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"In the Jungle"

After our stay in Pokhara, working hard to compile a group paper/presentation which we presented to the 3 Sisters, we took a little vacation down to the jungle. Fortunately this time, it only took four hours (by bus) to get down to the terai & our jungle adventure began pretty much as soon as we stepped off the bus.

We stayed in bungalows at the “Lama Lodge” which is located right in the Chitwan, Nepal’s first national park which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1984. It wasn’t an hour later we were enjoying a late lunch in the thatched restaurant before heading out for our first excursion. What originally was supposed to be a village tour, ended up being a rhino excursion when we were informed by some locals that we should take a detour to an elephant place nearby. And, it was so worth it! Not only did we get to see our first elephants – which got us excited for our upcoming elephant ride – we also got to see two one-horned rhinos, an endangered species native to the area. In Chitwan National Park, there are 400 of these rhinos (out of 2400 one-horned rhinos in the world), making it the second largest population of this species. At first, they were just grazing a hundred-or-so meters away, but eventually made their way down to the river near-by. Though we were careful not to draw attention to ourselves (at that point, some of us were wearing bright colors which, despite their poor eyesight, rhinos can see) & gave them their space so they wouldn’t charge, we were able to get within about 5 m of them as they went for a swim. And, what interesting creatures! We learned that we were seeing a male adult rhino who was traveling with a male 6-year old rhino to protect it. We were told later that getting that close to rhinos is most definitely a rare occasion & people could go to that same spot everyday and never see rhinos that close.

We stayed and watched them for a while, joined by many other tourists also wanting to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity. Then, we headed off for the rest of our “village tour” which ended up being a sunset walk through the jungle where we saw a bunch of birds including some peacock and hornbills.

Our next day in the jungle (“the mighty jungle”) marked our official jungle safari…and safari we did! We split into two groups and were taken on an all-day walk through the jungle by two different guides. The guide estimated that we walked ~22 km (13 miles) which made sense because we out from 8-4 stealthing through the trees. Throughout the day, taking occasional breaks on the raised platforms (which were there for farmers to fend off tigers) & by the river, we spotted a bunch of different wildlife. We saw several herds of deer, wild chickens, a couple different types of monkeys, crocodile and a wide variety of birds including herons, hornbills, kingfisher, peacock, storks and parakeets. Though it was a long day, it was a really neat experience & we were grateful that this hike was through a terrain that was totally FLAT :)

Day #3 in the Chitwan was definitely a day to remember! After enjoying our 7:00 o’clock breakfast which consisted of Indian food & of course, tea, we jumped into the back of two open-air jeeps, hanging on for dear life as we zipped down the bumpy dirt roads of the terai. About 10 minutes later, we arrived at Baghmara Community Forest (the wealthiest community forest in Nepal) for a different type of jungle safari…..this time on elephant back. Though we had a bit of a wait when we arrived, we enjoyed watching the tourists (with huge smiles on their faces) and elephants return. The elephants would back right up to a platform, being steered by a “driver” who used his feet on the back of the elephant’s ears, let the tourists step off and then head over to the side to cool down a bit, sometimes getting thrown a snack which was cute. Eventually, our turn came, so we got into groups of four and hopped on.

The elephant that Brooke, Makenna, Anna & I rode was named “Pinky-kali” (Pinky for short) & she was 16 years-old (not to mention really cute). Our driver (who sat directly on the elephant right behind her ears) had been with her for 16 years, which is typical because young boys start out with young elephants and stay with them their whole life. They worked very well together and he even said they were “saatiharu” (friends). We all sat in a wooden rectangular seat on her back, straddling the frame for our two hour jungle safari. It was actually quite comfortable, though we spent the morning dodging branches and bracing ourselves for sudden dips which could be a little nerve-racking. We had a really fun time, especially trying to talk with our driver with our limited Nepali. However, we were able to say that Pinky was very well-behaved, perhaps a bit hungry, and ask if she had a boyfriend.

