Namaste

House Dedication Day! We did it!!

I want to take a moment, dear Reader, to discuss some of the reactions I received to my volunteerism in Nepal. You might expect people to respond positively to building homes for those in need, and certainly, many people did. However, there were just as many individuals who seemed put off by the idea and I think their responses are worth exploring.

So You Think I Think I’m Better Than You
Some reproached me for not donating my time and money to causes closer to home – who cares about some random family in Nepal when the kid down the street needs a healthy meal? Others believed if I really wanted to help build homes in Nepal I would write a check instead of spending the money to actually get there and, hey, am I even qualified to be on a build site? What construction experience do I have anyway? Perhaps my favorite rebuff was the one that came in the form of a backhanded compliment: “You’re so good. I don’t think I’d ever waste my vacation doing something like that. Good for you!”

Now, I cannot argue that there are many in need here at home and yes, Habitat could have built more homes with skilled labor if I had simply cut a big check. These options also do nothing to promote a sense of cultural exchange and fellowship with those living outside of the bubble we inhabit every day. Part of me wonders if the people who, almost snidely, comment on my “goodness” feel as though their all-inclusive trips to the Caribbean are being judged. Or perhaps they assume I’m feeling self-righteous for having a more “altruistic” holiday lined up?

Not wanting to begin a philosophical debate on the existence of truly selfless giving, it’s fair to say that people volunteer for a host of reasons. Even if the impetus to volunteer is self-serving – to get away from work, avoid a failing relationship, or sound “cultured” on your next date –  I would still argue that to channel any energy in a way that benefits another person is pretty awesome. Let’s not forget basic preferences too; spending a week on a manufactured resort or wearing full make-up with heels and a bikini at some pool bar in Vegas sounds god awful to me. To each their own.

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Finishing Up Our Nepali Business
Our last week at the work site passes quickly and everyone is excited for the house dedication party on Friday.  After days of working silently together and exchanging polite smiles, my Nepali companions and I finally make clumsy attempts to communicate. During our assembly line my new friend exclaims,“Nepali DHL!” and we laugh – yes, we are an express delivery service! When a plane flies overhead I declare, “Nepali Plane!” Soon everything we are doing is “Nepali Business” and we are laughing it up like old friends. I even go into town before dinner to get a t-shirt made that says ‘Nepali Business’ in Sanskrit. When I wear it the locals in the street yell, “Nepali Business!” and I happily shout, “Nepali Business!” back. Yup, I’m fitting right in.

We spend more time with the village kids, knowing that our days with them are numbered. Puran leads us down into the gorge and convinces several members of our group to go swimming with him. The older girls bring Amy and I flowers and are fascinated when we show them images of themselves on our cameras; they fix their hair and request that we take the photo another time. I attempt to take photos of the younger kids but they don’t quite seem to understand that they have to step back to get in the frame; the process was chaotic, but resulted in some adorable photos.

We finish the dedication ceremony and the three new homeowners – all women – look excited. As a group we pitched in for school supplies for the village kids. The kids seem equally content with their pencils and notebooks. I wonder what their little lives will be like. The bus pulls away and we wave goodbye to them for the last time.

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More Farewells
With the build officially over, everyone is packing up for home or – in some cases – the next phase of their adventure. Though being tethered to a big group for weeks can feel unwieldy and cumbersome, I inevitably experience separation anxiety as they slip out of my life one by one. In honor of one of our last nights together, a few of us head to a local bar in Pokhara. We chat quietly over our drinks and a band takes the stage. Much to my surprise, the band begins singing modern American songs and before I know it we’re all belting out Sublime’s “Santeria.” Tony is buying shots while Amy is introducing me to a friend she made in line for the ladies’ room – the party has been kicked up a notch!

I know I won’t keep in touch with everyone, but I leave Nepal certain I’ve made a couple of new close friends at least. A special thanks to you, dear Reader, for letting me relive such a lovely experience!

