Back in February 2018, I joined a team of seven women on a ten-day trip to Nepal.
The trip originally stemmed because of my good friend and colleague, Rebecca. Back in 2014, Rebecca attended the ECIS Conference and listened in on a presentation by a man called Bart, who teaches and runs a CAS program (part of the IB program) at the American School of the Hague. Bart works with a man named Prabin, who works with a network of seven international schools (my school being one of them), bringing kids to come to Nepal work and serve in the villages of Nagarkot and Bandipur, with the goal of establishing a long-term, sustainable connection and program. Rebecca was inspired by Bart’s talk, and as a result, managed to get a few things up and running at our school- including the staff and students raising enough money to fund a five-year lunch program at one of the local schools in Nagarkot (this upcoming school year is year 5/5!) as well as running a student trip in 2015.
Rebecca, along with two colleagues, took a group of motivated students to Nagarkot in April 2015, and while they were there, the earthquake struck. Thankfully, no one was hurt, although the disaster did result in our school putting a halt on student trips to Nepal. Regardless, Rebecca went back on her own 2017 to do two workshops on menstruation with the local women at the schools in Nagarkot and in Bandipur- and then proceeded to invite a group of female colleagues to come to Nepal to continue the initiative in February 2018.
I had absolutely zero idea about what to expect in Nepal. I vaguely knew two of the people we would be working with (Kalayani and Bikki, because they had come to visit our school back in June 2017), but other than that I had absolutely no knowledge of Nepali culture, customs, or language. I was ready to go in completely blind and with an open mind, ready to learn and eager to see where I could further serve our school and community, if trips would ever become an option again.
After an eight-hour flight to New Delhi followed by an additional two-hour flight to Kathmandu, we arrived, tired and jet-lagged but excited, in Nepal.
After a shower, we were ready for dinner! (Left to right: Rebecca, Dana, Madolyn, Lyndsay, Valerie, Elayne, and Amelie.)
The first thing that struck me about Nepal were the sheer amount of prayer flags draped every which way around the country, from the capital to the small villages. Traditionally, the flags are flown to promote peace, as well as compassion, strength, and wisdom, throughout the Himalayas, specifically in Nepal and Tibet.
My first Nepali meal- and I ate with my hands!
Feeling fuller after some eats and drinks!
After a night of rest, we did a bit of site seeing in Kathmandu before heading to Nagarkot. Our first stop was Swayambhunath Stupa, also know simply as the “Monkey Temple.” Both Buddhism and Hinduism are major religions in Nepal, and Swayambhunath is one of the holiest as well as oldest Buddhist stupas. Many believe it to have been the starting point of Kathmandu Valley more than 2,000 years ago. Although the climb is a bit treacherous (tip: go around the back way, instead of straight up the steps!), you do have a bunch of monkeys and prayer flags to keep you company along the way. The view itself is also worth the climb, as it offers sweeping views of the city (as well as an insight to just how big of a problem pollution is in Nepal.) Additional tip: remember to always walk clockwise around the stupas, out of respect!
Some shots of the Swayambhunath Stupa, or Monkey Temple
In the middle of Kathmandu valley lies Durbar Square, in front of the original royal palace of the former Kingdom. A UNESCO heritage site, construction of the buildings dates back to the third century, although unfortunately many collapsed during the 2015 earthquake and are still undergoing repairs.
After a full day of tourism in Kathmandu, we made our way to Nagarkot. Even though it is only 32 km (19 mi) away, it took us about two hours by car to get there, due to traffic as well as road infrastructure (further worsened by the earthquake). However, the arrival was well worth the trip. Nagarkot is a beautiful village and a highlight of my experience in Nepal. In Nagarkot, we stayed at the Farmhouse, which overlooks the Himalayan Mountains on clear days, and is just far enough away from the hubbub of the town.
Our days in Nagarkot were spent visting two different schools in two different villages. One school is where Rebecca did her three-day workshop on menstruation–almost an hour’s walk from the Farmhouse (uphill both ways!) Nepal also still follows aspects of the Caste System, and most people in this village were part of the caste just above the Untouchable Caste. We spent one day at this school doing a recap of Rebecca’s work from last year, as well as visiting a few family homes in the afternoon.
Because the women took time from their days to come see us, we gave them a small bag of sanitary pads, tooth brushes, razors, and soap (courteously of friends, students, and colleagues of EJM!) to say thank you.
The welcome ceremony at all three schools included being dressed in scarves and bindi symbols, and the children singing us the national anthem. I was also super impressed by how much most of these women remembered from Rebecca’s previous visit, because although many of them already have children of their own, most of them did not know much about their own bodies, including how and why menstruation worked.
