Friday, February 27, 2009

Back from Ramechhap

We're back! I'll put together a more complete synopsis of our trip to Dumrikharka in the next few days, but in short: everything went great! Now we're back in Kathmandu getting gear together for our upcoming trek/climb with Austin and Beth, putting together reports, and enjoying food other than dal bhat.

Check out my Everyday gallery to see the first batch of pics I've uploaded from this micro-adventure.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Off to Dumrikharka

The Shree Sham Primary School in Dumrikharka

We're taking off earrrrrly tomorrow morning on another wonderful locals-bus to Manthali and Dumrikharka in the Ramechhap district, where we'll be teaching folks about FoST's briquette-making process and alternative stove technologies for a bit more than two weeks. We'll be far away from the internet while we're there, but our cell phone will work just fine (listed at

We're excited for a bit of uber-rural fun!

Saturday, February 7, 2009


So it's really really hard to keep up with blogging when there are only four usable hours of power per day and soo much stuff that needs to be accomplished with those precious electrons :)

Bear with this stream of memories:

I spent most of mid-January helping Sanu get ready for a four-day solar cooking workshop that was held at the FoST hq in Thamel. I had designed and built a solar panel cooker that we wanted to test and show off, and the workshop spent every electrified hour finishing up a slew of solar parabolic cookers that had been ordered by participants.

Sanu and me working on a grant application for a pending workshop.

The first day of the workshop we had everything set up for the 10:30 commencement, made milk tea, arranged biscuits on a plate, and waited. And waited. One person showed up at 11:00, and joined us as we waited for more. Two Rotary Club officials stopped by at 11:30 to officially inaugurate the workshop. They made a few calls and took off fifteen minutes later. Another participant showed up at 12:30. Sanu finally decided he'd proceed, with just two of the anticipated fifteen folks who were signed up. It was cloudy though, so we couldn't actually demonstrate the solar cookers. Frusterating.

The next day seven sisters showed up at noon and stayed for a few hours of discussion about solar cooking theory. The day after was like the first.. two folks showed up.It was cloudy.

I didn't come in on the fourth day. Neither did anyone else. It was still cloudy. This whole thing was really weird, because most workshops in FoST's history have been wildly popular success stories.

There are a host of potential reasons the roster didn't show up: there were massive street protests about a two-week-old garbage collection strike; participants were from several different communities, so they weren't propelled by the group momentum that seems so integral in anything that happens here; it was so cloudy in the mornings nobody figured the workshop would be proceeding; participants had previously paid their 20% share of the cost of equipment and the workshop (the other 80% was subsidized by the Rotary Club), had written that cost off, and couldn't justify missing a day or two of work to attend; for whatever reasons, participants just weren't excited about solar cooking..

In any case, we all learned a lot of lessons about workshop pre-planning logistics and promotion. Hopefully Sanu won't have to go through another ordeal like this anytime soon.

On the bright side, in the few sunny periods we've had since, my solar panel cooker has worked great. With a few tweaks, it should be ready to go into limited production within the next few months.

Solar parabolic cooker on the left. My prototype solar panel cooker on the right.

Through late January Ashley continued shadowing Dr. Roka in the OPD at the Ayuraveda College downtown in Kathmandu. She learned a lot from the residents she observed with and had a ton of fun. Every morning a long line of patients waited for the doctor to come in, each grasping their life's medical records and charts, hoping that they could be served on a first come first served basis. Most patients had either liver complications, acute peptic disorders, some form of lung complications or hypertension. Patients would usually bring their extended families with them, so the 12' x 12' office was usually full of: the doctor, his big desk, two residents, Ashley, three patients, their families, and however many waiting patients could fit. Chaos.. but it seemed to work, and Ash returned every day with a smile and is even more excited to start school in the fall. The doctor told me Ashley was more passionate, organized and eager to learn than most of the other foreign students he'd mentored or met. She learned a lot of medical terms and questions (in Nepali), took exquisite notes, and even started to get pens and handouts from drug reps...

