Halfway through my fourteenth week in Nepal, we finished our work tying together the sidewalks, topping off the brick walls of the classrooms, and clearing out all debris, unused bricks, piles of aggregate gravel and sand. The school was finished, and would soon be full of students.
Back at the host home, things were transitioning too. A handful of volunteers left the country one after the other, volunteers with whom I’d established friendships, explored, and laughed. In the last few days before Adiel and Marcos left, all three of us rented scooters from a small shop in downtown Kathmandu. For a mere 500 Rupees per day (less than $5) we became a three-man scooter gang. I learned to navigate the intense traffic like a hot knife through butter, and a few times we took the whole crew out for adventures or to go shopping downtown. These vespa-like scooters were not top of the line, however. Mine was the color of a banana and had a habit of stalling out if I stopped for even a moment. Luckily, it couldn’t perform well enough to handle an extra passenger, so when a large picnic was planned a few days afterward, I didn’t have to carry anyone on my scooter and risk crashing.
Back at the job site, we were virtually finished. The local Nepali engineer on our site, Asis, had acquired a new nickname from me. Every time a new task was given to us he took responsibility for teaching all of us the proper way to do it to make sure we were efficient. However, he always made it look easier than it was. So I called him As-easy. When we finished clearing the debris and organizing the piles of gravel and sand so that the mason could later finish out the brick flooring of the courtyard, we were treated to a traditional Newari plate of food. Newari people are the true historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu valley, and the Newari language, culture, and food are often seen just as much as the Nepali culture. These plates of food almost always consist of dried rice (chura), grilled buffalo (buff chola), peanuts, bean curry, and spicy red sauce (achar). We were to wash this down with green Mountain Dew. It was amazing after one of the hardest work days we had seen—yet. At the very close of our time at this school, each of us were presented with a ceremonial scarf and a tikka (a good luck swipe of red power on the forehead). Pictures were taken with the whole group and we said our goodbyes to the staff of the school and the local mason, who was still hard at work on brickwork when we left.
Our host mother, Susmita, was beginning to seem more comfortable as a host during this time, since several groups of volunteers had come and gone already. It was, after all, her very first time acting as a host mother to a group of volunteers. It can’t be easy to prepare rooms and clean and cook for people who wake up not feeling well, disappear to work all day, then come back starving and dragging their muddy shoes across the floors. On top of this, Susmita had to take care of her six year old son, Soham, and her 13 year-old daughter Susita. Every morning she would cook them a separate breakfast and make sure they were in their school uniforms and ready to catch the bus at 9am. Crazy job, being a mother. Even crazier job to be Susmita. I’m thankful for the incredible hospitality every Nepali person showed me despite some of their own living conditions and responsibilities.
Week fifteen and sixteen not only flew by, they seemed to bump into my lower spine on the way. We were brought to the new building project. Located not far from our host home this time, this school had a similar layout as the one before but our new job was to redo some shoddy work that had recently been done by another group of volunteers. Our main objectives on this one were to reinforce the foundation with concrete ties, build new barrier walls, new classroom walls, and begin the outline of a sidewalk.
Our very first task: Dig ditches.
It had rained that day and water was pooled up in shallow ditches of hard clay. This was where we were to dig, and we had to dig fast to avoid more rain collecting in our holes before the next day. Otherwise we couldn’t build up a brick wall until we dipped the water out with buckets. And of course, this is exactly what happened, and on our second day, we spent most of the day dipping buckets into the muddy water to make room for the new brick walls. This was back-breaking, slippery work and when we finally got the last drop out, we began to dig more. Pickaxes didn’t do much to the dense clay and shovels would stick and break from the pressure.
By the end of the first week at the new site, we had finished one long brick wall and worked our way over to the foundation, which was under the metal roofing and safe from the rain. We began by learning how to bend rebar squares and wire them to long straight pieces of rebar to create a rectangular tube of metal that served as heavy reinforcement for the concrete ties we poured over them. These ties, perfectly named, tie the whole structure together in such a way that if another 7.0 earthquake hits Kathmandu, the whole structure of the school will sway together, as opposed to separate sections of foundations that might grind or slip against each other.
In my last week as a construction team member, we saw so much progress on the new building. Much of that original team of volunteers had left by that point, which was sad, but there were already new volunteers almost each day that came in and joined the project. I really enjoyed the enthusiasm and work ethic of all the people I met. I rarely saw anyone slacking or complaining about the work. It was nice be a part of team that really cared about the work they were doing and even despite all the cultural, political, and personality differences—at the end of the day we all felt part of an honest mission and loved serving the Nepali communities. This school was nowhere near complete when I left, and I only hope that more volunteers will continue to come work on it over the next year.
At the host home, saying goodbye was a little easier because now I was only one of 3 volunteers at the house, instead of 10. I knew I’d be back in just a few weeks when my girlfriend Marissa came to visit, so it wasn’t sad yet.