Tomorrow I set off for a trek into the Himalayas. It’s just Tyee, a local porter, and me. We’ll be gone for about 16 days in total, which include a terrifying flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, a hike to Namche Bazaar (a Himalayan village perched on a cliff and unsuspectingly nested among the shadows of the world’s largest mountains), multiple nights in tea houses warmed by yak dung fires, enormous platters of dal bhat, 2 days trekking over the Cho La pass, endless mugs of tea, reclusive Buddhist monasteries, an afternoon at Everest Base Camp, multiple days battling altitude, and of course never-ending mountain views. My eyes will be peeled wide looking for Snow Leopards (I’m fully aware that my hopes of spotting one are almost completely futile considering their elusiveness), although I may have to settle with Yaks, Vultures, and Mountain Goats. Bibendra loaded me up with medication “just in case”, I’ve got enough gore-tex to build a small house, and I’m about to go buy a pack of Snicker bars – meaning I’m all set.

I could go on and on about my excitement, but I figure you’re all more interested in seeing photos and hearing my accounts once it’s actually happened. So you won’t be hearing from me for about 2 and a half weeks, but I’ll be going back to my normal routine once back in Kathamandu. For now just pray/cross your fingers/do whatever it is you do so that we have a safe journey.

Wish me luck!

I GO TO WORK. I meet students at the Patan Academy of Health Sciences. I tutor science. I talk. I give presentations. I attend classes. I study at home. I work for the Khokana Education Foundation. I interview students and their families. I plan. I find students to sponsor. I organize health and dental camps. I EXPLORE. I ride overcrowded busses. I play snooker. I see sights, again. I sit on restaurant patios. I eat food I don’t particularly like. I eat delicious food. I sleep on the floor. I get bug bites. I trek. I sweat. I wash clothes by hand. I use squat toilets. I meet new people. I see old friends. I shake hands a lot. I drink more Coke and Fanta than I ever would at home. I take taxis. I barter. I get a barber to shave my face. I attempt to speak Nepali. I fail to pronounce things properly. I try to understand the game of cricket over and over again. I discover my appreciation for punctuality. I RELAX. I read. I journal. I watch movies. I watch Bollywood. I visit friends at Alka Hospital. I listen to Hindi songs. I think. I contemplate. I learn– about myself, about others, about the world. I appreciate. I discover. 

It’s a concept almost certainly on the mind of anyone travelling to a developing country, and statements describing a newfound appreciation for the luxuries of home are never hard to come across (“I’m so much more grateful for running water” or “I’m so thankful for constant electricity”–this is a realization particularly relevant to travellers in Nepal).  While these kinds of discoveries are great and one of the reasons why I’m such an advocate for travel to developing countries, this is not the kind of privilege I’m realizing this time around.

A couple days ago I met up with a friend for dinner in Thamel (tourist central), Kathmandu. My friend Tyee came along as well, and I found myself explaining to him that you can basically categorize any foreigner in Nepal into one of 4 categories:

1)   The Trekker. These are the people that wear hiking boots and waterproof clothing out to dinner, have sunburnt cheeks, and generally smell less than pleasant. Nonetheless, they are normally pretty cool and will tell you some wild story about their time in the Himalayas.

2)   The Hippie. The older ones presumably migrated here long ago in search for some kind of Shangri-La, and the younger ones can normally be identified by their dreadlocks and the smell of marijuana. Regardless of their age, they all find their niche either in the smoke-filled rooms of Thamel or some remote monastery, temple, or yoga-haven. As a rule, I generally stay away from the younger ones, but if I have a chance to chat with an old hippie I always take it, they have this amazing calming effect on you.

3)   The Volunteer. The volunteers normally escape to Thamel on the weekends in preparation for some sort of weekend trip around the country, and fill up the cheap dance bars the night before they set off. It’s not uncommon for some of these types to venture into the 2nd category for the short month they’re here. Both guys and girls will don linen shirts with wooden toggles and wide-legged flowing pants, and almost every one of the girls will leave here with a baggy cloth sac.

4)   The Expat. These are the UN and INGO workers that have been here for a while. It’s not uncommon for them to speak Nepali, and most will be driven around in a car with a blue diplomat’s license plate. Many are nice. Others have a very particular attitude towards those of us that don’t stay here for years at a time. You can normally find them in the supermarkets supplying the country with its imported food products, other than that they generally retire to their guarded homes within gated complexes.

