Ten years ago, I packed my bags and left Paris, ready for my Next Adventure. I had graduated in December and was in the typical “What Now” post-college quandary. I was contemplating going into education, but wasn’t sure if that was the right choice. I also missed the mountains I had grown up around, but wasn’t ready to go back home. I thought about places that had mountains, and one day, on a whim, I Googled: “Teaching English in Nepal.” After looking into various options, I settled on going to Kathmandu with a group called i-to-i, a volunteer abroad program. I took the TEFL certification courses and soon was ready to experience a new part of the world.
The flight alone was amazing. After our layover in Qatar, the plane was fairly empty. I slept most of the time until, right before we approached the Kathmandu Valley, a flight attendant woke me and asked if I wanted to see the Himalayas. I was up immediately, crossing to the other side of the plane, looking out on the world’s tallest mountains.
The next three months were unlike any other trip. I settled into my room at our guest house with the only other American in our group, also named Annie. My mornings were spent planning lessons on the rooftop, overlooking a city strung with prayer flags and drying laundry. On clear days, you could see Mt. Everest in the background. The smells of burning garbage, cooking dal-bhat and incense permeated my days. The constant noise of chimes, vendors, animals, and Bollywood soundtracks filled the air. It was, by far, the most foreign culture I had experienced.
In the afternoons, I would cross the polluted Vishnumati River and head toward Swayambhunath Temple, turning down a side street before the path led to the Monkey Temple. There, I taught 6th and 7th grade students at New Arunodaya English School. Since there were no supplies, I would think up vocabulary games and teach sentence structure using bits of chalk the students had snuck into the cracks in the walls. Because the Maoists were terrorizing the city, school was often closed for strike days. For those strikes, Annie and I would head out of the city to Pokhara, exploring other parts of the country, knowing we were safe on the tourist buses. On some occasions, all of Kathmandu would be shut down and we would spend hours on the rooftop terrace, playing gin rummy with the other volunteers.
There was such a dichotomy of experiencing Nepali culture. There were certain dangers of terrorist activity: One day I was planning lessons when two bombs were thrown in the lobby of a bank next door; Or the time our raft trip down the Kali Gandaki River was postponed because the bodies of people killed by the Maoists were dumped into the push-off point. The pollution was unlike any I had experienced – the country just doesn’t have the resources to properly process trash and waste. Some days, I was overwhelmed with walking along dusty roads, dodging traffic, wishing for sidewalks. I got tired of eating dal-bhat every night for dinner, but knew I was privileged to have toast and eggs for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch rather than rice and lentils twice a day. Yes, the rivers and roads were littered with trash, but I watched women sweeping the dirt entryways each day, keeping their homes tidy. Even with terrorism that was part of daily life, I encountered amazing, open-handed hospitality. It was an experience where nothing fit into any box, and I learned to embrace all those sides.
On my last day of school, at the end of April, I watched my students running around and wondered what their future would be like. At the time, it seemed that Maoist presence would continue to disrupt life and education of these young people. I wondered what they would end up doing; if they would travel or go into tourism. As it turns out, the fighting subsided. This was before social media and I only kept track of one student: Prem. He graduated and is now leading tours of Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna Trail.
I left Nepal with a desire to continue teaching. I returned to Colorado and settled into normal life, so thankful to fill a water glass at the sink without first having to use my backpacking pump to purify it. I’m not sure how much of a difference I made in the lives of my students in those short three months, but I know I came home with a broader worldview and sense of self. They gave me an insight into cultures so different from my own – from sanitation to home size to the daily reality of living with terrorism. They instilled in me a sense of empathy and connectivity that I’m not sure a simple vacation would have given me.
The best part of the trip? My roommate, Annie and I stayed in touch, ended up living a block from each other in Denver and traveling to Ecuador together. The past 10 years have given me an unexpected friendship, for which I am thankful.
What is an adventure that has shaped your life and worldview?