Hot! It’s 1.30am, and sweat is running in a river down my spine. But even though I’m exhausted after a day of shovelling heavy sand and carrying concrete in metal dishes, it’s encouraging to hear kids reciting verbs and singing songs as we work. Today, I did some concreting and smoothing with a trowel and flat block of wood – tools are so rudimentary! Kids are happy and sweet and appreciative, though many seem desperately poor and grubby. They are so interested in us, waving, shouting ‘namaste’ and running up to have photos taken, then giggling when they see the image on the camera.
So ran the notes I made at the end of my third day in Nepal, and they’re a reminder of how mentally and physically challenging I’d found the tasks. The rest of the diary details all the work we did – the ups and downs of building work, ‘commuting’ to work in a tuk-tuk and learning to love eating rice at 6am – but the common themes are heat, sweat and drinking litre after litre of water. I was one of 22 volunteers who’d travelled to the rural village of Saranpur in the south of Nepal. We had two weeks to deliver two phases of a project– one, to install hand-operated water pumps for nine families; two, to set up a large water tank complete with taps at the Saranpur primary school. The hefty price tag was two-thirds funded by water-filter company Brita; we volunteers had fundraised the rest.
On our first working day, my team installed a pump for an extended family living in mud huts. When I wasn’t bent over a hot shovel, I had time to look around. I was struck by the simplicity of their life: they owned a goat, two buffalo and a small rice paddy. Speaking via an interpreter – a Nepalese man called Lila who works for the Rural Community Development Programme, which organises volunteer operations based in Nepal – the elderly grandfather explained that his family’s rice crop had been damaged by a hungry rhino, but they were powerless to prevent it. I didn’t need to ask why: the family couldn’t afford electricity, never mind the sort of mega fence required to keep the big beasts out.
While I worked on the project, I lived in a modest two-storey brick home with a local family: Rita, a housewife, and Som, a salesman, their two school-age sons, and Som’s elderly parents. Though still impoverished by first-world standards, they were noticeably better off than some of their rural neighbours; some of my co-volunteers slept in an outhouse next to a buffalo shed. Thanks to a small plot of land surrounding their house, Rita and Som were almost entirely self-sufficient, growing their own rice, corn, vegetables, bananas and lentils, and they even had a biogas system that provided fuel for cooking.
At 6am we took a breakfast consisting of noodles and a cup of sweet tea made with milk from the family buffalo; lunch, at 9am (!), was a dish called dhal bhaat that I became very familiar with, consisting of rice, lentil soup and a portion of spicy vegetables; we had an afternoon snack at 3pm and dinner (more dhal bhaat) at 7pm. At 8pm I ate a kilo of prunes in a bid to keep my digestive system working.
The family was welcoming and pleased that I was interested in their culture, and also asked me about my life (what did I eat if I didn’t eat dhal bhaat every day?). For all their hospitality, I found some aspects of my new lifestyle challenging: the Nepalese-style squat loo; washing in a hut next to the buffalo shed using a bucket of water drawn from the well; an unvarying diet of rice. But my stay was culturally enlightening and there were many charming moments that revealed the caring nature of our hosts. My roommate, Tanya, and I would frequently have to go looking for our flip-fl ops because Som’s senile father had a tendency to hide footwear. Yet he was still an important part of family life, where, as Som explained, care of the elderly was key. When the water pumps and the school’s water tank had been installed, all the volunteers toured the village to meet the locals.
We were showered with flower petals and garlands, our foreheads were painted with a red tikka spot and we were invited to join the villagers for sugary chai and biscuits. It might sound as though we were royalty on tour, but it wasn’t like that at all. For me, it was a new feeling to know that by giving something as simple as my time I’d contributed in a lasting way to enhance the quality of life of an entire village.
Of course, our group could have given money to an NGO that used local labourers to carry out the work, but by travelling to Nepal we saw at first hand how the money was spent. It had been a physically exhausting and mentally challenging fortnight, but when I compared notes with some of the other volunteers, most admitted that in spite of certain hardships – no decent coffee, no bread, lots of spiders – they’d jump at another opportunity to help a disadvantaged community in such a hands-on way. During a tea break one day, one of my teammates, Jamie, summed up our extraordinary situation: ‘It feels like we’re living in National Geographic. It’s mad. We’re chilling outside a mud hut next to a rice field damaged by a rhino.’
I’d travelled to Nepal fairly sceptical about fundraising and paying to work during your holidays. But I’d urge anyone to try a volunteering holiday – at home or overseas – particularly if money is what’s guiding you through life right now. Money can’t buy happiness, nor can it buy the satisfaction that is gained from helping others. Travel can be packaged as the ultimate act of selfishness, or at least self-indulgence, but it needn’t be like that. I saw sights, took photos, met local people, learned a foreign language (well, a tiny bit of one) and ate lots of very authentic local cuisine. And after all that digging and sweating, I felt fit and healthy, and even got a dirty sort of tan – all the things ordinary holidays provide, and much more besides.
Photograph taken by Kathryn Miller. For more reports from the trip, updates on the project and information on future plans, go to www.brita.net/uk.