Muggles Inc

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Haamro Mancheharu

It’s 8 o’clock in the evening right now, and the kids all have a big exam in school tomorrow, so tonight everyone is going to bed early or studying quietly in their rooms. This means I have some time to update this blog instead of passing out exhausted after putting everyone to bed. Maggie is still in the States, trying to rest and get over a respiratory infection before she takes the long journey back here, so I’m closing in on almost a month taking care of the kids and the day-to-day operations without her. Of course it would be impossible for me to be doing everything on my own, so I thought that now would be an appropriate time to write about the amazing staff here, without whom nothing would get done.

Of course Maggie has an indispensable role here. She’s really a mother to the kids, and everything she’s managed to achieve is astounding. But I’m sure she would agree that this project would have never gotten off the ground, let alone continue to thrive, if it were not for all of the other people who help keep this place running. So here’s my tribute to our wonderful Nepali staff:

Tope is the unsung hero of Kopila Valley. He met Maggie 4 years ago when she was volunteering at a much larger orphanage outside of Rishikesh in India. He’d been working there for about 15 years. He’s the one who originally brought Maggie to Surkhet and helped the orphanage get off the ground in the first place. He negotiated the land purchases, took care of the bureaucratic work of getting NGO status, and has been very involved in finding the children and arranging for them to come live here. He still works part of the time in India, but he visits often. Right now he’s continuing to help out with the finances and our new construction projects, and he’s also working on the new land purchases and legal status for the school we’re trying to start.

Prithi (Daaju) and Ubji (Baauju):
Prithi and his wife, Ubji, are in many ways the backbone of the whole project. We all call them Daaju (an endearing term for older brother) and Baauju (brother’s wife) because Prithi is Tope’s older brother. Before the orphanage started they lived in Kalikot (a remote area north of here – it takes a day-long bus ride and another day of hiking to get there). They were both orphaned at a young age, and because they had nobody to arrange marriages for them they married each other. Daaju is an incredible architect and builder, and he built a beautiful house in Kalikot (so I’m told). Apparently the Maoists thought so too, and when they were looking for a good place for their headquarters they chose Daaju’s and Baauju’s house. That’s how they ended up coming to Surkhet to work with us. Daaju and Chiran (who I’ll talk about next) pretty much built the entire house that we’re living in.
Baauju is in charge of the cooking, which, with 2-3 meals a day for 27 children and up to 10 adults, is quite an impressive feat. Baauju can be very self-deprecating, and she is particularly sensitive about never having gone to school. She’s exclaimed on more than one occasion: “What do I know? I’m from Kalikot!” Still, she is one of the kindest and wisest people I’ve ever met.
Even though Daaju and Baauju have two kids living with us – Shova and BBC (who is in fact named after BBC News) – it’s obvious that they love and care for all of the children. If anything, their own kids have to deal with stricter punishments than everyone else.

Chiran and Gyaanu:
Chiran and Gyaanu are the other couple that live here with us. Like Daaju and Baauju they have two kids here – Laxmi and Rashmi – but they also clearly adore all of the children. Chiran is also an incredible builder, and he’s particular good with electrical wiring and that sort of stuff. Somebody recently asked him what his job is here, and his response was that his job is to do whatever needs to be done, which is completely true.
Chiran recently went with me to Nepalgunj (a larger city bordering India) for the day to help me extend my visa here – 9-10 hours of traveling and about 4 hours of dealing with government officials in both Nepal and India. We got back around midnight and I kept thanking him for going out of his way to do this for me, but every time he just shrugged off my gratitude, telling me it was no big deal. That’s the kind of guy he is.
Gyaanu is in charge of all of the house-cleaning and washing clothes and sewing and all of that stuff. She’s probably the hardest-working person here. She gets up in the morning before everyone else is awake and often goes to bed after everyone else. She also gets the kids ready for school every day, helping the little one’s get their clothes on, making sure everyone has their books and pencils, etc. Somehow she still manages to have a smile on her face every day. Right now Baauju is visiting people at the orphanage in India, and Gyaanu is in charge of a lot of the cooking as well. Honestly I don’t know how she does it.

Laxme (pronounced Lock-shmay; not to be confused with “Laxmi,” which is a girl’s name), is also an incredibly hard worker. He’s the newest edition to our staff, having started working here this summer while Maggie was in New York accepting the Do Something award. He lives about an hour bike-ride away from here, and he and his wife have an 8-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son. Supposedly he came to the orphanage one day explaining to Daaju that he had no job and at home he was just another mouth to feed. His proposal was that in exchange for doing whatever odd jobs were needed he would receive a meal every day. He wasn’t even asking for money. They struck a deal that he would work the rest of the month until Maggie came back, and at that time Daaju would tell her whether or not Laxme was a good worker. Well, he’s an amazing worker. He has what I can only think to describe as a “Protestant work ethic.” If he was born in America he would probably be the CEO of some Fortune 500 company.
I try to help out around the house, and I obviously try to clean my own plates and stuff, but if Laxme’s in the kitchen he won’t allow it, he insists on cleaning it himself. He’s literally blocked my way to the sink before. And whenever I wander into the kitchen because of some delicious smell, he insists on making me eat some of whatever is being cooked. If I ever ask him if I can have a roti (flat bread that they make almost every day) his response is always, “No… you can have five.”
Needless to say Daaju gave Maggie an excellent review, and Maggie started paying him a monthly salary, much to his surprise. He’s definitely become an integral member of the Kopila family.


