Saturday, December 22, 2012

Moving In (and Moving Out) with the Gautams

For my final week in Lokanthali (yes, that now-famous week when I was ill) I moved in with the Gautam family - that is Santa and Hem and their children Adi (19), Arun (16) and Samana (13). Though those ages are debatable because if you're born at home, you can just nominate any date of birth you want, and it's common to push it forward by a couple of years. So legally, Adi is 17 (though biologically he's 19) and I am not quite sure what advantage this would give him, especially if he decides to get a driving licence!!

So the house is directly overlooking Urbana school, a convenient fact given that Hem is the manager, and it is the first story of the (newly-painted) building in the middle of this picture:

The house itself is quite nice, especially for a Nepali dwelling (many of which have only one room), which probably mirrors Hem's status as the manager of a private school. There are a couple of rooms devoted to IDF volunteers in the house, both with two beds inside, but this is a bit cheeky because Adi and Arun have to sleep in the lounge as a result whereas Samana must sleep with her parents in an annexe which, on closer inspection, is actually the balcony enclosed with plastic sheeting and wooden panels!
The house is unheated, which makes the nights quite cold - hence the copious supply of blankets in the room of me and my new roommate Kit:

Here, Santa is at work in her kitchen. Note the absence of oven, microwave, kettle or any electrical food preparation tools. Everything is done on the hob. The metal urn is full of twice-filtered drinking water, which I am certain is only for the benefit of the volunteers!

Here's the lounge, Samana and Arun eating their morning Dal Bhat (with their hands of course) while watching one of the many incredibly dramatic Hindi soap operas, before heading out to school.

I haven't got a picture of the bathroom, but I can assure you that the toilet is one which requires good thigh muscles and balance to use. In other words, a (porcelain) hole in the ground. No bother! One of the great advantages of moving up from the IDF hostel to Hem's house is, as well as the sweet tea brought to me by Samana when I'm ill, is the fact that the shower is gas-powered and hot. Technically so's the one at the hostel but it didn't work for the whole time I was there, just occasionally let out a whiff of gas!

On my final day in Lokanthali, Amy and I carried though our promise of cooking something western-style for the Gautam family. However, this was very much harder than we first though! What decent cuisine does the UK have, apart from cooked breakfast and roast dinner, and numerous sweet deserts?! Furthermore, the absence of an oven prevented us from making lasagne, or a pie, or pasta bake, or almost anything else that would spring to mind, even if the ingredients were available!

But there was one ingredient we had in abundance. And that was rice. So Amy suggested we make risotto. Why not?! After a brief visit to an amazingly old greengrocers in a traditional backstreet, and then to the bakers, and to the supermarket, we soon had a big mush of rice, onions, garlic, tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, chillis, chicken and white wine (soo expensive!)! We served this with more wine and garlic-d bread  (gently fried) and generally tried to blow the tastebuds out of the heads of our hosts.

Judging by Arun's face I think we succeeded!

Dessert was another excellent creation of Amy's - flapjack. It took an hour's detour to find the porridge oats, honey was used instead of syrup, and then it was filled with all sorts of nuts and dried fruits, including something that we were for a while convinced was figs but upon tasting was so sour it almost had to be spat out. We gave some to Arun to try - he laughed and said it was "(some Nepali word)" and why would you put that in a dessert?! But actually it worked sort of well.

And that, dear readers, was how my last evening in Lokanthali went. I slept hard that night and woke shortly before 5am to catch the bus and take lots of my stuff to Kathmandu. Pokhara, here I come!

Farewell, Young Children!

After taking the final construction photos, I wandered across Lokanthali to do my final day's teaching at Jana Premi Lower Secondary School. I had missed the previous 3 days but the kids weren't expecting me to turn up on a Monday so it was a great surprise for them when that happened.

My parents (thanks) had sent an advent calendar to me and I used that prop as an opportunity to teach the kids all about Christmas and what it means to us in the Western World. It was really interesting to see what they knew about Christmas - they were aware of Christmas trees but not Santa Claus, but they also knew that it is traditionally a celebration of the birth of Jesus which was quite impressive.

So for each class, I did something similar - a little bit of whatever the teacher wanted me to teach, then I hijacked the lesson to show them the advent calendar and get them to shout suggestions as to what Christmas means. For the younger kids I wrote a paragraph on the blackboard then helped them read it out.

Finally, I would explain that this is my last day, and show them photos of Warminster and Stonehenge, and my parents, to explain what I'd be going back to. Slightly embarrassing when they looked at the photo of my parents and asked 'which one is father?'. The photo was of Mum and Dad hiking so they were dressed quite similar - but it mused that in the same way that many Nepalis look similar (to the untrained Western eye), we all must look quite similar to them!


Children in Grade 7 enjoy the advent calendar and give an enthusiastic farewell!

Much more enthusiasm from the Grade 4s though!

Saying goodbye to the Grade 5s and some of the teachers.

When I got back to the main school after descending the slope to see the Grade 4s and 5s, I found that the Grade 7s had spent all of their time preparing some blessings and goodbye notes! I was blindfolded and led into the classroom, where suddenly I was covered in flowers, various greetings thrust into my hand and then dragged outside for more photos! What a goodbye...

