Right now I’ve been staying for a few days already in the house of Uttam, the father of my friend Mina. Earlier I wrote about how I had no experience yet of the hospitality of the Nepali people some other volunteers told me about, but I’ve definitely experienced it now. Never before in my life have I met people such as Mina, her father and the rest of her family who have been so hospitable to me.
When her father offered me his house to stay in, I was surprised that he didn’t ask any payment for my stay. I told him that VSN could pay him a fee for my stay, as I first paid VSN in advance after my arrival and VSN then in turns pays the host family or orphanage where I stay. He didn’t accept it, even though he has good reason to do so. All his three children are studying and it’s not easy for the family to live on the money they have, Mina told me.
Mina’s family lives together with their uncle in his house most of the time, so they barely use their new house where I’m staying right now. And it certainly is a very nice place, it has a ground floor and a roof and looks better than most of the houses I’ve seen here. It’s also relatively quiet, last night I went to bed at 21:00 and then there still was a dog (I’ve developed a very deep hatred of dogs by now) and some children making noise at the orphanage next to my bedroom window and a radio was on, but a bit later it was quiet. So much better than the hotel where I had a lot more noise and less rest. If I hear ‘I shot the sheriff’ which they would repeat at the bar next to my hotel every night, I’ll go crazy.
I had some interesting conversations with Uttam. He has served in the Indian army for thirty years, retiring with the rank of subadar. I asked him if he was sent on any missions during his military career, he answered positively but did not elaborate; maybe it is because of the language barrier (his English is okay though) or because it is a sensitive subject for him which he’d rather not talk about, so I didn’t inquire further regarding that. He was quite talkative about his religious views, he doesn’t adhere to one of the major religions but is a follower of the teachings of Radha Soami Satsang Beas.
According to his teachings every organism has a soul, which after death reincarnates in a newly born organism. After a cycle of reincarnation the soul is to be finally reunited with God. This principle of reincarnation sounds quite similar to Buddhism as far as I know. Therefore, a person following the teachings should not eat animals or eggs because animals have souls, and they should not smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs. They, just like money, are desires of the material world, which is not real, only the immaterial world of God is real.
While I may not agree with religious views like this entirely (I like the scientific method more), I think these teachings are more sympathetic than some of the other (major world) religions. These beliefs about non-violence might be found in other religions to a certain degree, but their dogma contains a lot of nastiness as well. Uttam is a great person, he told me ‘I am happy when you are happy’. Their hospitality is beyond imagination and did not only include making their house available to me but also inviting me over to eat with them a few times and a lot of interest in my well-being.
What might have motivated their hospitality is that Mina knew about my negative experience with C. at the orphanage where I was previously staying. If C. was the rain, they are the sunshine; there’s a Dutch saying ‘After rain comes sunshine’ which means that good experiences come after bad ones. I’ve asked Uttam and Mina if I could do anything in return for them, but they said it was not necessary. Being on the receiving end of so much hospitality is a bit difficult for me because it makes me feel bad that there seems to be no way to repay their kindness. I should definitely think of a gift for them before I leave Pokhara.
I have met many more interesting people besides them. One of the things which is attractive about being in a foreign country which is not Western is that you can make acquaintances with other Western people much easier, as you both feel like strangers in that country. While I do occasionally initiate or get into interesting conversations with random strangers in for example the train back in the Netherlands, I feel the barrier to do so in Nepal is lower. Certainly Nepalis themselves are even more likely to start a conversation with you if you’re the only Western person in the bus here in Pokhara for example. While doing this I met a few interesting people.
When I went to a restaurant to eat and all tables were occupied, I was given a seat at a table for four persons where another Western man around my age was already seated. I started a conversation with this man, who was called Luke if I remember correctly. He is originally from Britain, but has been living in Japan for some years now with his wife. His wife works as a school teacher in Japan and she decided to work as a volunteer in Nepal, so he joined her. We talked about many subjects and figured that we had many interests and opinions in common, such as a love for computer games, which bordered on addiction in the past but has now reduced in frequency. We talked some more about liberalism and Japan (he and his wife live in Osaka so they weren’t affected by the recent disasters).
On a more serious note, we also talked about our work as volunteers. In the remote village were he and his wife stay and Japanese and Western people are an unusual sight, the locals stare at them a lot which can make you quite uncomfortable. He also experienced that at the school where he was teaching the students were not used to interactive teaching and that the school personnel was demanding him to spend an unreasonable amount of time working at the school, which is fortunately not like my experience at the CBIA. Concerning the effectiveness of volunteer work, he talked about research done on the subject which concluded that the volunteer gains more benefit out of the experience for their own than the people the volunteer helps.
I will look for research done on the effectiveness of volunteers later, but if the conclusion is true, I still feel my contribution made a small difference. But I agree that my volunteering here is a serious benefit for my CV. After finishing our dinner at the restaurant I felt like I had made a new friend in just one conversation and tried to find his Facebook account and his own website for which he provided me the name and address, but to no avail. I did give him my website’s address as well, so please add me on Facebook if you are reading this Luke, maybe we could meet in England, Japan or the Netherlands some day.
About a week ago some other volunteers visited D.B. and Rekha’s orphanage while I was reading the children a fairy tale. One of them was Vittoria, who was born in Italy but has been living in England for most of her life. She is considering to study Philosophy or Liberal Arts in the USA. Given her interest in philosophy I asked if she had read the Republic of Plato which I’m currently reading, and this turned out to be the case. I was glad to have met an interesting Western conversation partner, which are more scarce here in Pokhara than in Kathmandu’s Pepsi Cola with it’s horde of Western volunteers.
