A Sweet Ghost, Flower Power and Christmas in November

I’m not far from home when I feel someone ghosting me. A young guy, he’s quite tall, and first I speed up to let him go ahead of me – but he slows down.Then I power past him, but he’s still there, at my left elbow.

I pull out my earphones and look at him. He’s younger than I thought, just tall. “Namaste.”

“Namaste,” he replies, very, very quietly.

“Tappai lai kasto cha?”

Even more softly so that he is almost whispering, he shyly mutters, “Sannchai cha…”

He regards me with a faint smile, “You speak Nepali, as well as English?”

“Only a little Nepali! And you, your English is very good. Do you learn it at school?”

“Yes, I go to an English and Nepali school.”

I am so glad now that I didn’t respond with anger or suspicion at this young man just wanting to test out his English. We walk almost to my door and I wish him a happy festival week and force him to be on his way, although I think he wanted to stay and talk more.

Nepal is filled with good people. Of course there must be ‘bad people’, but even people who might have an agenda – vendors, taxi drivers, etc – are, I believe, inherently kind, friendly and generous here.

The other day when I rode in a micro-bus (not worth saving $2 – next time, taxi), crammed in a mini-van with about 20 other people, sweating, dusty, falling over because our feet were half a metre away from the weight of our body, and only staying sane because there was a really cute baby in the seat that I was nearly falling onto, my bag was held by someone in the front of the bus. Was I worried about it? I guess so. But did I actually think someone would take something from it? No.

Today I asked a young man in a card shop to write in a card for my host-brother. Stupid me – I could have really humiliated the young man, forgetting that over 30% of men and boys here are illiterate. How would I have felt if he couldn’t write? He was only able to write Happy Deepawali and Thank you, and as he was getting a little flustered (he actually went to the neighbouring shops to find someone who could help him – but was unsuccessful), I left it at that.

We really do take it for granted, that so many of us are privileged with an education.

This festival is quite beautiful – four days of honouring Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. First Hindu people honour the crows, the dogs, the cows and the oxen, and finally celebrate the Brother and Sister Tika day, when siblings give presents to each other.

Tonight I walked around the neighbourhood checking out the beautiful light displays – the dark houses were Buddhists or Christians, my father pointed out – and enjoyed the festive cheer of the Laxmi Pooja. Each house invites Laxmi (and thus, money) into their homes by creating little colourful offerings outside their dwellings, on the road or in their entrance, with a painted line tracing its way up stairs to each apartment and room, aglow with tea light candles so that the Goddess does not lose her way, or miss out on anyone.

A bit like Christmas, like children waiting for Santa. Mixed in with Halloween – children run from house to house, and store to store, singing a song asking for gifts, and are duly rewarded with sweets or money, which the head child then stuffs into the communal backpack that he wears on his front, before leading the noisy group away to the next target.

During the day I watched the entire city sell, purchase or carry the flowers that are used in the worship offerings, and as decorations for houses and store fronts. Every store was being attended to carefully and lovingly – people were on ladders every few metres in the city centre, attaching the beautiful yellow flower chains to their doorways and eaves. Every second pedestrian’s arms were overflowing with the flowers, and every corner was a sea of yellow and orange. I can’t help but wonder who grows, and makes them all. With the flashing lights, the decorations, the offering made into a mini mountain in my family’s living room, the children playing excitedly and the crowds of people walking in the streets shaking hands and whispering “Happy Deepawali” to each other, there is definitely a Christmas feel to this week.

The children will stop chanting and ‘trick or treating’ at 11pm apparently – because after that, they need to be quiet and go to bed. When one group came earlier to the house, the lady downstairs had not quite finished the offering in the main walkway, so she just told the singing youngsters that she was not ready, and that they should come back in 5 minutes. The singing (shouting) stopped abruptly, and the group of 8 kids or so respectfully walked away.

So, I guess there’s nothing else to do except lie in bed, my room flashing through the different colours of the lights outside my window. Maybe I should go out and relight the candles outside my door so that Laxmi doesn’t forget to throw some money in my direction too.

PS As this goes to print, I have since caught many a Micro-bus and am feeling more confident about finding the right ones, and quite enjoy the crazy experience it offers. I love the people watching – here people hold other people’s bags on their laps, and often hold other people’s children on their laps – it is a wonderful microcosm of Nepali culture.

Eat up, Dahl

I’m a very independent person. I consider myself quite strong, and I like my freedom. I like doing what I want, when I want. I’m excited about having a house of my own because I like walking around in my underwear. You know that sort of freedom? Like being queen of your castle.

