Thursday, July 29, 2010


The bus ride out of the Annapurna Trekking Zone with Rob and Dad was an enjoyable trip for me: I sat listening to all the good songs on my ipod, watching the mountains receding around the horizon. And not a moment too soon – what an exhausting trek! Back in civilisation we furrowed our brows with serious intent getting to work chilling the hell out. This proved to be of some difficulty in our cramped three-bed sweltering mosquito den hotel room, which we hired out of shear brain exhaustion, but the easy-going atmosphere, beautiful scenery, somewhat cheaper beer and the many interesting bank queues of Pokhara helped assuage our nerves.

Having book-bought, re-visa-ed, plugged ourselves back into the digital universe and had my camera fixed again (it just won’t die!) we ticked off some real tourism: biking around town, visiting Devi’s Falls (named after a Swiss tourist who, not content with plummeting to his watery grave alone, dragged his girlfriend in after him) and failing to find a cheap swimming pool. In this context Rob and I discovered a spectacular geohash actually inside a river some distance out of town, so we hastily hired a motorbike and submerged ourselves for one of the world’s more exciting geohash locations – sadly, the ride home was just as exciting: acquiring a flat tyre and monsoonal rains simultaneously.

But the question I was dying to ask had its answer back in Kathmandu – how ride-able was my bike after its crazy adventures in the Postal Universe? Black hole Roche limits can play havoc on unwary young bicycles, not to mention the constant asteroidal bombardment out there. The results were not good: after ascertaining that the back wheel hub was so muddy from Vietnam it could only be used as a fixy, we tried to install the new metallic brake pads kindly couriered by Tim, only to discover that my brakes’ discs resembled Dali’s clocks. Luckily, a bike shop fortuitously installed next door to our guest house set it all to rights with surprising ease.

Dad departed soon after these escapades, and, in the next few days, so would Rob – like drowning sailors lost at sea. But not before a token tourism jaunt in the form of a walking tour, Dhurbar Square appraisal and hill-topped Swayambhunath meander: exhibiting fine views of the Kathmandu Valley, ancient votive sculptures and procreating monkeys. Ticking off ‘tourism’ from the list we got down to the serious business of exploiting free wireless cafes to upload our vast photo collections from the trek and, naturally, a detailed critique of all endemic beer varieties.

This left me alone and with, finally for the first time in… ever, no stressful deadlines. I had a beer with dinner on my first night alone for months, but that has been my last alcoholic drink since that time now five weeks ago (breaking my Sumatran record). Alcohol is great for uninhibiting social situations and facilitating conversations about how awesome the Terminator movies are, but when you’re trying to grasp a book’s detailed reasoning or intricate plotline, or simply to sit around contemplating the world, it’s just annoying.

And I certainly did a lot of that stuff: I basically parked myself in my new (and much cheaper) yet deserted hotel, as recommended by a cheese-making Aussie expat on the bus from Pokhara, reading another excellent and embroiling Neal Stephenson book entitled Cryptonomicon, more Dawkins and an Ursula Le Guin sci-fi, and occasionally watching a movie on HBO. Apart from devouring every article the world has written about Julia Gillard’s ascendancy and a day of semi-tourism riding to a stupa, my main activity during this week-long book bludge was leeching off the facilities of my fancy old hotel, the Kathmandu Guest House. I’d made sure I checked out in uncharacteristic clothing so the staff wouldn’t recognise me mooching off their computer systems, free drinking water, safe bike parking, exquisite gardens and, yes, hot showers. Mwah ha ha!

Seeing a phone number in a restaurant set me onto a path that would land me teaching English in an orphanage in a small village outside Kathmandu, via handing over US$120 to an agency to do a ring-around. Arriving with my bike laden with pack and panniers I introduced myself to my new community – I am the first volunteer they’ve ever had and the first white person many have ever met. The place is a cream-coloured three storied building that looks like it was abandoned rather than completed (like these blogs), but with stupendous views over Kathmandu and its surrounding mountains. I was told it is financed by a Dutch foreign aid group as an orphanage, but some parents seem to have somehow snuck in their unorphaned children.

This is the time to get into real Nepali life. A typical day begins at five a.m as I’m woken by the TV of one of my room-mates. He’s an ex-Nepal army dude who, apart from his occasional duties going to town as the designated Communicator With The Outside World, seems to watch his TV turned up to 11 as a biological necessity, so as to repeatedly prove to the neighbours that he has one. My bed itself is a thin blanket wrapped around a not-quite-Felix-sized block of wood, so rousing myself is never a difficulty.

The next five hours are spent by the 54 kids frantically preparing for their day at their respective schools. I spend most of this time helping with their English the small rotating band of kids who only require four hours to prepare.

