I am in Kathmandu, Nepal. The name always sounded exotic to me. To get here I went Albany, Atlanta, Tokyo, Bangkok, Kathmandu. You could make a song out of my itinerary. Or you can be a conductor calling out the stops on a train. Either way, it is a long, long way from home.
I am in Nepal to work with two groups, Keenan’s Kids and Filters for Families. I am staying at the Filters for Families house which is comfortable. I am working with Dr. Linda Smith who lives and is currently in Colorado. I was met at the airport by her secretary, Sharmila. Sharmila speaks some English, but she is hesitant to use it. She has brought her son with her as he is more confident in the language. At the house I meet the housekeeper/cook who is eager to please, but speaks no English. I feel like a little kid because they both follow my every move. They really want me to be comfortable. When their day is done, I have to literally push them out the door as they are worried about me being alone.
The Nepalis greet everyone with a gesture called namaste. They join their palms together and bring them just below the chin with the fingers up. It is used as a sign of respect. I like this form of greeting as it lets you greet one another is a soft way.
It is my first night, and I need to eat. The landlord walks me to get pizza. Our walk takes us through a labyrinth of lanes which surround where I live. This part reminds me of England, but the comparison ends there. It is easy to get lost during the day, so you can imagine what it is like at night. I am trying to memorize our path, but I am tired, and it is hard to get my bearings. At first I thought the lanes were perfect as we could avoid the main roads. The lanes are not wide enough for a car, but they are perfect for motorcycles. Thus the walkers have to share the lane. There is constant honking of horns from cars and cycles in Kathmandu. They honk so often that one tends to ignore the sound. I have to be very aware of where I am as they drive on the “other” side of the road. In the lane coming home, a motorcycle got so close to me that I moved quickly to avoid him and lost my balance. I caught myself on an iron gate that was to my right. My first night in Kathmandu, and I am almost hurt. The traffic makes me nervous. I doubt I will get used to these motor bikes demanding their right of way with no consideration for the people walking. I must always be aware.
I am locked in the house for the night with confidence. I have asked all of the necessary questions as I will be alone. I know how to lock and unlock the main door. I am ready for the loss of electricity (which happens daily for hours) by having my head lamp with me, and the landlord is close by in the same complex. The electricity does go off for a few hours, but that is not a problem. All is well until the next morning. The house keeper knocks on the door, and I cannot unlock it. I try and I try but have no luck. Apparently the lock has decided to stick for the first time when I am here. The landlord comes to give me directions to open it, but nothing works. There is another door that they seldom use, so they tell me to open it. Right. It has four locks. It takes me time to figure out what I have to do, but I am finally freed from the house. Now the landlord tries the first lock. He cannot get it to work either. After thirty minutes he forces it open. I suggest oil to loosen the lock. He agrees, and the lock now works easily. I was Home Alone, but no one could get in. That is good, I think.
The third night I went out to dinner. I came home, and my key would not open the door. I tried and tried. I had opened it before so I knew I was doing it correctly. I had to get help again. First the landlord’s daughter-in–law, and she could not open it. Then the landlord’s son came. It took him several tries to get it open. What is it with the locks on the door?
I wake up with the sun coming in through the curtains. There is no heat in the house so it is chilly getting out of bed. There is no electricity until later in the day, and that means the coffee pot does not work. I have to boil the grounds over the gas burner and filter it so I can have my coffee. I take my coffee to the terrace which is facing the east with the sun warming me. I am in a large city, but I hear the roosters crowing as they compete with the dogs barking. In front of our small compound there is a lane. I see children on their way to school, men on their way to work, and older folks taking their daily stroll. I hear men hawking their wares in a loud sing-song voice. One man is calling for the garbage. He has a bike attached to a cart with garbage in it. As the families bring their garbage, the man stands on top of the cart stomping down the bags of garbage he already has. Next I hear the man selling vegetables calling for buyers. I look in his cart and see vegetables I am familiar with. Cauliflower is in season now so he has several heads, plus broccoli, carrots, and lots of greens. This is where my vegetables for lunch are bought. There is also a peanut man, and he is selling cashews. And last, but not least is the man selling pots and pans. We may be in a big city, but not everyone goes to the store. It is so much easier to have the store come to you.
