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Archive for March, 2010

The weekend all started with a productive work day on Friday wrapping up with a 3-hour long dinner meeting with the entire staff and board of Prerana. A lot of well-educated women make up the executive committee and it was inspiring to hear what sort of humanitarian work they all have their hands wet in. Plus, now I have some research behind me when I have to explain the female leader roles in the org for my proposal! The food at dinner was fantastic too, mind you, I’m struggling with all the -gasp- cilantro. I’m not surprised it’s so present in Nepali/Indian dishes, but ugh do I HATE that herb!

Saturday was culturally explosive for me. I was a guest at a Prerana cultural program, centred on action for women against violence, that took place in the Lele valley. It took over an hour to get there on a dusty, windy, ‘road’. Our bus was crammed to the max with women from all around Kathmandu (many of them disabled) and all of them full of passion! I’ve never heard such laughter, singing, and yelling!

The views on the ride up were spectacular

And, I finally saw clear blue sky! Kathmandu has such poor air quality that despite the fact that it’s been a balmy 25 plus everyday since I arrived, you can never truly make out the sky past the smoggy haze hovering over the city. I’ve figured it out now. Just drive for about 20 minutes straight up and wham! you’ve got green pastures, rolling hills, and ah, yes, straight up sunshine. Delicious.

After turning a barren-looking empty spot on the side of the road, into a full-blown stage set up (chairs, banners, sound-system, and sun-shielding tarps), the dancers/singers and I all sat down for a hearty meal of chow-mein. Some of the girls were around my age and are professional dancers in the valley. And they are in love with Western culture. It was riot to compare skin/hair colour, giggle at my attempt to speak Nepali (and them, English), and attempt to learn a few traditional dance moves. Plus, they couldn’t believe I put the ‘spicy sauce’ all over my meal. That’s right, I can handle it!

I blend right in.

The program itself was unreal. I imagine it’s similar to what some tourists see in the Newari/Nepali traditional restaurants in Thamel (tourist district), but so so much more. All of the entertainment had a clear message: women have to fight for their rights. They have to rise above only believing their place is in their home. They have a voice and they need to come together and use it as one.

What was even more inspiring than the women putting on the program, was the audience in itself. Women of all ages gathered to take in the festivities and they shouted along with the speakers as they drove home their message. They were cheerfully clapping along with the dancing and nodding in agreement to the discussions. I stared in awe at the glittering array of colourful sari’s, shining in the afternoon sunlight.

Lele villagers enjoying the performance

Men also gathered to watch the show and listen. Though, I did see one young boy rip up the info paper and throw it in a little girl’s face – disheartening, I know, but you have to persevere and keep pushing for change.

It all wrapped up with the awkward foreigner (me!) being forced to dance on stage with all the performers. At that point in the day I was pretty used to being pointed and stared at anyways, so I might as well make a fool out of myself!

dance, dance, dance.

Ah, you know it’s a good day when you fall fast asleep on a very uncomfortable bus ride and you wake with sore cheeks from smiling so much.

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Turns out that a move is not in my future after all. I’m pretty happy about the situation, since moving out to the ‘burbs of Kath wasn’t entirely appealing to me. Why the change of plans? I spent all of Thursday at the Prerana office, with no power and no internet (laptop has a crap battery, so that only lasted about an hour before it pooped out).

Since I’m doing quite a bit of internet research for work purposes, having access to the web for a good portion of the day is critical. And the two apartments I viewed had no internet connections and still involved an epic trek to the office.

So I talked it over with Rajendra (volunteer logistics guru) and we’ve opted for me to work from the passage house three days a week and I’ll commute to Prerana twice weekly. Et Voila. The commute will involve an hour-long tuk tuk ride, followed by a twenty-minute cab (but it’s cheap and hey, I came here for an experience!)

