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Life in a Small Town - Aaboo Kheireni, Nepal

Greetings from Pokhara, which is where I have to go to email as Aaboo Kheireni has no email facility. In fact, no one has ever seen a computer in my village. Thankfully Pokhara is not too far away. I am here compliments of Nepal’s Education Day. My school did not get its act together so instead of a day filled with a celebration of the virtues of education, we got the day off. I hopped a local bus after school, and it took me about four hours to get to Pokhara, mostly because we stopped every few kilometres.

I have now completed my first week as a teacher at the Nawa Jyoti English Boarding School and I absolutely love it. Aaboo Kheireni is a village in every sense of the word and most of the locals have ever seen a foreigner before. I now know what it feels like to be a celebrity, to have your every step hounded and your every move watched. Everywhere I go in town, I always have an entourage dragging along,

“where are you going?”

“what are you doing?”

“what is this?”

“what is that?”

When I go to the bathroom, ahhh outhouse, I have five kids wanting to hold the door closed. When I used the phone at the shop in town, I had twenty locals leaning in trying to listen even though they cannot understand a word of English. When I go into my room and close the door, within five minutes, ten people barge in and starting looking around, picking everything up, looking in all my bags, opening everything. When I bolt the door for a few minutes of privacy, BANG BANG BANG. When I brush my teeth in the morning at the local tap, it’s the daily entertainment show. When I walk by, they drop everything and stare. In the schoolyard during recess, the children run up and try to touch me or my clothes. If this is fame, I’ve decided I want no part of it. It is too damn exhausting. At night when I can bolt the door and be alone because I know that the town has finally fallen asleep, I just immediately pass out from exhaustion. From continually trying to speak Nepali because aside from my principle and a few teachers, no one speaks english, from having to explain everything from my CD walkman to my feminine hygeine products, from being in a place so alien and so different from anything I have ever known.  

And then there are the facilities.  The school consists of a small two story building, a long one story enclosure, an outhouse and a dirt yard. The long building houses eight tiny rooms, each with no lighting, tiny benches, and a small blackboard that is made from wood and painted black. The humidity has blistered the wood so badly, that in class three, I can only write on the upper third of the board. This is where LKG (lower kindergarten) UKG (upper kindergarten) and grades 1-6 study. In the two story building, the lower floors have rooms for grades 7-10 and a kitchen/dining area for the school boarding students. The second floor consists of the principle’s office, a staff room, and three dormitory rooms for the 23 boarding students. 

 

The small yard is the stage for the daily assemblies every morning and night, where students line up by class and do simple calistenics, followed by prayer and sometimes speeches by upper level students. The principle also makes daily annoucements and other things of that nature. Then two students take up drums and the students march single file to their classrooms. Very military like. At the end of the day, the students say another prayer and leave the school single file. Now Nawa Jyoti has 300 students so this takes some time. The teachers are usually standing around and I spend my time waving my hand off to each and every student who feels it is compulsory to say “Bye bye madam"

The assembly was also the stage for a very disturbing scene the other morning, for me at least. The principle announced a random check for cleanliness.  All the students have uniforms. The boys where maroon pants and white shirts with navy blue Nawa Jyoti ties and the girls have white shirts, blue ties and maroon pinafores. Your hair should be neat and tidy and this usually amounts to cute ribbon bedecked braids and such. This one particular morning, the teachers fanned out and began checking the students. They forced open their mouth to check their teeth, pull on their pigtails, lift up their sweaters to make sure they had their belts on, check their shoes, look under their fingernails. When a child was deemed ‘dirty’ the teacher would slap them, smack them about their head or pound them on their back, really hard. The assembly ended with loud cries and sniffling of students as they marched to their classrooms. So it would seem that corporeal punishment is alive and well in Nepal. Quite often a teacher will equip himself with a long stick and use it liberally. That is definately one thing that I am not used to and feel uncomfortable in the presence of. I cringed with every hard slap across the face that made the child's ears ring.  

Class eight, one of my favorites...inquisitive, smart and going far

The students here are the best part. They are learning in English during school hours, but no practice outside of school.  Add to that teachers who themselves are not comfortable in english, teaching entirely in english and you have a very bad combination. Teachers tend to teach exactly from textbooks, not bothering to explain difficult concepts, most likely because they are unable to in english. And I have the occasional student who comes over from the govt schools and get put in the same grade but have almost no English comprehension, sitting in class completely lost. I have tried to counter this in my math class with what I call my Nepali helpers, two smart boys who occasionally explain the concept in nepali to ensure comprehension. Students get by, by memorizing vast quantities of data, with no real comprehension of the material. They are excellent reciters, and when asked a question, will no doubt spit out a quote from the book. When asked to explain it in simple terms, they are unable to. My biggest challenge here is to teach students to think for themselves, not just recite and regurgitate information. We shall see how it works out.