Upon examining the notes I found a concerning proportion of marriage proposals and 'I love you Colin sir' notes! But also pleasing were the Union Flag and a small paper plane saying 'please design this sort of aircraft'.

And finally I bade farewell to the Grade 8s, only slightly more subdued.

Teaching at Jana Premi was probably the most rewarding thing I'd done during my volunteer placement - I was really glad that I went out of my way to spend 4 weeks there, giving the children some English education when on many occasions the teachers didn't actually turn up! I think that when the teachers were there, I spent almost as much time helping them with teaching techniques and improving their own English - with the exception of one teacher, they couldn't really hold a conversation. And having one child at the front yelling out two words at a time from a book, to have them yelled back at them call-and-response style by the rest of the class, does nothing to improve their pronunciation!

But how lovely it was to get to learn about 100 Nepali kids over that time. They all had such different characters, and while I didn't admit to learning any of their names (and be accused of favouritism), there were many kids there who I am sure will go far in the future. Which, especially in a Government school for the least well-off kids, is a great thing for Nepal.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Construction Completed!

Unfortunately, my illness took me through the final week of my construction placement - I was able to do a little bit of gentle painting but the heavy work, mixing cement and concrete and hefting large quantities of bricks around, was very much beyond me. However, the construction at Urbana School was almost complete anyway, we were only working on a future canteen project (now on hiatus with the foundations complete) and, as the last ever construction volunteer there, I couldn't feel too guilty while wrapped up in bed!

So, therefore I present to you, many views of Urbana School in its now-finished form:

Entrance road to the school. I helped grade the road, built the pavement substructure (and the speed bump), prepared the foundations on the left for a new wall, and painted the walls white and orange.

Also the car park. The wall on the right was painted by Archie and me.

The main school playground, with Nicky's fantastic mural on the wall. A real labour of love, that one!

Here are the foundations in the state I left them. My job here was to do a lot of the digging and then 'hiding' all the spoil by levelling the mound in the middle. I also helped shift thousands of bricks and mixed plenty of cement, assisting Don Bardur with the bricklaying.

This is the new vegetable patch and the the wall behind, built by Donny and painted repeatedly by Archie and me. We also painted the back wall and built a small footpath from the kitchen to the back gate (mostly smashed up thanks to one guy's attempt to fit a couple of locks!) and re-organised the building material storage.

The back wall which we traipsed down to deliver building materials to the compound wall project. We also painted the walls here white - not with brushes, but by sloshing any remaining paint left over from other walls! Very quick and effective (though a bit wasteful).

The back wall, built by Don Bardur, Archie, Michael, Donny and myself. A work of art! I installed many of the nails on the top.

View of the whole compound, including the Dave wall and the rice paddy I helped cut.

A photo I've been waiting for ages for! 'Colin' is a very popular brand of vinegar-based cleaning product out here...

And finally, to say farewell to Don Bardur and thank him for all his help and positivity (despite our general incompetence), I bought him some Buff Momos. He's always going on about them - but apparently they are too expensive for him, about 30 Rupees. So I bought him a plate of 10 on behalf of me and Kit.

"Meeto chha!"

So that's the end of construction for me. What do I think of the experience? At first, it seemed ideal. A bit later when we got to know Nepal we all started to think - what with Urbana being a very nice preschool already, it felt like we were just 'polishing' something when our combined efforts could potentially revolutionise a different school in a much worse state.

But we came to realise a few things, too:

Firstly, it's just as important to finish a project well as it is to start it well. It sets an example and raises standards overall. This school didn't exist 2 years ago, and if it had just been left in a half-finished state then it would be very much like the rest of the country.
Secondly, working in and around the kids and Nepali labourers, we were showing how to do jobs properly and work hard even when no-one else is looking. Don Bardur already knows this but Bal said he's very much in the minority.
Thirdly, if any Nepalis are looking to set up a preschool, they could come to Urbana (especially having seen the adverts on TV) and take back the high standards to their own schools - in fact they'll need to in order to compete. In this way we're raising standards in many different schools at once!
And finally, as the final Construction volunteers, our jobs were always going to be 'finishing' jobs. From next year, IDF-Nepal is building a whole new orphanage from scratch which will be such an exciting task for any of the new construction volunteers from BUNAC or elsewhere.

So I will definitely give the placement a firm 8 out of 10. All of the above I have fed back to Bal and he was very grateful for my feedback - especially some suggestions that didn't make it onto the blog. And if you're a potential volunteer yourself, just send me an email to learn more. c j field at gmail dot com.

Day 2 at the Orphanage - Games

The following day, I went along with my promise to return to the orphanage to donate a selection of toys and souvenirs collected by my parents and myself for their benefit. 

Being a school day (Sunday), I helped them with their homework a little bit before surprising them with a bag fully of goodies. 


