“Take My Photo”: Conversations with a Yakherder in Langtang

I walked out of Pemba’s house and made my way toward the mani walls dividing the dirt path of Mundu Village.  I was thinking about these walls, looking at the mani stones, wondering whose hands had carved the intricate Tibetan letters hundreds of years ago.  Wondering whose hands had placed these stones in the current structure of the wall after the earthquake had knocked them down.

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“Chori!” [“Daughter!”]¹

I looked up.  I knew the word had been directed at me because the speaker was communicating in the Nepali language.  The Langtangpas speak to each other in a language closely related to the dialect of Tibetan spoken in Kyirong, belying the community’s ancestral origins from Tibet.  Prior to the opening of Nepal’s borders to outsiders in 1951 and the creation of the Langtang National Park in 1976, ‘non-Langtangpas’ rarely entered the Langtang Valley, lending legitimacy to the reference of the Langtang Valley as a ‘beyul’.  ‘Beyul’ is a Tibetan term that can be understood in terms of ‘sacred geography’ and ‘a place of refuge’ in the form of ‘hidden valleys’ within the Himalayan mountains.  In these ‘hidden valleys’, it was believed to be possible to replicate “an ideal model of Tibetan political organization . . . when facing the threat of social disintegration (Lim 33).”

Thus, the inhabitants of the Langtang Valley perceive themselves and their homeland as sacred–a concept contradictory to the circumstances that the Langtangpas have been facing following the creation of the Langtang National Park.  These circumstances, largely out of the control of the Langtangpas themselves, have caused a sharp transition in livelihood from the traditional reliance on subsistence agriculture, animal husbandry, and trading systems, into a reliance on the tourism industry subjecting the Langtangpas to larger surveillance and regulation by the Nepalese state.

“Chori, mero photo kichdinu!” [“Daughter, take my photo!”]

I smiled at the man’s request.  Placing my backpack on the ground and taking out my camera, I looked at the face of the man, Wang, referring to me as daughter.  We had not spoken before, and so I asked him where he lived within the valley.  He informed me that he is a yakherder, living a lifestyle that ties him to the schedule of his cattle.  Wang said he cannot leave his animals and so he cannot travel to Kathmandu or even to Dunche—a town further down the mountain within the same district.  He requested me again to take his photo and to bring it back once I return again to Langtang.

 “Hus Ba,”[Okay, Ba²,”] I laughed.  “Huncha, ma tapaiko photo kichdinchu ani pachi lederaunchu,..” [Okay, I will take your photo and later I will bring it back to you..”] I replied.

I wondered to myself how many people had taken his photo before with no intention of giving him a copy, no ability to ask permission in a language that Wang would be able to reply to.  I looked through the camera, pointing it in his direction.

“Ek chin, Chori!” [“Just a minute, Daughter!”] he exclaimed.

I pulled the camera down from my face and watched as he straightened his jacket over his shirt and placed the plastic tube that he had been using as a walking stick on the ground.  I thought again about the countless times that tourists must have photographed Wang and others like him in Langtang.  These innocent intentions to capture the ‘traditional lifestyle’ of the locals now seemed like stolen images.  I waited with the camera at my side.

“La. Kichdinu, Chori.”[“Okay, take the photo, daughter.”]

I smiled and pointed the camera at him once again.  He stood stiffly on the dirt path, looking in my direction.

“La, Chori.  Pachi lederaunu.  Tapai ramro mancha.  La, bye Chori.” [“Okay, Daughter. Bring it back with you later.  You are a good person.  Okay, bye, Daughter.”]

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The photo that I took of Wang per his request.

Upon returning to Langtang a few weeks later:

The clouds hung low as I walked from Mundu Village to Kyanjin Gumba—the final ‘formal village’ of the Langtang Valley.  Drops of rain were slowly falling from the sky.  I found my umbrella, and made my way from the large hotels of Kyanjin Gumba to the goths located about 30 minutes away.  A goth is a temporary ‘herding hut’ that the yakherders live in while their yaks and other cattle graze that area.  In the past, specifically prior to the influx of the tourism industry, Langtangpas supplemented their agriculture and animal husbandry practices with trade, creating a network between southern Tibet and central Nepal.  Francis Lim writes, “Owning a large herd of crossbreeds used to be considered a source of prestige for the Langtangpa, but villagers these days view running a hotel business as the means to a better life and social status.  This shift in status symbolism and aspiration is the direct result of the arrival of trekking tourism in the area (74).”

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A yakherder that stays near to Wang’s goth doing the evening milking.

In addition to the creation of the National Park, the Nepalese government also started a Cheese Factory in the valley, further bringing the Langtangpas into contact with outsiders.  Tom Cox wrote in 1985 that “the cheese factory has been partially responsible for bringing the Langtang people more into the cultural, political and economic mainstream of Nepal (68).”  The Cheese Factory altered trading systems that were in place and put the Langtangpas in contact with the Nepali language and Nepali education system.  Cox writes about these factors as helping to “undermine the traditional Tibetan culture of Langtang (68).”  Nowadays, the Langtangpas , like Wang, who continue the yakherding tradition are much fewer, a phenomenon that reflects the transition of power to the hotel business and tourism industry.

