Final thoughts… Farewell to Nepal (for now)

As I now sit in the Delhi airport, my state of denial is fading, it is finally beginning to sink in—the semester is over, I am no longer in Kirtipur. In this international zone that, aside from the increased quality of Indian food and presence of a “prayer room” sign next to “smoking room” sign, could be anywhere in the world, it is starting to become real. I feel so far from the world of squat toilets and nesam phiriri. Over the course of the past few hours I have shed so many tears, and written so much in my journal. There is so much to comprehend, so much to process, so much to attempt to reconcile; I am finding it difficult to decipher what I should include in a blog post. Four months ago, I sat here, in this same booth in Delhi airport. I feel like such a different person. In all honesty, I feel like a different person today than I did just a week ago. Rather than try to describe this perceived change in sentiment – I don’t think I can- I’d rather tell a story of a run that I went on a few days ago.

            Bright and early, 5am, I set off from the program house. I ran down the path past the falling-down pile of bricks with weeds sprouting at odd angles, a pile of bricks whose peculiar beauty I have felt obliged to photograph frequently over past months, each instance with different intention. I ran through the opening in the stone wall of the Tribhuvan University border, over the rocky segment and through what appears to be fields of wheat, even in this semi-urban area. I ran past the T.U. Botany Department, and down through the path towards the forested area, my favorite place in the vicinity. In the early morning, this patch, a ‘forest’ of sorts, is filled with cows—cows with no owners, cows that just roam the streets and create traffic jams and graze through garbage by the riverside, cows that exist in this perpetual state of wandering because its normal in a former Hindu Kingdom. In Nepal, it’s normal. I ran past the cows that do not recognize my intrusion, and along a path through a series of trees that have recently sprouted the most beautiful purple flowers high in their branches. “Blue Mimosas”, they are apparently called. The forest floor is scattered with their fallen petals. And the sun was shining at such a perfect early morning angle, even the garbage scattered appeared to belong in the scene.

            I continued along this path, and soon arrived at my destination– Kirtipur community ‘yoga’ session. I’ve known this existed from Til Dai’s stories, but never before this day had the impulse to rise at 5. But lo and behold, I seem to be the only one that fears early mornings—literally hundreds of Nepalis were all gathered in this square, performing what from a distance seemed to be an interpretive squidward-esque dance routine! As I ran closer, I could see that they were in fact jumping up and down waving their arms in synchrony. I soon approached and joined in the movements; a bizarre series of actions, again so far from what I conceive as yoga in the US, but also so far from the calm meditative teachings of Yoga Sir during class at CNSP. It reminded me more of an aerobics or zumba class, but with the occasional down dog and backbend. The session included an extended session of “laughter yoga”, a phenomenon I know of thanks to Holidays with my ever-inspiring Uncle Sam. The actions continued for the next thirty minutes ago, with new dance/jumping moves to my bewildered excitement.  Such an energy was created, such a life force, such a vortex, a concept that as Justine feels emerges wonderfully spontaneously in Nepal. I should mention that almost all the women were wearing full kortha sherwalls alongside their nike running shoes. It was beautiful—all these people, of all ages, all genders, all castes, gathered together so early in the morning, performing movements that in the US would belong to a strange cult on a college campus. I was so struck by this sense of community, and this humility and sheer comfort with what others might perceive silly. But in Nepal, it’s normal; only a foreign perspective would question these motives. But I did not feel like an outsider—I felt as though this bizarre 5 am ‘yoga’ session was precisely where I belonged at that moment. As the sun rose into the sky, and cast a golden-reddish glint upon the trash-covered lawn, the session was over. Those surrounding me stood up and began to wander off, back to their respective lives. I too, followed suit, and continued my run past the patch of giant orange flowers, and towards the CNSP program house.  Effectively, I ran past an entire semester for which a ‘bizarre community yoga session’ presents an oddly accurate metaphor, towards this moment, now, in transit towards another reality.

