Camellia Travels the World: Children and Youth First

December 5, 2019

On one of our last days in Nepal, we went to a very special school on the outskirts of Lalitpur. This school is called Life Vision Academy (LVA). As someone who is passionate about children’s education and quality of education, I found this place to be a safe haven for children.

LVA is a private boarding school for underprivileged children in Nepal. Some kids are from marginalized groups and lower castes, some are from remote areas that have no access to education, some have parents with economic challenges that cannot afford sending children to school. LVA caters to these families and offers them an opportunity for quality education.

Currently, there are 86 students in total, from pre-school to 10th grade (in Nepal, 10th grade is the end of secondary education). Each grade is about 8 to 10 students, though in 10th grade, there are only 4 students. Thanks to the small class sizes, all kids get the best care and attention from teachers. The children live in dorms with 6 didi (“elder sisters” in Nepali), have balanced diet plans, and most importantly, receive an excellent quality of education.

The Life Vision Academy in Lalitpur, Nepal. It is situated at the foot of a mountain. Thus, children often go on excursions to learn about the beauty of nature and get inspiration from nature. For example, they will look at caterpillars and learn that modern train structures is based on these tiny insects.

As we were walking into the school, many young children ran to meet us. “Hello!” I waved at a little boy in the Grade-1 classroom. “Hello,” he put down his toy and gave me a big smile, “nice to meet you!” Seeing his innocent face, I felt pure happiness from the bottom of my heart.

Radha came to guide us. She is one of the first graduates from LVA and has stayed to educate younger ones. Radha led us walking around the campus, visiting classrooms, dorms, the dining room, and patiently answered our endless questions. The classrooms were all set up differently and decorated creatively. Colorful posters were hanging on the walls, introducing different religions in the world. Radha introduced that every week, they have a competition of classroom decoration among all grades; this week’s theme was world religion. These children are from different religious backgrounds: Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. Thus, they learned from each other about different values and traditions in different religions.

On the pathway to dorms, there were some little squares of gardens. “These are gardens for different classes,” she explained, “we teach our kids how to care for plants.” At the back of the school building, we also found a small farm. The school has been growing vegetables itself to be more self-sustainable. All these aspects of learning beyond the traditional curriculum expand the horizon of school education.

Meet the school mascot – TIGON.

Finally, Haushala finished another busy day and came to meet us. She is the founder-director of Children & Youth First (CYF), an NGO that has been support LVA for over 10 years. We sat in the dining room, and she started recounting the story behind the foundation of CYF and its connection with LVA.

In 2008, Haushala and her friend were volunteering at an orphanage in Kathmandu. After working with the children for a couple months, they brought gifts for the kids, such as stationery, blankets, toys, etc. However, when they went back to visit the children, these gifts were nowhere to be found. The children told the two girls that the workers took away everything and said that it was all kept in closets. The girls realized that this orphanage is just another corrupt and exploitative institution. Immersed in fury, they contacted the local government to shut it down overnight and rescued all 14 young children. Suddenly, two 21-year-old young women with 14 homeless children, what should they do next?

They looked for schools that would be able to take the kids in, yet it seemed that everywhere was a dead end until they found LVA, a school founded in 1997 for underprivileged children. The founder Prema Zimba accepted the kids with open arms, under only one condition: Haushala has to provide food for the children. Thus, she founded Children & Youth First (CYF) and committed to fundraising for these children and others alike.

I quietly sat there listening to her incredible story, and then, I started reflecting on myself: as a 21-year-old young adult, would I ever have the courage to do what Haushala had done? I fantasize that I could be a hero like her; yet, the real answer is I don’t know. It is such great responsibility and dedication that even Haushala joked that as a 31-year-old woman now, she would probably have second thoughts in that situation. Well, the point of the story is not to hunt down abusive institutions or burn the system down, but to see how individuals and grassroots organizations can bring wonderful changes to people’s lives.

