This volunteer trip was put together by Help Intl, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting poverty through sustainable development, and Proof Eyewear whose #DoGood trips I have been blessed to be a part of the last three years.
Sunrise on the rooftop in Kathmandu. Pastel tones and birds circle over the LEGO land of colorful buildings.
Four hour car ride to Kumari clinic on the “dancing road”. Dust is pervasive. I wear two masks in an attempt to filter out the black exhaust and sandy dirt kicked up from our convoy of four SUVs. Eight humans per car bump along letting our slack bodies absorb the constant jerking. Up the mountain through a river. Still more dust. It coats the leaves and reminds me of the famous first paragraph of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”.
Everything is very spread out. We pass villagers, mostly women, carrying big woven baskets with handles going across their foreheads to support the weight. Silver nose rings. We are here and here is very much…elsewhere from our normal.
Arrive around midday to the white and blue cement archway welcoming us to Kumari Polyclinic. It’s framed in magenta bougainvillea and a welcoming group waits to honor each of us with a red tika made from rice and ground up red flowers. The paste is placed on our forehead as a welcome and we’re draped with a silken cloth.
Jagget, our host and HELP partner, has been running this clinic with his family for years and recently had to rebuild after the devastation of the 2015 earthquake. He grew up in this remote mountain village and managed to get his dream of a health facility funded after guiding a group of physicians on a trek. The clinic sits precociously on the edge of a sloping mountain (as it seems everything is here) and from the flat roof you can see 180 degrees down the encircling valley and across to the terraced mountains rising on the other side. Jagget is an avid hiker and to have chosen such a spot to do his life’s work seems fitting.
After lunch we get to work setting up stations: eyes, teeth, and one specifically for women’s health. As I’ve done the visual acuity testing and registration on two previous trips, I opt to organize the flow of people on the dentistry side. Between directing people where to wait and who to see, who needs fluoride or tooth brushing education – I get to watch our dentist, Eric, partner with a local dentist to check, extract, or seal 74 people’s teeth. One man has cancer in his cheek. A little girl bravely lays still while her rotten tooth is pulled. Julia is good at cajoling all the kids into getting fluoride. They sit with mouths extra wide slightly laughing as this American woman seemingly paints on their small teeth. Vierra is good at making the shy girls laugh. Rich has written himself a sign in Nepali to better communicate. I am on this trip with 20 deeply driven and compassionate humans who I like so much, most of whom I have already volunteered with.
People filter in until sunset. We take five minutes to walk up the hill behind the clinic and watch the orange sun set over distant mountains. The sky is cloudless and the gradient of burnt sienna to pink to blue only intensifies after the sun goes down. Dinner is white rice, Dahl, and vegetables which seemed to be stewed in a yellow ginger sauce. It’s warm and delicious. Ginger lemon tea wards off the encroaching coolness of night. I nearly fall asleep at the table and we all return to our tents at 8:45 and instantly close our eyes.
Im awake suddenly at 3:30 and step outside my tent. Even with the soft night light around the clinic, the points of light in the sky seem equal to brilliance of scattered lights here on earth. I feel like I’m in a giant snow globe with glowing stars circling both above and below me. This is where I’m writing from. A tent on a plateau in the soft darkness.
An early wake up to start the second day of the clinic. Everyone feels amazing and invigorated by the stars and cool mornings.
More people seem to have heard about us. The nice steady flow of 76 people yesterday is quickly eclipsed by 300 people. We set up tarps to try to make shift more stations, but the line to see the dentist, eye doctor, or get fluoride doesn’t go down. Eric, our rock star dentist who came with the Proof team, works through meals and hours longer than he’s supposed to with a wonderful smile and kindly crinkling eyes.
International aid is like this – you never quite know how many people are going to show up, or when, or what exact projects you’ll be able to do and this is just part of it. I’ve been on three trips so it’s become easier to let go of being super structured and just flowing with whatever is happening. For example we were supposed to do work in the school up the street, but because there are national elections happening the school is closed this week. A house we were going to work on burned down before we arrived so instead we focus on helping one of the women clear a field to plant potatoes as an income generating project. Adapt, reshift, Help where you can. It feels good to stretch in this way. So much of my life I’m able to control or dictate, and in these situations I simple can’t.
A little girl named Sarah was my partner. I’ll be the first one to say I’m not good with children, I always feel vaguely uncomfortable so I end up treating them like an adult which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I don’t know Sarah’s story, only that if she is at Raksha now, it is probably one that would break my heart. Even if I did know, it is not mine to tell. She was quieter than some of the other girls, but still she unquestioningly took my hand as we got in line for the gondola.
“Cold,” she said pointing to my hand in hers.
“Yes, I’m cold a lot. I uhh come from an island and it’s always warm there.” She looks at me and shrugs. I know no Nepali and she knows only a few words of English, but she wraps both her little hands around one of mine and blows on it and rubs it between hers to make it warm. I’m touched and almost embarrassed that this girl is taking care of ME.
But now we’re to the top and she’s showing me the temple. This is her world and she’s teaching me the motions. Walk around the temple this direction. Ring this bell. Place the red dusk on your chest and head in this order. Take a picture with the statue of the king. She’s mischievous and her energy matches mine. In the playground we run and romp and she swings across the monkey bars, which in my adult opinion are way too high.
On the ride home we all cram into a bus and she falls asleep on my lap. I put the jacket under her head and hold her tight to protect against the unexpected bumpiness of this world. A trading of kindnesses. A building of trust. Comfort when you need it. Peers to play with and courageous spirit. May no one ever take these from you, sweet girl.