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Lisa's Blog0002: First trip to Sindhupalchowk

Lisa Pier December 11, 2015; Friday 23:10 NST (Nepal Standard Time)

Hey there, I know I'm a bit late with my second entry in which I want to tell you something about my trip to Sindhupalchowk, one of Nepal's mountainous areas, which is already more than one week ago! But there was a lot to do and finally I got to know what everybody who has once been to Asian countries tells you about regarding sickness.. So apologies that I did not report of our trip directly, but here we go:My first trip out of Kathmandu valley!!

Main purpose for Hoste Hainse: Staying in touch with the villages' communities, students and teachers, inspecting potential lands for the building of two new school buildings in Sindhupalchowk.

Main purpose for me: Finally getting out of Kathmandu valley, seeing something new, the 'real' Nepal, and, maybe most importantly, seeing what I am all working on during the last weeks. Another thing: filming the first episodes for a short video-documentary on my stay with Hoste Hainse - let's see how that's going to work out! I'll keep you posted.

A little bit of background who those of you who did not check out the or startpage:

Hoste Hainse's newest project is about building two new school buildings in Nepal's Sindhupalchowk district, one of the most affected areas by the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, 2015. 3,500 of the 9,000 earthquake victims have been killed in Sindhupalchowk, most of the buildings are not habitable anymore and the worst thing: The presence of international NGOs, providing relief materials, has been really low after the earthquake. So we're talking about an area which was one of the most affected ones, if not the most affected one at all, but did not receive appropriate support. A reason for Hoste Hainse to interfere here - during the first days after the earthquake with relief materials such as food, blankets, medicines etc. and nowadays with the plan of constructing two new school buildings in the villages Attarpur and Thulo Dhading. And one thing which makes it easier for HH to get active in Sindhupalchowk because one longtime-employee of Hoste Hainse's sister organization Formation Carpets, was born here and so he can be our focal point and assurance for local support. In both of these villages the former governmental schools have been partly or, in case of Thulo Dhading, totally destroyed. But another problem of the former schools, which have been run by the nepali government, was another one as well: During the last two years the SLC-pass rate (which is the rate of students who pass the final exams at the end of 10th grade) has been 0%!! Just to have a comparison: 93% of the students of the HH schools in Sarlahi passed the SLCs in 2014 - this was reason enough fpr the village communities to decide against a simple rebuilding of their governmental schools through HH but for the building of two new community schools which will be directed by Hoste Hainse only. To support the current 9th and 10th graders which are going to face their SLC exams in April 2016 HH already employs two additional teachers per school who are currently giving extra tuition classes every morning in Math, Sciences and English - the most complicated subjects. Of course nobody thinks that we'll be able to receive a SLC-pass rate as in Sarlahi within a few months of extra tuitions but it's a start and we'll see how the SLCs will go in April! So, as you can hear, there have already been a few trips to Sindhupalchowk by Hoste Hainse members but now you might be asking why the construction works have not started yet? Because of the current fuel crisis which already rules Nepal for over three months!! Three months of lines of vehicles waiting for petrol, which block whole streets and can be a few kms long. Three months of no gas available, so people started cooking on fire wood in their backyards. Three months of a flourishing black fuel market and crazily increasing fuel and gas prices. Once again a perfect example of how dependent on fuel our world is in general and how dependent Nepal is on India, this is just unbelievable! So, that's why the last Diesel which Krishna kept in stock wanted to be used as effectively as possible - and so we did: Showing what the Sindhupalchowk-projects are all about to Gwen as well as me, continuing the process of selection and donation of lands, talking to the extra teachers for the first time since they got employed and talking with the 10th graders about their SLCs - these reasons might be fair enough to spend Krishna's last Diesel.

On Tuesday December 1st 2015 I woke up at 3:50am (okay, I could also had woken up around 4:15am, because the driver came to pick me up around 4:30am but I wanted to wash my hair and who knows me knows that sticking to my hair-washing-schedule can be very important to me, so 3:50am) to, as already mentioned, be ready for the pick off around 4.30am. Why so we had to leave so freaking early? Because the plan was to be back home around 9pm in the evening, the ride to Sindhupalchowk takes five hours and we did not want to rush too badly through our day there. So the girl with whose family I live, Rashmi, was already awake because she needed to study for her upcoming exams anyway (seems to be quite common Nepal that people wake up in the earliest morning hours to start studying..). But it was not only her: The whole family seemed to be awake, I mean, how could I seriously think that they'd let me go without drinking the compulsory black tea and having some kind of little breakfast!? Many of my host family's members have never been out of Kathmandu valley so Tuesday's trip and it's preparation it was a quite big deal - but I felt happy seeing how much they care about me - so, it cannot be too bad having me ;)

