Thursday, June 28, 2012

Strange and wonderful

"To be matter-of-fact about the world is to blunder into fantasy - 
and dull fantasy at that, as the 
real world is strange and wonderful."
-Robert Heinlein

A couple weeks before coming to Nepal, my mother kept asking me, "What if you hate it? Isn't 10 weeks a long time?" And I kept reassuring her, "That's not possible." I couldn't articulate at the time how I knew. I just did.

Now I'm starting to realize the funny way I view the world. As long as something is a learning experience, which is virtually everything when you're in a foreign country, then it can't be bad. It would take a natural disaster or food poisoning to put a damper on my day (let's hope I don't have to find out, though).

I guess I'm fortunate to have this outlook. I wouldn't be able to make it through the day without laughing. Take for instance my daily commute; everything about it is frustrating and strange and wonderful. Yesterday, on my way to my internship, I passed two Nepali marching bands (more on that later), monkeys, monks on motorcycles, sleeping cows, pooping cows, cows blocking traffic, three cows nuzzled up against a buffalo, a man getting a cut and shave on the side of the road, and probably lots of other bizarre things that I've become desensitized to in the past three weeks.

Then there is the bus itself, which is the epitome of discomfort. I already wrote about this abomination, but I want to describe it in detail because it's an experience unparalleled by anything in the western world. First of all, the buses have these tacky tassels hanging from the ceiling and things like "love is life" scrawled across the windows in paint. It's like '60s decor gone bad.

I didn't take these photos, but this is basically what all the buses look like. 
Wish I could find one showing the inside.

Then you have the kids who are basically the bus salesmen. They are maybe 15-18 years old, and their job is to collect money and yell things like "blah blah blah BUS PARK BUS PARK BUS PARK!" at people who are passing by (they actually say something in place of the blahs, but I can't understand them). These guys actually hop off the bus in the middle of traffic to try to persuade people to get on the bus. And they let the driver know when to stop/go by different whistles and by pounding on the side of the bus. It's quite an elaborate system, actually. The only drawback is that sometimes the driver doesn't feel like stopping, so you have to hop on while it's in motion. Today, the bus boy said to me, "Go fast!" because apparently five seconds is too long for boarding time.

The morning commute isn't so bad, but it's a nightmare in the evening. For the past few days I've been standing on the five-inch ledge between the first step and the walkway, practically falling out of the bus, holding onto the rail above me for dear life, holding my breath when armpits come too close to my nose. I'm fairly certain there is no Nepali translation for "safety hazard." 

This is a pretty typical sight in Kathmandu, but luckily I haven't had to ride on the roof yet..

Now that I've harped on public transportation, I promise not to bring it up again, unless something really crazy happens like running over a cow (which is illegal in Nepal, by the way, because cows are sacred).

I'd like to write about something more pleasant: Nepali weddings. Yesterday morning I awoke at 7:30 a.m. to the sound of drums, horns, trumpets, the whole shebang. I quickly hopped out of bed, determined not to miss my first Nepali parade. 

As it turns out, it wasn't a parade - it was just the beginning of a wedding celebration. I should mention that wedding receptions in Nepal last for five days. So much for a honeymoon. 

It has been quite entertaining watching a bunch of Nepalis, clad in burgundy suits, playing music in the street. The wedding cars have hundreds of little flowers taped to them, and all the women wear dazzling red and green saris. It's quite nice. One of the girls at the orphanage asked me, "Do you like Nepali boys?" I think she's hoping I'll get hitched while I'm here so she can attend a wedding. It does seem pretty fun, but I think I'll stick to watching weddings from afar.

In other news, I had hot, running water this morning for the first time in three weeks. It only lasted for about five minutes, but I swear it was the greatest luxury I have ever known. You don't realize how much you appreciate hot showers until you have to take cold bucket baths instead.

