Having completed my long awaited goal of trekking to Everest Base Camp and happy to be back in the warm but slightly less refreshing air of Kathmandu, I arrived at Kimdole chowk, ready to begin another long awaited aspiration and feeling the same mix of nervous anticipation and excitement that many volunteers have felt before me. It had been more than two years since the lecture by Linda Harwood at my Australian University had first brought the incredible work of The Umbrella Foundation to my attention. And now I was finally here. As the taxi pulled up, Scott, the Communications Director (who was relatively distinctive as the only American on the busy street) jumped aboard to direct us to Benchen Monastery, where I would spend the next 6 weeks as a volunteer with The Umbrella Foundation.
The next few days would consist of an induction, which involved everything from earthquake safety, learning the house rules, meeting all the Umbrella staff, a tour to the two Umbrella houses and the main street, whose shops consisted almost exclusively of Adidas clothing, fruit vendors and miniature supermarkets (where the 20 rupee oreo packets would make me a very loyal customer). By far the highlight of the induction however was the Nepali lesson, run by Amir, a former Umbrella child. The three-hour lesson ranged from basic Nepali phrases to Nepali history, trekking and tourism. In addition to providing Nepali lessons, Amir was also a trekking guide and keen traveller, which explained his extensive of knowledge of Nepal’s tourism industry. Luckily he also had a seemingly endless abundance of patience for my abrasive Aussie accent pronunciation.
Soon enough it was time to be introduced to the girls in Gauri Shankar house over evening Dal Bhat. For someone from a country whose national cuisine didn’t extend far beyond meat pies and sausage sandwiches, Nepali food was quickly becoming a highlight of the trip. Of all the things that set me apart from the Nepali locals, I soon learned that portion size was to be added to that list. The inordinate amount of rice that can be consumed by a tiny Nepali girl in one sitting is a feat I don’t think I’ll be trying to emulate anytime soon.
After a tour of the house, the girls showed me some of the things they were working on at school and I learned that a few of them were especially interested in science. This was something I knew would be a passion we could bond over, having just completed an Honors year in reproductive biology. I had an internal debate about whether my thesis topic was an appropriate theme of discussion, in the name of science of course, but decided it was perhaps for another time. With no electricity, as was becoming more the rule than the exception in Nepal, we sat in the dark in a circle on the floor where I was probed with a thousand questions about Australia, my travels, my time in Nepal, my hair, whether I liked Selena Gomez or thought David Beckham was cute. One question that did catch me off guard was whether I could sing for them. I took a gamble with only the knowledge that they were teenage girls and opted for a sure-fire success song choice: Justin Beiber. It certainly paid off and the next half hour was spent singing the classics of JB, One Direction, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and, much to the girl’s amusement, the Australian National Anthem. We were also treated to a rendition of the Irish national anthem by Aideen, a former volunteer who was visiting for two weeks. I was surprised at their extensive lyrical knowledge but happy to revel in a shared love of the Beibs.
When we had all but exhausted our song repertoire, the girls crowded into the living room, the one room with light, to set up for the evening study session. The academically demanding schedule of the girls was something I found particularly surprising, with a few hours study in the morning before school and a few hours each evening. It was not only surprising that the schedule itself was demanding, but the enthusiasm and eagerness of the girls to adhere to it. I thought back to my school experience, ordinary by Australian standards, in which the attitude of the majority of the students tended more toward not even considering education a right, let alone a privilege, but more as a nuisance and obligation. It was refreshing and inspiring to see. Before we left we took a photo of the girls wearing brand new beautiful sweaters provided by one of Umbrella’s regular donors. The girls looked fantastic and were clearly well rehearsed at getting organised into photo-taking formation. The energy and benevolence of the girls filled me with hope and resolve that my time with Umbrella would be an incredible experience. And I hadn’t even met the boys yet.
Cowering on the basketball court with soccer balls and basketballs flying through the air and 20 boys running in circles yelling I understood what Scott meant when he said meeting the boys would be a different experience than the girls. I had come to Annapurna, as the boy’s house was nicknamed, with Alice, another past, visiting volunteer. After evening Dal Bhat, we asked the boys if they’d like to play futsal on the weekend and with approval from the house parents, we had our first weekend activity planned. If that evening was anything to go by, they were already aware how terrible both Alice and I were at soccer but one of the boys assured me I could be on his team for the weekend game so I would at least have a fighting chance. The boys also got a group photo with their brand new sweaters and we left them to their homework.
I was lucky enough in my first week here to visit Sukhate, one of the schools outside Kathmandu Valley, with Aideen and Raj Kumar, in charge of sponsorship and IT. The long bus ride allowed me to see the beautiful and varied landscape of the Nepali countryside, which sadly including many areas clearly still feeling the impact of the earthquake. The route stuck mainly to the Sun Kosi River, famous for it’s rafting, which the travel agent assured me, at a frosty 4 degrees Celsius, is not too cold for rafting in the winter season. As we were seated in the principals office on arrival, the kids seemed happy enough to have visitors, which one boy demonstrated by pressing his face against the window and licking circles across the surface while we waved from the other side, both slightly disconcerted and amused by the slobbery display. The region in which the school was located had been very heavily impacted the earthquake. Even with the one-year old main building having been condemned, and many classes taking place outside, this school had supposedly faired better than others in the district. The library that had been renovated and painted by visiting school children only a year earlier was now in ruins, awaiting demolition. This didn’t seem to impact the enthusiasm of the kids to learn, who were diligently undertaking a self-taught art lesson after the teacher had failed to show up to class that day. The younger children were gathered outside playing catch, while small groups of students had their lessons outside in the warm midday sun. The kids here also seemed incredibly focused on their education, and had an infectious energy that I imagine radiated out to everyone who came to visit, as it did to us.
Although I’ve only been in Nepal for a short time, the resilience and energy of its people that I’ve heard so much about has been immediately apparent. The incredible welcome I’ve received from both the staff and children of has provided me with an optimistic and enthusiastic mindset and given me so much to look forward to for my time with Umbrella.