Wednesday, 15 June 2016

My last few months in Nepal & Saying Good-bye!

My beautiful, cosy and tiny apartment in Sanepa 

After several weeks of intense apartment hunting, I finally was lucky to find a small but cute and cosy place! The struggle before was the price. After the earthquake had hit Nepal last year, so many expats came over here for work on Western salaries. Therefore all the rents went up and if you are just a volunteer with a small living allowance is was indeed challenging. Anyway, I had found a place – small studio apartment with a lovely balcony and roof terrace, just completely unfurnished. 

Well, that was not the biggest hassle, just a bit time consuming to go out there to buy all the necessary things. 

I loved my new bamboo furniture, it is so cosy, comfy and just a very natural feeling coming back home in a dusty and polluted city such as Kathmandu! Looking back, I could have not found any better place to live in. I loved my small little place :) Very grateful I was able to live there.

Holy Festival in Kathmandu

Beginning of March there is an annual Holy festival celebrated in the Hindu culture, also known for ‘the festival of colours’! I had once experienced it in India, when I did my Yoga Teacher Training course. However, that was a light version compared to the one which I experienced in Kathmandu.
It was a national bank holiday, so we all had a day off work. Some of the VSO volunteers decided to meet up and to celebrate Holy together with other Nepali and expats. We had a great day. 

Just put some old clothes on which can be ruined and don’t be afraid of colours and water that day ;) I felt like being able to be a child again! What a brilliant festival, having fun all day throwing colours at each other! We should bring this over to Europe and have a fun day out!

Exploring the outskirts of Kathmandu 

Chobhar & Kirtipur

Having moved to a new place and area in Kathmandu and having a bicycle, I decided one weekend to explore the nearby small towns of Chobhar and Kirtipur. It was good to get out of the main center of Katmandu, crossing the Ring Road and see some more nature! I parked my bicycle in the middle of town in Kirtipur underneath a tree and started exploring the town. It was a very relaxing and not so heavily populated area, and I enjoyed strolling through the small little alleys, walking up many steps to have a view over Kathmandu valley. I saw many cracked houses, visited local small temples and stupas.

Temple in Kirtipur

Beautiful flower carved in stone!

Another day I decided to cycle a little further uphill where I saw a huge amount of steps leading through a beautiful forest to Chobhar. I parked my bicycle and decided to follow the steps. I had no idea what might unfold at the other end, but it seemed to be worthwhile. I enjoyed walking through this beautiful forest, it smelled like pine trees and I almost had forgotten about the air pollution in Kathmandu. On the way, there were some incredibly cute carvings made in stone, gorgeous flowers they are just gorgeous looking! I reached a temple at the top of the hill and just below there was an area where you could rest and have a wonderful view over Kathmandu valley!

Wow, you could see how big this city has become and how polluted it was. I loved to have a bike, it gives me the freedom to explore things and be independent.

Short Break from work in Pokhara in April to recharge my batteries

I had spontaneously decided to take a short break from VSO to step back and think about the last few months, the work we had done so far and what I would like to do in the next few months. It was good to get out of Kathmandu and breathe some fresh air :) I love to be by the lake, to go for a run early in the morning and to just sit with a good book in my favourite coffee place AM/PM!

AM/PM coffee place!

AM/PM Coffee place - great place to hang out!

My favourite Cafe Latte!
Such a lovely and relaxing time, which was needed desperately. The weather was extremely cloudy for that time of the year, but I was extremely lucky to catch some gorgeous view onto the Himalaya's!

