Letter Home from Nepal

A Letter Home from students on the IHP Human Rights: Foundations, Challenges, and Advocacy program:

Hello to all of our friends back home!

As it would be nearly impossible to sum up all of the amazing adventures and learning experiences we have had in Nepal, we have decided to give you a taste for what a basic day looked like for IHP Human Rights students.  We have pulled from some of our favorite activities and outings to compile a stellar example of a day in Kathmandu.  Enjoy!

IHP Human Rights group in Nepal

MORNING 6:00 AM

It’s 6:00 AM. My alarm is set for 7:30. The dogs, motorcyclists, and Hindu observers, however, seem not to realize. As the sun peeks over the hills that ring the Kathmandu Valley, the day in the Patan District of Kathmandu has already begun. The bells suspended from each temple are jingled in auspicious acknowledgement of the holy power which it houses. The butchers, for which Patan is famous, display their sides of buffalo and goat on the counters of their open-air shops – the street dogs stare longingly, but never make a move. The smell of frying donuts mingles with exhaust, dust, and wafting freshly-skinned meat as people of all ages and modes of dress wind their way through the labyrinthine city, engaging in a well-choreographed maneuver with the seemingly reckless motorbikes. I, on the other hand, pretend to be sure of myself as I avoid getting lost, but I’m too busy trying to process Patan’s sensory overload and avoid losing my toes to motorcycle wheels (it takes time to learn the city’s choreography). My walk from the heart of Patan to our class space became more familiar and natural each day; I received fewer stares, became confident in the face of motorcycles, and began embracing the dust. By the end of the month, on that walk to class, I felt a part of the city.

LECTURES 9:00 AM

TRAVELING FACULTY LECTURE

Today, we also all gathered in our classroom space, Photo Circle, for one of the faculty sessions. We always have a few faculty sessions a week, which is more formal class where we have the opportunity to engage and dive deeper into the complicated issues we face at the site visits or with the guest lectures. Class usually involves one or two students presenting on the reading and helping all of us get a better understanding of the issue in context to Nepal and what we have been exploring. Our classroom is one big room that has pillows that we all sit on. We take our shoes off before entering, which is custom everywhere in Nepal, and sit together in a circle to have these conversations. Occasionally, including today, we break up into small groups and discuss questions and try to create definitions and solutions. Today, in small groups, we looked at what it means to be urban and what sustainability is.

GUEST LECTURE

I sat down for one of our guest lectures. Today we had the great privilege to hear Ben Ayres speak. He is a U.S. American who had already walked the path many of us have begun to think about walking, and was able to eloquently speak to us about being a U.S. American, and all that implies, working for an NGO in a country like Nepal. Like us, he had been a college student in the States, who became entranced with the enthralling, contradicting and dynamic nation that is Nepal. He became especially interested in the porters and their rights, which eventually led to the starting of his own NGO based around those rights. He was able to talk to us from a position of where we might be in 10 years, in a sense it felt like our future self was able to give us advice. In other words, it was amazing and incredibly helpful. For many of us, Nepal was a lesson in the ambiguity and complexity of the human rights framework, especially the applicability of a universal framework. Another big question we had been grappling with was our role as U.S. Americans coming into other countries and applying that framework. Ben Ayres was really able to get to the crux of that very issue, and talk about how to negotiate that ambiguity and complexity, and how to function while doing human rights work. I left the lecture so thankful to be on a program that helped me learn so much not only about human rights, but about myself.

BARGAINING 12:00 PM

I scan the tables flooded with souvenirs in the center of Durbar Square when a small blue box catches my eye. My interest becomes apparent to the woman who I will spend the next half hour bargaining with. “How much?” I ask. “1600 rupees” she replies. I put the box down and walk away. I have my bargaining shield on as I make my way to another table. She is persistent. And so am I. “Your price,” she says in a generous and charismatic tone. “500,” I replay with confidence. She doesn’t like this price. “Bad luck for me,” is the guilty phrase she chooses to repeat. Her demeanor has become angry and passive. We go back and forth and neither of us budges. At this time, I have lost my interest in both the box and the bargaining game. She notices and gives me the box for 500 rupees and a look of disapproval. The trade has left her with bad luck and me with a blue box that is now a token of my bargaining success.

SITE VISIT 2:00 PM

We have been to many organizations already and each time seeing the offices, children and dedicated individuals who are working hard for their mission held a lasting impression on our time in Nepal. This morning we piled into our vans and braved the crowded streets of Kathmandu to go to an organization called Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC). We drove for over an hour and the uneven, congested roads made me nauseous as I watched one bright colored building pass and another take its place. When we arrived I stumbled out of the van, happy to be on solid ground. Around me I saw multiple buildings and a woman working on some crafts. We were met by a small woman named Pushpa, who was soft spoken and gentle in demeanor, but when she spoke you held on her every word. She led us into a room and we sat in a clump on the floor and listened to her story. We listened intently as she explained to us what ECDC does. In Nepal when a woman is put in jail, her children have the option of becoming homeless or living in prison with their mom. It is rare that the father takes the child in. There are regulations about what age the children can stay there until, but often children end up growing up in the prison, without a sufficient education and among all the horrible prison conditions that are a whole other issue of their own. Pushpa visited the prison one day, after taking some time off from college, and saw these horrific conditions. She decided to open a daycare for the kids and from that ECDC evolved into a home for children to live in while their mom is in prison. The home supplies the kids with adequate sleeping arrangements, food and requires that they stay in school through the required grade 10. Pushpa has arranged for 200 scholarships for university, as well, so now the students will have the opportunity to continue their education. We sat listening to Pushpa, admiring her passion and inspired by her ability to so humbly discuss her hard work. She led us through the building looking at the sleeping arrangements for the kids and getting to peek into the preschool classroom where the younger children were in class. We finished the tour in a larger room where we sat once again on the floor. We looked around at the walls and saw awards nicely placed in frames. We saw one large framed piece, which seemed to be a documentary’s movie poster, when asked about it we were introduced to how truly humble she was. The documentary poster was for the documentary that had just finished filming about her and her work constructing ECDC. We were star struck as she explained to us the process of becoming CNN’s Hero of the Year in 2012. She laughed off any attempt at complimenting her or congratulating her on her success, instead she always turned it back onto the kids and how this new found fame has aided the organization in helping more people, but how she fears it will hurt them in the long run financially. As we piled back into the van, I tried to process everything I has just learned. We had been struggling with the idea of immediate service or advocacy for larger social issues. Pushpa, not only provides the necessary service for these children, but her success in achieving CNN Hero of the Year has meant attention shed on this important issue. We all talked the whole way home on what an inspiration she was and what an honor it has been to talk with her.

