An Education in What We Take for Granted

It was very hard to not picture my three nephews and my niece (all under 5 years old) in the classrooms that I visited in the remote Nepalese countryside last week. I imagined them sitting at the old-fashioned bench and table settings, with their feet on the dusty, clay floor. With the rusty nails sticking out everywhere and the planks of wood piled up in the corner of the tiny, tiny classroom.

I pictured them sitting in a classroom that was barely 4 metres squared filled with 45 students, and pulling out their book and their pen to take down notes and to rote learn. There was certainly no room for games or movement.

There was no colour.

There was little light.

The floors were bumpy and rocky. The walls were mouldy. There were holes in the roof sometimes and gaps around the door frames.

There were no posters and no work displayed. There were no classroom materials to be seen except for the square of wood that was being used as a blackboard.

One of the rooms had the benches, half and half, facing away from each other because the teacher had to teach two classes at the same time and so he just put a blackboard at each end and ran back and forth during the lesson.

Primary schools in classroom, Okhaldhunga

 

I met with school committee members, principals, teachers – even some students. I heard their hopes, dreams and plans to improve the lives of their students and the condition of their schools. It was more than just classroom infrastructure that they wanted to change. Teacher training. Better classroom materials for learning. Colour, charts, and activities and games that would make learning more fun, differentiated and along the lines of modern pedagogy and our knowledge of different types of learners and multiple intelligences.

The concern is not just the immediate impact of unsafe or sub standard teaching. The wider problem that all limitations of teaching lead into in Nepal, is the trend for families to migrate to the bigger cities, or send their students to boarding schools with greater quality resources and teachers. This is a huge problem for small communities, as students and families who migrate, and fail to return, take their potential contribution away from their home community and all too often perpetuate the problem of educated youth leaving for jobs overseas.

Better education at the primary school level can absolutely change this trend. And what can help these leaders in their quest for better education is government support, building materials, teacher training, and ultimately – money at their disposal.

The reason I’m telling you this is because I believe that if anyone I know or have ever met (in the circles of my privileged upbringing – being born an Australian in the 80s, never experienced war and never wanted for anything) would share the great sadness that I felt when I saw these classrooms. These classrooms were prison-like and provoked outrage inside my heart.

Nepal is a beautiful country. One filled with beautiful places and beautiful people. But it is a country that has experienced conflict very recently, and is currently struggling to find political stability, establish their constitution and rebuild local governance systems that could change the way such schools that I visited are resourced and governed.

If you would like to help do something to change this –

Primary school classroom, Okhaldhunga

and this –

IMG_0470

into something like this –

 

ECD classroom after improvements - safer, educational, FUN!

then please visit friendsofvinaus.com.au for information about our Year 1 Classroom Project, Okhaldhunga Nepal or donate at our donation site here:

https://www.ammado.com/nonprofit/149753

Each classroom needs only $1000 to be transformed into a haven for students – youngsters who deserve a quality education in a safe and stimulating environment – something I have certainly always taken for granted.

 

The Toilet Tour and Nepal not Flushing its Resources

We, in the West, in the developed countries, take our toilets for granted. We take for granted the fact that they are within our houses; an easy dark stumble in the middle of the night. We take for granted the flush; in a second we can summon litres of water to flush away our waste. We take for granted the cleanliness; the hygienic nature of our toilet culture. We take the ‘easiness’ of getting rid of our bodily waste for granted.

In Jitpur, just outside of the Kathmandu valley, I went on a toilet tour. Yes, a toilet tour. Volunteers Initiative Nepal has been constructing toilets in their project community, with the aim being a toilet constructed for every household. There are still many to be built, but already so many have been constructed by VIN volunteers, with the help of the community and household family members.

As we approached a house on our walk up towards Tinpiple, a man positively leapt down the path towards our group. “Come and see my toilet, come and see my toilet!” he was imploring in Nepali. His grin was wider than the sides of his face as he showed us with great pride the toilet that he had helped construct. We visited his, and many others on our tour of the community, and talked to some families about the help of VIN, and how their new toilets have improved their daily lives.

