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Saturday 30 August 2014

A Month in Nepal: Adventure is not just for the young!

Adventure is not the preserve of the young, writes great-grandmother Lorna Vinall, who pushed past her comfort zone to travel to Kathmandu as a volunteer

Lorna Vinall

Published 08/07/2014 | 02:30

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Lorna Vinall, relaxes at home after her travels to Nepal ,Pix Ronan Lang/Feature File
Lorna Vinall went on an elephant ride in the jungle in Nepal
Lorna with two of the younger schoolchildren

Adventure is not the preserve of the young, writes great-grandmother Lorna Vinall, who pushed past her comfort zone to travel to Kathmandu as a volunteer

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YOUNG ones! It is normal for them to pack a rucksack and take off in search of adventure – definitely not normal for a 77-year-old great-grandmother!

I am standing at the check-in desk at Dublin Airport, frozen with fear. The young girl asks me how long I intend to stay in Nepal and I can hear myself replying with a nonchalance I don't feel, "One month."

I expect her to frown and make a quiet telephone call. Any moment now, a posse of men in white coats will lead me from the terminal and hand me over to the authorities who deal with 'harmless but daft'.

"Have a lovely time," she beams and hands me the boarding cards that will take me to Abu Dhabi and Kathmandu. It is 7pm. My peers are making cocoa and watching Fair City.

Awaiting take-off, I have time to review the madness of the past two months. A moment on the internet was all it took to set in motion a surge of excitement and a longing for adventure that has brought me to this day, and now I am scared.

Projects Abroad is an organisation that facilitates volunteers who wish to help in countries all over the world and there is no age limit. I was dazzled by the faraway places that welcomed helpers and Nepal captured my imagination. Mount Everest, Shangri-La, the little yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu.

I felt a rush of excitement and a conviction that this had to be better than staring at four walls.

They arranged my school placement to teach English and organised accommodation where I will live as a member of a Nepalese family.

Nothing can describe my first sight of Kathmandu. It is overwhelming. The noise, the traffic, the beeping and honking, the colour and the grime, the wandering cows and goats and hens, and the multitude of scraggy dogs foraging amongst the heaps of rubbish – I have landed on another planet!

The taxi man who met me at the airport is driving to a small hotel in town where a note has been left to welcome me. 'Enjoy a nice shower and rest,' it says, 'We'll see you in the morning for an induction'.

The water is cold and I am not that brave.

Heather is a lovely Irish girl who has been assigned to tell me all I need to know. I must not drink the water nor use it to brush my teeth. I must be careful when showering to keep my lips sealed. "It's just so full of bacteria," she explains light-heartedly.

I can expect to be stared at. I will see men holding hands because this is a custom and everyone, young and old, spits. I must always leave my shoes outside my host's house and never show knees or shoulders.

I am walked through the nearby alleys, dodging cars and rickshaws, motorbikes and people. Heather points out places I may need – the bank and the internet café. I change euros into rupees and now I have a local sim card.

Bibec, a gentle Nepalese representative of the Projects Abroad team, has arrived. He greets me with bowed head and joined hands and says, "Namaste". I accompany him to my host family who live about seven kilometres away – a bumpy ride over potholes and dried mud. A warm welcome awaits me from Madhav and Dhanna, who live on the second floor of a small house. They cannot do enough for me.

They are amazed that anyone so old is volunteering and they insist that I take things easy. I am directed to a small dark room I will share with two other volunteers. My heart sinks, but my hosts are proud of this room because it is very comfortable by Nepalese standards.

The primitive toilet facilities and shower will be shared with up to eight others. I am trying to hide my dismay – these are happy people and they are bubbling with delight at my arrival and showering me with good will. They insist we drink sweetened black tea before leaving to visit my school.

Bibec introduces me to Karmendra, the school principal, a warm-hearted, smiling gentleman who makes me feel at home.

Karmendra is eager to tell me about the children. They come from poor families and from very different backgrounds. "We have Hindis, Buddhists, untouchables. It doesn't matter to us, we treat everyone the same," he adds proudly. Every child wears a smart green uniform and those who could not afford it have been supplied with one.

The classrooms are bare. I see no books and no pictures, but the children who greet me have bright eyes and beaming smiles.

I talk to a class of 17-year-olds. They sit politely as I tell them about Ireland. They want me to sing the national anthem and I take fright. I take a deep breath and begin.

I'm waiting for the titters and giggles that will greet my puny efforts. I need not have worried for, without asking, they are standing and remain respectful throughout.

They want me to hear their national song and I am deeply touched by pride when they stand with their hands on their hearts.

Back at my hosts, I remember to leave my shoes outside. Dal Bhat, which is rice and lentils, is served. I meet my fellow volunteers – young ones from Holland, Canada, Germany and Limerick. We have been given spoons for our food but Madhav and Dhanna, like many Nepalese, eat with their fingers.

Two of my young housemates have been here for almost a month. I marvel at their acceptance at the poverty and the dirt of the locality, but they assure me that they felt squeamish too when they first arrived.

There is a rooftop at Madhav's house from where we can see the derelict neighbourhood and the far away hills. The evening sun is warm, but February nights are cold and there is no heating. As darkness falls, I hurry to arrange my bedding. Power will be cut off without warning and we will be plunged into darkness. My torch will become my most treasured possession.

In bed at 8pm, wearing all the jumpers I brought and the jacket I travelled in, I still feel cold. Madhav has kindly given me another blanket. A room-mate complains of "ze hard bed" and before I agree, I remember that this is my great adventure and to stop whinging.

