In about a week, I leave for Nepal to shoot my first official international documentary. CAWST recruited me to work with them to produce an educational resource that can be used in high schools to spur conversations on global issues. We’ll be working with a local group of youth in Kathmandu who is working with the Nepalese on water sanitation and education. I’m giddy with excitement, but I’m also anxious about shooting in a hot foreign developing country in the middle of a monsoon.
The easy parts are done. I’ve been vaccinated for polio, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis, rabies, and something else I can’t spell. My passport and plane tickets are in order. All my critical equipment is ready to go each with backups in case one fails. All that remains of the logistics is figuring out where to pack my clothes in the remaining space.
The hard part is the mental preparation. After taking CAWST’s travel risk management course and discussing emergency scenarios, evacuation routes, and crisis mitigation, I’ve realized there is an important difference between this trip and other trips I’ve taken.
This is not a vacation.
With a vacation mindset, you can rely on the tour company, the cruise ship, the tourist board to plan your day and take care of your survival needs. If you’ve read Deep Survival, you’ll recall that taking a vacation mindset when headed into unfamiliar territory is generally bad practice. With the Deep Survival mindset, you would prepare for critical failures such as civil unrest, disease, severe weather, equipment malfunction. You would prepare yourself to be co-responsible with a foreign culture you don’t understand recognizing that much of the planning will happen on the ground. The difference is stark. A vacation is meant to conform to your expectations of having a “great experience”. International development work requires dealing with your own preconceptions and lack of understanding.
I am not the most observant person on the best of days, so it is fortunate I’ll be traveling with an experienced partner and we will be working with local hosts as our guides. The risks are low. Kathmandu is a big city and I don’t doubt I’ll adapt. Nevertheless I’m conscious of the fact that my usual networks, institutions and other assets are not as readily available to me there. It’s worth reflecting on as we usually associate travel with learning about other cultures, when the real eye-opening lesson is what you learn about your own culture. I have no doubt this trip will be as transformative as other experiences I’ve had. Culture is a force to be reckoned with.
I intend on being open to the experience and building relationships. Even though spending four weeks in Kathmandu to work with a local organization is a brief moment in a culture with thousands of years of history, it is a beginning. It occurs to me that having a successful relationship with a stranger requires the same qualities for any good relationship: a willingness to learn and understand, an openness to different perspectives, a sense of one’s own identity and culture, and a sense of the other’s identity and culture. I hope to cultivate these qualities further in myself. I find somehow when you grow up and live in the same culture for too long you can lose that inherent curiosity in other people. We assume too much about each other.
There is one other thing that weighs on me. Samantha Nutt’s book Damned Nations highlights the problems with most international aid and development work. North Americans send piles of t-shirts to developing countries to “clothe the poor people” and in the process decimate the local textile economy. Or we’ll buy goats or build wells, but develop no capacity to sustain those gifts. We want to feel good more than we want to do good. I would like to not do harm as a starting point, and that takes more than good intentions. It takes good thinking.
Despite it all, I am cautiously optimistic that I’ll be able to keep my eyes open, my mind sharp and my curiosity well stocked. Nepal, bring on my education!