Peaks–Sand–Snow

Floating on cloud trail

The snowy peaks landmarks

On blank sky


Leaving Nepal I watched the Himalayas descend into the earth and the Karakoram burst up only to fall away again into the sea. Over Pakistan I thought about everything going on below and the Indus River, tumbling away to the south. I wondered if I would ever go there. 
As the Arabian Peninsula neared the plane, out the window a straight corridor of lights appeared. The road linking some of the United Arab Emirates blazed in the sandy night, giving an eerie, sci-fi quality to the earth below. 
A few cars danced their steady, linear choreography along the asphalt, and the plane went lower and lower to the ground.
A place forsaken by fresh water

Made inhabitable

By a ceaseless flow

Of gulf oil

Compressed dinosaurs

Rich as rich

Generous enough

To buy everything

In the Emirates
My trip to the UAE was surreal in many ways. My dearest friend Lucas Olscamp was offered study at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus four years ago. He was admitted as a theater student, and his prowess in this art amazes even his closest friends. One day I blurted out that I thought he extroverted himself well. Explaining my words with words, I said that he shapes the world around him in beautiful and inspiring ways, even the spaces of his friends minds. And this is true.
Studying at NYU Abu Dhabi means travelling the world and working with professors and practitioners at the edges of their fields, people doing truly extraordinary work. The campus is just outside of the city proper, and like everything in the UAE, it rises out of the sand and sea, a futuristic island of cement and glass, light and grass that punctuates the abyss around it. The Louvre is building a satellite museum nearby and the Gugenheim as well. Across the water the sky rises glisten in the Arabian sun and the turquoise water laps quietly.


We went with one of Lucas’ courses on a short kayak through a mangrove forest. The beauty of these seabound flora being their unique adaptation to saltwater environments. In the UAE they are some of the precious few spaces abundant with plant life and are increasingly threatened by rising salinity in the waters, for like nearly all of the gulf states, the UAE must desalinate its drinking water. Without need to augment the national income selling salt, they dump it back into the sea. Next to the salty mangrove rises immense smokestacks from a desalination plant.
The country has a vaguely Las Vegas like aura to it, with loads of lights and a spectacular presentation that ignites the hearts of visitors and stirs up a curiosity and foreboding that always accompanies me to the desert. Visiting Lucas, I saw how entangled are the arts, money, oil, environmentalism, and all sorts of institutions, even the most well meaning.


I recalled the many Nepalis I had met who worked in the gulf, in Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi, or the UAE. I thought about the irony that in the USA we call these countries oil rich, and in Nepal they call them rough countries.
I left from my four day layover elated at having seen an old friend and his good work, confused by the contradictions of the world and the value of wealth and resources.
I flew away over Iran, Kazakhstan, Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea to Finland. Arriving in the winter world of Oulu at 65 degrees North, I met another old friend, Sanni Kuutti, who is studying intercultural education at the University there. 


Sanni hosted me for five days of furious preparation for long my ski through Lapland as I gathered materials and made plans. Over meals and in the evenings we talked about education in Finland, about how the country is dealing with newcomers, people who need homes, who have left theirs out of necessity. How can the education system help weave them into society as welcome neighbors? How can childhood learning inspire dramatic changes in a whole nation? What is the power of experience and exploration in learning?
I ask these questions about my own journey to. Today I am on a bus with a sled full of food and supplies and ski equipment. I am heading to ski the Torne River, 500 kilometers of Lapland, from the Bay of Bothnia to the mountains that divide the Baltic watersheds from the Atlantic ones. In cooperation with the Heart of Lapland, a local office promoting this area, the ski will be an exercise in place based storytelling as I collect tales from people along the way to bring out the rich heart of this north country.


I am nervous for what lies ahead, and I find solace in the epigraph from the book I just finished, The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen:

Letter Home 2

Crisp

A page in a book

Fractal ice

Percussing

Under trail footsteps

The sound of a bell

At sunrise

 


 

I am nearing six months in South Asia. Three and a half in India and two and a half in Nepal. I am also halfway through my Watson year. Time for another letter home to the Watson Foundation. I will include excerpts of my letter here in a larger essay.

 

 

I am sitting on the warm concrete roof of the house where I live in Kathmandu. My Nepali friend from university, Porcia Manandhar, and her family lent me a room here, and their invitation allowed me to find my earthbound footing again.

