Today’s Checklist- Extrapolated.

Warning: this blog entry is a marathon, and I haven’t proofread it. Sorry. I’d say it covers pretty accurately what my life is like right now, though.

I’m normally not one for excessively making lists, but when I’m bogged down in obligations and I don’t trust my brain to keep a running tally, I open up Notes on my iPhone and get cooking.

I figured that a good way to explain what a day is like here, I could copy and paste my “to-do” list from today, extrapolating on each item. I can also use these to liberally extrapolate and go off on tangents to explain things that I’ve been leaving out (such as descriptions of the other fellows).

1. Tell Joel about Pop Rivets

Joel is Kelly’s dad. Kelly has been gone for a couple weeks to travel with her sister in Thailand. She’s returning with her sister and parents, who are all spending two weeks here in Surkhet. Joel owns a deck company in a town outside of Seattle, and has offered to bring some tools to us here. I’m having him pick up a DeWalt 20V jigsaw to go with the 300 blades DeWalt sent us, as well as 10 pounds of epoxy coated screws with Philips heads. One of my favorite hardware stores has about 50 riveters in stock, but doesn’t sell pop rivets. Go figure. Therefore, I’ve asked Joel to pick us up a couple pounds of pop rivets, as well.


2. Ask John about workouts with Maggie’s weights

John is one of the other Fellows. He was here for almost a full year before taking a 3 month hiatus this past summer. He was working at home, but knew he wanted to come back and hopefully stay for a longer period of time to start his own organization in Kalikot, where most of the children here are from. Kalikot is Top’s province, to the North of Dailekh where we traveled last week. There is no power, roads, or cell phone service (and how would you charge the phones anyway?) in Kalikot, where 22 villages are scattered and connected by footpaths. Schooling is as scarce as clean water, and poverty is ubiquitous. I’m planning on visiting Kalikot in May.

Top co-founded Kopila Valley with Maggie 7 years ago. Top speaks perfect English (once you understand his accent), has a huge smile and easy sense of humor, and knows everyone in Surkhet. I’ll be working with him every day on the “project.”

Back to John. John is constantly friendly to everyone around him, and I’ve been glad to have a second guy here. He used to wrestle and play football, and he’s 6′ 3″. I worked out  frequently in the months preceding this trip, and have replaced that regiment with occasional pushups and sit-ups before bed. I noticed Maggie has a set of weights in her room and, since she’s gone for a month, I figured I could turn her bedroom into a weight room and get the endorphins flowing occasionally. Henry and I made a grueling and painful 6 minute workout at the River this year, so I’m hoping to replicate that.

Johnny boy.

Johnny boy.


3. Write to Uncle Ed

Uncle Ed left yesterday, in what was a pretty emotional goodbye between him and the kids, staff, and Fellows. I’ve been communicating with him for 3 months and met him in person 1.5 months ago, but I was pretty heartbroken to see him go. Half of it was that he has a huge presence here and I’ve been working with him almost constantly around the house. The other half was acknowledging the concept that, eventually, people leave this place without knowing if they’ll come back or what will change in their absence. When someone leaves, their last sat-sung (family meeting) is filled with goodbye speeches and prayers and a final song, with “Goodbye” sung in 11 languages. In reality, I find the final song to be uninspiring, but I think that to go from being a participant to being the actual subject might be a surreal and heartbreaking reversal. It certainly was for Uncle Ed. I made him a rammed earth brick that had “Uncle” and “Ed” stamped on two sides, and the other Fellows choreographed a goodbye dance with the kids. The whole thing concluded with a touching slide show of all the various characters here holding up individualized “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” signs. Mine was “Wouldn’t it be nice if… there was a Home Depot in Nepal.” Uncle Ed spoke to everyone for about 20 minutes, and I sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which he is constantly humming. Then the goodbye song. Not a dry eye in the house.

He’ll be missed. This to-do was simply to send another, more articulate “thank you and goodbye” than the one I gave at the sat-sung.

Uncle Ed talking to the kids about not breaking our wipers.

Uncle Ed talking to the kids about not breaking our wipers.

An hour before leaving. Finding our first ladder!

An hour before leaving. Finding our first ladder!


4. Finish moving into Uncle Ed’s room.

The only positive aspect of Uncle Ed’s absence is the vacancy of his room. I now have solar power and WiFi in my room, as well as sunlight in the evenings and I’m no longer across from the stinkiest bathroom in the house (which has a 5.5 foot ceiling and a squatter toilet. I rearranged the room setup as soon as I moved in.

The New Room. Here until the new volunteer's quarters are finished. ~4 weeks.

The New Room. Here until the new volunteer’s quarters are finished. ~4 weeks.


