Alumni Spotlight: Michael Siniscal


Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

Each day started early as my host family lived on a small farm consisting of a few cows (witnessed two calves being born while I was there in the spring) and terraced fields of various items like oranges, chilies, gladiolus and others that rotate with the seasons. Mrs Durga would make a hot spiced tea and serve a breakfast of rice and other mixtures with a hard boiled egg. Doesn't sound especially appetizing now that I write it, but I remember looking forward to it each morning.

After feeding the cows and some yard work, Mr Durga and Baba (his father) would take tea with me outside and greet neighbors passing along the many paths that connected the homes and small villages along the mountainside. Breakfast and visiting done, I would wash up in an attached toilet and outdoor sink (the shower was more of a bucket of cold water that you could make into a shower, but I found it easier to just wet myself, soap up, then douce myself with small bowls of water from the bucket - I did this in the afternoon when it was warm as there was no hot water).

A couple of the children who lived further up the "road" would come by and we we'd walk down a series of paths through backyards, waving to and greeting neighbors working in their yards, while additional school children joined us on our route to the school. By the time we reached the new road that was being built outside the school, there'd be ten of us with some of the children singing or telling stories. Once at the school, the children would line up according to grade and one of the teachers would give instruction for daily yoga routines, while another checked their school uniforms, shoes, fingernails and teeth for cleanliness (the school provided a number of these items to some students who could not afford them on their own).

The students would then filter into their partitioned rooms on long narrow benches and tables facing a chalkboard and we'd get started. I taught 4 classes of English a day which included 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades (at the time there was only one 5th grader and no 6th as the school was only a few years old). I taught from books where the children told me they'd left off, and used some games and other activities to help them relax and enjoy the class. My goal was for them to understand why a sentence was constructed a certain way, or why a word may mean different things if used different ways, or how to use a dictionary or thesaurus.

This may sound obvious, but the local standard is learning by rote: repeating or copying sentences over and over again with little understanding of the meaning. Took me a while to figure out what each class and individual was capable of, and then even longer to figure out how to capture their attention and interest - really wish I'd had more time to keep going.

My day ended early around noon when the children took recess and lunch and I went back up the mountain to go home and have lunch. I'd visit with Mrs Durga for a little while - she'd teach me some Nepali words or recipes and I'd exchange with English. My afternoons were free and I spent them taking walks, reading and daydreaming.

Ten years from now, what's the one thing you think you'll remember from the trip?

It's been five years since my trip and I can still remember it all like it was yesterday. I think the thing I'll remember most and which I think of often is the kindness and compassion of my host family. They are such good people and do so much for so many. Their son Sorev shares their same gentleness and generosity (with as little as they have) as his parents and grandparents. He is very bright and I expect to hear great things of him in the future.

Has your worldview changed as a result of your trip?

When I first decided to take this trip I feel it was for mainly selfish reasons. I wanted to explore, see something different and get away from my routine. After my first month there seeing how happy they are in their isolation, I began to feel as though I might be ruining these people and their culture by forcing English on them.

But by the end of my trip, I realized that English is a language as well as a tool that empowers people in a world that is dominated by a ruling class that for the most part speaks and does business in English. For those who want to get off the farm or to make the voice of their people heard, it is a necessity that they get outside support to provide an alternative to near useless government schools and the hope of higher education.

What was the most interesting cultural difference you encountered?

The most striking cultural difference came at the end of my stay with my host family. After being with them for so long and sharing every meal with them, I became very fond of them and was sad to leave not knowing when or if I might see them again. Unbeknownst to me at the time, hugging is not something that's done between single men and married women. When I went to hug Mrs Durga goodbye, she shrank from me, which crushed me at the time, but when I later realized my faux pas and knew it was not personal, I understood and hoped I had not offended her. Later that same morning, when Mr Durga saw me off to the bus, he gave me a big hug and I think I cried a bit. I still think of all of them with very fond memories.

Where would you most like to travel to next?

I still have some unfinished traveling in that area to accomplish. I missed the neighboring state of Sikkim, trekking in Nepal and Tibet and heard that Bhutan is very beautiful as well. Someday I hope to return to the village of Lower Esty Busti along these travels and see the people who changed me and my life for the better.