By Beau Miller
Volunteering in the Himalayas has never been more accessible, affordable, or important.
“As dew is dried by the morning sun,
So are mankind’s sins at the sight of the Himalayas.”
– The Puranas
In this world there are mountain people and there are beach people. This one is for the mountain people and for the mountain people who don’t know they’re mountain people. There aren’t a lot of chances to live in an honest-to-God Himalayan village these days. Here’s one: Village Environment Community Gangkharka (VEC), a small NGO with a long name.
Based out of Gangkharka village in Helambu, Nepal, this organization has ten years experience performing healthcare and education projects, as well as sustainable development and heritage preservation. Helambu is a neglected region of Nepal, and VEC is the only NGO working in the area. While much of Nepal’s aid money goes to the Everest region, Helambu twiddles its thumbs. Or at least it has until now.
VEC built a school in Gangkharka last year, in the face of an exodus from Himalayan villages. Its president, Dorjee Netup Sherpa, a former trekking guide, has committed himself to the development of his home region. His commitment shows from the very moment he meets you at the airport in Kathmandu.
Where is it?
Helambu is located about fifty miles north of Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu. But it takes about ten hours to get there on the windy mountain roads—four-and-a-half by jeep or bus, and the rest on foot. Perched on a Himalayan mountainside is Gangkharka, a tiny village whose extinction in the near future might have been guaranteed if it weren’t for VEC. Now it’s the site of a boarding school with 108 students, ages 4-15, and a full faculty and staff, including a Buddhist lama who teaches the students Tibetan and meditation.
Distressed by the lack of jobs in Kathmandu and unwilling to go abroad, many families originally from the Helambu area are now returning to Gangkharka and nearby Bangdang village, encouraged by VEC’s progress.
Volunteers with VEC can fill any number of roles in Gangkharka, and they can do so without the costly program fees of volunteering with many other organizations in Nepal. For about three dollars a day, volunteers are set up with a host family close to their volunteer placement. They are given Sherpa or Nepali language lessons to help ease communication, and they have the opportunity to leave a very tangible and positive contribution to the lives of the Helambu Sherpa, Tamang, and Yolmo populations.
Volunteers can choose between teaching at the Pasang Memorial Community Boarding School, Gangkharka’s first and only boarding school, working on the village’s organic farm, or serving as a member of a team of medical volunteers. Opportunities abound. Any number of projects could be going on during a volunteer’s stay. VEC currently has funding proposals being reviewed for a new addition at the school as well as for the micro-hydroelectricity installation.
The organization is also working on creating athletic fields for the students at the school, so coaching may also be a possibility. Another project VEC is working on is the Helambu Histories project. Teams of volunteers and VEC staff, as well as some students from the boarding school will be interviewing elders in several Helambu villages to talk about their life experiences. The goal is to gather folk stories and the unique perspectives of Helambu people on crucial events in the region’s history, such as the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the increased contact with the West.
Upon arrival in Nepal, volunteers are met at the airport by Dorjee or a VEC staff member. Housing is coordinated prior to arrival, and a VEC volunteer has the chance to unload and rest before receiving an in-country briefing with VEC staff. Then, early one morning on an agreed upon date, the volunteer(s) and a guide make the trip to Gangkharka. The trek to Gangkharka is not terribly strenuous, but it is recommended that volunteers be in reasonably good physical shape. Gangkharka’s altitude is lower than that of Denver, Colorado, but it is possible to go as high as 14,000 ft. if one takes advantage of the discounted trekking available to long-term volunteers.
There is currently no internet in Gangkharka, but volunteers schedule guided trips to Kathmandu and relative civilization. There is a landline phone at the school where calls can be received, but otherwise volunteers may find themselves without many of the 21st century comforts they are used to. There are bathing facilities available, if one considers a small shack with a big pot of heated water a bathing facility.
Why Volunteer Here
In Gangkharka, a volunteer’s time is rewarded with spectacular views of the Himalayas and a unique opportunity to live in a community renowned for its hospitality. What little the host families have, they share. Sitting inside a tidy, if more than a little smoky, Sherpa home, there will be plenty of opportunities to acquire a taste for the butter tea for which Himalayan communities are (in)famous. Few people on earth can make a stranger feel more at home than the people of Gangkharka—though a volunteer may find life more difficult to bear during the summer monsoon season.
The development work conducted by VEC may be a last ditch effort to preserve Helambu communities like Gangkharka. The culture is facing its greatest crisis as many parents pursue job opportunities overseas, leaving their children in the care of boarding schools often much less keen to the idea of cultural preservation than the school run by VEC. Instead of the colorful pullover jumpers, smart little ties, and shiny black loafers that constitute many school uniforms in Nepal these days, the students in Gangkharka where traditional Himalayan dress: chubhas for girls and Tibetan-style tunics for the boys.
The potential for sustainable development gives Gangkharka an advantage to ensure this can happen, and international volunteers have the opportunity to contribute to its revitalization and the preservation of a culture that has long captured the imagination of the West.
If You Go:
There’s a $75 processing fee for VEC (airport pickup, guide, housing coordination, language lessons, etc.). The $3 a day goes directly to the host family.
Beau Miller is a Master’s candidate at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs. He has worked as a volunteer Project Manager for VEC, and his writing has appeared in The New Brewer and Adbusters.