Travelling is by far and away the best learning experience one could have. There is no better way to unravel the mysteries of life than by going and immersing yourself in the different cultures of the world. And there is no better way to immerse yourself in the different cultures than to live there. And there is no better way to live there than to be teaching.
Such is the logic that led me to a remote Nepalese village in late 2003. I had wanted to do volunteer work for a long time, and I found myself in a Manhattan bar talking to a guy who had just finished a teaching stint. After talking to him for a few minutes I knew it was exactly what I was going to do.
That’s not to say I wasn’t shitting myself. Nepal was a country in Turmoil. In 2001, the entire royal family had been massacred. Basically the Prince was unhappy with his parents choice of bride, so came to dinner with a machine gun and shot everyone, including himself. It absolutely devastated the country, and the shit hit the fan. Conspiracy theories abound as to what happened, no one really knows for sure, but what most people agreed upon is that the shotgun monarchy that was installed in it’s place was shit house. So much so that some groups sought to violently over throw it. These are the Maoists, who were narrowly defeated in the democratic elections a few years prior. This year, remarkably, they won. But back in 2003 they were an out-and-out terrorist organization. They attacked army barracks and police stations to steal their weapons and ammunition, which would then leave them in a position to attack bigger army barracks and police stations. It was somewhat concerning. This was the country I was going to be living in, and it had my parents more than a little worried. They actually explicitly asked me not to go, which irritated me a little. But obviously I went, and it was the greatest experience of my life.
It certainly wasn’t easy. For three months I was to be living with a family in the village, experiencing their life. No hot water or toilet paper, eating rice and lentils twice a day with my right hand, etc etc etc. This is the way that around two thirds of the world’s population lives. We get so conditioned in our day to day lives, we think that what we see in our cities and on television is what life is. It’s not. It’s a fabrication, a manufactured perpetuation of predominantly consumeristic ideals. It’s bullshit, and yet people think that it’s reality. This is the value of travelling, to open our eyes, to show us that our way of living is not the only or right way to do it.
The pace of life is something else altogether. It’s totally removed from our lifestyles. No telephones or computers, no television, no traffic, no hustle or bustle, no stress, just pure simplicity. You find yourself with genuinely free time. Not ‘free time’ as in sit down and watch a DVD or go out for a drink, time to do absolutely nothing. I thought a lot. There aren’t many places in the world where you have as much time to think as Nepal. I worked a lot of things out by just lying on a pile of hay.
The organization I was working with was HHCN (Helping Hand Club Nepal). I didn’t have any experience or qualifications other than English being my first language, but that’s all that’s required. The point of this article is really to help people who have been thinking about doing volunteer work but don’t know much about it. Maybe you think you need to do a TEFL course. You don’t. They help, obviously, and I think you’d be able to do a better job if you do one, but for many organizations it’s not required.
The experience costs US$200 a month. It takes some getting used to at first – ‘What? I have to pay? But I’m working, what sense does that make?’. It’s weird, I know. But that’s the way volunteering works. The costs go to cover the overheads of having you there – food and accommodation, some transfers, administrative costs, etc. And compared to other volunteer organizations, $200 a month is a bargain. Most charge over twice that, and some can run into the thousands. Clearly there must be some profits being made along the line somewhere there. With HHCN though, the money goes straight to the family and village. And boy do they take care of you. You get treated like royalty. My sister woke me up every morning with a cup of steaming chai, we’d have a light breakfast, then off to the school to teach.
It was a joy, really. The people were so wonderfully hospitable it’s impossible to describe. Sometimes it was even a bit too much. The attention can be overwhelming. One afternoon I went out to the fields behind the village to lie in the sun by myself, to try and relax and read my book. A little kid followed me out, and just wanted to hang out. He was very cute, but I’d had a very long day and really felt like some alone time. I tried in the nicest ways possible to let him know I didn’t really want him there, but nothing worked. Eventually I just pretended like I was going to sleep. When I opened my eyes, he’d gone, and I got to read my book, only to have him come back 5 minutes later with a freaking pillow. I mean come on. I gave in, put my book away, and played with him for the rest of the afternoon instead. And that’s really the way it goes. You get out of it what you want. I went wanting to do two things – to teach and to learn. Of the former, I didn’t have as much success as I would have hoped. Of the latter, I had more success than I could have ever dreamed.
