Tag Archives: Backpacker

Expediciòn Acatenango: The Ring of Fire

When I reached the summit of Kilimanjaro three years ago, I felt like I could accomplish anything. To this day, it is still the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life.

My friend Lionel, who I met in Monterrico during Christmas, had planned on climbing one of the many volcanoes in Guatemala called Volcan Acatenango. It’s one of the tallest volcanoes in the Ring of Fire standing tall at 13,045ft (3,976m) near its very active neighbor Volcan Fuego. Lionel invited me for the expedition in which I gladly accepted. I’ve never hiked anything like this before! Ben would also be coming along for the climb.

This is Fuego. The volcano (not pictured) to the right of it is higher and the one we would be climbing!
This is Fuego. The volcano (not pictured) to the right of it is higher and the one we would be climbing!

Acatenango can be hiked in one day. It takes the average person up to six hours to reach the summit. A few volunteers have gone to Acatenango over the weekend for a day trip and have come back saying “it was the most physically demanding thing they have every done in their life”. A lot of them have said that, but every one of them made it to the top. I was going to attempt it differently though. My group planned on hiking up with a bag full of supplies and equipment and camping out, and then hike some more to the very top. I was warned it was going to be very cold, very windy, and that we’d have to wake up early on the second day in order to reach the summit by sunrise. I wasn’t worried about any of those factors really; the only thing I feared was altitude sickness.

I already knew from past experiences that I am sensitive to high altitudes. It affects everyone differently and just like how I am extremely sensitive to motion, the altitude affects me in the same way, except much worse. Maybe there is a correlation between the two? Kilimanjaro almost killed me because it was so high. And every time I hike a mountain, I start to feel nauseous. Thankfully though, Acatenango is a lot smaller than my old frenemy Kili. I knew my limits and higher altitudes take me sometime to adjust to. Besides, I just recently spent the past several weeks living on a high mountain in Nepal, so that should help a bit!

The day before the hike, Ben and I went to the local mercado to shop for food and supplies. Everything we ate on the volcano would be on our own dime and we’d have to carry it all up! We stocked up on snickers, crackers, chips, fruit bars, bananas, and a few liters of water. Our main course were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that we premade the night before. Interestingly enough, Ben has never had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his life. It’s not common at all in Australia like it is in the USA. Hopefully he’ll like ’em! We found two torches (flashlights) for 20Q each that we would use during the night hikes. I packed a few long sleeve shirts, a few pairs of socks for extra cushioning, and some long pants that were light and easy to manuever in. Lionel told me prior that he had a couple of sleeping bags, a tent, and a jacket for me later. My gut told me that I packed perfectly for this trip! Not too much and just enough to be comfortable. I didn’t want to bring too much up because I would have to carry it all.

Ben and I were picked up in the morning in the central park of Antigua around 9:20am along with another person who would be joining the hike with us. His name is Robin (Germany) and he is friends with Lionel. There were a few other locals in the van that would join our group making us a solid team of about eleven or twelve. We drove about an hour or so to the base of Acatenango, where it was a bit chilly. Still I wore shorts and a light jacket because I knew it would get hot soon enough.

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Robin, Me, Lionel, and Ben before the start of the hike!

And so we began! One of the hardest parts of a good hike is the very beginning. Going up the first slope I was already winded! It just takes your body s few minutes to adjust to what you’re about to do. I felt fine a little after once we had a steady pace going. The first 40 minutes we hiked through farmlands and crops before we entered a very muddy forest.

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I didn’t have a proper pair of boots with me. I’ve been sticking with my tried and true NikeREAX sneakers I’ve been using since I left home in July. I’ve used these bad boys when I hiked 22 miles in Germany, hiked up to the largest ice caves in the world, and everywhere else beyond and between. I just used extra socks for cushioning and padding which worked wonders.

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After the first hour, we took a twenty-minute break to wait for the others in our group to catch up. Afterwards, we continued on up through the muddy forest. At this point, I already started to feel a headache, which is the first symptom for oncoming altitude sickness. Crap…it’s too early in the hike to get a headache! I decided to re-adopt my “Pole Pole” method I used on Kilimanjaro. Pole means “slow” in Swahili. I went super slow on Kilimanjaro which prevented me from having a headache until the fifth day of hiking. And so, I began a slower pace here on Acatenango as well, which meant Lionel, Ben, and Robin would be way ahead of me. I was in the middle. While the rest of the group were still behind me, even after I was going mighty steady. It also allowed me to realize my surroundings and take some nice photos of everyone and the scenery.

