November 11, 2009: Dhakalthar to Pokhara

We are awake by 7AM for tea and a small snack. Gyanendra’s father is busy thrashing the rice with the use of 4 oxen which trample the rice straw beating out the last of the stubborn rice grains still clinging to the stem. He laughs as he goes by me commenting that the life of a farmer allows no time for rest. How come he looks so happy?

We have dal bhat and say goodbye. It has been a great diversion from our trip back to Pokhara and Tineke and I would both love to return. The trek back to Naya Pul is spectacular in view. The day is overcast so it is not hot and perfect for walking. The mountains views are crystal clear but you can tell winter is on its way – they look cold and ready for snow. After about 3 hours we arrive at the roadhead and wait for our taxi to take us to Pokhara. On the way back I catch glimpses of the mottos written so carefully along the back of the public buses; GO SLOW – LIVE LONG being a classic but overshadowed by the occasional bus marked FEARLESS – but why would anyone climb aboard MY CELEBRATION OF DEATH? We let that one go ahead, far ahead. After arrival at the Snowland Hotel we shower and then head off to the Moondance restaurant for some hummus and white wine. It’s been a great trip.

November 10, 2009: Madi to Dhakalthar

We are up at 6AM and packing as this is our day of departure. Manikula makes us some breakfast and tea and by 8 we are on our way. Megh goes with us part of the way as the path is wet and a bit dangerous so he stays with us through the worst parts. At one point he points to a path and says that it would be impossible for us to follow that route – it’s the one we took yesterday.

It is a beautiful day for waking and within 2 hours we are sitting down at the guest house in Kusmi Sera and ordering soup. We walk up and down the street and, as with our Spring trip here, we provide the local entertainment. Tineke buys some bracelets including a set for the woman at the guest house who spontaneously bought her a set last Spring. Outside many young children gather around to look at us so I take all their pictures and show them. Then another group comes and they want their picture taken and that cycle continues on for awhile until our soup is ready.

The next stage of the trek is quite difficult so we decide to hire a local porter to carry the heaviest of our bags and this turns out to be the decision of the day as the heat and the climb are quite a challenge. Nevertheless the views are spectacular. Perhaps my memory is fading but I suspect that this view is as good at that from the famous Poon Hill – without the 300 tourists. Some of the jeepable roads are washed out but ironically this might be better for tourism as what remains is a very acceptable trekking trail.

After some time we finally arrive at Dhakalthar, a part of Amalchour VDC and Gyanendra’s family house. On the way we meet countless relatives who come out to see Gyanendra. Everywhere people are working to get the rice harvest in. It is an intensive effort that goes on each day well past sundown.

Gyanendra’s mother and father are very happy to see him and treat us like visiting royalty. Soon they have a big pot of water boiling for us to shower (we oblige) and have already “cooked” drinking water so that our sensitive internal plumbing doesn’t get upset. We show the family pictures of what Gyanendra has been up to. His father is the Head Master of the local Higher Secondary School. Despite the high status what we see is just another farmer working at feeding the buffalo, cutting the rice and so on. For a snack he asks us if he would like some cucumber and then takes out the biggest cucumber I have ever seen – the size of a small pumpkin.

The farm has lemon trees with lemons the size of grapefruit. Lime trees as well. Gyanendra’s mother makes us a snack which includes this special lime sauce she has made – tart and spicy but delicious. Later instead of traditional dal bhat we have the rice served as khir (a rice pudding made with buffalo milk) and that makes a wonderful difference.

We have a great chat with Gyanendra’s father about traditional farming and the various technologies. He shows us the traditional pati container used for measuring amounts of rice or millet for sale. The container is made of thick brass and is very heavy and bears the stamp of the standards association marked as 1945 – but that would be Nepali 1945 (this year is 2060 ?) which would make the jar more than 115 years old and still in use.

