A Journey to Bhimpokhara

 Posted by Kristin Schutz at 12:19 am  Nepal
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:

 

  2 Responses to “A Journey to Bhimpokhara”

  1. oh Kristin -I am so proud of you! You are beautiful And doing such an unselfish thing . I love your posts! You are a fabulous writer! Maybe a book of your experiences will follow! Keep safe! I love you!
    Grandma

  2. Kristin.what a delight to hear all about your experiences. the village and hike sounded so special, the jeep ride up, not so much! the pictures are great. love , Ross

 

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