SIURUNG NEPAL. THE STORY OF A VOLUNTEER.
SONJA LEGENDRE CROSSAN
“Wherever a man turns he can find someone who needs him.”
Doctor Albert Schweitzer.
For several years, as I was getting near the end of my teaching career, I had thought that I would like to start my retirement by doing some voluntary work. I did not, however, know where. For years, the Far East had been my workplace, enabling me to discover many developing countries and wonderful people. My travels through Asia had made me grasp the full extent of my privilege, and consequently, my eagerness to begin my retirement with a period of voluntary work had increased rapidly. It would have to be in a country where, hopefully, I would be able to use my skills in order to bring something positive. After so many years working from necessity, the prospect of working by choice, in a place of my selection, appealed hugely. However, nothing is ever simple and my decision to volunteer raised a lot of questions: where? which country? how should I apply? would my skills be useful to anyone? Developing countries tend to need people with engineering, technical, medical or computing skills. I was not a doctor or a nurse or an engineer. I was a soon-to-be retired teacher of Modern Languages. How could I be of any use to any organisation based in the developing world? I thought about going to the Philippines or to Sri Lanka where I had had wonderful holidays, and made a few tentative enquiries. In July 2014, I visited Nepal for the first time and went trekking in the Langtang area. I went there as a senior solo female traveller, and met nothing but warmth and kindness. During the ten days I spent there, I discovered an amazing country with a vibrant culture, generous people and breath-taking landscapes.
Several months later, on April 25thth 2015, I watched, horrified, as BBC World News reported that a massive earthquake had occurred in Nepal with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale. It was the worst natural disaster to strike Nepal since the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake. A few days later, I learnt that this earthquake had also triggered off an avalanche on Mount Everest and a landslide in the Langtang valley, where I had spent so many happy moments trekking the year before. As the news flashes kept coming, the whole world discovered the full extent of the disaster: 8,857 people had died, 21,952 had been injured, and 3.5 million had been made homeless. At that point, my mind was made up for me. I would go to Nepal and try to repay some of the kindness which had been lavished on me the year before. Although I did not have technical, mechanical or medical skills, as a teacher of Modern Languages, I could certainly teach English. Like the economy of many developing countries, the Nepalese economy is very dependent on tourism and a good command of English can open many doors.
A few days after walking through the school gates for the last time in my life, I sent my CV to several volunteering organisations and soon received a reply from NabrajGhimire, of The Good Karma Foundation, asking me if I would be interested in going to Siurung, an isolated village in the Annapurna area, to help with the teaching of English in the village school.
I studied The Good Karma Foundation’s website, in order to learn more about them and the work they do:
The more I looked at the site, the more I liked what I saw: between the information gleaned from the website and the emails sent by Nabraj (better known as Raj), I realised that The Good Karma Foundation aims at sending volunteers not just to the more obvious and better known destinations such as Kathmandu and Pokhara, but also, and mainly, to special places, far away places which get forgotten about because they are so isolated that no one ever goes there, so small and remote that they do not even appear on maps.
Several emails later, after Raj had answered my many questions, I made the commitment to spend six weeks in Siurung and work in SreeLata Junior Secondary School.
I was to travel there at the beginning of January. As I was living in China, near Shanghai, I booked a flight with China Southern from Shanghai to Guangzhou with a connection from Guangzhou on to Kathmandu, where I was due to arrive on January 7th. After spending two days in Kathmandu, I would take a bus to Khudi, a small village situated west of Kathmandu, in the Lamjung District, at an altitude of approximately eight hundred meters. After a short rest in Khudi, I would travel up to Siurung, either by taking the jeep which links Khudi to Siurung every day, or by trekking. One of the teachers from SreeLata Junior Secondary School would escort me.
Before leaving for Siurung andactually, before even accepting the placement, I was acutely aware of the fact that this would be a very special placement and not necessarily an easy one: I realised that Siurung was very isolated, that the weather would be bitterly cold, that the level of comfort would be well below what I was used to. Although I had not asked the question, a few things which had transpired through the emails led me to suspect that no other volunteer had ever been sent there before me. I felt excited about going back to Nepal and flattered to be chosen for this demanding project, but at the same time very apprehensive. It was not going to be easy. Would I be able to cope? Would I be able to achieve anything useful or was this just a waste of time, an ego trip for me?
