We came to buy a cow, they wanted a school
Ryan Summerlin December 17, 2011
Oh Nepal, how we love you so. Your magnificent mountain peaks loom over your jungle lowlands as they humbly bow before the majestic shrine. Nepal is, without question, a magical country full of Asian ambiance, Buddhist and Hindi influence, and stunning scenery. Roads wind up-and-down lush Himalayan foothills, while buses adorned with flowers and statues of Ganesh hug corners barely missing the 12 inches or so between tire and a 500-foot drop. Even the infamous “death-road” in Bolivia cannot compare.
Thousands of tourists come every year to witness one of the most famous mountains on this planet, Mount Everest – the “roof-top of the world.” Hundreds of groups have attempted to summit her 29,029 feet, though the challenge is not only dangerous, but also expensive with an average expedition costing between $26,000-$65,000. The typical tourist however, opts to trek merely to her base camp, a cheaper option while still being able to experience the magnificent site.
However, with all this influx of money entering Nepal, there yet remains a substantial rich-poor gap throughout the entire country. Flo Leleu, a Frenchman working in Kathmandu, sees it on a daily basis. “The only people in Nepal that have money are the tour operators and hotel owners.
The rest of the population never sees even a dime from the tourism industry. You have women and children starving on the streets, while the hotel owners take lavish trips to London,” Leleu said.
Much goes the same for the villages. While Kathmandu carries the bulk of the economy, the people living in the rural areas of Nepal are considerably poor and live on less than $2 per day. While they might have livestock and crops to sustain themselves, there definitely is a serious lack of funds for education, healt care, running water and the basic amenities citizens of America are so accustomed to.
When I arrived in Nepal last May searching around for areas I could help, I never imagined it would be to build a school – this was never my intention. You see, I had been living in Pokhara, a small city about a seven-hour bus ride west of Kathmandu, which sits on the front-porch of the Annapurna Range, the world’s 10th tallest mountain. I was helping area orphan homes and working closely with an NGO called Hope for Himalayan Kids. We had ventured to a village outside the city to help a widowed mother and her six children become self-sustaining. Money was used that I had collected before my arrival to buy them a goat and four cows. We wanted to provide them an outlet for income generation so they didn’t have to rely so heavily on charity.
When my Nepalese friends heard of what I was doing, they asked me to help their family village, a small jungle town called Udaypur, which was located in the southeast corner of Nepal on the Indian border. I said “yes” without hesitation. Why couldn’t I buy them a few cows? This was a perfect way to spend the remaining thousand dollars I had in my fund.
I assumed this was why I was traveling to this remote area of Nepal to make them self-sustained.
This was not the case. Somewhere, somehow, my plan got lost in translation between my Nepalese connection and the connection of the village. When I arrived, they thought I was coming to build them a school! What a disaster, I thought.
We had traveled three days by bus from Pokhara with a week layover in Kathmandu. The ride was not entirely easy. As we departed the capital at the brink of nightfall, and traveled down through the Himalayan foothills to the lowlands, children would hop on the bus each time it stopped, trying to sell fruit or just ask for money. You had to keep your valuables under your shirt just in case the bus was robbed, which was not an unlikely reality while traveling at night.
Even though it was dark out, we knew with every speeding hairpin turn there could easily be a 500-foot drop on one side. It wasn’t uncommon to hear of at least one bus “going over the edge” on a weekly basis. The newspapers were cluttered with this type of tragedy and honestly, after a while, one becomes numb to such stories.
Even still, with all this concern, the excitement overshadowed the risk. I felt somehow safe traveling with my Nepalese friends, who stayed awake diligently throughout the entire evening watching the bus driver like a hawk to make sure he was being safe by not speeding too much, staying away from the booze, and passing other buses only on the mountain straight-aways.
The evening soon turned into daylight and some 16-hours later, we arrived in the village of Bhagalpur shortly after sunrise, in an area of Nepal known for farming and rice plantation production. In Bhagalpur, we waited a few more hours in the 100-degree heat and humidity for a microbus to scoop us to take us to the village.
The villagers welcomed us with flowers and a ceremonial red mark on the forehead. We had a delicious curry for supper, after which I woke the following morning to E. coli. Hello morning! Nothing is more enjoyable in life than being plagued with a stomach bug in 100-degree heat, in the middle of nowhere, with no toilets or running water.
