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Habitat for Humanity
Everest Blitz Build II, Nepal
October 7–12, 2012

By Susan Burrer

Namaste! …why go half way around the world to one of the poorest places on earth to build a house, some ask? I don’t think it is as much a reason as a feeling. …if not you, then who? It was obvious once we got to Nepal …462 volunteers from 14 countries…coming together to build 40 houses in a week!

There were several teams there from the United States; our team was a Thrivent Builds Worldwide team, comprised of 23 people from 10 different states! We would all find our way to Kathmandu in time to get to Bhakapur Durbar Square for the Blitz Build Opening Ceremonies that Sunday evening. What a grand outdoor opening event it was in the setting of the ancient temples, complete with Habitat Nepal visions for the week, cultural singing, dancing, and modeling, along with a giant buffet of authentic food!

From here we would go on to our hotel for the duration of the Build, the Himalayan Horizon, built up on the mountain side in Dhulikhel overlooking the beautiful valley (elevation: 5,026 ft). On occasion we would ‘forget’ where we were, and as we’d fling open the shutters in the morning, there would be the most beautiful panoramic view of the snow-capped Himalayans with the sun shining on them, bathing them in gold and rose, to even enhance their beauty!

Per the sign in the courtyard, brecfast (eggs, porridge, fruit, etc.) started at 6:15 a.m. and dinur (boiled rice, curried vegetables, or spicy lentil soup) is served at 6:30 p.m.—both meals were eaten in the hotel! Each morning the grounds keeper would be out sweeping the big courtyard with his little rice broom!

By 7:30 a.m. our entire team was on the bus for the ride down the mountain. The bus ride going anywhere deserves to be a part of the story, but especially up and down the mountain! The narrow, curvey road is shared with trucks, bicycles, cars, many motorcycles—some with the whole family of five on, one with a goat between the two people, ‘walking cornstocks’—a woman, always, with a whole bunch of corn strapped to her back, and holy cows—you surely don’t want to hit a holy cow! If you want to pass—yes, PASS— you simply toot your horn twice! If you get by with an inch of room, you’ve done good!
Since there are no protective guard rails, if you are by the window and look down, the tire is just inches from the edge of the cliff it seems!

Thirty minutes later we arrive at Panchkhal, Kavre, where all volunteer teams were preassigned a house number and location where they would be building…our team’s houses were in the first of three house ‘clusters’ lowest on the slope.

As we wind our way along the dirt path through the already established settlement, probably a half mile or so, there are no words to describe the feeling…it is like you were absorbed into a documentary from ancient times…the adobe houses with corn hung to dry, water buffalo tied up by the barn which doubles as a house, chickens of all sizes, women working…always…cutting/picking/gathering/shelling/grinding corn/rice, fetching water from the well, washing clothes, sewing plates and bowls out of leaves, tending goats, walking miles carrying something on their back; the children, in a slight bow, folding their hands ‘prayerfully’, greeting you with “namaste” in a rather quiet way…it all seemed so reverent …that walk… I will forever remember it…

We arrive at houses 13 and 14 and are greeted by the families we will be working along side with leis made from large marigold blossoms and a dot of red between our eyes (a tika) (I believe a mixture of rice, curd, and vermilion) signifying a blessing for abundance and victory of good over evil. Seems it might be more of a challenge to communicate since no one on our team knows Nepalese, but as the week progresses, it is proven that words once again are not always necessary. Around this little dirt, oblong-shaped ‘courtyard’ resides the related Danuwar families.

The two new houses we are building belong to sisters, Jamuna and Maili; their mother lived in one of the current houses on the courtyard. House 14 was the one Virgil and I worked on, the home of Maili (45),
a son Azay (19), two daughters, Saumilai (15) and Laxmi (20), and her husband Gyanbadoor. Kumari (11), a niece, also helped work in the mud pit. Jamuna’s little three year-old daughter, Roshani, captured everyone’s heart…she was the most photographed subject there!


Saumilai, Kumari & Laxmi


The foundation (stone and mud mortar), structure of the house (sundried adobe block and mud mortar with bamboo vertical posts for reinforcement), and cement over compacted mud floor were built several weeks before we arrived to give them cure time.

Our first tasks would be to ‘sand’ the dried mud mortar on the entire house using the roughest side of a broken brick as sandpaper, making the walls smooth for the ‘stucco’ application, and build the gable part of the house. The stucco was made of mud, cow dung (increases adhesion), and rice hulls (reinforces the mix) (4:1:1) and applied in two coats both inside and out. The three children were the main ‘stucco mixers’ in the pit…they would mix it with their bare feet and pass up the huge filled bowl with ease…where we would be struggling to lift it! The mud/cow dung mix helps the dwelling remain cool in summer and retain warmth in winter. A third coat would be put on by the homeowners once this cured. As it turns out, the color was about the same as the accent wall in my living room!


