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THAILAND – Krabi

The only way is up, baby…

(Written by Steph, photos by Steph and Nick)

 “Beginner okaaaaay,” I was assured. I wasn’t convinced. All the people I had seen so far looked pretty pro to me, but hey, what was the worst that could happen? We signed up.

Krabi province in Thailand is famous for many things. The Railay peninsular is much like an island in that it is only accessed by boat, and huge limestone cast rocks frame the outline. We had been recommended this place by a friend back home for the hippyish vibe off Tonsai beach, but a quick wade around some rocks and you find yoirself on a white sandy beach, known as West Railay beach, home of fancy resorts.

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After a couple of nights enjoying the relaxed vibe of the reggae bars over Tonsai, we thought we might be able to stretch to a fancy hotel over there, purely for the convenience, so we asked in a few resorts about prices. Several heart attacks later, we had discovered a more reasonable place on East Railay beach. The East beach was not really for swimming in, but everything was easily accessed from there.

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It was our last night on the Tonsai side, and we suddenly realised that we wouldn’t get these kinds of reggae bars on the East Railay beach, where we had managed to find a posher place for a reasonable price. We should go out and celebrate. It would be rude not to, right?

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We awoke with that feeling that you can only get from a drinking session the night before you have to do something that definitely can’t be done with a hangover.

How did this happen? Did we really drink that much? If I pretend it didn’t happen, can I magic this away? Pleeeease can I go back to bed?

The answer to the first question was probably something to do with Nick buying bucket after bucket of Sangsom and lemonade. The answer to the last question was probably yes. But, we had already paid for it and it was what we had come to Railay to do, or certainly Nick. I had to suck it up. I was sure to feel better later…

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One banana and a litre of water later, we were hooked up at the bottom of a huge cliff lined with other game tourists. In our group, there were only three of us.

“Have you done much climbing?” I asked the third guy, hoping for some kind of reassurance I wasn’t completely out of my league. “Normally level 8” was the reply. The fact I had no clue what he was talking about summed up how much I knew about climbing. The fact the number was near 10, I guessed, meant that I had better forget the reassurance.

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Steve was first up as I stood and gawped at those around me, scaling the cliff side, pinching here for one hold, little toe pressed on a ledge for another. Steve was up and down before I knew it. Nick practically walked up that first one. I, on the other hand, cried. I could blame it on my shaky hangover legs, but really, I’m just afraid of heights. And climbing. And yes, I do know what you are all thinking.

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The next two climbs in two different places came, and I sat out, but I was in awe of Nick. Steve had been climbing for years and found some of it really tough, but Nick had only been climbing once in Wales, a trip I bought him in a bid to convince him I was the adventurous type (who am I kidding?) and a couple of times on a climbing wall in Southampton. To see him manoeuvre himself to the very top of the cliff was both terrifying and incredible. Shame he didn’t take his phone up like the gutsie 10 year old we saw stopping half way up to take a selfie! Apparently it was a great view up there!  😉

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It was at this point our guide said to me, 

“C’mon. Your turn.”

“Whaaat? Up there?”
 
I said pointing at the route the guys had just done. He found this extremely amusing.

“No!” He could barely contain his laughter at the prospect of me attempting what the guys just done. He pointed to a small climb I had just seen a similarly pathetic girl fail. In her defence, she was French and her guide was shouting instructions up to her in English with her friend attempting to translate. It wasn’t a great start. I for one, had a very attentive guide, who instructed me where to put every hand and every foot, and in my mother tongue. That was pretty spoiled I reckon.

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It was absolutely astounding how well these guides knew the rocks. Even when Nick was half way up the cliff face and we couldn’t see any way to move further, he would tell him about some tiny hand hold hidden and secret to all but him. I took a deep breath. One leg up at a time.

He made me do that climb twice, just to give me confidence that I could do it. The first time he told me where to put my hands and feet. The second time he was chatting to some guy on the ground. Right, this is him throwing me out of the nest, I thought. I’d better just do it. And I did. It’s not the most natural thing in the world to me, but the guides were amazing, and if you are going to rock climb anywhere, I can’t think of a more beautiful setting. My only advice to would-be beginner climbers – leave the buckets of Sangsom for after your climb!

A few days later. What goes up, must come down…

Not content with scaling giant walls attached to a rope, Nick decided to sign up for an activity called, deep water solo. This involved free climbing (no ropes!) up the cliffs of a nearby island, and then plunging into the sea from ridiculous heights. I was going nowhere near it. Except there weren’t enough people going (too sensible if you ask me) so muggins here got roped in… ‘scuse inappropriate pun.

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I spent most of the time relaxing in the boat and enjoying the beautifully clear waters, while Nick did this…

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NEPAL – 8 Things you’ll have to get over as a westerner in Nepal

I’m a legal alien, I’m an English girl in Nepal…

(Written by Steph)

1)The spitting

Now, we aren’t talking about your regular mouth-spit here. This is a full-on, collecting every inch of phlem from the back of the throat, kind. If you’ve ever been to Spain, and heard the way they pronounce their Js (the jota), you’ll catch my drift. I’ve coined this kind of spitting the “Jota Spit,” and it happens everywhere in Nepal – on the streets, in guest houses, even in restaurants, juuuust as you are about to put that tasty morsel into your mouth. It’s worth being aware of in case you need to jump out of the path of the spit’s trajectory suddenly.

