After the recent earthquakes to affect Nepal you may (like us) have an image of Nepal as being flattened, containing piles of rubble and with many now homeless, having also lost loved ones. However, being here in Kathmandu, working alongside Voluntary Projects Overseas (VPO) and their in-country team, we have quickly found this not to be the case. The longer this image remains in the minds of those outside the area, the longer it will take for Nepal to get back on its feet, especially with regard to its volunteer programs which are currently feeling the effects of the global media portrayal.
On arrival in Kathmandu we did not know what to expect. Those we had spoken to in England had agreed that it would be really difficult to see a place in ruins, having been demolished by two large earthquakes earlier this year. We really were unsure of how we would cope meeting people who were still trying to piece a life back together. All we had were the images portrayed by the media of rubble every where, people being pulled from buildings as well as the reports of many now dead, homeless, childless or without parents.
However, now here, we couldn’t have got it more wrong. It was completely the opposite of what we were expecting. The buildings are still erect and no more demolished than any other still developing country. There are a few piles of bricks but whether they are from any earthquake-related destruction is unclear as an equally acceptable explanation could just be that they are there for general on-going construction. The people seemed to be happily getting on with their lives with families visible together and the only sign of homelessness being a collection of tents containing a few that had been displaced due to damage to their homes.
Delving a little deeper
During our orientation we spoke about the situation with Asim who is the founder of Info Nepal and the in-country coordinator for both VPO (who we are here with) and PMGY (who we are volunteering with later on during our RTW trip). He told us that the number of volunteers coming to Nepal had really dropped off and it was making it very difficult to support some of the projects. He had believed that following the earthquake there would be many more people coming to help and that he would finally get construction finished on new children centres, one of their core projects. However, this has unfortunately not been the case.
He had received calls asking who to send money to but this was not the kind of support required. Even those interested in coming were asking if there would be anywhere for them to sleep so clearly the media had done too good a job of portraying what it was like in those early days following the quake, (great for collecting donations) but nothing had been done to clarify the current situation. Asim estimated that there are around 150 000 houses in central Kathmandu but said that only around 50 had been reported as damaged. In a square kilometre of his homestay (where volunteers will stay before placement for their in-country orientation) only one had any earthquake-related damage.
With over 200 volunteers recorded for 2014, there have yet to be 100 for the current year (2015), yet there are still 40 projects supported by Asim and his team that desperately require people to return to Nepal and to make that positive difference. Only one area (Langtang) has been affected (containing a few projects) as the road that would allow volunteers to reach there is currently awaiting repair (due to the earthquake). Once repaired (due for completion by December 2015), the team are looking to resume these projects starting in the new year (2016).
As we walked through the streets of Kathmandu there were noticeably more Westerners than we had seen on some of our previous trips (mainly within China). However, there didn’t seem to be the number of tourists/travellers that the place was set up for. The cafes/restaurants seemed empty, the souvenir shops weren’t getting much passing trade and no-one was gathered outside the booking offices for local/national tours. Even in our homestay there were only a maximum of four (one left last night) when there can be as many as ten.
We headed to a popular tourist spot: the UNESCO heritage site that is Pashupatinath Temple. As we walked around the thought occurred that we might go the whole visit as the only Westerners until we spotted a group of four Europeans. That was it. Usually this would be a much more popular spot – they even have a separate toilet block for tourists!
Sellers of souvenirs looked bored, their eyes lighting up for a second as they saw us coming, but quickly extinguished as we gave them the wave that indicated we would not be stopping to look or buy. Only a group of ‘holy men’ benefited as we gave them a small fee to take photos with them – something tourists would often line-up to do. Luckily we had a guide as otherwise we would be prime targets for those hoping to enlighten the tourists with information (which may or may not be true we were warned), acting as a unofficial guide in the hope to make a little money.
Visiting a project in Kathmandu
We were fortunate to head out to one of the projects in Kathmandu: the Khawalung Tashi Choeling Monastery. It is an impressive building on arrival – alive with colours which continues on both ceiling and walls throughout the interior. We were shown the classrooms, the prayer hall and the dining hall. Trainee monks hid from us behind their robes or the curtains that adorned the walls as we walked round and only a few brave monks were happy to be photographed and spoken to by our group (consisting of Anthony & I, as well as our guide and driver). As we stood on the top most point surveying a magical view of the local community in front of a mountainous backdrop clouded in mist we asked to meet current volunteers. Unfortunately this was not possible as although this was a popular project previously and the monastery were happy to take on quite a few volunteers, the earthquake had changed all that. It seems a shame as it turned out to be a unique project offering the chance to not only teach the monks for a few hours each day but also to live amongst them. This meant you would live on-site, eat with them in the dining hall and could even pray with them with meditation being one of the many ways to spend free time.
On first glance it seems that Nepal is a warm and welcoming country which does rely heavily on tourism as well as the support provided by volunteers. Unfortunately, the earthquake put a stop to the numbers that usually arrived here and to the good work done on projects. People here are starting to worry about whether they will survive long enough to see the return of the tourists and the volunteers or whether some businesses and projects may need to close. Let’s hope this is only a small blip that will soon be a part of Nepal’s history, just like the earthquakes.
We are currently exploring the opportunities for volunteering in Nepal thanks to the support of VPO and will be blogging and vlogging about the projects, the people and the country throughout our time here. By doing so, we hope to encourage others to come to Nepal and make a difference themselves in a sustainable and appropriate way.