My housekeeper/cook, Sudesna, arrives and cooks me breakfast. She makes me eggs and toast. I could get accustomed to this. She then joins me on the terrace with her cup of tea. The sun is warm, and I am happy. We are on the second floor, and I can see all around me. I see a woman brushing her teeth on her third floor terrace across from us. This makes me wonder if she has water in her home. I see a grandfather working in his garden, and that makes me happy.
My landlord has said many Napali’s are house poor as they have put all of their money in buying a home. He owns his own home, but he says he does not have a lot of money otherwise. His is a large home with three floors. Many families in Nepal have the oldest son with his family living with them. I have been to three homes of local families, and in each the extended family lives together. I like this because the grandparents are cared for. I have also been told that many Nepalis go to the U.S. for an education and end up living there. I have met parents whose children live in Illinois, Kansas, Texas, and California. This surprises me.
Keenan’s Kids came into being because of a tragedy. Keenan was a young American girl who was volunteering at the Orchid Day Care Center in Kathmandu. She lost her life trying to help someone else. Her parents decided to help this Center by giving them a piece of fruit each Friday in Keenan’s name.
My Women’s Global Giving Circle (WGGC) supported this “Fruit on Fridays” program after a member gave a presentation on Keenan’s Kids. My photographer friend, Emma, decided she wanted to go with me on a trip to document in pictures what I was doing. We decided that Kathmandu would be the trip to visit the Orchid Day Care Center. I wanted to continue this practice of giving these children one piece of fruit each week. It was a treat for them.
I visited this Center today. What a joy!! I traveled twenty minutes through dusty, narrow streets, with buildings in various shades of gray. The taxi lets me off, I walk past piles of old bricks for two blocks. I turn the corner, and there is more of the same; gravel under my feet and no color to be found. And then to my right I see this Day Care Center. It is an oasis in a very dry desert. There I see my first bright colors of the day. I feel good before I even enter the grounds.
The person who started this Program in 2006 and continues to run it is Bina. She is a small bundle of energy. She knows what is happening everywhere in the complex. Bina started this Day Care for fifteen children from the families of the lowest caste. The women had been taking their children with them to work. They mixed cement, and their children would spend the entire day on their mothers’ backs. The Center has grown, and Bina now also takes in children who are abused at home or are malnourished. In addition, this Day Care Center provides extra help to 73 children; 20 of whom attend the local school and live at the school hostel.
The first thing I noticed was the cleanliness. There are 180 children, and I see nothing eschew. They have a garden with vegetables, clothes are hanging on the line to dry, and I see a swept courtyard. There are potty chairs clean and lined up. The toilet area is clean, and there is no smell. I applaud Bina’s effort.
Bina shows me the youngest child who is in a bassinet. She is only a few months old. Next I visit those younger than two. They are sooo cute. They are well supervised and quiet. I watch as they are given rice and milk. It is a large portion for a little body. I could not eat it all in one sitting, but these children are apparently very hungry. They have not been in this Center for the past ten days because it has been a national holiday. I am guessing they got little to eat at home during that time. Some of the children can eat by themselves, but some need to be fed. The workers/volunteers are patient and loving.
I visit the kitchen and the storage area for the vegetables and rice. The storage area has bags of rice from floor to ceiling. Bina has to buy in bulk as it keeps the price down. In the kitchen large pots are on the burners cooking rice, lentils, and milk. The children receive two meals each day. They eat mostly rice and beans. They would not get any fruit were it not for Keenan’s Kids. It is just too expensive. It will be fun to see them receive the fruit.
I am fortunate because the house I am staying at is in a non-tourist area. I get to see the Napali people up close and personal. They are all friendly and eager to help. They are healthy looking with tan skin and a bit of color in their cheeks. It may be due to the elevation of 4600 feet. Their hair and eyes are dark, almost black. Most of the people are Hindu. The women wear their saris with style. I asked Sharmila how many she had, and the answer surprised me. She told me she had at least thirty. She is obviously not the average person that I am here to help. I am sure those in the lower castes have only one or two at the very most.
