Monday, 19 November 2018

Nepal 2018

This is my 11th visit to Nepal, and 2nd as a trustee of Kids at School in Nepal. It promises to be an action packed 4 weeks.  We're flying with Jet Airways as they were not only offering a good deal but a larger baggage allowance. This means we can take a load of books out to the schools we support, thanks to St 
Anne's Primary School, Keighley and Cancer Research.

I'm travelling in a party of 6, 4 of us being trustees. And the other two friends and supporters of the charity. Trustees Pat and Liz Wherity, and Pam are all ex-teachers, as is Claire Toberman.
Robin Bundy, a retired businessman from Settle, is the other member of the party who will meet us at Heathrow.

We flew from Heathrow at 8.40 pm on 8th November from Heathrow Terminal 4.  Just hope they've sorted out the runway lights by then!
All went smoothly with our flight, and the transfer at Delhi uneventful. Having applied for a visa in the U.K. the completion of a simple disembarkation form was all that was required before clearing visa before clearing immigration and claiming our baggage.

Monday 19th November 

We've just returned for a memorable trek of Langtang, starting out yesterday week from the Holy Himalaya Hotel in Kathmandu. My friend Binod, now working in IT in Kathmandu, joined Pat, Robin and myself in the 7 hour drive north to Syabru Besi (1600 m) along some bone shaking roads. After a night in a small hotel, our trekking began up the lower end of the Langtang valley. with guide Saroj, and porters Bipak and Lila. The first day's trail took us across then followed the Langtang Khola river predominantly through forest paths. The slow internet here is making it impossible to write this blog and doing so on an iPad adds further complications. 
So I'm going to summarise the trip so far in words.
The Langtang trek was both exhilarating and profoundly sad. Whilst we saw bee colonies high up on the cliffs and families of Langur monkeys, we had to walk over what was a graveyard which was once Langtang Village. It is estimated that over 250 people including 41 foreign trekkers, are buried under a landslide of rock, mud and ice as a result of the April 2015 earthquake. Two of us feltquite ill that day but managed to continue further up the valley to Kyangin at 3,870 metres. The next morning we got up early to climb Kyangjin Ri (4,300 m) to see the sunrise over Langtang - an awesome experience. We've been blessed with fabulous weather so the white peaks have been set against a clear dark blue sky. It's encouraging to see that the local population is rebuilding a life in  the valley, and the trail bringing many trekkers into the valley to provide muchneeded income to sustain them.
Our trek lasted 9 days, returning to Kathmandu on 19th November. The nextstage of our tour involved a  30 minute flight to Pokhara from where we went up to the Annapurna  Eco-village to recover from our earlier trek. My first visit here was with a group in 2013 and it's magic  has not changed. Great views of the Annapurna range and Machapucheri., delicious organically grown food and comfortable accommodation. 
We have spent the last two nights in Pokhara itself, enabling us to attend the 25th celebrations of the Pahar Trust - a U.K. And Nepal based charity, started by an ex-Gurka. It has even hugely successful in building schools in remote areas, and helped KASIN with the design and build of a primary school at KASIN funded to replace one demolished by the 2015 earthquakes. The event took place in the Hotel Grande with around 300 people attending. It was a really useful opportunity to networking with some key players in the education field, including the head of Global Action Nepal, BK Shrestra, who has substantial experience in the field of teacher training.
The next day we moved to Kurintar to spend the night at Jyoti's riverside resort before heading up to Montari, north of Dhading Besi, where we were able to witness the last day of a teacher training programme which KASIN had undertaken to fund. The area of around Phulkharka is remarkably unspoilt and our camp at Montari an amazing experience, living in mud houses and eating 'al fresco' surrounded by magical views.
The road to Montari was bone shaking - they call it the 'dancing road' and it lived up to its name. Our time there also involved visiting neighbouring schools including Dhandakharka Primary School which KASIN had funded the rebuilding new of after the 2015 earthquakes.
Friday 30th November
We returned to Kathmandu yesterday and have spent all day at various meetings. The morning was spent visiting Kumbershwar Technical School where KASIN provides funding for the Orphange ( see KASIN website for more details of the Pode caste who were condemned to street cleaning and living in hovels even as recently as the early 1990s. We then met BK Shrestra of Global Action to discuss how to develop a comprehensive teacher training programme. It was the back to the Holy Himalaya to meet the alumni of Mandali School
After a surfeit of Dhal Baat, we decided to chance our luck and see if we could get into 'Fire and Ice', a famous Italian restaurant round the corner, and only had to wait 10 mins. 
Saturday 1st December
Pat's birthday! I had agreed to meet up with Binod for the day so headed off at 9.00 to catch a Green Bus (15 NRps a journey!) to Laghankel, near the ringroad. He rang to say he would be late as mice had eaten theough the wiring of his motorbike! It was great to be whizzzing along the road to Chapagaun again to meet his family and see the improvements in his house - now sporting awestern style toilet (now requiring a 1000 litre water tank) and a refurbished kitchen. His mum had made a light lunch which we munched whilst Binod showed me the mobile apps he was developing in his spare time as an IT wizard. We celebrated Pat's birthday at th renowned Third Eye restaurant in Thamel
(Apologies for the lack of news but writing a blog on an iPad is a nightmare and the lack of wi-fi hasn't helped)
Sunday 2nd December
Up,early to catch the Bhudda Air flight to Badrapur in the south east corner of Nepal in Jhapa where KASIN has a sponsorship programme for the  poorest children from.local families many of whom work in the tea gardens. We are staying at the Moran Memorial School in Maheshpur, and were warmly welcomed by the Jesuit Community who run the school here.

Saturday, 21 October 2017


This is my 10th visit to Nepal, the first being in 2004 during my sabbatical from L'Arche. It was then a dark time for the country as the Maoist insurgency was at its peak and the political uncertainty following the palace massacre of 2001 persisted.

I was planning to visit Mahjkhanda, a mountain village south of the Kathmandu valley, where my friend Alan Iles had spent 4 years establishing a tree nursery in the 1980's to re-forestate an area where a Tamang community had settled. But due to Maoist activity, I was advised not to visit, so instead arranged to meet Chandra in Kathmandu. He had been trained by Alan take over the management of the project.

It was only in 2008 that I was able to get to the village for the first time and found a huge legacy of mature trees as a result of Alan's work. It was a profoundly moving experience to see a completely new landscape of terraced fields, stunning views of the Himalayas, and enjoy the amazing hospitality of the Nepalese people. Chandra, and his then 15 year old grandson, Binod, accompanied me on this memorable trip, requiring a hazardous bus trip along narrow roads cut into the mountainside and a trek down one side of a valley and up another to 1900 metres. A fuller description of the project is in my 2011 blog.

In 2012, Dilly Baker, former Warden of Scargill House, Kettlewell, and I led a party of friends to Nepal, visiting Mahjkhanda and Pokhara. Included in the party was Mark Ashton, a then trustee of Kids at School in Nepal, and Pat and Liz Wherity who subsequently became trustees, holding current roles of Chair and Secretary. This year I also became a trustee of KASIN and agreed to join Pat and Liz on the annual visit.

I was particularly impressed by KASIN's lack of overheads - it neither occupies an office nor employs any staff, so all donations go directly to support the beneficiaries for whom it collects funds, with only minimal bank charges. Trustees do not claim any expenses in running the charity or visiting Nepal, and rely wholly on volunteers to help with the fundraising and publicity.

And so my trip this autumn is to join Pat, Liz and two other trustees, in KASIN's  annual visit to support and monitor the various projects it has funded and so report back to donors.

I arrived yesterday on a uneventful Oman Air flight, though the transfer in Muscat was very tight with only 40 minutes between arriving and the scheduled departure time of the final flight to Kathmandu. My friend and interpreter, Binod, was at the airport to meet me and we were soon leaving the chaotic and polluted city streets behind and heading to fresher air on the elevated south side of the valley in Godavari. Here I am spending a few days relaxing in the St Xavier's community before joining my KASIN colleagues next week.

