Thursday, October 8, 2009


After working with James' charity for a month, James set me up with some of his Nepali contacts to teach English in a remote part of Eastern Nepal. Going in, I knew very little. All I knew was 1) To get to the village, it was a 2 day mountain trek from where the road ended and 2) I was to be the first foreigner to ever live in Khijee. Over my 3 month stay, I stumbled upon a gem. In a place that has never seen any kind motorized vehicle, this is far removed from the 21st century, I found a very special place in the world.

"In that poor and simple town, no one doubted or forgot that its treasure was its people" -Gregory David Roberts (Shantaram)

Khijee was a mix between Buddhism and Hinduism. In Nirvana, the highest level of Buddhism, a person may not have any desires, because desires signify inadequacy with your current mind state. Almost everyone in Khijee was extremely content with themselves, and willing to give away any material possession. Being the guest of honor, everyone wanted to make sure that I was enjoying myself, and they would sacrifice almost anything to do so.

On the first night I arrived, a lady offered me food and rice whiskey. Sick and tired, I declined, heading to bed without dinner. Later I found out that she was upset that she could not be of help to me on my first night. This was not an act to impress a visitor. This was the general attitude of the town, every day, every night.

Yes, there were many inconveniences for me (leeches, beg bugs, bucket showers, no modern technology, getting sick from bad water, being forced to overeat a diet of only rice and potatoes, kids knocking on my door at 6AM, etc.), but getting to experience a community like Khijee was more than worth any minor hardship. Plus, it was impossible for me to voice any complaint because they all dealt with the same issues. For them it was a way of life, and they didn't know any differently, and they did so with smiles on their faces.

A friend asked me why there are a billion NGOs (charities) in Nepal and not so many in other 3rd world countries like Burma or Vietnam. I now realize why Nepal is such an NGO darling. After 1 month in Vietnam, I was over Vietnam, mainly due to the Vietnamese people. After 4 months in Nepal, I want to stay here longer and help more, all due to the Nepali people (well, it wasn't due to the Nepal Transportation department or diet)

Mom: You were so close to a phone and you waited a month to call me?

My response: Well, it was true that I only brought 3 20-minute phone cards, but maybe I did so on purpose, The only reason I called was to make her day. It love my mom, and enjoy talking to her, but it makes me think about home. It makes me think about that hug I'm gonna give/get after1 year of separation, probably in the driveway or at the front door. That scene is going to happen if I think about it now or not. And if I think about it now, it takes away from where I am currently. Khijee Phalate, Okuldunga, Nepal. Where they eat the goat's intestines and the bones. Where they don't get a stock report. Where everyone is family, and is treated as such. Where the old ladies drink local whiskey. At 9AM. On Wednesday. Where they don't look forward to Saturday, because everyday is a good day. Where the joy of giving is the gift (no, its not just an expression). Where they actually use the frisbees, guitar, volleyballs and chess sets I gave them. Where the family all sleeps in 1 room and sing and dance together at night for fun. Yes, this is where I am right now. And let me soak it up. Whats the point of the journey if my mind is back at home.
Are we there yet? - To get from Kathmandu to the end of the road, my Nepali friend, who joined me on the journey, told me he had made the ride in 5-6 hours. Not even close. 4 landslides and a giant boulder parked in the middle of the mountain cliff road meant sleeping on the crowded bus. 29 hours of fun.

Math Question: There are 40 passenger seats plus 1 for the driver? How many people can fit in the bus? 41. Wrong Another 30 can squeeze in the aisle, on peoples laps, and in the drivers cabin. How many? 71. Wrong. Another 35 can fit on the roof. How many? 106. Wrong. Answer: There's always room for 1 more.

Beasts of Burden - In this picture, Lakpa, the guy who set me up with this opportunity, is towering over Wangda, our porter. Wangda came up to my chin. 5'2'', 120 pound, strong and compact, with eyes that spoke of the hard life. At 18 years old, carrying 100 pound loads up and down the steep mountainside for days at a time will be the only way he ever earns a rupee.

