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Last but not least

Our last full day in Nepal snuck up on us, but certainly went off with a bang! We visited a school run by one of Steph’s friends Prem, We couldn’t believe the reception we recieved at the school. A full cultural dance program, with performances by the kids (which were amazing), as well as tea and blessings from the staff. In what we now have come to accept as a typical Nepali activity, we all ended up on stage having a dance-off with the staff and kids. Some of the younger boys got down and started breakdancing… it certainly gave our boogie king Adam a run for his money!

We split up and got a chance to run some short classes with some of the kids. My partner and I ended up with year 8 kids, who seemed more interested in my tattoos than anything we had to teach them! They were lovely kids, and I was glad we got some older kids with good English with whom we could have a good chat about their lives and goals for the future. Prem was very proud of his school and happy to show us around. He told us that his school recieved donations sometimes from Australians – I was amused to find Morris Gleitzman and Robyn Klein books in the library!

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In the afternoon we headed back for the last time to the Seven Women centre. The women had organised a big send-off for us, and after dressing up the ladies in beautiful silk saris and the fellows in traditional Nepalese hats, we all had a dance, a chat and a chance to say goodbye to the friends we had made. There were lots of hugs, and a few tears. It was beautiful to see how, despite having very little common language, we had come to form friendships that I am sure most of us will never forget.

Stupas and slums and cooking… oh my!

This morning we got a real taste of the Buddhist culture here in Nepal. We visited Boudhanath, a huge Buddhist temple (called a stupa). Boudhanath is world heritage listed and possibly the most significant site for Buddhists. People travel from great distances to visit the site, and there is a large Tibetan population who live near the stupa. The experience was phenomenal. Our guide Jaya belongs to the group of local Nepalese people who traditionally worship at the stupa, so he was able to give us a valuable insight into the temple, the traditions and the history of Buddhism in the area. It was a beautiful, peaceful place and a wonderful start to the morning.

Painting the stupa

Painting the stupa

In direct contrast, after we left the stupa we headed across the road to visit a city slum. Steph has a friend Rina who lives in the slum and was able to give us a bit of a tour. The conditions were what I had expected – small houses made from bamboo and plastic, lots of mud and dirt. What I didn’t expect was the attitude held by those who lived in the slum. Rina in particular was well-educated and spoke almost perfect English. She told us her story of running away from India to seek a better life in Nepal, and ending up in the slum. She was so happy to be living there, and so positive about her way of life. Nobody, it seemed, was unhappy with their lot, but rather thankful to be out of India. I had to adjust my way of thinking to be able to grasp how content Rina was, and proud to show us around her community.

We then headed back to the Seven Women centre for a cooking lesson with Anita. Anita loves to cook and was very happy to have us all jump in and get our hands dirty. She was very patient with us and we were all quite happy to sample the food once it was done! It was good fun to try our hand at Nepalese cooking, and I think a few of us will be taking the recipes home with us.

By this point we were all starting to lose our energy a bit, but the day wasn’t over yet! We jumped back on the bus and headed over to Steph’s friend Dumbar’s home. Dumbar runs a silversmith factory and employs men from the lowest caste in Nepal. We unfortunately did not get to see the work in action as it was quite late, but we did get a chance to shop from Dumbar’s selection and were treated to an amazing dinner, cooked for us by his wife. The food was possibly some of the best we had while in Nepal.

We topped off the night by heading out for one of our girl’s birthdays. Steph showed us to a local club (great fun if you’re looking for a daggy night out) and we danced the night away before collapsing into bed. I had a massive day and was absolutely exhausted, but also extremely glad that we were able to fit so much in and learn so much in the space of the day.

A learning experience

Right now I am sitting in Bangkok International Airport. We flew out of Kathmandu this afternoon and are waiting for the long haul flight back to Australia. This trip has been absolutely amazing. I can, of course, only speak for myself but I suspect the group shares my feelings! I have learned so much, gained an invaluable insight into Nepalese culture. I feel like I have got a real sneak peek into the situation on the ground for Nepalese people, particularly women and those in disadvantaged situations. I already knew about some of the realities of living in a developing nation from my study at university and personal learning, but you really can’t get a feel for exactly what those realities mean until you see it up close. The situation for women in particular really stuck with me, and I feel compelled to ask more, learn more, and do more. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone with a curiosity about developing nations, women’s issues, or who simply want to learn about a culture that is as far removed from their own as it could get. It has been an experience that I will never forget.

