Lessons, Lessons, and more Lessons: Getting Educated In Nepal

CT guides Tanner & Kolena have been sending periodic dispatches from the field in Nepal, where they spent the fall guiding our travelers and doing on-the-ground re-con for us. Here’s their recap post on what they learned during their time

-(well-meaning person) How was the trip?!

-(me) Well, it was… it was… the trip was good.

-(well-meaning person) Great. How ’bout them Seahawks huh?!

This interaction has happened countless times in the last month. It’s not always football that the person goes into, but it is almost always not related to our experience in Nepal. It’s hard because people do not want the whole story when they ask that question. It’s like when people ask, “How’s it going?” They don’t want you to say, “Well its going ok. I woke up late last night and listened to the rain hit the roof and it got me thinking about how rain is so interesting. Water falls from the sky where it forms from something we can’t see, hits the ground, and eventually ends up back in the sky. That’s crazy right?” They want to hear, “It’s going good.” But, since you are reading this I will assume you want more of an answer to your question of how our trip was. I will assume you are interested in what we found, what we learned, and how we grew, and continue to grow, as people and in our work. If you ended up here by mistake, the trip was good. You’re welcome.

How can I ever find words to describe an experience that, at times, seemed to transcend even our own understanding of what is possible? How can the true essence of experience be described with our limited vocabulary? Time has provided clarity in some aspects, but also a deepening realization that there is so much more to learn.

Kolena and I went to Nepal with an agenda. Even though we said we didn’t, we had one. A subconscious agenda maybe, but it was there, stinking up our mindset and leading us toward disappointment. Thankfully travel, and especially travel with some kind of “work” attached to it, has a way of beating that out of you pretty quick. It took only a couple weeks, but eventually we gave ourselves to the experience, fully and completely, and allowed it to grow before us. We learned more than we could have imagined, mostly from talking to anyone who would give us the time of day. Nepali people, for the most part are very open, honest, and willing to have a real dialogue if you are genuine. Come at them with an agenda and you get nothing. No soup for you!

The times we spent talking to people, whether over tea on in the saddle of a mountain bike, are what ended up being our most profound work and most enlightening times. We learned that Nepal has a depth of beauty and light matched only by a tangled mess of political apathy and corruption that resembles the crow’s nest of powerlines that litter the streets of Kathmandu. Nepal is home to some of the most genuine, warm (to a fault at times), and loving people I have ever met which is what makes the governments blatant and complete lack of care for its people so shocking. I don’t want to idealize Nepal, there are real problems there. But, in the face of all that its people shine like candles in the darkness (which happens frequently when the power shuts off.)  I hope that by sharing what we learned about working in Nepal, about Nepali people and their many cultures, and about our personal growth that you can have a vivid picture of a place we have come to love, a love that runs deep and is real and raw, just like true love should be.

LESSONS ON WORK

“Honestly, building someone’s house isn’t gonna do shit.”

This was our introduction to learning about what kinds of development projects work in Nepal and what can be done to create real change in the country. Post-earthquake Nepal is a very different place than it was before. How work needs to be done has changed. The influx of organizations, money, and manpower has actually threatened the long-term health of the country in many ways. We (and I mean all of us who have come to help) have brought along with us our own way of doing things, our own ideas about what needs to be done, and have, for the most part, ignored the realities of the situation. We come to build houses. We come to save people. But in the end Nepal is filled with capable, resilient, and innovative people that don’t need us to build them a house. Sure, hundreds of thousands of people living in temporary housing is not great, but the solution isn’t to build them houses. The solution, according to many of the smartest people I have come into contact with anywhere in the world, is to create projects that benefit entire communities and that are executed by local people that will give those without homes the means to build new ones themselves.

There are many needs in Nepal. People are living out in the cold, dying, without food, jobs, and clean water. Children go to school in makeshift shacks with tin shingles and spiders the size of your face that call the corners home. These are problems, no disputing that. What isn’t talked about as much as it should be though is the number of amazing, locally run organizations that are striving to do meaningful work in ways that are actually practical in the country. There are feet on the ground in Nepal, projects waiting to be started, and a population of young, smart, and conscientious people thirsting for sustainable change. It is our role as international partners to back those people. To throw our support behind things that won’t just address one person’s problem, but the problems of the whole country. There needs to be investment on a scale that has never happened in the region before: Investment in renewable resources and repeatable solutions to longstanding problems, investment in education and economics, investment in people. Nepal does not need me to come to the table with answers. The answers are already there. Coming with some blueprints and a hammer isn’t gonna do shit.