To start with, this habit may go against everything you know about “manners,” and it may even put you off your food momentarily. The thing is, you’ll notice that when anyone spits here, none of the locals take a blind bit of notice – it’s something that is considered normal here, and not in the least bit rude. The Nepalese people simply adhear to another set of norms. They may be similarly revolted to be offered something from your left hand!!

2) The Traffic

Whether you are a pedestrian, a cyclist or a passenger, you may not have encountered travelling quite like it in your home town. You know that story in the Bible about fitting a Camel through the eye of a needle? Kathmandu is full of opportune drivers and cyclists trying to do the same with their vehicles, and if your toes are in their way, you better move! Much like Delhi, for example, the lanes of traffic all overtake each other to the soundtrack of beeping horns, quite often venturing onto the other side of the road, and almost always without indicating. In fact, indicating could be a sign that it is ok for the person behind you to overtake. Confusing?  Never! 

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Face masks are worn by vast amounts of people in Thamel, Kathmandu, said to be one of the most polluted cities in the world

I had enough trouble keeping my tootsies in tact, but I did note a number of westerners getting on their bikes (push and motor) and giving it a go.  Why not?  If you do want to, be sure to get into the mind set – all the rules that you hold dear in your own country (unless you live in Italy, for example) will mean little, if nothing, here.

When you venture out of the city, it will certainly be much less hectic and there will be much less traffic to negotiate. You may also be able to breathe!  Hurrah! However, just be aware that drivers don’t only cross to the wrong side of the road in busy cities – this happens a lot on windy roads in mountain areas.  Use your horn on every corner. On our 7 hour bus ride back from Dunche, we witnessed two collisions that looked like they were down to this.

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A collision in the mountains

3) The Toilets

If you are staying in Thamel (tourist hub in Kathmandu), or Pokhara (home of the Annapurna trek) you will likely be well catered for as a westerner, and will have Western toilets to match. The rest could be a bit hit and miss. On our trek to Gosaikunda Lake, we only had one Western toilet on the way, but we were mega chuffed with this find to be honest.

As for the drop toilets, we had some clean ones, and a few you wouldn’t send your worst enemy into. I even got sent into one extremely questionable one that had no light…and a step in it. As I closed the door behind me, I prayed for my life that I didn’t slip or trip!

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A typical squat toilet. Thankfully the actual toilet was cleaner than the walls

I would advise taking the following –

a) toilet paper – the Nepalese have a different system involving water and their left hand.

b) flip flops/shoes that slide on and off – we didn’t take any on our trek, and it got pretty annoying lacing up shoes everytime we wanted a wee. Believe me, you’ll want something between that floor and your feet!

c) antibacterial gel – if you are worried about germs, carry some with you.  Not all of the toilets have soap and some of the door handles etc might be contaminated.

Another tip is to get used to squatting before you travel – maybe do some achilles stretches so that when it comes to the “real deal,” you don’t feel like you might fall in the toilet!

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4) The Hard Sell

“Namaste. Where are you from?”

To our unfamiliar tourist ears, this seems like a friendly and innocent enough question. When followed by one hundred “come into my shop”s, it can wear a bit thin. Now, I’m the first one to admit that I am a difficult person, ahem, shopper. If someone wants to stand over me while I’m looking at their wares, I’m inclined just to walk out of the shop. I’ve  been inclined to walk out of a few shops in Nepal.

The running commentary on things you might be looking at is another thing you have to get used to. Nick and I had fun trying to discuss whether a blue or a yellow Tibetan wall hanging would go better with the things we already have to decorate our house, whilst trying to ignore the persistent chirping of, “Blue nice colour,” and, “Yellow also nice colour.” Such nice colours, the shop keeper got to keep them both.

People may also tell you that things are “No problem,” when, actually, you have assessed that they are – like a stain on a piece of clothing or something not fitting. There’s nothing that winds me up quite as much as being told what I should think.

Having said that, and bearing in mind that I am just a grumpy old man in a 34 year old woman’s body, I appreciate that this is the way of selling here, and possibly desperate times call for even more desperate selling techniques. It didn’t work on me; I definitely would have loved to put more money into the shops if I could have done it with a bit more peace, but lots of (more patient) people seem to go for it. It’s worth noting that not all of the shop owners were like this. I did actually go into a couple of shops, coming away with a book, some postcards and some clothes that had no stains, that fit me, and that I had assessed to be “No problem.”

If you like to barter, there is certainly a bit of room for that, but if you’re like me and prefer to know what’s what before you buy, there are the occasional shops that have “fixed prices.” Here you can browse with no more than a “Namaste,” a smile and a pair of eyes. Bliss.

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A rare moment of browsing with no observation

5) Being hassled on the street

Leading on from no. 4, shop keepers aren’t the only ones that will try and speak to you on the streets. Taxi drivers, drug dealers & fruit sellers are the ones you can see coming, and you can decide for yourself whether you want something or not. They aren’t pushy.

