Venting and Media Galore

Today, I had planned to go with Laxmin (my foreman) to Shalman’s workshop to finally finish up my new formwork design. Shalman is our welder, and is generally very accountable. Recently, though, he’s left me hanging several times, and our new formwork has taken 9 days, so far.
In building our new fence, I’ve had the opportunity to reanalyze how effective our old formwork is. It’s strong and effective and, indeed, we’ve already built 7 blocks for our fence. But the work is slow. I have a team of 6 right now, and even then we’re only rammed 16 cft per day. Part of this is because I’ve taken away their music – the speakers that we were using are needed at the school in preparation for next week’s Annual Day (dances and performances galore).

Another reason is that we only have one set of formwork right now, since I sent away all of our old formwork to Shalman’s shop to reuse the metal, so we have three people ramming, two people creating the mix, and one person floating between us and other work.

The new formwork.

The new formwork.

Finally, the old formwork is heavy, and it takes a while to set up and disassemble, at least an hour per day. The new formwork is half the size (2’ x 4’), and therefore half the weight.

With a team of 6, I think we should be able to ram 40 cft every day. My aim is to have 2 forms set up at the same time, each with two rammers, and two people making mixes on the side. I have been looking forward to seeing that set up in action for 8 months. This new formwork is key, and I can hardly take the suspense anymore, we need to finish it and see if it actually works!

This is my SketchUp file where I play with formwork designs. There are a lot of iterations here.

This is my SketchUp file where I play with formwork designs. There are a lot of iterations here.

But we are all slaves to load shedding here, and as soon as I finished breakfast, the power left us, not to return until 4 pm. Today is Saturday, my one day off, and all I want to do is get this formwork finished.

I would have hoped that by now my patience for unanticipated delays would have improved, but I think I’ve only gotten worse. Everything here just takes so long. Beyond load shedding, customer service is remarkably horrible, and there are no deadlines that can be trusted.

Sometimes it feels like creating solutions only generates further problems. For example, I completely rehashed the water storage system here at the house, connecting all tanks in one continuous and automating everything with a water sensor. Plumbing hardware here is shit, though, and for the next week, leaks kept appearing throughout. When these finally were worked out, I found out that the automated system had a time limit that wouldn’t work with our system. We needed a new Integrated Circuit, specially programmed by the manufacturers in Delhi to be shipped to Kathmandu. I brought the system back to Kathmandu, and returned to Surkhet with the new one. This one didn’t work. I sent this one back to Kathmandu, and complained to the manufacturers in Delhi. They made a new one and sent it to Kathmandu two weeks ago. The vendor there dropped the new system off with a courier service 6 days ago. The system still has no arrived. My excitement at finally having an automated system has been in purgatory for 47 days, now.

My new laundry racks work well, but the bamboo started to get moldy. We put a wood finish on them, and when I asked two Uncles to go find more bamboo, they said none was available in a thin size. I talked to my Passionfruit grandfather, and he sold me some of his. Today is a Saturday, and every article of clothing in this house is hanging to dry. I would wager that there is a kilometer of total length. Despite this idea, we still have tons of laundry on all the railings and on makeshift wires strung up between… anything and everything.

Laundry, laundry everywhere! Maybe if we didn't all do our laundry on Saturdays, we wouldn't be so wanting for space.

Laundry, laundry everywhere! Maybe if we didn’t all do our laundry on Saturdays, we wouldn’t be so wanting for space.

The wiring for the solar, while finished, was installed with such incompetence that I’ve almost ceased to care. Standard procedures, such as making sure wall conduit goes on plumb, level, and square, were completely ignored and seemingly intentionally avoided. Outlets were removed, and put on in such a way that they were no longer accessible or simply ceased to work. They left our roof an abhorrent mess. Printed labels were never added to solar switches, and when a worker returned here from Kathmandu last week, his labeling machine ran out of ink and he had to make the 16 hours return trip to Kathmandu (I simply laughed when he told me, as he had done to every one of my complaint’s that his work was not neat enough). Not what you like to see from an expensive contract.

After weeks of research and testing, Tung Oil seems like it may be a perfect coating for our rammed earth walls. I am building our boundary wall with no cement, and I’m stressed I won’t be able to find a good waterproofing agent for the outside. Tung Oil is not available in Nepal, though, and will have to come from India. I found a vendor in Delhi last week and placed an order on Tuesday. Since then, I have asked him 8 (eight) times for his bank info so I can send him a payment. He still has not replied. Nothing would give me more pleasure than calling him and telling him I’ve found another source, and he would not receive a single Rupee from me, but I haven’t been able to find any other vendors.

Testing out various waterproof coatings.

Testing out various waterproof coatings.

This Tung Oil issue is huge. When pure, the oil is incredibly hydrophobic and, because it dries slowly, it can penetrate deep into any porous material (including marble). If we can use a natural waterproof coating instead of cement in our walls, we will see a massive decrease in cost, as well as embodied carbon emissions. Many online resources call into question the UV-resistance of tung oil, though, and no one ever has tested it on a rammed earth wall.

I fully believe that rammed earth could be an affordable, sustainable, and beautiful building material in this part of the world. Back in the US, egregiously cautious structural requirements would never allow for it to be built without cement. Here, though, cement is unnecessary and likely a detriment. Some sort of waterproofing agent likely needs to be found in order to quell fears about walls washing away in the rain (as unfounded as that might be). Could Tung Oil be that coating? I may never find out, if this guy doesn’t give him his !#@$ing payment info.

