Thursday, September 1, 2016

"Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win."

Ready for a wonderful entry about uplifting things? Ready for an entry full of sunshine and flowers and beaches, and soft pillow talk?

Well, excellent! Let’s talk about some poverty!

Wait. Please don’t run. This will be a good entry, I swear. I just wanted to be fair and upfront that this will mainly be about an uncomfortable topic. But it is my duty to talk about this topic more than I have. Most of my entries I post never address the extreme poverty I take in while visiting all these countries. They’re very much “me-centered”, and while this particularly entry won’t be vastly different, the goal is for something more impactful than just showing how a pretty-privileged white dude from the West does his whole Eat, Pray, Love thing. Not talking about the extreme poverty has been my MO.

This is positively unacceptable, and as a social worker, I feel disgraced that I coast over this important topic with breezy conversations about toilets or drinking at bars. Sidenote though, because I do talk about toilets and bars frequently, here is a picture of the strangest urinal I have encountered so far, in a bar, in Kathmandu.

Back to it. Countries like Nepal need representation, they need to be shown how gorgeous they are and how desperate their situation is when it comes to income disparity on a global and local scale. Shelby pointed this out to me first: that Nepal doesn’t have the income disparity as say The United States or Thailand, but instead it seems like everyone is poor, even those of higher castes (like India, although the caste system is no longer legally recognized, many people still acknowledge it) and government officials.

In the past, I have been a coward, using a half-ass excuse that I’m scared to type negatively about some of these countries because of strict government censorship (but, yeah, for the record, this is somewhat true in some of the countries I have visited). But in reality, I’m scared to breech the topic because it’s so dense, so complex, and so hard to write about without sounding too pessimistic and having it turn into one gigantic bummer. Also, it gets a little tricky to talk about it from an outsider’s perspective as the world I see is filtered through my own lens as white, straight, American male of what I think poverty is and isn’t (which, sometimes, again, can be completely wrong because of the density of the word). As I tell my students and people I work with, I have no idea what they're going through because I am not and never will be in their skin. BUT, I can at least be the best damn ally possible to them.

And luckily, to boot, I’m an eternal optimist.

Today I woke up a little later than usual. I got my breakfast from the hostel, then walked through town to go to my favorite coffee shop (typical Seattlite, huh?). The people at this particular shop are, without a doubt, the nicest people I have met in any place so far. They raise their arms and hands and voices and smiles and laughs as though you were the Prodigal Son returning. They even memorize your drink so quickly that by Day Two you’ve become a regular in an alley coffee shop halfway across the world in Asia! Anyways, I jumped on my computer and started looking for a place to book for Jakarta in three day’s time (I’m a liar and I do actually plan things on occasion). While doing so, one of the staff came up to me and started asking me the typical questions: where are you from, how do you like Nepal, and how come your belly is so fat? That last question is made up, but it is a good question – I hit thirty and was, like, where did that come from? That's a story for another time though.

His name was Iswor (pronounced like E-sue) and he was (and is) delightful. We fill a good ten minutes with chatter and I learn that he’s also a full-time student, a single year away from getting his BA in Business. He also wants to be a social worker. This guy has big dreams and I can already tell he’s got a magnetic personality. We exchanged Facebook and decide to grab a bite to eat after his shift.

I come back a few hours later and he’s a social butterfly, sitting down and talking with another foreigner, Kelly, a researcher and student at Oxford (!) documenting, along with an assistant, about child exploitation and people migration patterns of Nepal (at least, I think that’s right, my memory is spotty most of the time and I’m technically polishing up this entry while in Jakarta [edit: and editing it more and posting from a bar in the US]. Kelly, if you’re reading this, correct me!). It’s fascinating stuff and she leads the three of us to a nearby restaurant called Yak.

Kelly has to leave for a meeting, but Iswor and I delve deep into it. He, like others before him, have a lot to say about the current Nepali economy, the government, and living in a post-earthquake nation already on the brink of collapsing (two days before this, there was politcial unrest in the government and and students filled the street and shut down city buses and the like (type in "Nepal protests" into Google and you'll be floored by what comes up). This is not unusual for Nepal unfortunately [fortunately?]).

