Monday, November 26, 2012

All about Rithepani Village

Typical houses in the
lower caste area of Rithepani
Rithepani  is the village where Meaningful Volunteer will build another solar powered school dedicated to Andy ManleyHeather and I travelled to Rithepani for the weekend to learn as much as we could.

Here's what we learned.

Three Villages in One
Like many villages in Nepal, Rithepani is divided into sections according to castes.

The upper caste area has houses that would look fine in any neighbourhood in the world.  They are often multi-story  have wifi access, a flush toilet, backup batteries for power outages, and other modern conveniences.

The middle caste area is a step or two down: Single story dwellings with iron roofs, simple bedding and furnishing, an outside squat toilet, and at the mercy of the two-hour-a-day electricity grid.

The lower caste area is another step or two down: Single room block dwellings housing entire families, with no power or running water.

We were welcomed as family in every one of the areas.

There are phone lines running into Rithepani, so we can get internet for our school.  The costs will be $US 100 to set it up, and $US 10 for all-you-can-gobble Wifi.

Cell Phone
Cell phone reception is great.  There is a cell phone tower atop of the Veterans Hall.

Rithepani is 20 km from Pokhara, where we can get all the supplies for the school.

Bottled water is available al local convenience stores.

Sources of income
  • WSDO
    Many of the women we met in the village were actively working for WSDO.  Either organizing the yarn, or weaving the yarn together into cloth

  • Farming
    Rice is the main crop in Rithepani

  • Making Aggregates
    Many people come from outlying villages to Rithepani so that they can make aggregates.  Aggregates are small rocks that are mixed together with concrete to make the expensive concrete go further.

    The aggregates are made by bashing big rocks with a hammer (or another rock) until they become small rocks.  
There is a primary school in Rithepani, but no preschool.  

Our plans for Rithepani

Heather talks at a community meeting
Heather Evans and I visited Rithepani recently and met with several community groups to discuss Meaningful Volunteer's role in Rithepani.

Based on those meetings and in conjunction with the community, this is what we decided:

  • The construction of a one building, two classroom solar powered school will begin in mid-October 2013
  • The school will be open to all people, regardless of caste
  • The school will be Wifi enabled
  • Preschool classes
    Preschool classes will be offered to children so that they can get that critical early boost in English literacy and give them the tools they need to succeed in\primary school
  • Adult literacy classes
    Many adults in the community with to learn English
  • Computer classes
    Computer class will be offered to the community.  Many people are excited that the school will be wifi enabled
  • Volunteers will stay in home stays
  • Volunteers can pay to attend classes in: Cooking, farming, weaving, and learning the Nepalese language
This list will no doubt grow in the coming months

Friday, November 23, 2012

Target Location Found!

Meeting with village elders
After too many setbacks, we have finally found our target location: Rithepani village!

Rithepani is about 20km from the Pokhara township.

The fine folk from the WSDO organization took us to the village and introduced us to community leaders.

The village is gorgeous and the community so welcoming.  We were both given a silk scarf upon arrival and numerous flowers from wonderful ladies.

We had a tour of the WSDO offices and then talked to the community leaders and came up with plans going forward.

Heather and I will spend the weekend in the village, including an overnight stay.   This will give us a much better grasp of the community.  We will walk and talk, and then walk and talk some more.

More details about Rithepani will follow once we've spent some more time in the village.

Very excited!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A sign turns things around (again)

Ram Kali Khadka and Heather Evans
You ever feel that you need a sign to turn things around?

No bolt of lightning flashed across the sign, but an actual sign has turned things around for us.

The sign was spotted by Heather.  The sign led us to the retail shop for the WSDO organization.  We were all impressed by how well the shop was set up, and we all purchased numerous presents for folk back home.  You can check out their products here.

WSDO specialized in craft made by marginalized women in Nepal: The widows, those with hungry mouths to feed, the blind, the lame, and so on.