Throughout my program, I have been learning about and contemplating “Human Rights vs human rights”. And to be bluntly honest, I used to dream for a job at the United Nations, researching and making proposals to states to promote and protect Human Rights. In my mind, those giant international organizations were the ultimate resolutions for the world’s problems. Yet, after learning about many grassroots organizations like CYF, I started to see the ignored contribution from the bottom-up. CYF believes that every child has the right to quality education, thus, the organization dedicates itself to sustain and prosper LVA and directly works with young children. What if, I keep pondering, social change is more effective from the bottom-up? What if the people are the resolution instead? Or maybe, the institution and the people can work together to tackle human rights issues. Well, that is the question.

(To learn more about CYF, please check out: http://cyfnepal.org/ )


Madelyn In TCI: Final Exams

December 4, 2019

This week was a bit of a marathon with our final exams. Our classes on this program end early, and the last few weeks are entirely focused on our directed research projects, which is exciting! But it also means that there is a lot of information squished into a small amount of time for our classes, and that can be a bit stressful and intense. On Tuesday we had our Environmental Policy test, which was open note… so easy, right? WRONG! It was 17 open-ended questions and four essay questions, and we had four hours. Needless to say, it was not my best writing. It was rather frustrating because I knew the information, but I didn’t have enough time to write properly and demonstrate my knowledge. In the afternoon we had our final for Marine Resource Management, which was a presentation we had been working on for several weeks. My group’s task was to develop a proposal for mass market tourism on the island of South Caicos, redesigning the protected areas of the island and explaining how we will feasibly develop the island to sustain 4,000 tourists per week. The irony of the entire project was that absolutely none of us would ever want to do that. South Caicos, in its rural, undeveloped state, has stolen a piece of all of our hearts. We’ve made friends with the locals and would never want to ruin their private paradise by introducing an influx of so many visitors on the island. Regardless, we made a presentation on it, and tried to create hypothetical policies to mitigate the effects. I think that we did well, but we haven’t gotten grades back yet!

After a few days of directed research work, we also had our Marine Ecology final. The final was scheduled from 9am-5pm, which seemed pretty daunting, but none of us thought it would actually take that long. The first half of the exam was closed-book and I had studied well. I was able to regurgitate all the information about the effects of hurricanes on coral reefs, the root structure of sea grass, and the different effects of parasites on fish behavior. I finished that part within an hour and began the open-note section. Our task was to design a 20-minute presentation on Mangrove Soil, a topic never covered in our course. Since the internet was down all week, our professor provided us with a folder of scientific papers on a variety of subjects to do with mangroves and relevant pictures. While reading through the papers, I learned a lot! I learned that some crabs love to eat mangrove leaves and will actually store leaves in their dens until they become rotten. Apparently, the tannin in fresh leaves are too bitter, and the crabs like the taste after they’ve decayed. I learned that mangroves can save lives by blocking the majority of the destruction from tsunamis, essentially sacrificing themselves. What I found particularly frustrating though, was that I didn’t have enough time to put everything that I learned into the presentation, and it certainly didn’t look nice. At 4:59 I added a theme to my slides and threw in two pictures, then submitted it.

Jumping off the dock at Regatta.

By 5:10 I was running out of the center with a bunch of my fellow students. We ranted our way to the nearest beach, all of us venting the same frustrations from our finals. When we arrived at the beach, we ran/fell into the water and collectively screamed under water, then swam over and climbed onto the dock. Jumping off the dock was exactly what I needed in that moment, and it just seemed to entirely release all of the stress and frustration from the entire week. Regardless of how our finals had gone, at least they were over now and we knew we had done as best as possible. Now we just have directed research to look forward to!

Sunset on the boats.


Camellia Travels the World: Mid-Semester Break!

