Nature Snob May 22, 2014
It doesn’t make sense to go to one of the most beautiful places on earth first.
It would be more logical to work your way up the aesthetic ladder because most likely, nothing afterwords will compare. But to be truthful, I need this drastic leap to such a majestic place. I need a trip that’s so stunning that I become separated from my previous struggles, worries, and problems. I don’t wish to forget them, just want a fresh start to experience the world around me as I encounter new challenges in this next chapter of my life. I do not believe I will love Beaman Park’s beautiful sunsets over the hilly trails or splashing around in Warner Park’s creeks any less when I return, but rather I hope a trip like this gives me a better appreciation for the wanders and purely amazing features this world holds.
I will not become a nature snob.
Complacent Conviction May 27, 2014
I’ve never understood what it is about mountains that I am so drawn to. Yes , their formation and transformations are mind boggling and simply studying them from a scientific point of view is reason enough to worship them, but as I sit on a man made chair and drink my lemon tea out of a glass cup, I look around me at the towering mountains and think there must be something more.
Although a beautiful and unique environment, I agree with Robert Macfarlane when he says we are drawn to mountains because they challenge our complacent conviction that the world has been made by humans for humans. I’ve grown up in a reality that is controlled by human creations. Mountains are different. Mountains have their own rules of existence. They show us the force of things we can’t control like the water that carves out valleys or the avalanches that kill anything in their way. Mountains are visual accounts of history- they show us greater spans of time than we could ever possibly imagine- a long life for us is only a few inches of change for a mountain. Mountains challenge our trust in the man-made. They make us, or at least myself, question the importance of our systems. It are these terrifying realities of mountains that grabs my attention and forces me to recognize my own immutability.
Mirror Mirror on the Wall June 1, 2014
I haven’t looked at myself thru a mirror in weeks. The last time was probably in the car mirror on my way to the airport. Yet as cheesy as it sounds, I’ve never felt like I’ve known my body better. Trekking at high altitude has really taught me how to focus and control my breathing. Walking everyday has made me acknowledge every muscle – even the ones I’m sure I’ve never used before. Being active all day then sitting down to eat has made me more conscious of what my body craves and what type of foods are the best to keep me energized- such as fried noodle dishes are probably not a good choice when you have 4hrs of hiking left to go, and a light curry dish for dinner probably will not tie you over until breakfast. And, TMI alert, not having flushing toilets quickly makes you aware of your bathroom patterns and when your probably not peeing enough and need more water, or your peeing too much and should limit your before bed tea consumption.
But for a country without many mirrors laying around, these are some of the most beautiful people I have ever seen.
Which makes me think maybe people should spend more time away from mirrors and more time spent getting to know their bodies better. I’m not implying everyone should meditate or even spend a few weeks trekking (although I am a strong supporter of both) but perhaps people would have less health and self image issues if they found a way to see their bodies as more than a tool to transport their brains around.
I am sure I will quickly fall back into the habit of checking to see if my hair is standing up, or if I have food in my teeth, but I hope to continue listening to every muscle, joint, organ and everything in-between, because it’s made me appreciate all that it can do.
Bistari, Bistari June 4, 2014
Many find it difficult to understand why one would travel to the other side of the world to spend weeks carrying a backpack a third of their body weight enduring heat, cold, rain, and the inevitable illnesses that come along with being in an environment you’ve never been before, to walk up hills that make their legs literally scream only to walk back down the same hill to return where they started- and for what? To look at scenery you could pull up pictures of in milliseconds in the comfort of your own home?
The truth is, trekking is an evolving experience both physically and emotionally. I started the first day with my thighs letting me know that their strands of muscles were being ripped apart in a burning sensation I think only comparable to standing in a fire, and my shoulders crying to be freed from the cage of what felt like a bag of stones instead of clothes. After every hill I would get excited that maybe around the corner the trail would flatten out only to find another hill, almost steeper, laughing at my trembling legs. It was difficult to think of much besides my lungs gasping for air as I tried to slow my breathing only to continue panting like a dog in mid june. This complete lack of control over my body was only accompanied with “oh god laura, what did you get yourself into?” This continued until I just could not do it any longer.
Bistari, Bistari means “slowly, slowly”. At one point, not exactly sure when, I realized that I could not continue to fight with my own body because I was certain to loose. So I slowed down.
Whether I was walking straight up a seemingly endless hill or down an easy path, I took one slow step after the other, controlling my breathing and pacing my body to a comfortable rhythm. Once I was able to do this, the trek became a whole new experience.