Raj had answered my questions very honestly, and because I had studied The Good Karma Foundation’s website thoroughly, I knew quite a lot about their other projects. However, my attempts to research Siurung on the internet had proved fruitless. All I had seen of the village was a very short video placed on Youtube thanks to a link Raj had sent me.
However, despite the lack of information available, I felt that Siurung was a place I was eager to know more about and decided to go ahead, to rise to the challenge and spend six weeks of my life in the Nepali village I could not even pinpoint on the map.
In the end, it ended up being such a cultural and human experience which proved so rich on every level that it would have been impossible to sum it up in a few words. Day after day, I made discoveries about Nepal, its people and its culture, either by observing what was happening around me, or by listening and asking questions. And I grew to love the place and to be so grateful to The Good Karma Foundation for giving me the chance to share the life of the people of Siurung, if only for a small window of time.
Despite the cold, the lack of comfort, and sometimes the loneliness, as I had practically no contact with my family and was completely cut off from the rest of the world, I went through my days thrilled and fully aware that this was an awesome experience. At the same time, I was terrified in case I might forget any aspect of it, once I was back home, back in a world where no one could ever imagine what an isolated Nepali village in the Annapurna area is like.
Thusarose the idea of writing a short book about it. I decided to adopt the format of a journal and record what happened daily, as I felt that no day was ever ordinary, that my life there was full of surprises. I also chose to include factual information about Nepal and the Nepali society, as my big adventure took place in a very specific and unique context; I also felt that some knowledge and appreciation of the social and historical background would add relevance to my personal observations.
A few words about Nepal.
Nepal is a landlocked country situated between India to the east, south and west and the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China to the north. It has a population of approximately 31,000,000. Nepal has more than 100 ethnic groups with their own languages and cultures. Nepali, however, is the official language which all children have to learn in school. Nepal is home to eight of the world’s highest mountains and to a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This explains why tourism is its largest industry and therefore, why being able to speak English is so important. Nepali people are very religious. About eighty-one per cent of them follow Hinduism, nine per cent Buddhism and the rest follow Islam and Christianity. Nepal was a monarchy throughout most of its history. A decade-long insurgency led by the communist party of Nepal, the Maoists, led to the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a federal democratic republic in 2008. In September 2016 Nepal was given its first Federal Republic Constitution.
Nepal is a developing country with a low income economy ranking 145th out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index. Despite these challenges, Nepal had been making steady progress when its economic development was brought to a shuddering halt by the earthquake of April 2015: almost 9000 dead, more than 23,000 injured, hundreds of thousands left homeless, and many centuries-old buildings destroyed.
A few months later, the blockade imposed by India further delayed the recovery of the country: ten months after the tragedy many survivors were still living in huts, enduring the rigours of winter. Nepal’s geographical situation on a fault line means that earthquakes are a fact of life for Nepali people and tremors of magnitude 4 or 5 happen more than ten times every year. A minor tremor was felt in Kathmandu, on 21st February 2016, during the three lovely weeks I spent in the capital, after my stay in Siurung. The quake measured 5.5 on the Richter scale. At the time, I was sound asleep in my hotel room in Kathmandu, and completely unaware of what was happening.
Six weeks in Siurung.
Thursday 7th January.
I’m on my way!
D day has come at last. Fingers crossed, nothing important forgotten. I hope the journey goes smoothly. I am a very experienced lone traveller, will be staying with the sweetest people, so there is no need for my family to worry unduly, but no doubt they will.