Some regions in Nepal also still practice (or recently stopped practicing) Chaupadi, a custom where girls and women are shunned from society when they get their periods. This may include sleeping outside, being barred from festivals, temples, or from touching others. Although this practice was outlawed in Nepal in 2005, a number of the women we met during our stay went through it. Additionally, as many as 30% of Nepali girls miss school due to their periods, and many still use rags to soak up their flow.
Another thing I noticed in Nepal was either the lack of men or the lack of working men. Many men in Nepal ship off to work in the Gulf states, and are then stuck there, as their passports are confiscated (this is another separate issue for another separate post, but from what I understand, it is corrupt AF). One woman we shadowed in Nagarkot, for example had not seen her husband in three years because he was working in Dubai.
However, if the men were not working in the Gulf States, I (reluctantly) noticed that more than quite a few of them sat around drinking, while the women (literally!) did all of the work in a around the house. As I mentioned, we spent a morning shadowing two women from the village, both of whom awoke at 4:30 am (while everyone else slept) to feed the animals, make breakfast (on a fire stove), fetch water, and do the washing, amongst other things. While driving down the roads, I often noticed women caring for cattle or carrying heavy loads on their backs while the men just sat around. It definitely gave a new meaning to “having it all”. On a more serious note, it is a very delicate cultural situation to broach with caution, especially when our project and goal is focused around empowering women. We are trying to be as culturally sensitive as we can when it comes to the issues of women and menstruation. We firmly believe and know that it is extremely important, but the last thing we wanted to do as white women from the west was come in and impose know-it-all “solutions.” Rebecca’s end goal would be to create a Women’s Center where the women can make their own re-useable sanitary pads, but with the power dynamics of men and women in Nepal, as well as how much work the women already have to do, plus how the men would react in response to having a Women’s Center (as well as potential earning), could determine a lot of factors.
Change is slow, but I think it is coming.
Some views of a day in the life in the village… Also, the woman carrying a jug of water is my idol. One hip carries the water, with her hand holding that of her child’s in the other- the water was down a large hill.
We were also lucky enough to be in Nepal for the Holi Festival! Unfortunately, drinking is abundant and foreigners are key targets with permanent paint, so we kept our celebrations to the Farmhouse.
Happy Holi Festival!
We also spent a day at Kalayani’s school, which is the school for whom our school sponsored the five-year lunch program. Most of these kids are apart of the Untouchable Caste, and were hit especially hard by the earthquake. The most moving part was going to visit their village, and seeing how the people were living now. The Nepali government allotted funding (a few thousand USD) to families whom lost a home or a loved one during the earthquake (so, apparently, there is a price on death). However, things take forever in Nepal, so most are still living in temporary housing. Prabin has also started projects and initiatives with other international schools to provide funding for new homes as well as running water in the village, both of which are actually in the process of being built. The houses are made of brick with a firmer foundation (3-6 feet deep, to avoid further damage by future earthquakes), contain two rooms, and the idea of an open kitchen and outdoor toilet. The temporary structures are made out of metal sheets and are held down mostly by ropes and sandbags (this goes for houses and the temporary school.)
Kalayani’s school was also destroyed by the earthquake. Her school is being rebuilt and the kids are currently in a temporary structure.
We got some awesome views of the Himalayan Mountains on our last day, and Kalayani dressed us up in Saris!
After spending a few days in Nagarkot, we ventured west, seven hours, to Bandipur. The stark contrast between Kathmandu, Nagarkot, and Bandipur was immediately evident. There is more money in Bandipur, and tourism. It was also less effected by the earthquake. It was in Bandipur that Rebecca did her second round of three-day menstruation workshops, so we followed suit with another follow-up session. What was most eye-opening to me was that while the women we worked with in Nagarkot were in their twenties, thirties, forties, and golden years, these girls were teenagers, and, education-wise, knew much more than their older counterparts.
Some shots of Bandipur
The last stop of our trip was Pokhara, which was further west and virtually untouched by the earthquake. Arriving in Pokhara was a bit like stepping back into “western” mode- there were lots of shops and bars, plus we spent our days hiking to the Shanti Stupa, canoeing, shopping, and watching the sunsets.
From Pokhara, we flew 25 minutes on something called “Buddha Air” back to Kathmandu, where we indulged in a long lunch and shopping session at Boudhanath Stupa.
Overall, the ten days I spent in Nepal in February and March left and lasting impact on me, and as a school community we are planning on how to go forward. We plan to continue the lunch program with Kalayani’s school, and hope to raise enough money for another five years. Rebecca has also been given the okay to run another student trip- depending on the interest that could mean a potential return on my part (we’ll see!) Otherwise I am more than willing to help the cause from afar.
Many people have told me that one initially goes to Nepal for the mountains, but comes back for the people. I now see what that person was talking about.