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Life in Pokhara
by Beth Stilling Cohen
(Beth is a VSO, working as Basic Education Volunteer in Kaski District, Nepal)
April 2012
Since coming to Nepal, my body clock seems set on waking me up around 5am each morning, accompanied by the sound of the cockerels next door and the jingling bells as my neighbours perform their morning puja ritual. I often go out for a run at this time and marvel at the white Annapurna mountains glistening as the sun begins to rise over Pokhara.

I eat my breakfast whilst heating pans of water for showering and washing my clothes. The little daily chores feel much more strenuous and time consuming than they used to at home, but I also like the simple routines and patterns of life.

I’m currently working on a short-term project in new early years class, so get my resources together and head off to the bus stop. Along the way I pass a colourful array of fruit and vegetable sellers and enjoy taking in the bustle of life in the streets nearby. Buses here are somewhat unpredictable, so I need to leave lots of time for my journey. If I’m lucky I will get a seat on the bus, but most days I find myself squeezed into a tiny morsel of space between lots of friendly locals. It never takes long for someone to strike up a conversation – everyone is very interested and inquisitive, so the bus journeys have become good times to practice my Nepali!

The bus winds up through the hillsides and on a clear day the view of the mountains is incredible. Nepali songs blare from the driver’s stereo and more and more people seem to find space to board the bus. The road bumps and bends and each week the landscapes seem to change colour with new blossoms and crops scattered across the valleys. I squeeze my way off the bus and usually find Gayatri, one of the teachers from the class, waiting with a gaggle of children at her feet.

We exchange greetings in Nepali and make our way down the steep path to the school. Here we find Sita, the other class teacher and lots of very excitable children. “Namaste Beth Miss!” they all shout as I greet them and ask questions about their families and homes. Since helping out in the class, we have established some clear routines and structures to the day, so Sita begins with a name card activity. Last visit, I suggested we get the children to find their own card independently (previously they just listened to the names whilst we haled the cards up) and this works very well. Some of the children pick this up quickly and I model how we can support the children who are having difficulties (for example, by giving them just 2 or 3 options to choose from).

Sita uses the visual timetable cards to work through a series of different activities – maths, phonics, outdoor play etc... and says she thinks the children seem much happier and more active since we have tried out these new ideas. Previously the children chanted or copied for long periods of time and their behaviour was poor. Each visit, I model a new idea and Sita practices something we tried previously. I am also trying to encourage her to think of ways to extend and adapt the activities herself. Although she is still a little nervous about this, she has generated some great ideas – things that I will go on to suggest to teachers in my new schools!

We have also tried to collect things like bottle tops, sticks etc... to use as counters and resources in class. Old boxes and containers have been utilised to store things in. I have definitely seen big improvements in the way things are organised in the classroom, but think there is still work to be done in terms of ensuring things are kept clean and in a way that they can easily be accessed and used during class.

Energy levels start to dip towards the end of the day and Gayatri ends the day with a lovely puppet show for the children. She used simple cardboard animals, stuck to sticks and has a wonderful ability in verbal story telling. It’s lovely watching how engaged the children are and we have been working on trying to make the stories interactive – by asking the children to make animal noises or answer questions throughout the story.

As school ends I walk back up with Gayatri and the children to the main road, where they often wait with me until the bus arrives. This can take a while, so I’m usually offered a cup of chiya from one of the parent’s tea shops at the road side. This spicy, sweet tea provides a great energy boost and I often feel a little tired at this point in the day. The bus home tends to be quieter and it’s great if I can get a window seat and can ponder my thoughts whilst taking in the views on the journey back to Pokhara.

Load shedding means lots of evenings are spent by candlelight, but if there is electricity I will check my emails and catch up with any reports or work that needs completing. I also fill in my visit forms and make plans for what areas we will focus on when I next visit the class. True to Nepali custom, I usually make myself some dhal bhat for dinner and spend the evenings reading or sometimes catching up with other volunteers. Bed time is a lot earlier than home, ready for an early start again the next day.

