Category Archives: 2014

Teaching and Dancing

Day 16

A long weekend and the Soccer World Cup Final meant that when we arrived at Amrit Secondary Boarding School at 9am the principal was mortified to tell us that a decent percentage of students had not shown up for class.

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The students that were present were taking part in the morning assembly. Segments of information were broken up with some physical exercises and student performances.

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The students sang their national anthem. Then the principal took up the microphone and announced that the Australian visitors would sing their national anthem.

!!!!!!

I think we did okay. I mean, we got all the words correct.

Slightly shaken by the early surprise, we began our morning activity. We had been given a class level, a group led by a teacher- there are five on the tour- and an hour to run a class.

My group’s Grade Fours were pretty good. They were attentive, their English was very good, and they were willing to go along with anything we threw at them. However, they also had the wild exuberance and loudness of a group of ten year olds so I was very glad that we had a real teacher in our group to keep things on track.

I think we kept them amused. Our lesson contained toilet paper and human knots and those certainly kept them occupied. Then I pulled up some photos of common Australian things and they tried to guess what they were. Some were easier to guess than others.

Kangaroo! Kangaroo!
Kangaroo! Kangaroo!
Um, raccoon? Red Panda?
Um, raccoon? Red Panda?

It was a nice morning. The principal was very happy with our efforts and we got a clap at the end. The class had bought us some chocolates, which was very sweet.

I just still find it funny that the students thought I was a real teacher.

The next stop was Maiti Nepal, an anti-trafficking organisation. Domestic and international human trafficking is a huge problem in Nepal as, according to Maiti Nepal, “ignorance, illiteracy, gender discrimination and gender violence” in vulnerable communities makes it easy for traffickers to lure women and children away from their families.

We were shown around Maiti Nepal’s huge Kathmandu facility, which included rehabilitation homes and transits homes for survivors of trafficking and a school for orphans, vulnerable children and street girls so they are not so exploitable. Maiti Nepal also works near Nepal’s borders to educate communities about the danger, run prevention programs- including literacy classes and skills training-and rescue people who have been trafficked.

Maiti Nepal can do all of this because of numerous generous donations. Its founder, Anuradha Koirala, was voted a CNN Hero in 2010 for her work. The award brought worldwide attention to the organisation.

You can check out their website to see their latest achievements in preventing human trafficking.

 

Our final stop for the tour was the Seven Women Centre. It was time for a final farewell and a dance concert.

A couple of the ladies kicked off the concert with a traditional Nepalese-style dance, then another woman jumped up and performed her interpretation of western-style dancing. It was all very impressive, particularly as we were later told that that was the first time any of them had danced in public.

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We were next- one of the tour participants had planned and choreographed a dance for us to perform, and despite our varying levels of dancing skill we got a clap at the end.

And then everyone got involved- even our bus drivers. There was dancing, laughing, photos on the roof, more dancing, more laughing, more photos…

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And then, suddenly, it was over. We had to say goodbye, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one fighting back tears.

One last note: I’m sure it was more of an au revoir than a final farewell.

-Erin

This post was modified from the original entries on my personal blog, Erin’s Written World.

Paddy, palaces and stories

Days 14 and 15

We were all getting a little tired by this point of the trip, so we had a couple of quieter days.

On the Saturday we had morning tea at team leader Paddy’s house, a short walk from the hotel.

Paddy’s house is full of certificates and medals. Paddy himself is a bit of a celebrity in Nepal. He’s famous for his volleyball prowess and his work in the community; among numerous other things, he’s a board member for Seven Women Nepal. He’s also a great joker, and has instigated most of the inside jokes that have been formed on this tour. In addition to all of this, Paddy is an excellent host and the morning tea he provided was lovely.

Then we walked down to the King’s Palace. The place has been used as a museum since the forced abdication of the last King a decade ago, and was the scene of the massacre of the royal family in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the museum is one of the few places here that does not run on Nepali Time, and we were five minutes too late to see the inside of the palace.

Some people returned to the palace the next day to see its inside. They had interesting stories to tell on their return- there were no photos allowed, bags had to be placed in lockers and everyone was frisked on their way in. No one has lived in the palace for nearly a decade, but Nepal’s political status has only recently begun to stabilise and no one was taking chances. Still, the armed guards on the walls of the palace seem a bit extreme when you consider that the location is now a museum.

We headed to the Seven Women Centre to hear the stories of some particularly resilient women.

