MY FIRST VOLUNTEER ADVENTURE IN NEPAL
I HAD ALWAYS WANTED TO GO
I had always wanted to visit Nepal. Trekking adventures, Buddhist spirituality. There was even a period where I walked about singing the old Cat Stevens song, “Kathmandu, I’ll soon be seeing you …” In fact, I almost made it in my twenties, but Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the ornate Buddhist temples won out on that occasion. During this time, it never occured to me to volunteer.
MUM, I THINK I MIGHT GO TO NEPAL
Life went on and the yearning to go was buried under everything else that constituted life. That was until my daughter, Maia, then at university came home talking about a volunteer trip she had read about to a remote Nepalese village.
So many thoughts and emotions tumbled about inside me as she told me about the trip. Her decision was so simple and yet, there I was, entrenched in middle age and still carrying the unfulfilled desire to go. I managed to nod and smile and make all the right encouraging sounds as a soft sadness filled my heart.
LIVING VICARIOUSLY THROUGH MY DAUGHTER
But I quickly replaced that with excitement as I helped her get organised. If I couldn’t go myself, I would have to be happy following her adventure.
She would be staying in a remote village in the Nepalese winter, so she definitely needed to take warm clothing. The coat in the pic however, kindly donated by a somewhat larger family member, did not make the cut.
I waved her off at the airport with my heart in my throat and waited impatiently for her to contact me on arrival.
The adventurer in me thrilled at her excitement and enthusiasm, and the way she spoke about the people and the country. It really was the next best thing to being there.
THE DEVASTATING EARTHQUAKE
A couple of years later, she managed to gather together a group of Education students from Monash university to do an International Teaching Placement at the same area. She was so excited. It was all put together in conjunction with the tour company she had originally volunteered with. The trip was almost organised when, on April 25, 2015, a large part of Nepal was devastated by an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale.
Multi-storey buildings in Kathmandu were toppled, ancient temples crumbled and almost nine thousand people lost their lives. With ongoing aftershocks, 3.5 million people across Nepal were left homeless, living in the streets and the fields, too afraid to re-enter damaged and highly unstable buildings.
Of course, the trip was cancelled.
A SURPRISE INVITE
Over twelve months later, the Monash Education faculty expressed interest again and suddenly it was all on. I remember so well, her excited call to me.
“Mum, Mum, it’s all organized. We’ve got sixteen volunteers. It’s really going to happen this time!”
I was so happy for her, then she continued, “Everything has fallen into place, the only thing we don’t have is a qualified teacher to act as supervisor, so I thought you might like to go.”
What? Me? Nepal? With you? Would I ever!
BUT COULD I???
Then, just like Ronnie in the book I’ve written that is partly based on my experiences, Himalayan Awakening, I got the jitters. How was I going to manage to haul my out of shape, middle aged ass up through the mountains? Me? I had chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia for a start which had both decimated my body confidence, not to mention my fitness level. The other volunteers, would all be young, fit, university students. I broke out in a heart-pounding sweat just thinking about it.
“Yeah, I’d love to – if you think I would be up to it? Do you think?”
My super-fit daughter reassured me I would be fine. Besides, I had a couple of months to work on my fitness. Months? Gawd, I needed way longer than that.
A lot of Ronnie’s first impressions as she heads off on her grand adventure in Himalayan Awakening are very similar to my own. The view of the snow-capped mountains as the plane circles before landing in Kathmandu, the crazy traffic, the Loving Heart restaurant, are all part of my fond memories of Nepal. And I admit, the extreme breathlessness, climbing, with wobbly knees, till you’re not sure if your lungs will burst or you’ll puke, are also pulled from my own memories.
OFF TO POKHARA
When Maia and I first arrived in Nepal, we had a week to ourselves before we joined the rest of the group for the trek in to the village. We spent the first couple of days in Kathmandu and then hopped an early morning bus to Pokhara, out west from the capital.