Everyone tells me they no longer have a caste system. However, everyone knows which caste they and others are in. They are born to a caste, and it affects their dress, occupation and family life. The highest is the Brahman which is comprised of priests and scholars. At the lowest end are the Sudra who are the laborers and untouchables. The untouchables do the jobs that no one else wants to do; clean the streets as they sidestep the traffic around them, clean toilets, get the wood from the river where the bodies are cremated. The caste system was abolished when their government became democratic. This system has been passed from generation to generation, and it will take generations to eliminate it for good.
Friday is a special day. First I will visit the Orchid Day Care Center for the Fruit on Fridays program. I arrive in the morning as the teachers bring the older children out of the classrooms. They stand in a straight line waiting for their bananas. The very little children sit patiently on their boards on the ground. I watch as they receive their fruit. I am excited watching them eat their one banana. It is definitely a treat for them. I am so happy I am a part of this Program.
Today also happens to be National Sport Day in Nepal. How appropriate that I am a coach. I watch each class run relay races. Every child in the Center takes part in these relays. In the relays they must find a red ribbon, a balloon, hold a bead in a spoon, or run with a partner with a balloon between them. With the little ones, the teachers have to actually put them in their lanes. They are so funny. The children are precious, and they are all trying their best. I am watching these races with people from Germany who are also donating for this Day Care. We all laugh and laugh.
Friday is also special because Emma arrives. She is a photographer with special skills. Her work astounds me. Plus she smiles and laughs easily. I wait for her to arrive across from the exit at the airport. There has to be over 100 Nepalis waiting, and I am the only woman. I have no fear even though it is late at night as the men all want to talk to me. She arrives, and you would never know she had spent hours in the air. I am so happy to have a person to share Nepal with.
The first day Emma is here we go to meet Tsering Sherpa. Keenan from Keenan’s Kids lived with Tsering and her family when she was in Nepal volunteering at the Orchid Day Care Center. Tsering is beautiful with an intriguing face. She was born in Nepal and studied in India. She is a gentle, caring person. If my daughter were visiting Nepal, I would want her to board with Tsering, her painter husband, daughter and son. She took us to visit the Great stupa of Boudhanath. It was so peaceful. This stupa is one of the largest and most significant Buddhist monuments in the world. We entered the monastery. This is where Tsering lit many candles and prayed for Keenan. If I lived here, I would want to be friends with Tsering. She is a good soul.
I take Emma to the Day Care Center on Sunday. We see two very young siblings who are here for the first time. They are scared to death and sit so close together that nothing can pass between them. Little do they know that this is the best thing that has happened to them in their short lives. The youngest is crying and almost sits on his sister’s lap. Bina will make them comfortable in a short period of time.
We visit the classrooms to see what the children are learning. We see their hand writing which is meticulous. Even the small children print neatly and legibly. We ask about a flower on a picture, and they start spelling the names of flower after flower. It is rote learning, and it is working in this Center. It is often criticized because it does not encourage thinking, just memorization. No matter, these children are learning. I am amazed what Bina is doing with education in this Center. These children get an extra boost for life by being here.
I have sent Keenan’s Kids extra money. I wanted to visit the Day Care Center before I decided what I wanted the money to go toward. After my second visit, I knew I wanted to pay for the education, room and board for a girl from Orchid Day Care Center. Now to find the girl. It was actually quite easy. I asked to meet a girl who was doing well in classes and had a zest for learning. I met a nine year old girl whose background was terrible. Her name was Devaki. When she was six years old her mother would lock her in their ten foot square room with her younger sister. She would look after her sibling until her mother would come home to unlock the door about six at night. Her mother, father and younger sister moved ten hours away by bus to live with the father’s family. They left Devaki and two other sisters in Kathmandu. The eldest girl lives on her own in the city, and Devaki and her younger sister are two of nine who live at the Orchid Day Care Center all the time. For those that have no home, Bina supplies a place to live.
I met Devaki who is number one in her class. The girl is a gem. When she grows up, she wants to run a day care center. That would certainly be giving back. We will pay her schooling and board for three years. Bina will send regular reports of her progress to Keenan’s Kids. This scholarship will be in Keenan’s name. I feel good about this decision.
We are off to Parasi, far to the south of Nepal; Emma, Sharmila and me. This is the first time Sharmila has flown. She is a bit nervous, but she really hides it well. Sharmila will be my translator while we are in the south as they speak no English. We land, take a taxi and arrive in Parasi. It is very hot and dry in this area of Nepal, just north of India. The house is rented by Filters for Families and is about two miles from town. It is basic, but it does have running water and electricity most of the time. I am grateful for this.
