It was only after reading about Nepal being one of Asia’s most affordable places to travel and to volunteer, that I even bothered considering a visit. I must admit, the only thing i knew about Nepal was that it was somewhere near India – or is it in India?… Basically I didn’t have a clue. However, it didn’t take long before I found myself buying the one way flight on Skyscanner. Being the last stop in Asia before South America, I would like to say that I wanted to save the best for last.
I realised that Nepal had always been a hot spot for travelers, and rightly so. The adventure seekers that challenge climbing mount Everest, the soul searchers that look to awaken their spirits next to the birthplace of the Buddha, and the volunteers that sign up for experiences that are meaningful and affordable.
Initially, I was one of them too, hoping to land a job at a Buddhist monastery teaching English to the monks in exchange for food, bed, and some Buddha blessings. Admittingly, I did have some false sense of hope to maybe come close to attaining that so-called ‘enlightenment’, by standing next to monks all day and copying their practices in the few weeks that I had.
Perhaps I may have, or at least may have been able to step onto the right path if I had chosen to volunteer, or taken one of them spiritual retreats that many come to the country for. Lots of hippies, believers, open-minded and lost/curious travellers are here in Nepal, as well as the mountaineers and vocational adventurers that want to conquer the mountain and stand on top of the world. I too was curious to know more about the Buddhist way of life, as well as to challenge myself in hiking up to basecamp in -15°C.
However, little did I know that so many flocked to Nepal with the same idea, so many, that I soon realised that this was already a multimillion dollar industry. Almost every corner of the street had advertisements for volunteering, Buddhist retreats, trekking expeditions, like full on brochures and pamphlets almost like a shopping catalogue. Sure the people here need to make money, and they would naturally choose to run businesses that involve selling to rich tourists, volunteers and trekkers. But to have this many tour agencies and outdoor gear shops at every corner of Kathmandu, I couldn’t help but notice how desperate they are, or how hard life must be for them if they did not join this tourism business bandwagon.
I soon realised after talking with my trekking guide, that even for these entrepreneurs, their margins are relatively small, cos at least half of what I pay will go straight to the government, for permits, fees, taxes, and insurance. I was turned off to know how much government money are being spent on industrialising these activities, when they don’t even bother with adding streetlights, paved roads, and electricity for the people in the country.
Kathmandu airport was by far the most chaotic underdeveloped airport terminal that I’ve ever been in where I’ve spent an hour looking for my backpack that never came through the carousel. The taxi ride to the city was like being on one of those terminator rides from universal studios. The roads were barely paved, no streetlights, all you could see are dusty silhouettes of concrete buildings and shades of people and cars murking from the yellow mist of the headlight. I felt like I was in some kind of war-torn city, or at least as close to what I’d imagine Baghdad may look like based on CNN.
Our hotel looked great though, for $3 a night it was high above expectation. However that evening, there were no hot water. Oh yeah that’s right, the city’s electricity is rationed out with blackout schedules a few hours each day. Why? No idea. I guess the nation is so poor that their resources are scarce, or the government is up to no good… (probably the latter, cos who sells electricity to neighbouring countries when you don’t have enough for your own?).
Anyway, that was my first impression of Kathmandu, dusty, dead, and things weren’t as beautiful and zenful as I had initially thought. But as the sun came up, I began seeing some colours, and the city came to life. I can see people walking through the narrow streets dodging motorcycles and rickshaws between the endless rows of shops, bars and cafes. After a couple of hours exploring, I can see that the Nepalese people are beautiful, looks-wise and heart-wise, and it was also kinda cool to see the contrast of monks, stupas and temples standing next to outdoor gear shops and tour agencies.
By the time we sat down with Raj, the trekking guide/agency who was referred to us from a friend, we found ourselves hesitant to take up any of these advertised ‘tours’. We knew that we wanted to do the trek, and do some activities that would allow us to gain meaningful insights into the culture of Nepal, but something just wasn’t right. Raj must have felt that as we couldn’t make up our mind to which tours to do, which was probably why he later asked us if we were keen to do something different, and experience what he called ‘The Real Nepal’.
