Thursday, December 27, 2007

Swapping a Porsche for poverty

from the New Zealand Herald

It was another typical grey, rainy morning as I crawled through traffic to work. Ahead was a day filled with endless meetings and email overload. You know the one, where you wonder exactly why you're happy passing your life away with the monotony of windscreen wipers in the rain.

For years I'd toyed with the idea of charity work in a foreign country and, recently single, I had few ties to stop me from making a real change. A quick check on the internet and I found GVN (Global Volunteer Network) based in New Zealand placing volunteers from all around the world in a variety of projects. Their programmes ranged from setting turtles free in Costa Rica to helping the environment in Alaska. I chose to challenge myself with a month in the orphanages of Nepal. The opportunity to travel to such a beautiful country and at the same time do work with children who had no loving family was too much to ignore.

The application was quick and simple and in a matter of weeks I'd secured a place with eight other volunteers from around the world. My employer, advertising agency Publicis Mojo, agreed to a sabbatical and the next thing I knew I was on the plane to Kathmandu, swapping my Porsche for poverty. It was going to be a memorable lesson in grounding myself and getting life into perspective.

The first week of "cultural immersion" was designed to minimise the shock of the challenging physical and emotional conditions. It involved language lessons, how to behave and the minefield of local customs we would need to negotiate as we lived with the Nepalese. It was also an amazing experience bonding with the other volunteers. Our ages ranged from early twenties to fifties, with backgrounds as diverse as a pizza delivery boy, a business owner, doctors, an art student and advertising executive. Here we were all equal. We all shared a common goal - to make a difference for the orphans who we'd be caring for, and have fun doing it.

We bonded quickly in the classroom as we were taught the rudimentary facts of Nepalese life. My language skills were barely more than the basic pleasantries, but I felt prepared for what lay ahead.

We spent a few days and (uncomfortable) nights out of the classroom, billeted with local families in a nearby hillside village, giving us a chance to experience the hardships first-hand. None of the houses had running water. Cooking was carried out on a fire on a hard mud floor. The food was basic but never varied: rice, lentils and curried spinach - always eaten squatting on the floor with your right hand, not cutlery - every day, twice a day, day after day after day. The toilets, well, let's not talk about them.

Our few days passed quickly as we mastered our new rudimentary lifestyle, waking at 5am to bells welcoming the spirits of the day and the cold shower at the village tap. Now assessed as ready for the challenges ahead, we were placed in different orphanages, dependent upon their needs. Knowledge of advertising was of course completely useless here, so I was placed where they just needed a guy who could handle the different temperaments of nine boys aged 4-16. It was hardly the romantic vision of a hillside orphanage with smiling kids and carefree spirits I had imagined. No, I was given a run-down building in the slums of Kathmandu. No running water in the house (unless you counted the dripping down the walls) and two small bedrooms with no heating.

It was going to be testing. I reminded myself, however, that unlike the boys, I would be leaving in four weeks. I decided to give it my all and threw myself into it.

My role was to be mother, father, big brother and resident doctor rolled into one. I worked from 7.30am to 6pm, six days a week, handing out medicine, getting the boys dressed, fed and then walking them to school. Through the day I washed their clothes by hand at the cold tap outside the house with just a bar of soap, valiantly tried to sew clothes that were falling apart and helped with homework.

The days were never dull and it was a far cry from a typical day at the office. I woke every day energised and full of life, strode to work with a sparkle in my eye, greeting everyone I met with a big smile and 'Namaste' (hello). Simple pleasures, like watching these kids who had virtually nothing smile and shout excitedly as they flew their little plastic bags on pieces of string tied together on the rubble outside the house, filled my eyes with tears.

So happy with so little and living day to day without the love and support of a family was truly touching. When they greeted me every morning their little faces lit up and my heart melted.

Now that was job satisfaction.

There wasn't a day that passed when I didn't wake up smiling and feeling in love with life. The conditions were hard, but the rewards were unbelievable and when it was time to leave many tears were shed, but I felt enriched and humbled by what I had been taught.

Love your family, cherish your friends and never forget that for many life is a daily struggle faced without emotional or monetary support. I hope I'll never complain about bad traffic, poor food or not having that latest gadget again.

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