2011 Nepal Research Diary

In the summer of 2011, the Institute continued its research-service work in Nepal with a new team of students. While in Nepal, members will divide their time between community engagement and community-based research.

The team members shared their experiences throughout the summer.

June 3, 2011

Dear family and friends,

7,900 miles later, flying past the Himalayas and confidently claiming that each peak we saw was Mount Everest, we finally arrived in Nepal with only one lost bag (no worries, it was recovered).

While we have not yet trekked the Himalayas, we have trekked through Kathmandu and Damak, learning about the colorful history that is essential in understanding the political, religious, and social climate of Nepal. We spent 5 days in Kathmandu, visiting the US Embassy and The Carter Center in order to gain a better understanding about the protracted Bhutanese refugee situation in southeastern Nepal, as well as piecing together a timeline of Nepali history. Nepal is a transitioning state, where the monarchy was recently abolished in 2006, transforming it into a federal republic. However, a Maoist insurgency, and the failure to draft a constitution (the most recent deadline of May 28, 2011 was not met, which interestingly enough coincided with our arrival and thus, we were briefly exposed to the situation first-hand) has left the country in a hybrid state shuffling between traditional and modern politics. But don’t worry, even the Carter Center reassured us of the stability and prosperous future of Nepal.

We also had an opportunity to explore several religious centers: Pashupati Temple, one of the holiest Hindu temples where we observed a cremation; Hanuman-dhoka Kathmandu Durbar Square, a World Heritage Site; Swayambhu–Nath Stupa, one of the oldest Buddhist temples, where a monkey actually jumped into our van and stole a banana, proving that monkeys do indeed love bananas; and the Bhaktapur Durbar Swuare, another World Heritage Site.

Nepal is a chaotically beautiful country. We arrived in Damak Thursday afternoon and visited one of the refugee camps (Beldangi II) on Friday. It is a bit overwhelming at first to find cars, motorcycles, cows, dogs, goats, and people all congesting the streets, yet we are slowly learning how to navigate the city. Wandering about throughout the refugee camp was an insightful experience. We had schoolchildren following us everywhere we went, yelling “Namaste” (a Nepali greeting) and then giggling when we returned the greeting. I personally found that despite my poor attempt to speak Nepali, the majority of individuals were willing to correct me and begin a conversation with me. Families openly invited us to join them under their bamboo roofs when it would start pouring, which was a perfect opportunity to really engage with them. My observations and the conversations I had with the refugees, as well with individuals in Kathmandu has made me contemplate how despite the clear differences between a Nepali community and an American community, there are certain societal aspects around the world that are simply universal. These can range from kids playing peek-a-boo to men gathering around and playing chess, or someone sharing a personal story to a stranger, or even a mother expressing that she will pay for expensive medications because she does not want her son to die. Despite the cultural and linguistic differences, I have learned that there are many similarities between our worlds, which we are all excited about uncovering. Overall, this week has been a whirlwind of learning and preparing, but it has helped me realize how fortunate I am to work on my thesis with a group of colleagues who are optimistic and light-hearted, and most importantly keep me laughing everyday.

Tulsi and the team

June 10, 2011

Greetings and “Namaste” to our dear family and friends,

Today marks the end of our second week in Nepal and the end of our first full week in Damak. By way of introduction to our week, here is a quick progress report for those of you who are wondering what exactly we are accomplishing here:

12. The number of cockroaches we’ve boldly killed in our guesthouse.
122. The highest temperature (heat index) that it reached in Damak this week.
12,222. The number of water bottles we have consumed to keep healthy and hydrated.
4. The number of camps that we’ve visited.
3. The number of interviews that we’ve actually completed in the field.
9. The number of Dukies who are exhausted and enthused after our first week in the field.

We arrived in Damak Thursday and made a visit to Beldangi, our first of four camps, first thing on Friday morning. Saturday-Tuesday were spent fine tuning our interview tool that will guide our life story interviews with the refugees. This involved meeting our four talented research assistants who have quickly become an integral part of the team. The second half of the week was spent visiting camps where we practiced research methods taught to us by Katie Hyde. Katie works for Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, and she has joined us in Nepal to teach us a series of techniques that we will use to bolster the information that we obtain from interviews. Each of the three methods utilizes the art of photography to elucidate life stories.

