I was the quiet girl in the class. I’d be sat at the back of the class; studious yet day-dreamy in an all girls’ school where outgoing personalities were seen as appealing and bold. I’d be described as unassuming, boring and meek. It was a temperament that contradicts the very nature of solo travel itself. How can a shy individual enjoy the intensity of meeting strangers, unfamiliar spaces and the boldness that solo travel entails?
I was 19 when I first travelled alone. Whilst completing my first year of university, a tucked away notice-board caught my attention. The board was a jumbled mix of tattered handwritten notes from selling second-hand musical instruments, to language swaps, to an international volunteer placement in Nepal; with no placement fees. I scribbled down the email contact and I constantly dithered over the coming weeks of going to Nepal alone. I’d describe this pre-committal period as an internal mix of self-doubt, fear of the unknown and never-ending speculation. Every doubt that I could possibly imagine would resurface and transform itself into negative outcomes. My self-doubt combined with parental disapproval made it difficult for me to take the first step in arranging a solo voluntary trip. It took a few weeks, but I realised I was creating mental boundaries and false limitations that did not equate to any reasoning. The first independent trip is always the most difficult to set in motion, it was a fierce battle between an innate desire to take the plunge and crippling anxiety.
It was early summer and the sun was a dazzling circle of gold in the sweep of sky. I was free from my first year examinations, it was a feeling of liberation where I felt as light as a feather. My heart swelled with the thought of freedom and I took the first opportunity I could with organising plane tickets to Nepal. Finishing my exams offered a window of clarity, I realised that the summer break was the best time I could possibly go. I scheduled a meeting with the director of Volunteer East, Tiija Rinta. We met at the concrete steps at the entrance of the School of Oriental and African Studies; a thoroughfare of eccentric students, international lecturers and a space of young and vibrant energy. Tiija had visited the orphanage herself. She gave me first-hand examples of the work that volunteers would do: assisting the teachers in a nearby school, teaching English and maintaining the orphanage whilst living in a nearby home-stay. I was excited and nervous, a feeling that kept me on my toes, happy and in anticipation of the forthcoming trip.
I arrived in the village of Sanga, approximately a one hour drive from Kathmandu. Dove-white mountains and shelves of rice plains surrounded the orphanage. The building was bright orange with a sky blue balcony and the children were lying across rugs by the entrance, writing in exercise books. I’m greeted by Sangita, the daughter of the host family and the co-ordinator of the orphanage. The children bellowed ‘Hello!’ animatedly whilst running over to greet me. Twelve pairs of hands scrabbled towards me, clinging onto my forearms and ruffling my hair where they could. I laugh and I give the children a warm smile and a group embrace. Suddenly every pre-departure worry I had such as language barriers, shyness and unfamiliarity vanished within that moment. I knew that all I wanted to do was help out where I could.
The orphanage is situated atop a steep, muddy bank. I descended back towards the home-stay, zigzagging down a thin trail where tomato plants grow wild and Nepalese women pass-by with machetes and straw baskets filled with long grass. There is a sharp bark and a growl as I approached the house. I love dogs, but I approached cautiously as a medium sized brown and patchy dog acknowledged me with both a wag of his tail and a sharp bark. A slight yet strong looking Nepalese lady emerged from the house, waving her hands and shouting “Pinky!” at the dog whilst greeting me with a hug and a flurry of Nepalese. She beamed at me and struggled with pronouncing my name. She held eye contact with me for a few seconds before uttering “Maya?” Sangita approached me and asked if her mother can call me Maya. “It means love in Nepalese”, she said fondly.
It was my first week at the orphanage in Sanga and I’ve thrown myself into volunteering day to day. From walking the children to and from school, to assisting with English in the classroom, to preparing dinner; every experience from the living conditions to the duties each day were new, slightly daunting yet light-hearted. I would wake up each morning to chai tea, a small glass of hot milk with Nepalese herbs and spices served with the staple meal of Dal Bhat. I grew to enjoy this dish immensely, a simple yet delicious meal of rice topped with lentil soup. With each passing day, I learnt the quirks of each child at the orphanage. Pasang was a natural leader amongst the children. Nikhil was the cheekiest. Sonam was bright and affectionate. The children would chuckle at my attempt to make the perfect chapatti. They caught onto everyday English words, echoing “yes”, “no” and “I don’t know” for the English homework assignments from the local school. It became an on-going joke for Nikhil to say “I don’t know!” to every piece of work assigned to him, whilst waving his exercise book in the air with a mischievous grin.
I grew incredibly close to both Sangita and my host mum during my home-stay. I learnt that Sangita was my age and I saw a 19 year old shoulder more responsibility then I could possibly imagine. From taking care of her four year old sister, to maintenance, to preparing meals for both her own family and the 12 children at the orphanage. Sangita was bold, headstrong and hardworking. Sangita’s mum had a gentle demeanour and a permanent smile that I grew to love. “Maya, chai!” was a morning ritual where a glass of hot milk was left for me at breakfast. I offered to help with milking the cow, miming the action to my host mum whom burst into a fit of giggles. She replied to my offer by miming a backwards kicking action. Sangita saw us miming, putting words into the exchange and stating that “the cow will kick you!”, whilst laughing alongside us. The language barrier never hindered the ability of forming a loving bond with my host family.
I volunteered for four weeks in Sanga and the time flew by. I went from assisting English classes to spending my free weekends rice farming and exploring nearby local towns. I attended a local wedding and watched as a local couple tied the knot, surrounded by whooping families, a flurry of glittery red saris and an evening of dance in celebration of love. I befriended fellow volunteers from Spain on the same volunteer programme and I dreaded each day that drew me closer to the end of my placement.
On my last day in Sanga, I went to Pinky first to quietly wish her goodbye. She wagged her tail, tilting her head affectionately for another pat as I ruffled her ears. I overheard the roar of a vehicle struggling up the steep and muddy banks to the Orphanage and felt an impending sense of grief at the prospect of leaving. Sangita was a sister to me and I grew to love each and every day that came by. I was always self-conscious when I cried, yet it was an intense and raw emotion that I could not repress. I sobbed on the journey home. Upon returning to the UK, I felt a subtle shift in how I saw the little trivialities of home-life. From washing machines to drinking water out the tap, the disparity in living conditions was a stark reminder of global inequality. I felt I developed a greater level of appreciation in smaller things and everyday occurrences.
I was a reluctant solo traveller and Nepal was one of the greatest experiences I’d ever had. Taking the plunge into my first solo trip was the bedrock for further adventure. It gave me the inner-confidence to pursue what I truly loved and it was the domino effect for a further five solo voluntary trips abroad, across three different continents. Put an end to the pre-departure doubts. You can defeat the perceptions of an introvert and embark on a life-affirming and challenging adventure.