THE BUS TO POKHARA
The bus took about 8 hours to wind and bump its way along the valley and into the hills. Fortunately, I had been warned and had taken some travel sickness pills or it would have been a very unpleasant trip.It was a realxed journey and the bus stopped several times for us to get out. Each time we would settle our bones back into place, and wander through the roadside stalls buying drinks and snacks. The masala tea was of a consistently high quality and a cup at each stop helped me to keep my strength up and my stomach settled.Our fellow passengers on the bus were a curious mix of westerners, locals and … others. Like the delightful Sri Lankan woman we met, who was on leave from the charity she worked for there. She was on her way to a site high in the mountains above Pokhara to visit another charity.
WELCOME TO POKHARA
Pokhara, built on the edge of Fewa Lake, is a slightly upmarket version of everything typically Nepali. There are many garishly bright houses, deep potholed roads, rubbish, especially plastics clogging the gutters, and many places catering for a full range of tourist needs.
LAKE FEWA (PHEWA) AND THE WORLD PEACE PAGODA
After a good night’s sleep in our large room in The Mountain House, we had a filling breakfast and were excited for our enxt adventure as we made our way down to the lake. Once there, we hired a little boat and … a umm … rower … driver … oarsman? to take us across to the other side of the lake. It was a peaceful, dreamy experience, one I would recommend to anyone.
THE PEACE PAGODA
On the other side, we had a strenuous climb up the mountainside to the World Peace Pagoda. It was officially winter, the off season for tourists, but we were perspiring freely in our t-shirts and shorts. The bright white Pavillion was impressive, definitely worth the effort, as was the view back across the lake and the township.
OUR MEMORABLE IF NOT WONDERFUL DINNER
That evening, we chose a local restaurant catering to Westerners for dinner. The chicken coconut curry sounded divine, so I ordered that and Maia ordered vegetarian noodles. I knew I was being brave, ordering meat, but I was relaxed. I had had a wonderful day and my guard was down. That turned out to be my least pleasant adventuere in Nepal.
Alas! By the time we were ready to turn the lights out a few hours later, my stomach was churning and I spent the night driving the porcelain bus (aka being violently ill). Fortunately, we had an ensuite room, so I didn’t have to share it, unlike many years before when I had had an even worse experience in Yogjakarta in Indonesia—but I digress.
My daughter’s response was half sympathy, half remonstration about how I should have known better than to choose the chicken, which made me feel worse. As the sun lightened the room in the early hours of the morning, however, she raced past me as I came back to my bed from yet another trip. Something in the way she hurried past startled me.
“Not you too?”
NOT SO PLEASANT
Thirty hours disappeared as we moaned, groaned, heaved and ran our way back and forth to the bathroom until not a skerrick of anything we had eaten remained within. The lovely woman who ran the place realised our fate and delivered hot sweet tea to our room, sympthasing with us. She confessed she had also been caught out on more than one occasion and she was a vegetarian.
What we learned is that, in the off season, everyone has to be very careful to eat where there is a flow of customers to ensure the food is fresh. Simple, sensible. Please do this. Don’t do what Donna did.
SUNRISE ON SARANGKOT
We emerged eventually, weak and feeble for a final wander along beside the lake before crashing back into bed after packing for our flight the next morning back to Kathmandu. Before our flight, however, we were determined not to miss the sunrise at Sarangkot.
THE DRIVE OUT TO THE MOUNTAIN
The driver pulled up out the front in the dark right on time and we crammed into his little car. It was a slow trip as he made his way out of the centre. Not all drivers will go to Sarangkot as the roads get progressively worse.
And I mean, they start bad, and become something most western drivers would not even contemplate without a robust four- wheel drive. What an adventure! Even on the outer streets of town there were huge potholes in the road, making driving not only dangerous for the occupants but potentially devastating for the vehicle.
FULL PRAISE FOR THE DRIVER
And let’s remember, in a poor country like Nepal, having or not having a vehicle can mean the difference between severe poverty or supporting a family. We therefore tried to be as understanding of the driver as we could while he continued to apologise for the roads and for the pace we were travelling at.
