Weekly Leading in Nepal with Raleigh International

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Photo credits: Virginia Stuart-Taylor

A snapshot into Spring 2016, volunteering with ICS Raleigh International on a sustainable livelihoods project. I spent 3 incredible months with a mixed Nepali-UK team in the breathtakingly beautiful village of Bhalu Khola in the Makwanpur region of Nepal. 

By Sashi Thapa and Vicky Bennett

The fun and games were over when it was our turn to lead team NC1 from 2nd – 10th April. Average temperature: 36 degrees. Wind: none. It was not only the last week of Nepali calendar year 2072 but also the final week of phase two, marking 66% of our cycle’s completion. We had three training events and one awareness-raising day to pull off before we could re-orientate ourselves with social media, beds with mattresses and bucket-free showers at phase review. To our team, we promised neither mercy nor respite.

And so we meditated every day. For ten minutes at around 12:30 we breathed deeply and sonorously. We felt good. We then facilitated an Introduction to Entrepreneurship session to 14 youths on day 1. After this, we organised a day-long, local expert-led training session on the use of chemical fertilisers. The following day saw a practical offshoot from this, in which organic farming techniques were demonstrated and herb-based liquid pesticides were concocted by all 27 participants. According to the feedback, all three of our training sessions were found extremely fruitful and we could see for ourselves that ideas had been planted and that the stares were far from vegetative.

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World Health Day flanked the organic farming session in two parts. We met at 6am for part 1, in which we capitalised on the village’s ‘dairy rush hour’ – everyone’s milk deliveries to the dairy – and held a fair on the theme of health. We presented 5 interactive ‘stalls’, covering the following topics: menstruation, hygiene, diseases, contraception and nutrition. Part 2 was held after the organic farming session had concluded. In World Health Day alone we engaged over 125 people and were impressed anew with the turnout and active participation of the community. What was most unexpected was the dominance of the menstruation stand, which sparked heated, but useful debate between generations and genders on traditional Hindu attitudes to the ‘curse’ or ‘blessing’ which is the menstrual cycle.

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This week, NC1 was also treated to a seminar on nutrition by Nirali, a musical session led by Mark and Amulya, and even an impromptu Spanish lesson by Phil. We also introduced volunteer 1-2-1s, some new energisers and fuelled ourselves with an industrial-sized fruit salad. The last night was a celebration of Phil’s birthday, in the form of a BBQ by the river, as is now tradition for the last night of each phase. It concluded thoughtfully with the individual hand-feeding of cake by the man of the moment. Unfortunately mouths were often missed and even the guitar became collateral damage in a brief rendezvous with chocolate-flavoured cream.p1170219

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Christmas in China

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Christmas Day in Beijing rolled up rather out of the blue, or should I say out of the grey. It was an off-white Christmas, if you count particularly low visibility dictated by some vicious PM 2.5s of the scrooge ilk, as a romantic kind of white. And what better to get a sense of Chinese-style festivities than the fact that the Beijing authorities chose this particular day to conduct a whole re-start of the internet, so that our hopes of some sort of contact with loved ones at home were dashed from the word ‘Bethlehem’. As it turned out however, it really was one of the loveliest Christmases I’ve ever had.

Writing this in February is largely (100%) down to my own ineptitude as a blogger, however Christmas is never over in China apparently. The immanence of Easter and the lingering signs in shops bearing Christmas wishes, tells me this much.

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Having resigned myself to a cancelled Christmas and New Year too, for that matter, the season rolled around in true style. Not only did myself and a group of twenty others spend the weekend before at a nearby ski resort, but the day itself was extraordinarily extravagant, as we chose to have brunch at Beijing’s St. Regis. It was a ridiculously wonderful four hours of rediscovery. I merrily tucked into the first range of quality bread, butter, seafood, turkey, chocolate and the like that I had tasted for five months. Western food-galore and a free flow of Champagne left me grinning from ear to ear unable to really take it all in. It was the kind of place where going to the bathroom was an excitement in itself, as moisturisers of a range of viscosities offered themselves up for a perfect post-cleansing indulgence. Some poor taxi driver then had to put up with questionable renditions of Mariah Carey and The Pogues all the way home as we tore ourselves away from the feast, happy and full. A whole ‘crayjing gang’ gathering round at Davina, Bert and George’s flat later after finally being able to skype home, to watch Harry Potter 6, completing the day in a traditional way.

