Throughout this journey, I have kept my heart open to possible volunteer opportunities. In most cases, although my total journey seems long, I have not been in places long enough to get connected. Nepal is famous for trekking, so I planned to do that, and also looked online for some volunteer opportunities. If asked, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to find, but I know that I feel compelled to develop new programs more than get involved in programs that are already highly functioning. Most of the more formal organizations required a two week commitment, but I corresponded with one man via email who agreed to meet at my hotel to discuss an orphanage where I could volunteer for the few days I had available. He looked at my $10 hotel…with no hot water and very simple conditions and told me that my time at the orphanage would not be as luxurious as this. I am pretty sure he thought I would cave quickly.
He picked me on Monday morning and we drove to a house about thirty minutes from downtown Kathmandu. The house is a simple white brick building surrounded by larger, colorful houses and beautiful mountain views. I met Sapana, the mother of the children, and, although her English is limited, we immediately became friends after a few minutes in the kitchen. She had me cutting vegetables with a kitchen tool that requires some skill. It was a sharp knife standing vertically from a base and you just needed to push the veggies across to cut them in small pieces. She made it look so easy that I was sure I was up to the task. Her sample potatoes were perfectly uniform in size, while mine varied between 1/8″ and 2 inches thick. This made us laugh!
Sapana has one son. Her husband left her when her son was only one year old and she was unsure of where to turn. She told me that she is a Christian and she prayed very hard for help and wisdom. She began to meet other children whose circumstances were much harder than hers and felt compelled to take them in. Soon, she had nine orphans in her care. Their stories range from parents who died, to total poverty, to abandonment. The children were at school when I arrived, so Sapana and I spent the day chatting and getting to know one another. She is a wonderful cook and it was a pleasure to enjoy her noodle dish and milk tea. She helped me to learn the children’s names and write them down so I could take pictures of each child with their name card…sort of like flash cards for practicing their names. I was only the second volunteer they had…the first being months ago, so it was exciting for me to be involved in something that was so new for Sapana and her kids.
The house has two bedrooms and a living room space. One bedroom is for Sapana and the other for me. The living room space is filled with five bunk beds holding a drawer with each child’s name. There is no running water, but there is a squat toilet that can be cleaned with a nearby bucket. The shower is in the same area…a few buckets of cold water from a nearby well. The kitchen has a small stove connected to a tank of gas. The vegetables and a large bag of rice lay on mats on the floor. One thing I really like about Nepal…I have yet to see a bug anywhere, even with food on the floor.
At 4:15, we anxiously waited for the kids to return from their day at school. Sapana told me that there were five boys and five girls, but when the row of children walked up the road in their school uniforms, it was hard to tell the difference because everyone had the same pants and sweater outfit and very short hair. We did introductions and took name pictures so I could start getting to know them. In the first minutes, the kids started to distinguish themselves with their different personalities, so it was easy to get to remember who they were. Nikhill is the youngest at four years old. He was very serious at first and I could see it would take some work to warm him up, but it was worth the effort. Sudarsan and Niruta are the oldest and thrive on being in charge. They have gently bossy ways with the others and everyone knows they will jump in and help when needed…and even sometimes when it’s not needed. Sudip is the second boy as ages go, and plays that role well. He works hard for attention by being especially funny and loving. Udesh is a boy somewhere in the middle and sits as a quiet observer in the background. You have to make a special effort to notice him, and when you do, it is greatly appreciated with warm smiles. Suman had a bandage on his arm and as he hopped from top bunk to bunk, I could see that he was the resident daredevil. Bimala is the quiet mother to everyone. She picked up my dish before I even noticed and had it washed and returned to its proper place. She gathers toothbrushes for others, makes sure people wash their hands before they eat, and never misses a chance to remind others of their daily responsibilities. Sugita is the organizer. Her drawer is perfectly filled with folded clothes and she sweeps up after others when they forget. She is proud to do her homework and share all that she has learned. Pabina is sweetly filled with a need to give and receive love. She wants to be sure that you are sitting close to her and seems to get hurt when you aren’t. She is sensitive like that and you always want to keep an eye on her to be sure she doesn’t feel left out. Binita is the whole package…giving, loving, and fitting in wherever there is a gap. If you need to get things moving…just ask her and she’ll get right to it. If someone is alone or looks sad, she is sure to go and make them smile. After watching me tug at my shirt to keep my lower back covered when we did morning stretches, she quickly decided to stand nearby so she could grab it before I needed to. All of these personalities blended beautifully together to be sure that every household need was met.