Given our recent troubles, we thought it be worth going to talk to WSDO.  We were lucky enough to meet up with the organization’s founder: Ram Kali Khadka.

We pitched out organization and our plans to her.  She basically asked how they could help and we instantly fell in love with her.

We will be meeting one WSDO’s staff tomorrow and they will give us a tour around some of the villages they think will benefit from our programs.

Nothing is formalized yet, but we are getting very excited here!  Watch out for some updates about the villages tomorrow

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Second Scuttling

Here is a cute puppy to lift spirits
...and a second set back.

The location we had decided upon is not going to work out for various reasons and we are back to square one.

Our plan now  to is to contact as many organizations as we can in Pokhara and try to work out something with them.  We are going to focus on female empowerment NGOs

WSDO (Women's Skill Development Organization) Nepal is first on our list.

We already love this organization and have purchased many of their products to take home.  If we can't partner with them, we feel confident that at least they can give us some good contacts.

We also have a good relationship with the manager of the Boomerang Restaurant here in Pokhara.  When we meet with him, he gave us some good advice, paid for our meal, and offered to lend us a car to go explore over the weekend!  Awesome.

Plus, we will be plain old googling "Women empowerment NGO Pokhara"...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Salamat Min

There is a certain type of coolness about doing what I am doing here in Nepal.

Soon, I will be joining a Nepalese man and either driving for two days in a four wheel drive vehicle, or walking for two days, to get to a rural village.  There I will meet some village elders, tour some schools, hang out with some kids, sample the local cuisine, and immerse myself in Nepalese culture.

There are lots of people who would love that sort of adventure, but I am the lucky one who gets to do it.

I am in this fortunate position thanks to one beautiful woman back home in Canada.

While I am out here doing these meaningful (but cool!) things, she is at home holding our home and household together.

She is endlessly positive and encouraging; not only to me, but other team members as well.

She keeps the Meaningful Volunteer Nepal humming so that others can follow our story.

Soon, our roles will be reversed.  I’ll be back in Canada and she will be here in Nepal supervising the construction of the school. I know she’ll do a fine job, just like she in Uganda.

See you soon Meggy.  You are always in my thoughts.  I miss you more than you know.

Mahal kita.

Remembering Andy Manley

Anne Eichmeyer approached me a number of years back and sheepishly asked  if we could dedicate the upcoming solar school to the memory of her departed friend Andy Manley.  Andy had recently died in a house explosion.

I said that of course we could.  Andy's ashes are part of the school in Uganda, and the front wall of the school bears the "School for Andy" logo

Since then, Andy has become an integral part of everything Meaningful Volunteer is trying to achieve.

Heading to the Peace Pagoda.
It was with great honour then that I joined with Andy's sister Patti on a pilgrimage of sorts to remember Andy.

The Manley family decided that some of Andy's ashes be scattered at the Peace Pagoda in Pokhara.  The team decided to go the long way around and we began the two hour trek to the pagoda.

The trek wound its way around Phewa Lake, past some paddy fields, and then wound up the side of the mountain.

We got lost several times.  The directions we had weren't good: "Turn left at the paddy fields".  Err, you mean left away from the mountain?  And which paddy field?  There are dozens of them.

We bumped into a couple if local lads who got us back on track.  I'm not sure how we would have got up there if it wasn't for those two.  The $2 tip we gave them was well deserved.

Peace Pagoda
The Peace Pagoda was gorgeous.  Patti found a nice spot and we all cast Andy's ashes into the wind.

I don't mind admitting that I got a little teary eyed.

Partly because I've felt as I have gotten to know Andy more and more by talking to his friends and family.  He seems like such a nice guy whose company I would have enjoyed.  All of a sudden, his death seemed very real.

I was also teary eyed because I thought of family back in Canada. Each one of them is precious to me.  The thought of losing any one of them to tragedy would be too much to bear.

This is the spot where Andy's ashes were scattered

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pokhara, Korean Karaoke, and Tibetan Camps

Phewa Lake is just outside
our hotel
We made the journey from Kathmandu to Pokhara via a spacious van that we hired.

