After a terrible night.. for both me and Chris, we woke up early this morning to meet our project coordinator at a Private British School in a different part of Kathmandu. The first struggle was finding a taxi that would turn on their meter. Usually, taxis will quote very high for tourists and we were told the ride should cost about 250Rs. After talking with 5 taxis, the highest told us 600Rs, the lowest would only go to 350, each time we told them to turn the meter on, they laughed in our faces. Finally we found one who used his meter and it cost us only 230Rs.
We were so ready to get out of Thamel. We arrived at the school and immediately were hit with a big difference, it was cleaner, the kids were dropped off in big shiny cars and all of them were in clean western clothes. We found out this was an area mainly populated with ex pats so many of the children are either there on scholarship if they are Nepali, or their nationality was different. So many nationalities in one room, it was a beautiful rainbow that I had never before seen.
Bev is an older gentleman who has started a movement called the Wall of Hope. He has toured schools all over the United States painting hands on walls to give hope and recognition to Women’s Rights. He immediately handed us a few articles he had cut from a Nepali newspaper highlighting events against women that had happened recently. The first one I grabbed told a story about a village that recently got bathrooms. The women had built them, taught by the government, but now, the men of the village were forbidding them usage because of their menstration cycles. The women replied that they were ashamed of their problem, but didn’t think it fair the men were blocking access. The second was about a man in India who threw acid on a girl who refused his marriage proposal, she died a few hours later. The third was about the pollution in Kathmandu, a grid which showed red for all but 3 hours in the afternoon.
Then we stepped into the gym and he explained there were a few videos he wanted to show us, but there are rules about contact with the children. He explained the Nepali government has forbidden us from showing and telling the kids about some of the darker things that happen. For example, he was only allowed to talk about events that have happy endings, and nothing that directly says violence. We are not allowed to take pictures of the children, even their backs. We had to hand over our passports upon entrance and wear special badges. A woman named Helena accompanied us, she has an NGO and a for profit charity. She’s from Finland and explained that she is operating illegally in Nepal in order to help the people and get away from the government. She told me about Nepal’s civil war and said the recovery from the big earthquake was nothing compared to what was happening with their government. They hadn’t had a constitution for 10 years until a few months after the earthquake. After, they had over 10,000 counts of war crimes. They are bleeding for aid and their government doesn’t have time to help them. She told me that you have to be very careful with talking to NGOs, some of them have strong ties with the parliament and are not to be trusted. She says the ones who are not registered are the best because they put the money into the people. A government job in this country pays 10,000 dollars a month, a non government job pays 1,000 dollars. Swallow that.
Her company puts on events that only hire Nepalis, to raise money for Nepalis. Which then puts the money in the people’s hands and gives them jobs. She has many connections with foreign embassies and we have the contact for the European Union through her.
Bev starts us off with a video he is not allowed to show the kids and tells us we are running out of time, but he’d like to sneak some in before the kids walk in.
Bev is the type of guy who you can see is very passionate about what he does, he grabs people and forces them to think a little deeper by the way he throws information at you.
Once the kids started filing in, he rushed over to change the screen and we sat while he introduced us to all of them. He then showed a couple of heartbreaking videos, the first one about a girl who grew up raking trash and dreaming of going to school, the other about a girl who was sold into bonded labor, basically slavery. They both had nice endings where the first ended up in school and the other was rescued by a kind owner. Bev informed us later that bonded labor became illegal in 2002, but the government didn’t help rehabilitate, so many ended up going back to their owners so they could eat. (He wasn’t allowed to tell this to the kids). If you want to see the full film, it’s called “Girl Rising”. He told everyone the wall of hope is painted to bring awareness to human rights as women’s rights, the hands meaning to keep their hands off women and bringing about equality.
The second group of kids were older and he brought up sexual assault as well as education. When one of the students asked what good does a wall do to create change, he replied it starts with awareness and invited students to participate in a program he is starting for youth advocates. The idea being that when one person starts singing, other people will join in and a change will happen.
He called me up and handed me a paper asking me to read his mission statement, then broke the kids into a chant of “Be the change” vs “We are the change” and asked me to judge which was louder.
After the kids left, we talked a bit more and he showed us an article about this group of women in Liberia who peacefully protested and brought an end to their civil war, then were asked to help rid their country of guns, if you want to know more, he suggested a documentary called “Pray the devil back to hell”.
We then headed over to his hotel where we discussed the schedule for the projects and other arrangements. We were told to meet at the “famed” Kathmandu Guest House with all of our things at 3pm.
Chris and I were famished, so asked about a place to grab a bite, Bev directed us about 15 minutes down the road to an area called Patin Dokha where there is a nice little cafe. We follow his directions and are baffled by the area we were now in. Definitely a nicer area. We wandering into a really nice cafe and realized quickly we were in a different world. First, we ordered 2 house salads and shared some dal bhat. We marveled at the fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and romaine. We looked around us and questioned how many expats and NGOs were in the garden. I forgot for a second I was even in Nepal. We decided to treat ourselves and I ordered an espresso, Chris got cheesecake and we rolled a cigarette while admiring the real napkins. (Most places have cheap ripped toilet paper stuffed in cups). I got excited about the soap and toilet paper in the bathrooms. Our feast came out to 2,150Rs. We rushed back to our hotel to check out and pack and although the boys at the desk gave us a hard time about checking out after noon, they ended up rounding down and only charging us 6,000Rs for our weeklong stay. (Less than $60).
