From Chico to Nepal

How doing volunteer work in a Tibetan refugee village changed my life

Pashupatinath, in Kathmandu, is the largest pilgrimage center for Hindu worship in the world. Here, the dead are burned on funeral pyres and their ashes scattered into the Bagmati River, which runs through the center.

Pashupatinath, in Kathmandu, is the largest pilgrimage center for Hindu worship in the world. Here, the dead are burned on funeral pyres and their ashes scattered into the Bagmati River, which runs through the center.

Photo by Joslyn Carroll

I am sitting on a dusty quilt in a small, pale-yellow room. A cool breeze blows through the screen door. An old woman is perched in the corner gently spinning her prayer wheel and smiling as she whispers a mantra beneath her breath. The gentle radiance from outside filters through the window and cuts through the musty smoke of incense.

Outside, I hear the sound of chanting, deep, steady and strong, as if it were the beating of a drum. Elderly men and women sit on small carpets under the orange glow of the sun as it vanishes behind the towering horizon. They are spinning, chanting and smoothing over prayer beads with their fingers. On the crumbling cement walls that make up a small courtyard hangs a picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It’s surrounded by flowers, prayer scarves and candles.

An old man is speaking. His skin is dark and weathered, and his eyes are a cloudy blue. He is speaking of his journey across the Himalayas from Tibet to Mustang and beyond. He is speaking of suffering, exile and survival.

I am in Jampaling, a Tibetan refugee settlement in northeastern Nepal. I have traveled here with a group of four other Westerners. We were strangers until our arrival in Nepal, and we have all made the journey here for different reasons. I was drawn to the kingdom that houses the highest point on earth, subtropical jungles, terraced hills and lush green valleys because I wanted to mingle with the gods and goddesses and challenge my spiritual beliefs. And I wanted to lend a hand where it is needed and to learn about and experience another culture.

Volunteering was an opportunity to have the experience I was seeking, to see the sights and go behind the scenes. I didn’t see the point in traveling across the world just to seek the comforts of home. An unexplainable curiosity moved me, along with the need to leave what is familiar and comfortable and put myself into a situation knowing that there would be a certain degree of danger.

I’d recently graduated from Chico State University, and I wanted to break out of the little bubble that I call home here. I was tired of walking around Chico and seeing people who looked and acted just like me. I wanted to turn my world upside down.

My motives, I now realize, were both idealistic and selfish. I wanted to help, but I also wanted an adventure. I didn’t go to Jampaling because I had a strong interest in the political situation between Tibet and China. I was drawn to the idealized mysticism that surrounds Tibet. I was fortunate to return with a better awareness of what is happening in China and how the Tibetans are surviving, as well as a better understand of myself.

Reality hits with a jolt when I take the first step onto the streets of Kathmandu, the capital and largest city of Nepal. My heart is pounding and my mind racing. I clinch my money belt with sticky palms. I gasp for a breath of fresh air through the black, smoky clouds of exhaust. Buses, bikes, rickshaws, cows and people all fight for space on the narrow streets. There is a constant din of high-pitched horns, shopkeepers shouting at each other and the hypnotic melodies of the sitar and flute. As I wander, a man follows me like a shadow, whispering, “Miss, miss, hashish?”

I want to run back to the safety of my hotel, but I resist the impulse. Trying to find a money exchange, I drift through the crowds, tripping over my own feet as I keep my eyes fixed on what surrounds me. I can hear “Riders on the Storm” blaring out of one of the small shops selling custom embroidered T-shirts and other souvenirs that, before long, I will realize are everywhere.

The streets are lined with cement buildings squeezed and stacked together, painted in fading colors from pink to yellow. Most of the buildings house a number of small businesses, almost all providing Internet access. My stomach drops as I pass a market selling some type of meat butchered and displayed on a stone slab. Flies swarm over it in the warm sun.