That’s why homestays are not great for me. I don’t like worrying about where I should be, what time and with whom.

In Nepal it is customary to eat three meals a day, a morning plate of rice and dahl – which is a lentil soup – a light lunch, and then rice again with dahl at night. My first night of my homestay I was violently ill. Both ends. Let’s just say, it made it to my top three worst toilet experiences ever.

You know when you are terribly sick on something – anything, food, drink, alcohol definately – and from then on the mere smell of the offending food or drink makes you almost throw up? Well, just my luck, Dahl Baht is the only thing my family, and most Nepal families eat. Seriously. I’m not kidding, it’s Dahl Baht morning and night in most households.

So everytime I walk into the kitchen at my house, I have to squash the thought of vomiting down out of my oesophagus.

Eating in the morning – not something I do at home. Maybe a hot drink, a piece of toast, some fruit or muesli. But a plate of rice with vegetables on the side? No, not my dish of choice. This morning I walked out and told my father, “I’m sick, I’m not going to eat.”

“You sick, and weak?”

“Yes.”

“You eat rice.”

“No, no, my stomach hurts – I’m not eating rice.”

“Yes, you eat a little rice, good for you.”

(Now, a long time ago, I would have just tried to eat it, to be polite. But I’m not going to put myself through pain to be polite, so I stood my ground against my well-meaning, and very lovely host father.)

“No, na khane.”

Now, I’m not stupid, I knew I was getting myself into this – eating the same food every day. And in fact, I’ve actually always liked Dahl Baht. But after my episode on my first night, meals here might never be enjoyable again.

So, my family think I’m a sickly, small stomached waif of an Australian girl, who very well might keel over at any time because she’s not eating enough rice and dahl.

Day One: Pre-departure Paranoia etc etc

“It will be an adventure,” I keep telling people, and myself, about this trip to Nepal. That makes me feel better, I guess, because adventures are supposed to be uncomfortable. If trips were easy and there was no sense of the unknown – then what makes you learn? Where do you get your funny stories from – the ones that were laced with danger but left you with a valuable lesson, worth the retelling?

I’ve never understood people who have never been on an adventure.

It doesn’t need to be overseas. It could be around Australia. It could be a camping trip or a drive up the coast. So in fact, perhaps there is actually no one who hasn’t been on an adventure. Big or small, short or long, near or far, I guess we probably have all done something that takes us out of our comfort zone.

My mum asked me how I was feeling last night.

“A bit anxious,” I said.

“Then why do you do keep doing this!” I could hear a mother’s concern, tinged with some exasperation at the last child to settle, the last one to stop moving and stay nearby. The one yet to buy a house, have some kids, get married.

I do ask myself the same question – why? Why do I leave my happy life, my wonderful boyfriend, my cute dog and steady job? But I know the answer.

I am addicted to adventure, and change. I get bored. I’ve been like this since I was a teenager. It’s the same addiction that is probably responsible for the demise of many a relationship – mostly unimportant flings of youth, but some that held great gravity in my life.

Luckily I have found the best life partner for me – who understands my need to upturn my life every now and again to stay sane – and because I understand myself better now, I don’t feel guilty for my need for a change of scene. He knows that if he tried to stop me leaving, I would just go anyway. I know that sounds unbelievable to some people – why would you leave the person you love? But I think, why would you short change yourself – if I don’t go, then I won’t be myself and I won’t be happy. And the last few months have been wonderful, because life is great when you are waiting for your adventure to start.

And so Day 1 has begun, as I fly over the great Australian outback. It stretches so clear and flat out my window that I feel like I should be able to see the sea, but I cannot. I am excited and exhausted simultaneously, happy, and yet a little lost.

(The sadness I felt when I left you Troy, struck me hard as I walked through those doors.)

But this is what an adventure is! It’s about how you deal with those mixed up feelings – it makes you stronger. I don’t like depending on people, and so maybe in a sort of masochistic way, I like to stretch myself and test myself.

Suddenly, as I write this, the plane is crossing some coastline of the North of Australia. What a clear, beautiful day! I can see every river, every crocodile – infested estuary, every nook and cranny of beach. And then we cross part of Indonesia, or Timor, and I feel like I am being taken on a tour of a World Map, hovering, in slow motion – like in and out-of-body experience, from South to North, crossing continent and ocean to really give me perspective about how big this world is. Clouds dot the blue below, and soon we will be above Asia… It is a massive world, and I am a tiny organism, being carried in a vehicle whose mechanics I don’t understand, to a country far from where I was born.