Other happenings:
– Hemendra has dug for the foundations of the High School building. That foundation is going in this week. (more info in future blog)

– Jamie built a machine that compresses recycled paper into briquettes that are burnt in a rocket stove. It’s pretty nifty, though we’ve yet to try burning the briquettes.

Jamie's briquette compressor.

Jamie’s briquette compressor.

– Laxmin has two new baby goats. They come to work with him every day. The baby girl has been refused by the mother, for some reason. Laxmin therefore went out and bought a milk bottle/nipple and will continue hand feeding her for the next month.

Munu

Laxmin and the four goats he brings to work.

Laxmin and the four goats he brings to work.

– For secret santa, I have Amrika Aunty, who is an avid gardener. I think I’ll make her a gardening tool with a nice wooden handle. I hope she doesn’t read this (ha! unlikely).

– Daajyu found this mildly (extremely) creepy doll in a trash pile on our land.

Daajyu's new friend. Are you having nightmares yet?

Daajyu’s new friend. Are you having nightmares yet?

– This is a Nepali seesaw.

– I copied an idea from Pete and set up our own table saw at the land. It is the only table saw in Surkhet that can cut at an angle.

The cordless table saw!

The cordless table saw!

– This is a video from a foggy morning at the land.

– I went to a wedding in a Dang valley, 6 hours from here, two weeks ago. The journey was amazing, albeit exhausting. I was a captive there (the only white person. I genuinely hate being white here.), but one of the highlights was seeing… bats!

Those aren't fruits. Those are actually just massive bats.

Those aren’t fruits. Those are actually just massive bats.

The bats are more like miniature dogs with large leather wings. By my estimate, they had a 30 inch wingspan.

The bats are more like miniature dogs with large leather wings. By my estimate, they had a 30 inch wingspan.

– On the same trip, I saw the largest big in Nepal. Possible in South Asia. Possibly in the whole world, I bet this thing weighed 500 pounds.

This photo does not do justice to the size of that behemoth pig.

This photo does not do justice to the size of that behemoth pig.

– I also witnessed Nepal’s finest safety precautions:

This.

This.

Is.

Is.

Not.

Not.

Safe. Is that a child?

Safe. Is that a child?

– Here is a video from the post wedding ceremonies, as the newly married couple is “greeted” into the groom’s house for the first time as a wedded pair, while serenaded by a squeaky clarinet.

– The modernization of Surkhet is delicious. There is now a cafe in town that not only delivers food (holy shit!!), they also serve this: an Oreo Milkshake.

Introducing, the new Oreo milkshake from Java Cafe. It was a nice day, so I ate outside. Unwise move, as many passersby eyed my food the whole time.

Introducing, the new Oreo milkshake from Java Cafe. It was a nice day, so I ate outside. Unwise move, as many passersby eyed my food the whole time.

– I had Shalman weld an outside fireplace. It works great, and last weekend we cooked bacon (that I brought frozen from Kathmandu three weeks ago).

Cooking bacon on our grill. The first bacon we've had in months.

Cooking bacon on our grill. The first bacon we’ve had in months.

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Life These Days

1. Solar
Our solar installation from our solar contractors is nearly finished. Two weeks ago, a group of three Nepali welders showed up at our house to install the structure of the solar installation. A lot of debate had gone into this, because the contractor wanted to put all twenty panels in one big array. This setup is ideal because you eliminate the risk of shading, and the structure is easier to build. It would have been a massive, 20’ x 26’, array, though, stretching up to a height of 15’ above the top roof and blocking much of the view from our poop deck (our house is the tallest in the whole neighborhood, and the view of the rest of the valley is fantastic. I had originally wanted to put 5 or 6 panels on top of the pergola, but found out the panels had to be put in groups of 10, and both arrays needed to be equidistant from our batteries. I’ve learned a ton about solar PV installations during this process.
With the pergola out of the question, I came up with a different layout for the solar panels – one that would sacrifice a small amount of shading in the winter months (when our load is way less due to the lack of ceiling fan usage). When the welders showed up, the plans from the structural design team were utterly useless – they had the wrong sizes for the solar panels, the wrong orientation of the arrays, and even the dimensions of the roof were wrong. So… I designed the structure myself.
I only loosely supervised its construction, though. And though the overall structure came out well, the welders didn’t put the required one-inch gap between around each panel to allow for heat flow and wind reduction. Afterwards, I noticed and asked about it. The head welder smiled and said it didn’t matter. He was incorrect, and much of the mounting structure has to be redone (with the substructure remaining intact).
The batteries arrived safe and sound, and the solar subcontractor hadn’t hired laborers, so our Uncles had to individually carry the 225 pound batters up the 5 flights of stairs. Nepalis carry things strapped to the top of the head, so the neck/spine carries all of the weight vertically. It looks absurdly damaging, but it’s also incredible what they’re able to carry this way.

One of twenty 210 W panels.

One of twenty 210 W panels.

The little shelter under our Northern Array.

The little shelter under our Northern Array.

#Safety first.

#Safetyfirst.

