Nepal worked its way into my itinerary when John Waldman, a friend I met five years ago in Lukla (just after finishing the Mt. Everest Base Camp trek), asked me to join him this year. He came back to Nepal to spend one month volunteering, and 1.5 months trekking. I declined the trekking invitation, but I agreed to join him and volunteer as an English teacher in rural Nepal for September. I had no idea what I was in for when I agreed to that. Initially, the experience was a shock to my system. The first couple of days were very hard, and on more than one occasion I felt like I was in over my head and that I should leave and return to Pokhara. My home in Nepal had: a bedroom that was no more than 4.5’x7’ with dirt floors, wooden boards for walls, crazy huge spiders (the size of baseballs people!) and a mattress that was more similar to a gym floor mat than any bedding I’ve ever slept on; an outhouse with a squat toilet; and, a single water fountain used for washing dishes, clothes, and attempting cold showers. Every time it rained (which was almost daily) leeches came out in full force so you were constantly picking them off of you, or cleaning up pools of blood from your feet, legs, and clothes if you didn’t get them in time (then later suffering because the bites itch worse than mosquito bites). Electricity worked only some of the time, and because John was put into the best bedroom (see below regarding overt sexism in Nepal), he was the only one with a working electrical outlet. And when you needed internet access, you had a 1-3 hour walk (each way) up and down a mountain, and no guarantee the village would have power or WiFi by the time you arrived. On top of that, the school we volunteered at… to say the children are poor (and the resources and quality of education poor), doesn’t begin to describe the depths of it. Throw in stray dogs, one of whom I fell in love with and wanted (and tried!) to bring back to the US with me, and it was a perfect recipe for feeling overwhelmed and very helpless.
But I didn’t leave, because: (1) I made a commitment, to John and this community, and I am not someone who flakes once I give my word; and (2) when you’re out of your comfort zone, that’s when the magic happens. I reminded myself over and over that discomfort would ultimately lead to a much more profound and worthwhile experience, and that’s exactly what I was looking for in my travels. So I stayed. And with each passing day, it got better and better; though I would be lying if I said I could continue living this way permanently. But by the end, I cried when having to leave my “mountain family.” I was more present than I’d been in a very long time (when there is nothing to distract yourself with, you’re almost forced to live fully in the present). I grew to love the silence and lack of distractions (instead of feeling bored), and really grew fond of the school and children. When I stopped experiencing life in rural Nepal through the lens of an American (always comparing their lives to what we have or how we live back home and projecting my emotions on them), I stopped feeling so sad and guilty. Because there was no need. These people may be monetarily poor (FYI: the average Nepali earns about $740 A YEAR!), but they have created lives where money is not necessary on a day to day basis; they truly are rich in so many ways and are capable of living off the land. They may be un- or undereducated, but they know how to work HARD and they know how to laugh and enjoy life. They may not be successful, as measured by Western standards, but they excel in kindness (except when it comes to animals, sadly- see below for more on that) and their generosity knows no bounds; any neighbor or child of a neighbor can stop by and will be greeted with tea, conversation, and/or food.
Living in the mountains with a family in rural Nepal has been a far more profound and, dare I say it, life altering, experience than I ever imagined. (Certainly more so than the Camino de Santiago, true story.) At dinner one evening John told me “it will be hard for anyone I know to really understand what this experience has been like.” And he’s right. But I’m still going to try. So here goes…
Facing Death (only a slight exaggeration): Getting to our new home
The adventure started with the trip to my mountain home. Step 1: fly from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Step 2: drive from Pokhara to Beni. The actual distance was only 70-80km (43-50 miles), but it still took 5 hours. Some of the road is paved, but most isn’t, which makes for a very bumpy and uncomfortable ride. Anyone who suffers from car sickness wouldn’t last more than 30 minutes on this road. And that’s probably being generous. Spent the night in Beni at Hotel Yeti, which is owned by a wonderful woman (whose adult children live in Queens, NY!); while the hotel is basic, it’s clean and the restaurant is very good (2nd best veggie burger I had in all of Nepal!), and the family was super helpful in finding me a taxi for my ride back to Pokhara at the end of my trip.
