Namaste Nepal

So here I am, sitting in Spain yet again, but feeling as though I owe Nepal and its people a decent attempt at a tribute before I share my new adventures with you all. At the very least. 

I arrived back in England at the end of April, forever changed by this experience. This country and its people offered me so much more than the daily dal bhat and the modest bicep muscles I now sport. 

I experienced love in its purest form from the beneficiaries, who would never ever allow you to leave their homes without feeding you their best, and who would always greet us with the biggest smiles and softest eyes. Even if you pop in unannounced like Ellie and I did on my last Saturday to say goodbye to some of these families who I feel became my family while I was there. 

I have never worked as hard in my life before, and I have never been more smelly, dirty and tired. But I would go as far as to say that I have also never been happier. I lived with a bunch of likeminded lunatics for three months. We slept on plywood bunk beds, had cold showers, shared multiple conversations about each other’s bowels (those who tell you never to trust a fart in Nepal have a point, mind), and dodged snakes, scorpions and multiple rodents at the work sites on a daily basis while working like people possessed. 

We had to come to terms with a bizarre dynamic where new volunteers arrived daily, and some said goodbye every day, making attachments so much more intense. But we shared a common goal, we experienced the same gratitude and we adopted the same sideways head shake of the Nepali people. 

I ended my time in Nepal by going to Pokhara with a few volunteer friends. It’s a beautiful place with a huge tranquil lake and it was the perfect end to my stay. Getting to Pokhara was interesting though. For that matter, getting anywhere in Nepal was interesting. And scary, and hair raising, and dangerous, and hot. Come to think of it, my travels between places almost deserve a blog entry of its own, but let me share a few highlights. 

I have explained the phenomenon of a bus in Nepal in a previous blog entry, but to recap: it is a vehicle with four wheels (ideally). No other similarities to the buses you and I know. On my first trip to Nuwakot from Kathmandu a man hopped on, pointed at my water bottle, took it, drank half and handed it back. 

When Ellie, Emma and I went on our break we somehow managed to travel a mere 20km distance by getting on three different buses and on the last one we stood crammed at the back of the bus going up a very high mountain on a rather non-smooth road. Bear in mind that I am taller than the average anything in Nepal and you can imagine what that trip was like. 

After our break we thought we would treat ourselves to get a “deluxe” bus back to base, seeing that we were all having serious concerns about our bowels at that point, and a four hour journey on anything other than deluxe was going to be pushing it. (Pun most certainly not intended). 

Turns out, there was more than one person on that bus with stomach issues, and the gentleman sitting right in front of us got the attention of the driver to stop just a tad too late. Luckily we were stuck on a mountain in severely backed up traffic, so he could hop off, change trousers (came well prepared) and get back on only for the driver to order him to sit on some car part that was hitching a ride on the same deluxe bus. He then ordered us to close all the windows (?) and sprayed the entire bus with toilet spray (again he also seemed well prepared). It made me sad for this poor man, but I had some serious similar concerns of my own so had to stay focussed and not get emotional. 

Now, most volunteers have had some interesting bus experiences while in Nepal, so when about 14 of us were heading to Pokhara at the same time, we thought it wise to hire a little mini van to take us there. Simples, we thought. Or not, as the case may be. 

I don’t know what our driver was trying to achieve, but to arrive alive was most certainly not high on his to do list for the day. The road is pretty much like a mountain pass with no clear lanes for a big part of it. Going round corners are therefore already a challenge and the reason for the extensive use of their horns. Add to that the fact that this man was intent on overtaking anything and everything on said corners, and every time we all got to see the oncoming trucks and feared for our lives. It didn’t help that I saw four abandoned, damaged vehicles on the side of the road by this point. If I wasn’t sitting right at the back I would have most certainly made him stop so I could get out.

Speaking of, I l was struggling in the back of this small, hotter than hell van, applying all the mind-over-matter principles I have ever heard of to combat my claustrophobia, when something hit the back of our van and my earphones went flying out of my ears. I turned around to see a truck had hit us. Nice. 

Now from what I understand, the Nepali way of dealing with incidents like these is for the drivers to come to a financial agreement there and then to settle the matter. Our van therefore pulled up at the first convenient stop on the side of the road which happened to be at the appropriately named “Cock fight restaurant”. I kid you not. 

We spent about half an hour trying not to melt, before finally getting back into the sauna van and making the last stretch on flatter road, but still dearly missing some shock absorbers. 

My last week in Nepal involved working in a very remote village at the top of a mountain near our base. To get all of us up there we took a big blue truck every day. Or that was the plan anyway, until it got stuck after a night of heavy rain and we ended up hiking up that mountain instead until the next morning when we took up some shovels and dug it out. There were a few moments where I knew that if the brakes of that truck failed we would be goners, but it was nevertheless an adrenalin rush for most of it. 

That all said, here I am, alive and well and able to tell the mostly humorous transport tales, so all good I suppose. 

I have a lifetime of memories from this time and I will be forever grateful for it. If I have learned one thing this year it is that in giving to others, we are ultimately the biggest beneficiaries. I am so incredibly humbled and I am a better version of myself due to my time in this spectacularly beautiful country. 

Namaste, Nepal. I owe you.


It’s only love



 Last Saturday Ellie, Sasha and I were invited to lunch at a beneficiary’s house. This is the house of the woman who lost her husband in the earthquake, and who lives with the family of her sister-in-law. We finished this site about a month ago, and I felt a very deep connection with both these women and their extended family. The entire village were very involved in this site and kept popping in while we were working there to give us sweets, chocolates, cold drinks, encouragement, help and love.