I’ve also narrowed my focus of work. I’ve already started drafting a proposal to submit to Global Women’s Fund on behalf of Prerana (centred around core funding access). My main challenges with this task are gathering/interpreting information and figuring out a way around the language barriers (most documentation is written in Nepali and only one staff member can speak English somewhat well). I’m also going to create a promotional double-sided 8.5 x 11 piece highlighting Prerana’s accomplishments and expertise. Right now they don’t have much to hand out at potential partnership meetings – other than massive documents that don’t give a solid overview of what Prerana actually offers. And hopefully, I’ll be able to tweak the website – make changes to the content and add a few new pages providing insight into specific programming.

It’s a decent sized list for what is now only eight days of work! 

Signing a partnership agreement with a disabled children's hospital board.

Outside of work, it has been relatively quiet. I’ve had several amazing South-Asian meals (which I promise I’ll take pictures of next time), got shuttled around the city on a motor-bike (SO fun!) and saw what I consider devastating – a starved, dead dog on the sidewalk. Tear. More and more I realize how damn lucky my own pup is. I always feel guilty for leaving her crated most of the day while we’re at work, but life ain’t all that bad. Obviously, the poverty levels with people is terrible here too, but dogs just tug at my heart-strings in a way I can’t explain…

Oh, and I also caught a monkey hopping a ride across the street on the back of a cow!  Pure Nepali entertainment right there.

Hitchin a ride with Pushpa around Kath. Nearly lost my knees in some of the tight traffic!

Off to bed – blogging has been my sleeping pill since day one here – it’s working perfectly! Looking forward to a cultural Prerana program out of the valley tomorrow and planning my upcoming weekend trip to Chitwan! Ciao.

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Long story, short version: we took a half-day tour around Kathmandu to three popular places in the valley. It was a fantastic tour, but a little short and rushed for my liking. Plus, our guide only spoke Nepali and French -guh. The coordinators are both Francophone’s so they translated most of the explanations as we went along (and my Lonely Planet proved itself quite useful).

First was a stop off at Buddhist site, Bodhnath Stupa.

One of the world's largest Buddhist stupas and the religious centre for the exiled Tibetan community

Prayer Wheel - monks keep them spinning constantly at this site.

Buddhist pilgrims surge to this stupa to honour Buddha. Apparently there is a piece of bone from the skeleton of the historical Buddha here.

Next, was my first experience at a Hindu holy area, dating back to the 5th century. The poverty levels were much higher in this section of the city and I’ll admit it, I was a little overwhelmed by the display of intense emotions and religious outcries.

A hindu man at the holy Pashupati sight. We weren't allowed past a certain point since we aren't practicing Hindus.

Perched on the edge of the holy, beyond polluted Bagmati river are several cremation ghats. I accidently caught a corpse wrapped in orange cloth in this photo. This was my first experience with burning flesh...

Beautiful colours for face decoration. Hindu women who have been widowed can't wear red ever again. Not even for their bindi dot.

Decorative powder for facial use. Women who have been widowed can't wear red ever again - not even their bindi dot.

Next up was Durbar Square in Patan.

Me atop the square

I’ve realized now that Lalitpur is the ancient Sanskrit name for Patan. So this is roughly around the area where I’ll be moving to. The river you cross to get to this area is pretty much the worst stench I’ve ever encountered.

People bathing in the holy water (and children playing, of course!)

I'll be honest, I have no idea what this represents. We rushed through the square insanely fast.

I have no idea what this represents. We had to rush through the square tour, so I didn't get English translations!

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Morning has quickly become my absolute favorite time of day here. I wake up super early sans alarm clock, thanks to the life of the streets – dogs barking, motorbikes and cars honking, people clearing their throats in the loudest way possible, and men singing hindu chants to greet the day. It’s actually pretty entertaining! Since Kath pretty much shuts down after 7:30 pm (unless you’re in the Thamel district, amongst all the tourists), the early rising isn’t hard to deal with. Another reason I’m lovin’ the break of dawn? I’ve started doing yoga again (thanks yogadownload.com!) It’s a perfect way to combat my hard bed and the soft morning sun makes the workout relaxing (in a weird, ‘I’m still sweating’ sort of way).

What else has been keeping me busy? Lots! I had day two of CECI orientation on Tuesday and after spending hours learning about their role in Nepal, I’ve come to the conclusion that international development workers LOVE acronyms, like head-over-heels swoon for them.

