Daal Bhat, Daal Bhat, Daal Bhat

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December 8th 2011
Published: December 8th 2011
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CHAPAGAON IS THE CHEERIEST, prettiest, most lovable little village in all of Nepal (or at least I think so). Although we were only there 7 days it will always have a place in my heart. I have been wanting to volunteer abroad for as long as I can remember and I finally got the opportunity to do so at the Jyotidaya Co-operative School in Chapagaon. The village is located in the Lilipur district of Kathmandu valley and although its very close to Kathmandu it is a world apart. While Kathmandu is dusty and polluted and filled with trash and beeping horns; Chapagoan is green and verdant - filled with rice and mustard fields, cobblestone roads, and a Himalaya lined backdrop. We arrived there on the Nov. 18th after spending a couple of days in Thamel recuperating from our trek.

A bit of background on the school. Public schools in Nepal are notoriously bad. They are connected to the government which is bad since the government in Nepal is in a constant state of flux. Due to this there are frequent cancellations, strikes, and often teachers don’t show up because they are paid so poorly. The public education system ends at grade 10. If students want to continue their studies after this they must first pass a national exam. Unfortunately, due to the quality of the education system only about 30-40%!o(MISSING)f all students pass the exam. Jyotidaya is trying to address this problem. Their goal is to offer both affordable and quality education – two things that generally do not co-exist in Nepal. Thus far they have succeeded. They have been open for 15 years and so far 100%!o(MISSING)f their students have passed the national exam.

Shisir, the director of Sarvodaya (a non profit that works closely with Jyotidaya school) met us in Thamel on the morning of the 18th and we rode with him out to a dusty little spot in Kathmandu valley where the school was having an all day picnic. It was a great introduction to the school - we met all of the staff including a volunteer from the States named Kelly who we befriended right away (she is super fun, outging and great with kids), and lots of the students. The older girls were especially interested in me – many of them smiled shyly at me from afar while the braver ones walk right up and ask me what my name was. Most of all they wanted me to dance with them to Indian and Nepali pop music, which I did for most of the afternoon (they even convinced Travis to join in for a bit!).

After the picnic we headed to our host family’s home, a two story concrete building off the main road in Chapagoan. The family consists of Rameshwar, who is the Principal of Jyotidaya school, his wife, Kalpana, and their 4 year old daughter, Looja. Just a few feet away is Rameshwar’s brother’s house. The two households are practically connected with the other family coming and going all day long and vice versa. A little four year old boy named Arjant (Looja’s cousin) lives in the other house and was equally intrigued and scared of Travis and I. The entire time we were staying there he would sneak up to the our house, stealthily peak his dark, kohl lined eyes around the side of the door or window and then run away giggling as soon as we noticed he was there. It was adorable - we would be sitting in the kitchen eating dinner and out of the corner of my eye I would see Arjant’s two little eyes appear in the window frame. When I looked back a second time they would be gone. Staying with Rameshwar’s family was a great experience. Kalpana fed us huge, delicious meals everyday (usually daal baat) and served us never ending cups of masala tea and biscuits in the afternoon. This needs some further explaining. Almost 99% of Nepalis eat two large meals of daal baat a day – one around 10am and one around 7pm. Daal baat is an incredibly large portion of rice, lentils, curry and pickled vegetables. As the family or guests eat the woman of the house refills their plates. This results in a seemingly never ending meal – as soon as you finish a portion of the meal it is instantly replenished (often before you finish it). While this is great for Nepalis, as they seem to be well fed, it was hard for us since we could never seem to finish the food that was on our plates. It was a constant struggle. I would be sitting there, belly expanded to full capacity, and I would see Kalpana coming towards me with another huge helping of rice or curry. The next events would unfold in slow motion…me saying “no thank you, I cant eat anymore” and shaking my head profusely; Kalpana walking towards me saying “a little more, yes?” and emptying the heaping portion of rice onto my plate before I can block it with my body. Needless to say, we never went hungry. Rameshar and Kaplana were incredibly hospitable, douting on us anyway that they could. The only discomfort was the pack of wild dogs that seemed to hold a convention outside our window every night - I swear there was mandatory attendance for every dog in the whole damn country.

