Outlanderings

Adventures of Two Americans Living and Working in Nepal

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

Gas Crisis in Nepal

Just a little bit of harder news from Nepal. Headlines here in recent days have been heavily focused on the country’s recent gas crisis, stemming from the government’s financial inability to import enough gas to meet the country’s needs. In addition to the  shortage of fuel, which has caused drivers to wait for more than 4 hours in line at local gas stations, there have also been some very controversial price hikes. Today, Nepal student unions enforced a bandha, shutting down the whole city once again.

Bandhas coupled with massive power outages (given that our loadshedding is now up to 14 hours a day) create some major challenges for everyone in Nepal in terms of getting things done. Luckily, today was beautiful, sunny and warm, so most people took to the streets to socialize. (Travis and I used it as an opportunity to initiate a pick-up game of soccer with the NGN kids, which was great fun even if my team lost.)

Here’s a recent photo of some people waiting in a gas line. I have to say the angle doesn’t do it total justice, as people were wrapped around the block.

 

People waiting in line for gas in Kathmandu. January 2012.

 

“Big in Nepal”

All you Tom Waits fans out there are probably familiar with one of his more well-known songs, “Big in Japan.” Well, if Travis ever gets into the songwriting business, he’ll have to do a cover of that song and just swap out “Japan” for “Nepal”.

Yesterday, Travis was interviewed by Sagarmatha TV, a Nepalese television network, for a 7-minute piece they are doing on earthbag construction in Nepal and the Edge of Seven and The Small World school project in Phuleli. Pretty cool stuff. Karma Sherpa, the head of TSW, was also supposed to be interviewed, but is away right now in the US. Sonam Sherpa (pictured) was a huge help facilitating the interview, translating, and hosting at the TSW offices.

We’ll be sure to post the piece here once it’s finished, if it’s available online. In the meantime, I’ll just focus on not letting all the fame go to Travis’ head.

Nacho Update

Just thought it was worth mentioning after my football post that we did finally find some nachos in Kathmandu at a place called The Lazy Gringo.

They weren’t “Texas nachos” by any stretch, but they were still pretty good. And the chips were double fried. Bonus.

One of the better days of 2012 thus far.

Yum.

I Heart Street Markets

Street markets have are undoubtedly my favorite thing to check out when traveling in other countries. The spirited conversation and haggling, the vibrant colors and smells, the entrepreneurship of a woman with a cardboard table and tight grip on her change purse selling her wares – markets are where a traveller can often see a country’s true culture.

At Kathmandu’s street markets, there are strange culinary treats, people recycling odds and ends that most Westerners would throw away into their livelihoods, and street performers that leave me really wishing that I spoke fluent Nepali. Case in point, the other day we witnessed a man sitting in a tree and eating a bag of popcorn while spouting off some diatribe. Compared to some of the other magicians, gambling rings, and musicians in the park, this man’s act seemed pretty lackluster. But he had the biggest audience by far, so either he was saying something really cool or else people (much like myself) were just intrigued to see some crazy guy eating popcorn in a tree.

Here are a few photos taken recently at markets in Kathmandu. More to come from markets in the future.

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More Phuleli Project Photos

Another quick update.  We are still on schedule to have the kids move into the new school at the beginning of February but we will still have a little work left to do in early spring.  We can not deliver the wood for the ceiling and exterior soffit until mid February but that will not delay the school from officially moving in.  The walls are currently being painted, windows have glass installed, and the project site is being cleaned up.

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Phuleli School Nears Completion

Post by Travis Hughbanks

Time for me to break down and finally write my first blog post.  I had intended on writing last week, but two days after returning from the project site I got sick and spent a week confined to the apartment. It is interesting how your body can absorb so much strain, and then as soon as you give it a chance to rest it lets you know that your current pace is not sustainable. All is well now, though.

Ridge beam in place

First off, let me give a quick update on the Phuleli school. We are just over 50 days into construction and nearing completion. The earthbag walls are up and plastered, ring beam is poured, roof structure has been constructed, metal roof installed, and the concrete floor completed. Over the next couple of days the exterior soffit will be enclosed, wood paneled ceiling installed and school painted. Earthbag has been a remarkable success, and we have been very fortunate to not run into any major stumbling blocks.

When we initially arrived in Kathmandu back in October, we were still considering whether or not to build the first school in Phuleli out of earthbags. First, we thought that building the school in stone would give us an extra couple of months to get our heads around the material availability, pricing, and general logistics of earthbag construction in these remote and unfamiliar locations. But after a couple of sleepless nights and long discussions, we decided that if the village was accepting of the earthbag method we would move forward. It didn’t make any sense to travel halfway around the world to get cold feet.