People like Iswor are exactly why I travel. No guidebooks and no expats telling me what is what. This is a casual conversation between two people from vastly different cultures finding differences and exploring common ground. It’s wondrous, eye-opening, and a little hard to take in.

This has happened to me many times while in poor countries: hospitality you just wouldn’t believe and you wouldn’t expect in western countries (but, I hate generalizing as there have been several Western countries with equally as accommodating and generous souls).

He invites me to come see his apartment which he shares with his sister. His sister, although sick in bed from Typhoid for the last two weeks, cooks me Dal Baht after they learn how much I adore it. Re-read that one more time. This is a family that is barely surviving on their own income, and because the sister has been out of work, they are working on less than half of a very modest income to survive. Yet still they make me – a complete and utter stranger they just met – a meal they most likely can't afford.

This man wasn’t looking to make a quick buck off me. It wasn't some long-con. He was and is a genuine person who believes that money doesn’t equal happiness, and happiness depends on helping, learning, and opening your heart and world to matter how dark and fragile that heart and world are. He invites me because he wants to learn about myself and the US and I want to learn about his world. He also wants to tell a story of his nation that too often gets drowned out by bigger and more prosperous countries.

In a matter of two hours, we have become good friends.

And, dammit, rack up another person I will now miss and wonder and worry about.

But I’m writing this blog for another reason. I’m not writing it just to say, “oh hey, look I have another friend! Isn’t that cool!”

No, I’m summarizing this story because I want you, the reader, to know how beautiful people are when you let the fear go that you learn from the newspapers and TV shows.

But I also want to tell you about this country and why it needs your help.

Nepal is poor. In fact, from many reports (pre-earthquake), it was in the top 30 poorest countries in the world (some argue it’s much lower than that – they have no high-rise buildings, a one-lane airport, no rail system, and inadequate electricity for its almost 30 million population). I mean, this is a country that saw its first plane land in the mid 1940s and is a country that didn’t see a television system until 1985.

They’ve had an extremely rocky past with democracy and monarchies and are still experiencing constant political turmoil (most notably because of corrupt higher-up and messy politics with China/Tibet. If your curious, I’ve been reading this book by a Nepalese defector who now lives in Canada, and it has positively opened my eyes and heart to this country even more. It's called Forget Kathmandu. Give it a read if you’re a fan of history mixed with memoir. It’s a tough read at first, with a shitload of history to wade through, but I promise you the impact is that much stronger for it. I find it sad that it only has one review on Amazon...more proof how forgotten this country can be when someone writes something other than Mt. Everest.

I often think, how can I help? How can any of us help if we’re committed to our own lives, whether it be family, or school, or work back home. Part of the answer is tourism. Tourism is big business for this society (it's the number one source of income), and it can really positively affect local life when tourists and trekkers pour money into local people and food and supplies. The problem is, after the earthquake, tourism has plummeted to dismal numbers. 

And the earthquake. I remember waking up and hearing the news in the states and though I hadn’t been here yet, I got close enough in Dharamsala to understand how devastating a natural disaster can have on a community that can’t afford proper infrastructure on its buildings and roads. I get goosebumps even typing this when I recall Iswor telling me his personal account of the earthquake at the young age of twenty. He struggles to talk about the bodies he had to carry to the doctor (that were already dead or dying). Everyone in the city slept out in the fields for fear their buildings might collapse in on them. It was chilling to hear how he had to go to work the next morning in bloody clothes, stained from sixteen (he counted – how could you not?) bodies he carried out of rubble or the streets. I mean, my God, can you imagine that? I’m sitting in a cafĂ© drinking a San Miguel and the reader is probably equally as comfy. So try to put yourself into this role – in a world where you make, on average, a little over 10,000 rupees a month – equivalent to roughly 100 USD. And even that is considered rich.

