We often talk about a place we have travelled to as having “lovely people”. Nepal is definitely one such a place for me.
Let’s start with the obvious. When we talk about travel we often talk in sweeping generalisations. “I’ve done India”. “I’ve seen London”. We know that the reality of the experience is much more nuanced. My saying “Nepal has lovely people” should really be me saying “we met some lovely people in Nepal”.
If we want to dig an even deeper philosophical hole, what does it even mean to be “Nepalese”? Why do we use arbitrary lines in the sand to define a group and then give them sweeping characteristics?
Now that’s cleared up, let me talk in sweeping generalisations.
Nepal had lovelier people than the average. There was no aggressive hawking in shops – just a smile. There was an air of being satisfied, being happy with one’s lot. There was contentedness in the air. Most beautifully, there was a vibe of sharing, of helping one’s neighbour in times of need and of not being tied and attached to material things. If you do not have food for a day, no problem – you can get some grains from a neighbour, some vegetables from a friend. These trends are nothing short of aspirational in their appeal to the (admittedly distorted and undereducated) Jain philosopher inside of me, whose espoused philosophy is the cornerstone of my moral code.
Conversations with an interesting Jain nun, however, quickly revealed the other side of this coin. This nun has spent most of her life in India and came to Nepal after the earthquake to aid in relief work.
People are satisfied, but Nepal is poor. It has difficult terrain on which to build infrastructure. It is blighted by earthquakes. This nun told us that although this geographic challenge is undoubtedly problematic, the bigger problem is that there does not exist that inherent desire to push on, to develop, to build more. As a case in point, in the rural parts of Nepal that we visited every school, hospital and piece of infrastructure was created as a result of foreign aid.
Many Nepalese lives can look difficult viewed from our ivory towers (with things we consider basic needs often not secure), and we wonder why they don’t do more to help themselves.
Where is the line between growth / development and being happy with one’s lot?
I certainly feel I am not quite in the right place. The engrained Western neoliberal in me weaponised by marketing bullshit fights the inner Jain philosopher who tells me enough is enough. At the moment, this fight is like an elite heavyweight boxer versus, well, a Jain philosopher. Unlike the Nepalese, I have far more than I need materially but, of course, there is no satiation of my appetite for iPads, quinoa, holidays and much more. Unlike the Nepalese, and by virtue of where I happened to be born, I’m not wanting for food, healthcare and other “necessities” so there is no excuse for my inner Jain philosopher to be as weak as he is in his influence on my behaviour. I need to see how I can give him bigger guns.