Thursday, January 17, 2019

Homestay Volunteering Is A Great Way To See A Foreign Country

Article and photos by Tony Mangia

International volunteering became sort of an annual ritual with me about five years ago after an eye-opening and exciting three weeks teaching English in Kenya. What began as one-time, lending a hand in some small way journey soon became a yearly excursion overseas before turning into the bi-yearly excuse to explore less ventured and vastly more interesting places in the world — with charitable group benefits — it has become for me today.

The act of volunteering has cannily become equal parts self-serving travel support as much as an opportunity to do some sort of good in the world. 

As a photojournalist, I am always looking for the off-the-beaten-path sort of destinations and usually travel in spring or fall when the climates are more bearable and most rainy seasons are dormant. Of course, there aren’t the mobs of tourists and college students in the background of every shot either. Volunteering offers me the chance to get up close and personal with different communities of the world without feeling like one of those tourists.  And besides the satisfaction of helping other people out — and occasionally their fellow Hominidae (Working on an orangutan reserve in Malaysia) — it is also a great way to get acclimated to a less developed country — namely its culture, food, language and customs — with the help, support and guidance of a local volunteer team and the families you get to stay with. A one or two week crash course, so to speak. There is nothing more intimidating or a feeling of helplessness than being dropped off blindly into an environment way different that our western world without a clue. Just getting used to foregoing the creature conveniences we usually take for granted — simple amenities like hot water, air conditioning and sit-down toilets — can take some getting used to. Those squat toilets may be more natural and beneficial to your system (so they say), but not when your bad knees scream at every bend like mine do. Still don’t know why they don’t put handlebars around that hole in the ground. While most homestay experiences may take you out of your comfort zone for a spell, they also offer adventurous travelers a bartering-type opportunity to help others in exchange for getting a helping hand in return.

I tend to travel solo so I can take all the photos I want without anyone looking at their watch or hear the restless tapping of another person’s foot hinting at moving on. Getting the right photographic light can sometimes take a lot of time and patience— a toleration mostly only serious photographers know or care about. After finishing your daily chores as a volunteer, it’s easy to wander off on your own, even though most volunteer organizations stress keeping a close relationship within the groups —  such as dinners and activities together — to build camaraderie. I still choose the lone wolf approach whenever possible. The whole group together principle is more of a protective measure than an actual Kumbaya existence, but in the company of other volunteers, I’ve found that these organizations offer more than just a friendly, welcoming comfort zone for the lonely traveler in a foreign land, they offer security. And those on a budget can take advantage of that hospitality by saving money on tours, flights and accommodations once you get to their country. For example, when I volunteered in Kenya, the $1500 three-day safari I saw on my computer in the U.S. before I left actually cost me about $400 in Kenya because Beatrice, the woman whose family I home-stayed with in Nairobi, had connections to better deals. I recommend researching the tours and adventures beforehand, so you know how to clarify what you are looking to your volunteer hosts once you arrive. Sometimes language and technological issues (Limited internet, phone etc.) make it a little harder in some places, so the more information you bring with you, the better.

So there I was last May, touching down in Kathmandu after a pleasant, but tiresome 30 hour air journey from JFK — with a late-night layover in Dubai where I had the last real Western mean I would enjoy for a while — a quite delicious, McArabia Chicken (sliced chicken, tahini, lettuce, tomato and onions on pita) sandwich at the terminal McDonalds. My biggest challenge after the volunteer group sent a cab to meet me at Dubai International Airport? Figuring out how to adjust my watch nine hours and forty-five minutes ahead to local time. I couldn’t, so I spent the next three weeks just deducting two hours from the hands on the watch and noting if it was night or day. The younger volunteers on my trips are always amazed I don’t have a smart phone and that I can go weeks without taking selfies, scrolling social media and ignoring all the Internet noise that comes with it. The first time they see a Luddite like me still using a flip phone and notice I can’t even change the time on it, they really crack up.

Kathmandu, the capitol and largest city in Nepal, might be the dustiest place I’ve ever been in and that includes earthy cities such as Nairobi, Kandy in Sri Lanka and Myawaddy in Myanmar — all during their dry seasons. Through my taxi window, I observed the small storms of dirt particles lifted up by motor vehicles mix with the unending buzzing of scooters and motorcycles blowing puffs of exhaust into a throat choking nightmare. The durable Royal Enrights seem to be the choice of motorcycle here, as they are in India and many southeast Asian countries and it isn’t uncommon to see a family of five straddling one together. My taxi driver told me the number of motorized bikes on the streets of Kathmandu increased from 8,000 ten years ago, to over 80,000 teeming the streets now. He wasn’t happy about it either.

The only creatures that don’t seem to worry about the two-wheeled menaces zipping around town are the sacred cows you see grazing smack in the middle of any thoroughfare, leisurely chomping on the grains and fruit that people lay in front of them as offerings.

