Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Volunteer’s Take on Our Projects

Goto Mah on one of the streets of Bhaktapur. Note the boards holding the buildings up.

A Volunteer’s Take on our Projects

It all started as a call through Couch Surfing. I was in Pokhara taking a break from volunteering and using some time for myself to sort out my own life while making friends. I was enjoying a sense of community that's hard to achieve when you live on the move.

So that said, I was starting to feel like I should move my ass again and help Nepal with the relief effort after the earthquake.

That same day I got a call from a friend who told me we were going to do a cleaning/demo action in Kathmandu, so I took an overnight bus that day and I was ready at the Fireflies to finish the banners in Kathmandu.

Got the guy's faces painted and off we went to the streets of Thamel to let'em hear us. Then we marched to the temple nearby carrying brooms and shovels. Once we arrived we cleaned what were layers of plastic that had been dropped there for years. Nepal has little infrastructure so plastic is a major problem in Nepal.

Then I was going to move on to Bhaktapur to help Shelters 4 Nepal, the Couch Surfing call, but started feeling a bit sick due to travelling conditions and tiredness. I checked into the Star View guest house and I woke up next morning ready to join the group building shelters. Next morning I was feeling better, but I woke up to a banda (strike) so the mission was postponed 2 days. It was nice to have a private room for a night or two with a private bath and a bit of rest, at least until the next volunteer came.  

Although these protests can disrupt things, I am happy to say democracy is alive and well in Nepal.
When I finally arrived to the workshop where the rest of the people were I found that we were going to work with metal structures, something completely new to me. That day we cut many metal bars into bits that would be the building blocks for structures that we'll assemble and cover with corrugated tin. So there we were, making bundles for the different parts of the shelters. Sparks everywhere.

We ended up with enough for almost 5 shelters. But we were lacking materials so called it a day. Went to have some coffee and meet the local link for Jagadati, the neighborhood in Bhaktapur where the shelters were being built.
Many buildings in Bhaktapur are held up with wood like this.

The guys left for the hospital to check on a friend, a tangka artist, and I came to Changu to meet Ama. On the way from the bus stop this young girl that came in the same bus was waiting for me on the path and told me that we were going to the same place. And there we arrived, to the Star View Guest House.
Ama was sitting in her living room crouched in front of a laptop and welcomed me with a broad smile. I told her my story and that I was broke due to all my previous volunteering help and the lack of donations and she offered me to stay free of charge in exchange for some help with her own projects.
Ama has this amazing concept on how to rebuild what once was an amazing village with the oldest Hindu temple in the Kathmandu valley. She also writes a blog and wrote a book about Nepal with tips on how to find your way around.

She showed me around the house and explained how to work my way around it. I got a small room with a bunk bed and there I was, set to volunteer around Changu Narayan.

The house is full of kids, about 5 of them that sleep in the room in front of me, plus two more mature guys that sleep on the ground floor and have their own garden space. This is due to the earthquakes because many people have lost their homes here. 

By night we had a party as it was Ama’s 62nd birthday. We sang and ate cake and drank local spirits. The neighbors were there, and also all the kids and teenagers, even the street dogs came to celebrate.
And right now I'm sitting next to her and some other lovely local girl helping towards Amanda's goals of making Changu a beautiful, authentic, ancient village, even better than before.

We're sorting out the problems with her book, creating a website for the new NGO that's going to take off soon, discussing the matters about project planning. I'm even going to show the guys downstairs interested in computing how to reinstall their operating system and have a dual boot so they could get a taste and feel on Linux/GNU.

Keep tuned for more info to come on improving Changu and its surroundings or you have the time and energy you can just come by and help out.

Life is everywhere

Friday, August 7, 2015

Good-bye to Our New Friends

Half of our volunteers left, but I still have three and I've changed my views on volunteering on a couple different levels. So, yes, volunteers can come and do something to help without causing too much damage. They actually made a big difference for many people, not just the ones who got a shelter. They actually created a system of making and delivering these shelters to people in need and keep the price below $400 each.

You can see several other articles from Kerensa at here blog here: Kerensa's blog posts

Thank you for allowing me to be a small part of your project by hosting you all. It was a pleasure.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Nepal-Still a Great Place to Live

I just read a blog post on Internations.org about cheap places to live. Well, I wrote a comment that should have been a blog post so I'm editing it here as a post. For my regular readers, you'll probably find it a bit redundant.

