Sara Keinath - Peace Corps Nepal. Community Forestry.
Undergraduate at Alma College - Biology Major.
Sara was both a Peace Corps Volunteer and a graduate student in the Loret Miller Ruppe Peace Corps Masters International Program at Michigan Tech. Find out more about this program at http://peacecorps.mtu.edu/ .
Mrs. Larson's Second Grade class at E.B. Holman School helped Sara decide what to bring to Nepal.
From a postcard mailed on 18 March 2001
"Well, I have arrived! The here was very long and exhausting,
but provided good opportunities to bond with my fellow trainees.
We have stayed for a few days in Kathmandu, getting shots and
basic survival lessons. Tomorrow we leave for Narayanghat (in
the Terai, near Chitwan) where our training site is; we go to
our host families on the 22nd. So far everything has been great
- I really like my group, and the training staff we have met is
very competent and personable.
This is a most amazing and
Mid-April 2001, Postcard
"Right now I'm living in the Terai, the hot, southern region. Training is going very well--I am learning tons! Everyday I can speak a little more Nepali, but I have much to learn. My host family is great, very patient with my stumbling language skills. On the whole, I feel as if I'm settling in and adjusting pretty well. It's not all mountain vistas and smiles--it's a lot of very hard work, but I'm glad to be finally at it."
First of all, I love training! We have an excellent staff, truly dedicated and hard-working people, and Peach Corps/Nepal, having been in this country for almost 40 years now, is an efficient and caring organization.
Our group (N/192) is only the 3rd or 4th group in Nepal to have Community Based Training (CBT). This means we are placed in small villages with only a few other trainees and a language trainer (each in our own host family); we have class with these people every day, and about once every 2 weeks we all gather at a hub site for large group sessions (they use to have compound based trainings, and hub site based trainings-where everyone lived together in a compound, where everyone lived in host families near a central hub site, respectively- but they found that trainees spent all of their time together, didn't bond with their families, and didn't really enter their communities. Consequently, the volunteers then had a hard time adjusting to the isolation at post). My training group has 6 groups of people, clustered in 3 villages: Community Forestry (3 people-me, Kim Magraw, and Curtis Hartesnstine) and Environment Awareness/National Parks (2 people) living in Jajuwa; Water Sanitation (3 people) and Youth Development (4 people) living in Chetrapur; and Reproductive Health (7 people) and Auxiliary Nurse/Midwife (5 people) living in Gaindakot. Our hub site is in Gaindakot; my village is about a 45 minute walk from the hub site. All of our villages are near the larger town of Narayanghat (if you're looking on a map, it's near Chitwan National Park, in the southern part of Nepal).
In a very general sense, Nepal has 3 major geographical sections, running in east-west bands: The Terai, the hot southernmost band; the middle hills, the middle band; and the mountains, the northernmost band (with the Himals). My training site is in the Terai. Though we can see the hills (and on a clear day, we can even se the Himals!) it is very flat here. It is also very hot; though I don't have a thermometer, the temperatures are generally in the 80's and 90's Fahrenheit (quite a change from the feet of snow an sub-freezing temperatures of Michigan that I left!).
Although the hills and mountains make up the majority of the country geographically, the majority of people live in the Terai. Being so flat, it is much more inhabitable and conducive to towns and cities then the hills and mountains are. The rapid influx of people, however, only happened after DDT spraying (back in the 50's?) drastically decreased the mosquitos and malaria.
My village, Jajuwa, is situated right across the river from
Marayarghat. While it is a small village, because it's so close
to the city, we get a lot of city noise and pollution. Our classroom
is located about 3 minutes away from my house, on the second floor
of a youth center building (the ground floor is basically a library
of sorts that opens once or twice a week). We have both language
training (5 hours a day) and technical training (3-4 hours a day)
We have 2 language trainers for our group. Sristi with the Community Foresters and Priya with the National Parks, though we sometimes switch around to be exposed to different accents and teaching styles. Sristi is an excellent teacher, and my language skills have progressed much faster than I had thought they would. Although it is obvious much to learn. I feel comfortable where I am now and the pace I'm learning at. In some ways Nepali is a very hard language to learn (for example, they have 4 different ways of pronouncing t, and four d's as well) but it is also an easy language to learn (i.e. the sentences are very structural, and that structure doesn't change much). Thank you, Blair, for buying me those language books before I left and encouraging me to study - having that foundation under me really helped when I got here!
My host family consists of 3 people - my didi (older sister), Pratima; her husband, my dai (older brother), Krishna; and Krishna's daughter by his first marriage (his first wife died), my hahini (younger sister), Indu. Pratima-didi is in her late 20's, Krishna-dai is 40-ish, and Indu-hahini is 16. (Everyone in this country is called using their name, or title/relationship, or both. Calling someone "dai" or "didi" does not always indicate a family relationship, but a respect for their position. This can make some things easier, like when you forget someone's name, but some things harder, like figuring out how people really are related!). My family, my didi and bahin especially, are really wonderful. None of them speak a lot of English, which was a detriment to communication in the early days, but forced me to practice my Nepali! They are very patient, but also willing to help me learn. They have become my safe zone - I feel comfortable talking with them without stressing too much about getting my sentences perfect. This gives me a place to speak freely and learn from my mistakes, without the pressure of getting it right in front of a teacher or unfamiliar Nepali. My family has also been understanding of my likes and dislikes, especially concerning food, as well as willing to give me space. We've really bonded well; after 2 months of living with them, I really do feel I've gained another family!
