Our Family “Gap Year”

Our three year adventure in Nepal will come to an end within days. It is bittersweet as we will dearly miss our colorful and nourishing life and friends, but we also are truly enthusiastic about the next step in our lives… Our family of five will take a GAP YEAR aiming to relax, de-stress, contemplate and just BE for some time :-). So… how did this peculiar idea take shape?!?

Prakash and I deliberated for months about our next life chapter – whether to extend his contract at ICIMOD for another year or two; if not, where to move next and which jobs to pursue; and more generally speaking – what aspects of life should we focus on next?

Life in Nepal has been absolutely phenomenal: amazing school with countless growth opportunities for the children and me too as an active parent and board member; slow-paced, high quality of life (cycling as primary mode of transportation; fresh, healthy and nutritious food; small town atmosphere; pleasant year-around climate) and excellent professional opportunities for both Prakash and me. Nepal isn’t a utopia, just like any other corner on this planet… there are trade-offs including the poor air quality, painfully cold indoor temperatures during winter, isolated location and the other usual difficulties with life in an undeveloped nation (limited resources, poor infrastructure and weak governance). In addition, Prakash struggled at his workplace to make meaningful contributions to the local and regional air quality.

Although Prakash and the kids felt they could live longer in Nepal, I prodded the clan to move onwards… My initial preference was to return to the USA, however, after Trump’s victory in the November election we hesitated. Also, Asia is just such an amazing place and once we repatriate to the USA, we most likely will not move back to Asia until all the kids are finished with high school. So, we sought out atypical options… Taking a bit of “time off” from life was a welcome idea for Prakash and for me. We could stay in Asia and wait out the initial months of the Trump administration. India seemed like an ideal option – our ancestral roots, close to many relatives and a very affordable place to live while not earning.

Our plan is certainly unorthodox, but one we feel will be enriching and enjoyable for the children and us. We will leave Nepal in May after Prakash’s contract finishes and move to Belgaum, a small city in northern Karnataka where Prakash’s parents and several of our relatives live. Neither of us will work and the kids will attend a local English-medium school. We’ll take some classes (finally learn to properly speak our mother tongue, Marathi!). Prakash plans to give more attention to his health and fitness. We’ll also travel around India, visiting places off the typical tourist path. Mainly, we will spend time reflecting and relaxing – low priorities in our hyperactive, accomplishment-focused society. We aim to take three to twelve months off and have faith that the next amazing opportunity will soon reveal itself.

We told our parents about our unusual plan and, thankfully, they were all very happy and supportive. The kids too, are eagerly anticipating our family gap year – being close to family, traveling to mango farms, cashew groves, sea sides and hilltops in rural India and experiencing a completely different school with children whom they otherwise wouldn’t have interacted with.

Recently, Prakash and I recognized that this “gap year” coincides with both our 40th birthdays.  We cannot think of a better way to celebrate this milestone year than by spending it with each other, our kids and relatives, reflecting and relaxing…

If you visit India soon, please pop over to Belgaum – we’d be happy to share a bit of our continued adventure with you :-).

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Let the adventure of LIFE continue… 🙂

Kathmandu Parks and Rec – Grassroots style

Over the last two months, I have been involved in an extraordinary project – one of the best experiences since moving to Nepal: playground redevelopment…

Nepal, like many developing countries, lacks adequate, public greenspaces. There are a few scattered throughout Kathmandu, but they are often inaccessible, ineffectively designed and poorly maintained. Having grown up and having raised children in the USA, I appreciated and enjoyed parks, playgrounds, walking trails and other greenspaces, totally taking them for granted until experiencing life here without.

My dear friend, Bahar, a first generation Indian-American from California now living with her Nepali husband and extended family here in Kathmandu, not only shared this sentiment with me, but was motivated to do something about it. Working with local governments who have limited resources can be ineffective, inefficient and frustrating beyond words. Instead, Bahar envisioned a collaborative, community-based initiative to revive an existing, dilapidated playground, one that she passed daily while dropping her children off at school.

Lamo Chaur Community Park has been a public greenspace for many decades. Some of the local community members even remember playing there when they were children. The park comprises four adjacent grassy lots, divided by private driveways, each with a small, peripheral chain-link fence. Adequate play equipment existed at some point, but when we began, only one corroded metal slide, one damaged but still used cement ping pong table and two small metal bars remained.

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Lamo Chaur’s first plot – the only one with remaining play equipment.

Shree Saraswoti Yuva Pariwar (SSYP), an active temple and community club, adjacent to Lamo Chaur, have historically looked after the park. This spring, Bahar approached them about collaboratively improving the space. As luck would have it, an energetic youth group, The Generation Green, also expressed interest in renovating the playground. Timing was perfect and all three groups agreed to collectively tackle this project!

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Archaic tools ; design and planning meeting ; teamwork from start to finish ; old sign.

Progress in Nepal usually happens slower than a snail’s pace, however, once this project began, the momentum was vibrant and contagious. Bahar started a public Facebook group to streamline communication between our large group (dozens of people from SSYP, a handful of students from the youth group, and several motivated people from the local expatriate community). She also entrusted her sister, Bhavna (a construction manager from Portland, Oregon currently living in Nepal on a 2-year “break from life” with her husband and 5-year-old son), with project management and I quickly became her sidekick, utilizing my broken knowledge of Nepali language and where to get things here in Kathmandu. Since our first meeting to brainstorm design ideas, the energy and enthusiasm kept multiplying:

Date Progress
8-May Initial design and planning meeting at the playground
11-May Dig out concrete of old play equipment, trim bushes, remove trash and yard waste
13-May Remove old metal slide
16-May Cut branches and trunks for balance beams and steping stumps (donated from our yard)
17-May Install swings and set wooden stepping stumps
20-May Build bamboo sandbox and first bamboo bench
23-May Install balance beams and fill sandbox
25-May Set tires and more stumps, hang swings, build second bamboo bench and sandbox canopy
26-May Set metal beams (reducing potential seismic damage from brick wall)
27-May Build bamboo planter bed and install three trash bins
28-May Build third and fourth bamboo benches and secure second-hand metal gate
1-Jun Purchase thatch material for sandbox canopy and additional tires
3-Jun Install thatch material, set monkey bars and prepare leftover bamboo for wind chimes
4-Jun Host “Family Fun Day”
6-Jun Repair and resurface cement ping pong table
8-Jun Build mud hill, install new slides and mount a nighttime flood light for security
10-Jun Build a bamboo barrier to protect the new flowers
11-Jun Spread gravel mulch in planter beds and around ping pong table

The resources to execute this project seamlessly came together. Bahar initiated a sale of her children’s old clothes and toys where all proceeds would go towards the playground. Several others chipped in their kids’ old things and we earned a few hundred dollars during the school garage sale. The Generation Green had a $750 grant from The World Wildlife Fund, Nepal which they fully put towards the project. As the momentum built, other local expats pitched in as well, bringing our pool of resources to $2600 USD, which in the developing world, is a HUGE amount of money!

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To get the kids involved in beautifying the space, we hosted a Family Fun Day — we painted leftover bamboo and created wind chimes, planted over 100 new plants and made reusable plastic coke bottle planters — HUGELY fun and successful day!

We stretched the budget as far as possible, using supplies and expertise wisely! The gymnastics elements of the playground (wooden stepping stumps, balance beams logs and monkey bar design) were crafted by Clare, an enthusiastic and amazing gymnastics instructor. The imaginative colors for the playground were craftily chosen by Theresa, a beautiful and successful fashion designer (Vintage Himalayas). And the plants and flowers were meticulously selected, purchased and planted by Caroline and her family – residents of the UK who are enjoying a 5 month sabbatical in Kathmandu. And Narayan, an eco-friendly builder (Rammed Earth Solutions) helped seismically secure the massive brick wall.

In addition, we used fairly inexpensive materials (bamboo, wire and junkyard treasures) and free supplies (old tires and donated wood and plants from private yards). We worked for free, yet paid the main laborers – mostly the underemployed gardeners and drivers who work with our expat families – a wage of $10 per day, plus lunch and drinks (considered generous per local standards). Our budget was completely exhausted after completing the first plot and new fundraising efforts will precede development of the rest of the park.

ITEM Approximate Cost (supplies + labor)
Family Fun Day Supplies

$30

Tires

$40

Ping Pong Table

$60

Monkey Bars

$140

Bamboo Benches

$150

Wooden Stumps

$170

Sandbox

$260

Mud Hill n Slides

$270

Site Development

$270

Swings

$330

Planters

$400

Seismic Wall

$480

TOTAL

$2600

Some of the challenges we faced are typical of parks in any urban area and others were to be expected in a developing country: petty vandalism, late night non-child-friendly activities and the perspective that expat financial support would never run dry. The morning after we set fourteen tires in the ground as a hopping caterpillar activity, all tires were removed and strewn about the site, dirt scattered everywhere. We persevered and reset the tires the next day. Beer bottles and other adult paraphernalia are sometimes left behind at nighttime – frequent efforts to clear these items occur. And lastly, the large economic gap between many locals and expatriates unsurprisingly gives the impression that financial resources are plentiful and unending. As long as the local community continues to give what they can and support with their time and energy, this shouldn’t be a significant issue. We will surely have more incidents in the future and as a unified community, we will address each one accordingly.

