Life as a volunteer in Ghunsa was about as different as it was possible to be from my life at home. There were the obvious things – food, housing, language, traditions. And then there were the not so obvious. Isolation, morals, ideals. Nestled in the Himalayas at 3,400 metres, even the air was different.
My daily pattern in Ghunsa went something like this. I woke up in the guesthouse to the sound of yak bells gently clanging, and the local women gossiping as they tended to the potato fields outside my window. I never had to be conscious of dressing respectfully – the biting Himalayan air did enough to cover my legs and shoulders. Breakfast was the traditional ‘roti’, a light bread cooked over an open flame, with black tea grown nearby in the famous Ilam.
School began at 10am, whereupon the students sang the Nepali national anthem and completed a roll call. Despite the relative informality of Ghunsa Lower Secondary School, where teachers often took tea breaks upwards of 40 minutes and children as young as three were trusted to play in the fields unsupervised, this morning ritual was a stringent one.
While my role was mainly to observe and record the goings on of the school and the town in general, I tried my hand at teaching when I could. Mathematics, Art and even Geography surpass language barriers quite well, but English was the favourite of most of the students. It is seen by the locals as the sole key to success, and the students lack no ambition for their futures. They wanted to travel, to live in big cities and, most of all, to gain an education. And not just a high school level education, either. It wasn’t uncommon for the children to tell me they aspired to be doctors, teachers or lawyers.
After school, I was never wont for company or a meal. Students invited me to meet their parents, teachers begged for me to dine in their homes, and local leaders waved me into their houses each time I passed. In a way I never settled completely into a routine in Ghunsa, because every second of the two months I spent there, from the vibrant welcoming ceremony to being paraded out of the village amongst flower petals and ‘khatas’, I was treated as an honoured and esteemed guest.
Of the many, many things that I learnt while in Ghunsa, it is this love and trust of its people that stays with me the most. There are two carpets on the floor of my bedroom, hand spun by women in the village and given to me as parting gifts by the school committee. I’d estimate they took at least three full days of work to make – each. Due to transportation costs, a bottle of Coke in Kanchenjunga costs about a day’s wages for the locals. And yet, being a ‘western’ item, there was always one waiting for me upon home visits.
It’s true what they say about those with the least giving the most. What the people of Ghunsa have, they are happy to share.