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Langtangpa workers in the newly rebuilt Cheese Factory in Kyanjin Gumba.  The original Cheese Factory was destroyed in the 2015 earthquakes.

I could see two of these temporary houses in the distance as I made my way further from the tourist hub of Kyanjin Gumba.  As I gripped the photo in my hand, I wondered if I would be able to find Wang.  It had been almost a month and I wasn’t sure where he was staying at the time.  As I got closer, I saw a man’s head appear from the structure.  I recognized the smile even from a distance.

“Chori, tapaile aunubhayo!” [“Daughter, you came!”]

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Looking at the printed photo with Wang outside of his goth.  Photo by Austin Lord.

“Tashi Delek, Ba!”  I greeted him with the appropriate Tibetan greeting, smiled and handed him the photo I had taken a few weeks ago.  He spoke to me as if he had been expecting me to show up.  After a few minutes of examining the photo together, he brought it inside of his goth and told me to wait while he prepared Tibetan tea.

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Wang pouring the Tibetan tea inside of his goth.

Tibetan tea is made from nak milk, butter, tea leaves, and salt.  (‘Nak’ means ‘female yak’ in Nepali.) We sat next to the fire on the ground of the goth as he poured the Tibetan tea.  He told me that he was storing the photo I had given him in one of the cracks between the rocks of the goth walls because no rain water reached there.  I listened to him as he talked about what life as a yakherder in Langtang is like.  He picked up his ‘spinning mani’ and began to spin it gently as we continued our conversation.  He explained that the yakherders mostly sell the milk for use at the Cheese Factory.  The factory had been destroyed in the earthquake of 2015 and was recently rebuilt.  For one liter of ‘high fat content milk’, meaning 7-8% fat, a yakherder is given 250 Nepali Rupees.

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Wang holding his ‘spinning mani’ inside the herding hut. 

Wang told me about his puja practices–a Buddhist ritual.  Each time that he and the other yakherders in his group change spaces, a puja must be done for preventative purposes.  A ‘kharka’ is the ‘herding camp’ or the different grazing areas that the yakherders rotate their animals on.  The yakherders change kharkas every 8 to 9 days and once they arrive in the next area, the yakherder performs a puja so that the yaks do not become sick or break their horns.  Wang also talked about the belief that the yakherder’s fingers may not work if these pujas are not performed

He continued to spin the mani.

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The space dedicated to the daily puja rituals inside of a home in the Langtang Valley.

He then began to tell me about the puja he performs each morning.  It is common for a Langtangpa member of each household to perform a daily puja in the mornings.  This puja is a way of praying for and blessing the people in his life.  He prays for the other villagers, for himself, for his family, and his friends.  He even prays for the tourists he encounters.  Wang explained to me his perception of tourists and the power that lies in these ‘outsiders’.  He explained that in some aspects, tourists are like ‘gods’, referring to the support that some foreigners provide via the tourist industry financially and through sponsorship of their children’s education.  Without these sponsorships, many Langtangpa children would not be able to attend school in Kathmandu, where the best opportunities for education are available in Nepal.

However, Wang explained to me that many tourists also come to Langtang knowing nothing about the local customs.  Some pitch their tents in the places where people have died, some come with meat and eat in sacred places like the base camp at Langtang Lirung, and some do not properly clean up after themselves.  Wang said to me that this is not the fault of the tourists, rather it is a lack of local knowledge on their part.  But this also means that the traditions and customs of living in this ‘beyul’ are not being followed.  This is why Wang and many other Langtangpas believe that they must pray for the tourists during their puja rituals.  This ‘disrespect’ to the sacred geography of Langtang is often listed among many other ‘local knowledge’ reasons for the big avalanche in Langtang Village that accompanied the earthquake of 2015.

Between sips of the heavy Tibetan butter tea and in the quiet spaces between our conversation, I looked around—a place to sleep and a place to cook, a place to perform his puja rituals, and some hay for the animals that he kept under the shelter with him.  I remembered our conversation from a few weeks ago when Wang had stopped me on the trail in Mundu.  I remembered when he told me he was a yakherder and he was not able to travel outside of the valley in order to get his photo taken, to print photos.

 

I wondered what he thinks about me, the foreign girl who can communicate with him in his second language, the girl that he affectionately refers to as ‘chori’.  My interactions with Wang illuminated parts of a different side of Langtang for me, parts not so directly related to the tourism industry.  The yakherders hold a place within the community that reaches into the deeper history of the community.  Wang explained that the future of yakherding seems to be dwindling in Langtang.  The younger generation is not accustomed to the lifestyle.  He believes that soon, after his generation of yakherders becomes too old, that his cattle will just be left to live in the jungle.  This perception of the future is indicative of the circumstances that have been changing rapidly in Langtang, the new standards of cleanliness and the new hopes associated with education for the younger generations.