Out came the dominoes (and I was embarrassed that I couldn't really remember how to play them... but I could at least guess at the rules!), then the recorder, then the makeup kit (absolutely captivating one of the lads) and the book of stickers, the balloons, the pack of cards, the crayons and so much more. Every single item widened the eyes of the kids and they were delighted indeed with the presents. Thanks Mum and Dad for the donations!



I love this guy's reaction to the makeup!

I played with the kids a little more, showed them a few basic tunes on the better recorder and then left them to it. Of course, they weren't going to let the bringer of so many toys escape easily, making me promise when I would return.

Thank you very much to Five Stones Hostel of Singapore for donating the five stones game! The kids loved it (and were very very good at it too...)

But the truth is, it is very unlikely I will be able to return again. For me, this is an 8-week adventure in the middle of my round-the-world exploration. Another way for me to discover more about myself and the world we inhabit. I was visiting the orphans because, amongst other things, it would be interesting and give me things to write about. But for them, this is their life and these adults who pass through their lives transiently constitute the majority of adult interation they have.

Quite thought-provoking stuff. And I really encourage anyone who is interested in Nepal to read Little Princes, a book documenting one American volunteer who decided to go much, much further than just volunteering to look after orphans in Nepal - he tracked down their parents and reunited them. For many of these children, they are here because they have been sold, trafficked or sent to be protected from the war and were never reclaimed.

Hence I was very, very happy to help even in a tiny way, for a couple of afternoons. Hats off to Amy who has been doing this for months.

Day 1 at the Orphanage - Painting

I visited the doctor on the Friday of that week, but annoyingly I was probably mostly better by the time that happened, so he couldn't really do anything with me apart from prescribe some broad antibiotics for either parasite or bacterial infection. The clinic was fantastic - precisely what I would expect, having paid through the nose, the bill came just under my insurance excess so no joy claiming on that either!

The following day, Amy invited me to her orphanage to help with some painting. I had really hoped to visit an orphanage at some point so this was a great opportunity. I was feeling much better so had no problems walking for well over an hour to reach it.

Upon reaching the orphanage, I was somewhat mobbed by a collection of young lads yelling "What's your name?" "How are you?" "Are you married?" "I'm fine thanks" who then grabbed my hands and showed me around the orphanage til they had named the occupant of every bed, taken me onto the roof to look at the woman next door wash her hair, and re-introduced me to Amy as if I had never met her before. 

To calm them down, I offered to play Connect-4 with a couple of them. This did not work. But we did have a lot of fun. And I did manage, on a few occasions, to defeat my 7-year-old opponent.

 After a while, the owner of the orphanage (Amy's host father) and a whole load of his mates arrived. Painting was to begin! First to be painted was, unintentionally, a section of the floor (my fault) but after that was cleaned up we set to work with pencils, sketching flowers and scenes and characters from the kids' books and I began work on my 'aviation wall', inspired by a poster that the kids had in the hallway of their orphanage. 

It very quickly transpired that the men that Bikram had brought along with him were not just any old buddies of him, but excellent artists and were soon sketching very convincing Pinnochios, mountain scenes, birds and the Google Chrome logo. I stuck to my Aerospace training and drew most of Edinburgh Uni Gliding Club's fleet, a paraglider, Sudip's C172 and R44, a hot air balloon (they're easy) and an Airbus A380 in isometric projection.

e could then begin colouring in earnest. And earnestly is certainly how my young assistant began applying the yellow paint on Snoopy and, not content with the traditional Cessna white, repainted Sudip's aircraft in lurid blue and green. Our wall soon ended up by far the messiest but I clearly chose a different balance between inclusiveness and perfectionism to everyone else!

Spot which walls were painted by the kids, and which were painted by the professionals!

The painting and decorating team.

All too soon, the painting was done for the day and I gathered many of my moustached painting-fellows together for a final Movember portrait. For the date was the 1st December and Movember was now complete.

Thanks so much to everyone who donated - I raised £69 from donors in the UK and Nepal (I matched all the Nepalese Rupee donations), which has helped my team do pretty well!

That evening, Amy, Adi and I headed into Kathmandu for a little bit of luxury Western entertainment. We took the bus and walked through central Ratna Park, just for a change, and to look upon the preacher chap who sits in a tree and amuses, lectures and educates the crowd below in Nepali and what Adi assured me was English (though it just sounded like more Nepali). He is a Civil Engineer by training but now just likes to put the world to rights in an amusing fashion. As we joined the crowd, completely oblivious to the content of the lecture, it clearly changed so that we were the subject, judging by the number of eyes swivelling in our direction... 

We exited through the largest market I have ever seen, pondered who would buy a bullet-proof jacket from a rather dirty-looking woman squatting next to a pile of them on the floor, then headed over to Civil Mall for an evening of frozen yoghurt (buffet-style, absolutely awesome) and a film. Life of Pi 3D - I had always been put off the book because it sounded very much like a kids book, but the film was very entertaining. And was the only English film that wasn't Bond (and I have already said I wouldn't see that again).

Afterwards, we walked to Nepal's first Pizza Hut! Mainly just as an interesting point of comparison but also because we knew we'd get great food there. And we did! If a little bit expensive.