One of the women is named Beni. Beni used to work in villages as a child care nurse. It was hard work as she had to fight against poor hygiene habits. She also struggled with her society’s expectation that women should be shy. This expectation means that many women do not speak up, even when they are hurt or dying, as it makes them seem unfeminine and unsuited for wifely duties. Due to this submissiveness, abuse, abandonment or murder of women is not treated seriously in parts of Nepal.

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Beni wanted to change that and empower the women she met. She set up a recycled product business, where women would collect used chip and rice packets lying on the streets of Kathmandu, take them home and make products such as bowls, bags and purses. The women learn the skills to make these products, which she can sell and make some money.

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Anita, the manger of the Centre, was the other speaker. Ani came from a poor village and was the eldest daughter of a couple with no sons. She loved her father, but found it insulting whenever he despaired about not having a son, because it implied that she was worthless. She ended up running away to Kathmandu. She started working in a cafe and had a really understanding boss.

Ani later met her English husband in the cafe she worked at, and it was he who recommended her for the manager role at the centre.

-Erin

This post was modified from the original entries on my personal blog, Erin’s Written World.

Cultural and Culinary Lessons

Day 13

Our first stop of the morning was Boudhanath, the largest Buddhist stupa in Nepal. We walked around its base, admiring the pretty square and dodging the prayer flags and the ridiculous amount of pigeons. The stupa is particularly important to Tibetan Buddhists and the surrounding area is home to many Tibetan refugees and their families.

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There is a slum in the shadows of Boudhanath. The houses are wooden frames covered with material and plastic tarp and the streets are muddy and decorated with washing lines, but the people there have an amazing sense of community. The group was invited into the slum and into some of its homes by Rina, a friend of tour leader Steph. Rina, like many of the people who live in this particular slum, is an Indian immigrant. She left her abusive husband to live in Nepal and now shares her small home with ten family members. She cannot afford a shoe cleaning license so she begs on the street. However, she is smiling as she tells us her story- her English is nearly perfect- and as she leads us through the slum we find out why.

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As we walk along the muddy streets more and more smiling people greet us. Everyone in the slum was delighted to see us, and Rina explained that they love having visitors and enjoy showing off their homes. Their idea of happiness is not linked to material wealth- it is linked to the enjoyment they find in spending time with their families and helping out in their close-knit community. Everyone has plastic tarps on their roofs because Rina used a donation she was given to buy the tarps for everyone. They also have outside help; an American man sells quilts made by women in the community, and the sale of each quilt pays for one year of school for one of the children in the slum. We were discouraged from giving the community money because it could undermine this arrangement, which has been highly beneficial to the people in the slum.

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We reached the main street and met the younger children in the slum, many of whom were very amused by my unusual camera. There was also a snake handler. While a couple of tour participants were happy to handle the toothless python, we all shrank back very quickly when he pulled a small cobra out of a box. Toothless or not, we were not going to touch a cobra.

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We also visited the local school. They were in the middle of a spelling bee, but as soon as we arrived we were rushed by young kids delighted by the distraction. We tried to stay for the rest of the spelling bee, but the kids wouldn’t calm down so we had to leave.

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Then it was time to return to the Seven Women Centre for a cooking lesson. We all crammed into the upstairs kitchen and started chopping up vegetables under the watchful eyes of Rhadika, the house manager, and Jaya and Paddy, our group leaders. All three had very impressive cooking skills and put all of us to shame. The curry was lovely. We also did a spot of modelling for the new lines of Seven Women clothes created since the beginning of our trip, so keep your eyes out for those.

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I really enjoyed today. I’ve learned a lot of new things about the world during this trip, and today contained many new lessons.

-Erin

This post was modified from the original entry on my personal blog, Erin’s Written World.

Glass bottle houses and silver

Day 12

Another early start saw us on the road to Pharping, a village just outside Kathmandu. The women in Pharping have set up their own organisation, the Women Empowered Society for Development. The aim of WESD is to improve the lives of the women in the village through education and empowerment.

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The founder of WESD and other village leaders showed us around their facilities, including a small medical clinic, a library, an adult classroom for literacy classes and a child care centre. She explained that the organisation has the entire community’s full support because of the economic benefits it has provided to the village. Women in rural Nepal usually have very little education and no economic power, but in Pharping WESD is the only money lender and can only be used by women. This gives a lot of economic power to the women, who are then able to become more active both within their own families and within the village.