5. Put up new shelf

I didn’t have enough shelf space in this room. So I anchored two shelf brackets into my wall and threw down a piece of plywood. Viola! [sic]

6. Emails to Prabal and Nripal and Wangchuk

Prabal Thapa is the architect from Kathmandu who is taking on an advisory role in our project. He’s designed and built a ton of well known Nepali buildings, including Ama Ghar to the south of Kathmandu. I sent him our most recent massing plan, and I had to send him a follow up.

Nripal Adhikary is a big name in the Rammed Earth industry here. Prabal set us up with him, and Terri and I skyped with him yesterday about using rammed earth for our design. His website is a great example of what can be done with RE – Nripal stood us up for our initial Skype date, and then called 2 hours later to apologize- one of his buffalo had given birth to a baby girl, and he had help see her through the process. I accepted this. Anyway, Nripal is brilliant, so we invited to fly him up for a few days next week to see our operation. That was why I had to email him.

Sonam Wangchuk is a rammed earth expert in Ladakh, India, in the Kashmir state. He founded an organization known as SECMOL, which is revolutionizing the Kashmiri educational system. It was through SECMOL that I found Kopila Valley- I spoke with Curtis Koren, who happened to put me in touch with Jon Mingle, who happened to forward me the description of KV’s Sustainability Fellowship. The stars aligned. Regardless, I’m trying to set up a Skype with Wangchuk. Hence the email.

Why Rammed Earth? Because it’s a perfect thermal mass, because it has the lowest embodied carbon footprint of any material, because it’s durable, and because it’s beautiful.

Properly done Rammed Earth.

Properly done Rammed Earth.

Oh, and because it’s not this:


7. Make large and curved mold. For scrap wood in  workshop.

Terri and I have found success with our rammed earth samples. I made a 6”x4”x8” mold, and we’ve made some bricks that cured in the sun and turned as hard as stone. We have clayey soil from our land, and a 100 lb back of sand that I brought back from a trip to the “beach” last week. The beach is a beautiful and sandy riverbank about a 30 minute drive and 30 minute hike away. The sand there was fine and easily compacted, so I filled up a huge bag of it and brought it back to the house. Rammed earth is supposed to be around 70% sand and 30% clay/soil. The molds to make it have to be precise and strong enough to resist the beating they take as you tamp your mixture inside of them. The possibilities for shapes is essentially limitless, though it is quite weak in tension, just as concrete is. I’ve decided to make a curved mold and build a scrap wood bin for the workshop so we can demonstrate the beauty, practicality, and strength of using rammed earth. I finished cutting all of my curved braces, and have made one side of the mold by screwing some 1/4” plywood along the curve.

Our sample bricks. Wetter mixes towards the left.

Our sample bricks. Wetter mixes towards the left.

My curved mold. I'll finish it tomorrow and test it.

My curved mold and braces. I’ll finish it tomorrow and test it.


8. Dry sheets and sleeping bag and mattress.

I have bed bugs. Pretty bad ones. Somehow I’m the only one in the house with them. I wasn’t sure at first, but red dots have slowly been working their way up my left arm, and two nights ago I woke up with red dots all over my face. Sweet. The quickest way to reliably get rid of bed bugs is to boil your sheets and mattress. You’ve seen our mattresses- those things would not dry in less than a week in the sun. A second option is to leave your materials out in the sun until the bugs simply dry up and die. This is what I’m trying for my mattress, though I took the boiling route on everything else except my sleeping bag.

Apparently the women who work in our women’s center have bed bugs, and they sit all day on the carpet in our sat-sung room. 1. Bug bites woman. 2. Bug says goodbye to family and hides itself in woman’s clothing. 3. Woman comes to Kopila Valley and sews a yoga bag while sitting on our carpet. 4. Bug wisely descends into carpet. 5. Bug climbs onto Luke during satsung 6. Bug begins a new family in Luke’s mattress. 7. Said family feasts on Luke’s arms and face while he sleeps.

Fortunately, I haven’t yet contracted the lice that has forced a lot of the kids to cut their hair. These things are all cyclical, and those affected are typically those who avoid hygiene. In particular, the young ones, and the boys. It was the same thing with the scabies.

Checking for and treating lice.

Checking for and treating lice.


9. Email Kelly

Kelly is another Fellow here. She’s been here for almost a year, though she took August off and went home. She’s a hard worker, is great with the kids, and generally just easy to be around. She’s half Japanese and half French, but doesn’t speak either language. She does speak some Nepali, though, and we’ve been studying together. She’s also the interim principle at the school while Maggie looks for someone permanent.

10. Momos with Terri, Nena, and Caroline

We’ve discovered a new mono place just a 2 minute walk from the house. Momo’s are essentially round dumplings, either fried or steamed, that come with a tasty curry dipping sauce. Today I got an order of mutton momos and veggie momos, and probably could have eaten 2 more orders. Terri and Caroline each gave me their last two (out of 10). My total meal, for two servings and a bottle of Coke, cost 160 Rupees, or $1.60.