            There is a peculiar beauty about this community yoga session, about the sun shining on garbage strewn all around, about the uneven pile of bricks with weeds protruding out. There is a peculiar beauty about how these excerpts from the fabric of Nepali life are normal, are completely acceptable, are even beautiful. I have fallen in love with this peculiar beauty, and this overwhelming sense of community and humility. In many ways, I think I have fallen in love with Nepal.

 

            As I sit on airplane home, I already miss the program house, the CNSP family (perhaps an extension of Nepali culture’s importance placed on ‘family unit’), the experience of conducting research (remarkably turned out very well according to my professors), the conversations, the laughs, the tears, the spices, the colors. But as a good friend of mine, Santosh, mentioned yesterday, the act of “missing” is not the Nepali way. While sitting at a pond feeding carp amidst a sun shower in Bhaktapur, it dawned on me—moments like those I have had this past semester are now memories, forever engrained in my mind, in photographs, in stories. I can embrace their existence and love and learn from them, but not dwell forever on past merit. In Nepali language, there is no translation for the word “To miss”, rather they say “Samjaanu” which translates to “To remember”. Looking back at this most inspirational four months, I must embody this linguistic construction—Its important not to live in the past, recreating memories, and obsessing over time gone by, a pattern I have at moments been plagued by. Longing for nostalgia has led to frustration and regret. Rather, it’s important to say “Ma samjanchhu”, I remember. My semester in Nepal will stay with me forever, and I know that I am coming back, in some capacity. Be it for research upon graduating undergrad, or work later in life, I know I will again call this country home.

            As I sit in this airport, a location that is the physical embodiment of transport, of transition, I realize this semester is indeed over. I will be home in the New York and Connecticut area for just ten days, long enough to have a bagel and sushi, and for reverse culture shock to emerge. Then, it’s off to the next adventure, as I am so fortunate to be interning this summer at the UNHCR Environment Unit headquarters, in Geneva Switzerland. I am going from a country with a unique zigzag shaped flag and microbuses, to a land of structure and normalcy. From Dal Bhaat to fondue—I can hardly imagine a starker contrast. And that scares me. But I find it interesting how Nepal is often referred to as the Switzerland of Asia; I wonder if I can find elements in which the reverse might also be true. In all honesty, I’m quite nervous, but if there is anything I’ve learned these past four months, it’s that everything will be alright. I am leaving this semester feeling more empowered, more at peace, more humbled, more inspired, and with a love of community and place pervading my mindset… Ma Nepal Samjanchhu. 

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Reflections on Research Period

My research period has been challenging in ways I have never before experienced. I found myself pushed to extremes, emotionally, mentally, and physically.

Essentially, I spent the period moving from village to village, staying with various host families and interviewing as many key informants and households as time and subject availability would allow. I have met some of the most wonderful, generous, and inspiring people. I have had nights sleeping with nothing but my sleeping bag on wood floor of kitchen, and others in warmth of a teahouse bed. I have had moments laughing in hysterics, and moments in tears. I was fortunate enough to have arrived in one village, Ngawal, during the annual “Tir” archery festival, and experience a slice of traditional, though ever evolving, Manangi culture. I was constantly amazed at how the forces of globalization are melding with tradition in such a remote district. There was one period of 24 hours where I ate nothing but buckwheat flour and water (in various combinations, ‘Dedo’ a raw dough like substance, or ‘Roti’ pancake form).  I conducted interviews accompanied by my research assistant Kamal, and while in Ghyaru also our host family ‘Bahini’, and at other times conducted interviews solo—each with such a distinct dynamic. I became really good at Nepali Card games after befriending a few porters. Any time anyone realized I was a white girl that could speak Nepali, I had an instant marriage proposal. At one point, a man half-jokingly asked not only for my phone number, but also for my father’s in the US, so he could formally ask for my hand. I walked through valleys of the most beautiful pine trees, through landslide areas, past ever-growing glacial lakes, and over the snow covered steep crevasse of Thorong La Pass. Despite having to leave the period early, I have collected a wealth of data from household surveys and key informants, and am very interested to see what results emerge in analysis.

