“Where is that exactly?” was often the response when I told people I was volunteering at an orphanage in Nepal. One of the first things you should know before travelling to Nepal is that it is far, especially if you allow me to book your flight. Explaining the route I was taking to this landlocked country was only slightly less confusing to my dad than why I was going there in the first place. “Isn’t that the wrong way?” he asked. My reasoning for zigzagging my way to Nepal was also puzzling to him. If I had to guess his inner monologue it was probably, “Dear God boy, please tell me in all those years at school you once studied a map.”
My plane left from JFK Airport for Frankfurt, Germany, and then inexplicably went to Singapore, before finally backtracking to Nepal’s capital and largest city, Kathmandu. During my flight, I thought about politely asking if I could be dropped off since we were literally flying over Nepal only to return several hours later.
What is interesting about Singapore is that it is close to places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Each of these countries shares the distinction of being extremely far from Nepal. In fact, I went to graduate school with a talented actress from Singapore and the only thing she ever mentioned about her home was that it was a ridiculously long way away. She seemed to get tired just explaining it to me. Still, my intuition told me that the exhausting journey to this part of Asia would be well worth the effort.
After a few days of very lax traffic laws, blaring scooter horns, and nocturnal barking dogs, I bid Kathmandu a farewell for its more tranquil neighbor, Chitwan. The bus ride to Chitwan took about four hours and was full of breathtaking sites, precarious roads, and very questionable driving decisions. But it all somehow worked lending itself to the full experience.
When my new friend Lilli, a volunteer from Australia, and I arrived in Nepal’s Central Region, we had no idea what to expect. Our duties were never clearly explained to us before we left. “Have fun and take care of the children,”was basically the extent of our instruction. “I’m just glad we’re in this together,” Lilli and I would say to each other. Teamwork and friendship proved to be our saving grace.
When we stepped off the bus a young woman named Jodi, who was like a headmaster, greeted us and took us to the orphanage. Nine children were anxiously awaiting our arrival. They ranged in age from 5 to 13 years old. They were bright, carefree, welcoming, and beautiful. Lilli and I immediately felt at home and just dove in by helping the kids with their schoolwork, playing games, and eating dinner together. Perhaps the reason our “job” was not described before we left was because Bicky, the founder of the organization, knew that our purpose would simply reveal itself.
Lilli and I were certainly go-with-the-flow types, and neither of us had a problem with “roughing” it. This much was obvious in our decision to volunteer in a place with limited resources. Still, our time was not without its challenges. First, we both decided to work in Nepal in the middle of June. For most places in the northern hemisphere this means the weather is hot. The same is almost doubly true if the country you are visiting is a landlocked region in Central Asia. We shared a room with a fan that was only useful when the generator that powered it worked, which was not often. Giant mosquitos and a dodgy bathroom also made our stay interesting. But it also sobered the two of us up to the importance of a positive perspective.
Of course Lilli and I were not the only ones dealing with summery heat and bugs. There were also 9 small children facing the same circumstances, the significant difference being that they would not be leaving for home. They were home. Lilli and I also had devoted parents who offered love and support. Yet despite these vast differences, the children possessed an unbridled joy that I have never seen in all my life. The type of happiness that cannot be fabricated filled their tiny selves as they almost glowed with appreciation for everything. Not once did they complain about sharing a small room, receiving hand me down clothing, or attending school at 5:30 am to beat the summer heat. Instead, they practiced gratitude and a mindset of abundance. I was embarrassed that I had even thought about complaining. Their example schooled me in the importance of being appreciative for simply being alive. Soon these children became my youngest and most influential teachers.
It quickly dawned on me that most of the volunteers that came through the orphanage in Chitwan were not men. I was shamelessly taken advantage of for any manual labor and heavy lifting, and luckily enjoyed every minute of it. One of the most joyous experiences I had was hauling corn the children and I had picked from a field back to the orphanage. The rickshaw had undoubtedly seen better days and the distance between the two places was probably about two miles, but we made it work and managed to have great fun along the way.
Of course, first we had to pick the corn.
It had rained the night before we set out to gather the latest harvest, which meant we had to trudge through deep thick mud to reach the corn. The sludge was so heavy that I lost one of my sandals. As the day went on I noticed the children were still laughing and playing hours after our work had begun. Here we were caked in mud, picking corn from weathered stalks in unforgivable heat, and they were in heaven, smiles unapologetically beaming from their faces.
Nepal taught me that happiness is a choice.