Adventures of Two Americans Living and Working in Nepal

Archive for the tag “Solukhumbu”

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!

“Without Up and Down, There is No Nepal” (and Narrowly Missing Richard Gere)

During a tea break on our recent trip to the Solukhumbu Region, we had a nice chat with a seasoned trekking guide from the district while making our way from Phaplu to Phuleli. As we finished our tea and prepared to move on, we were feeling a bit weary and asked him if the rest of the trail to the village was flat or steep. He laughed in a way that indicated it would be steep. “Without up and down,” he said. “There is no Nepal.”

I can now say with authority that truer words have never been spoken. I am not sure who Travis and I thought we were when we assumed that we could just breeze in and bang out a 20-hour hike in 2.5 days, which included more than 12,000 feet of straight ups and downs, after having had no exercise in the past two months (aside from deadlifting a fork to our mouths). But all I know is that we are now on a steady diet of squats and crunches to get in shape for future trips.

We left last Thursday morning for Phaplu on a small prop plane out of Kathmandu, and the flight was quite an experience. First, the plane looked like something that had been dug out of a Pick-n-Pull, dusted off, and pushed over to the airport in neutral. Second, while the takeoff was relatively smooth, the landing, for us newbies, was a bit crazy. Travis and I had the benefit of front-row seats in the plane, and looking out through the cockpit window it appeared we were going to nosedive straight into the mountainside. The descent to the runway was achieved with what seemed to be an abrupt 90-degree angle, sort of like the pilot just cranked the “steering wheel” all the way to the left. Thankfully the noise from the engine kept the other passengers from hearing us whimper.

The Phaplu airport is pretty basic and utilized mostly by Nepalis. While the Solukhumbu District is a major trekking area, being that it’s home to Mt. Everest, most tourists fly into nearby Lukla, which is apparently an even hairier airport that requires a much sharper descent. We’ll stick with Phaplu, thanks.

After a quick lunch of Dal Bhat, we were off on the first leg of our 10-hour hike to the project site. The first four hours were pretty nice with moderate ups and downs. We hiked along, practically skipping in our naivety, with big grins on our faces, taking in the gorgeous scenery and offering a cheery “Namaste!” to folks we saw along the path. The goal was to make it to Nunthala, a village that is, to Nepalis familiar with the area, about a three to four hour hike from Phaplu. For people like us, though, it is much, much further.

Around 4 p.m., we stopped for tea in a village called Ringmu, and after that things got serious. From Ringmu to Nunthala, it is about 2,000 feet straight up over rocks to Taksindu Pass, the highest point at nearly 10,000 feet in altitude, then about another 3,000 feet straight down over more rocks. On our way up the ascent, it began to hail ice chunks. And then it got dark. Crossing the top of the pass, we started going down, but the rain made the path slippery and it was hard to see. All I could think was, “Going down is the worst!” So we stopped early at a nice guesthouse in Taksindu owned by the brother of Babu Chiri Sherpa, the legendary Sherpa guide who holds the record for the fastest ascent of Mt. Everest in just 16 hours and 56 minutes. Amazing.

The next morning, we finished the descent to Phuleli, arriving before 1 p.m. to meet with the local villagers and School Committee. I have to say it was a great meeting, even if the two of us barely said a word. (Read more about the Phuleli School Project.)

The School Committee welcomed us with tea, traditional scarves and marigold garlands, and a lovely speech from the president of the Committee, during which we were told he talked about how excited the village was to have Edge of Seven and its volunteers there. For about 30 minutes, we sat while Karma explained the concept Travis was pitching – that of building the school with earthbags. While we couldn’t understand a word, we could tell it was an entirely new idea for the Committee members to process, as it was for us just a few months ago. The School Committee members just kept shaking their heads, and we weren’t sure whether they were saying yes or no. But toward the end of the conversation, Karma told us that they very much liked the idea and were excited to be the first village in Nepal to use the construction method (at least that we know of). Especially in the wake of the recent earthquake that hit Nepal, the epicenter of which was very close to the Solukhumbu Region, the value of building with earthbags is emphasized, since it is much more earthquake resistant than traditional stone construction. Think of how a stone building would react in an earthquake versus one made of packed dirt. The rigidity of the stone and mortar would easily fall apart, while earthbags can absorb the movement without much disturbance. (Click here to read about an earthbag shed the Austin Architecture for Humanity Chapter is building for The New Farm Institute.)

After the meeting, everyone spent a few hours measuring out the site and discussing supplies. Around 4 p.m., we hiked back to Nunthala to spend the night and have more discussions with the local district engineer. The next morning, Travis and I set out by ourselves to hike back to Phaplu, while everyone else went back to the village to start making arrangements. It was a beautiful morning, but by 9:30 a.m. I was spent. Muscles still aching from the previous days’ hiking and nursing a few blisters, I started to think I would never make it back. Despite the fact that my backpack contained just one change of clothes, my camera, and a water bottle, it felt like it weighed 100 pounds. We straggled up to the top of Taksindu Pass, and all I could think was, “Going up is the worst!”

When we finally got to Ringmu, I would have jumped for joy had I been physically able to jump. “Easy way from here,” our lunchtime waiter told us. Hallelujah. After lunch, we were moving slow, but figured we were in decent shape now that the rough stuff was over. And that’s when it began to pour icy hail and rain. We stopped under a few trees, but could tell it was a vain effort. The storm wasn’t stopping any time soon. So we took a deep breath and kept trudging on. By 5 p.m., we came limping into Phaplu, soaking wet, and looking like two people who had been lost in the woods for 40 days.

We checked into our guesthouse, spent some time in our sleeping bags warming up, had some tea by the fire, and then went for a brief stroll to check out the town. This turned out to be a big mistake.

