Adventures of Two Americans Living and Working in Nepal

Archive for the category “volunteer”

Updated Photos of the School in Phuleli

After the recent blog about Basa, it’s time for the Phuleli update!

We spent three days in Basa before embarking on the four hour hike to Phuleli, and it was great to get back. There was a definite comfort in plopping our bags down in a familiar place and shouting hello to people we knew around the village. Our host family from before, Angat and Rana Maya, were away during this trip, so we stayed with a man named Karka and his family. Karka is the mayor of Phuleli, runs a store in town, and hosted volunteers during last fall’s trip.

During our few days in Phuleli, we were able to see the carpenters put many of the finishing details on the building and do some whitewash painting on the exterior. At the time, the students had all moved temporarily back into the old building so the remaining roof work could be completed. But the school looks great, and everyone in Phuleli seems very happy with the way it turned out. Some updated photos below!

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Welcome to Basa!

Yesterday, eight Edge of Seven volunteers arrived in Basa to kick off the new higher secondary school project, and, in truth, I’m a little jealous not to be with them.

Having just returned from a trip up to the new site with Travis, I can say that Basa is an amazing place. Right now, spring flowers are blooming and villagers are at work planting their crops. Everywhere I looked there was something beautiful to see. The village is reached by a different route from Phaplu than we took to go to Phuleli, and the trail is very peaceful. It even goes by a viewpoint of Mount Everest, which Travis and I were lucky to to see on our walk in on a clear morning!

The people of Basa were excited to have both of us there, and I know they were eagerly anticipating the volunteers. According to the most recent update from the field, the community made quick work of the site preparations and foundation, so the volunteers could get right in to the earthbags when they arrive. The site is right next to the existing school building and near the center of the village, so it’s a great place to be stationed in terms of giving volunteers plenty of opportunity to get to know the students and people in town.

Here are a few photos from the trip. More to come soon on the update from Phuleli!

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An Inspiring Little Mountain Climber

Through my involvement with Next Generation Nepal, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some pretty incredible people.

I’ve also had the pleasure of spending many a Saturday in the wonderful company of the kids from Karnali Home One in Kathmandu, NGN’s transitional home for children who have been trafficked into corrupt orphanages. The staff at Karnali Home provide a supportive, loving environment for these children while NGN reintegration managers are in the process of searching remote mountain areas for their families.

There is one girl in particular at Karnali Home who has been a total honor and inspiration to get to know. Shruti, 9, is a burst of smiling, giggling energy, who loves to explore and goes into fits of joy upon spotting a pretty bird, a blooming flower, a mountain view or really any gift of nature that many of us would take for granted. Spend a few minutes with Shruti, and I guarantee your perspective on things will shift dramatically and for the better.

Shruti’s favorite thing to do while out on walks is to climb to the top of the highest hills in sight, undoubtedly so she can take in as much of the landscape as possible. Observant and sharp, Shruti sees the beauty in everything – a remarkable trait considering what she has been through in her life.

Recently, NGN’s reintegration managers succeeded in finding members of Shruti’s family, and a few weeks ago she received a visit from her uncle, the first family member she can recall ever meeting. It was a pretty amazing accomplishment for the reintegration managers, given that there was very little information about her family to go on. It was, obviously, also a pretty amazing day for Shruti.

If you have a second, check out this story about Shruti’s reconnection with her uncle now up on NGN’s website. I promise it will get your week off to a great start!

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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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.

Volunteers Come, Fog Lifts

It’s been a strange fall in Nepal, weather-wise. Though skies here are usually clear and sunny in November, the time of year when the country experiences the highest amount of tourist traffic, the past few weeks have been a steady series of foggy, rainy days. And since pilots manning in-country flights fly on sight, it takes just the smallest smattering of clouds to make the skies impassable. Let’s just say the skies this month have been thoroughly smattered, and flights in and out of the mountains have been a rarity. In fact, the Everest Region made headlines recently when more than 2,000 tourists were stranded for several days at the Lukla airport because planes were not able to get in.