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A real Pharping experience

Pharping is a large village about an hour or so out of Kathmandu. We were lucky enough to get the chance to stay overnight there last night with a friend of Steph’s, Kabita. This second village visit was a bit more interactive – we were able to visit A School for Community (ASC) – an initiative set up with the help of Share and Care, which is now fully independent. ACS is a multi-tasking organisation, run by Steph’s friend

Kabita’s brother speaks extremely good english, so was able to translate for us, giving us a more detailed insight into the work done by ASC. Along with providing education programs, ASC also aims to combat human trafficking in and around Pharping. The women (and men) work very hard here, and the initiative has grown exponentially over the years. Today, over 4,000 women from surrounding villages are involved with the organisation. Most importantly, the organisation is entirely run by Nepali people, and has had no major Western involvement. Often we in the West think that we are in the best position to help those in need – and indeed, often times we are in a good position. However, it is important for us to remember that those with the most relevant skills, and often the most drive and commitment, are actually the local people.

Hand weaving at ACS

Hand weaving at ACS

After visiting ASC, we walked down to visit another local initiative – The Sustainable Farmer’s School. They have put together an environmentally friendly mud-brick-and-bottle house. The house (pictured below) has been put together to showcase the benefits of recycling. The school brings in local farmers and teaches them about the benefits of farming sustainably and organically.

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The house is sturdy and looks amazing. The group also owns a number of greenhouses growing organic food and has the beginnings of a bio-gas harvester being built. We also got an amazing view of the huge Buddhist temples nearby, including a massive white stone Buddha built into the side of the mountain.

Afterwards, headed up the mountain to Kabita’s house. Kabita walks almost 2 hours each to and from work each day – we struggled walking the last 20 minutes up the mountain! We were so thankful to reach her home. I am deliberately not putting up any photos of the view from the house, because not a single one we took does it justice. You feel like you are at the top of the world – everything stretches out below you, green and wonderful and serene. You can see houses and temples dotted among the rice paddies. A few of us remarked that for a house with such a view in Australia, one would pay multiple millions.

After a few leech encounters (not the highlight of the trip) and a delicious dinner, we all settled down for the night. I was struck by how generous the people in the village were, happily giving up several rooms in a couple of houses to accommodate the invading group of Westerners. All in all it was an amazing experience, and a fantastic insight into how the average Nepali lives in the village. After the brief village visit in Nargarkot, it was great to follow it up with a more extended stay and a chance to really engage with the locals, ask questions and get a first-hand look at life.

Nepali road-tripping

The bus ride back from Chitwan was intense! Heavy rain overnight had caused landslides all along the mountain road, so there was an awful lot of waiting involved. Kudos to our driver for getting us through – even the roads not affected by the rain aren’t fantastic. We were all very tired, but glad for a different experience. It got me thinking about the way that something as simple as rain – and in  Nepal at this time of year there is a LOT of it – can bring everything to a standstill. We take our infrastructure for granted in the west – even in intense weather conditions, we can almost always be sure that we will be safe, and able to return home. Here, an overnight thunderstorm might mean that someone can’t make it to the next town that day, and that could mean anything from not seeing a doctor to not being able to go to work.

The flipside of that, however, was the initiative we saw from those who owned roadside shops and stalls along the length of the traffic jam. Whenever the trucks and cars stopped, people would emerge with trays of corn, potatoes and spices on their heads to cook up meals for the hungry travellers, or plates of coconut, or cucumber. It was fantastic to see people take advantage of an unfortunate situation (and take advantage of the travellers with nowhere to go!)

Elephants!

Today has been absolutely amazing. After a very long bus ride yesterday, we arrived in Chitwan. The hotel here is beautiful – more like a lodge. It was nice to be able to relax and have some down time, before our early morning elephant ride today! The ride gave us all a bit of time to relax and reflect on the way elephants are part of life out here. I think we all came to different opinions about the use of elephants, particularly for tourism. The ride through the jungle was beautiful, though, and we spotted a few other animals like deer, wild boar and plenty of monkeys.

Riding the elephants through the river

Riding the elephants through the river

The real fun came when a few of us went back to watch the elephants being bathed – or at least, we thought that’s what would happen. Upon arriving down at the river, we were hoisted up onto the elephants bareback by their trainers and taken down into the water, to be promptly soaked by the elephants! It was amazing, like a super soaker fight with extreme trunk action. The elephants then sat in the water, rolled over and tipped us all off into the river! We all ended up extremely wet and extremely happy. It was such a beautiful experience, to be able to bond with the elephants playing in the water. It felt so natural and joyous. You really get a feel for the deep intelligence and emotion felt by the animals.

In the afternoon, after a siesta, we took a hairy canoe trip across the river to visit the elephant breeding ground. It was feeding time for mums and bubs, and they were snacking on ‘elephant sandwiches’, consisting of rice, grass, molasses and salt. Lots of photos were taken of the babies! It was an awesome way to top off our elephant-packed day.

Unsure about the canoes...

Unsure about the canoes…

The evening concluded with a visit to the local community centre to watch a cultural dance show. We were all seriously impressed – the MC introduced each dance and explained the name and what it meant. Both women and men danced in groups, either alone or with a drum accompaniment. One male dance involved a complicated choreography with fighting sticks set in time to an intense drum beat, and later a fire twirler astounded us all. After a jam-packed day, it was great to chill out and watch the dances before bed.

