Another glimpse at Juda Malla.

And a snippet of Nepali music.


The Old Road to Kalikot

March 18:
Last weekend, Chris, Jamie, and I walked from Dailekh Bazaar over the Mahabua mountain pass to reach Kalikot, where many of the Kopila kids are from. Mahabua is a sacred mountain in the Dailekh/Kalikot area, and almost all the locals have hiked up it for the mountain temple’s annual pilgrimage.

We had been planning the hike for a few weeks, but that certainly didn’t mean we were fully prepared for the final ascent (see below). Seeing as Dailekh is a great source of roofing slate and I am hoping to use slate roofing on our PrePrimary campus, it made sense to travel up to the region and survey the available product.

The slate roofs of Dailekh.

The slate roofs of Dailekh.

After a half day of work last Friday, we took a 3-hour car ride to Dalikeh. The next day, we set out at 7:30 and walked for 9 hours along ridges towards snowy peaks, eventually reaching snow at the end of the day. I had a hand-drawn “map” by Juda, one of my workers, and we consulted it the entire walk. The day was long, but a relatively consistent climb in which we didn’t cross a single river.

A man sharpens a huge saw used for cutting lumber.

A man sharpens a huge saw used for cutting lumber.

These red rhododendron trees increased in density and brightness as we climbed.

These red rhododendron trees increased in density and brightness as we climbed.

These massive gabion walls are part of a recent initiative by the Indian government to build roads through western Nepal. The aim is to increase the accessibility to potential hydroelectric sites.

These massive gabion walls are part of a recent initiative by the Indian government to build roads through western Nepal. The aim is to increase the accessibility to potential hydroelectric sites.

March 15:
It’s just about 7. I slept horribly for much of the night until 3:30, only to realize my body was keeping me awake so I could drink water. I had two beers last night, but they clearly were no substitute.

Unipata, the cold and quiet town just beneath Mahabua.

Unipata, the cold and quiet town just beneath Mahabua.

It is shockingly cold outside, as this adventure intensifies and becomes less of a happy-go-lucky affair. Our map from Juda Malla proved very useful on the way up to last nights town, Unipata. This town is the last inhabited place before the pass over Mahabua (a sacred mountain whose name means “huge father” or perhaps “big daddy”).
Mahabua itself is surrounded in great mystery. Googling it doesn’t give any results, and there was little consensus by the people in Dailekh Bazaar which snow capped peak was the big daddy.
Well, now we know which it is, waking up this morning, soon to set out on the part of the trek that Juda Malla indicated with scribble lines meaning “DHEREI APTARO RA UKALO” (VERY DIFFICULT AND STEEP). Given that last night it rained and sleeted for 30 minutes, it may be tougher than even capital letters can justify.

Juda's Map, from Dailkeh Bazaar to Mahabua Lekh (Peak).

Juda’s Map, from Dailkeh Bazaar to Mahabua Lekh (Peak).

There are three homes in this place, and the upper neighbors were extremely friendly and actually knew Juda Malla. I asked one of them to be our guide up and down the pass, and intend to grab him before we set out.

It boggles my mind that people stay up here in these conditions. No power, up to 3′ of snow, no animals besides goats, almost no farmland, and the nearest town with modern-ish amenities is a 9 hour walk away. No doubt it’s the intermittent traffic on this road that keeps the people here.
Our hosts are a young couple with a 5 year old daughter. The house is made from all stone, including the roof. The bathroom is on the side of a cliff and is a drainage pipe clogged with soil. The highest ceiling in the home is about 5.5′ tall, and the smoke from the kitchen fills the entire house with an eye-stinging fury. At 7:30, a thick fog enveloped the whole mountain and a light rain began to fall. It is freezing cold, and we are unable to escape the smoke of the fire without going out into the cold, wet rain. Kris’ eyes are blood-red and leaking tears.

All day and getting into bed, the entire house is filled with eye-stinging smoke.

All day and getting into bed, the entire house is filled with eye-stinging smoke.

We are about to go talk to our guide and ask about the prospects of leaving today. To stay the whole day would amount to misery, and a big delay in our plans to get to Oda. Plus, there’s no guarantee tomorrow would be suitable weather, either. It’s a 6-hour trip to Oda on a clear day, and surely the climb down the north face of Mahabua will take more than the estimated 2-hours in this weather. We’d need to leave by noon to be sure to get to Dilikot at least.

