A Guest post from John O’Connell: This story begins in North Eastern Thailand near a place called Nong khai on the Thai – Laos border, which is ironically where I am writing this story from now.
In April 2012, on the advice of a friend, I went to work at Sarnelli house, an orphanage in North Eastern Thailand for children with H.I.V. There we taught the children English and generally kept them entertained and content. This experience instantly changed my life and gave it some much needed direction. From that moment on I knew I wanted to do charitable work, I just didn’t know what or where!
And so to Nepal
I could tell by Nelly’s drive, commitment and passion for Nepal that she would make a success of her organisation. Fate had just dealt me a top drawer hand and I wasn’t about to waste it! Even more so considering that me and my friend Phil only went to Ko Tao on the flip of a coin, my how things could have been different!
Nepally Dream was in its infancy, and in October 2012 it was to hold its first event. It was to be a concert to raise funds for the organisation and was to take place in the South of France and Nelly suggested I fly over from my home in Bolton ( North West England ) to attend the event. Thanks to Nelly’s hard work the event was a huge success.
We discussed the details and to which area I was to be posted and for how long and we both agreed that 6 months in Thulopatal in the remote Dolakha district in the Eastern hills would be the best place for me to go. On my return to the U.K I booked my flight immediately, now all I had to do was wait!
The long awaited day ( 6th December ) finally arrived. To say I was a little apprehensive would have been an understatement, I was quietly terrified! I had never been away from home for so long, I had never been to Nepal and I simply didn’t know what to expect, but I was excited, I was doing something I really wanted to do, something worthwhile!
On my arrival in Nepal, I was greeted at the airport with the typical flowers and kata ( blessed scarf ) by Pradeep Tamang. I didn’t know it then but Pradeep was to become my best friend and my bai ( little brother ), he was later to help me with so much from little things such as getting around from place to place and more important things such as projects for the village.
The first 2 or 3 days were spent in the comfort of Kathmandu’s Thamel district ( the tourist area of the city ), a good way to relax and gather my thoughts I suppose. Then off, to real Nepal.
The bus journey ( around 9 hours from Kathmandu ) was all I had expected, and then some.
Beautiful landscapes, remote villages and amazing people made the first 8 hours seem like 3!
And then Terror
But then there was the last hour, leaving the last town before the village ( Mainapokhari ) the road climbs relentlessly up through the Sherpa village of Yasa to Thulopatal, clinging to cliffs while the 40 year old bus bounces up and down and struggles for grip on a road 4×4 enthusiasts in the West wouldn’t dream of attempting, I simply couldn’t believe we were driving up it in a 40 year old bus!
After an hour of sheer terror we reached our destination. The bus pulled up at Laramane, the gateway to the village. I was a little shocked by just how remote it was and how little was there ( soon I was to find this was where we went for our supplies! ) but at the same time I was awestruck by the scenery and humbled by both the warmth and hardiness of the people.
After being greeted by the villagers and having a swift drink or two in the local watering hole I had a new confidence, I felt at home, I was made to feel at home! As we walked the 40 minutes to the house the scenery was breathtaking, both of the Himalayas and of the local people going about their everyday business and carrying impossibly heavy loads up the terraced hills.
My new family
I was here, at my home for the next 6 months, Salle village, Thulopatal where Govinda, Dhaka, Pradeep, Sashi, Anju, Sanju and Sonny were to become my family.
The next day Govinda and Pradeep escorted me to ‘Shree Thulopatal higher secondary school’ ( strangely named as the children range from 3 to 18 years old ), this was to be my workplace for the next 6 months, teaching English and occasionally geography to classes 1,3,5,6,7 and 8.
What a welcome!!!
The welcome at the school, oh the welcome! Nobody can do a welcome like the Nepalese! Literally hundreds of flowers and scarves until I couldn’t fit any more around my neck, then hundreds more, from every student, every teacher and more people besides, each one delivered with the traditional “Namaste” greeting with hand clasped together in a prayer like position.
If I didn’t feel comfortable before, I certainly did now! I knew how excited the villagers were to have me there, I was the first volunteer at their school, and they intended to make sure I enjoyed every minute of my stay, and I did!
Christmas in the Himalayas
The first weeks passed blissfully by, each day meeting new people, learning new things and becoming more and more comfortable with my surroundings, also sound in the knowledge that two of my best friends from home were coming to spend Christmas and new year in Nepal.
Spending the festive period with my friends and buoyed by bungee jumping and feeling refreshed I got back to the school and back to business.
Before leaving for Nepal I had organised a fund raising event at home, my thoughts were to leave the money in the bank and once in Nepal I would find the best way to spend it. After working in the school for around 2 months and witnessing the extraordinary resilience of both the students and the teachers, I knew what I wanted to do with the money.
Funds to help the school
It wasn’t much, nowhere near enough! But the school was, and still is chronically under funded, so the money was to go the school for whatever they needed most. The determination of everybody there would ensure it would be well spent.