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We Embarrass America And “Summit Everest”

Sunrise over the Annapurnas

We left off just after dusk in Dhampus and, currently, our group is assembled around a bonfire with our Nepali hosts. Jason and Tony are enjoying a few Everest beers; “hey look guys, I’m about to summit Everest again!” I sip my masala tea and shake my head. Boys.

We Drop The Beat
Our hosts bring out their instruments and begin to play their favorite traditional Nepali tunes. Krishna explains the meaning and importance of each song, but I find myself distracted by the dancing flames before me and the blanket of stars above me. A few moments later, our hosts coax us out of our seats and we begin to dance, albeit somewhat awkwardly. Our male group members are initially a bit hesitant to dance with the Nepali men but, heck, if you can’t give in to an impromptu do-si-do on a mountainside with another man once in a while, than you probably take yourself a bit too seriously.

Side note: Heterosexual Nepali men show physical affection for one another in a way that is markedly different from our Western standards. It is not uncommon to see two male or female friends holding hands as they walk down the street, while PDA between a man and a woman is considered taboo.

A bit breathless, we take our seats and begin chatting. Krishna suggests that perhaps we sing a traditional American song. You can actually hear crickets. We glance around at one another in desperation. The national anthem would be the obvious choice but it has too many high notes. American Pie? No one knows all of the words. The Nepalis, always polite, cannot help but look a bit perplexed by our ambivalence. Finally, Tony stands up. Whether motivated by a sense of American pride or his spiked masala tea, he begins to sing The Eagles’ “Hotel California.” We look on admiringly (hey, we didn’t have the guts to sing anything) and the Nepalis continue to look confused, though encouraging. After a verse or two, Tony forgets some of the words and we fall back into an awkward silence.

I’m still not sure who started it but somehow, out of the darkness, came a song we all knew: “I like big BUTTS and I cannot liiieeeee!!” Immediately, we all begin to join in. We start wiggling in our seats as we plead, “you can do side bends or sit-ups, but please don’t lose that butt!” The Nepalis, noticing our enthusiasm, begin to smile and bob their heads. Someone bangs a drum awkwardly now and again in an attempt to catch the beat. Cultural exchange abounds and Sir Mix-a-Lot saves the day!

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Nepali Flats
The next morning we eat breakfast outside overlooking the mountains. Krishna assures us that, after yesterday’s steep incline, today’s trek would be more forgiving. Excited for a downhill stroll, our group sets out for home. We pass through forests, occasionally spotting some local villagers as we go. A young boy is swimming in a brook and waves at us before jumping in. We pass a man carrying an entire tree trunk on his back and I make a point to swallow the complaint on the tip of my tongue. But seriously, Krishna did say it was mostly flat terrain we would be covering today.

Our group stops for a snack and Maureen asks Krishna if the path ahead will “ease up” at all. Then he does something most discouraging: the Nepali head bob.

The Nepali head bob is a side-to-side movement that, in my experience, is an indication of bad news to come. After only a week in this country, it seems to me that the Nepali people are either prone to optimism or harbor a fear of reprisals when delivering less than desirable news. Krishna’s reassurance, accompanied by the head bob, all but confirms more arduous trekking ahead. For the remainder of the trek, Tony and I point to the mountains and declare: “Look! A Nepali Flat!”

Even so, the scenery cannot be beat. I feel small but not insignificant – just incredibly blessed to be a tiny part of such a big, beautiful world.

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It’s Opener There In The Wide Open Air

Trekking through Dhampus

Get your day pack ready, dear Reader, for a weekend of adventuring in the Annapurna Mountain Range! After a full week at the work site our group is setting off for a two day trek to the small village of Dhampus. It will take us a few hours to get to our lodgings and we set out armed with snacks, our day packs full of one change of clothes, and our guide, Krishna.

