45 days in Nepal
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each-other’s eyes for an instant?”
~Henry David Thoreau
We tell stories to one another to convey purpose. Through their humor, joy, and tragedy, we are afforded insight into unfamiliar situations, into the opaque corners of posterity that are seldom painted. Patricia Alder once said to “make the distant familiar, and the familiar distant”, a call to bring the sounds of far off lands to the ears of the curious. What are the indistinct cultures of Nepal but our brothers and sisters on the opposite end of our sphere? May you be intrigued by a genuine understanding of our commonalities, of how our inner woven threads of mentality and desire do so earnestly overlap. We stand on opposite ends of the globe, never to lay eyes on one another, and assume a vastly intangible relationship. We are separated by circumstance, and circumstance alone.
The spring of 2015 marked devastation for Nepal, as several subsequent earthquakes brought despair to the hands of millions on one side of our globe. And we, on its opposite side, focused our lens for a moment on the lines of a newspaper or the raucous rantings of a news station that attempt to fill our ears with a rationality that not even they possess. There, we are left to decipher its meaning, internally staggered by the complexities of how to help. Rather than lending financial support, the idea of helping with my own hands sparked an interest roughly a year before my trip. Countless nights of research led me to three different families in remote regions of Nepal, who requested volunteer help through the Help-X and WWOOF organizations. Mapping out routes of travel, timelines, and packing lists, I finally realized this dream was possible.
I stand before you humbled. Conversations have taken on new tones, friendships to new boundaries, and a dance with human nature to new rhythms. Emotions have been infinite. I have learned more in forty-five days in Nepal than I have ever learned in a classroom. For the first time in my life, I have seen suffering take place in front of me, yet a true light of acceptance reflected before me in the same position. I have exchanged tales of childhood, of family and of love with the people of Nepal, tales that reveal such obvious commonalties, or “common threads” amongst us. I have told my story to families over tea, to classrooms full of school children, to farmers at milk markets, and mothers nearing life’s conclusion. Allow me to tell you theirs.
Spoons. Of all the possibilities, spoons are the very first thing I come to miss. White rice, “dal bat” as they call it, is served for every meal. Without utensils, I find myself learning from Som during my first hours in Nepal, how to use my index, middle and ring finger to form a spoon, pushing my first meal into my mouth with my thumb. Som was a long-distance family friend, and would provide me a home to stay in between my travels to volunteer locations. Just down a small dirt hill, behind a rice field, is the house Som now stays in; one-half looks to have been severely damaged. I stand on his roof my first evening, overlooking the Kathmandu valley, watching a group of children playing soccer in a rice field nearby, knees covered in dirt, laughter ringing in the humid air. Two years ago, the earthquake hit, and hit hard. Som was out in the woods, and ran back to his village finding his wife, son and daughter outside the area where his house now lay in a pile. Following the earthquake, they lived for three days in a rice field with no shelter, being rained on each night. On the fourth day, Som built a small tent out of sticks and plastic material resembling trash can liner as a roof, constructing a make-shift hut, where he and his family lived for six months. Millions of dollars were donated to the government of Nepal, but its profound corruption has yielded Som nothing but four bottles of water in negligible assistance. The government later built a road over the area where his house once stood, affording him nothing in compensation, leaving the small area they once called home virtually unrecognizable. Som and his family rest today in a small house loaned to them temporarily by a friend, who will likely soon return, leaving him and his family without a home once again. As I think of Som, I hear the laughter of the children down below in the rice field, and without leaving time to question myself, I run down to the field, grab their soccer ball, and chase it teasingly to the goalpost. The children trail in screams of laughter as the sun sets behind us; my first day in Nepal had concluded.
