A Reflection: Familiarity and the Present Moment

Dear Readers,

I am writing to you from Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, where I have returned about two and a half weeks ago.  Coming back to Kathmandu, I am met with a sense of familiarity in the once very unfamiliar.  Returning to the home I stayed in before I left Kathmandu, walking on the same roads, seeing the familiar shops and markets, waiting for the same public transportation–it all has given me a sense of the familiar while living in the unfamiliar.  In addition to environmental familiarity, Kathmandu has reunited me with familiar friends that I have made thus far in my adventures.

Tenji Sherpa (trekking guide) and daughters at his home in Kathmandu
Tenji Sherpa (trekking guide) and daughters at his home in Kathmandu

Coming back, beginning again in Kathmandu, has allowed me to reflect on my time here in Nepal so far.  Upon my return to the capital, I am reminded of my introduction to the country–my time trekking in Solokhumbu–as I have been meeting some of the individuals who guided us through the mountains.  Individuals who have invited me into their lives, their homes, and their families in the hospitable fashion that I have grown to be accustomed to during my time here.  These people are known as Sherpas, a caste that reigns from the Himalayan region of Nepal with ancestral ties to Tibet.

The name Sherpa is a recognizable name in the Western world.  We have brands of jackets, hiking gear, slippers, etc. named after this group of people.  They are world famous as trekking guides, mountaineers, and fearless climbers.  Now they are my friends.  I have learned from my friends that the life of a Sherpa is often a difficult life.  Originating from villages in the Himalayan region of Nepal, economic opportunities are scarce; education opportunities are scarce.  Many of my Sherpa friends were educated in a small village schoolhouse; some of them have not been afforded the privilege of education at all.

When I visited the village of my Sherpa friends in October during my trek, I learned that many of the men in the village were living abroad in order to make money to send to their families living here–a situation that is found in many parts of the country as the economy is very poor.  The small villages of Solokhumbu that have not been touched by the tourist industry–such as the village that my friends originate from–exist merely by the money that is earned through working in the trekking industry and those who send money from abroad in addition to subsistence farming.  Those involved in the trekking industry must spend months at a time away from their wives, children, and families in order to earn a living.  These villages are difficult to access and many of the villagers who are not involved in the trekking industry have never left the village.

 

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Trekking with Ngate Sherpa (porter) in the village of Phortse

My heart was so full this day when I was able to spend time with the people in the photo above.  It was the first time that the woman in the photo had ever been to Kathmandu  Her husband, the man wearing the hat, was one of our porters.  I wrote about him in one of my earlier posts describing his energy and smile that lifted our spirits each day.  The man on the right side of the photo was our lead trekking guide, Dendi; he and his family live in Kathmandu now and since returning here, I have been able to spend a lot of time with him, learning about his life, about the life of Sherpa people in Nepal.

From Left to Right: Nima Sherpa (porter), me, Nima’s wife, Dendi (trekking guide)

As I mentioned before, economic opportunities for Sherpas mostly come in the form of the trekking industry-an industry that has been hit hard recently due to a severe decrease in tourism following the April 2015 earthquake.  When the trekking industry is in the off-season, these individuals who have summitted mountains like Lhotse, Ama Dablam, or even Mount Everest must return to their homes either in their villages or Kathmandu.  During these times, their days are just the opposite of their trekking days.  Dendi expressed to me that when he is not trekking, life becomes very difficult; there is no work to be found and each day he is unsure what he will do in order to fill the hours.

Eating dinner in trekking guide Ang Dendi Sherpa's home, with his wife Mingma and trekkers Leo, Kore and Teresa
Eating dinner in trekking guide Ang Dendi Sherpa’s home, with his wife Mingma and trekkers Leo, Kore and Teresa

Since spending time with Dendi and his family, I have been wondering about the perspective of a person in his position.  The trekking industry is a product of globalization, tourism that depends upon modern technologies that brings Westerners into the lives of these Nepalese persons.  It is a phenomenon that invites cultural sharing, allowing the tourists to catch a small glimpse into life here, and allowing the locals here to gain some insight into the lives of foreigners from face-to-face interaction rather than what they can gather from television or English films.  However, these are just glimpses, short periods of times–a week, maybe a month–in which cultural exchange takes place and then the tourists set off for the homes and the tour guides remain in Nepal waiting for the next group of trekkers to arrive.

