As I flew over Nepal, ready to touch down, it was impossible to miss the Himalayas. It gave me goosebumps. Walking towards the terminal I noticed an elderly gentleman laid flat out on the grass taking a moment to soak up the heat. Seeing him so relaxed, it made me feel chilled out and I felt an affinity to his vibe.
Exiting the airport, I was greeted by an old man with no teeth holding a handwritten sign, puffing away on a cigarette. It wasn’t quite the reception I imagined, but he made me chuckle. He sat me down on the kerbside he managed. He offered me cigarettes and everything he could name in English. I politely declined. With a cocktail of broken English, Hindi, Bengali and Nepali, it became apparent that my car was stuck in a traffic jam. Thirty minutes later, my driver arrived. The old man insisted on taking my bags, even though I tried to resist. Typically, he asked for a tip and then he had the cheek of asking for more money. I gave him a glare and he closed my door quickly.
Slaloming through the packed Kathmandu streets, it reminded me of journeys past in Bangladesh. The usual stuff – potholes, motorbikes, cows, roof mounted buses, street sellers, pollution etc. It was a surprise to see so many cars given the current fuel crisis that Nepal is facing. But my driver explained that desperate people have resorted to buying fuel on the black market to survive. Visibly you could see some of the damage left behind from the earthquakes earlier this year.
I arrived at my guesthouse and met my host, Raj. He was fully clothed for winter indoors. After the sun disappeared, I soon found out how cold it was and I understood his motive. I definitely didn’t pack enough jumpers! My room was expectedly basic and I was told of the peak hour for hot water and reminded of the shared load for power in the area – regular power cuts for a four hour period at least twice-a-day. Some may find this challenging but I thought it was a really organised and efficient system.
I met my fellow IVHQ volunteers for dinner and I was the only man, with seven women – five from Australia and two Londoners. Hearing the Aussie accent being spoken reminded me of my second home in Sydney and also my flatmate Ashley 🙂 We took a walk through Thamel district to familiarise ourselves and stumbled across a wedding party. There was big congregation of guests dancing, a loud band and the wedding car was in tow. It was a complete party atmosphere. Once they’d passed we were then followed by a stray dog. It wasn’t quite Lassie, but it definitely wanted a new home. It’s sad to see so many of them abandoned on the road, but I’ve found out they’re the first to wake me up each morning 😦
The following morning we had our first cultural class, learning about Nepali culture and etiquette. It was interesting to learn about the position of women and the importance of their caste system.
After class we met one of our local representatives Rajesh from Hope & Home, who work alongside IVHQ. He took us on an excursion to the holy site of Swayambhunath, a truly remarkable place. There were golden dome-like structures and miles of bright colour flags adorning the sight. We were so high up, the scenery of Kathmandu from above was simply breathtaking. You could see the mountain range in the distance.
However, the peacefulness and serenity is easily disturbed by monkeys. It’s aptly named ‘Monkey Temple’. They are absolutely everywhere in all shapes and sizes. Not forgetting that they’re quite aggressive, as well as mischievous. At one point, one of cheeky buggers clutched onto Lauren, a fellow volunteer and hissed at her menacingly. We thought we were on thin ground and had to ‘jam jam’ (get a move on in Nepali) from the area.
On this trip we gained an insight into Buddhist culture and saw some incredible Buddha Thanka paintings. Some of the artists spent up to six years painting one piece! After negotiating past another regiment of monkeys, we had a traditional Nepali feast, consisting of ‘Dhaalbhat’ (lentils and rice) and a selection of vegetable dishes and chicken curry. In fact, most Nepalis eat rice twice-a-day! Being Bangladeshi, I’m fully in my element. During dinner we were also entertained with traditional music and dancing.
Having learnt about culture, it was time to grasp some Nepalese language the next day to assist us with our upcoming placements. I found out quite quickly that a lot of the words and phrases are very similar to Bengali, which helped at times but also confused me too.
In the afternoon we visited the UNESCO Heritage site of Bodhnath Stupa. A beautiful temple, which is under restoration following the earthquake. We walked into a monastery and witnessed a group of Buddhists praying in unison. It was harmonious and very calming. In my few days here, I’ve noticed that their way of life is more about culture than the actual religion. There’s no one preaching, they just get on with it. It’s all about positive thinking and ultimately, happiness. Something that people seek over a lifetime.
Traffic jams galore awaited us after this trip – what fuel crisis?!!! This was my final night with the group too as they were soon descending upon their respective placements in various parts of Nepal. So it was fitting that our tastiest dining experience was on this night. We were introduced to ‘Newari’ (an ethnic group) street food cuisine. The food was absolutely delicious. One of the dishes looked familiar, an adaptation of a pizza (chatamari) – made of rice flour base with egg, vegetables and chilli. Anything that includes chilli wins with me!
The night drew to a close shortly after and I bid farewell to my new friends, wishing them well as I looked ahead to my placement. I’m excited by the challenge and hoping to speak some Nepali without being laughed at. I’ll let you know if I’m successful.