Last month I traveled 27 hours on three different flights to get from Omaha, Nebraska to Kathmandu, Nepal. My work gave me the opportunity to travel to any of 150 countries we do national survey research projects in. I chose Nepal. It just felt right.
I knew it would be an amazing experience in a beautiful country. What I didn’t know before I traveled there is just how deeply my soul would be touched by the Nepali people.
I arrived at the crowded Kathmandu airport just after 8pm local time. After retrieving my overstuffed suitcase from the baggage claim, I made my way outside and easily found my 5’9” American friend and colleague, Nicole, waiting for me amid the crowd of people huddled in the arrivals area.
It was a happy reunion. Nicole and I attended the same graduate school a year apart and both found ourselves working for the same company not long after. She lives in Asia, so we don’t often have the opportunity to meet in person for more than a day or two.
The sun was setting as we made our way to the hotel. In the dim of twilight, I noticed many crumbled brick structures – remnants of the Gorkha earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015 killing approximately 8,000 people and wounding 21,000 more. My companion explained that many citizens were still waiting for funds from the government to rebuild and were afraid that if they rebuilt on their own, they would never receive the promised money.
That evening, we enjoyed a beautiful dinner on the outdoor patio of our hotel restaurant and talked about work, culture, love, poverty, and religion. It was a peaceful evening – the thick air and soft breeze providing a perfect backdrop as our conversation went late into the night.
I ordered a bit too much food and my waiter politely suggested I order less food next time to avoid the waste. It was a gentle reminder that I was no longer in the West – where excess is a way of life for many. This was the first of many lessons the people of Nepal would teach me.
The next day we met up with our research colleagues and traveled into the heart of Kathmandu Valley. I was struck by the sheer volume of vehicles, mostly motorcycles, that filled the streets as we made our way to a small community just outside the city. Only drivers of motorcycles are required to wear helmets in Nepal, so it was not uncommon to see women and small children riding unprotected on the backs of motorcycles cruising swiftly down the city streets. I prayed for each and every one of them as we passed.
A short while later we arrived at a slum in Kathmandu Valley. Most of the homes there were pieced together by raw materials like bamboo, scrap metal, wood, and for the more fortunate people, brick. The brick likely came from one of the nearby brick kilns – staffed primarily by child labor. I saw the children in the distance working in the open spaces between the kilns – some no older than my own young daughter (7).
We walked through the neighborhood and discussed how many development organizations were focusing less on eradicating child labor and more on ensuring the children were cared for by their employers – such as providing safe working conditions, health care services, and schooling in the evenings. Although I was aware that child labor existed and even of the brick industry that relies so heavily on it, to see it for myself even from a distance was overwhelming. I longed to run to them, to yell at their employers and pull them away to a better life where they could go to school and run and play like my daughters do.
Even as the thoughts crossed my mind, I knew I couldn’t help them. Not really. Sure, I can support organizations trying to end child labor (which I do), but I couldn’t help these children. Not then. And probably not ever.
So I prayed. Overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness, shock, and if I’m being honest, guilt, I poured my heart out to God as we continued our work.
Near day’s end, we sat on a pile of cut wood inside a newly constructed cement home listening to a local woman talk about to her life. It was clear she was excited to host visitors in her home and eager to make us comfortable. Her husband brought boiling hot tea to drink while we interviewed her.
This is the way of the Nepali people – hospitality like I have never seen. I would experience it in deep and profound ways during my trip.
It was after dark by the time we left the woman’s home. We walked the winding dirt roads back to our car and I felt a deep sense of peace – divine and unexplainable to anyone who hasn’t experienced it for themselves. For all I had seen that day and grieved that day, my soul had given it over to God.
The next day, we traveled seven hours west along winding, mountainous roads to the Pokhara region – famous for its’ breathtaking views of the Himalayas. While the nausea-inducing journey was not pleasurable, the scenery was stunning. Jagged peaks and vivid green rice paddies. Rivers rushing over large granite rocks. Brightly-dressed Nepali families walking along the roadside. (I learned that Nepali wives wear red as good luck to their husbands.)
The highway was dotted by colorful Hindu shrines – more than 80% of Nepali people are Hindu. On several occasions I saw Buddhist monks with their unmistakable saffron robes and shaved heads. (The Buddha was actually born in Nepal. About 8% of population there are Buddhists.) I observed a few Muslim families and an occasional Christian cross adorned on a bumper sticker, but these religions are not very prevalent there. (Yes, there will be a quiz at the end of this.)
We arrived in Lakeside, Pokhara in the evening and had dinner along the promenade across from Phewa Lake – a popular tourist destination, especially for foreign trekkers. For the next several nights we stayed at Temple Tree Resort and Spa – an arboreal lodge tucked away just off the main road. We spent long days out in the field and would arrive back to Temple Tree exhausted, dirty, and thankful for warm, running water and western toilets.
Our longest day in Pokhara began early in the morning as we piled into our Range Rover and wound ever deeper into the mountains, each road steeper and rockier than the last. There were many times I doubted our vehicle could actually make it up the near vertical road in front of us, but our driver was undeterred. This was just every day in the Himalayas for him – life on the edge of cliffs. Meanwhile, I clung to the grab-handle above me and prayed for my life.