Step 3: try not to die, aka, drive from Beni to Tatopani. This was one of the two scariest drives of my life. Terrifying. Imagine the most extreme off-roading conditions you’ve been on or seen on TV. Now put those conditions onto the side of a mountain, with a road only as wide as a single SUV (but that of course is expected to hold 2-way traffic), and if you slide too far you’ll careen down the mountain into a massive, fast flowing river. Zero pavement, all a mix of mud, rocks, and water. This 20km (12 miles) can take anywhere from 2-5 hours, depending on road conditions. The entire drive, if I wasn’t praying for my life, I was thinking: WTF?! There are loads of schools in poor areas in this country, why the f^ck do we have to go to one that requires risking our lives just in transit?
Step 4: hike up a damn mountain. After a terrifying and mentally exhausting car ride, I then got to “enjoy” a really tough 3 hour vertical hike up a mountain to the village I was to call home for September. Nothing like a mountain hike/vertical assent to illustrate just how out of shape I was! And to make me wonder how much I still enjoy hiking. (Definitely putting the trekking pack away after this trip for awhile.) After all of that, I arrived to my new mountain home by early afternoon and was shown where I would be living. And WOW. What a spectacular view!
Life in Rural Nepal
There are no hotels, motels, hostels, lodges, or other public housing in this area, for a simple reason: there are no tourists. This village does not lie on a trekking route. So we had the privilege of staying with Chhetra and Sharmela in the home originally built by Chhetra’s parents. Our home has three rooms: the main room, where our lovely hosts, Sharmela (42yo) and Chhetra (45yo), live (and where their children and any guests stay when visiting). The house also has an outdoor kitchen (equipped with a new 2-burner gas stove) and dining area (the orange tent in my photos), an outhouse with a traditional Nepali squat toilet, and a single fountain that provides all water to the home- for cooking, drinking (for John and me, only after being boiled), washing (dishes and clothes), and bathing. They also have a cat, four buffaloes (think: bull or water buffalo, not western US buffalo) and 17 goats, including the cutest baby goat, and an extraordinary garden/farm from which almost everything we ate was grown (numerous types of greens, green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, squash, cucumber, carrots, radishes, garlic, onions, chili peppers, oranges, guava, and bananas).
The mental switch came for me when, about 1-1.5 weeks into our homestay, John and I almost spent the night at a lodge in Tatopani (due to weather concerns and trail conditions for the ascent). I quickly gave up the convenience of an in-room Western toilet in order to hike back up the mountain and sleep back at “home.” It helped that the lodge was not very nice- beds were at least as uncomfortable as my bed in GP and cleanliness of pillows and sheets was far more questionable, and Tatopani had lost power so no more WiFi (which was the only reason we hiked down the mountain). But I also realized in that moment that Chhetra and Sharmela really made John and I feel like family, which is WAY better than the atmosphere even the nicest hotels in the world can offer. Now feels like a good time to properly introduce the entire family: Dimple (19yo), Laxmi (16yo), pictured with their parents below, and then others not pictured below (the two other siblings, Anjali (22yo) and Krishna (12yo), as well as Anjali’s two children, Shesheer (~7yo) and Sheshom (infant)).
Having a glimpse into life here was fascinating. There are a few key observations I will share: (1) noticeable lack of conflict. Children barely argue at school and I never once saw any two adults get into an argument. I’m sure it happens, but I’m also sure it happens less than anywhere I’ve ever been. This was especially true for the family I lived with. I’ve never seen people share such close quarters (Sharmela, Chhetra, and both of their daughters slept in the same room when the girls were home) and spend all day and night working together (farming), and only ever express positivity and laughter. The family was joyful all the time. What a blessing to witness. (2) There is a total disregard for certain things that we (Westerners) would consider polite behavior. Such as, respect for your space/privacy (anyone, including neighbors walking by to use the family’s water, will just pop into your bedroom without concern as to whether you are sleeping or dressed), or being quiet if you are sleeping (the family spoke at the same, very loud, decibel, whether it was 5am, 5pm, or 11pm). It wasn’t meant as lack of care or rudeness. Nothing intentionally inconsiderate about it, so you just learn early on that earplugs are your best friend 🙂 (3) Lack of complaining. Not once in my time in the mountains did I hear anyone (child or adult) complain about anything. I’m not sure if it’s just not part of the culture here, or that people are truly so much happier and more content with their lives. More cynical people could say it’s that they have resigned themselves to accepting the constant hard work and conditions on the mountain, so why bother complaining, but I don’t think that’s it. Because you truly get a sense that people love their lives. John observed (about Chhetra and Sharmela): you could give them $1M and it wouldn’t mean anything to them, because they don’t really use/need money (they live off the land), and even if they had it they wouldn’t leave here because they love this place and their lives. And he’s so right. The grass is always greenest exactly where they are, not somewhere else (and yes, they have been elsewhere- they lived in my favorite city in India, Udaipur, for 6+ years).