This was my first time in Nepal since it was declared a republic in May this year. No longer is it The Royal Kingdom of Nepal. The king has stepped down, and the man who once led the Maoists on such a violent collision course with the successive governments, over the past 12 years, was Prime Minister. How things can change!
As the taxi from the airport turned towards Chabahil, and my friend’s home, the driver had to do a quick about turn, as the road ahead was filled with protesters, and police waving lathis (long wooden sticks), and using them. Two days before, I was told, a student leader had been taken into custody by the police, and hours later taken to the hospital dying. People were outraged by this, and the students had been protesting on the streets since the incident. An ‘enquiry’ is to be held!
Shops along the main road were closed, probably just as a result of the clashes, but shopkeepers can be told to shut shop, or suffer reprisals, by the YCL (Young Communist League). No one is sure under whose authority they are working. While shopping in the bazaar later, we were urged to get inside a shop while the frantic owner tried to pull down the shutters, as people had begun to run along this narrow street. It turned out to be a false alarm, and just a straggle of protesters running from the police.
Two days after arrival, Sadichhya, my friend’s daughter (studying to become a doctor), and I set off in a bus to travel to Chitwan. She had never visited there before, and as I was going, she took the chance to go and see 2 friends who were studying at the teaching hospital in Bharatpur.(When I returned to Kathmandu, a week later, Sadichhya told me excitedly that she had ridden on an elephant in Chitwan National Park. We both agreed that this district of Nepal is just too hot!) I was going to visit Dhruba, wife Minu and little boy Swopnil. Dhruba and I had taught together in Bharatpur in 1998, and we keep in touch. It was a round of visits to his mother and extended family, seeing another teaching friend, and actually teaching a tuition class of three 17/19 year olds, while Dhruba found something else to do. As we zipped along on the motorbike, near the jungle, there were large bats flying low, frogs hopping across the paths, cicadas noisy in the trees, and crickets making a deafening sound from the entrance to their ‘burrows’ in the ground.
I left from Narayanghat bus station at 6.30a.m., to travel next to Gorkha bazaar. (Gorkha is both a district and a town). I met Santosh’s Mum, Kamala, and we took a room in a hotel for the night before the long journey to the village the next day. We went shopping for Dassain clothes and spices etc. (It is tradition at the big Dassain festival in October, to have a new set of clothes for all the family, if funds allow) A man and wife from the village also met us, as they were due to help carry the heavy things, and early next morning we were out waiting for the bus, which was due to leave at 7.30, much later than we wanted. This bus is the one that crosses the Daraudi River on the way to the lodge at Baluswara. We set off, but then had to wait at a small town just before the river, till 9, so frustrating when the prospect of a long walk looms large! We eventually started the journey proper, the bus swaying at seemingly 45degree angles as it negotiated the deep ruts, and swinging its front corner over drops of hundreds of feet, while attempting to find the best line round the many bends. It’s not a journey for the faint hearted, nor for those who want to retain dignity, cleanliness, and a lack of sweat and bruises!
When we got to the river, I was really nervous, as there had been daily heavy rain, although the monsoon rains had supposedly finished. The river was much deeper than last April, when we crossed it for the wedding. We waited mid-stream on a pebble bank, before attempting to cross the deepest section, and while two other buses negotiated their way towards Gorkha. They seemed to go in quite deep! When it was our turn, the water was lapping the edge of the sill of the driver’s door! If you can take in the views at this stage, in the middle of a wide river valley with hills, ripening rice and mountains all around, it is really spectacular. This time however, I was too concerned that the bus would flood, or begin to travel downstream!!!!
Arriving, thankfully, at the lodge, we had food, and then set off walking the ‘road’ to the village. For those who have read these accounts before, you will understand that ‘road’ does not mean ‘road’! Beginning with a rough, wide, stony track, which has delusions of being the next section of the navigable route to the higher villages, we travel along tiny muddy edges to rice paddy, boulder paths that can turn into streams when the weather decides, rough stone ‘steps’ up and down hillsides constructed and maintained by the village development committee of the area, red clay which is treacherous where the green moss edges the path, and treacherous down the centre where the clay is worn smooth by countless travellers. We walked through small rivers, and several times I nearly lost one of my Rs50 flip-flops (35-40p), as my foot came out of it half way across, and it began to float downstream!
I fell twice, and once it was down 4 feet, landing on a plastic container of precious kerosene oil, which amazingly my weight didn’t burst. I was becoming exhausted, and was mightily relieved when we were alongside the village houses and only had a short walk up the hillside to get to Kamala’s house, where the welcome was as warm as always. That evening after the rice meal, Grandma Challi Maya, insisted on giving me a salt water massage to ease my tired legs. So I found myself sitting in underwear, near the open pit fire while she tended to me. I slept well that night, even though there was torrential rain outside, and I heard the familiar rustling of a rat as it seized the opportunity to nibble on the stored corn cobs nearby.
I spent my days sitting writing my journal, chatting, and not doing much else. Any effort to do anything except wash my own clothes,was taken over by someone else! I always admire the way in which the family work here. There were 2 new calves, and each morning they were taken to their mothers for milk, then brought back to a room on the veranda, while the cows were milked. This happened twice each day. Father, son and daughter-in-law, went out very early, after a cup of tea, to spend several hours cutting grass etc, for the buffalo and cows. Only then did they have the first of two daily meals, of rice, vegetable ’curry’ and dal (lentil ‘soup’). As it is approaching the rice harvest, the store of last year’s rice is getting low, and so each meal I had rice, while more often the other family members ate maize mash with their vegetables and dal. We all enjoyed fresh, heated cow’s milk at mealtimes, heavily flavoured by wood smoke.
