With travel cancelled for the foreseeable future, Annie Keig reflects on her first solo trip out of the USA.
Volunteering in Nepal for three months seems like a dream now, but she has the paint covered clothes to prove it was real.
Seven hours southeast of Kathmandu and two hours into the hills above Sindhuli lies a Nepalese town called Banjhi. Stand in one spot and turn around – all you’ll see is terraced mountains, rivers, and valleys that fade into a hazy distance. It was here on 16 April 2019 at about 7.20am, while minding my own business, that I was caked in the face. For All Hands and Hearts (AHAH), a disaster relief organisation, this is a birthday tradition. There’s nothing like a face full of heavily iced cake when you’re 12000km away from home.
Volunteering was a popular reason to go abroad before the pandemic put the kibosh on international travel. In the past five years, 112 Kiwis worked with AHAH. People from every sort of background and nationality end up at these project “bases,” and as a lost American, I felt right at home. Each volunteer had their reasons for being there. Some were mending broken hearts, some needed a challenge, and others simply wanted to experience a different world from their own. For me? Honestly, it was a whim, or perhaps a quarter life crisis. “So, how did you choose Nepal?” was a frequent question on base. That’s the polite way of asking, “What went so wrong or so right in your life that you packed up and moved over 1,000 km to the middle of nowhere to schlep building materials up a hill for 40 hours a week?”
On the day of my birthday, I couldn’t have answered that question. By that time, I had been on the AHAH base for three weeks – along with about 80 other volunteers, give or take – and seen at least four birthdays. Normally, birthdays were announced during evening meetings after we discussed the progress of the three schools we were rebuilding throughout the valley in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake. At some point during an off-key round of Happy Birthday, someone would smash a cake into the birthday person’s face. My cake, an unprecedented morning attack, came minutes before work started. Half of the volunteers piled into jeeps that would take them to the two farther building sites (each about 30 minutes away) and the rest of us made our way to the worksite right next to base. Grinning, I joined the Exterior Paint team still wearing pink and blue icing on my purple work shirt.
We six team members pulled our safety harnesses over our matching shirts and climbed up into homemade bamboo scaffolding with brushes and rollers and the government mandated paint colours: sunflower yellow and periwinkle blue. I spent weeks in the sunny, breezy scaffolding that framed the only two storey building for kilometres, chatting away with new international friends and marvelling at how much joy I was getting out of working for free. The Nepalese masons (35 skilled plaster workers) blasted music from a giant speaker and our site manager circled the building area to check in on each team’s progress. Over three months we painted every inch of that concrete building, from the ceilings to the crawlspace under the stairs. By the end of each day, I was covered in paint. Face, hands, shirt, leggings, shoes – all smeared in white and blue and yellow.
AHAH had projects all over the world before February 2020, and no two were the same; each project was designed and managed with leadership and input from the community. In Puerto Rico AHAH was rebuilding family homes; in Nepal, we built schools. The goals of the projects were all unique, and the rules for living and surviving on the job site were different. The project in Mexico had a curfew for safety; projects in Nepal required each volunteer to have a “grab bag” in case we were evacuated from base due to extreme thunderstorms – the precursors to monsoon season.
At 900m elevation, strong winds and heavy rains can tear tents apart, destroy bamboo structures, and rip corrugated galvanized iron (CGI) roofs from common spaces. The winds were strong enough that there was a chance of being hit by flying roofing – and those edges are sharp. If you heard a staff member’s whistle, you headed for your tent, grabbed your bag, and sped to the concrete school up the hill. If you were lucky, you reached it before the torrential rain started. In my waterproof bag, the necessities: a deck of cards, my journal, passport, and Jitterbug Perfumemy favourite book.
One morning I woke up at 5.15am, already sweating beneath my tent’s warm green light and the dust that had been settling on my belongings since the minute I arrived on base. I pulled on a work shirt and unzipped my tent; apart from a few birds, it was quiet. Dark gray and humid, the sky looked ominous.
No one was surprised when the whistles sounded; it was getting close to monsoon season. After almost a week of nightly evacuations, we all sighed and gathered our things. That day, we were stuck inside those classrooms for almost 24 hours. We ate dal bhat and played endless card games. Sometimes, the storm was so close that lightning flashes were immediately followed by thunder claps that reverberated through the room. In those moments, the sense of belonging was overwhelming. Packed tighter than sardines in our sleeping bags and smelly socks, there was no denying that we were all in it together. We were evacuated 24 times in the last two months of the project. All the same, we finished on time. Each school would serve more than 100 kids and teenagers from surrounding communities.
On days we weren’t evacuated, we rushed from each worksite to the bucket showers to rinse off before dinner. Picture a 1.25 square metre bamboo stall with a blue tarp for a door. Even though the hot water sometimes ran out, bucket showers aren’t as bad as they sound. In fact, sleeping in a tent for months and sharing four toilets, six showers, and one kitchen with 80 people was a blast.
Towards the end of the project, a couple of volunteers bought three chickens to share with the workers. We took the chickens to the masons’ house, and my friend Jake went around the corner of the building to help them behead and pluck the birds. The others and I, not ready to have a more direct hand in chicken-murder, stayed put. Eventually, Jake came back around the corner of the shed, grinning madly.
Two giant white kidney-bean shaped things jiggled in Jake’s hands. He held them closer to my face.
“Look! This is what an egg looks like before a chicken lays it. We figured it out!”
This had been a major topic of conversation for about a week. Between painting, digging, sand sifting, and hand-mixing concrete, I asked an all important question: is an eggshell soft before it’s laid and hardens when exposed to air? Or is the shell hard from the get-go and chickens are way tougher than we thought? With no wifi, we could only speculate.
I looked down at Jake’s hands and laughed, “those are definitely not eggs, Jake.” His face fell slightly.
“How do you know?”
“Those were roosters. Roosters don’t lay eggs.”
Indignant, he went back and asked the masons what he was holding. As he returned, red faced, I could hear the laughter. Ten minutes later, “eat grilled rooster testicle” was crossed off my bucket list.
On the final day, we packed our dusty belongings and piled into jeeps that would take us down to Sindhuli. I looked over at the hilltop that had been my home.
I hiked that hill for four hours to watch the sunrise on my first morning here. We played football on a terrace over there. That path took us into a canyon where we swam in a three-pool waterfall.
As the distance between me and the schools we built grew, the bubble I had been living in became weaker. Instead of the outside world being vague and far away, now our base seemed outside the realm of reality – even now, it’s almost impossible to find on a map.
One year and a global pandemic later, I sit in the Aotearoa sunshine and feel outrageously lucky to have ended up in Wellington in the time of Covid-19. I marvel at those memories and think that maybe it was some kind of fever dream. The paint splatters on my clothes say otherwise.