In honor of my birthday, some thoughts on life home and abroad.

It’s been a bit over a year since I started my senior year in college, that year that is so full of questions of what we are going to be when we grow up, and what we are going to be even in one year. It’s hard to realize that, as 22 year olds, it really is all right when we don’t know exactly where we are going. Especially with all of the pressure and emphasis on people asking what we want to be when we grow up. Is the acceptable answer never, simply, “happy”? It makes me wonder if everyone around me is trying to scramble for that high paying job immediately following college because they want to, or because they have had too many people ask them what they are doing when they grow up and the best answer is to be able to say that they have a good job in a good city doing things that earn them that money to, as a 22 year old, get that fancy apartment and go out to those fancy dinners.

Not that I’m jealous. I’m enjoying my $2 dinners and my tiny apartment at the end of the dirt road. It is just such a different direction that I have decided to go in for this year than my friends who are in big American cities with bars downstairs and real grocery stores and no worrying about when the blackouts will take place each day.

It is odd spending so much time looking up to those kids who are in college, then out of college doing interesting things: I spent my life watching my siblings, their friends, my own friends in the grades above, and even my babysitters when I was younger. And all of a sudden I am that older kid out of college, doing stuff, living on my own in a new city. And it’s hard to forget that, though I always saw the end result, even just for these 22 year olds who were taking jobs or traveling doing things, I never saw the process. The process is the important part: figuring out not just what I want to do, but how to get there. And that process is so often pushed aside in favor of the clean-cut end product. I’m enjoying going through the process, even though it is scary at times. It is hard to remember, at times, that just because the end product seems far away does not mean that it is not going to happen. It just means that I get the chance and the time to learn more things along the way.

So I spent Saturday night riding around the hills surrounding the valley on the back of a motorbike! A bit terrifying at times, but so much fun, too. I went to dinner with Lauren (an American girl doing her PhD research at Raksha) and her Australian friend Hugh, and his Nepali friend, Kamal. Hugh and Kamal have mopeds, so it is easy to get around. We were going to go to some more dance bars to see what they are like, but scrapped that plan in favor of driving up to the top of one of the hills, where you can see the entire city.

It was so beautiful. On par with my parents’ view in Berkeley. The difference being the layout of the lights. Quite cool, how you can see how the city is laid out from the lights. So in Berkeley you can see the straight streets reaching down towards the harbor, grids all lit up of the city blocks. Here the lights are chaos. There are some more-lit areas winding through the valley showing where the larger roads are, as well as some areas of dense darkness. I live in one of those areas of dense darkness.

The air is also really fresh up there–out of the city we started driving up these winding roads surrounded by trees. It was so nice to be out of the pollution and smog, and in the fresh air and trees!

So there is a girl who they brought in last week. She is around 13 years old (actual age is uncertain, since it’s hard for them to keep track in some of the small villages), and from a small village in India, close to Nepal. Her mother apparently sold her to traffickers for around 10,000 rupees ($100 essentially), and she had been bound at the wrists and ankles, and when she and some other girls were taken into police custody, Raksha brought her in for shelter and refuge. She was just sitting in a corner in the kitchen for a few days, then finally started talking a bit on Friday. I think it is tough for them to communicate with her, since she really only speaks her village language, but they have figured it out a bit more.

It’s pretty scary actually seeing where these things happen. You hear about things like selling your children, but those are usually things that happen so far away. They are across the world, completely outside our sense of reality. The newspaper might mention it, but always seems closer to a fiction than a reality. Here it is real, though. It is a real fact that this girl’s mom sold her for some cash.

The two-year-old here, Mohit? He and his brother were found on the street–their father died and their mother ran away, and left them there in a little nest of twigs and rags. He is two years old, his brother is no older than five. The fact that this is an acceptable thing, or something that people can even think of doing, is appalling. But they are here now, they are clean and fed and they smile. A lot.

