Arriving in Senegal!

Yesterday, after more than one and 1/2 years of fundraising, planning and immense anticipation, we finally arrived in Senegal. We landed in the country’s capital of Dakar and because we weren’t scheduled to meet with our BuildOn team until the following evening, we decided to stay at a hotel in Dakar, right on the beach. There were several western hotel options in Dakar, but this hotel stood out to us as it was not only right on the beach with a view out to Goree Island, but it also seemed a little more “local” feeling. In the end, we were very happy with our choice, and after such a long journey, it was nice to just chill at the hotel with it’s an idyllic setting, have a nice dinner overlooking the Atlantic and get a good nights sleep.

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The hotel restaurant had a fantastic view!

Our first morning in Senegal was clear, sunny and warm and after a nice breakfast looking out at the sea, we checked out of our rooms and met with a local guide that we had arranged in advance to take us to Goree Island, which is an island about 20 minutes of the coast of Dakar with a very tragic and horrific past. The Ferry terminal was large and very colorful. We were greeted by many women (all beautifully dressed in gorgeous outfits with vibrant colors), asking us where we were from and what our names were. They each then invited us to visit their shop on Goree Island once we got there. We ended up chatting with several of them on the Ferry as well, which was fun!

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Views of Goree Island from the Ferry

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Goree beach

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Ella cracking up on the Ferry as the baby bites her finger!

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Our friends from the Ferry

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From the 15th to the 19th century, Goree Island was the largest slave-trading center on the African coast and it’s where the Portuguese, French, English, and Africans would bring, hold and “process” slaves until it was time to send them off to their final destinations. Our main stop on the Island was a museum that was once one of the “Slaves Houses”. While the white settlers lived comfortably in the upper section of the buildings, the slaves were kept in unimaginable conditions right below them. We were shown small rooms (think jail cells) that would house large numbers of men, women and children in a very cramped space. They were only let out once per day to go to the ocean to relieve themselves.

One of the rooms we saw was set aside for the “breeding women”, where healthy young women were impregnated by the biggest and strongest slaves in order to produce more slaves of value. Apparently, the women were OK being breeders because it meant that they could stay on the Island versus being shipped off to be laborers in who knows where. I guess the fear of the unknown was better than the horrible conditions they lived in.

Slave House

                           The slave traders lived in comfort upstairs while the slaves lived                                                 and perished on the lower level.

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This small cell would hold from 20-30 slaves at a time. 

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According to our guide, it’s been estimated that between 15 and 20 million slaves were “processed” through Gorée over the 3 centuries that it was a slave trade hub, all going out through the “Door of no return” and onto ships bound for far off destinations. Hearing about the details and conditions of this place and seeing this site in person was truly devastating, and there were many tears shed by all of us. It’s unfathomable to understand how humans can be so cruel. We can only hope that better education, more empathy and a true understanding of the history of atrocities such as this, will help to lessen the chances of repeating the past.

Ella in Door of No Return

Evan in door of no return

Evan and Ella in the Door of No Return

Despite Goree’s very tragic past, it’s now a charming island full of artists, friendly people, and colorful houses and shops. We stopped into an artist’s workshop where they did a demo of creating sand art paintings. The artists create beautiful paintings depicting African history using different color sand. Several of us bought some of the paintings.

And of course, there were our friends from the Ferry who insisted we come and visit their shops! A common refrain was “you are my sister, come with me and I will give you the best price!”.  Sure enough, we did end up buying a few items, as there was a lot of pressure selling going on. But it’s all part of the experience and we had fun with it!

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One of the shop keepers we met on the ferry with her beautiful dress!

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After our ferry ride back to Dakar, we piled into our van and headed off to pick up our luggage from our hotel, as well as make a stop in one of Dakar’s historic markets on our way to the town of Saly (about 1 hour south of Dakar on the coast), where we were meeting the rest of our group.