Terri is the other Sustainability Fellow. She’s in the middle of getting her Masters in Environment Studies from Pratt. She’s spent time in South America and Vietnam and India, has worked with Rammed Earth, does work for the U.N. and research for development professors in Belgium, and is also from Vermont, having found out about Kopila through Curtis Koren as well. She’s only 22.

Caroline is the Home Fellow. Maggie once explained that she picked Caroline because she asked “who do I want to care for my children?” I think she made the right decision. Caroline arrived the day before I did, and within 10 days, over 20 of the children had a serious outbreak of scabies. Scabies are tiny little mite that burrow under your skin and cause you to itch, and then spread only the paths of your scratching. It’s not easy to keep kids from scratching when they itch, so the scabies went rampant. Caroline defeated the scabies. Like a champion. Washing all the kids twice a day, applying Neem oil to their bodies. She’s got all the good qualities of a grandmother, but is never lacking for energy or laughter or a joke. I’ve never seen someone so good with kids, it’s amazing how they gravitate to her. Never before had a realized that parenting is an actual skill.

Nena is an institution and undoubtedly the ringleader of the fellows. Possibly the funniest girl I’ve ever met (sorry, Xandie). She’s a combination of all the elements, and her mind is constantly poised to strike with a witty or sarcastic comment. Like Caroline, she’s amazing with the kids. She also teaches a yoga class with all the Nepali Aunties, and leads meditation at the beginning of satsung. She was supposed to have left two months ago, but then extended her stay until two weeks ago. She then extended it a further month, and is leaving in three weeks to move in with her boyfriend in North California. This place will not be the same without her, not even remotely.

Not the most flattering picture. Oh well. This is after 2 hours of carrying bricks. Terri, Caroline, Maggie, Nena, and Magdalena (our Women's Center Fellow).

Not the most flattering picture. Oh well. This is after 2 hours of carrying bricks. Terri, Caroline, Maggie, Nena, and Magdalena (our Women’s Center Fellow).

Prabesh, Kelly, Manish, and Nena

Prabesh, Kelly, Manisha, and Nena.


11. Find shirt and square

A nice linen shirt I got in Vietnam last year has somehow gone missing. Also missing- my speed square. On my various work crews, I’ve always admired the scars on old speed squares of the guys I work with. In Boston, and with my Dad and Cam back home. Cam’s square was almost 30 years old, and bore the marks to prove it. Mine is only three years old, but has deep cut marks, holes, and dents that I’ve somehow gotten attached to. Yeesh, I must be my father’s son.

12. Call Nepal Geological Society

Nepal has two national geological study centers. One is in Kathmandu and the other is in… Surkhet! of all places. Terri and I have conducted interviews (taking some of the children with us as translators) with the neighbors near our land site, to find out more about the soil, weather, and earthquake risk. None of them could recall an earthquake strong enough to damage buildings, but we need to double check the verity of this with Nepal’s geological center.

13. Blue Room- Halloween Materials

Halloween is coming up. While we’re undoubtedly the only house in Surkhet that celebrates it, we apparently don’t lack for enthusiasm and zest. Maggie’s doing. Everyone dresses up and the kids are sent on a scavenger hunt. Afterwards, each volunteer sets their room up as either a haunted house or a fun activity room, and the kids go trick or treating in groups of 5 through the hostel. I’ve got a great costume planned, but I’m not sure what I’m going to do for my room yet.

The kid’s rooms are each painted a different color, and they are grouped by these colors. I’m in charge of making sure the blue room has their costumes ready by the 31st, so I need to take them into town to buy materials for the costumes. All of this brings me back to the times at Pomfret School when Mom would labor for hours the night before halloween making sure my costume was ready for me. Frankenstein, a Reese’s box, or an upside-down man, she always did an amazing job. I hope I can replicate that.

Pankha is going as the Joker from Batman. Madan plans to be a wolf. Padam switched from a soccer player (I think he just wanted the gear) to a pirate. I plan on using Sagar in my costume.


14. Swimming Pool

Shani Village, the nicest hotel in town, recently built a pool. We’ve been taking advantage of this and taking the kids swimming a few times every week (at least, Nena and Caroline have). Most of the older ones now know how to swim. Maggie told the kids that once they can tread water for 2 minutes and also swim six length of the Shani pool, they’re allowed to swim on their own. I wish I could remember what it’s like to be scared of the water, but my parents got me swimming lessons when I was tiny. Today, Prabesh (3 years old) nearly started screaming as I carried him into the water. Sundar latched onto my neck as if he was about to drop off a cliff. Anjali took five minutes before deciding it was safe to dive into the water. I think that 22 year old Luke would have thought nothing but “come on fools! It’s just water!” but for some reason, I’m a lot more sympathetic to their fears now.

Kopila takes over the pool.

