Trading home comforts for dreamy mountains in Nepal by Julie Thompson
‘The comforts of the west are definitely lacking in Nepal’ says Britta Schroeder, a volunteer from Colorado, U.S. But despite living on rice and sleeping in a straw bed for 4 months, she would not have traded her experiences as a Global Volunteer Network (GVN) volunteer for anything.
Britta Schroeder had always had an obsession with the Himalayas after hearing of her father’s time in Nepal as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Britta had volunteered in Ecuador the year before, and this year, chose Nepal, in order to visit a mountain that had been constant in her dreams. It also gave her the opportunity to really connect with the Nepalese people, and help contribute to their struggling community.
Nepal is home to the breathtaking Himalayan mountain range which contains eight of the world’s ten highest peaks including Mt Everest, not to mention spectacular scenery and wildlife. But its beauty is marred by the huge suffering of the Nepali people.
Nepalese children spend their lives living under a veil of politically instability. Maoist rebels have been waging a campaign against the constitutional monarchy in a conflict that has left more than 12,000 people dead since it started in 1996. Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries, and this is often made worse by the Maoist rebellion. 40% of the Nepalese population live under the poverty line, and both young and old suffer from poor healthcare, high pollution levels and inadequate education systems.
The publicity surrounding Nepal’s current political unrest worried Britta at first, but she said that she during her experience she never feared for her own safety. Most of the conflict was situated in the East and West, and she was stationed in the middle.
‘I definitely think it is safe for volunteers’, she says, reflecting on her experience.
‘GVN took care of everybody, and always let everyone know what was going on at all times.’
Britta volunteered in Nepal through the Global Volunteer Network (GVN) for 4 months, teaching local schoolchildren about environmental issues and health and digging gardens for a new orphanage. She also helped build a greenhouse, a resource that will benefit many in the community.
‘We built a greenhouse, and it didn’t seem like that would be used very often, but once the garden started blossoming and the trees started to grow, we realized that everyone was going to use the garden and the trees for food and shade. That was the best part’.
Britta lived with a host family with a mother, father, grandmother and two young boys in lower Bistachaap, a rural Nepali village. One moment in particular that had a massive impact on Britta was the death of her host grandmother of lung cancer and tuberculosis. It was devastating to the family, and Britta was there as the family came to terms with their loss.
‘She was diagnosed with lung cancer the day before she died, and I’m sure it had quite a bit to do with the fact that she lived in a mud house, and cooked over a fire twice a day, every day, without a chimney’ says Britta the sadness evident in her voice. ‘Looking at the ceilings there, you could see the soot on the beams, and the rafters, and on the walls, and just think that the sixty year old woman’s lungs probably looked like that’.
‘It’s really hard to watch that sort of thing happen, and know that you are going to be able to leave this house, and leave the chimneyless room, and go back to fresh air’.
Because the host families who take in volunteers get paid, it provides them with a crucial extra income, in order to help make ends meet, and attempt to better their lives. The Nepali people enjoy having volunteers amongst their rural communities, as they have the opportunity to exchange stories and work on their English. It is also pretty strange seeing a western woman washing her clothes on a rock!
‘I know we would provide quite a bit of entertainment, when we would go out and shower, wash our clothes, or do anything Nepali style’ laughs Britta. Working in a unique environment with other volunteers can also provide some humorous situations. One particular instance for Britta was finding a ‘potato’ while digging a garden.
‘It was the very first day of digging, and one of the girls I was with had found a potato. She thought it was a potato, and she was an Agriculture major’ says Britta. ‘I had just gotten there, so I didn’t speak Nepali very well, and I had these dreams that I was going to take this potato and show up to my family, and the mother would be so excited that I brought something up to the table, and then they would eat it, and I would be like ‘oh, does everyone like my potato’ and they would all say that it was tasty’.
‘So, I got out the potato, and handed it to the mother, and she kind of dropped it and screamed, and the grandmother started rambling in Nepali, and the little boy picked it up, and threw my potato across into the field’. Apparently it was not a potato, and was actually a poisonous tuber that if you eat it, your tongue instantly swelled up, and you suffocated and died! Britta was sure they thought that she was either a really stupid foreigner, or that she was trying to poison them.
Either way, ‘We had a lot of laughs and a lot of fun’, she says.
The final grand moment for Britta on her journey was hiking in the Himalayas, which was something she had wanted to do since she was a little girl. Britta climbed to the top of Kala Pattar, just short of Everest Base Camp, and described the moment in her journal:
‘I could look all around me and see nothing but snow capped peaks, and the top of the world. I looked across the Khumbu glacier at Mount Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse, Pumo Ri and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I had finally made it there, by myself! I had hiked for days up to over 18,000 feet and now I was looking directly at Everest…Literally no one in sight, all the way down the mountain. Nothing but the wind and rocks and me.’
‘But, in my desire to prove to myself that I could do this alone, in my strive to prove my independence to myself, I had forgotten something: Who was going to take my picture?’
GVN has a variety of programs in Nepal, including teaching English, working in an orphanage, community health and environmental programs, school and community maintenance, and a home stay/cultural exchange program.
There is also a fundraising trek planned to Mt Everest Base Camp in September/October 2006, in order to help poverty stricken children in Nepal.
To find out more about volunteering see www.volunteer.org.nz