Now on Saturday, when I had just about recovered from the ten day Giardia saga, and my stomach had just shrunk back to normal human sized portions again, we set off at 10am for our lunch appointment. We were joined by Kabitha, Soniya, Shrada and Roni, four of the Nepali staff members that work with us. And possibly four of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen.

It was a really hot and incredibly humid day, and after my ten days of walking only to and from the toilet, the short walk up to the village left me looking just about the same as I do when I step out of a Bikram yoga class. But the reunion was sweet. It felt exactly the same as when family comes together after some time apart. It felt right. It felt safe and it felt beautiful. Other than “Namaste Didi” (Hallo Sister), “Ramro?” (Good?) and “Danyabat!” (Thank you!) there was no language connection. But we understood. We all did. We understood the love and joy there was in seeing each other again. After spending some time just drinking in the atmosphere, we took off our shoes and stepped inside for some lunch.

It came as no surprise that our plates were overloaded with delicious dhal bat, aloo, atchar and all the other dishes that these people cook on one fire, often in one pot, in one small house, but with no limit to the amount of care and pride they pour into it. As is standard, they sat watching us eat, constantly walking around with serving bowls, and no doubt playing their game of “let’s see how much food we can sneak onto their plates”. We laughed, they laughed, we smiled, ate, took deep breaths, ate some more and had the best time.

Straight after lunch we were told that they are going to start preparing the snacks in the adjacent house. Snacks. Whatever. We have learnt on site that an afternoon snack is none other than a second lunch, in similar quantities and just as carbohydrate heavy as the first. We protested heavily saying that we could not possibly have snacks now, but they informed Kabitha that it will take about two hours to prepare the snacks and that by that time we are bound to be hungry again.

Sasha previously worked on a site just up the road and was keen to go and say hallo to those beneficiaries so it seemed like a good time to head up there while our snacks were being prepared. Having learnt a thing or two about Nepali hospitality though, and therefore fully expecting to be fed up there, Ellie and I chose to spend some more time with Prabati and her family while the others headed up. We sat inside their one bedroom house admiring their family photo and exchanging goofy happy smiles for a while when a beautiful teenage girl confidently walked in, took us each by the hand and summoned us up to the house where the others had gone. She guided us like a father would walk his bride up the aisle and we soon realised that no amount of protest will get us out of what was bound to be a second plate.

We walked into the house and were greeted by knowing laughter from our friends and the family. As soon as we sat down the feeding commenced. Obviously. Yep, you guessed it: some dhal bat, some vegetable dishes, some chicken and generally too much delicious food. Ellie and I had not met this lady before, but when she heard that two of the gang was nearby she had promptly sent her daughter to fetch us. That is just how it works here. The thread of generosity runs through it all.

We slowly managed to eat our food and still failed miserably at our attempts of preventing our plates to be refilled. As soon as we were done and wanting to say our goodbyes, we were faced with another “we are starting to prepare your snacks now” situation. It took a lot of explaining from the Nepali girls to decline this offer as politely as is possible.

My food baby was weighing me down by this point, but we made our way back down to Prabati’s house for our second lunch which would now in fact be our third lunch.

We got served more chicken, some chana (chickpeas) and more rice. Go figure. The raksi also came out. Raksi is Nepal’s answer to Saki and to me is not dissimilar in taste and effect of clean ethanol. Thankfully I was still on my medication so I had a legitimate reason to decline the offer. It was now nearly 3pm so we had been eating for 5 hours straight.

When it finally became time to say our goodbyes, we took a few pictures with the family which I intend to print and take back to them before I leave. Prabati’s daughter went inside the house and came back out with three pairs of earrings and three hairbands decorated with bright flowers. She had gotten these especially for Ellie, Sasha and myself, and took great pride in decorating our hair and putting our earrings in for us. When it was my turn she gave me one look, turned around into the house, came out with a stool and got onto it so that she could reach my hair. This made everyone chuckle. I am a little bit like the amazon woman in Nepal, and have gotten used to always minding my head when entering and exiting any house.

It is hard to put into words the way I felt after this day. The only way I can really describe it is that I felt full. Of food, yes of course.

But full to the brim of nothing other than love. I have never in my life been on the receiving end of so much gratitude, love and soul connections without language. This is true for my entire time in Nepal. It will stay with me forever and I am a better person for it.


The colour crazy! 

This blog entry comes to you straight from the “comfort” of my top bunk where I have spent the last five days in a pretty dazed state. What started as a mild stomach bug in Kathmandu nine days ago, has progressed to the point where I had no choice but to venture to the makeshift clinic in town yesterday for some advice. Turns out I have Giardia, a nasty little parasite. I am going to spare you the details, but suffice to say this has not been the most fun I have had in a while, and I am currently tripping on some very strong medication. I have been out of action work wise for the whole week, and have found this unbelievably frustrating to deal with, because I am simply not in Nepal to be sick, but to work and improve lives. I complained about this to my friend, who in her infinite wisdom replied that I have already helped many lives change, including my own. And that made me remember again just how lucky I am to have already had such life changing experiences, in addition to adding some value for others. Besides, getting some form of stomach related illness has almost become a rites of passage to Nepal. I feel as though I have earned my stripes! Now let’s hope it clears sooner rather than later so that I can get back to the rocks and dirt I have grown to love so much. 

