Will's third article - We are all connected

We had arrived into Kathmandu on a Friday night and were put up in a nice hotel in the city in readiness for our trip to West Nepal to visit Mahendra’s (our host) family and then on to visit and teach in a school in Palpa district. 

We left Kathmandu by mini-bus and the choking fumes and dust of the city forced us to cover our mouths and noses with hankies. For much of the year the residents of this city, which is skirted by tall hills, are trapped in an almost constant smog and dust cloud. Levels of respiratory illness are high and we were already beginning to suffer after less than 24 hours in its midst. 

The van wound out of the city and within 20 minutes the air quality began to improve as we made our way along the main road towards West Nepal. The roads in the country are very poor. For the most part they are barely twin track and frequently the edges of the road a broken up and often damaged or blocked, by mudslides. The journey was fascinating as we passed variously through villages and countryside, the flatness of the Kathmandu valley giving way to incredible mountainside roads that twisted precariously towards our destination. Precipitous drops left us speechless as they bore up views of verdant tree-scapes plunging into ravines with rivers which shimmered in the October heat. 

I am not sure exactly how long it took for us to admit that we were all both mesmerised by the landscape and the beautiful people, and at the same time terrified that we would fall from the road and plummet at any moment into a valley hundreds of feet below. Driving followed one style, necessitated by the broken roads. Aim down the centre of the road and swerve at the last moment to avoid oncoming traffic doing the same. Near misses soon became acceptable and we acclimatised to the prospect of imminent collision quickly. Hooters and horns shouted like football fans throughout the road journey. 

We set about polishing the Nepali phrases we’d all tried to learn before we arrived, with the help of our new friends Shambu and Saroj. Both of these volunteer charity workers were to become our guides, confidantes and minders in this alien landscape. It took some nine hours to travel just 100km out of Kathmandu before we arrived in Tansen, home of Mahendra. There, we were treated to a most extraordinary welcome from his family. His lovely mum, recently widowed, sat us down in the small yard outside the house and the family gathered. We were anointed with a tikka paste (a traditional red paste mixed with rice) which was pressed onto our foreheads. Hindu and Buddhist blessings were said and an evening of entertainment began with us as guests of honour to an amazing local traditional Nepali boy-band who were upholding the traditions of singing and dancing. 

The Tansen mother’s group then arrived and sang for us and encouraged us to dance which we dutifully did, much to their hilarity. This was to be the first of every night dancing to traditional music. We quickly realised the sheer depth of community and the enormous capacity for joy that these people shared. From this moment on, I realised just how happy these people are, taking great pleasure from simple ritual and without the unnecessary complications of materialism that we experience in the West. 

The next 48 hours were both amazing and also deeply shocking. The next day we took part with Mahendra’s family in the Tihar festival of light. My sister and I were befriended by Mahendra’s nephew Bidhan and his daughter Sonica aged 15 and 8 respectively. They took us into the town and showed us around. The challenges of life here began to dawn on us as we watched people carrying water from the river and bathing in algae-filled pools. All around was evidence of people without access to medical care, and in very poor clothing. Relatively speaking this town was prosperous compared with where we were to head next. Little did I know, but that night I was to experience close up the squalid medical provision of Tansen. 

Bidhan and Sonica brought us home in time to prepare for the evening festival. We dined sat on the floor around incredible dinner-placings made from rice and husks spread in patterns on the floor. The food was amazing. Simple bitten rice and buffalo stew, served skin on, with a bewildering array of beautiful breads made especially for the festival. 

Following the food and some extraordinarily strong rice spirit, we retired to a room off the yard to play cards with the many children and mothers of the household. It was sometime into the card game, that tragedy struck. We heard a terrible thud outside. The mothers rushed out of the room, instantly realising something was wrong. Mahendra’s brother had fallen from a balcony and landed head first on the concrete yard. He was terribly badly injured and was taken to hospital unconscious on a motorbike - the only means of transport to the hospital high up the hill on which the town is built. Things did not look good. Around three hours later I travelled with Mahendra to the hospital. His brother had taken a turn for the worse. I could not believe the squalor of the medical centre. Emergency surgery had been performed and we were told by the doctor that all we could do now was wait. Mahendra gave blood in huge quantities, and became faint. Without any kind of scanning equipment and no chance of an air ambulance for his brother to be taken to Kathmandu, the situation was bleak. 

The next morning we awoke to the terrible news that Mahendra’s brother had passed away, leaving a wife and three children. The funeral would take place that afternoon and so we left the house prematurely for a trip to Lumbini. All of us had heavy hearts, unsure how to respond to this awful event in the midst of what had been otherwise a wonderfully happy time for us and the family. We were looked after by the Shambhu, as Mahendra attended to family business. We prepared to leave Nepal thinking this would be the preferred option for our host. 

I always knew that Mahendra was a man of incredible character. Just 48 hours after his bereavement he insisted we continue with our stay with a revised itinerary. We set out with him and the volunteers to Palpa district, in an archaic four wheel drive vehicle. We said intensely emotional goodbyes to Mahendra’s family. 

We were neatly packed into the Toyota like those baked beans and frankfurters that come together in a can. All squeezed in, bodies, bags and walking poles. Each of us carrying our packs of festive bread, of which there were 14 different types made for the festival, ranging from rich sugary breads to bright pink spaghetti stranded dough. We were given instructions to share this on our travels. 

