Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Movember in the Land of Mountains

Hi Guys,

Do you know what Movember is? Have you wondered why a large proportion of the male population have suddenly gone bristly? Each November I (along with countless other friends in Gliding, Work, Engineering etc) attempt to out-do each other's lip warmer, starting afresh from clean-shaven on the 1st November.

This would be a pointless exercise, after all you can't just force a mo' out faster by thinking about it, but it's all done in the name of charity - prostate and testicular cancer charities to be precise, as obviously these are men's health issues and generally only men can grow a mo... (yes I know there are exceptions!)

My mo has been on the grow for 21 days now and despite being both blonde and sun-bleached, it's fairly respectable! I'm collecting donations out here in Nepal (in NRP, USD, EUR and GBP) and will add that to my sum total in due course, but if anyone reading this blog is also inclined to donate in my honour, I would be REALLY grateful for any contribution to the fund. It all goes to a great cause so please don't be shy.

I'm part of the 'Edinburgh University Gliding Club Team' of moustache-growers so if you would prefer to donate to the team at large, especially if you are a glider pilot reading this blog, please could you send some coppers in this direction?

Finally, if you would prefer to support the effort in spirit only, or to keep up with the EUGC Mo' Team news, do check out our Facebook group.

Only 10 days left! Must grow faster!!!

(thanks everyone)

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Kathmandu Kooking Kourse

On Sunday, short of other things to do, we went for breakfast in Thamel (where we waited 40 minutes to get muesli and a hot chocolate - after I was just about ready to walk out because we were going to be late!) and then took part in a cooking workshop with an ethical tour company called Social Tours (

Our objective is to learn how to make the Nepali meal of Dal Bhat. Actually it's really not hard and you could probably work out by disassembly. But for £6 per person we thought we might as well learn properly and have lunch while we're at it! There were 5 of us on the course, the 4 of us from IDF and another German traveller.

First job was to go and get ingredients. We strolled down another amazing Kathmandu street to the local grocer's. See here how many different types of lentils there are available!

(all photos courtesy of Alfie since my camera's battery was flat)

And vegetables of all shapes, including those (previously) prohibited in the EU!

We got back to the lovely little workshop (with nice gas hob and large wooden prep table) and our instructor taught us, in great English, how to prepare the pickle, tarkari (veg curry), dal (lentil soup) and bhat (fluffy rice) for this traditional meal, while we also learnt some more Nepali! I managed to avoid getting chilli in my eye but did splatter everyone with tomatoes as I tried to puree them using a pestle and mortar.


It was very hands-on (despite the photos) and great fun, so well worth doing! To crown it off, we enjoyed the delicious lunch with plenty of seconds for all. And we were given a recipe sheet to take away - so be warned, anyone I invite over for dinner when I get back!

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Tihar / Diwali / Bhai Tikka

Tihar is a 5-day-long festival that's the second-biggest in Nepal after Dashain, the second half of the double-act that is comparable to Christmas and New Year. For us, it meant business as usual until the final day, when we had a much-appreciated day off.

According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia (, each day of the festival is dedicated to honouring a sacred being - first it is the crow, then the dog, then the cow, then the ox - on each occasion food is left out for the appropriate animal and you're not supposed to eat your own dinner until the animal has eaten its. Read up on it - I don't understand well enough!

The day after the dogs were blessed, however, a nice cat appeared at the school clearly looking for a blessing (and a bit of food) for itself! Sadly, cats are not worshipped here like dogs are, and it was therefore the subject of much pranking (ie being left in unsuspecting peoples' rooms) for a couple of days.

As part of the celebrations on the 3rd day, the children all came to school in their best ceremonial outfits and Bal led a dance and chant around an offering plate before annointing some of the other staff members with Tikka.

Later on that day, trying to enter into the spirit of the festival, we went and found a cow to bless! This lovely heffa is on just the other side of the wall we've been building and seemed to enjoy the experience as we annointed her with garland, red rice grains and loved the roti we fed her. Cows, the incarnation of Laxmi (goddess of wealth) are blessed to say thanks for all their useful products and also to bring wealth to the families.


Meanwhile, a goat was beheaded and skinned and cooked outside! Thankfully not one of my 'favourite' goats (but I'm sure it won't be long for them)

On one of the evenings, Diwali (festival of lights) was celebrated and we wandered round our neighbourhood enjoying the extravagant display of electric and combustion-powered lights.

