We hadn’t planned on painting a fence as our service project. Instead, we were supposed to be teaching English to disadvantaged children at a Kathmandu children’s home, a project which, to me, sounded much more constructive than spreading chestnut colored primer over gray chain-link. Now, staring at the sizable fence surrounding the construction site of the new “Shining Stars” children’s home in the rural Nepali village of Bistochap, we were forced to wonder: this is our project? Painting this will be our contribution to Nepal, a country with the poorest drinking water and sanitation coverage in South Asia, where almost one-third of the population lives below the poverty line established by the World Bank? We were in shock.
“Alright guys, here are the brushes and primer. Since there are nine of you, I think you’ll be able to make pretty good progress in the next three days,” said Jess, the program coordinator of Volunteer Services Nepal (VSN), an NGO that organizes service and outreach trips to the region. Planning ahead is somewhat of a foreign concept in Nepal, and when the Children’s home where we had intended to tutor stopped returning our emails and phone calls only days before our departure, we realized we would have to find an alternative service project after arriving in the country. So after the VSN, a well-respected service organization, asked us to paint soon after we landed in Kathmandu, paint we did.
Pulling out our brushes on the first day, we asked Jess how, exactly, painting the fence would help the village.
“Oh, well painting the fence will keep it from rusting so the kids don’t get tetanus,” she replied.
Behind us, Nepali workmen snickered. “Good working videstis,”—foreigners— they would say before erupting into giggles. “Fine job!”
I had come to Nepal, along with eight other Yalies, via Reach Out, a Yale undergraduate organization that coordinates “alternative” spring and summer break excursions to such exotic international locations as India, Kazakhstan, Ghana and Argentina.
Like most college spring break trips, Reach Out trips start out with a group of about a dozen un-chaperoned kids. Unlike most college spring break trips, Reach Outs do not involve sipping Mai-Tais on the beach, but instead focus on community service and global outreach.
The goal of Reach Out trips, or so I initially thought, is for the groups to effect as much change as possible in the visited country. Consequently, our less-than-pivotal painting assignment made me wonder if my Reach Out experience, rather than representing a rare opportunity for international philanthropy, would instead be a disappointment, a waste of time. We had come to Nepal to do service, and as I aggressively swept primer over the chain squares of the fence, sending droplets spattering all over my arms and face, I couldn’t help but feel as though we had failed.
For the days that we painted, our group was divided into three homes where we lived with native Nepali families. The homes in the area were simple and unembellished, but their red brick facades and flaxen straw roofs made for a stunning contrast with the lush hills and tiered rice fields that surrounded them. Due to dire power shortages in Nepal, my host family’s house only had electricity from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The women completed all the cooking over a stove made of cow dung and twigs that they remade for every meal and all socializing was done by candlelight. They had no computers, no ipods, no stereos, no TVs. In fact, they didn’t’ have much “stuff” at all. Just the bare necessities: pots, pans, beds, blankets and pillows.
Nepalis are known for being gracious hosts, but the family who hosted me and three other girls from my group was especially hospitable. All nine of them slept in two rooms to make sure we each had our own bed, which was neatly made every morning by the time we returned from the construction site. They boiled water to ensure it was safe for us to drink, provided us with soap (a commodity they never use), and force-fed us enough daal bhat, a traditional lentil and rice delicacy, to sate a small army. Every morning, steaming cups of cloyingly sweet milk tea were brought to our bedsides and if we so much as offered to clean a single dish, we were laughed at.
On our third and final day in Bistochap, I sat down with my host family for our last supper together. I made it through my third plate of daal bhat before breaking one of the unwritten rules. In Nepal, giving or receiving anything with your left hand is seen as incredibly rude, and all meals are eaten with the right. That evening, however, I forgot, and reached for the jug of boiled water with my left hand. My host mother gasped and shooed my hand away before I could pollute the drink. I flushed, overwhelmed with guilt at how one-sided our trip was turning out to be. Here I was, getting the royal treatment from a Nepali family, learning about Nepali culture, and all I was doing in return was painting a fence and nearly polluting my hosts’ water supply.
After three days of painting, our group threw a field day for the kids that would eventually be living at the children’s home whose fence we had so valiantly tetanus-proofed. We brought armfuls of art materials, board games, and soccer balls to play a pick-up game. But we felt we owed the village, and our Reach Out Trip, something more.
