Nepal: The Poor and The Proud

Kathmandu

    First thought of Nepal fresh off of the plane, “Well, this sure ain’t no Taipei!” Lol. But it was real! I was in no way prepared for what I was about to see! From the plane, you see the beautiful snow caps of the Himalayas and then slowly descend into a very visible brown smog that I quickly learns was the dust and dirt kicked up from the towns roads, or lack thereof. I have never in my life seen poverty to this degree. There is virtually no infrastructure that is conducive for transportation through the city, walking through the city or even living in it. “Roads” that diminish into huge craters, rubble, and dirt – I’m talking jagged holes and broken concrete that is more than capable of effing up your ride in a major way. 


    The houses/stores…I can hardly explain what I saw. Huts doesn’t even seem to fit the images that are burned into my memory. Some houses were made of stone with tin roofs – but very tiny, very dark and very cold. Some houses in the city and outside of the city especially looked dilapidated and abandoned – made of logs or wood and any kind of roof one could find – usually surrounded by trash, dirt, dust and sometimes the owner’s animals. What gave these places away as homes were the clothes hanging on a clothesline or the young babies waddling out in their winter coats or school uniforms. There are some homes that are soundly built, but they are definitely not the majority of the citizen’s living situations. And regardless, NONE of the homes have heating insulation or clean drinking water unless they pay to have these giant black water tanks installed on the top of their homes. 


    Just the sheer amount of pollution from old vehicles and motorbikes combined with the horrible dust clouds kicked up from the roads is enough to cause headaches and nausea for some. There’s virtually no greenery in Kathmandu. Save for a park that the neighbors were keeping up and the plot of land owned by the hospital nearby my accommodation, the city remains a dusty ruin.  And this is the only way I can aesthetically describe it. Piles of bricks and dirt litter the city. Brick buildings stand as hollow ghosts either half developed or half falling apart. Looking around, you see people doing odd jobs – hanging out of haphazardly build buses, shouting to passengers the bus route, people piled on the bed of a giant truck with nothing to keep them in but the frame they held onto, men doing construction or welding barefoot or in flip flops, nothing covering their faces from the sparks – just exposed. 


    The entire place feels like a health and safety hazard. It’s as if people just up and decided to build a house in town with no regard to planning a structure – like a brick and stone village, frozen in poor to sub par development due to lack of resources. Just building with what each individual could come up with. And of course, there is a reason for the extreme poverty/dire state of Nepal – It’s called GOVERNMENT NEGLECT!


    I learned from my hosts a bit about Nepal’s political struggles. Their government structure is a relatively new democracy and during this change in structure came extreme political instability as those in power fight to stay in power to the point of corruption and neglect. I was told that they can hardly keep someone in office for over a year and roughly every year they’ve changed leaders. The constant shift from leader to leader leaves virtually no room for new public policies to be made and implemented in order to improve the country’s circumstances. Nepal has no industries that they can use to leverage their economy.


    Public school education is poor, so only those who can afford to pay for private school gets a quality education. Healthcare is poor and expensive. There are no public services going such as garbage pick up or clean water systems that ensures running, drinkable water in homes like (most) cities back home, so people dump trash wherever or burn it wherever, contributing to the horrendous water and air pollution. Then there is country wide mass unemployment. There simply are no jobs and the people of Nepal have a corrupt government to blame. Because while the people pay taxes for these essential social services, nothing comes back in return. That tax money is essentially pocketed to ensure that the corrupt politicians are well off. Sounds familiar?

 
    2015 had been a particularly hard year for the Nepali people. Amidst the ongoing political instability and corruption, they were hit by a massive earthquake and an unofficial embargo enforced by India resulted in almost a year long shortage of food, petrol, and other essential goods. Because Nepal is landlocked between China and India, they have no means of importing or exporting goods without working with their neighbors. Nepal is tiny and a good portion is made of the Himalayas. Therefore, it’s virtually impossible for them to grow enough food for a large and growing population, but also farmers don’t make enough money, so people opt to find other work over farming. The embargo was definitely felt by the poor majority, but even the well off was down to one meal a day.