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Ice Cream, Momos, and Other Thoughts

We’ll start with an adorable picture of Mohit (cutest two year old ever) playing with a balloon, throwing it up in the air and trying to catch it:

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The children got balloons and candy from the guests:

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We took the children to a restaurant yesterday to get momos (dumplings) for lunch. There really is nothing like seeing crazy Asian traffic actually stopped at an intersection for once because of a string of thirty children walking across the street. There really is nothing more terrifying, too, of walking towards the back of said line and watching the cars and motorcycles start to get impatient to start driving again. Don’t worry—we all got there safely.

The kids loved the momos. They got ice cream, then a plate of momos each, and then were still hungry so asked for pizza. Boy, can these kids eat!! Here’s a nice little photo of us walking home from lunch:

Walking home from momos

In other news, at this lunch (the kids ate inside, grownups outside), there was a woman (Corulla) visiting from Austria to the shelter, and three women who have been helped by the shelter came along, too. She spent some time, before the meal, asking them questions about themselves, what they are doing, etc., and I got to listen in, which was really a wonderful thing to get to do!

Lisa (Corulla’s daughter), Muna, Goma, and me at lunch:

Lisa, Muna, Goma, and me

As a side note—I absolutely loved the variety of languages being spoken around the table. Nepali, English, German. Also it was really quite neat to see how English was being used so that someone from Nepal and someone from Austria can understand each other by speaking a third, more universal language: English. Kind of cool to think about, and to witness.

Anyways, on to the point:

Since I have been here I have read about what Raksha does, written about what it does in the form of proposals, and even worked with research data when helping Goma with her thesis, but it was really wonderful to get to listen first hand to what the NGO has done for these women.

They talked about the jobs that they have now—one works as a therapist in a massage parlor, another owns her own teashop. They talked about how all of the different aspects that the NGO provides really come together to be important. How the education and giving skills is just as important as gaining confidence and courage to change their jobs, and do something new.

They also talked about how much the children’s shelter helped. One of the women had Raksha taking care of her daughter for around three years before having her daughter move back with her a year ago. She said this really helped her out a lot, because, not only did she not have to worry about what would happen when she brought her daughter to work with her, and what she would witness, but it meant that Raksha was supporting her daughters education, something that is difficult for a lot of these women to pay for.

For all my time volunteering at Sarah’s Hope (a women’s shelter in Baltimore), I don’t think that any of the women there would ever have let a shelter take care of their children so that they could work on getting back on their feet. I don’t think it would usually be an option, either. It makes a lot of sense, however, especially for these women who have limited work options, and the only thing to do while they are working is to take their children along with them to work.

It is a very different model, however, from the US. At the shelter in Baltimore, progress was made by providing the women and their families living at the shelter with space to live (in dorms with other families), meals, and certain other things (diapers, laundry soap), depending on how much income they generated. They stayed there until they had jobs and could find somewhere to live, and then they were released. (The other way they might be released would be if they broke rules or exhibited bad behavior.) While there, the women took classes in parenting, money management, and other classes to help them along.

It’s interesting to see how the needs change, yet stay the same with the country. They all need jobs, stability, schooling for their children, food, all the necessities to lead their lives. How this is going to happen, though, is very different. Here it might mean letting someone else care for your child while you work on the home situation. Or looking towards a community network to help you work your way out of a bad situation.

In Baltimore it seemed to be much more about the individual, and how the individual could get back on their feet, here it is about working together to get the community back on their feet, and to work towards a better situation for all of them. Now, here’s a bonus picture of Mohit being adorable:

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Thesis Writing and Dance Bars

This weekend was a weekend of learning new things. I helped out a woman who works at the shelter, Goma, to finish up her masters thesis, and I went to a dance bar, one of the locations that the women who use the NGO are working at.

Goma needs to write her masters thesis in English, even though she goes to school in Nepal, so she has been getting help from others who are better at English. We worked on first organizing the data that she had collected, then analyzing it through graphs and charts (all that High School science Excel use finally came in handy!).