Ashley outside the Ayurevedic clinic she shadowed at.

Throughout early January Ashley and I were planning on spending February implementing alternative technologies at a NOH-funded home for rescued Kamlari girls in S-SW Nepal. Amongst our goals were to introduce FoST's briquette presses, build an efficient wood/briquette cooking stove to replace the open pit they cook over now, and to investigate options for a biogas stove and/or dry latrine. I was just about to travel to Naarti (location of the home in the Dang district) for some preliminary observation/research when Michael returned from there and alerted me that many changes are on the horizon for this home -- including a dramatic location shift for many of the girls -- within the next year. In other words, this wasn't going to be an ideal place to introduce long-term infrastructure improvements and alternative technology education.

Plan B: NOH funds two small schools in the Ramechhap district, about 80 km east of Kathmandu, one of which Michael had never visited and knew very little about. The villages are hours away from the nearest roads, and folks cook just about all their food over wood collected from rapidly disappearing forests (they call it 'jungle') nearby. It looked like we might be able to introduce an alternative technology program (that would continue beyond our stay) in one or both of these villages... so volunteer coordinator Sushmita, Ashley, and I decided to take a whirlwind trip of the area to check out the scene in both villages, have conversations with school staffs and community members, and determine what a good potential program would be.

We technically had seats for our twelve hour bus ride to the town of Manthali, but that didn't make the ride pleasant. Local busses in Nepal get packed. Really packed. People filled every cubic centimeter of the interior of the bus (I had a woman sitting on half of my lap and another guy's rear consumed most of my seat's headspace), and the rack on top couldn't have held another gram. Yes people had to get off to go up a few hills. Yes we popped a tire on a bumpy descent. Although I petitioned to ride on top of the bus, Sushmita convinced us that our precious seats inside were the way to go.

Changing the bus tire on the way to Manthali .. to a spare that looked worse than the ruined tire coming off.

In Mantali we stationed in a dingy little motel near the center of town. I popped outside at sunset and found a gathering of around thirty people around a candle lit yin-yang and circle of diamonds drawn in flour on the street. A local Nepali English teacher tried to explain to me what was going on as community leaders read poems and gave small speeches. I understood about 5% of what he said... something about a three day festival celebrating the return of the sun and the diamonds found in nearby hills. Nontheless, it was pretty cool. During dinner we tried eating our dal bhat with our hands -- Nepali style. Sushmita showed us the trick of using your thumb to lift balls of rice from palm to mouth. I proceeded to fling food all over the place like a one-year-old.

The next morning we woke up at 5:30 (our waking hour for every day of this little adventure), met the principal of the Shree Sham Primary School, and hiked about 1000 m up a steep hill (it would be called a mountain anywhere else) to the tiny village of Dumrikharka, home to said school. On the way we got passed by countless tiny women carrying triple our loads. A rare clear day made for amazing Himalayan views as we wandered back a few centuries. Once we made it up the hill we were introduced to our super-charming host family (who don't speak a speck of English) and were served some of the zestiest dal bhat we've enjoyed yet in the dark floor-level kitchen of their earth and wood home.

Morning view from our hotel in Manthali. Dumrikharka sits near the top of the hill in the distance.

At ten we walked through this pastoral landscape to the school, talked with the principal and a few community members for a bit, and then were surprised to see that a huge number of students and their parents were congregating outside. Unbeknownst to us, the principal had invited what seemed to be most of the women of the village to join their children in welcoming us. After a brief introduction from the principal, our greeters lined up to bless us with huge tikkas (red pigment and marigolds on the forehead) and mallas (like leis). Hilarity ensued as our foreheads were completely covered in bright red pigment and marigold, we were suffocated by innumerable bright mallas, and we tried our best to hold onto seventy handfulls of flower petals. I'm pretty sure this was the coolest and funniest welcome I've ever received -- I LOVE this tradition!

This was just the beginning...

Every one of these people welcomed us with a tikka and malla blessing.

