Updated: Aug 6, 2020
Last year in 2019 I got my dream job. I had been involved with the charity Reach Out Volunteers (ROV) for a of couple years since I heard about their projects in my first year of university. I went on multiple projects with them during my undergrad and had been working towards my dream job of becoming an ambassador and team leader on the projects ever since. And last year that happened.
I was flown over to Nepal to lead groups of volunteers on our community project there. I flew in as the sun was setting and the whole sky was illuminated beautiful hues of pink, orange and purple above the clouds. I looked out my window and, in the distance, I could see mountain peaks and felt so many emotions starting to well up as I got my first view of the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. I was so ecstatic with the fact that this was my job, that I had the opportunity to explore this beautiful country and take groups of volunteers along for the ride.
I had about four days to acquaint myself with the area and learn about the project I was leading before my first group of volunteers arrived. It can often be overwhelming arriving in a new country, especially in an exceptionally busy city like Kathmandu where motorbikes and cars overwhelm the tiny streets, zooming everywhere, unencumbered by your presence on the street as well. There is always the hassle of persistent street vendors trying to make a living selling everything from hiking gear and Nepal themed souvenirs, to beautifully intricate artworks, to books, to tiger balm (supposedly an ointment to cure all ailments), to every little trinket you could think of, lined along the uneven and broken sidewalks that had crumbled from the great earthquake that shook the city just a few years ago. The city was still recovering and rebuilding from the event, which you could see from the number of toppled buildings and rubble, along with cracked footpaths and roads. Despite this, it was still a beautiful and vibrant city, adorned with colourful prayer flags around every corner.
I was nervous for my first group of volunteers to arrive. I would be in charge of everything, including getting them to and from the work site safely and on time, being their tour guide, organising dinners and activities, being their friend and the Mumma of the group. At only 22 years old and below average height, it can often be difficult to be authoritative. I was also nervous for my first group of only five girls. What if they didn’t get along? What if they didn’t like me? What if they didn’t think I was fit to be team leader? But all my worries faded away when I met them as they were the loveliest and most genuine group of girls I’d ever met. (Also, thankfully I still had my boss there for the first few days to make sure I was doing okay and guiding me through the job).
So, as this was a volunteer project for a charity to help the local community, the main aspect of the project was building new classrooms for a school run by a Buddhist monk. The school was nuzzled into a steep hillside overlooking the city, which on a clear day, you could see most of the city and surrounding mountains. They had been affected by the recent earthquakes and a number of kids often stayed at the school during the school year, so their current classrooms doubled as their sleeping quarters. The kids would drag their mattresses off of their beds and onto the ground to study, which was extremely unhygienic as they would be tracking in dirt all day and be extremely cramped for space. Therefore, we were building them new classrooms so that they had somewhere separate to sleep and to study and hence provide a much better learning environment for these kids to thrive and have bright futures. Now, I don’t know about you, but before I did a ROV project, I had never built anything before in my life and had absolutely no construction experience. Which is the case for majority of our volunteers. So, to help guide our volunteers and support the community, we employ local labourers to show us the ropes and ensure we don’t get wonky walls. I had three different groups come through and by the end of the program we finished off the previous classroom that had been built by the last round of volunteers and got three quarters of the way through a second classroom.
When you think of Nepal you probably think of mountains, snow and cold (that’s definitely what I thought before I went). But during the summer, especially in the city, it gets stinking hot! Particularly when you’re on a work site in the sun doing heavy lifting of bricks and cement and climbing up and down a mountainside to bring supplies down to where we were working. This is where my job is imperative. It’s my job to ensure people aren’t getting overworked, are having sufficient breaks and upkeep morale to keep the work fun. This involves singing along terribly to all the songs we have blaring, telling jokes and providing lollies (or candy for y’all Americans). And the best part of the day is of course after lunch when we get to play with all the kids! Games of soccer, chasey, piggybacks and if you bring your phone along – Snapchat! The kids absolutely lose it over all the funny filters and having their photos taken, because obviously they don’t have access to this kind of thing otherwise. Now I am not a kid person, like at all, but my god these kids are the cutest little things ever and I will never get over seeing their faces light up when we arrive and hearing their laughs! As I got to spend the most time with them, coming back each week so they started to remember me, and it was the saddest day when I left for the final week. The kids on project will always have a special place in my heart, often being a highlight of the trip being able to see firsthand the positive impact we were having on them and their community, to be able to provide them with a safe learning environment and bright futures.
