Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mountain Biker Sends Buffalo into Air

After we got back from our mountain biking adventure, I was taking my dad on one of my usual four hour mountain bike rides. I am cruising down a jeep road, and as I round a corner I see a buffalo standing in the middle of the road. I slam on my brakes and stop just before the buffalo. The buffalo leaps up onto his back legs, does a 180 degree turn, and launches himself into the air in the opposite direction. He runs at full speed for two minutes before he stops.
Unfortunately, this was not a wild buffalo. Some middle aged Nepali lady, who was carrying at least 50 pounds of vegetables on her back, was herding this buffalo up the trail. She looked at me, looked at the buffalo now 100 meters away, looked back at me, and started laughing. She put her vegetables back in her house and began running down the trail after her buffalo.
I felt terrible, but fortunately she thought the whole situation was hilarious!

Holy Festival (and my last day at the orphanage)

Holy crap. Today we celebrated "Holy." I still don't know exactly what the festival means, how it is related to Hinduism, or why people celebrate it the way that they do. All I know is that it has been my favorite day in Nepal so far. I was told the night before to wear a bad set of clothes that I did not care about. By the end, all of my clothes were stained pink, purple, red, green, blue, turquise, yellow, orange, and every other color you could think of. I was dripping with paint and water from head to toe, and I had a couple of crushed tomatoes and crushed eggs in my hair.

I got to the orphanage around 10:00AM and was greeted by a cloud of water balloons, dyed water, and powdered paint. For the next two hours, we opened up bags of powdered paint and dumped them on each other's heads, took all food that was left out and threw it at each other (there wasn't much food around), and filled up buckets of water to unload on people that were still dry. By the end of the day, there was not a spot on my face or arms that was my true skin color

We managed to use up all of the water during the water fights, so there was no running water to wash our clothes or take showers. We walked the kids to a river, brought bars of soap, and all jumped into the river to shower and wash our clothes. It worked surprisingly well. A couple of the kids were scared to get into the water because they could not swim, so I grabbed them and got rid of their fears.

When we got back to the orphanage, they had a ceremony for me since it was my last day. About 1/3 of the kids kissed me goodbye they were so sad to see me go. I really want to figure out how to get back here and see them again.

Shiva Ratri Festival

Shiva Ratri (The Day of Shiva) is a national holiday in Nepal. Shiva is one of the most important Gods in the Hindu religion, and the whole day is set aside to get closer to him. In the morning, I went to one of the shrines with older girls from the orphanage to pray for husbands in the future. Women stood in line for several hours to bring their offerings-- burning incense, fruits, leaves, water from their homes. They gave their offerings to an important looking man standing at the shrine, and the man put their offerings on the shrine, gave them a ticka (a large red mark above their eyes), and blessed them.

Shiva is also the God of destruction and marijuana. At night everyone buys sugar cane in five foot long rods, heats an end up in a fire, and then whacks the end as hard as they can on the ground. The end of the sugar cane usually explodes and makes a noise as loud as fire crackers. So at night there are several large bonfires, a lot of exploding noises, and kids and adults eating sugar cane until the sugar rush is out of control. None of the volunteers could fall asleep that night due to our sugar rushes!

Marjuana is decriminalized on Shiva Ratri, and many Nepalis smoke once a year on this day to get closer to Shiva. I opted out of this part of the festival.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Extra school for exams

Final exams are coming up in less than a month. To make sure that all kids are prepared, students that are ranked 11th or lower in their class must go to extra school from 4PM to 6PM. The top ten students do not have to stay. This has made things very quiet around the orphanage in the afternoon, and it didn't take me long to figure out who the smart ones were. In three weeks when the exams are over, the extra schooling will come to an end and the kids will get a one month break.

Making a (very small) Difference

Every morning before school I help Garnisham, one of the older kids, do his math homework. He needs someone to help him one-on-one for two reasons. Firstly, he needs someone to explain every question to him. Secondly, he cannot sit down and concentrate for long enough to do a math problem unless someone is constantly encouraging him. After a couple of weeks of helping him for an hour every morning, he now has more trust in what I tell him than whatever is written down in his math book.

I have been trying to teach him about math concepts instead of sheer memorization, and it has been very challenging based on his schooling. Yesterday we were working with graphs, specifically rotating points and shapes 90 degrees about the origin. In his book it said that if you rotate (x, y) 90 degrees clockwise, the point becomes (y, -x). He had no idea what the formula meant, confused the negative signs, and could never keep straight the formulas for clockwise and counterclockwise.

