Kristi Moon - General Building Projects in Nepal
I'd been looking at the Projects Abroad site for a couple years before my trip. When the 2015 earthquake hit Nepal, I wanted to join the Disaster Relief Project immediately but was not able to drop things and go. Finally, in 2017 I was ready to take my trip but wasn't sure which country to visit. One day at work I was reading a story with a student about yaks crossing the Himalayas and it hit me that I had to go to Nepal. It was an area of the world I'd always wanted to see. I'd grown up seeing pictures of some of the temples there and hoped I could see them in person one day. Visiting the Himalayas would have been a dream come true. I was happy to see that there were ongoing projects rebuilding schools and I signed up.
Arriving in Nepal
I arrived in Kathmandu in June. After orientation, I was taken to my new home. The house was in a good neighbourhood and was big enough for a bunch of volunteers. There were separate rooms for the guys and girls filled with bunk beds. There was also an area where we ate together and played games or hung out. Everyone in our house was working on the Building Project so we lived, ate, worked, and explored together. It was great to come to a house with other volunteers since I was travelling on my own. It was like I had friends just handed to me. I was in Nepal for five weeks and got really close with many of the volunteers. I loved meeting people from all over the world as they came in and out of the house while I was there. I met people I hope to never forget. A typical day for us consisted of our host Ram saying in a sing song voice, "Breakfast is ready!" every morning. We'd eat and get ready for the day. We would then walk down the street to where we'd get picked up for work.
My Building Project
We worked from 9:30am - 3:00pm. When we said we'd like to work a little longer, our Projects Abroad Building Coordinator arranged for us to arrive at 9am instead so we could get an earlier start on things. We'd stop for lunch around noon and had great local food but it was prepared with less spice to fit our western taste buds and stomachs. After our day of work, we'd get back to the house and fight for the shower. Every day we were a mess and in desperate need of cleaning up. Lots of dust, sweat, mortar and dirt covered us. Dinner was served around 8pm so we had time to relax and chat, write in a journal, do laundry or go sightseeing before dinner. I bet you can guess which we preferred. There were plenty of places to see like the monkey temple, the garden of dreams, Durbar squares, Thamel and more. After dinner, we often played games and headed to bed. Ram was the kindest host and made the house a great place to live. He took a lot of pride in his job and always made sure the house was clean, the food was ready for us and the Wi-Fi was as reliable as possible. He would go the extra mile to make sure we were telling the taxi drivers the right place to go or make sure we knew which bus to take for a weekend excursion.
My project highlights
- I could see the difference I'd made and knew what I was leaving behind. We were building a two classroom addition to the school while I was there. We pounded and levelled out the floor and pretty much laid the bricks for all four exterior walls. I was sad to leave because I knew we were just days away from finishing them off. It was really satisfying to have before and after pictures that showed just a frame at first and a building at the end.
- I got to learn new skills that I may not have ever learned any other way. I mean, how many speech language pathologists from Hawaii get trained as a mason? In addition to brick laying, our days consisted of chiselling, digging dirt for the floor, sawing and bending rebar, mixing mortar or cement and/or dancing to name a few! Our coordinator made the work site a fun place to be. We'd listen to music as we worked and a few of us sang and danced along. I was nervous before the trip because I don't consider myself a particularly strong person and wasn't sure if I'd be useful on the building site. I was pleased to find that I was capable of doing all the work, although I admittedly left the concrete mixing to those that really enjoyed using their muscles. Learning how to build a structure and learning the skills to do it was great. We used the same tools and materials that the locals used so we had a pretty true experience and also came to appreciate some of the modern machinery that would make some of those tasks a little easier. We became brick wall critics and often compared our work to other buildings we saw. We were a little jealous when we saw rich people (relative to the rest the country) who could afford uniformly sized bricks. Man, what a luxury!
- We got to work alongside many locals. There were two local engineers and as the job progressed we acquired extra masons so there were three by the end. We also had some day labourers join in at different points. While we couldn't communicate well with the locals, it was fun to try. One woman would tell me her name every time I asked her a question which was funny. Even though we couldn't talk we could still demonstrate what needed to be done and get our thoughts across. Playing charades added to the fun of the worksite. We named one of the masons "smiley dai" ("dai" means "elder brother" and is a respectful term for a man) because he was always smiling. Even when he came over and corrected our work, he'd show us what to do with a huge smile on his face. It's hard to feel bad when he wiggles his head and smiles at you. The main engineer spoke English and would translate when we needed to clarify any messages. Our coordinator also helped bridge the Nepali-English gap on site.
Free time in Nepal
Working together helped me become even greater friends with the other volunteers. Projects Abroad was really helpful not just with getting us good accommodations and a great work experience but also with recreation. Every Friday there was a social for all the volunteers from the various projects. The socials might be a cooking class or scavenger hunt. This was a nice way to learn about the culture and meet more people. Often we went out to dinner and had a night out on the town afterwards. There were a few must see places in Nepal that most people wanted to visit. Projects Abroad had deals with local tour companies and all we had to do was say we wanted to go over the weekend and the trip was arranged. I travelled to Chitwan and Pokhara using their arrangements and had a good experience both times. I really appreciated not having to worry about finding a package and having to make all the arrangements myself. Plus, volunteers from other projects were likely travelling with us so there were more opportunities to make friends and meet new people.
Another volunteer and I decided the trip wouldn't be complete without some trekking. We both extended our trip a few days and got our coordinator's advice on the trek. We set off but we both fell ill on our journey. We called our coordinator when we suspected altitude sickness. Our coordinator had felt it before and knew what to do. Despite being sick, the trip was a success as we saw stunning views of the Himalayas in all their majesty and unbelievable views of farmers living on the side of terraced mountains working in their fields. It was very comforting to know we could count on our coordinator to help us out even when we weren't working.
I loved my trip. I loved the people. I loved the country. I loved the culture. I loved the work I did. I appreciated that it was easy for a solo traveller to make so many connections and have such a great time. We met so many great people and had a fantastic support system. I'd go and do it again right now if I could. I would recommend it to anyone who thinks they can handle a squat toilet and some adventure.