However, you’d be forgiven for thinking that lots of random people are just really curious about your plans for your trip. Starting with the same opener of “Namaste.  Where are you from?” The conversation almost always leads to asking if you are going trekking. Sadly, every second person here seems to be a trekking guide, and probably because of the time we have come, only 5 months after the earthquakes, there are very few trekkers. I felt bad about that, but we had limited time, and if we had gone trekking with everyone that tried to sell us their services on the street, we would never have been able to leave the country!

6) The food

If you don’t like spicy, you may be excited to see Western options on the menu. Beware, however – things are not always as they seem. Hash browns may be fried potatoes, sausage may be chicken, jam may be neon in colour and taste like cherry cola bottles and pizza may be like rubber. It even took us a while to figure out that curry in the hills is not like the home style curry that our Nepalese friends in England make; it’s more like a watery soup. The best thing to do is to either order the type of food you think they will be good at in a particular restaurant, or if you want something Western, get recommendations where they do it well. We did both and had a few successes in the end:

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A lovely Samosa Chaat we found on the streets of Thamel

Kathmandu:

Buddha Bar – the buffalo momo here (a bit like dim sum) are amazing. You can have steamed, fried on one side (my fav), deep fried or in a spicy soup (Nick’s fav). This is also a pretty modern bar, with funky decor and chilled out music

Momo Star – a basic cafe. We had some lovely chicken momo here at a quite cheap price.

Al Madina – if you like meat curry, this is the place! It’s a basic muslim cafe, so you won’t get much atmosphere or any beer, but you will get amazing food! Someone recommended us the fried chicken. I expected a KFC type deal, but got an amazing dish – dry and spicy with lots of ginger and tons of zing! The lamb kebabs were also scrummy. If you are vegetarian, or you don’t like spice, this is not the place for you. Otherwise, you’ll love it.

Maya bar and Restaurant – amazing Mexican food, albeit at Western prices.

Pokhara:

Maya Pub (not bar & restaurant) A popular name! – Indian style curry. Tourist prices,  but well worth it. We paid them 2 visits (would have been more if we had had more time!) and we ordered Saag Paneer (blended spinach curry with Indian cottage cheese), Kadai Chicken (a fairly spicy curry) and Chicken Butter Masala. All “meeto cha” (delicious) as they here in Nepal.

Double View – small and simple place. We went here more because we wanted to enjoy the terrace view than because we were tempted by the cuisine. We were pleasantly surprised by their English breakfast, though – it was actually pretty good! The bacon was real bacon (!) and was nice and crispy, the mushrooms were lovely, the hashbrown did actually resemble something of a hashbrown, and they were the first place to serve English breakfast with beans! It won’t be the most amazing cooked breakfast you’ve ever had, but considering we are in Nepal, it was a damn good imitation!

Godfathers – pizza place. Now, think of everything I have said about not being able to get Western food that tastes good here, and then forget it!! This was one of the nicest pizzas I’ve had outside of Italy…and it even beats a couple of those!  Cooked using a wood burning oven, this pizza was thin and crispy and full of flavour!  Highly recommend!

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No pictures of their food, but this is the outside of Al Madina, where we had many tasty meals

7)The dogs

“It’s coming at us again – quick! Grab a rock!”

Never a sentence I thought I’d hear myself say. I love most animals…as long as they aren’t trying to tear my arm off.

However, dog lover, hater or indifferent, you are going to have to get used to the fact that dogs here are different. Rarely kept as pets, the vast majority of dogs here are strays. Like the Mafia, they have their own set of rules, and as amicable as they may appear on the surface, they are to be approached with caution. Generally they sleep through the day, when the humans rule the roost, but come dusk, they start trotting about in packs, marking their territory, and defending it. We were unfortunate enough to witness a couple of terrifying dog fights between packs. In one case, we were far enough away to be able to avoid them, although it scared the royal crap out of me; the other fight happened right in front of our path. Luckily for us, but not for the dogs, there were some kids throwing stones at them to try and break it up. I don’t think they actually hit the dogs, but they certainly weren’t afraid to. It was right on their doorstep and something they have to deal with daily. A friend of ours was also bitten by a wild dog in Nepal and ended up in hospital with a few extra rabies shots. She’s fine FYI.

That’s not to say that all the dogs we met were aggressive.

“Ahh, look – he’s following us!”

One particular dog in the mountains was a complete softy, following us for ages. These dogs aren’t stupid. You might be flattered, thinking that the dog has taken a shine to you. Actually, this happens a lot with foreigners. The people most likely to give scraps of food are exactly that group, and the dogs know it. I’ve heard of dogs following foreigners for hours, even days. If you give them any attention, they are unlikely to leave you alone, so this is best avoided. This particular dog seemed very friendly and as he was outside of an area with other dogs, was likely of a more placid nature than other dogs.

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A street dog in pretty good nick. Most had patches of skin missing and various scars from fighting

8) Guilt

A small and dirty child with a sad face and outstretched arms walks up to you as you sit down for a lavish meal and a beer. What do you do? At first it seems obvious, right?  You give them something, RIGHT?! Or is that actually the right thing to do..?