The bottom line is this: Nepal sits at a crossroads in what will be the history of one of the most amazing places on Earth. Post-earthquake life and the present fuel crisis have created a time bomb that can either explode and kill everyone in the country, or explode with possibilities and growth. The Nepalis I talked to know which future they want. What will determine which direction the blast goes will be almost completely determined by the people of Nepal: the government, the citizens, and the leaders who hash it out each day on the street corner. The future of Nepal will also be affected by us, the people who see a place they love in turmoil and want to help, the people who have been touched and changed by a country that, despite its small size, harbors some of the most colossal monuments and larger-than-life characters on Earth. We can’t come to this as saviors or as doers. We have to come as partners with ears open and hands ready so that when the chance comes we can lift Nepal higher than they can go alone. The way I see it Nepal needs three things from us: our hands, our hearts, and our resources. They also need a decent micro-brew, but that’s another story.

LESSONS ON NEPALI PEOPLE AND CULTURE

The idea that honest dialogue and cultural exchange are the most important and least valued parts of working in any community has always held true to us. Our time in Nepal, spending time with people, and immersing ourselves in everything around us has only reinforced that. It is so vital to gain an education when traveling, to extract something from the experience beyond relaxation and some useless trinkets you picked up at the airport gift shop. There has to be meaning behind travel otherwise it just reiterates that the rest of the world doesn’t matter to us. Having some purpose to travel and seeking to create connections across all boundaries will create understanding, which in turn lays the foundation for meaningful change the world over.

For Nepali culture in particular, our ability to keep our mouths shut and learn was vital in gaining some understanding. One interaction in particular gave us some valuable insight into the people. A friend of ours who runs a really cool tour company in Kathmandu used the term “fatalistic” to describe Nepali people. The key is he used it in a positive way, which you wouldn’t think it could be. He said that people in Nepal want to be happy and feel content with their lives for the most part. They look around, especially post-earthquake, and realize they are lucky to be alive. It is a real, tangible, and deep sense of gratitude for the things they do have. There is not that constant striving for more: more things, more money, more power. You don’t see Nepali people stressing themselves to death just to get ahead in some make-believe world where those things hold more value than tea with a friend. I think it comes down to an understanding that life is short and the place we find ourselves can be made positive by how we view our life and the world around us. How we interpret what life gives us determines our happiness. So, why not be happy?

For someone from America, where 70 hour work weeks and million dollar houses are valued above all else, the concept of contentment with what you have is sometimes hard to see as a strength. We saw so many westerners in Nepal that struggled with the pace of life, with what seems sometimes like a lack of urgency or plan. “Wait; there is no plan for what we are going to do today? How will we ever survive?” Maybe that’s a little dramatic but it’s not far from what we heard almost daily. To appreciate this concept and see it for the positive quality it is, you have to adjust what is valuable, what things hold worth in life to individuals and to society as a whole. Nepali people place equal value on tea with a friend (or a complete stranger for that matter) as on an hour of work. I can’t tell you how many times we would stop by places to see friends and end up talking over tea for hours, in the middle of the day! I know, crazy right? How will the world go on if I spend an hour of my work day engaged in meaningful and enlightening discussion with another human being?

It is likely that so many of the lessons on contentment and happiness come from the deep spiritual connections that permeate all aspects of society. This is not a glorified sense of the divine either, but a truly practical and everyday connection to the spiritual that you can’t help but feel no matter your own views. In all things and in all parts of the individual life there exists an understanding of some greater connection. Whether Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or Kirant there is a profound understanding that as human beings we all exist tied together and tied to the universe in some way. Some of the world oldest religions are practiced here and you can feel the commitment to a value system that comes from generations of practice. Buddhist teachings on contentment and peace find their way into everyday life and into social systems often. The separation that we pride ourselves on in the West does not exist. You can have opinions on whether this is good or bad, but you can’t deny the value that it brings to Nepali people.

Again, let’s not glorify this place. There are tensions and bigotry, sexism and discrimination just like in any other society. What struck me was that people of all religions and all walks of life, for the most part, seemed to coexist together in relative harmony: Hindus and Buddhist share temples as well as holidays, Ri and Sherpa work together in the mountains, men and women sip tea together in local coffee shops. Unlike many of its neighbors, Nepal at least strives for equality and harmony. There are still problems and a long way to go, but people seem to understand that a society that values equality is more likely to thrive.