The system of having each household contribute both labour and materials to the construction of the toilets results in the upkeep of and accountability for its development and use being appropriately placed on the community members that use it. One family had used their own resources and money to produce a stunning tiled toilet and bathroom area that was the talk of the town. Most however, are simple stone constructions, no bells and whistles, and to the average Westerner – a frightening sight. A trip to a squat toilet with no toilet paper or hand basin, and nothing but a bucket of water to flush can humble even those from a simple, non-luxurious upbringing.

The importance of access to a toilet and the spread of sanitary awareness in Nepal cannot be overstated. Unclean water causes immeasurable health problems, and human waste in the same water ways that are used as sources of drinking water completes a vicious cycle of illness and death. The people of the community that we visited told us that pre-toilet construction they would go to the toilet in their neighbours’ fields. This caused tension between households, and contributed to the unhygienic lifestyle of the community. Now, with toilets attached to their house, the families we visited were ecstatic with their creations that gave them healthy, easy access to a toilet, as well as eased the strain on inter-household relations.

Something that might surprise some Westerners is the growing use of toilets that separate human waste into solids and liquids to produce compost. To grow fruit, vegetables and crops, organic matter is needed in the soil, and families and farmers in Nepal that cannot afford to keep a buffalo or cow are more and more beginning to use human waste as compost. This practice has long been popular in the country by some castes, and waste can also be used to produce Bio-gas. These practices fit in perfectly with Nepal’s predominantly “Organic by default” state – the land is still largely uncorrupted by chemicals or pesticide use. Many a Westerner might screw up their nose at the thought of eating vegetables grown using human waste as compost – but I personally cannot see why this would disturb someone, when we happily eat food every day that has been grown using cow, sheep or chicken manure.

The practice is literally saving lives – providing small farms and households with the means to grow and sell organic vegetables or feed their family and community, whilst effectively removing waste from nearby schools and other households – thereby stopping the dumping of the waste in a public area or waterway. It is a system that reduces the need for water – which we in the West waste litres of every time we flush. What’s more, human waste compost grown vegetables are rapidly becoming renowned as the best quality vegetables growing in Nepal.

And so the all-important Toilet Revolution is underway in the land of the Himalayas and Lord Buddha, and the work of groups such as Volunteers’ Initiative Nepal and others spreading sanitation awareness and constructing toilets in marginalised communities is the front line of the battle for the health of the Nepali people. With the evolution of Organic Farming and Permaculture principles bringing to life the obvious and yet stigmatised use of human waste as compost, the future is looking good for a healthier Nepal. It is also a responsibility of us in the West to not take for granted the accessibility we have to clean water and efficient waste disposal systems – and remain open minded and generous in development campaigns in this beautiful country.

I’m alive, don’t worry, I’m here.

Hello dear reader, it has certainly been a while.

I have returned from the land of Never Ending Peace And Love, and am suffering a mild case of post-trip depression. I would say that a week ago it was severe, but my condition has eased somewhat.

It’s the same for everyone, you know? It’s the first day of term for teachers, the Monday back at work after the New Year, the realisation that you are back in reality – what is considered normal in your world – and besides packing up  again and running, there is nothing you can do about it.

I have not written a blog due to many things. Towards the end of my Nepal journey I had no access to the net, and since my return, life has been a hectic flurry of Christmas and New Year, family and job-searching. And of course the post-trip depression.

But now, finally, I sit with my computer and can have a good chat about how I feel.

I’m so shockingly missing Nepal. It is an overwhelming sadness that takes chunks of my heart away with each breath. And I know it’s not just Nepal itself, specifically, it’s the motion, the movement, the act of being away and on an adventure. It’s being anywhere but where you are, really.

But still, at least I am not experiencing severe Australia-hatred, which usually occurs when I return home. But I am not. In fact, I feel a great love for Australian quirks, accents, people – those things I have missed while I’ve been away. (For example, Hussey’s last knock in Sydney, when Mitchell Johnson was getting cheered by the entire SCG for not running so that Hussey could remain on strike – those sorts of funny things, I just love about Australian people.)

Life in Nepal is very simple. Wonderful and simple. People are inherently good. There is a small amount of choice for products of any kind, there is hardly hot or even running water, people share because there is no other option, and it’s all just… simply good.

I have a job again, which is good. Because jobs mean money, and money means freedom to continue a life of luxury – we DO live a life of luxury, being able to save up and go when we save a few thousand, and go and see this big world.

