Reflections on Leaving, with One Month Left

 Taxi window view in KTM

Taxi window view in KTM

I’ve started a lot of posts in my head and even on my computer in the past few weeks. But they all sort of seem boring or unimportant. I think I’ve started to switch into the mode of thinking where I am beginning to say goodbye to Nepal. Writing about it seems to mismatch the way I am perceiving and reflecting upon it. But at the same time, I’m noticing a lot of things again like when I arrived and they were new and everything caught my attention. Except now I’m savoring those things again, after my brain had normalized them. I’m making them remarkable and interesting and noteworthy again.

I think about what I will miss in Nepal, or why Nepal feels so special. The word ‘vibrancy’ is what always comes back to me; there is a tremendous vibrancy in everyday life. The streets are teeming with energy and life and people all going about their days. The patterns of life are so varied that in one eyeful you can see so many different kinds of actions. It’s a busy world out there. People wear bright colors, they yell to each other across open spaces, they laugh, there is music, there are smells, there are loud noises. At home, life happens in more private and contained and patterned and predictable ways. Which has its own comforts, but it’s good to remember that there are a lot of ways of living.

 Hills in Kaski District, near a homestay

Hills in Kaski District, near a homestay

So how do you say goodbye to that? I’m not really sure, but I suppose my tactic right now is holding it in my mind and turning it over and letting is melt deep into my brain so it stays there. And thinking about all I have seen and done, remembering large and small moments from the last nine months. What moves me the most is thinking about the tremendous people that I’ve met. People who have changed the way I think about Nepal, and myself, and humans because of their kindness and their help and their warmth.

 Traditional practice and modern habits in Hilly region

Traditional practice and modern habits in Hilly region

Another secondary effect of mentally preparing to leave is that I’ve started to begin to let go of some of the anchor points I have here and remember what my life at home is like. The result is being a bit ‘cut loose’ here. The connections I rely on here will become digitized friendships. What a weird shift to anticipate. One that I think about a lot is my friendship with my ‘Little Buddy,’ as I call him. He’s 6 and he recently moved from the mountainous and remote (and difficult to access without an expensive special permit if you’re foreign) region of Dolpo. If you’ve read Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, he’s from village that is a gateway into the sparsely populated Upper Dolpo that is characterized by tall mountains, deep valleys, high passes, and miles of wild earth. It borders Tibet and matches Tibetan cultures closely. Dolpo is an amazingly beautiful, remote, and spiritual place. It’s striking, protected, and impoverished. Traditional ways of life (already incredibly challenging to uphold in the best of times) are confronted by modernization and the people are being squeezed between these two forces. Many people leave to seek more opportunity elsewhere, even if their hearts remain in their homeland. Even if their goals are to return and create viability in the region.

 Not Dolpo, but Upper Manang, which is also a high Himalaya region

Not Dolpo, but Upper Manang, which is also a high Himalaya region

The schools in Dolpo are of poor quality, so my Little Buddy’s parents have sent him to live with his two aunts (his father’s younger sisters in their 20’s), in Kathmandu. His aunties are my friends that I sometimes stay with when I am in the city. They are my Dolpo Sisters and they have hearts of gold and have been some of the people responsible for giving me a place and a life in Nepal that feels warm and good. They are lights in this world. They are both in university (bachelors and masters) in Kathmandu and both left Dolpo for school at ages 5 and 17 respectively. This was possible because of sponsorship from an American adventurer who met them while in the region and was so impressed with them. When the younger one left, she moved to the city to live in a hostel with other kids from the mountain regions and had to conform to a modern life she never knew. Shoes, underwear, rules, buses. Dolpo only got electricity in the last 25 or so years. Their home is a two-day walk to an airport, then a flight and an overnight to a place on the Indian border called Nepalgunj and then another flight to Kathmandu. The other way to get there is to walk all the way to Kathmandu. Their great grandfather did this 40 years ago and it took him 2 months, he came for a religious pilgrimage. Recently, he returned again for religious reasons, but not on foot. He hadn’t been to Kathmandu in those 40 years. Oh how different it must seem.

Now these amazing Dolpo sisters have acted as surrogate parents for their nephew, my Little Buddy. They house him, clothe him, feed him, teach him, and love him. They do this while they have their own studies to think about. School has just started so now so he’s no longer at home all day, but despite being a very self-sufficient 6-year old, he still needs care. Before school started his older sister, who is 8, was also around for a few weeks. The oldest sister is 10 and her boarding school for kids from mountain regions is too far away to commute, so she stays there. I have never met her. One Saturday morning the kids had been tasked with learning to do their own laundry and bathing. So they were out back, washing their clothes by hand and hanging them to dry on the fence. Then they bathed themselves, standing naked in the yard talking about the best ways to make sure the soap came off you and laughing and giving instructions. The older sister plopping herself happily in the bucket with her arms and legs draped over the side, having a sunny rest before drying off.

