31 December 2018
Guru: “well Rob, if you start at 3am, you might just make it to Chheskam in one day”
Guru: “Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow”
Rob: “OK Guru – it may be a little early for New Year’s Day…”
The line crackled to a halt as reception in Chheskam bit the dust. After well over 24 hours of travel and traversing 10 ¾ time zones (Nepal has a very “particular” local time compared to UTC) – I was not convinced that either Marie-Kristelle (MK) nor myself could make such an early start, in particular after New Year’s Eve celebrations. We would see…
New Year’s Eve passed by in perfect fashion for our then, state of jet-lag. We met some of our closest Sherpa friends in Boudhanath, Kathmandu for supper – Ang Nuru, Maya and Tsering Zangmu – their brilliant and funny 3 year old daughter; Pemba and his daughters Palden and Dhawa Phutti (No longer wobbling toddlers, but intelligent, engaging young ladies – if you can prise their smartphones from them!); Palden, Tsering and their children Jigme and Yange; Ang Namgel and finally Bhandi – beloved Thundu’s widow. We had a fantastic local Nepali food and it made me feel so at home and connected to many of the characters that have been so integral to our story in the Khumbu and life in general.
After eating, we headed back to Thamel for New Year’s Eve – apparently something to behold – so we didn’t hesitate to take the trip to see. Earlier in the day we had seen a large stage being erected outside of “Fire and Ice” and this was surely sign enough of what was to come. Shoulder to shoulder, crushed like sardines, we jumped to the beat of the anonymous Nepali DJ. I’m not even sure that in our hay-day we would have appreciated this as a way of seeing in New Year – so we quickly diverted to “Maya Cocktail” with our able accomplices Palden and Ang Nuru – who were game for whatever Thamel could throw at them.
After a “Black Russian” for me and the guys and a fizzy water for MK (you can see where her state of mind was at this point of the evening) – she and I bailed out of the heaving thrall of people to get back to Hotel Manaslu to “see-in” the New Year, in bed, like an old married couple. How the mighty have fallen!
There was no chance for us to get up, pack and be ready for a 3am departure. The transport was already booked for 7am (my suggestion earlier in the day with thankfully no dissent from MK) and we valiantly peeled ourselves out of bed at 6am. She, full of hustle and bustle, and me a little more tentatively. I was obviously (not) frothing at the bit to start our apparent 10-12 hour jeep journey!
Our journey to Nepal had been notable for a last-minute 12 hour delay with Royal Nepal Airlines, from Doha to Kathmandu, which we became aware of whilst transiting through Frankfurt airport. Just not acceptable in the circumstances of a tight schedule and the desire to catch up with (and video) Milan and her husband Naresh. They had planned a walk around- and supper- in Patan – their home town and often called “old Kathmandu”. So, as it is often necessary to do whilst making plans for developing-world travel, we reacted. We cancelled these flights whilst in Frankfurt airport and organised a Qatar airlines alternative – enabling us to arrive around the same time as our original flight booking and permit our meet-up. We were so pleased to see them, visit Golden Temple, behold the local craftwork that Naresh’s family and the Newar people in general are known for, gain some fantastic video footage of Milan and eat supper – all on the day of our arrival. Phew! It really set the pace for the rest of the trip!
MK’s school project could not have been accomplished without some very important characters in this story – none less than Milan. An ENT surgeon by training and dedicated to a selfless, charitable life that she and her husband have committed to, helping hundreds of impoverished, often rural children in Nepal with problem hearing, through her charity “Ear Care Nepal”. Offering hearing checks and surgery for those requiring it, she tours the country, literally doing good. Our chance meeting after the infamous 2015 Nepal earthquake, after accepting our help on a food run into Sindupalchok, one of the worst affected areas following this devastating event, enabled us to develop a strong bond and lasting friendship with them. It became an obvious choice to ask them to manage and distribute the charitable monies that we had received – the vast majority from the incredibly kind community of Sept-Iles, Québec – when the Chheskam school re-building project started in early 2016.
Back to the jeep journey of 1stJanuary 2019 – for it will ever last in my memory!
What appears to be just a few cm on a map, has life-changing consequences for one’s “derrière”, when being thrown around inside a “Mahindra Scorpio Jeep”, over a bumpy road that has more relief than the Himalayas themselves. Marie-Kristelle had the relative luxury of front seat passage with our excellent and amiable driver Pasang – claiming “travel sickness dibs” for the front seat. I on the other hand would have been better prepared had I been dressed as a National (Ice) Hockey League goaltender. I was thrown around on the back axle so much so that I thought my insides were on their way out and my head was threatening to break the back window on multiple occasions. I literally clang on to dear life!
