The very first week we were in Nepal, Cameron and I took a workshop on earthbag building and met Michael, Lucas, and Justin, three guys who were planning to build earthbag houses in Nepal in the near future. Back then, it was only a far-off idea that we might volunteer with them one day. But things serendipitously worked out as they often do in Nepal, and on the 10th of November, we did end up joining their earthbag build in Ghyampesal, Gorkha! Their project began as a 21-day earthbag building workshop put on by the PermaculTourism Initiative and Woven Earth to build one square earthbag house and one circular.
Arriving in Ghyampesal about 17 days into the workshop, we entered into an environment full of people that had been learning, doing, and living earthbag building for the past two and a half weeks. It was an amazing place for us to come into with an open mind and soak up as much information as possible! We were able to get hands-on experience in many parts of the earthbag process, including soil mixing, bag laying, tamping, leveling, barbed wire laying, and mixing, testing, and applying earthen plaster. We got to try things that we never would be able to back home, from carrying 16 ft bamboo pieces up through a mountain jungle, to carrying baskets of dirt on our back using traditional Nepali headstraps. There was a lot of physical manual labor, and it mixed well with the constant input of new, intellectually stimulating ideas and concepts, providing a great workout for both our bodies and minds. Additionally, we got to work and interact with the incredibly knowledgeable, diverse, interesting group of workshop participants, constantly building experience and connections that will be very helpful for our own project. Overall, volunteering with this earthbag project in Ghyampesal taught us more than we could’ve ever imagined, giving us the practical experience we were missing before, as well as solidifying and supplementing the theoretical framework we already had. Even more imoprtant than all that, we got to meet to really cool people that I’m happy to call friends now! After this experience, Cameron and I are both super excited to begin working on CCF’s own earthbag project!
While we were in Ghyampesal, the wheels were turning back in Kathmandu and Spokane on CCF’s own earthbag project in Baseri. For this project, CCF is partnering with Good Earth Nepal (GEN), an organization that is at the forefront of earthbag technology and building in Nepal. GEN is providing technical support for the two room, one story home we will build, meaning they will supply us with technical designs, a list of necessary materials, and an experienced supervisor to oversee the build. A GEN engineer traveled to Baseri last week to inspect the site for the house and he determined that it is suitable. Unfortunately, the soil at the site is not ideal for earthbag, so we will have to hire people to carry dirt from another nearby location to the house, which will add some extra labor and costs to the project. But hey, it’s a remote Nepali village – if you’re looking for ideal conditions, you’re looking in the wrong place. We should receive the technical design and materials list from GEN within the next few days, at which point we can buy all the materials! Along with the project materials, CCF has purchased 162 large, warm blankets for about $14.81 apiece to take to the people of Baseri for this winter. Once all these materials are obtained, we will head up to Baseri and the project is projected to begin on December 1st!
In a post a few weeks ago, I mentioned CCF partnering with the wholesale company Everest Hardwear to provide 100 jackets and 50 hats to the village of Thugman, Rasuwa. With the help of Ram Karki, all that high-quality winter clothing was delivered to the village and distributed to the Nepali people. Now Ram has returned and shared some pictures of the beautiful people of Thugman! Thank you to Ram, Everest Hardware, and Mingmar of Thugman for making this possible.
Aside from all the work we’ve been doing, we tried to set aside some time for fun in Kathmandu! My 19th birthday was on Sunday the 22nd, so we planned to take the day off and do fun things around town like getting massages, eating cake, and seeing a movie. That was the plan. What really happened was both Cameron and I got food poisoning from something we ate the night before, so we spent most of the afternoon curled up in bed and occasionally throwing up. Not exactly what we had planned! But truthfully, I’m not upset that the day turned out like that. Everything we had planned to do can easily be moved to another day, and I’m just thankful that we are both recovering and feeling a lot better now! As I’ve seen over and over again in Nepal, things pretty much never go as planned. Instead of getting hung up on things that go off course, all you can do is go with the flow and make the most of what does happen!
