The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Yum-Yum Noodles vs. Saving the world

As Hol said in the last blog, our jobless arrival in Kathmandu was less than pleasant. Having spent too much of our budget on extra strength margaritas in Colorado, fixing Carlos in Vancouver and just existing in Japan, we were left with the challenge of spending 3 months in one place whilst effectively living on £1.25 a day each. Not much fun.

The chasm of pennilessness stretching out in front of us was threatening never to be filled. We had flung hopeful emails to all corners of the Asian subcontinent (Hol's mysteriously tending towards Goa) in the pursuit of work with not a whiff of a suitable response. This was until we arranged our first meeting with Tej, the Director of Volunteer Society Nepal. We had stumbled across an advert whilst in Xining asking for someone to write a marketing plan for the charity and it seemed to suit the skills of both Hol and I. So it was we uncrumpled our only shirts, considered the merits of creasing our jeans and proudly gripped our new notepads and biros as we waited outside the Kathmandu Guest House. Tej arrived and after an hour of discussion over lemon tea it appeared we had a job offer. It sounded perfect. Both of us working on developing a new platform for Volunteer Society Nepal. How would we recruit more international volunteers? How do we present the organisation online? How do we develop all the materials for the organisation to run more efficiently when we leave? We went straight to the pub to celebrate and got drunk after one beer.

The next day we were grabbing some breakfast and checking emails when an email pops up from the ad agency Outreach Nepal. I had found these guys advertising a full time post for a Nepali employee and had emailed them saying I was in town for 3 months and did they want a consultant. A very long shot. Not having thought anything more about it, I was now faced with the prospect of an interview with their MD Ujaya in ten minutes time at a cafe that was 12 minutes away. Dirty shorts: tick. Smelly yellow novelty t-shirt: tick. Dusty trainers: tick. Sweating on arrival: tick. Job offer at the end of it: tick. Despite an up and down discussion where at one point I suggested it wasn't a good idea, we now had the second option of me working as a copywriter and creative consultant on their accounts and Hol researching foreign handicraft exports. Wow. The 24 hour turnaround was total. Glorious, gainful employment. Mental stimulation. Budget relaxation. Splendid.

The next 10 days were spent pondering the options. In the end VSN won out. Tej seemed like a top bloke, full of enthusiasm. The accommodation was in a nice place away from the hectic centre and smog of Kathmandu. It was a morally good thing to do. And we got to try our hand at website design and teach kids if we wanted to. Also, the more I looked around at the prevalent marketing output in Nepal I began to wonder about the level of work I'd be doing. The leading noodle brand Yum Yum noodles had spent literally tens of rupees developing their tagline, 'Yummy'. Then there was the Real juice slogan, 'It's really... really... nice'. Our decision was made. We were destined for the suburb of 'Pepsi-Cola Town Planning' the day after waving the mother's goodbye.

We have now been here for 3 weeks and the time has flown by. We have eagerly thrown ourselves into work from the first day. This slightly took Tej by surprise I think, but having not opened an Excel spreadsheet in anger for 14 months it felt good to be up and pivot tabling again. We have our own 'office' on the 1st floor of Tej's house where we live. It has a grand Chinese (falling apart) desk which Hol and I both work on opposite sides of. The addition of a small kettle, instant coffee and some tunes and suddenly it felt like we were up and running. The internet is sometimes painfully slow, there is no heating which necessitates woolly hats and novelty slippers at all times, and we work on Sundays, but we are stuck in and loving it. We confidently pronounced we could build a website during the interview, and there was an awkward few days when this became patently untrue. However, since then we have taught ourselves, with the indispensable aid of the unknown multitude of nerds posting 'how to' guides on the internet, and we are well underway. You can fully expect a range of tear jerking emails, letters, tweets, pokes etc. to flood your in-boxes sometime in the near future.

As well as the work for VSN we have also been thrown into teaching in the local school. At the start of the 2nd week we had a meeting with the principle to discuss the ethos of the school, ways of working, curriculum, timings and methods. This meeting lasted roughly 2 and a half minutes. Before we knew what was happening we were in front of a class of 12 expectant teenagers and 45 minutes later a small segment of the youth of Nepal had a rudimentary knowledge of tandem mechanics, 1930's Norwegian sailing boats and the wildlife of Yellowstone park. Not strictly on the curriculum, but you never know when you will need to escape from an enraged hoary marmot on a hand brazed Santana tandem with nothing but a three strand rolling hitch to your name. We now teach 2 periods a day and I have to confess to really enjoying it. There is minimal lesson structure to keep to and so we just freestyle through the text books. The kids are great and the concentration and behaviour are a world away from how schools in England are portrayed (at least by the Daily Mail). On top of this we were also asked to help teach Gurkha recruits in the final days before their selection tests in Pokhara.

The Gurkhas have been part of the British Army since 1815 and are a proud part of Nepal's history. To become a Gurkha for a young Nepali is seen as not only a well respected job, but also one of the best paid. Around 20,000 Nepali men between the ages of 17 and 21 apply for the 230 places available each year. Acceptance means 15 years guaranteed employment, £1,200 a month, a pension and the chance of a British Passport. To put this in context, the headmaster of the school we work at gets £200 a month. It is estimated that around 30,000 families in Nepal rely on these salaries. The selection tests range from the physical; minimum of 14 chin ups and a 5km run up a mountain with 25kg of rocks on their backs in 48 minutes, to the mental; GCSE standard Maths and English tests, to the dental; no more than 2 fillings and no gaps. We helped the recruits on dictations, mock interviews and other English tests. It was pretty humbling asking these guys why they want to join, why they are willing to die for the British army, and also realising that for many of them this is their 3rd or 4th attempt. They were all so earnest , some very nervous, all sincere, but they also all beamed back the minute you smiled at them. Taking the role of the interviewing officer gave us a small glimpse into their motivation, which only reinforced respect for these young guys who are training so desperately for 10 months to get in. Some good pictures here

After the final class the people who ran the training center insisted on taking us out for some snacks and tea. The personal trainers, the manager and the English teacher all bundled into a small restaurant and were laughing, joking and asking lots of questions about us. Over chicken and milky tea they all happily regaled us with stories of training, Nepali wedding parties and everything in between. Once again Hol and I left after two hours totally disarmed by the friendliness of the Nepali people. This is a country that was in the grip of a civil war up until a few years ago which saw 12,000 people brutally killed. Yet in their character is only warmth, hospitality and a clear self respect. There is no trace of self consciousness, cynicism or bitterness that can charaterise more developed countries. Before we left one of them spent 5 minutes saying goodbye and saying how happy and grateful they were. They made it very clear that they particularly wanted to write us a thank you letter as well when they got back from final selection. These people sometimes talk about the famous British manners, but one can't help but feel they have adopted and exceeded them.

There is lots more to talk about to do with the orphanages, the smaller schools we have seen and also all our contact with various NGOs working out here, but that can wait for another blog. All that can be said, is that this country is perhaps the friendliest we have been to and we are very happy to have chosen it as our base for the next 3 months before we embark on the final leg home. Right off for some Dal Baht and then a jog around the airport and along the Bagmati river. I think I'll stick upstream of Pashpatinath temple where at any one time there are around 6 corpses being cremated and swept into the water.

1 comment:

Galit said...

Happy times! You are in a good spot for 3 months relaxation!
Enjoy pivot tabling, teaching and saving the world!

p.s. thanks for your email. appreciate it and will wait for Feb update.