While out on elephant back, we walked through really plush forest (sometimes “off-roading”) & also through the grassland. We also got to cross right through the river and stopped by a watering hole. Like the previous two days, we also got to see a ton of wildlife. We saw more deer & chickens, lots of monkeys playing in the trees, more birds and a crocodile. As we headed back, we took different paths & some of us got to see some snakes. Others saw a wild boar. As we have the whole abroad, we once again had perfect weather for this incredible excursion.

As we hopped off our elephants, snapping our final photographs, we hopped back in the jeeps to head back to the lodge, and took another detour to hear a lecture about Chitwan National Park. We learned many fun facts about the park, as well as a lot of information about buffer zone management. It was a really great lecture and, of course, we enjoyed some tea along with it. After visiting a museum, we headed back to the lodge for a quick lunch and some down time before going back out for more adventures.

Our afternoon included of a canoe ride down one of three rivers in the Chitwan where we got to see many-a-crocodile, both sunning themselves and going for a swim, and kingfisher (and other birds). We all piled in ONE canoe….after getting a canoeing safety talk from Mike which basically was along the lines of “no sudden movements or we’re all going in.” Fortunately, all of us stayed dry and arrived with all fingers. We stopped to do another jungle walk and ended up at an elephant breeding center where we got to see twin elephants (the first two born into captivity in the world). Though it was sad to see so many young elephants chained up, we learned about the benefits of elephant breeding and got to see them do a little dance when they were hungry. We also got to see them being fed. As we headed back across the river to hop in the safari jeeps, we got to see the most perfect safari sunset ever! To finish off our evening (after some delicious Nepali food and tea), some Tharu locals performed stick dancing for us which consists of very fast movement while wooden sticks are beat together….very impressive! And, our evening ended by get to dance with these villages which was quite fun. What a day!

Before we hopped on the bus to head back to Kathmandu, about half the group got up at 6:00 am to do an early bird walk with “Lama” (from the lodge) and saw kingfisher, pipit, warblers and a green clover. What a great trip to the jungle we had!

HOME – the “dearest spot on earth”

As many of us discovered, perhaps the best way to experience the culture (besides traveling by foot from village-to-village in western Nepal conducting research) is through a homestay. Not only did these experiences serve as opportunities to see the humble abodes of the locals while being given a firsthand introduction to many Nepali customs, our homestays were also great opportunities to practice the little Nepali we learned at Cornell while getting to know some great people. Though both optional and only one night long, our homestays gave us those who opted invaluable insights into Nepali culture.

While on the Jumla trek, we were presented with the option to do homestays in three of the four villages we studied: Urthu, Pena & Hatsinja. Though many opted not to do a homestay in Urthu on the first night of our trek, several students decided to dive right in during our time in Pena & Hatsinja. And, valuable experiences they both were! I’d love to share some details of my homestay experiences in both Pena with Amber-ji and Hatsinja with Lacey-ji:

Because Pena is located in the Mugu District which is Nepal’s poorest district & we had witnessed quite a bit of poverty while doing our research, Amber-ji and I didn’t quite know what to expect for this homestay. However, as we walked up the stairs, we were pleased to pass the family’s personal charpi and discovered this was one of the nicer homes in Pena. As we entered their home, we were warmly greeted by the family who was sitting around the stove, all dressed in red (their favorite color). We left our shoes on the porch, dropped our stuff in the backroom and joined the family for a wonderfully awkward evening. The family we stayed with only spoke a couple words of English which was definitely challenging given our limited Nepali. Nevertheless, we definitely still had a great time attempting to communicate with these dear people.

There were five kids (age 2, 8, 10, 15 and 17) in the family we stayed with, and the father was a police officer in Kathmandu who was home for the holiday (Dashain). We enjoyed hearing stories from him all night (which were told in Nepali), ranging from his experiences with the Maoists once upon a time to his purchase of the family’s stove (which he was VERY proud of). The kids (three girls & two boys) were really cute & talked to us about what colors they liked and what they liked to do (just about all we could ask in Nepali). But, they were very gracious hosts and were extremely patient as we tried to explain to them that we had already eaten and definitely didn’t want any roxi (alcohol), which, as a family rule, would have to be consumed outside the home. Though we tried very hard to refuse it, we finally obliged and took a couple bits of a HUGE cucumber (literally a foot and a half long) which (fortunately for those of us who do not particularly enjoy cucmber) did not taste like a cucumber at all. They also gave us a bit of honeycomb to taste.