Emily, Edge of Seven’s Program Director, arrived in Kathmandu last Sunday with an itinerary that had her spending most of the past week at the project site. But the weather didn’t cooperate, so she has been here with us for the week. Which, frankly, has been awesome. In addition to loving the company, we’ve been making good use of her time in Kathmandu prepping for the trip, planning for logistics and supplies, and meeting with other NGOs working in Nepal.

Emily and Travis - Edge of Seven employees.

But the good news is that the weather has made a dramatic turn for the better and the past two days have been beautiful and sunny – great timing for the volunteers, who have all arrived safe and sound as of today. Travis actually made it out on a flight to Phaplu a couple of days ago and arrived in Phuleli yesterday afternoon. He texted earlier to report that it was exciting to get to work at the school site and that throughout his introductions to all of the villagers today he had consumed 12 cups of tea (which Emily pointed out would be a terrific title for a blog post from him at some point). He then called later to say that he spent a good portion of his evening helping a villager “chase his pigs” into their pen. A banner day for Travis by many measures.

The volunteers have all arrived and this afternoon we took a stroll from Thamel to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. We visited a few of the more notable buildings, including the Kumari Ghar, or House of the Living Goddess. The Kumari (Living Goddess) is a young girl who is chosen at the age of 5 or 6 to live as an object of worship until she reaches puberty. The selection is made based on a host of criteria that begins with the girl’s caste. Though Kumari worship is an ancient tradition in Hindu cultures, I think the concept is a bit tougher for us Westerners to swallow. You can’t help but feel for this girl, who, while well taken care of, is confined to a life of sitting in a building with lots of makeup on, making an appearance at a window a few times a day.

This evening all of the volunteers went for a traditional dinner of Dal Bhat and milk tea. I have to say I was extremely impressed with everyone’s energy level. Going halfway around the world creates a hard level of jet lag to cope with, and I probably would have been face down in my plate had I just been through some of these flight schedules. But everyone was excited to be here, and conversation flowed freely. I can tell already that this will be a great group. Karma commented to me that everyone in this crowd seemed particularly fit, physically, and I have to agree. Hopefully they will all bear with me as I huff and puff to the project site. Or else just carry me.

At dinner tonight everyone was given their Nepali names, but tomorrow the true orientation occurs. We leave early Tuesday for the project site, and I will try my best to get another update up here beforehand.

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Building Schools in Nepal with Pocket Change

As you all may have gathered by now, Travis and I are big supporters of Edge of Seven and passionate about the mission of bringing educational opportunities to girls in rural Nepal.

Which is one reason why we are very excited to be a part of this campaign that is literally taking the pocket change you or I might leave on our dressers each evening or use for a Starbucks run and putting it toward building much-needed schools in rural Nepal.

In Nepal, it is not uncommon to walk into a village and see children who are not going to school, but instead working in fields or hauling water up and down steep paths. In rural areas where poverty is vast, many families can’t afford the school fees to send their children to school and many villages lack the resources necessary for classroom infrastructure. As a result, kids, some at the age of 5 years old or younger, are made to walk hours each way over difficult terrain in order to reach the closest school. Often, they are deterred from getting there because of weather or physical exhaustion. Girls are typically the last in their families and communities to receive the opportunity to go to school.

Providing education in these areas is not a simple undertaking. And that’s why Edge of Seven is working hand in hand with local partners who are helping to address all the issues that surround education, such as scholarship assistance, book provision, vocational training, and more. But those are the things that come after making sure the school building itself is accessible to kids.

Without the proper infrastructure, education often can’t, or won’t, occur.

And that’s where the pocket change comes in.

With many dedicated people pledging the amount that they might spend on coffee each day, hundreds of kids in rural Nepal can have the chance to get the education they need to grow into happy adults who can contribute to progress in their communities and continue the cycle of education for their future children.

As someone who has personally benefited from a good education and a family who supported it, I think that is pretty cool.

If you think so, too, I hope you will check out this video and learn more about the movement behind this campaign. It just takes a few minutes and cents per day to make a difference. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or check out www.edgeof7.com for more information.

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