Our journey took us to Pipal Danda, a remote mountain village 40 km West of Tansen. The usual road trip experience was heightened further by hair pin bends and breathtaking scenery as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. After 3 hours we left the road altogether and began up a tight zig zag road towards Pipal Danda. It was clear after 20 minutes that our transport was reaching the limits of its ability to get us there.

We disembarked and after several goes at everyone pushing the 4 wheel drive out of mud and ruts, we abandoned it and set out on foot for the rest of the journey. 

The thermometer on my watch said 36 degrees. It was blisteringly hot and we struggled in both the heat and also the early effects of the altitude. After 20 more minutes we heard the sound of singing, a happy, tribal mantra coming from just around the corner. Mahendra said it was workers in the field, but he knew what it was really...as we turned the corner we were confronted by the entire village. All of the children from the school and every adult in the locality, had turned out to welcome us. All were singing and we were quickly anointed with tikka paste and handmade marigold garlands were placed around our necks. We were all utterly overwhelmed. We proceeded into the village and were treated to local dancing and music and then we made presentations to the school, in particular money that had been raised back home, for the school, and all of the pens and paper we could cram into our cases. The villages were delighted and there were many tears shed. What we presented that day was the sum total of every resource that this school had to use. 

As I was given a tour around the school later I could not hold back the tears as I saw the squalid conditions. A landslide had destroyed the toilet so bushes next to the school had become the place where children defecated. The retaining wall that kept the school building from sliding down the hill into the villager’s homes had collapsed in the monsoon. The children were almost constantly infected with conjunctivitis , without any medicine available and lice were clearly evident. The classrooms were dark, without electricity and full of rubble and debris and in various states of collapse. The only resource was a blackboard, but there had been no chalk in the school for many years. Books, pens and paper of any kind were absent. 

This school had only a leaky tin roof, no resources but a rich oral tradition and hope on its side. The deputy head of the school joined us and I felt his immense passion for learning and for changing the lives of these children. 

After the tour, composure restored, the four intrepid UK visitors embarked on a new mission. Four rooky EFL teachers were about to spend a chunk of our trip teaching English to the children. This was just amazing. From age 4 to 11 we took it turns with the different year groups. We shared songs and actions, they learned how to “high 5” and with the aid of various props which we left with the school, everyone had a brilliant time and a serious amount of new English vocabulary and grammar was learned by all. The responses from the children were just incredible, their engagement levels and speed of learning was impressive and the sheer joy at the availability of basic resources was moving. The faces of the children will be etched in our minds forever, as they joined in with games and activities we brought to them. 

All this was all the more poignant given that many of the children in this school walk 2-3 hours to reach school six days a week. They receive only one meal each day at home in the evening and attend school between 10am and 2pm. Despite all the odds being against them learning anything, or even attending school at all, with the pressures on families to subsistence farm, they came, they listened, they engaged and they learned. The children’s passion for learning was matched only by the teachers’ passion for teaching. Learning is a privilege in Nepal and in these remote villages it represents a route out of the poverty trap. The level of deprivation became clear in the evenings when we visited the homes of some of the villagers during our stay. Typically constructed of wooden poles and leaf coverings, the existence was very basic. A clay oven served as both a cooking device and as heating for the cold winter months. Goats, a pig and all of the family members slept under one such structure, open to the elements on two sides. We were afforded the relative luxury of the medical building which we shared with one of the biggest and most colourful spiders I have ever seen. The size of side plate and brilliant green and yellow, I slept little at the prospect of him leaving his web and wandering my way. My sister was kept company by a large brown rat living in a bag of drying sweetcorn, about a foot from her sleeping mat. When we eventually left the village, the send off was as emotional as the welcome. 

The generosity and capacity for joy were huge eye openers for us throughout our trip. We have made many friends, and experienced the desperate poverty and hardships of the people of rural and urban Nepal. We were shocked so many times by the poor quality of basic facilities from roads to healthcare to education to medical resources. Yet, despite all of our experiences, we came away from Nepal having learned some incredible life lessons. 

We will most certainly continue to support the work of the charity to improve the education and welfare of the people we met, however it was by no means a one-way support process. There has been reciprocal learning throughout. 

We found ourselves challenged by the seeming contradiction of the hardship and simplicity of life and the joy and happiness that it seemed to facilitate. In our privileged Western lifestyles, many of us want for nothing, take so much for granted and yet find ourselves discontented. In Nepal there seemed to be no ‘affluenza’: no attitude of keeping up with the Jones’s, or status anxiety. In place of this was a humility and a gratefulness for the generosity of strangers and the support of community. Life in Nepal seems so strongly about cooperation, not competition. The hunger for acquisition and the dissatisfaction that this seems to stem from this in Western minds, was absent in the villages of West Nepal. 

Back in the UK, we have recovered from the immense culture shock of our month away, but it has left us with profound realisations. We are all one people on the planet, and we can choose to be friends and brothers and sisters, or we can choose to be enemies. Worse still we can choose to ignore the desperate plight of our fellow human beings, or we can act to spread love and support. We came to know that learning is a universally exhilarating experience, and that it leads to opportunity and connection between people. Furthermore it is a two way process. We can learn as much from those we visit as they learn from us. 

Above all we have come away from the country leaving behind friends whose lives go on in hardship and difficulty, and we must do what we can to help them to retain their joy of life whilst supporting their needs for basic resources like clean water, quality education and medical care.