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KITE FLYING 4:00PM

The orange paper kite whips back and forth across the blue sky. In the distance, kites dance. From the rooftops little kids wave their arms up and down trying to keep their kites in check. The green mountains (or ‘hills’ as they are referred to in Nepal) roll across the horizon. Every so often the clouds in the distance shift and snowcapped, six thousand meter mountains shine in all of their glory. Our host brothers laugh in the background. Their hands spin the spindle back and forth, letting more string out as the wind takes the kite. The boys pass the kite back and forth coaching each other in rapid Nepali. My host brother lets out too much string; the kite plunges downward. His friend shakes his head, smiles and grabs the spindle. The string stretches over 100 yards in the distance. A purple kite emerges from a roof top to the west. It moves gracefully closer to our kite. With brotherly tone one boy yells to another. I can’t understand what he is saying, but I’m sure that he wants him to move the kite in the other direction. I sit back, watch and smile. I try to take in all of my surroundings. I want to capture the happiness and friendliness that is radiating from our new host family. With a variation of hand movements the boys try to move our kite to the east. The purple kite follows. It is a war. We search the rooftops for the child behind the kite, but we can’t find the boy. The kites cross paths and our kite begins to fall. The boys shake their heads and laugh. At first we are confused as to what happened and then we realize that our kite is gone. They speak some more in rapid Nepali. From the smiles on their faces we can tell that they are joking around. They turn and give us their attention. They explain to us that they have been kite flying all their lives. It’s a tradition and a past time. Almost every windy day kids all over the area fly kites. The views, colorful buildings and kites only add to the friendly and intriguing Nepali culture. The roof top is an outlet from the busy street below. It’s a place to congregate, relax and just hang out.

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DINNER 7:00 PM

We sit down to a dinner of daal bhat – a large metal plate heaped with more rice than I can dream of finishing, lentils poured across it, surrounded by curries our host mom insists we take more and more of. We use our right hands to eat, scooping and pushing food together in a rhythmic and elegant method that our family has been trying to teach us. Our family kindly laughs at our struggling and proudly gives us “A’s” when our plates are finally clean. Dinner every night takes at least an hour since our family loves to talk. They cover everything from the father’s visit to a talk on how religious leaders can raise the minimum age of marriage, to the mother’s four-day pilgrimage of religious sites, to our sister’s diplomacy at work as a human resources manager at the bank. We finish our meal with a large mug of warm buffalo milk — it was startling to taste at first, but by now has become a comforting end to our evening. After dinner our family takes us to Durbar Square to see a traditional Nepali dance in celebration of Dashain, one of Nepal’s largest festivals. When we get there, there is already a crowd circled around the colorful, masked dancers, so we climb up inside a temple and stand at the top. Up here, there is group of men ringing a giant bell, calling people to come see the dance. We stand there with our family, listening to the bell, and watching the dance as sun sets over the square.

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RURAL VILLAGE NEXT MORNING ONWARD

The next morning we got ready for our Rural Village Excursion!  Chaughare, in southern Lalitpur, gave us all a taste of the “Real Nepal,” our Country Coordinator Team explained.  As we journeyed away from the bustling city of Kathmandu for nearly two hours up the winding, narrow roads through the foothills, our destination became enshrouded in clouds.  We arrived mid-afternoon and were greeted by our hosts from the organization, Environmental Camps for Conversation Awareness (ECCA).  ECCA is a Nepali organization dedicated to social mobilization and to educating rural communities and school-aged children about the importance of sustainable environmental practices.

In Chaughare, with ECCA’s guidance, we were able to work with two local schools ECCA supports.  At one school, groups of students took turns painting the exterior and interior of the building with white wash first and then with a bright, sunny yellow color and playing educational games with some of the school children.  A small number of us also got to walk through the village with students, distributing water purification tablets to families.  This proved to be an awesome activity to get to know the students and their village by foot!  At the other school, we worked with the students in the Nature Club to learn about their initiatives and then plant cardamom plants with them in a sustainable manner.  This crop’s produce helps support the local community and the local schools.

At night, we lived in small groups with local host families.  These host families were native to the area and spoke the local Tamang, and some Nepali too.  Our homes were different than what we experienced in Kathmandu, as they were largely made out of mud and clay and designed using old architectural methods specific to this community.   This rural experience helped to give us a broader picture of Nepal beyond Kathmandu and was a great way to spend our last weekend in Nepal!

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