Monday, April 18, 2011

A five day layover in Bangkok

Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha

Walking out of my hostel onto the tiny soi (side street) this morning, I ran into Johnny Depp. If he hadn’t started speaking in Thai-accented English, I may have had a minor heart attack. Dressed in full Pirates costumage, Johnny was a bit cheeky, and wouldn’t let me take his picture unless I bought one of his hemp necklaces. Alas, I had only 15 baht left, and I was forced to depart the country with only the memory of his likeness. I’ve never met an actual celebrity (unless some of the 1990s Bulls Dream Team counts), so I am counting this as my first.

Orchids at Pak Klong Talad, the Bangkok flower market
This is Bangkok. Strange and fantastic, a city of contrasts. The first three nights here I stayed near Chinatown, on a large thoroughfare near the main train station, Hua Lamphong. The hostel was almost sterile, so clean and bright and new that it was hard not to like it. Even though I slept in a room with 9 other people, they put new sheets on my bed and gave me a new towel everyday! I met cool folks and explored that area of the city; focusing my time in Chinatown (eating) and Silom and Siam (shopping, eating, and cultural exploits).

Khao San Road, early morning
My last three nights took me to the heart of cultural Bangkok, where I stayed on Khao San Road. The road itself is a backpacker’s hub, complete with bar upon bar, traveler upon traveler; a road that wakes up at around noon and doesn’t ever go to sleep (unless the glass piece/hemp necklace sellers somehow sell out). However, this hovel of guest houses and food is within walking distance to a  plethora of the cultural sites in the city- Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, the Chao Phraya and the National Museum. When I visit Bangkok again, I will not stay in Khao San… but at this point in my life, traveling alone and with no plan- I just had to do it. Luckily my hostel was down a quiet little soi, with zen gardens outside and antique cabinetry in, and made for the perfect escape from the mayhem.

Outside the MBK Center, a shopping mall with nearly 2,000 shops and stalls
In some ways, Bangkok is like any big city. Business men and women shuffle about in attractive suits, on and off the Metro, the Skytrain, out of the endless streams of pink and green cabs that fill the streets; all going somewhere important with important-looking faces scrunched around their cell phones having important-looking conversations. Young Thais fill the malls, scouring through racks of screen-printed tee-shirts and empire-waist dresses, haggling over the price of a pair of knockoff All-Stars, spending the only baht they have succumbing to the trend or creating their own.

Buddhist monks in the Phra Uposatha, or Ordination Hall, at Wat Pho
But in many ways, Bangkok is unlike any city I have ever experienced. It reminds me most of Istanbul; both caught in the midst of past and future, moving forward so quickly they are skidding on history like banana peels on a racetrack. Ironically enough, I spotted two separate (but potentially related) Turkish kebab food carts on Khao San Road this evening.

Delciously ripe okrong mangoes outside the temple
Which brings me to the part of Thailand that I didn't know about until I was here. Thais absolutely love to eat. I don’t know anyone in the U.S. that doesn’t like Thai food, and our Western love for the flavors and spices and combinations of this ethnic cuisine most likely stems from the fact that for Thais, food is life. From daybreak to daybreak, each curb in every neighborhood is host to a rotating circus of street food. In the morning it is usually fruit, juices, and roti, transforming into soups, meat and fish in midday, and noodles, rice, curries, skewers and veggies in the evening. Late into the night sweet stalls press on, selling various nuts encrusted with sugar, fruit and sticky sweet rice, mini donuts with glazes, Indian sweet balls, roti with fruit or chocolate, and some things I have never seen before, but look like noodles and sugar hardened into small lumps. It's as though everyone is a chef, and the world is their restaurant.

Pa Thong Ko, or Thai mini donuts, with chocolate and pandan drizzle
After almost a week in Bangkok, I have also come to adore the people. Every Thai I have met has been unquestionably friendly and hospitable. Whether due to 100 years of tourism or simply Thai nature, I felt welcome during my brief stay in the bustling city. Individuals tend to be reserved, but once approached by my foreign-self, open up with a warm and welcoming smile. While staring at a map on the street, a man came up and asked where I needed directions to, as he believed it was often easier in Bangkok just to ask a local than to stare at a map. Never would that happen on the streets of Chicago.

Wat Pho
Street food and hospitality came together the other night when I went in search of some (cliche, I know, but I hadn't had any yet) $1 pad thai. I wandered down the back alley by my hostel and found a host of vendors offering pretty much the same deal. Patiently waiting at a pad thai cart, a boy of about 13 came up and gave me a quick bright smile and screamed, “Pad Thai?!” loudly in my face. I giggled and told him I would like it with egg, which he whipped up in a matter of minutes on the wok. After handing over my 50 baht, he offered my change in his open hand, and quickly snatched it away when I reached for it. He laughed, did it again, and finally gave me my change. I then walked down the block in search of some accompaniments. Upon finding an empty pineapple cart, I glanced around, only to see the pad thai boy pop up from behind the cart and giggle. He was in all places! He quickly and meticulously cut the pineapple (fruit cutting is an art here), popped the bite-sized pieces in a plastic bag with a chopstick, and I had dinner and dessert. What a city. 