Friday 20th October was New Year's day for the Newari people and the penultimate day of Deepawali, the Hindu 5 day festival of lights, also known as Tihar.

Today, Saturday, is the last day of the festival when brothers and sisters meet to exchange presents and place a tika (the red Hindu mark) on each other's forehead. A great tradition as many return to their home villages to celebrate.

It's perfect weather here at the moment, and so I've been able to relax in the garden which is surrounded  on two sides by 8 beehives. All was well, I thought, until I noticed in a nearby corner of the residence an Asian hornet's nest. These are huge flying beasts that devour honey bees given a chance and had cleverly set up camp beside an ample supply of free dinners! Just observing the entrance to one hive, one hornet pounced and carried away a helpless bee for its lunch.

Lunch was enjoyed in the company of a family from Sri Lanka, the mother of which worked at the country's Embassy in Kathmandu. Fascinating to here about the history of the country, occupied successively by the Portuguese, Dutch and British.  Although the civil war has ended, the Tamil Tigers' striving for independence continues. I was reminded that there are equivalent clashes in Darjeeling where Nepali speaking Gorkhas of that area of West Bengal are calling for a separate state. Echoes of Catalonia too.

Sunday 22nd October

The body has still not adjusted to the 4hr 45 minute time difference, so sleep is still very disrupted, thoughsound when it comes. After Mass and breakfast, Binod came over from his home in Chapagaun to take me on the back of his motorbike into Thamel to meet Liz Wherity. It's the most efficient way to get around Kathmandu, but a face mask is essential with all the choking fumes from filthy exhausts of diesel trucks.

The Holy Himalaya Hotel, owned by Jyoti one of KASIN's Nepali trustees, is tucked away in a quiet corner of Thamel, the now over-crowded tourist area, and is where I'm booked to stay from Tuesday for 4 nights ahead of our trip north. It's a really welcoming place serving excellent coffee. Asha, Jyoti's wife was meeting with Massimo who runs an Italian charity supporting schools in Nepal, so we joined them for a while before heading out to visit the nearby Garden of Dreams. This is a magnificent formal garden, built by a Rana in the 1920's and a wonderful oasis in the middle of a busy part of the city.

Binod and I then headed back to his home in Chapagaun, about 10km south. It was great to see his family again who have been so hospitable to me over the years. Rasi, Binod's mother, provided a delicious lunch while we caught up with news. Bed, his father, works as a health worker in remote areas, was unusually at home, as was Sabina, his younger sister who is still at college. It was good to hear that Gopi, Binod's elder sister who is a graduate microbiologist has eventually find a job relevant to her degree, so would not be home till 7.30.

The ride back to Godavari took about a 20 minute. We passed what is normally a working brick factory belching black smoke from its tall chimney. There are currently over 500 brick kilns in the Kathmandu valley and the pollution they create is a cause of great concern for people's health. But at this time of year the fields, normally used for moulding the bricks before firing and storing the finished product, are full of a crop of now golden rice. Once harvested, though, the brick production starts again and the cloud of smog intensifies! But at least the child labourers and over-worked donkeys have had a break.

Monday 23rd October

Awoke to bright blue sky, though today the white clouds masked the view of the mountains. It’s the first time I’ve been here in October, and the flowers are still in abundance, notably marigolds and bourgainvillea. St Xavier’s school nestles on the south side of Phulchowk, which forms one of the peaks on the south side of Kathmandu valley. The Botanical Gardens are just round the corner.

The school is back today, all 1100 pupils from the ages 5 to 16. At 8.30, a bell goes and a 5 minute led meditation is broadcast through the PA system to all classes. Wow! I think the UK schools could learn something from this. There’s not a sign of litter around the grounds, penguin shaped bins with open mouths digesting all the rubbish!

This morning I needed to send my friend Theo a birthday card so headed into Kathmandu on a ‘micro’ – one of the many minibuses that plough their way backwards and forwards from the city. 10 kms for less than 20p. The trick is to get a seat beside the driver to avoid being crushed, if possible. It takes about 30 mins to get to Satdobato in Patan which is just across the river from Kathmandu itself, though merges into it. Here you need to take another micro or tuk-tuk into the city. I was told to send my card by Everest Postal Care if I wanted to get an express service to the UK, which still takes 2 weeks! I soon found the office down a back alleyway, paid 50 rupees, saw a stamp being applied and the envelope disappearing under the desk.

Back for lunch and a siesta, this time crushed in the back of a micro beside a Nepali home from Hong Kong. By working abroad, many Nepalese earn enough money to build the many western style homes evident on the outskirts of Patan.

I was hearing at supper last night that the electricity supply is now so reliable that there’s a new market for fridge freezers! Until my visit in February, there were power cuts every day, and you’d be lucky to get 6 hours continuous supply. Well, it seems that the head of electrical distribution was accepting bribes from certain local government areas to favour them, as well as from generator and battery manufacturers in India which benefitted from such cuts. He and a few cronies were arrested after their corrupt scheme was discovered.

This evening, Fr Boby, the Jesuit Treasurer, came to see me to discuss the arrangements for our trip to Jhapa, East Nepal. KASIN is able to channel its sponsorship funds through his office, guaranteeing that they reach the intended beneficiaries. The vehicle originally earmarked to take us is now needed for another assignment and their other SUV had been involved in an accident so being repaired. So it looks like we will have to hire one. Flying is prohibitively expensive for foreigners, though it would mean a 40 minute rather than 8 hour journey.

Tuesday 24th October

My last day here so I was asked to attend the assembly  - 1100 pupils packed 
into the main hall. I'm impressed by the discipline of these children, one of whom stands in front and leads a thought for the day, and the national anthem. I've got used to being asked to say a few words after the customary presentation of flowers and welcome scarf. I recall some years back walking down to Puytar School from Majhjkanda, a morning's trek down some difficult terrain, and being faced by a welcome party of 150 children gathered in the compound, with an introduction by the deputy head " And we welcome Mr John who will now give us an account of the political, economic and social aspects of the United Kingdom". No pressure there!

A quick visit before lunch to the nearby Ashram to see my friend Babu Krishna who looks after the place and is an excellent cook. It was here that I first came in 2004 and brought the group in 2013, before heading off to Mahjkhanda and Pokhara. It's used mainly for conferences and retreats but equally open to other visitors who just want a few days' quiet. I'm thinking of bringing another group here in 2018, so am told I will need to book soon for a late October trip.

Before lunch, I met with Subarna, the staff IT wizard. He has been a great help on previous visits and has now installed a wider wi-fi network around the school which makes blogging much easier.

Ratan arrived at 3.00 to drive me to Kathmandu. He had earlier brought his wife and son who had recently had an operation to allow him to improve his hearing - it's great to know he has now started to talk. Ratan had been our driver in 2013 when the school had kindly loaned him as driver and the school minibus for our trip, A Tai Kwando world champion and now Master, he drives with supreme care on roads occupied by kamakasi maniacs! Whilst we in the UK have raised sleeping policemen, Nepal had roads with sunken hazards where tarmac gives way to ditches. As we approached Patan, the smog and fumes intensified. There are no rules on the roads, so cars and bikes jostle for space.

A ruling came effective from Sunday that cars and bikes we barred from entering Thamel so a relief to find the Holy Himalaya hotel was outside the pedestrian zone. Jyoti Adikari and his wife run this excellent place, Jyoti being one of KASIN's trustees and a vital resource for overseas charities reliant on local and trustworthy project advice and monitoring.

Liz Wherity, who had come out with her husband Pat 10 days before me (currently doing the Annapurna Base Camp trek with Pam and Jill, two other trustees) joined me for a bite to eat at Fire and Ice, a pizza place round the corner. We were then called into a meeting with Jyoti to finalise our trip north on Saturday.

Wednesday 25th October

The first night I slept really well. Breakfast is held in the huge hotel lobby where there is a constant flow of guests, the majority of whom are arriving from or departing for treks, this being the best season for seeing the mountains. 