Face masks are almost a necessity and sold everywhere and it’s not uncommon customized or personalized ones adorn faces like fashion accessories. The tannish clouds of dirt still can’t hide the brilliant colors adorning everything from Nepalese clothing to brightly painted buildings. It must be maddening to the old women constantly wiping the ever-swirling dust off their tables of exotic looking foods (Which I wouldn’t chance eating) and interesting knick-knacks with tattered straw brooms only to see the fine granules of earth coat everything again minutes later. The ever-present powdery brown nuisance tainting everything takes some time getting used to. Did I mention face masks?

After a 45-minute minute ride from the airport, my driver dropped me off at the Kathmandu Peace House guest house the volunteer group set me up to stay for the first few days of my journey. Peace House is a popular name for these inexpensive hostel-type accommodations, so make sure you get the proper name and address before arriving or you’ll go crazy looking for it. I opted to pay extra ($6US per night) for single room privacy and comfort for a few days before the two-weeks of dorm-like, communal accommodations most volunteer trips utilize.

I was tired and dirty from the flight, but couldn’t wait to get out and about Kathmandu, so that shower could wait. I wandered the narrow streets in the tourist section of Kathmandu known as Thamel with camera in hand probably overusing the greeting namaste to everyone I met or took a picture of. It took a little time to get used to the narrow or nonexistent sidewalks, the heartbreaking street beggars and free-wheeling traffic, but it definitely got my photographic creative juices churning. Strangely, the first thing I noticed through all of the merchandise and gear pertaining to Mount Everest or the trinkets and t-shirts adorned with the omnipresent Buddha Eyes (Two alluring peepers, usually with a touch of eye shadow, symbolizing the wisdom and all-seeing ability of the Buddha) was the number of dreadlock hair styles on the Westerners. This place must be the White Guys with Dreads capital of the world. I counted about a dozen the first few hours I was there, probably more than I’ve seen in a lifetime in New York City — and that includes trendy Williamsburg.

I was cautious where to eat, and scouted around before I snacked down on my first (of many more to follow) meal of dal bhat, a Nepal staple usually consisting of white rice, lentil soup, chutney vegetables and roti flatbread at a place called the Mint Cafe, the coziest looking restaurant I could find. It was delicious, filling and only cost about 450 rupee, or about $4.50US. Little did I know at the time that dal bhat would basically be lunch and dinner for nearly two weeks while on homestay with my volunteer family, but — for now — this regional dish  was different and delectable.

Throughout the dusty streets of Kathmandu are plenty of temples to explore and ancient Buddhist stupas or Hindu shrines splattered with colorful flowers and melted candles to photograph. Hindus make up about 80% of the Nepalese population, but Buddhist symbolism seems to be everywhere. I’m guessing because Buddhism holds that Buddha was born in Nepal and is rooted in Nepal’s history. I worked out my airline-cramped legs wandering through the narrow streets, hopping out of the way of scooters and curiously peeking down alleys, into open-air barber and butcher shops; while passing the numerous lines of pedicabs and female street vendors selling fruits or fragrant spices.

The food stands are tempting, but I again cautiously, and probably wisely, avoided sampling those delicacies. There are some reminders of the earthquake of 2015, but not as serious as other parts of the country including the area where I will be doing the volunteer work doing earthquake repair work. By accident, after a couple of hours, I ended up near Swayambhunath, also know as the Monkey Hill Temple — a Buddhist temple which dates back to the 5th century and is considered most sacred because of the monkeys who have free reign of the ancient complex.

Your 20-minute climb up the stairs to the hilltop temple is rewarded by the scent of incense wafting around the Swayambhu Stupa —  the centerpiece structure highlighted by the eyes of the all-present god watching everything painted atop it. The eyes stare down on a magnificent view of Kathmandu below.

I was stoked to be volunteering with International Volunteer HQ, a group I had signed up with three other times (China, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia). It’s a institution I find to be well coordinated, helpful and more affordable than some of the other volunteer organizations which sometimes charge thousands of dollars for room, board and transportation during your humanitarian service time. I usually pay two or three hundred a week with IVHQ. The orientation period (usually the first few days after you arrive) helps you prepare for your new home. On Monday morning we had our first formal meeting where we confirmed our preferred volunteer program during a filling breakfast inside a classic Hindu temple where I got to know most of the other volunteers a little better.

I wondered if there might be some the personality traits I remembered from other volunteering assignments. It would be easy to spot a few of the stereotypes by the end of the meal.