The problem was that he did not understand what rotation was. So I physically rotated his math book 90 degrees clockwise and started to explain the concept of rotation. I drew a graph with some shapes on it and physically rotated the piece of paper 90, 180, and 360 degrees clockwise and counterclockwise. We began solving problems by rotating the graphs instead of using the formulas. After a half an hour, he finally understood what rotation was. In the end, I was even able to show him how the formulas were derived.

We'll see what he remembers tomorrow, but today it seemed like he finally understood the homework he was doing.

Sarankot Sunrise

Sarankot is a tiny village 2,500 feet above Pokhara in a perfect spot to view the Annapurna Mountains. The village is a popular spot to go for sunrise, so I woke up early one morning to bike to the top to watch the show. At 4:50AM I hit the road, and by the light of the full moon I was able to follow the road. The moonlight reflected off of the snow in the Annapurna Mountains, and I could see a couple 8,000 meter peaks barely visible halfway into the sky.

By 6:00AM I had reached the end of the paved road. The last twenty minutes were mountain biking to the top, and I found out that the moonlight was not as bright as I originally thought. By 6:20AM I made it to the top before dawn and sat to watch the mountains appear before my eyes.

When you are at the top of Sarankot, you can see 23,500 vertical feet of mountains all at once. For the next 45 minutes, I watched the mountains light up by the sun in sheer amazement. First the sun lit up the tops of only the tallest peaks, and slowly it unveiled the beauty and magnitude of the mountain range. After 100 pictures, I decided to ride down to begin my day at the orphanage. What a morning!

Plans for my Final Month

My volunteering is coming to an end and I will be traveling for the next month. Below are my plans for those that like to keep track.

Until March 7th: Mountain bike around the Annapurna Mountains with my dad. It is usually a 16-20 day hut to hut hike, but we will hopefully make it an 9 day hut to hut mountain bike. Max altitude is around 17,700 feet.
March 7th-9th: Volunteer at the orphanage for 3 more days
March 10th-12th: Kayak to Chitwan-- 3 day intro to kayaking clinic where we learn how to run rivers with class 3 rapids on the last day!
March 12th-14th: Two days in Chitwan National Park-- a tropical jungle with tigers, rhinos, elephants, crocodiles, over 400 types of birds
March 15th-21st: Final week in Kathmandu. Biking to the Tibetan border (4 day ride) and visiting some of the sites that I missed the first time
March 22nd-April 1st: Flying back to Chicago and going to the British Virgin Islands for a week before going back to school-- sailing around a 35 foot catamaran for a week with 12 of my friends

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Girl Aged 12 Marries the Sun

Jesse and Jane, two volunteers that I met in Kathmandu, are working in an orphanage in Old Pokhara A couple of days ago, I met up with them and they showed me around their part of town. To give you a feel for where we were, I did not see one white person the entire day with the exception of my friends. We went to the local markets where they sold food, clothes, kitchenware, electronics, and almost everything imaginable on tables lining the side of the streets. We ate Nepali fast food, where for 30 cents some street vendor filled my plate with God knows what and it filled me up. And we watched a Newari wedding where a twelve year old girl was marrying the sun.

In the Newari culture, a girl has three weddings in her life. When she is twelve she marries the sun, when she is fifteen she marries a flower, and then eventually she marries a man. For the first wedding, the young girl is locked in a dark room for two weeks and is not allowed to come out. She can only eat and go to the bathroom at certain times. She can only interact with women. Every night women come to dance with her in the room, and Jane had been dancing with the women for the past couple of days. The three of us went to her coming out ceremony. The day that she came out of the room, they held a full day ceremony on the balcony of their house (this was a wealthy Nepali family). All the women dressed in red robes, and the men wore nice clothes. They had a rug with a whole bunch of food laid out, and around the rug sat the bride, her mother, and some old man who was the religious leader. For hours, he would ring a bell in his hand and mumble indistingishable prayers. Then everyone would get up and feast in another room. They back to praying, then eating-- I think you get the idea. We stayed for one round of praying and eating and were treated with unbelievable hospitality. They even fed us meat!

The next night the family hosted a party for over 400 people. Sounds like a bar-mitzvah to me! Unfortunately I wasn't invited.

Nepali Soccer Game

We took the older kids to a soccer game in downtown Pokhara. The Nepali national team was playing the best kids team (age 19 and younger), and the stadium was packed. The soccer field has just as much grass as dirt, and the stadium was large concrete steps on one side of the field. We showed up 45 minutes before the game to get good seats and watched the crowd fill in.

