Following the devastating earthquakes which occurred in Nepal on 25 April 2015 and 12 May 2015, our thoughts have remained with that nation. While thinking of ways to use our blog to support Nepal and help draw attention to the international aid efforts, we remembered a young and dear friend of ours who visited the country a year earlier in the summer of 2014. Although Eulanda and I have never been there ourselves, Abigail’s story has inspired us to put Nepal on our wish list. We’re pleased to be able to share Abigail’s journey with you.

Humble beginnings

Abigail Nepal Pre Earthquake

In the autumn of 2012, an assembly with Adventure Lifesigns took place at my high school advertising an expedition to Nepal. Up to that point, I had never considered travelling to Asia neither did I have any ambition to travel 4,473 miles away from the comfort of my own home. However, pictures of the Himalayas reminded me of family visits to The Alps, Pyrenees and Los Picos de Europa and the humbling sensation of feeling small and vulnerable when surrounded by towering mountain ranges. Suddenly the expedition to Nepal seemed an irresistible proposition.

My enthusiasm was however cut short when informed that the 3 week expedition would cost approximately £3,250 with an initial £300 deposit due in December that year. Feeling the initial excitement begin to wane across the assembly, the speaker, our would-be future expedition leader, tried to reassure her audience by sharing various examples of how we could raise funds. The prospect of the hard graft involved was unappealing.

My dual heritage means that I have always been exposed to and influenced by multiple cultures. This is something I am proud of. The thought of experiencing a culture far removed from mine silenced my fears and became the catalyst which convinced me to sign up for the expedition. That decision would become a two year commitment, one that would challenge me in many ways but one which would turn out to be extremely rewarding.

 

A long way from home

After a fourteen hour flight from London, in the summer of 2014, I arrived in Kathmandu. As our Oman Air plane descended, I noticed that the city was tucked away at the bottom of a bowl formation, landlocked by mountains in all directions. This probably explained the relatively high humidity which hit me in waves as we disembarked.

Nepal Adventure Pre Earthquake

Our expedition team was made up of fourteen people – ten students, two teachers and two expedition leaders. Our party was met by Narba (Nar), a short stubby local with a friendly smile smeared across his face. His hospitality and enthusiasm ensured us with more than enough support throughout the expedition. “Namaste”, he smiled in greeting, as he bowed and presented us with a garland made of freshly picked flowers.

We were unprepared for the attention bestowed on us by Nar and his team. Although we were treated like royalty, I was secretly riddled by guilt as my ‘middle classiness’ suddenly seemed out of place. This was a city clearly struggling with poverty, where babies are taught to beg from the moment they can lift their hands. We were warned not to give any money away even though we felt drawn to do so. In the midst of so much desperation, I felt helpless and felt a lump in my throat every time I swallowed.

Nepal Adventure Kathmandu

However, there was an unmistakable hustle and bustle around us as we drove through the city. In Kathmandu, I observed a strong drive to make a living anyway possible. The tourist sector is a huge foreign income earner for Nepal. As a tourist, you are hustled on the street, boxed in by shops on every road and seduced by burning fragrances on doorsteps.

The capital city of Kathmandu is colourful, vibrant and loud. Our porters informed us that official speed limits are routinely disregarded here and road safety is largely maintained through the blaring of vehicle horns which all drivers, including ours, seemed to use liberally every time they passed other vehicles. The unnerving sound was in stark contrast to the gentle hum of Tibetan monk prayers radiating from surrounding shops; peaceful sounds which were punctuated by the shrill of collective voices bargaining and talking in Nepali languages.

The city was alive! That first night, it felt as though the walls themselves were living and breathing, allowing the cacophony of sounds to cast a hypnotic spell over me. Whispering me to sleep and awakening me in the morning, the echoes of Kathmandu made me realise just how far away from home I was.

 

Double-Double!

Our expedition itinerary allowed for spending a few days sightseeing in Kathmandu before heading to begin a four day construction project at a school in the outskirts of the city. Our mission – to build a 6 foot wall marking the perimeter of the school grounds and to spend time engaging with children through various activities. This public school was small and run down, with only 7 classrooms accommodating approximately 125 students.

Nepal Kathmandu School

As our minivan pulled up in front of the school, the children aligned themselves in long columns, arms width apart. Someone began playing music and the children excitedly sang along to the words of the Nepalese national anthem with pride.

Nepal Adventure Pre Earthquake

Afterwards, we were invited onsite to receive a pale creamy yellow scarf, a small bouquet of wild flowers and a red smudge on the forehead as a blessing and a sign of gratitude for helping to build the wall. Our expedition leader, Keri, explained that this was unusual and that traditionally, they would conduct this blessing after the wall was built. This seemed to be their way of encouraging us to do a good job!

Nepal Kathmandu Pre Earthquake

Truth be told, I was initially very nervous about this four day ‘babysitting activity’ as working with children was not my forte. However, it was impossible not to love those children. They were smart, polite and gentle. Soon I found myself being dragged from classroom to classroom, with passion pouring like sweat with every grip of their little hands. They took an instant liking to our cameras. Mystery photos appeared on our screens every night.