My mind is a whirl. I am dazed, I am jet-lagged. I am in Kathmandu.

It is my first day of school and I leave home at 9 o'clock.

I tread warily over the heaps of rubbish and potholes, and avoid eye contact with the roaming dogs. When I reach the road, the motorbikes are sweeping past and I cover my nose and mouth to avoid the great belches of black smoke that billow from noisy old trucks.

I pass the river where women wearing brightly coloured saris are washing their clothes. They are happily chatting and laughing, oblivious of the rubbish that floats on the murky water. Above the din I hear the greeting "Namaste" and meet smiles all the way to school. Warmth flows from these gentle people.

Today, I observe the nursery children. At three years of age they are learning the alphabet and numbers one to 50. Seated on cushions, they copy letters in English and Nepalese. There are no teaching aids so I use fingers and pencils for counting. When I sing nursery rhymes they are mesmerised and stare solemnly. Finally I introduce an action dance and everyone is laughing and taking part. They want more and I am exhausted.

Parents have sent in meagre bowls of rice or a few biscuits for lunch and the children eat without a murmur. This is food. When they have finished eating they curl up on their cushions and sleep. They will leave the dark classroom at 3pm for the first time – apart from the occasional trip to the toilet – and go home. There is no playtime.

Lord Shiva's birthday is a big festival in Nepal and we have the day off school and a long weekend. Madhav and Dhanna are devout Hindus and before we leave home they mark our foreheads with a red blob. This is considered to be a special blessing.

Madhav is cosseting me. "You are old," he says with great concern. "You must not go to town."

A taxi ride later, I am in the heart of town, wide-eyed and elated. I haggle with a rickshaw owner and within minutes he is weaving his way to Durbar Square, where I will see ancient palaces and wondrous temples – Kathamandu in all its majesty. I wander past breathtaking monuments. Wealthy merchants travelling from China to India long ago traded here and walked these streets.

A lone Buddhist monk stands with a begging bowl and I make an offering. We are both old and worlds apart, but when we exchange warm smiles we meet as friends. I book a hotel room for the night, order momos in the restaurant and book a trip to the jungle for next weekend. I have grown wings and I want to fly.

Madhav's cousin is getting married and I have been invited. We are driving over bumpy roads to the bride's house. Though I have never met the family, they greet me with outstretched arms and introduce me to the young bride who is preparing for her big day. Her sisters and friends are helping and she emerges like a queen, in an exquisite red sari and sparkling with jewels.

A canopy has been prepared outside the temple and the young couple sit before a table laden with flowers and colourful symbols to be used at the ceremony. An elder is reciting numerous prayers and directing many rituals. Caterers are serving food and some guests are standing and chatting as they eat.

Monkeys who had been watching from the trees are now running round our feet in search of titbits. I am astounded but no one passes comment. This is a happy family occasion and I feel honoured to be so graciously included.

When the bride and groom leave after the ceremony, the party will be over and everyone will go home.

Three weeks into my adventure and I am a veteran. I have shared a breakfast with ants and I know the misery of Delhi belly. I've squeezed into small buses for nine passengers but seldom carrying less than 20. In the jungle of Chitwan I've had an elephant ride and watched sleeping crocodiles by the riverbank.

Today I am in a small aircraft on my way to the Himalayas. In the distance I can see Mount Everest and, silly as it may seem, tears are welling up in my eyes. I cannot believe that I am here, beholding the highest mountain in the world. Once more I am overwhelmed and these special moments will stay with me forever.

Back in Kathmandu the streets are teeming with people. Amid the poverty and squalor, the city is alive with colour. I am sitting inside the precincts of the Bouddha, one of the most important Buddhist temples in Nepal. Vibrant pennants are fluttering and smoky incense billows into the air.

I follow the monks and pilgrims who are encircling the temple, turning prayer wheels and praying with their large wooden beads. A quiet calm pervades and it feels good to be here.

Monks are not always praying and they have moved into the 21st century. Most of them have mobile phones and many use internet cafes. They ride motorbikes and browse in music shops.

The people of Nepal are so friendly and kind. When I was lost, I asked some women for help and showed them Madhav's address. They didn't know the way but went in search until they found someone who could take me home.

If I sit down by the side of the road and rest, someone will bring me a chair.

I have reached my final week in this magical country, but now I want to go home. In my dreams I am walking on Dollymount Strand, savouring the cold fresh breeze.

I have a longing for green grass and hot showers and clothes that are clean. I want food without spice, fresh water from the tap and a soft bed in my own room.

I feel ashamed because I am now counting days.

I have said goodbye to Karmendra and the teachers at school and feel sadness at leaving the children.

"Namaste," I say quietly as I bow my head and join my hands. "Namaste," they reply.

My flight is late in the evening on the great feast of Holi. On this day children and adults may throw water and coloured powder at everyone they meet. There is much fun and laughter as this Hindi feast celebrates the conquest of good over evil. If I venture outside I will be soaked in dye and will not be able to remove it with cold water.

I envisage gardai in Dublin meeting me with a straitjacket so I am staying indoors.

I am leaving Nepal enriched beyond words. I have lived and worked with people who are warm, generous and happy despite their poverty and miserable conditions.

I also know that Shangri-La, the land of eternal youth, is real because I don't feel old anymore. Having broken free from those comfort zones which anchor us to the ground, I feel my spirit soaring. Where next? I'm thinking excitedly.

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