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Inspiring women travellers: Lara Levi, the volunteer nomad

 

Lara Levi describes herself as a nomad. The 24-year-old traveler was born to Dutch and English parents and has spent time living in Greece, England and Spain. She’s just returned from a three-month trip to Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, Malaysia and Singapore, and her future lies blissfully wide open ahead of her. One thing is for sure though – this woman runs on wanderlust.

Lara with tika, post-farewell ceremony from school in Pokhara, Nepal

 

Here, Lara tells us why travelling to Asia to volunteer and trek to Everest Base Camp was one of the best decisions she’s ever made, and what she learned from the older women travellers she met there.

“I am fortunate enough to have curious parents. Some of my fondest childhood memories have been of my mother, father, brother and I in some distant and sometimes exotic land, discovering strange and intriguing things. But it was when I went to university in England that I got my first true sense of freedom. The Christmas, Easter and summer commutes back home got me used to the idea of travelling alone. Once that hurdle was overcome, the world became my oyster as I frequently decided to save my allowance and spend it on travel rather than food. This is when my unquenchable ‘itch’ to travel began.

When I graduated and got a job in Greece I quickly found a way to use my annual time off in combination with bank holidays for a few weekend escapes with friends and family, but my ‘itch’ was ever distracting and stronger than ever. As time passed I saw that life was beginning to manoeuvre me into a state of being that I felt was premature: running a household, chasing taxes and payments, cooking, cleaning, being stressed and tired. In other words, I felt trapped.
 

“I needed a change and that change wasn’t going to happen on its own.”

So, while on holiday, I began researching volunteering agencies and came upon a programme that combined the Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek with four weeks of volunteering in Nepal. It sounded like my dream come true. The next day I placed the deposit. A week later, I returned to work and handed in my resignation. It was exciting, and terrifying!

Bridge Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

The inclusion of the Everest Base Camp trek was a big reason why I chose one of the volunteering programmes, I can’t lie! Looking back now, I realise I was completely under-prepared for the EBC trek. I had never done any proper trekking before in my life, trekking was never a passion of mine and, in all honesty, I didn’t really understand how people could do it for days on end. Yet, if I could go back tomorrow and do it all over again I wouldn’t hesitate for a second.

The trek itself was not particularly difficult. Yes, there were some very steep climbs and descents (which we then had to climb again on the return journey – bittersweet) but nothing your average Joe couldn’t manage with a little sweat and a lot of swearing. What knocked me off my feet, however, was the altitude. I had never experienced the effects of altitude on my body and so I was initially perplexed as to why I struggled so much to climb small hills that I could have easily skipped up back home. I felt myself sweating and panting and needing to make frequent breaks to rest and catch my breath. We all did for that matter and we were all equally confused. Our guides explained that these were the effects of altitude and that it was important to listen to our bodies and stop whenever we needed. But it can be very disheartening when you feel exhausted having just climbed a 30-minute moderate ascent to find that you have a steep three-hour climb ahead of you. I was very lucky to be in a group of girls who motivated each other, shared a fantastic sense of humour and were equally determined to make it.
 

Jumping picture Everest Base Camp, Nepal

The most difficult part of the EBC trek is the psychology behind it. I expected to get tired when climbing mountains but what was truly hard was getting up before the crack of dawn each morning, freezing and exhausted and knowing that the day ahead would be even tougher than the previous one. For me, this meant the hardest part of the trek was the way back. Our guides had warned us that most people who get helicoptered off the mountain suffer on the return leg due to a sudden drop in adrenaline and a lack of motivation. I found out exactly what they meant on the walk back to Gorak Shep from EBC. My energy dropped lower than it ever has and putting one foot in front of the other was more difficult than I can explain. I think that that was my lowest point on the trek, both physically and mentally. But a sachet of rehydration salts, a cup of tea and a cracking joke from Maggie and I was myself again an hour later.

Sunrise Sarangkot Mountain, Pokhara, Nepal

I can honestly say that I have never pushed myself harder in my life but at the same I also have never had such a good time doing it. How many people can say that they made it to EBC? That is something to be proud of!

Read Lara’s packing tips for the Everest Base Camp trek.
 
My first volunteering project was as a teaching assistant in the small Nepalese village of Pame. I swear the parents of some of those kids pumped them with sugar in the morning and then released them into the school! Yet despite the chaos, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Pame and still miss some of the eagerly smiling faces that greeted me with 'Lala' at the gate every morning.
 
I learned so much from volunteering. I learned what poverty really looks like, but also that people with much less tend to offer a lot more of what they have, and that they rarely want anything in return. I learned to share and to be grateful for what I have. I learned about the huge social barriers that women still face in Asia, about the positive and negative effects that tourism has on developing countries, and that change and development is a very slow and arduous process.
 
I also learned a lot from two older women I met on my volunteering programmes: Sue in Thailand, and Maggie in Nepal. They proved to me that age is but a number and inspired me in ways I never expected. Most importantly I learnt from them that it is never too late to accomplish your goals and your dreams, and that

“there comes a point in every woman’s life when she need to sit down and think, “Does this make me happy?” And if not, change it.”

In turn, I want to say to all the women reading this that volunteering is a great way to truly get to know a country’s customs and way of life. The projects themselves may be fantastic or underwhelming but at the end of the day, I left feeling like I had learnt a lot about the local people I worked with, made some friends for life, experienced the countries as a local would, and became more aware of the world around me.

My adventures have taught me to stop holding myself back and to believe in my ability to do things. And if I can, anyone can.”