A chance for me to catch up with emails and KASIN projects. This afternoon, Liz and I had made an appointment to visit the Kumbeshwar Technical School, at 2.00 pm after Liz had finished teaching at the local nursery. 

KTS is located near Patan Durbar Square, down a back street in a less than salubrious area. Liz had visited last year but we were going to discuss with the current Director, Kiran, the possibility of being a channel of funds co
llected by a UK friend of KTS, assuming its activities fell within the remit of Kasin's own objectives. It's an amazing enterprise founded by Kiran's father to provide opportunities for the Sudra, lowest caste, whose conditions were not far removed from those of animals when it was founded in 1983 as a day centre for children. See

Today it runs an orphanage for up to 20 children, a primary school for 210, a day centre for adult training in carpet making, hand knitting and carpentry, the products from which provide sales income to cover 80% of the running costs of the enterprise. Kiran's son Satyrendra graduated in IT from Nottingham and now works full time, responsible for marketing the products to 4 continents. Although the lot of the lower caste has improved immeasurably since 1983, it's clear KTS is making a huge difference to the lives of many. They also welcome volunteers who can fund themselves to teach English in the primary school and help min the orphanage in the evening.

Thursday 26th October

The dining area was jam packed this-morning so Breakfast was taken with two Australians and one Canadian back from doing the Everest Base Camp, previously having done the golden triangle in India - Delhi, Agra and Jaipur.

My primary task today was to find the Kathmandu Forest College (KFC), having previously been there on the back of Binod's bike. At home this would take 30 minutes, here it takes 2 hours - walking to Ratna Park, getting a green bus to Jawalakhel and then a taxi for the remaining leg. After an exhausting journey, I arrived at KFC only to be told the college was on holiday, due to the Chhath Puja, a Hindu festival held for the worship of the sun. The Nepali Govt. has recently declared tomorrow 27th as a public holiday too, so October is not a good time to do business. Decided to explore an alternative route home as the ring road was nearby. A slightly longer route to Satdobato, and buses from their to Jamal.

After learning from the Mahjkhanda Community that they disappointingly no longer wanted to continue the tree nursery started by Alan Iles, for reasons not altogether clear, the trustees of the Ikudol Forest Trust decided last January to sponsor a student from another remote area on the Diploma Course at the KFC. The conditions were that they were committed to return to their home to put their forestry skills into practice for at least 3 years. So I was able to meet with Professor Gautam on my last visit and learn from subsequent emails that they would have chosen someone for me to meet on 8th November before I returned to the UK.

By the time I got back from my fruitless travels, Liz's husband, Pat and fellow trustees Pam and Jill had returned from their trek to Annapurna Base camp, after their aborted attempt to do the Everest Base Camp due to bad weather.
It was good to catch up with all their news. W ith Pat here, we were able to make a decision about travelling to Jhapa. Since there is another project to visit which was not far from the route were would be taking to visit the Schools in east Nepal, we decided to tell Boby that we needed to hire a vehicle and driver.
I'm a little concerned that have left it this late with so much demand on transport by the wave of trekkers. Also, we would need a driver who could speak English. But one of the things one learns here is to expect the unexpected!

Binod recently graduated with a first class honours degree in IT at the British College in Kathmandu (linked to Leeds Becket University) which was a huge achievement for him, and so I arranged for the whole family to come to a local restaurant to celebrate his success. It was a really happy occasion and a chance for Pat and Liz to meet his parents again, and his sisters Gopi and Sabina whom they first met in 2013 when they accompanied us as interpreters on our visit to Pokhara with Ratan. The Gaia restaurant is just round the corner so very convenient for us, though it took the family 2 hours to come from Chapagaun by bus. However, we organised a minibus for them all to get back home afterwards, thanks to the kind staff of the Holy Himalaya hotel. 

Binod has been fortunate to get an IT job not far from home, and Gopi too has now found employment as a micro-biologist in a hospital near Satdobato. I am very fortunate to have got to know such a wonderfully hospitable family over the last 9 years, and I could not have coped without Binod's help as interpreter and guide on all my visits to Mahjkhanda.

Friday 27th October

With Pat, Jill and Pam back from their Annapurna Base Camp trek yesterday, a de-briefing of their experience filled the first part of the morning. They had planned to do the Everest Base Camp but bad weather prevented them flying to Lukla, so they went to Pokhara instead. Then it was time to visit Tiny Seeds Nursery where Liz has spent the last 10 days training the teachers. Although a private nursery which needs no additional funding, the presence of a good role model for local teachers is invaluable. Another opportunity for experienced teachers to volunteer perhaps?

Then it was onto the After School Club on the north side of the city. The surrounding village had been devastated in the 2015 earthquakes. It's a great initiative by Jyoti to help children from dysfunctional families to be given a chance to do their homework under the supervision of a teacher and volunteers. We gave them some resources we had brought from the UK to supplement tbeir limited range of teaching aids. The local Community had helped to develop the land around the earthbag constructed school, and even terraced the land to create a badminton court. Amazing!

Then back to the Holy Himalaya to meet the other people joining us for the visit Montari, pack our bags.

Saturday 28th October

Up at 5.30. After a light breakfast, time to pile into the minibus to the airport.
9 of us plus 3 Nepali were taking a helicopter to a remote area north of Dahding. Arriving at the domestic terminal, we were all weighed as were our rucksacks, and passport details taken. I had inadvertently left my passport in the hotel safe and the copy was in the same wallet. Not a problem for the Nepali staff who simply wrote down the first 9 digits of my credit card!

We were then driven right round the airport, past burnt out planes and helicopters, just to boost our confidence for the flight ahead. 

It seemed an extravagant way to travel, but it took me 3 days to get to Tipling, not far from our destination, with two and a half day's trek, so with limited time it was well worth us paying the extra to travel the distance so quickly.

Never having been in a helicopter before, the experience was exhilarating. To get a birds eye view of Kathmandu as we did a circled clear of the runways was amazing, but the cloud sadly masked much of our 25 minute flight to Ladap. This is a tiny village in the mountains north of Phulkarka, where Kasin helped to rebuild the government school. The first helicopter with the other half of our party, had already arrived, so we landed in a nearby field much to the excitement of the villagers who rushed to welcome us.

After a visit to the basket making workshop – where local craftsmen use carefully slit bamboo to weave those familiar Nepali baskets – we trekked south through the hamlets of Chin Chowk, Pokhara, San Dan and Phulkarka, before eventually arriving at Montari where we were to base ourselves for 3 days. It was here that KASIN provided the funding the girls’ hostel which provides accommodation for those who live too far away from the nearby agricultural school.

Our accommodation consisted of round earth-bag houses and tents. The walls are constructed by filling bags with earth and laying them on top of each other, with barbed wire to hold them together. 

They are then plastered inside and out with mud, and a wooden roof added. This method of construction was adopted after the 2015 earthquakes destroyed many buildings in this area, it being very near the epicentre of the quakes.

A team from the Jyoti’s Eco-trek business had come to look after us, and what an amazing team they proved to be. Ashok, Saraj and Dinesh were known to Pat, Liz, Pam and Jill through past treks. If anyone was looking to come to Nepal, I would certainly recommend Ecotrek 

Sunday 29th October

My accommodation was one of the two very adequate tents. All was going well until that Imodium moment which kept me up the first night. I’ll quickly pass over that. Needless to say it took a day to recover so I missed the trek to see the school at Dhandakharka for which KASIN had funded floor covering, books and furniture for the nursery classroom. 

The clearing in the forest where we were staying is called Skycamp, and it certainly lived up to its name - fantastic views of the mountains during the day and star-lit skies at night. 

Monday 30th October

Today was the official opening of the Hostel which serves the agricultural college in Phulkharka and is designed to accommodate girls and boys who live too far away to make the daily journey to College. KASIN has funded the Girls side of the hostel, whilst an Italian charity headed by Massimo has paid for the boys side. Massimo was due to come with Jyoti by helicopter but were late due to a rescue mission elsewhere in the mountains.

