From Morocco, I headed back towards the east. It was going to be a long journey, by design, with a couple of layovers for some touristic purposes. I arrived in Munich in late morning. I took the metro into the city to get in touch with my German heritage, which mostly consisted of tasting a variety of Bavarian brews. From Munich, I flew to Amsterdam for an evening layover. There had been a wind and ice storm, which caused some issues with the public transportation, but I was able to find my way to the canals and the red-light district to witness the famous legal depravity the city is famous for. After walking around for a bit and having a couple of beers at a local bar, I made my way back to the airport for my early morning flight.
While waiting on the train to the airport, I had an interesting thought. Unsurprisingly, as I walked through the red-light district as a single man, many of the women in the windows tried to get my attention and entice me to come in. Throughout this journey, that has been a common occurrence. In many parts of South America, in Dubai, in Morocco, and now in Amsterdam, I have often been solicited by women. My response has always been to politely decline and then extricate myself from the situation as quickly as possible. But as I sat on that late-night/early-morning train looking out into the darkness, I wondered what some of their stories were. I am travelling around the world, trying to learn more about it and the people who inhabit it, but I haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities. to learn more about these women and what has led them to their profession. I looked at them simply as either nuisances or victims, but not actual people I could learn from. I kind of wish I had paid one of these women for her time, and just had her tell me about her life and what led her to this vocation. I resolved that if such an opportunity again presented itself, I would try to do just that.
From Amsterdam, I spent the next day on a couple more flights travelling eastward until I finally arrived in Beijing at about 2 AM. The Asian leg of my journey was about to begin. I took a taxi to my hotel to drop off my luggage and wait for my sight-seeing tour to begin. I spent that first day in China at the typical touristic spots: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall. That night, I had planned on going out to sample the nightlife of Beijing, but the almost 3 days of going nonstop with only a bit of sleep on the planes had finally caught up to me, and I was out for the count that night in my hotel room. That next morning, I went to see the Temple of Heaven as my last excursion in Beijing before catching a train to Zhengzhou. The train ride and then upon arrival in Zhengzhou, I began to have the experience of being a minor celebrity, with random people coming up and asking to take pictures with me, as a 6’7” white blonde guy was a rarity in this part of the world. That night, I had caught up on sleep enough to go out, and a couple of young locals who spoke reasonable English invited me to join them at their table. It turns out that Champaign-Urbana, Illinois is relatively well-known in China, due to the high number of Chinese students that attend the university. One of the young men was actually hoping to study there. On all the tables, I noticed cups full of dice, and I asked them about it, and was promptly taught a fun little Chinese drinking game. Eventually, I made it back to my hotel as I was going to be picked up the next morning for my ultimate Chinese destination: the Shaolin Temple.
Over the next four weeks, I studied Kung Fu at the Shaolin Tagou Academy within the Shaolin Temple grounds. The academy is the largest, and one of the best, martial arts academies in China. They have graduated many top athletes, and the school performed at the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Unfortunately, as I was there from mid-January to mid-February, the school was on its winter holiday and would not get back to full strength until after the Chinese New Year celebration in mid-February. Yet, there was still training for the foreign students, myself and three or four others throughout my month there. While I fell into the routine of the training, I fell ill shortly after my arrival and spent much of my time fighting a bad cold which put a bit of a damper on the experience. However, it was still a special experience to be able to walk around the Shaolin temple grounds during my free time. A special moment involved walking up to the Manna Platform overlooking the main temple during to observe a lunar eclipse, specifically the “Super Blue Blood Moon” as it was called given that the moon was at perigee, and the second full moon of January during the eclipse.
At the end of the month, I flew to Hong Kong in order to participate in the Chinese New Year celebrations. My three-day weekend for the festivities were fun, but not quite up to the expectations I had built up in my head. But I enjoyed my time nonetheless, especially due to the variety of friends I made in my hostel and whom I shared many different experiences of Hong Kong.
After China, I flew to the Himalayan nation of Nepal, and its magically named capital: Kathmandu, where I was going to be volunteering for a week. I found this placement through IVHQ, the same organization that I did my first Argentinian placement through. The local partner organization in Nepal that I worked through was called Vertical Ascent. They are an organization that oversees a variety of volunteer programs in different parts of Nepal. They also organize more touristic excursions for interested volunteers that will be in the country for an extended period.
The first couple of days were spent in orientation with other volunteers, including mostly other Americans, a couple of Brits, and one Lebanese. We spent the mornings in orientation meetings, the afternoons doing a little sightseeing, and then the evenings socializing. Most of the other volunteers were going to projects in Pokhara doing construction work, working in schools or in other childcare roles. On Wednesday, most of the others left, while Angela and I went to our placement on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
While on the way to the placement, Cwani, one of the Vertical Ascent employees, who had been doing the cultural lessons during our orientation, explained a bit more about the school as she had been there many times before. Nepal, being a majority Hindu country, still has some of the social remnants of the caste system. These children were from poor families in the lower castes, and therefore did not have many opportunities. The school, the Bal Sarathi Academy, was focused on trying to reach out to these underserved children. Unfortunately, many of their families see little use for such education, as the children could instead help try to make some extra money for the family. Cwani explained to us that one of the benefits of having international volunteers come to the school was simply to maintain the children’s interest in school, as it was the only opportunity for them to meet people from other countries and learn about other places in the world. This gave the students more of a reason to come to school.
