I think i am person that travels a fair bit. Honestly not because i have to, but because i desire to. I love being in a place that kind of takes me to another reality. I love the feeling of walking down the street breathing a fresh kind of air, different sounds, different smells. With nothing much planned in my day but exploring a new place, new roads, new culture and people watching.
But i have to say, this trip to Nepal will be one of the most memorable for me. Firstly i learnt how to wake up at 5am everyday for 10 days in a row, out of my own free will. (its a challenge if you knew how nocturnal i am naturally). And the reason i woke up even before the sun came up is to build houses for the poor in a village 2 hours from Kathmandu called Kavre.
A few months ago my girlfriend Jolene suggested we sign up as volunteers with Habitat for Humanity to build houses in Nepal for the less fortunate. Intrigued, as i have never been to Nepal and always wanted to go and doing charity + giving back any chance i get has always been part of my calling (elaborate further later), i immediately said yes.
On our arrival on the 6th Oct, we checked into a 2 star hotel we booked close to the airport because HFH said if we came before the 7th we had to find our own accommodation and meet the group at the airport on the 7th to get picked up in a bus and head to the hotel they had booked for us. Only to find out later... the next day when we checked in, that they had booked us a room on the 6th. Anyway... the 2 star hotel was horrid. No electricity by day and no hot showers by night. Go figure! And their coffee (which i ordered from room service) tasted like Campbell soup!! Very strange. Which prompted me and Jolene not to eat or drink anything from there until we leave. Worse of all the pillow cases had gross yellow stains on them, so we slept with our towels over our pillows. Now, i’m not a picky person and can rough it out to a certain extent but at least things should be clean.
Day 2, plans changed and we were informed that our pick up was arranged to fetch us from our hotel to the new hotel where all the volunteers would stay. It came 2 hours late. We finally checked in and by that time had to just changed into fresh clothes and head for the Opening ceremony of HFH Everest Build 2012 at Bhaktaphur. It was beautiful, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With 500 volunteers coming together with one goal, help the poor and provide proper sanitary housing to as many as we could. The opening ceremony was lovely and we had a short but good rest back at the hotel after.
Day 3-5, first day of the build. We met out team. Normally we would have 01 team to a house, each team consisting of 14 members. But because the asian teams were so small, they combined us together, 5 Singaporeans and 3 Koreans, total we had 8. And thats not the only hurdle we faced. We also had no one in the team with any kind of building experience. Things like not having our own bus, being shuffled from one to another in the end getting kicked out of all the buses and having to be specially shuttled by mini van one day and got to the site more than an hour later than usual. And most teams had 02 room houses to build, our team was assigned a 04 room house. In the end our team leader kicked up a huge fuss because were facing so many problems and with the lack of man power and building knowledge, we knew we would never finish the house. Finally on the last 02 days, HFH sent over some other members from the American team to help out.
But despite all these problems we faced, it didn’t feel hard and we had fun everyday and smiled big smiles when we carried bricks, dug and carried mud from the pit, laid bricks in the hot sun, got covered in mud and dirt, cut bamboo and barb wire to construct beams. We became close friends as a team... never complaining, always looking out for one another. We also got very close to the family we were building for, singing songs together. And the highlight was that the house we were building was right behind a local school. So everyday we were greeted by smiling kids from the school and the village. Soon our backpacks were filled with sweets and treats for the kids everyday. We played with them and they helped out whenever they could or simply hung around just to keep us company.
