The Epicenter

Had my kickstarter earlier this year been successful and my non-fiction book in support of All Hands Volunteers been published, this would have been Chapter Three: The Epicenter. Some names have been changed at the request of the people they represent.

-15,000 m (-49,100 ft)

The intention of the following chapter is not to cause distress or dismay, but to put our trek in context. To understand why the All Hands on Everest trek was special it is important to understand the scale of the earthquake, its magnitude not only in numbers but in human experience. It was a true disaster. For many people, doing their part to aid the relief effort was not a choice, it was a mitzvah. Reading about the quake is not, should not be, anywhere near as horrific as experiencing it. But if, for any personal reason, you may be traumatized by reading about trauma, I now take a leaf from the page of a popular author and advise that your best course of action is to look away—to skip to the next chapter.

Shortly before noon on April 25, 2015, the world trembled. Subterranean tension released. The Indian subcontinent jolted. For years (millennia), the tectonic plate shouldering India on its crust has been pushing slowly into the Eurasian plate. The lip of India’s plate dips below the Eurasian. In the timescale of our universe, the meeting of these two plates is still in its infancy. Like human children, it is prone to overdrama and explosions of mood. The results: the Himalayas, and earthquakes.

The world trembled.

“The house shook like jelly.” That’s what Tulsi, a homeowner in Sindhupalchok district, told me a year after the event. “You cannot imagine the fear that comes when your own home shakes that way.” Tulsi’s house was one of many in the region to collapse.

In Kathmandu, far from the epicenter in Gorkha district, locals and tourists alike endured the tantrums. Buildings swayed or gave out entirely, burying people in brick and rubble. Tourists in hostels feared for their lives. Some tried to stand under the lintel. I cannot attest to the effectiveness of this strategy. Some who tried it surely perished. Temples collapsed in Dhurbar Square, a center of Nepali culture.

Taleju. A goddess of the Hindu pantheon. Among the Newar people, an ethnic group originating in the Kathmandu Valley, Taleju is alive in the form of a single pre-menstrual girl: a kumari. A living goddess. The current kumari is called Unika, and she lives near Dhurbar Square. There is a temple in the square dedicated to her and the other kumari whom Taleju has left behind (which occurs upon the woman’s first menstruation). This place, Kumari Ghar, is one of the rare buildings in the square left undamaged by the quake.

The manifestation of Taleju in young girls are supposed to have powers—omniscience, healing, and wish fulfillment among them. It is a traditional dating back at least a thousand years, when, through ritual and the supposed practice of magic, girls were possessed and transformed.

The day before the earthquake, the kumari of Kathmandu had attended the Bungadya festival, in which a chariot representing the Buddhist god of compassion is pulled around the town of Patan, and any disturbance along its course can be a bad omen.

Among other minor complaints, non-reigning kumari Chanira told National Geographic the next month, she saw a snake cross the road before the chariot. Worse, the chariot didn’t stop in requisite spots, said to be the home of other goddesses.

Chanira thinks the earthquake is retribution. I implore the reader not to think of Chanira, or any others who believe in the incarnation of Taleju in young girls, as simple or primitive. Her concern about the earthquake brought up many points concerning the excesses of modern life, and the growing tendency for people to look inwards and ignore the suffering of their peers and planet. “Carelessness and disrespect will cause us great suffering,” she told National Geographic.

The survival of Kumari Ghar was a miracle among mayhem.

Elsewhere in Kathmandu, Boudhanath Stupa, a religious site storied to have been built shortly after the death of the Buddha, was severely damaged. Swayambhu, otherwise called the Monkey Temple for the prevalence of its primates, was also damaged. Schools, homes, and shops were leveled. The city echoed with cries of pain and despair. In an hour, a minute, an instant, families were broken.

In the shadow of Sagarmatha, or Mount Everest, the shaking dislodged an enormous block of ice from nearby 7,000 meter Pumori. The ice was the catalyst for a massive avalanche that tumbled toward the white swath of the Khumbu Icefall, on the edge of which sat Base Camp. Brightly colored tents with hundreds of aspiring peak-baggers inside. Almost two-dozen perished at Base Camp alone. An expedition from the Indian Army got to work immediately, retrieving bodies from under piles of snow, ice, and rock, and rescuing 61 climbers.

When my grandfather fought in the Korean War, he had his best friend Don Syvrud at his side. Despite political differences, the two remained dear friends throughout life, and their children grew up together. Two of Don’s sons-in-law, Steve Strickland and Mike Violette, where on the mountain during the earthquake.

More specifically, they were at Gorak Shep, the last stop before Base Camp.

“Our group was in our rooms packing for the trek to Base Camp, when everything started shaking,” Steve told me. “It felt like one of those movie scenes where a bunch of football players are shaking a port-a-potty with someone inside. I was wondering if a herd of yaks had gone wild and started ramming the building from all sides. But a few of our group were from California and immediately recognized what was happening and yelled, ‘Earthquake! Everybody get outside! Now!’ So we all ran outside the teahouse. The shaking seemed to go on a long time—thirty seconds or more.” In ordinary circumstances, getting clear of a building during an earthquake would be the right call. But with the avalanche coming in off Pumori, which Gorak Shep sits at the base of, it wasn’t safe for long.