To The Top!
We begin our trek and, rather naturally, divide into smaller groups. Tony, Amy, and Jason are leading the pack, laughing boisterously and exchanging Seinfeld quotes. I listen quietly as several of my group members talk about how they came to be on this trip. Some needed a break from corporate life and some always wanted to see Nepal. Others are a bit more vague which I understand completely (at least, I think I do); in addition to being interested in Nepal, I was feeling a bit “soul sick” and just wanted to get the hell outta town.

The dirt path of the forest gives way to quiet villages and lush, green farm terraces. It is serene except for the occasional cluster of children who pop out of the grass and declare, “Give me sweets!” Hmm… less than charming. These kids remind me of monkeys: kind of cute from a distance, but mostly just annoying and scrounging for food when you get up close.

Further up into the mountains we spot a school and I contemplate what it might be like growing up in such a remote place with strange foreigners passing through. We encounter a goat fight – another highlight along the road. Our group stands by for a while and watches as the two goats literally butt heads. I battle the urge to separate them and decide to take a photo instead. I wonder what they are fighting about?

    

The Snicker Roll Incident
Finally, after working up quite a sweat, we arrive at our lodging. The rooms are quaint and each one faces the Southern end of the Annapurna Range. After dinner we sit outside and enjoy a breathtaking view of the sun setting behind the massive Mt. Machhapuchhare, commonly known as Fishtail mountain. People throw “breathtaking” around a lot but I can truly say – without any hint of exaggeration – this is a moment I will remember forever. A profound sense of gratitude washes over me.

The hushed awe that has fallen over our group is interrupted by our host offering us dessert, something called a Snicker Roll. Even after a tasty dinner, we are eager for an indulgence and everyone raises their hand indicating they would like some. Snicker Roll?! Collectively, we wonder aloud about the forthcoming Snicker-based treat. I’m picturing a hefty dessert à la the Cheesecake Factory while Mark thinks it might be some sort of ice cream cake with Snicker crumble. The possibilities are endless!

After what seems like an eternity, our host approaches with a silver platter and, with a bit of flourish (unless I’m imagining it),  presents us with our snicker rolls. There, elegantly placed on the silver serving platter, are a bunch of run-of-the-mill packaged Snickers bars. The disappointment is crushing. I glance at Mark; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a grown man look so crestfallen. Everyone bursts into laughter while our poor host looks at us foreigners in confusion. Of course they are plain Snickers bars! We’re in the middle of a tiny village on a distant mountain range! Talk about a case of first world expectations and third world realities… (For the record: I did still eat the Snickers).

    

This Little Light Of Mine
The sun has set but we continue to sit, enjoying the stars and the slight chill that has crept into the air. In the darkness I can barely see the outline of the enormous mountains across from us. Suddenly, I notice little fiery bursts popping up along the range. The image makes my heart beat faster. Campfires! People!

There, in an immense expanse of darkness, in the most remote corner of the world, we find bursts of light. Those trekkers or villagers, who seem so close to each other from my perspective, are likely oblivious to their proximity to one another. And maybe that’s how it goes: we wander through the forest – sometimes clumsily, sometimes with ease – until, every now and again, we stumble upon a kindred spirit. Another little burst of light.

“What do you think?” Tony asks.

I pause, not wanting to reveal too much of myself. Besides, those fires generated a seedling of a thought and I haven’t quite worked it out just yet.

“It reminds me of The Lord of the Rings… when they light the beacons,” I reply somewhat truthfully.

He laughs and agrees. I think we’ll be friends but I haven’t given myself over to the idea just yet….

Let’s leave off here for now, dear Reader. The night is still young and there is so much more to share!

Are You Happy?

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Getting some work done, but mostly having fun!

One of the more unique aspects of volunteering in Nepal is our group’s ability to settle into a routine. Many of my previous travels were frenetic, leaving me in a state of perpetual motion – an uninterrupted windstorm of interruptions. Having several weeks in Pokhara allows for our group to participate in the community’s daily rhythm and to become familiar with each other’s quirky patterns. Because none of us are actually annoying – not ever! – we’re “quirky.”