There was always The First-timer who was hell-bent on changing the whole world during a two week stint, The Animal Whisperers who tried to collect and save every stray cat or puppy (and there are lots) they came across, The Fussbudget someone who never let you forget about everything from the lack of hot water to seeing rice on every bill of fare along with The Cheerleader, that unendingly peppy person always setting up "team" photos and constantly saying things like, “We’re the best group ever!” My favorite was The Appropriator who, in one sweeping shopping spree, attempts to look indigenous by dressing in an awkward mash-up of local attire. In Nepal, donning a Kurta Suruwal (A long colorful gown over flowing pants for women), a Dhaki topi (a brimless cap for men) and henna painted hands the first moment they arrived would fit the bill. Completing that fashion disaster would have to include a pair of uncomfortable looking padukas (Ancient Nepalese sandals with a knob between the big and index toes to keep them on). Hopefully absent from this roster of volunteers was The Yoga Couple who usually, and annoyingly, posed for body twisting selfies at any precarious site they could find. I gave the pack a final, quick once-over and was ready to bond.
This group included mostly pretty cool people who were all first time volunteers. There was Tanner, a financial adviser from Seattle shedding his stiff collars and ties for a few weeks, Zach, an experienced rock climber from Colorado, a 30-something Brit who just dumped his life as a banker to travel the world for a year and various other adventurers taking time off from college or work to do try something different. We all discussed why we were there (helping others, bored with regular vacations…) and me, being the elder statesman in both age (I was probably 20 years older than anyone) and number of volunteering excursions, seemed to be looked up as The Veteran, that know-it-all who offered little secrets to a fulfilling volunteering stay whether they wanted it or not. And yes, they would all be bored by the third time they heard the same stories from me.

During our orientation breakfast, we learned basic customs, tourist dos-and-don’ts, popular attractions plus our contact and safety information to help us ease into our new lives in Nepal. Over a sort of egg fritter and roti meal we learned about the Nepal caste system (legally outlawed, but the laws still manifest themselves in certain day-to-day life) and the insane one-day taxi and bus strikes that happen at the drop of a hat and close most forms of transportation. I’ll get to my own personal experience with that later. The amazing thing about these indiscriminate strikes is how whimsical they really are because there is never any grievance that they are haggling over. No pay hikes or less work hours, just call a strike that morning, put the vehicles in storage and do whatever. “There’s a chicken in the road,” was how one of our supervisors joked about their arbitrary reasons for a work stoppage. We also got instructions on many different Hindu customs and rules which are considered impure and locally known as a jhutho. Some were common: Take off shoes before entering households and especially temples, some were odd: Do not pat anyone on their their heads which are considered sacred and some are just plain archaic: During a woman’s menstruation, she cannot enter a kitchen to cook and in some rural territories not even allowed to eat with other members of the family. We also learned that Nepalese do not let any bottles they sip from touch their lips (It’s more of a pour) and married women wear red.

The organization representatives are all very concerned about everyone’s safety and warned us about getting drunk, doing drugs, leaving unattended drinks at bars and women traveling alone — all situations which could all end up badly — pretty much like anywhere in the world. We were presented with info about weekend jungle safari trips to Chitwan (first on my list), trekking the Himalayan foothills (check No. 2) and rafting the array of rivers draining from the mighty mountain range (next time). They were helpful arranging transportation and accommodations and more accessible and less expensive than having an outside broker do it for you. This is one of the fiscal perks of volunteering — and the representatives will usually do all the leg work setting it up as well.
The variety of volunteer assignments varies from country to country, but the most common ones seem to be teaching English, childcare, construction, conservation, technical support and physical education. The more mentally intense programs included medical ones like physical therapy, AIDs support and special needs help. I helped out with a group of emotionally-challenged young adults in China and personally found the simultaneous soul warming and heartbreaking work difficult to handle at times. It's not for everyone.

The volunteering periods usually span one to four weeks, but I met one Colorado dude who basically went native in Sri Lanka and lived in the housing barracks for almost five months. No matter how long you volunteer, I find it a great primer for touring the country and a fabulous stepping off point before heading out on your own and seeking adventure. I now usually volunteer for two weeks, then stay in the country doing activities I enjoy like trekking and scuba diving for as long as I like. By the end of your homestay stint, everyone in the neighborhood recognizes you, you know them and actually feel like a part of the family and community fabric. It’s sometimes hard to abandon that feeling of acceptance all at once, so I recommend staying an extra week and put all of that newfound domesticity to use.

The temple reconstruction work I previously helped out with in Sri Lanka was difficult — if only because of the lack of proper and well-kept tools. Under a blazing sun and rationed water, I remember clearing out a patch of craggy turf for a garden with a young man named Rolf from Germany. We used shovels so worn out they didn’t seem much bigger than tablespoons and used pickaxes that would fly off the handles a couple of times a day. We yelled “Heads up” in English and German a lot those few weeks. I picked earthquake relief construction in Nepal because I like being outdoors and the physical work, but vowed to walk off the job if we didn’t have proper tools. I was even ready to buy my own tools, if it was necessary.

Two more days of orientation involved touring a few temples including one where we enjoyed what I considered a sumptuous dal bhat dinner with entertainment by traditional Hindu dancers and native musical accompaniment. During our last night together in Kathmandu, about a dozen of us had spicy mo-mos (dumplings) and giant bottles of local brews like Gorkha beer at a hipster-style joint playing great classic rock before heading to a hooka bar called the Buddha Bar for a nightcap. We drunkenly came up with a great name for a drinking establishment: The KathmanDon’t Bar.

