Kristin Schutz

Feb 092015
 

There is a magical place in Nepal, tucked away behind the mountains surrounding the chaos of Kathmandu city. It’s a place of terraced mountain farming, spicy masala milk tea, clear Himalayan vistas, cold-fresh air, smiling locals, quiet mornings, and stars so bright they light up the villages. This place is the Nepali countryside. It takes one bus, an overnight stay, and a jeep ride to get here but the destination is worth the journey.

VSN has a placement in Bhimpokhara 9, a remote mountain village about 300 km northwest of Kathmandu. The placement is at a school called Shree Shivalaya, which is the best school in the area. You can tell just by looking at it. It’s a compound of fairly well-maintained buildings, a large courtyard in the center, a library, computer lab, and multiple classrooms. The students wear blue and white uniforms while the women wear white dresses with red sweaters and scarves. It’s incredibly organized and efficient for a school that is so far away from the city. Children and women from the surrounding villages (there are 10, hence the name Bhimpokhara 9) will walk up to two hours to attend school here.

Its reputation is due to the headmaster, whom they call B.P. because his name is rather long. He takes education very seriously and expects that his students and teachers do the same. B.P. exudes a kind but firm energy. He knows how to get things done, how to network, how to work around financial limitations and restrictive (read: backwards) government policies. His goal is pure and simple: quality education and responsible community development. You can tell how much he cares about his role by a simple glance; he wears a suit every day to school and grooms his hair quite smartly. Although he told us in confidence one morning that he much prefers dressing casual!

Despite the success of the school, there are still serious gaps and obstacles. The main one being qualified teachers. Because the village is so remote, it’s hard to get community teachers to live there for the little pay offered. The government has provided four trained teachers and B.P. has applied for more, but the process could take up to five years before they see any results. He has done an incredible job attracting the teachers he has, but the school is growing and teachers are lacking.

A second obstacle is space. Right now there are seven grades, but soon there will be eight and there is no extra classroom. The women’s class (also called the Aaama School, “aama” means “mother” in Nepali), once had had a proper classroom but has been moved to a large room with no desks or chairs in order to accommodate the children. There is plenty of land for expansion. The issue is funding, as is usually the case.

I ventured out to Bhimpokhara for a few days to help Sue, the volunteer coordinator, take our two new volunteers there. I also came in the official capacity of photographer. This placement hasn’t had volunteers in years, so it was necessary to document the school and village so VSN can attract more volunteers here. Also, it sounded like a fun adventure!

The  jeep ride was an experience in and of itself. Two hours up a narrow, bumpy, mountain “road.” I use quotations because there were times when the path was merely a stretch of jagged rocks with a margin of error of about two inches between us and certain, tumbling death. The driver never showed any hesitation, he has driven that road every day for years and knows it like the back of his hand. Which is why he felt totally justified texting and talking on his cell phone half the time.

When we made it to Bhimpokhara 9 we stumbled out of the jeep and our nerves were immediately restored by the simple beauty of the village. It sits high up on the mountain side and from the main road we could see the massive, seemingly endless ripples of terraced farms across the valley.  My first breath of air had the sharp sting of freshness after weeks sucking in dust and smog. And it was quiet,  astoundingly so, in blatant contrast to the city. It was like stepping back in time 100 years. The jeep is the only motorized vehicle to pass through the village each day, there are few power lines, no construction sites, no farming machines, no indoor plumbing, no stray dogs, no restaurants or large stores. Just farms, and houses, a school, a public spicket, a little shop, and the mountains. Prayers were uttered several times along the way.

B.P. and his wife, Sumitra, live in a surprisingly humble home. I was expecting something more modern based on the suit he was wearing when he picked us up at the base of the mountain. It is nothing short of a country house. Built from mud and bricks, with two rooms for sleeping and a kitchen. They do, however, have electricity most of the time and the rustic kitchen is very orderly and clean despite the dirt walls and floor. Outside the house is the most beautiful garden full of tomatoes, spinach, cauliflower, beans, marigolds, and roses. Behind the house is the water buffalo shed, complete with a guest room on top! To use the outhouse, you have to tip-toe past the big guy. Fortunately he is tethered because one morning I apparently upset him with my presence and he tried to charge at me! I still high-tailed it out of there back to the sanctuary  of the main house.

Sumitra’s cooking, dare I say, is better than my host-mother’s in Kathmandu (although hers is quite delicious too!). All of her ingredients come fresh from her own garden, and she cooks using a traditional fire oven. The kitchen fills with smoke each morning and evening, which was a welcome relief from the cold. Sumitra attends the Aama School as well. She doesn’t speak much English yet, and most of the time she kept to herself in the polite sort of way that characterizes a hard-working country woman with lots of chores to do.  Each morning around 7 am she made us spicy masala milk tea. This is the Nepali breakfast. I would clutch with freezing hands the hot, steel cup, sipping a bit as I watched the sun rise over the farms. “Lunch,” what we would consider breakfast, came around 9 am. As usual, it was daalbhat (if you don’t recall, this is the traditional Nepali dish of white rice, curried/spiced vegetables, and a lentil soup). I haven’t been eating daalbhat in the mornings at my host family in Kathmandu, just can’t stomach it. But for some reason, out there in the frigid country morning, daalbhat was the most amazing thing I had ever eaten. Never left a bit on my plate and usually took more. Dinner was the same story. The cold pushed us into the kitchen each night to devour our second meal of daalbhat that day.

One morning, B.P. was generous enough to lead us up the mountain so we could get the best view of the Himalayas. We woke at 6 am, had our tea (and some squirreled-away snacks), and set off up the village road. What B.P. told us would be an hour hike turned into a three-hour scramble up rocks and through the forest. The farther we trekked, the thicker the jasmine and rhododendron blossoms became. At one point the trodden path disappeared. B.P. had a large, curved knife and hacked through the thicket for us. He had commented that it was also for the jaguars. I’m not sure if he was joking or not. After a final push through wild brush, we came to the top. At our first glimpse of the snow-topped mountains we sprinted the final few yards out of giddy excitement. Sprawled before us was our own private view of the Himalayas, unencumbered by buildings or pollution. We could see the Annapurnas, Machapuchare, and Hiunchuli. I had never seen anything so impressive. But it had taken us three times as long to make it to the top than B.P. expected, so he told us we unfortunately had only 15 minutes before we needed to go back. Being the headmaster, he had to be at school by 10 am. We went down the way we came up, equally as challenging, possibly more so because of the shock to our knees. Each one of us (except for B.P., of course) had a bum-slip at one point or another. We reached B.P.’s house at 10:30 am, exhausted, strained, and elated. We ate our daalbhat with gusto.

