15: Volunteering for a Nepali Family, and Sharing Kindness with Strangers along the Way

Oct 19th, 2019

I had a wonderful night’s sleep in my $3/night private tent, and upon ordering a french press from the bar at Sunsetview Cafe & Jungle Bar, my host helped me book a bus for later that evening. It was to take me from Thakudwara, in the far-southwest portion of Nepal, to Bharatpur, which was about 100 miles away from Kathmandu. Near Bharatpur I would be volunteering at my third Workaway since the start of my Southeast Asia trip, 40 days prior. Since it was going to be approximately a 14-hour ride, my host suggested a night bus, so I could arrive in the morning and not be stranded somewhere in the middle of the night. A sound plan, I thought. However, it didn’t work out so seamlessly.

But, before my bus left at 4 PM I had plenty of time to kill. I explored some rural areas, bathed in the Girwa river, and ordered some killer home-made french fries (my first time eating fries since in back America.. so yumm).

It was a pleasant surprise that allowed for some valuable cultural exchange. The rugby game started, and since they were big fans they taught me the basics about how the game is played. I’d never really watched rugby before, and found it comparable to American football, and in some ways more exciting. We enjoyed each other’s company until the time came when I was to venture onwards by bus. It was bittersweet to say goodbye to the most hospitable host I had yet met in Southeast Asia, as well as the kindhearted ladies who worked there. But, life must go on. 

The bus ride was notably rough, but authentic. I was surprised to see a big tv screen on the standard, non-touristy bus, just like the one that I took over the border from India to Nepal. And just like the prior bus, they played music videos (and a popular show involving a back-and-forth singing competition between a child and adult) at an obnoxious volume. To make matters worse, I was in the very back of the bus, and to say that the roads were bumpy would be like saying that the Himalayas are kind of tall. I honestly can’t recall any prolonged ride in any sort of vehicle that was more consistently turbulent than this. And this is on their main “highway” that runs through southern Nepal in the relatively low and flat region. And I thought India was poor. They at least sometimes had well-paved roads. There were no smooth sections in this. At all. It was too bumpy to read or write, and too loud to hear my own music through my earbuds. All I could do was look out the window, try to sleep, or write some poetry in my head.

At one point the seat next to me literally fell off of its frame after hitting a deep pothole. I looked at it, and all I could do was laugh. This is Nepal! I made eye contact with the man on the other side of that seat, and he laughed too. It was maybe 10 PM, and I had been sitting near him for some time, so he scooched over to strike up a conversation. 

He was really friendly, but I could barely hear him over the loudspeakers, which made his broken English even more difficult to understand. Nonetheless, I gathered that he was in the Indian Army, and would be spending time in Kathmandu before he goes back to India. He asked if I had a SIM card for Nepal, which I didn’t, and so he insisted on giving me his, for free. They’re super cheap in Nepal anyway, and I’d still have to pay for data, but it did save me the hassle of trying to find a store that sells SIM cards. So, I kindly accepted even though I didn’t really plan on using it (I never did purchase any data for it). 

I talked with the nice but strange fellow for a little while, until we ran out of things to talk about. Both of us could barely understand each other. He added me on Facebook, where his name is Heaven’s King (why?). I also gave him my Whatsapp number, through which he would consistently seek contact over the course of the next few weeks. I think he just liked me because I’m American, which I don’t really mind, but don’t really appreciate either. If I’m to be judged by something external to my personality, I’d hope it’s by my ripped clothing or dragonfly necklace. 

October 20th

At some point between talking to Heaven’s King and finally falling half asleep for a moment, only to be flung out of my chair as we hit another pothole, it became the next day. Approaching 2 AM, I was watching the blue dot on my phone get closer and closer to my destination on the map, which was happening sooner than anticipated. Despite how excruciating that bus ride was, this wasn’t a good thing. I wanted to arrive post-sunrise for logistical and safety purposes. My host said he would pick me up at 6 AM from a Honda Showroom near his home. But by the time I arrived in the city of Bharatpur, it was only 4 AM. 

Now, being alone in a relatively large city for Nepal (population: 280k) in the dead of night, alone, with 3 travel-months worth of luggage, was a little intimidating. Especially since the city resembled the run-down parts of Detroit, but if all of the garbage trucks dumped periodically on the side of the road instead of a waste facility. A few scattered people were hanging out on the street, but it was silent for the most part. No businesses were open. No wifi to contact my host about arriving early. Barely even any cars on the street for such an urban landscape. 