I've been blogging about Nepal as an expat home for over 4 years. Just as it seemed like people were starting to listen and consider Kathmandu Valley for a long term destination the earthquakes came. But because there isn't so much development it looks a lot like it did before, kinda rough.

Here's the blog post. I was impressed with Kashmir in India, but many of these places seemed culturally restrictive for me, so much to think about. It's such a great big beautiful world.The 10 Least Expensive Expat Cities: Mercer Cost of Living Survey 2015

I've found my paradise for my retirement here in the Kathmandu Valley outside of the loud, busy, polluted capitol city.

The problem with these articles that just say 'here's a list of cheap cities' isn't always all that helpful. I'd rather they put a few more graphs, crime rate, employment possibilities, schools, visa requirements and weather because living is more than just being in a place that's cheap.

Yes, some areas got horribly damaged from our recent earthquakes, but the buildings held up better than I expected with only 2 hotels falling. Very few newer homes fell and mine only has minimal damage.

Nepal should continue to be on these lists because it is really cheap to live here. But beyond that I'd say it's a great place to live for the following additional reasons: The people are friendly and not violent, the weather is mild, the police are kind to tourists, organic food is cheap, vegetables are freshly picked, you can wear whatever you want, interesting festivals and things to see, lots of tourists come through, many people speak English and there's plenty to do here to keep you busy.

Yes, there is still no place I'd rather be than in this lovely country.I woke up to this sunrise yesterday. Today Ganesh Himal peeked out for a short moment. It's a great way to start the day.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Our Lovely Volunteer Guests

Tourism is at an all time low here in Nepal, so it's a good time to go with the flow and do some planning for the future. I've decided to continue to use the guest house to host volunteers at no charge. Right now I have 5 who are helping in various ways to provide something for the people that they could not provide for themselves. Such dedication and open hearts are so wonderful there don't seem to be words to express my gratitude, shared by all of our neighbors here and in Saku.

Not only have these New Zealanders come with skill and kind hearts, but they have even raised money and will be helping some of the most needy of families in Changunarayan and Saku.

Here is Kerensa's blog post about their arrival in Nepal. The Wellness {R} Evelution

We also have a talented young man, Chris, who has put together a few videos for youtube. Here's the link to the latest movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBObGazMihM

Additionally, we are fortunate to have Livio, our web developer come to Nepal to work on our thangka painting and wooden masks sites. He has it on Google's first page for several key words. 25% of retail price goes to support our projects. We can custom paint or carve your piece of art at no additional charge. The site is full of valuable information on this ancient art form. It is also an easy shopping experience where your satisfaction is guaranteed. Please visit Our community shopping site

Sunday, June 7, 2015

6 Facts You Need To Know When You Travel in Nepal.

Photo credit : Noé - turtletramp.com

Nepal is so much fun : each day is a surprise, a new adventure, a learning. You will have to make your own mistakes to get to know the culture, but here are some little tips that might help you during your first days on this sacred land :

1- Your black coffee will be filled with sugar.

You crave for a black coffee. A big, tasty, strong black coffee. No milk, no sugar; you like it 100% black.
Here you are at a local restaurant, ordering your holy Grail. It arrives, in its beautiful dark robe, and all your senses are arising. You take the warm cup between your hands, smell this delicious aroma, and prepare your lips to kiss the exquisite beverage. All the sudden, the divine moment collapses : the taste of your succulent coffee is masked by the sweetness of a ounce of white sugar. Urgh. You go to ask for another coffee without sugar, and you end up with a black-coloured water slightly tasting like coffee.
You do the mistake once, and twice, and trice. Then you remember : coffee isn't great in small local places, and if you decide to order it anyway, beg the waiter to forget the sugar.

Photo credit : Noé - turtletramp.com

2- You'll never get the fair price.

If you are accustomed to travel in Asia, you probably know that negotiate a price is a must-to-do. It might be easy in South East Asia, but Nepali are especially sharp in business.
The way you look like is important. The more touristy you are, the more likely a seller is to confound you with a huge dollars bill. Dress local, avoid western brands, huge money belt and socks with sandals, then you might be ready for the negotiation part.
Don't be afraid to ask 50%, even 60% of the price. They usually won't go that low, but keep trying. Fix a price in your head and stick to it. It is easier to do so before shops are closing : if the day wasn't good, they will be more likely to sell for a cheaper price. If you are still not satisfy and have the opportunity to come back to the shop, try again the day after. And remember : keep smiling and kidding, negotiation has to be fun.