Much of the love for trekking is intangible. There is no competition, no prize, and the finish line is shared with the start line. Instead the joy comes from moving Bistari Bistari through the picturesque scenery allowing yourself time to think, breath fresh mountain air, and gain the sense of feeling fitter and stronger each day. It is as much if a mind game as it is a strength one, but once you return to the start line you’ll find that you have returned with more than any tangible reward or national geographic cover photo could give you.
If (your family) like it, put a ring on it
June 5, 2014
Being white in Nepal is not an abnormality. Even being a white female in Nepal won’t get you second glances thanks to the huge tourist industry. (Okay- you get stares for being a foreigner, but not to the extent you’d imagine, and mostly because you are being targeted as the next sales victim for handmade crafts and jewelry.)
So if you come to Nepal and feel like your not getting the full experience of feeling like an outsider and not recieving enough confused stares, then these simple steps are for you.
A) Be a white female– although not uncommon, it helps
B) Be a white female who has short hair– trust me, you will be the center of attention as young girls to old men ask “why is your hair gone?” or “did you have to cut it?” or, my personal favorite, just “why?”
*note I have yet to see anyone female with hair even remotely short. Not even tourist.
C) This is for those who crave the spotlight but just couldn’t make it in Hollywood.
Be a white female with short hair that is 18 or over and unmarried.
I have been told many times by Trekkers and locals alike that I seem so young to be traveling alone. Most Trekkers and foreigners thought it was admirable and I even got a few “wow I wish I was that cool when I was your age” but the locals have had a different reaction.
“You’re not married?” “You’re traveling single? No husband?” and “I can find you a good husband in Chitawan!” were usually the spark of conversation.
I spoke to many people about marriage, and it’s been very interesting to hear all the different perspectives. One 24 year old woman I met had two kids and was married at age 17. It was her duty to her family she explained. A younger girl whom I stayed a night with got a call from her father before dinner saying she was to travel to Kathmandu to meet the husband he had picked for her the next day. I asked if she was nervous and she nodded her head then continued preparing dinner. A government official on the Kathmandu water board whom I had tea with said he was unmarried (probably in his 40’s) and that his family thought it was okay because he still made enough money to support them, although he would prefer to be married.
My friend Dona (he will turn 33 next week) said arranged marriage is the best option because if people dated or spent time thinking they were in love, then they would be distracted from their work, their education, and most importantly their duties to their family. Although from a western standpoint this may seem harsh, the way he explained it made it seem very logical and I could understand his argument.
Then some of the younger guys I’ve met have had a totally different perspective. The caste system is still very broadly upheld, so generally it is custom to have an arranged marriage with someone in your caste. However, some of the younger guys I’ve spoken to do not seem to think very highly of this (although the ones I have talked to said they were from lower castes so that could play a part). My dear friend Robie (age 24) for instance said he likes the idea of Love marriage. He had a girlfriend whom he really liked, his family liked, and he even said he would have maybe married her.
Unfortunately for him, she called a few days ago to explain that that her family has chosen another husband for her and she is soon to get married. Although he was very upset for a few days, he told me that it’s just the way it works, and there’s nothing he could do about it.
All these conversations about marriage have been very fascinating. I can’t say I have any desire to get married (although I have had some very tempting proposals), but it definitely makes you think about what type of things cultures hold to high importance. Growing up in a society where marriage failure is no longer an exception but rather the expectation made it difficult at first to understand why being unmarried got me so much attention, but the more I learn the more I can understand why people are just as interested in my view on marriage as I am with theirs.
The Road June 9, 2014
From the first day trekking I have heard a lot about “The Road”. One of the reasons I was so set on doing the Annapurna Circuit this summer was out of the fear that soon it won’t be the same 16-22 day trek that so many people have fallen in love with. If you have a conversation with a Nepalese person for more than 10 minutes, you are bound to hear their opinion on the construction of the road that now goes all the way to Tal- cutting out days of trekking. Instead of starting in Besi Sahar, Trekkers are now able to hop in a jeep and skip ahead to the “more exciting” part of the circuit.
“Well doesn’t the road make it easier for villages to receive and trade goods that before took weeks by mule or horse?” Is the common western viewpoint. And although this method of transportation may seem like an advancement, the truth is very few Nepalese benefit.
The demand for jeeps continue to increase as fewer Trekkers wish to hike along a road as they get caked in dust by passing cars, which allows the road to get built further, which gives more and more people the initiative to take more jeeps. It’s a positive feedback loop. And the ones who are being hurt are all the locals who rely on the Trekkers to stay at their hotels along the trail as well as the mule and horse guides who now have to compete with jeep deliveries. Naturally, it’s the government who is seeing the benefits.