November 22, 2019

After two months of learning, we finally had a break! We were so lucky to enjoy our mid-semester break in Nepal. Some students decided to stay in Pokhara and relax with serenity; some took an adventure, going trekking and reveling in beautiful scenery; I, on the other hand, invited my parents to Nepal and explored the country with them.

As you may know, Nepal is a very diverse country. It has 126 ethnicities and more than 100 indigenous languages. It is the origin of Buddhism and predominated by Hinduism. Nepal is situated between China and India, and its geographic diversity is also a main reason to attract world travelers. Because of our limited time, we planed to visit three major places: Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Chitwan.

Kathmandu

In Nepal, especially in Kathmandu, you can find “a temple every 5 steps and a stupa every 10 steps”. Kathmandu, as the capital of Nepal, has such a rich history and culture. There are numerous places to visit in Kathmandu, and some top attractions are Boudhanath Stupa, Pashupatinath Temple, Monkey Temple, and Kathmandu Durbar Square. Besides visiting these sites, I find it also fun to wander in neighborhoods, observing people’s routine rituals, appreciating community worshipping temples, and enjoying exclusive street art.

Family photo at the Kathmandu Durbar Square. Unfortunately, a large portion of buildings was damaged by the 2015 earthquake, but reparation work is in active process. I sincerely hope to see the Durbar Square in its original beauty soon!

 

Street art in Patan. Graffiti is such a beautiful way to express opinions and appreciate cultures. In Kathmandu, one can find incredible artworks on walls anywhere. Stop and look at them!

 

Pokhara

Another popular destination is Pokhara, for its magnificent view of the Himalayas and the natural beauty of mountains and lakes. On Saturday morning, we went kayaking in Fewa Lake, which used to be a part of the royal summer palace. In the midst of the lake, there is a Hindu temple on a tiny isle, where villagers row boats to the temple and perform rituals. We went to the island without knowing about Saturday practice, and we are so fortunate to see many believers come to the temple to worship.

My mom and I in the middle of Fewa Lake.

In addition to the landscape in Pokhara, one can also visit the Shanti Stupa on Anadu Hill. Shanti is a Sanskrit word meaning peace, and thus, the stupa is also known as the World Peace Pagoda in Nepal. It is a symbol of collaboration among Nepal, Japan, Thailand, and Myanmar. When one enters the space, one can find a sign requesting to keep silent and enjoy the tranquility. I walked in, taking off my shoes and going up to the second tier. The white pagoda has two tiers for tourists and religious visitors to circumambulate (a little tip: when circumambulating a stupa, walk clockwise). As I was strolling down, I stopped here and there to examine statues given from all parts of the world as well as the Annapurna mountain line across from the pagoda. Standing still in the midst of everything, I felt the ultimate peace and transcendent grace of nature and humanity.

Chitwan

On the India-Nepal border, there is a preserved area for wildlife. Chitwan National Park is famous for its biodiversity, for rare mammals like Bengal tigers and one-horned rhinos. I especially enjoyed the options of ecotourism. We went canoeing in the river and walking in the jungle. When the guides were preparing us for the jungle walk, they taught us techniques to protect ourselves from rhinos. (They really got me nervous for a moment 😂😂) Following the guides, we started meandering in grasslands. Slowly, we approached a small pool, where a mommy rhino and her baby were chilling. They looked at us for a few seconds and then turned their heads away, and we took some photos silently and continued our journey. The route was not so exciting for a long while, and suddenly, a giant rhino was right in front of us chewing (actually devouring) grass. This was a truly intense moment; the guides whispered to us to freeze, and they held the bamboo sticks tightly. The rhino spotted us yet did not move at all. After a minute or two, we quietly rushed behind his back and left. One little regret was that we only found tigers’ footprints; nevertheless, it was such an extraordinary adventure.

Another choice of touring is to take a jeep safari ride. The National Park is massive, and thus, this is a popular choice for exploration.

