If you think my stories are interesting, you should hear the stories of people I’m talking to everywhere I go. Today for the first time, I took a Kathmandu city bus from the neighborhood where I’m staying (Gokarna Chowk) to Boudhanath. It costs 15 cents. The door is manned by a young vocal man who advertises that the bus is coming by hanging out the door, yelling up the street as the bus arrives. Then he steps off and packs people on. As you approach your stop, you move toward the doorman and he makes change for you with the standard lively social transactions that happen around money here. Ok, that’s the bus. I love it. No chickens or dogs on board though…
With Danu as my guide, I get the standard looks of “you’re not from around here,” but as long as he is nearby, few people approach. When I appear to be on my own, the real interaction takes place. So he and his wife sat side by side and I sat behind them, leaving the seat beside me open.The man who sat next to me pegged me for an American, but asked me where I was from anyway. He smiled and said “I thought so.” I asked his name. Shenjay. His English was amazingly good, and he was excited to ask me questions and talk to me. In his late 40s or early 50s, he said he, too, had tried many times to get a visa to go to the US but had never been accepted. Much of his family lives there but he has never been able to even visit.
Then he explained how there are no jobs in Nepal, and the only way the economy survives is through a combination of the travel industry and the Remingtons. I had not heard the term before, but Remingtons are the working-age men who leave the country and go to work in other countries so they can send money back to their families. Most of the people who are still in the country are looking for work, according to him. Something like 20,000 people per month go broke due to not being able to find a job here (his words).
He asked me what I thought was interesting about Nepal and what I had done. I mentioned volunteer work and meeting the prime minister. He replied “that guy was a terrorist.” And he said that when he was in office he had done terrible things to the country (he only served 5 months). I mentioned that we were having similar problems in our country right now. He gave me a “ke garne” look and smiled. “But America is so great! Everyone around the world follows America’s lead, and watches what they do – so important.” I said I hoped we could maintain some of that while in our current situation. Then we arrived at my stop so I shook his hand on the way off the bus.
Prepare to be treated with less grace and latitude than you have been in the past. When you’re outside your own country, you hear things other than your own country’s propaganda. This culture promotes people talking to each other as they sit on a bus, wait in a line, stand on a street. Many people have approached me and kindly asked me where I am from. I am inclined to start saying “Canada.” just to relieve some of the pressure.
Kathmandu is full of tourists and the Nepali people know how much they gain from travelers to their country. Shenjay is right. Tourism is the largest industry in Nepal, and most other income comes from outside Nepal. He reminded me that Nepal is landlocked and dependent on India for so much. He thinks if Nepal had a seaport that would change. I scoured my head for any other industry that even registers and could be a Nepali export. They export cement, rice, milk, tea and metalwork to India. And apparently they have a couple oil fields near Lumbini (the celebrated birthplace of Buddha) which China has been drilling. (Yeah, let that imagery sink in.)
Of the working age men I know, Krish has a double MBA and exports his software skills, Several of them work in construction, two work for the government, a handful are entertainers/musicians, and the rest are in tourism (about 50). You might notice that in my running videos of people, it’s rare you see working age men (18-40). You see lots of women, because Nepal’s (male) labor force is out of the country.
Walking home from dinner last night Danu’s nephew told me something similar about jobs in Nepal. He said he had been in the Middle East for 18 years working inside airports driving equipment, using forklifts, moving luggage and other important driving jobs in the airports in the Middle East. He said now that he’s over 40 none of them will take him, they want younger workers. And he can’t find anything here, so he’s grasping at straws, and looking for anything at all that will suit him in his area of experience. Most people in this age range have manual labor skills and not much else. Which is probably why they want so badly for their children to go to school and learn a skilled trade or an office job. But they compete directly with India for most jobs you would think of, and of course India will do it cheaper, and with more resources, more people looking for work. Still, they are encouraged and move forward every day.