It has been, and continues to be, a privilege to participate in conversations such as these.  Thank you for reading as I continue to learn and share.

Jennifer

 

¹It is common for older people in Nepal to refer to younger women in kinship terms, such as chori (daughter) or bahini (younger sister).

²Ba is a term that literally means ‘father’, but is used as a form of respect when speaking to older men.

References

Cox, Tom. “Herding and Socio-economic Change Among Langtang Tibetans.” CNAS Journal. 1985.

Lim, Francis. “Imagining the Good Life: Negotiating Culture and Development in Nepal Himalaya.” Brill: Leiden, 2008.

 

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A Reflection: Listening and Self-Evaluation

Dear Readers,

I have been quite busy with fieldwork lately.  I left Kathmandu in early June to continue my work with the Langtang Valley community and a few other projects.  This time in the field has been extremely beneficial for me on many fronts and there is much to share from my recent experiences.  I am learning every day; I am learning about myself, the people around me, ethnography, my research interests.  In this state of learning, I find myself in deep self-reflection—a reflexive endeavor of listening to the people around me and evaluating my place in these situations.  This is an important practice that connects my personal journey to my ethnographic work, allowing me to constantly locate and relocate myself in my surroundings.  Examination of myself in relation to others yields an awareness of the ways in which my identity—the ways in which I perceive and represent myself in addition to the ways others perceive me—limits and grants me access in each situation.

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Langtangpas viewing material downloaded from the Langtang Memory Project archive.
Listening to others and evaluating the self.  This is the reflexive approach that I continually focus on developing in my work.  Listening is more than just hearing the words that a person is speaking; listening is a slow endeavor.  This slowness allows stories to unfold; it allows people to be heard and voices to emerge.  Evaluation of my self allows me to understand my place in these interactions—how I influence the people around me, the ways that stories are told, the comfort within these interactions.  This two-fold approach—a constant work in progress—leads me to an acute awareness of my ‘difference’, locating myself in each changing context, and informing me of how these pieces of my identity influence my interactions.

While in Nepal, my decisions have placed me in somewhat of a state of constant ‘fieldwork’.  While in Kathmandu, I live with a Nepalese family, which means that even when I am not ‘in the field’ working on my various projects, (i.e. Langtang, the Tarai, outside of Kathmandu), I still spend my days in a constant state of ‘difference’, speaking in a language that is not my native language and abiding by cultural expectations that come along with living inside of a Nepalese household.  My previous experiences in Nepal informed me that this decision is sometimes accompanied by difficulties; however, it is a decision that allows for constant learning.  This is the way in which I learned the Nepali language, the way that I slowly have gained, and am still gaining, a more nuanced understanding of the pressures that Nepalese social structure enforces.  I am confronted with the ‘difference’ that I represent here on a daily basis and each day I learn more about the ways in which this difference is manifested in my interactions.

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Why am I here?  What am I doing so far from home? And, especially, as a single woman?  These are questions that I must answer every day—a constant examination of my motivations. My physical appearance—a young white woman seemingly from the Western world and far from home—invokes a certain curiosity in the people I encounter.  Each of these ‘pieces’ of my identity must be understood in the ways that they interact with each other, not ever neatly separated, yet each combining to present those around me with an impression of who I am and the appropriate ways to interact with me.  Reflection on these interactions then informs me of appropriate ways to conduct myself in each situation, clarifying the points of access that are available to me.

Nepal’s society, while unique and multi-faceted, overall can be described as ‘patriarchal’.  My identification as a woman, therefore, influences my interactions on a daily basis and has great impact on my work.  Men often are not as forthcoming to speak to me as they are with my male colleagues.  However, my gender allows me access into conversations and more personal settings with women that my male colleagues are often not allowed to enter.  My reflections regarding the ways in which my gender limits me and grants me access is constantly influencing the lens in which I view my interactions and the ways in which I approach my observations.  This gendered lens allows me to see unevenness manifesting in power relations; a focus that I am slowly narrowing in on.

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As a young and unmarried woman, the topic of marriage is brought up in many conversations that often result in older people trying to convince me of the merit of their younger male relatives.  My gender also influences my interactions with males in power positions.  I have found that before establishing a working relationship, men will often go through complicated channels to get messages across to me, rather than speaking directly to me.  On the other hand, my gender grants me invitations to sit with groups of women, sipping tea and discussing personal matters.  This sameness of gender seems to offer a sense of comfort that is manifested in my ability to be in a room of women crying, whereas my male colleagues do not find themselves in situations such as this.  Although my gender places certain limits on me, I also realize that my status as a ‘foreigner’ from the ‘Western world’ grants me certain power and access that other females of my age usually do not have.