I could go on and on with these random snippets, or I could give a day by day play by play, but perhaps a more interesting way to post about this research period is through a few key reflections I’ve had in retrospect… I realize the most valuable lessons from this time have nothing to do with Climate Change or Migration Patterns.

On Perfection…

No matter how certain I am that things will go a certain way, no matter how much effort I exert to ensure things are ‘perfect’, they wont be. These past few weeks, I’ve had to face my own failure, time and time again—data wasn’t as I had predicted, sheer lack of subjects (outmigration is incredibly apparent), language barriers, internal conflicts. And ultimately, I had to reconcile the immense frustration of illness and exhaustion, my own bodies’ physical failure. But I’ve come to realize, aiming for perfection is relatively futile and only leads to further frustration; in fact, it is precisely from the imperfections and unexpected circumstances that unforeseen beauty and silver linings can emerge.

On Humility…

There is something so deeply humbling about experience of living in a home stay, particularly living with my Aamaa and two Bahinis in Ghyaru. While I have in the past experienced living with a rural family in Sikles and other parts of the world, I have never before been so struck by my own inability to help, never before been so abruptly faced with my incapacity to have any positive impact. What could I do with my university degree? Conduct research about these people’s lives? Write a report about their livelihood patterns? Unlike Kamal, I could not fix their broken sickle melding in fire, or carry the water barrels uphill for twenty minutes using just a forehead strap, or even properly till the rocky cropland. As a guest I was told repeatedly not to perform any of these tasks, but nevertheless there were moments when I felt overwhelmingly useless. Definitely puts ‘education’ and ‘academia’ into perspective—again, incredibly humbling.

On the power of family, of community…

During a few of my household surveys, I became caught in conversations that strayed far from the content of questionnaire. One in particular lasted for well over an hour, with a man named Tashi in Ngawal VDC. Amidst our conversation, Tashi mentioned a phrase that translates unintentionally well into English– “Money is nothing, Mon is everything”. In Nepali, Mon is the word for heart, for soul, for love. (Side note: the word for “to like” in Nepali is Monparchha, meaning literally that something “falls onto ones heart”, another example of how beautifully passive Nepali language constructions are). In the context of this conversation, Tashi was describing how he believes that love, manifested as the power of family connections and networks of friendship, is stronger than any other force. He was expressing a bit of frustration at the Manangi entrepreneurial mentality, and describing how for him, love for family and community surpasses any business deal or obligation to pay money for religious purposes. Mon is everything. Throughout the research period I was also struck by how often Kamal spoke on the phone to his parents (in their late seventies), all of his eight brothers and sisters, and to his friends scattered across Nepal. It seems as though every hour someone else would call, just to check in, just to ask what he ate for Khaajaa, just because they genuinely care. As the simplicity of Tashi’s statement illuminates, the emphasis of family and community bonds is something that Nepalis value above all else; I think American culture has a lot to learn from this richness of human relations. No matter how ‘busy’ I perceive that I am, there should always be time for those whom I love. Since coming back to Kathmandu (and cell phone/internet access), I have been trying to adopt this mentality, and reach out to those whom I care deeply about. This is something that Nepali culture embraces so elegantly, yet I find such a struggle—moving forwards, I recognize that I need to be comfortable expressing love to family and community. You guys are the best, and I am so grateful for all of the support this semester and always… I love you.

While I certainly learned a lot from key informant and household interviews, in retrospect, I feel I learned more about myself, the way that I function, and of course the unending inspiration of the Nepali way of life. I’m sure more musings will make there way to this blog eventually, but for now I hope this will suffice…

Since returning to Kirtipur, I amazed at how quickly life has morphed back into a routine. I have language final exams, a final presentation, and a final research report to complete in the upcoming days– Back to the grind. Luckily, my fever has disappeared, and while there is still no official diagnosis, I have become a functioning human again. Just over two weeks left of this semester, and I’d really like to spend the time healthy!

Urgent Update: current status, more reflections on research to come…

Perhaps the most pressing update– I had to return from my research period a few days early, and have spent the past six nights at a CIWEC clinic in Kathmandu. Before I get too in depth in reflection on my research in another post (coming in next few days), let me first just clarify that I am ALIVE, and am on the road to recovery.

