One Sunday morning in early May a group of foreigners gathered outside the Ananda Wellness Centre in Thamel, the lively heart of Kathmandu, Nepal. We had journeyed here from our home countries or prior destinations; some having landed in Tribhuvan International Airport the evening before, some having hitchhiked hundreds of kilometres across Myanmar and India. Others, like myself, had resided in Kathmandu for some months. No matter the situation, we had journeyed here with one thing in common – to serve a country that we love.
We trickled in one by one, meeting each other with gentle smiles. There was a sense of nervousness in the air – the kind of feeling that you get when you start your first day of work and you’re met with a room full of strangers. It was an exciting nervousness though, I could sense a kind of similarity amongst us. We were the weird and wonderful, the outcasts; the ones whose feet had trodden a thousand miles. Our dusty backpacks and worn clothes bared remnants of countless adventures, our skins marked with inked pictures of careless moments in time. Meghan, our volunteer coordinator, led us onto the rusty, old Nepali bus. We were about 14 in total.
The ride to camp would be about 4 – 6 hours to the East of Nepal. The region we are headed to is the Sindhupalchok District in central Nepal. Conscious Impact set up headquarters in the rural village of Takure 4 years ago, shortly after a devastating earthquake struck the country killing nearly 9,000 people and injuring nearly 22,000. Located close to the epicentre, all but one of the 245 homes in Takure had been destroyed.
Co-founders Allen Gula and Orion Haas were trekking down from Everest Basecamp at the time of the earthquake in April 2015. With no access to cell service, they were unaware of the extent of the tragedy until reaching local villages where they witnessed the extensive loss of infrastructure and loss of life. Over the course of the subsequent weeks, the pair volunteered their time delivering immediate relief materials to rural communities. During this time, they witnessed an urgent need for a more sustainable, long-term building solution for rural communities whose remote locations bared limited access to building resources. They soon discovered a more sustainable model for rebuilding – Compressed Stabilized Earth Blocks (CSEBs), an idea developed by the Auroville Earth Institute. That year they began building a volunteer camp and community relationships in Takure, with the aim to foster sustainable rebuilding and development in the region.
4 years on, our group of volunteers were on our way to that very camp. Since the beginning, Conscious Impact’s development work has been dependent on a network of compassionate volunteers from all over the world. Volunteer placements run from 10 days to 8 months, with long-term volunteers facilitating the programs almost all year round apart from the monsoon season which runs from July to September. Our group of 14 was the May placement and would be joining the rest of the team at Conscious Impact HQ.
The road to Takure was bumpy, coming at no surprise to any of us who are familiar with the poor road conditions in Nepal. We became acquainted amongst clouds of dust particles and the not so occasional forces of gravity as the bus met large potholes in the road. We stopped off for the last opportunity to buy snacks, access WI-FI and have a coffee in the nearest town, located 45 minutes’ drive from Takure. We were going off the grid, camping amongst the trees and living sustainably in the camp Conscious Impact had created.
Listen to my podcast interview with Beth Huggins, program director at Conscious Impact
The bus stopped along a sandy road above a small path that led to a forested area of land. We disembarked and carried our belongings down the path. Eventually, the trees cleared and we could see views of distant hills. There was a large white teepee alongside one two-storey building which looked to be made from mud and clay. The camp upheld an earthy feel, surrounded by nature. We were greeted by the friendly smiles and embracing hugs of the volunteers that were already living here. I felt safe, an immediate sense of home.
That afternoon we were given a tour of the camp. The area is set up to accommodate community living, everything is sustainable – from the bamboo teepee structure to the clay showers and the compostable toilets. Every product that enters the camp is asked to be biodegradable, and what isn’t is used to make bottle bricks – plastic bottles filled with plastic waste that are then used to build walls in the camp. Conscious Impact’s commitment to sustainability can be seen in many aspects of their mission and values, which is one of the main reasons I was attracted to this opportunity and this cause.
That evening before dark we were assigned to temporary homes. Those who had brought tents were allocated a lot where they could set up camp, and those without were given homes in tents that previous volunteers had donated. I set up my tent in a small area of forest on the lower terrace with views of blue skies, trees and hills. That night I slept soundly to the orchestra of cicadas, in a distant land, in a peaceful state that had been so foreign to me for so long.
I woke inside my tent at sunrise, which was an early 5 AM. I could hear the sounds of birds in the distance amongst an otherwise silent morning. It was a serious shift from waking up in a city of constant stimulation. I undid the door to my tent and was greeted with the view of the green trees, a reminder that I was closer to nature than I had been in a long time.
One of the other volunteers was offering a yoga class at 5:30 AM, so I woke just in time for that. Volunteers are encouraged to bring their creativity and skills into the space, which became more apparent as the week went on. Without access to cell service or electronics, and with a focus on community, there is much more opportunity to be creative and to explore more authentic ways of being. The days of a world without electronics, television or any kind of modern stimulus seem like such a long time ago. I remember as a child I used to play amongst the bugs in the garden, speaking with them like they were my friends. I lost that innocence somewhere. Somewhere on the way to adulthood, as my attention was stolen by the demand to conform in a society that seems to disconnect us from nature. I’ve been drawn, as of late, to find my way back to her. That young, innocuous version of me who frolicked amongst the butterflies, long before the ego and the awareness of self.