Fishtail/Machhapuchhre 6993m

Re-Building a school with earth bags in Pulping

Before arriving in Nepal I was determined to go for another trek. I had already negotiated to get 2-3 weeks off in May. However, my gut feeling told me over the last few months that there was something else out there for me to do. I had heard a lot about the earth bag technology and different NGO’s, who are supporting this technique in Nepal, especially after the 2015 earthquake. I followed a group on FB and the INGO “Good Earth Nepal’ offered a special workshop. So I decided to contact them and I registered for the workshop, which would run for one week.  Then I asked about the different projects they were running at the moment and there were two options, where I could actually volunteer if I wanted. One was a private house in Ramecchap district, the other one a school in Sindhulpachowk in a Buddhist village. My decision was made straight away. I decided to not take part in the workshop but to volunteer instead for 2 weeks in the Buddhist village 5km away from the Chinese Boarder. I was so lucky to meet some volunteers who just came back from Phulping, the village where the school was rebuilt. They were so friendly, inspiring and full of enthusiasm that I paid my food contribution for 13 days and my leaving date was May 7th. Now I had to organize a tent, a sleeping bag and a sleeping mat. If things are meant to happen everything does fall into place. My Irish friend Caroline gave me a sleeping bag, another Vipassana Meditation friend lent me a tent and I bought a cheap sleeping mat in Thamel. So I was all set! I could not wait to leave the VSO office, the polluted city of Kathmandu to volunteer for 2 weeks during my vacation of volunteering with VSO.

took a taxi early morning Saturday to the ‘Old Buspark’ near Ratnapark and asked for a bus ticket to Tatopani. There was no foreigner at the bus park and they all looked at me strange when I said I need a ticket to Tatopani. Well, I am not surprised as it is not a tourist location at all. Anyway, they sold me an ‘Express Bus Ticket’ for less than 3US$. I didn’t give much on the wording ‘Express Bus’, as if you have lived here for a while you know that this is not existing really ;) Anyway, I found the right bus and we left Kathmandu just 20min later at 7am. The bus wasn’t crowded at all, maybe because it was a Saturday, however the space to the seat in front of you was so tiny that my whole legs didn’t even fit into it ;) I set sideways and was just praying that the bus ride would not take 6-7 hours. We only stopped a few times until we had reached Bhaktapur and so far so good. I was told by a staff member of Good Earth Nepal, that the bus would stop in Barhabise for half an hour, so I could get off the bus and arrange a new SIM Card, as there was no NCELL network up there so close to the Chinese Boarder and hardly any internet. It was around 10am when I thought we are actually passing through a quite big town, however the bus didn’t stop, except for letting people on and off. Maybe 10min later or so the guy on the bus asked me where I would like to get off. I told him at Khokhandole Bridge but tried to make myself understood that I would need a Smart Telecom SIM Card. I understood that we already had passed Barhabise and this was indeed an Express Bus as we reached the bridge by 11am already! Wow, so the whole bus ride took me 4 hours, while being told it will take 6-7hours. Anyway, I got off with my backpack and tent at the bridge, with no working SIM Card and some broken Nepali in the middle of nowhere, 5km from the Chinese Boarder. The only thing I knew is a phone no I should ring and somebody would come down from Phulping village to pick me up. So I left my big backpack and the tent at the side of the road and walked to the closed stall where I saw some locals. They were all staring at me; I guess not so many foreigners get off a local bus at their bridge. In my basic Nepali I tried to explain that I would need to ring somebody from Phulping to come down here to pick me up.  The locals were very friendly and I was able to use one of their phones. The Good Earth Nepal team was very surprised that I had already arrived and told me that somebody will be with me at 12 noon. Ok, that was fine. I had attacked quite some locals who were all gathering around me and one teenage girl who’s English was pretty good start to ask me lots of questions: “Are you married? How old are you? Where are you from? ….and so on!” It was after 12 but nobody had showed up yet. So I borrowed the phone from the locals again to ring one more time. Nobody picked up. At 1pm they assured me that somebody would be with me in half an hour. The locals at the bridge had already scared me a little by telling me they had never been to Phulping village as it is very far and it is up there, pointing high up into the hills. I was wondering how I should carry all my luggage up that hill with the sleeping bag, tent, sleeping mat and so on. Anyway, it turned out that Nono came down, a local teenage boy who offered me to carry my tent. Ok great, unfortunately he hardly spoke any English. So, I said goodbye to the locals at the bridge, carried my backpack and started to hike up this steep hill in the direction of Phulping village. I followed Nono, who was walking really fast and tried to keep up the speed. First break was under a beautiful tree after we had hiked up the steep first part. 