As one woman I trekked with said, “well I guess we can’t expect Nepal to live in the dark ages forever just because it makes our vacation prettier”. But that leads me to a whole other rant. As Nepal (and I’m sure other countries) adjust to meet the demands of tourist, our world becomes more monochromatic and a little bit of culture vanishes.
As my favorite author puts it, “These other cultures are not failed attempts to be us; they are unique manifestations of the spirit—other options, other visions of life itself” yet we as westerners have this conception that everyone wants to be us and value what we do.
We grow up with this notion that other cultures in the “developing world” are too ignorant to have or use the technology we have, and therefore are stuck in “the dark ages”. But I don’t believe this to be true. Seeing packs of mules carrying pounds of rice or using bamboo sticks to frame a house is what has allowed the villagers who live days away from the city to survive.
Yet as more road is built, and more villages are becoming English-more-than-friendly (In Manang- a couple days from the closest town- I was handed a menu with burgers and even Americanized Mexican food!) true contact with the culture is impossible. We are now able to easily travel halfway around the world for vacation, yet it has become so much harder to experience and meet people in their own world. I have found very few people who even take the time to learn a few general words because frankly, there’s no need to. Don’t get me wrong, I am very thankful for having everything easily handed to me and I couldn’t imagine the difficulty of spending months in a country where I didn’t understand anything, I just believe we shouldn’t be so quick to label something as progress.
As my new friend Ranjit said as we tried to fit a SIM card into his phone, “isn’t it funny that the more technology we have the more complicated our lives get?” And I couldn’t agree more.
Of course I’ve had a very limited experience, and the people I’ve talked to all have very high stakes when it comes to the building of the road, but words to the fellow traveler- question the assumption that all change is progress and don’t be so quick to build a road.
The Living Goddess
June 17, 2014
“She is put into a dark room filled with blood and dead animals as men dressed as Demons dance and howl around her. If she shows any sign of being scared or uneasy, then the goddess has not chosen her.”
This is one out of the 30+ requirements that a single 3-4 year old girl must meet if she is chosen to be the next Living Goddess.
At first it sounded to me like a Disney movie with a dark twist. But then I saw her.
The current Living Goddess, or Kumari, is about 7 or 8. She sits up in a tower in the middle of Durbar Square where multiple times a day she will peek out of the window, staring down at crowds of tourist piled into the tiny stone courtyard. She has a blank expression but deep brown eyes that are exaggerated by makeup. After a moment of silence and shock, we all begin to clap for her.
Her face does not change.
Then, before I was able to take it in, she was gone.
Samantha and I could not stop asking Sanju about her for the next hours, and it’s about all we could speak of over dinner.
For those of you who haven’t heard about the Living Goddess, she is believed to manifest a powerful goddess who protects the country and all the citizens. She is chosen from the highest caste family when she’s about three, where she is then removed from her family and hidden away in the Kumari Chen. Because she is only the Kumari until she bleeds the first time, a small group of people constantly watch over her to make sure she can’t get the slightest scratch, and is then dismissed before her first menstruation.
Buddhist and Hindus alike come to worship her. Devote Hindus are allowed to visit her inside one room, but even they are unable to see more of the mysterious life of Kumari. The only time she leaves the building is to attend festivals where she is carried around (for her feet should never touch the ground) on a golden chariot (which is also the only time photographs are taken of her).
She has one female caretaker, and the only time she sees her parents are when they touch their foreheads to her feet like other worshipers- unable to communicate.
Before I saw the young girls face, this story seemed like another cultural ritual that happened centuries ago that probably didn’t, or wouldn’t, withstand the force of Westernization. To be honest, I didn’t think much of it. “So yeah a girl sits up in a tower for a few years and is worshiped by the entire country- seems like a nice gig” is probably what first ran thru my head.
But now I am obsessed with the girl who I briefly made eye contact with in a courtyard in the middle of a giant city.
I can’t imagine what all she has been through. Never allowed to show signs of weakness, happiness, excitement, admiration, or anything outside of boredom. Never allowed to play. Never allowed to get dirty. Never allowed to run. Never allowed to be alone. Never allowed to be a child.
I want to know what she thinks when she looks outside of her window at all the chaos of the city. Does she envy the mud caked boys kicking a bottle around? Does she want to try on the colorful jewelry and play dress up with friends? Or does she know her worth and not think about anything more than her obligations?