As I mentioned before, our entire training group meets at the hub site once every 2 weeks for large group sessions. This is when we have our Medical and Cross-cultural Training. Medical Training is pretty much how to keep yourself healthy - nutrition, what to do in case of sickness, how to deal with unwanted attention/sexual harassment, that kind of stuff. They've given us a very complete medical kit, as well as a "Bridge to Health" book that addresses pretty much anything that can happen to us. We have 3 PCMO's (Peace Corps Medical Officers) - Olive, Chris, and Mary Ellen - as well as a dentist on staff (apparently we're pretty lucky to have a dentist in country). They are all competent and caring people, and I feel in safe hands, medically.
At the end of April, we went on our post visit, where we traveled to our future homes for a few days. My post is Rabi, Panchtar, in the far eastern middle hills. I will be working with the Rabi Range Post, the village level HMG forestry office. As my introduction letter states "As a Peace Corps Community Forestry Volunteer, Ms. Sara D. Keinath will be working in Panchtar for two years (beginning from June 2001 to May 2003) with District Forest Office Staff to establish and train village level "forest-user" group committees to manage and utilize community forests. She will also help to develop and implement community forest management plans. In addition, she plays a key role in monitoring progress in community forestry projects."
How do you get to work every day?
Rabi is located on a ridge at approximately 2000 m. It is off the main North-South road by about 2 hours Jeep or bus ride, 8 hours walking (the road is not paved, and closed to vehicles during the monsoon season, basically late May to September). The Health Post in town says they serve 5,000 people, but that includes people who walk hours to get there; the town of Rabi itself is pretty small. It has a haat bazaar which is basically a traveling market, very similar to a farmer's market in the States, but with a carnival atmosphere. People come from all over to buy and sell everything - fruits, vegetables, shovels, special cooked goods, medicines, flip-flops, clothes, straw mats, livestock, spices, etc.
What work? (Ha Ha) Truly, I haven't done much. (And no matter how many times you told us we wouldn't, Blair, I didn't really understand how hard that would be!) The first month we were here (myself and my postmate Dinah) we basically looked for places to live (derras). That whole time, we lived in an extra room of the Forest Office, and we were the only ones there (save for the sporadic appearances of the drunk Forest Guards); the Rangers, Ram, and Binod, were supposedly out doing fieldwork. They did show up once at the end of June, for about 24 hours; they said they were tying up loose ends for the end of the fiscal year, and that they'd be back soon. I haven't seen either one since.
This didn't bother me too much at first, as I was focused on finding a place to live, and then setting up my derra. My dai (older brother) that I'm now living with is the chairman of one of the local Community Forests, so I was still able to attend a few meetings, to feel like I was doing something. However, I was relieved when a new Ranger showed up in late July: Nur Mahamad, transferred from Taplejon. He's young, enthusiastic, and seems willing to work.
Soon after Nur showed up, we had meetings with representatives of several of the local Community Forest User Groups, to introduce ourselves and learn about each of the groups. We discussed their previous activities, levels of motivation within the group, and the problems they perceived. Nur speaks decent English, so he was able to help me understand the conversation when it got beyond my level of comprehension.
Nur and I have also discussed several training slotted for the winter months (it doesn't seem like much gets done during the monsoon season). Possible topics include: Thinning & Pruning, Resin tapping, and use of Non-Timber Forest Products. We are also talking about holding interaction programs, where several groups come together to discuss what's worked and what hasn't in their forests.
Recently, I've been tagging along with my dai on his errands; he's the type of guy who seems to know everyone. Through him, I've met many of the tulomanches (literally 'big men' but generally means the important people, the big-wigs of the town) in the area. This may prove important later, as they are the people who get things done, or give the permission for things to get done; in either case, good people to have on my side.
I've met the new District Forest Officer, Sudir Koirala. He was very friendly, excited to meet me, speaks great English. He, also, went to school in Scotland (I spent a term abroad there during my undergrad days), so we traded stories, and compared the weather. He seemed disappointed that I hadn't been placed in Phidim, the District Center; I told him what I'd been told - that the previous DFO (or the DFO at the time of request) had specifically noted that I not be placed in the District level, as previous volunteers at the District level didn't seem to be effective. He didn't seem convinced of that, but I don't think there's much he can do about it at this point (I hope). He did mention the possibility of me doing trainings around the District, which I wouldn't be opposed to, after I've reached a point where I could actually do that.