On a completely different note, I’m officially leaving Surkhet next week, and leaving Nepal in two weeks. My parents are coming to visit next Sunday, which should be both a fun and interesting experience. We’re spending a few day here, then a few days in Kathmandu, and then flying back to New York together. I don’t yet know for sure what my plans will be once I get back to the States, which is a little scary. It’s also going to be really tough to leave the kids and everyone else.

On the plus side for you out there in the blogosphere (to coin a term), once I get back to New York I’ll have a faster internet connection, which means I can upload more photos, which means you’ll get to see all of these people I’ve been talking about.


January 4, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Maobadi Mania!!!

If you’ve read anything recently about Nepal you’re probably aware that we have a few “political problems” going on right now. Like the Maoists calling nationwide strikes, bringing the the entire country to a standstill for the better part of a week, and threatening to halt all activity indefinitely in order to achieve their stated goal of dissolving the government.
I’ve been following the international press, but I can’t find a single article that really explains all the ins and outs of what’s going on, and how we got here. So here’s my attempt to provide you guys with a comprehensive take on the situation and its history:

Nepal became the unified country it is today (more or less) when, in the late 1700s, Prithvi Narayan Shah, the King of Kathmandu, conquered all the other kingdoms and tribes. Nepal is so ethnically diverse, with so many different cultures and languages, that Nepali is not even the mother-tongue of most of the population. The borders of the country were finalized after the British tried to colonize the country on three separate occasions. They were fought off each time by the legendary Gurkha army, but managed to annex a little land during each war – which is why Nepal is today bordered by India on the west, south, and east. Nepal is very proud of the fact that they were never colonized, but this has been both a blessing and a curse.

Prithvi Narayan Shah and his successors enjoyed absolute rule through the mid-1800s, and Nepal was relatively prosperous at the time. Around the middle of the century a man named Jang Bahadur Rana was able to manipulate court politics to his advantage, stripping the king of most of his powers and establishing the Rana dictatorship for the next 100 years. The Rana dictatorship was extremely corrupt and incompetent, good at very little except clinging to power. The Ranas closed off Nepal to the outside world, which is why no development began here until the 1950s, and why Kathmandu used to be called “the forbidden city.” They prized loyalty over competence, and the well-connected became fabulously rich while the rest of the country suffered.

In the 1950s King Tribhuvan, who started out as a puppet of the Ranas, managed to topple the dictatorship and re-establish the power of the monarchy. He and the next two kings, Mahendra and Birendra, were well-liked. They each promised on several occasions to establish a constitution and begin bringing about democracy, but nothing ever materialized. The kings “opened up” the country to the rest of the world, paving the way for development. Some of the most successful projects were the eradication of malaria in the Tarai, the building of an east-west road, and the introduction of Western medicine and schools (at least in Kathmandu). Most development projects, however, made little to no substantial difference for ordinary Nepalis. Often they were (and still are) ill-planned, under-funded, and divorced from the local people and culture.

The introduction of things like cars, electricity, and paved roads really only began in the early 90s, with King Birendra. Birendra also began to bring about some democratic reforms, in response to huge protests. One of the most important pro-democratic groups was the Communist Party of Nepal, or CPN. (For Nepalis “communism” has always gone hand in hand with “democracy.” To say that one is a communist is to say that they are looking out for the poor and underprivileged).

Then, in 2001, the so-called “royal massacre” occurred. At a state dinner at the royal palace King Birendra and the majority of the royal family were shot at with a machine gun. The King died, and the Crown Prince, Dipendra, fell into a coma for 3 days before he died as well. The monarchy fell to Birendra’s brother, Gyanendra. It doesn’t seem like anybody will ever know for sure what happened. After Gyanendra took over he appointed a commission to investigate the massacre. Without very much time at all, the commission concluded that a machine-gun was accidentally dropped on the ground, selectively taking out the king and his close family while avoiding many others. (Yea, that’s the official story!). Later, after Dipendra was dead, other theories were offered up by various government officials. One was that Dipendra had become enraged at his father and committed the murders before turning the gun on himself (of course, he was no longer around to refute any of this). Another theory revolved around the fact that it was a “masquerade” and that several people had been wearing “Dipendra masks,” leading to some sort of confusion. (If you think this sounds like something out of Shakespeare, you’re right).

Anyway, after Gyanendra took power things turned for the worse. He undercut and underfunded government offices, bringing lots of development to a standstill. He and his son, Paras, led decadent lifestyles and seemed to be purposely rubbing it in the face of this poor country. They came to be both hated and feared. (When I was in Nepal 2 years ago, while Gyanendra was still king, people would whisper that it was Gyanendra himself who had ordered the massacre, and that it was Paras who may have carried it out. As a form of safe protest people would hang photos of the dead King Birendra in their homes instead of Gyanendra).