Since I last blogged, I have joined one of the mobile teams for a week at a school rebuild site, called Jalpa Yuwa. This was without a doubt the best week since I have been on project. We have a mobile base set up with tents, outside showers and toilets built with bamboo and tarpaulin on a rice paddy at the top of a mountain. 360 views of more beautiful mountains were my office view for a week. (I am pretty sure that a Nepalese person would describe these as hills rather, but for me they are pretty magnificent mountains.) 

We arrived to this base on the back of a truck, which was a dusty, bumpy, crazy experience, and there were more than a few times I silently thanked the dhal bat padding I have gained for soft(er) landings. I saw the most spectacular sunsets which no amount of words or pictures will be able to do justice. The school rebuild is taking place in partnership with a local organisation called Room to Read, working on retrofitting and building schools. On Thursday we mixed and poured concrete all day. It was good to do something construction related. We work right next to the temporary school and the kids entertain us throughout the day (and we them, I am sure). 

The small village at Jalpa have embraced us and welcomed us into their community. Here too, the generosity that is shown to us is unlike anything I have ever experienced. On our last night, Sunita, the local lady who cooks our dinners, arranged a party for us. She laid on a buffet dinner in front of her corrugated iron house and we had the entire village watch us eat this feast. As soon as we all had more than our fair share, the music started and we had the best time dancing the night away. I have never experienced so much love and happiness in such simple surroundings. It rates as one of the best nights of my life. 

The next morning we were heading back to our Nuwakot base, and had to walk down the mountain to meet our van in town, as it could not make the drive up to base on the damaged roads. After having walked down, my mind is somewhat blown as to how we got up there in the truck in the first place.

Last Monday the entire Nuwakot base trekked en masse to Kathmandu to celebrate Holi, the Hindu spring festival of colour. I was also due my break after Holi, so had an entire week of downtime to look forward to. To celebrate Holi in Nepal is as authentic as it gets, and it did not disappoint. Everywhere you walk people rub paint on your face, hair, clothes and arms. Water guns and buckets of water tipped from balconies above also make for a fun mess. We walked to Durbar square where a massive party was underway. It was a sight to see, the colour crazy literally everywhere I looked! I have never had as many people touch my face as during this one day, everyone saying sincerely “Happy Holi” as they added yet another colour to the layers and layers of paint already on me. It was a weird and wonderful experience. 

After Holi, my friends Emma, Ellie and I spent another day in Kathmandu just relaxing, before setting off for two days to Nagarkot. This area of Nepal is about 20km from Kathmandu and is famous for its views of the Himalayas, especially at sunrise. After a four hour trip including three local buses, and an ascent of about 1,200m during which I was standing the entire way, we got to Nagarkot and checked in to the Mount Paradise Hotel. It’s a good thing that relaxing was high on our agenda, because that is all we ended up doing for the next 48 hours. Sadly not because we had much choice. 

The three of us were all down with this bug, and pretty much slept and slept and then slept a bit more. Having heard about the famous, breathtaking views, we did however plan to at least make the trip to see this. So on our last morning we got up at 5am, walked 3km to the viewpoint, saw absolutely nothing due to the smog and haze, nearly dehydrated on our way, walked 3km back to the hotel, slept some more and then traveled back to Kathmandu. And ever since then I have been woman down with this little parasite. Today I am finally feeling so much better and I am hopeful that the end is in sight and that I will get back to rubbling next week. One of our previous beneficiaries invited us to lunch tomorrow, it will be good to go and spend some time with them.  

When I first got to Nepal, I kept thinking to myself that signing up for two and a half months was maybe a little bit ambitious. Now I just desperately want time to go slower. I am getting so anxious about leaving this country, this organisation, these friends I made and of course the daily dhal bat. It’s been nothing but a privilege.


I wonder.

So they say “third time lucky”, and I truly hope they are right, because I have managed to lose this blog entry twice already. It is a challenge to write it all on Notes on my phone, and I was close to throwing said phone in the Trisuli river on Tuesday evening, but here goes again. Fingers crossed.
I have not posted too many updates since arriving in Nepal, and I feel guilty about that, because my blog’s whole purpose was to act as a news feed to my friends and family. 

Truth is though that I am finding it hard to narrate the colourful experiences I have had on a daily basis since arriving. This is possibly because of the plethora of revelations and questions this trip to Nepal has raised in me, that seem so much bigger than the beautiful details of my days. 

I wonder about so many things. I wonder how the East got so far removed from the West. I wonder how a whole world can turn a comfortable blind eye to the huge disparity that exists in this separation. I wonder at Divine connections and Divine timing. I wonder how I have not yet tired of dal bhat, cold showers and squat toilets. I wonder how and when the measure of success in the Western world became so closely linked to material wealth. I wonder at how spiritually elevated the Nepali people seem to me. I wonder at the human spirit, and just how much it can endure. I wonder about my future, and where my passion and purpose will meet. 

Heavy stuff, granted. 

But, despite my borderline inner-Virgo desperately wanting to arrange these questions and their as-yet-unknown answers in neat columns, I have not been this happy and at peace in a very long time. And it’s hard to pinpoint why exactly.

