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Writer Amar Mistry’s three months in this landlocked Asian country changed his life. Read on to find out how.
Text and photos: Amar Mistry
Country: Nepal

y life as volunteer in Nepal began with a nap in a restaurant.

“Hello? Amar? Hello, Amar?”

A thick Indian accent brought me round. I had fallen asleep in a restaurant whilst waiting for Rajendra, the man who was meant to pick me up at the airport in Kathmandu, the nation’s capital.

I spent three months as a volunteer at an orphanage, living with 10 children aged 4 to 14. I stayed in a tiny, two-bed room and over the months shared with a variety of other volunteers from across the world.

It was a fluid family, with volunteers coming and going, staying from a few weeks to six months. Several return volunteers also visited every now and then, always greeted by smiles from the children.

Day-to-day life

The daily routine started by waking up the children, ensuring they were washed and ready for breakfast before getting them ready for school. Cue cries of missing ties, complaints of missing pens and a jostle for a place in front of the mirror.

The walk to school could also be eventful, including a stop at a roadside temple for some ‘tikka‘, an Indian dish of meat marinated in sauce; songs; and even a sprint finish if we were running late.

At school the children were taught predominantly in English, though Nepali was used with the younger children. Extracurricular activities included badminton and dance classes, with karate a more recent addition. The teachers were relatively young and seemed motivated and proud to work at the school.

The afternoons and evenings were a little more relaxed: homework and tidyingplaytime and dinner, and a quick cleanup operation before story time in bed. There were separate rooms for boys and girls, but we tended to all pile into one for the stories.

The house mother prepared meals, which were about 70% rice and dhal (a type of lentil soup used to flavour the rice), 25% vegetable curry and 5% pickle. Once a week we’d have chicken. I have never seen any child eat like the eldest boy; he put away several platefuls of rice before I had the chance to get through even one.

Beautiful Nepal

Thamel, the centre of Kathmandu, was a melting pot of locals and foreign tourists, predominantly there for trekking and traveling. With cocktail bars, restaurants with international cuisine, and many souvenir stalls, Thamel had a brilliant nightlife and party feel to it. There was a lot of ‘hustle and bustle‘, with street sellers bargaining, cars tooting along rickety roads and an almost tangible pulse that you sometimes find in a metropolis.

However I lived in Balaju, a nearby suburb devoid of any tourists. A roller coaster -style, 15-minute bus ride or a 30-minute walk from the centre, Balaju became my home.

The suburb was filled with winding and dusty roads fronted by family- run vegetable and convenience stores that were also sources of tobacco, newspapers and sweets.

Walking down the main road, you’d also see all the shops of a typical high street: a barber shop, always popular and adorned with pictures of Bollywood heroes; a pharmacy, selling all types of medicines regardless of whether you had a prescription; and a butcher, usually with live lambs, goats and chickens awaiting their fate.

Strolling down the main bus route during the day, you would encounter groups of men peering over a chessboard, seemingly a national pastime. I played more games of chess in Nepal than I ever had before – with mixed fortunes.

Pedestrians and labourers seemed to walk more slowly, smile a little more, and I had never encountered so much eye contact in my life. Getting used to the neighbourhood was a little unnerving and took some time, but with interpretation help from Rajendra and the children, I could practice my Nepali. Life was slower in Balaju; siestas in the sun and electricity rationing ensured that there was a lot of time for tea and chatting.

Maturity

The three months flew by and countless memories were made from all across Nepal: weekends playing in the local rice paddies, ghost stories and good behaviour sticker charts. The children played with hand-me-downs, donations and gifts. Some of the smaller children mirrored girls in the Western world, proudly showing off their make-believe kitchens and pretending to cook. Instead of plastic kitchens and miniature cups, they used bricks and rubble from the abandoned building site next door.

This was worlds away from what I was used to, yet the joy remained: They were as happy as I remember being growing up. Without a reference point to compare, the children knew no better. The smiles and laughs were priceless, and that environment led to a shift in my own outlook.

In some ways I grew up in Kathmandu; dealing with tantrums, poverty, and real responsibility on a daily basis forced me to mature.

One memory stands out. It was a chilly night and the children and I were waiting to wash our plates at the outside tap. For some reason the queue was taking a little longer than usual.

Before I could react, the eldest girl marched past me to the front of the queue and barked orders in Nepali. Instantly all the children stacked their plates neatly at her feet and scurried back inside. I was dumbstruck: first about why she would do that, and second, I had never seen the children move so quickly – usually it took several attempts to do anything that didn’t involve playtime. After being asked what she said, Asha, aged 14, replied:

“It’s too cold for the smaller children to be outside waiting tonight. I’ll just wash it for them tonight. I told them to go inside.”

I was completely taken aback. This 14-year-old had the maturity of a 40-year-old. As I helped with the washing up, I noticed how efficiently she washed, ensuring that water was not wasted and that she only used as much soap as usual. I realised she was probably used to picking up the odd jobs of her younger ‘siblings’.

With the house mother focusing predominantly on cooking and washing clothes, Asha had become a hybrid older sister/mother figure. She commanded more respect than any of the volunteers and was even quicker at getting the kids in line than Rajendra.

Putting the needs of the children first got me out of the mindset of what could Nepal do for me and flipped it to what could I do for Nepal – a sobering shift that has stayed with me.

Similar Experience

Anna O’Hare, a volunteer teacher in Thailand for six months, had a similar feeling. She was housed with three other English teachers in the Amnat Chareon province of Thailand after a month-long induction with 30 other teachers, all set to be teaching across Thailand.

“Being seen as a teacher was a huge change. Going from a university to an entry-level job, directly into a position of authority and inspiration was massive,” she said. “I realised I had the chance to directly impact the lives of these kids and really make a difference.”

“It was a truly unique adventure; experiencing the culture, getting to know locals – all whilst surrounded by amazing scenery,” she continued. “Having the chance to help equip the youth with skills they needed for the future; it was a huge change and I really grew as a person.”

Though Anna’s time abroad was different from mine – with better accommodation, more of a peer group and a set teaching structure – her lesson seems to be very similar.

We will never forget our time volunteering abroad. Outside of our responsibilities with the children, we both did a multitude of other activities: trekking, sightseeing, meeting locals and embarking on sometimes strange new experiences. But we’ll remember the children most fondly.

Nepal
Population: 31 million
GDP Per Capita: 700 USD
Religion: Hinduism, Buddhism
Language: Nepali, Hindi, English
Size: 147,181 square kilometers
Famous Cities: Kathmandu, Pokhara, Lumbini
Fact: Has eight of the 10 tallest mountains in the world. Also Lord Gautum Buddha was born in Nepal.



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Growing Up in Nepal

Amar Mistry spent three months volunteering at an orphanage in Nepal, living with 10 children aged 4 to 14. There were many volunteers there, some stayed for a few weeks and others for six months. And sometimes old volunteers would return for a visit.

The daily routine starts with waking up the children, making sure they are clean and ready for breakfast and then getting them ready for school. At the school the children are taught predominantly in English, though Nepali is used with younger children. In the afternoons and evening the children do their homework and then tidy up before playtime and dinner, followed by a quick cleanup operation before story time in bed.

Amar feels that he truly grew up in Nepal; dealing with tantrums, poverty, and real responsibilities on a daily basis forced him to mature. He saw children playing with bricks and rubble, pretending they were kitchens, but they seemed just as happy as he was when he was a child. He learned to put the needs of the children first and this changed the way he views things. Instead of thinking about what Nepal could do for him, he started thinking about what he could do for Nepal.


 

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Growing Up in Nepal

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Growing Up in Nepal

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