Straight to work Hot! It’s 11.30am, and sweat is running in a river down my spine. But even though I’m exhausted after a day of shovelling heavy sand and carrying concrete in metal dishes, it’s encouraging to hear kids reciting verbs and singing songs as we work. Today, I’ve done some concreting and smoothing with a trowel and flat block of wood. The tools are so rudimentary. The kids are happy and sweet and appreciative, though many seem desperately poor and grubby. They are so interested in us, waving, shouting ‘namaste’ (‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’) and running up to have photos taken, then giggling when they see the image on the camera’s screen.
It’s the end of my third day in Nepal, and my memories are a reminder of how mentally and physically challenging I’ve found the tasks. My diary details everything I’ve achieved so far: the ups and downs of building work, ‘commuting’ to work in a tuk-tuk and learning to love eating rice at 6am – but the common themes are heat, sweat and drinking litre after litre of water. Turning charity funds into water tanks I’m one of 22 volunteers who have travelled from London to the rural village of Saranpur in the south of Nepal. We have two weeks to deliver two phases of a project – one: install hand-operated water pumps for nine families; two: set up a large water tank complete with taps at the Saranpur primary school. Every day we’re split into groups and assigned a task. The idea is that each volunteer gets to work on both projects: small groups of four or five work on the pumps, while a larger group of around ten works at the school. The Dhs292,570 price tag for this has been two-thirds funded by UK-based water-filter company Brita; we volunteers have fundraised the rest (a figure of about Dhs4,500 each).
On our first working day, my team installed a pump for an extended family living in mud huts. When I wasn’t bent over a hot shovel, I had time to look around. I was struck by the simplicity of their life: they owned a goat, two buffalo and a small rice paddy. Speaking via an interpreter – a Nepalese man called Lila who works for the Rural Community Development Programme that organises volunteer operations based in Nepal – the elderly grandfather explained that his family’s rice crop had been damaged by a hungry rhino, but they were powerless to prevent it. I didn’t need to ask why: the family couldn’t afford electricity, never mind the sort of mega fence required to keep the big beasts out.
A ‘deeply satisfying’ experience The actual machinery of the water pump had been fitted a few days earlier by engineers using a drilling machine, and now needed a solid base. We spent three days preparing foundations, mixing and laying concrete, then adding a top coat of plaster and waterproofing it with silicone. All this was done using simple hand tools. At home I spend most days sitting at a computer, and I find the manual work exhausting. But learning new, practical skills feels good, and – though it sounds cheesy – knowing that I’m helping to provide a family with fresh water is deeply satisfying. Some of the families have to walk several hundred metres for a bucket of water; now they can get it a few paces away.
While working on the project, I’ve lived with a local family: Rita (a housewife) and Som (a salesman), their two school-age sons, and Som’s elderly parents, in their modest two-storey brick home. They are noticeably better off than some of their rural neighbours – some of my co-volunteers sleep in an outhouse next to a buffalo shed – but they are still poor compared to Western standards. Thanks to a small plot of land surrounding their house, Rita and Som are almost entirely self-sufficient, growing their own rice, corn, vegetables, bananas and lentils, and they even have a bio-gas system that provided fuel for cooking.
Learning the lingo Rita has taught me some phrases, such as ‘tapai lai kasto chha?’ (‘how are you?’). The words sound alien, but I have greater cultural differences to get over when we eat: breakfast is at 6am and consists of noodles and a cup of sweet tea made with milk from the family’s buffalo; lunch, at 9am(!), is a dish called dhal bhaat that I’ve become very familiar with, consisting of rice, lentil soup and a portion of spicy vegetables; we have an afternoon snack at 3pm and dinner (more dhal bhaat) at 7pm. At 8pm I eat a kilo of prunes in a bid to keep my digestive system working.
The family is welcoming and pleased that I’m interested in their culture, and also ask me about my life (what do I eat if I don’t eat dhal bhaat every day?). As well as introducing me to the lingo, Rita teaches me the essentials of Nepalese cookery and how to harvest lentils. Back home the organic, natural way always seems like a pose; here it is everyday reality.