Carrying two bags on crowded public transport in China is a nightmare, so it’s a huge relief to arrive at Hongqiao airport and hand over one of my bulky bag-packs at check-in. It is always such a pleasure to check in, be told that everything is OK and hand over your luggage to the airline, in this instance, China Southern. There is no direct flight between Shanghai and Kathmandu, so I am flying to Guangzhou first, and from there catching a connecting flight to Kathmandu, where I shall be sleeping tonight… well, possibly not, as a nasty surprise awaits me at the check-in counter: my connecting flight from Guangzhou to Kathmandu has been cancelled! The staff at check-in give me a phone number and tell me to call. I refuse and demand that they deal with it. They eventually agree, but that does not get us anywhere. There seem to be endless communication problems between China Southern Hongqiao and China Southern Guangzhou. Eventually and with mere minutes to spare I agree to do what the China Southern staff are finally suggesting; fly to Guangzhou and report to their transfer desk immediately on arrival. They promise that their colleagues will find a seat for me with another airline and eventually get me to Kathmandu!I wonder how long this is now going to take…
Fortunately, in Gangzhou the problem is quickly and very efficiently solved as China Southern finally find me a seat on a Thai Airways flight to Bangkok that very evening, plus a hotel room in Bangkok and a flight to Kathmandu for the following morning. Hurrah! At last! I am exhausted but the end of the tunnel is near.
Friday 8th January.
Up early to board the flight to Kathmandu. I managed to email Raj, who runs the Foundation, and he has made the necessary arrangements for me to be met at Tribhuvan, Kathnandu’s main airport. The flight with Thai Airways is great; comfy seat, plenty of legroom, good flight entertainment, tasty food, probably a better experience than with China Southern. And a rare treat: a view of mount Everest in the distance shortly before landing.
Chaos seems to reign in Kathmandu airport, but it is nice to see a fair number of people here. Ten months after the major earthquake which shook the country last April and destroyed so much of it, Nepal desperately needs tourists. After obtaining my visa, I wait for almost an hour for my luggage before finally making my way towards the exit. Leaving the building, I face a crowd of men standing behind barriers: some are hoping for business and offering taxi rides into Kathmandu. Others have come to meet passengers and are holding signs bearing the names of their charges. I eventually spot a sign reading “Sonja Crossan”, introduce myself, and follow my guide, who takes me to the car park where a small vehicle and a driver await us.
The streets of Kathmandu are as dusty and chaotic as ever; the roads traffic-jammed, ascars, buses, motorcycles and rickshaws compete for space. There are signs of destruction, but it is obvious that reconstruction is going on, and we can see piles of rubble, other piles of new bricks waiting to be used, gaps where houses once stood.
Because of the heavy traffic the pollution level is high, the sky smog-laden.Despite the chaos everywhere, I see no accident; the drivers are courteous; no road rage in Nepal.
My guide proudly shows me a photo of his two beautiful little daughters standing in front of what is now their home, a tent! Despite their precarious accommodation, they are beautifully dressed and smiling; the pride and resilience of the Nepali people evokes utmost admiration.
We arrive at Raj’s house which is situatedten-minute walk from Thamel, the tourist area. Raj, his wife Akankshya, and his brother Bijay run the Good Karma Foundationtogether. It is thanks to themthat I am here. Together with Bijay’s wife and baby daughter they share one floor of the house, the other floors being occupied by other tenants. It is a two-bedroomed apartment plus kitchen and shower room, and tonight seven of us will be sleeping there. I am welcomed by Akankshya, and Bijay. Another two volunteers are staying with them, Jodok from Switzerland and Katie from Germany. Like me, they will be going to their respective projects tomorrow. The family have kindly given me the best bed in the house, because I am a “senior” volunteer. Typical Nepali hospitality!
Prasamsha, 11 years old, and Prashanna, 14 years old, two young cousins who have just finished their school exams and have come here for a few days’ rest, are very keen to practise their English with me. They speak it well. They are lovely children, confident but very respectful at the same time. They do not have toys nor do they watch TV. Toys are a luxury which very few families can afford in Nepal. I ask how they spend their time during their holidays: they read a lot, and I can see that they spend a lot of time with the adults, taking part in adult conversations, joking, laughing together. Prashannaexcels in mathematics and wants to become an engineer.
