Arnakot Computer Lab Nepal Project 2015

In November of 2015 myself and three other female volunteers traveled from India to work on the Computer Lab Nepal project. After spending two weeks in India’s Odisha recovering from hostility from the locals and being cooped up in our host families home and not allowed to leave our donated ambulance transport arriving in Nepal was a bit of a shock to the system.

The project I was working on was spearheaded by Prem Kunwar, a very nice Nepali man who dedicates his life to providing for his people in honor of his deceased sister, and the organization Karma Flights who’s parent organization is Cloudbase based in the US. Both organizations are founded and managed by paragliding pilots who are passionate about giving back. The woman who was heading up the project on our end was Kara Moyes, who’s Husband is a paraglider connected with Karma Flights founder Matt Cone. Working with the organization Orphans to Ambassadors, Kara partnered with Prem in fundraising and organizing the project we were working on.

I was brought to the project by my long time friend Katherine Steen. During my Divorce, Katherine and I reconnected and she mentioned her volunteer work in Africa, and the project she was working on in India. Kara and Katherine combined their two projects as one solid trip with 2 weeks in India and 2 weeks in Nepal, so I decided to join along on my own dime, and help out where I could.

We flew into Kathmandu on November 2 with our expectations shattered following our grueling two weeks in India that ruined anything we could have possibly been prepared for. The airport in Kathmandu is busy, small and slow. We waited for nearly an hour to collect our bags from check in not knowing which carousel the bags would come out on, if we missed them, or if they were just late. After 20 minutes or so I finally saw our flight number and which carousel our bags would show up on when I mentioned it to Katherine. At that point she looked at Kara who both laughed and said “Did you not just hear our conversation about it?” Unfortunately I hadn’t, and this was a recurring theme with the two as I wasn’t tuning into their conversations, or simply wasn’t communicated to what was going on.

We collected our bags, and headed to the hotel in a taxi. The taxi cost us just 500 Nepali rupees which was equivalent to $5.00 in the US. I was shocked at how inexpensive it was, and the same went for our hotel. For just $10 per night Katherine and I split a room at $5 each. It was a good size room with hot water, a queen size bed and a twin. Katherine gave me the larger bed and I told Katherine that she could have the larger bed the next time we would have to choose.

That evening a man by the name of Laxman showed up to escort us to his hotel called Hidden Paradise in Pokhara the next day. There was clearly a connection between Laxman and myself that later sparked a more Bollywood drama type of story that I will spare you now. I will say that I we enjoyed a very nice evening with a dinner at OR2K and a walk through Kathmandu’s famous Thamel late in the evening. It was nice to be able to walk freely without someone nervous for us guiding where we went, or telling us that we didn’t need to shop or buy things as our hosts did in India. That feeling I felt was difficult to explain, the best I can do is tell you to remember a time you were very sick and couldn’t leave the bed for days. Then think back on that one day you felt good enough to enjoy a meal out with a friend and how much you appreciated that meal and time out of the house. It was like that, but much more freeing (and without the sickness).

The next day we drove from Kathmandu to Pokhara with a few stops along the way, and followed by one last stop at Pokhara’s Local Market to pick up some vegetables for dinner that evening. When we arrived in Pokhara and Hidden Paradise we had a walk up a small path followed by some stairs that then opened up to an amazing view of Lake Phewa and the city below. As we were told where our rooms were Katherine and I were bunked up together in a room just at the end of the main building on the compound. We unpacked some of our stuff and I, of course, took the small bed close to the window leaving Katherine with the larger bed on the wall. The room was much smaller than the one in Kathmandu, though it was a bit more expensive. That evening we enjoyed the vegetables that were picked up at the Local Market and a meal of traditional dal bhat then off to bed. The next morning we enjoyed a breakfast of toast and eggs and met a woman by the name of Missy who I later became very close with, that includes another story not to be told with this one.

Missy gave us all the run down on how things work at Hidden Paradise. Toast and eggs were for every breakfast unless you want dal bhat with the family later. Laundry can be done for you and back by the end of the day, just leave it outside of your room in a bag and let them know. Wifi is slow, so don’t rely on it. The walk to town is a long one, but worth it if you don’t want dal bhat for dinner with the family. There is no power for most of the day, so if you need to charge your phone you can in the kitchen. There is also filtered water in the kitchen to refill your containers for free. I think Missy covered about all of our questions that day, and it was all good to know.