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On our next break, I pulled out some of the food I had brought. I gave Ben his first Pb&J ever while I munched on that and some jalapeño flavored Cheetos, which were extremely good. I chugged on some water and we were on our way.

Ben and his first peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Ben and his first peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I had the hiccups as soon as I began the hike and they stuck with me the whole way. Hiccups are an indicator that your body is trying to adjust to the altitude. I didn’t mind the hiccups. I’m just glad my body was trying to readjust itself back to how it was three years ago on Kili.

The scene turned from a muddy forest to a cloudy one. It was chilly whenever we stopped for a rest but we became warm as soon as we started moving again. The clouds covered any skyline we could have seen. The mist sponged the forest like a wet blanket. The footing on the ground was still a bit damp but the soil turned into pebbles of old volcanic ash. There were lots of groups of hikers around and about, most of them overdressed for the occasion and had too much in their backpacks.

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It’s been two and a half hours and we still had ways to go. We had two main guides with us: Biiron and Moses. Biiron is the one who organized this whole trip and Moses was his sidekick. Moses didn’t speak much but he was always going at a steady pace and always waited for everyone else to catch up before we continued. He’s a really short guy, literally about a third of my height. He never had any snacks whenever we stopped for a break so I made sure to share my food with him. Our group as a whole was great with sharing with one another, even with random hikers who looked like they could use a dose of energy. Even at the pace I was going, my headache grew. Thankfully, we reached a point where the path became more flat and less sloped.

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We were informed that instead of camping at the crater of the mountain, we would be camping much lower. There were just too many people there. We would find another place less crowded. At around 5pm, we all finally made it to our campsite. We were situated right in front of Fuego with a perfect closeup view of its constant eruptions. My head was pounding but an aspirin fixed that once I settled down. We setup our tent which was a lot smaller than I thought it was going to be.

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It was a two person tent for four big guys. We didn’t think about it and began to help collect wood to build a fire. It wasn’t as chilly as I expected but maybe it was because we sat by the fire most of the night.

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As we sat there with my Nikon in hand, I patiently waited for Fuego to erupt so I could capture all its fiery glory on camera. The eruptions happened about every twenty minutes or so, but there was no warning of when it would happen. It was hard to capture a shot in the dark but I did manage to get something.

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The backdrops were perfect for some pretty amazing photos that night!

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Biiron informed us that we will be waking up at 4:30am to begin a hike up to the summit, in order to see the sunrise. Close to 9pm, the four of us squeezed into the small tent and tried to go to sleep. It was uncomfortable but at least it was warm. I could barely move or readjust. Every so often we heard a loud boom. We sprang up and looked out the screen to see Fuego erupting. To see a volcano explode and spit lava everywhere is truly a sight to behold! The next morning, we woke up and I bundled up in layers. It wasn’t as cold as everyone has been telling me it will be, but it was still chilly enough for me to wear the big jacket Lionel lent me. I barely ate a banana and a fruit bar. I didn’t have an appetite whatsoever. I stuck a bottle of water and my pocket and off we went. I wasn’t in any mood to hike at all though. I could have stayed asleep a few more hours. My heart was pounding and a headache approached not even fifteen minutes in. I had to slow my pace. Pole Pole. Ben, Lionel, and Robin led the pack. I was somewhere in the middle and the others were behind as we trudged up the path of loose gravel.

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My feet sunk into it with each step, it was like climbing a never-ending sand dune made of black ash. Two steps forward and slide one step back. This was the hard part of the volcano. I grew nauseous, like I wanted to vomit. Altitude sickness was looming! But at least the sun began to show, and that distracted me for a moment.

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The group that was behind me were nowhere in sight. The group that was in front of me were long gone. I was on my own now, which I was okay with. I found my own pace which was slow but steady. I reached for my water bottle out of my jacket pocket and found that it was gone. It must have fallen out as I was sliding all over the place. I could manage without though. The summit wasn’t too much farther!