If there’s any information you would like to know about the work we have been doing or do in the future, please leave a comment and we will do our best to answer as fully as we can. We love to hear your questions and feedback! Thank you!
Since we returned from our trek close to a week and a half ago, much of our efforts on this blog have been focused on recounting the incredible experiences we had and information we gathered along the way, yet don’t let that fool you into thinking that we have been idle in the meantime. Much of this time has been spent searching for, and acting upon, different projects through which CCF can branch out into long term earthquake recovery, of which only a portion could be fit into our last post.
Any remaining time has been spent attempting to prepare a plan for our next bout of field work. Until just a few days ago, we had planned to work with a local NGO, TEAM Nepal, during their construction of a model earthbag house in Sindupalchowk. This had seemed like the perfect opportunity to observe the construction of an earthbag structure similar to what we hope the clinic will be, while simultaneously observing the effects of financial support which CCF had provided to TEAM Nepal during the immediate earthquake recovery process. But, as so often happens here, the best laid plans went awry…
In a complicated blizzard of serendipity and circumstance, we realized that, due to forces beyond our control, TEAM Nepal’s earthbag project was being pushed back to a point at which we would have a very small amount of time during which we could actually contribute to construction before moving on to the Baseri Project. Yet, as luck would have it, scarcely had we begun to fret over this unfortunate realization, then a friend, Michael, from the earthbag building class we had taken in early October, contacted us. As it turns out, he was in search of two willing volunteers for their own earthbag construction project in the village of Ghyampesal in Eastern Gorkha, and asked if we would be interested. You can learn more about this project and the organizations involved at their website here: http://www.permacultourism.com/nepalresilience/
Holding to the hope that somehow the TEAM Nepal opportunity would work out, we left this invitation until a day and a half ago, when it became apparent that we were getting nowhere fast. With little time to spare, we rushed to prepare for this new project; conducting several final meetings, finding transportation, and rushing through Thamel in search of the usual necessities: food, cooking supplies, etc.
So here we sit, with our bags fully loaded, in possession of a 6:15 AM bus ticket to Ghyampesal, ready once again to drop of the face of the earth, and with Pradeep as our trusty guide. Our goal for the following weeks is to observe and participate in earthbag in action. With any luck, Grant and I will be able to see the finer details of this building style so that we in turn can bring them into consideration during the construction of CCF model earthbag houses and the Baseri Clinic!
Here we go again!
A Day in Kathmandu
At the suggestions of several people, we ventured out with our camera today to record some snippets of our day walking through Kathmandu! We also finally tell the story of our cook almost dying! Continue reading this post below the video to learn more about the next steps of the Conscious Connections Foundation and what Cameron and I will be doing for the month and half we have left in Nepal!
Future Plans and New Connections
We returned from our two week trek with a massive amount of information, amazing memories, and an entirely new understanding of the Nepali people and their current situation. Now we were faced with this question: with all this new information, how can the Conscious Connections Foundation most effectively help these people?
As has been mentioned in several recent blog posts, the resounding message from the vast majority of the villages we visited was that they lacked permanent shelter and that their current temporary shelters were largely inadequate for the deadly, chilling winter. With this identified as the greatest need, we knew we had to do something to help the shelter situation. CCF, as a smaller organization, obviously can’t rebuild an entire village – no matter how much we wish we could. Different approaches were necessary to address this pressing issue. With this in mind, the organization is already putting into motion earthquake recovery programs that largely aim to achieve the following two goals:
- Spread new, innovative, earthquake resistant building techniques to villagers to promote sustainable rebuilding and to increase future resilience
- Supply villagers with warm, high-quality clothing and other necessary items for the winter
This first goal seeks to provide a long term solution to the shelter crisis by empowering villagers with new ideas to build new homes and a better future. Cameron and I have done extensive research and contacted many experts on earthquake resistant building techniques such as earthbags, rammed earth, and gabion bands. All of these techniques have been shown to survive earthquakes, but again, CCF can’t build homes like these for every single villager in need. Instead, CCF’s shelter recovery programs will work to build sample homes in the villages using these techniques, giving villagers the opportunity to learn about and understand these new ideas, allowing them to decide for themselves what materials they want to use to rebuild their own homes. Additionally, these new ideas could also be applied in the villages in the rebuilding of permanent schools and health clinics (such as the one in Baseri!).
