Volunteering to help build schools in a foreign country can lead to a transformation of more than just the local community.
EVERYTHING IN KATHMANDU burns. Smolders. Piles of trash, the pungent musk of incense, hearts for god (or gods), the dust in your throat. An entire city on fire. The powdered grime that obscures the air is built of filth, and of the ghosts of the countless buildings that crumbled in 2015, when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked the country. At the time of my visit, it’s been nearly two years since the disaster, but the tiny particles still coat my windpipe, as if demanding I articulate their shared story.
I know that the earthquake, which rolled through in the late morning of April 25, killed 9,000 people, with another 22,000 left injured. I know that it was the deadliest day in Mount Everest’s history, 21 souls engulfed in the snow shaken loose by the tremors. I met two Australians who were traveling separately through Nepal when it hit. One found safety in a field on the outskirts of Kathmandu, befriending a Nepalese boy and taking refuge in his family’s home until evacuations began. The other was trekking, exploring mountain ranges and rugged terrain, and still flinches at the sound of prayer flags blown too hard by the breeze. And despite the harrowing experience, each was pulled back to Nepal by an enigmatic desire to revisit the broken, but eternally hopeful, country — and to help rebuild.
I WAS TOO TIRED to ask the taxi driver to slow down. The congested roadways whipped hurriedly by, leaving me unable to register anything other than people, people everywhere. I soon realized that his style of driving was the rule, not the exception. The streets were a choked game of transportation Tetris, though rather than ultimately stationary, these parts were in constant motion, cars weaving thoughtlessly into any suggestion of space as motorbikes snaked through the scene like trails of ants. Death-defying ants. I closed my eyes and pictured my guesthouse, which I imagined would be positioned atop a quiet hill, sectioned off from the fray of these city streets. A still point within this madness.
Instead, the taxi skidded to a stop on a street teeming with motorbikes and pedestrians, all busy narrowly avoiding imminent collisions, each wheel and shoe kicking up a collective cloud of dust. We had arrived. As I made my way through the tranquil courtyard and up to my second-floor room at Pilgrims Guest House, the soundtrack of the streets — horns honking, friends shouting, dogs barking — was ever-present, like a mantra.
This was Thamel, a tourist hub in the heart of Kathmandu. Shops lined the labyrinthine streets, with restaurants stacked on top, offering views of the chaos below. Small, open storefronts were crammed with goods that flooded out onto the streets: flowing garments, mala beads, North Face knockoffs and enough Buddhist and Hindu iconography to make any aesthete consider conversion.
I had three days to see what I could see of Kathmandu Valley before heading to the rural region of Nuwakot. I exited the guesthouse with caution, but my exhaustion made me stoic, and an aloof expression is the best expression to have when strolling solo through a district that resembles a page torn from a Where’s Waldo? book. I holed up in Or2K — a recommended restaurant up a hidden flight of stairs featuring comfy cushions and Wi-Fi — to plot my sightseeing mission. Unkempt hair and fancy pajama pants seemed to be the uniform of the Western tourist, and each time I looked up from my journal, sets of sleepy eyes looked back at me. I wondered if I would have time to see what they had seen.
It turns out, I did. In the company of Mr. Lama, the hotel’s zealous but ultimately helpful manager, I hired a taxi driver who promised to assist me in navigating the swarming city. “Meet me out front at 9 a.m.” he said. “Tomorrow is for temples.”
AS I CLIMBED the stairs of Swayambhunath, otherwise known as Monkey Temple, I glanced over my shoulder to see that my driver had disappeared. Later I would discover that he was actually a magician, materializing by my side the moment I reemerged on the street. But for now I was intimidated — everyone seemed to know where they were going. I paid the entry fee, a norm at nearly every temple, and let myself fall into the forward movement.
Legend says that Kathmandu Valley was once a giant lake, and that the hill on which Swayambhunath sits awoke to surge unexpectedly upward, out of nowhere. Swayambhu means “self-manifested.” Whether or not this is true, as I approached the site’s main stupa (a dome-shaped shrine), I was struck by the authentic, unprocessed nature of the surrounding spirituality, and I found myself surveying the unending vistas of Kathmandu, imagining water. Devotees waited patiently in queues that snaked toward various shrines, carrying offerings: lit votive candles, baskets of marigolds.
