Tag Archives: Biratnagar

Closing ceremonies

I was in Birtamod just after the Thanksgiving trip to Kolkata. I was having lunch with two guys from the Peace Corps office in Washington, DC. They were security.

On guy told me that he had been doing, well, military intelligence in Somalia for a several years before retiring and coming to work for the Peace Corps. He told me that when Peace Corps has had to evacuate its volunteers from a country, it’s usually because of families calling the office. Or a senator.

The other guy had done similar work for the armed forces, but some time ago and in Vietnam. We asked him to talk more about what he did.

Counter intelligence, he said as if that was a complete explanation.

I wondered if he was joking, So you spent a lot of time behind a counter, eh?

No laugh.

It was convenient that they had come, because after their night in Birtamod, they were heading west and north to Dharan, where I was to give a teacher training to a government school faculty.

Jen talks with Sunil, her counterpart at the Dharan nagar palika.

Jen talks with Sunil, her counterpart at the Dharan nagar palika.

I was helping out another volunteer from my group, Jen, who was working in youth development but found time to teach English classes at this school and who wanted some help developing the skills of its teachers.

(The teachers in Birganj had clearly expressed their disinterest in what I had to offer, or at least doing those things, so I thought a change of venue might be good; though I was worried.)

I thought, If this training sucks and if the teachers fall asleep of if another student vomits while I’m teaching, then I have to start being critical—maybe it’s me.

I was going to use this training to evaluate myself for better or worse. It was the placebo.

When the Washington folks dropped me in Dharan, I quickly found out that the lovely ANNISU-R had called a bandha for three days—exactly when I had scheduled my training.

A view from the north hills across Dharan.

A view from the north hills across Dharan.

When I met with Jen later that day, we immediately walked over to the school to see what we could do. The headsir told us that he was planning on asking students to come to class on Saturday so they could finish their exams, and meant there wouldn’t be time left for the training.

So we rescheduled. I left the day before the bandha and got to Birganj safely. I sat around my flat for those three days with not much to do, wondering exactly when I’d be working again.

Fast forward a month later. Our yearly All-Vol conference had just finished in the middle of January, and I’d been asked by my program officer to go up to the N/196 group PST to help facilitate sessions with the teacher trainers in Godavari, just outside of Kathmandu. I looked at a calendar and noticed something that didn’t make me happy

Date Agenda
Jan 22, 2004 Fly to Biratnagar; catch bus to Dharan
Jan 23, 2004 First day of training
Jan 28, 2004 Last day of training

This was troubling. I realized that the materials and the curriculum that I had prepared for the first and later rescheduled training were in Birganj. And I realized this on January 21, 2004.

I was up in Godavari and wouldn’t be getting back to Kathmandu until the night of January 22, 2004.

What in the hell was I thinking? I was going to have to conjure up a curriculum as well as the necessary materials in the few free hours I wasn’t traveling in the few days left before the training.

As soon as I got into Kathmandu, I went straight to the office, printed the curriculum I had written in Godavari and ran back to drop off my stuff.

I ate, packed my bags, and passed out. The next morning was January 22, 2004, and I had a early flight to the airport. When I finally opened the door, I was somewhat pleased that it was foggy.

If I’m late and it’s beyond my control, then I’m safe.

My flight left moments after reaching the airport.

Scott, your author, and Tony (left to right) giving instruction to the faculty.

Scott, your author, and Tony (left to right) giving instruction to the faculty.

Once we reached Dharan, I bought the supplies I’d need for the training and then tried to call Tony, who had been planning on helping me facilitate the training.

I got a hold of him and we made plans to meet the next day. The first two days were for all the school’s teachers and would have to be done in Nepali. The other days were for the English teachers in the area cluster.

I had to get in touch with the resource person. I had to find a pocket chart. I had to make flash cards. I had to revise the curriculum. I had to make a games/songs packet to distribute. I had to figure out how to speak Nepali. I had a few hours.

The next two days went well. I worked with the faculty to create rules and consequences to use school-wide as a method of classroom management and positive reinforcement, but it was tough.

I was trying to explain why each rule needs a logical consequence. I asked, What’s a logical consequence if a student is late?

Renu Miss, a bombastic Newari woman who had hugged me when I asked her in Newari, Bala du?, had answered the original question, Beat the student?

Students assemble at school on the day of Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

Students assemble at school on the day of Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

I tried to work through her answer, trying to illustrate through other examples of a rule with a logical consequence (several of the teachers were right on, coming up with some great stuff).

