Researching Nepal, part: 1 – Dignity on the rocks

Researching Nepal, part: 1 – Dignity on the rocks

I am a city boy, however, the proportions of my small country enabled me to spend enough time in nature. I felt ready to go to Nepal and experience the harsh conditions of a developing country incomparable to anything I have experienced before. I was getting ready to come to Nepal for the better part of 2016 both physically and mentally. Oh, how little did I know.My Nepal experience had 3 different chapters: villager, trekker and a self-proclaimed legal researcher. If you can relate to any one of these roles, I guarantee that Nepal is the place to go. I was lucky enough to combine these different perspectives to form a coherent review to motivate more people to explore this under-appreciated country.

Bathekhola village resided around 2k altitude, however, it felt much warmer than the same altitudes anywhere else. The Sun was the major contributor to the lifestyle as a whole


Researcher lifestyle

To set the record straight from the beginning, I chose to come to a remote area that lacks some of the essentials of the 21st century. I think it is necessary to do all possible objective research on the situation of human rights, the level of human dignity and economic growth to see the country from both sides- the advantaged and the disadvantaged parts of the society.

I came to a village called Bathekhola, less than 3 hours hiking from Chainpur, the capital of Bajhang district. I took a part as a volunteer in an educational program of a certain local NGO and I became a temporary teaching staff at the local secondary school. 

I had the chance to see the interactions between government regulations and the traditional village life. For example, the kids have school at 10am but the crops are ready to be harvested? Guess what- The kids are not coming to school because they are helping their family get ready for the winter. 

But is it wrong to put school second to existential needs such as food and resources to survive the winter season? 

In the West, one might find it odd, however, the human dignity is sort of taken care of by the governments of the west. Basic goods are available, electricity, running water and governmental protection of fundamental values are viewed as the bottom line for the respect of human dignity. In Bathekhola, dignity is such a different concept. Would the westerners consider not having a trash disposal administration in place? Would you consider having zero proper thermo-insulation in schools and houses as dignity? Probably not. 

I had the privilege to experience the lack of what westerners call “basic resources for dignified living” and to be honest, I didn’t die. How would you answer if someone asked you what would you do without internet access? How would you survive without having full accessibility to electricity? How would survive without proper hygiene? How can your rights be respected and protected by the government when the nearest police station is a 3 hour hike through the mountains and the nearest proper hospital might be too far for emergency purposes?

After spending nearly 2 months in this remote village, I realized one thing from the researcher standpoint: yes, some of these conditions might deteriorate westerners’ perspective on what is human dignity, however, does it mean that villagers in far-west Nepal are less human due to the lower level of perceived dignity? 

To the contrary, dignity becomes a personal objective rather than a state-controlled condition. Infrastructure and basic needs in the west are provided by the governments (or at least should be), whereas in these parts what is provided by the governments would just not cut it as dignifying for a westerner. Dignity therefore becomes a choice, a necessary one. Some of the eastern scholars talk about two types of dignity: potential and actual. Actual dignity in Nepal is shown by how civilized an individual is trying to be in the actual living conditions, therefore potential dignity is some level of man made conditions that a man deserves from the standpoint of human rights and the “fundamental” dignity.

So how does one find out what is dignity and how can one achieve and exercise it? I found the answer to this to be quite mesmerizing. The best example is a story of a farmer.

After I spent the first two weeks in Bathekhola with a foot infection that disabled me from walking, I decided to take a trip further into the mountains with my Nepalese friend. He told me about a village, that was responsible for all the production of mountain charas (also known as nepali gold, for westerners just imagine hashish made from fresh cannabis plants rather than dried ones). 

I was really excited to take this trip, that was less than 2 hours hiking through the mountains. One thing I started seeing along the way was, that the further away from the river, or the roads, or the main city in the district you go, the less “civilization” follows. More distant villages had less sources of first world, such as no propane cooking, no policing structures, no permanent health care stations, no need or interest for TV or sources of outside information, less hygiene, and so on. 