We are so lucky!

I am struggling a lot with consumerism though. Commercialism, product overload, devices, electricity, packaging… you know? Supermarkets make me feel as though I’m drowning. K-mart and its rows of clothes made in China and Bangladesh make me feel ill. Buying shoes is causing me an immense inner conundrum because I NEED shoes, but the op-shop has not offered me anything as yet.  I’ve always felt this way a little, but Nepal this time really cemented for me the things in this world that I just don’t need. The things that are not important. It’s liberating and yet suffocating at the same time. I consider EVERYTHING that my wallet pulls out money for and sometimes the thinking hurts.

My first day back, and I went to Highpoint shopping centre to do some all important last minute shopping before Christmas… yes I walked around a pre-Christmas hectic mess of a mall and felt my Zen wear off me like sunscreen under water. The craze of Christmas shoppers, retail workers, kids everywhere… Well, it was an interesting experience, and I’m pretty sure I walked around looking a bit like a stoned Zombie, mumbling apologies to people as I accidentally knocked into them. At any rate though, everyone was in a good mood, and more than one shop worker commented on how smiley I was for the time of year (isn’t Christmas meant to be joyous?), so my Zen was sticking at least.

I have solved the shoe issue – Ebay has provided me with many second-hand options.

So anyway, I’m back. I’m sure you didn’t realise I was gone. But I am happy to see you all again.

A Sweet Ghost, Flower Power and Christmas in November

I’m not far from home when I feel someone ghosting me. A young guy, he’s quite tall, and first I speed up to let him go ahead of me – but he slows down.Then I power past him, but he’s still there, at my left elbow.

I pull out my earphones and look at him. He’s younger than I thought, just tall. “Namaste.”

“Namaste,” he replies, very, very quietly.

“Tappai lai kasto cha?”

Even more softly so that he is almost whispering, he shyly mutters, “Sannchai cha…”

He regards me with a faint smile, “You speak Nepali, as well as English?”

“Only a little Nepali! And you, your English is very good. Do you learn it at school?”

“Yes, I go to an English and Nepali school.”

I am so glad now that I didn’t respond with anger or suspicion at this young man just wanting to test out his English. We walk almost to my door and I wish him a happy festival week and force him to be on his way, although I think he wanted to stay and talk more.

Nepal is filled with good people. Of course there must be ‘bad people’, but even people who might have an agenda – vendors, taxi drivers, etc – are, I believe, inherently kind, friendly and generous here.

The other day when I rode in a micro-bus (not worth saving $2 – next time, taxi), crammed in a mini-van with about 20 other people, sweating, dusty, falling over because our feet were half a metre away from the weight of our body, and only staying sane because there was a really cute baby in the seat that I was nearly falling onto, my bag was held by someone in the front of the bus. Was I worried about it? I guess so. But did I actually think someone would take something from it? No.

Today I asked a young man in a card shop to write in a card for my host-brother. Stupid me – I could have really humiliated the young man, forgetting that over 30% of men and boys here are illiterate. How would I have felt if he couldn’t write? He was only able to write Happy Deepawali and Thank you, and as he was getting a little flustered (he actually went to the neighbouring shops to find someone who could help him – but was unsuccessful), I left it at that.

We really do take it for granted, that so many of us are privileged with an education.

This festival is quite beautiful – four days of honouring Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. First Hindu people honour the crows, the dogs, the cows and the oxen, and finally celebrate the Brother and Sister Tika day, when siblings give presents to each other.

Tonight I walked around the neighbourhood checking out the beautiful light displays – the dark houses were Buddhists or Christians, my father pointed out – and enjoyed the festive cheer of the Laxmi Pooja. Each house invites Laxmi (and thus, money) into their homes by creating little colourful offerings outside their dwellings, on the road or in their entrance, with a painted line tracing its way up stairs to each apartment and room, aglow with tea light candles so that the Goddess does not lose her way, or miss out on anyone.

A bit like Christmas, like children waiting for Santa. Mixed in with Halloween – children run from house to house, and store to store, singing a song asking for gifts, and are duly rewarded with sweets or money, which the head child then stuffs into the communal backpack that he wears on his front, before leading the noisy group away to the next target.

