Namaste from Nangi
Trip Start Aug 03, 2007
9Trip End Oct 15, 2007
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After the Dawn Till Dusk bike shop got us all working again, and we survived the heat to Pokhara, we had planned 2 weeks of volunteering with the Nangi school. We hadn't read up enough on the place since making the plan a year (!!) ago, and really didn't know what to expect. We just knew it was "about a 3 hour bus ride to Beni, and then a 7-10 hour walk". So we arranged to meet someone in Beni on Monday morning, and tried to get on the bus Sunday afternoon at 3. The bus went 20 ft, stopped, everyone trickled off, and they explained the road was closed for another strike, the bus might go at 6. We've seen enough buses off the road, on their side, off a cliff, etc. to NOT want to travel at night, so we got tickets for the 6am bus, figured that would be enough time to still do the trip in a day. However, while everyone tells you it's a "3ish hour bus ride", they all know that it's actually a 3+ hour taxi ride, but on the bus, anything between 4:30 and 7 hours is fair game
The volunteers live, cook, and sleep in two "round houses", built in the traditional way (rock and clay walls, thatch or slate roof), and 8 all in one place is an unusually high population, but that's just due to random overlaps of a number of schedules
While we're sitting around watching the rain drops drip, I'll describe the village. Nangi is a small village with a big school, grades 1-12. This is quite unusual; anything past level 9 outside of a full city is very unusual, and pulls students from as far as a 6 hour walk in the surrounding area. For those students, there are student huts to live in, small wooden huts with a couple bunks and a cooking area
But I digress terribly. One of the many unique things about the Nangi volunteering experience is that it is free to the volunteer; in fact, better than free, as food and lodging are both provided. I have never seen this for any other volunteering opportunity, and quite the opposite, many organizations now view the volunteer as a source of labor and capital, charging outrageous amounts of $$ (up to $2500 per person!!) for the privilege of visiting their cause for two weeks. Being able to offer free room & board encourages long term volunteers, which is better for the volunteer and the school alike (a month should be minimum, 2 weeks were much too short). This system is all supported by donation, so if you're looking for a good cause, you can make a donation on the website! You won't find a more effective use of $$ (the only overhead is the fee to wire the money to Nepal), and you can even specify what you'd like the $$ to go for (school supplies, volunteer support etc.) This is not to say that the stay was perfect; our lovely round house had a thatch roof, and a wicker "ceiling" above our heads, which is perfect breeding grounds for critters
Once upon the time there was solar hot water, but alas, that is no longer working. Not a big problem though, a bucket bath in the heat of mid day was plenty satisfying, and we had the advantage of being able to shower inside the round house, which means we can take all clothes off. The kids (and most of the adults) all have to use an outdoor, public water tap, and they have perfected the art of bathing with clothing on. Like I said, the living was quite basic by western standards, but we had the Hilton compared to traditional accommodation. Another problem with the communal living for a week of rain in a small place is that we all got sick with upper respiratory infections; two minor (including Gretchen), four medium sick (including me), and two very sick (fever etc.) Luckily for us, the next 2 volunteers to arrive were doctors
One issue was finding things to do, especially in the rain. I took on the task of straightening out the library; they actually had a pretty good library all things considered, almost all donated books, and with a lot of them in the wrong place, this took a couple rainy mornings to sort out. We mostly did a lot of substitute teaching. Since we weren't about to be teaching accounting (there was a surprising amount of accounting classes), it was pretty much "teaching English" no matter what we were substituting for. This is OK the first few times, especially since the grade keeps changing, but after a while of talking about biking through Africa and that sort of thing, we tried to come up with more interesting classes, and to get more class participation. This is the tough one; getting the kids to talk is like pulling teeth, especially the girls. They all wear head scarves, and if you start even looking in their direction, the dive under the obscuring safety blanket of fabric ("You there! Yes you! third nose sticking out on the 2nd row! Please guess a vowel for Hang Man!"). Another difficulty is that the classrooms are absolutely devoid of visual aids; they are dark, simple rooms with nary a poster or other bright colorful learning aid. A standard US grade school room would look like a shopping mall Christmas display in comparison. So we played something like Jeopardy (give a definition, get them to guess the word), and Hang Man
The school week is Sunday through Friday, and Friday ends a little early so the kids who walk home for the weekend can get home before dark. Note that the Grades 11 and 12 in particular are in class a lot; 10am until 4, a break, and then some of them have night classes from 6-8! Anyway, we had hoped for a mini-trek to Poon Hill on Saturday, but the pouring rain put a damper on that. Sunday Moti, a seemingly harmless older guy who runs the (plant) nursery (re-forestation programme among others), offered to take us on a walk to "see the waterfall and the village of Ramche, just across the valley". So we all figured this to be a good chance for some fresh air after a week of being rained in. Little did we know that Moti is firmly in the "path less traveled by" camp of walking, and when it came time to see the waterfall, we were suddenly plunging down a very steep, wet, slippery slope, grabbing anything that didn't move for balance and trying to keep up with Moti who was cheerfully way down ahead of his, swinging around the little mini-scythe they all use around here