And what about her life after she’s dismissed? Does she look foreword to the day that she can return to her family? Or does she dread it because she knows the difficulties that will face her as she returns to a mortal? Most ex-Kumari’s can’t even walk properly because their muscles were never used. And no one wishes to marry one because it’s believed that former Goddesses are extremely dangerous. Unfortunately, from what I’ve read, ex-Kumari’s are likely to end up with thousands of other girls who are trafficked to brothels in Mumbai or Bangkok.
The more I learn about the Living Goddess, the more questions I have. It’s one thing to read a book about this aspect of Nepali culture, and a whole different experience to see a girl, the same age as the girls I’ve babysat, coached, and played with, who is living the life of a goddess.
June 19, 2014
I’ve never had an interest in marriage. Not just my own marriage, but the topic itself. Frankly, I never understood it and didn’t care to. But since I’ve been in Nepal, I have become so fascinated with the concept of marriage and all the different types.
I have been learning a lot about the caste system. As I had said in an earlier post, many cultures believe you should marry in the same caste, but in reality, many families require you marry someone in the same sub-caste as well. Although there is much to learn about these arranged marriages, I have been learning about some even more interesting types of marriage too.
In the Sherpa culture, it is common to find brothers sharing one wife. Naturally, my first question was about the kids. It turns out that the wife does equally “share herself” with all the brothers and when she has a child (even with the match-the-face test) all the brothers equally take care of the child. I briefly met one woman who was in that situation, and it seems to work pretty well. Instead of the fatherless trend found in America, most children in this scenario have fathers to spare.
In the Magar culture, it is custom for one to marry their mother’s side cousin. However, it has recently become more acceptable to deny marriage to your cousin IF you pay one bottle of wine and a few coins. I personally would be a little offended if a bottle of wine was my rejection gift, but it seems to keep the society in balance.
These cultures are fascinating, but then I learned about the Gurungs..
They have three types of marriage. 1) arranged 2)singing and 3) catch.
Learning about numbers 2 and 3 could possibly be the final reason I need to live here the rest of my life.
Number two is a singing competition. One month every year, groups of boys and girls come together to have a sing off. They are not allowed to sing existing songs, but rather have to make up songs on the spot. Once one stops, the other has to start. This can last hours before one can’t make up more lyrics and the other wins. If the boy wins, then he is able to choose any girl from the opposite group to marry. However, if a girl wins (which naturally is more shameful) then the boy she chooses must live with HER family and be a house wife that stays home and does all the cooking and cleaning. Talk about battle of the sexes. You better have a lot of confidence in your quick thinking skills if you attend this festival..
Don’t think it gets better? Well number three is sure to boggle your mind.
The Gurungs live in the higher slopes of the Annapurna, and therefore everyone is rather self sufficient. Yet one month each year, there is an organized market for everyone to share and sell their goods. During this market season, men are allowed to kidnap any girl who they find suitable, and then they must hide her in their home for four days.
In Nepali culture, couples are not supposed to sleep together before marriage. And even after marriage, they should wait four days. Therefore, it is believed that the kidnapped girl is married (or tainted by sex) if she is gone for more than four days.
If this was the whole story, I think I would find it completely revolting. However, this type of marriage has a huge twist. The girl, if she does not like the man who kidnapped her, has four days to try to escape. He can’t just tie her up, he has to actually hide her, but she is able to try to escape and find her way back home. Meantime, her friends and family are also searching for her. I realize marriage is a serious thing, but I can’t help but to think it would be so interesting to experience one of these marriage proposals.
Then there are the foreigners. You’d be surprised how many people I have met who have married not just outside of their caste, but outside of their ethnicity. Apparently foreigners have no caste. And thanks to America being the world power, it is assumed that anyone who is white is American and anyone American is wealthy. So many families actually hope for their son or daughter to marry a foreigner. I’ve met a 60 year old man from England who just this month married a Nepali woman and is now trying to buy land near her mothers house In order to spend the rest of his life here. He told me this morning his wife doesn’t speak a word of English nor he a word of Nepali. Almost every person I talk to knows someone who has married or is dating a foreigner. It makes sense, everyone and everything is absolutely beautiful here, but with a culture that holds marriage to such a high regard, it’s interesting that a foreigner in the country for only a few months is so quickly accepted as part of the family while others, like my friend Salvi, have to spend years convincing her family to marry someone outside her sub-caste.
