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.

kickstartercover

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.

quote

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.

 

Project Nepal: the Last Step in the Journey

Buddhist prayer flags and mount Everest

I am proud to announce that on March 1, 2016 I will begin a month-long volunteer placement with Project Nepal from ALL HANDS, a disaster relief organization. I will be based in Singhupalchok district north of Kathmandu, and helping the community recover from the two earthquakes (both higher than 7.0 on the Richter scale) that struck there in Spring 2015. A lot of the current work involves clearing rubble, but also demolishing more buildings that are structurally unsound and at risk of collapse in the event of another quake.

Going to Nepal is something I’ve dreamed about for years. As I recently told my friend, the idea of being surrounded by the most enormous, dangerous, beautiful, youthful, and literally awesome wonder of the natural word (the Himalayas) is magnetic to me. The devastation caused by the earthquakes is tragic, and I will be lucky to help the Nepalese people as much as possible in my month. But more selfishly, this is an opportunity to follow that magnetic pull.
There will also be a lot to learn about Nepalese culture, and I am undoubtedly looking forward to that, too!
I already have my plane ticket & travel insurance, my work boots and mess clothes. I’m all set. But ALL HANDS isn’t. They’re a non-profit group that works mostly off of grants and donations. So I set up a fundraising page through their website, linked below this paragraph. My goal is set as $1000, but that’s an arbitrary number. If you feel in the spirit of giving, please think about contributing to ALL HANDS. Your money will go to helping the organization’s several campaigns–along with Nepal, they’re currently performing disaster relief in the Philippines, Malawi, South Carolina, and Detroit. Again, if you contribute (even $0.50!!), your money will NOT go to me, except perhaps in the form of the food and housing ALL HANDS will provide during my stay in Nepal.
This is my fundraising page. On it you’ll find more information about Project Nepal and links to even more info about ALL HANDS.
When I leave Project Nepal on March 31, I will head home to America. I do not know how long I will be there, nor what comes next for me. I have loved my time as an English teacher but I do not feel a need or desire to continue teaching English (a shame, because that’s probably the easiest way for me to find work abroad). But my bucket list is riddled with unfulfilled adventures, and maybe  I’ll be able to check a few off the list after Nepal:
  • Thru-hike the Appalachian Trail
  • Cross-country (America) road trip
  • Direct a play
  • Work on a ship crossing the ocean

More on everything to come.

Be dareful!

The Khmer Empire Today

There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with open eyes. -Jawaharal Nehru

Joom reap sua! That’s formal Khmer for hello. Informal: Sua s’dei.

Last week, to fill our four day weekend and to celebrate the end of Ben and Hannah’s time in Thailand (as they left for America yesterday), we took a trip to the country’s next door neighbor, Cambodia!

DSCN1874.JPG

Angkor Wat seen from the Western Causeway

 

Joining us on the trip was Chan, our Cambodian friend who teaches Conversation at our school. It was his first time going home in over two years. The last time he went home was to spend nine days as a monk—a duty every man in a Theravada Buddhist country ought to go through at one point in his life.

We left just after school last Wednesday and the adventure blasted off from the word ‘go.’ We were scheduled to take a bus from Pakthongchai to nearby Korat, and from there catch another bus to Sakeaow on the Cambodian border. But we missed our second bus—by only 6 minutes. The next bus wasn’t for two hours. By our original plan, we wouldn’t arrive in Siem Reap (home to Angkor Wat) until 12:30 AM. Missing the bus, we wouldn’t arrive until 2:30 or 3:00.

So instead of waiting, we hopped in a couple of tuk-tuks (motorcycle rickshaws) and went on a high-speed chase through Korat, the 3rd largest city in Thailand! The tuk-tuk drivers luckily knew where the bus was going to stop next, and 20 minutes later we caught up with it. What a whirl!

One five-hour bus ride, a beard-related holdup at Immigration (the Thai exit official didn’t believe I belonged to my passport, as the photo was taken four years BB: Before the Beard), and a two-hour taxi drive later, we arrived at our hostel in Siem Reap and, exhausted, went straight to bed.