The bathroom is rustic. It is old and appears dirty. There is a small sink with one faucet that may come apart at any touch. Linoleum on the floor makes it very slippery when the tank overflows, which happens often. The toilet and shower facilities leave a lot to be desired. In fact, I do not take a real shower because of the conditions; a sponge bath will have to do. I wash my hair in the back of the house where there is a hose. The thing to remember is that the bathroom serves the purpose. I am fortunate to have an indoor bathroom, and this home is a palace compared to the other homes I see here in Parasi. We sleep under mosquito netting as these insects are trying to find us. I am more successful than they are; at least the first night.
Our kitchen has a gas burner, and the sink is small with a tube draining the water straight down. This tube only goes two feet, and then there is a space from the tube to the actual drain. Our cook sits on the counter in the lotus position to rinse the dishes, as his helper sits on a low stool on the floor soaping them well. It is a picture waiting to be taken; where is Emma? They have obviously done this many times. The food they prepare is delicious, especially the spinach. My favorite is the yogurt which is made in the village.
This is harvest season in the south of Nepal. The land is flat with the Himalayas far in the distance. From the air, as well as on the ground, I see rectangles and rectangles of land separated by foot paths. We are definitely in a farming community. They have harvested the rice about a month ago. Now they are harvesting the wheat. They are using water buffalo, steers and some tractors to pull the heavy loads. There is something peaceful about the movement of the water buffalo doing their daily work; they are strong, yet move slowly. The dust from the crop is everywhere. Combine that with the dust from the unpaved roads, and the pollution from the large trucks, and one can have a breathing problem. Face masks are commonplace.
Transportation is by foot, bicycle and motor cycle. There are very few cars in this remote area thirteen kilometers from the border with India. On the thirty-five minute ride to the airport, we see only two cars. What we do see are many large cargo trucks transporting burlap bags of wheat. It makes me wonder where this newly harvested wheat is bound. I would guess mainly south to India.
I have to hire a jeep to get to the remote villages to buy animals and visit the schools we are helping. This proves to be difficult. We finally find a jeep for hire, but he wants too much money. Thus the bargaining begins. We settle on a price that I think is too high, but I really have no choice. I hire him daily and am constantly bargaining to make the trips less expensive.
I am funding six wells and donating thirty four water filters in Parasi. The six wells will be in schools so many children will have access to clean water. Two wells have been drilled when I arrive. They are located at the Manari primary and secondary schools. The primary school has no arsenic in their water supply so we have given them a Sawyer filter. The secondary school does have arsenic so we they will get a Sono filter. Four more schools will be selected after carefully examining their applications for a new well.
The Sawyer filter is used for shallow wells (less than 40 feet) when there is no arsenic in the water supply. However there is bacteria and heavy silt in these shallow wells which necessitate a filter. The filter will remove 99.9% of the bacteria and silt. The Sawyer filter will last decades if cared for properly. We are putting four of these filters in schools which have shallow wells.
When the wells have arsenic we use the Soto filter. This filter has a Composite Iron Matrix (CIM) in it that is manufactured in Bangladesh. The CIM will remove twenty three metals, pathogens and some viruses. This filter will last eleven to twelve years. There is a definite need for these Soto filters so we have donated thirty to this area surrounding Parasi.
First on my list is visiting four of the schools where I am drilling a well and/or giving them filters. We visit the two secondary schools each with over 500 students. Each school must sign a contract stating they will use their filters as stated. I give the schools basic math supplies and pencils. I donate soccer balls to students who are jubilant. At one school twenty-five boys take off kicking and laughing, all wanting to be part of the action.
On this trip I am dedicating two filters to Matt Preece. Matt went to the school where I taught. He was a wonderful young man. He worked for World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and I thought I would meet him someday on one of my trips. This is the trip, but I am meeting him in a different way. Matt was working in Nepal six years ago. He and his fellow workers lost their lives in a helicopter crash in a remote area of Nepal. The filters for Matt will be in two primary schools. His name is on the stands for the filters, and his picture in a beautiful frame is hung near the two filters.
