Back to Reality – the Shock of Perspective

I’m having a bit of a down day today, and feeling guilty about it. I mean I have a more than comfortable roof over my head, more than enough to eat, access to the best health services in the world and a great job. I’m blessed.

It’s just hard to feel that my work is important. My poor work colleages are now copping the after effects of Nepal. I really don’t think some computer outage is worth having a hissy fit over. Who cares if things don’t work perfectly – we are so used to expecting perfection on everything and having everything instantly. I’m pretty sure that’s not a good thing. Is it?

Trying to breathe deeply and feel appreciation for the big things and ignore the little things. And accept, once more, that the world is a strange, inequitable place that will not change overnight. I think I’ll have to make some changes at work. Like set profit targets to enable us to donate more money to Habitat. This is the only way I can see being able to make work meaningful.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning – Kathmandu

My first impressions of Kathmandu were a little misleading as  I arrived very late on a Thursday night. Nothing too unusual about the airport; it was pretty quiet in arrivals and customs was quick. It was typically third world; small, dingy, dirty with cursory bag checks on the way out. I was waived through to the arrivals hall which was pretty orderly and unlike some other third world countries, full of friendly faces politely offering a ride into town. No pushing; lots of smiles. And, the hotel I had booked had sent their car with a driver and the manager to collect me. I quickly saw my name on a plackard being held up in the crowd. Relief. The first time I’ve ever booked a lift from an airport and I hadn’t been that sure that it would turn up (due to the upredictability in replies to my booking emails). So, things do work in this place.

The car ride into town was uneventful and I was too tired, after twenty one hours travelling, to make the polite conversation I usually would have attempted. It was disconcertingly dark (no street lights) which I later understood was due to the regular power outages. Up to sixteen hours a day, most days. We also seemed to take a lot of winding back streets with little regard to any traffic rules. I later found out there are no traffic rules in Nepal; well none that were taken any notice of.

We then arrived in hectic Thamel, the busy tourist centre of Kathmandu, full of narrow winding alleys lined with every kind of shop you can imagine. I have never seen so many shops in one place; an endless parade of colourful shop fronts displaying the many crafts of Nepal, mountaineering gear, sari’s and the obligatory pashmina’s. Everything closes down around 11pm so it wasn’t until next morning that I saw all this out in the hustle and amicable jostle of the streets of Kathmandu.

I was greeted at the hotel  in such a friendly manner I felt like a an old friend and again, I later learned that the Nepalese are a quiet, friendly, dignified and peaceful group. I never saw an angry scene in Nepal; the Nepalese calmness appeared unflappable, an unaccustomed sereness surrounding all social interaction.

I stayed at the Ambassador Garden Home, a gorgeous boutique hotel of only eighteen well appointed rooms and excelling in hospitality and (yeah) local organic coffee which I found to my surprise and delight at breakfast (along with banana pancakes). Hot showers with good pressure, large comfortable beds and free wifi access. What more could a woman want?

I spent a couple of days just wandering around Kathmandu and surrounds with a couple of the other Habitat volunteers soaking up the colour and immersing my senses in the noises (yes, it was so noisy) and unfamiliar sights – many, many of these of course in a very different culture.

Tooting horns were a constant background noise. Due to the aforementioned lack of traffic rules, a good horn blast serves as a warning for impending mishaps. Everyone gets tooted, pedestrians, rickshaws, cars and strange three wheel tractor engine conversions. The roads and alleys were packed and beyond chaotic and it took me all my courage to cross one for the first time. Deep breath, do as the Nepalese do, just walk without hesitating knowing that the locals seem to have some sixth sense enabling them to come oh so close but not actually knock you over. By the time I left Nepal I had got so used to the roads that it was weird to get back to the organised rules of Sydney traffic.