But back to our trip: After the driver picked me and Gwen Straley, an American donor from the USA (her organization's name is 3rd Creek Foundation and they're mainly involved in Hoste Hainse's Sarlahi Schools and livelihood projects such as goatkeeping) with an electric car we went to Krishna's place to change the car: For the way to Sindhupalchowk a Land rover is absolutely necessary because of many mountains who want to be passed, unpaved, bumpy roads and so on. But to waste as less fuel as possible we chose the electric car for the pick-ups - see, fuel is really, really rare these days. The first hours in the car were pretty quiet, most of us were due to this inhumane time not too talkative (or at least I wasn't haha) but we passed the awakening Kathmandu and Bhaktapur areas. Around 5:00 am we met with two guys who were going to escort us vie motorbike on our way to Sindhupalchowk: Prem's son Kiran and his nephew Ram Krishna at Gwarko Chowk. We passed Dhulikhel, Dolaghat and Khadichaur where we leave Arnico Highway which leads to China. Just a quick note: The current fuel crisis officially is reasoned by an unofficial blockade at the Indian border in southern Nepal and so it's not the weirdest idea to start importing fuel from Nepal's second neighbor: China. But on all our way we didn't see a single truck transporting fuel from China to Nepal, even if that has been announced a few weeks ago. From Khadichawur we took the Jiri road, a one hour ascent followed until we almost reach the top of the hill around 8:30 am. From here we take that unpaved road towards Attarpur and Thulo Dhading. All roads from this point are unpaved - so we packed a lot of stuff to prevent motion sickness.. A new thing I learned regarding that was that keeping cloves inside your mouth (not biting them!!) is not as disgusting as I expected - it nearly has the potential to replace my favorite sugar free chewing gum which is not available in Nepal where almost everything contains a lot of sugar what I simply don't like haha.

One example for that is the tea we had somewhere on our way before we left Arnico Highway: I had the feeling there was more sugar than water inside. In the village where we had our tea-stop we noticed another thing that is worth telling it: Shops are more and more running out of products but the only truck which amidst fuel crisis is - guess which? Right, the Coca Cola truck..

Following the unpaved roads to Thulo Dhading is really a little challenge: These roads are not only unpaved - I enjoyed the privilege to have a father who loves adventurous holiday trips, always preferring the non-touristy and isolated roads which for example in Greece or Iceland cane be really far from European standards - these roads cannot even be called roads I think! I'd rather call it some kind of path, alright? Many landslides, which increased dramatically after the 2015 earthquake, once covered the whole street, superficially removed by the village communities, holes in the way of which some were as big as one square meter, some big stones just lying in the middle of the street, being the reason for us falling on each other's lap and finally we had to cross one river without a bridge. At least we did not have to pass these.. paths.. during monsoon time! Now I know why building the schools in Sindhupalchowk is reactively expensive compared to building schools in flat regions with a good transport infrastructure: For the 104km from Kathmandu to Thulo Dhading we needed 5 hours, vehicles used for transporting the construction materials from the closest supplier to the building grounds must be relatively small and strongly motorized to be able to pass these paths and first and foremost they need a lot of fuel and time.. But after all these curvy highways and bumpy paths we finally reached Prem's house around 9:30 am where we were welcomed warmly by the resembled village's community. They offered us coffee with buffalo milk (to drink this one should turn out to be a decision with bad consequences for me during the course of the day..), gifted a scarf to each of us travellers, we just chatted about how things are going, sitting in the intense morning sun and just enjoying the wonderful view.

At this point Gwen and I had the chance talk to Prem's son Kiran who received Hoste Hainse support during his school days, speaks English fluently nowadays and is going to study Hotel Management from next year in Kathmandu. Even though he was born and raised in Kathmandu he still feels a very strong relationship towards his village of origin - that became more and more clear when he showed us the few houses and their temporary or maybe more semi permanent shelters which have been built after the 2015 earthquake. It will probably take the villagers five to ten years to rebuild their houses. But amidst all this, that place was just wonderful. After I had spent over one months in Kathmandu only, the fresh air and total silence were just heavenly beautiful and I wished I could've stayed for a longer time - but due to the fuel crisis which cancels all emergency-back-to-Kathmandu-options this is not possible.. What a pity! Otherwise the plan would've been to stay for at least few weeks in Sindhupalchowk to help rebuilding the schools, taking over some English classes or whatever.. But well, maybe next time!