We discussed our experience with volunteer work, and she told me that she wasn’t satisfied with her work at an orphanage. One of the girls asked her if she could have one of the bracelets she bought; when she gave one she broke it very soon and immediately asked for another one. As Vittoria put it, ‘I’m not here to be Santa Claus’. This got me thinking. I’m playing Santa Claus in a certain way as well. While I think the two whiteboards I bought serve a justifiable educational purpose, my decision to buy the DVD-player still bothers me.
Right now I’m teaching English to a group of adults at a private school and I’m teaching English at another private school where I get the opportunity to follow the cooking classes for cooks for free. In both cases I’m working for free to assist Nepali English teachers who might not be as proficient in English as me, but are adequate to do it on their own. And the students I’m teaching are paying a market fee for their classes because the schools are private schools, not charities. This is different from the CBIA, where VSN provides lower fees or no fees at all for education to children whose parents can’t afford it.
And even then Kassie, an American volunteer I met while in Pepsi Cola, was critical of VSN because she worked with a volunteer organization in Pune in India. Her organization provides aid and education to people living in the slums who really need it. So yes, I feel like I’m playing Santa Claus for the private schools now. If I were to volunteer again, I’d look for the type of volunteer organization like Kassie was or still is working with in India.
I have been considering other opportunities for making a valuable contribution to the people who need it. Maybe a week ago I got into a conversation with another British man called Olly in a restaurant. It turned out that he was a volunteer as well, and when I told him I was looking for ways to spend my time as a teacher of English, he recommended me a monastery where I could possibly teach, further up north from northern Lakeside. I didn’t investigate further because it is quite some distance away from Lakeside and because monasteries in general probably receive many volunteers already anyway.
A few days ago I met Tara, a random Nepali woman who was standing in front of her house when I walked by. She asked me to talk with her under the enjoyment of a cup of black tea. She asked me what I do here, and I told her that I work at orphanages. She told me that she is looking for a job in child care, but I had to disappoint her because the orphanages I work at don’t have any personnel, just the father and mother managing it. Then she told me how difficult it was for them to make a living, and asked me if Dutch people were all rich. Because I anticipated were this was going, I lied and said I was poor student who had trouble to repay his student loan, and that I had already made a lot of expenses in Nepal (that was not a lie). When she asked me if I could help her with donations from the Netherlands I said it was not possible.
While requests like this didn’t give me much trust, I insisted that I would love to help her as long as it involved teaching English to her or her family. After talking with her brother as well, they told me that her brother’s nephew who just finished her final exams for English would like to learn some English from me, and I made an appointment to come the next morning. It was an opportunity for me to teach English for free after all. The next morning her brother told me that the nephew had done enough learning already for her final exams which she had finished and wanted to enjoy her free time. This sudden change of plan or lack of coordination didn’t really surprise me anymore, and they didn’t live far from the house where I stay anyway, so it didn’t bother me. I told them they could ask me to come back anytime.
Today (on Saturday the 16th) I met Jeanette, a Dutch women working for the Dutch-Nepali volunteer organization SEWA. I heard about her when I ordered some food at The Wooden Coffee House, a café which is a non-profit project for women run by SEWA. The man running the place noticed I could talk some Nepali, and as we got into a conversation and mentioned I’m Dutch, he mentioned Jeanette is also Dutch. I decided to talk with her to see if I could do anything for SEWA. This turned out to be difficult because I only stay in Pokhara for two more weeks, while SEWA expects volunteers to work for them for several months because they want to know who they are dealing with and because the children they work with need to become accustomed to the volunteers helping them.
Jeanette studied SPH in the Netherlands and worked in the field of mental aid, but seems to have gotten a bit disillusioned with it. That’s why she is in Nepal for nine months in a year, apparently for a few years already, because she thinks the people here can use the help in acquiring basic needs for living better than the people she helps in the Netherlands. Even though the meeting was short and didn’t result in interesting opportunities for me to help, it was an interesting meeting nevertheless.
So now I’m spending almost the entire day on teaching to adults and the cooking class, so I have little time for other things. I’m okay with that for the moment as reading fairy tales for the children is not as rewarding as I expected it to be. Some of the children show with their body language that they are not interested but bored, even though they thank me for reading to them afterwards. I guess that is because of their short attention spans or the sentence by sentence translation which needs to be performed. While I will probably use the last week as an opportunity to relax a bit more and do the paragliding, I will most likely be quite busy with teaching adults and following the cooking class in the coming week of Sunday 17 April until Saturday 23 April.
This week the day before the start of the Nepali New Year (Thursday 14 April) was a free day, so I decided to walk all the way from Lakeside to the World Peace Stupa which is on top of a mountain to the west of Phewa Tal. It’s a long walk, but it’s manageable. Based on my reading of the map I expected some kind of path through the forest on the mountain leading to the stupa, but in fact there were no waysigns and many different paths. Many times I found myself walking through the wild forest to find the correct path going uphill, and I caught many spider webs in my face in the process. I also stepped in quite few piles of cow dung which were covered by fallen leaves, left there by the wild cows grazing in the forest. After reaching the stupa at the top I went down again via the road for the cars, as I had my share of forest for the day. The view from the top was certainly worth the trip.
Somehow I only felt it necessary to drink some water after I got down again, even though I was sweating quite a lot for hours during the trip uphill. Other volunteers noticed that I barely drank any water during the trip to Shivapuri’s top as well, and thought it was unhealthy. I guess I can wait a bit longer with drinking sufficient water than the average person.