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.