Friday, 19 October 2012

The Garden of Dreams

It was somewhere I had walked past countless times but never gone in. On Sunday morning, after a late night in Thamel, I decided to visit the Garden of Dreams to relax and unwind. As soon as I stepped through the gate into the courtyard, I felt sorry I had walked past so many times. It was stunning, an oasis in the midst of the chaos of Thamel. Butterflies, fountains, ponds, gorgeous architecture; it was a feast for the eyes. After so much dust, dirt and detritus around Kathmandu, here was a real gem. Immediately, I started snapping photos to capture the beauty, though I knew this would definitely not be my last visit here.

After walking around, I aimed for the lawns where mats had been laid out for people to recline in the sunshine or shade. It was a divine find, so relaxed and calm. My only issue was that I had not brought my headphones to listen to music and drown out the ever-present background noise of cars and bikes on the busy streets. This didnt affect the dreamy quality of the place though. I saw a lot of people come through; lone travellers, couples, westerners and Nepalis alike. It was exactly what I needed.

As usual, my stomach decided that it wanted to move on and get something to eat, so I made my way to the Kaiser café, which is in part of the garden and overlooks the grounds. I was seated inside upstairs and was grateful for the cool area out of the midday sun. I ordered my usual mango juice (an absolute favourite for me here in Nepal) and Steak A La King. Although the prices are quite steep, the food is excellent, both beautifully presented and tasty. I would recommend that you don't go less than ''medium' on the steak though, as mine was a bit too rare. I was also given more food than necessary, with complimentary breads while I waited. I would recommend you go when you're really hungry!

After the steak, it was hard to resist the delicious-looking chocolate cake which was on display. This was the first taste of chocolate that I'd had since *gasp* I left the UK! It was like manna from heaven, beautiful. With all eaten, and my stomach that little bit too full, I went back to the lawns and found a vacant mat to lie on for an hour or so in the sunshine. I may have even dozed off at one point. It really was such a relaxed place, I felt so safe and comfortable. I know now that when I visit Thamel and need somewhere to chill out for a few hours, this is the place to go!


It’s a remarkable thing to me that I have been made so welcome again here in Nepal.  People I haven’t seen in two years are so keen to open up their homes to me, to offer me tea and food and whatever else I might need.  Nepali generosity knows no bounds. 

Last week I was invited back to the village which I first called home here in Nepal; Sirutar.  Not far from where I am currently staying (a 45 minute walk, I discovered), Sirutar was where I spent most of my time when I was in Nepal two years ago.  I made friends there, both with my fellow volunteers and with the locals.  Going back without the other volunteers was daunting, as I could always rely on them to pick up the conversation when I let it drop, but as I walked through Kausaltar, Balkot and on towards Sirutar, I felt more comfortable and at home.  I recognised the way, and was glad that my sense of direction and my memory hadn’t failed me.  Soon I could see the houses, shops and fields that marked the village I knew so well. As usual, I got a few questioning stares as I passed, but I marched on regardless, fixed on my goal; the Thapa family’s house, where I used to live.  When I saw it, I was so pleased to note that it was just how I remembered it.  I walked around to the back gate and called out to Buwa, the father of the house.  He looked surprised to see me but he told me later that he had been aware that I was coming.  I was greeted as a family member once again, and made to feel at home. I was so pleased to see my Nepali family again, and to catch up with them on all that had happened since I left in 2010. 

Nika, the German Shepherd who I had carried in my arms as a pup on my last day here, had since grown into a beast of a dog, but still recognised me and happily wagged her tail and barked to welcome me back. 

I was sad to hear of the grandmother’s passing a few months before my arrival in Nepal, as Hajuraama had been an entertaining and memorable character, and I'm sure she will be fondly remembered by all of the Platform2 volunteers who had the fortune to meet her. 

My Nepali brother Suraj showed me lots of photos on his computer to help illustrate his stories of things that had happened since 2010.  The most notable event was his sister Sabina’s wedding, a bright, colourful celebration which, I am told, hosted around 700 people!  The house was festooned with garlands of flowers, and a marquee was set up in the adjacent field for guests to sit, eat, drink and generally enjoy the festivities.  I was disappointed to have missed what was clearly a grand occasion but the photos were still a good way to understand the rituals and appreciate the day.