After finding the exchange, I wait outside while some of my companions enter. A young boy approaches me. He looks to be about 7 or 8 years old. He wears ragged clothes and is barefoot. He is followed by a man whose arms and legs are so badly mangled from disease he has to push himself around on a board with wheels. They are soon joined by a Hindu “holy man,” a sadhu, who wants to paint a tika on my forehead with the bright-red paste he holds in a bucket.

The child asks me if this is my first day in Nepal. He says that he can tell by my shoes—they are still clean. He asks for money, saying that he has not eaten in days and his stomach is empty and he wants milk. I walk away, trying to convince myself that the reason I should not give him money is because it will only encourage him to beg again, but far from sure that’s the right choice.

After the initial shock of being plopped into Thamel, one of the busiest districts in Kathmandu, a giddy excitement sets in, and I am able to take in the sights sounds and smells of this medieval city. Moving at a slow running pace in an attempt to keep up with the bustling crowds, I am carried through streets and down alleys and spit out into large open squares housing ancient temples.

Over the next few days I find myself standing atop the Boudanath Stupa, one of the largest Buddhist monuments in the world. I watch monkeys swarm around Buddhist monks dressed in brilliantly colored maroon-and-gold robes as they toss out grain at the temple of Swayambhunath.

Tourists and locals mingle at a bazaar in the heart of Thamel, the most popular spot for “trekkers,” travelers planning a trek from Kathmandu into the mountains.

Photo by Joslyn Carroll

Of all the religious sites, the experience I have at Pashupatinath, the largest Hindu place of worship in the world, is one I will not be revisiting in my photos but in my mind.

After being let off on the top of a dirt road, I am directed down a path leading to a cluster of massive temples. The road is dusty, overrun and crowded with local women selling their handicrafts, fruit vendors and stacks of wooden boxes holding vibrantly colored dyes. Looking down through the acrid smoke, I can see a waterfront crowded with people.

When I reach the river, I stand on a stone bridge among tourists, pilgrims, sadhus and other worshippers and watch as flames envelope bodies covered in brush on funeral pyres. Their ashes are being scattered into the Bagmati River, which flows into the sacred Ganges. I watch the bodies burning while family members look on, feeling like an intruder, unsure whether I am welcome. Some tourists take pictures, while others cover their mouths and walk away.

After weighing my luggage on a small scale and waiting a couple of hours for fog to clear, I board a small plane. The pilot scribbles some notes on a napkin, sticks it to the dashboard and then takes us on a jostling 45-minute plane ride alongside the towering, snow-covered Himalayas. We arrive in Pokhara, our last stop before heading on to the village of Jampaling.

The volunteer organization Global Citizens Network had been invited to work with the people of Jampaling following an exploratory visit in 1999. The volunteers visited four Tibetan refugee camps in and around the Pokhara Valley: Tashi Palkhiel, Paljorling, Tashiling and Jampaling. The settlements were established around 1960 with the help of the International Red Cross and the Swiss Development Corporation in cooperation with His Majesty’s Government of Nepal. Following its visit, GCN was invited to return to Jampaling to help out.

The villages are home to several thousand Tibetans who have fled their country following its occupation, beginning in 1959, by the Chinese. Led by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political head of the Tibetan community in exile, they are attempting to keep their ancient Buddhist culture alive while waiting for the time when they will be able to return to Tibet.

Jampaling is located about an hour’s drive outside the popular tourist destination of Pokhara. Easy-going and much less crowded than Kathmandu, Pokhara accommodates travelers from all over the world. The streets are lined with modern-looking cafés, some boasting that they have Nepal’s best pizza. I pass a Baskin-Robbins glowing in all of its pink-and-blue glory. I wonder how far I will have to go to get away from things like this.

Driving out of the city, we pass through tiny towns occupying small pieces of the countryside. Every few miles we have to stop to accommodate a cow or water buffalo in the road. People sit outside their homes and watch as we drove by. It’s hard to say who is more fascinated, we by them or they by us. The countryside is tranquil, the crisp air refreshing.