Their parents have likely sent them out begging because people are a sucker for children, and while that child is successful at bringing something home for the family, those parents will continue to send them out being instead of sending them to school. It’s a dilemma I was faced with many times in Nepal, and one that really bothered me. In Western culture, basic schooling is a necessity if you want opportunites.

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This young boy works as a bottle collecter. Because of his caste, schooling or no schooling, he may not be allowed to escape this trade

However, I’ve read enough books about slums in India to know that school doesn’t equal opportunity for everyone.  Maybe begging is survival, and who can argue with that? It’s what we are all programmed to do, afterall. Having to confront those issues & make decisions with no background information was hard. The times when I didn’t give anything, I felt harsh and undeservedly spoiled.

The hardest thing, though, was the realisation that I am part of the “one percent” – the richest people in the world.  That was something that felt alien to me, always having been surrounded by other westerners with varying, but similar incomes. I wondered how those people with nothing viewed me and the other tourists, and how it felt for them being confronted with other people’s wealth and privilege. It was uncomfortable, but I guess that’s a first world problem I had to get over as a westerner in Nepal.

NEPAL – Leaving Nepal

And as the sun sets slowly in the west, I bid you a fond farewell…

(Written by Steph)

The next morning came and Jenny, Nick and I were all surprised to find Anees and his friend waiting for us at the gate of the base. They had come to carry our bags for us! Knowing that our bags were really heavy (did I mention the iron?) we were stuck between the English mentality of being too polite to accept, and knowing that these boys had come all this way to help us. We quickly conferred before gratefully handing over some hand luggage.

As we got to the bus, that awkward but inevitable question came…

“When you come Nepal?” Anees asked expectantly.

Honesty is the best policy, I assured myself.

“I don’t know, Anees.” I replied, hoping that would be the end of it.

“You come back Nepal?” he pressed.

Don’t say “maybe”, don’t say “maybe,” I repeated in my head like a mantra. As much as I wanted to say it, as much as I thought it MIGHT be true, I knew better than to hint at something I couldn’t guarantee. I had had it before with the kids I had volunteered with in India. If you say that to a kid that has been let down in their life, you’d better mean it.

“I really don’t know, Anees.” At least he had a wonderful family, so my answer was of less consequence to him. He looked a bit disappointed, but smiled again and nodded in receipt of the information. Anees and his friend waved us goodbye, and Nick and I climbed onto the roof of the bus to secure our bags.

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Anees on the last day on site

“I hope that guy isn’t our driver!” Jenny joked, as we plonked ourselves in our seats. At that moment, *that* guy staggered over to the bus, stoned out of his face, and got into the driver’s seat.  It was 9am. It was 9am and we were waiting for the next bus. The roads here were scary enough without a driver that didn’t have control of his faculties.

Just enough time for some breakfast then, we thought. We can relax a bit before checking out driver number two. We sat down in the cafe next to the bus and were greeted with something everyone wants to see when they eat breakfast – a severed goat’s head on the adjacent table. Mmmm. I moved my chair so as not to make eye contact and was confronted with its long-lost body. Oh well. Head down and all that…

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A different goat's head as seen in Thamel

It was to be the first of many goat heads on that bus journey home, so much so that we lost count after a while. It made a pretty good game, not that that was much consolation to the goats. We had forgotten that the festival of Dashain focuses on sacrifice. All families, no matter how poor, would sacrifice a goat over these few days. No wonder we had seen so many reluctant goats being dragged around the town that morning.

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Streets covered in blood; people gather to pray after a goat has been sacrifed

We arrived back in Thamel, City of Smog, to the same guesthouse we had stayed in previously, where the guestowner was in the middle of feeding his car…with fruit. This was another tradition of Dashain Festival, and apparently a way to bless the car and make sure it would not break down. I was dubious whether putting a banana in the bonnet was exactly the best way to ensure this. I wasn’t entirely convinced about circling the petrol tank with a naked flame either.

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Our guesthouse owner blessing his car
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Trucks and buses weren't left hungry either

So, we had seen some evidence of the festival, but we knew that this festival was largely about family. There would be no dancing on the street or fantastical parades. We decided that now was as good a time as any to bid farewell to this fasinating country, and head off to Myanmar, via Thailand. So, after a glorious and indulgent pizza gorge out with our All Hands gang, we booked our flights and set off for destinations new…

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From left to right: Sandra, Jenny and me enjoying a drink in Thamel
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With no work for 3 days, many volunteers took the 5 hour bus journey to Thamel to spend Dashain there. Here we are looking much cleaner than before!

NEPAL – Volunteering in Melamchi part 5 – Our last day

Dance,  dance,  wherever you may be…

(Written by Steph)

Our last day in Melamchi came earlier than we had hoped due to everything stopping for three days for Dashain Festival. It seemed we were not destined to get our full whack of volunteering time in Nepal. It couldn’t have been better timed though – today, after 5 and a half days of rubbling this site, we were due to finish. It would be an achievement and a pleasure.