Raj Kumar Rai, aged 32, was born from a small village town called Waku, in the eastern remote side of Nepal, Solukhumbu district below Mount Everest. He had ran away, or fled his village when he was 15 years old to seek a brighter future in Kathmandu. With only the basic education his options were limited, but worked hard as a porter for several years until he was ready to start his own trekking business.
Long story short – Raj and his few friends whom all left the village, have now come together as adults to form what’s called the Waku Foundation that aims to provide medication, education, and financial aid for the village(s) that they fled from more than 10 years ago. This foundation is still in the planning stages, and nothing is concrete, but they have already scheduled a visit back to the village to spread the news and gather support from Waku’s surrounding schools and communities in the coming days. It was the first time in years for many of them to go back, let alone visit their families, and they asked us if we were keen to join this trip.
It wasn’t an easy decision, because this would mean that we would surely have to forego any sort of Buddha retreats, as well as volunteering because the journey would take approximately 2 weeks – which was half the time we had in Nepal, and the other half had to be reserved for climbing Mount Annapurna (there was no way that we would come to Nepal and not climb the Himalaya). Despite the tradeoff, we made the executive decision to go with them. We felt that this was a unique opportunity to experience an authentic Nepal, and what better way to see the country and do good deeds (or volunteering) than tagging along with real locals who have a real and meaningful story behind.
At 6am, the day of departure, we were picked up by Raj to meet the other board members of the Waku Foundation – Bhuwan Khaling Rai, Shankar Khaling Rai, and Bal Bahadur Khaling. All of them belong to the Rai caste group of the social stratification system in Nepal, an indigenous ethnolinguistic group that once ruled the valley as Kings for the longest period in history until they were defeated by a ruler called Sombanshi, and forced to move into the East. The Rai now only represent 3% of the population in Nepal but they’ve retained their own language to this day, own traditions and culture that seemed to be very important to them as I figured while listening to the story over the 14 hour jeep ride with bollywood music being played in the background.
We got off at a town called Salleri, Solukhumbu district where you can already see Mount Everest popping up in the background. Getting here was already a pain in the butt, literally, as the roads were unbearably bumpy throughout the entire ride. We spent a night at a family run hotel here and prepared ourselves for the next day which was apparently where the real journey was about to begin – a 3½ day 20km hike through the mountains at altitudes averaging 2500m.
Each of us had at least a 10kg backpack and the hike was tough. I thought my legs would fall off at some point along the way, but the views were absolutely breathtaking and they somehow always succeeded to convince me to keep going. Raj and friends were all experienced trekkers but even for them it wasn’t easy, and I can see that they were enjoying the views as much as we were.
Walk, sweat, take off jacket, walk, rest, wear jacket, walk, sweat, take off jacket, walk, rest, wear jacket… That was the way to go here. It’s freezing, but hot.
Each night, after 8-10 hours of hiking, we would bunk in at one of the village homes that are scattered along the way. They all have their own farms, or at least some chickens that roam around the back yard, and the boys of the family (or girls) would usually prepare dinner for us. That’s right, organic chicken curry, with rice and steamed veg, millet wine, and sometimes millet cake.
The dinner preparation starts off with burning off the feathers of a chicken that was running around just moments earlier – destined to be eaten today.
I remember just sitting there watching this kid, probably around the age of 18, who would casually break off the neck of a live chicken, pluck out the feathers, and burn the remains on the bonfire with his bare hands. He then proceeded to chop them up on the floor over a green plastic sheet, after preparing the rice that is cooking over the bonfire which he lit up in seconds with nothing more than a stone chisel.
Shankar, one of the board members of Waku Foundation who you see on the video below with a green jacket, makes a living as a full time trekking guide just like Raj, but he specialises as a trekking ‘cook’, who is someone that collects vegetables, herbs, and nuts along the trek and cooks lunch and dinner for his customers. Here you can see him helping the boy out with parts to leave out, so that he can make toasted chicken heart and liver as a side dish, He also started grinding away his secret stash of masala spices that he had collected along the way to enrich the flavour of the curry. He makes Bear Grylls seem normal.