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Eventually I saw groups of hikers in front of me near the top. I’m almost there! I passed up climbers who were on the struggle bus and continued on the demented slope to the peak. I saw the other guys and gave them a salute signaling I was fine. Actually, I felt like I was going to vomit any minute. Step by step, I made it to the summit and it was a sight to see. The best viewpoint in all of Guatemala!

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My urge to vomit began to cease. I just had a pounding headache. Still I took off my jacket and enjoyed the summit scape. It wasn’t nearly as cold or windy as I thought it was going to be. I was quite warm up there! We stayed up there for a little more than an hour. We had views of the Pacific Ocean, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala City, and the best views of Fuego itself.

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Fuego erupting.
Fuego erupting.

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Man, I’m no good with high altitudes. My muscles were in great shape; no aches or pains, but it was just difficult for my system to adjust in such a short amount of time. I was glad I didn’t have to go up any further though. It’s all downhill from here and going down the steep ash was a ride in itself. We practically slid the whole way down back to camp!

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We packed up our gear and supplies and continued down the volcano. Once we approached the muddy jungle, it was a slip slide ride all the way down while dodging trees and large rocks scattered across. We slid so much that my toes began to dig into the front of my shoe. As we ran down the volcano with our large backpacks in tow, I felt like we were in boot camp training. My desire to get to the base of the volcano was strong and the lower I descended in altitude, the more strength ensued within. But by the time we reached the bottom, after about two hours, my toes were scrunched and my legs and feet were covered in ash. All worth it!

My group and our guide Moses.
My group and our guide Moses.

When we got back home, I had so much ash and rocks in my shoes and clothes that I left a trail all the way through Olga’s house to my room. Sorry Olga!

One of the best hikes I’ve ever done!

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Sellers Abroad Meets Students Abroad

I just want to point out that the spanish keyboards are pretty confusing. So if there are any weird accent marks anywhere, it’s because I haven’t figured this thing out yet! But anyways…

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With pretty much all of my volunteer housemates gone, it’s just Carly and I now holding down the Olga fort. Usually every week we get a new volunteer or two but this week we came up completely short. I believe the reason is because Olga also rents out to people outside of Maximo Nivel and they’ve been taking up potential space for other Maximo volunteers who are more around my age. The others who have been staying here are generally a lot older and are here solely to study Spanish. They’re nice people but it’s just not the same hanging out with 50 and 60 year olds. Wondering at all if we’re going to get anyone half as awesome as the previous crew we just had, Carly and I still enjoyed the setup we had at Olga’s. From everything we learned the past few weeks, it sounded like our accommodation was the best in many regards. My bed is always made for me everyday. I have my own bathroom, fresh towels and linen every week, and the food Olga prepares for use every day always hits the spot. We’re pampered here. One day during dinner, in walked three guys who looked around my age. Olga said they were students studying abroad. They were actually a few years younger than me. Their names are Nic, Lincoln, and Hayden, all from Indiana, which is very close to where I live in Michigan. The three are here for about a month studying the history of Guatmela, fair trade, and Guatemalan coffee and chocolate. Interesante!

After dinner, Carly, the three new housemates, and I went out into the city to show em` the ropes of Antigua.  We were planning to meet Hanni and her housemates at an Irish pub but weren’ sure which one. We found a pub with a green clover on it and when Carly walked in, she was applauded and cheered by all the women sitting at the rail. But when I walked in, I was booed and gestured to get the heck out! So out I went, a little baffled by what just happened. Why would they boo me out? Carly went back in with more applause and cheers and I went back in to more boos and sneers…just to make sure I was hearing correctly. I noticed everyone in the bar was a woman. “Is this a lesbian bar or something?” I asked them. One of the women pointed to a sign that was hanging by the door that depicted a picture of male genitalia with a huge red ¨x¨ on it. It made sense now. We immediately left and found the correct Irish pub just down the street where we met Hanni and the others. The next night, Nic, Hayden, Lincoln, and I went to Monoloco and sat at the bar. The bartender offered a challenge to the bar guests. Whoever can shoot the most plush basketballs into the hoop behind the bar would win a pot of money. The pot of money was ten quetzales that everyone who participated threw in. Nic and Lincoln easily, EASILY, whooped all the Guatemalan locals. But when it came down to just the two of them, Lincoln walked with the win and the pot of a little more than 100 quetzales. 100 quetzales is only about $13 USD so it wasn’t much, but here in Guatemala, $13 can stretch a lot further. Currently, they are considering coming back here often to hustle the locals each week, in which I think is a great idea!

