So, I haven’t written here for a long time.
For three months, I was away in Nepal with next to no internet access, which is a good enough excuse.
But I’ve been back in the UK for two months now and I still haven’t written a new blog post. Why not? Surely I’d have hundreds of things to write about after three months on another continent?
How could I go to a country with this much to offer and have nothing to write about?
Well, the truth is – I didn’t enjoy it.
There. I said it.
It’s hard to admit. Really hard, actually, because not only did I push a lot of other plans aside for this trip, not only was it my “get out of the UK free” card, but it was supposed to be the trip that affirmed to me, once and for all, that I was on the right path. That long-term travel is possible for me. That international development is the right career for me. That not only could I hack it, but that I would actually enjoy it.
And I didn’t.
And honestly, not only did I not like it, but I spent almost every minute fervently wishing I was back in the UK, experiencing that excruciating homesickness that I always used to scoff at in other people. I spent a lot of my time ranting about the inadequacies of the programme and the charity, but in reality, I was shouting because I didn’t want to spend all my time crying.
We first arrived in our designated districts after three weeks of training that had told us absolutely nothing at all. The road journey had been horrific – I’m sure you’re all aware of how bad Nepal’s roads are, but if you’re not, let’s just say that I’m an atheist but even I took to praying. Half of us got off the bus at a dingy-looking guest house full of spiders the size of my head, a rabid look dog outside and a lovely dirty room in the basement. The other half, including the girls I’d be sharing a room with up until that point, drove away.
We got into our basement room and discovered the horrific spiders, as well as a freaky looking nest of I-don’t-even-know-whats. I wasn’t trying to be a ridiculous western diva, but really, I hate spiders, and I wasn’t going to sleep under them. I went and told one of the charity’s staff, who said, “There are no spiders in Nepal.” Um, yes there are, they’re above my head right now. “There are no spiders in Nepal.”
That sort of denial on the part of the charity became almost emblematic of the entire trip.
All through the training I’d had my doubts, but I’d told myself and told myself that once we got to the district, it’d be OK. So when it wasn’t – when we got there and still had no idea what we were doing – and we went for a walk around in the dark to see our new surroundings, I kept to the back of the group and I just sobbed away to myself for almost an hour.
I know now it was an overreaction, but at the time, I was upset and full of culture shock and something as simple as big ass spiders could set me off. And it’s a pretty big deal to have to admit that, especially when you’re known amongst your friends as the one who likes to travel, especially when you did this for your career. It’s more that admitting you had bad judgement – it makes you feel like a failure.
Let me give you a quick run-down of a few other reasons why, for me, this trip was so bad:
We were in an area where nobody needed us, and where we could make little to no difference. We couldn’t speak the language and had been told beforehand that it wasn’t necessary, so we had next to no input. I felt useless. I was acutely aware that I was there for two reasons and two reasons only: to attract attention, because I am white, and to attract money, because I am white. It was made quite clear to us at the end of the programme that the money the UK government invested in the programme, in return for Nepal taking on UK workers, paid the wages of several of the Nepali staff. They didn’t need me – they needed my government’s money. I spent all day every day being stared at like I wasn’t a person. People screamed at me and interrupted my conversations and crashed their bikes into walls because they were so busy staring (alright, I’d admit that the wall crashing was at least partly funny). I know a lot of people really enjoy this kind of attention, but personally, I felt like I didn’t own myself, like I wasn’t my own person. Over at another placement, two locals got brutally murdered and the staff thought it would cheer the UK volunteers up if they could ‘see the body’. I’m not even joking. And, although this pales in comparison to murder, we ate rice, twice a day, every day, for three months.
If I had to choose between eating rice ever again and starving to death, I would choose starving. Have you ever vomited rice back up? It all gets stuck in your nose and you end up sneezing rice for days. It’s thoroughly unattractive.
There’s a lot more, but I don’t want this to be a barrage of complaints. Because I did learn a couple of things along the way and I’d like to share them with you.
1). Wishing you could go home and wishing you’d never gone are two entirely different things. Despite being miserable 90% of the time, despite being ashamed of how I dealt with being so miserable, and despite feeling like my work on the programme had no impact whatsoever, I don’t regret going to Nepal. I wish I could have gone to another country with another charity perhaps, but I will never regret having got on that plane and actually gone. Now, whenever anything is hard, I can think, “Shut up Rachel, you got through three months in Nepal; this is nothing”. And I know, deep down, that I had not gone and continued to live here in ignorant bliss, I would have imagined a perfect placement and regretted not going far more than I will ever regret having actually done so.
