

After our weekend, it was time to get back to work. Six days of Rubble lay ahead of us, though looking back, it feels much longer. Not in a bad way, mind you. It’s simply that in those six days, our new way of life was molded.

The twenty of us I’ve decided to term the Rubble Crew (because we’ve stayed on site to finish the Rubble Queue, the 10 houses and 2 schools we didn’t get to rubble while we were busy doing construction on Bansbari). The Rubble Crew has successfully established a way of life unique to that which existed prior to the end of project.

It begins on site, though the work aspect is relatively the same. There are, however, some noticeable differences. With only twenty of us, there are only two teams every day. Before, there were five to seven teams, and you were unlikely to be on the same team two days in a row, meaning you were unlikely to work with the same people. Now, we essentially have established teams. We’re working with the same people every day. That really helps the bonding process. Another difference in the work is the site. One team has moved away from Bansbari to the next mountain over, where we’re rubbling houses just like we were before. The other team is on the Bansbari mountain, about ten minutes higher than the Gau was, and is rubbling one of the school sites. Though both are rubble, they might as well be different jobs. Rubbling a house involves moving rocks off the site and shoveling dirt away. Occasionally you have to collapse a remaining piece of wall. Rubbling a school involves cutting rebar and smashing cement with a sledgehammer. I spent five days rubbling houses, and one day on the school site. I much preferred the latter because it was more difficult and the work was a change of pace.

So why did I spend so much time on the house sites if I preferred the school? Well, that’s another thing that has changed. More than half of the Rubble Crew are team leaders (TL’s), myself included. When you’re a team leader, you don’t get to choose what site you go to. So, for three days in the middle of the week, I was assigned to lead the team rubbling Tulsi’s house. Tulsi’s house was a seemingly simple site. We started by collapsing three walls (this was actually the week prior, and I wasn’t TL that day). After that we cleared all the big rocks we’d just collapsed, but Tulsi kept asking us to clear more and more.

Anyways, the real glory of the Rubble Crew begins with two traditions we keep after work. The first is my favorite. Rather than fight for the two showers on base we’re still allowed to use, we walk up the road with our swimsuits on and bathe in the river. But Paul! you might say, you told us the river is swarming with E.Coli! This is correct but not exactly dangerous. We gather at the river, take a chilly dip, soap up and shampoo, rinse, and head back to base. Because we are smart, we don’t drink the river. And in any case, the showers at base use river water, so the only difference is that we’re enjoying a kind of communal swim. Because the days are getting hotter (the last hours of the work day feel as though Nepal is trying to compete with Thailand’s ridiculous heat), I am always looking forward to a chilly visit to the river.

After the river we have a nightly meeting, and then our second new tradition begins. Between our meeting and dinner time we go just down the road in the opposite direction of our river spot, to Rajkumar’s. Rajkumar is a local man with a tiny tin shack restaurant, where he serves Chang (remember, 30 rupees a jug). If we’re not interested in eating at base that night, we can also get chow mein, sukhoti (spicy chunks of dried buffalo), or selroti (thin, savory donuts).

I love these two traditions because in addition to contributing to the tight-knit feel of our Rubble Crew, I feel like I am getting to know the area better. Before the end of project the only way I took advantage of my surroundings was to sometimes get a veggie burger or samosa in town on the way back from work, and to hike on my days off. Other than that, most of my free time was on base. Now we all spend a great deal of time away from base, expanding the bubble of our experiences even though our numbers have decreased.

The Rubble Queue, by the way, now stands at 6 houses, 2 schools. The first school site will be finished early this week. Various staff members have estimated we will finish the Queue by April 20th. I’m not so sure about that, but I am optimistic we’ll finish well before the end of the month. And though I will continue to do good work, the end of the month can take its time. I’ve come to enjoy rubbling and more importantly, I love being part of the Rubble Crew.

Yesterday was our weekly day off. A friend and I walked several hours up the river, stopped in the next town over where we found (gasp!) ice cream and a gorgeous alcove by the river to read and relax away the afternoon. This Wednesday is the Nepali New Year’s Day, so we have another day off coming up. I’ve not yet made plans, though… I’m open to suggestions!

Finally, a couple of sad updates:

  1. My camera has ceased to work. Even after a complete charge it won’t turn on. So until I can get it fixed by a professional in Kathmandu, the only photos I can take are on my iPod. I’m still not posting photos on the blog because of the lack of decent wifi on base. This will more affect those of you who can look at my photos when I get home.
  2. Choco, our base puppy, passed away last week. Choco was well known for sneaking into the Love Hub at night and leaving us presents on the floor. Once he even decided to sleep with a volunteer in her bed! There are a couple of staff members who have known Choco since he was born last autumn. His passing was very hard on them.

More on everything to come!

Be dareful.