Mike's Experience in Ramechhap

[Adapted from an email home to my family, May 15, 2013]

Nepal's Gurkha military units became famous throughout the British Empire for their courage in the face of danger, and after eating nothing but traditionally Nepali rice and lentils for almost a month, I now realize why their warriors don't fear death.

I'm back from three and a half weeks of teaching English in rural Nepal, and am resting comfortably in Kathmandu until I leave for my trek on Tuesday.  I've had an experience that still seems beyond description - it was fantastic, miserable, uplifting, disheartening, fascinating, exhilarating, and sometimes many of these things at once.

The tiny village of Domrikharka in the Ramechhap district is situated on top of what would be a moderately-sized mountain by our standards, but which the Nepalis seem to consider more of an inconveniently placed speed bump.  It's a small collection of farming huts and rice fields overlooking a tremendously beautiful valley.  There's no running water, but tolerably stable electricity.  This is where I've been for the past month.

There have been other volunteers who have worked this placement in the past few years, although they generally come along with a partner and don't stay as long as I did.  The exception is Karla (a professional concert oboist from Germany), who volunteered there on her own for almost two months last year.  She happened to be in Kathmandu for a bit before I left and she told me about the placement over lunch.  Among other things she told me that our volunteer program has been in conversation with the Israeli Consulate to try to arrange Domrikharka as a pet project for the steady stream of young Israelis who are looking to travel and volunteer after their mandatory term of military service.  I figured that I should take the opportunity before the placement became too “mainstream.”  It wasn't until later that it occurred to me that she was dropping the hint that this project was Israeli-military-level of difficulty.

Getting to Domrikharka is a two-day expedition (we made the trip in one day going back, but we were going downhill).  The first day is a 10+ hour bus ride from Kathmandu through the Nepali countryside.  I could tell you how crowded, loud, and bewildering these buses get, but I don't think I can compete with Dante.  The bus trips were a low point in the adventure.  They were made worse by the constantly blaring Nepali pop music.  All Nepali pop songs sound the same to me, and I have yet to find a female Nepali singer whose voice doesn't sound like a cat giving birth. This cat giving birth sings interminable duets with various syrupy male voices, ostensibly about love, accompanied by heavy strings and a light eastern-sounding beat.  This lasts for 10+hours. 

Eventually you disembark in Manthali, a college town at the bottom of a valley, situated between two dry river beds.  I spent the night at the home of the principal of the school where I would teach.  The school and the village are several hours of steep uphill hiking from Manthali.  Ramesh (the principal) makes that climb every single morning, but hauling my huge backpack I barely made it up.

My host family consisted of an older couple (venerable by rural Nepali standards, but not much past 50 in American years), their two sons - one about my age and one twelve-year-old - and the older son's wife and two children (a three-year-old boy and an infant daughter).  The older son worked half the week as a bus driver in the town at the bottom of the hill, so I didn't see a whole lot of him, but I became incredibly close with his three-year-old son.  Neither of us really spoke much Nepali, so we bonded in our mutual incomprehension.  Babu (the form of address for male toddlers) was constantly at my side.  He sat next to me at meals and insisted on using a spoon and drinking his water out of a plastic bottle like his guest-brother (you never think how much skill goes into eating rice with a spoon until you watch someone who is unable to do it).  When I was sick he acted like his new toy was broken.

Also, after 23 three years of not understanding the game, I think I have finally come to appreciate playing catch.  I have to apologize to my brother for my late-coming to this realization.  Lacking any other ability to transcend our language barrier, tossing a ball back and forth with my host brothers was an easy, understandable, cooperative, and social way to connect with each other.  It was almost an approximation of fun.

The food, as I mentioned, consisted of two meals per day of white rice and a gravy-like lentil soup called Dal.  Usually there would be some sort of curried vegetable along with this, and on rare occasions some stewed chicken as well (although don't ask me what part of the chicken I was eating - they chopped and stewed the whole thing).

I apologize for this paragraph, but I have to include it in the interest of giving you a true picture of rural living in this country:  The amount of food they pile on your plate at meals is distressing.  Not because it's bad (although it is very, very monotonous), or because you feel like you're depriving anyone (there's plenty of rice to go around), but because of the rapidity with which it makes its way through your body, necessitating a trip to the latrine (and, in the case of the gravy-like lentil soup, often without much change in consistency).  You sort of hope this happens in the morning, when it was light out and wasn't too hot yet.  Also, there's no toilet paper in rural Nepal, and I jealously rationed my own supply.  Don't ask me how they do it.  They do have "latrine spiders" though.

