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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Headless chickens

We are currently experiencing all the festivities of the Tihar Festival (Festival of Lights) which includes many fascinating traditions including cow worship, fireworks, lots of fried dough, and which feels like a cross somewhere between Christmas, Halloween, and the 4th of July! We also said goodbye to the kids at the Social Development Centre on Saturday (more of a "See you later" really, as goodbyes are hard and seem so final), wrapping up our volunteering commitments for the year. I have much to write about...!

However, we are running around like chickens with our heads cut off getting ready to set out on a trek to Everest Base Camp...and headless chickens don't type very fast. Will have to, instead, catch up in a couple weeks.


We Need a Vacation!

I know it sounds weird to hear 2 people who have had the opportunity to travel around the world for the last 10 months say that they need a vacation, but it's true. We have just finished our 30th week of volunteering (32 if you count the 2 weeks lost to volunteering after we got robbed...) and WE NEED A VACATION.

Saturday was our last day at the Orphanage and our last day of volunteering on our trip. The last 8 weeks are going to be spent hiking, biking, trekking and sitting on a beach. And if I might say so myself, I think we've earned a little R and R. We leave in less than 12 hours to head out on our Mt. Everest Base Camp Trek and we are pumped!

I think that trekking for the next 2 weeks will allow us the time to reflect on the volunteering experiences we have had and to really soak in what a truly great journey this has been. We have had such wonderful experiences at every place we have been and although we are looking forward to the next 8 weeks of being footloose and fancy free we are also sad knowing that our volunteering has come to an end.

From Guatemala, to Ecuador, Peru, Uganda, Kenya and Nepal, we have met some of the most truly beautiful and inspiring people that we have ever known. We have witnessed courage, strength, love, determination, compassion and humility in places where you wouldn't believe they could exist. It truly has been an honor and the best thing I have ever done in my life...


Monday, October 12, 2009

Seeking postcard perfection

We left the City Sunday morning in search of the postcard perfect views promised from the village of Nagarkot. As quoted from Lonely Planet (they are never wrong are they?), "...between October and March a trip to Nagarkot will nearly always be rewarded with a view over the Himalaya...". We had planned the trip as an overnight outing last weekend but canceled when the forecast was for cloud and rain. The purpose of the trip was, after all, to take in the amazing views.

The sun returned to us on Thursday and I checked and double checked the forecast for Nagarkot through Monday. All sunshine! No chance of rain. With the promise of 30 degree celcius highs, we set out. In just two and a half hours we reached Nagarkot, a whopping 32km east of Kathmandu, by public bus(es).

After negotiating the switchbacks to reach this viewpoint village, we walked the strip of lodging in search of the perfect accommodation. Having decided to treat ourselves, the checklist included windows out over the mountain range, maybe a balcony, and what the heck, a rooftop patio would be nice... We found a huge range of accommodation, everything from dingy two dollar dorm room right up to one hundred dollar suites. Most of the accommodation recommended in our trusty Lonely Planet guide however, was accommodating Kathmandu's Narcotics Anonymous conference being held, as chance would have it, this very same weekend.

Hungry from our travels, we ended up stumbling across an adorable hillside restaurant that happened to operate two small cabins. Basic, nothing fancy, but adorable and perfect with a view out over the valley. Just what we had been looking for for our overnight retreat from the City!

This little gem would cost us but a few bucks so we decided to splurge on a bottle of wine. (We hiked uptown, found the finest of 'blush' wines, got lost making our way back, wound up smack in the middle of the NA meeting, and cut in front of the stage, all eyes on us, with brown bag in hand,... oops). A whole lot chillier than in Kathmandu, we bundled up determined to soak up the peace of the great outdoors and enjoy a glass (mug) of wine by the light of the moon before turning in. Planning to hike up to the lookout tower to catch the sunrise, we peeked out our window at 5am to see a blanket of clouds. We could barely make out the hillside below let alone an elusive mountain range off in the distance. Realizing that we had experienced several hours of uninterrupted sleep (a rarity in Kathmandu) in this peaceful little paradise, we shrugged off the disappointment and welcomed a few more hours of shuteye. Surely the clouds would clear by late morning, the forecast was for a beautiful day afterall...

After breakfast, we hiked up to the lookout tower. The following photos compare my postcard perfection to the view we were actually afforded.

We decided to continue our hike down through the countryside from Nagarkot to Banepa, increasing our chances at catching a view of the Himalaya. Surely the clouds would clear by early afternoon, the forecast was for a beautiful day afterall...

Standing in the pouring down rain somewhere between Nagarkot and Banepa, I gave in to the fact that, not only had Lonely Planet lied but so had the weatherman! Taking on an optimistic, and somewhat naive, attitude I had decided against packing my raincoat. Though I shivered in the wet and cold, the friendly greetings and smiles from the women that we passed en route (who also were not afforded the luxury of rainwear), carting their huge baskets on their backs and sloshing through the puddles in their barefeet while pointing our way down the hillside, kept us motivated.

We eventually found the sunshine and I can't think of a better way to have spent the afternoon than navigating the countryside of the beautiful Kathmandu Valley. Though we still have yet to feast our eyes on the Himalaya, finding the peace and quiet of the hillsides and the beauty of the villages along the way was a more than satisfying alternative.


As I have mentioned before, I love watching new places wake up in the morning, the ritual of it all as people go about their daily routines. Sadly, however, Kathmandu wakes up a little earlier than I do, or earlier than I used to I should say. The choir of dogs barking does not quite drown out the honking horns of the busses, the bell ringing or the chants being sung by the man who does laps around the neighborhood every morning pushing his bicycle. With the 'when in Rome' mentality, and as an alternative to lying in bed with our pillows over our ears, we have taken to joining in.

