In May, I travelled to Nepal to participate in a volunteer program. I had no idea what to expect or how the program would impact my life. I went into the whole experience expecting very little. Starting out, I was terrified because I had to fly from Charlotte to Chicago to Abu Dhabi to Kathmandu completely alone. That trip took about 26 hours. Then, I stayed at a hotel that I found on TripAdvisor for one night. I never knew loneliness until I found myself alone at a hotel halfway across the world after an entire day of flying. It was completely dark when I arrived, the T.V. wouldn’t work, and my room was filled with foreign sounds of birds, dogs, and people speaking Nepali drifting in through my open window. I called my mom, my dad and stepmother, and my boyfriend on Facebook that night wishing I were back in the safety of my homeland than settled in Asia, afraid to even look out of the window. Culture shock was real. The following morning, I awoke around 3:00 AM because of jet lag, and read my book until I spotted dawn breaking through a slit in the curtains. Opening them wide, I beheld the beauty of the city. Flapping in the breeze were squares of red, yellow, blue, and white strung from a rooftop garden to another rooftop well below. Buddhist prayer flags are strung outside of homes and buildings in hopes of sending prayers for good luck each time the wind blows. Nepal is a flurry of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. These religions blend together permeating the very culture of Nepal. I saw crows flying and pigeons perching on the stoop below my window. I heard the clattering of dishes being cleaned, the barking of stray dogs, and the swatting of a stick on a dirty rug.
After being awake for about two hours, I was famished. I went downstairs to the lobby and I enjoyed an American style continental breakfast, complete with fruit, chocolate croissants, and thick bacon. After eating my fill, I set off a little before 7:00 AM to catch the tourist bus to Pokhara. The hotel staff told me to grab a cab to the bus stop because the walk would take too long and I would be left behind. So, I stepped outside, seeing the streets of Kathmandu in the daylight for the first time. Kathmandu is Nepal’s capital and largest city. Dusty, polluted, and heavily populated, Kathmandu is the tourist destination for trekkers and travellers alike. I was bombarded with taxi drivers looking for their first sale of the day, which made hailing a cab easy. At the bus stop, I hopped onto the first bus there, mostly because the driver grabbed for my bags and boasted about the free Wi-Fi, water, and air conditioning the bus offered. My journey from Kathmandu to Pokhara would take 6 hours. Pokhara is Nepal’s second largest city, but it is far different from the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, featuring a beautiful lake and laid back vibes. During the bus ride, I met a nice girl who just graduated high school and dreams of being a world traveller. The ride provided me with sights of rural life in Nepal. There were fields of rice and corn, huts with tin roofs held down by large rocks, women transporting bricks with woven baskets on their back held up by a cloth strap wrapped around the forehead, and families working the fields in the relentless heat of summer. The bus raced through the winding mountain roads, sometimes offering a horrifying view of the edge of a cliff. When turning a corner, the drivers honk their horns to warn anyone who may be on the other side. We stopped a few times to use the restrooms, which left me dismayed. I peered down at the squat toilets, which are just a hole in the ground, with disgust. It wasn’t just the lack of knowledge about how to use such a toilet, but it was also the smell of hot human excrement that made my stomach turn. Inevitably, I decided to hold it until my arrival. Once I arrived in the busy bus station in Pokhara, I hailed another cab to the hotel that the program recommended. The hotel was stunning, with a beautiful front courtyard featuring a fountain with a statue of Shiva, the Hindu god of gods, and a variety of pink, yellow, and purple flowers. The woman running the hotel is very sweet, only hiring girls who have come from difficult walks of life. She led me into the hotel and up a winding mahogany staircase to my room. The key she handed me looked like it came right out of the Victorian era. Opening the door, I dropped my luggage to the side of my room and immediately set out to explore the town. I walked to a nearby store, which like all of the other stores in Pokhara was an open stall inside of a building, to purchase some Nepali style pants. I chose were black baggy pants decorated with beige elephants. Then, I wandered along the lakeside passing by a stream of European hippies and trekkers fresh off the trails. Fewa Lake was large and deep blue, with green algae just below the surface. Local children were playing and swimming in the water, some trying to catch fish with their bare hands. No westerner should swim in the water because he or she would not fare well with the pollution from human waste and water buffalo scat. I found myself in a park next to the lake, where I saw cows frolicking and tourists playing Frisbee. Pokhara was already more my pace.
Later on, I went back to the hotel, changed into my new pants, and went out for dinner at an upscale café nearby with a friend I met at the hotel. I sat on the second floor balcony, overlooking the dark streets of Lakeside. People were happily sauntering to bars and restaurants, seeming to have no care in the world. I ordered the Indian chicken curry, savoring each bite. Next, we went for a drink at a reggae themed bar, where I ordered the buy one get one free mojito. The seats were just pillows on the floor, and the aura was more Jamaican than Nepali, but it was still a fun atmosphere. I returned to my hotel and slept restlessly awaiting the beginning of my volunteer program the next morning. When I awoke around 3:30 AM, I read for about three hours while listening to the song of pigeons and crows and the barking of stray dogs. Around 6:30, I walked to a nearby coffee shop and ordered a café latte. I sipped my steaming latte, tasting the sweet and milky coffee that reminded me of home. Locals and stray dogs began their morning, lazily strolling past the café. I returned to the hotel and sat down on the front porch, watching a crow search for food. I was offered breakfast, which I hungrily accepted. A smiling Nepali girl served me tea, juice, banana porridge, buttered bread, eggs, and roasted potatoes and peppers. I put a small dent into my breakfast, and went to get my luggage packed before all of the volunteers were to meet in the hotel lobby. I settled in with a book on the front porch, and shortly after, the program coordinators came to collect the volunteers. We all introduced ourselves, seven including the two coordinators. For the sake of anonymity, I will not name anyone. We dropped our luggage off at our new homestay. My new room had two beds, but my roommate wasn’t in the room at the moment. We had our orientation, learning the rules and regulations of the program, and then enjoyed lunch at a family restaurant. We shared deep fried Mo:Mo, a traditional Nepali dumpling, chow mein, fried rice, and fried cauliflower. Afterward, we returned back to the homestay, where I finally met my roommate, a fellow American with a familiarity that made it seem as though we had been friends all our lives. The homestay was an immaculate house owned by a family that was able to hold 20 people. With a stone patio, a heavy gate allowing for safety, a long wooden table that could fit the whole group in the dining room, and home-cooked meals provided by the lady of the house, the homestay was a blessing for a weary traveller like myself. After my first dinner of dal bhat, another traditional Nepali dish consisting of rice with lentil soup and vegetable curry, the newcomers and the seasoned volunteers all went out for welcome drinks. Gathered together with drinks, I finally knew that I would be making memories of a lifetime with these people, and I couldn’t have been more excited for the program to begin!