After we left Prem's house, we continued our journey towards the former governmental school in Thulo Dhading and on our way came across two prospective lands for the future Thulo Dhading community school which, by the way, will be built in an earthquake resistant and environment friendly way, using local materials and things like solar panels and a rain water harvesting system. The currently favorite land is not far from the former school, is close to the street, big enough for a school and a playground and equally easily reachable for all students - not more than a one-hour walk from most of the surrounding villages. Hoste Hainse won't buy this land but it will be donated by the village's community - in progress (what is not too easy because especially our favorite land is owned by 10 different people but I think this is just what things in Nepal are like). The next prospective land was just a few kilometers of our bumpy ride away, currently used for the villager's goatkeeping and right next to a really, really deep slope - so maybe a better location for suicides than for a school!

No, I did not write anything about food by now. So we had a few sandwiches (with peanut butter!!!!) in the car around 7am but that was already a long time ago when we reached Surya Bahadur Lama's house. He'll be the coordinator of our Hoste Hainse School Projects once they start and he and his wife had prepared a Nepali lunch for us, which was super delicious, especially the pickles were made with some kind of mint what matched perfectly well. Fun fact: When I saw my plate Krishna asked whether this portion of rice would be okay, because it's quite common that hosts keep a little Mount Everest of rice on their guest's plates - but compared to how much rice they eat and used to feed me in my host family this was already little haha. But another problem was that it is quite common to drink out of some water cans or bottles which are just put on the table and available for everyone so you don't touch these ones with your lips. Afraid of just keeping all the water on my shirt instead of inside my mouth I first preferred to drink something back in the car - but after Krishna was like 'I bet you can't drink without touching the bottle' I of course took the challenge and yes, I did it! But eating rice with my hands is still one thing which I'll practice secretly in the mornings when nobody is around to surprise everybody one day by not looking totally clumsy while doing so. ;)

Just a few minute walk away we visited another two prospective lands, which had maybe equal qualities regarding the school grounds as the first one and these ones just were located wonderfully, but transporting all the construction material up here, where the only street is about a 10 minutes ascent away, would let increase the building costs once more and that's probably the last thing we want right now. But anyway, the little walk after all that morning in the car was good. And it should continue just a few minutes later when we reached the old grounds of the former Thulo Dhading school: Hiking up to the main parts of the totally destroyed building complex, marked with the Nepali sign which can be found all over Nepal nowadays and says that these buildings are unsafe - well, more than that I'd say.

Here not a single wall seems to be in place anymore, the old structures rise up into the sky like skeletons, I could see enormous cracks just on the ground on which I stood.

Seeing this in reality and not only on photos was even more shocking than expected - the only silver lining might be that at least the big earthquake took place on a Saturday when no students were inside these buildings

The things which made me most sad were some hastily forgotten pen caps on the floor, by now half covered by some wildly growing plants and one single school bench left in front of all that destruction.

From here we, once again, had a wonderful view over the valley on which's other side the district Dolakha begins and where we could see the traces of the attempts of building a new street: Roughly flattened ways without any planning, so that once at a time one of the used bulldozers might just provoke a landslide which destroys all the former efforts - and then they start all over again .. That's how things in Nepal are like.

But after all these visits and evaluations we should come to my personal highlights of last Tuesday's trip: The visits of the Thulo Dhading and Attarpur Schools, which are currently in operation. Thulo Dhading's temporary school should be the first one to visit and even before we arrived we could hear the preparations for the little welcoming program the school members had put up for us through all the surrounding silence. And so we arrived facing all the students forming lines and carrying flowers to welcome us. All of my travel buddies were already used to such kind of welcoming rituals but for me it was the first time and I just enjoyed watching these shyly smiling faces, saying 'Namaste!' and covering me with flower garlands all over the place - too cute!

After all flowers were gifted to one of us and everybody calmed down a bit again watched the teachers and one of the coordinator giving speeches, four girls singing a welcome-song and yeah, after a while it we were asked to speak a few words as well - So watching Gwen, who has a lot of experience working in the field of education, was just wonderful, she was totally in her element asking for some volunteer students to have a little interview with! My turn was a bit less exciting because I can't speak or understand the Nepali language (but I'm going to start Nepali classes soon!), so I just was honest and stressed once more how happy I was to meet all these little guys who surely did not understand anything of what I said.. Another reason why Krishna took it for quite important to do his next Sindhupalchowk trip with Gwen and me was the following: Many of the children here have maybe never seen a person from outside Nepal before and us showing up there showed once more that these children and their futures matter, that they're cared about! So, the rest of the agenda was mostly visiting all the classes (while in class 1 and 2 were only two students per class because of a wedding going on that day..), ending up in 10th grade: Here we talked a lot with the students about how their SLC preparations are going and most importantly, that they should never give up studying.