That is why the day that I met with our past porter and his wife while they were visiting Kathmandu was so special for me.  It is often the case that trekking guides and porters will never see those they led through the Himalayan mountains again; however, I have been afforded the chance to reconnect with my guides, to look at life through their eyes.

Tenji Sherpa guiding me on a “one-day trek” in Kathmandu

Dendi’s brother Tenji also lives in Kathmandu for the time being.  He will soon be leaving the country for Iraq where he and his wife will be working in order to send money back to Nepal for their daughters.  This is the story of so many families here in Nepal, where economic chances simply are not available for many of its citizens.  One day Tenji and I went on a “one-day trek” to a hill that is located about 25 minutes by foot from my house here.  It was a day that rejuvenated both of us, reminding me of the days I spent trekking and the freedom that comes from such experiences.

Along the way, we met people who live on this hill and were invited into their homes to rest and drink some water or tea.  It was a day that allowed me to forget the stressors that have been haunting me lately.  I have been finding myself each day worrying about my future, my mind flooding with questions of which direction I want my life to go in.  It is a situation in which I am recognizing my privileges, privileges that have become even more apparent during my time in Nepal–privileges to travel, to pursue an education, to work, to choose my path.  However, with this recognition of privilege, I have been confronting difficulties in knowing just how to use it.

I am surrounded by people whose lives are not a matter of personal choice.  In Nepal there are so many external factors that determine a person’s life activities before the matter of personal preference is taken into account.  Factors such as caste, religion, gender, marital status, age, etc.  The woman in the photo above is often found at the house that I stay in; she is a relative of the family I am living with.  It is not rare to see relatives gather together each day to spend their time together drinking tea and making conversation.  I have noticed that when in my presence, the topic of comparing life in Nepal to life in America and other Western countries is often discussed. The woman pictured with her grandson in the photo above has welcomed me with her warm smile and laugh since I was placed in her life.  She has expressed to me many times that work is just simply not an option for many Nepalese people in the way that it is available in places like America.  It is conversations like this that have caused me to reflect on my perspective deeper; however, the deeper I find myself in this reflection, the more I feel my hesitation, my uncertainty in what my future holds for me.

However, Reflecting is a practice that has the ability to restore me.  It is a practice that allows me to revisit the lessons of my past in an effort to dwell in my uncertainty from a place of peace rather than this place of stress that I have been residing in.

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In my reflective state, I am reminded of the beauty that I have witnessed, the simplicity of the mountains that have been there before I came to Nepal and that are still there after I have left them.  The enormity of their stature, their stillness, their power.  I am reminded of the connections that I made during this time.  The people who experienced this beauty with me.

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I think back to the lessons I learned while trekking.  Remembering to dwell in my present moment–a moment that is informed by my past and creates my future.  It is a matter of  balance, a matter of learning from my surroundings and the people around me–giving and receiving.  Lessons that escape me from time to time creating spaces for me to remember once again, to be grateful for remembering. Remembering that I must always be aware of my present moment; without this awareness, I will fall, I will lose my footing, stumble across the rocks that lay in my path.

In this awareness, I can clearly see my perspective, the place that I am approaching my experiences here.  I am learning so much about cross-cultural communication, living surrounded by my difference–living as the “other” in a society very far from my home.  Living deep inside this culture as an “other” has revealed to me many themes of perceptions–social constructs–that differ between cultures.  Approaching a culture from the view of an outsider living amongst insiders has enhanced my understanding of these themes.  I would like to share with you a few of my observations.


Dhal Bhat
Dhal Bhat ~ photo credit Alex Treadway

Food  The Nepalese understanding of food emerges from the collective nature of this society.  I am offered food at each encounter with my Nepalese friends–dhal bhat (rice with lentils and curried vegetables), boiled potatoes, chow mein, Tukpa (a heavy noodle and vegetable soup), soybeans, etc.  It is a form of welcoming a person, of sharing love through food.  To refuse this food is a difficult endeavor.  I have learned that people do not eat alone here.  There is one person in each household who will cook the meals for everyone in the house; this person is most often the youngest of the adult women in the home.

