Thank God It's Friday

13th August 2004 at 01:00
Monday We board the sleeper train from Delhi to Goktapur while it's in motion. It seems that leaping on to the doorframe and hauling yourself inside is standard procedure. My fellow travellers and I push our way through three overcrowded carriages, bumping into people constantly, until we finally make it to our bunks.

Tuesday We cross the Nepalese border at Senali and arrive in the middle of a transport strike. This means an expensive seven-hour jeep ride to Kathmandu, with a driver who spends our food stop slugging whisky.

Nepal is beautiful. Jimi Hendrix blasting out of the jeep stereo enhances the experience. The trees are vibrant green; the soil, shocking red. Nature here is very much alive. But the four or five burnt-out buses we pass en route are a wake-up call. They stand silently on the edge of the road, a sudden symbol of death, and a reminder that I'm in a country experiencing civil war.

Wednesday I go to the Centre for Education, Research and Volunteering (CERV) in Nepal, where I meet some inspiring people, including Paul, a 25-year-old volunteer from New Zealand who's sold everything to come here.

He designs shelters for people affected by natural disasters.

CERV Nepal is part of the Global Volunteer Network. Volunteers take part in a variety of projects, although most opt to teach English. They live with local families and, if the village needs something (a drainage or garbage disposal system, for example), they can set up a project on their own initiative and round up fellow volunteers to put it into action.

On the way to a book fair, I find myself in the middle of a Maoist demonstration with marchers holding high red flags bearing the communist hammer and sickle. But when they pass certain policeman, some of them quickly turn and walk in the opposite direction, bringing their banners to their chests to hide them.

Thursday The Nepalese people are so generous. I'm in a clothes shop for no more than five minutes and suddenly I'm offered tea and lunch. Most Nepalese eat Dhal bhat twice a day. It's a huge plate of rice, lentils, boiled veg and a few other side dishes, and is topped up before you've finished your first portion. Tradition has it that you eat with your right hand. It's a difficult technique, and I synchronise mouthfuls with my companions, so they're less likely to notice when I drop some.

Friday My volunteer pass gets me into Durbar Square, where I see some amazing ornate temples. A local called Raj takes us to a restaurant where we exchange alphabets and find that if you can read the Nepali menu (not the translated version), the food costs less.

Saturday A friend and I hire a motorbike for 300 rupees (pound;2.23) and head off to Bistachap, one of CERV Nepal's volunteer placements. We are welcomed heartily by Debaki, my friend's designated Nepali mother. Eight months pregnant and she's cooking, cleaning, looking after the children and the goats - and still beaming.

Sunday I spend my first night in a mud hut. I've forgotten to buy mosquito coils and keep hearing that fateful buzzing. I hide under my blanket, get too hot and come back out, hear the buzzing again - a vicious circle. It's the first of three days of wedding celebrations. Two brothers are marrying two sisters. They will not meet until the ceremony. There are strange rituals of stamping on fruit and waving money above people's heads; it's all about good karma. Bright colours, swirling saris and sleeping on rooftops underneath the stars. I could get used to this.

Kiri Crequer was a volunteer with The Centre for Education, Research and Volunteering in Nepal (CERV Nepal) during her gap year. PO Box 15142 KPC 589, Kathmandu, Nepal. Email: serve_nepal@wlink.com.np. She will study English at Liverpool University next term

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