During the day I watched the entire city sell, purchase or carry the flowers that are used in the worship offerings, and as decorations for houses and store fronts. Every store was being attended to carefully and lovingly – people were on ladders every few metres in the city centre, attaching the beautiful yellow flower chains to their doorways and eaves. Every second pedestrian’s arms were overflowing with the flowers, and every corner was a sea of yellow and orange. I can’t help but wonder who grows, and makes them all. With the flashing lights, the decorations, the offering made into a mini mountain in my family’s living room, the children playing excitedly and the crowds of people walking in the streets shaking hands and whispering “Happy Deepawali” to each other, there is definitely a Christmas feel to this week.

The children will stop chanting and ‘trick or treating’ at 11pm apparently – because after that, they need to be quiet and go to bed. When one group came earlier to the house, the lady downstairs had not quite finished the offering in the main walkway, so she just told the singing youngsters that she was not ready, and that they should come back in 5 minutes. The singing (shouting) stopped abruptly, and the group of 8 kids or so respectfully walked away.

So, I guess there’s nothing else to do except lie in bed, my room flashing through the different colours of the lights outside my window. Maybe I should go out and relight the candles outside my door so that Laxmi doesn’t forget to throw some money in my direction too.

PS As this goes to print, I have since caught many a Micro-bus and am feeling more confident about finding the right ones, and quite enjoy the crazy experience it offers. I love the people watching – here people hold other people’s bags on their laps, and often hold other people’s children on their laps – it is a wonderful microcosm of Nepali culture.

Raining homesickness

I love Melbourne’s unpredictable weather. Nepal has such distinct seasons – it is beautiful and so reliable – but I can’t help wishing that the rain would suddenly come as I lie listening to the sounds of the suburb which will be my home for the next four weeks.

The darkness arrives suddenly and without warning here, at 6 o’clock it is upon us, but there is still so much movement and noise – the dogs, the car horns, the banging of people amending their houses, the chatter in the street as some pull down the shutters to the store fronts attached to their homes.

Rain would make me feel happy here tonight, and quench the strange and uncharacteristic homesickness I am feeling in my new environment.

When I arrived in Nepal last year it was bucketing down, and the rain fell heavily for two full days and nights. The lightning storm of my first night claimed a large hole in the important and ancient spire of the monkey temple, and I am looking forward to seeing if it has since been repaired to its usual stunning condition. I was told, as the rain drenched the nunnery and surrounds, that the next day the rain would cease and the sunshine filled days would be here – and sure enough, the next day was the first of clearest, blue-skyed days that I have ever experienced, which would continue without fail for the following 6 weeks.

It must be wonderful to know what the weather will be like, but tonight, I can’t help wishing that nature would throw an unexpected curve ball into the darkness and drench us all. Then I could lie in my bed happy, and enjoy the surprise of a spontaneous storm.

Someone across the street begins to play guitar, and a chorus of locals strike up a song that is charming in the night air. Some dogs howl in the moonlight.

I guess that will have to do.

Remittance and Regret in Nepal

I feel a touch of anger in Bhupi’s words as he speaks. It disappears so quickly I wonder if it was ever there at all. It is the raw exasperation of a man with great passion about his country, and who must often feel as though his efforts are going unrewarded.

He has arrived at the part of the presentation about the work of VIN (Volunteers Initiative Nepal – the organisation that he founded) detailing the Youth Empowerment program that they have implemented in their project community just outside of Kathmandu.

The other programs are being well received in the community, and reaping rewards big and small amongst the marginalised there – especially women and children.

But the youth of Nepal – more importantly, the educated youth of Nepal – are leaving the country as soon as they have the money or means, or moving into the already crowded city, leaving a country, or countryside of just the very young and old. In Nepal only 30% of the women and girls are literate, and 60% of the men, and the primary industry of the country, agriculture, suffers as the young refuse to take over their family’s farms, often leaving to seek the only job and life opportunities they see to exist – overseas. Incoming remittance to  Nepal is credited as a major factor in the development of the country over the past 40 years. (UNDP’s ‘Human Development Report 2010)

How do you keep young, educated people in their country of origin? If you have a person trained to be a doctor, a nurse or a teacher, how do you make them stay? The government is in limbo here in Nepal, politics is just politics – vote for me, vote for me – and no care is being shown for the state of the nation. The writing of the constitution is years and years overdue, and infrastructure, education, jobs and welfare are in trouble.

