Be The Change

I have trouble describing the volunteer work I have done on this last trip. When I think about it it’s a little like describing religion in Nepal. It’s so knit into everyday life, it’s hard to pick apart from everything else that I did while I was here. Last weekend I was answering the “what did you do this time” question, and yet again my hubby had to jump in and say, “and you did all the volunteer stuff!” which I did. But it all happens so naturally, intertwined with everything else, that it’s not like hitting a hilltop and seeing an amazing view. It’s harder to describe all by itself. So I’ll roll some of that out now.

I went to Chitwan to meet with Milan about some of the projects he currently has in progress. Those of you with excellent memory will recall from my book, that Milan and I discussed these projects as we trekked up the Everest Highway together. Since our first meeting in 2011, we have always done well helping each other work through potential volunteer, nonprofit, and benefit projects. So he took me touring through villages near where he grew up. He is a well-known musician up in the hills in the village areas across Nepal, but here everyone knows him as a friend. As he’s gained fame, he has focused on the most needy in Nepal, beginning with his home district.

I met these folks when I was in Chitwan. Milan handed a newly completed home to them the day we met. The man was a jungle guide for years, but then contracted tuberculosis and was sick long enough to go through all their money. This August they lost their home in a 100-year flood. So Milan built them a new one. It’s this sort of work, and it’s so easy to do. Milan built a home for this couple last month. He said it cost $5000. He has done several of these.

The thing about projects like this in Nepal is they are everywhere and they are each tiny, helping a small unit directly. It’s not a popular idea to “give it to the government and let them distribute it” because the government isn’t so good at distributing funds and resources. As a result, many organizations circumvent central authority and handle it all themselves, creating a greater benefit for the beneficiaries (and saving lots of red tape). So it’s valuable to first get a handle on what’s being done. Later during my visit, he and I talked through lots of ideas for me helping him facilitate the current projects he has. He’s also working to fund a school and employ visiting English teachers. It sounds like a lot because it is. There is great potential for community benefit here, so my ears are open. My organizational skills will come in handy too as the project grows. Anyone who wants to join in is welcome.

Both nights I was in Chitwan, Milan had local music concerts. It might sound trivial, but morale is a pretty fragile thing when you live a subsistence life. When a musician comes to your village, it is a huge morale boost. I am still wrapping my head around it all, but when outside influence visits your community, that feeling is multiplied. Which is why I was honored and decorated (along with dozens of others) during Milan’s concerts. The second one was a small village community fundraiser to keep a school alive even though the government quit funding it.

I tried to be casual and just sneak the cash in the basket, but there were people everywhere! They caught me, and applause echoed through the near crowd. Then they insisted on marching me on stage as part of the opening ceremonies. After a cultural performance, the main musicians took the stage and every face in the crowd glowed until the end. The concert was attended by about 400 people and raised $5,000. The organizers were very happy with that. It should fund two teachers for a year. Money goes far here. Below is a photo of the musicians and me after the community decorated and celebrated us. It feels pretty nice.

As a funny side note, the concert on the first night caught me by surprise. I thought I would be able to wander in the dark, unnoticed with my camera, and take photos of the action on stage. That didn’t happen. I was seated in a chair beside the stage. Milan sat next to me on one side, and the concert organizer (agent, community leader, all of the above) sat on my other side. Milan explained in Nepali that I was a visiting friend, and in no time it was decided that I would be introduced and sit on stage during the opening of the program (usually 15 minutes to an hour). Seconds later Milan was announced and went on stage to applause, and sat at the back of the stage. Then they announced me, so I followed, and to my surprise, when they said, Miss Erika, from Seattle America, the crowd went crazy. Milan was laughing when I reached him, saying, “You got bigger applause than me.” It was true! So my volunteer part of that project was to walk across the stage, greet everyone kindly, and be from America. It builds morale in the community, I guess. And now that I know that, I’ll not fight so hard to stay off stage next time it happens. So there’s an example of how my volunteer work gets muddled with everything else that’s going on.

Milan and Durga singing Dohori

Faces in the crowd

As for larger projects, AC has worked for several years to build a very visible non profit with the aim of improving Nepal one project at a time. He has put in non-invasive hydropower in a remote village, rebuilt schools in SoluKhumbu and Chitwan, created awareness about climate change in the high Himalayan regions, rebuild a police post, and run medical and dental programs routinely to serve folks who can’t afford care. I’ve been lucky enough to work on many of these projects. This time while I was there he was doing a large dental volunteer project with the Dental School of New York University. I’m happy to plug in anywhere: reception, registration, pushing tables around and unloading boxes, but AC wanted photos of this program, and he had a mess of volunteers who were already plugged into many of the spots, so after I unloaded a couple boxes and pushed a couple tables, I came back the next day and did my photo thing.

Me and Dr S.

It’s great to watch an operation like this – American dentists – operate in a developing country. They planned for power outages, lack of light and crowded conditions. They dealt with all three in the first morning I was there. Dr S, who I talked with the other day, was the entire triage operation and by 11 am on the first day he had processed 48 patients! I watched an old monk and older lady both get instant dentures, since neither had any teeth. I watched them for an hour, then enjoyed the looks on their faces when they saw the mirror for the first time.

Tiny monks quietly pour in the door, thinking they aren’t noticed. Look at her face. A moment after I took this photo, she turned and grabbed one as well.

My third piece of volunteer work is photo-related as well. I met the founders of the Everyday Project back in 2013, and shortly after that I followed their model and created Everyday Nepal, which for me is a labor of love. The purpose of all teh Everyday Projects is to show real life of everyday people through photos of their lives. The project is meant to dispel the stereotypes that are created by mass media and headlines. So through that project I have gained a bunch of new photographer friends who live in Nepal. This trip I finally got to meet several of them in person. Our meetings also helped me learn how to better guide them toward what they need to create more visual photo projects across Nepal.

Pratik, a photographer from Pokhara

Bimal, Sarav and Aashish, photographers in Kathmamndu.

Then there is the potential volunteer work. Elephants, tigers, rhinoceros, snow leopards all live in Nepal. Environmental projects are everywhere in Nepal and I think it would be a dream to work on them as well. For now I’ll remember this:

I am covered in baby elephant slobber… and a smile!