The following day we woke up early, ate a large meal of daal baat (another daal baat vs. belly battle occurred) and headed to the school for the first time. We were a little worried that we would just be in the way and not have anything to do, but our fears were quickly alleviated. In the morning we sat in on Kelly’s 9th grade English class. I was amazed at how well behaved the kids were and how good their English was (that day they were discussing the use of pesticides on plants). Afterwards the class asked Travis and I to stay and “interact” with them since it was their leisure period. We agreed, thinking that another teacher was going to show up and we were simply going to sit in the back and hang. Instead, we entered the classroom to find all of them staring up at us expectantly, waiting for us to lead them in some type of activity. Thankfully, due to my awesome camp counsellor skills I was able to pull some stuff out of my sleeve (yes, we did sing the Moose song). That evening after school we walked into town and bought a smattering of art supplies including paints, markers, crayons, sketchbooks, colored pencils and so on that we planned to use with the kids the following day.

On our second day in the school we started our art program. I had noticed that the classroom walls were incredibly bare so I wanted to add a little interest to the space they spent so much time in (they attend school 6 days a week and the days are long). Plus, I think art has a multitude of positive benefits. I realize, however, that it is also a luxury that not everyone can afford. The art sessions were a huge hit! The kids dug right in – thrilled to be out of class and doing something different. They seemed to really enjoy the opportunity to be creative. They worked together wonderfully – sharing the space and materials, and they really focused on their pictures, taking pride in what they were doing (many of the paintings were of mountains and village scenes). Travis and I also had the idea to take a class portrait of each of the classes. We figured this was a gift we could give that would last long after we had left. One by one we drug each and every classroom of students (13 in total) outside and took their photograph against the backdrop of rice fields and the Himalayas. It was quite a large effort - organizing them and trying to make them all look at the camera and smile. The little tiny kids were the hardest - they all squirmed and hid from me, completely unsure of who this weird lady was in weird clothes and why she was talking to them in words they didn’t understand. That night Rameshwar dropped off the images in town to get printed and framed.

Day three at the school was equally as busy as the first and second. In the morning we rode into town with Rameshwar and Ramesh (the math teacher and Kelly’s host father) to buy carpet for the pre-school and lower kindergarten room. Like all the other classrooms their floor was cement. While this was okay for the older kids who sat at desks all day it made it hard for the little ones to play or take naps (as little ones often do). We carried the huge rolls of carpet back with us on the motorbikes and then proceeded to install them in the classrooms. Yep, I installed carpet – never thought I would be able to say that! That afternoon the 9th grade class came looking for us again. They were obsessed with getting me to dance for them to “American” music as I had told them that dancing was one of my hobbies when they asked me what I liked to do. I made them a deal – I wasn’t going to just stand in front of them and dance but I would dance with them. This soon evolved to me leading the whole class in hip hop dance moves with help from the amazing Kelly. So there we were – standing outside on the small dusty piece of land next to the school – blasting Lyrics Born and me standing in the center going “okay everybody, I wanna see you move those hips!” Several Nepali ladies watched us from a few feet away - they surely thought this was an absolute riot.

That evening we were invited over to Ramesh and Ruku’s house (Kelly’s host family) for dinner. Ruku served us huge, heaping piles of daal baat. Unlike our host family’s house, this house was an older, more traditional Nepali home built with clay bricks and a dirt floor. Since we were sitting on a dirt floor, and eating daal baat cooked on a small clay oven we decided it was time to dig in and use our hands as the Nepalis do. Ramesh and Ruku were thorougly amused as we spilled all over ourselves and made a huge mess. Per usual, we had to fight off Ruku from trying to serve us more food far after our bellies were full. After dinner Ramesh poured us some Raksi, the local Nepali alcohol (his mother had made this batch) and we sat around and talked for several hours about the differences between Nepali and American culture, politics, travel and so on. Ramesh has an extremely likeable personality – he is incredibly genuine and always laughing. His happiness was contagious.

The next morning the school pictures we had taken the previous day were ready! They had all been blown up to 8x12’s and framed and they looked amazing! We went around to each classroom with Rameshwar to show the respective classes and hang them up in front next to the chalkboard. The reaction from the students was HUGE. While the art sessions had been a fun treat, the class photos were an absolute slam dunk. The kids could not take their eyes off them. I walked by several of the classrooms over an hour after we had hung up the picture to find many of them still staring up at it admiringly. The first class we went to were the pre-schoolers. As we walked in the room the little kids swarmed us straining to see what it was that we were holding. One little boy took the photo out of my hands and began staring at it intently. He looked at it for quite some time introspectively, and then suddenly, his eyes lit up and a huge smile spread across his face – he realized it was a picture of himself. He was absolutely overflowing with joy! It was incredibly rewarding to see his and the other students’ reaction.