In other other news, real news, my internship at Kathmandu Post is going well. I'm working in the Op-Ed section doing a lot of copy editing, rewriting letters to the editor, etc. It's actually a huge responsibility because the section editor is away getting married (I didn't understand why she needed so much time off until now), so I'm expected to fill her position. The editors trust me a lot, which is both fantastic and intimidating. Most of the time they don't even review what I write before it goes to print, which is not always a good idea because I'm still learning. On my second day interning, the editor-in-chief reminded me that it's "realise," not "realize." Oops. I'm still getting getting used to British spelling and style differences.

The great part of working in Op-Eds is that I'm learning so much about politics and social issues in Nepal. Caste discrimination is a big topic of debate right now, and while it isn't as rigid as the Indian caste system, prejudice is still prevalent, especially in the rural areas of the country. I was talking to a guy a couple years older than me who is a Bahun, or Brahman (the highest caste), but he refuses to the wear the decorative band that identifies him as such. It's nice to see that the younger generation is opening up to equality. 

Tomorrow I will have a short day at work because I'm heading to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal, for a weekend of kayaking and relaxing on the lake. It will be nice to get out of Kathmandu for a few days.

P.S. There is a town nearby called Kalunky (except that probably isn't how it's spelled).

P.P.S. There is a town nearby called Pepsicola. I read it in a letter to the editor today and thought it was a joke, but apparently it was named after a Pepsi factory. Isn't that a perfect picture of globalization?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Shameless self-promotion

There is so much I'd love to blog about, but since the internet has been down at the orphanage for a few days (I've been sneaking online at my internship), all of that can wait.

For now, I'd like to share the first installment of an ongoing travel series I'm writing for my local newspaper in Washington, Pennsylvania.

You can read it here.

I can't express how grateful I am for all the support I'm receiving from family, friends, strangers. And if you're reading this right now, thank you! It truly means a lot to me.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Day trip to Pashupatinath

Pashupatinath Temple has been on my must-see list for the past week, and every day there has been a hindrance - mostly the monsoon rains - but today the two other volunteers and I grabbed our raincoats and umbrellas and set out for a day of spiritual enlightenment.

The gold temple is Pashupatinath.

This Hindu temple is the most important one for Nepali Hindus, and many Indians and Hindus from around the world travel to pay respect to the lord of the beasts: Pashupati, a form of the god Shiva. This temple is so holy that only Hindus born into Hindu families are allowed to enter. While I was forbidden from entering the actual temple, I was able to see some interesting things, like the shrine where humans used to be sacrificed; now, only animals like water buffaloes are killed to offer blood to Shiva. (Hopefully I'll get to come back to the temple to see this for my own eyes.)

There are also cremations held along the Bagmati River 24/7. Sometimes family members come and hold a ceremony, but not always. When I arrived today, I got to see the end of a cremation. There are many Hindu rules about where a person can be cremated depending on his/her caste and which member of the family receives the privilege of lighting the fire (it's usually the oldest son, I believe). The cremation was performed in a very matter-of-fact manner, which is kind of nice, in a way. For Hindus, death is just the next journey, after all. 

Near the temple, a funeral was being held for an elderly woman from a higher caste. I felt a little uneasy snapping these photos, but our tour guide gave me the go-ahead, so hopefully I wasn't being too insensitive. After cleansing the body, it is moved to the pyre for cremation.

Some more photos:

People come here to pray for fertility. The opening of the shrine gives a mirror illusion, since identical shrines are placed directly in front of one another. 

Panch Deval (Five Temples), symbolizing the Earth's elements.

A Saddhu (Hindu holy man). I had to be sneaky about this photo, because they expect money when they pose for tourists. That's kind of a strange thing for holy men to do.

Also, I went to Boudhanath Stupa, which is a much larger version of Swayambhunath.

Some monks gazing at the stupa.

Now it is way past my bed time. I will be posting soon about my experiences at my new internship.

Shubha ratri! (Goodnight)

Two weeks down, eight more to go

I've already surpassed the longest amount of time I've spent abroad, but surprisingly, I don't feel homesick yet. I do miss my family, friends and boyfriend, but I kind of wish they were all here instead of me being there

Despite all the differences and frustrations of Nepal, I feel at home.

