It’s just after 4am as I squat on the low stone wall overlooking the Moonlight Community Healthcare Center. To the east the sun is slowly burning it’s way through a blanket of clouds, giving form to distant mountains and illuminating the already-buzzing rice terraces and villages in between. The slightest wisp of wind puffs against my brow and the faint chorus of a waking family chimes in from somewhere nearby.
I drink in the solitude, inhaling deeply the fresh mountain air and burning the beauty of the scene deep into my mind, knowing that- for today, at least- there will be few quiet moments. As I turn my gaze to the bright-green, L-shaped building cut into the hill on my left my mind starts to wander through the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the past 18 months. Eventually, it settles on a crisp autumn day back in 2012, at the very same spot. Back then the stone wall carreened further along the edge of a bare, sloping parcel of land- prime real estate in anyone’s book. On that day I stood between two men who (although I didn’t know it then), would become closer than brothers and would change my life forever.
The lilting, almost musical voice of Santosh Koirala trailed through my memory. “Ah, Mr. Nathan I want to tell you one thing,” he pronounced, “It is my very big dream that one day we will have a hospital for the poor people of my village right here”. He stared directly into my eyes and emphasised the last word with a loosely bent finger stabbing at the ground. “This is our very great goal, and we must work hard”. In my memory of that day I can also clearly see Sushant Dahal- all of 20 years old at the time- nodding in silent, purposeful agreement. Over the ensuing years I would come to realise in spades that Sushant’s wisdom and measured nature surpassed others three times his age. “Yep, it’s gonna be hard work,” he stated, “Not just the building, also everything afterwards.” Almost as an afterthought, he added, “But I think we can do it between us”. Drifting back to the present, suddenly reminding myself that the official opening of the MCHC was just a few short hours away, I’m not afraid to admit wiping a stream of silent tears from my eyes. Tears of pride. Tears of joy. Tears of friendship, of heartfelt love, of frustration and despair. Tears of pain, of longing, of heartache, helplessness, uncertainty, inadequacey, fear, embarrassment, empathy and compassion. All the emotions of the past 18 months pured forth. But most of all, tears of thanks. Thanks that – after all we’d been through – we now stood on the precipice of realising our dream. ‘Better to get those tears out now than in front of the whole village‘, I think to myself and shove off into the ensuing madness of our opening day.
Trying to describe the opening of the MCHC in words is a bit like trying to qantify the beauty of birth, or love, or friendship; simply put: there are no words that fully encapsulate such intense, unbelieveable experiences. Not unlike such events there were sustained periods of profound joy, unabashed emotion and beautiful encounters. However there was also a balance (especially when seen through Western eyes), of pure bewilderment, complete mayhem and sheer physical pain. In reality, the ‘opening’ of the center had begun almost a week earlier when a group of seven foreigners (myself, plus six fantastic volunteers), six interpreters and a host of support staff and Nepali family crammed into three rickety Jeeps for the long, hot, dusty journey to Kerasawara. In the light of pre-dawn we packed those jeeps to breaking-point with personal gear, medical equipment, supplies and presents for the villagers. Over the ensuing week our team worked tirelessly to prepare the MCHC for it’s biggest day. Our tasks were many and varied- often as far from the medical work that we had come to perform as can be imagined. On a tiny speck of land below the center we hand-carved a helicopter landing pad in readiness for the arrival of dignitaries. Passing villagers stopped, mouths agape as two female members of our group sculpted steps into the rising MCHC courtyard. We swept mountains of green lime wash (an ‘aesthetic touch’ that would be the bane of our clinical aseptic aspirations), from the concrete floor of the center. Like swarms of worker bees we scraped paint from window panes, scrubbed walls, sorted, counted and catalogued endless supplies, collected rubbish, constructed shelves, tarted-up treatment rooms and a million other tiny tasks. We flopped onto our hard beds each night exhausted, but content with our work.