After three days visiting the school, hiking around the village, reading in the sun, and eating fresh food, Sue and I were scheduled to head back to Kathmandu. Our jeep arrived around 8:30 am but  before we packed in, B.P. and Sumitra honored us with traditional blessings and gifted us each a small, cloth bag with the school’s logo on it. Their kindness and humility, made present from the moment we arrived, never ceased once in our short time there.  I have never felt so welcomed and at home in a foreign place. People make our experiences special and these are two that I will remember forever.

Coming back to Kathmandu after such a peaceful retreat was a harsh shock to my system. Back to the honking cars whizzing within inches past my legs, dogs barking all through the night, dust filling the inside of the bus, people staring without reservation.  I love this city, but when the days and nights get overwhelming, I think about Bhimpokhara; the mountains, the gardens, and the generous people there.

 

Focusing on serenity,

Kristin

Our jeep up the mountain:

 

The main village road and the Shree Shivalaya School:

 

B.P. and Sumitra’s house:

 

The water buffalo:

 

The library building at Shree Shivalaya:

 

Students lined up for morning exercise:

 

The little ones:

 

Kineta and Adam take a first look at the textbooks, and this adorable guy!

 

The Aama School:

 

Sue teaching the ladies “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes:”

 

Me, Adam, Sue, and Kineta after a lovely welcoming ceremony:

 

Simple living:

 

Sue, BP, Adam, and the Himalayas:

 

Me and the Himalayas:

 

Passing the time until dinner. Playing cards, snuggled under the blanket:

 

Saying goodbye to B.P. and Sumitra:

 

Mid-way Reflection

 Posted by Kristin Schutz at 8:01 pm  Nepal  Comments Off on Mid-way Reflection
Jan 112015
 

Just one month ago, this cafe was packed with trekkers, artists (local and expat), vactioners, soul-seekers, and hip Nepalis.  Just one month ago, four young women from the US and Australia sat at this cafe for hours, reading, writing, chatting away about this new and strange place. They sat with their legs crossed on floral-patterned floor cushins around low tables scattered with coffee mugs and vegetarian food. They listened to indie rock playing on the speakers. They gazed at the graffiti-style murals on the walls. They met fellow adventurers.

Now this cafe, confusingly called Places, is nearly empty.  The indie rock still plays across the murals, but the busy season is over. Kathmandu has been returned to the locals, the long-term visitors, and the occaisional off-season traveler. It’s both a peaceful kind of solitude and an eerie memorial to livelier times.

I stopped coming here for a while. I’m here now, and it’s like returning to my childhood home. The building is the same, but the essence is different because the very people who made it a home are gone.

Earlier this month, the emotional and physical excitment of such a new experience had ebbed and made way for a quieter time of familiarity and lonliness. I suddently found myself very comfortable going to and from school, taking the bus around the Ring Road, negotiating with taxi drivers, brushing off the stares from people on the street. With that comfort came boredom and sadness.

I had spent five weeks branching out, taking risks, meeting new people, going to new places, planning fun games and activities for the women.  All because I had a cadre of young, adventurous women to do it with.  Suddenly I was left to my own devices, to my own thoughts alone at the homestay. To be truthful it as incredibly upsetting. I wanted to go home. I wanted the other volunteers to come back. I spent a week feeling sorry for myself. But the Universe, as it usually does, stepped in and helped me find my way again. A friend here told me something incredibly powerful: Olim Meminisse Juvabit. It’s from Virgil’s Aeneid. It essentially means “someday it will be pleasing to remember even these things.”  In the midst of my self-pity, these words came back to me. I caught myself. How could I be sad and lonely in such a beautiful and crazy place? There was so much still to see and experience.  I should be grateful for the people I met and the experiences we had together even though they are passed. With this epiphany I set out to seek new ones.

The timing was quite perfect, actually. The students had a week of exams followed immediately by a week of winter vacation (so there wasn’t any teaching for me to do). I had two weeks to expand my horizon.

After meeting with some organizations here, it became clear that there is a need for skilled training. Not just volunteers coming over to teach and then leaving. But volunteers to share their unique skills so that when they leave there is a lasting impact. One such organization that expressed the need for professional training is Maiti Nepal (www.maitinepal.org). It focuses on ending sex-trafficking in Nepal by both rescuing and rehabilitating girls as well as educating the community to stop new girls from entering the system. It is run by Nepali people and has an astounding track record of success. I offered my services to help them with marketing. Just a few days later I was in the Maiti Nepal offices talking with two energetic, young people about newsletters, blogs, and social media. After the meeting I was on fire! Nishant and Laurisa were keen to learn and were already pushing Maiti Nepal into the digital age. I felt I could actually make a lasting impact there using my education and work experience.  We’ve since continued to meet and are working on a few projects that I will announce when they are ready. It’s exciting stuff!

In the same vein, I offered to help VSN manage the Facebook page. As is usually the case, the folks at VSN wear many hats and there is more work than staff! I’m helping VSN beef up the Facebook page so that the staff members can focus on rebuilding the website and looking after the programs and new volunteers.

A craving for being around English speakers motivated me to join the Himalayan Hash House Harriers. Sue, the VSN volunteer  coordinator, introduced me to the group. It’s a gathering of expats and locals who run and walk around the valley, and then drink beer after. I’ve been twice now and every time has been energizing. Being outside, seeing a new part of the valley, exercising, and learning from new people has completely changed my experience here. I’ll be going again next Saturday!

When the school opens up again next week I will return to teaching, but will also continue to work with Maiti Nepal and VSN.

Overall, I think the lesson here is that each day is what we make of it. Struggle is inevitable, pain is going to happen no matter what. But we have the power and means to move on, make ourselves happy, and be productive. We might need to winge for a bit first, just to get it out of our systems. We might need our friends and family to kindly listen and then snap us back into reality. But we have more control over our lives than we often believe.