It’s hard to adequately describe the amount of dust and pollution in Kathmandu. When you combine the fumes from the necessary generators, the dust of unpaved streets, the smoke from ritual Hindu blessings and wood fire cooking on the outskirts you end up with a haze over the city that rarely lifts. You just don’t see the surrounding mountains until you actually drive out of Kathmandu and even then on days of no wind the pollution just gathers in a thick blanket. It was choking and I felt like I would never get clean in the way that we are accustomed to in the West.

The amount of litter and rubbish also surprised me. And the number of dogs on the streets. I had opted out of a rabis vaccination, not really taking the threat seriously (same with malaria) but after a couple of hours in Kathmandu began to wonder how wise that decision had been. Luckily, the Nepalese dogs appeared to have the same sort of calmness about them as their fellow homo sapiens so I actually didn’t see a dog do anything other than sleep or saunter lazily around. The Nepalese have tradionally thrown their rubbish on the streets and used dogs as their garbage collectors. This worked really well until packaged goods and inedible waste was introduced. Now the whole country looks like one big rubbish tip; something I really struggled with as we are so indoctinated in Australia to put any rubbish in a bin and to pick up litter, even if it’s not ours. Though I did notice on my return that there is a lot of litter left lying around in the shopping centre and park near the kids school. It was the sheer quantity of it in Nepal that surprised me. No garbage trucks there.

After two days of self indulgent leisure in Kathmandu I was ready to start the real adventure of building a house for Mani Kala in Itahari. It had been many years since I’d travelled on my own and I actually revelled in being without three young children and my husband. To be able to do what I wanted when I wanted seemed like an impossible treat; no pangs of missing home or family yet!

The Fog Has Lifted – Look Out!

For the first time in five days I woke up this morning feeling almost back to my old self. Well, my old self with a slightly different perspective on life.

I feel fantastic. Motivated, driven, renewed, refreshed, happy and powerful. I learned a heap of things about myself on the build in Nepal that have revitalised my confidence. I gave but I also took. It feels wonderful to have made a small difference and with a little more clarity (provided by sleep and perspective) I can see that I did make some difference. That a team of people (even a relatively small team) united and dedicated to a cause can create change. That meaningful change comes in ripples not tsunamis. To focus on the small achievements not the huge hurdles still to be faced.  As someone has already commented on Facebook; “vive Habitat”.

I didn’t know just how practical I was with my hands. You should see me wielding a knife to split bamboo or mixing render to a perfect consistency (hard, hard work). I had no idea I was so tough, resilient, resourceful and also how much I would enjoy working alongside a team of strong, successful women. I feel like I could conquer the world – or at least build another house!

I still have that lovely Nepalese slowness about me but some clarity has returned and again, it’s a great combination that I wish I could preserve. I feel like my eyes have been opened to a whole load of new possibilities and I’m better equipped to handle the many demands of daily life. If I can do that build, what else can I do? I’m determined to keep making the small differences; to continue this journey and not let it be just another experiential “tick”.   Look out world!

Guest Blog – Meredith Scott’s Texts Home

 

Each morning on the House 11 bus, I’d read my blog (as posted by my husband – don’t you love the ability to only txt).  Thought you may all get a bit of a giggle – apparently a good portion of EY did!  I’m now getting strange looks in the lifts – I blame the mouse!
 

Day 1
Today is first day of the build. Very excited group. We are building for Maya Chaudhari (30), her mentally handicapped 7 y’r old daughter + 4 y’r old boy. Her husband died a y’r ago in a “hardware shop accident”. Their current house is 1 room, dirt floor, no drinking water or toilet – we’re going to fix that and build her a new one. It’s that thot that’s keeping us going as living conditions for us are far from flash – bed timber with 1/2″ foam, cold showers – even a mouse who found the undies in my suitcase interesting – been a while since anything found my undies interesting!! A couple of squeals and a man came and shoo’d it out of our room – prob into another! Absolutely no GSM coverage – last email was Hong Kong. Love to all, M

Every muscle aches! Have been machetting bamboo, sawing or weaving. As tallest of group, I get all the high panels. Hoping to have all walls woven with bamboo by tomorrow (Tues) evening. Maya and her mother work alongside us, as well as the local tradesman. The house is 2 doors from the school so we are the morning, lunchtime and afternoon entertainment for the kids. Had a wonderful welcome by more local dignatories than you could poke a stick at both last night @ a special dinner and again this morning. Looking forward to a cold drink @ the bar downstairs – you sit on the pavement right beside the main road – absolutely amazing. Yesterday whilst there a cobra charmer entertained us. Brilliant!