Several of the ladies in our group were interested in potentially getting a colorful local style dress, like the ones we had seen so many beautiful women wearing on the island of Goree. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday and only a small portion of the market was open. After looking at a couple of shops and being shown MANY different styles and fabrics, the consensus was that none of what was shown was fitting the bill of what was desired. So back into the van we went, but just before we left, one of the shop keepers came out with a pile of skirts, which sparked interest in several of our party. Then another pile was brought…..and another….and after probably 20+ minutes of showing new garments to us in the van and negotiating prices (we were told to counter offer 20-25% of whatever they said the price was), several items were purchased!

And again, we were off on route to Saly. The journey was relatively uneventful, other than the occasional waving passengers from other buses on the road and the incredible sunset we saw off in the distance.

Leaving Dakar buses

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Getting off the highway to enter Saly, we were greeted with a vibrant and bustling little coastal town, with lots of restaurants, shops, markets and resorts (this is a big resort area for the French).

Our Hotel was definitely much nicer than expected and very different than the typical grade of hotels that BuildOn uses for pre and post-trek accommodations (not that they’re usually bad) but this one is just a little exceptional, and we appreciated it!

We met our official BuildOn team which included our Trek Leader Dylan, Trek Coordinator Kim and Translators Boubaca and Marie Jo (an incredible team we would soon learn!) for dinner, followed by a short orientation about the village we would be visiting, cultural norms, acceptable behavior, etc. The following morning would include some language lessons after breakfast, and then heading out to the Village of Diokoul. Our adventure was about to begin and we couldn’t wait!

 

 

 

We’re About to Embark On Another BuildOn Adventure!

For a while now I’ve had this nagging feeling in my stomach whenever I think of this blog and have realized that it feels similar to feelings of failure. Now that we’re so close to our Senegal BuildOn trip, leaving the day after Christmas, I’m painfully aware that we haven’t made any updates to our Blog since we completed our Nepal BuildOn trip. The goal had been to keep up with our family travel blog and continue to chronicle our travels and adventures. But we didn’t, which is where the feeling of failure comes from!

However, just recently something dawned on me as I’ve looked back over the last three years since Nepal, which thank goodness has made me feel a little bit better. Maybe we didn’t write down and share details of all of the places we have visited in the last few years, but we have lived and accomplished A LOT during that time! And I think actually making those trips happen and being present for those experiences may be more of an accomplishment than taking the time to Blog about the memories. There have been so many great memories…trips that included visiting family in Northern Ireland and being mesmerized by the Scottish Highlands, spending last new year with our London Friends at the “Cottage”, spending time with family over Thanksgiving in Cancun, and a 25th wedding anniversary trip for Desmond and Roxy to visit the Great Wall (a major bucket list item!) and rural China. 

Great Wall Anniversary

The last 6 months have been even more full for us as a family as Roxy left her long-time job and soon after decided to start her own Marketing Consulting business and Desmond shifted the focus of his Photography business to do more Corporate and Brand photography vs. weddings. With Evan as a Senior in High School and Ella an 8th Grader, both kids (and parents) have been doing many school tours and applications, which has not been an easy feat. But thank goodness we’re just about done with all the applications!

And now as we are less than a week away from heading to Dakar, Senegal to embark on our 2nd BuildOn adventure, we’re just very grateful for having the opportunity to partner with BuildOn again to build a school in a rural village to help break the cycle of illiteracy and poverty.

In fact, we just received more information about the village we will be going to, in order to break ground on the school! The village of Diokoul currently has one temporary classroom (pictured below), which is not suitable for learning and is holding back the village’s 41 students (21 boys and 20 girls) from receiving a proper education. One teacher is trying to teach in this tiny classroom made from sticks and grass. The nearest proper school is a 2 km walk from the village.

Senegal village
The West African coastal country of Senegal is home to more than 15 million people with more than 47% of the population living below the poverty line and more than 48% unable to read and write. The village of Diokoul is a community of approximately 442 people located in the Fatick region. Most are subsistence farmers who rear livestock and grow corn, hibiscus, millet, peanuts and beans.
Senegal map
We can’t wait to be in Diokoul where we will be living with and working alongside the locals, starting the construction of their new school. Once we leave, the villagers will continue to build and finish the school in partnership with local BuildOn teams, and we will get to see photos of the completed school!
We promise to be good about sharing our experiences in Senegal as we did in Nepal, because we want to make sure that the many people who have generously contributed to funding this school can share those experiences as well. We are incredibly grateful for all of the support and will have you all with us in spirit. 
Here’s to many more adventures in 2020!