My ‘foreignness’ here is represented in my appearance, the color of my skin, my hair, the way that I dress, my accent.  It is apparent as soon as one looks at me.  My status as a foreigner from America leads people to assume certain things about my life.  I have become aware of this in my interactions.  Learning that I am often charged a higher price than the local people, I become aware of the assumption that all Westerners have a lot of money.  My life is often conceived of in ‘privileged’ terms, and how could I dispute this when I have traveled half way across the world to a country of individuals who are largely not given access to my home country?  These assumptions are at times difficult to get around, and therefore, I often find myself in conversations revolving around the comparisons between my life at home and life here in Nepal.

Through careful observation and situational evaluation, I am learning the appropriate ways to conduct myself in order to create positive interactions.  I have learned that if I have not established a relationship with someone, it is important for me to bring a ‘local’ person with me to facilitate these conversations.  When entering into an area, I have realized that it is not appropriate to immediately bring up matters of work; rather, an easing into these more focused matters is appreciated.  This approach leads me to often drink a few cups of tea and chat about daily life and family matters upon entering a home or into a conversation.  Time is also understood in different terms here and meeting times are often viewed as flexible.  Understanding this informs my interactions and allows me to avoid frustration in missed meetings.  I have learned that while it is important to have a vision, I know that my plans will always change.  Acceptance of this has allowed me to enter into more organic situations of observation, learning from each situation, rather than trying to enforce a strict regimen.

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This self-reflective state continually provides me with a clarity into myself and my interactions with others.  I will bring this practice of attentive listening and constant evaluation of myself with me as I prepare to leave Kathmandu once again on Tuesday to follow up on my previous work.  My work here has become quite exciting, and I am grateful for these opportunities of constant learning and steady growth in my personal and professional endeavors.  I will return to Kathmandu at the end of this month with more stories and more insight than I have at the time of writing this.  I look forward to sharing with you what I learn as I continue to participate in this practice of self-reflection.

Thank you for reading.

Jennifer

Gyalpo’s Story: Decisions in a Post-Disaster Context

Dear Readers,

Returning to Nepal has given me the opportunity to understand the individuals I have met over a trajectory.  When I first started my work with the Langtang Valley community, it was just five months after the April 25, 2015 earthquakes in Nepal.  During my recent trip to Langtang, the two-year anniversary of the earthquake was commemorated by a community-led Puja.  Each individual I have met has a story, many stories, that come alive over time.  One of these individuals is 26-year-old Gyalpo Lama from Langtang Village.

I met Gyalpo for the first time in November of 2015 in Boudhanath, Kathmandu.  At this time, I could not quite grasp Gyalpo’s story.  I thought perhaps he was disinterested in the project.  I reconnected with Gyalpo a few weeks ago while in Langtang and I quickly learned I had been mistaken about his interest in the project.  He became a vital connection to the community for me, offering assistance in translation and cultural understanding.  Gyalpo speaks five languages fluently—formal Tibetan, the local Langtangpa language, Nepali, Hindi, and English. At the age of seven, his parents sent him to Swayambhunath in Kathmandu to become a monk.  It is common in the Himalayan region of Nepal for families to send one of their sons to be trained and live as a monk.

After his time in Swayambhunath, he relocated to Pharping Monastery just outside of Kathmandu.  When he was 16, he again relocated to a monastery in Varanasi, India.  This is also where he acquired his Bachelor’s Degree in Buddhist Philosophy.  Gyalpo told me that he had planned to get his PhD, hoping to become the first person from Langtang to acquire such an advanced degree.  However, his plans and his life course changed drastically after the earthquake.

“On April 25th when the earthquake hit, I was in India, Varanasi, studying over there.  I think it was around 12 afternoon . . . In the evening, I came to know by news that Nepal was badly hit by the earthquake. I was very tense by knowing that, so I tried to contact my family in Nepal, but all the phone lines were either busy or dead.  I couldn’t contact them and social networks, they were also not working well.  The next day I came to Nepal.  When I reached here, I came to know that our village was totally destroyed by  the avalanche and lots of people were killed.  In that avalanche, I also lost my dear mom, dad, my brothers, lots of relatives, and our house.”

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“My heart collapsed with this house because it lives here.  My parents spent decades building this house, but how easily it was destroyed in minutes.  They have been dreaming to modify this house for a long time, but they left us without completing their dream.  Now who could carry it out?  I don’t feel I can.  My heart will be hollow without their presence.”
Gyalpo, like so many others, was faced with difficult decisions in the aftermath of the earthquake.  Gyalpo’s story is one voice in a larger collection of stories that emerged from the circumstances of this tragedy, representations of the difficult decisions one faces in a post-disaster context.  Family systems are disrupted, children must take the responsibility of those who were lost, landscapes are shifted, life-altering decisions must be made.

