On September 27, 2000, less than 24 hours after quitting my job with an Internet startup firm and saying goodbye to family and friends, I sat in my seat on the runway in New York for my flight to Nepal.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that this three-month trip as a volunteer English teacher might be one of the worst mistakes of my life. I had never been outside the U.S.A., I spoke no Nepali, and I had never even been a teacher. No one on the airplane looked even remotely like me. Were those really Muslim prayers blasting over the plane’s sound system?
As I stared out the window into the darkness, one of the flight attendants walked by to remind me to buckle my seatbelt. Buckle up, indeed.
I was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My parents and five siblings and I lived in a small house in a middle-class section of the city called Manayunk. While growing up, I played a lot of sports and spent most summers either at the New Jersey shore or in the family station wagon driving up and down America’s east coast. I attended a small liberal arts school, Franklin and Marshall College, where I majored in English and read a lot of great books for four years. I also played varsity baseball for three years before finally getting tired of bouncing too many curve-balls to opposing shortstops.
After graduating in 1991, I worked as a sales representative in the book business, then spent one drudging year as a temporary employee doing clerical and data entry work. My final temporary assignment, in 1995, was with a small software company. They asked me during the interview what I knew about computers. I told them I knew nothing. They hired me on the spot. I figured this must be a good field to be in if they’re paying that kind of money to a neophyte. That’s where I’ve been for the past five years, working at three successive companies as a software trainer, technical writer, programmer, database designer, and data analyst.
I would like to be able to say that my initial decision to go abroad was an altruistic one, but it wasn’t. It was selfish. I had, frankly, become increasingly dispirited by the numbing routine of my life. Work, eat, sleep, then wake up and do it all over again. Like many Americans, I had been spending most of my waking hours doing something with no real meaning to me, or anyone else it seemed. There just wasn’t much to look forward to each day. I was becoming a decidedly miserable person, and I didn’t like it. Turning 30 had given me a jolt as well.
Then one day, I found a book. Not THE book, but a book on world travel called World Stompers. Its twenty-something author, Brad Olsen, had taught in Japan and traveled the globe on a shoestring. He advocated budget world travel as a means of attaining “spiritual enlightenment,” devoting a chapter to each of the continents. I read and re-read the book for the next twelve months. I respected his philosophical raps, but I mostly reveled in the sheer escapism of it all.
That was it–escape. I would simply drop out of American society and travel internationally. I chose India. A relatively rough place to travel for sure, especially alone, but it was cheap and huge and full of history and natural beauty. I could do this. I was single with no kids, no car payment, and not much credit card debt. I had a mortgage, but I could find a renter easily. I bought Lonely Planet’s weighty guide to India, then began searching in earnest for a cheap flight to Bombay or New Delhi.
And then came…the Internet. Internet riches, specifically, or at least the prospect of them. My old boss called and offered me a job at a new Internet software company. Employee stock options, flexible hours, pet insurance (pet insurance?). I took the job, figuring I could postpone my travel plans until I got (ahem) rich. Six months later, I was even unhappier than before. The job sucked AND the market for Internet IPO’s started tanking in the summer of 1999. All along, though, I had been regularly surfing the Web for ideas and places for overseas travel.
The idea of volunteering abroad began to intrigue me. I had always enjoyed volunteering, with children in particular, starting in high school and continuing in my twenties as a mentor through Big Brothers/Big Sisters for five years. One day at work, I found several websites seeking volunteer English teachers for Nepal. There was much more to the country than Mount Everest, I learned, including friendly people, ancient temples, and lots of schools looking for foreign volunteers.
I don’t recall the exact moment I decided to volunteer in Nepal, but the decision energized me and gave me real focus for the first time in years. This was the “escape” I had been looking for, even though many of the program’s details were sketchy. The small organization I signed up with emailed the names of the host family, village, and school, but that was about all of the information I had when my flight from New York landed in Kathmandu, Nepal.
But that was OK, I thought. I welcomed the opportunity to be halfway around the globe, waking up each morning to new adventures while trying to touch the lives of some young people.
Nepal is a small landlocked country situated between the two giants of Asia–China and India. Although Mount Everest and the rest of the Himalayas give Nepal much of its image abroad, nearly half of the country’s population lives in the tropical jungle lowland. This area, known as the Terai, lies between the Indian border and the mountains and stretches the length of Nepal (about 800 kilometers).