Other jobs included using the ‘dikki’ to pound the dhan (unhusked rice), until it was ready for using, taking the goats out to graze, feeding the animals, including a hen and 3 chicks, and picking and preparing vegetables for the meals. One day Kamala put a bowl of very hot water onto the aagen (front yard), and an inquisitive chick climbed into it. It flapped about, and I pulled it out quickly, only then realising just how hot the water was! There followed a comic scene, tinged with anxiety, while cold water was thrown over the chick, then some children visiting were instructed to catch it, and in and out of the bushes all the chicks, squawking mother and children went. One chick was caught and Challi smeared it quickly with some black tarry stuff, but it was the wrong chick! So now we had a half scalded chick and a black sticky chick! Despite all the drama, the chick seemed to recover over the next couple of days, even though it had lost the cute fluffiness of its sisters.
Another event had my adrenaline surging overtime! One job I could do, was to fill the small concrete ‘tank’ in the toilet cubicle, with water. I always have a fear of getting to this place in a hurry, and finding no necessary water! This day I began to pour the water into the tank when a sudden movement took me by surprise. (An understatement of massive proportions!) It was the biggest spider I have ever been near! It was open-hand sized, and scooted up the wall half way and stopped. I was rigid! I kept it in view, and realised that besides its size, what made it so sinister and, for me, frightening, was that its legs were flush to the wall, really flat. Madhur Maya was sent with grass broom to sweep all the likely webs in and around the toilet, but I made sure that every time I went there after that, I inspected every bit of wall, at a distance. Two more (or the same one twice), of the creatures were seen, but both were ‘sons of’ and not the big boss!
On the last day I visited the village school. It was the time of the first terminal exams, and we arrived after the children had left early, following the end of these exams. I was disappointed, but we talked to the head and staff, and I took a couple of photos. This is one of the two schools that are benefiting from the money generously given by St Mary’s and individuals, and raised by slide shows. We pay to supplement the salaries of two teachers at Langdi School, as government quotas mean that the smaller schools don’t get fully funded. Even though we have already paid about Rs50000 (£450ish) to Langdi school for salaries and £100 towards replacing a floor, and £300 to Jaubari school, towards new classrooms, there is still £1550 in this fund. The next project is to supply books to help with English teaching at Langdi School, and to continue to supplement the salaries. This fund has to stay healthy, in order to help where needed, as soon as it is needed.
I was leaving the following day. Prakash had come from Kathmandu, in the middle of exam time, to take me back. We set off just after 7.30am, in the rain, with red tika on my forehead and red hibiscus in my hair, to walk to the lodge, for the bus back to Gorkha. Prakash took me up the hill to Jaubari village, where we passed the greatly extended school, and partially constructed hospital (which will be very much closer than the 8 hour walk needed to Amppipal hospital that I took with my broken wrist in 2001!), then began a long walk down to the lodge. Three times leeches attached to my legs, or feet, and early on I fell down wet muddy steps, and it rained, but apart from that the journey was a good one, and we arrived at the lodge to have food and wait for the bus, in 4 hours.
We bought tickets, and waited by the ticket table, next to a small shop. When we’d been eating, a drunken man with 2 small children had been talking loudly, and asking us to buy a drink for him. He was outside again, and was pushed and shoved by a woman, and had the door of the lodge shut against him. ‘No work’, someone said. The bus ticket seller sat at the table with two little boys going through his hair to see what they could find! They were successful at least twice! I was wet through with sweat and the earlier rain, so stood allowing the breeze to dry me. Large orange wasps flew nearby, coming unduly close. Then I sat on the bench outside the open shop, with Prakash and others. The shopkeeper was asleep, lying on her table. A man pointed above me and I heard the word ‘masu’ (meat). Puzzled, I looked to where he was pointing, and quickly moved, as I’d been sitting below two goat legs tied to a rail above my head. The wasps had been close by because they were busy flying back and to, cutting small thumb-nail sized pieces of goat meat, flying low with their heavy loads, before gaining momentum and flying off.
The bus came late, and the driver announced that it wouldn’t do the return journey till the next day! My heart sank. It meant a walk to Gorkha! I won’t go into details of this walk, except to say Prakash chose a route that took us up, up, up! Six hours later we arrived at a hotel in Gorkha and the shower and change of clothes was very, very welcome. Next day we were on a microbus at 5.45a.m. bound for Kathmandu.
Arriving at Thankot, the western entrance to the Kathmandu Valley, we were told there was a bandh (strike). Our vehicle wasn’t allowed on the road, but had to take a dirt track round the northern side, to enter KTM. Another difficult journey with many stops, to argue with oncoming traffic as to who had right of way on this single dirt track, or to back up out of the way, or to get out and push through muddy parts, or to get out at a long steep climb. We arrived at Kalanki, on the ring road, at 12.30! We saw up the road black smoke rising, from burning tyres. The bandh had been called by the Newars of the Valley, after the Maoist led government had cut funding for their religious celebrations of Indra Jatra. Next day travelling across the city there was much evidence of stones and rubble lying at the side of major roads, and this had been used two days before in the protests, as ammunition against the army/police.
I visited friends, and taught three classes in a huge school where the children were eager to show off their English, and very excited that ‘sir’ had brought this Englishwoman to see them. I spent 45 minutes talking with the principal, who was rightly proud of this very successful school, of over 500 students. My visit to Nepal was a shorter one this year. It probably wasn’t a good time to go, because of the weather, which was unusually wet for mid/late September. I will go in the better months of October, November, or March next time, hopefully. Despite this my visit was full of interest, enjoyment and wonder, as always.
As I write this, it is the major festival of Dassain, in Nepal. All family members travel to be at home for this special day, Vijaya Dashami, and older members will put tika on the foreheads of the younger ones, a little money will be given,  people will pay respects to their elders, and all will enjoy a family time together. The prospect of this festival being tampered with by the government is unthinkable. Let’s hope that the new government can compromise, and let the customs and festivals of Nepal flourish.

