It’s fitting that the first post on this blog should be a personal story from Susan, one of the founders of Take on Nepal. Back in 2008, Batase was just another Himalayan village. The Friends of Himalayan Children charity was just getting started in Cairns, and the village school was small and cramped, with few resources. There was no hostel to house any westerners who might choose to visit and there was no road up the mountain to make the journey easier.
Susan and Som travelled from Cairns to Kathmandu, then took the long trek up the mountain to meet the prospective in-laws, lugging backpacks filled with presents for relatives, and the obligatory chocolate bars to satisfy any hunger pang. Tradition in the Tamang villages of the Lower Himalayas is that a new bride should live with her mother-in-law: cooking and cleaning, tending the house, working in the fields and taking care of the animals.
Though Susan’s Irish sensibilities wouldn’t stand for this, she did want to make a good impression. Like most westerners who visit Nepal, she’d read all the warnings about not drinking un-bottled water, being careful of fresh vegetables that she hadn’t washed herself with boiled or bottled water, and carrying muesli or chocolate bars to see her through any problems that might arise with the local diet. But like I said, she wanted to make a good impression.
They stayed in the village for almost two weeks, and over the course of the two weeks, Susan started getting thinner and thinner. Her pale Irish skin got paler, the bones in her cheeks more prominent, until by day fourteen she looked like an extra in a zombie movie. By the time she got back to Cairns her doctor was one step away from admitting her to the local hospital.
How did this happen? Did she contract a local disease of some sort? Suffer from allergies to strange Nepalese plants? Was she infected by the bites of local insects? None of the above. The near fatal issue that came so close to laying Susan low was a case of stubborn western sensitivity over-riding good sense.
Back in 2008 there was no hostel in the village for westerners to stay in. They lived and slept with the locals, and cooked and ate with them. On the one hand, this sounds great — a wonderful opportunity to experience life as it is lived by the locals.
What could possibly go wrong?
When Susan started having difficulties with the local food (not at all uncommon), she didn’t avail herself of those muesli and chocolate bars that she’d carried for just that purpose. Being surrounded by her new family—none of whom she could easily communicate with, but all of whom were watching the western wife-in-waiting to see what strange thing she would do next—she was reluctant to whip out a luxury bar of chocolate and eat it in front of them. After all, how rude would that be? There wasn’t enough to share with the local kids who sat next to her at dinner, and she couldn’t possibly sit there and chew on a tasty bar while those same kids were eating lentils and rice with their fingers.
If you visited a friends home and found that the basic food they offered you wasn’t to your liking, would you dig into your bag, whip out a big chocolate cake and start eating it in front of them without offering it around? Of course you wouldn’t.
So Susan went hungry. And hungry. And even more hungry.
Everything turned out alright in the end. When she got back to Cairns and started eating properly again the colour returned to her cheeks and she put back on all the weight she’d lost—but it was a close call. She learned her lesson, and her second trip to the village not long after was a roaring success. This time, she left fitter than when she arrived — if a little tired of those muesli bars.
It was a lesson well learned, and one that has played a part in how we’ve structured things in the village for western volunteers. A single western person, alone in the village, living amongst the locals, would find it difficult to eat separately when required. Problems that arise as a result can be life threatening if not caught in time. For this reason, we only bring groups of volunteers to the village, so that they have the support of other volunteers in a similar situation to themselves. Our people on the ground know what to watch out for. Believe me, if you’re not eating properly, we’ll know it before you do.
All volunteers are housed in the purpose built hostel, where they prepare their own meals and have that extra degree of privacy that makes it easier to do whatever they need to do to look after themselves—even if it’s something as simple as eating a carefully hoarded chocolate or muesli bar without thinking about sharing it with 20 children.
A simple piece of advice for all our volunteers: Don’t feel bad about eating the chocolate bar.
© Take on Nepal 2019