“Let’s meet in front of The North Face store and we’ll walk to Western Tandoori,” said James via Messenger. Two hours later I was crossing Thamel—having been set up on a blind date by Cotopaxi. I recognized the tall, lanky—but handsome—dude first by his Pacaya jacket, which looked like it’d been worn through hell and back. Three weeks of trekking through the Himalayas will do that.
Twenty minutes later we were seated in a dark, dingy corner booth, scarfing down some of the best Indian food Kathmandu has to offer, while trading stories from our adventures in Nepal. James had just returned from the Khumbu; I had just finished documenting earthquake survivors in Langtang. The chicken butter masala was excellent, the naan was fresh, and the Coke was real. Our “date” was off to a great start. Fortunate, because we’d be sharing a tent together for the next week.
“Our ‘date’ was off to a great start. Fortunate, because we’d be sharing a tent together for the next week.”
Cotopaxi had connected me with James, tasking us with scoping out Kumari—a small rural village about four hours by truck from Kathmandu. An organization called Health & Ed 4 Nepal had been the recipient of a grant from Cotopaxi, which helped to double the Kumari school’s capacity—allowing it to greater serve the local community.
Our trip to Kumari had three major prongs: teach a photography and storytelling workshop for the students, assess the school’s overall operation and conditions, and document life in the Kumari village. Before we could take off, however, we had the task of locating some digital cameras for the students to use in the workshop. Since we were staying in Thamel—Kathmandu’s main tourist area—that wasn’t a problem, and James handled it brilliantly.
What proved to be more difficult, however, was securing transportation out to Kumari. The first half of the trip was along the main highway connecting Kathmandu to Pokhara, where local buses regularly ran—but the second half of the journey split off from the highway and went onto a bumpy dirt road that had just been completed by Health & Ed 4 Nepal. After some tedious negotiations, we secured a truck ride with Jagat—the organization’s local director. A couple of days after James and I first met, we were on our way.
Kumari village is one of those places that if you blink, you’ll probably miss it. Its two main hubs are the school and a health clinic—both operated by Health & Ed 4 Nepal. Dozens of rudimentary houses dot the hillsides, never more than two or three laid out together in any one place. Each home is separated by terraced golden fields of millet and barley, swaying in the wind and ready for harvest.
The health clinic had been severely damaged by the magnitude-7.8 earthquake that struck in April 2015; its walls were being torn down for reconstruction right before our eyes. The damage didn’t stop the treatment of patients though—many of whom slept in beds outside on the covered porch.
We wasted no time getting started with the tasks at hand—the first being our storytelling workshop. James and I created a mini Questival-like scavenger hunt for the students and tasked them with photographing a list of people, places, and things in Kumari from various perspectives. Each class was divided into three teams, instructed in the art of storytelling through photography (translated into Nepali by our guide Chandra), and given a camera. Then for the next hour we followed them around the village as they excitedly completed their challenges: photographing chickens (what’s for dinner), workers in the field, “dog’s-eye views,” and their favorite places to play.
Once the golden light from each afternoon began to disappear, we reviewed the photos with the students, and they showed us their favorite shots. For many of the young teenagers, it was their first time ever using a camera. Their enthusiasm was inspiring; the photos they captured were no different.
Each night that James and I spent in Kumari was the “same same but different.” We’d all load up into the bed of Jagat’s truck, drive 20 minutes down a bumpy road, and then hike down to a different family’s house, where festivities ensued. Apparently there was a celebration of uncles, and nephews who were turning five years old, that brought everyone together for a feast of dal bhat (rice and lentils), raksi (moonshine made from millet), and dancing; during the latter of which I was regularly forced to take center stage.
While the locations changed each night—the Kumari people’s incredible hospitality remained the same throughout our visit. James and I were always treated like guests of honor, which was a testament to the warmhearted and welcoming nature of the Nepali people.
Spending time away from the tourist trekking areas also gave us some insight into daily life in post-earthquake Nepal. The Kumari school, for example, had been consolidated into bamboo and tin shacks while a new earthquake-resistant building was being built. The conditions were less than ideal for learning, but that didn’t stop hundreds of children from walking miles to school every morning and making the best out of a disastrous situation.
“They displayed a willingness to learn and better themselves, though faced with constant discomfort. They chose to adapt, instead of accepting defeat. And above all, they were filled with joy. Pure joy—just for the sake of being alive.”
Our firsthand experience at Kumari was an incredible opportunity to see the great need for access to education in rural, underdeveloped areas. What we saw in each of those children was perseverance in the face of adversity. They displayed a willingness to learn and better themselves, though faced with constant discomfort. They chose to adapt, instead of accepting defeat. And above all, they were filled with joy. Pure joy—just for the sake of being alive. They embodied so many admirable qualities—traits that we should strive to adopt as our own.