Volunteer travel is a new way of traveling, at least for me. It is a way of travelling, which includes volunteering for a charitable cause. In recent years, "bite-sized" volunteer vacations have grown in popularity.It is a fantastic way to explore off the beaten track and become immersed into a new culture. I didn’t take long to decide about volunteering last November at a school in Gaunshahar, Nepal. Diamond Hill Academy is a private school and the only English Primary School in Gaunsahar and founded in 2008 by Deb Bahadur Gurung, a teacher from the local government school in Lamjung. Students here are between three to thirteen years old. During my time there, this school had seventy-three students with seven teachers. All teachers are certified in teaching different subjects, from English and Nepali language to Mathematics and Geometry. Every volunteer is required to clock in four hour of volunteer work which ranging from building the new school, teaching at the school and farming.
I was still running through the checklist of the packed donated items for Diamond Hill Academy and my travel kit at 8am, four hours before the scheduled flight to Kathmandu. I couldn’t afford to accidentally leave any of the donated items behind. It could dampen the joy of the school children for they had been promised with new stationaries and laptop. When it involves children’s emotion, I would not dare to take such risk. Lack of sleep and sore arms from lifting the luggage made me less of a human during the flight. Halfway through the four hours and twenty minutes journey, I heard a voice calling me.
“Kakak mau pigi mana?”, asked the man sitting on my right.
“Itu sangat jauh. Apa bikin situ?”, he asked with such enthusiasm.
“Jadi sukarelawan untuk sekolah”.
Not long after we drifted into an interesting conversation about his experience in Malaysia. Turned out that this small built guy with good command of Malay, Ajay, had served for three years in an electronic factory in Penang. He admitted that he enjoyed his tenure and grateful for the opportunity to make some lucrative money to support his family back in Kathmandu. Malaysia as a melting pot has proved itself to some as being laid back without crazy rules deterring the foreign workers from entering the shopping malls, let alone tight curfew to confine them within the set dormitories. Well, what’s good for some won’t necessarily good for the rest of us.
Nepal, famously known for its Annapurna Circuit lure the adventure junkies to continue to flock to the region. This 206km, horse-shoe-shaped trail is an opportunity to walk through the naturally rich terrain of Nepal while experiencing some of the most beautiful mountains in the country, including Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, two of the 10 highest in the world. The small Kathmandu airport is not equipped to process the influx of tourists at immigration counter swiftly. Paying to cut the queue at the Visa Counter is a norm. I was not that surprise upon seeing some fellow Malaysians handing some money to the Visa Officer to speed up their process. It made me feel awful for thinking that it is a norm to bribe. It is as normal as eating nasi kandar at 3am. Truth is nothing is normal if you have to pay to get things done.
Trying to leave the airport was just as good as it gets. Shamser, the Diamond Hill Academy’s principal chartered a jeep to pick me up from Kathmandu to Gaunshahahar since the number of luggage that I had spelt disaster should I take the public transportation. We were stopped at the exit and the driver was asked to show his paperwork. Though the driver had all the documents in place, we were asked to pay some greasing money just to leave the airport’s compound. At this point, Nepal already felt just like home to me.
Life as a volunteer
Gaunshahar, where Diamond Hill Academy is, located in the western region of Nepal which is just above Besisahar, which is popular as the starting point of the Annapurna Circuit. With a population of about 1.000 people in Gaunshahar, they form a primarily rural community from different caste, social classes and different natural languages. Life here is traditionally Nepalese; the farmers mainly grow rice and corn, and own cows, buffalo and goats for the milk. This is the best place to be if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Or just to mend a broken heart while warming up to the Nepalese hospitality. The villagers are friendly and ever smiling when they bump into you. I was even invited to their house for a warm cup of tea. That’s my friend is the beauty of a rural life.
I was assigned to work at the school everyday for four hours except on Saturday, which is the official rest day for Nepal. The school children really are friendly and some could be quite cheeky, too. Not a day goes by without being bombarded with the requests of “Miss, one photo?” from the children whenever they saw me taking out my camera. I was in a way not mentally prepared to experience the harsh life of the school children. There was a student in my class who has to walk two hours a day to commute to school. Sheer determination especially during winter season with brutal coldness in the morning and he definitely has my outmost respect. Some of the students can’t afford to buy a proper school shoes, let alone having daily pocket money to school. I almost broke down in tears when a student offered me his lunch. Boiled chickpeas in a small container, just enough to get him by for the day before the school hour ends at 4pm. Obviously, the school is not meant for the faint-hearted. Hats off to the teachers for having both the passion and patience to teach the students. Though getting less than the minimal wage for teachers in Nepal, they never complain about it and always in high spirit for they believe that the students deserve a high quality of education to prepare them for a bright future.
Meal times were usually filled up with stories on how the days went for us volunteers. Exchanging anecdotes and tips on travels, reminiscing on food that we missed the most from back home when we were tired of having rice with dhal and swapping books filled our time there. Sometimes, a mere chat on why you decided to drink bottled water instead of tap water in Nepal could lead to a heated argument on how your decision could affect the environment with unnecessary garbage. But I enjoyed being there nevertheless. The stimulating conversations and positive vibes from the volunteers and our host’s family definitely made the stay a memorable one. Being a volunteer also provided me with a sense of achievement. I believe that it may be true that no one person can solve all the world’s problems, but what you can do is make that little corner of the world where you go just a bit better.