Towards the end of research, namely the night before I had to cross Thorong La Pass (5,416 meters or 17,769 feet above sea level, and titled worlds highest pass), I developed a very high fever. That morning, I woke up at 4 am to the most pristine milky way tattooed across the vast expanse of black stretched beyond grayish himalaya silhouettes, and downed quite a few Ibuprofen alongside my morning muesli. The journey up was slow, and characterized by an un-erica-esque lethargy; but with the help of a bite of chocolate, adrenaline from jumping photographs, and the power of suns rays against the snow, I made it to the summit by early morning! The way down from the pass was not as easy, I grew very sick and dehydrated, almost hysterical. I spent the rest of that day resting in Muktinath, trying to recover despite high fevers and periods of intense shaking/shivering/convulsing. The following morning I attempted to conduct interviews, and continue with research as planned, however by afternoon realized I needed to see a Doctor in Jomsom. Despite my desires to continue research and every effort to stay in the field, the program director Banu, my research assistant Kamal, a hotel owner in Jomsom, and finally, a call from my mother in the US, convinced me to fly to Kathmandu.  Looking retrospectively, I am so glad I made this decision– my health is more important than my research, or any experience for that matter.

Since flying from Jomsom to Pokhara and Pokhara to Kathmandu last Sunday, I have been living in CIWEC international clinic. The doctors and nurses here are truly wonderful– at this point, I know them all by name 🙂 My time here began with 3 liters of IV, as I was severely dehydrated; amazing how much better I felt with just enough fluid in my bloodstream. The journey towards a diagnosis has been complicated, and is still not resolved. At first they diagnosed only a urinary infection, but when my fevers still spiked despite appropriate antibiotics, they began to search for a second diagnosis. They have sent out numerous tests to India and France, and it is likely I will get a diagnosis when I am fully recovered. Luckily, the Cetrixone and Doxycyclin are working effectively and my fevers have decreased to the point of nonexistence.

The good news is — I am going to be discharged today! After 6 nights and what seems like infinite rounds of vitals tests, I will escaping the land of saltines and stethoscopes! Back to CNSP, back to normal, though I will come back to CIWEC clinic for daily checkup each day this week.

In many ways  this period of sickness has given me time to reflect on my research period, and my entire experience here in Nepal. As frustrated as I was at first, and despite the unfortunate timing, perhaps this period of six days to rest and reflect has been a gift. More reflections to come…

Updates and preparations for Independent Research

I realize I tend to write blog posts on the day before or immediately following a climatic event—perhaps it is because changes in the monotony of routine are moments of reflection, times when I can recognize both how incredible this experience is, but also how much I love and value all those stateside. Consider this post a shout-out, I love you all so much!

My time in Nepal has continued to be incredible. Despite the Kirtipur routine, every day brings a new adventure, and new opportunity to learn. For instance, to my roommate Huma’s hysteria I discovered yesterday that I have been using the squat toilets facing the wrong direction for the past two months. It still works… but nontheless quite an awkward discovery! I am also learning to function without dependence on technology, at moments out of necessity. Its embarrassing to think of the number of conversations and interactions I have failed to “LIVE” because I received an email or needed to play words with friends. Justine, a good friend of mine from Cornell and one of the most inspiring people I have ever met, told me she tries to approach every conversation as if it is the most important conversation she has ever had. This is a mentality I find very much reflected in Nepali culture, and one that I am trying to adopt.

But just as any semester at Columbia, there comes a time when work becomes dominating. I have spent the last week in particular glued to my computer, trying to finish off my Research Proposal and Contemporary Issues Class final research paper, a sum of over 40 pages of research and analysis. Work in Nepal does have inherent limits. There have been quite a few moments when I just got over writers block and was on a “roll” only to find out that it’s a load shedding period and my computer’s battery died. And then there is the ever-fickle internet… right now, CNSP has had no internet for a week, and I am again in Thamel internet café trying to send off a few last emails and this blog post prior to my research period. As frustrating as the lack of internet can be, particularly when I am trying to find an article or negotiate summer plans, I must continuously remind myself – “Ke Garne? Jiban Yestai Chha”. I feel there is an inherent hypocrisy to stressing out about Internet access for a research proposal about Climate Induced Migration, when for the communities whom I will be spending this research period, internet is the least of their concerns. Perspective.

