Happy New Year! I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to post anything on this blog. The longer I wait to do something, like reply to an email, or call someone back or update my blog, the more I feel like I have to spend a lot of time and effort on my update/reply, and the more prone I am to procrastinating. One of my resolutions: to stay on top of all of my replies and updates without letting them feel overdue.
My first time driving in over four months was coasting in neutral, rolling backwards down a steep and bumpy Nepali road, with no fewer than 100 onlookers across at least five species (human, cow, chicken, goat, buffalo), sitting on the right (wrong) side of the car while looking back and forth between my side mirrors and popping the clutch to hear a poorly imitated English voice tell me “Do wear your seat belts for a safe drive” before fading away as the engine refused to sustain itself.
Kopila’s jeep had refused to start, and Top couldn’t get it going in his reverse clutch-popping attempts, so he asked me to try. I ended up 150 yards down the road, and sat in the car as everyone walked down to me. The final diagnosis, a (not so) good hour later – a severe deficiency in fuel. Out of gas. The gas gauge needs an adjustment because it had shown a third full.
I’m a couple of days late (now over a week late), but Merry Christmas to all! This was the first Christmas of my life away from home and, while I wish I could have had a lazy day opening presents, singing carols, and snow shoeing in Vermont, it was fantastic being here instead.
December 25th at Kopila is “Annual Day,” celebrating the founding and completion of the current bamboo school. Students’ families and the Surkhet community piled into the school to tour the science fair, listen to speeches, and watch the over a dozen student dances.
I semi-foolishly volunteered to help with a project for the science fair. I remembered reading about an amazing project called GravityLight, and wanted to try something like this with materials available in Surkhet. The concept is relatively simple – 1. Fill a bag with sand or any aggregate 2. Fasten the bag to the axle of a gear train 3. Attach the pinion of the gear train to a DC motor 4. Wire a light source to the leads of the DC motor 5. Raise the bag, and let gravity slowly pull it down as it spins the gear train and turns the DC motor at a high rpm, inducing a current in the wire leads attached to a lightbulb 6. Watch the light bulb turn on.
Simple, right? I thought so too. Two of the schoolkids jumped on board, and Nate as well.
The only gears we could find in town were pre-attached to their shafts, and were in metric sizes while we had nothing but English drill bits. I was gone for 2 weeks in Dhulikhel, and Nate was bedridden for a week with the flu. We spent hours trying to make a gear train that didn’t lock up, and gave up multiple times. Nate kept saying that we could at least attach a Voltmeter to our DC fan and show that spinning it would actually induce a voltage, just to demonstrate the concept.
By the time we finally made a gear train that could spin freely, it was the evening of Christmas Eve and it was obvious we wouldn’t be able to power a legitimate lightbulb. We tried a 1.5 watt DC bulb, and couldn’t get any life out of it. A little forlorn, we brought the failed experiment over to the school to give to the Science Fair organizers. Then Nate went into town to try and find an LED light while I worked on a Christmas Eve talk to send to Cass that had been hanging over my head. As soon as I finished, a breathless Nate burst through my door and shouted “IT WORKS IT WORKS!” I hadn’t seen him so happy in my 2 months of knowing him.
Maggie asked me and Terri to tell the Annual Day crowd a little bit about the new campus project at the end of the program, with Top translating to the Nepali crowd. Terri spoke about the different buildings, and handed off the microphone to me to talk about rammed earth and our sustainability efforts. I did this, and the crowd enthusiastically cheered after each of Top’s translations. Then, in a spur of the moment decision, I decided to test out my Nepali with a large crowd. I had asked Maggie earlier that day how to say “to build.” She told me it was “banaunu.”
I told the crowd:
“HAMI SANSARKO SABAIBANDA RAMRO RA SUNDAR SKUL BANAUNE SAKCHAUM”
It came out more smoothly than anything else I’ve ever said. The crowd blew up. I felt great. It was a rush. Even more so, because I meant what I said:
“We can build the best and most beautiful school in the world.”
I really believe this. In fact, here’s a note I wrote in my phone on the long bus trip back from Dhulikhel two weeks ago:
This thought has been wafting through my mind for about a week now. It comes to me when I wake up, when I’m passing in a Kathmandu cab, or when I turn off the lights for my newly adopted 9 pm bedtime:
We could build the best school in the world.
This isn’t something that was actively decided, nor was it something that was said outright by Maggie or Top or anyone else – it’s just something that’s slowly occurred to me over the past few weeks, and that I genuinely believe in my core.
A lot of schools, whether public or private, are built on budgets of 50 million dollars or more. But even with 1% of the financial means, we can top them all with our ideas and means of building. This sounds arrogant, I know, and makes it seem as if recognition is the goal of this project. This isn’t the case, and I don’t even feel compelled to prove it.
