What was your purpose for this trip? Why do you keep going?
Let me say, as the self-appointed Princess of Purpose, I love this question! You should usually have a purpose when you take off to the other side of the world for a while, right? Also, you might have figured out that I am a relatively intricate person, and the answer is often equally intricate. So here it is, in four parts.
For this trip specifically, I had cleared my schedule with the intention of going to Nepal this October. I was supposed to make a documentary movie for an eco-travel company here in Seattle. Our plan was to trek to a specific village, do a couple interviews, get some supporting footage, then I was going to come home and hammer on making a mini-movie for a month or two. Since that didn’t happen, but I still had my schedule cleared, I figured out a way to go to Nepal anyway. One of my editorial clients this summer was AC. He wrote an autobiography and I helped him finish, edit and publish it in advance of his trip to Nepal in early October. He was going primarily to run for a government seat in an election there. The book project was larger than either of us anticipated, so when I took on the additional work, he generously offered to buy me a plane ticket to Nepal as part of my compensation. Clearly this was a good deal for me, as I already had the space in my calendar. Just as the documentary deal fell through, AC’s book went to print, and a week after that, I had a ticket to Kathmandu. So that’s how I got there this time.
What did you end up doing?
I told all of my Nepali friends I was coming. Things appeared.
Volunteer projects abound in Nepal. There is so much that needs doing, it’s impossible for me not to see it, think about it, and want to do it. AC’s second activity during this trip was for his 7 Summits Foundation. For five years he has partnered with New York University’s Dental School for a week of free dental service to folks in need in Kathmandu. So I signed up to help with that for the days when my schedule overlapped with the program.
I also spent time learning more about other volunteer projects going on (with other Nepali friends), and worked with some of the organizers to see where I could be the most help. I am plugged in well enough now that I just need to say “I’m free this day” and they hook me up with something really cool to do. To date, between my three trips I have:
Put in infrastructure for rural schools
Tutored teachers on using laptops and kindles
Served as photojournalist on a climate change awareness concert tour
Cut a music video or two
Worked with local community leaders to fund the completion of a school building
Run a rural trash clean-up program
Assisted in the (mentioned above) dental clinic
Donated my photography for many of these projects
And I serve as the curator for a photo group that depicts real-life Nepal, not just news headlines.
So, volunteer education tour, anyone? Or maybe a home-building project? Restoration work from the 100-year flood that southern Nepal just endured? Earthquake rebuilding? There is so much. So I spent some of my time getting a better handle on what and where I could serve, and how I could take other people to do the same. If you’re looking for heart work in Nepal, I can hook you up – let me know! Ok, that’s thing two.
I wanted to see the culture from the inside. Thing three. I received several offers to stay with my friends in Nepal, so I took them up on it. I also scheduled my trip to match the largest holiday of the year – Tihar/Diwali. It’s a week of festivals, lights, parties, family gatherings and culture I really wanted to see. While staying with Danu, I was able to experience this sort of culture as a member of his family, which is a far more valuable gift than any tourist event I could have booked. It was pure delight. I am still amazed how relaxed his whole family was as I photographed them during Dai Tikka.
It was a highlight, even though several of them said, “You must be so bored, we’re all just sitting here talking in Nepali.” I wasn’t bored. But the adults tasked the two teen girls with escorting me up to the nearest monastery anyway, so I could pass some of the all-day celebration sightseeing. It’s a good thing – I had a huge meal to walk off.
And finally, I go for personal care. At its core one of my very favorite things is, I am treated really, really well when I am in Nepal. This is multi-layered, so let me roll it out:
I love the way I am treated when I am there. There is no nit-picking, no passive aggressiveness, double-thinking, no assumptions of this or that. Nothing except food, company and comfort is issued upon me. Everything is straight up. It’s incredibly refreshing. Sometimes the mama in me just really needs this sort of pampering.
The things I love are simple and luxurious at once. To be given a warm cup of tea with both hands and a smile is truly all I need sometimes, and I get it when I am in Nepal. It’s the interaction as much as anything. Even in the tourist areas, where service people handle too many demanding customers, they are deliberate and kind and give people their full attention. They even strike up interesting conversation with you, because the meal isn’t a rush, it’s a process, and the process involves interaction. When was the last time you received service like that from a restaurant or barista? I think it’s fair to say that our culture doesn’t value personal interfacing – maybe we don’t have time for that. But the people of Nepal do, and I like to feel it every so often. Sitting with a few friends, just letting time float by over a cup of tea, with slow, wandering, conversation that lets me into their culture is a meaningful thing to endeavor. I need that.
I am really appreciated for my talents when I am there. From photography to English, from organization to computers, I get called on to do a lot of things. My husband, the musician, likes to say, “You’re huge in Nepal!” It’s our little joke; I originally went to Nepal for trekking and photography, and ended up meeting the prime minister and singing on a stage in front of 2500 people, two miles up.
I do feel very useful there. But I also get put into interesting and strange situations, and I have become accustomed to rolling with it. “Erika, can you say a few words to the press in English… can you write some lyrics for this song… can you stand on stage and sing those words… can you teach this class… can you lead a computer lesson… can you say something to the crowd…” I think I love the rush of not knowing what is coming next. And, yeah, I’m huge in Nepal.
Some of my Nepali friends are famous people. They get treated really well, so when I am with them, I do too. And it’s fun for me to see my friends being treated like the celebrities they are. On a personal level, I get a little giddy watching a Buddhist be famous. They are so humble and delicate about their celebrity. The US could do with some of that. There doesn’t seem to be much raging fanaticism over celebs in Nepal… but maybe it’s different with their movie stars. From what I see, people are just people, doing their jobs, and being gently admired and celebrated for it. And in most cases, they use their celebrity to raise funds, help people, and promote volunteer work for the betterment of their country. That’s pretty cool for me to experience. I learn from it every time.
Add to that, I am occasionally treated like American media, which is never a bad thing. After I spent my whole first trip being an active member of the press, and photographing all the concerts we did on the tour, I’m pretty familiar with the way Nepal press works. This visit, I pulled out my camera at a CD release event, and even though I was sitting in the audience, I was immediately given khada (ceremonial scarf) as part of the media team. Ok, it helped that I was sitting next to Nepal’s version of Ted Koppel, too. He’s a friend.
You didn’t go to trek?
Well, I didn’t pick a trek before I left the US. I think it would be a shame not to get up to the highest mountains in the world while you’re so close to them. So, I did. I knew I had several options once I got there, and had let my favorite guide know I was coming. Since I was travelling alone, it was easy to book a trip once I got to Kathmandu. It’s an amazing feeling to say to yourself, “Do I want to go see the first and fourth highest mountains in the world again, or should I go visit the seventh and tenth this time?” Seeing any of them makes me happy. And my camera too. I only did a short trek this time because I knew I would be travelling alone, and most of the fun of a long trek is spending time with the people you’re travelling with. As it was, my guide spent the long hiking hours teaching me Nepali, like he did last time we trekked together.
So, in summary, I go to commune with this culture I have fallen in love with, to learn the language, hike in the mountains, visit with friends, use my skills for good, relax in a way that I can’t in my own culture, and come out on the other side a better person.