Thursday, September 25, 2008


The second thing that I needed to talk about was the field trip I went on Saturday.  As it goes with these things, I was invited late on Thursday afternoon.  So, cancelling all my very important engagements, including a relay marathon run, a nice lunch with a colleague and yet another Hash I committed myself immediately.

Travelling to the small village of Sankhu, 45 minutes north of "the Du" in 2 taxis filled with equipment, two drivers and 8 people was a hair raising experience.  Remind me to post a photo of a taxi. At one stage I was rather concerned that we weren't going to make it up a particular hill, a concern made all the more worse by the taxi driver checking 3 or 4 times that the handbrake was not actually on.

As no one on this trip really knew who I was or what I was there for, I was treated with a kind sort of mild neglect.  In fact my purpose was to simply observe and understand the process of an eye screening camp with a view to reviewing their data collection processes at some stage in the future.

On our arrival, everyone split up and started setting up with equipment in various inexplicable places around the school we were based at.  Not entirely sure what to do with myself I watched on as all this was happening, pretending to busy myself by looking at a pretty run-of-the-mill piece of paper with nothing written on it.  There was a tap on my shoulder and a suggestion to "please come".  Thoroughly uncomfortable, I managed to ask (in Nepali) where it was were were going.  This small effort seemed to be enough to prove to the crew that I was an alright sort of chap, and not there to spy on them, for this broke the ice for the rest of the day.  If fact, that singular moment was more of an opening for hand-holding, belly-rubbing, and other inappropriate man touching than ever there was - at least in my experience. 

We were in fact off to "breakfast" (by which I mean morning tea) usually taken by the staff at Tilganga anywhere between 9 & 10 - with lunch to follow closely at 12).  I do love the breakfasts I get when I am with Nepali's.  For some reason the management at restaurants open in the mornings speak little English and are generally unhelpful when it comes to pointing at an item and the vain hope that you might get to eat it.  Some weird fried beans, a spicy kind of soup and some oil with a touch of flour and water dropped in it and we were back at the school.  

Before we even arrived in the gate, my colleagues had disappeared to their various stations and had started seeing patients that had been registered and were waiting for us to return from breakfast.  Before I had my wits about me, 5 people had already had their visual acuity measured and they were knocking them off at a rate of about 2 per minute.  There seemed to be a lot of shouting and a lot of confusion and a general excitment in the air.  

From the Visual Acuity station they were sent accross a field into the Exam room, where all the lights were off and there was no shouting or excitement but plenty of confusion.  In fact, it was eerily quiet.  Eventually the patients managed to work out (probably through some kind of devining method) that they were meant to walk to the other end of the room and sit down.  There a silent man shone a light in their eyes (to check for disease) and either gave them some cream and packed them off to the Refraction station or gave them some drops and told them to sit on the bench.  For those patiently waiting on the bench, perhaps 10 minutes later, the strange silent mnan would walk up, shine a light in their eyes and direct them to Counselling.  [I should point out here that 'strange silent man' is a very nice bloke who has been very friendly to me all week, and even called me over to see a cataract close up, it was really cool].

At Counselling, by torch light, a young ophthalmic assistant would schedule the patient a pre-op and operation date (within the next week), take their medical record off them, give them a referral slip and briefly (and I mean in 30-40 seconds) explain what happens during a cataract surgery).  

From there, they would go to refraction, and have their refraction measured.  I'm not entirely sure of the point of this, as usually a cataract makes you partially or totally blind in that eye, so having measurements taken for glasses seems a litte redundant.

Expecting to see 200-250 patients, and only getting to 115, we promptly packed up, hired a local bus and made the return trip inside 20 minutes.  We didn't have the hill that almost killed the taxi to thank for this but the insane lunatic maniac bus driver whose muscles were so massive the seams on his singlet were busted.  He drove that bus like we were in a 4x4 race to get onto Noah's Ark with the flood waters lapping at our ankles.  I believe he is probably part of the facebook group "if you can drive through it, do it".

