Nepal #3: Hands and Hearts

Hello Chiara didi!” she yells softly.

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning, and her smile is bright. We’ve been here two days, she is 12 years old. She’s in her light blue school uniform, ready to go, and we’re in our All Hands shirts, ready to rubble. I won’t see her again tomorrow, because we’ll be done today, and I don’t know how to deal with being sad about a good thing.

Like a scar longing for moisture, the earth and the people here long for advocates. I know that’s what a disaster always asks for, but there are many ways to respond. Money, supplies, medical aid, food, labour. The world suddenly comes down to lists.

Two or three teams, 7 to 15 people per team. Two eggs each for breakfast, 5 sites to demolish, 2 people dead in that house. 8 hours of sleep, countless “thank you”s to the woman bringing us tea while we work. Too many gallons of fuel that we don’t have due to Nepal’s fuel crisis.

To get an idea of a typical AHV volunteer day at the Base, one can find it written on the ceiling of Everest Bar in Kathmandu, a local hang out for volunteers in town:

Rubble, Dal Baht, Rinse, Repeat

6 days a week, from 7am to 4pm. There are also meetings with lots of clapping, and assignments, and things getting lost daily, and tons of dust settling in our lungs everyday.

But what I’ll remember forever is the morning hug Fox would give me before both her eyes were open, and Belen making me tea every morning or leaving me little presents on my bunk. Tang‘s purple hair and body harmony, or how she shaved my head with such grace. Yuval‘s scarf on my shoulders most of the time and the talks I had with him about life. Dutchie calling me “sweetheart” and giving me his biscuits. Andy being a shoveling machine and calling me “darling”. The laughs with Josh around the fire, and Sanjeev‘s jokes and positivity. The messages Adam wrote me on the bamboo pieces we built the school with, and Udip‘s lessons of Nepali. Tomas asking for woman advice and us encouraging each other every day. Sarah‘s smile and warmth on the bus rides, Ryan‘s eyes and Javier‘s soothing spanish words about how traveling will steal your soul. Gabriele working ten times harder than his looks would suggest and us making gnocchi and fettucine for everybody. Aru saying thank you a million times for the parmigiano I shared and Levi pretending to be Rafiki with a marigold stick. Joe sharing his lighter with me and training me to be a team leader. Cate always asking for updates on my stomach, and Gena‘s bubbly smile (and colorful clothes). Feena lending me some underwear and sharing my same feeling of insecurity about making certain choices, and Jeff‘s slaps on my butt as a token of respect. Nick‘s delicious bread and sense of humour, and Pemba‘s way of being excited about life. Katie‘s blabbering that made everyone laugh until they cried, and Diego‘s jokes who only a few understood, although his kind heart was clear to all. Yevgeny‘s mandarins and faith in me on the field to know the right thing to do. Summer‘s rapping and Ben stealing peanut butter ’cause I told him he could (I was misinformed). Martha‘s mohawk and good advice, and Sam‘s poise in everything he did. Karina sharing booze with me and speaking so fast I could barely follow, and Diana glowing everyday with love for the world. Rosie looking like sunshine and Dane looking like a scorpion after I breaded his dreads. David being the funniest german-speaking swiss on the planet and Charlotte and James being the most authentic couple I’ve met in a long time. Pearl surprising me at the very end, and Beth who was my other half in the “Beth & Bob” bunk team, me being Bob. Gonzalo‘s sarcasm and the mattress he left me, and Misha being so happy after I gave her a massage. Sunita‘s grace and Alisha‘s shyness, Farnoosh‘s gaze and Rob‘s excitement matched by his henna-dyed hair.

Their hands lifting rocks next to me, and their hearts lifting me.

It took me a while to realize that I couldn’t do both things at once.

I couldn’t rubble and think about why I was rubbling at the same time, it was either one or the other. The wood we dug out of the dirt couldn’t be the roof fallen on someone’s head, and the little shoes we found under rocks couldn’t be anybody’s. All you can think of when you rock-line is the person passing you the rock and the person you’re passing it to. If you manage, it goes to being a mess to being a flat piece of land the beneficiaries can then rebuild on. It goes from arguing on where to dump the dirt to sharing a photo and waving goodbye, wondering if what you did will be enough.

I got the shits, more often than not. It was challenging. But it doesn’t matter if I had to take bathroom breaks every hour. What matters is that I didn’t care. When you’re on the search for inspiration, you probably won’t look for it in the toilet. And you probably won’t know who you are until a stranger tells you and it feels right.

As I left Nepal right before Christmas, my heart was heavy. I got my questions answered (and a tattoo when I got back), but I wasn’t ready to end it. What started as a 6-week trip then felt as a 6-second peek into what could be.

Like the 6 letters in my name that I didn’t think that little girl would remember, or attach to ‘sister’, before she ran off to school.

Originally published at on January 4, 2016.

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