Volunteering Around Begnas Lake

Central Nepal

December 2017

One of the greatest things about Nepal is that it hosts many volunteering projects and farms. Volunteering enables a close interaction with the locals, therefore it is a good way to explore the culture, traditions and the environment by all means. It also educates you according to your interests, gives you inspirations on the subjects that you regard. Besides you benefit financially from this collaboration as food and accommodation is offered to you for free in return for your work. Now I am going to take you to 2 different projects I’ve visited in Nepal.

Up until my journey started in October 2017, I was working as a ‘seed saver’ for almost 4 years. So why are seeds this much important? Because seeds are the source of life and the first link in our food chain. In its essence the seed is all of the past evolution of the earth. Unfortunately in global scale we have lost many varieties to a great extent due to the new laws, industrial and monocultural farming, chemicals, GMO and hybrid seeds, decrease in the number of small scale farmers etc. So seed saving is an ethical urge to defend life’s evolution. Conserving seed is conserving biodiversity, culture and sustainability.
For further information, I invite you to check one of my essay in India; On Seed Saving & Navdanya Movement.

So as my concern involves natural farming, biodiversity and seeds, I am also interested in rural areas, small scale farmers and farms at the places I travel. I am into exploring the biodiversity of different climates and traditional agriculture practices of different cultures. With this motivation, I chose two farms to visit and volunteer for which are at the magnificent areas around Begnas Lake. Begnas Lake is the third largest lake of Nepal that is only 20km from Pokhara. It is surrounded by beautiful hills and on north side it leans its back to some ranges of Himalayas.

There are some little humble villages around the lake. The terraces on the hills show how great effort farmers put for many years in order to shape the landscape and open the lands for agriculture. These terraces are mostly used as rice fields.

My first voluntary work took place at ‘Surya&Saraswati Organic Coffee Farm’. Located at the altitude of 1100m, at a 3500m2 land, this small scale farm is a pioneer in Nepal on organic coffee production and it is a remarkable place regarding the inspiration it creates. It gives support to the farmers and encourages them to stay with the traditional eco-friendly agricultural methods. The farm is also a member of Wwoof (world wide opportunities on organic farms).

The farm belongs to and run by this old couple Surya and Saraswati. We call them Ama (mother) and Bua (father). Due to their advanced age, it is not easy for them to do all the necessary works of the farm so the support of the volunteers is significant.
Volunteering is a great option when you are travelling. It gives you the chance to be a part of a community, learn from people many things on different fields and experience the traditional way of living.

15 years ago Surya and Sarasvati got training from an NGO on developing the biodiversity of crops and preserving seeds. They are both illiterate but this wasn’t an obstacle and they created the seed bank of the villages in the area. On the days I was there it was the harvesting time of millet and the farmers were bringing their seed varieties to our couple to be preserved for the next year. I also gifted them a set of seeds I brought from Turkey.

They have a vegetable garden and some trees in the land like avocado, kiwi, papaya that cover their essential needs. But the main work is coffee. Coffee plant can not be cultivated in Turkey so it was so new to me to work on coffee farming and processing. The fruits ripen (go in red colour) for harvesting between December and March. All the fruits have to be picked one by one gently in order not to harm the branches. Harvesting became my favourite work at the farm. I enjoyed my times so much inbetween coffee trees with the company of many birds and insects.

Coffee processing has these steps; by the help of a simple machine coffee beans get seperated from their red coats. Then they wait for two days for fermentation that enables the jelly layer to crack so the bean become free. Then they are washed 4-5 times properly. After that, beans are spreaded over the ground, first checked if there are any bad ones then they wait under the sun to get dry. When the harvest season ends, all the dried coffee beans are carried to the mill in Kathmandu. In this mill, for the last time the beans are seperated from their outer cover, then baked. Finally ta daaa, coffee beans are ready.
The taste of the coffee becomes so much delicious after you see all the steps of processing. You really respect when you realize what a great labor it requires to produce it at the small scale farms without using any industrial machines but only the hands.

Apart from coffee harvesting and processing there are other works that has to be done, like cleaning, irrigation, preparation of food, washing the dishes etc. There had been like 4 days that I was the only volunteer so it was quite tough to do many of them but still I enjoyed it. Our relationship with Ama deepened. And also there was this adorable baby (Babu) of the young couple who was living in one of the rooms in the farm. His laughters, his first new words were making all of us so happy. He was a purely beautiful angel, bringing love into our hearts.

I also worked at another land close to the farm for 2 days with Nepalese women. Our task was to plant 200 teak trees on a steep hill. We put compost in the holes, planted the trees and carried many piles of wood out from the land. It was a tough work really. I got so fascinated by these strong and joyful women who worked all day long at that very steep slopes with their simple flip-flops on their feet. Nepalese women are really so strong!

Everyday I was going on exploration walks in every direction in the surrounding. I was walking on the meandering dirt roads between little villages, going from one valley to the next one. I found amazing view points, sometimes on top of a hill, sometimes in the middle of a field. Begnas and Rupa lakes were always there on one side, vibrating peace with their heavenly look.

