Having a goat slaughtered in our honour was a definite first.
Our first day on our Workaway volunteer placement began at Heaven Hill Community School that is perched on the edge of a mountain. Hawks swooped below us whilst the kids played football and danced to their version of 'wake and shake'. Every single child wanted to hold my hand and play with my hair, so excited to meet us. Mike even busted some moves- that's how compelling they were. Then he had to fix some drain pipe and get covered in piss which was all in a days work.
The afternoon was happy: feral filthy boys, running around with sticks whilst I started crocheting a yarnbomb for the house.
Next: a quiet meal round at Ambika's...
We had arrived in Kathmandu 5 days before, planned our activities and caught up with old friends. We spent our days getting lost in the labyrinthine streets of the capital city that were still devastated by the earthquake that happened 2 years before. There was a lot of rubble and dust around- Durbar Square a shadow of it's former self but the spirit was still alive, even if we needed PPE just to walk around.
We met up with a dear old friend and his kids who we knew from Glastonbury festival, and it was like no time had passed. We already felt at home.
The bus from Kathmandu bounced its way to Besisahar, stopping every few moments to collect yet more passengers and swerving around the other buses. We tried not to see the trucks that were dangling over the edge of the ravine- obviously had tried the same manoeuvre as us and failed.
On arrival we waited for the connecting bus to Gaunshahar. Ask for Shamser's house, he said. Everyone knows me.
Nobody seemed to have heard of Shamser- or Heaven Hill Academy, so we got on the bus and hoped for the best. We were quite sure that there wasn't enough room for us all (and our bags!) but everyone squished up and two lovely people, Ambika and Chitra held our bags and children for us while we squeezed in. Newly weds and just back from working in Dubai, their faces shone with kindness and curiosity. Despite nearly vomiting with fear as the bus rolled down the mountain track to make the hairpin bends- we forged a friendship.
The next day, Chitra came to collect us and we wound our way down the narrow road that our bus had struggled up.
The house was FULL of people and we were the guests of honour. Music blared, people gathered to come and look at us and practise their few words of English. The couple had been married only 20 days- so Ambika wanted me to see her new bedroom- decorated with newspaper and flowers. Then to see her wedding dress- on her? On me?! Yes, she wanted me to dress up and thought we should have a Nepalese wedding day.
Tiny Ambika dressed me up. I squeezed myself in to her saree and tottered out on her size 3 mules- much to everyone's hilarity as I tried to navigate the cobbles.
The children weren't allowed in the 'wedding' photos (obviously, as they wouldn't exist yet) so I couldn't resist telling them the children were 5 & 8 but we had only been married 4 years..! Faces dropped, then everyone laughed. How strange, these Westerners!
Dinner time was sat on the floor in the main part of the house on rush mats on a clay floor. We were served first, then her husband and her mother in law and the others. Ambika had to wait till we had all eaten, as is custom for the woman. She sat waiting beautifully, serving and chatting- I couldn't help but think she must be starving though, watching us all eat.
The Dahl was delicious as was the Achar (pickled cucumber and sesame seeds in a sour sauce) The rice was freshly picked by Mama! The goat was rich and caramelised in spices, freshly killed today she proudly announced!
Eating with our hands, I learned quickly to look for bone- the alternative was bouncy skin, fat or ofal. I'm quite sure though that I ate some brain.Then I found a bit that resembled the underside of a field mushroom. It was too much, my stomach lurched and it took everything in me to force my face into a smile. Everything.
Those who know me know I have been on/off vegetarian for years but this was a challenge to my views on food waste and sustainability. The goat lived happily and organically on this mountain and was killed when needed. No factory farming, no packaging- It had zero carbon footprint and every bit of the animal was used up. It sounds so perfect and so.. natural.. but the mushroomy foamy thing was a bridge too far.
I found a bit of 'meat' which turned out to be liver. Is it ok to admit that I gave it to my Eldest to 'try' because I couldn't finish it..? I've never liked liver. Unsurprisingly, it was too spicey for him, But I just couldn't eat it myself (I'm definitely going to hell)
Outside of my inner (offal) turmoil, we were treated like royalty. These beautiful people crowded round, wanting pictures of and with us and laughed at us kindly when we (I) did silly things. The youngest slipped over and grazed his knee- but was quite a bit better after being bandaged up like a mummy.