It was great to get out of the madness of Kathmandu and explore more of Nepal.  Glancing up from reading Born to Run and seeing the Himalayas approach was especially cool.

Pokhara is a lovely place.  Phewa lake on one side. The Himalayas on the other. It is quite touristy here.  There are many different types of restaurants.  They even have a Korean No Rae Bang (Karaoke room)!

There are many Tibetan people on the streets selling their crafts and handiworks.  The Nepalese government basically ignores them. They can't - for example - rent any property in Pokhara to sell their wares.  One of our team befriended a Tibeten women.  We are hoping she will show us around a nearby Tibetan settlement in the next couple of days

The coolest thing we found in Pokhara was a shop selling merchandise from the WSDO organization: a women's empowerment organization that makes wonderful fabric based products.  Christmas shopping done.

We are talking to an ex-deputy mayor of Pokhara today before heading off to a Peace Temple to remember Andy Manley.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Our plan for School for Andy 2

Andy Manley
After a very successful meeting – complete with drama – here are the details for our plan.


Our contact will be a gentleman called Nir Kumar Karki.  Kumar owns and operates  Tailored Treks and Expeditions.  He comes highly recommended from a good friend of mine.

No matter how we do this, we need someone on the ground we can trust.  We all got nothing but good vibes from Kumar.  Couple this with the recommendation, and Kumar is our man.

I look forward to working with him in the future.


We will be based near the airport of Phaplu in the Pahar region of Nepal.  This is the completely opposite end of the country where we first intended to be.

The village itself is a 2 day trek (!) from Phaplu.  Trekking from Phaplu is not the best way to get there however.  Instead, we will be taking a two-day four wheel drive from Kathmandu and going the long way around.

I will be travelling there with Kumar next week.  Patti and Melissa - alas - would have flown out by then and Heather – alas – can’t be off the grid for that long due to work commitments.

It'll take two days to get there, two to three days on site, and then two days to get back.  Fun times!

  • Accommodation and Wonderful Locals
    Kumar informs me that the locals are more than happy to accommodate and feed the volunteers and I for free.  Not only that, but they will help build the school for free!

    This fills my heart with warmth and gives me good vibes about the project.

    Having said that, I am not entirely sure I am comfortable with not paying people to feed and house volunteers.  We will have to remunerate them in some way.

  • Water
    The locals drink from the mountain spring.  This sounds like a nice clean source, not dissimilar from that in Romblon in the Philippines.  Would I trust it?  Nope.

    Our options for drinkable water are wither iodine tablets or have bottled water brought in from a nearby town.
  • Electricity
    Electricity comes via a pico-hydro system.  It provides about 5 hours of electricity a day.  Once again this reminds me of Romblon where we tried implementing a pico-hydro system.

    We will be adding to the electricity situation in the village by bringing in solar panels.
  • Internet
    Internet is possible via an internet-enabled cellphone, or a USB device that plugs directly into a laptop.

    Not sure yet how fast it is, but I'll soon find out once we are on the ground.
  • Climate
    The village is high up in some mountains,  not so high that elevations sickness is a problem, but high enough to avoid the worst of the monsoon rains.

    This means that a start time from mid-September to October is perfect.
  • Safety and Hospitals
    If something bad happens, there are two options.

    The first is that the villagers put you on a stretcher and rush you down the hill to a hospital.  The second is that if we put a $US 10,000 deposit at a embassy, then they will rush a helicopter out to pick you up.

    I suspect there is some type of health clinic in the village for minor ailments.

How we are going to build this thing

We are planning a one building, two classroom school.  It is going to be a six month project.  Kumar says he is going to help us coordinate getting the building supplies on site.

We - of course - welcome any help we can get on this project.  If you have time between mid-Septmeber and mid-March, then feel free to contact Meaningful Volunteer.

Vomiting at the most important meeting of the trip

Back firing on all
I pride myself on my cast iron stomach.