“We were checking that everyone was there and okay when our main guide, Mingma Sherpa, ran up and said, ‘Avalanche! Everyone inside!’ They herded us all inside the door just as a huge white cloud of wind and snow engulfed everything. After a minute, it subsided and we went back outside to find everything coated with a few inches of snow. We weren’t actually hit by the avalanche, fortunately, but big ones typically push a mass of air in front of them that can exceed hurricane force and travel for miles. That was what hit us, roaring down the glacier from Base Camp and picking up all the recently fallen snow and blasting it forward in the huge cloud that enveloped us.”

Even then, fortunate as they had been, the ordeal was not over. Steve went on, “The first aftershock was about an hour later. We were sitting in the teahouse dining room while our guides were assessing the situation and making a plan. Almost everyone jumped up and raced for the door in a panic. Fortunately, it subsided before anyone tripped and got trampled. And our guides warned us to avoid getting sucked into the kind of melee.”

Steve, Mike, and their group hiked down from Gorak Shep for three days, reversing the path I would trek a year later with All Hands. They observed widespread damage—but it was minimal, relegated to corners of buildings and roofs. They encountered several more aftershocks on the way day.

“After arriving at Namche [Bazaar], we got up at 3:30 AM the following morning to hike up almost a thousand feet to an old dirt airfield above Namche where we waited several hours for the clouds to clear enough for a Russian-made (and piloted) MI-8 helicopter to come in and pick us up. We were loaded onto the hell with ten Indian women who had won a contest with prize of a trek to Base Camp guided by Jamling Norgay, son of Tenzing, who did the first Everest ascent with Sir Edmund Hillary. After loading, we started to take off, then stopped at the end of the runway and waited another half hour before taking off for real. The clouds were constantly moving in and out and Namche is surrounded by high snow-capped peaks, so good visibility was critical.”

Their immense, white and black ride took rescued their group and the Indian group from the mountain still wracked with aftershocks and took them to Kathmandu, where they were interviewed by several news crews.

A similar fate befell Langtang Valley. A year after the event, Ashley Corral, coordinator of the All Hands on Everest trek, was working on a Workaway farm in Pokhara, where she men a man who used to work as a trekking guide. He told her about entire villages that were swallowed by the writhing earth. The official line on the death toll incurred by the April 2015 earthquakes hovers around 9,000 depending on who you ask. But with villages like those in Langtang, where bodies were never recovered and cannot, therefore, be confirmed dead, the actual death toll, the one whispered and passed around by people who really know a thing or to, might be as high as 500,000. A high number. But amid the confusion of the quake itself, and the greater ensuing struggle that is recovery, it might be possible for several thousand casualties to have been missed.

The Langtang Valley sits a few dozen miles northeast of Kathmandu. Though the trekking guide’s report of entire villages being swallowed without a trace is certainly hyperbolic, the avalanche that swept through the region was devastating. And before the avalanche, the blast of wind. Gusting at nearly a hundred miles per hour, the wind generated by the pressure buildup before the avalanche flattened forests and threw people across fields.

Colin Haley, an American alpinist in Langtang at the time, told Outside Online in September 2015, “I was flying through the air in this torrent of wind and snow, and I hit the ground a couple of times and then got blown off the plateau at the edge of the meadow down a steep hill.” Like many others interviewed, Haley proceeded to simply run, not knowing how else to save himself.

Langtang Village itself disappeared, carried away by the avalanche like refuse in a riptide. Locals were dead, tourists dead. Hundreds injured. And hundreds more stuck on the trails, blocked by boulders and other obstacles dropped by the storm.

Langtang local Karma Lachung Tamang was also interviewed by Outside. She said, “The avalanche was really black—it was swirling and swirling, with rocks, sand, ice, and snow all mixed up. Whoever was outside had no chance. My older daughter was right in the center, completely buried under the snow. We haven’t even found her body yet.”

Not since 1934 has an earthquake done so much damage to Nepal. People around the country muttered Sabai gayo, or, it’s all gone. A far cry from ramro din auney cha.

Britta, a Swedish tourist, had just celebrated her twenty-first birthday on April 24. She was in a dorm in Thamel when the tremors began. Also staying in the dorm were a Canadian woman, a French woman, Kiwi man, and a Scotsman. This melting pot of tourists escaped the hostel they were staying. When the ground became stable, they banded together to find a new residence. Hotel Pokhara Peace opened its doors, becoming their new home.

That night, the five of them were wracked with nightmares. Earthquake dreams, Britta called them. A haunting way to revisit the devastation. The group would awaken at every aftershock, shivering with fear that the roof would fall over them in their sleep. Somebody suggested they leave.

Leaving Nepal was not an option so soon after the disaster. Planes were being delayed. The airport itself was mildly damaged and many airport workers were killed.

The group became grew close. They knew nobody else in the world who’d gone through their same experience. The Earthquake Family, they dubbed themselves. It was fitting. When one of them awoke from a nightmare, the others would be there to comfort them. In all other aspects of life for the immediate future, they stuck together.

Aftershocks continued. A note carried by somebody airlifted out of Langtang Valley reads: “NO FOOD; NO WATER NOT SAFE!! Earthquakes every day!!” Ashish Sherman, a helicopter pilot, says of the days after the quake, “…we just couldn’t meet the demand, with calls coming in from the government, from embassies, from the families.”

Chanira, non-reigning kumari, once the embodiment of goddess Taleju, said, “People have to stop being foolish and start concentrating on what matters most.” The Earthquake Family decided to use their time in Kathmandu as best they knew how, by helping the people who needed it in any way they could.

