A trip to Nepal (IB declassified)

IB declassified is a series of articles originally written for homework during my time as an IB student that I will publish on my blog now that it has served its purpose in contributing to my mediocre grades. These are works that were written for Homework tasks but translate well to a non-homework context with some refurbishing, and they often offer a fresh deviation from my usual philosophical/opinion posts with some much needed diversity.

This edition of IB declassified contains a journal/reflection I wrote for my trip to Nepal 2 years ago as part of the IB CAS programme. In it, I approach the journey and experiences I had in a quasihumanitarian trip to Nepal with thinly veiled honestly packaged in lively writing, while at the same time criticizing various aspects of society and people alongside a healthy dose of humor, satire, and self deprecation.

Snowy Peaks in the Distance

Total Recall

-pre day 1-

It is impossible not to write a reflection of this. Primarily because it is required of an IB CAS challenge week, but also because it was, unfortunately, quite a compelling experience.

It started with a choice. Now the fundamental idea behind challenge week is for the students to organize a week of meaningful activity that involved one or more aspects of Creative, Activity and Service, but lucky for me the school offered some pre-made (cough cough) I mean base packages involving various fun activities such as going to Cambodia to help AIDS orphans, mountain biking in Hong Kong, and some physical action oriented activities somewhere in China. I actually selected China as my first choice due to the cost, but probably because I worded my options poorly (read: doodled), I ended up with my 2nd/ 3rd, depending on how you interpret my reply slip, option of going to Nepal instead.

The trip was called Namaste Nepal, aptly named as the restaurant of the same name minus reasonable food and sanitation facilities, and the description was something along the lines of Hiking and Poor People, costing $2000 USD for the trip, actually $14000 HKD base cost but upped due to some extra commitments the team unanimously peer-pressured itself into doing. Anyway I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the weeks that led up to the week, there were fund-raising and planning. I was minimally involved in fund-raising due to my insight into my own abilities and commitment I had towards the activity of providing overpriced undercooked breakfast to students for charity, and in the first half of the time I had little contribution to the Challenge Week at all. I had little to offer initially, I had doubts about the sad discussion going on about activity planning yet I could not offer any useful opinion. For example, the team decided to divide into 3 teaching groups – of English, Sports and Arts. I opted for English language being my strong suit.

I had a plan for a team based competition that would ask questions that began with something simple like “name a letter of the alphabet” and increased in level of advancement (such as verbs, then sentences, then even short rhymes) until the English abilities of the children had been established, and then we would attempt to teach them what they do not know, and then re-contest the level.

Yet my group member had other plans. Specifically, she wanted to teach Geography, which was inconsiderate of her since it was not one of my strong suites. She also wanted to teach poor Nepalese children about the concept of America and Christmas, which also sparked a weak yet present moral resentment in me, due to it just being sooo American. Yet the 2 other group members agreed with the Geography lessons and I had nothing better to offer, so I withdrew my suggestion with a certain South Park song about a certain intolerant character’s promotion of Christmas to people of varying differences worldwide, certainly that did not help my cause, so I rest my case.

But then around three weeks before the Challenge Week in a practice hiking session (as you do), I had an idea. Probably something to do with my claustrophobia of the nature enclosing around me in the Hong Kong forests, I collapsed into my own mental world of electronics catalogs and somehow pieced together what would be my focus of the remaining weeks – concepts that had nothing to do with each other: Projectors, Android TV Sticks, Computers and Poor people.

These were puzzle pieces that would not have fit together in the past, but they just snapped in place like clockwork there. I mentioned it to the group, and surprisingly there was some encouragement. Some mentions of possible issues with the local infrastructure, but as I had not known yet, this was a concept that relied on, yet superseded a simple week long hit-and-run humanitarian visit by a bunch of students, most of whom had already fulfilled IB’s minimal 1 Challenge Week requirement.

That afternoon, fueled by a natural flow of spastic geek rage, I compiled a report detailing the project, which I named “One Projector Computer per School” (OPCS), a name clearly formulated after what I would consider an obsolete predecessor, the existing One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). In the report, I listed easily obtainable consumer Projectors and TV sticks and how they could support this project at minimal cost.

More like OL Piece’of SHIT amiright

The perspective I looked at this from was from, yet against the foundation of creativity. Criticisms of OLPC included problems with the custom developed software, and the marketing of the computer to governments, and certain other design issues. However what I reached was not a specific design like the new OLPC computer, but a concept that was much more cost efficient, yet more stable, and easy to obtain. Key components being specifically a low cost LED projector, a Raspberry Pi like Android TV Stick [A more apt comparison would be fire tv or chromecast], and a memory card containing the entirety of Wikipedia along with other relevant software, perhaps along with a high output juice pack to act as a UPS (Universal Power Supply) for regions with unstable power source. Everything was available without the need to actually develop anything. The fact was that a commercial consumer system with millions of users is way better, more flexible, and well supported than any charity system could ever be.

