Seeing the Himalayas peak through the clouds as I flew into Nepal was spectacular. I couldn’t wait to see them from the ground, and breath in the fresh mountain air. I was, therefore, in for a shock when, after we (myself and my partner, Simon) finally tackled our way through immigration and emerged from the airport, we were greeted by a very dusty, very hectic Kathmandu. And not a hint of mountain in sight!
A friendly face was waiting for us, as we spotted a sign with our names on it amongst the flock of people standing outside the airport. We were greeted by our volunteer coordinator, Bhagawan and fellow volunteer, Benjamin. Bhagawan told us we would be spending the night in Kathmandu, as Chitwan, our volunteer location, was a 6-7 hour drive away. Exhausted, we were relieved.
After my first incredible overseas volunteering experience in Indonesia at a Wildlife Rescue Centre, I couldn’t wait to experience another few weeks giving back to the country I was visiting as a tourist, and immersing myself in the local culture. I also think it's a great way to experience the true nature of a country, as volunteering locations are often off the well beaten backpacker tracks. I spent time researching various NGO’s in Nepal (of which there are many) and decided on NVDP due to their lower than average fees, the location, the nature of work and a solid reference from another volunteer.
We set off for Chitwan the following day, and it was then I had my first taste of the Nepalese 'time system' I had been warned about. The bus was over two hours late, and once we finally got going, we got stuck in a major traffic jam heading out of Kathmandu, which added an extra two hours to our already long journey. Luckily for us, the view of the sunset over Kathmandu Valley during the stand still was beautiful. We arrived at our volunteer house very late that evening and met our lovely host family.
I have to say, I was concerned about the volunteer project at first and I had doubts about my choice of program. This was mainly because of a lack of organisation and structure, and I found the aforementioned Nepalese ‘time system’ very frustrating. Which leads me to our first day of volunteering. We woke up early, as planned, but hung around and didn’t have breakfast until 10am. Once we finally made it to the school we would be working with, the Principal had lost the plans and schedule for the work, the materials and equipment weren’t there and well, you get the idea.
In hindsight, I shouldn't have been so shocked and frustrated. Of course, as a westerner, I can’t expect to to walk into a rural corner of a developing country and expect things to work as I’m used to. However, due to our limited time with the project, we decided it was best to raise our concerns and talk to Bhagawan about creating a daily schedule. He and our host family embraced the idea and implemented a schedule right away. Things were looking up!
Many hands make light work
The project itself involves helping a local primary school and nursery (which has 52 pupils in total) upgrade their school grounds. According to their plan (which the Principal eventually found) we would tidy up the playground, plant over 350 new trees, re-turf the front garden, add a driveway and gravel path and paint the inside and outside of the school. It sounded like a lot of work!
Three working days later, and I have learnt the true value of “many hands make light work”. I was overwhelmed by the amount of help we received from the community everyday, and without them, we would still be on our first task (pulling up the existing turf).
Here’s what we managed to accomplish in just three days:
- Pulled up existing turf (with help from a local tractor owner & farmer) and prepared the soil for re-planting
- Began replanting new grass
- Planted over 60 trees
- Implemented a new drainage system
- Introduced a composting initiative, starting with the old turf
- Sourced a bin and cleared the majority of the plastic trash from the grounds
- Laid a brick pathway and gravel
As you can see, that’s a lot of work for just three days! And we even managed to add a couple of our own ideas to the plan. Hopefully we will continue to make great progress as we move into our second week of volunteering.
The most rewarding part of being involved in the project so far has been working side by side with the community. Seeing the children, aged from about 5 upwards, so elated to be involved and have volunteers in their village was very moving. Did it take 5 attempts and two days to source something as straightforward as a garbage bin? Yes. But the joy I felt seeing every member of the community, young and old, dispose of their plastic in the bin once it was made available to them, was next to nothing.
What my experience has taught me so far:
- What it’s like to do manual labour - every muscle aches!
- Don’t expect everything to go as you planned, or in the way you would like it to - especially in developing countries.
- Communication is key in every culture. Voice your concerns and things will get better.
- Even if you’re a novelty to the locals, your presence as a volunteer motivates them to be involved.
- Be realistic about what you can achieve in two weeks - I had grand plans of implementing a recycling scheme - turns out it’s not that simple in a country whose government doesn’t regularly collect it’s residents trash!
- The Nepali women know the meaning of hard work, they are amazing!
- Enjoy every moment of being immersed in a kind, beautiful community.
- Nepalese food is awesome.