Of course, I also learned loads of important information about how local organizations, co-operatives, federations, unions, NGOs, and INGOs work together (or sometimes not) to help this complicated country economically and socially develop in a positive, sustainable way. Presently, CECI is having a tough time continuing their work here since Nepal was removed from CIDA’s list of countries of focus (similar to several African countries). Who are the replacements? Countries – most in Latin America –  that Harper is trying to build new trade agreements with. Shocking huh? Not so much.

I’m not going to bog everyone down with everything we discussed, but I will say that CECI Nepal focuses on three critical development sectors – social, agro-foods, and sustainable forestry. PRERANA fits into the social sector (among many other partnerships). Agro-foods encompasses orgs like dairy co-operatives or small farmers unions that help regulate dairy/produce sales in the country. The forestry sector includes orgs like fecofun, a federation of community forest users. I also learned there is a huge industry for non-timber products here in Nepal. If you use Aveda products, you’re contributing to the sustainable forest management practices in this country.

So after that session, we wrapped up with a briefing on the security, history, and socio-political situation of Nepal. Again, so as not to weigh you down with stuff you’ll likely forget in 10 minutes, here are my top 5 facts:

  •  There are 103 different ethnic groups, 5 caste divisions (this includes the Newars who technically have their own caste system within a system), and over 92  different languages (OMG!)
  • Population below poverty is 31%. This number has actually decreased over the past 5 years due to remittance (labourers finding work outside of the country and sending cash home). There are a ton of Western Unions all over and now it makes sense.
  • The current government is made up of 25 parties. Equation for political unrest? I think so.
  • Until May 2008, Nepal was a constitutional monarchy. It is now a republic and the king lives amongst the people of Kathmandu – his palace (where his brother and nearly the entire Royal family was massacred in 2001) is now a museum.
  • They are due for another massive earthquake in the next 10-20 years, according to the history books. Maybe all the flower pots teetering on rooftops isn’t such a great idea? Just a thought.
  • I’m going to wrap this up on a sad note. Looks like I’m moving tomorrow and I won’t have much internet access. I’m really enjoying this whole blog thing and hope to keep it up, but it could prove difficult without wireless at home. We’ll have to see. Next post will be light – sightseeing pics and stories!

    Namaste.

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    Well, jet lag caught up with me on my first night and I didn’t fall asleep until closer to 4 am. The plus side of that was we had power all night! There are serious problems with electricity in Nepal so everyone in Kathmandu is on a power cut schedule (regulated blackout periods to conserve). We have 8-12 hour blocks during day/night where we have no electricity. Luckily, we do have one floor with back up plugs and lights, but unfortunately for me, that floor doesn’t host my bedroom. Anyways, last night we managed to keep our power, despite the schedule indicating a blackout and that meant  I got to sneak in a few Skype sessions – always nice when you can’t sleep.

    My following morning was a little sleepy, but fuelled by Vietnamese coffee – two program coordinators just returned from a regional meeting in Hanoi and shared their caffeine wealth. We had a tour around the CECI office (everyone seems to still be in Vietnam, so it was pretty quiet), followed by a meeting with my partner organization, PRERANA. Now, it turns out that they are located outside of Kathmandu (but still in the valley) and it took over an hour to get there. So, tomorrow I’ll be touring two apartments in Lalitpur (the location of PRERANA) so I don’t have to take expensive cabs to work everyday. Being able to walk to the org is extremely important since I’m such a short-term volunteer. Kathmandu has political strikes quite often and literally everything in the city shuts down while these carry on. They aren’t violent, but they are disruptive to traffic flows and business – walking allows me to get to work when a strike happens.

    But back to my meeting with my partner org. The team I met was made up of program coordinators for women’s rights, educated board and chair members (and they literally call themselves educated in their titles), a comms/web person, and an accountant. Most of the ’employees’ who I met, have a second job that actually pays the bills since this one is mostly volunteer. They struggle with getting any core funding (consistent funding to pay for overhead costs) – which is why they wanted me to help with fundraising initiatives. These are extremely passionate people who care about helping others and empowering women. I was inspired by their determination the moment I walked into the room.