I was not there at the time, so I cannot say how difficult it was to go about. My first assumption would be that finding people to pull out of the wreckage was a simply matter of walking through it and listening to the groans and screams. More difficult would be clearing away the rubble itself. All of Kathmandu was rubble. If you remove a brick from one pile, where can it go in order for it to be out of the way. Until my own volunteering work began almost a year later, I couldn’t fathom the importance of clearing rubble. For Kathmandu immediately after the quake, I’m certain it was paramount.

But still, where to put it? This is, actually, a shadow of a question cast by the real question: Who’s in charge here? The Earthquake Family and others like them seeking to accomplish some good were looking for evidence of organization. Unskilled and inexperienced in disaster relief, they needed, more or less, somebody to tell them what to do.

In comes: All Hands Volunteers. As with any disaster they respond to, All Hands had deployed a DART to Kathmandu. The DART, or Disaster Assessment Response Team, was on site for immediate recovery assistance and to figure out whether Nepal required long term relief. To anybody with eyes, it did.

DART provided what the Earthquake Family and others in Kathmandu required: organization. Under their guidance, Britta and her newfound friends helped All Hands construct temporary learning centers in the Kathmandu Valley. There were other organizations operating in the area, and the Earthquake Family devoted a day or two to each one.

Months later, the All Hands project in Nepal well under way, Britta was back home in Sweden. Every now and then she still woke up in the middle of the night, heart pounding, having just relived the earthquake in her dreams. She wasn’t alone. The rest of the Family also continued to have their earthquake dreams. This is a common feature of living through such trauma. I can only imagine how many thousands of other tourists and Nepalis suffered the same dreams. In Sweden, Britta had nobody available to comfort her in the way her Earthquake Family had. Her Swedish family hadn’t felt the tremors or the rumbles. Unable to escape thoughts of Nepal and the people who had suffered, still suffered, she resolved to return.

In April 2016 she and two members of the Earthquake Family arrived in Hotel Riverside Melamchi, the All Hands base where I was stationed at the time, in Sindhupalchok district. Stuck sick at base, I was there to welcome them. They didn’t tell me about their past in the country at that time. I learned later.

I believe they were in awe of their own return. Nepal, site of their most traumatic experience, had pulled them back. It has that power, I have seen it first hand. Foreigners stroll Thamel who have been there for decades. When you see it, see the mountains and smell the incense and hear the flutes backing a chant of Om mani padme hum from a nearby music shop, it latches in your heart or your navel and grips you. If you leave, Nepal will follow you wherever you go. It will hunt you down, Ahab to your White Whale, until you finally return. Many things were destroyed in the earthquake, but Nepal’s raw magnetism wasn’t one of them.

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Why I’m Trade-ing Up

TU_RALLY

I’ve been struggling to find a good way to broach this topic on this blog. It’s about some work I do in my extremely limited spare time for a nonprofit my dear friends put together. But I’ve used this blog to discuss my nonprofit work before and as a platform for fundraising…and my position with the group is officially “Fundraising Manager,” and these factors stack against me to make this blog post seem like a plea for donations.

I’m mostly writing this because I haven’t written on Dare(fully) for a while and I sometimes feel as though my life isn’t all that dareful anymore, but I have to take a step back and examine. And the topic of this blog is, I think, the most dareful thing I do these days.

So I can’t figure out the “best” way to introduce the topic. I’ll just let Rutgers newspaper The Daily Targum do it for me.

A Rutgers alumnus is working with his team to better the lives of people abroad.

Paul Rando graduated Rutgers in 2015 and has since joined Kyle Wiese and Brandon McGee, the founders of the nonprofit Trade-ing Up, to create a vocational school in Yeji, Ghana for students there to learn valuable trades affordably.

Rando, McGee and Wiese met through disaster relief volunteering with All Hands Volunteers in Louisiana. McGee originally hatched the idea when he was working on starting a goat farm in Zambia and saw a need for increased vocational education.

Stephen Weiss wrote this article based on a press release I wrote and subsequent interviews conducted with myself, Brandon, and Kyle. This is the majority of the work I do for Trade-ing Up–writing press releases and requests for corporate donations and grant inquiries. I also filmed some interviews with Kyle and Brandon that I’ll edit into some video for their social media.

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Fun fact: Kyle took the photos on this post with the same camera I used on my Mt. Everest trek! I sold it to her before her most recent Yeji trip. Pictured here: dressmaking! A highly in-demand trade in Yeji.

Here’s another quote from the Targum article:

Rando’s job is to spread the word about the organization and encourage people to donate in support of their Sponsor-a-Student program, which can put a Ghanaian student through their trade school for only about $368.

These trade schools are particularly important because things like dressmaking and carpentry are of particularly high value in Ghana, Rando said.

“Based on our calculations and (Brandon McGee and Kyle Wiese’s) experience in Ghana, we have figured out that it is $368 for a student there to complete their entire education, which was pretty mind-blowing because it is exuberantly more than that here in the States,” he said. “People are giving these multi-million dollar endowments to schools in the States when for a dollar a day they can fund one student’s entire education in Ghana.”

The $368 would pay for the apprenticeship fees, school supplies, uniforms and sewing machines, as well as a meal every day, which Rando said is one of the more important aspects of the program.

“We want to be able to relieve some of the food stress that the more impoverished students have had. Instead of worrying where they’re going to get their next meal, they know they’ll have a meal at school and they can pay attention to the lessons and get a more wholesome education,” he said.

People I interact with about Trade-ing Up ask me why I’m interested in it. I’m ridiculously, dumbfoundedly (not a real word) inspired by how passionate Brandon and Kyle are for their project. They work endlessly. They’ve been to Yeji (the village where Trade-ing Up’s first school is to go) many times and have made friends in the community. Their passion gives me passion.