2. Laundry Racks
With my free time, I’ve found myself focusing on fun projects inventing or making things for the hostel. The most recent of these is a multi-tiered laundry rack design that I drew in SketchUp and had my welder make. The previous laundry system was a series of wires strung haphazardly over all the roofs, hung at the perfect height for me to strangle myself on as I walk the premises in the middle of the night. I had had enough of suffering the most obvious solutions to menial problems.
Here’s the laundry rack design :

The AutoCAD drawing of the laundry rack design. AutoCAD is the bomb diggety - I'm thoroughly thankful I took CAD design classes at Tufts.

The AutoCAD drawing of the laundry rack design. AutoCAD is the bomb diggety – I’m thoroughly thankful I took CAD design classes at Tufts.

Because galvanized wire would pull the two racks together, we cut down small lengths of bamboo from the land and put these between racks. We chose bamboo because 1) it’s sustainable, 2) it doesn’t rust, 3) it is strong.
So far, so good. There is a small shading issue, depending on how you choose to orient the racks – I like it oriented North-South is best, so one side receives morning sun and the other gets it in the evening. The Aunties are having difficulty accepting the idea that there is as much space as there used to be. The idea that 6 racks at 8 feet each equals 50 feet is elusive.

The laundry racks, built and painted.

The laundry racks, built and painted.

3. Sample Maker
When I say “my welder,” I’m referring to our gate-maker, Shalman. He is the best welder in Surkhet, and charges much more than anyone else. I’m determined to learn myself how to weld, but in the meantime, I have had fun drawing designs in SketchUp or AutoCAD and bringing them to Shalman knowing they’ll appear the next day exactly as I’ve drawn them. Until now, I had not fully appreciated the power of metalworking, and what you can create with a good welder and thoughtful design work.
I need a good way to create consistently sized samples of rammed earth cylinders for doing my own strength testing. This is as much to satisfy my own curiosity, and expand my capacity to experiment, as it is to create something with legitimate scientific, engineering potential. I had Shalman build this sample maker with an attached bottom plate for the person ramming to stand on, and stabilize the process.
Update: this didn’t work. The rough bottom of the sampler pulled apart the rammed earth as I tried to separate it, and the whole thing crumbled.

The cylinder formwork. This didn't work.

The cylinder formwork. This didn’t work.

4. Sample Crusher
The minimum RE strength, according to US and New Zealand standards, is 300 psi. That means that a cylinder with just a 3” diameter would need to carry over 2 tons of weight. How can I measure this? With the sample maker, we’ll get an accurate, consistent cylinder size of a 2” diameter. With the following machine, we’ll be able to use leverage to our advantage and slowly fill a large bucket with measured amounts of water until our samples get crushed. Taking into account the weight of the lever arm, we’ll simply divide the total force applies (weight of load x the ratio of distance from the pivot point to load vs distance to the crusher plate) by the 2” diameter area (3.14159 (pi) square inches). Easy peezy! Even if we’re not getting accredited numbers, we can at least build tons of different samples, varying composition of cement, stone dust, sand, and clay, and find an optimal composition range. We already have a structural team that has done this in KTM, I just want to try doing the work myself.

[caption id="attachment_764" align="aligncenter" width="640"]My SketchUp rendering of the block compression tester. The cylinder goes right near the pivot point, and a big bucket goes 10 feet away at the end. We can slowly fill it with water (measuring liter by liter) or bricks. My SketchUp rendering of the block compression tester. The cylinder goes right near the pivot point, and a big bucket goes 10 feet away at the end. We can slowly fill it with water (measuring liter by liter) or bricks.

The built and painted block compression tester.

The built and painted block compression tester.

5. Fence
Yesterday, we restarted our RE fence project. I’ve worked out the cost per foot of length, and compared with brick it is 70% of the cost and 30% of the CO2 emissions. We’ll see if the actual costs end up with this ratio. Per foot, the fence should cost $20, including all labor. The emissions per foot should amount to about 3 kg, as opposed to 10 kg for a brick fence.

The old RE fence, 1 summer-aged.

The old RE fence, 1 summer-aged.

Right now, we’re just digging the holes for individual RE pillars. In a few days, we’ll starting building the foundations. Once these have properly cured for 4 to 5 days, the ramming will begin. Kopila is buying yet more land on this side (where the Vocational Campus will eventually be), so there is many months of fence building to be done. With Laxmin as the foreman, I’m confident we’ll end up with a beautiful fence and a crew of 6-10 workers that know intricately how to build with Rammed Earth. They will make up a large part of the crew to build our Pre-Primary campus, starting in February or March of next year.

Digging holes for our new RE fence.

Digging holes for our new RE fence.

6. Passionfruit
The passionfruit season refuses to end! It’s amazing to have this fruit everyday. When I returned from SouthEast Asia with an uncertain future, I spent a full day once writing a business plan for starting a Passionfruit growing/importing business in Vermont. The whole world would be happy if they ate Passionfruit every day. I even had an advertisement thought out (though it maybe is not PC): a group of terrorists boards a plane, their eyes full of malice and hatred to the Westerners around them enjoying their freedom with wine and snacks aboard the flight. The stewardess comes around and offers one of the terrorists a passionfruit. He says “Oh well, I guess I might as well since I’ll never have the chance again.” He bites into it. His eyes widen. He looks around at his terrorists brothers, prepared to die together for their jihadist cause. He’s in shock. He passes over the fruit to his right. Each of them takes a taste. They mimic his wide-eyed shock. Then, they all break out in song – “Don’t worry, be happy” might be fitting.

A day's passionfruit harvest. I can't get enough of this stuff. I wonder how my dentist will feel about it.