And on my other side I was seeing the high peaks of Himalayas that were gifting me the senses of joy and gratitude. Above we see The Machhapuchhre, also known as Fishtail (6,993m) which is one of the most beautiful peak ever. I had many moments which made me feel that I couldn’t ask for more. The sunset times were magnificent. Feeling how the sun warms us, lights us, I was sending him off, trusting that he will show up again the next day.
Not knowing anything about what the future will bring, a subtle power already started to whisper, warning: “Kill this little ‘I’. Die to live.”

Then it was time to move to another farm on the northern parts of Begnas lake. I arrived at a tiny small village Sainkudi that is located at the lakeside. In this area the lake was turning into wet lands and these were used as rice fields.

Here is the other ecological farm, Amrit Kunja. It is located at a very steep slope that is partially turned into some leveled terraces. It is a jungle in its fullest sense.

The farm is run by this hard-working Bastola family; the parents, 2 son, 2 daughter in law and 2 grandchildren. The father is not only an actor but also he is one of the first permaculture teachers in Nepal who has been putting great effort to improve the land for many years. He introduced many different types of plants to the whole land and now it looks like a piece of heaven.

The biodiversity at the land is now unbelievable. This is a list of some of the trees and plants; banana, pomegranate, lemon, mandarin, avocado, kiwi, papaya, mango, peach, pear, cherry, sugar cane, asparagus, jackfruit, 10 types of bamboos, ebony, pepper, coffee, cinnamon, rudraksha, rhododendron, buddha tree, himalayan cedar, black juniper, soap nut tree, neem, amala, bokayno, lichi, haiviskas, haru, chaap, sisav, lapsi, baru, gawa, macedonian nut, kolki, tune, patus, keeko, pepal, jentoleylo, agaroot, cottontree, pavlonia, chiore. . .
I encouraged them to start a seed library and told them about my experiences on seed saving. I gifted them a set of seeds I brought from Turkey and they also gifted me from their seeds in return. (now these seeds are being cultivated in south Turkey). One of the type that excites me the most was the holy basil, Hindus plant in their altars that has a very beautiful smell.

They are applying agroforestry methods to the land which means that they are cultivating vegetables or crops under the trees and bushes in harmony. They are using fresh buffalo urine as manure. Their vegetable garden is also so diversed; radish, spinach, brokoli, cauliflower, carrot, cabbage, mustard, tomato, pepper, aubergine, coriander, lettuce, garlic, onion, potato, sweet potato, ginger, taro. They also cultivate rice and millet at the lower terraces. As the diversity is so rich they are self-sufficient on food.
The days are warm but the nights are quite cold in December and I am really surprised to see this rich variety of summer vegetables that is still alive in this season. There are also three ponds in the land which they use for aquaculture (fish). And also they have hives and do natural bee-keeping.

The main source of income of the farm is pepper (pepper nigrum) and this farm is a pioneer on the cultivation of this plant. Despite that it can be cultivated in Nepal, pepper is imported from different countries and the family is encouraging the farmers to start to produce pepper.
Pepper nigrum is a type of an ivy, that’s why they plant it next to high trees. And the plant uses the body of the tree as a structure to climb. The picture above shows the green unripe pepper, then it first turns into red then to black and becomes ready for harvesting.

There are 4 goats, 2 buffalos and a calf at the farm. When the animals become a meta at the hands of humans and when their psychological health is not noticed and regarded, then it really breaks my heart. Unfortunately I saw this unhealthy relationships in both farms. The animals were tied with a one meter rope and forced to stay at the same point maybe for all their life. Yes they were fed with the best fresh food but their moanings were telling about their deep distress. It was not easy for me to stay with this.
On this matter, I talked to the elder son in the best way to make him understand. I wish he can build emphaty to those poor ones. When we decide to live with animals, we have to take the responsibility to maintain the best conditions for their physical and psychological health. There is no other way!

During my days at the farm I had experienced what it was like to live in a typical Nepalese rural life style. Kitchen is like the center of the whole house like a sacred space. In some of the kitchens you see on one wall an altar dedicated to a deity that people go and pray. At around 5 o’clock the women of the house start their day cooking. Dal baht is always the main food that consists of rice and lentil soup, mostly served with vegetable curries and chutney. It may be quite boring to have the same food at breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday everyday. But I was always in gratitude to eat the food that was cooked by the hands of these loving women.
The setting of the kitchens are quite different. There is no counter top. Each food is prepared on the floor and cooked on wood fire. So the floor gets covered with oil or leftovers. They use clay to clean it. After each food preparation is completed, the floor is cleaned by plastering with clay. I really like the natural design of the cookers.

Apart from the times I was working and helping at the farm, I was going on long walks around the lake. As the village was so tiny I was hardly seeing people around. Sometimes some adorable dogs were accompanying me in my walks. It was so peaceful to sit by the water and watch many different birds and coveys visiting the lake.

Three weeks already passed at the farms near Begnas lake. Now the time has come for me to go back to Kathmandu to apply for the Indian visa. New year is coming. Starting at the very first day of 2018, for 10 days I will be attending Vipassana course in Kathmandu. There is a calm excitement arising in me. It is like as if I will be greeting a new era by learning how to look at the depths within.

The Author