A Touch of Kathmandu

Spending four weeks in Kathmandu working with Nepalese youth and shooting a documentary is like living in an alternate reality… one you can’t help carrying home. I have the luxury now of trying to make sense of it all in the editing room. Things I never noticed in the moment (overwhelmed as I was by the stimulation of a completely different culture) become clear upon review and reflection.

The story is shaping up and in a couple months I’ll be sure to share a screening of the final 20 minute documentary. In the meantime, here is a little bit of that experience I recorded overseas.

Journey to Nepal

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.

20120624-183910.jpgThe 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.

20120624-184454.jpgI 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!

Paris – A Video Souvenir

Despite a fever and coughing fits which turned out to be pneumonia, I couldn’t resist taking my camera and capturing a few of the sights and sounds of Paris. Here’s my little souvenir I brought back for you:

Ahh Paris, will you there in the future?

Paris impresses even after suspecting my rose-coloured memories of my second home. Certainly the smoking still bothers me (although there is less smoke now) and the poor customer service (which seems to have significantly improved). But overall, I found Paris to be beautiful again.

Eiffel Tower
A view of the Eiffel Tower as seen from my iPhone.

The cobblestone streets and wide boulevards lets you walk at a leisurely pace despite the occasional drop of rain. The organized but chaotic metro still brings together a mixture of people uncomfortably close. The endless bakeries, corner bistros, fine Italian restaurants, and inscrutable French delicacies are all still there. And Paris’s landmarks are as ancient and magnificent as always.

I had just forgotten how persistent culture can be.

Whereas once I found the traditions of another way of life stifling, now I appreciate how it can connect people with a sense of their story. Here on the streets of Montparnasse, Hemingway and other writers and thinkers gathered to discuss the state of the world. There at the Louvre we have an ancient Egytpian obelisk as a reminder of an older civilization.

By comparison, the life of the city in Calgary is young like a newborn. New buildings and condos go up. Old buildings come down. Nothing seems permanent or appear to link us to the past or the the distant future.

St. Sulspice
St. Sulspice at Night while walking near Montparnasse

I imagine the person who built a place like the Notre Dame or St. Sulspice envisioned it lasting a thousand generations. Human hubris? Perhaps, but it’s an aspiration that we should seize upon again.

Hot Chocolate
Le Chocolat Chaud in Paris is so thick you have to eat it with a spoon.

Take this lovely chocolat chaud I’m feasting on. This cup of hot chocolate puts to shame the watered down powdered drink of the same name in North America. The difference is that on one hand, we have an efficient, cheap product and on the other we have an experience created through artisan tradition developed over generations.

Maybe what I’m saying is that there is an attitude of patience and quality I think we sorrowfully lack. Ours (and the French too, let’s not forget) is a society of consumers. We consume news but don’t do anything about it. We consume food but don’t care where it comes from. We consume products as if we have the right to it.

Living life for the satisfaction of the moment is the motto of the consumer. And if it no longer satisfies, toss it out. This is killing us. Not just environmentally, but spiritually. If there is one thing living in Paris has taught me is to appreciate quality food and quality experiences. These are things that take time. So it is with the living of life. The cultivation of a life takes time to grow and nurture. It takes a connection with our common human heritage. It takes a boldness in going beyond our socialization. It takes a great deal of hard work and care for people beyond those we know. Because you know and I know that the direction we’re headed as a society is not pretty, so business as usual is out of the question.

Paris is beautiful. It is as beautiful as I remember it. And I’d like the beauty of our civilization to flourish. But we’ll never get there if our vision is a small circle of care around just our family.

Remembering Sri Lanka

Coming back from vacation is cruel in two ways. First you rediscover what you had left behind: domestic chores. Then after a week or two of reintegrating into Canadian society, you can’t remember anything about what was so vivid moments before.

So I cobbled together a short video to not only give you a visual taste of the experience, but to remind me of what an incredible experience it was for me to be there. Remember to watch it full screen!

Did my trip to Sri Lanka happen or was it a dream? I suppose it depends on how much and how well I let it influence my life.