We can build a smartly planned campus in the hills of Nepal, using the clay from beneath our feet and the same from our towns river to create strong, beautiful, and modern walls that passively regulate temperatures in the fickle Nepali climate without any heating or cooling, that generates all of its own electricity from Solar panels, that cooks it’s own-grown food, fertilized with the campus’ composting toilets, using simple biogas systems that take burn the gaseous output of our toilets, that collects the rain water that falls on its roofs and filters it for students and the surrounding community, that heats it’s water from the sun, that preserves the Nepali terraces on which it is built, and that gives destitute Nepali children a 21st century education without cost:
It all looks so superlative, but I fail to see, after hundreds of hours of research, why any of it isn’t attainable with the right mix of diligence, caution, and stubbornness.
On a more personal level, I’ve never felt a more profound sense of purpose. This is the first time in my life where I have the chance to throw every ounce and microgram of my body, mind, and being, into one fully comprehensive focus. The past three months have not been, and the coming many will not be, without their intense moments of anxiety, but even from these I find myself feeling a powerful satisfaction.
This was followed up by one of the teachers rushing forward and shouting “Luke, is this your loongi?” I feigned surprise and put it on (poorly, as you can see it fall off a few seconds into the video below). The curtains opened and the other Fellows + Maggie stood in place behind. I shuffled into my spot and we unleashed this monster:
You may have to click the link or copy+paste:
After the dance, my first annual Annual Day ended and Christmas began. Santa had come that night and the kids stockings were stuffed full and had slid together like that Pixar short with the crane and crows hanging out on the telephone wire.
There must have been 200 presents as well. We had to open three a minute to keep the whole affair under an hour and a half. My secret Santa had been one of the older aunties. She bought me a Snickers box a third filled with Snickers and the rest fill with Nepali nuts and wafer bars.
I had randomly picked Becky, whose little adopted puppy Takoda is growing fast. I’ve occasionally helped her take care of Takoda, and this was a perfect chance to do something else. I managed to get Becky to tell me what things Takoda was lacking, and I ended up making her dog bed from bamboo that can disassemble and be light for travelling. During annual day, I had offered to keep Takoda in my room, and every time I returned to my room I found Takoda resting on my dog bed (which I had covered with a towel to hide), despite her normal bed being right there. Success.
I also finished a letter that Cass asked me to write for the Christmas Eve vigil at the Universalist Church in Woodstock the day before, and got a few emails from Dad telling me she had “hit it out of the park” (at least as much as you can hit a Christmas Eve vigil “out of the park”). It’s free content, so I’ll just copy and paste what I had written:
Here in Surkhet, Nepal, it can be tough to tell that it’s Christmas. For me, this time has always implied an unchanging set of scenes – cutting and dragging a spruce through our snowy field, inevitably discovering that we’ve nabbed yet another sparse but charming “Charlie Brown” tree, listening to Dad extoll the cleverness of his homemade tree stand, cutting out paper snowflakes with Cass, my cousin Noah’s incessantly beautiful piano playing, the mad dash on the 24th to finalize all my Christmas presents, the annual irony that the more we say we’re going easy on presents, the more the gifts spill out beyond the diameter of our tree, and singing carols with the entire family, 35 strong.
And yet, on my 25th December 25th, I am half a world away from home. Goats wander and bahoo outside my room, motorbikes speed and honk their way down the street, cremations occur daily by the riverside, and Nepali children roll bicycle tires with sticks down the street. Where is Christmas here?
It is here, in fact, in the Children’s Hostel where I live. Each night for the past week, the forty children and volunteers have sung carols, and we even have our own plastic spruce tree decorated with colored lights. A red stocking for each child is hanging in the common room down the hall. And yet, even with these reminders, it’s still difficult to believe tomorrow is the day.
For my work, I recently traveled to a small hillside village called Dhulikhel, about an hour east of Kathmandu. I stayed for 2 weeks at a farm carved into the steep gradient with narrow terraces and winding footpaths. Buffalo, cows, chickens, and stray dogs wandered the different levels. One of the workers told me that the stray dogs would spend days at houses, where people would take them in and give them food, and then move on to another home. I thought this was a beautiful existence for homeless canines. And why wouldn’t the people be generous when they live in the presence of such primal beauty?
The slatted hill faced east, and was thus perfect for watching the sun rise. I took to meditating every dawn while I was in Dhulikhel, on a rice patty spitting out from the hill like a helicopter pad. As if I were suspended, the view in every direction, including down, was open. After one such meditation session, I opened my eyes with a previously unfound clarity, almost as if someone had swapped my eyeballs out for those of a hawk. Mountains beyond hills, and a lazy white fog drifting and bubbling in the valleys between. Every slope cut with steppes like some 3-dimensional topographical map, and houses built from clay loosely scattered like constellations. Meandering paths shared by livestock and humans alike. Miles and miles away it went on the same, and I could see every house. The flaming sun rising above it all – yet even this orange orb was not the most attention garnering or even the highest entity in my view. Beyond it all, the highest mountains in the world rushed majestically into the sky – jagged, intimidating, relentless – their snowy peaks taking in the color of the morning sun and reflecting the light over valley, farm, and hill – straight into my narrowed eyes.
