Alert: Something Happened

While I am constantly thankful for having the opportunity to work on such a large, intricate project, and appreciate the learning experiences that constantly come my way, I would be a liar to say that it’s been smooth sailing. Far from it. In fact, many things have gone wrong and at times I have been more stressed than ever before in my life. The stress runs deep, and the effect it has on me alternates between immobilization and a frenetic desire to move and be productive.


1. I don’t speak Nepali.
I’ve been here almost 6 months now. I think I’ve done very well for myself in just a half year, but no matter how competent a construction manager I may be, managing your workers in a language that you didn’t speak a word of half a year ago is not ideal.
For translations, I’ve had Sandip, who has also become a good friend. I think I mentioned him in another post. He’s a little younger than me, and has helped out Kopila Valley on errands since he was a kid. He came with me to Dhulikhel as our translator, and since then he has worked with me almost constantly on the project. I put him on a salary a month ago. With Sandip, low-tone interactions are very easy, but when I need to communicate something complicated and emphasize that “it needs to be EXACTLY 5′ along both diagonals,” it would be helpful to be able to understand the response.

Continued Nepali lessons.

Continued Nepali lessons.

2. We hired WAY too many people.
At one point, we had 63 people on our payroll. Realistically, this was probably the source of most of our issues. We had 61 laborers, and two people besides me managing them. I had said from the beginning that we’d need 25 people, but somehow our numbers kept growing and growing as Daajyu (Top’s elder brother) continued hiring laborers. For the first project we did – on the Gabion Wall – it made total sense. A lot of the work was simply moving rocks. But as that work came to a close, Top kept asking me – “what will they do after? we need to keep them busy.” This is a very dangerous line of thinking.
Once the Gabion Wall was finished, the laborers began building the foundation of our boundary wall. Again, this was mostly just moving and laying stone. But then, once the foundation had cured for a few days, our masons began building the actual wall with the Chinese bricks I mentioned in the last post. Chinese bricks are smooth and meant to be visible. Our local masons normally are used to building walls that are to be plastered over. They were not qualified to build a brick wall that is meant to be seen.
A week later, Top found two masons from the far-off district of Butwal who were qualified to do the work. The difference is stunning, and it makes the first 100′ of wall look like absolute… like absolute shit, even though it looked halfway decent before the other masons came.

The Crew. We had way more people than this at one point.

The Crew. We had way more people than this at one point.

3. Negativity came and wreaked havoc.
In all honesty, Terri and I didn’t get along very well. We were both very opinionated, and she found me over-confident and not cognizant of the sexism that surrounded us. Both were almost certainly true, but almost certainly exaggerated in her world. I had been here 5 weeks when she arrived, and was a little slow to realize that her role in the project was the exact same as mine. I had been given very explicit information otherwise, but this issue was never addressed. A stitch in time might have saved nine, but this never happened. Maggie was in the US for Terri’s first 6 weeks, and we were essentially directionless trying to design a huge campus in Nepal (and having decided to build it from a material none of the locals believe in). So, Terri and I always had some tension between us, even while traveling to Dhulikhel and Kathmandu together. I will say, though, that when we were working well together, it was fantastic and fun. She’s an amazing woman who has a ton to add to any project, but we just never completely recovered from a rough first month.
Other negativity came that doesn’t pertain to me (and thus I won’t go into detail). Its causes seemed to extend back far beyond my stay here. This negativity was far more profound than the brief shouting matches that Terri and I had, and was therefore much more painful, but informative, to witness. It was an extremely important lesson for me to see – negativity spawns paranoia in people, and paranoia completely breaks down people’s ability to communicate. By paranoia, I mean an insistent fear that one is not getting their proper “respect” – that some comment was a subtle dig or insult, or that a question is meant to be condescending. And finally, Without effective communication, the tracks get rusty and the train starts to wobble until it tumbles and crashes.
We had no crash, but I think we got pretty close. Terri left the project over a month ago. It wasn’t in an emotional rage, but something she had thought a long time about. We left each other on good terms, both apologetic that we hadn’t gotten along better. Her departure was sad, and I’ve missed having her around at times, but it did offer us a chance to reassess the structure of our team.

4. We’re building from Rammed Earth and bamboo.
This is a big one, even though it shouldn’t be. Terri and I knew a long time ago that Rammed Earth was the perfect material for the campus. It was cheap, sustainable, replicable, comfortable with changing seasons, and it has a long history of use in Nepal. What I never predicted, though, was that our Nepali counterparts would be so harshly against the idea, actively choosing to believe that we were foolish “videsi” (foreigners) that didn’t understand how building worked in Nepal. A lot of this skepticism was expressed when we weren’t around, so we had no idea for months what we were up against. In Nepal, and many other underdeveloped countries, building with mud is considered to imply poverty and low caste. After we had decided we wanted to use earth and bamboo as our two main building materials, I learned that Tope had had a disastrous experience building with mud when he lived in India, and that he vowed never to build with bamboo again after the current bamboo school was finished (due to rotting and termite damage). When we assured him that building with rammed earth and treated bamboo was dramatically different than what he was remembering, he would tell us “fantastic, very good actually” only to go and question everything to Daajyu and Gogan Malla (Gogan is his cousin who is also working with us).

One of Nripal's houses, made from RE and Bamboo.

One of Nripal’s houses, made from RE and Bamboo.

5. I’m 24.
As much as I may like to think I can do anything I put my mind to, I might very definitely be too young and under qualified to be doing what I’m doing without any unpaid, professional guidance or help. Of course, as I’ll write about below, we’ve brought on paid professional help, so this is no longer an issue.

