Touching down into Nepal, the first 3rd world country I’ve ever experienced, was mesmerising. The difference in culture, organisation and money was all pretty overwhelming. Little did I know that entering the Panchamaul Valley to the village of Sirubari would make the experiences of Kathmandu and Pokhara look tame! Now out of the cities I was heading deep into the rural foothills of the Himalaya’s. It was here, that I found the real Nepal…
As the 4×4 came to halt the trailing dust blanketed the car, masking our view of the small village of Sirubari. As it cleared, along the wall leading up the path to the village were a long line of women, all in bright red and green traditional dresses. Each clutched handfuls of flowers and welcome scarves. Everyone was eagerly trying to catch a glimpse into the car windows to see their new visitors, us. As I opened the car door we were surrounded by the village elders, children and other villagers welcoming us to the valley. As the excited chattering and rush of people calmed I heard music – it must have been playing the whole time but masked under the babble of people – booming from a local band clutching a variety of home-made instruments. There were trumpets, drums, whistles and giant horns reaching at least 10 feet long! The sound was incredible and echoed into the valley, we knew then that there was no way of making this a subtle entrance.
As we followed the Elders up the path to the village, layers of flower necklaces and welcome scarfs were placed around our necks. My forehead was stained by the Tikka used by the locals to adorn our foreheads. I had never experienced such a welcome! Working our way along the narrow paved streets with the band close behind, we were almost at the community hall when someone started to dance. They were dancing in a way I had never seen before and somehow, managed to stay in time with the quirky local music. Of course we had to join in! This was the first of many times my dancing would cause hysterics of laughter.
When the ceremony calmed we were shown to our new home for the next few weeks. Built in a medieval style with stone and mortar, painted bright white and are absolutely beautiful. Each house has a hollowed out log on the roof that acts like a bee hive. The windows have no glass, only shutters and there are two doors. One wooden door opening in and another mesh door opening out. I stupidly decide to ask why the doors open in two different directions? What I was told was that the mesh door was not there to keep the insects out, – they could get in the windows after all – they were there to stop the leopards getting in. Leopards!? Apparently there had been instances in the past of Leopards sneaking into the house and snatching babies from their cots, the mesh doors stopped this now. At that point I stopped asking questions and was thankful for mesh door.
No need for an alarm clock. You’ll be woken by the enchanting, early morning Buddhist prayers that slowly spread across the valley. Stepping out to find out where the prayers were coming from you are met with a magnificent view of the Himalayan foothills. Looking down into the valley the morning cloud sits low, making you feel as if you’re living above the clouds as only the tips of the mountains are in view. If you are lucky enough to have a clear morning you’ll see for miles, I counted 11 mountain layers on my first visit! After a quick wash in a refreshing ice-cold shower, it is time to warm up with some Khalo Chia (black tea) and breakfast.
Our Homestay served basic but delicious food, all provided form the land that they live on. Breakfast was always different. Sometimes it was boiled egg and spiced potatoes, others it was some weird sponge-cake-like substance. If you were lucky you might get pancakes and fresh honey or Sel Roti! Sel Roti is effectively Nepal’s version of the doughnut – a thin line of dough made into a circle and fried. Lunch and dinner is pretty much always Dhal Bhatt. ‘Dhal’, a lentil soup and ‘Bhatt’ is simply rice. This tasty duo is always served with a mixture of spiced potatoes, vegetables and some stewed meat. Be wary though, it is normally extra spicy! My tip; keep a small stash of sugar at hand.
My first trip to Sirubari was with the Rotary Clubs International Project. The Rotary were there to help set up three new computer Labs and teach the teachers in three different schools across the Valley in the basics of Computers. Each school insisted on a welcome ceremony, which normally lasted 3 to 4 hours! Sirubari’s welcome felt like a warm up compared to this. The whole school turned out to meet us from students and teachers to also their families and friends. It was the biggest crowd I had ever seen and I couldn’t believe they had all turned up, excited about a computer lab!
Everyone wanted to shake out hands, give us scarfs, necklaces, flowers, and cover our foreheads in Tika. I could barely see from all the scarfs and necklaces that were thrown on me!
Once we had made it through the crowds, shaking as many hands as possible and with too many necklaces to count it was time to dance. In front of everyone, of course! Safe to say, they cracked up at our attempts of Nepali dance as we tried to stay in time with the music. When the music died down – and the laughter had stopped – the speeches began. The passion and gratitude that came from the teachers and officials who spoke really hit me. It’s so easy to take something like a new computer lab for granted at home, but for them this was life changing. Even though most of the speeches were in Nepali you could feel the importance of this gift to them. The teachers really stressed to the students that having the opportunity to learn computer skills was not to be taken lightly, if they stick with their studies and worked hard, it could change their lives.
It wasn’t all ceremonies and dances, most of our time was spent setting up and installing the new computer labs. Once that was done, it was time for the teachers to become students. Can you remember the first time you turned a computer on? I can’t. Teaching the basics, and I mean basics, of computer literacy to the teachers was a long task. I can imagine it’s similar to teaching children their ABC’s. It’s something we take for granted every day and just know, but to them it’s completely new. Over the course of two weeks we taught them how to turn the computer on and off, the differences and uses of cut, copy and paste to using basic computer programs. By the end of the two weeks each teacher could create their own PowerPoint presentation. The progress over the two weeks may seem small, but to us and the teachers, it was an incredible achievement.
Collapsing into bed at the end of the day was the norm for most evenings after finishing work in the school. The walk to get there, the focus and effort of teaching really took it out of me, a lot more than I thought! So it was a treat on some evenings to be taken to Cultural Evening instead of collapsing into my bed. The whole village would turn out to sing and dance, the atmosphere was electric and suddenly I had a new boost of energy. The youth group in the village gets dressed up in traditional Gurung dress and puts on an incredible dancing performance! It’s not long before you’re dragged up onto the dancefloor to join in the troop. I don’t know how they do it, traditional Nepali dancing is hard to keep up so instead, it’s time for the classic ‘club’ and ‘dad’ dancing. They loved it! It was hilarious and weird to them, but they always tried to mimic me and the whole room would end in hysterics. I always looked forward to these nights.
The party never ended. When the loud music died down and people began to head home, a few of us would huddle round together and instruments would be brought out. Sitting under the incredibly starry skies I would strum my Ukulele along to the local Mendal drums. We would sing to each other the villagers would take one verse and then the Rotarians another, always trying to out-do the other for the best laughs. Now, if you were listening from outside it must have been the strangest thing. Two completely different styles of music in two completely different languages. But in that room we were connected through sheer passion and joy.
Before I knew it, our time had come to leave, to say goodbye to this beautiful village, new friends and adopted families. My heart was in my mouth and there were tears all round. Everyone turned up to say goodbye, just as they had done when we arrived. Everyone tried to pass us one last flower and shake our hands for the final time. The overwhelming gratitude and sheer sincerity by the people of Sirubari touched me deeply. Although living in what we would call poverty, these people couldn’t be happier and were some of the most generous I’ve ever met. So rich in their sense of community and being one with the land is something we have lost in the western world. The want I have to share their way of life pulls me back to the mountains and the village of Sirubari each year. That small village high in the mountains, on the other side of the world has change my life, my way of thinking and will stay with me forever.