“I have learned that traveling can help overcome personal problems, disasters, and tragedies.”
Tell us about yourself and your time in Nepal and South East Asia. How have these experiences influenced your life and work?
As I say in my book, Nepal had always been a country of fascination and wonder ever since as a schoolboy I had seen films of the 1953 Everest Expedition, which led to the first ascent of the highest mountain in the world (29,031.69 feet, 8848.86 meters) by Hillary and Tenzing. I was captivated by the high mountains, the sparkling streams and rivers, the lush green valleys and forests, the simple villagers cooking over aromatic wood fires, the birds and seemingly abundant wildlife.
All these visions became reality when I first visited Nepal as an environmental volunteer in April 2008. I had the opportunity to trek in the Annapurna foothills, I taught in some schools, I helped at some orphanages, I carried out a survey of waste disposal methods of the hotels and restaurants in Sauraha, Chitwan, and wrote a Report on the Threats to Biodiversity from Tourism and other Factors in the Chitwan National Park.
These experiences changed my life; coming from a relatively wealthy country like the UK, I learned that Nepal could teach the West many things about kindness, generosity, spirituality, and compassion.
I continued as a volunteer in 2008-09 going on to Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand, by way of India and Malaysia. I loved South East Asia and the culture, the people, and the climate.
As it happened, my volunteer experiences led me back to Nepal in 2013, after I had finished my work in the UK and “retired”.
I did not know what I was going to do, I only knew that Nepal was my destiny and that I should go back. I was happy there. I felt I could offer my time and experiences to the Nepali people. I met my future wife, Kali Chaudhary, and we got married in 2014. In 2016 our little daughter Angelina was born.
I built our family house in my wife’s family’s village and continue to live and work there to this day. I am still very happy and fulfilled, and continue to try to help the Nepali people in whatever way I can. I am very grateful for the “Second Chance” in life that Nepal has given me.
What inspired and/or motivated you to write Grains of Time?
I firstly wanted to record my experiences and adventures for my family and the next generation. I thought in retrospect that I had an interesting story to tell, but that also I could help the volunteer movement and the tourism industry of countries like Nepal and Indonesia by writing of my volunteer experiences.
If my book could inspire people to travel as volunteers, they perhaps would also find personal life-changing experiences, and the opportunity to change other people’s lives by the work they did. The global volunteer movement is huge and rather understated in the media, and I feel that I can help promote it more by publicizing my book.
What do you hope readers gain and/or take away from your book?
I hope readers gain a favorable impression of the beauties and cultures of the countries I traveled in, from Nepal to New Zealand, from India to Indonesia, from Malaysia to Australia.
I met many interesting fellow travelers and volunteers from countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, China, France, Germany, Belgium and the UK. I stayed with kind and generous host families, I learned about the local cultures, food, traditions and religions of many places.
In Nepal I learnt about Buddhism and the Hindu religion, in Indonesia I learned about Islam and the Muslim society and customs, as well as paganism, shamanism, and earth gods and spirits.
Volunteering opened my eyes to a much wider horizon than the limited and introspective Christian cultures I had been raised in in the West. I hope readers will want to visit the countries I visited and find out these things for themselves, as well as contributing to the economies of countries less developed than their own.
“Be open-minded, open to new ideas, customs, and beliefs. Be generous and share your experiences, your money, your food, and your time with others.”
What have you learned about the world and traveling since your journey in 2008?
I have learned that traveling can help overcome personal problems, disasters, and tragedies. I have seen first hand the effects of natural and man-made disasters such as climate change, bush fires, floods, landslides, earthquakes, and pressures of tourism on wildlife. I have learned that there are good and bad, rich and poor people in every culture, country, and society. I have learned that there are common factors of compassion and humanity in every major world religion and that basically Man wants to live life peacefully with his neighbors, even if there are terrible stresses and strains that prevent him from doing so.
Who is the most influential figure you met during your travels?
I think Dr Baharuddin Abidin in Makassar, Indonesia, was the most influential figure for me. He is a very kind, compassionate, and devout Muslim, who despite many difficulties in his life is entirely focussed on the benefit and well-being of young, uneducated Indonesians and wants to improve the lives of other less fortunate people.
He does this in his professional work as a University lecturer, and also his philanthropic work through his company LPTM, which trains young people in heavy excavation and mechanical engineering, so that they can obtain jobs in the construction industry.
LPTM is a big organization which trains people for work and employment, also helping those who are underprivileged with training, and supporting projects such as reforestation in the south of Sulawesi. This provides an income to local villagers and farmers. Pak Baha taught me many aspects of Islam and the Muslim faith, so that I had a much better perception of Islam than previously.
In many ways Islam is a very “present” and practical religion because Muslims pray 5 times a day, and religion is much more dominant in their lives than in other faiths. Islam encourages charity, fidelity, compassion, and education, and I am a wiser man for having lived in Indonesia for 6 months.
What piece of advice would you give your pre-travel self?
Be open-minded, open to new ideas, customs, and beliefs. Be generous and share your experiences, your money, your food, and your time with others. Don’t be surprised by foreign cultures doing things differently. Drop your preconceptions about faiths, religion, and customs.
You mentioned that you originally found your program on GoAbroad.com! Why do you think it’s important for people to seek out meaningful travel experiences?
The volunteering opportunity in Indonesia with Dr Abidin and LPTM was found through a search on the internet, where I found this project offered through GoAbroad.com. I thought this was a very interesting-sounding project, offering just the sort of environmental experience that I was looking for at that time. I wanted to plant trees, I wanted to visit a South East Asian country, I wanted to do something to combat climate change. This project more than fulfilled my expectations.
If people want to travel to new places, if they want to get over some personal problems in their lives and contribute something meaningful to countries and people less fortunate than themselves, then volunteering is the answer. It is also a way of spending time in a country more meaningfully than just as a tourist.
I am still in touch with Dr Abidin and his reforestation project in South Sulawesi. I hope to update my book with progress on all the volunteer opportunities I worked with 14 years ago.
How can readers take the first step to cultivating their own life-changing travel experiences?
I would recommend readers to spend some time researching volunteer opportunities online. They should read the small print and the Terms and Conditions, and Agreements or Contracts, very carefully. They should write to the companies and ask questions, and analyze the answers carefully.
They should decide what they REALLY want to do in the time available, as there is nothing worse than choosing a project which they are not really interested in and finding they are committed for a number of months. They should also ask friends and colleagues about their own experiences, read travel journals, the travel pages of the major national newspapers and weekend editions.
Once they have decided on their projects, they can book and plan their itineraries, with some second choices as back-up in the event that some plans fall through. In my case, my plans were changed by language problems, and the repercussions of terrorist bombings in a country. Plans may have to be changed at short notice. Fortunately there are a lot of programs and countries to choose from in the world.