Our expedition camped out on classroom floors for the duration of our stay, girls in the library and boys in the computer room. We had a balcony overseeing the school grounds which was great for evening card games. One evening around 8pm, our card game was disrupted by screaming school girls begging us to come down and play. They had come back to school to see us especially. There were neither gates nor security to stop them from re-entering the school grounds after dark. A game called ‘Double-Double’ which involved a lot of hand clapping was repeated over and over again until I could no longer feel my hands. We stayed out until 9:30pm playing until we were eventually ‘rescued’ by the porters who insisted that we came in for dinner.

Nepal Adventure Pre Earthquake

 

The universal truths about girls

Nepal Adventure Henna Girls

Every girl tried to usher me into one of two class rooms dedicated to Henna tattoos (or Mehndi as they called it). The girls ranged in age between 3 and 17 (as in Nepal, reception year can start from the age of 3). It soon became clear that the older girls were much better at tattooing than the younger girls were. Judging their skills proved difficult and one of my team ended up with an amateur tattoo artist who gifted her with an unsightly splodge on her foot that remained for a good week. I ended up with a decent design on my hand. Another of my team had the pleasure of being treated by the oldest (and obviously most experienced) girl. The result? Pure beauty!

As my eyes swept around the room, I noticed that these children were no different from those in my home country. Some things in life are purely universal. For example, there was the class clown, the popular older girl gang and the ‘cool boys’ sitting at the back of the classroom. There was even a ‘ladies’ man’ type whose flirtatious advances, the younger girls gossiped about and warned me to be wary off.

 

Walls won’t build themselves!

When we arrived, builders were on site but the wall was no more than 6 bricks tall. With no machines available, we were restricted to manual labour. Energy levels wavered throughout the day, with strength slowly evaporating in the sun’s heat. I took ill over night with a cold fever, pounding headache and diarrhoea and was advised to take the following day off wall duty in hope of a quick recovery. However, I still had some energy to visit the children in the afternoon.

Nepal Adventure Building Walls

Eventually, our work was done and the wall was completed. On our last day, just before we left the school, a general assembly was again convened. The head teacher gave a moving speech saying, “I have dreamed of this wall being built for a long time, thank you for making my dreams come true”. Those words struck a chord within me. They highlighted how in western culture, so much is taken for granted, so much is born from want and gluttony. The wall signified my connection to this land. It felt good to contribute to making a small but significant difference in the lives of people I did not know and would probably never see again.

Nepal Adventure Pre Earthquake

It felt good to contribute to making a small but significant difference in the lives of others Click To Tweet

 

The Jewel in the Himalaya

With our building project completed, it was time for us to explore this beautiful country. As well as a safari to Chitwan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, our expedition team had chosen to do an 8 day trek to and from the Annapurna Base Camp, up in the Himalayas just outside of Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city.

We travelled from Kathmandu to Pokhara by coach. That morning I was feeling particularly ill and being stuck in a coach for 7 hours did not help. However, there was much to see on the road trip. Travelling through mountainous, woodland, urban and rural terrain revealed Nepal in a different light, undressed and without its touristy veneer. The roads were bumpy and tight, improving once we hit the outskirts of Pokhara.

Abigail-Nepal-45

Pokhara, regarded as the jewel in the Himalaya, has a very different feel to Kathmandu. The capital is cramped and overflowing with people whereas Pokhara is cleaner, richer and more spacious. A city where there are possibly more tourists than locals, it features family friendly activities, fine dining and comfortable and reasonably priced accommodation. The scenery is breath taking. A large lake welcomes you to the city and dreamy looking snow-capped mountains, including Fish Tail (Machhapuchchhre) which sits closest to the city, reflect off the water in the morning sunlight. For many people, this is Nepal’s tourist capital.

A large lake welcomes you to the city and dreamy looking snow-capped mountains Click To Tweet

 

Bad timing for bad chicken

After a night’s stay in central Pokhara, we began our trek. On our first ascent it became clear that I was unfit to continue. Keri thought that I may have had appendicitis and therefore continuing the hike would be impossible. A teacher (Abbie) and a porter (Narvin) volunteered to take me to the nearest hospital. As we had to make it down the mountain before dark, I had no time to say goodbye to everyone. Feeling both scared and disheartened, tears formed in my eyes as we made haste down the mountain. I felt everything yet nothing. The emotional pain dulled my physical pain. However, our descent was a race against time and I had to pull myself together.

Nepal Manipal

A trek and a cab ride later, while drifting in and out of sleep, we arrived at Manipal Teaching Hospital, Pokhara at around 8pm. The grey concrete walls created an eerie atmosphere. At first I thought that we were the only people in the facility, but soon the sound of voices proved the place was inhabited.

Finally, a doctor attended to me. He asked for my symptoms but seemed interested in something else. He interrupted me mid-sentence to enquire about my nationality. On learning I was British, he suddenly burst out laughing. He turned to share his discovery with to the receptionists and nurses who then also joined in his laughter. Not understanding the language, I was oblivious to their joke and not amused. I presumed that they concluded that I had developed a typical case of the ‘Western tourist runs’ after eating some disagreeable food. They clearly didn’t take me seriously. I also wondered if they found my mixed race ethnicity amusing. In my time in Nepal, many had questioned my claim to being British.

