Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Why I love Nepal and its kind, welcoming people

Why I love Nepal and its kind, welcoming people

WHEN my family suggested a holiday in Nepal in November, many thoughts flashed through my mind. What would it be like after the earthquake in 2015? Would I be fit enough to go trekking and would there be a chance to visit any Oxfam projects while we were there?

Nepal is landlocked and a buffer state between China in the North and India in the South. Its diverse geography includes fertile plains, sub-alpine forested hills and eight of the world’s tallest mountains, including Mount Everest.

Eighty-one per cent of the population are Hindu and nine per cent Buddhist (Gautama Buddha was born in Nepal).

When booking our flights I realised that we each had a 35kg luggage allowance — way more than we would need — and, quite by chance, I had noticed a poster for a charity called books4nepal which wanted funds and books to furnish a library and school resource centre in a remote mountain region worst hit by the earthquake.

Books are both a rarity and a luxury in Nepal and libraries are almost unheard of, so we packed four heavy bags of books to take with us.

Arriving into the chaos which is Kathmandu was an eye opener; the pollution was horrific and the traffic seemed to follow its own rules, based on survival of the fittest.

We were keen to drop off our heavy book bags straight away and when we finally found the office of the charity in a small back street, there were many happy smiles and assurances that the books would all be loved and used.

Throughout Kathmandu and on the main road out of the city, signs of the earthquake were visible everywhere but rebuilding work is going on and the country is moving forward.

The earthquake happened during the daytime and even though, tragically, around 8,900 people died and 22,000 were injured, a quake at night would have resulted in far more fatalities.

Oxfam was not only heavily involved in the immediate response work but continues to help in the worst-hit areas.

The work the charity has undertaken includes:

• Supporting the construction of water supply systems

• Building houses for vulnerable families displaced by the earthquake, including training people in masonry and retrofitting skills.

• Setting up agriculture-related infrastructure (irrigation canals, processing units, micro-hydro outlets)

Travelling east, we stopped off in the small mountain town of Bandipur, where we stayed at a beautiful old traditional guesthouse whose renovation had been funded by Rotary.

All profits from the guesthouse now support local schools.

The beautiful lake town of Pokhara is the base for treks on the Annapurna Circuit and from here we headed first to a tiny eco village involving a hair-raising Jeep ride which seemed endless.

We were greeted by the most stunning scenery and a warm, family welcome. We were invited to help in the gardens or kitchen, milk the cows and do early morning yoga — a magical place.

Days later our trek started in earnest. Our guide Surja was calm, confident and knowledgeable and arranged for us to stay with local families in the villages we visited. We were warmly welcomed to simple accommodation and home-cooked food served in the family kitchen.

People here live a life of subsistence, farming with their cows, chickens and small fields. Extra income from visitors is most welcome and we encountered only kindness.

I was very proud that I managed four days of trekking, six or seven hours per day, on trails up and down mountains up to 2,200m high — and I enjoyed it too!

Back in Pokhara, we treated ourselves to a relaxing massage from blind therapists at the Seeing Hands centre.

Nepal shoulders one of the highest rates of blindness with an estimated 600,000 partially or totally blind.

Seeing Hands is helping them to generate their own income and lead dignified, independent lives.

Looking for gifts to buy, we came across a wonderful shop called Woven selling beautifully handwoven and handmade bags, purses, scarves, all produced locally through the Women’s Skills Development Organisation, a fair trade and non-profit programme.

By providing free vocational training along with essential life skills, the organisation helps economically disadvantaged, disabled, abused, widowed, divorced, single and outcast women to achieve social and economic self-reliance.

We visited the workshop and discovered that the young business manageress receives her salary from Oxfam and that many of their products are sold in our Oxfam shops.

I was delighted to find a real link to our shop in Henley, realising that the money we raise might pay a salary in a wonderful set-up like this.

And this was not the only Oxfam- supported project I came across.

At the end of our trip we were guests at a small factory in Kathmandu producing beautiful handmade paper and I was informed that one of their printing machines had been installed by Oxfam.

Again this is a project that works to fair trade principles, giving work to more than 80 women and supporting a local school.

The factory owners invited us to a Christmas market held at the International Club which was opened by the German ambassador. Here, we came across several stalls with handwritten “Oxfam” signs.

Chatting to the women, I was told that Oxfam had trained and funded start-up programmes for knitwear, sewing and sweet-making.

During our visit to Nepal, I not only fell in love with the country and its people but also found a renewed enthusiasm for my work at Oxfam.

My thanks go to all the volunteers, donors and customers who support us here in Henley.

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