    Despite these hardships the spirit and pride of the Nepali people is remarkable! When I asked my hosts if the Nepali people would be willing to merge with India to avoid another embargo. I was basically told hell no! Not only would there be a threat of India discriminating against the Nepali people, the people of Nepal are their own people and their own culture. Nepal has never been colonized and so to then succumb to the rule of their geographically and culturally close neighbors would bring shame and rebellion. Nepal would still rather stand on their own two.

 
    In regards to the extreme poverty, I was continually inspired by the smiles and camaraderie between Nepali people. Back home, poverty tends to harden people and depress them. Here, my Monkey Temple “guide” said it best, “We are poor, yes, but we are not like that (scam artists\criminals). We’re nice people.” (This isn’t to say I haven’t been ripped off people! Please, don’t be like me. Learn to bargain folks!) 


    While morale is up, many still dream of escaping Nepal and starting a new, “better” life elsewhere, particularly in America. As I’ve been traveling, I’ve been constantly thinking of my citizenship, my experiences at home, and how my country is perceived by non-Europeans. One experience helped add something to the web of parallels and contradictions I’ve been coming to know on this topic. At a popular destination viewing the sunrise splash onto the snow capped Himalayas, I showed a group of Nepali teens a picture of my hometown during our first heavy snowfall. They had never seen snow before and so they proceeded to ask me where the picture was taken. When I responded Michigan/The U.S., one of the teens smiled and said America was his dream country. Two of the teens were applying for visas and making arrangements in their respective states. 


    I asked the dream country kid what he wanted to do when he got to the U.S. He said mechanical engineering. Realizing that they were probably fresh out of high school, I said “You know you have to go to school for that right?” I then witnessed the glimmer of youthful hope in his eye dull into an awkward confusion as his friend proceeded to explain in Nepali that he’d have to go to college. I felt a little bad, wondering if I just crushed this kid’s dreams. But at the same time, I was appalled that he thought his only obstacle was getting there and that he’d quickly be able to be employed in mechanical engineering! Then it dawned on me like holy shit! He probably isn’t the only one with that false notion of how America works! I wondered just how many people were ill informed about this! 


    I later learned from local friends that my suspicions were true and that most Nepali people really do think that showing up in America is all of the battle for white collar jobs. Furthermore, there is such a high regard placed on America that the same blue collar jobs that are looked down upon in Nepal are the same jobs that are deemed “good jobs”, just because it’s a job in America (i.e. construction, waiter, mechanics). I was also told that those who do make it to America rarely show or talk about what they actually do there, but instead  post pics of themselves in nice scenic spots or eating out at McDonalds as an indicator of their better life.

 
    Now, after what I have seen with my own eyes, I totally understand wanting more, especially wanting political stability. I understand wanting the opportunity  to be employed, have access to quality education, etc. because poverty abroad and poverty back home are on two different levels. So, in essence, moving to America could and most likely WILL be a better life for most, just off of having access to more resources than they currently have in Nepal. However, people need to know the realities of the forces that be in America. 


     You may be granted access to enter (even this is up in the air with Trump in office) but discriminatory behaviors/policies may prevent you access to certain housing arrangements, employment opportunities, educational opportunities, etc. Not to mention that yes, one may earn more than they did earn doing the same work in Nepal, but the cost of living in America will be exceptionally higher in comparison. Broke gone still be broke if you don’t come from wealth and this is true even for American citizens. And I want people to realize this and understand this thoroughly before reality reduces their hopes to ash! If someone doesn’t tell them, reality will show them – I personally would rather know beforehand so I wouldn’t be thrown off guard. 

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    For the most part people are friendly. However, my Blackness/half blonde fro did stand out. This isn’t unusual, but unlike other countries I’ve visited, I felt like I was viewed less as a person and more like a new “exotic” fascination. This is true of Pokhara as well – people will literally stare a heated hole in my head thinking I hadn’t noticed or look me dead in my face and don’t smile or don’t say shit, or point and say something I don’t understand. Where I am from, staring at people like that can get your teeth knocked out. While I understand being curious and wanting to speak, staring to that extreme is something I cannot stand and eventually I became peeved enough to evil stare back and ask people what the hell they wanted…or when people don’t believe when I say I am American. Don’t ask me where I’m from if you don’t want to accept my answer. This idea that all Black skin people are from Africa has got to stop. There are Nepali people darker than me and they weren’t grilling them like that. 