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Sweaty and dirty, but ecstatic to have completed the site
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Nick and I stood on the pile of rocks we had salvaged and moved

The previous day Anees had been really excited to find the cord to an iron poking out of the rubble, only to discover the iron was completely wrecked. Unlike other sites, we really hadn’t found anything of value at all. They would have a flat surface, but little else. So, we decided to buy them an iron and a few bits and bobs for the kids. We couldn’t decide if it was a good thing to be giving gifts when we were wearing tshirts from an identifiable organisation – would we then be setting an unfair precedent? Possibly, we thought, but the desire to help them out, even with some small gesture, won out. Plus, it would be like a thank you for the hard work the kids and her husband had put in, and for all the tea, biscuits and papaya she had showered on us in our week there.

By 3pm, an hour earlier than finishing time, the site was complete. After the exchange of the iron, friendship bracelets and hugs, the family surprised us with their own gifts – the scarves and flowers given at Dashain Festival were passed along to all of us, and red tikkas marked on each of our foreheads as a blessing. They had nothing, and yet, they were overwhelmingly generous from start to finish.

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João getting the flower treatment

Cue photos of us with the family followed by 100 more variations with all taggers-on. The group had been nagging us to do our first wedding dance all week, and although I was reluctant, protests of “I can’t dance on a rubble site” and “People will think we’re showing off,” faded from my mind, caught up in the buzz of one whole heap of good feeling. The house was done, Anisa was finally chatting and smiling, and the sister’s house had been approved for clearance next, an idea put forward by João. Now was not the time to be insecure. And so, we queued the music and began to dance…

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After our blessing, and with all the kids, plus some neighbours

NEPAL – Volunteering in Melamchi part 4 – The Mud Site

You got mud on your face…and everywhere else…

(Written by Steph)

Y’know Glastonbury, that year when it pissed it down so hard that people’s tents got swept away in a river of mud? Well, I was there that year, and still it had nothing on this site. I’ve never seen so much mud in all my life. Now, if there had only been mud, not a problemo. Get the shovel out, fill the wheelbarrow, transport the mud to new destination, and voila, site cleared. This mud, however, had been used between massive stones as walls of the house that once stood there. Now these walls stood only a couple of metres high, and the stacks of mud were full of enormous, heavy stones.

A) We would have to pic-axe the remaining wall,  salvaging as many stones as possible and relocating them, for the family to reuse.

B)We would then have to dig down to the foundations, removing stones and mud and then relevel the surface.

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The Mud Site - before. We had to dig down about half a metre below ground level, retrieve any rocks, and then fill in the hole
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The Mud Site - after we had levelled the ground and completed the site

We had to try and find any belongings of the family that we could – they had lost literally everything in the earthquake, including a family member. The house owner, Surita, lost her sister, who had lived next door. Surita had since taken on her two nieces and nephew – their father had found his wife’s death so traumatic that he had left and had scarcely returned home.
As is often the case in Nepal, finding out who is actually related to another by blood is complicated, and usually involves several conversations, several miscommunications, and a whole lot of sign language. When you use the terms “sister” and “brother” to refer to your friends, things are bound to get complicated.  Still, Surita’s sons, Anees and Uwer, were around, and chatty, and even joining in where they could, so much so that we got Anees his own pair of gloves and safety glasses in the end…

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Anis with a newborn baby goat. On his back you can see his safety glasses he was so proud of.
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The lovely Surita, bringer of tea and smiles

But there was a girl of 11 there, subdued and removed from the hub as we set about our work. I was curious as to who she was and what she was about. Her name was Anisa, and it turned out, she was one of the daughters of Surita’s sister that had died. Jeez, I thought. No wonder she was so quiet. The earthquake had happened 5 months ago, and her life would never be the same again. Here we were, coming to remind her of the event that took her mother’s life. We could clear the houses, and maybe All Hands would even rebuild there when they started the 50 Homes project in Melamchi the following month, but here was something we couldn’t fix, and it was a big reality check.

I made it my business to try and speak to her everyday. To try and pay her some attention, in the small hope of diverting the negative with some positive. But what did I know? I’m not a psychologist, nor was I more than a stranger to her. If I’m caring, I’m 10 times more naive. Still, I reassured myself with the knowledge that things could have been a lot worse for Anisa – so many children in similar situations are said to have been victims of child trafficking, taken by opportunists that promise them a good life, and then sell them into slavery or the sex trade. It’s a massive problem here. At least Anisa had someone to take her under their wing, and her auntie Surita was one of the nicest, sweetest ladies I’ve ever met. She was constantly around, with her smiles, her tea, and her gratitude, and I think we all fell in love with her and her family just a little bit.

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From left to right - me, Anisa, her best friend Deepa, and cousin Anees, our little helper

NEPAL – Volunteering in Melamchi part 3 – The Geriatrics

Young at heart…

(Written by Steph)

Like a good Dhal Baat, you need the right combination to make a team work…

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Jenny was one of the first people we met in Melamchi, and I knew she would be easy to get on with – a loveable Essex girl, she had the best games and was just really easy to be around. Not only this, the kids flocked to her – possibly because of her blonde hair, and definitely how great she was with them. A primary school teacher, she also taught me some of my times tables, which I still didn’t know, despite getting a B at GCSE! But my favourite thing about Jenny had to be that she brought hair straighteners AND an iron with her backpacking. I made sure Nick knew this too – suddenly I wasn’t the excessive packer that I had previously been labelled. 😉

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Jenny with her biggest fan

João, or John, as he kindly let us call him, was our team leader. A youthful Brazilian with a playlist that ranged from Pearl Jam to Celine Dion, and the vocals of a dying cat, he took great pleasure in highlighting our inadequacies. He thoughtfully named me “lettuce hands” – a slightly more insulting version of butter fingers. No matter – as a true Brit, and lover of all things banter, I felt it only right to give as good as I got!

