Thursday 27 October 2016

'Children in Nepal collect rags all day'

After Marie Chawke left a busy job running a top hotel, she seized the chance to fulfil a lifelong ambition to volunteer. That's how she found herself helping earthquake victims in Nepal, she tells Graham Clifford ay ahead. fortunat- a trip to Kathmanudik of a moped and sleeping in a tent, Marie Chawke tells Graham Clifford how volunteering in Nepal has has changed her outlook on life

Graham Clifford

Published 30/12/2015 | 02:30

Good will: Marie Chawke says her time spent volunteering in Nepal has changed her outlook on life. Photo: Don Macmonagle
Good will: Marie Chawke says her time spent volunteering in Nepal has changed her outlook on life. Photo: Don Macmonagle
Marie with children from an orphanage she volunteered at in Nepal. Photo: Don MacMonagle

It's mid-morning in the village of Sipadol in central Nepal. The children are at school, the local women working in the fields and three volunteers from overseas are sorting garlic cloves, separating the good from the bad.

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Marie Chawke, the former general manager of the five-star Aghadoe Heights hotel in Killarney, is one of those volunteers who has visited the earthquake-devastated country.

She decides to go back to her bedroom to type up her thoughts which later she'll include on a blog.

"I was sitting on my bed in a house badly damaged by the April earthquake. Suddenly I looked up and the walls were moving. I asked myself 'is this really happening?'

"My head felt light. I looked out the window and the house next door was swaying and the women were running. I ran down the stairs and out of the house. My mind went blank, the animals were going crazy, and it was terrifying."

The quake, which measured 5.3 on the Richter scale, was the largest since April, when 9,000 people died in an earthquake which measured 7.8.

The most recent earthquake, in mid-November, which occurred on Marie's second day at the orphanage in Sipadol, outside the beautiful historic town of Bhaktapura, passed quickly causing little damage.

It shook those who'd never experienced an earthquake before though, and reminded the locals of their vulnerability and the fear from last April's disaster. Marie's thoughts immediately turned to home.

Twelve months earlier she was welcoming guests at the Aghadoe Heights, looking after their every need, putting in long days to ensure visitors were pampered and well taken care of.

For 15 years Marie, and her husband Pat, worked to enhance the hotel's reputation and guests yearned for her warm welcome overlooking the lakes of Killarney.

But on January 9, Marie walked out the doors of the hotel for the last time as its general manager. Just a few months earlier hotel chain owner Jerry O'Reilly sold the Aghadoe Heights to Davy Strategic Capital Investments for just over €6 million - and a combination of factors led to Marie opting for pastures new.

"The hotel was our life, we treated it very much as our own. Over the years we built up such close relationships with the staff.

"It felt like a family so when we decided to leave the hardest part was telling all those we'd worked with for so long," explains Marie, adding "initially, after I left, I detached myself from the hotel and didn't make contact with former colleagues.

"I felt that would make it easier but of course the hotel is still so close to my heart. Even during the recent storms my first thought was 'is the hotel okay?'"

While Pat still manages the O'Reilly Hotel Group, Marie used 2015 to unwind, spend time with family, take the foot off the accelerator of life and fulfil life-long promises she'd made to herself.

"In May my sister Anne had a daughter, the first grandchild in our family. My niece is a darling little girl called Annabel, so I spent lots of the summer with her and my mother who lives in Limerick. Pat and I never had children so there was great excitement when Annabel came along," Marie tells me.

And she adds: "I travelled around Ireland a bit, spent time with friends and did normal things like cooking and gardening, badly, - things I never had the time to do much of before."

But by March Marie felt her "brain was turning to mush" - she had to inch her way back into the world of work. So she undertook some interior design consultancy work in Ireland and for a hotel in Dubai advising them on operational standards.

Still though - something was missing.

"Since I can remember I wanted to do some volunteer work abroad. My parents were always generous when we grew up in Kilmallock where they had a pub and a bakery. My father, Jimmy Foley, would always give away bread at the end of the day to those who needed it," said Marie.

A friend in Killarney, Laura Buckley, advised her to visit Nepal where she herself had volunteered as a nurse. Marie decided to go for it and signed up with the International Volunteer HQ group.

Once she emailed friends telling them that a coffee morning would be held in the Killarney Park Hotel to raise funds for families in Nepal, an avalanche of goodwill came her way.

"It was unbelievable. Everybody rolled up their sleeves and it became a big event. Don O'Neill donated a dress from his Theia label, designer Louise Kennedy gave a cashmere wrap, Ashford Castle donated a weekend away and the Ritz in Dubai gave us a few nights to raffle as a prize."

Even the local pharmacists donated medical supplies.By the time she left, €12,000 had been raised for the victims of the Nepalese earthquakes.

And so on Saturday November 14, Marie departed Farranfore airport destined for the Himalayas, via Dublin and Abu Dhabi, to one of the world's poorest nations.

"I checked my bags in at Kerry and didn't see them again until Kathmandu, that kind of blew my mind!" she explains with a smile.

Over the next fortnight, earthquake aside, Marie had what she describes as a truly "life-enhancing" experience.

She helped in the fields, in the tents where children, wrapped up in scarves, woolly hats and gloves, would complete their homework in the fading light.

She rode on the back of mopeds through the streets of Kathmandu avoiding sacred cows, enormous potholes and incessant traffic to visit other schools and orphanages including the Indreni Foundation, developed by Irishman Keith Moloney.

With no hot water, limited electricity and a visit from bedbugs, it was everything that a five-star hotel isn't.

She experienced the impact of the fuel crisis in Nepal and witnessed political unrest. But it was the resilience of the people that struck her most.

"They have so little, but are so grateful for what they do have. And the children impressed me so, so much. We saw some who spent their days just collecting rags. But for all the hardships the children are respectful, tactile, polite, kind to each other, and affectionate," says Marie. And she recalls one particular experience that will stay with her forever.

"At the home near the orphanage, which housed 22 children, there was one little boy called Rahoul who was seven. Everyday he would play with just two marbles for hours on end. He would call me saying: 'Auntie, auntie, come and play, I'll show you'.

"And so we'd both try to flick a marble into this little hole. It was such a simple thing but gave him so much joy."

And when Marie bought 22 pairs of shoes at a local market the children were able to ditch their crumbling sandals for more comfortable footwear.

"When I was there I was just so eager to do as much as I could. I've given funds raised of €10,500 to the Bhaktapur Orphanage so they can rebuild homes for the children before the monsoon season begins. But they need another €45,000 so I hope to continue fundraising to achieve that goal too."

When she speaks about Nepal Marie is animated - there is passion in her voice.

"It was inspiring. Undoubtedly I feel calmer as a person. It's changed the way I look at life. It gave me perspective. The acceptance and positivity of the Nepalese people in the face of such adversity was powerful."

In the new year Marie is likely to take steps back to the world of more permanent work in the hospitality sector - but she'll never forget this year and the people she met in Nepal.

"So many people know Marie, the hotelier, with the blow-dried hair and the pearls and high heels. But this was probably the Marie Foley part of me that went to Nepal - fulfilling an ambition to help abroad that I've always held but never had the time to do."

To donate to the Bhaktapur Orphanage log onto, and for the Indreni Foundation visit Quote 'Nepal's Orphanage Christmas Appeal' as reference

Irish Independent

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