Programs to empower and assist the young people of Nepal are obviously open to exploitation by those being educated and assisted. Once young people have the skills and knowledge they need to gain security and greater wealth – there needs to be great incentive for them to stay in this country to work and settle. Of course in their situation, most of us would leave our country if that was where the opportunities lay- and with the other volunteers from all over the world we discussed similar ‘exodus’ situations in our own countries – like the ghost towns of the Australian outback where the entire town’s inhabitants have left for the big smoke.

There is just a great sadness in the loss of these trained and educated people who can contribute to their country’s future. Nothing can really happen until the government gets their ars into gear and improves the quality of the lives of people living in this magical nation.

For the moment VIN and Bhupi will continue their Youth Empowerment programs, experimenting with new ideas and strategies such as business ventures that might keep the youth of the communities within Nepal. But you cannot help but feel his regret that this aim of his – which is the backbone of his goals and work – is failing because the government and country are not supporting the generation of people that the country so desperately needs to stick around.

Day One: Pre-departure Paranoia etc etc

“It will be an adventure,” I keep telling people, and myself, about this trip to Nepal. That makes me feel better, I guess, because adventures are supposed to be uncomfortable. If trips were easy and there was no sense of the unknown – then what makes you learn? Where do you get your funny stories from – the ones that were laced with danger but left you with a valuable lesson, worth the retelling?

I’ve never understood people who have never been on an adventure.

It doesn’t need to be overseas. It could be around Australia. It could be a camping trip or a drive up the coast. So in fact, perhaps there is actually no one who hasn’t been on an adventure. Big or small, short or long, near or far, I guess we probably have all done something that takes us out of our comfort zone.

My mum asked me how I was feeling last night.

“A bit anxious,” I said.

“Then why do you do keep doing this!” I could hear a mother’s concern, tinged with some exasperation at the last child to settle, the last one to stop moving and stay nearby. The one yet to buy a house, have some kids, get married.

I do ask myself the same question – why? Why do I leave my happy life, my wonderful boyfriend, my cute dog and steady job? But I know the answer.

I am addicted to adventure, and change. I get bored. I’ve been like this since I was a teenager. It’s the same addiction that is probably responsible for the demise of many a relationship – mostly unimportant flings of youth, but some that held great gravity in my life.

Luckily I have found the best life partner for me – who understands my need to upturn my life every now and again to stay sane – and because I understand myself better now, I don’t feel guilty for my need for a change of scene. He knows that if he tried to stop me leaving, I would just go anyway. I know that sounds unbelievable to some people – why would you leave the person you love? But I think, why would you short change yourself – if I don’t go, then I won’t be myself and I won’t be happy. And the last few months have been wonderful, because life is great when you are waiting for your adventure to start.

And so Day 1 has begun, as I fly over the great Australian outback. It stretches so clear and flat out my window that I feel like I should be able to see the sea, but I cannot. I am excited and exhausted simultaneously, happy, and yet a little lost.

(The sadness I felt when I left you Troy, struck me hard as I walked through those doors.)

But this is what an adventure is! It’s about how you deal with those mixed up feelings – it makes you stronger. I don’t like depending on people, and so maybe in a sort of masochistic way, I like to stretch myself and test myself.

Suddenly, as I write this, the plane is crossing some coastline of the North of Australia. What a clear, beautiful day! I can see every river, every crocodile – infested estuary, every nook and cranny of beach. And then we cross part of Indonesia, or Timor, and I feel like I am being taken on a tour of a World Map, hovering, in slow motion – like in and out-of-body experience, from South to North, crossing continent and ocean to really give me perspective about how big this world is. Clouds dot the blue below, and soon we will be above Asia… It is a massive world, and I am a tiny organism, being carried in a vehicle whose mechanics I don’t understand, to a country far from where I was born.

Adventure – already worth it.

(It totally smells like someone is smoking in the toilet. If the plane crashes. That’s what it was. Sorry friends and family who have put up with my pre-departure paranoia that I would die this trip –  but seriously, just saying.)

It’s that time again, I’m going back… and need your help

There’s an incredible guilt that comes with my upcoming trip back to Nepal.