Good Morning - Most of the trek, I had no option but to drink unboiled water. This, (and possibly the altitude) made me quite ill on the first 2 day. Waking up every hour on the first night, the last thing I needed was a 3AM wake up call from a giant leech, taking all the blood from neck and leaving his mark on my white t-shirt. Things had to get better from here.

How was the view? - Just in case you were wondering about the scenery. This is the toilet. The shower was not any nicer.

For those of you who have not used a bucket to shower, know that you're not missing out on much. Being around 9,000 feet, the air was cool and crisp, even on a sunny day. Like pouring salt on a wound, the gentle wind reminds you that you are pouring Everest ice run-off water on your head. The worst shower I ever had was my first cold water bucket shower. Actually, it was my only cold water shower. After that memorable experience, I made the family heat water on the wood stove. The best shower I've ever had was the day I returned to a hot water shower in Kathmandu.
Where's the rest of the town? - The center of town consisted of about 15 houses in a more or less flat area. In every direction of the mountain face, houses were scattered every so often, with each family having enough room for crops to sustain. Some of my students walked 2 hours to school every day.

The best students in the world - The slender, goofy looking Science teacher came up to me in the first week and asked " Are the students doing the homework you give them" I replied, "Well, some of them" In his thick Indian sounding English he said "If the kids don't do their homework, you must walk out of class, go to the tree, find a stick, and come back in a hit them and say 'why didn't you do your homework'". I worked with the principal to stop this behavior, citing so many other ways for correcting behavior.

This was just one of many things I recommended to changed in the school and town, among a few of the other changes I asked for were:

To have the teachers teach for the full 45 minute class period instead of 20-30 minutes, to give in class tests (currently the kids are not tested in any form), to have substitute teachers when teachers leave Khijee for a week or 2 (currently, half the students are running around school because there is nobody to teach them), to give grades and report cards, to not burn plastic in the kitchen fire stove, to not inhale the plastic smoke, to eat fruit or veggies every day.

To give you an idea of my teaching environment, please fill in the blank:

Why is there ________ outside my classroom?
A) A cow pooping
B) A toddler with no pants
C) A random guy smoking a joint
D) All of the above

Food - I may not have the biggest appetite, but most of these kids ate just as much rice as I did. A full grown man would eat 3-4 times as much rice as me. Twice a day I was uncomfortably full for the amount of rice they pressured me to eat. Not eating all the food was a sign of disrespect.

Where's the 7-11? - Everyone looked forward to Wednesday. Wednesday was market day. Wednesday was a good day. Wednesday was the only day fruit was available. The bananas were usually black and mushy, but necessary to give me the vitamins and minerals lacking from my all white diet.

Peanut Butter - To help me get protein, I bought peanuts and ghee at the Wednesday market and made peanut butter, grinding the peanuts by hand.

The family I ate with did give me meat about once a week. In the kitchen, there was usually a chicken tied up in a bamboo crate, or a goat tied up outside. After our meat dinner the animal somehow disappeared. Coincidence? It was quite a common occurrence to see a boy running through the fields trying to catch his dinner.
Here's a saw, a chisel, and string... build me a house - Everything here was done the hard way. To build this classroom, the workers carried gigantic stones from the bottom of the valley, chiseled them into the right shape, and used mud instead of cement to keep everything in place. With sweat and tools that are 300 years outdated, the level of precision was amazing.

"Everything is one because everything is connected. Therefore, since there is holiness, everything is holy" -Buddhism

"Everything dies, baby that a fact. Maybe everything that dies someday comes back" -Bruce Springsteen

A fork in the path -Walking from my house to the monastery for a Puja, I came to a fork in the road. Neither way looked familiar. I took my pen out of my pocket, and threw it up in the air. Whichever way the tip landed I would walk. The pen couldn't have pointed more to the leftward path. "OK" I said with some uncertainty. After 5 minutes, nothing looked familiar so I turned around and walked back to the fork. Right when I got to the point where the pen landed, I noticed a fallen tree that I had seen on a previous trip. Indeed, the pen had led me in the right direction. With confidence, I walked the leftward path again. 10 minutes before I reached the monastery, a heavy thunderstorm drenched me. Had I not made that detour, I would have arrived dry.