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João pretending to be hardcore

Vanessa was cool and understated and declared she was socially inept. I always thought I didn’t like Americans, but I met one or two that I thought were amazing in Barcelona, and here I was liking more. Her job in the U.S. was climbing over fences, hunting down mosquito nests and destroying them at the source. That sounded pretty bad-ass to me. When we said goodbye, she was also just so sweet and complimentary about us. So much so, I thought she maybe had us confused with another couple.

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Vanessa being bad-ass with a shovel

If Danielle were an American Indian, she would’ve been named, “Little Teapot.” She did everything with one, or two, hands on her hips. Including hoovering. She was, without trying, one of the funniest people I think I’ve ever met. Sassy New Yorker, ex-army, down-to-earth and intelligent; she was a hoot to be around. Between her and Vanessa, they could’ve opened a drug store..with several storeys.

Thomas came late to the team, replacing Andy, our Hollywood Stud and super nice guy, who went to be a team leader on another team. Thomas was a witty German, and was quickly welcomed into the group after his playlist initiation, which featured 90s grunge and Ace of Base. He was perfect for the team.

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Dream team - left to right: Vanessa, João, Jenny, me & Andy

NEPAL – Volunteering in Melamchi part 2

Everyday I’m rubbling…

(Written by Steph)

Day 1:

The first day on site was a struggle. There were some high expectations, which I found tough, but at least I had Nick. He shined as the nurturing husband, offering me help when he could see me struggling. Mentally, as well as physically, I was so glad to have him there. Clearing a school was definitely less personal than a house. However, the hardest thing that day was the lack of music. In Kathmandu, every team had a portable speaker, and even shit music, I begrudgingly admitted, was better than nothing at all. Music is one of my most motivating factors, and I would make it my mission to get on a team that had some the next day.

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The School site on the second day of rubbling there

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Day 2:

Only day two and we lucked out. People seemed less daunting when we got to know them on a one-to-one basis, and importantly, on the team we chose today, we had music! Furthermore we had The Strokes, The Beatles and The Chili Peppers, and not only that, they also knew who Kurt Cobain was. Ha! We would come to be known as “The Geriatrics” – a group of thirty-somethings fondly dubbed by our youthful 25 year old leader.

This site was fairly straightforward, and was nice because it was a house. However, there was something a little bit strange about the men coming along and watching us work. We had previously worked on homes of people that were either not physically able to take on the task themselves, or that needed to farm etc, and therefore had no time to do so. Here, it seemed that the guys were physically able, and evidently had the time to sit around watching us sweat our balls off. Without knowing the full story, we decided we would have to reserve judgement, and focused instead on the task at hand. We also had a great time enjoying the company of several household’s worth of children, who came to watch us work, and even hurled a few rocks
themselves!

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Our mini helpers 🙂
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Although we had translators for initial instructions, these sometimes changed and a game of charades ensued!
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Second site...nearly finished!

In the evening meeting, Rico had asked for someone with a good camera to visit all the different sites and take some photos. Too shy to admit his own talents, I volunteered Nick, before realising that I would have to cope without him on site.

Day 3:

Today we finished our first site in the morning, and as the rest of The Geriatrics moved onto a new site, Nick set off to take photos. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it. I was happy for Nick, I knew that he would come up with the goods, and it was important for him to find recognition in his passion. Plus, I was quite happy in The Geriatrics, singing along to 90s ballads and “rock lining” – the art of throwing rocks down a line to move them from place to place. I supplemented this with a game of, “How many songs have lyrics with the word ‘rock’ in?” Quite a few FYI.

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Rock-lining one of the big ones. These things were heav-y!
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The Demolition team surveying a building to come down
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Demo team at work

Day 4:

The Geriatrics, though the members changed slightly, would be the team we would remain on for the rest of our time in Melamchi. Apart from today. In yesterday’s meeting, we neglected to launch ourselves at the sign-up board, and were pipped to the post by some other volunteers. A mistake that we could not afford to repeat. Nick was abandoning me again. Apparently the demolition team were taking down a roof and it might make a great photo. So, this morning I had no Geriatrics and no Nick. The result? A morning of me trying, and failing, to instigate games a-la Never Mind the Buzzcocks. No one was having any of it. Sandra, a beautiful Ozzie with a great sense of humour, did try and humour me, but when every category of alphabet game ended at about G, I knew I had to get back on the other team and stay there…

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Boris, school site team leader, giving the wall a good bash
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Easy target. I must've tried to instigate one too many Buzzcock-esque games...
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Not quite finished the school, but happy to be getting there

NEPAL – Volunteering in Melamchi part 1

Patience is a virtue…

(Written by Steph)

The night before we went to Pokhara, we applied online to be full-time All Hands volunteers. We had heard the waiting list was a few weeks, but we thought we should chance it. Under the “My Skills” section, I elaborated on my dance history, English teaching, love of Spanish – all those things vital to clearing a rubble site.

