Adventures of Two Americans Living and Working in Nepal

Archive for the tag “nepal”

The Girl in the Yellow Sari

A few times a week, Travis and I go for a run through the fields and hills behind our apartment in Kathmandu. Our main route is to head down through the green fields where the local women are usually at work planting or harvesting their crops and then up the mountain road that leads to the Kopan Monastery, Kathmandu’s biggest (and most beautiful). The best time of day to do this run is between 4 and 5 p.m., when the sun is starting to go down just a little and the light brings out the bright colors that dot the rural landscape. It’s a rare part of Kathmandu that could actually be described as “picturesque”.

Today, I went for the run solo and reached the top of the hill around 4:30 p.m., making the usual U-turn at the monastery. Not too far into my descent down the mountain, I caught a glimpse of a little girl, maybe 8 or 9 years old, wearing a beautiful, flowing sari in the brightest color of yellow I had ever seen. The sari was a bit dressier than what is typically worn for “everyday” in Nepal, so I figured the girl must be coming from or going to a celebration for one of the religious festivals occurring this week. The way the light was hitting her sari against the green of the fields below was really striking, and I briefly thought how I wished I had my camera on me.

I continued jogging downhill and passed her. Since the volume of my iPod was up pretty high, I couldn’t hear much aside from the music blaring in my ears. But a few seconds after passing this girl, I started to feel heavy vibrations through the concrete of someone’s feet pounding the pavement behind me. I turned my head and saw a small shadow creeping up on mine. This little girl in the bright yellow sari – and dress shoes, I might add – was chasing me.

I turned to look back at her and she gave me a huge grin, her sari flowing in the wind over her head. She picked up the speed and took the lead, her pink dress shoes flopping a little off her heels with each step as she pulled ahead of me.

Scratch that. This little girl in the bright yellow sari – and dress shoes – was racing me.

I kept my pace and stayed behind her. She kept turning to look at me with her big smile. We continued like this until we reached the fork at the bottom of the hill and she stopped, clearly headed in a different direction. “You win!” I said, running by. She just laughed and waved at me as I continued on home.

Best run yet.

Breaking News: The Phuleli School is Complete!

This just in: Save for a few small details, the new, earthbag school in Phuleli is finished! We just received word and photos that the students moved in to the classroom space this week.

We’ll be headed back to the field very soon, so more pictures to come. Thanks to all for your support toward making this school a reality!

The newly completed school is the white building with the blue roof.

The students of Phuleli settling in for class in the new building!

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!

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.


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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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.

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.

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.

New Favorite Window


The past several days have been somewhat low-key, as I have been sick with a fever off and on. As a result, there hasn’t been too much going on at Ghar Hughbanks that has been worth reporting.

But all of that will change very soon! Tomorrow, Emily, Edge of Seven’s program director arrives in Kathmandu, and the first group of volunteers will be here next week. We’ll be headed back up into the mountains on Nov. 22. I will stay with the volunteers through the end of the month, and Travis will be there for 5+ weeks. Hopefully, we can get a blog post out of him before he leaves in a few days.

We did manage to recently make a quick trip up to Pokhara, the base city for all of the Annapurna Range treks, one of the most popular trekking areas in Nepal. After being in Kathmandu for so long, Pokhara felt a little bit like heaven.

Situated on a big lake with snow-peaked mountains all around, it is extremely laid back and lacking all of the pollution of the capital city. Granted, it is also swarmed by tourists, which may not be an experience everyone is seeking when coming to Nepal, but it’s still a nice respite. The tourist industry has given rise to quite a few good restaurants and makes for an excellent people watching scene. Most Westerners in Pokhara are guaranteed to have at least one of two looks going on: spiffy, high-tech hiking pants and a walking stick or dreadlocks and patchwork clothing.

The main purpose of our trip was to meet with the women’s collective I have been working with on Sapana Bags. It was really inspiring to see their shop and talk with the founder, Tara, who is an incredible woman doing a lot for women in her community. (More on this to come.)

Women weaving material for handbags in Pokhara.

We also got to spend some time with our friend Bikash, the brother of our good friend Binod. Bikash runs Natures Grace Lodge, a cozy hotel tucked away off the main street. Last year, we stayed there for several days during the May 2010 Maoist strike, so having Dal Bhat with Bikash and his cousin Ganga in the Nature’s Grace kitchen this week most definitely brought back memories from that time.

Nature's Grace Lodge in Pokhara!

Aside from that, we’ve had several good meetings in Kathmandu, finally ate lunch at Nina and Hager, a deli across from the U.S. Embassy that has terrific sandwiches/burgers and has been recommended by pretty much everyone we’ve come into contact with in Kathmandu, went to a documentary screening about Monsanto’s move into Nepal (a big deal that has the potential to be very harmful to Nepali farmers), and have even made a few friends.

Lastly, and I don’t believe I have mentioned this on the blog before (though I have told the story to many people), but there has been another pigeon incident.  Those of you who know me may know about my pigeon aversion, second only in severity to my rat phobia. During our first week here we were having a snack at a restaurant in Thamel and sitting at a table by the windows, which were open to let in the breeze. As we were close to finishing our food, a sick pigeon with an open sore on its head flew in the window and landed on our table. We tried to shoo it away, but it didn’t respond. Instead it stumbled across the table, walked into our plate of hummus, and sat down. I jumped out of my seat and screamed a little, which the men sitting behind us found hilarious. “What?!” they yelled at me. “This has never happened to you before?”

Well, today I went out to the balcony to do a little laundry and there was a big, dead pigeon in the outside sink. Travis tried to get me to suck it up and dispose of the body myself, as I need to learn to deal with these things, but I just didn’t think so. Next time, I’m sure I will have more courage.

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