NEPAL: Volunteering, All Hands Nuwakot – One Week, November 2016
I really didn’t know what to expect when I inadvertently signed up to “volunteer” for All Hands Volunteers in Nepal. Originally I only intended to go visit the site; to check out where all the sponsorship money I had raised was being spent and then report back home. However from experiencing the earthquake – to walking 1080 miles this summer in the UK – to returning to Kathmandu and revisiting all the sites I been to just before and during the quake – to finally visiting Nuwakot where all the money I raised was being spent. In the end volunteering myself felt like the most natural conclusion to this 18-month journey.
The bus journey up from Kathmandu to Trisuli in Nuwakot was an event in itself! Over four hours on a bumpy knackered out bus (despite the word “deluxe” written across the back) tearing round hair pin bends with steep cliff drops never far away, often with another kamikaze driver hurtling towards us, then trying to pass on the most narrowest of paths. But as scary as it was, it also took us past some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen. Perfect blue skies, green rice terraces, locals going about their business on the side of the road with the white tipped mountains that make up the Himalayas as a constant backdrop. Turned out there were four of us on that bus heading to the All Hands base, and luckily one of them was a returning volunteer so we were able to follow him over the last section on foot.
The base is basically an old hotel, with each room now converted into dorms or varying size, some with en-suites. My top bunk was located in the large “penthouse” covering the whole top floor, which slept 36 people in total. There is also space for tents in the grounds, a fire pit, outside kitchen area and a section on the ground floor set up for the base management and admin team. This team of about half a dozen dedicated people all started at some point as regular volunteers, but they decided to stay on and help further. Everyone pitches in however… our dinner is prepared for us each night (and lunch if you stay back at base during the day) and volunteer t-shirt laundry is also done for us by the lovely locals, but everything else we have to do ourselves. Including putting in a stint as housekeeper now and then, when two of you have to stay back and clean the place from top to bottom. There is a definite and very necessary timetable here with everyone up, fed and ready to head to site by 6:40am and then after a full hard day on site, you generally return around 4pm with a meeting held at 4:45pm each night, dinner straight after, quiet time (music off and no ping-pong) by 9pm and lights out and everyone in bed by 10pm. It works… and after spending 6 days a week (Saturday is day off) on site, even staying awake for dinner can sometimes be a problem! Having said that, there is still time to relax with your fellow volunteers over a beer or cider, play cards or ping-pong, sit round the fire-pit and share stories.
All Hands have been here in Nuwakot since immediately after the earthquake. The first phase of the operation lasted about a year and consisted of removal and recovery. Then together with the community and local masons, things progress into the rebuild phase and All Hands have so far rebuild 60 homes, one school at Jalpa Yuwa and are currently rebuilding two more at Pritivi and Bachhchhala, with work about to start on a retrofit project at Kaliyani Devi. All Hands school rebuild program takes place in partnership with Room to Read; a global non-profit organization that for nearly two decades has tackled the chronic shortages of classrooms, educational materials, and teachers across the school systems of underdeveloped countries. After the earthquakes the majority of Room to Read schools withstood the earthquakes and remained largely intact. All Hands Volunteers therefore now use the Room to Read updated school designs to build back strong and safer schools.
I just want to point out here, something that I hadn’t actually thought about when I was here in April 2015 but which I have been reminded on numerous occasions during this visit. The devastating earthquake struck at midday on a Saturday when the schools were empty. Had it happened on a weekday, all those schools which collapsed would have been filled with nearly a million children. It doesn’t really bear thinking about how that could have panned out.
All Hands currently have a total of about 115 volunteers across the three sites, 55 in Prithvi, 45 in Bachchhala and 15 in Kaliyani Devi. Their funding model is that they have about 80% of their funding covered before they start the project and the gap is then cover by volunteer fundraisinng on project. Their current goal is $25,000 per month, split between the Nuwakot program and Sindhupalchok program (where they are currently starting another school build) so of course, if the fundraising stops then so do the projects.