My role, ultimately in all of this is to determine (through data collection and medical records) why some people don't show up at hospital following these screening camps.  And from my minute observations and highly accurate interpretation of the Nepali language, here is my assessment:
- cataract patients tend to be older than 65
- the regions we are visiting often have people living in them with no education
- the whole problem is that no body has any money (our taxi cost 550R), not exactly monopoly money to some people
- many people have been living with blindness for many years

How on earth are you going to handle someone telling them to show up at hospital tomorrow for some other stranger to stick lights, fluids and fingers into your eyes?  Why would I go all that way to have someone cut into my eye with a scalpel, in a procedure I don't understand.  "I was blind yesterday and got through the day, maybe I'll chance tomorrow too".  With all that yelling and confusion, I'm surprised some people knew which way to go to get home.

I'm not saying that the screening camp was not an amazing thing.  It truly was.  I understand that they need to be quick to get through 250 patients with only 7 staff and a few hours.  But I think just a little empathy, a little consideration could go a long way into making sure patients come along when you are telling them they have a disease that is easily curable, provided you allow hem to CUT A HOLE IN THEIR EYE!  

Sunday, September 21, 2008

In This Country

There are two important happenings that I want to talk about. Each significant in its own right. So I will keep them seperate.

Firstly, on Friday, I was fortunate enough to catch up online with my South African friend Sheena. She did a 20 Q interview with me regarding my experiences so far, my mental state and explaining just why there are so many men around touching each other. You can read the interview here* (of course, I must stipulate at this point that any swearing contained therein was her creative input, and not mine..;))

It was strangely ironic that, in the evening of Friday I went to the Lazimpat Gallery Cafe to watch one of their weekly movies. The movie was called "In My Country", and was about the South African Aparteid and all the trials that took place. Knowing very little about the entire subject (it pains me to admit), I was very moved by this movie. It goes through some of the stories of victims of the racist regime and how they confronted their attackers. Amnesty would be granted to abusers (often white police) as long as they made a full confession, were confronted by their accusers and prove that they were under orders [anyone feel free to clarify my brief version of history]. The purpose of this amnesty was to allow the country to move on through their terrible past and start over.

The reason this was important to me is not just the movie itself (although I found it very informative and emotive), but what happened afterwards. Raj (the very friendly guy that seems to work at LGC 24/7 and now knows us quite well) asked if I had liked it. He said it was a very good movie and very significant to Nepal. I have found it all to easy to miss the fact that Nepal has been engrossed in a messy civil war for the last 12 years. In fact, it was only months before my arrival that the king was kicked out of office, and since my arrival that we had the "election" of the President, Vice-President and Prime Minister.

Raj said he saw the significance of the reconciliation and said that he thought it could easily work here. There were many human rights crimes committed by both the government/police/army and the Maoists as they battled for control of the country. He told of a story of a family in the village where he grew up "very far from 'ere". This is my understanding:

"A man and a woman had gone out to speak to the Maoists about the seizing of their land. The police arrived at their house and found their 7 year old child there. The child, completely unaware of the politics told them that the parents were speaking with the Maoists. The police shot the child and threw the body into the river. They believed that the parents were Maoists, and in that case that the child would grow up to be Maoist."

Raj believes that if there could be a confrontation and a complete and honest admission of guilt, then Nepal will be able to get on with getting on, and fix this country up some. If only things could be so simple.

It was a horrible reminder to me that this country is struggling with some terribly deep running scars, and that they are desperately recent.

*Not available yet

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Indonesian Guest Post - Andrea

Andrea is sweating it out in Jakarta, Indonesia and is finding the girl on girl touching about as frustrating as I am the man on man.