Even in Thailand, a world of endless food options... the arches exist.
Quintessentially Bangkok, the image most burned on my retinas from the trip was of a visit to the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute (read: Snake Farm). Within the museum area, three Buddhist monks were as jolly as schoolboys as they wandered around the formaldehyde-filled tubes, poking and giggling at each other in their orange robes. Spirituality meets nature. Monks meet snakes. The institute is an educational organization run by he Thai Red Cross and caters to nationals and internationals alike. I had read about the Snake Farm in Lonely Planet, and decided to go the minute I read that everyone gets to hold a giant python. The Institute was started in the 1920s, and is second only to a snake farm in Brazil in research and prestige. It was started by a group of royals who were born in the year of the snake (not a coincidence, but an intentional connection between science and religion) in order to research venomous snakes and to host an anti-venom program for Thailand.

Displays of various poisonous snakes at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute
The Institute today has a fantastic display of venomous and non-venomous snakes from throughout Thailand and the world, as well as information on anatomy, reproduction, first aid, etc. Everyday the venomous snakes are ‘milked’ of their venom for use in anti-venom by the Red Cross. There is also a snake-handling session every day, in which the researchers taunt cobras and pythons into action, all for the viewing pleasure of guests. I definitely gasped out loud a few times, but they knew what they were doing. The culmination of the handling session was when each member of the audience was able to hold the giant python! The snake was born at the institute and has never bitten anyone…yet. He didn’t start today, and I was able to discover what it feels like to hold a 50lb snake on my shoulders. Quite cool and smooth to the touch, actually. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t want him to tighten his grip around my neck any more than he did.

Most of my past week in Bangkok was so unbearably hot that I spent a large part of every day in the mall. To those malls, I owe a great thanks. To the shopping district of Siam, I thank you for blasting your air conditioning to a level that will dry my layers of sweat in a matter of minutes. To the Siam Discovery Center, I thank you for letting me into a niche of Thai life that I have never before seen- young-tech-savvy-geeks. To the Siam Paragon, I thank you for entertaining me for hours on end with a constant myriad stream of shoppers, and for the most fantastic food court on the planet (there is gourmet street food in the middle!). I do not thank the MBK Center because it emptied my wallet.

Parakeets for sale at the Chatuchak Market, the largest market in all of Thailand
There is no doubt in my mind that I will come back to Thailand sometime in my life. Hopefully, when I do, I can explore more of the country than just Bangkok. But for this trip, I think the city and I got down and gritty in a real way, and I liked it.

Friday, April 15, 2011


Traveling to Bangkok in the middle of April is much like I imagine it would be to lock oneself in a Ziplock bag, and then put that Ziplock bag in the microwave. It’s the kind of heat that I remember from the worst days of summer in Chicago, when you walk out of the house and instantly slump over, like a wilting flower. The sweat accumulates even before you step outside, as if in anticipation of the coming onslaught, and at the end of the day you really wish your shower could somehow produce ice cubes. It is also the type of heat that I recall from a similar latitude, (just one year ago!) on the island of Zanzibar. It’s a heat that, surprisingly enough, I have come to be able to live with while traveling. At least for a little while.


The difference between Zanzibar and Bangkok though, is two-fold. In Bangkok, there is air conditioning. In Bangkok, there are 7-Elevens. Put the two together, and even if you’re out visiting sight after sight, wat after wat, accumulating a layer of sweat that exceeds the amount of liquid you have ingested- at least you know that every block, you can pop in to the local quick-mart for a quick-cool. And when I mean they are on every block, I am not exaggerating. In Chinatown, in fact, there are two 7-Elevens directly across the street from each other. Perhaps they have contests to see who can sell the most Slurpees.


It is the weather in these dog days of summer that has for centuries caused the Thais to celebrate. However they are not celebrating the heat, they are celebrating the cooling monsoon rains that are to come, hopefully sooner rather than later. The three-day festival of Songkran, or Thai New Year, is April 13-15 every year, which conveniently (or not, depending how you look at it) happened to be the day I arrived in Bangkok. Though Thais follow the modern Western calendar, they continue to celebrate their own New Year, and with such vivacity I was beginning to wonder what life it like without Songkran. I knew that it was New Year before I arrived, but I had no idea what that would entail.


Perhaps unbeknownst to both Thais and Nepalis, the Songkran celebration runs parallel to the Hindu Holi celebration that I just experienced while in Nepal. Both heralding the coming monsoon rains, almost all festivities are based around 1) water and 2) colored paste. Whereas in Nepal Holi was mostly a sport for children, the people of Thailand have no such age/ability limits for their participation in the event. In fact, the reserved Thais seem to take this holiday as a once-yearly way of doing whatever the hell they want, without reservations. Everyone in the family, from baby-boo to 85-year-old grandma, is armed with a neon Super-Soaker- and they know how to use it. However, water pistols are not necessary in the art of soaking anything that walks. Cups, bowls, buckets…you name it, I saw it used. Perhaps the most entertaining folks to watch were the cruisers- gangs of friends driving around, crowded in the back of their friends’ pick-up, smearing white paste on buses, spraying innocent bystanders, and generally having a raucous good time.


My first encounter with Songkran was my second day in Bangkok, when I decided to go for a walk early in the morning. I wasn’t really sure where I was going, and was pretty sure I would walk into a water trap. I originally kept my distance from all tuk-tuk drivers, small children, and those sneaky grandmas, until I started sweating so profusely that I didn’t care if I ran into a human-induced waterfall. As if reading my mind, I turned a corner and was immediately spotted by 5 teenage boys and their 3 younger siblings, loading up a 100-gallon barrel with a hose from their house. Hesitantly, they all held their buckets and looked at me. I could tell they weren’t sure whether to do it or not. They really wanted to, but I was not Thai, and I was the only person on the street. I continued walking towards them, put down my bag, and said, “Yep, go ahead!”  To which no less than 6 buckets were dumped over my body. It felt fantastic. No wonder people like this festival.


