I realized today that it’s been just over a week since I concluded my 40-hour bus marathon. This is usually the part where people say “I can’t believe it! It feels like I got here yesterday!” but for me, it’s nothing of the sort. I’ve met so many new people, explored so many new things, and spent so many hours doing various work projects and studying Nepali, that I feel already as if I’ve been here at Kopila Valley Children’s Home for months.
When Maggie picked me up at the bus station, I may have been a filthy and grimy mess, but I wasn’t tired- it was too exciting to FINALLY be arriving at my destination. When we got to the house, I was instantly mesmerized. The entrance to the house is protected by a black gate painted with golden flowers, and the ground level is filled with gardens, brick paths, and a huge palm gazebo. There are two main structures, each with 4 stories, on either side of the gazebo. On each level, these two buildings are girded by balconies, which are joined by open-air walkways. If the children are home and active, which means “not asleep,” watching these balconies and walkways is like observing one of those home ant colony kits. Oddly, I’ve only taken one photo of this, and it’s a mediocre one from outside the gate (see below). I have procured a Nepali phone number, but I have barely taken it out of my room since I’ve been here.
The children, Maggie’s children, are amazing. There are no fewer than 40 of them and, like any group, some are chatty, some are bratty, some are shy, and some are total angels, though generally the trends would break down like this: the chatty ones- just about everyone; the bratty ones: occasionally, some of the kids under 10, but mostly I just said bratty because it rhymes with chatty; shy: loosely scattered throughout; angels: those 14 or over. They range in age from 3 to 15, and the extent to which they care about and take care of each other is remarkable. And necessary- how else could one woman, a 26-year old no less, take care of 40 kids?
She does have other help, of course, both in the form of volunteers like myself and a group of “Aunties and Uncles.” Foremost among this latter group are Tope and his wife, Kazum- Tope has been with Maggie since the beginning, 7 years ago, and speaks rapid English with a thick accent and a wide vocabulary. It was he who built this home for Maggie, and I’ll be working with him extensively on the new school.
I’ve been to the “New Land” (as everyone calls it) a couple of times, and my mouth waters with excitement when I think of the space. The land is almost 3 acres, and stretches between two roads. The east side of the land is mostly flat, covering three terraces of rice patties 140 feet wide and 250 feet long. At the west end of these terraces, the section drops sharply off into a thick jungle of bamboo, vines, and old trees. This area drops again, down into a 10 foot deep, 20 feet wide, dried up ravine that has cut through the jungle by heavy water flow during monsoon season. This worries me- is it the effect of a hundred years of erosion? Or perhaps every few years a massive and destructive wall of water comes through? At one point during my first visit, an ancient, wrinkled neighbor came out to observe us point and question the ravine’s status. Maggie asked him in Nepali (I love when she speaks Nepali) if he knew how much water flowed through the ravine every year. He replied that he had been in this spot for 60 years and had never seen the water more than a 6 feet wide. Very bizarre. We also learned that someone had died nearby just a few days earlier from a poisonous snake bite, so I immediately demanded to Maggie that we get some anti-venom.
I mentioned the volunteers. As of now, there are three others, with more on the way. Nena, Maggie’s right hand, has been here for almost 10 months but is leaving in October. She teaches English and runs assembly at the school. Becky arrived a week before I did, and works as a counselor both at the school and at the house. The school, which caters to over 300 impoverished children in the town, is only 50 yards from the home. These are kids who would either be breaking rocks on the side of the road or wandering the streets, but instead are speaking English near fluently at age 15 and are learning from teachers with Masters Degrees. Lastly, Caroline is the “home wellness” fellow, taking care of the kids at the home, and teaching an English class at the school. Nena and Caroline are both my age and Becky is a little bit older. There are 3 or 4 more fellows inbound over the next couple of months. I’m not sure where they’ll sleep. This house is packed.
I’ve mostly been working with Maggie’s uncle, “Uncle Ed,” an Ex-Marine Captain who has shown me the ropes around the house, school, and town. His father was a master plumber, and I’ve already learned a lot from him about handiwork and plumbing. He farts frequently and gloriously, and I abstained from mentioning anything. It was a great relief to me when on the third day he said “You know, you can go home and say ‘I have never heard someone pass so much gas as Uncle Ed in Nepal.'” The town is essentially a very miniature Kathmandu, with little as far as charm goes. I’ve gone in several times to buy tools and supplies and, while the friendly people put their hands together to great you with a “Namaste” and children charmingly shout to our foreignness with assertive “Hiiiii”s from balconies, the beeping, traffic, dust in the air, and scorching sun make for less-than-pleasant walks.
I’ve got my own room on the first floor, right next to my “wood shop,” where I’ve been working hard to build a decent workbench until the evening, when at 5 pm sharp the mosquitoes swarm the area (perhaps attracted to the sawdust I’ve generated?). Getting the wood for this project was a comical experience, and a story for a different blog entry. Needless to say, my experience of using Dad’s shop to mill down lumber to square side and 1/64″ precision dimensions will not serve me here. Quality tools are scarce and well cut wood is even scarcer.
There are so many other things I’ll really need to put on this blog in the next few days. I’m not exactly worried I’ll forget them since they are essentially unforgettable, but it’s good to get the smaller details.