Annoyingly though, when we were on the roof taking photos of the whole valley which was lit up spectacularly, the power was switched off and it became suddenly less impressive!

 Later on, it is traditional for the men of the town to roam around and sing at the houses, taking it in turns to chant some lyrics while everyone repeats the same line (which I think is something along the lines of 'bring out your daughters'!). It was very much like carol singing and great fun - that is until the boom box was brought out and it turned into a kind of rave with the dull Western music you can hear anywhere in the world...


This offering is made outside houses in an attempt to lure Laxmi inside and grant wealth to the family.
On another evening, we were invited up to the top storey of Hem's house where his wife and landlady made delicious sel rotis (a sort of sweet batter ring) for us to enjoy and here Amy's having a go making one.

The final day was really quite special. Bhai Tikka is the day where one blesses / is blessed by your sister. In case you don't have a sister, a cousin is normally substituted, but I heard that for those who don't have either to hand, you can go into Kathmandu Durbar Square where lots of women turn up for blessings by random strangers! I don't have a sister myself, and Kit and Alfie didn't have theirs to hand, so Samana kindly stepped in as our surrogate Nepali sister for the purpose of Bhai. She daubed us with the tikka (wishing us success and bravery and richness and happiness and love etc) for the coming year, sprinkled flowers on our heads and put a garland round our necks. Afterwards we were able to reciprocate and swap gifts, and I think she was grateful for suddenly having 5 brothers instead of the usual 2!


We enjoyed this part of Tihar very much and afterwards sat down to quite a feast. It was really special to be part of this tradition so thanks very much to Hem and his family for being so accommodating to us volunteers :-)

(these photos all courtesy of Nicky and her camera)

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Friday, November 16, 2012

White Water Rafting

On Sunday we had the awesome opportunity to go White Water Rafting - that is, Alfie, Nicky, Amy, Kit and myself. It was half way to Pokhara so, of course, this necessitated a 3.5 hour ride in a minibus along that awful road out of the Kathmandu valley, but it seemed to pass fairly quickly - especially because, in a complete twist of fate, we were in the bus with an Australian called Kate who had been an IDF volunteer herself a couple of years ago and knew well all the staff we have been working alongside here! Our school wasn't even started to be be built at that point, but it was really interesting to get her views about the charity, which generally matched our own.

 We were, as usual, nearly run off the road on numerous occasions by one of these awesomely-decorated trucks. This one thinks it's a train!

After waiting around for about an hour (though we're very used to this now), we donned kit (not Kit) and were taken down to the river, and a gorgeous sandy beach with kayaks and rafts moored up alongside and also a sleeping guy next to his tent. It's possible to do a 5-day rafting or kayaking clinic where you can sleep on the beach each night - it looked pretty idyllic!


Sleeping guy; Nicky, Kit, Amy, Alfie and me. I thought I was wearing a completely different t-shirt to this one and was disappointed at the prospect of wrecking it!

A very good safety briefing later and we were loaded into the kayak. There were 5 other tourists on this trip, so they got one raft, and we got the other. We practiced our manoeuvres and commands, then set off down the river.


It wasn't long before we passed a truck that had clearly taken on one tourist bus too many, and plummeted down the cliff into the river! It looked fairly recent because there were still many locals plundering the goods that it had spilt. These are hairy roads and this is the consequence of over-confidence...

During the rapids, we were paddling furiously and getting absolutely drenched by the glacier water that, surprisingly, wasn't too cold (as long as you stayed in the sun). In between the rapids we sang (Rey shom pi di di!) and joked and went for a swim. Unfortunately, but obviously, the camera could only emerge from its triple-bagged cuccoon on the long quiet stretches of water! So no action shots I'm afraid.


We passed under bridges and even a couple of cable cars. This one was so small and cute, and I think it was pedal-powered, judging by the furious motion of the single occupant as it slowly inched its way from one bank to the other!

After about an hour and a half of paddling and getting soaked, running about 8-10 class 2 and 3 rapids (scored out of 6), we stopped with the kayakers who had been accompanying us, on another lovely sandy beach for lunch. This was all packed into the kayaks and we could enjoy getting warm again - by sun and standing by the fire that one of the guys had made - while the 'staff' prepared lunch.