When asked about the decisions he was faced with, Gyalpo explains, “I thought practically because my brother is alone.  I thought he needed support, so then I came to Langtang to rebuild.”

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Gyalpo’s only surviving brother, now 23-year-old Dawa Lama, holding my notebook in which ‘Langtang’ is written in Nepali (Devanagari) and Tibetan scripts.
Gyalpo’s decision had important implications for his life.  He had been a monk for nearly 20 years, living a strictly disciplined life in a monastery.  The lifestyle of a monk does not offer many breaks; he spent most of his time before the earthquake away from Langtang, visiting only occasionally when possible.  Village life in the Himalayan Mountains is quite different than life in a monastery.  Monks are subject to rules, dress codes, and daily rituals set by the monastery they reside in.

During my recent time in Langtang, Gyalpo and I went to visit one of the high lamas (‘holy men’) to learn about his life and role in the community.  This meant that we had to walk through the avalanche site that once was Langtang Village—the village where Gyalpo was born, the village where Gyalpo’s family died.  He stopped and pointed out a small piece of cement with blue paint on it.  He told me this was where his family’s home had been.  He said that whenever he walks through this area, he keeps his eyes forward, trying not to focus on the damage, the fate that his family had met.  On that day, he had stopped, he looked around, and posed a question: “Sometimes I try to understand. These rocks are so big.  How could they have fallen from that mountain?  I just don’t understand.”

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Gyalpo leading me through the avalanche site that was Langtang Village before the earthquake.
When we returned that night, we passed through the avalanche site once more.  It had become dark and we used flashlights to find our way.  We stopped at the Memory Stupa—a memorial site dedicated to the lives lost in the earthquake.  Shining the light of my headlamp on the Stupa, Gyalpo scanned the names of the locals who had passed away.  “This is my mom,” he pointed out.  “Here is my dad, and here is my brother’s name.”

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Inscription on top of the Memory Stupa, written in all of the languages of those who lost their lives due to the earthquake.
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The community placed new prayer flags leading up to the Memory Stupa on the two-year anniversary of the earthquake.
Gyalpo now lives mostly in Langtang.  He and his brother are working to complete the rebuilding of his home and guesthouse before the monsoon seasons starts.  His decision to cease being a monk, to leave India and to start a life in Langtang, has altered his life circumstances dramatically.  A decision born from the post-earthquake context that still marks Nepal, a decision motivated by his relationship, his responsibility toward his younger brother and the legacy of his family.  I am grateful to know Gyalpo, to learn from him, and to call him a friend.

Thank you for reading.

Jennifer

Disaster and Labor: A Follow Up on Previous Insights from Langtang

Dear Friends,

Last year I wrote to you about a young girl named Dolma Tamang, with whom I traveled to Langtang with.  She is from a small village called Ramche, situated between Kathmandu and Syabru Besi—the town that you begin to hike from in order to reach Langtang.  There are no popular trekking routes that run through Ramche; most of the households in this village are subject to poverty conditions.  During my time with Dolma last year, her story slowly began to unravel, manifesting in concerned looks and questions revealing her uncertainty of where she was heading and for what purpose.  As Dolma began to understand the situation at hand, I too learned that she was destined to provide domestic assistance for a Langtang household during the post-earthquake rebuilding phase.  Her uncle had arranged for this to happen; Dolma was told that she was leaving for Langtang—a place she had never even heard of—only three hours prior to her departure.

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The type of ‘broom’ that is most commonly used by Nepalis, like Dolma, when sweeping floors.
Her story remained with me.  It was difficult, learning of her fate, and saying goodbye to her.  In the past year, I have continued to inquire about her, learning about a stomach surgery she endured.  I was told that Dolma had become unable to keep up with the demands of the manual labor.  When I returned to Nepal about a month ago, I inquired about her situation again.  I was told that she was back in Ramche with her family; I had hopes of meeting her.

Prior to traveling to Langtang for fieldwork, I received a friend request on Facebook from a familiar face.  It was Dolma!  I was incredibly happy to finally have a chance to directly talk to Dolma once again, to hear about her life, where she was, and what she was doing now that she was no longer working in Langtang.  She told me that she had returned home to live with her parents in Ramche.  I said that I would be traveling that way soon and if possible, I would come to meet her for some tea, to see her once again, and hear about her life since the last time I saw her. She matched my excitement, calling me ‘Didi’ (older sister), and inviting me to come and meet her in her home when I was able to.

Just a few days before my trip, I contacted Dolma again on Facebook.  I said I would be traveling with some friends who knew where her house is and that we would call her if we had an opportunity to come and visit her.  She wrote me back: “Didi, I’m sorry. I’m not at home anymore.  I can’t meet you.  My parents sent me to China.”