 

Carrying on,

Kristin

 

The ladies taking exams:

 

Walking with the Himalayan Hash House Harriers:

 

A Krishna temple along one of the Hash walks:

 

Teaching at Shree Shradha

 Posted by Kristin Schutz at 10:04 pm  Nepal  Comments Off on Teaching at Shree Shradha
Dec 192014
 

It’s been a few weeks now that I’ve been teaching at the Shree Shradha Women’s School and I haven’t even posted about it! My apologies!

Let me first describe a bit of the structure of the school and culture, and then I will write about some of the individual ladies who brighten my days!

There are six classes (levels 1-8, with levels 4 and 5 not offered because there are no students at those levels this year). The ages of the students range from 12 to…old. How old I can’t say because I’ve been too polite to ask! But there are definitely some very adorable, wrinkly, old ladies. Each class stays in their respective rooms while the teachers rotate. There are English, Nepali, math, and science classes. The higher classes will take the government exams in a few months, so it is an official school.

An old man sits behind the gates on a chair all day. He is responsible for keeping the school safe and for ringing the “bell” when it’s time to change class. The bell is a metal pot and a metal spoon, which he bangs with such force that it makes me jump out of my skin every time. I think he may be a little deaf. He smiles at me every morning and gives me a cheerful “Namaste.”

The classrooms are pretty bleak but the bright reds, greens, and oranges of the ladies’ dresses make up for it. Each is equipped with long benches, tables, and a chalkboard. Little else. Class 8 meets outside on the balcony.

There is no elecricity in th school, so on the rare day when it is cloudy the classrooms are very dark. Most have windows but some don’t and that makes it really difficult for the students to read. It’s an old building but serves a basic purpose. My thoughts have drifted to having a painting and gardening day, if the ladies are up for it. We could paint the walls and bring in some plants to make the environment more stimulating.

I teach English alongisde Sanu, who has been at the school for many years. She is a serious woman. Every now and then she will let loose and be goofy. It comes as a shock and I get awkward because I’m not sure what to do with it! She is very affectionate with the younger students, holding them close like they are her own children. The women here are all very affectionate with each other. They sit closely, play with each other’s hair, dance with and tickle one another.

Sanu and I teach out of textbooks. She helps me translate to the students and I help her come up with fun and creative ways to teach the lessons.

Standard Nepali education is very linear and the students learn in almost a photographic way. They write sentences on the board and just repeat them to death. Some students can learn this way, but others clearly aren’t getting anywhere. One of the reasons the volunteers are here is to bring a different teaching style. I’m not formally trained, but I did learn a foreign language. So I’m incorporating the methods my German teachers taught me with. Sanu has teacher training, but that training didn’t include creative learning methods. So we work as a team to bring what we each have in our aresnals. Each day I bring a new way to look at the lessons: games, worksheets, drawings, puzzles, etc.

Sanu told me one day that it’s very hard for some of the women to attend school. Women here still have to do all their “womanly duties” on top of studying and coming to class. They wake up very early in the morning to make breafast (daal bhaat), wash clothes, and get their kids to school. Then when they come home, they have to cook dinner and do any remaining chores. There is little, if any, sharing of household duties between husband and wife here. The women still have to get persmission from their husbands to attend school. It’s actually not so far fetched from what women in th U.S. had to go through. And many women back home today still experience the exhausting struggle of working, studying, and being mothers.

Nepal as a country hasn’t been open to the rest of the world for very long, just since the mid-20th century when climbers and trekkers came here for the mountains. It’s geographically very isolated, wedged inbetween the goliaths of Inda and China, with no water outlets. So it’s really been the age of internet that has brought Nepal into contact with the rest of the world. I loosely compare the status of women here to that of women in the US in the 1950s.

Just like any other school there is a full cast of characters. Some women are linear thinkers and some need more hands-on, visual teaching. Some are quick to learn, some take more time. Some women are quite and polite, some are loud and sassy. Some smile at me every day, some give me straight stares.

Bhagwati is in Class 1, the lowest level. She is always the first to volunteer for anything! And everytime she puts on a shy but knowing smile, like “I know I can do this but I’m going to be humble about it anyway.” She’s one of the linear thinkers; I can put any sentence on the board and she will figure it out. She also has a great memory. She can read several sentences in the text book and then write them on the chalkboard minutes later.  Her daughter lives in Washington, D.C. But I haven’t yet deciphered what she does there. Sanu knows a lot of English but there is stll a language gap between us. I met Bhagwati’s nephew (nephew is a loose term. It could mean any younger man in her family that isn’t her son). He came to my host family’s house. Apparently he is the cousin of my host brothers (again, cousin is a loose term). Everyone seems to be related to everyone somehow!

Monah is the oldest women in Class 1. She’s the one that I can’t tell her age but she is adorably wrinkled. She wears a yellow Thika, while the other women wear red ones one (the blessings on their forheads). I think it may mean she is widowed, but I’m not sure yet. Something to figure out. I love how she is so old but hasn’t given up on furthering her education!

In Class 6 there is Delshi and Maya. Delshi speaks excellent English for her level. She is 18 but looks about 14, long and lean. On one of the bad days I mentioned earlier, she brought be back by saying how much she likes my lessons. How they are challenging, but different from what she is used to. Delshi used to be Christian but is now Hindu. Again, I haven’t deciphered why because of the language gap. Maya doesn’t understand much English but is very bright and the cutest thing I have ever seen! She is very small with a button nose and sparkly eyes.  And she is a perfectionist, intensley erasing her writing if it isn’t up to her standards. These girls are constantly giggling! Delshi walked me home on the day before I got sick. She asked me if I had Facebook and I promised her that the next day we would connect. So I have to do that when I get back!

In Class 8 there is the trouble-maker, Ashmita. She is incredibly smart and knows it. I also think she is a little bored in class because the other students are further behind. She’s been my biggest challenge, getting her to concentrate and not bother the other students. But there is a lot of potential in Ashmita, if we can just get her to focus on something interesting enough. She’s also 14 and in that rebellious stage when there are more exciting things than school (boys, gossip, music).

So any teachers reading this, please feel free to offer your advice! I could definitely use direction on:

1) Games and activities for lower-level students

2) Alternative learning styles. How to recognize them and how to teach to them

3) Managing the sassy girls who don’t want to concentrate on school work

Thanks!

I’ve been sitting at a cafe for hours now, enjoying tea that actually stays in my stomach! Tonight I’ll go back to my host family and tomorrow will start teaching again. I’m sure the ladies will bombard me with questions about what happened, why was I away for so long?!