As usual, there were garlands, scarves and the traditional orange 'tika' anointing on the forehead for the visitors, then cutting of the ribbon and speeches. An Italian pasta lunch followed which wouldn't have been sniffed at in Italy. This cook is amazing as he also provided a dhal bhat lunch for the Nepali visitors, including many local politicians who were trying to muscle in on the action!

Tuesday 31st October

A rest day when a few of us tried to get the solar water heating system mended, which we found only needed some spare parts. So our final shower had to be with cold, well, not that cold, water.

Our final meal was had around a bonfire, with a carved out pumpkin to remind us of Halloween, and barbecued chicken which had been marinated in delicious spices, washed down with a few bottles of Gorkha Beer!

Wednesday 1st November

Today we walked down to the Hydro on the Ankhu river - a 3.5 hour trek through some stunning landscapes. Here we were picked up by two Jeeps and driven the 5.5 hour journey to Kurintar, a riverside complex on the way to Pokhara. The road from the Hydro - more a rutted track really - winds along the river before climbing over another mountain to Dhading. A 3.5 hour journey during which the jeep negotiates boulders and ruts worthy of an obstacle course. The route is currently being upgraded so JCBs and trucks block the road in places whilst the rock and earth is removed. The only consolation were the clear views of Ganesh Himal in the distance from the top. The 2 hour journey along the main Pokhara road was less of a bone shaker but more of an encounter with kamakasi drivers who think nothing of overtaking on blind bends with sheer drops below!

Jyoti is developing the Kurintar site into a hotel complex, and we were the guinea pigs to try out the accommodation. It's in a great spot by the the river with a terrace overlooking the rapids where white water gives intrepid rafters a fish-eye view of the valley. 

The rooms are very well appointed and a hot shower was a real treat after the dusty journey. We were all keen to retire early after a strenuous day.

Thursday 2nd November

A day to explore the river and to relax. Our resident geologist Pat Wherity gave us fascinating accounts of the age and origins of the many rocks. This was the last day our group would be together. Kate & Michael from Ealing, and Wendy & Ian from Cambridge were heading off to Pokhara in the morning whilst the rest 
of us were heading back to Kathmandu.

Friday 3rd November

After breakfast we said our farewells and climbed into our respective vehicles for the road trips ahead. We were taking some of the staff who had served us during our stay in Kurintar back to Kathmandu. It's a familiar road for those of us who have been to Pokhara but still a dangerous one with many trucks/buses being driven by madmen!

Saturday 4th November

The focus was now on organising our trip to Jhapa. Kiran was due to meet us after breakfast to tell us how to get the the Community School in his village near Bardibas at the junction of the Japanese road east of the KTM valley, and the Mahendra highway running east-west along the Terai in the south of Nepal. We had heard from a mutual friend of his family that the school needed a water tank to give the children safe drinking water. So we were able to speak with Kiran's father in the village and arrange a time to meet. Later in the morning Fr Boby, the Nepal Jesuit Treasurer, came to the Hotel to let us know about the hired vehicle and driver he had organised for us. He is our contact in Nepal through whom we can reliably transfer funds for the school sponsorship.

Liz, Pat and I decided to eat at Fire and Ice, this evening. An Italian pizza is always a welcome relief from dahl bhat (daal and rice), and this place is just round the corner from the hotel. 

Sunday 5th November

Left Kathmandu at 6.30 am to travel by SUV to Jhapa. Normall a 10/11 hour trip but since we were due to call in at a school en-route, it took us nearly 14 hours. A journey to forget really but it's the only way to travel without paying a huge amount to fly. The visit to the school en route proved to be a fruitless diversion as the water tank we were told the school needed had already been fitted by Save the Children and other funders. 

It was an object lesson is verifying everything in Nepal, and that's why trustees come every year to check-out new requests and how funds are spend on approved projects. The school in question was not far from Bardibas town and had been founded 10 years ago by the Community, not the Government, so teachers' salaries have to be funded by local people. The Principal and the founder both thought we were there to help fund an English teacher needed because the Government requires all schools to teach in English. We could only listen and empathise with their need, as it would be an impossible long term commitment for KASIN to make. It was clear that the Community was doing a great job with few resources.

Krishna our driver was clearly experienced in negotiating the road to Jhapa but had the disconcerting habit of using his mobile phone to negotiate his next contracts as we wound our way down the many hairpin bends on the Japanese road. Since Krishna had no English, Bimal, Boby's administrator from Kathmandu, was travelling with us so we had an interpreter on hand.

We arrived at Maheshpur after 8.00 pm and were welcomed by Victor, Norbert and Thomas. After a dahl bhat supper we were shown to our accommodation under the nearby church - ensuite rooms with hot showers!

Monday 6th November

We were woken in the morning by the 6.00 am bell, dedicated in memory of my late father, calling the local community to daily Mass. 

Breakfast at 7.30 comprised puri and a potato and bean curry. Puri are made from wheat flour an ghee, rolled into a small circle and fried in oil, puffing up into a hollow ball when cooked. A bit like a Yorkshire pudding but without the egg and milk!

After breakfast, we met Raja, the Principal of the Moran Memorial School, which has c. 260 students from the surrounding very rural neighbourhood. He had only recently taken over from Sanjay, whom I had met on my earlier visits. 

After the obligatory marigold garlands and welcomes, we each said a few words at the assembly, with the senior children all quietly lined up in serried ranks. We then met in Raja's office to talk about the scholarship scheme for which there are now 10 sponsors for this school, and another 10 for Deonia, down the road. We discussed the issues of allocating specific children and concluded that it would be less discriminatory for the children in question if they were sponsored anonymously. 

People can sponsor children for the cost of a pint of beer a week or a glass of wine. See

However, it was clear from Raja that the sponsors' funding was giving the poorest children the only chance they had for good education. We decided not to meet the children individually, as we did not want others to feel left out, nor those in question to feel different. Instead we went round all the classes - the
school takes children from ages 3 and 4 in the nursery, and 5 to 14 (School Leaving certificate age) - and we talked briefly to each class. In each there were a few children who had no electricity/solar light at home and relied on kerosene lamps to do their homework. So some D-Lights - portable rechargeable solar lamps - would be good for them. One of our sponsors has given funds for the medical/dental welfare of the children which was much appreciated by Raja who plans to initiate a health programme for the school.

It was great to have Liz and Pat, both experienced teachers, see the school and how it was run. Like me, they felt it is being run really well and giving the children a much better education than most Government run schools. 

We also discussed twinning the school with St Anne's and St Mathew's primary schools back home, and the possibility of a small group of teachers and students from a teacher training college in Hull who approached KASIN for a link with a school in Nepal with a view to visiting it during the UK summer holiday. Whilst still hot in August, it is apparently cooler than early in the monsoon season. Raja was very enthusiastic about the idea as any help with English and teaching methods would be greatly valued.

A short video of the Moran Memorial School is avaiable on YouTube with the following link:

After lunch we were taken to St Xavier's School Deonia, about a 20 minute jeep ride down some more bone-jerking roads. This is a much bigger school, catering for over 800 students drawn from a more populated area around Bertimode, a nearby town on the Mahendra highway, close to Bhadrapur Airport on the Nepal/Indian Border.

Amrit, the Principal had recently taken over from Mathew, and had been  succeeded as Principal of St Xavier's Jawalahkel in Patan (Kathmandu) by George. Juel is the Superior of  the Community and Bursar, whom I have known since 2008. They both gave us a warm welcome and again we discussed the sponsorship programme, agreeing it should be anonymous. To date, 10 donors are supporting the scheme, but more are needed!

Due to Government requirements that all schools should educate beyond year 10 (14 yr old) to years 11 and 12, the school has had to build a completely new block which is nearing completion. 

Again, we were taken round the classes many of which have 45 students, and we also met the staff, some of whom were pupils at St X and have returned after teacher training, which gives a great role model of what can be achieved.