I thought I might have misinterpreted her message and asked for some clarification.  She explained that she couldn’t keep up with the work in Langtang, so she had returned home.  But now, due to the family’s financial situation, she was once again sent away to work—this time in a different country.  A country that she does not know anyone, a country in which she cannot communicate as she does not know the language.  I asked her who she was staying with.  She told me she was living alone, doing work similar to what she had done in Langtang.  I felt my heart sink down, thinking of the sadness that this young girl has been subject to in her life. She said to me, “We are poor people. What else is there to do?”

Upon my return to Kathmandu, I reached out to Dolma again.  She has been communicating with me, explaining to me her loneliness, her confusion.  She is uncertain of when she will return back to Nepal.  She is unable to communicate with her parents as she does not have a sim card that works in China.  She often posts to her Facebook page, questioning why her life has been so full of sadness, questioning why she has only found tears and no smiles in her life.

I think about this young girl every day. I thought about her while in Langtang, looking at the other domestic workers and manual laborers, wondering what stories they hold behind their smiles.  As I made my way down the mountain, I passed through Ramche, this time taking closer notice to my surroundings.  My Nepali friend accompanying me explained that you will only see very small houses and huts in Ramche.  The people are very poor.  Dolma’s story, unfortunately, is not a rare occurrence in Nepal.  Those individuals who live in the small villages often have no opportunity for local work.  Dolma left her studies at a young age.  As a result, she cannot read and does not speak English.  This limits her opportunities greatly.  Many families in villages such as the village that Dolma is from are extremely poor, so poor that they are even unable to purchase enough food for their families.  It is from situations like this that children are sent to work in the households of others.

The rebuilding situation in Langtang has created a situation where this extra help is necessary.  It is from these dynamics of poverty and post-disaster rebuilding that I met Dolma and that I learned firsthand that situations like this exist in Nepal.  However, after many discussions with Nepalese citizens concerning this matter, I have learned that Dolma’s story is not rare.  In fact, it is quite common.  Exporting labor in this way has become quite a phenomenon in Nepal and most often directly related to poverty conditions. An article found in Spotlight News Magazine explains, “The most important and usual cause of child labor is because those children’s parents are so underprivileged that they can’t provide for the family without some economic help.   Thus, they send their children to earn an income, which is desperately needed.”  What is one to do when they cannot feed their family?  What are the options for those who find themselves in situations such as Dolma’s family?

I write this story to you because it is a story that does not leave me.  Dolma’s story, and the stories of other child laborers, must be drawn attention to.  She has no voice in this situation.  She is one of many in a similar situation.  My time in Langtang has revealed to me the intersections of child/ exported labor and disaster.  The Langtangpas live in an area where its inhabitants can earn money through the trekking industry.  People like Dolma do not share in this ability to find work in their home towns.  The earthquake created a demand for extra help in Langtang and this is why I met Dolma.  Her story has revealed to me much about Nepal.  While it is not an easy story to learn about, it is an important story to listen to.

Until next time,

Jennifer

Learning from the Langtangpas: Lessons of Listening and Slowing Down

Dear Readers,

I have returned from the Langtang Valley!  I was there for 15 days, during which time I conducted some vital fieldwork for the ‘Langtang Memory Project’, reconnected with the local community, and learned quite a lot.  There is much to say and many stories that I hope to share with you over the coming weeks.

I installed the ‘Langtang Means Home’ photo exhibition in commemoration of the two-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated the Langtangpa community during my time there.  The exhibition displayed the work of Langtangpa photographers, giving the community a chance to reflect on the past and collectively view their work in the place that they call home.

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The anniversary of the earthquake is on April 25 on the ‘Gregorian calendar’, but the ‘Tibetan Calendar’ functions differently.  This year on the Tibetan Calendar, used by the Langtangpas for religious purposes, the anniversary fell on May 2.  On this day the community held a Puja to honor those who were lost to the earthquake.  Langtangpas from all over the Langtang Valley came to attend this day-long Puja—a tradition in Buddhism.  There was much to do to prepare for the Puja.

Barley must be dried, so that those attending the Puja can throw it as the ‘lamas’ say the mantras and lead the blessings.  Lamas are the respected ‘holy persons’ of the community who lead the community in religious ceremonies such as this Puja.  Butter must also be melted and poured into small golden colored cups with cotton wicks in order to make butter lamps.

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Butter lamps are lit, following Buddhist tradition, for those who passed away.  It is believed that lighting the butter lamps assists the souls after death.

The community must also make champa.

During the Puja, champa is placed before the lamas and blessed.  Following the Puja, champa is served to those in attendance.

My extended time in Langtang allowed me to document the photo exhibition and the Puja for the Langtang Memory Project.  As the days went by, I felt myself seep deeper into the community, learning much about the micropolitics of the community.  I gained keener insight into the power dynamics and gender divisions present in the community as well as the tension of rebuilding that emerges post disaster.  I received some important feedback about the project and brainstormed with the community about our vision moving forward.

