Wedged between the high Himalaya and the steamy Indian plains, Nepal is a land of snow peaks and Sherpas, yaks and yetis, monasteries and mantras.
At least this is what my Lonely Planet tells me. I believe it, but as I sit studying my travel information, with my left arm aching from my typhoid and measles boosters, I have to remind myself not to let my anxiety get the better of me.
I’ll start at the beginning. I booked a stay for my partner and I at Her Farm Nepal, a farm owned and operated by local women. Volunteers are able to stay here and experience real Nepal culture while contributing to a variety of projects directly improving the community…
No, wait. Let’s really start at the beginning.
On April 25th, 2015, Nepal suffered a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake, killing more than 8,000 people and injuring another 21,000. Hundreds of thousands lost their homes, world heritage sites were reduced to rubble, and an avalanche ripped through Everest Base Camp, trapping and killing climbers.
As I scrolled through the news and social media updates from the comfort of my own bed, a huge hole opened in my heart. I felt nauseous and overcome with grief.
Haiti to Nepal
When I was 17 years old, I travelled to Haiti to work in an orphanage through a program in my high school, Stelly’s Secondary, on Vancouver Island. The experience was awakening – a glimpse into how different life is in other parts of the world.
A few years later in 2010, when Haiti suffered their massive earthquake I was in the middle of both a university degree and a debilitating anxiety disorder. I was paralyzed with fear at the thought of heading back to doing something to help the small Caribbean country, so I did nothing. Nothing. This time felt different.
I was no longer gripped with fear but empowered to do something. Anything. But travelling into an earthquake-torn country on the other side of the world, just because it pulls at your heartstrings isn’t any easy choice to make… is it?
Why not? I spent the next six months trying to honestly answer that question and I couldn’t come up with a reason why I shouldn’t go.
On October 4th, 2016, my partner and I were in a taxi heading through Nepal’s capital city. Kathmandu hit me like a rockslide. There were noises everywhere, the familiar blended with the unfamiliar.
The sounds of car horns were interrupted by a cow’s bleating cry. The voices of vendors haggling with customers was in a language foreign to my ears. Car exhaust and dust kicked up from the road choked me; I gasped and coughed, searching for clean air.
Even though I had been travelling for over 24 hours, my eyes were wide open, glancing from the bright saris to the fruit in the street market to the children playing in the dirt.
Everything around me seemed more vibrant than anything I’d ever seen, and I felt acutely aware of the fact that I had never been so far from home.
Nepal has many faces and the bustling city of Kathmandu is only one of them. We quickly moved on to Manku, a small village in the hills in between Kathmandu and Pokhara. Here we found clean air, stunning green mountain views, and the sisters of Her Farm – the rural farm and non-profit organization where we would spend the next ten days.
Her Farm is a unique place in Nepal, providing a safe place for women to live, farm, and gain access to health care, education, and economic development. It is the women who own the land and make the rules at Her Farm, not the men who do so in the rest of the country.
Our days were spent working on a variety of projects, such as repairing a simple greenhouse, carrying grass up the terraced fields to feed the livestock, or re-mudding the earthbag house on the property. Earthbags are sacks filled with sand or dirt and they provide an inexpensive construction material. Layering the bags in a staggering pattern, like bricks, creates surprisingly solid structures that can be quickly built by people without a lot of construction experience. It’s a building technique used in many developing countries.
We spent downtime getting to know the women and children in the community, something we were assured was significantly more important than any physical labour we had contributed. We read books in English, shared photographs of Squamish, played card games, chased each other around the property, and attended the most unforgettable dance parties nearly every evening. The children were curious about where we came from interested in photos of the Squamish Chief and forest from around home. We explained we had mountains where we lived as well, although none so tall as the Himalayas.
Life at the Farm was good despite the impact of the earthquake – evident in the buildings and in the stories we heard. Every evening, as darkness blanketed the sky, we would look across to see the hundreds of twinkling lights from the homes across the valley, nestled in the hills. They looked just like low-hanging stars. We were told that after the earthquake you could see less than half of the lights as prior to the disaster. Many homes had collapsed and their lights no longer existed. Though they were now beginning to come back.
Dasain- A Community Festival
Our stay overlapped, Dasain, one of the biggest festivals in the country. During this ten-day festival, much of the country slows down and people from all walks of life participate as thousands of animals are sacrificed and eaten to honour specific gods and deities.
Giant bamboo swings that can catapult people fifteen to twenty feet into the air are erected in nearly every community, and the streets are alive with dancers. It is a time when Nepalese culture truly comes to life.
The sisters and children of Her Farm had been eagerly practising dances to perform at the local Dasain celebration, held at the school, down the road from the Farm.
Without truly understanding the significance, I agreed to dance on stage. Two other wide-eyed volunteers from Holland also ended up on the stage. We looked out over the sea of people and spoke into the microphone they gave us. “Ma Canada bata ayako. Mali Nepal mam paxcha!” I said.
People cheered to hear I was from Canada and that I loved Nepal! They cheered even louder as our small group of foreigners danced awkwardly in the traditional Nepal style for them. As comical as it must have been, it was truly an honour to participate in such a unique event and be accepted into the community in this way.
An Unexpected Connection
I had discovered an incredible coincidence after booking our stay at the Farm, something that nearly rekindled my belief in fate.
After I graduated high school, I kept up with the program I had travelled to Haiti with when I was a teenager. The organization went on to work on projects in many developing countries. A few years ago, they came to Nepal and the money the students had raised contributed to purchasing the property to begin Her Farm.
Stelly’s Secondary had also built one of the mud houses, the one that stood strong during the earthquake and afterwards provided shelter for over forty families and housed the health clinic. It was one of the great serendipitous moments of my life: to be able to add to this building and continue the global relief work project that I had been a part of 17 years ago in Haiti.
Rebuilding the Country
Nepal lost many things during the earthquake. According to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks affected 2,900 heritage structures on 691 sites in the Kathmandu Valley and the Northwestern Region of Nepal. Many of these can never be rebuilt to their original state.
Work has begun, but it is often costly and extremely time-consuming. Even more important than the significant loss of religious and cultural monuments was the loss of life: fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers. Healing the lives of those left behind will take an even longer time.
On a small farm in Manku, however, life still flourishes. Children are being educated, drinking water is being provided, health care is being accessed, and ancient traditions which serve to reduce the role of women to near slaves are being challenged.
Her Farm grows hope and empowerment alongside the rice and guavas in the fields. The earthquake only proved that the resilient spirit and the Nepali people can’t be shattered.