Rubble and triumph.

Imagine how fast that drains when a “nice” apartment the size of half a studio apartment can cost upwards of 3,000 Rupees per month. Add in that this kid is paying sometimes 27,000 Rupees a year for school. So his sister and him have close to 5,000 Rupees (50 dollars) a month to survive.

Fifty fucking dollars.
My heart bleeds and I feel so incredibly horrible for the privileges I have back home. But what can I do?

So, I ask this of readers:

Find NGOs that are reputable. Give money or give your time. (Resources and links will be at the end of this entry, with more added over time).

For example, the day before yesterday I went with Kayla, Deryn, and Ola to a local orphanage. We met this Irish couple that were volunteering there for a week before their actual "vacation" started. It was amazing to see. So...think about your next vacation. It’s completely doable (Update: I met up with the Irish couple on my flight to Malaysia. I asked them how the experience was and they were completely torn. They felt good that they helped provide for the children the week they were there. They were happy they could play and interact and bring joy to kids that didn't have parents or make-up for a non-existent welfare system that can't support struggling parents [however broken ours might be in the West, at least we have something!]. But the two of them couldn’t get over how hard it was to leave. They saw the kid’s emotions plummet from their exit. Imagine being the kids, attaching to caring adults, only for them to leave a week later, again and again and again).

But at the end of the day. It's something. And one thing I know for sure, something is almost always better than doing nothing at all.

Or, if you don’t or can’t volunteer, go to Nepal for your vacation. Just make sure your money goes to local businesses and guides. They need tourism, because tourism can make or break a country like this. For any country (and state) to function properly, tourism must be held in high regard. Now, I know that just getting more tourists here spending locally is not a fix to this economy or inefficient government. But, it’s not technically just a simple band-aid (for my British friends, plastics) either. It's a vital piece of the puzzle that YOU at home can do to at least help a little. And again, even a little is something.

The more I spend here in this capital city of “organized chaos” the more I am falling in love with it and the people. It reminds me of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Most travelers I meet dislike PP greatly, but I was there for two weeks and it morphed into a second home for me (or third or fourth or...). When you discover the heart of even the ugliest and busiest cities – the heart being the working class people – you fall in love. You can’t help it. Head over fucking heels in love.

I’ve often railed on this blog and in person about the stark difference between a traveler and a tourist (Here's one example of me talking about that). I’ve often thought that tourism is pointless because you don’t really get the culture or dive deep into all of it. But, maybe I should backtrack because that has been and is incredibly elitist, and quite frankly dumb, and ignorant of me to have thought and said and written this. Tourism, however small or short, must happen for these countries to survive – casual “backpacking” must happen. Tourism, when done away from corporate groups and tours (which pocket most of the money), and done on the local level are what matter. No matter how you travel. And they must continue to matter.

So please, next time your vacation days are coming up, seriously consider about visiting Nepal. There is trekking from as little as one day to months at a time. There are rivers to raft down, jungles to explore, cities to walk, and absolutely cool gifts to buy. But most of all, there are wonderful people here that would love to shake your hand and say “Namaste”.

Tourism website:

Note: I double-dog-dare you to go to this website and not say, “holy shit! This is amazing, I’m buying my ticket immediately!” Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Wikitravel entry on Nepal:

Good NGOs:

One of my favorite trekking guides, Mani, from my last blog (Lakpa doesn't have a "website", but I do have his contact information if you want to hire him when trekking):

That’s all I got for now. Much like when I talked about Zimbabwe, I feel the people here are of the same opinion. "Tell people about us." The earthquake happened. It killed so many and destroyed a lot of the country. It sucks and it’s sad and, and, and! But it’s not as desperate as the papers would make you believe. The country is not in ruins. It is operational and still is divine.

In the future, I will most certainly continue to talk about pooping in holes and sleeping on airport floors and getting drunken tattoos (uhhhh), but I’ve made a promise to do more than that. To make this blog mean more than it is.

It is the absolute least I can do.


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