Six days a week we get up at the crack of dawn, gather our tools and walk through the villages to our work sites. We rubble, shovel, throw rocks, break down walls and slowly but surely help people clear their land in order to rebuild their lives. I have been lucky to be on two sites that we finished since being here. The beneficiaries spoil us with literally all they have. They invite us into their modest homes for lunch, they give us the sweetest milk tea, they provide us with their own pillows when we sleep off our rice-comas, and they get involved with the bittersweet task of breaking down for new beginnings. They work with us, laugh with and at us, and I am sure they wonder at us as much as I am fascinated by them. 

The local community has embraced our loud gang of westerners with open arms. Maya’s has the only wifi connection in town so naturally she draws a good crowd. Sanu, at the other edge of town, does washing for us and has a pancake breakfast menu on Saturday’s for our benefit. There are fantastic Momo’s to be had at “the place on the left”, while “the place on the right” serves a chow mein that is second to none. Our landlord, Krishna, has opened a little shop next to base where we can buy beers, chocolates and a few other bits. Everywhere we go, the kids run at us with an enthusiastic “Namaste, what is your nâââââme?”, and of course a universal high five. 

There has been only one incident where I have felt slightly scared and vulnerable. Five of us girls had a great need (using the word “need” lightly here) for pizza a couple of weeks ago. We set off on what would be a 45 minute hike, including a very steep set of zig zag stairs at the end, in order to reach the only place remotely nearby where we could find pizza. Arriving rather ravenous, we were told that there was no cheese, so pizza was not an option. Unless of course we wanted to take the owner up on the offer of making us pizza with butter (?) instead. We were feeling less than adventurous by this point and opted for burgers. Oh wait, no buns, because the bun factory is not open on Saturdays. Fail of a dinner really, and we ended up having standard Nepali food which we could have done locally had we known. After dinner we got our headlamps ready and started to head back down the steep drop of dark, rocky steps winding back into town. Out of nowhere, some fist sized rocks started flying at us from above. Our screams to stop had no effect, and we had no choice but to start running down, all the while trying to cover our heads and not trip over loose stones. This experience made us feel anxious and exposed, but I am convinced that it was purely youngsters trying to scare us, not for one second realising the potential danger of these flying rocks. The bottom line is, I have not experienced anything other than love, kindness, generosity and friendship since arriving. I am in awe of the Nepali people.

I have been here a month today, and while on the one hand it has flown by, I feel as though I have been here forever. In a good way. I am yet again having a chance to evaluate what really matters in this life, and I am yet again coming to the conclusion that kindness is indeed what makes my world go round. I am getting so much from this experience and I feel ashamed about the naive arrogance of my ways in the past. I feel humbled by all I have seen so   far and cannot wait for the rest to unfold.  



Everyday I’m shoveling…

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So I made it through the first working week in Nuwakot. So far, it has been a trip. We are split into teams on a daily basis, and work on different sites. Typically, these are homes of people who were badly affected by the earthquake. The majority of work is breaking down of walls, and clearing an unbelievable amount of rubble for people who simply do not have the resources to do it themselves. (The pick axe has become my friend!)All the sites I have been on so far have the families living in temporary shelters, with their buffalo, goats and chickens nearby. The site I started on week is of a 39 year old woman with three children, whose husband was killed in the earthquake. It takes about 9 of us a week of heavy work on average to clear a site ready for rebuild, so you can imagine that for one woman this is simply impossible.

It is hard, dirty work, but so incredibly rewarding.

The beneficiaries cook lunch for us on site. This is where it gets interesting. In Nepal it is considered incredibly offensive to leave food on your plate. But in Nepal there also seems to be no limits to the amount of food they think we can eat in one sitting. I learnt this the hard way, but the best way to deal with this is to take some food off your plate onto a clean plate before you start eating. Not a day has gone by where we didn’t get served ample amounts of dal bhat, which is rice with a type of lentil soup you pour over it. We usually get this with a variety of other dishes and sauces. The beneficiary keeps walking around with serving bowls and the second you let your guard down they will sneak more food on your plate. It really is incredible how generous they are and how much pride they take in serving us. What strikes me is that those with nothing to give, give everything.
Life at the base is communal living at its best. It is a super well organised place, but with absolutely no frills. We are about 80 people on base, and live in what was previously a guesthouse complex. It is basic to say the least, but then I guess it would totally defeat the purpose of what we are trying to achieve if funds are spent to keep the volunteers cosy. We get breakfast and dinner at base. Dinners are cooked by two locals. Our work t-shirts are also rotated on a daily basis and a local lady comes to wash these by hand every second day. We have cold showers, and take turns in pairs to do housekeeping.

There is e-coli in the water (yum), so we take care to not get any of it in our bodies, even brushing our teeth with bottled water. We work 6 days a week from 7am each morning, with Saturdays off. I have seen more than one mouse and rat (in the base!) and there is also a red panda doing the rounds at night. I have a top bunk, which is supposedly less safe in an earthquake, but I prefer to be out of reach of the rodents! This might sound irrational, but those of you who know me well will know that I have previously moved house because of a mouse so this is the next best thing I can do to manage my fear.

Speaking of earthquakes: there has been two tremors since I arrived, both at night. We have an evacuation procedure which is prompted by a whistle. I have slept soundly through both of these, of which one was a 5.5 on the Richter scale, with its epicentre nearby. I was a little bit unhappy that my roommates didn’t think to wake me for the evacuation and had a word with my top bunk roommate, Gabe, who is this really lovely, crazy guy from Seattle. I asked him to please wake me in future when they all evacuate. To this he looked at me as if I was really losing my marbles. He said, in his very American accent: “Dude are you kidding me? I was lying in bed when I felt the earthquake, and I was like totally freaking out, thinking this is my first night and there is like totally an earthquake happening; what do I do?? I was shaking you by your shoulders asking what the protocol is, but you looked me straight in the eyes, shooting daggers at me, then turning around and carrying on sleeping. I was thinking, man she is totally chilled and here I am freakin out! Either way, I am out!”