It was also around this time (or maybe a bit earlier, I’m not sure) that the Communist Party split up into two distinct factions. The CPN-Maoist party consisted of those who had decided it was time for armed revolt against the government, and the CPN-UML (United Marxist-Leninists) felt that change could still come from within the system. The Maoists fled to the rural areas, particularly in the west (like where Surkhet is), and began rallying support, stockpiling weapons, and creating an army. (Even today Maoist sympathies are strongest out here). They began having bloody skirmishes with the Nepali Army as they fought for territory. Many were killed. Others were disfigured. Both the Maoists and the Army could be extremely cruel, there were no good guys.

[Also, it should be noted that the name “Maoist” is borrowed from an Indian communist group of the same name. They chose Mao’s name when he was still a symbol of rebellion against Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalists, not when he was a symbol of the Cultural Revolution and the deaths of thousands (millions?).]

By 2005 the fighting got so bad that King Gyanendra declared a nationwide state of emergency. He took over all government ministries and established harsh military rule. He sent armed soldiers into all the newspaper headquarters, intimidating journalists against writing anything bad about him or what was going on. [One journalist who refused to go along, even at the risk of death, was Kunda Dixit, editor of the Himal Times. I had the chance to meet him a while ago, and he’s awesome]. Gyanendra’s takeover only made things worse, and after about a year he was forced to backtrack and hand power back to the government. The “government,” which had come about through Birendra’s reforms, consisted of Prime Minister B.P. Koirala and the Nepali Congress party, who were pretty much pawns of the king and the other wealthy people, so it wasn’t a huge difference.

Around 2007 the Maoists agreed to lay down their arms (sort of) and start negotiations with the government. They agreed that there would be an election for a “constitutional assembly” to draft a constitution, but the election date came and went 3 times with nothing happening, and the Maoists threatening to take up arms again every time. Finally, Nepali Congress agreed to the Maoist terms. The three most important points were that (1) the King immediately and unconditionally abdicates the thrown and the monarchy is abolished, (2) Nepal is declared a Hindu democratic-republic as opposed to a Hindu monarchy, and (3) proportional representation for all of the different regions and ethnic groups is established for the election. Also, there was an agreement that the Maoist fighters be integrated into the Nepali Army, something that would become very important later on.

This event marked the first time a king was dethroned since the Shah of Iran, and happened without riots or violence (not counting everything that preceded it, of course). Also notable is the fact that the king was not even forced into exile. He’s now just a private citizen. (An obscenely wealthy private citizen). The elections finally took place in 2008 and the Maoists won by a surprisingly large margin, with the CPN-UML coming in second. Prachanda, the leader of the Maoists, became the Prime Minister and head of a coalition government. (Even though it can be argued that technically there was no mandate to form a government, just to write a constitution, which still hasn’t been written yet).

[By the way, Prachanda’s real name is Pushpa Kamal Dahal. “Prachanda” means “the fierce one.” Isn’t that cool/scary?]

So the Maoists spent a year trying to start real reforms, and get the constitution-writing process going, but were basically obstructed at every turn by B.P. Koirala and Nepali Congress, who were part of the coalition government. It certainly didn’t help that India did not want the Maoists to succeed, fearing that they would ally Nepal more closely with China and that their own Maoists would have a future haven in the north. It also didn’t help that the United States decided to continue to classify the Maoists as a terrorist group, even when they were the legitimate, democratically-elected leaders of the country.

Things completely fell apart when Prachanda ordered the head of the Army to begin the process of integrating the Maoist soldiers. The army chief said no. (If you can imagine, this is like Stanley McChrystal refusing a direct order from Barack Obama). So Prachanda tried to fire the army chief, but when he went to the other parties for support they told him he didn’t have the authority to do so. (This would be like Congress telling Obama he can’t fire Stanley McChrystal for disobeying orders). So, in spring 2009, Prachanda resigned as Prime Minister and the Maoists vowed to fight again for what they were now calling “civilian supremacy.”

It’s really difficult to say if the Maoists did the right thing. They’ve lost a lot of credibility having fought so long for power and then giving it up so quickly. Many people think it means they are incapable of governing, or that they simply never had any real interest in governing. People are sick of the fighting, and angry that it looks like we’re heading back to that again. Also, asking the army to welcome the people they’ve been fighting for a decade is not the simplest thing to do either. On the other hand, when Prachanda points out, as he does loudly and often, that there are “secret forces” controlling things and obstructing change, he isn’t wrong. India should be more concerned with peace and democracy at it’s border, not with making a puppet government of oligarchs loyal to them. Europe, the United States, and the UN could be doing a million constructive things to try to solve this impasse. And B.P. Koirala, Nepali Congress, and all the wealthy elites need to realize (and care) that even if the status quo is good for them, the majority of the population is suffering.

Since resigning the Maoists have restarted their calls for “bandhs” or strikes (literally “closings”). Throughout the past decade they have organized strikes in different areas as a form of protest. They’ve become so common that they actually do negatively affect industry and commerce a great deal. The tradition of bandhs actually goes back to Gandhi, who used to organize strikes in protest against the British. (A significant difference being, of course, that Gandhi’s strikes were enforced through his charisma and peoples’ devotion to him, while the Maoists enforce their strikes through threats of violence). The Maoists laid low in September-October, when I first arrived, so that people could celebrate Dasain and Tihar in peace, but now that those festivals are over they’ve been in overdrive. Their latest thing is to call “general bandhs,” closing down all industry, including transportation, throughout the entire country. (This week the bandh lasted 4 days, and there might be another bandh tomorrow). They recently encouraged squatters to try to settle on federal land, the ensuing confrontation resulting in several deaths and more anger on both sides. They’ve also started declaring different regions of the country “autonomous regions,” saying that the Nepali government has no jurisdiction there. Most flamboyantly, last week they declared the Kathmandu Valley to be the “Newa Autonomous Region” (Newars are the valley’s indigenous ethnic group), announcing that they intend to set up there own alternative government. And their most recent threat is that if they are not back in charge of the government by January 24th they will call an indefinite bandh until the government collapses.