March 16:
We went yesterday, just the three of us, and ten minutes into the precipitous climb a wind and snowfall picked up around us. 30 minutes in and we were drenched with snow melting on our packs and bodies. 40 minutes in and the trail took a confusing turn and the wind and snow raged furiously around us. I eventually found the trail, but Kris (perhaps wisely) insisted we turn back. By this time, the snow was falling sideways. I felt pulsing with life and adventure, and it was physically and mentally painful to turn around, but I could never insist someone go on against their will for fear of self-blaming in case they had an accident. Jamie was perhaps more understanding, but I could tell he was reluctant as well.
We turned around and arrived back at the house to play a lengthy game of cribbage. At 2:30, a solo trekker went past and we considered going with him, but the wet clothes and shoes were again a solo-party hindrance. And so we ended up staying that night, playing poker in the smokey home until 9 pm and falling fast asleep.

At 6:30 I woke up and peered through the narrow slits of the door. Clear sky! A beautiful sight. Upon opening the door I saw a world freshly covered with six inches of snow! I laughed and rejoiced in the beauty and at the ridiculous turn of events. How could we find the “trail” leading up the mountain?
We recruited a local (there are 3 men, 3 women, and 1 child in this village) to guide us to the top. His wife told us we MUST not go, and he seemed less hesitant, so I jumped on the opportunity to bring someone who knew the path.
We agreed he would come to our house at 8:30, and we returned to the smokey kitchen to eat a small breakfast.

The snowy sunrise on Morning 2 in Unipata.

The snowy sunrise on Morning 2 in Unipata.

Only twenty minutes before our scheduled departure, a huge surprise – 7 travelers, 6 young students and an older uncle, walked by the house traveling up. We were in luck! A big group and no need for a paid guide.
The apparent leader drank two large cups of rice wine before departing, so we knew we were in competent hands.

March 18:
We set out at 8:40. Immediately, it was clear that the way was a different type of challenge than the day earlier. Any stones, slippery or grippy, were hidden between the snow and if not for our Nepali friends, we could never have found the correct trail – all previous footprints were erased.

The path, only recognizable  here because of its existent width.

The path, only recognizable here because of its existent width.

Twenty minutes into the walk, our fearless leader told me we could not continue because of the snow. I told him to follow me and simply provide directions, and I would clear the path through the whiteness. It was exhausting, but I loved being in front. Not to mention I hadn’t seen snow in years! I must have eaten a full gallon of it during those hours.

The snow was cold, but it certainly gave some advantages – it enabled us to kick in steps on particularly steep areas. For me personally, I felt sure that if I fell I’d have a decent chance to stab into the snow with my arms or legs or walking stick. At some points of the path, a slip or a fall would almost certainly be fatal, and in these places extra caution and focus was obviously required.

One of the more freaky and tricky spots on the trail. In the front, I had to go the long way around, which required you to put a foot on a stone dangling above a 50 foot fall. The shorter way (that Kris is taking in this photo) was slippery but presented low risk of falling.

One of the more freaky and tricky spots on the trail. In the front, I had to go the long way around, which required you to put a foot on a stone dangling above a 50 foot fall. The shorter way (that Kris is taking in this photo) was slippery but presented low risk of falling.

About 20 minutes from the top.

About 20 minutes from the top.

Looking down on the path in the previous photo.

Looking down on the path in the previous photo.

I don’t know how to describe the hike without being boring or sounding melodramatic. The snow and views and being in front and sense of danger put me in a wonderful meditative state. Reaching the top felt truly monumental, even though it only took two hours (that day) and our elevation was only around 13,000 feet. With the previous days failure and after weeks of anticipation, it was simply ecstatic relief to finally reach the pass of that holy mountain.

Reaching the top!

Reaching the top!

Beginning our descent.

Beginning our descent.

I’d like to think that I’m talented at walking weightlessly through snow. The north side of the mountain was a truly gentle slope and after an hour of stunning and occasionally hilarious descent (see the photos/videos) with the rest of the group, I took off from the group and ran in great bounds and leaps down the mountain. Of course, every second or third step I found myself with one leg buried up to my waist, but with the weightlessness and my confidence in the snow, the pace of my joyful prance never let up until I reached dry, grassy ground. Here, I removed my wet clothing, donning sandals and shorts instead, and meditated and basked in the sunlight while waiting for the rest of the group.