Lincoln with the winning shot.
Lincoln with the winning shot.

School Days

Johnathan told me there were two new volunteer teachers joining me today. Ben (Australia) and Ron (NY, USA). Ben´s a swimming coach back home and Ron is retired and has just been doing some travelling. Johnathan asked that since they were new, that today in school they would be observing me and the structure of the classes. I told them that tomorrow, since the classes have been growing in size, we will split them up. I´d take three classes while they would split one. Even though Ben`s never taught English before, I was fully confident in his ability to do so based on his coaching experience. Ron´s a whole other story though. Nice guy, means well, but he´s a bit on the odd side. One day when I let Ron have a whole class for himself, I walked in to check on him and I heard him telling the younger class that his dog was dead. He then asked them if they had any dead dogs. What the heck are you teaching them man? Ben on the other hand was really great with his kids and didn`t need any help from me whatsoever. Ron told me he had difficulty because he wasn`t sure what to teach them or what to do with them at times. Poor kids would beg me to please comeback to them whenever I came near. As much as I wanted to, I needed Ron to get some experience because he was going to be doing this for eight weeks. It takes a few classes for a teacher to adjust and find their groove.

New volunteer Ben teaching body parts.
New volunteer Ben teaching body parts.

Cerro de la Cruz

The Hoosiers at my house are studying abroad so they´re a bit really restricted as far as free time, especially over the weekends. Their professors plan everything for them, whether they like it or not. They also have to do homework assignments and report to classes everyday. I cringe every time I hear that. I´m a free bird here, besides the teaching thing. They came with a group of students with the three of them being the only males, so they were put into my house, on the opposite side of Antigua away from the other students and professors from their college. It´s probably the best thing that could have happened for them. We have the best homestay and Carly and I were here to made sure they had a great time outside of their normal school activites by introducing them to our group of volunteers spread across Antigua.  But unfortunately, it was Carly´s last night in Antigua, so we all went out to a nice restaurant called Casa Blanca for dinner. Carina (Wisconsin, USA), another volunteer we met joined us. She’s also pretty awesome.

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Left side: Nic, Carina, Carly. Right side: Me, Lincoln, Hayden.

Normally, when I’m travelling, I always meet other travellers who we can all relate with, by sharing our stories and current plans with one another. I’ve never met a group of students from my country, a good chunk of them being their first time outside of the USA during my travels though. I do notice the difference. Everything they see here is weird, different and amazes them while I was mostly unphased. I’ve been spoiled. My tolerance for the ‘strange’ has grown tremendously over the years. The students, especially Nic, were baffled when I told them I’ve been travelling since July going to pretty much any random country I felt like at the time and have been doing it for a few years now. I got the same questions I usually get when I’m at home, most of them beginning with the word “How?”.

We went around town for a bit more that night in celebration of Carly who had just about enough. She passed out at one of the lounges we went to.

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The next morning, Carly, Hayden, Nic, Lincoln, and I woke up at 5:30 in the morning to go hike Cerro de la Cruz. Hayden came up with the idea and we thought it would be great for everyone to go. I knew the way there and led the pack in the chilly midst of morning. It’s not a long hike at all. It took about a half hour total to walk to the north of Antigua and up the flight of steps to the viewpoint looking over the city.

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We stayed up there for about a half hour while the sun rose and the city came alive. At the view point, we met up with a couple of other volunteers from the Shekina house who were already up there.

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When we went back home, the guys went to school and Carly and I hung out a little before we said our goodbyes “see you later’s”. That was the end of one really great group of volunteers. Jacob, Katie, Uma, Mark, Marco, Valerio, Ellie, Laura, and Carly. Thankfully now, the students were here and I wasn’t stuck in an elderly home by myself. I am also in the stages of planning a new expedition–my biggest one since Kilimanjaro. Up one of the largest, most active volcanoes in this region: Acatenango. It’s about a thousand meters or so smaller than my old pal Kili, but altitude sickness still happens there and I know all too well that altitude sickness is not my friend.

Acatenango is the big one in the backdrop.
Acatenango is the big one in the backdrop.

I’ll update about all this later!

Welcome to the Volcanic Arc!

First things first: I’m sicky poo.

