Monday, March 28, 2011

Reflections on Nepal... a volunteers reward

When I read up on Nepal in the months leading up to my stint as a volunteer, I discovered a swamp of cliché-riddled travel literature. Travel agency websites promised pristine mountain air, books promised a land of colorful cultures living in harmony, and bloggers promised cities where every step felt like a journey through time. As great as each of those things seemed, the reality is significantly more nuanced, and more beautifully complex than the brochures let on.

Nepal is in many ways like a small boat trying to traverse the raging sea of history and politics. The cultural influence of India is so ubiquitous as to appear invisible, while the political climate speaks of aspirations to China's revolutionary successes. But as a volunteer these were not necessarily the sorts of things which were first apparent for me, and even today they are often overshadowed by the "small wonders" that are to be found at every corner.

The beautifully misspelt sign on a drinks factory which urges oblivious passers-by to "quench your thrust with trust." The newspaper's business page which lists, instead of various stocks, the price of fruits and vegetables for the day. The stray dogs who nap in every available gutter and nook. The stray cows who back up traffic while they cross the road at their unhurried pace. The expensive stores in the shopping mall which hang limes and peppers above their door as a traditional ward against theft. The cinema with its intermission, during which theatre employees circulate with menus to take orders for food for the second half. The numerous misunderstandings at restaurants, like receiving mayonnaise instead of Marinara sauce, or pizzas piled high with carrot, cauliflower, rice, and drowned in ketchup. The more fundamental misunderstandings of purpose that lead to unique restaurants themselves: the food court where one is seated, brought menus from each stall, and waited on, springs to mind.

But these small wonders are just fodder for cute anecdotes when you arrive home. The real rewards are in engaging with Nepal, and Nepali people as a volunteer. I spent some time at the children's homes, playing and dancing during festival time, talking to the kids, learning about their lives, and answering their questions about my own home. Most of my time was spent in the Kathmandu suburb of Boudha, where I was placed to teach English. Here too, there are rich social and cultural rewards for volunteerism. A myriad of different people come to learn English for a dozen different reasons, and they are all amazing to talk to. I even made friends with some of the monks who attended my class, and there is nothing quite like visiting monasteries, other holy sites and even a driving range with my maroon-robed friends. Even besides my students, I have become friends with shop-keepers and shoe-shiners, and found myself embedded in a social network of Nepali men and women who go for tea every afternoon.

Air in the city is never fresh. The harmony between the colorful cultures of Nepal has been exaggerated. History fades into the background more and more with every footfall. But even so, I realize that the travel agencies did not lie: they simply failed to betray the most exciting reality of all. Nepal, with all of its complexities, contradictions, and confusion, is a real place filled with real people who have real problems. People can come here, and make new friends, and as a volunteer they can make their small-but-significant contribution toward the solution of some of Nepal's problems.