At our first visit with the village School Development Committee back in October, I came in well prepared with photographs, diagrams, technical data on earthquake resistance, and 3D models, ready to give a persuasive speech to villagers steeped in tradition about why we should build their school out of bags filled with dirt, rather than with traditional stone construction. Turns out none of my documents were necessary. After a 10 minute conversation between the Committee, most of which was in Nepali, it was decided. Earthbag was in. Most of the villagers did seem pretty amused, though, that these bags they use for concrete and rice and that litter the hiking trails around their community could be used for such a purpose.

This is what the site looked like four days after my arrival in the village.

After finalizing the design over a couple of weeks in Kathmandu, we headed back to Phuleli to kick off construction. The plan was to arrive on the project site early on a Monday morning and start staking out the building foot print that afternoon. After a two day hike in, we cleared the last ridge and the bird’s eye view of the village came into sight. My heart sank a little. Only 25 percent of the site had been cleared thus far, and what looked to be piles of dirt in the distance were actually four very large veins of solid rock that had been unearthed and were slowly being chipped away by hammer and chisel.  Ram, the project lead from The Small World, simply looked at me, shrugged, and said, “Ke garne?” This roughly translates to mean, “What can you do?”

Ram, who has played a major role in the success of the project to date, has a very calm disposition and the ability to defuse almost any situation with a single comment. Where I was stressing out about the gravel pieces being too large, he always maintained the “can-do” Nepali confidence and smile. We spent most of the project joined at the hip and became fast friends. We balance each other out well.

One week of back-breaking work later, we had cleared the majority of the site and the volunteers had arrived. With 14 western volunteers and an equal number of Nepali workers we made quick work and were on to building the foundation and filling our first earthbags sooner than expected. It was a great example of how logical earthbag construction is. When you level a site, you are left with large piles of stone and dirt. The stone is used for the building foundation, the dirt for the walls. The materials are right there and no effort is wasted. It makes so much sense.

2 Spools of barbed wire equals 175 lbs. Portered 15 miles through the mountains. Our strongest volunteer collapsed after two steps in an attempt to carry this. Photo by Rachael Weaver

 

After a couple of days of hauling and stacking the 18″x30″ bags full of gravel and filtered dirt the volunteers were getting a little tired.  I am not sure how much the individual bags weighed, but they were very heavy and we needed to haul and stack over 2000 of them. This is where the legendary strength of the Nepalese people did not disappoint. While the volunteers devised a stretcher that allowed two people to carry an individual bag from dirt pile to the school, barefoot Nepali teenagers, girls and boys, walked right beside them with a full bag on their shoulders. It was amazing.

In no time we had completed the walls and poured the concrete ring beam. Cold weather was slowing the curing of the ring beam so we opted to start the plastering before we started the roof. A risky decision because any rain would wash away plaster that had not had time to set.

On the first day of plastering it was a balmy 42 degree morning, which is not a good start for plastering.  As we prepared the first batch of plaster for the scratch coat (first coat to fill the holes between the bags), I was assuring Ram and the workers that the plaster would have no problem sticking to the smooth surface of the polypropylene bags. Ram grabbed a pan, filled it with plaster, and, with a trowel in hand, walked over to the glossy white wall. With one flick of his wrist we knew we had a problem.  The plaster flew off the trowel, hit the wall and bounced right off. Time and time again plaster flew through the air and ended with a thud on the ground.

Ram's millet porridge experiment

We tried a wetter mixture, a different ratio of sand to cement, hand applying the plaster, but nothing worked. We considered all the potential culprits.  The bags did seem slicker than bags I had used before in Texas. The temperature was definitely a little cold and that could be the problem. There were countless possibilities. An hour after dark we decided to call it a night and sleep on it. After a restless night I decided to head to the project site early to test out a couple new ideas. I arrived at 7:00 a.m. to find Ram painting a small portion of the bags with a brown paste. Apparently, he could not sleep either. He explained that late last night he had an epiphany to paste millet porridge, his standard morning breakfast, on the bags to give them some texture. Nepali ingenuity. It was a brilliant solution, and at that moment I knew there was no problem that could arise that we would not be able to solve. By the end of the day we had a 40-foot section of wall plastered and it was holding strong – no millet porridge necessary.

