नेपाल नमस्कार! (Namaste, Nepal!)

A little caveat: I wrote this post about one and a half weeks into my arrival in Nepal, but, due to some good ol’ procrastination, I am posting what I wrote then now (i.e., one month into my time in Nep). However, since none of the thoughts and impressions I had then were sheer BS, they t-o-t-a-l-l-y still apply to this very day. Currently in the process of writing the life and times of Gonzo from mid-May ‘til now – a rather arduous task considering the series of wild events that have unfolded. For readers wanting a sneak preview of Gonzo’s next post, I invite you to check out this exciting audiovisualHappy reading, my fellow Gonzites.

Swyambhu PanoramaAfter a pretty rowdy route from Vancouver, Canada; to Jiaxing, China; to Chengdu, China; to Lhasa, Tibet; and finally, Kathmandu, Nepal, I finally made it to what I will be calling home for the next three months. Hospitality and never-ending smiles, dust and face masks, and the mandatory staple of dal bhat were just some of the things that comprised my first impressions of this nook of the country. However, I just want to briefly put a major emphasis on this idea of hospitality: during my one-night layover in Chengdu, I ran into Santosh, a Nepali man, who was coincidentally staying at the same hotel as me and catching the same flight to Kathmandu the following morning. During the brief moments we chatted, before even landing on Nepali turf, Santosh had already invited me to come to his family’s home for dinner, and offered to show me around the Kathmandu area if need be. Although a bit wary of such extended warmth, it increasingly became apparent that this was fairly standard, and by no means ‘creepy’.

Further, the first night in my hostel in Kathmandu also echoed Santosh’s kindness: after missing the driver sent to pick me up at the airport – my arrival was delayed due to the plane having to quickly ascend from landing as Kathmandu’s itty bitty runway was occupied – the hostel manager didn’t only lift the driver fee (which I felt pretty guilty about considering India’s recent fuel embargo on the country), but made sure I got around safely and efficiently, and felt comfortable in this new place (e.g., making sure I paid fair cab fares, having a good night’s rest, ensuring that I had coffee in the morning, etc.). Again – generally speaking – things that we may find somewhat ‘creepy’ were just standard deeds; for example, not only has the driver and manager of the first hostel, but Santosh as well, have texted/called me to make sure I’m keeping safe in the area I’m staying in. Anyways, soaking all this in, I hope I’m getting this idea of care and hospitality across to y’all.

Touch down in Thamel.

Okay, so some readers may be wondering why on god’s green earth am I in Nepal? Well folks, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finally finished the academic component of my International Studies degree (i.e., all the required courses and credits), and am now topping off my undergrad career with the required foreign exchange component of my studies – or so I thought. Literally sitting in the NGO office I am volunteering with about a week into my placement, I received an e-mail from my university noting that this requirement, has now been shifted to a recommendation of the International Studies program. As irritating as this is in a monetary sense, and the fact that it’s prolonging the time of my graduation, I’m optimistic as this organization not only addresses a human rights issue that has been touched upon multiple times during the course of my studies (namely, human trafficking and all the harms that fall under this multifaceted problem), but is giving me insight into what working with an NGO is like.

The day after my arrival/my first day of working at the NGO was initiated by the instructions: “look for two white people” (i.e., the two other volunteers – Darren from Dublin and Monica from New Brunswick – arriving a week prior to me) in Kim Dole Choke in the Swayambhu area of Kathmandu. However, being newly acquainted with the area, I assumed that the head office was Kim Dole, rather than a central area of Swayambhu. Driving straight through Kim Dole on the reliance of locals’ knowledge of the organization, my cab driver magically dropped me off right at the office – an arrival the first of its kind, as the building is tucked away in Swayambhu’s alleys.

Induction was fairly standard: signing papers, being introduced to the – yet again – warm and friendly staff, and watching PowerPoints and other media regarding all-things-relevant (i.e., from the issues that NGO tackles, to what to do in the event of a Nepali earthquake). Darren and Monica helped be settle into our home, introduced me to the boys and girls living in organization’s childcare homes, helped me identify some landmarks in order to navigate myself around town, and all the essential joints in the Swayambhu area. We wrapped up the day with watching a Hindi horror film at the boys’ house with popcorn in hand-rolled newspaper cones.

The following day, the three of us embarked on a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip to Nagarkot, where we would be chasing sunsets and sunrises over the Himalayas. Although the sunrise – to which we began hiking for at 4:00 AM – was blocked by some cloud cover, we could nonetheless make out the Himalayas by sunset the night before. The weekend consisted of getting to know one another over card games accompanied by whiskey and wine.

After reeking of sweat from the arduous hike to the viewpoint tower that morning, and the overall number of times climbing up and down the stairs to our cute little cabin (the name of our accommodation was called “The End of the Universe” if that gives you a sense of how many flights of hand-crafted stairs we had to climb just to reach it); and being covered in dust (which is pretty standard when in Nepal), the three of us decided to treat ourselves in Thamel with a deep tissue massage and some tasty grub. We ended up dining at a popular joint in the heart of the Thamel called OR2K, which was conveniently recommended to me prior to my arrival by a fellow gym attendee in Canada. Although the ambience restaurant was a bit of a granola overdose, the atmosphere can be a nice little escape for Vancouverites craving something familiar; and the menu speaks to the fusion soul. However, we consumed more than our body could handle; in fact, my anticipated mild gluten intolerance became a reality after consuming some naan and focaccia bread later that evening. Sharp stomach pains and cold sweats accompanied me through the night, and had me leaving work early the following day to rest some more.