Well it is almost 2 months since I arrived in Jakarta and it has been the biggest best experience of my life so far. Jakarta is a city with a population of approximately 10 million people with another few million commuting from outside the city to work every day. It has no centre, sprawls for k's and k's with the poorest slums built around the base of amazing sky scrapers. It is never quiet here and the city is in your face all day and night. The traffic jams are horrendous with 5 km trips frequently taking 3 hours. I would walk everywhere if it wasn't for the pollution, the heat as well as the condition of the footpaths, which are covered in food stalls, beggars and motorbikes (at least these things are on the parts of the footpaths that are not gaping unmarked holes with 10 ft drops into untreated sewage.) The people are fantastic and stare at you until you smile then they crack the biggest grins I've ever seen. My work is with the Department of Education on a World Bank program that aims to bring up the standards of teachers in Indonesia so that by 2016 every teacher in Indonesia (there are 2.7 million of them) has a University qualification of at least 4 years in length. I am writing training for staff who will go onto training the teachers. The poverty here is crazy. 21 women died in a stampede in East Java on Monday, they were all trying to get a ramadhan gift from a rich man which was the equivalent of $3.30 each and there was this big rush to get to the front and the women who died were mostly elderly, widowed and really week from the 2 weeks of fasting which was just the most horrific thing. I've heard about similar occurences many times before but never in the country where I am living. The worst thing about tragedies like that is that there is so much money in Jakarta, and Indonesia has an abundance of valuable resources like oil, gas, coal etc however the money and the power is controlled by the tiniest percent of the population and the resources abused by the big companies that already have heaps of money. If Indonesia had a good 30 year plan they could easily be a middle-economy by then but a lot of the people in power are just far too interested in filling their own pockets. The rainy season has just started so I have had to buy candles for my apartment, extra water and prepare for calling in flooded to work which will be a novelty the first time but irritating not long after. The fasting month is upon us which is great for me as the work day is 8-3 but tough for everyone else. No food, water, cigarettes or sex from dawn to dusk which has resulted in some occasionally irritable and often very tired colleagues (sleeping more at their desk than they do in any normal month.) One of my favourite sites was walking through a food court just before the fast broke and seeing all the shop assistants bracing themselves for the onslaught of parched and hungry people who appeared in a matter of seconds. I thought it was strange to hear that a lot of people apparently put on weight during the fasting month as they don't eat all day then eat at least 2 meals before bed and get up at 3.30am to eat again before the fasting begins for the next day. I'm looking forwards to the next 10 months and am sure I will see something every day that will make me think "What the ???"

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Characters - Lena

NOTE: Photos have been added to the Great Bamboo Barang Adventure (scroll to the next post to see them)

This is the first in an instalment of posts on the whacky, interesting and amazingly inspiring characters I have met in this eccentric country.

Lena Ji is a strange character:
  • she's an anthropologist, so it should come as no shock that she is slightly peculiar
  • she conducted her senior research paper on the American "RV" culture, hence got her university to pay for her to tour around New Mexico - bravo, is all I have to say
  • she's from Brooklyn, so has that incredibly entertaining accent (that I don't yet think she has caught me laughing at)
  • she's been having issues with her work in Nepal, specifically, trying to work out exactly what it is she should be doing on an everyday basis.
  • she has more than 4 cameras
  • nothing makes her happier than cheese on bread, except maybe cheese on a biscuit or cheese in an omelette
  • she is entirely unimpressed that I get power now 24/7 on account of being on the same grid as the Prime Minister (WHOLE other story). She has only 1 night a week in which there is power at dinner time even though she lives within 500m of my house
  • she is a music nut
  • she refers to her parentals as "Mama and Papa Neuf" - say it with a Brooklyn accent, it's worth it
  • she stopped watching TV at a young age and says people think she is weird for having done so. I just say she's ahead of the game
  • when she makes up her mind to do something, there's no going back. Say hello to Sally (and Lena):

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Great Bamboo Barang Adventure

Sunday, Lena (my new partner in crime) and I set out on a crazy mission. Lena, for more than a week, had an obsession with creating a work of art. It was a functional work of art. One that would open us to new worlds, new experiences and generally would be pretty damn cool. That mission was to acquire some bamboo ("Rob, wood is like, so un-Asian") and turn it into a ladder to access to unchartered world that was Lena and Katherine's rooftop. And it all had to be done before Katherine came home on Tuesday.