Curbing The Urge to Correct
Each morning our group eats breakfast together in the hotel and takes the bus to the build site. We collectively wince each time the we cross the gorge (praying the wheels don’t literally come off of the bus), and head to our respective house sites, ready to receive the day’s task. Landon and I work together, silently mixing concrete and troweling. Neil, a middle aged New Yorker, offers frequent suggestions about how we might go about building the home using American techniques. The problem with that being, of course: we aren’t in America. Part of Habitat’s Global Village mission is to use local materials and methods to build the new homes.

However, part of me understands Neil’s instinct to optimize. Throughout Nepal we see a dichotomy of modern convenience and the simple lifestyle customary to an economy dominated by old-school agriculture. For example, the bathrooms at our hotel are surprisingly modern but do not have shower curtains. Absolutely everything, including the toilet paper, gets soaked each time you shower. The brooms we use on the build site have very short handles – if only the handles were a bit longer, we wouldn’t have to hunch over while we sweep. These suggestions may seem innocuous, but I struggle to find the line between offering improvements and forced assimilation. I mean, no one likes a know-it-all!

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Happiness Or Bust
Working with my hands to create something tangible – a home for a family no less! – is incredibly satisfying. The sun shines above me as I methodically place new bricks. A local Nepali works beside me; he’s about my age and doesn’t speak any English so we enjoy each other’s company wordlessly. It is a relief not to be thinking about anything in particular. Instead, I feel I am simply… being.

Amrit approaches and asks if I am happy, something he does often. Perhaps he means for it to be more of a “hey, how’s it going?” but the question always seems to be made in earnest. At first I would fumble – you know, the way you do when faced with such an existential inquiry – but now I assure him that yes, I am happy.

“Good,” he says. “A person must have singing and a feeling of happiness in their soul or else it is no good.” We certainly cannot argue we with that, dear Reader!

Our group pauses for masala tea mid-morning and makes the quick drive to our lunch spot each afternoon. We sit out back on the simple patio and eat momos, Nepal’s signature dumpling. Occasionally, we follow it up with a game of carrom board with the kids. Afternoons at the work site tend to be slightly less productive; the children return from school in an onslaught of enthusiasm, often luring us away from our work to play. They especially like Kevin from Ohio – a tall bearded man with a gentle way about him. The kids dangle from his tattoo covered arms and seem intrigued by his beard.

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I’m gonna put this right out there: I’m not really a “kid person.” It’s not that I don’t like them specifically, it’s just that they don’t earn any brownie points with me purely based on the fact that they are miniature humans. Having said that, we have some real characters here in our village.

Puran, one of the older boys, does this crazy thing where he’ll wiggle his eyebrows and make shifty eyes at me when no one else is looking. It’s as if he’s always up to something – which I love! There is a girl, very quiet, who climbs up into the tree by my work site. When I notice her up there she waves and smiles. I wave back. One of the younger boys is surprisingly stylish and often sports scarves and a dapper little jacket. Beenita brings me flowers and shares her bracelets and hair accessories with me. Not only are they a great group, but I’m amazed at how carefully these children look after one another.

Maybe it doesn’t seem like anything especially exciting, but our routine offers comfort and consistency in a place so far from home.

A Rough Start

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The Habitat for Humanity crew

My roommate Tiffany and I are in our hotel room getting ready for bed and feeling eager about our first day at the worksite tomorrow. I wash my face and carefully use bottled water to wet my toothbrush since we were advised not to drink the tap water in Nepal. As I finish brushing, I absent-mindedly turn on the faucet and dip my toothbrush under the water. The brush is already in my mouth before I realize what I’ve done. I figure a tiny splash of tap water can’t cause too much damage (ominous foreshadowing) and head to bed.

I’ve only begun to fall asleep when I’m cruelly awoken by harrowing stomach pains. I lay there a minute trying to “adjust” to the pain and keep myself calm. It takes a moment before I realize my cramps are the result of that little bacteria cocktail I ingested while brushing my teeth. Dizzy, I stumble into the bathroom hoping to vomit or even have explosive diarrhea but nope… nothing happens. I lay on the cool tile floor for a while instead. Still nothing. I crawl – yes, crawl – back to my bed and can’t remember ever feeling so ill.