During my stay in Nepal I lived with a Nepali family in Bijayanagar, a village of about 2,000 people located in the Chitwan district of the Terai, 100 kilometers southwest of Kathmandu. The area was very flat and spread out with farmlands of rice, wheat, corn, and banana trees in every direction. There were foot-hills several kilometers to the north with the large Narayani river at its base. The snow-capped Himalayas, hundreds of kilometers distant, could easily be seen from the doorway of my house. The center of Bijayanagar consisted of one dusty intersection about two kilometers from my house, with about a dozen stores.
There were three people in my host family: Niraj (23), Pravin (21) and their sister Sajana (19). Their parents had died separately several years ago. All three siblings were college students who also held jobs. Niraj had only recently returned to school after working the past seven years on the 3rd shift in a paper factory to support the family. Sajana had recently begun teaching in one of the local primary schools. Pravin worked in a financial office full-time in a nearby town. All three spoke decent English, but Niraj was by far the most fluent. My host family also owned goats and quite a bit of land which they allowed several villagers to farm while splitting the harvests 50/50.
Our small adobe house had three rooms (two upstairs), a tin roof, and a pack of rats the size of house-cats. There was a separate tiny building which served as our kitchen, with a small hearth and some shelves. Our only water supply was a water pump (my drinking water was always boiled). Electricity, which cost about $1.00 per month, had arrived in Bijayanagar in 1997. Many households “borrowed” electricity using bamboo poles with metal hooks (Several deaths resulted annually from this illegal practice). The nearest telephone was about five kilometers away in the nearest town.
Nothing, neither words nor images, can prepare a westerner for the complete and utter shock of seeing in person for the first time rural life in a developing country. Nothing. The bus from Kathmandu I stepped off of near Bijayanagar may just as well have been a time machine, transporting me back to a different time on a different planet. I’m not sure I even breathed the first few minutes I was there. The tattered clothes, the garbage, the stench, cows everywhere. And the stares. I thought, hadn’t they ever seen a white person before (Was I really quoting Eminem??) ? The truth was, most hadn’t.
A couple hours later I met up with Niraj for the first time, in the village. As president of a non-profit organization (though not the one I signed up with) which occasionally worked with foreign volunteers, Niraj I think understood at some level just how surreal this all was to me. And from the start, he and his siblings treated me like a god (which is literally the custom in Nepal for guests). They did everything possible to help me not only adjust to but enjoy village life, with its slow pace and stark accommodations. I actually ended up spending a great deal of time with Niraj during my stay in Nepal. Our close friendship has continued even though we’re thousands of miles away.
Perhaps the greatest adjustment I had to make to village life involved diet. The standard meal in Nepal is called “dhal bhat tarkari.” It consists of boiled rice, lentil soup, and a vegetable (primarily potatoes). This utilitarian dish is eaten by Nepalis (even most urban dwellers) twice a day, everyday, their entire lives (with no utensils). As someone who never met a cheeseburger he didn’t like, I had trouble swallowing this new diet. I even half-jokingly told Niraj early on that I was going on a hunger strike. “No more rice!” I had said. I tried to reassure Sajana, who prepared the meals, that her cooking was fine and that I just wasn’t used to eating so, well, healthy.
Some ready-made noodles we found at a local shop gave me a couple days respite from all of that rice. I had even dreamed one night that I was running down a mountain with a giant ball of white rice rolling behind me. But, I eventually adjusted to the rice and vegetables. In only about five weeks or so, I had lost fifteen pounds and felt more healthy and energetic than I had in years. I wish I could had taken a photograph of his face when I told Niraj that Americans collectively spend billions of dollars every year just to try to lose weight.
There was a very special group of children in my neighborhood who also made my stay in Bijayanagar special. I named them the Chitwan Football Club, as our early experiences together involved long, fun evenings of football (soccer) in Niraj’s harvested rice fields. Santosh, a second grader, knew very little English, but would still show up at about six a.m. everyday, ready to drink tea, play the card game Uno, or throw a baseball around. His family often invited me over for special rice dishes and fresh milk from their cows. One day Niraj and I took Santosh along to town, where he saw his first computer and had his first telephone conversation. It was remarkable.
My volunteer program began about one week after I arrived in Bijayanagar. I taught English for almost three months to children in grades one through five (ages 6-13) at a government school in a nearby village called Saranpur. The school sat on about four dusty acres of land and consisted of three concrete, one-floor buildings with dirt floors, tin roofs, and bars on the windows. The land had been generously donated in the late 1980’s by an elderly couple whose portraits still hung in the school’s “office.”
About 300 students were enrolled at the school but on a typical day there were perhaps only 200 who made it there. Most of the absent children weren’t playing hooky for fun, however. Their parents needed the kids at home to help with important tasks like harvesting rice, grazing animals, preparing food, and going to market.
