Sunday, 24 January 2010

Hi everyone,

Just to let you know I am back safely if you haven't seen or heard from me yet and to fill you in on my last days in Nepal. It all seems so long ago now, trying to believe that I was there only just over a week ago is the hardest thing!

As planned we finished off a lot of bits and pieces in the last week, including brightening up the drab lamp post outside the home with huge "Shangri-La" letters which can be seen right from the end of the track a few hundred metres away! definitely helps people find us and now everyone in the area seems to know where and what we are.

The poor old memory game I made a couple of weeks earlier was on its last legs so we made a new one and took a trip down to the local carpenters who kindly let us have some scraps of wood and used their tools to cut them into backings for the cards. Hopefully they will last a few years now.

It was good to spend some more time with the children at the weekend and we had another trip to the park for the usual frisbee and ball games and some enthusiastic wheelbarrow races!

I had been longing to speak with the children and give some counselling about their pasts and to find out how they were getting on in their new home. We managed to speak to Sita, who we knew had been orphaned after both her parents had committed suicide, and three year old Benjamin who had been living on the streets.

It was wonderful to see their smiles as they told us how they enjoyed their comfortable new beds, food and friends and family. Having to delve further into their pasts wasn't easy but I know there is a lot of hurt there which for many of the children is never expressed or spoken of. After Sita's parents chose to end their lives under the strain of trying to bring up a family in such poverty, Sita had tried to look after her two younger siblings. They found a little support from their grandparents, but because they were so elderly Sita ended up doing all the work. Her face clouded over as she began to recall how she spent her days walking a long way to collect water, to the forest to find leaves to feed the animals and tried her best to find enough food for her siblings. She began to cry as she told us there was never enough, she didn't have time or money to go to school and had no hope. Until now I don't think she had imagined a future, and her face lit up when she announced she would like to be a doctor (probably inspired by her trip to the eye hospital the other day!) It really struck me then how much I take for granted, and how much her education and food as well as her new supportive family must mean to her.

Benjamin told us he used to be beaten by his older brother and drunken father on the streets, how he didn't see his mother since she had re-married. He and his friend Abasek have already decided they are so happy here they never want to go anywhere else. It was very encouraging to hear.

Benjamin on the street

...and now

I was able to do all the final admin (collecting all the details of the other children from Krishna, seeing what needed updating on the website, etc) in Kathmandu, which left a day free in Pokhara, while the children were at school, to do what I had always wanted to do and hadn't had time: Krishna and I walked round the bottom of the lake and up a steep hill the other side, coming over the top to an incredible view over the lake, Pokhara and a snowy Himalayan panorama behind. Beautiful.

The last evening I was persuaded to make a goodbye meal, and managed to change the children's view of English food (after the less successful Christmas meal!) with spaghetti and veg in a tuna sauce... None of the children had tried spaghetti or tuna before and it was quite an experience!

I said goodbye to the children as they went off to school, just the same as usual. I'm not sure if the younger ones understood I wouldn't be coming back (at least for a while) but in a way that made it easier.

Thank you to all who have been reading, I have appreciated your comments and support and interest and also incredible generosity. I always say that work like this can be heartbreaking and emotionally draining, but is always balanced by the kindness of others. Without you it honestly wouldn't have been possible, your thoughts and interest has been an inspiration and every penny donated has been appreciated immensely!

Lots of love,
Shangri-la family

Friday, 8 January 2010

Hi everyone and happy new year!

It has been a busy couple of weeks for us since last writing to you, lots to say as usual but I will be limited to how long my fingers still have feeling in them! I am back outside under the stairs up to the rooftop. The children are happily playing cards next door and it’s already dark with smells of wood smoke and garlic and ginger frying from households all around. It’s been particularly cold today as the sun didn’t come out until mid afternoon and actually drizzled in the morning – the first during the day since I arrived which provoked a lot of grumbling amongst all the locals who buried themselves in even more layers than normal and barely surfaced from their homes until the sun shone. I’m enjoying what would be an extremely good British summer apart from the chilly nights.

