Sunday, April 18, 2010

Lies, Lies, Lies (Or, Volunteering in Nepal)

Sooo…I don’t know how to say this but the volunteer organization that I was supposed to have been working with, Nepal Volunteers Council, is really a scam. This is deeply frustrating and upsetting because I was really looking forward to all the good work I thought I was going to be taking a part in. The more I learn about “volunteering” in Nepal, the more I see how corrupt and downright deceitful it is. Surely there are legitimate organizations doing good for the people of Nepal, but there are also many others who are just out to make money for themselves. My experience is just one of many horror stories I’ve come to hear in recent days.

The director of my organization kept emailing me while I was in India, telling me that the students were very excited to meet me and asked me to arrive as soon as possible. I booked a flight to Kathmandu just so that I could get there sooner, spending about $145 on the flight. Upon arrival, I paid another $100 for a 3-month visa.

The first day I get to the organization’s office, the director tells me that the organization has hit a “financial crisis” and that they cannot afford to pay the rent for the office space, much less any of the educational programs that I was supposed to have been working on. Then the real kicker: there are NO STUDENTS and NO PROGRAMS at all!

Shocked and disappointed doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. Why did he tell me that the students were excited to see me and that I needed to get to Nepal as soon as possible when there were NO STUDENTS? He kept trying to reassure me that they would find students but that they need to charge them in order to fund the programs. Um, WHAT??? I didn’t come to Nepal to teach kids who could afford private English lessons! He also kept saying they were hoping that the volunteers could help “donate” to the organization to help them stay afloat during this “financial crisis,” obviously hinting that I should make a “donation.” I didn’t offer to make a donation but I made several suggestions as to how he could fund-raise for the organization but he didn’t seem overly interested in those ideas.

It gets worse.

As I was also living with the family of the director, I started noticing some odd things. On at least two separate occasions, I realized that someone had gone through my things while I was out of the house. I discovered that I was missing 100 rupees (equivalent to $2) as well. I have two doors in my bedroom; one I use (and padlock whenever I leave the house) and one that was “locked” and leads to the bedroom of the director. It has a sizable gap in the middle and you can literally see into the opposite bedroom from the other, which made me feel slightly uncomfortable, and forced me to kind of hide in the corner to avoid being seen when changing. One rainy night, I discovered that the door wasn’t in fact locked because the sister of the house came barging in through that door, making sure that I had properly closed the windows. I tried to jam a wooden stick in the lock the next day so that they wouldn’t be able to come into my room through this door, but when I came home again, I saw that the stick had been broken and removed from my room. Twice I did this and twice the stick had been removed. Finally, I had one of the brothers nail a lock to the door so that I could make sure that I could lock all the doors leading into my room.

Why did I stay a minute longer after this? Well, there’s another “volunteer” from France living in the house and I can’t very well just leave Sylvia in the house to fend for herself. Sylvia has been here for a month on an “internship” through her school and has done absolutely nothing since she arrived, which also means that the entire time I was in India and being told about the eager students, the organization was already defunct.

To make matters worse, we discovered that the family had been scamming money from Sylvia left and right. They told her that the second-hand cell phone she wanted to buy was 6000 rupees (approximately $85) and that the sim card for it was another 4500 rupees ($64). I knew right away that that was an absolute lie and took Sylvia to a mobile shop where she could have bought a brand new phone AND sim card for less than 3000 rupees ($43). Sylvia also told me that the sister asked her to help pay for some of the food that they had been preparing for her. That was another 7000 rupees, which is actually enough to feed the entire family for half a year!

After all this, I told the family that I was going to leave and search for another volunteer opportunity. The very next morning, the sister came to my room and asked me to help pay for food. She had the audacity to ask for 15,000 rupees!!! That’s over $200. And I had only been here for a week! It took all my strength not to reach over and slap her. I flat out refused saying that I came with the understanding that I was going to be volunteering to help Nepalese children and that there was going to be no fees. She was quite disappointed because I was “from America and had American dollars, which is so much compared to Nepalese rupees.” I explained that I quit my job a YEAR ago and haven’t had hardly any income since so I couldn’t afford to give her money. I’d be happy to help out around the house but I wasn’t going to give her any money. She walked away empty handed and very disappointed. She’s basically been ignoring me ever since. And I haven’t been offered second helpings at meal times either.

