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Volunteer Programs in Nepal

Himalayan Lights

Trek to Remote Areas, Install Solar Power

By Bryan Newman

Volunteer in Nepal with Himalyan Lights
Helumbu Monks with their newly erected solar lighting rig.

Following what I can only call an inner voice, I bought a non-refundable plane ticket, packed a bag, and made the long journey from North Carolina to Kathmandu, Nepal for a six month stay in the heart of the Himalayas. I had planned to teach English in a village school, but one week before my departure, I met, via email, a rather exceptional ex-pat fellow.

Adam Friedensohn, along with his Nepalese wife, Sapana Shakya, has run the Himalayan Light Foundation (HLF), a solar and alternative technology NGO, in Kathmandu for nearly a decade. He proposed that I begin my trip with HLF’s popular “Solar Sisters” program, which combines diverse issues such as social justice, sustainability and Buddhist ethics into a unique cross-cultural experience for foreign travelers. Ultimately, the program is a way to constructively share some of our accumulated western capital, while opening the eyes of participants to a world they know little about, without relying on the clichés of tourism or charity.

Solar Sisters volunteers spend between ten days and two weeks in either Nepal, Bhutan or Sri Lanka, where they donate and install a solar lighting package for a community in need, often in a remote village setting and always alongside the community members. In Nepal, HLF’s solar systems provide clean, renewable light in areas once dependent on scarce and expensive petroleum or scarce (and quickly disappearing) firewood—nearly fifty percent of the nation’s forests have been cut down in the wake of its population boom of the past half century.

Upon arrival, Solar Sisters volunteers choose their installation site from a list of villages that have requested a system. As the installation must serve some immediate community function, common locations include rural health clinics, monasteries and schools.

By my third morning in Kathmandu, I had chosen my site: the remote Lhakang Tibetan Buddhist monastery located in Nepal’s mountainous Helumbu district. I was to travel to the monastery first by SUV and then by foot for three days, spending five days on the installation itself and then another three getting back to the city. Within a few days, I set off with an installation team that included an engineer and a talented young chettri man named Suprabhat.

Most roads in Nepal end within a short distance from Kathmandu, and we traveled only a few hours by car before setting off on foot, accompanied additionally by a local guide and a team of three porters carrying solar panels, fluorescent lights and solar batteries in big wicker baskets on their backs. For two days, we snaked our way around valleys and gorges, crossing rushing white rivers by bridge and passing silent, ancient mountains. At lunch we stopped at the mud and brick homes of sherpa farming families, eating meals of fresh hard-boiled eggs or potato curries. At night we stayed in cozy, simple trailside guesthouses where we were served heaping portions of dhal bhat—lentils and rice—before resting for the evening under thick yak wool blankets. After three days of travel, we arrived at the hidden Lhakang valley just hours after a snowfall. The cold temperatures and pristine mountain air invigorated our weary bodies.

During our brief stay in the valley, I became remarkably close to several of the resident monks, laughing and joking with them in ways that somehow transcended the language barrier between us. Through translators, I learned that the monks of Lhakang were in various stages of a rigorous three-year meditation retreat, and a majority of their time was spent meditating or reading religious texts under the inadequate, dirty light of tiny kerosene burners. The consequences were not surprising: a number of the monks had developed painful eye inflammations—which could lead to permanent blindness—from long exposure to the filthy gases.

On our second day in the valley, working together with the monks, we hoisted the two large photovoltaic panels onto long wooden poles, which had been felled earlier that morning by a skilled Bhutanese Lama. With the panels up and the batteries secured in homemade, plastic-lined wooden boxes, we began to connect the lights. We had enough supplies to wire both the main temple building and one residence hall with bright fluorescent lights, ensuring an end to the use of the hazardous burners and imported kerosene for at least a portion of Lhakang’s population.

On my last day in the valley, I was invited into one of the monastery’s shrine rooms where a small puja was being held. Between sips of salty yak butter tea, community members blessed the solar panels and the foreigner who had come to deliver them. Sitting cross-legged on the floor that morning, listening to the beautiful chanting voices of my new friends, it was obvious that I too was on the receiving end of this gift exchange.

For more information about the Solar Sisters program, or any of the other programs run by the Himalayan Light Foundation, please check out www.hlf.org.np.

Bryan Newman lives in Carrboro, NC.

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