My 'job' has become increasingly unclear over the past few months (the opposite of what I'd hoped would happen). Nur is happy enough to work with me, but neither he nor I really understand what my role should be. The biggest obstacle at this point is my grasp of Nepali; (stumbling at best). I couldn't present a training right now even if I had the technical knowledge (resin tapping??). So I go to the meetings, I meet the people, I drink a lot of chiya, and I take a lot of notes.
Though it did take a long time to find a place to live, I ended up with a great place; a bit small, but the family I live with is wonderful, and the location beautiful.
I have 2 rooms, a sleeping room and a kitchen, which were built as additions to the original house. So one wall in each room is the previous outer (mud) wall of the house; the other three walls in my sleeping room are wood, in my kitchen , tin. Currently I have mud floors, but after monsoon they're going to build me wooden floors.
Just outside my derra is the family tap (my source of water) and down the path a ways is our "bathroom" (a bamboo enclosure to bucket bathe in) and our charpi (squat toilet). We do have electricity, but only for about 3 or 4 hours every night (even then, the flow is variable and sporadic).
My house is located about a ½ hour walk from the main Rabi bazaar; our village is called Keshon Kopa. Our house is surrounded by flowers of every color and shape, and further up and down the hill are fields of corn, soybeans, and vegetables. If I walk up the hill a little, I have a spectacular view of the Panehthar hills (on a clear day).
Nonna teaches how to make marigold necklaces.
My derra is situated between my family's house, and their kitchen building, putting me in the middle of things. This isn't too bad, though, as it keeps me from feeling lonely! My family is fantastic, having welcomed me with open arms like a long-lost family member. Rajendra and Laxmi are the parents, but as they're only about 10 years older than me, I call them dai and didi (older brother and older sister). Their children are Seeseera, 12 (my bahini, younger sister) and Oyenbee, 8 (my bhai, younger brother). Seeseera lives at a boarding school in another district, so I've only met her once. Laxmi's bahini Susan (16) also lives with us. Tikka, a boy of about 10, also lives with us as a sort of household helper, though he is practically a member of the family. Rajendra's mother and father and other assorted family members live down the hill from us. Every one has unconditionally welcomed me, and helped me feel at home here.
My family members are my primary teachers and guides; every day they teach me something new. They help me with my Nepali (and I, often, with their English) as well as teaching me some Rai. (Nepal has dozens of ethnic groups, each with their own language and customs; my family is part of the Rai ethnic group.) They also teach me about daily life as a farmer in the middle hills; I've learned all about growing, picking, and processing chiya (tea); how mustard oil is made; how rice flour is made; and countless other little things along the way (like how to transplant phul kopi, cauliflower). Now it's makai (corn) season, so we are starting to harvest and dry piles and piles of makai. So while I don't have much "work" to do, I'm certainly keeping busy!
Our VAC (Volunteer Action Committee) had planned social events for each evening [of the Volunteer Conference in Kathmandu], barbecues and scavenger hunts and such, culminating in a private party at the Rox Bar at the Hyatt Hotel on Tuesday night. But with the increased security concerns, the PC brass decided that the Hyatt party would have to be cancelled, since we'd all be coming home late (there was an unofficial curfew at about 8 p.m.). Well, our VAC worked long and hard, with both PC and the Hyatt, and worked out a sweet deal: we could still have the party at the Hyatt if we all stayed the night there. The Hyatt gave us a really good deal (reportedly $225 rooms for $30), and since it was a security issue, PC was willing to pay for our rooms! So for one night, we all felt like royalty, as we danced the night away in the fanciest place most of us have ever been in our entire lives (let alone the developing country we live in). Rooms you could swing dance in, real pillows (four of them!) on king-sized beds, cable, bathtubs, three phones per room (one right next to the toilet!), scalding hot water, fluffy bath towels, hardwood floors, a comfy couch and coffee table (complete with artsy centerpiece) in the room, not to mention the American-style pool, Jacuzzi, gym and ritzy bar, all on an estate big enough you could forget you were in Nepal &SHY; all was ours for a night. It was pure luxury. The stars were all lined up for us that day
Mid June 2002.
In May, Peace Corps officially changed my site from Rabi, Panchthar, to Phidim Panchthar, because of the unresolved security condition in Rabi. Phidim is the District cetnter, not too far away from my original site, but a whole new situation. Although I was initially reluctant to give up Rabi, there are both advantages and disadvantages to the move to Phidim.
In Phidim I have easier access to the offices, mail, communication, and transportation, and on clear days I have a great view of the Himals from my new porch! Phidim is a lot bigger than Rabi, so things like buying fruits and vegetables are easier, but that also means it's harder to get to know the community Starting over has been difficult, especially because I had worked so hard to make my place in Rabi. Bistari, bistari (slowly, slowly).