If there’s anything specific you want me to write about, please let me know! I didn’t write about smells here because the school doesn’t really have any. Besides the general BO of everyone crammed into a room (myself included) and the bathroom. But no one wants to read about that…

I hope you are having a wonderful day!

Much love,

Kristin

 

The oustide of the school:

 

Class 1 ladies making sentences with sticky notes. I tell them the sentence and they have to find and order the words:

 

Ashmita, Lila, and I. The girls of Class 8:

 

The walk to school from my host family’s house:

 

 

Giving Thanks in Times of Suck

 Posted by Kristin Schutz at 7:50 pm  Nepal  Comments Off on Giving Thanks in Times of Suck
Dec 192014
 

Many years ago I read a book about two Jewish, Polish sisters during WWII who were taken to an extermination camp. One day while in the barracks, they found their beds infested with bugs. The older sister said to the younger that they should give thanks in all things, even for these bugs. So they prayed to God in thanks for sending them. The next day the Nazi soldiers were inspecting the barracks for a smuggled child. This child was in the sisters’ barracks. But when the soliders saw the bugs, they immediately turned and walked out, afraid of becoming infested themselves. The bugs saved the child and potentially everyone else.

I’ve never forgotten this story. Time and again its lesson has proven true in my (very priveleged) life.  When things are awful,  painful, going wrong, we should give thanks anyway. There may be a reason for it that we can’t see in that moment.

For the past few days I’ve been holed up with a bacterial infection in my…uh…insides. All I will say is that it was extremely painful. I have never before been in such agony. At one point I was in so much pain that my bedsheets were soaked in sweat. My mom, bless her, texted with me for hours to help distract me. The other volunteers continuously checked up on me.  Our volunteer coordinator, Sue, met me the next day to take me to the clinic. I am so fortunate to be surrounded by loving people in this foreign country. I would not have been able to make it without them!

Last night, when the pain was a little less and I could think clearly, I offered a prayer of thanks to God. I gave thanks for the doctor, the anti-biotics, my friends and family, and for hotels with western toilets. But I also gave thanks for the stabbing pain and seemingly never-ending suffering. I don’t know yet what the lesson will be. Maybe it’s so  that I can help someone in the future who is sick and in pain, so that I can understand a little more what they are going through. Maybe it’s so that I can more fully appreciate the times of good health. But no matter what, I knew I had to be thankful for the experience. Honestly, I feel like if I was bitter about it, the Universe would slap me with something to really feel sorry about!

Now, clearly I was not in a bug-infested, Nazi concentraction camp on my way to iminent death. But pain is relative. There but for the grace of God go you and I.

It has been a rough start to my service time in Nepal. But there is no way I would call it quits and leave early. Challenges develop character, make us who we are. And the students here keep me going. Just when I’m feeling homesick, literally sick, or frustrated, one of the women will say or do something so kind. Or I will see their faces light up when they understand a lesson, get a questions right. And I’m back in the game!

I’ve been resting at a hotel in Thamel in the last few days. Today was the first time since Wednesday that I could actually eat more than a bite of toast. I am looking forward to getting back to the school and seeing the students. There are dozens of worksheets and games that I’ve been carrying in my backpack that I need to give to them!

Eyes on the prize.

Kristin

 

The real Kathmandu

 Posted by Kristin Schutz at 5:06 pm  Nepal  Comments Off on The real Kathmandu
Dec 092014
 

Remember when I said this city is pretty clean, not as much trash on the street as NYC? Well I take that back. When I posted that I was in Thamel, the main tourist district of Kathmandu, where everything is nicer. Think Times Square compared to Harlem. Now I am in a residential neighborhood and can see how the average Nepali person lives. While there are many wonderful things here (the people are friendly, the women we teach are amazing, the mountains are stunning), it’s quite a harsh place to live compared to life in the West. I would be remiss if I didn’t paint an accurate picture of my experience. I could fill this journal will sunshine and peaches, but then you couldn’t understand why there is much progress to be accomplished here. So here goes, as objectively as possible.

Trash disposal bascially doesn’t exist, as far as I can observe. I’ve seen a few men pulling wooden carts piled high with plastic bags full of trash, or occaisionally a truck. But that’s about it. Otherwise trash is burned. Every now and then I’ll pass a pile of ashes and semi-incinerated refuse off the road. The rest of the trash lines the streets or washes into the river.

There is a main road that circles Kathmandu called the Ring Road. It’s like the 394-694-94 interstate highways in Minneapolis. This is the main commuter road connecting all the districts. I’ve walked along it every day and come home full of dust! I’m amazed when locals look clean, how do they do it?! The people wear masks here to avoid getting the brown lung. The Ring Road is where all the “buses” are too. I use quotations because most of the time the buses are just 10-person vans, into which they will cram 22 people at a time. There are some larger buses, similar in style to Greyhounds or those tourists coaches. I chose those when I can because they just seem more reliable! The buses stop about every 50 feet to load in new passengers. A boy or a young man surfs on the side of the bus, door open, shouting his route to people on the street, “Balaju, Balaju, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah!” The bus stops, loads whoever is ready, then takes off. Fares range from 15 to 30 rupees, depending on how far the passenger is going. I’ve taken these buses every day so far. And every time I get relentless stares from everyone inside, like “who is this person? Is she lost?!” For the most part everyone leaves me alone. Occaisionally  a curious local will ask me where am I from, what I’m doing here, how do I like Nepal.

There are stray street dogs everywhere here as well. Most of them sleep all day and then bark all night! You could spit in any direction and you’d hit a stray dog dozing in the sun on the side of the road. When awake, they particularly like to hang out in front of the meat shops, hoping for some scraps. One night I was walking back from dinner with the other volunteers and I felt something touch the back of my knee. I turned around to find a dog right at my back. She had nudged me for food. It broke my heart that I didn’t have anything for her. Even if I had, I can’t give the dogs scraps. I have to be concsious of 1) the culture here, and that I can’t have a stray dog following me to the host family’s house, and 2) these dogs have to live here even after I am gone so I can’t let them become dependent on me for food. I’ve met a few organizations already that work to spay and neuter the stray dogs here, fix them up, and try to find homes when possible. So there are organizations trying to help. But for the most part the dogs are ignored.