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It was the nicest thing seeing the wonderful Joanne Morton multiple times over the festive period. As part of the Morton family tour of China, I was lucky enough to catch up with them a number of times and seeing such familiar faces from Guildford, all looking so well, was such a pleasure. This year Joanne had commissioned my Mum to make a Christmas stocking for me, which she kindly brought with her, as my first ever stocking. Having only just polished off the wealth of chocolate that it bore, I can firmly say that i’ve been missing out these past nineteen years! Thanks Joanne and Rosemary and Mum for everything. It was the best Christmas I could have imagined away from home. Thank you Davina, George, Bert, Jack, Maddy, Raquel, Sophia and Harriet for making the day beautiful.

To bring it all back to Mr Harry Potter, it was one of those days where a whole host of moments could be treasured as potential Patronus-conjuring happy memories.

Boxing day saw with it a return to class, not that Christmas day was any kind of official excuse not to be in attendance. For me, boxing day saw with it vigourous vocab-learning, accidentally eating a donkey meat sandwich and watching the unsentimental refuse of the campus coffee shop’s Christmas tree.

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冬天来临了 - The coming of Winter

My not-so-new anymore little nest here in Beijing is getting rather cosy despite the onset of winter. This is mainly due to the fact that the main heating system which has now finally been turned on in my otherwise modest building number 5, is underfloor heating. (Here goes another exciting blog post from Vicky). Underfloor heating is a prime example of one of China’s many mind-bending paradoxes, the decision to have the treadmills in the smoking area of the gym to name but one other. Where I once considered it a rather extravagant addition for the particularly soft middle class, a real treat for those who feel under-indulged by radiators alone, underfloor heating is really very ordinary, very putong, here in China, a country where down the road, the number one University does not even provide toilet paper, or soap, or in fact an actual toilet, in any of its numerous and less than fragrant weishengjian.

On the brighter side though, there’s this:

Weiming Lake on campus

Weiming Lake on campus

Usual lunch scene on a sunny day

Usual lunch scene on a sunny day, photo credit to Henrietta who I wish was in it!

Chinese pancake lunches in the sun with Jack, Raquel, Henrietta, Sophia and Maddy are soo ideal. Everyone here enjoys a bit of bing in their life after four hours class from 8am.

The library where Mao once worked

The library where Mao once worked

Manoeuvring through this on a bicycle is indeed tricky and involves a lot of 'a, duibuqi a'

Manoeuvring through this on a bicycle is indeed tricky and involves a lot of ‘a, duibuqi a’

A small road on campus

A small road on campus

The chopstick stealth game in lunch queue

The chopstick stealth game in lunch queue

The blue arch is the entrance to the real building number 5 (not mambo)

The blue arch is the entrance to the real building number 5 (not mambo)

I mention building number five in particular, to stress that I don’t live in the fake building number five- you will find very few number four buildings in Chinese residential complexes or fourth floors or apartment number fours because of the way the Chinese word for four is phonetically the same as the word for death (si). Death is also associated with the colour white – does this render all modern marriages doomed? Does Dido need to rethink the colour scheme for her flags? The answer, peng you men, is literally blowing in the wind; a cold, dry carbon-festooned wind, a wind of change perhaps – of course the emerging generation is inevitably less dictated by the wives tales and suspicions of old. But old habits die hard, (woah, is that an English chengyu?), and as a result here there are two number five buildings and two number fifteens.