Part of my focus during the quarter was trying to retrieve my things from Rabi. As of right now, because of a combination of security and weather issues, I still haven't been allowed to go get my stuff. We are now exploring other options, perhaps having my family cut the lock, pack up my stuff and porter it out. I've been living a pretty bare-bones existence for the past 6 months, thinking that I'd be getting back to Rabi, or at least getting my stuff, soon; therefore, PC/N has recently given me an extra chunk of money, in order to buy household items again, like pots and pans and bedding. However, I also had a lot of resources in Rabi, as well as my monsoon shoes and photos of home and other essential items. I still hope to retrieve them soon.
My other focus this quarter was getting to know people in the community, my office, and my new family. Being the district center, Phidim has many offices, such as Soil Conservation, Women's Development, Agriculture, and District Conservation District Office, Uddab Ghimere, seems especially motivated and willing to work with me.
My new derra (apartment) and family are about a half hour walk straight up the hill from the bazaar, in a small gathering of houses known as Matilo Gau. Although there is no escape from the heat, up the hill it seems a few degrees cooler, and there is a nice wind. The family is Limbu (an ethnic group similar to the Rais) and they are very patient with me; they've had several volunteers live with them before, so they are pretty used to crazy American habits. They are primarily a farming family, with a zoo of livestock as well (cows, goats, chickens, ducks).
My derra is the second floor of their secondary house; their sleeping quarters are on the first floor, their kitchen and Amaa's sleeping quarters are across the road. I have one big room with 6 windows and 2 doors; when everything's open it's pretty light in there, and doesn't feel so small. At least 4 volunteers have lived in this derra before me, so there were all sorts of random tings left over; some were useless, like expired medicines and size 16 tennis shoes, but other things I was immensely glad for, like the stove and a few pots. The floor and upper walls are wooden, and the bottom half of the alls are mud/dung. Being on the upper floor and in a sunnier climate, I have not (as yet) experienced as much mold or mildew as I did in Rabi.
View of Sara's family and house from the second floor of her house.
Phidim is at a much lower elevation that Rabi was, although I don't know the exact altitude. The majority of residents are Limbu, though there are a fair amount of caste Hindus in the bazaar now, too. We're at a low enough elevation to grow rice, but there isn't enough grown in the area to support the residents; rice is still trucked up from the Terai. The other major crops are corn, millet, potatoes, and other vegetables. There is also some tea grown, and a tea processing factory is located near my gau (village). There are several community forests based out of Phidim, with the forests within walking distance. For instance, the people in my gau collect fuelwood from the forest above us, about a 10 minute walk.
Another plan is to start teaching environmental education in the schools. I've got a rough plan in my head, but I need to talk with the teachers more about their curriculum. I've met a few teachers in town who were very excited about the idea of me coming in to teach. My plan is to start with older students, perhaps class 9 or 10, as they will understand my bongotingo (twisty-turny) Nepali easier than younger students.
View of one of the walks to work.
While I'm in the schools, I think I'll see if there's interest in a girls club. I've made friends with a few young girls, and they have indicated an interest in getting together to talk. There's a radio program on Saturdays called "A friend to talk to" (loosely translated) that's basically a talk show for teenagers (especially girls). Listeners write in with questions, and then they discuss them on-air. The topics include study habits, peer pressure, drugs, dating, sex and sexual health, love marriages, and caste issues. UNICEF has put together a companion booklet for this radio program, to help facilitate discussion with teenagers about these issues. Using these resources, I would like to give teenage girls a place to discuss the issues they are interested in, and help them find answers and accurate information.
17 September 2002
By the beginning of August, I was so frustrated I could scream. This was a combination of factors, including the lack of support from my office, the never-ending rain (the road from my derra to the bazaar turned into a muddy vertical slip-n-slide), the relentless "what is your name" screamed at me from every kid that saw me, and the increasing difficulty in acquiring water (whenever it rained, my family's dhara, water tap, would maryo, die, and we'd have to hike 10 minutes down a muddy road to haul back dirty water). I couldn't even work with the schools, as they were all on monsoon break or having exams. I knew I needed a break, a change of setting, in order to keep my sanity, so I devised a site exchange with PCV Robin Anderton in Birgunj.
Robin teaches English at a government primary school in Birgunj. When I had talked to teachers in Phidim about teaching Environmental Education, they had also asked if I could teach English. Since I only have limited experience in the classroom and no experience teaching English to foreign speakers, I figured I could use some PCV guidance. This turned out to be one of my best ideas yet!
In Birgunj, I was introduced to the phenomenon of a rewarding Volunteer life. Now, you have to understand that my life in general is not all that bad; for the most part, I enjoy my life in Nepal. I have friends and family in Panchthar that I treasure, and I have had some amazing experiences. But the work aspect, a big reason I came, has definitely been a disappointment, and far from rewarding. When I saw Robin teaching or interacting with her students, I could see what I'd been missing. Her kids love her and will do anything for her (including staying after school to learn more!) -- not just because she's a bideshi (foreigner), but because she's a good teacher and she cares about them.