I spoke too soon when I boasted about not falling ill in Nepal. I almost, almost escaped unscathed. But I found myself coughing every few minutes between two hefty guys on a 15 hour flight to North America. That was not comforting in the slightest. Thankfully, they were just coughs and not anything worse. Upon landing in the Guatemala City airport, the time was now around 8:30pm on Sunday. I easily navigated around, found my luggage, eased through customs, and went on my way out the door. I saw a guy holding a yellow flag with a smiley face on it. That’s my guy! I received an email a couple of weeks ago telling me to be on the lookout for a yellow flag with a smile on it. There were two other volunteers there waiting. I was so out of it from flying, lack of sleep, and falling ill that I couldn’t remember their names.

Our Guatemalan driver handed us a folder labeled “Maximo Nivel” that had information specific to us. I opened it and read that I would be placed in a homestay. My host mother’s name is Olga. Can’t wait to meet her! We were picked up in Guatemala City but had to drive about 30 minutes west to the city of La Antigua, my new home for the next six weeks. I expected the roads here to be crap but they were as smooth and paved as can be. On the way we passed multiple McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bells, and Burger Kings. I haven’t had McDonald’s since Germany! That might be a new record for me.

We entered the charming city of Antigua, which was festive with Christmas lights and colorful buildings. The roads were made of cobblestone that spread evenly between perfectly parallel and perpendicular streets and avenues. Smack dab in the middle of the city was Parque Central, a very small square with a fountain and lot’s of greenery surrounding. Speaking of squares, Antigua was very square in nature. Streets ran directly north and south and directly east and west. This was block city at it’s finest. It would be difficult to get lost here.

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After dropping the other two volunteers at their volunteer house, the driver dropped me off at my homestay, door number seven.

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I walked inside with my bags and met a young woman, maybe about 20 years old, and a little girl around 10. The older woman didn’t speak a lick of English but welcomed me anyways. Her name is Lorena. Where was Olga? The woman showed me to my new room. Would I have roommates? Would the room be cozy? This house smells like my grandma’s house when I was growing up and that’s a good thing. It’s a comforting scent. “El desayuno es a las siete,” she said. Breakfast is at seven in the morning.

My room was a single bedroom, with a really soft bed, blanketed with multiple covers. I had my own dresser, night desk, and a few towels to spare. To top it off, I had my own bathroom across from my room with an actual toilet I could sit on and best of all…a hot freakin shower! This was luxury compared to my more primitive homestay in Nepal. And since I was coming down with something awful, I needed to be as comfortable as possible with the peace and privacy I needed to relax. But, were there other volunteers already living here? I arrived late at night so if there was anyone else then they’d be sleeping. I’d see who else was around tomorrow.

My room.
My room.

I woke up early from jet lag and from constant coughs. Thankfully, me new bed welcomed me with much needed comfort and warmth. Soon enough, I got ready and entered the dining room. There I met my pleasantly pleasant host mother Gloria and a few other volunteers. Three of the volunteers were here independently studying English. The other four were part of IVHQ and were only here for one measly week. Three of them came together for nursing and another, Adelah (New York), came here for construction. The breakfast we had was wholesome and filling. Yogurt, granola, omelets, fruits, toasts, and tea. We had a brief orientation later that morning at Maximo where I was introduced to more volunteers, including Roxy (USA). She will be teaching English alongside me.

The place where we would be teaching is in a new building that Maximo is still renovating. It’s about 25 minutes outside of Antigua in a place called Alotenango. To get there, we must take a chicken bus. A chicken bus is a pimped out American school bus that the locals can take to nearby areas on the cheap.

A chicken bus.
A chicken bus.

They call it a chicken bus because they pack it so tight that everyone’s heads are bobbing around like chickens packed in a crate. Honestly, I’ve been on far tighter buses that deserve the name “chicken bus” more so than these here in Antigua. These buses here weren’t so bad in comparison.

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A team member from Maximo named Jonathan took a few of us to our placement on our first day and gave us the lowdown on our teaching gig.

Our building where I will be teaching.
Our building where I will be teaching.

