Finding A Foothold -- by Zeke Maben

In December 2017 we left Zeke, one of our Anatta volunteers, in Nepal for the next 6 months.  Here he describes his first month in retrospective...

Nepal, 1 month in.

Month one: Finding a foothold.

This has been a month of exploration and impressions, of trying to develop a story, a narrative of the place I’ll be spending half a year in. I had been told by people who had taken the journey before me to control my expectations. It’s not good to imagine a place before you go there; it prejudices you, or leaves you disappointed. I laid a few basic plans: I would teach English at the Karuna Girls’ College, I would teach audio recording and editing to their journalism club, and I would do my best to meet the country where it was at.


I tried my best not to imagine the future. This was hard for me, as I am someone who likes to think ahead in the most general of ways. Daydreaming myself ahead is one of my favorite pasttimes: to think of the things I’ll see, experience, accomplish. I kept Nepal a vague lacuna, all prognostication kept to “what comes will come.” And then the moment we got off the plane the sheer enormity of the undertaking swamped me. I was in Nepal and I didn’t know my schedule or my exact living situation. All I had were a couple guidebooks and some people to help me along. One moment I was in Kathmandu and one bumpy day of a car ride later I was in Lumbini. It was all rather disorienting.


A school break and exams meant that we weren’t able to go directly into teaching or working for the school. Absent any clear curriculum, Schuyler and I did what we could: we took pictures for the Kapilvastu health clinic, and drilled Nepali with Alex, one of the medtechs in the Lumbini Emergency Response Network (LERN). We began to make friends: with Mahesh, local legend and director of the LERN program, Dharmendra, head of the crane sanctuary and Metta school veteran, and Alex, the aforementioned medtech, who shared her stories of volunteering with us and taught us our first Nepali.

Gradually, I found myself forming routines and building little projects. With my phone and the audio recorders I brought for the girls college, I started to explore the sounds of Lumbini and the stories of the people I met. As we left our small hotel and moved into the Bodhi Institute for Peace education, I began to feel at least somewhat comfortable in Lumbini. Feeling at home in a place is a function of routine. If you can find repetitions and patterns, you can find a home anywhere, even if you only speak a little of the language, even if its halfway across the world.

This new pattern was interrupted by a trip to Kathmandu we took to see Schuyler’s sister present on the research she did as part of SIT Kathmandu’s Program for the Study of Tibetan and Himalayan peoples. It was a bit of a shock to take the bus back only 20 days after coming to the Terai, but I found myself settling into routine again, going to the SIT presentations and recording them, interviewing newfound friends amongst the students, and trying out all the varied foods that Kathmandu had to offer.

In Kathmandu’s Thamel district we picked up some books on how to learn Nepali, as well as an assortment of Nepali novels. Alex had been very insistent on the value of reading Nepali books and learning the language. “It’s a matter of respect” she said “to learn the language of the place you’re staying in.” So, we started our journey through Nepali and Devanagari, in fits and bursts, interrupted by the occasional bout of food poisoning. I’ve only just managed to wrap my head around the Nepali characters, all 47 of them. But learning Nepali has already proven to be an engaging and rewarding experience. It is a joy to read street signs and advertisements. Every time I see an advertisement and understand, I think of a rainy Friday in NYC when I was five. Looking out the window of a Japanese restaurant, I recited the neon across the street with slow determination. “Zeke!” My grandmother shouted, astonished “You can read.”

It is extraordinary to be able to conjure up that glad feeling, all these many years later.

We said goodbye to our new friends after a week in Kathmandu and returned, ready to finally begin our work at the Karuna girls college, and rebuild our routines in Lumbini. I came down with a stomach bug the moment we came back, but it passed and I recovered, slowly but surely. We acquainted ourselves with Dr. Shankar and Mr. Sunil, the Principal and Vice Principal of the Girls College. They were both tremendously accommodating, and encouraged us to develop our own projects and integrate into the school however best we could. We got in our first week of work before the new year, and had a lovely Christmas at our favorite restaurant, GG cafe.


As the new year dawns and I settle into my new home at the Bodhi Institute, I think I have finally found a pattern that works, a track to follow, at least for the next few months. I’ve made friends with several of the monks. We play games and meditate together. They’ve taken me to see their home villages, and Schuyler and I have been tutoring them for their exams. The teachers at the Karuna girls school are co-operative and accommodating, and we’re experimenting with schedules; maybe Monday Wednesday Friday there, Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Metta school. It is invigorating, to teach. When a student discovers something, it is like the whole world falls into place.  As for my recording project, the Journalism club at the girl’s school has taken to it like a fish to water. I can see a vision building, of them tracking down stories and distributing them with incredible passion. We’re planning to collect old folk tales, and save them as records of a quickly changing Lumbini. I want this to be a project that continues even after I leave for the states.



There are still those moments when I am unsure of my path in Lumbini. But that anxiety is part of any trip, any job, any life. I am in a place now where I can live my priorities and plan and execute exciting work that can only be done here. I am so grateful to Annata, for giving me the opportunity to teach here, to record incredible sounds, to see the sun set over the monastery next door, to learn a new language, to plan out my future in this extraordinary country and beyond.  I am doing my best to craft a narrative of my travels that I will be proud of, that includes and helps others. Whatever obstacles there are to making this story, its creation will have been immensely worth it.