For the first week of the conception of OPCS, there were no activity related to it. Mostly due to silly IB things such as my IOC exam, besides, bureaucracy along with other meaningless gestures meant that I may not have enough funding to support the project. This made me think back to the ethical implications- Why must everything be established right in the beginning, and isn’t that counter-intuitive to the nature of actually taking time to investigate the context to find the optimal solution? It seems to create an inherent inefficiency.

I might have come up with the idea, but I am certainly no charity case. $300 is $300, especially if I am not getting reimbursed for it. My teacher seemed sympathetic, and told me to gamble and get my money back if it happens. So I proudly became a risk taker and told my parents to order the components. In the meantime I was dedicated enough to gather most of the software I required. There was lots of doubt, especially when some photographs led to the misconception that the school we were visiting had no available power. Sometimes the teachers seemed less than enthusiastic, but at that point I had realized the importance of the OPCS project. [asterisk: the importance of the OPCS project to me]

Funny thing is funding would not have been a problem if we had not spent $500 on a water tank for the school which the village could swear it needed, while (as we later found out) at the same time it was building a little top secret temple that had guards posted outside so you could not enter until its construction was complete, and also had a sad little closed down hospital sitting on the summit while the village people relied on the soft touch of witch doctor’s strange herbs and magic spells.

Nice Water Tank [I do not own this image]

Nice Water Tank [I do not own this image]

But the water tank was simply a matter of money, anyone could have gathered $500, hell McDonalds could have stuck its golden arches on the tank and just thrown it at the village while providing every student with a free happy meal water-tanking ceremony without shedding a sweat. Yet OPCS was not about $300 and one school [turns out it was] – it was a concept that could digitize the entire world and provide everyone (at least every child) with the knowledge of the known internet, alongside some other legally free content. I found self worth. [The OPCPS prototype is probably destroyed in the recent earthquakes, and I have no interest in starting some sort of charity movement. So any readers who are part of some major charity feel free to pick up the idea but I don’t have the initiative at this point.]

Not all components arrived on time and I was having issues with the memory card I bought for the cause, so I concluded that I had to take my laptop and see what I could solve along the way. Despite my dad’s objections and certain people’s anti-bringing-laptop remarks, they were wrong as a laptop proved immeasurably useful. Interesting anecdote, when hiking uphill towards the village there was miscommunication about what to bring, since I did not know that there was a direct vehicle road to the village which the bus would be able to carry the bags there by anyway. Firstly, I overestimated my endurance and the presence of my 1.7 kg laptop along with the 2.6 kg projector and the various other electronics I brought. I ended up embarrassingly handing my bags over to the nice Nepalese person whom himself had difficulties heaving the shear mass of technology that were in my bags.

-day 1-


Wire Fence around the Airport

Finally the day arrived and the only thing I was excited about was the plane ride. Arriving at the Kathmandu International Airport during the night was like the bad tales of a paranoid Republican Conservative. The only people guarding the place were in what would be considered thug wear – something I would never forget was a guard, with his military firearm, wading confidently through the metal detector causing a really loud noise as if to send a message to any potential trouble makers, which I thought was totally bad-ass.

Although on second thought the constant whistle-blowing (and not in that political way) communication between the guards during the closing of the airport were if not slightly frightening.

First impressions of outside the airport were quaint. We arrived in night time and I did not conduct any prior research, so by the quietness and lack of light I assumed we were in the middle of nowhere. There were no signs of any remotely new cars, which I assume is part of the local culture. Our bus was a large rusty van, and we were greeted with white scarf things, “Namaste”, and our less fragile luggage flung onto the roof. It is a personal regret that I personally have never experienced the ultimate Indian experience of roof-topping a bus, especially on the bumpy mountain bus ride the following day, so it surprised me when the bus ride only took a few minutes.

Arriving at the hotel, all around were desolate streets. Not surprising, as we had arrived 24th when we intended to arrive 23rd, a slight delay causing the change. Inversely as the airport was a thug lair, the gate of the Hotel seemed like it would contain a military camp. Might just be my impressions but when the gates opened to the rather not-unpleasant looking building, it was a person with a beret who waved us in. Glad to know that there is still a military presence that knows how to intimidate/provide sense of security.