Our lunch time stop could not come soon enough and we were extremely satisfied with our initial progress in those 6 hours of leisurely morning driving on Nepali asphalt, fighting only animals and the precarious driving mannerisms of all and sundry that find themselves on the main East-West “highway’ transecting the country. However, the horror of that dirt road that had only recently been constructed was yet to have its influence upon our day. We stepped out of the restaurant/fast-food Dahl Bhat locale, with a spring in our step – after all, we had made 2/3 of the distance already – so what could possibly stop us now?! Our progress soon dwindled to the pace of a snail running on empty. Marie-Kristelle overdosed on gravol and I took to the fetal position in the hope of protecting important body parts. Google maps was pessimistic about our progress and our 10 hour journey rapidly took us to 8pm, 13 hours later and still a good 3-4 hours short of Chheskam. How Pasang lasted that long will never cease to amaze me, but thankfully we took the valiant option of an early bath in Sotang – a small, yet intriguing little village nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. Our hosts were super kind and we actually had lighting in the room, relatively clean bedding and a pretty tasty Dahl Bhat. We supped a cold beer and decided to put it down to experience. How else would you wish to spend your vacation?!
Day 2 of our jeep journey went relatively well. “Relatively” in the sense of time and that we survived! There were often stifled screams from the front passenger seat as we skirted around the sides of mountains with literally only 1-2 feet of spare “terra-firma” between us and our maker, or at least a very long drop down a very high mountain pass. Chheskam could not come soon enough.
By 9am, 3 hours after our departure from Sotang, we made sighting of Chheskam. Very little – yet everything had changed since our helicopter flight there in autumn 2016. The “road” had not yet arrived in Chheskam the last time that we had visited, but now it runs right through its centre and effectively finishes in this same place. Perhaps one day it will continue, but for now it remains as one of the longest global cul-de-sacs that I can think of. The school was completely empty, although the equivalent of the school janitor was able to direct us to Guru’s home. He was surprised to see us on our arrival, thinking that we had stopped elsewhere than Sotang the previous night and therefore predicting a later arrival. His welcome, after overcoming his surprise was one of warmth and one reserved for family or for very close friends. We are blessed in that this school re-building project has involved so many wonderful people.
We soon met Lakshmi, Guru’s wife along with his mother and his daughter Geeal. We were treated like family as I have already suggested and the welcome to Pasang, our driver, was equally endearing. I do not know anywhere else in the world where this would have happened in such a way.
At the same time as our visit, there was a festival taking place. Unlike the road, there was a football pitch that had been flattened with such expertise that teams from all around the local area were able to play reasonable quality soccer in front of cheering crowds of local people. Lukla FC seemed to be the best team, but entrants from Paphlu and Chheskam were all doing their best to be crowned champions of 2075 – not a typo – just a reference to the Nepali calendar! The extra 66 years that they have had compared to us has not unfortunately helped them build better roads, but I must stop there with my infrastructure critique for the sake of sounding like a cracked record!
After a quick breakfast of spicy noodles – a great way to clear the sinuses – we walked up the hill to the main building of the school. Despite it being a holiday, Guru had used his Headmaster status with aplomb and had recruited (initially unbeknownst to us) a good 200 to 300 students to come back to the school and give us a true idea of what it was like to be a pupil of Chheskam. So many beautiful little faces, all smiling and seemingly genuinely happy to be at school – for nothing else can truly offer these kids the chance of making something of their life, when hailing from such a remote place as Chheskam – as a good education. This seems to be evolving now under Guru and the stewardship of his excellent team of teachers.
On a typical school day, before starting class, the whole school presents itself in front of the main building for some stretching and light exercises, somewhat like we have famously seen from Japanese workers. Guru believes that this simple manoeuvre at the beginning of the day helps stimulate the students’ capacity to learn. This is not something that he has learnt or read – rather his intuition. How astute he is as more and more, with our sedentary lives in the developed world, we realise the importance of physical activity in our general well-being. Kudos Professor John Buckley of the University of Chester!
Following a good stretch, we made our way round some of the classes. As it wasn’t a normal day – it was both a holiday and there were, after all, a pair of VIPs visiting (only joking, but we really were made to feel quite special during the visit) – there seemed to be a lot of high spirits, singing in the classes and lots of smiling faces. I remember that we used to that kind of thing when there was a school inspection back in the UK! We made our way down the main block of the school and finally arrived at the computer lab.
Philip Schaus at “Corporations for Community Connections” (CFCC) has proven an absolutely pivotal figure in bringing a high-tech education to the children of this village. Over the last 2 years we have developed a close friendship with Philip and have been able to gain his support in providing 48 and now 54 refurbished laptops – courtesy of the charity and the vision of Siemens Canada – to the school. The story of how they got to Chheskam and the obstacles that were negotiated to get them there (political corruption, customs shenanigans, portering and mains electricity are all easy examples amongst a list of literally hundreds!) would take a book in itself to describe them in full, so I offer only an abridged version. The fact that they did arrive and are now benefiting the children in just so many ways is a testament to his efforts, those of his team, Guru and of course, Marie-Kristelle, who has put so much of herself into this project that it could never have been accomplished without her energy and guidance.