With our remaining month and a half in Nepal, Cameron and I are undertaking the project of building one earthbag house in Baseri. To prepare for this, we be heading back out into the field in the next few days to volunteer with another organization on an earthbag building project in the villages. We will then return to Kathmandu, gather materials and tools for our own project, and head up to Baseri to begin! Though it is unlikely that this house will be completed before Cameron and I have to leave in December, we will be working with experienced earthbag engineers and supervisors so that we can leave the project in capable, trustworthy hands. This first earthbag house will serve multiple purposes – being a model house for the villagers to possibly base their own homes off of, as well as being a test to see if earthbags could be a potential material for the future, larger project of rebuilding the Baseri clinic!
The second goal is more of a short term band-aid for a much larger problem. Clothing and blankets won’t directly fix the shelter issue, but they may be the difference between life and death in the winter. Almost immediately after returning from trekking, we set out to find a way to send warm clothes up to some of the remote villages we stayed in. This goal is already becoming a reality thanks to the amazing people and products of Everest Hardwear, a Nepali manufacturing company that produces excellent clothing and trekking gear! Sonam Sherpa and Ghyami Hyolmo of the company were generous enough to sell us 100 high-quality jackets at a ridiculously low cost, as well as donating 100 fleece hats to be distributed in the villages of Rasuwa! Even though it meant a loss of some profit for them, they were more than happy to partner with us in this endeavor to help those in dire need. I’m happy to say that out of this experience, we not only acquired this clothing to help people, but we also made some wonderful friends.
Ram, who left on another trek a few days ago, took all these jackets and hats along with him to distribute them to the people of Rasuwa. Hopefully we’ll have some pictures of that to share once he returns! In the future, CCF will continue to work with Everest Hardware and other partners on this sort of project to provide potentially life-saving winter items to the people of Nepal who need them most!
We are incredibly excited to be starting soon on this earthbag project and other CCF recovery programs – it’s an amazing and inspirational feeling to be doing this work! Stay tuned for more details and pictures in the future! Thank you!
All the best,
Check out Everest Hardwear at their website (http://www.everesthardwear.com.np/) and on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Everest-Hardwear-371079756430780)!
Journal Entry: Sunday, October 18th, Gatlang Rasuwa
“Upon entering Gatlang I was struck by the silence. Though a relatively large village, with close to 600 homes, not a sound was forthcoming as we entered. Dilapidated houses greeted our entrance and lone individuals picked silently through rubble, casting shadowy, forlorn glances towards Pradeep, Grant, Gukarna and myself. Young girls passed alongside our small contingent, carrying bundles of grass that dwarfed their small stature. We made our way towards the guest house which sat slightly above the rest of the village, the sound of our footsteps reverberated in the void, as we passed countless abandoned homes, many with beautifully carved wooden porches in the Tamang style. From the appearance of these houses, it was clear that their owners had once taken great pride in them, yet due to structural degradation, or simply fear, they now sit vacant.”
I suppose that, given enough time, some people might come to view this world as normal, maybe force themselves to say “this is just the way it is” and move on. A mental and emotional callus must slowly form; allowing individuals to go about their daily lives without the constant threat of a complete breakdown. Yet for anyone unaccustomed to such anguish, there is no way to prepare for a life which has been shaken to pieces. Coming from a comfortable life in the Pacific Northwest, we were about as unaccustomed as they come, and, for myself, such an experience was terrifying. Moreover, our job was not safely confined observing this overwhelming disaster from afar, but instead we were obligated to go even deeper, and delve into the lives of those who had dealt with such a scenario for close to six months.