Little getaway in Pokhara
Since Pokhara is literally a stone throw away from Gaunshahar, it would be such a waste to not go and see with my own two eyes of the beautiful Phewa Lake. It is a second largest lake in Nepal and famous for the reflection of Mount Machhapuchhre and other mountain peaks of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges on its surface. I wasn’t fit enough to trek up to Sarangkot of Mount Machhapuchhre and decided to just take the boat ride along Phewa Lake. The life along the lake itself provided a glimpse of Nepalese struggle to meet ends up and survive in this poverty-stricken country.
I remember that it was a sunny Saturday afternoon in November. I rented a boat with an oarsman so I could photograph the life along the lake. Besides, I needed a good chat with locals in order to understand more of their lives and what makes them tick. Well, what’s not to like when you can get tips on where to go and what to eat directly from the locals!
Madhav, the oarsman has to work two jobs to support his family of five. He barely makes enough money to support his family and at times he ended up taking a third job. During peak season, he works as a guide for trekkers who start the Annapurna circuit from Pokhara. He never steps out from Nepal but long to hear stories of the outside world. If he’s not married he would definitely ventured out of Nepal he said. Having a few friends who are now working in Malaysia, he is convinced that he could have a better life and opportunity to change his life if he manages to get a job here. No doubt, Malaysia is a favourite destination for the Nepalese. Malaysia is the Promised Land in their eyes and those who made it here are highly respected.
I was immersed in the beautiful scenery and the colourful life along the lake. Us tourist see the lake as a must visit spot to enjoy the beauty of Nepal’s panorama. But for the Nepalese, the lake is the source of protein for it is the home for seventeen species of native fish and four exotic species. Due to my limited knowledge on fish, I could only identify tilapia when an angler showed me his icebox filled with the catch. The lake also served as a place where the housewives do their laundry and of course to shower for some. A stroll along the lake before heading back to the hotel, which I stayed in, really was refreshing and it renewed my faith in the people. No matter how hard it is, they will always strive their best and the determination to develop their country is so motivational. I’m rooting for you, Nepal!
Wedding of the week
A few days before I was meant to leave for Kathmandu, Shamser made an announcement of a wedding in the next village. I was torn between exploring Kathmandu and attending this rare opportunity at first. I decided to stay and took the risk of leaving Gaunshahar a day before my flight back to Kuala Lumpur. I was glad that I took the chance and hoped for the best though my body definitely hated me for doing so. One and a half hour of trekking down from Gaunshahar to Besisahar and another hour from Besisahar to reach the wedding and I obviously didn’t prepare for this. So much for a wedding! I ended up renting a jeep to reach the wedding. A well-spent two thousand and five hundred rupees just to make sure I wouldn’t end up on a stretcher.
Fixed marriage is a norm in Nepal and the wedding that we attended was between a twenty-seven-year-old man and a seventeen-year-old girl. It was disheartening to see such a young woman who has yet to fully enjoy her youth got married to someone who she doesn’t love. Alas it is a choice that you have to make in such country where you have to choose between having someone who could take care of you and family and finishing off your high school education when your family could barely have enough money to buy food. I could tell that the groom is from a wealthy family for his wedding gifts were packed in the largest trolley bag and filled with jewelries and high quality saris. The number of his bridesmaid sort of gave away the clue, too. He had ten bridesmaids who carried gifts for the brides as well.
Just imagine how distressful it could be for the bridesmaid; trekking down for an hour from the groom’s house to reach Besisahar and trekking up for one and half hour before you arrive at the bride’s house. Did I mention that most of them wore heels? Nepalese women are as brave as their counterparts in Russia. The different is Russians wear heels in slippery pavement during winter while the Nepalese go up and down the mountain. Bravo!
The wedding really was beautiful and somewhat similar to the wedding in Bollywood’s movies. It was filled with people singing happy songs and dance without a care in the world. The ambience was filled with glee and the volunteers took the chance to join in the festivity and sampled some traditional food, which had been served at the wedding. I got to sample fresh buffalo milk, hot from the kitchen. It really was good and tasted better than cow milk. I was glad that I took the risk for leaving a day before my flight. The best wedding ever!
Nepal: The land of broad smile and big hopes
Putting the not so pleasant trekking experiences aside, I should say that the whole Nepal experience was very encouraging. I made some new friends, which always left me gratified every time I’m back from my trip. I felt good with myself for I believe that I have contributed in a way to a betterment of the society. Though it was brief and I didn’t make such impact on the students, I hope the donated items help to improve the quality of education at the school. Thank you to all donors for you guys have a heart of gold.
And knowing that the majority of Nepalese who used to work here in Malaysia had positive experience with us Malaysians really made the trip worthwhile. The fact that I got better hotel rate in Pokhara because I’m a Malaysian had nothing to do with this finding, I guess. But being mistaken, as a Nepalese really was a blessing in disguise. Why on earth should I complain when I got cheaper bus fare and of course no one tried to sell you anything when you walk down the street. Happy day!