One week later the walls were plastered, the roof was up and I was back in Kathmandu. Within a couple of days the school will be 99% complete. The students plan to move in at the beginning of February, and we will now start the transition to the next project site in Basa.

Throughout this process, much has been learned and much confidence has been gained. We are no longer asking can/should we build with earthbag, but now asking what is a more efficient way to build with earthbag.

Before signing off I wanted to give a big thank you to the Boston and Austin chapters of Architecture for Humanity for all of their help researching, fundraising, building mock-ups and aiding in the design process.  If you have not already, you can check out the project section of this blog for more info on the AfH chapters.

That is it for now. I will make a greater effort to be making regular posts from now until leaving for Basa.

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Mattress Making

In the time it took Travis to drink his morning coffee yesterday, our neighbor made a mattress from scratch on his roof.

 

Working with Next Generation Nepal

Last year, as some readers of this blog know, Travis and I spent two months in Nepal living in the remote village of Jarang, where we worked with Edge of Seven on a primary school building project. Throughout our stay, we lived with a lovely family (and many mice and mosquitoes) in a small house. We ate Dal Bhat (the standard Nepalese dish of rice and lentils) for every meal, showered occasionally from a bucket, and played a lot of “beetle baseball” on our porch, a game in which we used our books to swat away the fist-sized bugs that were drawn to our headlamps at night. We also built a school from the ground up side-by-side the residents of the village, many who grew to be like a second family, and developed great friendships with the volunteers who traveled from the U.S. to help in the effort. It was an experience that we will both forever regard as life-changing.

This past spring, Travis was offered a longer-term position with Edge of Seven, overseeing the implementation of the sturdier earthbag construction method on three school buildings in the Solukhumbu District – the first schools of their kind in this earthquake-prone region. An amazing opportunity for him, to be sure. But I didn’t even have to take a good look at myself in the mirror to know that I didn’t have nine months of village life in me. Despite the fact that my construction skills are essentially limited to “passing things” and “digging,” in order to be productive and retain my sanity, I would need a laptop and a (at least semi-regular) internet connection.

When pondering work in Kathmandu during our time here, I first thought of Next Generation Nepal, an organization that helps reunite children who have been trafficked to illegal orphanages with their families.

I thought of them because in March I had read NGN founder Conor Grennan’s book “Little Princes”, his personal story about the months he spent volunteering in a children’s home in Nepal and the overwhelming facts he discovered about the domestic child trafficking industry during that time. When I read the book, in addition to being overwhelmed by the immensity of the issue, it struck a bit of a personal nerve. That’s because during my first trip as a tourist to Nepal a few years back, I spent a couple of days volunteering at a children’s home, and at the end of my stay I made a small donation. The home seemed well-run, the mission seemed transparent, and my experience there seemed good on the surface. But eventually I found myself with a lot of questions that I had no way to answer.

For those unfamiliar with NGN’s work, some children’s homes in Nepal are more business than philanthropy, and, often, children living in illegitimate homes are not truly orphans. Child traffickers, targeting parents in remote, uneducated, and impoverished areas, promise city boarding school educations for their children in return for large sums of money. Often, though, these kids are instead placed in orphanages that generate part of their revenue from tourist donations. Countless children, who still have living parents, are even adopted out of these homes to unaware international couples.

Children’s homes in Nepal are not well regulated, and while I don’t have any proof that the home I volunteered at was engaged in illegal activities, I do know that there were inconsistencies in the information I was receiving that made me feel uncomfortable. Without being able to really know what was going on, I stopped my financial support. Before reading “Little Princes” and doing more research about  the situations so many children in this country are in, I had moments of guilt over this decision. But after learning more, I felt that the risk that my support could be helping to perpetuate the problems it was meant to relieve was too big.

Needless to say, I was excited to hear back from NGN and for the opportunity to work with their team in Kathmandu. It’s been about a month now, and I don’t think I will cease to be floored by how much there is to learn about this complicated issue and how much work there is to be done. I also don’t think I will cease to be floored by the passion everyone on the NGN team possesses. It’s truly an honor to work with such dedicated people.

There is so much that could be written about this issue – I could never sum it up in a blog post. But for anyone interested in learning more, I encourage you to check out NGN’s website, and I look forward to writing more about my work with them in the future.

New Year’s in Nagarkot

Spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in Nagarkot, a quiet little village on the top of a peak about 30 km outside of Kathmandu that offers excellent views of the Himalayas on a clear day. Here are a few photos from sunset on New Year’s Eve. Wishing everyone a Happy New Year!

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