So he has promised to not leave me again in a similar scenario unless I actually physically register movement! It was hysterically funny to hear his version of the story, and a blessing I guess to sleep so soundly.

The tremors have freaked me out a little though. I had to have a long hard think and a word with myself as to how I was going to deal with it. I came to the conclusion that I am here to help people whose lives have forever been changed by the earthquake of last year. I cannot live in fear of when the next one will be, it will cripple me and steal all my energy (which I really do need for rubbling). There are many different theories about the increase in tremors, but the fact is that nobody will ever be able to predict these things, and in the meantime I am having faith that I am exactly where I need to be. I am blessed to be able to experience this in a beautiful place with beautiful people.
That’s all for now folks, I will tell you a little more about the local community in my next post, but until then be good. And if you can’t be good, be careful. Wise words from my late grandmother.

Oh, and side note: Prince Harry is set to visit Nepal in March just when I am due my break in Kathmandu. Told you I don’t believe in coincidence!

Back to base(ics)

My first few days in Nepal have been nothing short of amazing. I have seen so much, and my mind has been blown already. I arrived in Kathmandu on Tuesday afternoon. The landing was spectacular. I saw Everest from the aeroplane!

 The airport itself was not exactly what I would call award winning, but I got my visa, some Nepalese Rupees, and my very heavy backpack without too much hassle.

I was planning to spend two nights in Kathmandu to buy a local SIM card, a sleeping mat and a few other bits before heading to base. While I was still planning my trip, I was a little apprehensive about my time in Kathmandu, as I had no idea what to expect or where to stay. 

As many of you know by now though, I don’t believe in coincidence. 

So, by sheer “coincidence”, I met a lovely South African couple while on holiday there, who lived in Nepal previously. They gave me some valuable tips, and also put me in touch with Bikram, their friend who owns a guesthouse in Kathmandu. I booked to stay at the guesthouse, and Bikram had arranged for a taxi to fetch me from the airport.

As I exited the airport I was met with a sight of about 100 Nepalese taxi drivers, all waiting with name boards. It took a while before I saw my name, but I finally got to my taxi. 

Not to be confused with the London black cab, the Nepalese taxis are little Maruti Suzuki 800’s, all who seem to have known much better days. The ride to the guesthouse took about 30 mins, and even after all that time, I still cannot quite confirm which side of the road they (should) drive on in Nepal! The traffic is unlike anything I have ever seen, or heard for that matter. There are an insane amount of motorbikes and scooters, buses and cars. Pedestrians, cows, goats and chickens all seem to have equal right of way as the vehicles, and a constant serenade of hooters is heard anywhere in Kathmandu all through the day. And the most bizarre thing for me is that the hooters are purely used to indicate their intention to go ahead, and does not seem to ignite any road rage or anger with anyone. As the taxi driver explained to me, it is very much a case of reading the other driver’s mind. (!)

Once I got to the guesthouse I was very overwhelmed. I guess the excitement, apprehension, travel time, jet lag and sensory overload just got to me a bit. Bikram was lovely and agreed to meet me in the morning to help me around to get a SIM card and sleeping mat before my trek to Nuwakot on Thursday. 

I had a deliberately bland dinner and slept incredibly well. 
Wednesday morning I got to see more of Kathmandu on our shopping trip. The thing that struck me about this fabulous place is that despite everything seeming so super chaotic, it all just seems to work. Things get done, people get about, and above all everyone is incredibly friendly and helpful. It is sad to hear that the tourism industry has been nearly wiped out after the earthquake. I had another early night as I had to get up early for the next day’s adventure of getting to the volunteer base.
So on Thursday I got up really early to be at the bus station in time to get the one daily bus to Nuwakot. I use the terms “bus”, and “bus station” loosely here. There was nothing to give the bus station away other than the taxi driver stopping, getting a sheet of newspaper out, and putting my backpack on it. He knew where I was heading, and he kindly spoke to the ticket officer on my behalf and made sure I got on the right bus. Said bus was a vehicle with four wheels. That is the only resemblance it has to any bus I have ever seen. 

As for my luggage, a Nepalese chap promptly climbed up the side of the bus and launched my 22kg backpack on the roof. So I was sitting on this bus with no idea how I was going to know when to get off, when another All Hands volunteer got on. I knew this instantly, because he was the only other non-Nepalese person on the bus. He was ordered to sit next to me, which was good, because he had the privilege to have all the standing passengers’ elbows in his face and sides for the entire journey. This bus trip made the London rush hour tube look like a business class lounge. 

After four hours of intense travel, we got to the Colony Intake bus stop which is where we had to get off. The route from Kathmandu is a mere 70km, but all of this is against gravity defying heights, with more than a few forced reversals, numerous moments of me trying desperately to lean over to prevent the bus from tipping over the edge and the hooter of the bus used excessively when going round blind corners. At least I saw some simply incredible views.