The next day all of the volunteers (some slightly hungover) set forth to the bus station for our assignments in Pokhara about 80 miles west of Kathmandu and bordered by some of the highest mountains in the world. I was seated right behind the driver and had a front row — almost IMAX view — of the terrifying road trip we were about to undertake. My stomach, still unsettled from last night’s drinking, seemingly jumped out of my mouth more than a couple times as the bus bounced along winding, narrow roads just inches from a two-thousand foot drop. For the next seven hours I would alternately look out at the majestic mountain range we were passing though and, at the same time, pumping fake brakes and grabbing my seat for support. If this stretch of potholes, gravel and rock wasn’t considered one of The World’s Most Deadly Roads, it was definitely one of the scariest. I kept forgetting that the freewheeling driver was on the right side in Nepal. So, at times, I would look and see no one on the left, which intensified an occasional split-second illusion of a pilotless vessel careening out of control — adding to the terror. The miles of green farmland and wondrous snow-capped mountain tops in the background were inspiring and helped me overcome my imagined impending sense of doom like our bus rolling hundreds of times down one of those magnificent cliffs. There was one moment when I couldn’t contain my elation and excitedly pointed out a large snow-covered mountaintop to the attractive young woman wearing a silky green dress (not married) sitting next to me and gasped “Mount Everest.” She politely smiled and went back to her book like she’s seen that mountaintop a thousand times before — and probably had. Maybe she didn’t understand English I thought. Then, about ten minutes later, and in between taking in those both frightening and breathtaking views, she nudged me and pointed to a different and higher peak. “Mount Everest,” she said with a satisfied grin. I beamed. I just saw the world’s highest point.

With over 30 million people, Nepal is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, but you wouldn’t know it by this bus trip to Pokhara. In between the stomach-churning experience on the twisting mountain roads was some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere. Tibetan prayer flags flew from almost every structure and stuck out among the greenery. You’ve most likely seen this pervasive string of five small, different colored banners flapping around in almost any film about Mount Everest or the Himalayas. Each different colored flag represents a different element. The white represents air, red is fire, yellow is earth, green is water and blue is wind. Tibetans — and I guess the Nepalese — believe the prayers spread good will and compassion by the winds blowing through them.

After one last pit stop at a roadside station where you could refresh yourself at a community sink and eat hot food at your own risk (I couldn’t resist and I would really pay for it later), we rolled into Pokhara about 4 pm. Nepal’s major tourist attraction is trekking and the Pokhara Valley is the starting point for some of the best hiking trails on earth. Whether it’s a one-day, five-day or the 21-day Annapurna Circuit trek, there are all skill levels of hiking all along the three intersecting main trails and enough teahouses to accommodate the hundred of thousands of trekkers who come here every year. It’s not hard to find North face jackets, boots, camping gear and anything Himalayan in Pokhara. And if I thought there were a lot of dreadlocks in Kathmandu, Pokhara looked like a white guy’s Bob Marley competition at Burning Man. Tourists from all over the world come to this bastion of mellow lifestyles — and giant stalks of weed to smoke (It’s officially illegal) seemed pretty accessible at many of the western-style bars and restaurants if you asked around. The locals — who seem to be a mix of cultures, religions, customs and physical features derived from the Chinese from the north border and Indian people from the south — are more than happy to help the hordes of foreign wanderers and sightseers.

I said my goodbyes to the other volunteers before Mitch, my new co-volunteer, and I found out we would be working together in Ghatchina, a rustic village outside Pokhara for the next 10 days minus one free weekend. The Hindu enclave was hit directly by the earthquake of 2015 and we would help locals rebuild a community center and refurbish a child daycare room as well.  Mitch was an American student studying political science in Japan. He was a well-travelled 21 year-old (He actually toured North Korea), but this was his first volunteering gig. We hopped into a cab the organization provided and took off from the busy streets of Pokhara toward the Annapurna Valley in the distance. It was nice to be off of the crowded bus, but that comfort level didn’t last long. The hour-long car trip to Ghatchina felt like we were driving over a giant, 10-mile long washboard. The constant vibration from the potholed road rattled my eyeballs. I had difficult time focusing my camera the few times I asked the driver to pull over so I could get some backlit photos of a man plowing a rice paddy with his water buffalo or a herd of goats being led up a mountain trail by old women in colorful garb.

We arrived in Ghatchina just as a low, rumbling thunderstorm accompanied by a weird cloak of a clouded sunset had covered the nearby sloping, green countryside. The lighting was perfect for photos. We could see a crowd of the villagers gathered outside a simply constructed concrete building that the driver informed us we would be sharing with our new family. A murmuring mix of locals continued to swell by the time our cab dropped the two of us off in from top the two-story structure where we would live with a Nepalese family of five for the next two weeks.