Later that morning we walked into town. Kara’s Husband Paul was arriving the next day from Pokhara by bus (which is a 7 hour journey), since the flights were all canceled during the fuel crisis. The airline that Paul flew with had lost his bags and he was panicking. As we walked the 30 minutes into town we talked about the trip in India and how beautiful and relaxed Nepal was in comparison. We stopped at Karma Flights on the way into town and met with Prem. We also ran into Emily, Matt’s daughter who was joining us, as Kara talked to them about our journey to Arnakot to work on the computer lab we walked across the street and looked at the clothes in a little shop there. She joined us again and we decided to grab some food at Freedom Cafe just a few doors down. While we enjoyed our meal we talked about how nice it was to walk around without someone guiding us, to enjoy a meal at a restaurant that had american style food (french fries was one of many), to shop a little without someone questioning why we needed to buy things. The view of the lake was beautiful, the meal was close to what I could get at home, and I was beginning to feel more entranced by the whole thing. While eating our meals a young man walked up and started talking to Kara. It was Emily’s boyfriend, Ken. He talked to us about what he had learned being in Pokhara for the couple of weeks before us from where to get a good tattoo, a cheap beer, and where there are cool people to meet. At one point Ken pointed to Katherine and myself and said “You have the room Emily and I were in, but we had to move because you were coming.” Katherine and I looked at each other puzzled and then he followed with, “You have the room Mo Mo is in.” He proceeded to tell us about the spider that is he size of a tennis ball, black and fuzzy all over. He also added that Mo Mo is harmless sticking to the upper parts of the wall and not coming down.

That evening Katherine and I walked into the room carefully looking all over for the big black hairy roommate we had learned about that afternoon, but there was nothing. We went to bed, but my eyes were wide open in a panic for most of the evening.

The next day Paul joined us but still didn’t have his bag as he lost all hope that the airline would find it. So we spent the day enjoying the city again as tourists and Paul shopped for clothes and gear to join us in Arnakot the next day. That evening Katherine and I were joined by Mo Mo, the giant mass of black hairiness. He was hiding behind the picture hung on the wall as some sort of home. Remember what Ken said about him being harmless, we both had a conversation with him about his space and ours, and that we would respect each other’s space. Then we turned off the lights and went to sleep. Well, I’m not sure how well Katherine slept, but I know I didn’t sleep much that night for sure. I finally passed out from exhaustion around 3:00 am and woke up at 5:00 am to get ready to leave for Arnakot that morning when I looked across the room at my feet and Mo Mo was scampering up the wall from the floor. “So much for staying on the top part of the wall, huh Mo Mo?” I thought to myself.

Katherine and I got ready for our journey to Arnakot and the long drive that surpassed the bus ride that Paul took. We had 13 hours of driving to Burtipang and with a night in the hotel there, followed by another drive the next morning for 2 hours to Arnakot that rests on the top of the hills there. With 9 people going to Arnakot (including our driver) we had to get creative with how we could all fit in the jeep. With four people in the front, and one driver that left four of us to ride in the back. So we piled in on top of blankets and our packs for cushioning, snuggled under wool blankets and bundled up with our hats and gloves then worked our feet into a tangled mess as we ventured off.

The talks before about the journey being bumpy and scary were under-exaggerated at best. With a drop off the size of the Grand Canyon on one side; a wall of dirt, rock or Nepali homes on the other; and a dirt road equivalent to the logging roads you find in Eastern Washington back home in the US, I found myself closing my eyes for much of the journey and fighting to keep in the back because seeing where we had been (knowing we survived every foot) was much easier to deal with than seeing where were were going (not knowing if we were going to make it for each foot).

We spent the night in Burtibang, then a walk across the suspension bridge the next morning and another jeep ride to the top. We were greeted by some of the villagers as we approached the community who welcomed us with music, dance and traditional costumes. We all got out of the jeep as it drove our belongings into the village and we followed behind slowly, but first we had to dance and join in on the celebration. Paul, Kara, Katherine, Barb, Emily, Ken and myself all watched Prem with his amazing dance moves and then tried some of our own.

We then walked towards the village where we stopped again for some more music and dancing, but this time the villagers each took turns dancing for us to watch. At times Prem would encourage Paul or one of the other members of our team to dance, while I hid behind the camera taking photos and video of the event (avoiding having to dance). At one point a man who was in costume as a woman danced in a seductive way with two men. The man dressed as woman was playing the part of a woman being swooned by the men which was a traditional story telling the villagers perform through their dance.

They repeated this performance several times, then switched to some of the villagers dancing and then performing the dance again, and again. We were there for what felt like an hour or so and before we continued on towards the village.

We meandered our way through paths that passed homes and along fields and ended at Prem’s parents home. We walked inside after meeting his parents to a soot filled room where Prem’s Mother cooked their morning and evening dal bhat. Walking back outside we continued towards the location where we were to stay for the two nights we were there when we were stopped again, this time a couple of the men dressed up wrapped Kara and Emily up in bright red scarfs then picked them up onto their backs and carried them towards the village. We were told that this was how the village welcomed a bride that was returning home after marrying.

