After a long flight and a chaotic layover in Delhi we finally arrived, hungry and jet-lagged, in Kathmandu. We were met by a member of the VCD Nepal team and driven to our new home for the next few days. The streets of Kathmandu are dusty and hectic. Motorbikes, trucks, cyclists, cars and rickshaws bustle through the ancient streets and alleys, skilfully dodging people, dogs and the occasional sleepy grazing cow.
The first two days of our trip was spent in Kathmandu where we had cultural orientation classes which included learning some basic Nepali phrases and most importantly learning about the cultural norms of the Budhist monks who we would be working with. In addition, the VCD team took us sightseeing around Kathmandu to the Boudhanath Stupa, Durbar Square (a UNESCO world heritage site), Swayambhunath also known as ‘the monkey temple’ and finally to the Pashupatinath Temple. All these sights left us mesmerised and fascinated by the vast culture of Nepal. Staying with the VCD family gave us a valuable insight into the Nepali way of life. We found the culture to be friendly and welcoming, the lighthouse had a quick turn over of volunteers who all used the lighthouse as a pit stop on their way to and from various placements around Nepal. This meant that we could get to know new people and hear plenty of exciting stories over our group meals.
The night before we were to take the bus to Pokhara where our project was to take place we were invited to the neighbor’s house to celebrate his birthday. As it turns out his birthday wasn’t for another few days but he wanted to have a party everyday in the week leading up to his birthday. The party consisted of plenty of laughs as well as multiple offers of rice wine, rice beer, Nepali whisky and a birthday feast consisting of potato and vegetable curry, tofu curry, buffalo chow mein and fried fish.
The journey to the Pema T’sal Monastic Institute where we would be working was as equal parts beautiful, exhausting and terrifying. Though we were on a ‘tourist bus’ which didn’t do any questionable overtakes or reach risky speeds, it was quickly clear that local buses were not as careful. The scenery along the road is dramatic. It follows a series of deep river valleys and passes through ancient stone villages and over precarious suspension bridges. It was a clear day and so for most of way we were blessed with spectacular views of Machhapuchre and the Annapurna massif. On arrival in Pokhara we took a taxi to the monastery, which would be our beautiful new home for the next two weeks
The Monastery is stunning. Set along the beautiful backdrop of the Annapurna mountains and close to a nearby never, it is quiet and peaceful. While at the monastery we taught English to a class of seventeen adorable miniature Buddhist monks. Our class was aged between four and seven, allowing for a fun and interactive approach to teaching. Most of the students were from the region in the Himalayas called Mustang, an impoverished region of Nepal where Tibetian refuges scrape a minimal existence from the harsh lands the border china to the north. In our spare time we tutored older monks on a one-to-one basis in English and maths. This was, for me, the most enjoyable part of my teaching experience as it enabled me to get to know the students very well and so I could tailor my lesson plans to their distinct interests. When one of my students indicated an interest in photography I used my free day to head to Pokhara where I ambled through the various second hand book stores to find books about photography for him. He loved them and we spent the rest of our lessons reading them together and learning new vocabulary from it.
The teaching experience is not the only thing one gains from such a trip. Aside from meeting a wonderfully wide range of international volunteers we also had the perfect opportunity to be immersed in the Tibetan Buddhism culture. From experiencing colourful and mystical rituals, to eating vegetarian Tibetan food, to speaking with senior monks about their lifestyle, it really was an incredible experience. Perhaps the highlight of our time in Nepal was when a ‘High Lama’, came to visit the monastery. We joined the monks in lining the road in the monastery with our heads bowed down in respect and holding white scarves as offerings to him as he was driven in. Some other monks donned traditional celebratory head wear and played instruments as well. We then followed him into the temple where were individually blessed by him. This process included lining up till you are called upon. Bowing and offering him the white scarf, then him taking the scarf form you, blessing you with words I couldn’t understanding then him presenting the scarf back to you. Though, I’m not hugely religious myself this experience is one I will treasure. I brought the scarf back with me; it is my favorite travel souvenir.
The two weeks flew by devastatingly quickly and soon we were on the bus back to Kathmandu. We spent one night catching up with the VCD family and a day in the tumultuous streets of Thamel haggling to the best of our abilities for cheap souvenirs to bring back for family and friends, before heading to the airport for our flight back to London. Saying goodbye was difficult, unlike being away on holiday and staying at a hotel, in Nepal we made friends and lived within a family. I have volunteered abroad three times before and found VCD to be by far the best organization to do it with. It is very affordable, includes all meals and comfortable accommodation and in house tour guides who are more than willing to take you around Kathmandu. The VCD family took great care of us, arranging for all our travel in country and calling us frequently while at the Monastery to ask how we were doing.. We miss them. We miss their delicious home cooking. We miss the sweet spiced tea. We will definitely be back. I have only one peace of advice for anyone who might consider volunteering with VCD Nepal – stay longer than two weeks!