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Update and Happy Jewish New Year

NEPAL | Monday, 6 October 2008 | Views [747]

Greetings from Kathmandu!

While I had planned to have written a number of updates so far, I have had very little free time so this is a combined first update and Jewish New Year greeting. Please enjoy the attached pictures which I'll refer to during this update.

I am in Nepal on a Jewish study and volunteering program called Tevel b'Tzedek. A little about the group: there are 20 participants on the program. Including me there are three Americans and one Australian, and the rest are Israeli. Most of the participants are between 20 and 30 but there are also a few older participants. There is a mix of religiously observant and secular members of the group.

The first three weeks of the program were more focused on study. For two weeks we had 3 hours of Nepali lessons every morning and lectures about environmentalism, globalization and poverty, Nepali history, politics, and culture, Judaism, and other related topics. During this time we were based in Kathmandu. The city suffers from horrible air pollution due to its placement in a valley and the large amount of cars traversing (mostly idling in traffic on narrow badly paved roads) its roads and its main river, the Bagmati, is horribly polluted (see picture).  The political situation is interesting - the Maoist rebel party, after overthrowing the king, won a plurailty in Nepal's first (relatively free) democratic election and is in the process of putting together a constitution while trying to run the country. Meanwhile there are often protests and strikes which can shut down all transportation (see the photo of a student union poster; the student union struck a few weeks ago to protest the killing of a civilian by the police). However, there is much beauty as well. Our house is very close to the Swayambhou Buddhist temple (see pictures) which is very beautiful and in a less central neighborhood with better air and nice views of hills. There is much religous richness - Buddhists, Hindus, and other smaller religious groups coexist in apparent harmony - and the food is great. Two major dishes are dhal bhat (a mix of rice, lentil stew, and a vegetable curry) and Mo Mo (dumplings with a tasty spicy sauce). While in Kathmandu we also saw a little of the other problems that it confronts, such as street children, general poverty, and slums.

Many of Kathmandu's problems come from the stresses of rapid population growth due to the influx of people from villages. This is a problem experienced by many cities in non-industrial countries. So in the third week we went to the village of Suspa to try to understand what is going on in the villages. Suspa, because of the bad one-lane roads (for both ways, it's "exciting" when buses pass each other), is about an eight-hour bus ride from Kathmandu. The poorer residents of Suspa can only support themselves on their own land for 3-6 months a year. For the rest of their income they sharecrop and most of the men work outside the village – in Kathmandu, India, or further away.

I really enjoyed my time in the village. I and another member of the group were hosted by a village family. While communicating with the family (exclusively in the little Nepali we had learned) was difficult, we managed to communicate minimally (often I pulled out my pocket Nepali guide to look up words mid-sentence). The family was very nice and the local children who played together in the morning seemed innocent and pure. Yet we knew that the family must suffer from the fact that their father works in Kathmandu and thus is rarely home (see picture of me with the family).

I've decided that I'll be doing my volunteering in Suspa. I've decided this because it's beautiful (see pictures), because the air is clean (as opposed to Kathmandu's polluted air), and because I feel like supporting the villages is the best, most sustainable way to address poverty in Nepal (and elsewhere). Addressing the problems of Kathmandu will be temporary if the stream of poor villagers continues to the city.

There will be eight participants and two staff volunteering in the village. We will be working with Educate the Children (ETC; www.etc-nepal.org) Half of us will be focusing on education and the other half – including me will be focusing on agriculture in order to maximize the villagers' ability to feed their families healthy food. I and two other participants will be visiting vegetable gardens which ETC has helped the village women plant by their homes. We will be ensuring that the gardens are growing well and providing advice and help as needed. Of course, since I don't know much about gardening, we will be receiving some training before starting. While I don't know what to expect, I hope this will be an interesting and helpful project. Either way, I'm excited about the prospect of hiking around the beautiful village every day.

The Jewish New Year began Monday night I observed the New Year with the rest of the group in Kathmandu. We joined the Chabad Jewish center for prayers and some meals. Because there are in this season many Israeli backpackers in Nepal, there were many people at the prayers and meals so there was a good group for the intense prayers of the New Year.

It is customary around the Jewish New Year to reflect on one's behavior in the past year and try to mend wrongs done. While this type of impersonal letter is not a great way to express this kind of message, I would nevertheless like to take this opportunity to ask from all of you for forgiveness for anything I might have done to hurt or insult you during this past year. I preemptively forgive all of you for anything you might have done to hurt me.

Happy Jewish New Year and hope to see everyone soon,

Ben Bokser

Tags: ben bokser, israel, israeli, jewish, kathmandu, nepal

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