So when I came to a village called Sheragadala, the remoteness was on full display. For many of the villagers, I was the first european they have ever seen. Even the concept of trekking shoes I was wearing for better traction seemed odd to them. Their lives orbit around the fields. The fields are a source of food, everyday routine, social gatherings and income. The men plough the fields, the women plant the seeds and beat the crops, the kids feed the herds of cattle, everyone is working in the field. It was just like any other village that you see. However, this was Sheragadala.

I took this trip to “research” the cannabis production in the villages and the lifestyle it brought, so logically enough, I was jumping out of my boots when I saw the first canna-bush growing near the entrance to the village. Around the altitude of 2200m, the conditions for growing classic crops like rice and oats start to disappear mostly due to firmer soil structure. I realized, that products such as rice, flour and others had to be purchased unlike in other villages where these could be grown. So how do these people obtain basic goods with no source of income? They either sell their charas, or straight up exhange it for food. Just imagine it in our society- you come to your local dealer, give him a couple bags of rice and you get your rice-worth of weed. How freaking cool is that?

He may not earn much considering his efforts, however everyone wants his job. Sometimes you just do it for the view

I had the pleasure of being invited to a decent sized field in this village. The farmer was a man of small stature, in his late 40s with a couple of kids to feed. I spent a better part of the day in awe from the beauty of the field, set in this mesmerizing mountain environment with views of Himalayan peaks for days, no one to bother the plants, that varied from tall to taller, from green to greener, with some buds shading into legendary purple strains. In Amsterdam, this guy would be an authority. The forms of making cannabis into a market form vary from district to district, some produce usual dried up buds, some make so called temple balls (hash rolled into golf-sized balls) and some districts, like this one, stayed loyal to the original ways- hand rubbing charas. They rub the plants with their palms, and then collect the resin oil with the pressure of their thumb. This process seems easy enough but to make 1 gram, your palms need to be covered in resin and it takes about an hour. The price for one gram was ridiculous: 0,08 EUR. 

I did some math and by the size of that particular field, the farmer makes about 300 EUR a year, maybe less. In Europe, the same product is being sold literally 200 times more expensive. But would you call this farmer a criminal? Is he dangerous for society, when he is selling the only available crop growing in his backyard? I would not. 

Back to my original point of the story- dignity. 

This farmer is feeding his kids with the money he makes the only available way- seling charas. He does not diminish his potential dignity because he is technically a criminal, nor does he cause harm to others’ dignity because he is not a drug dealer. He is a farmer. His actual dignity is kind of higher than one of the people buying his product in the lower villages and selling it further for a higher price. He would not sacrifice the dignity and lives of his family because of a man made law that prohibits him from growing. Dignity is therefore not determined by adhering to the law (if the laws are unjust) neither is his dignity any different from ours. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, didn’t you know that? This man was just lucky enough to be born next to the best conditions for growing weed, the same way I was born in the best conditions to recognize prejudice, the same way people in Italy were born in the best conditions to drive their cars around the most beautiful roads. 

You cannot escape your conditions. You just got to live in them with swagger, smile and love for the one’s who matter

So what did the research part of my journeys discover? Dignity is not a choice, it’s an adjustment. We are all born with it equally, and it is not diminished by the conditions (mostly made by governmental administration), it is exercised differently, like a language- everyone has it, everyone can learn to understand the one of others, but if you do not speak the language, you cannot feel equal at all

What to ask yourself before volunteering in the Far-Far-West Nepal and have your world changed

 

Why did I decide to come to volunteer here

I was in the final semester of my MA studies, working on a research for my thesis, when I started realizing that I am going to be done with a huge part of my life of going to school. After this I wanted to keep on pursuing things that I believe in which are human rights.

I wanted to expand my research into different environments throughout the world and Nepal was on my list of countries for my research so, I went.

The Himalayas themselves have always been appealing to me so it seemed like the right choice to make while my body can still handle these conditions well enough. My academic desires and personal dreams kind of joined into and idea of going to Nepal.

Once I decided to pursue it for real it was not too hard to google my way into a remote NGO working in the far-west Nepal doing developmental work for the villagers that suffer from the lack of basic needs.

I decided to help out an organization called Creative Innovative Himalayan Group which does have a certain swag to it’s name.

