Wednesday, January 28, 2009

to the Himalayas

I'm leaving my host family today to meet my friend Eman at the airport. The family has been so great and the co-vols also are awesome. We made momos (Tibetan stlye bao-zi) last night, which was really fun. I'll miss them all. It's amazing how accomodating they are with having 3 or 4 volunteers coming and going all the time. And they're fun too. Eman and I will be heading to Pokhara at the edge of the Himalayas tomorrow and will go on a 4 day trek in the mountains for some genuine Himalaya experience. We're going with a guide who is the brother of one of the kids at the DRC, so it will be nice to have someone around who knows what he's doing. Hedoesn't speak good English, but I'll just pretend I'm Edmund Hillary and he's Tenzing Norgay. The full experience right?

Yesterday was the last day at the DRC, which was emotional. All the kids said goodbye and asked me when I was coming back, and I didn't really know what to say. It's been so great there. Everyone is so nice, the kids are really sweet and quite mature for their ages. And they take care of each other so well. And so happy. It's amazing that they can be so happy with so little, while many Western kids are discontented when they don't get cookies after school or a new Xbox. It's been really eye-opening living there, and you realize how much stuff is really superfluous and unnecessary. I will be excited by toilet paper for a while though.

Tuesday was Losar (new year) for the Tamang caste. Every caste seems to have a different new year festival day. We went into the Bouddnath area, where there is a huge stupe and a lot of Tibetan people, and there was a big festival in a yard for the celebration. The was dancing, rock bands, and local singers as well as some Nepali kids from the school that the other volunteers help out at. It was fun talking to them and observing the people who came to watch. We were definitely the only foreigners there.

Yesterday, my co-vol Cassie and I went to the kids' school for a couple hours to see what it was like. We taught one English class to 6th graders, which was hard. Then we sat in on two other classes taught in English about population and environment (what a cool class for primary schoolers) and computers, which was interesting, since none of the kids have computers at home. The kids are really good at spitting out memorized sentences (in English) about definitions and explanations, but I don't think they really understand most of it. It's strange. Again, so much taken for granted at home.

I'm off to the mountains.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Welcome to the Zoo

My host family's house is pretty crazy right now. They have a dog, a rat, a fish, and four foreigners along with the 6 family members. And this week, they've adopted three stray kittens who hang around the house after finding affection and food there. The dog gets jealous of them and comes inside too. It's quite a zoo. Home life is really good. Everyone is fun and we play cards sometimes. I helped make Nepali bread once and on Wednesday, cooked dinner for the family. Pasta with mushroom cream sauce and garlic bread. I had planned to make a salad, but what I though was romaine was actually bitter mustard greens. Oh well.

The DRC is still fun. The kids are really silly. They play a lot of games that I only half understand. More of them keep arriving, so names are hard. There are two kids, one without feet and one without a second leg, who run around really fast like little monkeys. A few of the young boys are pretty sick at chess.

Most of the kids started school on Thursday, so me and my fellow volunteer walked them there. Coming into the gate, we saw some abandoned looking structures with two concrete walls an corrogated steel roofs. It took a few seconds before I realized these were the classrooms. They each have a few rows of benches and tables and a measly little chalkboard. No lights. No decorations. Not even walls on all sides. The kids have to wear their school uniform correctly, and Hemanta, who is about 7, was crying because she had forgotten here belt and was going to be beaten for it. We went up to the dusty patch of bare ground which is their playground and played with their makeshift hacky sacks (which are made from tying together bundles of rubber bands) until classes started. When the bell rang, everyone lined up according to class and gender and did morning exercises. The kids all wanted us to stay and help teach their class, but we haven't yet. They do not have enough teachers to go around, so half the time, any given class has no teacher present. We take so much for granted. . .

I have four more days here before I meet Eman at the airport and go trekking in the mountains for a few days. It will be nice to get out of the city and away from the pollution and noise. The water at our house has been on and off and it seems like everytime the pump gets fixed, the electricity is out, so we still have to wait 8 hours for water to work. Electricity cuts are down to 14 hours a day! Wooo! Welcome to Nepal. Welcome to the Zoo.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Disabled Rehabilitatin Center, Nepal

I arrived at my host family's home in the outskirts of Kathmandu on Tuesday amist a lot of chaos. There were five volunteers taying there, but two were headin south for holiday just as I was coming, and the father's parents were also staying with them. I did get settled in ok, and one of the Hope and Home staff took me to the DRC. It's a pleasant 20 minute walk along a "river" (currently a choked mess of garbage with a trickle of water).