Suraj also showed me pictures of some of his travels in Nepal, including Pokhara, which is on my list of places to visit.  It was good to see his pictures before going myself as it made me look forward to the trip a little bit more. 

As some chores needed to be done around the house, I took the time to walk over to the work site where the Platform2 volunteers had been building a new school for the local children.  The old school had been a disgrace, with no light, dust and dirt everywhere and holes in the floor on the upper levels, so children could put their hands through the ceiling of the class below!  I walked towards the school with a heavy sense of anticipation.  The last update I had heard about the building was that it was still not completed and that the children were still studying in the old school.  If this had been the case, I would have been so disheartened, especially as so many people were waiting on me to send back photos to let them know of the construction’s progress.  We had worked hard there for 10 weeks, and to think it was for nothing was too much to take.  As I got nearer though, I could hear children’s voices, despite it being nearly 4.30pm.  Some older students were still in the building as I arrived.  I started to take pictures and was greeted by Basanta, a member of another host family who looked after my friends Rory and James during their stay.  He explained about the building’s progress and confirmed that the other school was closed and this one was being used now, despite the fact that it had still another year or two to go before completion.  I took more photos, keen to show the other volunteers at home exactly what I was seeing.  I knew from experience just how frustrating it was to not have any news or pictures to update us in the UK, and was determined to make sure I captured everything I could for the folks at home. 

As we walked away, I saw the old school, now in an even further state of disrepair. Thankfully it was locked up and out of use.  Frankly, it wouldn’t have been fit for animals in the UK, never mind children. And speaking of animals, there had been a dog which used to stay close to us as we worked at the site two years ago.  We had fallen in love with this cheeky chap, and I was so keen to see him again, but had a feeling he may not still be roaming the streets of Sirutar.  I looked behind me as I left the school, and there curled up in the sunshine was the rather-inappropriately-named Poopy!  I whistled to him, and he opened his eyes, wagged his tail and got up to trot over and greet me.  Oh, how glad I was to see him! It was just amazing, and I realised he was a lot more resilient than we gave him credit for.  Good for you, Poopy, you Cheeseball-eating hound!

After the excitement of seeing the dog alive and well, Basanta kindly invited me to his house for tea.  I was grateful for the hospitality shown to me and was glad to take pictures there to show Rory and James of the changes when I had the opportunity to do so.  I didn’t stay long, but it is just further proof of Nepali generosity; everyone here is so keen to invite me in and give me whatever they can offer.  

I went back to the Thapas for dinner, and then was taken home to Gatthaghar on the back of Suraj’s motorbike.  I went to bed that night feeling so grateful and happy to have taken the time to go back to Sirutar and spend time with the people who were so kind to me in 2010.  It certainly won’t be my only visit there during this stay!

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Rasuwa Langtang Orphanage

(7/10/12, 9.30am, Nepal time)

This morning was my first day of work at the orphanage.  It meant an early start; I was awake from 5am and was having tea and biscuits at 6am.  I have to admit, I stood behind my bedroom door for a few moments before I could muster up the courage to step outside and make the walk on my own down to the orphanage.  Eventually I told myself to man up, that I had flown nearly 5000 miles on my own and hadn’t come to any harm, so why should a five-minute walk down the road be scary?

I visited the orphanage with my supervisor yesterday, but it was on the back of his motorbike.  It was a little daunting to know the local people were watching me as I walked this morning, but I knew it was just out of curiosity.  After all, where I live isn’t exactly a tourist area and to see someone like me there must be a bit surprising. Still, I had dealt with this the last time I was in Nepal and it had to be faced again, albeit this time without 12 other volunteers by my side.  Luckily, all went well and I arrived at the orphanage to see lots of little faces either smiling or looking away shyly.  I wasn’t sure what to do, what the schedule was like.  I headed for the kitchen first, and asked what I could do.  Communication here was a bit of a problem, as my limited Nepali and the little bit of English that Aama (mother) could speak meant there was some confusion.  Still, I was made to sit and drink tea before going out on the terrace to brush the girls’ hair and put it into pigtails, and to play English word games.  I also applied some cream on one child’s face to heal a sore-looking cut.  The children were all so well-behaved, with each one helping another.  The older ones (the eldest being 14) were looking after the youngest, while some of the little ones swept and tidied for Aama.  I wanted to tell them to stop, and to go and play or get ready for school instead of cleaning, but I realised that my role today was as an observer, not someone to waltz in and upset the balance.  I don’t think it is wrong for children to help with housework; it's good practice for them to be tidy and responsible, but I’ve seen it so little of that behaviour in the UK that it was a little bit jarring.

