Shangri-Lost – My Internship in Nepal

Over the summer I traveled to Nepal with the company Actuality Media to participate in their documentary outreach internship program. The program takes documentary filmmakers from all over the world and pairs them with social entrepreneurs from developing nations who are working to improve their communities. My father told me about Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay and their ascent of Everest, turning Nepal to a magical place in my mind: the most extreme geography in the world, life’s greatest challenge waiting to be conquered. So when the opportunity presented itself for me to travel to Nepal I lept on it.

However, I was soon to realize that Nepal was not the romanticized mountaineers’ Valhalla that the stories had made it out to be. While the Himalayas are truly a spectacle to behold, the greatest challenges in Nepal are not the summits that are there to climb but the adversity that the Nepali people face everyday. The environmental problems Nepal faces stem from the challenging terrain, ecosystem and climate but also from generations of cultural tradition, political corruption, and economic and social disparity as well. The people and the ecosystem are so interconnected that you cannot talk about the problems and challenges of the ecosystem without talking about the problems and challenges of the people as well. 

This is the film Sean Froeb worked on in Nepal. It is the story of Indra Sapkota, an underserved farmer in Nepal struggling to find sustainable and reliable water sources to irrigate his land.

The Air in Kathmandu

As I landed in Nepal I remember a distinct sense of confusion washing over me when I breathed the air for the first time. I remember the air not feeling as if it were at the right elevation. My brother used to live in the Appalachian mountains at around 3300 feet, almost a whole 1500 feet below Kathmandu, yet in Kathmandu the air felt significantly heavier. It wasn’t until I was in the cab from the airport to the hostel that I realized why the air felt so heavy. As our cab drove through the streets of Kathmandu the amount of dust kicked up from the street was more reminiscent of a desert than a valley. As our microbus sat stalled in traffic (a frequent occurrence in Kathmandu) I remember watching huge clouds of black smoke pour from the exhaust pipes of the cars and motorbikes around us. Despite switching to the cleaner burning EURO IV Petrol products earlier that summer many of the cars, trucks and motorcycles in Nepal are older and do not run as cleanly as their contemporary counterparts. After navigating the roadways of Kathmandu for a month and breathing the idling exhaust mixed with kicked up dust it was little surprise that Nepal ranked 5th in the 2017 pollution index

The more time I spend in Nepal the more I realized how many obstacles there are to improving air quality and creating effective environmental policy. Coming from the west I was used to the only obstacle to effective environmental policy being corporately backed lobbying groups and general political obstinance, but the more I learned about Nepal the more I realized the enormous cost of improving an ecosystem. Living in one of the most polluted cities in the world, I’m sure the people of Kathmandu would do anything to improve their air quality and subsequently their quality of life but they lack the capital and infrastructure required to do so. Many of the people I met while I was in Nepal told me that Nepal had one of the greatest capacities for hydroelectric power in the worldbut lacked the resources to capitalize on it. 

Kathmandu – Photo: Sean Froeb

Plastics in Nepal

I was taught from a very young age that recycling plastics, aluminum and other materials was a key way that I could make a difference to the environment. I still think that’s true. Needless to say: I recycle. So when I went to Nepal, a country that relies heavily on their environmental tourism draw to support their economy, I was stunned by the amount of plastic waste I encountered. The streets in Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, were lined with plastic bottles and other trash and outside the city it was even worse. We went to visit the Nagarkot view tower, an observation tower east of the city, and when we finally reached the top we found the entire area to be littered with plastic bottles and trash, not to mention a pack of stray dogs who had been feeding off the trash which is a sight I would commonly see throughout my time there. 

The most common trash was plastic water bottles. While most places in Kathmandu had running water, the municipal water was not adequately filtered and treated making it dangerous to drink. Most people in the city, both tourists and local alike drink bottled water instead of drinking from the tap.  Most of the water is not bottled locally but imported from India and China which means that even if it were to be recycled the continued importation of water bottles would still lead to a net increase in plastic waste entering the country.

The lack of infrastructure proved a significant impediment to recycling in the country. While I did frequently see the separation of glass bottles from regular trash that was about the extent of it. It seems most people simply did not know what to do with their plastic waste. On multiple occasions I would even see old women burning piles of plastic and trash and cooking over it. 

plastic recycling center is being built in Pohkara but this is a small entrepreneurial venture, not a municipal infrastructure system. While this is a sign that things are looking up for plastic waste in Nepal, there still is a long way to go, both environmentally and economically, before piles of plastic are no longer a common sight.  

Adventure Tourist

My time in Nepal was amazing but it also wasn’t without its complications. Monsoon rain, summer heat, and an unprepared immune system were all difficulties that I had to deal with during my time in Nepal. However the greatest dilemma that faced regarding Nepal wasn’t a physical challenge but an ethical one: was I supposed to be there? 

That may seem like an odd question, but the more I thought about it the more conflicted I began to feel. The most significant contributor to Nepal’s economy is international tourism, most of whom come for trekking, mountaineering and other “high adventure” activities. While I originally went to Nepal to work on a documentary and grow as a filmmaker, I stayed to trek through the Annapurna region and I definitely participated in the adventure tourist culture. On the surface this is fine: people come from all over the world and spend a lot of money on trekking whether paying fees, renting equipment, or hiring guides. My guide, Ram, had been guiding for several years with other companies and decided to set out on his own and form his own company. Ram and many others prove that there are benefits to the tourist economy and that the money that was coming to Nepal from tourists was making it to the people, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was still not right. 

One weekend while we were working on the documentary several of us had a few free days so we decided to take the weekend and go to an adventure resort. The tickets for our stay were not terribly expensive so we booked them and headed to the resort (by bus of course). After about 12 hours of driving we reached the resort. The resort was up in the mountains not far from the border with Tibet. It had a finely manicured lawn and beautifully built pavilions. After the initial awe wore off I started to think about how different this resort was than all the villages we’d driven through to get there. The elegant stone work of the resort was a far throw from the brick and sheet metal shacks that made up a majority of the surrounding villages, most of which were still significantly damaged by the 2015 earthquake. 

I’m not so naive as to think that wealth inequality isn’t just another fact of life and that it will never truly go away but I just couldn’t help to wonder what Nepal would be like if the money tourists spent was more equally distributed.

Leaving Nepal

I left Nepal a different person than when I landed. I know that sounds cliche but it genuinely is true. After six weeks in Nepal I truly learned a lot. I learned that nothing is as simple as it seems, whether it’s recycling, air pollution, or even just travelling in general. I learned just how easy my life was. I already knew that life was pretty easy for me but after meeting some of the incredibly hardworking people in Nepal my eyes were really opened. I met farmers who would have to work sunrise to sunset for an entire year just to save 500 dollars. I also met some people with incredibly open hearts who were doing everything they could to help those around them. I met a pair of brothers working to provide sustainable water solutions to farmers, an Australian construction worker who moved to Nepal and started a non-profit to help rebuild after the earthquake, and an organization helping to provide housing and employment to survivors of exploitation and trafficking just to name a few. I learned that a lot of life is about perspective and that unless you expose yourself to the world you’ll never gain that perspective. 

Leaving Nepal – Photo: Sean Froeb