On the first of June, I arrived in Tamaghat, Kavre District, the first of my three chosen families. Clinging to the rear of a motorbike with all my possessions, Bishnu Gautam drove up through the hills of Tamaghat to his remote farm, passing schools severed by the earthquake, weathered looking villagers, and the occasional child perched in a mango tree. The art of not falling off the motorbike eventually became a sport-like activity, and I found myself more often than not balancing both my guitar and my 70-liter backpack (weighing slightly less than a Volkswagen) on the three and a half centimeters of bike-seat remaining, while traveling at speeds comparable to a cruise missile up rural mountainous roads. Word would spread around this small Nepalese town like wildfire, and soon enough everyone in the surrounding area was aware of the tall American roaming their hills. The term “life-changing” has become rather commonplace today in the dialogue of western societies, perhaps over-used to describe less than inspirational encounters, to convey what someone wishes to describe as an extraordinary experience. My first 25 years on this earth have been remarkable, although to describe any one experience as life-changing would be somewhat unnecessarily exaggerated. On the first of June, I passed over the very dirt that would play host to a story I could finally call life-changing.
Bishnu, like many others, played victim to the earthquake. His home was destroyed, his cattle killed, nearly every possession was lost. Two years had elapsed since the earthquake in which he had spent trying to reconstruct a home for his family. In the middle of his land stood a concrete foundation, roughly the size of a storage unit, serving as a home for his family. There was no barrier to separate the outdoors from the in; the dirt passing rather naturally through the entrance into the kitchen, providing a floor. A weathered tin roof gives its most solemn attempt to shelter, and above that, a wooden platform where Bishnu and his family lay their heads at night. Approaching his farm for the first time made me anxious. I had never lived in poverty before, never been forced to sleep on a floor, or worry about keeping dry at night. For the first time in my life that week, I went to bed hungry. I was living in poverty, and it was exactly what I wanted.
Among my first days with Bishnu I met his son, Santosh, and together we began to construct a second concrete foundation for cattle, in hopes to double the number of cows he can house, hopefully leading to more financial stability. With teamwork, we completed the project in four days, and together shared a cup of black tea at the day’s conclusion, gazes affixed on the new pen. We rested, his family with an unmistakable countenance of hopeful uncertainty across their faces. More cows meant more milk, more milk meant more money, and more money meant more opportunity, be it an opportunity for his grandchildren to have schoolbooks, or for his wife to have shoes. Like any of us after a long day’s work, Bishnu sat down with me and scrolled through his Facebook, showing me pictures of a few volunteers that had come before me. Isn’t it funny, how Bishnu leads a life of incredible contrast that is primitive to our western cultural norm, cooking meals over a fire, using a hole in the ground as a bathroom and a five-gallon bucket to shower, yet at the end of the day, he enjoys a moment on Facebook, his tool of insight into the vastly intangible and advanced world he is a stranger to. Luxury is not universal, but a game enjoyed by the fortunate; Bishnu awaits his chance at bat.
Of all my memories in Kavre, I have yet to share with you the two people I hold most dear to me, and the experience they led me into. Abidal and Abisec are the children of Santosh. Mischievous, vivacious, affectionate, and now lovers of Starburst, their faces continue to resound in my mind as I lay my head upon my pillow at home. Roughly one hour from Bishnu sits Nawa Janahit English school, Abidal and Abisec’s sole source of education. The principle, Nabin Kumar Sapkota, had heard of my presence and asked for me to visit. Inspired by our first meeting, he asked me to return the following day and to make a surprise visit into one of his classes, quite literally a dream come true for me. Returning the following day, I was swarmed by young Nepali children, curious of my story. Who was I? How many brothers and sisters did I have? Where had I come from? My one class turned into four that day, as we exchanged playful dialogue in what they jokingly refer to as “broken English”. They laughed as I tried to pronounce their names, and I returned laughter when they pronounced mine. Nabin must have noticed my joy, and asked me at the end of the day if I would return each day to teach a variety of classes from English, to nutrition and geography. I responded with instant approval, we hugged, and the remainder of my days in Kavre were spend in Nawa Janahit English school.