So what exactly am I going to research? Good question. For context, my academic course of study has focused on the intersection of Sustainable Development and Human Rights disciplines, particularly the impact of environmental changes on livelihoods and community adaptation capacity. Throughout my semester in Nepal, I have become particularly interested in the nexus of Climate Change and Migration Patterns, both from the policy and demographic perspectives. Amidst the international scholarly discourse on this topic there is a duality of most urgent questions; the first pertains to the likely scale and patterns of such movements, while the second centers around the policy arena. After completing a rather overambitious paper on the approaches (Human Rights Law, Environmental Law, and Migration Law) through which Nepal can address this policy challenge, I am now shifting focus to field research, during which I hope to see the complexity of forces at play. While much research has been conducted in the Chitwan valley on environmentally induced migration, there have been very few studies in the in highly vulnerable mountainous region. On that note, I will be spending the next 21 days in the Manang and Mustang districts of the Nepal Himalaya, studying how the indigenous peoples are adapting to climactic changes, with particular focus on changing migration patterns. If anyone is interested beyond this initial scope, I would be more than glad to explain more, or email a copy of my proposal and report! I also should mention that I will be accompanied by Kamal Nepali, a masters student in the Tribuvahn University Botany Department, who will act as a translator and research assistant.

In all honesty, 21 days is a long time to embark on independent research. I’ve never had an experience remotely close to this, I’m a bit nervous. At CNSP we function in a highly controlled environment, with 9 PM (loose) curfew, structured classes, and even free time seems perpetually filled by watching movies, cards, and cooking. The next three weeks will be controlled by my own impulse, hiking from village to village, conducting household and community level interviews. I am essentially transitioning from an environment of ultimate rigidity to ultimate freedom. A period of three weeks of freedom, in one of the most remote and beautiful places in the entire world, the Himalaya mountain range. Every time I see photographs of Manang district, I literally squirm with excitement. I still can’t believe I am going to this snow-covered wonderland. Tomorrow.  Ahh!

And as my computer approaches 10 minutes left of power, and the sun starts to set on Kathmandu, I must post this blog post and set off for Kirtipur. Tomorrow morning at 5:30 AM, I will set off alongside Kamal to the ever cold and beautiful Manang and Mustang districts… Adventure is out there. Wish me luck!

Sikles, Trekking, World’s Largest Seder, and Holi!

As the second month of my time in Nepal draws to an end, marking the half way point of this semester, I realize I am long over due for an update!

Okay, rewind to my last blog post. The following five days were completely surreal, spent in Sikles, the village of one of our Nepali Students (Tanka Gurung). Compared to the hustle and bustle of life in New York City, and even in Kirtipur, village lifestyle is a drastic yet incredible contrast. Sikles is a Gurung village located in the Kaski district of Nepal, accessible by a 6 hour bus ride to Pokhara and then a 4+ hour jeep drive on unpaved “paths”. The presence of a road/”path” at all is a relatively new development, and has brought substantive changes to the community.  

My host family consisted of my Aamaa, Bahini (little sister), Didi (Older Sister who was also twenty, but since she’s married I figured it was only fair to call her Didi), and occasionally her husband Dilli who lived next door. My Baa, with whom I spoke on phone one evening, works in Saudi Arabia, and like so many males from Sikles, sends money home from Gulf countries to support his family. It’s a hard life style, but as the Nepali’s say in such circumstances “Ke Garne? Jiwan Yestai Chha” = “What to do? So is life”.