Whilst Liz and Pat stayed with Amrit and Juel, I visited a the family of Sanju, one of the students I had met in January whose father had been ill. They live in a typical simple house with only a field where they grow millet and grass, and have a cow and a calf. The father can't find work as he's told he's too old when applying for jobs, so they have no income other than from selling millet and milk. Despite this they insisted on giving me hot milk and a snack, and did not complain. But it's clear that they will rely on Sanju to support them if she does well in her studies and gets a good job.

After a long day we returned to Maheshpur and relaxed in the fading light on the veranda of the Community residence before joining our hosts who had prepared
a delicious supper preceded by some drinks and snacks. It always stimulating to hear the Jesuits' views on education and Nepali life - they came to this area 20 years ago with a view to helping to educate the poorest regardless of their religious tradition, be it Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Christian, and are not primarily in the business of converting anyone, but respecting each person's faith. They have a great social conscience, providing free medicine where possible and acting as local social workers and counsellors. 

Tuesday 7th November

Due to Liz and Pat's itinerary requiring them to return today, and my need to be back to visit the Kathmandu Forestry College by Wednesday we were unable to call in at Sadikbari and Simalbari schools, also run by the Jesuits in even more remote areas of Jhapa. I had visited last year on the back of George's motor bike and my back-side has its own memory of that bone-shaking 90km ride. However, these schools need to be included in our sponsorship scheme.

We left at 7.30 after breakfast, this time without Bimal who was saying on to collect some data from the schools. After getting through Bertimode, the traffic seemed lighter and we made very good progress, getting to Bardibas for veg noodle soup lunch by 1.15. It's a long hot journey and air-con essential along the terai. We arrived back by 7.00 ish, grateful for Krishna's good driving but with sore ears from his telephone calls!

With our stored bags reclaimed, and after a hot shower, Liz, Pat and I visited Melrose, a new eating place nearby, for a beer and pasta, before retiring our shaken limbs.

Wednesday 8th November

It was time to say farewell to Liz and Pat after breakfast. It's been good to join them on their annual KASIN visits, and not only have they been great company, but I've realised tje value of their contribution to KASIN as experienced retired teachers committed to running an important if small charity.

With my other trustee hat on, this time representing the Ikudol Forest Trust (IFT), I headed off to the Forestry College where I had arranged to meet the Professor, Dr Ambika Gautam, to interview their chosen candidate for IFT's scholarship for the Diploma in Forestry course.

A walk to Ratna Park to get a green bus to Lagankhel, then a taxi round the ring road took 1.5 hours. The College is tucked away in what looks like a part residential area. I was immediately ushered up to Professor Gautam;s office where I met Shiva (male!), the Diploma Programme Co-ordinator. They explained that they had called for nominations from their first year Diploma students, and judged candidates on a number of criteria, including IFT's requirement for them to come from a remote area of Nepal. I was impressed by their rigour and objectivity. 
The selected student then joined us along with her brother-in-law with whom she was staying, as her home was in the far west of Nepal. After some time interviewing her, I realised that she was a very promising student who showed every sign of being committed to putting her 3 year Diploma into practice for a further 3 years back in her home area as a Forest Ranger. With my endorsement on behalf of the other IFT trustees, we agreed to draw up a formal contract against which we would be able to transfer funds to cover the tuition fees of for the 3 year course. 

On the way home I called into St Xavier's Jawalakhel to see George, the Principal (ex-Deonia). He said he would be joining Boby and myself for supper this evening. After walking back part way to pick up a few gifts from the fair trade craft shops in Pulchowk, I headed back to the hotel to meet Binod at 4.30 to share my experiences over the past couple of weeks. He then kindly offered to drop me off at Boby's residence in Sanepa, Patan. 

Boby advised Binod to take the ring road anticlockwise, given the rush hour traffic, and this was a good move but when we came to Sanepa, it was pitch dark, and with minimal street lighting we spent 30 minutes driving around in circles, eventually having to ring Boby to come and meet us only yards from the residence! It was sad to say good-bye to Binod, but good to know he is on his way to a successful IT/entrepreneurial career.

After a great re-union with Mathew (ex-Deonia), Boby, George and Bonaventure, the Nepal Jesuit Superior, and their generous hospitality, I was driven back to the Holy Himalaya, to prepare for an early start tomorrow.

Thursday 9th November

Up at 5.30, breakfast at 6.00 with a pack of tourists preparing for their respective treks, and a hotel minibus to the airport at 6.30 for the 9.50 Oman Air flight to Muscat.

With time to kill, I tried to update the blog using the airport wi-fi onlly to lose it all when trying to upload, so this update is a little late.

The transfer in Muscat was only an hour and the last leg to Manchester less crowded as the plane was only half full. 

Back at Manchester early at 6.10 pm, the immigration clearance was as quick as I've experienced, and I was though baggage reclaim by 6.40. 

Back home by train at 9.45. What a trip!

Wednesday, 10 February 2016


Arrived safely at 12.15 pm today after a long but uneventful 7.5 hour flight from Manchester. The connection at Abu Dhabi seemed better than on previous flights. So vast is the sprawling airport complex, it took nearly 15 mins to taxi to the terminal after landing there. Another massive terminal is under construction now sporting their motto 'From Abu Dhabi to the World'. Along with a sprinkling of foreign tourists, the 3 hour leg to Mumbai was packed with Indian nationals many of whom seem to have the knack of staggering on board with massive hand luggage.  

Dressed for the cold of the UK and the mountains of Nepal, I was not expecting quite the wall of heat stepping out of the air conditioned 'plane. 28 deg C -wonderful! Though not quite sure what to expect down south...

A pre-paid fare to the Hotel Accord proved more of a test for the taxi driver than expected, as we struggled through 5 lanes of traffic and brought the oncoming lane to a standstill as we did a sharp contraflow U-Turn. The chap didn't speak English, but cleverly knew where to find other drivers who did, but less cleverly only after over-shooting the urban motorway by a mile or two! 

The Hotel is conveniently situated between the airport and Lokmania Tilak Terminal where I get the Netravati Express to Cochin tomorrow morning. The place is basic but clean, the staff really helpful, and the rooms thankfully air-conditioned and sporting Wi-Fi. Just round the corner is a row of shops where I've managed to get a SIM for my phone. (919867249561). So I'm all set for the 6 weeks ahead!

Thursday 11th Feb.

A 30 minute tuktuk ride to the station. 22 carriages pulled into platform 1 at 10.40 and I was aboard with my fellow passengers in an AC2 (air conditioned 2 tier) compartment.
I was fortunate to have 3 great travelling companions including Jesse and her 81 year old mother from the USA, and Pradeep, a Timetable Manager for the Kerala area of Indian Railways! Time passed quickly as we headed south with c. 1,400 other passengers. Meals were provided from the pantry car, chai and coffee wallas passed by frequently, and clean bed linen, pillows, towels  and blankets were all part of the package. OK, it was not quite up to European standards, but who can complain at a ticket price of £48.

Friday 12th 

Arrived at Cochin around 1.00 pm on Friday, and a tuktuk took me to FortKochi where I was staying near South beach. 

A good hotel, thankfully with air conditioning.
Was recommended Dal Roti, as a nearby place to eat - amazing vegetarian curry with superb paratha. 

Saturday 13th

Backwater tour of nearby inland waterways by boat. Wonderful silence as we were punted through lush vegetation and coconut trees.

Really interesting people on the tour including Polish military attache, Dutch tax lawyer, French retiree and family, Austrian IT specialist in COBOL, Israeli couple. 

Lunch in village on banana leaves.
Back to Fortcochi by 4.00 pm. 

On a stroll through Fortkochi, passed a cooking school and ended up joining 3 others for a Kerala cooking class. 

A fascinating experience with Meera and husband in their family kitchen with 3 others, cooking chicken and aubergine curries with dahl and chapatis. Dinner sorted!

Sunday 14th February

Tuktuk tour around Fortkochi, including Chinese fishing nets which punctuate the shore. Not much caught at this time of year, but an abundance apparently in the monsoon season.