So that pretty much brings us up to where we are now. That’s probably much more than any of you wanted to know, but there it is.

In case you’re concerned about me and my safety, just know that the same rule that applied throughout this whole conflict also applies today: Nobody wants to do anything to upset the tourist industry, and nobody wants to piss off any other countries, especially the United States.

Also, Surkhet is home to the largest army base in mid-western Nepal, and has never seen a day of violence.

December 24, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Surkhetmaa Phaarkae

I’ve been back in Surkhet now for a few days, and it’s really great. I missed the kids a lot. It’s been wonderful to spend time with them again, playing, helping with their homework, etc.
Since I’ve been back I’ve been sharing my bed with two of the little girls. Shanti, our youngest at around four years old, usually sleeps with Maggie, but when Maggie’s gone (she’s back in the States for the next few weeks) she sleeps with me. She’s really small and my bed is relatively large, so it’s not too intrusive, but I’ve been also letting Bindu, who’s closer to seven, sleep with me too. I’ve likened this to a perpetual game of Russian Roulette because Bindu is a bed-wetter, and at some point my luck has to run out. So far, though, I’ve been extremely diligent about making sure she pees right before bed and then waking her up in the middle of the night to pee again (I ask myself every night where all this pee can possibly be coming from). She’s a really deep sleeper, and I usually have to literally sit her up or stand her on the floor before she’ll really be awake. But, fingers-crossed, we’ve now gone a whole week without a single incident. This is a record, I’m pretty sure, at least since I’ve been here. I’m hoping at some point she’ll start waking up on her own, or learn to control it better, but we’re not there yet.

I can’t help but think that the above probably sounds really weird to most of the people who are going to read this, as there’s really no appropriate context in America for an adult male to be sharing a bed with 4 and 7 year old girls. Joe, my friend who was visiting, joked that the only guy who could get away with that behavior in America is Michael Jackson. (too soon?). I guess it’s one of the many examples of how different Nepali culture is that nobody bats an eye about this. [In case it needs to be said, there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING going on in the bed except sleeping]. It’s very common in this culture for children to share beds with adults, and for adults of the same sex to share beds with each other. In fact, it can be rude not to insist that a guest share your bed with you, rather than offering them, for example, a perfectly fine couch to sleep on (something I’ve experienced firsthand).

Having Joe and Ariella come visit for a few days made me think a lot about cultural differences I hardly notice anymore, and it let me vicariously re-experience what it was like the first time I came to this country. There really are deep cultural differences, even down to the level of how people think. You could have more or less the same conversation in America and Nepal and each of them could have a completely different underlying meaning. I’ve tried my best to anticipate all of the things that my guests needed to know about this culture, but even so I failed incredibly several times. When I brought them to Surkhet I wrote up a list of rules and other things they should know. Here are some of the highlights:
– Don’t blatantly smoke in from of elders. It’s not a matter of people knowing that you smoke (it’s fine to hold a smoking cigarette behind your back if someone approaches), but one of respect vs. rudeness.
– Never make a vertical chopping motion with your arm at someone. This is like our middle finger, but a hundred times worse.
– Never point the soles of your feet at someone, or step over someone.
– Always finish everything on your plate (and expect seconds). Except in emergencies, observing this custom is more important than your comfort.
– Never eat off someone else’s plate (except for little kids) and never drink from a bottle or cup that someone else has drank from. These things are “impure”.
– People in this country value relationships over brutal truth. They will almost never say no to you, or tell you when you’re doing something wrong. They may even lie to you if they think it’s what you want to hear. Even about important things, and even if it clearly creates more problems. There is nothing malicious about this from their perspective.

Having guests here has also made me look at my surroundings differently. Being confronted with the kinds of poverty, sickness, and other problems that are always out in the open has made me develop a certain level of emotional callousness, I think. It’s not that I don’t care, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t, it’s just that in order to function my mind has to prioritize what it thinks about. When I’m busy making sure our kids eat their vegetables, do their homework, and go to sleep on time I simply can’t also be thinking about the malnourished neighbor-kid whose family can’t afford to send him to our school, who sleeps in a badly insulated mud and brick house. Of course I can help him with little things (clean his cuts, buy him a samosa every now and again), but there’s just too much other stuff to worry about with 27 children to look after. So, yea, I don’t cry every time I see a kid playing in a pile of trash, or a sick old man who will die from a disease he doesn’t even understand, but if I stopped and sobbed every time I encountered something like that I wouldn’t have time for anything else. With Ariella and Joe I’ve been able to look at this stuff from a fresh perspective though, and think a little bit more about the larger picture.

Anyway, it’s late and I should go to bed. Wish me luck on Bindu’s day 8!

