Thursday, April 22, 2010

Away into the Mountains.

This will be my last post for a month.

Currently I am in the vibrant (read that in a euphemistic way) city of Kathmandu. Tomorrow I head to the village I will be volunteering in for the next month. The village is called Patle and it lies above a town called Dhadingbesi in the Dhading district of Nepal. I take a 3-4 hour bus to Dhadingbesi and will be met there. I have been strongly advised to get a front seat on the bus because it is so windy. From there how I get to the village will depend on if the road is open (it has been closed for the last few days because of rain and mud and snow melt). If it is open then I will go up that day on the one truck collectively owned by the village. If not I will have to stay the night in Dhadingbesi with the local social worker and then the next day hire a porter (there's not much hope of my fitness allowing me to carry my 18kg pack!) and trek the three hours up to the village (it only takes one hour to trek down so that gives you an idea of how steep it is). There is just houses and the school in the village-- internet, shops, bank and the hospital are down in Dhadingbesi, but there is cellphone coverage so a lot of the villagers have phones. Only a few speak English so I am busily learning Nepalese.

I will be staying with a local family and teaching children in school and adults in the community. The literacy rate here is about 53%, but for women it is much worse at 41%. This is going to be for me quite a challenge, but I am looking forward to it.

Today I have been busy sorting out the details in Kathmandu and I can now boast to knowing a total of five words in Nepalese. So I didn't get much time for sightseeing. I did however manage to see a dead rat on the road. Not such a big thing you might say, except that this rat was about 30cm long and as fat as a cat. The poverty is really evident here in Kathmandu, the vendors are more persistent than in Thailand and I am often followed for a while by beggars. Yesterday a boy of about 5 followed me for 100m asking for money. At one stage he ran in front of me doing a cartwheel. As hard as it is, I just had to keep walking... faster.

The roads and drivers in Kathmandu are an adventure in themselves. Potholes seem more common than flat surfaces and the roads are as many lanes wide as the drivers decide to make them. On the taxi from the airport we narrowly avoided a prang at least seven times on the 10km journey. Even the motorbikes come standard with bull bars protruding from either side. There are no traffic lights in this city of one million people, and no give way or stop signs. Right of way is determined by tooting your horn. And everyone uses their horn. Even cyclists put together makeshift horns of strips of rubber and water bottles or shampoo containers, such is the essential nature of this accessory.

Several times in the taxi yesterday we headed up a two lane street that was only the width of one, and meet traffic on the way. Both cars stood at a standstill facing off with their horns. After a couple of minutes and a bit of mutual reversing the situation was solved and on we headed.

So there are adventures to be had. I hope to come back to Kathmandu on the 18th of May. See you then.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Tsunamis, Orphans and Rubber - Part Three.

On the waterfront at Baan Nam Kem there are still ghostly remnants of the tsunami; boats lie like headstones and half crumpled building lay in mourning. I got an eery feeling as I read the names of the the dead at the memorial and looked out to sea.
At the orphanage here is a young girl who twelve at the time, playing on the beach with her younger brother. She survived because she could run faster. Another boy lost his mother (whether through the tsunami or later I didn't find out) after arriving at the orphanage it took two years until he first smiled. Not all the children there are orphans. For most their families are too sick, too poor, or unable to provide a dafe environment. The Thai couple who run it had previously worked and lived in a relocation camp for a year where 3000 people lived in tents. They had looked after 200 babies whose families couldn't be found.
Image from here.

Photo I took from one of the memorials

Which gets me onto something which worries and irks me a bit (and here I may cause offence). After the tsunami christian groups, like so many non religious NGOs, jumped in to provide practical assistance, with the added componant of spiritual guidance. There are a lot of housing projects with the names of christian groups out front. The orphanage was swet up as christian and so are the couple who run it. As I see it the visiting christians from the West seemed to have come in with bibles and bundles of baht (the Thai currency). In my time at the orphanage I was treated more like a guest than a volunteer in the hope (I later worked out and unbeknownst to the organisation that had sent me there) that I would see what good was being done and go back to my home country and fundraise to send money over.

I was appreciated, but less for the English lessons, gardening and food preparation I did and more for my possiblities as a source of funds- all this dispite the fact that I was paying to be a volunteer there. As I say, this christian influence irks me somewhat.

But don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed my week there. As usual the kids show themselves to be shining young people. I probably learnt far more from them than they did from me.

But for now I have a tropical island to go to.

Tsunamis, Orphans and Rubber - Part Two

The orphanage where I have been helping out for the last week was set up in 2005 in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. The organisation I went through was similarly set up, as well as returning the profits to the communities affected by the tsunami and returning their self sufficiency through tourism.

What has really inspired these posts has been observing the changes that have occurred here since that frightening Boxing Day in 2004. As with any situation I cannot know the whole truth. These notes are simply what I have observed, what I have learnt from conversations with people and a few assumptions of my own.

A years ago I remember reading in Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine about people scared or relocated away from the coast after the tsunami, leaving overseas developers to buy up coastal lands for resorts at next to nothing.

On the Andaman Coast frightened and dislocated people headed inland, using slash and burn techniques as they transformed ancient native forests into rubber and palm oil plantations from the coast right back to the borders of the mountainous national parks. The process of acquiring land is an unsure one. People need to gain permits to occupy land, but it's a long, cloudy - and for many - unknown process. Many just walked into the forest and started cutting it down.

A truck containing palm oil fruit

Now five years later people have more money are are replacing their bamboo and wooden houses with ones made of concrete, tiles and windows. There's a housing boom. Both the palms and the rubber trees start full production at six years old, soon I imagine there will be a great increase in the supply of palm oil, reducing the price and making it a lucrative ingredient for companies like Nestle.

Rubber on its way to market.

It can be hard to justify the right and wrongs except that I can't help feeling that those who will benefit the most financially from these events (the waterfront developers, the palm oil and rubber buyers) are foreign, multinational companies.

Tsunamis, Orphans and Rubber - Part One

First, an apology for the lack of posts. There have been too many plases to see, do and think about. Before I realise it the day is through and the plans for tomorrow are taking shape. This afternoon I have a window of time, so here we go.

Next, a recap of events. On March 9th I flew from Auckland to Bangkok and in four days I adjusted to the heat, tasted the food, saw the temples and bought the hideous clothes. From there I went to Japan for two weeks.

Japan quickly became a country I admire and am intriuged by, even if it was a budget blowout of unforeseen proportions. It needs its own series of posts and I won't cover it here.

On March 27th I flew back to Thailand and apart from one afternoon in Myanmar/Burma, I have been here ever since, and will be until the 20th when I fly to Nepal. The first few days were in the north of the country and for nine days now I have been on the Andaman Coast in the south, the last week spent volunteering in an orphanage. Next, I indulge as a tourist, spending two days on Surrin Island snorkling, drinking coke (possibly with alcoholic additives), reading trashy novels and believing all is paradise.