Monthly Archives: March 2003

Human-elephant conflict of Jhapa

I came to Jhapa on March 22, 2003, to meet Andrew and Liz before heading to a Peace Corps meeting in nearby Biratnagar. With my school busying giving exams and not enough time in Birganj to begin working on future projects, I decided I would take the long bus trip out east to see greener parts of Nepal, notably Jhapa district.

Drew and Liz are working on a project they call the Human–Elephant Conflict Resolution Program, which is initiative they started to research solutions to the problems in Bhoundegi, Jhapa district. Around 200 elephants cross seasonally into Nepal from Assam, India, and through this village.

Wild elephants eat crops, destroy homes, and are dangerous. One man, Andrew told me, was eaten.

Liz saw a man in her hospital whose ear had been torn off. He was sleeping and an elephant reached into his home and grabbed him by the ear, probably thinking he was food, and threw him around a bit.

Basically, the elephants are trouble.

Andrew read in the Economist about an idea that a man named Fritz Vollrath had tested in Africa where bees were kept near hathi batos.

Andrew previews the newspaper in Birtamod

Andrew scans the Kathmandu Post in the Birtamod bazaar.

When the elephants came, they’d disturb the African bees. The bees would then attack the elephants, stinging eyes, ears, and other sensitive areas. The elephants learned and remembered that bees were living in the area and avoided them, altering their routes.

Brilliant, I thought, but it’s complicated. African bees are larger and their stings are stronger. African bees are also more aggressive than the two bee types found in Nepal: Himalayan and European. Other ideas have been discussed, such as planting hathi bhar, an enormous thorned plant.

Locals were also considering killing all the elephants. One person suggested that the community purchase a camel. His logic was that the camel would fight the elephants and scare them away. He was joking. He must have been.

Andrew and Liz were going with a bee keeper to another village that was having problems with small groups of local elephants. Andrew and Liz were hoping to see some elephants there. I didn’t want to miss the chance to see wild elephants marauding through a village, so I took the back seat and invited myself along.

Around two hours from Birtamod and around 10 km northwest of Itahari, the village of Belbari was tranquil and scenic, worlds away from the dusty cities along the nearby East-West Highway.

We walked from the highway north for about half an hour when wood homes built upon stilts began sporadically appearing and were met by some locals.

An elephant out of place in Kathmandu

An Asian Elephant in front of the Hotel Ambassador in Kathmandu.

Once we had introduced ourselves and meet a few members of the VDC, we went to Kumar Raj’s home, a bee keeper in the area who was our host for the night. He gave us tea and we sat and talked for a while, mostly about the elephant problems of the village and Andrew explained his ideas.

After resting for a while, Kumar Raj took us on a walk through farmlands and past homes damaged by wild elephants. Even though I’ve been around elephants in Nepal before, I’m always surprised at how large they are.

The village children followed us on our walk and played as we stopped and talked. One kid jumped into a single footprint, depressed nearly a foot into the ground.

Later, we watched the Kumar Raj and his son gather fish and vegetables for the evening meal. The hospitality of the Nepali people is great, and so is their compulsion to feed strangers meat.

The family kept a small tank near a public tap stocked with catfish of some sort, but also caught some in the nearby stream by taking a rod and running current into the water, killing small fish as they swam downstream. I’d never seen that before.

We had been told that if the elephants came that they would come from between 7–12 p.m. It was also possible that the elephants could come in the wee hours of the morning as well.

Kumar Raj’s son showed us a long pole, around 15 feet, with a torch attached to the end, ignited and waved at the elephants. Standing 15 feet away from and elephant while waiving burning fire in its face couldn’t be safe.

My excitement was mixing with anxiety.

Andrew climbs a tree for dinner

Andrew picks fruit off a tree for a snack while in Belbari, Jhapa.

After we’d eaten, we sat upstairs on the balcony, looking out onto Kumar Raj’s corn and grass fields. The lights around Kumar Raj’s house didn’t extend far—even the tap just across the street was concealed in darkness.