We spent a whole week touring in Nepal, yet, I still felt that I have seen too little. Luckily, Nepal is a neighbor of China, and I will definitely find a chance to return and experience more. I hope this blog can pique your interest in visiting this treasure of a place. And if you do, I wish you the best of luck to spot a Bengal tiger 😉


A Deep Dive

November 21, 2019

This morning I had a deep dive with just one other girl and a waterfront staff. It was lovely to dive with only two people, especially because we were all friends. Communication underwater is sometimes very difficult, since words can’t be used and it can be hard to get somebody’s attention without the ability to yell out their name. For small groups though, it gets much easier to understand everybody and know where all dive members are throughout the dive. Quite shortly after descent, I grabbed my dive buddy and excitedly put the side of my hand against my forehead to sign “Shark!” Sometimes I get a little too excited with this signal and end up wacking my head repeatedly with my hand. A black tip reef shark was swimming along the drop-off in front of us.

We watched as it swam away, and then looked at each other and danced underwater. Seeing sharks never seems to get old. Then we descended along the wall of the drop-off. Seeing the corals at these depths was absolutely amazing. At shallower depths, corals tend to form in mounds or boulders, but at deeper depths, they grow in flat plates to maximize the light they receive from the surface. As we were swimming along the wall, the distinct line of difference was so fascinating! The wall turned into a slight overhang and corals of various fluorescent colors covered the surface in strange patterns. Bright purple sponges hung down like alien stalactites, and a lionfish was tucked inside one of the corners of the rocks, its black and white striped fins drifting slowly with the current. Looking down, I saw two humongous orange and black crabs, at least two feet across! I wanted to swim down to look at them closer, but remembered to check my depth. The perfectly clear water of the Caribbean makes it difficult to remember just how deep we actually are, and I was shocked to realize I was already at 100 feet, the maximum depth for recreational diving.

Diving

As we swam along further, we noticed a nurse shark swimming along the wall towards us. I always enjoy seeing nurse sharks – they seem so sweet and harmless. Sharks really get a bad reputation in general. Here, we are a bunch of environmental nerds and seeing a shark usually makes our day!

Being relaxed for the dive made it a lot easier, and my air consumption was very low: I still had a third of a tank left when we ascended! Having such a good dive always puts me in a great mood for the rest of the day, and I feel very fortunate to be able to get in the water every day here.


Madelyn In TCI: Another Perspective

November 11, 2019

This morning I woke up at 6 am for a bit of peace before classes. The sun was just beginning to rise: plum clouds towered against a peach backdrop, a silver crescent moon still shining high in the sky. Our first class was presenting our results from surveys that we did the week before on Providenciales (or Provo, as the locals call it). We went along the beach and shops hoping to find tourists willing to fill out our one-page survey. The experience taught me sympathy for anybody who approaches me asking to fill out a survey in the future, because it wasn’t always fun. Fortunately, a lot of the people we asked were very friendly and didn’t mind taking a few minutes to fill it out. My group was investigating tourists’ willingness to learn about environmentally friendly choices while traveling.

We found that most tourists were very interested in learning more about making simple yet impactful decisions they can make for the environment, and that most hotels and resorts aren’t providing this information to their guests. Tourism can be very harmful to the local ecosystems, mainly due to lack of knowledge. For example, most tourists don’t know that standard sunscreen has chemicals that are harmful to coral reefs. Worse, the brand “Reef-Safe” sunscreen still contains oxybenzone, which is the primary damaging ingredient. If you’re looking for a sunscreen that is actually safe for the environment, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the best active ingredients. Presenting our results to our classmates was interesting, and we recommended that hotels and resorts begin providing their guests with more eco-friendly information to mitigate the impact that tourism typically has on the environment.

The beach in Provo.

After lunch, we had class at 2 pm. Our professor and all of us were fairly exhausted from the previous days so we watched “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” a film that takes aspects of our culture that we take for granted and turned it into a bit of a parody, showing the absurdity of everything. I would highly recommend the movie; it’s a good laugh but also subtly introduces deep philosophical arguments.