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Pure, simple enjoyment at the park — just doesn’t get much better…

The outcomes of this revitalized space have been simply magical. The main result – people are mixing! Now there is a space for kids from international schools, kids from premier private Nepali schools, and kids from government schools to all play together. They speak differently, dress differently and play differently, but now they interact and can slowly learn about one another. Similarly, a wide variety of adults – moms, dads, nannies, drivers, grandparents, college students, nearby shopkeepers and school teachers – all visit, sit in close proximity and coexist, regardless of economic class, ethnicity, caste, age, gender or other barriers. The playground has been rejuvenated for approximately one month now and hundreds of people have passed through. On any given evening, easily over 50 people are playing, talking, laughing and peacefully enjoying the space!

Celebrate

Extra special thank yous to Ram Krishna Dai and the SSYP club members; Samhita, Bishal and Deepak from The Generation Green, Team Pratik Pradhan ; the amazing Dais and Bhais — Gopal, Purna, Buddhi, Deepak, Krishna from Chitwan, Krishna from Sanepa, and especially Tika ; and Clare, Theresa, Caroline, Bhavna and Bahar!!

Please contact me if you’d like to be a part of developing Lamo Chaur Community Playground! Visit our Facebook page at Lamo Chaur Playground. We can use donated supplies, labor and enthusiasm from locals and financial support from friends abroad :).

Random Fun Facts

  • We had to put a gate and bamboo supports on the open passageway to prevent stray cows from coming inside the playground; although they make wonderful natural lawn mowers, their excrements in the lawn cause sticky, smelly problems!
  • On full workdays (as opposed to 3-4 hour work sessions), we would order chicken and veggie momos (steamed dumplings) from a very local eatery down the road and fill all bellies for about $1 per person!
  • We originally planned the first plot for children aged 2-5 and intended to ditch the crumbling ping pong table by building the mud slide hill over it. As the building slowly progressed and families visited more, it became apparent that Nepali children seem happy not to segregate themselves by age and that the ping pong table was a huge asset. We made some quick design changes, moved the balance beams and salvaged the ping pong table!
  • We painted the swings and monkey bars at the playground, after installing them into the ground – big mistake! Keeping the children off the equipment while we were painting and while the paint was drying was next to impossible. Next time, the metal elements will make a pit stop in our back yard to be painted then transported to the playground!
  • Using the help of secondary or college students, we hope to design and build a marble track on the seismic metal wall, using PVC pipes and wire.

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Final Product! Phase 1 of 4 complete.

Our Journey to the Wii, by Sajjan

Me and Sumi were sitting on the stairs one day and he was asking me, ‘Dada, I wish I could have a Wii. Maybe somehow we could get it.” So we went downstairs and we asked Baba if we could have a Wii. Baba said, “Maybe if you complete a goal.” Then Sumi said, “Like what?” And Baba replied, “I don’t know yet, but I’ll think about it.” A few days later, Baba said, “If the three of you combined earned 500 art points, 1000 brain points and 1000 athletic points, Aai and I will buy you a Wii.” Part of me was thinking I could do this. Part of me was thinking those are quite big numbers. But, wow, for all these years Baba has said, “No no no!”, and now he has given a way for us to get it. From then on, me, Tai and Sumi were really excited. This all started in August, 2014.

To earn an athletic point, you must walk or jog 1 kilometer. For example, when our whole family hiked 10 kilometers, me, Tai and Sumi got 10 points each, so 30 points was reduced from the 1000. It all averaged out very well – we each did about 335 kilometers. Because we didn’t have a car, lots of our errands would be done on foot. These points were quite easy because if we had just gone on a walk to run errands, then immediately we’d get the points. It’s kind of like two in one! We also hiked a lot to prepare for our first trek that we were going on with a few school friends. It took us eleven months to finish walking 1000 kilometers.

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The maximum amount of kilometers we walked in one day was 12, earning us 36 points!

There are many ways to earn an intellectual point. Here are some of the ways:

  • doing my homework well, depending on how hard it was (1-2 points)
  • completing chess workbook problems (1-4 points)
  • playing chess games on http://www.chesskid.com (1 point)
  • playing chess games in real life with notation and analysis after the game (1-3 points)
  • completing Sudoku or logic puzzles correctly and quickly (1-2 points)
  • writing in the family blog (5-10 points)
  • reading school books (2-8 points)
  • playing word games such as Scrabble, Boggle and Bananagrams (1-4 points)

Collectively, we needed to earn 1000 intellectual points in order to complete this element of the challenge. These were quite hard but I still kept going.

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Most of the time, I wanted to do chess because that earned me quite a lot more points.

To earn an artistic point, I drew pictures or played tabla. I drew things like scenes, symmetrical castles, and flags of countries. For each drawing, depending on how good it was, I would earn 1-7 points. Playing tabla for 15 minutes gets me 1 point and if I did an hour of practice in a row, I would get a bonus point earning 5 points. The amount of art points we were aiming for was 500. This element of the challenge was the hardest because I had only a few ways of earning points and they weren’t as enjoyable.

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Playing with Tai can be pretty fun, but I usually speed up or go to slow.

We tracked our points using Microsoft Excel. There were three pages, one for each element of the challenge. Baba taught us how to use Excel so we could track our own points. There were eight columns in each page named: Date, Description, Janani, Sajjan, Sumanth, Total, Cumulative and Points to Go.

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I always remembered to track my points. I also sometimes remembered to track Tai and Sumi’s points too.

About a year into our challenge, Tai and Sumi started wanting different things instead of a Wii. Tai was interested in getting a new sitar because she hadn’t gotten one yet and she was learning to play it. Sumi wanted a Lego set, a really huge one, because he wanted even more Legos. So Tai and Sumi weren’t contributing to the challenge for the Wii anymore. I was left to do this challenge all by myself. I started to get discouraged when Tai and Sumi gave up. I was quite motivated before, but for those two or three months after they gave up, I wasn’t earning as many points. Then I got back into it after a few months. Since I was already at about 300 intellectual points, Baba reduced the goal to 400. And I was at about 80 artistic points and Baba reduced the goal to 200 points.

Amazon doesn’t work in Nepal and we cannot buy a Wii in Kathmandu, so we had to do something else. When I had almost finished the goal, Baba was going to China for a work trip. He said, “How about I get the Wii there? We can get it a little bit in advance but you won’t be able to play it yet.” When he went to China, he couldn’t find it there. There were only Xboxes and PlayStations. China is like one of the highest selling countries. We probably got this laptop, my backpack, my shirt and almost everythingl from China. So, I was really shocked.

On March 29th 2016, I had just played tabla for 15 minutes and when I was tracking on the score sheet, I summed up my whole column and then I saw the number 200! I was very proud. We ordered the Wii on http://www.amazon.de because Baba was going to Germany for another work trip. From when we had ordered the Wii, I was counting down the days until April 25, 2016, the day Baba came home with the Wii! The challenge was really hard but now I’m really glad I went through all that delayed gratification.

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I’ve been waiting about one and a half years for this moment. And I can’t believe that I’m actually holding it and it is actually in our house, finally!

 

 

Family Trekking in Nepal

Basic Stats:
* Duration: 6 days, 5 nights (March 20th to 25th)
* Trekkers: 13 total — 4 women, 2 men, 7 children age five to eleven (4 families)
* Staff: 8 total — lead guide, assistant guide and 6 porters
* Distance walked: 38 kilometers (23.6 miles)
* Elevation gained: 2,600 meters (8,530 feet)
* Highest elevation reached: 3,580 meters (11,745 feet)
* Approx temperature range: 0 – 26 degrees Celsius (32 – 80 degrees Fahrenheit)
* Route: Kande – Pothana – Forest Camp – Badal Daada – High Camp – Sidhing – Lumre
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Trekking is THE most popular activity in Nepal for tourists. The simplicity, grandeur and peacefulness draw people in. Majestic views, clean air, limitless greenery and calm quietude are a welcome change to our urban realities. Foreigners of all types trek – young or old, super fit or moderately in shape, conquering- or free-spirited and financially wealthy or penniless – usually coming solo, with a partner or small group. Trekking as a family or with several families, however, is a whole different affair… I’d pass up Disneyland any day for it!

