WorldTeach Volunteer Holly Liebl talks about getting used to a totally different calendar system and schools us a bit about holidays in Nepal…

One of the most confusing and ambiguous parts of my journey here in Nepal is figuring out when there’s a holiday.  You might be saying, ‘duh!  Look at the calendar!’ And sure, you’re correct, but only about 50%, so it still doesn’t add up.  If you look at the Nepali calendar, which follows the Bikram Sambat calendar as the West follows the Gregorian calendar, you will find that Nepal’s calendar is approximately 56 years and 8.5 months ahead of the Gregorian calendar.  So they are in the year 2071.  While looking at a Nepali calendar, any days that are highlighted in red indicate a national holiday.  You will typically see multiple days of holidays, especially during the festival season, which is about to start up mid-August and the celebrations will begin.  Nepal and India are known for using the Bikram Sandat calendar, but so do other countries such as Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Thailand.  The maximum number of days that can be in a Gregorian month is 31, but Bikram Sandat can reach 32 and the days within each month vary according to each year.  As the Gregorian calendar begins the new year on January 1st, the Bikram Calendar begins its new year mid-April.  Confused yet?  I haven’t even begun.

So it seems like it would be fairly easy to figure out days in which I should not show up to school or head into Kathmandu because the streets are closed for special occasions.  Maybe on the days that are highlighted, but there are curve balls everywhere.  On July 13th, Sunday, I showed up to school.  I couldn’t figure out why I had a few of my level 12 students standing outside of our building, but they informed me that the class would not be there that day.  I asked if they were home.  I received a little Hindu head bobble, which means ‘yes.’  I asked if there was a reason they were home and not at school to which I received the same reply.  Nothing more, nothing less.  So I sent the three students home, thanked them for their courtesy visit and we would reconvene the following day.  Still confused and having no clue, I went home to prepare for the rest of the day, returned to teach my level 3 and then after class, my co-teacher said it was a holiday.  She said a few words in Nepali and as much as I tried to follow, I had no clue.  I kept hearing the same words over and over again.  So then on my way to my level 4 class, I ran into my other co-teacher who told me there was no class, but a drawing contest.  If you ever want to confuse an OCD American, like me, throw off their schedule, don’t fully explain why, and tell them something random is about to happen.  It works every time!

I kept trying to get as much information from my teacher and he tried his best to explain that the holiday was in memory of an honored Nepali leader.  So I asked if I could join him and as he rounded up his students, he escorted me to the room where the contest would begin.  The younger students were herded into the primary classrooms, ready with their rulers, erasers, colors, and pencils to begin their contest.  They had about 35-40 minutes to create their best drawing of this honored leader.  I, along with a male Nepali teacher, monitored one class, but there were at least two or three other classrooms that were under close scrutiny- no cheating, no talking, just draw and create your masterpiece!

Over half of my classroom was so excited of my being there as they were from my level 4 class. When the time was up, we collected all of the drawings, finished or not, and combined them with the other classes’ work.  Then three Nepali teachers had me join them in judging the drawings.  Some drawings I thought were phenomenal were quickly tossed aside as the Nepali teachers were looking for something in particular.  (One minute error in this leader’s dress, accessories, objects he was holding can eliminate a student from winning.)  They selected four pictures and we all crammed into one room, over 65 students and at least 6 teachers to announce the winners and deliver their prizes.  Nepali teachers handed out prizes to 3rd and 4th place winners, which were notebooks and a pencil.  Then they wanted me to participate in handing out the prizes to 1st and 2nd place winners, taking our picture and smiling big!  Just the invitation for this event’s contest is huge- it meant that even as early as July 13th, I was accepted as one of the faculty.  I wasn’t just a foreigner teaching a language that so many struggle with, but it was more about the rapport, camaraderie, and embracing a cultural celebration that was not my own.  That very little gesture has stretched for miles in my school.

From there, one of the co-teachers saw how much I enjoyed the first contest that she showed me into a room with middle school, younger high school students (70 of them- I counted).  The room was significantly smaller than a small dining room.  The older students had essay-writing contests.  When they finished writing, they were called individually to the front of the room where they read their essays.  I would say they read their essays to the class, but it was more or less reading so that the two teacher judges could hear them.  Others were barely paying any attention, readers were almost whispering their essays all in Nepali, and after all essays were read aloud, the judges left and came back.  Ask me what any of the essays said and I haven’t a clue!  I listened to essays written and read in Nepali, a derivation of Sanskrit called Devangari script.  Again, it wasn’t what I could understand; it was all about my being present for this celebratory day!

After prizes were delivered to 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th places, we all dismissed and I headed home.  It’s amazing how listening to a foreign language for over one to two hours straight can fatigue one’s mind.  I felt exhausted, spent, like I couldn’t even decide if I wanted to buy a juice box and pack of biscuits on my way home.  Just so exhausted.  When I returned back to the school to teach my level 2 class, my host teacher was marking some papers and he asked if I knew it was a holiday.  I told him yes and that I participated in the celebration contests.  He told me then that the school closed after that, so I could go home.  So I walked back home, still unsure of how the day was decided.  Perhaps I never will.