The center has about 50 kids living there, most or whom are disabled in some way, but some of whom are orphans. There are a couple of staff who live there two, but they don't really speak English. Some of the kids speak pretty well, and they are all really sweet. There was a girl who spoke really good English there the first day, so she helped me through the awkward first day as everyone was getting to know me. A couple of the little girls--about 8 yrs old--have befriended me and bring me along to play all sorts of things. Wednesday, a few of them decided we should go for a walk, so I took four of them (or rather they took me, cause I had no idea where we were going) to a nearby playground where they had a riot with the swings. Sometimes I help with homework. Sometimes I try to help wash dishes or do the laundry, but the little kids always look at me with a horrified look and say "Ali! Nooooo!" It's a little strange, cause they treat me like an honored guest.

Despite being disabled, most of the kids are so mature and self-reliant. It's strange to think of American kids (or Chinese kids) who need attention 24/7. They do their own laundry, wash their own dishes, help each other to bathe and change clothes. And there's only one kid who is obnoxious some of the time. The rest area all really sweet and nice to each other and adults.

Yesterday I went with some people to the water source of this part of Kathmandu and saw the hydro plant and the water treatment plant, which was pretty cool. The water here is not really drinkable from the tap, but ok if boiled.

The food here is so delicious and so simple. The tea is a little sweet and usually made with milk. The woman who cooks at the DRC is really funny and makes the best curries. The first day volunteering was a festival where we ate yams, sweet potatoes, candy, and Nepali donuts. Also a concoction of lentils rice and butter called kitchiri, which resembled risotto. I'm still trying to weasel my way into my host family's kitchen to learn about cooking Nepali food.

Things are good. I'm here for another two weeks.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tidbits from Nepal

The last 36 hours have been total sensory overload. Things are so different here, and I feel like I've landed on another planet. The people are so friendly. Although the electricity in the dity is cut for 16 hours a day, and you never seem to know when you will have hot water or reliable lighting. They do have a lot of solar panels for back-up, but usually use candles in the night when there's no power. Tomorrow, I will move in with a host family on the NE side of Kathmandu, and start working in an orphanage there. I hope to learn some Nepali recipes from my host mom. There is also another girl from NY who is already there and doing the same thing.

Yesterday, I went for a walk around the touristy area, Thamel. It seems like you can find everything here, but the streets are super windy and crowded. In the morning, I had a lesson in Nepali culture. The caste system from Hinduism is officially outlawed, but it seems to underly a lot of things here. And arranged marriages were the norm until this generation. Still are in the countryside. Killing a cow here merits a two year prison sentence, so they wander the streets and eat from the garbage piles. There are stray dogs everywhere and they are really cute, but really docile.

In the afternoon, some people from Hope and Home took me and a French volunteer out sight-seeing. First, a Buddhist temple and the biggest stupa in the city. It was the full moon, so many people were there walking aroujnd the stupa and praying. (Always walk clockwise). There were prayer flags hung all over it, which gave a very colorful hue to the scene. Second, a Hindu temple. We could go into the temple itself, but walked all around the complex. They were doing cremations by the bank of a little river, and then the ashes were washed into the stream. Monkeys were everywhere and seemed to own the place. It was a really huge complex and there were a lot of people out here too.

For dinner, we were taken to a traditional Nepalese place with dancing. The food was amazing and the atmosphere really nice. I love the food here: curries, lentils, veggies, and yogurt. And they make their tea with milk instead of water. Mmmm.

Today, I have a fast Nepalese lesson and more sight-seeing to the monkey temple, which supposedly has a lot more monkeys. Best wishes to everyone back home! I miss you

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Safe in Kathmandu

I arrived safely in Kathmandu today around 5PM. The promised airport pick-up didn't appear, but I met a nice lady on the palne who helped me get in touch with the guest house and get here. The city is totally different than anything I've ever seen. Less developed than China, people and dogs everywhere, trash in the streets, beautiful temples everywhere. There was even one I saw from the taxi that had a huge old banyan tree growing from the top. I met some French guys, one of whom is also volunteering. Tomorrow, I have a Nepalese lesson and will learn more about what's in store for me for the next month. The food here is amazing.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Goodbye Hong Kong

Hong Kong is kind of like me: a confused mixture of asian and western, with an abnormally high appreciation for good food. I met up with Michael, a friend from Tsinghua on his birthday on Wednesday, and we had a swell day. I picked up my Nepali visa (my passport is actually running out of space. Exciting). We had delicious real char siu (Cantonese BBQ pork) and lotus wrapped sticky rice parcels. Both way better than the equivalent in Minnesota. Although when I went to dim sum with my parents, the selection in HK was surprisingly almost identical to that you could get at Mandarin Kitchen, Bloomington, MN. Michael and I met up with another friend and went to the neighborhood where he lived when he was in primary school. It was fun to see his old haunts and eat noodles in his favorite noodle shop. For his birthday, we met 9 other of his Hong Kong friends and went out for dinner and karaoke. Little did I know that everyone else present was in possesion of a.) a black coat and b.) the ability to speak Cantonese. I was still a blast.