The children are now receiving English classes beamed directly from Kathmandu by highly proficient teachers, using 3G connectivity from a newly installed satellite in the village and a 2-way camera in the classroom. A 3G connection was established because of the school rebuild and most importantly (at the time) the proposed computer lab. After multiple emails, MK, myself and Guru managed to meet Tsering Sherpa in Kathmandu 15 months ago. Tsering is the owner of “Everest Link” – the main supplier of internet and phone networks in rural Nepal. After hearing our story – earthquake 2015, Kumar’s death, hopes of improving education for his 4 children and therefore of the other 800+ kids in Chheskam school, 54 laptops donated by CFCC, etc. – he rapidly committed to joining the project. He genuinely liked what we have all achieved together and was convinced by the dedication of Guru – so pledged the support of his company by establishing the phone and internet network to the village and offering the teacher support from Kathmandu. The stars truly did align.
Following a tour of the classroom areas, we went down to the lower site at the school and were witness to some of the sporting activities that have been added to the curriculum to aid the children’s education – all courtesy of the funding from Sept-Iles. We saw competitions in volleyball, table-tennis, high-jump and long-jump. It was chest-thumpingly good to see young kids have a fantastic time, cheering each other on to yet higher and higher attainment. To place a stress on fun and physical recreation is an important element at Chheskam School – yet further evidence of Guru’s understanding of how best to gain the highest performance from his pupils. On interviewing him on camera, later in the day, outside the main school, I asked him about the relevance of some large posters that were adorning the side of the school. “Oh” he said, “they are our most successful students – they have all gained full marks in the National Exams”. To gain top marks in a national exam, when hailing from Chheskam is nothing short of miraculous, and Guru puts this largely down to the support that has been generated from all of our efforts in the last 3 years. Additionally, from the Makalu region, Chheskam came first amongst school ratings last year, yet further evidence of the great strides that the school has been making with this help.
Late in the afternoon, we met up with Pancha Sanka, Kumar’s wife and their 4 children at their home on a beautiful hilltop overlooking the football pitch and lower Chheskam. Raj, Kumar’s brother, was able to explain how the family have moved on, since Kumar’s death and have tried, like any family around the world, to make the best of a bad situation. She is supported by their wider family and continues to work hard. This, combined with the support from the Juniper Fund (www.juniperfund.org) and donations from a small group of climbers who had climbed with Kumar, it seems that the family unit has survived the devastation of losing their husband, father and brother. Human nature, whether you are in central Manhattan or downtown Chheskam, the strength of humanity in times of adversity and shared values across nations, never ceases to amaze me.
That evening we shared a fantastic Dal Bhat with Guru and his family. Geeal, almost 4 years old now, has been affected by a medical illness that is causing a failure to thrive. She is not meeting her developmental milestones and needs a lot more help than a typical child of her age. She has been diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, and from this generalist’s optic, I would have to say that sadly this is the most likely diagnosis. There is no cure in sight, but I marvelled at Guru and Lakshmi’s capacity to just get on with things, attend to her needs like any normal parents and not seemingly let this get them down – despite our setting. 2000m+ in altitude, freezing cold and lacking western creature comforts that we all take for granted – central heating, washing machine and a car to hop into to go and do the shopping. They are heros to me, yet they are just one example of millions whose existence is far more arduous than our own in the western world. I am working on my capacity to suffer and will endeavour to continue to help – them or some other person – as long as I enjoy the riches of my labour in the comforts of Canada or the UK or wherever…
After dinner, we went to bed at around 8:30pm. Normally in a cold environment whilst in Nepal, there aren’t too many things to keep you up beyond this time. We had our epic journey to Kathmandu early the following morning waiting for us too, so it was an easy decision to literally hit the sack (sleeping sack or bag that is!) relatively early. However, the good folk of Solu Khumbu had other ideas for us. The festivities in Chheskam continued well into the night and an uninvited visitor who had lost his bearings in an alcoholic fog tried to join MK and I at around 3am. I wasn’t sure if I was more impressed by his stamina or more disappointed by having to get out of my sleeping bag and redirect him to anywhere other than our room! Whatever the case, he jovially apologised and got on with his search for his shelter as I tried to rewarm my now frigid body…
At 4am we got up, and with Pasang, made our way to the jeep. Guru and Lakshmi got up to say goodbye and offer a bag of fresh oranges that they had purchased for our journey back to Kathmandu. I doubt that I have met such welcoming and giving people than our friends across Nepal. With relatively little, they are capable of making the best of what they have and are so giving of themselves and their material things. It is our honour to have this link to Nepal and its people. And despite the terrible circumstances that lead to our connection to Chheskam, like the wings of a butterfly, very small flutterings can lead to very big things – positive things that can change lives and give chances to those less fortunate than us.
Our journey back to Kathmandu was surprisingly straight forward. Pasang had clearly got the lay of the land with respect to the road and its conditions and despite the 15 hour journey, we felt a whole lot better with an arrival to Kathmandu in time for a quick restaurant meal and stay at the Roadhouse, prior to getting up early for the next stage in our journey to the Annapurnas – and a mere 11 hour journey to Chame!
We graciously thank all of those who have been involved in this project and hope that the words above convey in some way, the importance of their contribution and why any future help from any potential partner is heartedly welcome.
Thank you and… Namaste!
Rob Casserley (& Marie-Kristelle Ross)