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Building an It – tales from the orphanage

Making ourselves useful with hay, cow manure

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Monday morning. Time to go and do some good in the world. So off we go to Batulachur, a suburb of Pokhara, and more importantly for us, the real Nepal. We’d done the tourist bits of Kathmandu and surrounds, enjoyed the 11 day trek into the Himalayas and had fun in the busy, touristy, cosmopolitan area of Pokhara Lakeside. Time to do some work.

We turned up the Annapurna Self Sustaining Orphanage already knowing a bit about the place, having visited twice already and spent a full day with Sarada (the Nepali lady who runs the place) and the children during the much celebrated Tihar festival.

Our first day started with cups of chiya – Nepali tea. Very much like us Brits, tea in Nepal is the staple drink that is offered to you wherever you go. We gave Sarada some donations we had of clothes, pencils and sharpeners, which we’d been lugging around with us from England for the past 2 months as well as our trekking hats and gloves (seeing as our next destination is the desert area of Rajasthan in India we thought we could part with these). Rucksacks lighter, children happy with new hats and football shirts (though one Arsenal fan was not impressed with Tess offering a Chelsea shirt, he took the England one happily though), we set to our first mini job – picking bits of grit and other inedible items from drying millet on the roof of the orphanage. This was surprisingly satisfying task and once done, we sat down (on the floor) to an afternoon snack with the children – dried flat white rice with cups of fresh buffalo milk – the orphanage has 3 cows and 4 buffalo so the milk is in plentiful supply, and as we are soon to learn, very much a staple of the diet.

Other jobs of the first day included washing dishes (a seemingly endless task, considering there are 28 children to feed, plus three ‘mothers’, plus Sarada, plus us…), weeding the garlic/spinach patch and playing with the smaller children in a large hay stack – namely picking them up and throwing them into the hay, much to their amusement and constant shouts of ’miss, miss, one time, one time’ meaning again, and again until we were exhausted.

Dinner consisted of the Nepali favourite of daal bhat – rice, lentil soup and saag (which translates as spinach, though it is generally any green leafy vegetable). In most Nepali homes this is eaten at least twice a day – usually at the beginning and the end of the day. Occasionally, when pickings are rich, we may get extra bits with the meal. For example, on our first day some of the boys from the orphanage had been to the river and caught about a hundred tiny fish. These were promptly cleaned, cooked and curried and, hey presto, fish curry to add to the dahl bhat. On another day, a local group from the Sai Baba Ashram came to visit and cook lunch. On this day we had churrpi (chewy fried cheese, usually yak) with peas – delish.

Cooking for 28 hungry kids, plus a few adults, is a task that takes a good few hours of every day, and it is amazing what can be achieved in a simple kitchen; which is used in combination with an outdoor wood-fire ‘stove’, conveniently (!) located around the back about 50 metres from the kitchen area. Most meals are prepared in one or two large pots (there is a large steamer for rice which makes things a little easier) and served up on metal plates with milk (usually hot, sometimes soured i.e. whey) in tin cups. There is a fridge freezer in the kitchen, but it is largely empty; the freezer contains a small bowl of we-dare-not-ask what (nor how long it had been there, nor if anybody knows), the fridge has only one constant item which is a collection of chillies in the door shelf, it is otherwise used only for the rare occasion that there is a little of something left from a mealtime, or to keep flowers fresh in the salad drawer for upcoming birthday or festival celebrations. It’s rather like the washing machine in the back, which the mothers are very proud of and like to tell people they have, yet still insist on washing everything by hand…

The following day, 19th November, was election day. Nepal has seen its fair share of strife and political turmoil over the last decade and we had been warned by people everywhere that election days often mean violence, street disturbances and transport strikes, so stay indoors. Luckily, all was quiet in Batulechaur - even more so seeing as hardly any motorised transport was seen or heard on our street (people breaking bandhas (strike days) can have their vehicles smashed up, or worse, so they tend not to). Only people walking up and down the street, obviously going to vote at the nearby Maidan Chowk, the main local square about 400m from our orphanage or groups of men huddled in debate.

Our day passed with spinach picking, hacking dried corn off the cob to produce a sack of feed for the cows and buffalo (this was really hard work on the hands – we both came out with blisters and sores and the ladies had a giggle at our soft, pampered hands compared to their coarse and rough skin!). This may have prompted them to give us our next job – shovelling compost, with consisted largely of hot smelly cow manure, into sacks with just our bare hands! It took some getting used to – I don’t think either of us has ever stuck our hands in steaming cow poo before; but once we got over the initial shock, we just mucked in, pardon the pun. You know you’ve earned your dinner when you finish the day with blistered hands and covered, literally, in shit.