Adventure – already worth it.

(It totally smells like someone is smoking in the toilet. If the plane crashes. That’s what it was. Sorry friends and family who have put up with my pre-departure paranoia that I would die this trip –  but seriously, just saying.)

It’s that time again, I’m going back… and need your help

There’s an incredible guilt that comes with my upcoming trip back to Nepal.

I’m going to undertake a Volunteer Internship writing with a magazine. Now, I want to be a writer. This will allow me to get some pieces published in an international context, and experience life working for a publication.

But this is an overwhelmingly selfish choice that I have made  I feel like I should be doing more. Getting down and dirty, being helpful within the volunteer group that I have organised this internship through, and by whom my last volunteer placement was also organised.

Last time I was in Nepal I was living in a Buddhist Nunnery, teaching English to the nuns there. And because of the part of the year that I went, I hardly taught any English at all! I know it was useful for the nuns to have an English speaker around, and I was available for tutoring if they wanted it, but I don’t feel like I was overly very helpful.

Volunteers Initiative Nepal are a wonderful organisation, run internally – it’s not some foreign group throwing money into the country – funds are thoughtfully and systematically used to empower communities and disadvantaged people, especially women and children.

And so I feel that I should be being a bit more hands-on in their work. Teaching or building toilets or working with the people. But instead I’m working for a magazine – but in my head, I’m hoping that I can contribute something worthwhile both within Nepal, and then after I return, using the knowledge and experience of seeing the ‘real’ Nepal through a journalist’s eyes.

But anyway – while I’m there, I ‘ll be doing the Annapurna Base Camp Trek. I’ll be ascending to 4145m.

Do you want to help me, help VIN, to help the people of Nepal’s struggling communities? Where only 2 thirds of men are literate, and a disgusting 1 third of women? Where so many do not have access to clean water, and so few have access to heath services? Even the simple addition of toilets in communities can save lives – people die of bugs that would see us out of action for a few days due to poor hygiene awareness and lack of infrastructure.

How? I know it’s obvious.

Money!

Money to help VIN build their orphanage/school, to help with their programs that empower women in growing their own food and managing their own finances. Helping to educate young people, who wouldn’t have the chance otherwise.

So – I promise to walk 14 days to one of the highest walkable points on Earth, breathing in that thin air, struggling with the altitude and the exhaustion, walking walking (okay it’s actually going to be amazing but I’m just being melodramatic to gain your sympathy) until I reach the Base Camp. Actually though – last time I was there, I went to Everest Base Camp – and for all the beautiful scenery and magical people – it was a CHALLENGE. It’s no walk in a park… well it is a walk in a National Park, but you know what I mean.

So – would you like to sponsor me? Yes, you. No, not that person behind you – you, reading this. You got a cent? You wanna give me a cent for every metre in altitude I go up? Or even HALF a cent? Or a tenner? You got a tenner?

Think about it. Then think about what that tenner could do in Nepal.

And then go to this link:

http://www.volunteeringnepal.org/index.php

And then have a scroll down over the page and check out all the amazing stuff that VIN does.

And then tell your friends, who want to sponsor a child, or donate to a great cause, or want to do some volunteering themselves (their programs are VERY cheap compared to others you will see), and then if you think you can spare some money, click on the DONATE NOW button in the top right of the page.

And then think about me sweating it out as I trundle up through the Himalayas, knowing that with every step, I am earning your money… And then you can sit back and feel great, and I’ll feel great, and VIN feels great because they can use that money, to do something great, which makes countless Nepali feel great.

I’ll never ask for anything again. I never ask for Christmas or Birthday presents anyways – seriously, I don’t.

Think about it.

And thank you – even if you don’t sponsor me – tell your friends about Volunteers Initiative Nepal.  : )

Kindness of Strangers #2 – Nepal

I shouldn’t be out walking so late by myself, and the sun seems to be getting low – not too low – but I know how quickly it will disappear behind the mountains. Tom and I have left it too late to return to our monasteries. We got a taxi together from Thamel, the main tourist district in Kathmandu, where we had been having an afternoon drink with some other VIN volunteers. We had been out the night before, and this time, have put off returning to our reclusive homes for just a few hours too many.