I saw spiders the size of which would shake any man's faith in a benevolent God.  There was also a rat that lived in the ceiling above my bed and would keep me awake at night with its scurrying, but I considered him more of a pet than a pest.  I was almost sad when a local boy captured him and tossed him by the tail down the hillside.

The Shree Sham Primary School, where I was teaching is in a rough state. There are five classes (grades one through five), and a fluctuating number of teachers, (usually three and never more than four).  On some days there would only be one other teacher and me trying to manage all five classes.  I would enter a teacher-less classroom, restore order, give a lesson or read a story, and then hurry back to another classroom before things got too out of hand there too.  There were days when I didn't have chalk, days when none of the students had paper, days when we literally had to cancel class because it was raining too hard and there were too many holes in the corrugated iron roof.  Teaching in these kinds of conditions took a lot of creativity, energy, and confidence.  A book of class notes that Karla left behind helped me considerably, as did our two, greasy, Dr. Suess-knockoff story books.

My favorite part of the day was just after noon, when I would go to the younger classes and sing English songs with them.  I taught them as many English childrens' songs as I could remember.  "Head, shoulders, knees, and toes" was my best friend.  They also loved "Are you sleeping, Brother John" (The French parts would have just confused them, so we stuck to waking up Brother John, leaving Frere Jacques to dorme to his heart's content).  If the songs didn't come with hand motions, I would invent them on the spot.  I tried to teach them the Hokey Pokey as well, but it mostly just drew blank stares.  Maybe it's not what it's all about after all.

Aside from teaching, my mission in the village was to be an ambassador between cultures.  My iPhone was a weapon of cultural exchange.  With a click of a button I could bring up American music and photos of life in the West.  My students were especially curious about my family and home.  The girls said my sister was the prettiest girl they had ever seen (long blond hair is a rarity out here).  They were also fascinated by pictures of our home, and especially of our cat and dog.  Why would we let them live in our house?  Why did we let them get so fat?

In my first weekend there I came down with a rough 24-hour bug that was probably either food poisoning or the plague.  If I had my Nepali handbook I would have been able to look up the words for "I'm sorry the force of my projectile vomiting is causing me to stumble all over your rice field" and "I'm sorry my flu-like symptoms have literally forced you to retrench the latrine."  During this time my host family was truly caring and compassionate. In a vulgar sense, I showed them my insides (all over their rice fields).  But in a much more poetic sense, they showed me theirs.  I learned just how loving and caring they could be, even to strangers.

I helped out with farm work a few times, although this mostly ended in embarrassment.  One time my 12-year-old host brother let me help plow the field where they were planting corn.  I gleefully took the plow and drove the oxen with the wooden switch, hollering at them as he had done.  It was difficult at first, but then got a lot easier.  At the end of the row, my brother took it back, laughing.  Without realizing it I had steered the plow along an already-plowed row, which is why it had seemed so easy.  Another time I helped shuck feedcorn.  At least I think that's what we were doing - I'm not really sure if "shucking" and "feedcorn" are the right terms, but I ended up with hands covered in blisters.  And so ended my career as a farmhand.

I got a lot of reading done out there.  Calvino, Twain, and Tolstoy got me through some long evenings.  I also started taking long afternoon hikes along the paths through the hills, finding new villages and shady spots to read, drawing stares from villagers, and thinking about my life and my plans.  These walks often lasted hours and took me through strange scenery and even stranger thoughts.

I remember thinking at points that living and working in this village was clearly the most difficult thing I had ever done.  In retrospect, I'm not sure if that's true, but it was certainly the wildest and roughest experience I've ever had outside of professional politics.  I'm proud of myself for sticking it out, through hardship and sickness and spiders.  I had a lot of time to think, and learned a lot about myself.  More than anything it was a dramatic shift of perspective.  When you live on dirt floors and bathe with a bucket for a month, it's really, really hard to get upset when you crack the back panel of your iPhone.

I'm still mentally sorting through the experience, but I am truly, truly glad to have done something like this.