I live in a shared flat with a Korean guy called Marvin, a French guy called Tanguy and an elusive Chinese girl called Cathy. They’re all really nice. This is us having a Korean barbecue with another Chinese friend of Cathy’s who was very eager to practice his English.Image

There has been much trepidation amongst foreign students here about the immanent Beijing winter. Not only has Christmas effectively been cancelled this year, but Wudaokou (the studently area I live in) has become a pit of confusion and fraught anxiety about when the heating of Beijing, a feature which sets it apart from most other Chinese cities, is to be officially turned on. Apart from a lucky few, there is no option of putting your heating on early, oh no. There is no idle trip to the thermostat. We must wait for the government. Just like the Hyenas waited for the signal from Scar to get the herd on the move towards the gorge in the Lion King. The party decides when to set the coal fires burning, and now they’re burning, the whole of the city is suffering from the fabled ‘autumn cold’ as a result from the difficult temperature adjustment process. Panda-monium.

Pollution in Beijing is also avidly discussed amongst students here – we sometimes need a break from studying. The pollution count for the day makes for classic conversation fall-back. We arm ourselves with the official US embassy Beijing Air Quality app on our mobile phones and strangely, a sort of morbid excitement about reporting a high pollution count is often what is masked behind fear and dread (kongpa). They say there was one day last winter when the count reached 900… (80 in London is considered very worrying) Such rumours are indeed secretly thrilling but are surely only to turn into a grim, post-apocolyptic style reality only too soon and face masks may need to be bought. Also there is always one -usually a Japanese girl- in every class who keeps their mask on throughout the lesson too which I sometimes feel irrationally annoyed about. It’s sad that you can’t see people smile behind them but I suppose it’s a small price to pay to keep yo’ lungs happy. Classic Beijing.

Home comforts

“Online, on digital and on 88 to 91 FM. This is BBC Radio 2“.

The mellifluous tones of Ken Bruce (on digital) were nothing short of a joy as I dipped chocolate biscuit after chocolate biscuit into my Ikea cup of Yorkshire tea after a chilly cycle back from Beida today. (Beida is the affectionate abbreviation of Beijing Daxue which is Peking University). I completely and utterly enjoyed the process of getting angry that Ken Bruce appeared to be covering for Steve Right in the afternoon before remembering I was being played fool by the eight hour time difference. A long wait for Drivetime lay ahead of me.

‘The Classic FM of pop music’, as some would describe it, conjured in that moment wonderfully familiar images of after-school glasses of orange squash at the kitchen table which were sometimes accompanied by the exciting promise of chicken pie for dinner later, bourbon biscuits, saying things like ‘the nights are drawing in’, the Sunday-evening depression made worse by the combination of the Antiques Roadshow theme tune battling against the Paul O’Grady radio show on in the other room, news of accidents on the A3 on dark rainy car journeys in a gridlocked Guildford to piano lessons, more bizarrely, Craig Revel-Horwood on Strictly Come Dancing and also of positive things – most potently, my parents, Fran just down the Dell and other lovely friends from home.

The only differences were that the biscuit-tin lid I safely clutched was part of an ex-mooncake tin, the biscuits themselves would consider themselves more at home in my local ‘world commodity living museum’ rather than in an aisle at Sainsburys, I’d used chopsticks to punish, drain and dispose of the teabag and most of all, that I’m here in my flat in the capital of CHINA. Tomorrow morning I will be woken by the blaring soundtrack of Tai-chi music and look down to see several groups of chinese men and women alike, out at the crack of dawn, harnessing the power of qi.

In all seriousness, the artful diplomacy of Jeremy Vine is just one extremely pleasing aspect of the institution that has been a solid cornerstone in my life so far – the BBC. It brings us  salts of the earth such as David Attenborough, Claire Balding (did she ever move to channel 4?) and Riz Lateef. Today, it is a home comfort that I am very grateful for. I thank all at Shepherds Bush or wherever the new broadcasting centre is now. You are wonderful, creative, right-minded people.

