When I thought about coming to Nepal because I wanted to try living in a developing country, I didn’t fully think through what it would be like to watch the actual process of development. I had read about “development” in college, and just finished Jeffrey Sach’s The End of Poverty, in which he describes the measures that must be taken to lift people out of extreme poverty and get them on track towards economic development. But for all my “experience” reading about these subjects and after six weeks in Nepal, there are still moments where gaps in development or between rich and poor can shock me.
One of my first and lingering impressions of Nepal is the amount of trash everywhere. The side of every street is covered in trash, the Bagmati River that runs past the back of my house has been reduced to the width of a stream because of trash, and plastic bags and old shoes and assorted detritus are embedded in the dirt of the roads everywhere. The acrid smell of burning garbage perpetually hangs over the city. Near my new house in the Kalimati neighborhood of Kathmandu is one if the city garbage dumps; vultures swarm over the site, and cows and dogs wander over the trash and the surrounding bridge and streets. If you look closely at the dump, you will notice movement on the piles, and with closer inspection you will be able to see that this “movement” is in fact people picking their way across the garbage to pick out items like plastic bottles and paper for which they can get a small amount of money. These trash pickers live in tin shacks on the edge of the dump, which is on the bank of the Bagmati. Our Nepali staff told me many are from the Bihar region of India, meaning they are very dark skinned and easily recognizable in Nepal, and also from a very low and poorly regarded caste.
The trash of Kathmandu remains for me one of the clearest symbols of the active “develop-ment” of Nepal. Western products like potato chips and ramen noodles have taken hold in the local diet, yet no system has yet been implemented to deal with the byproducts of these “developed world” foods. Obviously, in an ideal development situation, infrastructure would be built to deal with the expansion of material goods that often accompanies development, and then the products would arrive to fill growing desires. Yet most of life in Nepal seems to function along the “first consume, then figure out the infrastructure” model—we have smartphones but infrequent electricity, showers and sinks and one toilet with a flush option without a true running water system (there’s a tank on the roof that flows down to our pipes and which, when we have electricity, we can fill from the well at the house, which is in turn filled from rain water collection tanks), cars and motorcycles without paved roads or traffic rules or stop signs and traffic lights. There is the rush and desire to consume Western goods, but no widespread ability to support their consumption.
Aside from the daily assault on my sense of smell from the garbage, there are so many moments where I feel like I am getting emotional whiplash from the stark contrast between rich and poor. This morning I went with some of my housemates to a farmer’s market called 1905, where we ate fresh baked bread, croissants, fresh cheese and avocadoes, and drank cappuccinos and sparkling wine. One friend and I decided to walk home from the market, and on our way passed many fancy malls, where we found a cinema, bowling alley, and even a frozen yogurt shop! (Confession: I spent a full five minutes staring at the frozen yogurt dispenser and laughing in pure joy). We exited the clean quiet of the mall and immediately were back to dodging maimed beggars and crowds of people while trying not to breathe too deeply because of the thick cloud of diesel exhaust. We kept walking, and about 15 minutes later crossed a bridge over the Bagmati right behind our house. We took a shortcut through a slum of tin shacks on the bank of the river, where we passed children with distended bellies from malnutrition and people bathing in the greenish/grayish slime of the river.
I live not more than 20 meters from these children with their bellies swollen like heavily pregnant women, and yet every single time I see them, I cannot believe that this is how people are forced to live. As I mentioned in the post about Manegau, seeing is not believing when it comes to understanding the gap between the way I grew up and the way I see children growing up in Nepal. While we certainly do not live in luxury here, we have enough to eat three solid meals a day (one dal bhaat, and two more Western meals), to shower in relatively clean water that comes out of a faucet, and to drink purified water that we buy for 50 rupees (about 50 cents) for a 10-gallon jug. Most importantly, I know this is not permanent. I am coming to love living in Nepal, and after the initial shock I now feel pretty comfortable navigating the challenges of daily life. Yet while I can deal with the challenges of living in the developing world, I know that I do not HAVE to—I can always buy myself a plane ticket back to the United States, where I have the privilege of citizenship and a warm and welcoming family.
We just started a social awareness project with one of the oldest youth groups I will be working with, and spent the day discussing education, adult literacy, child labor and lack of safe and reliable water sources. I am very excited to work with them over the next few months as they discuss social issues in Nepal and how they, as youth, would approach solving the challenges of their country. I will keep you updated on their project, and also on the photography club I am starting with another youth group!