While the family ate dinner, Amber and I finally gave up on our frustration about not being able to say what we wanted and just started laughing at our attempts, exclaiming “Bujina” (I don’t understand) which made the evening a lot more enjoyable. Though a drunk uncle stumbled in part-way through the evening (alcoholism is a very common problem in the village), the daughters kept him away from Amber & I and eventually locked him outside their home. About the only thing we weren’t used to was that, even though the mother smoked like a chimney, the cigarette smoke was totally covered by the amount of smoke in the home coming from the wood-burning stove. The concept of actually using the small chimney & keeping the door closed was not quite there (which seemed to be an issue in several of the villages we went to). Though it was very bothersome at first & we tried to enjoy the fresh air as we headed to the charpi before bed, we eventually got used to it and could appreciate the warmth from the fires lit.

Their home was small with only three rooms, so we got to sleep in with the kids which was fun. Amber & I slept on the floor and the family was absolutely fascinated watching us blow up our sleeping pads & unroll our sleeping bags. Before bed, we got a 10 minute description of the blankets that were covering the beds which apparently were made quite some time ago, another one coming from India. Besides the dogs barking right outside their home & chickens beginning to crow around 3:00 am, we enjoyed a good night’s sleep until we were woken at 5:00 am with the clamor of bread being made (which we did get to enjoy – delicious). For me, it was definitely an interesting homestay, but made me excited for the next.

While in Hatsinja, I opted to forgo watching the blessing and sacrifice of the goat we ate to celebrate Dashain, though I got to enjoy a different cultural experience through another homestay. Lacey-ji and I got to stay with the family of one of the teachers that we had interviewed earlier while researching the village. Though we were one of the last pairs to be dropped off for the homestay, it was totally worth it (not to mention we enjoyed hiking under the stars). The family we spent the night with lived in a very large home (Nepali-style), so Lacey and I got our own room together below the house and had a lovely evening talking with the family.

And boy, we met the WHOLE family. Once again, we left our shoes on the porch and met up with the family who was sitting around the stove. The evening started with the mom (aama) & dad (ba), the teacher who was the oldest brother (daai), two younger brothers (baai), a friend (sati) of one of the brothers and the wife & child of one of the bothers. The baby (who was really, really cute) was a year old and they’d been married for three years (him 20 and she 18). The teacher spoke pretty good English, as did most of the kids in the family, some more willing to speak than others. We talked about likes & dislikes, agriculture, Hinduism, etc which was really, really informative.

Halfway through the evening, we met the rest of the family. Two other brothers joined us, we chatted for a while and then the neighbor and his “beautiful wife” joined us too. We spoke with the neighbor and his wife (who both spoke fluent English) about tourism, travel, school and family. One fun story of the evening took place when, because there were some dogs outside, I asked if they were part of the family (which I actually knew how to do in Nepali) and the mom just lost it, laughing hysterically. Another highlight was that mid-sentence, our teacher friend stopped & pointed to Lacey and me saying, “You dance” and “You sing.” Though this came completely out of the blue & we were hesitant at first, eventually we gave in, though the best we could come up with was singing a short hymn and then doing the chicken dance (that’s right ;)), some swing dance, then tap & ballet. It was quite the adventure filled with a lot of laughs; and I don’t know if they really knew what to think!

We stayed up with them chatting until the lights went out. In the morning, Lacey-ji and I woke up with plenty of time to get packed up and enjoy some honey tea with the family. We also got to meet the neighbor’s two year old son named Alex who was also really cute. As we were hiking back to the school we were staying at, we couldn’t help but smile about our amazing experience! Many fun memories and lots of great conversation.