The Association hosted another successful ‘mountain walking’ weekend over the weekend of 21-23 May, 2010. It was a return trip to North Wales, this time staying at Beddgelert using superb self-catering accommodation known as ‘Plas Colwyn.’ Beddgelert itself is a small village but boast a number of hotels and bed and breakfast establishments and is a base for superb walking in the Snowdonia National Park.
Guest started to arrived early Friday evening and the response was that good that some members had to be put up in a B & B because the self-catering venue was fully booked! Friday night saw the wine flowing and superb Nepalese food being prepared and a great meal was to be had by all.
Saturday proved to be quite a hot day and ideally it could have been cooler. However, the group set off, led by Mark Tyrrell, first taking in Gelerts Grave. Whether the story of Gelert and his faithful dog is one from the middle ages or a Victorian Romantic tale is a matter of conjecture. Give story The party continued along the River ….. before starting to ascend gradually up to the ………. and its remains of the copper mining which took place in past times. Having got to the head of the valley it was time to descend to Llyn Dinas where people had a well earned rest and had lunch.
From the Lake it was relatively flat back to Beddgelert. Usually there is a superb display of rhododendrons at this time of year but only a small number of bushes were in bloom – perhaps due to the severe winter earlier in the year. That evening more Nepalese food was served and the diehards of the group stayed up until 1.00 am.
Sunday Morning the group headed for Caernarfon to explore the famous castle there. Afterwards the party took lunch in various venues in the town before starting the return journey home. The Association would like to thank everyone who attended and also co-ordinator Mark Tyrrell for his hard work in organising the weekend