We spent most of that afternoon playing outside with the different grades during their leisure time. The 9th grade girls kidnapped me again and taught me several Nepali schoolyard games. One of them was similar to London Bridges, followed by tug of war but with no rope (instead, I was the rope). That afternoon Rameshwar closed the school down a couple hours early that day so I could give a presentation to all of the teachers on Positive Behavior Support, a method that many schools are using in the United States that I recently was trained in as part of my Social Work program. Although I was scared of how it would apply to their context it seemed to be received well (several teachers told me they had really enjoyed it afterwards). That night Kelly came over for dinner and Kalpana served us the usual delicious daal baat followed by some more Raksi (this time made by Rameshwar’s mother).

The following morning it was time to say goodbye but the words did not come easily - I was sad to leave. Although I was excited to continue on our journey it would have been very easy to stay there for several more weeks. We were part of a community here – one that seemed to genuinely care about us and want us there. This is the exact opposite of how traveling feels. Yes, traveling has been amazing, however we are simply drifting from place to place – always strangers in a strange land – never staying long enough to establish roots. In only 7 days we had done that in Chapagoan – we had made new friends, established new routines, and become comfortable.

Now that you have heard about these amazing people and this amazing place I want to formally thank each and everyone one of you that donated money to this cause prior to our trip. One hundred percent of it went to to Jyotidaya school and I can not think of people any more deserving. In total we raised $1,140 in the months before we left which we donated to the school They were incredibly humble and grateful for this donation. Initially, I had thought a good portion of the money would be used to sponser children to attend Jyotidaya, however, the school is almost completely self sustaining. Most of the students are able to pay the small annual tuition since it is a very low fee and the ones that are not are allowed to attend for free. What they were in desperate need of however, was more space. The current building consists of several small, dark cement rooms – about one fourth of the size of a classroom in the United States. There is no room to stand up for any sort of activities. Furthermore, there is no space for extracurriculars such as an art room, music room, computer lab, or play area for the preschoolers. Jyotidaya wants to change this. Last year they won a contest on Facebook that allowed them to start construction on a new school just a couple of feet away on the same land. The new school has larger, sunnier rooms and an open air auditorium space. It is constructed entirely of local, sustainable materials such as bamboo and a clay mixture. Once the new building is completed they plan to remodel the old building (making the rooms larger) and continue using it as well. Unfortunately, while the Facebook award was substantial it was not quite enough to finish the new space. While the outside shell is complete they still need to purchase doors, windows and put plaster on the walls and floor. After much discussion with Shisir, Rameshwar and other school leaders we decided that our money would be best spent by helping them finish a couple of the rooms right away so they could move at least a few of the classrooms over. In total we donated $993 which allowed them to purchase doors, windows and put plaster down on the walls and floor of two rooms. Construction started the day after we got there! We were able to go over and see the progress that had been made each day. We also spent $63 on the carpets I described earlier, $23 on art supplies, $37 on class photos, and $25 to start an English book club (run by Kelly). I made sure to stress that this money was not coming from just Travis and I but a lot of wonderful friends and family members from home. I hope someday I can return and see the new school up and running.

To get updates about the school search for Jyotidaya Co-operative School on Facebook and click "like".

Also check out Sarvodaya's website: http://www.sarvodayanepal.org/

For more pictures from this trip see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thejarvisproject

Additional photos below
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8th December 2011

Wow! This blog of your experiences brought me to tears! What a fantastic experience for everyone! Thank you so much for volunteering your time and organizing all the fundraising! I am so proud of you both!
8th December 2011

You and Travis are inspiring. I love this post and I am really excited for all the awesome things you guys did for the school. It sounds like you really did some good and made a lasting impression on the town & the children. Bravo!
8th December 2011

I am at work reading your blog, since I can't ever seem to log out when I see that you have a new posting, I must read it right away...Tears of happiness came into my eyes when I read about your time at the school. I am happy to know you, what a wonderful gift you collected and gave to this school. Before today I thought Kohl(s) was only a department store, now I know-thanks to google- what kohl is used for and what it looks like. When I was in Rwanda I felt a similar way, that sense of belonging to a community. It really is magical. I'm currently working on an application for a fellowship in Uganda. Inshallah (God willing), I will find work that I can be passionate about. I wish you a wonderful rest of your journey. May peace be upon you.

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