The rest of the day was spent helping teach at the school, trying our best to talk with villagers via Nepanglish, scoping out potential raw materials for briquette-making and improving our finger-feeding technique on massive piles of dal bhat. Aside from cell phones and the occasional 50w pv panel, the tools used and methods practiced by villagers here haven't changed much in the last few centuries. Yolked oxen pull simple plows through terraced corn fields; most families own a few goats, chickens, cows, and an ox; rope is made from the fibers of the huge aloe-cactus things that grow everywhere; meals are cooked in smoky kitchens over open wood fires; water is pulled from wells that dot the hillsides.

Ethan attempts to teach math in Nepaglish.

About as dense as it gets in Dumrikharka.

Another early start and long hike over a mountain and down to the Sun Kosi eventually brought us to Mudkeswori, an incredibly tiny settlement that time has almost completely forgotten. The language barrier was pretty thick here, and Ash and I were pretty confused when we followed what seemed like a random woman down the hill to what seemed like a random village and were served more delicious dal bhat with trout caught from the nearby river. Only after we walked across a small valley and she unlocked the door to the Mudkeswori Primary School did we realize this woman Sushmita was calling "Miss" was the head teacher there--about two hours after meeting her and ten minutes before we departed. Apparently teachers are the only people in Nepal who are called "Miss," and we were supposed to pick up on that. It was a school holiday, so the children in the area were all playing various games .. until we showed up, at which point they all dropped what they were doing to follow us around in silence, staring at us like we had dropped in from another planet. Oh, and "Miss" owned the largest pony-sized goat either of us had ever seen. Almost a giraffe. Really. Really. Big.

The head teacher at Mudkeswori Primary School served us delicious dal bhat and locally caught fish.

After hiking back up to the top of the hill/mountain to the village of Ramechhap Bazaar we settled into a humongous motel room and chowed down another big serving of dal bhat. Dehydrated from a long day and feeling pretty confident about groundwater pulled at the ridgeline of this remote hill, I made the mistake of downing about a gallon of tap water with dinner, and paid the price a few days later. Thank goodness for incredibly cheap anti-protozoals.

There was a lot of hiking involved and a huge amount of elevation gain and loss... By the end of our escapades we decided we had just inaugurated the "Ramechhap Trekking Circuit."

After our hiking blitz we were all more than ready to get on a bus at dawn the next morning in Ramechhap Bazaar to start the long journey back to Kathmandu. Lucky for us, there was a nation-wide bus strike that day (this happens ALL the time here), so we decided to hike back down to Mantali via Dumrikharka, where we figured there might be some alternatives to buses if the strike was going to continue for more than a day. Back in Dumrikharka we were served more huge servings of dal bhat, chewed on raw sugarcane, and spent the day teaching again in the school. Trying to keep groups of 5-15 year-olds in order is tough enough. Keeping them in order when they only speak marginal English proved to be a fun challenge. We spent a little time in each of the six small classrooms and gradually began to figure out different approach styles for each age group.

The principal and students of Shree Sham Primary School.

That night back down in Manthali we took great pleasure in a bottle of Pepsi and kept our dinners to manageable portions of chow mein.. what a relief! Later on we tried our best to avoid glancing at the fist-sized spider hanging out over the skanky squat toilet we were sharing with the singing drunkard who spent most of the night getting wasted in the hall right outside our room (this guy looked and smelled fantastic the next morning).

We were up at dawn again the next morning hoping in vain that the bus strike would be over. Not so much. A few hours later the strike ended, but the first bus out of town got so overcrowded that the transit police (who are normally pretty nonchalant about frighteningly top-heavy vehicles) forced a good portion of passengers (including us) off, and wouldn't even let anybody stay on the roof. Fast-forward a few more hours, and we were sitting in the back of an old farm truck bouncing down a crazy-steep dirt road on the first leg of a nine hour journey that involved four vehicles, a half-hour hike, nearly missing a connecting bus, a super-crowded roof we shared with about forty other people over a steep silty road, a girl who was hell-bent on pushing Ashley off said roof, a Nepali comic who kept just about everyone on top of the bus laughing for hours, and a whole lot of dust. Sushmita has a mortal fear of riding on the roof, and despite our efforts to get her up decided to stand in the crowded, dust-filled cattle car beneath us. I was anything but envious.