Then there are the cows. They aren’t as common as dogs, but they too just wander the streets undisturbed, digging through trash for scrap food. Sometimes people will put out old food or leftovers for the cows. One day I walked passed a woman who was blessing a pile of cow maneur with merigold flowers. Nepal is mostly Hindu so the cows are sacred but I’ve had a cheese burger twice already. I guess they make exceptions for the tourists!

The buildings here are  all mixed-use (shops on the street with apartments above, with the exception of the free-standing houses). In my neighborhood there are shops everywhere. Most sell the same things (snacks, drinks, etc.) There are a few salons, tea shops, and electronic stores too.

Kathmandu gets its energy from hydro and solar power. The monsoon season sources the city for the rest of the year. But because this is such a growing city, electricity becomes scarce in the winter and there is load shedding and rolling blackouts. Most families in  the city also have solar power individually for their homes when the city power goes out. Hot watered only comes when there has been enough sunshine to power the heating tanks. So yesterday when it was rainy and cloudy, I had to forgo my shower (although I’m only showering at the house twice a week to preserve water).

I’ve also learned that only Nepali citizens can buy land or property. I can understand this policy as an effort to protect Nepal from financial “imperialism.” However, I question if this policy is detrimental to the country’s economic development. It is not hospitable to foreign investment. But I’m not an economist.

Overall, Kathmandu is dusty, crowded, and loud. Every day is an assault on the senses. But  then on a clear day I can see the snow-capped mountains off in the distance and for a minute or two I find some peace.

Up next: My host family, our visit to Maiti Nepal, and our first week of teaching.

Much Love,

Kristin

The view from my host family’s roof:

Riding the “bus:”

 

Three days in Bistachap

 Posted by Kristin Schutz at 6:11 pm  Nepal  Comments Off on Three days in Bistachap
Dec 052014
 

We have returned to Kathmandu after three days in Bistachap, a village just outside of Kathmandu but still within the valley. All VSN (Volunteer Service in Nepal) volunteers start here for training, which included Nepali language and cultural lessons.

VSN runs a school in the village called Brighter Future Children’s School. During the Maoist insurgency thousands of children were displaced from their families. Profiteering brokers would scheme parents into believing that their children were going to schools where they would be safe. In reality, these brokers would dump the children in very neglectful facilities. Up to 30 children would be crammed into one room at a time. NGOs and nonprofits found the chilren basically abandonded there and worked to find better places for them. VSN built one such place that is now Brighter Future Children’s Home. Many of the kids here have grown up and moved out into the world but there are still several living there. The school is truly an oasis. It has a small farm with vegetables, herbs, chickens, and rabbits! The chidlren go to school as any other child would but come home to this place. They are very polite and well behaved! But the Nepali government has mandated that all displaced children be reunited with their families, so once these children grow into adulthood or are placed back with their families the facility will have to change it’s purpose. They are looking into making it a training/educational facility.

It is here where we had our training every day.

There are three of us starting at the same time. Joyce is 67 years old and from Upstate New York. She is spending her retirement travelling the world as a volunteer. Joyce has a lion’s heart and gentle spirit. Tipping is not common here and actually something we aren’t supposed to do. But Joyce is so kind she bucks the rules and just wants to be generous anyway! I joke that she will leave Nepal with an empty wallet!

Catherine is in her 40s, although she looks much younger. She is a naturpath from Australia with a wild story of her own (growing up in South Africa during and after apartheid). Already we’ve had many deep conversations about women in the world, and a few laughs regarding potty-humor that  I will refrain from detailing for the sake of being a mature adult (or trying to).

I am so grateful to be volunteering with these ladies. Already they have been my saving grace! It’s important to have people around who not only share your values, but also can relate to the immediate events and surroundings. In other words, we can take solice in the fact that we all have  to use the same type of squatty potty, we are eating the same strange foods, and none of us has showered for days.

It is impossible to relay the last three days accurately. Although it was only three days, it felt so much longer! So I will just write  about a few things here.

1) Our host families.

We each stayed with a family in Bistachap. They provided a private room and two meals  a day (Daalbhat, which I will describe later). My family had two young children, a boy and girl, of elementary school age. The mother spoke more English than I expected and the children spoke very good English. I only saw the father a few times, since he worked most of the day. Everone was very friendly and polite but mostly kept to their own.  The mother had plenty of work to do around the house (cooking, cleaning, etc). And the children were  at school most of the day.

The house was very modest with just the essentials. There was a room for the parents, one which the children shared, the kitchen, an indoor toilet (a treat!), and the guest bedroom. Outside there was a large washing area for dishes and clothes. Imagine a square, cement basin with hose. In front of the house the family grew herbs and vegetables.

Just on the edge of the garden was a little alter area. Each morning and night the daughter would honor god by lighting incense and ringing a bell. She would then decorate the alter with a little fire surrounded by merigolds.  Every morning and night we could hear bells ringing across the village, as this was something every house did. It was usually done by the women of the house but I was told anyone could do it.

2) Our daily routine

Each morning we woke up with the sun around 5-6 am. Our host mothers and fathers had already been up for a few hours! There are no indoor showers (indoor toilets were rare and I was fortunate to have one!), so daily cleaning consisted of body wipes. We could have bathed outside but none of us were ready to take that cultural plunge yet.

We were served sweet, black tea around 7:30 am and breakfast around 8:30 am. Both breakfast and dinner are the same here; a dish called daalbhat. Bhat is rice and daal is a soup-like dish with lentils and beans. Each meal also has curried vegetables, whatever is in season. Right now it was mostly potatoes and couliflower.  To be truthful, it was hard eating daalbhat for both breakfast and dinner. It is a far cry from a western breakfast! I wasn’t sure if my host mother was concerned, offended, or confused when I tried to politely tell her I wasn’t eating that morning. But during dinner daalbhat I made sure to compliment her by eating all my food and saying “daalbhat mitho chha!”  Which means “The daalbhat is delicious!” I would also  muster a burb, a sign that her cooking was good.

After breakfast we had Nepali language and cultural lessons. Our teacher was a woman named Gauri, who lives and works in Nepal also as a teacher there. She was very patient with us as we tried to memorize important Nepali phrases like “How much does that cost?”

Around mid-day we would break for some delicious tea and coconut biscuits.

One afternoon we made momo, which is esssentially the Nepali version of a dumpling. Tastey little pockets of seasoned vegetables (the more expensive kind have chicken). We enjoyed the fruits of our labor and gave the rest to the kids at the school.

