A few days ago I traveled to the village of Sundrawoti in the Dholakha district with the other two youth volunteers and Upama. Tevel B’Tzedek worked in Sundrawoti for several years, and phased out of the area almost a year ago. We went to conduct a leadership seminar for the youth guides there, and of course to enjoy some time away from Kathmandu.
I’ve been already to several villages in Nepal, and greatly enjoyed each one; Sundrawoti was the most beautiful and enchanting village yet. It was absolutely worth every bumpy, uncomfortable minute of the nine hours it took to get there by bus. The village life in Nepal is so special and so “Nepal”—though there are small signs of change, on the whole the villages feel like they could exist in any century. I sometimes feel like Kathmandu is its own little country in comparison to the villages- the insane crush of traffic, pollution, hawkers and the individualization that accompanies urbanization are so different from the silence, greenery, friendliness and rigidity of the social structure in the village.
In Kathmandu, as I have written, poverty is in my face all the time. A few weeks ago I walked with a friend from our apartment in Kalimati to Kathmandu’s sister city of Patan, about a 45-minute walk. To get there, we took a short cut through a slum on the bank of the river, behind one of the schools where we work. Like the slum right behind my house, this area in the Kuleshwore neighborhood was a true assault to the senses. The stench of the river combined with the scent of the dozens of cows and dogs and goats and chickens and rabbits wandering the dirt alley mixed with the scent of rotting vegetables. It happened be a very smoggy morning, and walking through the oppressive gray of the smog over the corrugated tin huts as drunk men called to me, women washed clothes by hand in plastic bowls and little kids chased a ball of rubber bands, I was suddenly struck with the feeling that I was walking through a real-life set of a post-apocalyptic movie. I wanted to look around and take everything in, but I had already been sick the past night and morning, and the urge to vomit from the smell, poverty and lingering bugs in my stomach forced me to push on quickly.
Such is the poverty in Kathmandu. On the one hand, the living standard here is “higher”. Our youth ask for computer classes and photo club. Many have never touched a computer or camera before they come to the activity, but they know at least to ask. They work as domestic workers or on buses, collecting money, or as porters. On the other hand, from what I have seen, the poverty is much more in-your-face. Somehow, a child working alone, away from his family, feels different than a child working in his family’s field. Sickness and hunger hit you differently here, and everything looks so much more “dirty” because of the winter dust and trash everywhere.
After more than 5 straight weeks in Kathmandu, being in the village felt like such a pastoral, idyllic resort. There is food growing everywhere, the sky is clear and the air smells good, and children are generally better dressed. Instead of rushing past each other, everyone in the village stops to greet you with a warm Namaste or Namaskar.
The youth who attended the seminar were generally clean, well dressed and live with their families. They seemed so much more sweet, curious and interested than some of the youth we work with in Kalimati; naturally, I was completely enchanted and seriously contemplated refusing to go back to Kalimati. The other volunteers and I could not stop talking about how great life seemed in the village.
But of course, it’s not that simple. The challenges and the poverty of the village don’t hit you in the same way as they do in the city, but as I wrote in the post about Manegau, some of the challenges seem even more insurmountable than in Kathmandu. I’ve been reading a lot about development economics lately, and reading about things like how poor water and roads and education affect a place’s ability to “develop” felt much more real as I bumped around in a bus, traveling 17km in two hours. I couldn’t help be struck with the thought that if something happened to me in the village—I cut myself, or broke a bone, or God forbid something even worse—I was many, many hours from medical care.
For the villagers, sometimes medical care isn’t even an option. Upama told us about a twelve or thirteen year old boy in Sundrawoti who used to always spend time with the volunteers. The volunteers always asked Upama why he smelled so strongly of urine, so Upama started to talk to the boy and his family. She found out that he was born a hermaphrodite, with two partially-formed sex organs. At birth, the family thought he was a girl, but with time he identified more as a boy. He had extreme difficulties urinating, and of course would face extreme difficulty and discrimination if society found out about his problems. Once the volunteers found out about his situation, they raised money to take him to a hospital, where it was determined that he needs six surgeries to transform his sex organs and urinary tract into exclusively male parts (he has so far undergone three of the six). Until the volunteers came, the boy never saw a doctor, and simply suffered from his inability to urinate and gender confusion. I asked Upama why the family never took him to the doctor, and she said they didn’t have the money.
These stories—the boy in Sundrawoti or the pregnant girl I stayed with in Manegau—to me feel more like “hidden poverty”, or poverty that is less about lack of money and more about lack of access. The village looks so much more idyllic and than the city, but the villagers have little to no access to things we take for granted even in Kathmandu. In Kathmandu we complain about power cuts, low-quality roads and relative lack of medical services; in the village they don’t have them to begin with. Slowly, these things are arriving in the village, especially electricity provided by solar panels, but still the standard of living feels many decades behind.
I don’t really know how to make sense of everything I see, and I think it will really take time back in the West to think through the poverty here. As I start to think about traveling after the program and eventually coming back to the States, I am starting to realize again how hard Nepal can be. I’m really going to try to take the next month to see as much as I can, and hopefully have more to post here!