Shades of Nagarkot.

After recovering, the ensuing work week was primarily marked by us volunteers prepping for our NGO’s weekly pub trivia night, to which collected funds go to the kids’ weekend activities. We decided to go all-out and combine everything from standard trivia questions (flash question: what classic cocktail is comprised of vodka, Galliano and orange juice?); to identifying national sites; to fill-in-the-blanks karaoke; to running Pictionary; and, of course, the timeless classic activity of beer pong. The night of and before the trivia night (which we wittingly titled “Raising the Bar”) consisted of us harassing backpackers in the streets of Thamel with flyers. Our bothering seemed to pay of: not only was the night successful in a financial sense (over 300 Rps, whaaat!); but the crowd seemed to genuinely and thoroughly enjoy themselves, and became aware of the contentious issues that our NGO addresses.

After skulling back a few beves before and during the trivia (don’t worry – all within the boundaries) in order to boost our host/ess confidence, we all sporadically decided to go bar-hopping with a few of the trivia-goers that night. After running through monsoon-like rain, and tending to different joints that specialized in the punk, reggae and club scene, my co-volunteers and I arrived at our sweet little abode by the wee hours of the morning, gorging on the limited supplies of food (i.e., a jar of peanut butter and rice cakes). I’ll have y’all know that the limited food supply isn’t due to the costliness of food here; hell no – coming from Canada, the most delicious and protein-packed goods come at more than affordable prices here in Nepal. But rather, due to an extended power cut, and therefore, proper refrigeration. To be sure, these power cuts aren’t part of Nepal’s loadshedding schedule, but rather, a pesky monkey that nibbled on one of our home’s wires. Although under a week, the NGO has been doing everything under the sun in order to retrieve electricity: constant phone calls to the local electrical company (of which they redundantly reply “yes, 100% tomorrow”, but to no avail), bribery, contacting government officials, and setting out on motorcycles in Swayambhu to physically find electricians to come to our home and mend the broken wires.

Anyways, during the work day following trivia night, our lethargies were cured by the office’s didi’s tea – an infusion of flavours we cannot seem to mark nor find anywhere else in the Kathmandu area. Work proceeded as usual, but by the end of the day, we decided that we further recover with a cup of Baskin Robbins in the heart of Thamel… nothing like one of the 31 flavours melting down your esophagus to call it a night.

Pub trivia and post-pub trivia antics.

IMG_7423Not the day of lethargies per se, but nonetheless: a photo of didi and her out-of-this-world tea.

After getting back to our ‘normal’ selves, we began the weekend with our ritual of engaging in activities with the youth. Darren and the boys set out to see an action-packed film at the cinema, while the Monica, myself and the girls began the day with 7:00 AM Zumba class, relaxation and laughing yoga, and shared some inspirational quotes from a book kindly donated by my totally Zen father (thanks, pa – the text if currently and absolute his in the girls’ home).

Afterwards, Monica and I set out to get some grub from one of the weekend markets at the suggestion of the NGO’s Communications Director. After finding out the first one was closed, we set foot to the second place of recommendation: Le Sherpa Market. After calling the Communications Director to retrieve this market’s directions, only to get further lost (as the market has recently changed locations), we conveniently bumped into a lady and her children who were going to the same market after venturing through hidden alleys in the Lazimpat district. The lady very kindly accommodated us in an auto rickshaw and paid for our fare to the market. Similar to my instructions during my first day of beginning work at the NGO, the Communication Director’s hint of “looking for [a lot of] white people [with bags]” seemed to become a key indicator in finding Le Sherpa Market. Indeed, the market was comprised of a mix of tourists, but what was interesting was that it seemed to also be a little niche for expats: organic vegetables, speciality cheeses and coffees, decadent pastries, and other fine goods.

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Vietnamese salad rolls in Lazimpat (not photographed: bagels).

After burning our dough on items which we seldom give a shit for back home (Monica got a bagel with cream cheese for god’s sake, and it looked like the best damn bagel that ever graced this earth – keep in mind, she’s been here for a little longer than I), we headed to the local pool to shower. Oh yeah, on top of the power shortage, I should mention that the water has also been recently cut for some reason. After washing my hair – which had accumulated to a noodle-like mass of grease after eleven days – I felt like a new woman.

The following day, we embarked on an adventure to Sukute in the Sindhupalchowk District where Darren will be stationed for a month for the NGO’s alternative teacher’s assistance placement. Even though Monica and I will not be here, it is only part of the Three Musketeer’s code of conduct to share and be informed about one another’s volunteer experiences. We attended the inauguration of the brand new Shree Sukute Lower Secondary School after the former school had been completely destroyed after the 2015 earthquake.

It’s only been a little under two weeks since I started my work here at the NGO, but in short, I can tell you that Nepal – at least the areas that I have visited – is a country marked by smiles, going with the flow, and happiness with the little things in life. Perhaps a bit flowery to some, but if I can leave you with Nepal in a nutshell so far, take the words of the NGO’s Nepali language instructor: NEPAL – “Never End Peace and Love”.

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