The Summer of 2013 with VCD Nepal

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.
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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.
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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

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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.

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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!

Why Travel isn’t just a frivolous activity:

People often thing of travel as not having any serious purpose or actual value and that is probably why it is sometimes thought of as rich person’s frivolous hobby. Obviously i’m inclined to disagree and these are my top 10 reasons:

1)Travel doesn’t always have to be expensive.

It is no doubt true that traveling far away from home can be expensive – airline tickets are often stretching a student’s budget but there are multiple ways around this:

  • a. stay close and take a bus – the budget traveler and student’s favourite Megabus is always a good option
  • It isn’t about how long you stay, its just about going somewhere new to experience something different (try to arrive in the early morning and leave in the late evening to maximise on the amount you spend on accommodation)
  • save 3.50 every week (the amount I see students spend on a cocktail every friday night)  for a year and save over £150 – more than Waseem and I spent on bus fare and accommodation in Paris for 4 nights this summer (and we booked last minute – book earlier for a better deal)

2)  Travel to Volunteer – here is a great way to do some CV building while experiencing a new culture and benefiting from cheap accommodation. I can personally recommend:

  • Original Volunteers in Morocco to enjoy cheap easyjet air travel; or
  • VCD Nepal for cheap volunteering prices (include all meals, accommodation and transport in country!) but air fare starting at £480.

3) learning about different cultures – Well I can safely say that if I hadn’t spent 2 weeks at a  Buddhist monastery in Nepal where I attended free and optional Tibetan Buddhist philosophy class I wouldn’t have been able to tell you about Buddha’s teachings or the stages to enlightenment. And while I don’t follow Buddhism myself, it is certainly a good thing to know about.

4. build your confidence – This is a big one for me. I believe strongly that travel can help young people feel more confident about their abilities because you have to do things for yourself. Think about about where your next meal is coming from, keep track of your money and plan a budget that you have to stick to, learn to navigate through many different forms of public transport and pluck up the courage to ask for directions when you mess up.

5. step out of your comfort zone

  • being dragged up the Arc de Triomphe by a very energetic sister and friend, for example, was out of my comfort zone. I felt anxious, nauseated, even angry but I’m very glad that I did it because those views were spectacular.

6. Experience Ultimate Freedom

  • no mum, dad, aunt, brother, sister, roommate, friend, no one waiting to make sure you get home. If you thought you’ll be somewhere at a certain time then you (and your travel party) decide to do something else – nobody cares!

7. Feel fewer Inhibitions:

  •  If you are so inclined you can dance around that fire at the Sahara Desert because you’ll probably never see the rest of the tour group again.

8. Make New Friends:

  • I don’t care how shy and quiet you think you are, when you are somewhere where the number of people who speak English is limited you’ll quickly become desperate enough to talk to that other english speaking stranger. When you travel it is easy to start a conversation – “So what brought you to…?” “How have you found it here so far?” “where are you from originally?” – next thing you know you’ll be exchanging facebook accounts and promising to get in touch about that trip you’re planning to Tanzania (you should be planning a trip to Tanzania, if you aren’t already) because said stranger can give you a lot of tips about where to stay, what to do, which restaurants to eat at and which to stay at least 3 meters away from.

9. Learn a new Language/improve your language skills – fading IB french anyone?

  • Another excellent CV builder. You can even do this while you volunteer abroad. Or if your budget is too tight for that you can take a TEFL course (Groupon frequently has vouchers for it) that will allow you to teach abroad while making money and learning a new language.

10. Take in all the history

  • No better history lesson than a soul shaking walk through Auschwitz. Furthermore, planning a trip to pretty much anywhere in the world gives you the perhaps otherwise lacking motivation to read up on the history.

Bonus reason: Invest in your own happiness!

I’ve become sick and tiered of people saying “you’re so lucky to get to travel, I wish I could do that”. It is true that I am lucky to get to travel but often the only real thing stopping people from traveling is themselves. If it would really make you happy (and I think that it would) then you have to make it happen for yourself. My siblings and I have been saving for a trip to Venice for over a year now and we’re hoping to be able to go next summer. How do you save for a trip when you have so many other expenses? you make it a priority!  Soon enough you’ll forget about those amazing boots you saw in some store but you’ll never forget seeing the starts from a rural village in Zanzibar or ridding into the Sahara dessert on camel back or the bustling and chaotic streets of Thamel in Kathmandu.

So people – give in to that wonderlust and get planning! Where do you want to go? How much do you need to save to get there?