My heart rate quickens as I gasp for a mouthful of thin mountain air. The sticky humid atmosphere mixes with sweat, soaking my clothes and body. Feet pound on the pavement getting heavier with every step towards the top of a staircase that seems to infinitely climb to the heavens.
It has been three full weeks since I have arrived in Dhulikhel and I have yet to reach my goal. On my second day I found a public stairway aptly named “1000 steps”. Upon closer inspection I determine there are not actually 1000 steps, more like 750 but I am told the name actually denotes its construction cost, 1000 NR (Nepalese rupees) per step. Since discovering this monument of brick and stone, I have been trying (with little success) to run non-stop from my hotel up the steps, to the temple at the top of the mountain and return. A 5 kilometer round trip. Why do this? Well…why not? I enjoy running and a challenge, even if it’s only a personal goal, helps me focus. Back home I can easily run 10km or more but up here it’s a whole new ball game. I am just not used to running in this environment. My CARE teammates explain to me that Kali is a Hindu god representing power so building a temple in her honor at the top of this climb makes complete sense. Later I discover that this stairway is the start of another trek to a Buddhist monastery called Namo Buddha. (More about that later.)
While running I can’t help but wonder what may lurk within the forest surrounding me. After all Dhulikhel literally translated means “a place where tigers play”. Recalling a time when Tigers were hunted and sold in mountain jungles surrounding the original town. The Tigers are no longer here but the old city remains with roots that stretch back more than 800 years. A fact that’s not hard to believe for most of the original buildings and streets have survived and are still in use. Shop keepers still sell their wares out of small doors and windows with fantastically ornate carvings framing each.
The streets are made with stone that one can see has been weathered slowly over time. Newari families, the indigenous people of Kathmandu Valley, still live in these brick and mortar dwellings.
Newari families are not the only native people of Nepal. There are many more, 63 to be exact, according to a 2011 census. Even though these people represent a significant portion of the population they are often marginalized and disadvantaged. As I travel throughout Nepal visiting rural communities and towns I will get a glimpse of their lives and struggles. First we will travel to neighboring districts to meet with local NGO’s in charge of administering the SAMMAN project. The mission is in its beginning stages there and will give me a chance to personally observe challenges and obstacles that may lie ahead. We will meet with local Mothers Groups, solicit feedback and record findings. At the end of July we will travel to the far western regions of Nepal where the SAMMAN project has been executed since 2011; giving me perspective on what impact reproductive health initiatives have had on life in this region. I am excited to experience more of this beautiful country and meet more of its people. As we travel I am promised leisure time for sightseeing. Especially in the wildlife reserves of western Nepal where there are real tigers not just stories about them. For now I am satisfied with witnessing the humanity of Nepal. A side of this beautiful country that no regular tourist will ever see and for that I am eternally grateful.