Applying Stucco

The roof was the top priority and an interesting concept as well…bamboo rafters, which involved sizing, cutting, and drilling through bamboo that was about 3 inches in diameter, building the frame on top of the house, one bamboo stick at a time, attaching that to the house with J hooks, and to 26-gauge corrugated galvanized iron sheets with nuts and bolts! We also sanded, primed, and painted the wooden shutters (no glass windows) and doors that were built in the mill just a few blocks away.


The homeowners get to pick the design based on their needs and size based on their ability to pay. Jamuna, for example, had a combined monthly family income of 8,000 rupees (US$92). These two houses were very small, just two rooms approximately 10 ft by maybe 12 ft each; each room had one window and one doorway leading to the outside; there was no connecting opening between the two rooms inside. The bamboo toilet (squat pot!) was built separately just off the house.
There would be no running water here…and so the work of the women continues! At least the well was just a half block away! A very common site was to see a woman with her aluminum vessel (gagris) riding on her hip and the top nestled in the crook of her arm fetching water—they are not light even empty!

All too soon the week was over and time for the dedication of the two houses…always a very touching moment. Some of the creative team members made a large banner out of the materials we had…our unused blue and yellow rain ponchos and a utility knife! There were no official ‘keys’ to pass but, with the family gathered round, Saumilai cut the ribbon and through an interpreter, her mom expressed their extreme gratefulness for helping them build their home…so little, it seems… just a humble little house they can now call home…but so life changing, and SO thankful…

The celebration commenced over under the big tree with the children doing several action songs the team members taught them. The women and children sang their native songs and danced, with one lady accompanying them with the madal, Nepali drum. All of the teams then gathered down by the giant tent where all the noon meals were served for the official Closing Ceremonies…what a week…and an experience of a lifetime…

Getting There…Prebuild —After we said we could join the team to Nepal, we are…where really is Nepal, knowing it was over in Asia by Tibet some place! You don’t have a real picture until you find it on an actual globe…literally, half-way around the world—China to the north and India on the other three sides. When you fly straight north of Atlanta, up over the Arctic Ocean, and drop in on the other side of the world, you know you’ve come a long way! We landed in Kathmandu, Nepal, via Seoul, Korea. Good thing there were days lapse before the return trip so the memory faded…

After getting our visiting paperwork work taken care of, we met up with a few of our team members and our local contact and guide, Tanka, for the trip to Hotel Samsara, not that far mileage wise but time wise! Our first visual of Kathmandu…so many people…motorcycles…trash…dust (many locals even have a cloth dust mask)…buildings that look like they were bombed out…but then the oldest dated building in the Valley is 1,992 years old! In contrast, all of the school children we pass have on uniforms in various colors for various schools and look very nice…it is a privilege to go to school and learn English.

Always in all of that is the bright spot…the women in their brightly colored guniu, a form of sari…they always look nice and well dressed amidst their surroundings—even in the pit. Later in the week, many of us would have our personal gunie sewn for us after a visit to the fabric store just down from the giant lunch tent—you pick out the material kit, they measure you, and the next day, you pick it up—top, pants, and scarf…all for less than $13! …business was good that week…I bet they didn’t sleep a wink!

Since there are no elevators in any of the hotels because of the earthquake possibility and expense, how do we get our now 50-lb suitcases up to the 6th floor? …no problem, a small bellboy pops one on his shoulder and the other in his hand and away he goes…very strong they are! He is scarcely out of breath while we are huffing and puffing! He needs extra rupees for this!

The Himalayans

We joined up with all of the team at Hotel Samsara, knowing only three of them from past builds, so it was fun to get to know everyone throughout the week. That evening (Friday) we experienced shopping down in the ‘tourist hub’ of Thamel where there is shoppe after shoppe outdoors and everything is bargained for! If you so much as moved your eye to look at something, they just knew you needed it and did their best to sell it to you. If you didn’t need the scarf, then the prayer wheel, or the singing bowl, or the knive…like you were going to get a 12-inch bladed knife home! Saturday morning the team boarded a small Budda airplane for the Mount Everest trip, the highest mountain in the The Himalayans world at 29,029 feet! Once you are that close to the majesty, it is hard to grasp the reality of how high the mountains are because there is nothing to compare it to—oh SO beautiful were the white mountains against the blue sky!

Several other temples were visited including the Swyambhunath Stupa (Buddist). We drove to Nargarkot for the night to watch the beautiful sunrise above the clouds and have breakfast overlooking the valley.