November 9, 2009: Madi

Our last full day here. Tineke and Gyanendra put the finishing touches onto the design of the report card to go home with each child every month. While doing this another neighbour and his wife and daughter come to the house to use the phone. The man is clearly distraught. His son has been in Qtar for 3 years and the man is desperate to talk to him given yesterday’s news. The connection is made but the man is too distraught to say more than “Namaste” to his son before handing the phone back to his wife. Tears run down his face. Mother and son talk for a long time – maybe 30 minutes which shocks me, thinking of the cost, but I’m told the price is as cheap as 1 rupee per minute so even here, where cash is so rare, it is affordable.

Later that morning after dal bhat we go to the school for our final visit. First we travel across the river to a small shop to buy some treats for the children and a snack for tomorrow’s trek to Gyanendra’s village. On my advice we take a “short cut” which is always an adventure and in this case is particularly steep. Also we end up at the river bank in a place where we have to wade across the river. In the distance we see the bridge that everyone else is using.

On the way up to the center Gyanendra gets engaged in a conversation with a fellow villager about what we are doing. The rumor is that this man is against the project and we want to know why. It become clear that in fact he is fully supportive of the child care center but does have a long standing feud with Megh over local politics. He assures us that despite his differences with Megh, he is 100% supportive of the center and will make sure his neighbors know this. This is nice to hear. At the school we hand out the treats and take many photos and then say goodbye.

November 8, 2009: Madi

There is a early morning phone call that wakes us up but since today we have a Board of Directors meeting we assume it is people phoning in to confirm the meeting time and place. It will be held at the standard meeting place which is nearby – a few hundred metres above Megh’s  house. Tineke, Gyanendra and I show up at around 8AM and most of the members are there already. We wait a few minutes and then once everyone has arrived, Megh starts the meeting.

After introductions I speak and congratulate the Board for the fact that only 6 months after discussing the idea of a child care center they now have one up and running, have hired two teachers, have purchased a beautiful site, have a design for the building and have started to gather the basic building materials (stones for the structure and timber for the roof beams, doors and windows).  Board members ask us about the way the money we already have provided can be spent. Originally we suggested 50% be used for the building materials and 50% for preparing the land etc. The 50% is insufficient for the task so we approve that they can spend 100% of the funds on the building  For additional funding we ask that they prepare an estimate and submit that to us but we are open to an increase to get the center launched. Then I ask about the legal status of the land purchase (underway) and then start to talk about sustainability of the center after the three years we will support. We suggest adding an additional floor to the building to make the building now a multipurpose community center. Also we can house tourists/guests on the upper floor and this will provide additional funding. Once we begin to bring tourists into the region it opens the possibility of other sources of income such as guides and porters, “fooding”, sale of handicrafts and perhaps a cultural show. The Board has already talked themselves about the value of a second floor so they agree and we look at a potential design of the building with this in mind. Several of the Board Members get heavily engaged in discussing how the construction can be done.

Tineke than talks about the school program, the over-expectations of parents for “results” from children 3 or 4 years old and the need for teacher training. She mentions how pleased we are with the teacher selection after having seen them in action several times. The Board has looked into the training available from Seto Guras in Baglung. They agree that the teachers will be trained according to the Seto Guras schedule. There are a few questions about the state of the toilet and access to drinking water at the existing temporary building. The Board agrees to all the necessary repairs and the meeting closes.

Later that morning Tineke, Gyanendra and I go to the school and Tineke and Gyanendra do an exercise with the felt board and the children jump right in. This is an amazingly versatile media; cheap and portable and endlessly extensible to whatever the teachers want to discuss. Tineke and Gyanendra do this for about 1 hour and maintain the children’s concentration throughout.

Later that evening we are reminded about the veil of misfortune which seems to hang over these small villages. The phone call that woke us up was to inform Megh’s  neighbour that his son had died as a result of an industrial accident in Dubai. Megh has one of the few phones and among his unassigned duties is to bring bad news to local families who have relatives abroad. Later the father of the victim shows up looking completely drained in order to talk to Megh about funeral arrangements. The phone rings all evening as the word spreads. In the Spring when we were here a local woman was electrocuted in a storm and the year before Megh’s  daughter (the mother of the beautiful Susmita) died of complications after childbirth. All this in one small village. Of course no one mentioned any of this tragedy at the Board Meeting earlier this morning including the uncle of the victim who is a Board Member. Life is hard but it goes on.