Check out the full gallery of photos from this little escapade.

Ash enjoys the view from the top of our second bus on the way back from Manthali.

Back in Kathmandu we put together a rough proposal for a multi-phase program to be based in Dumrikharka. The proposal outlines a plan to introduce briquette presses and stoves, begin producing enough briquettes to raise money for the school, and establish the framework for a lasting alternative technologies program at the school that future NOH volunteers could contribute to. Although Dumrikharka isn't a perfect location for this program (it really doesn't produce many of its own waste materials .. many of these will have to come from Manthali down the hill; and the region isn't yet classified as a 'conservation area', which means that there is not a huge financial incentive to find alternatives to wood), the school and villagers seemed very enthusiastic about what we proposed there and the close relationship the school has with NOH should provide a stable platform to move the project forward once Ash and I are gone. We'll be heading back up to Dumrikharka in a few days, and will stay there through the end of February as we teach a briquette workshop, manage our implementation plan, and volunteer in the primary school. We won't have internet access while we're there, but our cell phone should work for emergencies.

Over the past week while we've been waiting for the FoST workshop to produce two briquette presses for Dumrikharka, we've been putting together training materials, learning more Nepali (Ash has been doing much better at this than I have been), eating anything but dal bhat, and wrapping up a slew of random projects we'd accumulated in January. Amongst other things, I helped Sanu fill out a grant application to fund another round of solar cooking and briquette-making workshops, continued a bit of stateside contract work, visited an inspiring German orphanage, checked out a buddhist monastery we might spend some time at in April, and helped dial in some of the basic logistics for a climbing trip we'll be doing in March.

In early January I met the founder and brains behind Nepalhilfe Beilngries, a well established (since 1996) German INGO that amongst other things, operates a childrens home and organic farm, and has funded numerous school construction projects around Nepal. This organization was of special interest to me because it is making a huge effort to use alternative technologies to be create a self-sufficient infrastructure, generate income, minimize its environmental impact, and provide an educational model to the beneficiaries of the organization and community at large. Ashley and I took a day last week to tour their Kinderhaus and gardens in Lubhu, just southeast of Kathmandu. The office and childrens home primarily operate on solar power; the kitchen utilizes a combination of biogas and solar cookers (although one gas cylinder is occasionally used to bake bread in an oven); childrens' solid waste is combined with food scraps from the kitchen, food scraps from several restaurants in Kathmandu, and greywater from the kitchen to create a regular supply of biogas; rainwater is collected from the roof in a huge cistern and filtered on-site for consumption; and didi's and students create an average of 400 briquettes from waste materials every day (using three FoST presses), which are in turn sold to local businesses to generate income for the organization. The whole operation is very well thought out on many levels and left us truly inspired. Their website is in German (although Google Translator can fix this), and gives a decent overview of some of their activiites:

Nepalhilfe plans for a nearby plot of land that is being developed as a model in sustainable agricultural techniques.

We visited the Kapan Monastery on a whim with Sushmita and another volunteer, Nicki, a few days ago, and were quite drawn to the place. The Monastery sits on a hill high above the smog and rush of the Bouda district of Kathmandu, and is chock-full of Tibetan Buddhist monks, western students, beautiful gardens, and lively parrots. We checked out their website when we got home and are thinking about attending a 7-day 'Intro to Tibetan Buddhism' course and retreat in early April..

Beckoning faces at Kapan Monastery.

Our pending climbing trip in March should be super-fun, and we're really excited that Austin's girlfriend, Beth (whom we can't wait to meet .. a day before Austin gets here), decided to join us the other day. We're going to attempt a summit of Naya Kanga, a relatively straight-forward 5,846-meter peak in the Langtang range north of Kathmandu. The trek and climb should last just about two weeks, leaving another few days for us to do touristy things with Austin and Beth in Kathmandu. We can't wait!