And delve we did. For two weeks, our entire world revolved around this attempt to understand the lives of those we encountered. Our original approach had been a relatively academic attempt to clinically compile a mass of information which we would then sort through to create representative recommendations to the board of CCF. In the end, our methods, and horizons, broadened to include a much greater scope of interaction with those we talked to along the way, the communities we visited, and each other.
Our primary method of information gathering was simple conversation, and with a quiet wander through each village we came into contact with men and women, young and old, rich and poor, all of whom were overjoyed to talk with us. Often, even before Pradeep had time to introduce us and our work, many families would already have invited us in for tea. As such, a majority of our “interviews” took place in small tin shelters, over a strongly sweetened cup of milk tea. With Pradeep acting as both translator and cultural guide, we talked about their life since the earthquake, and most pressing problems as well as their fears, hopes, dreams, and plans for future. In villages such as Baseri and Kattike, we tailored our approach slightly to include questions specifically related to the aid provided by CCF, and to every single question, the feedback was inspiring.
Altogether, the results of these discussions were plain enough to recognize; the most vital need at this time was expressed nearly unanimously as shelter. Be it permanent or temporary, every single individual we interviewed said that shelter, for both the coming winter and year ahead, was among their primary needs. Many of the villages through which we passed are above the snow line and already experiencing temperatures close to or below freezing. The luckiest individuals in these situations have built strong, if drafty, tin houses, while others still attempt to elude the elements under improvised tarp tents. Yet when we asked what steps they might take to alter their situation, most simply shrugged their heads with a resigned “ke garne?”, what to do? Few have the resources necessary to rebuild a permanent home in the foreseeable future, as such, these structures are likely to serve as their housing not only for this winter, but many more.
This result is not a result of neglect from the international community however. Over the course of our trek we encountered the traces of dozens of small, medium, and large scale NGO’s and INGO’s who had delivered all manner of relief supplies from the standard rice and dhal (lentils) to tarpaulin and tin sheets. Those villages which had received more aid than others seemed to have very little corresponding increase in development/living standards. Surprisingly, it almost appeared to be the other way around, the village of Ghat Besi, which received the least aid of any other village we were able to observe, was by far the farthest along in the recovery process. Though 140 houses out of the original 144 had been rendered uninhabitable by the earthquake, every community member had a durable shelter, generally made of bamboo, mud, tin and/or thatch, while many had entirely rebuilt their permanent homes!
We have returned with mountains of notes, hours of audio recorded conversations, and thousands of pictures, all of which we now have the task of deciphering and determining their most appropriate application. Though we can never understand what these people went through, we now have a more realistic perspective of their situation and most desperate needs, and, as you will hear about in our next post, we have already begun to act on this knowledge.
Until then, thank you for reading and your support of our work!
At a time when ghouls, ghosts, and goblins are emerging from the shadows into the night back home, it’s a strange feeling to be in Nepal where hardly a hint of witching is brewing in the air. Nobody is dressing up in costumes, nobody is handing out candy, and nobody is getting TPed. Still, who needs Halloween when Nepal has its own major festivals and a plethora of creepy-crawly creatures? After experiencing these things firsthand for the first time, it seems fitting to write a post on this All Hallows’ Eve to give you all a small taste of the endless variety of culture and nature we encountered on this trek!
Have Yourself a Merry Little Dashain
At 6 AM in Sertun, Rasuwa, we awoke in our tent to the gleeful cheers of a large crowd forming just next to our campsite. No, these people weren’t coming to ogle at the weird foreigners – there was a better show going on this morning. I sprang from my sleeping bag, rushed outside, and joined the crowd to see what was the matter. In a grassy area just below our campsite, 20ish boys ranging from ages 12-25 stood around carrying hammers and large knives. Many women, children, and elders from the village were gathered around the edges watching eagerly. At the nucleus of the event, a single water buffalo lay unmoving on the ground – hair black as obsidian, muscles of the gods, horns that could pierce the heavens. This majestic creature did not stir as a khukuri was put to its neck and, with a couple well-placed hacks, separated its head from its body. Joyful shouts rang out into the sky as the crowd quickly moved along to find another buffalo.
