Nepal: Week 1

17 Oct

Hello Friends,

Sometime I have a vague image of every person I know living in a very tall apartment building. As the levels go up, the people become incrementally more fabulous, until we find, in the penthouse, a very special collection of individuals who are so bloody wonderful that some of them are sprouting wings. This categorisation is, of course, entirely subjective, not to mention judgemental, but that’s ok: I’m the landlord. Whilst people arrive and shuffle around the lower and middle floors almost without my noticing, I always get the same feeling of certainty when someone moves in upstairs. In the course of this post I would like to introduce you to two of the newest residents…

Dragging my suitcase from Kathmandu airport into the dusty bustle of waiting taxis, I spied my name, scrawled in red biro on a crumpled piece of paper, grasped in the hands of a kind-faced man. This was Raj, the first of my new top-floor tenants. He hugged me warmly, like an old friend, and with reassuring words and gestures shepherded me into a car. The extent of this man’s awesomeness had not yet been revealed to me, but I had a pretty strong inkling from that very first moment.

Along with seven other lucky student nurses, I’m here in Nepal to complete my final clinical placement. Before heading to the hills though, we spent a couple of days in Katmandu. Kathmandu sits in a valley surrounded by mountains that are often obscured by smog. Its streets, alleys and passageways form a traffic-jammed mycelium web that threads its way below cracked, teetering buildings, some unfathomably ancient, some still being born. Post-earthquake repair is in full swing, but you get the feeling that this city has been breaking apart and patching itself back together for centuries. It is relentless, noisy, hot, smelly and wonderful.

In Kathmandu there’s a temple and a god for everything you could need in life, and for afterwards too. Hoping for an uncomplicated trip to the dentist? There’s a shrine for that. Want to usher a terminally ill relative towards a peaceful passing? The euthanasia temple is the place for you. And I’ve seen some hectic wiring in my time, but Kathmandu has to take first prize in the Most Hectically Wired City I’ve Ever Seen competition, with telegraph poles creaking under the shear weight of the crazy nests of black cable they support. But still…it all seems to work.

Breaking free of Kathmandu by road is a bit like trying to get out of Glastonbury festival on the Monday morning. Queues of buses and trucks lurch forwards briefly, kicking up clouds of dust, only to inexplicably stop again and sit idly stewing in their own exhaust fumes for extended periods of time. It took us around nine hours to reach our destination. Once we were free of Kathmandu’s suburbs, the going became quicker but exponentially more bumpy. Our nursing hive-mind, already keenly attuned to each individual’s bowel habits, quickly identified this journey as a very effective Intervention for Increasing Bowel Motility. Raj was with us all the way, jollying and cheerleading us along with periodic shouts of “My dear friends! Mind your everything!”

We arrived at The Hotel Mona Lisa in the town of Sauraha, nestled on the edge of the Chitwan National Park, well-jostled but also well-happy. We were greated by the hotel staff, who garlanded us with flowers, pressed red, gloopy rice into our foreheads and plied us with sprite. And at the front of the line of welcomers was the hotel owner, Kushab, who is not only Raj’s brother and virtual doppelgänger, but is also a legend of epic proportions and yes, you’ve guessed it, now lives in that exclusive residence at the top of my imaginary apartment block.

Kushab is gregarious, assertive, hilarious and jolly whilst Raj is s little softer and a little more shiny-eyed. Both men are masters in the art of the spontaneous bear-hug, and both are utterly tireless in their drive to improve the lots of those for whom life is a struggle in this, a particularly poor part of a particularly poor nation. The work that we are helping with here is but a tiny piece of an extraordinary puzzle of projects and initiatives that have already brought vast improvements to the lives of thousands of people in the remote, rural communities here. Through hustling and haggling, carousing and charming, but mostly through plain hard graft, they have been able to deliver running water, healthcare and education to a population who have been otherwise forgotten.

The very next day we rose at 5am and made for the mountains, alongside other volunteers, both local and international, and a troupe of wiry, tireless porters who bounded ahead of us, up treacherous short-cuts, with food and medical supplies for the community we were visiting. It was hot-going, but we all put in a solid effort and reached Kolbhanjyan in around 9 hours. We could see the small collection of buildings from across the valley, and as we descended the final ridge we spotted the welcoming committee, a brightly coloured congregation awaiting us on a raised platform of stone at the entrance to the village. As we each ducked through the welcoming bamboo arch we were once again garlanded and splodged with red rice, to the sound of generous applause from our hosts. It was enough to make us feel terribly heroic, even though all we’d really done was climb a big hill.

Feasting followed by singing and dancing around a bonfire was the order of the evening. The villagers sang a question-and-answer style song that went back and forth between the men and the women, whilst the young girls and boys spiralled their arms and shimmied their hips. For our part, we smashed out “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease, followed by a thigh-slapping rendition of “I Will Survive”. Both parties were suitably perplexed by the other’s performance, but the evening was a good ice-breaker. After a final round of hot potatoes and Nepalese-style barbecued chicken, we settled down for the night, 14 of us on the earth floor of the school house. We felt we had given a good account of ourselves and partied pretty hard. It was about 8.30pm.

The following morning we rose early for the health camp. People from near and far afield began filtering into the village at around 7.30am. In the morning, having been taught the Nepalese for “Hello”, “Sit here” and “Give me your arm”, we did nursey things like taking blood pressures and doing other observations. Sitting in with the doctors as they assessed the patients was a pretty eye-opening experience. There were lots of burns from the open fires that people have in their homes, plus plenty of broken bones and other orthopaedic issues that result from a life of hardship on a mountain. We also saw things like glandular tuberculosis and rheumatic heart disease that are pretty much non-existent in all but the most disadvantaged communities in Australia. We fixed people up as best we could and if they were in serious strife, Kushab was straight onto the phone, arranging for them to be brought down the mountain to the hospital. One girl in particular was in a fair bit of trouble. We’ve set up a gofundme sight for her, so if you’d like to find out more and maybe chip in, the link’s at the bottom.

In the afternoon we did an education session with the children, teaching them tooth-brushing and hand-washing. Raj was right there with us, being downright adorable with the kids, who were themselves downright adorable.

The whole experience so far has been an absolute privilege. Our little group was tight to start with and this first week has only made us tighter. After another, even wilder night of bonfire shenanigans I felt that the imaginary tower block in my mind had become dangerously top-heavy with goodness. It was with sore backs and heavy hearts that we bade farewell the next morning and tumbled back down the mountain to soft beds and cool showers.

I must apologise for the lack of photos in this post. Plenty have been taken and I will endeavour to stick some in next time. In the meantime, please have s quick squizz at this link about Samjana, the girl we brought down with us to the hospital:

https://www.gofundme.com/saving-samjana

I think that will about do for now. There’s heaps more to tell, and tell I shall, but probably when I get home and have a computer, because my thumbs are aching from writing this on my phone. Thanks for reading and please feel free to follow/comment/make suggestions. Or not- whatever blows your hair back.

 

Lots of love,

Hen

 

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