At this point we continued on in a parade of what appeared to be the entire village with Kara and Emily being carried.
The music was playing and Ken and I talked most of the way confiding our difficult parents and controlling Mothers.

We walked up to where we were staying, but were told to leave our things and not get settled just yet. We were led by the entire village from there to the school where the computer lab was build. There was a huge courtyard area and all of the village was there to welcome us. The musicians continued playing and settled in on one side of the yard, with the villagers to their right and we were asked to sit at tables to their left. The music continued and so did the dancing as one woman performed for quite a while, then the man dressed as a woman, followed by many villagers joining in. The children recognized Emily from her stay before and began climbing all over her. They warmed right up to Barb, Katherine and even myself as one little girl climbed into my lap and sat with me for quite a while.

We were all fed a meal of dal bhat and the villagers all ate soon after us with the men of the school and heads of the village first, then the different casts fed accordingly starting with the higher ups first. In Nepal it is tradition for the upper cast and authority to eat first then lower casts, family members and children depending on who is all eating at the time.

The celebration continued with a walk to the solar panels with a dedication ceremony, then back to the yard for some more music and speeches by all of the heads involved saying something about the project and welcoming us to Arnakot. We each had to stand up and say something starting with Kara, as we were translated to the village by Prem. After hours of sitting in the sun, our depleted water bottles from attempting to avoid heat exhaustion piling up, we were finally shown to the computer lab as the celebration wrapped up. We spent some time working on the computers looking at their set up, and Paul talked to Prem and the members of the village about proper care of the batteries setup with the solar panels. I realized that the computers weren’t all new, as some were from the ones Orphans to Ambassadors provided, but others were donated. We were missing logins for admin access on some, batteries on others, and power cords weren’t anywhere to be found on a few. One Nepali boy walked right up to the computers, logged into one and opened up games to start playing as my Son did at the same age. Knowing what sort of trouble a computer savvy kid could get into, and being asked to set up the wifi for the lab, I knew these computers needed logins and parental controls. I talked to Prem about getting things set up, and the team and I started working out a system while we were there. Barb and I were the ones with the most experience with computers, so I came up with the system and Barb started helping with things. Barb explained things to Kara, who was struggling with the process of getting the computers setup with logins and parental controls. That evening Prem showed up in the lab with Roxy (the local alcohol made with rice) and some snacks for all of us. Later that evening we were shown were we all were sleeping.

Kara and Paul had a room to themselves in Prem’s Uncle’s home and Emily and Ken joined them at the house. Barb, Katherine and myself slept in the loft of the medical supply storage building in our sleeping bags.

The three of us unpacked our blow up mattresses, and piled up as many blankets as we could to prepare ourselves for the 40 degree chill we were about to experience through the night. Prem came up to the loft to check on us and laid down for a bit with a huge headache. He fell asleep for about 30 minutes when we were called for dinner. Prem’s headache was till bad, so I gave him one of my prescription migraine pills. We all at dinner in Uncle’s kitchen, a traditional meal of dal bhat and curry vegetables cooked over the adobe style stove. The kitchen was nice and warm as the outside was near freezing after the sun dropped behind the hills.

Katherine, Barb and myself walked back to where we were to spend our night. We all climbed over to our makeshift beds as I slipped in between them, wrapped my sleeping bag in a blanket and proceeded to snuggle in still wearing my clothes from that day including my yak wool sweater, hat and gloves I purchased in Pokhara before we left.

All bundled up and ready to fall asleep Katherine and Bard were still working out their bed situation. Katherine was wrapping blankets around her sleeping bag and attempting to shimmy in at the same time. Barb had a wood pile to her other side of me and was asking about spiders and creepy crawlies when I said “Oh you know there are at least mice in there, perhaps a spider or two as well.” Which panicked her to where she pulled out her mosquito net covering for her sleeping bag. This took longer than Katherine and her cocooning process that left me laughing so hard I started to have trouble breathing. Tears were streaming down from my face from the silent laughter coming from me as Barb continually struggled with the mosquito net and her sleeping bag. She finally got frustrated and pulled it all out saying it wasn’t worth it. She plugged her CPAP machine in and we turned out the lights. That night I fell asleep to the sounds of Darth Vader next to me and mice making more mice in their nest inside the wood pile.