The Spirit in the house is very powerful and there was one lesson that will stick with me when I get back to the classroom…kids will live up to ANY expectation you have for them. In this home, the expectation is collaboration, teamwork, prayer, respect, love, and responsibility…and every single one of the kids…every single one…lives up to those expectations and routines in a deeply gleeful way. They see their life conditions as blessings…because they are. They show deep gratitude and support each other in beautiful ways.
Each day begins with all ten getting ready for school while Sapana makes a big breakfast of rice and vegetables. The kids make their beds, fold their clothes, and make sure that their homework is in their backpacks. They gently guide each other to be sure that they go outside to visit the front lawn area to brush teeth and wash faces. Breakfast is served with everyone sitting around the walls of the kitchen. Sapana distributes food and nobody eats until they individually say their prayers of gratitude (which are beautiful to watch). The food is delicious and I am always surprised at the large amounts of rice they can eat twice a day…not counting whatever they have for lunch at school. The food is simple, but abundant and delicious. After breakfast, everyone goes outside to use the buckets to wash their dishes. On most mornings, we had time to play for an hour and I did my best to dig deep into my kindergarten memory bank to remember songs and games to keep everyone involved. By our fourth day together we had a routine that included some singing, morning stretches, and a few games.
At 8:30, their living space starts bustling with everyone looking for the components of school uniforms…pants, shirts, ties, socks, ID tags…everything must be located so they can head out the door. Big kids help little ones with everyone searching for the daily pair of pants or tie that has gone missing. The last step is a quick oiling of hair and faces to make everyone glow as they walk out the door…the whole row walking down the street and heading to school as they shout “Bye, mommy! Bye, sister.” It is so so sweet…enough to make my heart melt each morning as they look back and smile until they are out of sight.
Sapana and I spent some of our time doing something I think she really enjoyed…a bit of girl time. After the kids left for school, she would make us a large breakfast of rice and vegetables that we enjoyed sitting in the sun on the rooftop. One day, she made us homemade face masks using juices and spices. She massages it onto my face and said…”no smiling for ten minutes.” On another day, she brought and shared a collection of bangle bracelets that are now jingling up my arms. She gave herself a pedicure while I read. I had to use my best body language to tell her that after months of walking in flip flops, I just couldn’t pain her with the task of touching my feet. I can think of hundreds of examples from this week where my new friends who had so little by modern standards gave so much. Sapana’s nephew Sujan was very helpful and I had a lovely dinner with her sister’s family. The kids loaded me up with their stuffed toys so I would not be sad sleeping alone. When they received two pieces of candy from a neighbor, many tried to share one with me. When I grabbed soap at night to wash my face in the dark, two boys followed me outside-one to hold my iPhone flashlight and another to hold the bucket and pour clean water on my hands for rinsing. Not a need was unmet in this giving home.
At four o’clock, the group runs down the road and quickly does reverse order of the uniform routine. Comfy clothes, cookies, homework, and time to play before dinner. The power is limited to a few hours a day in Nepal and on most nights the house is dark by 7:00 or 8:00, so everyone gets in bed early. Sapana ends each night praying and singing Nepali songs with the kids who are still awake. What fun to join in and share those special moments with them.
Time spent volunteering reminds me of how weak and selfish I am. Helping Sapana around the house, without the modern conveniences like a washing machine, made me likely more of a nuisance than a help. She used a system with two buckets for multiple washings and rinses for each item. The thought of showering with that cold bucket of water made me cringe every time and check to see just how bad I really smelled! In moments of pride, I consider myself to be fairly flexible and not overly focused on material luxuries…that is, until all of the things I rely on our not here. If I imagine a future that includes some type of international humanitarian work, I have a lot to do to ween myself from so many “things” I take for granted.
Nepal has been a whirlwind, but so interesting and fun! I feel focused on the future and am enjoying powerful opportunities to grow. I will finish my time here on Friday and think I will consider one day of trekking and the other of hanging out before heading to Israel.
I have great dreams for my next eight weeks. I will be in Israel for a week before heading to Turkey with most of the week spent in Jerusalem. Jason is going to meet me in Istanbul where we will divide our time between Turkey and Kurdistan with the highlight being time in Erbil, Iraq. Jason heads home at the end of March and Bones joins me for two more weeks exploring different locations in Turkey. In mid-April, I head back to Israel to explore destinations and meet friends outside of Jerusalem. I want the time to go really slowly so I can savor each moment, but I can’t wait for each bit of the special time.