A day’s passionfruit harvest. I can’t get enough of this stuff. I wonder how my dentist will feel about it.

My passionfruit source - old grandpa with two friendly baby goats. One of them fell asleep in my arms last time I went.

My passionfruit source – old grandpa with two friendly baby goats. One of them fell asleep in my arms last time I went.

7. Relaxed now that we have contractor
Now that we have Hemendra as a contractor for the main campus (excluding the Pre-Primary building), a ten-ton weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I don’t feel like I need to skip meals to work on the design plan or think about the campus as I climb into bed. I have been making homemade cheese, laundry racks, working on RE-strength testing, redoing the hostel’s water system, and doing trips to Rara. Life was beautiful last year, but stressful as shit. Now without the stress, I am flying high.

8. Water system
The hostel’s water system is entirely gravity fed. We have our own well (a blessing, as the government water only flows once a day), and a pump down at the bottom of the 60 meter bore. Up until two weeks ago, an uncle would turn on the pump, climb the stairs to the roof, and fill up each of the 18 tanks on the roof, moving the hose from one tank to the next when each was finished filling. Needless to say, overflowing tanks and wasted time were an issue, not to mention that the Uncles frequently turned on the generator, rather than wait for the power to come on. I fixed this problem in three ways:
1) I bought bigger tanks, to reduce the number of tanks by two thirds. The biggest tank size in Surkhet was 1,000 L, and we use far more than this per day. I bought a 3,000 L, and two 2,000 Ls.
2) I linked all the tanks with overflow pipes in such a way that they form a chain. The water from the pump flows directly into the top floor’s hot water tank. When this fills, the water goes out into a 2,000 L tank. When this fills, the water overflows into the next roof into all of those tanks. In this way, no more Uncles need to come up to the roof and move a hose from one tank to the next. But overflowing would still be an issue, as well as wasting fuel with the generator.

3) I purchased and installed an automatic water level controller (AWLC). Even though the plastic case says “Made in Nepal”, the electronics are all from India. One of the Uncles dropped it as soon as it was delivered and broke the plastic case. The electronics survived, though. The systems sense when your water level is low and automatically turns on your pump. When the water level in your tank is full, it turns off the pump. You can adjust the sensors yourself – I put them in the last tank, because when the water coming through the overflow chain finally fills the last tank, you know with certainty that all the other tanks are full.
The sensors are literally electronic plugs dropped into your tank that, when surrounded by water, short out and complete a circuit with the sensor. It’s a little primitive, but it’s simplicity and abstention from expensive, specialty parts is very appealing to me.

The water schematics.

The water schematics.

The 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% water sensors. The pump turns on when the water drops below 75% and turns off when it reaches the 100% sensor. I bought such a large tank so that we have enough water to last through a long load-shedding period.

The 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% water sensors. The pump turns on when the water drops below 75% and turns off when it reaches the 100% sensor. I bought such a large tank (3,000 Liters) so that we have enough water to last through a long load-shedding period without turning on our fuel gobbling generator.

9. Borders
When government surveyors come to mark the boundaries of land that has just been purchased, some sort of dispute is inevitable. What else would you expect when the land borders are on a small map where 1 centimeter is equal to 25 meters, and the surveyors measure with a RULER. Land here is literally selling for over $100,000/acre, and the surveyors have to see at a precision of a third of a mm mark distances semi-accurately, not to mention that the lines on the map are at least a half mm thick.
My solution:
1) I obtained a copy of the government map and drew two dots exactly a centimeter apart.
2) I scanned the map and put it into photoshop.
3) I drew thin, black lines in the center of each line and put in a white background.
4) In AutoCAD, I converted all the lines to measurable CAD lines.
5) I scaled up the new map such that the distance between the two dots reads 25 meters (unitless).

Our property lots highlighted.

Our property lots highlighted.

Now, I can measure the distance with precision between any two points (using AutoCADs object snap, which put your mouse exactly on the nearest vertex). I can easily measure angles as well. Even more, I can use AutoCAD’s function to determine the exact area of a particular land plot, so we can verify that we’re being sold the amount that the seller claims is there.
The reason I did this was that as we were marking a line for our fence, a woman came up and said “Hmm.. I think that that is our land.” When we had measured with the surveyors, they came up with three different locations before settling on one, and seemed a little bewildered. I decided that if we were going to build something, albeit just a fence, then we needed to be sure with actual precision.

Boundaries

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The Trip to Rara and the Journey Back

Getting a flight to Rara was easy because we had a big group. There are no scheduled flights to the lake – the airline only flies when it has at least 8 people for the 9-person plane. The airline will combine groups of people together and coordinate with them to find a date that works for all. It’s a logistical fustercluck, but our group was 8-people (me, Kelly, Meg, Nena, Top, Kusum, and Pemba, our Nepali friend, who also served as our guide), so it was easy.

Flying over Surkhet was incredible – rice patties look incredible from the air. Looking down on the buildings of a city gives you a strong sense of space. Its amazing how little of this valley is actually taken up by buildings and how much remains farmland.

Flying into the Himilayas was, yes indeed, uniquely stunning. We had a perfectly clear day, and could quite easily see into Tibet. We also flew right over the road that we would, a week later, take for 18 hours to get back to Surkhet. The flight was only 40 minutes, and my face was pressed so close to my window I continually had to back away and wipe the fog from it. The pilot’s console beeped in a nightmarish sound every 5 minutes. After the fourth time, I realized it was a sonar sensor detecting when land passed by closer than a “safe” distance. That is prone to happening when you’re flying at low altitude over mountains.