From the road above Jampaling we get a breathtaking view of the valley carved out by a river that has left massive pieces of earth free standing. On the walk down to the village, a group of Nepalese children passes us by as they run to school. Dressed in blue slacks, white blouses and red neck bandannas, the children wiggle with excitement, shouting “Namaste,” the Nepali phrase meaning “I honor the divinity in you,” as we walk by.

Once in Jampaling, which is surrounded by a fence of stones and barbed wire, our group tries to lay low and keep our cameras put away for the first couple of days. We want to introduce ourselves slowly to the community, to become friends first. This is difficult, because as much as I want to be a friend, I am also a tourist.

Jampaling is home to about 700 Tibetans. The men and women weave, dye and roll yarn to make carpets. The carpet market has been on a decline over the past six years, so the villagers now make their livings by cultivating coffee and wheat as well as raising pigs. The settlement has a small health clinic where residents can go once or twice a month to see a doctor who travels in from Kathmandu.

In an attempt to teach the Tibetans about the dangers of malaria, alcohol and unprotected sex, the doctor has left some videos behind for the village to watch. One night we sit huddled around a small television set outside under the stars while everyone watches the videos. The first movie deals with malaria, depicting a family living in the jungle whose infant child is afflicted. Encouraging contemporary Western medical practices, the video warns about the dangers of traditional medicine.

It’s Just a Small Party is the ironic title given to a video that depicts the hazards of drinking alcohol. It is about a perfectly healthy man who proceeds to destroy his life with one wild night of boozing with his friends, during which he gets into fights, kills his brother, wrecks his car, beats his wife and gets arrested in the end. The audience has a good laugh at the sight of the grown men stumbling around and tripping over each other.

Tomorrow will be our first day of work on a local irrigation system. Our job is to help dig and carry out the mud and silt that filled the trenches during the monsoon season. This is a task that has to be done each year so the village can receive water from the river. The canals are packed with soft gray mud and overgrown with vegetation. The organization helped supply the village with shovels and cement for the project.

Waking up that morning, I am eager to get started. Even after a week of being in Nepal, my surroundings still feel surreal to me. Arriving at the site, I grab a shovel and jump in. I want to show them that I can work hard. My good intentions soon butt up against hard reality, however: I can barely lift a shovelful of the waterlogged mud.

A lunch break near the river that runs through the village of Jampaling. Lunch consists of bread and Tibetan tea, which is mixed with salt, butter and sugar. The author, fourth from the left, volunteered to help remove silt that collects each year in the river. The woman fourth from the right is another volunteer. The others are all Jampaling residents.

Photo by Joslyn Carroll

The villagers then proceed to give me a lesson in the art of working. They go slowly and steadily, taking many short breaks, and in that way keep their strength through the long day. For them, work is not something that has to be finished as soon as possible. The women, dressed in colorful aprons and adorned with turquoise and coral, work gracefully. A strong bond unites them, and they work as a team without ever complaining. Laughing, resting and teasing each other are just as important as the duties of shoveling and throwing.

One day, one of the women takes my hand and holds it next to hers—mine pale, with one or two small pink cuts from that day of work, next to hers dark with deep wrinkles and cracks from many years of hard labor. I don’t speak Tibetan and she doesn’t speak English, but looking into her eyes and holding her hand, I realize we do not need words to communicate. I will later find that most conversations, though simple and short, will result in an honest exchange. Utilizing the most basic words makes us unable to mask true feelings or opinions.

As the days pass, digging becomes natural and the hard work rewarding. Long breaks in the afternoon mean posting up on a rock in the middle of the rushing river and soaking in the warm sunshine. I begin to appreciate rising and resting in synch with the sun. My body feels strong, and my mind is clear of worries.