Countless people have asked us why we trek as a family, how the kids handle it, how we get our kids to walk for hours and hours, and why we repeat the episode the following trekking season. Here are some answers…

What are the tea houses like? In general, tea houses are family-friendly and very safe. The tea houses on the Mardi Himal route are very basic, but do the job. The 7 to 10 rooms have two wooden beds with thin foam mattresses, thin plywood walls between rooms, dirt or cement floors, a small openable window, and a door with a lock. They have one common dining area which was fairly spacious and warm (from a wood stove). There were 1 or 2 eastern-style toilets for all guests to share (3 of the 5 lodges did not have bathing facilities). And there was plenty of outdoor space for the kids to explore and play. The hospitality, simplicity and freshly prepared food made it restful and enjoyable. The kids usually do just fine with the rustic lodges and often have much simpler expectations than we do.

What do you do during the non-walking times? In a given day, we would walk 4 to 8 hours leaving a fair amount of downtime. When the walking ends, the adults want to sit for a while, freshen up and unpack. Kids, however, are like another species… they reach the lodge and immediately start playing – catch, tag, exploring or making ladybug homes out of sticks and grass (constant movement!). Before and after dinner, we played card games and sang or listened – half the group could sing and we heard almost everyone’s whole repertoire over the six days. Taking TVs, phones, computers and tablets out of the equation was blissful – we had time and mental capacity to focus on nature, simple entertainment and one other…

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We enjoyed countless plates of french fries and games of cards!

Do you worry about altitude sickness? No… Reputed health organizations recommend keeping children lower than 3000 – 4000 meters, and we’ve kept the upper limit in mind while selecting which path to trek. Also, our guides are trained to recognize signs of altitude sickness. Thankfully, we have never experienced altitude difficulties while trekking with our family.

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Seven sweet smiles… and a memory that most of them will keep for a lifetime…

What is the weather like? Peak trekking season is spring and fall and weather is usually phenomenal. Days are warm and sunny and nights are cool and calm. As we ascended, the temperatures dropped, especially at nights, but with the right gear (down jacket, hat, plenty of layers and a good sleeping bag), we were just fine. We even experienced snow on the trail! As we approached our lodge on Day #3, it started snowing and didn’t stop for several hours. Thankfully, the clouds cleared overnight and blanketed everything with a crisp whiteness – it was truly spectacular. Reaching our highest point surrounded by snow was unforgettable (a bit dangerous with melting snow making the trail a muddy mess, but simply beautiful).

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The most beautiful day of hiking…

How do the kids handle it and how do you get your kids to keep walking? Our secret weapon in trekking with children is very simple … bring other children! We’ve done countless weekend hikes with only our three kids and the complaints can be endless. Tossing in another little person or two does magic to the group dynamics, mood and purpose. We trek because we enjoy nature and simplicity. Kids also enjoy seeing snow-capped mountains, listening to birds chirp and leaves rustle underfoot, tasting daal bhaat after several hours of walking and playing with leaves and dirt. But this sometimes isn’t enough for our urban kiddos. Traveling with other kids adds an element of fun, community and fellowship that most kids thrive on. When they are with other little people, they can walk and talk for hours…word games, jokes, riddles, stories, trivia, and plenty of silliness. (Note: the other little people don’t have to be close friends with yours – they will become friends after spending several solid days together.)

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Non-stop silliness!

Treats help too :-). Candy is not something we keep at home, but while on the trail, we bend that rule. Those inexpensive and artificially-flavored orange, grape, cherry, butterscotch and mint suckers taste amazing after you’ve been on your feet for hours! They go a long way for the children and the adults too… On the third night, Prakash bribed the children with full-sized candy bars, requesting some company to leave early in the morning aiming to hike higher than planned. Group dynamics and sugar are powerful tools – at the end of the conversation, all 13 of us committed to leaving earlier and Prakash emptied his wallet to purchase 13 candy bars at that elevation!

How much does family trekking cost? Family trekking with everything included (knowledgeable guides, insured porters, reserved rooms and all-you-can-eat meals) is approximately $100 USD per person per day. Trekking in Nepal can be significantly cheaper or expensive depending on your style and requirements. As we’ve always trekked in larger groups with kids, we prioritize having reliable staff and rooms reserved. After walking for hours, knowing we don’t have to sleep out in a tent or go to the next village looking for an available room is essential.

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Ceaseless uphill climbs… but in the end, it was well worth it.

How does this trek compare to the other two you completed? The Mardi Himal trek was the BEST of the three, hands down. Poon Hill and Helambu both have beautiful views, but the scenery on the Mardi Himal trek is unparalleled. The snow covered mountains were so close, we felt we could just reach our hands out and touch them. It is an off-the-beaten-path trek with less developed tea houses, but the spectacular mountain panoramas make it more appealing.

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All 13 of us at High Camp – we made it! Back row – Vidhya, Samir Nikhil, Sawmya, Shairose, Nita, Sumanth, Sajjan, Prakash. Front row – Nishant, Jayda, Ariana, Janani.

Who came on the trek and how did you get the group together? We were a group of four families with 1, 3, 4 and 5 members each. The Kaup family includes Saumya. She is a successful architect and mindfulness counselor from Maryland who volunteered in Kathmandu for four months. The Mawji family includes Shairose, Jayda and Ariana (twins, age 10). Shairose has a rich family history – Gujarati born in Tanzania and raised in Canada. She is a Kathmandu expat working with UNICEF and adopted Jayda and Ariana here in Nepal over 8 years ago. The Sodha family includes Samir, Vidhya, Nikhil and Nishant (ages 8 and 5) – they are originally from California, settled in Atlanta and currently expats in Delhi, India with the US Embassy. We rounded out the group with our family of 5.

Trekking naturally encourages successful group dynamics. You can chat with whomever you’d like, subtly maintain distance from another, or simply walk alone – without any awkwardness. You can be best of friends or new acquaintances and still share laughs and stories. So, we invited several families from all aspects of our lives creating a hodge-podge group. My pleading, coaxing and basic travel-agent skills helped, and we all went in hoping for the best. The positive energy and camaraderie was extraordinary – getting our whole group up and down the mountain was hard work and there were challenges, but anger and irritation never surfaced for eight whole days. Simply priceless…

What really do the guides and porters do? Due credit must be offered to our skillful guides, Asha Lama Tamang and Fursang Lama Tamang. They, along with our six porters, took care of everything – ensured we were on the correct path (trail markers appear periodically but trails are not nearly as well marked as in the USA), made reservations for accommodations (nearly every other trekker we encountered on the trail jokingly said, ‘oh you are the large group who reserved the whole lodge last night…we couldn’t stay there because of you!’), made sure we were well fed (acting as waiters and cooks to help the minimally staffed tea houses), helped the children whenever they needed an extra hand and entertained them a bit too! By the end of Day #1, it was apparent that our youngest member, Nishant age 5, needed some extra help. Fursang swiftly managed his duties as lead-guide alongside constantly holding Nishant’s hand, lifting him at large steps, and sweetly cajoling him down the trail.

Three of the six porters were in their early twenties and three were in their late forties. Even while carrying our 15 kilogram (~30 pounds) bags suspended from their foreheads, they walked significantly faster than us. On Day #2, in the late afternoon, our estimated 6-hour walk lingered well into an 8+ hour walk. As there were no tea houses between our origin and destination to stop for lunch, Ashta Lama encouraged us to eat a heavy breakfast and carry plenty of snacks. Around 3:30pm, with empty bellies and very tired legs, we spotted four of our porters ahead on the trail with thermoses of tea! They reached the destination, had their lunch, wondered why we hadn’t reached yet and graciously backtracked, refreshments in tow! They took care of us in so many ways, physically, mentally and emotionally. All we had to do was walk up and down the mountain…

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All 21 of us near the end of the whole trek, a special moment! Ashta Lama, head guide, in back row middle (red jacket). Fursang Lama, assistant guide, in front row left (orange jacket).

So, in a nutshell, if your family enjoys nature, new experiences and unique challenges, trekking in Nepal’s Himalayan foothills with another family or two could be the perfect adventure… 🙂

Blog Comes Out of Hibernation

As we approach our two year anniversary living here in Nepal, I am determined to restart writing and actively reflecting on our experiences. Many of you have gently inquired, jokingly commented and sincerely missed our routine blog posts. The precise reason for the long gap is nearly impossible to pinpoint, but I’ll do my best to explain…

Year #1 in Nepal was blissful. All experiences, friends, incidents, sights, sounds and tastes were new and novel. It was the ‘honeymoon phase’. We were blessed with a smooth and seamless transition into life in Asia, thanks to an incredible school, supportive employer, devoted household helpers, cheerful friends and a relatively simple way of life (cycling as primary mode of transportation, fresh food diet and ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ atmosphere). Personally, delving into new activities like mountain biking and learning Nepali tremendously recharged me. Similarly, the kids thrived in school and picked up new hobbies (crochet, sitar, football / soccer and singing). And for Prakash, seeing and smelling a variety of air pollution sources every single day inspired his work at ICIMOD.

