Sunday 17/12/17: We strap our belongings to the top of our coach and leave the comfort of our Kathmandu hotel. We’re finally heading to the small community of Sudal in the Changunarayan region of Nepal – our home for the next three months. The traffic stops and starts and our bus is hot and cramped. Suddenly, Umanga, one of the Nepali volunteers, shouts that a passing biker has said that we’ve lost a bag from the roof! The bus screeches to a halt on the highway and some of the volunteers run back to where the bag dropped but they can’t see anything. We check the roof and it seems secure enough with nothing obviously missing so we continue our journey. Hopefully, everyone will still have a bag when we arrive! We slowly pick our way through the city and the traffic starts to ease. The road winds along a terraced hillside, and we get bumped along like ragdolls. Every so often a slither of tarmac lines the middle of the road like a little stream so I know there were once good intentions to pave this area. It’s hard to know how much is earthquake damage and how much is just Nepal. The cars on this single track are thankfully few and far between and it’s a relief to leave the polluted air of Kathmandu behind.
After a couple of hours, we reach Sudal and drop each of the volunteer pairs at their respective host homes. The homes are generally multi-storey and flashy (on the outside at least) with bright colours dazzling in the cool sun.
There’s cobs of corn drying everywhere – it hangs from rafters and balconies to be kept away from mischievous cows and goats – and large haystacks look like mountains of gold in the light. Nearly all of our houses were built after the 2015 earthquake but when I ask whether they now incorporate additional safety precautions, the answer is vague. The building code isn’t generally enforced in Nepal and new buildings often exceed the 6-storey maximum height, particularly in Kathmandu where suitable building space comes at a premium.
We leave the last of the volunteers as the sun disappears below the horizon and we move on to our own house. I’m nervous but excited. All of a sudden, I’m very aware of how little Nepali I know!
We’re greeted by some of the family on the front porch. From what I understand, there are six other people living in the upstairs rooms of this large house. The head of the house is an an elderly holy man. He looks about 70 and has a gummy smile. He talks at me a lot but I understand nothing so I just smile and nod and hope that he’s not asking a question. His wife floats about in the background, nodding and smiling and staring at me. Their lawyer son lives here too; he’s a newly elected official and he welcomes us into their home with a garland of flowers, a tika on our foreheads and a gift of 10 rupees. His lovely wife, who we’re to call Ama (mom), is also an important member of the community. She heads the local cooperative and is the main focal point between the VSO and the community. She gives us a bowl of soya beans and popcorn along with a sweet spiced tea which we drink outside. She takes me around to the back of the house to another building where there are two cows, one of which is heavily pregnant and expected to deliver in the next day or so. The barn is warm and smells of hay and cattle, and it’s a nice moment watching her give her cows a caring rub hello. We head back to the house and I briefly meet the family’s two sons – one is around 16/17 and the other is a little older and studying pharmacy. I hope they speak a bit of English. I’ve got a phrasebook but it’s pretty limited and the conversation halts expectantly whenever I try to look for the right phrase. I’m going to have to learn the language fast if I want to bond with this family.
It’s sparse and cold compared to UK standards but clean enough and ama pops in and out to make sure we have everything we need. I’m also aware that there are millions of families in Nepal with a lot less. There’s a rather smelly bathroom next to our rooms but I’m not brave enough yet to have a wash to clean up. The (cold) shower head is more or less over the squat toilet and you need to wear separate flip flops for wearing in the shower, the hall, your room and I’m not feeling up to figuring it out yet.
After a while, we’re called upstairs for dinner. Grandfather’s Brahmin religion means that we’re not allowed to eat with them so we sit outside in the hall at a makeshift table.I catch glimpses of the males of the family dressed up in white sheets like togas. Rachana tells me that they wash and change for every meal (and also before they use the bathroom) in line with their religious beliefs. The dal bhat (steamed rice, lentil soup and boiled greens) is surprisingly tasty, though I’m not sure how I’ll feel about eating it morning and night until we leave! The family’s strict religious beliefs mean that they don’t eat meat, mushrooms, onion or garlic (I google it later and apparently these foods are classed as “rajasic” and “tamasic” which means they increase passion and ignorance). This is going to be tough! Ama leans against the door frame and chats to Rachana but I’m tired so I make my excuses and head to my room. It’s been a long, overwhelming day and my bed is calling.