Kopila takes over the pool.

Nena, with Monica and Manisha

Nena, with Monica and Manisha.


Manisha (on the right in the above picture) is the cutest person I’ve ever encountered. She lost her mother (hyperlink) about a month ago. Big eyes and cheeks, an adorable cartoon voice that blabbers on and on in Nepali, and a fantastic giggle with her mouth open.

Manish and Maya.

Manisha and Maya.


15. Brochure edits and email to Maggie

Terri and I have been working fervently on a brochure that Maggie can send out and give to potential donors. It’s a three column format and includes a basic outline of all the elements of the new campus: solid elements (all our buildings), spatial elements (outdoor spaces), sustainability initiatives (both passive and active), disaster risk mitigation, and our general philosophy. We included screenshots of the current campus renderings, even though these are likely to change.

After finishing the document, we sent it off. Maggie liked it, but decided that the three-panel format would not work, and that something more substantial was necessary for her big presentation with the Gates Foundation next month. We’ve got a lot more work ahead of us in the next three weeks. I’m glad to finally be splitting it with someone, now that Terri is here.

16. Write blog post. With today’s checklist?

Here it is.

17. Clay test on soil from new land.

One test to determine the composition of any soil and sand is to put it in a glass jar with water and shake vigorously. As the contents settle, the heaviest particles fall fastest. The end result- gravel and sand settle in the bottom, followed by clay, followed by silt.

Particle testing. Soil (left) and sand (right).

Particle testing. Soil (left) and sand (right).

The kids are all watching Lord of the Rings 1, and I can hear where they are in the movie. The fellowship is in the mines of Moria, and Gandalf is about to face the Balrog and fall into the darkness. You. Shall. Not. Pass. I have to run over and see their reactions…

Not exactly heartbroken. When Dad first read Lord of the Rings to me, I think I was 8 or 9. I cried like a baby when Gandalf fell, and stopped reading for weeks. It wasn’t until I flipped through book 3 and saw a “… said Gandalf” that I knew let my dad continue the narrative.

18. Talk to Becky about making sand box

Becky is the Mental Health Fellow. She arrived a week before I did, and is in her (very) early thirties. Before coming to Kopila she worked with kids who were in and out of jail in Orlando. She said that work was, in a word, depressing. She hears a lot of awful and sad stories here as well, but I think there is a little bit more hope in these cases.

Becky - Mental Health Fellow.

Becky – Mental Health Fellow.


Regardless, she wants me to help her make a sand box for little kids to play in while she assesses their behavior. She’s also a phenomenal baker, and bakes some delicious desert twice a week. Not sure how she has the time, since she’s so busy helping the troubled kids and school and at the house, but I’m not going to call anything into question as long as I keep getting my deserts.

I hadn’t realized this, but I’ve taken almost no pictures of (white) people while I’ve been here. I’ll have to take FB photos for some of the Fellows.


19. Check on gas shortage

The entire town is about to run out of gas for cooking. This is the only fuel anyone uses to cook. Five of our kids had to wake up at 4 am this morning to get in line in town. Other kids took their place at noon, and finally got 13 gas cylinders at 3 pm. It’s enough for the next month. There were 600 people in line, and not nearly that many cylinders scheduled for delivery.

20. Nate arriving at noon

Nate is a new volunteer, here until March to teach English and provide tutoring for the kids. He’s 18 and from Mendham, NJ (Maggie’s hometown). Maggie was once his babysitter. He arrived just as we were all leaving for the pool, so he hopped on the bus with us without unpacking and threw himself into the chaos. He’s eager to learn Nepali and enthusiastic about everything that surrounds him.

21. Time Lapse for construction of New Level

Done, and looks good. But this blog is long enough already. I’ll put this up in a few days.


A busy, busy day. More so than usual. I’ve constantly been saying that there’s no such thing as a pure “work day” here. There’s no separating yourself from the kids and the fun and games that come with them. Even if I wanted to, it would be a waste of effort. It’s better just to seamlessly do both- go from drafting important emails to playing carrom to putting up shelves to the swimming pool to building rammed earth molds. And while it may not be a veritable 8-hour work day, it ends up being a lot of work sandwiched by a lot of play, and is thus sustainable for days and weeks without a true weekend.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.


3 comments on “Today’s Checklist- Extrapolated.

  1. jane says:

    wow, luke. i really enjoyed the l-o-n-g ‘to do’ list and how your wove in the kids, fellows, uncle ed, bothersome bugs, and rammed earth research (with links–so cool!). i see what you mean about a sustainable life. it sounds wonderful!

  2. Josh says:

    looking forward to seeing your demo rammed-earth scrap wood bin; surely the only one on earth!


  3. Hope Metcalf says:

    Luke! You are SO busy. I loved getting a sense of your day today. What are your Christmas plans? Email me–I have a crazy idea to float ….

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