To collect her data she had gone into massage parlors throughout the city and conducted a survey asking about their caste, marital status, age, reason for coming to Kathmandu, problems that the women have at work, if they are coerced into sexual activities, if they know about HIV/AIDs, etc.

It was really interesting, and also really sad, inputting a lot of the data. Most of the women/girls interviewed were either between 14 and 20, or when they had started working at the massage parlors they were between 14 and 20. Nearly 100% of them talked about being abused by their customers and by the owners of the parlors that they worked at: they talked about being physically, sexually, and also financially abused (The owners of the massage parlors never actually give them their full salary, but usually keep around 50-75% of the women’s earnings for themselves).

The NGO does a lot of work to try and motivate the women towards self-empowerment. They go out into the informal entertainment sector (this consists of dance bars, massage parlors, cabin restaurants and the like…places where the women are being sexually exploited at their workplaces), and encourage the women there to join their union groups. The idea behind these groups is to give these women a forum to talk about the problems that they are having at work, what they need and want, and give them the courage to stand up for themselves, too. They also teach them about encourage the women to come talk to the NGO, and the NGO will help them to get more education, as well as training in other skills so they can get other jobs.

The large majority of the women and girls working in this industry are illiterate or lacking in even a primary education; because society tends to assume that the women will get married and wont need an education. This backfires, though, because when they come looking for a job it is, in part, their lack of education that lands them in these seedy jobs.

More on all of this later.

The other interesting thing I did this weekend was go to one of the dance bars! One of the other volunteers here, an American named Lauren, is doing her research at Raksha for her PhD. She wanted to go see one of the dance bars in action, so I volunteered to go with her. We also went with her Australian friend, Hugh, so it felt a little less sketchy.

The dance bar itself had one sign outside, and then you had to go in through this store front, out the back, and up another set of stairs to get to it. There was no obvious storefront, so to get to it you actually have to be trying to find the place to get there. When we got in it looked innocent enough: a club-y type of atmosphere, big couch seating, and a stage in the middle. They sat us down, and every few minutes a girl would come out on the stage and shuffle around for the duration of a song. Some of the girls would be out sitting in the booths; the rest would disappear behind a curtain behind the stage.

I think the scariest part of it was that it looked so much more innocent than it actually is. If I had just stumbled into it it would just seem like a semi-nice place to get a drink, with some entertainment on stage. But coming to it from Raksha, I know the types of things that happen at the dance bars, and that they involve a lot more than just shuffling around on stage in too-big heels. I’m glad that I got to go to one, though.

It helps me to know more about the places that these women are coming from, and it is a learning experience, too, every day, while I learn more and more about what is going on. Lauren and I are going to try and go to some other dance bars, too, to see what they are like. We think that the one that we went to is one of the least seedy ones, and it will be interesting to see what the others are like, and how they compare!

Heavy Editing

Yesterday was my first day actually doing something at the shelter! I am working on editing and strengthening a grant proposal for the shelter right now. A lot of editing, a lot of highlighting and re-writing. It kind of feels like I’m in school again!

It is pretty interesting editing the proposal for a couple of reasons. The first is the way it is written. Normally while editing papers of my own or of my friends the main thing to worry about is the grammar, or how awkward a sentence is. With this, though, I am editing something that was written in someone’s second language.

With this the issue ends up being more about the way that the sentences are put together, the order in which the words are placed to try and get across what they are saying. The language structures are pretty different in English versus in Nepali, and this comes through when I am editing. Little things, like the fact that the verb is put at the end of the sentence in Nepali becomes so much more clear here. The normal structures that vary from language to language become so much more pronounced. It means rearranging the sentence so that it makes sense in English, while still retaining the ideas that those who wrote the first draft of the grant were originally trying to get through.