Saving money is a priority, so the taxi together towards Tom’s monastery seemed a great idea at the time, where we would continue on foot – Tom up the hill, and me having to traverse the mountain in between our two monasteries. Tom had reassured me as we parted, “It’s just a short walk, and you’ll be able to see your nunnery”, but now I find myself walking briskly along the road, alone and concerned.

I turn off from the village, passing a group of youngsters. “Namaste!” I say, to the boys, and smiling towards the adults who are watching them play. The adults stare, and the boys pretend to chase me as I hurry on off the main road.

“Night time, dangerous! Silly girl!” One of the boys screams at my back.

“Yeah, yeah I know, I know,” I mutter as I quicken my step even more.

I walk for some time and hear footsteps behind me. I turn to see a man appear from around the corner of the road. He looks dodgy. I slow down to allow him to pass. “Namaste.” He nods.

He turns off on a different route, so I speed up again, always looking behind me. A lone cow approaches me. It looks menacing. I slow down. “Now you stay over there, and I’ll stay over here,” I tell it nicely. The cow stops to munch on some grass.

I have only walked this way once. I’m confused. It’s darker now, as I skirt around the building I remember as a landmark, and reach the stupa from where I can now see my nunnery. That leaves the ‘jungle’ in between. The nuns told me not to walk after dark. It’s like a jungle, they said. I had laughed, thinking the not-so-dense bushy area was nothing like a jungle. But now the path is disappearing from sight.

I ring my friend James.

“You’re not home yet?!”

The battery light flashes red on my mobile. Dammit! I talk to him whilst nearly sliding down some muddy parts of the path, using my other hand as an emergency tree gripper.

“Can you see the main road? Just get off that path and onto the main road where there are people and some more light.”

I hang up with the promise to message when I am safe, and find the path onto the main, winding road that ends at my nunnery’s gates. There are a few people around, and I am very happy when I reach the colourful entrance. It’s nearly 7pm, but I know that once the sun goes down the gates are locked, and the nuns essentially are locked within the nunnery walls.

I try the gates. Locked. I try the door to the side of the gates. Locked. I try my friend Yeshi on her mobile. It’s right on dinnertime, she doesn’t answer. I send her a message.

[Yeshi, I am locked outside the gates. Can you let me in?]

I contemplate climbing the walls. There’s crazy barbed spiky things along the tops of all the walls around the nunnery. I could get hurt. That would be stupidly embarrassing. Then I remember the back entrance that cuts through near the cook’s house, at the base of the nunnery, down the hill. I walk through a small field to where I think the house is. I really cannot see, and am using my dying phone as a pathetic torch. I reach a house, tripping over near their door. There is a man and a mother and baby sitting near a fire. (There is no electricity in Kathmandu for up to 16 hours a day.)

I say hello, and ask, in terrible Nepali, “The nunnery, is it here?” pointing behind their house.

The old man looks disgusted at me, and waves me away. “No, no.”

I apologize, and walk away. Within a few seconds of me looking lost and possibly near tears, a woman comes through the dark and takes my hand. I have seen her around the nunnery, collecting water and working. She smiles at me, and begins to lead me, along the path, past the cook’s house, and I finally recognise where I am. She trips over things, and I try to tell her to go back. I’m fine. She grips my hand tighter and continues to lead me. Past the scary goats, and to the steep stairs, to the gate that, thank the Lord Buddha, is open.

I can’t thank her enough, and in a country where the people rarely say the word thank you, I say it many, many times.

“Dhanyabaht, dhanyabaht!”

I visit Yeshi in her room to tell her I am fine, but conscious that I smell of smoky pubs and beer, head to my room.

The Monastic Time of Your Life

The nuns told me, through Bhupendra, that breakfast will be at 6:30, after the morning prayers, but somehow I don’t think life here actually runs on time. It runs on the activities that fill the time. They don’t stop chanting at 6:30, they just stop when they stop. Likewise, dinner on my first night was some 40 minutes after the designated ‘time’, so I stood around awkwardly not knowing what to do or where to be, before someone pointed at a table in a separate room from the nuns and in the end, I was served first.

As I waited, some of the friendlier women brought me tea (Tibetan Tea – butter, milk and sugar), although I had declined, and I watched apprehensively as they filled an un-dried cup after roughly washing it in tap water – a drop of which might make me extremely sick. I wiped the drips of water from its edge and sipped the tea whilst mentally chastising myself to remember my safe, dry up next time.