We’re having eight hours power off a day now, though luckily it doesn’t affect us too much since spending one of our donations on a big battery which supplies enough for all our lighting, plus a few hours other electricity during the power cuts. It makes a huge difference, we’re certainty very thankful for it and I’m sure the envy of everyone else who at the moment are all in darkness. There’s so little rain the local hydro power stations can’t produce enough to supplement the main supply coming in from Kathmandu so all the neighbourhoods in the area are on a tight schedule to share the little there is.

The children all went back to school and nursery after the holidays a couple of days ago which has left the house very quiet until lunchtime when the little ones come back. Krishna and I have at last finished many projects, including the toilet (well, not quite – it still needs a door, flush and light) but is already being used (pouring water down while we wait for the flush) and appreciated by all.

A second water tank was eventually installed on the roof after days waiting for the welder to fix it to its frame and a plumber to connect it to the water supplies. The first one wasn’t providing enough and needed to be pumped several times a day so now we can relax and know we’re not going to run out of water!

The budget was a nice surprise when we went through it carefully a day last week. I was imagining we might have up to a couple of thousand pounds deficit by the end of the year, but it turned out we have actually saved money on the opening costs and are able to put this towards the rising monthly costs (higher than initially planned because of inflation and various extra expenses we hadn’t anticipated). According to our new estimate we will just be under 500 pounds short by the end of the year which I’ll be able to fundraise for during the year.

I’m looking forward to the last day of painting, which I have expected to come "tomorrow" all week but at last the day seems near and it will be good to spend more time doing the admin things I planned to do with Krishna while here and spend more time with the children. They have been playing the memory game I quickly put together last week in their every spare moment and still get very excited at the mentioning of it.

They have also been learning Ludo and snakes and ladders which Krishna bought them earlier in the week and have been enjoying the newly painted swing!

The older children have been happily helping with various gardening, in our well cultivated veg patch in the field next to the home and planting the flowers I decided the garden needed to make it the “mountain paradise” Shangri-La means.

We have had a few more trips to the park and the other day everyone came down to the river for the afternoon. We set out on the bus which was an experience for many who had never traveled that way before, holding on tightly with wide eyes.

It’s great how well they were able to entertain themselves, skimming stones and building homes from the river rocks, all being careful that no one strayed onto their territory!

The little ones joined in with great seriousness and creativity, adding gardens, stacks of firewood and even a bucket of water from a bottle top! They were excited to see monkeys on the opposite bank, a lizard and bright blue-tailed kingfisher. On the way back we dropped in at a hydro power station, and saw some planes landing at the airstrip just the other side of a fence!

The home’s teacher, Dipak, continued to come during the holiday and we took a few classes together, introducing “I spy”, hangman and sherads – anything a bit more interactive than reading from their workbooks and not understanding the meanings!

Three year old Abasek had been suspected of having leprosy by the doctor, and we took him to the local leprosy hospital to get it checked out. He had lived on the streets before coming to the home and had developed white marks on his face. His mother had suffered the disease so it seamed likely. Unfairly we were fast-tracked through the huge queue who had traveled across the country to get there and maybe even waited a day or two…only a third of everyone got to see a doctor each day but seeing my white skin they gave us priority and Abasek was inspected with a sensation test – by pulling his hat over is eyes and being pricked on the white spots to see if he could feel anything (which he could) and then skin tests taken from each spot – he was very brave as they made slits and took the samples.

After a while sitting in the sun waiting for the results he was given the all-clear and told that it’s a common skin disease from living on the streets and will go away now he’s washing properly, and won’t spread to the other children.

We also took Sita, one of the older girls who is suffering an eye infection, to the eye hospital. Luckily it turned out to be no more than dandruff in her eyelashes (I didn’t know that was possible!) which is irritating her eyes and they proscribed us baby shampoo to wash her eyelids with!

