“WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?” MY FRIEND ASKED ME FROM ACROSS THE TABLE.
I PONDERED THIS FOR A PROLONGED SECOND, MY FINGERS CLENCHED, TETHERED TO MY PALM.
“I want to be completely and truly uncomfortable.”
It was a wildly unsophisticated idea. I decided that the summer after my sophomore year of college was going to be about independence and plunging into the unknown. Up until then, I had been stuck in this relative comfort zone. I was bored; learning the same things, feeling lost in a ghastly maze of college ennui. I woke up wanting something moving – something profound and irradiant – to come along and challenge me.
I applied to work as a volunteer with International NGO, Volunteer Nepal. I was going alone in search of remote village work, devoid of any substantial knowledge about Nepali culture or language. I would be there for five weeks. I just kept telling myself: “Be adventurous, seek that newness you so desperately want. Be brave and do good.”
The profound and uncomfortable that I sought, I found. Even on my way to the volunteer house, I was overwhelmed by the noxious scents, dirt roads, and seemingly infinite sea of people that existed in this fantastically foreign place. The city resembled a Lego town – a brightly colored smorgasbord of crooked buildings. We stayed in a neighborhood called Dhapasi, a tightly packed hamlet with looming mountains on all sides, swirling monsoon clouds draping the tempestuous skies and slopes.
I spent a day and a half settling in, getting a feel for the place and visiting some Buddhist temples. Part of me loved being in an exotic place; yet another part of me couldn’t shake an anxious feeling I had. What did I really have to offer the children that I would be working with in the orphanage? I traveled to Nepal seeking the “uncomfortable,” but in the end I was just looking for a holistic experience to shake me to the core.
The first time I met the girls at Papa’s House, one of the children’s homes of the organization, was on the third day of my Nepali experience. I was incredibly nervous. The kids came to the gate to greet the volunteers and, though they dragged us inside, they watched us with shy apprehension. Noticing some of the girls blowing bubbles, I approached them and gingerly popped one. Once this tenuous bond was formed, I was welcomed into games of basketball and Simon Says with the limited Nepali and English we all knew. My own nervousness slowly faded, and each giggle or pat I earned from one of the girls removed me further and further from the foreignness of the connection.
I was particularly taken aback when Jeni, one of the girls, began singing a familiar song. “This is real,” she chirped in a singsong murmur before fading out. I paused and faced the group gathered around me. Suddenly, with dramatic flourish, I put my hands in the air. “This is real, this is me, I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be now!” I sang, in a shocking moment of recall from my middle school years when I watched Disney Channel’s “Camp Rock” for the first time, the duet in the end by Demi Lovato. The girls stared at me with wide eyes.
Then, suddenly, they dissolved into a flurry of Nepali before one snatched my hand and sat me down in the grass.
This was my cue to continue. I managed to sing the lyrics I still remembered from the movie I had watched as a child. The girls were enthralled, and more and more of them slowly made their way toward our little circle in the grass. It had become quite a spectacle.
I crowed my way into a sing-along. All my fears, my superficial notions, my grandiose ideas of finding the exotic disconnect from my own world had been simplified as I sat in a circle singing Demi Lovato from the Disney Channel. I saw the line between American and Nepali blur into this wonderful family that I grew to love and laugh with.
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?
I think every traveler experiences an out-of-body sensation when abroad. What bridges this feeling is finding the familiar in the new.
There, in Nepal, I found what my soul unconsciously yearned for: a strange and beautiful draw in the landscapes, the violet sunsets and the mystery of shadows draped around the mountains at night when lightning illuminated the valley. There, I found something to quell the restlessness in my spirit; but I also found that the uncomfortable and the foreign mixed seamlessly into my feeling truly connected with the children I worked with.
Truthfully, there is nothing foreign about Nepal. I used to view travel as a safari for my hopes and thrills, but it took this experience to make me realize that traveling shouldn’t accentuate the foreignness of a place – it should seek to synthesize all that is new with the familiar. I found a deep joy in working with the orphanage, but I was being stimulated in a challenging way outside my comfort zone. We may not share the same culture or language, but we share a commonality in the human experience: love, joy, and affection.
But truly, how strange it was that while I went seeking to feel uncomfortable, reconciling what is beautiful, absurd, and gratifying all at the same time was inexplicably simple: watching these girls sing Camp Rock with me, sitting in the grass halfway across the world. I smile to myself just thinking about it, now a world away once more.