A life changing experience

 

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It’s safe to say that this has been a life changing experience for all of us, and one that we hope Evan and Ella will walk away from with a great deal of perspective and gratitude. We certainly have. Given the conversations we’ve already had with the kids, it’s clear that this was an impactful experience for them as well and one they will remember forever.

We’re thrilled to have found BuildOn.org, and as we have learned more about the various very worthwhile programs and services they offer to each of the communities they work with (locally and globally!), we are committed to continuing to work with them. We’ve already decided we’d like to sponsor another school, realistically in 2 or 3 years. Although it’s tempting to go to one of the other countries that BuildOn works with, we are leaning towards coming back to Nepal (there’s still many villages in the same region in need of schools) with the side benefit of a visit to “our village” so we can reconnect with our host families and see the completed fruits of our labors!

Getting to Kathmandu and departing Nepal

After our finished school visit, we returned to Dhangadhi to have a really awesome lunch (one of my favorite meals of our time in Nepal) before heading to the airport. Unfortunately, it was REALLY foggy at the Dhangadhi airport, so the plane from Kathmandu couldn’t land. We kept waiting to see if by chance the fog would clear enough for the flight to land, but it never happened. So this left us with 2 choices….A) Wait until tomorrow and hope that the fog clears and the plane can land then….or B) Drive 3 hours to a different airport, where there was a another flight to Kathmandu departing in only a little more than 3 hours, or C) Take an overnight bus (with Helen and Hans!) to Delhi, instead of flying through Kathmandu.

We took option “B” and immediately hit the road. Fortunately, our Trek leaders were able to get us a car and driver, and through BuildOn’s contacts, they were able to get us seats on the plane, even though it was technically already a full flight.

So off we went for a scenic drive through a part of Nepal we had yet to see. There was certainly a bit of stress as we knew that we were going to be cutting it VERY close to get to the airport on time to catch the flight (and we had a morning flight to Delhi the following morning), but it was also really nice to see a little more of Nepal than we would have seen otherwise. We ended up getting to the airport about 5-10 minutes before the plane was scheduled to arrive, and jumped out of the van with our backpacks and RAN in to the terminal (very “Amazing Race” style!).

Fortunately, the flight had been delayed a bit, so we were able to get on the flight and get back to Kathmandu that night…..all thanks to BuildOn and their network of Drivers, travel agents, translators and very competent trek leaders.

The best thing about all of us making this flight was that we were able to all be together for our farewell dinner in Kathmandu that night (except Helen & Hans….sorry guys).

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Waiting to hear if we’ve got any flight options

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Some photos of “traffic” on the street, while we were waiting.

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Van Selfie: us and our awesome Trek leaders Supa and Ryan, plus our translator and                                   local BuildOn staff member, Jharna.

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The above 3 photos were taken out the window of the van during our drive.

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Rushing in to catch our flight only to find out it was delayed!

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Finally on our way back to Kathmandu

Our last morning in Nepal, we woke early. Our flight wasn’t too terribly early, but we really wanted to try to squeeze in a stop at the Boudhanath Stupa on the way to the airport, so that meant we’d need to depart the hotel at least 60-90 minutes earlier than if we were going straight to the airport.

For those that are interested, the Boudhanath Stupa is the largest Stupa in Nepal, was built in the 14th century, is a Unesco World Heritage site and is considered the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.

Anyway, we got there pretty early (about 8am) and it was bustling, with lots of people circling the Stupa as part of their morning prayers.

 

I actually really loved the Bauddha area that surrounds the Stupa, and wished we had more time there. Perhaps it was just the presence of so many, doing their Buddhist prayers, or the early morning light, calmness and freshness in the air, but it felt very peaceful and serene. I also really liked the aesthetic of the buildings creating a large circle around the Stupa…I found it reminiscent of Siena (one of my favorite cities in Italy).