Little did we know, the school and village community had planned a ceremony in our honor that day. Our entourage made the 40-minute journey by foot, crossing fields of rice on raised walkways, to the school site while I was shuttled on the village’s only motorbike. I waited patiently for the other people in my party on the grass at a nearby house keeled over in stomach pain, not really knowing my left foot from my right.
My companions from Pokhara who had helped organize the project eventually caught up with me, and we continued the rest of the way to the school by foot. From this point, the motorbike could no longer get through the muddy path, as monsoon season had commenced. Walking was the only option.
We didn’t realize that the entire community was waiting for us at the school grounds. I had thought we would just be examining the property to determine what needed to be done. Again, another product of “lost in translation” – a common running theme of my trip.
I was in no condition to do much of anything, let alone participate in a ceremony. Fainting under the jungle sun five minutes prior was really my last draw. Going in-and-out of coherency during the entire walk to the school, I questioned my decisions in coming to the village and I immediately wanted to go back to the comforts of Kathmandu. Upon standing back up, I saw the 100 or so people at a pavilion from a distance.
Oh my god, “quick, full power,” I exclaimed as the little Nepalese lady fanned my face and put my hair into a ponytail. I was completely shocked at what I saw in the distance. I cannot believe I am walking into a ceremony right now, I thought, and I cannot even stand on my own. I splashed some water on my face, did a little jump to shake it off and on we went, with a person helping me on each elbow.
So many emotions were going through my head. I felt like I was hallucinating from a combination of the heat, the illness and the fact that I was in the strangest place and participating in a ceremony so foreign to me. I was happy, but also disappointed that one of the most special and important moments in my life had to be overshadowed by E. coli.
They adorned us with flower necklaces, and each child came to the stage to hand us a present. Many speeches were given, in Nepalese, so I’m still not sure what was said, except they were happy to see us. I tried to stay collected as long as possible, but eventually had to run off the stage to vomit into the bush from the illness. Of course, it was all a bit comical, as all the children came running over to gather around me, and the village women were rubbing my back. Definitely an embarrassing moment, so I got back up, did a little wave, smiled and said, “I’m okay! Let’s please continue.”
After another two days of rest, and after taking a strong antibiotic that we had brought with us from Kathmandu, I was finally strong enough to start eating again, and continue with business. The village had already established a development committee before my arrival. My fund would spearhead the implementation and provide the money for any future projects.
I thought I was coming to the village to buy a few cows, so you can imagine my surprise when they asked for a school. My ideas were obviously lost in translation when we started planning the project weeks prior. To being with, I only had one English-Nepalese translator, and that was my friend from Pokhara. Internet and phone connection was less than ideal, so the whole trip to the village was an adventure from the very beginning. We went with a “we’ll wait and see” attitude, not really knowing what to expect. I can convey one idea and think that what I’m saying is being translated properly, but really, one can only hope.
Building a school is expensive, and I only had $1,000 left to give from my budget. What were they thinking? I am not God, I can’t just arrive and build them a school, I thought. This was a very stressful moment for me. I had traveled all this way, they threw us this amazing ceremony, and it occurred to me that this was going to be a failed mission.
There were so many people involved at this point and I kept thinking that I was going to have to let a lot of good people’s hopes down. I was not looking forward to breaking the bad news. Then, just as fate always does, a serendipitous moment occurred. There was a secret donor amongst our group. He, to remain nameless, donated a good chunk of money to begin the beginning stages of a school.
With this small grant, the Village Development Committee (VDC) was able to start Phase 1 of the primary school, which was a pavilion with a concrete floor. The village community is paying for half of Phase I of the project because I believe it is important for them to take ownership in the building of the school. Nothing should ever be given away for free.
At the moment, I am now back in Breckenridge trying to collect the funds to complete Phase 2, which will be the construction of the interior and exterior walls, building desks and chairs, purchasing a chalk board and buying enrichment materials for the children. I will be returning in late spring to complete the remaining stages of the school.
After finishing my student teaching at Summit High School in December, I hope to transfer those skills acquired and use them in the completion of the primary school. I want to help them better design their educational curriculum, so I am devoting at minimum, two months of volunteer time.
I’m a firm believer in fate, and convinced this school will be built. An entire village is counting on me. I need two things: 1) I’m looking for both private and corporate donors to help fund this project and 2) I need individuals with teaching experience to help me design a curriculum for the primary school.
If anyone wants to donate his or her services or become a financial sponsor, please email me at email@example.com. Let’s give this rural village the best gift we can, an education!
Katie Hilborn is a Breckenridge resident and a freelance travel writer. She student teaches at Summit High School, and is in the process of starting a 501(c)3.