Nearing the end of 2013, I was feeling jaded from my job as a writer. My performance was dipping and I realised it wasn’t the work that was changing – I was. It was time for a break – I needed some space to sort out the thoughts in my head and figure out what to do with my life (doesn’t everyone, at some point).
In March this year, I quit my job and went on a three-week volunteering trip to Nepal. I helped local villagers with their farm work and taught English at a school twice a week.
My time there was both fulfilling and difficult. Here are 7 life lessons that I learnt from a trip to Nepal, and hopefully they can benefit you too.
1. HOW TO BE THANKFUL FOR THE LITTLE THINGS
I am in general, a very grateful person. I give thanks for wonderful weather, job opportunities, being able to travel, loving friends I meet, fancy food I used to get to eat for free as a writer.
But it was only when, for several nights, I was sitting in pitch darkness, because the electricity is out, and my phone about to die – that I come to appreciate how at any time of the day or what weather it is in Singapore, if I flick that switch, the light is going to come on.
It was only when I used a squat toilet for Number Two for more consecutive mornings than my aching knees can handle, that I come to treasure the toilet bowl at home. (No, I am not 50 years old, though sometimes my body acts like it.)
It was only when I had to carry a 20-litre aluminium canister to a water point to get clean water at least once a day, that I come to see the beauty in the clear liquid flowing out with a turn of my tap in my flat.
Knowledge that life in a third-world country is hard, is different from a full-on realisation how good life is in a place like Singapore. I don’t hide the fact that I wish to relocate, but Nepal taught me how to tolerate the negativity in my homeland a little better – by reminding myself of all the good things – before I move on.
2. THE POOR TEND TO BE MORE GENEROUS
I was brought up to be self-preserving, as are many, many Singaporeans – this is why the word kiasu exists. So I was humbled to see how the children shared the little food and toys they had when they could keep it all for themselves. One of the girls, who was a neighbour, had bought one piece of fishball-sized fried dough. (When I returned to the store to buy it for the kids on another day, I learnt that it only costs 5 rupees (SGD$0.07) for two balls!)
Instead of eating it all by herself, she pinched the small, sweet treat into four pieces for her friends, including a share for me. She insisted I take it. Another girl whom I met in the school, tells me about how she feels bad for the homeless that live around the town center, and that she would always give them something whenever she saw them, even if it were the last piece of biscuit she had.
If these children, could give so generously, then what is stopping me, a working adult in a first-world country, from consistently buying a packet from the tissue auntie or dropping a note or two into the cans on flag day?
3. THERE IS NO RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE AMOUNT OF MONEY YOU HAVE AND HOW HAPPY YOU ARE
The villagers were poor. They didn’t have branded clothes and shoes, they didn’t have fancy furniture, they didn’t have a wide variety of cuisines to taste, they didn’t have a car, sometimes the electricity runs out, and there’s no hot water. But they were happy. They grew food off their land and ate it for years without feeling frustrated about the lack of options, ability to buy materialistic goods, or technology. I learnt that happiness can be found easily if you changed your perception of what “happiness” is.
4. IT IS POSSIBLE FOR CHILDREN TO HAVE BIGGER BICEPS THAN YOU
Not much of an elaboration needed here. The children and I ended up comparing biceps one day and their years of toiling on the farm put my gym classes to shame. Moral of the experience? You shouldn’t have to pay that much to exercise.
5. HOW TO BE DIRTY
I am a clean freak. I do not get onto my bed if I have not showered, and every night before I tuck myself in, I wash my feet. I wash my hands several times a day (by this I mean every hour), and if there isn’t a toilet nearby, I’ll use a wet wipe, or heck, dribble some water from my bottle into my hands.
So I was rather uncomfortable in my first week. My hosts would walk with slightly muddy feet into their bedrooms. They picked up dung with their hands, and some of it would touch their clothes – which they would wear to sleep.
There was always grime and dirt everywhere, nothing is ever properly cleaned. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Touch Rugby player, and I have no qualms rolling around in a muddy field – the difference is being able to go home, have a shower and chill out on my spotless sofa.
So what did I do? I learned how to be dirty. I touched dung, I slept on a bed that I shared with a large spider (thankfully he remained at the foot of the bed most of the time), I sat down on dusty, grimy floors and then learnt to sit on my bed wearing the same pair of pants – it would never happen back home. I let my fingers be blackened with dust for hours and even laid down on dirt paths to rest. I couldn’t be 100 per cent comfortable, but I learnt to let go of my attachment to cleanliness and adapted.
6. FARMING IS TRULY BACKBREAKING… BUT IT CAN BE ENJOYABLE
It’s common knowledge that farming is hard work. But you would have no idea how painful it is until you get blisters on your hands from ploughing the field yourself. I harvested potatoes while I was there and every time I have a french fry now, my lower back gets little spasms… Okay, I am exaggerating, but you know what I mean. Funnily, despite all that, the experience cemented my dream for growing my own food one day (no irony intended). Also, ploughing fields = super toned biceps and quads.
7. I FIGURED OUT WHAT I WANT TO DO IN LIFE… SORT OF
And finally, what I’d came out here to do. The lack of a city’s fast-paced buzz gave me time to contemplate my life. The epiphany came slower than expected but I got some answers nonetheless. I realised I needed to be outdoors because I loved nature, and I wanted the next role I take on to allow me to give back to society somehow (so probably a teaching or an instructor position). It would be a bonus if I had the chance to take people overseas. I didn’t even come to the answer of what kind of job I could take but the universe sent it to me several days after I returned from Nepal.
The point is, a break like this in a quiet village gave me the right environment to still the chatter in my mind and ponder without distraction. And at the end of it, I’m glad I put myself through the discomfort to come out a humbled person, with a better idea of what to do with my life.
About the writer:
Ruby Tan used to write for Her World, and is now a freelance writer with a dream to travel the world. She believes that the some of best things in life don’t have to be bought. If you want to make a friend, share travel tips and advice, or even to discuss deeply about life, write to her at email@example.com