2019 Parents Fund Internship Grant Reflections: Alessandra Lowy

Alessandra Lowy

Alessandra Lowy

Internship Location: Eco Foundation, an environmental NGO in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal  

Journal Entry 1:

If there could be a direct opposite to sitting in a six-story apartment building, hearing the bustle of ambulances and firetrucks on the adjacent street and the screams of drunken fraternity brothers from the room next door — if there could be a direct opposite to shivering from excessive mid-May air conditioning, sweater-clad, anxious about an upcoming test or an antagonistic GroupMe message; to impatiently murmuring of a leaking dishwasher or nonfunctional dryer — oh, yes, this would be it.

Perhaps whoever said simplicity was bliss was onto something.

I am working at the Kevin Rohan Memorial Eco Foundation, an environmental NGO in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal that works on sustainable development initiatives such as biodynamic farming, natural building, and alternative energy (bio briquettes, biogas, and solar). They also have a low-cost health clinic for the local community; a handicraft workshop where they teach impoverished local women how to make jewelry from soapnuts; a low-cost Waldorf school for local children; and an eco-cafe where they serve food grown on the farm.

On my first workday, I worked in the tomato farm to prune tomatoes and set up strings for the tomato plants so they could grow vertically and have something to wrap around. To be working in the field alongside women with bindis, adorned in red, traditional Nepali clothing, who spoke little English, tending to screaming goats, on that first day felt like as authentic an experience as they come, and set the tone for the rest of the trip.

Since then, I have harvested pea pods and chamomile for the cafe, worked to clear out a section of garden for a new planting, and helped to build a spiral garden. I’ve also painted and designed tires to decorate the school playground, helped make a pomelo marmalade from scratch using homegrown pomelos (a bitter, yellow fruit), and made jewelry in the handicraft workshop.

Before I came here, I thought this trip would be an exercise in witnessing “suffering” — a call to action, a window into taken-for-granted privilege. Learning about the widespread adult illiteracy, poor education, gender inequality, pollution, and poverty plaguing this country has indeed been eye-opening — but living at the foundation itself is not a lesson in how not having a lot is tragic, or how it makes you feel like any less of a person. If anything, it has reaffirmed the beauties of minimalism.

When I arrived, it was Saturday — the day of rest — and with the other volunteers exploring the city, this left me hours to rejoice in my newfound playground. As I soon noticed, the kindness in people here is tangible — it’s a certain softness, a warmth, that you don’t quite realize is missing in the U.S., but when you find it, you can feel it in your bones. Although you often face a language barrier with employees, gestures and key words go a long way, and a smile is a universal language. It’s commonplace to see children in school uniforms and elderly women in traditional Nepali garb smiling and pressing their palms together as you pass to say “Namaste” (which is “my soul greets your soul” – or “hello” — the typical greeting here).

Technically speaking, we’re in a small village called Dakshinkali, but the foundation is a essentially a village in its own right. Between the full-time employees, volunteers, schoolchildren, teachers, and residents of homes built by the organization, the community is large in scale. It encircles a central patch of farmland. Within walking distance from my volunteer house is another volunteer house; a school with a rooftop garden and playground; a tomato garden; a free health clinic for locals; a community library; a seminar and lecture hall; a chicken and cow barn; a cozy restaurant where they serve homegrown food; a jewelry workshop; a mountain whose trail passes a Hindu temple; and several sustainably-built houses for poor Nepali families and Earthquake victims.

What I found here at the foundation is: people here don’t have a lot, but are just as happy, if not more. At the foundation, with no central air conditioning, no TV, occasional power cuts, clothing washed with soap-nut liquid in buckets and dried on clotheslines, with few material goods, low caliber showers, and in admittedly modest digs, a sense of camaraderie and collective contentment pervades. The community is so strong here, and there’s so much magic to behold — the luxuries of the Western world seem neither necessary nor sorely missed.

Journal Entry 2: 

The past few weeks have been incredible! I have become very close to my fellow interns and have gotten a lot more engaged with my work. I’ve also done a lot of hiking, have taken to long walks through the rice fields, evening yoga and meditation on the rooftop, and late-night card games with the other volunteers. I have met a number of locals in the village, played soccer with local children on numerous occasions, and visited a number of cultural landmarks, monasteries, and temples in the region.