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The ladies prepared some masala tea for us- it’s similar to chai- then our guides took us across the village to see the glass bottle house. It was very cool, both figuratively and literally; due to some construction quirk the house is cool in summer and retains warmth in winter. The house is both economically and environmentally superior to the traditional brick house and has won numerous awards. We were all impressed- maybe something similar would work in our homes in Australia!

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Back to Thamel for a rest and some shopping, before we headed out again for Dambar’s silver working factory.

Dambar himself has a very interesting story. He is a member of the Dalit caste, the lowest caste in Nepal. The castes don’t legally exist anymore, but the Dalit people are still not allowed to enter the houses or drink the water of the people of any higher caste. They usually have menial jobs and are very poor. Dambar’s story could have been very short. He contracted tuberculosis when he was a young boy and his family couldn’t afford the medicine. He would have died if not for the assistance of a Dutch visitor, who paid all the medical bills and then sponsored Dambar through school and skills training- specifically silverwork. Dambar now imports raw silver from the Netherlands and trains and employs other Dalit men to make beautiful jewellery, which we sell at the Seven Women stall at La Trobe.

Dambar has a lovely house, and it is huge by Nepali standards. His entire extended family and another Dalit family all live there, and his garden holds geese, chickens, and a couple of overeager guard dogs (thankfully they were in their cages for our visit). The silver factory is on the bottom floor, so we watched the men work on the jewellery before going upstairs to Dambar’s office and making a few purchases.

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Dambar and his family were very hospitable. Dinner was set up in the backyard, and his wife made the best Dhal Bhat we have had on this trip- even the green beans tasted wonderful. After dinner, we were entertained by Dambar’s young nephew, who plays guitar and taught himself to dance by watching television. He was very impressive, and his version of ‘Baby’ was much better than the original.

Overall, it was a fantastic night.

-Erin

This post was modified from the original entries on my personal blog, Erin’s Written World.

Fred Hollows Hospital

Day 11

Today we visited the Tilganga Eye Centre, which houses the Fred Hollow Foundation and their lens laboratory. The tour was particularly special because it is rare for visiting groups to be allowed behind the scenes.

You could almost forget where you are when you step into the lens laboratory. The high-tech machines and the crisp white walls seem a world away from the dusty brown scene outside the walls of the hospital. The only clue otherwise is a 1990s fridge nestled among the whirring equipment. This is where the foundation makes inexpensive artificial lenses that make eye operations more accessible for more Nepalese people.

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We also visited the Nepalese Eye Bank, where donated corneas are collected and vetted for use in sight-regaining operations. Nepal used to import corneas, but thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign the bank now collects enough of them for Nepalese operations and to export them to other countries. This change is particularly impressive given that many Nepalese people believe that if your body is not left intact after you die your next incarnation will be disabled. Staff at the hospital visited the neighbouring Pashinputinath cremation site and convinced families to donate their deceased loved one’s corneas, and the campaign started from there. Now many people carry donation cards, similar to the organ donation cards in Australia.IMG_1103

 

The hospital itself is very crowded. There are at least two examination points in every room and the emergency room seemed full. However, most of the eye operations take very little time so the line moves quickly. The operations are interesting too. A small camera in the operating theatre streams live to a television in a viewing room next door, so family members can watch the operation. One family was happy to let us watch with them. The patient’s successful cataract removal surgery took all of five minutes. It was very interesting, particularly as the guide was explaining that they take these services to remote Nepal and how much it helps the locals. They do wonderful work, but as I watched the close up of the doctors sticking medical instruments into the woman’s eye I knew that journalism, not health sciences, was the right choice for me. There was only so much I could watch.

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-Erin

This post was modified from the original entry on my personal blog, Erin’s Written World.

Chitwan

Days 8-9

Today began with a 5 hour bus trip, out of Kathmandu and into the jungle. The drive was very interesting and contained many elements that I would not consider trying at home, including overtaking buses while on a windy mountain road and squeezing between trucks while barely slowing down. Major props to the drivers for getting us to Chitwan alive.

It’s ridiculously humid in Chitwan. We’ve reached the tropical area of Nepal and everyone is feeling it. The afternoon was spent inside under air conditioning until it was cool enough to go on a tour.

And what a tour. Elephants are a big way of life in Chitwan. Many families own an elephant and look after it; some are for tourist use, but many are used by the park rangers or for other tasks for the community. People ride elephants down the street as if they were bicycles.