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Of course, anywhere there’s pigeons, there’s someone there exploiting their presence by selling feed.

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As we were heading back to the van to head to the airport, Roxy spotted this scene down an alleyway.

And soon we were on our way to India….a LONG TIME DREAM for Roxy and I!

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Our Air India flight.

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Himilayan foothills with low lying fog in the valleys.

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The Himalayas as seen through a VERY dirty airplane window.

An Unexpected Stop

Fortunately, on the morning that we left the village (with heavy hearts) our Trek leaders had planned a stop in a nearby village where another group built a school last March, and that visit ended up lifting our spirits greatly after our emotional goodbyes with our host families. Again, we were given a warm welcome by the locals and fortunately had the opportunity to visit each of the classes in the three-room school. The first class we visited was the women’s adult literacy/education program. This consists of an 18 month program for the participating women, where they get 2 hours of reading, writing and math per week day. We got to meet the women and sit with them to see what they were studying. Even though going to Nepal to build a school had always seemed to be all about the children that it would benefit, meeting these woman and seeing their smiling faces and hearing about the changes and opportunities that it would provide in their life, gave a whole new benefit to our endeavors.

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Then we headed to the kids classrooms…..and again, the kids were so cute and sweet and eager to show us what English they had learned!

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And Lastly, we all got together outside for a group photo in front of the school, before our departure, and the everyone that was there, saw us on to our bus and on our way.

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Given we wouldn’t be around to see the completion of our village’s school (on this trip at least), we were grateful to see this BuildOn school in action and experience the value that it brings to the entire community. We’re happy to know that the local BuildOn team will continue to work with our villagers and share photos with us every couple of weeks, so we can see the progression of our school build.

Our Departure from The Village

It was our final mornin in the village and time to head back to Dhangadhi Airport where we would be catching our flight back to Kathmandu.

We were asked to meet the group at 7:00am for breakfast so we could get an early start. So we woke up again in the dark (even though we set alarms our families always acted as our wake up call!), grabbed all of our bags and headed over to breakfast. After a quick bite I (Desmond) headed back to take advantage of my last opportunity to take photos in the village. Unfortunately, It was extremely foggy that morning, but as had been the case every other morning (when I had my camera out at the end of Yoga), there was a small entourage of boys that would follow me around, sticking very close, and asking to see what photos I was taking. Being that it was so foggy and dark, I decided to just take some portraits of the boys that had been a part of my morning each day. What surprised me most was they changed from being silly, energetic and boisterous when following me around, to suddenly being serious and stoic when posing for a photo.

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This is my posey

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Another one of my posey before I shot their portraits

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When I returned to the breakfast area, the mood was very somber, as everyone was feeling very emotional. Roxy and her host mom (the sweetest woman ever!) shared quite a few tears throughout the morning, and all of the families had escorted each of their guests to breakfast and hung around until it was time for us to get on the bus. There were LOTS of tears being shed and I don’t think anyone expected there to be such a strong bond built with our host families in such a short time, especially since many of us couldn’t even speak the same language. But the ties clearly go beyond a shared language.

Before getting on the bus though, I really wanted to pull our group back over to the spot I had just photographed the boys in, for an individual portrait of each of us.

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After the portraits, we went back over to the bus and our waiting families. Some more goodbyes and tears were shed and soon we were driving away with heavy, yet full hearts.

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Helen took this photo and as she said…”Beauty in the breakdown”

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I don’t know what’s in the water in this village, but there was a LOT of natural beauty and perfect, white teeth

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Our farewell committee as we drive off

 

 

Our Farewell Ceremony in The Village!

We were told that the villagers were hosting another celebration for us to celebrate our last night in the village. What we didn’t fully realize is that everyone was being dressed up in traditional clothing and make up, including the men. For Roxy and Ella, it was so much fun to be surrounded by nearly a dozen women (our mother, sister, cousins and neighbors) who helped us get dressed and ready. It almost felt like getting ready for a wedding! Desmond and Evan were also dressed up and came over to Roxy and Ella’s home! We ended up taking turns taking photos with our families and each other. This experience is definitely one of our favorites during our time in the village, and one we will remember for a very long time.