A couple of days before we were due to come back, we received an email asking if we would like to volunteer for the couple of weeks we had requested in a place called “Melamchi.” They had obviously been impressed by the essay I wrote on my application form after all. Either that or they were desperate. As it turned out, they were. A big group of volunteers had had to drop out at the last minute and they needed the manpower. We had no idea where Melamchi was, but it seemed we were going there…

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The Bridge across the Melamci river

Patience is a virtue…although not one that I possess. After sitting on a local bus for two hours, in the blazing hot sun, I was less than impressed, and about to have a “princess” moment. Did I mention that we hadn’t actually moved at that point? Another 5 hours of broken chairs and zero suspension on windy mountain roads, we had arrived at our destination, and I was tired and hungry. It was not the best of moods in which to become aquainted with my new place of residence.

Melamchi First impressions:

As we walked up the path, we were greeted by two whitees waving and shouting at us from the roof. It was a hugely friendly welcome, but as we got our tour around the guesthouse, it dawned on us that the privacy and the relative luxury we had been accustomed to was over.

Inside the base:

We had arrived just in time for the daily meeting, something we had been lucky enough to miss out on doing the day volunteering. Standing up in front of a group of strangers and telling them “about myself,” is my idea of hell. I hate putting on a front, so Miss Socially Inept here displayed her obvious discomfort all over her face, uttered something about as funny as a “Scary Movie” sequel, and sat down again as quickly as possible. Nick, on the other hand, was typically witty, and going to have no problems being liked. I’d have to keep him around.

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Back to nature - the base was right next to the river

Our first night was a weird one – instead of socialising, I ploughed myself into washing up after 40 people and got straight into bed. We were lucky enough to be given a double bed, with a mattress, although I use that term lightly. Less lucky was the only other person in the room who had to play gooseberry to a newly-married couple. We would have to make an effort not to be too lovey. Not such an issue when the shower was inside the drop toilet room, which didn’t have the most pleasant of smells; I was due to spend the rest of my time there in variable states of filth…

We quickly realised that there was no 50 homes project here; we would be rubbling everyday. Not only that, but the petrol crisis prevailed, and we would have to walk to site, pushing wheelbarrows full of water and our tools uphill, before even starting the day’s work. Nor would there be any exuberant, tourist-aimed restaurant meal to reward us for our efforts at the end of the day. The guesthouse did, at least, sell Snickers and beer; we (I) could get through this.

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The steep walk downhill, back to base from site. This was preferable to the steep walk in the other direction.
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Snickers! No doubt there was a beer somewhere off camera, too!

NEPAL – Day Volunteering near Kathmandu – the end of the day volunteering…and the beginning of a crisis

Hi-ho, Hi-ho, it’s off to work we go…or not…

(Written by Steph)

We turned up as usual the next day only to discover some disappointing news – the political situation was having an effect on the goods coming into the country from India, resulting in a fuel shortage. To try and save resources, the government had deemed that only vehicles ending in even numbers could be on the road one day, and odd numbers the next. All Hands informed us that they only had enough vehicles to get their full-time volunteers to the various work sites, and day volunteers would not be able to work today. We would have our site-seeing day, and would have to wait on news about whether we could start again tomorrow.

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Touristy day out in Bhaktapur near Kathmandu. A relatively non-damaged version of Durbar Square
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The Mandala painting school. These paintings were traditionally painted by monks as a form of meditation, and then destroyed afterwards so as to discourage attachment

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The next day came and went with no news, and after hearing that the following day would be the same, we decided that another day in the tourist hub of Thamel, “City of Smog,” was more than we could bear. We were gutted. We had added Nepal onto our trip specifically to volunteer, and after a slow start, we were hindered once more. We decided the sensible move was to go to Pokhara, a place everyone raved about, now, and to come back in a week, when the crisis would surely be over. We would have to extend our visas, but it was important to me to do what we had come here to do, and Nick, having signed his life away a few weeks before, was contractually obliged to do the same.

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Bliss in the tourist haven of Pokhara

A bit of background about the constitution and the strikes:

I’m no politics expert, but this is a brief overview of what I have come to understand about the political situation since being here.

Following a decade long civil war, a peace treaty was signed in Nepal in 2006; it had taken since that treaty, 9 years ago, to get to the signing of this new constitution. The 20th September, 2015 was a date to remember.

The Civil War:
In 1996, the civil war started in Nepal, and in 2002, it got ugly. The Maoists (part of The Communist Party of Nepal), had been denied participation in a national election. They wanted to rebel against the monarchy, corruption and the caste system of hierarchy. They had cause, for sure, but they were also responsible for a huge amount of bloodshed over those years. They demanded food from families that could barely provide for themselves, and took children from their homes, and against their wishes, in order to enlist them in their rebel army. As a result, child traffickers were also able to prey on the fear that the Maoists had created, and told families that they could take their children to safety, for a price, subsequently selling them on as child labour, sex workers, or dumping them. The Maoists had control over almost all of rural Nepal.