 

内蒙古 – Inner Mongolia (part 1)

To celebrate the National Day of the People’s Republic of China, some friends and I chose not to stay in and think quietly about what Mao Zedong and the Communist Party did for us. Instead, we bought eight-hour standing tickets to Hohhot in Inner Mongolia, giddy with the prospect of fresh, non-polluted air and of open spaces more expansive than Tiananmen square which are often hard to imagine with a view like this:

A reasonable day, from the tenth floor

A reasonable day, from the tenth floor

The train journey could have been horrendous. Raquel, Maddy, Jaq and I stepped onto what can only be described as the livestock carriage at the very back of the train and hopeful visions of the long journey ahead were suddenly humbled. Luckily, paying the equivalent of a meagre £3.50 to the right lady, gave us the privilege of a seat in the American diner-style canteen car, free cups of green tea, a hot dinner and an extraordinarily uncomfortable series of short kips on the benchseats.

Heads down, thumbs mostly also down

Heads down, thumbs mostly also down

The book that I brought for the week was ‘The Tao of Pooh’ by Benjamin Hoff, a present from my ‘incred’ friend Coco. It lent to the week a near-spiritual dimension in the most secular sense. It very lightly discusses the most simple, fundamental principle of Taoism, before its more deep and complicated branching off into the monastic and folk religious threads. Hoff does a great job. Not only was I so happy to be reminded of how enchanting the Winnie-the-Pooh stories are (and hopefully the others were too, once I inflicted narration upon the group one evening), but its’ beautifully simple message, dressed up in the calming-in-itself language of natural harmony and ‘The Way’, was that we should all be more like The Bear Of Very Little Brain.

 

Part 2 to follow.

Onto the blogwagon I jump… 你好 Beijing!

This is the very moment that I have contentedly put off for a month. The first blog entry RE ‘Year Abroad’, a phrase once turned ugly by its overuse and by my own spirit of traditionalism and scepticism that steeped summertime musings about the twelve months ahead. A testament to the magic of Edinburgh? (GREAT castle.) Rather too preoccupied with all who were to be missed rather than with excitement about the incredible opportunity at my feet, it was with a compliant myopia that the packing and departure process for Beijing took place. I am ‘happay’ to report however, that my paradigm has shifted, unsurprisingly, and it is with newly restored faith in the world and all it has to offer that I return to this blog because so far, Year Abroad is great.

Finally – the last one about China 2012

Another aspect of student life that struck me was the complete non-existence of a drinking culture as we know it. I asked a lot of students what they did in the evenings, where they went to socialise, what they were going to do to celebrate the end of their exams and so forth. The reply would always be surprising even though I had a strong feeling before I asked that the answers would be really quite different to ones I would be sure to hear in the UK.  Although the response would sometimes be drinking beer with friends, more often I heard responses like watching a movie on their computer, playing basketball or chatting on ‘QQ’ or MSN. The same question in Guildford at least, would precipitate an average response of something along the lines of ‘big night’. ‘Being cool’ comes into this too. It marks out going out in the UK as far too distinctive for its patent mission to be seen out and certainly the social emphasis and widespread hubris, if you like, in getting drunk is an absolute departure from the drinking culture in China. Of course, if you head into Beijing or Shanghai there will increasingly be a set of young trendy twenty-somethings who probably take drinking and partying to a whole new level that would certainly put the Guildford folk in Spoons on a rowdy and potentially violent Saturday night at least, to shame. A world away within the University in Qingdao, there was a greater and very apparent hard-working mentality and refreshingly bars less pressure to be seen out doing ‘cool’ things.

Having said this and in fear of undermining everything so far, I saw and heard a lot over the two months which reinforced my view that all humans around the world are more or less the same. Broadly speaking, a harsher and more turbulent national history especially in the modern era, a considerably larger population leading to higher competition for jobs and undeniably stricter parenting for the great majority fuelled by the fight for University places, has injected into the average chinese student psyche a desire to perferm well that seriously belittles my very average efforts at George Abbot school. For many, they are the first generation accessing higher education, and although this is the case for many in the UK too, myself included, it seems that this has a greater significance in China where a substantially more profound dichotomy between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in society can be seen. Generally speaking, this reflects in more diligent attitudes to work and also, I think, in more respect for teachers. This most probably stems tenuously down from confucius teachings of respect for one’s elders too, but even in cosmopolitan Shanghai where the word ‘modern’ sometimes seems an understatement, teachers are held in no less regard. This is demonstrated by placing ‘lao shi’ after their family name, rather than their given name.