The family assured us that if a couple elephants stormed up to the house in the middle of the night then we would know it. We sat together, talked about elephants, ate some honey, and tried to stay awake as long as possible. Finally at 11 p.m. we went to sleep.

Then in the middle of the night I woke up to Andrew jumping out of bed. I was awake before Liz, who groggily muttered in the darkness, Hello?

I saw Andrew peering out the window and I heard a rumbling in the distance. The noise steadily came from the far distance and I got out of bed for a moment to listen as well.

It came from the north, the direction the elephants would come. I was too groggy to really be worried, as well as being skeptical that we’d see elephants.

And we didn’t. After anxiously peering out of the window for half an hour, we saw an oxen cart slowing coming into some distant light. Why some farmer was pulling a cart full of hay through the middle of town at 2 a.m. is beyond me.

We all giggled at our own foolishness and slept well through to the morning when we got up, rested but disappointed; we realized that what chance we’d had to see wild elephants was gone.

Over tea, some basic arrangements were made to test the bee theory in Belbari in the subsequent weeks. Before we pushed off for Biratnagar, the family asked us for our addresses, which we all gave, and then reiterated that they didn’t want us to forget them, asking us to promise that we’d return again.

I know that as long as wild elephants are around, Andrew and Liz will be, too.

Retrained: Revisiting Pre-Service Training

As I mentioned before, I’d been invited to the current Pre-Service Training (PST) to teach a couple classes in government schools for the new group, N/196, to observe. But observe what? The new group has lots of energy and interest in their jobs.

This could go without saying, but some groups are more casual about work. Yes, we’re volunteers for Nepal. Yes, we’re here to make a difference. Yes, I’m often more interested in taking the tea than talking pedagogy. Perhaps that’s because I don’t know that much about pedagogy.

The fact is I’m no longer certified as a teacher in the United States. Though the US government says I’m no longer qualified to teach in a US classroom, I’ve come here with the Peace Corps to train teachers.

I know that I do have a lot to offer the teachers here, but the strange dichotomy of my situation has not gone unnoticed.

Anyhow, I’d come full circle from my training. There I was, a year in-country later, helping to facilitate the N/196 PST. I felt unready to be guiding the new folks in any way, let alone into professional roles as PCVs in Nepal, but I had learned a thing or two.

Most about Nepali tea.

Back in June 2002, I went to Nepalgunj to conduct some teacher trainings. I felt intimidated being an authority amongst people who had been teaching a lot longer than me. Again, I was uneasy about teaching for people with education degrees and EFL/ESL certification.

But what did I learn from those trainings in Nepalgunj? Just look like you know what you’re doing and people will believe.

Patricia, a N/191 RPCV, was the in-charge person who’d asked me to come to PST. She asked me to prepare a lesson plan from the 4th grade curriculum to teach in two different schools to two different 4th grade classes. Details on the schools were unavailable. She was asking me to walk in and teach cold. I said yes.

Mahatma Buddha, the primary school

The first school I was to teach at was a secondary school called Mahatma Buddha, aka the Enlightened Buddha. Patricia came by the hotel the night before my first day of teaching. She bought me a beer and said, You may have to teach outdoors to 70 students. Cheers.

The school situation was going to be iffy, which relaxed me since I would have much lower expectations of what I could accomplish within the constraints.

The next day we arrived at Mahatma Buddha just before my class. As we came into the school grounds kids stopped playing and began to form a crowd. There were eight of us: Patricia, six PCTs, and I.

We were a sight to behold. I remember how overwhelmed I was when this happened the first time I visited a school in Nepal. While the PCTs slowed to a halt, stunned by the crowd surging around us, I pushing through like Indiana Jones with a machete.

I began talking to the teacher before we went to her class. I told her that I was happy and thankful to teach her 4th grade class for my friends and tried to confirm that I would be teaching as I saw her taking her stick for whacking kids. She seemed aware, but nervous. Too nervous.

Soon the bell rang and we were off to class. I sighed in relief as we walked towards a classroom. No outdoor teaching today.

After the PCTs and Patricia settled in the back of the classroom, the teacher said a few threatening words to the students. The students straightened up and sat quietly. I hung a poster on the board and asked the kids to take out their books.