The family we built for consists of 08 people, Tikka (mom and priestess of the village), Laskmi (elder daughter), Rosa (second daughter), 03 sons (living in the city) and 02 younger girls. Tikka’s husband had passed away and she alone had to provide for her children. her sons moved to live in Kathmandu because there was no space in their one room house to accommodate everyone. And even with the 04 girls, it was a squeeze. The living conditions there are far beyond what we (city folks) can imagine. There are no taps except for 01 communal pump in the middle of the village and they had to carry water home for cooking, cleaning etc everyday. So they did not take showers everyday. The children are constantly covered in dirt and the ladies had lice in their hair. Good food as we know it is a dream for them... the main staple is rice. They cook, sleep, eat and do everything in their one room house. But even with what we would consider poor living conditions, Tikka and her family had the biggest hearts i have ever known. She repeated invited me to be a guest in her house, asking me if i would like to drink or eat or simply rest or stay in her home. She said she would gladly have to as her guest to live in Nepal if i ever wished to. I felt like one of her daughters. So i called her Ah ma. Her daughters loved to take me into the room where they played a kind of Nepalese accordian and sang for me, braided my hair, applied lip gloss and eye liner on my face, even gave me a pair of their favorite earrings as a parting gift, telling me not to forget them. As i fought the tears from coming out of my eyes, i wondered how could i ever forget such hospitality and genuine love from these special souls. On our last day, Tikka blessed everyone one of the volunteers with saffron powder on our foreheads and cut the ribbon we used to decorate the house with and poppers, fake snow and fire crackers went off. It was a wonderful sight!! We also decorated the house with strings of candy that the kids promptly ripped off and started chewing on as soon as the ceremony was over. We all had huge smiles on our faces. When it was time to say goodbye.... i could only remember Tikka’s teary but happy face waving at us as our bus started to drive out of Kavre.
Although most of the house was built, we didn’t manage to finish the roof. But we knew it was left in the hands of 04 masons who were professional Nepalese builders. They came in the last 2 days to help us with our house because it became so obvious that we were struggling. The builders called me by my Sanskrit name Ushas which was tattooed on my neck. We became fast friends, sharing snacks during breaks and i asked them about their families and which part of Kathmadu they came from. Our communication was limited because of language differences, but i soon learnt that human connection is so much more than words. It was in our smiles to one another, in the way we helped each other, in the warmth that was deep in their eyes when they looked at me. I called them my gurus. They were our building teachers. And they were incredible.
After the build was over, our team stick together to hang out.... almost through out the whole trip until one by one had to leave and return to Singapore on various dates. We visited temples in Kathmandu, went to Patan (another Unesco world heritage site) and shared dinners in various cafes and restaurants at night. We also spent one night partying up a storm with the Aussie team from our neighboring house. Who came over to help out whenever they could. It was a blast.
Finally on the last 02 days, Jolene and i took a flight to Pokhara. We paraglided off cliff, went to visit some waterfall and cave and woke up the next day at 3am to catch the sunrise on the top of a mountain (but the sun never showed that day). Later we found out we were grossly overcharged by our travel guide for that experience. But i guess being cheated is also an experience!! After all we are on holiday so we just paid whatever they asked and headed for our flight home.
During all this time, i also made a good friend out of a young man named Prasan. A local volunteer that wasn’t really assigned to our team but stuck around everyday to help out because he knew how much we needed it. And though the work was hard, he never complained. Even though he too comes from a family of considerable wealth and is not accustomed to this kind of physical work. Having spent 3 years studying in Singapore before, he was no stranger to Singlish and we all got along great!! he showed us around whenever he could and help u with heaps of logistic stuff even after the build. I am sure this will not be the last time we see Prasan again. A kind hearted and truly honorable man.
All in all, to sum up my Nepal experience. Just like being in Cambodia, Laos, poorer parts of Thailand and India, amidst the poverty, chaos, dirt, dust, noisy and dangerous traffic, backward systems, lack of hygiene, that the people were golden. They had spirits and hearts of gold. True, sincere, giving, honorable and kind. The nature was abundant... surrounded by mountains and valleys. Being in the mountains, you can really feel and appreciate God’s work and the majesty of it all. And how apparent it is that we, the human species have done so much to make it worse.
My biggest blessing is have been born in the right place at the right time. In a country of stable economy. To a loving family that provided me with food, love, shelter, luxury and whims and fancies. To be given proper education and to be able to get enough work to live such a comfortable life. I was at the right place at the right time. And to me there is no difference between me and the village lady in Nepal who could only shower maybe once or twice a week. Never saw a computer or read a magazine. I got lucky. Or did i? I learnt to appreciate so much more what i have when i return from these trips. Because its true, we have so much. Perhaps too much. And sometimes the more materials things we have, the harder it is to let go. But i ask myself, what is the true value in these things?? THINGS ARE JUST THINGS. NO-THING in this world could have bought me one second of love and warmth i felt for the smiles of the people i met in Kavre. So i will continue to be grateful for the things i have learnt and to appreciate what i have been blessed with.
Life is good... sharing that goodness makes life even better.