Yoga was peaceful. It was on the upper terrace of the main building with views overlooking the hills of Sindhupalchok. I could hear one of the teams in the kitchen below, preparing breakfast for the morning. In total, we were divided into 5 teams, on a 5-day rotating roster. One team would be on breakfast duty, one on breakfast dishes. Another on dinner duty, and one on dinner dishes. The last team would have a day off throughout the rostered week.
My tour leader, Allen, explained to me that the model the camp is sustained by is similar to that of a music festival – having to accommodate for 20 – 50 volunteers at any given time. Volunteers take turns cooking meals, doing dishes, cleaning up communal spaces and teaching workshops. It’s the best way to manage such a large group of people without the need for external resources. And so far, I can see how it works well.
At lunchtime, our meal is cooked by the wonderful Prabati, one of the local staff members here at Conscious Impact. She puts her love into making Dal Bhat every day to help the volunteers restore their energy after a hard morning’s work. Her love for her food and for the people here at camp was evident upon meeting her for the first time, her warm aura lighting up the kitchen. They say that food should always be prepared with love, and here in Nepal it almost always is.
Today was not a normal work day as we were still getting familiarised to our new surroundings. After breakfast one of the lead volunteer coordinators, Beth, took us on the inaugurated tour, explaining everything there was to know about Conscious Impact. We got the chance to explore the village, see some of the constructed earth-block buildings and learn about the organisation’s long-term impact here. Beth’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the operations was so intriguing. I listened as attentively as a child watching their favourite cartoon. I had always been so interested in the development of Nepal, having fallen in love with this country back in 2017. I was emotionally invested.
Before coming on this volunteer assignment I would often research the reasons why it has taken so long to rebuild Nepal. Why, after 4 years, were there still so many homes unfinished? Where did all the international aid go? I wasn’t alone with my questions. As with any extreme natural disaster, people want to see outcomes. But as with any extreme natural disaster, it is much more complex than what is on the surface. Listening to Beth’s words about sustainable development in Nepal unravelled some of the complexities for me. I learned about the unstable political situation that has plagued the county for decades and the complex cultural structures and geographical constraints that hinder relief efforts. I started to comprehend the bigger picture here, and why Conscious Impact’s collaborative sustainable development work is so important.
We walked up the dusty road into the heart of Takure. The roads are hardly roads – rather, eroded sand and dirt that have been shaped out of the hills. Getting any sort of building resources to these areas would prove to be quite a difficult task. Along the sides of the roads are shanty structures with tin roofs, goats graze in the shade alongside buffalos and chickens. A small child wearing dusty, worn clothes plays out the front of the structure waving at us with a friendly “Namaste”. I imagine what life is like for them; much simpler than where we are from. But a child wouldn’t know any different. She would have been no different to that version of me frolicking in the garden without a care in the world. We are unaware and unfazed about the world we are born into during this period of our lives. It’s a beautifully impermanent time in our beautifully imperfect lives.
During the walk, Beth explained more about the infrastructure projects. We visit some of the homes that have been rebuilt using earth blocks. Conscious Impact chose this type of building technology because it requires the use of natural resources that are available locally. This means less need for transportation and less cost. Plus, they are a more sustainable way to build in comparison to the red bricks that are fired in a kiln, omitting excessive carbon into the air. We get the chance to see homes that are completely finished, and homes that are in construction. Amongst this, we also see remnants of homes that are going to be built using red bricks. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of persuasions to convince families here to use earth bricks. During the earthquake that destroyed 99% of homes here, the only few that did stand were made of red brick. Hence, the local’s commitment to building this way. Fortunately, some families have faith in the effect that Conscious Impact is trying to make here and have been cooperative in the program.
After a quick stop at the centre of town and the only place to buy any kind of familiar snack, we stock up on some Snickers and Sprite and head back to camp. It was a long afternoon under the hot May sun and so we all took the chance to relax before starting our first official day of work.
The working day begins at 8:15 AM after breakfast at 7. The evening prior, volunteers can sign up to any activity they feel like with a preferred number of individuals needed for each task. The tasks are a mix of heavy and lighter work – anything from moving bricks, digging holes for trees to be planted, bagging the soil for coffee production or cobbing and plastering the new buildings. I signed up for brick moving on the first day considering there were many bricks to me moved. To explain brick moving in more detail – the bricks are made here at Conscious Impact and left to dry. Once they are ready to use they need to be transported to the area of land where the construction happens. It requires quite a lot of manpower to load these 11kg bricks on to a truck and then unload them again. In some cases, the building site is not accessible by road. On this particular brick moving day, the building site was located about 100 metres from the road, up a hill. Hence the need for manpower.
