Nuwakot. The entrance was overseen by a giant Bodhi Tree,
which volunteers called the Vishnu Tree, its mass of coiled roots
demanding a certain kind of reverence.
When the volunteers came back that afternoon, the camaraderie was visceral. This was a family of which I was not yet a
member, a family who had spent the day pouring the second floor
of a nearly finished school. I would be staying with the project for
one week — some volunteers stayed for months, renewing visas,
becoming team leaders (or TLs, as they were affectionately called),
never going home. Aside from the unparalleled community created by All Hands Nepal and the satisfaction of a job well done,
there is a basic appeal to staying at base between travels: residential volunteers sleep for free and are fed breakfast, lunch and
dinner on work days.
That evening’s team meeting was celebratory — the group had
finished the cement pour in half the predicted time — with the
speeches marked by a plethora of accents and reiterations of base
rules. Shoulders and tops of legs must be covered at all times. Be
ready for work by 6: 40 in the morning and help TLs load up the
vans. Toughen up. Do your morning dishes. Respect each other
and yourself. I slept soundly on my metal bunk, far from the
cacophony of Kathmandu, the only symphony the sleeping sighs of
30 volunteers, all curled up in the third-floor room.
By the end of my first work day, I felt at home. I learned to
tie rebar, attaching bent squares to vertical rods with artfully
twisted wire, forming the bones of the cement columns that would
support the roof of the school. The mornings were broken up by
teatime, where we joined the paid Nepalese masons, many directly
affected by the disaster, for cups of tea and vegetable pokoda,
golden-fried clusters doled out in duos. At the end of each day we
tumbled onto the bus, filthy, and sang along to the radio. If the
days were hot, some volunteers would opt to walk home, stopping
by the glacial river that cut through the colony for an outdoor bath
— almost an upgrade from our four cold-water showers, which we
were instructed to use conservatively, turning water on and off as
needed, five minutes max. We dined on dal bhat in the front court-
yard, sharing stories as the stars came out.
Throughout the day on November 9 — which was actually
November 8, election night, back home — my attention inevitably
turned toward the States. I hid in the toolshed I was meant to be
organizing with my friend Shantal, refreshing my phone like a
maniac as the states turned their respective colors. A volunteer
from Tennessee had laughed off an earlier unsolicited election
update by proposing a Stay in Nepal group should things go wrong.
“Let’s make Nepal great again!” But by the time we returned from
a day of laying bricks, handling tools and bolstering a community
that wasn’t our own, America had a new president. Keiron, a vol-
unteer from the U.K., likened the outcome to Brexit, citing older
generations and fear as rationale. I was surrounded by people who
had left their homes because of a desire to see something different,
and to help others. And rather than the isolation I had expected, I
felt understood, particularly at this moment.
I knew the country I was returning to would be different than
the one I had flown away from just weeks before. For the first time, I
considered staying with All Hands, able to fathom why the others kept
coming back. The organization fosters immediate connection to the
community you serve, to yourself and to each other. Trying to leave All
Hands, trying to leave Nepal, is like the end of Almost Famous, when
the groupies are devising ways stay on the road. “This is the circus,”
actor Billy Crudup says in the film. “Everybody’s trying not to go home.
Nobody’s saying goodbye.” And though in the end I did say my farewells
and return to California, I was as changed as the world around me. m
Opposite: Women congregate on the fringes of
Kathmandu Durbar Square. This page, clockwise
from left: Locals gather for prayer near the All Hands
base in Nuwakot; monkeys roam the walk ways of
Swayambhunath; the road to All Hands’ Nuwakot base.