-day 2-

Upon arrival, we had been ordered into groups of our assigned rooms which did not correspond to the original list, as we had decided in a prior meeting between ourselves, a list which apparently did not reach the teachers. Still I switched rooms with another person to fulfill the original list, and after a brief confrontation with the teacher, switched back, me carrying all my heavy belongings down a floor.

The original rooming arrangement

The original rooming arrangement

Ironically, the switching of rooms could have been the appropriate thing to do, as my assigned room-mate Walter was sensitive to snoring and had his sleep disrupted by my snoring. He had confronted our teacher three times about switching rooms and later tents, but gave up when he decided that any further attempts were futile and would just provoke anger. In my opinion, this reflected a terrible aspect of my classmate’s upbringing. Firstly, we had decided rooms amongst ourselves and the last time I checked this was supposed to be a student initiated operation, that in itself justified the reverting of rooms back to their original list.

Secondly, being roommates with me had affected Walter’s energy as he was so much of a weak person he lost nights of sleep. Health reasons were also justification on its own for Walter to request a room change, but again he had not due to fear of teacher, instead putting the blame on me which was mostly a natural biological action that occurred during the stages of deep sleep, and I’m thinking- this isn’t respect, this is fear! This is what the society certain Hong Kong children are brought up in, something colonial authority fearing and without balls, and then turning around to march the streets protesting and wondering why Hong Kong still is not an independent Country yet. [now though I sort of get the idea that it’s not worth the trouble… but damn]

I am reminded of another activity I am doing for CAS, the school magazine. Since March, the magazine has been planned, written but never printed. Articles are written then scrapped due to lack of relevance, and my position of Editor consists of editing some articles and then waiting months, sitting back and watching the seasons change and articles become obsolete. Why, because of the school. Normal Magazines are all about proximity and relevance, the school does not understand what Magazines are, insisting on a “Democratic Magazine Committee” but resulting in months of work and not one page published. Publications may be regulated by bureaucracy, but never intended to be so knee-deep in them, there’s a difference. And when the Vice Principal is personally involved and so used to being bowed to and sucked upon, any alternate opinions I might have expressed results in … hysteria.

That is a cultural thing, of both Chinese traditional culture and British traditional culture, to some extent all traditional culture. There is an American expression called “Know your rights”, and I cannot be overstepping mine when I merely state an opinion. And you cannot silence me. As you can see, this reflection has become quite personal, but I guess emotion is part of the CAS experience.

It is this kind of power authorities think they wield in these societies that cause people like Walter to lose sleep over night and blame it on a fellow student when a simple confrontation could have fixed things, that causes what may have been a fun school publication both popular to the school and beneficial to the participant’s CV’s to be delayed and unpublished time and time again, and causes unique ideas such as OPCS to be silently discouraged.

The hotel room was broken. The shower water was weak. The food was sad. There was electricity, unstable internet. I felt like a forth world citizen already. We woke the next morning, walked 15 minutes to our travel agency and boarded the 5 hour bus ride. And ever since we set foot there, not a single trustworthy toilet.

On the way we stopped at a gas station for gas and to pass more than gas, and then across the station we spotted two vertical bamboo structures with ropes hanging on them, for unknown purposes. At first I hypothesized it was a racist lynch-post, but then we saw a young local boy hanging from it, dangling, swinging, and having fun. So certain group members started utilizing the second bamboo structure for the same purpose, and were before long swinging gaily, 5 minutes later we were told to move on. We were having fun. Ethical implications.


Strange Fruit (But in a good way) [I do not own this image]

Little things like this that make me reduce my resentment towards the trip. After all that planning, nobody could have put the little boy there on purpose, and to me this was more real a greeting than the grand opening that happened when we reached the village several hours later.

As we got to the foot of the mountain the village was on, the bus seemed to not want to continue up the road, so I assume the path ended here. We got off, had our lunch, a first look at the toilet tent, and then the aforementioned unfortunate misunderstanding that led to my extreme panting and borderline withdraw from the climb. Ethical implication – if our purpose was to help the Mountain Village people, then climbing and tiring ourselves out on terrible footpath should not be when there’s a perfectly fine sloped car road right alongside the paths that lead to the same destination. Surely there are other activities to fulfill the Action requirement.

Then I guess it’s all about the experience. We brought along a gas electric generator and a duo of toilet tents, all the while there being a perfectly fine water turbine source of clean energy as well as some probably decent toilets in the local villager’s homes nearby. If not for the camping experience then it just seems like shear incompetence to me.