Training ended in the early afternoon so we had a lot of free time before returning to our host families. We would take a walk or go to the shop to buy snacks. But one afternoon we made a trek across the valley to the other side. Off in the distance we could see a shining golden Buddha sitting on the side of a mountain. We asked Jaguu (one of the founders of the school) to take us there. He happily obliged and we walked down the village, through the valley farms, through the villages on the other side, and up the mountain. The Buddha was surrunded by potted plants of various herbs and flowers. It was so quite up there and we got a full view of the valley. We relaxed for a while before heading back to our host families.

The village has no street lights so when the  sun goes down it gets pitch dark. We made sure we were back at our houses by 6 pm every night. We would then have our dinner daalbhat and retire early (around 8 pm).

3) The women

Like most of the world (and like the US not too long ago), the women do everything here but are afforded very little freedoms. Especially in the villages where life is more conservative  and traditional. The women cook, clean, wash clothes, take care of the kids, and even do a lot of the farming and animal caretaking.  The men usually work in the city or have traveled abroad to the Gulf to find work. Job opportuunities are hard to come by here because there is very little industry and business outside of what sustains the valley locally, and tourism.

If a woman is lucky and from a family of some means, she will have attended high school. Most of the younger girls in Bistachap are currently in or have completed high school. Their mothers either didn’t go to school at all, or went to school up until they were married. So the younger generations are fairing much better.

Catherine’s host family was right next door to mine. In fact, the two families were related by brothers. Her family had a bright and ambitious 19-year old daughter named Goga. I am so inspired by her story. She completed high school last year and passed her exams. Then after that she took a certification course in hospitality management. She passed that exam as well, but it took four months to receive her results,  and then another month on top of that to actually receive the certification paper. She is still waiting for that. She told us how she feels like she is in prison waiting for it to arrive! She has nothing to do at home in the mean time and is going stir crazy! But that week she saw an ad in the newspaper for entry-level positions in the city. She called and they said she can come for an interview even without her certification. However, she had to ask her father’s permission. Goga is one of the fortunate girls in that her father is very supportive and understanding. She once told him that she doesn’t want to get married until she has a job, and he was completely OK with it! Meanwhile her friends cry to her at night because they are being forced to get married right out of high school.

Our last morning in Bistachap was also the day of her interview. She was all smiles, and we knew her father had given her permission. We cheered and clapped our hands, her smile widened. “Ok I have to get ready now!” She said, and Goga bounced upstairs to prepare.

Goga is an exception to the rule here, but it is a rule that is broken more and more often as Kathmandu grows into a modern city.

The Maoist insurgency completely shut down the city’s growth for years and has left it stunted. Kathamandu is just starting to get back on its feet. For example, 10 years ago there were dozens of internet cafes on every street because homes did not have internet connections. Now there are fewer cafes because more homes have WiFi. As Nepal becomes increasingly connected with the rest of the world the younger generation is pushing for change. Isn’t that always the case? Haven’t we seen that all over the world?

 

Kristin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pain is weakness leaving the body

 Posted by Kristin Schutz at 3:45 pm  Nepal  Comments Off on Pain is weakness leaving the body
Dec 042014
 

That’s what crazy people say. And if that’s true, then call me Samson with a lush head of hair.

I thought it would be a grand idea to take a countryside bike tour around the Kathmandu Valley.  My head imagined quaint country roads through farms and forest. Stopping here and there to take pictures, walk around. I did not expect 32 kilometers (20 miles) of the hardest bike ride of my life. Also known as the most beautiful bike ride from Hell.

We met at the Kathmandu Guest House at 10 am. There were just four of us. Shannon, a student from New Zeaand; Mike, a corproate accountant from Australia; and Dan, Mike’s friend and a business banker. These three had just climbed to Mount Everest Base Camp last week. I was way out of my league.

We were fitted with  our bikes and helmets. Surely there would be a car to take us out of the city. Another misconception in a day full of surprises. We hopped on our bikes and rolled out into the chaotic streets of Thamel. If you’ve read my earlier posts, you may have a fairly accurate picture of what these streets look like. Let me describe it from the vantage point of a tourist on bike.

Don’t bother looking left or right as you enter the street. You have a better chance of survival if you just close you eyes and pray. You must have just as much trust in yourself as you do the other drivers on the street, that they will slow down. Looking at your potential demise will just make it harder to take the risk.

You roll slowly into traffic and miraculously you are one with the stream of rickshaws, cars, and motorbikes. It’s best to pick a motorbike and follow it through the traffic. It will  part the sea of pedestrians for you. And take no caution zipping through narrow holes between cars. Otherwise you simply won’t make it through. You will be surprised how small of a nook you can squeeze through. Don’t pay attention to the honking either. Keep Dori’s mottto in your  head: “Just keep swiming.” Calm is of the essence.

Your next challenge (the crowded tourist streets of Thamel were easy) is crossing the major freeway into the outlying towns that will take you into the mountains. Be aggressive and keep your eyes ahead of you. Find a gap in the stream of traffic and take immediately, peddling as quickly as you can. Cars and buses will come within inches of your knees and head. The drivers will honk and yell at you. A black tar-cloud of exhaust will burst from th tailpipe of the car in front of you, temporarily blinding you. Let the adreneline propell you foward through the unorganized malay of motorized vehicles and pedestrians. Just keep swimming.

Somehow you’ve made it through with your elbows in tact. That’s important because now you’ve got to cycle up into the mountains and you will need every part of your body to fucntion properly.  The streets become less and less crowded as you go up. The buildings fewer and fewer. Almost seamlessly you are now on a paved road of moderate incline with the forest on your left and a cliff on your right. There is just enough room for one car to pass by. Hug the side of the road that doesn’t end in a steep tumble through shacks and rocks and shrubs.

The air is getting noticably cooler and thinner as you go higher and higher. Your heart pumps faster and you lungs strain to squeeze more oxygen out of air. But it is very peaceful. Almost quiet, with the exception of passing traffic every now and then.

The guide veers off to the right and stops at a vantage point. The group dismounts their bikes and you catch your breath, if it hasn’t been taken away by the spectacular  view of Kathmandu Valley. You can see three-story houses huddled together in the great bowl of the mountains. Every house is painted brightly with a different color. Sharp pinks, bursting yellows, and cerulan blues. When down in the valley, it’s hard to see the mountains because of the smog and clouds. But up here you can clearly see how green they are.

