Bouncing around in the tractor, I narrowly escaped unconsciousness as my head threatened impact with the metal frame holding up the canopy ‘protecting’ us from the elements. I exchanged smiles with my fellow Rotarians, belying the discomfort and fear we were feeling. What had led us to this situation and was it all worth it?
Exactly 5 years previously, I had trekked to Everest Base Camp, raising money for RP Fighting Blindness. It was a profound experience in a wonderful country – the beautiful Himalayan mountain range, the rich culture and the humbleness and welcome of the Nepalese people. Following the news of the devastating 2015 earthquake, Maidenhead Bridge Rotary Club (MBRC) members (many of whom also had personal connections to Nepal) were committed to finding a sustainable project to help in some small way.
The power of Rotary
Our club connected with Faringdon Rotary (FRC), who already had links with Kopundol Rotary (KRC) in Kathmandu. I joined Gordon and Bjorn from FRC on a trip to Nepal in October 2017. Maheswor from KRC, who has been leading on school reconstruction projects, is also a tour operator and pulled together a packed programme for our 2 week stay.
We received a warm welcome at the KRC meeting. It began formally with a silence for peace and a recap of the Rotary 4 way test: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? The club membership consists mainly of male professionals. One member commented that they were surprised to see a lady Rotarian!
FRC spoke of partnerships, projects and presentations. I winged a short and sweet introduction on our club culture and what had brought MBRC to Nepal. I gave the President a gift from our club – a desk block with photographs of iconic places in Maidenhead, including the Brunel Bridge.
Demographics and formalities aside all 3 clubs were able to demonstrate that we are working towards the same goal. I can honestly say that by the end of the 2 weeks a strong bond formed between the clubs and friendships were forged.
Our trip coincided with Tihar – the Festival of Lights. A profusion of colour, candles, lights, music and dancing emanated from every corner of the city. Dogs are celebrated on one of the days and garlands adorned their necks as they slept in the warm smoggy streets of Kathmandu.
We were invited into Maheswor’s home and enjoyed a traditional Newari meal. We sat on the floor and ate with our hands. The ceremony culminated in blessings from Maheswor’s wife. Rotaract performed traditional songs and dances, before dragging the unsuspecting audience to partake in the revelries – much to my embarrassment as I don’t seem to have been gifted with a sense of rhythm!
Bhai Tika falls on the last day of the Tihar festival - the celebration of brothers - I sent mine a simple text message, as I reflected on the symbolic importance of the day.
HORAC Children's Home
We met Tej, the Director of HORAC Children's Home in the gardens of the Summit Hotel (our home for a week) on the day we arrived. I hadn’t even had the chance to unpack my mosquito repellent and was consequently bitten all over! Tej, an orphan himself, now runs the home with compassion, dedication and a strong vision for the future. He explained that the 32 children have come from Western Nepal and have been orphaned by war, disaster or given up by their families. London RC and Faringdon RC currently provide annual grants supporting with education.
Later in the week, we visited the home and were treated to performances of singing and dancing by the talented children. It was evident how hard they had worked and they took pride in showing us around the home. We met with Tej again and I asked about non-financial support. We will be discussing ways we might be able to help via our ‘Pimp my Community’ scheme. Watch this space. More information on HORAC can be found here: www.horac.org
Habitat for Humanity Site visit
In 2012 a team from Faringdon Rotary were part of a Humanity for Habitat project. Bjorn and I travelled to the site in Dhulikel to see how the houses built had fared after the earthquake. The results were shocking, with only 2 or 3 of the 40 houses remaining. Bjorn is following up with Habitat.
Opening of Shree Tara School
Faringdon RC was a major donor in 2015/16 for the reconstruction of the main classroom block, which had been badly damaged in the earthquake. We were greeted by the teachers and children with garlands and prayer scarves. I was whisked away by some children to see their classrooms and I wrote my name and Namaste (greetings) somewhat illegibly on the white board. They all wanted individual photographs with me, for which the Kopundol RC President’s daughter kindly obliged. I wasn’t AWOL for too long as I managed to catch up with the others in time for the formal presentations.
Visit to Shree Ratna School
We visited Shree Ratna School, which was undergoing reconstruction and had been supported by the Winchester Nepalese Community. A new computer lab funded by ‘My Nepal’ had been installed. A proposal for equipping a science lab has now been received but we have decided to concentrate our efforts on one project – Saurpani.
Saurpani Primary School
So back to that tractor…….. Saurpani is high in the Gorkha hills and for many the journey would be insurmountable. We began by car and then transferred to a 4 wheel drive truck as we negotiated off road. There came a point where we had to abandon the vehicles and trek on foot. As I panted and sweated up the hill, I thought back to 5 years earlier when I last trekked in Nepal and realised that to maintain the same level of fitness, you actually need to continue exercising!
