As I exited Kathmandu airport and found my name in the sea of signs I was greeted by the wonderful Himal (Volunteer House Manager). Himal presented me with a blue scarf, another item of clothing I probably didn’t need to add to my jeans and long sleeve shirt in the scorching Kathmandu heat. As we walked towards the parking lot we were bombarded with taxi drivers all shouting at us in Nepalese presumably to take their cab. Eventually, Himal followed a small man to a small beat up car that looked like it belonged in a car wreckers and definitely not on the road. I wasn’t sure if this was for real, were we actually getting in this car? Could this car even start? It certainly wouldn’t pass a roadworthy certificate in Australia. I went to open the car door but there was no handle… not to worry, he opened it from the inside. I hopped into the back seat, sitting on an itchy rug that was placed over the back seat of the car. Instinctively I went to put on my seatbelt. None there. The driver did however have a seatbelt, it was tied to the interior door of the car with several pieces of straw.
It took a few starts but the car finally turned on, as we entered the chaotic, dusty, loud traffic I held onto my seat tight. I’ve travelled to many countries but this traffic was like none I’ve seen before. There are absolutely no lanes and the dirt roads with massive potholes made for a bumpy ride. The car stalled several times on the way and as other cars stopped suddenly only inches, maybe even centimetres away from our taxi before honking and speeding off I wondered if I was going to make it unharmed to the volunteer home.
We finally arrived and I breathed a little sigh of relief. The volunteer house was a solid three story building with an additional rooftop level, I was sharing a room with three other girls. Some things I would have to live without included a TV (although didn’t miss this), a washing machine, a decent internet connection, the ability to hop in my car and drive anywhere, comfortable and well supported bedding, a nice flow of warm water, a western bathroom, access to fast food and the ability to choose my meals. Lucky for me only a few days prior to arriving the volunteer house had finally purchased its first fridge so most importantly I had somewhere to store my insulin. In saying all of this, upon returning from my placement in Ramechhap the volunteer house was like returning to a five star hotel. My 10cm thick mattress and hard pillow felt like a cloud, the shower, access to flowing water and the delicious food made by our in house cook tasted incredible. I didn’t even mind having to hand wash my clothes anymore!
I haven’t backpacked before, I’m not much of a camper and I rarely attended any school camps but when the house was full and the conversations flowed I really enjoyed my time there. Following dinner a group of us would sit and enjoy tea and chocolate or biscuits and chat, sometimes for hours. We would talk about everything from politics to human rights. It was a nice change from my usual topics of conversations. On a few other nights we all (5-8 of us) huddled around a small laptop screen, clutching our pillows as we watched movies.
Visits to Papa’s House and Sanctuary House
Papa’s house was the first home purchased, it’s what started it all. The large yellow building sits beside a large grassy yard with playground equipment and a half basketball court. Upon arrival to my first dinner invite to Papa’s house (one of the Orphan Homes) I was greeted by a group of the younger girls (the older girls were at after school classes held at The Chelsea Centre). The girls were excited to have a volunteer visitor but were slightly confused by my appearance; wearing a long yellow tunic and gold bracelets combined with my Filipina background, I blended in well with the Nepali women. Most stared in confusion saying I looked Nepali (I got this everywhere I went in Nepal, if I was with a westerner they would think I was the westerners guide and would continue to talk to me in Nepalese even when I tried to explain I was from Australia). On my visits to the home, the girls would touch my skin and smell my hair, they would call me sister and tell me that I have a very clean face, other times they would stand in front of me just gazing and I felt like I was on show!
On my first visit, they excitedly gave me a tour of the house and each room hosting 2 – 4 girls in each, depending on the size of the space. There was a total of 40 women and girls living in the home. The rooms were split over three levels plus a rooftop with an amazing 360 degree view of Kathmandu. Some rooms were covered in posters and cut outs of celebrities glued to the wall, while others were kept very clean and simple. The group of young girls eagerly took me to the rooftop, keen to show me temples in the far distance and baby birds in the trees surrounding. Once they were finished showing me the rooftop we went down into the yard where we met with the rest of the girls coming back from their after school classes and some of the children from the other nearby Nepal Orphan Homes. We played Simon Says then Tiggy while others played basketball or badminton. The bell rang and the children all hurried into the kitchen where they were served large portions of Dahl Baht (literal translation curry and rice). The children scoffed their food down and the chefs came out with more dahl and baht as the children scoffed down seconds.
Similarly I had the same experiences when visiting Sanctuary House for dinner. Sanctuary House was smaller in number (26 girls and women) and was located next door to the Volunteer house. Males are not permitted to enter the girl’s homes. Dinner is by invitation only and you must leave shortly after dinner as the girls run on a specific daily schedule as is required when living in a house with so many people! The girls always welcomed me and were very inquisitive about my family and life in Australia. They called me sister, played with my hair, sat on my lap, painted my nails, gave me a henna tattoo. The house had a fun atmosphere, you could feel the happiness.
