Nepal’s universal lessons

The novelty of this country’s beauty will likely never be lost on me. I have seen head high stalks of golden wheat waver in the afternoon breeze, marveled as they caught a reflection of light that made them sparkle like ocean water on a sunny day. I’ve watched as mist cast itself like a blanket over boundless mountain ranges, fell asleep to the lullaby of a thunderous rainstorm. I’ve seen day by day saplings grow into trees, caterpillars into butterflies, the land morph from winter to spring.

I have walked numerous miles through these mountains for countless hours, for reasons that even now are not perfectly clear to me. Did I come here to find my life’s purpose? Or to find something as trivial as adventure? Undoubtedly, I have a found share of both.

People had asked me quite insistently why I was coming back to Nepal, and I always had the strategic response prepared for when they did. There’s of course, the easy answers that are deeply true. My commitment to this project, my love of this land, my connection to the village, and to all the people I’ve met while here. But in many ways, those are surface level answers, that only address the singular meaning within the context of my singular life.

It would be disingenuous of me if I didn’t admit that I returned for selfish reasons. Here, in these illustrious hills, I am hidden from a certain type of reality. The expectations and niceties of modern society do not intrude on my life. But how privileged and close-minded of me, to hide within the real-life circumstances of impoverished people on the other side of the world? I am no stranger to my own pretences.

Doing this work has pushed me to ask difficult questions, ones that I am still not fully equipped to answer. Such as: what does it mean to help people? How do we definitively know when we do? What does it mean to bridge cultural divide? How do you find proof of it? What does it mean to truly trust one another? How do we create change within the systems we’re given? Do good intentions amount to much in the grand scheme of the world’s conflicts?

Despite the destruction of barriers, I am aware that I come from a world that the community I serve does not fully understand. This goes both ways. I exist in a realm of acute individuality, while many of their lives are intrinsically entwined with the lifebloods of their families. I am forever in awe of these dichotomies, of the separate realities that exist side-by-side, to allow a melding of understandings from opposite sides of the spectrum.

Nepal is so much more than enamored mysticism and prayer flags. It is a land of both intense poverty and generous abundance, deep divisions and shared fanatic national identity. Its people are both astoundingly passionate and at times jadedly apathetic. It is both beautiful and destructive, as flawed as it is perfect. Nepal is a metaphor for humanity in more ways than I can begin to convey — but I suppose as are the behaviors of any people, in every place, anywhere in the world.

But for a funny little foreigner like me, there is a magic here that reminds me so sharply the arbitrariness of my existence, the happenstance of my birth, of being able to experience the world as I do. I am so profoundly enraptured by this place so fundamentally different from the reality I once knew. And at the same time, my ability to discover patterns and parallels in human behavior, across cultures and continents, fascinates and fulfills me in ways I’m still learning to understand.

Living in different places for months at a time has taught me a lot about the tendency of human behavior to move towards polarity. Though it’s internal happenings don’t gain as much international attention, the country is shuddering under the same pressures of industrialization, polarized political conflict, and extreme wealth disparity as much as the rest of the world.

I have learned to recognize the insidiousness of patriarchy in all its forms, how it transforms itself into an easily palatable poison to the point that many don’t even notice. Like in the US, there are persistent preconceptions and prejudices against poor and working class people. There is such a level of government corruption that many people are discouraged from fighting for accountability, and at times lack motivation for civil engagement.

Like the Philippines, Nepal struggles from the destabilization of work diaspora, families split apart in search of greater opportunities; young people choosing to work abroad because ultimately there are few relevant financial prospects at home. This is also a consequence of imbalanced socio-political dynamics established through history, with much of the country’s abundant resources under the vice of Chinese and Indian government control.

Like nearly everywhere else in the world, Nepalis are disillusioned by their government. Asking people in this country to not just trust in the work we do together, but to believe that they themselves are capable of creating change, is sometimes a constant uphill battle. Many people in my own country don’t even believe this about themselves.

But here’s the thing: when you choose to believe you are not capable of creating change, you then evade your own responsibility to help others, simply because you don’t think it is actually possible. You then continue to perpetuate the same systems that destroy the earth, that create apathy, that allow things to continue as normal.

The struggle here is universal. How do you convince people to care about the greater good? To be willing to work hard and make sacrifices, not for their own self-advancement, but to improve the livelihoods of others? For a community? For a country? For the world?

Nepal hasn’t taught me how to convince non-believers, but has showed me something else more important. That there are people who have lived entirely different lives, experienced far more difficult realities than I could ever fathom, and yet also share the same vision for the world as I do. Narayan Bhatterai, or Mama as we lovingly call him, is not just one of the longest employed members of Conscious Impact, but also one of our deepest inspirations. He is the type of man who not only wants to fight for the same world I do, but has taught me more about it than I could ever learn in a classroom.

Jenisha, my partner who ran the Girls Empowerment group with me these past few months, is one of the most inspirational and loving women I’ve met, and her connection and passion for empowering young girls in her community blew me away. Both Jenisha and Mama exemplify willingness to lift others up, to see another person’s individual happiness and security to be as important as their own.

My work is not about coming here and helping Nepalis with my knowledge, as if I know what is truly good for a country I am an outsider of. My work is about uplifting the people here who believe in change, and are truly capable of it. Who understand that by sharing our abundance, we bring ourselves closer to the source of our humanity. Their friendships have taught me that the limitations and boundaries of language and lived experience do not restrict the depth of connections possible between people — not when you are willing to open your heart.

I am now driven by this desire, to continue building mutual bridges of understandings between realities — to find common ground in our desires for meaning and love and family, in our deepest despairs and sadnesses, in shared ambitions and achievements. Because isn’t that what it means to be human at the end of the day? To achieve true understanding between beings of consciousness, however futile it may actually be?

Rather than end this with my own words, I’ll leave you with something Mama had said not too long ago, and has continued to resonate with me. If you’ve made it this far, I hope it does with you as well.

“The benefits we receive as individuals are not large. We are not taking any things with us, yet we try to earn so much to have sufficient things. We come into this world with empty hands, live in nature, step on this earth, breathe the air, drink the water, get warmth from fire. And when we die, we leave empty handed. We reach again the water, and are burned by the flame, mixing our soul back into the fire. We take only the satisfaction that we drew from our own lives, and the thoughts that others had of us, when we die.”

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