We were introduced to some of the ranger’s elephants, but it was disappointing to see their legs chained up. However, the guide assured us that they spend most of their day down at the local river keeping cool, and that the chains are only for when they are eating or for when the females are in heat. Still, I’ll be glad when their trial enclosure is made available to all the elephants and they don’t have to be chained up.

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We continued on the tour, and came across a rhino in the river. There it was, probably 40 metres away from the group. It didn’t even care that we were there. It was amazing.

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We were introduced to other wonders, including some interesting flora. There was a carnivorous plant that closed its leaves as soon as they were touched, curry leaves and all sorts of medicinal herbs.

We continued our walk and ended up next to the river- but not too close, there are crocodiles- just in time for a lovely sunset.

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But that wasn’t the end of it. As we were walking back to the hotel we started following a couple of men on an elephant. That was pretty cool. Then it turned out their home was right next to the hotel. They dismounted and told us we could pat the elephant! So I got to pat an elephant, and that was exciting. Her head was hairier than you would think- it’s like she has whiskers all over her head. Then we got to have a photo with the elephant! She was very warm.

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Monday July 7

We had a huge day today.

It started with a nice relaxing canoe ride in the crocodile-infested river. The canoe was made in the traditional manner, carved out of a single tree trunk. It was huge too- it sat ten people. We were warned that we should avoid moving our bodies around, though it was okay to move our heads. This was because there was about five centimetres between the top of the canoe and the surface of the water and sudden movements could flood the canoe and send us into the river with the crocodiles. Also, we had to be quiet, or the crocodiles would become curious.

I feel like I should point out that I am currently alive, unharmed and dry.

The actual canoe ride was very cool. We saw heaps of kingfishers and our punter was kind enough to point out a couple of mugger crocodiles, the Chitwan equivalent of Australian salties. Fortunately, like everything in Nepal, they were very chilled out and stayed far away from the canoe.

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We reached the elephant breeding centre without incident. Unfortunately, like yesterday, all of the mothers were chained up under their shelter. They have some room to move and apparently it’s only when they’re eating or when they’re around visitors, but elephants seem to eat all the time and it’s a really unfortunate method of keeping them from harming people.

However, the youngest babies are left to roam, and they are gorgeous. One cheeky little elephant has developed attention seeking tendencies and despite the best efforts of the staff he continued to leave his mother and mingle amongst the visitors. He was so cute.

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We ventured out of the hotel again when the humid afternoon sun had died down. It was time for our elephant jungle safari, and it was just as awesome as the name suggests. Four of us crammed on to a small platform on the back of an elephant- our combined weight was far less than the 700-off kilograms an elephant can carry- and we set off through the jungle. We could see an amazing array of wildlife, including peacocks, deer, wild boar and monkeys, all from the safe height of an elephant’s back. It was amazing.

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The final part of the day was a cultural dance concert. The Tharu people are indigenous to the Chitwan area and lived there for years before the Nepalese people worked out how to live in the area without contracting malaria (which was eventually wiped out). They keep their dancing and singing traditions alive through a concert every night.

The highlight had to be the peacock dance. A dancer dressed in an elaborate peacock costume performed a version of the peacock mating dance, complete with a fan of tail feathers. Best dance ever.

Then the audience got to have some fun. The final dance called for audience participation, so half of our group obliged. We had no idea what we were doing, but we copied the local dancers as much as possible and had a good laugh.

We got back on the hotel trucks and they sped us through the town and into the safety of the hotel compound, which meant that there was one famous jungle animal I didn’t get to see.

However, I don’t think I would have enjoyed seeing a wild tiger up close.

We return to Kathmandu tomorrow.

-Erin

This post was modified from the original entries on my personal blog, Erin’s Written World.

Gardens and Monkeys

Day 7

Today was mostly relaxing. We started the morning at a farmer’s market, which was notable for the high amount of expats it attracts. After a bit of shopping we wandered down to the Garden of Dreams.

The Garden of Dreams is not something you would expect to find in Kathmandu. It’s another neo-classical design, built around the same time as the part of the palace in Durbar Square. There are white pavilions and perfectly manicured lawns. The flora is appropriate for the Nepalese climate but the design is very European. It’s a nice change from the bustle of the city outside. I think I got a little too excited about the chipmunks, but they were very cute and you don’t see them in Australia.