There was a pretty predictable routine to our days. The family woke up before 6am everyday to begin work and I would usually hear them talking with John (often, quite loudly) just outside my bedroom, by about 7 each morning. However, because my rock of a mattress and paper thin pillow never permitted a good night’s sleep, I would put in ear plugs and try to sleep until at least 8am each day. When I finally awoke, I went down to the kitchen/dining room tent and had a tea (Nepalis make awesome tea… so long as you catch them before they add too much sugar!) and then breakfast with John. Around 9:15-9:30 one of our students, Javika, would stop by the house and we would all walk the 15-20 minutes to school together. John and I would return home after we finished teaching, usually by about 2pm. Sharmela often had tea and a snack waiting for us (fresh from the garden cucumbers or my favorite snack, a roasted corn dish called Mokai Caija), and we would occupy the next 6 or so hours (dinner was usually around 8pm) reading, doing laundry, playing gin rummy (John taught me!), talking, or watching a movie (I came prepared, loads of movies downloaded onto my iPhone ready for viewing without the need for WiFi- thank you Amazon!). After dinner, I’d occupy myself by reading, listening to an Audiobook, or sometimes watching a movie myself. I usually went to sleep around 10pm, though many nights not until/after 12am. And I woke up every time I needed to roll over (because the mattress hurt my back/body that much), which was every hour or two (so, sleep was not my friend in GP). On days without school, we would trek to one of the larger, nearby villages. These treks were great exercise, and the only way to get WiFi (which became a necessity when I was trying to figure out how to rescue a dog).
Chhetra and Sharmela had a very different routine. No moment wasted and no such thing as chillaxin. From the time they woke up until well after dark they stayed busy. Chhetra spent sunrise to sunset with his animals and cutting grass (they do not grow hay up here) for the animals to eat overnight when not grazing. While we were in GP it was corn harvesting season, so for almost two weeks Sharmela (usually assisted by one of her daughters) would spend all day walking the corn fields picking corn, then spend evenings husking and tying corn together so it could be hung to dry. When they accomplished all of this, Chhetra built this incredible structure (I call it a Tower of Corn) above the kitchen/dining tent to hang the corn and keep it dry for winter.
Sharmela cooked all meals (unless Lakshmi or Dimple were in GP, and then one of them would help- no, there was zero chance of her letting me help, that would have been an insult to her), although Chhetra could often be found helping her in the kitchen (and even serving her food). Their relationship was incredibly sweet and a true partnership, which is even more impressive given sexism in Nepal (see below). While they had a pretty consistent routine, every now and then Chhetra and Sharmela would surprise us. One night, while Dimple was visiting, she and Sharmela got dressed up and performed some traditional Nepali dances for John and me. John and I had so much fun watching them, and we loved how much fun they had putting on a show for us. Totally spontaneous and made for such a fun Monday night.
I came to Nepal with the goal of losing much of the weight I had gained in Europe. I even bought a TRX while in London, thinking I could use that on an almost daily basis. I was correct that there are trees here, but what I forgot to consider is that, when living on a mountain, flat ground around trees is nonexistent. And monsoon season was especially long this year, so trying to use a TRX outside when it’s raining (which means, tons of leeches on the ground) is a NOPE. Oh, and no doors that would support a TRX. On top of that, Sharmela is a wonderful cook but every meal was dal bhat, which is a rice based dish (and even the veggie curry that is always served is heavy on potatoes), so I consumed a lot of carbs. And I wasn’t about to be the jerk who insulted her by refusing food because I wanted to diet; though I would stop her at 1-2 scoops of rice (she would have otherwise served me 3-4 scoops with each meal). That said, the hiking John and I did got us both into better shape, which is a step in the right direction.