In order to familiarize ourselves with both the new photography techniques and the camps themselves, we were sent off by ourselves in each camp armed with only our camera and list of 8 photos that we individually decided would best illustrate the most important aspects of life in the refugee camps. Our charge was to take 8, and only 8, photos. After overcoming the initial awkwardness of wandering around alone through the personal spaces and places of refugees’ lives, each of us made discoveries that were worth capturing. This picture was one team member’s interpretation of the importance of gardening for those who live in the camps. Many homes have beautiful gardens, which they work hard to keep healthy. Many of the Bhutanese were farmers in Bhutan and their affinity and skill for cultivating land is apparent even in the limited space they are given as refugees. It is a beautiful glimpse into their pasts and a powerful picture of their desire to create beauty, even in the camps.

In addition to finding meaningful ways of capturing camp life in photographs, we found ourselves making meaningful memories with refugee families in the camps. A common theme of the week was the remarkable hospitality that the refugee families show us. During our photo excursion Thursday, Jenny was invited into the homes of three Bhutanese families where she stayed for tea, food, and movie time. It was no wonder that she was nowhere to be found when we all met back at our van for lunch. Each family she spent time with was convinced that she was now their very best friend, of which they informed her enthusiastically. Others on the team were invited to visit camp schools, medical centers, churches, and even a festival at one camp’s temple.

Through this initial orientation to camp life we have gone from feeling like strangers—feeling truly strange in an unfamiliar place—to a place where we feel an authentic understanding beginning to emerge. An understanding of what it means to face hardship and persevere through it. An understanding of how to take the little you’ve been given and make something beautiful. An understanding of what it looks like to live life as a Bhutanese refugee. We are eager to learn even more in our remaining four weeks, and look forward to sharing more of our stories with you during this time. All the best to everyone reading.

Elise and the Team

June 17, 2011

Namaste! Greetings from Damak. Only 3 weeks left until we start to head home! Already the team has expressed their anxiety towards separating from each other—but don’t worry, we have already planned 13 reunion events this coming semester. While we were sad that Katie Hyde and Lou Brown had to leave us earlier this week, we all felt confident about continuing the research by ourselves, of course with Ana Jacobsen’s guidance, because we had become fully equipped with all of the tools needed in order to carry out this ethnographic research.

However before throwing ourselves into interview after interview, we decided to take a group field trip, with our translators/fieldwork assistants, to Ilam, the tea district of Nepal. We left early Sunday morning for our three-hour drive to Ilam—it was absolutely breathtaking climbing the mountains, swerving all the way to the top. As we grasped onto our seats whenever our van neared a sharp turn, we peered down into the valleys and up towards the mountains, speechless at the beauty of Nepal. The entire day was like a dream, like we were walking through clouds, which we actually were!

Although we were sad to leave this idyllic place, we were just as excited to continue our qualitative fieldwork in the camps. This week we really launched into our actual life story interviews, now that we have become accustomed to both Damak and the camps. Our entire week consisted mainly of finding people to interview and actually conducting the interviews in Beldangi I and Timai. Our pre-med and global health students also had the opportunity to go to the IOM medical center to learn about the IOM health screening process, and even got to see live TB cultures and a high-tech TB lab. Although the days have become longer and more exhausting, our fieldwork has been so rewarding, getting us through our days. Giving the refugees the ability to share their stories with the world and us truly is a worthwhile and amazing experience that we are trying to absorb and grasp.

This place has really become like home. We have become used to not having power for 12 hours a day, and when the weather forecast says it will be 100 degrees, we are delighted to find out it will be a cool day. And we have learned that the beauty behind Damak and Nepal itself lies underneath the surface, behind all of the trash, open sewage, chaotic traffic—behind the third world status Nepal has lies a beautiful and culturally rich country that we are only beginning to discover. We hope everyone at home is well and happy to know how incredible of a time we are having.

Wishing you all the best,
Esther and the Team

June 23, 2011

Greeting and ‘Namaste’ to our beloved friends and family back home and around the world!

