Carefully, I stepped down the marble staircase trying not to slip under the weight of my tramping pack. The bag contained a collection of items that would keep me safe in any circumstance - a water purifier, a change of clothes, a mosquito net and a thin blow up mattress. Mild paranoia had taken over while I was packing, for who knew what was waiting for me beyond the safe confines of the city? The bulging bag looked excessive for a simple day trip but it brought me peace of mind. I strutted out the door wearing my newly purchased hiking gear including my first pair of leather boots that were two sizes too big for my feet. The girl in the shop had convinced me that it was better to buy a large pair of shoes so I could wear them with thick woolly socks. She envisaged that I would be hiking through the New Zealand bush in winter and splashing through glacial rivers. Neither of us had realised that I would be wearing them in 30 degree heat in Kathmandu in Nepal. My feet were sweltering inside the wool socks, which were now a compulsory addition to the shoes. It was still morning and it was only going to get hotter as the day progressed and I feared I might melt.
At the end of the driveway a large jeep was waiting for me with its driver hovering beside the gate, trying to take advantage of a slither of shade. Beside the car stood two younger men looking more relaxed and wearing jeans and a T-shirt. On seeing me approach the skinnier of the two stepped forward.
“Namaste! My name is Vivek," he announced excitedly while holding his hands together in front of his chest.
“Namaste,” I returned with a smile.
It was one of the few Nepali words I had managed to learn during the plane ride across the globe.
"This is Prem," said Vivek, indicating to his friend.
Prem quietly mumbled a word of acknowledgement before clambering into the back of the car, making sure to avoid all eye contact with me. He had learnt English at school but had never used it so was terrified of saying the wrong thing. He was naturally shy, and being in the presence of a white female was reason enough for him to retract from all social interaction.
"Are you ready to go?" asked Vivek.
"All set," I replied and clambered into the front seat.
The car roared into life. The plan was to visit a school with a name that I could barely pronounce, that was just outside the bounds of the city. It was my first time visiting Nepal and I had barely been in the country for three days. The road ahead of us was a mystery to me and it was with trepidation that I placed my trust in my new acquaintances. Our driver took a few moments to work out which of the two gear levers he needed to shift in order to make the car go forward, then we lurched towards the main road.
Once on the move the conversation in the car began to flow. First in Nepalese between the driver and Vivek, then in English.
“What does your job involve, Vivek?” I asked.
“I’m the wash co-ordinator for an organisation called NEWAH. I plan the various wash activities and oversee their implementation,” Vivek announced proudly.
“Does 'wash' stand for something?”
Vivek looked confused for a moment. The word was part of his everyday language so it was perplexing that the foreigner before him, who was meant to be an expert, did not know what it meant. It had an enormous depth of meaning. So much so that he had temporarily forgotten what the acronym stood for and was now searching through his brain for the specific words.
“It means water, sanitation and hygiene - WASH," he said after gathering his thoughts. "It covers everything to do with water supply, toilet blocks and waste water management in communities. And where are you from?”
“I’m from New Zealand,” I replied in my thick Kiwi accent.
“New Zealand… oh yes, I know where that is. It’s beside England right?”
“No… it’s quite far away from England. It’s beside Australia.”
Vivek was having a hard time understanding this information so asked again, “That’s in Europe, no?”
“No, New Zealand is not in Europe. It’s an island in the Pacific Ocean, it’s beside Australia,” I repeated.
“Ah…” Vivek replied unconvincingly. His geography skills did not cover where either New Zealand or Australia were, but he did know his history.
“Have you heard of Edmund Hillary?” Vivek asked.
I smiled at him and replied, “Yes, I know of Sir Edmund Hillary.”
“He’s from New Zealand!” Vivek announced excitedly. “He was the first person to climb Mount Everest in Nepal. He’s famous here.”
It was a delight to hear Vivek speak so proudly of my own kinsman. The pursuit to summit Everest had created a historical bond between our two countries, which had laid a foundation of trust, even if we couldn’t place each other on a map.
“Do you know what the Nepali name for Mount Everest is?” Vivek asked.
“No, what is it?”
“Sagarmatha. It means, 'Peak of Heaven'.”
For two hours Vivek happily chatted away in the back seat of the car while we travelled along the highway. He was a good talker, very skilled at filling the silence and keeping boredom at bay. Our route took us out of the Kathmandu Valley with its concrete buildings, into the green lush mountainside. The road zigzagged its way down the side of a hill to join the meandering path of a river below.