Having a fireplace in the center of the house, is common in ALL households in this region of the valley. It is a typically Rai, the custom that hasn’t changed for centuries apparently. There is a roof on the fireplace that holds corn and other vegetables and seeds to dry roast, and the smoke emitted from the fire stays in the house, no chimneys or windows (which explains why everybody here coughs like a chain smoker). This commonplace is also the area where we sleep, coiled up together like human tetris surrounding the fireplace as heater, hay mats as mattresses. Surprisingly comfortable, and quite nice to sleep being munched up altogether, except for the loud snores that came out of everybody in the room. I felt happy that there were people in this world that snored louder than I do.
Breakfast is usually porridge, from leftover rice that we had for dinner, or a full on Dal Bhat if they were generous – consisting of rice, lentil soup, vegetable and occasionally chicken curry. This dish is renowned in Nepal as giving 24hrs of power, and it is pretty much what we eat everyday, everywhere, no matter where you are in Nepal. Oh, and you eat with your hands.
Toilets are usually non existent in this part of the valley, and if it did, it will be a simple hole that leads to god knows where, and it would be hard to hold your breath in there if you had to go for number two. I must say it felt quite liberating to utilise the natural toilet – out in the open where you can freely choose – that tree, or that tree. Sure it may sound disgusting, but what’s more disgusting is our flush-and-forget attitude, born out of ignorance by the convenience of modern living. If you think about it, we are the only specie on earth that don’t follow the natural cycle of compost, or the Natural Nitrogen Cycle that Earth so heavily depend on for it’s own survival. Most of our Nitrogen (aka SHIT) goes into the ocean instead of nutrifying crops, which depletes oxygen levels in the sea, slowly suffocating all marine life, causing ocean dead zones that are increasing ever so rapidly. I’m not saying that I will forever pee and shit in the forest from now on, but I believe if every country in the world were to co-invest in developing a global sewage system that works like the compost toilet that you see at Panya, the world may be able to turn itself around. Calling out to all Google science fair students, please do something about it. We need to turn this shit around.
Anyway, to get back to topic, this was the kind of setting that we were in for 3½ days. Absolutely raw and challenging, but rewarding and beautiful at the same time. I remember sitting on one of the peaks with my travel buddy Marcus, overlooking the snow capped mountains of Everest in the distant horizon with not a soul to be spotted, absolutely breathtaking. How I wished my family and friends were here to see this too, cos this view seriously deserves a larger audience.
The first leg of the journey was finally over as we ascended the hill to Sagarmartha Secondary School – Waku’s biggest school that hosted around 200 students. Here we were greeted like superstars, especially from the kids whom all probably never seen a foreigner before. The school principal called off the first hour of class to invite all teachers to join the meeting at his office. The seating arrangement was like that of a tribunal, where we sat facing the school staff directly across, and the principal on the judge’s seat in the middle. The atmosphere suddenly turned serious as the principal commenced the meeting. I had no idea what they all talked about, but it seemed like Raj and friends were successfully able to convince the school to stand in favour of the the Waku Foundation for support, symbolised by the scarf offerings that they started handing out to each member of the faculty. This scarf that they tie on their necks, is a form of blessing, apparently symbolising the act of ‘giving and receiving’, a universal karmic principle that the more you give, the more you receive. Then vice versa, they started giving us a scarf as well, returning the blessing back to us, as you see on the video below:
After I received the scarf on my neck, I felt like I am now obliged by the karmic principle to give something, otherwise bad things may happen… Even before this whole blessing ceremony began, the people looked at me as if I was some kind of important Japanese United Nations man who came to give something. This misunderstanding was exemplified when I handed over a soccer ball that I purchased on the way to give to the school as a gift – something that I casually thought of during the hike to get here, as it ended up becoming like a scene from a United Nations peace treaty agreement as I stood in the middle of the room with one hand on the ball, and the other shaking the principal’s hand as we posed for a photo..
I wished I had a copy of this photo… but you can imagine what it was like…
One by one, day after day, we visited all the 7 schools in the region, as well as the village chiefs and village store-owners and the likes, anyone that had some level of power and influence to support the Waku Foundation in the region. The idea was to have a shared communal bank pool that people in the region could all rely on at times in need, like when shit hit the fan for medical emergencies and accidents, or repairs and restorations of homes and farms etc. Raj hopes that this pool could eventually become something like a central banking system to provide families with loans, to send their kids to Kathmandu for education etc, as well as ongoing development of infrastructure in the region.