Year #2 has been strikingly different. The earthquake (April 25, 2015), our first home-leave visit as expats (July 2015) and unofficial embargo (September 2015 – February 2016) supplied us with countless challenges and growth opportunities…

The earthquake shook my whole world. My family, home, household helpers and close friends were all okay, but still I was shocked and paralyzed mentally and emotionally. Perhaps, it is like any other tragedy or life-altering challenge (natural disaster or accident, death of a loved one, divorce, parenthood), you never really know how you will truly ‘be’ in the situation until you actually experience it first-hand. The initial earthquake and the 450+ aftershocks simply threw my life out of balance, literally and figuratively. I stopped mountain biking, jogging and walking (felt disrespectful to tramp through areas of destruction for recreation), stopped learning (felt like now just isn’t the right time to enrich myself when neighbors are suffering with inadequate shelter, food and water) and stopped writing (all reflections seemed like complaints).

Many of my thoughts resembled ‘survivors guilt’… we had power restored four days after the quake (others received power after several weeks), we received a tanker-truck delivery of water at our house five days after the quake (locals waited over two months for the government water supply to be restored), our house had a few cracks but was completely safe to live in (millions of people were displaced from their homes), and our kids’ school reopened four days after the quake (local schools reopened after more than two months). We had SO much to be thankful for, yet I still felt tremendously saddened. In that state of mind, writing and reflecting just didn’t come naturally to me.

Two months after the earthquake, we made our first visit back home since moving abroad. I didn’t realize how mentally, emotionally and physically difficult a trip home could be. We jam packed our four-week visit primarily with seeing all our loved ones and purchasing essentials and nonessentials unavailable in Nepal. The nonstop schedule coupled with living out of a suitcase explained the physical difficulties. The mental and emotional adversities are a bit harder to describe. It felt very odd – like we had never left the USA, but mentally we knew we’d be returning to Nepal in just a few days. It was almost like an illusion for our hearts and minds. So much warmth, familiarity and coziness of our past life that we get a snapshot of, a quick taste, a short glimpse… Bittersweet it truly was…

And lastly, the bizarre political climate in Nepal over the last eight months also contributed to our blog hibernation. In September, Nepal adopted its first Constitution. Some northern states of India, where many Nepalis now live, were unhappy with particular clauses in the constitution due to inadequate representation of those living in the Terai or the lowlands of Nepal. Within days of the inauguration of the constitution, the border between India and Nepal closed. Petrol, diesel, LPG (cooking fuel), medicines and most atypical items that would normally have been delivered into the country by truck became scarce. Food supplies, surprisingly, remained fairly normal, however prices did increase.

The country was paralyzed all over again. After picking up the pieces post-quake, this was the last challenge most people and businesses were ready to deal with. Queues for gasoline lasted days; lines of parked cars littered roadways near all petrol pumps. Traffic subsided for a short while as people had no choice but to reduce their driving. However, after the black market kicked into high gear, traffic was back to normal (a 100npr liter of petrol sold for 400npr, equivalent to $14 per gallon, and a 1600npr cylinder of cooking fuel sold for up to 9000npr).

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A hugely common sight, fuel being syphoned into a vehicle using bottles, cups, tubes, canisters — anything that could hold or transfer liquid!

Lack of diesel for generators caused problems in hospitals, schools, businesses and homes. And the lack of cooking fuel made people resort to burn anything in order to cook. Those who couldn’t get gas, kerosene or firewood, ate beaten rice, a common product that doesn’t require cooking.

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Queues of empty plastic containers and their owners waiting for hours and sometimes days for kerosene. LPG or normal cooking fuel, was and still is in very short supply.

Many restaurants closed down because they had no cooking fuel. Those restaurants that could remain open created ‘Temporary Menus’ eliminating those items from the original menu that take too long to cook. Last but not least, surviving the cold indoor temperatures (~ 50 – 55 degrees Fahrenheit) with no LPG gas really made many feel like we had reached ‘rock bottom’.

For us, the closed borders caused discomfort and frustration, but our basic needs were still always met.

  • After waiting three hours in a petrol queue in early November, I successfully managed to get twenty liters of petrol. And in February, Prakash received ten liters from ICIMOD. How we spread eight gallons over five months is mind-boggling even to me! We just stopped driving our car regularly… therefore didn’t use the car for errands or go out of the valley for our usual weekend hike or outing. We also avoided traveling within the country out of fear of inability to return home because of empty fuel tanks or canceled flights. In early March, I was able to get 35 liters of fuel… it felt like I just won the lottery! (We didn’t feel comfortable purchasing fuel on the black market because contributing to the corruption was unappealing and we had other available modes of transportation – walking, cycling and the ICIMOD bus for Prakash to get to/from work).

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    The peaceful chaos near the petrol pump while I was sitting in the queue – dozens of cars, hundred of motorcycles and scooters and unlimited people waiting and watching.

  • We changed our cooking habits minimizing the use of gas (less chapattis, dosas, pizza or anything baked and more quick-cooking rice and lentils). At the peak of the crisis, we cooked rice and lentils outdoors using firewood and tea and vegetables were prepared on an electric induction cook stove. Gas was used at most once weekly for chapattis.

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    Sonu, our house helper, is preparing curried garbanzo beans. Thankfully, we have plenty of firewood because our yard is large and has several trees.

  • We have two electric space heaters that we used when the electricity was on. We also have a woodstove in our dining room which we would use in the evenings for an hour or two. The high levels of emissions from the wood burning prevented us from burning more frequently.
  • To maximize body heat, we all slept in the same room. We placed one queen-size bed and two twin-size beds pushed together (equivalent of a king-size bed) in our smallest room. Each night it was like a game of ‘musical chairs’ to see who sleeps in which spot! A mountain of fleece, down and flannel blankets kept us reasonably warm throughout the night.
  • Bathing was difficult. The air in the bathroom was very cold and the solar-heated water just wasn’t very hot. In many parts of the world, bathing is a daily ritual. Not the case in wintery Nepal… It just isn’t necessary or practical. While bathing, it was so cold that steam emanated off our bodies just like steam from a hot cup of tea! We’d generally bathed once or twice per week… that is it.

Overall, circumstances tried our patience so much, we started strategizing how we could leave this country as quickly as possible (the opening of the border and thawing winter temperatures have alleviated our urgent desire to escape)!

But… Surprisingly… Nepalis generally handled the embargo with significant peace and patience. Embarrassingly, our family who enjoys tremendous expat privileges, seemed more frustrated and unhappy about our circumstances than many others. In general, people were upset, but in a peaceful manor. Lessons this amazing country taught us in the last few months – graceful acceptance and undying gratitude – will hopefully stay with us lifelong.

The borders officially reopened in February yet supplies are taking time to restore to normal levels. Another lesson we learned early on here in Nepal – things take time! Our standard American values of diligence, timeliness, punctuality and efficiency just doesn’t translate here.

I must also mention the basic human tendency of ‘habit’. I simply fell out of the habit of writing and actively reflecting. The momentum required to restart a good habit is so much greater than that required to continue an existing one. Our imminent two-year anniversary living here in Nepal is the driving force to revive the blog…

Thus, a lengthy explanation for the hibernation of Five in the Foothills and a hope that Year#3 brings several new flavors to this grand adventure…

FOBISIA Math Competition, Guangzhou China, by Janani

I was so surprised when TBS selected me for this competition (It was a math competition with four primary students representing each British International School in Asia). Sometimes it felt like a distant dream. But I am glad I participated, because it was a great experience.

We left for China on Wednesday, March 9th, 2016. That day, me and my teammates couldn’t think about anything else. We had a late night flight so we came home from school and went to the airport at 8:15pm. At dinnertime, I started to feel kind of tired, but when we arrived at the airport, excitement pushed away my exhaustion. At last the time came to leave and we said goodbye to our parents. We were on our way to China!

I went with three of my friends, Meghana, Shivanshi and Nabodita, and two teachers, Ms Swift and Ms Manandhar. When we came to the airport, we seemed to speed through the lines. Our teacher told us to bring carry-on bags only. In no time at all, we boarded the plane to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia! After the four-hour flight, we arrived at the airport. We were all very tired (it was still night time) and we soon made our way to our next gate. Finally we boarded our plane and flew to Guangzhou, China!

When we arrived in China, we started seeing other teams of four. Before going, I was completely confident, but seeing the other teams made me a little bit nervous. The FOBISIA staff picked up all the teams that had arrived around the same time and we drove to the hotel in a big bus. We couldn’t wait for the first day of the competition!

