My lessons from a classroom in Nepal.

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To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity.          Douglas Adams 

 What is Grace? G-ive of yourself, R-elease the love from within, A-sk nothing in return, C- ompassion shows love, E-njoy your salvation. Calvin Dillard

I was truly honoured to have the opportunity to visit the Khangandra New Life School for handicapped and orphan children while in Kathmandu recently.  My thoughts wander to the children and teachers often now, wondering how they are in the wake of the devastating earthquake.

I accompanied a group of friends led by three Aussies who, having fallen in love with Nepal and her people,  chose to  give something back by raising money for the school to improve facilities for the children. We strangers from another land were so very warmly and generously welcomed one would think we were rock stars or royalty come to visit.

Our van, on entering the drive, was flanked by excited children, who had given up a day off school to meet us. The children quickly formed orderly lines and sang a rich and warming folk song. We reciprocated with a rendition of Advance Australia Fair and were warmly applauded for our efforts.

After each of us were individually welcomed with a kata (blessing scarf) and posy, crafted from flowers and foliage within the grounds, we were ushered inside, out of the sun, and offered sweet milk tea ( a real Nepalese treat).

Our hosts, the Headmaster and teachers, each introduced themselves and shared their vision for the school and its pupils. A vision made possible by the funding my friends had provided.  You see, Khangandra school receives no government funding and relies solely on donations.  Several times I teared up listening to the grand dreams these amazing teachers held for their young charges. Grand not so much in western terms but grand considering the adversity these young people face with regard to distance, poverty and disability.

The school facilities are humble to say the least. Scanty, bare bones, dire even. The classrooms are small. On the day we visited there were 80 children in attendance so there were about 20 students in each classroom. That’s pretty comfortable until you realise there are 300 students enrolled. If they all attended, these dark, cramped classrooms would be terribly overcrowded.  The library was closed due to ill repair. The ceiling and walls were not just flaking but literally disintegrating. The playground was merely a dust bowl with a slide but it offered great joy to the children who have an incredible innocence and zest for life.

The money my friends and others have donated enabled the school to deliver safe drinking water to the children and improved the sanitation of the toilet facilities. Services and facilities I take for granted living here in Australia. Again, I cried.

Oh course, there is always more to be done and plans are underway for major improvements. Perhaps these plans will be bought forward as a result of damage caused by the earthquake.

The welcome we received was so unexpectedly warm. The kindness and unconditional acceptance so very humbling that I began to feel shame. I began to question my integrity. You see, many, many times I have been asked to host visitors in my workplace and more than once I’ve grumbled. More than once I’ve believed myself to be “too busy”. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been rude to my guests but my actions haven’t always come freely and with grace.

Watching those children and their teachers in their tiny classrooms and seeing their incredible energy and love of life, it dawned on me, not for the first time, that we don’t need stuff, we don’t need lots of things to make us happy.  Here were people with very little who sang for us, played and conversed with us and who showed a great interest in us. They were genuine and authentic.  They were happy with their lot.

It became clear to me that it’s the ‘wanting more’ or something else that erodes true happiness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t aim high but accepting what is, right now, can liberate us from the bonds that tie our minds and hearts in knots.

What a wake up call I got that day in that tiny school in Kathmandu. I realised there are times when I need to forget the hustle and bustle and honour others by being totally present and giving freely of my time, my knowledge and myself. I can’t see myself presenting anyone with a posy of flowers, a hearty rendition of the national anthem or a scarf anytime soon but I can honour them with an open mind and a warm heart.

To serve and honour another is not beneath us, it does not belittle us, it grows connections, it deepens our humanity, it enriches others and it enriches us in the process.

In honour of my Neplaese colleagues,

Shannyn

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A bittersweet return from Nepal.

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I flew home on the wings of love, support and prayers from family and friends.

Leaving Nepal is bittersweet. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be back on Australian soil. Yet, my safety and my comfort are rubbing against my sadness for the Nepalese people left behind, some of whom I got to know well in my short time there. Knowing my house is safe when their villages have been destroyed; knowing my guide stayed and supported our little trekking group when his family were in Kathmandu and his mother’s house had been damaged fill me with deep respect and sadness for him and all locals.

At another time I will share the beauty of the Khumbu Valley trek I experienced but right now that is overshadowed by the tragedy and chaos an earthquake left behind.

When the earthquake hit on the 25th April I was sitting in a little tea house, on the edge of a cliff, with four other trekkers.  We ran from the building with locals to that odd feeling of surfing on flat ground. Buildings shook, rocks dislodged, dogs barked, children cried and women wailed.  It was surreal. It was my second visit to Nepal and my second earthquake. I was shaken.