I’m going to undertake a Volunteer Internship writing with a magazine. Now, I want to be a writer. This will allow me to get some pieces published in an international context, and experience life working for a publication.

But this is an overwhelmingly selfish choice that I have made  I feel like I should be doing more. Getting down and dirty, being helpful within the volunteer group that I have organised this internship through, and by whom my last volunteer placement was also organised.

Last time I was in Nepal I was living in a Buddhist Nunnery, teaching English to the nuns there. And because of the part of the year that I went, I hardly taught any English at all! I know it was useful for the nuns to have an English speaker around, and I was available for tutoring if they wanted it, but I don’t feel like I was overly very helpful.

Volunteers Initiative Nepal are a wonderful organisation, run internally – it’s not some foreign group throwing money into the country – funds are thoughtfully and systematically used to empower communities and disadvantaged people, especially women and children.

And so I feel that I should be being a bit more hands-on in their work. Teaching or building toilets or working with the people. But instead I’m working for a magazine – but in my head, I’m hoping that I can contribute something worthwhile both within Nepal, and then after I return, using the knowledge and experience of seeing the ‘real’ Nepal through a journalist’s eyes.

But anyway – while I’m there, I ‘ll be doing the Annapurna Base Camp Trek. I’ll be ascending to 4145m.

Do you want to help me, help VIN, to help the people of Nepal’s struggling communities? Where only 2 thirds of men are literate, and a disgusting 1 third of women? Where so many do not have access to clean water, and so few have access to heath services? Even the simple addition of toilets in communities can save lives – people die of bugs that would see us out of action for a few days due to poor hygiene awareness and lack of infrastructure.

How? I know it’s obvious.

Money!

Money to help VIN build their orphanage/school, to help with their programs that empower women in growing their own food and managing their own finances. Helping to educate young people, who wouldn’t have the chance otherwise.

So – I promise to walk 14 days to one of the highest walkable points on Earth, breathing in that thin air, struggling with the altitude and the exhaustion, walking walking (okay it’s actually going to be amazing but I’m just being melodramatic to gain your sympathy) until I reach the Base Camp. Actually though – last time I was there, I went to Everest Base Camp – and for all the beautiful scenery and magical people – it was a CHALLENGE. It’s no walk in a park… well it is a walk in a National Park, but you know what I mean.

So – would you like to sponsor me? Yes, you. No, not that person behind you – you, reading this. You got a cent? You wanna give me a cent for every metre in altitude I go up? Or even HALF a cent? Or a tenner? You got a tenner?

Think about it. Then think about what that tenner could do in Nepal.

And then go to this link:

http://www.volunteeringnepal.org/index.php

And then have a scroll down over the page and check out all the amazing stuff that VIN does.

And then tell your friends, who want to sponsor a child, or donate to a great cause, or want to do some volunteering themselves (their programs are VERY cheap compared to others you will see), and then if you think you can spare some money, click on the DONATE NOW button in the top right of the page.

And then think about me sweating it out as I trundle up through the Himalayas, knowing that with every step, I am earning your money… And then you can sit back and feel great, and I’ll feel great, and VIN feels great because they can use that money, to do something great, which makes countless Nepali feel great.

I’ll never ask for anything again. I never ask for Christmas or Birthday presents anyways – seriously, I don’t.

Think about it.

And thank you – even if you don’t sponsor me – tell your friends about Volunteers Initiative Nepal.  : )

Why I’m (trying my best to be) a Buddhist

I sank down into the aeroplane seat and blew out, long and hard. Wow. I was moving on, leaving Nepal. And I was truly heartbroken to, although we were yet to leave the tarmac. I touched my beads around my neck almost unconsciously, but realised there was no need. I felt at ease. I felt so truly at peace, like I had for quite a few weeks now.

The plane was in the air and escaping the Kathmandu valley before I had even realised. I looked longingly out the window, and wondered whether I should have left at all, with so much love for this country’s people, culture and landscape.

I was exhausted. The man next to me smiled and leant back so I could watch dirty Kathmandu disappear as the jet slipped out through the gaps of the mountains, and left the smoggy, hidden city behind. We had flattened out before I realised that I had just had the most painless, stress-free aeroplane take off since I was a child. My youth and adult years have seen me a fretful flyer. Paranoid, frightened, and always gripping the sides of chair is the usual ‘me’ when it comes to taking off and landing.

