Cicerone have been fundraising to rebuild an earthquake-damaged school in a tiny village called Rawa Dolu in Nepal. Hannah was the lucky winner of a trip to Nepal to visit the school and, with a group of volunteers, paint and decorate it. It was her first time to Nepal and her first time trekking.
As Jonathan dipped his hand into the hat – his favourite trilby – I reminded myself that it was fine if I didn’t win; I was terrified anyway, and three weeks was a long time to leave the wife and dog. Probably best if I didn’t go, to be honest. I had almost convinced myself.
In between taking photos of ‘the big draw’ and my pre-disappointment-consolation-self-talk, I barely heard Jonathan say my name. I remember blushing and immediately feeling guilty that I was depriving the rest of the office of this dream trip. The rest of the day is a bit of a blur as all I could think of was ‘I’m going to Nepal!!!’.
Over the next couple of months, the feelings of excitement and terror jostled for prominence – terror the overall victor. I had appointments with the pharmacy that made me feel like I was unlikely to survive my trip and, if I did, I would definitely come back with a life-changing parasite/cholera at the very least. I chatted to my colleagues about their trekking tips and experience and pulled together a kit list. Sarah gifted me a little bag with a loo roll in, promising me it would be like gold dust when I was trekking. I realise now that some of what I was lapping up attentively may have been a wind-up:
Me: ‘We’re staying in a hotel in Kathmandu for the first few nights.’
Sarah: ‘Oh, that’ll be nice. It’ll probably even have glass in the windows.’
About the trip
This trip was organised by Adventure Aid Nepal, a non-profit charity run by Sam Rowley and Abhishek Pande. They arrange for groups of volunteers to go out to the schools built by the Juniper Trust and, with the supervision of Suraj Basnet, they work on whatever needs doing to complete the school. The trip balances the work element with trekking and sightseeing days, so overall it feels like a holiday. You can find out more in this article and I would urge anyone to sign up for next year – it's an amazing cause, affordable and a trustworthy organisation.
My arrival in Kathmandu was difficult. I had been travelling for about 18 hours and had just started to feel like everything would be OK. I had never travelled this far on my own and was impressed to have successfully managed a flight with changes. I hadn’t, however, sufficiently understood how deeply different the cultures would be and I landed with a metaphorical bump at Tribhuvan airport. Having spent most of my life in a country dominated by rules, manners and queuing, I couldn’t get my head around the chaos of the disorganised clumps of people milling around the airport who seemed to be served at the visa counter in a random order. It took me three hours to get out!
The chaos continued on the streets of Kathmandu. I had my face squished against the window of my 20-year-old seatbelt-less taxi, trying to take it all in. Goats, dogs, motorbikes, pedestrians, tuk-tuks and cars swarmed the narrow streets, swerving in and out in a flurry of beeping horns. Somehow, despite the lack of any rules, pedestrian crossings or traffic lights, it all seemed to flow very smoothly, if noisily. By the time I arrived at my (very lovely) hotel my head was spinning, but I had time to appreciate the glass in the windows!
That evening I met the rest of the group and we spent the following day on a sightseeing tour around an ancient part of the city centre. Signs of earthquake damage were everywhere, and my trip and our fundraising felt even more relevant and important, despite the earthquake being ‘old news’ to the rest of the world.
The 10-hour drive from Kathmandu to Shivalaya was a mini adventure of its own. Our battered off-road jeeps didn’t look great, but they did the job on the even more battered roads. We took ‘the highway’ for the first five hours or so – bouncing in our seats and sliding from side to side round all the hairpin bends. It was only when we left the highway that we realised how good that road surface had been! We were, essentially, ghyll-scrambling in jeeps. You’d pay a fortune to do that in the Lake District! Massive clouds of red dust came in through the open windows and we asked for the air-conditioning, as promised by a shiny sticker saying ‘Air-con – wifi – luxury travel’ on the dashboard. The driver laughed and pointed to the window.
