One Monsoon Volunteering in Nepal

Blog 5 pixIf you read my blog you may have noticed, by my less than perfect English grammar,  that I am not a native speaker. Sometimes I still catch myself going the Spanglish way. Therefore, I find it ironic when I decided to spend the month of June 2013 in Nepal, teaching English. My rationale was that I had spent many years in an Anglophone country and that 10-year old Nepalese children wouldn’t be learning about 17th century Shakespeare. And so, I made peace with this dilemma.

Volunteering had been buzzing in my head for a while. When the time came to choose between beach bumming in Turkey by the Aegean Sea and a month of giving back, I chose the second. I wanted a challenge; do something that taught me about myself, the world, and those that inhabit it. The search began. Where to go? I had specific location criteria: 1) It had to be safe 2) One where I have never been and 3) A place where they needed help. An hour later I had found it! The ideal place, tucked in between India and China: Sarangkot, a village 2,000m above sea level with a population of 5,000 people.

A week later I was off to Kathmandu. After landing at the airport, I picked up my luggage and through the crowds, spotted a man holding a sign displaying my name. Relief #1: I had contacted a stranger across the world who actually existed. Next, I get in his 1980’s van hoping that he would drive me to where he’d promised. Relief # 2: The other incoming passengers were also volunteers from Canada and Australia.

After driving 4 hours through a windy, muddy and treacherous road up the mountains, I arrived to what would be my home for the next 4 weeks. I was introduced to my host family: mom, dad, 2 daughters, and 3 little boys. Our pink house was surrounded by jungle, cornfields, and a beautiful landscape of the rice paddies. It also had 2 rudimentary rooms, a shed where our ox slept, and a bathroom with a squatting toilette…my favorite…NOT! My family lived humbly but they seemed happy and healthy.

I shared the master bedroom with a girl from Pennsylvania who had already spent 2 months there. She never wore shoes to go to the toilette, and let the kids play with her very expensive Cannon camera. After a while she stopped showering. I wonder if I would ever reach the same level of assimilation.

Dinner time was an important event. We all gathered in the small kitchen, which had a coal stove and was lit by candlelight. The women sat in the floor while the men shared the table with us foreigners. Our meal consisted of white rice, corn, and Dahl. The latter became my basic source of nutrition. This was a soupy lentil and potato dish, which I ate for dinner, lunch and breakfast (once at home I didn’t have lentils for 6 months). Nepalese people call westerners ‘contaminated’ because we ate beef and it was unholy to eat a cow. Locals would have refused to share a meal with us. Thankfully, our host family tolerated our ‘contaminated’ kind.

The next day in class I was greeted with a ‘Namaste’ or ‘Namaskar’ by a swarm of uniformed children. Mind you, I have never taught anything to anyone in my life. They understood and wrote English fairly well but their pronunciation needed attention. Surprisingly, their level of of math and science was at par with western education. Yet, it was sad to think of the slim possibility of them becoming doctors or engineers one day.

The season was monsoon, the one time out of the year when the Everest peak hides behind the clouds. There was so much water falling off the sky. Everything was wet: my clothes, my luggage, my passport; nothing escaped the torrent rains.  On the upside, a damped June also meant rice planting time. I spent many hours under the sun, along my host mother, with water up to my knees, pulling rice weeds and replanting them over in the wet soil. Every 2 hours we took a break and ate, guess what, sticky sweet rice.

Conscious about sunburn, I applied my 70 spf sunscreen. The women all looked at me, grabbed the lotion from my hand, and started applying on their face. I tried to explain that it was for protection against UV rays. Confused, these heavily sun-kissed, brown, wrinkled women shrugged and laughed. It was marvelous to witness the cultural contrast regarding something as petty as sunscreen.

Chatting with my host mother, I learned that we were the same age. However, she had spent her whole life working in the rice fields, had given birth to 5 children, and had married at age 19. Really the only thing we shared was a birth year. Moments like this put things in perspective. Like, why would I ever complain about anything in my life?

Most volunteers arrived to Nepal with hopes of changing a child’s life. The truth is that 1-2 months was not enough to make a real impact, especially given the high turnover. I saw this fact affected some people more than others. To me, this experience allowed me to take a break from reality, reflect upon my present, and open my mind to the many possibilities aside from the big corporate world. It was then that the idea of pursuing an MBA (and my own entrepreneurial wishes) was born. Surrounded by the Himalayas, facing the ever-present Everest, foolishly I thought I was there to drive change in others, when in fact the real change occurred within me.