By now I hope you’ve got a sense of what it would feel, so I’ll switch to my perspective so I can share some of my thoughts along the ride.

The guide says “Jam jam,” which means “Let’s go!” And off we were again, up the steep mountain road. Eventually it levelled off and I was able to catch my breath and let my legs rest a bit as we coasted around some curves. Thinkin the worst was over, I was in a very happy place! Another misunderstanding!

The ride down was harder than the ride up! Our guide took us down a winding journey through the mountain villages. I’m sure they were lovely but I didn’t get much of a look because all of my focus was on the rocky, dusty, uneven dirt paths. I was trying hard to keep as much distance between my face and the ground. Which was rather difficult because the ride was so bumpy that I couldn’t  keep my eyes locked on one place!  Every now and then when the path was smoother, I managed to wave and say “Namaste” to the local folks, and they would smile and wave back.

Most of the ride down was like riding a jack-hammer. My brain jostled as the bike went kajug-a-jug-a-jug-jug over rocks and through pot holes. My hands were white with a tight grip. To make the ride even more adventurous, throw in the ferral dogs running and growling after us as we carried on. I found myself switching between “Good lord please let this be over,” and “Come on, Kristin, you can do this!” The only thing that kept me going was the fact that I would be stranded if I stopped.

The bumpy, dusty, jostling, dog-dodging ride lasted for 10 miles or so before the path turned into pavement again and there were more cars and motorbikes.  We were heading back into the city! Sweet baby Jesus I had made it! The guide led us back through the busy streets and soon the place began to look familiar again.  After defying Kathmandu traffic a second time, we rolled back into the hotel courtyard where the journey began. Jelly-legged and butt-numbed, I dismounted my bike, said goodbye to the group and hustled back to my hotel room, where I immediately shoved my face with a club sandwich, took a shower, and passed out for seven hours.

Mountain biking in the Kathmandu Valley was probably the physically hardest thing I have ever done. But now I feel like biking in NYC will be cake.

Tally-ho!

Kristin

 

Eight hours without internet and an afternoon in the garden

 Posted by Kristin Schutz at 2:31 am  Nepal  Comments Off on Eight hours without internet and an afternoon in the garden
Nov 272014
 

Happy Thanksgiving, fellow Americans!

Today I am thankful for the opportunity to be in this beautiful country, soon to be volunteering. I am grateful to the people who got me here. And I am thankful that sometimes technology doesn’t work (but also thankful when it does!).

Unlike most cities in the US, Kathmandu has WiFi everywhere. Just about every cafe, restaurant, hostel, and hotel boasts of it. Just try walking into an Olive Garden in your hometown and asking for the WiFi password without getting shot down. It’s a great feature of this city! But for some reason this morning (I woke up at 6 am, thank you jet lag!) that luxury wasn’t there to oblige my technological impulse that is checking my phone first thing when I wake up.

Immediately I was frustrated. How was I going to plan my day? Post to Instagram? Stalk people on Facebook? Before the sun fully rose I was already lost and alone and craving my interwebs. I begrudingly took my iPhone and my book to the restaurant cafe, ordered some breakfast, and then proceeded to  check the internet connection every five minutes like a conditioned lab rat waiting for my intervals of drugs. While waiting for my food to arrive, another American walked into the restaurant. He was  awaiting internet as well, although much more patiently than I. His name is Nick, he is a black car driver from NJ, and had just done two weeks of trekking around Mt. Everest. He hadn’t checked his email in 15 days. Who was this unicorn with the will power of Odysseus?!

Food always helps so after some scrambled eggs and coffee I settled into my fate for the day. And my brief chat with Nick inspired me to just chill out about the whole thing. After breakfast I wandered into the city to find a guidebook and do this the old fashioned way. I found a nice shop and asked the woman behind the counter for a Kathmandu Valley guide book. She had one. As I handed her some Rupees, she asked me about why I was in Nepal, how long I was here for, if I had any friends. When I answered her last question with “not yet” she sweetly said that if she didn’t have to work she would have liked to show me around. Whether or not she was just being polite, the gesture warmed my heart. I think I’ll head back to that shop tomorrow.

With book in tow, I headed back the hotel. Still no internet. Fine. I can do this like the pioneers. Opening the book, I found the Garden of Dreams listed as a top attraction in the city. And it wasn’t too far from Thamel. The hotel clerk gave me some directions, wished me good luck (told me to call him if I get lost), and I was on my way back into the busy streets.

The Garden of Dreams is in a new direction from where I was yesterday so I got to learn a new set of streets. I knew I was getting closer to the attraction when more and more tourists mixed in with locals.

The garden was truly something of a dream. So quite and lush. I could just faintly here the street noises beneath the rippling sounds of water. Waterfalls and fountains could be found all over the complex.  Only a few plants were in bloom but the garden was still very green. Tourists and locals sat on benches, read books, napped on mats, held hands and wandered around.  It felt like an idyllic greek garden, and I believe that was the intention of the Austrian patron who built it. I sought out my own quiet place to read, and found a tiled bench and table on a terrace overlooking the main grounds. It was quiet and cool, out of the sun and chaos. I stayed until I finished my book (Tom Robbins, Villa Incognito. I recommend any of his books! Start with Jitterbug Perfume if you can).

Right on cue, my stomach told me it was lunch time. As I’ve said before, when it beckons I follow it with immediate and unwavering devotion. Back to Sat Ghumti for some food!

Soon it was late afternoon and I realized that I had gone most of the day without access to the internet. I had two very pleasant conversations and enjoyed a gorgeous afternoon among flowers and plants. Of course as soon as the internet was back up, I’ve hardly been off it. I admit to my weaknesses.

I will also admit to being a little lonely these past few days. Most other travlers have friends or partners. Adventures are always more fun when you have a pal. But I’m trying to focus on the value of solitude. Left with my own thoughts and no one to be concerned with but myself for the next few days. Soon I’ll be thrust into teaching and living with new people and will probably not have as much alone time. But I am really looking forward to being more immersed in the culture, rather than just a tourist. That was the whole point!