The students were very poor. Many came to school barefoot, while the rest wore rubber sandals (“flip-flops”). Many children could not afford the school’s uniform of blue pants and shirt or even buttons when the latter fell off, leaving many kids walking around with their shirts wide open. Although it was a government “public” school, the children had to pay tuition each year of about $5.00. Almost weekly, a distraught parent would come to the school’s office pleading with the principal for more time to pay. The principal, Krishna Raj Poudel, always managed to calm them down and assure them that their child could remain in school. The tuition always got paid, either by Krishna himself or by us teachers.
I was the first white person (and the first American) that many of the students had ever met. Their curiosity about me was remarkable, even more intense than I imagined. From the moment I arrived at the school until my tearful farewell program, the kids could not get close enough to me to see what I was all about. Some kids wanted to touch my “fair” skin; or hear my watch ticking; or hold my hand; or point to my goatee “thing”; or try out some of their broken English (and hear my very broken Nepali in return); or try on my glasses; or–which was the case with most children–just stand there and stare.
And I mean stare. Even after being with them six days a week for two months, hordes of students would still crowd around me or peer into the office and simply–look. Or investigate even seemingly mundane things like my bag or clothes. One of the biggest points of interest was the pair of pants I wore which zipped off and became shorts. Even the teachers backed me into a corner for a demonstration.
A shy person, I struggled to adjust to being the center of attention nearly every waking moment, especially there at school. But I was as curious about them as they were about me. And despite our language and cultural differences, my students and I developed a bond immediately. Before my first day of teaching, the principal invited me to the school for a “welcome” program. They sat me at a small table outside and gathered all of the students around me. The entire staff and about 30 students then took turns presenting me with colorful flowers (“mallah”) and rubbing red powder over my entire face and head.
This apparently was a Nepali custom for honoring an important individual (even politicians experienced this, I was told.). I was overwhelmed by the gesture. I will never forget the smiles and laughter and expressions of wonder by the children.
My first day in the classroom was terrifying. I walked into grade five with a churning stomach, a lesson plan written on a dirty napkin, and what I hoped was a reassuring smile on my face. The students stood up, said “Good morning, sir,” then waited for me to tell them to sit down. I didn’t. No one had explained classroom protocols to me. I forgot all about the lesson plan and turned to the blackboard and began writing simple sentences about myself. I figured I would still try to get some use out of the lesson plan, so I used it to wipe the sweat off my brow (nervous sweat for sure, but the 100° temperature wasn’t helping either).
I finished writing the sentences then turned around. And there they were, all 20 students, still standing and waiting patiently. The silence was deafening. After a couple of eternities, I gathered myself and had them sit down. For the next few minutes, we took turns reciting the sentences on the blackboard. “My teacher’s name is Scott.” “He lives in America.” “He is 31 years old.”
I soon discovered, as Niraj had cautioned, that the students’ English was very poor. I had been hopeful, though, because I knew that English was a mandatory subject in every classroom in Nepal, starting at age six. The children, however, had never before heard a native English speaker. Even my “How are you?” was often met by blank stares. As this was a government school (with the worst reputation in our district no less), like many public schools in America it lagged far behind private schools in quality. And like in the States, the academic underachievement seemed to have its roots outside the classroom. Standing in front of these enthusiastic kids was not, however, the occasion to think about the merits of school vouchers and privatization of education.
Forty minutes later I walked out of the class, relieved to get the first one out of the way. I knew things would get better class-by-class, day-by-day. And they did. My lesson plans alternated between those in their textbooks and ones of my own design. Songs and games seemed to work best with the younger children. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was a hit with the first and second graders. The stickers I brought with me from the States were hugely popular with all of the students, even with the teachers.
The excitement of the sticker giveaways would often entice the “peanut gallery kids” to come into my classes. These were neighborhood kids who did not attend school, because their families were either too poor or–more likely–unconvinced of an education’s practical value. I often invited these children into my classes instead of having them peer into windows and doors to see what we were up to inside. They were usually delighted to come in and take a seat. And the regular students didn’t seem to mind a bit. Even adults in the neighborhood would often peer into the windows of my classrooms.
Because overall classroom discipline was virtually non-existent, even for the regular teachers who spoke Nepali, I had to get a bit creative in getting and keeping the students’ attention. I refused to use the favored local method–a bamboo stick rapped on the students’ heads. So, frustrated one day trying to explain the concept of “this, that, these and those” to 50 distracted fourth graders, I suddenly yelled “THIS is chalk!” and hurled it into the back row. It plunked someone on the head (no harm, no foul). I gestured for him to throw it back to me AND repeat my words–in English.
