We ended our 2 months at All Hands yesterday. Every day working in the field was one of the best days of my life. Originally, I wanted to journal this experience but unfortunately limited time made that very difficult. Since my last day is still fresh in my mind, I thought I’d explain what this day was like.
My last day starts out as usual at around 6:50am. We organize the tools we will need for the day and I check my roster to see who is on my team. After we load up, we go to Pilgrims Guesthouse to pick up day volunteers and then head out to the worksite. We drive about an hour outside Kathmandu, then 15 minutes up a dirt road to the small village of Kavre.
On our way we drive through the chaotic smog-ridden city, dodging Hindu cows lying in the road the whole way up. Once we hit the dirt road I talk to my team. I explain the site to them, what we need to accomplish for the day, what precautions they should take, and what dangers might present themselves. Today I have a team of 10 people, three French, two American, two Spanish, one Australian, one Icelander, and one Indian volunteer.
As we continue the drive, we pass school buses full of children, who I have gotten used to seeing on a daily basis. There are childish screams of “Hello” and then “Goodbye” as we pass by each bus. Right before a precarious area of road, there is a small Hindu shrine. Our driver Omesh kisses his hand, and then touches his forehead, kisses his hand again, and the touches his heart. This is a common act by drivers when passing temples in Nepal.
Five minutes later we arrive to the base of the village Kavre. We park the van on the side of the road, gather our tools, and hike up a steep 15 minutes to our site. Having worked on 5 houses in this village already, we have come to know the community well and are always greeted with a warm welcome on the walk as we pass farms, houses, and stores.
When we arrive to the site, I greet the family with our usual greeting, hands pressed together and “Namaste”, followed by a smile and head wiggle. I divide everyone up into different tasks and we start working. Today is the last day we are removing the rubble and wreckage of this traditional Nepali house that was completely destroyed during the earthquake. We have spent the past week on this site working tirelessly to get it done. Today is the day we will finish completely and allow this Nepali family an area to rebuild their lives.
Earlier in the week, my first day on this site, I had two Nepali men working with me who translated this family’s story. Since their house collapsed 3 months ago the family has been living in the jungle. At first they tried to raise money to have their land cleared, asking friends and neighbors for a loan, but with so many homes destroyed no one in the village had any money to spare. The mother of the family, affectionately referred to as Ama, (the Nepali word for mother) said “We can’t believe you have come to help us. We are so happy. You are a blessing from the Gods, you are higher than Gods, you are a blessing and a blessing is worth more than any amount of money”.
Ama continued her praise like this for the entire week we worked on her land. As the days went by she started to refer to me as Babu (meaning son). She forced me to eat large quantities of Dhal Bhat and take breaks more often than I liked. She grabbed my beard and slapped me in the face when she was happy (a very un-Nepali act unless she actually believed I was her son).
Within 2 minutes of working, after just getting into a rhythm, Ama comes out with tea and biscuits for everyone. We smile, put down our shovels, take off our gloves, and sit down to accept the 5 minute tea break (in Nepal it is extremely rude to refuse these gracious gestures).
After everyone finishes their tea and biscuits, we are back to work. Knowing the family’s situation, everyone on the team works their hardest to get the job done by the end of the day. Ama and Buwa (meaning father) work side by side with us. As you can imagine clearing rubble can be really hard work for people in their 70’s, but Ama and Buwa work hard to get their land cleared. Their determination encourages the rest of us. By lunch we are about an hour away from completing the site, so I send 3 volunteers, Atli, Carlos and Joan, to start working on a new site about 30 meters away.
We all take lunch together in a neighbor’s house. The entire time Ama speaks, telling us we are her children and need to eat more because we are too skinny.
The team talks for a while before going back to work. The usual conversations ensue; we talk about the work site, the Nepali family, our own countries, our differences, our similarities etc. We finish the site and, with tears in her eyes, Ama gives us praise. She tells us to come back to her land at 3pm because she wants to have a celebration.
We head to the new site, which is on the edge of a cliff, and work with the landowners to clear as much rubble as we can before 3pm. Everyone in the family is working alongside the volunteers I sent over earlier in the day, including the 3 daughters of the family. Atli, a strong guy from Iceland on our team, informs me that they have been working hard but the 3 daughters have been working much harder than he and the two big Spanish volunteers with him. We laugh about it. As usual in Nepal, the people are much stronger than their small bodies and gentle smiles would lead you to assume.
At 3pm we stop work, assess the site and determine it will be another full day of work before we will be able to finish. Back at Ama’s, seats have been set out for us, incense and candles have been lit, and flowers and paints organized around a picture of Vishnu, the God of compassion. We sit down and Ama blesses us one by one, covering our faces with paint, while Buwa waves incense smoke into our faces. Then we were given food.
After the ceremony Ama bursts into tears. She says how happy she is now, but also how much she is going to miss us. It was hard not to be emotional seeing this stoic woman, who has been through so much pain, break down like this. I tell her I’ll see her again (which I fully intend on), thank them for their generosity, and walk back down to the van.
On the way down I passed B, a village elder who organized the cleanup for his village and whose house we worked on several weeks back. I tell him it’s my last day and he starts to cry. He holds my hand while expressing his whole-hearted gratitude, hugs me, and then walks away.
The ride back was a difficult one. I congratulate my team on a job well done. Then I sat in silence, thinking about families of Kavre and what will become of them.