I just had a meeting with Krishna (the head of the foundation) to present some of my intellectual ideas for the foundation, which he seemed very receptive to! Some of my ideas were: starting an online platform for selling the handicraft jewelry through which we could ship products to customers;and  creating online how-to templates — with instructional videos — to show like-minded environmental groups how to implement our practices; and making an updated, high-quality promotional video to encourage volunteers and donations.

In Intentional Communities (aka “communes” aka income-sharing communities), every unit of “work” is counted equally, whether it be picking basil; finding ingredients to make pesto; leveling out soil to make a garden bed; creating a promo video; making plum jam from homegrown plums; pruning tomatoes; weeding; or building children’s toys from bamboo. The Foundation works the same way: there is inherent equality among volunteers. This is refreshing; it’s the direct opposite to the hyper-stratified, competitive, capitalist work culture in which I’ve been reared. The opportunity to choose, on a daily basis, whether I want to contribute by smashing rocks with a hoe to channel aggression; daintily harvesting vegetables; reading and learning about alternative energy; or anything in between is profoundly liberating.

Being part of a sustainable food production process along every step of the way makes me feel warm inside. I’ve built and cleared garden beds, planted and replanted, weeded and pruned, staked, and harvested a litany of vegetables. Composting scraps of food to enrich soil to grow more food just seems to make sense, in a Hindu sort of death-and-rebirth way but also in a practical way, from an ecological and a gastronomical perspective.

In a lecture on biodynamic agriculture, Krishna said “either you’re eating medicine or you’re eating poison” and that stuck with me. Chemical farming deals with death while organic deals with life. In chemical farming, the key nutrients (potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus) are factory-made; they can’t be used to regenerate life. Chemical fertilizer took off in the 1920s when declines in seed and soil quality produced animal infertility. Since then, fertilizer use has created a number of man-made diseases, from mad cow disease to swine flu. In organic farming — the umbrella term under which “biodynamic” exists— natural means (like compost) enhance soil quality to improve crop quality.

Sustainable living is a luxury conducive to mental flourishing, not unlike a grassy yard or a rooftop hangout spot. Eating food you’ve grown whilst overlooking the garden where you grew it; picking chamomile flowers to make chamomile tea; knowing your food waste is composted and your energy powered by solar and biogas — it all feels right in an intrinsic sort of way. In a time when environmental awareness seems synonymous with pessimism, and the pull of consumer convenience seems to be ever-strengthening, experiences like these can provide that last morsel of hope that the good fight is well-worth fighting. 

Journal Entry 3: 

The past few weeks have been very meaningful! I was able to take some time off to go on a yoga and meditation retreat (staying with a traditional Hindu Nepali family on their organic farm on the outskirts of a jungle) and also take a backpacking trip up one of the Himalayas (Annapurna I), which was transformative and life-changing in a number of ways.

Although sometimes it’s frustrating that there is absolute flexibility and no structure to a lot of the work here, it’s also liberating. For the first few weeks, we’d solely been doing volunteer work in the field until I met with Krishna (the foundation’s president) and Santosh (the vice president) to present my ideas for intellectual projects. Now, people can choose between volunteer work or desk work. Engaging my brain traditionally to contribute to something meaningful has been a refreshing change of pace. I made this video on the Foundation’s eco-building initiatives, and the validation I received from Krishna and Leela was affirming! He wants to put it on the Foundation’s Facebook and show it at his opening presentation when new volunteers arrive.

After learning some about aquaponics and planning an educational visit to a local aquaponics center, Tommy (another UVa intern) and I combined our collective sustainability and architecture knowledge to build an aquaponics system for the greenhouse (where solid waste from fish in the pond is channeled to supply nutrients to plants in the greenhouse, and water is cycled through the system), and it seems to be working effectively.

We also constructed a “wicking bed,” which is a raised self-water garden bed used for irrigation in places where water is scarce.

I also worked with another intern to construct a “bee hotel” (an “air Bee n Bee”), a structure where solitary bees can build their nests. We used a number of different kinds of wood and bamboo, and learned a lot from the men in the workshop.

On the backpacking trip, we met some young adults from a youth environmental organization based in Kathmandu and exchanged contact information with them. We were then able to arrange a workshop where members from their group came to the Foundation to speak (in Nepali!!!) to children from the school (and their parents) about various actions local households can take to be more sustainable. This was very meaningful, and felt like a satisfying culmination to three months of building connections throughout the region.