These blog posts so far haven’t been very introspective; mostly just play-by-plays. I realized that today at the garden and wondered why? I think it’s because there is just so much to soak in. People, colors, smells, noises, buildings, cars. My brain is so occupied just trying to navigate the new surroundings that there isn’ t much room for anything else! I’m sure the  thoughts will come as time passes.

Heading to bed early tonight as I’m getting up early in the morning to go on a day trip to Patan and Bhaktapur (just outside of Kathmandu) with my new New Jersian friend. Then dinner with a local mutual friend.

Carry on!

 

Much Love,

Kristin

Like a virgin: My first venture into the city.

 Posted by Kristin Schutz at 9:20 pm  Nepal  Comments Off on Like a virgin: My first venture into the city.
Nov 262014
 

I did not write last night, and the internet was down this morning so this is a long post. If you make it to the end, you may reward yourelf with a cookie.

Kathmandu doesn’t really smell bad and the streets are clear of trash for the  most part. New York City has more stench and litter.

My friend, Brian, asked me to report on how the city smells, commenting that every city has a unique smell. So I’ve been paying close attention to that in the past two days.

Petrol, curry, and insence. But not all mixed together. The smells burst out on their own stage with little competition. The petrol coming from the motorbikes and cars that zip through crowds down the narrow streets. Curry coming from restaurants and homes. Insence the same. The wafts of curry and spices are my favorite so far. One in particular smelled sweet, almost like cinnamon but with definite notes of tumeric.

Speaking of motorbikes and cars, I am amazed that there aren’t thousands of squashed pedestrian feet every day here. If you aren’t comfortable with motorized wheels coming within inches of your legs and elbows, stay away from Kathmandu. It’s thrilling to confidently navigate the mobiles and the crowds. I thank  New York City for that! The traffic and the crowds are not what make me anxious here.  Honestly, I was more nervous about picking the right store to buy a dress from! Since there are so many and they all seem to be selling the same items, with a few variations.

Yesterday I walked to Dubar Square. It was about a 30-minute walk from the hotel through the narrow shop/people/mobile-filled streets. The area of Thamel where I am staying is fairly “quiet.” So when I entered the square full of about five-times as many people, cars, and rickshaws, it was quite a shock! Durbar Square is the plaza in front of the former royal palace. It is a maze of temples, shrines, and stepped-structures. Locals and tourists climbed on everything. Any place where a person could feasibly sit, there was a human.

I found my own place to park and stayed for a while, just people-watching. Every now and then a vendor would approach me with purses, jewlery, flutes, etc. for sale. I watched some Nepali children run up the steps of a building and then slide down, butt first on their bellies, the round, stone sides of the steps. Squeeling with joy and repeating the process over and over again. I then wandered farther into the square where there  were more shrines and structures. And a cow, or rather a calf. At first I thought the calf belonged to a group of women nearby. But they soon got up and walked away. Intrigued by my first cow sighting, I followed quietly behind her. She meandered through the square undisturbed. Found a shady spot and laid down. I’m curious as to who feeds her, as she clearly wasn’t neglected.

By this time I was pretty hungry and decided to go back to Sat Ghumti (the neighborhood of Thamel where I a staying). If you know me well, you know I plan my days around meals. So it was time for lunch! Up until this point I had not gotten lost. Well, I did. But it wasn’t very exciting so I won’t go into much detail. I had turned down the wrong street. I kept walking and walking and walking. Nothing looked familiar, yet nothing looked particularly unfamiliar, since the streets all look the same to my fresh eyes. I simply asked a woman for directions and she pointed the way. Within 10 minutes I was back in Sat Ghumti. I wasn’t nervous about getting lost, surprisingly. Everyone has been so nice here, I knew I could find help if I needed it.

I ate lunch at a hip place called Places (yup!). Clearly geared toward young people, locals and tourists, the joint played popular music and had art all over the walls. There were a few people my age lounging, reading books, chatting. I will definitely return there sometime in the next three months.

After that, I went into a food-inspired jet-lag coma. It was 4pm here and I thought it would be a grand idea to take a little nap before heading out again. Wrong. I woke up 7 hours later, fully-clothed, contacts stuck dry to my eyeballs. I could have written this blog post then, but I was too groggy. Instead I watched a few episodes of Friends and finally fell asleep again at 2 am.

Which brings us to today and the next blog post!

 

Much Love,

Kristin

Good Morning Nepal!

 Posted by Kristin Schutz at 3:45 pm  Nepal  Comments Off on Good Morning Nepal!
Nov 252014
 

Outside the window, across the alley way, a cluster of children giggle and run around the hanging laundry and potted  plants on their family’s yellow-painted terrace. I’m guessing they are siblings but they seemed too well behaved with each other for that to be the case! A woman wrapped in a green towel washes her long black hair in a bucket of soapy water.

Several stories down in the same alley, shops are opening for the morning, A young man pats off the dust on his brightly patterned purses, baskets, and pillows. The worker at the store next next door sets out neat display of insence on the endge of the sidwalk. A few cars honk but I can’t see where  they are coming from.

This is my first morning in Nepal, in the Thamel district. It’s crisp and bright, with a little chill in the air. I have no plans today so I think I will ask the hotel staff where to get some coffee and breakfast, and a few places to sight see in the neighborhood. Right now I’m running on cliff bars and water.

The cab dropped me off at the Heritage Home Hotel  late last night and I was immediately greeted with a smile and “Namaste” by the clerk, a young man in his 20s probably.

This trip has been six months in the making and so much has happened in that time. I am in a state of disbelief that I am actually here! So many people have made this adventure possible, financially and emotionally. I could not have done this without them. There are two  lessons I have learned in this process. First, people want to help you. Alll you have to do is humble yourself and ask. As soon as I put out the word that I was headed to Nepal to volunteer for three months and neeeded help, so many people (most of whome I knew, but a few that I didn’t even know!). Second, the Universe will help you get to where you are supposed to be, but not  without placing challenges and detours in your way first. Are these to test your comittment to you decision? Are these hardships there to make your journey more meaningful? I can’t be sure, but it seems that way. Either way, the message is the same: forge ahead, turn to the people who care about you, never stop thinking about the end goal, and you will arrive where you need to be.

I have never travelled this far, for this long, by myself. To be honest, I am a little nervous to leave the hotel and wander the streets. I will stand out like a blonde American in a foreign city! But everyone here seems to be very friendly so far.

More to come soon! Heading out into the city now!

Much Love,

Kristin

 

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