The last stretch of our journey to base was supposedly a 25 minute walk. It was in my best interest to make this as quick as possible, since I had a heavy pack on my back, and a slightly smaller, but also pretty solid backpack on my chest. It was heavy. We did however manage to get lost despite the detailed photo instructions we both got from All Hands (no google map potential here), but eventually found our way to the volunteer base which would be home for the next two months. 

The volunteer base is a huge pink building behind an even bigger Vishnu tree. I didn’t realise that Friday was a public holiday in Nepal, and Saturdays are our days off as standard, so I had two days ahead of me to acclimatise, find my space, and finally get over what remaining jet lag I still had. 

In my next post I will tell you all about the area, the base and the actual volunteer work we do. 

So far it’s all good. It’s been an experience, and I will lie if I say that my comfort zone is not being pushed to the maximum. I am confronted daily with how utterly privileged and comfortable I have been so far in my life, taking so much of the basics for granted. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. We all do it. But more of that in my next post! 

Next stop, Nepal

So here I am, sitting underneath a great big Vishnu tree, surrounded by mountains, in rural Nuwakot, Nepal.

It has been a while since I posted on this blog and I apologise for the radio silence. Since chatting last, I have spent a glorious time in sunny South Africa, having fun with my family and friends and generally just taking some time out from the whirlwind of experiences I had since May last year.

So, Nepal; how did that happen? Good question, and as I write this I am still having to pinch myself to comprehend it!
My friend Julia and I were chatting last year about possible opportunities where I might be able to volunteer. She then told me about All Hands Disaster Relief, and I was immediately intrigued. This organisation does incredible work to address the immediate and long-term needs of societies hit by natural disasters. I had a look at their active projects, and the earthquake response project in Nepal just jumped out at me. Before I could think about it too much, I applied, got a spot on project, and boom, here I am volunteering with All Hands (look them up, they are pretty cool!). It all just happened so easily, that I am convinced it is right where I need to be right now. The earthquakes that hit Nepal in April and May last year caused destruction and loss of life that is difficult to comprehend. Since being here and seeing how remote some of the places are, it is just more apparent how the Nepalese people affected by the earthquakes are mostly not in a position to rebuild and recover by themselves.

Safe to say that it has been a sensory and emotional overload since arriving in Kathmandu on Tuesday, and I am just taking some time processing it all. I will share this colourful experience with you all in my next blog post, hopefully tomorrow!image image image image image

Not a bad gig this life, is it?


No, indeed it is not. It is filled with beautiful moments, beautiful people, and beautiful memories. As I wrote my last blog post I was nearly finishing up at the Abbey. My last day was a spectacularly beautiful day with bright blue skies, and everything sparkled. As Neill and I arrived at The Abbey we saw a pilgrim struggling down the road. He was quite clearly in a lot of pain and when he came past we started chatting to him. Turns out he had massive blisters on his feet and was having a hard time with his hiking boots (déjà vu, much?).  My heart immediately went out to this man who was quite clearly in a lot of pain, but was also no doubt battling other thoughts like “will I have to end my Camino?”, “did I not train enough?”, “how will I get through today?” etc.  I related to what he was going through so much. I asked Neill whether we could suggest that he stays with us at The Abbey for the day and then get a lift into town with us later in the afternoon to save him walking 20km with his infected blisters, and he agreed. Later on when we were sitting enjoying lunch in the sun, Max and I got talking and he asked about my story. I explained how I was stuck in a career where I didn’t feel as though I made the world a better place. To that he looked me straight in the eye and said “you made my world a better place today”. A simple offer of a lift into town led this man to say something so kind. And I guess that there is exactly the point I had to get: sometimes we completely disregard the significance and importance of our actions and words, even the tiniest ones which we think have no meaning, but by saying and doing them anyway someone else might have a profound experience.

This was a beautiful day for me, and a complete full circle moment: I arrived at The Abbey in exactly the same way a few months ago, and on my last day there I got to pay forward the kindness that was shown to me. I have since caught up with Max and he is doing well and keeping on keeping on.

Then as promised in my last update, I was on a mission to find out the deal with the Walking Man. Well (disappointment alert), I am sorry to report that I do not have an update. Not for lack of me trying. I was very determined on this last day to be bold and chat to him to find out the deal, but lo and behold, this was the ONE day since the dawn of time that he did not walk past. I actually couldn’t believe it. But, you know what, maybe he just didn’t want his story to be known and that is ok.

After leaving the Abbey I spent the weekend in Pamplona with Spanish Springbok friend. On Saturday afternoon we took bicycles and cycled about 15km out of Pamplona all along the river to a little village restaurant on the river. The autumn colours were beautiful and the lazy late afternoon sun was warm on my face. We had a scrumptious lunch and headed back just in time before dark. The weather has been somewhat of a miracle. Even as I wrote this it was a lovely sunny 22 degrees. Newspapers report it the warmest November since 1985. It is pretty much summer and amazingly bizarre.

The following week I walked the stretch of the Camino from Pamplona to Logroño, just shy of 100km. It only made sense to end my stay in Spain in a similar way to how the journey began. I wasn’t sure what to expect though as there are so few pilgrims on the road at this time of year, and this would no doubt change the vibe of the walk. I also didn’t expect to connect with other pilgrims so much, since I was only doing a short part of the walk. On my first day of walking I got caught on top of a mountain in a ridiculous downpour. It was raining quite severely and I wasn’t overly prepared for it given the amazing weather that we have had and also the fact that I was only walking for four days. A lovely and kind Irish man gave me his poncho against my objections and without ever knowing whether he will see me again to be able to get it back. Said Irish man has since become a very good friend, like so many others I have met on this mystical path back in June.