Jamie arrived 20 minutes later, and Kris shortly thereafter. We never saw the rest of the group after that (except for Sujan, our guide), continuing down to Oda via a long stone staircase and through the valley of Dilikot.

In Oda, we met up with John, a past fellow at Kopila who has started his own NGO to provide medical care around the Kalikot district. His team has just finished up their first clinic, a beautiful stone and cedar building with 4 medical rooms at 6 bedrooms upstairs.

Also in Oda:

A Map of the Land

This is a map that I made for a document Maggie needed to present to her board, a few weeks ago. Other than the path of the ravine, the lines are exact – taken from a government survey map and converted to AutoCAD and photoshop files on my computer.

The land, all three campuses (campi?).

The land, all three campuses (campi?).

The rightmost area in green is the small area (0.17 acres) where I will be working with Nripal on building an isolated campus for just the littles Kopila kids (from Daycare up to 1st or 2nd grade). We’ll be building five classrooms. The design concept is set, and is going to be amazing. We’ll optimistically start building the foundations in mid-April.

This is separated by a road from the 1.36 acre main campus in light blue, where Hemendra is our main contractor. Hemendra has all this work down to a science, so I mostly just give my input on small adjustments – minor amendments to build locations or the Administration building material. Right now, I’m working with Hemendra to figure out the best soil composition for our rammed earth walls. Once we decide on the clay content, the next question will be % of cement added. Hopefully we can keep this to a minimum. I’m hoping that we can actually use lime, instead of cement, because it recarbonizes (pulling in CO2) after you use it, severely cutting your carbon emissions. Over here, we’re going to have 10 classrooms + a science lab, a library and computer lab, a cafeteria/auditorium, an amphitheater, the administration building, and a playing field.

The leftmost yellow area is where I’m building my current rammed earth fence. It’s a huge space (2.17 acres) and the land varies from rice patties to jungle to secluded terracing along the jungle ravine (red). The plan for this side is relatively undeveloped, but our current line of thought is that we can use the space to experiment with, and eventually teach, permaculture, beekeeping, mushroom growing, metalworking, woodworking, masonry, greenhouses, agriculture, husbandry, and more.

A video of the land from February 5.

Just a description of what’s happening in this video:

Ude Dai is up on the sawhorses about to start placing concrete in a sloped shape for the roof of our columns.

Next up, Laxmin is about to cut into the concrete slabs (upon which Ude will place a roof) to create a drip edge.

Then, Juda Malla is up a ways putting outdoor primer on our completed roofs. This video was from yesterday, and today I had him start painting them in color. I have chosen an irrational number known as “pi” and purchased 10 different paint colors – each block corresponds to a digit, which then corresponds to a color. So, 3.14159 becomes: dark green, light green, red, light green, blue, orange, and so on… until the 57th digit of pi (we’ll have 57 columns). I am beyond excited to see it when the colors are all placed.

After that, you can see the slab that we poured for our metalworking shop. I am ecstatic to get this up and running – we have so many metalwork that needs to be done (for our fence, making new formwork, building a trolley for my motorbike), and I can hardly wait to no longer rely on the expensive and very unreliable metalworkers around Surkhet. I went to Nepalgunj 2 weeks ago and purchased $1,500 of welding equipment. I then ordered wood to build the workshop. The manager told me it would take 2 days. 2 weeks later – still no wood. Thus we decided to build the shop from metal, which makes sense since… its a metalworking shop.

Next: Rammed earth corners are typically chamfered to increase their strength. This is done by putting a triangular piece of wood in the corner of your formwork. I set up the skilsaw according to Pete’s idea to get nice straight cuts on these piece. Unfortunately, the blade was 1/8″ too short, so I have to finish up the cut by hand.

Then, you can see Samdi, Krishna Kancha, and Candra Bahadur (which means “brave moon”) working on a new column. In the shot, Krishna is using the dahnti (meaning “teeth) to roughen the finished layer of rammed earth before adding the next layer. In this way, they interlock.