Off we set at about 10:30 in the morning, after meeting at our favourite hangout, the LGC (Lazimpat Gallery Cafe) not quite sure how but all the more determined that we would accomplish our goal. While I was going to be content with acquiring bamboo, finding a local clever enough to turn it into a decent ladder and be done with it, Lena was adament that we would be getting our hands dirty and making the stupid thing ourselves.
"Let me at least get a quote" says I, eager to avoid killing myself on a faulty ladder. So we popped into the only place I could imagine would make something like what we were after, the local furniture shop, where they can make just about anything you like from a piece of cane and half a day.

As usual, the hand-gestures proved to be enough to get everyone confused and completely mis-interpreting one another, I drew a picture (rather a nice one, mind you) of a ladder on a napkin I had acquired from LGC for specifically this purpose. This was enough to get out of the gentleman that he had no (nor could he get) bamboo for the said purpose. "no thick enough, Ring Road". And hence we jumped on the next semi solid looking electric took-took to head for the previously unexplored area on the northern ring road.

Having abandoned our took-took in a traffic jam and wandering lost for an hour asking at every second hardware store where we could buy either a ladder or bamboo, we finally found a very nice man that spent 15 minutes explaining to us that the bamboo store was 20 metres away, just around the corner. Having ascertained that the word for ladder is not "you know...ladder [point at pathetic diagram scrawled on napkin that is now covered in sweat] but "barang", we found the place, with much jumping up and down like a child at Christmas on Lena's part.

Somehow we communicated that we needed 2 sticks of as straight-as-it-comes bamboo but were next confronted with the task of getting the thing 4-5km back to Lazimpat. That this would pose an issue had not occurred to Lena, and I was fairly confident that we wouldn't have even got as far as finding bamboo, so for a while there we were stuck. Until a man appeared with a rickshaw, quite clearly hanging out for this very moment all day and for 200R offered to take us and our bamboo to Lazimpat. Before we knew what had happened, the money had disappeared inside his (rather nice) denim jacket and our bamboo was half loaded on his rickshaw, turning it from a rather odd looking 400 year old bicycle into a rather odd looking 10 metre long 400 year old bicycle. And he was off up the hill.

Chasing after him we tried to push and help, but honestly this man (somewhere between 40 and 50 had calves of steel and there was no keeping up with him. Reaching the top, he gestured for us to hop on, and we reached a roundabout. The aforementioned traffic jam was still in full swing but somehow he managed to turn the 10 metre long rickshaw around the roundabout as a traffic cop parted cars and motorbike for us without batting as eyelid. Pottering along discussing the content of our respective wills, who should get the music collections and how we wanted to be buried, we provided great entertainment and received many smiles laughs and comments from the passing cars, buses and motorbikes. "Look at the two silly bideshi's!"

The story doesn't end there, even if you might wish it to. Katherine and Lena live on the 3rd floor of a block of apartments, so the two of us had to arrange a strange kind of pole vaulting technique to get the stuff up onto the balcony.

A few pot plants, an almost broken window and a couple swear words later, we were up on the balcony sawing and chopping up our bamboo into what would soon be known affectionately as "Sally". At the moment Sally needs a little love from someone who actually knows how to tie knots, but she holds, and the view from the rooftop was worth all of it!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Tongan Guest Post

So, my dear friend Amy is kicking it in Tonga, with beautiful beaches, swamps, king size beds and crazy hippie lecturers.  Her email was so funny I thought she could make for the first guest post on the blog.  And so it follows:
Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls...

I have to start this eMail with a personal apology. This apology is specifically to you, whoever you are. I'm sorry I haven't written in ages. I know I've been here a long time, and I know you've been stalking me on facebook so you KNOW I've been online. I don't have a good excuse, except that it turns out I have a lot of love but only so much time. That doesn't mean you've not special (only special people made it on to this eMail list... and Frank. Hi Frank.) it just means that you've been failing to recieve my other form of communication, which is telepathic messages, so really the blame rests with you... But sorry anyway.