Church ANYwhere

While here in Nepal, our group has proved that church can take place anywhere….anytime. We started off in India at a CS Society & since have enjoyed our Tues/Wed morning/evening testimony meetings & Sunday/Monday services in a thatched hut in the jungle (in full Halloween costume), on a rooftop as the sunset with blaring Nepali music in the background, next to a river in the hot, hot sun, on a hilltop with donkeys grazing nearby, in our kitchen tent using headlamps for light and even out in paddle boats on a beautiful lake. Each week, a pair of students is in charge of putting readings together for the services and conducting these meetings & sometimes we even have visitors. For our final testimony meeting on our Jumla trek, our four research assistants (Anu, Binita, Man-jit & Deepak) joined us and even expressed gratitude during the service. We also had one of our cooks (who was a Christian) attend a Sunday service to listen to the hymns. While the group tends to take a less traditional approach to the services, we have learned that inspiration can be gained wherever you are in the world.

CHARPI

You might be wondering: exactly what do the bathrooms look like over here in Nepal?? Well, I’m here to tell you. Even though they’re not always Ritz Carlton quality, most of the time Nepali toilets are “not bad, guys, not too bad” (quoting Mike-ji). While we have been blessed to have access to many “porcelain thrones,” staying in nicer hotels, we have also become accustomed to taking a squat over the “charpi” (Nepali for toilet) like the Nepalis do. A typical “charpi” consists of basically a glorified hole in the ground. Sometimes there’s a structure around it, sometimes not. Sometimes there are porcelain platforms around the hole, sometimes not. And, sometimes there’s water near-by for wiping purposes, sometimes not. However, they’re actually not as bad as one might envision & actually quite sanitary. Not only has our group coined the phrase, “I’m going to go charpi,” we have also taken it upon ourselves to develop a scale (out of 10…slight adjustment) to rank the condition of the “charpi.” Rank is based on four categories: smell, availability of toilet paper, view and overall cleanliness. Believe it or not – we’ve actually seen some pretty great 10s. Happy “charping” to you all, though, on your porcelain thrones back home…

Our Nepali Family at Cornell

We have absolutely fallen in love with our Nepali family here at Cornell and are extremely grateful for many wonderful new friends and many wonderful new memories. Banu-ji (“ji” added to the end of people’s names to show friendship) is the sweetest person and has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I’ve ever met. She coordinated our stay at Cornell and was such a fantastic hostess – able to answer all of our questions with such love and grace. She also served as a translator for us and our cooks and helpers until we grasped a bit of the Nepali language. Eating together on the floor (all 23 of us), we could feel the love with which “Shesh-daddy” and Til Bahadur prepared each meal; and delicious food it was! Not only did we get an awesome taste of Nepali food (ranging from dhaal-baat (rice and beans) to momos), they also were very gracious and prepared us breakfasts of French toast, crepes, pancakes and oatmeal. We even enjoyed delicious pizza and several rounds of strawberry, vanilla and chocolate cake for birthday celebrations.

Not only were they wonderful chefs, but wonderful people too. One of my sweetest encounters was with Til Bahadur (who quickly became my favorite Nepali). Several days after our arrival, I finally asked him what his name was (in Nepali) which meant the world to him; he lit up like I had never seen anyone light up before. From then on out, this sweet little 54 year-old red headed man greeted me with a huge smile & we have since become good friends.I call him “rato daai” (meaning red brother) and he calls me lovely “bahini” (younger sister). Since we both have red hair, we have called each other “rato jamle” (twin) as well. Another fun memory came one night when we were all sitting down to dinner and Steve did something ridiculous. Shesh-daddy started laughing hysterically while serving which set Steve and Mariah into hysterics, too.

We also have enjoyed being graced by the presence of all of the wonderful cook’s helpers: Ramita, Purna and Phulmaya. These wonderful women served each meal with such love; but not only that – they also washed all of our laundry for us with love and one afternoon were kind enough to do henna for us. They were constant expressions of joy. One of my favorite moments was being in our penthouse suite next to the balcony one morning and hearing all these women chattering away and laughing hysterically while doing our laundry.