Thamel is a busy place, generally filled with 1-3’s, except maybe a couple of the younger 4’s looking to party. It was on our ride home, as we were admiring the various types filling the tourist shops or restaurants that I came to a new understanding of what I have here. Tyee made a comment along the lines of “I almost feel bad for them [the tourists]”, noting that they never really experience Nepal. I’ve always been thankful for the genuine Nepali experiences I’ve been shown, but I came to a deeper realization of how rich my experience has really been. Even things that I now take for granted are experiences that any new tourist would boast about to their families and friends (ie: sitting on the floor eating rice & lentils by hand along with my Nepali family, returning home by walking along the paths that wind the rice terraces, or waking up to the sounds of goats and cattle outside). These people come and go, and if they happen to venture out of the tourist-bubble that encompasses Thamel & a couple of the other tourist hotspots around the city, they may have a chance to experience something authentic, but unfortunately many don’t.

Obviously I can’t expect everyone to drop all they have and come work in Nepal for an extended period, so I don’t want to come off as judgmental or as if I’m belittling their experiences. The reason I’m writing all this is because I’ve learned that the word privilege means something more. Although I’d rather not admit it, before this I associated the word privilege with riches. But when it comes down to it, I feel privileged because of experiences –which I’m learning are worth much more, as these can never be lost.

So I made it back. I’ve been here for 1 week now, and have finally managed to secure an internet connection. 

Where to begin? Well there was of course lots of excitement during my actual travel from Vancouver to London to Delhi to Kathmandu, as well as upon my arrival in Kathmandu, but I don’t really want this blog to simply describe all the things I do. I’m more interested in documenting what I learn, how I’ve learned it, and how I’m (hopefully) making a difference in Nepal. 

So I’ll start with my Nepalese family. This year I’m staying in a new accommodation. Previously, I stayed with Bibendra, President of the Khokana Village Child Education Foundation [KVCEF] & one of my best friends, along with his family in his home. Staying in the village home was certainly a once in a lifetime experience, but since another friend of mine from Canada (Tyee) is joining me this year, I decided the room available in Bibendra’s sister’s home would be more suitable. It’s great. I feel as though I’ve been introduced as a member of their family. There are 4 kids in the home, and each morning and night they fill my room wanting to practice their english, or watch some movie on my computer. I’ve already had 1 sick day since I’ve been here, and I’ve realized that at least for me, it is an inevitability while living in Nepal. Although I really shouldn’t complain much, since I got to stay home, hang out with the kids, and watch Finding Nemo & Planet Earth throughout the morning (if you don’t know me that well, that is pretty much a perfect day for me). 

What has struck me the most since getting re-introduced into the village is actually the familiarity I’ve felt, both my own familiarity with this place as well as the villagers’ familiarity with me. Maybe I expected things to be different, to have forgotten people’s names, or to have not been recognized by the people, but so far, it’s as if I never really left since last year, and fortunately I’m met with excited, smiling faces wherever I go. Even the barber yesterday hadn’t forgotten my face. Although our communication was limited, when he saw my face, he flashed me a welcoming smile and quickly called over a young guy while stating in proud but broken english, “this my son”. Once I left the barber’s shop, I jumped on a bus and there was a tiny old man sitting on one of the benches. It happened to be my friend’s father-in-law, who quickly patted the seat beside him, inviting me to sit with him. Once again, despite limited communication between us, I was quickly recognized, and just as quickly shown a warm welcome. 

Although not everything I’m doing is a familiar experience. I started working at the Patan Academy of Health Sciences this week. I’ve met about 60 of the students so far, and with that comes a seemingly impossible list of names to learn. My placement here is to tutor the students in their basic science classes, give workshops to the students on study skills and medical terminology, and build relationships with them in order to help improve their english proficiency (since their medical education is conducted in english). This week I’ve had the opportunity to make some great connections with the students. Many have already taken us volunteers out to see some sights and just hang out, and we’ve also had a chance to practice our snooker-playing skills in this inconspicuous snooker lounge reached only by walking through a money-exchanger and restaurant. Image 

Our placement at the medical school is really exciting, particularly because it was designed to be both a learning and cultural exchange, rather than your run-of-the-mill volunteer placement; which means the students here are just as excited in sharing some of our culture along with their own. 

I am meeting the other board members of the Khokana Village Child Education Foundation this weekend, where we will decide upon either 6 or 7 new students to sponsor until the end of their secondary school education. I will provide updates about our decision in due time. 

What I’ve come to realize this past week is that what I’m getting out of this journey is not some new, eye-opening, turn-the-world-upside-down experience, but a deeper & fuller understanding of this place and culture; which is proving to be nevertheless life-changing. 

I will be travelling to Kathmandu on May 1st, 2012.

Once there I will be documenting my experiences while tutoring medical students at the Patan Academy of Health Sciences and coordinating child sponsorship with The Khokana Project, an educational charity based in Khokana Village.

Please check back then.

I hope you enjoy!

Adam