Landing was freaky. The runway of the airport was made from gravel and ended with a cliff (better make sure you stop in time). I sat on the right side of the plane against the slope, and I watched as trees went from 100 feet off our wings, to 80, to 50, and closer until they were only 30 feet off the edge of the wings. Such is the experience of landing at an underused “airport” on the side of a mountain. Of course, there was no other way to do it, and the landing was as smooth as it could have been.

Rara Airport

Rara Airport

Then commenced a beautiful, 2-hour walk through cedar and pine forests to the lake. We had packed a LOT of food, so some of the girls hired a few porters to carry the excess luggage. My bag had weighed in at a hefty 70 pounds at the airport (absurd, I know, but the only food available up there was the ubiquitous dal-bhat), so I gave up my tent and bag of flour (to make a loaf of bread which was never made). Still, I powered my way ahead of the group after an hour just so I could put the damn thing down. Jamie was there having already been away for a week up in Humla. He hadn’t quite gone feral yet but might have been close. He had trekked for 11 hours the day before, and 10 the day before that, and had gotten in after dark. We weren’t sure he was even alive (especially since the Annapurna blizzards happened while he was trekking alone), so it was a great relief to see him.

The lake was stunning, but I’ll let the pictures do the talking. The rules/regulations set up there was a bit odd – no fishing, no swimming, no boating if you are a foreigner, no camp fires (we broke this rule), and no camping outside of the designated area. We had to camp inside a fenced in zone, and one morning we woke up to find a group of cows wandering around our tents! The park entrance fee for Nepalis was 45 Rupees. For us foreigners, it was 3,000. Small discrepancy there. But, I feel pretty confident the lake will be preserved for a while yet.

IMG_2720 IMG_9016 IMG_2791 IMG_2808 IMG_2740 IMG_3164

 

We spent our days there doing yoga, playing cards or Heads Up (great iPhone app), throwing sticks at walnut trees, or walking around the lake and gawking at the view. On our last day, Jamie, Pemba, and I walked up to a mountain at 12,000 feet called Murma overlooking the lake. Jamie’s stomach had started to rebel (and still is a week later) and he almost had to quit on me, but when we neared the top and he glanced at the view he got a second wind. This was the view from the top:

The View from Murma

The View from Murma

Also, I brought passionfruit up with us. Nothing has ever tasted so good.

Passionfruit at 12,000 feet.

Passionfruit at 12,000 feet.

The trek leaving held four of us – me, Kelly, Jamie, and Pemba. The first day was tough. Five hours in, we started zigzagging our way up a steep mountain, playing a game involving naming the world’s countries by saying a country that shared a first or last letter with the first or last letter of the previously said country. Complicated as that may sound, we named well over a hundred countries before stopping at the top of the slope to wait for Pemba. “We made it to the pass!” we told him as he approached. “No… I don’t think so,” was his reply. How right he was. We walked for another 15 minutes on flat ground and I jokingly pointed up to a point up high, 500 meters above us and said “Oh I bet we’re going up there.” How right I was. It was brutal, and rewarding because of how brutal it was. The pass that day was Ghurchi Lagna, at 11,500 feet. At the top, a fellow strode up on a horse that was dripping with sweat. He was unimpressed with us and trotted down the other side after allowing me to take this single photograph:

Easy climb for the man on a sweaty horse.

Easy climb for the man on a sweaty horse.

We slept that night in a stone house that was typical of the region. Well-made homes from stone are all over the area, and many of them have no mortar – neither clay nor cement – at all. The insides are all from wood, and this keeps the wind from rushing through the cracks in the stone. They are warm at night and beautiful to look at. I had two massive plates of dal-bhat and beer to go with it, and we all went to bed around 8 pm.

Our spacious, cozy room for $2/night.

Our spacious, cozy room for $2/night.

Day two was long and great. Riddles, cliff transversing, walking through beautiful marijuana fields, baby cows, and an accidental 30 minute walk down the wrong path, and an hour before sunset we finally found ourselves up at over 12,000 feet looking down at Jumla and the nearest spot to find a bed, Chere, where we didn’t arrive until after dark. Just 30 minutes before sunset and halfway down the 1,200 foot drop, we passed this group of donkeys heading up, hours away from the nearest bed. It gets very, very cold at that altitude at night. I’m not sure what their game plan was:

Mule train going UP just 30 minutes before sunset. Where are they going to sleep?

Mule train going UP just 30 minutes before sunset. Where are they going to sleep?

Beef jerky at Danphe Lagna. Sacrilegious, maybe. Delicious, definitely.

Beef jerky at Danphe Lagna. Sacrilegious, maybe. Delicious, definitely.

The view down at Chere and Jumla Valley beyond.

The view down at Chere and Jumla Valley beyond.

The next day we set out late, though I had woken up around 6:30 and done a quick walk to a temple up from the house, followed by a passionfruit breakfast. The walk down into Jumla valley was supposed to take 2 hours, but we got sidetracked by a company-parched English woman named Carole who burst from her house and exclaimed “WHITE PEOPLE!!” She had been in Jumla alone for 2 weeks with 2 years left as a volunteer, and might have been thinking what in the shit she had gotten herself into. We chatted and took the tea she gave us, exchanged info, and tried to give her some of our leftover goodies – chocolate, some passionfruit (it’s a commodity), peanut butter, and a thing of cheese. She didn’t take the chocolate or peanut butter. We continued into Jumla village, which turned out to be an amalgamation of some of the most beautiful homes I’ve ever seen. Huge, four story homes of meticulous stone- and wood-work. Here are some photos:

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Incredible detail in this home’s stonework.