I went for a hike Tuesday morning in the mountains behind the city (did you know that 2/3 of Hong Kong is natural parkland?) with a stunning view of the skyline and harbour. I was however, so knackered that I returned to the hostel around 1:30. Yesterday was a relaxing day involving napping, reading, and (yes, I'm shameless) watching "Australia" in a nearby, revoltingly-expensive theater. Oh, Hugh Jackman.

Today, I met up with my friend Tony in his hometown Tung Chung near the airport. We took a really long and lovely cable car ride up to a touristy village with the largest seated bronze Buddha statue in the world. It was pretty cool, though apparently before the statue was built, the monestary there was very tranquil and perfect for monks to practice their religion and meditate. Now there's a Starbucks there. Nuff said. We did have a nice vegetarian lunch in the monestary with fried noodles, dim sum items, and tofu flower (called tofu brains in the mainland), a syrupy tofu pudding with a sweet ginger flavor.

Tomorrow morning, I hop a plane for Kathmandu. I will be there for three months working with an NGO called Hope and Home. They run a couple of orphanages and disabled people homes and staff them with volunteers from around the world. Supposedly, I'll be in a homestay, but I have absolutely no idea what to expect, from the city or from the work. Should be interesting.

Goodbye Hong Kong and quasi-China land.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Alone in the world's most densly populated city

My family headed out of this continent on the morning of the 3rd. And I don't leave town until the 10th. I had originally thought it would be good to have a week to decompress before moving on to my next adventure, and in a way it is. It's hard to transition from being around family and friends to being on your own. There's little to listen to except your own thoughts. And you have to strike up random conversations with complete strangers if you want to open your mouth for something other than eating. I'm not quite transitioned into that mode yet, so it's been a quiet couple of days.

Yesterday, I took the 20 minute ferry to Lamma island, which has no cars, but a surprising number of expat residents. There were a lot of cute restaurants, many with tanks full of weird things like lampreys, bamboo clams, and abalone outside. I walked around the island for about 6 hours, stopping at a lovely secluded beach to read for a while. There was a great view from the island's summit and the surrounding island most resembled neverland, despite the 50-storey appartment complexes in the distance. It seemed like a little tropical island that could be in the Caribbean just as much as in the South China Sea. And dogs everywhere.

Today, I applied for my Nepal visa, which was super easy, and wandered around the city for my 6 hours before getting tired and returning to the hostel. (Where I'm sharing a 6-bed dorms with. . . myself) What are you supposed to do at 4PM after you've been walking for 6 hours and are all knackered, anyway? Lots of reading going on here. I've survived 3 days here without any major issues, and I'm sure I'll handle the next four with some level of contentment.

Friday, January 2, 2009

China + Portugal

My family left Hong Kong this morning. It feels strange to be on my own. I have a week here before flying to Kathmandu to volunteer in an orphanage in an NGO. Hoping to find some hikes and the public library to keep me entertained in the meantime.

Yesterday, we went to Macau, the formerly Portugese island across the bay form Hong Kong. A haven for gambling. I'm amazed at the amount of customs you have to go through to get from China to China and then back to China. (about 1 hour each way). We ended up only having about 4 hours in Macau, but got a chance to see the churches (best in China) and the European looking architechture. It's a really strange mix of east and west. There was also a "fisheman's wharf" area with kitschy little replicas of the Potala Palace, Coliseum, Arabian fort, and a street with houses from all over the world. It was pretty funny.

We had a little packing frenzy last night and this morning said goodbye over room service breakfast. So ends another chapter.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Hong Kong

We've spent 2 days here in Hong Kong wandering around markets and crowded streets.  Waited for 2 hours by the harbor to see the new years eve fireworks, which turned out to be super lame.  There were little pansy fireworks flowering out form some of the buildings across the way, and the tallest had fireworks sputtering out all along the side.  And it only went on for 6 minutes!  I guess I'm spoiled by the Minneapolis Aquatennial fireworks.  My family heads out tomorrow morning and I'm on my own again for a week in HK before going to Kathmandu.