They began rummaging through their bags and I started to sense that something wasn’t right, though I couldn’t put my finger on it. Everyone was digging deep in their backpacks, slow to find their books.

I wandered back to the front of the class and asked a student who was making no effort to get his book, in Nepali, Where’s your book?

He looked at me blankly, This is 5th grade.

Fuck.

Nobody had the book because I was in the wrong class. I looked at the teacher who was still glaring menacingly at the students. Patricia just put up her arms and shrugged, clearly wondering what I was going to do.

Well, I said trying to keep up my pace, I can teach this, and dove in head-first with the materials I had. I couldn’t do the writing activity without the books. Suddenly, I had to adapt my lesson plan to a different grade.

The class went well enough but I had to ask myself if I could have written the lesson plan better so that it could have been more adaptable because you can’t always rely on the students having something, like a book or pen.

As we left someone said, considering I was in the wrong class, things had gone really well and asked what I thought.

Well, I said with a smirk, it was enlightening.

Bhairahawa Secondary, the high school

The next day I was to teach at the first government school established in Bhairahawa. Patricia had made more visits to this school and felt that things would go better than the day before, but since I had the time I thought I’d go over to the school a bit early and chat with the teachers so that everyone was a little more comfortable.

I sat in the teacher’s room and met with the teacher whose 4th grade English class I’d be taking for the day. She was a nice enough woman, Manju. When she asked the helper to bring tea for me in Hindi, I saw an opportunity to practice my Hindi before my upcoming trip to India.

I told the helper, Gaaram wallah dijieh, much to the delight of the other teachers.

The other group of PCTs came just as my conversational Hindi was peaking. Soon I found myself in front of the class teaching.

It’s remarkable how easily I transferred the energy I had gathered from chatting with the other teachers into my class. Manju came to class, but sat in the back amongst the PCTs and Patricia, which created a much more relaxed environment for the students.

The class went great. The kids went insane and sand and threw up their arms and legs and hands and feet in the air on command by the end of class. The class ended on a high note with some kids frothing at the mouth with excitement.

I left with a deep sense of accomplishment. The kids were waiving goodbye and asking if I’d come again the next day to teach again.

One out of two isn’t bad, I suppose.

Holi daze

Holi came and Holi went. I’ll be honest by saying I have no idea why this festival is celebrated or what the greater significance the throwing and smearing of colored tikka powder is.

I don’t even understand why Holi is called Falgun Purnima on my calendar. I can say, though, that it was a lot of fun.

Basically, people—meaning adults and children—take tikka powder and throw it, smear it, dilute it in water and dump it on people, et cetera, all day long. The idea is to get your friend (or stranger) as colorful and/or wet as possible.

I really can’t correlate it to any other holiday I have celebrated, since I can’t think of a holiday when it’s OK to throw water balloons at random people, staining their clothes, and expect them not to get angry.

To celebrate Holi, you're going to need to visit a man like this in the bazaar.

To celebrate Holi, you're going to need to visit a man like this in the bazaar.

Last year I really didn’t celebrate Holi because I was distracted by training and trying to learn Nepali, not to mention being a bit nervous about being in Nepal. Or maybe I was hesitant to ruin my clothes. But here I am: A year later, a bit freer, and a bit more willing to walk around in stained clothes.

Allow a small digression. In Nepali, when you ask someone if you can smear them with tikka powder, you should say, literally translated, Do you want to wear tikka?

I thought about how I’d ask the same question in English: Do you want me to put tikka on you?

I think the language says a lot about how the cultures differ. Nepalis ‘wear’ colors, whereas English speakers have to ‘put (colors) on,’ suggesting two different things.

One more note on Holi. In Birganj it’s celebrated for two days. The first day is when the Terai of Nepal celebrates Holi, which is the day after Falgun Purnima, when it’s celebrated in Kathmandu. The next day India celebrates Holi, and, so the other PCVs in Birganj told me, true and complete bedlam.

Holi, day 1

Alayne had come from Narayanghat to celebrate the Terai Holi in Birganj. The first thing we did before we stepped outside was figure out what to wear.