The foreheads of visitors — and many of the statues — were marked with a tilaka, a smudging of red powder that symbolizes loyalty and commitment to faith. Women walked clockwise around the stupa, eyes closed, chanting softly to themselves, or to their god, spinning each of the base’s prayer wheels as they passed. This revolution is called a kora. I gazed upward toward the golden spire that topped the stupa and found the Buddha’s eyes, depictions of the mystical gaze staring fixedly in each of the four cardinal directions. As I made my way down the stairs from the stupa, monkeys skittered past in hordes, surveying me with suspicion before climbing on each other’s backs and barreling away. One simian devotee swung from a string of loose-hanging prayer flags, screaming.
THE REST OF THE DAY passed in a haze of otherworldly sites as rooted in history as humankind, but as mystifying as the beyond. Old Kathmandu and its Durbar Square — a term used to describe the impressive plazas opposite royal palaces — were guarded by tiered pagodas built in the 12th century, many supported by well-placed stilts, a reminder of the earthquake. Potential guides approached me with imitations of Aladdin, crooning “I can show you this site,” but I declined their magic carpets and rounded corners on my own, everything a surprise, everything a mystery.
I needed a break in Patan, a suburb of Kathmandu, and pulled up a chair at the Museum Cafe. The moment I dove into my plate of vegetarian momos — delicious stuffed dumplings found all around the country — the restaurant manager joined me at my garden table, and we began discussing politics. It was early November of 2016, and though I had voted in the American presidential election before embarking on this journey, it was an event as impossible to escape as the Buddha’s all-seeing eyes. Four retired Midwesterners overheard our musings on money, power and corruption. “I voted for Trump, even though I know there’s no way he’ll win,” said one of the men. “I don’t even like him. I just want something to change.” Seeing my expression, he smiled and said, “It’s OK, sweetie, you’re young. You’re just uninformed.”
Next was Pashupatinath, a Hindu temple where I watched dead bodies burn ceremonially on the wooden pyres that lined the banks of the holy Bagmati River. Women and children waited at the end of the dirty waterway, sifting through floating ashes in search of gold. The sunset saw me rounding Bodhnath, Asia’s largest stupa. Some claim that a bone from the skeleton of Siddhartha Gautama, the original Buddha, is preserved inside the giant blanched dome. I purchased a handful of prayer beads and watched Tibetan monks wander the circular world — clockwise, of course — their maroon robes catching on the wind.
I SLEPT FOR FIVE hours before meeting my driver in the dark of the morning. We were bound for Nargakot, a vista where onlookers can witness the sun rising over the Himalayas. While we jerked haphazardly up the mountainside, he complained of the government’s negligence in filling potholes and improving road conditions, while I wondered aloud how the ’90s-era Toyota sedan eluded flat tires. We sipped milky coffee while the light blanketed the hazy mountain range, Everest a pinprick in the distance.
But it was Bhaktapur that forced me awake. Located on the fringes of Kathmandu, the medieval city-state is its own world entirely, and nowhere in the valley was the damage of the earthquake so present. Piles of rubble did their best to imitate the neighboring temples and shrines, reaching skyward. And while men were everywhere — sitting, standing, playing games, selling goods — the women were inside and, to my eyes, invisible. Also invisible were the nagas, the serpent spirits who live in Siddha Pokhari, a rectangular, walled pond outside of Bhaktapur’s gates. The spirits are said to control the rain. I tossed the fish some rice and prayed for sun.
“ARE YOU WITH ALL HANDS?”
I looked up from my work boots and the path they were following for the first time in what seemed like hours, my face red and streaked with sweat. The words had been spoken in unbroken English, punctuated by an accent that could have been British. Or South African. Or Australian. I was really tired.
A terrifying three-hour bus ride, wheels skimming the edges of mountain roads, had been made bearable by Ana, a bubbly girl from Mexico. She was returning to All Hands’ Nuwakot base for her third stint of volunteering, and her anticipation took to the air, contagious, as she talked about the cement pour that would take place that day at Prithvi Secondary School. But Ana had disembarked at the work site, while I had been instructed to check in at base. And though the bus driver had assured me that the middle-of-the-road pause he took before turning around was “my stop,” I soon learned otherwise, and I began walking in the general direction of nowhere.