After about an hour or so, we came across a man with a tractor. After some negotiating by our Nepalese hosts, we found 4 of us, plus driver, squeezed into the front section, with others standing behind on the trailer. I am pleased to say we eventually reached our destination.
Two lines of children greeted us, pressing small marigold flowers into our hands, which we clasped together saying Namaste (also thank you). We surveyed the school and met with the school management team. Two buildings were completely destroyed in the earthquake. The school has 160 students, although 200 before the earthquake – many have moved out to the city centres for their education. There were a number of temporary learning classrooms that had been erected by social organisations. One building was being rebuilt with government funding and the school are now requesting funding for a 3 room building. At a recent club meeting, we agreed to put £1000, already raised and being held by KRC, towards this project.
Exploring the spiritual
My guide book said if you ask a Nepalese person if they are Hindu or Buddhist they will answer ‘yes’ and this was proved correct when we asked one of our drivers that very question. Both religions appeared to sit comfortably alongside each other.
In Lumbini we visited Buddha’s birthplace and in Kathmandu visited the Buddhist Stupa at Budnanath (now completely refurbished after the earthquake, with money coming from the Buddhist community). We had an audience with a monk at a monastery, having been advised by our guide that the monks sitting outside Buddha’s birthplace were “fake monks” – attempting to get money from unsuspecting tourists.
I was incredibly saddened to see the earthquake damage in Kathmandu. Reconstruction is slow with much of the funding in Durbar Square coming from the US and China. Tourists that had filled the market 5 years ago remained elusive. However, we were told that tourism is beginning to pick up again from this year.
The roads and infrastructure have also paid the price, which exacerbates the already dangerous driving conditions that I remembered. Cars, motorbikes and people vie for position – undertaking, overtaking, swerving to avoid damage in the roads, whilst invariably speaking on mobile phones. We experienced a few near misses with a small child and a dog running out in front of the car; road rage and minor altercations.
Pollution is prevalent not only in the cities but I even saw piles of plastic bottles and other rubbish in Chitwan National Park. Given the big task that Nepal has ahead in rebuilding, I fear that environmental issues are at the bottom of the agenda. But amongst the rubble, the pollution, the congestion – there lies a beautiful country with the resilient Nepalese people at its heart.
Village tours – voyeurism?
I battled with the concept of village tours and their sustainability. We walked through a Gurung village and also visited a Tibetan refugee camp. The benefits feel more in favour of the tourist rather than the villagers. Taking photos feels invasive but usually comes at an expected price. I asked our guide what the villagers think of the tours and how it benefits them – he couldn’t really give me a satisfactory explanation. It of course benefits the tour guides which in some way is helping the economy. I certainly felt more informed about other people’s ways of life and where there was more interaction with the villagers it felt less intrusive. However, this interaction has to be managed carefully and I feel that is where a responsible tour guide should educate the visitors prior to a visit and any programmes/tours devised in consultation with the community.
Elephant riding ethics
Whilst I am on my soap box – another ethical dilemma presented itself on our trip – to ride an elephant at Chitwan National Park or not. I had read before I went that many tour operators are banning elephant rides from their tours due to the inhumane ways in which they are treated. The flipside is that they bring in money. I decided to go ahead with the ride in order to make my own informed view.
I witnessed first-hand the elephants chained up – a baby elephant struggling to reach its mother for milk and another rocking back and forward, clearly distressed. We crammed 4 people into a contraption which sat on the elephants back and the mahout sat on the elephant’s neck. The neck is the place where you should sit on an elephant but the back causes stress. I was on an elephant with 3 strangers, who moved about every time there was wildlife to photograph. One alleged advantage of riding an elephant is that you are more likely to come across a tiger as it would not be disturbed by an elephant but would be by a jeep. However the time of day and the short routes taken negate any chances of spotting the rare Bengal tiger.
My conclusion is that I would not do this again – it felt more like a ride for the sake of an elephant ride rather than to enhance a wildlife experience. Some tour operators now allow rides in Chitwan National Park because of the economic benefits that bring in conservation money for other endangered species, such as the tiger. If rides are to continue, I believe much more needs to be done to ensure the elephants are treated in a humane manner. Alternative activities and revenue streams could also be looked into.
I feel very privileged to have spent such an incredible time in Nepal with great companions. We were immersed in the culture and realities of living. A memorable experience.
I will be joining FRC on 24th January at their meeting, where Gordon and Bjorn will be doing a presentation to their club. FRC will join us at our meeting on Sunday 4th February where we will give another talk.
A group of us are partaking in the Langley and Iver Rotary Moonraker Challenge in March to help raise more funds for the Saurpani Primary School project. If you would like to sponsor the team, please get in touch.
In answer to my earlier question – ‘was it worth it?’ If we can raise the necessary funds then I would say that the answer is most definitely yes.
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