We had arrived on Thursday afternoon and the competition started on Friday so we had until dinnertime to do whatever we wanted. We showered and changed, then we played in one of our two rooms. We didn’t have many things to do, but we had fun just hanging out. We didn’t have as much free time as we thought we would.

Hanging out without our parents supervision is so fun!

Hanging out without our parents supervision is so fun!

An hour or two later, Ms Swift called us down to dinner. The hotel was very fancy and it served extravagant buffet dinners. I am a vegetarian and unfortunately, in China, they eat a lot of meat. Everything I could see was non vegetarian! Soon, I found a few things to eat. But then, I walked around the entire dining area and I found so many more things like bread, fruits, salad and even ice cream. Soon, we went to our rooms and fell asleep as fast as we could (we knew we had to wake up early the next morning).

On Friday morning, we woke up, excited for the first day of the competition. After a good breakfast, five big buses took all the participants and their teachers to the hosting school. I couldn’t believe that we had enough people to fill five buses! The school that hosted the competition was The British School of Guangzhou. We were in a huge room with one table per team. There were a few announcements at the beginning, but before we knew it the competition had started.

The first activities were noncompetitive, logic puzzles where we worked with other teams. I think it was meant for us to make friends with other students but some weren’t that friendly. The first competitive part of the competition was the team assessment. My team had practiced very hard for this so we were quite confident. There were much fewer questions than we anticipated. We went through the questions and solved most of them. We thought we did quite well.

"Is my hat black or white", a logic puzzle we solved.

“Is my hat black or white”, a logic puzzle we solved.

After a short break, we moved on to mental math. We had a challenge to square a double-digit number in our heads in less than two minutes! We were given a method at the beginning and we had 30 minutes to practice with our team. Then, a teacher came to our table and asked each of us two questions which we had two minutes to solve. We didn’t think we did very well, but we did learn a new technique to square numbers! In some of the activities that we didn’t do so well in, I was the only one with a positive attitude afterwards. I didn’t think that being negative was the right thing to do.

So much to do, so little time!

So much to do, so little time!

Soon, we had a tessellation investigation where we could just relax and enjoy doing art. We created our own geometrical patterns and shapes. I thought that was a very good activity at the end of the long day.

It felt nice to take a break of math and do art.

It felt nice to take a break of math and do art.

Later, all the teams went to a barbecue dinner. It was okay but the weather in Guangzhou was completely cloudy and freezing (we didn’t see the sun the whole time). Then we went on a nighttime cruise around the city of Guangzhou. The cruise was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. It was amazing! I couldn’t believe how many buildings were fully lit up. The Canton Tower, a skyscraper, was lit up the best. It kept changing colors – red, green, blue and even rainbow. On the cruise, we ate snacks, explored the levels of the boat, and went up to the terrace. We even had a photo taken of us and put on a key chain! When we went back downstairs, the face changing show started. A dancer wore a mask and every time she swiped her face or turned around, her mask changed! It was kind of like a magic show. There were a few more performances and soon, we had to leave. We bused back to our hotel and went to sleep, very tired.

The next morning, we woke up still a bit sleepy. We got ready, had breakfast and went to the school. Our first activity was an orienteering challenge. We were given a quick lesson on protractors, rulers and compasses and we had to orient ourselves around the school. It was a competition of which team can complete the circuit first. We were sitting at the back during the lesson, so we didn’t fully understand how to score points. Soon we found ourselves running around the school completely confused! Afterwards, I somehow found it kind of fun, unlike my teammates.

Next, we did the individual assessment. This would not add any points to our team score so we were against everyone in the room! I had practiced a lot for this test so I was very confident. I practiced with last year’s 30 minute test, which had 15 questions worth one point each. This test lasted an hour and had 30 questions, each worth 1, 3 or 5 points. In the end I thought I did very well. When it finished, everyone was completely exhausted. Luckily we had a long lunch break and we were treated with pizza! It was so delicious and I don’t think they could have chosen a better time for it.

Later on, we did the most challenging mathematical activity I had ever done. We had a map of a race track and we answered geometrical questions about it. It seemed simple, but the arithmetic was very complicated. We had to multiply 5-digit numbers by 6-digit numbers, divide numbers with several decimals and things like that. At the end of the entire competition we found out that this challenge was meant for GCSE students. The surprising thing is that those students were allowed to use a calculator!

The race track activity had so many tasks! Our blue desk had turned white with dozens of papers!

The race track activity had so many tasks! Our blue desk had turned white with dozens of papers!

Fortunately, we had a break. The next part was the engineering challenge! I thought this activity was the most enjoyable. We built a marble track taking up the space of only one A4 size paper. There was no height restriction. We had five pieces of paper, scotch tape and a pair of scissors. Our design involved a spiral paper track around a rolled paper pole. We had a time limit of 1 hour and unfortunately we didn’t complete our track. When the time was up, a teacher came and timed the number of seconds that the marble ran on the track. Our time was 3.2 seconds and the winning team’s time was 11 seconds! At the end, we walked around and looked at all the teams’ designs. It was interesting how many different techniques there are to build a track. Finally, the competition finished and the award ceremony was coming up. Everyone was excited to find out which team won!

The hardest part was making the marble run down the track without stopping.

The hardest part was making the marble run down the track without stopping.

The award ceremony was held in a big hall in the hotel. When the competition director made the announcements, everyone was silent. There was so much suspense! Our team didn’t get any awards, but we weren’t disappointed (three out of thirty teams received awards). I didn’t expect an award in the first place. Then, dancers performed the traditional Chinese lion dance. Each lion had two people and they danced all around the stage. Towards the end, they did some really cool acrobatics which was fun to watch. But the whole time, I was enjoying my vanilla ice cream (my favorite!).

At the end, my teammates and I talked with the organizer and he asked us which activity was the most challenging. I felt the engineering activity was the most challenging and doable. The race track activity’s arithmetic was the hardest but not doable within the time limit. When things are too challenging and not really doable, you don’t feel like doing the challenge anymore.

Everyone received a participation award. Mine looked like real gold!

Everyone received a participation award. Mine looked like real gold!

The competition was very fun and I’m glad I participated. I was so excited to go back home. I couldn’t wait to tell everyone about it. The airplane journey was smooth and I bought a few souvenirs at the airport. When I think about it, I still can’t believe what I accomplished, but it felt really good to be back home.

It looks like a pot, but it's really a magnet!

It looks like a pot, but it’s really a magnet!

The One World Schoolhouse, Education Reimagined – by Salman Khan

This book moved me beyond words…  Sal Khan’s philosophy on education rings loudly in my ears and this blog post aims to share my enthusiasm.  Slowly, collectively, we can effectively reform education…

bookcover

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Khan’s mission is to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.  Living in one of the poorest countries in the world, with a terribly low literacy rate (~55%) and standard of education, his mission speaks directly to me.  Immediately after reading the book, implementation ideas were spinning through my head: translating his videos into Nepali, obtaining funds to bring practical technology to rural schools, starting a community learning center where adults could improve their math and language skills, and convincing the principal at our kids’ English-medium school to pilot a Khan Academy-based classroom.

A dear friend informed me that another non-profit organization is working on technology and education here in Nepal.  Ole Nepal doesn’t directly translate Khan’s material, but their philosophies are similar.  Their team has developed 600+ learning modules, deployed 5000+ laptops, trained 600+ teachers, and worked with 180+ schools impacting 40,000+ students.  WOW!  Companies this like this, inspired individuals and impassioned groups all around the world are echoing Khan’s message – educational reform is necessary and technology can be one of our best partners.  Today, Khan Academy videos are available in over 35 languages!

Khan’s diagnosis of America’s educational system also thoroughly resonates with me.  I am a product of it and my children are in it, however, temporarily experiencing the British system.  The following paragraphs summarize Khan’s perspective of education in the USA:

The Prussian Model“Eighteenth-century Prussia is where our basic classroom model was invented.  The idea was not to produce independent thinkers, but to churn out loyal and tractable citizens who would learn the value of submitting to the authority of parents, teachers, church, and, ultimately, the king.  The standard classroom model offered boundless opportunities for political indoctrination.  It was not by accident that whole ideas were broken up into fragmented ‘subjects.’ Subjects could be learned by rote memorization, whereas mastering larger ideas called for free and unbridled thinking (76-77).”

Swiss Cheese Learning“What constitutes a passing grade?  In most classrooms in most schools, students pass with 75 or 80 percent.  This is customary.  But if you think about it even for a moment, it’s unacceptable if not disastrous.  Concepts build on one another.  Algebra requires arithmetic.  Trigonometry flows from geometry.  Calculus and physics call for all of the above.  A shaky understanding early on will lead to complete bewilderment later.  Our students are victims of Swiss Cheese Learning.  Though it seems solid from the outside, their education is full of holes (83, 85).”

