As visitors to a foreign land and culture, we were swept away by what Nepal had to offer: Sweeping vistas, delicious fresh food, welcoming people, fascinating traditions. But once in a while, we encountered events that compel us to examine the experience presented to us not merely as temporary tourists, but as global citizens. They allowed us the opportunity to set aside our romantic notions of travel and contemplate our personal impacts on the local land and people. These moments occasionally left us feeling conflicted, but we ultimately welcomed them, for exploring the beautiful and the terrible provided a richer and more rounded representation of our time in Nepal. Our journey reminded us about the importance of being open and appreciative towards a different way and pace of life, but it also taught us that we must also exercise critical thinking and honest self-reflection while examining these experiences.
October 22nd – A reminder
A knee-jarring thousand-meter descent laid between the cloud-veiled village of Tadapani and the rejuvenating hotsprings of Jhinu. We journeyed down the steep winding trail with glad hearts, for the view of mountain and forest in the golden light of the morning left us in good spirits, and we were soon greeted by some of the most spectacular vistas to date at the village of Chuile. Across the deep valley, terraced fields formed neat wrinkles on the sheer skin of the steep mountain slope. Next to them, a great gash cut across the bands of contiguous green, exposing a shock of grey barren rock. Nature has its terrible surprises. Amidst the implacable slowness of geologic time lies punctuated instances of change; in a fit of indifferent destruction, the enormous landslide had sloughed off all traces of life and human habitation, doing in seconds what erosion does in eons.
Remarkable scenery were not the only things of note. Hiking down the steep slopes, we suddenly heard the piercing mournful wail of a child echo across the valley. But we had not encountered a single crying child in our time in Nepal. Puzzled and disturbed, we arrived at the source of the sound minutes later, at a farm where two villagers had just finished dispatching a goat. One held the headless creature upside down by its hind legs, dangling it over the other who collected the trickle of dark blood in a large bowl. The goat head laid on the grass, staring vacantly ahead, uncomprehending. We also did not understand until we discovered that it was the eighth day of Dashain, Nepal’s biggest festival of the year. On this important day blood from animal sacrifices are offered to appease Kali, Durga’s most ferocious incarnation. We were glad to be in the mountains and not in the city, where the streets literally stain red with the blood of thousands of goats, chicken, and buffalos.
As memorable as these events were, there was one image that lingered in our minds from this day. It was of a Nepali women, sitting alone several feet away from the steep stone steps of the trail we came down on. She paid us no attention and we did not see her face. Texting away on her cellphone, she tended to a smouldering pile of cardboard, packaging and wrappings. The sight and the smell of the burning waste reminded us of an incident from the previous day.
October 21st – Actions and consequences
The frosty chill of early morning greeted us as we prepared to leave behind the town of Ghorepani and trek to Tadapani. Caught up in the frenzy of packing, craving the warmth of a hot shower, and groggy from an uneasy night’s sleep, we were looking for a place to dispose of our garbage.
“I take it,” a porter said with a familiar friendly smile as he proceeded to whisk away our ziploc bag of accumulated candy wrappers, tissues, plastic wrap and empty pill bottles. We gave the matter no more thought, and journeyed forth eagerly to see the beautiful landscapes in the next leg of our trek. It was not until we saw this women and smelled the caustic aroma of burning plastic that we returned to the guest house of Ghorepani.
“What else are they doing to do with it? Carry it back down the mountain on the donkeys?” A fellow trekker in our group remarked later on in the day when the topic of garbage came up. “That plastic bag you gave them, they just toss it into that fireplace of theirs in the main dining lodge for heat. Burn everything.”
A wave of shock and embarrassment washed over us. In hindsight, it was not a huge mistake. But it’s often the little actions we take that seem of little significance to others that shape who we are. They are the events that few people notice, but are unforgettable to ourselves. When we recall those small failings, they hurt and shame us extraordinarily, unreasonably. We prided ourselves on being responsible tourists, on understanding cause and effect. We knew that waste does not simply vanish because it is out of sight. Someone has to collect it and do something with it. In a fragile mountain environment, there are limited options for waste treatment. We should know better.