The next morning we ate our breakfast of dal bhat at Uncle’s and then walked to the computer lab. Prem wanted to take us all on a walk around the village, but with the computers still not set up with logins and parental controls, not to mention the struggle I was having with the wifi, I told Prem that it was best if they all went without me and I worked on the computers and wifi. He agreed, but Katherine and Kara wanted photos, and being that I was the “official” photographer, I handed Katherine my camera and told her to have fun.

That morning I enjoyed the peace and quiet of setting up the computers. Bobson, the young computer savvy boy, joined me with a few of his friends. They hopped onto one of the computers and looked at me when they couldn’t just start it up. I logged them in and set the each up with a computer and then showed them where the games were. All lined up, the boys looked adorable so I snapped a photo of them and used the wifi that I had working to post for my Facebook friends to see. I managed to get all of the computers setup and working as best I could. There were still a few that were virtually useless, and some that had issues but were still workable. I lept things as simple as possible for the Nepali to understand and to use, reminding myself that in their simplest abilities (some more computer savvy than others) I had to have things working as if my Mother was going to be using them.

When the team got back I had directions, passwords, and all the information written down for them. Prem helped me to explain to Barat, the computer teacher, how everything worked. I set them up with a gmail account and a Good Drive, and shared everything with my Google account. I showed him how that all worked, and how to get in touch with me if he every had any questions. With Barat’s English being limited and my Nepali was nothing more than “Namaste” I wasn’t too confident in how this was all going to work, but did my best to leave it in their hands and feel confident they would be ok.

Standing in the cold of the room all day I was really feeling the effects of my Raynaud’s and had to get into the sunshine. I walked outside and stood in the 80 degree sun, away from the contrasting 60 degree shade and computer room. My hands and feet warmed up as I took photos of the kids posing for me as if they were fashion models. One girl with crazy hair was my favorite as she kept laughing with this big smile and wanting me to take more and more photos and then show them to her.

As we wrapped up things in the computer lab, Prem took us to the medical storage building where us three girls were sleeping and we handed off supplies that Orphans to Ambassadors had bought while we were in Pokhara. We then went tot he school and handed them the books and supplies Barb brought with her for the kids, and then got involved with the kids and a game of volleyball (which Bard was itching to do since she played in college). I started to feel like I was getting the flue with a terrible fever and aches. Our jeep was picking us up that evening and we still hadn’t packed up all of our things. The sun was starting to act like it wanted to go down, and I asked about our ride as I felt more weak from fever and aches. Kara said that the jeep wasn’t coming and we were staying another night then leaving in the morning, so I excused myself to lay down. Kara was nervous about my fever as I hadn’t been the most consistent with my Malaria meds in India having been late on a couple. Nonetheless, I crawled into my sleeping bag and immediately fell asleep. I woke up an hour later to Katherine checking in on me and seeing if I wanted dinner, but I was now feeling chills and aches so bad I couldn’t eat. She asked me about my Malaria meds and I told her that I was fine. The truth was, I was diagnosed with Systemic Scleroderma and with my Raynaud’s as a part of that, I was experiencing a fever from being in the cold all day. But I wasn’t telling anyone about it to avoid any sympathies or issues, not even Katherine. I got up and opened up a few of the toe warmers I packed from the US and stuck them to my egs and stomach to keep me warm, then went back to sleep.

I’m not sure if I hear Katherine and Barb come to bed that evening, but I remember waking up the next morning and feeling good. However, Barb was now not feeling well and we had the journey back to Pokhara going back the way we came. We left at 6am to avoid the hotel stay we had lat time in Burtibang and get back to Pokhara on schedule despite leaving a day late. The trip back was very much the same as getting there with some of us in the front and some of us laying down in the back with tangled feet. The drive back was much worse than heading up as Barb wasnt’ feeling well, and Prem was constantly worried that I was still ill, despite my telling him that I was perfectly ok.

We arrived back in Pokhara and Hidden Paradise that evening. Laxman had messaged me a couple of times while I was away, and was happy to see us return that evening. He met us in town for a meal at Godfather’s Pizza (not the brand in the US, but the pizza is better for sure). We all walked back to Hidden Paradise that evening and Laxman and I walked to the school he went to as a child in the dark and sat and talked alone. The next day I decided to extend my trip and not go home with my team.

The team spent the next couple of days shopping in Pokhara and enjoying a day of paragliding with vultures via the Parahawking Project. I stayed back since paragliding is against my belief of heights and doing dangerous activities. It was then I spent the afternoon talking with Missy and getting to know her well. The team went back without me and I went back a week later with Missy, Emily and her Boyfriend Ken.

All in all the project was a great success. I have booked flights to return to Nepal in February, and am excited to spend 3 months while still working as a consultant remotely. I will also visit the computer lab to see where it is and to follow-up with the teacher there.

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