After, we had a bit of a break, so I took a walk to the Boiling Hole. The Boiling Hole is in the center of the Salinas, where they used to collect salt. It is a hole where water rises during the high tide and goes down during low tide. The islanders built a cement wall with a door around it, and they used it to control the amount of saltwater in the Salinas to optimize salt collection. Now it is a historical site on the island and a peaceful place to sit and think. The walk typically features flamingos and many other migratory birds that birdwatchers find interesting, but I don’t know many of their names.  

After dinner we went out to the basketball tournament. Once a year, South Caicos hosts a basketball tournament against teams from the other islands, and the community is very proud of their team. Rightly so, South crushed the team from Provo, the mainland, 86-0 the first night! Even though I’m only a visitor here, I felt a sense of pride and satisfaction to watch South win. These are same kids I help weekly with math homework, who’s high school is still being rebuilt after the hurricane two years ago, who face more challenges in their young life already than I can even imagine. Yet despite that, they won so completely against teams from much more privileged places in the TCI.

Sunset over the Sea.


Camellia Travels the World: I Wish You All the Happiness

November 6, 2019

Time flies so fast! We already departed Chile and came to our third destination, Nepal. We come, again, at the best time for celebration. Navratri is a ten-day celebration in the autumn for harvest after the monsoon season. Dashain is the tenth day and the biggest day of the festival.

On the ninth night, there is a mask dance. Only selected community members can perform this. Once they put on masks, it is believed that they are possessed by gods. They start dancing from streets, going around neighborhoods, until they reach the Durbar Square in the center of the town.

We were lucky to catch the tail end of the festival and spend time with our host family. After an exhausting day of celebration with other family members, our host parents came home early and performed the whole ritual for us. As they were preparing, I snuck in to watch the process. One crucial element in Hinduism is Tika. Elders put tika on the forehead of younger relatives to bless them with abundance in the upcoming years. The red also symbolizes the blood that ties the family together. Each family has its own “recipe;” generally, one would mix rice, yogurt, and red coloring from roses to make tika.

Me getting tika from our host father.

After everything was set, we went in pairs, kneeling on the mats in front of our host parents. Our host dad put tika onto our foreheads to give us blessings and a black mark to protect us from evil. Then, he said a prayer in Nepali, which could roughly be translated as: “I wish you all the happiness, health, luck, and all good things happen upon you.” At the end, he also patted our heads. Then, our host mom gave us a handful of things: new paper money, a new coin, a fruit, and some sweets. These symbolize good harvest and wealth.

Family Photo. In the front are our host parents, and in the back are our host siblings .

Having this cultural experience was already incredibly amazing; yet, something even more miraculous happened: the Kumari (living goddess in Hinduism) came to our neighborhood to give blessings.

To be named a Kumari, a young girl has to pass dozens of tests to prove her righteous deity. For example, she should have never shed any blood (got any scar) or lost any teeth. She should not be afraid of evil. To test her bravery against evil, the candidate will be put into a dark room with masked men dancing around and heads of animals illuminated with candles. If she expresses any fear, she will be ruled out. Once a girl becomes a Kumari, she will stay in Kumari Ghar, a palace in the center of the city, and perform rituals for the disciples.

Kumari rarely comes out of the palace, but only for special occasions. In the past, Kumari would go to the king’s palace to perform rituals for royalty. After the abolishment of monarchy, she has been paying visits to the neighborhood of the descendants. Four families in our neighborhood are connected with the king, including my host family. Thus, she came to our neighborhood and stayed in the house of the senior member in the community.

Patan Durbar Square at night.

At nine o’clock at night, she was carried into the community by her father. Many children ran to meet the Kumari. They worshiped her by touching her feet, and some put her feet onto their heads, getting blessings. Then, she was brought into the house and closed the door. My host brother said that the Kumari had to perform a series of rituals secretly. After a moment, her father came to re-open the door to the line of people waiting to receive blessings.