Megh joins us for a long chat that evening that covers religion, politics, philosophy and the value of humility is daily affairs. He tells us about cleaning the toilets at the high school and sounds almost Ghandian. We have watched him doing field work and there is no question he is at home with an ashi cutting rice in the field as he is as head Master or representing the region in the ongoing constitutional talks.

November 7, 2009: Madi

There is a time conflict today as the teachers were to arrive at 8 AM but by 8:45 they were still not here and I had to get to the school before it closes at 10 to print the documents at the only available printer. I headed up to the school while Tineke and Gyanendra remained behind for the teachers.

The road to the school is up, up, up in the Nepali tradition but there is a shortcut to cut some time but of course this means a steeper climb. The weather is gorgeous – is there a better place to be than Nepal in November? I arrive at the school and although it is officially closed many teachers are there for a meeting. Megh lets me into his office to use his printer and I set to work to see how I can get this job done. But the gods are conspiring against me as my computer doesn’t have the driver for the printer, the laptop that might have the driver doesn’t have the requisite USB port and the computer tower that does have the USB port initially seems to run only directly off the main power port so that I can’t have the printer and the computer powered simultaneously. I eventually figure this part out but then it’s clear that the computer is terminally broken (Megh confirms this later). Of course it takes me some time to figure this all out. .

But it was a nice walk.

Back at Megh’s house Tineke and Gyanendra have a good meeting with the teachers who appreciate the program we have put together all keyed to all the resources which are now numbered.

Everywhere people are heavily engaged in the rice harvest. Work usually begins at about 6:30 and goes on till after dark

November 6, 2009: Madi

We visit the center today and play with the children for almost two hours. Tineke brings along one of the larger puzzles and works with one of the teachers with about 4 or 5 children. I stay inside and try to occupy the others with playing with the Duplo blocks but soon almost all the children head outside afraid they are going to miss something fun or perhaps are uneasy with staying too close to me.  But Duplo has a special draw and soon enough many of the children drift back and soon there are 4 or 5 fighting to get next to me and the blocks.

The teachers agree to meet us tomorrow morning (Saturday) even though it is the holiday.  Here we can expose them to the program we have developed.

We work on the Google SketchUp model of the child care center including a second floor useful as a guest house and meeting place.

November 5, 2009: Madi

Today we met with the teachers after the center closed at 2PM. Tineke went over several of the color games. The idea behind many of these games is to get children to learn about different colors, shapes and patterns. Some of them are quite sophisticated and would be very useful for older children as well who are learning about different ways to classify items, make sets etc. The teachers are very polite but it becomes obvious that they are a bit overwhelmed by the variety of all of the games and activities. After they go we discuss what we can do to lessen the burden on them. For one, they have not had any training whatsoever and were chosen for their educational level and enthusiasm for working with children. They have the basics to make good early child care teachers but it is clear we are asking too much of them. We decide to look into training programs in nearby Baglung but realize any training will not take place for awhile due to all kinds of scheduling issues. We decide to make up a sample program for them to follow for the next three months. Each month has a theme and then the theme is exposed week by week and day by day. We layout the plan on a daily basis and number the activities and the associated resources so they can see in a glance what to do each week and day. Here’s an example:

Month 1/Week 2/Theme: the color yellow

Resources

  • Box#1color circles
  • Box#2colored clothes

Day 1:

  • free play: use puzzle, trucks, yellow duplo blocks, dolls
  • Structured play: use only the yellow Duplo blocks and cars
  • Structured play: use the color circle game (Box#1) and get children to identify only the yellow ones (start with about 10 colors and about 4 are yellow)
  • Outside:
    • free play; physical activity
  • Inside:
    • Circle time:
    • sing the color yellow song use yellow shaker
    • use colored clothes (box#2) pieces concentrate on yellow pieces
  • Outside/Inside
  • free play

Note for teachers: take every opportunity to point out the color yellow in puzzles, toys, clothes, books, etc.

