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10 Lessons from My Week in the 19th Century

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

Last week, I traveled to a remote village called Bakhrejagat in Nepal with CHOICE Humanitarian on a volunteer expedition; it was like stepping back in time to the 19th century. To quickly put the trip in context, we slept on mats in sleeping bags in improvised dorms in a school house, “showered” by dumping frigid water from a bucket over our heads, and used squat toilets with buckets of water as the flushing mechanism.

Of course, anyone who has been backpacking will recognize that we had it pretty good. Those who think staying at a budget hotel is camping would have found this trip to be an unpleasant challenge.

To a person, those who did go on this expedition were glad to have gone.

“I was awed and inspired,” Veronica Schindler, the volunteer expedition leader said, of her impressions of the village where we worked. “Life isn’t easy for the people who live in Bakhrejagat, but they are determined to make it better, even if that means putting aside some traditional ways of doing things (e.g., replacing open cooking fires with stoves that burn more cleanly and efficiently). I think that shows both wisdom and courage.”

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CHOICE co-founder and octogenarian James Mayfield joined the expedition, sleeping on the floor and helping with stoves.

Rainer Dahl, one of the volunteers on the expedition said, “My impression of the Nepali people that we tried to help on a small scale was that for people that have so little, they are blessed with great kindness and love for their families, neighbors and us as outsiders whom they can’t communicate with and only meet for a brief moment in time.”

“Great things are often accomplished with many small steps,” noted Randall Wall. “There is a reason this village is called ‘the place of the goat.’ You must take steep and often precarious steps to accomplish anything here at the roof of the world.  With our small steps we have lengthened lifespan by decades, given mothers time to dream about a future for their village, and shown that even on the other side of the world their lives are precious to us.”

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Nepalese youth dance with American volunteers

As I reflect on my experiences living for a week in the 1800s, if you will, in Nepal, I note some lessons. First, at the risk of romanticizing the experience, I think there is something to be learned.

  1. Less is more. While the homes in Bakhrejagat all had electricity, its use was limited to a single light bulb. While I would not recommend that we all seek to live on so little electricity, it was a reminder how much energy we consume, stuff we have and space we take that is effectively wasted or underutilized and profoundly under-appreciated.  By simplifying our lives, reducing clutter and waste, we could reduce stress in our lives and do more good in the world with the surplus.
  2. Being digitally connected is overrated. For five days, I did not send or receive a text or email. This was not, frankly, due to a technology limitation. There was a nearby cell tower that provided a reliable signal with both data and voice capability, but T-Mobiles wonderful international plan doesn’t include Nepal and the rates I’d have been charged were unacceptably high for this cheapskate.  Being completely off the grid for a week turned out to be blissful.
  3. Commuting by foot eliminates the need for exercise. The village where we worked is spread out around the top of a mountain. Getting to the homes where we installed the stoves required significant walks up and down steep terrain. My Fitbit recorded hundreds of flights of stairs on several days. Ignoring the back-breaking physical labor that the local residents perform daily, just the routine walking around the village would keep anyone in shape. For the locals, I suspect this creates a real problem: where do you get 3,000 calories per day to maintain a healthy body weight?
  4. Solve the biggest problems first.  The villagers chose the project that we worked on. This was not a project imposed by CHOICE. Installing stoves with chimneys to move the smoke from the fire outside while at the same time reducing the amount of wood required to cook the meals and heat the home, has the potential to increase lifespans dramatically. Women who cook over open fires can expect to live decades less than similarly situated women who do not. The young children, who spend more time close to their mothers, are also impacted and face higher infant mortality risk in homes with open fires. It is almost certain that nothing we could have done would have increased life expectancy more than addressing this problem.
  5. Stop and smell the rhododendrons.  Nepal is thick with rhododendrons, beautiful red flowers that smell as pleasantly sweet as any flower I’ve ever smelled. The locals don’t take the flowers for granted; they cherish them and treat them as wonderful gifts. When we arrived in the village, we were welcomed with a tika and leis of rhododendrons. Our lives are, of course, no different; we are surrounded by beautiful, precious things. Some of us, however, are less likely to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us.
  6. When in doubt, dance.  It seemed that every time we turned around, the Nepalis wanted to dance. They would sing a familiar (to them) folk song that involved something of a game. A caller would sing a new verse and then the rest of the group would join in a singing the song with the new verse. The kids loved it and would reportedly sing both traditional verses and silly ones, laughing at themselves and us (apparently for not getting the joke) as they danced, always inviting us to join. Most of the volunteers were uncomfortable dancing, especially as none of us could effectively mimic their elegant, stylized dance. They all but forced us to participate, however, and we generally enjoyed it.
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CJ Farrior, resting after injuring his ankle

There were some more sobering lessons that I took from the trip as well.

  1. Poverty and pollution appear inextricably linked.  Even in this remote village, we found trails and roads strewn with beer cans and junk food wrappers. Kathmandu, where we spent only a day, is tragically unsanitary. To describe the city itself as being rather than having a landfill would not strike the typical western visitor as inaccurate. Of course, with their extremely low use of electricity and a reliance upon renewable resources (wood) as a primary energy source, their carbon footprint is tiny, but pollution is a tragic problem in Nepal. In the village, the most environmentally friendly way we could identify to dispose of our trash was to bury it in a pit—there was no landfill to which we could take it.
  2. We would not tolerate the level of health care they are forced to accept.  CJ Farrior, one of the volunteers, was playing in a pickup game of soccer with some of the local kids and severely injured his ankle. There was no discussion of taking him to see a local healthcare worker in the village. CHOICE had helped to build a clinic in the neighboring village of Puranokot, which we visited just hours before CJ hurt his ankle. No one suggested we take CJ back down the mountain to that clinic. In part, it was because the injury was not life threatening and the calculus was therefore simple: CJ was better off waiting to be treated at home than to risk injury in transit to the local clinic where he would not be guaranteed any effective treatment. The local CHOICE staff fashioned a crutch to help him get around until we left for home, back in the 21st century. The villagers, however, have no such luxury. Their calculus is simply to accept whatever health care is provided, however limited it may be.
  3. Migrant labor destabilizes families and communities.  One of the tragedies we noted was that in some homes, the father was missing. These fathers hadn’t abandoned their families; they had left to Qatar to work as unskilled migrant laborers, reportedly earning about $200 per month. This point was punctuated for me when I flew home through Mumbai. A large majority, say 80 to 90 percent, of the passengers were Nepali men traveling for work. Families and villages living at the edge of mortality, are certainly put at risk by having the healthiest, strongest and most capable members leave for work thousands of miles away.
  4. We only see the ones who survive.  As I observed how beautiful, happy and delightful the people in our village were, it occurred to me that I was only seeing the survivors. With an infant mortality rate of 32 per thousand live births (about five times the US rate and nearly ten times the Swedish rate) and life expectancy of 67 years (compared to 78 in the US), according to some quick google searches, I realized that was I wasn’t seeing was the people who simply couldn’t survive in the foothills of the Himalaya. The tragedies that we weren’t seeing are memorialized in funerals we didn’t happen to see during our visit.
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Nepalese family

These two sets of observations about life in Bakhrejagat, Nepal, beg the question, how do you eliminate poverty and preserve a community?

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CHOICE Humanitarian would, I believe, argue that this is a false dilemma. If you empower the villagers to manage their own escape from poverty, there is no risk that we will destroy their communities. Whatever they choose to do to lift themselves out of poverty will reflect their cultural values and they will preserve those elements they find important.

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