I spent four weeks in a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in Nepal, living with the nuns to whom I taught English, participating in prayer and festivals. At the Losar New Year festival I had a private meeting with the nunnery’s Rinpoche (a holy man a step down from my sect’s equivalent of the Delai Lama) and he gave me a Tibetan name, and cut a piece of my hair, and basically, made me a Buddhist.

I was raised a Catholic, and am grateful for that. But I was always a cynical little Catholic girl. I absorbed the wonderful, loving elements of the religion, but questioned everything I didn’t understand or agree with. Intense reading of non-fictional books on religions of the world and the supernatural meant that even as a youngster, I believed in reincarnation, and other things that didn’t fit into the Catholic doctrine, and found myself observing the congregation, thoughtlessly reciting prayers and creeds, wondering whether they were actually believing everything they were saying.

After high-school I went with a new friend to watch his worship band at the local Baptist church, and then entered into an intensely religious year or two of my life. God was important to me, I had so much faith, and I listened to Christian rock. This was a wonderful time of my life, but at the same time, brought much pain and conflict to my soul – issues like sex before marriage, having gay friends who I loved and respected, the interpretation of the bible were a source of much inner debate and confusion. I slipped back into what I would only say was non-practising Catholicism, a faith always lit largely due to my amazing love for religious history, and interest in the unexplained, such as the many appearances of the Virgin Mary throughout history.

My first night in Nepal I went to dinner with another volunteer and he asked me the question – “Do you believe that Jesus is the son of God?” I realised that no matter how I tried to say that I did, no, I didn’t. I believe that he existed, and he was a wonderful, spiritual healer, and he was one of the many prophets to come to the world with a message of love and compassion, but when it came to the Holy Trinity, I wasn’t really there on all three sides.

Perhaps I was always destined to call myself a Buddhist. When I was younger I used to threaten my poor mother that I would run away, to Tibet, to become a Buddhist nun. And at the age of 26, I did this, and unexpectedly found Buddhism to offer me a faith and lifestyle that I loved and respected. (Travelling after my time in Nepal with my non-religious boyfriend, also changed my opinions on so many aspects of Christian history – where I used to see amazing monuments as great symbols of faith, I have come to see them as symbols of greed and hardship – the church denying the people their livelihoods to build these massive structures.)

This is not meant to be a Christianity bashing. I have a god-son, who I will enjoy teaching about Jesus’ message, and always be there though his religious life, and support him in whatever his spiritual journey might entail. I was a Catholic when I undertook this role, and will not dodge my responsibilities.

Buddhism is faith in people, and the world. It is about compassion and love, and about Karma. You get what you give, you pay it forward, and all you need is love. I have always believed that we are all part of the greater living entity of the world, and we are affected by the good and bad that flows in and around us. It is also about impermanence – everything is coming and going – from people to possessions, to pain and happiness. Nothing will remain for ever. This is an amazingly freeing concept once you begin to feel it.

Meeting up with my boyfriend in Thailand after flying in from Nepal, he watched as I opened my backpack to find that a sunscreen explosion had occurred in my bag. There was sunscreen over at least half my things. “Oh! Sunscreen has exploded in my bag!” I said, and proceeded to calmly extract, and wash my things. Troy watched me do this with amazement, expecting at any moment that I would cry, scream, swear or break down. Later he said that he thought I was having a mental breakdown. He also watched as I calmly allowed people push in front of us in the passport queues, something I never would have let go without a narky word or my blood boiling, or at least obscenities under my breath. “It’s okay, love. One day someone’ll push in front of them, and they’ll know how we feel now.”

Cliched and preachy, I know, but true. I was Zen. To my boyfriend, I was a new person. His stress-head, tension headache suffering, depression prone girlfriend had been replaced by a cool, calm and Karma-ed up person with no fear, no regrets, and no worries.

Sadly though, I have lost this Zen-ness since leaving Nepal, and leaving the nunnery. Life here can be stressful. It is also full of ‘things’. My life in Nepal was very simple. There was only food, love, fun and prayer or meditation. But I’m sure I can find this Zen-ness again, even in a busy, working, materialistic life.