I have only gotten really sick once on all my travels and that was in the Philippines.  I think that was just plain old food poisoning and it could have just as easily happen in any country in the world

Even my cast iron stomach could not combat the dreaded Delhi Belly however.

I was feeling okay when I went to bed, but then the Delhi Belly kicked in and I was up and down throughout the night.

The next morning was when our contact Kumar was due to come.  I was feeling okay, not great but was hanging in there.

When Kumar arrived and we started talking, the Delhi Belly hit again.  I quickly excused myself from the meeting and emptied my mostly empty stomach one more time.   Very professional.

I am very lucky that I am part of such a wonderful team here in Nepal and they carried the meeting as I fought my stomach throughout the meeting.

Sleeping throughout the rest of the day has seen my return to full health.

See here for the outcome of the meeting.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Glimmer of Hope

A glimmer
A glimmer of hope appears after our bad news

We have contact with my Scottish friend's friend.

It looks promising.  We're meeting at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow.

Wish us luck!

Scuttled by a scrap of paper

The offending scrap of paper
This trip was researched very well.  A dedicated soul on our team did as much research about this trip as was humanly possible.  Big props.

But we have been scuttled (though not out!) by a scrap of paper.

We need to register an INGO (International Non-Governmental Organization) here in Nepal.  The INGO is the legal entity that would own the land, the school assets, employ the staff and so on.

It is very difficult to do what we want to do without an INGO.

We waltzed inside the Social Welfare Offices today confident that we had all the necessary paperwork and that we'd walk out with the process started for registering an INGO.

Well, that was until somebody handed us a scrap of paper.

Item 4 on the list of requirements for registering an INGO reads:

Financial Commitment.  (Minimum of $US 1,00,000/00 per annum)

You'd be forgiven if you couldn't read that properly, but it means that we need to spend $US 100,000 a year internally in Nepal to register as an INGO.

We don't have that sort of money.  We can't register as an INGO.  All our plans are hanging by a thread.


Some friendly advice for our good freinds at the Social Welfare Office here in Nepal:

  1. Make it clear on your own website that you need a budget of $US 100,000 to register an INGO on your own website.

    Google searches even now reveal nothing
  2. Be a tad more professional than handing people a poorly torn scrap of paper with a typo.

    $US 1,00,000?!  Seriously?!
This has dealt us a real body blow and we are all down.  Our options are now limited.  Here is what we have narrowed it down to:

  1. A Scottish friend of mine has recommended a Nepalese man very highly.
    The man is already running his own NGO (not the absent "I") and doing good work with a limited budget.  We are frantically trying to get in contact with him
  2. Go home. Start planning for a different country.
    The Philippines, Guatamala, and Ecuador seem promising.
Option two took me ten minutes to write.  They were hard words, but they reflect the situation we are facing.

Oh, and does anyone have $US 1,00,00 a year they could spare?

Update: A glimmer of hope...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Scratching at the Surface of Kathmandu

One of the many crazy streets
in Kathmandu
Kathmandu is in the grips of Diwali at the moment, which means that all government offices are shut down.

Which means we cant get out NGO application in, but it does mean we get a day off to explore.

If you ever get the chance, wander around Makati in the Philippines.  Pretty nice area right?  Lots of neat restaurants and very clean.

You might also wanna check out Osu in Ghana.  Make sure to stock up at the Koala Supermarket before stocking up on vitamins at the Sunshine Salad Bar.

And, if in Uganda, be sure to visit the Garden City Mall in Kampala, grab some eats at the food court before heading out for a round of golf at the nearby course.

All these areas are great places to visit and you might find yourself thinking "What's the big deal?  Sure there's some poverty, but... Meh.  It's not that bigga deal".

Venture out a little more in Makati and you'll find the girly bars where desperate Filpinas sell their bodies to make some extra pesos.  Head down the road a little from Osu and you'll find semi-naked people asleep in deep gutters.  Head down the road from the Garden City Mall and small children from the Karamajong tribe will harass you for money that'll end up in a begging pimp's pocket.