Then asked her if she thought a beating was a logical consequence or if it positively reinforced the rule

Well then, utpas, someone offered.

Utpas are up-and-down exercises that kids do while holding their ears.

So I didn’t quite reach everyone, but school and class rules were made and the faculty eagerly discussed making banners and posting signs in each classrooms.

One teacher, also a little hesitant in being so explicit with the students queried the other teachers, asked How about we give them the rules, but keep the consequences secret?

Once again, I realized hadn’t explained it as well as I should have. The language was an obstacle.

A student gives another tikka during Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

A student gives another tikka during Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

In the end, the rules were made and the teachers as a whole were excited. After the final (second) day of the training, everyone was complementary on the evaluation.

I felt like I had done something good. That the students were suddenly going to understand exactly what teachers were expecting from them and vice versa. That made me feel good.

When the English training sessions started, I felt relived, since Tony knows English education backwards and forwards, and I would be able to relax for a while.

Tony really commanded the majority of the English training, and I just popped up between segments to provide an activity that the teachers could use in class. My favorite was something that Trey and Tony had developed called ‘paragraph sandwich.’

It was basically a formulaic approach of brainstorming vocabulary and then fitting it into a modeled descriptive paragraph.

Jen was made an official assistant teacher to Tony and I during the training.

Jen was made an official assistant teacher to Tony and I during the training.

I thought the teachers could use it for their 4th and 5th grade classes, but after running through the demo and writing a paragraph as a group, most thought it would work well for higher secondary level.

They offered their concerns, which I thought I addressed well—but still, I couldn’t sure.

On the last day of the training, two teachers, Krishna and Hari Sir, approached me just before we started the last session. Krishna had actually been a student of Hari Sir’s years ago at that very school in Dharan.

They told me that they had tried the sandwich paragraph in a 9th grade class, and it had been a success.

The idea of collaborating, together, a teacher and his former student, trying an activity that I had modeled for them, just blew my mind. Usually the stigma between teacher and student is . . . well, prohibitive of such activities.

Imagining those two teaching a class together, trying new techniques and basically working to become better teachers—together—just overwhelmed me.

At the end of the training, when the teachers presented Tony and I with ties (quite nice, actually) as tokens of their appreciation, I felt like I had somehow found the right people, done the right things, and had actually made a difference.

And it was the first time in two years.

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.

Rethinking Thanksgiving

We were supposed to have a turkey. By we, I mean everyone congregating in Biratnagar for Thanksgiving. The celebrations had been planned ahead of time and your invitation merely required bringing something Thanksgiving related, where it was food or an accordion-style turkey for décor.

I hadn’t thought of what I was going to bring for Thanksgiving until Vijay, operator of Himanchal Cabin (the Birganj Cheers of sorts), said something to me about Thanksgiving.

He told me about how back when he was a kid and his father was running Himanchal Cabin, Peace Corps was having trainings in Birganj and for Thanksgiving a Peace Corps would put together a huge feast of Nepali food for the trainees. Well, it was Nepali except for the turkey.

Turkey? I thought he was using the wrong word, though his English is the flawless variety that originates from Darjeeling, You mean a turkey–turkey?

Yeah, sure, Vijay told me, quite matter-of-fact.

There here. I’ll show you, and that’s all that was said on the subject for the day.

After giving thanks, we got busy: Thanksgiving at Shana's place in Narayanghat.

After giving thanks, we got busy: Thanksgiving at Shana's place in Narayanghat.

Then suddenly my Thanksgiving plans changed. My friend Lindsay who had been living in small, migrant worker community outside of Biratnagar until Peace Corps changed her post, asked me if we could have Thanksgiving in Birganj, since her new post was on the other side of Narayanghat, about half way to Nepalgunj, and too far from Biratnagar to make the trip in a weekend.

With so few people out west I really couldn’t say no since the other option was for her to stay home that weekend and celebrate it with herself.

But even before I could really make any plans in Birganj, I got a phone call from Shana in Narayanghat.

You want to have Thanksgiving with us in Narayanghat? asked Shanda.

This would be a lot easier. The only thing I’d done was arranged for my host family to get some Newari raksi for the auspicious occasion.

I quickly realized how much work it would be to plan and prepare for Thanksgiving and it made deciding on uniting forces with my friends in Narayanghat quite easy.

