Nepal Part 6: Material poverty & spiritual poverty

A photo of Rachel and a patient greeting Namaste.


So why is it that the more affluent our society the less happy we are? Is it because the more we have, we become more selfish as we try to protect our comfort and mindlessly seek pleasure? Most of the patients we looked after own a small farm where they have just enough vegetables, buffaloes, goats and chickens to sustain themselves. Perhaps it is because the villagers don’t have many possessions that they have nothing to lose.

Over there we had to ask whether soaps are available in the villagers’ homes and educate them on how to prevent illnesses with good hygiene. Here, we can spend a long time choosing and deciding which flavor or colour of soap we want. It seems what makes our worlds different is that they don’t have a choice, and we have too many. After living in the village for 2 months and being on a diet that I had little choice over, when I returned to Kathmandu and was given a menu at a restaurant, I couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat because I would’ve been happy with anything that was served.

A photo of Rachel with a patient and her daughter.

We are lucky to be born needless to worry about our survival. We are bombarded with so much information and choices every day that if we don’t have a strong philosophy and a clear purpose in life, it can be very overwhelming. Lost in this information-focused society, we can spend our whole lives just merely existing, rather than creating something of long-lasting value. Dr Viktor Frankl is well known for surviving the World War II Nazi concentration camp. In his book ‘Man’s search for meaning’, he writes, “The abuse of every kind of passion has resulted in an age in which all types of idealism have been destroyed. While we would normally expect to find the younger generation extremely passionate and idealistic, today’s generation, today’s youth, have no ideals at all.” Our society is plagued with a sense of powerlessness and spiritual poverty, it is as if deep down inside, there’s nothing worthy for us to fight for.

Photo of a tin shed

Many of us don’t know where our food comes from, or what is in season. We can eat whatever we want, when we want, simply because we can. The average income earner is unable to own a house without being bound to a 30 year mortgage. We are obsessed with how we look. We fear being judged, and judge others by their appearance and what they have. We are one of the most heavily drugged countries in the world as we are no longer in tune with nature and have forgotten ways to prevent illness. Food – Shelter – Clothing – Medicine, our four basic necessities of life are exploited to the extent that there is no value in them anymore. We have to stop and ask ourselves what does it mean to be a responsible human being. Are we being true to ourselves?

Though the nature of suffering may be different, I realized that physical poverty and spiritual poverty are essentially equal in significance. Affluence alone doesn’t lead to happiness because I’ve seen with my own eyes that even though villagers living in third world Nepal have nothing, they can still be happy and have an enormous capacity to give. At the end of the day, what matters is whether we have lived a purposeful and contributive life true to ourselves no matter where we are.

A photo of a smiling patient

This patient has no voice, but her presence lights up the entire room every time she visits us.

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Nepal Part 5: Because we need to or because we can?

Photo of Rachel providing healthcare to a little girl.

There is no garbage collection system in Nepal.  I had to wear a mask in Kathmandu as it is heavily polluted with people burning garbage everywhere on the streets. In the village, we took turns to burn our own garbage. And so I quickly learnt to use only what I need and be conscious to dispose as little as possible. It was too much hassle to burn toilet paper after each loo visit, so like the locals we cleaned with water instead. I substituted tissues with a handkerchief, and brought home empty plastic bottles to recycle.  In the kitchen there was a bin for leftovers which would go to feed our cleaner’s cow. Nothing was wasted.

Growing up in a privileged country, the environmental impact of wastage had never been an urgent concern to me until for the first time I had to deal with my own disposals and breathe in the toxicity from burning plastic. I realized that just because we are not burning garbage in our backyards doesn’t mean that wastage is not a problem in our country also.  It may even be worse because we don’t see what happens to our garbage once it leaves our house, we tend to waste more. Out of sight, out of mind.

Photo of garbage burning

Burning our own garbage in the village.

The villagers don’t shower very often. There was one patient who hadn’t showered for 3 months after he had an operation. Because resource is scarce and it is not uncommon that the village has run out of water before, we were advised to use sparingly. Having to share a bathroom with 10 people, naturally with every action we must consider its impact on others. I remember my very considerate team mates asking around whether anyone needs to use the bathroom before going in themselves. And when there was hot water available, we made sure we didn’t overuse it so that there was enough left for others and we tried to conserve it for a shower rather than to do our laundry. So our fingers would go numb and purple whilst washing our clothes in freezing cold water and wringing them dry. There were a few mornings where no water was available as it had frozen overnight in the taps.

A photo of a freezing winter morning

Freezing winter morning in Bajra Barahi

When I returned to Sydney, I was grateful for every little thing that I used to take for granted. The fact that hot water always came out of the tap, that lights come on when I press the switch, are blessings. At the same time I saw over-consumption everywhere; lights and appliances switched on even when not in use, food not finished nor taken away in restaurants, biscuits wrapped individually in plastic, multiple brands of the same product, hundreds of fashion outlets. Not aware of our wastefulness, we consume not because we need to but just because ‘we can’.

In the two months that I was involved with the ARP project, I learnt the real meaning of ‘sharing’ because I saw the impact we all have on each other.  From the villagers, I saw the most beautiful side of the human heart, and that is the capacity to still give even when they didn’t have much. So how do we instil in our children, our precious next generation the concept of minimal wastage by using only what we need? I believe it can only come from a deep appreciation of life – sentient and insentient.

Photo of a teenage boy happily riding a rusty bicycle.

This 14 year old boy was very happily riding on a rusty bicycle. He told me it had no brakes and the tires were flat. When I said I love bike riding too and showed him a photo of my bicycle, he innocently asked, ‘it’s beautiful, does it have any brakes?’

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Nepal Part 4: Work is life

A photo of two women carrying loads.

One day a female farmer caught a bad cold and came to see us. When I gave her acupuncture to help her recovery, she said, ‘oh no, don’t treat my cold please, treat my knee pain instead, that’s more important, I need to work.’ To a Nepalese villager, work is life. Many older patients who could no longer work in the fields believe that it is time for them to go.

A photo of 4 women planting potatoes.

It’s potato planting season.

A photo of a farmer carrying a heavy load.

Carrying heavy loads to the fields.

A photo of family members working together in the fields

From young to old, working in the fields.

An old woman came back to our clinic one day and said joyously, “since getting acupuncture, I have regained strength in my arms. I’m so happy I can go back into the forest to chop wood again!”  She surprised me, as where I live people are often retired at her age. But not in the villages of Nepal. No matter what age, as long as they are physically capable to work, they are happy.

A photo of Rachel with a patient and a bag of radishes.

A photo of Rachel and an old villager.

Once a patient made a comment that there are a lot of people with knee and back pain in the village, and then he asked me where I’m from what is a common health issue that I see. I mentioned depression and he couldn’t understand what that is. The villagers have no concept of psychology. They say they have no time for that because they are busy trying to survive. They live a simple life without many possessions, make full use of what they have, and are happier than many of us in the first world who have more than what they could imagine.

A photo of a farmer.

Perhaps ‘resilience’ is a word I can use to describe the Nepalese. When we were on our way back from a hike and about to stop at a place for tea, we saw smoke and people rushing with buckets of water to put out a fire near a villager’s house. The local coordinator of our ARP project (Tsering) immediately ran into our clinic to grab the fire extinguisher and helped put out the fire. Apparently children were playing with lighters and accidentally lit up the big pile of corn stalks and firewood. When washing his hands which was covered in black ash, Tsering said with a big smile, ‘Ok let’s go have tea now,’ as if nothing had just happened.

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