For somewhere so remote and backward it's incredible how much seems to have happened in the week that I've been settled in Saping, a dusty hillside village in Eastern Nepal.
The journey here from Kathmandu took almost as long as the leg from London to Kathmandu. My first night in Nepal was spent in a guesthouse in Dhulekhil run by the same people as the school I am working in. Under the instructions of Nani, my hostess, I left half my belongings there as I was told I'd regret taking 20kg to Saping all at once. The next day, Nani, her brother, some others and I set off to the school. A hairy car journey for an hour or so took us to Dhologhat, the nearest town (I'd call it a village) to the village of Saping. It was extremely hot so we planned to take the bus from there up the mountain but the whole world and his mother were en route to their homes for the much anticipated election a couple of days later. We ended up hitching a ride on the roof of a truck, holding on for dear life throughout the hour long drive. In twenty four hours I'd already been fed a lot of lentils and with every bump and jerk I had to make every effort not to fall off. After what seemed like an eternity we were dumped unceremoniously on the side of the dusty track and left to walk the remaining hour and a half through the rice terraces to Medaka Family School. The Nepalese don't tend to rush and we took endless breaks to sit and chat. Only as we were arriving at Nani's house did I discover that her brother who'd travelled with us was about to meet his two month old daughter for the first time. He wasn't remotely fazed and when I tried to up the pace he pointed out to the others that foreigners are so odd about babies. We stopped for tea at Nani's house, where her mother, sister, sister-in-law, nieces and nephews still all live in the tiny make shift shelter built after the earthquake destroyed their house. This is the case with many village people in the country who were promised government grants to help them rebuild their homes but these have yet to materialise despite the enormous funds raised internationally for that purpose.
Finally I arrived at Medaka Family School, three simple stone buildings perched on the rice terraces looking over the hills all the way to the snowy peaks of Langtang and the Himlayas. Home for the next month. Had I known just how simple and remote it was perhaps I may never have come, but as it happens I've hardly noticed the adjustment to such a humble way of life and have had no qualms about it. There are two other volunteers, Alana and Adam, a couple from New Zealand who are on their second stint here and are currently overseeing the building of a new library that they are donating to the school. They are about my age and have already become great friends.
Our basic plyboard rooms are over the classrooms and under a corrugated metal roof which leaks all over my bed when it rains. I sleep on a piece of foam on a plyboard bed with an old tablecloth as a sheet. The loo is a hole in the floor in a shed 30m away and the shower is next to that and home to a plethora of creepy crawlies the size of my hand. We do actually have hot water as Uttam, who I'll tell you more about later, devised an ingenious system with a black glass tank which heats in the sun. He'd noticed many of the children had rashes so they get a good wash and a haircut by Uttam himself. Meals are Dhal Baat (lentils and rice) at 9.30am and 6.30pm but we managed to buy some eggs and have been boiling them as breakfast at 6.30am. After the never ending gastronomic delights of my previous trip, being hungry all the time is taking some getting used to. Minimal 3G can be found a short walk up the mountain, I'm having to load this through my phone so fingers crossed the photos will upload. Electricity is intermittent and usually only works for about an hour a day.
In the morning we cook, clean and plan the day's lessons, then school runs from 10am until 3pm then I try to squeeze in a bit of painting before supper. The evenings are spent chatting, reading and picking rat droppings out of the sack of rice by torchlight.
And yet, as I said before, it's amazing how quickly you adapt and apart from the spiders in the shower which are hard to keep at bay by torchlight, I really wouldn't change anything.
The school was set up in 2000 by Uttam who was born and brought up in the farm on the terrace below the school. While working in Kathmandu he befriended some Japanese people and managed to get initial funding from them. He now travels to Japan often and speaks the language fluently, he also sparks English. Both of his parents are illiterate. Uttam's passion for the children's welfare in infectious. Not only does he work flat out to enable their education and to source and organise volunteers like myself, but he also looks after them as if they were his own. The children that is!
On my third day here It was the local elections, the first election at all for twenty years. We went up to the little shop where everyone was congregating to have a look. Uttam, who runs the school explained that many people had simply found themselves struck off the voting register all together, particularly those who are known to be opposed to the Maoists. The Maoists have also been bribing the lowest caste for their votes with money and alcohol. Sure enough, the results came two days later and the Maoists have won in this district. It was the day Alana, Pabitra and I were on the hour round trek to the little shop after enduring a serious food shortage in the run up to and during the election. They were all parading there and very drunk. We realised that as the only Westerners for miles around we ought not to have been there at all. In other villages in the country there have been bombs and shooting, so far we've been fine.
That night we had to lock ourselves into the school building as we could still hear the drunken celebrations in full swing and there was a very uneasy atmoushphere. My room is nearest the door and I was convinced there was an inebriated Maoist trying to get in from the roof, until to my relief I realised it was just the rats who's claws make a lot of noise on the metal!
In the week I've been here we've seen some epic thunder storms, followed by monsoon like rains which the locals say are two months earlier than ever before. I've painted a bit, but there hasn't been much time and it's often been raining when I've had the chance. The landscape is jaw- droppingly beautiful but not easy to paint and most of the views are fairly similar. I painted Uttam's parents one day and will probably focus more on portraiture if I can. They were wonderful models, sitting on the steps of their barn with me positioned below surrounded by their buffalo and goats which kept trying to nibble my paintbrushes. After an hour they got bored and with no warning wandered off so the painting is unfinished but I think I like it like that.
The teaching has been tough. The children are adorable though. Only the poorest in the area who can't afford the government school are allowed to come and many of them walk for up to two hours to get here. The older ones (ten and eleven) have a better grasp of English and are less hard work but the younger ones often have no idea what is going on. My first day was terrifying but one of the most rewarding of my life. They are eager to learn and seeing their progress and their faces light up with it is very special. Most of their parents are illiterate and some can't even count. On top of this many of the pupils are very lucky to be here at all after they were nearly buried alive in the earthquake. Unfortunately the government issues the textbooks and much of the information is either poorly translated or simply wrong. It's frustrating teaching knowing that in order to have a better chance at life they shouldn't learn this misinformation but they must to pass the exams they have to take if they want to continue their education.
I can hardly believe a week has passed since I arrived, and with it nearly a quarter of my time here in Saping. Now that I have settled in I hope to be able to find more time to paint. On the other hand if I don't, I don't mind as for once my time is being taken up by something that matters much much more.