Moral of the story: Never doubt yourself, or you'll get wet.
Gaurishankar -After our 4 hour walk to the biggest closest hill, the view of Gaurishankar was crisp and clear. Spectacular. I wanted a picture standing in front of this holy mountain, but I figured I would finish my packet of crackers and peanuts before asking someone to snap my photo. By the time I finished eating, a small cloud moved in front of the base of the mountain. I figured I'd wait for the cloud to pass, but soon a bigger cloud moved in. From there the weather got worse, and soon Gaurishankar got lost in the gray abyss. I never got my picture.

Moral of the story: Act now, or your dreams will forever be cloudy.
Long days - The kids in Khijee had extremely long days. The average kid would wake up at 5 or 6 (yes, AM) then work in the field for a few hours before walking up to 2 hours to school. After school from 10-4, the long walk back home. When asked to perform an errand, kids would drop whatever he/she was doing. Without being asked, kids would do the dishes, sweep the floor* and serve me food and drinks. I never heard one complaint from any kid in town, or hear a kid question the authority of his parents. The 13 year old boy at the house which served me food was by far more disciplined than I.

* I always questioned the sweeping of the dirt floor, how clean can it get?
Are you just gonna sit there? - 67% of Nepali adults are unemployed. They are blessed with fertile land to plant crops and build shelter. Content with minimal survival needs, they are really good at doing nothing. Really, really good. After working in the field from 6-9, they spend the rest of their lives sitting on benches.

Also, never get into a staring contest with a Nepali. Combining the extra time on their hands, and the lack of any real exciting event (ever), they have plenty of time to practice staring at anything that moves. In Kathmandu, I saw a crowd of 40+ people watching a guy paint his store front. Being one of the most exciting events in the history of Khijee, I was always being watch and followed. Once I had 3 kids wait for me outside the toilet. The level of openness is amazing but it's not my style. After 1 person asked me if I needed a nailclipper, 3 more people commented on my long nails that day. To say they were very interested in me was an understatement. This was their most endearing, yet irratating quality.
Presents - Khijee was an eye-opening win-win experience for with the town and me. Before my departure, we both gave gifts to each other. Gifts that we had ample supply of, but the receiver could use a bit more of. I gave the town money donations, health advice, a guitar and other games. They gave love. Without any material possesions, they let me know that they were very very grateful of my work. It was very touching to hear these people thank me for helping to give their kids a chance to leave Khijee speaking English, the gateway language to the rest of the world.

**************Right now, there is no English teacher in Khijee. If you are interested in volunteering in Khijee, and experiencing the warmth and innocence of the Nepali people, please send me an email at

Monday, July 20, 2009

nepal 3

Lumbini, birthplace of Buddha

Wh does this guy have a pet goat. Oh, he's going to chop its head off and sacrifice its soul to the gods. Afterwards, the gods will say "cool, thanks for the goat soul, with one swing you have made me happy and prepared your dinner"

Posted by Picasa

nepal 1

I didn't just fly from Bangkok to Kathmandu, I flew to a new world, and got a glimpse of Mt. Everest on the way. In 3 hours, I was trasformed from a relaxed beach bungalow setting to a crazy dirty city with honking horns, as cars swerved to avoid people goats, cows and motorbikes. Organized crazyness assaulting my eardrums... It reminded me of the Stanford Band.

Leaving the mess of Kathmandu ASAP, we headed to the most beautiful place in the world. Sans the one days we took a boat out on the lake, I spent my week within a 50 meter radius of my guest house. Recipe for a day: Lazyily wake up, and make my way to a lakeside cafe. Order lunch. Realize the sun was going down and I hadn't gotten out of my chair. Order dinner. Repeat x7.

Question: If a bus has 40 seats plus a driver seat, how many people can fit in the bus? 41... wrong. Say another 30 can fit in aisles? 71... wrong. And another 30 on the roof? 101... wrong. Correct answer: There's always room for a few more. Yes, now imagine how much leg room I had for my 14 hours ride back to Kathmandu, and my 25 hour ride to Salyan to work with James' charity

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Nepal 2

Volunteering at Salyan - After our 26 hour bus ride, James decided that doing a project this remote was unfeasable. Instead of calling it a lost cause, we spend our time translating proposals for NGOs (charities).