The speaker hung casually from the back of a pickup truck, which idled in the dirt road, awaiting my response.
“Yes! I mean, yeah.”
I hitched my pack up and pushed the errant hair out of my eyes, elated. They were going to give me a ride! No more walking, no more asking Nepalese children for directions, pointing idiotically at pictures on my cell phone screen.
“Well, you’re going the right way!”
ALL HANDS IS a U.S.-based volunteer outfit that helps rebuild areas affected by natural disasters. The nonprofit organization was founded by David Campbell, who, after spontaneously making for Thailand in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, discovered that the best way to aid in reestablishing a community is to get on the ground and work with the locals. The group makes it its mission to determine immediate and long-term solutions, establishing bases near work sites should a project require a lot of time and energy. After the 2015 quake, All Hands Nepal decided to build seven schools, and by the time I arrived Prithvi Secondary School — the second of the seven — was just two months from completion.
After hobbling up and checking in, I wandered around base, a converted Pepto-pink guesthouse in the Trishuli colony of Nuwakot. The entrance was overseen by a giant Bodhi Tree, which volunteers called the Vishnu Tree, its mass of coiled roots demanding a certain kind of reverence.
When the volunteers came back that afternoon, the camaraderie was visceral. This was a family of which I was not yet a member, a family who had spent the day pouring the second floor of a nearly finished school. I would be staying with the project for one week — some volunteers stayed for months, renewing visas, becoming team leaders (or TLs, as they were affectionately called), never going home. Aside from the unparalleled community created by All Hands Nepal and the satisfaction of a job well done, there is a basic appeal to staying at base between travels: residential volunteers sleep for free and are fed breakfast, lunch and dinner on work days.
That evening’s team meeting was celebratory — the group had finished the cement pour in half the predicted time — with the speeches marked by a plethora of accents and reiterations of base rules. Shoulders and tops of legs must be covered at all times. Be ready for work by 6:40 in the morning and help TLs load up the vans. Toughen up. Do your morning dishes. Respect each other and yourself. I slept soundly on my metal bunk, far from the cacophony of Kathmandu, the only symphony the sleeping sighs of 30 volunteers, all curled up in the third-floor room.
By the end of my first work day, I felt at home. I learned to tie rebar, attaching bent squares to vertical rods with artfully twisted wire, forming the bones of the cement columns that would support the roof of the school. The mornings were broken up by teatime, where we joined the paid Nepalese masons, many directly affected by the disaster, for cups of tea and vegetable pokoda, golden-fried clusters doled out in duos. At the end of each day we tumbled onto the bus, filthy, and sang along to the radio. If the days were hot, some volunteers would opt to walk home, stopping by the glacial river that cut through the colony for an outdoor bath — almost an upgrade from our four cold-water showers, which we were instructed to use conservatively, turning water on and off as needed, five minutes max. We dined on dal bhat in the front courtyard, sharing stories as the stars came out.
Throughout the day on November 9 — which was actually November 8, election night, back home — my attention inevitably turned toward the States. I hid in the toolshed I was meant to be organizing with my friend Shantal, refreshing my phone like a maniac as the states turned their respective colors. A volunteer from Tennessee had laughed off an earlier unsolicited election update by proposing a Stay in Nepal group should things go wrong. “Let’s make Nepal great again!” But by the time we returned from a day of laying bricks, handling tools and bolstering a community that wasn’t our own, America had a new president. Keiron, a volunteer from the U.K., likened the outcome to Brexit, citing older generations and fear as rationale. I was surrounded by people who had left their homes because of a desire to see something different, and to help others. And rather than the isolation I had expected, I felt understood, particularly at this moment.
I knew the country I was returning to would be different than the one I had flown away from just weeks before. For the first time, I considered staying with All Hands, able to fathom why the others kept coming back. The organization fosters immediate connection to the community you serve, to yourself and to each other. Trying to leave All Hands, trying to leave Nepal, is like the end of Almost Famous, when the groupies are devising ways stay on the road. “This is the circus,” actor Billy Crudup says in the film. “Everybody’s trying not to go home. Nobody’s saying goodbye.” And though in the end I did say my farewells and return to California, I was as changed as the world around me.