I have traveled all over the world and spent time in many societies, cultures, and ethnic groups. Every collection of people and systems has their positives and negatives and their own “feel.” Nepali people possess something rare though, something you won’t find if you don’t go looking for it. They possess perspective. This manifests itself in an inner peace and warmth that you can’t deny or ignore if you spend any time there. A friend described it by saying, “If you meet a Nepali in a bar he will take a bullet for you after one beer.” This isn’t because he can’t hold his alcohol. This is because connection is a virtue and generosity is as valuable as the entire world’s gold. We left Nepal with a deep love and respect for its people. We also left with a profound desire to re-evaluate our own lives and try to bring change in our own society. For all its inadequacies, Nepal has much to teach about what life means and why we are all here.

PERSONAL LESSONS AND CHANCES FOR GROWTH

Travel and service provide more opportunities for learning and growth than any other activity you can engage in. More than school. More than work. More than watching Game of Thrones or playing Call of Duty. I firmly believe that engaging with the larger world and seeking to understand and experience other people can alter the course of history for all of humanity. How much we learned and brought back with us from just three months in a single country is more than the previous 30 years of my life combined. It is exceedingly difficult to get people to buy this, but not believing it doesn’t make it less true.

If I had to place one lesson at the top of the list of thousands, it would have to be the understanding that “happiness” in life comes from taking control of how we perceive and interact with the world around us. I use quotations because the concept of pursuing happiness, it seems, is the wrong thing to go after. Nepali people understand this and it shows in their lives. There is a saying in Nepal that sums this up: ke garne. This basically means “what to do?” It usually comes with a head bob and a shrug of the shoulders as well. Nepali people use this in all situations.

I lost my keys! Ke garne.

My coffee is cold. Ke garne.

My house fell down and my family was killed in an earthquake. Ke garne.

This last one is not an exaggeration and is where this lesson really hits home. We can’t control earthquakes. We can’t control time or weather or other people. What we do with what life gives us will determine our happiness, or better yet, our enjoyment of life. Again, it is not exactly fatalism, but a deep trust in the balance of life and the understanding that enjoyment of life comes from within. In our society this is a rare concept and one that I never truly understood and probably still don’t. What happens to me is not completely in my control. Sure, I can make choices, pursue goals, and live life how I choose. But ultimately how I react to the inputs life gives me is where I exert my control and power over my life. This concept can lead to contentment, something we are all lacking and something I hope to continue growing in.

Without the need to control all things or the unending feeling that life isn’t fair because bad things happen to me, Nepali people are left with the ability to connect with the world around them in a profound way. Each moment is unique and beautiful and will never happen again so to honor that we must experience it. That connection to the spiritual, to nature, and to human beings is another lesson I learned and have brought home. Nepal taught me to engage with the world around me and not view it as something to be controlled or tolerated. That life happens in the space between our own selfishness and the unseen thread that binds us all together, where we find those things that hold true value. It is not easy to break 30 years of bad habits, but three months in Nepal has grown my understanding and given me a good foundation on which to continue my education.

I am profoundly grateful for my experience in Nepal and Kolena and I both cherish every moment we spent there: the sunrise puja at the mountain monastery, the freezing night in a tent at 17,000 feet, the warm tea and warmth of a friend, and even Kolena crashing into a ditch on a bicycle and ending up covered in what I can only hope was mud. There are too many unique experiences to recount but they all add up to something deep and mysterious. They add up to the fact that there is a beautiful world out there filled with amazing people, breathtaking scenery, and true glory that we will never see if we don’t go. If we choose to be stagnant and not challenge ourselves to be uncomfortable we will end up, well, comfy. Learning does not happen in comfort. Change does not come in comfort. Enjoyment and yes, even happiness, does not exist in comfort. At the end of my life I will not think back on the cushy desk job, the three bedroom, two bath rambler on 1.5 acres, or the plot of some trashy TV show. I will think back on love, on experience, and on the connections I made with people through service and through placing myself in someone else’s shoes, if only for a brief moment. I might also think that it probably wasn’t mud she fell in, but what do I know.

-Tanner & Kolena

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