They’ve also done their research. I’m learning the more I work with them, but if you have any questions about Yeji or the mechanics of the project they’re really the ones to ask.

“The biggest thing is that (the Ghanaian villagers) are really smart and capable people too, and if you found out that someone in America could get a really important and really valuable education for $368, people would jump on the chance,” Wiese said.

Wiese said that it is important for students to realize that the Ghanaian students are people just like them.

I think this pretty much says it all.

Also, this:

Rando encourages [Rutgers] students to help in any way they can, such as by asking small businesses to help out or telling their friends and family about it.

 

A kind of neat development recently is that the game company Cards Against Humanity (it’s a fun but really dirty party game) donated one of their entire collection (starter pack and expansions for a $127 total value) to us to use in any way we can. So my friends at the Bagel Barrel have suggested some local bars that might be interested in a charity game night and I’ll do some asking around about that. If you know of any venue that’d enjoy something like that do let me know!

The following is quote I wrote for an article that I think got turned down, or at least has yet to be accepted. Understandably, as it’s a little harsh.

The stated mission of Outside Magazine, a well-written monthly with a big friendly ‘O’ on every cover, is “to inspire active participation in the world outside through award-winning coverage of the sports, people, places, adventures, discoveries, health and fitness, gear and apparel, trends and events that make up an active lifestyle.”

In pursuit of this admirable mission, Outside publishes a regular Buyer’s Guide. A quick look into the 2017 Winter Buyer’s Guide reveals elegant, sporty, trendy, comfortable items such at the Patagonia Stretch Nano Storm, winner of Outside’s ‘Gear of the Year’ prize, selling for only $449…wait, what?

I have spent many hours perusing Outside’s pages and stories of modern swashbuckling, the regular armchair adventurer, me. And I’ve ogled the beautiful product line of Patagonia and companies like it. But is this the best way to “inspire active participation in the world outside?

Let me put it this way, for less than the price of that sporty coat that isn’t really that much better than the coat you bought last year, or even the one hanging in the consignment basement at shops like Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vt–for less than that, you can change one person’s entire life. From starving to satisfied. From anxious to secure. From passive to active. And possibly even from inside to outside.

So this is what I work on when I can and it keeps me sane! I’d appreciate if anybody who’s taken the time to read this far would share either this blog or the Targum article with a few friends. Check out our website where you can read more, see a few more pictures, learn about our Sponsor-a-Student program and some products Kyle and Brandon are offering to go with donations.

One of my next tasks I want to work on for Trade-ing Up is to write a few blog posts to get more in-depth on some topics we’ve touched over on social media, such as

  • Our Team
  • Yeji
  • Dressmaking
  • Sponsor-a-Student program

I can’t make promises but I hope to publish them on Dare(fully) at the same time we publish them at Trade-ing Up.

Kickstarting Relief

I write this post as a letter to you, you readers who followed my blog when I was still abroad and adventuring.

You might recall that in my second-to-last post I announced I was writing a book about my experience in Nepal. About the trek to Everest Base Camp and my time volunteering with All Hands Volunteers.

Over the past months I have researched and written a first draft of this book. I’ve interviewed many fellow participants in the trek and read many articles about the continuing recovery efforts in Nepal, and learned about a friend from All Hands Volunteers who went on to begin her own disaster relief organization called Trek Relief.

The other day I launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the editing and publishing of this book, which I am calling We Look Up: Trekking & Volunteering in Post-Earthquake Nepal. For those who may not know, Kickstarter is a website where individuals can donate to other people’s projects in a process called crowdfunding.

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Every penny raised from the campaign itself will go directly to making the book as good as it can be. But when it’s published in June, 2017, I plan to donate 25% of proceeds to All Hands Volunteers and to Trek Relief. So every contribution to the book is definitely a contribution to Nepal’s recovery.

Just because Nepal’s recovery fell out of mainstream news coverage shortly after the 2015 earthquakes, doesn’t mean there’s no more work to be done!!

If you’re reading this, I know you have already given. Thank you. You’ve supported my fundraising for the All Hands on Everest trek last year. That’s why, while I appreciate every pledge, I’m asking something else of you:

Spread the word! Think of five or ten people you know who would be interested in making a contribution not only to an up-and-coming writer, but also to disaster relief. Doing so takes only a few minutes and can have a larger impact than a single donation.

Read through the Kickstarter page. The following calculations for success of the campaign are based on the budget section.

  • 254 people pledging at the $15 level. Or,
  • 153 people pledging at the $25 level. Or,
  • 109 people pledging at the $35 level. Or,
  • 77 people pledging at the $50 level. Or,
  • Less than 40 people pledging at the $100 level. Or,
  • Just 16 people pledging at the $250 level. Or,
  • Just 8 people pledging at the $500 level. Or,
  • Just 4 people pledging at the $1,000 level.

The calculations illustrate something that’s probably obvious: that if 10 people reading this message can convince just four people they know to pledge at the $100 level, funding for We Look Up will be a breeze. On the other hand, it will take much more time and effort to track down 250 people to give $15. Everybody, especially family who pledged to my trek last year, please remember that spreading the word to people you trust to pledge is both easier, faster, and more effective than giving a single pledge.

Important note: Kickstarter funding is all-or-nothing. That means if, at the end of the campaign (there are 27 days remaining), I have raised less than $3,810, even just by a single dollar, the backers are not charged for their pledges.