December 17, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment


After a slightly longer stay in Kathmandu than I expected, I’m heading back to Surkhet this evening. I’ve had a good time visiting my family in Sirutar, the students and staff at the Pitzer program, and meeting up with Ariella and Joe (my two friends from home who are coming with me to visit Surkhet), but I’m really excited to be coming back and spend some time with all the kids. While I’ve been in Kathmandu I have also been meeting with some people about sending representatives from the Rato Bangala school (one of the best schools in Kathmandu) out to Surkhet to do a teacher training workshop. This is in it’s early stages and there are many logistical concerns to work out, especially money. (It’s also one of the many good reasons for sending donations).

As you probably already know if you’re following Maggie’s blog, Buday, the boy with epilepsy and brain damage that we’ve been trying to help, passed away the other day. He’d been taken to the hospital several times in the past few weeks, and he seemed to just be getting steadily worse. Maggie even tried to arrange a way for him to live with us towards the end. I’m feeling a lot of mixed emotions in reaction to this news. It’s awful and sad, but I can’t help but also feel a sense of relief. We had tried so hard to make things better for him, to arrange for someone to take care of him full-time, make sure he takes his medicine, etc., but trying to do all of these things always just underscored our impotence to make any substantial difference. As I reflect on the extremely brief period of time I had the chance to know him, what stands out in my mind is one time when I was walking in the market to buy something for the kids and I found him sitting cross-legged, head down, in the middle of the busiest road with cars and bikes whizzing past him. Both adults and children were staring but nobody was making a move to help or touch him (people don’t understand what’s wrong with him and think that if they touch him they’ll get what he has). I went over and tried to talk with him, got him to recognize me, and help him stand up. I was calling around for someone to help me move him but nobody would. Finally I got him to the side of the road, and I tried to figure out what to do next (at the time we had decided that it wouldn’t be fair to the other kids to bring him home with us – this was before he got even worse). I walked him about 5 minutes down the road where there was a quiet place for him to sit. I was already late so I told him to sit there and that I’d be back in 10-20 minutes. . When I returned he was gone. We didn’t see him for a week after that, I think, but I remember thinking how awful it was that the extent that I could help at the moment was simply by moving him from the middle of the road to the side of the road.

It’s hard not to look at his life as a waste, as a series of tragedies and sufferings with no rhyme or reason and no silver lining. Buday did not deserve any of the things that happened to him – the death of both parents, chronic epilepsy that led to permanent brain damage, and the subsequent injuries (falling into fire, falling off bridges, freezing out in the cold night, etc., not being able to eat, wash, go to the bathroom by himself) that resulted from this. Maybe if there had been better facilities more could have been done, but he had the misfortune of being born somewhere where such facilities didn’t exist. And even the idealistic foreigners that tried to help him never managed to substantially alter his circumstances. For me, if I can say that his life taught me anything, it is that sometimes the best of intentions and even a relative wealth of money and resources cannot always solve a problem. Sometimes we can only delay the inevitable, and sometimes not even that. But tomorrow I’ll be back living with 27 smiling faces, each of which belongs to somebody whose life has changed for the better. They are the counterpoint to all this: that even if everything can’t be fixed, some things can, and just a little bit can still make a huge difference.

p.s. Check out this week’s Economist for a couple good articles about politics in Nepal. I got to view some of the protests in Kathmandu (from a distance) the other day, and it was pretty interesting.

December 12, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Back in K-town

So I survived my first week without Maggie. Successes include convincing the school principal to move Puja down a grade in school (and convincing her that it was what she needed), only giving the kids “chow chow” once as a school snack, and above all, nobody dying. Speaking of chow chow, Maggie learned from somebody in Holland that not only does it have no nutritional value but it contains some substance that’s banned in the US and Europe because it stunts kids’ brain development.

So Maggie returned from Holland and it sounds like she had a really great trip. Now that she’s back I headed back to Kathmandu to visit my family in Sirutar and meet my friend Arriella (who’s coming in tomorrow!). Maggie’s going back to the US in a week or so for Christmas and fundraising, and I’ll be heading back to look after the children.

I took a van to Nepalgunj and then a bus from there to Kathmandu. It was a much better ride than last time, thanks in part to the company of Sarah, an Australian who’s doing research and volunteer work in Surkhet but going home for Christmas, and Dramamine. Seeing my Nepali family again has been great, but it was a little frightening at first because the day I arrived my mother was in the hospital after having had a fever for about a week. She’s back now with a lot of medicine. I think she feels a bit better but her head still really hurts, as does her hand where she recently had surgery. I gave her some of my Dramamine to help her sleep. I’ve been moving back and forth between their house and my friend Roxy’s apartment in Kathmandu. I’ve promised my family that I won’t stay at a hotel because they are “so expensive, and unnecessary when you have your own family to stay with”. They always make me feel so welcome.

Being in the city of Kathmandu after being in Surkhet is a sort of culture shock in itself. I forgot how great the wealth disparity is between here and the rest of the country. Even my family, just an hour and a half outside of Kathmandu, relies on a barter system for food most of the time. I’ve been trying to enjoy some of the little luxuries here – decent cheese, hot showers in Roxy’s neighbors’ apartment – but also reflecting on how many things are unavailable in Surkhet, and how difficult life is for so many people in this country. When you’re in the midst of it it’s easy to forget that you’re living in one of the poorest countries in the world.