4- If you need clean toilets, go to a bank.

Where the money is kept, the cleanest are the toilets. As bizarre as it might sound, toilets in banks are relatively clean and, the most important, furnished with toilet paper ! Banks are pretty much everywhere; it shouldn't be hard for you to find one on your way, before it becomes to urgent. Otherwise, always carry some tissues or toilet paper with you.

Photo credit : Noé - turtletramp.com

5- The three people rule.

People in Nepal are nice and willing to help you. However, if you are lost in one of those narrow and messy street in Kathmandu, looking for your guesthouse, you better ask three time your way. Indeed; instead of disappointing you by saying they have no idea of where is the place you want to go, Nepali people would rather show you the wrong direction.
The more times you ask, the more likely you are to find your way. And don't be afraid : locals speak perfectly English.

6- Maybe means no.

As mentioned previously, Nepali people are polite and won't make you feel uncomfortable. They will always find other ways to say no. Take a "maybe" as a no, and if one day you crave for tofu and the restaurant you go tells you they'll only have tofu tomorrow, don't bother to come back : they won't have tofu before a long, long time.

Photo credit : Noé - turtletramp.com

Did you experience funny or unusual facts about Nepal ? Tell us more about it !

Saturday, May 23, 2015

One Month Later in Nepal

Tomorrow will mark one month since the first earthquake struck; I woke up to another aftershock this morning. There has not been a lot of relief for the people, rice, a blanket, some plastic tarps, a few sheets of aluminum and little more. Outside the village, I can see that several helicopters have been delivering goods to the people in more rural areas. They fly so low it can feel like an earthquake, thus traumatizing us anew several times a day. No one seems to understand why they have to fly so low. The food supply has not been seriously effected, yet. I do not know if I should be concerned in the long term, but have purchased a big bag of rice and a couple Kg. of organic coffee. It's important to prioritize.

Yesterday afternoon a wind storm came up and blew the tents away at our hilltop. Then it started raining. People had to scatter to make sure things didn't get blown away in the high winds. The wind was so strong a person could hardly stand up and both of my young men volunteers promptly went out to help. Although some of the tents stayed and the wind died down after about an hour or so, it was quite sad for the people who had nowhere to sleep.

When I woke up this morning I could see that my housekeeper's family had to stay elsewhere, which could have included my dining room or a bedroom. Many of my neighbors have been so traumatized they are too frightened to stay inside. It's so difficult for them. If it were me I'm sure I would have driven everyone crazy by now.

Many people are using sheets of aluminum to make little shelters. These shelters will help them survive the monsoon. There is a moratorium on building at this time. The government seems to be attempting some sort of building code.
This is the new aluminum shelter the childless couple and Birbhadur made together by sharing the aluminum we managed to get. One of the villagers connected to an NGO told me they had provided one piece of aluminum per person to 17 families in the village, but knowing I was helping 3 families he let me know they didn't get any aluminum. Of course I was happy to provide it for them. I got enough to help another family, too. That's when I bought the other two wheel barrows, with the help of a young man, Doug, from Sweden. 

Here's our fund raiser site: http://travelstarter.com/projects/nepal_earthquake_restoration_changunarayan_village__project/260 

We are also going to be doing a sweepstakes extravaganza and will give $10,000 trip to Nepal for next year, after the village is looking nice. It will be an all expense paid trip for 2 to Nepal, custom designed to the person's needs, but it will be basically 6 weeks of being treated like an honored guest and they will be able to do whatever they want to do here. If all goes well we will be able to have this village looking lovely by next April with the money this will bring. This contest will also provide Nepali, handcrafted gifts for participants to get the economy going and make it better for everyone. It's actually our first, annual sweepstakes. Next year I hope to help Shaku, another nearby village. 


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Donating to Nepal-What You Need to Know

It is always sad when nature creates destruction anywhere, but when it's a country like Nepal it is even more tragic. Everyone wants to help and it truly warms my heart to think that so many Westerners have such compassion. Especially New Zealanders and people from other earthquake prone countries want to help. I understand New Zealand is still to recover from their disastrous earthquakes, and yet the compassion they have for Nepal is so outstanding. 

However, and this is a big however, we do not want the money to be used in a counterproductive way, or be misused by the social worker keeping the money. Either of these cause many Westerners to throw up their hands and not do anything to help. At this time in Nepal, in light of the recent tragic events it is even more important that the money be used properly and in a timely fashion.

