Nepal volunteering report #1

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Friday, February 2, 2007

So, we've been in Kathmandu for the last eight days now and it has been great.  We are staying with the Adhikari family, our hosts during the orientation phase of our volunteering stint.  They are completely wonderful - charming, hospitable, happy and generous to a fault.

On our first full day in Kathmandu we visited Thamel, the touristy area of town.  The bus there is jampacked but we squeeze on anyway.  The ceiling is very low so our necks are bent the whole way and when we pop out of the bus it takes a while to straighten up again.  Thamel, although touristy, blows us away.  In India, the only stores we saw for a whole month were tiny, dusty hole-in-the-wall jobs that sold potato chips, paan, fruit or newspapers.  Here we see all manner of goods for sale that would not raise any eyebrows in western countries but, after India, seem like the most incredible array imaginable.  There is even a small supermarket (imagine!) that sells delicious and exotic delicacies like peanut butter, cheese and bread.  Shanna has only been away from the US for less than a week so she is no doubt bemused by our salivating over jars of pickles and instant coffee.

Our main reason for coming to Thamel is to splash out on a western meal.  Since our hospital stay in Varanasi, we have not been craving curry and rice as much as before and our guidebook mentioned some yummy-sounding restaurants.  The Northfield Cafe has a huge menu featuring all sorts of burgers, pizzas, Tex-Mex and pasta dishes.  When the waiter arrives I ask for "one of everything, please".  We settle for comfort food - a burger and fries for me and quesadillas for Jane.  It is way too expensive for our budgets but french fries have never tasted so good.

The next day, Saturday, is the official start of our volunteer programme.  The term 'volunteering' in most countries of the world actually involes the volunteer paying for the privilege of teaching or other work.  The fee can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the length, location and complexity of the assignment.  We chose this programme, 'Cultural Destination Nepal' after researching a number of other groups.  This one offered a two-week orientation phase followed by two months of volunteering, then a week of trekking and rafting at the end.

The first order of business is to check out of the hotel.  We are surprised when Rajesh sticks us with the bill, given that it is quite an expensive place by Nepali standards and we weren't given any choice of where to stay.  I tell Rajesh that we are only going to pay for the food we ate and he says "okay, we will talk about it later".  We drive to his place where our classes will be held for the next two weeks. 

In the 'classroom', we are given our new Nepali names, chosen by Rajesh from the list of over 33 million Hindu gods.  Shanna becomes Shanti (meaning "peace"), Jane's new name is Janani ("mother") and Jim turns into Jivan ("life").  Along with our new names, we have our foreheads decorated with large circles of red clay, called tikkas, signifying welcome and good luck.

At about 5pm, Rajesh's large iron gates swing open and our host father drives in.  To us he is known simply as Bhaa, which means 'father', and he greets us with a huge smile that never seems to leave his face.  He is in his mid-40s and is a manager at a paper factory but his most notable feature is his irrepressible and infectious happiness.  Even on the occasions when he is sad or tired, he talks with a great big smile and finishes nearly every sentence with a giggle.

Compared to Rajesh's house, our family's home is quite modest but still a lot larger and more comfortable than we were expecting.  Aama ("mother") is a sprightly and energetic lady with a happy laugh and she and Jane become instant friends.  Bhaai ("brother") is a tall and lanky 20 year-old who also happens to be a cricket fan, and I am pleasantly surprised to see the cricket on TV as we walk in.

The family has played host to several volunteers over the last few years, from New Zealand, the US and, mostly, Holland.  They speak fondly of all their volunteers, giving us a lot to live up to.

Dinner on our first night is noodles but every night after this is dahl baht.  It has not become boring yet as Aama's version is delicious.  We ask someone why, with so many tasty and varied dishes at their disposal, the Nepali people eat the same thing for breakfast and dinner every day.  Apparently it is so simple to make, which seems like a good explanation. 

Over here, people usually eat dinner with their hands, a method that is not as easy as it sounds, especially when dinner is rice, curry and lentil soup.  We get the hang of it quite quickly and, before too long, we are shovelling handfuls of rice 'n' stuff into our mouths with the best of them.

There is some technique to it, which involves scooping up a handful of food and using your thumb to push it into your mouth.  In Hindu culture, the concept of "Jutho" is a big thing.  "Jutho" means "contaminated" and is all about using (or not using) right and left hands for certain things.  The left hand is traditionally used for cleaning oneself after toileting, so it is therefore not used for eating.  It is jutho to share food, except in certain circumstances, to use the same spoon for both serving and eating, and there are all sorts of other violations.  It is all very confusing and we spend most of our meal times either committing jutho acts or worrying about them.

[To be continued . . . ]
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