Then, of course, there are the issues of tense and number. Things which show up once in a while in papers (hey, I’ve been guilty of switching tense in the middle of a story, not gonna lie), but which show up a lot more when the language is not your native tongue. It makes me pay a lot more attention when editing, and also means I need to spend longer at times reading and re-reading a paragraph to make sure that I am editing it to say what it is supposed to say. Also to make sure that, even when editing and rearranging the words, I am not butchering the voice.

The second thing that I really like about this process is that I get to learn a lot more about the NGO that I am volunteering at. I got a chance to read the articles written about them over the past couple years, and have a copy of their profile to read, which gives me a pretty good idea of what it is that they do, and the main issues that the women here face. These materials act as a background for me, and a base of knowledge when I am here, and when I am reading. Reading the proposal, though, I can start to tell what issues play the biggest roles. Many times these issues that play a larger part in what the shelter is working for, and working against, are repeated more often. They are emphasized more greatly to the reader, and appear bigger. This may be just by accident, but  it does seem like something that happens for a reason.

It was only the first day working, but it’s really nice to finally get to start doing something productive (other than wandering the streets all day), and to start to figure out why am here, and the work that I am doing. It makes me feel a bit more at home to be busy, and to be busy doing something that I know is really useful to someone other than myself.

The First 48 Hours

Yesterday was a lot of things. Scary, new, exciting. It was scary coming here at night, because I had no idea where I was. All I knew was that the cab drove off of the main street, down the dirt roads, and into a little piece of road that is more piles of bricks and trash than drivable street. I have a bottom floor flat in my building, which is across from Raksha Nepal, the NGO that I am volunteering at.

I chose to go straight home after the flight, instead of getting something to eat with the girls who picked me up since I was pretty tired from traveling for so long. It was really after unpacking my things into my flat, that I had the very scary realization of just how far from home I really am. It’s scary being so far away from home, alone. Especially at night when the noises are foreign and the streets are new, and I have no idea of where I am or really what I am doing here.

Today, however showed me just how wonderful it is here. While yesterday was spent in a daze of learning about the shelter, meeting people, and trying to explain who I am to everyone I met, today was a lot easier. Saturday is the weekly holiday/weekend here, so I didn’t need to be in to the shelter at any specific time. Instead I tried to sleep in a bit, and hung out watching TV and trying to decide how to spend my day. I figured I would try and walk around a bit, see more of the area around me, and maybe try and find an internet café so I could finally get internet.

My day was decided for me, quickly, when I heard a banging at the door early in the afternoon. “Jenny! Jenny!” Two of the girls who are my age, Isu and Rekha, who work at the shelter, were at my door, looking for me! They have decided to take me under their wing and befriend me so that I have friends here. They waited for me to pull on jeans, then we walked to Thamel, the busier, more touristy area just a ten minute walk away from our district, Lanichaur. There we met one of the other volunteers for lunch: buff momo (mutton dumplings, essentially), french fries, and paneer pakora. After that they took me to a store to get some groceries and ingredients to make tea with, and took me back to my flat to teach me to make Nepali tea for myself! They are so sweet, really making sure that I don’t feel alone here, and that I know that I can come to them for anything.

Isu and Rekha are partially in charge of helping to entertain the children at the shelter, so we went back and brought all of the kids up to the roof and turned on music for a dance party. We spent a good hour or so dancing up there, and one of the children even stole my phone to take some videos! It was so much fun just playing with all of the children—they all would come up to me, going “sister! Sister! Come dance!”. And beyond the crowded and colorful roofs of the city were the mountains rising up in the north. It’s really quite an amazing thing to see.

It’s still hard adjusting to this new place. Cold showers, muddy streets and strange food are just part of it. But having this whole family that really wants to take me in and make me feel at home makes it so much easier. They treat me like a sister, constantly making sure that I am feeling okay, that I have food, water, everything that I need. It is such a warm, open place to be. And while it is still scary at times (well, I am only two days in…) it is also such a warm and sweet place to be at the same time.  I still work to get used to some customs (it’s hard to remember to take off my shoes outside, still!), but I know that I will get used to them soon!