I’ve always been into volunteering and community service, so I wanted to devote part of my trip to it. I was browsing the Internet for volunteering opportunities here and there, and it was all pretty much the same, until I saw what I hadn’t even imagined existed: you could teach little monks in a Buddhist Monastery in Nepal English. I was so excited and needed to make it happen!
The next step was to find a good (and well, cheap) placement organization. Yep, to work for free ain’t free! Well, there’s definitely always a way, and if I invested more time, I’m sure I’d find a “free” and direct contact. I actually did find a free and interesting volunteering opportunity working in a perma culture settlement in Nepal. Sounded great, but my stubborn mind was already picturing curious and inquiring bald-headed monks:)
When you pick a placement organization, you need to pay attention where their main office is. A lot of times it’s somewhere in the US or Europe, which makes it way more expensive, and there’s an’application fee’, which is usually like $150-250 alone and goes in small print! I chose Volunteer Society Nepal, with office in Kathmandu directly, run by and for the locals and I know, that whatever money I paid, it actually stayed in Nepal.
So, I started my program and was placed with a great host family: Chan, his wife Tseten and their 4-year old princess Aagapi. And also an “Aunty”, a very cheerful elder woman from the mountains who lived with them and helped about the house. She didn’t speak a word of English but always tried to feed me more rice. We ate rice three times a day, but she was still surprised why on Earth would I skip rice for breakfast:) Besides me, there were two other volunteers in the house: Jennifer from the US and Paul from the UK. Jen volunteered at a different monastery but had finished by then. Paul volunteered at my monastery, so he was my ‘guide’. We lived on the very edge of Kathmandu, with no tourists around, which made the experience super local.
One thing I learnt while traveling in general, and specifically in Nepal, and specifically when volunteering: forget about how you think something should be! Expect nothing and be very VERY flexible.
On the first day when I was supposed to start classes at Khadamba monastery, we found all the kids at a prayer instead of school. So we went to the prayer, which was new and very interesting any way. On the second day we came and learnt that all classes were canceled, because the kids were resting from the 3-day prayer. And don’t expect that anyone will warn you ahead:). Only on the 3rd day we had a class with Paul. And then it was all me.
It all sounds cool: teaching, kids, buddhism, enlightenment. Don’t think that you will have conversations about buddhism, that you will meditate with the monks or something:) Noone really speaks English, they all mind their own thing, and the classes are huge echoey rooms with 30 rowdy unruly dirty-ish little (9-12 years old) boys who are running around and don’t want to listen to you. And most likely they don’t even understand you and most of them don’t care about learning whatsoever. Now THAT’s the reality:)
It’s so disorganized that in fact, I wasn’t even assigned to a specific class. I just came to school, some kids saw me, surrounded and started jumping around, ‘Teacher teacher come come with us!’, so I came and started teaching:) A local teacher walked in later, didn’t mind me taking over though. The same repeated the next day, and he just stopped showing up. I was trying to clarify the situation but couldn’t. So I just kept ‘my kids’ , but I was never on the official schedule.
I prepared for teaching vigorously. Found grammar and conversation exercises, had plan A, B and C… And had to drop all that very very fast:) The first class went pretty bad. Chaotic, they were in and out, not really interested and when the bell rang, I was exhausted, relieved and thought: what the f*** did just happen??!
All teachers and elders walk around with hollow sticks, which they don’t fail to impose upon the bratty bald heads of the monk-ies. I thought it was so savage first, but on the second day I must say I did have a thought: where’s my stick?:)
So I had to entirely rethink my teaching strategy and objectives. The new strategy was to actually deviate from just teaching English to more generally, keeping them occupied for the hour, keeping their attention, hopefully developing this or that skill. And if they remember a word or two from the class – that’s a tangible success! Another difficulty was that they were at really different levels. For example, my best student knew the word ‘mustache’ (!!!) – although he was the brattiest student as well; while most of others couldn’t even repeat after me something like ‘My name is…’. It might be not very ‘correct’ of me to say that, but as we discussed it with Paul, perhaps some kids have developmental delays, just noone really works with them…
I came up with an idea to start every class with doing physical exercises. We would all stand in a circle and jump and squat and stretch and twist. 1. This would hold their attention and was interesting to them. 2. Exercising is generally good. 3. I was hoping to get them a little tired so they are not hyperactive. 4. We were actually learning body parts and action words like ‘squat’. That worked like a charm:)
We had an origami class. While some kids couldn’t fold a paper in half on their own, others made intricate shapes like flower bouquets and got bored fast and got rowdy. We had a picture day. I brought in a camera and taught them to take pics of each other, picking frames and pushing the button:)
I was trying to teach them ‘Jingle bells’ but honestly they were more interested in seeing my computer. I brought in a ball and we played word games. It would get kinda messy and loud, because they would only be interested in getting the ball. Also then we were told that we couldn’t play ball. Rules are rules.
We played hangman and other games. I divided them in two groups and told them to think of group names. Do you know what they came up with? ‘Team Russia’ and ‘team Brazil':)
On the last class (which we had together with Paul) we brought in a big world map. They were very excited to see it, and everyone was trying to get to it, but when asked to show Nepal, or Russia, or the US, or Brazil, or anything, they were just looking all over the map and had no idea.
One time the monks had a fight in class! All of a sudden two of them were rolling on the floor, yelling in Nepali, crying, beating each other fiercely. And of course noone could explain me anything. Oh man, I broke a sweat then and hardly managed to get them apart!
I fell in love with my kiddos though. They were so unruly, but so genuine and alive. What and why would I expect something different from them? And why would I expect something from them at all? Every day I hung around after the class and had lunch with them, usually rice with some curried veggies, sometimes plain bread roti.
Sometimes I’d go to their evening prayer puja, sit and listen, observe how they misbehave even having a legit threat of being punished with a stick, observing how the main guru walks around and ‘educates’ the little ones. From the Western perspective their methods looked somewhat cruel, but in Russian we have a good saying: you don’t go to the monastery with your rules!
I really hope that my classes made at least a tiny difference for them. And for sure that was a huge experience for me, very raw and wild, and – like volunteer Paul said one time – I sometimes had to pinch myself to make sure this was really happening:)
P.S. I got the news about the monastery after the recent earthquake(s) in Nepal: all monks are fine and are sent for now to their families. Buildings didn’t collapse but there are dangerous cracks on some of them, including the school. So what will happen to the education of these kids??? But I guess there’re other more acute questions at the moment, like shelter, food and hygiene. Praying for Nepal…
Some faces (from the Picture Day). Each such a character:)