The beach here would not get a blue flag for cleanliness, and in general litter abounds. This afternoon I took the ferry to Ernakulam, the main town of Cochin, for th princely sum of 4 rupees (around 4p) for a 20 minute journey. You get a better idea of the port and it gave me the chance to book a ticket on the Munnar bus on Tuesday morning. £2.80 for a 4 hour trip.

On return, I went to Santa Cruz Cathedral where the 5.00 English Mass had been replaced by one for religious from near and far in Malayalam, the local language, with music that would not have been out of place in a rock concert. The iconography in Christian churches is quite overpowering and brash, and reminds me of Calabria in Italy. But people are very devout. Kerala has strong Christian, Muslim and Hindu communties which seem to live in peaceful harmony, unlike the north of India. Indeed on buses here, there are pictures of a Hindu god, a Muslim Temple and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, side by side, as if to say we all travel together.

After watching a singing concert with some superb music, I finished off the day at Oceana, just round the corner from the hotel, where I had one of the best shrimp curries I've ever tasted. The 3 courses came to £7.50.

Monday 15th Feb

Breakfast outside in the shade with the thermometer rising. A delightful Chinese family joined me, the mother with excellent English. It's been great to meet such a variety of cultures, and rather humbling that they speak a foreign language so well. I was then approached by a couple who noticed the BD postcode on my hotel register entry - it turned out they were from Grassington, so had a long chat.

A relaxing day followed walking around Fortkochi and taking the ferry to the northern island. Not much to see really, as it's got a massive LPG terminal, and the lighthouse was closed as it was Monday. Whilst waiting for the ferry back, got talking to Adhinav, a Research Officer from Mussoorie, whose brother was a naval officer based in Cochin. Hadn't realised a major army and naval base was just round the corner.

He recommended a good place to eat, and so headed there in the evening after a visit to the Ayuvedic therapy centre. I was reassured I wasn't going to keel over, so indulged in a massage followed by a couple of beers, and slept the sleep of kings.

Tuesday 16th

Got a tuktuk to the bus station, struggling through rush hour traffic, and found the Munnar AC coach. After a 4.5 hour journey, climbing from sea level to 1,700 metres, I was met by the brother of the homestay, and ferried/karted to my next resting place, leaving the main road for a narrow track which led down to the Green Magic Home.
View from my room in Green Magic Home
It's perched on the side of a hill with stunning views facing south. Robin, the Indian Manager, is a top notch cook and couldn't be more welcoming and helpful. A couple from London are staying here and we all had dinner together sharing experiences of India and beyond. They recommended a tuktuk with Ramesh who had taken them around the area earlier today and had proved to be a mine of information.

Wednesday 17th

Breakfast on the balcony before setting off with Ramesh. Before heading up the hills we visited Madupetty dam, and then up a private road through the tea estates. My cousin Midge's father, Charlie Robertson, was the manager of a tea plantation here in the 1950s so I was keen to discover where the bungalow was located where she and her brother John grew up. The views are magnificent in every direction, with tea plants wherever you look.
Tea picking as such is no more, as the tops of the camellia plants are now cut with a pair of shears, one side having a recepticle to collect the 'golden tippies', which are progressively bagged. Met up with a Russian, Dimitri, and his Ukranian wife who stopped for a chat in perfect English about their conflicting political allegiances. True love has no barriers!

It seems the eucalyptus trees were brought over from Australia, and a variety called Grandis now surrounds the plantations, with their tall slim trunks and peeling bark. Planted within the tea slopes are what I understand to be Grevillea (?) trees to provide shade for the young plants before being ring-barked and removed. 

On the way up we saw huge honeycombs perched high in an old tree, evidence that bees will draw their own comb without the aid of fancy boxes, though the harvesting of honey becomes somewhat more treacherous.

As we climbed further up the slopes, Ramesh stopped suddenly and pointed to a couple of wild Elephant feeding on the banks of the lake. Apparently a lucky sighting! 

The tour through the tea estate escaped from the tourist trail and gave me the chance to understand the sheer scale of the plantations. Some of the bushes are 100 years old and many of these are being ripped out and replaced by new young plants that will take four or more years till they can be harvested. The reliance on manual plucking has been reduced by mechanical tea harvesters which trim the bushes along gaps in the planting.

Back in Munnar, I visited the Tea Museum to see a fascinating video in the history of tea in Munnar and a look round a tea processing factory. I remember Charlie saying that tea bags provided a solution to deal with the residue left from the grading process, akin to floor sweepings. But the marketing men would no doubt say they were specially 'graded' to give a fuller flavour! 

Included in the tour was a memorable talk by Sunil Chalakat,
a lean elderly Indian sporting a Madonna style radio microphone, about the health benefits of green tea and the advantages of taking time over emptying ones bowels, with the help of a rather faded diagram of the large and small intestines. He had his audience captivated.

Afterwards, I asked him where I might find out which plantation Charlie Robertson was manager of, and he suggested a visit to the head office of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations which had acquired a majority holding in the company from Tata which had taken it over from the Finlay Estate for whom Charlie worked.

So Ramesh took me to find the place and I eventually was let in without an appointment to see George Varghese who made a couple of calls and gave me the name of the Chokanad estate as having a CB Robertson as a manager in 1951. Bingo! I shall head there tomorrow to take some photos for Midge and John.
Back home for another excellent meal, this time with the company of Rory from Wexford, a botanist who is an expert on Irish mosses. An invasion of French tourists had there dinner elsewhere. Whilst it would be possible to eat in town, transport would be needed, and Robin produced some wonderful Keralan dishes.

Thursday 18th February

Ramesh dropped me at the junction with the main road, and I walked the back road to the Chokonad Estate where I was told Charlie Robertson was manager.

The silence was captivating, only broken by the sound of birdsong and the rustle of leaves. The road winds though acres of tea plants, past the tea processing plant, and up to the manager's bungalow which has the most superbly kept garden complete with lawn in immaculate condition.

I was greeted by the house staff as Morgan Varghese, the present day manager was working in other parts.

I was able to take enough photos for Midge and John hopefully to recognise their old home.

A short way down the road back to Munnar lay the High Range Club, a real colonial establishment founded by the British 120 years ago,

and reminding me of the Planters Club in Darjeeling. Sporting tennis courts, a cricket pitch and a 9 hole golf course, this monument to the past is kept immaculately maintained by an army of staff and patronised now mainly by rich Indians. There was no-one around as I explored the main reception rooms, but eventually the Secretary appeared only to confirm that there were no records of members going back to the 1950s other than presidents of the Club.

It called for a pot of coffee in the expansive lounge, brought to me by a smartly dressed waiter. As I sat and drank, I could almost here the piano being played and the hubub of conversation which filled the room in the days of the British, and thought about Charlie and Helen who would have no doubt enjoyed many a happy hour here. From the list of names on the President's Board, it looked like the Indians took over the management of the estates around 1974.

Back to Munnar to look around the town, and have lunch at the Rapsy Restaurant, before returning home in Ramesh's tuktuk for a lazy afternoon and evening, in readiness for my 6 hour journey by bus to Madurai, east of here in Tamel Nadu.

Friday 19th February

Rory, John and Vicky, left after breakfast for Cochin, whist I headed east on a public bus. Air conditioning was provided by open windows and we were treated to one of India's violent movies at full volume as if the repeated klaxon wasn't sufficient to keep us all awake. Changing buses at Theni after a surpriingly good veg. lunch including tandoori mushrooms. The final leg of the journey involved travelling at high speed down narrow roads and being thrown round hair-pin beds. I was relieved to reach my destination near Madurai at around 4.00 pm

Saturday and Sunday 20th/21st February

Took off with my good friend Selvam, a priest for the Madurai Diocese whom I studied with in Rome. His friend Anthony kindly lent us his car with driver Pandi, and we headed off to Kodaikanal up in the Western Ghats, staying with the Medical Missionary sisters who have a retreat house there. It was a relief to get some cool air after the scorching temperature of the plain. Some amazing views and wonderful hospitality.

Monday 22nd Feb

Selvam and Anthony took me in to Madurai to see the impressive Meenakshi Amman Temple, then back to collect my things and get the overnight train to Chennai, this time in AC1. Good night's sleep.