We celebrated New Year with a fish stew and fire in the garden. Unfortunately no fireworks and it was impossible to find anything like sparklers other than incense sticks but the fire was very welcome and we had a bright sky full of stars.

This morning Krishna took me up Sarangot to see the sun rise, a hill on the edge of Pokhara with fantastic views of the Himalayas. Incredible as always.

Time for dhal batt.

Hope you're all well,

Lots of love,

Esther xxx

Saturday, 26 December 2009

a first Chrismas

Good morning all, and welcome to news from week two in Nepal, spent trekking and celebrating Christmas with the children back at the home. Today I am writing from the comfort of the home’s “office”, a convenient little space under the stairs where a small table has been slotted in with enough space for my old laptop. The three-year-olds are peeping through the banisters, calling, “Miss, Miss! Hello!” and chattering away to me in Nepali which they still hope I will understand. Loud “toots” are coming from next door from the balloon hooters some of the children got in the pass-the-parcel last night and others are jumping round the door to show me the small toys and lollipops they got. The older children are studying away on the rooftop with the home’s teacher, Dipak. Krishna is busy with the toilet plasterers who have at last arrived after at least a week of promising to come “tomorrow” and the house mother, Sarita, is busy preparing the next dhal batt.
I hope you all had a really lovely Christmas, with lots of snow? I had to think of Christmas back in the UK several times to remind me that it was really Christmas, but really enjoyed our celebrations here as did all the children! To join in with all the British snow it kindly decided to rain heavily late on Christmas Eve which fell as snow higher up and cleared the skies so the next morning we woke up to incredible views of the white mountains.

Since the children’s socks were all dirty we asked them to give us their hats before going to bed. They had no idea what was going on and were a little annoyed to be parted from them. I awoke to the older girls getting up as usual and was excited to see their amazement at what had found its way into their hats! Coming through to the sitting room the older boys were just getting up with similar looks of bemusement and the little ones came through sleepily, each carrying their hat and holding it up to me to go through with them. Krishna told me how they had woken at five and had started going through their treasures “like rats”!

Having got back from trekking (which was incredible, I will tell you more later) on Christmas Eve, we spent the evening making paper chains with the children, and our secretary, Birut (a good friend of Krishna’s who lives just up the road and likes to drop in most evenings) bought lots of bright fairly lights. We decorated the tiny Christmas tree which the previous owners thoughtfully planted – perhaps one foot high – with as many lights and decorations as a usual tree! The children really enjoyed making paper decorations and by the end the whole thing was a huge blob of colour with no tree to be seen!

After the children had opened their hats we were joined by Birut, Dipak Sarita and her daughter and all took a couple of boats across the lake which is just ten minutes from the home. We had a huge feast of biscuits, chrisps and soft drinks – it was the first time many of them had eaten such things and certainly the first for straws!!

