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Trek View on Nepal: Himalayan Studies Gap Year Semester with Where There Be Dragons

Connection and Communication: A Reflection on Change

I’ve been coming to Nepal for more than a decade now. It’s a time scale that is still a little difficult for me to grasp–my mid-thirties snuck up on me, piled with stories, adventures, and challenges I’ve faced. As a Dragons Instructor, I spend a lot of time asking students to reflect deeply and meaningfully on their own experiences, encounters, and visions of a place. These last few weeks, as we’ve been immersed in our urban experiences, I’ve been reflecting on some of the differences between life in Nepal for me in 2005, when I was first here, and now. I thought I’d take a moment and share some of these reflections.

Some of the differences seem, on the surface, obvious. For instance, cell phones. Mobile technology emerges from every pocket and every shop front in a *very* different way than it did in 2005. I think I might have had an option to use a cell phone (or, as they say here, a mobile) at that point, but it wasn’t until I lived here in 2007-2008 that I succumbed to the “allure” of constant availability. Iphones and their cousins didn’t start being created until 2007 in the United States, which means that they weren’t in Nepal until at least a few years later–the cell network couldn’t support that kind of technology at that point. Not only was there no such thing as a “data network,” that time period was also marked by “loadshedding.” Loadshedding was an electricity-management strategy that meant that every area of the Kathmandu Valley was subjected to rolling blackouts. In the dry season, those blackouts lasted up to 18 hours a day (this no longer happens–electricity supply is much more consistent and plentiful!). Under such conditions, a smartphone would not have been a luxury, it would have seemed useless. Could the signal towers have even managed them, with unsteady and insufficient electricity?

Now, though, literally every Nepali I have met in 2017 has, or has access to, a mobile phone. In Balamchaur, Lamjung district, some of them were still simple bar phones when we were up there two months ago, and some people have smartphones. But everyone was more than happy to shout down those phones, yelling into the plastic as though their brother, sister, cousin, son, daughter in Pokhara or Kathmandu or Abu Dhabi wouldn’t be able to hear them unless they yelled. And on the top of the hill, we could even get a very faint but sometimes reliable data signal.

What does this mean?

Pictures of your brother, sister, cousin, son, daughter, in Pokhara, or Kathmandu, or Abu Dhabi. WhatsApp messages from your friend two villages away who needs medicine for his mother’s persistent headaches, or maybe help carrying her to the rural health post four hours’ walk up the trail. Phone calls across the valley to tell your mother you are coming for Dasain, and you’ll start walking down the hill now. See you in 3 hours, aama. And this is the point I want to make, talking on and on about infrastructure. Human connection matters–and things that make it easier for people to connect, to feel connected, to communicate, therefore change the social reality of living in places like rural Nepal.

I thought about these things, mobile technology and mobility and communication today, as I walked down the street in Kathmandu trying to find an office which Google Maps had marked clearly and unambiguously (it is in Lazimpat, next to the Baskin Robbins and the Nepali Thakali Kitchen. But it is not). And I thought about how deeply it can matter to even have the ability to see those pictures of family, to have those messages and calls. Many people in rural Nepal still think of “Nepal” as synonymous with the Kathmandu Valley, and older folks don’t speak the “national” language because the realities of Kathmandu and the idea of the nation of Nepal is so distant to them. But the distance shrinks little by little with the ability to communicate, the ability to move thoughts and connections across space faster.

I think about communication and the role of technology as we get ready to head out for our trek, too. We’re getting ready this weekend to leave our amazing homestay families who welcomed us for weeks into their homes, kitchens, living rooms, games, conversations, family outings, with challenges and laughter. Students spent many hours this week preparing presentations for our group about their Independent Study Projects–and they totally killed it. Their presentations demonstrated how engaged they’ve been with their mentors, with Kathmandu, with hands-on arts, historical exploration, and philosophical discussions alike (check out some photos here!). We’ll close out our time in Kathmandu with a big party for homestay families and ISP mentors tomorrow (Saturday), which will include singing, possibly dancing, delicious food, big thank yous to hosts and mentors, traditional Nepali music and more–all planned and executed by the students.

All these connections–students, mentors, homestay families in Kathmandu and Balamchaur, language teachers, guest lecturers, instructors–ring with possibilities. What kind of world can we generate out of a wealth of such connections? What kind of a changing world is already emerging, connected not just by cell phone technology and all that it implies, but by people who choose to step out of their comfort zones to say, hey, who else is out here in this world with me?

That’s what these people, Team Him A, are doing every day. Who else is out here, they ask? What else is out here? How can I get to know it a little bit before life whirls me in a different direction?

They’ve put their hearts and soles (as in, the soles of their feet, wearing out walking back and forth across this dusty dynamic city) into the joyous effort of being fully present in unknown, sometimes uncomfortable situations. They’ve put their hands to the tools of the world, and their minds to the task of learning to communicate and listen across difference–across different cultures, gender differences, leadership style differences.

Though mobile technology makes communication a simpler proposition across long distances, these students are doing the work of figuring out how deep communication and connection can go when they show up in a place, consistently, day in and day out, to listen to the stories and lives of others, and to share their own. Early Monday morning we head up into the Langtang distring to explore the Tamang Heritage trail for about a week, followed by a trek to the sacred lake of Gosaikunda, over the 4600 meter (15,100 foot) pass to Phedi.

Students will put away mobile phones, leaving them in the program house in Kathmandu (instructors will have communications technology for safety of course). They’ll leave behind the slow-texting keyboards of the bar phones and the ease of calling a friend across the city to meet up for tea. We’ll challenge them once again to find ways to rest in the present moment, reflecting with each other on their surroundings as we move through the mountains of Langtang. Wilderness is a great teacher, and we’ll listen with awe and respect to the mountains’ voices as we enter this next phase of our journey.