Since the next bus wouldn’t run until 5:30/6, I decided to take a rickshaw out of the city to get dropped off at the Honda Showroom. My driver was very wholesome, and only asked of me 400 Nepali Rupees ($3.35) for the maybe 15-20 minute ride. I was ready to pay 1000 since it was the middle of the night, and he could have easily kidnapped me, but he actually didn’t try to scam me, unlike 90% of the Indian drivers I rode with. 

Now it was only around 4:30 and I had an hour and a half to kill before my host, Tara, would arrive. I was so tired and happy to be on solid ground, I laid right down on the concrete in front of the Honda Showroom, relaxed my head on my backpack, and finally rested. I kept one eye open for the first 15 minutes to feel out the area. It seemed like a safe-ish semi-urban area, so I hid behind some potted plants as much as I could, and dozed off into lala land. Oh how I had never slept so fantastically on hard ground in my entire life!

When the sky was barely lit an older man walked by, noticed me, and woke me up. He was friendly, but confused about what I was doing sleeping infront of what was presumably his shop. I explained how my host was picking me up but I came too early, and so he gestured me to follow him.

Uhoh. Am I in trouble? Is he going to report me to the police? Where is he taking me? His demeanor was however calm and helpful. Maybe this has happened to him before

He walked me into the room above the Honda shop, which turned out to be his home. As I entered he told me to sit, and soon his wife came with two full cups of water. I explained with more detail my situation, and I think he vaguely understood. His english was very limited, but we could communicate the important things, such as how he knew my host, Tara. That was a huge relief. Plus he had a phone to call him. Amidst trying to contact him, his wife came in with two more cups of hot tea. How hospitable Nepali folks are to complete strangers! 10 minutes ago I was sleeping on the ground right outside his business, now I was sitting peacefully in their home drinking tea. 

The time passed 6 AM when Tara was supposed to be there, and still no answer. By 6:10 he told me once again to follow him, and led me back down the stairs. Hmmm, is he going to tell me how to walk there? 

Next thing I know he hands me a helmet and tells me to hop on his bike. Woohoo! I love riding on motorbikes with semi-strangers. 

It started raining on our way there, and his nice button-down shirt got totally soaked. He didn’t really seem to mind, and once we got to Tara’s house it was obvious he was welcome there. He walked right in to their open-air kitchen/living room, sat down, and accepted a cup of tea from Anjana, Tara’s wife. 

I met an older couple, Thomas and Mitte, who were from Sweden and working on renovating a house nearby. Incredibly, they come from the same tiny neighbourhood in Sweden, but first met each other all the way in Nepal a few years back. They knew Tara from volunteering, and now share meals together while working on building their dream home together.

Eventually Tara came down covered in paint, and suggested that I rest upstairs for the next few hours. He showed me around their humble home and guided me to the bed where I’d be sleeping for the next week or so. 

Lying in a real bed in this Nepali countryside, I was in heaven. There was a constant chorus of “coos” thanks to the 50+ pigeons and other birds right outside my window, and very rarely any vehicles passing by. The road outside his home was unpaved, and Google Maps didn’t even recognize that it existed. The air was fresh, moist, and warm (but not too warm). The people around me were kind and peaceful, and for the first time in a while there was no need to start figuring out how I’ll get to my next destination. Needless to say, I slept like a sloth. 

Later in the day I arose from my slumber and met the only other volunteer there – Mary, from Germany. She showed me how to do some of the volunteer tasks such as picking up the milk from our next-door neighbour and walking the dog. Our stroll revealed a few tiny shops selling snacks and beer in the area, as well as basic necessities for Nepalis (therefore excluding hand sanitizer and toilet paper). Most of the houses nearby, though they weren’t in the best physical shape, were boldly colourful. Outside were plenty of chickens, goats, dogs, ducks, and people. A group of grown men were fanning a pile of rice with a huge mesh sheet, other kids were playing soccer or just sitting outside with their mother while she works on some handicraft or chats with her neighbour. It was a community where everybody seemed to know everybody in the area, and all took care of each other. It was one of the most gorgeous, inspiring congregations of human beings that I had ever experienced. 

Every time we walked past a child we’d say “Namaste!” or “Namascar!” with palms together and they’d perk up with a huge smile and return our “Namaasteeee.” Out of all the neighbourhoods I had stayed in while volunteering (2 in India, 1 in Nepal, 1 in Thailand), I loved this one the most. For it felt most like a real, thriving community, despite how outwardly poor most folks were. In fact I’d say it was the poorest of them all, and correlatively, the most close-knit. 