After the week’s walking I headed back to Pamplona where I had a lovely few days taking in more of this fabulous place. I also joined Spanish Springbok friend and some of his friends on Saturday to go to a farm in the Basque village of Lesaka, where we spent the day picking kiwi’s, sightseeing, getting an impromptu tour of a cyder house, and having some typical Basque food.

I spent my last few days in Spain in Madrid. I loved the city, the food, the colours, the people, the food, the buildings, the weather, the food, the food, the food… did I mention the food? I have to admit though that I did experience the big city a little bit full on and intense after my two wholesome months of fresh air in Navarra.

I am now back in not-so-sunny England for a short while before heading off to South Africa for a couple of months. It is lovely to see my sister and her little family and also hang out with my friends, but I will be lying if I say that I don’t miss Spain daily. And somehow saying goodbye just didn’t feel so very permanent – I WILL be back.

I am grateful for the last two months and for the incredible people I met along the way, the kindness I experienced, the sun and fresh air, and then also for the luxury of time to think. Sounds funny, but quite a lot of thinking can be done while mowing a lawn or yanking out floorboards you know. Some of my random thoughts and revelations include the following:

  • I believe the world would be a better place for all of us if we can learn to just be. To stop analysing other people’s actions all the time, constantly looking for their motives and second guessing it.
  • There is very rarely, if ever, a valid excuse to withhold kindness from others.
  • Nobody deserves to be lonely.
  • Soul mates are found in unexpected places.
  • We spend so much time planning and deliberating and doubting our next moves. The best advice for that I have ever heard is probably in the ever so clever words of Nike: “just do it”.

I hope to be a little more prompt in posting a next update of my musings – until then, “Hasta Luego”!

Wednesday 28 October

So it has been a while since I last posted an update, but in between renovating an Abbey, doing a day trip to San Sebastian, discovering the phenomenon that is Spanish G&T’s and providing rugby lessons to an unsuspecting Pamplona local, it has been a busy two weeks.

Further to my last post, where I was having dismal luck in getting some proper rugby viewing organised, things have improved vastly on that front. I met a Pamplona local a couple of Sunday’s ago when he and his friend cycled past The Abbey. At the time he was (like every other Spaniard) blissfully unaware of the Rugby World Cup being underway, but a week later he had done some research, found us a very trendy bar with a Wales supporting owner and we watched the quarter final there. Apart from my new token Springbok supporter, I am still very much the only SA rugby girl in this town, but had great fun watching rugby the Spanish way. This included a few gins & tonics, which in Spain has become a bit of an art form. Think liquid nitrogen, cardamom, star anise and black peppercorn infusion and you have a rough idea. We also squeezed in a visit to a contemporary art exhibition earlier in the day so balanced culture and sport out quite nicely.

After the rugby I experienced Spain’s answer to a pub crawl. We went from bar to bar and sampled a different pintxo and small beer in each. Pintxos is the Basque word for tapas, and every bar has counters full of these displayed. And lots and lots and lots of ham (jamon). You really will have a hard time living in this country as a vegetarian… Last Saturday we also watched the rugby at the same pub and then carried on to a flamenco bar with dancers and live music. I loved it and decided that if all else fails I might come and take some flamenco lessons as a possible career change… I was struck by the fact that not a single one of the dancers had anything other than pitch black long hair, and I cannot help but wonder what will happen if a fair haired girl was to apply for a job. Is there a rule about the flamenco hair colour? Is it all coincidence? The mind boggles.

At The Abbey we have now seen far fewer pilgrims on a daily basis so most days we don’t tend to open the church for pilgrims to look in. This has freed us up to get on with some of the bigger tasks. This past week, I have painted the cemetery walls, dug a trench around it, and ripped up the wooden floorboards from the front of the church to allow the wet foundations to dry out. The crowbar is now on par with the wrecking bar as my favourite work tool. And as soon as I get back to London I will be selling tickets to the gun show, with discounted rates to my blog followers. J Seriously though, the physical work has been hard but so very refreshing and I enjoyed the instant results that are apparent when you start and finish a job in the same day. I am still seeing the mystery Walking Man daily, and he is even initiating the wave now. I have only two more days left at The Abbey though so will have to employ some serious bravery tomorrow or Friday to make sure I get to the bottom of the curious case of the walking man!

The previous mayor of the adjacent village has also started an unofficial game of “find the walnut” on a daily basis. He walks past on his daily stroll carrying a load of fresh walnuts. One day he simply launched them at me from the road with me frantically dodging the flying nuts and making sure I find them all. Nowadays he hides them in little secret places, ranging from the porch of The Abbey, to the windscreen wipers on Neill’s car. It’s quite sweet and very much like a daily Easter Egg Hunt, only it isn’t Easter and they are not eggs.

On Thursday when I was ripping out the floorboards in the church a French couple came walking in to the church with Neill showing them around. The lady signalled for me to come over and said: “come here, I want to talk to you”. Just like that. We proceeded to chat for a while and I commented on her interesting scarf-like fleece hat thing. Then on Sunday (when sadly I wasn’t around), she came all the way back to The Abbey. She bluntly asked Cath: “Where is Jacobie? This is for her” and left me a brand new scarf-like fleece hat thing which she bought and brought all the way back for me. How sweet? I am a little sad that I wasn’t there or don’t have her details to say thank you, because I am so touched by the fact that they came all the way back.