Our time in Nepal is quickly ticking away and our premature feelings of anxiety for our approaching departure from this beautiful country have only gotten worse. When we’re not enthusiastically laughing and bantering amongst each other or having sing‐offs with our hilarious research assistants in the back of our van, we find ourselves silently gazing out the windows in awe of the landscape that surrounds us. We’ve become sponges, constantly trying to absorb the natural beauty that continues to captivate us every day. Whether the vast fields glow a striking shade of gold under the blistering hot sun (which we’re finally getting used to) or whether the dark rain clouds and continuous drizzle of the monsoon season cover the fields in a soft shade of blue below the striking backdrop of mountains, Nepal continues to mesmerize us all.

This past weekend, we took a relaxing break from our work to enjoy the breathtaking views from the mountaintops near Dharan. After taking a million pictures and dancing around on the high view tower with our goofy research assistants, we gazed out into the distance to see the Himalayan Mountains behind a thin layer of clouds. At the top of the mountain, we were surrounded by an unbelievably beautiful landscape of mountains, luscious green trees, and sparse clouds that were extraordinarily close to us.

After the amazing weekend, we woke up bright and early on Monday to attend one of the cultural orientation classes held by IOM, the International Organization for Migration. The classes were held in three parts and ranged in topics from the weather in America, to American holidays and celebrations, to the role of government and resettlement agencies, and to basic ‘American’ cultural practices. The materials covered in the classes were fascinating; the instructor tried to incorporate American ideologies throughout the class through various mechanisms. For example, anytime the teacher wanted to pass out materials, such as pens for the class to use, she would throw a limited number of pens in the center of the room and tell everyone they only had thirty seconds to grab one, and that there were not enough for everyone. When she’d blow her whistle, everyone rushed to the center of the room, laughing and joking with each other as they fought their way to the pens. Through exercises like this, the instructor tried to encourage everyone to “grab any opportunity that they have,” and to fend for himself or herself in America. “You have to work for yourself and not ask for help,” she emphasized. Elise and I were also able to join the large circle of eager refugees in our class and talk about our culture shock when we first arrived in Nepal and about the basic differences between our cultures. After explaining that nodding your head from side to side doesn’t mean ‘yes’ in America like it does in Nepal, and how you actually have to use the traffic lanes in the states, we answered everyone’s curious questions. We really enjoyed this opportunity—especially answering questions like, “should I get married soon so I don’t have to pay the Bachelor’s Tax in America?”

Following the enlightening cultural orientation class, we continued our research and interviews in Beldangi 2, Timai, and Sanischare camps this past week. Hearing stories from the refugees and learning their cultures through personal life stories is an invaluable experience that we are all enjoying tremendously and are trying to take full advantage of in our last two weeks here. Although none of us have ever sweat so much, killed so many cockroaches, or used so many latrines, each experience has brought our team closer together and I am thankful to be experiencing Nepal with such amazing women, who are now some of my closest friends.

We hope Suzanne is fully enjoying Dublin with her family and that Lou and Katie are doing well back home at Duke although we all miss them a lot! As we pack our bags for our much-anticipated adventure in Pokhara this coming weekend, we hope that everyone back home is happy, healthy, and not missing us all too much.

Mad Love,
Kiran and the Team

July 1, 2011

Dear Family and Friends,

This past weekend we took our long awaited trip to Pokhara, a small city surrounded by the Himalayas. It took us a while to get there due to weather but on the upside we are now experts at navigating the airports of Nepal! We made the most of our two day vacation and were constantly on the go exploring one of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen. We climbed to the top of a (small) mountain to the World Peace Pagoda, where we looked out on a beautiful view of the lake and the hills (the mountains were covered by the clouds). We did some shopping, picnicking and fine dining in the touristy area of the city. Some of us went paragliding over the valley and others took the time to relax near the beautiful water. Sunday morning, we were on the road at 4 am to Sarangkot where there is a look out point famous for its view of the sunrise. As the first hints of yellow and orange appeared over the hills, the clouds began to clear for the first time and we could see the Annapurna Range. It was so peaceful, standing there together in wonder and feeling so small. Later that day, we visited Sam’s House, a home for orphaned children we found out about through Katie Hyde. It was an amazing place and we got to meet some of the kids. It was so wonderful to be in such a nurturing and loving environment, especially having witnessed the poverty and hunger many children face in Nepal.