Finally, there are the foundations waiting for ramming along the edge of the road. This is a 3 foot foundation of stone masonry and topped with a concrete block that we place bricks on. The two courses of brick are staggered by a half-inch so there is a lip to put our formwork on.

And that’s that!

For some extra hilarity, turn on the subtitles to this video and look what YouTube has put in for my commentary.

Also, about 250 feet away from me, under and across the suspension bridge, is a ton of other work. Including a 500 foot long retaining wall replacing last year’s gabion wall and the near-completed foundation for the Middle School, as well as the foundations holes that have been dug for the Kitchen, Admin, and Library. So, so much happening, and we’re only just getting started. Woo!

A picture-less update!

I’m long overdue for an update on the work up at the land. I think part of this is that I’ve felt like my main current project – building a fence – sounds like an exceedingly lame endeavor, and I’ve wanted to wait until it somewhat resembles my vision before I show photos and discuss details. But the work has been going relatively slowly, mostly due to our slow-moving and deceitful neighbors, so I think I’ll need to post an update on the fence in the next few days.
We have about 20 columns built over the past 40 days (about 230 feet in length). This is about half the speed I was hoping for. Ironically, I’ve actually had to slow down the advance of our wall because our neighbors needed a large, empty space to drive a tractor through to transport materials from their demolished house. They consistently said “yes, in 5 days it will be gone” for a month straight! Just yesterday, they finished moving out.

In the ravine, the large retaining wall, replacing last year’s gabion wall, is almost halfway done. I’ve given up on micro-managing projects to ensure this will be an ultra-green campus. It’s already too late, it’s not going to be: we have 1000 feet of solid brick wall, we have hundreds of bags of cement in this newest retaining wall, and I have serious doubts about the buildings of the main campus.

With that said, the retaining wall is actually fantastic- it’s beautiful and looks very strong, and has helped me come to the important conclusion that, at times, the use of cement is unavoidable. The gabion wall was expensive, ugly, and ultimately failed during the flood waters this past monsoon season. Not to mention that the steel wire used in it had its own intense carbon output. Building this new wall with just stone and cement has allowed us to build with curves- an immense improvement on the old, blocky gabion aesthetic.

I suppose another source of my pause in blog updates has been a subconscious reluctance to write negatively about the work of others. The main campus is a fine example of this. Here are my thoughts:

The main campus construction is going. Just going. Hemendra is the lead contractor on this, and taking a contractor’s pay for his work. He hasn’t been here in 4 weeks. Amod is his second in command. He hasn’t been here in two weeks. Suraj is younger than me, and the engineer on site. He earns $80-100 a month. The workers earn $3.80 per day, and work 7 days a week (their own choice). [to be fair, $4.50 is probably the average in Surkhet]. The absence of higher level leadership has been frustrating.

The foundation, at its lower 3 feet, is over 4 feet wide. There are doubled-up 20 mm steel rods placed every 4 feet that will connect to a concrete tie beam at the top and bottom of each floor. These rods are anchored under the foundation in 6″ of high-cement-content concrete (at 4.5′ wide, and 300 feet long, this beam alone contains 675 cft of concrete at 22% cement content – yikes). Worse still, others hoping to replicate our example in the future will ask, “how did they do their foundation? How much did it cost?” The response might deter them from repeating what we’ve done – building from RE.

None of this is to say that the design won’t be beautiful- it will be stunning, I have no doubt. And I’d certainly prefer that the structure err on the side of safety rather than aggressive minimalism, but there’s a limit. I’ve had two separate, mildly heated conversations with architects here (Terri and Prabal), trying to explain that there is such a thing as “safe enough” and that, after a point, you’re simply wasting money, time, and carbon emissions. There’s no limit on “as safe/earthquake proof as possible.” A category 25 earthquake, the apocalypse, could be just around the corner). To a certain point, this is quantifiable in a “factor of safety” and one needs to decide if an FoS of 3 is good enough or if it needs to be 10. There is a tradeoff with everything. Clearly, Prabal and his structural engineers didn’t agree. And yes, look at Luke, the mechanical engineer, questioning the structural engineers. How dare he. Except I have obsessively scoured rammed earth safety manuals/standards and I know such a massive foundation is overkill for building on rocky soil such as ours. And while this is only one building, it establishes a precedent for what future rammed earth buildings will look like.