Hiking in Nepal
Prior to my arrival, I figured I would join John for a couple of hikes; I had no idea I’d be hiking up and down mountains just about every other day. Our first two or three trips were to Tatopani. Tatopani is VERY modern compared to where we lived, as it had multiple homes and buildings clustered together (actually resembling a village), including small shops, restaurants, “hotels,” and even WiFi!! Although I was excited about disconnecting for a few weeks, it was HARD. Took all my willpower not to access WiFi during our first trip to Tatopani on 8 September, less than one week into my time on the mountain. Tatopani is along the Annapurna hiking circuit, so it gets a lot of tourists. It’s also home to natural hot springs, which the locals love to swim in (and drink)- John and I passed on doing both. We also met Chhetra and Sharmela’s two other children while in Tatopani (Anjali,
After Tara, one of the other teachers, insisted that I visit Khobra (John had already planned a hike there, I had planned to skip that) I found myself on a trip to Khobra, a village about 6 hours up the mountain from our home; at least, that was the intention when we set out. Our first stop was in Paudwar, a village about 1 hour from the school (1.5 hours from our home in GP). [Dog that I almost adopted was called Kushi; more on her below, but that bit of info is necessary for the rest of this, and photos, to make sense.] We intentionally left Kushi behind, but 45 minutes into our hike she caught up with us and joined us into Paudwar. Tara gave us a tour of Paudwar and we ended up at the traditional 5 month celebration of one of the babies in Paudwar. (Until recent years, Nepali people did not celebrate birthdays; at least, not those living in villages. They only celebrated a baby’s 5th (girls) or 6th (boys) month. TV and the internet has made these children aware of what birthday celebration are, so annual celebrations are much more common.) Such a lovely village with friendly people. I ended up spending almost all of Saturday there as well, because the weather was terribly cloudy on Saturday morning and John and I agreed it wasn’t worth hiking 5-6 hours up a mountain if we wouldn’t be rewarded with a view at the top. So instead I spent 7 hours waiting at one of the local lodges; it took that long for WiFi to work. (I was frantically trying to coordinate details to rescue Kushi.) The only downside of all the time spent in the lodge was that Kushi disappeared into the village so I had to return to GP without her.
Teaching in Rural Nepal
School in Nepal is divided into nursery/pre-school/ kindergarten (if the village is big enough, the nursery will be separate from pre-K and kindergarten), followed by primary school (grades 1-5), then secondary school (6-10), and finally, grades 11-12. Most villages, even very small ones, will offer education through primary school. But to continue onto secondary school, children typically must move to live in a larger village (most will stay with family members, if any live in a larger village with a secondary school) or walk more than 1-2 hours each way for school. Even fewer continue their education onto grades 11-12, which requires moving to an even larger village, or more typically, a city (Beni, Pokhara, or Kathmandu). The school John and I taught in, located in a village called Gobani, had less than 20 children; ages ranged from nursery school (as young as 2 years old) through primary school. The school had white, dry erase boards in each classroom and that’s it. No chalkboard, no computers, no extra books, pens, or paper. Each child has their own textbooks and notepads, but there are no extra books or guidance manuals for teachers. Grades 1-5 all sat in separate rooms, and each class level had only 1-2 students. School begins at 10am (some children must walk as far as 1.5 hours each way to/from school, so not possible to start earlier) and ends at 4pm, Sunday through Thursday. Friday of each week is a half day of school. The school day is divided into eight 40-minute class periods, plus a 30 minute lunch/play break (there is no food provided, although the headmaster often buys and brings packages of biscuits/cookies or packages of ramen noodles so children don’t go hungry). There is one teacher, Santa, who took care of all children below grade 1 (usually 3-4), and the rest of the children are taught by the headmaster, Tulman, Yamu (whose 3 children attend the school), and Tara. So without John and me, that leaves at least two classes without a teacher at all times during the day. The children are SO cute and pretty well behaved, given their age and frequent lack of supervision. I really came to adore them, even if they constantly had snot dripping down their noses (tissue doesn’t exist here- but the children listen well when you ask them to pick a leaf outside and blow their nose) and they were always coughing in my face.
