Mercer Island teens teach English in Nepal and find lasting lessons

Above, Ramsey Coles teaches a youngster how to read and write at a monastery in Gav Gat. Right, Ramsey Coles (left) and Robbie Taylor (second from right) stand with friends from the Gav Gat monastery. - Contributed photo
Above, Ramsey Coles teaches a youngster how to read and write at a monastery in Gav Gat. Right, Ramsey Coles (left) and Robbie Taylor (second from right) stand with friends from the Gav Gat monastery.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Islanders Robbie Taylor and Ramsey Coles have just returned from the experience of a lifetime; not an entirely good experience, but one they will never forget.

The two friends, who will be starting their senior year at Mercer Island High School this September, spent three weeks of their summer vacation teaching English to young monks in Nepal. The Islanders went alone, assisted only by a program called Global Crossroads, which turned out to be of little assistance at all.

Taylor will turn the experience into a video documentary for his senior culminating project. Ramsey will keep the experience for himself. Both teenagers say the time in Nepal changed them — their perspectives on the world, their self-expectations, their empathy for those with less.

On July 4, knowing little more than they would be teaching English to monks at a monastery in Nepal and that Global Crossroads, an international “volunteer vacation” company, would oversee the details of their stay, Taylor and Coles boarded a plane for Kathmandou, Nepal.

“We were looking for a trip to do over the summer and wanted to do some community service type stuff,” Taylor said. “Most programs offered to come and build houses. Teaching English and learning about a new culture in Nepal seemed different.”

Taylor, whose parents share an interest in Buddhism, was immediately taken by the opportunity. So was Coles, who last year volunteered in India through an organization similar to Global Crossroads.

In addition to teaching monks English, the trip included a 10-day trek through the foothills of the Himalayas and a guided tour of Kathmandu, according to Taylor. This was a major draw for the teenagers, both outdoor-advendurists.

The reality of the trip, however, was far from what was promised in the Global Crossroads brochure.

“First of all, when we showed up at the airport nobody was there to get us,” Coles said, adding that they had been informed a Global Crossroads employee would be there to meet them. “We were pretty afraid because it seemed disorganized.”

After contacting the agency and sorting out the misunderstanding, the Islanders ventured off to find a hotel — an eye-opening welcome to Nepal.

“A nice hotel there isn’t even close to a nice hotel in the U.S.” Coles said. “And the atmosphere [in Kathmandu] is really hectic. All around you is beeping and honking. It was a bit disorienting.”

But it wasn’t long before the teenagers adjusted to their new surroundings. The Islanders eventually sorted things out with Global Crossroads and were taken to a Buddhist monastery for young monks ­— ages 8 to 17 — in the rural and impoverished town of Gav Ghat. That’s when they were hit with their second surprise.

“A guy from Global Crossroads took us to the monastery and then he told us ‘nobody here speaks English.’ We didn’t know this prior to that,” Coles explained. “He said we’d be building the monastery as well. We didn’t expect that either, but what can you do when you’re halfway across the world?”

So the volunteers decided to make the best of their situation. Thankfully, a third Westerner — an English speaker from Holland — had already been working at the monastery for weeks, and offered to help Taylor and Coles.

The first day of classes, Coles said, “were strange” as neither the Americans nor the Nepalese shared a mutual language.

“We had to use hand signals,” Coles explained, adding that gradually, the Nepalese caught on. “Eventually, we taught them the alphabet and individual phrases. Finally, some knew a little English but were afraid to use it.”

After nearly three weeks of lessons, the monks were able to communicate through broken conversation and hand gestures. The accomplishment — although small — was hugely rewarding for Coles and Taylor.

“It was especially cool when we could start talking and finding out who they really were,” said Taylor. “That was probably my favorite part of the trip.”

In between classes, the Islanders worked on repairing the decrepit monastery, the state of which shocked them both. Working together with the monks, the volunteers would help mix cement, shovel sand and complete other odd-jobs around the premises.

“We found that everything in the monastery was inefficient. They had a bucket to collect water from a well but the bucket had a hole. We bought them a new bucket. They smiled but I don’t think they understood. They used this bucket for pouring water down the toilet instead,” Coles said.

There were other things witnessed at the monastery. Things that fascinated. Things that inspired humility.

“A lot of the monks can’t go out of the monastery. They can’t speak every other day. On those days, they can’t eat,” Coles said. “Some monks have to stay in solitary confinement for nine months in one private room. They just pray in silence.”

The monks’ unquestioning discipline and devout faith was what Ramsey found most incredible.

“It was crazy seeing them. I couldn’t imagine not eating some days and not speaking some days. Even the little ones wouldn’t talk,” he said. “It’s inspirational because I could never do that.”

The Islanders were also moved by experiences outside the monastery, in particular seeing Lumbini — the birthplace of Buddha.

“That, for me, was the coolest thing,” Ramsey said, adding that riding elephants through Chitwan National Park was a close second.

Reflecting on their time in Nepal, the 17-year-olds agreed that they came away with much, much more than they had expected.

“After seeing the monks and how they live, I feel as though you can live with a lot less than what we have,” Coles said.

Ramsey echoed this observation, adding that the experience also made him sensitive of the dramatic cultural differences between America and Nepal.

“I think the kids wished that they had the freedoms that we have — being able to eat and speak whenever we want,” he said. “But they’re very disciplined so they’d never ask for that.”

Nearly three weeks after returning from Nepal, the teenagers have resumed their usual summer break activities; spending long afternoons on Lake Washington, golfing with friends and chatting on Facebook. But their memories of Nepal are not far off.

Soon, Taylor will begin editing the hours of digital video footage he shot at the Gav Gat monastery for his Senior Culminating Project. He hopes to capture as much of Nepal — the chaotic streets of Kathmando, Buddhist children praying in silence, Lumbini’s exotic landscape — as possible. Deciding what to cut out, he said, will be the hardest part.

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