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Thank you for reading. As always, be dareful.

 

Link for sharing: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1141559249/we-look-up-trekking-and-volunteering-in-post-earth?token=f593f915

 

 

The Hotel Marshyangdi

1,400 meters (4,600 feet)

Ramro din auney cha. Good days will come.

This is not a phrase you often hear in urban Nepal. You don’t hear hawkers shouting it in the streets of Kathmandu, and you wouldn’t hear people say it to a homeless man on the streets, nor to a monk. It’s not printed on menus or graffiti’d on brick walls. It would be easy enough to spend a week, a month, a year in Nepal without hearing it at all.

But you might hear it: “Ramro din auney cha,” if you go beyond the cities of Kathmandu, Pokhara, or Chitwan. For instance, in the foothills of Sindhupalchok, Nuwakot, and Gorkha districts, areas which took the full force of an earthquake rated 7.8 on the Richter scale in April 2015, and which are slowly and steadily being rebuilt by strong, resilient Nepali people, with occasional help from the rest of the world, and occasional setbacks from Nepal’s own government. You might hear the phrase whispered from an old man to a younger friend who has helped him clear his homestead of rubble, or between two young women helping one another lift a doka basket onto their heads, or it might be proclaimed from a tin shack on the side of the road as a group is served the next round of chhang rice beer.

Ramro din auney cha, the Nepali people will say, despite the tragedy that took the lives of over 9,000 people and left nearly every family with a casualty, because they know it is true. Good days will come.

This is not the story of the earthquake, but of what 21 foreigners did to help the people of Nepal in the recovery. It is not the story of life-threatening risks or raucous adventure, but of a two-week journey and what it took to get there, get through, and what will come of it after. This is the All Hands on Everest challenge.

This is a story about rebuilding hope.

Thamel is the tourist district of Kathmandu. Its thin streets are packed to bursting with Western restaurants, dance clubs, bars, second-hand bookstores, art galleries, bakeries, tattoo parlors, hostels, and gear shops for trekking and mountaineering. On the roads, vendors sell anything from jewelry to khukri’s, or Gorkha knives, from little violins to T-shirts to prayer flags. Incense burns from every other storefront, masking the powerful scent of car exhaust and dreadlocks. Nepalis carry cups of masala tea to their friends. The vendors yell out prices and badger tourists to buy their products, whatever they may be. There is a curious abundance of Tiger balm.

The crowded district is only a ten minutes’ walk from end-to-end. It’s also a mere five minutes by cab from Machha Pokhari Bus Park or twenty minutes by cab from Tribhuvan International Airport, making the district a perfect spot in Kathmandu for All Hands volunteers to gather.

At 11:50 AM on May 22, 2016, I walked through the streets of Thamel, looking for the Hotel Marshyangdi, where I would meet the twenty other participants in the All Hands on Everest challenge.

I was coming from Hotel Pokhara Peace, a reasonably nice establishment with all the amenities a broke traveller could ask for: bed, shower, working toilet, and wifi. Prior to that I’d spent three nights at King’s Land, a hostel with even less to offer as my room didn’t have a window but did have a mosquito infestation. But both were cheap at eight and five dollars per night, respectively. As I’d spent my three months in Nepal on All Hands bases in Sindhupalchok and Nuwakot districts, or else in accommodations like King’s Land, I wasn’t expecting much from the Marshyangdi.

I passed Everest Irish Pub, where my name is scrawled on the walls not once but three times, always in the company of other volunteers, and nearly walked right past the Marshyangdi when I saw the alien word on a white square sign overhead. I turned left, and there it was. Behind brown metal gates, a small parking lot (luxury item number one), tall doors, and a banner proclaiming: A WARM WELCOME TO ALL MEMBERS OF ALL HANDS ON EVEREST CHALLENGE’ [sic] 2016. Through the doors was a clean, elegant lobby with comfortable chairs and dark wood finishings (luxury items number two and three). A painting to the right of the welcome desk showed a Himalayan skyline behind many landmarks of the region including Kathmandu’s own Boudhanath Stupa, Durbar Square, and the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s palace in Tibet (luxury item number four). There is even a vendor of prayer beads and other jewelry at the base of the stairwell (luxury item number five).

Several other participants were in the lobby waiting for their rooms. About a month beforehand, we’d all received an email assigning a roommate with whom we’d share lodging for the duration of the trek. My roommate, Patrick, was already at the hotel, but nowhere to be seen. I introduced myself to the others waiting there—Georgie, Tanya, Tricia, and Jeff. When the hotel staff gave me the key to Room 412, I headed up on my own. Halfway up the stairs, a skinny blonde man passed me on the way down.

“Are you with the All Hands trek?” I asked.

He paused. He was already below me on the stairwell, so he looked up to respond, “I am.”

I went down a few stairs; he came up a few. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Patrick.” At last, my roommate! His voice was deep and curt, and he spoke with an American accent.

“Oh! We’re going to be roommates.”

“You’re…” He searched his memory, trying to recall to whom he’d been assigned a month ago. “Paul?”

“That’s right. Where are you from?”

“New Jersey,” he responded. “What about you?”

“Same. Whereabouts in Jersey?”

“Hunterdon County.”

“No way,” I said, “me too.” From there we discovered that not only did we live within a ten minutes’ drive back home, but we’d attended rival high schools. I smile.

