Saturday, December 1, 2012


I just got off a bus into my super-expensive Pokhara hotel (more on why I picked this one later) and there's already a story in the making here. But first, I must disgorge the story of my ride here. It's been pent up in my brain for hours now.

I'm so glad I chose the bus instead of flying. The downside of the bus is a seven-hour ride - possibly more harrowing than the Luklah flight, if you can
 believe it. The upside of taking the bus is all the seeing one can do - seeing to saturation - in seven hours.

Before I tell you what I saw, I just need to say that I'm glad Tony was not on this ride with me. Tony experienced the poverty in Kathmandu as pain, but it did not hold a candle to the things I saw on this drive through the rural Nepalese country side.

And that brings me to all the seeing.

We think we will travel to third world countries to experience otherness. We think we will see other cultures, taste other foods, observe other dress and customs, hear the melodies of other tongues. But today instead of otherness, I discovered something basic about myself in this third world country.

As the bus took me past lifestyles that included bathing in the open at communal faucets, gathering and thrashing sheaves of grain by hand or sorting piles of corn on the floor in front of their homes, women - well, one young man but otherwise all women - using stones to scrub clothes in the river or at the communal faucet, people sitting on benches in homes that had roofs but no walls, cooking meals on fires in their front yards, or by the side of the road - in fact people sleeping by the side of the road surrounded by their meager belongings, old men picking through trash looking for God knows what, and speaking of trash, garbage everywhere. Garbage piled up to insulate walls and in some cases to BE the walls of someone's home, and tires and rocks and sticks used for those purposes too... I could go on, but you get the idea.

I learned who I am from the labels rising to mind like vapors, without being bidden. Adjectives like abject and nouns like poverty and squalor. Without knowing these people at all, I immediately colored them pathetic. And that, I'm afraid, is more about me than about them.

I don't know if I've ever mentioned here that I watch TV football with my right brain only. I do not like the game, but I can (honestly) enjoy the kaleidoscope of color moving across the field, if I tune its meaning out. I can do that easily by occupying my left brain with something else, leaving my right brain free to "watch" the color show without registering the game itself. I can do only one left brain thing at a time.

I suppose this sounds like I'm incoherently switching gears here, but bear with me. As soon as I caught site of myself in the mirror today, I realized I needed to take in the country side around me with my right brain instead of my left. Color was the big clue. The Napalese apparently adore color. Their houses are painted the most amazing shades of turquoise, peonie, chartreuse, lavender. Their buses and trucks are brightly decorated too, with characters that remind me of illustrations from the kama sutra, tinsel and flower chains and wild sayings that express their owners' relationship with the road. Today I saw slogans as varied as "Road King" and "Live Longer with Friendship."

As an aside, there were also a whole lot of slogans about going the speed limit, which did not surprise me, given the crazy road conditions. Here, buses, trucks, motorcycles and scooters and the occasional automobile share road space with tractors, hand-drawn carts, laborers, fruit stands, people casually talking to their neighbors (in the road!) and animals. I even saw an unattended baby - definitely under two years old but already sitting up - at the very edge of a dirt path so close to being in the road that I almost asked the driver to stop the bus so I could scoot her back a few feet. If you've ever biked through a crowded college campus, miraculously managing to avoid collision with all the other bikers and pedestrians who change their trajectories on a whim, you have the feeling of the roads in Nepal, except now transfer that scene to narrow mountain dirt roads, complete with huge potholes and sheer drop-offs, add heavy equipment to the mix and you're there. I was assigned to seat number 4, thankfully in the bus's second row and not the first. The privilege of sitting in the front row went to a Japanese couple. Although they spoke no English, their near constant expressions of terror required no interpreter.

So, the only way to drive this has to be intuitively. There's no time to calculate. Right brained.

And for me, the only way to see the people of Nepal is intuitively, too.

So here's what I saw after shutting off my left brain. Color. Everywhere. I've mentioned the houses and the trucks, but what struck me with awe are the women's clothing. Regardless of their activities - working in the fields, washing at the river, lazing on a bale of straw with a friend chatting, hanging laundry - their clothes were made from brilliantly colored cloth. Clearly the Nepalese love color. Letting my left brain think about it now, perhaps color draws the eye away from misery, gives pleasure in spite of what else you may lack.

And I saw relationship. I saw mothers making noises at their babies, and plenty of men tending toddlers. I saw old men sitting with young men, reading or talking together. I saw teenage boys at games, often something played standing at a tall table the size of a card table. I will have to find out about that game. I saw people cooking and sharing food. People putting in a hard day's work, often working together, side by side. Doing anything from laying brick to hauling stone to cutting their fields to tending their animals or their store fronts. I boys and girls in blue pants or skirts and white shirts running around school yards, and later in the day, skipping home. And I saw plenty of modern stuff too, especially young people, on cell phones or with earphones in their ears, doing what young people do.

When I saw the Nepalese this way, I did not see poverty. I saw them laughing and playing and working and loving and ... well, living. And suddenly I realized that everything is relative. Of course, we do not want anyone to go without shelter or food or medical care. But that is not what defined the people I saw today.

I would not have missed this bus ride for the world.

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