We continued with our treats after arriving at the swanky Kathmandu Guest House and ordered an alcoholic beverage each, then French fries (at my insistence of course) and saag paneer. We waited for awhile for Ben and Livia to arrive from the airport to round out our team. They were coming from an orphanage in Rajistan, the north of India where they had spent the last 3 weeks painting the orphanage with images of Ghandi, Mother Theresa and other leaders to look up to.
Chris and Ben are friends from high school, so they caught up a bit and we ordered some beers. Bev fills us in on some other projects he has started to put together in the future, one countering Trump’s Mexican wall by adding murals on the national mall. Eventually if built, they will be placed on the border, with ones from Mexican artists on the other side.
Bev made a couple of phone calls and informs us that we are to take a taxi to a resort that is up higher where the air is a bit cleaner. There, the owner has set us up with 2 rooms for free, breakfast included. He then makes sure we know what time and where we are meeting in the morning and sets up a taxi and sends us on our way.
We arrive in a fairyland. No joke, a completely different world. They place white prayer flags around our necks and hand each of us a complimentary juice drink. We fill out our visa and passport information, then are led down a stone path lined with soft lights to a free standing building with a 2 room suite. Our bags are delivered by golf cart. We immediately crowd into one of the bathrooms to admire the shower and the hot water shooting out. We have a sitting area, a second bathroom, kitchen and balcony. The only hiccup? It reeks of mothballs. We start moving in and quickly discover there are mothballs stuffed into every drawer, shelf and closet.
We open all of the windows, chuck the balls out the window onto the perfectly manicured lawn and Ben busts out everything he has collected from his current travels. Art is everywhere. A knock on the door brings chocolate and fresh fruit and we roll up a spliff to celebrate. We pow pow and Ben gives a beautiful speech about how this is what happens when we follow our hearts and trust the universe. He exclaims this is the team that was always meant to be.
Ben is a magnetic person. His energy is so positive and transparent, he can’t help but make people smile. Olivia is much more shy, she is Brazilian and doesn’t speak great English, though she assures us she understands everything.
It is so nice being in a luxurious room, though it brings up conflicting thoughts. I have seen such a spectrum of wealth in the last few days. I’m having trouble adjusting to how much money is worth. At one point I thought spending 1000Rs on a pashmina scarf was astronomical, then I turned around and spent that on half a meal.
It is so nice to have these comforts that I didn’t even realize I missed, only to remember Suresh and his family crowding into a room a third of the size of our suite. It definitely makes me wonder at Nepal’s government, economy and aid to their common people. This is a small country and the city I’m in holds more people than Los Angeles. It is dusty, smoggy and trash is everywhere. Looking around in amazement and my neck feels whiplashed.
After seeing these children in school, I can’t help but wonder if there is anything that is being done to bridge these gaps. No wonder people attach themselves to tourists. It is the only time they are able to brush up against wealth and possibly have an opportunity to get a sponsor, a paper bride or a taste of something greater. They are desperate to provide for their families and have a better quality of life. The government doesn’t help them and so they take things into their own hands. The Buddhist philosophy is so great that they have this passive way of making money. They truly believe that if they help us and show us their country, we will bring aid, wealth and hope for their future.
They don’t have the creativity or knowledge of creating their own ideas. Chris learned this lesson last night after trying to do some bartering for the shops. He was so taken with the monkey temple, but hadn’t seen a single design or patch in any shop. He made a design and then toured around to try to trade the design with the shops for a couple of patches. He said he went to 30 shops and was met with confusion. The same pattern was apparent when he tried telling Suresh he could make a box for his shoe shining supplies.
Change is hard. This is an old culture with many traditions I haven’t even scratched the surface. Much has changed for them in the last few decades and they are trying to hold on to things that make sense. What they hold as the most important parts of life are God, family, food, shelter and working hard. What they have done in the past isn’t working anymore, but they don’t have the knowledge of what else to do, they don’t have the education needed to change how they support themselves, so they project their culture. They exaggerate (for lack of better word) their history and culture to give a taste to people looking for a cheap get away, in exchange, they get more people who will buy and give them money.
In a way, I fell prey to this mentality and perpetuated this pattern. On the other side, I supported the people who need it and learned about their history and culture. There’s a conundrum, right? I am a foreigner, I learned about where Nepal is only 3 months ago, but here I am now delving into this culture and wondering if it’s better to perpetuate these samskaras, or to help change the underskirts of values in one of the oldest societies in the world.
Much research and pondering will happen tomorrow and in the next few weeks. Tonight, I will read up on the magazines and booklets Bev gave me.
This opportunity is so unique. It is not lost on me how few people have been privy to the information and perspectives I have already received. This trip is already changing me and I can not even imagine how this will enable me to bring change to everything else in my life, and hopefully impact yours too.