Despite researching India a mammoth amount over the last month, I somehow neglected to discover a number of things about Nepal. For instance, the fact that the temperature drops drastically between day and night. Plus the fact that no Nepali building has heating, and that the country’s daily rolling electricity cuts mean a constant lack of hot water, lighting, and the ability to cook – unless someone queues to buy gas every day. I also managed to avoid considering the idea that I’d be teaching in Nepal, and thus failed to provide myself with any backing on how to stand up in front of thirty Nepali children and attempt to impart knowledge.
As a result, my days have been going something like this…
Wake at 6.30am. Kick off the two duvets, crawl out of sleeping bag and mummy liner, peel off most pieces of owned clothing, wash face in freezing water and fill water bottle from special purified dispenser. Put on the rest of owned clothing that wasn’t worn last night, sling on backpack and head outside.
Walk through twisting lanes filled with stray dogs sleeping in the middle of roads, clucking chickens hopping from stone steps, and various Nepali men dragging bags with their heads or bicycles with their feet. Avoid the squashed pigeon I stepped in on my first day. Ensure I’m not knocked over by mopeds or cars (road rules here are pretty much ‘go whenever you feel like it, in whatever section of the road you prefer – regardless if its into oncoming traffic’) and make a left at the fruit stand.
Knock at the metal doors of the orphanage, yelling ‘Namaste!!’ to any child that may be in earshot. Be greeted by a tiny figure hurriedly slipping on some shoes and racing to the door. Get dragged in by one of the nine orphans at Helping Hands,. who range from 5 to 14. Wander up to the house, patting various heads (though totally not in a gallant Christian worker kind of way), take off shoes and head into a freezing house.
Spend the next couple of hours helping with their homework, either English or maths work, before being led upstairs for breakfast. For those of you who haven’t suddenly been thrust into eating a plateful of rice and curry before 8am before, I can guarantee that it’s somewhat of a struggle. More so when you’ve blithely accepted eating an onion omelette, an egg and a banana at your volunteer house only a half hour or so beforehand. Breakfast time involves watching the children use their fingers to scoop up their rice with evident enjoyment – right hands only though, as your left is traditionally used for bathroom activities. This doesn’t leave me, a leftie, in the best of situations.
Once they’ve eaten breakfast it’s school uniform time, so I oversee the tying of ties and the avoidance of jumper ripping. Then we wave to Kamala (the founder, owner, and ‘Auntie’ of the house), and set off for school, which is five mins walk away. I generally hold the hands of Bhumes, the youngest at age 5 and the most wont to suddenly spot a ‘tiger’ round a corner and hare off in imaginary pursuit, and Nisa, who is one of the only 2 girls and really likes hanging out with me!
On arrival at school, all the kids split off to their groups of friends and I head to the staff room. It’s taken two weeks for the teachers to actually feel like talking to me but luckily we’re pretty much at the ‘nice smile – how are you? – two sentences of chit chat – amiable silence’ stage, which is way better than the immediate ignorance stage of the first few days. We sit until assembly, held outside in the little quad, while the children (maybe three hundred of them) sing the national prayer, followed by the national anthem. The tune is so catchy that it’s been stuck in my head since day 1.
After assembly is over, I either have the first period off or I head straight to a lesson. Now, when I arrived in Kathmandu, I was pretty vague about what I’d be doing. I’d signed up to work in an orphanage, sure, but I hadn’t really assessed what that might entail. I basically assumed I’d be playing games with a group of adorable kids – and yes, this lot are pretty adorable, but they also swear, and hit each other, and try to push me over. I also hadn’t exactly counted on what I’d be doing when these little bundles of joy were at school. To be perfectly honest, I’d forgotten that children even go to school! But be educated they must, and so on my first full day in the country I found myself sitting in the principal’s office, sipping the now very familiar sugary tea, and feeling rather jealous of the incredible cardigan draped around the shoulders of the middle aged man in front of me. So much so that, when he asked how many days I wanted to teach classes, I absent-mindedly said,
‘Oh, I don’t mind, however many you need me to teach!’
This would also be the time to point out that Nepal, like almost every other country in the world, has a two day weekend – that is, of course, until the Maoist uprisings screwed everything up, and the government decided it was more sensible to only have a single day off a week. So I roped myself into teaching Monday through Sunday, with the exception of Saturday, when I’d be helping out at the orphanage all day anyway. My second shocker was being told I’d teach spoken English. ‘With what resources?’ I asked. The man before me tapped the side of his head sagely. I understood. But I almost wish I hadn’t.
To be fair though, classes haven’t been too bad. Granted, the first couple I was pretty much crying inside – but you get into the swing of it after a while. My go to topics are normally colours, animals, foods and movies, just changing the difficulty of the discussion depending on the age group. So for my 5 and 6 year olds it’s a lot of tiger growling, monkey armpit scratching and elephant trunk waving, whereas with the 15 year olds its pretending to be Harry Potter on a broomstick or attempting to copy a Bollywood dance move. Those of you who know me well will know I’m not always the first to voluntarily embarrass myself, but luckily this trait has all but gone out the window. Turns out making a fool of yourself in front of Nepalis (and children) is the best way to endear yourself to them…
After two or three hours of classes I’m free to go. This normally involves some indirect wandering from the school into Thamel, the overtly touristy area of Kathmandu, which is littered with hippy trousers and pale faces but is the easiest place to find something to eat. Favourites so far include momos, a Nepali speciality of little dumplings filled with spicy veg, and a little stall that sells delicious falafel wraps. Incredibly, I’m actually favouring vegetables over meat at the moment – mainly because the meat I’ve eaten is often filled with little chips of bone. I’ll keep you posted on my slow path to becoming a vegetarian.
With my aimless wandering over by 3 or 4pm, I head back to the orphanage where the kids have made it home from school. This is homework time proper; we read through stories – many of them fables and fairytales, and many with rather grisly endings – check spellings, recite various facts, all of which are done in a sing song manner that makes it clear they’ve only learned the words and not the meanings – but who am I to stand in their way? These kids are really incredible at English, mainly because they know they have to speak it at least a little in order to interact with volunteers at the orphanage. And they get a lot of them. It was only me for the first week, but after boasting about the cuteness of the group, one of the other guys in the volunteer house (an Oregonian named Kevin who’s volunteering at a hospital out here) came with me one morning to play with the kids, and has been coming every day since. They’re pretty tough to resist!
At around 7pm, its time for the first of my two dinners. No matter how hard I internally resolve to refuse, when I’m presented with a plate of dal bhaat I can’t say no. Not because the towering pile of rice looks so delicious, but because I know they don’t have much money and the offer of two meals every day is generosity I simply can’t be rude enough to refuse. Also by this point I’m normally pretty hungry so I chow down happily enough, then say my goodbyes and head off to the volunteer house.
Back at ‘home’, I chat to the other two volunteers (one’s at the hospital, the other, Fiona, is working with a woman’s rights company) over our second dinner – most likely dal bhaat again, although sometimes it’s chow mein – and at about 9pm we all part ways for showers (almost every shower I’ve had in this country has been bone cold), alone time and eventually sleep. This is when I get myself into my many layers, normally jump around in my sleeping bag for a bit to get the toes at least a little warm, and wriggle around with mummy liner and sleeping bag hooods so there’s only a little bit of nose peeking out.
And with that, I fall asleep, to the sound of the stray dogs barking, the hocking of Nepali spit, and interminably cold feet.