Day 2
In bed by 8pm last night exhausted and up @ 6 BUT A HOT SHOWER at least 4 1st 2 mins. Lonely Planet says “Biratnagar – there’s nothing interesting here” – not sure I agree as we sat at the front bar of the motel (read table and chair on the footpath) and watched the human flow. All traditional food – including curried vegies 4 breakfast! Stil giggling about the mouse, esp when u consider we’re staying @ the aptly named Ratna Hotel. Roommate fantastic! Yes – she’s watching me do this.

Day 3
End of 2nd day we’ve finished bamboo weaving and started the cement rendering. Feel a bit sore as had a lot of high up work – balancing on a chair (on top of a table!). Happy with progress altho some houses further along (not a competitive bone in our bodies). We are working in the same group of 9 on the same house all week which is great! Our house captain is the Chair of Habitat so we hav 2 do evrything by the book, but she’s still getting a giggle out of ordering a G+T the other nite, coming outside and saying it was a little expensive and then being delivered her BOTTLE of gin! Another mouse sighting last night – same “cure” ie chase it out of said room possibly into the next – could provide entertainment 4 the week. We’re down 1 2day as 1 with a cold, so we’ll hav 2 put in a big effort. Pancakes 4 brekkie – yum!

Day 4
Confined 2 bed 2day. Dehli belly hit around 10pm last nite.  Team went with high hopes of “nailing” rendering 2 day – its a tough job.  If the mixture is too dry it doesn’t stick – if 2 wet it slides off.  Even if “right” its still a major effort.  By 1pm Wed we’d only done about 1/2 of the inside, so have 2 do 3/4 of house 2day 2 ensure time 4 painting Fri.  Local lads hav been helping prob only 2 talk 2 Heidi our team member with blonde hair + blue eyes.  We’ve set her dowrie @ 2 cows + a goat which we don’t believe 2 high given level of interest.  Jenny B has written words 2 Waltzing Matilda 4 Fri’s dedication.  Must b well by then.  Wed pm Women’s Forum amazing with a Nobel Peace nominee as main speaker Will try to rest over traffic noise.  Luv M

Day 5
Spent y’day (Thurs) in bed feeling guilty as that was the big render day. Lots of st noise as horn used as traffic indicator + we’re on the main rd. Apparently rendering had been advanced whilst we were @ Women’s Forum (render Fairies DO exist), but the team worked extremely hard and there’s only about 3 panels 2 go then the paint job starts.  Upsetting situation when an albino child was presented 2 the team – they thot 2 c a child “our own colour” but it was actually to get us to take him with us.

2day we finish and dedicate the house.  Looking forward 2 it and the farewell dinner 2nite and a bath tomorrow @ the Dwarika in Kathmandu! Wimped out y’day and upgraded HK 2 Sydney flight to Bus Class.  Luv M x x x

Day 6
Wot an amazing week. We finished the house (@ least enough 2 hand over) had a lovely dedication – lots of tears frm both Maya & team & fun night all together last night. We hav seen such abject poverty – Itahari is one of poorest cities in Asia – dirt + rubbish everywhere. Teams have witnessed a wife beating by her drunk husband using bamboo, a 14 y’r old being dragged yelling + screaming (literally) frm her home to her wedding. Just the stories of our home partners touch our hearts beyond belief. Its going 2 be hard coming back 2 reality in Sydney with rubbish collectn (rather than it being thrown in stream flowing thru y’r front yard), bitumen roads, blinkers instead of horns, no rickshaws but none of these beautiful Nepalese people whose gratitude & love will remain with me 4ever!