At first, our interactions consisted of simple conversations about weather and lifestyle, me asking how I can “Mahdad” (help) with every task, occasional game of charades, and the universal language of laughter and smiling. Over time, I realized there was another language through which we could communicate effectively – the visual image. At the end of each day my Aamaa and Bahini would ask to see my camera, and through showing/taking/pointing at videos and photos we were able to share a collective experience, and through discussion was able to exchange specific Nepali and Gurung words I would never have learned otherwise. Looking back at our time in Sikles, there is really no experience like full immersion to put one on a fast track to language comprehension– over the course of my time in Sikles I grew increasingly confident in language skills and I know have the courage to carry out a conversation beyond the classroom. 

The following week was spent on our “Spring Break” trekking from Tea house to Tea house on the Annapurna circuit. Rhododendron forests—need I say more? It was as if an artist saw the beautiful hill sides with Himalayan peaks in background, and said “Wow this is a beautiful place, but the only thing that would make more incredible is a splash of pink here and a dash of red there”… At moments I felt like I was living in a scene from the Lorax. And the Himalayas—I still cannot articulate the feeling of being surrounded by such glorious mountains. A Nepali friend of mine put it quite eloquently, “the rest of the world has nowhere to rest their eyes”. Aside from the spectacular views and the thrill of trekking, this was definitely a bonding experience. After the trip, I feel so much closer to all the Nepali students; I’m already missing our epic games of Call Break and impromptu evening dance parties.

Since returning to Kathmandu last Friday, life has again adjusted to a more normal routine. A routine with no Internet access, and consequently frequent trips in Thamel to find Internet Café’s. Himalayan Java is becoming my second home as I try to finalize research proposal and summer internships.  Beyond academic life, this past week CNSP encountered a reality check— Gregji, our program organizer, has contracted Dengue (or as they say in Nepal, Dengu) fever. Dengue fever is not supposed to exist in Nepal, and it seems as though the one mosquito that had crossed from India to the Terai region must have bit him during our stay in Chitwan. He has had serious fever and fluid in his lungs for the past few days, and only recently is recovering. The doctors say that his condition is improving, and after our visit yesterday to CIWEC Clinic it seems like he will return to CNSP in a few days time. Sending him good vibes at all times.

On a more exciting note, this past Monday was Passover. And guess where the world’s largest Passover Seder is? Kathmandu! Who would have thought? So this past Monday, I navigated to the Chabad house, and amidst seemingly infinite numbers of Israeli backpackers made our way to a Banquet hall outside of Thamel. The Seder itself was a really interesting experience, I ended up at the “English speakers” table which had perhaps 30 people of incredibly diverse backgrounds and ages, and was much more intimate than the “Hebrew Speakers” tent. Sitting next to me was an expat family who lives in New Delhi and traveled to Kathmandu for the sole purpose of attending this Seder. I also met a Bolivian woman and her adorable children who married an American man working at Kathmandu USAID office. A very strange assortment of people whom for independent and bizarre reasons ended up in Kathmandu, and chose to come to share this night together. In a very strange way, it felt like a family. While I initially had hesitations, I am so glad that I went. I am also going to hold a mini-Seder for CNSP tomorrow evening! We will be using wasabi for horseradish and saltines for Matzoh, so it should be interesting. 

And finally, today was Holi ceremony in Nepal! Holi is the festival of Colors, and essentially involves a paint battle of epic proportions. It amazes me how an entire Nation will take a day off (from work, school, all commitments) solely to throw paint at each other and to have a blast! Well, also Holi comes from Hindu story of the burning of Holika, and the celebration is the triumph of good over evil.  Unlike on Columbia Campus, in Nepal Holi is an all day (or even all week) affair. Walking through streets of Kirtipur we have to be on constant watch, as someone might peg you with a pigment filled water balloon at any moment. SO much fun. Blue, Red, Green, Yellow. Pigment deep down to the roots of my hair, paint filled every pore, and wow, did that shower feel fantastic.

Now I am afraid my ramblings must come to an end, as I really need to finalize my research proposal. Namaste for now. 

