Wednesday 19 November 2014

Learning from Nepal

A deeper sense of knowing - cherishing the simple good things we can do...

In my last BLOG, before my Autumn 2014 vacation, I ranted on about overcomplexity and called for simplicity.  In this BLOG I am trying to get closer to what I mean..

Last week I returned from a trek in Nepal amongst the furthest and highest Himalaya.  It was, as they so often are, a life enhancing experience.  Here I try to explain why....

From the Monastery in Samagoan

On our penultimate day I wrote....   Our Manaslu Trek is almost over and it's quiet, for once this night – no dogs barking.  We are in Bhule-Bhule, suddenly and surprisingly, in the midst of a huge Chinese hydro electric project, plonked in the midst of this beautiful valley.  Which valley isn't beautiful here?  We have been saying how there is massive potential and there certainly is need for such a development but having this ugly industrial landscape intrude is an assault on our senses, after the quiet, terraced subsistence farming we have witnessed and lived within.  It is quite distressing.  Of course it's good for the country but it's a worry we might lose some of this special place. So, what has been so special?

Collecting water

It has been like turning back time.  Like being returned to a naive boyhood - which I have deliberately never left – in which I saw things, as though for the first time.   I prize being childlike in my outlook – it’s about being open, enquiring, divergent and exploring – about looking for new things everywhere and anywhere and asking, “Why?”  So, on the Manaslu Circuit, for nearly a month, I think I have seen something missing in much of the supposed developed, or modern world.  It seemed at first to be about kitchens and women but you’ll see it was also about monks and temples. I’m not entirely sure yet but I think it’s about having a better sense of hearth, home and community... 

The Blue Lake
Cold but refreshing

Typical smile and typical rice terracing

Manaslu and the glacier

The trek was stunning. It has outclassed Dualigiri in many ways - more varied scenery - more beautiful - grander and our company has mixed and fitted together so well.  One of our team turned back at the pass, as many did, not trusting his skills and strength, and retraced his long steps, back down to Jaggat.  It will have taken him longer, but we all knew it was the right decision and part of each of us envied that retracing because the first valley was awesome, wide, finely carved by glacier and cut by thundering waters and falls.  Every niche was crammed with foliage, on the approach to clean, white, grey-blue, snow and ice.  Any approximate level had been terraced for rice, maize, wheat and potatoes between dotted medieval stone villages, increasingly ringed with inventive modern dwellings in a variety of wooden, corrugated iron, bamboo and poured concrete figurations. 

Arughat Bazar

Yak Kharka

The tea houses were wonderful and, at best, the hub of each village.  Their hearts were the wood fires in the kitchens. These dark glowing places touched our deepest emotions, for here strong, always smilingly, women worked wonders with local produce - rice, flour, vegetables and meats over their wood stoves. There is bottled gas and electric, of a quaint kind but those iron, welded home-made wood stoves held a special warmth that drew the folk to them.  And what warmth!  And what folk!

Another warm hearth

I've many tales to tell and pictures to show but these kitchens were the heartbeat of the trek and are probably the heartbeat of Nepal.  They go to something we have almost lost in our modern, developed world. Those fires draw in and literally capture, the communal life of the place.  Of course we have kitchens, real and magazine versions. We have splendid, pristine, designer kitchens, but very few do what each one of those we visited did - welcomed the community, the travellers, the hungry and inquisitive. Even the lonely, otherwise outcast Yak herder, with a unique personal hygiene was welcome here.  On one occasion a horse poked his head through the open door and I would not have been surprised had he entered and been fed.  On another, a black goat totted in dog like with a woman, shat on the floor, left quietly and no one seemed concerned. 

Typical Kitchen

Yes, there is dirt, natural dirt, human and animal dirt but I saw no illness - amongst locals at least. We were all careful with our filtered water and alcohol sanitizers and our group seemed fine apart from a circular cold, sore throat and chesty cough.  I evaded it but it almost scuppered a friend’s summiting but antibiotics, a day's rest and various other medications saw her scampering over the summit pass - with me the weakest of the group at a breathless rear.  It was tough, took all my strength and I could find no reserve in that thin air but hey ho, it felt good and I would not have missed it for the world. And, as always, clambering down from 17,000 feet it’s increasingly energising as you inhale the thicker, oxygen richer, air.