There were, of course, periods of time when I felt out of place, somewhat unsure of how to accomplish my tasks.  This project represents a collaboration of cultural perspectives—a representation that I must be aware of when conducting this work.  A representation that intensifies while spending time ‘on the ground’ immersed in the daily life of the community.  Time spent living in the way that the Langtangpas live informs my work in an incomparable way.  During this time, I became aware of two broad lessons: 1. The importance of listening and 2. The importance of slowing down.

The Langtang Valley is a popular trekking destination in Nepal.  This means that every day, the community encounters tourists, many of whom look similar to me.  Every day, these tourists take photos of the Langtangpas, idealizing a community that represents foreignness, an exotic destination to these visitors.  The Langtangpas often never see what happens to these photos, interviews, and videos.  It became increasingly important for my purposes to instill in the community that my presence and the material I generate is not for me, but rather, it is for the community.  I deliberately did not take photos for a few days.  I established relationships, garnered trust, and most importantly, made it a focal point to explain the project and allow the community to understand the motivations and goals of our work at their own pace.

I listened.  I listened to everyone who wanted to talk to me because my time in Langtang, the project that I am working on, is about creating a space for Langtangpa voices to be heard.  I realized while listening that projects such as this one must be conducted slowly.  It is not appropriate to arrive in Langtang and immediately request meetings and material from the community.  I learned to live at a pace that the Langtangpas live, a lifestyle that makes time for long conversations, homemade meals, and unplanned meetings of friends.  It is a lifestyle that differs on various levels from the lifestyle of my ‘cultural perspective’.  These lessons continually emerge in my work, preparing me for my future plans to study and research in the field of anthropology.

I will continue to write to you about my recent time in Langtang in the coming days and weeks while I have access to wifi in Kathmandu.  I am excited to share with you these stories, reflections, and plans for the future.

Thank you for reading and until next time,

Jennifer

Returning to Nepal

Dear Friends,

I am en route to Nepal!  It has been quite a busy several weeks leading up to right now—learning of this opportunity, conceptualizing my vision and plans for my time, and preparing to depart to this far away country that has become my ‘home away from home’.  I will be continuing my work with a community from the Langtang Valley that was severely affected by the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal.  This work has been the culmination of serendipitous events—random connections that put me in the right place to help co-launch the ‘Langtang Memory Project’.  It is through this project, in collaboration with a Denver-based photography and storytelling nonprofit, ‘Picture Me Here’, that I was asked to return and continue our important work.  I am very excited to finally have the ability to share with you my plans and what I hope to accomplish in conjunction with the Langtang Valley community.

I will arrive in Nepal tomorrow and will likely stay through the summer, working on three broad goals: 1.) creating installations in the community centers in Langtang to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the earthquake, 2.) continued skill development with the community by means of photography and storytelling, and 3.) working on our proposed book project.  The special part about the content of these projects is that it is community generated.  By this, I mean that the community reached out to us to assist in cultural preservation and documentation and therefore, all of the photographs that are collected in the aftermath of the earthquake are taken by the community members themselves.  This project seeks to honor those who were lost, respect the process of healing, and create a space for new Langtangpa individual and collective identities to emerge.

My first mission will be to create the installations in commemoration of the earthquake anniversary.  My vision for creating these installations will not fully emerge without further consultation with the Langtang community.  The anniversary is on the 25th of April, and so my work on this piece of the project will be immediate.  So where will I be?  Here’s a map of Nepal:

map of nepal langtangको लागि तस्बिर परिणाम

http://gilesd-j.com/2013/02/12/langtang/

I’ll be landing in Kathmandu—the capital—and spend about a week preparing, meeting with community members, and printing the appropriate materials.  From Kathmandu, I will travel into the Himalayan mountains, into the ‘hidden valley’ known as the Langtang Valley.  It has been just over a year since the last time I was in Langtang.

As I continue to near my destination, I feel calm.  I am ready to continue again, renewed, with a more nuanced perspective of the situation, yet eager to continue to learn, eager and grateful for this opportunity.  I think back to my last trip to Nepal. I met people I never planned to meet; I worked on projects I had not planned to work on.  I am reminded of just how quickly things change, and how important each new connection I make can become.  I feel calm knowing that I have a plan, knowing that this plan will change and that’s okay.  I will share with all of you how my plans unfold.  I am on the cusp of a new adventure, a new piece of this project.  I look forward to see how everything manifests, and I look forward to sharing this with you.

Until next time.

Jennifer

Finding My Balance: Why I stopped Writing

Dear Friends,

I have not written to you for several months.  These months have been difficult.  I’ve thought about you, I’ve thought about the people and the experiences that I would like to share with you.  I’ve thought about my transformation, who I was before I left, who I became, who I am now.  Unsure of the words to use, I stopped trying.  Unsure of how to approach a story, and so I didn’t approach it.  I look back at what I have written to you, dear friends, and I wonder where that girl has gone.  Again, I find myself in a state of self-examination.