I called home. I had to. I had to share this view and moment, and in the moment itself. Cass answered. The same Cass who is speaking this very moment. I hadn’t heard her voice in months. The reception was crisp and perfect. She told me that she and Pete and Mom and Dad were finishing up dinner – pasta with a homemade sauce.
How beautiful a picture! How glorious a moment she herself was in! I could see it, all four of them sitting around Dad’s walnut table in the dining room – Cass and Pete to the North, Mom at the head, and Dad to the South. It’s a simple scene I’ve lived thousands of times, one that is so familiar that it is an essence of who I am. And then I found myself there at the dinner table as well, unseen by the others, trying in vain to describe my Dhulikhel view. The two worlds merged, one that I’ve lived and seen thousands of times and can relive without any conscious effort, and another right in front of me that was novel and breathtaking. It was such an intensely vivid experience that I could hardly speak. Which air do I breathe? Vermont or Nepal’s? Do I lean forward onto the table or stay seated on the grass below me? Describing the scene to Cass, it took me a full 15 second pause before I could tell her I was staring at the Himilayas, and even then I could only speak with a shaking voice. It must have sounded a lot like crying to her, but really, it was just joy. Joy that I was where I was, joy that my family was together and happy, and joy that I could, in an instant, join them there in Vermont in an experience that was nothing less than lucid.
This all to say that, even as I awake on my own Christmas morning thousands of miles away, I am here in this dark and cozy church tonight. Christmas time has been consistently magical for 24 straight years, and it is no great struggle to return – to sing the along with the projected Christmas carol lyrics and look up at the scratchy cartoon illustrations, to admire the way the ceiling glows as 200 candles ignite and flicker, and to revel in the the “Silent Night” procession out the door to plant our candles in the snow. Through their annual recurrence, these scenes have become as much a permanent part of me as sitting around the table with my family.
No matter where we may go or what we may be facing, this community, these people, these traditions and celebrations, are all so uniquely consistent in their joyfulness and purity that we can always return year after year, whether we’re actually in Vermont or not. And that is something I will always be thankful for.
Merry Christmas from Nepal.
I’ve now gone almost three weeks without a blog post. I was determined that we hit the ground with legs in motion as soon as we returned from Dhulikhel, and this is what we’ve done. We’ve nearly completed our formwork. We made one last design change to the first building, and removed one classroom. We’ve marked out where our foundation will be going.
Meanwhile, a huge Gabion Wall has appeared in the jungle along the edge of our property. At parts, the wall is 5 meters tall, tapering as it proceeds uphill into the jungle. Work done by whom?
Meet our crew:
While our laborers have somehow managed to build the whole thing in just about week, the work was significantly delayed by the neighbors across the river bed who, in spite of multiple government surveyors agreeing with our own-drawn property lines, insisted that we were trying to build on our land.
The reason for the dispute was obvious, but was mostly debated while I was in Dhulikhel (not that I could have contributed much, anyway, in my porous Nepali) – the ravine that runs through our jungle is a monster after large rainstorms, but is dry outside of the monsoon season. The path of the water is winding and twisting, cutting down to expose root and stone. On the Southwest side of our property, where the neighbors held a grave exception to our property lines, there used to be a 35 foot cliff into the ravine, almost a sheer drop. The ravine was obviously eating its way into our land parcel, and had been for half a century. And every foot that it moved into our land meant that another foot was gained across the river, to a point that the riverbed had moved by 50 feet into our land.
We ended up choosing the simpler path and building our retaining wall along the edge of the current ravine. Construction needed to start, and I had never thought the land across the ravine was ours, anyway. Top explained to me that in Nepal, land that is used, even illegally, for over 10 years without any objection becomes owned by those who use it. You can see a photo of the Gabion Wall (still in progress), at the bottom of this post.
I bought a new camera in Kathmandu a few weeks ago. A Canon SX 280HS. Bargaining for it was easy – I simply went to the “New Road” in KTM, where camera shops line the street, and haggled with each shopkeeper before telling them I’d think about it and proceeding to the next store to say “the next guy over will give it to me for 26,000. What can you do?”
It’s the nicest camera I’ve ever owned. It takes great videos:
Also, best of all, I can zoom in at 20X and also take super-slow motion video:
Some examples. (Low quality due to uploading constraints):
Other random photos: