Original article on www.gonomad.com
Our group, the Pokhara 31 we call ourselves, start off piled into two rickety buses bouncing around the dusty roads of Nepal climbing higher into the hills for the small village of Dhikurpokhari.
We have gathered together from different parts of the world, bankers, filmmakers and fashionistas, men and women in their 20’s, 30’s, up into their 60’s, for what would be a week of strenuous labor. None of us have any business lifting shovels or pickaxes, but 31 of us are here to build the first school in memory of our friend Guy Joseph, an adventurous traveler who died tragically in a paragliding accident in October 2011.
Journey to the Village
We are in high spirits, the bus buzzing with excited conversation in our matching white Guy’s Trust t-shirts, anticipating what kind of work might lie ahead of us. I presume I’ll be flipping a switch on and off, on and off for a concrete mixing machine or something equally undemanding. This is to be the very first ground breaking and laying the foundations for one of three Guy Joseph Early Childhood Development Centres (ECDC).
During the one-hour ride, we ‘ooh…’ and ‘aah…’ out the windows over the snow-capped Himalaya range. We tie on our steel-capped boots as we get nearer. First a sign greets us, painted in impressive handwriting, ‘Welcome to the friends and family of Guy Joseph. Thank you for your support of the people of Dhikurpokhari.’ I’m touched and I prepare myself for the wave of emotion that will befall upon meeting the villagers.
“Namaste!” The first greetings come from the roadside. We wave back to their prayer-pressed hands and faces all smiles.
From the road we hike a short way down the hill, taking in the magnificent terraced views surrounding us, layers upon layers of mountains fading with distance against the blue morning sky. Greetings of namaste come from all around.
The village is even smaller than I had envisioned, but a crowd of about sixty have gathered to welcome us. Looking into the eyes of the people, the children are full of excitement, the parents full of hope. One woman strokes my arm, and I try to imagine what this school must mean to her.
The Welcome Ceremony
Two rows of plastic lawn chairs have been set up for us on one grassy terrace and we take a seat while the villagers watch from the terraces above. A group of men wearing traditional fez-like hats made of herringbone begin playing music, a cacophony of a snake charmer’s tune, backup horns, a light drumbeat and a lone symbol.
The Nepalese man conducting the ceremony wears a Guy’s Trust t-shirt over his plaid button-down and invites the Joseph family, Tony, Vicky, Lauren and Alex, to sit at the head. He then begins in Nepalese and translates, “Welcome to the people of Guy’s Trust and Action Aid. Thank you for coming. I’d like to begin today by holding one-minute of silence for Guy Joseph.”
Hats are respectfully removed and looking towards the Joseph family, emotion begins to build inside of me. I know I won’t be able to contain it. Gemma, my travel mate and a mutual friend of Guy, is standing next to me and grabs my hand. We wrap an arm around each other and the tears begin to flow.
One minute feels like ten. I think of Guy and of the local people standing around us. I think how strange they must find it that we have gone to such lengths for the death of one man, but also how grateful they must be in the midst of our loss. I wonder if they refer to themselves dalits – or untouchables – as the rest of their society deems them. They don’t look untouchable to me. The minute ends, and I am relieved.
Tissues are passed around while the speeches begin. After, flower garlands and polyester shawls are given to each of us for good luck. A woman with a face like wrinkled linen, kind and peaceful, places them gently around my neck. “Dhanyabaad,” I thank her and we bow to each other. The aroma of the red and purple flowers envelops me.
We are now ushered to the site where the school will be built. The land, which had been donated by an elderly woman, her home torn down and she relocated, is blessed according to local custom. After a year and a half of grieving, of fundraising, of stressing and preparing, it’s finally time to get to work.
For five days, from Monday through Friday, we labor side by side with the villagers. We move earth, make bricks, dig trenches. There is no cement mixer, as I had envisaged. We mix the cement with shovels, moistening it with a watering can.
The local women, dressed in their brightly patterned skirts and blouses and wearing flip flops, carry the heavy sedimentary rock that will secure the foundation with baskets on their backsand a strap around their foreheads. I feel guilty with my work gloves my required steel-capped boots, a safety regulation as a UK-based charity.
Fleetwood Mac plays over the portable speakers. We trade jokes and stories with each other and exchange smiles with the locals as we put our backs into our work, each of us with various designated tasks.
*Image of Annapurna South in the morning, Himalayas, Nepal via Shutterstock