The Build Begins!
The next morning I dress slowly, determined to go to our first day building homes for Habitat for Humanity. I feel wobbly and the fumes from the bus are making me queasy. Pathetic as I am in my current state, I cannot help but feel excited as we approach the build site. We all brace ourselves as the rickety bus traverses a deep gorge. Once we make it to the other side, a few small homes come into view and, to my surprise; children emerge from the homes waving excitedly at us. I wave back and smile while they run alongside the bus. The scene is like something out of a Sundance film.

Our group is greeted warmly by the three partner families who will be building their new homes alongside us. They offer us flowers and apply tikkas to our foreheads (a mark made with red powder that is a blessing of sorts). The village kids are excited to hang out with us – new playmates! – and Manisha is kind enough to create makeshift nametags with some marker and construction tape so we can get to know one another better. She writes the volunteers’ names in Sanskrit and the Nepali’s names in English.

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A Goat Makes Me Cry
The first order of business is to transport a large pile of cinder blocks to each of the three build sites. I have been assigned to House C, a little plot of land set back on a hill. It is further from the other two houses but I don’t mind, the quiet suits me. I still haven’t recovered from last night and, after about half a day’s work, my body is beginning to give out on me. I sit on the ground, worried I might faint any second now. Amrit, another one of our Habitat reps, looks on with concern. He is short and slight (like most of the Nepalis) and is dressed rather formally for a construction site. His collared shirt and heavy sweater seem out of place in this heat.

Having your body fail you, even briefly, is incredibly humbling. Suddenly, my grand plan to show up and save Nepal gives way to the more pressing need to stay conscious. Further down the hill I see my older group members hauling cinder blocks and slim Nepali women carrying enormous bags of concrete on their backs.

As I sit here contemplating my uselessness, a small goat approaches. My heart warms; perhaps this little creature senses my pain. He looks at me for a moment and then turns his head to my backpack where my welcome flower from the children is perched. Without warning, the goat begins to eat my flower. Oh man. I feel the tears welling up – I’m about to come undone. Amrit, witnessing the horror and my fragile state, assures me that the goat is eating my flower because he loves me and “because I love goat.” But I don’t love goat. I hate goat. This is a low point.

I spend the remainder of the afternoon lying in the back of our bus while the rest of the group has the best day ever. When it’s time to head back to the hotel, The Jasons (we have two of them) tell me about the fantastic time they had blessing a doorway with a sacrificial chicken and goofing around with the village kids. “Oh, sorry. That probably doesn’t make you feel better… But man, what a great day!” Sigh. There’s always tomorrow I suppose…

    

**UPDATE:  As I’m sure you have already heard, a second powerful earthquake struck Nepal recently. If nothing else, this blog conveys the importance of clean drinking water! The people of Nepal definitely need some of that right about now.

Inner Peace In Three Easy Steps (Not A Listicle)

IMG_4386Last night I met the rest of our Habitat for Humanity group at a welcome dinner in the hotel. We are fifteen people in all and, though normally meeting people in packs is a bit overwhelming for me, everyone seems pretty cool. Most of us are from the States but Helen and Maureen, two older ladies, are from Ireland and Mark is joining us from the UK. Sonia, from California, is our fearless leader and is supported by several Habitat for Humanity staff members from Nepal: Manisha, Narayan, and Amrit.

Pilgrims and Monkey Business
Our build is located in central Nepal and our group will need to take a quick flight to get there. With a few hours to kill in Kathmandu before our departure, we spend the morning exploring Swayambhunath, a religious complex and sacred pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists. Situated atop a large hill, visitors have the option of driving up to the main temple or climbing the 365 steps to the top. Pressed for time, our group decides to drive up.