Manure sacks packed, our job for the following day was to lift these sacks and carry them to the front gate so that a tractor could come by and take them to the ‘New Land’ - land the orphanage had recently acquired and intend to move to in a couple of years once work there is finished. This was a horrible job, not only smelly & grubby, but some sacks weighed in excess of 50kg. Between us we carried around 40 of these sacks and again our fingers and palms were cut, bruised and blistered. And despairingly we’d only managed to shift just over half of what was there when we had to give up exhausted.

The evening was spent watching TV with the boys, which is hard work due to the constant channel flicking, learning how to play carrom (a Nepali board game where counters are flicked into holes at the corners of the board) in the girls’ room, and having a sweet dinner of Kali Roti, dough balls in sweetened milk flavoured with cardamons and cloves – Tess’ new favourite yum!

The following day marked the children’s first day back at school after their 2 month long holiday. The children all looked very smart as they went off to school, and we enjoyed something we had never experienced in the orphanage previously – peace and quiet! Our day was spent tidying up the schoolroom and bedrooms after the holiday. We were pleased with the sight of these rooms each time we walked past for the rest of the day, having organised and swept the schoolroom, including clearing lots of crap from behind shelves etc, and organising and folding mountains of clothes in each bedroom, order had been returned. But then the kids came back from school and an hour later things looked just as they had before we had begun the tidying. Ah well, it kept us busy at least…

It’s obviously difficult to learn the names of 28 children in a short space of time, to make the task even more difficult, around 20 of the 28 have names beginning with S, aggh. The first child whose name we knew from the very first day we visited is Safal, one of the youngest boys, because he is also the naughty one! A few have particularly distinctive features or personalities and we have learned these easily enough, but with the remainder of the children it tends to be easiest to catch someone else saying a name, then remembering what clothes they are wearing. This strategy falls apart when they change clothes of course, though often the same clothes will be worn for several days which is helpful. One day though, we had remembered Sakar due to his red hoodie, but come supper time he had removed it and was wearing a jumper v similar to the one Sonam was wearing. Well we could not cope at that point..! One day in an attempt to learn names once the darlings had gone off to school Rachel wrote down all those she knew, then hunted in exercise books and on bedroom shelves etc for other names and made a list, so that we can match people to the list; for the most part though, it is easier not to use names!

At the end of the week we had to go into the city centre, the touristy Lakeside area to be precise, to have our visas extended. Since this journey required three buses, we were not going to simply spend half an hour at the immigration office then trudge back….oh no, we took our laptop so we could make the most of wifi and some funds to have nice lunch and a couple of beers, it was like being on Day Release. We had (proper!) coffee, ate salad including some things we have not tasted since home such as beetroot and balsamic vinegar, drank Belgian beers, bought newspapers, it was great. We enjoyed it a lot, crazy since we had only been at the orphanage half a week. We’d had only one day between trekking and the volunteering, so we really hadn’t had much free time for quite a while…

We enjoyed it more than we should’ve and realised when we woke the following day, both having the same, horrible thought, that we were not really looking forward to the day back working at the orphanage. Not because we wanted to be partying at Lakeside, we didn’t, but some days it had just felt that there wasn’t enough for us to do and we felt more in the way than we felt helpful. The children largely entertain themselves, we try to help with homework etc but the older ones don’t want or need it and the younger ones just want you to tell them the answers or play. Their homework is largely copying stuff from books anyway, the younger ones that is, the older ones do have more challenging stuff, Tess looked at one of their maths books and backed away quickly lest they did suddenly ask for assistance…algebra and even long division not being T’s strong points! We really weren’t looking forward to another day of hanging around trying to make ourselves useful, or shifting impossibly heavy sacks of shit. As luck would have it there was a new task that would fill more than one day - shifting bales of hay to make a large haystack, which would provide feed for the animals over winter. We had seen these large stacks across the landscape during our trek and time in Lakeside. Tess had named them “Its” as in the hairy cousin form the Adams Family, as they look v similar.