Once again, there's no cohesive theme to this blog post, so I'll just write little snippets about the past few days.

On Thursday, I met with two editors at the Kathmandu Post. One works in the Op-Ed section, and the other works in features, and both are women (yay for female representation in the media!) It seems like the Kathmandu Post is a pretty progressive newspaper, and although Nepal has a Maoist government, the editors said they are free to publish articles that criticize politicians. The following day, I went back to the Post to meet with the editor-in-chief, and he offered me an internship for the next two months. Hoorah! 

I'll be working in the Op-Ed section Monday through Friday doing some copy editing, which apparently is a lot of work because none of the writers are native English speakers. He also said I could write for features after a couple weeks. So, one way or another, I am going to get a byline this summer. 

The only drawback to this internship is my daily commute - about 25 minutes by taxi or an hour by bus. Since taxis are expensive, I get the pleasure of being packed like a sardine on a bus every day. On Friday, after my meeting with the editor, I forced myself to figure out the bus system, if you can even call it a "system." There aren't any bus stops, and the only way to know where a bus is going is to flag it down and ask. There is a guy who stands in the open doorway of the bus who collects money  – a whopping 35 cents in American money – and yells things at passersby (the names of towns I'm guessing? They talk so fast that they sound like auctioneers.)

It has rained all weekend, so the other volunteers and I spent a lot of time in Thamel, inside restaurants and bars and shops. It's amazing how many hippies there are in Nepal. I heard something about how they all came in the 60s and 70s because drugs were cheap, and a lot of them never left. We also saw some kids on the street huffing glue in broad daylight, which apparently is a big problem in Nepal (but isn't it everywhere with the homeless population?) 

We went to Durbar Square near Thamel, which has lots of temples and the old royal palace when there used to be a kingdom. The monarchy was officially abolished in 2008, but it started to fall apart in 2001 when Crown Prince Dipendra massacred nine members of the royal family, including the king and queen, and then killed himself.

Durbar Square

After Durbar Square, we went to a really cool hookah place and then to a reggae bar to grab a bite to eat. We ordered pizza, which was a mistake, because it ended up containing mystery meat. The menu said it was ham, but it definitely wasn't any ham I've ever had, and it certainly wasn't beef because Nepalis don't eat cow (not even the Christians that I'm living with, which I found interesting). My guess is goat? All I know is that I won't be ordering pizza again unless it's in an Italian restaurant.

Here are some miscellaneous photos from the past week:

He's saying, "Read my palm, auntie, pleaseeeeee."

Homework time

Where I'm living in Dhapasi Heights

I was sitting in a cafe eating an omelette one morning when a Hindu man came up to me and gave me a blessing. This is called a tilak, which is symbolic of the third eye and enlightenment.

A boy playing soccer near Thamel

Relaxing in Durbar Square

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

It's going to be a bumpy ride

Before I get into what’s new in crazy Kathmandu, I want to share a little anecdote. When I was in high school, I went through a rebellious stage, as most teenagers do. I had an older boyfriend, who just so happened to have a motorcycle, which I just so happened to ride on from time to time. For months I kept this a secret from my parents, and I even thought of a lie to explain the red mark on my leg where I had burned myself on that one thingy (You know, the hot metal thing. Exhaust pipe? Who cares.) Apparently, “I dropped my curling iron” is a solid excuse for both hickeys and bike burns.

When I finally came clean to my mother, she said, “Don’t do it again.” Now that I’m about to get to the point, I’m glad my mother is halfway around the world so she can’t slap me.

I rode on a motorcycle today. 

But I didn’t have much of a choice. I needed to go to the main volunteer house to speak with the program coordinator, and since one of the employees was already at the orphanage, he offered to take me to the house on his bike. 