Swayambunath is often called The Monkey Temple because of the hundreds of monkeys that inhabit it. As we make our way through the shrines, our group pauses to photograph them quite a bit. I spin some prayer wheels and chat up several of my new travel companions. David, from New York, has a laid back and friendly attitude – I like him right away. Amy, from Minnesota, is about my age and is traveling with her mother Mary. Both are impossibly sweet.

I think about our group members, hailing from so many different pockets of the world, and their inspiration for coming on this trip. Sure, we’re here to build houses for Habitat – but why would someone choose to do that? I begin to wonder if we aren’t all on a pilgrimage of sorts (even though we took the easy way up to the temple).

Technically, a pilgrimage is a tremendous act of faith, an opportunity for the devout to purify themselves both emotionally and physically by crossing challenging terrain. All other cares fall away as the mind and body become singularly focused on completing this journey. The physical struggle mirrors the struggle within: the struggle to stay faithful, to focus on what is essential, and to let go of all else. There you have it: inner peace in just three easy steps!

Perhaps that’s why our group is here on this mission. Perhaps we are all here to free ourselves up from the “unessential” and to become attune to the things that more firmly ground us within ourselves. But! We’ve only just met and I think it best not to start with such a personal question… wouldn’t you agree, dear Reader?

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Beautiful Pokhara
We are on the tarmac waiting to board a small plane to Pokhara – the flight shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes or so. The side of the plane boasts, “Yeti Airlines: 10 Years of Service.” Encouraging. It’s pretty crammed inside and I’m impressed by the pretty Nepali flight attendant who is squeezing down the narrow aisle to offer us some hard candy. It is a relief to be leaving Kathmandu. It was an interesting experience and I really enjoyed the sights, but I’m looking forward to a more relaxed pace in the country.

Pokhara is certainly more in line with how I pictured Nepal: friendly faces, fresh air, lush green landscapes, and the Annapurna mountain range in the distance. It has an easy “lake town” vibe and is a popular jumping off point for trekkers and adventurers. I am pleasantly surprised by our cheerful hotel room and the western plumbing in our bathroom (thank you, baby Jesus). After strolling through the small downtown area, our group stops for a leisurely dinner – our dinners are always leisurely because things just seem to happen more slowly here. After some good getting-to-know-you chatter, we head back to the hotel in preparation for our first day at the work site.

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**UPDATE: Part of the Swayambunath complex was damaged as a result of the earthquake in April 2015. Want to help rebuild Nepal?

Bad Meat and Big Questions

Boudhanath Stupa

Saddle up, dear Reader, because today you are in for a whirlwind of culture à la Kathmandu. I am especially excited about our first stop, a Buddhist place of worship, called Boudhanath Stupa. Our bus is currently stuck in traffic – a new norm during our stay in Nepal’s capital. I am surprised to find very few paved streets in this well-known city; it is not uncommon for livestock or people to wander into the dusty thoroughfares and hold up traffic.

Just outside of my window there are several vendors selling fish and red meat. It is warm today and the fish give off a formidable odor. The meat vendor looks bored as he mindlessly waves a fly swatter over his pile of meat. A fly lands on the meat and – whack! – the vendor squashes it. Bonus protein, I suppose. (Note: it pays to be picky about your food choices in countries where proper sanitation is a bit dodgy).

But Back To The Stupa…
Boudhanath Stupa is one of the largest stupas in Nepal and is also considered one of the holiest stupas outside of Tibet.  You and I could talk quite a while about the structure and symbolism of the stupa, but instead I’ll give you the big highlight: from above, the Boudhanath Stupa resembles a giant mandala. Great. What’s a mandala? A mandala is a diagram of the Buddhist and/or Hindu cosmos or universe. As we stroll through the grounds, we come across several monks painting mandalas to aid in their meditation. It is careful and precise work.

