On October 12 2013, 16 Seva supporters gathered in Kathmandu Nepal for 16 days of sightseeing and visiting Seva in action.
I had the privilege of joining the group, our two wonderful tour leaders, Rob and Aili from Finisterra Adventure Travel, and our local guide Naben, to see the spectacular tourist sights in central Nepal and then travel across the country to far west Nepal, where tourists typically don’t go. Despite our first few days in pounding rains caused by a recent cyclone in India, a handful of marathon driving days, and a cough that slowly spread across our whole tour bus, our group was completely committed and eager to see and participate in the work of restoring the sight of some of the poorest people in the world.
Our visit coincided with the festival of Dashain, a very unique time to see Nepal. Many shops and restaurants were closed as Nepalis returned to their family homes to receive blessings from their elders. As a result the normally busy bustling Kathmandu was very nearly peaceful and made for a lovely place for a city stroll. We had the unique opportunity to see bewilderingly long lines of Nepalis entering temples for special blessings, and see evidence of festival ceremonies all around us, and receive our own tikkas (special marks on the forehead) along the way.
In Kathmandu we visited Seva Nepal’s head office to meet 2 of Seva’s 3 Nepali staff members – Parami and Shravan. They told us all about their incredible work, and they honoured us with our first taste of gracious Nepali hospitality, giving us white scarves and delicious milk tea.
We spent the next few days visiting some of the top tourist destinations in Nepal – Bhaktapur, Nagarkot and Pokara, enjoying lovely accommodations and soaking in the atmosphere before moving on to the more challenging part of our trip in our mission to see the work of Seva in Nepal. Our challenges would be the physical terrain, the air quality and the food that did not always agree with us, but all this would make it possible for us to see Seva in action, and understand better the beauty and the challenges of the land that the Nepali people call home. It was worth the challenge!
Our first Seva program stop was in the town of Tansen in the hilly district, where we were joined by Seva Canada Program Director Dr. Ken Bassett and Seva Nepal Program Manager, Kandel, to visit Palpa Lions Eye Hospital. This eye hospital was the very first one established in the hilly region of Nepal and today it is also a teaching facility for ophthalmic assistants, nurses and doctors, and female health volunteers. There we were greeted by the local NNJS, which is a volunteer committee that helps to govern the hospital. The involvement of the local community was a theme we noticed in all of Seva’s work, and we grew to understand the importance of this key component of a successful eye care program.
The community members joined us for a dinner of dal bhat at a local restaurant and our Seva portion of the trip was off to a great start.
The next day was a long drive to Gulmi Primary Eye Care Centre where we visited an eye camp. On the way we heard stories from Kandel, ranging from such topics as his first experience using an ATM, to the time a patient proposed marriage to him after he removed her bandages and she could see. It was a wonderful way to while away the hours watching the spectacularly beautiful scenery as our bus edged along the narrow winding roads, guided by our masterful driver Manesh and his assistant (and brother) Kamal.
The eye camp was a marvelous and intense experience. The local volunteer NNJS group greeted us, gave us an informative presentation about their work, and then provided us with a hearty lunch. Afterward, we got into scrubs to view a sight-restoring cataract surgery in the field. Kandel helped us chat with the patients so we could learn more about their lives and the long journeys they had made in blindness, traveling great distance with the hope to have their sight restored for free by the compassionate, humble and talented Nepali ophthalmologist Dr. Nanda.
After the eye camp we were on our way to Bharatpur, Kandel’s home and the home of Seva’s current area of focus in Nepal, Bharatpur Eye Hospital. We were welcomed into Kandel’s home for tea with his beautiful wife. There we met his water buffalo, Luti IV, and got a peek into everyday Nepali life. We all felt truly privileged to have this experience that few tourists ever receive.
The next morning we were met at Bharatpur Eye Hospital with great fanfare. Local volunteers, philanthropists, doctors, staff and medical director Dr. Kardka met us to walk us through the planned transformation of the hospital into a tertiary facility. The entire local community was supportive of the plan to provide high quality, high volume, low cost comprehensive eye care to an all-Nepali population of about 2.5 million people. It is located in an area of Nepal that people will travel to for care – from the hills to the plains.
The transformation of this hospital is a major funding priority for Seva Canada and because of the generosity of donors on our trip, the first phase of this transformation will become a reality.
After Bharatpur we traveled to Lumbini, the first eye care facility in Nepal that Seva helped establish. There we met Dr. Salma, a Nepali ophthalmologist who spent a year in Canada to study. She is now head of the hospital. The hospital serves a huge number of people – patients lined the walls and occupied every inch of free space, each being evaluated in turn. Some spilled out onto the concourse, waiting and hoping for sight.
After our 4 days of driving and program visitation we bid farewell to Ken and Kandel and visited the birthplace of the Buddha in Lumbini. After that we made our long trip to Bardia National Park where we spent 3 days relaxing, exploring the local Tharu villages, and trying our best to spy a tiger. There were a couple of rhino sightings, elephants, birds and many many monkeys, but sadly the tigers evaded us.
Our final stop on our tour before returning to Kathmandu was in far west Nepal – Geta Eye Hospital. The border town of Dhangadi was not the most scenic stop on our trip, but Geta Eye Hospital itself was spectacular in ways much more important than physical beauty. We met the inspiring, prolific surgeon Dr. Pant, director of this impressive facility and program which serves a large population of both Indians and Nepalis – and most of the Nepalis it serves are very, very poor. We had the unique privilege to observe Dr. Pant in surgery as well – an amazing sight, as he is so efficient that he can perform up to 300 cataract surgeries in a day.
That same day, Ramesh, Geta’s outreach coordinator accompanied us to see the Female Community Health Worker training program, a crucial part of ensuring the most marginalized and isolated people in Nepal are referred for the care they need. Some of these remarkable women invited us into their homes, dressed us in their traditional Tharu clothing, and giggled with us as we connected in our shared work for sight, despite our lack of Nepalese language and their limited English.
Finally it was time to return to Kathmandu, where we stayed in a beautiful Tibetan style hotel for our last two days together. Our trip started and finished with Nepal’s national dish, dal bhat, a humble but delicious plate of rice, lentils and an assortment of curried, pickled and otherwise cooked veggies.
As it came time to say goodbye we exchanged hugs knowing that we were now bonded together in our shared appreciation of the hard working, strong Nepali people, and our own work to bring them the sight they need and deserve.