We arrived in Shivalaya with bruises on whichever arm had been nearest the window as well as a torso that felt like we were owed toned abs. Until then, I’d never experienced a car journey that felt like exercise. I was incredibly grateful to the drivers for keeping us safe – I imagine that was probably the riskiest part of our whole trip and I was thankful for their caution on the corners.
We were due to start trekking the next day, so we had some dinner and headed off to bed. We weren’t missing much – you could explore Shivalaya by turning your head from right to left.
We set off in the morning, my apprehension fully renewed. I knew we had three hours straight uphill before lunch and I didn’t know what to expect. But as we started walking I realised, finally, that that’s all we were doing. Just walking. At work, my colleagues had said as much to me but until I was there myself, I had built up the idea of trekking into something far more complicated than just a walk. I had often been embarrassed that I had never been trekking, especially working with some very experienced trekkers, but here I was! After about 10 paces I smiled broadly and my eyes filled. ‘I’m a trekker now,’ I said to myself.
Apparently, we had set a cracking pace and we arrived at Bhandar at around 3.30pm. Plenty of time to learn how to play the Monopoly card game, fall out over the Monopoly card game and pledge to never again play the Monopoly card game.
After leaving Bhandar our thoughts were with the school that we would see that afternoon. I had been blogging about it and keeping up with news from the Juniper Trust, but seeing it in real life would be amazing. In fact, the day’s trekking was so long and tough that by the time we arrived in Rawa Dolu I could barely give the school a cursory glance before trudging on. We had been told that our campsite was next to the school and the thought of sitting down was just too enticing. I suppose, in vertical metres, the campsite was probably quite close, but it took a succession of ‘Nepali five minutes’ to finally reach it.
Just above the campsite was a long concrete building that the village had kindly let us use as a base. The cooking team had already arrived and had boiled big flasks of water for tea and coffee. I’ve never been so happy to see a mug of crappy instant coffee!
The cooking team deserve a paragraph to themselves. What they managed to do on a tiny little fire in the middle of a storeroom was incredible and I was surprised and delighted at the quality of food we ate. As a committed vegetarian I had been really anxious about the food, but the team really looked after me and I didn’t have anything to worry about (me being anxious and not having anything to worry about is a bit of a theme!). Over the length of our trip we had a lot of dhal bat, the traditional Nepalese meal, but also sushi (vegetarian for me), pizza and cake. We were several days away from a road, but the team managed to give us cake! They must have known that cake is one of my five a day.
This site was our base for four nights while we worked on the school – you can read more about that in this separate article. On the last night at camp we were told that the villagers had a surprise for us, so we gathered in the big room to wait. The entire village was buzzing in and out of the room, bringing chairs and trying to organise each other. They even carried in an enormous speaker and microphone and several suspiciously re-filled bottles. After a generous Nepali five minutes, the leader of the group began to speak into the microphone and there began one of the most surreal evenings of my life. I’ll be lucky if I’m ever again in a position where Nepalese grandmothers force mugs of locally brewed rice wine into my hands before pulling me out of my chair to dance to Sia’s Cheap Thrills.
For me, that one evening summed up my entire Nepal experience: it was chaotic and I had no idea what was going on, but everyone was friendly and it was an immense amount of fun. I could almost have dreamed it for how real it feels now I am home and back at work, but I’m determined to try to keep a little chaos close. Not for the first time I realised that I am far too anxious in my life and I need to embrace adventures with a little more confidence in my own abilities. For anyone else like that just ask yourself how many times have you failed? I bet it’s less often than you’ve succeeded.
I had foolishly assumed that four days of working at the school would provide a little respite and recuperation time. It did not. I set off to continue trekking feeling more achy than before but, at the same time, really looking forward to being back out walking. The next headline act of the trip was to summit Pikey Peak – at 4068m it was the highest I’d ever climbed. It took three days for us to reach the Pikey Peak Base Camp and each day seemed to get harder! The third day was a real struggle for me – I was at the back of the group and getting panicky about the big climb to come.