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Getting ready for the big celebration!

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Our BuildOn family

Of course, we were running way behind schedule and had to rush over to meet our group. Fortunately it seemed everyone else was in the same boat and running late. So at around 3:00 pm we headed over to the same spot where the welcome ceremony was held. Again, there were several speeches thanking us and bidding us farewell, and several more performances. There were beautiful dances and songs, and one of our favorite performances, which was two of the men doing traditional Nepalese dancing (at least that’s what we were told!) set to Western music. Turns out these two guys were the comedians of the village and their dance was hilarious!

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Heading to the site of the celebration

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We never stopped marveling at the beauty of the villagers!

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Evan and Ella presenting some gifts to the school principal

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The awesome and hilarious village comedians!

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Before the end, a group of men came on with their traditional instruments (and their Manchester United warm up suits), and we were soon being “encouraged” by another group of villagers to dance with them. This will also go down as one of our favorite experiences! Roxy later commented that the style of music and the dancing very much reminded her of the style from the Southern village in Iran where her family is from. So it felt a bit extra special for her!

Once again, MANY selfies were taken. Evan and Ella were grabbed left and right by the local teenagers (and some adults too!) for photos. Actually, all of us were asked to pose for photos and this would prove to be our final experience with local celebrity status.

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After the celebration, we headed back to our homes for our final dinner with our families. We were told by the BuildOn staff to not give our host families the gifts we brought for them until they had a chance to come around and translate for us. It ended up being an emotional time, because we (and they) knew our time in the village was ending. They were very grateful for our gifts, which included a framed family photo of us (as suggested by BuildOn), games, art supplies and a soccer ball for their children, and the solar lanterns, work gloves and water bottles that we brought. Each of our families also presented us with several gifts that were traditional handicraft work. Roxy and Ella’s ‘’sister” made them several handmade small tapestries. Again, we were so grateful for their warmth and hospitality and actually dreaded having to say goodbye in the morning.

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Roxy’s host family, grandparents on the left and host mom on right.

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Roxy and her host mother shared a special bond, even in such a short time.

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Our Final Day On The Work Site

By our last full day in the village, the foundation was completely dug out and it was time to start moving the large rocks from a huge pile off to the side of the site, into the holes we had dug. These rocks varied between about 10 and 80 pounds and once again we were amazed and humbled to watch how the women of the village would carry some of these huge and heavy rocks on their heads. For a long while Desmond was picking up the stones to put on the women’s heads and they would sometimes laugh at him if he offered them too small of a rock (and these “too small” rocks might have weighed 20+ pounds). They would then point at a significantly larger stone that he could barely lift to get up on their head. If he didn’t have a large enough stone handy to offer them, they’d often stack 2 or 3 stones on their head instead.

We were sweaty, dirty and exhausted, while the Nepalese women, still dressed beautifully by the way, made it all look so easy. Their strength was truly inspiring. We wondered why there were so few men working with us, but then realized it was because many of the men were away working outside of the village (and often the country) to earn more money. So the hard work was left to the woman!

We finished our work day as usual, with a final circle of our group. Our Trek guides would always ask if anyone had any questions or comments to share, and usually several people spoke up. This time it was two different villagers, thanking us again for coming to them, working alongside them and helping them build a proper school for their children. Once again, tears were shed and we did our final cheer with many emotions running high.

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Such strength!

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Before heading away from the work site to go have lunch with our Build-on team, we made sure to get a team photo with all the village woman that had set the work bar so high!

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Our BuildOn gang and the amazing village women!

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As we were walking from the work site, back in to the village, we passed the current school and the school kids screamed to us from their classrooms, so of COURSE we needed to get a photo of ALL these beautiful kids that would be taking advantage of the new school that we were building.

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After that, we walked back in to the village and had a quick final lunch (again, we were totally spoiled with the fresh and delicious food made for us!) before heading back to our homes to shower and get ready for the Goodbye celebration, which was scheduled at 2:00pm.

 

 

 

More Time in the Village.