It was a pre-assumption that the nightfall would mean end of school and we would just meet the children the next day, but obviously lo and behold dem kids is sittin saide-bah-saide wai’n fo our lateness, such a noble but unnecessary gesture. But I wouldn’t go as far as hypothesizing the school forced them to stay – not all the kids were there. It felt genuine.

They sang a song(s), smudged red rice on my forehead, coated me with that white scarf thing and presented me with some dangerous looking dairy drink that’s so sour it may or may not be expired, may or may not be made by a complete sicko. The principal of the school said a few words and a translator bridged our language differences, some locals danced for us, then we awkwardly joined the dance, we got along fine.

That night, a sad excuse for dinner then off to tent, our camp site was right above the school further up the mountain.


Tents and Levels [I do not own this image]

The problem with the place was obvious: It was a farmland on a mountain, so the land was divided in levels. And just so happens that several of the tents were at the lower level while the other few tents were at the top. I hated jumping and climbing back up, the only alternative being taking the long way round through some thin ledges that were supposed to be “stairs”.

As for the toilets, I don’t hate to be crude, so I’ll just say this. Taking a piss while faced towards a huge open mountain while staring at that starlit night sky with clearly visible nebulae felt like the most liberating thing a person could do short of getting arrested for exposure, and trying to squat in a toilet tent with shaky legs and the cumulative bad smell, is the staunch opposite.

Note Dark Blue toilet tent in bottom right corner

Note Dark Blue toilet tent in bottom mid-right

Also I saw a shooting star, the first since – like – ever. For a brief moment, a line of red across the sky, shone then gone. I instinctively made a wish.

-day 3-

Next morning 6 AM local time, we awoke to my beautiful phone + 2*2.5W portable speakers setup, and my classmates started messing around with sporting equipment we brought. Soon, two local kids joined in the fun throwing around balls.

School started at 10 AM, we had gone down before then in preparation, over-seeing the installation of the water tank. The morning exercises were a national anthem and a trivia question from each class monitor, although I later learned that the anthem thing was only due to a special occasion.

The songs sang were nothing to write about bar mention, then we split up into our respective teaching groups and my group began teaching the kids whatever we were supposed to teach them. Since there were 3 subjects to teach the students were also split to 3 waves.

The first class of students contained older students, so the process went fairly smooth with them understanding the concepts presented as I helped with the props. We even had time to teach them both the Alphabet Song and the Head And Shoulders song, so the confidence was built up in me so much that I volunteered to teach the second class, this change of personnel not part of the original plan of course. After all, with the experience of the first class the second class should go even smoother, right?

“They all look the same”

Unfortunately while they all looked the same to me, the second class were actually younger students and the teaching had to change drastically, I didn’t cope with the change well so I handed the second part of the lesson back to my team-mates and realized the importance of both teamwork- ie. Having support of other people, but more importantly preparation and transparency. While it was a challenge preparing for the unexpected, it wasn’t like the travel agency did not have contacts there who could better scout the region and given us the information we should have gotten, then not just the teaching material, but also we could better decide what the village actually needed instead of just spending $500 on a water tank which the school said it needed, among other help, one of which would certainly be some much needed advice: Stop building your damn temple and allocate the resources somewhere else!

More on that later.

So after a group member took over things went mostly smooth sailing again, and I personally would not give much for what I would consider a poor execution of a rhythm game where groups would clap different rhythms in unison to form a beat, and I would also say that the game of Streets and Alleys, a game where cat and mouse chase through human arm barriers that alternate between longitudinal and latitudinal state on command. The local kids never seemed to understand the concept, and our incompetence was in part to blame. I made some suggestions that could have improved both games, but nobody listened to me, and that made me a sad panda.

That night after dinner we held a reflecting session. While others kept spewing words such as “touching” and “memorable”, it felt fake – not as much because my group members were bad liars but because it was cheesy and irritated me. Then again I was not as committed as the others, always making the conscious decision to stay emotionally withdrawn from the activities, trying my best to conform with the masculine rational ideals which I hold oh so dearly. I didn’t have the exact wording at the time, but as I later stated: this was a hit and run operation, you can pull the trigger on your automatic as hard as you want but do not expect to hit anything, try to make the shots fired count by aiming at things that matter to maximize the emotional impact.

Perhaps a drive by shooting wasn’t the best metaphor available.

Me looking extremely skeptical

Me looking extremely skeptical. CAN YOU TELL???

-day 4-

Morning we took a nice hike around the surroundings, and visited a village further uphill. On the way up we passed the entrance to the construction site of a temple (which was guarded by several tough looking men as it wasn’t supposed to have eyes laid on before its completion), and the more I think about it the more I feel upset. There are much more cost effective ways to express one’s faith in religion. But then again it wouldn’t be religion if it wasn’t purposefully wasteful.