You’ve heard me say it before and I’m going to say it again – I just love a Buddhist house of worship! Colorful prayer flags dance in the breeze above me as I circumambulate the stupa. White walls and open spaces are a welcome reprieve from the dusty and chaotic landscape outside the gates. I can hear some faint chanting but mostly it’s quiet, a show of deep reverence for the Buddha. I greatly appreciate this since I happen to have a deep reverence for quiet time in general. Overhead the omnipresent eyes of Buddha look on as I give a prayer wheel a good spin.

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I Don’t Love That Dirty Water
Our next stop is Pashupatinath Temple, a sacred Hindu temple located on both banks of the Bagmati River. Only Hindus are allowed inside the temple itself, but we foreigners are free to wander the grounds. Pashupatinath is perhaps one of the most interesting, or at least thought-provoking, places I have been to in all my travels. The temple was built in honor of the Hindu god Shiva, The Destroyer, so it is here along the river that families cremate their loved ones on funeral pyres while the poor and elderly seek the temple grounds to await the end of their days.

Suffice it to say, the vibe is eerie. The water level of the river is low and monkeys wade into it hoping to find scraps of food among the garbage. Nearby a poor man washes his clothes in the river – the same river that accepts the ashes of the dead. Further down the path a family solemnly tends to a funeral pyre. I avert my eyes, ashamed to be an onlooker during such a personal moment. Though normally an intensely private person, I can understand – briefly anyway – how liberating it must be to show your grief so openly. What a different place the world would be if people were sharing, and not avoiding, their pain.

So right about now you’re probably thinking, “Jeez Malia, your vacation totally sucks!” But the news isn’t all grim, dear Reader. Shiva is not just the destroyer of life. Shiva is not simply some menacing harbinger of death. Without endings there can be no beginnings; it is more accurate to consider Shiva an agent of change. A destroyer of ego, unhealthy attachments, and the mental scripts that prevent us from seeing ourselves, and the world around us, more clearly. Now… that’s pretty cool.

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We return to our hotel and find the lobby unlit and the concierge staff dutifully at their post. Throughout Nepal there are regular power cuts that seem to occur in the late afternoon and early evening for several hours at a time. At first it was a little unnerving and confusing, but now it has come to symbolize the end of the day’s explorations. I have just enough time for a quick shower and some journaling before I meet the remainder of our Habitat for Humanity group at the welcome dinner this evening.

**UPDATE: Both of these historical sites have suffered damage as a result of the earthquake in April 2015. On a more personal note, one of our Habitat for Humanity representatives (you’ll meet him soon) suffered terrible losses during this time. If you would like to donate to Narayan and his family you can do so here.

Kathmandu: The Wild Rumpus

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Happy Holi!

My visions of Nepal were initially comprised of dramatic landscapes (the famed Everest), prayer flags, trekkers, and colorful temples.  Upon arriving in Kathmandu, there is only one word that comes to mind: chaos. Absolute chaos.

A representative from Habitat for Humanity greets me and several other volunteers at the airport. Though we have an escort to our hotel in Thamel, nothing can protect us from the throngs of people rushing forward to “help carry” our luggage – for a small $20USD tip of course. Those loyal Readers will remember that I encountered a similar hustle in Beijing.

Safely situated in the quiet of our van, my fellow volunteers and I breathe a sigh of relief and take in the sights outside of our windows. Kathmandu unfolds before us in all of its gritty glory. Horns blare as cars, motorbikes, and tuk tuks weave around each other without any apparent regard for traffic regulations. Young children knock on the windows of our van each time we slow to let another vehicle pass, hoping for a handout. I’m not entirely surprised by the chaos, but I am overwhelmed by it nonetheless. Aside from a short trip to Bogotá, most of my jaunts have been through Europe – a veritable Disneyland for travelers. Clearly, we are not in Disneyland anymore.

A Festival of Colors
Our group has a few days to explore Kathmandu before we travel to central Nepal for our build in Pokhara. As it happens, our arrival coincides with the Hindu celebration of spring called Holi or the Festival of Colors. The Nepalis celebrate by launching water balloons and covering one another – and innocent passersby – with colored chalk (think: The Color Run). The hotel staff warns us not to go out if we don’t want to get caught in the crossfire but, of course, that’s exactly what we want! Not even two blocks from our hotel, I am pelted from above with water balloons. I look up to see three small boys leaning out of a window. They giggle and wave. “Happy Holi!” they shout. A few more steps away I am approached by some teenage boys who rub colored chalk on my face.