So now Sylvia and I have left the house and the organization and are trying to find alternative opportunities. Wish us luck!

© Connie Hum 2010

Friday, April 16, 2010

Kathmandu Doo

One week into my life in Nepal and it’s already so different from anything I’ve previously known that I feel I’m almost in some sort of a parallel universe. It’s not necessarily different in a bad way, but it’s just new and well, different. Sometimes I laugh just thinking about how things have changed and what everyone would think if they could just see me now because I know that most of you could never, in a hundred years, imagine me doing some of the things I’m doing now.

I am living in a house in the mountains of Kathmandu Valley, just about 4 kilometers outside of Kathmandu. My Nepalese family consists of two parents, three brothers (Keshab, Manoj and Mahesh), a sister (Rupa) and another volunteer Sylvia, from France. Each evening I help Rupa cook dinner for everyone in the family. We are strictly vegetarian in the house and to be quite honest, I’ve quite lost the taste for meat so I’ve been pretty vegetarian since India.

We have two cows that supply us with our daily milk. I hope to get to milk one soon, though the family has told me that the cows only allow the parents near them. Everyone else they try to kick. I’ve never milked a cow before and I think it will be quite fun, even if it’s just for the novelty of it, both of trying to milk a cow and of possibly getting kicked by one in the process.

I have a sparse bedroom to myself (along with the occasional visiting spider and lizard) with a bed, desk and window looking out over the hillside. Sometimes there is electricity, most times not. The squat toilet is in a shed outside of the house and I shower with cold mountain water and a bucket over the toilet. Speaking of the toilet, I’m trying very hard (okay, maybe not TOO hard) to convince myself to “go native” in terms of NOT using toilet paper (yes, even after two-sies) and just use my hand and water bucket to wash up afterwards. I haven’t managed it yet and it’s not looking like I will any time soon. UPDATE: I literally, JUST went native. Didn't have a choice. It wasn't all that unpleasant but I'm not sure if I will continue with the practice. Sorry if this is TMI but I'm just trying to keep it real. =)

Outhouses, cold showers and using my hand to wipe myself after using the squat toilet. This is certainly a long way from jet-powered hot showers and cruises on the boat in the Mediterranean but there’s something to be said about the simplicity in the life I’m living now. And nothing beats the gorgeous night sky I get to see each night. Sometimes when I’m looking up at all the stars I’d forgotten existed, I think this life is worth it. Until it’s time for my morning shower, then all I can think of is how nice even lukewarm water would be just then.

© Connie Hum 2010

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

So They Think I'm a Nepalese Prostitute...

First off, it may sound funny and to be honest, after I am out of India, I will be able to laugh my head off about this but as it stands, I'm still in India and it's really not funny at all.

Basically, there seems to be a large number of Nepalese women who do actually come to India to work as prostitutes since there is no other way for them to make money, in Nepal or otherwise, and with the high level of ignorance and racism in India, Indian men see me (and I kind of look Asian, ha ha) walking down the street with a white man (my friend Matt), they just assume that I'm "working".

The situation hasn't been dangerous or anything, but it is well annoying and stressful for both me and Matt. It's impossible to walk down the street without men staring at me, often "accidentally" grabbing my hand or brushing up against me.

I don't want to add to the racism and make it seem like every single Indian man is doing this to me. On the contrary. A majority refer to me as "madam" as a sign of respect, even if it's a bit strange. And one night, when a young drunk man was leering at me on the street, another Indian man stood up for me and said something to him in Hindi. The situation escalated to a heated argument on the street and a crowd started to gather. I quickly left the scene but went back to find the kind gentleman the next day to thank him for stepping in. His response was "He was not right and he needed to be told that." Matt has been a knight in shining armor this whole time, protecting me when necessary.

So although I've been dealing with a lot of unnecessary stress and harassment from one side, I've also been able to see the side of some people that is good and noble, and that makes this whole experience not so bad after all.

© Connie Hum 2010

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