The reason I wasn’t at The Abbey on Sunday is that I treated myself to a day in San Sebastian, on the coast. It was a lovely sunny day, and I walked all along the lovely three beaches of San Sebastian, and ate more pintxos than can be considered normal.

This weekend I will cycle out to Alto de Perdon, about 20km from Pamplona on the Camino, with my new Spanish friend. I have also decided to finish off my time in Spain with a quick week’s walk along the Camino, which I will start next week, and then back to Pamplona for a weekend. I will spend three days or so in Madrid before going back to London. I cannot believe that nearly two months will have passed since I arrived. I am having an amazing time and wouldn’t mind figuring out a way to maybe head back this way in the future. I love the Spanish people, the Spanish way of life, the language and the weather. I am however not quite yet used to the fact that an early dinner means you eat before 21h30, which is my normal bed time, but I am sure with time I can come to terms with even that.IMG_4995 IMG_5008 image1 image2

Like cake…

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“Like a sponge cake, with lots and lots of cream, and maybe even some strawberries.”

This, ladies and gentlemen, is apparently what my accent sounds like to a young Italian lady who passed The Abbey a week ago. Now, my accent has been described in many ways, with very few of these descriptions counting as even marginally flattering, so this statement was such a welcome compliment that I had to write it down. Did make me think of cake the entire rest of the day, mind.

There have been quite a few sunny moments like these since I last wrote. Daily encounters with the pilgrims who pass The Abbey are a highlight. Although the number of walkers is gradually declining due to it now becoming much colder, there are still a fair amount of people walking past. I take a lot from some meaningful chats to pilgrims, like a lovely Venezuelan woman who told me in no uncertain terms that she felt a very strong sense that I had a clear purpose here. Another woman handed me a little card that she had made in memory of her late brother. The quote on the back said:

See Everything

Overlook a Great Deal

Improve a little

I loved that, and it seemed so fitting to my journey currently. I think it applies to most of us really, we often get so hung up on not being able to change everything, but really all we need to do is make sure we improve a little bit for someone every day.

At risk of sounding like someone who has been whacked too hard over the head with an incense stick, I am having quite a few mystical experiences and connections, and these are an encouragement to me as I carry on with my day to day figuring out.

Speaking of figuring out… if not my life mission, then there is at least one thing I have promised myself to figure out before I leave here. On a daily basis there is a man who walks past The Abbey twice. He starts off in Pamplona every morning, walks past The Abbey on his way out, and then walks all the way back in the afternoon. This equates to roughly 40km each day which gets him back home late in the afternoon. He strolls past with his long ponytail, light pack over his shoulder, and umbrella fixed across his back. He walks every single day despite the weather, and Neill told me that he has been doing this since they first got there 15 odd months ago. Now curiosity got the better of me and I have made it my mission to find out what the deal is. He is not overly chatty, but I have started greeting him from the grounds each day. At first I barely got a nod in response, but nowadays he even lifts his hand in acknowledgement. I do realise that these are baby steps and I might need to up the ante a bit if I want to know the score before Christmas!

On a completely separate note, and really I am not sure why I am even surprised, but in Spain, the rugby she is not big… I must be the only person I know who left London town just when the Rugby World Cup arrived, but so be it and here I am in Pamplona where really, most people have not even heard of the sport. In a moment of brilliance however, I had a cunning plan to get to watch a few matches. I figured that if there is one place that will show the matches, it will be an Irish Pub, and every city in the world I have been to like ever, has an Irish Pub. To be sure, to be sure.

I googled Irish Pubs in Pamplona and what do you know, there is one called “The Harp”. I got really excited, got the bus into town, got my phone out to follow the directions, got to the place where my phone proudly announces that “my destination is on the right”, and alas there is nothing. Really nothing. Just a shut roller door with lots of graffiti on it (and not even graffiti of a clover or something remotely Irish).

I considered asking some Spanish locals, but given their non-interest in rugby, I wasn’t sure it would be worth me attempting the conversation in what little Spanish I know. So I strolled around a bit, found a shop entirely dedicated to selling Rooibos tea in every flavour under the sun (and yet they don’t know rugby…), and then stumbled upon a little German Frankfurter café where inside there were four men, and a TV showing the rugby. This wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but in I went and watched myself a bit of rugby. I heard the two guys behind me talk about the game. I started chatting to them and before long it turned out that the one guy was the guy who sold me my new walking shoes when I had to get a new pair in June when walking the Camino. Small world or what!

Last week I joined Cath and Neill when they met up with some of their Spanish friends. It was nice to get to know some of their friends and we went for beer and hamburgers at a very chilled place called “The House Beer”… can you spell Google Translate fail?! I am guessing they wanted to call the place The Beer House, since they have a lot of international beers on the menu, and not just the house beer as the name suggests. Tee hee.

Other than that work continues at The Abbey. I am enjoying the daily dose of fresh air, physical activity, and without a doubt the most scenic surroundings I have ever had the privilege of working in. Nowhere wears autumn better than Northern Spain it seems. The colours are changing daily and it is just breathtakingly beautiful to see all the gold, yellow and red leaves on display in the valley. I also took a long walk all through Pamplona on Friday with my camera – so much to see in this place.

I will report back on my progress regarding The Mystery of the Walking Man soon, and hope all you lovely people are well and happy, and looking after yourselves in the meantime.