Less than four hours later we awoke for our first activity: sunrise at Angkor Wat. Here I should mention: when you say Angkor Wat, you’re actually referring to every temple in a massive complex containing dozens of temples. The most famous temple in the complex is also called Angkor Wat. It’s like how the most famous track on Simeon & Garfunkel’s album “The Sound of Silence” is also called “The Sound of Silence.”

DSCN1728.JPG

Before the sunrise.

 

DSCN1740

The sun begins to rise.

Even at 4:30 AM the ticket booth was jammed with a long line of farangs. After purchasing a day pass we went in. The famous temple is situated on a squarish piece of land surrounded by a vast moat, with a bridge on the East and West sides. We approached from the West. Across the bridge you go under a gateway, and from there you enter the courtyard. There are green fields on either side, and palm trees line the path. Before you’re anywhere near the temple you pass two small buildings that were once libraries. And then you reach the pools. When they’re not surrounded by tourists (as they were that morning), the pools are situated in just the right position as to get a mirrored view of Angkor Wat.

DSCN1774.JPG

It was dark when we arrived. I had been told a few days before that my grandfather, the man for whom I just finished reading Don Quixote last week, visited Angkor Wat on a business trip some 50 or 60 years ago. As the sky brightened, I tried to picture him standing there with me. How did he look back then? He would have been a decade or two older than I am now, but having just read his favorite book, and now visiting a beautiful place where he once visited too, I felt more strongly connected to him than I have felt since he passed away.

Once the sun was up, we returned to our hostel for breakfast and to rent some bicycles. Then we took the bikes out and went back to Angkor Wat complex. We spent the day cycling under the blistering sun, visiting temple after ancient temple.

DSCN1802.JPG

Ben bikes toward Angkor Thom

 

DSCN1820

The statues which lime this bridge are lifting the tail of a huge guardian (naga) statue.

Chan, our Cambodia friend, was a wonderful (unofficial) guide. He is undoubtedly the funniest person I know, which made learning about the history of Angkor Wat from his perspective wonderfully fun. He took us to Preah Kahn, Angkor Thom (a complex-within-a-complex), and Ta Prohm, a temple with trees that have grown through the rocks. Chan told us stories about some of the carvings and statues, especially the naga (serpent) statues that guard the entrances to many temples.

DSCN1777

Angkor Thom

 

DSCN1771

According to Chan, Cambodians rub the breasts of this bas-relief for good luck. Take that with a grain of salt…

 

DSCN1845

One of many trees that grow through Ta Phrom

The Angkor Wat complex was once the jewel and capital of the Khmer empire, whose first dynasty was Hindu and ruled over lands in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand in the 9th century. At its height, several different kings tried to introduce Buddhism, and eventually the conversion stuck, so that when the Khmer empire faded in the 13th century, the kingdoms that arose afterward were Buddhist, and the modern nations maintain the tradition. Cambodia clings to the old heritage the most. The language in Cambodia is called Khmer, the food is Khmer, the dance is Khmer, the literature is Khmer, and all other aspects of the culture are Khmer.

DSCN1825.JPG

This swamp surrounds one of the more remote temples.

 

DSCN1835.JPG

The green you see isn’t grass, it’s algae. This temple is underwater.

 

As the sun began to set we returned to the famous Angkor Wat temple and walked through its halls. These were decorated with incredible bas-reliefs, or stone-carved murals, depicting Khmer history and scenes from the empire’s old mythology.

DSCN1869.JPG

Angkor Wat at sunset.

 

DSCN1889.JPG

DSCN1772.JPG

Bas-relief from Angkor Thom.

Seven hours after we set out, we lethargically pedaled the bikes back to the hostel and took much-needed showers. That night we ate at a Khmer buffet where we watched traditional Khmer dance, which is a lot like traditional Thai dance.

 

The next day was little to write home about (literally). We had a relaxing morning featuring a pleasant American breakfast and took a bus from Siem Reap to Battambang, the province where Chan’s family lives. There we met up with his sister Amy (short for Channreaksmey, just as Chan is short for Channrith), who lives in Pakthongchai as well but arrived at home a day or two before us. We also met some of their neighbors, a young girl and her older brother who study at Battambang’s international school and wanted to practice their English by hanging out with us.