Right away we knew it had been a big quake. Our guide predicted a 7 or 8, later confirmed as a 7.8.  We gingerly and silently continued toward Lukla, our destination, unaware of the damage and destruction caused. Villagers gathered in fields, no one was in their dwelling and an eerie silence fell across the countryside.

After arriving in Lukla, our destination, we discovered, via limited internet access over the next several hours, the extent and wide-spread nature of the damage.  On edge and shaken we decided not to avail ourselves of the second story room provided but to set up camp in the lodge dining room with easy access to an external door. Little did we realise just how much we’d need that access.

Over the next two days we ran, often in the middle of the night, from the building when after shocks hit. This wasn’t something I had experienced before. Initially the shocks seemed to decrease in size but a couple of big ones really threw us on a slippery slope of adrenaline. Averaging in the mid to low fours most after shocks were minimal though two, a 5.6 and a 6.1 had us reeling again. We dozed fully clothed and decked out in wet weather gear for nocturnal evacuations.

The villagers were unsettled. The structure of several buildings, including the hospital, were compromised in the initial quake and then further damaged occurred in the aftershocks. The lodge owners refused to take more trekkers and began setting up mini tent cities on their lawns, if they had them.

News from the track started coming in as trekkers returned. Ancient villages where we’d stayed were levelled, others damaged, villagers, trekkers and guides killed. We realised a decision three days earlier to bypass our planned stop and to continue to the next village had saved us from being caught out on the track or worse. The shock increased.

News of an avalanche on Everest hit the village of Lukla hard. Many local Sherpas were on the mountain assisting foreign climbers. Helicopter rescue missions set off from Lukla. In a three and a half hour time frame 71 injured people were evacuated from Everest. Foreign doctors and nurses who’d been trekking aided the Nepalese local hospital in dealing with the crisis. The response was quick, immediate and efficient.  Locals and trekkers alike, lined the fence surrounding the airstrip for news of loved ones arriving via helicopter.

Our scheduled flight from Lukla was cancelled due to damage at Kathmandu airport and thunderstorms. A second day we were given boarding passes and informed that 15 flights were coming from Kathmandu to transport people out. Two airlines, Tara and Goma, service Lukla. We soon realised our airline was running only two planes and making relay journeys in and out. After a cold six-hour wait we were told the plane would not return for us this day. Our disappointment was overshadowed by concern. Trekkers were filing into Lukla in droves. Already supplies had been short, accommodation was limited.  Returning to our lodge we discovered our dining room sleeping quarters of the past two days filled with new comers. That’s cramped quarters when the previous thirty or so had returned from the airport.

As luck would have it our Nepalese contact and trek organiser made a phone call to a friend who had a plane return for us. Within moments we were bustled back to the airport, rushed through baggage and security and bundled onto a plane, not our original airline. Words cannot describe the elation as we sped off that treacherous runway into the air.

Elation soon gave way to a somber mood as we witnessed for ourselves the devastation.  Landslides, whole villages flattened, orange tarps and yellow tents dotting the countryside. Once over Kathmandu airspace we grappled to comprehend what we were seeing. Factory stacks that a fortnight ago had been pumping smoke were now toppled, houses demolished, tent cities set up in open spaces, and some in not so open spaces.

Kathmandu airport while usually a sea of chaos was now inundated with lines extending outside the buildings for hundreds of metes. There were tents set up on the lawns.  On route to the hotel we shuddered at the lack of traffic on the streets, people were out of buildings, waiting at bus stops, camped under makeshift shelters on the side of the road, on the golf course, in any small space away from buildings. Thamel, a popular tourist section was deserted. All shops were closed. Many hotels shut down.  There was no power, no water, no telecommunication service. Our hotel, one of the few still operating, had its own bore and a generator so was limping by.

A cold shower after eight days was welcome as was the spare but warm meal.  Anxiety was still high especially given we were roomed on the third floor. A midnight aftershock and another early morning tremor confirmed we were still not out of danger.

Our little group arrived at the airport four hours early for our scheduled flight to Bangkok where we discovered many people had missed flights the previous day. Their planes had circled for hours before needing to return to their original port for refuelling.  Down to one run way the Nepalese air traffic controllers were juggling commercial flights out with military and aid flights in. Giant cargo planes and helicopters had limited parking space and often blocked departure points for passenger aircraft.