Each day, after our usual morning rituals of Yoga, Breakfast, and 4 hours of hard labor, we had the opportunity to spend time with the villagers. One day after working on the school site we went to visit some of the classrooms at the current school (which was not in the best of shape). It was wonderful to see the kids in the classroom and we had the opportunity to ask them questions and have them ask us questions. One of the girls demonstrated a common game they play (similar to hacky sack but with a ball made up of wound up plastic) and then invited Roxy to try as well. They all got a good laugh from that. 😉

They’re so unbelievably cute and sweet in their uniforms and big smiling, joyous faces, and they seem so eager to learn. It definitely reminded us why we were there!

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After our time in the classrooms and a delicious lunch (and don’t forget, lots of Chai!), we were given the opportunity to learn how to make pottery from some of the village women. The clay was a mixture of different types of mud mixed together along with some finely cut straw thrown in. They showed us how to make the stoves they use to cook over an open fire and bowls. They definitely made it seem easier that it was, but it was a great way to further interact with the villagers and learn more about their daily life.

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After that, we were separated in to two groups (men in one and woman in the other), so we could have a “gender talk” with some of the men and woman of the village, in which they could ask us questions and we could ask them questions. This ended up being one of our favorite activities while in the village. We started out by asking them questions about different aspects of their daily lives, what they enjoyed about their village and what things they would like to see change.

In the female group, we learned that the average age for a woman to get marriage was around 20-22, which is actually older than what most of us expected. And that they no longer did arranged marriages, and that most would “marry for love” but the families had to consent. They also said that their favorite thing was the community and support they had in the village. However, they felt they lacked the opportunity and freedom to learn skills and crafts that would allow them start their own business and make money, hence giving them more freedom.

They also asked the women in our group about our lives in the US. It was interesting because many of their questions (where do we find our community, do we do farming, at what age do we get married) really didn’t have a set answer. We shared the answers for our lives in the Bay Area, but also explained that the US is a very large country and that life is very different depending on where you live.

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The women who participated in our “Gender Talk”

In the men’s discussion, we talked with the elder men about changes in village life and what fears they might have regarding losing their traditional culture. We also learned that their biggest concerns for the village were having clean water and some sort of medical assistance within the village (as there is no doctor or hospital for a very long distance from the village). Many questions about American life were also asked from the men’s side, such as:

“Do Americans grow their own fruits and vegetables?”

“Do you have farm animals inside of your house?”

“When do people generally get married?”

We tried to answer their questions as well as we could, but also had to explain that the US has about 12 times more people and that you can probably fit 100 Nepals within the US, and that the culture of the people of the US varies DRAMATICALLY depending on where you are.

After we were done with the discussions, we headed back to our family homes for dinner, fireside conversation and game playing.

On our last night Roxy and Ella got to have their arms used as a canvas for the teenage cousin who lives next door to do some Henna drawing on. We soon realized that the same was happening with all of the women in our group and that this was to help prepare us for a celebration the next day in honor of our last day in the village!

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Henna done free hand by our “cousin”

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Ella’s arm

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Love the details

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The finished product

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Even our host mom had some Henna done!

Arriving in the village of Nimuwaboji, Nepal

We wanted to share a bit more info regarding Nepal to help set the stage for why we are here and how our efforts with BuildOn Nepal will hopefully be impactful.

Nepal has a population of 28 million people. Although Nepal’s ranking on the UN’s Human Development Index has steadily improved over the last ten years, a quarter of the population remains below the poverty line of US $1.25 a day. Before Nepal’s revolution in 1950, only one child in 100 attended school. Today, the total adult literacy rate in Nepal is just over 50% nationally, but in rural communities the illiteracy rate is still near 80%.

The village Where we’re heading  to is called Nimuwabojhi and is located in the far western region of Nepal in the Kailali district, near the city of Dhangadhi. We’ve learned that there are currently about 182 students enrolled at the current school (102 girls and 80 boys). They currently have 2 proper classrooms and four temporary structures.

While here, we’ll be living along side the Tharu and Kshetri people, where the majority of the people are Hindu and Christian. In this region, most people generate income as construction workers or foreigner laborers in India. Many grow crops such as rice, wheat and maize.