The teaching was a challenge. I found it extremely difficult to get any momentum building with my classes, because there were so many disruptions. Although I was meant to be working 6 days a week, I only ended up working an average of about 3. At least twice a week the Maoists would declare the district of Chitwan closed. They did this by writing chilling big red messages on public buildings in the middle of the night, saying “on such-and-such a date, the district of Chitwan (or sometimes the whole country) is closed” and no one could do anything on that day. Sometimes they’d last for 2 or 3 days. No cars or motorbikes or trucks or buses on the roads, no businesses open, and, more importantly, no children in schools. They enforced it simply by threatening to kill anyone who disobeyed. Occasionally they’d blow up a truck. They’d walk around with guns to random schools, to make sure they were empty (which thank Gods they always were).
Anyway, if it wasn’t a ‘Maoist holiday’ disturbing my teaching, it was a religious one. Hindu’s like their holidays. Christians get about two a year, right? When Christ was born and when he died? Hindu’s get about two a week. Well no, not that many, but about 3 or 4 a month. Enough to disturb my teaching. Holi would have to be my favourite – The entire country becomes one big water fight to welcome the monsoon. One of the best days I’ve ever had,
Then sometimes the kids would have exams for a week, or the uni students would have a hissy fit and have a strike like the Maoists, or I’d be sick for a few days, it was just a real pain in the arse, and made it difficult to build on my lessons, because we’d have huge and unpredictable gaps between them. Anyone interested in education will know how important continuity is for classes – you need to be able to link a class with the one before and the one after or much is lost.
Whenever I did finally get time with the kids, things didn’t get much easier. With classes of up to 50 (absolutely adorable) kids who didn’t speak much English, I spent half the bloody lesson just trying to get them to open their books to the right page. Plus they were all too shy to read anything out that I asked them. I was marking a bunch of their English exams on stuff they’d done before I arrived, and most of them got in the teens, percent-wise. I burst out laughing when I was marking one paper, though. The question was:
Change the following words to Past:
Do = (so the answer would be ‘did’)
Write = (‘wrote’)
Run = (‘ran’)
etc etc etc
The kid had written:
Do = PAST
Write = PAST
Run = PAST
etc etc etc.
I gave him full marks, of course. But for most of the questions, the kids had just written nonsense. Like “dfago fbiw”. Marking them was quite depressing, which was why I gave the PAST kid full marks, he made me laugh. Well, no, I gave him full marks cos I couldn’t argue with his logic I guess, and he showed that he at least recognised and could understand the word ‘change’.
The poverty affected the teaching in ways I wouldn’t have thought. In the mornings it was often freezing cold inside, so the kids would bug me and bug me until I agreed to hold the lesson outside in the sun. So we’d all go out (like most of the rest of the school) and sit in a big circle and try and have a lesson, which was really beyond futile. Any semblance of control I had INSIDE the classroom instantly vanished when we stepped outside. Really the only way I could get the kids to do anything was by writing it on the blackboard and pointing at it, and there were no black boards outside. Then the little girls would come and jump on me and play with my hair, and I’m about as authoritative as… I don’t know, something that’s not very authoritative. A naked policeman, perhaps. As in, I much prefer to play and have a good time in the sun than get angry and tell kids what to do. The kids have got to come close to one of the ultimate high lights of my trip. I loved them so much.
The point I’m making here, is my weaknesses personally as a teacher. It’s one thing to make the kids smile, and yes, smiling kids learn a lot more than bored or frightened ones, but it’s another thing to make a serious difference in these kid’s lives. I’m a useless disciplinarian. If a kid throws a paper aeroplane, it takes a monumental effort on my behalf to resist showing him how to make a better one. Anyone who went to school with me (or, indeed, anyone who’s spent any time with me at all) will know what I’m talking about.
So on the count of teaching, I really wanted to make a significant difference, and I can’t honestly say I believe I succeeded. On the count of learning though…. well come on, I don’t need to explain this. At the end of the day, I can’t stress enough that teaching in a third world country is pretty much the best thing you can do. For yourself, I mean. I’m not talking about being altruistic here – I find the very word to be a misnomer. I’m talking about what’s in your self interest. Obviously it’s great for the villagers too, and if you’re clever you’ll see the connection. Believe me, this will give you a better understanding of the world than a university ever could.