Robin and I discussed teaching techniques, classroom management, how to deal with cheating, how to work with other teachers, and the balance between the curriculum and other activities. I observed Robin teach for a week, and I taught one English class, after which she gave me useful feedback. We also did some environmental education activities. Using my technical knowledge and experience with environmental ed., and Robin's understanding of the students and what they knew, we developed activities appropriate for her classes. These sessions we taught together, so we both got practice in this area. Again, Robin's comments as well as the students' reactions were helpful tools for my learning.
After I returned to Phidim, I got a call from the Forest Office: Nur, my previous counterpart, was back in town, and wanted to talk about our mushroom project! It turns out he talked to some groups in Rabi, and there are two all-female Leasehold Forestry groups that are really interested in a mushroom training. (Leasehold Forestry is a project similar to Community Forestry, but it is only for the poorest families in a community.) Nur really is a good ranger to work with, as he is motivated and willing to work; the only problem is that he is only in Phidim sporadically. However, after we looked at our calendars, we can't do the trainings until December anyway, so we've got time to work out the details.
The plan for the mushroom trainings has a few different parts. First, we're going to hold a training in Phidim, for people from the local CFUG's. Both Nur and myself will facilitate this training. Then we'll hold trainings in Rabi, and if I can't go (because of security problems), Nur will facilitate on his own; he'll have the experience of the first training under his belt. The women's motivator, Goma, might also help out. If all of these go well, we might then talk to the Women's Development Office to see if any of their groups are interested.
Sara and Sita Pasang.
As for funding, as this is a fairly low-cost training, I thought it would be fairly simple to find funds. However, the DFO told me he couldn't give me any money, so now Nur and I are writing a proposal to submit to NARMSAP (the Danish organization that funds many DF offices, including Panchthar's).
Like I mentioned before, these trainings won't be until December, because now it's monsoon, and soon it'll be Dasain and Tihar (the two biggest holidays of the year in Nepal) in October and November, and then there'll be the elections in late November (between the Maoist insurgency and the Prime Minister dissolving the parliament last May, the elections have become a really big deal this year). Besides writing the proposal and preparing the sessions, neither of which will take long, there's not much else for me to do with the office until December; I'm certainly glad I found other work on my own! So now I have work -- a project with my office with someone who wants to work with me, a project based on income generation that's targeted towards people who really need it; and a project with the schools doing environmental ed. and English it only took me a year and a half to get to this point!
In early September, I came into Kathmandu for the Curriculum Development Workshop for the N/195 training and to see medical; while I was in town, I visited Dr. Pande at IUCN again. He is the most active Nepali in the field of environmental education, and knows what everyone else is doing. He gave me a good list of other people and organizations to talk to and showed me some good resources. Unfortunately, my time with him and in the IUCN library was limited, but I hope to further explore these resources the next time I'm in town.
Rajendra and Laxmi visiting from Rabi.
13 December 2002 - Excerpts for Sara's Quarterly Report.
The proposal that Nur and I submitted in October was accepted by NARMSAP; in fact, they're really excited about it! A couple people from the NARMSAP Biratnagar Regional Training Office are even coming up to observe it. Here are the final details: the 2-day training is currently planned for 23-24 Dec; 20 members of Phidim-area CFUGs will be invited; Nur and I are the primary facilitators and will share the responsibilities of leading the sessions. The sessions consist of: advantages of mushrooms; nutrition; marketing; challenges; and a big practical, how-to session. The total budget is about Rs. 10,000 (about $125).
The experience of writing the proposal with Nur was very positive. In the beginning, my patience was taxed; it was hard to meld our ideas together and write something that made sense, especially with the language barrier. However, the longer we worked on it, the easier it got, and soon we found a good working groove. By the end, we had something we were both proud of.
As we were adding our signatures to the cover letter, Nur told me of his previous experience planning a training with a volunteer: at his previous post, he worked with a VSO volunteer who wanted to give a fire behavior training. She wrote the whole thing herself, and right before the training, gave it to Nur. In just a few days, he had to translate the whole thing into Nepali and prepare to present it. Not only was he frustrated by this, but he also felt the material was entirely inappropriate for the audience, as it was only theoretical information (no practical application), with many of the words untranslatable into Nepali. I asked him how he felt about our proposal. "That's just it, Sara-ji. This is our proposal, our project. We're both in there," he says as he taps the proposal. One small success for my files: there is now one more Ranger who knows how to write and submit a proposal, and plan a training from scratch.
Another lesson I learned: there are some things (everything?!?) in a culture you can't change. It is common in Nepal to give per diem to participants for going to a training; I think the original thinking was that they were leaving their primary responsibilities during that time, so they needed compensation for that in order to come. Now, however, everyone knows this - and they only come to the trainings for the money! I don't like this system, and thought that for my own training, I could do it my own way. However, after much discussion with Nur, he helped me realize that people won't come if there's no per diem. But since I still don't want people coming just for the money, I put a (culturally appropriate) participant requirement in the project: every participant will pay for their own seeds. At Rs. 35 a packet, it won't break the bank, but it will give the participants more of a sense of ownership, and people who aren't really interested won't want to shell out the money.