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The irony, though, was that there was a clearly recent trend of putting cement plaster over the stonework. Some homes even had fake brick-patterns carved into the plaster.

This house and many others are stone inside, but plastered over on the outside.

This house and many others are stone inside, but plastered over on the outside.

 

We gorged ourselves that night, and headed out to Kalikot on the roof of a us the next morning. Having arrived in Sera Bara (the nearest road town to Oda, our destination) only 1.5 hours before sunset, we headed right out. Again, though, we didn’t get in until darkness. We stayed at Karan’s house. Karan is the co-founder of Odakids, an organization started by John, a previous Kopila Fellow. He spoiled us the whole time with noodles, tasty sauces, fried breakfasts, and meat.

The next day unveiled this view:

My first sunrise in Oda.

My first sunrise in Oda.

The next few days were spent exploring the village and surroundings, playing with the local kids, and generally being lazy. Very little walking. Top and almost half the kids in the hostel come from the village or nearby, so a lot of them were up for the holidays (which are now ended). The holiday this time was Bailee, where sisters anoint their brothers with Tika and groups of friends and dancers wander from house to house at all hours of the day (and night) chanting a rhyming Nepali song, rotating around a central rhymer/“rapper”, and then break out in explosive dance after a few minutes in the hope they’ll be rewarded with a nice purse by the owner of the house in front of which they refuse to leave. Here are a few random photos from the visit:

IMG_3056 IMG_3052 IMG_3050 IMG_9126 IMG_9135

Oda is as much about the huge boulders as the houses. Each is gathered, in groups around the giant amphitheater of the valley, concavely leveling out into a massive helicopter pad of smooth terraces. 500 feet beyond this flat section is a steep drop 500 feet down into an angry river. The place is very isolated, and I think it will always be this way. Building a road to Oda would be a hugely unprofitable venture, not to mention almost impossible. But other developments can happen – John and Karan are building a new medical clinic for the public up there, and were donated land to put the clinic right in the center of the amphitheater, right in the center of it all. 30 minutes before leaving to return to Surkhet, I took the 20 minutes hike up to the Oda temple and soaked up this view:

 

A panorama of Oda, Kalikot. I'm getting a huge 18"x 72" poster made to give to Top.

A panorama of Oda, Kalikot. I’m getting a huge 18″x 72″ poster made to give to Top.

Coming back was relatively boring. Our driver was four hours late to pick us up, so we only drove 2 hours the first day before spending the night in the HUGE (sarcasm) capital of the Kalikot district, Manma. The whole city is built on a slope (that took an hour to drive to the bottom of), and at night you can’t tell where the stars end and the city lights begin. The hotel we stayed in was an absurd labyrinth of buildings that had been built, completed, and joined with other buildings so that patios, windows, and random stairways wound their way through the whole complex. The next day, we left in the dark at 5 am. The road was excessively rougher and bumpier, and we averaged around 10 km/hour all the way back to Surkhet, arriving 9 hours later.

And that was the trip! Here are some other media that couldn’t find their way in before.

Metcalf meets a calf.

Metcalf meets a calf.

A walking hay bale.

A walking hay bale.

This Weekend’s Activities

I’ve been hoping to do a trip to Rara Lake, the biggest lake of Nepal, for the past 8 months. Rara is in Mugu, and until recently was only accessible after a week or so of walking. Now, there’s an airport that drops you off just a few hours away. We are still in the thick of Nepali holiday season (basically the entire month of October), so now is the prime time to go.

When Jamie and Sandip were planned to head to Humla, arguably one of the remotest place on the planet, for a farming project with Himilayan Permaculture Center, it only made sense that they stop by in Rara on their return and that I join them there. I told Kelly of this plan, and it was quickly clear that she should also join. Soon enough, Patty and Meg were also in on the trip. Then, almost everyone else decided to come as well, but no one could commit except me, Kelly, Patty, and Meg.

Even this morning, it was still only the four of us confirmed to go. When Top accepted our invitation to come, the floodwaters opened. Both Maggie and Nena had told Top she would come only if he did, and Anna had to follow suit because she would be the only fellow left out.

And so, tomorrow morning we fly out on a 9-person airplane from Surkhet Airport to Talcha Airport, which can hardly be called an airport. It’s more like a 100 foot long road on the side of a mountain:

Rara Airstrip

Rara Airstrip

From there it’s a 3 hour trek to here:

Rara Lake, this weekend's destination.

Rara Lake, this weekend’s destination. Apparently there are more bird species at the lake than annual visitors.

I am friends with a pilot in the airline, and he’s arranged to have the plane to do some low flowing over the lake while we’re on our way. We’ll spend 3 days/nights at Rara, cooking, swimming, and doing day treks. After the 3rd night, Kelly, and Jamie (assuming he makes it to Rara after 3 days of solo trekking from Humla), and I will set out on a 3 day trek to Jumla, where Kelly will fly from back to Surkhet, while Jamie and I continue along to here, the village where most of our kids are from:

Oda, in Kalikot, Nepal.