As for me, I am adapting to a new way of life. My days start at around 6:30. At the hostel, boarders are up at 5 am to study, but me, I sleep in. At 7, I go to the kitchen for tea and bread, then it’s off to the local tap. I am staying in a small house next to the school. The house consists of two damp cinder block rooms side by side. The school rents out one for me alone, and the owner Bushnu B.K., his wife Purna Maya and their three kids stay in the other. Behind us is a communal kitchen shared with another small house just up a half flight of stairs. And the whole lot share one outdoor tap for all their water needs. There I wash my face and brush my teeth. The water is ice cold and sometimes just a trickle. I always dread using the bathroom. There is a small outhouse connected to the upstair house. It is half height, and you have to squat to enter. Often, when there is no water to ‘flush’ you find piles of crap building up. Yes, definitely will take some adapting. 

My room is very humid and all my clothes are continually damp. The bed is a wooden platform with an inch thick cushion that does nothing to alleviate the hard wood. I have one lumpy comforter that Ravi, the hostel warden, just bought for me and a pillow harder than the bed. Thankfully, I snagged a nice pillow from Singapore Air and that is my one luxury. The light is woefully inadequate, but as I am too tired to read at night, it doesn’t really matter. 

After washing up, I head back to the hostel kitchen and eat the first meal of the day at 8:30. In Nepal, it always consists of dhal bhat takaari, an enormous pile of rice, some vegetable curry and soupy lentil gravy. Utensils are not used. The Nepali way is to mix everything together with their right hand, and then shovel the wet mixture into their mouth very quickly. It’s messy but effective, and after awhile, I found that you couldn't blend the mixture as well with a fork. There is reason for everything. Here, Nepalis eat vast quantities of dhal bhat, and I am amazed at how quickly a huge pile of food disappears, washed down with cold water (for me, boiled water.) I eat with the boarders and after the first day, I stopped using the one spoon that the school owns. When in Nepal, do as the Nepalis…

Baje, the school janitor, handyman, and guy friday ringing the school 'bell.' We all called him Baje, slang for Hajurbaba, 'grandfather'

School begins at 9:45 with assembly, followed by first period at 10:00. Two periods, then a ten minute break, two more periods, a half hour snacktime, two more periods, another ten minute break, and finally the last two periods and a final assembly. The day is over at 4:15 and it is a long one. After school we get tea and bread again followed by the evening meal at around 7:00. This again is dhal bhat takaari and the routine is unchanging. The only variety in food comes during the snacktime when the teachers head over to a small snackshop serving up hot samosas, curries, rotis, fried vegis and dried goods. I like Wei Wei, Nepals dried noodles.  After dinner, the boarders must do homework and read until around nine when everyone goes to bed, the town included. There are no lights outside and around nine, the entire town is pitch black, save for the light from a few homes. There are periodic blackouts, and a weekly one on Monday nights for three hours. This goes on everyday. School is from Sunday to Thursday with a half day on Friday.  

Me, Baje, Ravi and TB, the hostel wardens and all 16 boarding students. There are only two girls, the tiny cutie in front and the hidden one near right.

Life in Nepal is so much more communal. Your business is everyone elses business. People walk right in and make themselves at home. People are always stopping in on each other to talk and all of life is lived out in the open, on display. There is not a word for privacy in the Nepali language. For example, bathing. Aside from a quick morning washing, people bath thoroughly, once a week on the only holiday, Saturday. The most popular place to bath is the Marsyandi River which passes right through Aaboo Kheireni. Men and women both head down to the riverside and bath and do laundry. If not the river, then the local tap, which is a bit tricky for women. Nepal is traditionally a very modest country, and women only bath in public out of absolute necessity but still must be covered up. So you will often seeing people bathing right next to the road, managing to wash themselves under a lungi sarang type wrap. Takes a bit of time. Oh, and of course the water is ice-cold. I’m very happy to be in Pokhara with western style showers and one of the first things I did when I got here was take the longest hottest shower.  

So…I am adapting and getting used to life in a small village. Everyone is very nice and has gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable. The rule here is ‘Guest is God’ and everyone is fighting to have me over for dinner etc. Such is the life of a celebrity in a small town.

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