My fascination over Nepal started when I stumbled upon Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air” around six years ago. The book was a personal account of their treacherous climb to Mount Everest. Like Krakauer I wondered what possibly lured men to Mount Everest. Why would a man leave his family and those he loves just to conquer the ‘snow-capped beast’? Since then I’ve always wanted to see Mount Everest myself. I knew I would go someday as a volunteer in Nepal. My plan was to ‘conquer’ Asia and Nepal much later, maybe ten years later. But God had a different plan altogether.
Thoughts of Nepal started to fill my mind in May, 2012. I had no intentions of going so I wondered where it was coming from. I tried to dismiss it until October but to no avail. Come November I was already sold out that it was God telling me to go. The main challenge was, I didn’t know anyone in Nepal. I planned to volunteer at an orphanage and spend Christmas with orphans in Kathmandu. I made a few enquiries but not one of the orphanages I contacted, replied. I found it strange. Nepal had thousands of orphanages, brought about by the civil war between 1996 to 2006. The war left thousands of orphans and displaced families. Orphanages mushroomed and so did charlatans and unscrupulous individuals. Finding a legitimate orphanage proved difficult. By the first week of December I was already desperate. Thankfully God did lead me to the Iris Nepal Children’s Home in Kolkanah.
Fast forward to my arrival in Kathmandu. Turned out there were 20+ Christian missionaries from all over the world who have just arrived from a missions-oriented training in Pemba, Mozambique. They were also temporarily housed at my generous hosts’ home. Meeting them really strengthened me spiritually and I felt that I really made the right decision in coming. It seemed I was in the right place at the right time. Still I longed to see the children God was seemingly eager for me to meet. I wondered what was so special about them that it couldn’t wait four or maybe five more years. Two days later I found myself crammed inside an old, rickety 7-seater van packed with at least 15 people en route to the children’s home. We could hardly breathe but we belted out Christian songs as the van rolled up and down the steep hills and the winding, narrow streets of Kathmandu.
After a bumpy half-hour drive, we stopped at the bottom of an uphill tapered street. I looked around and saw a bucolic village, small, narrow houses bordered by a lush mountain on the left and empty rice terraces at the front. Soon we were outside a three-story narrow house. Five round-faced and rosy-cheeked Nepalese children peered down at us from the balcony on the third floor. We finally reached our destination.
It was a home for 24 orphans aged 1-14, mostly from Nepal and a handful from India. The home had very basic furnishing – a small TV set covered with an off-white plain cloth was the only appliance in the living room. Thinly padded wood on the floor served as a sitting area. My temporary bedroom was also sparsely decorated but clean with one queen-sized bed in the corner. On the floor on the other side was a stack of sleeping bags. Opposite my bedroom was the washroom with no shower and had intermittent supply of running water.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, crippled by corruption and dysfunctional bureaucracy. Despite its hydropower potential the country has no robust power supply infrastructure and produces only half its electricity needs. Load-shedding (illegal connections) means homes experience power cuts for 12-14 hours daily. Power distribution is announced but sadly, even the scheduled time is never reliable so you could be left waiting for hours for nothing. Worse, you might have to take a shower with freezing cold water during winter.
Next to the washroom was the children’s surrogate parents’ bedroom. The two higher levels served as sleeping quarters for the children and the two ladies helping at the home. Boys and girls had separate quarters for obvious reasons. The children slept on bunk beds and were trained at an early age to keep their areas clean. The rooms were surprisingly in order. On the roof deck was the kitchen with massive pots and pans stacked in wooden shelves. Outside the kitchen sat a rustic BBQ grill, which also served as a makeshift fire pit during the cold winter nights. I knew I would put the grill to good use for the children later.
Our Christmas celebration that night turned out to be quite simple yet meaningful. Beaming children carefully unwrapped their presents amid young multinational missionaries and the Iris Nepal staff. The children sang, danced, played instruments and performed plays, clearly demonstrating their artistic talents. The celebration was sometimes interrupted by power cuts that lasted only minutes. We were prepared and had torches ready but we constantly prayed that the electricity would come back and it always did within minutes. We shared a simple meal of goat meat, Nepalese potato, tomato and pea curry. As the night waned, the guests eventually bid their goodbyes one by one.
Sleeping that evening proved challenging. December is the beginning of winter in Nepal, the temperature can drop to 8°C (46°F) during the day. While at night it can be quite chilly dropping to almost freezing temperature. I realized I wasn’t prepared for the weather. Alone in the room, cold and shivering in a strange land, miles away from my adopted home of Dubai, I couldn’t help feeling a little despondent. All I could do was pray. I tossed and turned in bed that night. My furry coat and woolen blanket did little to keep me warm. I wished I could move to a hotel but I told myself I will stick it out. I was not going to leave until I saw what God wanted me to see at the orphanage.
The following morning was a holiday for the children so I finally had the chance to engage them individually. Turned out hardly any of them spoke English and I had to rely on the 6-year-old Abishek to translate. It was fun albeit frustrating at times as I so wanted to understand what they were saying. They were very friendly, very polite, very respectful, and they called me Maricel Auntie. The next two days left me dazed. The children automatically opened their homework once back from school. And when the light went out they quickly switched to using torches. There were no complaints, no whining. They simply continued working on their papers as if nothing happened and it was the most natural thing to do. I was impressed.
Spending time with the children, helping them with their homework, identifying with their lifestyle (if my little attempts counted) were an encouragement and an eye-opener at the same time. I realized they had little but they had everything, they didn’t have much but they were very rich in love, the Father’s love. They were always smiling and always happy. They were genuinely appreciative of every little thing I gave. They reminded me that I should have the faith of a child, always trusting, always believing, always hoping, always thankful. I left on my fourth day at the orphanage knowing everyone in the home impacted my life more than I impacted theirs. Volunteering in Nepal was truly a life-changing experience. The memories from this journey will surely last me a lifetime. I knew I will go back and I did.