So this year, I will try to regain that unbelievable feeling of freedom, love, calm and fearlessness that made be a better, more pain-free, and happier person last year.

A great book exists – “What makes you not a Buddhist” by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse.

Kindness of Strangers #2 – Nepal

I shouldn’t be out walking so late by myself, and the sun seems to be getting low – not too low – but I know how quickly it will disappear behind the mountains. Tom and I have left it too late to return to our monasteries. We got a taxi together from Thamel, the main tourist district in Kathmandu, where we had been having an afternoon drink with some other VIN volunteers. We had been out the night before, and this time, have put off returning to our reclusive homes for just a few hours too many.

Saving money is a priority, so the taxi together towards Tom’s monastery seemed a great idea at the time, where we would continue on foot – Tom up the hill, and me having to traverse the mountain in between our two monasteries. Tom had reassured me as we parted, “It’s just a short walk, and you’ll be able to see your nunnery”, but now I find myself walking briskly along the road, alone and concerned.

I turn off from the village, passing a group of youngsters. “Namaste!” I say, to the boys, and smiling towards the adults who are watching them play. The adults stare, and the boys pretend to chase me as I hurry on off the main road.

“Night time, dangerous! Silly girl!” One of the boys screams at my back.

“Yeah, yeah I know, I know,” I mutter as I quicken my step even more.

I walk for some time and hear footsteps behind me. I turn to see a man appear from around the corner of the road. He looks dodgy. I slow down to allow him to pass. “Namaste.” He nods.

He turns off on a different route, so I speed up again, always looking behind me. A lone cow approaches me. It looks menacing. I slow down. “Now you stay over there, and I’ll stay over here,” I tell it nicely. The cow stops to munch on some grass.

I have only walked this way once. I’m confused. It’s darker now, as I skirt around the building I remember as a landmark, and reach the stupa from where I can now see my nunnery. That leaves the ‘jungle’ in between. The nuns told me not to walk after dark. It’s like a jungle, they said. I had laughed, thinking the not-so-dense bushy area was nothing like a jungle. But now the path is disappearing from sight.

I ring my friend James.

“You’re not home yet?!”

The battery light flashes red on my mobile. Dammit! I talk to him whilst nearly sliding down some muddy parts of the path, using my other hand as an emergency tree gripper.

“Can you see the main road? Just get off that path and onto the main road where there are people and some more light.”

I hang up with the promise to message when I am safe, and find the path onto the main, winding road that ends at my nunnery’s gates. There are a few people around, and I am very happy when I reach the colourful entrance. It’s nearly 7pm, but I know that once the sun goes down the gates are locked, and the nuns essentially are locked within the nunnery walls.

I try the gates. Locked. I try the door to the side of the gates. Locked. I try my friend Yeshi on her mobile. It’s right on dinnertime, she doesn’t answer. I send her a message.

[Yeshi, I am locked outside the gates. Can you let me in?]

I contemplate climbing the walls. There’s crazy barbed spiky things along the tops of all the walls around the nunnery. I could get hurt. That would be stupidly embarrassing. Then I remember the back entrance that cuts through near the cook’s house, at the base of the nunnery, down the hill. I walk through a small field to where I think the house is. I really cannot see, and am using my dying phone as a pathetic torch. I reach a house, tripping over near their door. There is a man and a mother and baby sitting near a fire. (There is no electricity in Kathmandu for up to 16 hours a day.)

I say hello, and ask, in terrible Nepali, “The nunnery, is it here?” pointing behind their house.

The old man looks disgusted at me, and waves me away. “No, no.”

I apologize, and walk away. Within a few seconds of me looking lost and possibly near tears, a woman comes through the dark and takes my hand. I have seen her around the nunnery, collecting water and working. She smiles at me, and begins to lead me, along the path, past the cook’s house, and I finally recognise where I am. She trips over things, and I try to tell her to go back. I’m fine. She grips my hand tighter and continues to lead me. Past the scary goats, and to the steep stairs, to the gate that, thank the Lord Buddha, is open.

I can’t thank her enough, and in a country where the people rarely say the word thank you, I say it many, many times.

“Dhanyabaht, dhanyabaht!”

I visit Yeshi in her room to tell her I am fine, but conscious that I smell of smoky pubs and beer, head to my room.