Postbuild —After driving back to Kathmandu we visited the Pashupatinath Temple, the most sacred Hindu temple in the world—cremation takes place here. Monks live in the earth caves to the right. This large complex is located along the Bagmati River, considered highly sacred with many bathing spots for use by pilgrims. Each year on the anniversary of the cremation, the family must return here for the celebration, so you see many families sitting around eating; all of whatever is left of the food and leaf bowls must be dumped into the river. The cremations are ceremonious and several are taking place visually at the same time. Whatever ashes remain are then washed into the river as well. There are so many beliefs in Hinduism. I am coming to realize that the animals, the symbols, every shape and creature carved into these temples tells a story. However, I am thankful to be born into Christianity.
We took a small plane to Pokara, the starting point for most famous treks in Nepal, situated at the base of the Himalyans. Only foothills separate the town from the full height of the mountains and magnificent 26,400-ft peaks of the Annapurna Range. We first went to the upper end of Devi’s Falls and then underground through Gupteshwor Cave to see the falls thundering through the rocks. Nepal’s most beautiful and mystic location is here on Lake Phewa Tal, where the snow-capped mountains are reflected in this sheltered lake. An early morning canoe ride on the lake let us observe the breath-taking views of the mountains…so majestic!

From here we took a 4-hr bus ride through the beautiful mountains, past waterfalls, along the turquoise-colored, deepest river in Nepal to the Royal Chitwan National Park, which lies in the subtropic lowlands. In the country you can see how the poor people make do—perhaps they don’t know that they are poor—it just is what it is.

We check into the Rhino Hotel just in time for lunch! Maybe on occasion but it’s not every day you look up and down the street and see elephants coming and going! The elephant-back safari into the jungle was a must in quest for a siting of a Bengal tiger, so four at a time jumped into the ‘saddle’ while the mahout steered the elephant by digging his toes in behind the ears! No tigers were to be seen but it was pretty cool to see a one-horned rhino in the wild, up close! Many of the trees in the jungle are Sal, the big leaves used to sew the plates and bowls in the village! If only I had a split rice straw I could stitch a plate, which is much less complicated than making a bowl, because I now have experience in making tableware, thanks to the women of the village !

Our guide took us on a bird watching walkabout and to see a baby rhino they were nursing back to health after his tiger attack. That afternoon we went upstream and canoed the Rapti River, powered by a strong young man with a pole, Nepal’s version of Venetian gondoliers. …wait a minute, aren’t we here looking for crocodiles in a dugout canoe where we are only a foot out of the water…just saying! …a very peaceful ride without incident as the crocs stayed on the banks of the river! We climbed out of our canoe and hiked through the jungle and across a few makeshift log bridges that required balance-beam skills to see a couple of rhino’s in the lake…truly in their natural habitat…it was nice to absorb the ‘quiet’ of the jungle.

Another thing we did was elephant bathing…you got on the back of the elephant in the river and with the mahout’s instruction, the elephant would pick up water in his trunk and spray everyone on his back—a tug of the ear did this! His other trick was to lay down, dumping you off his back! It was alot of fun, AND felt pretty good on the 80-some degree humid day! How hard is it to stay on the back of a wet elephant with him just standing still? VERY hard!

An oxen-drawn cart ride through the Tharu village to the elephant breeding centre took us back in time also. Here, they used mostly thatched roofs on their buildings. I find it most unusual that the children are never really ‘playing’; however, in this village, there was a little girl with a ball and a boy playing hopscotch!

We learned ALL about elephants and viewed elephants of various sizes, including babies and twins to grandfathers with long ivory tusks. One baby ellie standing by his mama was obviously sleepy—or dirt got in his eye—as he took the end of his baby trunk and rubbed his little eye..it was so sweet! I also learned that baby elephants nurse behind the front legs of their mama instead of in the back—the things you learn on a safari!

It was much more complicated visiting Nepal…the time spent just getting there and back, the time change was 10.45 hours ahead, the money was 85.5 rupees = $1, the language, the power conversion had to be dealt with, the power in general was turned off for hours at a time in some places, one could not use the water—you could not nonchalantly go about your day without staying focussed! It sure made one appreciate life in the USA and all that we take for granted.

Conclusion—As you can see, the prebuild and postbuild tours were fun, but if you ask any team member, they will always tell you the Build was the best part!

All of these 40 families are building their dream home…each one has a story…and they all realize without the help of Habitat for Humanity and all the volunteers, their dream of decent, affordable housing for their family would never come true. Like all of us, they just want better for their children! It is a lesson in humility for me…like I said in the beginning…it is a feeling…an addictive feeling, which is why most volunteers sign up for trip after trip once they’ve experienced it.

“People will forget what you said; People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you
made them feel.” …even though we couldn’t share ‘words’, perhaps along the way these families will always
remember that someone cared and came to make their biggest dream come true—a simple roof over their head.

Find a way to pass on your blessings and I know that you will be richly blessed in return!