Volunteers Adeline, Alana, Brian and Victor with their host family in Gatlang village.

Volunteers teaching in Gatlang!

I still get goosebumps thinking of how Umbrella and I collided. Curious on hearing an Australian accent across the lobby of my Kathmandu accommodation, Linda told me she was there to volunteer with The Umbrella Foundation. A few days later she introduced me to Macartan, the Country Director, and laughed to discover we had both worked in the same building in Sydney the previous summer. I was hooked …

Some of the students lined up before going into the classroom!

Some of the students lined up before going into the classroom!

Irish volunteer Brian and I soon took a 10-hour bumpy bus ride to Syabru Bensi before hiking with French volunteers Victor and Adeline to Gatlang village at 2,220 m, where 200 Tibetan-style homes nestle on the mountain and 2,100 Tamang villagers live, work and play.  Half the 400 children attended the local school where I spent the next month teaching English, the balance  working in the fields, herding animals and caring for family members.

On the first school day, I was mobbed by wild, loud, fun, bright and snotty-nosed children. We had so much fun together as I read stories, drew pictures, taught new words, made English fun with origami, played games and demonstrated teaching methods. One boy, Mingmar Singhi, went crazy every time we used chalk. The first time he coated himself with pink chalk: on the second occasion he rubbed yellow chalk all over his face.

A little girl takes over the job as teacher!

A little girl takes over the job as teacher!

One day, 7 year-old Lali Maya invented a game saying I was beautiful. I replied that she was beautiful. “No. Lali Maya no beautiful. My skin black and dirty. Your skin white. Alana is beautiful.” I was shocked that this innocent, absolutely gorgeous girl thought she was ugly. Her concept of colour-labels reminded me of this image my friend posted. So I re-framed our game saying: “We are beautiful. She is beautiful. He is beautiful. And you are beautiful!” Thankfully Lali Maya, Mun Maya, Soon Maya, Dewi Maya and lots of other (insert first name) Mayas played this second game.

Lali Maya, 7 years old, invented a game. One day she said I was beautiful. I told Lali Maya she was beautiful. “No. Lali Maya no beautiful. My skin black and dirty. Your skin white. Alana is beautiful.” I was shocked. This innocent, absolutely gorgeous girl thought she was ugly. The concept of colour labels reminded me of this image my friend posted. So, I reframed our game. “We are beautiful. She is beautiful. He is beautiful. And you are beautiful!” Thankfully Lali Maya, Mun Maya, Soon Maya, Dewi Maya and lots of other (insert first name) Mayas played the second game.

An energetic bunch of students with volunteer teacher Brian!

An energetic bunch of students with volunteer teacher Brian!

Teaching wasn’t always fun and I was often severely challenged. I lost my voice more than once. Sometimes the poorly-paid local teachers didn’t come to school and I struggled alone to communicate with a class of 40 children. I created ‘fabulous’ lessons only to discover the next day that none of my ideas worked. Time and time again, I went back to the drawing board. However, two things stood out at the school. First, teachers benefited from new skills to address different learning styles. And secondly, the school lacked basic resources we took for granted such as jackets to keep the children warm in concrete classrooms, enough paper to take their final exam, a big ruler to see a metre.

We four volunteers had a blast living in Gatlang, but without a positive attitude it could have been long and boring. Every day we ate dal bhat takari (lentil, rice and curried vegetable). And who would believe squatting in a small, dark room, peeling potato after potato, could be so much fun? We often wondered what the villagers made of us. What strange things did we do? I soon had the pleasure of finding out. Each morning before school, I went for a jog around the village. Children often followed me yelling: “Running, Miss! Running!” One day, as local women gawked from their balcony with their hands making a bouncing motion in front of their chests, an elderly woman came and touched my boobs. I spoke the only Tamang I knew: “Babu arei. Nanu arei.” (local language for Baby boy no. Baby girl no.) Even though I was wearing a loose t-shirt and long pants, the different approaches to clothing caused a stir. Hilarious!

Teachers in Gatlang Merci

The children say ‘Merci’ or thank you for the volunteers’ help!

Just a few wonderful experiences from Gatlang, Nepal. Often I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. What a gift for trusting the present moment. Merci!

Read more about Alana’s experience in Nepal.

- Alana Mitchell (Australia)