Stunning tree

Then we kept going. The sun was blurring down, I was sweating and I asked myself why did I actually bring so much luggage! We walked further uphill, through remote areas when I was finally able to see a village. It turned out that was not Phulping yet. Ok, then keep going. Finally after a good hour uphill and I would say at least 400-500 high meters uphill we reached Phulping! The workshop was in full swing and the first thing I did was dropping my backpack and having some water. I couldn’t believe I had actually made it. There were quite a lot of people at the building site and I had no idea who would stay and who is only here for the workshop. Anyhow, it turned out in the end, that we were 5 volunteers staying!

During the workshop - quite busy on the building site!

Workshop crew :)

Good crowd on the first day!

We were a good bunch of people. Subash, our Nepali supervisor was lovely and it was fun working every day on the building site. 

Subash and David

We all had our own small tents put up uphill just above the local Gompa, which was heavily affected by the earthquake and every time I passed it walking up to my tent I felt like it would come down any second! Thank God it didn’t :) 

Local Gompa destroyed by the earthquake 

The locals had built a temporary Gompa with corrugated iron sheets, which was great as it turned out that also the surrounding villages were coming and using it on a regular base.

Phulping was a tiny, beautiful village on approximately 2.000 height meter, surrounded by hills, valleys and the Himalayas. The setting could have not been better :) 

Beautiful view from the building site

View from the house where we got fed every day!

Stunning view

Himalaya's - just amazing

I so enjoyed walking through the maize fields uphill to the Buddhist family, who looked after feeding us. They were so welcoming and they cooked delicious food for us every day! 

After breakfast I walked through the maize fields again downhill to the school. The fields were lashing green; some villagers were rebuilding their houses. 

Maize fields in front of the building site

There was one carpenter in the village. You could see that the people build their new homes with wood now instead of stones. Every second home was destroyed during the earthquake in this village as well as 2 school buildings and the 3rd building of the school was temporarily fixed, but not safe in any respect! However, it was used for classes now.
So we worked every day on the building site from around 8am to 5/6pm. It was hard physical work, but I really enjoyed being out in nature, fresh air everyday, looking at the surrounding hills and mountains and the beautiful maize fields. That was such a treat compared to Kathmandu. It was exactly what I needed ;)

Good Earth Nepal has hired four people to work on the building site with us, 2 guys and 2 girls, and then we had additional people who brought the soil to us, carrying heavy loads on their foreheads! They are hard working people indeed!

Nono and Lamu

Mixing soil!
The work changed almost every day. The project we were working on had still the previous structure. We used the metal poles and the corrugated iron sheet roof. I was glad we had a roof as the monsoon had started early and we experienced quite some heavy, thundery downpours almost daily. 

However, the metal poles made the whole earth bag building structure more complicated. Every layer had to include some wraps, so the structure would be sound. 

We also used barbed wire when every layer was finished so the next layer would stick to the previous one and also some metal netting, which will help later on when plastering. 

Laying the barbed wire!

Another day, when we would have finished a layer, we would sew the bags for the next layer. 

Somebody would have calculated the measurement of all the bags and another team would level the finished layer. 
Levelling the earth bags

Then we would start filling earth bags, lifting buckets all day, mixing soil and whatever was needed.

It was beautiful to see how the school grew and the layers became higher and higher. Having said that, it also became more difficult as the space between the earth bags and the existing structure and the metal bars became less and less for us to stand and fill the earth bags. 

2nd layer

3rd layer

5th layer

6th layer

The highlight of every day was to make coffee for all of us and to eat some local ‘Coconut’ biscuits :)
One late afternoon four of us decided to go to the nearby waterfall. Alessia, another volunteer came along as well and the two local Nepali girls Lamu and Chhoring showed us the way. 

