Cold Feet: a Day in the Life of a Nepal Orphanage Volunteer

Cold Feet: a Day in the Life of a Nepal Orphanage Volunteer

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…

6.30am: wake up & head outside

I wake at 6.30am, kick off the two duvets, crawl out of sleeping bag and mummy liner, peel off most pieces of my clothing, wash my face in freezing water and fill a water bottle from a special purified dispenser.

I put on the rest of owned clothing that wasn’t worn last night, sling on my backpack and head outside.

Cold Feet: a Day in the Life of a Nepal Orphanage Volunteer

The view from my bedroom window

I 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.

7.30am: arrive at the orphanage

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, 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.

Cold Feet: a Day in the Life of a Nepal Orphanage Volunteer

Breakfast on the balcony. Somewhat disgruntled.

 8.40am: leave for school

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 one.

Cold Feet: a Day in the Life of a Nepal Orphanage Volunteer

Chanting at assembly

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.

9am: teach English lessons (somewhat involuntarily)

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…

Cold Feet: a Day in the Life of a Nepal Orphanage Volunteer

Midday: freedom to explore Kathmandu

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.

4pm: back to the orphanage

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!

Cold Feet: a Day in the Life of a Nepal Orphanage Volunteer

Our little crew. Don’t let the frowns fool you; these kids literally never look sad!

7pm: dinner #1

No matter how hard I internally resolve to refuse, when I’m presented with a plate of dal bhaat at the orphanage 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.

8pm: dinner #2

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.

10pm: bedtime

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.

Cold Feet: a Day in the Life of a Nepal Orphanage Volunteer

Have you ever experienced the cold of Nepal?

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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18 Responses to Cold Feet: a Day in the Life of a Nepal Orphanage Volunteer

  1. Taylor stice February 21, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    Flora! All I can say is wow! What a truly unique experience you are partaking in… I was thinking of volunteering in an orphanage in either Guatemala or Ecuador this summer, bit India has also crossed my mind, although it is a bit pricey to get there! Life sounds so different yet beautiful in Nepal. I hope you really enjoy the differences, an absorb every ounce of reality and bliss it has to offer . I miss seeing your lovely face , and I can’t wait to read more about your journey! Take care and stay warm my love !!! XOXO

    • florabaker May 6, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

      Thanks Taylor!! Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply 🙂 You should definitely do some volunteer work – and South America is my next big trip so if we time things right..?! Missing you too, hope everything is wonderful by the bay xx

  2. Suzy February 26, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

    What a day! It’s amazing how much you can take for granted, especially hot water and heat. Thanks for the insight into your day of work in Nepal. The teaching aspect reminded me of teaching English in Sicily. I only volunteered for a few days when I studied abroad, but the room would turn into utter pandemonium.

    • florabaker March 5, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

      Pandemonium is definitely the word! I pretty much shouted myself hoarse with the little ones. I don’t think we give teachers enough credit for the difficulties in controlling a group of kids! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  3. Andrea Perullo February 29, 2012 at 12:26 am #

    What an incredible experience! I feel so bad for you without heat though!!!

    • florabaker March 5, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

      Aw thankyou! It really was amazing, although the cold certainly took some getting used to..

  4. Nisha February 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    There are parts of it I could nod knowingly, agreeing these things. Being an Indian I can so well understand your ‘problems’ which are normal in this region. yes, we do not have heating in buildings. yes, we eat with ‘fingers’ and so many other things.

    Also, I smiled at that Namaste… 🙂
    I have just returned back from Cambodia doing my bit of volunteering there and have taught many people our way of greetings. 🙂

  5. Ceri March 1, 2012 at 10:32 pm #

    Wow, what a life. I’ve always wanted to go to Nepal to teach. I remember reading that book Little Princes by and found it so inspiring, I just knew Nepal was the place to go to. I’m loving your writing.

  6. Sabrina March 2, 2012 at 4:27 pm #

    What an experience! Sounds amazing. Not sure how I’d cope with curry in the morning, but maybe your body needs something hearty when it’s always so cold?

    • florabaker March 5, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

      I think you’re right about the curry – and I actually now find myself craving dahl..! It kept me going through the day so the Nepali people are doing something right with the diet. “Dahl baat power, 24 hour”, as the saying goes!

  7. Audrey | That Backpacker March 4, 2012 at 7:28 am #

    This sounds like such a great experience and wonderful journey you’re on! I volunteered at an orphanage in Bolivia earlier last year, and I left feeling like the kids taught me so much more than I taught them. They were a joyful bunch!


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