2). One bad experience should not stop you from achieving your ambitions – whether they are travel ambitions, career ambitions or anything else. I realise now, though it was hard to see at the time, that disliking one international development project does not mean I will dislike them all. Equally, struggling through three months in one country does not mean I would be unable to face a year in another. I know now that if I am passionate about a programme or a country, everything else will fade into the background – but if I’m not, and I’m not really sure why I’m there, then insignificant little details like squat toilets or the heat will become unbearable. It’s just the same at home. My problem was with my charity, not with Nepal itself. Which brings me on to…
3). Don’t blame the country you’re in for the bad times you experience. Honestly, I hated Nepal. I really did. The nature of the people – laid back, no concept of time, never in a rush – combined with the nature of the country – constant strikes, poor transport, poor communication – made the programme I was working on nigh on impossible. But it wasn’t Nepal’s fault, and my anger and misery made it hard for me to enjoy all the wonderful things Nepal had to offer, and that’s something I now regret. I wish I’d be able to push aside my resentment for the programme and just enjoy being somewhere else.
4). Sometimes it takes more courage to give up than to go on. Early on, one of the girls in our group decided she’d had enough and went home. Some people in the group were quite harsh about it, but honestly, I think she was incredibly brave. I didn’t have the courage to stand up and say, “You know what? I’m not enjoying this either.” And because of that, I missed Christmas with my family. I missed my grandfather’s funeral. And I spent three months not only being miserable with my surroundings, but actually hating myself for being so grumpy, for complaining all the time, for bringing other people down with me. Carrying on with that programme wasn’t brave of me. It was cowardly, because I couldn’t face going home and admitting that I had failed. Knowing yourself well enough to know when to call it quits is an important skill to have. Sometimes going back on your words and your plans is the best – and the bravest – thing you can do.
5). It’s OK if you don’t enjoy yourself. I know it’s horrible. I know you don’t want to go home and admit that you were wrong, but really – a bad experience can teach you as much as a good one in the long run. I know now a lot more about the way I like to work, the projects I would like to work on – and the projects I would like to avoid. I know how much I can cope with. And most importantly, I know that I can get through being utterly miserable and come out the other side and actually feel like perhaps I’ve gained something from all of this.
So if you have a bad travel experience, don’t be disheartened. It’s not the end. Travel blogging, travel magazines, holiday competitions – it all makes travel look absolutely fantastic, but sometimes it’s just not. Sometimes you get sick or mugged or simply fed up. Sometimes, there really is no place like home.
If you have a bad experience and it really upsets you, think about why. It’s not just because it’s a bad experience – it’s because you really, really love what you’re doing and you want to do it again. Having a less than stellar time while travelling might shake your faith for a while, but it just means that your next trip will be even more amazing in comparison.
So here’s to that next trip, because God knows I need one.
I just want to make a couple of things clear due to the attention this post has recently received. I wrote this as a sort of justification to myself – to make myself recognise the fact that I really had learnt something from this experience, that it wasn’t the complete waste of time I thought it was when I first returned home, but it’s since been picked up by a couple of excellent blogs focused on voluntourism as a sort of warning against bad organisations.
While that wasn’t the focus of my post, I’m grateful to those blogs – I have been on two previous voluntourism trips which I enjoyed immensely and I now understand completely the importance of researching before you go. I’d be very happy if this post made a couple of people think before they embark on a journey like mine and do a little research first.
However, the intention of this post is not to name and shame the organisation I went with, and there are several reasons for this:
1). They run many, many programmes in many different countries and I have only heard good things about their other programmes. I also think they work for an excellent cause and have had nothing but good dealings and kindness from their UK staff. The Nepal staff were similarly well-meaning, if a little less well-briefed on the programme aims.
2). This is about my experience and I don’t wish to speak for other people. Although almost a third of the participants left before the end of the programme, many other people actually enjoyed it and felt like they DID make a difference, however small (and to be fair to the charity, they did start off the interview process for this programme by saying, “You won’t make a difference”, though of course I stupidly didn’t believe them at the time – what else is the point of voluntourism?!). That said, I do believe that the Nepali volunteers alone (we were all placed with a Nepali counterpart) could have done the job a lot better alone, without having to babysit us. They understood their country, its needs and its language in a way we never could.
3). This was the programme’s pilot year. Everything I have said above, I have said to UK and Nepal staff, complete with suggestions for improvement. We were very much encouraged to give honest feedback and I am hopeful that it will be listened to.
4). I participated in this programme, despite my severe reservations, because it was free. I didn’t have to spend any money to take part. My flights, visas, injections – it was all covered. The charity I went with are not part of some greedy, money-making scam, but rather a new government scheme in its early days. As such, I don’t feel like I have the right to name and shame an organisation that sent me to the other side of the world free-of-charge, and whose warnings about the lack of difference I would make I simply didn’t heed.