Travelling Under Pretense

I have been hashing out the details of my upcoming trip to Nepal. The last two weeks have been a whirl of emotions, conversations, logistics and new hopes. I am going back to Nepal in March for a month. We’re not climbing up giant mountains this time (though 13,500 feet isn’t too shabby), we’re going on a volunteer project.

I am in that twilight zone between here and there, and just trying to wrap my head around it again. I am more integral to the planning this time. I am more in control of who we interact with, what we learn and what we offer. It’s thrilling, daunting and at times terrifying to think that I am going that far, doing all this planning and not making any money at it, not looking for an avenue to turn it into a profitable venture. That’s what our culture wants me to do with it. Capitalize on it somehow. But it’s not about that in the slightest, which I why I haven’t explored all the avenues with my book that many of my well-meaning friends have suggested. It’s not about profiting from the trip.

The small contingent of us will spend time in a few remote communities working with the local villagers to improve their lives. We will be volunteering our time in schools, administering medical and dental service and perhaps even introducing trash management, since they don’t have any sort of sanitation, garbage collection, or even trash cans in remote areas. One of my most eye-opening experiences last time was this one, where I learned how the locals are desensitized to the wrappers and trash that chokes their waterways and roadsides. I have a dream to show them how beautiful their village is when it isn’t covered in cellophane and polypropylene, and how simple it can be to keep it that way. I’m still not sure whether that dream is naive or bold or both.

I was discussing the details of our activities in the schools with my partner on the project, MaryBeth. She is a little bit more earthy than I, a bit less goal-oriented, and full of heart. She was struggling with the right words to capture her feelings about why we are going, what our core purpose is and how we should expect our impact to resonate. I could feel her floundering, looking for a way to connect more completely with the project and its focus. It reminded me of so many of the thoughts I’d had while I was in Nepal last time. At times I felt all-powerful – speaking with the leader of a country face to face, or standing center stage before 2,500 cheering fans. And at times I felt invisible, ignored and lost in a foreign place with nothing familiar.

But mostly I felt that in being there, no matter what I could give, no matter what knowledge or item I could bestow, it in no way compared to the experience and knowledge I was receiving in return. It’s hard to put words to it, but as MaryBeth spoke she stirred this in me and I burst into tears. It caused her to do the same. Then these words came to me through the tears:

The idea that we could offer them something larger and more valuable that they can offer us, is the most ludicrous pretense, and the last possible reason we should be going to do what we are doing.

“Yes, thank you.” She said. The release showed in her face when she realized that those were the words she was grasping for. We sat sniffing and wiping our faces in the coffee shop, wrapping our head around the thought.

It’s hard to come to terms with the blend of selfishness and selflessness that happens on a project like this. But owning and understanding it is probably pretty important to the outcome. It’s certainly not about profit or bottom lines or who comes out ahead. At the least I hope to give all I can of myself and my talents to people who will most likely be open to receiving them. And at the most, I hope to bring back a tiny taste of the many things that the Nepali people and their culture will offer.