I’m not sure why I’ve become so interested in the culture of marriage, maybe it’s because it is so drastically different in the US, but it’s a nice reminder that there really is no right or wrong way and no matter where you go there are controversies over marriage. It’s just something to think about.
June 24, 2014
I’ve never been homesick. Even during my first sleep away camp, I remember never missing home and never being able to comfort those who did because I simply couldn’t relate. Now, over 13 years later, I still don’t really understand what people mean when they say they are “homesick”.
But I think today I had a taste.
Chitwan is hot. Temperature hovers around 95-105 degrees with 90-100% humidity. I figured drinking lots of water and constantly washing my sweaty clothes would be my only concerns, but then I got a rash.
I noticed it three nights ago- just some bumps on my palms that itched really badly, but when I woke up the next morning, the inside of my thighs, butt, and crotch were completely red and covered in painful little bumps that burned too much to itch. I figured it was just an allergic reaction to something (people get rashes here from just about everything and anything) so I went on with my day, playing with kids and learning cool things.
But it kept getting worse. Soon my feet were covered, and it felt like I was walking on thorns with no skin to protect my feet. Even sitting was painful. My hands were practically useless since it burned too badly to even hold my toothbrush. So eventually I broke down (mostly due to hysterical freak outs from my mom) and went to the clinic.
The doctor was great- much nicer than anyone I’ve been to in America (and much cheaper too)- and right away he told me it was most likely a heat reaction and I should wear only cotton, stay out of the sun, don’t do any work, and stay cool. Then with some medicine he sent me on my way.
The only problem is that Chitwan is not really the place to do any of those things.
I was asked to make elephant treats, but my hands hurt too badly to pick up the hay. Kids were playing soccer, and I couldn’t join because I have to stay in the shade. I am not supposed to be hot, but there’s no air conditioning and for most the day, there’s no electricity to run the fans. So instead I’ve just had to lay in bed.
For those of you who know me, there is little I dislike more than sitting still. The only thing I dislike more is upsetting people. Yet those are the only two things I’ve been able to do the past few days.
Many people don’t speak English so I am unable to explain to them that I can’t work or help, so instead they just see me laying in bed all day only leaving my room to eat dinner. I can’t describe that awful guilty feeling I get every time I see someone carrying a heavy bag of rice while I just sit there and get my food and drink handed to me.
I don’t mind them talking about me as much as I mind feeling useless.
Volunteering here is the whole purpose of my visit to Nepal. I’ve had the time of my life doing all the fun things such as trekking and making friends, but the reason so many people supported me on this trip is because they believed I would be making difference. Instead I’m laying on my ass doing nothing. I can’t decide weather it’s the pain or frustration, but I tear up every time someone asks me how I am or I think about all the opportunities I’m missing.
This reaction has made me so annoyed and disappointed with myself that at one point I just wanted to be home. I wanted to just get on a plane and be in my country where I could lay in bed with cool air conditioning and not be thought of as anything besides a normal lazy teenager. I wanted to lay in a cold bathtub and drink water that didn’t taste like rust. I wanted to wear short shorts and cuddle my dog while watching mind numbing tv. I had to admit, I missed my lavished American life.
After a total breakdown, I am able to think more clearly. Because there is no point in being miserable AND useless, I’ve decided to go back to Kathmandu tomorrow. If this is a heat reaction, then it’s best I go somewhere that isn’t as hot. I don’t have much time left to volunteer, so it’s better that I get somewhere cool so that I can get better faster, so that I have more time to either work in an orphanage in Kathmandu or join my friend teaching English to women.
As much as I would love to stay here in Chitwan, I have been beaten. Longing for home has made me realize that I can’t fight being sick, and the sooner I feel better, the sooner I can be productive and make something of these last few weeks. Giving up isn’t easily, but I suppose this is just another lesson I’m receiving from Nepal.
“This is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you.” – Adrienne Rich
July 29, 2014
Many people asked me if I was scared or nervous about coming to Nepal. The only thing I was concerned about was appearing as, or rather becoming, a white elitist. I am a comparably wealthy American who, in all honesty, does believe I have something that I can give to those who are what I consider to be the less fortunate. And this is a concept I truly struggle with.
If you couldn’t tell my by earlier posts, I don’t believe westernization is synonymous with development. Yes, I do believe aspects such as health care could benefit many people all around the world, but I struggle with the idea that even things like western science (which I hold very dearly) should be taken as the only truth without considering other people’s ways of survival. Just because we’ve created a pill to inhibit an illness shouldn’t discredit a villagers herbal paste made from twenty different plants then spat on by the eldest three family members and fed to the ill using a nut shell (I’m just making that up, but you get the idea..). And the same goes for language.
