Nepal is in the middle of a fuel crisis. There are electricity cuts for up to 16 hours per day. There’s hardly enough fuel to sustain the daily needs of the Nepalese people, yet as tourists we have access to generator powered wifi, hot showers, and long bus rides to trekking sites.
It felt wrong that we have all these things when this country only has electricity for its own people eight hours per day. Yet Nepal’s economy depends on tourism. There are signs stating that Nepal is safe and asking more foreigners to come. I don’t think we should stop visiting this country, because they depend on our business.
After trekking to Annapurna Base Camp, I spent a week at a hostel in Pokhara. Backpackers will tout that hostels are the best way to meet people. While this may be true, it is only the best way to meet one kind of person: young, white, middle class westerners. There’s nothing wrong with these people. In fact, I am one of them myself, but I don’t travel just to meet people who are like me.
The hostel owner lectured me and a couple other girls, discouraging us from voluntourism. He made many points about abandonment issues in orphanges, unskilled labor, and executives pulling in large profits. I agreed with most of what he said, but I don’t think all NGO’s are bad.
I had just made plans to volunteer at an NGO called Her Farm at the time of the lecture, and I started to seriously question my decision. As soon as I arrived though, all my doubts were immediately relieved. Her Farm provides housing and work to women who are victims of domestic abuse who might otherwise have no other way out.
The farm has a vegetable garden, cows, a school, and recently opened a clinic which will be run by one of the women who was able to go to nursing school because of this organization. Volunteers pay a modest daily fee to cover food and acommodations, and the rest of the funds support all of their programs.
I didn’t count exactly, but there are about 10-15 women who live on the farm. Everyone participates in caring for the land, buildings, and the children.
The nurse who will be running the clinic was in Kathmandu taking exams while I was there. Another nurse who had been volunteering there for several weeks was trying to make improvements, but it was hard without the permanent nurse there.
Despite this, we did what we could. The clinic was covered in dust. We went through all the supplies and organized them. We scrubbed the whole place down with just water, as there were no cleaning supplies available. I even crafted a home made mop.
The women of Her Farm called us all sisters. I’m sure they didn’t know my name, and I didn’t know all of theirs’ either, but it didn’t matter. They treated us as one of their own. They cooked meals for us, sang and danced, and let us hold their babies.
These women and children eat dinner on a dirt floor in the dark every night. Some of them were rescued from the side of the road. They have been through some of the worst types of trauma, but they are full of happiness, love, and hope for the future. These were the type of people I wanted to meet. This was the experience I was looking for that I could not get in a hostel.
I was only there for five days, and knew that it would not be enough time to make any profound difference. Just because we can’t completely fix a whole problem, I don’t think it means we shouldn’t do anything at all.
I consider my experience more of a cultural exchange than volunteering. Honestly, my most meaningful contribution was probably my money. I don’t necessarily think that this is wrong, though. This organization would not be able to function without the money. It may not be healthy that Nepal relies so much on business from foreigners, but it is the reality of the situation right now.
One person may say that going to the farm is a waste of time, but ask any of the women living there and I think you’ll hear a different story. Tourism has fundamentally changed this country for better or worse, but I would rather have my tourism dollars go to Her Farm than a resort or a spa any day. It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my entire trip.