For my part, I thought, if only this fat westerner (me) wasn’t carrying so many pounds, we wouldn’t be so close to bottoming out so many times.
The driver urged the little car as far up the mountain as it could safely go, before parking and pointing us towards the track to the top. The higher we went, the more locals and tourists joined us in the push to the summit and we arrived, me seriously out of breath, but with time to spare.
AND THEN THE SUN CAME OUT
Gasps went up from the crowd as the first golden speck of sunshine landed on the upper reaches of the snow-capped giant of Sarangkot. Watching the dawn slowly unveil the mountains, bathing them in a glorious golden light, was truly breathtaking.
FLYING BUDDHA AIR
I think I counted eighteen seats divided by a tiny aisle space on the small plane that took us back to the capital, and most of them were full. A lovely young steward greeted us as we boarded and the plane, which quickly and lightly sailed down the runway and into the air. The flight only took half an hour, but in that time, the steward came through firstly with sweets for everyone (yeti mints) and then returned with a tray with tea and coffee, cups and a large kettle. How she managed to serve us all sweets, then hot beverages, then clean it all away and be seated in time for our descent was beyond me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such clockwork organization and efficiency, always accompanied by the sweetest, most confident smile.
DEFINITELYTHE BEST WAY TO GO
The route took us from west to east with a full view of the snow-capped Himalayas all the way. It was breathtaking. I was so pleased we had bussed one way and flew the other. It was definitely the best way to experience the country.
MEETING THE OTHER VOLUNTEERS AND OUR GUIDES AND A VISIT TO THE MONKEY TEMPLE
We met our fellow volunteers the next evening, mostly young, fit and enthusiastic, but with relief, I noted there were a couple among them who looked of only average fitness. Good! The young local guides who would accompany us on the trek joined us the next day as we took in some of the sights of Kathmandu including the Monkey Temple, perched high above the city and accessed by thousands of steps (or so it seemed). There are, in fact, many temples at different levels on the mount, all worth wandering around. I looked about for the monkeys, saw a few, but was told they had not returned in the quantities there had been before the earthquake.
OH, THE VIEW!
Meanwhile, the view out across the Kathmandu valley and the city rooftops is totally engrossing. Eagles soar through the sky at eye height and the craziness of the city continues way below.
Our adventures in Nepal continued with a visit to Boudha, the enormous Tibetan Buddhist Stupa.
We joined the throng walking around the great Stupa, turning the prayer wheels as we went. Amazing. I would have been happy just to hang out there, watching the genuine Tibetan Pilgrims as they circumambulated the Stupa prostrating themselves on the ground. Most had wooden or leather paddles attached to their hands to protect them.
HOLY MEN AND MANDALAS
There were a number of holy men sitting ready to give people their blessings or their wisdom and other monks with their begging bowls. The air was thick with incense and the murmur of mantras or holy prayers. We had an art class in one of the studios where they paint the traditional mandalas. The apprenticeship to become a master lasts for many years and when you look closely at the intricate detail involved, then pull out and study the symmetry and geometry of the design, you can see why.
THE TREK INTO THE MOUNTAINS
The next morning, we were in the bus at dawn, after a quick breakfast, being driven to the edge of civilization to begin our trek into the mountains. The first section consisted of about a million lung bursting steps, straight up. OMG! What I wrote about Ronnie in Himalayan Awakening was my experience exactly. I felt like a burden to the others as I stopped, time after time, to catch my breath and get some strength back into my legs.
THE YOUNG GUIDES WERE AMAZING
Every time I stopped there were caring, supportive young guides, helping me, encouraging me to keep going. For their sake, I kept my swearing largely to myself even though I’m a firm believer in the power of swearing as a pain reliever and motivator. Asmita, my guide and a teacher at the village school, was already carrying my day pack. There wasn’t much else she or the others could do. Our leader assured me I would be fine, and I knew if I really felt I couldn’t continue on the second day, I could ride in the jeep carrying our luggage via road through to our lodgings.