I arrived at the lodge about 40 minutes after the rest of the group and jokingly shouted down that they’d better have run me a bath. I could have killed for a bath. As we had got progressively higher the bathing facilities had, as we’d been warned, got worse. One night I had paid for a ‘private hot shower’, only to be given a bucket of warm water to take into the loo with me. It’s telling that I really appreciated this level of luxury!
That night we all went to bed early in anticipation of a 2.30am start. Nobody slept, though – the lodge was in a dip between two peaks and the wind raced through the shabbily built wooden lodge. Several of the group got up and tried to steady bits of wood that were clattering about, but it was still a very noisy couple of hours.
Getting up at 2.30am and trying to eat a chocolate bar for breakfast is surprisingly tough – I'm never normally the sort that struggles to eat chocolate! It was dark and cold and we bundled up in as many layers as possible for the walk. We had two hours of steep uphill and we were aiming to reach the summit for sunrise.
The combination of a tough day previously, no sleep, no food and potentially a little altitude sickness meant that the climb was a real challenge for me. I am usually good at digging deep and getting through challenges – I suppose the result of chronic undertraining for anything I've ever signed up for – but this hill nearly beat me. I plodded up behind Sam, concentrating entirely on his slow steady footsteps and trying to match them. I admit that there were several places that I thought looked perfectly fine to watch the sunrise and I longed to stop walking and stay a few metres below the top. But I’m stubborn and Sam was determined to get the whole group to the summit, so we trudged on.
The view at the top was worth it and I’m afraid the photos just don’t do it justice (how many megapixels must your eyes have?!). Many times on this trip I felt like I was viewing the world in 6D – it was constant sensory overload! Looking over at Everest was another surreal moment for me. After reading about it for so many years it felt like I was looking at something almost mythical, especially as it didn’t even look that high! I didn’t feel very well at all but I grimaced for some photos and tried to take it all in. I felt a rising of emotions as I realised that no-one at home would fully understand what this moment meant to me. Me and this odd bunch of people had shared something truly incredible.
After a few minutes our porters arrived – some of them in crocs – with flasks of lemon tea. I sat down and drank my tea like it was some elixir of life. I knew I was going to need something special to get me to that night’s lodge seven hours’ trek away. In the end it took a lot of grit, half a Snickers, a bowl of noodle soup, a bottle of Fanta and some music from my dad’s era to sing along to. I’ll never hear Dire Straits again without thinking of that beautiful walk down through the Rhododendron forests and fields of yaks. But, once again, time passed and we made it to the lodge.
The lodge in Junbesi would have made a welcome sight regardless as I was hot, sweaty and exhausted. But the utter delight of having a bakery on site was topped by the hot shower: ‘like a real one, where the water comes out over your head!’. I can’t remember how much I paid for that, but I would have given them the filthy, sweaty shirt off my back.
And then, suddenly, the trek was over! So many days had flashed by while I had my head down and plodded on. I couldn’t quite process how I felt; I was relieved that I had done all the walking and I was excited to get back to a washing machine (and my family, of course), but I was painfully sad to be leaving this all behind. The people I had met had become friends, but I probably wouldn’t see them again. I knew the bricks of the school intimately after painting them all three times, but I probably wouldn’t ever be back in Rawa Dolu. Nepal had changed me. Suddenly all those things that other people do felt possible for me: trekking, yeah done that; Everest, seen it; salt butter tea, tried it, no thanks. My world felt bigger and I felt braver. I was keen to get home and get planning for the next adventure.
A few words of thanks. I don’t want this to turn into a Gwyneth Paltrow-esque speech but I am truly grateful to the following people: Sam and Abhishek for keeping me safe, well-fed and entertained as well as introducing me to a wonderful country; Suraj, Glenn and the Juniper Trust for building the school; Kev Reynolds for your kind words before I went, for being the fly on the wall and for setting up a coffee date for me with Nepal experts Sian and Bob in Kathmandu. And, of course, Cicerone for funding such an incredible experience and the project itself.