The work ethic is so different in Nepal. If I had the rare opportunity to get my proposal translated into readable English, I would be prepared. But these guys didn't even have their computers turned on. Every day we had to wait about an hour for them to prepare work for us.

This was our view every morning

The (fictional) Nepali saftey commision has not reviewed the seatbelt laws yet. This is a 5 seater jeep. There are 4 people in the front bench, 5 in the back bench, 2 in the truck, and 8 on the roof. Notice the cliff on the right. However, with the amazing views, riding on the roof is awesome. Even, if my parents a bit nervous.

The bugs out here are nuts. I dont know what this is. I have seen 2 inch rolly pollies, 1 inch ants and the biggest spider ever inside James' shoe.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Chiang Mai - Pai (Thailand) 1

Tigers - before we got into the cage with the tigers, they gave us a quick briefing. No flash on the camera, no running, etc. The unassuming scrawny Thai guy, with shoulders slightly hunched, gazing up at a cloud, fiddling with a skinny bamboo branch, happened to be our trainer. Full grown Siberian tiger: 500 pounds, instincts to kill. Scrawny Thai trainer and his bamboo...ummm, time to go in the cage, lets not finish this thought.

These tigers were just as well behaved as Siegfried and Roy's, OK, bad example. They were very well behaved. The trainer put 2 fingers of pressure on the top of the tigers spine, and the tiger hunched down. 2 fingers on the mid spine and 2 on the lower spine and the tiger was reclined. Even when the tiger turned so he was staring at me from a foot away, I never felt scared, just in awe.

P.S. many other tigers in Asia are chained or drugged. Not these ones: after we left the cage they were jumping and playing and growling. I highly recommend Tiger Kingdom.

Meditation - after the tigers, Guido, the German I was traveling with did a 2 day meditation retreat. Most of the meditation was concentrating on breathing, and only breathing, or a counting scheme, and only that counting scheme. My brain has never hurt so much from thinking about so little.
Posted by Picasa

Friday, June 5, 2009

Chiang Mai - Pai (Thailand) 2

 After Chiang Mai, we spent a few days in Pai, a small hippy town set up in the mountains. We spent a day at a waterfall you could slide down, and a few more at Joey's ranch. Joey was from Bangkok, but had just bought some land he was turning it into a farm and adding bungalows. when someone said "joey, are you going to plant mango trees?" He replied in his Thai accent "Why not?". Are you going to build a zip line from this hill to that one? "Why not?" Joey, lets go into town""Why not?" Any suggestion "Why not?" Any question "Why not?". I found the most chill guy on earth.

Also, I watched game 1 of the NBA finals in Luang Nam Tha, Laos, with Chinese commentary. Game 3 in Chiang Mai in English. And in Pai, I watched the Lakers bring the title back to its rightful home, in Thai. ดำเนินความ,เสนอ,ลงมือ! 冠 军 称 号 Lakers! Lets go Lakers!

Get out some paper and write me a diagram. In February, Andrew and I met Kellan in Saigon (Vietnam), bumped into him in Hoi An, and convinced him to come on our Halong Bay cruise when we saw him in Hanoi. In April, Kellan ran into Louise and Minty (the girls Andrew and I traveled with for 6 weeks through Vietnam and China) in Darjeeling, India. In January, before Andrew met up with me, he met Karen on an island in Thailand. We ran into Karen in Hanoi and convinced her to come on our cruise as well. Karen and Kellen traveled together for a month afterwards. In May I ran into Karen in Vang Viene (Laos) and again in Pai. In Pai, Karen and I ran into our Halong Bay tour guide. Its a small world.

Yes, I learned how to do this. Yes, this is fun. No, I was not 100% sober at the time of this photo. No, I did not burn my face off.

Its nice to see familiar faces. Jason and Laura, 2 friends from Santa Barbara, met me for 4 days back in Chiang Mai. After that, they spent 5 days on an island. Laura now regrets only spending 10 days in Thailand. As soon as the Thai culture seeped through her skin and took the tension out of her muscles, it was time to go. Americans do it wrong.