I wish I had some crazy story about racing other bikers and dodging cows in the street, but it was far from Fast and the Furious. He drove slowly, and oddly enough, it was less scary than being in a taxi. On a bike, you have to go slow to brace yourself for all the bumps and ruts on Kathmandu's streets. I never thought I would ride a motorcycle in Nepal, but it was actually pretty fun. Maybe I’ll try it again (sorry mom), except preferably with a cute boy next time (sorry Holden, just kidding!)

I’m a little surprised that I’ve already adjusted to life in Nepal. Traffic no longer terrifies me because the drivers here really know what they’re doing. A blind person could easily navigate through the streets because the cars beep so much. It’s not like in America where a beep means, “Use your goddamn turning signal, you jagoff!” It’s more like, “Hey, just so you know, I’m right behind you, so kindly move aside and let me pass.” This is a big cultural difference that was a little intimidating at first, but it's a method that works.
This is totally unrelated, but I also have a funny story about how I’ve convinced an entire school that I’m a palm reader. It all started in the orphanage a few days ago. The kids were bored, so I offered to tell their futures by reading the lines on their hands. Truth be told, I have no idea how to read palms. Lying is okay if it’s all in good fun though, right? I thought so at first, but now I’ve created a monster and I run the risk of being exposed as a fraud.

The kids must have told everyone they know about my special talent, because after school for the past three days I’ve been surrounded by swarms of children – maybe 20 or so, I’m not exaggerating – with palms outstretched, frantically screaming, “Do mine! Do mine! Do mine!”

So I did. Now they all think they’re destined to go to the Brazilian rainforest or marry someone whose name starts with the letter S. They even had me read their teacher’s palm, which was more difficult because I didn’t know if she was already married or had children, and I couldn’t say something about a career. I think I mumbled something about good luck and traveling to India. I might have to lay low for a while, just like Miss Cleo did after people caught onto her tricks.

That’s all I have to share right now. Tomorrow I’m meeting with editors at the Kathmandu Post – an English language newspaper – to see if I can write for them. I really, really want to be an international correspondent someday, so this would be an incredible opportunity for me. Fingers crossed that I make a good impression.

I promise I will have more interesting and culturally relevant things to talk about soon. I’m still getting into the swing of things.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

How to say 'hoina' (no)

It seems I'm in a financial quandary: to my host family, I appear to be a source of endless money. I suppose I can only blame myself for giving this impression.

When I went shopping with Mariya (I’ve been spelling it wrong) last week, she picked out a shirt she liked and said, “For me.” She was probably asking me if I minded buying it for her, but due to the language barrier, it sounded like a demand. So I willingly bought the shirt. It was cheap, after all, and she was kind enough to let me stay in her home and show me around the neighborhood.

After clothes shopping, we went to the grocery store, and she commented that the kids love mangoes but cannot afford them. So I thought, what the hell, it’s cheap – I’ll buy 26 mangoes for everyone.

Next came food. “We have no rice left,” Mariya said.

“Well, how much does it cost?”

“It’s so cheap,” she said.

So I offered to buy rice.

It wasn’t exactly cheap. I ended up buying three enormous sacks of rice for a few thousand rupees (around $80). I had no idea I would be paying for such a large quantity of rice, but by the time I realized this, I was standing in line at the store and I didn't want to embarrass Mariya.

Then, yesterday, Mariya said, “We have no water. Will you pay for the water to be turned on? It costs rs 1500.”

As much as I want to shower, this time I need to say no.

Up until now, I had volunteered to pay for everything – the clothes, the fruit, the rice, a trip to the pool for the kids. However, now that I am being asked to pay for basic amenities like water, I have to find a way to explain to Mariya why I cannot do so.

I know I am partially to blame because I have set the precedent; I paid for so much already, so it's only natural that Mariya thinks I will continue to provide for the household.

Maybe Mariya truly doesn’t have the money. Or maybe she does but is waiting to see if I will pay first. Either way, it is not for me to judge. These are good people who don't have much, but I cannot let this turn into a charity mission.