Each step in the process was a small victory. First we gained a boarding pass, then we moved through security, finally we were ushered into a boarding ‘lounge’. Each step we got closer to departing also came with uncertainty. Cramped in small spaces with thousands of people was foremost in our minds. Our boarding time came and went. It began raining and lightening was spotted in the sky. It was late. Tension was palpable. Some travellers handled the situation better than others. Many of us shared stories, supported each other where we could, informed those who were unsure with snippets of information we had. Would we be leaving?

Four hours after our flight time we boarded the plane. Another small step. Another roller coaster of emotions. After a brief delay on the tarmac our plane taxied and then took flight. There was cheering in the cabin. There were tears also. We bunch of strangers had bonded in uncertainty.

My small band of trekking buddies and I made our connecting flight and were soon homeward bound. Still shell-shocked we arrived at Brisbane International airport, not quite believing we were home and we were safe. Joy, relief and tears flowed as loved ones met us at the gate to ferry us home in their warm embraces.

My sister called to ask how I was this morning. It’s hard to describe. I’m tired, I’m empty, I’m sad and I’m so very grateful. It’s hard to be jovial when leaving behind such devastation. It’s hard to rejoice when clean safe drinking water pours from the tap when millions are without.  I read this morning many people are trying to leave Kathmandu city to return to what they assume is the safety of their country villages. News travels slowly. Many people will not find their villages still standing.

I’m heartened by the huge aide machine in  place but I cannot comprehend how they will reach all in need. Does anyone really understand the extent and wide-spread nature of the destruction and need of the Nepalese people outside the immediate Kathmandu Valley? At this stage I doubt they do.

My heart, my prayers and my thoughts are with the Nepalese people.

Returning to Nepal

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 “Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” – Pat Conroy

I’m off to Nepal. I hadn’t planned on returning but an opportunity arose that I couldn’t pass up. It was either go to Cornwall to immerse myself in the landscape, weather and all, for a solitary four weeks of writing and coastal walks or accompany my beloved on a trek to base camp of Ama Dublam.

How does one choose you may ask? It was a difficult decision. My heart was set on Cornwall and the inner peace and time for contemplation it would bring. I felt a primal pull to return to a place I felt  I belonged. At the same time my husband was taking a month to go climb a mountain in Nepal. I’d been there before and wasn’t particularly keen on returning, until I discovered some trekkers were accompanying the climbers for a section of the trail. I didn’t trek when last in Nepal. After a year of convalescence I wanted to do something closely resembling adventurous and hiking is one thing Duncan and I love to do together. A true tug a war was waged in my heart.

I guess I’m a sucker for love. Love won out. Time with my man, doing what we love was the decider. So I’m returning to Nepal.

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I last visited Nepal four years ago. I stayed for three weeks and saw a nice smattering of places: Kathmandu, Boudhanath, Pashupatinath,  Pokhara, Lumbini and Chitwan National Park.  I visited temples, monasteries, markets and monuments.  I rode an elephant, paddled a canoe down crocodile infested waters, sat on the banks of a river watching the sun set and saw where the Buddha was born. I spoke with wise men, drowned in the  gorgeous chanting of monks and revelled in the silence of a peace garden, in the middle of Kathmandu.  I ate glorious food, drank tea and did a spot of shopping. I skated on slippery pigeon poop in the streets of Kathmandu, held on for dear life on a bus as we clung to the edge of a steep cliff, on my way to Pokhara, and was sobered when confronted with the burning bodies on the holy river at Pashupatinath.

It was hot and humid. The streets were crowded and teeming with people, distances between places were further than I’d realised. Simply catching a bus seemed difficult. I was asked for money often, swindled by taxi drivers, more than once, and looked at warily at times too. I experienced my first earthquake in Kathmandu, that rattled me. All alone and far from family I was concerned should another occur. Needless to say that was a sleepless night.

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I was overwhelmed by the place yet in awe of it also.  I was on edge when asked for money and heckled in the streets yet overwhelmed by the kindness I experienced. My nerves were tested by the constant noise, the squalor and the heat yet also calmed in quiet and peaceful sanctuaries. I was shocked by the presence of soldiers with guns on Kathmandu street corners yet amazed at the laid back nature of locals in Pokhara and Lumbini and Patan.

For me, Nepal is a place of contradictions. It is a place of many faces. It is a place you can blend in or stand out depending on where you are.  Nepal is a place I wouldn’t say I enjoyed but feel richer for having been. It’s isn’t a place I felt a strong pull to return to but I find myself about to depart for her again.

Last time the majestic Himalayas were hidden from view by thick white clouds. On my last day in Pokhara, standing in a dusty bus station, the clouds parted  and revealed a sight truly worthy of postcard status. A silence descended as we travellers all looked in awe.

What new adventures will unfold this time as I head out beyond the cities and into the real heart of the country? I wonder?