Three days and many saturations later, I got a little sick of it. Like colors on Holi, the Thais smear some type of white-paste-substance all over your face, as a type of blessing, but it’s really just nasty. If it was just a water festival, I would be fine with it. But the paste is gross. I avoided most contact with it, except that at one point an adorable little Thai boy asked me if he could give me some- and how could I resist that? For the greater part of day 2 and 3 though, I stayed inside. The folks from my hostel and I took cabs where we wanted to go (tuk-tuk, or open three-wheel vehicle, would have been a bad idea- I saw people getting hosed), and lived a relatively sheltered couple of days. I met some good folks, and we formed a posse that would have been intimidating had we needed to use it for our protection. Luckily, we never did.


Today Songkran is over, leaving behind only a filmy white paste over the city’s streets and buses. Today was the first day I realized that Bangkok does not just induce a sensory overload on holidays, it induces it every waking moment of its existence. Contrasts of colors, smells, and textures fly at you at an alarming rate in Bangkok. Thai food is loved world-wide for its use of complements- sweet and sour, spicy and salty, rich and light- and the same can be said of nearly every aspect of life in Bangkok. A clapboard house on stilts abuts a small river in Baan Krua, a Thai Muslim community known for hand-woven silk, while one block away wealthy trust-fund babies shop at Siam Paragon for the latest in international couture. A taught-faced old man sits cross-legged on a mat, selling religious amulets to browsing traders in the shadows of the glistening gold and mirrored spires of Wat Pho, while inside the temple complex the massage parlor is packed to the gills, paying customers ready to have their body kneaded and twisted to a fine pulp by some of the country’s finest masseurs.


My mind has not stopped racing, attempting to process everything I am seeing, for the past four days. I only have two days left, and I’m hoping on the plane ride to Melbourne I will finally be able to relax. Though I’m sure there are far crazier cities in Asia, Bangkok twists your mind with such cultural, spiritual, artistic, musical, natural, and material complexities that you hardly know who you are at the end of the day. I’d like to tell you what I think about this place, but I haven’t gotten that far yet. So I’ll just give snippets.


Today began early, when I met a couple fellow hostellers to go to the Chatuchak weekend market, about a 45 min train ride from the center of town. Massive and sprawling, the lanes of the ‘JJ’ (for short) Market wove from knockoff designer clothing to classy boutique, from Thai spices and herbs to buckets and buckets of fake plastic fruit. Perhaps my favorite find of the day, the baby animals section. There were week-old puppies (huskies! wiener dogs!), kittens, guinea pigs, and my personal favorite- bunnies, with the girl bunnies dressed in tutus. After an interesting snack of crushed ice with brown flavorless jelly and brown sugar (definitely doing that at home), we headed back to the hostel, for fear that we would die in the belly of the beast and never be heard from again.


I switched hostels, to a place closer to the ‘sights’ for the next few days, as I haven’t had a chance to see anything yet (as I was avoiding the wet-festival). Then Natasha, from London, and I decided to get massages at Wat Pho, a temple/Buddhist monastery and school, and also the premier massage school in all of Bangkok…if not Thailand. As I have only had one massage in my life, and never had a Thai massage, I was thoroughly excited. I got even more excited when I realized it was only $13 for a full hour. This may not be the only massage I get while here.


Each massage room was lined with at least 25 beds, roughly double-bed size, and all right up next to each other. The rooms air-conditioned and smelling sweetly of tea tree oil, I could have cared less that I was going to be lying a foot away from some old rotund man also getting a massage. After changing into the supplied pajamas (I mistakenly wore a dress), I clambered onto the bed, and things began.


The best way that I can think of to describe a Thai massage is a combination of deep tissue, chiropractics, and forced yoga. Basically, the masseuse just has at it. She gets all over ya. Using her body against yours most of the time, she pulls, pushes, and rotates your appendages into formations you didn’t even know were possible. She cracks your knuckles, she pops your back, and she sits on your shoulders. At one point she slowly pressed her thumbs into my ears until I felt a little lightheaded, and then she popped them. It was all very interesting. It is much like I would imagine a personal trainer would have you do to yourself, but she did it for you. Ah, it was fantastic. Plus, at the end they give you a little bottle of iced green tea!


After that we had a wander around Wat Pho, the home of the world’s largest reclining Buddha. He was huge. There were no signs in English telling us exactly how huge, but I’m sure you could look it up online if you were that interested. Though he was impressive, by big Buddha standards, it’s the outsides of these Wats that impresses me. There are buddhas everywhere, hundreds of them at ground level, and then above your head loom the temple and school spires, reaching to the sky in incredible mosaic and gold shimmeriness. I know that is not a word, but I can’t think of any other way to describe them. Being in Thailand makes me wonder a little more about Buddhism, as I was pretty sure the Lord Buddha taught non-attachement… and all these wats seem mortifyingly extravagant for such a humble dude. Not to mention counter-productive to what he was trying to accomplish. Either way, they are gorgeous works of architecture, and definitely require a second trip tomorrow morning to take some more photos.


After mowing down some buttery-delicious mangoes, Natasha and I headed to find the flower market and then hop a boat back to Chinatown, where we planned to have dinner. Completely lacking my normal intuition about cardinal directions in this city, we asked some police men where the flower market was, and got both a handshake and “welcome to our country” from the uniformed men. Possibly the best interaction with police that I have ever had, I am starting to believe all this stuff people say about the Thais being extremely hospitable. Even yesterday, I was just blankly staring at a map in the subway, for no reason at all, and had two people come up and ask me if I needed any help. And this is not like the help of Nepal, where they wanted money and/or something in return… it was genuine concern for my well being. Amazing.