While we were sad to leave Pokhara on Monday, this week has held many opportunities and experiences we wouldn’t have wanted to miss. Yesterday, we presented some preliminary findings from our research to some of the international organizations who work in the camps including UNHCR, IOM and DHS. It was very exciting to get feedback and questions and share some of the interesting connections we’ve been making. Today, Elise and Kiran got a tour of the AMDA (Association of Medical Doctors of Asia) facilities in Beldangi II (the largest camp) and Tulsi was able to shadow a doctor and get an inside look at the healthcare system for the refugees. As our research comes to a close, we’ve been following up with past interviewees to deepen our understanding of their lives. This place is no longer so strange to us: we walk familiar paths each day through the camps and are sometimes welcomed into homes like old friends. We have begun to put down roots here and now, we are preparing for everything to change again.

Some things haven’t changed since our first day: we still have cross-cultural dance parties, we are still curious and excited to learn about this place and its people, Nutella continues to be a staple in our diet and we still feel proud to be a part of this project. Things that have changed: we think 100 degrees is a comfortable temperature, our plywood beds feel like clouds (don’t be surprised if we sleep on the floor when we get home), bugs flee before us, every fiftieth word of Nepali makes sense, we say “Let’s go home” and mean the guest house and a diverse group of students have become a family. After all we’ve been through and shared, the greatest challenge of the trip will be saying goodbye.
One more week!
Jenny and the Team

July 8, 2011

Dear friends and family,

We’ve made it back to Kathmandu for the night and are getting ready for our long journey back to the US. We are excited to see you all, and to return to reliable electricity and water (and smaller insects!), but it has been tough saying goodbye to the home and friends we’ve found in and around Damak.

We spent our final days working in the refugee camps, gathering life stories using the mixed methods we’ve been working with since we arrived. Every morning, as we have for many weeks, we went out together to one of the camps, where we split up into our three research teams to speak with refugees who have expressed interest in participating in our project. We often begin with a map-drawing exercise that allows our interviewees to draw the earliest home they remember, or their journey from Bhutan to Nepal, or the parts of the camp that mean the most to them – the possibilities are almost endless! So many interesting (and, in some cases, long-forgotten) stories surface in these pieces, whether they are simple line drawings or elaborate sketches. We might also ask refugees to take us on a photo-tour of their camp so that they can point out and record important places that tell us a little about how the camp works and a little about how these places – a river, a home, a garden, an international or community organization – matter to the refugees themselves. Or we might show them photographs of places in the camps and ask them to tell us about those that they find most striking. The rest of the morning hours are spent talking with these refugees about their hopes and uncertainties concerning resettlement, their happiest memories, their greatest achievements, their experience of childhood and family life, and much more – whatever our interviewees are comfortable sharing with us. Altogether, we’ve gathered about 25 life stories, some recorded over many hours and on numerous visits. It’s amazing to think back to our first days here in Damak, practicing our interview skills on the roof of our guesthouse and a little nervous about how it would all turn out.

The warmth and generosity of folks as they’ve invited us into their homes to share their lives with us has been inspiring. Most of the refugees we’ve spoken with will soon be moving to the US, and it’s overwhelming to think about so many people leaving the lives they’ve known for many years and heading to such a new and unfamiliar place – for at least the second time, for many of the people we meet. After each interview, we have tried our best to return to visit the individuals we’ve spoken with in order to pass along a recording of their interview as well as photographs we’ve taken of them; we hope that these small things will help in providing a sense of continuity when they leave the camps to resettle. We also spent some of our final days enjoying Damak itself; two of our translators live in Damak and it was wonderful to finally meet their families! We had a lovely visit with Damanta, learning how to cook aloo paratha and aloo chap and dancing on her rooftop – and we spent a rainy afternoon visiting with Umesh and his family. We celebrated Independence Day with a rousing rendition of the national anthem, and we succeeded in sparking a brief dance party at the IOM guesthouse on our last night when we all (students and IOM staff alike) jumped up to do the Twist.

We already miss the daily rhythms of life in Damak, but we especially miss all of the people we came to know: our amazing, generous, and patient research assistants;the interviewees who shared their time and stories with us; and all of the local and international folks we met at our guesthouse, at our usual Damak hang-out spots, and on our walks around the city. A huge thank-you to everyone working with us in Damak and in Durham over these past weeks and months; this has been such a great adventure for us all.

See you soon!
Dominique and the team