After a couple of hours, we finally stopped to rest at a bodega along the main trekking route. Our Nepali colleagues warned this would be our last opportunity for food and restrooms for a bit. We would move on foot from there.
We walked, sometimes climbed a steep road up into the mountains. The views were stunning, but my stamina was less impressive. I did not train for this. I had to stop many times – the elevation and my lack of endurance getting the best of me. (Full disclosure: I got sick in someone’s garden along the way.) Towards the end of our journey up, we hitchhiked on the back of a trailer filled with dirt. I held on tight to the sides as we were jostled around due to the rough terrain.
Finally, we arrived in the village where interviews would be conducted. Each of the homes there was set up in a similar way – forty feet long and fifteen feet wide built from mainly mud and wood, sometimes brick. Much of the ground around us was cut into steps to help with irrigation of the crops that covered nearly all of the land on each property – ensuring that when rain fell, it would not simply roll down the mountain.
Most homes had farm animals – chickens and other poultry wandered around at our feet or in the nearby barns. Goats were common, as well as buffalo (not the North American buffalo you may be picturing, but more like a cow with curled horns.)
Children eyed us curiously as we walked by and eventually came closer to say “hello.” Many of the children I encountered spoke some English. They learn it in school. I had some small gifts to give away, as well as protein bars.
Most of the children I met were very thin – some even stunted in growth due to malnutrition. The protein bars would provide welcome nutrition, if only for a day. I only wish I would have brought more. I only wish I could have done more.
But the children there were happy. They crowded eagerly around my phone as I showed them pictures and videos from my life. The Bellagio Fountain Show from Las Vegas was a particular hit. I also took pictures and videos of them and we watched them together laughing. It was such a blessing to spend that time with them – I fascinated with them and they with me.
I regretted when it was time for us to go, but the sun was setting. Soft rain fell as we started our way down the mountain. At times when the rain fell heavy, we stopped to take shelter under the awning of a stranger’s porch. The people we encountered welcomed us into their homes to let the rain pass. They offered us drinks and even food while we waited. They brought stools for us to sit on and wait out the storm.
And this was thing that impressed me most about my time in Nepal – people gave generously from what they had (no matter how little) and opened their homes to people they didn’t even know. I got the feeling that there was no such thing as a stranger in Nepal. Everyone was kindred.
It took an hour to wind our way by foot down the mountain. We descended on a stone staircase with a canopy of trees over us most of the way. Even as it grew darker, a feeling of peace stayed with me. I was deeply affected by the spirit of the people we met that day.
As we drove back into Kathmandu, I was struck again by the chaos there. Throngs of people competed for space on the roads, most on motorcycles. It was not uncommon to see people wearing facemasks to protect themselves from the smoggy air. Street vendors with shops or carts sold fresh fruit, jewelry, and handmade goods. Some sat in the gutters of the streets with their livelihoods laid out on the sidewalk above them, hoping for a good day.
We passed areas where trash had been dumped in large mounds along the streets. Stray dogs, cows, chickens, and sometimes people picked through it looking for something to eat. At one location I saw children digging through mounds of trash looking for something to salvage. That was the hardest moment for me on the trip. Driving passed these precious people on my way to a warm hotel with running water and food in excess.
During my last morning in Nepal, I snuck extra food from my breakfast buffet out of the hotel and walked out of the compound in search of someone hungry to give it to. Just outside of the gates of the compound, I stumbled into a tent city. Hundreds of tents stretched across an area no larger than a football field. UNICEF signs warned against removing children from the camp.
It was overwhelming to realize that people had been living in these tents for more than a year since the earthquake, many of them still waiting for the government assistance promised to them. I approached an older man who was leading around a young child, no more than 2-years-old. I gave them all the food I had and wished them well, crying quietly as I left the camp and returned back to my hotel.
We spent the remainder of the day in Kathmandu Valley before I left on my evening flight. We visited a Buddhist temple and spoke with a monk there for a while. It was a beautiful, ornate shrine with elaborate paintings covering every inch of the walls. Within the temple, child monks who lived on the property swept the floor with homemade brooms at the foot of an enormous Buddha statue. Other statues were located on the temple grounds along with prayer wheels and gardens overlooking the city below.
We then traveled to an area that was hit particularly hard by the earthquake. My colleagues had visited the village the year before, just two months after the quake. They were pleased to see how much had been reconstructed there. The residents had rebuilt on their own using the rubble from their homes in ingenious ways. As my colleague Nicole said, “Humans are amazing.”
We ate fresh eggs and vegetables at a hilltop restaurant in the heart of the village. My colleagues knew the owner from their work the year before. I listened to them catch-up and savored the remaining hours I had in the beautiful country with its beautiful people.
As we left, we bowed, hands pressed together and gave the traditional parting words of Nepal: “Namaste.” This gesture is called Añjali Mudrā or Pranamasana. In Hinduism it means, “I bow to the divine in you.”
And this would be the greatest lesson of all that I learned in Nepal – everyone is worthy, valued, even divine and we should honor that. We should bow to the divine in each other.
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