We made it to the flower market, another sensory overload, where the scents of roses and carnations, orchids and marigolds mixed with fish sauce and veggies frying, as the market closed up and vendors began to make their dinners. There were more flowers in one place than I have ever seen in my life.  Little old ladies were crouched around buds, sewing them into ornate offerings, and people scuttled about them with armloads of bouquets to take home.


We made it onto a river boat, quite a nice way to get out of the street and crowds of the city, and wound our way around the Chao Phraya to Chinatown. We intended to find a ‘street food market’ that I had read about, but I neither knew where it was nor had brought my book with me, so it was kind of a shot in the dark. We had been walking all day in flip-flops, and were thoroughly exhausted, sweaty, and in dire need of food. After about an hours worth of walking around what we thought was Chinatown, we were ready to give up. Nothing was open, we didn’t see any street vendors, and no one was out walking. Where in the world are Chinese restaurants not open all the time?? When we had almost given up hope and were about to go to the only soup shop we saw, we spotted a sign in English. The sign announced that we were entering “Yaowarat Road” one of the “busiest food hovels in all of Bangkok”. Fifty steps later and we were taken directly to China. Blazing lighted signs announcing restaurants, a street full of taxis, buses, and people, and street stalls- hundreds of them- lined the sidewalks. We wondered where it all had come from, as not a ½ block earlier we had seen no one around.


The only thing that was open on the street were the few restaurants, expensive places serving rare seafood, but street stalls filled nearly every inch of sidewalk and curb space, so that in order to see what they all were, you had to walk in the street with the traffic. Perhaps fortunately, not many of the stalls signs were in English. If they had been , we may never have decided what to eat. Instead, we got BBQ pork buns (bao) for about $0.50 as an appetizer, and then moved on the BBQ kebab section ($1), where each kebab had 4 huge pieces of chicken, two peppers, a pineapple piece, and a tomato. We wanted something to finalize the meal, like noodles or soup, but nothing of the sort was in English. Slightly scared that we would unknowingly be fed shark fin, we took the risk and went to a soup stall. Pointing to the one picture on their sign, we pantomimed that we would like what was photographed (a clear soup with some noodles, and some other little surprise balls, etc.). The man looked at us a little funny, shrugged, and pointed to the two prices- did we want the $1 or $1.50 option?  

The kids (Part 4, Final Episode)



Well well. The time has come for some quips about the final two children at Harka, Ashish and Tulie. These two have been there nearly their entire lives (Ashish since he was about 1 1/2 years old, Tulie since the day after she was born, literally). The two have grown up knowing nothing other than what it is like to have 17 siblings- which means they are frequently bossed around, are sometimes bossy themselves, they never let anyone else touch the toy they are playing with, and when there is extra rice, they are the first kids in line for seconds. They have never experienced much traumatic change, as they have only really known Harka, and to them, that is just the way life is. 

Ashish - 6 years old 

I mentioned quite a bit about Ashish when writing about Shishir, but I didn't mention how absolutely animated that boy can be at times. It is almost as if he were cut straight from Vaudeville- wacky faces being his prime mode of expression. He also loves to dance, but his dance is more of the Elaine-from-Seinfeld variety- extremely awkward. He does a sort of robotic flick of the hips, matched with Macarena-eque arm movements, to which everyone watching rolls on the floor laughing. And that is what Ashish lives for. Attention. If he's got yours, he's in heaven, he feeds off of it. 

He loves attention, and needs it both from crowds and individuals. He is good for a while with entertaining a group, but he would often want to single me out to play with him, and him alone. I would appease him for a few minutes, and then tell him it was time to let others join. It's good to have one-on-one time, but it's also good to learn how to share. Overall, Ashish just wants to do well, and wants to impress. Thus, he is doing pretty well in school, and tries very very hard. He was always asking me to give him 'homework', sometimes for 4 hours straight. I would ask him to write his days of the week, months of the year, 10 forms of transportation, 10 animals (to which he asked, "Land or Sea?"), things even an American 6 year old couldn't list! 

He's still considered one of the youngest kids at the home, which means he hardly has any chores besides watching the goats occasionally. And if any of you are wondering, his little protruding potbelly is completely gone, but his head is still as big and bobble-heady as ever! 

Tulie (Srijana) - 5 years old 

Tulie is tulie. I love her. A little monkey face with huge dimples and a spark like nobody's business. She's got some charisma, that's for sure. Yes, like all 5 year olds, she throws tantrums sometimes. Usually about something someone took away from her, and she weeps for a few minutes and gets over it. She's also got a bite that can bring Jamuna or Ashish to tears (lord only knows what she says to them sometimes). But most of the time, she is just cute as a freaking button. She paddles around wearing goofy outfits, usually involving a dress that is too small and shows her bum and a doo-rag of some type. She has a fantastic sense of humor, and would often come up to me, point out something hilarious (like herself in gum boots) and crack up. 

Tulie also loves making faces, and the faces/poses she would assume when she saw me with my camera were a hoot. She has definitely grown up with digital cameras, because she knows what she's doing- and she finds that hilarious as well. Tulie was 1st in her class (which I think is called Nursery) this past year, and she is going on to class 1. I'm not sure what you have to do to be 1st in Nursery class, but she has done it! If English has anything to do with it, she is definitely doing well in that subject. Her communication skills are through the roof, and her little Nepali lisp makes it all the cuter. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Kids (Part 3)






“The competence of Nepalese children is staggering; if all the adults were to die tomorrow they’d manage perfectly well on their own.”