Some of the girls including the teens were really affectionate, it was very sweet how quickly and comfortably they attached themselves to me, held my hand, called me sister, hugged me or sat on my lap. The truth is, even if you could adopt these children (which you can’t) I don’t believe they would be better off being shipped to a western country. They have a huge family network of brothers and sisters who care about them, support them, feed them, clothe them and educate them. They all care deeply about one another, to take them away from this emotional support and their family would be cruel.
SERC (Special Education and Rehabilitation Centre for Disabled Children)
I returned from Ramechhap feeling very hesitant for my second rural placement, a Buddhist nunnery on top of a mountain. While this placement did have access to water, it was more remote, less work was required and in terms of having people to communicate with it was even more isolated. My fears of being lonely were confirmed when I spoke to a number return volunteers who stated that while it was very beautiful, there was limited communication with others and no way to contact the outside world. I decided this was an experience I could live without.
With 3 weeks left in Nepal I needed to find another placement in Kathmandu, I attended EDUC-Nepal a school dedicated to the education and development of underprivileged children. To find out more or sponsor a child so they can attend school, for as little as $100 USD per year, please visit their website: http://www.educnepal.org.np/ Unfortunately, being such a worthy cause there was already a plentiful supply of volunteers and interns working at the school. So, my search continued.
The day prior to leaving for Ramechhap a friend at the volunteer house, Ted, encouraged me to attend SERC with him where he was working as a Massage Therapist alongside a group of Physiotherapists. I had been warned by other volunteers to be prepared – that SERC was very confronting. When I arrived at SERC and followed Ted up to the Physiotherapist room I was met with an array of friendly children. Most of the children greeted me with a ‘namaste’, high five or a hug. The children we were assisting had multiple disabilities from Vision and Hearing impairments to Cerebral Palsy and all were unable to walk. Some had intellectual and physical disabilities while others were without an intellectual disability but not able bodied. I instantly fell in love with the children and felt a strong connection with them so when Ted asked if I wanted to spend the remainder of my time at SERC, I jumped at the chance.
Throughout my time in Nepal I heard harrowing stories about children with disabilities and the extremely poor treatment they received. I also heard stories about how children had become disabled due to malnourishment, abuse (physical, including sexual and verbal) and ignorance as a result of lack of education and outdated beliefs. Something as simple as not wearing appropriate eye protection while receiving an X-ray had left a young toddler blind and therefore impaired his development and motor skills as he grew older. Disabilities had been left untreated for so long some of these children, now adolescents, who with the correct treatment early on could have learnt to walk, were sliding and rolling across the floor.
Initially I found it difficult, some of the children were unable to crawl or lift their heads but could answer a difficult math problem in 0.125seconds. I wasn’t sure how much assistance they wanted/needed or how they wanted to be treated. But, I soon learned they thrived on independence and much preferred to do things for themselves and that they wanted to be treated just like everyone else, with respect and dignity. At times my heart would break to sit back with an encouraging smile and watch as they would struggle to lift themselves onto a chair or in pain as they tried to open their hands wide or stand flat on the ground. My instinct would tell me to go in an assist but they would shoo me away and I would feel guilty for not being able to control my impulse, knowing they CAN lift themselves or move to the other side of the room but it would just require my patience! The children taught me many things, about patience, happiness and resilience.
On my last day at SERC my heart was heavy, not knowing whether I would see their beautiful faces again and hoping and wishing that their rehabilitation would continue and they would one day find their independence. I will never forget each one of their beautiful smiles - they will be forever in my heart. For more information about SERC please visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SERCschool/
The Children’s Hospital
In my last week I was invited to attend a birthday party for a patient turning thirteen at a Children’s hospital. I had been previously been warned by other volunteers about the conditions and to mentally prepare myself. I knew we were getting close to the hospital as we passed by crowded pharmacy shop fronts full of families with visibly unwell children. The hospital was overcrowded. The ground level had a urine and toilet stench that made my stomach churn, people were everywhere, some lay or sat with their children on the concrete ground, others waited in the massive cues, while some took naps on the concrete benches.
As we ascended up a set of stairs, the hallways were filled with more people; feeding their children, hanging their washing on the railings, taking naps in the hallways. We passed a ‘resting parents room’ filled with basic single beds side by side, cardboard boxes filled gaps in the windows. As we entered the cancer ward and slipped into a solid concrete room my heart sank. Up until this point all the children I had met were happy, energetic and affectionate – they would pounce on you as soon as you arrived, wanting to talk to you as much as possible, hold your hand, give you high fives and hugs. These children were not like this. They were visibly going through chemotherapy, most were severely malnourished with protruding bones and skin infections. When I smiled, they forced a smile back and the pain in their eyes caused a lump in my throat. I sat most of the time, watching them, unable to communicate and concentrating on not crying. The birthday girl was happy, her smile genuine. Her family and families of other children had gathered in the small room to celebrate. NOH (Nepal Orphans Home) provided cakes, chocolates, balloons and decorations. As is tradition in Nepal, the birthday girl held the first slice of cake in her hand, she took a bite and held it out to a family member who took a bite, she then held it out to another family member who took a bite and so on until all family members had taken a bite out of the first piece of cake. Now the cake could be shared around. It was a beautiful moment to watch but I left the hospital feeling sad, overwhelmed and helpless.