Another one of the sweetest women here is Surjani who some of us called “Aaamaa” (mother). Surjani greeted us each day with a huge smile and patiently helped us with our Nepali. Each day she came and got us for breakfast, lunch & dinner and would wait patiently for each of us so she could lock up our dorm. Living in a humble little apartment downstairs, she took wonderful care of us when we weren’t feeling well – preparing toast and soup at all hours of the day. Though she is a tiny little woman, she is filled with a LOT of love…willing to let us in our dorm throughout the day and make delicious lemon water and tea during our classes.

Speaking of class, we got to enjoy three WONDERFUL language teachers: Sunita, Sarita & Anjala. Anjala had the most energy of anyone I’ve met in Nepal, so she made language class really FUN. Sunita & Sarita were super good at making sure we were getting our conjugations right & learning lots of vocab. Moral of the story – they all made language fun & we had a great time attempting to learn Nepali, our favorite phrases being: ‘chij-bij’ (little things), ‘kis-mis’ (raisins) and ‘malaii ukusmukus bhayo’ (I am full).

We also had several incredible guides & RAs while we were at Cornell. Sume and Ashmwin took us on many, many tours of Kirtipur, to temples, to a Maoist statue in an old village about an hour away and kurta shopping. They were so sweet to answer all our questions and show us around. We also had the great pleasure of living with four RAs: Kusum, Sheba, Gomon and Sarita. All of these friends were so gracious to introduce us Nepali culture, practice Nepali with us and guide us along our way in the dorms.

We are sad to leave our Nepali family in Kirtipur & are so very grateful for all these new friends and memories. THANK YOU, CORNELL!

"Girls Gotta SHOP"

Though we’re not in London or Paris, we still have to shop! And, that we did – shopped ‘til we dropped for kurtas. In Nepal, women are most commonly seen wearing saris or kurtas. The kurta is a long dress/shirt worn over large pants (suruwal) with a scarf (sal). Obviously, in order to fully embrace the Nepali culture, we obviously HAD to get them :) And, what a cultural experience. We all went as a group (men doing their own shopping because Lord knows how long women take to select the perfect dress) & spread out between two fabric stores. We started by looking through tons of fabrics to pick out the perfect pattern. Some found their perfect match right away….others took their time to thumb through the copious amount of options before bartering with the vendor. Either way, we all walked out with a pattern that fit us perfectly! Next, we took our clothing to get tailored around the corner by women who work around the clock. Our friend Sumi was so gracious and translated each of our measurements to the tailor. For most of us, it was the first time having every little inch of us measured & there were so many choices! Then……we waited; two days later, walla! We’re now kurta-clad women.

Sustainability in Nepal

Since arriving in Nepal, I’ve noticed that there is a lot less reliance on the power grid than I’m used to seeing in the United States.  One example is that every night, we loose power for two hours in the evening.  Very few people even have TVs, however radios are rather common.  One thing I noticed, though, was that nearly every building has running hot water, although there aren’t any electric hot-water heaters.  The Nepali solution to the problem is a solar water heater.  This trend has actually begun to surface in the United States (usually used in tandem with a gas instant water heater).  It’s cool to see this tech showing up in a developing country even before becoming popular in the US.  Another manifestation showed up recently in one of our lectures.  We were told that between 70 and 80 percent of the Nepal population engages in agriculture and nearly all of that is subsistence agriculture as opposed to market agriculture.  Everywhere we go in Nepal, we run into more and more examples of a self-subsistance.  Despite this individual production, though, there is a tremendous sense of community and support.

As we acclimate to our current home of Kirtipur, I am beginning to get to know the village and find more comfort each day.  Our first stop in Delhi brought the same feelings of discomfort initially followed by the gradual appreciation that grew more each day.  My appreciation for Delhi resulted from an adventure filled day with my grandfather.

Grandpa Bob and I

My grandfather Robert Howell, an architect from San Francisco, designs metro stations in developing countries.  Although he has only worked in Delhi for the past few years, he spent the last fifteen years working on rapid transit stations all over Asia.  Grandpa Bob will work for three to four months at a time, go home for a month or two and then return to his projects abroad.  My family and I always discuss where Grandpa Bob is and what he is doing.  On this one day in Delhi I was able to see what keeps my grandfather abroad for most of the year. ..