Even if they'll fail the SLC exams next April, they still have the chance to try it again next year - and this chance should not be missed. I mean, one year of more time in school is nothing compared to spending all the rest of your lives doing just.. something, working on the fields or whatever. I mean, look at me, I'm just taking a year off after school and still have so, so much time to study and live my life afterwards. The problem is, that many students get a lot of pressure from their parent's side to pass the SLCs - there are students committing suicide because of SLC failures every year!! - but on the other hand there is no place, not time and not enough understanding to seriously study at home. So that's (also) why HH did put up the tuition classes for 9th and 10th grade a few months ago. Talking about the additional classes for which teachers HH already pays nowadays, even if the Thulo Dhading school still is a government school: Talking to these teachers afterwards was mostly about spreading quite the same message and what the teachers reported was that it was really difficult to catch up all the subject's contents within such short time frame - but it might be doable. Let's see how the SLC pass rate will look like in April.. So, that was how we ended our stay in the Thulo Dhading TLC which has been constructed by the villagers themselves, mainly consisting of CGI sheets, bamboo and wood.

Heading over to Attarpur was another adventurous ride, crossing another river (which turned out to be quite nasty for our motorbike-escort, their feet definitely got wet) and we saw two guys cutting some woods with probably the biggest saw in the world - all these horror movie producers must've been to Sindhupachowk to get their insane ideas! Arrived in Attarpur, where the school buildings have only partly been destroyed by the 2015 earthquake, we were awaited with even more flowers - that was really fun.

While most of the students in Thulo Dhading were really shy, here in Attarpur many of them were just laughing one of the older guys just made me laugh by just calling 'hi' instead of 'Namaste' towards me. A good start for a more easy going conversation with the Attarpur 10th graders, even if questions like 'what's the time?' or 'how are you?' could hardly be understood and these guys had ten years of English classes! See HOW low the classes' level has been? And the best visual might be just to compare Kiran who received educational support from Hoste Hainse during his school days, speaking English fluently, being ambitious and having a vision, to these poor folks here in Sindhupalchowk.

We kind of dropped the same message as in Thulo Dhading regarding the SLC passings and options, while spreading this message amongst the teachers might me nearly as important as encouraging the students. We (or at least everybody apart from me, since that buffalo milk incident I became quite careful regarding what to eat and drink haha) had tea with the teachers and the VDC's (Village Development Committee) president of Attarpur. Here, apart from talking about the coming SLCs, tuition programs and the school rebuildings another message turned out to get very powerful just by a coincident: While introducing Gwen and me and answering the question why Pratistha and he did not bring their own daughter Avishi this time to Sindhupalchowk it turned out that all three of us; Gwen, Avishi and me; are our parent's only daughters. And that our parents are completely satisfied with that (or I hope so at least haha), supported us to get a really good education and Gwen und my parents did let us go to travel the world - alone, without any male support.

Because in Nepal, not only in the villages but also among people who live in the cities and might be highly educated, it's quite common to expect a couple to have at least one son who then receives all the support regarding education and has nearly all liberties while the daughters are more supposed to stay with their parents. Especially the women, whether old or young, did nod agreeing to that. Maybe that pushed the way of thinking here a bit more towards supporting children according to their qualities and desires and not according to their gender!

After all these intense meetings and a lot of new impressions for me we made our way back to Kathmandu to reach the paved roads before it got dark. This really exciting day now ended with an interesting political discussion about political awareness in Nepal (which just does not seem to exist to a noteworthy degree), ISIS and, of course the fuel crisis. I really missed such kind of talks because for example in my host family, which I really like and appreciate, that's not the point, such kind of intense political things never came up. And another good thing: Pratistha prepared some delicious Pasta for me because I just could not even see the face of rice after that buffalo-milk-thing haha - thanks again!

So yeah, that's what I wanted to tell you about our short but interesting trip to Sindhupalchowk, hope to be able to get there once again one day. :)

And last but not least the group pictures:

1. Thulo Dhading

2. Attarpur's teachers and supporters

3. Prem's community in Thulo Dhading - please also note that wonderful blue chair haha

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