Lunch was absolutely delicious, potato and egg salad, coleslaw and cheese sandwiches, finished off with peanut butter, jam and banana sandwich! At least, that's what I had. It hit the spot perfectly and satiated a craving for PNB that I didn't realise I had until I saw the jar!

After that, back to the river to run some more rapids - we got up to grade 4, which was violent enough to almost flood the boat and Alfie, who had not been tucking down properly, to be relocated 2 rows backwards alongside the guide! This was our victory cheer after surviving those rapids...


After another 8 or so rapids, and an hour and a half on the water, it was really starting to get cold as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. We were half grateful, then, when our adventure finally came to an end and we grounded ourselves on a beach near the road. We unpacked the raft and got changed, spent some while chatting and to Kate, who was made to promise to visit Urbana school that week, then bundled into the nice warm minibus to be taken back to Kathmandu. It was such a good day out! And well worth repeating. It's no wonder Nepal is such a great destination for rafting and kayaking.

And that, pretty much, ticks off everything I wanted to experience in Nepal. Trekking, paragliding, Pokhara, safari, jazz, rafting, mountain flight and Everest, sunrise view, Thamel. What more could a man want?

Don't answer the obvious please ;-)
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Exploring Durbar Square

After the amazing NoJazz gig on Thursday, and remembering that they promised to play in Durbar Square on Friday evening, and Roxanne and David (the daughter-and-father team we met frequently on our trek) arriving in Kathmandu that afternoon, I thought it would be a great opportunity to visit them and see Kathmandu in the evening - and maybe even the possibility of seeing some wicked Jazz.

I found their hotel easily enough and we went out for dinner - a delicious feast at one of the less popular restaurants, only because it's on the first floor as there's more than enough restaurants at street level to keep you entertained for years. It was great to catch up with Roxanne and her Dad, who had trekked all the way to Annapurna Base Camp (10 degrees below freezing, apparently!) and back and had some good stories to tell about their guide, the hot springs, the other people they've met and their impressions of their time in Kathamndu.

All this chatting took us to about 15 minutes after the NoJazz gig might possibly have started. So we strolled down to Durbar Square, the very historic heart of Kathmandu, just to find that it HAD started on time and we had got there just 10 minutes after the band had stopped! It was really disappointing - though the others didn't know what they were missing and at least I had enjoyed them thoroughly a couple of nights beforehand.

So, using that fact that we were now in Durbar Square that none of us had visited before, and managed to dodge the 750Rp entrance fee, we proceeded to have a look around at the temples and tall, tiered structures that were just packed into the centre. I had my Lonely Planet and was able to read, out loud, a few descriptive paragraphs about the Square, the Kasthamandsap (600 year old temple, giving rise to the city's name) and also the home of the Kumari, the 12-year-old living goddess, selected on the basis of meeting 32 criteria physical perfection and having a strong and confident mind! She lives in a palace in the square with her family and appears regularly at the window to give advice and blessings and is paraded outside a few times a year. She will be there until she starts menstruation, proving that actually she was human after all, after which she is expelled (with a healthy dowry) and the search continues for a new Kumari.

Durbar Square at night - quite packed full of people and monuments!

So we explored the square for an hour or so, went for a hot chocolate and cake at the charming Snow Man cafe (marred only by the toilet that looked straight out of a horror movie!) before walking back to the hotel amongst the now-deserted streets. Where, a few hours ago, there had been a hugely busy market and I had to fight to get through with my rucksack on the front, we were now the only people on the street, and it was only about 9pm!

We were, however, joined by a solitary cow, strolling from who-knows-where to somewhere else. Being Kathmandu, there is absolutely nothing surprising about this, apart from maybe the fact we had only seen the one?!


5pm and 9pm...

I spent the night in Thamel, simply because it's half the cost of the taxi back to Lokanthali, and joined Roxy and David at their hotel for breakfast (very kind of them) and then I caught the bus back to Lokanthali, after a small bit of shopping for those vital supplies. Like a 2013 desk calendar with Annapurna on the back...

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Don't call me 'Sir' just yet!