The children put aside their games around 8am and sat down for breakfast.  I was hoping to help serve this but instead was handed a bowl of Suji, a pale, sweet substance that reminded me of sugary porridge, but smoother.  First tea, now food? This wasn’t what I was expecting, and to be honest I felt a little uncomfortable accepting food from Aama.  I get fed at my home-stay, so it was unnecessary, but kind and generous so I accepted.  I think I will have to make it clear that they should not give me tea or food there as I already have more than I need.  But this is just another example of Nepali kindness; even when they have very little, they want to share.  That is the great paradox, that in the Western world we can be so possessive and territorial, and only look after our own.  I know I’m definitely guilty of it.   Yet here, they would feed a stranger before themselves.  It's humbling.

The children gobbled down heaped platefuls of rice and curry before washing up, changing and gathering in the study room.  One of the older boys took charge and the children got into lines, and were ordered to ‘stand’, ‘hands up’, ‘hands to the sides’ and ‘attention!’  I have to say, I grinned the whole way through... they were like a happy little army in their school uniforms.  After this, they sang what I can only assume is the Nepal national anthem, which they did beautifully.  Then they bowed their heads and held their hands clasped in front of them in prayer.  It was such a lovely sight.  After this, each little one shouted their number in English before leaving the room in a neat line.  They were like little ducklings, each following another UK volunteer, Kit from Scotland.  3 adults including myself took charge of the line and headed out towards the school.  Two boys stayed by my side asking me questions in English, quizzing me on where I came from, where I am living now, and how long I will stay in Nepal.  I also had one tiny little girl ask to hold my hand, so we walked together.  Honestly, these children are so friendly and polite, it is utterly adorable.

As they arrived at school (after crossing the main highway in and out of Kathmandu, crazy) they all turned and waved to the adults, crying ‘bye!’ as they popped through the school gates.  Some ran back out to high-five us, and some came out just to say goodbye again,  it was lovely!

I walked back to my house, smiling to myself at what a nice morning I’d had.  I had been so uncertain, even slightly fearful, at what it would be like.  I was afraid of not liking the orphanage, at being disliked.  But I felt so welcome, and it was a pleasure to be there.  I am looking forward to this afternoon when I can go and collect the little ones again and take them back to the orphanage.  I will have to think of games and things to do with them to encourage their English, but I will spend some time planning this and seeing what works.  But honestly, this morning has made me so sure that I am in the right place, doing the right thing, and I'm so glad.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Sleepless in Thamel

(4/10/12, 3.30am Nepal time)

I know I should try to fight it, and to get some more sleep, but I figured I may as well write for a while.  Yesterday was my first real day in Kathmandu, so naturally I spent half of it asleep.  I woke up around 12.30pm, which is about 3 hours past an indulgent lie-in here! Still, I’m blaming jetlag.  I got up, got dressed and was due to meet my supervisor Khem at 2pm, when I was given a message from the front desk that he would be late and that I should meet him at 3pm instead.  I decided to sit for a while in the lobby, making use of the free wifi, before heading out into the busy streets of Thamel.  Everywhere you turn, there are beautiful things to look at and buy; intricately carved elephants, bright and colourful pashminas, tiny wooden violins that sellers play at you as you pass.  It takes a lot of restraint to not stop and look closer, but I learned two years ago here that if you stop, you are a potential customer and therefore the stall-holders and shop-owners will pounce.  Some are friendly, some are bordering on clingy. So I wandered around a few streets, only stopping to buy something small (and, it goes without saying, useless) for my dad which made me instantly think of him (not because it’s useless, just to clarify). 

After some carefree browsing, I returned to the hotel.  I was on time to meet Khem, but I was reminded that Nepali time is a somewhat fluid concept and as such, 3pm could mean anywhere between 3pm and 4pm.  Still, I was happy to sit and wait, as it gave me more time to send messages home via the internet. 