Monday finally dawned bright and clear and what a view! We'd had hints, but the actual pure white Himalayan peaks were increadible! So clear, so bright, they look so close, not 20,000 ft higher, and a long walk away. By Tuesday I could sorta walk and after class Krishna (one of the teachers, and main liaison with the volunteers) rounded up as many students as he could find at 4:00 for a Tai Chi demonstration. Gretchen and I performed the Kwon Bup form, and then we held the first impromptu "class", with about 10 reluctant participants whom Krishna pulled out of the crowd. Now, Tai Chi is a "soft" martial art, and should be taught over a period of years, not days, and is very focused on breathing, centering, efficient use of chi (energy) etc
The other fun class was science. Danielle, another volunteer, had told me that the science curriculum was completely missing any experimental aspect, and I decided to fix this with a very simple experiment, since what I was really interested in teaching was the scientific method, and the fact that experiments don't always go as planned. So I picked an experiment which I knew would fail; We solved F1D1 = F2D2 for a simple lever system, solve to find the fulcrum location, but I picked small masses (1000g, and 500g), and a big piece of wood for the lever. The basic equation neglects the mass of the beam, which for this system, was NOT a good assumption and the resulting experiment was off by about 20% I was teaching 9th grade, where this level of physics was appropriate, and which turned out to be a good thing since the 9th graders were about the best behaved class in the school, and mostly had enough English to understand the teaching (I think.....). Anyway, hopefully it was instructional for them to see that experiments don't always work, and we then went and modified the equations to take into account the mass of the beam, and showed that this makes the math much more complicated, which is another good reason that your standard merchant scale has fixed D1 = D2 so that the simpler equation applies
So that was our teaching experiences. Other volunteers built things (Jonni had built, and was maintaining a sauna. Yes, the Finnish guy), Tanya taught massage, Danielle had kids do short skits, there was always work in the plant nursery and after G and I got tired of falling down the steep embankment to one of the buildings, we built a staircase. Two more volunteers arrived part way through; Deb and Gary Stoner, both doctors from Pennsylvania. Deb is actually part of the US board of directors for Nangi (a very loose organization), and comes for about 6 weeks every 2 years. This time her husband, an OBGYN came as well and spent a while teaching the local nurses who run the clinic most of the time, along with seeing patients. We learned some interesting things about medical health and the area. The most interesting was the that government is providing free Depo Provera (birth control) shots, and even more interesting is that the village women are actually using them. Most women here only have 2, or at most, 3 kids, and they are well spaced apart. Coming from India, and even other parts of Nepal, this is simply astounding. The birth control process does not usually succeed in such a rural setting, where children are the only real retirement pension. Gary also explained that a major problem is a uterine prolapse, a problem where the uterus starts to basically fall out of the body
On the last Friday we were in the village, there was a "cultural exchange" with Beni, the "city" we had hiked in from. Now Beni is not small; it's a big town, not a village, and it's more or less the end of the road out fo Pokhara, but the idea of a "cultural exchange" with a place only 6 hours walk away seemed a bit of a joke. But no joke, with the Beni kids in one line, adn Nangi kids in the other, the differences could be seen from the other end of the school. Nangi kids wear pretty conservative dress, the girls in particular are very traditional. The Beni kids were wearing tight jeans, black T-Shirts, some were sporting sun glasses and/or ball-caps and visors, and a few were plugged in to the headphones. This is the difference between Nepali teens with and without access to satellite TV. (The internet in Beni is also horrendously slow, we tried it). The main part of the cultural exchange was a series of dances and musical performances. The Beni kids predictably did modern dance, with one or two exceptions, although, to be fair, they had one guy who did very traditional Magyar singing
It was definitely a good experience, and would recommend it to anyone looking to volunteer for a few weeks in the middle of very scenic nowhere. Great way to acclimate before trekking as well! There were a LOT of really cute kids - but we didn't take any home, they have very strict laws about that sort of thing. And it was just bloody fantastic to be 6 hours from the nearest traffic, exhaust, or honking horn for 2 weeks! Our taxi driver on the way home was especially spastic on the horn, and made us appreciate even more the tranquility we had just left.
Next up, we biked back to Kathmandu, the long way through the Terrai, will try to get that blog out tomorrow, but doubt will make it before we head to Japan!