Adventures of Two Americans Living and Working in Nepal

Archive for the category “Life”

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.


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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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.

The Disorienting Sounds of Football

Yesterday, I woke up early to a familiar, yet (in this instance) somewhat eerie noise – the sounds of a televised American football game: referee whistles blowing, the deeply-suave, cartoonish voices of sports commentators, and a dim background of cheering fans. With my head buried under a pillow, still trying to separate dream from reality, I thought, “Where am I?”

Sitting up, I realized I was indeed still in Kathmandu. But the blare of the football game trickling into my room had me second-guessing, and also hoping. Maybe if I followed the sounds I would find other sweet offerings from home, like some nachos, perhaps, or a buffalo wing or two. What if my friends were out there talking trash about each other’s respective teams while munching on guacamole? My excitement was building.

Shuffling out into the kitchen, though, I just found Travis sitting at the table, hunched over a cup of instant coffee and a bowl of muesli, streaming the Boise State Bowl Game on his laptop.

The disappointment was crippling.

Not only did I realize that there were no nachos to be had, but Travis’ laptop is robust enough to stream things off the Internet in Kathmandu?! Not. Fair.

It’s strange where our senses can take us, whether through familiar smells or sounds, and how they are powerful forces that root us firmly to a place. I am sure if the situation had been reversed and I had woken in my bed in Austin to the noise of roosters crowing, a million dogs barking, and women yelling in a foreign language it would have produced a similar sense of complete disorientation.

That said, I still want some nachos.

69 Hours of Electricity Cuts Per Week

Thought I would share the most recent load shedding, or power cut, schedule released this week in Kathmandu. The matrix shows some neighborhoods without electricity for up to 11 hours a day. The overall average for the city will be 69 hours of power cuts each week. We are told this will increase throughout the winter.

Good thing we brought head lamps!


Bandhas and Balance

On Saturday and again yesterday, Kathmandu was effectively shut down due to a “bandha,” or strike, instituted by the Nepali Congress political party, one of just 26 major political parties to exist in Nepal. The bandha was called because a Nepali Congress student leader died early Saturday morning after being attacked in a jail in Chitwan, allegedly by people associated with the government.

When bandhas occur, pretty much all vehicles are prohibited from the roadways, save for ambulances, tourist transportation, press, and police. Schools are canceled, many businesses are forced to close, and the city, normally chaotic, is taken over by an eerie feel spawned by the lack of activity. While definitely not positive occurrences, bandhas can, at least in some areas of the city, appear on the surface a bit like snow days do at home. Kids, spontaneously freed from school, gather to play soccer in fields, and the fact that there is no traffic means that everyone can just walk right down the middle of the street.

Bandhas are enforced, essentially, by supporters of whichever political party has called the current bandha. For example, this week during the strike members of the NC party patrolled the streets, lighting tires on fire, chanting, and throwing rocks at taxi and rickshaw drivers who decided to take their chances and continue to operate their businesses, despite the restrictions, in order make a living.

In short, bandhas cause a great deal of hardship for the people who live here.

I certainly still have a lot to learn about politics in Nepal, but the fact that bandhas are a way of life here accepted by the people and the government seems, for lack of a better term, nonsensical. Despite the fact that the practice of regular, or even semi-regular, bandhas has proven completely ineffective toward actually creating progress in any way, they create an environment of imbalance in the country that just serves to disempower the people even more.

Friends walking down an empty street during the bandha on Saturday.

Phuleli in Photos

It’s been 10 days back in Kathmandu, and I am just now getting some pictures of Phuleli up. Time seems to fly here in a way that it certainly doesn’t in rural areas. I think I wrote in one of my first posts how Nepal was special in the sense that, when one is here, time stretches out and that days seem to trail off with an ellipsis rather than come to a final conclusion.

That was before I had any experience living in Kathmandu. Days here definitely end with three exclamation points, a buzzer, and a game show host screaming, “Time’s Up!”