I had a great lunch with a couple that works for UNICEF, and we compared stories and notes about our experiences here. They were also able to provide a much larger picture, having lived in many different places and working with projects much bigger than a single orphanage. We all lamented the conditions so many people live with, the suffering they endure, and all the well-meaning projects here that often fail because they are too idealistic and not thought-through, because they don’t understand the situation on the ground, because the unforeseen consequences make the problem worse or create new problems, or because they don’t engage the local people (among many other reasons). The other thing we all discussed was having to deal with situations where nothing can be done; having to look on helplessly and accept that sometimes there are problems that can’t be solved, at least not now. I think this is one of the most difficult lessons that I’m learning here.

On the lighter side, I had a banana split for dessert. It was INCREDIBLE! Dessert is a concept I’d almost completely forgotten about, as were ice cream and chocolate syrup. It’s weird how you can miss things, but not even realize that you miss them until you’re reminded. In a similar vein, the front page of the Himalayan Times the other day announced that the first KFC has opened in Kathmandu! (I know, right?) Normally, as a vegetarian, I would have nothing to do with KFC, but this means I can eat an actual biscuit, as opposed to the crackers and cookies they call biscuits here. If you’ve ever asked me what I miss most when I’m in Nepal, I’ve probably told you biscuits. This is because Nepalis eat biscuit/crackers with their tea (which they drink about 5 times a day) so I’m daily being asked if I want a biscuit but never receiving an actual biscuit. Well, now the time has come! I haven’t made it over to the KFC yet, but I plan to soon.

I’ve also made it back to the Pitzer program house, and gotten to see Margie, Soorja, Bhuwan, Bom Bahadur, and so many other great people that I’ve missed. Also, I got to see Daphure, the head cook, who I am willing to say without qualification is the greatest person in the world. Sadly, several familiar faces were missing, including Shova and Tembi, who are currently in the UK and Bahrain, respectively. I also got the chance to meet a bunch of other old students who are now all living in Nepal.

I’m having a great time here, but I miss Surkhet and all the kiddies.

December 1, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Me and Angeli

here’s one photo for now, of Angeli (and some guy). it took me about half an hour to load. I’ll try to load more later, hopefully with more luck.

November 18, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Odds and Ends

Two gems from checking the kids’ homework, see if you can spot the snafus:

1) Write the months of the year:


2) Q: Where do we keep the dog?
A: We keep the god in the kennel.
So we’ve been trying to get the kids to eat more healthfully [grammar nuts (ie. Adam Plunket), is that correct?] at school. The problem is that they always want us to buy them “chow chow,” which is also the easiest thing to give them. Chow Chow is pretty much instant noodles (like Ramen or Cup-o-noodles), loaded with salt and msg and no nutritional value. If you spent an hour watching Nepali television, however, you would think it was the national dish. There are constant commercials for all the different brands (Miho, Priti, Yum-Yum…) complete with catchy songs (that I can’t help but singing myself) and scenes of people jumping around and dancing. This wouldn’t seem like a big deal in America, and it’s relatively benign comparatively, but you have to understand that malnutrition is a scourge in this country, inordinately affecting young people, and that much of it can be traced back to people choosing to eat this kind of stuff – with western-style packaging and fake nutritional information – instead of the vegetables right in front of them, thinking that chow chow is better. The vegetables, meanwhile, are fresher and more truly organic than anything your most devoted vegan/hippy/healthnut can dream of in the US.

So, long story short, we’ve been trying to send them with fruit, vegetables, eggs, or bread instead of chow chow or “biscuits” (cookies), but meeting with some resistance from the kids, and from the practical problems of cooking lunch for 30 kids at the same time that we’re cooking breakfast. This is also part of a larger goal of mine to just teach them a little bit about nutrition and a good diet. The crux of this was summed up in a conversation I had with Sagar, one of our boys, in which he kept naming different foods and asking if they were good or bad. Together we concluded that a good rule of thumb is that “if it comes from the dirt or an animal, it’s good for you because God made it; if it comes from a plastic bag it’s not as good because people made it.”
As I was writing that last bit Anjeli, one of the girls, came in and asked what I was doing. I told her I was writing a letter to friends, and she insisted that I add this sentence:

“Marky is so so nice.”

Who am I to argue?
Another pet peeve of mine is how much it’s been ingrained in our kids that lighter skin is better than darker skin. This is partly inevitable as they come into contact with people from other countries (like me) and try to make sense of their world and who has privilege and why. But it is also enforced to an obscene degree by movies and television and ads and commercials – especially commercials. If anyone is looking for a good corporation to be angry at these days, you all should know that Unilever (the company that makes soap and a bunch of other things in the US) proudly peddles the idea that the lighter your skin is the more likely you are to get the job/money/girl/admiration/singing-career, and offers such wonderful products to the developing world as “Fair & Lovely” (the skin-whitening cream for women), “Fair & Handsome” (the same for men), and of course “Fair & Teen” (because teenage girls don’t have enough issues with their body to begin with). It’s one thing that these products don’t actually work at all, but they also lead to our darker-skinned kids being taunted by other kids (and sometimes our own kids), and an obsession that all of our kids have with taking any kind of skin cream and rubbing it all over their faces.