 

Just north of the house is the Hanuman Dhoka, a five-story pagoda palace at the center of Basantapur Durbar Square; the uncountable bricks of the palace are held in place with ornate teakwood carvings of deities and serpents. Abutting it is a colonial palace built by Britain a century ago in thanks for Gorkha soldiers who served in the Great War. The façade of this white, Romanesque elephant reveals most conspicuously the scars of the earthquake that happened two years ago; cracks glare through the white plaster and the walls are in a stunted tumble outward. The rows of collapsed balconies are poised at skewed angles, ready to fall. A whole story is missing from the top of the pagoda. Walls around the square are bowed in S shapes, miraculously still standing with help from braces and scaffolding. Whole temples disappeared to leave only a pedestal, standing empty.

 

What do we invest

In the everyday?

In the understanding

That around the corner

Life will appear as

Yesterday

And tomorrow

 

Do we feel

That the places

We invest our spirit

Will protect us like a mother?

 

A lovely thought

 

But what if it tumbles

And in a cloud of dust

Becomes rubble?

 

What is there to do?

 

With the people I have encountered in Nepal, I have found remarkable compassion. Nepal is a nation plagued by bad politics; bullied by expansionary imperial neighbors north and south; in utter disrepair from the earthquake in 2015; with streets and public works disregarded by the government; a capital city with black rivers and poor air; a country still recovering from a civil war. It is hospitable here because of the heart of the people.

Looking beyond Durbar Square, I can see the Langtang Peaks, gazing down at the urban oasis. The sight of their quiet presence brings me back to the weeks I spent in the mountains when I first arrived here.

 

I believe that a section of our hearts and our minds is shaped purely by the landscape. In Buddhism the virtues are linked to the sun, earth, air, sky, and water. Looking up at the pinnacles of Machha Puchhre and Numbur Himal, the holy peaks, this is no surprise. Their majesty instills at once a humble disposition and reminds us that we are but fleeting visitors on an earth itself growing and falling. The rivers, thousands of them, are arteries pumping life and power into the land as far afield as New Delhi, Kolkata, and Dhaka. This landscape—its majesty, its forbidding heights, landslides, avalanches, floods, earthquakes, high passes—has shaped a nation of hearty, reverent people.

 

My awe has come most in these past weeks. Rather than assign myself directly to a river, I decided to spend my days working with a group of papermakers in Kapan, a region in the northeast of Kathmandu that is home to a number of Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries. Kapan also abuts Boudhanath, an enormous stupa where thousands of people daily go to walk in circles around its glorious point, pray, and empty themselves.

 

The papermaking workshop is called Tibetan Handicraft & Paper. It began in 1995 as three cousins, Nimto Sherpa, Nima Sherpa, and Samten Lama, decided to create a business that would allow village people like themselves to sell paper at higher dollar. Instead of having to travel for days with a small load of paper to the city only to return from the expensive journey with little or no cash, the process and transport could be organized and made more efficient and more profitable. This was their motive, to help the people.

 

The business began with help from some American friends including Tom Leech, a dear family friend and my printing mentor. Tom is a prodigious papermaker and marbler, and he has been to Nepal and Tibet various times to make paper. He told me about Tibetan Handicraft with high regard for their good nature and generosity. One of Tom’s beautiful prints adorns the walls of a café next to the factory.

 

The paper for Tibetan Handicraft is mostly made in villages around Nepal. It is made with bark from the Lokta Plant, a bushy flowing thing that looks a bit like a mini rhododendron. After harvesting the Lokta, wait a few years and the one plant that was cut becomes five new plants. The bark is stripped and dried, then soaked, cooked, pounded, pulped, and made into sheets. The paper is phenomenal. It is very strong and it doesn’t dissociate in water so it can be dip dyed. Fine paper can be printed on with an ink jet printer, and the sheets have a wonderful deckled edge and very fibrous appearance.

 

After the paper is made, it is brought to Kathmandu for dying, printing, cutting, sorting, and so on. The Kathmandu facility employs nearly 100 skilled workers, primarily from discriminated castes and mostly women. In their hands the paper may become a box, a journal, a set of prayer flags, or take on a new life with silkscreened designs. The finished products are sold to clients mostly in Europe and North America.