I’ve certainly lost some interest and devotion to the main campus. It’s a feeling that has risen from deep inside me over the course of the last 12 months, and thankfully, I listened to it. There is no shortage of other work and projects. The fence, new formwork, the PrePrimary campus with Nripal. He visited last weekend to show me the design. It’s a wonderful mix of smart/safe/beautiful design (using strong curves and single story buildings). Unfortunately, it seems to require that we cut a lot of the remaining trees. I’m working with Jamie to come up with a transplant plan.

I would share the design if I could, but even Maggie hasn’t seen it yet. I just know that I haven’t been so internally excited about a project for a while. Curved, multi-leveled classrooms underneath a continuous, super-structure roof build around a round, open air courtyard. I can hardly wait. We’ll likely be starting in approximately 2 months, when I expect to finishing up my boundary fence.

Lastly, I daily (usually) post photos on my Instagram page during the day while I work. It’s much easier than wordpress, since the only writing is for captions! Here is the link below:

The Morning Commute.

Another day, another commute.
In the cold, my bike starts, then flounders.
Again, again. More false starts.
Finally, it turns, rolling, rumbling, and I rev.

The road is rough, and auto-pilot is not an option.
Boulders, crevasses, heaps of buffalo dung,
There is never a smooth ride.

A woman, at the moment of imminent impact,
Plucks her plump young child from the center of the muddy road
And with newfound attention begins inspecting his scalp for nits and lice.

A group of children, huddled ahead.
One sees my approaching white skin.
The huddle is exploded, their voices,
Climbing and clambering over each other.
“HI!” “HI!” HI!”
And when I am 20 feet past, a solitary “How are you?”
Or sometimes “what is your name?”
Or an unsolicited “I am fine!”
A regurgitation of English phrases
From classes based on memorization.

Then, massive lumbering black beasts with wide, sharp horns.
Buffalo – the newborn calf coated in a soft, brown fur
Hurrying alongside the dry, hairless hide of her mother.
I look into the huge, deep, black eyes, and see a void,
As she is driven by a leathered old man with a whip.

A man stands, tall and proud,
Shaking a woven grass plate filled with rice seeds,
As the western wind luffs away the husks into a messy pile.
He sees me, then looks back at his work.
Then he peers quickly back at me again, quizzical.
Just beyond him, a group of three women,
Ancient, wrinkled, peering faces,
Note my foreignness as I whizz by.

One black, one white and spotted brown,
Flat irises and comically oversized ears,
The pair of baby goats sprint alongside me,
Skipping, hopping with furious, uncontainable energy,
They leap onto a pile of stones,
To be used for some new home’s foundation.

A man bends over, reaching
With his blackened, greasy hands
For the handle of his tuk-tuk’s engine,
Frenetically spinning the fly wheel inside.
Until a spark catches, and a sequence of of black, perfect smoke rings,
Is spit from the beast, followed by a cumulus cloud of poison and an angry, shaking roar.

Fields of green and yellow wave lazily in the sun,
As a calf and his mother look up at my descent upon them,
Then, with a confidence that can only mean they know they are holy,
They begin to cross the road, at the last second veering into my path.
I swerve, and immediately a chicken shoots into the way of my wheel,
Hustling forward as I bear down upon it,
Refusing simply to go to the side.

Feeling two metallic bumps underneath, I notice in my mirrors the long metal rods,
Splayed out by some welding shop whose storage space somehow includes half of the road.
A 6 year old boy holding his baby sister are playing their daily hooky,
Staring into the arc of light, burning retinas to absorb the impossibly bright star.

Trotting away from a mob is a dog,
Presumably female and heated, trailed by an overeager, sex deprived,
Group of 5. Relentless, insistent,
They won’t take no for an answer,
And the people and other dogs only look on, unperturbed,
As she tires of the flight and surrenders to their needs.

Here comes an unsure young man,
Riding a bike far too large.
“Balancing,” swerving, twitching,
I am sure he will turn directly into my wheels,
As soon as I pass by.
But they never do.

And finally, the land.
My destination, every day, for 100 days and counting,
And 250 days before that.
My heart, my love and my hate.
The road is always rough,
The challenges too diverse to count,
Too foreign too quantify,
And auto-pilot is not an option.
My mind stretches and billows,
And, feeling the strain, I smile.