The Hotel Marshyangdi, unlike most of Thamel’s dirt-cheap hostels, has a conference room. At 5:00 PM, twenty-one people filed into the space and stood around the U-shaped table. Standing nearby were three Nepali men. One was short and middle-aged, though his hair hasn’t gone grey. The other two were taller and in their twenties.

We took our seats, and members of the Marshyangdi staff came in bearing pitchers of hot tea and plates of cookies. We began to drink and eat—the cookies tasted of black pepper. Though many of us were still shy with one another, a low hum of conversation began to fill the room. While we made our introductions, Georgie Wilkerson, coordinator of the All Hands on Everest challenge, and Alix Seyfarth, an All Hands Volunteers alum, handed out hoodies and dry-wicking t-shirts with the trek’s official logo: the All Hands hand imposed on a mountain silhouette.

“Hello,” Georgie said when she finished with the shirts. “Welcome to Nepal!” She then introduced Anuj Pandey, one of the two young Nepali men.

“Hi everybody,” Anuj said. “Good to see you here. Welcome to my country. I’m Anuj, I’m the office representative for Explore Himalaya.”

Explore Himalaya has been leading tours in the region for nearly twenty years. Their current range of services includes trekking, cultural tours, and mountain biking not only in Nepal, but in Tibet, Bhutan, and India as well. They currently hold a unanimous ‘Excellent,’ or 5-star rating on TripAdvisor.

Anuj took a few minutes to go through some basics of trekking.

“Because we’ll be working hard at high altitude, dehydration is a serious risk. We recommend you to drink four or five liters of water per day. You should always have at least two liters on you.” I swallowed. I only had a single Nalgene, which only holds one liter of water. Anuj continued, “It’s also a danger to get Acute Mountain Sickness. The first sign is usual bad headaches, so let me or any of our guides know if you get this. We will carry Diamox for you to use if you get sick—no need to carry your own Diamox.”

He motioned for the shorter, older Nepali man, who joined him at the end of the table. “This is Nima Tamang, our sirdar, or lead guide. He has been guiding treks for over 35 years. Along with our other guides, you should always follow Nima. He knows where to go, and it is dangerous to go off the trails approved by our guides, or to go ahead of them because you might ascend too quickly and get sick.” Anuj also introduced the third Nepali in the room, Nima’s son Rupchand.

There was a few minutes of question and answer as the members of our trek sorted out their last worries and anxieties. Mostly these questions had to do with gear—did we really need thermal underwear or sleeping bag liners? Anuj was helpful in addressing every question.

We were also assigned to a flight for the following morning. Two Goma Airlines Cessna planes were scheduled to transfer our crew from Tribhuvan International in Kathmandu to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla—the gateway to Mount Everest. I was assigned to the first flight, leaving at 6:00 AM.

At last the briefing session was over, and the participants all gathered outside the hotel, in front of the welcome banner. This would be the first of many group photos taken for the All Hands and Explore Himalaya social media teams. From the click of the camera, our group dispersed to two popular Thamel eateries: Cafe New Orleans, and Electric Pagoda, where we spent the night getting to know the people who would become our mountain family.

The participants in the All Hands on Everest challenge were a diverse group. There were twelve Americans, five British, one Filipino, one Vietnamese, one Canadian, and a Bulgarian. Six of them were women, the rest of us were guys. The youngest of us was twenty-two, the oldest was fifty-eight. And we’d come from all walks of life. There were many chronic travelers, but also bankers, engineers, teachers, and pedicab drivers. One of our number was a Freemason. Many had spent months volunteering or working with All Hands not only in Nepal, but on prior projects such as the Philippines Typhoon restoration in Leyte, but not all of us had been involved with All Hands until hearing about the trek.

In addition to our varied lifestyles, we were coming to the trek for an immense variety of personal reasons. One of us was getting over a difficult break-up. One of us was mourning the loss of a close friend, while another was trying to understand the loss of an absentee father. Most of us were just trying to check something big off the bucket list, and maybe trying to accomplish some good in the process.

We didn’t, necessarily, expect to become fast friends with twenty strangers, but the process began that night as we relished our last opportunity to enjoy the Western comforts of Thamel.

I stumbled down four flights of stairs at 4:45 the morning after our briefing. The hotel was dark, the kitchen closed. In the lobby, dark shadows belonging to my future trekking companions sat and groaned, every bit as exhausted as I was. We were scheduled to depart the hotel at 5:00 AM in order to make the 6:00 flight.

One shadow was not grouching in leather comfort, but restlessly pacing the lobby. Tall, bald, and beaming, he introduced himself as Chris Helmerson. His flight arrived the day before, but after our briefing was finished.

We made a pile in the middle of the lobby of things we wouldn’t need to bring to the mountain. Meanwhile, 5:00 came and went, with no sign of our airport transfer van. There was a stack of white boxes on a table that contained breakfast in lieu of the hotel’s buffet: a cheese sandwich, both the cheese and bread of which had the texture of plastic, two pieces of fruit, and two muffins of indeterminate flavor, so dry we probably started the process of dehydrating before we began trekking.

At last the vans arrived. We stuffed out packs into the trunk and climbed aboard. Within moments we were peeling out of the Hotel Marshyangdi parking lot and speeding toward Tribhuvan—and Everest.

When we arrived at the airport with only twenty minutes to spare before our flight, Nima sped us through security and check-in, impatiently dumping our 10 kilogram bags behind the Goma Air desk in the domestic terminal. From there we hurried to our gate, mere moments from our departure time. But we needed have rushed. The flight was delayed—at first by half an hour, then an hour, and then an hour and a half.