The direness of their situation was driven home soon after arriving in the first classroom. While playing a game with about 16 students about 7 to 10 years old, Cwani showed us some of their earlier writing samples. The assignment seemed to have been to write a paragraph describing themselves. Many of them gave rather normal responses: their names, where they lived, some character traits that described them, maybe if they were a boy or girl (more often a son or daughter was the phrasing they used), and the like. One sample stood out though. One of the students described that they were from a poor family, and that is why they had to attend such a school instead of one of the more prestigious “named” schools as the student called the nicer private schools. The student stated that their hope was to be a doctor, but because of their birth to a poor family, “I have to forgot (sic) every dream.”
We only had three days working at the school, and I wish I could have stayed longer. Throughout this journey, I have been hesitant to do short term volunteer projects with children or schools for this specific reason. One must be cognizant of developing relationships with students and children, as well as not leaving so soon as to make them feel temporary. It is a very real problem in the realm of “voluntourism” that all people considering such trips need to take into consideration. That being said, since it seemed that the entire idea of my being there was simply to provide a distraction from the normal routines of schools and the children’s regular lives, I made peace with my temporary presence. The students were extremely outgoing and loved to play the games that Angela and I prepared for them, sometimes getting a little too competitive. If nothing else, this was yet another eye-opening and rewarding experience to bless me with a glimpse into the struggles others must deal with, and how we should be more grateful for the opportunities we too often take for granted.
A quick aside: the youngest children in the school were around 3 or 4 years old. I bring this up only to say that these young Nepali children giving the traditional greeting of bringing their hands into a prayer pose, slightly bowing their heads, and softly, shyly, saying “Namaste” as they walk by in a line to their classroom is, most-assuredly, the single cutest thing I have ever seen in my life. Probably, my biggest regret from Nepal was not being quick enough to record video of this precious scene.
One other important note about Nepal: they are still recovering from a devastating earthquake that struck the country in 2015. While walking around Kathmandu, I had noticed that many of the streets were completely torn up all over the city. Even in the touristic areas. At first, I assumed it was simply leftover destruction from the earthquake that had not yet been repaired. However, I soon learned that the earthquake did not do that much damage to the streets themselves. The problem was that it almost completely destroyed the infrastructure beneath the streets: the water, gas, and electric lines, etc. The city has had to dig up their streets in order to make those critical repairs. An interesting wrinkle in these repairs that I learned from one of our hosts was a cultural aspect of the construction work that needed to be done. Due to the caste system, a sizable portion of the population looks down on manual labor. As such, many people are willing to go to foreign countries to work in such jobs, but do not want to be seen doing such work in their home communities. Obviously, this has added more complexity to an already difficult situation in the country.
My next, and last, Asian stop was India. Another of the must experiences, which also drove my schedule, was to be in India for the Hindu festival of Holi, the festival of colors. During this celebration, streets are filled with revelers aggressively dusting each other with powder of varying bright colors. In addition to the colored powder, children are often dousing the participants with water from water guns, hoses, or simply, buckets from windows and rooftops.
I started out in the holy city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges River. One thing that was obvious very quickly was the number of beggars throughout the city: people missing limbs, mothers with children, old women, they were all over the city streets. While I had seen many beggars throughout my travels, but never to the extent that I saw them in Varanasi. It was a situation that made me feel both cruel and helpless as I walked by these pitiful scenes, not giving money for a variety of reasons, and not knowing what to do to help.
The Holi festivities were just beginning in Varanasi, including my last day there when I braved the chaos of one of the Hindu temples along with the mass crowds going in to give offerings in preparation for the festival. From there, I went to Mathura, a little way out of Agra. After the mandatory stop at the Taj Mahal, I entered the fray of the color wars. During the first afternoon, after I had made my first foray, and then cleaned up and ate lunch, as I left my hotel, I met up with a group of 3 Brits, two girls and a guy, that I ended up joining with for the next couple of days. A few months before going to India, I was messaging with an American female friend that I had met in Argentina who was going to be in Asia around the same time I was. I mentioned meeting up in India for Holi, but after researching it, she declined because of what she learned about foreign women going to Holi. After hanging out with the two female Brits during Holi, I understand the concern. The first day was not too bad, mostly it was just a bunch of enthusiastic locals wanting to get their pictures taken with us, especially the girls. And during those pictures, there was an occasional misplaced hand. But the next day, it reached a new level. As we went to the temple area in Mathura, the celebration was intense, and during the course of it, many more locals wanted pictures with us, often finishing with a “Happy Holi” and a hug. But the girls began to get blatantly groped, and even some of the guys tried to grab the girls’ faces and kiss them on the mouth. I had to myself pull a guy off one of the girls. We moved out of the temple area to a quieter, and safer, side street. And we could tell that it was a common occurrence. A little bit later, another group of westerners came through the street from the same place we had just exited, with the men protecting a couple of petite and obviously uncomfortable girls. The young men would not let any locals near the girls. It was unfortunate, because the vast majority of the revelers were simply enthusiastic and friendly, but as always, a small group ruined it for everyone else. I hate to have to say something like this, but I cannot in good conscience recommend that any of my female friends go to Holi in India, unless they go as part of a mixed-gender group, or know a local family to celebrate with. Local women are almost nowhere to be found during the public festivities. Instead, they usually celebrate in smaller parties with families and friends.
After the chaos of Holi, I then went to Delhi for a couple of days to do a small amount of sight-seeing and then finish my week in India. Soon, my crazy week in India was over and I was en route to Africa for the next leg of my journey.
IVHQ: The website that I organized my Nepal program through. They have multiple programs throughout the world.
Vertical Ascent: The local organization in Nepal that oversaw my time and placement in Kathmandu.
Bal Saranthi: This is the organization that runs the school I volunteered at in Kathmandu.
An article with a list of organizations in India fighting for women’s rights.