There is no concept of a capacity limit in Nepal. Whether it is public buses, motorcycles, or soccer stadiums, a maximum limit does not exist. People upon people came onto the concrete steps to sit down leaving no rows or aisles. If we wanted to move during the game, we would have had to step on people's thighs to get out. Once no one else could physically fit onto the steps, people started to sit on the ground around the field. By the time the game started, there were as many people sitting around the field as there were on the concrete.

Most of the fans wanted to see the young kids beat the professional team. The fans were roudy, yelling, and laughing at each others comments. I have never seen a closer soccer game in my life. After 90 minutes of play, the score was still 0-0. Once no one scored in double overtime, the game went to a shoot out. Five players from each team took a shot. The first four players on each team all made their shots. Unfortunately, the fifth player on the young kids team missed the shot, and the game went to the professional team. The younger team had several opportunities to win during the game including a shot that bounced off of the goal post, but in the end they could not score a goal.

The orphanage kids wanted the professional team to win, so we cheered opposite each other the whole entire game. They loved rubbing their victory in my face after my team lost. After the game, we walked a half an hour back to the orphanage, again hand in hand. I sang "The ants go marching one by one" the whole way home, and they loved it.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Why are these kids orphans?

Before I came to Nepal several people asked me why there were so many orphans. I always assumed that in third world countries the mortality rate was much higher than in western countries, so parents died earlier due to disease, health problems, and crime. I could not have been more wrong.

Out of 76 children, there is one kid who had both parents killed in a landslide, and one kid who had both parents killed in a car accident. These were the kinds of stories I was expecting, and they are few and far between. The majority of the orphans at Namaste have parents that are still alive. Half of the kids had fathers that abandoned the family because they a) wanted to marry someone else, b) had an alcohol abuse problem and could barely care for themselves, or c) did not want to be responsible for supporting kids and simply left the rest of the family to fend for themselves. The same half had mothers that a) were too poor to care for them so they sent their kids out to beg on the streets, b) got married to another man, were not allowed to take their kids into their second marriage, and abandoned them, or c) filled out applications to send their kid to an orphanage because they could not provide enough for their child to survive. The lucky ones have loving mothers that are just too poor to raise a child.

Below are two of the sadder and more depressing stories. I would never have guessed these kids came from a background like this until Namaste lent me a book that described each orphan and his/her story. They seem like the kind of kids that I used to spend my summers with at camp-- just a lot less spoiled.

W, X, Y, and Z (from oldest to youngest) came to Namaste after they had been living on the streets for three months. Their father remarried and left the family when the mother was pregnant with Z. When Z was two, their mother abandoned the family and married another man. The four kids fought for themselves on the streets for three months before they came to Namaste. W began working at a hotel to try to support herself and her siblings. She was only nine years old. She could not make enough to buy food for herself and her three siblings, so she would distribute the food equally among her three younger siblings and leave nothing for herself. To satiate her hunger, she would routinely eat bricks. Eventually the Pokhara police caught them one night as they were searching for a place to sleep. The police referred them to a socialization center who referred them to Namaste. After W came to Namaste, she needed counseling as she continued to eat bricks and was visibly affected by the abandonment of her parents.

S has the most traumatic background of all the children here at Namaste. When she was seven years old, her mother, who was extremely poor and unable to properly care for her, sent S to work as a house servant. The owner of the house, along with his two adult sons, repeatedly raped S for the three years she was there as a servant. This owner did not give her enough to eat and reluctantly let her go to school while refusing to pay for books or supplies. One night, a teacher discovered that S spent the night at school instead of going home. The teacher asked her about her home life, and once she heard about the violent rape and abuse, the police were notified and the men were put in jail. S was referred to Namaste immediately after.

Ski Bum to Mountain Bike Bum

Last winter I was a ski bum working a lucrative job just for the money. This winter I am a mountain bike bum that daily works with orphans to improve their lives. While few of my previous blogs have mentioned mountain biking, the mountain biking here is half of my experience. Unlimited mountains to climb, the steepest slopes I have ever ridden, unbelievable views, and extremely remote villages make Nepal the best mountain bike country in the world (that I have seen so far). Check out the pictures to understand the full experience, but I have highlighted some of my rides and observations in words below:

Women Carrying 50+ pound Loads:
Wherever I go mountain biking, I always see old women with wrinkles all over their face walking up 40 degree slopes in flip flops. They usually have at least 50 pounds of wood on their backs, and their village is two hours uphill. They carry the wood by putting a strap over the top of their head and supporting the entire weight with their neck. I unfortunately have not been able to discretely take a picture.