My friend Samantha signed up to volunteer in a Women’s Empowerment program here in Nepal, which turned out to be teaching women between the ages of 14 and 60 English. When I first heard that this is what is considered to be “empowerment” it frustrated me a little.
“Don’t these women need to be taught job skills or be educated in something that helps them in the Nepali society?Why is English (and therefore the western culture) being used as a means for making these women’s lives better? I can think of a hundred things (such as birth control, sustainable agriculture, etc) that seem more beneficial!”
If you haven’t noticed, I can be a little cynical of western culture. I just don’t understand how in a society so rich in knowledge and diverse in heritage we all have agreed on the fundamental truth that life’s great goal is to spend our days working doing the same monotonous job day after day In order to obtain something which is made out of similar material to that which we wipe our butts with. Although I don’t agree with this mindset (and most cultures are becoming increasingly similar), what really gets me about western culture is the desire for world dominance. You can see it in politics all the way back to the first settlers. We seem to get some type of satisfaction when everyone and everything is the same. Which brings me back to language.
You hear the argument all the time that having a universal language is good for cross-culture communication, trade, and sharing knowledge, but I’ve always disagreed. Even with my mom being a teacher trainer that sends teachers across the world to teach English, I didn’t understand why it was my language and culture that was labeled superior. Why shouldn’t I have to learn Yiddish or Nepali to communicate with someone in their own country? As a child I found it unfair, but now I find it also unfortunate because so much of one’s culture is embedded in the language and therefore so many connections are now lost when communicating.
For instance, when I was learning basic Nepali, I learned that certain directives such as “come” may sound rude to an American because we are used to the additional “please”, but if you directly translate “please come” to Nepali, it’s a single word. Therefore when a Nepalese person tells you to come, what they are really saying is “can you please come”. Although this may not seem significant, if you attempt to have a full conversation, these slight differences can really change or alter the true meaning.
But with everything, there are so many more things to consider. Since my time here in Nepal, I’ve started to gain a better understanding of the power of languages and the benefits of English.
Speaking English fluently is a privilege. Just by me being able to spend two months on the other side of the world is proof of that. When helping kids in the orphanage with their English homework, it’s easy to see how they have been taught to believe that English is the key to success and wealth as well. Most of their homework has to do with memorizing phrases such as “where are you from?” “How many rooms would you like?” “That will cost 500 rupees”. From age 8, they are already learning the phrases needed to accommodate tourist. And it’s true, knowing English allows you to travel, have more job opportunities, and receive higher forms of education. It’s hard to argue that English won’t benefit these kids in the future (although I don’t believe it should be seen as the only key to prosperity nor an indicator of high status).
I’ve also learned that teaching English doesn’t make someone a neocolonialist missionary. It just has to be done cautiously. One thing that has been frustrating for me to see is that the children are being taught English in what to me seems like the most inefficient way. All the kids I’ve worked with can’t sound out words, instead they spell them. They memorize the spelling then connect them with the word which often times leads them to automatically jump from “c-o-o-k” to “cooking”.
Comprehension is also lacking across all the kids I’ve spent time with. One girl read me an entire story about a son and his father without a single mistake, but when I asked her what the story was about, she said “dad did something?”. To me, this represents a fault in the system. If we as collective decide to have English as a universal language so that it doesn’t really belong to a single group, then it would make sense that everyone is given the same comprehension of it.
After working with these kids, I started thinking about going to another country to teach English. (What a switch from my previous “English should stop spreading like wildfire” mindset) In my head, I thought I would be able to do so while empowering my students and promoting multilingualism (your typical “well I could do it better” thought). But maybe sending Americans to take the jobs of locals isn’t the best method either.
Now that I’ve come to the conclusion that English world wide (in addition to preserving mother languages of course) may not be the end of all cultural diversity, I’ve thought about how it could be done in a way that empowers students while not valuing English above other languages and not putting those who speak English on a pedestal.
It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to on this trip. How can you teach a language so useful to so many without creating a superiority complex to the native speakers? How can you preserve native languages and therefore the intertwined culture when teaching impressionable kids a new one? Do the benefits of a universal language outweigh the loss of no longer having to expand your communication skills outside of your comfort zone? Will we really be able to understand each other better speaking the same language?