Of course I feel guilty that I would rather spend money on a necklace at Thamel and groceries for myself than pay for the children to have water to shower. At the end of the day, though, I can only provide a temporary solution to their problems, because after I leave, everything will go back to the way it was before.

But to be blunt, it still sucks having to say no. When I bring home mangoes or cookies for myself, I have to eat in secrecy because the children will ask for some. Every time the youngest child comes into my bedroom, he points to my belongings and shouts, “This, this, this!” and I have to tell him, “No, you can’t have that.” 

Another one of the children asked if I could buy him a notebook so he could finish his homework, and I had to say no. If I buy him a notebook, I’ll have to buy some for the other 12 children, then pencils and pens, and where does it end?

My bedroom door is locked at all times, because a couple of the kids stole money from Stefano and bought an electronic game. I can’t blame them. Of course they want nice things, and they don’t have parents to teach them that stealing is wrong.

I’m sure this will be the most difficult challenge I will face during my time in the orphanage. I need to find a balance between being able to help out without them becoming dependent, while being able to enjoy myself without feeling guilty.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The bardo of Basundhara, beer and bus rides

I’ve been neglecting my blog lately because I’ve been busy and lacking Wi-Fi. So here is my overdue recap of the past few days (mostly for myself to remember and for my mother to read. If you’re not one of those people, you might be bored because I have nothing poignant to say).

P.S. Sorry for the obnoxious titles. I just really love alliteration. 

Wednesday: My original plan was to take the kids to school with Stefano, teach a couple English classes and then walk home by myself. However, my plans went awry, and I had my first Nepalese lesson in patience. At school, I had hoped I could just talk to the kids and maybe play a few educational games. That didn’t quite work out when I was stuck in a classroom with a teacher who was visibly agitated that I was there and had no teaching experience, so I quickly introduced myself to the kids and let him finish his lesson.

After class ended, the teacher asked me if I had any questions about Nepalese culture. I told him I’m looking for a research topic and asked about current issues the country is facing. His answer was not what I was expecting.

He said, “Nowadays, women are going with several men, and before they used to only be with one man. It is very hard to find a nice girl now.”

The feminist side of me was pretty annoyed by this statement, but it also gave me the idea to begin researching gender roles and how traditional relationships might be changing in Nepal. I’ll be posting my findings as soon as I make some connections.

So after the first class I left, which wouldn’t have been a problem if it hadn’t been for my poor sense of orientation. The part of my brain that is tasked with remembering places must be taking a permanent vacation. I thought that maybe I could overcome my directional disability and find my way from the children’s school in Basundhara back to the orphanage in Dhapasi, but I was wrong. I walked up and down several winding streets, all nameless, all which look the same. My cell phone was also dead, and I had no watch (a series of stupid mistakes on my part).

Feeling helpless and a little panicky, I decided to wait in a cafĂ© until school let out…four hours later. So after a couple vegetable rolls, an iced tea, several glasses of beer and hours of BBC news on the TV, I was rescued from Basundhara when Stefano came back and laughed at my misfortune. I am learning, though. Slowly but surely.

That evening, I took a mini break from Nepalese culture to go to a dinner party at Stefano’s friends’ house. I’ve never been in such a diverse group of people; there was a French guy, two Italians, one Spanish girl, one Dutch girl, one dreadlocked tattoo artist from Panama, and five Nepalese. The Nepalese reluctantly ate the pasta that was served, and they shuddered at the thought of eating it every day when we admitted we hate dal bhat. After eating heaps of pasta, bruschetta and nutella-filled crepes, we moved on to beer and red wine (provided by the French guy, of course). By the end of the night, everyone was dancing in the rain to electronic music, and I woke up the next morning with a partially drawn henna tattoo on my hand. At least it’s only semi-permanent.

Yesterday: School let out early, so I took all the kids to the pool. It was nice, but not exactly relaxing. Four kids hanging on your back at once is a great workout, though.