Of course, when you go to Nepal you can’t leave without doing some hiking and seeing the Himalayan mountains! Now, I had never done a multi-day hike before in my life but by the end of my time in Nepal I had completed five weeks of hiking (not consecutively) with an accumulative altitude of over 15,000 metres which is almost double the height of Mount Everest! With each group that came through I hiked with them on a trek called Poon Hill (yes, you can imagine all the jokes along the way), which has an altitude of 3210 metres. This hike is filled with literal highs and lows, but so many stunning views and beautiful scenery along the way. Day two is the hardest as it is seven hours of stairs, so as you can imagine it is difficult to keep spirits high during this exhausting part of the trek but singing and lollies helps. Once we got to where we were staying for the night we were greeted by a warm fire, tea and the best curry of the hike! The next morning was summit time, which called for a 4 am wake up to get to the top for sunrise. The first two times I did the hike the mountains didn’t want to come out and play and stayed behind the clouds with the occasional mountain crest peaking above the clouds. But you know what they say, third times a charm! I was nervous for my third summit because I would have been extremely disappointed if I had done that hike three times and didn’t get to see the mountains at all. As I was walking up the sun was starting to rise, and I could see fog rolling over the smaller mountains as we ascended, with orange tones lighting up the clouds in the distance. I turned the corner and emerged from the shrubbery that sheltered the path along the way to the clearing at the top and felt a wave of emotion wash over me as I could every single mountain peak surrounding the summit clear as day, illuminated by the sun rising over the mountains in beautiful colours of pink, orange and purple. I was so ecstatic and blown away by the natural beauty of the view and felt that everything I had been through the past two months as team leader was worth it after being treated to such a spectacular view. It is hard to describe the beauty of it and you really do have to see it for yourself.
Nepal is of course home to the highest mountain in the world and another add-on to the projects with ROV is getting to hike to Mount Everest Base Camp! It is a ten-day return hike that is pretty intense and a far higher altitude than the previous hike we did on the trip. But it sure is a bucket list item that myself and everyone else was pretty stoked to tick off. The hike itself is a more gradual incline but longer duration. We had a number of setbacks throughout the hike with one volunteer getting altitude sickness and having to be carried down to a lower altitude and airlifted back to Kathmandu. As a team leader this was an extremely challenging thing to deal with, especially as I had little to no phone reception or Wi-Fi in the mountains to contact my boss or the volunteers family at the time, while also still needing to remain calm for the effected volunteer and everyone else in the group. Thankfully I had our local guide Kumar who recognised the issue and helped me deal with the situation. Fortunately, the volunteer was safely taken back down, cared for and recovered back in Kathmandu, unfortunately he didn’t make it to Base Camp.
The next issue that arose on the hike was myself having potential food poisoning causing me to have it coming out of both ends and not eating or holding down food for three days, while still continuing on with the hike. It can be exceptionally difficult to motivate a team and keep their spirits high when you personally feel so ill and weak. Our local guide Kumar even suggested that I stay back and recover but I wasn’t going to let this stop me from making it to Base Camp, especially after coming all this way, I’d crawl there if I had to. So, I continued on, dragging my feet and thankful for my hiking pole, and on day three of not eating was the day we were set to reach Base Camp. It was a nine-hour return hike from where we were staying to Base Camp and back to the next place we were staying. I think I managed to stomach some porridge that morning and geared up to go. The last section of the hike was over rocky slopes with vague paths etched into them running alongside the exact mountain range that Mount Everest was apart of. The snow-capped mountains were towering over us as we walked, making us feel exceptionally small. In the final stretch I was the last to reach Base Camp but as I heard each one of my volunteers arrive before me, I could hear them excitedly exclaim that they had made it! It was as though this gave me a sudden surge of energy and I picked up my pace slightly to get there and join my team. When you arrive at Base Camp (in summer at least), you are greeted with flat rocky stacks and a large boulder in the middle that has the words ‘EVEREST BASE CAMP 5364 M’ painted on the side with red spray paint. Once you see that, you know you’ve made it. In the distance, monumental mountains lingered in the background with Everest being the peak poking it’s head above the others, clear as day. We each took turns taking photos atop the boulder. I was just so amazed at the fact that I had the opportunity to even do this, let alone made it there with food poisoning that I almost forgot I hadn’t eaten for three days and felt slightly less weak and exhausted. Once we had each taken all the photos we could, we began to make our way back down.
This whole experience taught me a lot. I learnt that the human body is capable of great things, like carrying my weak ass up that mountain despite how absolutely dreadful I felt. I learnt new, and built on, a variety of life skills that I will cherish and carry on with me for the rest of life, including leadership, problem solving, communication, initiative and how to deal with, look after and guide groups of people that are all very different from one another. I learnt to be extremely independent, especially in a foreign country which gave me the confidence to do a number of things while overseas and once I returned home that I may not have done without this new experience.
I can’t recommend this experience and travel in general enough! If you want to also have this life changing opportunity then definitely check out Reach Out Volunteers (www.rovolunteers.com) for all their programs in Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand, South Africa and Peru. Trust me, you won’t regret it. Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.
And if you want to check out some fun videos I made about the experiences I had there here are the links to watch them!
Nepal Project https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydUSMeZilBs
Mount Everest Base Camp Vlog https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esyAQhNWV6E
You can follow my adventures on Instagram @mappleby_