Christmas dinner was unfortunately less of a success but I have now learned not to make the children anything other than their beloved dhal batt! Having grown up with lots of salt and chillie in everything it seems that anything lacking these essential ingredients is tasteless and barely worth contemplating. I thought they might appreciate some meat so bought chicken and made a stew, pressure cooked with lots of ginger, vegetables and even masala and coriander in a thick gravy. I was excited to see what they thought of it but after dolling it out there was a long silence, no shouts of “micho” and the carrots and courgettes were held up and scrutinised before being put aside and the rice eaten cautiously with the chicken. Benjamin tried so hard to muster the courage to eat it all, sitting for an hour mincing it all together in his fingers and looking dolefully but in the end got a tummy ache from all the biscuits earlier and had to give up. By this time it was a little late for the camp fire and marsh mallows we had planned so we had this yesterday evening along with the pass-the-parcel.
Yesterday afternoon we went to the park and again had lots of fun on the climbing frame, with balloons, balls, skipping ropes and frisbee. We also tried out the slide for the first time – not the safest of constructions being extremely fast with no sides and required lots of catching as they shot off either side of flew off the bottom!
The children have a couple of weeks winter holiday so we will need to think of lots more things to keep them entertained now Christmas is over. It’s also great to have the housemother here and teacher in the mornings to help amuse the children while we get on with various other jobs. We hope to have the toilet block finished soon – the next thing will be to tile and paint it, and we also need to make some signposts for the home. The other main thing, which we are waiting to do at the end of the month, is to go through our financial accounts in more detail and calculate how well we are keeping to the budget. From a rough estimate it seems that we are keeping fairly well to the initial plan but inevitably various unexpected expenses have come up and we will need to work out how much further funding will be needed for this coming year. We have decided, for the moment, not to advertise our home in the local area to attract visitors and volunteers, as seeing how well the home currently works as a family, we want to keep its privacy as far as possible. Instead I will register the home in the UK which I hope will open us to further sources of funding from charities and trusts, and failing this we can resort to publicising ourselves here. Having said that we are keen to have a few longish-term volunteers through personal contacts in the UK who can be part of the family and contribute various skills so for those of you who are interested we would still love to have you!
Now to tell you about the trekking – certainly one of the most incredible weeks of my life, and something I couldn’t recommend more to anyone who loves the outdoors, beautiful scenery and cultural diversity. Words just can’t express the beauty and tranquility of the mountains; to listen and hear nothing but the occasional bird or gurgle of a river; the sunrises, the friendly smiles and hospitality of the people. Having left in a taxi to the nearest bus stop to the start of the trek last Friday evening, we found each bus was incredibly full with locals hanging off the sides and choking the roofs.
After about an hour of the regularly passing buses showing no sign of emptying we decided to get a taxi (Krishna would have been happy getting the bus but having had such an experience last time I was here I was happy to forgo this one!) passing through orange groves, along a river and up to a small village, where we started walking as the sun started going down. After an hour or two of steep climb through forest, it was still just light enough to see as we got into the first camp. We were welcomed into a homely room with a warm fire and our old host shuffled off to milk his buffalo, returning with steaming mugs of the incredibly creamy milk.
The next morning was an incredible sunrise over the mountains and mist-filled valleys, something we would see for the rest of the trek.
The next couple of days were particularly beautiful through forests and valleys and countless idyllic rural villages, with children playing marbles, helping their parents in the fields, gathering water, feeding animals and sorting maize, even some weaving with yak’s wool.

The next couple of days were harder as the trail got steeper, climbing up countless steps to eventually arrive at Poon Hill for sunrise. At something over 3,000m we had incredible panoramic views of various mountain ranges and into the Mustang Valley, a mountain desert bordering the Tibetan plateau.

Then down thousands of steps (apparently over 3,000 – I thought I did well to climb up and down my 4 flights of stairs in Oxford!) to a small riverside village on the edge of the National Park just a half hour walk from the bus back to Pokhara which we got the next morning.
The sun has at last come out and the air under the stairs is chilly enough to make my toes feel numb so up to the roof now to join the children having their lunch. I think more painting is in store for the afternoon…
Thanks again for reading,
lots of love,
Shangri-La Family

Thursday, 17 December 2009

first news from Nepal

Namaste all and welcome to blog number one! I have been here in Pokhara, Nepal for a little under a week now, having arrived on Sunday after the usual six hour bone-shaking bus trip from Kathmandu where I flew in on Saturday. Life back in Oxford seems a million miles away now (which I guess it is) and the longer I am here the more it feels as though I have never been away. The streets of Pokhara seem so familiar; the cool Himalayan air, hot sun and incredible views of snow capped peaks sawing up to unbelievable heights, the bustle of daily life with tourists haggling over exquisite and brightly coloured pashminas and trekking goods, fruit stalls piled with mounds of juicy suntalas (tangerines), smells of incense and the sounds of flutes and Tibetan chanting, "omne-padne-hum" while the ever placid cows wander between a myriad of dodging and hooting motorbikes.