He did both, beautifully. From that moment on my “projectile method” of teaching English became a student favorite and one of my most effective means of demonstrating various words and concepts. All props were fair game, and at any given moment a passerby to my classroom might have seen a pen, sandal, stone, or bamboo stick flying through the air while hearing the students belt out some newly-acquired English. Their favorite prop was a globe-basketball that I had brought from America.
I quickly learned that the supposed America phenomenon of young girls becoming withdrawn in class was not only present but pronounced in Nepal. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, as Nepali rural culture is decidedly patriarchal. Polygamy is even still practiced (my own neighbor had two wives). Each classroom was divided by gender, right down the middle, and I practically had to stand on my head to convince most girls to speak in class. Ekmaya, a third-grader, had one of the school’s most outgoing and interesting personalities–outside of class. Once inside class, though, she retreated to the back row and rarely said a word. What made it even more frustrating was that I knew she was a bright person.
Double-standards for girls were everywhere. I made the ludicrous suggestion to the students that the girls play in the school’s football games along with the boys. It took two months and a lot of creative convincing on my part (mostly of the girls themselves) before a few courageous girls actually began playing in the games. In my neighborhood, I regularly saw groups of boys playing football next to a field where several young girls with machetes were climbing fifty-foot trees to cut branches for firewood. Why? “Boys play, girls work,” one mother told me with a shrug.
Because of frequent teacher absences (often for murky reasons), the remaining staff often had to deal with classes of 80 or more children. One morning, the entire staff left school for over an hour to give their opinion about a local cow that one of the teachers was considering buying ($200 was apparently too much). Then, there was the shot-put contest held one afternoon among the staff. This time, the students were invited to watch and cheer. The organizer was, not surprisingly, the same teacher who occasionally cancelled one of his classes to polish his leather jacket. He ended up winning of course. I bowed out with back spasms after one toss of the thirty-pound stone. My performance was judged by everyone as unworthy of a citizen of the leading medal winner of the Sydney Olympic Games taking place that week.
Two of my colleagues, Sajung and Tara, however, impressed me with their dedication and caring for the students. Both spent three hours before school each morning as students themselves–Sajung at computer training and Tara at college. Studying for her bachelor’s degree in education, Tara had a rapport with her students so strong that most came to school even on “optional” days. I told Sajung, a commercial poultry farmer when not at school, that I hoped to visit him in Iceland where he hopes to take his family in 2001 and work as an adventure-travel guide. Tara and Sajung became good friends of mine, and each of them warmly invited me to their homes several times (Sajung’s homemade “wine” has got to be the strongest moonshine on that side of the Atlantic Ocean).
I would often arrive at school early myself–and leave late–just to play and talk some more with the kids. I had about a three-kilometer walk from my house to school. In the morning, dozens of kids would wait for me outside of their houses on the small dirt road. When I arrived at school, I often had fifty or more children walking with me. The adults too would usually try to acknowledge me in some way, most with the traditional Nepali greeting of “Namaste” accompanied by clasped hands and a slight bow.
One student in particular, Tulashi in grade four, was always on the road waiting for me, regardless of how early or late I might be. We struggled to understand each other’s words but always managed to communicate via gestures, smiles, and laughter. She quickly became one of my favorite students. At every lunch break or class change, she would suddenly appear at my side, smiling and trying to teach me some more Nepali. At the end of my teaching program, she invited Niraj and me to her family’s house for a wonderful evening of cookies and tea and conversation with her large family.
Tulashi’s warmth toward me was typical, although sometimes it took a while for some of the students to warm up to me. Three in particular come to mind, a trio of boys in the second grade who names were Suresh, Monaj, and Bijaya. Their recalcitrance led me to dub them “The Three Rascals.” They listened to no one and regularly instigated fights and created mayhem at the school. I grew frustrated early on with them.
Then, after a month or so, I noticed small changes in their behavior. Suresh would stand with me on the sidelines during football games. Bijaya began talking with me during the games. Distracted from his goalkeeping, though, he would often let in a few easy goals which irritated his teammates to no end. Monaj even stopped giving me dirty looks. I started making a point of finding them once a day and engaging them in conversation or games.
After several weeks of this, the three boys would freely laugh and play jokes with me and teach me Nepali slang. On my last day at school, while walking with about 100 students to my farewell party at the principal’s house, I felt a hand slip into mine. I looked down. It was Monaj. I squeezed his hand then continued looking ahead. He was solemn, probably on the verge of tears. Then, as if sensing his friend’s mood, Bijaya also appeared on my right side. He grabbed my hand and began skipping along. Suresh wasn’t far behind either. He was walking in front of us with my borrowed bicycle, “protecting” it from his classmates. It was difficult holding back my tears on that dirt road.