My perspective of the school, other teachers, and my own role/capabilities shifted dramatically in a very short period of time. My first impressions were not too positive, and included too much judgment. But after the first week, I had gained much needed perspective. That’s not to say there aren’t serious problems, such as the government created curriculum. Check out some of these “lovely” examples from the English books (be sure to read my comments to each photo)…
The other teachers are incredibly dedicated and do the best they can, given what limited resources they have, including their own rather limited English language skills- particularly difficult when the math, science, and English books and curriculum are in English. (So perhaps it’s no surprise that much of the “learning” consists of children sounding out and reading words from these books, without understanding of what in the hell they are reading. Example: they can all read the word “who” but none of them understand what it is/means/refers to and none have a clue what a question is.) But what the teachers lack in capabilities they try and make up for with their commitment to these children and the school… for example, one school day Tulman and Tara arrived late because the rains had caused a landslide on the mountain between their village and the school, so their journey took twice as long because they had to walk across an active, very dangerous (and still moving) landslide. (All John and I could think was: people in the US call into work for SO much less. They literally risked their lives to get to school that day.) I also stopped focusing on what the kids “should” know and how little impact I could realistically have in such a short period of time, and instead just poured myself (and every ounce of creativity I could muster) into them for the time I was there. Each day, each lesson, was my chance to leave a mark, no matter how tiny. And to know that, for the brief time John and I were there, that meant there was one teacher for each grade throughout the day, instead of 3 teachers rotating between the 5 grades. The children also grew fond of us rather quickly, and with so few students we got to know them rather well. So many of the students are so smart, and so eager to learn. Though at the end of our time together I felt sad, not only to leave the children, but because of how terribly far behind 90% of them are (compared with what the curriculum shows they should be at), and also knowing that the really bright students will not be exposed to the type of teachers or resources that would permit them to learn effectively and thrive.
Trying to teach in these conditions definitely challenged me, in a wonderful way. I don’t think I’ve found a new calling, but it was nice to wake up each day and know that my work mattered. Plus, work that doesn’t involve staring at a computer screen for 12+ hours/day (or anytime at all, at this “job”) was pretty awesome. And for our last day the entire community put on a program for us. It was all I could do not to cry. All the children from the school performed traditional dances (dressed in traditional Nepali costumes), Chhetra, Sharmela, and Dimple came (and all of them performed as well), and even the senior men in the community came and performed. We were also given about 10lbs of floral necklaces (each!) to wear, made by so many different families in the community. They also gave us typical Nepali woven bags (made by a community member) as presents. We didn’t realize how much our presence meant to the community until the last day; they so rarely get tourists, they were over the moon we had come to live with them for a few weeks. To see all of the families leave their farms, animals, and chores for the day to help honor us… wow. Totally unnecessary and humbling. Because I am certain I gained far more than I was able to give. I should have thrown them a party and given them thank you gifts.
I have the cutest videos of the children performing dances at the goodbye ceremony. Unfortunately, even when I film vertically this blog turns all videos sideways; so until I can figure that out, I’ve limited videos for this post to the one of the children singing above. (If anyone reading this knows how I can fix that, HELP PLEASE!)
Sexism is Alive & Well (Sigh)
While the Nepali people are generally kind and very hospitable (minus the treatment of animals), women are still second class citizens. Not just Nepali women, but tourists as well. When I came to Nepal 5 years ago I was traveling with Jodi. As two women together, I did not have a male counterpart with whom I could compare my treatment. But now that I am with John, it is glaringly obvious. John is often unaware of the differences in how we are treated (as they are occurring), though when we discussed this he fully acknowledged what a problem it was; he just chalked it up to Nepali society. As wonderful as Sharmela and Chhetra are to me (and they are!), John came first. I believe that my happiness was very important to them too; they’re just hard wired (so it seemed) to prioritize men. And hey, in fairness to them, that’s not unique to Nepal- I can find many similarities between the way of life here and behaviors common in the US (especially the South). More upsetting to me was how PK (man who owns Tribikram Yoga in Pokhara) treated his wife; he was never abusive or mean, but they are by no means partners. I never witnessed any warmth, kindness, or attempt to help Sri Jana; just criticisms and complaints. He views himself as husband, head of household, with freedom to say, do, or go anywhere; Sri Jana is expected to be home (at all times) and care for him, their daughter, and any yoga guests, and as far as I can tell, she’s not permitted much of a life outside of the yoga studio. Her bedroom is the kitchen for Christ’s sake.