When he arrived, we went for momos across the street.  Now these are a local delicacy, yet I hadn’t been brave enough to try them the last time I was in the country.  They can be fried or steamed, and are basically little parcels, usually filled with chicken, ‘buff’ or buffalo meat, or vegetables.  We had some steamed chicken ones with a fairly spicy sauce, and I have to say, they were delicious.  I may have to learn how they are made to make myself some at home.

After a walking tour of the tourist area, around by Queen’s Pond and King’s Way (Nepal used to have a monarchy), we headed back to the hotel.  I ordered dinner (chicken korma and rice) for 8pm in my room, and decided to brave the shower.  Now I knew from experience that a hot shower in Kathmandu is something worthy of praise and adulation, and I was expecting mine to be cold.  However, I was surprised to find it was warm and clean, and helped get the day’s dust away.

So here I am, at 3.48am, writing a blog and listening to the intermittent cacophony of dogs barking/howling/chattering.  Time to put away the technology, grab my ear plugs and give that old Sleep thing another go. Up at 6.30am to meet my host family and move into my new room.  I can’t wait! 

Look out Nepal, I’ve arrived!

(3/10/12, approx 10pm, Nepal time)

So the boring, stressful bit of travelling is DONE. All the packing, lists, tickets, stop-overs etc is out of the way.  In fairness, I think I enjoy those things more than most.  But getting to your destination is half the battle.

The reason I came online tonight when I have barely had more than 5 minute naps here and there since yesterday at 6am, is to remark on how friendly people are.  Now, before you tut and scoff and say ‘how naïve’, I have to say that so far, I have got speaking to a number of people who have been lovely, really chatty and animated.  Now I LOVE being around people like this because it stops me from withdrawing and becoming shy.  Yes, it happens.  If they keep talking, it gives me time to think of other topics when the current one dries out.  Awkward breeds awkward. I struggle with shy people because they make me want to behave like them.  But as I said, I have already met a few characters.  I had a London Heathrow operative sit down and chat on the train between terminals before seeing if I would be in Wetherspoons later (I was not, consequently) and I have just returned to my hotel room after my first expedition into Thamel and met some more chatty folks. 

I was torn. After being left off at the hotel around 7pm, I was told that it would be best not to go out after 9.  I didn’t think I’d be going anywhere at all, until I remembered that the tap water can’t be drunk; even using it to brush my teeth was out of the question.  Plus I was absolutely dying to get online to let family and friends know I’d arrived safely and was happy.  So out into the dark(ish) streets of Thamel I roamed, taking in the groups of freshly-arrived tourists also out doing the rounds.  I considered asking to join them but decided to stay on my mission, which now not only included buying clean water, but also some Slice mango juice and the ever-necessary toilet roll.  I had every intention of heading back to the hotel once I had these bought, but I figured I would go deeper into Thamel to see if I could get online.  

The first bar, Namaste, had a nice vibe and there was a live band playing, but unfortunately the Wifi service was down and I had no choice but to get up and leave without getting anything.  I nearly stayed for a drink out of politeness, but I was too focused on getting connected to speak to friends and family.  I will definitely call back there sometime though.  I looked around as I stepped out of Namaste and was ushered over by a friendly young Nepali who was employed to draw people in to the bar.  I had seen the rooftop area from across the street and figured it would be a pretty nice place to sit for a while, drink in one hand and phone in the other.  Developing my social skills and talking to strangers wasn’t part of my mission, not today.  However I’d barely got logged on before I was asked by an Australian guy in his 50s and his young companion if they could join my empty table of four.  I ended up staying over an hour chatting to Brian and Luke about their travels and mine, as well as what it was like at home etc. I hadn’t spoken that much to anyone since leaving Heathrow so it was nice to socialise, especially when my mood was so buoyant with thoughts of ‘I actually did it! I’m back in Nepal!’ We each shared recommendations of places to visit and things to eat, so it was a fun evening. 

So there you have it.  Turns out I can converse at length with strangers, and that I can manage on naps alone to keep myself going.  No real revelations but hey, it is only my first night here ;)