I don’t know how to end this post, and I’m sure I’ve jumped around too much, but I find it to be a very fascinating topic and I’ll be interested to hear what you all back home have to say. So for now, goodbye, or namaste or whatever language you prefer.
My 12 brothers and 6 sisters. July 5, 2o14
Volunteering is an interesting concept. “I volunteer my time doing ___”. The sentence alone has a lot more to do with the speaker than the action. Sometimes I wonder why I volunteer. When I ask myself, I usually think “I enjoy helping others. It makes me feel good”. But volunteering, by definition, is not about what you enjoy or what makes you feel good- or at least it shouldn’t be. My time at Gonkyap Children’s Home made me think about this inherent selfishness of volunteering.
I arrived to a home that has two rooms, a main room that doubles as a bed room, a small bathroom, a kitchen- and 14 kids.
Instantly, I fell in love with the kids. Most of them know the English numbers, A is for Apple, and “hello sister”, “goodnight sister”, but it doesn’t take more than pretending to pull your thumb off or making fart noises with your hands to put a smile on their face and create hours (seriously, hours) of entertainment.
I arrived pumped and ready to help.
Gonkyap was opened by Mingmar sister in 2011 after Mingmar received her bachelor in social work. Her husband works far away, so her younger sister Pema came to help. They started with five children, two matrices on the floor, and not much else.
Currently there are 14 children. Thanks to some donations, the children now share 3 bunk beds.
However, Mingmar sister recently had two children of her own, so for most of the day she is at home, leaving Pema sister to take care of the orphans with the occasional help of her brother in law, Basang, and his friend. Pema is 18. Basang is 19.
Pema sister recently got sponsored to go to university where she studies social work. Just a minute talking to her and you can see how golden her heart is and how much love she has for others. Although she could not be more thankful to have the opportunity to continue her studies, university means her days now goes something like this:
Wake up at 4, walk to bus station, take bus, walk 20 min to school, school until 10:30am, come home, quickly cook lunch for 14 plus the occasional guest (brother, cousin, friends), clean up lunch, take care of the kids, make tea for the kids, clean up, start preparing dinner, attend to the kids, have dinner, help the kids with homework, put the kids to bed, start her own homework, sleep maybe four hours, then repeate.
If you don’t believe in WonderWoman…
So you’d imagine there is lot of use for an extra pair of arms and eyes.
But the truth is, I feel pretty useless. I play with the kids, help button some shirts and blow some noses, but the kids are so obedient and independent that most of the time I seem to just get in the way. And Pema sister and Basang brother are so intent on doing everything for me, that I have to fight to wash the dishes or help cook dinner. They treat me as a guest, making more feel more like another mouth to feed than anything else.
Their kindness is a little frustrating at times. It is almost as if the times I actually do something productive or helpful that they are only letting me do so in order to make myself feel better, and they could do whatever it is in half the time with half the effort.
Which brings me back to volunteering.
This orphanage needs help. The amount these teenagers and young mother do is absolutely incredible, but there is just no physical way for (at most at one time) four young adults to take care of 14 kids while maintaining jobs, school, and their own families.
But at the same time, taking care of a volunteer (showing them how everything’s done, feeding them, making sure everything is okay for them) is almost, if not more, work than the volunteer is giving back. What Gonkyap really needs is financial support.
That’s not to say I’ve regretted my time here. Rather the opposite. Before, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what it meant when people said life in Nepal was difficult. I knew people worked hard, had little money, and didn’t take much for granted, but actually living the life has completely opened my eyes. I realize living briefly in a single orphanage doesn’t give me universal knowledge of all the hardships faced by Nepalis as an entirely, and I had many comforts such as shampoo and a change of clothes with me, but I don’t think I will ever be able to live my life the same again.
And maybe that’s the real success of volunteering. Maybe by shifting one persons view at a time so that they will go on to live their lives in a different (hopefully better) way is more meaningful than the work the volunteer does. Maybe volunteering is all about the volunteer.
I don’t believe I have made any great impact on these kids life. They probably will remember my games and body tricks better than my name. Truthfully, they probably would have benefitted more had I just given the money I had used to get here, but hopefully now I can give something bigger back even after I leave.
I absolutely and 100% dislike fundraising. Asking someone for money feels worse to me than getting a paper it in the web of my fingers. However, I’ve decided to put my access to the internet and the Gonkyap Children’s Home need for money together and make a fundraising video. I have taken a few video clips and photos and I’m hoping it will be enough to piece something together.