Now that the actual training is coming up in a few weeks, I'm starting to get nervous: this will be my first training I am responsible for, and it's in Nepali! But I feel pretty confident having Nur there with me. The DFO will also be there for most of it, as well as an officer from the District Agriculture Office. Between all of us, hopefully this will work.
In early December, we had the Natural Resources Volunteer Conference in Hetauda; I gave a small presentation about my experiences so far with the mushrooms and submitting a proposal to NARMSAP (who also funds the conference). Several of the new Volunteers got very excited about the project, and are interested in observing future trainings. (One of them might actually come up for this next one in a few weeks -- just what I need, extra pressure!) Now, with all these people interested and excited about this, I hope the actual training goes well. If it does, I hope to do more, either in Rabi or Phidim or perhaps Ilam.
14 March 2003
When I first got back to site, I started pestering PC again about going to Rabi. Much to my surprise, they _finally_ gave me permission! I even got permission to stay one night, probably because of the recent ceasefire. Getting a jeep was a long and frustrating 4 day process, but I finally met Mohan -- he is now and forever my favorite jeep driver. Diane stealthed down from Taplejung to go with me. All of a sudden after a 14 month wait I was on my way back to Rabi! It was unbelievable, truly surreal. As we bumped along the road, every rock, every tree, every gray windswept village held memories 'Remember eating eggs there with Joe?' 'Oh, look! he bushes where we always stopped to pee!' 'Remember the time you slipped down that hill and reached out for something to hold on to and grabbed onto a thorn bush?'
When we finally drove into Rabi (the first time I'd ever arrived in Rabi in a vehicle), I felt like I was watching a movie, a movie of my fantasy; I had dreamed of that moment for so long that when it came, it didn't even seem real. Everything looked the same, but different. Like when the color's not quite right on your TV. We spent some time in town, greeting old friends and neighbors. Everyone wanted to know where we had been, had we forgotten them, how long would we stay. After delegating the Forest Office guys to find porters, Diane and I started down the path to my old dhera.
I wasn't able to contact my Rai family before we left, so they had no idea I was coming (and I had no idea if they'd be there or not!). The universe was looking out for me they were all there, and Nonna almost started crying when she saw me. She came running up from the field and threw her arms around me with the biggest smile I've ever seen her wear, and stroked my hair all the way back up to the house.
Then it was time to open my dhera. Last summer Rajendra had cut the lock off my sleeping room, in order to bring me a few things, and since then, Nonna had been taking care of my stuff. She'd aired out my clothes and packed them with moth balls and swept the room. So when we opened the door, the room was surprisingly clean but the memories hit me like waves of a stink bomb. My MTU baseball hat, newspapers from October 2001, my favorite loongi, cards from friends and family, the baskets I bought at haat bazaar, shampoo from home -- everything had memories attached, memories that hadn't been opened in quite a while.
My kitchen room was another story -- it hadn't been opened since I left. After persuading the lock to open (thank the gods Diane wrote that number down 20 months ago!) and creaking open the door, a room full of cobwebs and layers of dirt greeted us like a stale attic. And when I say 'full of cobwebs,' I mean solid fill -- the spiders had spun infinite deposits of silk, taking up every air space available in that little room. I brandished a broom in front of me like I was breaking trail through the jungle to clear them away.
Everything was dirty, filthy dirty, and a few items of clothing had been eaten to shreds by the rats (they prefer silk to cotton or polyester, in case you were wondering). But most of my stuff was fundamentally ok, much to my surprised relief.
Thank god for Diane she was a whiz at packing! She'd warned me on the way there that I might be so distracted at seeing my stuff again that I wouldn't be able to pack efficiently -- I thought, nah, I know we only have a limited time, I'll just look at everything later. Nope -- she was right! (Diane moved out of Rabi last February, and Kim had helped her pack everything.) It was so overwhelming to see my stuff, I couldn't focus on packing -- I was like a kid on a sugar high -- I was easily distracted, running from one thing to another, starting one thing, then suddenly thinking of something else and switching gears. Diane just kept packing, and occasionally set me back on track.
After we finished packing (it only took us 2 hours!), we hiked over to Diane's old place (1 hour away) to see her family quickly. Then quick back through town, trying to spend a little bit of time with each of our friends, but still beat the sun to get back to my old place. Dinner with my family; Nonna made all my favorites -- pumpkin curry, black dal, dahi.
The next morning, Diane and I packed up the last bits of everything and made a final check-through. I started telling Nonna how to use the water filter (I left it for them since I had since acquired another one); she just nodded her head, nodded her head. Suddenly she grabbed me, pulled me into a desperate embrace. I fumbled forwords, but emotion quickly took over. Nonna was sobbing and shaking her head. "Narunus, narunus," I whispered as tears streamed down my face. This was it; I was finally leaving for good, there was no coming back. The harshness of the sudden reality ripped my heart. We hugged and cried for a long time. Rajendra shook my hand; he had a hard time speaking. I was no longer capable of speech. I picked up my bag, and touched Nonna's hair, and turned to leave. They followed us to the edge of the yard, where the path went up the hill to the road. At the top of the first rise, I turned to wave; they were standing at the bottom, watching, waiting. They waved in unison. I was reminded of the day Seeseera left to go back to her boarding school, the heartbreak I saw in Nonna's eyes that day.
