“No way,” I told my midwife friend as she made plans for her third medical mission to Nepal. “I’d love to go, but I’m no good at medical stuff. I’d be hopeless.”
“At least meet Narayan,” Dian Sparling insisted. After our meeting, I was hooked--by his smile, enthusiasm, and passion for his work. Now I understood how Narayan Shrestha was able to raise enough money to support his Helping Hands Health Education non-profit organization.
Meeting with the nine-member volunteer group, I learned how much fast-dry underwear to pack, and decided to buy a fleece liner for my sleeping bag. “You’ll never be colder,” Dian promised.
October 8, 2011 we left Denver for LA, and 17 hours later found ourselves in the glistening Bangkok airport. Soaring glass ceilings, live orchids all about, and enough shopping opportunities to make you dizzy made our wait easy. In Kathmandu, the airport is shabby but the welcome from our Helping Hands hosts was filled with warmth and marigold garlands. I could tell from the touching greetings exchanged between Dian and Dr. Sue Kozak, returning volunteers, and our hosts that, after a long time apart, they were back with dear friends.
In Nepal, the mountains loom formidably above the clouds, thousands of feet higher than the Rockies. The countryside is vibrant green with steep slopes and manicured terraces, the shops enticing, the temples and stupas (Buddhist shrines) exotic, the food plentiful and spicy, but it is the people of this small mountainous land that made it memorable for me. The impact of being there expands each day since I’ve been home.
A chaotic drive through the city to our hotel tossed us headlong into the craziness of a third world city of more than a million people. Bikes, rickshaws, motorcycles, vans, buses jammed with people inside, on top, and clinging to the sides, and cars, all with overactive horns, did their best to avoid pedestrians--people, cows, goats and dogs. Yet we saw no road rage.
Eco Resort Hotel is tucked away down what we’d call an alley, but in KTM is a one-lane city street with shops on one side and a tiny park on the other. We found ourselves in a quiet oasis, our hotel building surrounded by a lovely courtyard with a shrine, flowers, a little pool, and neatly-trimmed tiny hedges. Not until after our adventures would we appreciate the hotel’s toilets that could be sat upon, flushed, and were supplied with toilet paper. Running water, though it took forever to make its way through faraway pipes, made possible the welcome luxury of a hot shower.
We climbed into two sturdy four-wheel drive vehicles to travel to Sindhuli, 160 miles east and south of KTM. Nine and a half hours later, we arrived—survivors of endless jostling on rock-strewn, precipitous roadways; a flat tire; and a high-altitude scary-road traffic jam requiring vigorous discussion, hand-waving, and genuine fear for our lives.
Darkness had descended upon Sindhuli by the time we arrived to music, garlands of marigolds and a traditional lentil and rice dinner. The next day. lines formed for medical camp and for eight days the people came. Dental, gynecological, pediatric and general medicine practitioners listened, pondered, examined, and prescribed. I helped by running errands and delivering and filling prescriptions.
Each night we returned to our lodgings with local families, a kindness I will always treasure. Every morning our hosts brought us steaming glasses of tea. A bucket of hot water made “showers” possible by soaping up and pouring water over our bodies.
We were thrilled to discover that beer and toilet paper could be purchased at the same little street-side shop in the village. After we’d bought five rolls of toilet paper, the shop’s entire inventory, we were out of luck. But the Tuborg beer held out for the duration, to the eternal gratitude of four of us who developed a late afternoon ritual around this special beer.
Volunteer work completed, we moved on to Pokara, jumping off place for trekkers from all over the world. Our trek began innocently on a rocky road bustling with trekkers and locals going about their business. By the end of day one, we had walked for five and a half hours and trudged up a couple thousand stone steps by the time we reached our guest house.
Three days and 18 hours of trekking later, the stupendous peaks of the Annapurna Range loomed close. In the otherwise heat-free guest-house at base camp, we huddled around a long cloth-skirted table under which a kerosene burner gave off welcome, if slightly dangerous, blasts of heat.
At 5:30 a.m. next morning we shivered marveling as the sun rose slowly over the Annapurna Range, splashing vivid gold across the peaks. Cameras clicked in attempts to preserve those few elusive moments.
In Nepal you climb up in order to climb down, and then do it over again. This routine is interrupted only by slippery steep places, rushing rivers with iffy rope bridges, donkey trains, small bands of school children, overloaded porters, and an occasional cow, goat or yak. You plod along knowing there will be no “easy part” and that you’d better keep on trekking if you want a place to sleep that night.
But you’ll be well-fueled. I became addicted to creamy rice pudding, as good for breakfast as at any other meal. The eggs are so fresh that every omelet was delicious. French fried potatoes became a staple for lunch along with a bowl of steaming noodle soup. We drank tea made from fresh ginger and coffee or tea laced with foaming hot milk.
It took four days to reach AP Base Camp and another four to return. During the hours we walked, this group of mostly strangers became friends. We’ve been home a few months now, and we miss each other. We get together for beer even though we can’t find Tuborg in the U.S. None of us are the same, because of the time we spent in Nepal.