The weather that morning was cloudy, something which never bodes well for flights into or out of Tenzing-Hillary Airport. Often called the most dangerous airport in the world, flights are often delayed not only by hours but by days if conditions aren’t ideal. So we sat in Tribhuvan, exhausted but impatient. Some of us passed the time playing card games and fidgeting. Meanwhile, the participants flying with the second plane were just waking up and enjoying the well-stocked breakfast buffet back at Marshyangdi.

When the skies cleared, we were ushered onto a transport bus which took us to the section of runway occupied by a fleet of Cessna planes. Along the way we passed a group of Nepali men going for a jog down the tarmac! Our Goma Air plane was shining new, and in good repair. The interior was about the same size as that of the transport bus. There was no door to the cockpit—the passengers in front could watch the pilot.

“Thank you for choosing Goma Air,” announced the flight’s only attendant, a woman in a bright orange dress. “We are ascending almost 1,500 meters in only 27 minutes, so we recommend you to please wear these cottons in your ears.” She proceeded to hand out balls of cotton along with little Lacto-fun brand candies.

Then we took off. Because of our weather-induced delay, and the size of the plane, I was concerned that we were in for the bumpiest flight in history. But the flight was calm—so calm, in fact, that in my exhausted state I was able to drift to sleep. When I awoke again fifteen minutes or so later, we were high in the air. To the right and far below the plane were white, cartoonish clouds. And stabbing through that fluffy layer was a snowy mountain reminiscent of the painting in the Marshyangdi lobby. It was like an artist’s dream of a mountain, too good to be true. Its peak towered high above the plane.

Ahead, on the green, pine-dotted slopes of another mountain, sat the colored, corrugated-iron roofs of a village: Lukla. And a little strip of gray tarmac marked the Tenzing-Hillary Airport! It was even more frightening than I expected. It’s only 500 meters long, with an incline of seventeen degrees, at the end of which is a solid wall of gray blocks. As such, it looks like it’s made for remote controlled airplanes, not working vehicles with living passengers.

But just as the flight itself was smooth, my worries about the landing were unfounded. We touched down, and the plane swiftly slowed down as it ascended the incline, and just before hitting the wall it turning into a small parking area. There was an immediate release of tension in the plane, and then we all broke into applause. We made it!

As we disembarked and began to gather our luggage from the flight, I took a look around. The mountains seemed indescribably high. But I noticed that the tree line ended just below the snowy peaks. That meant that, compared to where we were going, they were actually very small. I smiled to imagine the Himalayan monstrosities we were soon to encounter. Then, watching my companions and listening to their excited chatter, my smile widened, and I could think only one thing:

Ramro din auney cha. Good days will come. And come they did.

Rubble, Cement, and Everest

Hello, all.

I’m home. That’s right, my time abroad has (TEMPORARILY) come to an end. I’m sorry I’ve not been updating since mid-April. The tablet I was using to write these things broke.

Since then, I’ve completed the Melamchi rubble queue with twenty of the coolest volunteers in the world, moved to Project Nepal’s Nuwakot base, mixed cement and lay bricks for two schools there (Prithivi and Jalpa Yuwa), contracted a skin infection which spread from my inner elbow to my buttocks, spent too much time recovering in Kathmandu, and took my cousin Coby and friend Ashley to visit Riverside Inn at Melamchi, my Nepali home.

When we went there, we visited Rajkumar, his wife, and their kids Achut and Sastika, the family that owns the chang bar where the Rubble Crew used to spend evenings. They were so overcome to see us that they gave us free chang and even some of the special dry yeast used to make the stuff. Now I have to try my hand at making it here in the States!

Oh, I also went to Everest Base Camp on a two-week charity trek with twenty others of the coolest volunteers in the world! I have so much to say about that, but I won’t be doing so here. If you’re following my blog and don’t already know, let this be the announcement: I am writing a book about the All Hands on Everest challenge and Project Nepal on behalf of All Hands Volunteers. So instead of sharing stories, here’s a few photos.

EBC

Everest Base Camp: 5364 meters, or 17,600 feet. Behind: the Khumbu Icefall.

Everest

Center: Nuptse peak. Left from center: Everest peak. Taken at sunrise 5/30/16 from Kala Patthar peak at 5644 meters, or 18,520 feet.

Snow

All Hands Volunteers trek to Everest Base Camp through the snow on 5/29/16, the 63rd anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa’s legendary first ascent.

DSCN2126.JPG

A man herds his donkeys across a suspension bridge lined with prayer flags.

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.

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.

Wrapping Up: 258 Days in Thailand

 

Wat Pho

This is but one small part of an enormous mural depicting the life of the Buddha. Located at Wat Pho in Bangkok.

 To those who visit here, we wish a safe journey and the joys of discovery. -William Sanford Nye.

I arrived in Thailand on May 22, 2015. On February 29, 2016, just a week away, I will leave, and go to Nepal, and then home. My time in Thailand (258 days as of my departure) has come to an end.

It’s been an experience better captured by the blog posts and pictures I’ve already shared than by any reductive passages I might come up with now to try and summarize nine months of experiences. Certainly, what you’ve read and seen here have been the highlights of the year, the high points on what has, in all fairness, been a rollercoaster…

As in all year of life, the past year has not been perfect. I’ve struggled in my capabilities as a teacher and against some ugly aspects of my personality that undoubtedly made me difficult to live with at times. But thankfully this particular nine-month rollercoaster has had many more rises than drops.