Today: I went to Thamel, which is the most frustrating place in the world because there is no logic to the way the streets are laid out. To get there we took a “bus,” which is actually a van with 20 people crammed inside and one guy leaning out the car door (while it’s moving) yelling the destination to passersby. It was definitely a Nepalese experience.

On the way back, we passed about 10 buses with Maoists riding on top waving the communist flag. I don't know too much about the political situation here, so hopefully I can learn more during my stay.

This evening we took the kids to play in an empty lot nearby, and they had fun running around for a while. They have started to call me “auntie,” the same name they call Maria, so I’m happy they are beginning to grow fond of me.

Picture time!

Karuna being sassy 


Stefano and Bishal 

People sit on the roof all the time

Not a good picture, but my mother keeps bugging me to see my sari. I was wearing pajamas underneath this, so I'll post a better picture when I get the other garments back from the seamstress.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Shopping for Sari

“Mornings stretch out and crack their spines with the yogic impassivity of house cats. Afternoons bulge with a succulent ripeness, like fat peaches. There is time enough to do everything – write a letter, eat breakfast, read the paper, visit a shrine or two, listen to the birds, bicycle downtown, change money, buy postcards, shop for Buddhas – and arrive home in time for lunch.”
-Jeff Greenwald, Shopping for Buddhas

Jeff Greenwald was right about the nature of time in Nepal, but the days aren’t any longer on this side of the planet. When you wake up at 5 or 6 in the morning, as most Nepalese tend to do, you have more time to seize the day (I wonder if the Nepalese would understand the concept of carpe diem? It seems pretty Western to me).

I’m still adjusting to the time change here, so I wake up at about 4:45 every morning. This isn’t much of a problem, though, because the children start singing and praying at 5:30 a.m., rendering sleep impossible. At 6:30, Karuna – one of the older girls, at 12 years old – knocked on my door with chiya (a delicious spiced tea). Not a bad start to my morning.

The orphanage is a Christian home, which is interesting because Christians are a small minority in the country. Most Nepalese are Hindus. After the children finish praying, they work on schoolwork some more. I brought them an “I Spy” book, and they loved it.  

Next comes brunch or lunch, which is served at the orphanage around 8 a.m. It’s kind of funny that my breakfast is considered their lunch. In a traditional Nepalese home, you never have to ask, “What’s for lunch/dinner?” The answer is always daal-bhaat. As a Westerner, it is extremely difficult to eat the same thing every day, let alone twice a day. I asked Stefano, the other volunteer living here, how he feels about daal-bhaat and he said, “At first I didn’t like it. Now I hate it.” He leaves Saturday to go back home to Italy, which means I get to take over his room, which is bigger and has a normal toilet (not a Turkish, hole-in-the-floor toilet).

My time spent with the children so far has been such a joy. They are smart, happy kids, and although they drain my energy (there are 13 of them, after all), I look forward to spending more time with them.

I introduced them to the PhotoBooth stretch effect. They were thrilled.

This morning I had some bonding time with my host mother, Maria, which I’m assuming is her Christian name. I was surprised to learn she is only five years older than me. She doesn’t speak much English, but she is so sweet. She took me shopping for clothes, and I bought some pants, a skirt and the most beautiful, periwinkle-colored sari. The saleswoman had to help me put it on, and Maria offered to show me again because it’s complicated (a lot of twisting and tucking of the fabric).

I also went grocery shopping and bought some fruit for everyone in the house (usually 19 or 20 people – Maria’s family members come and go). I bought a box of cookies, a soda, two bunches of bananas, 26 mangoes, and a package of nuts – all for $48.

Now that I’m coming down from a shopping high (my drug of choice), I’m going to take a nap before picking up the children from school.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Moving day

My bags are packed (again), and I’m ready to move into the orphanage where I will be volunteering. The orphanage, run through the Himalayan Foundation, is in a village called Dhapasi on the northern outskirts of the Kathmandu district. Although I’ll be further away from city life and the other volunteers, I think I will have a more valuable, authentic Nepalese experience in Dhapasi. I’ll be living with a family that speaks little English, so learning the language will be essential. I know a few words already, and so far my favorite is rangichangi, meaning colorful. 