This will have to do until the training is done.

November 4, 2009: Madi

This morning I wake early and head up to see the view from where our center will be built. I’m especially interested in seeing how the sun will rise over the hills to the east of us and fall on the property throughout the day. Since there is no heating nor lighting we need to get the best sun angle to heat up and illuminate the room. At 10 AM, right on schedule, Megh arrives after having walked from Kusma. He looks relaxed and cool despite the fact that we were bushed after having completed only 3/4 of this trip in about twice as long! It is easy to be a humble visitor in Nepal as there so many opportunities to show your physical shortcomings.

We show him the equipment we have and Tineke demonstrates some of the Montessori-style teaching tools. After that we head out to the Child Care Center.

We find the children and teachers inside along with an array of other children outside here to watch the children play. There are a lot of school age children here as this is rice harvest time and the schools have closed so that families can reap the harvest. Tineke takes the children outside and shows the teachers and children a “musical feet” game. After some hesitation soon more and more children get engaged but it is clear this game is from some other planet as far as they are concerned; fun yes, but very different.

Then we move to a shady area and get out the Duplo blocks. The next hour is truly magical as the children dig in with abandon. Soon two or three of the “take charge” types are constructing huge towers each taller than the other, then some houses, walls and just sticking blocks together. A moderate amount of coaching here and there is all that is required. This was clearly a big success and a crowd gathered to see what the children were doing. Here was the perfect example of Learn Through Play. Even though this was there first exposure to the Duplo some of them quickly mastered the way the blocks fit together, which were 4 knob blocks and which were 8. The youngest cild there was 1 1/2 and she was right into it with everyone else.

That afternoon Gyanendra and I make a plan for the building using Google SketchUp. We include a second floor with four rooms set aside for guests. With such a view it will not be difficult to attract foreign guest here and their stay will help keep the center sustainable beyond the 3 year program we have agreed upon. Bringing tourists here will have a number of secondary benefits but it will take some time to get that organized.

November 3, 2009: Madi, Ward 2 Sarakuwa

We sleep well and wake up bright and early at – 8AM. Wow! we must have slept like logs. Manikula gives us some hot tea and we meet with Gyanendra to decide what to do today. The Madi Child Care Center is operational but in a trial mode in a rented space with two full time teachers and 13 children. We know that if we arrive with bags full of new material and boundless energy we will really disrupt the program so we decide to make a gentle entrance with just the three of us, introduce ourselves stay about 30 minutes and then leave. We ask the teachers to come and visit us after the center closes at 2PM and then we show them all the stuff we have brought along.

The two teachers are Indhu Shai and Jhalaki Dhakal and they were selected after a competition involving a half-dozen other candidates. Both are young, married but without children of their own. They are naturally shy and it takes some pulling to get them to give their opinions on some of the activities we have brought equipment for. We decide the best plan is for the three of us to visit the school the next day for 1 or 2 hours and demonstrate some activities. They are keen on this and leave on a happy note.

We also visit the property purchased for the center. It has a spectacular view of the Himalaya including South Annapurna and Machupacharre. Wow! it’s hard to imagine a child care center with a better view.

The dal bhat is especially good tonight, not so piero (spicy).

November 2, 2009: Kusma

The next morning there is a knock at the door at 7:30 and there is our tea, delivered right to the door. We are expecting two porters from Madi to come to Kusma to carry the two bags of toys and equipment we have for the child care center. That must mean they would have to leave Madi at about 6 AM and move at a fast Nepali pace to get here by 9. Just after we are finishing our morning dal bhat they show up looking hale and hearty and dig into their own dal bhat. Ten minutes later we are bidding adieu to the hotel owners and walking to the edge of the Kali Ghandaki ridge with the river about 400 vertical metres below us. We begin the big decent which by parts is easy going and at times quite challenging. Tineke and I are each carrying our own gear for our stay in Madi so our packs are quite heavy but nothing compared to the bags the porters are carrying. But even these are light change to these guys who by times can carry 50Kg. The bags are more like 20 Kg each so these guys have a light spring to their step.