Ziplining - This was fun. The last repel was over 150 feet. I decided to repel upside down. 50 feet above ground my camera slipped out of my pocket, crashed on the landing pad, bounced into a rock, then another rock, resting in the mud about a foot from the nearby stream. The metal frame was dented and scratched, the plastic piece holding the battery was broken, but other than that, it works like a gem. Not bad for a $120 camera. I highly recommend Canon cameras.

In college, the Zeta Beta Tau Amateur Engineering Department performed many experiments related to the structural integrity of many household electronics, such as televisions, computer monitors, microwaves and printers. As per standard "roof test" protocol, a lab technician released the item from a platform of 36 feet, and observed it during its decent as well as impact. If the item was not in proper working order after impact, our scientist would declare a "roof test fail" My Canon SD1100 is the first "roof test pass" observed. Of course, all necessary safety precautions were taken for all experiments.
Posted by Picasa

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Chiang Mai - Pai (Thailand) 3

Bam - Are you gonna ask me to cook you Thai food when I get home?

The Muai Thai fight was as violent as I thought it was gonna be. After 6 serious fights, they put 4 blindfolded fighters in the ring (and a ref). You can guess the rest.

The ring girls for the Maui Thai fight. This pic doesn't do justice. Check out this video

Umong Temple, so relaxing. This is the UC Santa Cruz of temples.
Posted by Picasa

Monday, May 18, 2009

Laos 1

Laos is beautiful. The pace of Laos is just as beautiful. The endless gentle hills provide enough food to fill the skinny Loatian frames and enough bamboo and wood for shelter. Store owners commonly leave their stores unattended, and guest house workers would make an extra move on their board game before attending to your need. Nothing is urgent in Laos.

It was refreshing to not be viewed as a money $ign. Instead, I was constantly invited over for customary lao-lao (the more incredible horrible tasting rice whisky) shots, and approached out of curiosity, not as a ploy to extract money out of me (this never happens in Vietnam).

On top of this, the setting is surreal. Laos, with only 6 million people, is about the same size as its neighboring countries, but has signifigantly less people, 85 million in Vietnam and 60 million in Thailand. This leaves most of it natural beauty untouched.

After a quick jaunt in Vientiene, the most unassuming capital city I’ve seen, I settled into Vang Viene. My bungalow, on the other side of this bridge, was spaced out on a big grass field. Commonly, water buffalos, ducks and chicken would venture past me as I lounged on my hammock. In all directions limestone karst mountains jutted out of the ground, catching a layer of morning fog as it blew past. When the tropical rains came (it was monsoon season), the mountains acted as ping pong paddles, volleying the thunder sound waves back and forth, taking a full 30 seconds to slowly fade out. The week after I left, sudden heavy rains raised the water level, washing away a bridge, along with a few of the makeshift bars upstream.
The main draw of Vang Viene is not the scenery, (although it should be) it’s the tubing. At around noon each day, everyone takes tuk-tuks 2 miles up the river. Every hundred meters or so there are makeshift bars blaring music. As you float by they throw ropes out to latch onto so they can pull you in. Everyone has ambitions of floating all the way back to town, but no one ever stumbles past the 5th bar before dark. Also, every bar finds the closest highest tree and attaches a rope swing or a zipline. Most of them are 20-30 feet high. A shot of lao whisky and a shot of rope swing adrenaline will easily cure yesterdays hang over.

34 kilometers (21 miles) from Luang Prabang is a beautiful cascading waterfall. After a few days in Vang Viene, we decided to pass on the tuk-tuk ride and bike. In typical Jesse style, we got a late start, riding through the rolling hills in midday Laos sun. At the 12 km mark, a local slowed down his motorcycle to inquire about me. Him and his friend on the back were on their way to a lake, but decided to be my pace car for the last 22 kilometers. After I told him we were headed to the waterfall, he changed his whole plans and joined me. Between my raspy breaths and over the humming of his machine, he proudly told me all about his family and town, and wanted to learn more about the falang on the bike.