The other day the kids were all hounding me to give them this moisturizing cream, and I got so frustrated that I told them it was actually a skin-darkening cream, to which they all jumped back in horror. After I explained that I was joking, we had a conversation about these creams, and I explained that from my perspective the people selling this stuff might as well be thieves: they’re selling a product that doesn’t work, and worse, they’re trying to make the kids feel bad about themselves in hopes that they’ll buy the product.
So Maggie left this morning to speak at a conference in Amsterdam about Kopila Valley and how to start an NGO, which is a big deal for me because it means that I’m in charge and have all of her daily responsibilities for the next week. As day 1 comes to a close everything seems good, all arms and legs still intact, so wish me continued luck!
One final note: A couple people have mentioned wanting to help Maggie out with donations or sponsoring kids. You can get all the information about that on this page of her website:

You’re also welcome to contact me ( or Maggie ( with questions about other ways to help or anything along those lines.
I’m off to go share a bed with a four-year-old with about an 80% chance of vomiting tonight. Shuvaratri! (Goodnight!)

November 16, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

School Daze

Ok, once again I’ve taken way too long to update. But I should be able to update more consistently in the future – or at least have less of an excuse – because we’re about to add an extra internet line for our second computer (that is, if the Maoists will stop protesting and shutting down business long enough for us to get a router from Kathmandu).

The past two weeks have been especially busy. One of our girls, Puja (not her real name because this is a personal story), was having a lot of trouble in school. We recently got report cards and while most of our kids are all first and second in their class (yes, they rank everybody) she was failing almost every subject. This is not at all her fault though, because even though she is eleven years old she’s never been to school before, and they had her skip nursery, and lower and upper kindergarten and go straight to “1st class” because of her age. Which means that for the past few months she’s been copying full sentences and math problems off the blackboard with little to no comprehension. Their school has such large classes and is so focused on copying and rote memorization that nobody had realized she understood almost nothing about what she was being “taught.” After we got her grades we started paying really close attention to her homework and helping her out. Very quickly we made the decision to take her out of school and tutor her ourselves for a few weeks. The specific thing that made me realize that this was a necessity was when her homework was to spell “aeroplane” and she wrote “LOPI.” When I asked her why she wrote that she slurringly sounded out the word like this: “er-LO-P-ee.”

So the next day we kept her home (which was a little embarrassing for her) and I wrote out all the letters of the alphabet, teaching her a few at first and then slowly expanding. I quickly realized I should not write the letters in alphabetical order, because she had that memorized, could didn’t know most of them out of order. The second day we started combining consonants and vowels. Anyone familiar with Nepali, Hindi, or any non-Roman alphabets might anticipate the problem here. In Nepali every “consonant” has an inherent sound – kind of like “ah” or “uh” – and the vowel-markers more or less manipulate that basic sound into the vowels we’re familiar with (and a few that we don’t have). And when two consonant sounds need to be combined the first become a “half-letter,” and attaches itself to the second. The concept that a vowel was it’s own letter and had to be combined with the sound of the consonant was completely new to her. [ie. if given the word “corn” she would sound it out “cuh-oh-ruh-nah”]. This was an endless source of confusion for her, and of frustration for me and Maggie.

Even so, we slowly progress with reading and other subjects. But I would say that the biggest overall difficulty was getting her to stop doing all the things she had learned to do for months in school, like guessing instead of reading and thinking slowly, looking at our faces for answers instead of the page, and trying to memorize what we wanted her to write or say instead of learning why. Anyway, after two weeks we decided to give her a chance at school again, but after much deliberation Maggie and I decided that she would do better in UKG (upper kindergarten), and actually keep learning the basics, rather than staying in 1 class. We spoke with the Principal, who is a nice, well-meaning guy if at times a bit frustrating. He has been aware of her grades, and that we had been taking her out of school for private tutoring, but he was clearly against “demoting her,” as he called it. We convinced him to give her a test (in which she didn’t perform amazingly, but did do much better than she would have 2 weeks ago), after which he refused to put her in UKG, not citing her ability to do and comprehend the work, but the fact that “there are other people in 1 class like her” and “she’ll be embarrassed being so old and in kindergarten.” Maggie and I are concerned about her feelings too, but we had concluded that her actually learning and understanding what was going on should trump that. This happened yesterday, and as of now she’s still in 1 class, but we’re going to discuss with him again in a week or so.

This is as good a place as any to start a broader rant about the school. While it’s one of the best in the area, there are a lot of things about it that are troubling. For one thing, the kids are forced to wear uniforms, which is not a big deal and pretty standard everywhere in Nepal, but this discipline is taken to a ludicrous extreme. For example, there is a specific date after which the kids are required to wear sweaters, and before which they get in trouble if they wear them, regardless of how cold it is. And when they do have to wear them, they’re not allowed to take them off during the day no matter what. Our kids have been hit for this, and Maggie has received phone calls saying that they’re not obeying the dress code.