 The exciting wares of the Book Tuk for Little Buddy and his older sister

The exciting wares of the Book Tuk for Little Buddy and his older sister

Childhood is different here, kids work, kids take care of themselves, kids help out. Children are capable of far more than we give them credit for. And I believe that kids derive confidence and pride in being trusted to do those things. Kids here also have many hours of free play. They seem healthy and balanced emotionally, there are so many fewer melt-downs here than at home. I so rarely hear tantrums, not even sugar seems to make kids as whacky as it does at home. Such temperamental stability extends into adolescence. As far as I can tell, teenagers aren’t gawky and self-conscious and inward. They are confident and happy and deeply included in social life in public and in their families. I think this matters, a lot. In the US youths are so segregated from the rest of the world that they inhabit social worlds of their own with little overlap with adults. I think American children are too protected from the world at times. Obviously the world has a lot of ugliness and we don’t want kids to know about it, to experience it. But too much of that and they enter it unprepared to understand or behave in it. They don’t know how to do things for themselves, they don’t feel trusted. It makes them anxious and unhappy.

But the flip side is that some Nepali kids don’t get much of a childhood at all. They spend childhoods working or even in marriages. Child brides, though illegal, still happen. In my sample of 48 women from Chitwan, 21 were married before the age of 18 and 15 of those 21 were 16 and under when they were married (with a mean age of 14.6 years old). The youngest was 12 and I know other people who were married at 12, sometimes to 14 year olds, sometimes to men in their 30s. This is declining but not eradicated. Migration is possibly affecting it, since marriage is sometimes a solution for girls who cannot be schooled (due to cost) and so it’s the best viable alternative. But the remittances that migrants send goes towards daily life, towards school fees. For both boys and girls. Education for kids dictates much in how people make decisions.

And that’s where my Little Buddy and his sisters come in. He and his sisters, all at age 5 or 6, have left their natal village, a place of powerful emotional, spiritual, and familial significance to live with extended family for the sake of their educations. Education is everything. Their father is my age, he is a salt trader over the passes to Tibet, by yak and mule. It’s an ancient trade, but a dying one. It happens once a year for a period of weeks. Then the only other work is odd jobs and subsistence farming. Even if my Little Buddy joins him on some trips, as his father and grandfather had before him for generations of the same kind of life, he will not likely do this for his work. His father is the last salt trader in their family. My Little Buddy’s life is on a different path. It’s hard to know the Nepal he will grow up into, how much development will happen. But he will have different opportunities and he knows it. He studies really hard and seems to like his work. Watching YouTube videos of Nursery Rhymes and multiplication table (with inexplicably anachronistic graphics, like Spider Man singing “Bah Bah Black Sheep”).

For all the change in his life, for having said goodbye to his parents for many months, Little Buddy and his sisters are very well adjusted (no doubt a reflection on the impressive parenting skills of my Dolpo sisters as well as their upbringings and some of the strength that is deeply ingrained in Himalayan cultures). He is spirited and happy and caring and thoughtful. He is strong and helpful. When I moved in he carefully looked through everything I had on the desk, curiously examining my things for hours. Mining the trash bin for treasures to make into toys.  As he looked through my books and papers and various bric-a-brac, he then put them back in neater piles, with the edges lined up and flashed me a shy but excited smile. He lined up six bullet shaped ear plugs that had been in a little heap onto their ends in a neat line, like soldiers. This was how we met and bonded, before I knew he knew more English than he let on. More recently, I read to him from the books at the US Embassy Book Tuk (a converted Tuk Tuk that goes around to public places and schools). Then he took the book (Dr. Seuss) and read to me as his older sister begin to look on, correcting him at times. Both of them beaming at my shock and praise.

When I think about saying goodbye to Nepal and its beautiful vibrant places I feel sad, a bit of longing for my return. When I think of saying goodbye to the amazing people I’ve met, especially the kids, who will grow and change so much before I may ever see them again, I feel a kind of sadness that I don’t know what to do with. For all the ways technology is making the world change at rates we can’t fathom (and that aren’t always good), I’m grateful I will be able to remain connected to the people and places that are half a world away, even if they take days and days to travel to. And whenever I come back to Nepal next, I know where I’m going. To Dolpo, to see my family there.

Until that time, here's my last two months in video form, to make up for the lack of posting. Which was also related to travel and lack of reliable wifi, in my defense