Men advising me against biking:
On several occasions, I have been stopped by men as I have biked through small villages. They try to tell me through sign language and terrible English that it is IMPOSSIBLE to take a bike past this village, and that I should turn around immediately and go home. I always explain to them that I know what I am doing (yeah right! I usually have no idea what I am getting myself into) and try to bike away before they can physically restrain me. They are just trying to be nice, but Nepalis do not understand the concept of mountain biking. Fortunately, the bike is light enough to throw on my shoulders and carry, and I have had to use this option several times.

Swarmed by little kids:
I have been able to bike to some extremely remote villages on my rides. Sometimes I am not sure if these kids have seen a mountain bike in their life, and they are definitely not used to seeing white people. On one of my rides, I had 10 little kids running after me uphill for ten minutes! They were swarming around me and making it impossible to ride. I almost ran some of them over, but we fortunately all made it away without injuries. Other times kids try to block the road and jump out of the way at the last minute, or if I am stopped they will run up and touch me, my bike, my backpack, and anything else they can get their hands on. These kids have no problem running down a 60 degree slope to get to me. Check out some of the pictures.

Wild Monkeys!
I popped a tube on a downhill descent on a jeep road in the middle of nowhere. When I stopped to fix it, I heard birds and animal noises in the forest all around me. I looked up into the trees, and I saw monkeys jumping from tree to tree! I quickly got out my camera and spent the next 20 minutes running through the woods after the monkeys. I saw them flying through the air dozens of times, but they were just too quick for my camera.

World Peace Pagoda:
My quick ride when I just want some exercise. I bike 10 minutes to the start of a jeep rode, and then climb 1,000 feet in 35 minutes of nonstop pedaling to the World Peace Pagoda. The view is overlooking Phewa Lake at 2,500 feet. Behind Phewa Lake are some rolling hills, and behind that is a range of mountains that peak over 26,000 feet. In front of my eyes I am looking at 23,500 vertical feet of mountain! The downhill home takes less than 10 minutes.

A paved "road" to a jeep road that climbs 2,600 feet in less than 10 miles. I climb up past all of the paragliding launch spots to the best view of the Annapurna Mountain Range. 20 photos later (I take that many photos every time!), I bike down a single track trail back to the lake. The trail is so steep that 1/3 of the time I am carrying my bike on my shoulders and scrambling down! The entry to this single track is in the middle of a very remote village where the villagers always try to prevent me from riding down.

Mountain Bike Mountaineering:
When I am bored and don't want to plan out a ride on a map, I will look at a hill and try to get to the top of it. Summitting usually involves some combination of riding and carrying my bike up and down.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Exam Result Day at School

In my earlier blog, I talked about what the kids wear when they go to school. Blue shirt, blue tie, blue sweater, blue pants, blue socks, and black shoes that they polish every morning. They take school very seriously, and I expected these kids to be very smart and ahead of our average American.

Four times a year, the kids are tested in eight different subjects, each test taking three hours. They must pass all of the tests at the end of the year in order to advance to the next grade. Out of all of the kids at the orphanage, only 90% usually pass into the next grade. They are tested in Nepali, English, Math, Science, Social Studies, Computer Science, General Knowledge, and Health and Physical Education. These kids are taking 24 hours of tests every three months! I thought they had to be smarter than American students.

I went with them to school on their exam results day. For the hour that I was there, I walked around speechless and with my mouth open. Their classrooms looked more like prison cells than rooms to learn in. Concrete walls and floors, one small blackboard, and benches for everyone to sit on. There were a couple of large holes in some of the walls, and there was no air conditioning or heat. Most of our parents' master bathrooms are bigger than their classrooms.

They all ran to their teachers to get their exam results from over a week of testing. I learned a lot about the Nepali school system after looking at their results. First, every kid is ranked in his grade based on these exam scores. Kids as young as second grade have a rank, and ranks are public information. Second, you only have to get 40% of the information correct to pass an exam. The teaching focus is not around learning the information but getting the students to pass these exams.

Because students are tested so often and there is so much pressure to pass the exams, subjects are taught quickly and purely on memorization. These kids are learning how to memorize, but you can't learn math, science, or English on pure memorization. If they do not learn fast enough they are often slapped by their teachers, so the pressure to memorize is enormous. In the mornings, I have been helping the older kids with their homework. For everyone that was worried out there, these Nepali students are not ahead of American students. The only way to describe how they learn is by a couple of examples.

