“Kathmandu? That’s brave.” This was a common response when people learnt of our destination. We didn’t think so. At least not at first.
My husband Rupert had trained and worked in Sustainable Agriculture and together we wanted to do something useful. We researched Nepal with a two month visit pre-children, and planned to return once a job could be set up.
Annie was 18 months old when we set out as a family. In 2000 we committed to a 3 year term in the mountainous mid-west region, accessible only by light aircraft. Rupert would teach at a technical school and we would be in a team with other expats. We were sponsored by Interserve, a Christian organisation that seeks to bring practical help where needed around the world.
Family and friends gathered at Heathrow to see us off. Thankfully Annie didn’t shed a tear and was the perfect distraction, riding on trollies and climbing on piles of luggage.
After a 13 hour flight we landed in Kathmandu. It was dark and Annie was sleepy, unaware of the significance of it all. Libby, an Australian teacher, met us at the airport and drove us across the city. Her daughter Ruth was Annie’s age and they were soon to be firm friends.
We awoke the next day to brilliant October sunshine and vibrant colours in our new garden. This is a beautiful time of year in the Indian sub-continent, with the monsoon humidity and deluges past. A short walk away from our temporary accomodation were views of the Himalayas. Spotting ‘pink mountains’ when the sun was setting soon became a favourite activity for Annie.
Annie quickly adapted to her new environment. The distance meant nothing to her; we were her security. For her, normality was having Mummy and Daddy there. Her body clock took a couple of weeks to adjust properly and the customary teething didn’t help. Nonetheless, we were amazed at just how portable she was – it seemed that we alone were her definition of home.
The practicalities of living meant we had to get out and meet people; the daily grocery shop enabled us to meet the same locals as part of our routine. Annie was always given treats by shopkeepers – bananas, lollipops and drinks. Life was a big adventure for her; Nepalis love children and she was treated like a celebrity. People would stop and ask us if they could take her photo – whether in the street, at the zoo or in a restaurant. All this social contact was perfect for my early language learning. Toddlers love imitation and Annie picked up the “Namaste” greeting almost immediately, charming everyone she met.
We soon began a 5 month language study course, based in Kathmandu. A didi (Nepali helper) was found for childcare while I had lessons. Annie and I both struggled with this; in time I left the classroom for the LAMP method (language acquisition made practical). A teacher would work out useful phrases with me at home where Annie could play with her didi more contentedly.
At that time the project in Jumla where we were heading was attacked. 500 Maoists destroyed the offices and the project was closed. Although sad for the team there I was relieved that we would not be in such a remote location. We discovered flexibility is needed on an almost daily basis in Nepal. Days later Rupert was given an advisory role in Kathmandu.
We moved into a flat on the edge of the city and watched as the surrounding rice fields were dug by hand. The locals enjoyed watching us too – often a head would appear over the wall when we were enjoying the garden. Westerners can be something of a curiosity and a thick skin is beneficial.
Annie and I promptly found plenty of expat company in the form of toddler groups and coffee mornings. We sometimes hosted these at home, taking turns on a rota. Nursery education was available and older children were well catered for at the British School, a short walk away.
We were keen to make Nepali friends too. The acceptance of the Nepali people was a major highlight for all of us. Nepalis invest time in relationships and are not so driven by goals and achievements. Their warmth and hospitality were inspirational.
In October 2001 Madeline was born back in the UK. Medical facilities were limited in Kathmandu and we didn’t want to take any risks. Many expats fly to Thailand for childbirth and other medical procedures. We returned to Kathmandu when Madeline was six weeks old. She was a breastfed baby and clearly thriving. The locals would ask what we fed her on and were astonished. (Many babies are sick in Nepal because mothers think infant formula is best. Often it is made up with unclean water and the consequences are dire). “Kosto Moto!”, “How fat!” they would remark with admiration.
Our girls are proud of their early childhood. They love the novelty of having found monkeys in trees, appeared on a national tv advert and spoken in a foreign language. Yet for us this was not to be a permanent move. Annie failed to gain weight as she should have, despite a healthy diet. While Madeline was devouring her papaya puree Annie was baffling the doctors. The Maoist insurgency reached a peak during our time there and instability was the norm. The Royal Massacre and the ensuing violence in the city alarmed loved ones back home.
Slowly and with some sadness we became aware that three years would be long enough. It was an enriching time in many ways and we gained far more than we gave. We were challenged by immense generosity and kindness and have no regrets over having gone. Stepping away from British culture for a time and all we had grown up with was at times painful . Yet without it we would always have wondered what might have been.