Birbhadur and his mother, Laxmi showing me their new blankets. They were very grateful.

I've lived here for over 4 years and have had many opportunities to work with social organizations. As much as I've wanted to help I've not been able to connect with what I'd assess to be an effective organization. I've had people come to volunteer at orphanages and brought warm clothing for the children. These same volunteers who paid from $5 a day to $500 a month tell me the children continue to wear old, dirty clothing and the new clothes just get put somewhere. I've seen such clothing go to the social worker's home village to his/her own relatives. I have some appreciation in this because you can find people in need all over Nepal; I'm sure the social worker has relatives in genuine need. I know, it still isn't right.

Speaking of 'orphans' in Nepal, most children living in orphanages have 2 living parents. They are poor, so they are sent to the Kathmandu Valley to get an education. Imagine living in a village of 20 homes with the closest school being a 2 hour walk through the forest. That is the reality. So, to support an orphanage like that is up to a person's own abilities and conscience. I've written about volunteering in orphanages, as you can see by my previous posts.

Now we come to a time for Nepal when we really need help, literally everyone. 90% of the homes have either collapsed completely or need repairs. Even my guest house has cracked walls, but I do not need money from donations for my own home. My landlord needs to make the repairs. Also, I'm an expat and would not think to take money that could go to a Nepali family. 

But the question remains, how do you know the money will be used to help Nepal rebuild-not make a new trekking agency or guest house? I have a strong suspicion that many guest houses and trekking agencies will be established from donations of well-meaning Westerners. And many poor Nepali families will remain living out in the cold for a lot longer than reasonably expected. Monsoon is almost here and when it rains it can create rivers within a few minutes. Now that the earthquakes have shaken things up, it seems logical to expect even more landslides this year. These people will never be able to rebuild on their own, except to take the old brick and re-stack it into a new building. Then it will surely fall in the next earthquake. 

There really doesn't seem to be a magic bullet to assure your money will be spent properly and effectively. I offer a few suggestions below that I've thought of myself. No one seems to be doing anything but bitching about the funds not being used right. 

Other governments are also providing help. The US provided two Osprey helicopters, one of which fell killing 6 Americans and 2 Nepali. The Chinese government has provided many lovely tents that can keep the animals away and provide some privacy. 

Many governments from Europe have been sending medical teams and supplies and so much more. The world is truly grieving for Nepal-and opening their wallets. It's like the world's heart is beating just for Nepal; I am so grateful because I love Nepal so much. From what I understand, the Red Cross has also provided tents. I haven't seen any of these tents, but I have seen countless tarps that people sleep under. Our little tent is right next to this one at the top of the hill.

The government has decided to intersect as many donations as possible to the government relief fund. This will insure the social workers do not abuse the funds, but the Nepali are not confident that the government will. Already we've seen one family take 10 tarps for themselves due to knowing the person who was handing them out. Rather than using them for sleeping under, I'm pretty sure they will use them for harvesting. That's why there were already so many tarps-even before the NGOs came with tarps.

So, what to do? 'Ke garne?' as they say in Nepali. 

1. Make sure the person you are providing money to has a good, clear plan as to how to use the money. What kind of transparency will they have? What is the contingency plan if someone else solves the problem or it's discovered that another plan of action would be better?

2. Make sure the person has some integrity; do not just give to someone on a crowd funding site.

3. Do not send money to a foreign bank account. Always use third party funding.

4. Use people from your own country. That way you can get some accountability via the Attorney General or a consumer 'watchdog' agency.

5. Ask questions about how the money will be used. 'If this, then what?'

6. Follow-up to see how the money has been spent. 

7. If you are sending money to an agency that has already been doing social work look at the way they used the money in the past. How much is used for management? More than 10% is probably too much. 

8. Use your Paypal or credit card rather than bank transfer. If it's fraud you might be able to get a refund (but do not count on it).

9. Consider donating to a non-profit/NGO and ask them to donate it to an agency in Nepal. That way you get the tax credit and get to do some good. Just make sure how much will actually be sent to Nepal.

10. If you belong to a church, fraternal or civil organization consider having the group do a garage sale/silent auction or some other fundraiser for Nepal. If someone can bring the funds and distribute them it would be even better.