Oda, in Kalikot, Nepal.

We’ll only be able to stay for two nights – I need to return within 10 days of tomorrow to teach a kite building class to the children, completely redo the water system here at the house, and oversee the installation of over 4 kW of solar PV on our roof. On top of all that, we just signed a contract with our general contractor, and are eager to start getting everyone else on contracts to assemble the wider, full team.

We’re subscribing to Basecamp, an online, cloud-based project management service. I think that will help immensely in keeping our whole team on the same page and delegate responsibilities. We’re in the process again of looking for the most beautiful clay/soil we can find, since our radioactive clay source is no longer selling. Today, I drove the motorbike 45 minutes down rocky, nearly impassable roads and through 3 rivers, looking for red clay. We found some magnificent purple-tinted clay that Hemendra had mentioned, and also some bright red. They’ll both be good options, but the road conditions worry me. Last weekend, I took a motorbike trip with Kelly about 2.5 hours into the mountain northeast of here, and we passed some wonderful clay on the way. I’m having Sandip look into this, and exploring that area, while I’m gone.

I can hardly wait for the flight tomorrow morning and the ensuing adventure. I’ll need to post about the experience and my best photos upon my return, as soon as I find myself with free time. Vaya con dios!

The Flood and the Damage Done

I left my blog on a slightly ominous note, mentioning that there were some good changes at the land, and some that were “not so much.”

The persistent rains in Surkhet this summer, resulting in horrible flooding, were a fifty year anomaly (though a similar flood happened 28 years ago). It is remarkable to drive around the same routes I used to take daily, seeing small canyons eroded through fields that used to be flat, rivers expanded by 4 times their old width, and roads completely washed away.

The destroyed bridge up to our land, and what was put down in its place.

The destroyed bridge up to our land, and what was put down in its place.

9 months ago, we built a gabion wall at our land, to protect ourselves from the rapid erosion along a ravine cutting through our jungle area. I have never seen water running through the dried ravine, and I’ve frequently wondered how much water actually flowed through during the rainy season. The evidence is now quite explicit: a tremendous amount. And that is a good segue into my next statement: thank god we built the gabion wall when we did, because much of our property would have been pulled into the flowing water during the night of the flood.

The flooding in the Surkhet was so bad this summer that it made BBC News headlines, and even resulted in Kelly being interviewed by the weather channel (https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=829797363709125). The sky bled rain for 2 straight days, and the saturated ground and steep hills simply pushed the water into our valley at a faster and faster rate. One local geologist told Maggie that if it had rained for 3 more hours that night, the entire valley would have been completely ravaged. As it happened, most of the damage here was along the rivers – homes destroyed, bridges collapsed, herds of cattle washed away to their watery grave.

The level of water here is normal - the river widened by a factor of 4. This spot used to be lined with homes.

The level of water here is normal – the river widened by a factor of 4. This spot used to be lined with homes.

When we built the gabion wall, determining our property line, and where to build, was difficult: over the past 30 years, the ravine had drifted and cut a cliff farther and farther into our property, so the land Maggie had purchased two years ago was of a substantially different shape than that of the government plat map. The 1-meter thick gabion wall, then, had to go along the edge of the ravine. At one spot, though, a tree on the other side brought the opposing bank to a narrow neck of just 2 meters wide, from 5 meters up above. Had we owned the tree, we could have cut it down and widened the ravine. The night of the flood, the water rushed past the roots of this tree, tearing away everything around it. But the tree remained and the water had no choice but to dig away, undercutting the base of our gabion wall, four feet underground. The top of the gabion wall slumped under its own weight. The soil behind followed accordingly, and now has the appearance of a small sinkhole. The result is a four foot dip, spread out over 70 feet, along the once-straight top of our wall, something that will certainly need to be repaired before next year’s rains.

The dip of the gabion wall is clearly visible, as is the tree that we should have taken out (if we had owned the land).

The dip of the gabion wall is clearly visible, as is the tree that we should have taken out (if we had owned the land).

From the other side.

From the other side.

Financially, it’s a relatively minor incident amounting to less than $6,000 (my estimate)- none of the wire mesh containers broke, and we already have all of the stone that we need. We’ll just need to hire a large crew of 40 people or so to remove the rocks and wire mesh, and relay everything properly again. And we’ll have to make sure to remove the tree that caused the mess in the first place. In actuality, we’re probably lucky the damage is so small – the rainfall was abnormal, and the gabion wall protected the rest of our property at a critical time.

The "sinkhole" above the wall where soil sluffed away with the wall's bulging.

The “sinkhole” above the wall where soil sluffed away with the wall’s bulging.

Others around the area were not so lucky. I went around Surkhet with Sandip to see as much of the damage as I could and understand the magnitude of what had happened, and talk to the people who still have their homes.

The roof and bricks dangle menacingly above the river bed.

The roof and bricks dangle menacingly above the river bed.

The erosion from the river came to less than one foot from the outside of this house. I wonder if they feel lucky.

The erosion from the river came to less than one foot from the outside of this house. I wonder if they feel lucky.

A house made from mud, gone except for one wall.

A house made from mud, gone except for one wall.

Sandip and I used to take this "road" when we had to get to the lumber yard. The homes and families are gone.

Sandip and I used to take this “road” when we had to get to the lumber yard. The homes and families are gone.

More destruction.

More destruction.