Finding Love in the Most Unexpected of Places; (Failed) Animal Rescue in Nepal
My first day of teaching this sweet, skiddish dog ran up to me in a classroom seeking affection. I didn’t pay too much attention to her until she followed John and I home. I kept asking him what we were going to do, how we could get her to stop following us, and he told me not to worry, it would be fine. After a few days I realized that if you show even an ounce of kindness to the animals here (for example, petting them, or sometimes simply just letting them lie next to you without hitting them with a stick), they will stick to you like glue. I cannot fully comprehend how people who are so warm and kind to other people can think it’s appropriate to hit dogs with sticks and throw rocks at them (these are not strange dogs who pose a threat, they are familiar dogs who often live with the same people who treat them in this way). That is the one part of Nepal I dislike intensely. Well, my affection towards the dog, who I eventually named Kushi (“happy” in Nepali), grew very quickly the more she continued to follow me to and from school and on long (and tough!) hikes John and I would take up and down the mountain. She was amazing with people, especially gentle with children, was potty trained, great with other dogs, cats, and all farm animals (including chickens), and although friendly protective of any place she thought of as her home/her people. Pretty much a dream dog. I decided I would do everything in my power to try and bring the dog back to the US; a task that proved to be very time consuming and especially difficult without internet or a phone to call local organizations for guidance and help. While John was sympathetic towards my efforts (and he also grew fond of Kushi), I realized quite quickly that moral support was all the help I’d get from him. He never discouraged my efforts, but he did gently remind me several times that the dog was fine before I arrived and if I couldn’t work things out to rescue her, she would be fine after I left; people in the area would continue to feed her. And I knew he was right. I had to remind myself of that over and over, as tears streamed down my face when I finally realized I couldn’t get her back to the US. I had looked at every possible website with information, emailed the US Embassy in Nepal and the one animal rescue organization in Kathmandu, reached out to every Nepali I knew for help (unfortunately, that list was only 2 people long), learned about CDC requirements, and contacted the only approved animal shipment organization in all of Nepal. I did every thing I could think of (and every hike for internet was exclusively so I could find out information about rescuing her), I asked for every favor possible… and it still wasn’t enough. I could have gotten Kushi from the mountain village to Pokhara (and God bless PK, he had no problem with me bringing her!), but I could not find anyone who could take care of her for the 30-day waiting period (necessary between receiving a rabies vaccination and when she could fly to the US). I simply couldn’t risk bringing her to Kathmandu and then abandoning her there, as her quality of life would be much worse in the city than in the mountains. I have no doubt this failed rescue will haunt me for years to come.
I had mixed feelings when it was time to leave the mountain. I adored Chhetra, Sharmela, Dimple, and Laxmi, and knew I would miss them terribly. I knew I’d miss a life that was largely absent of stress and where I had 2-3 home cooked meals daily, always served with a side of laughter. I loved getting out of the habit of spending so much time online (especially, social media) and enjoying people and things in my immediate presence. I also got to know John really well and enjoyed having this time with him. And getting fit by hiking in the Himalayas and enjoying fresh, mountain air, and skies full of stars (no light pollution!), was a treat. But I missed having a good night’s sleep, being able to use an indoor bathroom and take a proper shower, being able to go for a walk without having to worry that I’d have to pick 20 leeches off of me, and having at least some connectivity. For those reasons, I was quite looking forward to returning to civilization.
There is so much of the world I haven’t seen, so I initially wondered if I made a huge mistake by committing a full month to a country I have already visited. Reflecting back on this time, now that it is over, I fully believe that this all fell into place for a reason, and my being in Nepal is just what I needed in my life. It is impossible to live in such conditions and not be extraordinarily conscious of, and grateful for, everything I have in my life- and how easy my life is by comparison. To put into perspective what is really important (family, friends, laughter, community, kindness, generosity, being completely open to strangers and willing to help anyone who crosses your path) and see how hard some people work all their lives without a moment of complaining, definitely makes me reflect on what I want in life, and what I’m willing to do (or, give up) for it. As I finish writing this post, from the comfort of my riad in Marrakech (future post forthcoming), I do wonder if I’ll ever see my mountain family again. Though I am all smiles right now, because both of the girls friended me on Facebook and we chat almost daily, so I think I’ll have my little sisters in my life for quite some time. So at the end of it all, I left with an expanded family. Thanks Nepal.