To give you an idea of the infrastructure at Waku, there are absolutely no electricity, thus obviously no street lights, let alone proper roads to facilitate vehicle access to and from the region. The only way to get in and out is by foot (which takes 3½ days to Salleri – the closest town where they can make any kind of goods exchange whatsoever). This route is not only far, but dangerous and hard. Coming here with just 10kgs was tough, imagine if you had to transport goods for the whole village. There are no hospitals, no doctors, no equipments and amenities to perform any kind of medical treatment. Water comes from mountain streams, unfiltered and often contaminated. Schools are understaffed and lack quality. Even if a kid was fortunate enough to leave the village for employment in the city, these children don’t stand a chance competing with city graduates. You can understand why Raj, Bhuwan, Bal and Shankar all fled the village when they were only teenagers. They all knew that their future was bleak, if remained in Waku.
The project of Waku Foundation is still not concrete, and things are still up in the air. Raj and friends are still thinking of new ideas and strategies to best help the people in the region, all by themselves because the government don’t do shit. At the moment, Raj sponsors 12 children in Waku, providing support for basic needs like food, education, and clothes, all while having a family of his own back in Kathmandu. His trekking business is not profitable enough to sustain further sponsorship, but hopes that one day every kid in the region could have the same opportunity like he did, or as the city kids, equipped with at least the bare essentials to shape his/her own future.
Shankar even donated his large plot of land to the government, with hopes that they will agree to construct a hospital on it, or a medical centre that could provide some form of healthcare to the village. They all know how important this is, especially since Bhuwan had lost his sister due to a kidney failure a few years ago, something that could have been treated if there was proper medical attention nearby.
As we continued on our journey from village to village, we visited each of the board member’s families, and it was heartwarming to witness them reunite. I don’t know exactly how long it had been for some of them, but it was clear that their parents missed them very much, you could almost see tears in their eyes, and how proud they are to see their sons come back, all grown up and taking responsibility to give back to their community.
The meetings were all successfully concluded, Raj and friends were able to achieve what they set out to achieve, or at least the first phase – to gain the trust and financial support from schools and key influencers to kick off this project. The real hard work starts now, and they have only opened the first door of many to make this project a reality, but I am happy to be involved and see that their visions are slowly taking shape. I made a promise to start a crowdfunding website to raise funds for Waku Foundation when the project is more concrete, but if any of you would like to get involved, or want more information please shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After spending over 300hrs with these amazing people in this journey, I feel like I have learnt yet another important life lesson, apart from the obvious not to take things for granted. That is – to have the desire and courage to take the first step in making a difference for yourself or others no matter how big or small. Just like them, we can all make a choice, and take action to improve whatever situation we’re in. Whether that’s to leave your village at 15 years old, or choosing to take a piano lessons at 30 years old, or to quit your job at 40 to pursue a different career. It’s not about taking risks and hoping for the best, it’s about moulding your own future to the way YOU want, and the only way you can do that is to take action yourself. We all have the ability to do that no matter how small the first step is. The scenery will change as long as you keep walking, and time will tick regardless of you lazing around, and we all know that the worst regret in life is to not have done something in the past. This learning isn’t anything new, and it’s fairly common sense, but how many of us are already plateauing in our mundane daily lives, making up excuses for not taking that first step to change something, when you know you should.
Even now as I travel, I still make up excuses. This is my 3rd night in the same hostel in Cuenca, where I’ve been doing absolutely nothing. The room is good, internet is good, food is good, and it’s been raining everyday and I don’t want to get wet as I cross the border into Peru. Things are comfortable and peaceful here so “I’ll leave later”. This may be a bad example but the concept is still the same. What if the rain never stops?
Before I waste any more days and start regretting later, I will leave first thing tomorrow morning, rain or shine.
Oh by the way, the trek to Annapurna Basecamp was amazing. This probably deserves a write up of its own, but I think
‘…I’ll do that later…’