After a long day of shoveling and carrying silt dumped onto tearing rice sacks, I keep trying to come up with ways to make the task less painful and more efficient. I forget that just because a method is faster or more effective where I’m from doesn’t mean it will be good for this place. It’s a struggle to keep my own ideas of what is right or wrong, better or more effective, to myself.

Working on the project won’t be the only time that I am be forced to question my preconceived notions of right and wrong. It happens every day. I bite my tongue, for example, as I watch villagers discard their trash without thinking twice. This is the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and it is being covered in a blanket of garbage.

I begin to have mixed emotions about being in Jampaling. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from such a unique culture, but I also realize that by sharing parts of my culture with the Tibetans I am passing on my own values and morals, which don’t always represent what my culture encompasses.

I think about the balance of the exchange, the experience for the volunteer weighed against the benefit to the community. Who, I often wonder, is gaining most, me or the people of Jampaling? I begin to question my motives for coming.

Volunteer travel allows people the opportunity both to give and receive as a traveler. I left Chico wanting to see a different part of the world and go behind the scenes. I didn’t want to hang out in the American restaurants with other tourists. I wanted to help by volunteering, but I also wanted something—a great deal—for myself. Now I wonder if my contribution in Jampaling is actually undermining the very cultural uniqueness I am coming to admire.

Working together on the canal is a way for the two groups, volunteers and villagers, to mingle. The Tibetan children and teenagers are eager to talk about such things as American music and pro wrestling. Adults ask about what it is like to live in America, some expressing frustration in their attempt to obtain sponsorship so that they can live there.

One day, taking a break from work on the canal, I join one of the Tibetans to rest in the tall grass. His name is Tenzin, and he is one of the project leaders. Stretched out on the ground, relaxing, we talk about our different worlds.

Tenzin asks me why I am in Jampaling. He wants to know why I want to help them dig out their water canal. Why do you care? he asks. How much are you getting paid by the government?

I reply that I am fascinated by his culture and that I hope to leave with a genuine understanding of it. I tell him that the government is not in any way affiliated with what I am doing and that I paid my own way to be there. He stares at me with a puzzled expression.

He then proceeds to give me a short lecture on the subject of foreign volunteers working in maturing countries. The help is appreciated and well received, he says, but too much of it can be harmful. Advanced technology, teaching and building techniques are often effective when first introduced, but later they can become a problem. In some situations, after the volunteers have returned home, the local villagers are not able to maintain the new and improved but more complicated project sites.

Tenzin makes me question whether I should even be in Nepal and what kind of effect volunteers have on developing countries across the world. Assuming that giving time and lending a hand when it is possible is always for the best, I presumed that any type of interaction between different cultures would be welcome.

I leave Jampaling with a greater understanding and respect for the Tibetan people, along with a new outlook on the effects that people can have on each other globally. It scares me to think about the way I pitied people whom I considered to be poor. Traveling to Nepal and working in Jampaling has helped me realize that these deeply spiritual people are not less fortunate than we are, and that they are rich in culture and livelihood.

Is it more important to be able to acquire the things I “need,” not to have to worry about my health and know that I will never go hungry for a day? Or would it be better to live each day devoting myself to my family and religion, honoring a spiritual devotion in almost everything I do, from the food I eat and the clothes I wear to the way I treat others and my environment?

Leaving Nepal and returning to my life in Chico, I feel different inside. This small taste of a different walk of life has tapped into a curiosity that is constant. I have embarked on a journey of self-discovery and exploration that is far from over.

There are many different types of volunteer opportunities available around the world. Different organizations can very dramatically in cost, and most have flexible time frames. Global Citizens Network is a nonprofit organization out of St. Paul, Minn. It is designed to unite people from all parts of the globe who share the goal of promoting peace, tolerance, global cooperation and a cross-cultural understanding as well as the preservation of indigenous cultures. The organization has projects in New Mexico, Arizona, South Dakota, Guatemala, Nepal and Africa. More information on GCN can be found at or by calling (800) 644-9292.