After a church service at the CS society in Delhi on Sunday morning, my grandfather and I set out to explore the city.  Delhi has become one of my grandfather’s favorite cities and he was eager to show it to me.  We began the day by picking up a few things I forgot to bring, a pillow case, blanket, granola bars, etc.  As we drove through the different areas Grandpa Bob would point out the interesting parts of each neighborhood.  One thing I love about spending time with Grandpa Bob is that he cannot suppress the architect talk.  We would pass one building and he would I identify the building type, construction date, economic status of the institution/residence and architect information.  We would zoom by another building and Grandpa Bob would describe.  One building after another.  After a few hours with Grandpa Bob I was able to identify many Delhi neighborhoods and the economic status of different housing districts.

At each stop we would walk around, go into shops, interact with some people and then hop back into the tiny car and scoot off to the next place.  A highlight of the day was spending little moments with Ankit, my grandfather’s driver.  If you have ever been to Delhi you already know that outsiders would not last very long on the road.  Ankit was a soft-spoken young Indian man who worked for a driving company.  He has been with my grandfather for some time and their interactions together are fun to watch.  Ankit’s sweet nature and knowledge of the city combined with Grandpa Bob’s destinations and subtle humor provide for some interesting conversations.

Ankit took us all over the city bringing us to Sagar South restaurant in Defence Colony Market, Malik Bros. Supermarket, Khan Market, shops  Fabindia and Good Earth, Cottage Emporium, Connault Place, INA Station (a newly open metro station that my grandfather helped design), Dilli Haat, Saket, City Walk and Spice Market restaurant.  Ankit definitely put some miles on the company car throughout the day.

Hallway into INA metro station

Our day ended with a wonderful dinner at Spice Market, an upscale Indian restaurant, with a colleague of Grandpa Bob named Rashmee (forgive my spelling) and her husband Arun.   Our three hour dinner consisted of pre-appetizers, appetizers, main course buffet and two rounds of desserts.  My adapting stomach definitely got a workout.  During that one dinner conversation I learned more about India than I had during our entire week in India.  Rashmee and Arun, newlyweds of seven months, told me about their wedding, Indian politics, language, profession, fashion and more.

I was so grateful for my day with Grandpa Bob because Delhi became more personalized and understandable.  Before Delhi was a hot, confusing, overwhelming place to me and my one day of learning from the people of Delhi brought a whole new perspective.

INA Station

I look forward to the lessons that will come from each stop on our abroad.  Yes, I will try to skip some of the initial discomfort that I seem to experience with each new location and jump straight into loving it.  I don’t know if I’m quite there yet.  I’m working on it.  Although I thought I had learned this lesson already, each place we go will be challenging in its own way but always has a unique goodness to it that is waiting to be found.

And onward we go….

As we were on our way back from Amritsar, Austin, Ana, Nick and I really enjoyed spending part of our six hours between the cars enjoying the fresh air and a beautiful sunset. It was incredible watching all the Indian people zooming by while hanging out of the train feeling so free!

"A Walk to Remember"

The other morning, Makenna and I got to explore Kirtipur a bit while out on a morning stroll before breakfast. We started hiking up what seemed like hundreds of stairs and ended up at this BEAUTIFUL temple which was actually quite crowded with lots of activities. Once again, the temple came with an incredible view of Kathmandu Valley & it was also fun to see several Hindu men parading around beating drums and playing other instruments. Others were offering food and water to their gods. As we continued on our walk, we noticed a lot of people staring at our bright white shoes. Obviously, being American also drew a lot of attention to us as well. However, we had a very peaceful walk around the village, enjoying many friendly welcomes from the Nepalis, many laughs and smiles from the cutest kids you’ll ever see and many moments of energy being expressed by the busyness (even at 7:00 in the morning) of lots of people in the street and cars rushing down the streets in a very haphazard way. Though we got a little lost, it was great just wandering around and exploring. Eventually, we ended up back at the temple we started at and made it back just in time for breakfast. What a sweet little place to start our morning, feeling love from all the Nepali people.