Volunteering report #4

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
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Trip End Mar 21, 2008


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Flag of Nepal  ,
Monday, March 5, 2007

Rajesh drives through the backstreets of Kathmandu, a labyrinth of rocky paths with barely enough room for one car to squeeze through. He is avoiding the main roads because of a massive gathering downtown.

The leader of the Maoist Party is making his first legitimate public speech today. After years of underground 'activism' in the jungles, the Maoists have now fought their way into mainstream politics, gaining a foothold in the current interim government. This summer's election will give a proper indication of their strength but they seem to have a sizeable groundswell of popular support, if the posters, flags and other communist paraphernalia are any guide. We have come to Nepal in historic times.

Today our mission is on a much more modest scale. We have come to look at Serene Valley School, in the Baneshwor section on Kathmandu city, as a possible venue for volunteering. Our premature exit from Shanti Sewa Griha (see previous entry) has left some bitter tastes in our mouth, but we are excited about starting with a clean slate.

The name Serene Valley conjures up idyllic countryside images of the type of place we just came from - Shanti Sewa Griha. Instead, it is a small three-building school within a stone's throw of a busy, honking, bustling main street. Many of the schools here have glamorous names, designed to lure parents in this competitive market. Names like Gloryland Primary, Einstein Institute and, my favourite, The Brainy Genius Academy, pop up around every corner.

There is no school today because of the big demonstration but the Principal, Vice-Principal and Academic Director are all hanging around. We are impressed by their organisation and liberal attitude to new teaching methods and they are clearly interested in having us there. Without visiting the other school on today's schedule, we agree to move in here the next day.
The heavens open above Kathmandu overnight. The locals are happy with the downpour, as it symbolises the end of winter for them, but it turns the dirt roads into mud. The principal of the school, a gentleman by the name of Subas, and his driver, pick us up from Rajesh's house and drive us to the school. Our room is within the school grounds, on the same floor as the boarders. It is very simple but more than suitable for us. Already we feel much more comfortable than we did at Shanti Sewa Griha. We feel as though the school wants our help and has plans for us. They have plenty of extra-curricular activities available, including cricket, which I happily volunteer to help out with.

We arrange to observe some classes tomorrow and start teaching on our own on Sunday (as Friday is a national holiday, commemorating the birthday of the god Siva). The other good thing is they provide all our meals, as if we were boarders, in the mess hall.
Bright and early Thursday morning we jog downstairs, ready for our first day on the job. Not many students are around, just a few playing table tennis, so I join them for a hit-about. Nine-fifteen, the scheduled assembly time, comes and goes with no activity, so we keep playing. I figure this is just the notorious 'Nepali time' casualness that we are growing used to. At about 10am, I ask one boy what time school starts. "Oh, no school today". Turns out there is some big strike today that has caused most of the schools to close. Just as well probably because Jane is experiencing a recurrence of her diarrhoea issues.

Friday is also a holiday that celebrates the birthday of Siva, one of the most important gods in Hinduism. On the recommendation of some of our colleagues at the school, we decide to visit Nagarkot, a small town about 60 kilometres north of Kathmandu. Nagarkot is famous because it has great views of the Himalayas - on a clear day. Today at least this morning, is not especially clear. In fact, it is downright foggy. Even the closest mountains are hidden in the soupy clouds.

The 60km takes a good three hours to travel. As the ancient bus creaks and crawls up into the mountains, the traffic is stopped every 50 metres or so by small groups of children who hold ropes or long pieces of bamboo across the road, like a roadblock. They demand money - one, two rupees, whatever the driver has - to let the vehicle past. At first we think this must just be normal for this particular road, an odd local custom. Someone later explains to us that it is a once-a-year thing, done only on Siva's birthday. The children collect the money for a big party in the evening, when everyone chews on this exotic leaf that has opium-like properties. Despite this worthwhile cause, some drivers just drive straight through the roadblocks, sending the children flying or chasing after the vehicle to demand the 'toll'.

Yesterday saw the first snowfall in the Kathmandu Valley for 62 years, even if it was just a tiny bit that melted immediately. However, this is enough to send throngs of city slickers off to the mountains to catch a glimpse and even a feel of the white stuff. All the buses, including ours, are packed to the gills with excited teenagers and 20-somethings who burst out when we arrive in Nagarkot and race off up the hill. We follow the crowd, believing there must be something decidedly worthwhile just around the corner. After an hour or so's walk, it becomes apparent that we are actually heading away from the town and hotels, not towards them as we had hoped.

The evening becomes a little depressing, with the thick fog blocking views of anything at all, let alone the bloody Himalayas. Our hotel is quite cozy, in a mountain cabin kind of way, but all the restaurants are terribly overpriced. We are starting to think we may have come all this way for nothing.

Nonetheless, we wake up at 6.45 and walk to the edge of the ridge that supposedly has good views of the mountains. Sure enough, rising miles above the layer of clouds below is the most amazing vista. The snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, like some massive, foreboding wall that blocks off the rest of the world, rises high up into the sky. Even though we are hundreds of miles away from the actual mountains, they are still enormous and majestic and as crisp and clear as in the postcards. The view is made even more spectacular by the sun steadily creeping up over the eastern hills and turning the peaks from white to pink.

Then, no sooner had we reluctantly turned our backs on this beautiful sight, then it was blocked again by the inconsiderate clouds, like someone who walks in front of you when you are taking a photograph.

Nagarkot doesn't have much else going for it, so we have some breakfast and wander around a bit more, then catch the bus back to Kathmandu.

Happy Holi!
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