Joining some of the students heading to a nearby state school I then transform myself into English Teacher Extraordinaire and take up to five classes a day, ranging between grade 6 and year 10. Upon my return to the orphanage I usually take a break sitting on the rooftop overlooking the diverse biota of the valley below. Selected, naturally, as a fitting environment for reading Darwin’s The Origin of Species.

I then spend a few more hours teaching the kids English and Maths (the two languages I can understand), helping them with their homework, learning Nepali, eating the second Dhal Bhat meal for the day (it never gets boring!), various cultural bungling and then going to bed at about 10 p.m. – trying to read while I wait for the eardrum puncturing TV to be turned off. My reading is always met with looks of complete perplexity, as though I’m trying to scoop my eyeballs out with a spoon.

The kids themselves, ranging from age 4 to 14, are outrageously cute and friendly, full of irrepressible giggling and hesitating shyness. Their appearance occupies the full ethnic spectrum from Tibetan to Indian (it’d be interesting to line them up that way) with a gender ratio suitable for interplanetary colonisation seed-stock. Some surely have interesting stories behind them that I’m too tactful to tease out – one sweet and smart girl wears a prosthetic leg and sports nasty scars on her remaining limbs. Some are boisterous and loud, while others quiet and subdued. Some largely ignore me, others queue up to fawn over me. They’re all obsequiously polite and eager to help: serving me food and tea, washing my dishes and showing me around – I have to fight for my right to clean my own clothes. The establishment’s sole tap gives the place an iron-age tribal feel, overlaid by a ‘Communism for Kids’ organisational structure.

They live in an environment that would not be tolerated in safety-conscious Australia: playing with Frisbees on the top floor of the building, whose handrails must have fallen off prior to installation; exposed reinforcement and poorly strewn hacksaws litter their school grounds; and the orphanage’s facilities are shared with an assortment of some of the largest snakes I’ve ever seen. The huge populations of rats and mosquitoes are of more annoyance to me, but an upside to their commune with nature involves a nightly neon invasion of flashing fireflies floating through the open-air rooms.

As part of the deal I involve myself in their various religious observances: touring the local deities incarnated as shrines and sculptures, consumption of Shiva’s Body (what kind of religion requires the eating of its own god?), regular application of a forehead tikka, and, my absolute favourite, Thursday night chanting to Krishna. The girls sing with infectious passion and are demons on the madal. I’ve been forced to learn some Nepali dance routines, but show little promise.

My Nepali language is slowly coming along though. I’ve pretty much learned how to read (although Devanagari ostensibly has 432 characters they follow such obvious patterns it's easy to pick up), but understanding the words is a different matter. At least I’m now in the Indo-European language family. ‘Nam’ is ‘name’, ‘tara’ is ‘star’ and ‘aht’ is ‘eight’. Also, my seven years learning Latin have finally born fruit, it employing a similar grammatical structure to the Indo- languages, not to mention their overlapping vocabularies. Unfortunately, Nepalese is a second-language to most of these guys too: each valley, and even every caste within each valley, cannot intercommunicate in its native tongue.

During the day, six days a week, I’m teaching (the Saturdays off are spent playing with the kids, being taken on walks and, yesterday, sneaking off for more geohashing). On my first day at school I was confronted by a piece of chalk proffered by the retreating regular English teacher informing me that, “Today’s year ten class is on the past participle and the passive imperative. Go.”

“Ummm… okay… Good Morning class. Okay… the ahh… the passive imperative is, well, you know, one of those things…”

He was kind enough to lend me a grammatical text book – it was in Nepali. However, in little time those seemingly frivolous years memorising arcane grammatical constructions for Latin came once more to the rescue, and I’ve since been giving the classes a pretty damned robust education in proper English composition (blogging errors are to be denounced in the comments section below). For the lower classes I’ve been given comprehension passages to read out and discuss, and here some small cultural insights can be unearthed. I cringe when I have to read that “The Gods made the trees” (this is a state school!); creepy example conditional sentences such as “If you’re friends are involved in evil activities, report them to your seniors”; and a disturbing number of stories involving the protagonist beating his wife. Their dictionary cutely defines ‘Good-formatting’ as ‘A useless person’, but I let through a claim that dolphins are fish – cladistically, we reptiles are all just a type of fish. Many more moral dilemmas arise from the uncanny density of grammatical, typographical and spellafical errors liberally adorning the texts – do I detach their dependency on text-books or enunciate a tongue-twisting typo?