Now that it is the morning of day 3 in Nepal, I am relieved to say that I’m beginning to adjust to the culture. I’m getting used to being unshowered and barefoot (it is considered rude to wear shoes indoors), eating rice every day, and living out of a suitcase (no furniture here).

One thing that will be difficult to adjust to is seeing poverty everywhere. At any tourist destination, there are children walking around rubbing their bellies and asking for money. It is hard to say no, but it is advised to give money to an orphanage or foundation rather than children on the street. The average Nepalese family survives on about 100 U.S. dollars per month, and most make a living by farming. 

Everything in Nepal is a test of patience. Filling up one’s gas tank can take three hours at the fuel station. I passed a gas station yesterday, where 50 people were crowded around and placed on a waiting list.

It’s also hard to ignore the pollution and filth in the city. Garbage is strewn throughout the streets, and there is a constant smell of sewage. On my first day here, I thought that hacking/spitting was just a gross habit of the Nepalese, but now I realize it’s the result of some serious lung issues. A lot of people wear face masks around, and I just bought one yesterday to avoid getting cancer by the end of my trip.

All of this sounds terrible, but it is all part of the learning experience of being in a third world country. A lot of people say it makes you thankful for what you have, but I don’t really feel that way. I’m a little ashamed to be so privileged, and I can only hope that maybe someday in the distant future, things like poverty and inequality won’t exist.

But despite everything, the Nepalese people are wonderful and hospitable. Yesterday, I went to Swayambhunath Stupa (Monkey Temple) and had a blast watching the monkeys run around and jump into a swimming pool. As far as future trips, I’ll have many opportunities to travel around Kathmandu and to other parts of Nepal on the weekends. I’m excited that the other volunteers are also adventurous, and I’m hoping to go paragliding and ziplining, and maybe even bungee jumping if I can muster up the courage.

Here are some photos from yesterday:

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Day 1: Wonderful Chaos


I’ve said that word so many times today, a day that seemed to last an eternity. Such a simple word can’t possibly describe the jumble of emotions I’ve felt since arriving in Nepal.

It started with awe. As my plane approached Kathmandu, I could see the Himalayas from my window. Those blue and white monstrosities cut through the thick clouds and stretched for miles into the distance. Even in an airplane, the holy mountains towered above us and the city below, serving as a reminder that mankind is infinitesimal.

This liberating feeling was quickly shattered after leaving the airport and being thrust into chaotic, bustling Kathmandu. As I stepped outside with my luggage, I faced dozens of Nepalese holding signs and shouting, hawking taxi services and trying to make a few bucks carrying my bags. I ended up getting scammed by the luggage carriers who refused to let my taxi leave until I had forked over some rupees. Lesson learned.

The taxi ride to the volunteer house was an experience in itself. I had read about the nonexistent driving laws, the cows and chickens in the roads, and the pollution, but nothing could prepare me for actually seeing it up close and personal.  My taxi driver weaved between motorcycles, whizzed past packed vans (with people hanging off the sides) and dodged pedestrians walking fearlessly into oncoming traffic. No stop signs, no painted lines on the road, no cow crossing warnings. There really is no way to describe the disorder of Kathmandu traffic. It kind of feels like being stuck in an Asian version of the video game Grand Theft Auto.

Luckily, I was so dumbstruck by the sights I was seeing – the goats tied to streetlights and men carrying four-feet high boxes on their heads – that I averted an anxiety attack. 

 At the house, I met some of the program employees, and I was given tea and a traditional Nepalese meal called daal-bhaat, which is essentially rice and lentils with spicy chicken or vegetables. It was actually pretty good, which works in my favor because I ended up eating daal-bhaat for both lunch and dinner. As it turns out, the Nepalese are so fond of this dish that they cook it twice a day.  