Everything Seems So Trivial

Just another quick note to add to my last blog, I’m having trouble dealing with what seems like the endless trivialities of living in Australia. I just had a call asking my why I’d changed life insurance companies? I was very polite (of course) but felt like saying “who cares – let’s spend some time and energy doing some research on something that matters”. Like, how can we get rid of generators (fuel operated) in Nepal and replace them with envirnmentally friendly solar power? How can we better deliver medical services and hygiene education? How can we empower women in communities that are inherently patriarchal? How can we feed the world and stop poverty?

Please people, lets spend more time on the big questions and less time on the trivial. End of tirade.

How to Make Sense of it all … and an Apology

Firstly, I have to apologise to anyone who was keen for an update while I was in Biratnagar. I hope you can understand that I was both physically exhausted, after a long day of unaccustomed hard labour, and emotionally spent trying to make sense of the living conditions of a very poor third world environment. Additionally, I had many interesting new people around me who I wanted to get to know, so any spare time was spent either attempting to rest or escape with familiar conversation. Sincere apologies!

I will write, hopefully extensively, over the next few weeks of my experience in Nepal. There are many small incidences worth recounting; a few sad moments and some very happy memories to recall. The house was completed bar the painting and a couple of panels of rendering, and our house mum, Mani Kala, could quite easily have moved into a comparatively palatial two room house complete with outside (squat) toilet and clean water pumped directly from underground.

I arrived home late two nights ago, elated to be back in this unbelievably lucky country and to hold the family I had really started to miss. My home has taken on a whole new meaning and I hope that it will be some time before I wish for more and cease just appreciating all that I have (my family, my health, my education, clean air and water, my opportunities as a woman in a first world country as well as all my “stuff”).

Since arriving back I have been wandering around in a dazed stupor; really not ready for small talk (or any talk) or to try and explain the enormity of the  experience I have been fortunate to have had.  At the moment I feel somehow caught between two worlds; the divide is so extreme that it’s almost impossible to reconcile.  A friend who had a similar experience in Africa kindly reminded me that my dear husband and children have not had the same experience and so I try to be patient and mindful in my behaviour. I wanted to make a small difference in an unknown corner of the world and now I feel compelled to make huge changes both at home and, if possible, in other disadvantaged communities abroad.

I thought I would be more patient with my kids but at the moment I seem to be viewing them from a distance and I wonder how I allowed myself to spoil them so rotten. I think I’m going to be tougher on them in a very loving way; in Nepal I admired the resiliance and family respect of the kids. The village kids were a happy bunch that hung out in a gang and we never heard them wingeing or complaining. They had so little but seemed to take small responsibilities such as looking after siblings or the local farm animals for granted. They also had a lot of freedom that comes with some responsibility and a tight knit community and I’m wondering how I can give this to my children in a community that is so disapproving of parents that don’t monitor their childs every move. There is inherent risk in letting your kids go but the potential benefits in terms of self esteem and earned responsibilities are huge. Am I brave enough to go against the tide?

Time has also slowed down for me. It feels like everything is in slow motion. I know that this is the after effect of living in a place where time is largely irrelevant and you just get things done as you can due to the complete inability to predict availability of the most basic resources such as power. I know this will change as I get back into my life but in the meantime I’m clinging to the lovely slowness that seems to have enveloped me. So unlike me and yet so enjoyable. Why do we rush so? Is it to forget our disconnectedness from family, friends and community? We’ve gained so much in the first world but the trade off seems to have been customs, traditions and close knit ties with community.

Please be patient with me over the next couple of weeks as I try to describe a week in Nepal that has forever changed the way I view the world. Namaste.

Some Local Visitors

Here’s a picture of me and some of the beautiful Nepalese children who visited the build site.