Larkya Lar 5160 metres

Manaslu Glacier


So, back to the world, our world, we come, refreshed, revitalised and startled by its reality, no better exemplified than by the monster Hydro Electric Plant.  But we have been reminded of what a world can, or could be.  I've been thinking for a long time about a deeper sense of knowing – my last BLOG was about the senseless complications we have clothed and hobbled ourselves with.  In this BLOG I'm trying to find a simpler way forward. That's what I meant by the trek enhancing my life.

Children at Samdo

I know I'll despair on returning home and that I still struggle to see - even by coming this far - what some have always, instinctively known.  It may seem daft for some who read this next bit but I think mothers would understand better than most.  Mothers would fit in here in unnoticed - they'd assume their place and, with that surety they often have (and people know they have) be a powerful part of it.  I am trying to be very careful here - there is no intent of patronage or sexism.  I am trying to get at that deeper sense of knowing, about a maternal nous.  DH Lawrence got close.  Dare I say that mothers, women who think like mothers and even the fewer men who think maternally run the machine of our world?  They know, deep down, it’s about driving the engine of family, of community,  It’s about ensuring the lower levels of Mazlov’s hierarchy are in place – keeping the warmth, the food, the relationships going.  I know I’m struggling to explain it  - better I try to describe it and how I saw it working, back in those kitchens.

Kitchen at Samdo

It was a privilege, we all recognised and spoke of, to be in those heart-warming kitchens - to need no invitation to be welcomed. We were warmly ignored and worked around in these glowing, clanky homes for the  village.  How do those women stay calm on the melĂ© of meddling men, who jabber and poke the fire, re-stir their pots and dangerously risk adding herbs and advice to the communal pot?  I never heard a harsh word and only once saw one of our Sherpas - Sarkey - put in his proper place - for daring to touch a bulging pressure cooker hissing, spitting and wriggling on a stove. I didn't see what she did, there was no slap.  No, something was understood and accepted in these places - something deep and coolly sensual was clear. The women are in charge - their men, sit, squat or stand close by and attend. The men are, we were, an audience to a playing out of something we have almost lost - genuine, true and meaningful care.  This was communal living.  These are proper kitchens. They are communions, where pilgrims wander to be ministered bread and wine. They feed the bodies and souls of the community and welcome all who suffer by.  I'd say temples but there were temples too - yet another level of spiritual, social and cultural life in this gem of a country.

Kathmandu Temple

Samagoan Gompa Monastery

The temples, called Gompas, also glow in the dark and here the monks mostly men, but women too, chant and drum, blow horns and smile the Buddhist rituals. The Gompas also feature food and offerings for those present, the needy and poor and, failing that, the sparky crows that wait to scavenge the flung remnants.  And recalling these temples rescues me from my fear of sexism, for here it was mainly the men who made us welcome, who let us sit and watch and take pictures of their rituals.  The monks offered us food and smiled and worked around us with our naive looks and modern clothes and gizmos, just as the women do in the kitchens.

Monastery Kitchen

It all now falls into place to makes sense. “Namaste” was the greeting we were taught and with closed hands we offered it whenever we passed a fellow traveller – Nepal or visitor.  I never met a Nepalese who did not reply with a cheery voice, although I sometimes forgot and many of my fellow visitors ignored my proffered greetings.  Translated it means, “I recognise the divine in you” and that sums it up – perfectly.  This was the tangible and unconditional regard, respect and care we felt in Nepal.  Yes, the kitchens and the temples were powerful examples and hubs of this but I now realise that we were genuinely welcomed, wherever we went and this was demonstrated by the greeting, the hospitality and the smiles. Don't we all have more in common than in difference?

A 60 year old and a 66 year old

Buying trinkets from Vorghes

So what am I now thinking?

Couldn't we be so much better at recognising and respecting the people we meet?  Is what I describe in Nepal, something we could reinforce, remember and replicate?

In terms of work, education and leadership (my last BLOG) Wouldn't we be better starting by welcoming and listening to the thoughts and ideas of colleagues, rather than beginning with a set position defined by statistics, targets and external expectations?  

Don't the very best leaders and teachers create the permitting circumstances for the equivalent of fireside chats and space for respect and reflection?

In what ways do we sit around an actual, or metaphorical, fire-side to chew over ideas, feelings and thinking - with colleagues, let alone strangers?

Is it at all possible to say to colleagues and mean, "I recognise the divine in you"?