 I stumbled on this perfect quote while reading Christopher Pye-Smiths’s Travels in Nepal, that I picked up at a guest house in Pokhara. It definitely rings true with the children at Harka, perhaps more so than children with parents. I arrived at Harka unannounced (I lost Laxmi’s cell phone number) after my week in Sangachok, to a bunch of smiling children and…no adults. Though there was another volunteer there (Theeban, from London - who must have arrived just after I left for Pokhara), Parvati had gone to Kathmandu to aid her ailing father, and Laxmi was off working. The children, however, looked after me as though they were running their own guest house, and immediately showed me where I’d be sleeping and had tea on the burner. And while we wouldn’t ever let our 9 year olds near a kitchen knife, I am not the least bit alarmed when I see Manessa or the twins slicing up vegetables in their hands (for lack of a cutting board). I’m also not alarmed when I look out at the field and see a pint-sized child wielding a water buffalo to greener pastures, even though she is 1/8th it’s size. It’s all relative in this crazy world.


Manessa - 9 years old

 Ahhh, Manessa. Manessa came to Harka late in our volunteer stint in 2008, as somewhat of an addition to mother-and-son duo Momma Samjana and Babu (otherwise known as Ganesh).  For a while Rebecca and I were unclear as to whether Manessa actually had any connection to Samjana, who came to the orphan home with her young son because she had nowhere else to go (her husband died from drinking too much). It came to pass that Manessa actually had no connection with Samjana, but happened to arrive on the same day at the orphan home, so she kind of took her under her wing. Just a few weeks ago, when looking through photos from 2008, Manessa chirped in and announced ‘Mommy!’ when she saw a picture of Samjana, though the pair hasn’t been at Harka for at least a year. So there is definitely still a connection, even if they may never see each other again.

 Good-hearted Manessa won’t let anything get her down, that’s for sure.  Though her face is somewhat stern all the time, with a crumpled brow as though she is trying to remember the digits in the pi sequence, one cheerful look in her direction and she is all jaggedy-toothed smiles. Her tough exterior (she’s stronger looking than the waif-like other children her age) does not reveal that she is in fact a major cuddler, and would often burrow herself as deeply into my lap as humanly possible.

 Slightly older than the twins and Shishir, Manessa has taken on her duties as an ‘older girl’ while maintaining her playfulness. Manessa is the one (sometimes with the help of Ganga) that makes everyone’s beds in the morning, sweeps the rooms, washes the dishes, and takes care of the animals. A natural shepardess, she can get those buffalos and goats moving in the blink of an eye- while I struggle getting the cow not to trample me.

 Manessa just passed class 3 at the new local primary school with flying colors- she was 3rd in her class- and in one week’s time she will be moving on to class 4. When I attended the school award ceremony earlier this month, it was Manessa that showed me around, pointing out everyone’s classrooms and teachers. If Soniya is the caregiver, Manessa is following in rightful suit.

 Shishir – 8 years old

 A boy in all senses of the word, Shishir (who we inaccurately called Secil three years ago, and what it still sounds like to my non-Nepali ears) can be rough, silly, and creative- and is probably the most independent of the children at the home. In 2008 Rebecca and I noticed his independent nature immediately, as at the age of 5 he was always off on his own, exploring his surroundings. He can thoroughly entertain himself for hours, and I believe he prefers it that way. Sometimes the hectic atmosphere of having 16 brothers and sisters get the better of him, and he explodes in a whirlwind of emotion (generally resulting in hitting someone and yelling at them). As someone who thoroughly enjoys her alone time, I can identify. Sometimes you just want everyone to go away!

 This past school year, Shishir and Ashish were sponsored to go to the local private school, Greenland. Private schools in Nepal usually have a school bus to pick children up, and have far less holidays than government schools, so the boys spent a lot of time together. If the two were to be in the same class in, say, the US, they would never be friends. While Shishir is independent and creative, Ashish is constantly seeking attention and approval. The 7 hours a day that they spend together at school and the 10 hours they sleep side by side at night leaves Shishir with little time apart from Ashish. This union results in a somewhat volatile relationship between the two, and rightfully so. They can play, but it usually ends in one punching the other, and Shishir is usually the culprit. That being said, there were few times when I could blame him, as I often wanted to punch Ashish myself!

 Though he does keep to himself most of the time, there was a point in every day when he cozied up to my side and talked to me for a little bit. Whether it was bounding home from school to tell me about what he learned, or after dinner to fall asleep next to me with his head on my shoulder, Shishir is a thoroughly adorable child. He absolutely loves music, and his dance moves are to die for. It’s almost as if he has some estranged kinship to Justin Timberlake, with an equally ambiguous racial makeup. He could be from anywhere in the world (well, except Africa).  His smile could melt the coldest of hearts, especially when he creeps up to show you something that he just discovered, as if you are the only person in the world worth showing.

 Ganga – 8 years old

 The more reserved twin, Ganga has become much more grown up in the past three years. The sisters couldn’t be more different, and usually don’t even associate with each other unless they are arguing. With her sharp features giving an air of distinction, Ganga keeps to herself much of the time. She helps out around the house, especially with cleaning, when she rides a fine line between anal and OCD. I had to laugh to myself the first night I was at Harka, putting away dishes with Ganga in the kitchen. There are two large shelves for all the plates, cups, and pots, and I had been putting the dishes away accordingly. However, when Ganga joined me, she made it very clear that I was not doing it correctly. She proceeded to stack each shelf meticulously, resulting in perfect pyramids of cups, plates organized by size, and utensils arranged by size and shape. Perhaps she just has a mathematical mind. 