We were offered to stay the night- was there no end to their hospitality? On saying goodbye, I hugged all the women- which made them crease up in fits of giggles- or in Mama's case, a massive strong bear hug as she pressed her cheek against mine, saying something I can't understand into my ear. I have no idea what she said but it was filled with love, I am sure.
We declined the bed, stating we had to be up early for work the next day. Could we see them tomorrow? Definitely, and the next day.
We were walked home with a full entourage, feeling on top of the world (we actually were in the Himalayas, so that wasn't a stretch) I was ignoring the realisation that there was no running water at their house and our children's hands were black with dirt. Alcohol gel is all well and good, but has its limits, surely? Whatever. We were fine, somehow.
Returning to Shamser's house, we came home to tell our fellow volunteers about our evening. Sitting around, on the edge of the mountain with like-minded souls was good- but the mornings were even better.
We would wake at dawn to watch the Annapurna mountain range reveal itself before us, as we sat on the edge of the world. Coffee in hand, loving life and waiting for our breakfast of Dal Baht.
What work would be needed that day? Honestly? Some times lots of things, sometimes not much.
One day we spent hiking around the village to get our bearings.. another day was spent digging up a terrace to be used as a vegetable garden by the school. We all had to chip in of course- even the children had to wash up their dishes along with the rest of us. It felt like more of a commune than a work placement- our bedroom was simple, but comfortable enough after a hard day of digging or dancing with the children.
Shamser, the head of the school and house was tied up with the Nepalese elections. It was the first one in fifteen years and he spent a lot of time campaigning- so we busied ourselves, litter picking and one day we did a supply run to the town which took an ENTIRE DAY.
I walked with Jesse and the Youngest down the mountain which took a good two hours, waving and chatting to locals as we went.. we were desperate for some fresh fruit, but when we realised the buses were full, the fruit wasn't quite so necessary as we might have thought.
We tried to hitch a lift back up, but no jeeps or tractors came... and when they did, they chucked us out for no apparent reason. We struggled up the mountain, our apples weighing a ton, whilst sixty year old women carrying bushels of grass on their heads raced ahead of us.
Life on the mountain was tough and we dug deep- aware of the irony of our 'need' for fruit vs the locals working for survival in this harsh terrain. Then, like a mirage in the desert, the Communist Party campaign jeep picked us up and dropped us back home some eight hours after we left. Thank you, Comrades!
Life in this tiny Nepalese village was beautiful. The boys asked to move there permanently and we couldn't have connected with people without stepping out of our comfort zone and off the tourist trail. At the end of our stay, we were waved off by our new friends who had come to the road to say goodbye and we bounced down the mountain with tears in our eyes, feeling like we were leaving home, but promising to come back.
Where we stayed:
Hotel Access Nepal: Thamel, Kathmandu. Central, clean and comfortable. Should have been 50 GBP per night for family room including breakfast.
via Workaway- Heaven Hill Community School in Gaunshahar, Besisahar, Nepal. Accommodation was in exchange for work, food was $5 per day per person (Dal Baht twice a day- bring your own fruit!!!! )
What we did:
Workaway (see above) Made friends with amazing humans and totally loved every minute.
Boudhnath (Boudha) Stupa, Kathmandu. 1.12 GBP per person. Like walking onto a postcard. Peaceful and poignant.
Pashupatinath temple - 8 GBP per person. Getting there from Thamel costs about 10 GBP in a taxi, round trip. Incredible and fascinating.
How we got around
There are too many mountains in Nepal for railways, so we had to bus all the way.
Public bus from Kathmandu to Besisisahar took 7 hours and cost 5 GBP each. They tried to charge an extra 200... then 100... then 50 rupees per bag. Then gave up when we said 'no', said he liked us and could we be friends on Facebook? Saying 'no' isn't always so bad.