Archaic Customs“Parts of the system we now hold sacred – for example, the length of the class period or the number of years assigned to ‘elementary’ or ‘high’ school – are in fact rather arbitrary, even accidental (62).  This basic model – grouping kids by birth date and then advancing them together grade by grade – is such a fundamental aspect of conventional education that people seldom seem to think about it.  But we should, because its implications are huge.  To state what is obvious, there is nothing natural about segregating kids by age.  That isn’t how families work; it isn’t what the world looks like; and it runs counter to the way that kids have learned and socialized for most of human history (191-192).”  Khan also brilliantly dissects the archaic customs of summer holidays, compartmentalizing lessons into subjects or units, the recent obsession with student/teacher ratios, and the methods used to track children, all the while arguing that each of these distract from the main goals of maximizing students learning, comprehension, retention, and critical thinking skills.

Homework – We should ask, “not how much homework, but why homework in the first place?  One large survey conducted by the University of Michigan concluded that the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and few behavioral problems was not time spent on homework, but rather the frequency and duration of family meals.  When families actually sit down and talk – when parents and children exchange ideas and truly show an interest in each other – kids absorb values, motivation and self-esteem; in short, they grow in exactly those attributes and attitudes that will make them enthusiastic and attentive learners.  This is more important than mere homework (111-114).”

Tests and Testing“What do tests really test?  Tests say little or nothing about a student’s potential to learn a subject or about how long learning will be retained.  Tests measure the approximate state of a student’s memory and perhaps understanding, in regard to a particular subset of subject matter at a given moment in time, it being understood that the measurement can vary considerably and randomly according to the particular questions being asked (91-92).”

I am a perfect example – a product of the faulty American education system.  I learned to submissively accept lessons, didn’t gain a comprehensive overview of lessons and how they relate to one another.  I passively listened to broadcast lectures in the classroom, independently worked on homework at home, and crammed hard before tests after which most of the knowledge slowly seeped out.  My education resembled Swiss cheese exactly, even though I was an A-/B+ student throughout high school and college.  I rarely had true mastery before advancing to more complex concepts.

I am a creative, thoughtful, intelligent person – but not because of the system, rather despite the system.  I want more for our children: the three that live in my house, the hundreds I personally know and the millions that will soon have their turn to make this world a better place.  This is one of my favorite passages from Khan’s book: “As a parent myself, I completely understand the human tendency to regard one’s own kids as the most precious in the universe. To every mother and every father, of course they are; biology takes care of that. But there is a somewhat dangerous corollary to this natural parental love. Sometimes it seems that, both as individuals and as societies, we think it’s okay to be selfish as long as it’s on behalf of the kids. Clearly, there’s hypocrisy here; we’re still serving the interests of our own DNA and our own narrow clan. We give ourselves a free pass on something that is emotionally right but morally wrong. As long as our kids are getting educated, we won’t worry about the kids a block, or a nation, or a continent away. But are we really doing our kids a favor by taking this isolationist, me-first position? I don’t think so. I think we’re condemning them to live in a world of broadening inequality and increasing instability. The better way to help our kids is to help all kids (222).”

Before reading Khan’s book, I was acutely aware that what our children need from education (namely, critical thinking and communication skills) is different than the skills emphasized for us 20 – 30 years ago and drastically different than the educational emphasis during previous generations.  What I got from Khan’s book is the piece about CREATIVITY and how the American system doesn’t foster, hone or reward this skill: “What I’m criticizing is an educational approach that, because of its built-in inefficiencies and obsession with control, keeps kids so busy, often with activities that have nothing to do with their particular talents or interests that they have no time to think. There’s a cruel irony in this. Pressured to keep a full plate of purportedly enriching activities, kids end up barely noticing that their interior lives—their uniqueness, curiosity, and creativity— are in fact becoming impoverished.  There is no magic formula to make kids more creative; rather, it’s a way to give light and space and time to the creativity that already exists in each of us (247, 251).

Khan’s detailed analysis of the American education system originates from two sources: he too studied in the USA from grade school in Louisiana to college in Massachusetts, and second, while as a hedge fund analyst, he began remotely tutoring his intelligent cousin who performed poorly on a middle school math exam.  This unassuming tutoring engagement took on a life of its own as Khan taught more and more students, made his lessons electronically available on YouTube, and developed software tools to help gauge his students’ progress.  Khan Academy was born and incarnated into several hundred videos, thousands of students, and a slow infiltration into a handful of classrooms while Khan was still a full-time working professional, husband and father!  In 2009, Khan left his finance job and delved fully into his dream of “teaching the way he wished he was taught (7). Within no time, thousands of students became millions, and the top of the top – Bill Gates and Google –offered to support and grow the Academy.  Khan’s vision, thus, with time and experience, grew beyond just tutoring to summer camps, pilot classrooms, and dreams of whole schools.

 One Room Schoolhouse – Khan succinctly condemns America’s current educational system then, lightly sketches his vision of an ideal future.  Beautifully, he conveys that this is one possible approach, other creative solutions exist too.  Just as he reiterates that there are multiple ways of solving a math problem, he never states that his vision of what school would look like is the only right one.

Khan’s school would more closely resemble a One Room Schoolhouse: kids would be mixed with others of varying ages, learning would be self-paced, holidays would be taken on an as-needed basis (similar to how businesses operate), well-designed assessments would be taken by anyone at any time and students would maintain a portfolio of their work and assessments.  Classrooms would have seventy-five to one hundred children, spanning a broad age-range, with three or four teachers.  A snapshot of the classroom would include 20% of the children working on computer-based lessons while the other 80% are working in several groups on activities, games and projects applying the skills just grasped from the computer-based lessons.  Thus, “the school could cover basic course material in one or two hours, leaving plenty of space and time for open-ended thinking and creativity (205).”

It really takes a creative imagination to visualize this.  There will surely be challenges along the way.  However, educational systems must change to match, or even come close to, the rate at which our world in changing.  What are the consequences of continuing with education the way it is?  This leads to my second favorite passage in Khan’s book, “Among the world’s children starting grade school this year, 65 percent will end up doing jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.  The certainty of change, coupled with the complete uncertainty as to the precise nature of change, has profound and complex implications for our approach to education.  What we teach children is less important than how they learn to teach themselves.  The crucial task of education is to teach kids how to learn.  To lead them to want to learn.  To nurture curiosity, to encourage wonder, and to instill confidence so that later on they’ll have the tools for finding answers to the many questions we don’t yet know how to ask (179-180).”

How is all of this related to the FiveInTheFoothills Blog and our lives and experiences here in Nepal?  I am not quite sure yet…  I’d like to join the global efforts to improve education and how, when and where this happens will unfold in due time.  I thank you for reading my piece about Khan’s book, however my most humble request is that you read it for yourself and SHARE your thoughts broadly.  Collectively, positive change will happen…

As per Khan’s philosophy of sharing knowledge freely, his book is available online as a pdf :-).

Two-Wheeled Yetis – Whoosh! Look left, look right, here they come!

I aim to condense the adventures of the Two-Wheeled Yetis into this one little blog post… Technically impossible, but simply hoping to commemorate and share :-).

The Group

The Yetis are a cycling group composed mostly of British School parents. We cycle every Tuesday that school is in session, rain or shine (the extra courageous ones at least!). We drop the kids by 8:15am, slowly collect the group, and head out by 8:30. Routes range from 20 – 35 kilometers. We ride out into the low KTM hills usually south and west of the valley and eventually stop at a rickety tea shop for a rejuvenating snack break. Several cokes, teas, donuts, and plates of potatoes, chana and choila later (the whole bill was often less than one latte back at the usual coffee shops around school!), we’d head back home reaching around noon. It left just enough time to get home, freshen up, have lunch and head back to school to pick up the kids. Our rides ranged from 2 – 12 people, but usually have 5-9 riders.

12 riders - we made a statement on the road!

12 riders – we made a statement on the road!

I started with the Yetis one month after arriving into Kathmandu. We purchased our first bikes, and I was ready to restart an exercise routine! Day 1, I did complete the ride, but COLAPSED on the sofa of our apartment and two hours later, could barely walk the ¼ kilometer to school to collect the children, forget about staying awake through the afternoon or getting dinner on the table! After a few days, I built up enough courage to give it another chance the following week. I’m SO glad I didn’t give up! I attribute it all to the morale, ethic and atmosphere of the group – supportive, encouraging, uplifting…

Don't look down!

Don’t look down!

“It does not matter how slow you go, so long as you do not stop” – 2WY’s motto written on advertisement flyer welcoming more parents to join us. It was always true – riders were never taunted, teased or judged for their pace or place in the pack. There was always encouragement once we reached the top of any hill, skillfully made it down the hills, or clumsily fell off and scraped a knee. This was the sentiment from all members to all members. The focus was on athletics (getting a good workout while staying safe), sights (surreal views of the lower hills, mountains, forests, clouds, and beautiful Nepali buildings and people) and friendship (once off the busy roads, we had great conversations while riding!). Competition, aggression and boastfulness were just not within the fabric of this group.