The rest of the afternoon passes quickly. I have to go to an ATM and get enough Nepali rupees to last me for the duration of my stay in the village (there is no ATM in Siurung). I also need Nepali sim cards for my phone and my Ipad. So Bijay takes me to Thamel, the busy tourist area situated a short walk from their home. Very few of the ATMs Bijay takes me to seem to be working, but persistence pays and I eventually manage to get enough rupees to last me for six weeks. Ultimately, it will become clear that having ready cash was never going to be a major necessity, as there is practically nothing to spend money on in Siurung. The extent of my weekly shopping amounted to bottled water, toilet paper, paper tissues and some lovely oranges which the jeep occasionally brought up from Besishahar, the nearby town. Out of necessity, I soon learnt the word for water: “pani”, as well as the word for oranges: “suntalas”.
On the way, Bijay and I talk, and he tells me how The Good Karma Foundation originated. A few years before, Bijay and Raj had started a trekking company called Good Karma Trekking. This work took them to remote areas of Nepal where they could see how poor and isolated many small communities were, with many villagers working incrediblyhard to scratch a living in hugely difficult circumstances. After the Gorkha earthquake of 2015, the brothers became even more acutely aware of the deplorable conditions some Nepali people lived in. They were appalled by the unfairness of it all, and their consciences would not allow them to ignore it and do nothing. They both had comfortable lives in Kathmandu but wanted to help their fellow countrymen, and thought that one way would be to found a not-for-profit organisation for the benefit of both local people and foreigners wanting to come to Nepal for a meaningful experience.
And this is how The Good Karma Foundation was born.
When I contacted Raj, the Foundation was still in its infancy. This meant that I got the chance to be a pioneer as well as a volunteer, and I feel very privileged and grateful, and have immense respect for Raj and Bijay who have now become good friends. Since April 2015, the Good Karma Foundation has grown steadily and now runs several projects.
Their volunteers can choose from activities as diverse as supporting orphans and street children in Kathmandu, caring for elephants in the Chitwan district, teaching English, learning about agriculture in the Lamjung district by helping the local farmers, and more.
After the trip to the ATM, Bijay and I get back to the house and, before I know it, dinner is ready. Akankshya makes delicious momos, a Nepali type of dumplings which can be filled with meat, vegetables or both. Jodok brings out chocolate he has brought from Switzerland.
After the meal, we sit companionably at the kitchen table, talk, joke and laugh together. It is a very special evening. It is getting dark but because of a power shortage, the Nepal Electricity Authority has had no choice but to impose power cuts for several hours every day. The power cuts are staggered so that everyone knows exactly when electricity is unavailable in their own district. The family expects that electricity will come back at eight o’clock, and until then, we simply spend the time by sitting together and talking pleasantly, with two handheld torches glowing in the dark. No-one complains or grumbles and once again I am full of admiration for the resilience of the Nepali people in the face of adversity. On the dot of eight, the lights come on.
Tomorrow I will be leaving for the village of Khudi, situated 170 km west of Kathmandu. However, I am told that the journey by bus will take almost 7 hours! I am not surprised, having experienced road journeys in Nepal before. Once in Khudi, I will have a day’s rest, staying with Raj’s parents in their village. Jodok will travel with me, as Khudi is his final destination. He will do farm work there for two months. On Monday, I will finally discover Siurung. From Khudi, you can get there either by jeep (2 hours) or by trekking (5 hours). It has been decided that we will go by jeep. When I say “we”, I mean myself and Ramesh, one of the local teachers who will escort me from Khudi to the village.
Everything is going well so far. I feel good and privileged about being here. I just wish I could be in touch with myfamily. The internet seems unreliable. I have sent my son and my daughter a photo but have no way of knowing if they got it.
Shortage of electricity in Nepal.
The Nepal Electricity Authority have had put in place a rota because of a serious shortage of electricity in the country. With so many torrents and rivers coming from the Himalayas, Nepal could be a major producer of electricity, but this would require major investment, and there is a chronic shortage of funds. The earthquake has not helped the situation. Nor has the blockade imposed by India which prevents so many important goods from coming into the country. The shortage of electricity is particularly acute in winter, the dry season, because of the plunging water level in the rivers which feed the major hydropower plants.
Would you like to read more about the experience of our Volunteer SONJA LEGENDRE CROSSAN plz email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) so we can send you the whole 100 page PDF book via email . Thanks Good Karma Foundation.