I had volunteered six times before, but I had never seen a group of people come out to greet new arrivals like this — even working with people in more dire frontiers. Mitch and I went inside the house leaving about what must have been about 100 villagers dressed in their bright rainbow of colorful garb outside. I looked out a window and watched as they suddenly circled the house across the dirt road from our new humble abode. There was cheering followed by loud gasps from the crowd. The alternating shrieks and laughter were a little confusing to me.

“What’s going on?” I asked Hari, the father of the family and head of the household, as we set down our bags inside the front door, taking a quick glance around.

“Snake in the house,” he casually replied, trying to draw our attention from the scene outside to his waiting family inside.

So the reception wasn’t for us, I selfishly and disappointedly thought to myself as Hari proudly introduced his wife, Maya, his 8-year-old son Annsh, his 4-year-old daughter Annsha, and his mother Ajani, better known as Ama (grandma) to us.

The introductions were nice, but I couldn’t stop looking over their shoulders to see the action on the other side of the street. My photojournalistic instinct was taking over.

I casually (rudely?) excused myself and sauntered outside to check things out. Mitch followed. As we both angled our heads over the crowd to get a better view, the cheers got louder. We got closer and saw a monster of a snake slither full length across the corrugated tin roof. Two men started beating the roof alongside the reptile with bamboo sticks, scaring it into the house rafters. More cheers and gasps. Mitch and I both looked at each other and our jaws dropped as we watched as the pair shooed it outside where the frightened serpent coiled itself around a beam and hissed at its two tormentors. The men took turns alternately hitting the hanging snake over a patio like it was some eight-foot long piƱata. The frenzied crowd alternately swelled in towards the snake when it retreated and they pushed each other out of the way screaming when it rose up, baring its fangs and snapping its head forward to take a chomp of air.  It was a wild scenario.

“Does this happen a lot,” I asked Hari, who seemed more than a little concerned about our safety than what was happening.

“First time,” he shrugged. I knew he was underplaying the commotion as not to frighten us into the first bus back to the more civilized city of Pokhara.

A quick glance over at the rookie Mitch said it all. He had a sort of What have I gotten myself into look of terror on his face.

Me? I grabbed my camera and started recording what was one of the craziest things I have ever seen in my life. I’m talking a National Geographic type scenario that lasted about 15 minutes. As an animal lover, I was torn between speaking up about the gleefully cruel actions of the villagers, but as a journalist knew this was their culture and I wanted to record it.  The two men took turns whacking the reptile who was still coiled around the beam and looked like it could swallow a baby. Finally, the exhausted snake fell to the ground, where it was beaten more, then dragged out into the dirt road for everyone to stare at. A young boy stepped out of the crowd and dropped a giant rock on its head as the final blow. The dead snake was strewn across the road in it’s full battle-scarred glory for everyone to first admire and then condemn before a couple of teenaged boys took it off somewhere to bury it.

This sort of buzz wasn’t the kind of reception I usually got arriving for a volunteer job, but it was definitely more dramatic than any other I could remember and quickly reminded that I was far from the cozy concrete jungles of New York City — it even felt about a million miles away from the harsh environs of Kathmandu as well. I was reminded that Nepal had wildlife as fantastic and dangerous as anywhere in the world. In fact, according to The Himalayan Times, over 20,000 people a year are bitten by snakes in Nepal resulting in about 1,000 deaths. Interestingly, in a bizarre 2012 twist, the BBC reported that a Nepalese farmer actually bit a cobra to death, after the snake bit him. The people of Nepal are pretty rugged too.

When all of the excitement surrounding the snake settled and a light thunderstorm scattered the remaining villagers, Mitch and I sat down to a nice meal (You guessed it, dal bhat) freshly cooked up by Maya. It gave us a chance sit with the family and interact with four-year-old Annsha, who scribbled in a coloring book and his son (babu) soccer-loving Annsh. I made the faux-pau of mentioning Lionel Messi and the nine-year-old boy gave me a look and quickly named all the great qualities of Ronaldo — his favorite player — all under the ever watchful eye of Ama — who would be our house mother while Maya taught children at a schoolhouse which was oddly built on the top of a mountain a one hour hike uphill. I asked Maya why the school was built so out of the way on the top of a mountain and she explained that it was so it was an equal distance away for the children in a village on the other side of the mountain. Made sense… I guess. Hari gave us a quick tour of our humble accommodations (we each had our own room since there were no other volunteers) where I immediately checked for snakes around the roof beams. Some holes in the ceiling were big enough for an anaconda to slip through, so I knew I would be sleeping on that matted platform with one eye closed and the other open — peering through a hole in the bed sheet that doubled as a mosquito net.