So. Back to Phuleli. Travis is still there and, amazingly, the workers are very close to start plastering the walls. The miracle of earthbag construction is that once a site is prepped things can happen very quickly. If you had told me on our initial trip to Phuleli less than 90 days ago that this steep, vegetated mountainside would be flat and have a school on it at this point, I would have been skeptical.

But because it has already been done so eloquently, I will refer you to Edge of Seven’s blog for a detailed recap of the trip. (In fact, I would also recommend you stay tuned there for upcoming stories about the women and girls being impacted by these projects. )

In the meantime, here are a few photos from the experience. Updated shots to come when Travis returns to Kathmandu!

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Kindness and Hospitality in Phuleli

Riding the bus past the sports stadium in Kathmandu the other day, I noticed that the building had been decorated with several huge posters commemorating 2011 as Nepal’s “Year of Tourism.” One sign simply read, “Guest is GOD!” At the time, I remember thinking that it seemed a bit intense. But after spending a couple of weeks in Phuleli, I have a better appreciation for this country’s shared value of honoring visitors.

As cliché as it may sound, the kindness of the people in Nepal has once again rendered me speechless.

I’ll start with Rana Maya, our host mother. Her laugh – infectious, unguarded, and booming – was one of the first sounds Emily, Ben, Travis and I heard each day while in Phuleli. “Radha! Krishna! Ram! Sita!”she would cry out, greeting us in our Nepali names each evening as we streamed single file on the narrow path outside the kitchen door, waving to her on the way up to our rooms to drop backpacks and dirty gloves off before coming back down for tea.

Our host mother in Phuleli.

When we plopped down in the dining area, tired from the day’s work, Arnat, our host father would poke his head out of the kitchen, where he was busy cooking our dinner by light of his adjustable headlamp and say, “Ahhhh, Hellooo!”

Arnat, our host father, in the kitchen.

Dipesh, their 7-year-old son, would give us a shy smile, fill our tea cups up to the very tip-top, and then settle in on the benches beside us, eagerly moving closer when Emily began making origami birds from notebook paper or one of us started going through the photos on our cameras.

Dipesh plays the drum during the morning exercises at school.

Sarala, their 16-year-old daughter, and Binod, their 15-year-old son, when home on visits from school in Nunthala, shared with us their favorite subjects and showed us dances they were learning.

The Rai Family (from left to right) Arnat, Binod, Dipesh, Rana Maya, Sarala

Better than being treated as “Gods” (which, let’s be honest, would have just been awkward), we were treated as family.

Nepal is one of those places that challenges a person to reconsider the meaning of hospitality.  The concept certainly differs from country to country. Here, entire families move into a single room to make space for their guests. They stay up late and get up early to prepare food and tea. They make gifts for their visitors by hand. And they smile constantly. Even with the language barrier, it’s impossible not to feel bonded to people who welcome you into their lives in such a way.

School kids line up with marigold necklaces for the volunteers.

In addition to the family dynamics, the village as a whole demonstrated their appreciation for the volunteers through countless marigold necklaces, traditional scarves, several dance performances and speeches by all the school and village leaders.

Volunteers and workers pose for a shot to celebrate the leveling and completion of the school foundation!

As for the school, it is coming along beautifully! When we arrived, the site, still completely covered with huge boulders that would need to be moved, was somewhat daunting. But working side by side some of the strongest Nepali men and women I have yet to come across, including this 70-year-old man below who was literally running circles around many of us, the foundation was quickly leveled and the first earthbags were put into place. Since we left almost a week ago, Travis has reported that the walls are basically done and that they will be starting on the concrete ring beam today.

A 70-year-old worker nicknamed "Hercules" for his incredible strength.

Now back in Kathmandu, my body processing vehicle exhaust and dust instead of milk tea and kind smiles, I find myself missing the simplicity and beauty of life in the Phuleli. I look forward to returning in the near future. More photos to come over the next few days of the volunteers and the people of Phuleli!

At the project site the day the volunteers left Phuleli.

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