I’ve met many friends, learned a little of the Thai language, experienced life in a Theravada Buddhist nation, experienced an odd sort of ostracism as a farang (this is difficult to describe), but also been embraced because of it (equally difficult), and connected with my students in a way I did not expect, especially with Om Si. I’ve went on daily alms rounds with monks, seen the ruins of the ancient capital of Siam, and eaten not one but two grasshoppers. I also took unforgettable trips to India and Cambodia (bringing my total count of days abroad to 283). I drove a motorcycle every day. Thanks to a combination of healthier diet and more constant exercise regime, I lost 30 lbs.

If you’ve followed along since May 22, you know most of those things. Here are a few experiences I didn’t write about, either because I was too lazy or too busy to do so:

  • In September, I coached a sixth grade student named Towan to sing the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” for a local competition. He placed third…out of three. We were both sad about the outcome. In our defense, there were some technical difficulties during his performance. He has long since recovered from the disappointment and now we have silly play-fights every morning when he arrives at school. That, or he actually wants to punch Teacher Paul…
  • In mid-January I was driving to school and a soi dog (Thai strays, they’re everywhere) suddenly sprinted in front of my motorcycle. It was too fast for me to react. We collided, and the dog died. It was a gruesome scene and gave me an immense weight of guilt I still carry. I know it was not my fault…but it is still haunting.
  • I ushered in the New Year doing the same of what I’ve done so darned much of here: listening to monks chant their beautiful and monotonous mantras.
  • I have been an object of display for Anuban Bunditnoi 2 School at several sports days and school parades. This is related to the dual nature of Thai’s outlook on farangs (ostracism/embrace) I mentioned above.
  • During the second semester I taught not only English (with Thai Teacher May and then, when she left after New Year’s, Teacher Ya, neither of whom speak much English), but also Math and Swimming in Bunditnoi’s brand new (freezing cold) pool!
  • In November I made my own Krathong, a small candle-boat made from various parts of a banana tree (a disk taken from the trunk, decorated with cuts of its leaves) and flowers. This was in celebration of Loy Krathong, a Thai holiday which pre-dates the arrival of Buddhism and which is based on the worship of river spirits. On that day, everybody makes a Krathong and then gathers at the nearest rivers or canals at night, lights the candles, and then sets them all afloat. It is an enormously beautiful occasion.
Krathong

My Krathong boat.

I also finally made it to one of Thailand’s famous islands! When my parents came for a visit earlier this month, we took a jaunt to Koh Chang and enjoyed the island life. We basked in the sun, kayaked around a remora island, did some yoga, and spent lots of time reading good books. It was a relief to see them again after so long away from home, and much needed.

Koh Chang

A restaurant at Koh Chang (Elephant Island). Drinks served in the water.

chedi

We also visited the burial chedis of Rama I, Rama II, and Rama III, Kings of Siam, located at Rattanakosin in Bangkok.

 

It is partly because I just had such good quality time with my parents that I feel comfortable considering extending my upcoming stay in Nepal from one month to three months. More on that—and, as always, everything else—to come.

Be dareful.

A Gift from Om Si

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude. -AA Milne.

I was not planning to write another blog until after the upcoming visit from my parents. However, something just happened that I felt I must share.

Om Si, mentally disabled mischievous troublemaker, screamer extraordinaire, and hands-down winner of Teacher Paul’s Favorite Student of the Month for nine months and running, who was absent from school today, came into my office with his mother and presented me with a gift. The occasion? My swiftly approaching (yet still 5 weeks away) departure from Bunditnoi.

The gift? A piece of fabric. It is long, rectangular, plaid, and very thin. It might be a kind of traditional Thai garb, but I think not. I MUST think of a worthy use for this worthy gift.

Since my last post about him, Om Si and I have grown very close. Instead of babbling in his inane, high-pitched Thai all the time (though he still does this often), he likes to lead me by the hand around his classroom, pointing to things for which he already knows the English word and ask me how to say them. Or, he’ll come sit on my lap and say, “The lion says…” or “The owl says…” or any other animal, and I have to make the corresponding animal sounds.

DSCN1697

Om Si finds my iPod, tries to steal it.

DSCN1694

Playing with Om Si on Loy Krathong (Thai holiday)

My favorite memory of Om Si is a day in November when I was reading on the couch in the library and he came and, with no prompting on my part, lay down next to me. He eventually noticed I had an iPod in my hand and grabbed it from me, opened YouTube, and searched for “The Three Little Pigs.” We spent the next twenty minutes watching various 2-3 minute versions of the fairy tale together.

Later that day Hannah told me, “You won’t believe what Om Si just did.” He’d gone up to her in the office and recited the entire fairy tale for her in English.

For the next month or so, every time I said to him “Let me in, let me in!” he’d say, “Not by the hairs on my chinny-chin-chin!”

This in particular was special for me because early on in my time at Bunditnoi, I’d read his class a different fairy tale each week. The Three Little Pigs was a crowd favorite, in part because of my scary wolf voice, and in part because I’d do a ridiculous tug on my beard at “Not by the hairs on my chinny-chin-chin!” But back then, Om Si seemed to have no interest in me, or English, or really anything at all.

To hear him say “Not by the hairs on my chinny-chin-chin!” and then fake tug on his beard was enough to melt a frozen heart!

I feel the same way about his gift. I don’t know what the intention was behind it, or what I’m supposed to use it for. But I’m as grateful for this silly piece of cloth as I am for the most meaningful of gifts.

WIN_20160127_122813

A simple gift.