When we got back to our guesthouse, a trekking guide and his client, who we had been chatting with before while having tea, were waving at us excitedly. “Guess what?! Richard Gere was just here having tea!” they said.

What?!?! Richard Gere. In Phaplu, Nepal. In our guesthouse, where only two other people were staying??

Karma, who had made it back to the guesthouse by then (after having visited what sounded like every village in the Solukhumbu District in the time it took us to get just from point A to point B), explained that, yes, there was an Italian film crew in town visiting a famous Lama at a nearby monastery, and that Richard Gere was with them. “Who is Richard Gere?” he asked. “Is he a politician?”

The next morning, while walking by the airport with my camera, I noticed a huge crowd of people looking at a helicopter taking off. Zooming my lens in as far as I could, I captured a shot of a man with gray hair and glasses looking out the passenger side window of the helicopter. Richard Gere! It had to be. I spent the flight back to Kathmandu thinking about how cool it was that I probably had the only photo of Richard Gere in the Solukhumbu and how People Magazine would probably be banging down my door for a copy. But when we got back to the apartment and I blew it up in Photoshop, I discovered that it wasn’t Richard Gere, but just some other guy with gray hair. Alas.

A few takeways from this trip: First, I continue to be humbled by the strength, perseverance, and spirit of the Nepali people. I realize that many of the people we saw on the trails have grown up traversing mountains paths while I grew up with a nice sofa in the suburbs, but each step I struggled to make on this trek was put in perspective when I passed a local person walking by in sandals with four wooden tables and a 20-gallon jug of water on their back. I certainly had no grounds to complain. Second, along the same trajectory, this is some advice for any of the volunteers planning to come in November: In the next few weeks, go for some runs. Lift a weight or two. Do any physical preparations you see fit.  Anything would be better than the nothing I did. Trust me.

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Solukhumbu Tomorrow

Well, friends, we have found an apartment! Initially, based on what we had heard from other expats in online forums, it sounds like apartment hunting here can take quite awhile, given the wide variety of apartment quality, price and location.

But a couple of days ago, just as I sat down to begin hunting online again, I received an email from a woman looking to rent a flat in her building. It turned out to be a good fit for us. It’s in a slightly more peaceful area of Kathmandu, and the owners are really lovely people. In short, I think we got lucky. We moved our stuff over this morning, right before our trip up to the Solukhumbu District tomorrow to visit the first project site in Phuleli.

We’ve had some free time in the past few days in between meetings and apartment hunting, so we’ve had many long walks trying to figure out the roads, and we’ve also tried our hand at the city bus, further cementing the fact that the bus system here will be a major learning curve. None of the buses are numbered, and basically, each route employs a young boy who hangs out the door and shouts out the bus’ end destination. Since we have no idea where most of those places are or how the bus might go to get there, we are still reliant on the kindness of others for guidance.

Tomorrow will be our first foray out of the city, and we are both looking forward to seeing the mountains and meeting the villagers in Phuleli. The main purpose of this trip is to present the village leaders with concepts for the new school addition and discuss the idea of implementing earthbag construction. Guidance and approval from the village is absolutely needed before Travis can finalize any design, so it’s an important trip to make as soon as possible, before the arrival of volunteers in just one short month!

No Direct Flights from Boise to Bangkok? Shocking.

Over the past several months, this day has, at times, seemed like it would never come. At the same time, having spent so much time talking about it and planning for it, it’s also seemed like this day has always been with us, permeating our every conversation and activity. But now it’s finally here! Tomorrow we leave for our nine month stint living and working in Nepal. In all, there will be seven flights in between our departure city of Boise, Idaho, where we’ve been visiting Travis’ family, and our final destination of Kathmandu (where we’ll arrive after a brief, five day detour to Thailand.)

The school site we worked on last year with Edge of Seven in Nepal.

To give a little background, the proposition to move to Nepal came up several months ago, when Travis was offered a job as the lead designer and architectural fellow on a five village educational and infrastructure projectin the Solukhumbu Region of Nepal, where Mount Everest is located.

We’re not exactly college kids anymore, so a move of this caliber definitely required careful consideration and planning. On top of leaving our jobs, leasing our house in Austin, Texas, and cramming the belongings we didn’t sell into a 10-foot-by-10-foot storage unit, we also had to say farewell to our family, friends, and our little dog Chester, who will be well cared for by Travis’ sister Andrea and her boyfriend Brad while we are away. (Thanks Andrea and Brad!)

Chester: A Face Only Everybody Can Love

But, truth be told, we both felt right away that this was not an opportunity to be missed. Not only do we love Nepal, its culture and its people, but, having spent two months in Nepal last year working on an Edge of Seven school building project, we know there is much to be done there and are grateful for the opportunity to contribute in any way.

That said, there are many things we’ll miss about home, food being one of the first things that comes to mind outside of friends and family. I won’t take up space listing everything we’ll miss here, as I am sure anyone who plans to keep up with this blog will hear enough about our queso cravings and longings for basic electricity in the months to come.

For now, the plan is to arrive in Kathmandu next week and immediately begin working and apartment hunting. In addition to the Solukhumbu Development Project, I’ll also be pursuing other projects and work with NGOs based in Kathmandu and look forward to keeping everyone updated on new developments, adventures, and culinary experiences as they arise! We’ll be building the blog out a bit more over the coming weeks, so stay tuned, but if anyone has any topics they would like to learn more about or issues they’re curious about, please send us an email and suggest it for a blog post!

And before we officially get started on this journey, we have to say a huge THANK YOU to all of our amazing friends and family members, who have been there for us and helped us throughout this endeavor. We couldn’t do it without your support!

We are ready to get going. Next stop – Thailand!

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