Roxy and I expected today to just be an observation day to get the scope of things but instead we were thrown into our own classes of three groups of students. I haven’t been in Guatemala for 24 hours yet and already we had our own classes. As a matter of fact, there were no other teachers here, just Roxy and I. We found out we would be teaching to kids who couldn’t afford language classes and that these kids would be coming to our building after their normal school day. We teach for three hours every weekday to three classes, all ranging from five year olds to adults in their early twenties. We have to be basic and simple here. Constant repetition is key. Unlike Nepal, Vietnam, South Africa, and even Tanzania, the students here in Guatemala were severely lacking in the English department which surprised me. I thought they’d know at least a few things here. This will take some time!

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Roxy teaching the students their numbers.

 

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I’ve been pretty sick for the past few days and instead of mingling with the other volunteers and getting to know them better, I was stuck in bed, sick as a dog each night. I signed up for Spanish classes every morning and I wound up getting my poor teacher, Sandra, sick. Lo siento Sandra! I worked up enough strength to finally go out into the town with Adelah and a new arrival named Katie (England).

Me, Adelah, and Katie.
Me, Adelah, and Katie.

Turns out Katie and I have a mutual friend by the name of Sam. Remember I met Sam in South Africa some time ago and visited him when I went to London for Christmas two years ago. Small world! A few volunteers from the volunteer house planned on going to a place called Semuc Champey over the weekend and invited me along. By now my cold started to wear off and I felt better enough to join up. I had no idea what Semuc Champey was. I never heard of it.

Turns out it’s one of the best places ever to do something I’ve never done before!

The School of Hard Rocks

I’ve been woken up by roosters, barking dogs, construction workers drilling into the ground, loud prayer chants, and howling monkeys over the years in previous accommodations all over the world, but none of them can hold the slightest candle to the ear piercing, glass shattering voice of little Aakash.

Tim warned us the night before our first sleep that hearing Aakash so early every morning will make you want to bash your head into the floor. How bad could it be? Those roosters in Tanzania were the absolute worst. Or so I thought. Right at 6:30am, I could easily hear Aakash singing, shouting, and running around as if he was just 3 feet away from me. How can so much noise come out of a munchkin five year old? Aakash is pretty small for his age, weighing about the size of my head alone. You could pick him up with the slightest lift of a pinky finger. Even with all the clamoring and ruckus he singlehandedly causes every waking morning, it’s impossible to be mad at the little guy. With his big, round eyes he reminds me of Gizmo from the Gremlin movies. And no matter how much trouble Gizmo causes, you just can’t be angry at him because he’s just too freakin’ cute. That’s Aakash.

After our early morning human alarm, the family served us tea around 7:30am. The tea tasted more like coffee to me but whatever, it was hot and sweet with milk. School didn’t begin until 10:00am, so we had a couple more hours to sleep play with the kids until breakfast at 9am. What was for breakfast? Dal Bhat again! Remember, Dal Bhat is on the menu everyday here and thankfully I don’t think I’ll be getting sick of it for a while. At least the portion size is big enough, that’s what matters to me most.

Right after breakfast, Amisha, Amish, and Aakash changed into their school uniforms and together we all took a 5-7 minute trail to the Bal Prativa Boarding School, a school that has students ranging from baby classes to grade nine.

Amish dressed for success!
Amish dressed for success!
Amisha, ready to get her learn on.
Amisha, ready to get her learn on.

This school is unique because most classes are taught in English with only one or two classes taught in Nepali. I had high hopes!

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Upon entering, there were dozens and dozens of students who greeted us at the rocky institute, as giddy as typical school children usually are. The school consists of about maybe 14 classrooms, all made of porous concrete walls, about the height of the tallest NBA basketball player. Big heavy looking rocks were on top of the tin sheet roofs to hold them into place. I’ve seen walk-in closets bigger than some of these classrooms. Some were about half the size of your typical bedroom back in America, but somehow they could fit up to 25 students in one small space. The students didn’t seem to mind, and as long as they didn’t mind then I didn’t mind.

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At about 10:00am, one of the teachers repeatedly banged, what looked like a flattened cow bell, to summon the students to the field nearby. A boy with a big drum came walking out of the principals office banging away leading the way for students to follow him to the field. What’s going on? I’m assuming some kind of morning routine ritual. Emre, Tim, and I followed the students to the field nearby as they all lined up like military men ready for march.