I know it wouldn’t be effective for me to tell every one how absolutely hardworking and deserving these children and staff are in front of a camera, and a short video of cute kids playing won’t stress the hardships they face, but during my stay I realized that my presence alone won’t really make a difference and the way I could really help is by sharing their story so others begin to think about all the things in their lives that are so easily overlooked as granted or even annoyances.
By hearing their stories, maybe next time someone throws away a huge plate of food they will imagine an 18 year old girl who is so excited to receive a gas tank in order to spend hours cooking for a family of 17 twice a day, or the next time they throw away a half used notebook that they imagine 14 children sharing two erasers to reuse the same sheet of paper for homework day after day. Maybe becoming more conscious of our actions will eventually help all of those who are in similar situations as my Gonkyap family.
I am so incredibly in love with my ten little brothers and four little sisters, and am in complete admiration of my two older brothers and especially my two older sisters. They each inspire me to become a better person, and I wish to give them even 1/800th of what they’ve given me back to them. I believe if everyone had my experience, or at least a taste of it, then we’d all want to give something back.
I’m writing this long post to say volunteering has really made me think. I’ve thought about how many times I’ve felt bored in a room of toys and activities while fourteen kids can play for hours with only a rusty barrel and deflated football. I’ve thought about all the mornings I’ve dreaded going to school while a girl my age works her butt off in order to have the opportunity. Most importantly, I’ve thought about how people back home perceive the concept of help and how maybe what’s more helpful than traveling half way around the world to play with kids is the actions we do in our everyday lives.
If we were to utilize this inherent selfishness of volunteering then maybe we could make positive changes as a collective.
Home. July 17, 2014
I don’t feel as if I were home. It feels like a short visit and in a few days I will be back in Nepal. It’s difficult to describe. Twice in Nepal, I had dreams about rushing on a plane to go to Nashville, but both times I went back to Nepal the very day I arrived. It kind of feels like another one of my dreams.
It is nice to be back. It’s nice to see friends and family and to speak English. It is especially nice to eat raw fruit and drink all the water I desire with a turn of a handle. It’s nice to have air conditioning and very nice to cuddle my animals again while laying in a soft bed.
But being back is also hard. I wasn’t away very long, but some of the things I saw and experienced have really changed me. Everything makes me think of Nepal. My dogs running around gives me instant flashbacks to the stray street dogs that would fight each other till death. Seeing young boys passing a football made me tear up thinking about the similarly aged boys who would bang on my taxi window with bloodshot eyes asking for money to buy glue to sniff. Cute chubby babies make me think of the milk mothers who use feeble babies (that often didn’t belong to them) as a tool to get tourist to pay for milk which they would quickly turn around and resell. I couldn’t even kick my football around because I started thinking too much about my kids at the orphanage who would probably faint if they ever saw a lined football field.
Everything I own, everything I use, makes me feel guilty. As soon as I walked into my room I felt like throwing up. I’ve never realized just how much stuff I have and just how much stuff I have no purpose for. More than that, I’ve never realized how much everyone has here. I am trying not to be upset, because that would be silly. It’s no ones fault that we have the resources and standard of living that we do, nor does anyone intentionally wish for Nepal to be as it is. I am just having a difficult time letting go.
My biggest fear is that I will forget things about my past two months. I am afraid that certain days or certain faces will start to fade away as it does with most vacations. But at the same time, holding on to everything -the good and the bad- might make me crazy.
Everyone wants to know about my trip, or at least pretend like they do. And I am more than happy to tell them. But I can’t talk about all the incredible and exciting things I did without equally talking about the darker side. And that is when it becomes difficult. It’s not that people don’t care or don’t feel sympathetic towards the hardships of Nepal, it’s just that without being there and actually witnessing it, my stories don’t hold much power. Just another sad story of a place literally on the other side of the world.
Truthfully, it feels a little isolating. I know people who have experienced places much more heartbreaking and have seen things far more scaring, and I would love nothing more than to find out how they pick back up with the lives they had before, but after not seeing anyone for months, and having everyone so excited to see me, I don’t want my first conversation to be about how depressing it is to be home.
I’m sure it will be easier as the days go on, and soon enough I will be back to wanting to drive across town to have an over priced coffee with friends, but part of me doesn’t want it to. Part of me feels so naive for never seeing my life the way I do now. I needed to see the dark side of Nepal, and go deeper than the friendly faces and beautiful environment to help me learn more about myself. But does that mean I can never enjoy a nice family dinner or drive my car again? Is there a way to enjoy being home- feel like I’m at home- without loosing any part of what I learned? Can I keep my memories without letting them haunt me?