Besides visiting Chan’s lovely parents, who we’d met a few weeks before when they came to Pakthongchai, we had a purpose in Battambang: to attend his cousin’s wedding. We arrived in the province on the second day of the three-day long celebration. There are many events involved in a Khmer wedding, most of them involving Buddhist tradition. The night we arrived was the fun part: the dance party! We had a wonderful dinner at the bride’s house and spend hours dancing in a circle around a table laden with flowers. Chan even taught me some traditional Khmer dance moves!

In Cambodia, weddings are extravagant, but courtship is very conservation. An engagement begins went a man visits the woman’s family and asks about her living habits. The woman visits the man’s family and asks the same. This is to ensure that they would be decent partners.

 

Once the man, woman, and their respective families agree, they are engaged. At this point, the man and woman are allowed to have physical contact. They get to…hold hands!! Consummation does not occur until the wedding night. Unlike most modern Americans, Cambodians are still very strict about this rule.

The next step is to visit a fortune teller. The fortune teller will assess various astrological things about the bridge and groom and calculate a date on which they are to be married that would offer their marriage the best luck. After this, the groom pays for the bride. Yes. He asks the bride’s family how much money they spent in raising her and taking care of her, and he will pay them all or a portion of that sum. The way Chan explained it: the groom pays for the bride’s mother’s breastmilk. We were rather confused. We thought, if anything, he meant that the groom pays for the breastmilk the bride will make for their future children. It took a while to figure out what was really happening.

DSCN1915.JPG

Happy couple!

 

On the fortunate date (get it?) the marriage begins! On the final day of celebrations the actual wedding occurs. This is what we attending the morning after the dancing.

In a small room in the bride’s house, family members from both sides gathered on the floor in a crowded circle. The bridge and groom sat together on one side. Before them was a platter featuring many flowers, a sword, and a pig’s head. A man in sparkling robes offered prayers and instructions for the wedding party, and lit a significant amount of incense.

One-by-one, the members of the families who were already married approached the couple, placed envelopes full of money in their hands, and then tied pieces of red string around their wrists. Soon several inches’ worth of their arms were tied up. Then the unmarried people (including myself and Hannah—Ben had stepped out for some cooler air) approached and delivered our envelopes, but we did not tie strings.

DSCN1911.JPG

Hannah and I present the newlyweds with envelopes.

 

After that ceremony we ate a big breakfast, walked around the nearby temple, and then Chan took us for a tour of Battambang.

DSCN1928

Gateway to a temple in Battambang. The eight-spoked wheel above the lintel symbolizes Buddhism’s eightfold path.

 

DSCN1923.JPG

Temple in Battambang.

DSCN1936.JPG

Beneath the temple roof are painted scenes from the life of the Buddha.

 

That day we saw the farm where Chan’s father grows mangoes, papaya, bananas, guava, and rice. We saw the farm where his friend Saorith, only 23, leads the family business of growing decorative trees. Saorith recently got a government contract to plant along some new highway in Battambang city.

 

We also visited a dam that held back a reservoir that stretched into the horizon. It was beautiful. But also sad. Why sad? Because during the reign of Polpot in the 1970’s, his regime forced local people to construct this dam. The workers were underfed and the working conditions were terrible. Hundreds of people died. This was just on the forced labor projects during Polpot’s regime that contributed to the deaths of millions of Cambodians.

That night we went to a Khmer pop concert, a free event in Battambang city, and indulged in our last Khmer dinner. Because Cambodia was once occupied by France, many meals there involve bread. This was a godsend. Good bread is difficult to come by in Thailand. In fact, the closest provider of fresh bread is in Korat, a 45-minute bus ride from Pakthongchai.

Anyways, the next morning we made the long return journey. It was a fun journey, and all-too short. Just like India, I hope to one day return to Cambodia.

More on everything to come!

Be dareful.