I talked to the director of this locally based NGO for 10 minutes, while we discussed practical questions that you need to ask before coming. It basically came down to: “Come to Chainpur for as long as you like, your research is most welcome. We will see you at the end of September.” This made the planning so much easier, because I had to do everything any tourist would have to do without any complications :).

My decision to come specifically to Bathekhola was therefore purely a throw of a dart on the map and randomly picking the most amazing piece of peace on earth.

 

What did I expect from this experience at the beginning

Having three months to prepare for a trip that should have lasted for unknown time, I expected many challenges for the lack of preparation. But to be honest I spent more time preparing mentally that there is no way around getting sick for sure at least once, and that for certain there would have to be an adjustment period, which of course there was.

I expected that some moments might get uncomfortable and challenging so I tried to make my peace with it before.

I also expected new perspective on the global problems from such a different culture that I am used to seeing in my travels and studies. The things even little kids in my country know about Nepal is that it is the roof of the world and that badass dads go to Annapurna.

However after actually landing to Kathmandu, all my expectations shattered and open up to an unbelievable experience from the very first moment to the last.

 

What has this experience enriched me and what did it take from me

I could write fifty pages about everything that happened during my time in the remote mountains, which seem like an island to everything else that is actually going on in the world. However, if you are a traveller or an actual researcher, this is THE best way how to explore a country- through the areas where governmental help is not reaching full development of some areas such as Bathekhola valley, next to Chainpur, Bajhang district.

The views are stunning from literally wherever you stand on the mountain, the higher up you go to take a hike you discover breathtaking views of enormous chunks of earth that these mountains are. You really get a new perspective about the remoteness of these villages when you look at most of these mountains.

The biggest thing you realize in Nepal is the connection of the villagers with nature, dependence of their daily schedule upon the sun, with the appearance of modern looking clothes and great sense for general good looks and self care. Influenced by the teachings of great Hindu teachers that believed in natural beauty and kindness make, Nepalese villagers are the most amazing and peaceful people I have ever met. To live among these people and be so welcomed as their guest even as a teacher in the local school was an amazing experience.

Yes, the aforementioned challenges of “third world nature” took some toll on my body during and after my stay. Was it worth it? Absolutely, any day, always. I did not find myself missing any sort of food since their cuisine is well balanced and tasty, I had just enough technology to create comfy environment and I was waking up with a fat smile on my face every day, (even through the cold mornings).

There was no need to spend money only for everyday dirty pleasures of candy of all sorts and unlimited amounts of mountain Nepalese black gold for virtually nothing. Time and money well spent as far as travelling goes.

I was an active teaching staff member for nearly 3 months however, due to some administration issues I did not end up teaching appropriate time. The staff of teachers were a group of amazingly educated people assigned by the government to teach in these remote areas. I quickly became friends with the teachers and spent countless hours talking, half nepalese half english.

However, overcoming the small obstacles was easy when I realized that I have a 2 hour workday and the best chance to catch up on my sleep that I lacked a bit during my college years. Meditation, reading and workouts naturally got some time in my daily routine as well. I went to explore the mountains als much as I wanted and could and found a lot of hidden treasures that Nepal has to offer.

The best overall experience was working with the children. It kind of really feels rewarding when you teach a little rascal how to wash hands and the concept of putting shoes at the right feet- entertaining in the best way possible for me, educational and entertaining in the best way for them. I call that WINNING.

 

What I recommend for future volunteers

Take Nepal as an experience that will change you or your perspectives in some ways. Take it as exploration of everything different. If I took Nepal for everything it fails to be, I would not enjoy it as much as when I chose to enjoy this life for everything it is.

Prepare for a journey not a destination and you will discover amazing places of all sorts on every corner in Nepal. From remote Bathekhola lifestyle, through trekking the Annapurna Base Camp trek from beautiful Pokhara, or crowded Kathmandu which looks nothing like Doctor Strange’s version; everything in Nepal is an amazing opportunity to discover, research and open up new perspectives, whether through fellow Nepalese or fellow tourists that you meet in Nepal, or the countryside itself. Himalayas are amazing, enjoy it and learn on the way. So while in Nepal, whatever your job is, explore and never stop wondering.

 

 

Sum up the experience in one sentence

“Simple living, high thinking”- old nepalese proverb. All you need to kno