I thought first to wear dark clothes since I’d be more likely to get out the colors afterwards; however, after being out on the street for a few minutes I realized that white is the preferable color, since it’s colored more easily.

The streets seemed quiet and I wasn’t really sure when the mayhem would begin. I said this to Alayne just as a mob of children dropped around five gallons of vermilion colored water from the second or third floors of a building over our heads, as well as the rickshaw driver’s.

A hatted child walks alone down the street, enjoying his ice cream.

A hatted child walks alone down the street, enjoying his ice cream.

Thus we were playing Holi. Children, previously hesitant to ‘color’ the foreigners, quickly changed once they saw us in varying hues and shades of orange and pink, throwing tikka, and smiling as we got our comeuppance.

Basically, this is what happened. I would walk down the street and some kids would be waiting along the street with a bucket of water and a water gun. We’d squirt one another for a while and then I’d smear their faces with tikka powder. The adults and big kids (myself included) mainly stuck to the powder instead of water.

The rest of the day followed a similar pattern of walking down the street, getting colors rubbed all over, maybe throwing some water, having buckets or balloons thrown on me from above. By 3:30 p.m., I’d had enough and made my way back home, got clean, and stopped worrying about things falling from above.

Holi, day 2

Why bother cleaning? I knew that the second day would be more intense than the first, so you have to wonder why I bothered. It really didn’t matter since the side of my chin was going to be blue for the days to come. After wandering around Birganj and running amuck with children for half a day in the sun, I was beat by midday the day before.

Alayne left for Narayanghat (and work) early in the morning. It was barely light out when I went downtown to get some coffee and a little food. I hadn’t been sitting long just as the sun was rising when I heard the thunderous stomping of feet. Many feet.

Just out in the street in front of where I was sitting a kid, maybe 14 years old, came running, only to stop and be immediately tackled by his friends.

Helen's bahini gets the Holi rub-down.

Helen's bahini gets the Holi rub-down.

I watched for a moment, knowing what would happen. They were laughing and while they seemed to have been playing Holi, I didn’t see that they had any tikka or water. Why was the kid running?

As I was starring in curiosity drinking my coffee, a lumbering ten year old came into view, precariously hoisting above his head a large jug of maybe 10–15 gallons of bright pink water. Holi.

When Luke showed up just after 8 o’clock in the morning, he looked like I did the day before at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. This was all just on his way to breakfast.

I started to feel less and less playful or more willing to wall myself up in my deraa and watch the action from a distance; yet a part of me wanted to play. I felt I should.

After wandering the neighborhood for maybe half an hour and getting properly tikka‘d, I thought to pop by Helen’s for a break. She was holed up, but soon we were lazily filling balloons I’d brought while we had tea and biscuits.

We sat on her third floor balcony and lobbed water balloons down upon unwitting people below, oddly, much to their delight. There’s something terribly satisfying (and juvenile) about the splatter of a water balloon on someone’s head.

The didi of the house was thorough but asked first.

The didi of the house was thorough but asked first.

This only lasted as long as our balloon supply before we were forced to venture out into the streets. We visited some friends and it was more of the same from the day before, but mixed with alcohol.

Obviously, the average age of people playing had gone up from around 12 years old to 27. Many people fast during the Terai Holi, which is part of the reason folks celebrated both the Terai and Indian Holi.

Our last stop for the final day of Holi was at Rajesh’s, my old landlord. As Helen and I approached my old place we could hear the howling and music, somewhat indistinguishable. Rajesh and his brothers were dancing just outside of their house.

The music was so loud that the speaker and the window it was below were both violently vibrating seemed to add a friendly, but bizarre, edge to a potentially intimidating scene. Rajesh, his father, and his two younger brothers were pretty done up, both in color and intoxication.

They were cooking sakuti on an open grill. It wasn’t long before we were dancing with glasses of whiskey in our hands. As the song ended I stopped to sip my drink, noticing that a fair amount of green pigment powder in the bottom of the glass.

Someone, somewhere is just about to dose Helen during Holi.

Someone, somewhere is just about to dose Helen during Holi.

