Inly recently checked in with Anna Cooper (Inly School ’04, Commonwealth School ’08) to learn about her trip to Nepal after graduating from high school. Anna’s experience and insightful words about her trip show one way that the inspired, involved and aware students of Inly bring their experiences with them as they move on.
Q: Why did you go to Nepal?
Anna: After graduating from high school, I felt I needed time outside an academic setting to explore and get better sense of the world and my interests in it, and so I decided to take a year off before going to college. I knew when I started planning that on top of anything I might do individually, I wanted a culminating and more structured experience as part of my year, which is why I began looking at gap year programs. I settled upon Where There Be Dragons, the program that took me to Nepal, because they focus on authenticity, on teaching young people how to be travelers and citizens of the world, interested in and sensitive to the multiplicities of different cultures and societies.
Q: What were your first impressions of the country? The people?
Anna: It’s difficult now to say what struck me first about Nepal, except that whatever else I was feeling, I also felt profoundly settled, as if I had finally arrived in the right place at the right time. I don’t mean to infuriate, but Nepal is really beyond my descriptive powers. There is a multiplicity to life there, a non-dualist kind of thought and lifestyle that is alien to those of us who have grown up in the West with clear ideas of personal property, identity, inherent value, and mandated ethics. I do not mean to say these things do not exist there, rather that they exist in a less rigid way.
Maybe because there is so little infrastructure, life seems to flow in a much more entangled organic way, constantly colliding and rearranging so that no plans are ever really settled. To be more concrete, the people are mainly fun, kind, and incredibly hospitable, though many are also pressured by poverty, massive water shortages and political instability. The city of Kathmandu is extremely polluted and suffering greatly from overpopulation. The people live with major water and power shortages on a daily basis, adapting their lifestyle to suit their resources. Still, it has a kind of beauty that comes of it’s visceral quality, of the endless smells, commotion, vibrancy and dust. If you are interested in a more in depth view I would recommend looking at the Where There Be Dragons website, where current and former students post stories and descriptions of their experiences abroad.
Q: How did people respond to you and your group?
Anna: I traveled in a group of 12 students and 3 instructors, all of whom but our Nepali instructor Sweta, happened to be Caucasian, but I could not presume to describe the mix of feeling towards white westerners in Nepal. All I can relate are my own experiences, which were almost entirely positive. People were curious about us, even in the capital Kathmandu, we were an entirely foreign sight, with our non-traditional clothing (though Nepali youth are beginning to adopt western clothing styles as well), pale skin and relatively giant stature. We took up a lot of space, on the street, in the buses, even in our kitchens at home, and in a city that suffers greatly from overpopulation, that made us all the more conspicuous.
There is a kind of dual attitude toward western foreigners in general; first, that they are comparatively wealthy and do not know their way around Nepal and hence provide a good money earning opportunity, and second, that they have far more experience in the broader world and are therefore probably superior in knowledge. These two ideas are not entirely compatible, since one encourages swindling and the other a kind of reverence toward western culture. Many Nepali people are becoming increasingly familiar with the ideals and customs of western culture, and yet for many of them we were among the few westerners they had talked to extensively.
We did our best to learn and acclimate to Nepali customs, so that we might better understand the meaning and purpose behind them. The differences between American and Nepali culture, at their most generic, are too many and too complex to understand from a brief description. Suffice it to say, in most instances the contrast in culture was met with kindness, immense hospitality, and usually a teasing sense of humor.
Q: What kind of impact did your work have on the community there?
Anna: While my program was not heavily community service based, we did organize and participate in a few community oriented projects and the organization Where There Be Dragons as a whole tries to be a sustainable source of in country support. During our first week in Nepal, after a brief orientation period, we lived and worked for four days in what began as a leper colony and has transformed into an eco village that includes an orphanage, school, and health clinic, and provides housing, community and work for people with disabilities and long term and sometimes stigmatized diseases, such as leprosy. While there we helped harvest the fields that support the village, made food for ourselves and the inhabitants, taught at the school, helped look after the disabled children, worked at the clinic changing bandages, and aided in various other jobs.
Working with these people, both those who chose to work for the organization and those who lived there out of necessity, almost all of whom, were kind and welcoming and amazingly joyful, was an incredible way to transition into Nepal. This village was run by an organization called Shanti Sewa Griha, which has other locations throughout Nepal, one of which I worked at while living in Kathmandu. Their Kathmandu location is a much larger free clinic, with a work focus on producing traditional Nepali crafts, that they then sell abroad to generate funds. They are able to provide a safe environment and employment for poorer or disabled Nepali people, mainly women, producing these crafts.
We also spent a little over a week in a mountain village, living with families and working on a pipeline that would run water from a nearby mountain spring down to the toilets in their schoolhouse, allowing the students to stay longer in school and in better hygiene. The effort and devotion that the men, and especially the women and children, some from outside of the village, put into this project was both daunting and inspiring.
Q: What would you like to see happen next there?
Anna: Nepal is an incredibly diverse country, both environmentally and culturally. It is home to over a hundred dialects, several distinct ethnic groups, and two main religions, though others are certainly practiced, and each has many sects. Over the last century, diverse political opinions have risen in response, the clearest example being the only recently ended 10 year civil war. All these forms of diversity, not the least of which are the impassible geographical obstacles, deter attempts at a stable and inclusive infrastructure. However, I am not nearly well educated enough to suggest what Nepal could or should do. There are many incredibly talented Nepali people as well as foreigners, working in areas of social entrepreneurship and government facing these and many other problems, and I highly suggest looking into what they have to say, and seeing if you can get involved.
Q: What are your plans for the future – both immediate (school, etc.) and regarding this project?
Anna: Right now I am a freshman at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, with an undecided major. My experiences in Nepal definitely honed my priorities and helped me to think about what I want my future to entail. At the moment I am considering several options, including studying religion more closely, something I would probably not have considered before traveling through Nepal. I am hoping I can find a way to retain my language skills, and I am definitely planning to return to Nepal after graduating. I hope to travel more extensively through other areas in Asia, focusing on cultural studies and community aid projects.
Q: Do you have a memory of Inly that came up as a result of this experience?
Anna: One night I was in my home in Kathmandu trying to entertain my four year old “niece” with my rudimentary Nepali skills, asking her questions about school and her favorite things. She grew bored with answering my questions, and worried that she would run off to distract my older “sister” as she often did, I asked her to sing me a song. She burst into a wonderful school song, a mashup of English and Nepali that sounded something like a nationalist anthem and pragmatic lullaby combined, demonstrating an elaborate dance alongside.
Afterward she ran up to me and begged for something in return. I thought for a few minutes about what I had to offer up even remotely equal to her performance. Then I pulled from the distant past, the complete lyrics and sign language gestures for “Beauty of the Light.” She watched me in fascination, trying to match my hand motions, and afterward we exchanged signs for dance moves.
[Listen to Inly School students singing Beauty_of-the_Light.]
The dislocation struck me at the time, a staple piece of my childhood floating back to the surface in the strangest of locations at the oddest time. But it seemed fitting to me as well, since the message in that song is something deeply embedded in the Montessori style of education, an education that helped shape me into who I am, into a person that sought out those experiences and knew to appreciate them.