 Though Ganga’s English is not as good as Jamuna’s (because Jamuna rambles constantly), Ganga was first in her class (2) this term. She loves playing the caregiver for little Tenzin, and keeps track of his general whereabouts. Like most of the children, she loves to dance, but for her it is an art. Some of the kids dance crazy-like and goofy, but when you watch Ganga dance you know she has memorized her moves. She and Manessa will often perform Nepali dances together, working out the moves before they reveal the final product to me in a carefully performed routine. Ganga is reserved, but that doesn’t stop her sweetness from popping onto my lap every so often for some affection. I think all of these kids have gotten used to physical affection through volunteers and each other, which is a fantastic change from the doe-eyed alarm that many of them expressed when we bombarded them with hugs during our stay in 2008. Physical affection goes a long way in child development, and I believe it has had a great affect on the well-adjusted children that all the children at Harka have become.

 Jamuna – 8 years old

 The polar opposite of Ganga, Jamuna is a bubbly chatterbox that pops around like a fart in a bottle. Three years ago, Rebecca and I had a hard time figuring out the twins, especially Jamuna. She cried about practically everything, and most of the children mocked her for it. We spent the greater part of three months trying to toughen up her sensitivity, which today seems to be practically non-existent! These days Jamuna only throws a fit as often as the next kid, and usually for good reason. Instead, she reminds me of a jolly old woman that is perfectly content talking to herself and bossing others around. Upon first arrival, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, as she talked a mile a minute and apparently to everything- human and inanimate objects alike. I started to wonder whether she was a bit batty, actually.

 However, a few days getting to know the kids’ accents, and I realized that Jamuna was actually using quite a bit of English in her ramblings, and was significantly more adept at expressing herself to me than many of the other young children. The kids don’t mock her anymore, but I definitely found myself laughing at her completely random ramblings. One night, while Jamuna and I were tending to the cook fire, a man came into the yard from the road and asked her a question. He directed the question at her, as he assumed I didn’t know Nepali (good assumption), and she responded with a curt answer. He turned to walk away, and she started chattering at him. He turned around and smirked, and her rambling continued at an increasing crescendo as he continued his walk down the road. After he was out of sight, she continued talking to herself in a low voice for some minutes, before announcing to me, “Miss, come. Water for vegetables, please.” Lord only knows what she was talking about to the man or to herself, but whatever it was ceased to be of importance when she needed to complete her task at hand. And so it is, hanging out with Jamuna.

 Between her chattering and cook fire duties (she is usually in charge keeping the fire going, when all the other children are watching TV- she doesn’t mind), Jamuna  can often be seen staring off into space with a look on her face somewhat similar to what I feel when I’ve been awake for more than 15 hours. Not completely blank, but unable to process complete thoughts. When I caught her with such a look, I’d just shout, “Jamuna!” and her gaze would snap to me, she’d smile an explosive smile, and run over into my arms. Perhaps she’s just a dreamer. Aren’t all the geniuses in the world a little bit loopy?

 Suman – 7 years old

 I was reading through the journal I have been keeping throughout my travels, and I fell upon a section written during my first few days at the orphan home in which I found Suman a test of my patience. I now have no recollection as to why I felt that way, as my perception of him upon leaving is the exact opposite. For as much as Jamuna and Ganga are dislike, Suman and Sujan are alike. Though three years apart, the brothers are very much tied to each other in everything they do. Suman looks up to Sujan, and Sujan sets a very good example. Suman is still young though, and plays the baby card a lot. He whines when he doesn’t get his way, and he seeks comfort in my lap early in the morning (when he hasn’t quite woken up yet) and at night when he is sleepy.

 That being said, if Sujan can help with chores, Suman will be right behind him. The boys aren’t that different in height, and it is a sight to see them struggling with a load of buffalo grass 10 times their size (“Miss! Help?”). Suman likes to read stories, and he is usually the only one left listening at the end of a book I’m reading. He also loves to tell me stories based solely on the pictures of a book, which requires an impressive grasp of English for a 7 year old.

 The cutest image of Suman is one I forgot to catch on film, which ritualistically happened every morning and evening, despite the rising temperature, when he would put on his rainproof Quecha parka, pull up the hood, and cinch the toggles so that his little chubby face was the only thing showing. It reminded me of my brother Alex, who at the same age religiously rolled up his pants, despite the weather, as if he were expecting a flash flood. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


See, I told you good things come to those who wait. I left Harka yesterday, and though only Tulie was crying when I left, everyone was a bit sad, myself included. I didn't get teary until the bus back to Kathmandu, when I began opening the little letters that each child had written to me the night before (they stayed up until almost 11 working on them!). 

On Sunday, Laxmi and I went out to buy the scooter, finally! Actually, I was getting a touch worried, as we had planned to go shopping that day but I hadn't heard from her all morning. Finally she called the home at around 2pm,  and told me to meet her on the tempo (mini-bus/ metal-death-trap-type transportation) in Bharatpur. Actually, her instructions were something like this, "Oh, baini! You red tempo go, next time, red tempo? Red tempo go Bharatpur, post office side, me. Bank go, e-scooter buy. Okay? Bye!" Which, to most, would be completely incomprehensible. But after being in Nepal for 5 weeks, your level of understanding increases 1,000 fold. 