In town, we had our last cups of chiya while the porters loaded the Jeep. Pictures, goodbyes, more tears it's all a blur now. Five hours later, we were pulling into Phidim...And loading all the rest of my belongings on the Jeep! For a variety of reasons, I had decided to move down to the bazaar everything came into place in just a few days, and I realized it would be easiest to move all at once rather than unloading and reloading multiple times. So while we had the Jeep with all my stuff from my Rabi dhera, we stopped off at my Matilo Gau dhera (above Phidim bazaar), then continued down to the bazaar and my new dhera.
23 March 2003
I'm having a bad week, i guess. I'm in Ilam right now, on my way to Kathmandu tomorrow -- for rabies shots! that's right, I was bitten by a dog yesterday -- not a really bad bite, but enough to break the skin, and that's all it takes. So I have to get 2 post-exposure shots in Kdu; I'm not sure what's worse, the timing, or the fact that i have to get shots! (for those of you who don't remember, i have an *intense* dislike of needles).
25 March 2003
so this one time, in nepal... I was having a really bad week. On Monday I was robbed, on the bus -- jerk took off with my wallet and my glasses. (my glasses? what in the world did he want with those! ha ha -- joke's on you buddy, you'll never be able to use them!) For the next three days it took to get back to my post (a little bit of extra time spent in Ilam for sympathy and police reports), I wore my prescription sunglasses. Yeah, I'm cool. ;)
On Wednesday, the war started.
On Saturday, I was bitten by a dog. I was visiting my old Limbu family, and before the'incident', I'd actually been having a really good day. I'd gotten to see and visit with everyone in my family -- my little bhais, who started shouting and giggling as soon as they saw me; the cousin who got married last month (his new wife is still at her maiti-ghar [her parent's home], finishing school); my bahini, whose face lit up when she saw me; Bauju, who cooked me food even though the rest of the family had already eaten; Kaancha-bhai, who could hardly wait for the 'cool' pictures I'd taken of him at the wedding (with his sunglasses and 'thumbs up' sign); and of course Amaa, who saw me on her way to the bazaar, and walked straight back up the hill with me in order to spend time with me, holding my hand the whole time. I gave the kids marbles and a slinky (hours of fun!), vegetables to Bauju, and wedding pictures to Amaa. after the initial excitement wore off, I hung out with Amaa and Bauju and a few other neighborhood women. We shucked peas and drank tungba all morning (I love the Limbus!). :) Bauju showed me Sita's three tiny kittens -- so cute! [Sita was my cat when I lived there, but she was miserable at my new place, so now she lives with my family.] As we were coming down the stairs from the storage area where the kittens were sleeping, I passed one of the neighborhood dogs -- and, quick as lightning, she lunged out and bit me. At first I thought it was just a scratch, not too big a deal, but I soon saw the perfect parabola of a jaw mark, and the broken skin where her incisors sank into my leg, and that started my journey back here to Kathmandu...
On Monday, I arrived in Kathmandu. Being March, I wasn't expecting rain, so hadn't brought my umbrella. Sure enough, it poured, soaked me to the bone, dilluted my spirits to next to nothing. I hated Nepal. I was so depressed I cried when I remembered I'd just signed up for another three months of this country. I cried when I retold my story to the Medical Officers. I cried when I saw pictures of Marines in the newspaper.
Looking back (from the wise vantage point of 24 hours later), I realize sometimes you have to hit bottom before you can pick yourself up again.
The first step to recovery was a hot shower. I'm convinced that would make a good way to bring peace to the world -- give everyone a hot shower and a good meal, and they will feel so much better, they'll naturally get along! It's amazing how much a hot shower can affect your perspective; the worries and pain slip away with your filth, and when you walk out of the bathroom, all of a sudden things don't look so bad.
Then this morning I was able to call home and talk to my parents; they always help me put things in perspective, help me realize my pain is temporary. And the things I have no control over, I have no control over. That's just the way it is. And somehow, when I'm feeling blue, the sounds of my parents' voices are so comforting!
So now I'm on the upswing again -- what a shitty week, but one has to keep moving on...
5 May 2003: Vacation in Thailand and Laos.
ahh! sensory overload! yup, you guessed it -- I'm in Thailand!!! just wanted to let you all know I made it here safe, and that vacation has officially begun. :)
I'm so so overwhelmed right now -- we've been in Bangkok less than 24 hours, and already I've enjoyed 2 slurpees, McDonald's burger and fries, and Baskin Robbins ice cream (mint chocolate chip and cookies-n-cream)! I'm currently writing you from a *mall* -- this place is nicer than any mall I've ever been in the States, it has more escalators and moving sidewalks and food courts and fountains than I can count! In a few minutes Beth and I are going to a *movie* in a *real* movie theater!!!!!!! This place is so fabulous!!!
