by Burleigh Bodart, Greenheart Travel Corespondent Scholarship winner in Nepal
As my plane descended into Nepal, a crystal clear view of the Himalayas emerged on the horizon. Scenes of colorful concrete houses flashed by in the final minutes before we landed and it immediately struck me just how compact the enormous city of Kathmandu is. Once we landed, we could no longer see out the windows as instant fog or smog covered the windows in a dewy film. To my surprise, a portable stairway was the exit off the plane out onto the old concrete landing area of the Kathmandu Airport. Very small, very rugged, and after going through the outdoor pathways to get inside, it felt almost like an old warehouse.
It was hot and stuffy waiting in the crowded line for a visa, but I met a few Americans who were here for some trekking. I followed the line downstairs to the baggage claim and immediately spotted my bag among the large heap that had already been taken off the conveyer belt. I grabbed it and maneuvered out of the hectic scene of Nepali airport workers and people crowding around the belts. Following the exit signs, I walked through a series of hallways and emerged into an open room where hundreds of Nepali people sat in a room behind a glass barrier staring my way. I assume they were waiting to enter the airport or waiting to be picked up.
Once I walked out onto the sidewalk, I was motioned to enter that overcrowded room since I was waiting for my ride, but I instead chose to sit around the corner in a little nook where I could manage my bags. Another crowd of people stood on the opposite side of the street holding signs and waiting for family to emerge. The noise and mayhem of people shouting, cars honking, and taxi drivers approaching me in hopes of my business was somewhat alarming. Although it took a few repetitive “no’s” for them to believe that I didn’t need a ride, they were very friendly and curious about what I was doing here. My flight had gotten in early so I had a little over an hour to spare before my ride came.
I settled down and opened my journal, discovering that this kept the drivers from approaching. I immediately felt a sense of relief. Looking up every few minutes to watch the chaos in the street brought back my initial intimidation. Just as I was becoming slightly anxious, I saw a little figure inching towards me out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see a 3-year old Nepali girl, her bright green eyes locked on me. She slowly crept over until she was right next to me and plopped down, still staring. I looked around for her parents, but saw no one nearby. I assumed a woman who was standing a ways down the sidewalk was her mother. I pointed to her little gold and red bracelet and said, “pretty.” She then reached up and lifted my gold necklace to inspect. I regret not taking out my camera because she was the most beautiful little girl I’ve ever seen.
She sat with me for a while and I immediately felt comfortable again. Just after her mother beckoned her, a young 19-year old Indian guy named Nivedan walked up to me and introduced himself as the assistant manager of my volunteer project. I was whisked away in the tiny old cab car as the city of Kathmandu whirled around me. I’ve never seen such overcrowded, dusty streets with so many cars, buses, and motorcycles weaving around the masses of people walking every which way. So many shops lined one after another in small garage-like spaces only about 8 feet wide. Everything is so much smaller and compact here. I was amazed by how many people are packed into this city. Of the 3 million inhabitants of Nepal, 2 million live in Kathmandu. This explains the tiny pathways and hidden entrances between all the tall buildings that lead to hidden staircases going up or down to another level.
After weaving through tiny pathways, we were at the volunteer house. A large, four story house of marble interior with five bedrooms to house the volunteers, and large balconies on every level revealing beautiful scenery. I was the first of three more volunteers to arrive that day. I was greeted by the staff and introduced by Nivedan to the four project executives who were five young Indian and Nepali women I was told will help us with our assignments. We also met the housekeeper and cook who prepares wonderful meals for us daily. After the rest of the volunteers arrived that day, there are 10 of us total: another American girl, three Dutch girls, an Irish girl and guy, a French girl, and a Brazilian woman. Such a variety…and everyone’s English is amazing.
There were 28 volunteers at one time a few months ago, but they are not always as fortunate to have so many. This project organization has many locations in India, but the Nepal program is fairly new just having started in April. Nivedan, Sanu, Hushnaj, Shahanaj, and the others who work with us are so friendly and accommodating. The organization runs a few schools that work with women who are eager to learn English, an orphanage and nearby school, and an elderly center supported by the government to help elderly, disabled Nepalese that do not have family to take care of them. We will visit these places tomorrow and choose the three areas we would take on. For today though, we were able to get settled in and relax from our long trips. Marie and I explored nearby and met some of the kids from the neighborhood.
Life here is so much different. This is only the beginning, but I am so lucky for the opportunity to learn about a culture that lives and sees things so differently than everything I know.