“Midterm” Season at CNSP

Since returning from Chitwan and Lumbini, my life has returned to a more academic tone. It seems as though it is “midterm insanity” period back at Columbia, and correspondingly, this past week has been quite busy at CNSP as well. This past tuesday (Mangalbar) we had our language midterm– despite Sunita, Angela, and Sarita’s incredible patience, grasping a new language and an entirely new script is more challenging than one might anticipate. Nonetheless, after much studying and seemingly infinite quantity of flash cards, the exam went well.

Beyond our language midterm, this week I also had to submit a research techniques observation report, a proposal for my final Contemporary Issues class research paper, and file for Cornell IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval for my independent research period. Retrospectively, this has been quite a busy, yet productive week. An update: I will be conducting research about the Impact of Climate Change on Migration Patterns in indigenous agricultural mountain communities (Manang District of Himalaya). After meetings with both a GIS specialist at ICIMOD (International Center for Integrated Mountain Development) and the director of Climate Adaptation programs at WWF (World Wildlife Fund), I am feeling increasingly excited for my research period. It was quite empowering to have had meetings with representatives from both organizations, and even more inspiring to learn about where my intended research fits into the broader context of Climate Adaptation in Nepal. While I am still in the process of ironing out methodology and proposal details, I am feeling less frustrated and more excited about my research trajectory.

After a busy and, at times stressful, few days, the next two weeks will be quite a lovely source of contrast. I leave tomorrow at 5:00 am for Sikles village for a week long research practicum and home stay. I am a bit nervous, as my family’s first language is Gurung (a Tibeto-Burman language), and second is Nepali, with no knowledge of English. In light of my limited Nepali skills, I have a feeling the next week of my life will involve a lot of pantomime and charades… And also cultural immersion and a glimpse of village life! And then our village homestay will be followed by a week of trekking (aptly timed with Columbia’s Spring Break) in the Annapurna region! Again, I must reiterate that this life is surreal.

This blog post is also meant to serve as a warning that I will not have any access to internet from now until March 22. My apologies in advance if I do not respond to emails/messages in a prompt manner.

Wish me warmth, sleep, and language adaptability!

Love,

Erica

Lumbini and Chitwan

The four days we spent in Lumbini and Chitwan were a few of the most intense, amazing, and memorable (spiritually, emotionally, physically) in my entire life.

On Saturday morning we (7 American students, 8 Nepali students, Greg, Summey, and Til Dai) set off at 5:30 am. Our incredibly long drive was an adventure in it of itself, as we sang Hindi songs and attempted to nap, and our bus skidded down bumpy roads past snow capped peaks, infinite fields of mustard seeds, and a detour to visit Bikram’s family home in a Tharu village. On one Khaajaa break, I witnessed a young boy and his father prepare a pig for the butcher, right on the side of the road. Despite the image of the bloody headless creature’s limbs appearing to run and nerves spazzing frantically, forever engrained in my mind, the traumatizing experience did not bother me as much as watching documentary like Food Inc– I’m sure that the boy’s family will utilize every ounce, and that the pig had a much more pleasant life roaming the mid hills than it would in a pig farm in the states. Nonetheless, I am still a vegetarian, a wonderful and remarkably easy decision in “Dal Bhaat” nation like Nepal.

After a long and adventurous bus ride we finally arrived in Lumbini– the birth place of Buddha. This is the location that archeologists believe Queen Mayadevi gave birth to Prince Siddharta Gautama, who at age 29, became Lord Buddha. While there is some skepticism from modern archeologists as to whether or not the spot is actually in Lumbini, this is a place of pilgrimage for so many from around the world. I felt overwhelmed with honor to simply BE there. There is a beautiful energy around Lumbini– a subtle reverberation of life and assertion that we are meant to be ALIVE. The Mayadevi temple grounds were beautiful– prayer flags, a pond where it is believed Buddha was first bathed, flowers, trees ideal to meditate under (or in). But more important than the physical location, was the overwhelming sense of spirituality that permeated our collective mindset, so powerful I felt a piercing pain in my forehead. On our walk back from the Maya Devi temple, Justine, Micah, and I had a conversation that I maintain was one of the most important in my life — in a sense we engaged in Sanga (one of the Jewel’s of Buddhism implying shared community). Our thoughts meandered from spirituality to peace, to love, to  this notion of being ALIVE, and now my reiteration is not doing our experience justice. Rarely in my life have I had a moment when I felt so vulnerable, so connected, so much love and gratitude, so at peace, and was so sure that I was exactly where I was meant to be at that moment. Lumbini is a peace vortex, if you will.