So off I went, loping down the road in the baking heat of a Chitwan day, to ride in the metal oven to Bharatpur, where hopefully Laxmi would see my whiteness glowing through the grates and hop on herself! Miraculously, that did happen, and we were off to Naranghat to pick up some money from the bank. At the bank, I got the distinct feeling that everyone knew who I was before I even got there. They all seemed extremely excited to see me, and approached me like a celebrity (Ahhh! She does exist! This girl from America you speak of!). Either way, we picked up 150,000 rupees in 1,000 notes, and feeling much like a bank robber probably does, Laxmi stashed it in her purse with a huge grin and we were off to another tempo to take us to the Honda shop. 

At the Honda dealership, which was little more than a white-walled storage room with some motorcycles out front, I was informed that I was to choose the color. Luckily, as I knew they wouldn't let me pass on this opportunity, Laxmi had mentioned on the way over that black was nice because you didn't need to wash it as much. There was one black Honda Dio left, and I admit, it was much more attractive than the purple or red colors. Black it was! Minimal paperwork and about 30 minutes later, we were off! 

Originally, Laxmi and I were going to do a victory lap around the entire district, making points to stop at her friends houses, at Chitwan National Park for some drinks, and even Devaghat (Hindu sacred river site). However, Sunday was the first time in two months that Nepal experienced a bandh (oil strike with India), so we were left with the 1/2 liter of gas that the dealership gave us. Optimistically, Laxmi said that she had heard the government gas station was open, so we decided to risk it and cruise down there. About 5 km away from the orphan home through the sal forest, when we arrived at the gas station we were told by the AK-47 armed guard that we were 5 minutes late. Typical. Laxmi looked at me over her shoulder and said, "Bad luck. Maybe no petrol soon, we must carry scooter!" And with a cackle (from both of us) we were off with our fingers crossed that we wouldn't have to push her new scooter 6km back to the orphan home. 

We did get back, and the kids were at first in awe, and then super excited. Laxmi could not express her thanks to me enough, and told me to give everyone, all of my friends and family a huge THANK YOU (danyabhat in Nepali :). When I told her that everyone I know is interested in the orphan home, and her and the children's stories, she couldn't believe it. So a huge thank you from me as well, for everyone's help with this project, and support of my continuous relationship with Harka! I have more to write, but for now I will keep it brief, and conclude with some photos: 

It took forever for all the kids to get in the same place for this one!

Dirty little feet riding on the back of the new Dio

Tulie and Ashish on the back (could definitely fit another little body on there)

Laxmi at the Honda shop

Post-purchase cruise

Thursday, April 7, 2011


I haven’t been able to post any blogs while in Sangachok, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had anything to write about. I was informed that internet would not be a problem, but upon arrival I learned otherwise. Sangachok, sitting high atop a hill (and I say hill with a Nepali intonation, as we were probably at about 6,000 feet) between the deathly Sun Kosi and lazy Indrawati rivers in the Sindhupalchok District, is not the ideal place for a good internet connection. Let’s face it, do I go anywhere that has a good connection? Though my mother was probably mortified that I had met my demise in a treacherous bus accident (because I could not contact her to tell her otherwise), I was in fact having a splendid time in good company and working my butt off.

after my arrival to Sangachok a Kiwi volunteer arrived, and we hit it off from the get go. I was thoroughly excited to have someone to speak with in English, and as the week progressed we developed a routine involving great walks, intense work in the library, and teacher training in the local schools. Carmen is from Hokitika, a town on the mid-west coast of NZ, and actually a town that I had read about and would have liked to visit (arty, coasty, etc.). She works as an educator that travels around the South Island in a kind of traveling-school-bus of sorts, focusing mainly on health, nutrition, and wellness for kids. Again (as in Kenya) I found myself with an excellent co-volunteer to bounce ideas off of and collaborate with. Though pure luck-of-the-draw, working with someone that you work well with makes all the difference in the world. What you can do in 1 month by yourself turns into one week, which was excellent for me, as I only had one week to give!

When I arrived last Thursday, one of the first things Durga (Director of First Steps Nepal) showed me was the Early Childhood Development Centre. The premier project funded by First Steps Nepal/Himalaya, the ECD Centre is meant to be a comprehensive childhood centre, providing a library, preschool, and wellness classes for parents. For this region, like much of the mountainous regions of Nepal, education is a relatively new concept. Most schools in the area have been built in the past 15 years, with new schools going up every year. Though education is on the rise, there are many improvements to be made. Teachers have no access to materials, and must follow a strict curriculum, usually involving rote learning and heavy discipline. Any preschool or kindergarten level classes are taught the same as those of higher levels- using only ‘repeat after me’ rote learning- and generally have no colors, toys, books, or stimulation in the classroom at all. Parents are not encouraged to bring their children to school, and will often only send their child when they do not need them to do work at home. Durga and Fionna have aimed to change all that, creating a Village-Tourism-Volunteer-Non-Profit that will not only provide the children of the area with ECD Centres, educated staff, creative curriculum, and parent education, but will also provide the tourist with a glimpse into village life in the Himalaya.