Since this is my first group eMail and I've been here for almost 2 months you will be thrilled to hear that I will have to spare you from the blow-by-blow and stick with the highlights. Phew (for both you AND me!).

If you're on this list you probably know that I'm in Tonga on an AYAD (Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development) placement. The position that I applied for was with the Ministry of Finance and National Planning Project Management Team, managing the grass roots level aid projects funded by China, Japan, New Zealand, and of course Australia. What I'm actually doing (on a day to day basis) is anybody's guess. This week I'm re-doing the Project Team database (there's that bl**dy IT background coming back to bite me in the... ahhh... Hi Mum), last week I wrote a paper on donor involvement in community development and civil society for the High Level Consultation being led by the Prime Minister next week, and next week... well, we'll see. There hasn't been a lot of PROJECT action, but don't worry things are looking up over the medium term.

Landing in Tonga was quite a shock. I think they pick the temporary accommodation just to demonstrate what you MIGHT one day have to deal with in ANOTHER developing country, but then we found our housing and now I call a king size bed home. This means that if anybody wants to visit there is plenty of space (Hellooooo over there.....!). I won't mention the swamp on one side of the house... or the pig pen on the other, although really they're quite cute.

Ummm. So some random Tonga facts:

We have a puppy. Her name is muddy and she's very naughty. I now know why Mum never let me have one.

People in this country say 'Bye!' instead of 'Hi!' if you're passing them by, which means that when I'm riding my bicycle around (yes I wear a helmet and yes people laugh at me because of it) there is a cacophony of byes from people I've never met. Particularly in school zones, unsurprisingly.

The local institute has free lectures every month and last night I went along (NOT just for the free cookies and juice, how DARE you accuse me) and discovered that the physics professor, who is a middle aged man just to be clear, favours red satin knee length party dresses accessorized with pigtails and VERY LARGE piercings. Fortunately his lectures are as entertaining (I'm actually not being ironic here) as his appearance so it turned out to be quite a good show.

Right. Obviously there's about 55 days missing here, but I think we've both done our duty.

On another personal note, there's a good chance that I LOVE YOU AND MISS YOU!!! (Again, except you Frank.)

Er, and to sign off (Nat, this one's for you) VOTE WES CARR AUSTRALIAN IDOL 2008!!! ...yeah, I know, sorry.

Amy - TONGA!!!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Linguistic Adventures I

For me, visits to other countries are all about making mistakes and learning from them. Like ordering a "latte" in Italy and getting a warm cup of milk. Sometimes learning about myself along the way. Nepal has definitely been a learning experience. I would like to share some of the following things I have learnt.

1. Language class - my teacher, Bejoy Ji, did not seem to see the irony in the fact that the past version of the verb to drink or to smoke (same word) is "pie:". Further to that, it is illegal to hurt or eat a cow, making the acquisition of a beef and bacon pie that much more difficult (read impossible [this of course is an assumption because I haven't checked out the black market for beef n bacon pies{i'm not quite that desperate yet}]). This makes the gorgeous meat pie I ate the other week at the Australian Red Dingo restaurant all the more amazing. Follow it up with the apple pie people, you will be content, and probably have to check into the hospital on account of an exploded stomach.

2. Language class - The words gae:, gare: and gaare: apparently have some kind of phonetic difference that is impossible to pick up without come kind of cybernetic ear set so loud you could hear the ants crawling all over my kitchen bench.