It was a steep but beautiful uphill walk for about an hour. We had to cross a really incredibly long suspension bridge! 

It was extremely scary to cross it, especially as the gorge was so deep. Anyway, we made it to the waterfall! There were a lot of visible landslides, which were triggered by the earthquake, which were blocking parts of the waterfall. 

Luckily enough the water still found its way through the massive boulders and flows downhill, so the villagers can use it as daily water supply! On our way back we walked over to the other valley and had to cross two really scary landslide areas, but I managed. The local Nepali girls didn’t find it scary or strange. Well, I guess it is their home and to make their way back to their village, they just have to deal with what nature has thrown at them.

We had a small 3 litre kettle where we could heat up water. If there was electricity we even used it for having a lukewarm bucket shower in the evening. That felt so good after a full day of work! We were able to use the villagers’ toilet for having our bucket shower, just next to our camping site!

Buddhist funeral

I woke up this morning to the sound of the horns at 10 past 5. It sounded wonderful and I enjoyed listening to it. When we all walked up for breakfast to our Buddhist family, they told us that a granny had died last night. Therefore a lot of chanting and different ceremonies went on in the Gumpa all day. The funeral will be tomorrow and the locals invited us to join the celebrations, which consist of a meal and the funeral afterwards. We learnt, that we were allowed to work before and after the funeral, just not during the ceremony. We all decided to attend. So the next morning we started working as usual and we got invited for 10.30am for lunch. We did as much barbed wiring as we could and in the meanwhile a lot of people from neighbouring villages came. All stopped at the school and were extremely curious about the earth building technology we were using. They were watching us while we were working along. After lunch around 11.30am we all accommodated the family, the musicians, friends and neighbours in walking up the hill. The dead body of the granny was very beautifully covered in lots of white shawls. One thing I was never aware of before joining this ceremony was, that in the Buddhist tradition the dead body is place seated in a wooden kind of ‘box’ (I would not call this a coffin) as it is more like a frame, the same position as the Buddha is sitting in. A small little paper crown is put around the head, which is covered with white shawls and flowers. The squared wooden box, where the body is in, is held up with two massive bamboo sticks, so the villagers were able to carry it. 

All of us followed the sound of the horns, drums and the Lama walking up the hill. 

On top of the hill, there was a small tarpaulin where some villagers and the Lama were sitting underneath it and started chanting and praying. In the meanwhile some villagers offered drinks and biscuits and others prepared the wood. Some wood was carried up from the village in small baskets, others was taken from the nearby forest. I also learnt, that Buddhist funerals would always be held up on a hill, where the body would be burned compare to the Hindu culture, where the body would always be brought down to a river. The villagers built a kind of a wigwam around the dead body and soon they lit the fire.  

We all had offered incense to the dead body, which we had been given by the family when walking up the hill. We then picked some herbs and through it into the burning fire. I felt like that Nepali Buddhist also celebrated the life of a person who had passed away, instead of crying and grieving all the time. People were joyful, laughed and celebrated life. I found that a much better way dealing with death than what we do in our Western culture or should I say what I have experienced so far in our Western culture. Here it did not matter what clothes people were wearing, what colour the clothes were, if they were clean or if the person had shoes on or was barefoot. It was most important that they were there for the ceremony. That’s all what counted. Choring, the local Nepali girl and myself decided to return back to the school. We decided to continue the barbed wiring, however not long after that a massive thunderstorm unfolded and with heavy lightning, thunder and pouring rain for 2 hours or so at least. We had to call it a day after chatting for hours underneath the existing school roof before the rain had eased a little. I returned back to my tent and it turned out, that the tent was not particular waterproof! The area where the stitching was done close to the bottom of the tent was not sealed properly. Well, I guess it was not too bad. I started clearing my stuff away from the outside walls and started reading my book, while listening to the raindrops outside. I was looking forward to a good warm dinner to be honest and some hot tea :) I was pretty positive that the sun will be shining again tomorrow!