After dinner, Hari led Mitch and I towards the community center where we would be working about a quarter mile up a hill and explained what our duties would be. The job was pretty simple — transporting one huge pile of dirt and gravel up a hill and making another pile of dirt and gravel in increments of 30-pounds poured into old heavy-duty cement sacks. Looking up the hill at our new work station from the bottom of the trail, we watched Hari pick a large boulder from a pile and start on up. Following his lead, Mitch and I each picked up a roughly 20-pound boulder from the pile and carried it up to the construction site where we dropped them in another pile of rocks that would be used in the building of the step-like support walls they were constructing on the side of the mountain. A light rain started as we tried not to slip on the muddy trail that cut through a field of crops where a few old women were finishing up weeding their gardens. Carrying the boulder, I think, became sort of a ritual with Mitch and I each time we headed up the hill to our worksite — a symbolic stone cross to bear reminding us of how crude and backbreaking the working conditions still are in rural Nepal. We would always pick up one or two without saying anything depending how many tools we were toting each time up the slope.

Though the devastation from the earthquake of 2015 centered on more remote towns northeast of Ghatchina, this area was not spared completely.  To remind myself of why we were helping out here, one night I asked young Annsh to take me to see what was left of the site where 15 people from three families died in their sleep when a landslide caused by the earthquake rolled over their mountain homes a few hundred yards away. Some parts of the foundations of the three houses still rose from the smothering mud and new overgrowth like eerie tombstones. It was very humbling to be standing on the same ground where a whole village assembled and tried to dig out their friends and neighbors to no avail. Annsh and I quietly kicked a soccer ball back-and-forth on the walk back home.

Ghatchina could relatively be called an outpost in the world of volunteering. A movie adaption might be called Dances With Goats. The simple cement buildings with tin roofs lay scattered at the valley below the the Annapurna Conservation range dotted with similar farm villages every mile or so. And while the muddy and bumpy single road into town isolates these places from most leisurely travelers — a few foreign trekkers might hike through — Ghatchina was the last vestige of civilization before the vast Himalayan mountain range going north takes over the landscape. The whole town is cut off from all outsiders during the peak monsoon season (June through August) when the runoff from the mountains swells the river that splits the town, flooding whole areas including the main road, making it inaccessible. Lucky for Mitch and I at this time of year, the river is low and runs into a clear, cool pool of water about 200 yards from our home. It made a great place to wash off after a day of shoveling dirt into sandbags and carrying those 20-pound crosses up the hill.

Each day, like clockwork, we toted those large rocks up the path, then began moving the pile gravel and dirt — a full sandbag in each hand at a time — by tossing them over an embankment, picking them up again and carrying them over an eight-inch wide plank crossing a gulley before finally swinging each bag over a wall to where we would shake them out into our new pile being set up for a cement wall. All under a sweltering sun. Mitch turned beet red the first day. One time we both laughed as we calculated that we each probably had hauled about two tons of dirt and gravel over that obstacle course by ourselves… in one afternoon. That icy river pool and a giant, cold beer never sounded so good.

The spartan volunteer living conditions in Ghatchina extended to the nighttime; which meant getting in all of your leisurely activities before the sun set. But those couple of hours of downtime before dark didn’t mean you had to give up your sense of adventure or curiosity. We were pretty much stranded in Ghatchina — the other volunteers in the city had all the luxuries Pokhara nightlife could offer and the thought of a kidney-busting two-hour bus ride to Pokhara, and two hours back, was kind of a deterrent to us guys out in the boonies — so Mitch and I sacrificed the enjoyment of bar-hopping, the local dance club or western-style dining for evening hikes up the mountain and a couple of giant Himalayan Dragon beers at the tables outside the town’s general store to relax. Once darkness enveloped the town, Mitch would usually call his girlfriend in Japan (Free on WhatsApp); while I usually laid down on my bed and checked my ceiling’s nooks and crannies for snakes before nodding off by nine. One night I spotted a giant lizard overhead and morbidly joked to myself about calling those snake whackers —Two Guys With Bamboo Sticks Pest Control — to come over and chase it away.

During the weekend between our volunteering stints, we all had the weekends off. This is where the volunteer group representatives can help you find the best and most reputable tour activities and deals to save you money. There is a lot more to Nepal than hiking and scoping out the country’s abundance of wildlife was first on my to-do list before heading off to the trails. There is also hang gliding, white water rafting and, of course, trekking. Most of the group chose a two-day trek while I headed off alone to the city of Chitwan for the three-day safari in a protected conservation area. Chitwan National Park is about 70 southeast of Pokhara as the crow flies, but about six hours as a Nepalese bus rolls.

I had a one-night stay at The Kumani Inn — a comfortable hotel with a real bed, hot shower and western toilet — in Pokhara before departing to Chitwan. It’s too bad I slipped stepping out of that shower and sprained my wrist pretty badly while getting ready to leave that Friday morning. Adding to my misery was being told that the air-conditioned tourist bus I was booked on was full (a common problem here) so I was put on a more crowded locals’ bus with nature’s own AC — open windows. That six hour trip from Pokhara turned into nine after sitting (And I literally mean sitting) in traffic during road construction on a mountain road trying to ignore my painfully pulsating wrist. A giant boulder had rolled off the mountain and just missed going through the bus’ windshield. It took two dozen men to move the rock from in front of the bus while we all roasted inside.

