After returning to Kathmandu from Pokhara, Mum and I met up with the 16 Monash University Education students who were coming to Batase with us to volunteer in the school, and the one Monash Coordinator accompanying us for just the first week. After a couple of days sightseeing in Kathmandu, including Boudhanath stupa and Swayambhunath the monkey temple, we set out for our two day hike to the village.
Altogether our group was probably around 40 people. 19 Australians and a whole cavalcade of Nepalis including Take On Nepal staff, some teachers from both of the schools the volunteers would be working at, some college students based in Kathmandu, and many students from the higher grade levels at Batase school. Over those two days of hiking there were many friendships made, many stories swapped, and many songs sung.
All of the students with us were female. Take On Nepal places a strong emphasis on education for girls, because many of the remote village communities in Nepal are still stuck in the Middle Ages in terms of their thoughts on this topic. The girls often finish school at grade 5 level, if they even go at all, and are expected to get married young and work on the farms, or find work in a rich person’s house in Kathmandu. This kind of work is not much better than slavery in most cases, and for many girls it is very hard to obtain freedom once they begin employment.
Another alternative for them is to be trafficked into India. It was surprising to learn that the girls who are trafficked actually go willingly: men from trafficking teams will befriend village girls and offer them this amazing life in India with a secure job and great pay, convincing them to leave their families and sometimes even young women to leave their husband and children. In some cases the parents themselves will encourage a daughter to go to India, thinking that it is the best opportunity their girl will have at making something of herself in this world. The reality is quite different, however. Once the girls arrive in India they are sold from one brothel to another, impossible to trace, and soon enough are never heard from again.
Som’s influence over his hometown of Batase village has significantly decreased the amount of trafficking in that area, as well as the number of teenage girls dropping out of school and getting married so young. Through his education program the young girls in Batase now understand the consequences of going to India for ‘employment’ and they are also aware that if they stay in school they will have good opportunities to get respectable jobs in Nepal, allowing them to lead much more fulfilling lives than the alternatives.
These girls are often employed by Take On Nepal as porters for the two day hike to Batase, and many parents approach Som asking for jobs for their daughters. He employs as many as he can, but the catch is they need to be serious about their education and be attending the school first. We were all relieved to find out that our big backpacks would be taken to the village in a car – some of them were quite heavy with teaching resources – and would not be carried by the girls. While the weight is not an issue to them – they are the strongest people you will ever meet and regularly carry much heavier loads on their backs from the farms up much steeper paths than the ones we were taking – this left them all much freer to talk with us and have a good time.
They did, however, insist on carrying our day packs for us. Some people gave up their day packs willingly, some eventually gave in after being asked several times to accept assistance, and maybe two or three people including myself stayed resolved and carried their bags the entire way for two days. For my part, I knew I would have to carry it during my upcoming Everest Base Camp trek and I wanted to get used to it.After the initial steepness on the first morning walking out of Kathmandu valley, the path flattens out (“Nepali flat”) and after lunch we were afforded our first views of the Himalayas. I was so elated the first time I had that view two years ago, and this time I was able to witness the joy of 17 people seeing the highest mountain range in the world for the first time. It really changes your perspective of what constitutes a mountain, especially considering we were standing at a similar altitude to the highest mountain in Australia.
Soon after this we reached our overnight rest place, a town called Chisopani (meaning “cold water”). This is the same place we stayed last time I was in Nepal, and for the first time I really noticed the effects of the 2015 earthquake. Entire buildings were lying as piles of rubble and some that were still standing were unusable due to the angle they were leaning on. It was a confronting sight for anyone to see.
I was looking forward to day two of the hike. My impatience set in just after lunch, soon after our entire group of Aussies cleaned out this little village shop of all the chips, snickers and lemonade they had in stock. We’d had lunch, I wanted to be in Batase.
Because our group was so large, we took many rest stops. It was hard for me, I wasn’t tired and I was desperate to see the changes in the village since the last time I was there. I knew there had been incredible amounts of destruction caused by the earthquake, and I also knew a massive effort had been put into rebuilding many of the structures. I didn’t know what to expect, and now that I was so close I just needed to see it with my own eyes.
We arrived, finally. So many changes, mostly funded by donations to Som’s charity Friends of Himalayan Children (FHC). And some of these changes made during the rebuilding have actually been great improvements, like adding two extra showers to the volunteer hostel and installing an indoor fireplace to keep the house warmer during the winter nights. Probably the thing that touched me the most, however, would have to be the fact that even though the buildings had changed so much and the people had been through such hardships, the reception was exactly the same. Everyone was so welcoming and so happy to meet us and introduce us to their home. The kindness and resilience of these people never fails to impress me, I’m sure that everyone who meets them is enriched as a person from the very first moment.