Tuesday 23rd Feb

Flight from Chennai at 10.40, stopping at Kolkata to pick up more passengers than on to Bagdogra airport near the Nepal border. From there a pre-paid taxi to Kurseong where I've been staying a couple of nights to retrace my Dad's footsteps, visiting the very bungalow he stayed in with Mr Patterson, the Singell Tea Estate Manager at the time.

Wednesday 24th Feb

A couple of nights at Cochrane's place was like stepping back in history, but it was comfortable enough and a chance to meet Elaine and Richard from Edmonton over dinner, and share our travel stories. Fortunately, I was leaving before the place was invaded by a group from Yorkshire that day.

The exact location of the bungalow emerged after a visit to the Tea Association in Darjeeling, situated beside the Planters' Club. John Norman and I became day members there in 2004 on our way back from Sikkim., and met Teddy Young, the sole remaining British Tea Planter who has sadly since died. I decided to get up at 6.00 a to catch the Toy Train from Kurseong - a great experience running alongside the road then suddenly crossing to the other side much to the chagrin of drivers!
However, the current Chairman of Tea Assn. Mr Sandeep Mukherjee, pointed the way, though did not have any records dating back to the 1930s. After a brief walk around Darjeeling, I caught a shared taxi which dropped me off at the junction to the Singell estate, just north of Kurseong. Darjeeling is a busy town perched on the side of a hill, with traffic congestion worthy of Delhi. With the Toy Train sadly now with a reduced service, and steam only used for tourist trips between Darjeeling and Ghum, the main form of transport is the Jeep.

The road to the Singell factory and bungalow zigzags down through the tea plantation, and I soon the Manager, Chandra Deo Gurung who was fascinated by the photocopies of Dad's photos which he confirmed were of his bungalow.

After taking present day shots of the same views, he invited me into his home for a cup of Darjeeling Tea (of course the Fine Tippy, Golden Flowery, Orange Peeko, 2nd Flush!). It was quite emotional to be in the very sitting room where Dad would have sat, drinking tea from the same now 100 year old bushes. It's been a long held quest to visit the place, and here I was.

Thursday 25th Feb

After an early breakfast, I got a shared 'micro' up to Kurseong from where the shared jeeps to Siliguru left. I bought two seats, a trick I learned last year, for more comfort at 75p each! Leaving at 9.00 am we were soon down on the plain by 10.45, and then another shared minibus from Siliguri to the Nepalese border for £2.00. After getting my visa exit stamped the Indian side of the border, and entry visa endorsed at the Nepali immigration post, I soon found a bus to take me to Birtamode for another bus change to Deonia, where I was staying with my Jesuit friend, Juel who had organised our group stay at Godavari in 2013.

This district is called Jhapa, predominated by more tea estates, but the wide expanses of cultivated countryside hide a desperate level of subsistence living. 

Friday and Saturday 26th and 27th Feb

St Xavier's school here is run by four Jesuits. It was founded 17 yeas ago to provide education for the many families eeking an existence from the land, many of whom were working on the local tea estate earning a pittance. It's an impressive establishment, offering many students scholarships to cover the tuition fees. For less than the cost of a pint a week, (£3.00), a child here can be sponsored through their education.

On Friday morning, I was introduced to the 600 pupils at their assembly and invited to give a speech after being presented with the traditional scarf and flowers!

I was then taken on the back of a motor bike to another Jesuit school nearby where I spent the day with Frs Paul and Sanjay, and Br Clarence, visiting the local tea factory in the afternoon. Nearby a new church was under construction for what is becoming a growing parish community.

On Saturday, Mathew, the Principal at St Xavier's asked me to accompany him to a Parents' Day at a school in Bagdogra, near the airport, where he was the principal guest.
After 3 hours of dancing, prize giving and speeches with the PA system at full volume under a very hot sun, I was glad to get back to Deonia. But before escaping, I was called upon to help give out prizes to some of the children.

Sunday 28th Feb

After waxing lyrical about bees yesterday evening, George asked me to take Year 9 for a class on the honey bee at one of this morning's classes. (Schools only have Saturday as a day off in Nepal). I was happy to oblige, so hurriedly put together a PowerPoint presentation last night. The feedback from the 60 odd students seemed positive, as did the suggestion to install a bee-hive in the grounds.

George then took me on the back of his motorbike to another mission station about 40 km away in Sadabari, in what must be one of the remotest areas of east Nepal. There I was called upon to be the school photographer for each of the 5 classes! Then back to Deonia for a farewell supper.

Monday 29th February

A walk to the nearby road junction for a haircut, beard trim and cut-throat shave, polished off with the statutory head massage which this time extended to shoulder arms and hands. Thanks, Ram, for the invigorating experience! 
Back at the school, one of the teachers then wanted to have a chat with me about counselling as she had been asked to help some of the children in this way. 

As the day progressed, the temperature was rising steadily. I was told that May and June in these parts are sizzlingly hot. 

At 3.30 I headed to the junction again to catch the bus to Kathmandu. This was going to be the mother of all bus journeys, arriving the next morning, west along the Mahendra Highway, then north to Kathmandu. This was the overland trip John Norman and I were supposed to take in 2004, but due to the Maoist insurgency at the time, we had to fly. 

The price of the ticket at £8.00 for a 'deluxe air-conditioned' ride seemed ridiculously cheap compared with £150 for a flight, and with two recent plane crashes in 3 days and Nepal's bad air safety record, I felt the wiser choice. Juel had thankfully managed to get me seat A1 with the most leg  room, but it was still a gruelling ride. 

In the dark of night we stopped at what seemed a deserted petrol station which soon burst into life to dispense diesel, firstly into the bus then 8 x 100 litre containers which appeared from the luggage holds. The black market for fuel was clearly active, but not surprisingly since the blockade of fuel from India was still restricting supplies.
Tuesday 1st March

I would say 'deluxe' was stretching the meaning, as was 'air-conditioned' since it was switched off after a couple of hours, no doubt to save on fuel. After a long 18 hour journey, I arrived in Kathmandu sustained only by a packet of biscuits and some mango juice, having been warned not to touch the food at the meal stops.  The delay was partly due to a huge traffic jam as we climbed into the Kathmandu valley. It took another 2 hours to get to Godavari where I would be staying for a few days.

I was surprised to see little earthquake damage in the capital, but realise that the old buildings and temples would have been hardest hit, and the poorly built houses of the poorest would have suffered most.

I've been the guest of the Jesuit Community here at St Xavier's for the past 6 years, having first come to the nearby Ashram in 2004. The Community were given the Rahner's old summer palace in the early 1950s, when the Jesuits were asked to found a school. As a result of the earthquake it is no longer safe, and it is possible it will have to be demolished.

I've told the story in a previous blog, but the first Jesuit here was Fr Moran, an American who was a keen radio ham with a call sign 11 Mickey Mouse. He managed to bring with him what must have been a huge valve operated transmitter-receiver which, from this very building, sent the news to the outside world of Hilary and Sherpa Tensing's conquest of Everest!

At that time, the Jesuits will have been educating the privileged classes of Nepal, but they have since focussed their work on providing schooling for the poor, the majority being Hindu, with Christians, Buddhists and Muslims in the minority. 

Wednesday 2nd March

After breakfast, I took a walk down to the village to visit the local bee-keeping workshop, and was warmly welcomed by Sanu Bhai Basel, the owner, who showed me the hives and foundation he makes and sells. It seems domestic beehives here are not dissimilar to those we use in the UK. I agreed to come back tomorrow to find out more.

I've decided to go to Pokhara on Friday to visit Victor who runs a day centre for adults and children with learning disabilities, He was the Principal here when I first visited Godavari. So Ratan, the Tai Kwando gold medalist who works here and who was our driver and guide when I came with a group in 2013, took me on the back of his bike to Kalanki to get a bus ticket - as if I needed another bone-shaking experience!