I was trying to help a girl solve a math problem based on cubes and rectangular prisms. Before we started the problem, I asked her to point out a rectangular prism in the room. I was holding a chalkboard eraser right in front of her and waving it around. She could not identify any rectangular prisms in the room, but she could rattle off the formulas for the volume and surface area. She also did not know the meaning of volume or surface area.

Another boy was studying computer science. In the end of chapter questions, the first question asked "What is a computer?" When I asked him this question, he thought for a moment and then responded. "A computer is an electronic device that--"

"Stop." I said. "What is a computer, in your own words?" He had memorized the definition given to him, and "electronic" and "device" were not in his English vocabulary. He sat there for a full minute and could not come up with any sort of a response. I then asked him "If you are going to explain what a computer is to a four year old, what would you tell him?" Another minute passed, and still no response. This kid is one of the better English speakers in the orphanage, but he could not explain in his own words what a computer was.

In two days I am going to start teaching extra English classes to small groups of kids at the orphanage. We'll see how that goes.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Orphanage Life

Namaste is an organization in Nepal that is trying to save the world. They run an orphanage that takes care of 75 kids. They run a facility that houses single mothers and their children. They pay for over 100 underpriveleged kids in Nepal to go to school since the government does not provide free education after 5th grade. I am fortunate enough to be a volunteer in this wonderful organization.

I live at the Namaste Handicraft Center. This used to be a guest house, but it has been converted to housing for some single mothers and their families. The mothers cook for their families and for the volunteers living there (7 of us right now), clean the common areas, and make handicrafts during the day. Namaste sells these handicrafts and puts all of the money back into the organization. There are several Nepali mothers that cook dinner for me every night, and even though there is a pretty big language barrier, I have no problem understanding that they want to feed me rice and lentil soup until I explode. The mothers are disappointed if we miss one of their dinners.

A lot of people have been wondering about the food. Every morning for breakfast I have a lot of rice, some lentil soup (dal-bat) on top, and an extremely small serving of curry with no meat. For lunch we eat some sort of a flat rice, noodles, or crispy rice (kind of like rice crispies), and dinner is the same as breakfast. So rice 3 meals a day, and we get a small serving of meat once a week. Vegetables are also scarce. Most Nepalis cannot afford much else, and rice is very cheap. Also, Nepalis don't use utensils, so I have learned to eat rice, curry, and dal bat with my right hand.

I volunteer at the orphanage six days a week. All I do is give the kids personal attention. I play with them, hug them, hold their hands, and love them. The youngest group is 3 to 6 years old, and I bounce these kids on my legs, pick them up and spin them around, hold their hands and walk them to school, and act like a little kid and play extremely simple games. The other kids range from 7 to 16, and even these kids want to be hugged and touched. We draw together, play catch, practice karate moves, sing songs, violently play on the see saw, and play any game that I teach them for hours on end.

For example, I taught them a game involving 2 people where you stand facing each other, arms length apart, and try to get the other person to move their feet by pushing on their hands. We played for 2 hours nonstop when they first learned, and every day since then I have played for at least a half hour.

I also taught them trust falls, which is where one person stands with their back to another person and falls. The other person is supposed to catch them before they hit the ground. They line up and push and shove so they can fall backwards for me to catch them.

I have never met young kids that are so independent. They are tough and fight each other, but at the same time they are extremely well behaved. Most of the time they don't have anyone to punish them, but they also don't need it. It is very hard for me to explain how these kids live, but it is really a system where everyone listens and respects people that are older than them. The older kids really do supervise and look after the younger ones. If a little kid is crying, an older kid (sometimes only 13) picks him or her up and comforts her.

Compared to the childhood that I had, these kids really have it bad. Compared to a lot of the kids that I see on the streets, these orphans are the lucky ones.

Andrew's and the Kids' Daily Routine

I was not expecting everyone to be interested in this, so I included it in a separate entry.

The orphanage is a seven minute bike ride from the Handicraft Center (or 25 minute walk). Every day but Saturday, I work at the orphange from 7:00AM to 10:30AM and 3:45PM to 5:45PM. The kids are in school from 10-4, so I have the middle of they day free to go mountain biking. The kids don't go to school on Saturday, and I also have my day off then.

