I landed in Kathmandu on a hot, humid afternoon in the summer of 2019. Feeling the stickiness of the humidity on my skin, I deeply inhaled the air of Nepal in a mixture of excitement and trepidation, unknowing of the life-changing experience upon which I was about to embark.
Volunteering abroad with Raleigh International was an eye-opening experience. I spent the first three weeks trekking Ruby Valley, and the latter three weeks facilitating various awareness-raising sessions, digging trenches for water pipes, and building tap stands at the rural village of Aam Dada.
While these seven weeks had been one of the most physically and mentally challenging of my life, they also served to be an enjoyable, meaningful, and enriching experience that enabled me to grow as a person.
Phase 1: The Trek
Days of trekking started early. Waking up around 4:30 A.M., we packed our mosquito nets and sleeping bags, carried out our delegated morning tasks, and departed around 7:30 A.M.
Every morning was a race for time, with people packing, cooking, eating, cleaning, and battling to beat the blazing midday heat. Each day was unique. Some days, the weather would be beautiful. Other days, heavy rain poured relentlessly.
We had experienced local guides and safety experts among our trek team, as well as a medic and a Nepali volunteer manager fluent in both languages. Safety was the top priority and the routes were carefully assessed. All decisions were made in liaison with the field office in Kathmandu.
Sometimes we would have a relatively short and easy “Nepali flat” path — “Nepali flat” because it was never actually flat. Other times, a 12-hour trek with a seemingly endless uphill struggle. We trekked past changing landscapes, across narrow paths between rice paddies, along the edge of cliffs, and some days through treacherous landslide areas.
Struggling with rough weather and minor ailments such as diarrhea, which affected more than half the trek team, made it incredibly challenging to stay positive and motivated. However, with buddy systems and “shit-day letters” (an encouraging letter written by another volunteer to read when you are having a “shit day”), the trek taught me to be both physically and mentally strong, resilient, patient, and confident.
Despite some ups and downs, the trek was filled with laughter and joyous moments. We played heated rounds of “ultimate ninja,” tried swinging from banyan trees like Tarzan, watched a chicken scatter our breakfast as it got chased by a volunteer, sang and danced along with the music, and took day trips to a nearby hot spring.
The trek was such a powerful experience that it cemented a strong bond among the volunteers, and I would not have traded this invaluable experience for anything else.
Phase 2: Community
For the second phase, I was deployed to a relatively small village named Aam Dada. My host mother was a widow in her 70s, whose daughter worked in Japan.
Many people I encountered in Nepal were very cordial towards Japan. Hearing personal stories of their family or friends that worked, studied, or visited Japan enabled me to see my homeland more objectively and revealed a perspective of Japan that I had never considered.
Most of our days consisted of digging trenches and building tap stands. To prevent the rain from eroding the soil that covered the pipes, we dug 60 centimeters deep across the entire village, equipped with only pickaxes and shovels.
The construction of a tap stand began with mixing sand, cement, aggregate, and water to create a well-textured concrete that was then poured into the mold. The aim of this project was to create a tap stand for every household so they did not have to go to the communal tap stand every morning and throughout the day.
Raising Awareness and Dispelling Taboos
As most of the homestay households did not have a tap, we showered and washed our clothes at the communal tap. On other days, we held awareness-raising sessions about water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) at a local primary school, and a menstrual health session addressed to the local women’s community.
Being made aware of the cultural norms and customs surrounding menstruation — such as women being discouraged from entering the kitchen, and, in some cases, touching their male family members or using the same furniture when on their period — made me realize the importance of proper education surrounding female sexual health, as well as the cultural barriers that oppose this.
As a passionate advocate for gender equality and female empowerment, I believe that conveying knowledge and methods of making reusable sanitary pads out of cotton and cloth was an effective and tangible step towards alleviating the taboo associated with menstruation.
The People of Nepal
What made this experience so meaningful was the people. Whether it was an old friend or a stranger you passed on a street, everyone addressed each other with titles as if they were a family (for example, “aama” for mother, “bua” for father, “didi” for older sister, and “dai” for older brother). This practice reflects the kindness and generosity of the Nepali people. Whenever we visited a villager’s home, they would always offer us seats and generous amounts of second servings.
Shared qualities among the Nepalese and Japanese culture were also discovered, such as respect for the elderly. The culture of hospitality and similar characteristics of assiduousness made my experience in Nepal even more memorable.
Building Skills for the Future
This expedition provided me the opportunity to reassess my own values and perspectives on life. For instance, the trek taught me the importance of maintaining a positive mindset even through hardship by accepting reality and moving on. Rather than complaining about the status quo, admit the difficulties and redirect that energy to think about what can be done.
Volunteering with multinational volunteers from various socio-economic, cultural, and religious backgrounds taught me the challenges but also the joys of working among diverse groups of people. I believe this multinational environment endorsed accepting respective differences in culture, values, and approaches to communication.
The people I met through Raleigh have inspired me to put my dreams into action and to think outside the box. These skills and realizations make up who I am today, and I am beyond grateful for Raleigh International and Raleigh Japan Society for making such a journey possible. Danyabaad!
For More Information:
The Raleigh Japan Society homepage can be found here.
The author’s report can be found in Japanese at this link
Additionally, you can find the author’s blog entry (in English) posted on Raleigh International here about raising menstrual awareness.
To learn more about the Raleigh International Program, click here.
Information about supporting the program can be found at this link.
Apply to become a volunteer with the Raleigh International program and learn how to join an expedition at this link.
Author: Nanako Yamazaki
Nanako Yamazaki was born in Kobe, Japan. After spending most of her primary years in the United States, she graduated from an international high school in Osaka, Japan. She currently resides in London, studying Bachelor of International Relations at King’s College London.