I feel this way about my experience in Kathmandu.  The streets were relatively clean.  Nobody begged me for money.  There was no obvious prostituting going on.  People were well clothed and were just getting on with their lives.

There were some signs of poverty, but nothing that would shock you.

Here's some not so fun fact:

The number of persons who are internally trafficked [in Nepal] is unknown. With some 40,000 girls and women ages 12 to 30 work in 1,200 cabin and dance restaurants and massage parlors in Kathmandu alone. Some of these are sexually exploited and/or trafficked. 
According to local NGO estimates, each year at least 7,500 children are trafficked within the country for commercial sexual exploitation and 20,000 to 25,000 girls become involuntary domestic workers. Official data on missing women in the Kathmandu Valley indicate that an average of nearly 500 women are reported missing each year.

Yikes.  See what you find out if you scratch just a little?

Meaningful Volunteer will never get directly involved in fighting against sex trafficking   It is just too damn dangerous.  Our loose plan at the moment is to focus on early education for females in the hope they will become more "valuable" to their families and less likely to be sold/kidnapped into slavery.  Consultation with local communities will help solidify our plans.

It was great exploring Kathmandu.  I loved the food and wandering through narrow cobbled streets surrounded by buildings that seemed a million years old was just cool.  I look forward to doing something more meaningful in the days to come.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

On the Ground in Nepal

Our hotel in Kathmandu decorated
in lights for Diwali

Made it!  Safe and sound in a hotel in Kathmandu!

Flying into Kathmandu reminded me a lot of flying into Uganda.  A lot of multi-story buildings with a third or fourth level being added in various stages.

Driving around town reminded me a lot more of the narrow streets in Manila: people’s shop fronts spilling out onto the road, a lot of guys just hanging out, children effortlessly negotiating the street traffic, and little people in little store fronts selling all manner of little items.

Patti and Melissa were waiting for us at the front of the hotel and after some hugs and quick greetings we headed out for our first Nepalese meal together.  A very scrumptious vegetarian set meal with a little bit of everything including: Afu Tareko (spicy friend potatoe), Mo mo (steamed dumpling) and, Kalo Dal (lentils infused with butter and garnished with herbs).  All for about $7.

Kathmandu is ablaze in light as people get ready for the Diwali – the Festival of Lights.  Every household is making an effort to add lights to their house.

The side walks are covered with flower decorations.

It feels good to be in the thick of things again doing meaningful work with a great team of people.

Reworking Meaningful Volunteer

Eating and talking can lead to great
ideas.  Like this rather cool/oddly
named sandwich
My arduous flight to Nepal was not without its benefits.  It gave me a chance to thrash out ideas with Heather Evans about where Meaningful Volunteer is going.  Below are some of our broad brush-stroke ideas that we came up with.  With a lot of hard work and dedication, these ideas will become a reality.

Credit also goes to Megin Alvarez, Anne Eichmeyer and Nicholas Brenswick for thrashing out similar ideas over a Saturday night dinner.

Meaningful Learning
When I volunteer in the Philippines, Ghana, and Uganda, the benefits to the local communities were minimal (with the notable exception of Grassroots Uganda), the learning experience to myself personally was immense.  I learnt so much about development, what works, what doesn't, and what can’t work.

I am sure the vast majority of volunteers will report similar tales.

So why is Meaningful Volunteer focusing on meaningful impacts on communities by short term volunteers (which is sooo hard to do) and having the learning experience as a desirable side effect?

Might it be better to first focus on the learning experience as this is the one positive thing that every volunteer will walk away with?

Once we change this mindset, it opens up a whole raft of ideas.

  • Meaningful Learning Groups
    Groups of volunteers with a designated leader could head over to the villages we are based in with the express purpose of learning.  I can imagine parents (the eternal funder of such trips) loving the idea.  A trip to Paris might be fun, but a trip to Buyaya will both be fun and educational!