Sharing and Caring

Today we visited Share and Care – an organisation set up to train people from outlying villages in the skills they need to address development issues within their communities. It was a hot day and we were all a bit exhausted, but a panel session with the students was extremely valuable to get an insight into what the big issues were for their villages and how they planned on addressing them. For most, problems such as trafficking, women’s disempowerment and lack of education were common themes. It was extremely inspiring to listen to these young people talk about their action plans for fighting these issues. What struck me the most was the number of men speaking passionately about women’s empowerment. Nepal is a highly patriarchal society, and after hearing Beni and Anita’s stories we were familiar with the struggle women here go through just to get through the day. It was inspiring to hear young men speak about their plans to work with women in their community, and help to change the minds of other young men to help break the cycle of disempowerment.

The entrance to Share and Care training facility

The entrance to Share and Care training facility

The real highlight of the day was definitely after the panel session – the staff at Share and Care had been kind enough to offer us dinner, and so we were able to stay to see the student’s cultural evening, which consisted of a ‘fashion parade’ of their local clothing from various parts of Nepal. This quickly turned interactive and all of a sudden we found ourselves in the middle of a dance pit! In return, we played and sang some western music. The bonding experience was amazing, with everyone coming together and dancing, regardless of language and cultural barriers. We all left (reluctantly) on an amazing high. It’s one experience from the trip that will not be forgotten.

Mixed emotions

Today was a rollercoaster for all of  us. This morning we visited Maiti Nepal – an organisation that works to rescue women ans children who have been victims of human trafficking. While we all knew that the visit was not going to be a walk in the park, I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for the myriad emotions that we experienced.

Firstly, I would recommend anyone who has not heard of Maiti Nepal to visit their site to read a bit about what they do – it is an amazing organisation that not only pulls women out of situations where they have been trafficked, but provides rehabilitation, medical assistance, legal advice, housing, skills training, and education for themselves and their children. Maiti also identifies children who may be at risk of trafficking – often orphans, and provides them with housing and education also. Additionally to this, they create innovative prevention measures such as working with former trafficked women at the boarder towns to help identify potential traffickers and their victims. All this amazing work was kickstarted by one woman. Organisations such as Maiti Nepal help to show the good that can be done by one person with a vision.

We were able to visit the housing where the youngest of the orphan children lived – most were no older than a year or two, some much younger. There were quite a few tears today – particularly with Anita and Beni’s stories so fresh in our minds from yesterday. The situation for women here is terrible. While human trafficking – particularly within the sex industry – is quite common in developing countries, the statistics here within Nepal were staggering. Thousands of women become victims of human trafficking every year, most of whom end up in India or the Middle East, with no way out and no way home.

After we left Maiti, we went to visit the ACP – Associated Craft Producers. The ACP is a huge building, that has grown from a small, three-room house in 1984 to the massive complex they have today. The ACP houses dozens of craftspeople, in areas as varied as copper working, glassblowing, fabric dyeing, feltwork, and plenty more.

Women hand-printing dozens of meters of fabric.

Women hand-printing dozens of meters of fabric.

Another success story, the ACP has grown over the decades to ensure that all those who work under their banner receive fair trade wages and the company adheres to the strict Fair Trade guidelines. Watching the craftspeople at their various trades (after an amazingly delicious lunch served up by the centre) brought a lot of hope back to the group. However, it occured to me that we were simply outside observers, and after visiting Maiti Nepal, we were able to simply walk away and engage ourselves in something that we found more enjoyable. For thousands of women, that is simply not the case, and for most it never will be. Our privilege as visitors was overwhelming.

Tomorrow promises to be another intense day, and I know that I am personally looking forward to learning more about the situation here.

Inspirational Women

Today has been another intense experience for us all, and for myself, possibly the most rewarding. We were lucky enough this afternoon to be able to hold a mini panel session with two incredible women known to Steph – Anita, who runs the Seven Women centre, and Beni, who started and now runs a local social enterprise making products our of recycles rubbish. Both of these women spoke to us very frankly about what life is really like for women in Nepal. They told shocking stories of their own experiences and the experiences of those around them. They spoke of discrimination from birth, and of being denied what we take in the West as basic rights – education, love and respect from the family, and the ability to feel safe within the community. It was amazing to hear these women speak about how they had seen and been through so much, and yet had been able to pull themselves out of the vicious cycle purely through their own resilience. Both Anita and Beni are now in successful jobs, in a position where they are able to provide real support to women in tumultuous circumstances. However, they both still face discrimination and ‘talk’ for doing just that – helping others and wanting to make a difference. For myself, hearing the stories from these women really hit home. Women in the West, while we still struggle for equality on the daily basis, don’t realise how lucky we have it. It’s up to all of us – women and men – to ensure that those like Anita and Beni, who need a way out, are able to get it.