July| Vol. 22 No. 8.02 | Christian's Chronicles © 2015 – All rights reserved.
The sun has just set over Kathmandu. We made our way back through streets bustling with cars, motorbikes, and people in what appears to be a contest with few rules for access to the same space. Pedestrians walk out into traffic with no hesitation, and vehicles maneuver around each other with frequent honks to signal passing or some other means of avoiding a collision, with surprising success. Potholes litter the roadways paved in sections, but sometimes made only of gravel or dirt, especially toward the outskirts of the densely populated city. Simple brick buildings of three or four levels, painted in green, blue, orange, and other vibrant colors display posters advertising various products with shops and storefronts on the ground floor and living quarters above. Electrical wires hang sometimes precariously close to the ground from tilted poles, perhaps an effect of the recent earthquake that devastated Nepal in April.
Earlier this morning, we had traveled to a remote location from the youth hostel that had been converted into the base camp of All Hands Volunteers – Project Nepal, to clear away and salvage what we could from a house that was reduced to rubble. Several dozen volunteers at any given time are housed here in a communal setting and receive 3 meals a day on workdays in exchange for their labor. They come from all over the globe, but generally from what is commonly known as ‘developed’ countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, or the United States, to lend a hand and stay for various periods ranging from a few days to several months.
I’ve been volunteering with All Hands since 2013, when disaster hit the Philippines. There, the volunteers camped in their own tents in an otherwise similar setting and routines, with an early breakfast followed by splitting up into teams based on the prior night’s meeting and signup sheets and driving out to a job site to do some tough, manual labor with a great deal of enthusiasm and sense of humor that only the unpaid labor of volunteer work can provide. I made it something of a commitment to use at least a portion of my holidays to volunteer, and I particularly enjoy volunteering with All Hands. However, my motivation to volunteer arose well before 2013.
Partially, at least, it was some kind of effort at self-help or therapy, I suppose, or perhaps better stated as a way for me to work through my mother’s untimely death in 2009. She succumbed to lung cancer after a painful battle with the disease. A lifelong smoker, cancer had been something I had feared in the back of my mind for years prior to the initial diagnosis in the spring of 2009. After she passed in September, I initially had the idea to try to have some sort of a positive come out of this personal tragedy by volunteering with the American Cancer Society. I did what I could to help in the fight against this terrible disease, lobbying in Sacramento, phone banking, and trying to get legislation passed to raise taxes on tobacco and fund smoking prevention programs as well as lung cancer research. I’ve also volunteered in other organizations with no relation to smoking or lung cancer. Partly, it was my effort to understand or at least appreciate how my own mother, who had trouble making ends meet and was not able to afford health insurance, nonetheless took the time to regularly help out at soup kitchens or holiday drives for the homeless, among other things.
Yesterday was the 6th anniversary of her passing. Although it has already been six years, it feels like it was yesterday. My life changed in many ways. I retired from competition as a professional mixed-martial-arts fighter, and began focusing on a different career. I learned a great deal about the pain and the beauty of life and its many paradoxes; about unconditional love, and about myself. I learned how to cry, as a man. As a young adult, it is not something I had ever done. I have grown since then. Every time I start to really think about my mother, how much I miss her, and how she passed away after a torturous bout with cancer, I still shed tears. It is not something I hold back anymore, and it does not embarrass me. Perhaps I had been numb in the past, and the magnitude of the loss of my mother had allowed me to experience emotions that I had simply refused.
Here in Kathmandu, volunteering in a strange place of contradictions, where corrosive pollution and pristine natural landscapes exist simultaneously, where strangers come to help others whom they have never met, thinking about my mother, I again shed a few tears.
Today, I am no longer somber and the pain of the memories and could-have-beens has given way to amazement and wonder. I am astonished at having had so many opportunities to experience life from such diverse perspectives, to travel, to meet people, and to be part of so many things, both painful and beautiful, thrilling and difficult, and at times simply overwhelming. Here in Nepal, I am struck by the beauty of this country and its people, who in a sense seem to have resisted the corrupting influences of modernization to a degree, despite the clouds of dark smoke puffing out of vehicles clogging the city streets, and the temptations of western culture. Despite their relative poverty, they seem to have an almost elegant aesthetic, with dark hair and delicate features within a mix of ethnic backgrounds including Asiatic and Indo-European with a range of skin-tones from light to darker, and balanced, natural beauty that seems to have a more genuine essence than the cover of cosmetics and artificial enhancements that mask the people from more developed countries. Walking about in colorful garments, they seem somehow unaffected by the contamination and decadence of inevitable modernization.
Shoveling for hours and running wheelbarrows up and down the hill just to clear the rubble from a collapsed home, doing hard manual labor for no money at all, has once again adjusted my perspective and allowed me to see and appreciate all the beautiful things that are all around us continuously. Rather than the condescending, quick-fix, feel-good solutions purchased by consumers seeking escape from the feelings of guilt associated with privilege, the hands-on approach is my preferred, seemingly more effective and genuine practice of absolution. In this, and in many more ways, volunteering is its own reward.