It doesn’t take long for the best holiday ever to turn into what feels like absolute guerilla warfare with color and water balloons. I can’t help but notice the rest of the group isn’t getting nearly as much color as I am – maybe my blonde locks are to blame. Either way, I’m done celebrating and spend several hours trying to scrub the color from my skin later that evening.

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Kathmandu, I’ll Soon Be Seeing You
The next morning we make our way to Durbar Square. We stroll down dusty streets full of trash and pass several internet cafes and some shops selling touristy trinkets. Occasionally, we see a cow resting peacefully in the refuse. Hanging precariously overhead are webs of electrical cables. Kathmandu seems to be a city that has missed a few steps in its hurried attempt to modernize.

There are three “Durbar Squares” in Kathmandu Valley and all three are considered UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The squares have been around for centuries and are made up of various fountains, plazas, and temples. Almost immediately we are approached by a girl of about 7 who is anxious to show us around. When we stop in the temples, she educates us about the Hindu gods; I’m simultaneously impressed by her knowledge and nervous about her lack of adult supervision. When we pause to enjoy an open plaza, she tells us about important ceremonies that were once held there and explains the historic restoration underway nearby. Our group decides to break for lunch and one of our members offers her a few Nepali Rupees in exchange for her guidance. She becomes brash and declares, “This isn’t enough!”

You may think, dear Reader, that I am painting an unfairly grim picture of Kathmandu and its people. I can only tell you about my own experience. My point is simply: the struggle in Nepal is real. And so is the hustle.

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Monkey Attacks Child. I Do Nothing.
Our group enjoys a pleasant lunch overlooking the square. I bond with another group member, Landon from Dallas, over our equally unadventurous attitudes towards food. During this time I also get to chat more with Tony, a man a few years older than me who appears to be dressed like some kind of arms dealer or vigilante. I am somewhat disappointed when I later discover that he is from Santa Barbara. (We become good friends).

I take a few bites of my “pizza” and notice there are monkeys climbing among the electrical cables. It’s one of our first monkey sightings and our group goes camera crazy. Things settle down after a moment and I watch as a group of young children on a school trip line up for their teacher. A monkey approaches a small boy who has just taken a little bag of chips from his backpack. Aw, the monkey wants to be his friend – how cute! No. Not cute. In one fell swoop the monkey snags the chips and shoves the little boy to the ground. The boy has barely let out his first cry and already the monkey is enjoying his spoils just a few steps away. I do the only thing I can and shout: “Oh, SNAP!”

**UPDATE: Several buildings in Durbar Square collapsed during the earthquake in April 2015. Want to help?

Remembering Nepal

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Dhampus, Nepal

Hello, dear Reader. No doubt you have seen news coverage of the devastating earthquake that rocked Nepal earlier this week. I spent some time there in 2010 on a volunteer assignment with Habitat for Humanity and, as you can imagine, this disaster is weighing rather heavily on my heart. My intent isn’t to overwhelm you with tales of poverty and destruction or to describe a plight that seems too enormous to alleviate. Quite the opposite, in fact.

These past few days I have been reliving my time in Nepal, sifting through old photos and reading outdated emails sent to my family during that trip. It was a great experience full of new friendships, exploration, and the frustration that comes with being out of my comfort zone. I plan to piece together some details of this journey over the next few weeks, not because I want you to donate (though I do), not because the news is tragic (though it is), but rather because I want to create a vivid picture of the Nepal that I experienced. My hope, dear Reader, is that you will be able to better understand the incredible culture, landscape, and warm-heartedness of the Nepali people. Then maybe, just maybe, the tragedy won’t seem to have happened in a land far away.