First Binda sighting!


My jungle guide in Nepal works six or seven days a week at a VERY dangerous job (more on that later, too). His pay is around thirty dollars a month, and he told me that he couldn’t marry because he couldn’t afford a family. I mentioned that at least he lived in a very beautiful place. “It is very beautiful for you to visit for a week,” he replied, “and it is a very beautiful place to live. But it is very hard work to live here.” We became fairly close – as close as you can get to a person in two days. He understood that the much higher pay scales in the developed world came with much higher costs of living, and he asked about the advantages. How could I explain the lifestyle difference available in a place like the United States, any more than I could explain it to those little girls in the park in Darjeeling? The family we stayed with in Kenya last year has relatives in the United States. They live in a small apartment in a not-great area of Richmond – with reliable heat and electricity, with reliable and clean water, with automobiles or reliable mass transit for efficient transportation, with access to consumer products that make their lives easier and more comfortable, with a political structure that does not put them in mortal danger from their own government. We met this family when the young man was a busboy at the restaurant; he then became a waiter, and the last I heard he was selling used cars. Benny will never be an investment banker living in Orinda; but how do you explain a world with those kinds of possibilities to a man in a tiny town on the edge of the jungle who has a “good job” earning thirty dollars a month? Binda, my guide, showed me the sores that covered his legs, sores that could probably be cured with a five dollar, over-the-counter medication. The doctor in his town does not charge for consultations, but Binda did not have five dollars for the medication. I took him to a clinic before I left.

But there is also another kind of impoverishment in these hills: an impoverishment of intellect, of creativity, of opportunity, of spirit. I realize that part of this comes from my perspective as a product of Western culture; but part of this also comes from the people who I talked with. At the most basic level, people here want the same things that people everywhere want. They want to live safe, peaceful lives. They want to live comfortable lives where food and shelter are assured. They want decent medical care for themselves and their children. They want the opportunity to work hard to better their situations. And they want a better life for their children than they have for themselves. The people of the Himalayan region are not really unhappy with their lives, but they are frustrated that they cannot do better. They send their children off to school – impossibly cute three-foot-tall little people in their British school ties and school blazers or sweaters – but realize that there are limited opportunities for them to put their education to use. They want to be – and they want to opportunity for their children to be – a part of that affluent world that comes to visit their mountains, paying more for one meal than they earn in a week. We, as already-wealthy Westerners, bemoan the inevitable loss of culture and want their lives preserved so that we can spend lots of money to visit them in their quaint settings – like going to the zoo. But these are not zoo animals; they are thinking human beings with hopes and dreams of a better life. They are also well aware of the potential cultural loss, and they are willing to take that risk.


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