Which brings me to the next issue: they get hit constantly. By the teachers, other staff, and by the student “class monitors.” I’ve seen them interact with some of the teachers and they’re just terrified all the time. The vice-principal in particular hits kids all the time, so much that the kids just call him “pitne-Sir,” which means “hitting Sir,” as in the authority figure that just hits them constantly. What’s most frustrating about this is that because we’ve complained about this in the past the school’s official policy is that hitting is not allowed, which is precisely what they tell us whenever we complain about it nowadays. Also, to round out the military-discipline theme, every morning they are subjected to a 20 minute “assembly” which consists of them marching in place and saluting while a bass and snare drum are played and anyone out of place gets yelled at.

These and other reasons are why we want to build our own school so badly. We’ve had a few bureaucratic setbacks in that department recently, however, and we’re now also looking to possibly take over and reform an existing school. The few that we’re seriously looking at, and would welcome us, though, are very badly mismanaged and would need a lot of work.

November 16, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Schoolmaa PaDne Belaa Bhayo

Greetings comrades,

I guess this post is long overdue. The kids just started school again after a really long vacation, so we’re still kind of adjusting to the new schedule. They look really cute in their uniforms – dress pants, red picnic-checkered collared shirts, and ties (both boys and girls). The girls also all put ribbons in their hair. I’ve been walking them to and from school pretty much every day, which usually ends up with the big kids way ahead and the little kids all jumping and grabbing at me and taking forever because they get distracted by everything on the road.

During Tihar, right before school started, we went to a little carnival in town. Picture a small-town little fair with a few kiddy rides, but a million times more run-down. For example, there was a merry-go-round with no electricity, just a guy in the middle holding onto a metal bar and running around in circles. First we took the kids on one of those dragon-ship things that swing back and forth. It was run by a guy funneling a drum of gasoline into an old converted engine. Most of the kids had a blast, but some were just plain terrified, and about 4 of them threw up immediately afterward. Then we went on the ferris wheel. Now this was truly frightening. Also run by a gasoline drum and engine, it actually went pretty high, so that we could see our house in the distance. I was in an open car (ie. no side doors, just open) with about 6 kids scared out of their wits. The ride was making all kinds of squeaking and creaking noises, and actually going pretty fast. I could look up at the car in front of us and see the metal floor rusting through. For a few minutes I thought that I had made a really really bad decision. But everything turned out fine in the end.

So the other day Maggie was visiting someone we know in the hospital (minor accident) and saw a screaming girl outside on a gurney with serious burns from her belly to her knees. She was completely unbandaged and unattended to. Slowly, the story became clear: She is from a small village about an hour away from us, and she had somehow managed to scald herself with boiling water. She lives with her mother, who is mute and jobless. Someone from the village gave the mother enough money to bring her daughter on the bus to the nearest hospital, ours. But with no money, and little ability to communicate, they were not being helped. Maggie gave the mother some money and helped them get a room. She brought me with her to come see them the next day. Since then the girl has been slowly but steadily getting better, and I’ve been going every day to check in on her progress and bring them some food. The girl is adorable, and the mother seems really sweet – I’ve been learning how to decipher her hand gestures, and she hears fine so I can talk to her. They now have a bunch of local people looking after them and making sure that they are alright, but they seem really grateful and happy whenever I come to visit. I think part of it is just the psychological benefit of the fact that an American is coming and checking in on them.

I’m having a really great time here overall, and I’m really becoming attached to all the kids. They’re almost always a pleasure to be around. I’ve been doing little classes with them, teaching them about geography and different parts of the world, and it’s been really fun. Every once in a while, though, these incidents happen that make me remember how hard many of their lives have been, and how much emotional baggage many of them have. This can manifest variously as temper tantrums, bed-wetting, compulsive lying, and in tons of subtler ways. Sometimes it’s really difficult to know how to respond to different situations, and in a lot of cases we don’t really know a whole lot about their past. Some glimpses that we do have, however, are pretty horrific. Like one of our boys, whose mother, after the father died, hung herself in front of her children. We’ve been talking with a Catholic priest who works with mentally retarded people in and around Surkhet, and he is introducing us to two psychologists that we might bring a few of the kids to.

In more fun news, we just got a kitten! Maggie found her on the road and brought her home. The kids named her Arjuna. She’s really cute and then kids are really enjoying her. We think the responsibility of taking care of her is also good for them. It’s difficult to upload photos, but I’ll try to get some of her, and other things soon.


October 25, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Back from Bardia

So after several false starts due to rain and broken bridges, we finally went to the Bardia National Park! We rode elephants and went swimming and generally had a blast. For an in-depth play-by-play of our adventures check out Maggie’s blog:

The trip was fun, but really exhausting, and it’s great to be back in Surkhet and relax a little bit. I had been talking with Maggie for a couple of days about the possibility of buying a “maadel,” which is a Nepali double-sided drum that you place horizontally and play with two hands. So the day after we got back we headed into the market looking for one. After going around from store to store, and finding only cheaply-made, bad-sounding drums, we happened to run into a guy just walking around selling one. It’s really high quality – wood and goat-skin (you can tell from all the hair) – and after I tested it out we bought it on the spot for 700 rupees (about 10 dollars). Ever since I’ve been playing along with Nepali and Indian songs on my ipod to try to learn some rhythms, and teaching the kids how to play and learning some things from them as well. Usually this devolves (evolves?) into an awesome dance party.

I’ve gotta go, but I’ll post more soon.


October 17, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment