I decided to come to Nepal on a whim, quite literally. I had the month of May to kill before heading to Bali, and woke up one morning (whilst I was still in Kampot) and felt like going to Nepal - for no particular reason whatsoever other than I felt that I needed a break from South East Asia. That morning, I announced this to the other two other volunteers I was working with at Banteay Srey and booked a return flight from KL that afternoon.
Now what to do in Nepal. A country that I knew very little about other than it has a shitonne of mountains that I had no interest in trekking up (I hate trekking) and it’s sandwiched between China and India. I had a look on Workaway and kept coming back to the same listing about a village school. Within in a day of sending a message Uttam (the school's founder) had replied with a yes and that was that. My motivation for volunteering was not a pity party or feeling like I am entitled to “save Nepal”… I’d also like to add that I’d be lying if I said that this experience was a bed of roses and I’d also be lying if I said that I’d stuck it out for the entire time that I was supposed to be there. In hindsight i think doing this straight after a vipassana and a longer volunteering stint (Kampot) was pretty ambitious.
Kathmandu was another step up in how far removed you can get from London. Narrow, busy streets where the road was either dust, dirt or mud. Take your pick. Within my first two hours there I realised that swanning around in my Birkenstocks wasn’t going to cut it - It’s pretty much on par with rocking up to Glastonbury in flip-flops when it’s pissing down with rain. The first port of call was frantically researching where I could buy some walking boots without being ripped off or having to haggle. Eventually armed with some ugly, but practical booties, I was ready to stomp around Nepal and take on any muddy puddle that life threw at me.
My first stop before heading up to Saping Dhulikhel, a pretty town about 40km outside of Kathmandu with some prime examples of Newari (the name of the people who live in Kathmandu Valley) architecture. That evening I was welcomed to Uttam's guest house where myself and his family put the world to right over dal baht and masala tea. I also learnt that I'd be sharing my first week with three wonderful ladies from France, one of which was a doctor and would be giving the children and villagers medical check ups. This also meant they had a hell of a lot of equipment and medicine to take up to Saping, so when Uttam announced that we'd be travelling up to the village in a jeep instead of a bumpy bus journey and a three hour hike up a steep hill, I almost cartwheeled with joy.
The next morning, we piled our belongings into the jeep and headed up to the village. The views we were greeted with were just silly. Rolling hills of plantations, if a storm had cleared the air the night before, we'd be woken up to views of Himalayan mountains in the distance , eagles circling to catch their prey, villagers working in the fields... I could go on. At night time, I'd lie in bed and looked out the tiny window to see so many stars in the sky and lights from the villages in the hills opposite us. It's moments like this, where I'd have a rush of feeling incredible grateful for having the opportunity to travel. The opportunity to fall asleep in beautiful places. The opportunity to meet incredible people.
Lesson planning got off to a good start; I was teaching English, Science and I could teach the children yoga when it was appropriate. Any yoga/ movement class would be themed around what were learning in Science, for example, on the topic or vertebrates and invertebrates, what would it look like if you didn’t have a spine? Sometime we'd play games like Simon Says and on one occasion I tried to do the Hokey Kokey with the grade three group however, that got slightly out of hand as I found myself having to hurl the smaller kids off the ground every time we ran into the circle. Naturally, the language barrier with the children was going to be an issue and because of this, trying to settle them down was interesting. They LOVED to draw, so I'd try to work this into lesson plans as a reward for good behaviour.
Village life is hard, especially for the women as a lot men are still rebuilding houses after the earthquake in 2015. Water is scarce and power cuts are daily - after only being in Saping for a few hours, we overheard a lady kick off as she'd completely ran out of water. The children are hardy, self sufficient and bloody smart. Some of the kids have to walk up to two hours to get to school - if it's raining, they have to stay at home as the walk is too dangerous. Healthcare is an issue, and sadly a luxury. The French ladies found themselves having to drill in the importance of simply brushing teeth to most of the children (three minutes, twice a day in case you’re wondering) as their cavities were pretty horrendous. Referring back to my blog post on Kampot, sometimes what we see whilst on holiday or travelling, is a very sanitised version of the truth. Volunteering somewhere and spending time with locals can give you an insight into what life in another culture is actually like - and most of the time it’s very far removed from what can be experienced in trendy backpacker hostels with a commode toilet to shit in.
After the French ladies went, things started to get tougher and by Wednesday (12 days in) I’d had enough. I was barely sleeping because of frequent storms. My eyes were itchy and my nose scabby from an allergic reaction to the dust. Because I was tired, I found myself repeatedly banging my head on doorways (at 5’8” I’m rather tall here) - so my head was throbbing. The veg in the fridge was starting to go bad (all day power cuts did not help this). Someone had hilariously written “Small problems make big problems in Nepal” on the kitchen table. These were all small problems that were adding up to become one big problem. I didn’t want to leave the village with a bitter taste in my mouth. I was done. Time to go. On the Saturday, I packed my belongings and headed down to the nearest town to catch a bus. The walk down was an experience as I'm shit scared of heights, and a large portion of the footpath was uneven slabs of slate with sheer cliff drops either side. Uttam kindly accompanied to the point where it was a clear path down, and already sensed that this was going to take me a while. Three hours later, I flagged down a bus on the side of the road and bouncing around on the back seat en route back to Dhulikhel.
What Uttam has done in Saping is nothing short of remarkable. The children are incredibly lucky to go to school in such a wonderful environment. There’s a strong sense of solidarity amongst the students, the older ones look after the little ones, the caste system goes out the window, no one gets left out. Through smiles, hand gestures and the best cups of masala tea ever, his family were incredible welcoming. And this was also a lesson in allowing people to help me… A good example was letting Uttam’s twelve year old nephew show me how to replace a gas canister so I could use the cooker. I’m incredibly grateful to have met Virginie, Virginie and Sophie during my first week, they were funny, kind and with incredible energy. Even though this experience didn't exactly go to plan, I have a feeling that I will be back in Saping one day.