Hospitality and hidden flip flops For all the hospitality, I find some aspects of my new lifestyle challenging: the Nepalese-style squat loo; washing in a hut next to the buffalo shed using a bucket of water drawn from the well; an unvarying diet of rice. But my stay is culturally enlightening and there are many charming moments that reveal the caring nature of our hosts. My roommate, Tanya, and I frequently have to go looking for our flip-flops because Som’s senile father has a tendency to hide footwear. Yet he’s still an important part of everyday family life, where, as Som explains, care of the elderly is key.
When the water pumps and the school’s water tank have been installed, all the volunteers tour the village to meet the locals. Though there’s a language barrier, the smiles on the faces of the families we’ve helped show only gratitude – only a cynic would have dry eyes. It might seem as though we’re royalty on tour, but it’s not like that at all.
We’re showered with flower petals and garlands, our foreheads are painted with a red tikka spot and we’re invited to join the villagers for sugary chai and biscuits. For me, it’s a new feeling to know that by giving something as simple as time, I’ve contributed in a lasting way to enhance the quality of life of an entire village. Of course, our group could have given money to an NGO that uses local labourers to carry out the work, but by travelling to Nepal we can see first-hand how the money is spent.
From sceptic to convert It has been a physically exhausting and mentally challenging two weeks, but when I compare notes with some of the other volunteers, most admit that in spite of certain hardships (no decent coffee, no bread, lots of spiders) they’d jump at another opportunity to help a disadvantaged community in such a hands-on way. During a tea-break one day, one of my teammates, Jamie, sums up our extraordinary situation: ‘It feels like we’re living in National Geographic. It’s mad. We’re chilling outside a mud hut next to a rice field damaged by a rhino.’ To be honest, I went to Nepal fairly sceptical about paying and/or fundraising to work during my holidays. But now, I’d urge anyone to try a volunteering holiday – at home or overseas – particularly if money is what’s guiding you through life right now. Money can’t buy happiness, nor can it buy the satisfaction that is gained from helping others.
Travel is usually packaged as the ultimate act of self-indulgence, but it needn’t be like that. I’ve seen sights, taken photos, met local people, learned a foreign language (well, a tiny bit of one) and eaten lots of very authentic local cuisine. And, after all that digging and sweating, I feel fit and healthy, and I even have a dirty sort of tan – all the things ordinary holidays provide, and then some. For more reports from the Brita Nepal 2010 trip, updates on the project and information on future plans, see www.brita.net/uk.
More volunteer vacations
Survey snow leopards You’re unlikely to actually spot the elusive and endangered snow leopard on this challenging expedition (though it’s always possible), but the conservation work you’ll do – tracking prints, droppings and prey animals – high in the beautiful Central Asian steppes will help scientists to map movements and estimate how many snow leopards may exist in the wild. The 12-night trip has departures in June and July, costing around Dhs9,890. www.biosphere-expeditions.org.
Conserve sharks At not-for-profit organisation Earthwatch, all contributions paid by volunteers on expeditions go directly towards supporting research. Would-be marine biologists can get stuck into a new project for 2011 to help conserve sharks by constructing protected areas on Belize’s famous Mesoamerican reef. The eight-day project runs in May, June and July and costs from Dhs8,750. www.earthwatch.org.
Harvest olives Pick olives in Umbria, Italy, and at the same time help an important habitat management project run by UK-based BCTV. The trip takes place in November, so there’s time to hone your biceps and buy some sturdy gloves. A great benefit of this trip is that you’ll go home with a plentiful supply of freshly pressed olive oil. The week-long project costs Dhs2,545. www.btcv.org.uk.Dubai to Nepal Flight time: Approximately two hours. Time difference: One hour 45 minutes ahead of Dubai. Dhs1 = 24 Nepalese rupees.