Then I met Binod, my friend and interpreter, over a coffee and pakora in the Jamal cafe, where we caught up with news and discussed the water filter system we are due to install at the Mahjkhanda School. We plan to go there a week on Saturday. 

Coming back to Godavari, we saw the huge queues of motor bikes waiting for petrol. Binod had to wait two days for his latest fill-up. Can you imagine it.

Thursday 3rd March
Outside the residence where I'm staying, I noticed a small bed of plants with ayurvedic properties, and was prompted to visit the Botanical Gardens just round the corner from the Ashram here. Dipak, the manager, was very welcoming and mentioned there were two horticulturists from the Edinburgh Botanial Gardens, working on a new scheme of native Nepali plants. Since I last visited in 2008, the gardens have developed greatly, and the new garden being developed is really impressive.

I was able to talk to David and Neil, who were doing the planting, and Nye, the graphic designer of the information boards, about their project which is to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Memorandum of Understanding between Nepal and Britain. It would seem this is the reason for Prince Harry's forthcoming visit to Nepal. But plans for him to open the garden have fallen through. However, it is going to be an impressive planting scheme when the plants have matured a bit.

The weather here is warm, but the atmoshphere is misty, so I am unlikely to see the Himalayas until I reach Mahjkhanda, and even then it is not guaranteed!
Godavari is a great place to stay as it's on the edge of the Kathmandu valley (1,300m) and about 200m higher up so away from the worst of the pollution. 

Friday 4th March

Up at 6.00 for an early breakfast, then a bike ride with Ratan to Kalanki on the ring road to catch the bus to Pokhara which leaves at 8.00. I'm getting the bus which drops me just round the Corner from Sishu Bikas Kendra, the day centre for children and adults with learning difficulties which I visited in 2012 when Cap Miller was here. It's a great project, as anyone handicapped in Nepal, as in India, is normally hidden away as the parents think they are to blame. 

The journey was pretty uneventful, and not being a tourist bus, stopped frequently to drop of parcels/newspapers and collect some organic ginger from a grower en route. I eventually got to my destination at 3.30!  

I'm the guest of Victor, who was Principal at Godavari School when we first met, and Ignatius. Victor was the first Jesuit to go to Deonia, Jhappa in East Nepal, where I have recently visited, and was telling me how he went alone 18 years ago to start the mission, overseeing the building of the school, against initially much local resistance from the local community, and obstruction from the Tea Factory owner. The tea workers used to get 50 rupees a day (c. 50p) but now get 210 (£1.40) which keeps them trapped in poverty, as they live on tea estate land, in very basic dwellings. 

Two Hungarian cyclists turned up last night, looking for accommodation, so were given a couple of rooms here. They started in June last year and have come via Turkey, Georgia and Pakistan covering 13,000 km so far, with the intention of travelling round the world. I take my helmet off to them.

Saturday 5th March

I'm staying in the guest room on top of the house and would normally be able to see stunning views of Fish Tail and the Annapurnas, but they are covered in mist and the weather looking very unpredictable.

Took a walk down town to the Lakeside but was caught in an incredible electric storm with rain and hailstones, so took refuge in a local cafe. With any luck it should clear the air.

Walking down from Bagale Tole revealed another side to Pokhara than the tourist strip beside Lake Phew. Men were playing Carron, a board game of sliding counters akin to pocket billiards and kids playing table tennis on an improvised table with bricks as their net. Basic shops of every variety serving the local community with the contrast of a western style bathroom store selling modern earthenware, and one whose sole product was balls of string. 

Hindu temples punctuate the route, some embracing the trunk of a large tree, others built pergola style in red brick with bronze bell at the entrance. Stacks of sugar cane are appearing everywhere as Pokhara prepares for Maha Shivaratri, the Hindu festival celebrated annually in reverence of the god Shiva. It is believed to be the day Shiva married Parvati.
The sugar cane is plunged into a bonfire, then whacked on the ground to make a load explosion. What fun!

These few days have been a chance to relax a bit and indulge in the luxury of reading, and having siestas.

I decided to go back to Kathmandu on Tuesday so as to give time to prepare things for Mahjakhanda.

Sunday 6th March

Still the mountains are shrouded and the rain clouds are gathering again. 

I was invited to visit the Montissori school for infants at the Jyoti Centre, about 20 minutes walk from here, run by the Cluny congregation of Sisters. Never having really understood the Montissori principles, I was really impressed how 2 - 5 year olds were grasping simple tasks and concentrating on various activities without a great deal of supervision. Again, they struggle to finance it as the majority of children taught here are from the poorest of families, and they have to employ quite a number of teachers, with overheads of c. £1,200 a month, but what a start to life these kids are getting. 

This evening there was a prelude to Shivaratri with a huge party being staged just outside here on the road by the temple. Men dressed in various guises with masks and long dresses danced the night away with drums, cymbals, and singing till 2.00 am. 

Monday 7th March

At last! The mountains were radiant in the early morning light. This was worth the wait. From Pokhara, you can see Machapuchare (otherwise known as Fishtail) flanked by North and South Annapurna. This is the view of Fishtail from my rooftop room.

The photo doesn't really do the view justice, but it gives you an idea!

Tuesday 8th March

Bus from Bagale Tole, Pokhara to Kathmandu. A better ride and some people from the parish as company. Still long queues on the way up to the valley, so back by 3.00. A bus to Sadobato on the ring road, then a microbus to Godavari.
Once you know the routine here, travel by bus/micro costs very little. The cost is being crushed and bent double. The best way to travel is by Green bus, run by the Government, where seats are more available.

The Wi-Fi in the residence here is not working, so these blog posts are less possible at the moment, and when I go to Majhakhanda on Friday/Saturday, there is no internet for a week.

Wednesday 9th March

When I was in Maheshpur, in east Nepal, I offered to help find a bell for the church when back in Kathmandu, so today I visited Patan Industrial Estate where there is a foundry. 
A fascinating collection of craft industries, from rug making and wood carving, to jewelry making. The wood carving showroom wasn't doing much business today!

I guess with a significant drop in tourist business - one person I met claimed it was down 50% - these business really struggle to make ends meet.

I eventually tracked down the foundry and met the two brothers who now run the business. They use the lost wax method and I had a detailed tour of the process. A full size bell is first moulded out of wax with all the intricate detail in relief. 

It's then covered with layers of a fine mixture of clay before being covered with a mixture of clay and dung, with a hole for the wax to escape. When set, the clay is then heated and the wax is 'lost' from the mould, after which brass or bronze is poured in.

The cast bell is then finished by hand. The process takes two months. It seems bronze, although 40% more expensive, gives a better tone when rung.

The bell illustrated here weighs around 35 kg!

As I left, three huge sacks arrived, containing raw beeswax which is vital for the casting process. So the bees don't only help to pollinate!

I then went to New Road to meet Binod and plan the trip to Mahjakhanda. Ishan also came to discuss setting up a library in Mahjakhanda Government School. He has done this for a number of other schools around Nepal including one in Tipling where I first met him last year.

Friday 11th March

Got the micro into Langankel then a Green bus to New Road to get some money changed at the Bank of Nepal. Met Binod at his college then went on a hunt for the materials for the water filter system. Managed to get 2 dexion style shelving units which had to be dismantled while we waited, then loaded onto a bicycle rickshaw and taken to the bus to Chapagaun where Binod lives. We followed the bus on the bike!

Then in Chapagaun we bought buckets, plastic piping, connectors, and a 200 litre header tank, all of which we managed to get onto the truck which was leaving for Chapeli where they would be left at the ropeway station.

It was great to see Binod's family again, and to stay the night with them all in readiness for an early start for Majhakhanda the next morning.

Friday 18th March

Just returned back to Chapagaun after an amazing week in Majhakhanda. The school had a 2 day programme of celebrations for its 50th Anniversary. We managed to set up the water filter system but due to delays in getting the header water tank up on the ropeway, another visit will be required to commission the system.

I now have to rely on a borrowed computer so uploading of pictures will be difficult, but I'll try to get some up.

When I get more time, I'll expand on the last week's events. Meantime, bye for now.