As a surprise, I brought along my guitar one day which was immediately the center of attention. It rained heavily, and with insufficient roofing and walls, classes could not be taught. I took this opportunity to gather some fifty students in a makeshift library, one of the only dry rooms in the area. We exchanged cultural tunes, (they, learning ours in quick fashion) and, on their feet, they screamed each word, dancing along as the rain poured down outside. The emotion of the room was somewhat familiar, a resounding celebration in a delay of school, like a snow day. Nabin stood next to me that afternoon and confirmed a fact with some teachers that emotionally really hit home. He informed me that I was the first American to ever step foot in this school. No other American had yet to lay eyes on this beautiful setting, on these beautiful students, where a mutual curiosity existed. My dreams growing up had resembled those of most other teens: pinch-hitting in a world series game, or maybe sailing a boat across an ocean. I wonder now, if sitting barefoot in simple rejoice around all those kids, was my moment to pinch-hit. A moment of delightful unfamiliarity, that I wished could last a lifetime. A spiritual occasion many might long for, when the rest of the world goes mute. At that moment, it was my gift alone.
Several weeks passed in similar fashion, as did my time in Kavre. I woke one morning to the final sunrise I would share with the people of Kavre. My classes that final day held little educational value, and were more a gift of time. Several kids ran off with my phone around the school, and managed to take upwards of a hundred pictures, filling my phone with familiar faces I still gaze at today. The final period of the day came, and in true Nepal fashion, it poured rain. The teachers normally gathered in Nabin’s office to keep dry while the students did their best to stay dry in their classrooms. A bit emotional, I hastened through the rain, across the dirt courtyard, and made my way to classroom five. The students and I pushed to one corner of the small classroom in unsuccessful attempts to keep dry. Looking out a small window, I observed the beginning of a scene I will likely remember for the rest of my life. The remaining five classrooms emptied without command into the rain, running toward our classroom, each student concealing something within their arms. With laughter they rushed upon me, showering me with flowers in the form of necklaces, bracelets and bouquets, so many I could hardly hold them all. Some stood atop a table and poured bags of flowers onto me, raining colors of all hues into the air, filling our small room with celebration. I had learned later- that each student went home and picked their own personal flower, and later combined them into what now comprised my going-away gift. The rain slowly subsided as Nabin gestured everyone out to the small courtyard in the center of the school. I stood on a small dirt stoop with Nabin at my side, while others threw flowers in the air, some clapping, some laughing. A small girl stood in tears among the mass, sharing with me the mutual appreciation of a chance encounter. Can you imagine if each one of us were able to stand on a dirt stoop for a moment, looking through a lens of new perspective? Into a scene sketched before us of genuine significance, of something that truly matters? It was not a feeling of pride, but a feeling of humility which consumed my heart that day. That despite our individual circumstances and hardships, whatever they may be, we all still maintain our own ability to cast flowers into the air. To appreciate the timeless gift of human relationship that never expires.
My subsequent stays in Nepal afforded similar experiences, re-learning the true nature of perspective at each stop. I spent the following two weeks at the home of Maiti Tamang, at her small farm in the Himalayas of Northern Nepal, in a small mountain pass leading to the Tibetan Plateau. Annapurna (often regarded as the most dangerous mountain in the world) towered over my new home, and I spent each morning in reverent gaze at her beauty. Like the people of Kavre, the ones here in Guithe held little regard for material possessions. Electricity was sparse at best, and human exchange took the place of material interests. My family here did not own a kitchen table, settling for dinner on the clay floors that gave rest to their feet, free from the many unnecessary comforts of life that so easily entangle us. Together, we planted chili and worked to harvest vegetables from their surrounding gardens. I often found myself exploring the nearby hills, venturing far north on the very same road Maurice Herzog took in 1950 during his historic approach to Annapurna, the first mountaineering expedition to successfully scale an 8,000-meter peak, even before Everest. Walking for hours, I would see some of the highest mountains on earth reveal themselves to me. The numerous conversations with locals painted quite a contrasting image of Nepalese lifestyle in comparison to what might be experienced from the perspective of a tourist. I wondered one night of the illusions and ideas that might fill my mind if I had visited Nepal solely with the purpose of tourism, with paid tour guides to lead me into the frequented areas of the Himalaya to gain what some may call a better view of the tallest mountains in the world. I often read the accounts of professional climbers who come to Nepal with aspirations to scale its high peaks, spending several weeks in the equivalent of Nepalese tourist mountain towns. Paying their way to the summits, their interactions with Nepalese society are largely controlled by the tourism industry. Guides are paid thousands to wear a smile, and paint a picture of fluent prosperity that seldom exists, with hopes to draw the deep pockets of the west back again. These skewed perspectives are taken back to western society and broadcasted, and with nothing more than a rank among “Top Ten Places to See Before You Die”, we scroll past, left with a disillusioned frame created by a sheltered tourist.