From 7:10AM to 8:30AM, the kids have study time (they are up around 6 and have already had tea and bread for breakfast). I usually draw with them, write poems, or help some of them with math.
8:30AM - 9:30AM is "lunch" (rice and dal-bat), and I eat with the kids. At 9:30, they go upstairs, make their beds, clean their areas, and dress up in ther school uniforms. Blue pants (skirts for girls), blue button down shirts, blue ties, blue sweaters, blue socks, and black shoes that they polish every morning. At 9:50 we walk to school together. I come back and help the women sweep and mop the floors, and by 10:30 I am off with my mountain bike.

I usually find a mountain bike ride that takes 2-4 hours, find a cheap place in town for an American lunch (usually around a dollar), and get back by 3:45 before the kids get back from school. I have rented a Trek front suspension mountain bike for the next 40 days. While it was expensive, the bike is already paying off.

I have a snack with them at 4:00 (like the lunch I described in the earlier entry), and then actively play with them until I leave. We sometimes go to a park and play soccer or karate, or we run around the orphanage trying to release as much energy as possible.

At 5:45 I bike home and have some downtime in my room. 7:00 is dinner, and then afterwards the volunteers hang out and play cards, go use the internet, read, or go to a bakery close by for a snack. Since most of us are on a budget, we seldom go out. A full meal costs less than $2, while a beer is double that. I go to bed early and am up by 6:30AM the next day.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Riots against Police Block Road to Pokhara

After spending 5 days in Kathmandu, I hopped on a tourist bus to Pokhara early on Tuesday morning. Hundreds of Nepalis die every year in public bus accidents, so my program pays the extra money to send us on a tourist bus. The bus consisted of me and around 10 other Nepali men who also were afraid to take public buses.

I quickly realized why public buses are so dangerous. The road to Pokhara is 120 miles of mountainous roads filled with potholes, motorcycles, cars, buses, and hair pin turns with no railing. If a vehicle is moving faster than the vehicle in front of him, he immediately tries to pass that vehicle. It does not matter if you are going uphill around a blind turn-- there is never a lost opportunity to pass someone else.

The problem with the local bus is that it is too small-- if the bus is hit, it will be pushed off of the road and go rolling off of a cliff landing hundreds of feet below. The tourist buses are much bigger, so if they are involved in an accident, the buses will probably stay on the road.

We only had a couple near death head on collisions, but they were saved by both vehicles slamming on the breaks as hard as they could. One involved a truck trying to pass a bus uphill around a blind turn. We were coming from the other direction, and my bus driver slammed on the breaks so hard that I was violently thrown into the seat in front of me. We also almost hit a truck that was flipped over in the middle of the road. Our bus was not involved in an accident, so the trip was a success!

Throughout the bus ride, I made friends with 5 of the Nepali guys on the bus. They spent the whole bus ride trying to teach me Nepali-- it didn't work out too well. Around 10km outside of Pokhara, the bus stopped because of a road block. Everyone got out to see what was going on.

A mile up the road, a truck had run over a little girl and killed her. The people of the town started rioting in protest by throwing rocks at any policeman they could find. Nepal trucked in over 100 policemen in full riot gear to stop the riots, and they held their presence on the road for the next several hours blocking any cars that wanted to go buy.

My new friends convinced me that the bus was not going to move for several hours, so I should take my bags and walk 2 miles with them through all of the policemen to the other side of the road block. I took there advice, and on the other side of the road block a brother came to pick us up. 6 of us piled into the smallest 4 wheel car I have ever seen, and they drove me to Pokhara!

I arrived safe and sound with a beautiful view of the Annapurna Mountains. I started working at the orphanage the next day.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Kathmandu Pictures are up

check them out!

A little Nepali Goes a Long Way

On the 3rd night in Kathmandu, I went to a bar with two American friends from my program. We wanted to find a bar with some local color, so after wandering the streets for 20 minutes, we walked into a bar that sounded like it had Nepali kareokee. As we walked in, we got strange looks from some of the locals and were then led to a table.

I had been studying Nepali for 2 days and could say only these 10 phrases-- hello, thank you, I don't understand, I speak a little Nepali, I am a volunteer, I go to Pokhara, how are you?, I am fine, what is your name? and my name is Andrew. As soon as I asked the waitress "tik chah" and "tapaiili nam ke ho", (how are you and what is your name), we became instant stars of the bar. Someone made us move tables so we would have a better view of the live band (we then realized that it was a live band and not kareokee), and we were surrounded by Nepali guys instantly speaking Nepali to us. The more I said "maile bhujina" (I don't understand), the more excited they would get that I could speak Nepali. The announcer came over to our table, dedicated a song to us, made us get up and dance, and by the end of the night offered me the lead female singer to take home. We figured that after the objectifying of women fiasco, it was an appropriate time to leave. What a true Nepali experience.