Durga was born very near Sangachok, and only went to school until class 3, when he was forced to stay at home and work until he got married at age 14 (that’s nothing compared to one of his brothers, who was married at 9, to a 7 year old). At 17, he rebelled and ran away to Kathmandu, picking up odd work and only visiting the village, and his wife, every so often. Exceptionally bright and curious, Durga picked up both hospitality and management skills, as well as English, working in Kathmandu. At 20 years old, his father pressured him (‘blackmailed’ in his words) to return to the village, and stop disgracing his wife. He had been married for almost 6 years, and they had no children to show for it. They had two children, but Durga continued to make frequent trips to Kathmandu to work. In the late 90’s he met Fionna, a Brit working for a non-profit in Kathmandu, and from there is history. Though his wife in Nepal refuses to divorce him (such a label would shun her from village society), he now lives in New Zealand with his two children from his first marriage and the two children he has had with Fionna. Talk about two lives! After he and Fionna spent several years in Darjeeling working for a non-profit that fell through, they realized that they had a passion for spreading access education, and a knack for business skills. Using what they had created in Darjeeling as a model, they created the partner organizations First Steps Himalaya and First Steps Nepal (registered non-profits in Nepal and New Zealand, respectively). These days, Fionna and the kids come to Nepal once a year for a couple of months, and Durga comes twice. Evidently he is still amicable with his “ex” (but not really ex…), and he will often take volunteers to his village and they will stay with her. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time during my stay to take that awkward trip…

For only being in the second year of their operation, First Steps Nepal/Himalaya is doing a fantastic job. Funded during their first year almost solely by NZ individuals and volunteers, and their second year by Rotary International, FSN has already established 7 ECD Centers in the Sindhupalchok District, two of which required new buildings, and provided teacher training and salaries for the facilitators of those centres.

In the past month, about 8,000 used books arrived via the Scottish non-profit ‘Books Abroad’ (somehow they found out about FSN) and when I arrived they were sitting in massive piles in one of the classrooms. Durga seemed less than enthusiastic about the prospect of going through the masses, but to me the piles looked like a swimming pool of organizing fun. I wanted to get right to work (it was actually making me antsy staring at such disorganization), but he insisted they had, “already sorted some of them” and he was “just going to let people take some” so that there weren’t as many. This horrified me. First of all, there were a TON of fantastic learning/education/library books in there that needed to go in the library. Secondly, I knew that if people had at those books, they would take some and either let them sit in their houses and collect dust or use them in their cook fires. That was not going to happen on my watch.

The next day, when Carmen arrived, she had the same reaction that I did. Though she had come to do teacher training in the schools, she said she was more than willing to help with the library project as well. We spent the next few days sorting. And sorting. And sorting. The amount and breadth of the books we discovered could create a fantastic library in a English-speaking country (which makes one wonder why they spent nearly $12,000 in post fees, when they could have donated to an under-privileged school in their own country…). Being that Nepal is not an English speaking country, however, we had to reconsider comprehension level for each book when sorting. A book may have been good for Nepal class 5 reading level, but was much younger in content.

Eventually, though, we cracked through it. I was also in charge of photography during Carmen’s teacher-training courses, but during one I snuck away to sort more books. Thinking I would pop back and forth between training and sorting, I actually got completely immersed in the book pile, recruiting some local boys to help box up workbooks for schools. Three hours later, sweaty and really needing a bathroom break, Carmen came down after her course and asked if I had been sorting the whole time. I hadn’t even realized it!

In the evenings I worked on my library-cataloging scheme, because if I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. Most primary picture books and novels would be distributed amongst the schools in the area, with only some kept for the library. However, we would keep and catalogue all primary-high school reference books, with the thought that all area teachers and children would be able to come to the library for any of their needs. Thus, an easy and comprehensive cataloguing system was needed. It couldn’t be too complex, because the man that monitored the library was really just a grandpa with nothing to do, and it couldn’t be too simple, as each book needed it’s own number (if in the future it becomes a lending library).

I decided to go with a combination of colors and numbers. Each subject had it’s own color tape on the side (Environment = green, History = pink, Art and Media = orange, etc.), coupled with the letter E (for English language) and a number. Each number denoted the sub-category, and number of the book within that sub-category. For instance, within the Environment, if something had to do with Plants, it would be on a green sticker with E100, E101, E102, if it had to do with Animals, it would be marked E200, E201, E202, and so on. Thus, the 8th book about Animals would have a green tape marked E208. After condensing categories a bit (we only had 9 different colors of tape), we began. The labeling process actually didn’t take us very long, especially if we had helpers. I felt really good about the final product, and in the end, there were about 700 books in the library! Though that was only a fraction of the 8,000 that were donated, I really feel as though it will be a fantastic resource for local schools, teachers, and children. Mind you, everything could just get jumbled in a couple of weeks… but at least there is some type of label there!

In the midst of all this, Carmen spent time training the village grade school teachers about Western education. This basically meant games. Lots of games. And songs. All of which she needed my help for, so that we could make fools of ourselves together teaching 15 adults the Hokey Pokey. It was great fun, and the teachers loved it. All of them were so keen to learn new teaching methods, it was fantastic. They wanted to do training every day, so we did! One of the days we visited a school to observe, and ended up teaching about 60 6th,7th, and 8th graders the Hokey Pokey, hand games, and other songs. Though some of the girls were rightfully embarrassed, I got them about it with a little coaxing. We also taught a 1st grade class how to play Duck, Duck, Goose (except it was Buffalo, Buffalo, Goat), and they were ecstatic. The teachers were so excited to get things going in their classrooms, I honestly believe they will take things directly to the classroom when school begins again in a week (kids are currently on ‘Holiday’, though 200 showed up anyway when we came to visit).

So that’s what’s being going on volunteer-wise… but I think I will create another post about what has happened in our off time, as a separate chapter of the journey.