 

The profits from the company are worked right back into the community. In 2006, after Samten Lama passed away, Nima and Nimto started Samten Memorial Educational Academy. Currently 410 students study there and many receive scholarships, including the children of the company’s employees. Nima and Nimto also support education in their home village east of the city and chair the Himalayan Regional Welfare Association.

 

Their humanitarian interest is really striking, and while it is extraordinary, it doesn’t seem uncommon here. Many of my Nepali friends, those I’ve met here and those I’ve known from the past, practice this spirit of giving and sharing.

 

In times when politics seem so spoiled and the news provides nothing but grief and worry, we must invest in each other. We are all family after all, somewhere down the line. Living with Porcia’s family, working in Kapan, making many new friends, I am reminded of how we find family, even when far from home.

 

Life together

 

It’s as though the void of the everyday

The spaces in between

Melt

Melt through the hallway rug

Melt through the kitchen table

 

Living together

Feeling certain we know

Everything about the other

 

Only to find out

We know nothing

 

The depth of human spirit

 

Where appearances

Are bathrobes and flipflops

 

Its humbling

Baring it all

Even the heart’s doldrums

 

As I prepare to leave Nepal for a long ski up the Torne River in Finland, I am left with a keen sense of the moral obligations I want to carry with me through my life. I want to hone my discipline and develop a thoughtful demeanor to approach situations as I have seen people here do—with care, resilience, patience, grace, hard work, and compassion. How can I do that? How can we do that?

 

Thank you again, for setting my feet walking.

 

Galen

Nepal, An Introduction

White, gray, green

A ship asail a sea of land

Hull red of rhododendron

Masts of granite skyward

Sails of snow and cloud

Nepal rests between Tibet and India. Home to a hefty portion of the Himalayas, the country rises from just 194 feet above sea level to an astonishing 29,029 feet. The country is at most 155 miles from North to South. On a satellite map, Nepal has three distinct regions: the low green plains to the south known as the Terai Region, the central green rolling mountains home to Nepal’s biggest cities Pokhara and Kathmandu, and the white labyrinth of magnificent peaks that marks the northern boundary with Tibet.

I am a sucker for mountains. From the vibrant haze of my earliest memories, the whitecapped peaks I saw of high ranges across the world ignited a thrill and imagination that has carried me ceaselessly into adventures.

There is an undaunted love

For a skyline of

Granite and glacier

A wonder as deep

As the eyes of a child

A jagged coastline

For ocean sky

Even more compelling to me were the mountains than space exploration. My favorite childhood photo is one where I am standing in the yard of my family’s home in my snowsuit with strap-on skis. I am in a state of absolute ecstasy, hands to the sky, the essence of joy in a grand smear across my face. This is how I feel on a fresh day in the mountains; the world evaporates into a moment of wonder—an undying gaze at the beauty of fractal flow in rocks and plant forms, the hypnosis of moving water, the rich energy of being in a place both forbidding and inviting, dangerous and nourishing for the spirit.

It’s my unwavering love for mountains that makes Nepal a magnet for my high country soul, and since coming, the affinity has only gotten stronger.

As I’ve become engulfed in the patterns of the watersheds in India and Nepal, it’s come clear that here the mountains are the river’s roots.

Imagine yourself flying above the Bay of Bengal peering out the porthole window on the north side of the airplane. The waves flutter across the deep blue surface, leaves on fluid limbs, a canopy of water balancing the earth. Above the Andaman Islands, you look down, romanced by the nests of humans in their tropical haven; tourists bronzing on the beach and snorkeling along the shore.

Soon, the coast appears, a web of branching channels funneled through mangrove forests that ray out as far as the eye can see. There salt meets the flowing fresh water. On over the land the mangrove fades into jungle and farmland, and the innumerable branches of water begin to wander together, eventually forming a discernable trunk. At certain points, especially just after the big city of Dhaka, the trunk of green water, the Padma River, splits in two here becoming Ganga on one side and Brahmaputra or Tsang Po on the other. These trunks wind through the plains, perambulating across the fertile soil, until they reach the hills. There, like in the mangroves, the main trunk divaricates into smaller streams eventually reduced to a trickle at the foot of enormous spaces of white punctuated with crevasses and granite peaks.