Water and 4-legged friends are always nearby!

Water and 4-legged friends are always nearby!

The Sights

There was always something special to see… Snowcapped mountains, lush green hills, a yellow monastery atop a hillside, a white temple atop a different hillock, temple’s pagoda profile highlighting the horizon, unique Nepali home architecture, babbling streams, rickety narrow metal bridges, verdant mustard rice and vegetable fields, harvested crops drying in the sun, numerous 4-legged creatures around every corner, field workers inevitably breaking to see the 2WYs swoosh by, blossoms in all shades of the rainbow, the list is endless… It was always a treat for the eyes and soul to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu and escape into the peaceful hillsides even if only for a few hours.

Simplicity and beauty of Nepal's villages - women, homes, harvests...

Simplicity and beauty of Nepal’s villages – women, homes, harvests…

More recently, the extreme summer heat led a few of us to ride from 4:30 – 6:30am. Early morning sights are simply spectacular… The golden orb low along the horizon, those first morning rays casting a glow on peeking snowcapped mountains, and monsoon rains creating unbelievable clarity distilling each and every tree on the green hills – like as if we were wearing binoculars while riding!

Ahhh.... the sunrise... early morning quietude and peace

Ahhh…. the sunrise… early morning quietude and peace

It was always a challenge – how to manage looking at both the sights ahead while also paying attention to the path. Isn’t that a common issue we face in day to day life, though? Going through life’s rat race at too hectic of a pace to enjoy the immeasurable beauty and wonder everyday immediately around us – cycling reminded us to take our time and enjoy the view!

Beautiful layers of green fields

Beautiful layers of green fields

The Members

People and wheels are the heartbeat of this group. Our guide and guru – Adrian – almost never missed a ride. There simply weren’t excuses valid enough to skip a cycle ride. He knows, by heart, the roads and trails in Patan better than most Nepalis. Thousands of kilometers of riding with 3 cycle groups each week for nearly 4 years – we never needed a GPS when Adrian was with us! The one and only one Tuesday Adrian missed our ride (his daughter was home sick), we got lost!

Mountains floating high in the sky - what a treat!

Mountains floating high in the sky – what a treat!

Andy was the rock, coach, and best caboose. He never let anyone get too far back from the pack and NEVER made you feel bad or guilty for slowing others down. A truly experienced cycler since childhood, he has much knowledge and wisdom that he often shared with us novices – when we should change gears, how to effectively get up the hills without walking and how to safely coast downhill on bumpy trails.

Some single track too - got to add some adventure!

Some single track too – got to add some adventure!

Clare was the cheerleader of the group – always happy, energetic, peppy and always at the head of the pack. She is a true athlete and excellent motivator! Kath was the quiet, smiling photographer of the group. Her keen eye knew when to pause and capture the moment. She and I had many lovely conversations as we were often together in the back of the pack! Pema was one of the newest but most dedicated members. New to cycling, yet a native of Kathmandu, she went places with 2WYs that she had never been before!

Simple, happy man with flowers - Kath's photo!

Simple, happy man with flowers – Kath’s photo!

So many more enthusiastic and happy riders — Arthi, Shelley, Matt, Christina, Juliet, Theresa, Daniel, Isaac, and Tashi — each brought a new twist to the weekly ride. We also never forget those who departed Nepal and our cycling group this past year — Amanda, Jona, Roger and Rebecca.

Amanda, Roger, Jona -- some of the starting 2WY members

Amanda, Roger, Jona — some of the starting 2WY members

Being a member of Two-Wheeled Yetis has been a significant HIGHLIGHT of my stay in Nepal. I know I am not alone in this sentiment – the unparalleled passion, enthusiasm and determination of each member made our group (or any successful group) what it was. Although many of our group members will continue living in Nepal, the departure of our guide and guru will make the group hard to recreate ever again. Here’s to sweet memories of Kathmandu’s Two-Wheeled Yetis and many more cycling adventures in Nepal and other spectacular corners of this special earth – cheers!

Cheers ya'll!  Get on your cycle and ride :-)

Cheers ya’ll! Get on your cycle and ride 🙂

Post Earthquake… How are we REALLY doing?

I understand that it is so difficult for those abroad to fathom what we are going through here and how life really is. There is such a broad range in how dramatically the Maha Bhukamp impacted peoples’ lives. We are all getting used to a “new normal” – for some that is far different from the original, for others there aren’t too many changes…

Some have fewer family members, some have additional house guests, some are living under a different roof, some have no work, some haven’t stopped working since the quake hit. The “new normal” might look very different or very similar, but for all of us, nothing feels the same… I attempt to paint a picture of how our lives currently look:

Are you, Prakash or the kids scared?
Scared of death, dying, or injury – not really… Prakash and I are not scared of potential future earthquakes or aftershocks. We’ve lived through, unscathed, 1 massive earthquake and over 240 aftershocks these past 3 weeks. While each aftershock comes, if I feel it, my blood pressure does rise, and momentary fear arises and subsequently dissipates within minutes. Other potential threats such as mass illness outbreaks, excessive flooding / liquefaction, unavailability of food and water – these have all been discussed in local media recently, but we feel the chances are tremendously low.

Noises – these do scare me… Thunder, helicopters and airplanes over head, door slams – all of these have been mistaken for potential aftershocks by everyone, hundreds of times! The earthquake was loud, some aftershocks have been loud, and each quietly approaching sound makes each of us jolt to attention. This is slowly subsiding as the actual aftershocks themselves are subsiding.

Our kids, thankfully, have felt safe, calming vibes from Prakash, me and the school, so they are not scared. Sleeping, eating, playing and misbehaving just like normal! The kids, all of us for that matter, say things like, “did you just feel that?” Our inner ears are playing tricks on us, trying to adjust back to normal – when we really aren’t moving, sometimes we feel like we are. But overall, they are happy and healthy!

Do you have power, food and water?
Electricity was restored shockingly quickly – only 48 hours after the first quake. Power cut off for only 5 hours after the largest aftershock (Tuesday, May 12). In addition, the numerous hours of load shedding Nepal residents are so used to (daily power cuts of 10-18 hours) have relaxed. We’ve had uninterrupted power. Many say this is because demand is substantially lower as many business and factories are not operating, many homes have demolished so not consuming power, and many families are living outdoors so using less power indoors.

Food supplies haven’t been very impacted. Shops we regularly visit have received their usual deliveries since the earthquake. Our dairy is closed, but milk is available at another dairy down the road. The bakeries we purchase bread from are up and running (The Secret Bakery had exceptional service even during the days immediately following the earthquake – yes, we were guiltily eating fresh bread, chocolate croissants and mushroom calzones days after the quake!). Most fruits and vegetables are readily available in the roadside markets (and in our thriving garden). We even bought freshly roasted peanut butter last week – that shop was closed for 2 weeks since the quake. Needless to say, we are eating as well after the quake as we were before.

Water, however, has been an issue for most people. In Nepal, residences and businesses can get water 1 of 3 ways: underground well on their property, tanker truck home deliveries and city-provided supply. Those who have wells, naturally have access to fairly plentiful supply. Tanker trucks were operating within 1 day after the Maha Bhukamp. We received a delivery 5 days after and again just this morning (The first week, there was some price gauging. Our expat friends were asked to pay 10,000 npr for a delivery of water that normally costs 1,600 npr. Blessed with a house helper who commands much respect and an appearance which can pass for locals, our driver only asked for 2,000 npr for that first delivery after the quake.) The city-provided water supply resumed just days ago, leaving many without water for over 3 weeks. Likely, some of the underground water pipes cracked or broke during the quake and aftershocks, therefore the water resumed significantly late. In the interim, some neighborhood families pitch in a bit of money each and order water truck deliveries. Also, some aid relief efforts delivered bottle water and tanker truck water to nearby villages.

Are the kids in school?
Yes… The British School and its AMAZING response to the Maha Bhukamp is perhaps the only reason the kids and I are still in Nepal. They closed for only 2 days, yes ONLY 2 days. School opened, Wednesday April 29th, in the most welcoming, peaceful, reassuring way. It felt like Disney Land for our strained, saddened, stress minds and hearts… Parents were welcomed to stay, chit chat with other parents, and drink tea and coffee. Kids had dozens of activities to do and play – legos, blocks, water play, painting, drama, crafts, board games, football, yoga – all outdoors as so many people were scared to go indoors. The aim was for the kids and parents to feel safe and relaxed, as compared to the trauma of the previous few days. It has been more than 2 weeks since school reopened after the earthquake and it has been a beautiful blend of playing and learning, with a heightened focus on safety.