My first view of the Himilayas

The day before I left for Pokhara, I rented a mountain bike and rode to some remote villages outside of Kathmandu. I left with another volunteer at 8:30AM and didn't get back until 6:30 at night! We biked from Kathmandu to some tiny villages in the Kathmandu valley, and up to a town called Nagarkot that offered a good view of the Himilayas. The morning ride was basically straight up, and the last 12km were so steep that it took us an hour and a half! One village was so small it had only 7 houses. When we biked through it, all of the little kids saw us, ran to us, and started swarming us and touching our bikes. Unfortunately, my friend's rear deraiuller snapped at that point, so we had to walk our bikes the last 3 km to Nagarkot. Walking ended up being just as fast as riding uphill.

When we got to Nagarkot, we got some incredible views of the Himilayas (see the pictures that I will hopefully post tonight). We put my friend and his bike on a public bus, and I met him in Baktapur. The road to Baktapur was all downhill, with hairpin turns and more beautiful views. I was able to pass some cars on the way down and was much faster than the public bus. From Baktapur, I rode back to Kathmandu (ended up getting terribly lost, but eventually made it back) while he took another public bus.

The views from this day were the best from the trip so far. Check out the pictures.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Arrived in Nepal!

After traveling from Israel to Turkey to Qatar to Bahrain, I eventually arrived in Nepal late Wednesday night on the 14th. If you live in Chicago, Nepal is 11 hours and 45 minutes ahead of your time, so just change the AM to PM and subtract 15 minutes.
The couple of days were quite a culture shock. Below are a couple of the many reasons.
Power- for the past 6 months, the Nepali government has not been able to provide their citizens with 24 hour power because either a) it has been a dry winter and most of the power is generated by hydroelectric dams or b) they don't want to pay India to power for power. No one is sure of the real reasons. So the whole country operates on 8 hours of power for every 24, and it is based on a complicated rotating time schedule. For example, today we have power from 4-8AM and 4-8PM. Tomorrow it will be different. No power means that you cannot turn on lights in your room, street lights do not work, and you can't heat hot water or rooms. The internet cafes, restaurants, and some stores have generators for when the power is off, but lighting is minimal. Most of my reading has been done by candle light or headlamp.
Trash Collection- The Nepali government does not provide a consistent trash collection service, so trash accumulates in piles in the street and is burned at night. The burning trash adds to the already heavy polluted city, and the piles cause traffic jams. After being here for 5 days, my throat is sore from all of the pollution.
Driving- from what I can tell, there are no driving laws in Nepal. When you come to an intersection, the bigger and faster car has right of way unless there is a policeman directing traffic. Traffic lights and stop signs do not exist, and there is no center line. Cars can pass other cars as long as they avoid a head on collision. There are usually no sidewalks, so you will have people, bicycles, motorcycles, and cars all trying to move on the same road. Cars and motorcycles are honking all of the time for one of the following reasons:
1. To tell a pedestrian to move out of the way because he is a couple seconds away from getting hit
2. To alert an oncoming car that you are a couple of seconds away from a head on collision
3. To alert everyone that you are driving fast and don't plan on stopping for anything in the way.
The roads are a constant symphony of horns. I was advised to bring earplugs, and now I understand why.

Poverty- As I was walking back to my hotel tonight, I saw a little girl about 6 years old proudly running to her mother. After digging through the garbage, she had found a couple of card board boxes to light on fire to keep the family warm through the night. I usually see people huddled around burning trash, but seeing the look on this girls face gave me a much deeper understanding.
14th Century Temples- There are beautiful temples and stupas all over the place. Some of them are still used for religious purposes, while others are treated with the same respect as trash cans. Check out the pictures.

I was placed in Pokhara, which is a small village at the foot of the Himalayas. The orphanage that I will be working in has 65 kids, and it is one of the largest in Nepal. I will not be staying with a host family. I was given the choice to either stay in Kathmandu or Chitawan, teach English, and live with a host family, or go to Pokhara. I chose Pokhara and am looking forward to being out of the city pollution and close to the mountains. I leave tomorrow morning at 6:00AM!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Pictures are up!

Check them out at

Hiking in Israel

During the first 10 days of our trip, we traveled throughout as much of Israel as possible. I was amazed how diverse the landscape and vegetation were for a country as small as New Jersey. To give you an appreciation for how different the country is, I have briefly described several hikes that we went on in the first 10 days.