A newspaper article in the Kantipur Newspaper, Kathmandu, today was about a village in the hardest hit region. The spokesperson made a good point, "We don't need rice and aluminum." Then he went on to illustrate what would satisfy their needs. In his case, he wants to be relocated to a less hazardous area. They have been experiencing more than their share of hardship. Just last year there was a landslide that took out a large village and hydro-power plant. My point here is that it's important to let the local people tell what they need; it's best not to patronize them. In some places the people have sold the donated rice for roxie, the local brew. When we sat out on the hill with the people right after the first earthquake Yana applied some sore muscle cream on the older women and I cannot think of anything that could have made them happier. 

Another article warned that the Village Development Committee in each village is politically motivated and tend to distribute supplies only to those in their party and close relatives. In this village someone brought tarps for only 100; there were more than 300 homeless families. The men here sent them back to get tarps for everyone. However, everyone talks about one man who took 10 tarps for himself. Plastic tarps are used for harvesting, so he surely took them for that reason. 
The women still draw water from the community tap.

There were several families that did not get aluminum sheets to make a better shelter so we brought more aluminum and a couple more wheel barrows for the village clean-up.

Actually, this blog post was inspired by a Western friend married to a Nepali. Right away, even before the lights came back on after the first earthquake they had a crowd funding project up online. A week or so later the young woman came by and I asked her how the project was coming. "We already have over $5,000," she replied. "That's great, what are you doing with the money?" I asked. "Oh, we're not really sure yet. Maybe we'll do some temporary housing." I wanted to ask her one more question, but kept my mouth shut. 'How do you plan to extract the money from your husband's pocket?'

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What? Twin Earthquakes!

Yesterday, May 12, 2015 another major earthquake came, 7.3-4. There was another epicenter so I guess it means it’s a brand new earthquake. No more people died in our village, but 6 Americans died from an Osprey accident and 2 Nepali.On a side note, I was living in the town in Florida that had twin hurricanes in 2004. Who knew there were twin earthquakes.
We were home, Bimila, Mark, our new helpx volunteer, Sajana, my new helper and me. It hit hard, not like the wave I’d felt during the first one. And we panicked. We jumped up and went down the stairs while it shook the entire time. “Bimila,” I called out as we went down the stairs and she promptly joined us going down the stairs. Although I know we should not leave the building, we all promptly ran outside and to the hilltop. Bimila had been traumatized enough from the first earthquake while she clung to our tourist guest as she watched the devastation happening in Bhhaktapur.
As we reached the hilltop I turned to see our housecleaner, didi, coming out! She had been on the roof doing laundry. I gave her a big hug to try to ground her.  I sat with her for a few minutes and then turned to look for Bimila. I jumped up and told our didi that I was going to look for her and as I got a ways up the hill I heard her call me. I thought she went to look for her father, Kamal, who was up near the temple doing some thangka painting.
I waited for her to come and even without a word we turned to find him and almost ran past the old buildings as we past. Bimila wouldn’t let go of me. We stopped along the way when we saw people we knew to ask. I knew Kamal is the kind of person who will stop to help his neighbor and that can be deadly at such times as this.
Sure enough, Kamal had stopped what he was working on when a tourist asked for directions to Nagarkot. He had been safely out of harm’s way when the earthquake struck. His random act of kindness hadn’t saved his life, but likely saved him from the initial trauma.
We spent the night at the hilltop. Fortunately, Mark had brought tarps, so we made a nice tent. He has been working so hard to help clear debris in the village so some shops could possibly open again.
Tonight we will use Mark’s mosquito net, which will make it a lot better. The mosquitoes buzzed around all night except for when the wind picked up. I put coconut oil on my face to keep them away. They cannot take an oil base like that and will die if they land.
About the guest house: Star View held up quite well during the first couple quakes and aftershocks, but after this earthquake I noticed more paint on the floor and the cracks are growing. None of the baring walls seem to be compromised, but the wall I’m most concerned about is near the door. Sleeping in the room would be foolish, and upstairs might be even worse prior to getting a qualified inspector. I’ve been promised that ‘someone might come today.’
The electric has been cut to the guest house due to some of the homes on the grid have fallen. After the inspection we will get a generator, but if it’s not safe to stay here I plan to let my inner American come out and I’ll stay at a friend’s guest house that stayed intact in Nagarkot. Many of the guest houses in Nagarkot collapsed, but Hotel Mt. Paradise is only two story and almost as new as mine.
65 people are said to have died yesterday in this new earthquake.
Even with the earthquakes and craziness, I am so happy here and there is nowhere I’d rather be than in Nepal. I saw this bird this morning while having my coffee.