Immediately following a natural disaster, people all over the world feel like giving.
Stone hearts in all corners of the globe suddenly turn to candy floss.
Empathy wears off quickly for most. For others it will hang around inquisitively for years to come.
I’m not trying to convince you that volunteering abroad is a good idea, I’m simply letting you know my experience, so you can make your own decision.
It’s true that when I first visited Nepal in 2015, I had no idea what to expect. I knew nothing about the country or the people. Back then, it only took two weeks to become blindly connected to a culture I had no relation to or relative idea about. I had been welcomed into a country I had no desire to visit. I had fallen in love with the peaceful hustling crowds of people in Kathmandu, the crisp air and lush beauty that cleaned my polluted Kathmandu lungs in Pokhara, the rich culture and history of Lumbini that educated me about the birth of the Buddha, but most of all, I’d fallen in love with the people and the atmosphere. My mind longed to feel as care free and simplistic as they appeared.
Shortly after I left Nepal came the news of the earthquake that would cause unworldly devastation. At 11.56 (Nepal Standard Time) on Saturday 25th April 2015, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 would lead to the deaths of nearly 9,000 people going about their daily lives. Leaving nearly 22,000 people injured in a country with minimal medical resources and 3.5 million people homeless. Villages and towns were flattened. People’s hard earned businesses, schools and farms demolished and UNESCO sites in Kathmandu Valley, including Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan Durbar Square, Bhaktapur Durbar Square and Boudhanath Stupa heartbreakingly destroyed. Continued aftershocks caused landslides in rural areas and deathly avalanches at Mount Everest. The main airport serving Kathmandu, Tribhuvan International, was forced to close immediately after the earthquake. Despite attempts to reopen intermittently over the next few days to allow relief efforts and some commercial flights to operate, it was forced to close temporarily on the 3rd May due to concerns of runway damage following a severe aftershock. The disastrous event of 25th April seemed to open flood gates of unrelated aspects that would lead to catastrophic living conditions in such a poor nation. These included looting, human trafficking, disease, decreased healthcare resources, debt burdens from property, negative impacts on tourism, poor harvests, mental health conditions and education disruption due to the lack of safe teaching facilities. The list seemed to be endless.
My heart ached and my mind wondered how resilient these beautiful hearts and colourful minds really were. Because, the undoubtable truth is, these people had very little to begin with. Their culture, resources and economy at least a million worlds apart from from the stature and luxury of the paradise we know as the western world. I became acutely aware that the devastating impact of the earthquakes would have changed a lot of things. I longed to find a way of giving something selflessly back to a community that I felt confident needed it.
Fast forward 3 years and my plane would touch down in the familiar city of Kathmandu. Better late than never I told myself. The painful fact is, it’s countries like Nepal that even 3 years following such a disastrous event, struggle to pick themselves up. Over time these communities become forgotten about. But as I walk around Kathmandu, I can see the damage everywhere.
Making the decision to volunteer was not one that came easily to me. ‘Voluntourism’ is a pretty widely used millennial buzz word. I knew that I would have to be exceptionally careful about the project I chose to join, ensuring no negative impact on communities involved. There are inevitable risks that come with ‘voluntourism’. Not addressing the initial cause of the problem in the first place,and the superficial idealisation that these countries need help from the western world are just a few. I had so many thoughts and questions around volunteering abroad and whether this was actually the right thing to do, not just for myself, but for the local communities. Que many hours of internet research.
I’d heard about All Hands and Hearts through someone I met travelling and decided I needed to learn more. Disaster relief response felt different in my mind to other types of volunteering. These communities desperately needed help getting back on their feet and All Hands and Hearts were there to help.
All Hands and Hearts- Smart Response is a US based entirely, non profit organisation. They aim to assist and respond to both the immediate needs, but also, the often neglected longer term needs of communities impacted by natural disasters. With the help of skilled locals, they aim to help communities recover faster, and rebuild in a resilient way in order to prepare for future events, should they occur. All Hands and Hearts felt like the ideal project for me. They we’re filling a massive gap that still existed in Nepal, providing resources and assistance to communities 3 years after the earthquake. My decision was made.