Being out and about in the mornings here in Kathmandu is especially interesting. You don’t have to look very far to witness both Hindu and Buddhist rituals being practiced and prayers being offered. From the grand temples where candles are lit and sacrifices are made, to women collecting jasmine blossoms (the sacred flower of the Hindu love God), to the individual early morning worshippers seemingly alone with their prayers at the park where we run, the passion for spirituality is evidenced everywhere. And ofcourse, not just in the mornings.

Last weekend Troy and I visited Pashupatinath, Nepal's most important Hindu temple sitting on the banks of the holy Bagmati River, a popular cremation site. Now I'm not talking about a location for funerals per say, or wakes, or even private moments of reflection here. What I'm talking about is very public burning of bodies (for lack of any more tactful description) on the banks of the river. Sure, there is some ritual involved, but remarkably little ceremony by our standards. Logs are laid, a body is lifted on top, and the fire is lit. Some friends and family do attend but this is in addition to dozens of tourists (most with an embarassingly long zoom lens), tour guides, hawkers, and yes, even cotton candy and balloon animal sellers looking on from the opposite bank.

As we took in the scene, looking in one direction at flames rising up from a platform and ashes being swept into the water, and looking in the other direction at the children jumping from the footbridge into the very same river below as if emphasizing the very open and calm attitude towards death that we have found in so much of the world, it was impossible not to reflect on our own mortality. Contemplating the contrast of life and death playing out before us left us with an uncomfortable sense of intruding on something very personal on one hand and a comfortable peace with the circle of life being accepted so openly on the other.

It was definitely an interesting experience but we made an abrupt exit when we suddenly became keenly aware that the smoke we were inhaling was not exactly from a simple campfire. And in case you're wondering, no, I could not muster an appetite for cotton candy either.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Many Hats

Over the past week and a half we have taken on many roles. From tourist, to volunteer, to bumper car driver, to hiker, to cook, to personal shopper, to scary ride hand-holder, to sculptor, to reader, to vomit mopper-upper, to card dealer, and a few things in between, we have managed to wear many hats and keep things interesting.

Sight seeing has taken us to the Kopan Monastery where we admired the Stupha, took in wise words from the Dalai Lama and left some love for Buddha.

Hiking took us to the highest point in the Nagarjun Forest Reserve from where we were rewarded with views of the valley and the seemingly never ending stream of prayer flags adorning the treetops.

We celebrated the Dasain festival and took the kids to one of their favorite places, the Children's Fun Park!
From bumper cars to the ferris wheel, it was your typical carnival. Without the safety restraints, seat belts, or the 'You must be this tall to ride' signs ofcourse. Without these restrictions, the littlest of kids tested their moxy on the biggest of rides and so, yes, in this picture Troy is in fact physically restraining a six year old to keep her in her seat on the big boat ride!

We watched their faces fill with excitement as they experienced the thrills that were on offer and kept watching as their faces turned varius shades of green after said moxy tests. When the ice cream could no longer be held inside tummies, we called it a day.

At the house we honed our UNO playing skills and have learned to hide our hands to avoid being duped by strategy orchestrated around the table in Nepali. We have also learned the favorite local card game and are subjected to wild group cheers, finger pointing and 'Loser!' chants when we are beat. Aren't kids great? Troy has started playing them for money, insisting that this is okay because he has only just broken even...

We have been sculptors, creating plasticine masterpieces while also discovering that it is equally fun to throw it in the air and have it stick to the ceiling. We have giggled and wrestled, entertained budding magicians...

We even put on chefs hats for a day and were taught how to make momos, a traditional nepali steamed dumpling.

It was kind of like making perogies. Many hands required and hours of preparation to cut, roll, and pinch hundreds of perfect little momos. And all of this followed by complete consumption in a single meal!

Our culinary teaching in exchange was Worms-in-Dirt (you know, chocolate pudding, cookie crumbs and gummy worms). Although, we had to substitute the worms for these other gummy things that actually looked like larvae because we could seriously not find worms... Gummy dinosaurs, sure. Gummy fish, sharks or bears, easy. Gummy cheeseburgers, gummy spaghetti, and gummy strawberries, no problem. What happened to gummy worms??!!. The mud pies were inhaled however so apparently I was the only one bothered by the lack of worms.

Thanks to funds raised by the organization ELI Abroad, we were able to take on the role of shoppers as we have been charged with spending donated funds as we see fit to benefit the orphanage. After much discussion with the house mother, we have allocated some money for house needs and some money to be spent directly on the children.

ELI's generous contribution has allowed us the opportunity to really feel the joy of giving. Though we have not yet exhausted the funds, so far the children have each been decked out in a new pair of clothes, shoes were purchased for those who had outgrown them, individual water bottles were handed out and a new pressure cooker and steemer were added to the kitchen.

But perhaps the most fulfilling has been to help foster the joy of reading. The selection of reading materials at the house was looking a bit sparse and tired so we set aside a budget to help bring it back to life. We took the kids four and five at a time to a bookstore to pick out some new material. An adventure all on its own!

The young kids were mesmerized by size (the bigger the better), hard covers, and plastic wrap. Actually being able to read the book came secondary. We had to talk many a six year old down from Harry Potter, The Collector's Edition, to something a little more comfortable and explain that No, we couldn't add plastic wrap to their selections once we left the store. It was fun to watch the agonizing decisions being made by some, surrounded by so many choices, while others walked in and requested specific titles without having to look around.

Although, two days later, young Chek's book, My first 1000 words, is still tucked away securely in it's vacuum packaging, most of the kids have delved into their new books and each time we visit they announce proudly the number of pages they have read in our absence. From Mr. Happy to Nancy Drew to The Alchemist, the new library includes almost forty books, covers all reading levels, and promises to keep them busy for a while :).

Hats off to you ELI!