I read about Dashain in preparing for this trip to Nepal. Equivalent to Christmas in terms of size and importance, the 15 days of festivities celebrate the goddess Durga slaying the wicked demon Mahisasur, who was attacking the world disguised as a giant water buffalo. To acknowledge this victory, thousands of buffalo, goats, and other livestock are sacrificed throughout Nepal on the 8th day of Dashain. I really wasn’t sure how I was going to react to this holiday. Of course I was interested to see it in person, but would I feel any sort of fear or revulsion? A decapitation of a buffalo isn’t something I (or most people) see every day. From the uninformed perspective of someone living in the United States, it may be easy to slap a label on the events of Dashain as cruel, barbaric, or malicious. In reality, these traditions are far from any of those adjectives.
I had my reservations during the trip preparations, but once I saw Dashain with my own eyes, I found I had absolutely no problem with it. I tried to leave my cultural biases behind and observe the 3-4 sacrifices I saw based on the pros that their culture derives from them, rather than what my own culture may project onto them as cons. These sacrifices bring the community together, both in the act of the sacrifices and afterwards. At first, the crowd moved quickly along from buffalo to buffalo, leaving the cadavers behind. Eventually, people returned to the buffalo, eviscerated them throughout the day, and separated the meat from the bones, laying it out on large blue tarps. That meat would then go on to be dried and used to feed the entire village. By sacrificing these animals, the community comes together to work to help everyone. In the trying times after the earthquake, anything that brings people together and promotes cooperation in the villages is extremely helpful. Everyone gets some entertainment, time with their friends and family, and a good meal afterwards.
Of course, there’s also the concern of cruelty towards the animals. The way I see it, these people have a closer connection to these animals than 99% of people have to the cows in their McBurgers in America. The process is probably just as humane as well – the buffalo are thoroughly knocked unconscious before the cutting begins. Who can say whether that same level of decency is given to the animals in some slaughterhouses in the 1st world. There isn’t anything cruel about these acts – this is what their culture is.
I should also mention that Dashain isn’t just about the sacrifices! The other major Dashain tradition we experienced firsthand was the giving of tikas, where elders bless the youth with a mix of rice, yogurt, and red dye placed on the forehead. We were blessed with tikas first in Kintang Besi, where a beautiful family welcomed us into their home after a 10-hour day of walking. They took our party in, tired and ragged, fed us a warm dal bhat meal, gave us tikas, and even gave us brand new five rupee notes. It really felt like the storyline for a Christmas movie, just Dashain themed and in Nepal!
Overall, to get to celebrate Dashain in the villages was such a unique, unforgettable experience. Seriously, how many other people in the world have gotten to do this sort of thing?? This trip continues to constantly surprise me with new experiences, learning, and opportunities!
Something that my family has always strongly believed in is the concept of “free-range children,” meaning giving kids the freedom to build independence and discover both the wonders and risks of the world, while still staying safe. Nepal is the ultimate country for free-range children. Up in the mountains, kids younger than 10 wander around with giant khukuris, stumble across rugged terrain, and approach strange foreigners without a parent in sight. This may give some parents back home a heart attack, but the reality is that these kids have grown up with this lifestyle and can take perfectly good care of themselves in most situations. Don’t think that this means their parents are negligent or cruel in any way; we encountered many, many loving, nurturing parents on this trek who let their children run free within reason. By living in this way, they learn from an early age to be independent and eventually take over the traditional lifestyle and culture that stretches back centuries.