Prithvi Secondary School rebuild is currently in full swing; it is the most accessible and sophisticated in terms of the base set up, so this is where I was allocated for my week. The only downside to this is that now this project is nearing completion there is less interaction with locals as all the decision making and discussion has already taken place. The other two schools are in more remote settings, with far less facilities and much more community interaction so these need volunteers who are able to commit to a longer stretch. My aim anyway during my short time with All Hands was to observe so I was happy with my bed and my bottle of cider each night. And to watch in awe at the dedication of the volunteers and local masons as they push through each day making such visible process to the two buildings that by the end of the year, will make up this new school.
So I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and spent the next few hours settling into my new home until the masses returned from site and the evening kicked off. As it was my first meeting I had to stand up introduce myself before I was presented with a coveted All Hands sweatshirt for raising over US$1000, Of course I then had to spend the rest of the night, and the week ahead, trying to explain to everyone who wasn’t from the UK the significance of John O’Groats and Lands End 🙂 Monday happened to be “super-pour” day, which potentially meant a long day on site with everyone involved in laying the next level on the second school building from start to finish. Unfortunately I had arrived at base with a bit of a dodgy stomach and – with only one toilet on site shared by around 70 people – when one of the two nominated housekeepers wanted to swap so they could go to site, I volunteered myself to stay behind. Plus it turned out that – due to a Thanksgiving Party that All Hands were hosting in Kathmandu on Saturday – everyone was leaving base on the Friday so I would now only be able to spend five days in Nuwakot. I therefore wanted to get the maximum out of this experience and cover as many different positions as possible.
Although it certainly wasn’t any kind of cop out clearing up after a hotel full of volunteers! In the end however me and my side kick Camille managed to get the job done in the morning so we were still able to head to site in the afternoon to join in the on the super pour buzz. By the time we arrived things were in full flow with everyone rushing around to keep the lines of concrete flowing up to the first floor with a tons of high energy, dust flying and determined faces. The teams had things well and truly covered but I was still able to chip in and help the sand team, filling the buckets to be passed along the line and added to the concrete mix (or masala as it is called here). Then apparently in the fastest time ever, the slab was finished by mid-afternoon, amid lots of whoops and high fiving. I’m so glad I got to be involved as it really does show how each volunteer, the team leaders, project coordinator and local experienced masons all equally invest and work together to get the job done. It also demonstrated that no matter your experience, there are a range of essential jobs that need to be tasked in order to get the overall job done so everyone is valuable to the process.
And with all that shared experience and camaraderie in the day it was easily to pass away the evenings with new friends. Like a holiday camp, where everyone is welcome and has their place. Of course, heading to bed by 9pm was more than easy to make sure you get enough sleep to do it all over again the next day. Day two and I was keen to get back on site and actually be assigned a proper role. Re-bar was what I ended up with which basically meant – please excuse my crude explanation – securing square and diamond metal shapes to the four long metal rods that go inside each column before concrete is poured inside them. First you had to make sure that the squares and diamonds fitted horizontally before spacing them out the required width apart (which varied depending how far up the rod you go) and then you need to securely tie thin wires to each square to rod, and diamond to square. It wasn’t easy but luckily I had a very patient and experienced volunteer called Hong to show me the ropes (or rather the bars!) Individually not that physically demanding but after eight hours in full sunshine with just a short morning tea-break and dal bhat lunch breather, it was pretty hard going. I was rather pleased with our days handy work, although the going home shout and cries of “jam-jam” could not have come quick enough.