As the big day loomed the village began to swell with family, visitors, special guests and the expectation of what would prove to be a historical event. At dusk on the night before the opening I paused above the hustle-bustle of the Koirala family home to survey a scene which typfied some of the very reasons I had started BPM in the first place: to try and achieve amazing things with amazing people. Below me a hive of activity, laughter, family and friendship unfolded. Old friends and new sat together, chatted, convulsed with laughter. Family members- some unmet for many years- remenisced about times past. Cultures combined, exchanging, learning and comparing each other. Grandmothers hugged babies, mates back-slapped mates, girls giggled and children wondered at the mysterious white people. The air of excitement, expectation and comraderie was palpaple. I couldn’t help but feel bouyed by the thought of what had brought us all together. Indeed this feeling, these moments were all I had ultimately hoped to achieve. And so to opening day. The beautiful clouds that had defined sunrise only hours earlier quickly developed into a menacing thunderstorm. True to form, Nepal threw yet another spanner in the works as the heavens opened with force- just an hour before festivities were due to start. Ever the optimists, the village organising committee simply pushed-back the start time by an hour and erected the world’s biggest tarpaulin over the entire proceedings. By midday the storms had cleared and we were left with little reminder of the deluge save a soggy dancefloor and stifling humidity.
From early morning there had been a solid crowd of villagers assembled at the MCHC- either eagerly awaiting proceedings or simply gawking at the 7 foreigners getting about in traditional Nepali dress. Soon this crowd swelled beyond imagination, swamping the center in a sea of red saris. Children occupied every vantage point, clambering over clucks of chatting grandmas and throngs of too-cool young men. One little fella thought himself so important that he planted himself straight into the VIP seats. Underneath the monstrous tarp, the atmosphere was at once effervescent and oppressive. In somewhat of a managerial coup, Santosh and Sushant had managed to wrangle the attendance of a number of high-ranking Nepali parliamentary Ministers. As we awaited the arrival of their helicopter (not entirely sure our tiny helipad would be suitable…or safe), already-present dignitaries, media and over 600 locals did what Nepalis seem to do best: wait. Not that it was tiresome: we were consistently entertained by dancing villagers- some far more talented than others. Eventually the thwop-thwop-thwop of helicopter blades were heard in the distance causing
a crush to the landing zone. As our guests made their way up the hill towards the MCHC, locals literally clambered over each other to shower them with leis of flowers and traditional Buddhist katas; by the time the highest-ranking Minister had reached the center, only a small poke of his hat could be seen above the tower of garlands. We foreigners stared in amazement, noting how drastically different the reception would be for a parliamentary minister in Australia. The next 2.5 – 3 hours defined the ‘physical pain’ period of the day. Without fail, every special guest (from the lowest ranking council member, and including myself), were introduced and invited to speak. The P.A system blared at FULL volume as the speakers gradually became more and more fervent in their addresses. By the time our three helicopter-bourne friends came to speak, the level of passionate oration was rivalled by only the most spirited political or religious leaders in history. There was shouting, crying, begging, relentless monoluges and even a series of repeated roars that implored: “MISTER NATHAN BURNS: SA-LOOT~!!!!”. As outsiders, we sat dumbfounded- literally with mouths agape- at once drinking in the amazing scene and shielding our ear drums. By the end of proceedings our backs ached, our ears throbbed, we were tired, stiff from sitting, and sore from smiling; but grateful, nevertheless, for having been part of it all.
Then, after the briefest of tours of the MCHC, the chopper blades began to whirr and that was it: all over! Like marathon runners at the end of a race, we slumped into chairs, loosend our clothes and simply shook our heads; all of us searched for words to describe what had just taken place. Before long we were rescued from our thoughts by dancing villagers- all jubilant to a man at the prospect of a brighter, healthier future. Late into the afternoon, and then into the night (BTW: it just so happened that the MCHC opening co-incided with Santosh’s 31st birthday!), we celebrated- dancing, singing, reminiscing and laughing until we ached. We all flopped into bed with a lingering sense of comraderie, fullfillment and happiness.
After everyone had headed to bed, I began the day as I had started it: sitting quietly by myself, reminiscing. I threw my mind back through the events of the day and finally to a few short sentences I’d said in my speech at the opening. To paraphrase, they went something like this: “Today is truly a day of dreams: dreams made, dreams realised and dreams for the future…My ultimate dream is this: that one day we will be able to help a child from Kerasawara village study to become a nurse or a doctor…and then that they may return to work at the MCHC. Only then will my dream be realised…” As I closed my eyes on an amzing day, I couldn’t help but think that our work here had only just begun.