A New Constitution:
In 2006, the peace treaty was finally signed, and the Maoists entered mainstream politics, under the understanding that they would put down their weapons. King Gyanendra, a monarch with severely questionable tactics of his own, was stripped of his political power. However, politicians have since struggled to agree on a new constitution that keeps everybody happy. So, this day was eagerly awaited by all and sundry. Not everybody was happy, though. An offshoot of the Maoist group were the cause of the threats to anyone on the roads the day after the signing, and the ones that trapped us in Syabru Besi. But they weren’t the only ones…

Trouble in Paradise:
Almost immediately after this, Nepal, a landlocked country that relies heavily on India for its imports (crossings with China were disrupted by the earthquakes) started having its petrol supplies coming across the border limited.

Now, there were two stories in the mainstream media about what was really going on. On the one hand, India claimed that their drivers were afraid of the trouble caused post-constitution; the Madhesi ethnic group were also unhappy with the constitution, which gave them little autonomy, and were staging sit-in protests at some of the western borders.

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However, while petrol and gas were not getting through, trucks with other supplies were. Witnesses also claimed that there were no protests at several of the border crossings. Nepali officials blamed India for the shortage, accusing them of an unofficial blockade; India had always had a certain amount of power over Nepal, but Nepal had chosen to ignore their recommendations on a couple of issues regarding the new constitution. They were never going to be happy about that.

Life during the strikes:
As a tourist, a strike can be annoying. “Shit, how am I going to get from A to B, to do ‘blah, blah, blah’ of no real consequence?” Actually, I say this with the exception of the volunteer work hindered, because that is important.  For the people living here, however, the knock-on effects of the strike are momentous. The country is suffering with a lack of tourism post-earthquakes (and by the way, it’s mostly specific rural areas that were affected. Bar Durbar Square and The Langtang Valley, you can still experience a magical time in Nepal – as a tourist, not much has changed) and businesses are struggling. Add a lack of fuel and gas to the mix, and not only are the incomes of taxi drivers and restaurants affected, but anyone trying to transport their goods anywhere. We saw hundreds (and I mean that literally) of vehicles queued up, seemingly abandoned due to the length of time they had been sat there, waiting for their turn to get some of the limited supply of petrol. People we spoke to had run out of gas and couldn’t cook for their families. In a country where most food needs to be cooked, this is a major issue.

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Chaos at petrol stations

At the time of leaving the country on the 22nd of October, 2 of the 16 border crossings had opened. To date, the fuel crisis still continues…

NEPAL – Day Volunteering near Kathmandu – day 4

Sheeet, it’s all about the wire…

(Written by Steph)

Well, we wanted to spend more time in the toilet, and we certainly got what we wished for. That night I started feeling strange – I put it down to the hot sun and physical exertion of the day and went to bed early, happy that the next day was Saturday and the weekly day off. We planned to use this day to do some exploring, but the day came and went, and all Nick and I had seen was the bathroom. Maybe it was the chicken burger we had eaten the night before, or maybe we had wrongly presumed that the salad, in the very western restaurant that we had been recommended, had been washed in purified water. Either way, come Sunday we were in no for state to work, and so, we resigned ourselves to another day in bed, frustrated that we had signed up for volunteering on Tuesday and had only managed 2 and a half days of actual labour so far.

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The basic house framework

Monday came, and we got up early so we could plonk ourselves in the spot where the sign-up board was due to be placed, ready to pounce on it like vultures to a dying man. If it sounds crass, that’s because it was. Rubble work outnumbered 50 homes 5:1 and there were usually only 2 spots for day volunteers. Call us lame, but we REALLY wanted to be on 50 Homes that day. And we were. Phew!

The home that our team were working on had had the foundations dug, and the main poles secured in the ground. The next stage was to make the home earthquake-proof by creating a waist-high wall of criss-cross wiring around the frame, which would go inside any brickwork or stone walls subsequently added. In the event of another earthquake, the brick or stone would then fall outside the frame, making the inside a safe zone. It was therefore imperative that the wiring be strong. Possibly a matter of life and death for somebody. No pressure then!

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Pulling the wire tight before wrapping
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Criss-cross wiring almost complete

We had been warned that this was no easy task. Not physically demanding, but requiring a knack that apparently took a few days, or not at all, to master. So, imagine my delight when the team leader checked my wire and said it was pretty good, surprise written all over her face. Maybe it was a fluke, she and I were both thinking, but several wires later, they had got even better, dare I say it. It felt good to be useful. Even though I had worked hard on Rubble, I was definitely not a natural, and had to work doubley hard just so as not to be seen as a weak link. Nick was a bit of a dab hand with a wheelbarrow, but it turned out he was also good at the wiring. We would try and get on wiring tomorrow, we resolved, even though none of the team seemed to know who Kurt Cobain was. The perils of being a thirty-something in a group of twenty year olds.

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A completed All Hands house, where the beneficiary has built the brick walls. In the concrete it reads, "Built with Love - All Hands Volunteers"