So what was the holiday?   The holiday was to honor famous and original poet, Bhanubhakta Acharya.  His story is quite moving and I found some of his works I was able to research so genuine, so real, and so true.  He observed the struggles of life, was falsely accused and imprisoned, where he developed severe health complications and died.  It made sense why many of my students made sure to include Bhanubhakta holding a book and a pencil in his arm and hand in their drawings.  His inspiration came through words, touching the lives of many, writing relatable and thought-provoking inspirations through his gift of writing.  Upon my return to the States, I can’t wait to find more of his writings and embrace more of his talent.  A tragic ending for Bhanubhakta, but a legacy that is raised up and celebrated for years to come!

Last Monday, July 28th, my level 12 students and some of my co-teachers told me that they were 75% sure there was a holiday, 25% unsure.  So, in my own facetious manner, I asked when they would be 100% sure.  No definite answer.  So I said if I didn’t hear anything, I would come to class and if no one joined me, I would know that there was a holiday.  By the time I left my last class, at 3:20 pm, the school was still 75% sure.  So that evening, I texted the assistant headmaster and, yes, it was a holiday.  It was the close of Ramadan for Muslims and their fasting was over.  The government called Tuesday a national holiday, but couldn’t make the decision official until the weather patterns were known and the weather was conducive for the Muslim celebration.

It’s not just Hindu legacies, Muslim holiday observances, but even the visit of Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, will shut down the Kathmandu Valley for two days during his stay.  At first, last night, the government called a holiday, but no one was certain if it included EVERYONE.  So, I texted my assistant head teacher and my host teacher and found out that the morning classes were running, but he was unsure about the afternoon classes and thought that it was only for private schools that use public transportation for students.  So I went to school and he later told me that a holiday was called, but for schools like ours, the headmaster was given permission to close their schools- he had to see how the roads impacted the arrivals of their teachers and students.  So we went to our classes.  None of my co-teachers were there.  In fact, at least 1/3 of the teachers were out, half of the students made it to school.  I promised my level 3 class I would take them to the library tomorrow, but then they told me it was a holiday.  I told them all the teachers told me school was open tomorrow.  They told me it was on the calendar.  There was no red on the calendar.  This Westerner is thoroughly confused…again!

So I arrived home after my level 4 class and Didi thought I was done for the day.  I told her I think I still have class.  I would check and if there was no class, I would head back home.  It’s good it’s only a 10-minute walk, unlike some of my fellow volunteers who have 30-minute walks, one having a 45-minute communte.  Can’t imagine with all of this confusion!  So I returned in the torrential downpour and half of my class was there.  Right after we started class, our headmaster walked in and told the students it was a holiday tomorrow.  Now, I’m wondering how I’ll keep my students focused for the rest of class.  I think of my classes back home.  If there’s an early dismissal, you’ve lost them.  They’re elated, making plans, can’t focus and can’t wait to exit those school doors.  It was different.  My little 2nd graders put all of their energies into the lesson.  We worked on adjectives, talking about their favorite objects, colors, descriptions and instead of saying them, they yelled them at the top of their lungs!!  It didn’t bother me; it excited me!  Their English sounded so good!  We had to finish an activity and color the objects in their assignment.  They all gathered around each other, sharing my colored pencils, talking, focusing on coloring within the lines, but there was something so much sweeter.

My newest student, Joshep, who has come from the village, knowing very little English, but so excited for my class, tries SO hard, especially when I’m working with him, started to sing B-I-N-G-O, a song I taught them a few weeks back.  The words were pronounced with such crisp accuracy, his sweet little, innocent voice carried amongst the rest of his peers and he was so lost in his own world of pure happiness.  A few rounds later, two other little boys joined him and they sang B-I-N-G-O for the next 15-20 minutes, only interrupting the tune if they needed my help, but went right back into their songs, without skipping a beat!  He is the sweetest boy I’ve worked with in Nepal and has such a beautiful smile.  You would never know how disadvantaged he and his family are by watching his zest for life, his happiness amongst the camaraderie of his fellow peers, his very contagious smile.  He will always step out of his classroom to wave to me and say ‘Hi Teacher!’  To hear singing in English, when 6 weeks ago, he could barely pronounce more than ‘teacher’ was so edifying and exciting for me.  If I haven’t made a difference elsewhere, I know I’ve made a difference in Joshep.  You make a difference in one child’s life and the world will, indeed, become a better place to live!

Not to digress, but Joshep needed public recognition!  So on my way home, I was joined by a student who lives next door to me.  Her name is Sabine.  I asked her if there was a holiday tomorrow.  She said for students, yes, but not for teachers.  Then she was talking about today and how there was a holiday, but not really…so I’m back at the beginning.  I know students aren’t going tomorrow…now I am back at stage 1 of confusion.  The big question is…do I have a holiday tomorrow??  Time will tell…or maybe just when I show up to school.

– Holly Liebl, WorldTeach Nepal Summer 2014
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