October 1, 2010
I regret informing you that I will not be returning to Carolina next year; I love traveling too much. No, that’s a joke. I’m sure that I will be excited again about going to school in eleven months. If anything, my past three weeks in Nepal have made me even more excited to be a Scholar and to have three adventurous summers involving international travel to plan. This type of traveling is new for me; I am used to hopping around from place to place with my family on a rigid agenda and not having a chance to sink into the culture of a place. Now, however, I spent about two weeks trekking in the Himalayas, bracketed by a couple of days in Kathmandu on either end. In this short time frame, I have fallen in love with traveling. Whenever I have previously traveled in groups or with my family, I have enjoyed it, even loved it, but I had no idea it was such a passion for me. Here are my best arguments for why foreign travel is important, and why I love it, particularly in Nepal:
1. The Novelty of a New Place.
As soon as I ventured out of Thamel, the tourist district in Kathmandu, with a new French friend, Kathmandu became unlike any place I have ever been. We walked through neighborhoods and past little shops, over bridges and along hectic city streets. To cross streets, we had to pick our way around speeding motorcycles, cars honking either angrily, gratefully, or for the fun of it, and bikes towing produce or kerosene. All have no regard for the center divide of the road, or for the pedestrians trying to weave a way through it all. Cows, chickens, and dogs meandered along the sides of the roads, picking through copious amounts of trash piled in front of buildings to find a morning meal. However, the trash piles and vehicle smog in Kathmandu are juxtaposed with clean, pressed women’s saris and beautiful religious centers. We happened upon public cremations taking place behind one of the main temples. Underneath strands of prayer flags, men hoisted bodies swaddled in orange fabric onto platforms, and set them aflame. We joined other Nepali bystanders on a bridge watching the event. As the wind shifted directions and blew smoke from burning human flesh towards us, everyone around lifted a scarf or a corner of a shirt to their faces. Nothing about the ceremony was hidden or softened; everyone who watched confronted the images of death directly. Everything about Kathmandu, unlike the United States, seems to be so out in the open. You see stark juxtapositions of life with death, hectic streets with areas of religious calm, and clean appearances with trash on the streets. The city has this raw, alive quality, and the novelty of this amazed me.
2. A New Cultural Lens.
During our trek, Ellen Currin and I made attempts at being a part of Nepali culture instead of just observing it from afar. We hiked in lungi, or long skirts, for about half the time, since almost all of the women in mountain villages wear lungi. The people we came across loved this; especially two women at the guest house we stayed at our first night: “Lungi! Lungi!” they called, “You are like real Nepali!” Everywhere we went, no matter how pitiful, our attempts at Nepali culture were appreciated and received with excitement. Our incredible guide, Bhagwati, taught us key Nepali phrases and words that we utilized whenever possible. “Mito sa,” we would tell whoever brought us our food, “It’s delicious.” We had the local lentil, curry, and rice dish, Dal Bhat, at least once a day, and ate lots of fried Tibetan bread. We often ate meals with only our hands, perfecting the technique of forming balls out of the dal-soaked rice and flicking them onto our tongues with our thumbs. These little changes of habit prompted the Nepali guides to open up to us much more than to the other trekkers, even the ones that they were guiding. They taught us Nepali card games and would convince us to play much past our early trekking bedtime, taught us the words and dance moves to Nepali songs, and always smiled at us in the guest houses and on the trails. Of course, I cannot claim to be a Nepali woman now, or to understand their perspective completely, but my interactions with Nepali culture gave me a better idea of their lives. I will always have the lens of Nepali culture to look through when I make decisions in the future. Moreover, some of the pieces of Nepali culture that I have picked up will stay with me as more than a lens.