 Afterward, I took a much-needed nap and then visited the orphanage where I’ll be working. It’s on the outskirts of the city, and I was given an option: to either stay in the volunteer house and commute 40 minutes by bus each day, or move into the family-owned orphanage. After seeing the place, my decision was easy. The air is cleaner, the Himalayas can be seen more clearly and the family seems nice. Living with a Nepalese family will also help me learn the culture and language.

      It's still a little cloudy, but you can see the mountains much better from this part of Kathmandu.

A couple of the kids in the orphanage. So cute.

For the rest of the day, I walked around Thamel with the ELI coordinator and two other volunteers. I still had to dodge speeding cars and motorcycles while weaving through the fruit stands and tourist shops, but I could already tell that I might grow to love this place. It has an indescribable character – a chaos that simultaneously terrifies me and makes me want to forget my problems.  

While it may take some getting used to, and a bit of “roughing it” by American standards, I think Kathmandu will make a great home for the next 10 weeks.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Awaiting the red-eye to Kathmandu

I am alive and well in Doha, Qatar. However, I’m working with an unreliable Wi-Fi connection and 51% battery life, so I’ll just highlight a few interesting things from my journey so far:
  •  At the security checkpoint in Pittsburgh, I had my bags searched and was treated like a suspected terrorist because I forgot to remove liquids from my carry-on. At the security checkpoint in Qatar, I didn’t have to remove my shoes, electronics or liquids, and I walked on through that metal detector like a boss. Kind of funny, right?
  •  Qatar Airways gives you heated hand wipes. You haven’t experienced luxury until you’ve used a heated hand wipe.
  • The Middle East is hot. Really hot. And I was only outside for five minutes.
  • One of the Doha airport stores has an enormous $58 tub of Nutella for sale. Why does this exist?
  •  I still have three hours until my next flight, and I have nothing left to write about. 

    Wish me luck for my next flight to Kathmandu! 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Countdown to Kathmandu

In less than 24 hours, I’ll be sitting on a plane en route to Doha, Qatar. Except instead of sitting comfortably, I'll likely be contorting my body into some awkward position to sleep without bumping my neighbor. 
Cozy full-sized bed tonight, cramped airplane chamber tomorrow. 
But if I survive a flight to the Middle East, a seven-hour layover in Doha and my final red-eye flight, on Saturday morning I will reach my much-anticipated destination: Kathmandu, Nepal. 
My decision to go to Nepal was impulsive. About six weeks ago, I realized that yes, I really was deluding myself into thinking I could bear another summer at home. It’s not that I live in a totally godforsaken town (although it comes close), but I have been itching to leave ever since I got back from Europe last summer. A need to see the world is difficult to describe to one who hasn't been bitten by the travel bug, but I couldn’t ignore the feeling any longer. So I did what anyone struck with wanderlust would do: found a volunteer program in Asia, booked my flights and then stopped to ask myself, “Is this really happening?”
For my volunteer project, through Experiential Learning International, I will be working in an orphanage and teaching English to Nepali children. I have no idea how to teach, but I’m so excited to meet the kids (My suitcase is filled with Pop Rocks, books and puzzles to give them). 
While volunteering will be my main focus in Nepal, another top priority is writing. I’ll be updating this blog as often as possible, writing a travel series for my local newspaper and hopefully working on some side projects for school. As an aspiring writer (the pretentious term I like to use instead of journalist), Nepal will give me an opportunity to build my portfolio. 
Entering this program, I have no expectations other than to learn and grow as a person. Some of my friends have asked me, “Aren’t you scared, traveling around the world by yourself?” Of course. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve dreamed about being lost in the airport, which I imagine is just as annoying in reality. Yet some of my best life experiences have come from pushing myself to the brink of an anxiety attack, or to the edge of an open airplane door 14,000 feet above Earth (not a metaphor). Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and know that in doing so, it will change you.
“I'm an idealist. I don't know where I'm going, but I'm on my way.”
Carl Sandburg