However, in most respects I’m given a fairly free hand. I’m starting to get a real kick out of the attention of captured audiences (and wielding of despotic power). Having spent my many months alone in resuscitating songs and poems from my memory (the internet helps too) I can now teach them Waltzing Matilda (a big hit), Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven (channeling Bart Simpson they reckon it’s boring) and the odd show-off Gilbert and Sullivan tune. I also satisfy their ardent demand for insights into Australian culture, even beyond describing the Melbourne/Sydney divide as the ultimate battle between Good and Evil. One of the English comprehension passages, that coincidentally happened to concern Australia, stated that Australians never wear formal clothing. I was about to correct this gross (yet typical) generalisation when I realised that, despite the school’s almost military dress code, I was in shorts and t-shirt. Another time, when informing the class that Australia is an island, I actually felt a tear welling up in my eye – these land-locked youngsters have never seen the ocean.

Between classes I chat to the other teachers in the staff room, answering such questions as, “Are you of high or low caste?”, “What is your annual income?”, and the always awkward, “What is it like to live in a country where sex is easy?”. My fellow teachers are fascinated by Australian male/female relations. They almost fell off their chairs when told that our Prime Minister‘s boyfriend is a hairdresser and she has never been married.

I have befriended the school’s regular English teacher, Jay, who has taken me to eat mangoes at his uni-student flat in Kitipur (he’s studying for his Masters degree). He’s an interesting character: a 27 year old top-caste Brahmin and heir to a profitable mango plantation yet also a hard-core communist – large Mao and Lenin posters stare down from his walls with steely resolution (it occurs to me that just five years ago he and my military room-mate might have been trying to kill each other). Naturally, this unusual combination has interested him in a later political career, but at the moment his main project is selecting a suitable wife. Having identified three key parameters (beauty, intelligence and cultural standing) for the several dozen applicants he is seeking my advice for their relative weightings.

But the last month hasn’t been all singing and smiling, reading stories and waging thumb wars – it’s a hard darned life. The kids are full of energy and I have to be in an almost permanent state of extroversion – actually wanting to be alone occasionally is an alien concept to these social beings and there’s nowhere to hide in the communal compound. Of course, the place is populated by the usual bragging, competitive boys and needy, insecure girls, but these guys have really made me feel at home and I’ll certainly miss them all when I leave. I’m not even sure I’m making any real difference here though. They are, after all, among about the poorest people on the planet, but there are a few kids here whose English skills will get them a little bit further in life, and some seem destined for a bright future. At least they now understand the true age of the universe and the cheapest way to build space elevators. Plus they’re slowly acquiring slight Australian accents, so mission accomplished!


  1. I was wondering what you'd been doing for a month. Good to see you're contributing to society again! When do you finish up at the orphanage?


    P.S. I take it the cheapest way to build a space elevator is to move a asteroid into orbit.

  2. I finish up tomorrow actually (the 31st of July), I thought I'd wait to send this blog until I knew nothing would totally change my opinion of the experience. So far so good.

    As for the cheapest way to build a space elevator, you're a little out of date - research into the tensile properties in nano-fillament buckminsterfullerine molecules suggests that carbon fibres could be extruded in a ground-based installation and hauled into geostationary orbit with a payload as small as 20 tons. The light-weight tapering elevator ribbon could then be strengthened through accumulated melding with new strands as administered by repeated elevator car passings until capable of supporting human cargo.

  3. Maybe Julia would be a good match for your friend. Intelligent, pretty and she's the highest caste woman in Australia.

    PS. Surely the easiest way to elevate space would be to just push the earth down lower.


  4. $120 to an agency to do a ring around? How much do phone calls cost in Nepal? But it sounds like a pretty full-on learning experience (for you, I mean) and only one spelling mistake in this one.

  5. Yeah, I thought it was a rip-off too. Some people seem to think that rip-offs should be judged on the total consequences of the payment (a month of volunteering), but I think they should be judged on what specifically the money actually achieves.

    Now I'll be racking my brains re-reading this thing trying to find that one mistake - thanks a lot!

  6. Great to hear this blog Felix and I'm sure you are making a difference especially to yourself.
    I'm not sure Steppo would agree about safety provisions in Oz. He took over the holiday program at Finke last year and was taken kangaroo hunting which consisted of a dozen adults and children in a landcruiser, including four on the roof as kangaroos were chased down at speed (obviously) and knocked over.

    Some of the bragging and competitive boys are no doubt needy and insecure - trust me; I'm a psychologist

    passive imperative sounds like an oxymoron

    Keep on seeking out months like this one Felix.

  7. It does sound a bit like an oxymoron, but it's things like 'Let the food be cooked!' and 'The water must be boiled!'

  8. This is my favourite blog entry to date!

    Largely because it addresses my language geekiness and I can completely relate to the teaching stories and cultural differences (I got back last night from a second short stay in my village in Vanuatu).