Tonight I’m talking about my exploits as a volunteer in Nepal at Newton Stewart Library as part of Take Four, a group of three writers who are reading from their new novels and a fourth who is entertaining the audience with songs and stories.
I went out to Nepal in 1997 on a two and a half year contract. My game plan was to re-volunteer at the end of that and look for positions as a Field Office Manager in another country. I’d always wanted to work abroad and this seemed the right time for me to do that. In reality I was running away from responsibilities I’d assumed that were not my own but I was unable/unwilling to deal with trying to disentangle myself. Moving abroad presented me with the answer. However, as so often in the best laid plans, things didn’t quite work out that way.
Like Colette, a character in my new novel, Monsoons and Marigolds, I was naive and idealistic. I burned with self-righteousness and martyrdom, anxious to do in Nepal what I felt unable to do at home; make a difference. Daily I polished my sense of justice until its brightness blinded me and I was forced to feel my way through the minefields of cultural differences, expectations, beliefs and philosophies. I’d cast myself as the heroine of my own life story and like any heroine in a novel I saw myself facing and overcoming adversity, to gain new understanding and growth. All that did happen, but life isn’t a novel that you can script and delete, or cut and paste if you want to change the plot.
My illusions and fantasies were soon challenged when I arrived. The magical Kathmandu of my imagination had been replaced by the squalor of reality. Buildings were broken down, dust and filth covered everything and the disparity between rich and poor was disturbingly visual and ‘in your face’. I had a lot to learn.
As it turned out I was only in Nepal for 6 months. I’d been ill before going out there and the condition was exacerbated, so I had to return for tests. I was diagnosed with MG and was not allowed to return. Normally I’d have raged with disappointment but those six months were my epiphany. And apart from having children, that time was the most life-changing I’ve ever experienced. I learnt to see with different eyes, to feel what it was like to live without the comfort of police, hospitals and fire services nearby, to appreciate choices facing families when there is no social security systems and understand what it is to work in a society of patronage, where what you know means bugger-all compared to who you know.
When I was repatriated I found it hard to adjust back into my old life. To see streets free of litter, buildings and homes built to standards, health and safety observed, traffic all going the same way made me appreciate just how privileged we are in this country. I’ve never really been a patriot – studying history cured me of that – but I have connected with a sense of pride for what we stand for. Of course there is corruption here, people abusing the system, police violence, gang killings etc, but on the whole we’re just a nation of people doing our best with what we have and in our own particular circumstances, just like anywhere else in the world. The difference is that, compared to developing countries, here we have more choices, more freedom, and more financial support. We have people who aren’t afraid to speak out against injustices because the consequences of doing so don’t usually end in death or torture.
Since my return I’ve re-connected with a lot of things; my love of wild places, solitude, the importance of family and friends. But more importantly, with myself, with who I was and am meant to be. Growing up with all the pressures, often self-imposed, of conformity, getting married and having children, took me away from the simple pleasures I derived from watching hairy caterpillars morph into butterflies or sitting by a stream and seeing bronzed leaves swirl and dance in the breeze of autumn. I started writing again and discovered poetry as a vehicle of self-expression. Here’s an early one I wrote about the feelings of alienation I experienced when I arrived in Nepal. I’ll leave you with that.
Outsider Kathmandu 1997
The city is circled by decaying hills
poisoned by pollution
thick and sooty.
The valley is a rangy-changy riot of colour,
textures, dirt and poverty,
eating into my soul.
The square is awash with blood. Carcasses
of beheaded goats lie,
black with flies.
The bike is hurtling down the hill, pedals
whirring, skirt billowing, wheels
avoiding tuk-tuks and cows.
The home is illuminated by candles. A girl sits,
cross-legged on the floor, sickle-shaped
knife gripped by her feet.
The mother skilfully shakes the sieve,
separating stones from rice
grown on the hills above.
The meal is prepared; a communion of chopped
vegetables, flavours clinging,
The sun is setting. Peaks are luminous
pink as the mountains
bid me goodnight.
I am alone, trapped in my shalwar kameeze
head shaven, high heels