Chitwan was even hotter than Kathmandu or Pokhara and one notch below full-blown Dust Bowl. All I wanted to do was settle into my room at the Seven Star Inn, a modern resort hotel booked by my volunteer group in the center of town and turn on the air-conditioning. I laid back on the comfy bed with the AC blasting and TV on to relax. The comforts of home were a nice respite from the uncomfortable bus journey despite the intermittent brown-outs which were pretty frequent. There was one familiar network, National Geographic — a favorite — but it got me thinking about how ironic it was to watch a network about foreign lands and cultures from one of those foreign places. One interesting quirk about Nepalese television were the PSAs that scrolled across the screen every time an actor drank any alcoholic beverage or smoked a cigarette, cigar or pipe. And besides the written health warnings, the offending bottles, glasses or smokes on screen were blurred out by the censors.

A quick nap was a nice thought, but it wasn’t long before it was time to jam-jam (jahm-jahm) — the Nepalese expression to hurry up.

I answered a shy knock at my door where my pre-booked safari guide, Harka, a man who grew up in Chitwan, was standing at attention. Harka, dressed in a military-style uniform and speaking with what oddly sounded like a Japanese accent, asked me if I was ready for the sunset tour of the East Rapti River where we would be able to scope out crocodiles, wild boar, rhinos and hopefully tigers. Harka, who resembled Bruce Lee and had the demeanor of a drill sergeant, noticed me babying my wrist before his professional posturing softened. He immediately led me to the hotel kitchen and wrangled a couple of cubes of ice (no easy task anywhere in Nepal) for my now purplish hand, then loaded me into a large jeep-like vehicle with a benched flatbed and drove me to a pharmacy for a flexible wrist cast. I believed Harka would’ve, and could’ve, trekked to an Everest base camp for that ice and I was appreciative.

Visitors come to Chitwan from all over primarily to see the wide variety of wildlife — an abundant and exotic menagerie including over 500 species of birds, sloth bears, leopards, rhinos, crocodiles and guar (buffalo deer) — but mainly for a glimpse of the elusive Bengal Tiger in its natural habitat. The sunset tour was a two-hour along the muddy banks of the East Rapti which spreads out over the whole plains where we were walking during monsoon season. You could see the high water marks six-foot up on the trees we were hiking under. I got to see a lot of ominous looking crocodiles, some strutting peacocks and a a number of muddy rhinos. Harka pointed out some “fresh” tiger paw prints along one trail I studied suspiciously like I knew what I was looking for. I pressed Harka on the last time anyone had actually seen a tiger and he kind of disappointedly admitted it was about two months ago. I never even knew there were tigers in Nepal, so it was good enough for me to know that I veritably walked the same jungle paths where these wild beasts roam.

There was peaceful dugout canoe ride down the river the next morning where six of us sat single file in the hollowed-out log floating with the current alongside more crocodiles and dangerously close to a rhino cautiously watching her young calf.

Back at the hotel during lunch, the heat and humidity was taking it’s toll and I was jonesing for something other than bottle water to drink. It led to a funny episode trying to order a “orange soda” from the staff that went on longer than it should have. It seemed that they peculiarly never heard the word “soda” before and by using my hand to pantomime drinking, they kept running back and forth bringing me every kind of beverage before I exasperatedly scoured the kitchen myself and found a case of warm Fanta on a shelf. I was happy they found a couple of ice cubes — for my wrist — too.  After that it was off to a safari tour on an elephant — an activity I had debated with myself on the bus ride down. My compassionate side said it was cruelty to animals, but my adventurous self reminded me that I always try anything at least once. Adventurous me won, but I vowed to never to do it again — maybe. Earlier that day, I met a young boy while I was taking pictures in town and he excitedly asked me to follow him home and meet his “friend.” The so-called friend turned out to be one of the working elephants that he cared for at home. And when I say home, I mean the kid slept on a straw bed in the stable. So it was your pet, I asked. “Yes, my pet,” he proudly beamed back. I bought the young boy a soda and got some great photos of him lovingly tending to his enormous pet.

At one of the the raised tourist elephant loading ramps outside of town, I mounted the seating platform with three other tourists and a trainer sitting on the pachyderm’s neck — steel prod in hand — and rumbled away. The giant mammal plodded slowly across the river and seemed to intentionally go off-track using low-hanging tree branches to try and brush us off his back on the jungle trails. I felt sorry for the captive beast’s plight, but have to admit it was pretty cool riding an elephant into a muddy pool of water right next to a mother rhino and her frolicking baby just a few feet away. The thought of my elephant battling a hungry croc in the river seemed a little more dangerous though.