    After getting settled on the floor, with a hot cup of tea in front of each of us, we got down to business. Oh, and I forgot to mention – the director of the Leave for Change program from Toronto came with me – just to make an already nerve-wracking meeting that much more comfortable!

    Getting to know the PRERANA team.

    Overall it went well. I left the introduction with a list of work expectations and a ton of reading to finish before I officially start on Thursday.  Some of their priorities are extremely important, but simply  not possible for me to finish in the 2.5 weeks I’ll have with the org. For example, number 5 on their list was, “support our processes and document a strategic plan for coming 5 year”. Hah – writing a proper strategic plan should take months! So, we decided they would put in another volunteer request solely for this task, someone who would be a 3-5 month volunteer. The ‘doable’ tasks include preparing a basic draft guideline for fundraising, helping with a draft proposal on women’s rights for global funding, and creating an organizational profile which will outline their programs and expertise.

    Whew. I’m feeling a tad overwhelmed with all the learning I have ahead. But, I do get to play a bit before I jump in headfirst. We have a city tour coming up and we’ve eaten at several appealing restaurants (the fridge doesn’t have back up power, so most meals aren’t at home). 

    I've discovered our rooftop patio is a great place to relax with a book in hand. The view is wonderful.

    And I even ventured for a walk, entirely alone. The traffic still rattles me slightly when I have to cross the road, but I’m getting used to the winding dirt streets and dodging cows – and their shit. Now if only I could navigate properly and not get lost on my way back!

    A suprisingly quiet back alley in Kathmandu.

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    The journey

    Well, I’ll admit it, my travels began with a teary goodbye with both Jare and Stella. I’m a wimp. It’s not exactly my first time being separated from family (and this is a relatively short trip), but it never gets easier to say g’bye to the ones you love. Especially when they already look constantly sad and you can’t explain to them that you will come back…

    So, after some embarrassing emotions at the Kelowna airport, I made my way to Vancouver. The lovely Ms Hannusch graced me with her presence and over wholesome salads and spicy Caesars, we caught up on her wedding plans and my upcoming adventures. Most excellent way to kill three hours!

    After Vancouver, it was onto London. I lucked out and had no one sitting beside me for the 9 hour flight – hallelujah to being able to partially lay down during the red-eye! I had a hefty chunk of time to kill there, so I skipped out of Heathrow to experience London at its finest – pissing rain and sideways wind. Ah, the UK.  

    No really, it was lovely. I took in the Westminster Abbey (which Jare and I somehow missed when we were there before, despite the fact that it’s literally around the corner from the Westminster tube station and tourist central), Trafalgar Square, and Portobello Market. I even snuck in a pint of delicious lager and a sizeable plate of fish n chips, before hopping back onto the pricey Heathrow Express. I must admit, the whole day made me nostalgic for Glasgow times.


    Westminster Abbey on a classic London day.


    Thank goodness I didn’t take out any pounds or I would have left this market with my bag stuffed with goods. They had the most adorable pocket watches!

    Next up, was Doha, Qatar. Apparently, Dubai is facing bankruptcy and Qatar is preparing to take over as the high-end Middle Eastern hotspot. The airport is expanding at rapid rates and I was amazed at how posh everything was. I met an interesting businessman who was making his fortune in dry ice there.
    I would have actually loved to venture out of the airport, but alas, my only glimpse of this intriguing country was from an aisle seat.

    And that brings us to Kathmandu, Nepal! After some serious hype about how insanely confusing the airport is, I was pleasantly surprised to find it really not bad at all. The only downside was waiting 1.5 hours for my late driver and hovering taxi men, persisting that I follow them. The traffic on the other hand – whoa! Let’s just say my mother would not last five minutes in a car here. Ever.

    But, I made it – I’m all settled into my new home for the next three weeks – the CECI passage house. There are two other short-term volunteers here, along with two program directors that are making a quick visit. It’s cozy and spacious and I’m even blessed with a private balcony overlooking the quiet street below.


    My room for the next three weeks. This is the ‘sitting area’.

    Onto orientation tomorrow – namaste.

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