It is this continual state of self-examination that leads me to question why I stopped writing.  Writing has been my means of processing, comprehending my experience, understanding my internal self.  But there have been these fragmented memories, pieces of stories, that I’ve stored inside myself.  Stories that I intended to share.  Stories that I never wrote—a subconscious protestation to fully comprehending these experiences.  Yet these stories continue to appear in my consciousness, fragmented and rushed, always imprinting again on my internal self.  I would like to present to you a representation of these fragmented stories as I understand them in my brain, stories out of context, stories that still bear the pain of the storyteller, even in pieces.


. . . I walked past him every day while living in the capital city of Nepal.  His eyes, a glazed over blue.  His lips tightly pressed together and his brow furrowed in anticipation of receiving some spare change from those who passed him.  He methodically, and desperately, shook his arm at each passerby.  His hand was no longer there, just an arm on which the handle of a bucket rested.  Exchanging glances, I felt my thoughts grow darker, wondering what brought him into these circumstances, wondering how he lost his hand, wondering how one could survive like this . . .

. . .“We cannot go into the forest.  We are women.  There are low caste men also gathering firewood.  We cannot go in.”  . . .

. . . I listened to her stories.  I felt the pain leak out of her as her body stiffened and her words slowed down.  I listened to her tell me the story of her rape.  The same story she had confided in her mother.  The same story that forced her to marry her rapist.  She pulled her son’s hood over his head as the sun began to meet the horizon in the distance.  She said, “It’s a sad life.  The life of a woman here is sad.  But what can we do?” . . .

. . . “You must not leave the home past five o’clock in the evening,  The men will drink and it will be dangerous for you.” . . .

. . . I had seen his mother so many times.  She would follow me, targeting my fair skin, targeting my foreignness.  She presented the same script to me each time until she started to recognize me.  My foreignness sinking into her familiarity.  She sent her son this time.  I felt something tugging at my shirt.  Tiny hands, caked in dirt.  I looked down to see a smattering of dusty hair, an unclothed child looking back at me.  What could I possibly do? . . .

. . . “I never want to marry.  I know very well what boys want.  When I marry, my life will be over.”  . . .

. . . I met her on my way to the mountains.  Her face was sullen, her eyes fixated on nothing in particular, just outside the window.  She did not know where she was going.  Her uncle told her to go and so she obeyed.  Each day of hiking increased the distance she traveled from home—a path unfamiliar to her.  Each day that we hiked further, we began to understand the fate that awaited her.  Her uncle had offered her to provide household assistance in exchange for money.  He had sold her . . .

. . .“What gives you the courage to travel alone so far away from home?  You are a woman.”  . . .

. . . “How do you feel? Now, seeing where we come from?” Roshan asked me as we slowly made our way between the bamboo huts of the Beldangi II refugee camp.  I was quiet and he continued, “It’s sad, isn’t it?  Life here is sad.” . . .

. . . We approached the spot where it happened—the avalanche that followed the earthquake.  The entire village was destroyed, leaving behind pieces of the lives that were lost—bed frames, tea thermoses, baby clothes, metal cups.  Didi was leading us.  Her arms, crossed and tucked into her chest; I watched her small frame move through the pieces of lives once lived.  She stopped, holding her arm out to point to where her sister had lived with her husband and children.  I watched tears fall from her eyes, her breath shortening.  I watched her, surrounded by the reminder of devastation.  I watched her, trying to move on, paralyzed by her pain, uncertain of how to continue in that moment . . .


These are some of the stories, the people, that have clutched my heart.  I encountered so many people who had no agency, no ability to change their reality.  People who saw me and marveled at the choices I have in front of me, the independence I exercised; I represented answers, happiness, the ‘good life’.  Gradually I became enveloped in sadness, enveloped in an uncertainty that turned into fear.  Sadness over the lack of choice my new friends had; their lives had been laid out for them by way of caste, gender, age, region, etc.  Fear that I would not do good with the many choices that are available to me in life.  Fear that I would take my privilege for granted.  Fear that I couldn’t possibly be the person that these people looking at me thought I was.

I have fought this fear; I’ve denied its existence; I’ve tried to ignore it.  And finally, I am accepting it.  In accepting this fear, I have become aware of how it has manifested itself in these past several months.  How it is halted me from writing, from laughter, from sharing, from life.  In this acceptance of my fear, I accept myself.  In accepting myself, I am aware that my focus is shifting.  I am now facing the challenge of exploring a new theme.  The theme of balance.  Informed by the stories and lessons of my past, I seek balance as I look to my future, as I find myself preparing to return to Nepal.  Preparing to return, to pick up where I left off, to continue my work, and to continue to learn.  It is with a renewed sense of self and others that I embark on this adventure.

I will share with you the plans for my new adventure soon, friends.  Until next time.

Jennifer