The remainder of our time at Lumbini was spent visiting the seemingly infinite number of monasteries that scatter the grounds. Many nations from around the world have constructed structures characteristic of their own national identity at the spot of Buddha’s birth, a UNESCO world heritage sight. After visiting many (China, Korea, Thailand, Burma amongst others), the one I found most fascinating was the Japanese Peace Pagoda, constructed in the aftermath of World War II. Such a peaceful and meditative spot. Despite the diversity of our backgrounds (Mostly Hindu Nepali’s, and Catholic, Protestant, Agnostic, Jewish American students), it seemed like we were all in awe by this incredible place.

Later that afternoon we departed Lumbini for Chitwan, a four hour drive of Hindi songs interspersed with the occasional Justin Bieber song (who is surprisingly popular in Nepal… when I mentioned I once saw him in a Thai restaurant in NYC, the Nepali students were quite excited).

Our stay in Chitwan National Park was truly a “once in a life time” experience, it felt like we were living a scene from the Discovery Channel. I would say “Life” meets “The Jungle Book”. In the span of one day– we saw gohi (crocodiles) just feet away (close enough to glimpse the toothy smile) and seemingly infinite charaa (birds) from a dugout canoe, visited an elephant (haatti) breeding center, saw wild peacocks on a walk through jungle, bathed on (and by… and with…) elephants, talked to amazing man with the “local”ist of local honey bees, and saw a full grown Rhino just ten feet away while riding on an elephant for a Safari through National Forest. Never before in my life have I been so close to so many varieties of Megafauna, nor have I ever taken a shower literally out of the trunk of an elephant! So much fun, so many laughs, and such amazing bonding with everyone involved. Also, SO SO SO many photographs– I promise to upload a selection in the upcoming days to facebook– take a look if you get the chance. In terms of satisfying my unending thirst for adventure, Chitwan was beyond anything I could have imagined.

However, as incredible as this experience was from a tourist perspective, as a student interested in environmentally-induced migration patterns, Chitwan has an incredibly dark side. In many ways, the inverse of most instances under study in Nepal, in that efforts for environmental protection rather than degradation caused displacement. There is the brutal reality that in order to create such a pristine National Park, the Nepali government forcibly removed all of the Indigenous communities in the district. Tharu peoples have lived in the Chitwan region for hundreds of years, and upon King Mahendra’s decision to make the park “protected”, they were told they must leave the land of their ancestors and every facet of their livelihoods. During a visit to a Tharu village and museum, I was captivated by a photo exhibit about individual experiences living outside of the National Park in “Buffer Zones”. There are accounts of houses being burned and army officials dragging mothers and children away in the most violent of manners. I left the Tharu museum feeling so conflicted– as an environmentalist, I am so amazed at the diversity and beauty of Chitwan National Park, yet as a human rights activist, there is something deeply unsettling about this disruption of livelihoods. Today, there are efforts to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into conservation and to ensure that the displaced peoples retain livelihoods, and can benefit from the increased tourism and income generation from park. Nonetheless, as I keep finding again and again in Nepal, circumstances are far more complicated and deeply rooted than meets the eye.

Overall, our experiences in Chitwan and Lumbini are going to remain with me for the rest of my life. Never have I felt so spiritually, emotionally, and physically exhilarated in such a short span of time.

Now back to Kirtipur for a few weeks of routine before a Village homestay research project, and our ever closer research period. I have a Nepali language midterm on Tuesday, and after meetings with both ICIMOD and WWF have been working intensely on shaping my final research project. Overall, in response to all of the emails and wonderful messages, I am doing quite well.

Exactly one month (TODAY) has passed since my arrival in Nepal, and I am feeling so fortunate that I still have three more months to go!