On the way down I was appreciative to hear that one of the teachers had spoke to our guide about my projector project and I could give a presentation that afternoon to the locals with the actual OPCS unit.

When we got to the school it was their turn to show us a good time, first we played a local game of which the name I could not remember. Basically it was a turn based tag game, every turn a person would be sent to the enemy’s half of the field where he would either tag someone, do nothing and retreat, or be captured. When you are on the defensive, you work together to try to catch the attacker by restraining him to your side of the field, and when the referee has determined that you cannot escape, then you are out. Being on the offensive is much easier- get in, tag someone/ everyone, get out.

I thought it reflected an aspect of a certain culture, like a battle between assassins and spies where all the assassins have to do is kill people but the spies have to really work to capture the assassin rather than kill him.

Later we learned a little Nepalese, the sad thing is now I’ve forgotten most of it. What’s worst, I have absolutely no use for the language, so why am I sad?

After lunch I deviated from what everyone else was doing and worked on constructing my presentation. Four hours in, I had something, and presented my presentation on the Projector Computer idea, using the Projector Computer.

During the presentation I kept feeling weird spewing all my technological jargon at these people – I mean I tried to keep it simple, also we had a translator who probably was able to reword my language into more approachable terms. I kept having the feeling that my presentation would be much more appropriate in another context, one that involved technologically- affluent people like me, preferably in a tech conference type setting.

Still they seemed to understand what I was saying, and at the end of my 40 minute presentation with a quick demonstration they did the customary clapping thing, but more I was congratulated by the team members who were watching on a successful presentation, and I felt happy, and confident – that one of my many (largely looked-down upon) ideas actually pulled through and was actually able and effectively actualized, successfully.

That night’s reflection session beside the warm bonfire, I passed up my opportunity. Such feelings were supposed to be felt not said, and I too full of feelings to speak.

At the scene of the presentation

Me at the scene of the presentation (I am the girl in blue looking confused), note the OPCS unit behind I mean in front of me (his story is consistent!!! 8| )

-day 5-

I held a training session on the projector with a few older students and a teacher. They misunderstood my intentions – perhaps if I had made it clear I was leaving the projector there they would have sent more teachers, as learners not supervisors.

Still we were mostly able to communicate effectively, and unlike day 3 I felt right at home here, teaching the operation of the Projector unit, something that really mattered [to me]. This was probably the satisfaction CAS trips were supposed to generate.

We interacted and I really felt that it might have been enjoyable for the students. It certainly was for me, as I stated before, not that it doesn’t warrant a second mentioning. I’m not sure they learnt everything though, for example after the translator left I was unable to communicate the idea of matching electrical polarity between batteries and the battery slots, and the kids probably didn’t know why I kept making them reassemble the bluetooth mouse.

Afternoon we hiked to the summit of that particular mountain, where we were told the story of a deserted building with a communist emblem and how it used to be a hospital, how it might be really beneficial to the region if outfitted with helicopter ambulance. We were told that most people relied on what were essentially witch-doctors, and this lead me back to the guarded temple construction site I saw earlier. Perhaps for a rural place of poverty, faith was all they had. And faith was probably much better than an undermanned hospital that was unable to handle 90% of the sickness yet still was in possession of a helicopter despite being that poorly equipped. I think, perhaps certain places and people are still too primitive and not ready for a medical facility, perhaps that was why the gods took it all away.

Abandoned Commie'spital [I do not own this image]

Abandoned Commi’ospital [I do not own this image]

That night was the last we were to have in Bhote Namlang, again I let myself go, participating in what I would normally feel embarrassed for – I twitched a bit, “dancing” in the crowd of the Nepalese, and had what could be described as medium to moderate fun. We received some quaint gifts and left.

-day 6-

The return trip was unlikable. I wouldn’t say I had grown fond of the place, but I did find an appreciation for the local’s different lifestyle (and the free feeling of urinating at night facing an entire mountain side in the light breeze of 5000 ft), but it was mostly the road itself that bothered me, with the same bumpy and poorly maintained paths in the long ride back to Kathmandu… At least the exiting part was over.

-day 7 and onwards-

Day 7 and onwards consisted just of assorted tourism, a mild bit of hiking, going to local historical sites and purchasing some tourist goods. The last night was spent at a local restaurant, and we had our final reflection session. I resisted the notion to point out the cheesiness, knowing I did something meaningful.

Life is not about the journey, but the flight afterwards.

Life is not about the destination, but the flight to and from it. And the in flight meal. Literally.


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