Once the laughter had subsided, a nurse felt my stomach. She didn’t believe that I needed surgery but she did consider the possibility, so she stuck a tap in my hand, gave me a urine sample container and sent me off to get an ultrasound. I prayed fervently that whatever afflicted me was not serious enough to warrant a longer stay at this hospital. My heart sank further as I glanced at the hospital beds, many still sporting bloodstains (or something else) from previous patients.

After the tests, I waited in hope for good news. In Britain, we complain about our healthcare system, the National Health Service (NHS), alongside pharmaceutical outrages and conspiracies. My time in Manipal Hospital helped me put things into perspective. Here I was surrounded by people who were really sick. These were people with real problems, people who were dying and people who may never get the medical care and attention they so desperately needed. Suddenly my problems seemed small and insignificant.

Soon, Narvin was called to the desk. I was delighted to hear that all was well and that I had been prescribed a dose of antibiotics. By that time, it was half past twelve at night. Hungry and fatigued, we found comfort at the inn in central Pokhara where we had stayed the night before. It was a lovely place with a balcony overlooking a small garden at the front of the building. At night, a man would light an incense stick and ring a bell repeatedly, creating a calming atmosphere to end the day. Narvin explained that it was a contribution to his chosen God – a Hindu practice. The inn felt more than just a pit stop. It felt more like an oasis to clear my head from all worries and concerns. I felt safe and calm.

 

A blessing in disguise

The next morning, Narvin woke us up early to warn that my trekking permit would expire unless I tried to catch up with the expedition. A trekking permit allows you to venture up to high altitudes and use predefined trekking routes, such as the Annapurna Base Camp circuit. Our permits were sorted out by Nar and his team, but in order for them to be valid we had to spend at least 24 hours on a trek. Doing so would involve waking up at 5am the following morning and enduring a ten hour trek to even stand a chance of making up for the lost time.

Unfortunately, I was still too ill to even consider this so and so I made a difficult decision to stay in Pokhara. However, this turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. For the first time on that trip, I felt that I could take charge and do my own thing – to independently explore and to truly get a feel for Nepal. I suddenly had unrestricted access to the culture, the food and the people. I could visit nearby temples, caves and Tibetan settlements and gain a deeper appreciation for this incredibly beautiful nation and its people.

During my layover, I not only grew closer to the landscape, but also to Abbie and Narvin who I had nicknamed ‘Nib-Nab’. I learned a lot from him, bombarding him with questions about religion and the Nepalese way of life. We struck a deal on the number of questions that I could ask. For example, if I sang a song for him, I could ask him 10 questions.

My health dramatically improved and soon I was cycling and hiking to caves and temples. Like a fly on the wall, it was fun observing other tourists; how the Germans towered over the Nepali locals, how the Chinese dominated the streets of Nepal and how the Indians liked to sing in their paddle boats on the lake, with me occasionally joining in.

Tourism is a massive part in Nepal’s economy. The locals learn to speak English from the age of 3 and are now encouraged to learn Chinese languages, mostly to increase interaction with the huge influx of Chinese tourists. Due to tourism, the Nepalese are no strangers to ethnic diversity. However my braided hair seemed to attract a lot of attention. “Nice hair”, people would shout as I walked past them. I had pictures taken of me and video footage of my hair flapping in the wind. Older ladies would simply stare whilst bolder young girls would sneak up behind me and touch it. I didn’t mind. I grew to enjoy the attention though at first it felt very strange.

 

The long journey home

The expedition returned from their long and gruelling trek. Our time here was almost over. The thought of leaving was unbearable. On our return to Kathmandu, we enjoyed one final meal at The Rum Doodle, a ‘rite of passage’ type restaurant for trekkers, and set out the next day for the long journey home.

Nepal Pokhara Pre Earthquake

As our plane lifted off from Kathmandu, I reflected on my experiences; the people, the places and the culture. As we ascended into the clouds I felt as if I was leaving a piece of my heart behind. I felt a natural affinity with the people and hope one day to return. It’s amazing how quickly you can adapt to a country, where squat toilets and chlorinated water are just a part of life. Where your home is the holiday and the holiday becomes your home. Nepal beckons me back almost every day.

Nepal Pokhara Pre Earthquake

Where your home is the holiday and the holiday becomes your home. Click To Tweet

Since the series of earthquakes which laid waste to much of Nepal in the spring of 2015, my desire to return has only gotten stronger. A friend of mine who is still in touch with Nar learned that a friend of his had died right in front of his eyes in a landslide. Fortunately, everyone who we spent time with in Nepal is safe, but many lost friends and family. This beautiful country has seen devastation first hand and needs all the help that it can receive.

Please remember Nepal and all their struggles. If you choose to give money, be sure that it is through a genuine charity which direct access to Nepalese authorities.

Please remember Nepal and all their struggles. Click To Tweet

Have you been to Nepal since the earthquake in 2015? What was your experience like? We would love to hear your stories so please leave a comment below.

 

Co-Founders & Curators at HDYTI

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).