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Later that afternoon Paddy, one of our local guides, took part of the group to Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple. It’s one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world. It was thought to have been built in the third century. Accroding to legend, Kathmandu Valley used to be a huge lake. A holy man visited and saw a lotus flower in the middle. He drained the lake, and the lotus flower became the temple on top of a mountain. The holy man grew out his hair and the lice in it became monkeys. The monkeys are everywhere, and cannot be touched because they are holy. However, they don’t jump on people. They are still kinda scary, especially because they know they own the place.

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However, before you can see the monkeys, or the temple, or the amazing views, you have to climb up some stairs. These aren’t any old stairs. These are terrifying, probably-longer-than-a-skyscraper, definitely-steeper-than-the-Parliament-Station-escalator stairs. There is literally one step for every day of the year. The pictures don’t do them justice, particularly because I struggled to get all the steps in one photo.

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However, once we made it up those stairs, all of us huffing and puffing, the views were spectacular. Look:

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Enough adventures for one day. Tomorrow, we’re going to the jungle.

-Erin

Original post here.

ACP and shopping in Thamel

Day 6

We stopped by at the Association of Craft Producers, the largest fair trade accredited business in Nepal. Their premises are an amazing rabbit warren of craftrooms, from felting to woodwork to screen printing to dyeing. The workers are paid a fair wage and are allowed to join the union. Many of them work from home, with monthly checks to ensure everything is running according to fair trade values.

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We were fortunate enough to meet Meera Bhattarai, the founder of ACP. Meera was the first person to bring fair trade to Nepal and overcame many obstacles to do so. She’s usually busy running ACP so we were lucky to catch her.

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The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring Thamel. There are many characters among the traders in the streets around our hotel. One jeweller told us that he loved Australia because of the cricket, and proceeded to name every cricketer he could remember. He also mentioned that he has a Masters majoring in Urdu but prefers to work in the store. A shopkeeper heard our accents and greeted us with a “g’day” almost as mangled as my “namaste”. Another didn’t have to get out of her seat to tell me that “all dress suit you”. Shopping here is always an adventure.

-Erin

Original post here

Bhaktapur

Day 5 and 6

We spent the afternoon and the next morning in Bhaktapur, another city in the Kathmandu Valley. From what I’ve seen, Bhaktapur is Melbourne to Kathmandu’s Sydney. Bhaktapur is the cultural centre of Nepal- it was the first capital city and contains many museums and art galleries. It’s nowhere near as crowded as Kathmandu, nor is it quite as touristy.

It’s a very beautiful city. The main area is paved with red bricks and their Durbar Square is lovely. The people also take great pride in the cleanliness of the city; each visitor has to pay 1500R (around $15) to enter the city, and that money is used for restoration and upkeep of the oldest parts of the city.

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Krishna, our very knowledgeable guide, took us around the city’s Durbar Square and explained the significance of the temples. His explanations were very interesting and we saw many interesting buildings and heard many interesting stories.

We also got to see pottery square. We were looking at some pots drying when an old man came out and offered to show us how he made them.

We also got to visit a Thanka school. Thankas are highly detailed Buddhist designs, usually painstakingly hand painted or created with coloured sand. Traditionally, Thankas portray the Mandala (a temple representing the values of Buddhism), the life of Buddha (it is always stressed that he was born in Nepal) or the six stages of life (the various states of being before you reach Enlightenment).

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-Erin

The original posts can be found here

Mountains and Villages

Day 5- July 3

The day started at a painful 5:30am as we left Kathmandu and headed towards the mountains. Unfortunately, the view from the lookout at Nagarcot was obscured by heavy clouds, so I can’t say I’ve seen the Himalayas. The little we could see was spectacular.

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We walked down the mountain along a path that led us past some picturesque scenes.

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Eventually we reached a small village. This particular village is very close to tour leader Steph’s heart as she visits the place- and a specific family- every time she comes to Nepal. Most of the people in the village work in the fields. They use subsistence farming, which means that they usually only grow enough to feed their family. Any extra is used for bartering, either within the village or in the city. This means that life can be very hard when a harvest is poor. Despite this, everyone in the village seems to be happy. One man told us that “we must be happy, because this is where we are”.

There is a school in the village, and the children were happy to show off the little pieces of English they had learned. We were also invited into the home of Steph’s Nepalese family.

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Five days down, and I still love being on the tour. Nepal is so different to anywhere I’ve been before. I’ve learned so much about this country and its people already, and I’m looking forward to seeing more.

-Erin