It is a mental juggling practice for me to comprehend the role of the Kumari. From a western point of view, the role of Kumari is so radically against individual’s rights: she has no freedom of movement as she cannot walk; she cannot talk to anyone other than her family; she used to not receive any education (now there will be a private tutor for her); and she “retires” once she receives her first period. Yet, for Nepalis, the Kumari is the manifestation of the divine female energy. She is the living vessel of Goddess, as she embodies innocence, courage, and spirit. So, should we appreciate the role of Kumari as a cultural and religious tradition or critique it with our western “civilized” ideologies?

Anyway, this was a once in a lifetime experience, and I truly appreciate being able to participate in this celebration.

Another important element of the festival is gambling family members will gather and play cards together. By the way, I won enough money for a meal!


Madelyn In TCI: Exploring the Islands

October 30, 2019

This past week we had our mid-semester field trip, which ended on Providenciales (Provo). It was incredible to see the other islands and experience such different cultures within the same country. First, we took a ferry from South Caicos to North Caicos, and the difference between the islands was drastic. North’s soil is much more fertile than the other islands, and it was quite evident when looking at the vegetation. There were so many large trees replacing the basic shrubs that survive the droughts on South. At times it felt almost like a jungle on North, and the mosquitoes were just as bad! We went to Wade’s Plantation, which is a historical site of the oldest plantation in Turks and Caicos. The tour of it was somewhat brief because of the mosquitoes, but we learned more about it later that evening. Apparently, the original historians who looked at the site got EVERYTHING wrong, but made signs around the site labeling each building (incorrectly) that now can’t be taken down as it could damage the structural integrity of the buildings. We also learned that the majority of residents of the TCI have ancestors who used to be enslaved on Wade’s Plantation, or other similar plantations.

After we left Wade’s Plantation, we drove to Mudjin Harbor, on Middle Caicos. The second we saw the water, everybody’s jaw dropped. It was beyond stunning. We went swimming for a while and felt that we were in the most beautiful beach in the world.

Overlook at Mudjin Harbor

After Mudjin Harbor, we headed over to the Conch Bar Caves in Middle Caicos. There are many different species of bats inside, which our guide pointed out to us. They were all very cute and sleeping, so I was guilty shining my light on them. I know I’d be pretty upset if somebody came up to my bed in the middle of the night and shined a bright light on me. We also learned that the cave system had been occasionally used by the Lucayans, the now-extinct natives. We learned later that the Lucayans used the caves more as a punishment for ostracized members, believing that it was connected to the underworld. One room was named the Christmas Room, because it was believed that the Lucayans came in there to celebrate Christmas and sing hymns, due to the wonderful acoustics. Despite the fact that Lucayans would’ve never heard of Christianity. The first historians who tried to define the TCI did not do a very good job, but their misnomers appear to be a bit of a joke now.

We had a little break in the late afternoon to rest at the community center where we would spend the night, then went for dinner and a bonfire at a local’s house. He goes by Naqqi and seems to know everything about all of the islands. Naqqi studied at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, which happens to be where my parents went to college! Sometimes the world feels very small. He told us more about Wade’s Plantation, the Conch Bar Caves, and history of the island in general. It’s amazing how well-informed many of the locals are in their history and culture; talking to them is always a treat and offers a lot more information than any class can cover. I would’ve enjoyed staying to talk to him more about everything, but many of us were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. I had at least 40 bites despite long pants and several reapplications of bug spray, and I was one of the more fortunate in our group. That night we all had a make-shift slumber party on floor mats in the community center. We were all quite dirty and gross, but without a shower available, we consoled ourselves with the understanding that we were all in the same boat. It was a busy, adventurous day. I really enjoyed exploring different parts of the country and understanding more about what happens outside of South Caicos.


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