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Cinderblock home, mostly gone. The girl in the bottom right is collecting stones and carrying them to her sisters nearby, where they area breaking them into smaller pieces to sell for construction. They receive 60 cents per 80 pound bag.

And two months later, many of the people who lost everything (homes, land, cattle) are still living in tented communities, scattered within 15 km of Surkhet. Maggie has a good collection of photos of those from a month ago. Conditions have apparently not changed at all:

http://www.blinknow.org/journal/entry/flood-relief-update

 

And, as an added bonus, here is a photo I took yesterday of a water buffalo (with friends) beating the heat just outside our house.

 

Relax party.

Relax party.

The Monsoon Transformation Phenomenon

As I wrote in my post yesterday, once I arrived back in Surkhet I felt as though I had only been away for a week. The kids, the home, the town are all the same, with a few minor adjustments and inches grown.

I arrived at night, so I went immediately the next morning to the land, which might be more deeply engrained into my consciousness than the home. The experience was nothing less than – for lack of a better word – trippy. It felt as though I had been in a 10 year coma and woken without realizing or being told of this fact, only to reason it out by the impossibly furious growth of Nepali jungle at the place I spend most of my time. The explosion is incredible – brown has turned to green, green has turned into green-squared, and any long, open spaces seem to be filled with new plants. I went back in my iPhoto and chose out some photos from a few months ago, and went yesterday to take pictures from similar standpoints and perspectives. Check out the transformation:

A1 A2 B1 B2 C1 C2 D1 D2 E1 E2 F1 F2 G1 G2 H1 H2 I1 I2 J1 J2 K1 K2 L1 L2 N1 N2 P1 P2 Q1 Q2

And so it resumes…

Well.. I’m here. Stateside for 3 months, my break felt like a year while I was back, and seemed to morph into just a week immediately upon returned back here. Having been home with the people most familiar to me, I underestimated and perhaps forgot how familiar this place has become to me, how it has become a home second only to that I have in Vermont.

I almost didn’t make it. In dubious fashion, I arrived at my JFK check-in only an hour before my departure, only to have the Etihad attendants tell me that without an Indian visa, they couldn’t let me get on the flight to re-check-in my bags for my IndiGO flight from Delhi to Kathmandu that BlinkNow had purchased for me. Nor could they do the transfer themselves, because IndiGO is not one of their partner airlines. It all sounds quite boring now, but the moment itself was one of rapidly growing panic, something I’m usually quite deft at suppressing. I had just purchased a bundle of items for Kopila on my debit card, and realized I wouldn’t have enough money in my account for both the new plane ticket I had to purchase, as well as the heavy-luggage charges I would be charged (filled to the brim with tools, my bags were each 20 pounds too heavy). As I called Dad to ask him for his credit card number, I found out they couldn’t accept a credit card number over the phone. That was when I threw up my hands and said “well… I’m just fucked I guess.”
This time, I flew from Kathmandu instead of taking the 18-hour "luxury" bus option.

This time, I flew from Kathmandu instead of taking the 18-hour “luxury” bus option.

But fate came through for me somehow, and my tardiness ironically worked in my favor. I had just enough cash to pay for my new flight out of Delhi, and in their rush to get me on the flight leaving within 20 minutes, the attendants forwent my un-payable luggage charge and loaded up my bags while I purchased my ticket. I sprinted through the airport, cut the security line with 10 apologies, and was on my way, immediately relishing the unlimited complimentary wine on the overnight flight.
The heavier of my bags didn’t make it out of JFK, though, as the TSA somehow found it necessary to search through a suitcase that probably sent their x-ray scanner into epileptic spasms. And so I was forced to spend an extra night in Kathmandu. When the bag eventually arrived, I was shocked and depressed to find that it was one computer short. Someone, either in NYC, Abu Dhabi, Delhi, or Kathmandu, removed one of the laptops that Tim, a close family friend, had donated for the students at Kopila. I’m working on recovering it, but I’m not hopeful. As Tim said, whoever took it probably wears a badge.
As I approached the orphanage here, I was inflicted with hysterical butterflies. Would it feel like a home? Would I forget the kids’ or aunties’ names? Maybe I’d immediately wish I was still back in Vermont. A rapid insecticide washed these away as soon as we pulled into the gates, though – this place was still a home, and always will be. I could never forget a single one of these children or any aspect of this house. And now that I’ve spent a couple days here, the fact that I was ever really gone seems surreal. The kids have grown an inch or two, yes, and the land has transitioned from a dirty brown to a lively green, but it feels like I never left.
The familiar view from my room. Penthouse?

The familiar view from my room. Penthouse within an orphanage?

Oh, one unfamiliar aspect: a new baby! Meet Ravi, the now 4-month old who weighs as much as a newborn, and who was less than 5 pounds when he arrived just a month ago. I can tell I’ll learn a lot from him – How to hold a baby, how to feed and burp a baby, how to get a baby to stop crying, and probably how to change a diaper. His smiles are rare and enlightening. The fellows have been working out a schedule for which nights who takes care of him, so I’ll be on Ravi duty at least one night a week.
Baby Ravi, probably the most famous person I know.

Baby Ravi, probably the most famous person I know.

Up next, something far more exciting than a recap of the tediousness of my travel here: the transformation of the land after 3 months of torrential rains – some good, some… not so much. How did the rammed earth fence weather the storms? The gabion wall, fence, gate, and pergola?