The brothers saw me pause and then they paused. Their father came and put his arm around me, looked at my glass and then at me, silently wondering what I was going to do. Tension hung in the air, as if my displeasure would ruin their day.

Then just as the music came on again, I took a gulp. The men threw up their arms in the air, dancing and clapping. A didi watching from the balcony, clapped and belted, Woo-hah! as she dumped a bucket of blue water onto my head, into my glass, and down my pants.

Smoke was billowing, everyone was dancing, tikka powder was flying, and beer was being poured on my head. It was time to go home.

After I cleaned both myself and my deraa, I found that I had left several packages of balloons unused. I turned up the music and sat outside my place, passively listening to the Beck’s Sea Changes and making water balloons.

Green heads and a hat. Just one aspect of Holi.

Green heads and a hat. Just one aspect of Holi.

After making balloons for almost an hour I was tired, but re-energized by thoughts of bombing people from afar. I made coffee and took some biscuits atop with me and sat patiently waiting for hapless people to pass below.

After a moment or two the house servant, Parbati, came to see what I was doing. I gave her a biscuit or two and we shared the balloons. I’m constantly frustrated with my inability to socialize with girls, women, since that’s a part of my culture I’ve really taken for granted.

I could go through and tell you about each person we hit with our balloons but this entry would go on for much longer.

Instead I’ll tell you that the best part of my Holi was getting the chance to celebrate it with Parbati, who never has a chance to play or be a kid.

Watching her throw balloons at the neighborhood kids and cackle madly as they splattered over the kids below was the funniest part of Holi. Either that, or dumping a bucket of red water over her head.

First impressions

Due to a glitch in the Peace Corps mechanism, I have been asked to come to the Peace Corps PST site and teach in a model class for the new folks, the PCTs, to learn from. I could fly, but I’ve decided to take a bus to Bhairahawa, where the PST is being held.

I have a plan of gradually traveling the length of the East-West Highway. On March 26, 2003, I’m going to Biratnagar for security meeting. That’ll leave just about 100 km from Biratnagar to the border, Karkharvitta, as well as a longer leg of 300 km from Nepalgunj to Mahendrenagar, which I’m considering optional.

When I get to Bhairahawa I’m going to walk into two different classes in two different schools. No, you’re right, it doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does. It’s all about expectations. And right now, mine are just to arrive in one piece.

Welcome to the party

I’d like to mention something about the new group. I was in Kathmandu a week or so ago for the NELTA conference. The conference ended on a Monday and I was planning to stick around for a couple days to arrange my plane tickets to the United States and work out the details with Andrew on the India adventure.

The new volunteers were arriving on Wednesday. Along with Mary, Ravi, Mike, and Alayne, we rode to the airport in a Peace Corps jeep as the welcoming committee.

Even though Alayne and I were still a few months off from our year anniversary of swearing-in as PCVs, our one year anniversary of arriving in Nepal had passed less than a week ago.

Just a year ago I had walked out of the terminal to Sara, a N/191, who gave me my tikka and malla. Just a year?

I remember that I rode in the back of the bus next to Sara. I don’t think I was too talkative—blame it on the marathon flight from the US or just being overwhelmed by Kathmandu.

Later that night, the PCVs in town met us at our hotel and took us in groups to various restaurants.

Tradition, they told us.

I went with Sara to an Italian place just across the street from the Kathmandu Guest House. Alayne was there, too.

I remember Sara saying over and over, I just don’t know where they’re going to put all of you.

She’d just been pulled for her site in the eastern hills and was waiting around in Kathmandu for something. With peace still holding, I can say that the groups that were leaving when my group arrived were all skeptical that Peace Corps would remain in Nepal much longer.

They had seen the country’s situation go from ‘not OK’ to ‘awful.’ I’ve seen it go from ‘awful’ to ‘maybe OK.’ Time will tell what the new folks will see.

That night I took a group of the new volunteers to eat at the same Italian place still across the street from the Kathmandu Guest House. Alayne and I answered the same questions that we had asked of Sara a year ago—some things you can rely on, unlike Nepal’s peace.

Well, that, and some authentic pasta.