3. Incorporating Foreign Culture into My Own.
I initially tried out a lot of these things – the dal bhat, the lungis, eating with my hands – as experiments. A lot of them resonate with me, however, and I would like to make them part of my own culture. Back in Pokhara, we took a cooking class with some women that we met trekking, and I will definitely be cooking dal bhat for my family and friends at home. I found my lungi practical and comfortable, and I have not taken it off since trekking. And though I did not get a chance to explore religion here as much as I would have liked, I am taking with me a new interest in Hinduism and Buddhism – from only the few stupas that I visited – that I can explore later. I have been reading Eat, Pray, Love (a perfect gap year book), in which Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “What a large number of factors constitute a single human being! How very many layers we operate on, and how very many influences we receive from our minds, or bodies, our histories, our families, our cities, our souls, and our lunches!” Nepal has added another layer, or influence, to me. As I pick up little snippets of culture from the places to which I travel, my own culture becomes more interesting and complex.
4. Defining Myself Out of Context.
Here, I was not known as a runner or an Eco-Council girl, a Marin Academy student, a resident of Mill Valley. I was just myself, picked up and placed in an entirely new situation. The parts of me that are less superficial and context-based became more apparent. I got lost in the city and loved it. I enjoyed both trekking quickly and getting to the guest houses early, and taking my time to look at the mountains. I talked to anyone who I happened to come across. In the absence of context, my identity resolves more around my personality, especially based off my interactions with other people.
5. The Other Travelers.
We met a slew of interesting people also trekking in the guest houses at night. The guest house dining halls often had communal tables for all guests to sit around, so we struck up conversation or played games with whoever we happened to sit near. One night, we played the “World Championships” of Yahtzee, with representatives hailing from Australia, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Nepal, the Czech Republic, the United States, and Slovakia. Together, we laughed about Yahtzee, a group of 245 Koreans who were also trekking, France, and the World Cup. One night, I played Nepali Call-Break with the eight male guides, and the next, I played Nepali Dumbal with eight female guides. Through my environmental journalism project, I heard about environmental awareness in Nepal and other countries. A man from Australia had written a mini-thesis on environmentalism and development, and we discussed whether an environmental movement had a place in a city like Kathmandu. Four women from Sweden, Germany, Australia, and Quebec compared and contrasted the government’s attitude towards the environment between their countries and the United States. Not only do I have a better understanding of all of their countries now (especially in relation to the environment) but I also have friends and contacts all over the world, now.
6. Because it’s Awesome.
Then, there are the parts of traveling that do not have so much of an educational benefit; they are just incredible experiences. Being at the base camp of the tenth highest mountain in the world, Annapurna, for example, fits in there. We arrived at the base camp in the afternoon in the clouds. When Ellen and I had almost fallen asleep, Bhagwati knocked on the door to tell us that it was clear outside. We rushed outside to see Annapurna South and Machhapuchhre, two of the highest Himalayas, staring at each other across the valley, with us nestled at the base camp right in between. The nighttime’s grayscale wash over everything made shapes stand out more vividly. The mountains towered over us, jutting up into the starry sky. After only fifteen minutes, the clouds rolled in rapidly, and as if the curtains had closed on a show, we had no evidence of the existence of the mountains. We tried anxiously to fall asleep like children on Christmas Eve and woke up early to watch the sunrise. We walked up to a ridge decorated with intersecting prayer flags and watched the mountains and the dusky blue sky brighten slowly. The mountains cut further up into the turquoise dome of the sky than anything I have ever seen, drawing craggy lines to divide blue from white. We took pictures and then just watched, in utter awe at being in the Himalayas.
I am sad to have fallen in love with Nepal when I have to leave tonight, but thrilled to have fallen in love with traveling because it makes me so excited for Kenya and all else to come. I am convinced that for these six reasons and more, traveling is one of the most worthwhile things a person can do. So, for not the last time, thank you for allowing this opportunity to travel. And thank you in advance for all of the others that you provide in the future. I am off to Kenya, and I will be updating my blog (ayearofadventure.wordpress.com) from there. Otherwise, I will check in again in December!