Choosing between several regions and types of work, I decided to go for volunteering at an organic farm in Chitwan; which promised simple and straightforward farm work, a few hours 6 days a week in exchange for food and board.
I gingerly set off at mid-morning with my packs to catch the 11:00am bus from Kalanki to Chitwan. I walked the already familiar route to Ratnapark and took a microbus to Kalanki, 30 minutes and a few kilometers away. I had set off the day before to Kalanki to familiarize myself with the route and the bus stop, unencumbered, and spent the rest of the day exploring and getting lost in the area.
I arrived early, paid the Rs400 and waited for the bus in the ticket office beside an elderly man and a middle-aged woman. I got some inquiring looks initially but, as always, never long enough to be rude. I always greeted people at the moment of eye contact by saying “Namaste” with palms met, fingers skyward in front of the chest and elbows down and close. They usually instantly replied the same if their hands were free and gave a beaming smile and a slight tilt of the head to one side, which I’ve since surmised could mean a multitude of things — a greeting, affirmation, pleasant acceptance or reluctant acceptance, among other things.
The bus arrived and we stepped in. The busboy (in charge of handling all payments and “stop and go” signals to the driver to pick up and drop off passengers) directed us where we should sit and everyone followed peacefully – I was told to sit next to a middle-aged woman, i suppose because he was arranging people on the rows according to their destination. We sat and waited for the bus to fill up with passengers, then left Kalanki shortly after 12:00 noon.
After crawling for 2 hours out of the sluggish Kathmandu traffic, we stopped for lunch in what seemed like a frequently visited bus stop: with a parking lot that could have fit a dozen or more full-sized buses, several eateries and quaint stores on either side to cater to perhaps every Nepali’s food and drink desires.
I stepped into the eatery to the right, because I could see the food from the parking lot — large serving dishes heaping with yellowed vegetable fried rice, sauteed noodles, curried vegetables, dhal (a soupy lentil dish) and something battered and fried I couldn’t quite make out. The food was flavourful and cheap: Rs150 for a plate full of everything.
The bus took a crude and winding road along a snaky river, sometimes wide and deep, other times whisping out into smaller versions of itself until reforming once more into it’s former grandeur. A second stop brought us down to a scenic roadside overlooking the road and river slide through jagged cliffs on either side, with a sliver of clear blue sky on the horizon. The heat of the day made the river look inviting. I bought half a fresh cucumber from a lady with a stall full of them, sliced once lengthwise and smeared with a thick but light chili paste on its flat side.
What I thought was going to be a 4 or 5 hour ride stretched to 7 hours and I arrived shortly after sunset in Parsadhap. Luckily, I saw the sign for “Eco-Park” on the side of the road as I was looking out the window, waiting for the right moment to tell the bus driver to let me down.
The streets were empty, no doubt everyone was warm at home supping with their families. It had the look and feel of a farm village, open swaths of fields on either direction, clear skies, little light and the whistling of the wind on grass and leaves carried over the silence the bus left behind.
There was a squat old woman who came to greet me as I approached the sign that said “Eco-Park Bus Stop” that caught my eye under a white cone of light by the road. She pointed me to a path away from the highway and said “Eco-park, there.” I would later learn that this was the mother of Bishnu, in her late 60s and recently widowed.
I crossed the fields in the dark with the help of my headlamp and followed the inviting sound of lively chatter that drowned out the music. Wow, there were a lot of volunteers — a lot more than I expected. I joined one of the tables for dinner and met the whole crew; around 17 of them, apparently. There were some whose names I’ve already forgotten and others that have left a lasting impression and whose friendships I hold dear, even if only made in a week.
The days were simple enough: Get up for tea and biscuits at 7:00am; work from 8:00am to 10:00; a breakfast of dhal bhat (lentil soup and rice) and curried vegetables is served right after; then we have the whole day for ourselves until 4:00pm when we work for another 2 hours before dinner. Not bad at all.
My hands have grown calluses from many hours plowing the fields by hand — by hoe. The place is full of flowers, vegetables, some fruit trees and empty raised beds, resting for the next cycle of plants. It’s quite an efficient layout, with irrigation lines zigzagging through every garden bed, and several water points — crude but effective systems that relied a bit too much on manpower for my taste.
Bishnu, married with two kids (all of whom still live in Kathmandu) and in his late 40s, moved back here from Kathmandu to help his family 5 years ago. That’s when the farm first started accepting volunteers through organizations and some NGOs.
He said there were a lot more volunteers before the earthquakes of 2015, but on average in the last 5 years, they would get around 20 people each month, mostly from Europe, to help and stay at the farm for from as little as a few days to up to half a year.
The farm, also known as the Eco-Park, gets a lot of attention from the local community. The fields, benches, stage and practically the whole grounds are open to the public and there isn’t a day without a small group of friends or family coming to relax, play cards in the grass, have a picnic, or simply admire the farm and view.
Tomorrow is the Holi Festival — a Hindu tradition, here with water balloons and rainbow colored powders thrown carelessly to everyone and everything. We had a sneak peak of it today and swam in the pool: volunteers and village kids alike.
Officially my first time volunteering with Workaway, it’s been an incredible experience meeting so many amazing people from Nepal and around the world. It’s comforting to find friends in people from completely different cultural backgrounds and ideologies; the spark of camaraderie, the bond of laughter, the appreciation and respect of one another as different but the same — all makes the world seem a lot smaller.
I leave the Eco-Park on my 14th day in Chitwan, off to the supposedly-touristic Pokhara for possibly the next 2 months or so for more volunteering in different farms and some trekking.
(Photos to follow)