Sunday 07/01/18: The first week of the new year in Sudal has felt like a fresh slate with even bluer skies and a crisp cool air. Everyone has a renewed vigour; the ubiquitous kids (baby goat variety) and calves have an extra spring in their step, while the local kids (human) are that little bit cheekier. Of course, this is sentimental nonsense as Nepal doesn’t actually celebrate our 1st of January as the start of the new year. According to the Nepali calendar, the year is currently 2074 – approximately 56 years and 8 months ahead of our own Gregorian calendar. It’s a far more complicated affair than ours. There are more than 60 ethnic groups in Nepal and between them, they recognise nine different New Year’s days. All are celebrated (that’s a lot of hangovers!) but the most important is the national New Year’s day (“Nepal Sambat”) which, depending on the phase of the moon, is usually around the middle of our April.
Today marks three weeks in this rural community and I feel like I’m finally starting to get into a routine of sorts. On Friday, we received the long-awaited supplies from VSO’s head office and most importantly, our sleeping bags arrived. Up to this point, sleeping has been tricky.
At home in Scotland, I love camping and I’ve even been known to bivvy bag (i.e. camping minus the tent) in January… in the sleety rain! I also swim year-round in Loch Lomond. My point being that I consider myself fairly hardy. Sleeping here, however, has been a real challenge. Obviously, I realise that billions of people in this world sleep in far rougher conditions so I hate myself for this impending whine, particularly when I have such a lovely accommodating host-family, but I’ve recently become a bit of a wimp! To start with, the beds here are pretty uncomfortable. Like, if you took some concrete, mixed it up with a few broken bricks then somehow applied a layer of permafrost across the top, you’d be close. I’ve got two blankets but one feels like it’s filled with stones. The other is slightly better if you like to sleep under a sack of potatoes, but both are only around 5ft long (I’m 5ft 9in, and I spend a lot of the night cursing those extra nine inches). I’ve been going to bed wearing half the clothes I brought with me; two pairs of leggings; jogging bottoms; a vest; a long sleeved compression top; a night shirt; a woolly hat; mittens; and a pair of long, thick woolly socks that I thankfully bought at the last minute in Kathmandu. I can barely bend. I spend a lot of the night half awake, trying to fold bits of the potato sack underneath me to prevent chilblains. But now, woohoo, I have a sleeping bag (actually, I have two – one inside the other, as one still wasn’t enough- what is happening to me?!) and the days feel far easier since getting a better sleep.Not that our team-leader days are particularly trying. I usually get up in the morning at 7am and do 15 minutes of yoga followed by a laughable attempt at 30 push-ups. I say push-ups but they’re actually called “table top push-ups” (back stays straight and nose dips to the floor) and they’re what your granny would do if she wanted to start exercising. I’m only on day 7 but my shoulders burn just thinking about them. Torture complete, I get to have a cold bucket wash in the bathroom. It’s surprisingly invigorating and I almost enjoy it. Washing my hair gives me slight brain freeze but I’ve been told it’s character building.
We have breakfast around 9am which consists of deliciously spiced tea with dal bhat or a couple of rotis; future toast will seem so dull in comparison. I then sit on the roof terrace and let the sun thaw out my cold bones. We can see right down the valley to Bhaktapur, a fairly large town about 45 minutes away. The view usually fogs over during the day but is breathtakingly beautiful first thing in the morning. Once sufficiently warmed-up, we spend the day walking around and checking-in with our six volunteer pairs. Their targets are challenging. In a short timeframe, each group has to design and implement cluster meetings; 10x awareness sessions; 2x training sessions; 3x resource development; 2x community infrastructure; 5x community networks; 2x peer education sessions. The volunteers are young and inexperienced and completely out of their comfort zone but they’re managing exceedingly well and it’s amazing to see what they can do.
As the first ever cycle of VSO/ICS in this region, we’re laying the foundation for all future teams and we have to spend a lot of time simply meeting the community and explaining our “Disaster Risk Reduction” project’s intentions. We make friends and smile at people and say Namaste to everyone we pass. The kids point at me and shout, “HelloWhatisyournameHowareyou?” in one stream of breath but their bravery descends into giggles when I turn around to reply. My favourite greeting in Nepalese is, “Khana khannu bhaiyo”, which literally translates as “Have you eaten?”. It’s a bit confusing as it just means hello and unfortunately doesn’t mean that you’re going to get fed.
The day passes quickly as our curfew is 5pm. Apparently, it’s not unknown for tigers to frequent the jungle that borders the top of our community so it’s best to be indoors as darkness falls. I’m dubious about the tiger claims but not bold enough to test my cynicism. It’s so cold at night (did I mention?) that I’m reluctant to do anything that doesn’t involve having 20 stone of blankets on me so as soon as dinner is finished, I scoot off to my room to work on my laptop or read in bed.
The routine is broken up on a Friday when we spend the whole day in our team meeting. It’s a fun, interesting day and good to get everyone together. We don’t have days off as such, but everyone is encouraged to manage their own work/life balance.
Today’s deviation to our happy little schedule sees Rachana and I heading to Bhaktapur for shopping. It’s very exciting! Shopping at home is my idea of hell but I’m looking forward to a little bit of exploring here.
The bus stop is near our house and while there’s no timetable, we’ve been told that it drives through every 40 minutes or so. When it turns up, we pile on with half a dozen other locals. Thankfully, there are still two seats for us. The roads here are roads only in the broadest sense of the word – they are dusty, unfinished and oh so bumpy. I sit down gratefully as the bus jolts and pitches its way down the uneven road similar, I imagine, to how a camel ride feels. A few minutes later it stops and about thirty people get on this already almost full bus. It reminds me of the buses in Africa, where people say that a bus is never actually full – you can always squeeze in another body. I can hear some brave (mental) people climbing on to the roof outside. It’s nuts! I’m supporting one person’s full body weight on my arm and shoulder and at one point, someone leans on my head. My comfortable seat now comes with two bottoms in my face and a wet cough spluttering all over the back of my neck. I make myself as small as I can – it feels claustrophobic but I’m still pleased to be sitting. I see a couple of taller locals having to bow their heads to fit under the ceiling and every so often there’s a painful sounding thud as they make contact and rattle their teeth. To soothe the journey, there’s actually very pleasant Nepalese music over the loudspeaker and if I close my eyes and forget the too-close bottoms and my wet neck, I can almost imagine finding Zen in a yoga pose on a Himalayan mountain. Almost.
We arrive in Bhaktapur eventually and armed with our shopping lists, we get off the bus and replace one type of chaos for another. There are no pavements to speak of and the traffic is really heavy so every step is an adventure. We spend the day jumping in and out of the little roadside shops trying to find all the materials that the volunteers need for their projects. I’m glad Rachana is with me as it would be so much harder without her; everyone’s really friendly but it’s near impossible to mime things like clothes-pegs or glitter. Four very dusty and harassed hours later, we plonk ourselves back on the bus. For the return journey, however, we have multiple bags of shopping, including three large cumbersome buckets and everyone else on the bus seems to be moving house.It’s enjoyable pandemonium but I’m glad when our sleepy little village comes in to view. Shopping once a week is definitely going to be an interesting part of our weekly schedule.