Some of the children had a 6 hour round trip to school, this trip was made 6 days a week, with no fuss or complaints, more than this it was made with a feeling of gratefulness that they had the opportunity to go to school at all!
Teaching was a breeze, the kids were hard working , well behaved, very respectful and learned quickly.
By this stage I had realised that I had to be more careful with my money, so beer had to be replaced by raaksi ( or iraak in Tamang ) a rice or millet based local fortified wine, very cheap and very strong.
Tamang Culture embraced
Different to many ethnic groups in Nepal the Tamang eat meat and drink alcohol freely. They are a mountain people of Buddhist religion mixed with shamanism, unlike their Hindu counterparts the women are treated well and there are few barriers in terms of what you can or can’t do.
Tamang people like a drink whether it be irak, ji ( chang in Nepali ) the primary form of raaksi with a pleasant bitter taste or on special occasions ( for those lucky enough ) beer. Iraak and ji are home-made in many households and are different each time. Tamang people, like most Nepali’s are deeply religious and this is shown in everyday life, in both their rituals and habits.
Lamas and Shamans
By this time (February) I was known by everyone in the village, had many friends and even got to witness lamas and shamans at work in local homes, a fascinating experience never to be forgotten, and unseen by all but a lucky few westerners. The shamans get very drunk and high and run through open fires dancing and chanting to rhythmic drum beats and sacrifice animals.
For the visit of one shaman we had to make 12 jungle animals out of mud for an offering, this shaman was called by a family whose mother was sick and many people from the village, including small children were present for the occasion, the woman is well now.
My Nepali father Govinda Tamang has a trekking business based in Kathmandu called Mt. Para Trekking and at the beginning of March he had a party of 22 German people coming to do the Kali Gandaki trek around the Annapurna region of Nepal.
At first I was not sure if I was physically capable of this, but 3 months living above 2000 metres stood me in good stead. The trek was the most unbelievable experience, the group were friendly and the staff, all from the village were already my good friends. The scenery and the nights in the lodges were never to be forgotten!
Back in the village I wanted to give something back. Many of the poorest children at the school had no uniforms, so I asked one of the teachers to make me a list of all the students who needed a uniform and after a successful appeal on facebook and with the help of my family and closest friends back home the village tailor was at work.
After this, and during one of my many deep conversations with Govinda, I heard of the villages biggest problem; the lack of adequate, accessible healthcare for the village and beyond; and where it was available, for many it was unaffordable.
The infant mortality rate in the district is 5% ( meaning 1 in 20 children die before their 5th birthday )
So we set to work on researching everything we needed in order to write a proposal seeking funding for a hospital in the village, which is ongoing.
Our organisation, A MUST FOR Dholaka ( accessible medicine, understanding and sustainable treatment for Dholaka ) aims to raise funds and promote awareness of the plight of the local people and especially the disabled community.
My good friend Khrishna, who lives in Charikot, the district capital, is disabled and in a wheelchair due to an accident 12 years ago. He highlighted to me the lack of provisions and facilities for the disabled within the district.
The disabled community are inspirational, they all live together in small wooden shacks, and help each other out all the time.
Khrishna, who is a member of the districts disabled society has even set up a computer centre in his make shift shack for the whole community to use.
Society, Weddings and a Birthday
The next few weeks and months saw blissful days at school, great nights at many different houses, 7 weddings locally and more work on the proposal. Tamang weddings are great, traditional, authentic affairs, with many customs, food, drink and dancing and I was lucky enough to be invited to 7 of them. Some of these weddings were in neighbouring villages and we walked to them from Salle village around 200 strong, men, women and children, an amazing experience!
I was lucky enough to experience my 30th birthday in Thulopatal, in late April. Despite the weather, the villagers turned up in their droves, brought gifts, danced in the rain and even managed to bake me a cake without an oven! Govinda (my Nepali father) provided a goat and it was enjoyed with 128 bottles of local iraak, a truly special day, made all the better by Bose (a great friend of mine) slapping cake in people’s faces, telling them it was an English custom!
The time was coming when I had to leave Thulopatal and the Tamang people and my leaving was just as special as my welcome, although much more emotional. A party was held at the school and many tears were shed both from the villagers and myself.
I cannot wait for my return in January to continue what we have started and to be reunited with my Tamang brothers and sisters.
Lots to learn
- They have hunger, but no greed.
- They have need, but no selfishness.
- They have pride, but no envy
- They have courage, but are not viscous.
- They have vision, but are not calculated.
- And above all, even when they have so little, they always have a smile!
John has been an absolute credit to travellers and volunteers alike, has adapted to a tough regime in Nepal and made fantastic long term friends. There are more pictures from the village in the Thulopatal Gallery on this site and you could read what John has to say about volunteering in his response to another post Volunteering Abroad – A Debate. Take a look and see if you have anything further to add…it will be welcome. Equally, if you have a similar enlightening experience which you would like to recount then just contact me and we can include it here on LIVEFREEDIETRAVELLING.