Leaving the tar sealed road behind, our vehicle turned onto a dirt path just wide enough for us to pass. The view before us was nothing short of picturesque with overhanging trees on one side, lush green rice fields on the other and a large crystal blue river flowing beside us. Monsoon rains had filled the river to the brim and given the plants a healthy green glow. The air felt clean now that there was some distance between us and the main road, and we could no longer hear tooting horns or see black smoke coming from the cars.
The tranquillity of the scene was short-lived. The further we drove, the more bumpy the road became. Our jeep's four wheel driving capabilities were put to the test as tyres jostled over stones and tree roots, and we were thrown from side to side. Three months of torrential rain had wreaked havoc with the dirt road, and the ground hadn't dried since the last rainfall two weeks ago. Deep ruts had been carved into the path and in order to avoid scraping the undercarriage on the ground, the wheels had to be carefully positioned either side of the ruts. One false move would send the wheels into the chasms and we would be stuck. We were not making quick progress and the driver was perspiring from both heat and stress. A muddy looking incline was visible in the road ahead with a reddish brown hue which was causing the hairs on the back of the driver's neck to stand on end and he brought the car to a stop. A short but firm conversation followed where the driver refused to go any further, he insisted we go the rest of the way on foot. He would wait for us back at the main road.
We were at the bottom of a valley and the school we wanted to reach was at the top of the 600m high hill beside us. The guys opted to take one bottle of water between the two of them and were stripping down to a single T-shirt and shorts, leaving everything else in the car.
“You can leave your bag in the car,” Vivek said, seeing me haul out my backpack.
It was a tempting offer and would make the journey ahead much easier without a heavy load to carry. But to walk into the unknown without an emergency bag of supplies went against all my training and better judgement. There were also two bottles of water stashed inside the bag which I wanted.
“It’s ok, I can carry it,” I said resolutely.
We turned towards the muddy path and left the driver to negotiate his way back to the main road. It wasn't long before our walk turned into a constant uphill slog of dragging one foot in front of the other. A thin covering of trees provided some much needed shade from the intense rays of the sun but there was nothing to combat the stifling hot air. My face turned a beetroot red colour and sweat poured down drenching my clothes. Prem and Vivek marvelled at the transformation of my white skin and required some assurance that a bright red face was not a sign that I was deathly ill. Their faces remained chocolate brown, which would have disguised how unfit they were if it weren’t for their heavy panting. The two boys emptied their water before we reached halfway and then looked expectantly at me and my spare bottle. At least now I had reason to justify lugging an enormous bag up a hill.
Signs of civilisation began to appear after an hour of traipsing through the forest undergrowth, first in the form of plastic wrappings and then as tangible structures.
“Do you see that water tap up there?” Vivek asked through laboured breathing.
I raised my eyes from the ground momentarily to see what Vivek was referring to. A woman was standing beside a small concrete wall wrapped in only a sarong. Her long black hair hid her face while she held it under a running stream of water coming from a metal tap. Being the middle of the day she had hoped to have a little privacy to wash her hair while the kids were attending school and the men were working in the fields.
“You mean the tap where the woman is standing?” I asked Vivek.
“Yes, that one,” he affirmed. “NEWAH finished constructing it about a year ago. Before we installed this tap the villagers had to walk to the nearby stream to collect their water, which is about twenty minutes away from here.”
I was struggling to talk, breathe and walk at the same time and all I managed to say in reply was, “Oh wow.”
There were about fifty people who lived in the nearby village and they all relied on this one tap for their water supply. On reaching the water tap Vivek proceeded to narrate the history of the area and the construction of the tap for me. Talking was his way of finding an excuse to stop and rest.
The woman washing herself peaked out from behind her curtain of hair while Vivek talked on and proudly pointed to the plaque on the concrete wall displaying NEWAH’s logo. Her sarong was wet from the shower and clung to her delicate curves leaving no room for imagination. Prem was oblivious to the awkward glances from the woman and had already bounded forward to commandeer the tap and fill up his empty water bottle. The dire heat and his thirst had evaporated his shyness towards women, to the point of making him bold. My cheeks, which were a crimson red from all the exercise, now turned a deep shade of magenta as I cringed at the boy’s actions and blushed with embarrassment.