After our ride in the humid SE Asia air, I didn’t want anything more than this

The above pic is the bottom of the cascade. After a cold dip and 5 grilled plaintains, we hiked to the swimming hole above the main fall. The views were sweeping. Untouched and green. Really really green. … yes, I am the sunburnt one. The price we had to pay for this view: another 34 kilometers back.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Laos 2

As I headed into northern Laos, things got more and more remote. I went a week without seeing a car. Nong Khiew, and everything I saw afterwards was real Laos. Vang Viene was a backpacker bubble. Vientiene and Luang Prabang were cities, with roads that had street signs. Nong Khiew had women skinning chickens outside their store, 8 year-olds fishing with a stick, a mesh bag and weights. 60 year old ladies were carrying more than their body weight on their head and back.

Watch This - There are no roads from Nong Khiew to Muang Nhoi, only a longtail boat. On board I struggled to use the laws of physics to find a reason why the boat wouldn’t tip over from the tiniest obstacle. The boat was 3 feet wide by 40 feet long, the driver sat up front, controlling the rutter with pieces of string pulled back and forth. Everytime someone got on or off, we had to readjust the weight as the boat wobbled. The wakes of the passing boats made me worry about the security my backpack - all my possessions on this side of the world.

the reward for the boat ride was a few days of sitting on hammock in Muang Nhoi. Everything was cheap and the pace of life was slow. Everything in Muang Nhoi was on the main street. The dusty road took about 5 minutes to walk from end to end (even at my pace).

My next destination was Ban Na village. Walking past forests and workers laboring on rice paddys, I left my hammock, with all my 30 pounds of belongings. 2 hours later, I was greeted with a Laotian smile and a menu. I gladly sat down and massaged the part of my shoulders supporting my pack. The menu was quite extensive considering where I was. “I’ll take a mango shake and barbecue beef” “baabeque beef no have” replied the lady, holding her 3 year old son. “How about chicken curry” “No have” “Chicken chow mien” “No have”. This game went on for a while, until I asked what they DO have. My pancake and vegetables would have been mediocre, but I had to wait an hour and a half for her to walk (or stroll) to the other side of the village to get fire wood, light up the grill etc. My pancake and vegetables were fantastic.
Ban Na was tiny. And removed. Every water bottle, every toothpaste bottle, every bag of cement had to carried from Muang Nhoi. While the men worked in the fields, the woman walked back and forth. Old fragile women, walking 2 hours, carrying more than I was.

On my third day at the village I decided to walk to the next village over to check out the waterfall. 3 hours there. 3 hours back. One second I walking down the steep muddy trail. The next second I was on my back, on the steep muddy trail. Lying on the ground I realized how I was from medical care. 2 hours walk back to Ban Na. 2 more hours walking to Muang Nhoi. An hour boat ride to Nong Khiew. A windy 4 hour ride back to Luang Prabang. Then a plane ride to Vientiene or Bangkok. Sometimes I write things to make my parents nervous.

When I got back to Ban Na, everyone was in a good mood. A guy shot a water buffalo, and for the first time in a while there was meat at the village. I got my BBQ beef.

To get to Luang Nam Tha, I had to take a bus from Nong Khiew. Above the ticket shack, there was a faded sign, well actually it was a 8 ½ by 11 piece of paper taped to the wall, that said “NK to Luang Nam Tha 40,000” (1 dollar=8600 kip) Of course, since it was a slow day and there were only 3 westerners, they tried to charge us 70,000. Only when they started loading the minibus with rice, wood, and locals, did we get the price that they advertised. We switched buses halfway through, this time we fit 40 people into 25 seats. I had a 4 inch stool in the aisle. I felt all 4 hours of bumps in the road. I don’t think Laotian buses are built with shocks. Also, it was funny how they didn’t try to charge us less if the bus was more than capacity.

On our trek to an Akha village our guide let us in on all kinds of local knowledge “we make tea out of this root when you get sick. We use this tree to dye your clothes red, and eat this bark to stop constipation” We were constantly eating different berries and leaves. We even saw a tree that smelled like tiger balm "icy hot"