Finding Meaning and Contentment in Nepal
My first experience of Nepal was amazing and bewildering. The drive through Kathmandu from Tribhuvan International Airport to the Mustang Hotel was a moving feast of color, sounds, and smells. Dark women in bright yellow and red saris mixed with street vendors shouting out their wares. Tuk tuks bleated and puffed out moist carbon monoxide fumes zipping around bicycle-powered rickshaws. Dogs lolled in the sidewalks, cows ambled through the traffic, while beggars and lepers with watery eyes in ragged loin cloths held out their hands and mouthed words I did not understand.
And then I saw the white caps of the majestic Himalayas. I fell in love with Nepal on that first trek to Mt. Everest Base Camp. It wasn’t just the phantasms of the high Himalayas; it was the people who live up there. Sir Edmund Hillary described Sherpas as the strongest and kindest people in the world. He was right on.
I was manifesting mid-life crisis symptoms. I had come to feel trapped by the responsibilities of marriage, children, mortgage, and law practice. The American dream had become Poe’s nightmare of enclosing walls of financial and family pressures. Life was measured out in six minute billable units. This was not how it was supposed to be!
Life was supposed to be an adventure. Instead, work and family responsibilities were beating me into a tool of production and consumption. Resistance was futile. Becoming a responsible adult meant losing the sense that life was creative and adventurous.
But then, after another stressful day at the law office my wife Alicia slapped down on the dinner table in front of me a brochure about trekking in the Nepal Himalayas. She knew what I loved but had been denying myself. She told me I should go take a hike on the other side of the planet.
I returned to Nepal almost every year since that first trek on the Everest Base Camp Trail. In addition to developing skills and experience as a mountaineer I became involved with various development projects in remote Himalayan villages.
For the last ten years my efforts focused on the remote area of Basa in the province of Solu-Khumbu. There are six settlements in Basa, and the main village is Basa Village. It is the home village of Niru Rai, the owner of Adventure GeoTreks (AGT), the outfitter company I partnered with to organize trekking and climbing expeditions. Niru and I created sister foundations, his based in Nepal, mine in the US. The mission of the two Basa Village Foundations was to engage in what we call “culturally sensitive development projects”. Our first principle was that the local people decide what development projects they want. Second, the village provides the labor and owns the projects. A village school with five grades, smokeless stoves for all the homes in the village, a hydroelectric plant, a water delivery system, rebuilt homes after the 2015 earthquakes, improved trails, eye glasses, solar-powered LED lights, shoes, winter coats, school uniforms, food stocks for drought and monsoon seasons, and temporary medical clinics were the results of our efforts.
Combining these development projects with Himalayan trekking was the way I found to regain a sense of creative adventure along side the responsibilities of family and work. I coined the term, “philanthro-trekking” to describe the pursuit. Basa had become such an important part of my life that in the village I was Jeff Dhai, “big brother” to the village.
One night in 2010, sitting by a campfire on the high pass of the Ratnagi Danda above Basa with my friends Ganesh and Buddhi, they told me about the ancestral legends of the Rai people. Rai is the major tribal-ethnic group of the middle Himalayas in Eastern Nepal. The Sherpas are the dominant tribe immediately to the north in the high Himalayas. Ganesh claimed that “in the old days” the Rai had a written language and sacred texts, but the written language and the ancient texts were lost in the mists of time. Their local language was spoken only by the people of their valley.
Our camp was a clearing within a rhododendron forest on a 10,000-foot high ridge. The porters and kitchen crew were finishing their simple meals of rice, lentils, and tea. The crew had already cleaned up our communal dining tent. As soon as the guys finished eating they would pile into the dining tent sharing body heat for warmth while they slept. The other members of our trekking group were already tucked into their sleeping bags in North Face expedition tents.