Then I remembered about the turkey. When I had called Andrew in Birtamod he told me that his quest for a turkey had proven fruitless. In fact, everyone had referred him to a government farm north of Birganj. He gave me a number for the place and suggested I check it out for the sanctity of the occasion.

At first the farm told me they didn’t have any turkeys, which I didn’t believe. I thought that what I really needed was the leverage of a Nepali bigwig to get some straight answers and perhaps a big turkey.

I found just the guy. He was exactly the sort of fellow I shouldn’t be socializing with and normally I wouldn’t strike up conversations with majors in the Nepali armed police, but the occasion brought us together and so I decided that I would see if I could get him to help me get a turkey. I had thought briefly about the ‘what if’ if I were to actually get a hold of a turkey.

Naomi prepares garlic for something that we ate that day. What, I cannot remember.

Naomi prepares garlic for something that we ate that day. What, I cannot remember.

Basically, I would have to keep the turkey at my place in Birganj until I left for Narayanghat. And I would go by bus. Finally, I could truly assimilate if I were to bring livestock onto public transportation. I would stand with my leashed turkey talking to the guy with the four goats with their heads hanging out of the windows.

Later I thought of him and his armed police goons torturing the farm workers, demanding to knows, “Where’s the turkey?” Whatever his methods were, he didn’t procure a turkey for me. Sadly, I would have to find some other excuse to drag some livestock onto a bus. I’ve carried a chicken up a mountain, which is worth something.

I killed a chicken and I’d kill a turkey—but another day, I suppose. I think turkeys have bigger necks, too, so it’d be easier. Plus I think I figured out how to handle the Nepali khukuri.

Anyhow, I later found out that it was best that I hadn’t brought the turkey since I was attending a vegetarian Thanksgiving. I had been so consumed with the idea of getting a turkey for Thanksgiving that I had befriended one of the more evil factions in Nepal’s current war to try and get me a turkey, as well as had daydreams about killing this very elusive turkey.

Thanksgiving equaled turkey. I didn’t really ask many questions when I found out, since I’m in Nepal and I have to be flexible.

On Saturday we went as a group to bazaar in Narayanghat to get veggies, flour, spices, etc. The main bazaar is located across the street from the Balkumari Kanya School, where I did my practice teaching during training. I talked with a few kids that had been in my class and I felt really good about what I had done to change my work situation at post.

Lindsay demonstrates the traditional post-Thanksgiving feast stretch.

Lindsay demonstrates the traditional post-Thanksgiving feast stretch.

Let me also say that I just really love going to the bazaar. It’s a totally social affair and can’t be done by foreigners without attracting the attention of everyone in the bazaar.

I let everyone else do the real shopping while I spoke with the locals and explained why pumpkins are so important to Americans. In the middle of my blather one of the shop owners, just a ways off, says, to me, Are you married?

No, I am a volunteer, which was sort of confusing answer, but it’s what I said. I wasn”t really paying any attention to this man, but keeping one eye on my friends and another on the small mob that had formed.

Do you want to marry my daughter? the man asked, earnestly.

Well, I said, not thinking, I do live alone.

Luckily Matt came and grabbed me, hurrying me out of the crowd before I wound up with tikka on my forehead and on an elephant in a wedding procession. These are the dangers of living in a place like Nepal. I really didn’t even realize what I was saying until I started laughing along with my rescuer.

Thanks to my brazen behavior in the bazaar I hadn’t a clue what we had bought or what was going to be prepared. A few other PCVs from the area were coming later with a few prepared dishes.

I was delegated chopping duty and spent the better part of an hour skinning garlic. I kept myself busy in the kitchen with Matt, Shana, and others while people slowly arrived. A VSO volunteer came to celebrate her first Thanksgiving. Another American showed up who works with women’s rights organizations.

When we finally sat down to eat there were ten of us together. We had mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie to validate the occasion as being a legitimate incarnation of the holiday in Nepal. Ironic, I thought, that here we were, just like our forefathers, with so many Indians around.

Yet none came to eat with us, probably because, I thought, we wanted our festival to be as American as possible; yet, we had misunderstood the whole point of Thanksgiving.

The day has less to do with just being thankful for food than for being thankful to sit and eat with those you live around, but separate from.

I’m sure the Native Americans thought the English and Dutch food was as disgusting and repulsive as the Nepalis I know in Birganj find American food; nonetheless, I feel like there was a more significant absence than just the bird.

Maybe next Thanksgiving we’ll get everyone together, including the natives.