The two elementary schools I visited have no arsenic in their water and need only Sawyer filters. My favorite school was the Manari Primary School. They invited us to a ceremony for the well and water filter. We arrived to two classes lined up holding leis of flowers. They had picked marigolds and wildflowers and presented them to me one by one. It was heartfelt and beautiful. We did a special ceremony to explain who Matt was and present them with his picture. I wish Matt’s friends and family were here with me. They would be so happy as the day was a fitting tribute to a special young man.
The next part of this trip is buying and giving animals. Before I came to Nepal, I decided I wanted to buy goats, ducks and chickens to give to families in need. Each family had to agree to abide by the contract we wrote. It stated that they must give away the first female offspring of the goat and two of the first brood of the ducks or chickens. They must give them to a family who does not have any animals. I have done this in many other countries, and it really helps an entire village. The husband and wife must both sign the contract. It they are illiterate, they put their thumbprint in ink on the contract.
The families have been picked with respect to age, number of children, income, and the number of animals they already own. It is hard work finding those who want to sell, bargaining, and finally transporting these animals to their new homes. Day after day we spend over six hours driving over dusty roads going to small villages looking for people to sell their goats, ducks or chickens. I never found any chickens to buy, much to my dismay. I was more successful with goats and ducks. Two of the goats I bought were pregnant. That makes me the happiest because I know two families will have a baby goat within three months.
One of the families I gave animals to stands out in my mind. The woman was almost 60 years old and a widow. She had seven family members living with her. Their home was alone on the road, away from the village. They were very happy when we delivered the ducks, but I knew I had to do more for this woman who had the burden of the family on her back. On the last day I was able to find another goat to give to her. On our last stop we returned to her home. The entire family was puzzled as to why we had come back. When they saw the goat, they were in disbelief. Emma and I were laughing with happiness as we pulled away. This is what Christmas is all about; it came early this year in Parasi.
The second night in Parasi I decided I wanted to take a walk in our local village. Emma and I turned the corner to find women working hard binding the straw from the fields into bundles. We were to find out these women and their families had come two hours by bus for this job. They were migrant workers going from farm to farm to eek out a living. It is a hard life working from dusk to dawn and breathing in the dust from the grain crops. Emma wanted to give them a goat, but they were traveling out of the area the following day. Trust me, she would find another family to help.
The next morning a young man arrives at the house to be paid for helping to drill the well at one of the Primary schools. I see him sitting in the porch area of our field office. The man is visibly shaking. I ask our interpreter the reason for his nervousness. She said he heard we were giving animals to families, and he asked if he could receive one. He was brave to ask, and I am sure that is why he is shaking. Here was Emma’s chance. That day we each bargained and bought a goat. We had to wait until the following day to deliver them. We put the goats outside our field office, and they were happy to eat until their bellies were full. Toward dusk they would not stop crying. Apparently they were very spoiled kids (pun intended). After this I observed what people did with their animals as we traveled from village to village. They took their goats with them to the fields each day, and then at night they put them in their “homes”. Many homes were divided into two parts. In one was a sleeping area, and in the other part they stored their grain, cooked and kept their goats at night. These goats were spoiled. I am sure it was done out of necessity. The goats are really their only possession of value.
Our two goats are spending the night with us. We put them at one end of the enclosed porch area. They are fine if they can see us. When we go into another room, they start bleating. It will be a long night. Emma’s bedroom is on the other side of the wall from the goats. She will play the mother hen, oops, mother goat until we deliver these goats in the morning. The family Emma has chosen to receive this present is totally surprised to see her leading this goat to their house. I am the fortunate one because I see the joy an animal brings to these families that have so little. It also brings them hope for a better future. God bless them.
It has been wonderful to have Emma on this trip seeing what I see, but through a different lens. She is easy to get along with, and I love her positive attitude. I am fortunate she wanted to document what I am doing. She has been and will continue to work to help others less fortunate in this world.
This has been a busy, yet fruitful trip. Every day has been a new adventure, whether it is figuring out how to tell the taxi driver where I live, making sure the water will be piped to the new filters, groping in the dark for my head lamp or finding animals to buy. The people who helped me were patient, and the people I helped were grateful. May I never lose sight of how much I have and how little others have. That will always be my motivating force.