    Aside from me, I learned a lot about the gender inequality and the religious backed patriarchy that exists/existed in Nepal. Boys of the family are held at a higher regard than females of the family. If the parents pass away, it is the sons who hold the traditional ceremonies necessary for cremation. It is the sons who gain the property that their parents left behind. If married, the man is essentially only held responsible for working and providing for his wife and children. There’s virtually nothing off limits for sons and families without sons are pressured to keep trying for one. Moreover, girls are treated the opposite and basically have no identity of their own. They are of their parents until they are married, then they become their husband’s. If the husband passes away, then they are of their son’s responsibility. 


    When married, the wife typically moves in with her husband in his parent’s house, since he is responsible for caring for his parents and since the house will eventually be his. [There is no stigma attached to staying with your parent’s indefinitely and Nepali parents never kick you out or pressure you to move out, which is be a good thing I think.] In this extended family housing, the son’s wife is treated with the least respect in the household. Young girls are taught to be all about housework and caring for children, even if a young wife also works outside of the home. The husband isn’t expected to wash a dish, but she is. It can be as bad as only the girls knowing how to cook and clean. The girls serve the food and don’t eat until after the men finish eating. So they often get less food, they receive less attention, less respect, and while menstruating, are expected to avoid the kitchen and prayer/temple area because menstruation is considered unclean. Nepali boys are essentially taught to want a silent, subservient pet for a wife. 


    I also learned about the caste system for the first time. And while these ideals are not as strongly enforced socially and constitutionally here, it is still widely practiced outside of Kathmandu. After visiting several key temples in Kathmandu and learned quite a bit about Buddhism and Hinduism for the first time. Buddhist teachings are mostly what I gravitated towards and I’m looking forward to exploring more in regards to my spirituality. 


Pokhara

      The bus ride to Pokhara was long but beautiful. So much green to overshadow a little of the messiness of poverty. The views definitely beat that of dusty Kathmandu. But again, the realization of just how extreme the widespread poverty really was – for miles there were tiny cold shacks made of stone or wood  surrounded by garbage. Homes where no water ran inside, so you ride passed people bathing or brushing their teeth outdoors. Eventually, I just had to close my eyes as the sight of such conditions for miles really wore on me, especially when thinking of the babies that live there. 


       Pokhara is much like Kathmandu in living conditions except more green and more spread out. The startling part is when you reach lakeside, the tourist portion of town I stayed at. All of a sudden conditions got a little better – soundly paved roads, infrastructure that appears to be more thought out. Recently built restaurants, bars, and stores. It feels like a piece of somewhere else implanted there. It felt….fake. Like something else, something made for visitors but I guess that is tourism for you.…


   Anyway, I paraglided for the first time. Aerial views of the beautiful and growing Pokhara. The lake glittering under the sun as if filled with shining crystals. The clear sight of the snow capped mountains. Flying with eagles above or below me. Feeling liberated. Feeling amazed at what God made.  


      I went out with my Nepali friend that I met in Thailand a few times. Fell under the beauty and talent of a Nepali guitarist. Went out with couch surfer friends, a night of story sharing, shisha (hookah), alcohol, and dancing. Nepali men are not afraid to dance and show what they got! Really energetic, carefree, and funny! That outing was about the last time I saw my Nepali friend during my stay. I hung out with Scott nearly 3 times in Nepal (meeting 3 so far on our world tour). On the night that we walked around the lake, as I waited for Scott to return with his jacket, I cleared my mind and glanced out at the waves. Listening to the foreign and unique sounds around me. The chatter of Nepali, the sounds of the waves lapping against the canoes, the faint sound of music coming from a local bar – I nearly broke into tears. With water in my eyes, I felt tremendously grateful; ridden with immense joy. That miles away from home, I get to hear these sounds and see these sights I’ve never seen or heard before. That I went from imagining such adventures in my head to living them. It is at this point in the trip that I feel I’ve truly made progress in growing in mind and spirit. Best part is, I get to continue to experience and witness my change in perspective and living.  

And with that, my time in South Africa was finally not so far away…