The first day of doing this was a Saturday so there were lots of kids helping out, the older ones were carrying entire bales on their heads, with hay-ropes around their heads in traditional Nepali way. Of course they didn’t think we’d be up to this so we were given small bundles to carry (these were still pretty big bundles mind, when we say bales we’re talking four big bundles strapped together making a bale about a small person’s height and four-times the width). Doing this all together was quite fun, then in the afternoon the two of us went across town to the Ashram of the group that had visited to cook for the children earlier in the week. They had invited us to join their celebrations for Sai Baba’s birthday (look him up if curious). We went and stayed a while but after an hour and a half of sitting on a crowded floor listening to a room full of, admittedly very friendly and smiley, people singing what sounded like the same song over and over again, we left and walked the hour and a half back to Batelachaur taking in the sights of Pokhara we had only previously passed through in buses or taxis. We had a good day in the end.

Next day the children were back at school (Nepali weekends are just one day long and Sunday is a school day!) and we discovered that another lorry load of hay had arrived. The mothers said we could go to start shifting it and they would join us. This gave us time to have a go at carrying the full bales on our heads – without too much fuss we could do it. By the time they joined us 20 mins later we had already moved around 15 full bales and the mothers had seen that we could carry them Nepali-style; this seemed to endear us more to them as we were really getting stuck in. We spent the rest of the day shifting hay with two of the ‘mothers’, Hari and Bishnu, and despite their limited English and our even more limited Nepali, we became chums. A second lorry-load arrived as we thought we had finished but no problem, this was quite an enjoyable task, a bit physical but not impossibly so like the shit-sack carrying had been.

We carted the piles to the back of the garden, a task that would’ve been easier were it not for a narrow and awkwardly angled gap at the end of the courtyard, followed by a narrow gate, both of which acted to pull apart the hay bundles as we squeezed through, sometimes meaning we then had to rush, bent double, to put the stack down before it fell apart. This even happened to Bishnu, who is quite the expert with these things, and we all had a good laugh. The carrying back and forth went on for a few hours, interspersed with numerous chiya breaks. At one point Tess managed to do the unthinkable, what we had been conscious to ensure we did not do all week, she stepped into the slurry pit that ran along the uneven garden path. Foot coated in black, stinky liquid, she could do nothing but continue, squelqhingly, to place her hay on the pile, then skulk off to wash her foot as Rachel chuckled. T had to pretend to herself that cow slurry was a new foot pamper regime…

Later in the day the “brother” arrived (all males are referred to as brother in Nepal, relation or not) who was the hay-stack expert, let’s call him the It-maker. So Bishnu called us back to work and she and the two of us worked to pass the hay up to Mr It-maker as the It grew higher and higher. This involved initially making ourselves increasingly higher hay steps, and finally involved Rach standing atop a ladder that was leaned into the now rather tall It, leaning down to grab piles of hay from Tess and flipping them up and over her head in what felt like some sort of hale-bale acrobatic gymnastic display. After an hour or so of this, the task was complete – we had made an It, and we were terribly pleased with ourselves (see photos).

The rest of the week passed quite pleasantly – we met a local girl, Darpan, who had just returned from studying for her International Bachelaureate certificate in the Hastings. We instantly became friends with her as she was one of the only people we had met in Batulechur who had visited Blighty (and of course subsequently had v good English). She was on a gap year and was voluntarily working at the orphanage helping the children with their homework each morning. She invited us to her house, where we met her mum and were served chiya and ‘Nepali noodles’. Darpan took us to visit two local sites, two caves named the Mahendra cave and the Bat cave. Of the two, the bat cave was by far the more interesting. We were given special torches to carry at the entrance (with a light frequency that does not disturb the bats) and saw hundreds of tiny bats hanging upside down from the roof of the cave. Darpan then showed us the exit which we would never have found by ourselves – a tiny hole which we had to scramble up to and then squeeze our hips and bums through! It was quite hard work (2 Nepali boys half our age in front of us had given up) but very satisfying! In the UK it would never be permitted for people to use this as an exit, we would have to be experienced cavers, wear hard hats and everything!

For the rest of our time at the orphanage we helped with shifting bamboo poles, more dishwashing, clothes folding and playing with the small kids, until we were dizzy from spinning them and our arms hurt from constantly swinging them about!

This morning we said our goodbyes, took ourselves back to Lakeside for a few hours to use Wifi, do our mountain of laundry and exchange books at the bookstore. Next stop – the Indian border at Sunauli via an 8 hour overnight rickety bus, we’ll let you know how that goes!

Posted by TessAndRach 01:26 Archived in Nepal Tagged orphanage annapurna pokara self-sustaining

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