To Pokhara by Bus

Nov 15, 2008
*Special to asia!

Mukhiya began guiding treks into the Annapurna Mountains since he was 13 years old. He comes from a family of 13, had an arranged marriage at 22, and has 2 sons.

"My brother sells culture. I save it." Mukhiya's older brother, like so many others in their region, leave their homes in the mountains carrying semi-precious stones, rocks, and art pieces from times of old, into the cities to sell. "We've argued many times."

The bus turns a left bend that takes us downhill and into a right bend. A large Red-billed blue magpie is startled out of its tree by the sound of the engine brake. "There's a story about the owl and the crow." Mukhiya begins, "The crow is good at painting and is kind. When the owl and the crow decided to paint each other with colours, the crow did a fine job, with lots of colours and intricate designs. But when it was the owl's turn, he just painted the crow black. The crow, disappointed and angry, said to the owl 'if I ever see you in the day, I'll kill you!' That's why the owl only comes out at night, and bears little significance in local culture. But the crow, it's worshipped during Dasin, and is reverred and admired for its solidarity - always in a flock and always sharing the food it finds with other crows by calling out loud. The 'hooting' of the owl on the other hand is considered a bad omwn, and people who "hoot" at others are considered to attract trouble ad bad things."

What to hear another story? "It's about this bird," Mukhiya points at an illustration of a Black-headed shrike in my pocket bird guidebook. "Children who suffer from speech problems are fed the [mandibles] of the shrike. This bird, people have noticed, it can learn the calls of other birds quickly. So they use it as a medicine. The mandibles are also used in rice feeding ceremonies to give wisdom."

I bought my pocket bird guidebook in preparation for my impromptu trekking trip into the Annapurna region. It describes itself as "a superlative guide to the birdlife of Nepal". It's honest. Its author, Dorothy Mierow, explains in the preface, "Just as people have always been searching for new land and moving out from the more congested areas, competition has forced birds to move out into new areas and often to adapt themselves to different foods or nesting sites."

After working in the homes of underprivileged youths in Nepal, I couldn't help but find the above to be ironic. Where countryside is clean, quiet, safe and un-congested, people move out into cities like Kathmandu or Pokhara in search of this intangible commodity called "opportunity". There seems to be a national obsession with attaining the coveted Green card (there are close to half a million Green card applications annually from Nepal, less than 1 per cent get approved). After migration, some are challenged to adapt to an comparatively fast-paced city life that is severely competitive. They give up their spacious homes in the countryside for filthy and congested 4x4m pigeonholes that have no clean running water and where more than 10 families may share a single lavatory. Once trapped in their foreign lands, those unable to keep up resort to a business and lifestyle that is anything but that which they endeavoured - a life on the street, unfavourable businesses, hunger, glue sniffing, drug pushing. Inevitably, they adapt to their new lifestyles. Especially because it is a harsh and undesirable lifestyle, individuals are subjected to intense self-conditioning both physically and psychologically. This conviction makes unnecessary suffering necessary, and self-exploitation warranted. Once they've internalised this learned hopelessness, rehabilitation becomes extremely difficult. Kids taken off the streets and put into schools often run away and return to their lives of perceived freedom, where days are lived on a high and where there are no rules. Survival cannot even be reasoned to be a desire because the ways in which they disregard their bodies can only

put survival at risk.

[Those of us from the developed world may find only the capacity to pity, where truly the only effective response to such awareness should be responsibility.] Those of us from the developed world attempt to learn and discover other cultures by leaving our homes and visiting others. However, those in developing lands have only the opportunity for such exposure by welcoming other cultures. Unable to live the life of another culture, certain communities turn to aggressively convert their own cultures into something foreign. Something that's perceived to be progressive, modern, better, a means to a better life. It is strange that all these notions should be clumped together and to be something used synonymously.

People in the countryside were freer in that they had greater control of their lives. They'd created for themselves a sustainable lifestyle that has access to clean water and sanitation. Life was calm, peaceful, and families have the physical and mental space to tolerate differences, and perhaps, even embrace them. I asked youths in the city, "What is this 'opportunity' that you crave?" They clam up once they are asked to define it, and they do attempt to understand themselves, the resulting answer is often employment.

It's painful to consider that professionals like drug pushing, prostitution and the touting of social ills might be wiser than a farmers toiling.

The developed world has so succeeded in indoctrinating us with these ideals that people have come to trust its motives like they trust faith and religion.

debby ngDebby Ng forayed into journalism following failed attempts at becoming a world-class equestrian. A wildlife crime investigator, underwater photographer, dive master and founder of a marine conservation organisation, she spends what remains of her time writing about the environment, its wildlife, and its people.

Contact Debby