We are guided to the brick area where pallets of bricks are lined up ready to be transported into the truck. The 20 of us were ready for work, with our worn clothes and working gloves. Little did I know how physical this work was going to be. We manoeuvred ourselves into a chain so that each person helped to pass the bricks closer to the truck. The locals positioned themselves in the back of the truck to ensure the bricks would be stacked appropriately. The Bose was blaring an energetic soundtrack of old school and new age hits. Everyone was ready for a tough, but fun, morning. One by one we threw the bricks to each other. Some stood behind as a substitute for when anyone got tired. “Anyone want to swap out?” one of the volunteers would yell as they took over a spot in the line. We worked like a football team, or even better – like a colony of ants, each playing a role in this rather laborious task. The first 10 minutes was fine. “I got this” I thought. I think I had underestimated the fact that I hadn’t participated in this kind of physically demanding labour in, perhaps, forever. I tired easily but kept pushing forward. As each of us tired out we would step in for the other. We were a team now, no man left behind. Within the first hour, one truck was full and ready to be transported to the village. Half the volunteers jumped in the back of the truck and headed into town. The rest of us moved the remaining bricks into a second truck. Beads of sweat dripped down our foreheads. My muscles were already starting to spasm. All I could think about was how the locals manage to do this daily, another example of the resilience of the Nepali people.
Dusty, tired and motivated we got ready for the next and most difficult part of this morning – moving these bricks off the truck and up an incline. We took our positions from the truck which was located on the road and up towards the home. Soon after we realised we needed more manpower. There were breaks in the line that were too far to throw an 11kg brick. Locals started to approach us and fill in our human chain. Both women and men joined. A man, who wouldn’t have been younger than 70, hopped into the truck and started passing the bricks into the chain. The sense of community warmed my heavily pounding heart as I watched these people come together both physically and soulfully. It was in those moments I saw what Conscious Impact stand for, and what the world could be like if we put a higher focus on the sense of community.
We were exhausted as we piled into the back of the now empty truck. Our skins were covered in dust – the locals joke about this being the Nepali fake tan, that shade of orangey brown you turn after a spray tan. Despite the fact our bodies were aching and we were completely parched, we laughed and smiled the whole rickety ride back to camp. Never have I worked so hard in my entire life, and this was only day 1 of the working week.
Luckily, for me, the rest of the week wasn’t as difficult. I couldn’t physically muster up the strength to brick move for the consecutive days, but some of the other volunteers did. I witnessed these compassionate humans put their body, heart and soul into this place. Whether it was through extreme physical labour or just pure love, every day we would take our assigned tasks and simply show up. Show up for a cause we cared so much about. If some people weren’t able to show up in one way, they would show up in another. Beth always stressed that we put in what we can, but take time out when we need.
The days were full and fulfilling. Each morning we would eat breakfast together, then meet for work. At lunch Prabati put her love into the Dal Bhat that restored our daily energy. In the afternoons we would take our second shift and then every evening at 6 PM, except Fridays, we would gather in the teepee for gratitude. This was one of my favourite parts of the day. Each person was encouraged to speak about what they were grateful for that day, and so we went around the room each evening and shared our deepest of gratitude. It was a humbling experience, a small journey inwards to acknowledge all the wonderful things that had been happening. Not only at the present moment, but moments that led to this one. Some days we were grateful for our bodies for bringing us here, some days we were grateful for the connections we made with one another. Many days we were grateful for food. In fact, we were always grateful for the food! Other days we were grateful for the rain that cooled the warmer days and gave the plants some life, or the community of Takure for their resilience and drive for change. It was always a heartfelt end to a hard day’s work.
As the week progressed we grew from friends to family. The sense of nervousness was but a distant memory and although we had only known each other for a week the connections between us could have been passed for people that had been friends for life. On a personal level, I felt like I could really be myself here. The real me – the creative, vulnerable, open, weird and genuine version of myself that I feel takes a back seat when I am living my other life. This place and the people here were essentially everything I could ever want the world to be – an equation of love, vulnerability, compassion and kindness, versus an equation of fear, greed, hatred and indifference. Call me a dreamer but I envision it, one day over a perfect rainbow.
After a week full of service, we had accomplished so much. Bricks were moved to build 2 separate homes and a second story of the orphanage. The coffee co-operative building was plastered and ready to fit out the interior to be used for the farmers to hold meetings about coffee production. Thousands of coffee bags were ready to be seeded in time for the monsoon rains. We worked hard and we played hard, with a mixture of morning yoga, jam sessions, pizza baking, kombucha brewing, visits to the local tea shop and one very memorable ecstatic dance on the rooftop in the midst of a storm that never came.
My last day was an emotional one, as it is for many that leave this sacred space. My heart was full of gratitude, inspiration and love for these individuals and for this whole project. I had come here to serve a country I loved and left with so much more than I could have ever imagined. I left with optimism though, knowing that many more people will walk these steps after me; that many more trees will be planted and many more homes rebuilt. That Conscious Impact will continue to plant their seeds of compassion for people and the planet in the hearts of many more.
Watch the full story over on my Instagram under the Conscious Impact highlights.