Looking out over the Kathmandu valley, it is a sea of cloud, but the men’s monastery, apparently a favourite of the Dalai Lama, clearly rises above the white, an imposing and beautiful structure, with peaks of the Himalaya, in the distance behind. I wished I had been placed at that monastery, but VIN are hesitant to place a woman volunteer there after the last one “stole one of the monks”.

I hear the last drone of chanting and the last bars of drumming ring out through the monastery, and after some time see the nuns outside their rooms, brushing their teeth and washing their faces, and eventually (about 7:15) taking their bowls down to the kitchen. I join them, and am given Tibetan Porridge, a sticky stuff made from some sugar, milk, and a type of flour. “Mix, mix!” the nuns say, laughing at my complete un-coordination, as well as my plastic cutlery and crockery. I eat in my room, whilst chatting to the resident spiders who insist on dive bombing onto my bed, and traipsing through my clothes (I guess they were here first). The porridge is filling, but tasty, and the tea is just too sweet for the morning, and ends up down the sink.

So now, it is 8am, and I wonder what to do with my days of monastic life – as I will teach a group of nuns every day at 5:30, and really, Buddha only knows what time that will be.

VIN: Not for Profit, All for People

Bhupendra, endearingly called Bhupi, the Executive Director of Volunteers Initiative Nepal, is a handsome man who grew up in a town at the foot of Mt Everest, and could be anywhere between 25 and 45 in age. He is always smiling, and has an infectious high-pitched laugh. He speaks English well, and always wears a funky leather jacket (he rides his motorbike to work).

We (another volunteer and I) are sitting in the VIN office, in Kathmandu, being inducted – which will involve basic Nepali classes, information about teaching English, health tips, and a presentation by Bhupi detailing the work that the organisation does, and where exactly our money is going.

I have to admit; the two reasons I chose to volunteer through VIN was a) because they were the cheapest, and b) because I wanted to go to Nepal. I did, however, find VIN came across as wholesome, and very community minded. Despite the grass roots-iness of the website, it seemed quite a large organisation, strong, and extremely professional. As I sit here and listen to Bhupi talk about VIN, I realise very quickly that it is not a large, well supported organisation. They are completely reliant on volunteer fees; to pay the salaries of the 15 workers, and complete their community goals, and their professionalism extends far beyond their website. I am immediately struck by the Bhupi’s eagerness to take on new ideas and advice that could help them in any area, and his openness regarding where a volunteer’s money goes.

VIN’s motto is “empowering marginalised communities”, and run various volunteer programs around Kathmandu. However, all money paid by volunteers that does not go to their accommodation and food, and the administration costs, contributes to the VIN Community Project in Jitpur, where the organisation is working particularly with women and children; to empower women through education and self-subsistence, and improve children’s lives through education and health awareness. Bhupi is particularly proud of their quest to build every household in the community a toilet (they have built 75 of the 250 odd needed), which will lower the rate of diseases that are so common in Nepal. In a few years, the community will take over the programs that VIN has initiated, and VIN will begin a new project in a new area, the location of which has already been decided.

Bhupi’s PowerPoint is hard hitting and frightening, and you can hear the concern in his voice for the people of his country. Less than 30% of women in Nepal are literate, vast numbers of children are not attending school (most of them girls) and Nepal is one of the only countries where women’s life expectancy is lower than men’s, due to a high rate of mortality during childbirth.

Despite this, Bhupi’s perspective remains positive, even when the rate of volunteers suddenly dropped this year, after a continual rise since the organisation began. This time last year, he had 26, this year, only 5. He muses that it could be the world economic situation, or the fact that the Nepalese government has just recently shut down the use of PayPal, making donations and payments by volunteers more difficult. Bhupi only displays some exasperation when he tells us of other organisations copying and pasting content from his website, which took him years to create.

Nepal is an amazing country – beautiful land, beautiful people – but with no welfare, rampant diseases claiming lives (ailments that we would laugh off after some food poisoning), poor education opportunities, extremely poor infrastructure that allows rubbish to fill the river, and roads to be washed away with rain, and the majority of youth choosing to leave the country to find work, Nepal is in trouble. The above is only a snippet of information about Volunteers Initiative Nepal, but I want to convey the importance of their survival, and the sincerity with which they are executing their Community Project in Jitpur. They have an in-depth website, and regular Newsletters detailing the organisation’s accomplishments in various areas of their work. Please consider VIN if you are considering any volunteer work in Nepal, or have any connections, donations or knowledge that could be of help to their endeavours.

And hopefully, PayPal will be up and running again in the future.

http://www.volunteeringnepal.org/