One of the things I really wanted to do out in Nepal if had the chance would be to do some teaching. I've done teaching back in the UK, mostly Science and Lego Engineering (I worked for a now-defunct company which provided Lego mindstorms training to schools which did not have their own kits). I quickly guessed that I would probably end up teaching English out here, so I approached IDF with my request and was give the opportunity to teach on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings at a local Government school - Jana Premi Lower Secondary School, about 15 minutes' walk away on the other side of Lokanthali:

The oldest school caters for grades 4-8 (UK school years 6-10), though the kids are sorted more by ability than age so you frequently get a wide age range in every class. Jeanette, a Swedish volunteer who has joined us for a couple of weeks, spent all her time teaching in this school - she is a Swedish and Tourism teacher at home and her school paid for her to come out here - and was therefore able to give me a good introduction before handing me her schedule when she left. She got on really well with the kids, you should have no problem spotting which one she is!

So Jeanette and I, over the course of a couple of days, took classes together - grades 7, 4, 5 and 8 in that order - and I was able to carry on from her good work and start to engage with the kids myself.


The first thing I noticed was how enthusiastic the kids were to be learning English, and also how good their language skills were already - much better than the average British student learning a foreign language. The teachers were helpful but took a more passive role while we were around, giving us the chance to develop our own exercises and work out how to engage those eager little minds :-)

I gradually eased into the teaching, and found myself really enjoying it, despite having never taught English before. Maybe it's just the novelty but I found that being given a group of 20-30 keen young children to try and entertain, and educate, was just the right balance between challenging and rewarding. And surprising, too, as they would always come up with examples or questions which test your understanding of English - for instance why we use singular in "what does it look like" and plural in "it looks like a bee" - or highlights a completely different way of thinking, like when I asked them to come up with a sentence featuring the word treasure - one girl said "I treasure my education". No kid in England would say that...

Also, they were so much fun to play games with - Fridays are more relaxed than the rest of the week so we played word games, like Hangman and Pictionary, on the board, which they seemed to thoroughly enjoy. One girl, on the left below (who is very noisy but has great  English) stumped the class with the word Woman. Actually, it has a rather odd selection of consonants. I never thought of that before...  

Secondary to the kids enthusiasm, I am sure, is the quality of the school itself. Although there are generally enough desks and chairs to go around, most kids are sharing books with each other and for my Grade 5 class I also have to borrow a book from someone to teach! The textbooks themselves, while well-meaning, lump the most bizarre vocabulary onto the kids, rather than re-inforcing the useful stuff; for instance, when will they ever need the words Girdle, Chronometer, Gabion or Exhaulted?! So I glossed over those ones, using them only as an opporunity to use their existing vocab.

Two of my classrooms are right next to the toilets and are very smelly, and all but one are very noisy with the sound of multiple lessons going on in neighbouring classrooms. It really is a miracle that the kids can concentrate at all, but they do a great job of trying. I have been training them to put their hands up and wait to be selected before shouting out the answer, but keeping order hasn't been too much work. Getting the more shy ones to participate is always tricky, but surely they aren't encouraged if, when called to the front to help me complete an exercise on the board, they get it slightly wrong (saying that Sister is the opposite of Good - lol) and get rewarded by a slap on the cheek by the teacher!! I did have to tell the teacher not to do that, it's no way to inspire Grade 4s...


The school is clearly part way through being built, there is a multi-storey construction site which houses the Grade 6s (who always wave at me as I descend the slope to see the Grade 4s) and it must be dreadful during the monsoon time to try and learn anything while literally in a building site, just the shell of a building with no interior walls, windows or fittings of any kind! But yet they manage. Amazing.


With over 90 public holidays per year, school is regularly closed or the kids just don't turn up. Today was one of those days - the teachers were still there and I had a very interesting conversation with the Principal about the notion that many young Nepalis have - if they can somehow get to Europe or the USA, they will find a job which will pay them 10x the amount they could get here and live in luxury. She knows how true that isn't - a lawyer friend of hers moved to America and now cleans tables in a hotel. But yet the myth pervades, and sucks some of the best and most promising Nepalis out of the country that could need them the most and offers them the best opportunities.

On my way back to Urbana school, I passed this child, playing with his toy - a brick, loaded with stones, making tracks in the sand. He was happy to have his photo taken and he was thrilled to see it on the screen of the camera afterwards. I don't know what to say about this - on one hand it's nice that he is so easily entertained. On the other, it's so sad that this is all he has to entertain himself...

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