It's super hot here, just sweltering (but there's AC everywhere!). We got in yesterday about 6 pm, and by 8 our hands and feet were all swelled up from the heat! We just puffed up like balloons, it's so funny!
The traffic is wonderful -- the cars hardly ever use their horns and the road is soooo smooooth; the SkyTrain is an AC wonder; our hotel bathroom has a bathtub -- *with a shower curtain*; I almost cried in Boots; I couldn't stop giggling when we walked off the plane; the amount of skin displayed by tourists and Thais alike is scandalous; I just about died with pleasure when I sank into the real bed at my hotel. Right now, Thailand is the most perfect country on earth, with Bangkok at the epicenter of goodness!
I can't believe that yesterday I was in Nepal, and today I am in Bangkok. I am so overwhelmed.
Ok, need to go -- there are so many places yet to visit -- Burger King, A&W, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Loving, 7-11...
Seriously, though, we are planning on going north in a few days, up to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Then maybe to Laos or Burma...
18 May 2003
we made it safely to Laos! I'm writing right now from Luang Prabang, but the connection is so bad that I'll keep this short. Just wanted to let you all know we're safe and having a great time! (even though it's about 500 degrees outside!)
A few more photos.
Bal Mandir's Class 4.
New Year's trip to a temple in the woods. A two hour hike.
17 December 2003 - from Ecuador.
Namaste from Ecuador! Having spent the past 5 weeks in Ecuador, visiting Andrea Durham (Peace Corps/ Ecuador), this report will focus on the similarities and differences I have observed between Ecuador and Nepal, specifically in the Natural Resources sector.
My first impressions upon arrival in Ecuador were concentrated on the amount of development; I was amazed at how much there is here. Although Nepal (25,836,000) has a larger population than Ecuador (13,201,945), Quito (at 1,032,000 people, 7.8 % of the population) is proportionately bigger than Kathmandu (1,200,000, 4.6 % of the population)1. There are much taller buildings in Quito, more transportation infrastructure (bigger roads, street lights, trolleys, etc.), American food franchises (McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, etc.), as well as malls, giant supermarkets, and nice parks; all this gives Quito a bigger, more cosmopolitan feel than Kathmandu. With its ancient Rana palaces and temples, goats and cows as traffic obstructions, and completely random roads and traffic rules, Kathmandu has a much more haphazard feel.
Even outside the capital city, the campo of Ecuador is more developed than the gau of Nepal. Electricity, phones, and roads are much more in abundance. Transportation is much easier: volunteers in the far south of Ecuador travel 12 to 14 hours (by bus) to get to their sites from Quito; volunteers in the far west of Nepal would have to travel 3 or 4 days (by bus) to get to their sites from Kathmandu. Literacy rates of Ecuador are twice those of Nepal (Ecuador: total 92.5 %, male 94 %, female 91%; Nepal: total 45.2 %, male 62.7 %, female 27.6 %)2. Even with all of this, though, the percentage of people who live below the poverty line is higher in Ecuador than in Nepal (70% and 42%, respectively).
Nonetheless, Ecuador and Nepal do share some similar ecological problems. Deforestation, water contamination, wildlife conservation, and soil erosion are all current issues in both countries. Ecuador is also concerned about the ecologically sensitive areas of the Galapagos Islands, specifically how wastes from oil production affect them. Nepal, being a landlocked country, doesn't have a marine ecosystem to think about or ruin, but another current problem is vehicular emissions (caused by the illegal adulteration of vehicle petrol with kerosene).
Within the Peace Corps offices, the two countries approach the idea of placing volunteers a little differently. The Peace Corps/ Nepal Natural Resources program encompasses several different specific job descriptions: community forestry, soil conservation, environmental awareness, water/sanitation, and volunteers who work with specific NGO's. The Peace Corps/ Ecuador Natural Resources program encompasses just one job description: natural resources. Volunteers in Ecuador are placed in sites with several possible counterparts and projects, and have more flexibility in their primary assignment. Volunteers in Nepal are placed in sites with one specific counterpart, and if that situation doesn't work out, they have the responsibility of managing the circumstances.
Even with all of these differences in country, culture, and
office space, volunteers still face many of the same challenges.
Language barriers, loss of identity and privacy, homesickness,
apathetic or distant communities, and a plethora of gastric nastiness
plague every volunteer. No matter where a volunteer is posted,
one still has to find the right balance in a foreign culture.
The Lonely Planet Guide to Nepal.
Background information on Nepal.
The U. of Texas Nepal page.
The Art and Culture of Nepal.
Back to the Michigan Tech Peace Corps page.
Page created 23 February 2001.
Updated: 18 December 2003.
Page created and maintained by Blair Orr.