“That’s really cool, Vivek,” I said. “Shall we keep going?”
“Oh yes ok, we can fill the other water bottle later,” Vivek replied reluctantly and turned to tackle the hill again.
On we walked until the upward climb began to flatten off and the trees around us gave way to open fields. The school was now visible in the distance standing proudly at the top of the hill, reaching three storeys high with its strong square corners and white plastered walls. It looked oddly out of place with nothing but rice fields, goats, buffalo and a few tin sheds to surround it. The school principal spotted us approaching and eagerly came forward to guide us the rest of the way. There was a genuine smile stretching from one side of his face to the other, as he excitedly shook Prem’s hand, before erupting into a discussion in Nepali. Quietly I stood off to one side, wiping away sweat that was pouring down my face. The giant building beside us was doing little to provide any shade with its position being at the wrong angle to the sun. In an effort to slow my heart rate I dumped my bag on the ground and was conscious that the back of my T-shirt was wet with perspiration. It would have been the perfect moment to utilise the spare clothes in my bag, if only there was a place where I could change.
"There are around 200 students enrolled at the school from age five to twelve years old," Vivek explained to me.
"Where do all the families live? How do the children get to school?" I asked, while scanning the area around us and noting the lack of houses, only a few tin shacks and several large piles of stones.
"There are several small villages around this area," said Vivek motioning in every direction. "The children walk from their homes. For some it's a twenty minute walk, for others it's a two hour hike up and over the hilltops."
I stared at Vivek in wonder and tried to refrain from saying anything else that would give away how privileged my upbringing was.
"Would you like to see inside the building? The principal can let us in. He has the key," said Vivek.
We made our way towards the school and as we came closer the cracks began to appear. Cracks, no thicker than a pencil line, were tracing their way from one corner of a wall to the other. Only my eyes could see them. Everyone else walked boldly past towards the classroom door while I paused to let my brain calculate the meaning of these cracks. They were the unmistakable mark of earthquake damage. Earthquakes had ripped through the country some 6 months before my arrival, leaving nearly 4 million people homeless. The country was reeling from the impact, having mourned the loss of thousands of loved ones. They were desperate to rebuild their lives and bring a sense of normality back to a world that had been turned upside down. There were no houses around us because they had all fallen down in the earthquakes.
The principal turned the lock on the classroom door and pushed it open. We were greeted by the site of corn cobs. School books, tables and chairs had been relocated and in their place the residents had begun filling the room with their crops. Makeshift temporary classrooms had been put up after the earthquakes for fear that the school building might collapse and now the rooms lay empty. The local residents had nowhere else to put their crops because their homes were all destroyed so they were making use of the empty space.
Into each classroom we walked and I surveyed the walls, floors and ceilings to check for structural damage. The principal made sure to point out all the little cracks between the stones in case I missed one. Despite his fear and misgivings the building was surprisingly unscathed which gave me hope for the school's future. The tour finished with a walk around the exterior which required climbing over a pile of stones that were blocking the way. A gathering of around ten men had formed in front of the school who were waiting for us to finish. These were people from the community, all eager to know our thoughts. They were ready to beseech us for any small amount of help that we could give. Vivek and Prem had a few ideas that they were keen to pursue and were already communicating these to the small gathering.
“We've told the principal that we will rebuild the toilets,” Vivek informed me.
“Ok, I didn’t see any toilets. Where are they?” I asked.
“They were to the left of the building. You passed them when you walked around the outside,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s that pile of stones just over there,” Vivek said, pointing to a raised area of ground that I had scrambled over as I surveyed the building. A heap of stones was all that remained of the toilets.
"Oh, yes we can definitely rebuild the toilets," I said immediately, feeling foolish for not realising that the rubble was once a functioning building.
"What do you think about constructing a tap stand too, so the kids can wash their hands?" asked Vivek.
"Of course," I replied.
I tried to hide my surprise at his question. It had never occured to me that toilets would not come with taps equipped with running water.
"What about providing some showers too?" I suggested, thinking back to the woman in her sarong.
"Showers?" questioned Vivek.
"Yea, some cubicles where the women can have a shower in private," I explained.
"Sure, I don't see why not," said Vivek.
"Great, let's make this happen. A new tap, showers and toilets to replace what was lost! We have a lot of work to do."