As cliché as it may sound, I eventually came to believe that my students really were not all that different from their American counterparts. My students would laugh; play; cry; fight; give hugs; tease; argue; devour candy; love getting out of school for the day; look at the moon with wonder; run around breathless for no reason at all; and amuse themselves for hours outside with friends. As we became closer, and without my consciously noticing, I ended up seeing more similarities than differences.
But, I did notice that the children, and the adults as well, seemed happier–or at least more satisfied–than most of the Americans I knew. It seems impossible, considering that the formers’ living conditions are so bleak by western standards: high infant mortality, rampant illiteracy, and a life expectancy of about 57 years. Still, I think that the villagers’ focus on family and spirituality–with a dose of fatalism thrown in–provides them with a sense of fulfillment greater than that of Americans. Foreign relief workers often find it frustrating that villagers don’t try to work harder to increase agricultural production, thereby generating more income. Villagers argue, though, that if one has family, religious faith, a house, and food, what else is needed?
I found it ironic that I returned to the States just one week before Christmas. Our consumerism in America seems to be consuming us. Yes, I feel incredibly fortunate to live in a country that has the technology, infrastructure, and cash (and credit cards!) to even have a consumer culture. And I’m lucky to have the education, wits, and a couple of bucks which allowed me to walk away from that cubicle to seek out a more meaningful life. But, when the acquisition of things interferes with the nurturing of our souls–which seems to be happening in America–perhaps it’s time to reassess our work-consume-work-consume lifestyles, the economy be damned.
Back to my last day at school. The students didn’t even have to be there on that dirt road with me. All schools in Nepal had been closed that week on orders from a militant communist group, the Maoists. My farewell party was a spontaneous affair, called by the principal that morning. Niraj and I had literally gone door-to-door to round up the children. They practically leaped out of the doors of their houses when they heard us coming.
After reaching Principal Krishna’s house, I received more flowers and red powder–as on my welcome day. The children all sat on a huge stack of hay as the principal thanked me (in Nepali) for my service to the students. The students then sang some folk songs while a few children, prodded by Krishna, danced wonderfully for the group. Later, out on the road again, Niraj translated my final goodbye to the students. They turned and began walking away before I felt the first tears on my cheek.
If I could turn back the clock four months, would I still endure the overwhelming uncertainty on that runway in New York and stay buckled into my seat? Absolutely. In fact, I regret that I did not stay in Nepal longer. But as I promised Niraj and the children, I will be back to Nepal to see all of them, perhaps even by the end of 2001. I may not have turned out any English-language scholars during my three months volunteering in Nepal, but I did touch a number of lives and made some lifelong friends, especially in Niraj.
As it turned out, my return to the States was a timely one in one sense. My 22 year-old brother Brian, a star player for his college basketball team, had just begun his lengthy and arduous recuperation from a severe lung injury suffered during one of his games. My family chose not to tell me about the injury until my return to the States. I would have swum across the Atlantic Ocean to be there for him if I had to.
I still find it hard to believe (and amusing as I write this) that on my third day in Nepal, I locked the door to my room in Kathmandu and sat stone-faced on the bed for two hours, very seriously considering packing my bags and taking a taxi back to the airport. How was I going to handle three months in this maddening country when just three days had been so brutal? And from what I had heard, life in my rural village was light-years behind the “modern” lifestyle in Kathmandu. As I sat on that bed, I knew it was fight-or-flight (literally). What ended up saving me was–Mr. Bubbles.
That’s right–Mr. Bubbles”!, a four-ounce bottle of bubbles I had brought with me to Nepal on the advice of a friend. A great icebreaker with kids, she had said. I took the bottle, walked outside and started blowing bubbles alone in my front yard. Sure enough, in a few minutes several children appeared, seemingly from nowhere. Without exchanging even one word for the next two hours, the children and I blew bubbles and laughed and ran around. Back in my room, I sat back down on that bed, took a deep breath and thought to myself: Maybe I can do this.
I suspect that many years will pass before I fully realize the impact on my life of my volunteer experience in Nepal. I will undoubtedly never be the same. Making 300 children halfway around the world smile everyday for three months should do that to a person. It certainly did to me. As for my future adventures, they might just as easily take place in a corporate boardroom as in another rural village on another continent. Whatever I do or wherever I go, my friends in Nepal and the lessons they taught me will remain with me. But just in case, I will always have a bottle of Mr. Bubbles in my bag.