It has been almost two months since my last post, but in that time I have been moving endlessly: I travelled to a remote village in Nepal for research, returned to Kathmandu, and come back home to US for the holidays.
In the beginning of November time had come for our Independent Study Projects (ISPs). Since first arriving in Nepal (and after writing various proposals), I have been interested in ethnobotany and indigenous healing systems. In October, I made a connection with the Karma Bhotia, the Medicinal Plant Officer at The Mountain Institue (TMI), an American INGO that does development work with vulnerable mountain communities. After our second meeting, he invited me to come Chyamtang, his home village where a development project using medicinal plants had started in 2008.
I left Kathmandu on the afternoon of Tuesday November 9th and didn’t reach Chyamtang until the night of Sunday November 14th. (Bear in mind that this trip was from the central mid-eastern to the north-eastern corner of a country that is roughly the size and shape of Tennessee.) This is merely to demonstrate how slow travel is Nepal and the extreme remoteness, more than I could have imagined, of where I went. The trip started with 2 days of bus rides along semi-paved roads from Kathmandu because the local airport was closed for repairs. These bus rides were true to the kind of third-world cliché one would see in a movie: jam-packed with people, children sitting on top of me, people throwing up everywhere, women nursing left and right. Upon reaching Khandbari, the capital of the Sankhuwasabha district, we continued in a jeep for five hours on an unpaved road upwards into the hills. From this point on, the “road” stops and my guide Jyabu and I had to rely on our feet: trekking hours through the Upper Arun Valley was the only way to reach our destination.
After 3 and a half days on foot, we finally reached Chyamtang. I had entered the Bhotkhola area (the home of the Tibetanoid Bhotia peoples) a day and a half before and observed the topographical and cultural similarities: yellow terraced millet fields above the river, stone and wooden houses, identical dress and jewelry, yak cheese… In most ways, Chyamtang was no different than these other villages sprinkled around the area, but for the next two weeks it became my home.
While strikingly “Tibetan” in every way compared to the “Indian-ness” of Kathmandu, local people still fulfilled the Nepali characteristic of overwhelming hospitality and kindness. And despite deeply confused looks during the first days of my arrival, I was welcomed into every home to be given drinks and force fed (it’s how they show love.) Being foreign (and American) both made people uneasy from afar, and interested up close. I was often treated with a great deal of respect, sometimes even superiority, especially because the academic context of my visit.
I greatly enjoyed the task of researching independently, but it was a little bit of a farce to do a 3-week research project, especially when I could only spend 12 days at my site (after spending 11 getting there and back) and I had an entire new culture and development project to study.
But fortunately, my guides Jyabu and his friend Pala, who are both Social Mobilizers for TMI, literally led me by the hand to houses and fields to conduct interviews: “today we go to lama’s house, then amchi’s (Tibetan doctor) house, then farmer’s house.” Most of my interviews were with the religious figures and healers, such as lamas, bjuwas (Bön-Po shamans), and amchis because they were the knowledge bearers of the whole community. Everyone in Chyamtang is a farmer, so that general knowledge could be gathered from any and everyone. But to my surprise, the day to day person didn’t really know anything philosophically or practically about Buddhism. Before going, I had idealized a whole community of pious Buddhists humming om mani padme hum as they sowed their millet, and talking my ear off about the life of the Buddha in their free time. But when I began to ask people about the Buddha, and their personal connection to their religion, they almost all said that they are Bön and later became Buddhists, that their religion is for when they are sick, and that this discussion was really a matter for the lama. And it was in fact only the lamas and other healers that knew anything of substance because their heritage is passed down orally through the paternal lineage and hardly ebbs outwards.
Originally for my research, I proposed studying the agency of something sacred (such as a medicinal plant) in development projects. Was this good or bad for the community? Could it succeed in development? My interviewees in Chyamtang all agreed that chiraito (the plant they began the project with) was sacred because of its healing abilities and cultural significance. And, all in all I observed that the project was a huge success, mostly because the high level of community participation and the use of something so culturally relevant. But my research became more about the relationship between culture and development—called bikas in Nepali, which everyone expressed was good and helpful. For example, take the case of the religious lineages I mentioned before. 10 years ago there were twice as many healers than there are now. I found that the main contributing factor to this was the Nepali government school system. While an undoubtably noble necessity, these schools that have popped up in remote villages over the past decades teach a national curriculum that is often quite foreign to the local communities that have their own language, history, religion, etc. Also, in providing the opportunity of education, the side-effects push and pull young people from their cultures and homes to urban areas or abroad. This “youth migration” in Nepal was a phenomenon we had learned about throughout my semester. But far from rich Kathmandu Brahmins getting shipped off to boarding school in London, in Chyamtang I witnessed that if a lamas only son wants to pursue academic schooling, then centuries of spiritual traditions are lost in a second—completely gone. So while the Bhotia people were very culturally rich, I discovered they are more vulnerable than they have ever been to extinction. This is just one example of the many development projects (schools, roads, hospitals, consumerism) they I observed in relation to how it will affect their culture. If you are interested in reading further, here is the link for the final research paper I wrote upon arrival in Kathmandu: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1bkvXKPJimi4g0uTJf8Gmwcd3gP7P1o9urfKjC-Ip0XU/edit?hl=en&authkey=CMeNjNMF
Personally, I experienced the biggest culture shock and deepest transformation of my life while in Chyamtang: I trekked for days in the forests, watched animal sacrifices and had to eat them after, had to drink pints of millet beer a day, slept in a freezing bamboo house with rats in the walls that kept me up all night.
Every night I was there I had vivid dreams of being luxuriously dressed at a fabulous mansion party or touching all the furniture in apartment in Chicago. During the day I would fantasize about fast food and pop music–I had pushed myself to the edge, the other side in which I craved the very things that I came to the other side of the world to get away from. It was really hard, but musch more interesting. In the end, I left the village happy, covered in flower garlands, being asked by everyone to come back, and with a Bhotia Tibetan name: Pasang Chhedar (meaning “Friday Buddha”, Friday being the day of material sustenance and wealth, and Buddha referring to the dharma, rather apt.)
After all the “poverty” I lived in and the loneliness I felt, I left the village feeling rich and loved. If you subtract all the material possessions, I saw how these people really have so much more than us. They maintain such inner peace and joy as they work harder than I thought humans could all day, every day. But, no one is telling them that they are perfect just as they are and that their way of life is respectable. Instead, Nepal’s development agenda and the entire outside world is like an endless advertisement saying: “you are poor, you never thought you were poor before but look at all this other stuff everyone else has, you are clearly not good enough, you need to be better.” I constantly observed this insecurity of Nepali towards my developed Americanness. But in Chyamtang, it hit me in the gut because people were choosing between their culture or development, and something like a road that they thought was the answer to all the problems could ruin them. This is something that is true all around world, as many communities are changing more than they ever have. I think it must be our responsibility to watch these places especially closely to learn what succeeds and what fails.