Anyway, after seasoning my tongue with some conversation in German, we ate the classic Nepali dinner at Tara’s house: Dal Bhaat. It consists of rice (and I mean a lot of rice), plus a smaller portion of cooked vegetables, and a side of lentil “soup.” Some folks prefer their “soup” (more like slightly liquidy lentils) poured direct on top of their rice. Others (like me) prefer to scoop rice, veg, and lentils into one bite while keeping all of them separate. I experimented with different methods, for I would be eating the same meal for lunch and dinner basically every single day for the following week. 

I ate with Thomas & Mitte, Mary, Anjana & Tara, and their 2 children: Aakriti and Ananta. It became almost immediately evident that Ananta loves riddles, and at age 10 speaks better english than his father. Aakriti, 15 or so, is much quieter, at least around other volunteers. I wondered what life would be like for her. If I was a teenager, and all these strangers from all over the world were staying in my family’s home, eating with us, and doing work for us, would I get really sick of meeting new people? I’d imagine sometimes its more fun than others, depending on how well you get along with the current flock of foreigners. 

After dinner I retreated back up to my room, admiring the stillness in the air. Finally some peace and quiet after spending a month roaming around a country 1/3 the size of the US but with an extra billion people. Don’t get me wrong, I loved India, but I loved Nepal in an entirely different way. Many Indians likes to think that Nepali people are basically Indian, as if Nepal were a part of India, but the two countries and their inhabitants remain quite distinct, despite many similarities.

Sure, their languages are similar, and Hinduism predominates in both countries, and to a westerner their dress and decorative style are similar. They both drink masala tea, eat mimosas, and drive tuk-tuks in their cities. Yet Nepal is significantly poorer than India, their government (and its history) is very different, and they have their own unique traditions to celebrate shared Hindu holidays. Another key difference is in their staple foods. Though both consist of rice and vegetables, they’re prepared and spiced in very different ways. 

Furthermore, the way population is spread geographically over Nepal’s territory is radically different from India, which has a great impact on their culture, lifestyle, and economy. 68% of Nepalis rely on agriculture as a living (compared to 50% for India). And with Kathmandu as Nepal’s biggest city at about a million inhabitants, it’s still smaller than fourty-six Indian cities with populations over a million.

It seems nonetheless that Nepal is slowly becoming more like India as it turns more into a “developed” country. Thus, when looking at the countries historically, their differences are stark. Since the start of the Common Era, India was the largest economy in the world for 19 out of 21 centuries. Looking at Nepal before 1950, they didn’t even have roads, schools, or hospitals, let alone a bustling economy. Being landlocked and rather isolated from the rest of the world thanks to the Himalayas, they mainly traded with India, and a little bit with China. Large swaths of the population were basically entirely self-sustaining, but those numbers are dwindling, for better or worse. Most of those that still exist are in extremely isolated Himalayan villages. 

To put a cap on this post, I invite you to imagine what a life in such a village would look like. Nobody in our community uses money. Growing rice & millet and herding buffalo provides for our livelihoods. Trading with neighbours, the value of each commodity is clear enough. A coin symbolizing the value of something is unnecessary, and engaging in the production and upkeep of a monetary system only amounts to a waste of time and energy. No need for so many boring, meaningless jobs. No need for roads to take our goods to far-away places. Everything we need is in walking distance. We know all of your neighbours, and without the incessant drive to constantly be producing capital, spend time getting to know them. The divide between work-life, family-life, and leisure-life is largely disintegrated.

The divide between the natural world and the human landscape is similarly not so apparent, as your homes are built of materials directly from Earth. The streetlights are replaced by the stars and moon, the television replaced by the sunset. The games we play – arise organically, out of the curiosity of the mind meeting the natural world. The traditions we practice – inherited wisdom from timeless generations, invoke a sense of life being so much larger than one’s mere conscious experience. 

Our inner lives – are much more vibrant, too. Without such a constant stream of entertainment to fill the void of boredom, stillness is a regular part of life. The fears and anxieties that in modern society silently torment one for their entire lives – are heard, and are more or less seamlessly dissolved as the mind awakens to reality.  

Sure, this sounds quite dreamy. I mean not to overlook the immense amount of suffering that is still present in such lives. These traditional communities would indeed benefit from some modern products such as hospitals. And yes, (in my subsequent travels) often times I met folks in these isolated mountain communities who greatly enjoyed watching singing contests on their smartphones. But if they were forced to choose between all or none of the developed world’s proclaimed “advancements,” so long as they’re aware of the inherent consequences of those advertised perks, I doubt that any of them would make the switch. Do you? I welcome disagreement, so please share your thoughts if you so desire.