Because of the generosity of everyone who helped us to raised funds for this school, the people of Nimuwabojhi will have increased access to education that will help effect positive change in the lives of children, parents, and grandparents for generations. Each new school helps Nepal increase literacy rates one community at a time.

On the morning of December 31st, after some additional language lessons, we boarded the BuildOn “Party Bus” in Dhangadhi to make the 90 minute journey to Nimuwaboji (the village where we would be building the new school). Before leaving, we decided to take a group photo in our BuildOn shirts and when asked where would be the best place to take a group photo, Desmond suggested we climb on top of the bus (not thinking they would really go for it), but the Trek leaders offered to go up in the hotel balcony several stories up and get a shot from above, while we were on the roof of the bus!

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On the BuildOn Bus ready to head to our village!

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Supachart and Ryan, our Super Star Trek leaders!

En route to the village, we stopped on the side of a rural road for a picnic lunch of delicious Momos (Nepalese dumplings) and Samosas. While having our lunch, we really enjoyed watching the locals going by on their bicycles and Ox carts…and I think the locals that were waiting on the side of the road for their bus, found us very interesting as well! Now this was rural Nepal.

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Helen and Ella. Helen and I actually met right around Ella’s age!

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The villagers waiting on the side of the road for the bus.

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Evan’s just chillin’ out on top of the bus!

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A little entertainment to go with our picnic lunch!

After lunch, is wasn’t long before we turned off the main road to head in to the village. After driving down a narrow dirt road with simple houses on either side, cows in the road, woman carrying large objects on their heads, and locals squatting by open fires, we arrived at the school work site, to see a large crowd of kids and adults waiting for us.

We knew there would be a ground breaking and signing of the covenant (agreement between the villagers and BuildOn for the completion of the school) but we didn’t realize there would be such a warm welcome by the whole village, as well as such an elaborate ceremony (it certainly surpassed our expectations)! The whole village, including dignitaries from ministry of education of Nepal, as well as the principal of the current school came out to thank us.

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Our BuildOn Team

There were many speeches and performances all in our honor. It was incredibly touching because it was clear that the whole community had gone to a great deal of effort to welcome us. They shared their gratitude with us for giving them a new school, and it made for an emotional time for everyone in our group. It’s fair to say that some tears were shed! During several of the traditional dances, our BuildOn group was pulled onto the make shift stage to join in with the locals. It was just amazing!

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Teenage dancers performing traditional Tharu dance

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More dancing

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Young Dancers

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The view from our special tent.

The Nepalese people are incredibly warm and kind, and they exude a certain type of joy that we just don’t see often in America. It was incredible being there with them and watching the activity and beautiful people around us!

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The final part of the ceremony was the signing of the Covenant.  The Covenant is a solemn promise between BuildOn and each village outlining their respective contributions to the projects and embodies the consensus of an entire community and for many of the women in the village, it will be the first time they have been asked to sign their name.

BuildOn contributes the engineering, materials, skilled labor, and project supervision. Each village provides the land, local materials such as sand, and the unskilled labor to build the school. Additionally, every village promises to send girls and boys to school in equal numbers.

This literally meant that all of us, (BuildOn group and every villager in attendance) came up to sign the agreement.

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The local build on team explained the covenant to the villagers before the signing ceremony began. Jharana holds up posters illustrating each step while Priyanka speaks.

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The villagers listening.

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And the signing begins.

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Patiently waiting in line

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After about 4 hours of speeches and performances (we were told it would be 2 hours!) we walked over to the site where the new school would be built. Fortunately it’s right next to the current school.

The dignitaries did a formal blessing of the land and the ground breaking was done. Each of our group was given the responsibility to dig out a bit of earth, using a hoe. Many photos were taken! 😉

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The blessing by our Yogi (in the middle) and dignitaries.

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Evan’s turn to break the ground. Everyone in our group had a turn.

Speaking of photos, one thing that took us by great surprise is the number of phones that the villagers had. Keep in mind, this is a community that does not have running water, and (seemingly) only occasionally has electricity. For example on our first night, our host family had lights in their home. But pretty much each night after electricity was not available, so we relied on lanterns.