A Caste-Iron System
One of the most interesting things about the route of this trek is that we got to see villages belonging to a wide range of Nepali/Hindu social castes, allowing us to compare the many cultural differences between very different people. Nepal is an intricate ethnic mosaic of hundreds of cultures all mixed together within a space smaller than Washington State. We began the trek with several Tamang villages in upper Rasuwa, saw Chhetri, Gurung, and many other cultures in Dhading on the way, and ended in the Brahmin village of Ghat Besi, Gorkha. The juxtaposition of the beginning and end was shocking.
Right next to the Tibetan border, the Tamang have historically been one of the lowest social groups in Nepal and one of the most marginalized and abused. Their villages are remote, mountainous, and they get large amounts of snow in the winter. Most people in these villages were shy and a bit hesitant to speak with us, if they spoke any Nepali at all. Temang was the dominant language, many spoke Nepali, and English was practically non-existent.
Compared to this, Ghat Besi was worlds apart. Brahmins are the highest caste in the Hindu system, traditionally priests, teachers, and other people of importance and influence. Partly because of this social status and partly because of geographical location, Ghat Besi had so many advantageous things going for it: higher education, community cooperation, much more prevalence of English, lower elevation, no snow, flat land to grow and build on, automobile roads leading to it, the list goes on and on. In fact, Ghat Besi was the only village we encountered that had started to rebuild permanent shelters. The people were very open and eager to talk to us and show us all the work they had done with their village. Ghat Besi was in no way unaffected by the earthquake, nor are its people any more beautiful or worthy than those of Thugman or Gatlang, but it’s myriad advantages have allowed it to bounce back way quicker than the Tamang or any other village we went to.
Both for the purposes of my personal understanding of Nepal and for the research Cameron and I are conducting, it’s incredibly valuable to see all of these different perspectives that are so geographically and culturally distant. If you went to only one village and didn’t see any others, you would have a very limited view of the true Nepal. Even after these two weeks, I have only seen a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of the places and cultures in Nepal. But the more we can see and the more we can learn, the closer we are to most effectively helping the people we can.
Without a doubt, I have never seen more spiders before than I have here, nor have I ever seen spiders of this size. It became a regular occurrence in some villages to turn the corner in a house and come face to face with an arachnid that looks like it should be off terrorizing a metropolitan city or fighting Godzilla. Don’t get me wrong, I think spiders are super cool! The childhood bug collector in me was entranced by their size, colorful abdomens and false eyes, and elegant movements as they skillfully crafted their tremendously strong webs. They’re super cool – I just like to look from a distance.
For the record, those are all separate spiders, not many pictures of the same one. But beyond being slightly terrifying and incredibly interesting to observe, the millions of spiders helped me better understand part of how Nepalis coexist with nature. In the United States, it is possible to completely spider-proof your home. Therefore, we swat, shoo, and fight spiders because we think this fight is one we can win – and to an extent, we can. In contrast, there is no spider-proofing in remote Nepali villages; this is not a fight they can win. So instead of fighting a futile battle, they do not fight it. They live with these massive spiders in their homes as calmly as if they were house cats and coexist without any sort of malice between the parties. I think it’s amazing that they are able to do that, but I still would prefer they stayed out of my home and bed! On a slightly related note, I was the bug bite/sting magnet for this trek! I got bitten by countless mosquitoes and a couple spiders, stung by a bee, and sucked on by a leach. Thank goodness for After Bite!
Some Cool Things With Less Than 8 Legs
Thankfully, not every creature we saw on this trek looked like it belonged in a Halloween decoration store! We also saw many fascinating, adorable, and friendly animals, so here’s some of those! I’ve also included some pictures of the beautiful, intriguing, and sometimes alien flora we saw, as well as some spectacular mountain/landscape views!
As always, thank you for following this crazy journey we are on! This post was a little long, but hopefully you made it to the end. It’s wonderful to get to share so many new experiences with everyone reading this blog. Now go don your costumes, head out into the night, and get some scrumptious candy! Happy Halloween to all, and to all a good night!