Step after step, the energy of the young guides definitely helped to keep me going. A few in particular, including Rita, a pocket rocket with such a sweet, loving disposition. We took turns to sing, the foreigners and the Nepalis and each learned some of the lines from the other. I taught them to sing “I am strong, I am invincible (hard word for them ivinstable), I am woman …”
THE LOCAL BOYS
There were more young female guides than males, but the boys who were with us were a little older and had more authority. That tends to happen in Nepal. Anil, Mane and Dinesh were like three brothers, almost like a comedy trio as they entertained us with their hijinks, testing their strength against each other. They surprised us by leaping out of trees, climbing rocks and bouncing around. In the village, Mane and Dinesh proved to be mountain bike mad. They performed hair raising tricks that had us all holding our breaths or laughing, or wincing when they went wrong. And I must say, that happened often as they pushed themselves to go further each time. Anil, on the other hand, was the quieter of the three, the more level-headed. We will learn more about him in a subsequent post. We will also meet Mane and other characters as we go (as I get more posts written).
Just like Ronnie, I was determined to make it to the end and was so happy the following afternoon when we were greeted by a large group of children as we approached the village.
LIFE IN THE VILLAGE
Whilst I was in the village, puffing and panting up and down the steep mountainside to the school, I fell in love with the people. They are so resilient and peaceful, so welcoming and generous, so heart-led and so beautiful in their unassuming shyness.
The local school had been reduced to rubble in the earthquake and so classes were being held in makeshift corrugated iron buildings. They had uneven dirt floors and wonky old desks. Each class held up to 45 students, squeezed in, three to a desk. Meanwhile, a whiteboard nailed to a post at the front of each classroom was certainly a welcome sight. Learning was done from dilapidated old text books that some of the children had. Maybe there was a plastic rubbish bin, and maybe a chair for the teacher. It was an exhilarating, very challenging, super noisy environment.
Overall, our time in the village was much as I described in the book. It was filled with chaotic classes, physically challenging outings, lots of time spent with the children, and tears all round when it was time to leave. We were presented with beautiful garlands of scarlet rhododendrons and golden marigolds at a formal farewell in the school grounds. Katas were laid around our necks, and the gratitude from the whole school community was really touching.
Like Ronnie, I developed a closeness to a couple of young girls in particular who were guiding and assisting us on a day-to-day basis, and many of the young ones were calling me Mum by the time I left.
I kept in touch with one young girl in particular, Rita, who was being supported by a charity to finish Year 12 in Kathmandu. Rita’s father had left them when she was small and Rita’s mother had refused to remarry, knowing her daughter would have more chance of gaining an education if she stayed single. This required tremendous strength and determination in a world so completely dominated by men. Rita was sweet, thoughtful, and very helpful. She had dreams of studying business at university. You can read all about Rita’s story and what has become of her very soon.
Another young girl, in grade six, hugged Maia and me so tightly when it was time to leave, I wasn’t sure if she would ever let go. Her name was Manju, and I had become very fond of her. Suddenly, she let us go and turned and walked off into the children’s refuge. As we made our way back down to the hostel, I glanced into her room and saw her, face down on her bed, crying. My heart went out to her and my eyes filled with tears, but what could I do? The image and her gentle energy stayed with me long after I returned home. You can read more about what became of Manju in a future post too.
I was in tears when I boarded the plane to come home. I had found such peace and purpose in the simple life lived in the remote mountains. The children, craving love and learning filled me with joy. The simple healthy food and living close to the land were great for my health. And, let’s not forget the breathtaking view of the snow-capped Himalayas ever present in the background.
I have been to many countries over the years, but none has stayed with me, in my heart, quite like Nepal. Since that first visit, I have been back again, taking my husband with me on our own independent trip, and what an adventure that was. Read all about that trip, where we revisit the village and reconnect with a number of locals in another post I have planned.
PLAN YOUR OWN VOLUNTEER AVENTURE IN NEPAL
There are many ways you can have volunteer adventures in Nepal, many local and international charities who will take you on a more or less authentic experience. Though most places are sincere in their business, I suggest you do some research to determine the ethics and the reviews of the organisation before booking.