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.