I didn’t grow up in a remote Third World village at the foot of the Himalayas.
I didn’t spend my childhood in a stone-built schoolhouse with dirt floors and a leaky roof. When I got as far as high school, I didn’t have to walk two hours each way to attend classes.
On Oct. 20, a group of 12 Southwest Coloradans, myself included, left Durango to travel to the other side of the world. Our destination: Chyamtang, a village of about 600 in Nepal. Our goal: Well, that’s a little uncertain, but it’s basically to help the people adapt to the 21st century, which, even if they aren’t seeking it, is certainly bearing down on them.
Our journey won’t be quick. Follow with me, if you can, our travel plan:
Fly Durango to Phoenix to Los Angeles. Wait a few hours, then fly Los Angeles to Hong Kong. Wait about half a day, then fly Hong Kong to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to Kathmandu, Nepal.
Set watches ahead 11 hours, 45 minutes. (Seriously. I’ve read several explanations for the off-beat time zone, but the one I believe is that Nepal wants to underline its independence from India, which is 11:30 ahead of the Mountain Daylight Time.)
Take short flight on a small plane to Tumlingtar, Nepal. Ride bus several hours on a rough road to Num, a small town along the Arun River valley in eastern Nepal. Begin five- or six-day trek up the Arun Valley, camping in tents along the way. At Barun, leave the track more commonly used by Westerners, which heads up the Barun River toward Makalu, the world’s fifth-highest peak. Continue instead up the Arun River.
About 12 days after leaving Durango arrive in Chyamtang, 7,000 feet elevation, 27 degrees north latitude, high above the Arun River. We’ll be less than a day’s hike from Tibet, but we won’t be testing Chinese border guards’ vigilance.
When we arrive, we’ll be strangers, minorities who can’t speak the tongue, far removed from the world of conveniences and technology that keep us comfortable and informed.
The man who organized this mission is Karma Bhotia. Many of you know him, or have at least seen him, if you’ve eaten at his Himalayan Kitchen at 10th Street and Main Avenue.
Bhotia did grow up in a remote Third World village at the foot of the Himalayas. He grew up in Chyamtang, leaving there in the 1980s to seek his fortune. He was one of the very few children of his village to ever have graduated from high school. Although he certainly didn’t turn his back on Chyamtang, he never returned to teach or to help his village, as some might have expected him to do.
When shown recent video footage of scenes from his home village, he broke down in tears. Chyamtang, he says, hasn’t changed. Not at all, from what he could see. Those villagers that he left behind remain in the Stone Age, picking millet spikes one at a time and grinding them by hand with mortar and pestle.
Bhotia has redoubled his efforts to help. He and his wife, Jyamu, in conjunction with a cousin living in the area, in 2008 created a foundation to help orphans. That has since morphed into the Karma and Jyamu Bhotia Foundation, whose goals are to eradicate poverty and improve education in the area around Chyamtang.
When I look at a map of Asia, Nepal appears to be about the size of Delaware. It’s actually the size of Iowa, our country’s 26th-largest state. Big difference is population density: Iowa has 3.1 million inhabitants to Nepal’s 31 million.
No, doubt, Nepal has its problems. Political turmoil has bubbled for decades, and even fomented what some call a civil war, led by a Maoist insurgency, from 1996-2006. The monarchy was abolished in 2008, but a deadline for the country’s elected leaders to form a constitution passed a couple years ago, leaving the political situation in limbo.
So Nepal is messed up. But consider this: If the U.S. had to start its government from scratch, today, do you really think we’d fare any better?
By Western standards, Nepal is developmentally challenged. Infrastructure in Third World countries doesn’t keep up with the population. But an optimist can see opportunity here. There are farm fields to more efficiently plow, there is potential hydroelectricity to harvest.
A dozen Southwest Coloradans are not going to change Chyamtang overnight. We’ll change them, and they’ll change us – maybe not even in ways we can conceive.
I’ve grown up in a First World suburb with washing machines, always-stocked grocery stores, TVs, refrigerators, cars and stereos. I lived close enough to all my grade schools to walk within 15-20 minutes. Even though the spinach always tasted as bad as it looked, hot lunches were provided.
Sure, I have plenty of First World problems. And seriously, some of those I wouldn’t wish on anyone. For decades, I’ve adapted constantly to a fast-paced world where technology forced us to be multitasking spastics with Attention Deficit Disorder.
If people in Chyamtang are truly happy, we should leave them alone.
I’d like to bring some of the West to Chyamtang. Just not more than they want or need.
[email protected] Coming soon: When John Peel returns to the world of high technology, he plans to write about the group’s visit to Chyamtang.