Kathmandu schools, colleges and daycares, with the exception of the American and British International Schools, have not resumed – thus thousands of kids have been aimlessly playing, roaming around, waiting and waiting… The government initially closed schools and colleges for 2 weeks, then extended this for 2 more weeks after the May 12th aftershock. Some will reopen after these 4 weeks, however, hundreds of schools have been badly damaged so they cannot resume classes. Reconstruction of schools will hopefully increase in priority soon… People need homes first, then schools, health clinics, shops and offices can be rebuilt – all a tall order for a weak government.

What types of questions, concerns to the kids have?
The first week after the quake, I feel the kids were trying to wrap their heads around why so many of their friends left Nepal, yet we are still here and many of their other friends are still here. I tried explaining that there are no “right” decisions – we all are just doing what is best for our own families. They also questioned when the aftershocks would stop and why do we have to spend all day and night outside and why are we skipping baths again and why did some houses and walls fall down and not others… I did my best to explain. Thankfully, given the ages they are at, the intense fear only lasted a few minutes during the initial quake. Since then, they’ve been taking the aftershocks totally in stride – they’re part of daily life now…

Where are you sleeping?
We slept on the floor in our downstairs living room for about 7 days or so and moved up to our bedrooms after that (day #2 after the quake, we slept in a tent in the garden ; overnight rain and reduced aftershocks encouraged us to move back indoors). After the May 12th aftershock, the kids and I were keen on moving back down to the living room. Prakash adamantly refused to move back downstairs! Sleeping in the same room was more important to me, so we all slept in the kids’ room upstairs that night.

Many families in Kathmandu are living out under a tarp or within tents because their homes crumbled or have significant cracks. There are thousands of other people sleeping outdoors because they are just so scared of future aftershocks even though their homes have no damage. People are enjoying the sense of community with their neighbors during this time of grief. As the mosquitos population increases and the monsoon rains begin, hopefully the tent camps will fade.

Many others are sleeping in temporary shelters made of tin, steel, bamboo, and scraps from the rubble of demolished homes. There is a broad definition of “temporary”. Some are thinking these shelters will house them through the rainy season. Yet others are viewing them as a 2-3 year home… Many people are not emotionally ready to think about rebuilding.

Is the airport running at capacity?
Yes, the airport is running at greater than normal rates. Hundreds of aid planes and helicopters arrived into the country via its only international airport, KTM. Commercial airlines were still operating as many expats and tourists wanted to leave the country and aid workers were pouring into the country. Airport operations have stabilized a bit, but are still higher than normal.

Do you feel like leaving Nepal? Why haven’t you left yet?
Since Day 1 of the earthquake, Prakash and I haven’t had the urge to leave Nepal. Family and friends asked and asked us to leave for a bit, take a break, just get out of there! After surviving the Maha Bhukamp unscathed, we didn’t feel “unsafe” – if we made it through that, we’ll be fine through the aftershocks too.

Although we are a family of 5, I feel like we are more like 7. Leaving Tika Dai and Sonu (our devoted, family-like, house helpers) behind just wasn’t a swallowable proposition. In addition, we felt like doing a small part to help others – delivering tarps, food, water and more recently building temporary shelters.

Also, as all moms and dads can attest, kids are happiest when they are in their routine. The kids didn’t want to leave; they wanted to keep going to school. In fact, I gave them the option to join Prakash on his trip to Switzerland this week and none of the three wanted to go! They weren’t in the mood to sightsee, didn’t feel like “taking a break from Nepal or the aftershocks”, didn’t want to miss school, and anyways, “we’d still get to have yummy chocolates, because Baba would bring them back for us!” Glad to know their priorities are still in line :-).

Are you still planning on your US trip?
Yes! We are looking forward to our summer vacation in Virginia, California and North Carolina this summer.

So, in summary, we are really doing just fine! Our emotions have their ups and downs. Ups – GRATEFUL to have our lives, no injuries, our house, our friends, an open and amazing school, unharmed workplace for Prakash ; HAPPY to give to others even though it seems so minuscule in comparison to their needs ; BLESSED that the earthquake happened on a Saturday at lunchtime instead of a weekday or in the night time. Downs – GUILTY that our lives still look exactly the same as before the quake ; SAD that so many people so close to us are suffering so much ; FRUSTRATED that our efforts to provide some relief to those in need are insignificant or maybe even causing more damage than good. We really really really miss our old, carefree, blissful life, but are slowly getting used to the “new normal”.

20 days since the Maha Bhukamp, by Prakash Bhave

With almost 20 days having passed since the Maha Bhukamp (Nepali for “Great Earthquake”), I realized a message to family and friends was long overdue.  While writing down my thoughts Tuesday morning, I downloaded some data from Nepal’s National Seismological Centre to convince myself that we’re really in the clear.  Other distractions arose and soon it was lunch time.  The ICIMOD cafeteria runs out of food by 12:45, so that interrupted my writing one last time.  I was taking the first bite from my plate of momos when the “second” Maha Bhukamp hit.  Uggh.  Duck, cover, hold, …  Wait for the shaking to stop, go outside, watch colleagues frantically call their families and try in vain to contact mine, run up to my office to collect my laptop and unfinished work, go home.

The past 2 weeks have been a drawn-out lesson in disaster recovery on both a personal and institutional level.  In brief, I experienced the following sequence of emotions after the earthquake:

  1. Feeling lucky that our family was not hurt, that our home was not damaged.
  1. Informing relatives and friends that we’re okay.  Facebook was perfect for this, as ICIMOD’s backup power generator (along with email server) went down during the quake.
  1. Feeling numerous aftershocks – some real and others imagined.  Debating whether to sleep inside or outside of our house; upstairs in our bedrooms or downstairs near an exit?
  1. Wondering how long it would be until water and power would be restored; whether we’d run out of food before the stores were restocked with supplies from outside Kathmandu.
  1. Quit waiting for the next aftershock and try to make ourselves useful to city residents who had lost their homes.
  1. Returning to ICIMOD 3 days after the earthquake to lead our office’s task force for immediate relief over the next 8 days.  (see https://www.facebook.com/icimod for a summary of our efforts)
  1. Balancing the needs of our daily-wage support staff (e.g., custodial, security, cafeteria workers, drivers) who lost some belongings against their next-door neighbors who had lost everything
  1. Deciding whether to provide relief to a devastated village where our staff have close relatives or to one where ICIMOD has ongoing pilot projects and local partners in desperate need
  1. Pondering how one draws the line between earthquake relief and poverty relief.  Due to daily rainstorms, some form of shelter (i.e., tarp, rope, blankets) was urgent for those who lost their homes;  water purification and disinfectants seemed necessary for those in tarp-covered camps.  But once the local stores reopened, were donations of food appropriate?
  1. Deciding to end ICIMOD’s immediate relief efforts and try to shift our focus back to ICIMOD’s regular work of improving the mountain environments and the livelihoods of mountain people (i.e., sustainable poverty alleviation)
  1. Oscillating between feelings of guilt for not providing more relief and righteousness for not having left the country with many other ExPats
  1. Feeling utterly incapable of focusing on any medium- or long-term tasks back at the office.  The psychologists who came to counsel us kept using the term “Hyperalert” to describe our state of mind – i.e., poised to react to any stimulus, but not in a condition to think critically.
  1. Recognizing that we are physically okay, but emotionally fractured; and that, soon, our mental functions would return to normal.
  1. Plotting a time-series of the aftershock magnitudes, concluding that the worst is behind us and, then, experiencing another massive quake 2 days ago.
  1. Again, informing relatives and Facebook that we’re okay.  Again, debating where to sleep.  Again, experiencing large aftershocks through the night.

Thanks for all of your messages of concern and your prayers.  Nita and I are moved by the outpouring of condolences and offers of help, and I regret that I did not write sooner.  I know that the physical damage looks much worse from afar than it has been for us personally, because the TV and Internet show the worst hit places which are horrendous.  In contrast, our neighborhood had very little damage and our friends are physically unharmed.  All 250+ ICIMOD staff and their immediate families survived the Maha Bhukamp (only a few minor injuries were reported).  Likewise, all children, staff, and families at our kids’ school and in our neighborhood are okay.

But while evacuating the office on Tuesday, one of my Nepali colleagues asked “Prakash, do you think we are cursed?”  I’m sure this thought is going through the minds of many Nepalis right now.  I don’t think the country or its people are cursed, but this natural disaster is certainly wearing everyone down.  And here, I’m just talking about the millions (like me) who are uninjured and whose homes are intact!

Hopefully this gives everyone an idea of what we’re going through since the earthquake.  Feel free to share this with your friends and family to offer another perspective, one that isn’t available through mass media.  I look forward to meeting many of you in the USA during our visit in July!

Time-series plot of earthquake and aftershock data.

Time-series plot of earthquake and aftershock data.