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Principal Aatma and all the other teachers came out, including his wife Mina who is also a teacher, and kept the students in line. Aatma’s son, Amish and another student stood in front of the lines, facing them, and started to chant a song in which the other students repeated in sync. The whole routine lasted about seven minutes before each line of students walked in form to their respective classrooms. We followed along, but straight to Principal Aatma’s office to get our schedule. His office had the basics, a few chairs, a desk, and a filing cabinet. The biggest glaring omission was a computer. Since there is no Wi-Fi here, everything was produced by hand, save for the textbooks that came from other outlets. Each day, I would get about seven classes to teach. Today I had about four math classes, a couple of science classes, and one English grammar class. Math was my worst subject in school. But how tough could the math here be?

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I assisted a grade 7 class with the math teacher there. When I entered the room, the students instinctively rose up to greet me and sat back down afterwards to the teachers command. Since it was my first day, I would be doing a lot of observing to see how things are structured here. But to my surprise, the teacher wanted me to teach a lesson out of the book to the class, right off the bat.

“Okay,” I said without complete confidence.

As I stood up in front of the eager class, I looked into the book and saw that the lesson was a combo of percentages, formulas, fractions, and all sorts of x,y, and z variables . This wasn’t the “simple” math I thought it was going to be, but still I quickly glanced over the chapter and slowly proceeded to the white board. Normally, teachers have ample time to prepare and go over a lesson before they teach it, but not here. Us volunteer teachers were thrown into a battlefield without any knowledge as to who we were up against. I began the lesson and about ten minutes in, I told the main teacher he should take over because I was unprepared. I needed to observe how things operate around here. He said I was doing a good job. Personally, I wasn’t totally comfortable because some of this stuff I haven’t done in years. I needed to refresh myself. The next few classes was more of the same; I was a vegetable not quite ready for picking, plucked from the ground, about to be eaten. It was mainly the math classes that I wasn’t confident in. When it came to the science class, today’s lesson was a really easy subect: matter. But still I wasn’t really sure what level these students were at. I was flattered the teachers trusted my teaching capabilities, barely knowing me yet and I was happy to see that the class was responsive towards me.

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During break, I rejoined Tim and Emre. It seemed Emre had a tough time too, except most of his classes were English classes.

“We should swap classes,” he said.

Even though Emre speaks great English, it isn’t his first language and he has a really thick Turkish/British accent from studying abroad in the U.K. Sometimes I have difficulty understanding him myself. He’s good at math and I’m great with English so we decided to switch schedules beginning the next day. But for the remainder of the day, we kept our schedules. Aatma informed me that one of the teachers was absent and he needed me to teach a class by myself. The subject was social studies.

“Yeah sure!” I said. Any subject that’s not math is fine with me, and plus I like having classes all to myself.

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Since this was my first day and I didn’t know the students well, I wanted to warm up to them by having a social spelling bee. I heard that the students in Nepal love to spell words. Emre joined me and we split the class into two teams, boys vs girls, and chose random phrases out of their workbook; phrases that had a relation to the subject matter. The students were game and I had their full attention for the entire 45 minute session. I was fairly impressed with how well these students could spell, especially the girls. The girls won the bout and celebrated with each other. The class was a success!

After school was over, I introduced myself to more of the students as they asked questions about where I was from and how long I was staying here. The students here are really responsive and open towards the volunteers. Plus their English is pretty good. I shook some of their hands, teaching them to shake strong and firm. I even taught some handshakes I would do with friends back at home, which the kids really got a kick out of. As the they began to walk back to their homes on the mountain, most of them would wave goodbye and shout “See you tomorrow Don!” They pronounce Dan as Don .

“See you later!” I would say while waving back.

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We walked with Amish and Aakash back home, as random students would smile and wave. My first day was incredibly welcoming and engaging. The students were here for the right reasons. They wanted to learn, I could tell. Well, at least most of them anyway.

I think I’m gonna like it here.

 

 

 

 

Little House on a Mountain Top

The taxi driver stopped in front of a slope of rocks and stones that we had to ascend like a staircase to our new home stay. Emre and I walked up to our one-story abode, which was situated high up on a mountain that overlooked Fewa Lake and the city side of Pokhara. There, a Nepali family was waiting our arrival. Husband and wife, Aatma and Mina, and their three children Amisha, Amish, and Aakash.

“Namaste!” they said as they put their palms together in front of their chests, as if they were about to begin a prayer.

