As we descended, I noticed how much darker Kathmandu looked like in the night. The roads were lit up by cars and bikes, not many street lamps to be seen from however many hundred feet above.
Airport security was strange, but these were precautions to make sure that no one stole your bag and that you are the person your passport claims you to be.
The journey to the hotel in the night revealed small shops lit by candles, very few places had electric bulbs to shed light on their goods. I saw smoke coming up from a temple, telling me that a family was currently filled with sorrow as they send their dead on. The roads were quiet and our windows were down. I could smell the smoke in the air.
It didn’t take long for us to hit Thamel, where the hustle and bustle of a city began. Foreigners and travellers wandered the streets while policemen stopped drivers to check if they had had a drink or two before hitting the roads. The streets were narrow and we shared them with bikes, other cabs, and pedestrians. It was utter chaos and it was comforting to know that I wasn’t facing the city on my own.
The following days were spent going to villages around Sindhuli and back, and up to the mountains, I mean hills, in Nuwakot. We drove past breathtaking scenery blurred by dust and smoke that constantly hung in the air. We drove past houses with solar panels provided by Chinese NGOs. The journeys we embarked on each day were bumpy, windy and incredibly long. Most of the “roads” weren’t tarred. We even drove over dried river beds that fill up to reach the chest of a full-grown adult male.
Once we left Kathmandu, I rarely saw anyone fair skinned and so I stuck out like a sore thumb. The few foreigners I saw either worked for one NGO or another. Foreign aid plays a big role in reviving a country struck by a ridiculous earthquake, a country plagued with corruption and a country that simply could not and did not know how to help itself.
I fell sick on day 3 or 4, catching a horrid flu that brought along a temperature and a stuffy nose. I relied on my limited supply of Strepsils, paracetamol and vitamins to keep me going. I drank a lot of water too, not ideal if you have to travel a minimum of 4 hours a day to villages with no plumbing. I used hut toilets that were a little better than holes in the ground, but little to no water to flush the waste away.
We visited schools as well, which came in all shapes and sizes. From bamboo structures with one wall to four walls, to brick and cement buildings with no paint, and somewhat resemble doom and gloom rather than a stimulating environment, to single-storey buildings with a few rooms, some vacant because they’re falling apart… No canteens or teachers’ rooms, or admin offices or toilets or fields. The one school that had a playground packed away their swings when school was over, leaving behind only a metal frame.
Each classroom was furnished with a whiteboard, a marker pen that was running out of ink, tables and chairs. The students who filled out the seats were adorable and excitable. They had questions to ask me and me, them. Unfortunately, there was simply no way for us to communicate beyond “Namaste” and funny faces as their mothers looked on and laughed from the windows.
Each village faced a unique set of challenges, similar but subtly different. Some were poorer than others, some spoke a different language from the others, some were cut-off from the rest of the world when the river rose and some were struggling through a draught after surviving an earthquake the year before. Yet we were always greeted with warm smiles, even when we turned up an hour late ala Malaysian fashion (we really just got the timing wrong).
Some women saw us as walking dollar signs, like the one woman who asked for 200,000 rupees; they were easy to suss out. Others saw us as a temporary way out of poverty, they weren’t that easy to suss out but we managed to. Others saw us for what we were, people trying to make their lives better in the long-run and were willing to work with us to achieve that. These women were hidden gems. Some hid behind their wrinkly smiles and tired eyes, some hid behind a younger but no less tired smile, some were single mothers with one child or five, others were grandmothers or widows.
We went to houses asking if women were interested in our help, eventually drawing a crowd as we sat on front porches late into the night where Nepali mosquitoes feasted on our Malaysian blood. They, the ladies not the mosquitos, had their hair up in buns, graciously allowing us to invade their homes and interrogate them about their household income, their job status, the job status of their kids, their land and their animals. When I was exhausted, I played with their children and grandchildren while Lakshwin and Murali continued their “business talk”.
My favourite conversation was with a bunch of kids in the village of Bhiman. They were as young as 4 and as old as 15. One girl told me that my smartphone will cook my brain. Another asked if I was married or had a boyfriend at least.
“No, I just finished my studies and I need to focus on work first. Husband and boyfriend later.”
“Miss, she has a boyfriend”, yelled one of the boys as he pointed to a small 10-year-old girl in braided pig tails.
“He is lying”, she said in a loud voice I never expected to come out from that tiny body of hers.
“No miss, she really has a boyfriend! Ask her.”
“I’m going to slap you!” she retorted.
I was balling over by this point while a bunch of kids looked at me bemused. Here I was, this fair skinned single woman laughing at the top of her lungs, squatting behind a house in a remote village in Nepal overlooking the fields.
My experiences in Nepal challenged my understanding of development in a profound way. Reflecting on Malaysia’s attempt to develop itself, I’m afraid we’ve not done very well. Our government assumed that development meant adopting Western standards of tall buildings and structures concentrated in a few major cities, forgetting about small towns and villages along the way. Our people lack education, healthcare and other basic building blocks that form a functioning society. The way we drive and park on the roads is a great example of this. Of course, this is also easy to say with hindsight. Our government probably didn’t know any better.
In order to truly help the women in Nepal, I believe that NGOs and the government need to sit down and really think about what a developed Nepal would look like. They face a unique set of challenges in which copy and pasting a solution will not work. They face erratic weather conditions and earthquakes. Their government is corrupt but there aren’t many educated Nepalis who know how to challenge them. They’ve got beautiful mountains and hills and rivers, but that makes it difficult for locals to move around and transport necessities needed for development. Without a bigger picture in mind, the fragmented bits and pieces of foreign aid simply cannot propel Nepal to reach its full potential.
I wish this country and its people all the best in the world. They have so much to offer the world, if only they knew where to start.
PS. I found out that Women of Will is the Malaysian arm of TECH Outreach. This means that they focus solely on Malaysian projects while TECH Outreach manages international projects in Nepal and Sri Lanka.
PPS. Anyway, check out Nicole in Nepal for a day-to-day update and more pictures from my trip ✌🏽