6. The power is off more often than it is on.
When the power is off, we can’t run saws, charge batteries, pulverize clay, weld our formwork, and I can’t run my computer (whose battery and charger are both pooped). It’s funny, because before I arrived I thought that Surkhet would have no electricity and we’d have to walk half a mile to get drinkable water. This is actually close to the truth of a decade ago, but today most modern amenities/utilities of the West are available, but without any of the reliability as in the West. Can you imagine if Boston only had electricity for 12 hours a day and at completely irregular intervals? How would anything get done?

Plug in if you're lucky.

Plug in if you’re lucky.

The conclusion of all of this is that this hasn’t been easy. And we still don’t have any walls up. We’ve built sample walls, I’ve spent countless hours running through the structure of our building and working our spacing of windows and openings and pitches of roofs and lengths of overhangs and building materials for our balconies and stairs and doors and drainage for the campus and where we can put our solar or rainwater harvesting. We have foundations in the ground that have been ready for our walls for well over a month. In all honesty, it’s been incredibly frustrating.

But it’s not as if we’re without hope, plenty of it. We have Nripal Adhikary firmly on board with us, and we’ve recently brought on Prabal Thapa (I mentioned him in a post many months ago) to do our design work. He has a thick encyclopedia of experience working on big projects (many out of rammed earth), and it was a blessed relief to have him here last weekend and look to him for reliable grandfather guidance. For many months I’ve had to fill the role of manager and engineer and architect and supervisor, and it’s been exhausting. I’ve learned so, so much from both the negatives and positives, and I don’t regret any of the stress or even the uncertainty of where we are right now, but I’m happy that I can finally look to someone else for direction.

On a deeper philosophical level, I think I’ve been mildly selfish over the past few months. Since a very specific moment at a music festival in Miami during Junior Year at Tufts, I’ve tried to adopt the philosophy that every moment and situation, especially those that are new and foreign and challenging, is an opportunity for learning. But this has also meant that I have dipped my hand into too many jars here and I’ve been hesitate to reach out to those with more experience for fear that I’d be depriving myself of first-hand learning. I thought that bringing on Prabal would mean that his firm would do all the design work, and I’d merely see that finished product without learning about the process. I know now that this won’t be the case, and to have ever thought that I’d learn more WITHOUT working with experienced people was nothing less than delusional. Of course, as I expected, I did learn a huge amount by taking the opposite route, but the time has come to pull in someone more qualified than I to help us build a 1 million dollar campus out of an unfamiliar material with a workforce that speaks no English. It still remains to be seen what my role will become, but for now I’ve got some specific directions.

My tasks for the next two weeks are to do some actual engineering experiments and design work: Work with a solar PV organization to evaluate our needs. Build a model of our subfloor system and do strength tests on it. Find out the compressive strengths of our sample walls. Calculate the density of our rammed earth. Design a rammed earth border fence for the land across the ravine. Design a gate for the entrance to the land from the south next to the temple. Calculate our estimated costs for each component of each classroom. It all actually sounds manageable!


And, on a lighter note, here is a walking tour of our campus (this video is from a month ago):


8 comments on “Alert: Something Happened

  1. Josh says:

    You’ll do it, kiddo. Being disillusioned, if you take the meaning literally, is a GOOD thing!


  2. Tim says:

    Duke, I had a boss who used to say “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel” which may sound trite (it did to me when I was 24) but what he meant is that you can reach a lot higher and faster standing on the shoulders of others, and of course he was right.

    As for rammed earth if it was me and the locals were fanatically against it I’d want to double triple quadruple check and then check again to find out why and to be sure I’m not being the ignorant one.

  3. Anthony Thacher says:

    Luke: The fortunate in life start by having a mentor to learn from, to whom to ask questions, and to allow one to avoid some the problems that inevitably come from lack of experience, especially when dealing with other people in a supervisory position. When Kipling wrote “and never the twain shall meet”, he was exaggerating a bit but he was describing clearly the difficulties that arise when two cultures try to work together. It is an old tale in human history. I admire you for the challenges you took on with the school. Very few would have done it. Hang in there You may have encountered an impasse which hopefully patience and diplomacy will allow you to navigate successfully. Barrie and I and a great many others are rooting for you. Look upon this as half time in a game hardly lost and worthy of your strengths and attention. Your cousin Tim

  4. cass says:

    Luke, I can totally resonate with what you are saying! I felt very similarly in Costa Rica for a while – completely in over my head! It took me a while to get to that point, and it took a while to get past it too. Just keep at it, and in the end you’ll see that you made more progress than you realized at the time. The lessons that come out of it are huge, as you are already observing. Keep your head up and keep going!

  5. Steve says:

    Is the high school going to have a generator for backup electricity? If so could it be installed now for use during constructions days? If not, couldn’t one be installed anyway and moved when construction is completed?

  6. Camil says:

    OK Luke, really you are getting the education that lasts a lifetime, the kind you cannot possibly prepare for, that is not graceful. However your description of this stumbling around in human limitations is articulate and well realized, indicating that you are truly understanding the significance. We ALL benefit from that depth of understanding, vicariously by reading about it. Thank you for having the humility and courage to explain this dimension of your experience.

  7. Benj says:

    Love it dude. Your videos are the best–make more! Alex and Giorgia and Blay (he wants to ski with you) and I just drank a few liters of beer in NYC and thought of you. Specifically we laughed about your capacity for mischief; I hope you’re getting some time to kick back and/or make merry once in a while. As for dealing with skeptical foreign workers, I dabbled in that myself as you know, and I admire the grace with which you seem to be handling one of the gnarliest aspects of cultural exchange.
    I’m also totally stoked on how much feedback you’re getting from friends and family. Obviously Josh wins for the most succinct comment.

  8. Hesse says:

    Reading this makes me think I should make your blog assigned reading for my law students. To have courage and humility simultaneously is a tricky balancing act. Onward and upward! Xoxoxo hesse

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