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This woman, Pratima didi, is the woman who cooks the meals in the home that I am staying in–a home comprised of her youngest son, her husband, his parents, a distant elderly female relative, and me.  I was helping her prepare some vegetables the other day when she told me she spends four hours each morning and four hours each evening preparing the meals.  The eldest members of the household are served first–a hierarchical system that is representative of the larger culture here in Nepal.  To refuse food here is a difficult task and often met with bad feelings on behalf of the person who prepared the meal.

Beauty.  Perspectives on what is beautiful varies across cultures.  What is the ideal weight? Ideal skin color?  Clothing?  All of these questions are answered differently by those who come from different places.  Here in Nepal, light skin color is idealized; one will often find skin lightening creams inside the homes of Nepalese people.  The Nepalese conception of an ideal weight emerges from their food culture.  It is not rude here to comment on a person’s weight, telling them that they have gained a few pounds may even be acknowledged as a compliment.  I have been told by many of my Nepalese friends that gaining weight is a sign that you are being loved; someone is feeding you, caring for you, loving you.  If a person is very thin, it is common to believe that he or she is stressed out or not cared for.  Coming from the Western culture, this has been a very different conception to wrap my head around, stressing to me once more that these are merely perceptions.  However, I must qualify that statement.  Although these are just perceptions–perceptions that differ vastly between cultures–perceptions have power within society; power to influence thoughts and decisions.  Perception is based off of these social constructs.  Understanding that these are social constructs leads to understanding just how powerful society is in effecting our lives.

Identity markers  Identity markers can be seen in many different forms; they are part of our external appearance.  The appearance that gives others the opportunity to see our identities without knowing us.  Clothing, jewelry, religious paraphernalia.  For example, wearing a nose ring in America is not a religious decision, rather it has traditionally been attached to different rebellious movements or even hippie culture.  Nowadays, it can be seen as a fashion statement in many Western cultures.  In Nepalese culture, it is a religious identity marker.  In Hindu culture, it is compulsory for a woman to have her nose pierced prior to marriage.  It is common to see girls as young as four years old with their noses pierced.  In many of the Buddhist sects of Nepal, nose piercings are forbidden.

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Wearing a tika is also indicative of Hindu culture.  A tika is the dot that is placed on a woman’s forehead between her eyebrows; however, there are many different types of tikas.  A red tika placed on the top of a woman’s forehead indicates that she is married.  When attending religious ceremonies, poojas, or visiting a temple, tikas will often be given.  However, in Buddhist cultures, this is not customary.  Clothing differs as well.  I have witnessed this as my adventures have taken me through the different regions of the country.  The Himalayan region is concentrated with Buddhist culture–long bhakus are worn by the women symbolizing their Tibetan roots.  The lowlands, or the Terai, is concentrated with Hindu culture where sarees and kurta surwals are customarily worn.  Kathmandu is a center of globalizing forces where one can see the traditional dresses worn by older generations juxtaposed with the younger generation’s clothing choices that have been influenced by the Western culture of jeans, t-shirts, flannels, and boots.  Coming into contact with these different cultures represented within Nepal has brought the theme of identity markers to my attention every day; every day I am learning more about how we use identity markers to represent who we are and how others view us through the use of these markers.  It is a theme that I am increasingly fascinated by.


 

Settling into a sense of familiarity upon my return to the capital has allowed me to process what I have witnessed and am witnessing each moment, allowing me to analyze deeper each day my surroundings.  My experiences here are not only teaching me about what is external to me, but also my internal self.  Revealing to me my priorities, my perceptions, my difficulties; giving me space to reflect and once again return my awareness to where I presently find myself.  Allowing me to acknowledge the stress I have been experiencing by focusing on the future.  I want to choose to make space for my uncertainty, for my discomfort, for my fears.  Rather than pushing them away, ignoring or condemning them, I would like to acknowledge these feelings as part of my present experience.  Through this acknowledgment, I am able to remove the power that it holds over me, to make space for what I am feeling, rather than only making space for what I wish to feel.  In this acknowledgment, I can again see clearly what I am experiencing; I can again find my gratitude in finding this space to remember my past lessons, to look to the future from a place of contentment rather than fear, and to dwell in the presence that is available to me in each moment.  These are lessons that have escaped me lately; lessons that I am grateful for learning and grateful for remembering.

Thank you for reading; I will write again soon about the work I have been participating in here in Kathmandu.

Until next time,

Jennifer