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The Climb to a Hilltop School

Gopal refers to a hill in the north of the Kathmandu valley. The hill rises steeply for nearly 1000 meters and is tightly terraced with rice paddies, especially in the lower elevations, and corn and millet up higher. The corn fields are triple planted with millet growing up slowly between the stocks and broad bean stocks curling up the corn stocks near the end of the corn season.

A steep, serpentine dirt and rock road forms switchbacks up the hill, though in the monsoon season most of it is inaccessible except by foot and occasionally by motorcycle. The roads erode in the rains and must be rebuilt each fall.

We began walking up the road, from where our car could go no further. Alongside us walk climbed a Tamang women, from one of the mountainous indigenous ethnic groups of Nepal. She wore the wrapped skirt that reminded me of Tibetan clothing, and had faded tattoos on the lower corners of her smile. With the help of a head strap, she was carrying a large jug. The jug was empty so she was able to walk at a fast clip. She had left at 4am that morning to carry her jug full of homemade millet and corn liquor down the hillside to catch the 5am bus to the city. Any later and the police would have been on duty and caught her. Two years ago the government of Kathmandu band the sale of the local hooch because it was believed to cause illness but some hotels and restaurants still bought the villager’s wares under the table. This liquor had helped save the village from a six month stretch of hunger when their corn and millet food stores dwindled each winter and spring. Every other week, it was worth it to sneak into the city and sell a jug for $25. In fact, the community had created a collective warehouse half way down the hillside so everyone could bring their jugs part way down the night before they went into the city.

At each higher fork in the road, we asked her the way to Bal Uhdar Secondary School. She eventually took over and just said to come with her. Before the next switch back in the road, she turned towards the steep wall of vegetation and began climbing a small footpath. She laughed and said we foreigners might not make it, but that this was the path the locals used. Tempted by the challenge, we followed, scrambling up foot and hand holds cut into the glinting earth and rock. The soil was heavy with silica and by the end of the day, or shoes were mud encrusted and sparkling. As we climbed, those of us not with Himalayan ancestry sweating profusely, Bishnu pointed out the plants he remembered from his childhood. This one was rubbed on cuts; it smelled faintly of yarrow. That grass, looking like miniature bamboo shoots, was good for keeping the soil intact and the cows loved it.

The woman laughed at our flush faces but took a break on an outcrop. We turned and I felt the slight spin of dizziness when we looked down the hill and out across the Kathmandu Valley. We passed other villagers on the path, asking them about the school. One man said, not to worry, the school was only a mere 60 steps more. I took hope, but quickly realized he was joking. We would like as high again, eventually reaching 600 meters (2000 feet) before the corners of the pink school poked out from the vegetation above us.

People were curious about us. When Bishnu explained that we were visiting the retrofitted school in the hilltop village, one man said that he was so grateful for the retrofit. The school block had survived the earthquake unscathed but the villager wondered by the government had only retrofitted the larger of the two school blocks. The nursery school was untouched and had cracked severely. The youngest students no longer had their classroom.

The man also wished he understood what the retrofit did. Now that so many homes in their village were badly damaged, he wondered whether retrofit could be used for repairing them. However, this retrofit project had been strictly focused on school strengthening. It lacked the community outreach, training and engagement that other retrofit schools had received. The village man did not know how the school had been retrofitted or what exactly made for earthquake resistant construction using the stone, mud, and bamboo construction materials they had on hand.

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