Torstein and I met in 1995 whilst working on passing yachts on the Caribbean island of Antigua. We hadn’t even spent a week together when we decided to go travelling in Nepal. It was a baptism of fire.
We connected immediately. I knew he was ‘the one’ from the start. But, I hadn’t expected our lives to be brought together so dramatically. He was 29-years-old and I was merely aged 24, fresh out of university with a passion for travelling. He booked a flight to Kathmandu and then jumped on a flight to Pokhara to join me. We headed to a remote region in the west of the country to raft the crazy Karnali river, amidst a largely untouched and unexplored area with stunning scenery and incredible wildlife.
We spent 10 days rafting the river before arriving in Bardia National park to seek out the Bengali tigers, one-horned rhinos and Indian elephants. Then, Torstein got ill. At first we thought it was ‘Delhi Belly’, the affectionate name given to food poisoning, but it became clear during the next two days that it was something more serious.
Picture the isolation and lack of facilities in this community. The cottages had dirt floors, no running water, electricity for only a few hours per day, no phones, no cars, and the closest ambulance was over two hours away. The local community ‘nurse in training’ came to visit, but he too was unsure. The nurse provided a saline drip and I knew I needed to get Torstein out of there.
With temperatures soaring close to 40 C, his condition deteriorated quickly. I realised it was serious when he drifted in and out of consciousness. I was beside myself with worry. There were no nearby hospitals. I needed to get him to Kathmandu, but how? He was barely conscious and couldn’t walk.
The Khadka family, who owned the cottage where we were staying, offered to help. While their english was poor, the gravity of the situation was clear and they rallied the village to help the foreigners. Their teenage son Bikram found a couple of bicycles, and he and I used them to locate a car so we could transport Torstein by vehicle. We drove across a river in extremely difficult terrain to get to Nepalgunj, the closest airport where we could fly to the capital. Two days later Torstein had life-saving surgery in hospital in Kathmandu to prevent his intestine rupturing into his stomach cavity. Due to the lack of blood storage facilities at the hospital I had to rally four foreigners from the local bar to donate blood. Had we stayed even one or two days later in Bardia the doctors told us he would have died.
The following year, in 1997, we returned to Kathmandu to thank the surgeon, the clinic and the hospital; and travelled the world to thank those who donated blood. But we didn’t make it back to Bardia where it all began. Torstein and I married in 1999 and had our son in 2002. We called him Aymon ‘Bardia’ Holth in recognition of the people to whom we owed so much.
When Aymon was aged 11, we took him to Bardia, one of the poorest communities in all of Nepal. The local family who had helped us recognised my husband and I immediately and we embraced from our souls. Before that, they hadn’t known whether the ‘foreigner’ had survived. Bikram, the young boy who’d helped me all those years ago, was now a grown man. He was also the Principal of a small english speaking community school which he’d set up from their family home.
On the spot, we pledged to help Bikram realise the school he visualised. I am a strong believer in the ability of one person to make a real difference and our duty to support the ones who do. At the time, I did not know what that support would look like, but there was no way I could turn my back on a family who was not only there for us when Torstein was so ill, but was also committed to helping their community.
Bikram and his father had done an incredible job to get the school up and running. In 2000, with a vision and some money gifted by a generous Australian donor, the BBAS Memorial school was born. The school creates a future for children whose families can afford to contribute a few dollars per month as well as those who are ‘landless’ and can’t afford to pay for education. While Bikram has created an amazing place where over 500 children are educated, the conditions are incredibly uncomfortable and in desperate need of an upgrade. Up to 51 students are in one class room and while the school desperately needs to expand, there are limited funds to do so.
The most shocking part came when Bikram explained why the school was so important. According to Caritas India, children in western Nepal are being trafficked into India in higher numbers than ever before. Girls in particular are at risk. Numbers have increased five-fold since 2013 with many ending up as sex workers or in forced labour. Boys are also taken and put to work in construction under terrible conditions. Poor and uneducated families are often preyed upon by traffickers and this is why we, together with Bikram, believe that the expansion of the school for the children of Bardia is vital. It is hard for us to even imagine one of our children being exposed to such situations, it just doesn’t enter our thoughts.
Bikram says Bardia school students attain jobs and give back to the local community, some return to the school to be teachers while others have become national park guards and protect rhinos from poachers. Both Bikram and government officials believe having a job provides security and can help prevent people from being trafficked.
Since my initial visit, I have taken on the job of helping Bikram to expand the school in Bardia. The commitment to give back to this community started as a personal pledge, but it is so much bigger than that now. Other wonderful people have joined me to make this a reality and we welcome further support. I am juggling all this along with normal family life in Australia. I have my own businesses, a teenage son, a husband and a dog to look after. It’s really hard work, but utterly worth it.
My commitment to helping the Bardia school children is unshakeable. For so many years I have enjoyed what Nepal has to offer in terms of mountains and rivers, and I know a project such as this can impact generations to come. I think many of us have already begun to realise that true fulfilment does not come simply from what we do for ourselves and the experiences we undertake, but from what we can offer others.
On a recent trip to Nepal I was struck by the joy on the faces and in the hearts of the children we spoke to and shared moments with. We spoke with several children to understand what they want to do with their education. Not one of them said a new car, a new house, a holiday, or money. Instead, they all want to return to their village with their new skills and make a difference to their community.
Jacqui Holth is founder of Adventurous Life Project. Adventure and the outdoors fuel her soul. She is energised and complete when she is connected with the wilderness, from mountain peaks to the open ocean. She has sailed across the Atlantic, conquered 6500m peaks, and slept in a tent for about a year. She now helps others live their own adventures.
Bright Futures of Bardia crowdfunder:
Story by: Jacqui Holth
Images by: Jacqui Holth & Ky Furneaux