At the base we cross the river and follow the shoreline of the Kali past some small temples and acres of fine grey sand which lines the shore. After an hour or so it is time to start the big ascent for in Nepal, when you decend you know sooner or late you will have to ascend. No decent comes free! By now though it’s quite hot and getting to the top takes well over 1 hour. Fortunately right at the top there is a small shop where you can get some tea and take some time to recover. Later we are following stretches of the “motorable road” and from that point on the grade is much gentler. We soon meet a jeep sidelined by a broken axle with three guys underneath the vehicle mending it. Parts of the rear differential are scattered behind them. They tell us we will soon be in Kusmi Sera but of course they mean it would be soon for a Nepali. We push on and soon can see the village ahead of us.

In Kusmi Sera we stop for a Fanta but they have none but do have juice boxes so we purchase their remaining 3 boxes which gives us the jolt we need. We are prepared to trek the rest of the way to Madi but Gyanendra talks to a jeep driver who is headed empty back to Baglung. For a fee he will detour to take us to Jardi which is right across the river from Madi. We weigh the calculation of 20 minutes in the jeep vs. 2 hours of walking and we are soon in the jeep.  Being only 5 we have quite a few empty seats and there is always a number of people heading that way who would love a lift. We hire the jeep and fill it up gaining good PR and karma with one swoop. At Jardi there is a suspension bridge to cross and a steep climb but then we are there – Megh Dhakal’s house – our place of refuge for the next week to 10 days. Megh is away on business but will return in 2 days.

Manikula, Megh’s wife has not expected us for dal bhat but she has plenty so we dig in but it is spicy – yowl! Somehow though when I look down my dish is empty  – twice over. It is 7:30 and the sun has gone down some time ago and a full moon hovers over the house. The night sky here is amazing with almost no light pollution and the sky looks so close you could touch it. It is here that you can really see the stars beyond the stars  But we are too tired for that and head to bed.

November 1, 2009: Pokhara, Nepal

We are at the Olive restaurant in Lakeside when the silver Toyota van pulls up across the street. It’s time to head out. I have just finished a wonderful plate of penne pasta with homemade pesto sau ce a nd a glass of wine. Tineke is just finishing her single shot of espresso coffee. We are now prepared to head out.

The four of us make our way to the van. Our friend Mahendra, who has arranged the van, leads the way, followed by Tineke, Gyanenrda and myself. We pile in and the driver takes us to the Snowland where our packed luggage sits ready to go in the lobby. A few minutes later after some goodbyes to the staff and we are on the road stopping by Mahendra’s shop to let him out and say goodbye to his wife Chandra.

The road to Kusma is blacktop but with some rough sections. There is a reasonable amount of traffic so we have to bide our time when behind a slow moving bus or truck and wait for our turn to overtake. A friendly toot from the bus ahead and a hand outstretched is our signal to pull out and pass. It always looks like a bit of a crap-shoot to me when doing this but nonetheless we always make it back to our side of the road again before another vehicle comes towards us. It is exciting but not frightening and I’m always watching the road ahead to see what adventures await us just around the corner we seem to be barreling into.

Soon enough we are in Kusma which is a bustling place filled with people and vehicles of all nature. We wind our way through various streets and eventually arrive at the door of the Bandana Hotel where Gyanendra has pre-arranged some rooms for us. Just as well as all the remaining rooms are booked up for a small conference on solar energy. Solar energy plays a significant role in Nepal.  Even though the vast amount of power is hydro electric, many locations remain too far removed from a river to afford the transmission towers necessary to bring the power to them. So they learn to live with a much smaller power demand and rely on the sun to recharge their banks of batteries. So a conference on new solar technologies in an important event here and is well attended.

Our room is quite good and has an attached bathroom – this is a luxury in Kusma which has few if any tourists. There is even a TV in the room with 48 channels of Nepali soap operas (well, maybe not 48). We have some tea and then later some dal bhat and it’s time to retire for the night.