Anyway, it was funny to see so many people (especially the teenagers!) with their smart phones, taking photos and videos of us. And as soon as we were accessible we were swarmed by people asking for “selfies”. Oh, and some of the teenage boys were doing non-stop selfies of themselves with a selfie stick. It was just hilarious, and such a crazy juxtaposition of rural and modern life!

I think we were all surprised by this, but loved the opportunity to take photos (we got a bunch as well of course) with the locals. Needless to say, over the next few days we got a crash course in understanding what if feels like to be a celebrity!

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These two and their friends took selfies with each other through most of the ceremony. They had us cracking up 🙂

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The paparazzi!

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After the formalities were over, we got to meet our host families, which were the villagers who had kindly offered to open their homes to us. Desmond and Evan went off to one home as Ella and Roxy went to another….this being because, no one had enough extra room to host all four of us.

Right away, it was clear that Roxy and Ella had lucked out with their host family. We were told to refer to our families as parents, brother and sister, and we needed to learn the appropriate Tharu terms for each. Their host Daiee (mother) was incredibly sweet and was one of the women who had performed in one of the dances. She has the most incredible smile and truly took care of us. The host dad was not there as he worked in India during non-harvest season, as it seems many of the male villagers did to bring in extra money. They also had a 13 year old daughter and a 9 year old son. They also had two 3 month old baby goats, an Ox, a dog and the cutest little puppy!

Desmond and Evan’s host family ended up being related to Roxy and Ella’s, and was just 3 houses down. There was the father, wife (who was very pregnant) and a 3 year old son. They were also very kind, but not as interactive as Roxy and Ella’s family. However, their evenings were spent primarily with numerous kids that lived in nearby houses (mostly nieces, nephews and cousins), that would stop by and play the games we brought and introduced them to (Jenga and Uno).

The same games were also played at Roxy and Ella’s homes, but they got the special treat of sitting around the fire with the family, and the many other family members and visitors who stopped by every evening as well. There were only a couple of the teenagers who spoke a bit of English but overall, but the games proved to be a HUGE hit, evoking so much laughter, smiles and giddiness……all successfully played without needing a common language. Playing games together was the best feeling!

Our accommodations were actually much better than we had expected in that we each received our own rooms, with platforms that we put our sleeping bags on. Given there was no insulation in these homes made with mud walls and dirt floors, and open between the top of the wall and the roof, it got to be incredibly cold at night so we all slept fully clothed each night (some of us even with fleece sweaters, jackets, warm socks and hats on).

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Evan with our in home chicken that we affectionately named “El Diablo” (aka Our last night’s dinner)

And of course, being that there is no running water, there was also no bathroom in the house, just the outhouse, which was a very small room with a squat toilette. Roxy and Ella’s was right next to the house, but Desmond and Evan’s was about 100 feet away around a barn and another small house, on the edge of the field. To use the toilet, you would also have to make sure to stop at the hand pump to pump some water in to a container to take with you and use it to flush your “business” down.

For showering, BuildOn asked each host family to create a make shift shower for us. This basically consisted of a large piece of black tarp that was wrapped around the family water pump (to give us privacy) and a bucket to catch water in. And of course, it was only cold water that came out of that hand pump! We felt bad that they were going to so much trouble for our sake, but the BuildOn staff assured us that the villagers were more than happy to do all this preparation and give up the very limited space in their homes for us as they were very grateful for us giving them a new school for their children.

Again, their warmth and generosity was incredible. Each day after lunch, we would have a discussion about the days events and different topics. One of those days, we talked about the definition of “poverty”.

This community is what westerners would call poor, however they were culturally rich in ways that we completely lack, especially in larger cities, in America. What they lacked was opportunities and the education that would help to create those opportunities in the long run…and that is the essence of why we were there. It was clear though, that the people were happy and had a very solid and supportive community! Ella commented very early on about everyone being so happy and that it would actually be nice to live such a simple life, surrounded by so much family and friends, and all of the animals. We all certainly agreed. Less is often more and it was a great lesson for us to take away from this experience.