We thought back to the central fireplace in the communal dining lodge around which guides and porters gathered to warm up and converse and hang damp shirts and socks to dry, the dirty, dingy, ramshackle piece of beaten sheet metal that belched black smoke. Fire is regarded as a purifying force in Nepali culture, but in such a confined and poorly ventilated space, it acts more as an agent of premature death. We knew that soot, particulates, and dioxins from incomplete combustion are major causes of respiratory diseases and cancers. The image of the woman breathing in the fumes from a burning pile of garbage, garbage left behind by tourists like us, reinforced the potential implications of our unthinking and uncaring act, done for the sake of convenience, and magnified our remorse.
Yet out of this internal guilt came a renewed commitment to understand the ramifications of our actions. We thought deeper and more critically about our responsibilities as temporary visitors and global citizens. We honestly asked ourselves some uncomfortable questions. What are our immediate impacts on the area as tourists? How do our demands for foreign foods and hot showers affect the local landscape and economy? What lasting effects do we have on the collective psyche of the communities we fleetingly visit? How do the ideas of our lifestyles and our behaviour shape the lives of people in these remote villages?
Do we do more harm than good as tourists from a socioecological standpoint?
Balancing the Romantic and the Realistic
Trekking through the mountains, we were privy to the best Nepal had to offer, sheltered and shuttled from attraction to attraction. Our hearts would often drift back to those mountain communities illuminated by sunbeams, to the cherubic faces of smiling children, the unspoken beauty and bounty of that land of green and gold described in the previous entry. The appeal of this seemingly simpler way of living was immensely alluring; we relished the possibility of living in a slower and deeper time. Coming from a society profoundly disconnected from the natural rhythms of life, we cannot help but compare this way of life favourably in contrast to ours.
“What wonderful lives they have here. They have everything they need. We should be more like them.”
Memories like the women burning garbage compel us to examine the same experience with a more critical eye. We deconstructed the idyllic veneer built up by our own romantic preconceptions and intentional naivety. Our thoughts turned back to the people of the mountain villages; we ask ourselves if we would switch places with them. We were forced to admit that we would not. Life here is harsh throughout much of the year. The most basic of necessities cannot be taken for granted; minor inconveniences in our everyday lives are life-threatening events here. Opportunities for education and self-actualization are virtually non-existent, stifled by pervasive dogma, desperate poverty, and harmful superstition. We are reminded of daily life here by the men and women who scale the mountains in tattered flip flops, compressed and burdened by huge loads of supplies on their backs and heads. As tourists, we came at the best time of the year, sheltered from the oppressively humid heat of the monsoon season and the biting cold of the winter months. We squirmed in discomfort at the notion of eking out a life on these mountain slopes in such geographic and cultural solitude.
This thought exercise helped us realize that there are standards beneath which we will not go. Controlled climates, modern medicine, hot showers, physical mobility, individual freedom, mental stimulation: These are all products of a technologically sophisticated society formed by diversified culture and a stable economy. Given the choice between our lives in relative comfort and theirs, so tenuously connected to the outside world by donkeys and unreliable roads, there is no contest. We choose the comforts of home, even with its numerous problems.
“What impoverished lives they lead. They have so little and need so much.”
These were the two contrasting perspectives we struggled with during our trek in the mountains. These two modes, the Romantic and the Realistic, are obviously in some tension; residing solely in either of these extremes is problematic, as the two statements above do not fully represent the reality of the situation. While being overly romantic can lead to self-delusion, being overly clinical can render one impervious to genuinely exciting adventures and ideas.
We sought a middle ground between the receptive heart and the reasoning mind. We dropped romantic proclamations that living in a subsistence agricultural society that utilizes low technological inputs and intense human capital is something we should strive for. As a path forward, it is both unrealistic and undesirable for the vast majority of humanity. But we recognized many of the advantages offered by a slower-paced society: a rekindling of connections to land and life, an awareness of strong communal bonds and short feedback loops, a shift in mindset to work with natural cycles rather than in ignorance of them. These are much-needed ideas that we must attempt to incorporate into our own society if we are to forge a more resilient and sustainable future.
Next Up: Exploring the Ekostory of a people.