    We would challenge them to come up with solutions to the problems facing the community and then challenge them again when we point out the potential downfalls of their ideas.

    We could also visit other NGOs to see what they are doing.
  • First Nation’s Youth and Cultural Exchange
    My wife and I are very involved in First Nations communities here in Canada with the group home that we run.  These types of trips could be wonderful for First Nations youth to compare their own plight with that of those in developing communities.  The potential for culture exchange is immense.

    We could run workshops for the youth before they go so that they are not entering completely blind.

    Heck, we could even target First Nations youth who have made some bad decisions and are trying to break free of the prison systems.
  • Benefits to Meaningful Volunteer
    We would encourage all these groups to be as hyper critical to Meaningful Volunteer as they can be.  I’m sure they’ll come up with wonderful ideas that we’ll end up implementing.

Meaningful Education
More and more people are studying development in our schools and universities.  Students are often required to submit a thesis that includes some aspect of field work.

Meaningful Volunteer could be the organization that helps facilitate the field work by coming up with key relationships with universities.

Meaningful Tourism
Way back when, I visited a village near the Ghana Togo border.  The village was set up to be a tourist destination.  I was greeted as I entered the villager, was shown to my room, and given a brochure about what the village had to offer.  I got to wander around the village and observe local people doing local crafts, dancing, cooking, and just getting through their normal day.  No child begged me for money.

It was a very positive experience and did not make me feel at all like a Poverty Porn voyeur.

In addition to the list of requirements I listed over here, I would also add in a requirement that the village be accessible to tourists.  Not just any old tourists of course, but meaningful tourists who would to engage the locals and see how their lives work.

We could advertise the village as being:

  • Sex Tourism Free
    Through various training programs in the village, we would ensure that the village remains sex tourism free.  In rural Nepal (and elsewhere) sex tourism and human trafficking run rampant.
  • Environmental Friendly
    You wanna bring those plastic bottles to our village?  You better make damn sure you take ‘em out again and leave us some iodine pills to sterilize our water while you are at it
  • A place for learning
    The villagers could run classes about how they run their lives.  There would be cooking classes, farming classes, weaving classes, and so on.
  • A village in development
    Tourists could visit our solar schools and see how they work out first hand.

These are all first draft ideas that are likely to change over time.  As always, feedback is appreciated and welcomed.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Chillin’ and Thinkin’ in Delhi

Airport Pods.  Less cool than you'd think


I do not like travel Sam I Am.  I do not like being corralled into Airline Cattle Class and forced to eat glorified TV dinners with elbows pinned to my side.  I do not like blessed souls reclining their seats oblivious to the discomfort this causes me.  And I do not like 12 hour layovers in Delhi Airport Sam I Am.

And I do not like “Snooze Pods” that promise you:

  • Free WiFi
    I got maybe one hour’s worth before it went belly up.  This at least gave them chance to contact my wonderful wife who is holding down the fort at home
  • A quiet place to sleep
    “Flight Eight. Oh.  Six.  To.  Auckland. Will be leaving at Six.  Fifteen.  At gate Sixty. Three.” soon drives you mad.
  • A place to charge your laptops and cellphones.
    Well sure, if your electronic goods have Indian style plugs on them

What I do like about these long periods of boredom (interspersed with frantic dashing around) is that it gives you a chance to think about why you endure these journeys.

This particular journey will take me to the cities of Kathmandu and Pokhara in Nepal to find a location for School for Andy 2: Meaningful Volunteer’s second solar powered school dedicated to Andy Manley who died tragically in a house explosion in Madison, Wisconsin.

I am on this journey with:

Much like Uganda, we will be looking for locations that are:

  • Safe
  • In a rural area, 
  • Has access to clean water
  • Has cell phone coverage (and therefore internet coverage)
  • Is close enough to a city so that building supplies are easily accessed

One thing I do like about travel is that it gives you a chance to think and plan and try to work out what you are doing right, what you are doing wrong, and what you can do better.\

And think I have.