Having barely scratched the surface of eastern and western distinctions, it is probably most wise to end here and wait until next time when I hope to be able to come at this mammoth task with greater maturity and with a greater confidence in my observations. For now, it is safe to say that my eight weeks on the other side of the world have been an unmissable opportunity and without doubt, a welcome reminder of what technically makes up half my world.

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Cont’d – Tuition

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As I listened to the presentations, I picked out the popular mispronunciations that I spent the following fortnight trying to correct. A programme of oral english tuition was drawn up and I actually had a lot of fun while correcting deep-rooted pronunciation errors, playing english language games and generally getting to know the lovely group of students better. With no exceptions, they were all extremely keen to learn and to improve with a native english speaker. Common errors involved difficulties with the ‘th’ and ‘v’ sounds. Although I cannot boast complete success in transforming my students and new friends into more modest-nosed Stephen Frys, I at least made the vital step of making them aware of how they were saying things wrong and hopefully gave them lasting ways of remembering how certain words should sound. Unfortunately for me, a significant number of words were new to me too and so whilst a whole new world of lipids, CCR3 and outlandish proteins was opened up to me, I had to quickly decide how some of the more specialised terms were pronounced myself before taking on the role of the omniscient teacher. 

 

Summer 2012 cont’d…

        Upon hearing that no students were available for teaching as they were all busy amidst an exam period that I had not been previously made aware of, and having a two-week gap to fill until they were over, I left Qingdao to spend ten days in with my family in Shanghai. I continued my educational summer there, surrounded by great company, great food and the Shanghainese dialect. I found my understanding of the dialect to be better than that of my mandarin but, as in the past, I felt more comfortable speaking the latter.

        A special occasion gave me the benefit of increasing my religious education when my family and I attended Buddhist prayers for the ten-year anniversary of my Grandmother’s death. I found the affair to be quite a surreal experience but undeniably interesting, as the kind of ceremony was a complete departure from anything I was formerly familiar or comfortable with. To be completely honest, I felt a little too removed from the protocol for it to be spiritually advantageous on a personal level, but despite my discreet mutterings about it being ‘a bit bizarre’, I developed a strong sense of respect for the Buddhist nuns; for their endurance whilst chanting, their kind-heartedness and most of all for their unmitigated devotion and fidelity to their faith. More importantly, I strengthened my personal proclivity for remembrance on an individual and private basis. Although the offering of apples and bananas to an immanent Will adhered to the principles of the Buddhist religion and was pleasing in its simplicity, it was unsettling in its fundamental theory and did not align with my belief that remembrance will always be more significant in individual hearts and minds on a day-to-day premise.

            I returned to Qingdao and the University of Petroleum and was soon invited to an enjoyable dinner with Ms Wu, Professor Zhang of the National Cheng Kung University of Taiwan, Ms Liu from the University of Beijing and my friend Zhao Yuming. Conversation was wide-ranging and it was very interesting to listen to the views of such a range of ages, experiences and places. The next day I was met by the news that there wouldn’t be any students to teach as they have now, exams completed, gone on to start internships away from the university. This was very disappointing given my preparation and the time I had spent here, which suddenly it seemed, without purpose. I realised though, that I had come primarily to improve my Chinese and it has, I believe, come on well, through good immersion in many aspects of Chinese life. I have made friends who I really became sad to say goodbye to as they finished their year at university here and will certainly hope to keep in touch with. I have stuck with and have enjoyed my diary-writing and have learnt a lot, even through the tasks of buying train-tickets, doing much navigation around Chinese airports and asking lots of questions with only my Guildford-cultivated wits to depend on, I have definitely grown up a little more and have learnt a great deal about China, about my family and myself in the last month here by the sea at Qingdao.