Buddhi sat on the other side of the fire from me. Buddhi’s voice was low and resonant. He was chanting trance-like in his Rai language. It was a little unsettling, because Buddhi is a young man full of life. On the trek he was always smiling and joking while he bounded down the trail on springy legs. Now, he was solemn and serious. His chanting voice on the other side of the crackling fire under the moonlit sky created an eerie ambiance.
Ganesh sat between us translating Buddhi’s words into English. Ganesh and I had hiked many rugged miles together on trails on Himalayan expeditions. He was the sirdar for several expeditions I organized with AGT. Together we have introduced many American friends to the culture of Nepal and the Himalayan mountains. Our conversations were normally playful, enlivened with jokes and laughter. But Ganesh wasn’t laughing or joking beside the fire pit on the lip of the Ratnagi Danda.
The flames of the campfire flashed and licked at the stack of sticks in the fire pit. The guys had placed three stones around the edge of the fire pit as required by Rai taboo. Red sparks wafted up into the great open sky. The Milky Way and the constellations I’d learned as a child were so luminous it looked like we could reach up to touch them. I listened in rapt attention as Buddhi chanted and Ganesh told me the ancient stories of the Rai people.
I will only share a little of what I was told that night of the Rai people’s myths and legends. The stories have little relevance to us Westerners. What I will share is that the Rai are convinced that everything in the universe is animated with spirit. All creatures and even inanimate objects are entitled to appropriate respect. Animals are not to be killed to satisfy human appetite. Only when an animal is dying of old age may it be put out of misery and eaten. The edible parts will be divided, so each family in the village will receive a share.
The ethic of respect for all things yields a very enlightened environmentalism in the Rai people. Basa villagers use sticks as fuel for cooking and heating. But they will not chop down a tree to use its wood in the fire pit of their homes. They pick up sticks and cut branches. When the village realized the surrounding forest was diminishing, they planted one-thousand trees.
Once walking a trail with Ganesh I started to kick a rock out of our pathway. He gently took my arm, and moved the rock to the side of the trail with his boot. He explained that even rocks deserve our respect.
Basa villagers do not have the menu of life choices and opportunities like those of us living in developed countries. For five hundred years the children of Basa have grown up knowing they would be farmers, blacksmiths, or tailors, just like their parents. That limitation may seem to us a terrible loss of freedom. For people living in sustainable farming villages, it is simply how life is lived. Village folk attend more to human relationships and community connection than the acquisition of more things and the pursuit of ambition.
The development of a school and cellular service and a road recently reaching the village might change the simple and beautiful way of life for future generations of Basa villagers. But local control over development has allowed the village to determine to some extent how modernity and technology enter village life.
When a decision affecting the whole village needs to be made in Basa, the entire village gathers. The issues are talked out until a consensus is reached on how to proceed. I witnessed a two-day long meeting about the hydroelectric project. By the end of the second day the villagers had worked out all aspects of the project from who was to climb the sheer 100-foot wall to string the wires up from the stream where the power plant would be built to whether poles should be used or the electrical line buried to whose land would it cross to who would make and provide the food for the workers.
The way of life of the Rai people of Basa is starkly different from that of my striving professional class in North America. Our materialistic attitude often results in the treatment of people as objects and nature as material to use for selfish purposes. “Connections” are less kinship and friendship than the means to achieve goals to satisfy ambitions. What comes from the life-long effort to gain material prosperity and social status? One hopes an enjoyable retirement, but too often alienation from community along with anxiety, stress, and depression.
Basa villagers do not have those problems. They are connected to each other communally, helping and sharing, working together to maintain a village community that has lasted hundreds of years. Each of my friends who have visited Basa with me over the last ten years have left amazed and delighted with their experience of “the strongest and kindest people” I know.
Basa village asked my friends and me to bring light to their mountain by funding the purchase of equipment for a hydroelectric system. We provided the capital to purchase the equipment to build a little hydroelectric power station along their mountain stream. And Basa has shown my friends and me a different kind of light and power – the enlightenment of community and contentment.