3. Crazy neighbour lady - There has been an accumulation of stuff mounting on my carpet. Dust, bits of rubbish, crumbs and the like. Having tried to clean it up with the only tool available, a rather pathetic broom handle, I decided to bite the bullet and ask crazy neighbour lady (who speaks a lot of Nepali very fast and then stands there wondering just why it is I can't understand her) if she by any chance had a vacuum cleaner. I knew it was a long shot, but I looked up all the words in advance and went armed for the inevitable frontal Nepali verbal assault. "Tapaaiko vacuum chha?" (so, as it turned out there wasn't a word for vacuum, so I really only went armed with "you have" and "is/true". "eh?? oh, chhaina" - meaning "is not", was the response I got. As I was prepared to mumble OK and disappear the assault came at me quite unexpectedly from the side. "something something something maThi something something something" which I took to mean that someone upstairs had a vacuum cleaner. Either that or she wanted me to make sure I checked for spiders in the rafters. The upstairs people aren't around during the day so I went back inside. Moments later...a knock on the door. Crazy neighbour lady is there with a broom and a big grin. Waving it around like Christmas, she goes to give it to me. "Actually I already have a broom", and pulled it out to demonstrate. WIth a look of surprise she indicated that I should probably try using that, to which I responded "bad on carpet" and pointed at the carpet. She made a funny little side wobble thing that clearly meant I should brush harder and faster with my broom and promptly walked away. Probably in disgust. Needless to say, I used the broom and no more need be said.

4. Work lessons - Other lessons aren't quite so simple to understand, and I have to make the mistake many times before I learn. When I make it to work early, my office buddy is often not there yet, so I have to find the key to get in. There's a really friendly guy behind the desk at reception where the keys are kept. He always says hello and asks me how I'm going. As far as things go, I think that's not bad. "Rajujiko saa:cho kahaa chha?" - "where is Mr Raju's key?" After a brief look the response is ultimately "saa:cho chhaina (no key), but I think Mr Raju is upstairs". So I get upstairs only to find that Raju is not there, and he usually doesn't show until after 8. I go back downstairs, walk in behind reception, grab the key off the hook and glare and reception guy who somehow manages to smile at me at the end of it all. The blind girl that also works in reception never has a problem finding it.

Go figure.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Great Hash Bash

Going into this weekend's Hash I was determined to be a little more prepared. These little weekend jaunts were a little more than that, and probably deserved a higher level of respect paid to them. Meaning, these were not simple walks around town, but insane, mountain-climbing, mosquito-biting, leech-infested, beer-guzzling, sweat-inducing hyphen parties that probably warranted some sunscreen and at least 2 litres of water.

Determined not to be caught out as quite the novice again this week; I came prepared with muesli (or granola) bar, mosquito repellent, salt, sunscreen and some water (which I promptly finished drinking moments before arrival at the starting line...)

I might not have given it quite enough emphasis in my earlier post. The last Hash was leech infested, with one of the holding points being skipped entirely due to the fact that it was in fact, a leech farm. An infestation, I will clarify, I actually mean it was like taking a bath amongst the things. At one point in climbing I looked down to see my entire hand covered in blood*. I never saw the leech, whose presence at the time was assumed, but without hard evidence I am now not prepared to rule out CIA involvement.

On Saturday we started at Peter's house. Interestingly enough, the guy had been conned into joining this week for the first time, because he had a beautiful house with a lovely Tibetan family who made us all momos (mmmm mo mo).
He had a beautiful view over the rice fields to what appeared to be a pretty hill (later I discovered it to be Kopan Monastery again [also discovered that we would be running UP it, yay**])

So off we trotted, getting lost in the first 50 metres, but eventually finding our way into the middle of the rice fields. I have never been amongst rice fields (as far as I can recollect) and found the way quite hard going. When you are trying to run on a little ledge not much wider than your foot, with someone's crops dropping down 1-2 feet on either side of you in rather muddy water, you would think it's hard going too.

The occaisional calls of "How ARE you?" and its associated responses of "I don't really know" and "ON-ON!" signifying the presence of the Hash trail, would ring around the rice fields, particularly funny when you couldn't see any of your colleagues.

There was one brilliant moment where the 30 runners found themselves spread across three seperate little ridges that made me wish I had my camera. We were weaving in and out of rice patties and jumping up and down hills inbetween little creeks. I was equally glad I didn't have my camera during a river crossing and a seperate Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom style moment where one girl's leg when straight through the bamboo bridge.

Bring on next week.

* Actual scale of incident: not quite as bad as the Ice Skating Eye Gash of 1999, worse than the Crazy Pressure Hose incident in Colorado, and not quite as terrifying as the Amazing Assassination Attempt of January 2005.

** Note sarcasm