I’m a person who’s used to relying on the powers of my mind to sort myself out when I feel confused or lost. But in the two weeks since I arrived here in Nepal, I’ve realized that certain things can’t be solved just by thinking hard enough. When something deeply in the heart is questioned, sometimes the only cure is time and patience with oneself.
I had only been on Nepali soil for about 32 hours when the thoughts began to haunt me. “I’m a privileged person from a foreign land coming to a faraway country to learn and “find myself.” Isn’t that wrong on so many levels? Isn’t that exoticizing, romanticizing, belittling this place? Aren’t there so many ways in which I won’t understand the impacts my coming here has on this society and these lands? Aren’t I an intruder, a disruptor, a taker? I should go home.”
A conversation earlier that day about our privilege, the dynamics of our presence here, and what it meant for us to hope to have a “life-changing experience” during our time here had brought about these questions, and since then I hadn’t been able to shake them from my mind. At the time, I had seen myself as a kind of Devil’s Advocate, questioning assumptions and bringing deeper analyses of what all this really meant to the table. But in the process of doing so I ended up getting wrapped up in feelings of guilt and not belonging. I felt pretty lost.
A conversation with one of my instructors later that day eased my mind a bit and helped me move forward for the time being. But I was still left with an off feeling deep in the pit of my stomach.
Almost two weeks later, we were high in the mountains of Helambu, spending our last night in the hills before heading back to the city. A week of trekking had offered lots of time to reflect on those moments of questioning and had also brought its own questions. We had walked on trails that have existed for centuries before us that are today used by local people mainly for the daily tasks of transporting food, materials, and water. We walked, mostly quite ignorant of these truths, distracted by our tired legs and minds, our money masking the great efforts that the owners of the guest houses we stayed in went to just to provide us with the drinking water or milk and sugar for our tea that we took for granted.
I saw these issues. I felt them deeply. The first few nights of the trek I had felt uncomfortable in my presence here still. But that last evening, I looked over the valley and a new question came into my mind. We can think critically about the issues we see or even create, yes. That is so important, and so lacking in this world. But seeing those issues does not mean we should stay home and avoid them. It is our seeing of these issues that allows us to become conscious travelers, conscious global citizens. That allows us to create change in those issues. “How will I change things?” became my new question.
And that is a question I can answer.
I’m white and privileged and American and there’s not much I can do to change that. But those facts don’t mean I should abandon this journey because I’m afraid of the harm I might do because I see others like me doing them. I won’t be that tourist who doesn’t look the woman who cooks her dinner in the eye, or groans because she’s eating daal baat for the tenth meal in a row and feel sick looking at it. I won’t take for granted the fact that the water buckets are always full in the most remote tea house we stayed in, instead I’ll do everything I can to show the people who work so hard to provide it how much that matters to me. I won’t get mad about paying 300 rupees for a Snickers bar because I’ll know that it was carried on the back of someone who hiked for three days on the very same trails I did.
Gratitude is a powerful thing. And consciousness should be taken as inspiration, not as a deterrent from trying. Those are my biggest lessons from these first two weeks. And it took letting things, as Rishi says, “trickle down into my heart” to get there. That is an even greater lesson.