Day three by now I had a sore throat and had almost lost my voice through breathing in the regular Nepal dusty air mixed with construction dust plus being surrounded by so many smokers (gggggrrrrrrr!) But I was still keen to get involved and had the previous day put my name down for rendering (as the most popular bricklaying spots had already been taken). Arriving on site a little later – as I first had to attend an induction at base where I found out even more background on All Hands and how our fundraisings helps – by now most teams on site were already in place. Thankfully I managed to find a space working alongside another volunteer helping the multi-talented masons as they rendered the walls of one of the classrooms in building one. It was amazing to watch them slap up the masala we had mixed – from sand, cement and water – then smooth down the walls with blocks of wood and clumps of reeds! Half a day of shoveling sand and cement however and an old lower back injury started to twinge so I was forced to retreat and find another job, which didn’t require so much physical assertion. I ended up helping the bricklayers pick their bricks (this mason was particular fussy!) and bring them mixed masala whilst they laid the foundations to the ground floor entrance steps and ramp to building one. Again I was amazed at just how much everyone pitches in, and how quickly progress is made.
I woke up on day four with even less voice and the niggle in my lower back still present. So when the base team asked for extra people to stay back to deal with chores there, I quickly volunteered and spent the day helping the Logistics Coordinator at base, clearing out some of the cupboards and the boots space area, which by now was full of way more pairs than there were people staying at base. With a view to throwing out any that went unclaimed, it was a satisfying and back-friendly job and the entrance to base looked a whole lot clearer after I was finished. That evening the fire pit was lit which was the perfect way to spend my final night in Nuwakot.
Another early start, combined with the need to get all my things packed up before we left, thankfully I was on one of the first mini-buses to site so was also one of the first to get to the activity board. To be honest I didn’t really understand what a lot of the jobs on the board entailed – and those that I did I knew my back would not like – so I opted to join the de-nailing team to go through all the wood that had been removed from the columns after the concrete had been poured inside them the day before. Yep I knew what that was and it didn’t sound too hard. Little did I know what Nepalese nails were like, how many are used and how all your usual technique of simply using the end of the hammer to flick the nail out would be completely useless. Hammering is more the action, and again all day! Honestly my arms felt like lead weight after the first hour, but we just had to keep on going. As it was my last day I made sure I went and spoke to the head master of the school, as I had been wanting to introduce myself all week. A lovely well spoken man, he explained how the school ran, how grateful they are to All Hands for the work we are doing and I of course can him a very brief run down of my involvement.
Our final day finished early – just as well as I could hardly lift my arms by then! – so that we could all get back to base, freshen up, pack up and then jump in the coaches that had been lined up to take us back to Kathmandu. The CEO of All Hands had flown in from the States to treat all 180 of us to a Thanksgiving Party so timing for me could not have been more perfect. We had the Friday night and Saturday morning to fend for ourselves (although we all gravitated back together again on the Friday night at the Everest Irish Bar in Thamel, completely packing out the place!) but then met up for our party on the Saturday afternoon. Free sweatshirts, “raksi” punch, turkey buffet, lip-sync battle and of course for me a great way to farewell all the friends I’d made over the last week.
Now I am away from Nuwakot and able to relax and reflect… and I actually miss being with everyone at base. I even miss the prospect of getting up early in the morning to head to site and put in a full days work. I definitely wish I had had longer to spend on the project, although realistically… the reason I decided to walk to raise money for All Hands is because – as physically and mentally demanding that was – it was a challenge I knew I could achieve. But the physical excursion required to be on that construction site 6 days a week, is totally different and I have nothing but admiration for all the volunteers who pass through All Hands hands and give so much of themselves. Myself I know that my talents lie in logistics, organization and fundraising so as and when I get the opportunity to do something for All Hands again it will be with this in mind.
So in conclusion, I am so very very happy that I chose All Hands Volunteers in Nepal to raise money for… how the company is set up, the concept of how it operates, the management outside of Nepal, the people on the ground… they do exactly what you would want a disaster relief charity to do… and so much more. I would encourage anyone wanting to take time out of their lives, learn a new skill or give something back to get involved in one of All Hands projects. On a personal level, I really feel like I have now come full circle so am very grateful to All Hands Volunteers for the experience, and to Nepal which will forever hold a special place in my heart.