A glacier is the mother of a river. You may recall that I saw this in Gangotri before. From the Garwhal through all of Nepal’s Himalayan Range, the south face feeds the Ganges while the north face feeds the Tsang Po, later called the Brahmapura, through Tibet and India. The twin sisters meet en route to the Bay of Bengal and form the Padma River before they diverge in a delta that stretches through all of Bangladesh and beyond.

Nepal is a landlocked maze of mountains between two supersized nations, China and India, two nations that are outgrowing their natural resources and have expansionary habits. Here in Nepal, geopolitics are as evident as the lack of flat surfaces.


The Himalayan region has long been a strategic zone for the powers that be in Asia and South Asia. When the British ruled India, the Kingdom of Nepal showed strong resistance to being colonized, though for the British it was a priority to maintain a buffer between the Empire’s largest territory and China. For much the same reasons and an appetite for resources China invaded Tibet in the 1950s.

China and India together represent 2.6 billion people, fully one third of humanity. Such nations function on a scale that shifts the very earth and water from which we survive. A recent study by Nasa showed that India’s (combined with other Eurasian nation’s) increased water use has caused the earth to change the pattern of its axial wobble towards the east. For Nepal, the gravity of India and China shape the political stage, and one of the things that means for Nepal is dams.

In 2014, Nepal signed deals to build dams primarily with India accounting for over 1,800 megawatts of power. At the time that was three times as much power as the country produced, according to Ramesh Bhusal an environmental journalist working for ICIMOD, the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development. Some of these projects have been initiated or completed, others are still in the bidding or have faced rejection.

These hydropower projects, largely funded by Indian power companies and government programs, were designed as ways for India to utilize Nepal’s immense hydropower potential. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nepali politicians tout a relationship of “hydro diplomacy.” In actuality, the relationship between Nepal and India is largely one of Indian exploitation with little return for Nepal: in an article about the Upper Marsyangdi Project published by the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers, and People, author Himanshu Thakkar writes that, “the most obvious point is that the majority if not all of the project’s energy output is being evacuated to the Indian NEWNE grid.”

The terrible irony of Nepal’s wealth of water resources is that until recently, most of Nepal suffered from tremendous “load shedding” or power cuts. In a project spearheaded by Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) Managing Director Kul Man Ghising and Minister of Energy Janardan Sharma, the government is trying to put an end to load shedding. Only recently have they seen success by purchasing electricity from India, some of which is produced in Nepal.

Just a decade ago, Nepal was still a monarchy. In 2001, in the midst of a ten year civil war, the royal family, including King Birendra Shah and Queen Aishwarya, was massacred in Narayanhiti Palace. The massacre, destabilizing the monarchy, made space for the Maoist insurgency that resulted in an ongoing era of shady democracy and rampant corruption, defining features of Nepal’s current political atmosphere.

The harsh political climate in Nepal came as a surprise to me. Ever since I heard my first stories of climbing Everest, I romanticized this place for its great mountains and vibrant high country culture. This romance is still, but it is coupled with the reality I have experience during my time here.

More than any other event, the earthquake in 2015 revealed the Nepali government’s disregard for the people. With foreign humanitarian aid coming to Nepal in heaps after the quake, the government blocked many shipments of goods and sealed routes for money to enter the country without first going through government offices. Victims were promised 300,000 NRS (apx. $2,750) to rebuild, but only a select few people have received this help. Much of the recovery money appears to have been siphoned off by officials.

Walking along the Bagmati River the other day, Kathmandu’s most sacred, revered river, I was excited to see a pagoda temple that I had not yet been to, that was not on google maps. In front of the temple were two buildings that had fallen in 2015 and a few people milling about. Walking around the temple I saw food carefully laid out to dry in the sun, freshly washed blankets, and other signs of daily life. I looked up and saw the phenomenally ornate teak woodcarvings that are so characteristic of this place. The beams supporting the lower canopy of the pagoda with fantastical etchings of the Kama Sutra beneath deities.

These surprise temples are all over Kathmandu and the surrounding towns. Built over the last two and a half millennia, this city is abundant with beautiful monuments to divinity. In courtyards and on street corners are altars and statues of Buddha or Hindu deities.

Consider us marble

Some rivers are black

Smelling of sewage

Some rivers so clear

I cannot see the water

Marble is hewn over time

Limestone crystallized

With waves of impurities

Black upon silicate white

Black upon silicate white

Hewn over time

Crystallized

Water

Some sewage

So clear

I cannot see

The impurities

Consider us marble

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