I left Guithe in early July, and boarded a bus to my final stop in Chitwan District, in the southern end of Nepal. Among the many humanitarian problems engulfing Nepal are the complexities of transportation. There are hardly any paved roads; many of which are so poorly maintained that buses seldom exceed five miles per hour. For this reason and many more, travel times are exceedingly long. The distance between Guithe and Chitwan is only 70 miles, but the journey took over 28 hours to complete. A narrow mountain pass marks the halfway point of this trip; a deadly portion of road plagued by rockfall and narrow cliffside roads, the area tempted with disaster each day. The day before my journey, a jeep and a motorbike had been washed off the road, down the cliff by rockfall, killing four. Bus drivers seem unaffected as they drink their Red Bull and push on. In reflection, I would attribute road conditions to be the number one plague of Nepal. These adverse conditions often hinder access to work and education. For the first time in my life, I am thankful my bus rides into 4th grade were uneventful.
Chitwan District hardly resembles how one might picture Nepal – An incredibly flat jungle, that extends south to the border of India. I spent my final weeks with Bagwhati and Nawaraj Neupane, and their younger son Babu. Nawaraj taught at the local school, while his wife Bagwhati ran a small shop on the side of the road, selling an unlikely combination of biscuits and petrol. She would make the one-hour commute several times a week to Naranghat, with a backpack full of water bottles, fill them with petrol, then return to her stand and sell them for 100 rupees each, yielding 500 rupees of profit each week, roughly five dollars. Together, Nawaraj and Bagwhati raised Babu in a small concrete shack, roughly 10 feet by 8 feet in size. Like all Nepalese, white rice serves as their every meal, as they struggle to afford education for Babu. Despite their conditions, their spirit is vibrant, and they jump at the opportunity to serve me. Nawaraj would often run to me, hastily ordering me on his motorbike to chase a rhinoceros believed to be in the area. One particular evening, our efforts came up short, and we instead decided to numb our lack of success with a few chosen beverages shared in an old abandoned jungle hut, just a few kilometers from India. Bagwhati and I shared endless conversation at her shop, exchanging philosophical ideas of our own with one another. We discussed the poison of pride, the plague of vanity, and materialistic idolatry. As a devout Hindu, she shared her principles with me, as we compared our different faiths through congenial conversation. Two characters, from vastly different backgrounds of life and faith, a Hindu and a Christian, exchange our ideas, accepting the other for their differences in belief, and at the end of the day I am called brother, an inclusion that escapes many hearts today. Understand that controversy creates latent solidarity. It creates a cohesion of fragile foundation. We chase this cohesion in American society with a limp, wearing a shoe of foul intention. The warm and enthusiastic feeling we experience when we criticize the foibles of another is fake, it is fake happiness. Fear of inferiority pushes us to boost our own platform with an armament of perpetual contempt, citing the differing and often trivial ideas of our brothers and sisters as the sole reason of their now-labeled demotion in social significance. You can’t unite unless there is something to unite against. Make that something a just cause, keeping the ones who lie on either side of that cause indefinitely close to your heart, always remembering the common threads that bind you. Bagwhati afforded me the dream that such is possible.