I headed back to Pokhara early Sunday morning, only to find out the city had called one of its infamous random transit strikes as I debarked from the bus. Chicken in the road? I joked to myself. Taxis and buses sat idly in the parking lot and drivers refused to take passengers anywhere. I was stranded in Pokhara and the only way back to Ghatchina was walking. Thinking it over, it was late in the day, so I headed back to the Kumari Inn, actually feeling a little guilty that I might miss a day of volunteer work on Monday.

The unexpected free night in Pokhara gave me a chance to explore nearby Lake Phewa and its shoreline of shops, hotels and activities. Dusk was falling as I made the half-mile walk from the hotel making it perfect for some sunset shots on the lake. Westerners mixed with the families of locals as they paddled colorful rowboats under the setting sun.

I wandered into an decent-sized amusement park filled with rides including a ferris wheel and kiddie rides. It was eerily vacant, but made for some interesting pictures. The Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder” wafted through the gloomy park (as it seemed to everywhere on this trip) on giant bullhorn-type speakers. It felt like the set of a slasher movie. On my way home I picked up some local teas and a couple of strings of Tibetan prayer flags as souvenirs before stumbling upon a little club called the Rock & Roll Bar and, by chance, found a few of the other “city” volunteers knocking down bottles of Everest beers. The heavy metal posters and memorabilia made it look like I walked into some East Village dive bar back in the 90s. We all had a lot of laughs comparing working conditions and accommodations and agreed the tasks were simple, but tiring, and that they were lucky to have the city amenities which Mitch and I lacked out in the boondocks. Then, after I regaled them with the snake in the roof story, it seemed everyone wanted to come out and see Ghatchina for themselves.

Monday morning I ran into Mitch (he got stranded too) at the bus depot (a muddy field alongside Lake Phewa) and we took the two-hour ride back to Ghatchina in a colorfully decorated bus filled with even more vibrancy inside it. We bounced along inside the crowded bus, backpacks on our laps as traditional folk songs known as Newa or Newar music blasted out of the bus speakers. It made the trip even more surreal and, to me, almost intoxicating. I had to videotape it. The bus jumped up and down and tilted back and forth as it stopped in every small village picking up and dropping off giggling school children in their blue uniforms who seemed a little stunned to see a couple of Americans sitting on board.

Our last week in Gatchina went pretty much by the same routine with even more dal bhat. The roosters would roust me at 4 am every morning (proving that cock-a-doodle-doo wake-up call at sunrise is false) after loud thunderstorms rattled the tin roof I was under on most nights. The villagers got to recognize us (namaste y’all) and we could see some of the older folk watching us from their porches while we toiled at the community center we were helping to construct at the top of the hill. Mitch dealt with his sunburn (I loaned him a wide-brimmed hat) and I rigged a sort of brace on my useless left wrist to help me hold the endless sacks of dirt we carried. There was a lot of idle chit chat between us to pass the time as we moved the dirt and gravel from one spot to another. I don’t know if the baking sun made us delirious, but we compared the repetitive chore to the purposeless digging in the movie Holes and the random scream of “holes!” became sort of a catch-phrase with us after a few days. We did get a change of pace when we had to paint the inside of a classroom with dry brushes and cheap paint that didn’t seem to stick. Small talk also helped get us through the monotony and frustration of inadequate tools. Mitch, who worked as a chef in an upscale Tokyo pizza restaurant when he wasn’t in class, filled the periods of silence with stories about the weird kinds of Japanese pizzas he made: Thick pizza with tuna, thin pizza with fruit, pizza with shrimp… yup, he was like Bubba from Forrest Gump, yet it was still probably better than listening to my rehashing of volunteer war stories or both of us sloshing paint around with stiff brushes in silence; all while doing a job that could have been completed in way less time under the right conditions. But it was, what it was and, thanks to Mitch's pizza tales, a greasy New York slice became an unattainable craving.

Mitch caught the bus back to Pokhara a day early to start the same Chitwan safari trip I experienced, so I finished up the last day’s work by myself. At least I got the satisfaction of seeing that last sack of dirt dumped from one pile to another. I was rewarded with a delicious pickled cabbage and potato dinner prepared by Ama. The next morning I said my farewells to my homestay family and, as I stood outside our house watching the bus back to more comfortable surroundings make its rickety way down the mountain road towards me, Maya darted out of the house and pressed a blot of red powder (tikka) on my forehead as a blessing. I got on the bus to a few curious stares, waved a sad goodbye through the open window and got to thinking about the five day trek through the Annapurna foothills I would be undertaking. I was alone, but the volunteering stint made me feel like I belonged to a new family. And I thought to myself, You hope lending a hand leaves an impression on someone — at least for a while — but, at the same time, know that their small gestures in return have left a mark on you forever. 

It’s a worthwhile exchange.

No comments:

Post a Comment