One week into the school project

I sometimes stand on the building site, just admiring the beauty, which surrounds me! I am so fortunate to be able to live in this amazing little community for 2 weeks! The villagers are so welcoming, the kids are fun and I love to listen to the horns, drums and chanting in the Gumpa. One afternoon, I decided to go for a little stroll around the village to see each house and to take some more pictures. This village is so gorgeous! 

I met the daughter from our Buddhist family who is cooking for us and she started to explain a little what is going on in the village such as who lives where and who is related to whom ;) then we heard heated voices from the house where the granny had died and where a ceremony was held after 7 days today. It turned out that the men had too much Raxi (shots) and started arguing. It seems like it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, alcohol unfortunately sometimes leads to discussions and arguments. It does not matter which language you speak, in which continent you live or how rural or urban the area might be.

There is one old man living in the village, who is 93 years old and he still lives by himself! He cooks for himself and I learnt that he lives in a temporary shelter made out of tarpaulin! 

His small stone house collapsed during the earthquake. His son is a carpenter and lives right next to him in a newly built house and his daughter as well in a separate new built house. I just wonder, why they would not build a small one for their Dad. The daughter from our Buddhist family explained to me that the kids don’t really look after their Dad. Lots of family stories are going on in this village, as everywhere on this globe. I spontaneously decided to say hello to the old man and visited him in his temporary home. He seemed to be really happy that I came to see him. He explained to me in Nepali, that his house collapsed and he is here now. That’s at least what I understood ;) 

He showed me where he cooked for himself every day. You should have seen the shelter he lived in! OMG!!! I was actually shocked. The shelter is just a few wooden pols covered with tarpaulin. 

One afternoon a strong thunderstorm hit the village and parts of the tarpaulin flew off and his home must have been soaking wet. I felt really sorry for this unbelievably fit ‘old man’! I really hope his son or daughter will built a small house for him. I got invited on my last day to his daughters and granddaughter house for tea. After some chit-chat I was asking the local Nepali girl who worked with me on the building site to possibly translate and ask if it would be possible that they would build a small home for her Dad and granddad. They promised me they will, I don’t know if it will happen, but hopefully!

Time flew by, and one after the other volunteer left the village as some had already volunteered for 2 to 3 weeks and they also wanted to travel a little bit through Nepal! 

Good working crowd!

Last day of David & David
So the last 3 days I was all by myself in the village with the locals. It was lovely I have to say, I read my book and chatted to the locals with my limited Nepali I had ;) I would not change a thing if coming back and I would for sure do this again. It was the right time; I enjoyed being around nature so much and was dreading going back to Kathmandu in the polluted and dusty city.

Reflection of my time as Disaster Management Coordinator in Nepal

This pictures says it all :(

I am grateful I got the opportunity to work in Nepal with VSO. I learnt a lot especially about the INGO world, disaster response and in particular the political system in Nepal. I was able to learn some basic Nepali, I got much more insight into the structure of Nepal in relation to districts and VDC’s and enjoyed going on field visits. Was it easy? No, it wasn’t! I had come to Nepal for a job role, which would have been based in Sindhupalchowk district in Chautara living in a tent for 7 months. However, some things do change and you have no influence over it. So my placement was changed in the first 2 weeks of my arrival in Kathmandu and I was told that I would be based in Kathmandu instead. That was a bummer! I was so disappointed, sad and a little bit unsettled. I did not like to live in Kathmandu for a longer time as it was so dusty, polluted and hardly any nature in the city. Anyway, I decided to keep positive and see the opportunities for me to learn in the new job role. Looking back, I really enjoyed travelling in 8 out of the 14 top earthquake affected district. 