Having planned to come here to help get the home set up, furnished and equipped and hopefully having some time to help collect the children Krishna has been finding over the past few months, I was astonished to discover how much has already been done. Krishna was able to get the home officially registered to his existing NGO, Helping Society Nepal in just a few days (which I imagined could take months) and since this required renting the home and having it available for the registering authorities to carry out checks on before registering, we have had the house since November.

In just a couple of weeks it was fully furnished and equipped enough to take on the first nine children. Two from the Southern plains of the Tarai (Eight year old Rupak orphaned and put to child labour, three year old Manju the result of rape to a very young mother and sent to her grandmother who was unable and unwilling to look after her when her mother married), three from the far West of Nepal which is still very undeveloped and receives little social support where Krishna travelled with a community worker who was able to help him select three girls who were living with guardians who were also putting them to hard work each day and had barely had the chance to go to school. Also a brother and sister from the streets of Pokhara where their alcoholic grandmother had sent them to sell newspapers and would force them to sleep there if they did not earn enough in the day. She would drink most of it and obviously fed them very little. Then two tiny three year olds who were living alongside the main road that connects Nepal's two main cities, Kathmandu and Pokhara. It is incredible that they have had such pasts when you see their loving and caring characters, certainly the Benjamin and Abasek who had lived along the road are a little wild but are such little characters and never tire or running at me for hugs and to be thrown in the air and dangled upside down! The older girls are especially good at looking after the little ones.

Although we had initially planned to take on twelve and expand when we are able to find further funding, we have decided to keep it a small family style environment seeing how well the children have already adapted. It is sweet how Benjamin already calls Krishna Papa as do some of the others. We will keep two more spaces free for "Emergencies", children that are bought to Krishna through the authorities who have no other chance or whom Krishna comes across.
Despite so much already being done there has been plenty to do this week. The first day I was made to rest and spent the morning playing with the little ones while the older children were at school doing exams. They were finished by lunch and after their dahl batt (with much enthusiastic slurping and grinning and shouts of "mitco!" (delicious!) we went down to the park with balls, skipping ropes and balloons and had great fun on the climbing frame. The little ones quickly developed a ritual of climbing to the highest point in the park and jumping off as quick as I was able to catch them!
The next day the three little ones went to nursery school while the others went off to do their exams. Unfortunately they haven't been able to go every day as there has been so much government striking for various political reasons. It's heartbreaking seeing them returning home all forlorn after the excitement of getting ready to go to school like today but its lovely to have them around.
When not looking after the little ones Krishna has been busy helping the builder to construct a new toilet block round the back of the home. At the moment all nine are all trooping into the one and only longdrop beside the kitchen which isn't the most hygienic!

I've been doing a lot of painting - rust cover for the water tanks on the roof, brightening up the swings and front gate while the children periodically survey and tell me it is "very, very beautiful!" They've enjoyed doing some watercolor painting too and love the little modelling clay I was able to bring with me.
I have been very privileged to be allowed to cook with the house mother and she taught me how to make momo's which was surprisingly easy and great fun!
After all Krishna's hard work he is definitely ready for a holiday and this week the house mother and secretary will be in charge of the home while Krishna takes some much needed days off. He has offered to take me on the Goropani-Gandruk trail, a beautiful sounding trek around the foothills of the Annapurna Himalayan range. We will be back in time to celebrate Christmas with the children, which will be their will be their first as it is not much celebrated here. I'm so excited!
Hope you all have a lovely Christmas. I'm so sorry I won't be with many of you as usual but will be thinking of you. Thanks for reading, hopefully it will be a little shorter next week!
Lots of love,
Shangri-La family

Friday, 6 November 2009

Welcome to Shangri-La blog!

Hi there,

I will be filling you in on all our news as Krishna and I get the home up and running in December 2009.

I hope you'll be back soon to hear all our news!

Shangri-la family