I had never done anything like this before. Never volunteered, never lived amongst a local community for an extended period of time, never lived in a tent, and certainly never ever done any form of manual labour. Being a spontaneous kind of person, I never plan anything, I make decisions on a whim. Some good and some terrible. However, I knew I had to be prepared for what was about to come. I researched, I bought equipment, I read countless blogs and learned about the Nepalese culture. Needless to say, absolutely nothing could prepare me for the next month.
The bus ride up to Haibung was an adventure in itself. 4 hours outside of Kathmandu, up in the mountains, this area was one of the worst hit during the earthquake. 30 seats and about 6 times as many as that in people boarded the bus. People on the roof, people hanging off the bus. I’ve been on some pretty dicey bus rides in my time but it’s fair to say this one topped the list. The roads approaching Gurungaun, the village close to base, were non existent mud tracks around the edges of cliffs. These roads only made even more sketchy by the copious pre monsoon thunderstorms. Little did I know at this point that I’d be making a similar bus journey to work every single day on the road to Jalpa- the school that I was about to find myself unexpectedly 100% invested in.
I can’t say with anymore certainty that I completely underestimated the life of a volunteer. Sometimes my optimism feels bonkers, but looking around base it’s fair to say these people were, not only physically stronger than me, but emotionally too. Some had been there for 6 months or more. Living in a tent in all weather, working long hours in all weather, taking the odd bucket shower, eating a diet of Dhaal Bhat (yummy traditional lentil and rice dish) and fighting flu and inevitable stomach upsets. These people were truly super human and I was afraid I couldn’t do it.
Was I doomed to be miserable for the next month?
As it transpired, I was certainly doomed to be miserable for the next few days. It’s fair to I say it took me that long to adapt to living in the wilderness, and for my body to adapt to the intense physical work these amazing people were undertaking.
My first day on site was an eye opener. Mixing cement and carrying wheelbarrows of rubble around, I truly wondered if I was more of a hindrance than a help. Over the next month I would learn that everyday was as hard as the day before. But that the emotional presence of being there and the support shared amongst each other was all you needed to make it through. There was so much going on at both school sites and I tried my hand at a variety of tasks including digging (a lot!), making cement (I was rubbish at this), compressing rubble and dirt on a gabion wall (got some kind of repetitive strain injury!), primed and painted walls (I was good at this,surprisingly!), primed roof trusses and CGI (yep, I know so much builder talk). I was constantly amazed by the amount of professionalism and planning that went into every single stage of the building, both by the volunteers and the local masons. Every day the work became more relevant to me and the environment more special.
Today, several new schools stand in the district of Haibung. All thanks to many hundreds of volunteers and thousands of hours of hard work. A mix of people from all over the world, some skilled, some not, but all with one common goal. Local masons from the communities held the projects together like glue and leave All Hands and Hearts with new skills and experience to go on to continue building within their communities and new job prospects. These women and men are truly special, and to work and live along side them and hear their stories made the whole experience even more enlightening.The new buildings mean that children can go back to school in local communities, in safe learning environments and play on playgrounds that aren’t dangerous. Seeing the thanks and smiles on the children’s faces will stay with me forever.
Looking around at the strength and passion of the volunteers and the local masons, and our common connection in spreading hope and love to communities that so desperately need it, I realised that this was home, at least for now, and my whole heart was there to try and make just a little difference in creating a better future. It filled me with hope that so many people give their time selflessly to those who need it the most, and those less fortunate than themselves to help mould a world where we are equal, working together in unity to really make a difference.
So as the sun sets on my time in the mountains, my arms are tired, but my heart is alive with joy and hope and confirmation that this country, and it’s kind and gentle people, are my favourite yet.
It’s true that so much of our beautiful world is exposed to destruction. It’s true that so many of the world’s most peaceful people are subjected to loss and grief. Is it also true that those humans with the biggest hearts, those filled with empathy, are drawing on their own knowledge and experiences to come together under different circumstances and create hope?
Whatever your reasons for volunteering abroad, do your research, make the best decision possible. Know why you’re going. Identify your own strengths and weaknesses. Be ready to be completely swallowed up by your environment. Be prepared for a roller coaster of emotions, and beyond all..spread hope that the world can become a better place if we work together.
We are not as different to one another as some may think.
Namaste beautiful people ❤