With a local Tamang woman in her temporary home in Dhunche, Rasuwa
Gorgeous view in Dolakha

IDP camp in Dolakha district - landslide in the background

First bank of the enrolment center in Singati, where beneficiaries of the earthquake can register themselves! 
Best road I have ever seen in Nepal - on our way to Sindhuli 
My first meeting in a tent in Sindhuli
Local Women's project in Sindhupalchowk
I saw a lot, learnt a lot, got to know a lot challenges INGO’s, NGO’s, the district governments and local communities are facing. I got the opportunity to visit many IDP (Internally Displaced People) Camps, which was heartbreaking on one hand, but also good to see and understand under what circumstances people are living, what problems are apparent and more hidden. There are also many opportunities out there to link programmes within VSO and I am very grateful, that we were able to at least introduce some health surveys in the IDP Camps and also some health clinics in the future. I have seen so many collapsed houses in the last 6 months that lasts for a lifetime for sure! 

Nuwakot District 
Ramecchap District
Manthali HQ, Ramecchap
Dhunche, Rasuwa District 
Local women clearing the rubble

Chautar, Sindhupalchowk

The recovery process from the earthquake will take at least 5-10 years for Nepal. Sometimes I wonder how some of the extremely dangerous cracked and almost dipping over houses or monasteries will be actually cleared as it seems so dangerous, in particular up in mountainous areas and no professional equipment is available to do so. One important thing which actually some district governments are asking for is transparency from INGO’s and NGO’s. I can’t agree more! It will be interesting how things evolve in the next few months. I am grateful, that I was able to get a deeper insight into the Disaster Response and Recovery field and to meet so many nice, helpful and determined Nepali people. If it is meant to be I will come back to Nepal next year for my research! Fingers crossed!

Enjoying my last week in Pokhara

I am so glad I came back for one week to my favourite place in Nepal. Pokhara is so relaxing when it is off season. I went back to my local guesthouse 'Eden', I met up with Eunice for breakfast, I enjoyed my favourite Muesli and coffee at AM/PM coffee place, went for a morning run at 6am every day, watched gorgeous sunsets over the lake, enjoyed the stunning views onto the Himalaya's and just enjoyed the peacefulness of Pokhara. 

AM/PM coffee - amazing crew!

I met lovely old friend and new friends and my last week could have not been better! I am grateful I was able to spent one week there. Ramesh and I went on a beautiful day trip together to Begnas Lake. A stunning day, with a beautiful walk and a lovely boat ride, lots of laughter and we had great fun!

Begnas Lake
Ramesh & I enjoyed the day out!
Beautiful boat ride!

View onto Begnas Lake
Stunning, peaceful sunset

Saying Good-bye to Nepal

Last night in Kathmandu - Dinner with friends & VSO volunteers 
Last day out in Bouddha - the building works are taking shape
Beautiful present from Birbal's family - A typical Nepali Singing bowl
Sandeep & I with the beautiful present
As things are sometimes working in life you never know how an opportunity pends out. I had decided Beginning of May to resign from VSO Nepal. I felt relieved and had known it was the right decision. I had no idea what would be next, only that I had to leave. During my 2 weeks volunteering at the Earth bag building site I had an idea ;) I could actually apply for some volunteering in Plum Village in the South of France in the beautiful peaceful meditation center. They always run big summer retreats and I had known that they usually would look for volunteers :)

Boarding in Kathmandu - with that branding it was clear where I was flying back to ;)

Stunning view above the clouds while leaving Nepal

I love you Himalaya's!

Just increadible!


  1. What a journey Kerstin. Keep it up..want to know how the next volunteering stint will go. Take care, it was good to get to know. This has been inspiring...I too need to get out of dusty, yet alluring Ktm. Thank you for your Prince, promise to take her out on equally adventurous journeys. See you when our paths next cross. x

    1. Thanks so much Daphne! It was lovely meeting you and I am sure our paths will cross again. So happy to hear that you will take Prince Diana on adventurous journeys ;) I know she is in good hands xx

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