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?’

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.

Nepal Part 3: Sense of togetherness vs separation

Photo of Rachel and a group of villagers

There were 10 of us living in the ARP building: 5 health practitioners, 2 team leaders, 2 local coordinators and the cook. I shared a room with 3 female practitioners and I couldn’t ask for better roommates. We learnt to look out for each other in challenging living conditions.  The interpreters and acupuncture students lived in another building not far from us. In the two months, we have become family.

The kitchen is my favourite place.  We made sure we ate together.  During our lunch break or after work, the locals such as the coordinators, interpreters, acupuncture students and the cook, would pick up the guitar and madal drum to play music and sing together. And on some evenings we would sit around camp fires and sing folk songs all night long.  How I wished I knew the lyrics so I could sing along. Once I said to them that no one sings and plays music with me every evening like this in Australia, and they responded, ‘life must be so boring there’.

A photo of the locals singing folk songs around a campfire

Knowing that I didn’t bring a hot water bottle to the village, one of our local coordinators offered his to me. Once an itchy red rash appeared on my skin and because I was the one who treated the patient with scabies, everyone suspected I had got it too.  Naturally I expected that people would keep a distance from me but to my surprise some of the locals sat right next to me.  When I asked one of them why he wasn’t afraid at all, he said, ‘Oh it’s just a bit of itching. If it is contagious, I can deal with the itch.’ Then he helped me make a paste to apply on the spots. I felt overwhelmed by the kindness and compassion of the Nepalese people.

The villagers were always welcoming. During our weekend hikes, the villagers would invite us for lunch or tea as we walked past their homes.

A photo of a villager outside her home

The door of a villager’s home is always open to its neighbours. On a few of our visits to patients’ homes, neighbours just walked in and sat down to join our conversation. Although one patient and his wife are only living in a temporarily built tin shed as his house was damaged by the earthquake last year, he still has a spare bed incase by-passers from other villages need to stay overnight.

Photo of two villagers outside their tin shed

There was a 75 year old woman who recently had a stroke and became hemiplegic. As she lives about 45 mins from our clinic and up terraced fields and steep hills, it was very difficult for her family to bring her to see us. So we decided to see her at her home.  I was very touched seeing how her husband, sons and daughter in law looked after her. Made me reflect that I must not forget to show gratitude to those who raised me as ageing without love can be very lonely. I remember clearly on our second visit, though she couldn’t move the left side of her body, she still asked us, ‘have you had tea? Would you like to stay for lunch?’

Photo of Rachel treating a stroke patient

Photo of Rachel putting acupuncture needles on a patient

The villagers have a deep sense of gratitude. In return for our services, we were given bags of vegetables or homemade popcorn. Towards the end, we were even offered marriage proposals. But that’s another story. =) One of my patients who still lives in a tent as her home was destroyed in last year’s earthquake, wanted to cook me a pumpkin dish.  Seeing that she was struggling herself to make ends meet, I asked her to please keep the pumpkin for herself.  But she insisted, saying that we looked after her better than her parents and that was the least she could do for us.  These people still give even though they don’t have much, to me they have everything. 

Photo of Rachel and a patient who gave her a bag of popcorn

Photo of Rachel and a patient laughing

There is a strong sense of community and neighborhood in the villages of Nepal. In the first world, the prevailing culture is that of separation. I am me, and you are you.  We are focused on protecting our privacy, protecting our comfort, thinking always of ‘what is in it for me?’  We have lost the heart to heart connection, the spirit of contribution without expectation of anything in return. When was the last time we called or visited our parents?  How well do we know our neighbours? Though technology has advanced at lightning speed over the last few decades, our spiritual evolution has not caught up at the same pace. We can communicate these days without even seeing or hearing the other person, but does it make us happier? Does it make us better human beings?

A photo of a family of villagers

Three generations living together and looking after each other.