We were happily greeted, as we walked past a stable with a buffalo and a calf of some sort, lazily chomping on straw grass.

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The house is small, but it works. It’s painted in a lime green and pink on the outside.

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There are four rooms. One of the rooms has three beds for the volunteers. Then you have a family room, and two other bedrooms. The bathroom consisted of four walls, a roof, and a hole in the floor as the toilet. There laid a bucket to use as the toilet’s flush mechanism.

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We were secluded on the mountain, away from Pokhara city and away from the other volunteers. No internet, bars, restaurants, shops, and hot water. We also had to deal with unreliable electricity that shuts off for about eight hours everyday. This was going to be a really authentic Nepali style home stay; more authentic and rustic than any other home stay that I have ever lived in.

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Aatma is the father and head of the household. He is also the principal of the school I will be teaching at. His English is good, not the best, but you can understand most of the things he says.

Aatma, the father of the household and also the principal of the school nearby.
Aatma, the father of the household and also the principal of the school nearby.

His wife Mina is very pleasant and always has a smile on her face (except for in the picture below!). You can always find her outside cleaning or preparing a meal.

Mina, the mother of the household.
Mina, the mother of the household.

Their oldest daughter Amisha is 14 years old and so far I think she speaks the best English in the entire house.

Amisha is the oldest child. (14 years)
Amisha is the oldest child. (14 years)

The middle son is Amish, he’s 11 and is super bright and is my go-to guy when I have a question about what the heck is going on around here.

Amish (11 yrs) with my red bandana.
Amish (11 yrs) with my red bandana.

Then there’s the energetic youngest child, Aakash who is 5 years old. He has too much energy and has the loudest voice I’ve ever heard from a kid his age! He’s a pretty funny little guy though and has the biggest doe eyes that liven his whole persona as the wild child baby of the family.

Aakash (5yrs) is the runt of the family.
Aakash (5yrs) is the runt of the family.

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I also met our third volunteer roommate, Tim (France). He’s been here for a few days by himself already and I think he was glad to have company now. I don’t blame him, I would have gone crazy after a few days alone, as there is nothing to do up here besides maybe hiking around the mountains. If I were alone, I would say “Maybe I can nap?”. Here it’s almost impossible. The walls are so thin that you can hear a pin drop outside, not to mention Aakash’s high-pitched voice that carries itself across the Himalayas. All members of the family tend to come into our room whenever they want because our room is also their closet for clothes and storage for necessary school books. No privacy for six weeks! I honestly don’t really need it, save for the occasional naps that I obviously won’t be getting. It’s okay. It’s all part of the experience.

Tim (France). Another volunteer who is rooming with us.
Tim (France). Another volunteer who is rooming with us.

It was already time for dinner and our entree for the day was something called Dal Bhat. It’s rice, with mixed veggies and potatoes with a very light curry sauce you pour over the top. It’s pretty good, but the only problem is that we will be eating this for breakfast and dinner…every…single…day! The people on this mountain have been eating this everyday for their entire lives, so I think I will be able to survive six weeks. Thankfully, it tastes great but hopefully it won’t make me despise rice and veggies after I leave here. Another thing, the Nepali eat everything with their bare hands. No matter how soupy are mushy something is, all they need are their fingers. You should see the way they scoop, pile, and grab; with such vigor and no thought, it’s second nature to them. As of now, I’ll be eating with a spoon because who knows what kind of new foreign bacteria I’ve acquired on my hands here. I’ll let my body adjust, build up some antibodies, and then I’ll join in and feast with my bare hands. Maybe.

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Even though we’re further away from the city, you can’t really beat the views you get from the mountain top.

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The countryside air up here is fresh and much needed; a huge contrast from the smog down below. However the danger up here is a bit more imminent. Bengal tigers, killer wasps, venomous snakes, and God knows what other beasts live on this mountain. I have to mention that the bugs up here are monstrous! I’ll go into detail about the bugs that live with us on a later post. Yup, I’m living the simple life up here and it’s pretty great! It took about a couple of hours or so to fully accept that I would be living here for more than a month. I’ll be without my regular western style amenities and learn to rough it again for awhile. Based off past home stays, I was expecting a little more, but this is fine the way it is.

Tomorrow we’ll begin the first day at the school where I’ll be teaching in. 🙂