“Maybe we should teach them some stuff?” asked Alex, one of the group leaders, “ Anybody good at something in particular?”
“I’ll do painting,” Natalie volunteered.
“I’ve got origami,” I said, grabbing a stack of paper and recruiting a group of kids.
I thought that my paper crane making skills would be enough to keep them entertained, if not awed. I had barely made my first fold when I realized just how wrong I was. One of the boys, whose face was covered in burn scars, had already finished a flawless crane and was now furiously folding another piece of paper into something I didn’t recognize. After a few seconds, he held it out to me, nodding for me to blow into the bottom where there was a small hole. I blew and the paper inflated into the shape of a rose, complete with layers of petals that spiraled inwards towards the center. Before I could fully grasp what I was seeing, the boy had rolled a paper stem, stuck it in the bottom, and handed it to me, grinning. Staring at my own incomplete crane, I had never felt so foolish.
That is, until I played soccer.
As we slipped clumsily around the dirt field in our $100 running sneakers, the barefooted Nepali kids deftly headed, kneed and punted the ball through the clouds of dust. Even without shoes they ran, unfazed, through the patches of gravel and piles of garbage that littered the ground.
At one point Tom, another group member, had a good break-away and lined up beautifully for a goal, but then got so excited that he slipped and fell on his back, sending up an eruption of dust as he hit the ground. As the Nepali kids stood over him pointing and laughing, I wondered how we had ever believed that we had anything to offer them.
Walking back to the children’s home after the game, I caught sight of a small boy sticking clay letters onto the front wall of the building compound. He stood back and I read “FUN DAY” Only then was I able to relax. Finally, I felt we had accomplished something.
There is no question that my group got more out of our trip to Nepal than the people we were aiming to help. We painted a fence and showed them a good time. They, on the other hand, opened our eyes to a completely foreign way of life. I now realize that our Reach Out trip was not the failure I had predicted. In fact, it was anything but.
The sad reality is that with limited time, limited resources, and limited contacts, it is nearly impossible for Reach Out groups to accomplish anything earth changing. Some groups complete more ambitious projects than others, but it is safe to say that on almost all Reach Out Trips we, the Yale students, are the ones who come home enriched. The trips are self-serving, but that doesn’t make them any less beneficial. The virtue of Reach Out trips lies not in their capability for bettering the world in two weeks, but rather their capacity for creating global accountability. Reach Out trips are less about what Yale students can do in two weeks at age twenty than about making sure that the experience sticks with them. It ensures that years or even decades later, they might want to do something about it.
On our last day in Kathmandu, my group sat under a willow tree in “The Garden of Dreams”, a curiously opulent oasis for a city where the trash is too abundant to see the streets and the smog is too thick to see the Himalayas less than fifty miles away. The only reminder we were still in Nepal was the incessant honking of taxis and rickshaws barely avoiding collision. We chatted about the trip—what we found most valuable, what we saw as Nepal’s biggest problem, and if we could ever imagine doing a homestay in someplace like Nepal long-term. Then we got to talking about how we might impact the developing world in the future.
“I personally think that physically volunteering – putting in raw time and effort – is what makes the biggest difference. If you don’t do it, someone else might not either,” Jess offered.
“Maybe but there are so many other ways to give back,” Harrison insisted. “It sounds bad, but you can probably make an even larger contribution by becoming a banker, making a lot of money and donating than working for an NGO.”
We continued to debate back and forth until the sun went down but we never resolved what would be most beneficial.
For many Yale students, academically privileged, bolstered by one of the world’s wealthiest institutions, there remains the constant question of how to give back, not merely to the communities we come from, but to the world we will enter upon our graduation. It is a dilemma both personal and universal, determining what obligations we have towards the greater good. And perhaps it is in addressing this ambiguous concern that the Reach Out Trip is most successful. Although not every gesture made in its name—painting a fence, playing a game of soccer—may resonate with the grand ambitions its participants initially expect, the small, seemingly incidental actions like painting a fence or eating daal bhat lay the foundations for a future commitment to philanthropy. I don’t know if I’ll ever travel to Nepal again, work for an NGO, or give money to an international cause. But I can attest now, in a way I could not during my stay in Bistochap, to the purpose behind the project. It is the worldview manifested in the small acts of benevolence, the compulsion to see people and places through the lens of service done, and the contributions to be made long after I leave the university behind.