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Friday, April 9, 2010

a journey through problems

I woke up at around two in the morning to find myself suffocating for lack of air. As I tried desperately to make some sense out of this new inconvenience, in my state of semi-consciousness I realized that we had forgotten to open the little ventilation window above my head. As I propped up the window- the boys snored away heavily, snuggling in their cozy sleeping bags, unaware of the fact that I had just saved all our lives. At five in the morning I was woken up again- this time by little droplets of water landing gently on my face. The dew had condensed into the innards of the tent overnight and now was dripping from the ceiling. I took it as nature's way of telling us to get up. I obliged. Attempts to distort this natural alarm clock by sealing the tent with garbage bags were to prove unfruitful in days to come. 

Tea was served. It is probably worth mentioning that people there didn't know how to make tea. Dawa gave them a crash course on tea making (along with the tea we had brought along) the other day when our tents were being set up. After lazing through the morning, we decided to do laundry- a noble idea as every garment we had smelt of sweat and mud by now. Washing clothes with river water is an experience not everyone can boast of. As I had just taken up David on the offer to wash his clothes in return of some other favor (I forget..could have been nutrigrain bars), some villagers from down in Ward 2 came down to meet us. As the only one who could communicate, I hesitantly handed over the daunting responsibility of washing clothes to the two white boys from the land of washing machines.

The villagers had heard of our arrival and were curious as to what kind of work we were there for. I told them that we had come to get an idea of what problems they had, and see if we could help solve some of them. Word travels fast in a village, and so does fabricated gossip. They confessed to me that they had heard that we were here to set up a trekking company. I assured them that as a bunch of kids living in a tent that leaks at night, we did not have the economic expertise nor the interest to make money off of their poverty. Convincing people of our authenticity was something we overlooked in our planning. But that was ok, we were there to learn as we go. They then invited us to visit their ward (where the only sub-healthpost of the VDC was located) and a few schools there the next day. The Phakumba VDC is sub-divided into 9 different wards, and given there were no roads or even trails discernable to the unacquainted eye, getting from one to another could take up a good chunk of your day. As darkness reigned and the temperature dropped from a good eighty to a biting thirty in a span of a few minutes, we hurried through our line of still wet clothes and put them into the tent for the night. We enetertained ourselves by playing soccer with the kids, games of rummy among ourselves, and by writing our thoughts here and there. Far in the hills you could see signs of sporadic settlement. The one to the east- with electricity- we assumed was Taplejung bazaar. 

The next day we made a trip down to the ward. Aakash, a kid from the house we stayed at, volunteered to show us down to ward two. He was a shy teenager with a friendly smile and an adorable rural sherpa accent. We'd grow fond of this little brother of ours by the time we would bid farewell to this family. But as of now we found ourselves struggling hard to keep up with him already as he cruised through the rocky hills. I was, for once, thankful for David's injured knee because it was saving me some of the embarrassment of being slow. We first stopped at a small school (Patidada lower secondary) that runs up to grade eight. We talked to the principal and teachers of the school and asked them for the problems they faced. Lack of government support, facilities, negligence to fulfill the legal quota for teachers by the ministry yada yada was the theme. Nothing surprising for me, yet. We promised to help in any way we could and moved on. At the healthpost the villagers were waiting for us. Plenty of surprises there! For starters- the Assitant health worker, in charge of running the health center was on a vacation and so was the nurse ! Therefore, the responsibility was handed down to the next logical person in the hierarchy- THE PEON! But this guy hadn't arrived yet. You couldn't really blame him. After all, it was only 2 pm in the day! Just FOUR hours late, if he were to show up then. A small line of patients waited patiently. Their non-chalant expressions hinted this was normal practice. After a few phone calls were made (some people do have the luxury of cell phones there), he showed up. A quick and dirty tour of the health post left us in shock. The health post receives twenty one medicines from the government every four months but runs out in the first month itself. Which means nine out of twelve months in the year- there are no medicines. The next alternative people have is to walk to Taplejung- eight hours! Common-cold could kill you here! No wonder diarrhoea is lethal. For once I was grateful for all the witch doctors around. If nothing else, the placebo effect must be saving a few lives here and there. Shaken, we made our promises and moved on. On our way up to the only secondary school (upto grade 10) in the VDC, we stopped by a small primary school. It was barely a school. What it was, was an infrastructure made of bamboos. But the effort was commendable as it was set up by a local youth on his own.  The secondary school (Mahendra Secondary School) was pretty big but looked like was in need of some serious renovation. The principal of the school, sadly, did not take us seriously and tried to dismiss us as tourists. A few teachers tried to be helpful. I ended up ranting about how his attitude was stereotypical of a defeated Nepalese mindset and that it accounted for the present state of the nation. We left the school, struggled up the hills, and crawled back to our tents, tired from the day. 

Although our experience within the house and the kids were memorable ones filled with novel and mentionable incidents, I feel the boys are better suited to comment on that. So, I will focus on the business end of things while letting them express their perspective on the culture.