During my time in Nepal, I saw the sun rise over the Himalayas and set over the mountains bordering India. I felt the summer sun and monsoon rain toil with my skin, and I let black smog coat my face just to feel the breeze as we raced through mountain highways. I watched lightning dance over Bharatpur and Kathmandu to the rhythm of angry thunder. I let native music pierce my soul, and I danced in the candlelight to salsa, rock n roll, and raindrops.
I fell in love.
I realized I was in deep after a walk through the jungle of Sauraha, the area of the national park in Chitwan. My volunteer group took a canoe down the Rapti River that afternoon, went on foot the rest of the day, and came back by jeep to a spot where we could see the sunset. The clouds blocked out the sun, but it didn’t matter. It was twilight, and the world was begging to be photographed. I walked to the edge of the mound we had climbed and faced the water and the valley down below, the jungle and the mountains touching the sky.
Our guide for the weekend, Jaya, approached me and asked, “What do you like?”
The only answer I had was, “Everything.” I felt the same warmth in my chest that I did the first time I fell in love with a person. This time it was for a place and people.
Jaya smiled, his gentle grin and dimples unforgettable. He told me to come back once monsoon season was over, when the valley would be filled with animals and the sunset would be visible from this spot. During that time, he was going to cross the border with Indian on foot, trekking through the mountains. When I wished him luck on his journey, he asked me to come with him. I wish I could have said yes. Instead, I could only make a promise to see him again in the winter or spring of some year to come.
I took a photo of those mountains, the falling sun turning them to shadow, canoes floating on the Rapti River in the foreground, and another one of Jaya, gazing at this scene, pink and orange clouds hanging above him. I felt a need to capture this moment and never let it go.
I created thousands of memories in Nepal. I remember how clouds shifted forms of dueling gods and singing angels, the way dilapidated buildings seemed to rival the sunset and forest with their bright colors and earth tones, and the sounds of nature battling against car horns and motorcycle rumbles.
I remember the strange smell of the hospitals, like spoiled fruit and fresh blood. I can still see the faces of patients, eyes full of hope from seeing a foreigner in a lab coat, shyly uttering “namaskaar,” and I remember wanting to one day deserve that look, to provide the help they expected from me. I would give anything to heal the man with staples running down his neck, the baby with leukemia who looked especially small while sleeping on a large hospital bed, or the numerous patients diagnosed with tuberculosis.
I remember every medical procedure, every patient file, every laboratory test I studied with eager curiosity. I bonded with the doctors, who worked with stunning efficiency and provided me with thorough explanations of their work, and with the medical students and nurses, who showed me their notes and answered my stupid questions. I admired the doctor in OPD as she swiftly diagnosed 56 patients back to back within three hours, and I was stunned by the strength of a nurse who had to push an entire x-ray machine into the neurosurgery ward. I realized how deeply poverty impacts every part of a Nepali’s life when I saw the overcrowded, understaffed community hospital.
I learned the most in the bacteriology lab at Chitwan Medical College Teaching Hospital. I remember how the laboratory senior would look frustrated for a split second before laughing off one of his students’ errors, like breaking glass slides or spilling blood agar; I was thankful to him for guiding me through every step and detail of his work, treating me with respect no matter how little I seemed to know, and for making me feel welcome to laugh and sing alongside the group. I finally learned my blood type, A positive, because he did the test for me; I blushed when he teased me for having the same blood type as him. I shared a medical student’s textbook by reading over his shoulder, and I turned numerous shades of red when he read through my notes, even though he called them “very impressive.” I realized that I finally found the place in a hospital where I belong, laboratory medicine, and after a week of witnessing poverty and learning about disease in third world countries, I became highly motivated to achieve a place in such a laboratory.
I was happiest when seeing the smiling faces of Nepali children, even though I embarrassed myself when teaching them about dental hygiene by acting out a scene in which I brushed my teeth for “dui” (two) whole minutes, “dui” times. I loved seeing my fellow volunteers, other staff members, and even our badass driver light up at the sight of the children playing “Tooth Tooth Brush,” our own variation of “Duck Duck Goose”. I remember the feeling of more than 20 tiny hands grabbing at my own from outside the car window as we slowly drove off. I remember contemplating what their lives are like outside of school, if they have to beg like that little boy in the marketplace, or if they suffer from lesser forms of poverty.
These moments, these images and sensations and sounds, are ingrained in my mind. Some are made to last by pictures or videos, scribbles in a notebook, but most have to be carried within my soul. And that is fine. There is a beauty in creating permanence out of the abstract.
I fell in love with Nepal. But this is just a first love. Nepal awakened a new spirit within me, thirsty for adventure and determined to heal the world. I want to visit every corner of the Earth. Still, as it is with all first loves, Nepal will always hold a special place in my heart. I need to return.