1. Eilat is a touristy city that is at the southern tip of Israel on the Red Sea. They have beaches with snorkeling, scuba diving, windsurfing, kiteboarding, cruises, etc. We climbed up a desert mountain to get a view of the city. The mountains around us had almost no vegetation and was mostly composed of sand and rock. Valleys had been carved out by flash floods. The earth looked naked, and we could see the beatiful shapes of the mountains around us.

2. The Negev is a huge desert located in southern Israel that accounts for half of the country. We had a guide named Iran, who lives in a small community of 100 people and owns nine camels, take us around the desert in his off road land cruiser. He drove like a maniac over roads that would be more appropriate for mountain bikes-- 500 foot drops off of one side while we bounced up a 30 degree pitch (he had a virtual horizon in his car like the ones they have on airplanes to prove it). He took us to Israel's largest "Ramon." It is a geological formation that is only found in Israel, so there is no English translation, but it is basically an enormous crater that you can spend 2 weeks hiking in. Parts of the hike reminded me of the Grand Canyon. You could clearly see 10 different rock layers and how flash floods had carved through the softer layers easily. The layers were gold, green, orange, purple, red-- it was like looking at a rainbow in the ground. I will definitely come back to this area the next time I am in Israel

3. In the middle of the desert, there was a stream running through a canyon called Ein Gedi. The canyon was filled with life-- green bushes everywhere with enormous leaves, trees, birds, groundhog like animals. There were some waterfalls that we saw that belong in Hawaii. The water came from the ground and was incredibly warm.

4. The northern part of Israel has a lake called the Sea of Gallilee. Almost all of Israel gets their drinking water from this place. It is around the Golan Heights, and there are rolling hills with greenery and cliffs. We hiked down one of the cliffs to a little village where a driver picked us up. On the way down, we saw caves in the cliffs that were fortified by the Jews when they fought their last battles before being crushed by the Romans two thousand years ago.

5. Petra is an ancient city in Jordan that profited from being in the middle of the trade routes between the Romans and the East a couple thousand years ago. They built their city in a canyon with heavy Roman and Egyptian influence. However, instead of building the major buildings from the ground up, they carved buildings into rock. It is kind of like Mt. Washington, but instead of carving faces with modern technology, they carved buildings with huge columns, doors, and rooms into the mountain. There were a whole bunch of Arabs Beduins wanting to take you around on their camels or donkeys, but we ended up hiking ourselves. 2 of the larger buildings were at least 3 stories high! Check out the pictures.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

War in Israel-- an American Perspective

For those of you that live in a cave, Israel has been at war in Gaza since the day I arrived in Israel. We have received a lot of concerns from family and friends wondering if we are getting enough food and asking about the bomb shelter life. If CNN and BBC did not exist, I would never know that Israel is in the middle of a war. Life here is completely normal, and the vast majority of Israeli cities are safe.

A little history about the war. Hamas, a terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel, was elected democratically by the Gazans to control the Gaza Strip. While they provide good public services to the Gazans, they also have been actively building up a military and launching rockets into Israel for the past seven years. Just imagine if Cuba launched rockets into Miami-- after the first couple of rockets, there would be no more Cuba.

For the past several years, Israel has been forcing Jewish people living in settlements to leave Gaza and give full control to the Palestinians. Israel wants the Palestinians to be in control of Gaza and wants to have peaceful relations with them. The terrorist organization that runs the government isn't exactly peaceful, so Israel began a military campaign to weaken or eliminate Hamas so that they can live in peace. For the first week I was in Israel, they had been attacking from the air, and for the past several days they sent in ground troupes with the support of the army and navy.

When the US goes to war, they send in young men that we have never met to a place we have never seen. A lot of the US public, myself included, has trouble comprehending a death of a soldier. When Israel goes to war, they send in the sons, brothers, and friends of the entire population to a place that is 50 miles away. Everyone in Israel, including my brother who got here two months ago, knows someone that is fighting in this war. For example, my brother's RA is standing by because there is a chance he will be called into reserve duty. Israel has lost six soldiers so far, and I can't imagine how many people knew them. I now have a new respect for soldiers, their families, and the great losses in the Iraq war.

War is bad for both sides involved. After living in Israel and talking to my brother for the past 2 weeks, my political views have shifted left and I support some form of giving up land for peace. I believe that in order for there to be long lasting peace in Israel, the Palestinians need their own country.