The middle of July came quickly, and my final days in Nepal quickly approached. I had the pleasure of spending my final days with Som, who drove to his home-land of Chitwan to see me. During my second-to-last day in Nepal, Som brought me to the house in which he grew up, and upon entering a small back room, I saw laying on a small bed, his beloved mother. Being the first-born son, Som is both financially and logistically responsible for the care of his ever-aging mother and father, who live a full day’s travel away from his current home in Kathmandu. His mother lays still, flanked by several oxygen tanks. Upon meeting me, she raised herself, allowing me to sit in her place; pure selflessness, which she so clearly had passed to her son. She spoke no English, but our time together (I like to call it conversation) revealed to me the purities of human interaction. A face of gentle understanding reflected before me, cognizant of all circumstance. We sat in a melancholy state, knowing this would be our only time afforded together.
To this day, Som is probably the most intelligent person I have ever met. I am puzzled at how he wakes each day with a smile. Walking beside him is one of the greatest privileges I have been afforded in my lifetime. We took a canoe ride on my final day, while he shared his passion of nature with me, specifically birds. He whistles to them, in harmonious communication as we paddle down the river. He shows me a tall standing tree, a tree that has saved his life on six occasions as a child from the rhinoceroses that roam the land. Words to describe the influence Som has had on me are ineffable. He is able to look past the circumstances of his life, the faults of his country, and see the harmony of each morning. He sees the value and the beauty in human relationship, the importance of indiscriminate forgiveness, and above all else the joy of putting others before himself. He now calls me nephew.
On July 10th, I took my final steps away from Nepal. In less than a day, I was tens of thousands of miles from the ears of Som. It was a difficult day for me, and of the many emotions running through me, I was most overcome by guilt. I had finished “playing the game”, I had done my time in Nepal, and now flew back to a land of lavished comforts, as if I deserved it. At best, I had given temporary comfort to people like Bishnu, and now left them in the trail of yesterday. I had carried Abisec to school every day, teaching him to write letters of the alphabet outside in a pile of hay, and now, as if saying “alright, good luck kid”, I left him alone in the hay, knowing he doesn’t stand a chance. Guilt overcame me each day when I carried him to school, his fragile hands gripping my shoulders in trust; how could I have looked him in the eye? Somehow, in this game we call life, we were dealt the hand of fortune, while the hands of Abisec were left empty.
A week after I arrived back home, I received a message from Som while I was out rock climbing. Hardship had taken another step in Som’s life. His mother’s life had come to a conclusion, a gentle selfless soul who left much more than she took. She was 68. I remembered the immediate acts of selflessness she had shown me, a stranger. She left a lasting impression that I will remember until my final days here on earth; that indiscriminate of social status, political perspective, or moral character, we live not with one another, but for one another.
I hope my words to you have provided a glimpse into a different perspective of human appreciation that is ever-present around our globe. Appreciation, I think, is something that cannot be taught, but needs to be learned through personal experience, through hardship or suffering, whether witnessed or experienced. May I encourage you to identify something that you take for granted, be it a daily convenience, or comfort, or an emotion that seems commonplace. Then, interrupt it. Remove it from all aspects of your experience. Deprive yourself of comfort, be it social or materialistic, and you may soon see- not what is necessary, but what is not. The comforts of each day become dull to us through repetitive, tiresome exposure, and thus we seek more and more to satisfy our compulsion for satisfaction. Comfort through materialism is a drug; it gives us a false feeling of necessity that clouds our ego with entitlement. Maiti Tamang has no kitchen table, no television, no Wi-Fi. Bishnu Gautam doesn’t have the opportunity to choose between a frappuccino or half-caf vanilla latte, then internally combust because neither is available. They wake up each morning to see the same sun you see, with the same feelings you feel, acclimated to their circumstances with a vague desire for more. They look upon themselves not as paupers but as ordinary, as most of us do, yet our possessions differ substantially. No jewel you inherit will quench the desire for a subsequent. Instead of building on your pile of possessions, take away, and focus not on materialistic comfort, but comfort through human experience. Live through this relationship, put your worth into your neighbor, give your chair to a friend, and put your joy into something that cannot be taken. It is then that we will see clearly.
God bless the people of Nepal.